Josiah sat quietly in the Church, the wind rattling the paned windows. Josiah sighed, his arm out-stretched on the pew. He closed his eyes raising his face up. "Lord-" He rumbled. The door banging open made Josiah start in surprise. "I know I was asking for a sign, but really!" Josiah chuckled, his teeth gleaming in his ruddy face.
Turning he was surprised by the large encompassing form of Nathan. "Josiah," Nathan bit out, snaring Josiah's arm in a hard grip. "What was the point of that little scene?"
Josiah looked up at Nathan for a long moment, before pulling his arm out of the rough hold. "Ezra's a stubborn S.O.B sometimes. I thought it was time he looked beyond himself to those around him."
Nathan glared at him aghast. "You don't think that's what he's been doing so far? What he's just gonna say, "Yes sir, my mama's lied to me again... I am fine with that!"
Buck's chuckle from the doorway, made the men turn to him in surprise. "Thought I was needed," he clarified, leaning against the doorjamb, effectively blocking the exit as Josiah had just done to Ezra.
"Well, that ain't it at all. Ya did more harm than good."
"Fine," Josiah answered, his baritone deepening with his clipped tone. "Ya want a scapegoat for ya pain, I'll be it."
Nathan stormed up to the preacher then, his face inches away from the older man. "Ya just don't get it do you! For a man with a way with words, ya sure put your foot in it again."
Josiah began to shake his head stepping back. "All I said... Oh lord forgive me," he murmured.
Nathan nodded, "He probably will, but I think Ezra needs an apology."
Josiah sat down heavily on the pew staring at Nathan in shock. "I wasn't thinking... Maude had said that he'd ordered her to leave and I guess maybe I lost it... then there was Kate," he explained, his eyes cutting to the presence of the ladies man in the doorway.
Buck looked hard at Josiah before shaking his head sadly. "There's enough going on Josiah, without you adding to it," he remonstrated, Nathan nodded and without a word the two men were gone.
Buck walked silently beside Nathan for a moment as he pulled out his hand watch. Two p.m. Maude Standish walked past smiling at the two men demurely. Buck stopped and falling in to step he smiled at the Southern belle. "Using Josiah as your go between now?" He asked innocently before enlightening her on the preacher's recent activities. Maude stared at him for a long moment, her eyes narrowing with fury.
Maude stormed into the Church her eyes glancing around before finally resting on the remorseful man. "How dare you!" She spat out furiously. "How dare you! You stupid fool," she ranted, slapping the man hard on the face. "That's for Ezra."
And marching out she left a stunned Josiah behind her. "Lord have mercy." He breathed out quietly.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan didn't look at the other men as he re-entered into the saloon. Part of him felt bad for the gambler, but he had done all he could. He never wanted to make that same mistake again. He knew his actions would forever haunt him as he knew they haunted the con man. His eyes met the emerald green eyes briefly and he registered the concern there for him. And he marvelled at the man's capacity to just push his own problems aside.
But, it also served as a reminder of why they were concerned and he felt his heart drop to his stomach as he realised that for a couple of minutes he forgot what had made his world stop.
Taking the whisky bottle from the barkeeper he sank down at the corner table. He just wanted to be alone. He wanted to forget, he saw the K carved into the table and he traced it with his fingers unseeingly, some bastard had cut his woman, and killed her.
+ + + + + + +
There was a dead silence as all the men stared at Ezra in astonishment. "That is what he told me this morning," he confirmed to all their unanswered questions.
"Damn," Vin declared quietly. His blue eyes straying to the lonely figure of the healer.
Buck knocked open the wooden doors and sat down with the other men. He raised an eyebrow questioningly at his friends. "So?"
Vin shook his head, folding his cards over. "Nathan's quitting healing."
Buck gulped swivelling in the wooden chair to stare at the grief stricken man. "Really?" He asked, his eyes swinging to Vin's, wishing it wasn't true. But one look and he could read the truth in Vin's expression.
Chris nodded in confirmation. He twirled the shot glass in his hands. "It's only been a couple of days."
Ezra rubbed his chin for a moment. "Indeed, but I believe the sentiments expressed were truthful. He honestly believes it will do no good if continues to partake in that line of work."
Chris looked long and hard at the gambler, before his own eyes were drawn to Nathan. "I was hoping that this wouldn't happen," he declared softly.
JD sighed, rubbing his eyes tiredly. Buck was right, this day could get worse. "What can we do?"
Ezra shook his head. "Nothing. We can do nothing for him."
"We just have to wait," Chris agreed, lighting up a cheroot.
Buck stood unobtrusively as the other men all recovered from this news. He mimed that he was getting a drink. Making his way to the bar he changed his mind after remembering Josiah's hint at a discussion with Kate. From the looks of things the bounty hunter had hit him with some hard truths. He glanced over at the table they were quietly discussing something, probably Keppel. Buck rubbed his brow tiredly, as he made his way through the swarm of bodies, never noticing the red-haired man who followed his exit.
