FIGHTING THE INEVITABLE

By Barb

 

A/N: I don’t own the boys, although I wish I did and I bet they wish I did too. I’d give them the proper respect and love that they deserve and sadly never received. The angels mentioned belong to God, except for dear Julian who’s all mine.

 

~ ~ THE NEW LAW~ ~

Normally, I’d take great pleasure in days such as this one and spend time lazily lounging about the town with an eye on my charges, who were for the most part keeping their noses rather clean. It would seem that Chris’ little brush with death at the prison camp a few months back had sobered them all up a bit and made them less reckless when it came to handling the criminal element. Unfortunately for me, the villains of the world weren’t very sympathetic to my desire to bask in the shade while the blazing sun passed overhead, which brought me and my little troupe to our current predicament. Yesterday afternoon, Chris had spotted a group of shady characters skulking about in the vicinity of the town’s bank and had warned the others to keep an eye on the men in case they decided to come back later and make a go of it. As luck would have it, Vin had spotted the group of miscreants while out on his morning patrol today and his early warning had provided ample time for my charges to put this little plan of theirs into action.

 I slowly made my way out to where Chris was standing in the middle of the street, looking about as inconspicuous as an elephant out there on the empty thoroughfare, and took a look around the barren town. I spotted Vin and Buck as each man slowly poked his head out from his respective perch, and I swallowed down the tickle that began to creep up the back of my throat. Before I had a chance to voice my unease, a group of riders came around the corner and I knew that things were going to break down in a hurry if the looks on their faces were anything to go by. I felt my spine automatically straighten at the sight of three more of my charges riding up behind the group of outlaws and Nathan sidling up from a side alley. Their combined efforts along with the presence of Vin and Buck effectively caged the men in, and it wasn’t long before the would-be bank robbers began a wary stand-off with my charges.

“Why do these things always have to take place in the middle of a bloody street where there’s absolutely no protection,” I grumbled, shifting back and forth restlessly as I waited for the inevitable shootout to commence. After several nerve-wracking moments of twitchy glances between the bandits and my charges, I began to grow impatient and finally threw up my arms in exasperation. “Bloody hell, get on with it already! You lot are going to drive me bloody bonkers with this waiting nonsense,” I cried out, letting my impatience get the better of me. Truthfully, I always operated better during the thick of things when I didn’t have time to think about what was going on. This waiting for the shit to hit the fan business…it was not a feeling I enjoyed having foisted upon me. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of young Billy Travis sneaking a peek of the proceedings from his mother’s doorway before Mary promptly scurried out and ushered him back inside to safety. Apparently, the movement was enough to set off the bandit leader’s trigger finger, and before I knew it the street had erupted into gunfire.

“Well, at least there won’t be any more stalling!” I shouted, turning this way and that in an effort to take in everything that was happening. I looked on in morbid fascination as my charges sent half the men tumbling from their horses in a matter of seconds, and as they slowly began to pick off the remaining miscreants one by one I felt the tension gradually lift from my shoulders. “Looks like we might have overestimated them, eh,” I chuckled to my oblivious charges as they continued to go about their business. I caught sight of Vin swinging down from his perch and tackling one of the remaining bandits and winced at the impact. “That’s bound to hurt come tomorrow, mate,” I called out to him, flinching when he knocked his opponent out cold. “Well, at least you’ve only got a few bruises to worry about,” I mumbled, continuing to scan my surroundings until I saw Buck make a diving leap for one of the remaining outlaws still sitting atop a horse. “And here I thought that we had them beaten in the intelligence department,” I tisked, refusing to acknowledge just how angry the foolish action made me but sighing in relief when Buck promptly sprang back up to punch the man in the face.

No matter how greatly I wished for them to refrain from such foolhardy maneuvers, I’d finally come to accept the fact that my charges were stuck in their ways and I could either deal with it or go completely insane. I’d chosen to simply grin and bear it, but that didn’t mean that I gave up fussing over their stupidity all-together. No, I simply hid my concern better than I had previously. I gave my exasperating charge a shake of the head as he quickly made work of another foe who’d managed to grab a young lady to use as a human shield. How chivalrous, I mused wryly as I turned my attention back to the street. What was left of the group of outlaws was now being rounded up by my charges and gradually transported to the jail, and I couldn’t help but let out a deep breath at the realization that the little skirmish was now over and none of my men were the worse for wear.

