by Mitzi

JD knew part of the reason he was sent after Nathan was to get him out of harm's way. He didn't know whether to resent the protectiveness or to worry that it meant they still didn't think he could be trusted in a showdown. And after what Chris had said ... but Vin needed help. Ezra and Buck and Chris could stand being checked out as well.

Going after their healer was something that needed to be done. And the truth was, JD had been glad to get out of town. The tension that had lately become a constant undercurrent in how the seven got along was beginning to drain the young man. He couldn't remember exactly when it started, but it wouldn't dissipate. He was worried that one wrong word would crumble the team. And the rest of the men seemed to take turns trying to find just that word.

JD didn't feel like he had the right to get mad at the others. They were older, had seen more; had suffered through more. He realized he only had glimpses of the hidden pasts of these loners who had somehow bonded together. They didn't talk about themselves.

No, he didn't give himself the right to show his temper when they kept him out of the middle of the action, questioned his experience or made noises that to him sounded like they thought he couldn't cut it. After all, sometimes he questioned himself. But he found it harder and harder to hold his tongue when the men he admired so sniped at each other.

No matter how he fought it, JD was mad at Nathan. He hadn't given Ezra a chance to explain. That wasn't the way friends should act. It was just that simple. And the things he had said to Buck? Those things were mean and hurtful and had nothing to do with the fact that men were trying to kill Ezra.

But beyond all the rest, Buck and Ezra were JD's friends. They were the most likely to stand up for him or deflect attention when Chris directed one of his dark moods in the boy's direction. They were always aware of his presence, protective but encouraging. They didn't make him feel like a liability. So if they were willing to defend him, when was he going to be old enough or proven enough or comfortable enough with his place in the seven to return the favor?

The rhythm of his horse's hooves helped the young easterner tick off what he was going to say when he found Nathan. He practiced a speech that got more and more hurtful as he worked the words around just so. He wanted to see the same hurt and disappointment at a verbal attack on Jackson's face that he had seen on Ezra's and Buck's.

He was so lost in thought that he barely noticed the lone rider that approached him on the hard packed road. He recognized the riding posture before the dark night let him make out any features. It was Nathan. He had turned around and was already coming back on his own. A bit of JD's anger died off at the realization.

Then they met, and as the youngest of the seven relayed events to the ex-slave, he became certain he would never use the speech he had so carefully prepared. It was in the sad brown eyes, the furrowed brow, and some almost imperceptible aura of regret that surrounded their seventh man as he listened to the events that had unfolded after he had left. He had left. And as he studied the other man and finished his tale, JD knew there was nothing he could say that the healer hadn't already said to himself.

But they were on their way back to town now. Nathan would apologize with actions if not with words. JD allowed himself a slight smile. Everything would be fine.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee saw the end play out in his mind. Buck would try to get to Ezra as fast as he could with no regards to cover. Standish, for his part, when he realized Wilmington was placing himself in danger, would have tried some damn fool desperate act to distract the nine men.

Nine men.

Some of those men were trail hands but at least five of them had looked to be plenty gun savvy. That Mike, Jason and probably Red had made their way with a gun at least sometime in their lives was obvious.

Ezra hadn't even had a gun.

Larabee'd seen it before, the way a man would seem to dance backwards when multiple gunshots riddled his body. Then he would collapse like the marionette's strings had been cut at last.

And the blood, the nightmare blood. It would be bright red against Standish's saloon-protected complexion; a little darker against the sun-bronzed skin of his oldest friend.

One bullet would have frayed a deck of cards in the gambler's vest pocket and littered them around his body as it lay there motionless in the street. Sea green eyes, would be frozen unseeing on the ace of spades ... no, they would have ended up on the seven of spades, tattered where many, too many, of the pips were missing. And Buck's eyes that could turn almost black, like an angered bobcat when riled, would forever be that gentle midnight blue that bespoke of loyalty and friendship to the end.

