The Magnificent Seven

The Best Laid Plans
By MMW


The Best Laid Plans
By MMW

21.

Nathan stood and stretched his back. Everything was packed that he felt he could pack. He had one last cup of tea for both Josiah and Vin, knowing that they didnít have fevers, but hoping it would help alleviate the pain he knew they would experience on the ride home.

Glancing up at the sky, he could tell it was getting late. Chris had been gone for several hours, but it would take a while to get to Connor's bluff and back with a wagon. The healer judged that he had a few more hours to wait. Chances were, even if they could load everything up on the wagon before sunset, they wouldn't get more than an hour on their way before they had to stop for the night.

Still, an hour on the road was an hour closer to home and to what he needed to properly tend his friends.

"Nate?" came a raspy call from the cave.

Spinning on his heel, Nathan headed into the dim interior to find one pair of blue eyes blinking up at him. Crouching down to be more on level with Vin, he smiled at the owlish look the tired man was giving him. "Hey," Jackson greeted, reaching for the canteen of water he'd left in the cave. "Ready for some water?"

Vin nodded and licked his lips. He was so very thirsty. His friend had told him that was perfectly normal, given the amount of blood he had lost. That knowledge was one of the few reasons he was offering no fight against the liquids that were being offered. "How long?" the Texan asked, taking a break from drinking in order to catch his breath.

"Chris should be back sometime before dark," Nathan replied absently, turning to look outside. "Of course, getting the two of you to the wagon isn't going to be easy. We may have to sit you up and ride you out double." Turning to stare into the trusting blue eyes, he continued, "I won't lie to you. Getting you to the wagon's only going to be the beginning of the pain you'll feel."

A wry half-smile graced Tanner's face as he replied, "Aw, Doc. Don... don't you know ... that pain ... just ... lets you know... you're alive?"

Nathan let out a short bark of laughter in reply as a shadow fell across the entrance to the cave.

"Then the two of you should feel like the most alive men in the world," Chris supplied in response, nodding to Nathan as he watched Vin's grin turn into a full smile.

"Some kind... of time you... made, cow... cowboy," Vin observed.

Narrowing his eyes, Larabee couldn't fully suppress his own grin as he challenged, "You callin' me cowboy?"

"Reckon if he doesn't, I might," Josiah rumbled, yawning as he reached his good arm up to rub his face.

As he rose from his position next to the injured sharpshooter, Nathan moved to check on his other patient. "How are you feeling?" he demanded of Josiah as he held out the water.

"Not quite ready for a dance, but can't wait to get out of here," Sanchez replied softly, smiling broadly, accepting the canteen.

Turning to face the new arrival, Nathan demanded, "How did you get there and back so fast? Pony must be run into the ground and about to drop."

The blond just grinned. "Not quite," he admitted. "I'll start loading up and tell you about it when we're on the road."

"Alright," Jackson agreed, turning back to his patients.

<><><><><><><>

Buck picked up the tray from Ezra's bed and evaluated his friend. Though still bruised rather badly, he had to admit the Southerner was moving more easily after his soak. Maybe later, if the doctor approved, he'd take Ezra down for another one.

"Are you quite through staring at me, Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra asked.

Smiling at his friend, Buck chuckled softly. "Just thinking how much better you look than when we rode in," he admitted.

A flash of guilt appeared in Ezra's eyes as they unconsciously took in the form of the sleeping brunet in the other bed. "Yes, well," he replied, "were it not for my inattention to our surroundings, Mr. Dunne wouldn't be suffering now."

Frowning at the guilt and self-loathing he heard in his friend's voice, Buck sat on the edge of the bed and set the tray on the ground by his feet. When Standish didn't look at him, he reached over and tugged the chin upward, taking some comfort in the fact the gambler quickly tugged his head away and frowned. "You listen to me, Ezra Standish," he began. "I've about had my fill of martyrs and guilt to last a lifetime." Drilling the green eyes with his own, he continued, "You have nothing to apologize for. If it weren't for you, we wouldn't have even been headed toward town and then where would JD be?" When he saw no answer was forthcoming, he supplied, "Dead in a grave." His voice wavered and cracked with emotion on those words as the pain of the other two losses swept through him once more.

The gambler felt a jolt of shock straighten his frame at the plain words. Knowing what sort of torment his older friend had been suffering the past week, he couldn't help but wonder at Buck even bringing up the possibility. Still, if the rogue was willing to touch upon such a painful topic, the least Ezra could do was give the man's words the consideration they deserved.

Buck saw the shocked look cross Ezra's face and refused to let his gaze waver as the injured man processed the truth.

After several moments the silence was broken. "He's right, Ezra," JD said softly from the other bed, drawing both men's attention to him. "When Conklin blew the plan I had, there wasn't a lot of hope that the town would get out of it without losing some people." Reaching for the nearby glass of water with his good arm, Dunne sighed in relief when Buck rose, walked over and lifted it for him. After a few swallows, the young man continued, "I wasn't sure how I was going to get Conklin or his friends out alive, but I knew I had to try." Taking another swallow of water, he explained, "I wasn't thinking when I knocked Conklin down. I just saw the gun aimed at him and his fear keeping him from moving... Anyway, I'm glad you showed up when you did because Buck's right, I wouldn't be here now if you hadn't arrived when you did."

Taking in the words of both men, Ezra could feel the truth of them. A part of him did feel responsible for JD's injury, but they were right, how much worse would it have been if they hadn't started back when they did? Allowing a small, sincere smile to appear on his face, he offered a quiet, "Thank you, my friends," just as the door opened.

His gun leaping to his hand, Buck turned to face the intruder. Putting his gun away and sighing in relief as he saw it was only Mary Travis, he smiled and nodded, "Miz. Travis, ma'am."

"Good afternoon, gentlemen," she greeted, looking at all three of the men. Taking a step further into the room, she held up her hand. "The judge has sent another wire," Mary offered, by way of explanation for her interruption.

"What's it say?" JD asked eagerly.

Blushing slightly at the assumption that she'd read it, she was about to protest when she noted all three sets of eyes staring intently at her. Her eyes looking downward and a chagrined expression appearing on her face at having been caught out, she replied, "He said that he's been delayed slightly and asked about the papers he put in the bank."

"They're not there," JD blurted out. He was taken aback and blinked in shock when three heads swiveled to stare at him. "What?" he asked, his voice cracking slightly.

"What do you mean they're not there?" Buck asked slowly.

"Oh," Dunne replied, now understanding their reactions. "I took them and Mrs. Ashworth's jewels out of the bank before the gang came." Seeing the incredulous looks on his friend's faces, he felt the need to defend himself. "I think it was good idea," he argued. "After all, the money could be replaced, the bank manager had an accounting of that, but the jewels and papers couldn't be remade if they were lost."

