FRIEND

By ssinco

 

Chapter 1: 

Buck's long legs were stretched across the boardwalk as he lounged on the bench outside the jail. He was patiently awaiting today's stagecoach. An old war buddy of his, George "Wiley" Wiles, was scheduled to be on the coach. Buck and George had served in the same infantry unit when both boys first went off to war…before Buck was transferred to Chris Larabee's regiment.

Buck had been pleasantly surprised earlier in week when he had received a letter from Wiley saying he was planning to move west. The letter explained that Wiles had worked a farm in Illinois for the last ten years, but he felt that he no longer had any reason to stay in Illinois. Wiles had no children, and his wife had left him a few months earlier. The farm had recently been sold, and George planned to take the profits and find some good land on the wild, western frontier.

Buck could hear the stagecoach coming before he could see it. Once it stopped, the doors opened and a man exited and squinted against the sun. Buck recognized his old friend immediately.

"Ain't you a sight for sore eyes, Wiley…..but how'd ya get so dern old?" Buck laughed. It had been over 10 years since the two men had seen each other.

"Buck, now you know as well as I do that you and I are the same age," George smiled back. Wiles was a large man, about Buck's height but heavier in build, with short, black hair sparingly speckled with gray.

The two men embraced, Buck picked up Wiley's suitcase, and escorted his friend towards the saloon.

Chris, Vin, JD, and Ezra looked up from their table as the two men entered. Chris stood, and offered his hand to Wiles. "Good to see you again, Wiley," Chris stated. Larabee and Wiles had not served together officially, but Chris had met him during the war through Buck. The three men had taken a weekend leave together a time or two, and Chris had liked George Wiles. Wiley and Buck could pull pranks and stir up trouble like no two boys that Larabee had ever met.

"Still the same lean, mean, whiskey-lovin' son-of-a-gun, I see," Wiles said as he accepted Chris' handshake.

Larabee raised blond eyebrows and said, "pull up a seat and have a drink."

"I'd like ya to meet three of my good friends and associates, JD Dunne, Vin Tanner and Ezra Standish," Buck introduced and the four men shared handshakes and polite greetings. It didn't take long into the conversation for George to realize that two of the men would have been on the other side in the war, if they had fought. JD was a northerner and clearly much too young to have served.

"So, what brings ya to town?" Vin asked.

"Lookin' for farm land," George answered, "you know of any?"

"Would you, by chance, be offering a finder's fee?" Ezra's eyes lit up as he asked the question.

"Sure," Wiley smiled. "You gentlemen likely know the area around here better than I do. It would need to be good soil, probably close to a river….lookin' for around 100 acres."

Ezra's mind was already working overtime, but it was Chris who said, "I've heard the best farmin' around here is between Dixon and Carson, down along the Rio Grande."

"Yes yes, I've heard that as well," Ezra replied and followed with, "I would be happy to travel there and ask around for you."

"I just might take you up on your offer, sir," Wiley smiled. The men continued to talk about the area, the war, tell stories, and catch up over the next couple of hours.

Josiah entered the saloon, and Chris rose saying, "I guess that means it's my turn to head out on patrol." Josiah took the chair vacated by Larabee and was introduced to Buck's old friend. The conversation was lively, and the men were enjoying the stories told by Buck and George….especially now that Chris was gone. They were free to talk openly about Larabee's escapades as a younger man.

"I remember one time when me, Wiley, and Chris were on leave for a few days," Buck began one particular story. "We were enjoyin' our evening in the local saloon, and Chris went and ticked off some big ol' farm boy. The boy was twice Chris' size, but Chris wasn't that drunk yet and he was a lot quicker. So, although Chris had the bruises to show for it, he ended up runnin' that fat boy right out of the saloon. Well, we all kept on and got good n' drunk. Chris finally decided it was time to go pass out somewhere, so he left…..and Wiley and I kept at it for another hour or so."

George was laughing; he clearly remembered this particular night.

"We were so drunk, and the boardin' house room was dark, so neither Wiley or myself realized Chris wasn't there when we got back to our room….not until the next morning, and then I just thought he had gotten up and left already. I wandered outside to see to the call of nature, and darnit if the door to the outhouse wasn't locked. I waited and waited, but no one came out, so finally I knocked and said, 'anybody in there.' It was then that I heard a familiar voice say, 'Buck, is that you?'" Buck had to pause for a moment because he was laughing hysterically.

The ladies man was finally able to contine. "George, here, had woken up by then and came out and saw me talkin' to the privy, so he wandered over. We determined, upon additional words with the facilities, that Chris was trapped in there. That ol' farm boy had waited, damn patiently if I do say so, for Chris to leave the saloon. Chris was drunk by then, and the big feller grabbed him as he walked back to our room, flung him over his shoulder, and carried him to the outhouse….where he strung him up, upside down, and nailed the door shut."

JD's mouth dropped open, Ezra cringed at the thought, Josiah laughed, and even Vin couldn't help but smile at the picture in his head.

"Buck and I were finally able to pry open the door," Wiley took over while Buck stopped laughing, "and Chris sure was a pitiful sight. He'd puked all over himself and the floor. I think we all had to burn our clothes afterwards, but we cut him down and carried him back to our room. I don't think Larabee left his bed for the rest of our leave…or picked a fight with another 250-pound farm boy for a long, long time." George laughed and finished with, "come to think of it, I think Chris still owes me for a new pair of shoes."

Before the men knew it, it was almost midnight. Vin excused himself first, followed by JD and Josiah. Finally, Buck and Ezra walked Wiley to his room at the hotel and went off in search of their own beds.

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The next morning, Vin saw Chris come down from his room and head for the privy. "Be careful in there, Cowboy?" the Texan laughed and walked to the jail.

"Ah, hell," Chris said outloud. He had been afraid those assholes would tell that story after he left on patrol.

A few minutes later, as he walked back towards the jail, Larabee ran into Wiley coming from his own room. "You and Buck just couldn't keep your mouths shut, could ya?" Chris glared. "I gotta work with these people! I won't ever be able to see to the call of nature in peace again."

"Oh, come on Chris," Wiley smiled and put his muscular arm around Larabee's shoulders. "It makes folks like ya better when they know ya ain't perfect."

"Who said that I want folks to like me," Chris slung the heavy arm off and moved a couple of steps away.

"Hey Chris," Wiley smiled and Larabee gave him a questioning look, "come with us today. Buck, Ezra, and I are headin' down south to do some target shootin' and land searchin'. Buck talked to a feller that owns some property down that way that you boys helped out last year, and he said we could camp on his place. Ezra's gonna head to the local towns and get the low-down on places for sale," he paused. "If you beat me at shootin' you can hang me upside down from a tree or something," he laughed.

Chris knew it was unlikely he would beat George at long-range shooting. Wiley probably wasn't quite as good of a sharpshooter as Vin, but he had made some impressive shots during the war. "You're on," Chris said and walked to the jail to let Vin know about their plans.

"Vin," Chris greeted the long-haired man as he entered the jail.

"Cowboy," Vin was sitting at the desk, still smiling about the outhouse incident.

"Alright," Chris put his arms out and stood there, "get it out of your system."

"What?" Tanner laughed.

"Ya know damn well what…actually Vin, you could do something useful for me. Wanna help me teach Wiley a lesson?" Chris asked.

"I'm listening," Vin answered.

"He and Buck are goin' target-shootin' today. He said if I out-shot him, I could string him up from a tree. I'm bettin' he would probably agree to the same terms if you or I beat him. I'm not sure I can do it Vin, but I know damn well that you could."

"Sorry Chris," Vin looked down and away from Larabee's gaze. "Reckon I'm just gonna stick around here today…if ya don't mind."

Chris sat down on the edge of the desk. "What? You don't like Wiley?"

"I don't know, Chris," Vin's blue eyes rose again and looked at his friend. "Seems like a nice-enough feller; just got somethin' stirrin' in the back of my head that I can't quite figure out. Just be careful ok?"

"I'm always careful," Chris smiled, but he never discounted Tanner's judgment in these sorts of matters.

"Just you and Buck goin'?" Vin asked.

"Ezra too. He wants to get himself a big finder's fee on George's property; he'll probably go down to Dixon and gamble for two days."

"Watch your backs," Vin yelled behind him as Chris headed towards the livery to ready his horse,"and don't get drunk and shoot each other."

Buck, Ezra, and George were already there.

"So, you decided to come along huh?" Buck smiled. He was happy that his old friend had agreed to accompany them.

"I did," Chris finished loading up his saddle bags, "but I promise to shoot the first one of ya who mentions an outhouse or anything of the like."

"Why, Mr. Larabee," Ezra smiled, "I have no idea what you are referring to."

Buck and George laughed, Chris rolled his eyes and said, "shut up and ride."

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"Tom's place should be just up over that rise," Buck instructed and squinted against the dying light.

"I do hate to keep pointing this out, Mr. Wilmington, but you said that at the last four hills that we have approached," Ezra sighed. His butt was tired of being in the saddle, and Buck had been teasing them about being "almost there" for the last two hours.

"There's the red post," Chris pointed out.

"See, what did I tell ya?" Buck said. "I knew exactly where I was goin'."

"Indeed, Mr. Wilmington….my sincerest apologies," Ezra did not try to hide his sarcasm.

The property was beautiful. It bordered the Rio Grande and included a wide, flat bottom along the river. There was another valley perpendicular to the river bed with forested hills on either side. That is where they would set up their targets tomorrow for shooting, and if a deer or elk or something for supper happened to wander past, then that would be even better.

The saddle-sore men made a quick meal of beans and biscuits and bedded down for the night.

The next morning, Buck, Chris, and George made their way across the river and set up for a day of shooting. When Ezra arose, a couple of hours later, he saddled up and rode south towards the town of Dixon.

Buck, Chris, and Wiley reminisced about the old days, while Wiley continually out-shot the two peacekeepers on the targets. Chris was impressed. It had been 10 years since the war, but George had clearly kept practicing his marksmanship throughout his farming years.

"I think we need a bit more of a challenge," Wiley smiled, as he just put three shots back-to-back into the bullseye. "Chris, you wanna help me move the target up the valley a ways?"

Larabee followed, while Buck cleaned everyone's guns. George and Chris walked out of sight of Wilmington and around a slight bend in the clearing. Wiley began to move some large, downed limbs in front of a pine tree on which he was planning to affix his target.

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"Can you give me a hand?" George asked, as he maneuvered an especially heavy branch. Chris tossed the one he had and headed over to grab the opposite end of Wiley's branch. All of a sudden, George swung the limb with all of his might, and the log smashed hard into Larabee's chest, knocking the gunslinger off his feet.

"What the hell?" Chris groaned, as he held his hand up to his sore sternum.

George tossed the limb to the side and ran to Larabee's aid. "I'm sorry. I don't know what happened. Are you alright?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," Chris said. "Just watch what you're doin', will ya?"

Wiles put out his left hand and started to pull Larabee to his feet. Just before he let go of Chris' arm, George's right hand flew around and punched the gunslinger on the left side of the head. The unsuspecting recipient would have crumpled to the ground if Wiley still wasn't holding on to Larabee's hand.

The blond was fighting to stay conscious, as Vin's words about George Wiles came back to haunt him. "Shoulda listened, Larabee," he thought to himself, and the anger fueled him enough to get his legs back under him and plow into the bigger man.

Wiles fell onto the pile of branches, and Chris continued to pummel the downed ex-soldier. When the man in black hesitated for just a second, George shifted his weight and rolled both of them off the brush back onto the grass. The two men grappled and battled for all they were worth. Wiles was heavier and stronger, and his punches had a devastating effect on the smaller man. Chris was tenacious though, Wiley had to give him that. Despite being bloodied and battered, the wiry gunslinger just kept rising and charging again.

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"What the hell is takin' so long?" Buck thought. He had cleaned and reloaded the weapons and was waiting for his two friends to set up the target. Just as Buck was about to come into sight of the two fighting men, George finally said, "to hell with this." Wiles picked up one of the thicker tree limbs and slammed it into the back of Larabee's head. Chris collapsed bonelessly to the ground.

Buck witnessed Wiley standing over a downed Chris, and he took off running. "What the hell happened?"

"We were trying to move some of these branches, and the next thing I knew Chris was old cold." George had turned Chris over onto his back, making a show of trying to help him, as Buck approached.

Buck knelt by Larabee and said, "it looks like somebody beat the shit out of him." There were already bruises forming, and Chris had a split lip.

"I guess that's where the limb hit?" Wiley said and sat down to catch his breath.

The tall ladies' man had an uneasy feeling in his gut as he began to examine his unconscious friend. He slowly turned Larabee over, removed his hat, and Buck could easily see the bloody wound as a dark contrast in his friend's blond hair.

"Ya hit him, didn't ya?" Buck gently laid Chris on the ground and began to turn towards Wiles. He never made eye contact. Something hard smashed across his temple, and the world went black.

Chapter 2:

Ezra and Chaucer pulled into Dixon right around lunch time. The well-dressed gambler boarded his horse and headed immediately towards the saloon. It was a quaint little town. The saloon was cleaner than most, and Standish didn't have to step over any passed-out drunks to enter. In fact, it was early enough though that there weren't many patrons at all.

"What can I do for ya?" the bartender asked as Standish approached.

"Do you offer any nourishment in your fine establishment?" Ezra asked, as he continued to look around.

"Just the liquid variety," the bartender replied, "but the girls'll go next door to the restaurant and bring ya back somethin' if you tip well."

Ezra sat down at the bar with his whiskey, to wait for the homely barmaid/working girl to bring him his sandwich. "Would you happen to know of any local property for sale?" Standish asked the bartender, "something close to the river and good for raising crops?"

"Ya don't look much like a farmer to me, mister."

"It is for an associate of mine," Ezra downed his shot of whiskey.

"I'm not much up on that sort of thing, but there's a feller named Jim who usually comes in later. Ya should talk to him; owns a whole bunch of the land 'round here."

"Thank you very much sir," Ezra paid for his whiskey and tipped both the bartender and the girl waiting with his food. He then sat down at a table and ate his roast-beef sandwich.

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Buck awoke with a headache, and the sensation of blood running down the side of his head. His hands were cuffed, so there wasn't anything he could do about it. He was bound to a very tall tree and had only been moved about ten yards from where he had been knocked out. Chris was tied to the tree just to his left. Larabee was slumped over and appeared to still be unconscious.

"Finally decided to wake up huh?" Buck jumped at the sound of Wiles' voice just behind him.

"What the hell's goin' on, Wiley?" Buck closed his eyes to try and relieve the pounding headache. It was obvious, looking at the now more-apparent bruises and swelling on both Chris and George, that the two had fought. "Did Chris say somethin' to make ya angry?"

Wiles turned away to tend his fire about 30 feet away.

Buck didn't continue the questioning. A groan to his left claimed his attention.

"Chris?" Wilmington turned and asked, "you awake?"

"I hope not," Larabee hissed as the movement caused pain just about everywhere, "was wishin' this whole mess was some kind of nightmare."

"What happened between you two?" Buck asked, hoping to hear some sort of reasonable explanation for Wiley's behavior.

"What the hell ya askin' me for?" Chris wiggled his hands, testing the ropes that held him. "I came up here to help him set up a friggin' target…next thing I knew, he was tryin' to take me out."

"You didn't say anything to him?"

"You think this was my fault?" Chris locked his green eyes with Buck's dark blue ones. "Maybe we should get good ol' Wiley to untie your hands, so you can get a few licks in on me too?"

"Damnit Chris, I didn't mean it like that," Buck sighed. "I just can't make any sense of it." The tall man stopped and looked over Larabee. "How bad are you hurt?"

Chris took a deep breath. Being angry at Buck wasn't going to help anything. Larabee was having a hard time getting his eyes to focus, and he recognized the tell-tale pain of cracked ribs, but replied, "nothin' too serious…..how're you doin'?" The seven's leader didn't know what had happened after he was knocked out. He could see blood on the side of Buck's head, and he had no idea if Wiles had also fought with Wilmington.

"I'm fine," Buck smiled. "Wiley conked me on the noggin and tied me up. From the looks of him, you musta got a few good blows in before you went down."

"Obviously not enough," Chris closed his eyes against the rhythmic thumping in his head.

George walked back to the two captives and offered them a drink out of their canteen. Each accepted, and Buck tried again to figure out what was going on. "Wiley, why are you doin' this?"

Damn, this was going to be harder than he thought. George knew he owed Buck an explanation; the man had been his friend for 13 years, but he just couldn't bring himself to say anything. Larabee looked like hell; he hadn't intended to hurt the man so badly. The intial blow with the branch was supposed to hit Chris in the head and knock him out, but it was too heavy and struck the gunslinger in the chest instead. He didn't have a choice once Larabee attacked; he had to fight back or risk ruining everything. Chris always could withstand an unbelievable amount of punishment. The blond could hold his own in a bar fight, right along side himself and Buck, who were at least a few inches taller and more than twenty pounds heavier.

Wiles walked back to the campfire without so much as an acknowledgment of Buck's question.

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"Vin?" Mary Travis approached carrying an armload of letters and packages. The stage had just arrived, and the blonde woman collected the mail to hand out to the town folks.

"Can I help you with that, Mrs. Travis?" Vin ran over to her.

"No, I'm fine. Thank you," she smiled. "It's just that there was a letter addressed to Mr. Wiles. The stage driver said that the mail had gotten held up for a few days, so I suspect Mr. Wiles was supposed to receive this upon arriving in town."

"I can give it to him when he gets back," Vin answered. "Wiles, Buck, Chris, and Ezra are supposed to be back tomorrow night or Friday morning."

"Thanks a lot Vin," Mary handed over the letter, turned and headed into Mrs. Potter's store.

The tracker made his way over to the saloon, where Nathan was having lunch. "Hey Nate," Vin sat down.

"Vin, what ya got?" Nathan looked at the letter in the Texan's hand.

"It's a letter for Buck's friend, Wiles," Vin said, "told Mary I'd give it to him when they got back."

Nathan could sense the tracker was holding something back. "And?" Nathan had been called out to deliver a baby and never got a chance to meet George Wiles.

Vin sighed, "there was something about him, Nate. Let's just say I'll feel a lot better when Chris, Buck and Ezra come ridin' back in here tomorrow night."

Tanner was quiet for another couple of minutes, and followed with, "ya don't think I should open the letter, do ya?"

"Nope," Nathan quickly answered. "Whether you like him or not, a man's mail is his own business."

"I s'pose you're right," Vin looked more closely at the envelope. "I never got many letters, but isn't there usually something that tells who it's from?"

"A return address, you mean," Nathan grabbed the letter and said, "yeah, it's usually up here, but this one ain't got one. That is a bit strange…but it don't change the fact that it's clearly addressed to Mr. Wiles. Ya want me to keep the letter, Vin?"

"Nah, I ain't gonna open it. Don't worry."

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Ezra had been gambling with the locals in Dixon all day, and most had been fairly cordial and informative about property for sale in the area. All had agreed that "Jim" would be the man to talk to, and "Jim" entered the saloon for dinner and drinks at around 5 o'clock.

"I hear you're lookin' for me," a tall, thin man of about 50 approached Ezra's table at precisely 5:05 PM.

"Is your name Jim?" Standish looked up. The man was well-dressed, not as well as himself of course, but better than anyone else in the saloon.

"It is," the man sat down with his drink, "and you are?"

"The name is Ezra Standish, sir, and a number of saloon patrons have informed me that you are the man to speak with about local farm properties for sale."

"You interested in buyin'?"

"Not for myself, but for an associate. He is looking for at least a hundred good farm acres to purchase. May I inquire as to your last name, sir?"

"Name's Reading, James Reading, and I own a number of parcels along the Rio Grande. There's probably one or two I could part with, if they suit your friend….and he's willing to pay a fair price."

"That sounds perfect, my good man," Ezra beckoned to the young lady waiting to give Mr. Reading his meal. "Why don't you enjoy your meal, and we can talk over a game of chance afterwards."

"Very good, Mr. Standish. I do enjoy a fine game of cards."

Ezra had allowed the gentleman to win all but one hand, so Jim was in an excellent mood and very forth-coming about the land and the price that he would want per acre. Standish could already see his 10% commission starting to materialize, as he had set up a meeting between Mr. Reading, himself, and Mr. Wiles for the next evening.

It was nearly midnight when Standish headed over to the hotel. Ezra pulled his coat tighter around himself as he made his way to his room. The wind was swift and cold out of the north. He laughed and felt a twinge of guilt that Misters Wilmington, Larabee, and Wiles would be sleeping outside in these lovely conditions.

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Chris knew he was not going to get any sleep. He was sore and stiff from his fight with Wiles and being tied in the same position all day, and he was so damn cold that his teeth were chattering. Larabee had been working and pulling at the ropes binding his hands for hours. Maybe he had made a little head-way, but he still had a long way to go to get himself free.

"Damn!" Buck said, as he shivered and tried to scoot around to the more wind-shielded side of the tree, "is it gonna snow or what?" It had been warm during the day, so neither he nor Chris were wearing their coats when Wiles tied them up.

"Chris?" Buck asked when he got no response. "Ya still awake?"

"Hell yes I'm awake," Chris growled back.

"I've been thinkin', and I can't come up with any reason for Wiley to want to get back at me, at us, for anything."

