Ezra heard the sound of horses and saw the new arrivals. They reined up in front of Jordan's gang and leered at Ezra. "See ya caught one. Looks like he might have had some cash on him?" It was a question.
"Naw, this one buys us credit with Carlisle and Bridger. This here's Ezra Simpson."
The leader of the mounted men let out a low whistle and nudged Ezra with his booted toe.
"What about you? Kestrel hasn't checked in with anyone knew?" Jordan allowed.
"None of the other advance guard have either. We just got restless. Thought we'd see what we could track down. Gotta be some of that 'Southern blight' out here somewhere." All the men laughed. Ezra could tell that this was no longer a campaign to punish atrocities it was an excuse to pillage and ruin lives. These men had no intention of looking for "war criminals" they were seeking out victims. Ezra memorized the faces of all these men as Collins, Jordan's second-in-command tied his wrists together. There were no war crimes, but there were laws these men would be held accountable for. "See you back in time for supper if we don't get lucky."
"Take care, Tucker." Jordan laughed.
Chris and Vin observed the scene unfolding below them. The others waited out of sight for word. The five most recent arrivals didn't stay long before they moved on. "Chris?"
"Let's see what happens." Buck heard this and carefully joined them to observe. The others followed his lead.
The five Union soldiers moved away from their comrades and Ezra in a northeasterly direction.
Ezra watched Tucker and his outriders move off. "Mount up, Reb," one of the other men ordered.
Ezra slowly moved back toward his chestnut gelding. It gave him time to evaluate the situation. The conversation had told him they were close. Less than a day. It felt like there was ice filling his chest and his heart was having to fight against the obstruction to beat. Before his captors could tell he wasn't reining up, he had the bridle off of his horse and slapped its rump. The horse was gone in a flash. "What the hell."
Not knowing what to expect or why their prisoner had taken this action, one of the men kicked him violently to the ground. He contemplated staying there until Jordan flicked his whip out to twist around his throat; the tip to bite deeply into the flesh across his shoulder blade. The bearded horseman used the whip to jerk Ezra to his knees.
From the knoll, Buck flinched and JD almost jumped to his feet before being pulled back down by Josiah. "What the hell's he doing?" Chris growled.
"Gettin' himself killed by the looks of it." Nathan worried.
"Let's ride." Chris ordered.
"Chris wait. We need to ... " Kestrel began. Chris cut him off.
"We'll use Buck's way. We'll get those men to tell us where the others are being held."
Clay's expression turned dark. They weren't listening to him. He wasn't in control. He didn't like not being in control and he didn't like men who took authority away from him. They moved down to where Darby tended the horses and kept them quiet. As they mounted up and started to Ezra's party, gunfire erupted from the northeast.
The head of everyone in Chris's group jerked around in the direction of the fired shots. Kestrel jumped on the opportunity to regain control of the situation. "Standish knows what he's getting into. We need him to lead us to the camp. Those gunshots mean they are attacking an innocent person. They're not hiding their trail any more." He nodded toward where they could find Ezra and his captives over the hill. "We can find them. Hell, Tanner here could find them if they walked on water. They'll keep Standish alive, I swear. Are you going to take the chance innocent people will die?" Damn the man and his logic.
Larabee knew to split up wasn't an option. He wanted numbers on their side when he took on either of these factions. "Let's take care of this fast." Fast, and with finality, Larabee's voice seemed to add. He twisted his horse in the direction of the gunshots and rode out.
+ + + + + + +
Jordan never released his hold on the whip as he dismounted and walked up to his prisoner. He kept enough tension on the leather that, while Ezra could work his fingers between the braiding and his skin and keep from choking, he could still feel it bite into his neck and keep him under the bigger man's control. Jordan knelt down and used the lash like a leash and pulled Ezra forward until they were nose to nose. "What the hell was that?" He got no response.
"Want us to go after the horse?" One of Jordan's followers asked.
He turned back to Ezra still on the ground before him. He thought he had the gambler's number. "Do you really expect someone in town to care if your horse comes back riderless? You think someone will look for you? Let the damn thing go. I want to watch this one waiting for help that will never come." The smile that came across the man's lips gave Ezra an uncomfortable feeling. "Guess you'll be walking, now, Southern boy. Reckon you could use a little comeuppance." With a practiced flick he used the whip to wrench Ezra onto his back on the ground. He landed with a painful grunt as his ribs reminded him he wasn't ready for this. "Harold. Looks like his boots are about your size. Have 'em." As the smaller soldier greedily got down from his horse and jerked the boots for himself, Jordan squatted down to meet Ezra's eyes. "Gonna be a long walk, Southern boy." Another of the men had already prepared a noose and put it around Ezra's neck.
