by Mitzi

Buck still had the best of intentions. He would pull Ezra and himself forward along the rope and be that much closer to dry land when Chris got the horse moving. Dry being the operative word. His skin was pruning up. There was no feeling in his back. It was too cold. That could be good or bad. At least one of the shotgun blasts from Miller's gun had hit him and Ezra both. He as yet had been unable to tell how serious either's wounds were. He glanced down at the smaller man whose head was resting on his chest. He couldn't see past the crest of chestnut hair; couldn't tell if Ezra was awake or asleep or unconscious. Buck was too tired to call out to him. The tautness of the rope, although putting pressure on his back and most certainly Ezra's chest, at least made it slightly easier to keep his head above water.

<Oh, yeah> Wilmington thought. He had been going to pull himself up the rope. Well, just another minute's rest. Then he'd get back to it.

"Buck." <Had someone called him?> "Buck!" He slowly came back to awareness. His back was against the riverbed. It was Chris's voice. He forced himself to look around. Chris was beside the black, backing it slightly up the bank. In turn the rope, one end fastened to the saddle horn, was reeling the other two men to the land. <How had time passed?> Buck felt the backs of his legs hit the bottom. He wrapped his arms around Ezra to move him forward. "Hey, Ezra, Ole Chris done got us out of a fix."

Larabee freed the rope from his horse's saddle to release the tension. He trotted down the bank as Buck levered himself to his knees and pulled Ezra up as well. The gunfighter waded into the stagnant backwater and took Standish's other arm as he helped Wilmington pull the rope free over both of their heads. "Ezra?" Chris slapped the southerner on the cheek to get his attention. "C'mon, boy, get your legs under you."

"Cold," came the mumbled reply. He seemed to be trying to rub his ear with his shoulder.

Larabee pulled a knife from his boot sheath and finally cut the ropes that bound the younger man's wrists. The hands were swollen, the wrists bruised deep purples and blacks.

Ezra immediately tried to raise his arms. They had been in one position for so long, the muscles ached from the palms of his hands to deep in his shoulders and shoulder blades with the movement, but he seemed determined to work past the pain. When he didn't have the strength or pain tolerance to manipulate both arms, he tried one, then the other. He just couldn't seem to get them to rotate up.

It dawned on Buck first what his friend was trying to do. First he had tried to rub the noose, still around his neck, loose and somehow get out of it. Now he was trying to make his cold-numbed fingers and stiff muscles respond enough to remove it. "Aw, hell, Ezra," Wilmington said in sympathy and apology that he hadn't realized earlier what his friend was trying to do. "Oh, Lord, Ezra, I'm so sorry," He immediately loosened the noose and flung it angrily into the water.

"Thank you," Ezra whispered hoarsely.

Larabee gently tilted the gambler's head one way then the other. There were rope burns around his neck. All around the rash were what looked like insect bites where the coarse bristle-like fibers had pricked the skin. They would both fade with time, but until then they would be a reminder to Larabee that things had been much too close.

Larabee's eyes slid up to Wilmington's. Wilmington read the regret there and his midnight blue glare eased somewhat. But there was still a question there for Chris to answer: How had it gotten this far in the first place. No this one wasn't going to go away like so many other disappointments that Larabee had inflicted on his old friend.

"What is that stench?" Standish's slurred voice sounded like a drunk.

Buck and Chris had been too busy to notice the odor that emanated from the stagnant water that licked at the land. "Do you want me to tell you before or after I tell you you're hip deep in it?" Wilmington teased. It was noxious but not unfamiliar to the men who had spent so much time out-of-doors; just a part of nature.

The look of utter disgust on the younger man's face delighted the dark-haired gunslinger. His eyes sparkled with amusement that he had to share with his oldest friend. Larabee returned the look with a contented smirk. He reached behind Standish and popped Buck on the back of the head much as the other man would discipline JD on occasion. Much like old times.

Chris knew he had things to answer for, but found comfort in the fact that he knew Buck would give him the chance. There was even more comfort in the fact that this time he wanted to make things right and cared whether he did or not.

"You got him?" Larabee asked, getting ready to get Ezra out of the water. Buck nodded and braced himself in the quicksand like silt so that he could support both of their weight. Larabee worked his way up the bank and turned to take the Southerner after him.