Damn, how Buck was like a big kid; always searching for the best in people. Chris supposed that was what kept Wilmington at his side all these years, but Buck had to know by now that sometimes people just went bad. "Somebody's probably payin' him to capture us or kill us, Buck."

"I served with George Wiles for nearly a year before I moved to your regiment, Chris. He wouldn't do somethin' like that for money."

"Folks do a lot of crazy things for money. You can ask Ezra all about it when he gets here tomorrow."

"Ah hell," the ladies' man sighed, "Ezra's gonna walk right into a trap." Buck kicked at the ground in front of him. "He's gonna come up here lookin' for us, and he's gonna fall victim to Wiles just like we did."

"You never know, Buck," Chris' voice was quaking from the cold, "Ezra's got a pretty good sixth sense about things…."

Just then, a strong, cold wind blew through the valley, and it started to rain – a drenching, icy rain.

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Vin couldn't sleep. He lay in his wagon, listening to the ice pellets hit the roof. He could handle about any kind of conditions – wind, dust, heat – but damn he hated the bitter cold. Even with his buckskin coat and two blankets, he could not get warm. That wasn't what was keeping him awake though. He couldn't stop thinking about his friends, especially Chris Larabee. Tanner and Larabee had known each other for less than a year, but he trusted the fair-haired gunslinger more than he had trusted anyone in his adult life. Larabee was far from perfect. He drank too much and had a nasty temper, but Chris' soul was innately good. The man would fight to the death to help an innocent person in need, whether the judge was paying him to do it or not. Vin sighed as he rolled over and tried once again to force his mind to relax and allow his tired body to rest.

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Buck thought he couldn't get more miserable, but now he had "wet" to add to his growing list of complaints. It had stopped raining after about an hour, but now the cold seemed to seep clear through to his bones. Wilmington usually tolerated cool weather quite well, but he couldn't ever remember feeling this miserably chilled.

Chris had his legs pulled up as tightly to his chest as he could, and his head down. He was trying to keep the cold wind from blowing across his wet clothing and body.

The one thing Buck was thankful for tonight was that Larabee was his companion. He knew Chris was suffering just as greatly as he was, but his stoic friend was not the type to complain about it. If Ezra were here, they would never hear the end of it. He would go on and on all night about how ridiculous the weather was and how he should have never taken up with the likes of the other six. Vin could not tolerate the cold, and although, like Chris, he wouldn't moan about it, he would likely come down with pneumonia the following day. Nathan would be fretting about everyone's health, Josiah would be cursing the heavens, and JD would just be talking – all night and all day about anything and everything that popped into his head.

In fact, Buck thought his companion was a bit too quiet….even for Larabee. "Chris, you doin' ok?"

No answer.

"Chris?" Buck paused again. "Damnit, say somethin'."

"Shut up, Buck," was all Larabee could manage. Chris prided himself on being able to keep calm in dangerous situations, but he was on the verge of losing it tonight. He just wanted to be back in Four Corners in his bed…alone and warm. He felt like crap. He'd gotten the shit beat out of him earlier, his headache still pulsed with every heartbeat, his clothes and eyelashes were starting to freeze, and he could not stop shivering….violently.

"Well, that's gratitude for you," Wilmington yelled out. "Screw you too Larabee."

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Just before dawn, Wiles appeared out of the darkness. He had gotten up to see to the call of nature and realized how terribly cold it was away from the campfire.

He walked up and placed Buck's duster over him. "Thanks," Buck said. George said nothing, as usual, and approached Chris to do the same. Larabee had gotten his hands free of the rope less than one minute earlier, and he had no idea if his limbs would do as he commanded. He knew, however, that it was now or never and kicked Wiles hard in the stomach.

As the big man staggered backwards, Chris jumped to his feet and hit George with a double-fisted uppercut to the jaw. The ex-soldier bit his tongue and howled. In a very uncoordinated fashion, Chris made a run to where Buck was tied to see if he could get Wilmington's hands free.

"Shit," Chris cursed. Buck wasn't tied up with ropes as he had been. His hands were held with a set of metal cuffs. Wiles must have only had one pair of cuffs, and he must have thought Buck was a bigger threat than Chris if he got loose.

Wiley had re-gained his composure while Larabee fumbled with the handcuffs. George lifted the smaller man in a bear hug from behind. Despite the wound on his scalp, Larabee head-butted Wiles. George let go but didn't fall. Chris knew he had to get Wiles on the ground. The man was too big to fight hand-to-hand. So, the exhausted peacekeeper plowed into Wiles with all his weight, and both men toppled to the dirt.

Buck was going crazy sitting there watching Chris struggle with Wiles. He wiggled and tugged at the handcuffs and screamed at the two combatants. He saw Larabee tackle his old war buddy and begin pummeling with everything he had. He could also see that Chris' strength was waning fast. Larabee had been hurt more than he had let on. George was able to block most of the blows with his arms, and it only took one of Wiles' punches up through the middle to knock Chris on his backside.

Wiley stomped on the downed-man's side, back, and midsection as Chris tried to roll away. George finally hauled the man, forcibly, to his feet and flung him hard into a large tree trunk. Chris' back and head slammed with a sickening thud, and he sat slouched up against the tree unmoving. Buck screamed, "No!" as Wiles went to grab at Larabee's shirt to pull him back up.

Buck continued to plead for his friend, "Wiley! Please stop. Chris can't take anymore. You're gonna kill him….is that what you want?"

George stopped, released his grip on Chris, and turned to look at Wilmington.

The impact with the tree hurt like hell, and it dazed Chris for a moment….but he wasn't as injured as he let on. Once Wiles was distracted with Buck, Chris turned the tides and rammed the bigger man into another tree behind him. This time it was George's head that smacked, and Wiles fought to stay conscious.

"Chris, run!" Buck yelled. "Get out of here!"

"I ain't leavin' you," Chris grunted out between breaths, as his lungs tried to take in some much-needed oxygen.

"You have to! Go find Ezra," Buck's blue eyes pleaded with his friend. "Go….NOW!"

Deep down, Chris knew Buck was right. Reluctantly, he nodded and took off into the trees.

Wiles got to his knees, pulled his gun, and started shooting into the forest. The sun was starting to come up, but it was still too dark to make out Larabee's retreating form.

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Ezra rose the next morning and wasted little time getting his horse ready and on the road. He was excited to share his findings with Mr. Wiles, and he needed to make sure they all had time to get back this evening to meet with the property owner, Mr. Reading. It was still cool outside, but the wind and rain from the previous night had moved on. The sun was shining, and Standish was enjoying the leisurely ride up north.

When he was less than an hour away from where he left his friends the day before, he caught a glimpse of something dark lying in the tall grass to his left. It never moved, so Standish ignored it and rode on past. Something kept nagging at his mind though, and he turned around after a few minutes. He dismounted from Chaucer, pulled out his gun, and made his way through the knee-deep grass to take a closer look.

Ezra gasped when he saw legs and realized it was a body. His knees grew weak when he saw the familiar boots and spurs.

Chapter 3:

 

"Chris!?" Ezra screamed…the "Mr. Larabee" formalities forgotten in the panic to search for a pulse on the cold, clammy neck.

"Oh thank the Lord," he said when he felt the strong heartbeat.

Standish carefully turned the body over and searched for bullet holes and obvious broken bones. He found none, but there was an impressive amount of superficial bruises, cuts, and scrapes. Somebody had beat the hell out of Chris, so where was Buck? He would not have left his friend alone in this condition…..willingly. Was Wilmington and/or Wiles out here injured somewhere as well? There was only one way to find out.

"Mr. Larabee?" Ezra crouched down next to the prone man. He gently tapped the gunslinger's face and repeated, "Mr. Larabee." His efforts were finally rewarded with the opening of a pair of confused green eyes.

"Ezra?" the weak voice croaked out.

"At your service," Ezra smiled, showing his gold tooth. Chris struggled to sit up and was finally successful with some assistance from Standish. "Will you be all right here for just a moment?" Ezra questioned. Chris placed his hands on the ground to hold himself upright and shook his head, "yes." The gambler rushed to his horse and grabbed his canteen, and a few cloths.

"Here, have a drink," the gambler handed the canteen to Larabee, who quickly lifted it to his mouth with a shaking hand. "What in God's name happened to you?"

"George Wiles happened…..shoulda listened to Vin," Chris took another drink before continuing, "We gotta get back up there. He's got Buck handcuffed to a tree, and I got no idea what he's plannin' on doin' to him."

"Mr. Wiles did this to you?"

"Yeah, we fought a couple of times before I finally got away."

"How did you end up out here?" Ezra used some of the canteen water to wet a cloth and clean up the worst cuts on Chris' head.

"Came lookin' for you," Larabee glanced up at the sky to try and judge the time of day, "musta passed out or fell asleep…..don't remember."

"Well, thank heavens for your all-black attire, Mr. Larabee. If you had been dressed like Mr. Tanner, it is likely that I never would have noticed you lying in this field."

The blond went to stand, and Ezra helped steady him. "We gotta go get Buck," Chris said. Standish draped Larabee's arm over his shoulder and assisted the man out to the main road. The travel was awkward. Chris was tall, a few inches taller than Ezra, and the terrain was brushy and uneven. Thankfully, Larabee was lean and not overly heavy, and Ezra was finally able to get the injured man to the awaiting horse.

"Unfortunately I lack Mr. Jackson's abilities to judge exactly how injured you are," Ezra motioned to Chaucer, "do you think you will be able to ride?"

"Yeah."

"OK then," Ezra smiled. "Up you go." With some help, Chris swung his leg up and settled into the saddle. Larabee started to scoot back and allow Ezra to mount when Standish said, " I'll walk. It is not far to the campsite."

"We need a plan. Wiles will be waitin' for us," Chris hissed as he sat up straighter.

"I guess I can kiss my big property commission goodbye," Ezra sighed.

"Afraid so. I have no idea what he really wants. Wiles wouldn't say a word to us after the attack," Chris looked down at his companion. "He had plenty of chances to kill or shoot us…." Chris let the sentence fade.

"Do you believe he is trying to lure someone else to come after you?" Ezra asked, "Mr. Tanner maybe….for the bounty?"

"I don't know," Chris pinched the bridge of his nose to relieve the pounding headache temporarily. "Buck was adamant that Wiley would never accept money to capture or kill us, but I can't come up with any other reasonable explanation."

"Money is a wonderful motivator," Standish reflected.

"I guess what I'm gettin' at…..is there's a part of me that doesn't want to just go in there and shoot him," Chris knew it sounded crazy. "I want to know what Wiles is up to…..he could have killed me more than once….but didn't."

"I beg to differ, sir," Ezra looked up at the battered man, "from your current state, it appears that he did not pull any punches."

"But he was armed, and I wasn't."

"Maybe he has a strict code of fighting fair, or maybe Mr. Wiles just prefers to beat his victims to death with his bare hands. Whatever the reason, Mr. Larabee, I cannot promise that I won't fire my weapon if I find myself threatened by him in any way."

"Understood," Chris shook his head. "Just keep what I said in mind."

"So, what is our plan?" Ezra stopped walking and halted Chaucer.

"Why don't I try to sneak back in – figure out what's goin' on….talk to Buck. You stay hidden, and I'll come get ya if I can. We'll make a new plan then, or if I don't come back - you come in after us, guns blazin' if necessary."

"I would be remiss if I did not point out that your person likely cannot endure additional punishment today. We could ride back to town and wire our associates in Four Corners," Ezra suggested.

"Not enough time; Vin'll come lookin' if we don't make it back in a day or two."

Ezra didn't like the thought of Vin, Josiah, JD and/or Nathan riding blindly into this mess or of Larabee having to battle with the large ex-soldier once again, but he agreed that they needed to get Buck back as soon as possible. "Was Mr. Wilmington injured?"

"Wiles knocked him out; busted his head up a bit, but I didn't see anything else. Buck didn't say he was hurt, but it's Buck – so who knows?"

"Yes, I know the type," Ezra replied dryly.

The two men re-started their trek to the north. Within 30 minutes, they arrived at the property.

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They waited until dusk and left Chaucer along the river. Buck, Chris, and Wiles' horses were still there as well. Larabee's legs were wobbly at first, but in a minute or two he got his bearings and the two men headed into the woods.

As the trees began to thin out, Ezra found a hiding spot in a dense area of brush. Chris continued on to where he had last seen Buck. When Larabee arrived at the spot, there was no one there. He knew he was at the correct location. There were scrape marks on the tree from Buck's handcuffs, and he could see the remnants of Wiles' campfire from the night before.

"Shit," he said out loud.

"Ya might as well come on out, Ezra," Chris walked back down the hill. "They're gone."

"But their horses are still at the river," Ezra reminded Larabee, "they can't have gone far."

"I hope you're right," Chris started back up the hill. In his exhausted state, Larabee neglected to pick his foot up high enough and tripped over a large tree root. He fell into Ezra, and the surprised southerner grabbed onto Chris and did his best to keep them both upright. "Shit," Chris cursed again.

"Are you all right, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra asked once they both regained their footing.

"Fine," Larabee answered, but Standish knew better. It was obvious that Chris was hurting and exhausted, but nothing was going to stop the blond until Buck was found. The two men kept walking.

Chris showed Ezra the camp from last night, and suggested they "head up the valley but stick to the treeline."

"It's almost dark," Ezra responded quietly, "if they have not made a fire, it might prove difficult to ascertain their location before sunrise."

"I know," Chris sighed and shivered as the temperature continued to plummet, "but we gotta try."

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The valley between the forested hillsides stretched on for miles under the moonlit, starry sky, and Larabee and Standish walked for half an hour before they smelled the campfire. It was only another few minutes until they saw the glowing flames. The campfire was just up the hill from a dilapidated barn on the far side of the valley. The man sitting next to the campfire was too bulky to be Buck.

"Looks like we found our Mr. Wiles," Ezra said between chattering teeth. What he wouldn't give to be able to shoot Wiles and curl up by his campfire right now.

"Maybe he's got Buck tied up in the barn?" Chris said more as a question than a statement. "Let's try to sneak around the back," Larabee motioned back down the hill, around a bend in the valley, where they should be able to cut across the field without being seen.

Ezra was cold, tired, and his feet hurt from walking, but he simply sighed and followed behind the older man. Chris moved stiffly but quickly. The way that Larabee held his left arm suggested to Standish that the seven's leader may have broken ribs, but there wasn't anything the gambler could do about it.

They successfully crossed the valley, but it was slow-going trying to walk quietly through the woods. The leaves were crunching under their boots, and Wiles' campfire was only about 20 yards from the treeline. The big man was lying on his bedroll, but neither Chris nor Ezra could tell if he was asleep.

The two men finally made it to the back side of the building, where Wiles could not see them enter. Ezra slowly opened the heavy door and was relieved to see Buck Wilmington sitting on the floor in the middle of the barn. He started to turn and tell Chris that they had found Buck, but just as he said, "Mr. Wilm….." he heard a loud crack and disappeared through the floor.

"What the hell?" Chris ran forward and looked down in the hole made by Standish. The boards were so old and rotten that they had simply given way under Ezra's feet. "You ok, Ezra?"

All the response he got was a yelp of pain from the man below, and he heard a voice behind him say, "welcome back Chris." George Wiles had, of course, heard all the commotion. He was standing behind Larabee with a gun pointing at his back.

Chris ignored Wiles and turned his attention back to Standish. "Ezra, give me your hand." He had fallen about 6 feet down, so when the southerner struggled to his feet his head was just below the barn floor. Wiles' moved his gun now to point at Wilmington, so the other two wouldn't get any ideas.

Standish yelled once more, out of pain and frustration, as he tried to stand and said, "that, my good sir, is more difficult than it sounds. My ankle seems to be refusing to support me."

"Shit," Chris said quietly. "I'll lift you out of there if you can stand up." He could hear Ezra struggling to get up. Finally the man's shoulder was within reach, and Larabee put his hands under Standish's arms and pulled him back up into the barn despite the pain it caused his own abused ribs and body.

"Nice job," Wiley said, as he removed Ezra's firearms while the gambler continued to moan from the pain in his ankle, "now both of you get over there next to Buck."

Larabee supported the shorter man the entire way, praying that Standish's ankle wasn't broken. They didn't need any additional hindrances to their chance of escape. Once they were in the middle of the large, old barn, Wiles roughly shoved Chris and Ezra to the floor. He quickly dragged Larabee over and tied his arms behind one support and then did the same to Ezra on the adjacent post. Buck was tied to the post about 6 feet to Chris' right. As before, Wiles simply walked away at that point, presumably back to his campfire, without saying another word.

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"Alright, both of ya, tell me how and where you're hurt," Chris clearly needed to formulate a new plan.

"I'm fine," Buck quickly answered, "he just marched me up here and tied me up again."

"Are you tied or hand-cuffed?"

"Tied this time…..but I haven't been able to get 'em loose."

"Your turn, Ezra," Chris turned to his left and looked at the younger man.

"As you know, my ankle was injured when I fell through the floor of our current domecile."

Chris was relieved to hear Ezra sounding like his old self but asked, "is it broken?"

"Mr. Larabee, I am not a physician," Ezra sighed. "It hurts…..badly, and I am unable to bear weight on it, but I am unsure if it is broken."

"How are you doin' Chris?" Buck questioned after a few minutes of silence.

"I'm alright," Chris bent his legs up to his chest to try to warm up a bit.

"Where'd you run into Ezra?" Buck continued.

"I believe it would be more factual to state than I ran into Mr. Larabee," Ezra hissed as he tried to find a comfortable position for his injured foot. "He was out cold, lying in a field about a mile south of the original camp. It is a wonder that I saw him. I guess Josiah would say that the fate's were smiling on us today."

"Don't look like they're smilin' any more," Larabee retorted, somewhat miffed that Standish had to tell Buck that he hadn't made it to the road.

Wilmington shook his head in disbelief. How could something that was supposed to be fun turn into a mess like this? Two of his friends had been injured, and he had absolutely no idea what their captor had in store for them.

Buck didn't have time to think on it for long. Wiles opened the other entry to the barn. The captors could see that the sun was just beginning to illuminate the world outside. Wiles said, "I'm sorry boys," and threw a burning stick from his campfire up into the rafters.

The old barn possessed enough dried-out wood and hay that it caught fire immediately.

"This is not good," Ezra began wiggling and working furiously at his bonds.

"Ah hell," Chris began doing the same with the rope holding his wrists.

Buck yelled, "WILEY!" George had already turned and shut the door.

Chapter 4:

All three men pulled furiously at the ropes binding them. The flames had engulfed the hay loft and part of the back wall. The smoke was thick and noxious, and Buck, Ezra, and Chris coughed violently as they worked to free themselves. It only seemed that the knots got tighter as they struggled.

Buck finally stopped fighting and said, "well boys, it's been real good ridin' with ya. I guess I'll see ya on the other side."

The flames continued to hungrily devour the barn structure. The smoke was so thick that the three men could barely breathe or see, but they could feel the heat of the fire and knew it was growing closer by the minute.

Chris coughed out, "Buck, you're a lot of trouble, but I wouldn't change a thing about you. Thanks for stickin' with me…. Ezra, I'm bettin' you're real sorry you ever met us about now," Larabee half-laughed/half-coughed, "but I'm not. You're a damn good man, and I hope I don't see either of you on the other side 'cause that likely means you went to the wrong place."

Ezra hoped they wouldn't be able to hear the fear in his voice, but he took the chance. "Gentlemen," he coughed, "I too have enjoyed our adventures together, and it makes little difference to me where we end up in the afterlife, so long as they have whiskey and cards."

"Amen!" Chris and Buck said at the exact same time, and all three men laughed despite their dire circumstances.

The air was hot, and it was becoming almost impossible to breathe. Ezra knew they likely only had enough oxygen for a few more minutes, and he was hoping that he would simply go to sleep. Dying of oxygen-deprivation sounded a lot more pleasant than being burned alive.

Chris could feel himself getting sleepy, and he too understood what that meant. "Hopefully I'll see you soon, Sarah and Adam," he thought to himself. No matter how much he joked with Buck and the others about going to Hell, he prayed that would not be the case….so he could see his wife and son again.

Buck was still hanging on, but he could see his two friends fighting to stay conscious. The fire was burning from the top and back, around to the right. That was closer to where Ezra and Chris were tied than himself. He focused his efforts on trying to keep his friends awake. "Chris! Ezra! Come on boys, you gotta wake up!" He had no idea what he wanted to wake them up for, but he felt like he had to do something. They couldn't just give up.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Vin carried the unopened letter up the steps to Nathan's clinic. He was surprised to see JD sitting on the bed when he entered. "Didn't mean to interrupt," Vin said, "you sick, JD?"

"Oh no," JD laughed and held up his hand, "Nate's gonna take a splinter out for me. Was helping Josiah over at the church this mornin', and I shoved a piece of wood in my hand."

Nathan came over with a bowl of water and began to work on JD's hand with a small knife and a pair of tweezers. "You ok, Vin?" Nathan asked, surprised to see the tracker in his clinic as well.

"Yeah, I'm fine," Vin pulled up a chair and sat down, "just getting worried about Chris, Ezra, and Buck. Shoulda been back by now."

"They said they might not be back until today. A-ha!" Nathan smiled as he pulled the offending splinter out of JD's palm.

"Chris said either last night or this mornin'," Vin looked down at the letter, "it's after noon."