"I suspect you might be right." Ezra drawled. Harold was especially proud of his new boots when he found the $200.00 hidden inside. The men joked about how they should divide the spoils as they rode; pulling Ezra after them.
+ + + + + + +
Any regrets Larabee's men had at having to leave their friend were temporarily erased when they came upon the source of the gunshots. The self-proclaimed seekers of justice were attacking a lone covered wagon. The settlers had yet to strike camp from the night before and had been taken unaware. The big mules were not yet harnessed up to the wagon. Tucker held his gun on a wounded man. The man tried to rise despite the threat pointed at him. Another soldier, who still wore the tattered jacket and insignia of a Private held onto a struggling, hysterical woman. He held her too close and his laugh was too lecherous. He kicked out at a eight-year-old boy that tried to protect his mother. The father was not an aggressive man, his frustration at not being able to protect his family was palpable and painful even from a distance ... not able to protect his family. Chris rode down on the man holding the woman like an avenging angel. Buck was by his side. JD rode beside them. Vin, Nathan and Josiah angled their horses only slightly to rescue the husband.
Kestrel and Carson led their men directly toward the wagon itself where the other three men ransacked the possessions looking for valuables. These men heard the pounding hooves headed their way. "Tucker!" One of the men shouted. It was unnecessary. Tucker and the Private had already recognized the more serious threat bearing down on them.
"Run, Tommy! Oh, God, please, run!" The woman pleaded to her son. The boy was petrified in his spot. The Private held the woman before him as a shield. She would have doubled over in grief and horror had his fingers not bit into her waist and held her up. "Jonathan!" She screamed for the husband behind her who she could not see. "Asa! Asa!!"
"JD. The boy." Chris ordered. JD wrapped his reins around Lit'l Dusty's saddle horn to keep a gun hand free. He controlled the small bay with his knees and headed toward the child. Chris and Buck covered their youngest. The bushwackers in the wagon returned fire. They concealed themselves behind trunks and furniture originally meant to add comfort as this family started its new life. They had more time to aim than the men in the open did. Chris ducked reflexively as a bullet slammed his hat from his head. It whipped against his back; held there by the chin strap. Josiah barely noticed as a bullet carved a groove across his upper left shoulder. Driven by an adrenaline induced euphoria, the big preacher acknowledged no more pain than he would notice from a bee sting. Before him were men who preyed on other men for no other reason than their victim had been raised to be a gentle soul. He would be God's retribution in this matter whether God needed his help or not.
Tucker ran for the cover offered by the wagon. He was spun to the ground as both Nathan and Josiah's bullets hit their mark. Jonathan tried to stand but his wounds hindered him. Nathan grabbed the injured man and dragged him behind a stand of cedar. It should be enough cover with the men distracted by the more immediate danger that an enraged Chris Larabee and Josiah Sanchez represented.
The Private dragged the woman with him not willing to give up his hostage. Hiding behind her; predicting the hesitancy with which the other men would direct shots her way, he used the advantage. He had more time to aim and was much more accurate with the shots he directed at Larabee and his men. Bonner was launch backwards from his horse as one of the Private's slugs found its target. Darby and Carson were off their horses in a blink to cover and protect their fallen comrade. "Carson?" Kestrel shouted.
"We've got him. Stop those bastards!" Kestrel turned to comply.
Kestrel finally found a mark and one of the men in the wagon spun back and against a kerosene lamp still lit from the night before. The rough, dry canvas quickly gave itself over to the flames.
The Private brought horses to his two remaining allies in the burning wagon. They took to the horses and fled; firing wildly to cover their retreat. Oblivious to the woman's pleas to save her family and using the time and leeway his pawn allowed, the private swung around behind the wagon mules and stampeded them in the direction of his enemy. Following his comrades north the brutish ex-soldier shoved the woman off his horse to lessen its load. Larabee heeled his horse around to check on her.
The mules bolted and ran directly at JD as he lifted Tommy from the ground. "JD!" Buck called. He knew that between the boy, his gun and controlling his own pony, this new challenge was too much his young friend. The reins were still wrapped around Dusty's saddle horn. Bullets from the retreating gunmen bit at the ground at the hooves of all the animals. Buck kneed his horse between JD, the larger animals and the salvo. The child securely on the saddle with him, JD worked to loosen his reins. Buck's big gray shouldered into JD's smaller pony with enough force that JD lost his grip and the reins fell to the ground. One rein wrapped itself around Pal's leg and pulled just enough for the dapple to go down. The horse fell to its knees and, because his reflexes were impaired by his injuries, Buck rolled over the animal's neck. Pal rose, reared, pawed the air and seemed to make a conscious effort not to harm the man in front of her. The mules on the other hand ran over him. Buck turned his back to the hooves and protected his head with his arms. "Buck!" JD and Josiah called at the same time.
