by Mitzi

Buck pulled the long guns and pistols from where they were secured on the wall and dragged out the cleaning supplies. Josiah watched the confident, experienced hands tear down the first rifle. He suspected the guns were getting this detailed care so the man could avoid eye contact and conversation.

Silence was an art form. And sometimes the silence between two men could gauge the depth of their friendship. But Josiah was pretty sure this was not a healthy quiet that had settled over the jail. It had the heavy feeling of a church just before the beginning of a funeral; the mourning of a great loss.

"I think sometimes, on the men the Judge threw together to do this job," Josiah began casually as he wandered over to the coffee on the pot-bellied stove and poured them each a cup, "Wonder if we have anything in common." He didn't get a response. Buck ran the long cleaning rod down the barrel of the rifle and scoured it with the bristle wire brush on the end.

"Independent," Josiah volunteered his findings. "We all are. Had to be to survive. And proud of it. I think sometimes we lash out at the ones we think we could trust the most. Because that kind of trust takes away a little of that independence. We're afraid it takes away one of the best parts of ourselves. But if we fight through it, we'll come out stronger on the other side." There was no response. "What do you think, Buck?"

Buck looked at him. Josiah could see the thoughts behind the eyes. This man had dropped the clown face a moment ago to say what he believed; to defend a friend and he had been slapped down by another friend. He was trying to decide if he was ready to get hit again.

Finally, the words did come. "I think that's Sunday-go-to-preachin' bullshit." There was no anger in his tone, only sad facts. "Either you wish it were true or you're saying what you think will keep the whole congregation together." Keep the congregation together? Josiah suddenly realized this was more serious than he had feared. "It's easy to use words like that when you're one of the ones everyone always thinks is right."

Josiah sat very still. If he laughed now, the big barrel laugh that was welling up inside him, Buck would never understand. He? Josiah Sanchez? One of the ones people listened to? Oh, they might let him listen to them, like it's a confession, but did they ever heed his good advice?

His thoughts were interrupted and it suddenly became very easy not to laugh when the older of the prisoners called out from behind the bar's of his cell, "We don't got much to worry about, Kyte. These guys are gonna kill each other. Big brother Jason'll only have to come in and clean up after."

"You think Nathan's right? The things he says about Ezra?" Josiah leaned forward and asked in a low voice. This wasn't a conversation for strangers.

He thought the other man wouldn't answer, but finally, the words came out equally slowly. "I think Nathan sees what Ezra lets him see. And if Nathan won't take the time to look beyond that, Ezra thinks to hell with him." Wilmington's hands easily replaced the bristled wire brush with an oiled cotton swatch and continued to clean the rifle.

"Why would someone do that?" Josiah prodded.

"I figure Ezra's found a real thin slip of himself that people may not like, but they tolerate."

"Could you help me out? How would a man find that narrow slip?"

"Think about it. The only time people'd be nice to him as a kid was before they knew what his Ma really did to keep 'em fed. Once the folks knowed she's not the school marm or married and respectable and all, they got spit on and told they weren't fit to walk the streets."

Buck stopped and chanced a glance at the older man. He was expecting a look of disgust or indignation on behalf of Jackson. What he saw were two blue eyes giving credence to everything he said, but more than that .... Buck Wilmington had spent many years seeing the wildness and leeriness of the animal kingdom reflected in the eyes of Chris Larabee and the men they would ride with and go up against. He had forgotten that it was also the animal kingdom, in the form of that stray mutt he'd taken up with as a kid, that had taught him what real friends were like. That dog didn't judge, was glad to be with him, and chose him over everyone else in the town to be his friend.

After seeing the wolves and big cats staring back at him all these years, it felt so good to recognize that dog's loyalty in Josiah's eyes just now. He hoped the world-wise man wouldn't resent it if he ever found out he'd been compared to a dog. He thought, maybe, ole Josiah would understand what an honor the likening was.