“Come to think of it, you lot didn’t even need me at all.” I felt my face morph into a pout as I slouched against the support post at my back. “If I didn’t know any better I’d think that you didn’t need me anymore,” I grumbled half-heartedly, my lips twitching in amusement as I watched Ezra kick one of the miscreant s into motion. The sounds of various townsfolk reemerging from their buildings caught my attention, and a complaint from the store owner off to my right about the damage done to his building had me wincing again. “You lot certainly did a number on the place, that’s for sure,” I remarked sardonically, taking in the sight of the man’s collapsed awning and recalling that it was the same one that Vin had crashed into earlier. “Sorry, mate,” I mumbled, casting the man a weak smile before striding out to meet my charges in the street. I watched as Josiah attempted to control a particularly riled-up Union officer and chuckled as the man shouted after the men that the rest of my charges were hauling away. “Seems they’ve been quite the busy little bees,” I remarked wryly, listening as the officer spun a tale of how the group of outlaws had stolen his artillery wagon. I mentally counted off the seconds until one of my charges agreed to help the poor man and allowed myself a satisfied smirk when Vin took up the man’s offer of five dollars to recover the wagon before I had reached ten. “You’re all suckers for charity cases, you know that don’t you,” I hollered after my retreating charges, not bothering to hide my amusement from my voice.

The sound of the approaching stage sobered me up in the blink of an eye, my previous experiences with the contraption setting me on edge every time one of the bloody things came into town. I looked to see if Gabriel was accompanying this one as he had with previous stagecoaches, but I didn’t see him or any other presence on or around the incoming wagon. I allowed my body to relax from its tense position just a fraction as I monitored the stage’s movements, eyeing it warily as if another gang of outlaws or some other vicious fiend would come bursting forth from its door at any moment. Once the transport had come to a stop in front of the jail, I took a few hesitant steps backwards until I was resting against the support post opposite Vin alongside the rest of my charges. If disaster was about to strike, and knowing my troupe’s luck it was almost a sure bet that it was, I wanted to be as close to my men as possible. The second I spotted Judge Travis climbing down the stage steps I knew my first instinct had been right. There was no way that he was here for a simple visit, and yet the whole situation had me puzzled.

“Shouldn’t Gabriel be here too?” I muttered to myself, taking in the scene before me. I heard Travis say something about needing to be elsewhere in a few hours, but my words of relief died on my lips at the sight of the next man stepping out of the stage. The man was well-dressed and he was wearing a silver badge, which could only mean one thing. “Oh bugger,” I muttered, my chest beginning to tighten as the man fixed his gaze onto my charges and began to calmly ask for their guns. Despite my charges’ chuckles, I found nothing humorous in the situation, and the Judge’s next statement only served to twist the knife of anxiety that I currently felt in my gut. “There’s no way they’ll all remain here if they’re forced to surrender their weapons. They’d just assume ride out tomorrow morning and go their separate ways before taking orders from this…tosser,” I cried out to the oblivious judge, waving absently at the smug man staring up at my charges. I felt myself begin to panic as I thought about my troupe splitting up…possibly for real this time, and I wished that Gabriel had accompanied his cantankerous charge. At least then I would’ve had someone to prevent me from having another meltdown, I thought to myself as I felt my threads of composure begin to unravel.

~*~

I plopped down heavily onto the step leading up to the boardwalk and rested my pounding head between my now-shaking hands, absently keeping an ear on the conversation buzzing about me. This can’t be happening, I mused despondently, screwing my eyes shut as I heard Buck begin to taunt the marshal. Guess I shouldn’t be all that surprised; I know I wouldn’t take being replaced very well either. It would seem that the others shared this view because one after the other they all chimed in with their two cents until the marshal finally declared that they had twenty four hours to either leave town or surrender their guns or risk being thrown in jail. I felt someone sit down beside me and shifted my head to catch a glance of who it was, giving the weary figure of Judge Travis a once over before mashing my face between my fingers once more. The man attempted to explain the marshal’s presence to my charges, and I felt myself grow more dejected every time one of my charges tried to get him to reverse the course of action only to be shot down. I caught sight of Chris walking away and knew that my worst fears were going to be confirmed even before Travis formally dismissed my men from their protective duties. I finally risked a look back at the rest of them and felt my lips twist into a sad smile as JD attempted to ban everyone together and fight the marshal’s declaration only to have the rest of my troupe walk away one by one without giving the young man a response.

