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m7rpg - Part 5

The Story Continues

Then all Hell broke loose, and they were all fighting for their lives again. Simmons had somehow overpowered Lee, and Ezra was making a suicidal run at the criminals blocking the road. Bullets started flying from all directions.

Josiah turned back to fetch JD and Buck, alarmed to find that they were no longer in the road, and, indeed, no longer in sight.

Damn, where'd they get to? he wondered, before being driven back to the shelter of the trees by gunfire.

Grady looked in awe at the spreading crimson stain on his chest. His brain couldn't register the significance of the blood, and his limbs refused to function. He felt strangely detached as he watched the wagon bearing down on him, vaguely aware of the panicked cries of his cohorts as they leapt out of its path. With supreme effort, Grady swung the shotgun up, his finger tightening on the trigger.

*I do believe that despicable ruffian intends to shoot me.* was all Ezra had time to think before he felt the punch of the bullet. He couldn't believe how calm he felt at the moment of impact.

*Perhaps I will have the opportunity to redress myself upon his person at some later date...* Ezra thought as the pain threatened to engulf him, noticing the other man's chest wound. * In Hell, maybe."

Ezra started to fade into unconsciousness, retaining the reins through blind instinct--the instinct of an animal seeking its burrow. He pulled with all his remaining strength, barely able to stop the horses (and the ominous creak of badly used leather didn't register in his enflamed mind at all).

Hauling desperately, he knew only that he had to turn them around.

He had to go back.

"Can't...Won' out this time." Ezra gasped to himself. Failing in his attempt to turn the wagon, Ezra simply tipped himself over the back of the seat and into the bed of the wagon.

The movement made the pain flare even brighter. *That was...most injudicious.* he thought as he fought the urge to vomit. Moving more carefully, he crawled to the rear of the wagon and eased himself off. fighting the urge to just lay down, he staggered towards the melee, holding one hand over his wound.

In truth, Ezra barely noticed the blood slipping between the fingers of his left hand. Trying to concentrate over the roaring in his ears, and the agony in his side, all he could do was hold the derringer up at shoulder level as he staggered forward, weaving his way from side to side, in the general direction of where he had last seen his friends.

Grady was pleased to see that his shot had not gone wild. He reveled in the look of surprise that crossed the man's features, only noticing that the wagon was on him when it was too late. At least I took one of them with me, he thought idly as the horses rushed toward him.

Josiah scanned the area in the growing darkness, unable to find any sign if Buck or JD. Hopefully they had sought shelter elsewhere. His gaze fell on Ezra. The gambler was staggering across the road, apparently trying to make it back to his companions, but failing miserably.

Josiah rushed forward, catching the smaller man around the waist, and propelling him away from the road. He noticed the man at the tree line pointing the pistol at them only after it was too late to avoid the shot. He shoved Ezra to the ground as the distinct roar of Vin's mare's leg met his ears and the would-be assassin crumpled to the ground. He met Vin's eyes briefly and the tracker nodded at him, smiling slightly before fading into the shadows.

The preacher dropped in the mud beside his injured friend. Yes, friend, he thought.

"Brother Ezra, are you all right?" he asked.

"Ezra? Ezra?"

***** ***** ***** *****

JD's eyelids were heavy. He noticed in a vague kind of way that he wasn't cold anymore. That realization troubled him. Shouldn't he be cold? He knew he had been earlier, and that was without crouching in the mud.

He tried to wrap his mind around the problem, but thoughts kept slipping away. There was something important. Something he was supposed to do. Something Chris said. If he could just concentrate. . .

Maybe if he slept. Just for a moment. If he weren't so tired. . .

"JD? JD, you still with me, son?" Despite the near whisper volume of the word, concern and pain clearly came across in Buck's voice.

JD forced his eyes open again. He kept his voice equally low. "Yeah. Jus' restin' my eyes." JD shifted, causing the low brush they used as shelter to murmur fretfully. He froze. Had anyone heard? Not likely, he decided after a moment. Not with all the gunfire. He exhaled slowly.

He wanted to go find the others. Get help for himself and Buck. But Chris had told him to stay put. To wait until Chris came for them. At another time JD might have been tempted to argue or even disobey, but right now he was too exhausted to do more than crouch in the cold mud and wonder.