Chris looked up at their tone of voice. His attention was dragged back to the woman as she dug her fingers into the denim of his jeans. "My baby! Asa! My baby!!" She was beside herself. Somehow he knew she meant a child was in the burning wagon. Then it registered for the first time - the cries of an infant above the roar of the flames. Vin heard the cries as well and was in the wagon in a heartbeat.
Chris snapped. These men had almost given up a newborn to the flames; no more to them than a diversion while they made good their escape. He spurred his horse viciously and lay low over the saddle. They would pay. Kestrel and Josiah were with him; matching his pace as best they could. They rode past Nathan and Jonathan. They rode past where JD was tending to Buck and the boy. Chris never looked back.
Vin threw the tumble of boxes and valises out of his way. He coughed and his eyes watered as he fought through the smoke. Near the front of the wagon he finally found the homemade wooden cradle and the baby. At the same time he saw the flames licking at the keg of black powder near the back of the Conestoga.
Buck considered himself exceedingly lucky. He only felt one metal shod hoof connect. It hit his left forearm as he protected his head. When the danger was past and he cautiously looked around, he saw Vin leap into the burning wagon. He felt Chris, Josiah and Kestrel sail by. Dizziness and nausea told him he had done some damage to his original injuries. He closed his eyes, rested his forehead on the ground and tried to fight off the effects. He felt hands trying to check on him and knew it was JD. Just give me a minute He thought to himself. And then the earth shook. When he looked up, the fiery remnants of the wagon were raining down around them. Where was ... "Vin?" He was barely audible. He looked up to see his own horror reflected in JD's face. Then a gauzy darkness started to move in from his peripheral vision and finally shut out his surroundings and conscious thought.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra's bare feet were leaving a thin blood trail as he was led inside the prisoner of war camp. The rocks and thorns had done their damage. He was limping despite himself. The soldiers had only occasionally cantered their horses at a gait that made keeping up difficult. But the noose was undignified and was rubbing rope burns around his neck. The back of his shirt was stiff and tacky from dried blood. The gash on his shoulder blade stung and the sweat only made it worse. The damn blue bottle flies were insufferable. He felt every bite from the blood-sucking horse flies. The irritating gnats and no-see-'ums buzzing around for the moisture in his eyes were the most maddening. With his bound hands limiting his reach he had to endure the little devils. He forced their ever-present, torturous annoyance to the back of his mind as he catalogued his surroundings for future use. The double fences of barbed wire that defined the boundaries of this prison would only slow down and not prevent an attempted escape. But that would be enough. It would give the armed guards who paced outside the wire enough time to use their rifles as a more permanent solution to any such effort. As far as the guards themselves, they appeared confident and alert. Too bad.
Ragged, overcrowded tents passed as shelter. A creek that ran though the prison had been damned up and was stagnant. He could smell it from here. The land was still dead and yellow from the winter months. The grass was almost the same color as the rocks. Limestone outcrops rose both inside and outside the compound but offered no avenues for escape. The men within the camp looked sick, beaten and defeated. If there had been any attempt at sanitation, it had apparently been given up to apathy as the men's incarceration dragged on. Most of the captives barely glanced up to acknowledge the new arrival.
Outside of the wire, the guards seemed to live a little better than their charges. There had been slats of wood braced against the tents here to add protection from the elements. Campfires seemed to supply a constant source of warmth and coffee for the watchmen. There was one small, solid wood cabin erected among the guard's tents. The door to the cabin opened. Ezra felt bile well up in his throat as the man stepped out onto the small porch. His hair was a course, unkempt gray. His potbelly hung over his belt like fallen yeast bread. He held the riding crop under one arm. His one squinty pig eye fell on Ezra immediately. The other eye was sewn shut and an ugly white scar ran through it from his forehead to his chin. He paraded over. The taller man with him sauntered along pacifyingly.
Ezra forced himself not to draw back when they approached. A history passed between their eyes. Bridger ran his riding crop from Ezra's shoulder to his belt. "Well EZ, I hear the name is really Standish." He droned. Ezra didn't respond. He looked Standish over from head to toe and noticed the torn feet. He turned to Jordan. "Why's he walking?"
"He let his horse go."
Bridger laughed out loud. "Afraid we'd eat it?"