With a glance, Buck saw the man several yards behind Chris and thought at first he was imagining it. Then he recognized the man, Mike, and realized that it was dynamite he had cocked back to hurl in their direction.

"Chris!" The tone in his old friend's voice was all the gunfighter needed to be looking for danger. Spinning, he drew Buck's gun he was carrying holstered from the night before. He registered his target and fired even as the sputtering stick of destruction left the other man's hand. The bullet met it's target in fatal consequences. But it was already too late. "Down!" Larabee shouted to his friends.

The concussion of air from the explosion threw him to the ground and forced Buck and Ezra face down into the noxious green water.

The mud was slick and black, oily, silty fine and tinged with some living substance that gave it a greenish cast. The smell was death and rotting foliage. It was nauseous and Buck could taste the metallic edge in his mouth long after it had passed down his throat.

Ezra was coughing and spitting and seemed to gag. He tried to wipe the substance from his face but it was on his sleeves and hands. He only succeeded in smearing it around.

Buck was trying to take account of the situation. Their attacker would be dead, no doubt. Larabee wouldn't miss that shot. The horses had bolted and run from the sudden destructive noise. He panicked. He couldn't see Chris.

Ezra was still trying to wrap his tired mind around how or why he found himself face down in the foul semi-liquid ooze when he felt a strong hand grab his elbow and drag him up the bank. It wasn't until their feet were firmly on dry land that he was left on his own. But he was aware that Buck's eyes had never stopped seeking the third member of their party. Ezra collapsed to his knees and began to assess the situation for himself.

When Ezra was safe, Buck turned his attention entirely to moving up the slope although he staggered and more often than not was in a three point stance rather than standing up. He wanted one minute - sixty seconds - to regroup, think, figure out why things were moving so fast ... breathe.

But he realized what he truly wanted when he saw it. He wanted Chris Larabee sitting up, glaring, ready to eat nails, but at least he was alive and hadn't survived the rapids only to fall to the dynamite. The former Texas Ranger sent up a silent prayer of thanks when he found his friend. His relief was short lived when he saw the man was trying to staunch the flow of blood from a wound gouged in his left calf.

Buck made his way to his friend's side and still no one spoke. Their eyes said they were glad that each other was safe, but for the next few moments Buck and Chris barely breathed. They were listening and looking for anything that might indicate that the man had not been alone.

Finally Buck took the knife he knew would be in Larabee's right boot. He turned the knife on Larabee's pants leg, slit it open and evaluated the cut. A good four inches long and deep. Dirt, mud and tiny particles of gravel had been impaled in the wound.

Buck went to grab the bandana around his neck only to realize at the touch, that the thing was as coated with the muddy slime as his hands were. Before he could despair, a clean bandana bobbed before his eyes. He looked up into the green eyes of the gambler. "I appropriated it from that imbecile who was unfortunate enough to offer Mr. Larabee a target given his predisposition to violence."

Buck smiled and, after wiping as much mud as possible from his hands on the new spring grass around them, he took the bandana to tie around the wound and staunch the bleeding. Larabee hissed when he pulled the ends tight. Buck met the other man's hard hazel shaded eyes that tried to mask the pain.

In response, Buck couldn't help but smile, big and sincere. They'd made it, by damn. All of them. Larabee's answering smirk said the same thing.

Chris's eyes, tinged hazel in his relaxed state, cut to Standish. "Predisposition to violence?" He sounded like a pissed off rattler looking for someone to take it out on.

"I also took the liberty of commandeering the fellow's side arm." Standish smiled. "For self-preservation." Was Larabee actually attempting some joking banter?

"You look too tired to lift it." Larabee didn't miss a beat.

"There is a fable a cousin of mine was fond of relating. Usually when we had invoked the ire of her parents during one of my mother's numerous absences." He tried to sit down on the grass beside Buck but ended up plopping down in a most ungentlemanly fashion. "Two men were walking in the wilds. They came upon a wounded, angry bear. The more urbane of the two asked the frontiersman what they should do. The frontiersman said 'run'. The city fellow, amazed, replied, 'Can we really outrun that bear?' To which the frontiersman replied, 'I don't have to outrun the bear. I only have to outrun you.'" Ezra let the story sink in before he added, "Looking at Mr. Wilmington, I feel certain that in his current exhausted state, I can outrun him."