“I guess this really is the end,” I whispered, remaining seated long enough to gather enough strength to follow Chris to the livery. I had thought that he would perhaps wait a bit before preparing to depart, but the man was already fiddling with his saddle when I came upon him and Mrs. Travis. “Why can’t you people ever just come out and say what it is you wish to say instead of skirting around the issue,” I remarked offhandedly, looking on as Mary and Chris said their goodbyes. “Billy will miss you,” I mocked Mary’s words in a whiny voice before letting out a snort of amusement. “And for those of us who can’t take a hint that line translates into ‘I’ll missyou’,” I drawled, making sure to add extra emphasis on the word, I’ll. “Honestly, I have to say that I’m a bit disappointed. I thought for sure that she’d at least give you a hug or perhaps a peck on the cheek on something,” I called over my shoulder, watching as Mary walked away and hearing Chris go back to adjusting his saddle as I kept my back to him. “Not that you care or anything because you’ve got your whole revenge thing clouding your judgment and all,” I stated derisively, using finger quotes when I stressed the word, revenge. I knew I was babbling, but I found that once I had started it was near to impossible to stop. I was a giant ball of anxiety and talking out my thoughts was the only way to release the mounting emotions I could feel swelling inside of me. Besides…it wasn’t as if anyone could hear me.

~*~

I managed to locate my other charges in the saloon, and I took up a spot against the back wall so that I was conveniently next to Vin and Ezra’s table and close enough to JD and Nathan’s that I could hear the young man questioning the healer about whether or not he was going to stay in town. I began to get so caught up in my charges’ conversations that I completely missed the fact that someone had come to stand next to me until I felt a sudden pressure on my shoulder. “Bloody hell, Gabriel, don’t be sneaking up on me like that,” I cried out, shrugging his hand off of my shoulder as I took an involuntary step backward.

“I’m sorry, I thought I was easy enough to spot coming through the front door,” Gabriel explained with a wry smile, using his now free hand to motion towards the swinging doors. I shot him a contemptuous glare in an effort to get him to drop the subject, but it only seemed to spur him on. “Are you sure that you’re alright, brother? You seem a bit…distracted.”

It took every ounce of willpower that I possessed to prevent my hands from clasping around my brother’s throat and squeezing the very life out of him when I caught sight of Gabriel’s sly smirk, the only giveaway to his knowledge of my current predicament. Before I could respond to his blatant baiting, a loud hammering sound on the other side of the wall we were leaning against caused everyone in the saloon to turn their heads towards the back, and I could tell that it was the marshal by my charges’ sideways glances to the back corner. I shifted a couple of steps so that I could look around the corner as I watched JD amble over to see what the marshal had nailed to the wall. I made sure to keep an eye on my charges that were still seated at the table as I heard JD read the marshal’s new mandates aloud, and I could see the color drain from Ezra’s face when JD finally got to the part that mentioned no gambling, his shot glass falling from nerveless fingers.

“I uh…take it that your charges aren’t handling the situation well,” Gabriel spoke up hesitantly, flinching when I quickly whipped around to pin him against the back wall.

“Not handling…does it bloody look like they’re handling this well!?” I roared, moving the hand that I’d planted on his chest up to his throat as I flung my other arm at the room in front of us. “All of this mess is your fault,” I hissed, making sure that our faces were close enough so that Gabriel could see that glint of madness that I was sure was present in my eyes. My brother made an attempt to speak, but I tightened my grip on his neck so that only gurgling sounds could be heard. “I don’t wish to hear your pitiful excuses, Gabriel. It was your bloodycharge that brought that…troll here, which means that this whole mess is your muck-up,” I growled, adding a shove against the wall with every emphasized word. I could hear my charges mutely leaving the saloon so I gave my brother a final shove, snarling, “You fix this,” before I turned and stalked out. Not for the first time did I wish that I wasn’t the shortest out of the three of us; perhaps if I were taller my intimidation techniques would be more effective on my two brothers. As it was, I had to leverage myself onto my toes in order to look either of them in the eye…not very conducive when I wished to give either one a chewing out, but I think my sheer intensity worked in my favor on this one.

~*~

I had managed to make it down the street a ways, stopping to observe a conversation between JD and the young Miss Wells, when I heard my brother sidle up next to me. I kept my attention trained on the two young people before me, mouth twitching in irritation as my youngest charge seemed to lose his earlier enthusiasm for keeping my seven charges together and now resigned himself to moving on. Gabriel made a small coughing sound as if he was preparing to offer his thoughts on the scene unfolding before us, but I quickly silenced him with an angry hiss. There was no way that he could explain his way out of this one, and I made sure that I flashed him my most piercing glare when Casey left in an angry huff, leaving JD to stare after her with a hurt look of confusion marring his youthful countenance. Gabriel had the good grace to look ashamed as I bored a hole through his body with my heated gaze, but he chose to hold his tongue as I stalked past him, knowing that his words would only incite my wrath further.