The feelings helped him continue in his defense of their southern friend. "No kids would be allowed to play with him. How's he supposed to know how to get along with others now that he's grown? But come something bad happen? Well, I reckon that would all be his fault, Josiah, a fight ... something comes up stolen ... 'that whore's boy must've done it.' 'No father to make him grow tall' ... 'his Ma sure ain't the one to teach him right from wrong,' they'd say. 'How can he learn to be a man?'"

Buck jammed the long cleaning rod down in the muzzle. "Ezra don't think it, but he's probably lucky his Ma kept movin'. Only way he turned out as good as he did." He pulled the rod out of the barrel and met Josiah's eyes again. "I think he did turn out pretty good, Josiah, I know he tries."

Josiah's heart was bleeding for the ghost of a five-year-old boy who sat in man's form and cleaned the guns, ready to defend his friend. "I think he turned out right fine, Buck."

Josiah almost felt guilty with the insight he was getting. As clearly as he saw that Buck was relaying his own childhood, he also knew the friend before him didn't realize it. He truly thought he was talking about Ezra.

As much as Josiah knew he was in a private place, one he had snuck into and not been invited, Josiah felt he had to get some more information that might never come along again. He was sincere in his determination to use the information to help his friend. "What about Chris? Why does Ezra put up with the things he says?"

"The things Chris says are true. Bull's eye straight on target. But he don't care. He calls you on it, says don't let it happen again, and lets you ride with him anyway. Larabee will accept any man for who he's been while they've known each other. He don't care about their past."

"I don't see Larabee cutting Ezra that much slack, Buck." Josiah was seeing Ezra in Buck's descriptions as clearly as he saw the man in front of him, and was thankful for the insight into both of them.

"Ezra left that first time we rode together. He didn't know how much harm it could do. But we almost got killed. JD ... Vin ... Chris could've lost 'em." There were some memories Buck had to fight down, but at last, as he lay the first cleaned gun aside, he continued with infinite regret, "The only thing you can do to lose Larabee's favor is to hurt ... or kill ... someone he really loves." The gunfighter grabbed another gun and began cleaning it.

The room was really too close. Josiah thought he really needed air. His heart was brimming over and he knew he shouldn't show it. But he was about to rip that gun out of the younger man's hand, pin him to the wall and talk until that five-year-old kid knew that he didn't fall out of Larabee's favor with Sarah and Adam's death, that he'd found men who were proud to walk the street with him, and who thought his Ma did one hellacious good job of raising him.

And nothing but the rapid-fire gunshots and worried shouts from outside the door could have stopped him.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra and JD were coming back from the saloon. It didn't surprise Vin that JD wasn't resting up for his watch, but he was pleasantly surprised that the young man had tracked Standish down. Even more, he was glad to see the gambler hadn't run the boy off.

Vin, from his vantage point on the roof of an empty general store, watched his friends move across the street. With each step closer to the jail the gambler lost more enthusiasm and became more nervous. His mind seemed to be somewhere else.

Vin decided that he was going down and insist that he take the next watch with Ezra. He hoped he knew Larabee well enough to know that the somber loner would be feeling guilty by now. At least guilty enough not to bite JD's head off for no reason if they shared a turn in the jail.

Standish, unfortunately, would be fair game for their leader for the many reasons which had been evolving and spiraling out of control since the night began; perhaps the least of which were the accusations by the two brothers. Vin wasn't going to let any more damage be done until this external threat was over and the healing of internal damage could begin.

By focusing his eyes on Ezra, the experience of the bounty hunter allowed him to use his peripheral vision to keep check on the rest of the street. He didn't quite understand it, but initially at least, it wasn't focusing on a source, but letting his side vision register a movement or that something was not right which often allowed him his first sense of danger.

That's what happened now. An unnatural movement drew his focus. His vision had to adjust. Then he saw it, rounded shapes inconsistent with the usually sharp angles that made up the side of a building. Another slight movement. A rifle barrel slid out of the darkness. "Ezra!"

Ezra grabbed the boy beside him and shoved him to the ground with all the confidence in the world that the tracker's voice held an immediate warning. It was only then that he himself dodged to safety. Two gunshots disrupted the night. A bullet whizzed past Standish's ear as he hit the dirt.