Buck barked a quick laugh, not suspecting this response from the sophisticated man. "We are a sad lot, huh, Pard? I bet if you took us apart and put us back together, you couldn't get one healthy man out of the mix."

Chris's gaze cut to Standish. "How are you doing? Really?"

Standish was surprised he couldn't meet the sincerity in the eyes that asked the question. "Fine. Thank you." Thank you for coming after me. Thank you for saving my life. Thank you for caring.

"Fine?" Buck asked. He noticed that the smaller man was trembling from the cold and his lips still had a bluish tinge. "You're freezing."

"Better than the alternative," Ezra uttered, involuntarily fingering the rope burn around his neck.

The silence began to turn uncomfortable. Chris didn't know how to say Ezra shouldn't have gone out on his own. He wasn't good at apologizing. Buck was waiting for Chris to say something.

Ezra didn't understand the silence and thought perhaps it had something to do with Larabee being angry with having to come save him. The insecurities that childhood had embedded in his personality were quite sure that Wilmington had come after him first and that Chris had come to keep Buck safe. That there was any concern in the deadly gunfighter's eyes had surprised and confused him. He didn't want to meet those eyes again, afraid he had misread what he saw there, afraid if he looked again, it would be gone.

"They'll still be after us." Larabee finally broke the silence with a glance toward the corpse that assured them the vengeance driven young man hadn't given up. Unfortunately he knew Miller's kind all too personally and all too well.

"Perhaps I'll go try to find that hellspawn you call a horse, Mr. Larabee." Ezra was staggering to his feet as he spoke. He tried to keep it light. But the reality was that dangerous men were trying to kill him and would keep coming. If he didn't do something, Buck and Chris would be standing between the two factions when they met.

"You sure you're up to it, Ezra?" Buck asked as he too levered himself to his feet.

The sincere concern in the other man's voice more than anything fortified his determination. He nodded. He was dizzy, though. If he looked up, he knew Buck would see it. Fighting to stay on his feet, he didn't realize the other man had moved toward him and jerked back slightly when he felt the front of his shirt pulled open. The buttons were long since missing.

Buck carefully fingered the small wounds left by the shotgun pellets. They didn't seem too serious, though some were inflamed. And some of the shot was embedded under the skin and would have to be removed. Then he checked the smaller man's wrists for mobility and examined the bruises. He glanced at the rope burn around the other man's neck, but didn't want to draw too much attention to it or draw recent memories to the fore by examining it closer. "You took a crack on the head in town last night."

"A distant memory," Ezra lied without missing a beat. But the question caused him to remember everything else that had transpired the night before and that made him flinch. "Mr. Tanner?"

"JD went to get Nathan. He'll be good as new by the time we get back," Buck promised. It sounded only slightly hollow.

Buck watched the Southerner closely. He knew the man was hurt, but they all were. He also knew how tough and determined Standish could be when a friend of his needed help. e If Ezra could find the horses ... "Don't wander too far. I'm gonna move Chris up to a drier area. If you don't find the horses in short order get back here," Ezra nodded. "I mean it. I don't want to have to come looking for you."

Ezra looked up then, and his smile was wide enough for his dimples to show. Buck sounded like a father giving a son a curfew. Or he sounded like Buck threatening JD if he didn't watch out for his own safety. Tapping an imaginary hat, the gambler worked his way slowly up the steep slope of the bank.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra increased his pace slightly when the ground leveled out. He made it past the first few trees until he was sure they would hide him from the sight of the other two men. Ezra sank to the ground. He was spent. He had known it even as he enjoyed the light-hearted moment with the other two. He had to rest. But he didn't want the others to worry so much that they didn't let him go ... <Go where? What was he supposed to be looking for?> He reached to the back of his waistband. When he pulled his hand back, there was blood. The second shotgun blast had caught him at his waist. Walking must have started the bleeding again. He wondered how much blood he had lost in the water? How much had Buck lost? He was cold, and wet and <...Now ... oh, yes ... horses. I'm supposed to find them. Where would they ...> He used the tree to get leverage to stand. But the ground tilted, his knees gave and he had lost all consciousness of his surroundings before he hit the ground.