"I simply abhorred the thought that you might ride such a noble animal."
"There's never no tellin' what you're gonna care about is there?" He studied the small man in front of him. "But I will figure it out. And then you will come to me. On my terms this time. You will beg me to let you come to me." He waited for a reaction. The gambler's poker face served him well. Bridger was even the first to break eye contact. He had to turn his body to move the eye contact and acknowledge the man beside him. "This is Benjamin Francis Carlisle. He is the commandant at our little facility. He will be the judge in your trial."
"And my defense council?"
"Still insolent? We'll see how long that lasts. Maybe you should spend the first night in the pit. For old times sake." Bridger laughed again. "Enjoy yourself. Drop him in, boys."
+ + + + + + +
Buck thought he was dead when he heard Vin's soft drawl calling to him. "Hey, Pard? Buck? Can you open your eyes for me?" Buck thought about it, but wasn't quiet ready. It didn't feel too warm; in fact there was a chill in the air. Maybe they weren't in hell just yet. It'd be rough on Chris, losing both of them. And the Kid probably never lost anyone close other than his Ma. Nathan would feel guilty ... "Nathan, I think he's wakin' up. You got any more of that tea made?" Nathan? Tea? It was hell. Buck smiled. He finally opened his eyes and met the tracker's relieved grin. "Welcome back."
"I thought you got blown to kingdom-come."
"Aw, hell, I was closer to the front of the wagon than the back. Figured that was the quickest way out."
"Good thinking." Vin smiled wider. Buck wasn't exactly with them yet.
Buck started to chuckle before it turned into a harsh cough. "What's so funny?"
"Thought I was dead, but maybe I'd skirted hell, 'til I heard you call Nathan for that tea."
Vin's laugh was mixed with a healthy dose of relief. "Felt that way a few times myself."
"Very funny. Get away from my patient." Nathan fussed good-naturedly. He was glad to see Buck as alert as he appeared. Buck tried to set up and grimaced. He had to freeze for a moment to fight the pain. "Let that be a lesson to ya." Nathan lectured. "Don't move. You didn't do your head any good." He talked to himself as much as the lady's man. "I can't keep that gash on your back clean enough out here that you ain't gonna fight a little infection and fever. And now you've got a hoof mark nearly to the bone."
"Hell, Nathan ... ."
"If it was JD wouldn't that be enough of a reason for you to make him lie still?" Buck nodded, unable to say more through the pain. Nathan realized this and sympathetically and with infinite care helped him drink the tonic.
A call from across the way got Nathan's attention and he moved away from Buck with the last reprimand, "Rest. Sleep. Don't move."
Nathan had been responding to a call from the wounded rebel soldier. Kestrel appeared at Buck's side as soon as he was alone. "How's everyone doing?" Buck asked.
"Sodbuster'll live. The baby's fine. It's Ma's shaken up. Josiah's a little worse off than bruises and scratches. Vin landed rough when he jumped out of the front of the wagon with the baby." Buck laughed at Clay's words, went out the front of the wagon, not the back. Just that simple. Buck was almost embarrassed to have been so worried, but then he remembered the look on JD's face and knew he hadn't been alone in thinking the worst.
"Grazed along the side. Painful but not dangerous. He'll ride with us tomorrow."
"What time do we leave?"
"Sunrise. But you're going back with the young family over there."
"Chris says it's for the best. You're not fit to keep up."
"Your man's riding." Buck coughed. He was on a slow boil.
"I let my men make their own decisions."
"Nobody decides for me."
Clay's continuingly cool, almost pacifying attitude intentionally left the impression Larabee had said more. "I know how hard it is to stand up to Larabee."
"I ain't never backed down from that man. What did he say?" In response, Kestrel stood up, tossed a full bottle of whiskey to the wounded man lying beside him and grinned, "I suggest you not let them catch you with it this time." Buck already had the bottle to his lips before Kestrel walked away trying to hide the self-satisfied smirk on his face.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra tried to relax in the hole in the ground. At least he could sit. He remembered the other one, too narrow to sit, bars on top that kept a man from standing erect. He would tolerate this. Small clouds of condensation formed with each breath. He had been cold and hungry before, but he had to admit, it hadn't seemed this desolate in a long time. Lately if he was suffering the elements it was with one of the other seven lawmakers. Misery loves company, he mused. And considering where he was, the isolation was preferable to the alternative. So put your observation skills to work He told himself. He could hear coughing and soft moans from the prisoners. The guards were calling to each other, so they had a night shift. He would have to wait until he could observe them to see how alert or lax they were in that assignment.