<Damn it, Buck. I told you that kind of loyalty would get you killed in the end!> Larabee ranted silently to himself. <But I was supposed to be there.> He raged with a sadness he thought he was no longer capable of.

Larabee was supporting his entire weight with the grip he had on the cell bars. He had killed them, by pushing them away because they were weaving themselves so completely into what made Chris Larabee the man he was. And now he had allowed the entwined friendships to be torn from him not 100 yards away. And he was startled and anguished to feel how much of a soul he still had that could be ripped away with them.

His grip gave slightly on the cell bars. His knees sagged with emotions he didn't know how to give voice to. "NOOOO!" He screamed his denial, but wasn't aware of the sound. His whole self was shutting down to the sentiment that had let him get attached and feel this sort of loss again. <Never again. Never again. If I live through this, never again.>

Josiah Sanchez held his head in his hands. For the moment it was too heavy without the support. The nurturing back of his mind registered that Vin had moved slightly in reaction to the anguish in his best friend's voice. It was as if the tracker sensed that he was losing something priceless and was trying to rouse himself enough to grab hold and try to keep it. <Don't wake up yet, son.> Sanchez caught himself praying. <Let me take care of your friend first.>

It wasn't that Josiah wouldn't miss his friends. But in many ways, he had long ago accomplished what Larabee was still struggling to attain. Josiah was much better at distancing himself from feelings when it came to other people. But then, he'd had more years than Larabee to perfect the emotional distancing, and truth be told, many more agonizing losses.

The disillusioned dreamer tried to tell himself all of this when, in truth, the pain was crippling and would only get worse once the shock wore off, or once JD rode back in ... God, please don't let him be the first one to come on the bodies ... and Nathan, how it would eat at him that he could never make amends. Josiah fought back his own sense of loss by empathizing with the others

More running steps. This time coming toward the jail. Larabee was oblivious. Josiah pulled his pistol on the off chance that Jason Miller had more vengeance in him or thought to dispose of any witnesses.

"Chris!" The familiar voice came from outside the door. And the holy man suddenly realized he wasn't as inured against his friends and their fate as he had tried to convince himself. He stood, almost as if in an euphoric dream, the gun forgotten at his side and waited.

"Josiah!" Buck Wilmington slammed through the jail door. The despair on his face was easily readable. He had been just as certain that his friends were dead as they had been grieving his loss. In his mind, nothing less would explain Ezra's being alone with the Rockin' J cowboys. The despair turned to relief and then as quickly confusion and disappointment as he registered the situation before him.

"Chris?" There was a certain amount of denial in the ladies' man's voice but Josiah could tell he had read the situation with deadly accuracy.

Larabee, on the other hand, was barely allowing himself to believe that he was seeing his old friend alive and safe. He couldn't find his voice.

"Ezra?" The Preacher asked, afraid of the answer.

"I'm goin' after him,"Buck stated with a coldness that bode ill for Jason Miller and his men. Josiah was afraid it also held a frigidity toward his oldest friend that the two of them would have a hard time overcoming. Josiah suspected that with Buck, the one thing that could distance the easy-going gunfighter would be for someone to make him chose between friends. The way Buck held Chris's eyes for the briefest of moments relayed this much and more to the deadly shootist.

Wilmington tossed the heavy key ring toward the cell and didn't stay around to see if Josiah was able to catch it. As soon as Sanchez opened the door, Larabee was out and grabbing up extra guns. "Take care of Vin 'til the others get here."

"Chris, it's two against nine."

Larabee didn't take the time to say he hoped like hell he had the time and a chance to make those odds three to nine. Instead, he was out the door following Wilmington to the livery.

+ + + + + + +

Chris caught up to Buck after he already had the saddle blanket on the big gray and was hooking up the rest of the dressings. He walked up to his old friend before going to his own horse. "Are you hurt?" He asked, but got no response. "Buck." He grabbed Buck's arm and turned him so they faced each other. The move angered his friend who jerked out of the grasp. "Are you hurt?" Larabee insisted despite the hostility.