After spotting the marshal lingering outside of Nathan’s clinic, I let out a frustrated breath before floating over to see what his problem was now. I felt my face grow hotter with each disparaging word that came out of the man’s mouth, and it wasn’t until I felt Gabriel’s hand on my arm that I noticed how rigid my muscles had gone. Once the man had left my charge in a bewildered state of irritation, I wrenched my arm free and glided over the banister to the street below, intent on stalking about the town until my temper could cool down enough for me to think about my predicament in a rational manner. I could hear Gabriel’s footsteps as he hastened to catch up with me, but I was too far gone in my own dark thoughts to pay him any mind, my eyes too clouded by red mist to notice much of anything besides a thin tunnel of vision. A sudden tug on my left wrist caused me to jerk to a stop and swivel my head around to level my brother with another glare, but the words died in my throat when I caught sight of what had drawn Gabriel’s attention.

“Bloody hell…what’s he gone and done this time?” I groaned under my breath, allowing my strung-out body to slump in defeat at the sight of Buck being hauled towards the jail by a rather determined looking Marshal Bryce. Gabriel turned to face me, a statement poised on the tip of his tongue, but I muttered, “Shut up, Gabriel,” before a word of it could pass his lips. I moved to walk past him, but he grabbed my arm and held me back, completely ignoring my stammered protests.

“Would you just calm down for a second and listen to me,” Gabriel hissed, shoving me back against the nearest wall. Seeing that my normally composed younger brother was bordering on hysterics, I decided to remain silent and hear him out, realizing that my recent streak of aggressiveness may have crossed the line. “Listen…I understand that you and your charges are…experiencing difficulties,” Gabriel stated haltingly, letting out a deep breath, “but I’m sure we can rectify this situation if we just take a moment to think things through.”

I could see that my brother was genuinely distressed about my predicament; therefore, I decided to go against my customary behavior of snarky retorts and rude insinuations in favor of a mildly sarcastic, “And just what exactly would you suggest we do?” I couldn’t resist flashing Gabriel a small smirk when he finally raised his bowed head to meet my gaze, arching my eyebrows in silent question when he continued to look unsure of himself. “You do have a plan, don’t you?”

Gabriel inhaled a deep breath before easing back a few steps, letting the hand he had placed on my chest drop away limply. “Contrary to what you may think, I’m not privy to any more information than you are. I…I don’t know how to fix this, Julian, but…I’m open to whatever suggestions you might have,” he stammered, holding his arms out in a symbol of submission before letting them fall to his sides. The sheer openness of his actions left me startled for a moment as I tried to connect this vulnerable figure before me with my usually unruffled younger brother. I’d never seen Gabriel act this way before, even when he came to me for help.

Not wanting my brother to see just how deeply his actions affected me, I turned my attention to our bustling surroundings, keeping my gaze fixed on the local jail and the smug countenance of Marshal Bryce as I muttered a response. “There’s nothing to be done right now; our best bet is to come up with a strategy tonight so that we’re prepared come morning.” After giving the marshal one last glare, I began to make my way over to the livery and the perfect vantage point that its roof provided.

“You think they’ll really split up this time?” Gabriel asked solemnly, turning to fix me with an apprehensive stare as we both perched on the edge of the livery’s roof a few minutes later. It wasn’t so much a question as it was a confirmation of something that we both knew to be true, but I chose to answer anyway.

“Yes…I do.”

*~*

  After spending all night theorizing the many ways that the next day could play out, Gabriel and I decided that should my charges choose to go their separate ways, we would each pick certain ones to follow for a day or two and then regroup back in town.

“It would appear that your assumption was correct,” Gabriel sighed, his posture slumping a bit as we caught sight of Josiah and Nathan leading their horses towards the center of town. I remained silent as I observed JD walk across the street to join them, knowing that the young man would be making one last plea for the men to remain in town and be rebuffed one last time. As we sat and watched the proceedings unfold, the rest of my charges began to ride up so that they were all together to give their last goodbyes. “They’re not even putting up a struggle,” Gabriel murmured, voicing the thought that had been eating away at me throughout the entire procession. I watched as my charges shared a laugh at the sound of Buck’s shouting for all he was worth from the jail across the street and felt my lips twist into a wry grin.

