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m7rpg - Part 3

The Story So Far

The young man looked terrible, shirtless, covered in blood and bruises. Someone with a more protected upbringing would have been mortified at his appearance, but her childhood had been anything but protected.

"I gave you a chance to cooperate," she whispered in his ear. He pulled away, and the look of confident defiance in his eyes angered her. Soon, that look would fade. She'd see to it.

"Behave yourself. Stay quiet. If you displease me in any way, Mr. Jackson will pay dearly." JD nodded understanding, standing against the wall in the corner of the dining room.

Elaina turned to meet her new guest. The sight of the man, so close, sent a stab of panic through her that she quickly suppressed. A dull headache started at her temples. Hate welled up, and she had the sudden urge to break something, to scream, to rip the man to shreds. She covered the emotions easily. After all, she'd had years of practice...

"Mr. Fitzgerald," she said. "It's really not necessary to bring weapons to the table, but if you insist..." She motioned to the table. "Have a seat, won't you."

Lee was taken aback slightly by the appearance of this woman. Lee glanced at her vibrant red hair and she seemed to possess a beauty he had never seen before.

Lee bowed graciously and smiled. "Please forgive my boldness ma'am. This is not just for my protection, you see." He paused and then continued. "I fear there are evil forces that would most likely wish to prevail itself unexpectedly. Perhaps you would honor me by allowing to make sure that such forces would not disturb you? You seem to be the owner of this house and its estates."

It did not appear to be a question but rather a statement. Lee continued, "Again I would consider it a honor if you would allow me to extend my protection to you and your family?"

Lee boldy placed the rifle next to his chair and approached the woman and held out a chair for her.

"You are most kind to extend this breakfast. To what do I owe the honor?"

***** *****

Ezra had joined Vin at the window, and knowing the accuracy of the other mans aim, had held fire when the fire-bearing villian approached. It was with fatalistic expectation that he watched the man toss a torch on the roof before he was slain.

"Might I suggest a strategic retreat?" he asked, already knowing the answer. Seconds later, he was pulling himself forward with his elbows, Vin having chosen to replace the floor boards and table--just in case "they" were watching, it would look as if they hadn't found a way out. So the tracker was pushing himself along backward in the pitch darkness. Ezra was surprised to find that he was pleased with the level of trust that was being placed in him. He fought of the feeling of claustrophobia that was engulfing him.

All of the sudden he pulled himself forward...into nothing. With a yelp, he fell what seemed a few feet to the ground. Quickly. lest Vin be to alarmed, he said "Hold it! The tunnel seems to have crossed a large opening. It's safe to come back." Noticing something odd, he decided to wait for Vin before mentioning.

It didn't take long for the other man to make his presence known. Right in Ezra's unprotected stomach. He had forgotten to move.

"Good Lord!! What do you carry in that monstrosity you have the audacity to call apparel? Lead?!?" Ezra moaned as soon as he could breath.

"Candle." was the succint reply, and indeed, Ezra heard the sound of flint even as he spoke.

"Air's fresh." was Vin's next comment, and Ezra was relieved to hear his own views echoed. In the light from the candle, the two men could see that they were in a much larger tunnel. Not quite large enough to stand upright, but certainly, with a stooped back, even Josiah could move almost comfortably through it.

The tunnel crossed the crawl space they had been it at a diagonal, one end leading towards what they thought was the direction of the large house, and the other towards what would then have to be the fence, and beyond that, the woods they had come from.

Vin stood up, and silently headed towards the left--the woods. That was the direction the fresh air was coming from, and that way almost certainly had a way out. Ezra followed him, inexplicably gladdened by this turn of events. He believed that they might finally have the upper hand.

They were able to move quickly through the space, and though it twisted and turned, it had no further branches. It seemed like an eternity, however, before it started to lead up. At the end, it just stopped.

Ezra stared in dismay, ready to drop. Disappointed, disgusted, he could only bury his head in his hands for a moment. Then, squaring his shoulders, he lifted his head.

What he saw left him puzzled and amazed. Quite as though it were the most normal thing in the world, Vin was moving the seemingly impenetrable rock face. It was several pieces, joined seamlessly. Vin had searched for a "key", and having found it, the opening rock moved silently.

Noting the gamblers stunned gaze in the morning light, Vin whispered "Indians tell 'bout "The Old Ones" buildin' like this. Saw right away that this warn't no natural tunnel."