A twig snapped. Then another. Someone was moving slowly through the trees, trying unsuccessfully to hide their progress.

JD and Buck both tensed expectantly.

***** ***** ***** *****

Ezra tried to bring his gun to bear on his unknown assailant when he was grasped around the waist, noticing that it was Josiah only after he failed to do so.

*How fortunate for me* he thought. *I really must inform him that is painful.*

When he was shoved abruptly to the ground, his eyes flared in agony, and he gasped out, "coming back!", thinking that the push was intended as punishment for some perceived betrayel. He was all too afraid that his claim had gone unheard, however.

The last thing he heard before he lapsed into unsciousness was the sound of Vin's mare's leg. He couldn't quite grasp it, though.

Before he could get too comfortable, however, he heard Josiah speaking his name. Forcing himself to respond, to ignore the pain, he opened his eyes.

"Jossiah." Then he panicked. Trying to sit up, he whipped his head from side to side, desperately seeking the other men. Still on his back, he pushed himself anxiously away from the preacher, afraid that his gambit had caused the others to be captured, and that the punishment had yet to begin.

"Ezra, hold still, now," Josiah said, trying to keep the gambler quiet. He wasn't sure what had Ezra so riled, but the man was wounded, and was most certainly going to injure himself further if he persisted. But wounded or not, the smaller man was agile and strong, wriggling out of Josiah's grip and staggering toward the road before the preacher could stop him.

***** ***** ***** *****

Simmons' head felt like it was going to explode, but he managed to stay focused long enough to get the jump on Lee as soon as Larabee's back was turned. He decked the man and grabbed the gun all in one swift motion.

He took advantage of the commotion to dart across the road, then started to move stealthily through the trees. He'd seen Grady go down, and had every intention of getting as far away as he could as fast as he could.

Until he caught sight of something that made his heart jump. Fate was certainly smiling on him today. The little runt sheriff was huddled in some bushes with another man, unarmed and unprotected.

With an evil grin, Simmons crept up on the two men.

Buck was mildly aware of the sound of cracking leaves and twigs. Of someone moving toward them. He knew it was Vin. You never knew when Vin would just appear out of nowhere. He was a stealthy man. Something just told Buck that it wasn't a someone coming to help.

He wasn't going to just lay around and do nothing, much as he felt that was all he could do.

His eyes still closed, he started to feel around the ground for a weapon. The intruder was closing in. And they weren't going down without a fight. His hand came to rest on a well sized rock, about as big around as his fist. He picked it up and set it down next to him. He'd kill this guy if it was the last thing he did.

Simmons approached the two men as quietly as he could. It didn't really matter how much noise he made, though. With all of the gunfire, they weren't likely to hear him, and even if they did, so what? The older man looked to be unconscious, or dead, and the kid wasn't in any shape to be much of a challenge.

Nearing the two, Simmons gently prodded Buck with his boot. When there was no reaction, he reached across the man, grasping the brat by the shirt, hauling him forward.

"Hey, there, Whelp. We meet again."

Simmons grabbed JD and pulled him in such a way the he dragged over Buck. Buck sucked in a hard breath. It was moments like this that made him want to murder someone.

Simmons yanked JD to his feet, spitting words at him. Buck opened his eyes ever so slightly, watching until Simmons had his back turned. That fool was finished. Not only was he a dead man walking, but he was going to regret having ever met any of the seven peacekeepers.

He watched for several seconds as Simmons shoved JD to the ground, giving him several hard kicks in the ribs. Buck couldn't hear anything but his own beating heart. He was sure it would stop any minute, but it wasn't gonna happen until he was satisfied that Simmons was a worm feast.

Suddenly Simmons stood over JD, his back to Buck, he knelt down next to the young man, making sure the gun he held in his hand was loaded. Buck knew this was it. Now or never.

'Get up!' His mind screamed. 'Get it over with and you can die happy!' He took a deep breath and held it, then he rolled over on his stomach carefully. Simmons apparently didn't hear him. He was glad of that. He was probably to busy yelling at JD. Buck still couldn't hear...

He pushed himself up on his knees slowly, yet as quickly as possible. It was getting harder, and harder to breathe. He took another deep breath, and heard something that made his heart stop. A gun shot. He was sure JD was dead. But he couldn't look. He pushed himself up to his feet, and turned around slowly.

