Prisoners, under guard, were sent out to gather firewood. Lassiter, Standish and Wilmington rearranged the camp. On the surface they grouped the sick and injured together to be nearer the fires. In reality they moved them to the far end of the camp where they could be protected when the rescue came. They used the fire pits for warmth and to boil water for drinking and cleaning wounds. As good as the deal he had made, Carlisle came up with some old shirts and some rags that were used sparingly for bandages. Almost all of the men suffered from some degree from malnutrition, dysentery or dehydration. The clean water, minus the smell of stagnation went a long way to improving their health and mental state. Some had been beaten, others had old injuries left unattended. Buck wished Nathan were here to help those that were the worst off. Anyone who rode the trail had some minimal experience with tending breaks and bruises but some of these men needed bones reset that had not been given attention and had been left to mend improperly. There were even some neglected and infected bullet wounds. He wondered how these men had been able to withstand the suffering. And he wondered angrily how other men could allow the conditions to exist.
Those who could, joined Ezra and Buck in carefully tending to the sick and wounded. As they worked, Ezra and Buck confided their plan to Lassiter. He in turn pulled together the men he thought he could trust. Several of them balked when told of what was to come. Without weapons what could they do? "And what's the alternative?" Lassiter growled. "Wait here until it is our turn to stand before that so-called jury? Do you really think they are going to find anyone innocent? Let anyone go free?" Buck, swabbing the brow of the poor snakebite victim whose fever was peaking, watched Lassiter defiantly meet the eyes of each of his men before he continued by pointing a callused finger in Buck's direction. "These men are coming in not only with a plan that I think will work, but promise of help from the outside. I for one am going to be ready to fight for my freedom. And for yours. With my bare hands if I have to." He was an inspirational speaker, Ezra smiled as he gave him that. He'd be hell at the evangelical scam. But it worked. Damned if it didn't work and he had the men encouraged and believing they could win. Ezra could tell that Buck admired the man and appreciated his optimism. So Ezra looked again. Was the man truly sincere? Was he himself too cynical or was Wilmington gullible when it came to thinking things could always work out and in his admiration of men who fought these insurmountable odds? He looked towards Buck. Didn't he see that he was one of those men? The jaded Southerner was distracted from this line of thought when he noticed his partner had walked away from the group. Bridger was watching them. He didn't like the idea of them being separated. He hurried as best he could to catch up to Lassiter who was already following after Wilmington.
Talk of weapons reminded Buck of something and he limped stiffly to where the dead snakes lie about the ground. Every move pulled at his sore back and the tight bandages Nathan had wrapped around the cuts. His preoccupation and movements gave several of the men reason to follow him. He grimaced as he stepped on the sharp rocks with his stocking feet. He found and picked up the rock he had used to kill the snake. "Flint."
"A type of rock. Thank you Mr. Wilmington, for the educational moment."
"It ain't native to this area, Ezra."
"Right. That means it was brought in by Indians." Lassiter quickly grasped what the taller cowboy was thinking.
"And look. It's been worked." Buck showed the beveled edges of the palm-sized rock to Lassiter who seemed to have the better understanding of where he was going with his chain of thought. Both he and Buck looked around with the same thought in mind.
"The first high rise above a water source would be where they would camp." The prisoner leader mused. They were on the move. Lassiter supported Buck when he could see the other man refused to rest now that a potential plan of action was within reach. Ezra fought a hint of jealousy and the feeling that he was being left out as he plodded after them. Buck picked up a small piece of flint. "Thumb nail scrapper."
"This piece was worked, but looks like they gave up on it." Lassiter tossed a medium sized chunk of flint to his new collaborator and friend.
"Yeah, but look, sharp as a knife where they did work it." He grinned, and it lit up his face as he held the stone out and showed Ezra. When he remembered how easily his fun-loving friend had used the rock to separate the snake from its head he knew the weapon potential that lay all around them. He glanced quickly to make sure Bridger or the guards had not caught on. Following Buck and Lassiter's examples the men had soon scrounged a small stockpile. The blade sharp flint was not only stowed away for weapons for the coming day, but the thumbnail scrappers Buck was so proud of finding were used to skin the dead snakes and supply a tasty meal for at least one night.