Vin's cover shot followed by an audible grunt said that Vin's aim had been the more accurate of the two. It deflected the aim of the sniper and saved his southern friend.

Buck burst from the jail. He was shouting for JD. Chris ran from the bar. Josiah moved a few paces out onto the street but stayed close enough to deflect any initial attack on the jail if this all turned out to be a diversion.

Buck grabbed JD by the scruff of the neck, pulled him to his feet and, gun ready, split his attention between the dark, foggy street and checking the kid for injuries. "I'm alright. Buck, I'm fine," the youngest of the seven insisted as he drew his own gun and looked for a target.

Buck shoved JD toward the safety of the jail. "Go help Josiah guard the prisoners."

While he knew the order was designed to get him behind the safety of the walls, JD also knew with his maturing experience that it was sound strategy. So he ran quickly to the water trough outside the building and covered the others. "Buck! Now you!" He called as soon as he was safe. "Chris! Ezra! We've got your cover." <Please, please, God, please, make them come over here, too, where it's safe.>

In order to get range with his mare's leg, Vin hopped down from the roof of the building to the lower overhang that shaded the boardwalk.

Ezra crabbed over to the cover of some barrels and pulled his gun.

Some lanterns slowly came on where merchants, residing over their businesses, decided to dare a look. Clients stood at the bar entrance and watched.

"Jason Miller!" Larabee roared.

"I want my brother and Mike ..."

"They'll stand trial," Larabee said from the middle of the street.

" ...and I want that damn murderin' gambler. Two hours, Larabee. I ain't waitin' for no damn judge."

Wilmington's eyes fought the darkness to register any danger before it was too late. Again at Larabee's left, he gritted his teeth and cursed his old friend for not seeking cover to continue this little negotiation. JD was silently cursing them both for the same reason.

A sputtering flare, like a child's sparkler, flew through the air. Ezra saw it, broke cover and ran toward the building Vin was perched on. "Vin! Get back!"

The explosion shook the entire town. The crowd at the saloon flinched back. Inez tried to run into the street, but several of the regulars held her back.

The concussion blast threw Larabee several feet in the air to land hard on his left hip and on top of Wilmington.

The dynamite caught the 2x4 wooden boards that passed as pillars holding up the overhang that shaded the boardwalk over the abandoned building. The faded sign above splintered. The roof lurched with an implosion that threw Tanner to the ground, two stories below, along with the toppling façade and overhang.

Ezra ran in the direction of his friend and what he had recognized as a stick of dynamite, heedless of the danger. The building as it collapsed, bringing Tanner with it, came down on top of the southerner.

The night was quiet but for the settling and creaking of the destroyed building. Dust and the lighter debris still floated to the ground. The patrons of the saloon were silent but none dared venture out into this confrontation. "Buck!" JD called again.

JD was already running into the street when the lanky gunfighter called to him, "Stay in the jail, JD!"

One man snaked his way out of an alley and toward the open jail door. A bullet from Josiah's gun sent him scurrying back into the darkness as the tall, solid preacher grabbed JD and fairly slung him back toward the small structure. "Stay put," he ordered and ran into the street.

Mike and Kyte both raised up off of their cots and moved to the front of their cells apprehensively.

The reports from unseen weapons roared through the night but the plunks and thuds of the bullets as they bit into the dirt of the street and remnants of the building were deceptively muted. They hit all around Chris and Buck, the most vulnerable, in the middle of the street. One bullet pinged into the ground at Larabee's booted foot and ricocheted off his spur.

Chris and Buck checked each other for injury even as they scrambled, fell, staggered and finally dragged each other toward the three foot stack of what had recently been the abandoned building's sign and porch overhang.

Josiah ran into the street and fired blindly into the darkness, but it had it's effect as the answering shots became more random.

Buck shook Chris' hands off. Chris clapped him on the back and, guns aimed defensively, they and Josiah finally made it behind the ruins under which their friends were buried.