“Why should they?” I drawled, craning my neck around to see the perplexed expression on my brother’s face. He really was slow on the uptake sometimes. “It wasn’t as if they all planned on staying in this little backwater forever, Gabriel,” I chuckled bitterly, flicking my eyes back to the scene before us. I took in the bittersweet grins and hasty handshakes that my charges shared before they each went their separate ways. “They knew this time would come,” I mumbled, jumping down from my seat on a hitching post and striding towards the middle of the street. I was just about to set off after Chris when a sudden jerk on my arm caused me to halt and turn my head to see what Gabriel wanted.

“Does that man look suspicious to you?” he asked tentatively, jutting his chin towards a mustached man standing off to the side of the street. I gave the man a scrutinizing once over before arching a brow at my brother in question. “I could’ve sworn that I saw him eyeing up your lot yesterday,” he muttered under his breath, staring at the mysterious man as if he expected him to burst into flames at any moment. I gave the man another look and had to agree that he did look a might dodgy, standing off to the side and watching my charges ride away…and…was he smirking?

“Tell you what, Gabriel, why don’t you follow him and see what his game is. I’ll tail Chris for a bit and then switch over to Vin and then Ezra. Will you be alright handling Josiah and Nathan? Gabriel?” I shook my brother’s arm for emphasis when he continued to remain silent, and I gave him a long-searching look to see if he had heard me.

“Yes…yes that’s fine,” he stammered, shaking off his stupor before following the mustached man to the livery.

I continued to stand in the middle of the street and stare off into the distance until a familiar voice drifting over from across the street caught my attention and caused me to turn my head in time to see Marshal Bryce talking with Mary. “Bloody fool doesn’t realize what he’s done,” I grumbled under my breath, giving the pair a withering look before taking off in the direction that I’d seen Chris go.

~*~

“It figures that you’d come back here to start your quest for vengeance,” I remarked dryly, giving the ‘town’ of Purgatory a bemused once over before returning my attention to my stoic charge. “You know…I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again because it’s one of the few things that unnerve me; I find it to be strangely unsettling at how well you blend in when you’re staying in places like this…almost as if this was your natural habitat.” I noticed a young woman eyeing Chris out of the corner of my eye, and I let out a deep sigh when he got up and followed her to a ramshackle building down the street a few moments later. “I guess I’ll just leave you to it then,” I grumbled, turning from the sight of my retreating charge and taking off to check on Vin. Hopefully, he hadn’t managed to get himself into any trouble while on his search for the army officer’s artillery wagon. 

When I finally caught up to Vin, he was busy chasing down a man that I could only presume was the one responsible for the theft of the artillery wagon. “It’s a good thing that you’re the one chasing the bloke and not me,” I chuckled wryly, dusting my nails on my sleeve as I leaned against a nearby tree and watched the chase unfold. “I personally would’ve just shot the bugger in the leg and left him to rot.” As the panicked man suddenly lost his footing, I perked my body up in anticipation and winced at the impact of Vin tackling the man to the ground. “Well…I guess that’ll work,” I smirked, watching as my grinning charge led the somewhat docile man back to the stolen wagon with a sense of pride. “Should’ve known that you’d have everything in hand,” I mumbled under my breath, giving the pair a bemused shake of the head before I took off to check on my last charge. Of the three men that I’d agreed to follow, Ezra was the one that worried me the most, considering his penchant for running into trouble. I heaved another great sigh as I flew over the land in an attempt to spot my charge’s signature red coat, smiling in relief when a blur of red finally popped up amidst a crop of small dwellings.

~*~

I never knew that events were capable of deteriorating so rapidly; alas, the sight that greeted me upon my return to town caused me to rethink that belief. I felt my jaw gape a bit at the sight of JD riding towards the end of town, and I quickly swept the area for any sign of my brother. I was just about to shout for him when his tired-sounding voice unexpectedly spoke up right behind me, causing me to twirl around in surprise.

“Thank heavens you’re back,” Gabriel sighed, attempting a small smile as he braced his hands on hips and bent to catch his breath. “Thought I’d…have to handle...those cads myself,” he wheezed out.

I didn’t even give him time to straighten his posture before I lunged forward and gripped his robe, giving him a harsh shake as I demanded an explanation. “What the bloody hell’s gone down here, Gabriel? I leave you for two days and this is what happens,” I stammered, flinging an arm in JD’s direction as I sought for more words to express my outrage. “Wha…what the hell got into him? And…and where the bloody hell’s Buck?” I could feel myself begin to shake as panic began to set in; however, Gabriel managed to reverse our positions, wrapping his hands around my shoulders and holding me in place before I could run off like a headless chicken.