+ + + + + + +
"Taste's pretty good, huh, Ezra? Like chicken?"
"Mr. Wilmington, it tastes like a scaly, desert spawned reptile. And it is possibly a statement to my current condition, it is perhaps the best food I have ever tasted."
Buck Wilmington laughed at his friend's facial expressions. He was feeling good. Things might work out after all.
On the porch of his office, Carlisle watched the prisoners. They were no longer the beaten and dejected group that had been controlled so easily. He'd known for a long time that Lassiter was a disruptive element. Between him and the new arrivals trouble was brewing. Bridger had something going with the Southerner; some vengeance he thought he was due. He had hinted at things that Carlisle chose not to pursue. Kestrel had some friction with the one with the mustache and the beard that was coming in heavy after three days of not shaving. Well, they had a good thing going. They had military strategy backing their raids. They were just becoming profitable. Personal feuds were not going to destroy what they had here. He went inside to convince Bridger.
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabee sat beside the fire and held his coffee. Josiah and Nathan dozed lightly. Vin was out somewhere. JD was on the early watch with Darby. He contemplated the rebels. They seemed sincere in their mission to rescue their fellow confederates. There was something else there, something between Carson and Kestrel, but he hadn't figured it out yet. It didn't seem to influence the course of events, so as was his nature, Larabee left other people's business to themselves.
But then Carson and Kestrel weren't the only ones keeping things from him. What would it have hurt for Ezra to have told him the truth about what was going on? Why hadn't he? And Buck? Since when did that man not talk to him about their differences? Were they afraid of his temper? He needed people to fear the man, the gunfighter. Did he really want them to fear the friend? Buck and Ezra both had called him on the man he had become. They had been right. He hadn't been a friend in Four Corners. He betrayed the others by turning his back on any situation he couldn't handle with a gun. He remembered how he thought he was being generous when he would let Buck bring up memories of Sarah and Adam. But then he remembered that the affection in those memories had reflected in his own soul and he had smiled, and the good memories washed out the hatred, bitterness and need for vengeance for brief, firefly moments. There weren't many people who could make him smile. Hell, there could have been more humor in his voice when he drolly said he should have shot Buck in Purgatorio. There could have been more appreciation when Buck showed up to cover them that time ... yeah, Buck and Ezra had called him. Now look where they both were because of how they anticipated he would react.
By going to the POW camp, Buck was still running from him. Make no mistake about that. Buck had left before, but this time there were four other sets of eyes and Standish's scalding remarks to remind him of what he'd chased away. That he'd have to chase them all away. And he knew now he didn't want that.
He was almost thankful when his morose thoughts were jerked back to the present by the sounds of a scuffle not too far away. He ran in that direction. Vin, Josiah, Nathan, Carson and Bonner were right behind him. They came to a clearing to find each of their youngest rolling over and over and exchanging blows. Vin, one-handed, as he was unwilling to holster his mare's leg, and Josiah pulled JD off of Darby. The young blonde kicked out at the boy when Carson and Bonner all but lifted him off the ground.
"What the hell ... " Carson began.
"They were the ones who robbed Miz Nettie's! He just said so!" JD was struggling to get back into the fray. "It was them. Not the men we're after."
"We'd never 'a hurt those women!" Darby yelled back in defiance.
"Stop it." Once again Larabee never raised his voice. But silence fell. His hazel gaze, green and flecked with gold when he was angry bored into Carson for an explanation. By his tone of voice the peacekeepers could tell this man felt he had done nothing wrong; that the ends justified the means. "We couldn't let Carlisle and his men know we were onto them. We had to get supplies. Kes said the blue coats were watchin' for us in town. He said that ranch was ... "
"Kestrel told you to raid Nettie's? That ranch?" The question came from Vin. It was equally as soft and threatening as his best friend.
"Pointed it right out."
"That ain't chance, Cowboy. That man don't do nothing without reason."
"When we find him, we'll ask him." Chris stated rather matter-of-factly, but there was a threat there and Tanner was glad to hear it. "Get some rest. I'll take the watch." He waited as the two sides keep their youngest separated. They weren't ready to give up the fight.
