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m7rpg - Part 1

The Story So Far

He kept his hand near his revolver while he bathed Nathan's wounds with a scrap of his shirt. He watched Nathan's face closely, hoping for some sign of consciousness being regained.

Once all the blood was cleaned as best he could, he covered the shivering man with his battered coat, and settled back to wait. He had learned a lot from Vin, he discovered, finding that he was watching everything warily in a way he never had before, noticing things that only 3 days previously he would have never seen, or dismissed if he had seen them.

Nathan began muttering, voice rough and hoarse. Ezra leaned closer to see if he lucid.


Simmons screeched, shying away from the smoldering ember that the man in black held near his face. "I don't know nothin'," he yelled. "Find Crawford and ask him. I just did what I was told."

"You were told to torment that kid?" the one called Fitzgerald whispered in his ear. "Why do I find that hard to believe?"

"I never touched that kid. He fell. That's all." He had no intention of cooperating with these two. He wasn't going to give them the satisfaction, and besides, they were lawmen, weren't they? They wouldn't seriously hurt a prisoner.


Consciousness was slow in coming, the black haze gradually giving way to blinding light. Nathan squeezed his eyes against the brightness, flinching away when a hand touched his forehead. The touch was cool and gentle, and with supreme effort, he remained still, resisting the urge to move away. Then he became aware of the words, spoken in a soft, terrifying accent.

"Mr. Jackson?"

Nathan's eyes flew open, and he gasped, trying to scramble backwards, away from the threat in front of him. Pain surged through his shoulder as he tried to push himself up, and he collapsed back to the ground.

The man hesitated, then moved toward him, slowly. He was saying something, but Nathan couldn't make out the words past the drawl. He recoiled from the touch, exhausted, confused, unable to stop the tears.

JD was mildly disappointed. Somehow the after life wasn’t living up to his expectations. He was still on the cold, very hard ground, a root digging into his back. The heaven he always pictured was- well, softer. Definitely not so cold.

JD didn’t really start worrying until he smelled the fire. That meant one of two things. Either God was a stickler on details like regular church attendance; or he was still trapped. Neither scenario was overly exciting.

Drawing a steadying breath, he opened his eyes... And discovered the third possibility.

The sky. It was blue, an absolutuley brilliant blue.

He was still alive. The wonder he felt at that simple realization bubbled up inside. JD began to laugh. It was a dry, weak sound, but it was still laughter. He_was_alive.

In the half a second it took him to process that information, he also realized he had no idea where any of his friends were. Gingerly, he pushed himself up enough to look around the small clearing. Nathan was close, Ezra hovering over him. At the look of distress on the healer’s face, JD slowly made his way over to them.

Ezra tried to sooth Nathan, but quickly realized that for some reason his voice seemed to distress Nathan even more. He noticed JD moving towards them out of the corner of his eye, but his attention was centered on the healer.

Helplessly, he extended his hands, wanting to comfort him, but afraid that any further contact would harm Nathan even more. "Nathan?" He said softly, hoping that the other man would respond better to his first name. "You're--I'm not going to hurt you. It's're among friends now. I--", he trailed off, sadly, as he saw that it wasn't helping.

As JD neared, Ezra did the only thing he could think might help--slowly reaching into the pocket of the jacket that had fallen off when Nathan moved, he removed the handkerchief and gently offered it to Nathan, pressing it into his hand, then laying the jacket back over him. Then he withdrew a step, and waited to see if the other man would calm.

A weak mumble caught Josiah's attention, and he turned from where he was bandaging Buck's wound to see JD trying to move. The kid was shivering and muttering. Josiah pulled off his coat, wrapping it around the boy.

"Easy there, son," he said when JD tried to pull away. He brushed unruly hair from JD's face, bruises and cuts visible through the soot. He pulled the wounded man into an embrace, gently running his hands across his body, finding broken ribs.

"Lay down over here, JD. Buck's gonna want to see you when he wakes up." Keeping the coat around the kid, he manipulated him around so that he could keep an eye on both JD and Buck. He glanced toward Ezra, wondering how Nathan was doing. They certainly could use the healer's skill now.