At first Buck was afraid the hired gun was looking for a reason to keep him from riding after Ezra. When he met those troubled green eyes, Wilmington relaxed a fraction because, it surprised him, but he saw that the son-of-a-gun had been afraid for his friends.

"The gunplay ..." the blonde continued when the other man relaxed slightly. It was then that Wilmington understood his hardened friend had been attacked most viciously by emotions he thought he had buried.

"Those hotheads celebratin' on their way out of town,"Buck explained.


"Rode out with 'em." He was asking the question of Larabee, <How did it happen?> There was no immediate answer. The rogue glanced at the gambler's quarter horse waiting patiently in it's stall; a far cry from the rough gaited, long-earred remuda animal they had the gambler on as they rode out of town.

"I didn't mean ..." Chris stated, but Wilmington turned from him back to the saddling of his horse. Buck knew they didn't have time for a discussion that started with those words.

There weren't many people Chris Larabee felt the need to explain himself to. One of them was here, now, and not inclined to listen. He knew grabbing his usually easy-going friend again was not an option. When Buck turned to gather his reins, the formidable gunslinger put himself between the man and his horse. "We have to talk."

"I hope to hell it ain't too late for that, Chris,"Buck replied with a soft, sad sincerity. "If we're gonna have a chance, we better get Ezra back in one piece."

Larabee hesitated for a beat, as if he wanted to say more, but finally thought better of it and moved aside.

+ + + + + + +

Buck hadn't waited for Larabee to saddle his own black, like it wasn't part of Buck's equation whether Larabee rode with him on this or not. And that wasn't right. Larabee's presence should always be part of Buck's equation.

Larabee had only now caught up with his friend, and no more words had been spoken. Their horses almost appeared gaited as they pranced, trying to decipher the mixed signals from their masters. Because, anxious as the gunfighters were to move forward, they were forced to hold back the reins to keep from overrunning the vague trail.

They were following darkness. The moon, barely breaking through the fog, caused the heavy fog to glisten where it had settled over the ground. They trailed the matted strip of land where recently passing horses had displaced and beaten down the moisture and gave them a shadowy trail to follow. It took full concentration to follow the minimal sign.

In that strange way that focusing the conscious mind does, it left the insightful, problem-solving subconscious part of Larabee's intellect open to examine many things without the benefit of the conscious shutting the thoughts down when they became too uncomfortable.

The first thing that wouldn't be denied was the stark, devastating loss that had consumed him when he thought Buck and Ezra were dead.

Even as much as the passing of his wife and son still haunted him and still left the anger and the loneliness, that moment of loss had been neutralized by time, probably because it was too intense to bear in its initial paralyzing state. But he had felt it again tonight. Then he'd been given a second chance. What was he going to do with it?

Larabee had tried to push these men away to avoid that kind of sorrow. But instead they had shown him how to live past the grief. They had all suffered losses and pushed on. They had become men it was an honor to know. They never questioned that his grief was so debilitating, but showed him everyday, through their actions, that hate and bitterness and isolation were a coward's way out.

It was no way to honor the memories of those who had died.

It was no way to thank the ones who stood beside him in unquestioning friendship.

It was no way to live.

And as surprised as he was with himself that he did want to survive, finally, after all these years, he was equally surprised to realize that he would fight like a she-cat to keep these men safe and sound.

Chris glanced over at the man riding beside him. Buck appeared to be completely focused on not losing the trail. But so was Larabee. And look at the uncomfortable thoughts that swirled around inside of him.

Chris considered asking Buck where his thoughts were and decided against it. That would have to wait until the two of them could sit and get drunk and talk. This wasn't the time. Buck wouldn't be his distraction against unwanted thoughts this time.

Those thoughts went back to the man they were following. Ezra had been the easiest to push away. Because the gambler expected it.

The man that he thought of by his career - gambler, conman, loner - had just sacrificed himself for the well being of men and a town he had known for a relatively short time. Larabee had been wrong when he simply would not let go of his initial impression of the man.