Vin stayed and quietly supported his friend. There was an uncomfortable preoccupation to Chris's silence tonight. "Son of a bitch ain't even around no more and he's still got you second guessing yourself." Vin spoke casually, gazing at the stars. These sort of conversations between him and Chris usually went better when there was no eye contact.
He knew now if he waited long enough, Larabee would speak his mind.
"Buck was right. I was thinkin' on leavin'."
"We've all been there."
"Not for the same reasons. I wonder if I've forgotten how to be a friend. Or just decided somewhere along the way I didn't want that responsibility anymore." He watched the night sky, too.
"That's Kestrel talking! Damn that man ... " Vin didn't usually give in to his anger.
"Naw, Vin." The calmness in his best friend's voice brought the tracker up short. "He did me a favor." Chris met the other man's eyes finally. "He made me stop running long enough to think about the consequences. I'll have to thank him when I get my hands on him."" The fierce, conspiratorial smile he threw to his friend was reflected instantly. Kestrel was going to be sorry he crossed that man.
+ + + + + + +
Kestrel watched the two other men in the room. Bridger was insane, but it was a dangerous, purposeful madness with an agenda, a goal. No matter how unrealistic, there was a logic there in his mind that no other could see. Carlisle, for his part had long since moved past any noble motivation. He wanted revenge and restitution for his lost life and the riches he thought should be his. That was obvious by the ever-growing pile of spoils that was even now secured in this small cabin. Carlisle and Kestrel long ago assured Bridger that the sell of the booty would go in furtherance of his campaign. The man had seemed satisfied. "Is the lawman a threat?" Bridger asked of their scout. He had listened to Carlisle's accusations. He knew what Standish was capable of on his own. He was concerned that the new prisoners could orchestrate an uprising.
Kestrel contemplated his answer. His responses must always hold enough truth that he could justify the statements should he ever be called into account for them. "He has friends who might look for him."
"He has killed six of my men." Bridger turned and met the others with the eyes of a commander.
"He's seen way too much." Carlisle stated.
"Unless we could convert him to our cause?" Bridger suggested. "He must be a hell of a hand to have on your side."
No. Unacceptable. Kestrel's jealousy peeked. He would not take the chance that Wilmington would undermine him with Carlisle the way he had with Larabee. The handsome, longhaired scoundrel quickly turned on the charm and began to manipulate the outcome of the situation. He analyzed his possible answers and decided which ones the others would expect, what they would accept and which ones would turn them against him. He ran each situation through several scenarios and through their various possible outcomes to each probable endgame in the time it took most men to blink. He knew these men; knew the answers they wanted. "Standish is up to something. He must have seen something here already that he thinks he can use to his advantage. I say we change the playing field as much as possible and as quickly as possible before he can gain support from the other prisoners. Them we have beaten down. Standish and Wilmington coming in as fresh blood could cause us trouble if we don't beat them down and fast."
"Ain't that the damn truth. They got 'em down there now, sitting together, discussing options, eating those snakes. Hell, they're eating better than our men tonight."
"What do you have in mind?" Bridger asked.
"We break camp. Tonight. That way, whatever Standish saw he thought he could use, is out of his reach."
"And once we're out of this territory, Wilmington's body just becomes one more unknown buried on boot hill."
Bridger studied each man. He thought about what had been said. "It's time anyway. We need to move closer to the Mason-Dixon and honors that await us for correcting this lapse in our government's judgement. Let's move out, gentlemen. But first, let's break them." Bridger grabbed his riding crop and headed out the door.
+ + + + + + +
Kestrel followed with no longer disguised impatience. None of the posturing of these men mattered. This time tomorrow Wilmington and Standish would be dead. And so would these two men, these officers. Larabee would kill them out of revenge. Over 100 men would have been saved by the Magnificent Seven. A conspiracy that spanned three states and was responsible for over 20 murders would have been stopped. And they would be heroes. With Standish and Wilmington dead, he and Carson would take their place in Four Corners. The manchild and bounty hunter were as good as gone making a space for Bonner and that damn Darby they insisted on dragging along. They were no better than Wilmington with his brat. But at that time Kestrel would control four of the seven. It would take time for Larabee to come around after he had overheard that last conversation with Buck, but Kestrel felt certain he could control him. If not, Ella had sworn to him that the man in black would run to her for comfort if his world were to fall apart again. The preacher and the healer? Perhaps, on the surface, they were men of healing and forgiveness, but below the surface, they were hired guns. They would bind their loyalty to whoever offered the most safety. It was the way of the pack.