He'd fired into the air, and he was gonna do it again. This was probably a sick game he was playing. Fire all but one shot then spin the barrel and take a chance.

Buck stumbled forward as Simmons fired again, and again, then one more time. Everytime a shot was fire, he took a step. And everytime he took a step, he got closer to the devil's spawn. The fourth step he took, there was no shot fired. Simmons whirled around, gun in hand, ready to fire, but Buck was quicker.

The rock he held in his hand came across Simmons' temple so hard the man fell instantly. Buck's world took a suddenly dark and dizzy turn, and he, too, fell.

Ezra's mind was beginning to clear again. The pain that had blasted him was certainly not fading, but now it seemed as if it had always been there--he could deal with it.

So when he heard the gunshots, he was able to change direction and follow the sound in time to see Buck collapse on top of--*Who was that?* He decided the man's identity was less than important.

Carefully he rolled Buck off the man, and was relieved to see that Buck hadn't been shot.

Unfortunately, the other man was still alive. *Where is JD?!* In the rapidly dimming light, Ezra hadn't seen the young man. Ezra debated silently, then pressed his derringer against the man's closed eye. *One shot ought to do it.* he thought angrily, now determined to get his own back on _somebody_.

Simmons, was still reeling from the blow to his head when he was pinned to the ground. There was a new pain over the bruise around his eye, and although he wasn't conscious enough to actually identify the threat, he could still reach out reflexively and grab onto the source of pain. Simmons' hand closed around Ezra's neck, squeezing.

Ezra tried to pull backwards, away from the hands that were cutting off his breath, but found that his effort was a failure. Two minutes before, he had been unsure about killing the man--now, faced with this decision, he found it altogether too easy.

The report of his derringer was muted by the bulk of Simmons body. Greatfully Ezra sucked in a gasp of air--the tightening hands had fallen away. It was only then that he saw JD--with Simmon's movement, his body had been revealed, lying almost underneath the now deceased outlaw. Hurrying as fast as his battered body would allow, he dropped his derringer next to Buck and pushed Simmons out of the way and searched JD for signs of life.

Nathan watched as Lee went down under the assault from Simmons. The outlaw had taken the gunslinger's pistol and disappeared into the trees. With great effort, Nathan dragged himself to his fallen comrade. Lee didn't respond to the healer, but Nathan sensed that the man wasn't hurt too badly.

Nearby shots drew his attention, and he squinted through the rain. It took a moment to focus through the gloom, but he finally was able to make out Ezra, hunched over a still form, the small derringer clutched in his hand. The gambler tossed the weapon aside, the scrambled around frantically. Nathan recognized JD's still form near Ezra, and was able to see the horrified look on the man's face. Ezra turned toward him, and their eyes locked briefly. There was a plea in that gaze that tore at the healer's soul. Ezra was pale and drawn, a large crimson stain spreading across his chest.

Nathan struggled to sit, but the energy just wasn't there. He knew that his friends needed his help. He wanted desperately to help. But even as he struggled to make it to them, darkness was beginning to engulf him.

***** ***** ***** *****

Simmons was dead. Grady was dead. The gambler had seen to that. Without leadership, the remainder of the outlaws were scattering through the woods. Many had already fallen to the firepower of the gunslinger and sharpshooter. Black clouds and steady rain were making it too dark to continue the battle. There really was no recourse but to cut their losses and regroup when condition were more conducive to success.

***** ***** ***** *****

Chris leveled a shot a a would be sniper. He allowed a cold smile to cross his lips briefly as the man fell backward. Part of him felt guilty for the twinges of satisfaction he felt- but after the hell of the last few days, only a small part.

Suddenly out of opponents, Chris hurried back in the direction of the most recent shots. He reached the clearing where the fight had broken out without finding anyone, friend or foe.

Vin faded into the clearing, leading the horses and wagon. He didn't appear to be sporting any new injuries. Josiah stepped into view a second later. The preacher was on the pale side, but Chris didn't see any new injuries.

"You two all right?" he asked as they approached.

"Better then him," Vin answered indicating the fallen Grady.

Josiah's answer was slower in coming, but his words put Chris at ease. "Nothin' that a night in a real bed and a drink won't cure."