Buck noticed Chris was favoring his left hip. Chris knew that Buck had somehow wrenched his back in the fall. It wasn't enough to stop them from throwing wood panels and timber aside like it was kindling.

Vin and Ezra looked like two of the scattered pieces in a giant child's game of pick up sticks. The planks and lumber on them, under them and stacked up against the men, were the remaining pieces. The object of the game would be to move the right pieces at the right time and not endanger the remaining sticks. Both of the men were as still as the wood.

As the tension grew, JD realized he was the only one really able to cover the rescue attempt. Josiah had one gun pointed into the darkness and was using his mammoth strength to throw timbers aside, but Buck and Chris, as was their way, had given up all thoughts of cover or safety to dig out the others.

JD watched the search for his friends helplessly. They came on Ezra first, as he tried to rise to his hands and knees. He was covered with a fine dusting of dirt and sawdust. He crawled forward into the pile of ruin as if following through on his last coherent thought, which was to get to Tanner.

Chris, kneeling quickly, pulled the gambler roughly around to face him. "Where are you hurt?" The southern law keeper stared blankly as if his brain was trying to process the question. Then his eyes drifted to where Buck and Josiah were still digging. He made an unconscious move to stand and move that direction. "Don't make yourself a target," Larabee growled.

"Vin! Vin, can you hear me?" Larabee heard Sanchez's desperate question. He saw them pull the unconscious, limp body from the rubble.

"Got him! Got him! Go! Go! Jail, Chris, get inside," Buck ordered. Without hesitation Larabee grabbed the conman by the arm and, limping himself, dragged the disoriented man toward the jail.

Josiah took Vin's legs, Buck his shoulders, and were only a heartbeat behind the others. JD moved into the street and fired at muzzle flashes as the unseen shooters took aim again at his friends who left themselves vulnerable to pull in the wounded.

Josiah noticed that the truly lethal shots were coming from a single source in the alley closest to the jail. These shots had started about three feet in front of Chris and Ezra and, even with the movement, were "walking" closer to their targets as the concealed gunman used the dust from each preceding shot to move in on the range of his victims. Two more shots and they would find the helpless red jacket.

"Cover us, boy!" Josiah bellowed. "You kill those two inside if another shot rings out!"

JD was stunned by the venom in the usually gentle man's voice, and he knew he couldn't carry out that order. But then it dawned on him. Jason Miller didn't know he wouldn't carry it out. The youth stood at the open door, one gun pointed into the night, one pointed in the direction of the cells.

Frighteningly, when visions of Buck or Chris falling, bloody, to unseen gunmen forced their way unbidden into his imagination, the young easterner felt more and more sure that he might damn well carry out Josiah's order if the image from his imagination became fact. It must have shown on his face. The bullets stopped.

"Two hours, Larabee," Jason Miller's voice wafted out of the darkness. Apparently he had made his point. Or maybe he knew, should their positions be reversed, and he had the doorway of the jail like that kid with the long black hair, he would immediately kill both men inside if a bullet felled one of his. Maybe something he saw in the boy convinced him he didn't want to risk his brother's life.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah cradled Vin in his arms as Buck grabbed the keys from the desk. He opened Mike's cell and tossed the keys to JD. JD wondered how his best friend knew he would be there to catch them? He had never even looked up. But maybe that was part of what best friends knew, because JD also knew what he was supposed to do. He had the other cell door open by the time Buck dragged Mike out and put him in with Kyte. JD slammed that door and locked it as Josiah eased the still unconscious Tanner onto the recently vacated cot.

Larabee lowered Ezra into the chair behind the desk and kept a close eye on him. The leader of the seven quickly lowered the wicks of all the lamps in the room. The shadows got longer. No reason to make themselves more of a target than necessary. He carried one lamp into the cell where Josiah was looking to Vin's injuries. "How is he?"

"Couple of knots on his head, scraps and bruises. If he'd wake up, you'd think he landed on his feet like a cat."

"I'll settle for him having the nine lives of a cat," Buck drawled tiredly.

Mike and Kyte watched from their cell. The cohesiveness of the group was in direct contrast to what they had seen earlier.