It was also the way of the pack that when two alpha males faced off, only one could lead. He wanted to control Larabee. He didn't want the gunfighter dead, he wanted the fear and name recognition he generated. It would sell Jock Steele's books. It would convince the storeowners and the clerks and the ranchers and the railroads to pay for the protection that was offered. Clay Kestrel had it all figured out. He would control the legendary shootist. He would lead the Magnificent Seven. And everything was going better than he could have hoped.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra, Buck, Lassiter and two other prisoners lolled around one campfire. It was the most comfortable they'd been in months. Wilmington reminded them they had weapons at hand and even food around them. Standish conned the commandant into giving them fire and aid for the injured and sick. And these two remarkable men said there were others out there like them. For the first time in a long time there was hope.
They had drawn an outline of the camp in the dirt. Lassiter pulled the last chunk of snake from the spit and, as he ate, used the stick to point out details. "The sick and injured are as safe here as we can make them."
Buck pulled some of the stringy meat from the bones as he observed, "The guys will go to the main gate and try to get it open. When you see it coming, don't be too obvious, stay undercover as best you can, but be in that area. And when they need help, get your asses out there. Guns or no, you got flint the size of axes and you got your hands."
"Once the soldiers start to fall grab their guns." Ezra advised.
"They've still got to get to us. We can't help until they do. That's 100 yards of open space. Someone's gonna get hurt." Lassiter observed realistically.
Buck and Ezra exchanged glances. They were thinking the same thing. "We may have someone on the inside. If we can, we'll set up a diversion." Suspicion crossed the faces of the others. Before they could respond the gates where thrown open and a wad of guards forced their way into the compound straight for Ezra and his camp.
+ + + + + + +
With the prisoners cowed by the guns and the show of force, Bridger and Carlisle made their bold stride up to the center of activity. Bridger walked the inner circle of the gathering. He studied the eyes of each man he could make contact with in the waning fire. For the first time in a long time, the resolution and defeat he was used to seeing were overshadowed by hatred and defiance. And he could feel it all generating from EZ and his friend. They defied him. Those were the kind of men he delighted in breaking. "Mr. Carlisle."
Carlisle enjoyed the situation equally, but played his part as subjugate to Bridger's command. "We will break camp and move out in three hours. Any man not able to travel will be summarily tried for his crimes at that time. Any man found guilty will be executed. Any man found innocent will be allowed to remain with water and food for two days."
"Two days, EZ," Bridger interrupted, without looking in the gambler's direction. "Do you again appreciate the irony?" When it appeared Bridger had no more to say, Carlisle started to continue. Before he got the words out, Bridger was in Ezra's face. "You thought your two days were free? The fire? The bandages? You bought them with blood."
The prisoners shuffled nervously in response to the anger and show of force of their captors. "Mr. Kestrel ... " Bridger called out.
In response, Kestrel came forward leading four men who suddenly grabbed Lassiter. "Steven Lassiter you have been tried and found guilty of sedition and acts of insurrection." They were immediately wrestling him out of the compound. Buck bolted forward and attacked the men who held the prisoners' leader. Ezra danced in and connected with another man's jaw. The prisoners surged forward to follow this example. Twin pistols coughed and two prisoners fell. The others were held back by gun barrels aimed in their direction. As Lassiter was dragged out of the compound Bridger walked up to where Ezra and Buck were being restrained by six angry men. He started hard at the Southerner with his one good eye. "I don't know what you had planned, but it won't work. We won't be here. Your two days will be up. If you want two more, you'll buy it with the blood of the lawman."
Ezra and Buck were held back by strong arms. Bridger laughed. Two men. And they struggled as if they could change what was happening if they were free.