Mary, Buck and Ezra just stared at the young sheriff for several seconds, amazed at his insight and actions. Finally, the rogue let out a laugh, reached over and ruffled JD's hair. "You done good, kid," he praised, a broad smile appearing on his face.

Trying to straighten his hair with his good hand, JD muttered, "Don't know why everyone's always so surprised."

Ezra laughed softly. "Ah, the trials of youth," Standish soothed softly, relishing the feeling of knowing that he had a hand in young Dunne's education.

"So the papers are safe?" Mary asked anxiously.

JD nodded. "I have them in the sheriff's office," he explained.

"And that's where they'll stay," Buck affirmed, still grinning at his young friend, unable to disguise his pride. Turning toward Mary, he asked, "Judge need a reply?"

"Yes," Mary replied. "I'll wire the next stop and let him know all is well."

"Sounds good," Wilmington affirmed.

With a smile and a nod at the men, Mary left the clinic to wire the judge.

<><><><><><><>

It was fast approaching sunset when the two men rode into the clearing and stopped their horses dead in their tracks. They stared at the sight in front of them and then looked at each other in disbelief.

"Clem!" Rusty called. "I told you I heard something!"

Sighing and turning pleading eyes toward the two men, Clem pleaded, "Please get us down. We'll go peacefully wherever you want us to, just don't make me stay tied to him another minute!"

The two new arrivals exchanged another look before nodding their assent. When Chris Larabee had told them he had the men securely tied up, he hadn't been joking.

<><><><><><><>

"What four men?" Josiah asked, his voice slightly breathless as the wagon hit another hole sending searing pain through his body.

"The four that tried to ambush us," Nathan replied matter of factly.

"Ambush?" the ex-preacher asked, exchanging a concerned look with his injured friend.

"Yeah," Nathan confirmed, steering the wagon to avoid a rather deep hole. "There was this one pass that was perfect for an ambush and sure enough, they were set up and waiting for us there. We turned the tables on them, though, and ended up with four prisoners."

"Two days?" Vin asked.

"A bit more," Jackson confirmed as a small smile appeared on his face. "Chris left them all tied up in a clearing by a stream."

Two pairs of blue eyes turned toward the gunslinger riding beside the wagon. Chris met both gazes and a small smile appeared on his face. Turning his attention back toward the road ahead, he offered, simply, "Good friend told me about a way you could tie up a couple of men and leave them hanging around for a while until it was time to pick them up."

A broadly amused smile appeared on Vin's face as he remembered the conversation he and Chris had had one night on the trail. He chuckled softly, but it ended in a hiss of pain as the laughter aggravated his shoulder.

Reaching over and squeezing the Texan's good shoulder, Josiah waited until the pain subsided before continuing his questions. "So, Mr. Blake said he'd send his two hands to bring in your prisoners?"

Chris nodded. "He was more than happy to do anything he could to help," Larabee admitted, slightly amused. "Apparently he was willing to do anything he could for the men his sister-in-law thought so highly of." Hazel eyes danced as they met Josiah's pale blue, "Especially a broad-shouldered, dashing former preacher who it appears she'd taken quite a shine to."

Josiah grinned and blushed in embarrassment as Nathan laughed aloud. Vin grinned widely and nudged Josiah slightly with his boot.

Seeing the reaction he wanted from his friends, he continued, "They gave me the wagon and the blankets and kept Pony, assuring me that they would bring him in and pick up the wagon next Sunday when they came in to see Mrs. Potter."

"Handy that their wagon can handle two horses," Nathan observed, grateful for the extra speed that allowed them.

"Mr. Blake said they used the wagon to haul large rocks from time to time and it was easier on the horses to have two pulling instead of one." Looking upward, Chris judged how much more time they could safely travel before it got too dark.

"We stay... in the wagon," Vin began, gritting his teeth against the pain as the wagon rolled over a hidden rock. "We ... can go... further."

"Save time in the morning too," Josiah agreed, just as anxious as his friend to put as much of the painful journey behind them as they could.

Looking ahead and thinking about the road, Chris nodded. If they kept their current speed, they should be able to get to the clearing he had in mind. It wasn't too far of the trail and it would allow them some shelter. Glancing at his two friends, he nearly changed his mind, however, when he saw how pale they both were. The lines of pain etched on their faces only added to their general appearance of frailty. It was the determination in Vin's eyes as they rose to meet his own, that decided Chris against stopping sooner.

Urging Josiah's horse forward slightly, Larabee called to Nathan, "I'm going ahead to check out a campsite."

"Sounds good," Nathan said. "We'll be right behind."

With a nod of acknowledgment, Chris urged the horse into a canter.

<><><><><><><>

Taking as deep a breath as he dared, JD pushed himself into a sitting position. He couldn't remember it being so hard just to sit up. Still, he was doing better than he had that morning.

He was alone in the clinic again. Ezra had gotten the okay from the doctor to take another soak and then retire to his own room as long as Buck was there to escort him around the town. It had taken some doing, but Dunne had eventually convinced everyone that he was well enough to be left on his own for a short time. Reluctantly they had agreed.

Unsure of how much time had actually passed, JD shifted gingerly until his feet were on the floor and he was seated on the side of the bed. Taking several deep breaths to stop the spinning of his head and stomach, he finally felt he had control and carefully pushed himself into a standing position.

The world shifted and tilted a little, which was to be expected since he'd lost a bit of blood and had been lying down for so long. Still, eventually the world settled and he was able to open his eyes. Standing still for several moments, he waited until he felt his strength gather.

Satisfied that he was ready, Dunne slowly walked across the room to the door. Resting against the solid surface, he waited until he caught his breath and felt he had enough energy to start the slow trek back across the room.

Perhaps if he'd stayed by the door a moment longer he would have heard the footsteps on the stairs, but he was three steps away from the door when it suddenly opened.

Startled, he spun around and lost his balance.

Strong arms wrapped around him, steadying him. Unfortunately, one of the arms had caught him at entrance wound under his arm and white pain blinded Dunne, stealing his senses and his breath.

"Whoa there," Buck soothed, a hint of fear in his voice. Realizing what he'd done, he quickly shifted his grip on his friend and allowed the dark head to rest against his shoulder as he gently rubbed the younger man's back. "Breathe for me, JD," he encouraged. "Just take some air in and let it out." He was eventually rewarded with short pants and a nod of the young man's head.

When JD's breathing became more regular, Buck slowly directed him back to bed. Settling the young man on the mattress, he arranged the pillows so JD was sitting slightly. He took in the tight, pained expression and the eyes that had yet to open. Knowing there was little he could do for his friend until the pain was under control, he took JD's hand in his own and spoke gently to him. "Come on, kid. You got this licked. Just take some breaths." Seeing the pain receding, he continued with a smile, "You just squeeze my hand if that will help, but not too hard, after all, Miss Daisy does love it when I run my fingers through her hair." Buck felt his fear recede as a small smile appeared on JD's face and his friend's eyes opened.