Vin raised an eyebrow in agreement. He pondered the sudden absence of Buck and hoped the man was okay. Chris was right, he and JD had laid a lot on him in a short period. He shook his head clearing his thoughts when his eyes lighted upon the handkerchief. He toyed with the handkerchief. "Probably help Nathan some if we find the bastard that killed Rain."
There were murmurs of agreements and the men fell silent as they pondered how to help a man that was refusing to be helped.
"What are we going to do about Keppel?" JD asked finally into the silence.
"We do what we're paid to, JD," Chris answered cryptically. A plan forming in his mind.
"Vin?" He asked, "You said he likes to play...well maybe we can draw him out."
Ezra's eyes snapped up from the cards he had been shuffling. "What do you have in mind?"
Chris grinned. "Its' just an idea..."
+ + + + + + +
Kate rested her head in her hands. Just talking about Mady hurt. Why had she come here, she felt so tired. Why couldn't she have a family like Mary?
"You okay, Kate?" Came the lazy drawl that made her stomach do flip-flops.
Her head sprang up and she smiled tremulously at the man who hurried to her side.
"Honey?" Buck whispered gently touching her face, feeling the slight flinch.
"Just got to thinking about things," she smiled half-heartedly.
"Wanna tell ol' Buck?" Wilmington asked sitting in the chair opposite her, giving Kate the space she needed.
"Don't know what to say."
"Say what you feel," he said quietly, blue eyes watching the watery blue eyes look away. He'd wait; he'd wait forever for her to trust him, he realised suddenly.
"I could love you, Buck," she whispered, looking down at her hands that rested on the table.
Buck covered her hands with his as he smiled tenderly at her; no words were needed. They sat in silence taking the comfort in that knowledge. Neither heard the sound of the back door of the Clarion being opened as Keppel made his way inside, knife hanging by his side. 'Let the games begin' He thought as he saw the two figures sitting at the table.
+ + + + + + +
Palmer observed the widow with a burning intensity. Mary saddled her mare reassuring the horse when she stamped a little on the ground. Palmer watched the widow's hands as they moved. 'She was so graceful'. He thought absently. 'She will be mine. Chris Larabee don't deserve her.'
Mary paused in her action of tightening the cinch. She felt the eyes again, but this time it was different, it felt... she shivered her skin crawling. Mary smiled slightly to herself. "Jumping at shadows," she laughed quietly to herself.
"Nothing wrong with that." Ian said, leaning against the stable doorway. Mary turned. letting out a gasp of fright.
"Oh Mr Palmer. You startled me."
Ian smiled at Mary and she unconsciously stepped back. The smile twisted turning into a leer and Mary grimaced in distaste.
"Ladies don't go riding alone," Ian said softly, his fingertips trailing along the wood wall his eyes flashed to hers. "And you are lady, Mrs Travis..." He was silent for a moment walking the periphery of the stable before once again blocking her exit. Mary watched him warily. "Mary, may I call you that?" He said suddenly, his voice raw in the silence.
Mary frowned, wondering where this was leading. "Why are you here?" She asked more harshly than she'd intended. She wondered if the fear that was gradually spreading through her was obvious.
"I came to see you, Mary," he whispered stepping forward abruptly, causing Mary to step back into her horse. She steadied the animal with her hand trying to inch her way to the exit.
"Why?" One word and the man laughed. Mary smiled uncertainly, 'what was so funny. Nearly there.' She thought her ice blue eyes flying to the doorway. She was unprepared for Ian Palmer's next words.
"Because you will be mine," he said, reaching out suddenly and grabbing her pulling her tightly towards him. Mary struggled, and he laughed again. "You know you want it," he whispered.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah paused in the saloon doorway; he could just make out Buck entering into the Clarion office. His mind shied away from the harsh words spoken between him and the lady bounty hunter. He wondered why her words cut so deep. Turning away he pushed through the throng of people in the saloon, he paused wondering if he should join his comrades. His hand shifted to rub at his cheek absently from the slap from the con woman.
He didn't have much choice in the end as Tanner caught his arm and steered him towards the table, with the bottle of whisky he had just acquired.
"Josiah," Larabee greeted his eyes drifting over the crowded saloon he wanted talk to his men. But, this place was filling up and he really didn't need these folk anymore scared than they already were.
"Where's Buck?" JD questioned, hazel eyes looking around for the ladies man.
"With...," Josiah paused unsure if he should voice this truth his eyes resting on the gambler who avoided his gaze, hands constantly shuffling the cards.
"Kate," Tanner supplied leaning back against the wall, bottle still in hand as he too surveyed the current surroundings.
"Yes," Sanchez breathed.
JD was aware that almost everyone's eyes rested on him, but he didn't flinch and he was proud when Ezra whispered so softly only he could hear. "Well done, Mr Dunne," and he met the green eyes taking the understanding and support there and accepting it.
