The Best Laid Plans
As the four peacekeepers made camp that night, Chris and Nathan walked off to hunt some fresh meat for dinner. They had picked up the trail of the gang shortly after their stop at lunch. The four of them had exchanged concerned looks at the fact no attempt had even been made to hide the tracks. The group seemed to be riding in more or less a straight line. What worried the peacekeepers most, however, was the fact that the nearest town in the direction they’d been traveling was the mining camp where Vin and Josiah were picking up a prisoner.
Ezra had been tending the horses while Buck started the fire in the center of the campsite. He had seen the worried looks that crossed his friend's face throughout the day. It wasn't difficult to deduce Buck had some misgivings about leaving JD in town alone. Being honest with himself, Ezra had a few misgivings of his own, not because he doubted JD would be able to handle most of the routine matters, but because he couldn't help the uncomfortable feeling that they were being led astray by the path laid out before them.
"Going to stare at me all night?" Buck asked, a smile on his face and a twinkle of amusement in his eyes.
Putting away the brush he had been using on the last horse, he sighed and moved to stand beside his friend. "I was just wondering at your worry over JD. Though he is young, he should be able to handle almost anything that comes up," Ezra observed.
His hand running through his hair, but blew out a breath. "It's the 'almost' that worries me," Buck said then laughed it off. Looking out at the waning day, he took a deep breath and slowly released it. "Ain't only that," he admitted softly. "It's the teasing I've been doing. I know it's been bothering the kid a lot recently, but every time I try to stop, it just slips out."
"Change takes time," Ezra advised, shifting uncomfortably as he thought of the changes he'd noticed in himself since joining up with the other six men he called friends.
Buck heard the words and thought them over. He nodded once and then slapped Ezra on the shoulder. "Don't reckon worrying about it's going to get enough wood to last the night," Wilmington grinned. "Good thing you're done with the horses and can help."
Eyes widening in mock horror, Ezra denied, "Surely you jest, sir! You know I don't partake of manual labor."
A brief burst of laughter echoed in the clearing as Buck allowed his good humor to reassert itself. "Then think of this as a hunting expedition," he advised. "Only the prey is tree."
JD patrolled the town once more, satisfied that everything was as it should be before heading to the boarding house to eat dinner. After the incident with the two roughs and the drunk cowboy, he had spent the rest of the day making his presence known to try and reassure the people. Of course, it had been about two hours ago that he caught sight of the bruise forming on his chin from where the larger of the two would-be thieves had hit him. He was also pretty sure he would be a bit sore in the morning. Maybe a warm bath would help.
Greeting other boarders as he settled at one corner of the table, JD glanced around and felt an odd emptiness inside. It didn't take long for him to determine that he was missing his friends. Normally at least two others would find their way here to eat with him. For the first time he really felt alone in this town.
Shaking off the feeling, the young man berated himself for having such sentimental feelings. He still had friends in town. Mary Travis was here. Mrs. Potter. Virgil Watson. Inez. There were plenty of people who trusted him, who respected him, who were his friends.
But none of them was his big brother who could bring a smile or a blush to his face with just a few words. None of them was a friend who taught quietly by example or used words to confuse as well as to clarify. None of them was passionate about helping people be better physically or spiritually. None of them was a man who could still inspire awe in him even after riding together as long as they had.
JD missed his family. Snorting softly he shook his head. "Beginning to sound like an old woman," he muttered quietly under his breath. Wincing slightly when he noticed Mable Ashworth taking the seat across from him. The lady in question had come out a month ago to visit her grandchildren. She was sixty-eight years old, as fiery as Miss Nettie and Casey combined and somehow seemed to know everything that was going on in town. He sure hoped Mrs. Ashworth hadn't heard his comment.
Before he had a chance to worry further on his accidental slip, his dinner was placed in front of him. Thanking the server, he folded his hands and said a quick prayer for his food before digging into the ample meal.
He had been picking at the meat loaf, mashed potatoes and biscuit for about five minutes wondering where his appetite had gone when a throat clearing drew his attention to his surroundings.
"You need to eat, child," Mrs. Ashworth admonished, tapping the non-tine end of her fork on the table.
Smiling politely at the lady and trying not to flinch at being called 'child', JD admitted, "I'm afraid I don't have much of an appetite, ma'am."
Still sharp blue eyes narrowed as they studied the peacekeeper. "There's no shame in missing your friends," she advised. "But you've been left with a heavy burden to bear until their return. To do that, you'll need your strength and that means you need to eat."
JD smiled slightly at Mrs. Ashworth. Somehow she reminded him of the head cook in the house where his mother had been a servant. Mrs. McCurdy had always told him to eat//,// too and swore he never ate enough even when JD had eaten enough to burst. Glancing around the room, he noticed they were the only two people left in it. Looking into those blue eyes, JD felt a desire to confess his insecurities to the woman. As he leaned forward slightly, Dunne lowered his voice and admitted, "I don't know why they left me. I mean, it's not like the town trusts me to protect them and as for the others, they just see me as a kid..."