“Could you just calm down for a moment and let me explain?” Gabriel asked wryly, waiting until I had my breathing back under control before flashing me a relieved smile. “Now, was that so hard?”

I gritted my teeth in irritation but refused to rise to my brother’s bait, choosing to simply scowl at him for his audacity to be cheeky at a time like this. “You’ve got exactly thirty seconds to explain why young Mr. Dunne is leaving and why Mr. Wilmington is curiously absent from the landscape; he should’ve been released by now,” I huffed in irritation, crossing my arms over my chest as I shot a dark look over to the jail.

“Well…thing is…he um…he may have gone and um,” Gabriel trailed off into nervous chuckles and the rest of his words were garbled into his hand.

I turned my head around slowly and arched a brow at him as I calmly asked, “Care to try that again?”

Gabriel shifted his eyes so that they were looking at anything and everything but mine, and he let out a small cough before huffing out, “He got himself locked up again.”

I continued to stare at my brother’s downcast face as I let his words sink in to my anger-clouded mind, finally letting out a shrill scream when his awkward explanation registered with me. “You bloody hedonist, you couldn’t keep it in your pants for five minutes!” I bellowed across the street, somehow instinctively knowing the reason for Buck’s latest stint behind bars involved his ‘animal magnetism’. I was halfway to the jail when I felt Gabriel wrap his arms around me and pull me to the boardwalk, and I began to claw at his hands in an effort to release myself from his tight grip. “Damn you Gabriel, let me go. I have…every right…to kill that…lecherous buffoon,” I growled, grunting in exertion when my efforts to free myself proved fruitless.

“I’ll let you have a go at him later, Julian, but right now I need you to listen to me. This problem is grander than what we originally thought, and I can’t fix it without your help,” Gabriel exclaimed, tightening his grip for a moment before letting his arms go lax. I heard his weary sigh next to my ear and could tell that he lacked the energy to continue this exchange. This show of weakness was enough to get me to drop my display and cooperate with him, thinking that whatever was on his mind had to be important for him to go to the lengths of physically restraining me.

“Alright, Gabriel, I’ll bite. What new development have you managed to uncover?” I panted, moving to stand in front of my brother with a shaky hand over my chest to help control my rapid heartbeat.

“Do you remember that man I followed?” Gabriel asked quietly, resting his head against the wall he was leaning on and closing his eyes.

“Ah yes, the one with the fantastic mustache,” I chuckled, “what about him?”

“Well…it turns out that he’s working for a couple of ranchers named Royal and James, and he and a group of men are set on burning down the town,” Gabriel replied, opening his eyes to fix me with a troubling expression.

Oh no…no…I knew that look. “And just when were these men planning on carrying out this dastardly deed?” I asked mockingly, taking a step forward so that I was able to look my anxious brother right in the eye and feel him squirm under my gaze.

“When I left them this morning they were preparing to head for town,” Gabriel stammered, swallowing heavily as he averted his gaze.

I wanted to laugh and shout, ‘I knew it!’ because this was just the cherry on top of the already incredible sundae of disaster that has plagued me and my charges ever since Marshal Bryce arrived, but the sound of approaching horses caused the words to stick in my throat. “They are prompt little buggers aren’t they,” I muttered under my breath, shifting my body so that I could have a clear view of the men Gabriel had been talking about. “That’s an awfully big group, Gabriel,” I mumbled, my attention so focused on the miscreants that I failed to notice Marshal Bryce until Gabriel’s muttered curse from beside me drifted up to my ears.

“Oh shit, this can’t possibly end well.”

I turned my head to ask him what he was on about, but he simply pointed to the figure armed with a shotgun making his way out to the street and I felt my insides grow cold. Did the bloke have a death wish or something? “What the bloody hell does he think he’s doing? Those men will cut him down like a dog,” I cried out, rushing to prevent the man from being murdered despite my immense dislike for him. I could hear Gabriel running behind me, but for some reason he stopped right after leaving the boardwalk. I could hear the outlaws laughing at something the marshal had said and knew that my time was quickly running out. “You’re going to owe me immensely for this,” I called out to the oblivious lawmen, readying myself to tackle him out of harm’s way when I was suddenly jerked to a stop. “What the hell’s the matter with you, Gabriel, let me go!”

The iron grip around my midsection tightened, and it was as I felt myself being lifted and turned away that I knew the person holding me back could only be one person. “You can’t save him, Julian,” Michael rumbled in my ear, causing me to squirm even harder.