Stealthily, the two men peered throught the opening--it was a smallish hole, about 3 feet above the ground, and perhaps 3 foot wide and 2 foot high. *Just big enough to crawl through if you were Josiah's size.*

They were in a small bluff, further west than they had thought, and below them, beyond a small but thick grove of trees, they could see the large house, and the smaller bunkhouse, burning merrily.

The two men climbed over the ledge and carefully picked their way down the slope at the base. Looking back, they saw that from without, you couldn't see the opening from the ground. Unless you knew it was there, why even bother to climb it? The place had the perfect concealment--no apparent cover.

Stealthily, they entered the trees, and Ezra was surprised to find that he could walk almost a silently as the tracker--all he had to do was watch his step, avoiding twigs and brush.

Up ahead of them was a thick screen of brush, and beyond that they could just see the burning house, as the roof fell in.

Suddenly they heard Josiah's voice!!!

"I hate this."

Unable to restrain himself further, Ezra couldn't suppress the joy in his voice as he commented almost casually,"I most heartily concur. Mr Sanchez."

***** *****

"How dare you?" Elaina whispered, stepping toward the man.

"How dare you!" This was shouted, a scream on the verge of hysteria. She picked up a crystal goblet and hurled it at the man. "Because of you, I have no family," she hissed. "My father, my brothers, even my mother. You killed them all. Get out of my sight!"

At Elaina's tirade, the door to the room swung open, and Crawford rushed in, followed by two men. "Get him off my property, Mr. Crawford. Now."

She spun, grabbing the startled JD by the hair, pulling him toward the rear door. "You'll rue the day you were born, Mr. Fitzgerald," she mumbled through clenched teeth. "I want you to know what it's like to loose your family." She hauled JD behind her through the door, toward the back stairs.

Lee knew that it would be foolhardy to try and resist against three men. He had no idea why she reacted so violently against him. It suddenly dawned on him that he must have taken arms against her family some time in the past. It was becoming clear now. She must have some vendetta against him.

Damn it! he shouted to himself. He should have chosen his words more wisely. He knew this breakfast was a trap. He should have realized instantly what would have happened.

He should have known. Old habits die hard. The first rule was to make your opponent become unbalanced. Red hair. Her vibrant hair triggered some memory. A memory in the past that he could not recall completely. He must have subconsciously tried to trick her. Often, he used this tactics quite effectively. He would turn his enemies weakness against them, causing them to become unbalanced and thus make mistakes.

Knowing that this was a desperate attempt, he thought what the hell. Turning to the men and the one called Crawford.

"You men like working for a woman? How would you like to make some real money? Enough to retire to Mexico and live like kings!"

***** *****

Josiah jumped at the unexpected voice behind him, a broad smile crossing his face as he recognized Ezra. He pulled the man into a bear hug, patting him on the back.

"Brother Ezra, you are truly a sight for sore eyes." He released the gambler, his smile fading to a frown when he got a good look at the gambler. "Very sore eyes," he amended.

Ezra winced as the bigger man just about squeezed the life out of what was left of his battered body, and didn't try to fight the warm feeling that the greeting created--in his body as well as his spirit. He returned the embrace, and pulled back. He nodded greetings to the other men, who were speaking and clapping Vin on the back.

He felt a painful smile crease his mouth. "I must look even more execrable than I feel. But that is unimportant. We have a way into the house. The tunnel from the bunkhouse crosses a larger one, which leads to the edifice behind us, and to the main house. Which must explain why the owner was so quick to burn the bunkhouse down when we comandeered it." Even as he spoke, he was turning and going back to the tunnel.


Elaina flung JD into the room, barely casting a glance at the man huddled in the corner. JD scampered away from her as she turned to Simmons, fury in her eyes.

"Chain him again. Then lock them in."

She stalked from the room, down the four flights of stairs to the parlor. Crawford was just coming in, muttering under his breath.

"Mr. Crawford, do you have a problem?" He shook his head, silent.

"It's time, then. Be quick about it. I don't want any mistakes." Crawford nodded, turning toward the door as Elaina went back up the stairs.

Changing into a wool riding habit, she slid the small photograph into her pocket, then crossed the yard to the stables, oblivious to the activity in the yard. Her horse was saddled, tied in the barn. The stable hand assisted her into the sidesaddle, then took the horse's reins.

"What are you doing?" she asked, angry. "Give me the reins."

"No, Ma'am," the man answered quietly, looking up at her. She locked eyes with cold blue ones.

"Well, Mr. Larabee, how nice to see you so well."

Chris smiled at her, a cool, calculating look. "Game's over." It was a simple statement, certain and final.