"Stop right there," Mable Ashworth interrupted. "You're feeling sorry for yourself and that needs to stop now."
Startled by the command and the accusation, JD sat straighter in his chair, blinking at the lady across from him. He recovered enough to open his mouth to protest when she cut him off again.
"Your friends don't just see you as a kid," she admonished. "They may still treat you or talk to you the same way they always have, but not one of them doesn't trust you. Not one of them doesn't believe you're a man who is up to the task of guarding this town against danger." Seeing the need in the youthful hazel eyes to believe all her words, she continued expounding what she knew. "And as for the people of this town, well, you can't please everybody, especially those bound and determined not to be. What you need to focus on are those people who matter to you and what they think of you. And I can tell you, when things go wrong, they look to you just as often as they do to the rest of them."
JD stared into the blue eyes wanting to believe it all, needing to believe what she'd said. He had drawn the words into him as a man in the desert does water. Slowly he could feel the truth and conviction of her words seeping into the insecure and uncertain places within him, nourishing his flagging spirits and chasing away the empty spaces of doubt and anger that had been his constant companions the last few days. A smile slowly curved his lips as he nodded his head. Finally accepting what he'd heard, he rewarded Mrs. Ashworth with a beaming smile. "Thank you, ma'am," he offered sincerely.
Reaching out, Mrs. Ashworth patted the young man's hand. "That's alright dear. What good is living as long as I have if you can't butt into other people's business every now and then. Now you finish that meal and don't forget to get a good night's sleep," she advised before slowly rising from her chair and making her way out toward the parlor.
His appetite renewed, JD dug into his meal with relish, already planning the night's patrols.
Sitting around the campfire after a dinner of roasted rabbit, the four men began to relax. Or at least three of them did. Ezra sat straight upon the ground, cards snapping together as he shuffled incessantly, a sure sign he was upset.
"You going to tell us what's got you so wrought up before you break those cards?" Nathan asked, his voice betraying only the slightest irritation.
The annoying sound ceased immediately. Green eyes guiltily rose to meet the other three pair staring at him. "My apologies," he offered, squaring the deck and slipping them back into his jacket pocket. He then folded his hands in his lap and struggled to remain still.
"Might as well spit it out, Ezra," Chris advised with a small smile from where he sat reclined against his saddle. "Don't want you choking on it."
Ezra shot a glare over at the black-clad man and huffed out a breath. "Very well," he said, not really wanting to share his worries since he had nothing solid upon which to base them. When he had told Chris so long ago that he "abhorred gambling" he didn't just mean for money. He hated any situation where he didn't know all the angles and the potential outcomes. Whenever possible, he thoroughly checked out his "gut instincts" as the others were want to call them. Unfortunately, his worry over what he suspected hadn't eased any.
"Tonight would be nice," Buck prodded with a broad smile, taking pleasure in the easy camaraderie.
Huffing out another breath and narrowing his eyes into a glare at Buck, Ezra explained, "I am concerned about the trail we've been following."
"What about it?" Chris asked, sitting up straighter and pushing his hat back, his face now intense instead of relaxed.
Looking at each face, Ezra continued, "It's been easy to follow." He saw the others nod in agreement, not understanding. "It's been almost too easy to follow," he suggested. "It's almost as if someone wanted us to follow this trail."
"It did seem strange that they didn't even try to cover their tracks," Nathan admitted, beginning to see where Ezra was going with this.
"My point indeed," Standish agreed. Trying to think of the best way to explain his suspicions, he pulled out his deck of cards. "With many of the slight-of-hand tricks magicians play before their audiences, the key is not magic or the ability to manipulate reality," he instructed, showing everyone the ace of spades before sliding it back into the pack. "But the ability to direct the mark's eyes where you want them to go." So saying, he fanned the cards with a flourish showing the ace of spades before shuffling the deck several times. "So they don't see what you're really doing," he concluded, reaching over and pulling the ace of spades from Buck's shirt collar.
"You think this is a false trail and they're really planning..." Chris started before Nathan interrupted to finish.
"... to hit town while it's mostly unprotected."
"JD won't stand a chance," Buck said, his visage turning grim at the thought of JD taking care of the town by himself.
Ezra nodded his head in agreement. "I have nothing to verify that this is what is happening, but this group we are pursuing has shown a most unusual savvy, especially for knowing when to strike a town."
Chris nodded. He hated not knowing what was going on, not being in control. He hated most of all when his men were put in danger and he wasn't there to protect them. Ezra had no proof that the gang was going to attack, but the few times Ezra had admitted to having a gut feeling about something he'd never been wrong. Looking at each of the men sitting around the fire with him, he made his decision. "Ezra. Buck. Tomorrow you head back to town. I know you won't get there until late, but if they are headed back, I don't want JD left alone with no one to mind his back. Nathan and I will continue following the trail." The others all nodded their agreement.
Rising, Chris rested his hand on his revolver for a minute before bending over to pick up his rifle. "I've got first watch," he instructed, knowing his worry over JD as well as Vin and Josiah wouldn't allow him to find sleep easily this night.