"Full of crap," JD breathed out, glad to have his friend there with him, to help him ride out the pain.

Throwing back his head, Buck let out a booming laugh. "That may be, kid," he replied. "That just may be." Seeing that, though tired, JD was back in control, Wilmington's face grew serious. "Of course, I'm not so full of it I don't know better than to walk across the room when I'm under doctor's orders to stay in bed," he accused.

Dunne's pale face flushed red. He did know he shouldn't be up and about, but he needed to be ready in case that other gang came to town.

Letting out a sigh of frustration, Buck shook his head. "What am I going to do with you?" he asked. Standing, he walked over to the far side of the room, paused, and then turned back. Seeing JD about to open his mouth in protest, he held up a hand. "Stop," he ordered. "I know you just wanted to make sure you were up for whatever fight's coming." Blue eyes drilled into brown and caught the flash of guilt. Shaking his head, the ladies' man walked back to JD's bedside and sat down. "I understand," he assured. "I do. But you've got to understand too, JD. It's not worth losing you to have you push yourself too soon. If it were Nathan telling you to stay in bed, would you?"

"Well..." JD began, wanting to say that he'd still be pushing himself, but knowing it would be a lie. If Nathan were there, Buck would have backup and wouldn't need him. Dunne also believed Nathan when he gave orders about what to do. He didn't necessarily believe Dr. Bigsby.

"That's what I thought," Buck sighed. "Look, until Nate can get back and tell you what you need to get better, you're going to have to do what Doc Bigsby says. I can't lose you too."

Seeing the shadow of pain dancing in the depths of his friend's eyes, JD had no choice. "Alright," he agreed. "I'll follow the doctor's orders."

A sigh of relief escaped the mustached man.

"But I won't like it," JD grumbled, settling back on his pillows and allowing a small smile of satisfaction on his face as he heard Buck's laughter. Sometimes it was good to be the kid.

22.

Donovan Carter stepped into the plush office of his boss. Standing just inside the doorway, he waited to be noticed. Finally, his employer's head rose and the intense eyes met his own. "I have the men settled in the bunkhouse at the moment, eating lunch," he informed.

"Were you able to find everything we needed?" inquired the man behind the desk.

A cruel smile twisted Carter's face. "Yes, sir," he informed, menace, and the promise of pain, dripping from his words. "Everyone and everything is ready and awaiting your word."

Stacking the papers he'd been reading, the man in charge set them aside and leaned back in his chair, a malevolent smile slid onto his face, granting it an almost demonic appearance. "Good," he said, his voice low and sinister. "We leave at sunset and strike at dawn. I want everybody ready."

"It will be done, sir," Donovan assured, doing his best to hide the shiver that raced down his spine at the pure evil emanating from his boss.

<><><><><><><>

It was mid afternoon when Ezra finally managed to make his way out of his room and over to the clinic. Dr. Bigsby had allowed him to return to his room on the condition he continue to rest and kept to all the other instructions. Thankful for whatever freedom he could attain, Standish had readily promised to rest, soak in water infused with the herbal concoction the doctor had provided and walk as little as possible.

So far, he had managed to keep to the first two instructions, but the feeling of freedom that came with finally being out of the clinic proved too tempting for him to resist being out and about. Still, he wasn't about to be foolish in exercising his newfound freedom. This resolve was confirmed when a twinge of his bruised hip muscle caused him to slow his gait and inhale sharply. After a moment, the pain passed and he continued toward his goal more cautiously.

Arriving at the bottom of the staircase that would lead to Nathan's clinic, Ezra looked upward and doubted his decision to visit with JD and Buck. He contemplated returning to the saloon and waiting for Buck to come for a drink, but knew that was unlikely to happen after young Dunne's attempt to get out of bed on his own.

Resigning himself to the agony of the climb, Ezra placed one hand on the banister, gritted his teeth and prepared himself for the climb.

Feeling a hand come to rest on his shoulder, Standish jumped slightly and turned, his free hand triggering the small derringer he kept up his sleeve. Yelping in pain as he turned and raised his gun, he could only sigh in relief when he discovered his attacker was Buck.

"Whoa, there, now," Buck cautioned. "Don't go blowing holes in your friends."

"Mr. Wilmington," Standish greeted, returning his gun to his sleeve and trying to cover his reaction. "I assume you have a good reason for your behavior?"

"My behavior?" the mustached man asked, puzzled.

Brushing of a piece of lint from his sleeve as he attempted to calm his heart, the gambler replied, "Sneaking up on people and scaring them."

A grin spread across the handsome face as Buck gently slapped Ezra's shoulder. "Wouldn't have to sneak up on you if you were doing as you were told." Seeing the surprise in his friend's eyes, the rogue explained, "I stopped by your room to check on you, but you'd already gone. I just happened to see you standing here, looking up. Need a hand?"

Warmth filled Ezra at the truth of the statement. It felt good to have people care enough to want to check and make sure he was all right. "I most certainly could do," he admitted softly. Seeing his friend nod, he turned back toward the stairs and felt a strong hand rest on his back as Buck slid up next to him. Slowly, they ascended.

Breathing heavily at the top, Ezra leaned against the wall to catch his breath while the ladies' man watched him closely. "You're not going to pass out on me, are you?" Buck asked lightly, with an underlying seriousness to the tone.

"I assure you a gentleman does not pass out merely from climbing a few stairs," Standish assure, standing straight. "Shall we see how young Mr. Dunne is faring?"

"We shall," Buck agreed. Then, with a wink to his friend, he pushed open the door stating loudly, "Of course, if he's been out of bed again, there'll be hell to pay." His answer was a loud sigh from the direction of JD's bed.

<><><><><><><>

He was in agony. There was no other word for it. Right now, what he was experiencing was so far beyond pain, he could barely think. The only thing keeping him grounded was Josiah's firm grip. Unfortunately, Vin knew that his friend was in almost as much pain. Still, forcing his eyes open, he turned to meet those of his older friend. Catching the blue orbs, he offered a small smile of gratitude.

Josiah nodded in return, his jaw clenched too tightly to allow words to escape.

As the wagon jolted over another rock, Vin couldn't stop the soft cry that escaped as he felt a sharp flare of pain stab through him. The tightening of the grip on his hand alerted him that Josiah, too, had been affected, but soon a wave of red anguish engulfed him and the world faded.

Black spots began dancing in his crimson world and the Texan knew he would have to breathe soon or pass out. Of course, at this point in time, passing out seemed the better option.