“Yes…I can…if you’d just…let…me…go,” I gritted through clenched teeth, straining for all I was worth until the sound of gunshots caused me to freeze. Apparently, the men had not taken too kindly to the marshal’s prickly attitude towards guns and chose to shoot him down just as I’d feared, disregarding the member of their group who had fallen at the marshal’s hand. At that point I gave up struggling and allowed my older brother to steer me to the boardwalk where Gabriel waited anxiously. I waited until we’d settled on a nearby bench with me being squeezed between my two brothers before voicing the question that had plagued me since Michael’s arrival. “Why…why weren’t we allowed to save him?” I croaked, wrapping my arms around myself as I folded my body in half, a mechanism I’d come to perfect during times of emotional upheaval.

Michael let out a deep sigh before responding in what I’d come to call his ‘Teacher’ voice, “Because it was his appointed time to die.”

“What the bloody hell is that supposed to mean, Michael? If it was that sod’s appointed time, why weren’t we notified?” I screamed, painfully aware of how pathetic I sounded with my voice cracking so I continued in a much more subdued tone. “He was responsible for the disbandment of my charges and was under our watch; we had every right to know that something like this would happen.”

Michael gave me an apologetic smile and wrapped me in a one-armed hug. “I’m sorry,” he murmured in my ear, shushing me when I snorted in response. “Don’t be like that, Julian; you know how these things work. I had to beg Father to allow me to come to you at all.”

“So what…you want us to be grateful?” Gabriel chimed in sarcastically, and I had to fight to keep my smirk from showing. “In case you haven’t noticed, Michael, we have a dangerous situation on our hands and no one left to stop these cretins.”

I caught Michael’s grimace out of the corner of my eye and decided to intervene before Gabriel could really get riled up. “Actually, Buck’s still locked up in the jail…but I doubt he’ll be much help,” I mused aloud, shaking my head as if to dismiss the notion that my remaining charge could be of any use. The three of us continued to watch the frightened townspeople gather their belongings and head out of town before a flash of gold caught my eye and caused a slow grin to spread across my lips. “Perhaps hope is not lost after all,” I drawled, pointing to where the figure of Mary Travis was hoisting herself up onto the back of a horse and preparing to head out of town.

“Where do you think she’s going?” Gabriel asked, furrowing his brows as he watched her ride out of the less active end of town.

“I’d say she’s on her way to find some of your charges,” Michael replied, flashing us both a small smirk. “At least, that’s what I’d be doing if I were her.”

~*~

“Are these the types of places that we can expect to find the others in, or this just a Chris Larabee trademark?” Michael asked out of the side of his mouth as we waited for Mary to finish explaining to Chris about the situation back in town.

I couldn’t help but grin at him as he and Gabriel continued to shuffle their feet awkwardly while flashing the inhabitants of Purgatory uneasy grimaces. “I don’t think we need to worry about Vin or Ezra,” I stated confidently, allowing my grin to grow wider when they each arched a brow at me in question. “Last time I saw Vin, he was resting quite comfortably atop the armory wagon that he’d been sent to find, and when I left Ezra he was happily plying his trade in a little village near Eagle Bend.”

Michael cocked his head to the side so that he faced Gabriel and silently asked the same question of our brother. “Don’t look at me like that! Last time I saw the two I was sent to follow, Nathan was tending to the sick in the Indian village and Josiah was traipsing about in the hills,” Gabriel spluttered, giving us both an indignant huff.

“I guess we’ll see if your accounts hold up soon enough,” Michael muttered, placing a hand on each of our backs to guide us along after Chris and Mary, who had already begun to head back towards town.

~*~

We had already managed to snag Vin, Nathan and Josiah and were on our way to pick up Ezra when Michael pointed to a spot down the hill.

“Isn’t that your charge right there?” he asked with a hint of amusement.

“You mean the one in the red jacket riding like he’s got the Devil himself on his heels?” Gabriel chimed in, not even bothering to hide his pleasure at my expense.

I flashed them both a withering glare before following the others to see what sort of mischief my wayward charge had managed to find, calling out, “At least he wasn’t up in the hills talking to himself,” over my shoulder. As much as I appreciated their help in this matter, I’d be even happier to see them on their way when this mess was over, I mused to myself as I stalked toward my group of charges. By the time I reached them, Ezra had joined their ranks and hastily informed Chris that he’d return with them to town as long as they helped him escape his pursuers, which appeared to be an angry lot of farmers. “You sure do know how to pick ‘em, mate,” I tisked, giving Ezra’s tar covered cheek a disappointing shake of the head. I guess I was asking too much when I expected him to stay out of trouble for a day.