+ + + + + + +

Buck was trying to support Chris, but the further up the bank they moved, the more he realized that it was the other way around. Buck's arm around Chris's waist did help him keep some of the weight off his left leg, but other than that, <Aww, hell> Buck felt his legs collapse. Larabee couldn't support both their weight on his one good leg and they both went to the ground. "Aww, hell." He was sure he said it aloud this time.

"Rest, Buck. You always push yourself too hard." Chris was trying to get his friend's legs stretched out from their awkward position. Buck just wanted to be left alone to rest, just for a minute.

+ + + + + + +

He had seen them coming and could tell that while these two would usually be alert and next to impossible to sneak up on, they were both already stretched beyond their endurance and it took all their concentration to place one foot in front of the other. Besides, he wasn't sneaking up on them, he had sat his horse quietly and waited for them to stagger to him.

They both heard it. The click of a gun being cocked. Chris spun in the direction of the sound, putting himself between it and Buck. His hand moved reflexively for the weapon at his side, but stopped when he saw the one already pointed in their direction.

The man was sitting on a tall, rusty colored leopard appaloosa. For some reason it occurred to Buck that you could almost mistake the animal for a strawberry roan in the wet, overcast weather that had hounded them from the beginning of this affair. Buck remembered this man as being the most amiable of the lot, and loyal to the youngest Miller to a fault. Somehow, Buck thought this one could be the most dangerous one of all.

+ + + + + + +

Vin still had a headache and it was making itself more known when there was no immediate action available to distract him. And, truth be told, his muscles were sore from the fall. He was sore in places he didn't know he could get sore.

He knew Nathan was watching him. But there was nothing physical that wouldn't heal. He'd been lucky.

What Vin was struggling desperately to shake was the feeling that had come over him when he realized he was trying to place different combinations of his friends beneath the cold mounds of dirt they'd left behind. He was testing to see if any combination gave him some measure of relief or consolation over the others. The thought had come unbidden to his mind and worked itself through the possibilities lightning fast. The answer he came up with brought both relief and sorrow, and yet it also created a strange peace within him.

No, he would miss none of his friends less than the others. He would lose more if he lost Larabee, he conceded, because the lone gunfighter had given more to the lonely tracker.

He suspected Buck had intentionally limited association with Vin when he saw that the burgeoning friendship between Larabee and Tanner had, what at least Buck perceived, to be a healing effect on his haunted friend.

Tanner hadn't missed the fact that, when Larabee would do something that could potentially damage their growing bond, Wilmington was always there to justify or simply explain the man to his new best friend.

Vin remembered when Hank, Chris' father-in-law, came to town. He couldn't understand how a man could turn his back on kin. Vin's own past hadn't given him much of a chance to defend family. That very fact made watching out for your own important to him. And there was Buck, quietly, sincerely explaining why Chris was acting the way he was, defending him with plain truths.

Once he had begun contemplating the situation, Tanner had no doubt that Buck's loyalty encompassed them all. The ex-lawman just distributed his presence between the group as he felt he was needed. Vin involuntarily glanced at JD when that thought wafted into his mind.

In a big family there were sure to be fights. And times you really didn't like a brother or what they did. But you always loved them and protected them and helped them through the rough times that had one at odds with the other. Buck had taught him that.

No, above and beyond the fact that losing Buck would be losing the glue that worked so hard to hold the group together, for Vin, personally, losing Buck would be losing laughter and a lighter way of looking at the world and a quiet insight that maybe the lanky gunfighter had only shared with Chris and JD ... and Vin.

And Ezra? Ezra was a Chinese puzzle. He'd seen one in the orphanage. Ezra was like him, afraid to warm up to another soul. Maybe there was some difference. Where Vin was afraid he would lose people he came to care about, he suspected that the conman was afraid they would disappoint him, abandon him when he needed them. It was sobering to realize that, with the events of last night, Chris and Nathan had come very close to justifying the Southerner's fears.

They had only gotten glimpses of the real Ezra Standish beneath the subterfuge and self-preservation. No, none of them yet had a true handle on exactly how much they would be losing if they lost Ezra. The tragedy would be if they found Ezra Standish alive and they still lost him. Because that would mean they had betrayed a friend and justified all of the enigmatic loner's opinions that he could never trust his fellow man.