Larabee knew that correcting that mistake would save his slowly self-healing world. It would make amends with Josiah and Vin. He might see again that little gleam of hero-worship that had gradually faded from JD's eye -- to think, even a day ago he had thought he wanted to see it gone ... And he could help Nathan as much as Nathan could help him. And Buck? He glanced again at the man riding beside him. Well, the thing that he knew all too well could tear them apart, because it had in the past, was for a friend or innocent, or God help him, both, to fall because of his anger. He'd just have to convince his friend that he wanted to change.

He was proud to have them as friends ... the damn cocky four-flusher, the irritatingly loyal old friend, the painfully straightforward tracker, the haunted and, in truth, sometimes frightening Preacher, the over-enthusiastic kid, and the defensive healer. Not a good trait among them.

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<Stupid. Asinine. Inexcusable.> Ezra Standish was berating himself. What had he been thinking? For the life of him he couldn't imagine now what sequence of events had him on this horse, surrounded by men who wanted him dead. He had a survival instinct that rivaled, well, that rivaled his mother's. Where was it when he needed it?

And instead of figuring a way out of the situation? He was wondering how he got into it in the first place. <Alright, Ezra, focus. Nine men, two injured, hands tied behind your back, a disgustingly unfamiliar animal ...> It didn't work. If he wasn't berating himself for putting himself in this position - and in truth, there was no one else he blamed but himself - he kept seeing Vin Tanner unconscious; hearing Buck Wilmington call to him over the sound of gunfire and then the silence; Josiah Sanchez who he himself had locked in a cell with the rabid dog that Larabee would become if Wilmington or Tanner died.

<Stop it.> He demanded of himself and was again fighting to get his thoughts back on track, steered back toward rescue. No, not rescue. He had to save himself. If he could only concentrate. And he was trying to focus even as they placed the rough rope over his head and tightened the thirteen-looped noose behind his left ear.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah was just helping Vin slowly sit up when the door flew open. Nathan, seeing what he anticipated seeing, headed directly toward the tracker. Riding past the demolished roof and understanding Vin had fallen from that distance, he had expected the worst. He was relieved to see the bounty hunter moving around, though admittedly he was moving slowly.

Vin was pressing on his temples as if it somehow held part of the pain at bay. He was folded over his knees, not yet ready to move too much. Josiah had one big hand feathered out along his back for comfort and support.

The black man dropped to a crouch in front of Tanner, his intelligent eyes guided by experience, already evaluating the other man's condition.

JD, leaving the healing to the man he had ultimate confidence in, noticed something else. "Where's Buck and the others?"

Josiah, tending Vin, bowed his head at the question. The young man took a step closer. Tanner gingerly turned his head toward Sanchez when the extended silence registered. "Ezra left with Miller's gang before we could stop him."

"What?" JD couldn't comprehend that. Vin tried to sit up straighter.

"Chris and Buck went after him,"Josiah continued.

Tanner was trying to stand at the words. Nathan didn't know whether to hold the younger man down or help him up. Josiah had to leave Vin to Jackson. He himself hurried forward to stop JD from getting out of the room.

"Let go, Josiah. I have to help," the boy shouted as the bigger man grabbed his shoulders and held him from the door.

"JD, we can't -"

"We have to!"

"Chris and Buck left right after it happened. They had a chance of keeping up. There won't be any tracking after this much time has passed. Not in this weather and at night."

JD unwillingly looked toward Tanner. His friend was hurt. He didn't want to play that down. He didn't want to ask. But if anyone could read track it was him.

JD didn't have to ask. Tanner was already trying to get his footing around the vertigo and slight nausea. "Vin, stop that nonsense,"Nathan ordered. "You won't make it out the door."

"Damn it, Nathan ..."

"You tell me, man ...!" The healer started too loudly. When the others looked surprised, he lowered his voice to continue. The intensity was still there. "Tell me that your sight ain't blurry. Tell me that you could find a tough trail in broad daylight, much less a cloudy night, and I'll back off."