~*~

I stood off to the side with Michael and Gabriel flanking me as my charges attempted to come up with a strategy for taking back the town, and I waited for the inevitable snickering that had begun since I had regaled them with the tale of how Vin and Chris had aided JD in springing Buck from his cage to begin once again. Honestly, weren’t they supposed to be the mature ones?

“Oh do shut up!” I cried out, fixing each of them with a look of exasperation when they began giggling into their hands. “I’d like to see you handle my lot for a week; that’d wipe those smirks right off your faces,” I grumbled, thumping my body back against the tree I was leaning against and huffing out an annoyed breath.  

“I’m sorry, Julian, it’s just that…was his hat really that ridiculous looking?” Michael asked before bursting into another round of chuckles that only stopped once I elbowed him in the side. “Wha…what was that for?”

“Pay attention you git!” I hissed, pointing towards the dissembling crowd in front of us. “It looks like they’ve come up with something.”

After watching my charges and the townspeople put on the army uniforms from the wagon Vin had recovered, I found myself arching a brow and smiling in understanding. I’d almost forgotten how resourceful my charges could be when their backs were against the wall.

~*~

It had been one whole day since the showdown between the men hired to burn the town and my charges, and things were slowly beginning to get back to how they were before Marshal Bryce’s untimely arrival. Catching sight of Buck abandoning his side of a load of lumber he was helping Nathan carry in order to flounce off with the woman he had been making time with since before the marshal’s arrival had me thinking that not all things had changed one bit. 

“I must say…that was a might close wasn’t it?” Michael remarked, chuckling and shaking his head slightly when Gabriel and I arched brows at him in question. “Yesterday…that whole standoff your men pulled…bit too risky for my taste, but I guess that’s why they have you guarding them instead of me,” he smirked, leaning over to poke me in the arm affectionately.

“I say, Julian, your men do seem to have a habit of performing rather chancy maneuvers,” Gabriel observed, his eyes busy scanning our surroundings as we perched atop a hitching post and watched the townspeople repair the damage that had been done yesterday and the day before. “It’s a wonder that none of them have been gravely injured yet.”

He never saw the blow coming and ended up sprawled in the street after I smacked him upside the head. “You imbecile, have you been taking lessons in idiocy because I know you couldn’t have always been this daft!” I hissed. I couldn’t believe that he would actually go and say something like that and then act as if he’d done nothing wrong. “You’ve jinxed me you prat!” I exclaimed when he asked what he’d done wrong. “After we managed to get my lot back together for a second time and after all of the hell that I’ve gone through with these men, you have the nerve to go and jinx the lot of them. One of them is surely going to die now thanks to you!”

“Easy, Julian, he didn’t mean anything by it,” Michael chuckled, grabbing a hold of my arms and turning me around before I could pounce on my fallen brother. “You remember what I said to you after your men rescued Chris?” he asked earnestly, ducking his head to meet my stony gaze and then continuing when I gave him a mutinous look in response. “I said that you were capable of handling any obstacle that was thrown your way.” I allowed some of the tension in my shoulders to dissipate and nodded in acknowledgement, knowing in my heart that my reaction to Gabriel’s comment was irrational yet still not able to let go of my deep-rooted paranoia. Michael seemed to sense the internal war I was waging and gently turned me around so that I could see my seven charges walking down the street side by side. “You forget to give them the credit that they deserve; actually all three of us forget to give them the proper credit. But the point is that you’re not in this alone; your men have proven that they’re quite capable of handling themselves during precarious situations.”

I twisted my head up to stare at my older brother in confusion. “I’m well aware of how handy my charges can be, so what’s your point, Michael?”

“To stop biting our bloody heads off whenever we come to help you,” Gabriel piped up before strolling in front of me with a grin. “I could’ve just left you to suffer this one on your own ya know.” Cheeky little bastard, I thought to myself wryly, noticing that both of them were becoming more and more like me every day.

I flashed them both a genuine smile and allowed them to pull me into a hug that sandwiched me between the two of them as we said our goodbyes, and I thanked them sincerely for their help. As strung out as I felt after the last several days, a small token of comfort from my two brothers went a long way in helping to repair my frazzled nerves and help me get back to ‘fighting condition’ as Michael was opt to say. And judging by the luck that my charges were known to have, I couldn’t afford to not be in fighting condition for any length of time.  

 

THE END

 

 

 

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