A plan. Unfortunately everything he came up with involved the assistance of others. He had lost a measurable degree of his self-sufficiency. He had come to rely on the others being there. So why the hell weren't they? Because you didn't ask them. You didn't tell them what was going on. Were you afraid they wouldn't help you? Granted he'd been careful to never test the loyalty as it applied to himself beyond the peacekeeping duties, but what's the worse that could have happened? They could say no? Oh, god, they could say no. The illusion would be gone.
Stop it. Think. Now that he had the location of this hell on earth, the easiest escape would be on his own and go for help. But would that be considered running out on these others? Damn you, Mr. Larabee, there may be times when one must run. But what if that caused them to move their camp? What if they chose to kill the witnesses? There was always the chance Kestrel and his rebel soldiers would actually find the place. Maybe when Mr. Wilmington had related his story to the others ... if he was still alive. No. Don't think like that. If that's what you would dwell on, Maybe that's enough thought for tonight. On some level he knew he was giving Bridger too much credit, but putting him here, leaving him alone with his thoughts and memories ... if he wasn't careful it could do more damage than physical pain. So remember that and don't let it happen. Ezra admonished himself. At least he was thinking. There were options, just none of them good.
+ + + + + + +
JD made sure he did his share to set up camp, but as soon as he could, he was at Buck's side reassuring himself that Nathan's prognosis was correct. Buck smiled at the way Tommy followed his new hero around like a puppy dog. The youngster had been shy about coming over to Buck at first, but JD's encouragement got him over there and Buck won him over in short order. Seems the boy had one of those Jock Steele dime novels his dad had read to him again and again. As far as he was concerned Tommy was in the presence of legends. He explained to Buck that his dad was going to be all right. Buck and JD reminded him how brave his dad was to fight for his family when he was so outnumbered. Tommy smiled proudly. He said that Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner had given them the bad mens' horses and they would get to ride them to the nearest town tomorrow. They had even found Mr. Standish's horse, Tommy explained. He wasn't exactly sure why the horse was out here riderless. The adults whispered a lot around him. But he knew Mr. Standish from the dime novel and was proud to have helped JD care for the animal.
Buck checked out the camp as he listened to the boy. It was getting dark. He was feeling less pain, more because of the now almost empty bottle he had hidden beside him than the various remedies Nathan forced on him on a regular basis. Nathan and Josiah were setting up camp. Tommy's mother, holding the baby, was beside her husband, but could be heard insisting she be allowed to help with the meal. Apparently JD and Tommy had come up with a wild turkey and some rock squirrels. Being told about that hunt by an excited eight-year-old entertained and almost distracted the injured man, but he kept looking for Larabee. Chris, Vin, Carson and Darby were unaccounted for. Who was Larabee to decide that he wasn't "fit" to ride. The potential for confrontation went up as the liquid in the bottle Clay had given him went down.
"Hey, kid," Clay walked up and looked to JD, "You reckon you can show young Tommy how to clean the supper you brought in?" JD took it as a challenge. He also enjoyed being the teacher for a change, showing someone younger than him the ways of the West. Buck smiled at him as the boy up and headed off. "And skin that damn turkey. I don't want to wait until you can get it plucked." Clay handed Buck another bottle. Across the way Nathan and Josiah just missed the by-play. And they didn't see how Clay turned to their friend with a predatory gleam in his eye. "Good thing I know your Johnny Reb partner is tougher than he looks." Buck looked up at his old friend for an explanation to that statement. "I guess I know a might what he's going through about now. Makes it hard sitting here, licking our wounds." Buck took another drink. "Hey, I didn't mean you, Buck." It came out as a lie.
The two men shared the bottle and conversation until the total darkness of a moonless prairie night wrapped around them. Kestrel seemed to apologize for a lot of things, and everything sounded righteous. But it also carefully reminded Buck why he had left in the first place. He made Buck feel like a burden that Chris was too forgiving to chase away. Chris was healing around the others, not forgetting the love from his past, but forgetting the pain. Except Buck being there was a physical reminder of that pain because he had been a part of it. The others weren't. Clay wasn't. Clay was before. "I just don't understand, Big Dog, I don't see here what I used to see when you two rode together. If you're not staying out of friendship, it must be guilt." Buck was trying to tell himself the other man's words were wrong, that he was misinterpreting the way things were in Four Corners. But he was tired, and he was hot then he was cold, his head felt like cotton batting was separating his thoughts from each other. Clay was making more sense than Buck's own jumbled thinking. "If you're staying to ease your own guilt, you're trying to make yourself feel better at Chris's expense."