JD blinked his eyes open in confusion. It took him only a few minutes, however, to remember where he was. Taking his feet off of the desk, he slowly stood and stretched. At some point the previous night, his two prisoners had begun making a fuss and someone had complained about the noise. Using a trick he'd seen his older friends use from time to time to silence prisoners, JD had sat at the desk with a shotgun aimed at them and a book in his hand. He let them know that the first one to open their mouth was going to get an intimate meeting with buckshot.
He had only had to fire once for them to believe him. They had eventually settled down and fallen asleep. Setting aside his book and the gun, JD had put his feet up and caught a little sleep as well
His next order of business, after a quick trip to the outhouse, would be releasing his prisoners. The drunken cowboy from the day before didn't want to press charges so there was no reason to keep the men in the cells.
Opening the door to the jail, he smiled, a renewed sense of confidence and peace filling him. His smiled broadened as he watched the early morning happenings around the town. Looking up at the clear sky, he jus knew it was going to be a good day.
On the trail, the four men were up and eating as the sky lightened from black to pre-dawn gray. None of the four had slept well, too worried about Ezra's suppositions to be at peace. If Ezra was right, they'd left the town virtually unprotected and their friend in extreme danger. If Ezra was wrong, Vin and Josiah could be in for a whole lot of trouble.
Quickly breaking camp, the men said their goodbyes and headed in opposite directions. Chris and Nathan continued following the trail while Buck and Ezra returned to town, both groups hoping that their friends were safe.
In the small, cramped, rented room above the saloon, two men finished packing their saddlebags. Despite the comfortable beds that filled up the majority of the floor space neither man had slept well. Though Josiah had thought the precaution unnecessary, Vin had insisted they stand watch. Even that precaution hadn't allowed either man the peace necessary for restful slumber.
Heeding the words of the man from the day before, they were making sure they reached the jail by dawn to pick up their prisoner. Both men would feel better once they were out of this town and safely on their way back home.
"Ready?" Vin asked, heading toward the door.
Josiah hefted his saddlebags over his shoulder and nodded. "Lead on, Brother Vin," he encouraged with slightly less than his normal lightness.
As they made their way through town, Vin caught sight of several figures moving in the shadows toward the building that served as jail. Cold fingers of dread crept around him, seizing him and holding him firmly in their grasp. Turning his attention to the livery they were approaching, he quietly observed, "Looks like we might have a bit of company at the prisoner exchange today."
Turning his head sharply to face his friend, Josiah intoned in an equally quiet voice, "You sure?"
Vin nodded. "Saw three men headed in that direction, trying to keep out of sight."
"Jailbreak?" Josiah asked, somehow knowing it wouldn't be that simple.
"Don't know," Vin said with a shrug. "I'd say it's going to be trouble one way or another."
Running a hand through his hair, Josiah exhaled slowly. Somehow trouble always seemed to find them. He prayed that they would be able to overcome whatever fate chose to throw at them. The good news was he hadn't seen any crows. But then, his omens had become less reliable over the time he'd been riding with the others. Still, he took it as a good sign.
Entering the livery, they made their way back and quickly saddled their own horses as well as the one Josiah had arranged for the previous night.
With a steady and somewhat wary gait, the two men and three horses made their way to the building that they believed to be the jail. A look was exchanged between the two as they both felt the immanent danger threatening.
Soon they found themselves standing about ten feet away from the man with whom they had spoken the previous day sliding a shell into his shotgun. Neither man was prepared to approach any closer, unaware that they were now standing slightly angled to each other as if protecting the other's back.
"We're here for the prisoner," Josiah said, not even attempting any salutations.
The man in the chair reached up with one hand and tilted his had back on his head. Looking up, he met Josiah's blue eyes with cold, dead, nearly colorless eyes of his own. "Reckon that'd be me," he said. "But I ain't goin' nowhere." Snapping his shotgun closed, he sneered, "You, on the other hand, will be fillin' a hole in the cemetery as the Magnificent Seven become five."
Without hesitation, the two peacekeepers drew their weapons. Vin managed to get a shot off at the man who had spoken before he was able to fire at them.
This seemed to be the signal for bullets to start flying, and fly they did. Lead heated the air around Vin and Josiah as the two men struggled to back up far enough away to mount their horses.
Though they both managed to mount, that maneuver came at some cost. While trying to maintain his hold on his horse's reins while backing the animal up, Josiah felt a bullet tear through the sleeve of his coat, searing a path through his bicep. As he mounted, he felt heat flare in his ankle as another bullet gouged a furrow through the side of his boot. A third bullet impacted his thigh and remained.
Vin fared no better in trying to get on his horse. After the first volley from their opponents, Tanner knew he and Josiah would need a miracle to get out of town alive. When the first bullet seared his left forearm, he began adding his prayers to those he knew Josiah was already speaking.
When he was then nearly knocked over by the one that burrowed through his side, he lost almost all ability to focus his conscious thought.