"So, they're an hour or two late," JD chimed in, "maybe they stopped for a meal….or a drink?" JD knew Vin's gut feelings about these sorts of things were usually correct, so he was trying to convince himself that Buck and the others were ok as much as anybody else.

"I think it's time to open this letter," Vin said quietly.

"Vin, it ain't right," Nathan once again insisted.

"I'm gonna open it," Vin took out a knife and began cutting the envelope, "and JD's gonna read it."

"Why do I have to read it?" JD questioned.

Vin did his best impression of the Larabee glare and said, "just do it JD." Vin pulled the folded piece of paper out of the envelope and handed it to their youngest member.

"Dear George,

I hope that your travels went well and you have located the desired property. We have discussed the situation further and believe it will be necessary to carry out the full plan with LWT. Please advise by telegram, as we discussed, when the job is complete. The deadline is quickly approaching. Best wishes for a safe return home for you and your wife.

Sincerely,

TS"

JD handed the letter back to Vin and asked, "what do you think it means? Full plan and LWT?"

"I got no idea, JD," Vin answered honestly. "I was hopin' it would give a little more detail." Vin began pacing around the room. "Deadline for what? To find a piece of property? Maybe he's lookin' for someone else, but why lie to us about it…and I thought Buck said that Wiles' wife had left him."

"Could be some kind of money laundering thing," Nathan suggested, "need to get it hidden away or locked up in property as soon as possible?"

"It's possible," Vin continued to pace, "what the heck does LWT mean?"

"I dunno," Nathan shrugged his shoulders, "could be some fancy lawyer's abbreviation or somethin' – like Last Will and Testament. Maybe they're trying to spend up someone's money?"

Vin shook his head. Nathan's ideas were good, but deep down he knew this had something to do with his friends. "L and W could be for Larabee and Wilmington, but Ezra would be S."

All three men searched their minds for a reasonable explanation for the letter and for why their friends had yet to return.

"Oh my God, Vin!" JD jumped up. "T is for Tanner. Wiles was sent here to kill Chris, Buck, and you!"

"I'm headin' out after 'em." Vin walked toward the door.

"I'm comin' too," JD followed in the tracker's footsteps.

"Nate, you and Josiah stay here in case they return. Come on kid, let's hit the road."

Nathan sure hoped that they were all wrong about Wiles and the letter, but he headed to the cabinet to check his medical supply stock. There was no harm in being prepared….just in case.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

As the back wall started to collapse and embers and pieces of the barn rained down on Buck, Chris, and Ezra's heads, Wiles flung open the doors and rushed back into the barn. His knife easily and quickly cut the bindings of all three men. "I'll get Ezra," he said as he effortlessly scooped up the smaller gambler. "You help Chris," Wiley said to Buck.

Buck didn't ask any questions. He just did as his old friend asked him to do. He tried for a second to get Chris to wake up and walk out, and then said to hell with it. Chris went over his shoulder and out he ran behind Wiley and Ezra.

Wiles and Wilmington dropped their bundles outside and both fell to their hands and knees coughing and gasping for breath.

The cool, clean air aroused the other two men as well, and they lay on the ground trying to satiate their oxygen-deprived lungs and bodies.

Chris, Ezra, and Buck coughed and vomited up black soot all morning. As George Wiles watched the men try to recover, he felt ashamed for what he had done – two of these men had been his friends for over a decade. Why had he ever thought he would be able to pull this off and what the hell was he going to do now? He grabbed a canteen and offered water to the three men. He didn't know how else to help them. He hadn't realized how long the barn had been burning. If he had waited another 10 minutes, none of them would have survived.

Ezra took a huge, long drink of water. It felt wonderful on his dry, sore throat…..at least until it all came back up about two minutes later.

Chris still felt like he could not catch his breath. He had coughed so much and so hard that he didn't think his lungs, throat, and ribs (which had already been sore from the beating the night before) could take much more.

It was late in the afternoon before any of the men made an effort to do anything besides sit or lie down and hack up the trash in their lungs.

George came back from gathering more water, and he had the men's supplies from their horses and the previous-night's camp as well. It was a sure sign how terrible they were all feeling that none of them tried to escape or attack Wiles when he returned.

"Wiley," Buck coughed and continued, "you ever gonna tell us what the hell's goin' on?"

"Come and have some food, and I'll do my best to explain," George answered and motioned for the men to follow him back down the valley to their previous night's campfire. The fire was out, but there were a few logs and rocks on which they could sit.

Chris and Buck supported Ezra between them, to keep weight off of his injured left ankle. Chris was amazed at the amount of energy it took to make the half-mile trek. In fact, he had to ask Buck to stop halfway, so he could catch his breath for a couple of minutes.

The four men gathered around the old camp spot, and Wiley offered some bacon and biscuits that only Buck accepted. Standish's and Larabee's stomach were just not up to it yet. "So, spill it Wiley," Chris' voice was so hoarse that Wiles could barely hear him. He knew what he wanted to hear, nonetheless.

"I was asked to put an end to the Magnificent Seven," Wiles began. "They wanted me to make sure Larabee met with an unfortunate accident, and then I was to make sure that enough additional members were killed that the remaining peacekeepers would likely disband and move on."

"Who hired you?" Chris' scorched throat strained to say.

"Nobody hired me," George sighed, "but I wasn't completely truthful about my life. I was a farmer back in Illinois just like I said, but my wife didn't leave. Laura and I are very much in love…in fact, she's the real reason I'm here."

"Go on," Buck said as Wiley paused and took a bite of a biscuit.

"We've had a drought for the last few years, so funds were tight. I borrowed some money last year to plant mine and a neighbor's fields….to ensure we made enough to live on and to pay the loan back. Well, it didn't work out. The rains didn't come this summer either."

"So how did we get involved?" Ezra's southern accent seemed more pronounced through his abused throat.

"Somehow they found out that I was a friend of Buck and Chris' from the war." He saw the look that Larabee threw at him, and he followed with, "I swear that I didn't tell them. They just found out. Apparently one of their other clients, or money backers, or whatever you want to call 'em was somebody you guys ticked off…because he wanted you disbanded. Anyway, they kidnapped my wife and told me they would kill her if I didn't do it. They also said they would consider my debt paid." Wiles stared down at the old, burnt campfire. He couldn't bring himself to look any of these men in the eye.

Chris and Ezra didn't know whether to believe Wiles or not. It seemed awful convenient that the man used a kidnapped woman as his excuse. George knew Buck well enough to be certain that Wilmington would bite on that story: hook, line, and sinker.

"So, why the hell didn't you just tell us?" Buck tried to yell, which only caused him to cough. "We woulda helped ya get your wife back."

"I was supposed to complete the job within the next week," Wiley put his head in his hands. "I couldn't imagine there was time for me to come and get you guys, take you back to Chicago, and rescue Laura in that amount of time. They said they would kill her next Saturday."

"Well, that gives us eight days to come up with a plan," Buck said matter-of-factly.

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Vin and JD rode hard but still had to stop and make camp before they arrived at the old man's property where their friends had gone a few days earlier.

After a quick dinner and both men had lain down on their bedrolls, JD said, "how could this Wiles guy do this, Vin? He was Buck's friend? There ain't enough money in the world to ever make me hurt one of you guys."

"I know, JD," Vin said as he rolled over to face his younger friend. "Money does funny things to some folks, but we don't even know if this is about money. Wiles told Buck that his wife left him, but she was mentioned in the letter. What would you do if someone took Casey and said they'd kill her if you didn't put a bullet in me?"

JD shook his head in a sad understanding. "That would be a real tough choice," the young man thought to himself as he closed his eyes.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Wiley, Buck, Chris, and Ezra made their way down to the river that evening. Buck had suggested they try to wash up a bit. Maybe they could breathe better if they got the soot off of their clothes and themselves. Ezra and Chris were up for trying about anything at this point. Standish's ankle had improved enough that he could get around, but with a pronounced limp. He just could not seem to get the smell and choking sensation out of his lungs and mind. Buck laughed when Chris took off his hat.

"It looks like yer still wearin' a hat," Buck pointed it out to Ezra, who also chuckled. Chris had a black ring around the bottom of his head, in stark contrast to the blond hair on top. He was sure he and Ezra had the same problem, but the color difference wasn't nearly as noticeable.

The three men stripped down to their birthday suits and bravely entered the cold water. A set of clean clothes, from their bag, was waiting on the river banks. Wiles burned all of the dirty clothes, except for their hats and Ezra and Buck's jackets. Those he did his best to wash out in the river. Chris hadn't been wearing his duster.

The men washed up as quickly as possible. Ezra was so cold and tired by the time he got out of the water that he had trouble buttoning his shirt. It did feel good to be clean though. He laughed when he noticed Larabee walking back to the campfire with his shirt wide open as well. He clearly didn't have the energy either. Standish grinned, imagining what they all must look like with no hats, and none of them had bothered to bring a comb.

All four men bedded down for the night, with little thought to what their hair or clothing looked like. Although utterly exhausted, Chris and Ezra both struggled to sleep. If Nathan had seen them earlier, taking an icy bath just before bedding down in the cool, night air, he would have sworn they were all going to catch their death. Ezra wondered how the hell he would know if he came down with pneumonia. He couldn't stop coughing anyway.

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Standish saw Chris get out of bed and walk away from the campsite. Larabee was trying desperately to clear out his lungs. Ezra rose and hobbled over to the darkly-dressed, lean figure. He winced in sympathy as he saw the tears shining on Chris' pale face and seriously wished that Nathan were here. It cannot be good to cough this hard.

Chris wiped off his face and hoarsely said, "you can't sleep either?"

"No, I'm honestly starting to wonder if this is all from the smoke or if we both have pneumonia." As if on cue, Chris and Ezra both coughed.

Chris laughed, "I'm guessin' we would know if we had pneumonia."

"I don't see how it could be any worse," Ezra insisted.

"I'd think we would have a fever," Chris took a deep breath to try to keep himself from coughing.

"Are you sure we don't? I can't remember ever feeling more dreadful than this."

Larabee turned and looked more seriously at the southerner. He put his hand on Ezra's forehead. "Ya do feel a little warm, but my hands are so damn cold that a day-old corpse would probably feel hot."

"My mother used to say the best way to check for a fever was with one's lips."

Chris huffed, "yeah, Sarah said the same thing…..but sorry Ezra, ain't no way I'm kissin' yer forehead."

Ezra touched his own face with his hand and then did the same to Chris. He did that back and forth a few times, and Buck approached and said, "what the hell are you two doin' exactly?"

"Ezra here's convinced that we're dyin' of pneumonia," Chris laughed.

"Well, there's no arguing that you two do sound awful," Buck agreed, "hard to sleep with all that hackin'."

"You're all heart, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra looked at the taller man, "I do apologize that my slow and painful demise was interfering with your beauty sleep."

Chris laughed and sent himself into another painful coughing fit. Buck walked up and hit him on the back, trying to do something to help. "Damn …..maybe Ezra's right. We need to get out of here tomorrow and get you boys to Nathan." Buck was thankful that he wasn't suffering nearly as serious of lung problems as his friends, but he wasn't sure why or how he was spared.

Chris sucked in a deep breath to get some air back into his lungs, "shit," he said and sat down on the ground. "Just knock me out and put me out of my misery."

Buck laughed.

"I'm serious Buck. Punch me, so I can get some damn sleep."

Wilmington realized that the blond was now on his third night with no rest, but said, "I ain't gonna knock you out Chris. I will help you guys get comfortable though. I assume it's easier to breathe if you're sittin' up?"

Buck carried and arranged the two men's bedrolls up the hillside close to the forested area.

"Thank you Mr. Wilmington," Ezra said, "yes, I think sleeping in a propped position will help." At least he hoped that was the case. He was on the second night without sleep himself.

Once Ezra and Chris lay down on the hill, Buck covered each man with a blanket and said a silent prayer that they felt better tomorrow.

Chapter 5:

The three peacekeepers and Wiles were packing up their horses just as Vin and JD rode in. Chris could see Tanner's blue eyes scanning back and forth from Wiles to his friends. Vin dismounted and approached Larabee. "What the hell's goin' on, Chris?" Vin continued to look over his friend: Larabee was covered in bruises, his eyes were bloodshot, and he looked as tired as Vin had ever seen a man look. "What happened to you boys?"

"I'm afraid it is a very long story, Mr. Tanner," Ezra limped over to greet the tracker and JD.

"I got time," he looked again at Wiles.

"Why don't we follow you boys back to town," Buck suggested, "We need to get these two to Nathan, and we can fill you in on the way."

Once Vin heard the entire story and witnessed coughing fits from both Ezra and Chris, he turned to Wiles and said, "you better be glad you had a change of heart…'cause I woulda hunted you to the ends of the earth if you had let them burn up in that barn."

Wiles just dipped his head in understanding and slowed to hang back behind the other men.

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After riding for another hour, Chris called out, "we need to stop."

Vin and Buck both immediately pulled up their mounts, and Buck asked, "you ok? What's up?"

"I'm fine," Larabee coughed, "but we need to think this through." He paused and turned to look at Wiles, "if he's tellin' the truth, then we gotta come up with a plan."

"It's the truth," Wiles said quietly," I swear to it."

"Alright, if that's the case," Chris began, "then I'm afraid we're gonna have to play this whole mess out."

"I'm not followin' Chris," JD said as he sat on his horse next to Buck.

"Your wife's captors want us dead, right? At least me, Buck…"

"….and me," Vin interrupted.

Chris threw a surprised glance as Vin said, "sorry, we read your letter." The Texan then handed it over to George Wiles.

"What about you Ezra?" the leader looked at the gambler. "You wanna be dead or alive?"

"Well, as difficult of a decision as that is, I think I will have to go with alive."

"OK, once you boys get to the next town…George, you wire the captors and say that Buck, Vin, and I were killed. JD and Ezra, you will have the unenviable task of playing this out back in Four Corners. It will likely be best to let the town folks think it is true, in case someone comes checkin' up on the story. The four of us were sleepin' in the barn, and a fire broke out just before Vin and JD arrived. Ezra escaped with smoke inhalation, Vin ran in to try to save me and Buck, and the fire got him too. Tell them that you already took care of the bodies."

"Do we tell Nathan and Josiah that you're dead?" JD asked with a horrified look on his face.

Chris, Buck, and Vin looked at each other, and finally Larabee decided, "no – you can tell them the truth. We may need their help."

"So, are us three dead fellers goin' back to Illinois with Wiley then?" Buck asked. "Somebody's gonna have to help him get his wife back."

"We'll figure that out later," Chris continued, "while these boys travel back to Four Corners and get word up to Illinois."

Wiles finally broke his silence, "where are you boys gonna hole up?"

"I know a place," Vin reluctantly volunteered. There was still something about Wiles that made him unsure whether he should share the location with the man. He knew he had to let Ezra and JD know where they were going to be though. "About a day's ride north of here, along the Ute Creek. There's a rocky area on one side, with a nice, big cave. On the other side is a shady, wooded area that is full of deer and other critters. Plenty of food and water to hide out there for as long as we need ta."

"I think I remember that place," JD said, "didn't we stop there on the way back from roundin' up those horse thieves a few months ago?"

Vin shook his head and smiled, "that's right JD. That's the place."

"I suppose this is as good a place as any to split ways then," Chris approached Wiles and stuck out his hand. George accepted it in a handshake and Larabee said, "good luck Wiley, we'll meet back up in a few days. Chris paused then very quietly finished with, "don't make me and Buck wrong about you Wiles. If you got anything else to tell us, you do it right now."

Wiles looked into Larabee's green eyes and said, "you know everything that I do. Thank you all for your help….despite everything I've done to you. I'll be back in a couple of days to finish the plan."

George Wiles, Ezra, and JD rode off to the east towards Four Corners and Vin led Chris and Buck on a wooded shortcut to the north towards the agreed-upon hideout.

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After another two hours on the trail, the eastbound travelers came upon a small town. They tied up the horses, and Wiles said he would send the wire and meet Standish and Dunne in the local restaurant for lunch. George's heart was beating wildly as he dictated the message to the telegraph operator.

"Ezra?" JD asked for the third time, while the waitress stood staring at the two men. Standish's tired mind finally realized that someone was speaking to him.

"I'm sorry?" he managed before coughing.

"Whatta ya want to eat?" JD tried again.

"Whatever you're having is fine."

The waitress left, and JD was shocked. He and Ezra did not normally share much in the way of cuisine preferences. He knew the gambler really must be exhausted.

"You know we could get a room here in town for the night, Ezra," JD suggested, "so you could get some rest. Buck said that you all hadn't slept much in the last few days, and you still look and sound awful."

"Yes, thank you for pointing that out JD," Ezra's bloodshot green eyes looked up at the seven's youngest member. Standish was about as tired as he ever remembered being, but he also had an overwhelming desire to get back to town and back to his own, comfortable bed. And as much as he hated to admit it, he realized he was likely going to need some of Nathan's awful-tasting concoctions to be able to make good use of his featherbed. Otherwise, he would just lie awake and cough all night, like he had done the previous night.

The southerner felt bad for his three friends, having to sleep outside on the hard ground once again, especially Larabee who had clearly been as exhausted as he was. He would make sure Wiles took some of Nathan's cough remedies for Chris when he went to meet up with them in a day or two. Hopefully the soot and smoke would clear itself out by then anyway.

Ezra had just finished a coughing fit when Wiles entered the restaurant. "You ok, Ezra?" JD asked and scowled at Wiles.

"Fine, thank you."

George flagged down the waitress and ordered soup and a sandwich for himself. The food came quickly, and the men ate in silence for the first 5 minutes. Although he could not quite recognize the meal that JD had ordered for him by its appearance on his plate, Ezra was so hungry that he ate it anyway. Wiles said that the wire had been sent, so after eating and drinking a beer, the three somewhat-revived men headed back on the trail.

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"Shit," Chris exclaimed as he grabbed quickly at his horse's reins. Pony had stepped into a hole, and it surprised his rider who had been dozing in the saddle. The quick jerk of the horse had just about sent Larabee flying to the dirt below.

Buck turned to see what was going on, and Vin simply said, "think it's a good time to take a break." The tracker had quickly deduced what had happened with Larabee. He had noticed the man's posture starting to slump over the last mile or two.

Larabee gave Tanner a look that said, "keep your mouth shut."

Vin glared right back as if to say, "I'll keep my mouth shut if you don't argue about takin' a break."

Agreed.

Chris found a shady spot amongst the trees and dismounted his horse.

Buck dismounted, looked at Larabee over his horse and asked, "what was all the commotion about a few minutes ago?"

"Pony stepped in a hole," was all Chris said. He walked away and found a spot to sit. He tossed his hat on the ground, as he leaned his head back against a tree trunk.

Vin was looking through his saddle bag for some food, when Buck approached and quietly said, "dang cuss fell asleep in the saddle, didn't he?"

Blue eyes locked with blue, but Vin didn't say a word.

"He ain't slept in three nights."

Vin had no idea why Buck thought he needed to defend Chris. The Texan had ridden with Larabee enough to know that the man didn't make a habit of falling asleep in the saddle. If the gunslinger was out on his horse, then Vin knew that he was past exhaustion. Hell Tanner had felt sorry for Larabee since he first laid eyes on him this morning: dead tired, covered in bruises, coughing his head off, and still trying to come up with a plan to help the bastard that caused it all. Damn if it made any sense to Vin right now. He himself was not going through with this to help George Wiles in any way; he was just trying to make sure no more harm came to any of his friends.

Buck and Vin sat on the ground close to Chris. "It's only about four hours to the cave, so I'm hopin' we can make it tonight….was thinkin' we stay here for an hour or so and then get back on the trail."

Chris opened his eyes, cleared his throat, and said, "sounds fine to me."

Vin sat the meager food supplies down and everybody grabbed what they wanted. When Buck went to grab his canteen from his saddlebag, Vin asked, "you think you can ride another four hours today, Chris?"

"Yeah," Larabee insisted, "don't worry about me." He then broke into a coughing fit.

"Easier said than done, Cowboy," Vin said so quietly that he knew no one, including Chris, would hear him and handed the tired blond his canteen.

Chris took the canteen and got up and walked around until his coughing finally subsided. His ribs and chest were sore as hell, even his head hurt from coughing so much. Buck and Vin felt completely helpless; both men had to stand and watch until Chris got his breathing back under control. Larabee noticed the two sets of worried blue eyes staring at him, smiled a crooked grin, shrugged his shoulders, and went back to eating his jerky.

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JD, Ezra, and George Wiles arrived in Four Corners at dusk that evening. Although Ezra could walk on his ankle now, stairs were still tricky. So Wiles helped him up the stairs to Nathan's clinic, and JD went to find Josiah. All 5 men were in Nathan's room within 10 minutes of arriving in town.

Ezra had begun telling the story but was coughing and growing hoarser by the minute. Nathan began to examine the gambler's lungs and throat while JD and Wiles took over the tale. When it came to the part about Wiles setting the barn on fire with Buck, Chris, and Ezra in it, Nathan's mouth dropped open and he said, "you did what?" Nathan immediately stopped his ministrations, approached the ex-soldier and stood face-to-face. Wiles was a large man, but so was Nathan Jackson.

JD was trying to explain about Wiles' wife and that he had no choice, but Nathan didn't care.