"Brother Ezra, I believe we need to get these men back to town soon," he commented, pushing back JD, who was struggling to get up.

Now that he had a free moment, Ezra replied, never taking his eyes off Nathan.

"I could not agree more, Mr. Sanchez. How do you propose we go about achieving that particular feat? And quickly, as we need access to more," he paused,"information and help than we have here."

Nathan gripped the scrap of cloth that had been offered to him, trying to sort things out in his mind. It didn't make sense, to torture him, then to act benevolent. What game was the southerner playing? Nathan need desperately to trust someone. He knew he needed help, but he'd been betrayed too many times. Something didn't seem quite right, but he couldn't focus long enough to decide what was amiss.

As the man backed away from him, Nathan gripped his ankle. "Please, mister, do what you want to me, but don't hurt Levi no more," he pleaded.

Ezra stepped forward quickly, before Nathan could be pulled over by his grip on Ezra. His mind raced, trying to piece together what was going on. Was Levi a friend, a family member? And what had happened to him?

Nathan seemed so young--almost like a child. Ezra's prejudice had never extended to children, so now he did what he would have done with a child.

Kneeling down, he looked closely at Nathan, trying to decide what he should do. Finally he spoke, his voice sad. "No one is going to hurt you OR Levi, Nathan. We're your friends."

He waited for a response, but when none seemed forthcoming he continued,"Let me help you--you're sick right now, and you need to keep warm." Carefully he repositioned the coat, and settled down with the other man, not quite touching him, and waited to see what he would do.


“He fell down?”

“Yeah, he fell down,” Simmons sneered.

Chris turned away, shaking his head. He spoke aside to Lee, but still loud enough for their prisoner to hear. “Does he think I’m stupid?”

He didn’t wait for an answer from either of them. He turned on Simmons, grabbing the larger man by the shirt front and slamming him into a handy trees. “Do you think I’m stupid?” he demanded. “Do you?!? I saw what you did to JD. I also saw what you did to Nathan and Buck.”

He pressed the man back against the tree with one arm, while he freed his gun with the other. “You know, a lot of prisoners try to make a break for it. And a lot of prisoners don’t make it. Ain’t nobody gonna question me if I don’t come back with you. Hell, I don’t think anyone’d even notice if you dropped off the face of the earth. It’s your decision, but I gotta wonder if what that she-demon pays is worth dyin’ over.”

Simmons tried to back away from the murderous gunman, but the tree at his back prevented any movement. He could see death in the cold blue eyes, and realized that he'd misjudged the gunslinger.

"Okay, okay," Simmons relented. "I'll tell you what I know. But what's in it for me?"

Lee had been silent up to this point. He cocked the Winchester and pointed point blank at Simmon's forhead.

"Staying alive for one thing. Any more requests?"

Simmons swallowed, realizing he no other options. He only hoped what little he knew would be enough to see him through another day.

"Her name's not Noonan," he started. "It's Johnson. Isabelle Johnson. Her family ran cattle down by the boarder. They was rustlers, and their bounty finally caught up to 'em. Only, guess she didn't see it that way. She's got it in for Fitzgerald there." He nodded his head toward Lee.

"Where'd she go?" Larabee asked. Simmons shrugged.

"How the Hell should I know? Heard once she had some friends in Jericho. Hell, Mister, we was just hired by Crawford. Didn't have any direct contact with the woman. Find him. He'll know more." He smiled slightly, knowing full well that Fitzgerald and the gambler had already sent Crawford to his maker.

"That's all I can tell ya."


Nathan studied the man sitting next to him. He had made no attempt to hurt him in any way, and Nathan had no direct recollection of this particular man injuring him. He knew prejudice well enough not to judge the man by his slow drawl. But trust was always so hard in coming. He sighed deeply. Sometimes, you just had to take a chance.

Cautiously, he moved his hand toward the strangers, until their fingers barely touched. The other man remained still, and Nathan finally took the hand, gripping tightly.

"Help me find my brother," he whispered.

Ezra stared at him for a moment, mind racing. If he didn’t, would Nathan try to do so himself, and cause himself further injury? But if he did, would Nathan want to find him NOW?