She leaned down in the saddle, close to the man's ear. "I don't think so. You already lost one family to flames. Do you plan to sacrifice another just to see justice served?" She looked past him, at the house. He followed her gaze and she felt supreme satisfaction at the look of horror that crossed his features as his eyes fixed on the flames rolling out of the lower floors of the building.

"Touché," she whispered, spurring the horse past the stunned man.


Buck latched onto Ezra’s arm as the gambler moved passed. Terror in his eyes screamed what his voice suddenly could not. “No. Not this.” The words were barely audible, even in Buck’s own ears. Forgetting all thoughts of plans, tunnels, and surprise attacks; Buck dashed toward the house.

The heavy wood of the front door was slowly being consumed by the flames, but it still had the strength to hold Buck out. Frantically, he attacked the expensive glass inlay. The leaded glass was too strong. He cast about wildly for a stone to break through. A hand caught his arm. Chris was there, handing him a massive smithing hammer.

After an eternity, the door was open. The main floor seemed to writhe under the hot caress of each flame. Buck gasped painfully as heat and smoke drove the air from his lungs. He pulled his shirt up over his nose and mouth. Together, he and Chris made their way through the main entry.

A movement at the far end of the room caught Buck’s eye, he moved forward. Chris seized Buck’s shoulders, yanking him back as an immense swath of fabric pulled free of the wall. The ignited velvet flared up, cutting off the doorway.

“GO BACK! THE MAIN STAIRS ARE STILL CLEAR!” Chris had to shout to be heard. He didn’t know where they should look, but if Nathan and JD were on the main floor somewhere, it was too late. He prayed that they weren’t too late anyway.

Buck nodded, letting Chris know he understood. He saw the fire that reflected in his friends eyes. It was smaller, older than the one that surrounded them. One that they hadn’t been there to see, but had felt it everyday since. Shaking off the memories, Buck turned back for the entryway.


The smells of fire hung heavy in the small room. JD knew what she’d done. He’d seen death in her eyes when they’d brought him back to the dining room. He just hadn’t expected fire.

The taste of smoke was getting stronger. Fighting back tears, JD inched toward Nathan. He could just barely reach the healer’s hand. He had to fight the urge to wake his friend. If Nathan didn’t have to be awake through what would follow, it would be easier. But it still left JD to face death alone.


When Buck bolted for the house, Josiah began to lay cover fire, quickly realizing that most of the outlaws were scrambling to leave after torching the other buildings. The preacher ran to the burning house, following the voices of his companions to the second floor. He grabbed Buck's arm as the gunslinger ran from a room.

"Third floor, back," Josiah yelled, dragging him toward the stairs. "That's where she had him." He turned to see Chris following them, bolting up the steps two at a time.


The soft touch on his hand brought Nathan to vague awareness. At first he pulled his hand away, finally rolling over to see who was there. A fit of coughing stopped him, sending agonizing pain through his infected shoulder. He finally managed to open his eyes, not surprised to find that his vision was hazy. He tried to focus on the form in front of him.

"Levi?" He blinked, trying to clear the haze. "They tol' me you were dead."

Then he smelled the smoke. He tried to scramble to his feet, but barely managed to make it to his knees. Repeated efforts failed to produce viable mobility. With the sickening realization that he would not be able to save himself or his brother, he crawled to a corner, dragging Levi with him, pulling the boy onto a protective embrace.

It was getting harder and harder to breath. JD knew they were running out of time. Rapidly.

He closed his eyes against the stinging smoke. Unbidden, the memories of every fire he’d seen back in Boston sprang forth. The neighbors stable. He could still hear the screams of the horses trapped inside. Old Tom begging someone to stop the pain-in the end they hadn’t needed to, the burns had done it for them. He could see the blank faces as entire families watched their homes, possessions, and even loved ones go up in flames.

He forcefully pushed the memories away. A voice tugged at the edge of his hearing.

He turned to face Nathan, thinking the healer had spoken. “Nathan?”

The healer didn’t answer, just maintained his tight grip on JD.

JD heard it again. Someone was outside. In the hallways.

Frantically, he began pounding on the wall. “HERE! IN HERE!” He yelled until a coughing fit wracked his body. Nathan began to stir again, fussing at JD. He batted the healer’s hands away and began pounding on the wall again.

They had to hear, they just had to. JD didn’t care who answered, just so long as someone came back.


Ezra realized that there was nothing he could do in the house, and handed Josiah his tattered jacket.

"Use this to beat the flames," he said, adding wryly to himself, *that's all it's good for now.*

Then, with the determination he had never believed he had, he turned and headed back down the stairs, looking for Lee. Ezra knew well enough what it was like to be the outsider. Lee was alone, and he could probably use the help.