"Man's always got a choice. That would be a downright awful way to kill even your worst enemy….much less men who were supposedly your friends. Ezra's lungs still sound terrible and may be scarred for the rest of his life because of you. Buck and Chris too maybe? Wish they were here, so I could take a look at them."

"Buck was doin' pretty good," JD tried to make the healer worry a little less. "Chris was about like Ezra I suppose."

Nathan looked at Wiles and said, "just get out of my sight." Wiles stood there, not knowing what to say. "I said get the hell out of my clinic." Josiah opened the door and gently escorted the man outside.

Sanchez followed and quietly said, "I think it's best if you just head back to your room at the boarding house for tonight. I know I'm supposed to forgive, but I'm havin' a real hard time with what you did as well. I think you and I both need to do some prayin' tonight."

Wiles shook his head in agreement and headed down the steps and out of sight.

Nathan worked for hours to find a combination of breathing treatments and teas that helped calm Ezra's cough enough for the exhausted southerner to get some rest. JD stayed in the clinic. He told himself it was to see how Ezra was doing and make sure Nathan didn't need any help, but it was really to avoid having to encounter anyone in town who might ask about Buck, Chris, or Vin. He just didn't know if he could lie to Ms. Nettie or Inez or Mary Travis and tell them his friends were dead. It would break their hearts and for what? To help George Wiles? JD, like Vin and Nathan, was on the fence about whether any of this mess was worth it.

Finally, Nathan shooed him out of the clinic, insisting he get some sleep. JD managed it to make it to his room without bumping into anyone, but he couldn't stay hidden all day tomorrow.

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Vin, Buck, and Chris made it to the Ute Creek cave just after dark. Buck and Chris unpacked the horses while Vin went to find supper. Just as Buck got a nice campfire going, Vin returned with two, fat rabbits. While their meal was cooking, Chris brought up Wiles' situation.

"So whatta you boys think," Larabee's voice was hoarse from coughing all day, "do you believe Wiles' story?"

Buck dipped his head, "I do, Chris. I saw his eyes when he talked about his wife."

"Vin?"

"Don't know," the tracker took a drink from his canteen, "I still got a funny feelin' about this Wiles character."

"Then what are you doin' here?" Buck asked.

"Makin' supper for two ungrateful bastards I suppose." Chris snorted and Buck smiled.

After the meal, the three men set up camp for the night inside the large cave. Despite all of the water and one of Nathan's teas that Vin had in his bag that they pushed on Larabee, the blond gunslinger could not lie down without coughing uncontrollably.

"Alright," Chris stood and went outside to the horses. He returned with a full bottle of redeye from his saddlebag. "It looks like I'll be takin' first watch….'cause I ain't gonna be a bit of any use here in another few hours."

"Larabee, I ain't sure that's the best idea," Vin shook his head, "but I wasn't expectin' ya to stand watch tonight anyway. I'll take first watch, and I'll wake Buck when I get tired."

"Neither you or Buck will agree to knock me out, and I ain't kiddin' Vin – I gotta get a few hours of sleep or I'm gonna start to go loco." Chris took a long swig and drank about a quarter of the bottle of whiskey.

"Damn," Vin did not know how the man could do that.

Buck had already been dozing for the last couple of hours, but he was aware enough to say, "leave him be, Vin. I think he's right this time. Sweet dreams, boys." The tall, ladies' man was sawing logs again within a minute.

Chris sat up with Vin for another hour near the mouth of the cave: watching, listening, and drinking. He managed to finish off the bottle, and no doubt about it – Larabee was drunk. His speech was slow and slurred, but he wasn't coughing. Once Vin coaxed him into drinking some water, he all but carried Chris to his bedroll, and the exhausted and inebriated man finally fell into a deep sleep. The tracker knew Larabee was going to be a bear to deal with in the morning.

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The next morning in Four Corners found a lot of sad faces gathered around JD, Josiah, and Ezra in the saloon. Once JD told Inez about the fire, word spread quickly about the death of the three peacekeepers. Ezra physically felt better than he had in a long time: his cough was improved and he had slept over eight hours, but mentally this was much more difficult than he ever imagined. Standish had lied to a lot of people about any number of things in his lifetime, but watching the townsfolks tear-up and hug himself and JD….well, this just felt awful. When the women began planning an elaborate memorial service, Ezra had to excuse himself.

Standish found George Wiles at the livery readying a horse to ride out. He was supposedly riding to catch a train back home to Illinois, but Ezra knew he was really going to meet back up with the three "dead" peacekeepers. He did not know what the four men were going to do then. Would all four of them go to Illinois? Somehow Standish couldn't imagine Vin agreeing to go along, but he also knew that the tracker would have a hard time trusting Wiles with his two friends.

Just as Wiles rode out of town, Standish noticed a young man across the road. It wasn't a person Ezra had ever seen before, but there was something vaguely familiar about him. The man soon disappeared into the hotel, and Ezra instructed Yosemite to come fetch him if the boy rode out of town.

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Vin woke to a commotion in the cave at about 7AM the following morning. He heard someone moving around and heard Buck say, "Wo there stud, let me get out of the way." He then heard the unmistakable sound of someone retching outside. Larabee was awake…and sick as a dog, just as Tanner knew he would be. Hopefully the sleep was worth it. Tanner crawled out of his warm bedroll and cringed as he heard Chris get sick once again. Vin slipped on his boots, walked past a grinning Wilmington, and stepped out into the morning sunlight.

Chris was hatless and splashing water on his face from the creek when Vin approached and asked, "how you doin', Cowboy?"

Larabee shakily sat back on the dirt and ran a hand through his dark blond hair. Chris' pallor was decidedly greenish, but he looked up at Vin and smiled, "hell, I think I'm still drunk."

"Wouldn't be surprised after all you had last night." Vin held out his hand. "Come on you old drunk, I'll help you back to the cave." He pulled Larabee to his feet. "Don't imagine that sun's makin' yer head feel too good neither."

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It had been less than an hour since George Wiles had ridden out of town when Yosemite knocked on Standish's door at the boarding house. "Mr. Standish?"

Ezra opened the door. "Yes?"

"The boy just took off on his horse."

"Heading west?"

"Heading west."

"Thank you very much sir." Ezra turned and grabbed a few belongings and followed Yosemite to the livery. Why he didn't stop in and tell the others what was going on? He didn't know. Part of him thought it would take too long to explain and part of him thought they wouldn't believe this boy had anything to do with Wiles. Standish would just go for a leisurely ride and see where this boy was going. He could always come back tonight once the fellow had made camp and obtain reinforcements, if necessary…right?

Ezra and Chaucer followed closely, but not too closely, just as the tall young man seemed to be doing to Mr. Wiles.

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Wiles pulled up to the campsite just after noon. Buck Wilmington stepped out from behind a rock with a rifle in hand. "Howdy there, Wiley."

"Buck," George acknowledged while looking around for Vin and Chris, "everything ok here."

"Everything's fine."

Tanner and Larabee exited the cave and Wiles simply said, "Chris. Vin."

"Got some beans warmin' up on the fire over there if yer interested," Vin said. Chris still wasn't feeling too talkative. His head and stomach continued to bother him, although not as badly as this morning.

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Ezra had crossed Ute creek a few miles back and had been riding in the trees, watching what the young man and Wiles were up to. The boy had only gone far enough to see where the camp was, and then he had taken a sharp turn up north…to get the rest of his gang, Ezra feared.

Standish waited and watched for the boy and/or more men to return, but there had been no signs of riders for over an hour now. Just before he approached the camp to inform his friends of his suspicions, a group of 10 men and 1 woman appeared on the rocks above Chris, Buck, Vin, and Wiles. They were armed and in an elevated position. His friends had no choice but to put up their hands and surrender immediately.

Chapter 6:

Ezra backed further into the forest, making sure himself and his horse were well hidden. The eldest member of the gang climbed down and approached Wiles. "Real sorry to see that you lied to us, George." He then slapped the man hard across the face, but Wiles didn't go down. His head immediately turned back and focused on the woman standing amongst the men.

"Laura, are you ok?" George found it odd that she too had a rifle.

"I would have been better if we didn't need to come clean up your mess, honey."

Chris was only standing a few feet away from Wiles. He looked up at the woman speaking then the large man next to Wiley. "And who exactly would WE be?"

The leader's age was hard to judge: likely somewhere between 45 and 55, and he was extremely tall. Wiles was as tall as Buck, who was the seven's tallest member, and this man was at least a couple of inches taller than him.

"I'm offended Larabee," the man leered at Chris, "you mean you don't remember me."

Chris glanced at Buck and Vin for any suggestions but both just shrugged, indicating they didn't know any more than he did. Larabee closed his eyes against the pounding in his head for a second, then opened them and said, "no, I'm sorry to say that I don't."

The man approached Chris and put his right arm around Larabee's shoulders. He then used his left hand to pull a small item out of his coat pocket. He squeezed Chris' shoulders tight as he held the item up to his face and asked, "do you recognize this?" It was an eye patch.

"Spikes."

"That's right."

"His brother?"

"Right again," the man said. "Name's Tom."

Chris pulled away from the man's grip. "Tommy Spikes. Sure, I remember you now. So all of this is because of me and Bob's fight at the rail-splitting contest?" Chris shook his head and looked at Wiles. "I don't get it."

The man got right up in Chris' face once again. "You ruined his life, Larabee, and you made a mess of my whole family. Bob was never the same after losin' his eye. He got mean, was always in trouble, and then I'll be damned if it wasn't you who ended up puttin' him in the grave."

"Wait a minute now, we just put him in jail," Buck interrupted.

"For murder…he was convicted, and they hung my little brother 17 days ago." Tom turned abruptly and looked at Wiles. "So, George…you with us or not?"

"How? Why?" was all Wiles could think to say.

"Bob's got a big family, George. I'm his older brother, and the other two men over there are his younger brother Dave and cousin Fred. The boys are our sons, including Bob's son Brent. Laura you always knew as Laura Washburn, but that was her name from a previous marriage. Laura is Bob's younger sister, a twin in fact of Dave."

"So Laura's life was never in danger?" George had never known Tom Spikes was his wife's brother. He didn't even know that she had a brother at all.

"Nah, we wouldn't hurt our dear ol' sis, but you can imagine our surprise when we found out who you were friends with. Small world, ain't it?" Tom smiled and looked at Vin and Buck. "So again George….you with us or you plannin' to die with these fellers?"

Wiles shot an apologetic look to the three peacekeepers.

"Here," Tom handed his rifle to the ex-soldier, "if you're with us, then shoot Tanner." Tom had met with Bob before his trial, so he knew the names of the Magnificent Seven members and what they looked like. He also knew that George wouldn't shoot the tracker. Hell, he didn't want anybody shooting the prisoners, but he wanted to see how Wiles would react.

Larabee was not as confident that someone wasn't going to shoot his friend, so he immediately plowed into Tom Spikes. The big man wasn't expecting it, and the two of them toppled to the ground. The majority of the 9 gang members above kept their guns trained on Buck and Vin, so they could do nothing except watch. One or two had a gun on the Larabee/Spikes melee as well, without really knowing what to do. They couldn't get a clean shot, and they had been instructed not to shoot Larabee or the other members of the seven anyway.

Chris and Tom fought close-quarters on the ground with knees and fists flying. A hard elbow from Spikes caught Chris in the temple, and the gunslinger saw stars. Sheer determination somehow finally allowed Larabee to get the upper-hand, despite being outsized by nearly half a foot and seventy pounds. The blond pulled his Colt, hauled Spikes to his feet, positioned the tall man in front of his own body, and held the pistol to Tom's head.

Larabee yelled out, "looks like the Spikes' clan's got a tough decision to make. Do you really wanna lose another brother or cousin or uncle? Throw down your weapons, and we'll let him go…we'll let all of you go. There's no harm done yet. If bullets start flyin' and folks start dyin' then there won't be any turnin' back."

Chris had his eyes completely focused on the 8 men and 1 woman in front of him. He didn't notice the movement to his side until he felt the unmistakable sensation of a pistol barrel in the small of his back.

"Give me the gun, Chris." Wiley had chosen a side.

Larabee did as instructed.

Tom turned with a look of pure hate in his eyes. "Give me that." He grabbed Larabee's Colt from Wiles, cocked it, and pointed it right at Chris' forehead.

"Oh Jesus," Buck said quietly enough that only Vin heard him. Vin understood the sentiment completely.

Suddenly Tom un-cocked the gun and smashed it across the side of Chris' face instead. "You better be thankful that we want this to look like an accident, Larabee." But Larabee didn't hear a word he said; the blond was out cold on the ground.

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Ezra couldn't make out anything that was being said from his vantage point across the creek, but he had seen enough to know that these were likely Bob Spikes' kin, and somehow George Wiles was now an enemy of the seven once again. He saw Larabee go down at the hands of the large, elder man, and then the full crowd descended on the camp. Tanner, Wilmington, and the unconscious Chris were tied to a tree about 50 yards from the campfire.

Standish was debating what to do. It would take about 7 hours to ride back to Four Corners, get help and ride back. That would likely be the smartest thing to do, but would his three associates still be alive when they got back? If he chose to stay, how in the world could he take on 11 armed folks by himself?

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The younger brother Dave asked, "so now what's the plan, Tom?"

"I don't know. It would be best if we made it look like these three met with an unfortunate accident. Did you lie to the folks in town the same as you lied to us, George? Did you tell their friends that they burned up in a fire?"

George shook his head. "That's what we told everyone in Four Corners...but the rest of the seven know they're still alive."

"Well, I guess we'll have to let 'em know different, and we'll just stick to the original plan then."

Laura questioned, "we're gonna burn 'em alive?"

"I ain't figured out the details yet. I just didn't want 'em to have obvious bullet holes…..we might be nice and knock 'em out first."

"How considerate of ya," Vin said to Buck, and Chris began to stir.

Chris knew he had drunk a lot the night before, but this hangover sure was a doozy. He was having a hard time moving his arms, and it took a full minute before he realized that was because they were tied behind his back.

"You alive, Chris?" Buck asked.

"Sure hurts a lot if I'm dead," Chris coughed and closed his eyes in an attempt to make the world stop spinning. "What goin' on?"

"Sounds like they're favorin' death by fire once again," Buck answered.

"Wonderful," Chris noticed that Vin hadn't said anything yet, "you guys all right?"

"Yeah, we're ok." Buck again.

Chris turned to look at the Texan, and Vin just gave him a small, crooked grin. Larabee figured Tanner was pissed that he and Buck had been duped by Wiles twice now, and he had to admit that Vin had every right to be angry.

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JD sank into a chair in the saloon and rubbed his stubbled face. It had been a horrible day, and he was now convinced that they had made a mistake about telling the town folks that three of the seven were dead. He and Josiah were supposed to help Mary Travis and Nettie Wells plan a memorial service tomorrow…for three men who were camped a few hours away. The seven's youngest member had come to the saloon at this late hour to get some supper and to ask Ezra if he could help with the funeral as well…..but where the heck was Ezra?

JD had just seen Nathan head out on patrol, so it wasn't Standish's shift. They didn't have any prisoners at the jail. The Bostonian hauled his tired body out of his seat and made his way to the boarding house to see if Ezra was there. It looked like supper was going to have to wait another hour or two.

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Vin was quietly working at the ropes binding his wrists when Tom Spikes approached the three men, holding a kettle of what Tanner assumed was beans or stew from supper. It was about 8PM…..nearly dark. "You boys hungry?" the big man asked with a snarl on his face.

Tanner and Larabee just glared at Spikes, but Buck replied, "sure, I could eat…..but that's gonna be tough with our hands tied behind our back."

"Oh yeah," Spikes grinned, "that's too bad. Guess you'll just have to open up!" Tom tossed the pot of boiling hot water across the legs of the three prisoners. The scalding liquid soaked into their pants, and there wasn't anything they could do to stop the burning of the skin underneath.

All three kicked and moved their legs to try and cool down the scorched area of their knees and thighs. Buck screamed profanities….and anything else that came to mind, while Tanner and Larabee suffered in silence.

Vin could feel the blisters forming on his legs, as his pants slowly cooled to a bearable temperature. Chris was sitting beside him, wondering if he had any skin left to blister. Larabee had watched the reactions of the rest of the Spikes clan after Tom doused them with the boiling water. A few had laughed – the older of the men….brother, cousin. George Wiles had not been able to hide his shock, as his mouth dropped open. His wife, Laura, had closed her eyes and turned away, as had a couple of the younger boys. Chris hoped they could count on at least a few of the clan to either help them or run instead of fight…..when the time came.

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"Josiah," JD yelled as he entered the church, "you here?"

The big ex-preacher emerged from the back, but JD didn't give him time to speak.

"I can't find Ezra anywhere. I looked in the saloon, his room, the jail…..he's gone."

"I'm sure there's a reasonable explanation, son," Josiah put on his jacket, "let's go take another look."

Sanchez suggested they check the livery, and sure enough – Chaucer was missing as well.

"I think we should go find Yosemite," Josiah suggested, "maybe he saw Ezra ride out."

The long-haired man opened the door to his room after the first knock, and saw the two peacekeepers' questioning stare. "What can I do for you, Josiah….JD?"

Nathan was riding back into town just as Josiah and JD came down from Yosemite's room. The livery keeper had told them about Standish leaving town earlier that day and of the stranger he followed.

"Nathan," Josiah greeted the dark-skinned healer, "board your horse and get some sleep. We're riding out first thing in the morning."

"What's going on?"

JD answered, "Ezra rode off earlier chasin' some guy who was apparently chasin' after Wiles."

"Ezra?" Nathan did not think that sounded like something the southerner would do….especially without telling the others.

JD shrugged his shoulder and said, "maybe he didn't have time to tell us…..or we were tied up with all of the womenfolk."

"Alright," Nathan walked his horse toward the stable, "I'll pack up some supplies and meet you here at dawn."

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Ezra had heard Wilmington's screams, and he could see shadows moving in and out of the campfire….but it was wearing on his nerves not to know what was actually going on across the river. Should he try to sneak in under the cover of darkness and free his friends? Should he wait until Tanner, Larabee, and/or Wilmington made the first move? He laid his bedroll on the ground and sat down. Sleep was unlikely to come tonight. He needed to keep watch, and he would not be allowed the luxuries of a campfire or a hot meal.

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Rest was not likely for the three Spikes' prisoners either. Their legs still felt like they were on fire, and Chris' head and ribs kept reminding him of earlier altercations.

If they tried to talk to each other at all, they were threatened with bodily harm. Tom Spikes was not about to allow them to make any sort of escape plan.

From what Vin could over-hear, it sounded like the plan was to move them somewhere tomorrow to finish them off. Two of the group, Spikes' cousin and his boy, had ridden out earlier in the afternoon. Tanner presumed this was to find or prepare a good location to burn their bodies. He didn't intend to stick around and find out; the Texan continued to work to loosen his bonds.

Chris had overheard the same conversations and knew that Vin was working to free himself, just as he was trying to do. The ropes were thin and tied tightly, so Larabee wasn't sure he was accomplishing much besides cutting bleeding channels into his wrists.

Buck was having a hard time concentrating on anything except the pain in his thighs and right knee. Burns hurt like nothing else; hell, he would have preferred being shot. OK, maybe that wasn't true, but the thought of jumping into the cool water of the stream to lessen the pain was all he could think about.

Finally Chris couldn't stand the silence any longer. "How you boys doin'?"

Vin hadn't said anything for hours, but he finally turned bloodshot blue eyes to Larabee, "Feel a bit like a rare-cooked steak, but I'm hangin' in there."

"Hell, I'm at least cooked medium-well over here," Buck groaned.

Chris shook his head. Only his men would be joking at a time like this. He kept his voice low when he asked, "anybody makin' any progress?"

"Nah," sighed Buck.

"Some," Vin gave them a little hope.

"Ain't sure I'm doin' much myself," Chris said honestly.

"Shut up over there!" one of the guards on night duty, Spikes' younger brother Dave, yelled out.

"Kiss my ass!" Chris yelled back….frustration getting the better of him.

Dave approached and leered at the three captives. "What'd you just say to me?"

Green eyes slowly lifted as their owner replied, "I said…..kiss my ass."

The butt of a rifle pounded hard and heavy into Larabee's burned left thigh, and he felt a large blister (or two) burst and ooze into his black pants.

"You Bastard!" Chris screamed out in pain. "You're dead! We'll get out of here, and we will kill you all!"

"Chris," Buck tried to calm the man before more damage was done to his friend.

But Larabee continued, "hope Bob was worth it…..cause you're goin' to hell right along with him!"

"Chris," Buck attempted one more time, "that's enough."

Dave Spikes whacked Larabee on the side of the head with the rifle. "You better listen to yer friend there Blondie, or you'll be the one whose dead. I won't wait 'til tomorrow; I'll take you out right now. "

Chris didn't hear his threats; the blow to the head had knocked him out cold.

"Damnit!" Buck slammed his boots on the ground. Why couldn't Larabee keep his mouth shut? Now they would have to wait for Chris to gain consciousness…even if Vin did get his hands free. Better to have three men to take on the gang than only two.

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Ezra could hear yelling from the campsite, as he lay on the ground staring up at the starry sky. He knew that likely didn't bode well for his friends. It had mostly been Larabee's voice he had heard, and now there was silence again. That led to a sinking feeling in Standish's gut. Were his friends still going to be alive to rescue come tomorrow morning?