"All right Boys, lets head to the sheriff's office," Larabee drawled rising to his feet, and herding the boys out onto the saloon porch.
Watching as JD hurried over to help one of the gunslingers, as they were about to lose their box of goods that they had just bought from the general store.
The other men waited for their kid brother. Josiah's eyes were fixed on the gambler who stood next to Vin, eyes gazing steadily out into the street. Out of the corner of his eyes Josiah caught sight of Maude watching them and he sighed heavily. God he prayed that things would settle down soon.
+ + + + + + +
The brown skirt tangled around Mary's legs as she tried to flee her assailant who grasped tightly by her wrists. "Come on now, pretty lady," Ian Palmer whispered, pulling her close and whispering lecherously in her ear. "I got a nice surprise for ya."
Mary pulled back, twisting her hands from his grasp and trying to run out of the livery. He pushed her, so her body slammed hard against the livery door.
The scream tore from her throat with no conscious awareness from her. The man turned her roughly around, making her head ricochet back against the wood. Mary slumped dazed. Palmer laughed licking her neck. "Now that's more like it."
+ + + + + + +
Five heads whipped up trying to categorise the sound. "Came from the livery." Vin said. Chris nodded and quickly stepped out into the rain, jogging towards the Livery.
JD frowned. "I saw Mary go in there, Chris," he said remembering how Mary had smiled and waved at him before he had joined the other men in front of the Saloon.
Chris's only acknowledgment of this statement was to run faster towards the livery. He motioned for Josiah, JD and Ezra to head round the back, when they reached the older building.
+ + + + + + +
Buck threw Kate behind him trying to protect her with his body. The glass bottle shattered against the wall, shards of it embedding itself in the surface with the force of the blow. Thomas grinned, twirling the knife in his hands. "You think you can best me... Whore boy?" Then he laughed as Buck flinched.
"Get out of here Kate, run," Buck urged, his blue eyes meeting hers.
Kate shook her head. "I ain't leaving you, Buck."
Thomas laughed again, before darting forward and punching the ladies man in the stomach. Buck doubled over gasping for breath. "Ain't love grand."
Buck didn't answer, glaring at him as he attempted to stand. The steel tipped boot, kicked Buck hard on the chest, causing him to go down.
Kate choked back a scream as Keppel turned on her. Throwing the slight woman against the wall. The bounty hunter slumped to the ground dazed and unmoving.
Buck growled launching himself at Keppel whom used the blunt end of the knife to whack the tall man on the back near his kidneys. Buck groaned at the pain, but fought on. "You're not going to win this one." Thomas ground out quietly, his red hair reflecting the unholy glint in his eyes.
The ring of fire that began in his side halted any reply. It was spreading across his front. Buck didn't have to see the blade, to know what had occurred. He fell forward slumped on the ground. He struggled to stand, but a sharp kick in his rib forced him down again. Kate's whimper of loss, matched Buck's as he met her eyes.
Kate grappled against the grip on her arms, trying to reach Buck. "No," she whispered. Thomas chuckled again and Kate turned, spitting at him, Thomas gazed at Kate a moment, before back handing her so hard she was thrown against the table. "I was interrupted once. I won't be again," he said, yanking her out to his waiting horses.
Buck's eyes flew open at that, a bloody hand reaching out trying to grope on to something to help him stand. The blood made his hand slippery and he fell back. There was nothing he could do.
+ + + + + + +
Vin's eyes flashed to Chris where they both heard Mary's voice ring loud and true through the wooden facade. "You're not gonna get away this," she said determined to fight to the last.
Mary kneed Palmer and pushed him hard away from her. He kicked out a leg as she scrambled past. Her skirts, a burden and hindrance in her attempt to escape. "Let me go," she yelled, as he once again loomed over her.
"Not a chance," Palmer replied hurling her up, and slapping her face. "That's for kneeing me, you bitch," he hissed, the stale breath making Mary gag.
She rocked back as he mounted his horse.
"Now that's no way to treat a lady," Chris said from the doorway. The man started reaching for his gun.
"Now I don't think you want do that, brother," Josiah admonished, his gun trained on the man who glared at him. JD smiled from the loft of the livery. This guy wasn't getting out of here.
"Let the woman go, Ian," Chris ordered, stepping forward, his gun never wavering.
"Fine, you want her so bad take her? Ain't got a use for her anyway," he laughed, kicking his heels into the russet coloured mare. The mare started forward, and Mary stumbled to the ground as he threw her back away from him. Chris allowed the horse to pass, just as it reached the entrance. JD jumped pulling the guy from his saddle the two men rolled over each fighting for control. A large foot on the man's back stopped him from stabbing JD. Who threw a glance at Josiah in welcome thanks.
"You okay, Mary?" Chris asked gently, crouching down and helping her stand.