"Kestrel, stop them!" Wilmington demanded. All he got in return was an evil grin like none the sophisticated gunfighter had dared show him before. Wilmington didn't understand the hatred he saw in the other man's eyes, but he knew it was reflected in his own. With a strength he was rarely forced to use, Wilmington broke free and lunged for the tall rogue. A guard raised his pistol. Ezra fell into the man to deflect his aim. The gun arm fell between them and with the discharge, Ezra felt the bullet gouge across the fleshy part of his thigh. The searing heat of the wound brought him to his knees. Kestrel sidestepped Wilmington who had been denying his weakened condition for too long and slammed him to the ground with a powerful blow to his cheekbone. As the guards backed out of the wired enclosure, Buck crawled to the smaller man. He took the filthy bandana from his neck to squelch the blood loss. They watched in utter helplessness as Lassiter, their friend, a brave man who had tried to fight and overcome the odds, was forced to stand and face the firing squad that without a second thought ended his life. Ezra wanted to look away. But he felt he owed it to this brave man to memorize the event and the faces of those who participated. When it was over, he wished he had kept his eyes on the corpse. Because the grief and loss in Buck's eyes was more painful than the injury to his leg.
"You did this!" One man yelled as he threw his flint stone at Ezra. It hit his shoulder and startled him more than caused any damage. "You sold him! You thought the blankets and the fires were worth a life?"
Buck, weak, grieving for his recently met and now gone friend, took his anger out on the other prisoners. "You are some kind of fools." He got right in the face of the man who had stoned his friend. "You are a piece of work." He turned to address the entire lot. "You were lazy and worthless until Ezra got here. Why would you believe Kestrel? Why would you believe this man sold you out? Just think, damn it! The one man that gets changes made here? Who else are they going to try to turn you against? You want to be mad at someone? Be mad at him ... " He waved his arm mutinously in Kestrel's direction. " ... that son-of-a-bitch. And the others. And be mad at yourselves for not fighting back. And do something about it!" The men backed off from the anger and the sense of loss that permeated the air around the dark-haired gunfighter. He truly grieved over the death of a man he'd known less than a day. They let the guilt slip into their consciousness and then allowed themselves to recognize the loss. And they also acknowledged Buck as their new leader even though he himself did not recognize what had happened. All Buck knew at the moment was that he had used up all his strength. The world was spinning and he sat down before he fell down. And his head and arms fell like a marionette with the strings cut.
Ezra watched the older man take deep breaths and absorb all that had happened. He got a twinge to realize Buck was just as protective of him as he was of JD or any of the others. Why didn't he notice it before? He wished he deserved it. Ezra knew that somehow he was responsible for that man's death. As well as the two others who had been gunned down. And now they were leaving. Moving out. Larabee and the others would arrive to find an empty enclosure. Things would be like last time. Bridger was there and Kestrel. And they would use Wilmington's safety the way they used the young Georgia boy. Until the amusement wore off and they let him die.
Ezra had never felt so hopeless and so responsible for the fate of so many. Why had he thought he could come here and make a difference? This is why he should watch out for himself and no one else. He couldn't even watch out for his goddamn self. Why did he think he could help the others? And damn it, that damn Buck was sitting there and reading everything in his damn eyes and it didn't chase him off.
He felt Buck's hand on his shoulder. The hand felt surprisingly cool. It was where the whip had bitten into his flesh those days ago. He realized there must be a fever around the cut. Until Buck had arrived, there had been no water worth cleaning it with. The stagnant stuff in the creek would have done more harm than ... then he had forgotten about it in light of tending the other injuries and ... what was that look on Buck's face? What was on his hand ... pasty white ... maggots. Ezra slapped at his own back. Buck grabbed to stop the motion, but wasn't fast enough. "Now Ezra, stay calm." The nasty shapeless creatures had hatched in the wound on his back. The itch and crawl he had attributed to flies ... He was going to be sick. He staggered to his feet, ignoring the throb in his thigh, and turned in jerky circles, trying to decide how to run away from himself. The filth and the dirt and the disease. He had tried to force it out of his mind, pretend that he wasn't back. But he was in this camp. Death and dying were all around him. He rubbed at his neck again, hard. Flattened remains of the vermin were splotched on palm, but some refused to die and inched their way across his fingers. He held the hand out to Buck. It was shaking, his body was weaving ever so slightly in a fight to maintain his equilibrium. Buck rose to help him fight the despair that was engulfing him. He turned away from the offered solace and fell to his knees. His stomach revolted at the thought of the infestation in his skin. I said I would never be dirty again. I said I would never wear rags again He could feel the hope of rescue wafting away. The fires were dying. Bridger had lured them to a false sense of security to break their spirit. He had allowed them a little - food, warmth, fellowship - to remind them one last time what they would be missing and then he took it away. Buck was still with him. "You gotta hold up, Ezra, they're bugs, like mosquitoes or ... "
"They live on the dead and dying, Mr. Wilmington."