Focusing all his energy on the act, Tanner managed to gasp and draw some small amount of air into his lungs. While it wasn't enough to satisfy his oxygen-starved body, it was enough to allow voices to enter his world.

One voice in particular was fighting through the blinding pain, leaving a cool comfort in its wake. Clinging to that thin thread of comfort, Vin fought for another breath and found the soothing flow grew stronger. Fighting to breathe normally, a small whimper escaped the tracker. He became aware of a comforting hand on his face and a strong presence at his back.

"Take another breath," the voice encouraged.

Tanner wanted to scream that he was trying to breathe, but didn't have the energy to spare. Instead, he focused on gasping in another breath. The pain retreated some more and the voice continued.

"Take another one. You'll get through this," the voice assured. "Just breathe slowly and relax. That's it."

Nathan. The voice was Nathan, Vin realized. With that bit of knowledge, he relaxed a little more and found it easier to draw his next breath. After what seemed an eternity, his head dropped forward in exhaustion. The pain had finally receded to a level where he could handle it.

"Nate?" The sharpness in Larabee's voice betrayed his worry and concern.

Vin recognized that it was Chris who was behind him, supporting him and Nate was in front of him. That left Josiah. He knew the ex-preacher had to be in at least as much pain as he was. "'Siah," he managed to whisper.

"What?" Chris asked.

Tanner felt the body behind him tense and was trying to build up the energy to repeat his question when a large, warm hand took hold of his.

"Still with you," Sanchez assured, though his voice was tight with his own pain.

Unable to do anything other than offer a gentle squeeze in return, Vin swallowed and lifted his head before allowing it to fall backward and rest on Chris' shoulder. With a Herculean effort, he finally managed to crack his eyes open and saw the concerned face of the healer before him. A faint ghost of a smile touched his lips. "Still... here," he assured softly, exhausted from his battle with pain.

"We're stopping here for the night," Jackson stated with authority.

"No," Vin protested, the word carrying more strength than he thought he had at the moment.

"Yes," Larabee growled from behind him. "You should have said something a lot sooner," he admonished.

"Wou... n't... make mu... ch dif'rence," he breathed out, hating how weak he sounded and worse, how helpless he felt.

"Don't you talk like that," Nathan admonished. "There's no reason for you to be suffering like you are. We might need to get back, but I'm not doing it at the risk of making either of you worse."

Sighing softly, Vin looked over at Josiah, hoping the older man was well enough to argue their case.

"You may not need to get back," Josiah interrupted, "but Vin and I do." Seeing the healer didn't believe him, he continued, "It's not going to be any easier for us to travel tomorrow than it is for us ... to travel today. We were set... up in Roweville. De... deliberately drawn away to leave the town vulnerable."

"We can rest so you're better prepared to face the ruts and rocks," Nathan argued.

"No," Josiah denied. "As much as it hurts, I would rather get it all done today and ... not worry about facing this again tomorrow."

"Me too," Vin added determinedly.

The two healthy men exchanged a look. They were still torn between the needs of their injured friends and the need to return to town. Both were leaning toward just pulling to the side and stopping for the night.

"We'll walk," Vin challenged, obviously having determined the feelings of his friends correctly.

A resigned sigh escaped Chris and Nathan's head dropped forward in defeat. "We rest here an hour," Larabee declared, unwilling to admit defeat.

"At least an hour," Nathan confirmed. "And I want both of you lying down asleep the whole time."

The corner of Vin's mouth rose in a smile at Nathan and Chris' reluctant acceptance. "Yes, sir," the Texan replied softly as he felt Chris shift and lower him gently down.

23.

Donovan looked over the men with whom he was riding. They were camped a few miles outside of town. It would be easy enough to get there at dawn, take what they needed and leave behind a message for those who thought to defeat them.

Though not the best group he'd ever gathered, they were more than good enough to do the job, especially with the plan that had been so carefully laid out. By breakfast tomorrow morning, his boss would have what he needed.

<><><><><><><>

The sun had fully set, leaving the only light in the small clinic the lantern on the far table. JD stared at the ceiling, trying to wait patiently for his friends to return. Buck and Ezra had gone off to dinner and then Buck was doing another patrol before returning to the clinic.

Tapping the hand of his good arm against the side of the bed he glanced at the door yet again, as if it would draw his friends to him sooner. He couldn't explain why, but he had a bad feeling, almost like there was a bad storm coming, but he couldn't say for sure what it was. What he did know was he'd sleep a lot better if the three of them managed to come up with some sort of plan to protect the town.

It would be easier if everyone was back, but they weren't sure when the others would be returning and something had to be done soon. It had been too quiet and if Judge Travis was right, and someone was after the papers in the sheriff's office, then it was unlikely they would just let an opportunity such as this go. Obviously they knew enough about the town, and the seven, to know that only JD had been left to protect the town. If they knew that, then chances were they knew that there was only one healthy peacekeeper in town now and that Buck spent most of his time in the clinic. Of course, whoever was behind this couldn't chance the others returning and that meant that they would strike soon - very soon.

Footsteps sounded outside the clinic and JD waited anxiously for the door to open. "Buck! Ezra!" he greeted enthusiastically, relieved that they'd finally come back. He was anxious to share what he had figured out. "The gang's coming and soon. It's gotta be tonight or tomorrow," Dunne blurted out.

"We know," Ezra informed, sinking down onto the other bed. "We were discussing the situation over dinner and arrived at the same conclusion you obviously have. It would be most beneficial for our adversary to strike soon while we are known to be shorthanded and wounded."

Buck settled down on JD's bed, quickly, but thoroughly, scanning the young man. Satisfied that his friend was fine, Wilmington added, "Hate to do it, especially since the doc wants you to rest a while longer, but we're going to have to put you to work as well."

Thrilled to find out his friends were including him, JD was careful to hide that excitement and replied, "I'm ready."

The two older men smiled at the youthful enthusiasm. Though he hid it much better than he used to, the pride and excitement the young man felt at being included shone brightly in his eyes. "That's good," Buck said.

Before he could continue, the sound of a wagon drew the attention of the three men. Moving cautiously to the door, Buck drew his gun and stepped out of the clinic. "Nate!," he shouted, recognizing the driver.

Hearing the greeting, Ezra stood rapidly and saw JD struggle to sit up. "I recommend you stay where you are if you wish to avoid the wrath of our healer as well as your other friends," Standish advised.

With a huff of frustration, JD fell back against his pillows, wincing slightly at the brief pain the action triggered. Still, he couldn't wait to see his friends. As he heard Buck head down the stairs and watched Ezra standing at the door, he began to wonder if he would still be able to help. With the others back, there might not be a need. His face growing more serious, he decided to fight for his right to help. After all, he had been there at the start of this so he had every right to be there at the end.