Buck's fever and alcohol glazed eyes met those of the other man. The reasons he had left were even clearer than before. He had been right to get out of these men's lives. "You got any business that could keep you from stayin' in Four Corners a while?" Buck asked hesitantly. Kestrel smiled. Buck started drinking harder. He was even more careful not to let Josiah or Nathan see him. He didn't want to give up the whiskey now and the man beside him was a willing co-conspirator.
While he and Kestrel were both careful that Nathan didn't catch them, Buck's movements, stiff from his injuries, also reflected the over-exaggerated, overly cautious gestures of intoxication. This drew Josiah's attention to the men as Buck lifted the bottle. "Nathan?" Josiah questioned
The healer followed his friend's gaze just as the whiskey bottle disappeared at Buck's side. "Aw, Hell, ... " Nathan snapped.
"Can it hurt? To let him drink a little? Maybe it'll help him sleep tonight." Knowing how he himself had often been able to find slumber in a bottle when nothing else could help.
"If it'd been white willow bark tea, maybe. That stuff I gave him mixed with whiskey and on top of a head wound ... " Nathan shook his head as he moved in Buck's direction. He should have checked on that rounder earlier. Later Nathan and Josiah would regret it even more. They would have smelled the alcohol. If they had noticed the time Kestrel was spending alone with their injured friend they would have done something about it.
"Where's Chris been?" Buck asked as he took another swig.
"Buryin' the dead." The cultured gunfighter replied.
"All of 'em?" Chris had killed them all? It was the first time he had cared to ask about the men whose attack they had fought off.
"Oh, yeah. Apparently didn't take kindly to them trying to kill that young family. When the wagon caught on fire? I think he went a little crazy there for a time." Buck nodded understanding. Clay continued with measured words. "Hell, he didn't even slow down to look at you. I remember a time when Chris would have cared more about that fall you took than revenge." Buck didn't respond to the statement.
Nathan, crossing the campsite, wasn't close enough to hear what was being said. But even in the dim firelight he saw an intense, measureless hurt suddenly reflected in his friend's eyes and picked up his pace with every intention of getting that bottle and the troublemaker away from his patient.
But someone did hear. A shadow moved and separated from the rest of the darkness.
Chris Larabee materialized out of the night and viciously kicked Kestrel away from his friend. "That's before we had five others to help watch our backs, you son-of-a-bitch." Before anyone could react, the leader of the seven dragged the tall shootist to his feet so that he could deliver two more punches. His anger, nowhere near spent, he backhanded the other man to the dirt. "What are you trying to do to him?" Chris continued after Kestrel. Raven hair swirling around his face, Clay Kestrel came back to his feet with the quickness of a big cat. Vin backed Chris. Suddenly Kestrel was flanked by Carson, Bonner and Darby. Nathan and Josiah arrived to stand the ground with their partners, but with cooler heads. Chris and Vin, Kestrel and his posse all had their coats behind their holsters and hands at their weapons. "Chris? Chris!" The dark gunman never moved his eyes, but Josiah could sense he was listening. "We have a bigger enemy now. Ezra's life is at stake - over 100 other men. This will keep. Then I'll help you tear the jackal apart. In fact, you'll have to beat me to it."
Jonathan Zimmerman and his wife watched in horror. It seemed as if two titans of equal power and authority were facing off. The tall men watched each others eyes in the flickering light the campfire provided. They came to a silent agreement. This was in abatement. This was not over. The body language relaxed. The hands, in mutual agreement moved from the gun butts. The men they rode with relaxed in response to this diminished tension.
Chris remembered why he had been so angry with this man. He turned and was appalled to see that Buck was shitfaced drunk. "What the hell is that?" He asked Nathan, his voice accusatory.
"Never saw him go at it so hard." Nathan wondered how they had missed him drinking so much.
With a rare look of misgiving, Chris approached his old friend. "Give me the bottle, Pard."
"Let it be." Buck's slurred voice came back at him.
"Don't need to be drinkin' like that, you know."
"Tell me something, Chris." Buck threw a look at Clay before he continued. "That first day back in Four Corners, if you hadn't needed somebody stupid enough to follow you, would you have even let me know you were in town?"
"What else did you say to him?" Chris spun back on Clay, anger mounting all over again. It took Vin, Josiah and Nathan to hold their leader away from the man who had been creating this situation from the beginning.
Buck didn't care about Clay Kestrel, and he wasn't going to let Larabee use the man to deflect this confrontation. "Answer me, damn it!"