Ezra faced the latest in a long line of moral dilemmas, and though it seemed like an eternity to him, it was really only a second before he answered. Gently, he returned the grip, holding Nathan's hand firmly.

“All right, Nathan. I will help you, but right now you are ill. You have to rest, to get better. For now, you need to tell me when and where you saw your brother last." Ezra paused, trying to think of anything else he could ask that would help.

Giving up, *after all, playing the helpful friend has never been my strong suit* he waited to see what effect his words would have.

Nathan squeezed his eyes shut, fighting the swirling in his head. The pain at his temples made it hard to focus, but he had to remember.

"Levi?" Where had they been? "There was a fire. He was chained..." The words trailed off. Even as he spoke them, Nathan sensed they weren't right, but he no longer had the energy to speak. He fought the tears, wishing that he could just go to sleep and wake up with everything right again. He knew he had friends, that only a short time ago things had been good, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't remember anything more than the sensations of well-being just beyond his grasp.

Maybe the man with the silly accent and big words really was a friend. Maybe they would find Levi and they could go home. Maybe his head wouldn't explode and the chills would stop. Maybe...

Nathan curled into a ball, trying hard not to succumb to the utter despair washing over him.

Maybe it would just be easier to give up.

Ezra flinched slightly as Nathan pulled away--he had been trying, and it hurt a little to be rebuffed, even unintentionally. He watched as Nathan started to shiver harder, and as Nathan seemed to shrink--almost as though he were giving up.

Instinctively, Ezra pulled Nathan closer to him, wishing he had a blanket, but making do with body heat, he cuddled the other man next to him, hoping to keep him warm.

He looked around for Josiah--surely the former preacher would know how to deal with a spiritual problem. Seeing that Josiah was busy, and unable to think of any comfort he could give, he fell back on old skills. His voice was soft, almost gentle as he spoke.

"REALLY, Mr. Jackson. I expected better of you. Your much vaunted courage of conviction, your moral strength! Where is the man who held me in disdain now? I would have expected him to fight, not just give in!"

More kindly, he continued,"I have seen you fight many times, Mr. Jackson, and it surprises me that you would give up hope now, when you have been rescued, surrounded by friends."

While he spoke, he watched Nathan closely, hoping to see some of the man's spirit making its reappearance. He knew that Nathan was ill, but this seeming hopelessness seemed to be worsening, and he had to force the other man to fight back, even if it was against him.

Ezra thought for a moment longer, then stood up, picking Nathan up with him.

Carefully, he supported the other man as they walked closer to Josiah--and JD. If what Ezra suspected was true, that might help more than a little. He was pleased to notice that Nathan still had hold of the handkerchief--that was a good sign. When they were next to the other men, Ezra lowered Nathan to the ghround and covered him up with jacket, staying close to help keep Nathan warm.


Josiah exchanged glances with Ezra, recognizing the purpose of bringing Nathan and JD together. He had been through alot with the two men, but also knew that they had been through so much more together. Keeping them close would surely be good for their souls.

Thunder rumbled in the distance, and Josiah glanced at the dark sky. It was going to rain.

"We need to find shelter," he said, trying to keep the depression out of his voice. They'd been through so much. How much more could they take? "We should try to get back to the mine, at least for the night."

Ezra stared at him a moment. "How do you propose we accomplish that?" the jaded southerner asked.

Josiah closed his eyes, acutely aware of the headache that had been there for so many days now. Things looked bad, but somehow they had always managed...

"Together, Brother Ezra," he answered. "Together."


Chris wasn't certain Simmons had told them everything, but it was a start. "Take him back to the clearing," he told Lee. "Keep him where we'll all have a clear shot, but I don't want him anywhere near Nate or the kid." Without warning, he grabbed Simmons by the collar. He kept his voice low, "You try anything- and I do me anything, and I won't hesitate. Don't count on anyone else holding back either." He shoved the hired gun back into the tree.

Trusting that Lee could handle the prisoner, he stalked back to the others.

They were still where he'd left them. Ezra and Nathan had moved a bit, but that was about it. It almost amused Chris to see the tenderness with which the gambler tended the healer. Almost. The circumstance behind it, though, were anything but humorous.

Josiah was dividing his attention between Buck's all too still form and JD. The kid had apparently come to while he was gone and was giving the Preacher a hard time.