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Dawn was just cresting over the eastern horizon. Chris was awake and ashamed of his actions the night before, but his friends didn't say anything else about it. Buck had asked him if he was all right. He had answered that he was fine, and that was the end of it.

Both Buck and Chris thought their ears were playing tricks on them when Vin whispered, "I'm free."

Tanner reached down and grabbed the knife from his boot thinking if Ezra were here he would say, "thank heavens for amateur captors." They had only searched for and confiscated their firearms.

With as little movement as possible, Vin cut the ropes binding Chris' wrists and handed the knife to Larabee. He then cut Buck's bindings and handed the knife back to Tanner.

The current guards were two of the younger men, Bob's son and one of his cousins. No one else had emerged from the cave yet this morning.

Vin yelled out, "Need to see to the call of nature over here."

"Hold it!" Brent yelled back.

"Been doin' that all night; my bladder's about to burst."

"Ah hell," Brent sighed. "Come on Scott. You keep your gun on the breed while I until 'im."

As soon as the two guards were within striking distance, Chris and Vin pounced. Vin plowed into Brent, and Larabee took down Scott. Buck was slower getting to his feet, so he kept an eye out for other members of the Spikes' clan.

Chris and Vin easily out-fought the two young men and got their rifles and pistols. As soon as Buck finished hog-tying the two unconscious boys and Larabee handed off one of the rifles, the bullets started flying and all hell broke loose.

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Ezra was riding towards the campsite as fast as Chaucer would go. Standish saw Vin go down. Larabee whirled on the shooter and pulled the trigger without a second thought. It stunned him when he realized it was Laura Wiles that he had just shot point-blank in the head. George screamed and ran to his wife's side. Chris never moved as Wiley pulled his pistol and fired it at him.

"Oh my God!" Ezra yelled as he saw Larabee go down a few feet from Vin. Standish pulled his own rifle and shot George Wiles in the chest. Buck was pinned down behind a couple of large rocks, battling with two of the men….."make that one man," thought Ezra as the other fell to Buck's bullet. Two of the youngsters had rescued their fellow cousins tied up earlier and had taken off. They didn't want anything to do with the fighting…..especially after witnessing the deaths of their aunt and uncle.

Ezra was trying to get a good shot off at the other man battling with Wilmington when out of the corner of his eye he saw Tom Spikes step from the cave entrance. Standish quickly turned to aim his weapon at the eldest Spikes. Ezra felt the sharp, intense pain just as he pulled the trigger.

Chapter 7:

"Enough!" Buck shouted, as he saw Ezra topple from Chaucer and land with a thud. Three of his friends were down. Wilmington stood tall and fired a perfect shot into the heart of the one remaining Spikes' family member.

Buck didn't know what to do. Who did he go to first? Were any of them even still alive?

Someone calling, "Buck," finally brought him out of his stupor. It was Vin, and a more beautiful sound Wilmington had never heard.

He was covered in blood, but the fool Texan was on his feet. Buck ran to support the smaller man, his own painful, burned legs forgotten in the adrenaline rush. "Where ya hit, Vin?"

"Shoulder," Vin hissed and said between clenched teeth, "I don't think Mrs. Wiles was a particularly good shot."

"Lucky for us," Buck smiled and grabbed Vin's handkerchief. He gently sat Tanner on the ground and pulled back his shirt to see the angry wound. The bullet had gone through, and the Texan was losing blood fast. He placed Vin's handkerchief against the exit wound and said, "lean back against the rocks," hoping that would hold the compress in place. Buck then placed his own handkerchief over the entry wound and lifted Tanner's hand up on it, "Vin, can you hold this while I check out Chris and Ezra?"

Vin shook his head, "yeah, go."

As Buck grabbed Chris' arm to drag him closer to Ezra, he had flashbacks of the war. Both men were gut-shot or close to it, and Wilmington was about to pass out himself from the amount of blood. It was absolutely everywhere. "No time for this," he said out loud, as he gathered himself. Buck laid them flat, pulled up their shirt tails, and began to examine their injuries.

Chris had been shot in the lower-left abdomen. Standish had been shot through the left side, as he was turning to fire. Standish's shot had found its mark and killed Tom Spikes, but not before Spikes' bullet had left its own ugly, bloody mark.

"Buck?"

Wilmington knew what Vin was asking. "They're alive, Vin, but they're bleedin' bad and the bullets are still in 'em."

"Let me help."

"No!" Buck screamed. "Don't you dare move. 0.44's make a big-ass hole comin' out, Vin, and if we don't get that bleedin' stopped….well, then you're gonna be in as bad of shape as these two."

Vin had to admit that he was feeling pretty poorly. If he even so much as moved his head, the surrounding landscape danced and blurred in front of him. He couldn't pass out. He should try to make it over to where Chris and Ezra were. If his friends were dying, he wanted, needed, a chance to say goodbye. "Damnit!" he slammed his head into the rocks behind him and cursed the situation and his own weakness.

Buck poured some water and whiskey over Ezra's and Chris' wounds. Ezra was starting to stir as he pressed down hard on the bullet hole with Standish's handkerchief. He was leaning hard on Chris' wound with his other hand and Chris' handkerchief.

"Ezra?" Buck questioned as the gambler moaned and tried to roll away from the pain. "You gotta stay still Ezra. I know it hurts."

All three of them had already lost too much blood. Chris' face was a ghastly gray color, and Ezra and Vin's pallor were only a shade or two better.

Buck said a silent prayer for someone to come and help him. He couldn't do this on his own. Maybe he could save Vin, if he focused on tending the tracker's wounds and stopping his blood loss. But that would mean leaving Chris and Ezra to die. What was a man to do?

Even if he made the rational decision to leave Chris and Ezra and help Vin, Buck knew Tanner wouldn't hear of it and would send him right back. Hell, he would do the exact same thing in Vin's situation. No, he had to stay here…and try.

Standish had passed out again, and he looked much younger in sleep. Where the hell had Ezra even come from today? And why was he by himself? Damn fool risked, and likely gave, his own life to come and rescue us…..and Chris isn't even awake to see it. Standish still thought Larabee held a grudge about his desertion at the Indian Village. Buck knew that wasn't the case, but he sure did wish that his old friend could have seen Ezra this morning. Wilmington couldn't help himself. The tears started to fall...out of frustration and fear. Ezra didn't deserve to die like this, and neither did Chris. Larabee, too, looked like a younger man lying on the cold ground before him. He didn't look much older than the Chris Buck had met 12 years earlier. That blond-haired fool had survived so much: the war, his wife and son's death, his battle with Fowler, his incarceration as inmate 78, and numerous bar fights and shootouts. Buck smiled, thinking back on some of the memories, but he couldn't believe that Larabee had made it through all of that only to die out here in the middle of nowhere.

"Buck," Vin cried weakly. Wilmington seemed to be in a world of his own, so Vin tried to command his voice to be louder, "Buck!"

It worked. Wilmington heard the urgency in Tanner's voice. "What….what's the matter?"

"Someone's coming." Vin could hear horses approaching. He didn't know if it was more of the Spikes' clan. It could be the two men who went scouting yesterday, or the four youngsters who turned tail and ran…..changing their mind and returning to avenge their family.

Buck left Ezra and Chris long enough to gather their weapons and give Vin his Mare's leg. Buck sat his own rifle right beside him, then went back to tending his two wounded friends.

Vin heard a familiar voice say, "this way. The cave is over here." JD.

Wilmington didn't even try to hide the tears when he saw the three riders stop and dismount their horses.

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Nathan could see that things were bad. "Buck?"

"All three of 'em got shot, Nathan….and lost a hell of a lot of blood. Vin's clean through the shoulder and Ezra and Chris in the abdomen. Bullet's still in Chris and Ezra."

"Follow me, JD," Nathan instructed, as he approached the first of their injured comrades. "Here Vin, drink some water," Nathan held up his canteen to the pale Texan's lips. "I'm gonna give you a dose of laudanum, and then I'm gonna lay you on your side."

"No," Vin started to refuse the pain-relieving medicine.

"We ain't got time to argue, Vin. I got a lot of patients to tend to," Nathan interjected sternly but then gently put his hand on the tracker's good shoulder. "Laudanum sometimes slows blood loss, and it's gonna help with the pain when I clean and stitch the wound."

Nathan instructed, "JD, keep pressure on both wounds. We gotta get the bleeding slowed down. I'll stitch him up after I check out Chris and Ezra."

"Got it," answered JD, as he marveled at the size of the hole in Vin's shoulder. The hole coming out was 5 or 6 times the size of the bullet wound going in. Vin did his best not to yell out as JD applied pressure. He kept telling himself that they were trying to help, and he needed to be quiet so he could hear what was going on with his other wounded friends. It wasn't easy though; the pain was intense, and he was actually beginning to look forward to the laudanum taking effect.

"How you doin' Buck?" Nathan said as he approached the ladies' man.

"I'm fine," Buck looked up at the tall healer and Josiah standing over him, "but they're in bad shape Nathan."

"Why don't you take a break for a few minutes, and Josiah and I will take a look." Buck's hands, arms, and clothes were covered in his friends' blood.

"They're both still breathin', but their heartbeat's fast and weak," Nathan shook his head, "they're losin' way too much blood." He sat back on his heels and sighed. Where did he start? The bullets were going to have to be removed from Ezra and Chris. The source of their bleeding was also going to have to be determined and repaired. Vin still needed to be stitched up. What did they tell him in the Army? Help those that can be saved. "Josiah, keep pressure on Ezra and Chris' wounds. I'm gonna get Vin sewed up."

The laudanum had taken effect, but Vin was still awake. "Ya think you can hold him still, JD?" Nathan asked the youngster.

"Yeah, sure Nate, I can hold him." JD replied but wasn't really as confident as he sounded. He knew Buck needed the break, and Josiah was busy with Chris and Ezra...so he would give it his best shot.

Nathan decided not to stitch the entry wound, since it wasn't very large. He cleaned and bandaged it well and turned his attention to the gaping hole in the lean man's back. Despite the laudanum and JD holding down with all his might, Vin bucked and screamed when the needle pierced the swollen, tender flesh. He fought through the first two stitches, and then finally succumbed to the pain and blood loss.

"Thank God," Nathan said when Tanner finally passed out. He quickly finished sewing and re-cleaned and bandaged the area. He then took a deep breath and readied himself for the next task.

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"How're they doin' Josiah?"

Buck had cleaned up and changed shirts and returned to his friends' sides.

"I think Ezra's bleeding is slowin' down," the big preacher replied.

Nathan knelt down and said, "let me take a look." Josiah was right. It had slowed considerably. "Let's get the bullet out of Ezra then and close him up. Josiah, keep the pressure on Chris. Buck, can you hold this over Ezra's nose and mouth?" Nathan handed Buck a cloth he had soaked in chloroform. He hoped Standish's lungs and heart were still strong enough to tolerate the anesthetic.

Buck held the cloth and watched as Nathan's strong hands went to work. Once the incision was made, it took only a couple of minutes before the healer located the bullet in Ezra's side. It had broken one of Standish's ribs, but the projectile did not appear to have injured the kidney or other nearby organs. Nathan quickly cleaned the area and stitched up the 5" incision, praying that infection would not set in.

Nathan then had Buck move over and do the same with Chris. The gunslinger was so pale; as pale as Nathan had ever seen a living human being. Josiah stepped aside, as the healer made a 6-inch incision across Larabee's abdomen. The blood loss had slowed a bit, but not enough that Jackson was confident no organs had been damaged. It was difficult to find the injuries and the bullet with blood still filling the abdominal cavity. Nathan soaked up as much as he could with clean cloths, and when he made it to the upper left quadrant he saw it. Chris' spleen had been grazed. He saw the bullet lying just behind it against a rib, which had also been broken like Ezra's. There were hairline cracks on two of Chris' lower ribs as well, obviously not caused by the gunshot. The healer had bigger concerns and thus didn't dwell on what had caused those injuries. Nathan quickly removed the 0.45 caliber slug, and admitted, "I don't know what to do."

"What do you mean, Nathan?" Buck asked.

"I think this is his spleen that got nicked, and folks can live without it," Nathan paused and took a deep breath, "but I ain't got the know-how to do a surgery like that."

"We have faith in you, Nathan," Josiah offered.

"I appreciate that Josiah," Jackson replied as he put pressure on the leaking organ, "but I don't have the proper tools or environment either. I'm just gonna have to suture the graze and see if it holds."

"And if it doesn't?" Buck questioned quietly.

"The spleen could rupture," Nathan stopped and look up into Wilmington's blue eyes, "in which case Chris would bleed uncontrollably…..and likely die."

It was hard for Buck, but he kept his eyes locked with Nathan's and replied, "like Josiah said, we trust you Doc. Do what you think is best."

Nathan shook his head and went to work. He carefully sutured the 2 inch gash, putting stitches as close together as he possibly could. He cleaned the area once again, and the sutures seemed to have stopped the bleeding. Doing his best to steady his nervous hands, the dark-skinned healer sewed up the abdominal incision, and again prayed for a miracle.

Buck, Nathan, and Josiah looked down at their gravely-injured friends and knew they had a long road ahead of them to get Chris, Ezra, and Vin recovered and back home.

"Let's get them into the cave," Nathan instructed, "we'll stay here at least tonight, and then see how they're doin' tomorrow…."

Josiah stood. "Take a rest, Nathan, and clean up. Buck, JD, and I will move our injured brothers."

"Thanks Josiah." Nathan was just going with the flow until now….doing what needed to be done. The gravity of the situation hit him all of a sudden. He sat down next to the creek and looked at the blood all over his hands and his clothes. He honestly didn't know if folks could lose that much blood and survive. Had all of his work on Ezra and Chris been for nothing? Did he succeed in extending their lives….only to have them slip away in a few hours or a day or worse? What if they just never woke up?

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"Supper'll be ready in about 10 minutes," Nathan flinched when Josiah placed a hand on his back.

How long had he been sitting here? All of the men were settled into the cave, and Josiah had managed to heat up some food. He finished cleaning up, changed his clothes, and joined his friends.

Nathan couldn't help but smile when he saw Vin sitting up eating some beans. "How're you feelin', Vin?"

"I'm all right Nathan," the quiet man replied.

"Ya still dizzy?"

"Yeah, but I can manage so long as I'm leanin' against somethin'."

"That's good to hear," Nathan smiled again and nodded his thanks to JD who was sitting within arms' length of Vin in case he did pass out, "food should help build your blood back up, so eat as much as you can." Jackson wanted to get as much food and water into Vin tonight as they could. He knew the tracker would likely have a fever come tomorrow and may very well not feel much like eating.

"Think you should take your own advice, brother," Josiah said as he handed Nathan a biscuit and a cup of beans. Sanchez prayed that their friends would make it through….as much for Nathan's sake as for their own. That was too much weight for any one person to bear, especially a man as young as Jackson.

Buck was eating his dinner and keeping watch on Chris and Ezra. Neither of them had regained consciousness since the surgeries, and Buck knew the effects of the chloroform should have worn off long ago. All three of the injured men had been cleaned up and changed into their spare clothing, so it really just looked like Larabee and Standish were sleeping.

Josiah had mentioned the burns on Vin, Chris, and Buck's legs to Nathan, so the healer tended those wounds after supper.

"Why didn't you or Buck say anything earlier?" Nate questioned the tracker. They had lain Vin back down on his bedroll once he had finished eating.

"Seemed like a minor problem compared to the bullet wounds," Vin answered honestly.

"Burns get infected easily," Nathan said and Tanner jumped as the healer poured carbolic over his upper legs.

"Damn Nathan," Vin wanted to rip his own legs off right now, and he knew he would have passed out had he not already been lying down.

He soon heard a loud, "Aaaaaaaaaah!" from Buck, as Nathan did the same thing to him.

The burns were large in area, covering the men's entire thighs and knees, and they were fairly deep. Nathan wasn't a burn expert by any means, but he would guess they were at least what real doctors would call second-degree burns. The thin amount of skin that remained was red, raw and blistered. Larabee was the only one who didn't complain as the wounds were cleaned, debrided, and bandaged. Nathan would have to re-check the wounds daily and remove any additional dead skin and tissue. They would also need to keep a close eye out for infection. Damn, these men need a hospital right now, thought Nathan, not to be tended by an ex-stretcher bearer in a dirty, old cave.

The painful screams and horrible-looking wounds were starting to get to JD, so he volunteered to patrol the area outside and make sure none of Spikes' clan had returned. He, Josiah, and Buck had buried the dead family members before supper. JD trusted Nathan's skills, but he still worried for his friends. He had only known these six men for a year, but they were already like family, like brothers, to him. Chris and the boys had been so worried that something bad would happen to him….that he would die young. They never worried about something bad happening to THEM, but here he was in that very situation.

Vin was such a wonderful and patient teacher. The Texan had taught JD so much, and not just about tracking. He taught him what it means to be a good man and a good friend. He taught him the importance of being honest and listening to your gut.

Ezra, on the other hand, taught him that lying sometimes had its purposes. The southerner was fiercely intelligent, and he made "downtime" fun in Four Corners. Standish was a lesson in patience for all of the seven. How the man loved to push buttons…..but JD thought it was good for the others (and himself) to be aware of their faults; it made them work to be better men.

Chris – now there was an enigma. The man in black was not at all what JD expected. He knew of Larabee's reputation before riding out to the Indian Village that day, but in reality Chris wasn't anything like the stories' had suggested. Sure, he could be downright mean and brutal with the bad guys, but Larabee cared deeply for those in his inner circle….maybe too deeply. In stark contrast to his exterior persona, Chris actually seemed to be the most emotionally-fragile of the seven.

Before JD's mind had a chance to wander to Buck and what could have happened to him today as well, reality interrupted him. The Bostonian took off at a full run when he heard a loud crash from the vicinity of the cave.

Chapter 8:

Nathan was checking out Ezra's incision, when his bowl of water and bucket of supplies went flying across the cave. Everyone turned in shock to see that Larabee had woken up…with a vengeance. The long, black-clad legs had kicked out and knocked over the bucket full of supplies. A large metal bowl full of water had been resting on top of it.

Nathan turned to grab the man's shoulders and yelled, "Buck, get his legs! We can't have him tearing out his stitches." Chris' green eyes were open but unfocused, and he continued to thrash about violently.

"Nathan?" was all Buck said, but the healer understood completely.

"I don't know Buck; could be some kind of seizure. How could a man who lost half his blood volume be this damn strong?"

JD ran into the cave to see Nathan and Buck trying to subdue a crazed and bucking Chris Larabee. Josiah was standing beside them as well, in case his mass and strength were needed. Vin had somehow gotten himself to a sitting position across the cave and was desperately trying to see what was going on with his friend. Chris's shirt was unbuttoned where Nathan had been checking the sutures, and JD could see every rib and muscle in Larabee's lean frame bulging and contracting.

And then just like that, it stopped. Chris' eyes drifted shut, and the bruised and sweaty body collapsed flat onto the bedroll.

Nathan and Buck were also sweating, and Nate sighed and sat down on the floor between Chris and Ezra. He could see that Chris was still breathing.

"What the hell was that all about?" Buck wiped the sweat with his shirtsleeve and asked.

"Definitely a seizure," Nathan answered, "what caused it? I'm not sure. Could be that losin' all that blood caused a lack of oxygen to his brain."

"We talkin' brain damage here, Nathan?" Buck looked around the room and back to Chris' still form.

"We won't know 'til he wakes up."

"You think that could be why neither Chris or Ezra have woken up?" JD removed his hat and ran his hands through his black hair.

"I already said I just don't know," Nathan stood, brushed past Wilmington, and walked outside.

Buck lowered his head and started to follow Nathan, when Josiah grabbed his arm. "Just let him be for a while, Buck. He'll come back when he's ready."

JD plopped down next to Tanner. "How're you doin', Vin?" JD thought his friend looked extremely tired. He was still pale from the blood loss, and his normally bright, blue eyes looked sunken and dull.

"I'm fine, JD," Vin tried to convince himself and his companion, "but I'll be a heck of a lot better when those two wake up and start cussin' and complainin'."

"Yeah, me too, Vin. Why don't we get you laid back down, so you can get some rest?" JD gently lowered the Texan back on his bedroll. "Ya want a drink or anything?"

"I'd take some water," Vin smiled, thankful for the boy's help. Vin was trying to keep quiet and out of everyone's way with Chris and Ezra so badly injured, although he could already feel the tell-tale aches and pains of a fever building in his body. He cursed his own weakness and prayed the fever would be gone by morning. It didn't take long at all until his exhausted and depleted body fell into a deep but fitful sleep.

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Nathan returned to the cave about an hour later and saw Vin tossing restlessly, and he knew. Without even touching the man, he knew a fever was starting to take hold. You just couldn't treat such serious injuries out in the field and not have infection set in….with all of the dirt and other folks around. It frustrated him to no end, but it didn't surprise him anymore. He would give Tanner's body a chance to fight. If the fever got too high or if it made Vin too ill to eat or drink, then Nathan would intervene with teas or other medications. The higher the fever a person could stand, the better it was at killing the infection…..as long as the fever didn't kill the person first.