Mary nodded. Her eyes wide with fear. She thanked them all with a look before Chris enfolded the shaken woman in his arms. Mary melted into the embrace. "I thought-" She began and stopped, when Chris gently kissed her brow.
"Its okay, Mary. I would never let anything happen," he reassured softly, raising her chin with his forefinger so he could look in her eyes. The tears on her cheeks made him wince internally and he thanked god that they had gotten there just in time. "Come on, let's get you home."
Ezra stopped in the entrance to the livery, the wind and splatter of rain whirling around him. His green eyes took in the huddled form of Mary Travis held protectively by Chris, the horse that JD was trying to calm down and it all came together. The man that Josiah was restraining with a foot on his chest. It was too easy. Way too easy. The man was too calm. "Where's, Buck?" Ezra bellowed in the thickening wind, before running desperately towards the Clarion, pulling out his gun as he ran. God he hoped he wasn't too late.
Vin close on his heels. Reaching the wooden door, they slammed it open and stared.
The remnants of a violent struggle echoed around the room. It was then the two men saw the legs, the rest of the body was hidden.
Both men moved forward urgently. The shattered glass on the ground told a tale that neither man wanted to acknowledge.
Buck gasped for breath and fought the pain in his side. He couldn't move through the lancing pain, but he had too. Kate was gone. Keppel had taken her and he had failed. The room was fading in out, he reached out a trembling hand to his side and placed it there trying to staunch the flow. The blood flowed warm over his fingers and he tried to chuckle before it was lost in the attempt to breathe. He didn't know if that was a good sign or not. Probably not. He thought as he saw two shadows appear above him.
Ezra and Vin stared down at him shock, Buck lay on his back, barely moving, but it was the blood that made them swallow in shock. The shirt was saturated and it was still soaking up the blood. "Kate? He took Kate," Buck muttered, trying to push himself up.
"Easy there, Buckley," Vin soothed squatting down beside the ladies man placing a gentle hand on his stomach trying to ease Buck's struggle to get up. "You'll be fine."
"You're a hell've a liar Vin," Buck gasped, before his eyes rolled up in his head and everything faded away.
"Buck?" Ezra questioned, tapping the man's face to get a response. "He's out," he said looking at Vin.
Vin gingerly opened the shirt and gasped, the knife wound was deep and the bruises on his chest, suggested cracked ribs. But Vin wasn't a healer and he looked at Ezra who nodded.
"I'll find Nathan."
"Oh my god," JD cried, his brown eyes fearful and betrayed. JD knelt beside Buck as Ezra moved out onto the porch. "He won't die will he?"
"Don't know," Vin answered truthfully, his blue eyes dilated with fear. He pressed down on the wound on Buck's side trying desperately to stop the bleeding. There was so much blood.
"Don't die Buck, please don't die," JD whispered stroking Buck's pallid face.
Both men jumped at the sound of Ezra shouting desperately for Nathan. Chris was suddenly there his face white with shock. "He's not-"
"Not yet," Vin answered, still pressing on the wound. "Where's Nathan? He's gonna die if we don't get him some help."
"He won't come," Ezra said quietly, reappearing in the doorway, water dripping from his clothes. It was raining. He crouched down beside the fallen man, pinching his brow. "Gave no reason."
"What!" Chris said incredulously. "Where is he?" His eyes cloudy with fury. "We just got him back; I ain't losing Buck today."
Ezra nodded at the comment. "Nathan's in the Saloon."
Chris nodded before whirling around and striding out. What the hell was wrong with him? Buck was dying and all he could think about was his own grief.
Mary moved forward ripping her skirt as she moved forward. "Vin? Let's move him to the Clinic." Placing the material over the wound, she formed a tight bandage.
Slowly they raised him up, Buck's head lolled back. Each of them chose to ignore the puddle of blood on the floor. "He has to be all right," JD murmured a constant litany of remorse. "I knew this would happen," he said quietly, drawing a sharp look from Mary as she walked past.
+ + + + + + +
Chris strode into the Saloon, his eyes darkening at the sight of Nathan drinking sullenly in the corner. For the second time in as many weeks Nathan was slammed against the wall. Chris pulled him up by his lapels. The bottle spilled the amber liquid flowing over the table, while the chair clattered to the floor. Nathan glared at Chris. "Ain't a man allowed to drink?" He asked, knowing full well why Chris was here.
"What's the matter with you? You got a chance to save a man's life and you're sitting here thinking about your own guilt. Is that what Rain would want? IS it?" Chris hissed, rocking the man against the wooden wall again for emphasis.
Nathan hung his head. "No I guess not, but I can't go up there, Chris."