"Dear, Lord," Ezra cursed softly at the doorway, his eyes growing wide.

"What?" JD asked, pushing himself more upright in bed.

Turning stiffly and heading into the room, Standish quickly pulled the covers down on the second bed in the room and then moved off to grab a stack of pillows and quilts with which he began making a pallet.

"What is i?" Dunne demanded, fear suddenly seizing him as he watched Ezra move around the room. The truth was, he knew what was wrong and was praying he was mistaken. Two beds meant two injured men. Which two of his friends had been hurt?

Straightening slowly, and with a hiss of pain, Ezra's eyes turned toward the door as the heavy footsteps sounded outside the door. A moment later, Buck and Nathan walked in, carrying a very pale Josiah.

Nathan's eyes quickly scanned the room and evaluated their options. "Put him on the pallet," he ordered, his eyes flicking back to JD several times as they settled the older man.

For his part, Josiah allowed the others to move him, keeping his eyes tightly shut and his teeth clenched against the pain radiating out from his leg, ankle and arm. In the part of his brain no occupied with controlling pain at the moment, he silently began prayers of thanks that the journey in the wagon was over.

"C'n walk," came a raspy protest from outside the door. The two words were tight and filled with pain, there was an underlying frailness to them that belied the speaker's protest.

"Then humor me," Chris growled back a moment before appearing in the doorway carrying his younger friend. "Where do you want him?" he demanded of Nathan.

"Bed," the healer commanded, checking the last of Josiah's bandages and letting out a sigh of relief when he found no sign of infection and no broken stitches. He nodded thanks as Ezra appeared next to him holding a bottle of laudanum and a spoon.

Moving over to the turned-down bed, Larabee gently deposited the ailing man on the sheets before bending down to remove Vin's boots.

"Might as well get his pants too," Nathan advised. "I'm going to have to check his leg."

"No," Vin protested, reaching for the top of his pants.

Seeing the blue eyes dart about the room and take in everyone, Chris decided he could at least allow his friend this victory. "Can't you check the leg like you were doing on the trail?" the gunslinger asked, turning toward Jackson.

His head twisting to meet the green eyes, Nathan noted the gentle tilt of the blond head toward the others in the room. Shaking his head slightly, he replied, "Fine. But at least get those bandages off. I'll need to put on new ones."

With a nod of acknowledgment, Chris turned back to Vin and easily read the relief in the man's eyes. Pulling out his knife, he quickly set to work removing the bandages.

"Shirt?" Vin asked, pleading in his eyes as Chris moved up to untie the sling they'd been using to immobilize the injured arm and shoulder.

"Don't press your luck," the blond ordered.

"What happened?" JD demanded, exasperated at the fact no one was saying anything.

"They were attacked in Roweville," Nathan supplied as he moved toward Vin to check his wounds.

Three heads swiveled to look at the former preacher. Feeling their eyes upon him, Josiah looked up at the three men who were now staring at him. Though it was good to see Buck, Ezra and JD, Sanchez noticed the pain on JD's face and the exhaustion on Ezra's. "It seems ... you have your ... own story to tell," he observed closing his eyes and trying to find a comfortable position as he waited for the laudanum Nathan had fed him to take effect.

"A simple miscalculation on my part," Standish stated, his hand absently reaching up to his head where he still sported a bruise.

Josiah's eyes cracked open and sent a narrowed gaze toward the gambler. Seeing Ezra fidget slightly and a faint blush appear on his face, a small smile appeared on Sanchez' face. That wasn't the whole story, but he would get the rest some other time. Allowing his eyes to droop closed as the laudanum started to take the pain far away, he told what he could of their adventure. "Got there near nightfall," he began. "Were told to get the... prisoner at dawn. Got th' horses. Headed to jail... ambush..." he informed as his voice trailed off. He wasn't asleep yet, but he just didn't have the energy to talk and the freedom from the intense pain of the trip provided a pleasant ocean upon which he floated.

"Got out... quick," Vin supplied, twisting slightly as he sought a comfortable position.

"Don't twist too much," Nathan advised. "I still have to check that hole in your back."

"Vin was shot in the back!" JD exclaimed, incredulous. "You don't shoot nobody in the back."

A wry smile appeared on the tracker's face as Chris sat down and gently lifted Vin, until the younger man's head was resting on his shoulder. "Only... th' good guys... have rules," Tanner advised, inhaling sharply as Nathan probed the wound.

"Sorry, Vin," the healer apologized, shifting slightly to get a better look at the wound. "After they got shot up, they rode out of town with a gang chasing them. Holed up in a cave and that's where we found them," Jackson informed, satisfied that his friend's wounds was still healing fine.

"We were less than one hundred yards from each other the night before we found them," Chris growled out, self-condemnation evident in his voice.

"Couldn't know..." Vin protested as Chris eased him back against the pillows with Nathan's help.

"He's right," Josiah confirmed, roused from his lethargy by the bitterness in Larabee's voice. "We were... well hidden," he advised, before sinking back into his quiet world.

Re-capping the laudanum, Nathan stood and went to put it away. "After we found them, it took some time for us to tend them and for them to be ready to travel."

"Where did you get the wagon?" Buck asked.

"Mrs. Potter's sister lives out at Connor's Bluff. They'll take it back with them when they come visiting," Chris explained. Glancing at the other men, his face grew more serious. "What happened to Ezra and JD and what's going here?" he demanded of Buck.

Seeing that his oldest friend wasn't in the mood to chat, Buck quickly summarized everything. "Ezra's horse has an issue with a rattlesnake and JD had an issue with a bullet, and we think we know what this is about."

"Spill it," Larabee demanded.

"Let JD," Buck said. "He's the one that figured most of it out."

Five pair of eyes turned to look at the young man. Josiah tilted his head slightly in Dunne's direction.

A little flustered to find himself the center of attention, JD took a moment to collect his thoughts. Finally satisfied he knew what he was going to say, he began, "Shortly after you left, I was going over what we knew of the gang in the area and realized that there was no way it could only be one gang of six. Not just because the towns were on either side of us, but also because of the way the jobs were done. So, knowing that we were right in line for the next robbery, I went ahead and took some precautions. I removed the jewels and the papers Judge Travis had put in the bank and hid them. I was then going to just let the robbers take the money and then track them."

Worried about how that might have sounded, the young man began justifying his actions. "I don't mean that I'd let them get away or anything, but I didn't think there'd be a whole lot I could do against six men on my own..."

"You did the right thing," Chris assured.

Brightening and feeling his doubt retreat at the praise, JD nodded and continued. "Everything was fine until Conklin and his cronies began firing. Only one of them got hurt though, Buck and Ezra arrived and took care of the rest."