The only thing missing was Vin. *Damnit Cowboy, you'd better be watching your back,* Chris silently admonished the missing tracker. If the others weren't so vulnerable...

He was still trying to figure out how he'd come to be responsible for such a motley group, as he dropped to his knees next to Buck. Josiah looked up questioningly.

"He didn't know very much. How soon can they be moved?" ____________________

"I'm fine," JD insisted to Josiah- who had a pretty good idea just how 'fine' JD really was. JD batted aside the preacher's hands. "Take care of Buck," he said, then turned his attention to his lack of mobility. He'd gotten all of two inches before he figured out that he wasn't going anywhere.

His ribs tugged painfully when he tried to move, black spots swam across his vision. Breathing through the pain, he tried to push himself up again. Braced for the pain, this attempt was more successful.

He was grateful that Ezra had brought Nathan closer. Even so, the short distance was almost too much. Every breath ached, and the exertion started him coughing again. He didn't struggle when someone knelt beside him, helping him reach Nathan's side.

He reached out, gently touching the healer's cheek. "'sok, Nate. It's gonna be ok."

Nathan just wanted to sleep, but the crazy southerner kept trying to move him. He finally succumbed to the force, and allowed himself to be repositioned. He started to drift off, giving in to the fatigue that was so overwhelming.

A light touch on his cheek startled him awake. He looked into hazel eyes, a small smile crossing his lips. "JD," he whispered. "You look like Hell, son."

Ezra glanced up hopefully at the sound of Nathan's voice. His words reassured the southerner, who almost smiled. It quickly turned into a wince, however, as his bruised face reminded him of its displeasure. He turned calmly to Josiah, querying,"Do you think that now might be both a prudent and expedient moment to remove our charges to the inviolability of civilization...such as it is?"

He noted the other man's drawn face, and the hand rubbing his temple, and added, "Are you feeling well, Mr. Sanchez? Perhaps you had best sit down and rest whilst I take over care of Mr. Wilmington." He felt a little badly. He had almost forgotten that Josiah had been captured and mistreated along with JD and Nathan.

Josiah gazed at Ezra a moment, not quite sure what the gambler had just said. If it had been anyone else, he may have questioned that it was even English being spoken to him. His head ached bad enough that he couldn't concentrate enough to decipher the fancy words. But he got the gist of the comment. Or thought he did.

"Sure, Ezra," he said slowly. With effort, he rose to his feet, aware of the cold breeze that was picking up. The sky was beginning to darken, although it was still early afternoon. Before long it would be raining.

Methodically, the big man gathered their horses. Only four of them had tack. JD's and Nathan's horses wore halters without lead ropes. It was going to be an interesting trip home.

Ezra rose from where he was seated on the ground, and stepping carefully over Nathan, went to help Josiah with the horses. He gazed at the four animals, unsure how they were going to get everyone mounted. Then he remembered the wagon he had seen near the main gate earlier. It seemed unlikely that the outlaws had absconded with it, and it wouldn't have burnt, so far from the fires.

Hesitantly, he broached the subject. "Mr. Sanchez? Earlier today I saw a wagon of sorts near the gates. Perhaps one of,"he paused,"perhaps I should go see if it could be used?" He had noticed Josiah's earlier wince and decided to stay with plain words. "I know that our horses are not trained to pull in traces, but if they were ridden they would do so peacefully enough. And it the harness material wouldn't be needed if the horse was being ridden." He waited to see if his idea would be approved.

"Anything is worth trying, Ezra," Josiah told the gambler. "The means will be provided, if we open our eyes to them." He rubbed his temples again. His energy was quickly waning, but he knew that he had to hold out long enough to get the wounded men to shelter before the storm moved in.

With a heavy sigh, he dropped his arm around the gambler's shoulder.

"Let's go see what the good lord has provided us, Brother."

Ezra winced slightly at the weight of Josiah's arm. He turned his head slightly, noting the pallor, and that Josiah's face was heavily lined. The other man must be exhausted. Certainly Ezra could retrieve the necessary accoutrements himself.