"Save it," Chris said, letting go and turning away. "Buck's dying while we wait here for you to make up your mind. So I'm gonna spend some time with him before he goes," he said, before replacing the hat that had fallen back from his brow when he had accosted Nathan.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan opened the clinic door slowly and then froze. Buck lay on the bed, a still immobile figure. But it wasn't Buck that he saw, but the image of Rain. Shaking his head, he closed the door with a thud. The men were silent, as he moved forward. The blood on the bandage a testament to how deep an injury it was. "Okay. I want everyone out. Josiah I am gonna need your help. Mary? Can you help me here? I need you to brew some of that mixture--"
Mary nodded, "I know the one," she interjected, giving a wan smile at Nathan's look of surprise. "We've done this before," she reminded. Moving over to the cabinet she suddenly realised that her hands were trembling. Her face still stung and her dress was a mess.
"You okay, Mary?" Chris asked softly, helping her gather the ingredients.
"Fine," Mary retorted shortly, before running a hand over her face. Chris rubbed the small of her back reassuringly. She bowed her head sighing. "How are you doing?"
"I'll be fine when I know Buck's gonna be okay," he returned, his eyes straying to the bloody figure of his old friend. "He's a fighter though," he added, wondering absently if he was trying to reassure Mary or himself.
"Looks like some cracked ribs. Maybe a concussion, but we gotta stop this bleeding."
Nathan murmured categorising the injuries, while pulling at the bandage gently. It was a slice all right. God, he hoped he wasn't too late.
"Pass me that needle Josiah, and pass me that bottle of whisky we got sterilise everything then sew him up," he said beginning to dab at the wound with the alcohol.
Buck struggled sluggishly against the pain, not quite conscious but still aware none the less.
"Easy Buck. You'll be fine," Nathan soothed. "Josiah, hold him down. This is gonna hurt him," he said placing the wad of alcohol over the wound and holding it there. Buck grunted hoarsely, his head pressing back against the bed as he kicked out violently against the pain.
Chris moved swiftly over trying to pacify his friend somewhat. Josiah grunted a thanks to the help, while Nathan's hand moved swiftly to begin their work.
"Kate... he took Kate," Buck murmured heedless of his surroundings, trying to get up out of the bed. The three men exchanged a look. Josiah sighed pressing his shoulders, Buck was too weak too fight him.
"What'd you say, Buck?" Chris asked urgently. "Who took Kate?" He urged, wiping the beads of sweat from his brow. Buck opened his eyes for one lucid moment.
"Keppel." The word barely above a whisper.
Chris swore darkly and fluidly, striding out to where the others were waiting impatiently for news.
"Well?" Ezra asked, a strain of fear in his voice.
"Can't say yet. It don't look good," Chris said quietly, trying to ignore the change in atmosphere around him. He felt rather than saw their shoulders slump with grief. He sighed. "But it looks like Keppel took Kate."
"So Mary's kidnapping was a ruse," Ezra stated, tapping his foot impatiently.
"Its gonna be hard tracking them in this rain," Vin said staring at the darkening clouds on the horizon.
+ + + + + + +
"Watch your backs," Nathan called after the five men as they rode down the main street.
Ezra tipped his hat at the healer and Mary who stood just behind the black man. Their faces wearing identical expressions of grief and sorrow. "Take care," he returned. The other men nodded in agreement.
It happened so suddenly that they hadn't even managed to reach the edge of the growing town. Chris's horse gave a strangled, horrible sound and the horse folded underneath its rider. Larabee pulled clear of the stirrups, diving to the left as the four other men circled around him, guns drawn, straining to see where the gunshot had come from. Each man trying to ignore the hissing cries of the horse and focus on their task.
The blonde man held is left knee as he crawled over to his horse, which was breathing hard. Its eyes roved wildly before it breathed its last shuddering breath. Chris felt grief tear at his heart; he had ridden this horse since Sarah had died. He rested a trembling hand over the beautiful black mare's head.
He raised grief stricken eyes to his friends who were all watching him concerned. None of them heard the sound of John the stable hand riding up. Five guns met the man as he dismounted, striding towards the dead horse.
"I got him," he said for the benefits of all of them, his eyes dark. Each man knew this hurt John badly. He loved all their horses, loved them like his children. He knelt down beside the animal, his hand resting on its flank. "I got him," he repeated stroking the animal softly.
"Who?" Larabee's hollow eyes turning back to the animal that had served him so well... so many times.
"Palmer," John answered.
"How?" JD questioned, his voice tight with anger at the bastard who could destroy an animal so heartlessly.
"Apparently, he can pick locks," he said sadly, before his eyes turned dark. I followed him, but I fired too late," he said sorrowfully.
The men were silent for a moment before Ezra finally cleared his throat, looking about them. "We need to get going," he said, eyes meeting his leader's. Vin concurred with a slight duck of his head.
"You boys go ahead, get this bastard. I can't ride," Chris ordered painfully as John helped him to his feet.
Josiah nodded. "We'll get him... he's gonna wish we hadn't found him, but we will." His voice holding a promise of death, and the other men felt a chill creep over their skin at the words.