"Is that how you got hit?" Nathan asked, eyeing the bandage and wanting to look at the wound himself.

"Mr. Dunne was wounded protecting Mr. Conklin from a bullet," Ezra interrupted.

"Saved the man's life," Buck confirmed.

JD was blushing bright red at the words of his friends. "Nothing any of you wouldn't do," he deflected.

"Saving a man's life is no small thing," Nathan said seriously, his eyes drifting toward Chris and Vin.

"You should be proud of it," Larabee assured.

The young Easterner allowed the pleasure and warmth of his friends' words to flow into him, hiding them deep within for those dark times he knew would come someday. "Anyway, there's still that other gang out there. And then the judge wired about the papers."

"Seems they're mighty important," Buck picked up, seeing JD was tiring. "I took a look after the Judge wired us about them." Seeing his friends' eyes on him, he continued, "Land rights, mineral rights, mining rights to land on, and around, the reservation." Soft curses escaped from several of the men before silence reigned as each man became lost in their own thoughts.

"All our troubles," Josiah said softly, never opening his eyes. "One source," he said, struggling against the powerful drug in his system to say what his mind had finally worked out.

"You mean you and Vin being attacked in Roweville, the two gangs and the ambush for Chris and Nate are all part of a plan?" JD asked. He thought he had hit a big idea with the two gangs, but all of their misfortunes being tied together was almost too much to fathom.

"For that kind of power and money..." Buck began before shaking his head and letting the words trail off.

"It is no wonder then that the Judge is so anxious to arrive in our fair village," Ezra observed quietly. "He is, apparently, correct to be worried."

"Man has that big a carrot dangling in front of him, he's not likely to stop with just one try at it no matter how good the plan was," Chris said, his voice cold and thoughtful.

"We were thinking they might try again before you got back," Buck informed. "Thought you wouldn't be back until tomorrow or later."

"Good thing we got back when we did," Nathan observed, sitting on the edge of Vin's bed. He glanced back to make sure Vin was doing alright and saw the Texan's eyes were closed.

"What have you got so far for a plan?" Chris asked, cutting right to the heart of the matter.

24.

JD fidgeted in his spot behind the crates stacked outside the general store. It had been a battle to get the others to agree to, but he had finally convinced them to allow him to help with the upcoming battle. He could only use one gun and couldn't move much, but he was well protected and confident he would succeed in helping the others.

Shifting slightly in the pre-dawn light, he thought back to their discussion the night before. The biggest problem they faced wasn't JD's lack of mobility or the fact that Vin and Josiah were in no shape to help them; the biggest problem they faced was a lack of knowledge. They didn't know how many men they would be facing, what plan of attack they would be using or when they would be coming.

After much discussion, they decided the two most likely times for an attack were dawn and dusk. So, a few hours ago, Buck and Chris had helped JD to his position, making sure he was warm and comfortable with a blanket and some water. Since this was the first time he'd really been up, JD knew he would tire quickly, but he was surprised by the languor that crept upon him periodically.

Reaching for the mug of coffee that Mrs. Potter had provided, a low hiss of pain sounded from the young peacekeeper. Closing his eyes, he tried to breathe evenly as he waited for the pain to pass.

"That's why you need the sling, kid," Buck said softly from behind him.

With a gasp of surprise, JD spun around and winced again as his wound pulled. "Not funny sneaking up on me like that," he spat at his friend.

Wilmington saw the real pain flash across his friend's face and felt all the anxiety he'd been fighting off, return. The pain of loss was still too fresh, the memories of losing Davey and Keith were too close to the surface. "Look, JD..." Buck began.

Seeing the ghosts of pain dancing in the back of his friend's blue eyes, JD silently cursed himself for bringing back memories that the man would be better off without right now. "I know, I know. Keep my head down and my arm in a sling before I find - how did Ezra say it? 'My posterior in a similar circumstance to my arm'," he finished in an utterly awful imitation of Standish's southern accent.

A low chuckle escaped Buck at the attempt to imitate their friend. "Just don't let Nate find you without that sling," he advised. "I'm going back to the roof. Nate went to check on Josiah and Vin and take care of a few things."

"Alright," Dunne agreed, slipping his arm into the sling he had left tied around his neck, pleased to see the painful memories had retreated from his friend's blue eyes. Watching Buck leave, he couldn't help but wish it was Vin up on the roof watching over them, covering their backs. Still, there was no way the Texan would be able to fire a rifle or even hold one. It had been lucky that Josiah and Vin were sleeping when they laid out their strategy or both men would have demanded to be part of the activities.

Since they didn't know what exactly they would be facing, they planned as if facing a small army, much as they had at the Seminole village. Buck and Nathan would have the high ground; Buck on top of the general store, Nathan across the street. JD and Ezra, both still recovering to one degree or another, were sheltered behind crates and barrels. Though not mobile, they could easily face either direction on the street and had a good view of the alleys and the bank. That left Chris to roam the streets and be wherever needed.

It wasn't the best plan they'd ever had, but it was the best they could do with only five of them ready to fight and two of that number not up to par. Whatever else happened, JD knew they would put up one hell of a fight to keep the town safe and Travis' papers from falling into the wrong hands.

<><><><><><><>

Donovan looked at the sleeping town. The sun was just barely over the horizon and there was no sign of anyone stirring. It should be a piece of cake, but then, if there was one thing Donovan Carter knew, it was that looks could be deceiving. If life hadn't already taught him that, his current boss would have. The man looked refined and elegant. but a shiver ran down Carter's spine as he thought of the cold ruthlessness of the man. He knew if he failed this time, there would be no mercy, no more chances for him to set it right.

The two peacekeepers never should have made it out of Roweville alive. It had been men specifically chosen by Carter that had been waiting there and yet failed to kill them. It had been men handpicked by him that had populated the two gangs, one of which was now gone. This new group of men were not up to the standards he normally required, but time was tight. Chances were, the missing peacekeepers would most likely return today. With the success of the young sheriff against the other crew, the townsfolk would most likely be emboldened by that achievement and ready to take foolish risks.

All of this meant they had to move now, despite the odd misgivings Donovan was having.

Turning to face his men, he nodded and watched as they moved off to their various positions, surrounding the town. He would give them fifteen minutes to get into position and then he would begin the attack.

<><><><><><><>

Nate watched the two men in his clinic and listened to the even breathing, relieved they were still sleeping. A part of him desperately wished Vin and Josiah were joining them in for the coming battle, but he knew there was no way that could happen and no way he would want that to happen right now. Between the blood loss and wounds they had suffered, they wouldn't be ready for action for at least a month.

Running a hand over his face, he wondered if he shouldn't have Dr. Bigsby look Tanner and Sanchez over. It wasn't that he doubted his own skill, but it certainly couldn't hurt to have a real doctor make sure he hadn't missed anything. After all, the man had done a wonderful job on JD's injury.