"Vin!" JD's voice cut through his reverie. The boy had pulled up that little pony of his and was staring across the river.

Tanner followed the young sheriff's gaze and kicked himself for ten kinds of a fool. He'd been following track, thinking like the hunter, not the hunted.

The boy was pointing out a gray ghost surrounded by the heavy mist formed when the water hit the air. It was Buck's mare.

"JD, wait," Josiah was calling even as the boy was already inching his small bay encouragingly to take to the river.

Josiah didn't want the boy to get his hopes up. He hoped the boy would grieve, move on, let the good memories fight back the darkness, hate and vengeance that could grow out of this situation. He was afraid of what false hope would do to the boy.

Vin appreciated Josiah's insight and that he must be reacting from some painful, sad experiences.

But to hell with that.

With barely a touch to his raucous, crotchety gelding's flanks, man and beast were racing for the riverbank. Well used to the elements, they both felt little more than invigorated when they hit the frigid blue. Vin felt lighter, hopeful. They landed several feet into the flowing waters and pushed onward immediately. It was all the encouragement JD's Hero needed. They were right behind him.

On most occasions cooler heads would prevail. And experience would see the folly of crossing the water without at least looking for a safer route. But Josiah and Nathan both had demons much too close to the surface. And they chose to exorcise them in the holy waters of nature. Without a second thought, they urged their horses in after the two younger men.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee couldn't remember a time that he was ever glad to be walked into the enemy's camp at gunpoint. But if it meant they could rest ... they'd been walking a long time. Their captor hadn't rushed them, hadn't been malicious, but the pace had been steady.

What concerned him was that gradually he had found himself carrying most of Buck's weight. Buck was on automatic, one foot in front of the other, because his friend hadn't said they could stop yet. And he was quiet. There was none of the encouraging banter to reassure the gunfighter of his faith in their ability against any odds. All Larabee wanted right now was a chance to rest and find out what kind of injuries Buck had been hiding from him.

The coo of a mourning dove heralded their arrival. Chris hadn't seen the guard who faked the call to alert the camp to one of the own coming in.

Four men stood from around the campfire as Chris staggered in under the weight of his exhausted friend. Red dismounted to stand to Larabee's left as Jason led the others to confront him. Even the lookout, long rifle hitched casually on his hip, joined the group.

The kid, Kyte, walked over to be sure Red was okay. He was favoring his wounded hand; careful not to jostle it. From the corner of his eye Larabee saw the older man gently lift the injury and check it. The dark gunfighter refused to turn his eyes from the leader of the group, but just the movements to his right reminded him sharply of Buck tending to JD.

Chris focused his attention on the embittered young man and evaluated him again. This one had been raised with a gun in his hand, maybe not a lot of respect for human life, but he'd only become a killer out of revenge.

"Mike's dead," Red stated without emotion.

Fast as a snake's strike, Jason backhanded Larabee across the jaw. Trying to keep his balance, the peacekeeper put too much sudden weight on his injured leg and went down.

Red's grasp was nothing but supportive as he caught Wilmington to keep him from falling as well.

Larabee hadn't realized how out of it his friend was until the flurry of movement had him fighting weakly against what he recognized as unfamiliar hands. The men behind Jason moved in to help Red subdue the tall man.

Larabee, ignored the cocked .45 the young landowner aimed his way. The life in his intense eyes flashed clearer when he was protecting something or someone and turned them bright green. Chris scrambled to his feet and headed straight for his friend. "Hands off," he growled and lowered them both to the ground.

"Chris?" Buck asked, recognizing the voice and the touch.

"Hold on a minute, Big Guy," He turned to Jason. "You don't want to do this."

The other men sensed enough danger in the blonde to back off. Jason took a step forward. "Where's the gambler?"

Chris stared defiantly at the younger man.

But this one was more than just a fast gun and anger. He had been evaluating Larabee even as he himself had been studied. And whether he knew what he was seeing, or simply reading from personal perspective had him guessing right, this man understood Chris Larabee. And playing on that insight, he nodded for his men to go for Wilmington in response to Larabee's contempt.