Chris nodded slowly, his gaze resting on each of the men before him. "Get the bastard."
Each of them tipped their hats in a silent salute to Chris before wheeling their horses around and riding after the disappearing tracks.
Chris eyed them for a moment before his gaze returned to the black horse that lay before him. Bowing his head, he hardly felt the tears that slipped down his cheeks. This was wrong, it was just so wrong.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan squeezed out the old rag from the shallow bowl that lay on the bedside table beside the sick bed. He reached forward stroking Buck's brow with it. The ladies man moved away from the touch, almost flinching from the contact. Nathan gently placed the back of his palm against Buck's cheek checking for fever. Warmer than usual. Damn.
"Nathan," Mary asked quietly. "How is he?"
Nathan sighed, seating himself down on the chair beside the bed. "Not good, Mary. If I'd got there sooner... I just don't know."
Mary raised a hand. "Hush, Nathan. No one blames you." She reached out covering his hand with hers, wincing when the bruises on her wrist brushed against the side table.
Nathan frowned, "I never did check you over Mary, after-"
"I am fine. I've been through worse," she paused suddenly, her azure eyes suddenly piercing in their clarity; she tightened her grip on Nathan's hand. "Why would they shoot that animal? I've seen some bad things... God knows all of us have. More than I'd ever like to see again-"
Nathan shrugged his shoulders, hunching forward to wipe Buck's brow again. The ladies man recoiled from the contact, shifting away from the hand. Nathan sighed, leaving the cloth on the injured man's forehead. They had to get his fever down. He'd lost enough blood as it was, he couldn't be fighting fever as well.
"It's a shame all right. Palmer died too quick for my liking, should've hanged for killing Chris's horse and nearly ra..," he paused, the unfinished words hanging clearly between them. Nathan patted Mary's shoulders gently as she ducked her head avoiding his eyes.
Palmer had nearly succeeded in raping her. The thought terrified Mary all of sudden. She stood, moving away from the bed and moved near the window that overlooked the street. The horse was gone now, only the bloodstain remained, and even that would be gone soon. Palmer. Her fist clenched and she jumped, nearly letting out a scream when she felt a hand on her shoulders. Turning terrified eyes to the person, she let out a gasp of relief. "Chris." Her eyes filled and without a word Chris nodded, wrapping his arms around the small woman. "I'm so sorry."
Chris stroked her hair. "I know Mary."
Nathan watched the two for a moment, his gaze drawn to the unspoken love between them. His heart clenched, and all he could see and feel was Rain in his arms. Rain who was gone forever.
Buck moaned, reaching out desperately for Kate's hand as she slowly shook her head. "Kate," Buck whispered, but no it wasn't Kate it was Ezra, then the figure flickered to be replaced by Chris... Sarah. Flames... Then a fist beat him down, and he moaned again, thrashing against the pillow. "No!" He grunted.
Nathan stood leaning over Buck. "Easy there. Easy." He rested his hands on his shoulders trying to stop the man from moving and causing himself more damage. "Chris." But he was already there, leaning over and whispering words of assurance to the distraught ladies man.
"Killed Sarah's horse," Buck muttered, shaking his head and trying to push against the arms that held him. Chris's eyes closed in pain and Nathan gasped. Mary reached out a trembling hand and wiped the feverish brow. "Sorry, my fault... my fault," he murmured his eyes opening and catching a hold of his old friend's. "Ain't gonna be good enough, shoulda-"
Chris shook his head. "Stay with us Buck, don't go," he whispered quietly at his words. "I need you, remember? I can't lose you as well," his voice caught.
Buck closed his eyes, his struggles weakening. "Tired," he murmured. "Fowler," he said suddenly, his struggles renewing briefly. "Gotta find Fowler." Chris flinched at the name and Mary gasped. Nathan shook his head.
"It's the fever talking. Gotta sweat it out of him, otherwise..," he murmured, pushing the fighting man down.
Buck groaned again. Feeling the hands hold him down. He felt the dust on his face as he was pushed face down into the dirt. -Ain't good enough- Bastard- Whore Boy-
"Am good enough," he whispered, opening tortured eyes to three figures around him. "Not no good?" He asked more fearful of it not to be true than ever.
Chris leant forward brushing the hair off Buck's brow. "That's right, Buck. You're good enough. Remember that; stay with us. Come on Buck, fight," he urged, grasping his hand and clenching it for emphasis. "Fight for your family."
Buck blinked blearily once, his eyes trying to focus on his surroundings, but the pain was too much. "Sorry," he whispered, closing his eyes.
"He's out, Chris," Nathan said, rising and moving away from the bed to the bench that held his medicines. "Gotta get that fever down."
Chris acknowledged his words only half-heartedly, his eyes on the hand still clasped in his. Brothers.
Mary turned away from the bed, uncaring of the tears that cascaded down her cheeks. Walking over to Nathan, she smiled slightly. "What do you need me to do?"