"Let's get you cleaned up. Chris'll be here ... "
"But we won't!" He kept rubbing at his shoulder and neck. They itched now as if every inch was covered with maggots. "Didn't you hear? They are moving us out."
Buck was trying to capture his friend's hand to keep him from making things worse. The sensation must be agonizing. Buck had to fight back his own bile to keep talking. "Then we'll figure something out until they catch up."
"I will not live like this." Standish shoved away, weaved to his feet and began to walk with morose resolve toward the deadman's zone between the barbed wire fences.
The guard on duty raised his rifle and waited for him to cross the line. Buck caught up with him, spun him, grabbed his shoulders and demanded, "Fight, damn it, Ezra, fight them. You've gone this far." Ezra windmilled his arms to break the grip on his shoulders. For all he had gone through to this point, he was still healthier than the taller man holding him and was able to free himself with little effort. He staggered slightly then limped toward the barbed wire. Kestrel watched with uncontained amusement. The guards waited for their shot. The prisoners knew this would decide if they went back to their resigned captivity or continued to defy their captors. With everything that hung in the balance, all Wilmington cared about was keeping Standish alive. He spun the Southerner around and jabbed him, fist to jaw. He caught the smaller man before he could reach the ground. Too weak to support the weight, he sank to the dirt cradling his friend. Buck gathered the southerner under his shoulders and dragged him back to the embers of the nearest fire.
Buck Wilmington closed his eyes for the space of a few breaths to rest and find the strength to keep going. There was a new resolve in Buck's eyes when he opened them again. He threw his tattered shirt in the embers to ignite a flame. "Get me any wood that's left." He ordered of the prisoners that stared blankly at him. "Now!" Any directive was followed. Anyone who would make decisions for them was obeyed. They stoked the fire and brought over one of the pots of water to boil.
Buck methodically picked the white vermin from the flesh above his friend's shoulder blade. He took great delight in mashing the first ones between his dirty, broken fingernails. A few had burrowed into the flesh and had to be pulled through much like a heavy needle while doing leatherwork. As best he could tell the damage was not going to be physical as much as emotional. There was a fever around the cut. It had clearly been left unattended. And the wound had gaping, ragged edges on the flesh. There were thin red lines running away from the wound under the skin, and Buck remembered that wasn't good, but the fever didn't extend to the rest of his friend's body. He couldn't help but wonder if the insects might have been some sort of preventative for more serious damage. It didn't matter. The look on Ezra's face when he realized they were there would take a long time to leave his memory. He used the last of the hot water to thoroughly clean the gash and finally lay his friend down to sleep for the little time they had left before their enforced march began. He couldn't help but feel of his own wound, but thanks to Nathan, the bandages held. The itch he felt was his imagination. He made himself ignore it.
Buck kept his hand on Ezra's shoulder so that the younger man might know he was not alone, even while he slept. He was pretty sure exhaustion kept his friend unconscious rather than the actual blow he had delivered. It would be good to get a couple of minutes sleep himself, but he couldn't seem to tear his gaze from Lassiter's body lying forgotten outside the fencing. That man had deserved better. He felt a rage well up inside when he thought of Kestrel. His eyes slid over and found that man sipping coffee by the guard's fire. One minute he saved their lives. The next he was a driving force behind the murder of an innocent man. Buck Wilmington knew two things. One, he had to get a handle on Kestrel's apparently inconsistent moves if he was going to stay alive long enough for the second which was to make the man pay for the innocent victims who died tonight. Buck almost wished Ezra would wake up, as much as he needed the sleep. That southern cuss could figure right out what was going on; if he hadn't already.