Larabee wanted to get his hands on Kestrel, to feel his fists pummel the man. He wanted the tall outrider to fight back until they were both barely able to stand. He wanted a physical confrontation not the one waiting behind him now. He wanted the person responsible to pay. He wanted to convince himself that person was Kestrel and not himself. The man in black turned back and assessed his oldest friend. There was a barely perceptible hesitation before he answered. "I don't know."
Well, at least Chris never lied to him, Buck laughed. "I'm tired."
Tired and suffering more from his injuries than he was willing to admit, Nathan judged.
"You're drunk." He heard their leader respond. And the gentle healer wished there had been more thought put into the response, perhaps more compassion.
"Tired of trying and never being good enough." Apparently Larabee wasn't capable of giving more, and Wilmington wasn't capable of expecting more.
JD, returning with Tommy, stopped dead in his tracks. He had never heard Buck sound defeated before. He looked around the camp to try to get some clue as to what was going on. The Zimmermans' were almost cringing away from the emotions they felt around them. Vin was listening to the conversation, but his eyes stayed on Clay's reaction. Josiah and Nathan were whispering demands to the rebels. Kestrel, close enough to hear, signaled for the three men to comply. With no vested interest other than curiosity, Carson and his men obeyed. They moved to the Zimmermans' and Tommy and escorted them out of earshot of this confrontation.
"So you ride out on us? That's gonna make you 'good enough'." That came out wrong, I'm no good at this. Before Larabee could rephrase his words and ask his oldest friend where those thoughts came from, he got the answer:
"I left Clay watchin' your back. What more could you ask?"
"Damn it, Buck"
"You rode out. I rode out. You're the one who went off looking for killers all alone because it suited you. Not tellin' anyone where you were or if you'd be back. Or if you were just trying to get yourself killed! And how long were you gone?" A series of coughs broke into Buck's anger. He had to compose himself and get beyond the pain and exhaustion. Nathan tried to feel his brow. The lanky shootist brushed him away. Somehow Buck struggled up. This was a showdown he felt should be met eye to eye. He continued to speak as he worked his way unsteadily to his feet. "If I'd gone to visit a lady or Ezra'd gone to Eagle Bend for a poker game, you'd make sure there was hell to pay. No, Chris. You're the one who runs out."
"Judge not, least ye be judged." Josiah murmured as if this moment had been inevitable.
Guilt, regret - anger. That's the emotion Chris Larabee could deal with and the one he latched onto. And that's how Chris reacted, "That's different! I was looking for the killer of my family."
"You know why it's different? Because I might find some little filly. Ezra could probably find a game. You might find Ella. You ain't' gonna find your ghosts!" He was breathing hard, now, gasping between words, but would not be stopped.
"What would you know about it?" Chris tried not to lose his temper, but Buck knew every low blow when he was like this and Chris couldn't help but respond.
"Oh, hell," Buck laughed. "I know all about it. I've been chasin' the ghost of a friend for goin' on four years now. Sometimes I think I've found him. But it's always just the ghost."
"You've had enough, Buck," Nathan thought to stop this altercation before Buck exhausted himself to a point where he was endangering his health.
"Don't worry about me." Buck insisted.
Larabee's next words brought Nathan up short. "How about we worry about everyone else when you can't... "
"Can't what? When have I ever not been there? After you stuck a straight edge to my throat and then asked me to go against 8 to one odds? ... did I doubt Josiah when he was accused of murderer? Did I put Ezra out there where he is now because I was feeling sorry for myself? Was I the one who started to side with the town when the kid accidentally shot... " Buck was coughing so hard he could barely be understood.
"Chris, you've got to stop this." Nathan appealed.
"You doubted Vin would bring in Chanu." Chris's words came out at the same time as Nathan's. He slapped the bottle of red eye out of Buck's hand. Why am I letting him pull me into this. The two old friends were oblivious to anything around them.
"That's because friendship blinds Vin!" Buck staggered back into the saddles. He couldn't even open his eyes, as he observed sadly, "Know the difference this time, Pard? I don't care anymore. This time I don't want to stay."
"No one asked you to stay!" Damn, he'd played right into that one; as soon as he said it he knew. The silence around them reached a new level. It was like no one was breathing
"And we're right back where I was trying to be!" Buck's voice was going. How could he be so stubborn as to keep going? Nathan thought.
"I didn't mean that. I ... " Chris began.
Buck didn't interrupt him as much as appear to not even hear him. There was a deep sadness, but acceptance when he added, "Hell, Chris, we've been barely breakin' even for so long ... I just wouldn't let go of something you knew was over a long time ago." Buck finally let his pain and drunkenness and regrets reach him and he collapsed back against the saddles. Nathan hurried to his side and was easily able to overpower his weak attempts to rise again. Chris, worriedly started forward as well. Nathan turned and started to his feet. Chris and Buck where going to have to get through him to get to each other any more tonight.