As he mounted his horse, a third bullet tore down his thigh, digging a furrow along the large muscle that ended somewhere near his knee as the shooters aimed at their backs. Now there was no conscious thought, only survival instincts.
The fourth bullet took away even those instincts as it creased his skull, knocking the hat off his head.
He never felt the one that hit him on the right side of his back just below the shoulder blade.
Heading into the small restaurant for lunch, JD nodded to several of the other patrons. So far today he'd settled two disputes. Not much compared to the excitement he and the others seemed to attract, but still, he had handled the issues.
The only problem he was facing now was Conklin and several of his cronies wandering around town with their shotguns.
Setting his hat to the side of his plate he ran a hand through his hair and sighed. He knew the people out here had to be fairly rugged and able to take care of themselves, but a part of him couldn't help but believe they should leave the peacekeeping up to him. After all, that was why he got paid.
Placing his order, JD sat back and looked out the window wondering how his friends were faring.
Buck and Ezra rode steadily and quickly. They were making good time since they weren't trying to follow any tracks, but still, a sense of urgency pushed them onward. They rested their horses only when they had to and rode the rest of the time.
For the two normally gregarious men, there was no conversation. The usually relaxed features were set with an unnatural tension spurred by worry.
They would make it back to town before anything could happen. They had to.
Chris and Nathan continued to follow the trail of the gang. Both men rode in silence, worried about their friends, wanting to be with them, but bound by duty to follow this trail and hopefully prevent another robbery.
"Still traveling a straight line," Nathan observed.
Chris grunted his response. His attention was on the land ahead. He had some knowledge of this area and that had been augmented by Vin's descriptions. If the trail continued as it was, they would be approaching the perfect location for an ambush within another two hours. "Hold up, Nathan," Chris instructed.
Turning a puzzled face toward the man in black, Nathan stopped his horse next to the other. "What is it?"
Looking from the horizon to his friend, Chris said, "Straight ahead is a place that's perfect for an ambush."
"You reckon that's what they have planned for us?" Nathan asked, already knowing the answer, but wanting it confirmed.
Hazel eyes shot a look at the healer. "Yep," he replied.
Nathan nodded his head in acknowledgment, a feral gleam entering his eyes as a deadly smile appeared on his lips. "Then I suppose we should return the favor," he observed, seeing the same feral gleam and smile on the blond.
Somehow Vin managed to not fall out of the saddle, a fact for which Josiah was grateful, seeing as how he was unable to reach over and help Tanner for several minutes. Despite his own pain, he continued firing behind him until the sounds of gunfire faded. He had a feeling that he wouldn't have much time to help Vin or himself before the men were after them.
Finding a small copse of trees that offered some slight cover, Josiah stopped his horse and said a quick prayer of thanks that Peso had followed him.
Dismounting proved to be a painful process and he felt his leg almost give out beneath him as he took a step. Fighting off his own weakness, Josiah quickly scanned his friend, appalled by what he saw; Vin was covered in blood from head to toe.
"Sweet, merciful Jesus," he whispered before looking heavenward. "Lord, grant me the wisdom to know what to do," he prayed quietly. Reaching into Vin's saddlebag, he pulled out a bandana. Wiping Vin's face, he found the path the bullet had traced on the side of Tanner's skull. Tying that bandana onto the Tracker's head, he then pulled out a shirt and apologized to Vin before tearing it into strips. He just had to slow the bleeding until he could find somewhere safer.
Wiping away the blood that coated Vin's leg, he shook his head, unable to figure out how to tie the bandage, Finally he decided to tie it where the blood seemed to be flowing the heaviest, a few inches above the knee.
Following the drop of blood that had just fallen, he saw the source at Vin's forearm and tied a piece of cloth around it. It was as he went to tuck the remnants of the shirt back into Vin's saddlebag, though, that he found two final sources of blood. Lifting the bottom of the hide coat, he swore softly at the amount of blood soaking the broadcloth. Dropping the coat, he saw the bullet holes and cursed again. He needed to get Vin immediate medical attention and wished Nathan was there with him.
Just as he was running through options in his mind, the distant sound of hoofbeats reached his ears and he knew his time was up, with a final apology to Vin, he bound a piece of cloth around the Texan's middle, one around his shoulder and then tied Vin into the saddle.
Taking Peso's reins, he tied them to the back of his saddle and mounted with a pain-filled groan.
With a grim determination, he struck out again, hoping to find shelter and avoid their pursuers.
As the day wore on, JD made himself available and helped all those he could. There wasn't much going on and he knew he would have a busy evening patrolling the saloons to keep them safe for the patrons.
He was just finishing up his latest walk about the town when he saw a rider arriving. Though he couldn't say exactly why, there seemed to be something off about the man. Moving slowly over to the post at the corner of the General Store, he leaned against it, looking unconcerned and idle. His eyes, though, betrayed his alert state. He watched every move the man made.
The rider in question stopped his horse and tied him off. He then proceeded to get down and stretch in a seemingly nonchalant manner. JD had seen the others use that move as an excuse to scan the area and, watching closely, saw this man do the same thing. Still, that wasn't proof he was up to no good.