Carefully searching, he heard something over the rushing sound of the flames. It sounded like Lee, but oddly wild, something Ezra couldn't believe the tightly controlled man was capable of. Nevertheless, he followed the noise. He arrived in time to hear the last bit of the question, and before the three men could answer, he asked in his deceptively lazy drawl, "Do you really believe they should be rewarded for such sloppy manuevers, Mr Fitzgerald?"

Lee was incredibly relieved to see Ezra. "No not rewarded per se. I think they will discover we have new ways to motivate them."

Lee was still being escorted by the three men. Lee feigned a limp and thus slouch slightly. This was a common trick, giving anyone who had the inclination a clear shot. At the same time, Lee silently signaled with his hand that his gun straps were removed and he would react quickly. Nothing like a diversion to eradicate one's enemies he told himself.

Ezra watched Lee con the other men with amusement, wondering if the others would have enjoyed the show. Realizing that there was no time to be wasted, he raised his derringer and debated for a split second whether to just wing the man on Lee's left or not.

Almost before the shot was fired he regretted it, but reasoned that any man who would take money for this kind of job deserved to be punished quickly. Resigned to his decision, Ezra watched as Lee took advantage of the other two men's surprise--really, he was impressive in action. Ezra always admired a professional. He waited for Lee, wondering if the others were doing as well. He certainly hoped so.


"Wait." Josiah held up a hand, silencing Buck and Chris. They heard the shouts, near the top of the stairs at the fourth floor. The big man bolted up the steps, barely bothering to test if it was locked before throwing his weight into it. Momentum and adrenaline combined to splinter the door from the frame. He stumbled into the large room, following the weak voice calling to them. He found Nathan and JD huddled in a corner.

"Thank God," he heard Chris mutter behind him. Buck was already pulling the kid into his arms, lifting him from the floor. Josiah and Chris went to help the barely conscious healer. They were headed for the door when Buck swore loudly.

"What?" Chris asked.

"We got a problem." the other man whispered.

Buck set the kid down carefully.

"Now what?"

"We gotta get it off him." Chris said.

"We ain't got a key, and I can't pull it off." Buck replied, examining the chain.

"Well...." Josiah said wearily. "We haven't got long before this place is a pile of ashes, so let's figure something out." He and Chris started to put Nathan down.

"No,.." JD's voice was hoarse and his throat was dry. And the smoke filling the room didn't help. "You guys get him out of here." He said.

"Kid, we ain't gonna leave you." Buck told him. "But, you two go ahead. Get Nate out of here. I'll see if I can't find something to use so we can get this off him." He looked back at the two men in the doorway. They were hesitating. "Go now. We'll get out of here if I have to rip this thing off the wall." He assured them.

"I don't think that's such a good idea, Buck." JD spoke up.

"No one has a choice here. You two get out of here 'fore this place starts to fall." He shooed them away with his hand. Chris and Josiah left in silence, except for some coughing.

Buck turned back to JD. He couldn't help but want to take away everything that had happened to the kid in the past few days. It must have been a living hell. And he looked like he'd been to hell and back. But he wouldn't leave him here to die like this. Not in a place like this. Not chained to a wall like some animal.

He and JD tried to work his foot out of the shackle, but it wouldn't budge.

It was too tight.

"I'll be right back." Buck jumped up and ran out into the smokey hall. There had to be something he could use to get that chain loose. He searched but found nothing. He returned to the small room.

"Buck, just go." JD told him. "It's no use and this place is gonna be in full flames pretty soon. You don't have time to help me."

"If you're stayin' I'm stayin'." Buck sat down next to his friend. "Ain't no use in wastin' one if you ain't gonna use the other."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, you're my friend, JD. If you die, I don't wanna have to spend the rest of my life knowing I just left you here. What kind of person would I be?" He rubbed his burning eyes.

"A live one." JD retorted.

"Oh well, I'm sure heaven ain't all that bad." Buck smiled.

"What makes you think that's where you're going?" JD smiled back.

"'Cause, my mama always told me there was always a place for everyone in heaven. And I don't see that the devil would want me any how." The man finished his sentance and began to cough.

"Why not?" Buck couldn't stop coughing, and JD suddenly found himself in a fit. The smoke filled room had suddenly become even smokier. They couldn't see the door anymore. This was the end. Neither man had ever thought that this was the way their lives would end. But it was.

"Mister Dunne?" A voice from the doorway made both men look up.

"Over here!" JD coughed.