Buck kept his vigil between Chris and Ezra's bedrolls all evening. He alternated between talking to each of them, usually about how stubborn the other was, but he never got so much as a groan or a fluttering of the eyelashes in response. Two very different men from two very different backgrounds both locked away in their own, quiet world. They got along much better this way, Buck laughed to himself. Oh, how he missed their arguing and bickering right now.

The night passed without much change. Josiah, Buck, and JD took turns keeping watch outside the cave, while Nathan made rounds every couple of hours to check on his patients. Heat continued to build in Vin's lean frame, Chris suffered through another painful seizure, and Ezra never made a sound or movement. By morning, Nathan could feel the heat of fever in Chris' and Ezra's faces as well. One step forward and two steps back, sighed the healer to himself.

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Vin woke and tried to rise the next morning, but his shoulder and leg hurt like hell and he felt absolutely dreadful.

"Just lay back, Vin," Nathan gently shoved the smaller man back on his bedroll.

Tanner was shivering, but he needed to get up. They had pushed a lot of water on him last night, and now it needed to come out. Nathan realized what was going on as Vin continued to try to sit up.

"Josiah, you wanna help me for a minute?" The two larger members of the seven more or less carried Vin outside, assisted him in his business, and carried him back to his bed.

"I'm gonna brew some tea," Nathan decided, "his fever's pretty high."…and maybe the other two will finally wake up and need it as well, Nathan hoped.

While Nathan administered the tea to the shivering tracker, Buck approached and asked, "should we send JD back to town to get a wagon?"

"That's a pretty long haul," Nathan acknowledged, "it's gonna take him 5 or 6 hours to get a wagon here. He probably would have to go back today and start back with the wagon first thing tomorrow morning. I don't want somebody else gettin' hurt trying to hurry back."

"I know Nate," Buck agreed.

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"I ain't leavin'," JD stormed outside and kicked at a rock at his feet. Buck followed. "What if somethin' happens?" JD's hazel eyes locked on Wilmington.

"I understand JD, but somebody's got to do it."

"Well then you do it…..or Josiah. I ain't leavin'."

"Shit!" Buck looked up at the sky. He understood completely where the boy was coming from. There wasn't a person on the planet that could make him leave with three of his friends so badly injured.

"Do you remember where the nearest town is?" Buck knew that Vin and JD had ridden through this area a while back.

JD stood tall now and said, "yeah, it's only about an hour's ride west of here…..forgot the name of it, but they had a telegraph operator. We used it to send a wire to Chris."

JD knew exactly where Buck was going with that question, and before Buck could even comment JD said, "I'll go Buck. It's only a couple of hours. I'll wire Mary and have her find someone to bring us a wagon. I'll go right now." With that, JD was saddling his horse.

"Good boy," Buck said quietly, "no….good man."

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The tea was helping Vin's fever, at least enough to get him to drink some water and eat a bit of soup. Josiah had caught two rabbits this morning and made a stew: thin enough that their injured brothers could partake but thick enough that the healthy men would also be willing to eat it.

Nathan and Buck spent a couple of hours trying to coax a couple of ounces of water down Chris and Ezra. It was slow going and messy, but it was somewhat successful. They thought if they got at least some liquid into their system maybe they could start regenerating some of the blood lost.

JD returned in the early afternoon saying the wire had been sent. He knew Mary was going to be shocked; she thought Chris, Vin, and Buck were dead. He didn't explain much in the telegram, just said:

Chris, Vin, and Buck are alive. STOP. Need a wagon brought to Ute Creek cave for injured men. STOP. JD. STOP.

He trusted that Mary would take care of the rest, although he knew they wouldn't make it here until the following day.

Just as JD grabbed a bowl of soup and sat down, Buck yelled out, "Nathan!"

The ladies' man had been sitting beside of Chris when his eyes had popped open. Buck was expecting another seizure, and Nathan was as well. The healer had appeared at Larabee's side in an instant, but the convulsions didn't happen.

"Chris?" Nathan put his hand on Larabee's shoulder. He could feel the heat of the man's fever, even through the shirt. "Can you hear me?"

Chris' eyes closed but then opened again in about 5 seconds.

"Come on, Chris," Buck coaxed, "say something ol' buddy."

JD had laid down his bowl of soup, and he and Josiah both approached to watch what was happening.

Although there was no sound, Chris' lips mouthed, "Buck?"

"Hot damn! Yes, it's Buck," Wilmington almost screamed, "you have no idea how happy we are to see you awake, pard." Nathan was already holding up Larabee's head to give him a drink of water. Most of it spilled, but Chris did manage to swallow a few drops. It tasted wonderful; the wounded man's mouth and throat felt like he had eaten sand.

Larabee tried to command his body to sit up, but it seemed like there was no strength anywhere. Even his head didn't make it more than an inch off of the ground.

"Now don't try to move just yet," Nathan said a little more sternly than he meant to, "one step at a time, Chris."

The blond's eyes searched the cave. He saw Ezra lying on the ground next to him, and he remembered the shoot-out with the Spikes' clan. Vin was injured, wasn't he? How did Standish get hurt? All he could croak out was, "Vin? Ezra?"

Nathan and Buck glanced back and forth to each other, not knowing how much or how little to say. Buck knew Chris would want to know, "Vin got shot in the shoulder, but he's gonna be ok; he's sleepin' over there. Ezra got shot in the side…..he ain't woke up yet."

"Ezra…how?" Standish hadn't even been part of the firefight.

Buck smiled and stepped back so Chris could get a better look at Ezra, "you shoulda seen that crazy fool, Chris. Apparently he'd been watchin' us, and he stormed right in there and took out both Wiles and Tom Spikes."

Standish was so pale and so still that Chris thought he looked dead. "Be ok?"

"We don't know yet, Chris," Nathan quietly answered then changed the subject, "how do you feel?"

"Heavy…..cold"

"Ya lost a ton of blood, so you're gonna be tired for a while," Nathan explained, "you also got a fever; you think you could drink some tea?"

"Try."

"That's all I can ask," Nathan went to grab a cup. They got about a quarter of the cup down and then Larabee couldn't do it any more. Even the effort of swallowing seemed to zap his strength.

Chris' eyes drifted shut, and Jackson marveled at the recovery. Larabee still looked like a corpse. His skin was grayish, and his blond hair hung limply across the sweaty forehead, but Nathan was now confident that the man would pull through. Even after the enormous blood loss and the terrible seizures, Larabee had somehow willed his body to survive. He hoped Ezra could do the same.

Vin was awake and hated that he hadn't gotten a chance to talk to Larabee himself. He knew Nathan thought that Chris would be ok now, but what if he wasn't? The man was still in a bad way. Damn that nagging feeling that kept reminding him that could have been his last chance to talk to Chris.

"If it ain't too much trouble and I won't be in the way, I'd like to move my bedroll over there…beside Chris."

Josiah took a deep breath, realizing they had forgotten about Tanner in the excitement of Larabee waking up. Of course Vin would have wanted a chance to talk to his friend. "Sure Vin," the big preacher approached and smiled, "no trouble at all. Buck, why don't you move his bed, and I'll assist our wounded brother." In only a few minutes they had the tracker settled on his bedroll just to the right of Chris.

It was the first up-close look Vin had at Ezra and Chris since the gunfight. He took in their deathly pallor and dry, cracked lips, not realizing that he himself didn't look a whole lot better. Nathan could see that Vin was improving though. Now that they had gotten some liquids and a couple of meals into the Texan, his strength was starting to return. Right now, he was holding himself in a sitting position to check out his other wounded friends. The fever lingered, but it hadn't gotten any worse. Nathan's tea was able to keep it at a reasonable level. His bullet wound and the burns on his legs were still red and inflamed, but there was no obvious signs of a bad infection or dying tissue.

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Once the darkness settled in, Nathan, JD, Josiah, Buck, and Vin had more stew for supper. Vin got another dose of tea, and he drifted off to sleep soon thereafter. Nathan and Buck spent another couple of hours trying to coax some water and tea into Ezra's feverish body. So much time and effort expended just to get a couple spoonfuls of tea and maybe 3 or 4 ounces of water into the man, but dehydration was a real concern. Ezra had been unconscious for about 30 hours now, and the high fever was evaporating what little moisture they managed to get into his body.

They tried unsuccessfully to rouse Chris to get him to drink more as well. He groaned a couple of times in response, but the man was too drained to open his eyes.

It was a long, cold night for all of the men. The cool temperatures were likely beneficial for the three peacekeepers fighting fevers, but it made for an uncomfortable sleep for the injured and non-injured alike.

JD had just come in from outside. His body was tired, but he could not fall asleep. The young man worried about his wounded friends, and he hoped Mary had found someone to get a wagon to them tomorrow. Would Ezra still be alive or would the wagon be used to haul his body back instead?

Josiah had taken over the watch from JD. The eldest of the seven stared up at the heavens and silently prayed for some help. He had faced death a number of times himself, but it was so much harder to watch a friend suffer and fight for his life. Sanchez had always been a physically-imposing fellow. He figured his size and strength helped his body to fight injuries and infections. Vin, Chris, and Ezra were strong men, but they had much leaner builds. It seemed to Josiah that they could not possibly have much left in reserve at this point. "Lord, why couldn't it have been me instead of Ezra that rode after Wiles."

Buck watched as Nathan slept, and JD tossed and turned. He knew everyone was exhausted and on edge. Nathan would have to get back up in a couple of hours to check on his patients. He himself would have to wake up to take the next shift outside. What a mess this whole thing had been? Should he have known that Wiley was up to something from the beginning? Should he have checked him out better, sent some wires to Illinois, before leading his friends off on a mission for this guy? Yeah, he supposed he should have. If Ezra died, it would be his fault, and he didn't know how many of his friends would be able to forgive him. JD and Chris probably would…..if Chris lived. Josiah was an unknown, and Vin and Nathan would definitely have a hard time with it. I guess the big question was could he forgive himself...and that, too, remained to be seen.

In the darkest, coldest hours just before dawn, Vin awoke to an unknown sound. As his eyes tried to adjust to the darkness, his ears recognized the sound of someone choking or gasping for breath. Chris lay unmoving right beside of him, and no one else seemed to be awake. He sat up on his bedroll, and his heart just about burst out of his chest when he realized what was happening. "Nathan!" he screamed. "Ezra! Somethin's wrong with Ezra!"

Chapter 9:

Nathan grabbed the lantern and stumbled across the uneven ground to Ezra's side. The gambler's lips were blue and his eyes were open wide. He could not get enough air. Chris was awake and trying to sit up, Buck had heard Vin's cries from outside, and Josiah and JD too had bolted from their bedrolls.

"Josiah, lift his head up," Nathan instructed while he listened to Standish's lungs and heart. "I don't hear any fluid, but his lungs are still in rough shape from the smoke...and he's breathin' way too fast." Nathan put his hands on Ezra's shoulders and got his face as close as he could to the southerner's. "Ezra, you gotta calm down and slow your breathin'. You're hyperventilating."

Standish recognized the voice, and he knew he should try to do what the man said…but it was so hard to breathe, so cold, so much pain, and the darkness claimed him once again.

"He passed out."

"Should we try to wake him up?" Buck asked.

"Let's give him a bit to get his breathin' slowed back down, then we'll try again," Nathan sighed and attempted to get his own heartbeat back under control.

JD had helped (and was still helping) Chris to lean up a bit. The pain in his side and stomach were horrendous, but he had to know what was going on. The dizziness and vertigo were getting to be too much, so before he got sick he asked, "can you lay me back down, JD?"

"Oh, sure, Chris," JD laid the blond head back on the make-shift pillow.

Nathan saw Larabee's face turn a tell-tale shade of green. "You all right, Chris?"

"Just give…me a minute," Chris grunted, "I'll…be…..ok."

Vin and Buck shared a smiling glance at each other. All of their friends were alive…..not out of the woods by a long shot, but alive.

Nathan turned his trained eye to Vin, "how about you? How're you feelin' this mornin'?" He put his hand on the tracker's face to check for fever, and then peeked at the shoulder bandages.

"Better," Vin replied, and he actually meant it. His shoulder wound still pulled sharply when he moved and throbbed when he didn't, but the pain from his burned legs was fading, and he could sit up on his own.

"Fever's still there, but I think it's a little lower than yesterday." Nathan rubbed his sleepy eyes and got some water ready for heating on the fire outside. The sun wasn't up yet, but he knew no one was going back to sleep.

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The team of healthy men got some water and tea into Chris and Vin, then Nathan decided it was time to attempt to rouse Ezra again. He always was the last one to wake up, Nathan thought and laughed to himself. The cave was eerily quiet as all 10 eyes remained glued on Standish and Jackson.

"Ezra," Nathan gently shook the pale man's shoulder. "Come on Ezra, time to wake up," he lightly tapped the uncharacteristically-stubbled face.

The eyelashes fluttered but didn't open.

"Come on buddy, you can do it." Buck encouraged.

"Wake up for us, son," Josiah leaned closer and said, but still no change.

"Damnit Ezra, open yer eyes." Chris did his best to make his voice sound as loud and strong as possible.

Pale green eyes blinked open.

"Hell, even half-dead, Ezra's afraid of Chris," Buck kidded.

"Take it easy, Ezra," Nathan coached, "breathe nice and slow for me." He could tell the man was starting to get anxious.

Standish coughed and made an effort to take slower, deeper breaths. It hurt….a lot. Why was it so damn hard just to breathe?

"You were shot in the side, Ezra," Nathan tried to answer the questions that Standish was unable to ask. "You've got stitches and a broken rib, which probably make breathin' painful," Nathan stopped and smiled, "but ya gotta keep breathin' if you wanna keep livin'."

"Not sure," the weak voice croaked out.

"You're not sure if you wanna keep livin'?" Buck laughed. How wonderful it was to hear that voice.

Chris had to lay back and close his eyes. Tears were threatening to fall. I'll be damned, he thought. They were still seven.

Vin understood what Larabee was thinking and feeling, and he saw JD turn away for a moment as well.

"First things first, let's get some water in him," Nathan gathered himself and took charge once again. Ezra still had a high fever and was most-certainly dehydrated.

They did manage to get a bit of water and tea into Ezra before his worn-out body finally won its argument for more sleep.

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Vin was up and even taking a few unsteady steps.

"Think I'm gonna need some assistance," Chris smirked. It had been a day and half since he had seen to the call of nature. The fever had burned away most of the excess fluid in his body, but he had been able to drink quite a bit more water this morning.

Vin started to hobble over his way.

"Not from you," Chris was back to his old, cantankerous self, "hell, we'd both end up on our asses."

Josiah and Buck took charge of this particular problem. They made it outside, each supporting one of Chris' arms, but being in an upright position was causing the man's blood pressure to plummet. "You best hurry it up," Larabee suggested as the world started to go dark. He just managed to finish his business before he collapsed into the two bigger men's arms.

"I got him," Buck swung the long legs up into his arms and carried Chris back to his bedroll. He was clearly lighter than the last time Wilmington had the pleasure of carrying his friend's drunken passed-out carcass to bed. They needed to get him, Vin, and Ezra well enough to start eating again. How many days had it all been now? What was today….Wednesday? They had headed down south with Wiley on a Tuesday, so 8 days: eight long days of cold nights, little food, and countless physical and mental battles. Hell, they all could use a nice, hot meal and a good night's sleep.

"What happened?" Nathan asked as Buck entered the cave carrying Larabee.

"He passed out," Buck continued on with his burden, "nothin' to worry about, Doc."

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Chris and Ezra napped, as the others worked to find food and make preparations for hopefully leaving the following morning. Nathan was checking his medical supplies, Buck was washing up their dirty clothing and bandages in the stream, and Vin was sitting outside enjoying the sunshine and watching Josiah catch dinner. The Texan watched Josiah try twice to shoot a rabbit as it darted past. Finally Vin picked up Buck's rifle that was propped against a rock a few feet away. Josiah turned in shock, as the escaping critter dropped to the dirt. Vin had shot that rabbit in the head from across the creek. Well, his injuries certainly didn't hurt his marksmanship any, Josiah smiled and carried the carcass across the stream. "Here, you killed it…..you clean it."

The recoil had jarred Vin's body enough that it took him a minute to compose himself, but then he just grinned and grabbed the rabbit's legs.

As they started cooking up the new batch of rabbit stew, the men heard the unmistakable sound of a wagon.

JD and Buck stepped outside. "Probably Yosemite with the wagon," JD guessed and sat down on a rock next to Vin.

Buck and Josiah's eye grew huge as they looked at each other and the approaching wagon. Coming around the bend in the creek was Nettie Wells' wagon being driven by none other than Ms. Nettie herself. Mary Travis sat in the passenger seat.

The wagon pulled to a stop, and Mary smiled, "hello gentlemen."

Buck helped Nettie and Mary down, and Nettie simply said, "Buck, Josiah, JD," and headed straight for Vin.

"Mr. Tanner," Nettie knelt down and locked her own blue eyes with Vin's. "I don't know whether to hug you or slap you. How could you let me," she quickly corrected herself but Vin heard what she said, "let us think you were dead?"

"I'm sorry Ms. Nettie," Vin gave her his best, sad-eyed look, "it wasn't exactly our best plan ever."

She chose the hug over the slap and asked, "are you all right, son?" She could see the white bandages peeking out from under his red shirt, and he looked pale and thin.

"I am now," Tanner smiled as JD helped haul him to a standing position.

"Are there more of you boys hurt?" Nettie asked, although Mary already had her suspicions about one of them. Mr. Larabee would have most-certainly come out to greet them if he were able.

"Yeah, Chris and Ezra are still pretty bad off," Vin said as Nathan stepped out of the cave into the mid-day sunlight.

"Ms. Nettie, Mary," Nathan greeted, "we really appreciate you bringin' the wagon. Ezra, Chris, and Vin weren't gonna be able to ride home anytime soon."

"I can ride," Vin disputed.

"We'll see about that come tomorrow."

"So, what happened?" Mary asked.

"I'm gonna sit with Ezra and Chris," Nathan answered, "but why don't you ladies get some stew and Buck can fill you in."

"Nonsense, Nathan," Mary approached the tall healer, "you have some stew while I sit with Chris and Ezra. You all look like you could use a break and a good meal. I brought some homemade bread and Nettie made one of her famous apple pies, so you better move fast if you want some."

Nathan smiled and shook his head. "Thank you, Mary."

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Mary smiled in return, but it quickly faded when she saw the two men lying inside the cave. Their shirts were unbuttoned, revealing the large bandages around their mid-sections. My Lord, she thought, they were shot in the stomach. Most people who were "gut-shot" died. The risk of hitting a vital organ was huge, and even if you didn't – infection was just as big of a risk. Honestly, both men looked like they should be lying in a coffin. They were as pale as the white blouse she was wearing, and neither man had stirred.

Chris and Ezra, she smirked, now there was a pair. If they didn't make it, they would probably be arguing with each other when they approached the pearly gates. Two completely opposite personalities fighting for the same cause. Mary knew they both were fighters. If anybody could survive something like this, these two stubborn men could. She grabbed onto Chris' left hand and Ezra's right and said, "don't give up. We need you both."

She gasped out loud when Chris' eyes opened.

"Mary?"

"Chris, you're awake."

Chris could only imagine how awful he looked…and smelled, but she was already here. So, there wasn't anything he could do about it now.

"You brought the wagon?" He had heard the others talking about it this morning.

"I did," Mary smiled, "with Ms. Nettie."

Chris laughed, and then realized how much that hurt. When his face contorted in pain, Mary touched his shoulder, "should I get Nathan?"

"No," he grunted, "I'm all right." He knew Nettie Wells was likely outside mother-henning Vin, just like Mary was doing in here.

She reached up and pushed a stray lock of blond hair out of his eyes.

"Has Ezra been awake?" Chris asked, not knowing how long Mary had been sitting here. He lost track of the time of day lying flat in this cave.

"Not since I've been," Mary started to say, and Standish coughed and opened his eyes, "here."

"Ezra," Mary turned to face him. "How are you?"

"Dreadful," he choked out and then tried to say, "but thank…you for…asking."

Always the gentleman, she thought.

"Ya might wanna get Nathan," Chris said quietly…..cursing himself for not being strong enough to get up and help Standish. Mary was already on her way outside.

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"Ezra!" Nathan greeted and was followed by Buck and JD. Josiah and Nettie escorted Vin back inside a few minutes later.

"My stars!" Nettie exclaimed as she took in the other two injured men for the first time. "I might have to take out my old Carbine and become a temporary member of your team. It looks like you boys are gonna be laid up for quite a while."

Leave it to Nettie not to mince words, thought Vin.

"How are you, Mr. Standish?" Nettie continued to scrutinize the prone man and the fair-haired one beside of him, "Mr. Larabee?"

"Still alive," Chris answered for Ezra and himself, "can't say much more than that, Nettie."

Dern, how she loved these boys and hated to see harm come to any of them.

Nathan worked to get some additional water and tea into Ezra. He seemed to be a little more awake this time.

"You keep…..that up," Ezra took a deep breath to be able to continue, "I'm going to….need a chamber pot."

"We'll figure that out, Ezra," Nathan kept giving him sips of the tea, "you ok for right now?"

"Yes."

That was a sure sign of how terribly-dehydrated the man had been.

"Chris, you wanna try some broth from Josiah's stew?" Nathan looked up from what he was doing, "or are you still feelin' sick?"