As the man's eyes scanned in his direction, JD made it a point to be looking somewhere else while keeping track of the man. When the other passed over him, dismissing him as a non-threat, JD turned his attention back to the rider's actions.
After his scan of the street, the man stepped up to the boardwalk and began to casually head down the row of businesses. The third building housed the bank.
While the man didn't stop and stare, JD saw him slow his walk and scan the area. He also saw the man turn his head when he reached the window. After passing the building, the man's step sped up somewhat. He then crossed the road toward the saloon.
JD remained in place and was rewarded when, a few minutes later, the man reappeared with a mug of beer and settled into one of the chairs outside. JD knew from experience that those chairs allowed a good view of the bank and its comings and going.
Deciding he needed to go back to the jail and see if there were any posters on the man, JD turned and headed off. He glanced back as he entered the building and saw another stranger ride into town. This one stopped his horse outside the saloon and nodded briefly at the one sitting in the chair. The second man was one JD remembered from the wanted posters they'd received on the gang the others had left to hunt down.
"Damn," JD cursed softly, entering the building and closing the door behind him. The gang was here, casing the bank and he was all alone. There was no way he would be able to keep them from robbing it all on his own. And protecting the townspeople from the men would be difficult. He needed a plan and he needed it now.
Chris left his horse at the foot of the hill, well hidden in the copse of trees below. Making his way up as silently as possible, he knew Nathan was doing the same. It wasn't long before he heard the sound of two men in hushed conversation.
"How much longer we gotta wait," the first whispered.
"'Til they get here," the second growled, obviously tired of his friend's questions.
"Been waitin' here most of the day already. How slow can they be not to be here by now? I mean, we left a trail a retired, blind schoolmarm could follow."
"Shhh," the second man hissed. "We wait until they get here, then we shoot them dead. Boss wants it that way. The two at camp should be dead by now and then there are these lot coming up."
"Stupid of them to leave only that boy in town," the first man sneered. "Kid don't stand a chance."
The evil smile of the second man was evident in his voice as he observed, "Kid knows what's good for him, he'll hide somewhere and let the others have the money."
Larabee forced himself to start breathing again. All of this had been a ploy to get them out of town to rob the bank. The prisoner, the trail... He forced away his concern at the thought of Vin and Josiah being in danger and possibly dead. No. They couldn't be dead. Both of them were too wary, too good to be caught by a trap like that.
Taking a deep breath he drew his gun and stepped up behind the men. "Reckon you boys should just drop your guns," Chris hissed at them.
The two would-be killers spun around quickly only to find themselves face to face with one of the deadliest men they had ever seen. Even their own leader didn't chill them to the core the way this man in black did. Dropping their guns, both men held up their hands.
"Good choice," Larabee said, indicating they should turn around.
"Ya... ya ain't gonna shoot us in the back are ya mister?" the first man stammered out.
"And waste a perfectly good bullet on you?" Chris asked, his voice deadly. "I don't think so. I think I'll let someone else handle that, and probably with a rope, if you're lucky." Walking up behind the men, he hit one with the butt of his gun, subduing him, but not knocking him out. Taking the rope he brought with him, he quickly tied the hands of first one man and then the other.
Encouraging the men to stand, he then ushered them back to where he had found their horses and helped them mount. He led the horses down to his own and mounted, moving out to meet Nathan.
As he approached the agreed upon meeting place, Chris found Nathan already waiting for him. Taking in the condition of Jackson's prisoners, Chris felt a little disappointed that his hadn't put up more resistance. It looked like Nathan had all the fun.
"Any trouble?" Chris asked.
Nathan just grinned, taking a certain amount of pleasure in the fear he saw in his prisoners. "Not a lick," he admitted, thinking back to the way he had quickly handled them. He had them tied and on the way to their horses before they knew what was happening. "We heading back or toward Roweville?"
Chris' visage grew dark. "Roweville. According to what I heard, the whole prisoner pickup was nothing more than a setup to take down Josiah and Vin. They're probably going to need us."
His stomach clenching in fear, Nathan's own face became grim. "Reckon we should stop wasting time talking," he advised, turning his horse and setting out toward the mining camp at a much faster pace than before.
Josiah paused, breathing heavily, as was his horse. Looking back, he could see that Vin was still tied to the horse. In fact, that seemed to be the only thing keeping the insensate Tracker in the saddle at the moment. He has lost their pursuers for the moment, but he had no idea how long that advantage would last. Right now, more than anything, he wished the others were with them. Since that wasn't an option, Josiah prayed softly for shelter.
Opening his eyes, he scanned the hills around them once more, unsure of when they had entered this area. Moving the horses forward slowly, he was stunned to see a rabbit hopping out, seemingly from the side of the hill, in front of his horse. There was no way they could hide in a rabbit warren, but as he turned to see from where the rabbit had hopped, he saw an odd darkness behind some of the greenery.