Despite his best efforts, Nathan could no longer resist the consciousness that pulled him relentlessly to awareness. Smoke filled his lungs and stung his eyes, he was nauseated and his head felt like it was about to explode. Oblivion was definitely the better alternative, but the hands gripping at him refused to allow that option.

Weakly, he managed to get his feet under himself, looking around. Two men were dragging him toward the stairs, away from the room he'd been in. The room where...

"Levi?" he tried to shout, managing only a quiet whimper. Where was the kid? Why were they leaving him behind? He panicked, planting his feet firmly, refusing to be pulled any further.

"We gotta go back," he protested. The larger of the men tugged at his arm.

"C'mon, Nathan. We've got to get you out of here."

"No. I ain't goin' without Levi." He pulled away, but fell when the support was gone. He was hauled to his feet again.

"Nathan." He looked into the cool blue eyes, not recognizing the man, but recognizing the authority there. "Buck's with him. They're right behind us."

After a moment, Nathan decided that he could trust the man, and allowed himself to be led down the stairs.


A familiar form materialized out of the dense smoke. “Monsieur Dunne?”

“Phillipe?” JD choked out.

JD placed his hand on Buck’s gun arm. “Put that away. He’s a fr- Hell, I don’t know what he is... He tried to help me earlier, though.”

Buck looked at him warily. “Where are the keys?”

Phillipe’s accent was heavily muffled by the damp cloth tied over his mouth and nose. “Madame, Monsieurs Simmons and Crawford have all the keys. But they have fled the house.”

“Crawford! Buck, I gave Josiah a set of keys that I took off Crawford. If he’s still got them...”

“I’ll be back. I promise,” he swore to JD. *With or without the keys* he added silently.

“I know.”

A quick hand clasp, and Buck was gone. JD didn’t watch him leave. He couldn’t.

JD had forgotten about Phillipe, until the frenchman moved to his side. “Here, drink this.”

The luke warm water was the sweetest thing JD had ever tasted. “Thank you.”

“Save your breath,” Phillipe told him, wetting a cloth for JD to breath through. “I’m sorry. I know this does not make up for what has happened, but I ask you to forgive me my part in it.”

JD nodded.

“I must leave now. Your friends will return for you.” A wall of flames rolled across the front of the house, so Josiah andChris turned toward the back, dragging

Nathan with them. The back roomswere just beginning to catch, although the smoke was blinding. They groped their way to the rear door, and Chris kicked it open. The inrush of air fed the fire behind them, and flames raced across the ceiling.

Nathan sagged, dead weight now. Josiah scooped him up, following Chris into the cool morning air. Josiah dropped to his knees, laying the wounded man in the dirt. Before he had the opportunity to check him over he heard Buck's frantic screams.

"Josiah!" Buck burst through the back door, grabbing him by the coat and jerking him to his feet.

"The keys. Where's the keys?"

"What keys?" The preacher was still startled by Buck's actions."Where's JD?"

"The keys, dammit. The one's from the house." Josiah stared at his friend, trying to understand what he wanted. "JD said he gave you the keys."

It hit him, finally, and he pulled the ring from his coat pocket. Buck grabbed them, charging back into the flames. Without hesitating, Josiah ran after him.

Buck rushed through the burning house, not really caring about the smoke or flames around him, so much as his friend suffocating upstairs. He had to get there no matter what.

He clutched the keys tightly in one hand, and held his jacket up over his face wuth other, as he burst into the smokey room where his friend was in the middle of a coughing fit.

"Got 'em, kid!" He cried, rushing over. "We're gonna get you out of here, just hang on a minute longer." He tried several keys in the lock. Finally one of them turned and the chain dropped to the floor with a low clatter. He grabbed JD and tossed him over his shoulder. "You alright?" He asked the kid.

"Yeah," JD breathed.

Buck got them both out quickly he raced down the stairs and headed for the door. In record time they were out of the burning house and gathered with Chris, Nathan, and Josiah.

Buck put JD down carefully.

"Geez, Buck," JD coughed for all the smoke he'd inhaled, still clutching the wet cloth that Phillipe had given him. It was pretty much dry now.

Buck collapsed to his knees next to his friend, suddenly drained, and hot. His back hurt and his legs were shaking, but he was glad his friends were okay.

JD’s eyes flew open as a light touch brushed hair back from his face. For one heart stopping moment, She was there. Instinctively he jerked away.

“Easy, son. You’re safe now.” The tone was gentle, but the tension behind it was unmistakable.

JD’s eyes finally focused on pale blue ones. Not brilliant green. His shoulders sagged in relief. “Chris?” He could barely force the word out.