JD held his breath, hoping this once Nathan's diagnosis was wrong.

"Do you think I don't want to go after them?" Nathan's voice was rising again. "Don't you think I wonder if this wouldn't have happened if I'd stayed?" He looked for accusation, almost wanted to see it. All he saw was his own worry reflected back at him. And there was Tanner's sad, unspoken acknowledgement that he could do nothing tonight. "I'll go restock my pack and bring you something back for your headache," he said to Vin. His voice echoed the tracker's helplessness.

<Damn> Josiah thought, angry with himself. <Why hadn't I noticed before how often Nathan retreats to his clinic to get away from the others?> Was it to give himself time to think before he spoke, did he sometimes simply need to be alone? Or was there something else?

"Why's Nathan mad at us?" JD asked. He shut down on the rest of the thought, how angry he had so recently been with the former slave.

"Nathan's young life was one where he wasn't allowed to be angry."

"Because he was a slave?" JD guessed.

"It's been building up for a long time,"Josiah added with a nod.

"But why's he mad at us, Josiah? We're his friends."

"A child should learn about anger, be taught how to control it or get past it. Nathan was never allowed to learn that. In some ways, all of us are always children. For Nathan, he's trying to learn anger, even believe he is allowed to feel anger and understand who he's angry at." JD sort of understood. He'd been only recently working the same thing out for himself.

Vin had sat back down, resigned to the fact that he could do no good for his friends tonight, and he was becoming moody because of it. "Anger's never a thing that's controlled, Preacher," he spoke from some experience beyond his years.

Josiah smiled at the insight. Anger, by its very nature was a lack of control. "Maybe the control comes in knowing why you're angry or who you're angry with."

"Is that why Nathan's always gettin' on Ezra?" JD thought he might learn something here and was momentarily distracted from his friends' plight, which he could do nothing about. He also thought if he understood Nathan's anger, he might learn something about his own which was getting harder and harder to control. "Because he reminds him of his past?"

Josiah nodded. "I think that might be a lot of it."

"What about Chris?" He's at least as angry as Nathan,"Vin asked.

"Don't know enough about his childhood. Maybe it was good. Maybe he didn't need to learn to control that kind of anger. But then, can't imagine what it'd do to a man, so much in love, to have his family taken so young. And fire ... son, I hope you never have to know the fear of fire licking at your life."

There was silence in the room for a time, each lost in their own thoughts. Josiah was proud of the boys. They were learning to be thinkers, watchers of the life around them. Maybe that was part of his reason here, to lead them to great things. They looked so different, the one still in his tweed, citified jacket and derby, the other much more a part of the land. It was going to take both kinds to tame this great country without breaking her spirit. And they both had a fine touch with horses and the wild things. They knew more than they yet understood that they knew. They would be the kind of men to become partners with the land not enslave it.

"Still ain't right, Chris puttin' all his anger on Buck. Buck ain't never been nothin' but a friend to him."

"Buck brings it on himself,"Vin murmured.

"Don't you dare say them dying was Buck's fault!" JD jumped up so fast his chair fell over. He'd show them a reason to be angry.

Vin smirked. Josiah smiled. <That was anger that knew where it was coming from and righteously defended a friend.> Taking no offense, Tanner explained himself, "Buck calls Larabee's anger down on himself to keep it from fallin' on us. Reckon he's been doin' it for a while. Reckon he's probably kept 'em both alive doin' it."

"Reckon somebody should point that out to Chris,"JD muttered under his breath. He might, someday, be the one to do it. <Yep> Josiah grinned wider, <That one was learning to direct the anger.>

"Why don't Ezra and Buck get mad back?" Vin asked.