With hope rising, Josiah dismounted, suppressing a groan as his leg once more protested the movement. Pushing aside some of the hanging branches, he couldn't decide if he wanted to laugh or to weep at the sight of the cave. It wasn't terribly deep, but opened wide enough to provide shelter for the two men and two horses. Returning to his mount, he quickly led both horses into the cave.
Though he hated leaving his friend like that, Josiah had little choice but to leave Vin in the saddle until he gathered some strength. Knowing that sitting would be the worst thing he could do at the moment, Josiah rested his head against his mount, waiting for the pain and nausea to subside enough to allow him to move.
Finally, Josiah felt his strength and equilibrium return. Standing straight, he limped over to his friend and cut Vin loose. He just had time to reach out as the unconscious man slid off Peso into Josiah's waiting arms. As Vin's weight fell into his arms, Sanchez staggered back several steps, trying not to fall himself, afraid he'd never be able to get up again. His steps soon led him to the back wall of the cave where he came to a stop and rested, trying to catch his breath.
Saying prayers of thanks, he then straightened and dragged Vin over to the other side of the cave. Settling the man as best he could against the wall, Josiah collected his thoughts and breath. Looking down, he noticed blood dripping down his hand and worried that Vin was bleeding. Before he could bend over to check, however, he felt the burn of pain in his arm and realized the blood was his own.
Blinking in surprise, Josiah stared at the offending appendage and tried to remember when it had happened. He had been so concerned with the flying bullets and then with tending Vin, he hadn't noticed that his arm was injured. He was well aware of the bullet in his thigh, feeling it grate against the bone was an experience he could easily live without, but he hadn't realized his right arm had been grazed. At least he hoped it was only a graze.
As he tried to process this new information and what it might mean, a soft groan sounded from the floor. Looking down, he saw Vin tossing his head slightly as he fought to awaken. After a few minutes, Josiah noticed Vin's blue eyes looking into his own. Vin's eyes were truly the window to his soul. Everything he was, everything he felt, everything he experienced was in those eyes. Right now those eyes were telling of Vin's fear, confusion and determination.
"J... Jo... Josiah," he finally managed to identify.
"Right here, Vin," Josiah replied, reaching out and placing his left hand on Vin's shoulder.
"Yer hurt," the Tracker observed, brows furrowing in concern and worry.
Josiah chuckled softly. Leave it to Vin to worry about someone else when he was barely conscious. "You're hurt worse," he offered.
"Where...?" Vin began before his voice faded and his eyes closed as a wave of pain washed over him. A soft cry escaped the wounded Texan as he waited for it to pass.
"We're in a cave," Josiah said. "There's a stream nearby and last I saw we still had four men pursuing us."
Vin's eyes remained closed as he struggled to control his breathing. Finally feeling he had control of himself once more, Tanner opened his eyes. "Gotta get fixed up and ride out," he managed to order softly.
Smiling down at his determined friend, Josiah shook his head. "Near as I can tell, you have one bullet in you, one hole through you, a few new scars to impress the ladies and a nice new part along the right side of your head. I don't reckon we'll be going anywhere tonight, though."
"Boys..." he gasped out. "Boys 'll worry," he finished.
"I suppose they will," Josiah agreed softly. "But that can't be helped right now. For now I need to go get our bedrolls, canteens and saddlebags. Seems we both have a few wounds to tend to," he observed.
Vin heard his words and nodded, knowing he would have to overcome his own pain and weakness to help Josiah.
JD had finally come up with a plan, though it wasn't going to be very popular with anyone. Still, it was the safest thing he could think to do for himself and for the town.
He had spent most of the rest of the afternoon traveling from store to store telling everyone he could find that there was a gang in town wanting to cause trouble and that they should stay inside tonight no matter what.
To Mary Travis, he admitted his suspicions and concerns. He knew the four men in town were the ones Chris, Buck, Nathan and Ezra had gone to capture. The other four men in the gang had yet to make an appearance, but JD had no doubt they would appear. Knowing he couldn't stop four or more men from robbing the bank by himself, he had decided to allow the men to take the money and then track them, hoping for an opportunity to steal the money back. Then, if that opportunity didn't present itself, he would report back here and get help once he discovered the gang's hideout.
Mary had been worried, but agreed it was the best of so many bad options.
Now all JD had to do was wait for the men to make their move.
He didn't know that Conklin and his friends had other ideas.
Buck and Ezra were making good time, but neither thought it good enough. They were pushing their horses over the uneven ground when suddenly Ezra's horse stumbled.
Though an expert horseman, Ezra hadn't been prepared for the stumble and soon found himself flying head first over his horse's head and straight for the ground. Fear shot through him as he lost contact with his mount and anticipated contact with the ground. His thoughts were simple, "Dear God, no! JD needs us!"
Those were his last thoughts as his head came into contact with the ground, knocking him unconscious.
Buck, having seen his friend fall out of the corner of his eye, had slowed his own horse and turned back to see what he could do. Stopping his mount, he dropped off the animal's back and raced over to his friend. "Ezra!" he called out. "Ezra, can you hear me?" He received no response.