Nathan glanced at the widow tiredly for a long moment. "It would be good if you got us some food."
Mary nodded once. Crossing her arms in front of her chest, she made her way out of the clinic. It was irrational she knew, but she felt a small measure of fear walking out of the room. 'Don't be silly.' She remonstrated herself. 'Those men need you strong.' And with that thought echoing in her head, she made way to the Clarion to get the left over food she had from last night's dinner. Just heat on the stove, then come back. Shouldn't take too long, then come back. She reassured herself as she walked into the Clarion. She stood silently for a moment, taking in the mess that was her kitchen. Closing the door quietly, she made her way to the hotel, trying desperately not to shake.
Chris stood awkwardly, his knee protesting against the action. Glancing down at Buck, he could see that the ladies man looked in pain even in his sleep. He sighed, rubbing his face tiredly. Pulling up the blankets, he saw Nathan nod approvingly. "Only way I figure he is gonna sweat it out."
Nathan nodded, mulching the mixture before adding some hot water. "Yeah, this brew should help some. Truth be told Chris. If I had made it here sooner."
"Nathan," Chris began, then thought better of it as he sat himself down in a chair.
Buck moaned, and Chris reached and rested a hand on the man's arm. "Shoosh, easy. You're fine." Buck relaxed a little, his breath wheezing slightly. Green eyes swung to the would be healer. "He gonna make it?"
Nathan bowed his head for a long moment. Chris sighed, wiping a hand over his face. No answer was more than enough. "I don't know," Nathan said finally.
Mary walked in then and both men tried to hide the bleakness of the situation from the widow. It was useless really, her mind was too sharp not to realise how serious this situation was, but it made Chris feel like he was protecting her and that was all that mattered at the moment.
Chris watched the rise and fall of Buck's chest, wishing to God that there was a way he could have ridden after Keppel. The bastard deserved to die.
Mary knelt down beside Chris next to the bed, and reached out to hold Buck's hand. Chris raised a hand and placed it on her shoulders while the other reached forward to cover the hand that held Buck's. "Fight." Chris whispered, his eyes filling with tears. "Fight... please."
+ + + + + + +
The men rode in silence; only the gentle thudding of the hooves on the damp ground breaking it. Vin glanced around and reining in his mount, he eased off his horse, kneeling down to study the ground, searching for a sign or mark of Keppel's passing.
The others watched him silently; the tension between them was nearly palpable. Ezra glanced around him pensively wondering if Buck or Kate were still alive.
Vin eased himself to a standing position. Brushing his horse's forehead, he glanced at the four men in front of him. "I gotta feeling I know what Keppel's doing, but we ain't gonna win if we all go together."
JD frowned. "You think he's playing with us."
"Absolutely, no question," Ezra responded dryly, his green eyes flicking towards Josiah who remained silent. It appeared to the gambler that the preacher was afraid to speak, lest he cause more harm than good.
Vin nodded. "Oh, he's toying with us. I just keeping thinking that he took Kate as pay back for interrupting him with Rain," he sighed, wiping at the mist of water that now coated his face. Glancing up at the sky, the wind was getting up and the rain was going to come down heavier than before.
JD leant down checking his saddle, before glancing at the men around him. "You reckon he'd set up more traps like that trial thing this morning?"
Vin waited, glancing about him before answering. "Maybe. But he's runnin' at the moment. He may not have the time."
"Let's pray that's true," Ezra said, as Vin mounted up. He thought he saw Josiah nod slightly at the words and frowned. Josiah's words still stung, he had never seen the big man quite so infuriated before, it was knee-jerk reaction he was sure, but to what? What demons was that man facing that he wished to hide from everybody? The gambler rubbed his brow tiredly, at the moment he didn't really care.
Vin eased his horse into a canter, leaning down smoothly to avoid a branch. The other men couldn't help but marvel at his skill. Abruptly he reined in his horse, holding a hand for the others to halt. There was something wrong about the trees ahead. Dismounting, he picked up a branch like he had this morning. "Stay here," he ordered.
JD saw Josiah start forward and reached over to restrain him with a hand. "Don't distract him."'
Ezra hid a smirk at the preacher's look of discomfort at being ordered by JD.
Vin moved cautiously forward. The branches. Tapping one with his stick, he threw himself down as a branch swung out, rolling forward he dived to the left moving away from a trap to his right. It snapped shut with a sickening thud.
He paused squatting on the ground, his eyes flying over the little clearing. Vin knew this game, he had done it once before. Once before when he had been tracking Keppel. Standing, he untied his bandanna and used it to tie a rock to the end of the stick, before reaching into his jacket coat he used the other one to wrap around the end so he had a firm old on the stick.
Taking a deep breath, Vin began the dance. The clearing came alive in the twilight light.