Buck found himself almost to the point of exhaustion where sleep would come despite the pain and worry. His eyelids finally started to drift closed. Then feeling the presence more than seeing it, he looked up. Three of the prisoners stood before them. He didn't know their names. The truth is, he didn't want to. He didn't want any more attachments in this hellhole. With brief insight, he knew how Chris felt when he lost his family. In truth, Buck had lost more loved ones in his life up to that time than his companion. He had learned how to cherish the good memories and fight the memories of the losses. But here, in this place, this fatigued; drained, he had reached his limit. He tensed briefly in case they were looking for trouble. But that's not how he read them.
The tallest of the men finally spoke, "What are we going to do?"
Why the hell ask me? His mind shouted. I do not look for responsibility! Ask Chris or JD or Ezra, here, or the others! But, he conceded, at least they were trying to not give up. They deserved something for that. "You." Buck finally pointed to the young man who looked the most sickly. "Sit here with my friend. Don't let him wake up alone and call me if he stirs." It was difficult to get to his feet, but when he did they began to walk slowly about the compound to see what could be done.
+ + + + + + +
Across the barbed wire and fencing, Kestrel watched his old friend move through the injured and weak. Old friend. He hated his easy-going acceptance of other people's ways. Somehow that had endeared him to Larabee when it should have been Kestrel. When Larabee's family died, he was anger and power and death on horseback. By that time he had already made a name as a gunslinger. Driven by that anger, he became a legend. Larabee and Kestrel could have cut a swath through the western territories that they would sing songs about. Then they could have fled to Mexico and lived like kings. Why he allowed Wilmington to continually lead him away from that destiny was a mystery. From the moment he had started wearing black to reflect his darkened spirit Larabee seemed to be on the verge of hating his oldest friend for watching his back and keeping him from paths he could never turn back from. Yet somehow Kestrel had never been able to push them over the edge. Well, guilt was equally as malleable a clay as hatred and anger. Larabee would know guilt - that Wilmington died with harsh words between them. Kestrel was confident he would still walk down the dusty streets of Four Corners and the other up-and-coming communities as the only person Chris Larabee would allow at his side. Larabee might control the others, but he would control Larabee. It was his destiny. Kestrel sipped at his coffee around a smile. For most men it would have been complicated getting everyone to where they were now. It had been easy for Kestrel. Now it was simply a matter of Wilmington and Standish dying in a manner that Larabee couldn't hold him responsible for and the others couldn't convince him it was so. Easy as water off a duck's back. Easy as picking maggots off a body. The smile turned into a laugh and he dumped his coffee into the flames.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah had settled himself among the three rebels earlier in the evening. The two bottles of red eye he had proffered up as a peace offering for the earlier run-in between the youngsters of the two gangs were nearly gone. He hoped it would be enough inducement for them to accept him as a friend. Josiah silently, patiently, listened to the men indulge in campfire talk. He had questions he couldn't even put into words. Maybe the questions would crystallize if he got to know these men. How did they now Kestrel? Did they trust him, as they seemed? He would think back later at how he had never suspected the detail with which the conspiracy against him and his friends had been conceived.
"Sho - so, Josiah," Carson leaned over conspiratorially, "How much do you gents make off the shop owners?"
"What?" Josiah was just as surprised by the question as that he was suddenly included in the conversation.
"C'mon, lay it out for us. We're practically your partners."
The others leaned forward. Their expressions ranged from Carson's greedy leer to Darby's innocent curiosity. But the anticipation raised Josiah's hackles.
"Is it just the shopkeepers in Four Corners who pay you to protect them? Or do the other towns kick in?"
Josiah picked his words carefully. He needed to know what these men thought they knew and not give up his confusion to the questions. "Who told you anything was going on?"
"Kestrel. Said it was only a matter of time before the ranchers were paying us, too. Then we'll buy up the land for the railroad ... "
"Why would we need more partners?" Josiah asked, dreading the answer.
"You can afford to turn the sharpshooter in for that bounty once we take his place. Bonner here may not be part bloodhound like your man, but he can track with the best of them. With us as your new backup, you don't need him anymore. Kestrel figures Larabee only keeps the pup around as a favor to Wilmington."
"You're saying Kestrel plans on you replacing our ... " Josiah's fury was building like West Texas thunderheads. How the hell did these men know about the bounty on Vin's head?
"Hey, hey, you're safe. You and the Doc. Kes says you're good for 'public relations'."