“Did Nathan... Is he... okay?”

“He will be. What about you?”


Chris let his hand rest lightly on the kid's shoulder, trying to give him strength. “I know. Josiah and I have to go after the others. They could need help. I need you and Buck to stay here with Nathan. Protect him ‘til we get back. Can you do that for me?”

“Yeah.” JD paused for a second, before quietly adding, “Be careful.”

Chris smiled. “Aren’t I always?” He pressed the pistol he’d liberated from the stable hand into JD’s palm. “Here. You might need this. I’m counting on you to watch Buck’s back.”

“I will.” It was getting harder for JD to keep his eyes open. The darkness beckoned invitingly. Stubbornly, he tightened his grip on the gun. He wouldn’t let Chris down.

Chris patted the boy’s shoulder again as he stood. He nodded to Buck who was tending Nathan and moved to where Josiah waited. The savageness in the preacher’s grin mildly surprised him. Then, taking a second look at the two prone figures, he matched it.

“Brother Larabee, I do believe the time has come to stop turning the other cheek.”

After helping Lee to dispose of his captors, Ezra returned to the main area outside the house, joining the men already there. He was happy to see that they had managed to effect the rescue of Nathan and JD, but as he watched Buck fret over Nathan, he was worried--afraid that they had been too late, and that it was somehow his fault.

Ezra gave himself a mental shake. Time enough later to think about all the things he could have done better in his life. Now, there were more important things to do. Silently, he waited at the fringe edge of the group, ready to follow Chris into battle.


Simmons sat silently in the tree overlooking the estate grounds. He cursed under his breath when Nathan was brought from the burning building, then again when the kid was hauled out. But when most of the men rode out, leaving only one with the wounded, he smiled to himself.

Bringing his Sharps rifle up, he aimed at the small group. His sights fell first on the black man. He knew that the healer was out of his mind, too sick to move or defend himself. He'd probably be doing the man a favor by putting a well placed bullet in him.

The sight shifted to the dark haired kid. The youngest of the group. The one they all wanted naturally to protect. But he owed the kid. He had the overwhelming desire to pummel him senseless, to watch the life drain from his eyes. The brat had caused too many problems.

The sight finally settled on the newcomer. The man was older than the other two, strong and healthy. Simmons scoffed. The man thought he could protect his friends. But with him eliminated, it would be easy to go down and take care of the other two by hand. Then again, the way he doted over the kid, it just might be amusing to watch his reaction when the bullet hit the kid.

He considered, shifting the sight slightly from one man to the other, finally coming to a decision.

Simmons aimed, and squeezed the trigger.

Buck heard the shot before he felt it. And simply had time glance up as the pain shot through his body. He lost the balance he had while crouching on his knees and rolled over on his back. He was yelling in pain as JD scrambled, as best he could to Buck's side.

Buck could do little more than grumble at the pain. And it was only made worse when JD put his hand over the wound to stop the bleeding. He wished he knew what was going on. Why someone would want he and his friends dead.

"OW!" He screamed.

JD apologized several times.

"What are you doin'?" He snapped at the kid.

"Buck, you're bleeding pretty bad." JD told him.

"Look, just check on Nathan." He directed.

The kid moved over to Nathan. Buck held his hand on his side, trying to breathe through the pain.

"JD," Buck whispered. JD turned back to him.

"Yeah?" He asked.

"Can you tell where the shot came from?"

Simmons smiled with satisfaction as he watched the man crumple under his bullet. He waited just a moment before sliding down the tree and moving toward the open yard. He knew the kid was armed, and still posed a threat, but not so much that he wasn't willing to risk killing him slowly, personally. He considered the options, grinning, as he quietly pulled his Bowie knife from it's sheath.

“I think it came from the trees. We've got to get to some sort of cover. Can you walk?”

Buck tried to sit up. “Aggghhh.... No.” The effort left him breathless.

JD was frightened by how pale Buck was becoming. “Just stay still. I'll...” He looked around, as if he expected the answer to be in the clearing with them. “I don't know what I'll do. Just hold still. We'll get out of this.”

He looked longingly in the direction the others had left. He clutched his gun tightly. He heard a noise from behind him. He spun toward it, gun out. There was nothing there.

He heard Buck's warning cry, the same time his mind registered the blow. He reeled back. Landing hard in the dirt. The gun flew out of his hand, spinning across the hard earth. It came to rest several feet away, near Nathan’s still form.

JD lurched to his knees as the huge hands latched around his upper arms. He struggled weakly as the man tossed him roughly to the ground. The air was forced from his lungs as JD hit. He struggled to move, but his body wasn't cooperating.