"He's gone," the gunfighter's voice seemed to offer the information begrudgingly and as if he said it to protect Wilmington. Jason held up a hand to stall his men. "Took both our horses and ran out on us." Buck looked quickly at his partner. Did he believe that?

"After you saved him?" Kyte asked.

"He'd bet his sainted Ma in a poker game if it got him what he wanted." Chris was good at putting anger in his voice. He used that ability now. Wilmington bowed his head to hide his relief. Chris was pulling a bluff of his own.

"Why'd you come after him?" Jason asked suspiciously.

"You dragged a man out of town for a crime he'd been cleared of. My town."

Jason's eyes flickered to his brother in unspoken question.

"They didn't 'pear to get along," the younger Miller observed.

Jason seemed to evaluate the situation. He studied Larabee and Wilmington for any deception. Larabee looked angry. The other one just looked tired. He cast a glance at his foreman. <Damn> Buck thought. <That one's even more stingy with his words than Larabee.> And the humor, never far from Buck's personality began to resurface with that thought. And that smile, like nothing else, irritated Jason Miller.

"Didn't see Standish around," Red offered. "Me and Mike had split up."

Miller's eyes returned to his prisoners. "I've got three men dead at your hands." Things would have been over last night if not for these two. The gambler would be dead. He would be waiting to see if revenge satisfied could bring any peace back to his world. Instead he had buried two friends and had been pushed even further to the edge of sanity.

The peacekeeper with the dark hair might just be doing his job. But, to Jason Miller, it seemed that the notorious gunfighter was defying him. In a slight shift he barely recognized, Miller still blamed Standish for his brothers' deaths, but he hated Larabee.

The gambler represented vengeance. Chris Larabee mirrored the part of Jason's soul that would not rest; would not find peace. The rancher might even be doing the older blonde a favor to end his suffering. Without conscience thought, the elder Miller was looking down the front sights of his .45 at the man who he held responsible.

"Jason." Red's voice was firm. The look it got said that despite whatever the recent past had wrought, he still had the ear and the respect of the younger man. "Standish is one thing. You'll leave these men to the law."

"They are the law. And they ride with a murderer!"

"I'll not be party to murder. I'll not let you make Kyte party to it."

"Then let Standish be," Larabee demanded. The gunslinger was still on his knees beside Wilmington. Miller threw the heel of his boot into the blonde's solar plexus. Chris's back hit the ground with enough violence to knock the air out of him.

Wilmington pounced on the rancher faster than conscious thought would allow. He was grappling for the younger man's throat before beefy hands pulled him roughly off his target. Jason aimed the gun at Buck. Red stepped between them.

Two of the gunmen held Chris's arms securely. The third man had a death grip on Buck. Red stood between his boss and the two prisoners.

There was a battle going on between the older man and the younger one even though no further words were being spoken. Finally Jason Miller took a step back. "Mount up. We're wasting time that damned Southerner is using to get away from us." He turned flinty eyes back to the man who dared stand up to him. "You ain't got the stomach for what needs to be done, you watch these two." Then he gave orders to his other men. "Tie 'em up. I'll deal with them when I get back." He turned on his heel and moved to saddle his horse.

Kyte wavered between Red and his brother. There wasn't confusion. What he knew was right was battling what was expected of him. In the end, being what his brother wanted him to be led the young man to the horses.

The ranch hands grabbed Chris and Buck and dragged them along as they followed a pensive Red. He led them to the campfire and a two-foot high granite boulder there, shaded by a regal oak tree and surrounded by mouse hair fine grass. Taller, reedy grass and cattails separated the camp from the river. The others helped tie the hands and ankles of their prisoners then immediately went to saddle their horses and follow their leader.

Buck and Red both watched the boy mount up and follow his big brother. They both saw the time he almost looked back once and then stopped. Larabee paid no never mind to the kid. He was caught up watching the two men who stayed behind with him. The notorious gunman had no indication what Wilmington was seeing as this scene played out.

What Buck actually feared was that, in the end, JD would follow Chris and his anger and his gunslinger ways no matter what Buck tried to teach him. Just like Kyte followed Jason.