"Either of you responsible for that last round of shots?" He knew what the answer would be before they gave it. "Damn. Where are Ezra and Nathan?"

Josiah answered him in a troubled tone. "Ezra's hurt, but he wouldn't hold still long enough for me to figure out how bad. And Nathan. . ."

Chris nodded. One more of them was down. God, how much more could they take? He pushed the question aside. He had other obligations at the moment. "We round everyone up and get out of here. I left Buck and JD back in the woods. Neither one can move very far without help. We'll go get them first, then find the others."

With a sigh, Josiah followed Chris and Vin to the area where the last round of gunfire had come from. He watched, a bit groggily as the two peacekeepers warily approached the other men. Chris knelt in the mud beside Ezra, rolling the man onto his back. He couldn't tell from this vantage point if the gambler was still breathing.

"Josiah!" Vin's loud shout caught his attention. He shook his head, trying to clear the haze. "Take Nathan back to the wagon, and get Lee."

The preacher nodded slowly, letting the words sink in, knowing that he should be understanding them a bit more readily. Carefully, he helped Nathan up and turned back toward the wagon.

Ezra felt distinctly odd. *I will never gamble on an empty stomach again. It leads to a definite disadvantage should one need to make an auspicious retreat.* Even as he thought that, it sounded wrong. He was sure that the incident in question had been some time ago.

He tried vaguely to separate the memory from the current situation, even as he tried to roll himself over and remove his face from the muck, but he was failing miserably at both attempts. He was just about to decide that he wasn't that uncomfortable and the attempt was unnecessary when someone did him the dubious favor of turning him face up. The movement caused a previously dull pain in his side to re-announce itself--loudly. He was distinctly ungrateful.

His eyes flared open, but he clamped his mouth firmly shut on the exclamation when he realized who was leaning over him.

Memories of the horrendous events surrounding his current predicament flooded his abruptly terrified mind. With energy he would have believed non-existent just moments ago, he tried desperately to remove himself from Mr. Larabee's vicinity, while searching hopelessly for the magic words that would extricate him from this situation.

Josiah was glad to see that Lee was none the worse for te wear. The retired gunslinger had a large knot on his head, but now that he was fully conscious again, he was ready to help get the injured members of the small band to shelter for the night.

Nathan helped the best that he could with the wagon, but, although the effort was appreciated, the assistance was practically useless.

Josiah sighed. A man had limits, and the preacher had reached his long ago. But there was no choice but to carry on. Buck and JD were incapacitated, and the brief glimpse he'd had of Ezra had him worried about the gambler's well being as well.

Pulling the horses' heads around, he led the wagon as close as he could to Chris and their other companions. He sighed. What they really needed was a break.

A bright flash of light cut through the darkness, jolting Josiah awake. Almost immediately the rumble of thunder followed, and the skies opened up, pouring rain onto the bedraggled wagon load of men. Next to him, he heard Ezra mutter an angry oath. It was the first coherent words the man had spoken since the last shoot out.

Vin approached Chris, who was riding along side the wagon that Lee was driving.

"Mine's up ahead. We can hole up there for the night," he shouted above the down pour. Chris nodded, and Josiah sighed in relief. They all needed to rest and take stock of their injuries. It was still a good half-day ride to town, and none of them were up to it tonight.

Maybe things would look better in the morning.

Ezra didn't want to wake up. He wasn't sure why, but he was certain that he had a perfectly wonderful reason. All his intentions proved useless, however, when the blade of light sliced through his head. Unable to restrain himself, he cursed. *Ah, joy. Fully cognizant in such a timely manner as to enjoy the journey in such amiable conditions.*

He struggled to sit up, hoping it would ease his side somewhat. Looking in the flashes of lightning, he saw the sprawled bodies of his companions, and all the events of the horrid day flooded over him. His expression horrified, he turned to Josiah hoping desperately for denial. He couldn't bring his suddenly numb and icy lips to shape the words. He felt as though he was floating a million miles away, his body no longer part and parcel of his mind.

Ezra started to struggle, and it was all Josiah could do to hold him still. He was afraid that the gambler would aggravate his injuries, or worse, get loose. The last thing they needed was to traipse around the countryside, in a deluge, chasing the man down.