The glint of the knife caught his eye. He rolled to the side as the blade descended. Moving with a surge of strength, he broke free. He scrambled on all fours toward the gun.

The man's kick caught him in the ribs, and tumbled JD across the clearing. Lights exploded behind his eyes.

"Nathan!" The cry penetrated his fevered mind, pulling him relentlessly toward awareness. The urgency of the tone provoked him to force his eyes open. He blinked away the haze, not quite able to focus clearly, but he could still make out the forms of two men moving toward a smaller figure. He thought he recognized the man with the mustache, but he didn't know why. But when the other man savagely kicked his brother in the ribs, Nathan reacted.

"Leave 'im alone," he shouted, or tried to. It came out closer to a whisper. Both men turned their attention to him. He could barely get his fingers to obey him as he picked up the pistol laying by his side. Trembling, he raised the gun, firing. The recoil knocked him back, and he was vaguely aware of Levi screaming, "Nathan, NO!" as he sank back into oblivion.


Lee was instantly on the ground, crouching, taking his guns and looking for the target.

"Damn it" he shouted. His friends were being shot at. Lee ran about ten feet rolled and the rose suddenly exposing himself. He fired at the area where he thought the shot came from.

He was ran in a zig-zig pattern. The others would surely think that he had lost his mind.

"Over here!" he shouted at the top of his lungs. "Come on you cowards! Take a shot at me."

He hoped his plan had work to give the others a chance to get some cover. He just hoped he had not signed his death warrant as he dove for more cover.

Simmons dropped to the ground as bullets flew at him from two directions. A quick look toward the wounded healer showed that the man was unconscious and no longer a threat. He turned his attention to the shouts from behind them. Grabbing JD by the throat, he dragged the boy backward, using him as a shield. When the man stepped into the clearing, Simmons pressed his knife to his captive's throat.

"Drop it or he dies."

Buck listened to Lee screaming, and JD's fight with someone else. He listened to the gunshot, and then...

"Drop it or he dies."

Buck's thoughts halted at these words. He opened his eyes slightly. He couldn't tell who the man was that was holding JD. He could only see his back. He suddenly felt more helpless than he ever had in his entire life. The pain he felt every time he breathed would only be made worse if he tried to move. But if he didn't move, surely JD would die.

He held his breath and reached for the gun that lay next to Nathan. His fingers brushed it but he couldn't grab it. A surge of pain shot through his body and he bit his lip to keep from yelling out loud. A second later the pain was stronger, but his adrenaline was pumping. He wanted to hurt someone, and the man that had grabbed JD was just the man for Buck to take his pain and anger out on.

He reached out again and grabbed the gun, aimed it at the back of the man's head and cocked it. For a second the stabbing pain almost got the better of him, but he fought it as hard as he could. He wasn't going to let one man have the satisfaction of killing them all.


Grady looked at the small contingent of men who had strategically left the estate when the crazy woman had ordered the place torched. The pay had been good, the work easy, but it wasn't worth dying for.

"Those lawmen from town are gonna come lookin' for us," one of the men spoke.

"So we get ready for 'em. Set up a few surprises. There's a dozen of us and only a few of them. We can take 'em out and have some fun at the same time." Grady wasn't used to the role of leader, but he rather enjoyed it.

"What about Larabee? I heard he's pretty mean."

"What about him? Besides, with them lawmen out of the way, the town's ours."

"So what'er we supposed to do?" someone asked.

Grady smiled evilly. "Get ready."


*Oh God!*

JD knew with absolute certainty that he was going to die. He also knew, with the same assuredness, that he didn't want to. Given more time, he might have examined this deep seated determination to survive. However, at the moment, breathing- or rather, breathing without cutting his own throat, was paramount in his thoughts.

One meaty arm wrapped around his throat, pulling his head up and to the side. The other one... The other one held the knife. He could feel the edge of it, nestled against his skin. Already it had bitten him, a slow trickle of warmth down his neck testified to that.

He could see Chris from the corner of his eye. The gunslinger was holding his gun by the barrel, a gesture of surrender. *Don't do it, Chris,* he wanted to scream at the gunslinger, but couldn't gather the air needed. If they gave up, they would all die.

“Let the kid go. You don't need him.”

Simmons relaxed. Desperation in Chris’ voice told him he had the upper hand. The pressure on the knife's edge eased.

As soon as he felt give in Simmons’ arm, JD drove his elbow into the larger man's stomach. Surprise gave him the momentary advantage. He twisted free, turning blindly toward safety.