"What about Ezra?" Buck asked as he looked at his oldest friend.

"Same thing. Bruises and scrapes," their leader said as he turned to the con man, "What kind of damn fool, stupid stunt was that? Running toward a stick of dynamite?"

"Mr. Larabee, I assure you ..." Ezra began to stand and move toward Tanner in the extra cell.

"Don't assure me! And stay away from that window. Are you trying to make yourself a target?" Chris shoved Ezra back into the chair behind the desk as he himself strode across the window to Tanner's cot.

Buck stepped out of the small space to give his old friend room and moved casually to the gambler's side. "He was worried about you, Pard," Buck smiled. He tried to stretch the muscles in his back into alignment.

"I'll have to bow to your experience in translating the different inflections of our illustrious leader's anger."

"You do that," Buck smiled. "How are you, really?"

"Surprisingly well, Buck." It was a lie, but Standish thought he pulled it off very well.

"Well, it won't last." Buck's smile got a little wider as he took in the growing bruises down the southerner's neck and peeking out from the rents in his clothes. "You're gonna be one sore puppy in the mornin'."

"What are we gonna do?" JD asked, his eyes focused on Buck for an answer.

"We're open to suggestions," his best friend replied honestly. Silence took over the room. "How's Vin?" He finally asked again of Josiah.

"I can't tell why he won't wake up." Josiah didn't hide the concern in his voice as he gently patted the tracker's face to get a reaction. The worried look on Chris' face spoke to Wilmington of pent up frustration waiting to explode.

"Could ... what if we let these two go?" JD offered. "We could go after 'em later when Vin's ..."

"Think, boy," Larabee growled. "Only thing keepin' that son of a bitch from coming through us to get to Ezra is those two being in here."

JD cowed under the irate tone and ducked his head. His long bangs hid his eyes.

"Don't start takin' it out on the boy, Chris."

Larabee pulled himself up to his full height and strode face to face with his old friend. Wilmington didn't flinch. Before they could go at each other, Ezra broke in, "Perhaps I could take our allotted two hours and lead the ruffians away from town."

"No," Buck responded.

"They'd tear this town down to make sure we weren't hidin' you," the duster clad gunfighter said it with such insight into how alike he was with the man leading the group outside, that Ezra looked down to avoid meeting his eyes.

"Hey, Pard, ain't nothing to it. We'll figure something out. Like Chris said, ain't none of us ever facin' our pasts alone again." Buck's enthusiasm was sincere.

"I should have known I'd regret it," Larabee muttered, almost to himself. Standish couldn't hide the surprised hurt the words brought forth.

"Now damn it, Chris, not everybody's used to you poppin' off like that and it not meanin' anything." The words were irritated and focused on the embittered man before him, but they appeared to be meant for the gambler.

"What is it lately? Can't the man speak for himself? Why are you always defending him?" Somewhere niggling the back of the gunslinger's mind was the thought that Wilmington usually defended Larabee's actions and damn sure hadn't started chastising him for things he said until they joined up with Standish and the others. It was only a shadow of a thought, disquieting and provoking on top of the situation they found themselves in.

"Mr. Wilmington, there is nothing to defend here." It sounded like Ezra was acknowledging his culpability.

Once again Buck and Chris were at each other. Ezra, and his part in the situation, becoming an afterthought. "Don't seem fair, Chris, always having to read into or out of what you say - how you say it. Trying to figure out why you're so damn pissed off at us all the time."

"Shut up, Wilmington."

"There's seven men out there lookin' to kill us. You reckon you could direct some of that meanness toward them?"

"That's more like it." Mike beamed as Chris and Buck moved in on each other.

JD got between the two. "Ezra, Ezra, it was self defense. Tell 'em." Buck and Chris looked toward the gambler for an answer.

Ezra was feeling dizzy and nauseous. He didn't want to take away from the attention Vin needed. He had been able to follow the goings on, but mostly by emotional voltage as it was given off in the room. The actual words had only feathered in and out of his consciousness. Tanner's unconscious state, Larabee saying he regretted something, him and Buck shouting again, then the boy calling to him. He looked up with owlish round eyes, but didn't reply.