Vin recognized Nathan's protective streak kick in. "Chris. Leave him be. Let Nathan tend to him. You ain't gonna gain nothin' talkin' to him now." Vin took his best friend's shoulder to lead him away from the confrontation.
Larabee looked down at his oldest friend. "I am glad we hooked back up in Four Corners." He shrugged away from Vin's supportive hand, turned and was gone without waiting for a reaction. Buck watched his back with a hint of hope through the alcohol dulled eyes.
A feral smile had been on Clay's face the entire confrontation. That last sentence - a glimmer of something not yet dead - Vin watched the smile leave Clay's face. Damn. What would it take to break those two up? Kestrel cursed to himself.
Clay moved to follow Larabee into the night. Vin made sure his path blocked the ex-Union soldier's way to his friend. He found that Josiah was by his side. Josiah matched his giant form to Kestrel's. "If I ever see you within shouting distance of either of those men again, I'll kill you. If I ever find out we don't need you and yours to do this job, and you're still around, I'll kill you." The rogue backed away and damned if he didn't act like he still held a winning hand.
For the first time, Vin noticed JD, pale and shaken, standing apart from the others. He joined the boy, put an arm around his shoulders in a brotherly gesture and guided him to Wilmington. "He's feeling right poorly, now, son. I think you could let him know he still has friends." JD hurried over to his best friend. It had never even occurred to him that Buck would think the others would chose sides between him and Chris. Thousands of other questions spun in his head, but he tried to hide them as he knelt beside Buck and Nathan. "Is he okay? Nathan?"
"Tired himself out."
"Buck, please be okay." Buck patted the boy reassuringly on the arm, his eyes stayed closed and he concentrated on the physical pains to wipe away the emotional ones. He didn't realize when he fell asleep. Nathan and JD stayed nearby even though it was clear that exhaustion would keep him unconscious for several hours.
"JD?" Vin hesitated. "Something on you mind?"
"I've seen a nothin' of a splinter fester up and damn near kill a man." Nathan volunteered. Vin shot him an appreciative glance. He wasn't good at words.
"Is that what's happened to Buck and Chris?"
"Maybe. In a way." Nathan admitted. He waited. JD was staring into the fire. "JD?" Swiping his long dark bangs behind his ear, he glanced up. Brown eyes met brown. But the boy's were suddenly old beyond their years.
"You look like a lost quail chick, son." No response. "Talking about it can help."
"You couldn't understand." How could they understand that he wanted his confident and over-protected Buck back? He wanted to believe Chris Larabee was bigger than life and never made mistakes. Nathan and Vin shared knowing looks over the young man's head. Wait for it. This is where Buck and the kid differed. JD couldn't hold back. "I guess I'm a little afraid."
"We all understand fear, believe me." Nathan offered.
"I don't understand ... Buck doesn't want to be here and Chris doesn't care? I don't know what's happening and I don't know if I did something wrong ... There's no danger of gunfights or getting shot or messing up. But I'm scared of things goin' the way they are. I don't guess a man's supposed to feel that way. I don't see how you could understand."
"Fightin's easy. A man with a gun can't hurt you like harsh words or disappointment from family. You gotta care a lot about someone to stick around after that."
"Buck didn't stick around."
"He didn't get far though, before Chris was right there after him, did he?" Vin smiled at the look of encouragement that lit up their youngest's eyes. "Dragged us all along to make sure he got back, too."
"Do you get mad at Buck?" Nathan asked. JD didn't want to answer. So the healer saved him having to say the words. "Could it ever be so bad you wanted him gone?" He didn't force that answer either. "Buck and Chris ain't gonna lose each other. And we ain't gonna let 'em."
JD sat for a minute. He contemplated the fire. He wanted to believe his friends. He looked at their faces and saw resolve. He wanted to believe. It was so complicated. But Chris and Buck didn't give up. They were too smart to throw away everything they had in Four Corners. Hell, yeah, he'd believe. He'd believe in Chris and Buck and he would believe in Vin and Nathan. He would believe in himself and Josiah and Ezra ... they were a family. And they did care enough to get over -- over anything. He smiled and jumped up. "I gotta go talk to Tommy. I think he was pretty upset seein' as he only knows us from that Jock Steele book. I better go set him straight." And he was off. He would share his knew understanding with the youngster. Nathan and Vin realized they had convinced themselves while convincing the kid. We may damn near be invincible. Nathan smiled. Vin smiled back.
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