Moving over to Josiah, who had taken over JD's bed when the young man had left, he straightened the covers and rested a hand briefly on his friend's forehead. A small smile appeared at the absence of a fever. That was one small blessing. Turning toward the other bed, he checked Tanner as well, releasing a small sigh of relief at the cool forehead, at least.

Bending down, he adjusted the cloth over the chamber pot before picking it up and headed outside. He knew he should be in his position on the roof, but his need to tend his friends was too great. Having come down from the position, he knew he would be able to return in very little time.

As he stepped out the door, the first gunshot sounded. Cursing, he set the chamber pot down and sprinted for his position, somehow knowing the coming battle would be long and ugly.

<><><><><><><>

Vin jerked awake, his eyes flying open. Remaining still, he glanced around him and soon figured out he was in Nathan's clinic, unsure what had awakened him. He didn't have to wait long before another gunshot sounded. That was followed by a barrage of shots. Whatever was going on outside, it was happening fast and furious.

"The gang."

Turning his head toward the voice, Tanner found himself meeting Josiah's blue eyes. "Gang?" he asked, his thought process still lagging from the drug in his system.

"From last night," Josiah informed, struggling to push himself up into a seated position. "They were going to attack. " Succeeding in forcing himself upright, he waited until he caught his breath and then continued, "Sounds like they have."

Feeling a deep seated need to watch his friends' backs, the longhaired Texan turned slightly onto his side and tried to find his own way up. "Sounds... like they... need us..." he gritted out against the pain as he collapsed back against his pillows.

The determination Sanchez saw burning in the other man's eyes, he knew mirrored his own, but there was no way he would allow Vin to hurt himself further in order to help the others. "You can't hold a gun," he advised. "I can't really walk that well."

Controlling his pain as best he could, Tanner lifted his head in determination. "Then I reckon ...we best ... do this together."

25.

A curse slid past Ezra's lips as a bullet embedded into one of the crates protecting him. He knew the barrier would stand up to an onslaught, but the thought of not being able to help his friends didn't sit well with him.

He had been in position long enough for his muscles to protest any movements and his abused body to let him know it didn't appreciate the enforced immobility, but right now none of that mattered. He needed to get rid of the miscreant currently pinning him down. Where the man had come from, Ezra wasn't entirely certain, but if he had any say in it, he knew exactly where the man would be going.

Gritting his teeth as another bullet sprayed splinters at him, Standish closed his eyes and focused on what he knew. He had been looking across the street when he spotted the first of the would-be robbers coming down the alleyway near JD. Taking aim, he had waited for the other man to make a move before firing. When the other man pulled a gun and aimed it directly at JD's unsuspecting back, Ezra knew he had no choice and fired, dropping the man to the ground.

It was shortly after the shot that the first bullet hit the crate next to him. Thinking about the impact of the bullets and the direction the splinters flew, he was able to figure out just about where the man would be. Gritting his teeth against the soreness and stiffness of his protesting body, Ezra lay on his stomach and carefully made a small opening in his wall of crates that would allow him to see.

He could just barely see the top of a hat appearing over the water trough. A small smile of satisfaction curved his lips. He had been correct in his surmise of his enemy's location. Taking careful aim, he waited until the man revealed more of himself.

As the sound of gunfire continued around him, Standish waited patiently. He was eventually rewarded when his opponent rose slightly to fire off another shot in Ezra's direction. Without hesitation, the gambler squeezed the trigger of his gun and watched as his target jerked backward from the impact of the bullet.

With that threat eliminated, he turned his attention toward helping his friends.

<><><><><><><>

Buck took shelter behind the sign of the General Store and wondered how Vin did this on a regular basis. It wasn't the height, but looking down upon the situation at hand. When you're in the thick of things, you don't have the time to worry about the others. Watching from above, you could see your friends in trouble, but until the others showed themselves you couldn't protect them. It was the waiting that was killing him.

"Come on," Buck whispered. "Show yourselves."

"As you wish," a voice said from behind him. "Drop your rifle."

Cursing himself for being too focused on everyone else that he didn't watch his own back, the rogue slowly placed his rifle on the ground.

"Hands in the air," the man ordered. "Then turn around."

Lifting his hands into the air, Buck slowly turned. A small curse escaped him as he saw his captor. The man looked somewhat familiar and it took the rogue only a few moments to realize that he'd seen that same face looking at him from a wanted poster. "You planning on shooting me?" he asked.

"All depends on you," the gunman replied, a smile appearing on his face.

Buck could feel the man's overconfidence and knew it could work to his advantage; after all, disarmed didn't mean not dangerous. Keeping his eyes locked on the man, he waited for an opening.

"Move over there," the other man commanded, waving his gun toward the other side of the roof.

With a nod, Wilmington started moving, his eyes never leaving his captor. His diligence paid off when a bullet landed by the other man's feet causing him to turn.

Taking advantage of the man's momentary distraction, Buck dove at him, hitting him squarely in the chest and driving him to the ground. He heard several ribs crack and knew they weren't his. Recovering quickly from the fall, he rolled off the man, taking the time to make sure his knee landed solidly on the man's stomach. Stripping the man's belt off of him, the former lawman quickly tied the gunman's hands behind him. Satisfied his prisoner was secure, Buck picked up his rifle and moved back into position.

Glancing over the edge of the roof, he saw someone trying to sneak up behind Chris' position. Taking careful aim, Buck squeezed the trigger and watched the Larabee's would-be assassin drop to the ground and remained there, unmoving.

Turning his attention back toward the rest of town, a curse erupted from him as he spotted to more horsemen entering town. It was going to be a long, hard fight.

<><><><><><><>

Nathan saw the man coming down the alley and knew JD wouldn't see him. Even if the young man did have the mobility needed to cover all angles, he couldn't see around corners. Taking careful aim, Jackson was just about to drop the man when a chunk of wood flew up beside him.

Ducking down, he bit back a curse as he waited to see if another shot would come his way. He didn't have to wait long before another bullet imbedded itself in the wood beside him. That was followed by another bullet and another.

Cursing, Nathan knew he had two choices, he could try backing up off the roof, or he could risk getting shot and fight back. Closing his eyes to gather himself, Jackson thought back over his life, over all the times he had been in tough situations and all the times he had been unable to fight back.

His decision was made. Waiting for the next volley of bullets to land near him, he took a deep breath and rose just high enough to see over the low protective wall. He knew he didn't have much time, so he just scanned for the first available target and shot, ducking back as a bullet whizzed past his ear. He waited as two more thumped into the building below and then rose again to take another shot. This time he was rewarded with a cry of pain as his target fell.