"Damnit, Ezra," he chided. "Hold still. Don't you think you've done enough for one day? Buck and JD are pretty near dead, and Nathan's not much better off. If you don't help out here some, Chris ain't gonna be too happy."

Ezra's green eyes rolled up, and the man mumbled again, blinking rain water. Josiah sighed. Looked like he was going to have to bodily haul the smaller man out of the wagon. He determined not to let Ezra get away, even if he had to hog-tie the man.

Ezra turned away from Josiah, his last hope evaporated. He looked up into the rain helplessly for a moment, trying to force out an explanation, but knowing it was useless. Tried and convicted. Josiah's words rang through his head, louder, then softer, more dangerous.

Ezra lunged for the side of the wagon. Ignoring the pain in his side--*at least it means I'm alive..* he thought drearily, he threw himself to the ground. Like an animal hunting it's hole, he sprang for the blackness of the woods.

Rain was pouring down in sheets now, making it nearly impossible to see through the darkness. Chris, Vin and Lee helped Nathan, Buck and JD from the wagon. Josiah had to smile. Although he could barely stand, the boy was making a fuss about being helped, insisting that he could do it on his own. It was some small indication that the kid wasn't hurt that bad after all.

Josiah turned to help the gambler out of the wagon, cursing when there was no sign of Ezra. He looked around, squinting. He could barely make out tracks in the deep mud, heading away from the mine. What had gotten into the man??

With a sigh, Josiah started after him. If he waited for Vin, there may not be any tracks left. The best he could hope for was to leave a trail that would be easy for the tracker to follow.

He slipped, going down on his knees in the muck. As he struggled to his feet, he cursed again.

"That's it, Ezra!" he shouted into the night. "When I catch your sorry hide, you're gonna be so sorry..."

Ezra couldn't hear the threat, however. Right then, he was huddled under the drooping--*and dripping*, he thought drearily--boughs of the pine. He felt fortunate to have found someplace dry, and though around the fringes of the shelter the rain was leaking through, if he stayed close to the trunk he could as least keep from being continually assaulted by the moisture.

He shifted uncomfortably, nestling deeper into the needles which cushioned him from the ground. Then he began the task of taking stock. Even as he inventoried the belongings he had with him, he realized that he would have to go back.

He had to have his horse. There was no chance without it. And if he could get his horse without being caught, he had a good chance of returning to town before his onetime companions. That was imperative. Only if he could retrieve his belonging could he hope to survive.

He laughed silently and grimly at the foresight with which he had chosen to dismantle Buck's tack.

Thankful he hadn't come any farther, he ventured back into the deluge, and doing his best imitation of Vin, he stole back towards the mine, avoiding the way he'd come. He did his best to ignore the questions which whispered silently through his mind, but the questions continued their attack ...and the worst of it was, he had no answers, and no purpose.

His ingrained response, flight and life, seemed worthless to him this time. He had haunted the fringe of the group, hoping against himself that somehow he would finally become part of it, and now there was no place he wanted to go.

He had found what he had been looking for, and now it was over, ruined by his own hands--again. His last chance lay shattered by his very attempt to save it.

Wracked by his physical and mental pain, he saw only the stable, and the next hole, and the next. Habit was too hard to break.

Ezra was out there somewhere, and Josiah was determined to find him, if only to rattle some sense into the man. The rain was pouring down in unrelenting sheets, and without coat or hat, the preacher was soaked through. The aching in his head still hadn't let up, and had been joined by a bone deep ache throughout his body. He was drawing on the last of his reserves, but he wasn't about to leave Ezra alone in this deluge. Besides, the man was not acting rationally.

Josiah slipped in the mud, going down to his knees. He cursed aloud. He could do it in several languages, an advantage to being a preacher's kid. He struggled to his feet, slipping again in the thick muck. On his third attempt, he realized that he was on a slope, and that the ground was relentlessly giving way beneath him. He struggled to his knees, but even that offered no purchase, and suddenly he was falling.

Ezra was nowhere near his horse. He wasn't sure where he was, but he was certain that it wasn't even close to the vicinity of his transportation.

He cursed the rain, he cursed the horse, and he cursed himself for being fool enough to get involved in this in the first place. Growing more outraged, he failed to notice the small gorge in front of him until he tumbled into it.

Agony!! Red throbbing agony!! He couldn't even swear, but did manage to finally gasp out "Dear Lord." He couldn't have been more surprised when he heard Josiah's voice reply.