"I'm fine if I'm layin' down…..get sick, dizzy when I sit up."

Ezra's stomach growled loudly, and Nathan laughed. "What, you wanna try some broth too?"

Standish just raised his eyebrows.

"Alright, let's give it a try," Nathan agreed, "sometimes the salt helps get a body's chemical balance back in order and such."

Mary sat between the injured men with two bowls of broth, alternatingly giving spoonfuls to each one.

"Oh, the humiliation," Ezra said, and Mary and Chris couldn't tell if he was joking or not. He was, mostly. Like Chris, Standish hated to think about what his appearance and aroma must be at the moment, but he was thankful for the help. Nathan's tea was definitely helping the fever, and the broth calmed his empty stomach a bit.

When they were finished, Mary sat the bowls aside and asked, "would you gentlemen like me to help you shave?"

"Ya don't have to do that, Mary," Chris' face and ears had already turned red just thinking about it.

"It's no trouble," Mary got up to get a shaving kit from one of the men, "I do this for a lot of Nathan's patients back in town."

"You know, Mary, I could use a shave too," Buck grinned mischievously.

She rolled her eyes and threw the empty pouch from the shaving kit at him.

Ezra was also embarrassed at the thought, but he really did WANT a shave. The stubble made him itchy, and he kept poking himself in the neck with the prickly hairs.

Mary grabbed some water and began prepping Standish's face and neck for shaving. She was quite good at it, thought Ezra. It only took her a few minutes, and she gently washed his chin, neck, cheeks, and forehead afterwards. It felt amazingly good to have a clean face.

"Chris?" Mary didn't wait for an answer; she immediately began soaping his face. Interestingly, Chris and Ezra's beards seemed to be about the same color. Standish's stubble was lighter than his auburn-colored locks, while Chris' was darker than his wheat-colored hair. Again, she finished the shaving and washing very quickly, and Chris too had to admit that he felt more human afterwards.

After admiring Mary's work, and as a covert way of checking the two men's fevers, Nettie Wells took the shaving supplies and approached Vin. Ah hell, he said to himself, but Tanner knew there would be no arguing with the old woman.

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"Alright, we're gonna plan to leave first thing tomorrow mornin'," Nathan spoke to the crowd later in the evening, "it's gonna be a long trip with the wagon, and I imagine we'll need to stop a few times. Let's get everything we can packed and loaded up tonight." Mary and Nettie had already made a make-shift bed out of the wagon….filling it with straw and covering and securing it with burlap donated by Mrs. Potter. All they would have to do in the morning is get the injured men situated, and then they could head for home.

Buck took the lead on the travel preparations. He knew he was unofficially in charge with both Larabee and Tanner injured. Wilmington was still fighting his own guilt and demons, but being busy helped to keep his mind off of Wiles and the mess he had caused. He and Nathan had discussed things and decided that Vin would drive the wagon with Ms. Nettie. Mary could ride Vin's horse, Peso, home. He was gentler and more agreeable than either of Larabee's or Standish's cantankerous mounts…just like their owners, Buck thought.

Nathan dosed all three of the wounded men heavily that evening, with both tea and laudanum. He wanted everyone, including himself, as well-rested as possible tomorrow.

Chapter 10:

"Coffee's ready, and the wagon and horses are too," JD announced just after dawn the following morning. The skies were cloudy and orange-tinted, but the youngest of the seven hoped that it wouldn't rain today.

Vin approached Peso and put his foot in the stirrup, and Buck tapped him on the shoulder. "Uh-uh," Buck pointed to the bench at the front of Ms. Nettie's wagon.

"I can ride, Buck," Vin insisted.

"Nathan gave explicit instructions that you were to ride ON the wagon," Wilmington explained, "besides Mary said she wanted to see what it was like to ride that beast of yours."

Vin gave Buck an evil look, but he begrudgingly climbed into the wagon seat.

Nathan and Josiah exited the cave carrying Chris. They moved the blond with Josiah holding under Larabee's arms and Nathan holding his legs, so as to keep the man flat. When they had held him upright outside the night before to see to the call of nature, Chris had gotten sick and lost the broth and water they had just gotten down him. Once Larabee was settled, the two peacekeepers went back and repeated the motions with Ezra.

Once they were settled, Vin turned and asked, "how you boys doin' back there?"

"Please tell me you are not driving the wagon today?" Ezra answered Vin's question with a question.

"I might be. What's wrong with that?"

"Nothing…..if you enjoy getting bounced and beaten senseless on the journey home."

Ezra was clearly feeling better, Vin thought, but Chris was being awfully quiet.

"How're you doin', cowboy?"

Chris grinned. "Just enjoying the sights and sounds of being out of that cave."

Vin nodded in full agreement as he reached his hand down to help Nettie Wells up into the seat. "Give me those," she snatched the reins from Vin's hand, "you think we wanna be bounced to smithereens all day."

Ezra chuckled, and Vin just shook his head.

"Let's head for home, boys," Buck yelled and led the pack, heading east along the Ute valley.

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Despite Nettie going as slowly and carefully as she could, the wagon ride was rough on all three injured men…..even Vin's shoulder was sore and uncomfortable after a couple of hours. Chris looked over at Ezra and saw the man's face etched in pain and sweat pouring off of him.

"You ok, Ezra. You need to stop?" Chris asked Standish. Chris own abdomen and side were screaming for a break. He figured it was his and the southerner's broken rib that was causing the most discomfort, although the stitches pulled and hurt as well. They had both experienced cracked ribs before, from fights or falls, but somehow it seemed more painful when the rib was completely smashed by a bullet. They both had to force themselves to take every painful breath.

Nathan had only just this morning told Larabee about his injured spleen. Chris didn't know what the hell a spleen was for, but the healer had told him it could kill him if someone punched him hard in the stomach over the next week or two. He figured he would spend a good part of that first week in Nathan's clinic, which didn't leave him too much time afterwards to get into trouble.

"No, I'm ok." Standish finally responded in a not very Ezra-like manner.

Vin was keeping a close eye on his friends as well and had noticed the obvious suffering of both. Chris, like Ezra, was sweating more than he should be, considering the cool weather of the early morning. He leaned over and said quietly to Nettie, "another 30 minutes, and I think we're gonna have to stop."

She understood immediately and nodded her head.

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After about 20 minutes, they came upon a shaded area along the creek. Nettie pulled the wagon over to where the horse could water and parked. Nathan figured it was more for her passengers than the horses, and when he saw the pale and sweat-covered faces of Chris and Ezra it confirmed his suspicions.

Maybe this wasn't such a good idea, Nathan thought. Maybe Larabee and Standish were not ready to be moved yet.

He held up Ezra's head. "Here, drink some water." He felt Standish's forehead. It was still feverish, but not as bad as the previous days. He turned to repeat the procedure with Chris.

"I need to get out of this wagon, Nathan." Chris said it so quietly and seriously that Nathan didn't know what to make of it.

"Whatta you mean?" Nathan asked.

"I just gotta get up, get out of this position…..I don't know." The healer could see that Larabee was starting to panic.

Vin, Nettie, and Ezra heard the conversation, and Vin stepped over into the back of the wagon.

"Set him up against me," Vin offered, as he leaned back against the front of the wagon bed.

"Settin' up makes him sick."

"If he starts to feel sick, I'll lay him back down."

Nathan lifted Chris and pulled him up and back against Vin. Chris was sweating even more now.

"Breathe cowboy," Vin encouraged, "I got ya." He could tell that Larabee was breathing too quickly and shallowly.

"I'm sorry," Chris gasped. He didn't know what happened. He had been dealing with everything ok over the last two days, but he just all of a sudden started to feel very claustrophobic.

"Ya got nothing to be sorry about," Vin squeezed Chris' shoulder.

Nathan figured that the rough ride had made breathing even more painful, and Chris started fighting his body's urge to take a breath.

"You two want some laudanum?" Nathan asked, "maybe it would let you sleep on the ride home?"

Chris shook his head, "no," but Ezra was seriously considering it. Larabee was starting to calm down, and he didn't like to travel anywhere unaware of his surroundings. He knew he had plenty of folks to watch over him, but even injured – he still felt the responsibility to keep his men, and in this case Mary and Nettie too, safe.

"Mr. Jackson, I believe I will take you up on that offer," Standish didn't want to deal with the pain any more. They had only ridden for a couple of hours, and he knew it would be another 4 or 5 hours before they made it back to Four Corners. He understood and sympathized completely with Chris' episode a few minutes ago. He had been starting to feel the same way and knew he too would have been in trouble had Nettie not stopped the wagon when she did.

Buck rode up and handed Nathan his medical bag, "here you go Nate. They gonna be ok?"

"Let's break here for dinner…..at least an hour," Nathan measured out the dose of laudanum for Ezra, "and hopefully they'll be feeling better by then." After dosing Ezra and covering him with a blanket, he turned to Larabee. "Chris, why don't I lay you back down and see if you can sleep for a bit too. I ain't gonna force you to take the laudanum," the healer settled the blond back onto the make-shift bed, "but we still got a long way to go today."

Chris shook his head, indicating that he would think about it.

The wagon remained parked where it was, while the remainder of the party moved about a quarter of a mile upstream, where they had seen an old campfire ring.

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Mary, Nettie, Nathan and Josiah went about heating up something for dinner, while Buck, JD and Vin made their way down to the creek to wash up a bit.

Mary had hung back this morning with the commotion in the wagon. She somehow imagined that it would embarrass Chris if he knew she was watching. She turned to address Nathan, "do you think Chris and Ezra will be ok?"

Nettie Wells was wondering the same thing. She had seen first-hand the pain those young men were dealing with.

"I don't know, Mary," Nathan sat and took a drink from his canteen, "last I looked in they were both sleepin', so hopefully that will help."

"Mr. Larabee never did agree to the medicine?" Nettie questioned.

"No," Nate shook his head, "I'll offer again before we head back out."

Buck and JD had been splashing and making fools of themselves in the creek, so they both re-appeared at the campfire with wet clothes.

Nathan (and Nettie) looked closely to make sure Vin hadn't participated as well, but he appeared to be mostly dry. The healer didn't want Tanner's bandages getting wet.

The men remained seated around the campfire for a while after they finished off some beans and what remained of Mary's loaf of bread.

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All of a sudden, Vin stood and looked around.

"What's wrong?" asked JD.

Vin remained standing for a few minutes and finally said, "nothin' I guess." The tracker sat back down and took a drink from his canteen.

It was less than a minute later when they heard and saw the wagon take off downstream.

"What in the hell?" Buck yelled and grabbed his gun belt. He had taken it off when he and JD were messing around in the water.

As the men began running after the wagon, they heard a voice yell out, "stop or I'll shoot!"

Buck could not believe it. The Spikes' cousin, Fred, was standing up on a small bluff between the campfire and where they left the wagon, with three of his brood.

"Throw down your weapons and put your hands up, and nobody'll get hurt," the man continued.

He couldn't risk something happening to Mary and Nettie, so Buck looked around at his friends and dipped his head. They did as they were instructed.

"Whatta ya want?" Buck yelled back.

"Just needed some supplies. Figured a wagon would be nice for headin' back home; it's a long journey back to Illinois, Mr. Wilmington."

"You can have all the supplies you want, but we need that wagon. Two of our injured men were in it."

The elder Spikes looked back and forth at the boys around him, and they just shrugged their shoulders. They had only stumbled upon the party about a half an hour ago by sheer luck, and they hadn't gotten a good look at what was in the wagon. They just knew they were tired, hungry, and out of money….and they needed food to head back home.

"Tell you what," Spikes continued. "You ride on back to town and fill up another wagon full of food, water and blankets. Meet us back here tomorrow at the same place, same time, and we'll trade ya. We'll give you the other wagon with yer friends, and we'll be on our way. Figure it's the least you could do after killin' half of our family."

"Yer family brought it all on themselves, Mister," Vin spoke up, "and we want our friends back now. You can keep the wagon, and we'll bring you back a loaded one tomorrow just like you asked."

"Yeah right. We give you yer friends today, and we'll never see you again. I ain't stupid."

Buck grabbed JD and pulled him close, "keep us instead then. We'll stay with ya if you let our two injured men go. They need a doctor."

JD was fine with that arrangement.

"Nah, I think we have more leverage with the two injured fellers we already have."

Buck sighed and Nathan dropped his head.

Spikes continued, "you boys and girls might as well find a seat. We're gonna wait right here while my boys get the wagon hidden away, and then we'll let you head on your way. We might even have a couple of boys follow you home…just to make sure you don't attempt any funny business."

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Chris awoke as his body literally bounced 6 inches off of the wagon bed. Damn, that hurt, and his foggy, jostled brain tried to make sense of his surroundings. The wagon….they were in the wagon heading back to Four Corners. It was moving way too fast to be Nettie driving; were they trying to outrun pursuers…..was somebody chasing them?

Ezra was still out cold. Nathan must have given him a whopping dose of laudanum to sleep through this ride.

Larabee managed to raise himself up enough and turn his head around to see that the wagon drivers were not Vin and Nettie. "You gotta be kidding me," he said to himself and lay back down. If his eyes weren't playing tricks on him, it was two of the Spikes' boys driving the wagon.

Brent and Larry were searching the landscape for a good place to stash the stolen buggy. They hoped it had some food in it. The young men had to grab and go so quickly back at the stream that they hadn't even looked in the back. They had run out of everything except jerky, and the posse was hungry for real food. Many of them had grown up around Chicago. They weren't cowboys or outdoorsmen…by a long shot. They were used to three hot meals a day, and a bathtub right in the house.

They had been instructed to get the wagon as far away as possible, and to try to cross terrain that wouldn't make it easy to track…whatever the hell that meant. Brent figured it meant rocky areas without much dirt, stream beds, or maybe roads where a number of other wagons had traveled. Fortunately they did come upon one of the latter, as they made their way north. It looked to be a stagecoach route or something, as the trail was covered in horse and buggy tracks. After traveling the road for a couple of hours, they pulled up into a canyon. The wagon would be hidden from the main trail, but they would easily be able to find their way back tomorrow to meet up with the rest of their clan.

Chris felt the drop of the wheels in every inch of his body as the wagon left the main road. It crawled and pounded over rocks and shrubs and finally came to a stop at the far end of a narrow canyon. Larabee had tried to keep track of the direction they were moving in relation to the sun, but he would have to escape for that to be of any use. Without any weapons….or the ability to stand…that was going to be quite the challenge. He sighed and lay his sunburned head back down on the straw mattress. He would just wait and see what these boys had in store for them.

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Chris waited and waited, but nothing happened. "Ezra?" he tried to arouse the sleeping man to his left. Maybe they could be ready and surprise their captors…..who clearly must think they are both unconscious. Chris shook Standish's body and tried again, "Ezra…..Ezra wake up." Nothing. How much laudanum had Nathan given him? He forced himself to stop and make sure Standish was still breathing. He was. Nathan had just knocked him out good and proper.

Brent and Larry sat their bags on the ground back in the canyon a ways and started making a campfire. Both of them were imagining finding a stash of beans, biscuits, and maybe even some fruit or candy in the back of the seven's wagon. They should have rationed their supplies better, but the Spikes' family consisted of a number of big-eaters.

Once they had a good campfire going, Larry wandered over to the wagon. By the light of the setting sun, he could see that something was stored in the back under two blankets…..and it looked like a fair amount of supplies. Just as Larry rounded the back corner of the wagon to peer under the blankets, the cover moved and what looked like a corpse sat up and fell towards him. "AAAAAAAAAAH!" Larry screamed and Brent came running, pistol in hand.

Larry instinctively struck out at the body and knocked it flat with a punch to the face. Brent raced to the rescue, heart pounding and out of breath. "What?! What the hell happened?"

Larry just stood there, mouth agape, pointing up into the wagon. "There's two bodies in this thing. We stole two dead bodies, and that one tried to attack me." Brent removed his hat and ran a hand through his thinning hair. Why in the hell hadn't they taken the time to look in the wagon?

"Daggonit Larry, those ain't dead bodies. That's two of the Magnificent Seven." Brent approached each man and felt for a pulse…..just to make sure. "What the hell are we gonna do now? I didn't mean to steal no gunfighter and gambler. I just wanted some supper!" The two stood in the dying light, staring at the two pale men, and no food, before them.

Chapter 11:

"We could eat 'em," Larry said.

"Shut up, you moron," Brent slapped at his cousin's hat. "I already told ya they ain't dead, and I ain't about to kill 'em and eat 'em."

Standish's sleepy mind registered activity and unknown voices….and tried to understand. Did he just hear someone say something about eating him? Good Lord, had they been captured by a gang of cannibals? He tried to wake up, to tell Chris they needed to do something, but his body once again succumbed to the lingering effects of the laudanum, and he passed out.

"We gotta tie 'em up. Larabee and his tracker beat the crap out of Scott and me the other day, and I got no interest in tryin' to fight him again," Brent wished he had taken anybody else with him this morning besides his cousin. Larry was a couple of years younger than him and had always been a "simple" kid. He was stouter than Scott and his other cousins though, so he would be helpful for the immediate task at hand. "Grab under Larabee's arms and let's get 'em moved over by the campsite." They tied the blond's hands and feet and plopped him on the hard ground of the canyon and returned to repeat the same procedure with Standish.

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Fred finally yelled down to the 5 men and 2 women, "thank you for your good behavior. You can head on home now. Make sure to get back here by 2PM tomorrow…..or we'll be forced to take out our frustrations on Larabee and the fancy feller."

Vin, Buck, Nathan, Josiah, and JD readied the horses. Vin's horse was turned over to Ms. Nettie. JD took Ezra's brown beast since he was the most familiar to Chaucer. Vin rode JD's horse, and Buck moved over onto Chris' black terror. Mary rode Buck's grey.

Vin stopped after about an hour and listened intently, "I'm gonna ride back for a bit and see if anyone's following us."

"Let someone else do it, Vin," Nathan suggested as non-confrontationally as he could. This was the first day that the tracker had been fully upright since being shot. It was obvious that the man still hadn't regenerated all of the blood lost and that he was still in pain. Despite Tanner's best efforts to hide it, his pale, pinched face had given him away.

"I'll go," Buck volunteered. He felt that he still had a lot of atonements to make from bringing his friends into this mess in the front place.

"All right," Vin trusted Wilmington to be able to see if any of the Spikes' kids were on their tail, "but if we ain't bein' watched, I'm gonna set off in a bit to track Nettie's wagon."

Nathan sighed. "You really think you can find it?"

"It's a heavy wagon," Vin winced as he dismounted to wait for Buck, "findin' that thing'll be easier than trackin' a peg-legged pirate through the mud."

Nathan wanted to suggest if it were that easy, then one of the others should go, but he knew it wouldn't actually be that simple. He certainly didn't trust himself to track it. "Sit down and get some food and water in ya then….and you ain't goin' by yourself."

"Maybe Nathan should go with you," Josiah suggested, "since Chris and Ezra are hurt." Josiah figured the healer could keep an eye on Vin that way as well, but he didn't voice that out loud.

Vin looked up at the big preacher, "my understandin' is that Nate's low on supplies anyway, and it's possible I won't find 'em. I think Nathan should go back to town, re-stock his supplies, and meet us back here tomorrow afternoon as planned."

"You ain't gonna be able to move or carry them with your shoulder, Vin," Nathan pointed out.

"I'll go with him then," Josiah's loud voice boomed, clearly suggesting that he could carry Chris or Ezra himself with no problems.

Buck rode back in a few minutes later, "didn't see any sign of a rider followin' us. Think they were bluffin'..probably didn't trust any of those boys not to get captured by us anyway. So, what's the plan? We goin' after Chris and Ezra?"

"Vin's gonna try to track the wagon with Josiah," JD answered, "the rest of us will go back to town and ready another wagon. Meet back up here tomorrow."

"Vin, I wanna go with ya," Buck scanned the faces of his friends, making sure they understood that he wasn't going to take no for an answer.

"That leaves a lot of work readyin' the wagon to JD and Nathan, and Nate's gonna be busy gettin' medical supplies."

"Brother Buck can handle Chris and Ezra," Josiah locked his blue eyes with Buck's, "he can go in my place, and I'll help JD with the wagon."

Buck nodded his head in thanks, and Vin said, "sounds fine to me." Tanner knew that Buck wasn't as bulky and strong as Josiah, but his guilt would give him all the strength he would need.

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Chris opened his eyes to find himself flat on his back in the dirt. Ezra was lying to his left and still appeared to be out cold. Larabee tried to sit up, but his weakened body, hindered by the bound hands and feet, was not cooperating. He grunted in frustration, and that was enough to garner the attention of his captors.

"Brent, I think he's wakin' up."

"Is that right?" Brent approached and hauled the black-clad man to a sitting position. "You awake, Larabee?" Spikes slapped him hard across the face.

Chris righted himself and stared into the cold, brown eyes of the young man before him. Brent hadn't even realized how angry he was at the seven until now. Top Hat Bob was his father. Granted he hadn't seen him in more than 10 years, but it was still his father nonetheless. Because of these men, Larabee especially, he would never have the chance to get to know him…..to show him that he was a full-grown man now himself. Physically, the boy shared a lot of similarities with Bob and the Spikes' side of the family. He was tall, as was his companion and cousin, but Brent wasn't quite as bulky as Larry.