Bending over his friend's inert form, he reached out and checked for a pulse, breathing in relief when he found one, strong and steady. Checking Ezra over quickly, he saw a small gash on the Southerner's head. Pressing his bandana against it for several minutes, the bleeding soon stopped. Running his hands over Standish, he sighed in relief when he determined that there were no broken bones.
Straightening Ezra's legs, he winced as he caught sight of a rather large rock underneath Ezra's right hip. "You're going to be a mite sore for a while, pard," Buck said softly, wondering if Ezra would even be able to sit a horse let alone make it back to town. He didn't have long to wait to find out, for just then Ezra groaned. "You with me, Ez?" Buck asked, tapping the Southerner's cheek.
With another groan, Ezra's eyes slitted open. “J… JD,” he stammered before gasping in pain and slamming his eyes shut once more. Pain roared in his head and somewhere down by his hip. He was awash in agony, holding his breath as he waited for the pain to subside. The pain only increased and Ezra released a whimper as he felt the darkness call to him. As he would have slipped away, he became aware of a hand holding his own and the gentle rise and fall of a voice. Allowing himself to release the breath he’d taken and clinging to the hand and voice, Ezra began breathing as the pain began to pass.
“You’re OK, Ez,” Buck soothed, relieved that Ezra had started breathing again. He knew the conman would have started breathing when he fell unconscious, but right now they didn’t have time for that. They were still too far away from the town for Buck’s comfort. Still, he couldn’t leave his friend.
Rising, he strode over to his horse and fished out a clean bandana. With that in hand, he grabbed his canteen and headed back. He would tend Ezra as best he could and rest for a while. Hopefully they’d be able to get back on the trail before dark, though, with the moon being near full and the skies clear, Buck was fairly certain they’d be able to ride at night if need be.
Chris and Nathan continued to push onward, ignoring the complaints of their captives. They were getting closer to the camp with each step, but progress was still too slow for the two peacekeepers.
As fortune would have it, when they were within a few miles of the camp, a group of horses became visible to them. Exchanging a glance, Nathan and Chris headed off the road to hide in the trees that had started growing more thickly, a sure indication of a nearby water source.
Making sure they and their prisoners were as hidden as possible, Nathan and Chris pulled their guns and focused them on their prisoners. “Make any noise at all, it’ll be your last,” Nathan informed the men, his warm brown eyes, cold with determination. No one messed with his family.
The four prisoners kept their lips closed and their eyes on the guns, knowing that their captors wouldn’t hesitate to kill any of them. Besides, these four figured their friends at the camp would spring them when they arrived.
Seeing Nathan had things under control, Chris indicated that he would see what the other group was doing. He slipped off his horse and silently slipped through the trees toward his goal.
Buck sat beside his friend, allowing Ezra to rest. He was torn, knowing that Ezra needed rest, but needing to be there to help JD against what was sure to be almost overwhelming odds. Though he desperately wanted to be on his way, he waited, telling himself that the kid would be able to handle the situation, that it would prove to the town once and for all that JD had earned the right to walk beside the other six.
He just hoped it didn’t take JD dying to prove it.
A soft groan sounded as Ezra’s hand raised up to grasp his head. Intercepting the hand, Buck gently guided it back to Ezra’s side. “You just rest up there, Ez,” he advised. Reaching over for the canteen, he opened it and then lifted Standish's head gently. "Here you go. Take a small sip or two. It should help," he advised.
Ezra felt his stomach protest at the lifting of his throbbing head, but somehow knew it was important that he gather himself. There was something that he needed to do. As he drank small sips of the tepid water, a face formed in the haze of his thoughts. Shortly afterward a name came to him. "JD," he said softly. He had to do something for JD. If only he could remember what it was.
Buck felt a pang of guilt. His initial instinct was to just pull Ezra to his feet and go after JD, but the Southerner was in no shape to handle such an action. "JD will be fine, Ezra," he soothed. "Kid's been watching us and learning everything we have to teach him since that Seminole village. Reckon he's probably better equipped to handle the town than any of the rest of us," Buck assured, surprised that he honestly believed those words.
He was always aware that JD listened to him. He even knew that the Kid was now able to call him on all of his tales and sort his tales from the truth. He just never really thought about how far JD had come, how different he was now than he had been. True, the kid still had a lot to learn and a lot of growing to do, but, Buck realized, JD was no longer the greenhorn kid that he'd first known. Maybe it was time for him to start treating JD a little differently.
Nodding his head in acknowledgment of the truth of Buck's assessment, Ezra quickly rethought the action. Even the simple movement of nodding his head had caused the world to spin in inappropriate directions. He did find comfort in Buck's words, though. Having seen JD in action, it was easy to tell he was quickly absorbing all the lessons his friends had to offer. With their combined skills, the young man would, one day, make a formidable foe to any lawbreaker. Still, he hated the thought of leaving any of his friends in such a situation without backup. After all, he had far too few friends and none to spare.
"I shall be ready to ride momentarily," Ezra assured Buck, praying he would be able to follow through on his claim.