He took a single step before a hand snagged his arm. JD latched on to the man's arm, trying to find the leverage to break free again. He was wrenched back, bringing JD face to face with his nightmare. The momentum spun them both in a half circle.

The roar of the gun astonished JD. It was so loud. Too loud.

The ground was spinning up to meet him. He refused to let go of Simmons and pulled the other man down with him. Or was it the other way....?

JD's mind couldn't focus. Things were slipping away from him.

He hit the ground. Simmons landed on top of him, driving both breath and awareness from JD's body.

Simmons shook his head, trying to clear the haze, to figure out what had happened. The man in black had been relenting, holding his pistol by the barrel, when the kid had elbowed him in the stomach and he'd started to fall. Somehow he'd maintained his hold on the knife, and grabbed the kid again. Then a shot had roared in his ear, and pain had creased his temple, making him stumble. He collapsed to the ground, JD under him.

Simmons pushed himself to his knees, delivering a blow to Buck's jaw, then, with that threat gone, glanced around. The man in black was running at them, and another, older man was bringing a winchester around toward him. He swore softly, trying to hide between the unconscious men beside him.

Hell, Simmons thought, tightening his grip on the knife. "I'm gonna die anyway. May as well take someone with me."

Ezra stomped on the man's hand before he could lift it, pinning the knife to the ground. "Really--first you attack the injured, then you use them for your own defense. How pusillanimous." Kneeling, he pried the man's fingers loose, ignoring the curses and speculations about his parenthood and other more personal attacks.

Ezra started to step back as Josiah and Chris gained his side, relinquishing control of the situation to them. He paused, struck suddenly by the question of where the rest of the lawless men involved in this plot had gone. He turned speculative green eyes to the captive as the others bound him, hoping that someone would ask the question he was afraid he knew the answer to.

Josiah dropped in the dirt beside his fallen comrades. JD stirred as he brushed his fingers across the wound at his neck, determining that it was superficial. Buck and Nathan were both motionless.

The preacher wasn't sure what had compelled Chris to turn back, but it was a good thing they had.

"Brother Larabee," he spoke. "Retribution has it's place, but I believe we should stay together, and return our friends to the safety of town. There will be time enough for vengeance later." He wasn't sure how they were going to get the wounded back. The stable was smoldering, along with any wagons they may have used. At least someone had released the horses, and several were still milling around the yard, including Milagro and Nathan's horse. But none of the wounded were in any condition to ride. And there were wounds to be tended before they even attempted to move.

This was a mess, but he truly believed that their strength lay in their number. Vin was missing, probably following the woman, but the rest of them were together, and he was determined to keep it that way.

Chris knew Josiah was making sense. They couldn’t risk splitting up again. “We’ll wait. But once we reach town...”

“They could still be targets.”

Chris nodded, conceding the point. He wasn’t happy about it, but revenge could wait. “Do what you can here. We’ll move out as soon as you’re ready.”

He stood and crossed to where Lee stood guard over their captive. He tipped his hat to the older gunslinger. Lee was still a mystery, but he owed the man. Lee had been the first to hear the shots. Chris and the others had merely followed him.

Chris could still picture the scene as he’d cleared the trees. The man sitting at his feet was near the heart of it. Near the heart of everything that had happened.

It took every ounce of self control Chris had not to kill their prisoner. And even then, he wasn't sure he still wouldn't. A glance at any of his men and the hell they'd gone through... He stopped that line of thought before he could arrive at its eventual, and violent conclusion.

He joined Lee. “Does he know anything?”

Lee shrugged. “Won't say.” He glanced around the clearing. “Maybe he needs a little more privacy.”

Chris caught his meaning. His smile didn't quite reach his eyes. “But we stay close. I don't want a repeat.”

Chris crossed to where Ezra was checking Nathan. He kept his voice soft, not wanting to disturb Nathan, or the nearby JD. “Gonna see if he knows anythin’. We’ll be close, but Josiah’s got his hands full right now. I want you to stay here with him. If it ain’t one of us, shoot 'im.”

Ezra looked up, expressionless, as Chris spoke. He gave a tip of his head when the other man finished speaking, and replied, "Indeed, Mr. Larabee. It will be my...pleasure." *To say the least.* Ezra finished silently.

The brutality and heedless, selfish cruelty of the person who had planned this escapade, not to mention that of the people who carried it out, had sickened him. It stirred a deep-seated anger, and the selfish gambler was surprised anew to find how strong his attatchment to these men had become. He looked forward to evening the score even as he helped care for his wounded comrades.

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