Buck recognized that his friend wasn't as uninjured as he'd made out and went to check his eyes.

When it was clear Standish wasn't going to reply, JD turned pleadingly to Larabee, "Ezra shot one brother in self-defense. One he caught cheating at cards."

"That's a lie!" It was the first thing Kyte had said all night.

"The second brother got hung for shooting Ezra and killing the saloon tender," JD's voice pleaded for his hero to listen to him; to believe him.

Ezra's glazed eyes showed Larabee enough awareness for him to see the defiance and verification of the boy's words. "Why didn't you say so?" He demanded.

"You didn't ask," JD answered for the conman by quoting what he had been told earlier. And it was just as poignant for the repeating and the circumstances.

"Self-defense." Buck straightened up from where he had been tending Standish. "Sort of like shootin' some kid down in the street cause he thinks he's fast and calls you out." Buck was headed toward Larabee again. Josiah, still tending Vin, bowed his head but then Tanner moaned softly and drew the preacher's attention back to the injured man.

As the lanky cowboy strode forward, a single gunshot rang out and shattered the glass between the bars. Larabee tackled Wilmington who had been targeted as he passed in front of the window.

"Are you alright?" Larabee asked. As usual it sounded angry. Buck knew despite the angry words, his friend was distressed at the close call. Some of the anger drained out of both of them.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm good." There was silence for an extended breath. And Ezra could tell it wasn't good. Nothing was right. They were at odds with each other when they needed more than ever to work together. And somehow, Standish understood that it was his fault. But he couldn't remember what he'd done. His head had started to pound. If it would stop maybe things would start to make sense.

"JD," Wilmington spoke as if to change the subject. "I want you to ride out and find Nathan. Get him back here to check on Vin."

"But Buck, two hours ..."

"That's pure bluff," his older friend lied. "C'mon, son, we'll get you off and you'll be back before you miss anything," Buck offered him a good imitation of his usual smile. JD looked questioningly to Chris who nodded encouragement.

Clearly unsure of the situation, the boy nevertheless trusted his hero and best friend to make the best strategic decisions and allowed himself to be quietly ushered out the back door by the taller man. Before he followed the boy out, the lanky gunfighter turned back to his friend, "Aw, hell, Chris." It was an apology from Buck, but also much more. Then he followed after their youngest and allowed the darkness to swallow him up.

"Mr. Larabee," Ezra asked curiously, "Is it truly in that boy's best interest to let him try to ride out past those ruffians?"

"In two hours they'll start to use the dynamite on the rest of the town. Draw us out. They're willing to blast the town ... to use the night ... and us having to protect the jail and the prisoners..." Chris let the options hang. He explained Buck's thoughts as if he had read his old friend's mind. "... somebody'll have to ride it out in here with Vin. The odds aren't good. If Buck wants to get the boy out of this one, I don't think one gun would make that much difference this time."

"And you're hoping that this way Mr. Wilmington will not be distracted by watching out for that young man."

Larabee wasn't willing to admit this part, or that he was glad the boy would be safe when the two hours were up. He glanced at Josiah, who shook his head "no" to the unvoiced question of whether or not Vin had regained consciousness.

With an indifference that could have been associated with waiting out a summer storm instead of possibly the last two hours of his life, Larabee slid into the chair behind the desk Standish had recently vacated. He began to reassemble the gun Buck had broken down before the gunfight broke out.

Ezra cautiously worked his way past the shattered window to lean his pounding head against the bars and watch Sanchez gently tend to the former bounty hunter's scalp wounds; trying to gently coax him back to awareness.

The preacher looked up and tossed the gambler a supportive smile. They were in this together. But the smile held no false encouragement. They would be in for a hell of a fight.

The southern gentlemen looked across to the boy and the man in the locked cell. Jason Miller and the men who followed him had a united front and a united cause. They were fighting for people they cared about. Such a bond added to their strength. What had Larabee said? He had promised that none of them would ever face their past alone again? He had made the promise to Ezra himself. And tonight he had all but admitted that he had lived to regret that promise. But the dark gunslinger was a man of honor. He would die to keep his word despite any regrets.