All Larabee saw was that Buck looked almost as concerned for the younger Miller as the foreman did. Larabee didn't understand that and didn't like it. And he didn't know whether he didn't like not understanding or it was the fact that Buck was so concerned that he didn't like.

Larabee understood on some basic level without examining it, that there were degrees of accountability for their situation. Some of their captors were more guilty than others. And it was Kyte as much as Red who seemed to have no stomach for what they were doing, but that didn't matter. These men, all of them, were a threat. They would all have to be dealt with as quickly and efficiently as possible to end the threat. These things didn't lay themselves out, step by step, to this conclusion for Larabee, they were just the conclusion. It bothered him that his old friend seemed to be seeing more to it than that.

The big foreman knelt before Larabee and leaned him forward enough to check the ropes that held his hands behind his back. The big man stayed where he was and finally added, "I saw those kids grow up." He spared a glance for Jason and Kyte. He mused pensively, "I saw what they were before ..." The older man seemed to stop himself and finally lumbered off.

The notorious gunfighter leaned his head back against the cool stone. "How the hell'd we get into this?"

"I'd rather figure how to get out of it." The tone of voice was so unfamiliar, it made Larabee open his eyes. He turned his head enough to see his old friend watching the man walking away with a curious expression. There was none of the usual humor or hope in the features.

"That's right. Otherwise you might have to try defending that damnable Southerner. What was he thinking, riding out like ..."

"No." Chris looked up at the emptiness in the word. Wilmington was still watching the foreman who tended to his appaloosa and arranged the camp. Then the eyes turned toward him. "What did you say to him? To Ezra."

"Don't try to put this off on me."

"Maybe you'd already said enough."

"People paid heed to my spoutin' off, you'd be long since gone." Larabee realized he had again spoken without thinking. The words were out before he realized there had been times when Buck had indeed left. He could tell that these were the dark-haired man's thoughts as well. Well, maybe this was time for that talk Larabee had promised himself he'd have with his oldest friend and clear the air.

"Kestrel said ..."

"Don't." Larabee was taken by surprise and angry to hear the name. It pushed any of the gentler thoughts of reconciliation out of his mind. "Don't cite anything that man said to me and give it credence."

"Said you meant the things you said. That I was too selfish and too 'needy'..." He almost choked on the word, " admit it." Larabee was startled by the words. How long was that man going to haunt them? Hazel eyes reflected a sudden concern. He had heard enough of what that man had said to his friend, he hadn't even thought what other words had been thrown at him. Few people beside Kestrel or Larabee himself would know enough to attack the easy-going rascal by challenging his friendships. What demons had Buck been carrying all this time?

It wasn't until he heard the voice again, of possibly his truest friend, that he realized that his stunned silence and introspection may have unintentionally added credibility to the words. "... said Nathan, Josiah, and the others tolerate me because you do and they're afraid to cross you. Said you keep me around like a bad habit."

Larabee wasn't good at words. He didn't know what to say. He tried logic. "You can't think that about JD."

The gunfighter seemed ... vulnerable ... was the word that came to Larabee's mind. And he realized how ill the man must be to be revealing these thoughts. "Clay said you're the boy's hero though. You 'discouraged him following you 'round like a puppy' was Clay's words. He knew you and me'd been close one time so I was second choice."

"And you think Nathan snipin' at you proved all that? Those few words he said?" He didn't mean to sound condescending, but he knew his friend well enough to know what had brought this on.

Buck was studying the other man hard, trying to determine what the question and tone of voice meant. "I'm sayin' it ain't fair for you to think Ezra's not gonna hear exactly what you say and not what he wishes you were sayin'." Then he abruptly changed the subject. "We gotta find Ezra, Pard."

"We're not through here." Larabee knew he hadn't said the right things to ease Buck's mind and so the man was going to move beyond the conversation. Not beyond the self-doubt, but beyond asking Larabee to deny it.

"He was hurt worse than he was lettin' on."

"Buck ..."

Then Red was back and stoking the fire. He ignored the prisoners but was within earshot. Buck shut down. Larabee knew this wasn't something he would share around anyone else.

"Buck," Larabee called to his friend. And this time he used a tone that offered no room to be ignored. And those midnight blue eyes, met his. "A man keeps bad habits because he likes having them."


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