"Mr. Sanchez--perhaps it would be better if you stayed here? Not that you are not physically up to the challenge," he hastened to add, "however, it might not be prudent to leave our wounded companions alone? I could certainly take two of the horses and hitch them. That way the more vulnerable of us would be protected." *And I wouldn't have to worry about your health as well!* he continued silently.

Josiah acquiesced to Ezra's suggestion, too tired to notice that the gambler had volunteered to do menial labor. The big man dropped in the dirt beside his injured companions, leaning back against a tree. At least JD and Nathan were awake. That was some small sign of hope. Now if Buck would come around...

Josiah closed his eyes, sighing. Maybe if he rested a minute the headache would go away, or at least let up a bit. Chris would let him know if any threat arose. He just needed to rest...

Ezra led the horses back towards the smoking wreck of the large house. Nervously, they shied, pulling backwards. But as he led them towards the wagon, away from the scent, they calmed. He didn't notice--all his attention on his goal, their anxiety had barely registered.

*Ah! Finally, a stroke of luck!* he gloated as he beheld the wagon, left right where he had seen it earlier. Working swiftly, he backed both horses into position, ground hitching them to prevent their movements.

Then he unsaddled Buck’s horse laughing to himself, “I will probably never be forgiven the abuse of Mr. Wilmington’s saddlery,” as he stripped it of its tack, although he left the bridle on. Then he undid the riggings, placing the denuded saddle in the wagon bed.

Using the leather from Buck’s saddle, and the rope he found in the wagon, he rigged up a harness that crossed the chests of the animals, went between their front legs, and threaded through the iron ring on the tongue. Fortunately, the wagon was a newer one that had a central tongue instead of two shafts. It wasn't beautiful, but it would work, as long as they kept the pace slow.

Regretfully, he wished for some padding for the harness. Those ropes would chafe if left in place too long without it. Finally done, Ezra undid the ground hitching, and using the reins, began to lead them, testing to see how it worked.

He could tell right away that they weren't’t very happy about the affair--and they did try to pull away from each other at the outset, but as he insisted, they managed to find a comfortable way to pull together. That done, he mounted his horse, and they were on their way back to camp.

As he arrived back at camp, he found it hard to believe they had won the battle. It certainly looked as though they hadn't. He had never seen the others *and myself, probably!* looking so ramshackle. Fervently, he began hoping that they had seen the last of this particular trouble--he wished only for a hot bath, hot meal, and his own bed, right at the moment.

Dismounting next to Josiah, he even felt tempted to offer a prayer to the Deity in hopes that it might do some good. “Although coming from me, probably not.” he continued his thought out loud.

***** *****

Buck was dizzy even with his eyes closed, he was dizzy. He didn't know how long he'd been out but he wished he still was. He tried to move only to feel the pain from his wound grow stronger with even the slightest movement.

He could feel the hard ground underneath him, and hear distant thunder above him. He forced his eyes open, blinking tears away for the pain he was feeling, and was again forced to breathe through the pain.

After a minute he felt better. But he realized what exactly had put him out earlier. He felt panic rise in him. "JD!" He called, turning his head quickly. "Chris! Nathan!"

Ezra jumped as Buck's voice rang out. He hadn't realized how nervous he was until Buck had startled him. "Mr. Wilmington! I am delighted to see that you have rejoined the cognizant." He hastened to help Buck into a sitting position. "As you can perceive, they are all here, more or less healthy. We were just beginning our preparations to depart from this calamitous locality."

Josiah was about to compliment Ezra on his handiwork when Buck suddenly stirred and started calling for Chris. The preacher knelt beside his friend, placing a hand on the man's shoulder. "Everyone's fine, Buck," he soothed. "JD and Nathan are right here. Thanks to Brother Ezra's inspiration, we'll soon get to shelter for the night."

The first huge drops of rain startled Nathan to awareness. He struggled to sit up, gazing blankly at the wagon nearby. He really couldn't hear what Josiah was saying to him, but did his best to comply as the large man assisted him to his feet. He swayed slightly, reaching out for support. His hand contacted a shoulder and he locked eyes with concerned green ones. He smiled crookedly. "Ezra." He pushed himself away, standing on his own. "Rain don't suit you."