Ezra scrunched his eyes closed against the pain which was becoming more and more of a constant in his head. He walked casually over to their proud leader. "Mr. Tanner's awake. He's asking for you."

Encouraged, relieved, the other man made his way across the darkened room. The duster played around his lean legs as he moved into the open cell. "Josiah?" He asked gently as he leaned forward to check on the tracker himself.

"No change, Chris. He still hasn't come to."

The frown of confusion had barely had time to form on Larabee's face when he heard the clang of metal against metal as the door swung shut behind him. He spun and was at the bars instantly, but not fast enough to catch the enigmatic gambler who was backing away from them with the keys in his hand. "Ezra, what the hell ..."

Standish seemed not to hear as he casually removed his holster. "Mr. Miller," He spoke to the young man without looking up from working the buckle on his belt, "Is your brother a man of his word?"

"Ezra, open the damn door," Larabee demanded. It was one of the few times, that if Standish had been listening, he would have heard dread in the voice as much as anger. Josiah had moved to the bars beside their leader.

Kyte, also standing in his cell, seemed confused. The gambler continued. "If the three of us walk out of here and join him, will he leave the town unscathed?"

Kyte nodded.

"And the peacekeepers?"

"Ezra damn it to hell, open this door," Larabee hissed. His white knuckled grip on the bars before him belied the fact that he was trying to keep a calm tone. Anger, he knew, would only incite the southerner.

"Jason don't want to hurt nobody," The boy vowed sincerely. "He only wants to see justice done."

"Aw yes, justice," Ezra smirked as he removed the derringer rigging from his arm. "Highly overrated concept."

"Ezra, son, please, you don't have to ..," Josiah's voice was pleading, but it seemed to waft in and out as Ezra tried to keep his balance. He felt drowsy, but he had to stay awake long enough to protect the others.

Mike moved greedily to the bars of his cell. He was ready to grab the keys if this idiot was foolish enough to give him the chance, but he didn't have to. Ezra opened the door and swung it wide. "Gentlemen ..." Mike shoved past him, grabbed a couple of guns and then grabbed Ezra by the arm.

"Ezra!" Anger and fear and grief seemed to weigh Larabee down. He was almost holding himself up by the death grip he had on the bars.

Ezra met their eyes and his poker face was in place. "I don't like to be indebted, Mr. Larabee."

The gunslinger tried to stare into Ezra's soul; to tell him, demand of him to put his trust in the group and not go out on his own. But then the former prisoners stepped out the door, Ezra closed it gently and they were gone. "Ezra!!!" Larabee called. His only answer was three sets of boots moving away from the jail.

Josiah bowed his head and slammed one meaty fist against the stone wall.

Then they heard it. Footfalls approaching from the direction of the livery. Chris recognized the cadence. "Buck," he whispered, almost to himself. He must have gotten the boy off and was coming back. "Buck!" He shouted as the bootsteps stopped just short of the door.

But at the same time and drowning out his own voice, he heard Buck's confused, "Ezra?" There was a silence.

Josiah, started to call out, but before he could, he heard, "Ezra!" And then the heavy sound of a single pair of boots running up the street. "Ezra!" Buck bellowed again.

"Buck!" Larabee barked in a voice not to be ignored ... if it had been heard. It was drowned out as the night erupted in gunfire that sounded like firecrackers on the Fourth of July and the sound of horses racing out of town.

"Buck!" He shook the bars as if he could pull them from the jail's foundation. Then, as quickly as the noise began, it ended. There was silence. Josiah leaned his back against the cool wall of the cell and slid down to the floor and put his head in his hands.

In one of those inexplicable moments when tragedy heightens the senses, Sanchez could smell the smoke from the street fires and he knew the fog that had grown heavier all night had finally doused the flames. Soon, the smoke that promised warmth and security in a town he called home would be gone. The fog had won.


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