Josiah stood slowly, ready to rip the heads off of these men. Suddenly a calming hand came to rest on his arm. Nathan's warm dark eyes warn him off. "That must mean Kestrel thinks he can get Chris to let Buck ride out?" The healer prodded.
Bonner laughed drunkenly. "Do you know how much Kes hates Wilmington? He wants that maverick's spot in this gang so bad he can taste it."
"Buck, Vin, JD ... that's three." Nathan asked the leading question.
Bonner took the bait. "Standish ruined his military career with that escape."
"Ain't neither of them comin' out of that POW camp if Kes has to kill 'em himself." Carson agreed.
Josiah felt his spine turn to an icicle. This man who Buck was trusting as go-between in the escape, to watch his back, was planning on killing him and Standish.
"Those two ain't gonna survive to lead the prison break. Yep, rescuing the POW's is going to make the Magnificent Seven even more famous than that Jock Steele guy did. Only by that time we'll be the Magnificent Seven." Carson laughed uproarishly and swung his arms around to take in all of his new "partners".
"You think that Chris is going to listen to that son-of-a-bitch after what he caught him at last night?" Nathan was controlling himself and his best friend; biding time; gathering information. He'd let Josiah at them later.
"That's right, you didn't know him before. Kestrel says when Larabee loses someone he's not human. He's a loaded cannon. Anyone that can get through the gunpowder can direct him. Last time it was Wilmington hard as Kestrel tried to be the one. With him the one what's dead, nobody can keep Kes from controlling the great gunfighter. Don't matter what came before, don't matter what will come after. He just needs to be controlled. Besides, whoever bought Kes away from Carlisle must have plans of their own." Carson lounged back against the boulders at his back like they were a lady's swooning couch and tipped the bottle straight up to strain out the last amber drops.
Nathan couldn't hold his friend back any longer. The Preacher grabbed the chunky ex-soldier by the collar and pulled him up and close. "What the hell are you talking about?" This was spiraling into a nightmare. Someone had hired Kestrel?
The healer, gun drawn, stood between Josiah, his victim and the other two men. Bonner and young Darby were just as protective of Carson as the seven would be of one of their own. Nathan held his other hand out in a move to placate his enraged comrade and that motion also asked him to take this slow; wait for an answer.
"We were on the trail of these people - the ex-soldiers and their captives." Carson stammered as he fought at the fists that pulled his collar up so tight that Josiah's meaty knuckles jammed into his cheeks and jaw. He rushed to get the words out. "One night Kes practically kidnaps Darby; tells him he knows all about us and he can help us get revenge and rescue the others. We just had to wait until you gunfighters from Four Corners got involved."
Nathan didn't want to believe that someone had gone to such lengths to get them here. "You needed Ezra, someone Bridger knew ... " He forced out the words hoping that saying them would make them true. A simple answer.
"Any Confederate would have taken the risk to save his brother soldiers. Standish being here was just Kes' good luck. Wilmington and Larabee, that's another story."
Nathan felt tiny tremors go through Josiah even from the distance. Sanchez tightened his grip on Carson and appeared to be about to hurl him across the fire. A surprisingly soothing voice reached him before he could act. "Put him down, Josiah."
Everyone's eyes skimmed to the shadowy silhouette at the edge of the fire. Chris Larabee stepped into the circle of camp light followed by an enigmatic Tanner and wide-eyed, anxious JD. They had heard. Larabee slid beside the older man and put a gentling hand on his arm. "Put him down." He said softly. Josiah frowned slightly when he didn't see his own anger reflected back from the lethal gunfighter. Instead he saw regret and something else he couldn't identify. "Kestrel told them what they wanted to hear." Nodding at Carson still in Sanchez's grip, he explained with an insight that sank in to all around him. "He was only watching out for his men; trying to find them a home." His grip on the older man's arm tightened fractionally, companionably. "They aren't the enemy."
Chris spoke over his shoulder to JD. "Get started on the horses." The boy bolted off to have something to do. Their leader waited. Josiah finally released his grip. Chris's tone had cut through Josiah's anger. He mastered it and understood. There was a lot to be worked out, but it would be done on the trail. They were heading out now to undermine the timeline Kestrel had established for himself.
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