A bullet nicked the wood by his face and he felt a splinter scrape along his cheek as he fell to his stomach behind the low wall that was offering his protection. Cursing, Nathan couldn't help wishing one of his friends would find whoever had a bead on this location and finish him off.

More sounds of gunfire sounded around him. It was several minutes before he realized that there were no more bullet strikes near him. Closing his eyes and saying a short prayer of thanks, Nathan lifted himself slightly and scanned the scene below. Seeing that they were still outnumbered, he took a deep breath and started firing.

<><><><><><><>

JD leaned back and began reloading his gun. Things were far hotter than he thought they would be. There had to be a lot more than just the six men in the other gang. The good news was that they had already taken down a number of the men. The bad news was that the ones who were left were smarter. Of course, the fact that no one seemed to be making a move on the bank only puzzled the young easterner even more.

Glancing through one of the openings he had made in his shelter, JD had a good view of Chris at the moment. The blond gunslinger was firing at every potential target. It was amazing to just sit and watch his friends in action. Still, the fire of battle was burning in his own veins. Picking up new bullets, he loaded his gun and was just preparing to fire when he caught a motion out of the corner of his eye.

Turning quickly in that direction, he hissed as his wound pulled and then took aim. The man hiding near Ezra, and aiming upward at Buck fell to the ground, immobilized.

<><><><><><><>

Chris fired again, cursing silently at the lack of targets. It wasn't that there were only a few men, it was that the ones that were firing were staying hidden. The fact that none of them had yet to make their way toward the bank only disturbed him more.

They had to be going for the bank, there was no way they could know the papers had been moved and this gang was just too large for them to be going after anything else. As another of the attackers dropped to one of his bullets, Chris couldn't help but wish that Vin and Josiah were there with them. Still, it was impossible, neither of them was in any shape to lend a hand.

Seeing a flash of green at the corner of a building, Chris took aim and waiting, knowing he wouldn't have long before the man showed himself again. He was right. In less than a minute, the man showed himself again, preparing to take a shot. Larabee was faster, however, and the gang member dropped to the ground.

It was then that he spotted the four forms headed toward the bank. They were moving stealthily and staying to the shadows, but Chris had the right angle for catching them. Studying the men, he saw the last one in line scanning the town. Larabee was familiar with that sort of look, it was the same one he used when checking to see that his plan was working right. It was then that the gunslinger knew the final man must be the leader and if he was the leader, he was the one they needed.

Rising to move around his protection, Chris ducked back as a bullet whistled past his ear. Instinctively he turned and fired. His action was rewarded with a body falling into the street. With that threat eliminated, he turned his attention once more to the quartet headed into the bank.

<><><><><><><>

Buck scanned the town and saw a number of bodies lying about the street. The gunfire had died down and the few remaining outlaws were only taking pot shots.

Glancing down the road, he saw Chris rounding the corner to the bank. Though he had no proof, he had little doubt Larabee would be needing some help, Wilmington whistled sharply, drawing Nathan's attention to him. With hand signals, he indicated he was headed down. At the healer's nod, the ladies' man headed toward the back of the building where he had left a ladder.

In very little time, he was down the ladder and on his way toward the bank. As he approached his target location, Buck spotted his long-time friend and whistled to catch his attention. Seeing Chris turn toward him, Wilmington lifted his rifle to show he was armed and ready.

He watched closely as Larabee used familiar hand signals to inform him of the situation. There were four men in the bank and it was just a matter of time before they came out. Chris was on one side of the building and Buck on the other. They shouldn't have any trouble taking the men down.

Little did he know how wrong he was.

When the bank door opened, the shooting down the street intensified, occupying Ezra, JD and Nathan, keeping them from lending any aid.

The four men did not come directly out of the bank once the door was open, almost as if they expected Chris and Buck to be there. Whoever this gang was, they were good and well prepared. A hand appeared out the door and sent bullets flying first in one direction and then the other, pinning Buck and Chris around the corner.

Knowing his height would make him an easy target, Buck dropped to one knee and peered around the corner of the building. He saw one of the men emerge from the building. Taking aim at the figure, he fired. The man dropped to the ground. Unfortunately, the next two men laid down a heavy cover fire that prevented Buck from acting. He could only hope Chris was faring better.

<><><><><><><>

Chris cursed as more bullets tore into the side of the building. He needed to get that forth man, but the two men who came out after the one Buck dropped were making it too difficult for him to get a shot. Of course, he was also aware that by now the gang knew the papers were no longer in the safe. that could mean more trouble for them if they didn't do something now.

Taking a deep breath, Chris readied his gun, crouched down and then dove around the corner. By some miracle, Buck had the same thought and appeared around the other side of the building.

The two who had been laying down cover fire fell to the ground and remained unmoving. Unfortunately, there was no sign of the fourth man.

Cursing, Larabee called out to his friend. "We have to find the fourth man." Seeing Wilmington nod his understanding and head off down one side of the street, Chris headed off the other side of the street, looking for his target.

<><><><><><><>

It had taken them a while, but Vin and Josiah were outside the clinic. Unfortunately, their view didn't allow them to see the action, not that it mattered since they had no gun.

Neither man had been able to sit still as the sound of gunfire filled the air. They had each been in enough fights to know the dangers and that the longer things went on, the more likely it was superior numbers would overcome superior skill. What was the most difficult thing to live with, however, was the fact that they could do nothing to help their friends.

Two pairs of concerned blue eyes met. There was no way they could physically join in, but the slowing of gunfire could be good news or it could mean that their friends were in trouble.

"I'm sure they're fine," Josiah assured, though whether he was trying to assure himself or Vin, he would never be able to say.

Vin's eyes drifted toward the end of the alley. "Yeah," he agreed. An odd movement caught his attention. Narrowing his eyes, Tanner informed, "We got company comin'."

"And not a weapon in..." Josiah began before his eyes caught sight of the chamber pot. "... sight," he finished, a thoughtful grin appearing on his face. Turning to face his younger friend, he asked, "How's your aim?"

His eyebrows drawing down in question, Vin turned to face Josiah who indicated the chamber pot. It took only a second for the tracker to pick up the ex-preacher's thought. His nose wrinkling at the thought of what they were about to do, but they had no choice. Turning to face his friend, Tanner said, "We're going to need to do it together."

Josiah just rewarded him with a huge grin.

<><><><><><><>

Donovan slid through the shadows, his anger growing. All the trouble, all the planning, and the papers weren't even in town. The boss would not be happy, but that was hardly his fault. Hopefully the boss would see the truth of the situation.

Seeing the other end of the alley, Carter hastened his step. He had only a moment to react to the vile concoction that fell on him before something heavy struck him on the head, knocking him unconscious.

Continued in parts 26 to 30


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