Warm laughter rolled over the duo as Buck found it impossible to hide mirth. "Ezra Standish," he admonished. "That is, without a doubt, the worst lie I have ever heard. Your mother would be ashamed." Buck's smile broadened as he saw the corners of Ezra's mouth twitch upward. Sighing, he informed, "We'll wait here until the world stops spinning and you have more color than those clouds in the sky up there."
Ezra turned his eyes toward Buck and allowed the warmth of the man's friendship roll over him. It was a feeling more healing than any concoction Nathan could create. "Then let us hope for a swift recovery," he replied.
JD sat on the bench on the boardwalk with a book in hand. To all who looked, he appeared to be reading his volume and unaware of anything else around him. In reality, he was using the pretense of reading a book to keep an eye on the town.
The men he had noticed earlier had continued on their course of doing nothing unusual and drawing no attention to themselves. Had it not been for his own experience and that of his friends, he, like most of the people in town, wouldn't suspect the men were anything other than what they presented. JD, however, knew differently. With any luck they wouldn't strike until after dark when there was less likelihood of anyone getting injured. He just wished he knew. Given the reports they had received, if he didn't know better, he would assume that there were two different gangs. The robberies seemed to take place in two distinct styles with a little overlap. But there had been no report of there being more than six men at any of the robberies so it had to be the same group.
Still, some of the banks were hit in broad daylight and others at night. In some the safes were blown, in others cracked. It didn't seem to make much sense, but then, if they were replacing gang members, maybe it did.
Settling back in his chair, JD turned the page of the book he wasn't really reading and waited. It was still a few hours until dinner and he had time to kill. He couldn't help wishing, though, that at least one of the others was there with him.
Chris slipped silently through the trees until he was near the road. Crouching down behind a boulder, he waited and listened.
"Any sign of them?" a gruff voice demanded.
"Nope," another replied just before the sound of tobacco juice hitting the ground reached Larabee's ears.
"Would have thought they'd be easy to track what with the blood trail they left out of town," a third man observed casually.
Chris felt his heart clench and his blood run cold at that comment. He could only pray that the men weren't talking about Josiah and Vin, yet somehow, he knew they were. His suspicions were confirmed a few moments later when the forth man spoke.
"Reckon that Indian lover's dead by know. Saw his hat fly off and him slump," the forth man observed.
"Bullet to the head's usually enough to stop a man," the second voice agreed.
"That big feller took one to the leg," the third man added. "Like I said. They were both losin' a lot of blood. They had to have left a trail around here somewhere."
"We'll start from where we lost the trail, look another half hour and then head back," the first voice ordered. "No way they'll make it back to the others, or what's left of them after that little surprise we left for them." Cruel laughter sounded throughout the group at that statement.
Larabee's hand flexed over his gun while hatred and rage poured through him. These men had not only set up he and Nathan, they had actually shot Josiah and Vin. From the sound of it, his two friends were in sorry shape and desperately needed them. He watched as the four men turned their mounts and headed back up the road the way they had come.
"Let's go, boys. I got me a dinner with a pretty little filly tonight," the first man informed, causing more laughter among the men.
Watching them ride away, Chris used every fiber of restraint and patience he'd learned over the years to keep from shooting the four of them in the back as they rode away. He needed those men to return to the point where they had lost Vin and Josiah's trail. Once he had that position, though. All bets were off.
Until then, he needed to get back to Nathan and their prisoners. They would have to do something with the four men they'd captured. As he approached the clearing where Nathan had his gun trained on the men in question, an evil smile curved Larabee's lips. What he had in mind should work quite well.
In the cave Josiah had chosen for shelter, the two men sat resting, leaning against each other, both exhausted by blood loss and their mad dash for safety. Sanchez had managed to get the bedrolls down and wipe away the drying blood from both of them. Vin, however, still had a bullet by his shoulder and Josiah could feel the bullet in his leg. He had cleaned their wounds as much as his failing strength would allow, but he needed rest. He also knew both of their bullets would need to come out, but he wasn't sure he had the strength to get the one out of Vin and knew he'd never be able to extract the one from his own leg.
"Send up a good word for me too," Vin said softly, reaching over and tapping Josiah lightly on the arm.
A smile warmed the former preacher's face. "Been doing that all along, Brother Vin," he assured.
"Same here," Vin replied softly, looking over to meet his friend's eyes. He easily read the worry and the self-recrimination that was beginning to take hold in them. "Doin' all you can and more," Tanner rasped, his voice fading as the pull of sleep dragged him downward. "Just believe," he whispered as his eyes slid shut.
Josiah's smile faded as Vin drifted into sleep. He took comfort from his friend's words, but wasn't sure he would be able to take Vin's advice. "Just believe," he repeated softly. He had spent most of his life trying to believe and he still struggled with it. Some days it was easy to believe in the Lord, in his friends, in the possibility of a future. Other days, it was nearly impossible. Right now, all Josiah seemed to be able to believe in was their certain demise should a miracle not happen. "Just believe," he repeated as his own blood loss drew him toward unconsciousness once more.
Continued in Parts 11 to 15
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