"Indeed, Mr. Jackson. I must admit that I find this whole situation less than complimentary to my chosen lifestyle. I am, however, looking forward to returning to my customary--I do believe you call it sloth and indolence?" He smiled to take the sting out of his words, careful not to hurt his face. He followed Nathan to the wagon, close enough to help should the need arise, then returned to help with JD.

Nathan closed his eyes, resting his head on Josiah's shoulder. The preacher's snoring was keeping him awake, as much as the jostling of the wagon and the rain pelting onto them. Josiah's coat, pulled over their heads, provided scant protection from the downpour. Next to them, he could occasionally hear Buck mumble an oath and comment on Ezra's driving, from where the ladies man was huddled with JD under the older man's coat.

The sound of mud squishing beneath hooves marked the passing of Chris and Lee, who were acting as out riders, protecting the small group. Nathan sighed quietly. Rain. Wet, miserable rain. Rain. A soft smile and gentle touch. Comfort and friendship. He should be at the Semionole village now, sharing stories with the most incredible woman he'd ever known.

Instead, he was here, hot, sick, hungry and hurting, along with his best friends. And when he tried to sleep, unbidden dreams haunted him, bringing vague recollections of long-forgotten horrors.

Pulling Josiah's coat back from his head, Nathan looked up at Ezra. The gambler was drenched, looking decidedly unhappy.

"Hey, Ez, we there yet?"

Mr. Jackson, as delighted as I would be to reply in the affirmative to your query, I am unable to do so at this time." Ezra snapped off, and then his face brightened slightly. Lowering his voice, he continued for Nathan, "However, Mr. Wilmington has not yet noticed the 'damage' done to his equine appurtenances..." he resisted the desire to laugh, and returned his attention to the path, he tossed over his shoulder, "And NO, Mr. Wilmington, I am certainly NOT looking for the roughest path. Any at all would do!"

In spite of his desire for a speedy return to the comfort of his room, Ezra startled his 'passengers' when he abruptly reined in, stopping the wagon.

"Mr. Larabee, I do believe we have discovered the remains of that vile womans henchmen." From the slight rise, it was painfully obvious that he wouldn't be seeing a bath and bed anytime soon. And unfortunately, neither would his companions, several of whom needed it rather more. He lapsed silent as Chris pulled his horse to a stop next to him. The other man had been slightly behind for the past few minutes, or he would have seen for himself.

Grady couldn't believe his luck. His prey had ridden right into his hands. Even with the distance separating them, they would never get away. He could easily see that there was only one outrider with the wagon. And although the driver of the wagon looked healthy enough, he would be too concerned for the safety of his charges to put up much of a fight. And the law men were heavily outnumbered.

Grady smiled maliciously, turning to the men behind him.

"Boys, looks like we got us some company."

Chris swore softly to himself as a flash of paleness broke the looming darkness of the forest. It was there and gone so quickly, he nearly missed seeing it entirely. He dropped back casually, trying to get free of the wagon's impeding hulk. With Lee riding guard on Simmons and Ezra tending to the wagon, he was all they had by way of defense.

Slowly he released a breath, focusing his senses on the forest around them. The silence was deep, broken only by soft hoof-falls and wagon wheels. Chris' unease was growing by the moment. He could feel countless eyes boring into him. Every tree sheltered a sniper. Even the shadowed path was suspect.

Their position was precarious at best. In a fire fight, the ragged caravan would be virtually defenseless. Chris didn't even want to consider how easy an ambush would be. The movement caught the edge of his vision again. No doubt remained. They were being stalked. The figure was pacing them, angling toward their path. Slowly, Chris eased the rifle around to cover their riding companion.

Another flash. A familiar buckskin jacket moved between two trees, then faded back into the foliage. *Vin.*

The lanky tracker seemed to materialize out of the dense forest. He drew up next to Chris long enough to murmur, "Watch yourself. We're about to have company." Then he pulled away, moving up the line to pass the warning.

Grady stepped into the middle of the road, shotgun aimed at the man driving the wagon. Two of his men stood behind him.

"Afternoon," he said. "You want to make this easy or hard?"