"Lord's got nothin' to do with this."

Ezra squinted towards the sound, hoping to make out Josiahs' form. Shaking his head repeatedly, he finally came to the realization that the rain wasn't the reason why everything was so gray and indistinct.

"Josiah? What are you doin' out in such inclement conditions?" His voice sounded somewhat strange, even to himself, but he discarded that thought for another time. "And why are you wallowin' in this morass?"

Then he remembered why he was out here, and a possible reason for the other man's presence. Glumly, he sat silently in the mud.

***** ***** ***** *****

A single faint torch provided inadequate lighting inside the mine entrance. But at least there was shelter from the wind and rain. Lee assisted Nathan inside, settling him against a thick timber. Buck was laying next to him, where Chris had put him down, and JD sat across from him, a dazed look in his eyes. Fighting fatigue, the healer looked at his friends. Buck was unconscious, and bleeding from a gunshot wound.

"Where'd Josiah and Ezra get to?" he heard Vin asking. Chris squinted into the darkness.

"Damn." It was the only reply, but it spoke volumes. Vin sighed in resignation.

"I'll see what I can find." The tracker stepped out into the rain.

Nathan shifted so that he was sitting upright. "Chris, that bullet's gotta come outta Buck, or he's gonna bleed to death."

The gunslinger gazed at the healer a moment before asking, "What do you need?"

Nathan winced. "You." He held out trembling hands. "I can't do it. Not right now. I can talk you through it."

Chris shook his head. He'd removed bullets before, but never under these conditions. He wasn't sure he had the skill. But Nathan was on the verge of collapse, and options were limited.

It didn't take long for Chris to prepare. Simply because there was not much he could prepare. Nathan was already telling him what to do, and what to expect in a drained, but steady voice.

Buck had not stirred since Chris had settled him on one of the horse blankets near the wall. Chris was grateful for the small favor, and hoped the wounded man would stay unconscious until the bullet was out.

He made quick work of the spare shirt Lee had managed to scrounge up. The shirt had come a long way from its last laundering, but it would have to do. He frowned at the garment as if it had deliberately decided to compound his problems.

Nathan caught the expression and guessed the source. "Boil water. . . clean 'em an' the knife."

Lee stood from where he was tending the sputtering start of a campfire at the mouth of the mine. "Water we've got. But nothing to boil it in."

"Check the other buildings, see if there's anything we can use."

Lee nodded then disappeared into the rain.

"Right," Chris said to himself. Everything was as ready as it was going to get. . . But something still made him hesitate.

JD was watching him with anxious eyes. The kid was bundled up in a borrowed coat that was several sizes too large. He reminded Chris of someone's kid brother.

Chris knew the kid was hurting, but there was nothing he could do for him at the moment. Except maybe give him something to do to keep him busy. "JD. I need your help here. I need you to keep an eye on Nathan. Make sure he stays awake. Can you do that?"

JD nodded. Chris could see the fear he was fighting back, but there wasn't time to reassure him. He settled for a quick nod and a gentle squeeze of the kid's shoulder as he helped JD get situated next to Nathan.

Once the boy was settled, he turned his attention back to Buck. Using water from his canteen, he began to gently ease the temporary bandages away from the wound. Already the surrounding flesh was swollen and an angry red. Heat came off his skin in waves. Buck groaned and tried to shift away from Chris' gentle touch.

"C'mon, Buck. Now is not a good time to wake up," Chris said softly.

With another incoherent groan, Buck obliged him and slipped unconscious again.

Chris chewed at his bottom lip for a moment, then said, "Okay, Nathan. Now or never. Tell me what to do."

Now or never? What was Chris asking?

Nathan shook his head, trying to bring something, anything into focus. Some one was speaking to him, but the sound was muffled and distant. He looked around, his eyes finally falling on the near-panicked gaze of their leader. He almost laughed. Chris never panicked.

"What?" Nathan asked, dazed. Chris' lips moved, but the sound didn't reach the healer. He remembered something about Buck, and bullets, but nothing specific came to mind. Certainly Chris wasn't planning to operate? The thought was ludicrous. Almost as ridiculous as the man being afraid of anything.

Nathan smiled. Must be dreaming, he thought.

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