Ezra nearly started forward in a move similar to Josiah's, but JD held a hand out. "He can handle it," he murmured quietly.
Left to the tree, ducking beneath the branch as it swung out, tapping the trap, moving to the right he repeated the gesture, while Vin grabbed a tree branch and swung over another trap, as it snapped shut.
Leaping down, Vin began a swirl of moves that made him duck and weave his way across the clearing. The traps were snapping shut and the sound of the branches ripping out roared in his ears as he moved fluidly through the maze of traps that Keppel had left.
He rolled forward on the ground, before leaping to his feet and vaulting over a trap, using the stick it snapped shut around the stick. Yet Vin pulled it out cleanly. Swirling the stick out to the right so that it a caught the vine that held the branch, causing it to swing out.
The shower of leaves over the ground made Vin realise he was coming to the end of Keppel's test. In one last graceful dance, he wheeled around tapping one that lay in the middle of the pathway, as he leapt over it, pivoting, he knelt down and a quick double tap to the far left and right, brought two clanks as two more snapped shut.
Standing slowly, Vin turned, breathing hard. It was done. He ignored the others for a moment as he squatted down to study the ground, realising that Keppel had indeed come this way.
Vin frowned, wondering when the man could have set up this test. He sighed, Keppel had been planning this for sometime he realised. Vin stood, finally glancing over to the other men, he saw JD look at the men with a grin. "See, that's what he did this morning."
Ezra looked at Vin, a new veil of respect shining in his eyes. "That was..."
Josiah's rumbled voice interrupted him the first since leaving the town. "_Amazing_ Brother."
Vin grinned, breathing hard. He looked around; the traps were all broken. "It's clean. Lead the horses around in a weaving pattern."
The men nodded, following his exact orders. Ezra leading Vin's horse behind him.
+ + + + + + +
The snapping sounds of the traps echoed to the pair as they rode along the path.
Keppel gave a laugh, this man was almost as good as a bounty hunter that had tracked him years ago. He would have known if the trap had got the man.
Kate felt the tears stream done her cheeks. Buck was dead. She'd killed another person. They were all right. She was bad luck; 'Killer Kate'.
"How you doing, pretty lady?" she felt the knife dig into her side, and closing her eyes she prayed that the horse didn't stumble.
"You an' me are gonna have a lot of fun," he said as the knife stroked her cheek now. She struggled against the rawhide that bit into her wrists.
She felt his arms suddenly snake around her neck, and she gasped trying to breathe.
"None of that," Keppel warned darkly, as they continued on their way, rain dampening the long dress, and she wondered again why she had ever given up the bounty gear she had worn. At least then she would stand a chance.
+ + + + + + +
The man slid off his saddle peering at the wet tracks that the rain hadn't been able to wash away yet.
"He's got maybe an hour lead; think he's going to the place that he killed Rain," he drawled, rising to his feet looking at his friends, blue eyes meeting green seeing that the gambler was staring intently at him.
"Perhaps Mr Tanner, it would be best if we divide our resources then," Ezra drawled slowly, as he looked intently down to his left.
"Yeah, maybe," Vin agreed as he swung into saddle, noticing the anger and worry that crossed Josiah's face as he heard the gambler's words.
"I don't think that would be wise," Sanchez muttered.
Tanner caught the slight stiffening of Standish's posture as he tightened the grip on his reins.
" I believe Mr Sanchez, that it would be prudent that we don't debate the matter too long," Ezra drawled, eyes never looking at the preacher, who winced at the animosity that underscored the Southerner's voice.
The bounty hunter just wished that they had time to deal with this problem, but they didn't; they had a killer to catch, and the sooner they did, the sooner they could get back to town.
"I'll keep on this path, he wants me to follow..." blue eyes suddenly distant; he would get him this time.
"We shall go around, and perhaps we will be fortunate in that Mr Keppel will be unable to sense our presence," Standish drawled, reaching out his hand to the tracker. The hunter reached for it automatically accepting the support from the gambler, and seeing the concern there for himself and for the others.
"Watch your back," Tanner called softly before kicking his horse forward and disappearing into the faint drizzle.
The three men watched him before Ezra carefully turned his horse and began leading the two men down a back beaten path towards the Seminole Village.
"You sure about this?" JD asked anxiously, following the man's lead down the slow slanting slope.
"Have to be," Ezra remarked, eyes intent on the track before him. His eyes carefully trained on the ground attempting to find the traps that the trapper had found so easily. They fell into an uneasy silence. Ezra pulled up short, his eyes tracing the ground; there was something wrong. JD's horse edged past the gambler slightly as he peered intently around trying to see what had disturbed him.
"I don't see nothing, Ez," Dunne called as his horse edged forward.
Green eyes caught the movement in front, and the whipping sound reached his ears. "Look out, JD," Ezra screamed, eyes watching as the young man was thrown off his horse as a loose log forced him from his saddled. He landed heavily with a muffled thump.