Ezra began to stir as well, and Brent glanced over at the gambler. He sure looked a lot different today than he had when he rode into camp a few days ago. He was dressed in only his shirtsleeves: no fancy jacket or vest, and the once-white shirt was untucked and unbuttoned from about half-way down his chest. Larabee was dressed more or less the same, but the shirt and pants were his customary black.

"Looks like it's party time, Larry," Brent laughed, "both of our guests are awake."

Larry laughed loudly and stood beside his cousin. He laughed even more hysterically when Brent pulled Standish to a sitting position, and Ezra fell right back over again.

"What's the matter with you, boy?" Brent teased the gambler, "you been drinkin' or somethin'? Whatta ya think, Larry? You think they got some whiskey stashed in the wagon that they didn't tell us about?" Brent grabbed the front of Ezra's shirt and pulled him upright once again.

"Leave him alone," were the first words that Chris said to them. He sympathized with Ezra. Larabee had only been upright for about 5 minutes, but he was already feeling dizzy. How long did it take a body to regenerate blood cells? Was he going to feel like this for weeks?

Brent abruptly let go of Standish's shirt, and the pale man collapsed to the dirt once again. Larry continued to get a big kick out of Ezra's inability to remain upright.

Chris all of a sudden felt his hands come untied. What the hell, he thought. These idiots didn't even know how to tie a knot?

Brent pulled his pistol and reached for a handful of Larabee's hair. The seated captive abruptly swung his hands around and smashed Spikes with a double-fisted uppercut to the chin. Brent's gun went flying, and the tall youngster collapsed senselessly to the dirt. Larry didn't even have his gun on him, but he charged at Larabee and kicked him full-force in the stomach.

"No!" Ezra screamed and rolled towards Brent's dropped pistol. He remembered Nathan's warning about Larabee being hit in the abdomen, and his heart sank. Standish's hands also easily came untied, and he reached for the gun. Ezra painfully made his way to a sitting position, cocked the pistol and pointed it at a dumb-founded Larry. "Let me see your hands….please."

Chris gathered himself and got to his knees just as Larry turned to bolt back to the campfire and his own weapon. "Stop, Goddamnit!" Chris paused and so did Larry. "There's been enough killin'. Put yer hands up and stay right there…..or he will shoot yer ass." Larabee untied his own feet. He was sore and so damn tired, but he forced himself to crawl over to where Larry Spikes was standing. "Sit," the man in black commanded, and Larry obeyed.

Chris tied his hands and feet, and slowly crawled over to the unconscious cousin and did the same, using the ropes that he had removed from Ezra's hands and feet.

Larabee sat on the ground next to Ezra and tried to gather the strength to make his way over to the campfire and the other weapons. "How're you doin', Ezra? If I help ya scoot over against the canyon wall, you think you can keep the gun on those boys?"

"He kicked you," Standish said so quietly that Larabee didn't hear what he said.

"What?"

"In your stomach, he kicked you…..hard."

Chris had forgotten all about Nathan's warning in the panic to subdue the captors, but he saw the obvious concern in the pale green eyes staring at him.

"I'm ok, Ezra….well, at least no worse off than before." Chris smiled and once again got to his knees. He put his arms under Ezra's shoulders and helped to move the exhausted gambler up against the rock wall. Standish was sweating and unnaturally pale, but he remained upright. He had no idea how long he was going to be able to stay that way.

Chris crawled to get Larry's gun and returned and propped himself against the wall next to Ezra. Brent had since woken up and was cursing at Larry and the two captives-turned-captors.

"Shut the hell up!" Chris yelled back. He believed what he had said to Larry earlier. There really had been enough killing already, so he would hate to have to shoot the loud-mouthed kid.

"I don't know if I can do this, Chris," Ezra looked over at his fellow peacekeeper, and Larabee could see that his face was stark white and etched with pain.

"Go ahead and lie down, Ezra," Chris offered, "I'll keep watch for a while."

"Sure…you're all right," Ezra said just as he passed out, and his friend slowly lowered him to the ground.

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Larabee jumped when someone grabbed his arm. He had been fading in and out of consciousness for the last hour, and he had never been more thankful in his life to see that familiar pair of blue eyes starting at him.

"You ok, cowboy?"

"Vin."

"Looks like at least one of you two must have been feelin' pretty ornery earlier," Tanner motioned to the two Spikes' men tied up 10 yards away.

Chris' green eyes lifted to look at Vin and Buck, who was tending to Ezra, and the blond simply grinned.

"Buck, how's Ezra?" Vin asked.

"Seems all right," Wilmington answered, "just worn out I think."

Standish's eyes opened at the sound of his name. "Buck…Vin."

"He must really be tired if he's callin' us by our first names," Buck held his canteen up to Ezra's lips, while Vin did the same for Chris.

It was almost dark, and the plan was to spend the night here then head for home in the morning.

"Vin, you wanna bring the wagon over here, and we'll get these two back in their beds?"

"Sure thing, Bucklin."

The horses were untied and allowed to wander to a stream not far from the canyon.

"We could probably make enough room in there for you too, Vin," Buck knew the long-haired man had to be exhausted as well.

"I'm fine," Tanner said and then yawned as if on cue.

Wilmington laughed out loud, "sure ya are."

"Let them have the room in the wagon; I don't mind sleepin' on the ground."

"Get to it then," Buck could see that Vin was about to argue, "I can get Chris and Ezra settled by myself just fine." Buck laid out Tanner's bedroll by the fire, and the tracker obliged the older man. Vin's eyelids were feeling awfully heavy.

Buck carried Ezra's unconscious form to the wagon, followed by Chris'. Neither of the men did more than groan as they were moved and laid on the straw mattress. Buck sat by the fire and kept guard on the two prisoners.

At about 3AM, Vin woke feeling stiff but otherwise pretty good. "Go lay down, Buck. I'll keep watch." Tanner knew that Buck had to be tired as well, so the two men traded positions. The ladies' man had a new appreciation for the young Texan. Even in his current state, Vin had tracked Nettie's wagon as efficiently as a blood hound tracking a wounded raccoon. Without a single wrong-turn or back-track, Tanner had led them right to their friends…and just in time by the looks of Chris and Ezra.

Wilmington had no idea how the two very wounded men had subdued those big Spikes' boys, but he figured his stubborn old friend had a lot to do with it. Buck closed his eyes and felt better about things than he had in a long time.

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The tall, moustached man sat up from his bedroll, after sleeping about 4 hours, to find Vin drinking coffee and sitting in the same spot as he'd been sitting last night. The two Spikes' kids were still sleeping (and snoring loudly) from the other side of the campfire. It did not appear that Ezra or Chris were awake yet either.

"Mornin' Buck," Vin drawled as Wilmington pushed his long body to its feet and stretched.

"Looks like a nice day to go home," Buck looked up at the cloudless sky and poured himself some coffee. He wandered over to the wagon and peeked in.

"Mr. Wilmington," Ezra greeted.

Buck spilled hot coffee on his arm and said, "shit, Ezra. I wasn't expectin' you to be awake."

"I find myself in need of a short walk this fine morning."

"What?"

"I need to pee, Mr. Wilmington."

"Oh, right." Buck sat his coffee down and climbed up in the wagon to assist Ezra.

On the way back, Standish asked, "so Mr. Larabee was ok last night?"

"Seemed to be, but he was tuckered out…..didn't really say much," Buck admitted. "What happened here yesterday?"

"We were able to get our hands free from the ropes," Ezra began as Wilmington sat him down on the back of the wagon. "Our illustrious leader managed to knock out the older boy, Top Hat Bob's son, and his weapon was fortuitously knocked right into my hands."

Buck thought it was strange hearing Ezra talk like himself, when he looked so normal – dressed pretty much like the rest of them. "Can't believe you two managed to take those big ol' boys down in the shape you were in."

"It wasn't necessarily all that graceful," Ezra started.

….and Buck finished, "but you got the job done."

"I suppose we did," Standish smiled and turned to look at Larabee's sleeping form. "So the blow to the stomach didn't hurt him?"

"What blow? Nobody said anything to me about it," Buck looked back at Ezra, "he got hit in the stomach?"

"Yeah, the behemoth cousin kicked him," Ezra looked up at the taller man standing before him, "I thought he told you."

"No," Buck jumped up in the wagon, "no, he did not. Chris…..wake up you ol' War dog."

Larabee was generally not difficult to wake, but he made no acknowledgment of Buck's voice.

Buck got closer and repeated, "Chris, open yer eyes." He and Ezra looked at each other and both started to wonder what the hell was going on. Why wouldn't he wake up?

Buck felt for a pulse on the pale neck, as he continued to yell, "Don't you dare be dead, you bastard! Chris!"

Chapter 12:

Vin stood and started to approach the wagon. He was listening to Buck frantically trying to wake Chris, and the tracker's heart was beating furiously as his mind imagined the possible scenarios. Tanner stopped abruptly when he heard...

"What!? What the hell's the matter with you, Buck?" Larabee's hoarse morning voice said as he reluctantly opened his eyes. He had lain awake for a while in the middle of the night, and had only fallen back into a deep sleep an hour or two ago.

"Jesus Christ, Chris!" Buck took the tan hat off of his head and whacked his old friend with it. "I thought you were dead, you bastard."

Chris sat up and ran a hand through his hair. "Why in the hell did you think I was dead?"

"Yer damn pulse must still be weak from loosin' blood 'cause I sure as hell couldn't find it, and Ezra said the Spikes' kid kicked you in the stomach," Buck took a deep breath, "dang if you didn't just scare 10 years off of my life."

Chris just grinned and patted Wilmington on the shoulder as he scooted out to the end of wagon to sit beside Ezra. "Can't believe you thought I was dead. I'm fine, Buck…but I am going to require your assistance."

"Yeah yeah," Buck gathered himself and jumped down from the wagon to assist Chris with a man's morning routine. He then escorted both he and Ezra over to the campfire. Both men were doing surprisingly well. Buck could feel each of them taking a fair amount of their own weight when walking, although he still kept his arm around their waist at all times. "You two are gonna be back on yer feet in no time, 'specially once we make it back to town…..with real beds and real food."

"….and real whiskey," Chris smiled.

"In yer dreams, Larabee," Vin shook his head.

Larabee had been scrutinizing the tracker since he sat down by the campfire. Honestly, it was hard to judge any of their conditions. They were all tired, dirty and disheleved. He didn't have any idea how Vin had convinced Nathan to let him come looking for them, but he was sure glad he did. "How're you feelin', Vin?"

"I'm fine," the long-haired man answered, and then followed up with, "well, at least a hell of a lot better than I was," when he saw the look of skepticism on Chris' face.

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They soon began making preparations to hit the trail. Vin and Buck hitched Nettie's horses to the wagon and saddled Pony.

"Which one of ya is ridin' my horse?" Chris just now noticed it was Pony that Buck was readying, "and where the hell is Peso?"

"Nettie rode my horse," Vin replied, "Buck drew the short straw, so he got yer black beast, although maybe not as short as JD, who got to deal with Ezra's monster of a horse."

"Chaucer is a fine animal, Mr. Tanner, as long as one treats him as such."

Vin laughed and changed the subject, "what are we gonna do with those two?"

"Leave 'em," Chris answered, "their kin'll come lookin' for 'em."

"Sounds fine to me," Vin stood and approached the two captives, "you hear that? When your kin get here and untie you, you just ride right on back to Illinois…..'cause if I see yer faces around here again, I will shoot ya."

Buck added, "and ya won't like where he'll shoot ya."

"Whatta ya say we load up and get the hell out of here?" Chris asked and actually made it to his feet by himself. He didn't have to stand long. Vin quickly threw Larabee's arm over his shoulder. Buck assisted Ezra to his feet and over towards the wagon.

"I think I could drive," Chris offered. Buck was behind Larabee and quickly looked at Vin and shook his head, no.

"I'm gonna drive," Vin instructed, "but you and Ezra can sit up in the back….if you don't wanna lie down."

"Gee, thanks," Chris rolled his eyes but crawled up into the wagon bed as instructed. He had already decided that he would sit today, and it looked like Ezra was going to as well. Both men positioned themselves against the opposite outside walls of the wagon.

"And we're off," Vin smacked the reins and the horses made their way back to the main trail.

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A couple of hours later they ran into JD and Nathan with the "ransom" wagon full of supplies.

"Howdy, boys," Buck rode up to them. "You can turn around and head on back. We got all of our merchandise back in good shape, including Ez and Chris."

"You sure about that, Buck," Nathan tried to get a look at his patients from a distance.

Chris saw Nathan standing on the wagon and holding his hand up to block the sun glare. "We're fine, Nate," the blond yelled, "you can sit down and relax."

Ezra, too, waved at Nathan, and said, "doing wonderfully, Mr. Jackson...no worries."

As Vin drove his wagon past, Nathan settled back on the seat and yelled back, "I'll check those two liars out once we make it back to town."

"Anybody hungry? We've got a TON of food in here," JD smiled and grabbed an apple from a basket and took a big bite. He then tossed another one to Vin, who caught it beautifully with one hand.

"Thanks, JD," Vin chomped the sweet fruit and looked to his passengers, "you boys want anything?"

Chris looked at Ezra, who shook his head. "We'll keep," answered Larabee.

The journey home took another two and a half hours.

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"Let's get those two up to the clinic," Nathan said as soon as he dismounted from the wagon back in Four Corners, "you too Vin."

"I would prefer a stop by the bathhouse on the way," Ezra looked at the approaching healer.

Before Nathan could argue, Chris simply said, "agreed."

"You're gonna get your bandages wet," the dark-skinned man countered.

"Who cares….if you're gonna take 'em off and change 'em anyway?" Larabee asked.

"Fine," Nathan relented. "I imagine Buck is lookin' to take a bath too, so I guess JD and Josiah are gonna have to help me with these three." Nate, JD, and Josiah had been able to clean up the previous evening when they had ridden into town.

Once the men were fully-immersed in the warm water, Nathan cut away the soaked bandages. He would have to wait to examine Chris' and Ezra's incisions and the burn wounds to Buck, Vin, and Chris' legs until they got back to the clinic, but Nathan took advantage of the relaxed tracker and checked out the bullet wound to his shoulder. It had now been four days since the men had been shot, and the healer was impressed. It was still sore. Vin had tensed and pulled away when he pressed against the exit wound to check for any infection, but the stitches looked good and there was minimal redness.

Ezra had washed, shaved, and then promptly fallen asleep in the tub. Josiah gently woke him when it was time to get dressed and head up to Nathan's clinic. Vin had already accompanied the healer to have his leg wound examined, and his shoulder re-bandaged. Buck was dressed and ready to assist Chris.

The men had already gotten a whiff of the mouth-watering smell before they made it to the clinic stairs. At the top, on the landing outside, was an enormous spread of homemade food and desserts.

"Help yourselves, gentlemen," Mary invited. The town had already made plans and preparations to have a memorial feast today when they thought Buck, Chris, and Vin had been killed in the burning barn. Everyone was more than happy to change the celebration from a funeral to a welcome home feast.

Chris had to rapidly take charge of his own legs and support, as Buck let go and walked away to grab a chicken wing.

"Buck!" JD said as he quickly moved next to Larabee in case his assistance was needed, although he too couldn't wait to get his hands on all of the amazing food.

"What?" Buck said with a mouth full of chicken. It had been over a day since he had eaten anything even resembling a meal. He and Vin had ridden through supper the evening before to find Chris and Ezra and then settled for coffee for breakfast that morning.

The aroma had even awakened Ezra from his sleepy state, and his stomach growled in anticipation. He just hoped he would able to keep it down. He and Chris had not had solid food for nearly 5 days.

"Let me get you two bandaged up, and then you can eat," Nathan smiled at the drooling peacekeepers.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Vin was already back outside and piling a plate full of food. "Dang Vin, leave some of the desserts for the rest of us too," Buck joked as he walked past with Chris and JD into the clinic.

Ezra was already on one of the beds, and Chris headed for the other one. Standish closed his eyes for a moment, waiting for Nathan. Lying on a real bed felt unbelievably good. His eyes quickly shot open when the healer's cold hands started pushing and probing at his side.

"I take it that still hurts a bit," Nathan clearly saw the change in expression.

"A bit, yes," Ezra hissed out.

"It actually looks pretty good, Ezra," Jackson marveled, as he set about re-bandaging the gambler's side and ribs. "Ya just need to eat...and drink good, healthy things for the next week or two, and you should heal up and get your strength back. Your rib'll be sore for a while, but that just takes time."

Nathan turned to the man on the adjacent bed, "same for you, Chris. No drinkin' and no fightin' for a couple of weeks, and you'll be good as new." Nathan stopped and examined the stitches a bit closer on Larabee. "Looks like your stitches got pulled and bled a bit, but it's stopped now." It just now dawned on the healer that he didn't really know what had happened with these two yesterday. He assumed that Vin and Buck had found them and rescued them easily from the Spikes' boys, but now he felt like he had to ask, "what did happen after those boys found out they had taken you two instead of a wagon full of supplies?"

Chris glanced to his left and green eyes met green. "Nothin' really," Chris said, and Buck, who was now on his second plate of food, huffed. "Vin and Buck showed up before dark, and we decided to leave those boys for the rest of their clan to find 'em."

Nathan looked from Chris to Ezra to Buck and finally to Vin. "You fought with 'em? You couldn't even stand up, Chris."

"Where the hell did that come from?" Chris looked around then to see who had ratted him out, "I didn't say nothin' about fightin' anybody."

"You're sportin' a fresh black eye, and yer stitches got opened up some."

Shit, Chris had forgotten about Larry Spikes hitting him in the face. "Maybe I fell down…I don't remember." The Larabee glare was in full effect now with everyone in the room.

Josiah cleared his throat loudly, "Should I get Chris and Ezra some food?"

Chris nodded his thanks to the big man for the offer…and for changing the subject.

"Yeah," Nathan gave Chris a glance that said this wasn't the end of it, but he knew everyone was hungry. "Just don't get 'em anything too rich."

"There's no chance of that anyway," Buck laughed, "Vin's already eaten it all." Buck stood to head back outside himself.

Vin yelled after him, "look who's talkin'. Think that's plate number three for you, Bucklin."

Through the doorway, they heard, "you're on at least plate number four, ya mangy-lookin' pig."

It was true. Vin had eaten so much that he thought his stomach might burst, but the food was excellent…..and damnit, he was hungry.

JD wasn't going to say a word, but he was heading back for his third trip as well.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Chris and Ezra made due with one plate each, and they were able to keep it all down. Town folks wandered in and out of the clinic to say, "hi," and see how the men were doing as they grabbed food for themselves.

Despite already being stuffed, Vin couldn't help but grab one more piece of cobbler that evening.

Chris saw the skinny Texan leaning back in his chair and holding his hand over his stomach. "Ya wanna trade spots?" Larabee laughed. "Looks like you need to lie down more than I do, and you better unbutton yer pants before you bust somethin'."

"Already did," Vin smirked, as the others in the room chuckled. No one had any idea how a man that lean could eat so much. "You're all just jealous, and ya know it."

"If you puke on my floor, you're cleanin' it up," Nathan continued the teasing, "actually that goes for all of you."

Josiah and JD groaned and rose to their feet. As much as they wanted to simply sit there and digest, someone had to help Mary, Nettie, and Mrs. Potter return dishes to their rightful owners and help clean up.

"Be sure to thank all the town folks for us," Chris yelled out to JD and Josiah's retreating forms. In truth, Larabee was almost embarrassed by the lavish welcome. Most of the seven had not had anyone who cared that much about whether they returned home for a long time. He couldn't believe anyone, much less an entire town, would go to that much trouble on his and his men's behalf.

"You two," Nathan motioned to Buck and Vin, "need to get out of here and get a good night's sleep. I'm sure you're tired, and these two need to do the same," now indicating it was Ezra and Chris he was referring to.

"Just roll me to my wagon, Buck," Vin stood with his hand still resting on his stomach, and Wilmington gave him a gentle shove towards the door.

"I think I'm gonna head to my room too," Nathan yawned, his mind and body finally starting to relax now that everyone was back home, "just give a holler if you need anything."

He turned down the lights and made his way to his bed in the adjoining room.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

"Ezra?" Chris spoke after a few minutes of silence, "you still awake?"

"That I am, sir."

"Thank you."

"For what, Mr. Larabee?"

"For savin' my life."

Ezra remained silent but turned to his right. Chris' hair glowed an orange-red color in the dim light of the lantern, and the seven's leader was propped up on his side looking at Standish.

Chris continued, "Buck told me that you shot Wiles and Tom Spikes. Either, or both, of them would have finished me off, and probably Vin and Buck too….if you hadn't rode in there. How did you know we were bein' set up?"

"It was simply an intuition that I had," Ezra thought back on that day, "there was an unknown young man in town, and he coincidentally rode out not long after Mr. Wiles did."

"You've been hangin' around Vin too much."

"That may be, Mr. Larabee, and I will work to remedy that," Ezra smiled, "and do my best to insure that it does not happen again in the future."

"So you're sayin' you should have ignored your gut?" it was Chris' turn to smile.

"Yes, I probably should have," Standish looked away from Larabee's green stare, "but I'm certainly glad that I didn't."

"I'm glad you didn't too, Ezra," Chris said quietly, and the two men drifted off into a much-needed and much-deserved sleep.

THE END



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