Ezra dared not glance over his shoulder to ascertain the whereabouts of those of his companions who were able to fight. Truthfully, he didn't expect their help unless it pertained to the injured members of the party.

But he knew how to bluff. And with "hole card" (he laughed silently to himself at the double entendre) up his sleeve, so to speak, he was equipped to back up that bluff.

His passengers were as safe as they could be, given the circumstances, behind the thick wood of the wagon, and the odds and ends of tack between even that and a bullet.

So Ezra did what he did best. Gambling on the dim light, he palmed his derringer, and before the other man could move, he heard the distinct click. Putting on his best poker face, he smiled (albeit a little painfully).

"Why, I do love a game of fortuity, sir. Although in this case it might be skill more than fortune. Perhaps you are prepared to wager that you could kill me before I managed to kill you?"

Grady considered the gambler's words for a moment - well, those he could understand, anyway. It was almost comical, to see the little derringer held against his double-barreled shotgun, but he knew all too well that the small projectile from the pistol could kill just as efficiently as the pellets from the rifle. It just might not be as messy.

Grady also notice that the fancy-man was trembling slightly and a tinge of uncertainty was in the man's eyes. He was fully aware of the ordeal that the seven lawmen had been through, and figured that none of them was at peak. He also knew about the other bandits concealed in the surrounding cover. He had just decided to take his chances when the roar of a weapon that was certainly not the derringer shattered the uneasy stillness...

Ezra felt a million miles away...strangely numb and cold. Then he heard the shot, and for a moment believed that the ruffian had called his bluff, even though his eyes assured him that was not the case. Had he been so inclined, he might have laughed at the look of startled horror on the other man's face. Even as those thoughts raced through his head, and the disconnected feeling disappeared, he slipped down from the wagon. Slightly hunched, he crept between the horses, trusting them to conceal his movements from the bandits. He kept the reins tight in his grip, not daring to ground hitch the horses, and then a thought occurred that made him grin, gold tooth glinting.

Turning back, he leaned over the edge of the wagon. "Get out. Hurry!" he hissed. He knew they didn't understand when he received angry glares, but he disregarded them. This was too good a chance to miss. It took them hardly any time to pile out, and he returned to the seat, cracking the reins on the rump of the horses, and causing them to leap forward. He had toyed with the idea of jumping from the wagon, but the knowledge that they would need it kept him in the seat. It was the only way to make sure that they would get it back.

Ezra laughed as the outlaws turned terrified faces towards the wagon that was almost among them. He thought detachedly that everything seemed--slow. But they scattered, and he thought that his gambit had been successful.

Chris watched the tense stand-off between Ezra and the outlaw anxiously. From his position, there was no way he could get off a shot without endangering the gambler. From behind him came the soft rustle of sudden movement, followed by a heavy thump. Chris turned to find that Simmons had pulled Lee from his horse. Simmons swung his bound hands like a club. Then he dove after Lee's gun.

Trusting Vin to watch Ezra's back, Chris went to Lee's aid. He reached the older man at the same time Simmons gained control of the trigger. Chris pressed the barrel of his pistol into Simmons' back.

"Drop it," he ordered.

Lee took advantage of Simmons' moment of hesitation. Shoving the gun away with one hand, he drove the heel of his other into Simmons' chin.

Simmons' head snapped back, reflexively his fingers jerked the trigger. The loud boom shattered the taunt scene. Then chaos broke loose.

Chris looked up in time to see Ezra drive the wagon through the assembled gunmen. Chris didn't even try to figure out what the conman was doing. Instead he focused on the four who should have been in the back.

Lee had control of the gun and seemed to be holding his own. Chris caught his eye. The mercenary grasped his intention at once. "Go," he said as he side stepped a punch.

When Ezra had ordered them out of the wagon, Josiah was as confused as the other three men. Although he was aware that they had stopped, they didn't know the reason, so the presence of the ruffians had been a surprise. Thankfully, the preacher had taken Buck's rifle from its scabbard prior to rolling to the ground.

When he hit the mud, Josiah was acutely aware that he was the only of the small group that was in any shape to move efficiently. Nathan was closest to him, and he grasped the man around the waist, hauling him to the relative safety of the tree line. He hated leaving the others behind, but he had every intention of going back for them.

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