"Someday I'm going to write a book about men who bond together as tightly as our seven have." Josiah seemed to change the subject. He noticed Tanner was still embarrassed to admit to the connection. JD was proud of it. It was out of his dime novels. "I won't downplay the friendship, or respect, but for the emotions to run so deep, there has to be a searching inside each of us. An emptiness that might be filled here. And I think it scares us." Again his two students showed opposite reactions. JD's hackles were raised at the accusation of fear. Vin simply nodded with a far off look in his eye. "It scares us when we think we ain't gonna find it and it scares us when we think we have found it and it hasn't set all things right."

They were silent again. Then Vin met Josiah's eye. "That didn't answer the last question."

"I haven't done anything but ask you questions, son. I haven't set anything in fact. Your answers are as good as mine,"Vin started to protest, but the enigmatic preacher stood and was almost out the door before he added, "You best get some rest, the both of you. We've got friends to find in a few hours." And he was gone.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra appreciated that there was some form of irony at work. He was back at the river where so recently he had fooled himself into believing he was a part of the group of men that protected Four Corners. On that fishing trip he had really felt they wanted him there, enjoyed his company and that he was an equal part of the whole. But then, nothing could be divided evenly into seven parts, could it?

Logically, this was probably the only place where his captors could find a tree tall enough for a hanging. But he couldn't help but see it as some sort of universal reminder of how and why he'd ended up here. He had tried to be a part of something. Well, mankind was a social animal only if you were the alpha male or willing to be subservient. He wasn't willing to follow orders blindly and he most certainly understood now he didn't want the responsibility for others. He was a lone wolf, a creature to be admired for what it was and for what it refused to be.

That older Miller lad was rambling on about justice and vengeance as he and his men milled around him. He couldn't quite follow it. The torches the men held were fighting the moisture in the air. Was that the rapids roaring in his ears? Maybe not.

He was afraid the horse he was on, when it bolted, when that Larabee-wannabe slapped it on the rump, wouldn't snap his neck. The horse wasn't tall enough for the drop to do its job. The damn thing wasn't fast enough to let it be over quickly. It wasn't going to be pleasant.

Already the nag inched forward and the pressure on the large vein in his neck - Nathan would know the name of it - was his mind rambling? - anyway, it had his peripheral vision tunneling down to a small pinpoint surrounded by hazy darkness.

Where had he been? What had he been thinking? Rescue? No, not rescue, not now, not ever again. He needed to think how to save himself. And he needed to hurry. Now if Mr. Tanner, or Mr. Dunne where about to swing from this tree with him? Then there might be a chance of rescue. He wondered what it felt like to be them? To know that hardened, respected men cared whether you lived or died?

Buck - Mr. Wilmington had made him feel that way for a little while. Mssrs Sanchez and Dunne, too. And Tanner. Made it harder in a way, having had a taste of it.

The younger Miller had distanced himself from the events. He was holding the horses in the darkness away from the water. Did that mean something? A sudden chuckle came out as a choking breath. This very well may be the only time men had truly looked up to him and it had to be literally, not figuratively. And they were looking up to him to watch him die.

Porthos, for all of his easygoing ways would never have let the dapper Aramis end up this way. He remembered reading that story when he was very young and buying into Dumas' heroes, their camaraderie, their mutual respect for all their differences; the trust, the dark, foreboding, brooding Athos, naïve d'Artagnan ... he had tried to form such an alliance with his cousins.

He'd learned the hard way that those characteristics only existed in literature. Did Mr. Dunne's damnable paperbacks count as fiction? In any case he had learned his lesson and forgotten the accursed book until just now. Was this his life passing before his eyes? If so, it'd better speed it up. And this miserable fog. It was settling on his face. Why was it salty when it ran into his mouth? One for all and all for one. Yeah right.

He heard the shouts above the river and the roar in his ears. The rope was already so tight around his neck that the pinprick of vision had given way to flashes of light behind his eyes. He couldn't breathe. Gunshots. Horses whinnied and then his bolted. Maybe this wasn't so bad. And then something big and heavy hit him and the noose tightened with the sudden jolt as it was intended.


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