DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction. No profit involved. This story is based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended.
RATING: PG13 - for some ill spoken words and some general roughing-up
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: A huge thank you to KellyA and BJ (Trekkieb) for their beta skills and comments. Kristen provided the name of Chaucer for Ezra's horse. I borrowed the names of some of the other horses from Eleanor Tremayne Esquire. 
SUMMARY: A sequel Snake in the Grass. Does Chris ever get around to having 'that little talk' with our man Standish? KellyA also wrote a very fine alternate sequel called - If Only. I suggest you read that one too. 
FEEDBACK: Yes please! comments and suggestions are greatly appreciated. 
SPOILERS: Only to my own story... Snake in the Grass ... read it first.
DATE: Finished 12/12/01. 

Snake on the Loose  
By NotTasha... still a little on the snakey side

Part 1:

Chris Larabee leaned against the roof support and watched the crowds shuffle by. The last few days had been tiring... beyond tiring -- ache-to-the-bone tiring -- fall-over-half-dead tiring -- sit-down-and-don't-get-up-again tiring -- like-to-eat-but-just-can't-get-the-fork-to-your-mouth tiring. There was probably a better word for it, but Larabee didn't know it.

People were flooding into Four Corners from all around the territory. For the lawmen, it meant long hours patrolling the streets, settling petty arguments, trying to control the crowds, breaking up fights. On top of that, someone had to be at the jail at all times, not only to watch the prisoner but also to protect the bastard. Popular sentiment was that Edgar Wahl should die -- if not by the noose, then another means would be all-too-happily provided. And to complete the package, the town was down by two lawmen. The fact that two of Chris' friends had nearly died was damn well reason enough to feel like hell.

Chris turned to the gallows that had been hastily erected beside the jail. In a little less than a day, the structure would be put to use -- Edgar Wahl would be executed. He was the cause of all of this. The crowd had started building for the trial and had only grown since the speedy verdict of guilty was handed down. The man would hang tomorrow. But this worn-down feeling had started before that, and all of it due to Wahl.

The McCannons -- it had started with the McCannons. The family had met their end at the hands of that man. Two weeks ago the odious creature had arrived on their property and gunned them down. A man and his wife, a boy and two girls all ended their existence on that lonely farm. And then Ezra and Vin had nearly died getting that prick from Eagle Bend to Four Corners for his trial.

Chris looked up the clinic where both lawmen were still Nathan's captives. His gut clenched at the memory... Vin shot... Ezra bit by a rattlesnake. How had Ezra survived it? A number of answers tumbled through Chris' head. Too damn stubborn to die...hated losing...couldn't let me get in the last word -- professional courtesy -- snakes don't kill other snakes.

"You're not a snake, Ezra," Chris muttered to himself. He just wished he'd had a chance to tell the man himself.

For the past two days now, Chris had tried to talk to Ezra about what had happened, but between his duties in town and the fact that Standish was asleep most of the time, Larabee hadn't found the time to speak to the convalescing cardsharp. And what with Vin in the room --- as well as the hovering Nathan and Josiah -- there was no hope of any private conversation.

"Hey, pard," Buck said as he strode up to the black-clad gunslinger.

"Buck," Larabee greeted.

"I was just gonna head on over to the jail and relieve Josiah," Buck stated. "Lord, I hope this is over soon. Don't know how much longer I'll be able to stand that Wahl. I'm just glad we got the trial over so soon. Don't think I can put up with this mob much longer." He gestured out across the crowded street. "Can't hardly spit without causin' a fight."

"The hangin's tomorrow," Chris said. "We'll can get rid of that pile of shit."

"Won't be soon enough for me. That Wahl is some piece of work. Won't ever shut 'is yap."

"Stretchin' his neck should take care of that."

"I sure as hell hope so," Buck said. "But I wouldn't lay money on it." He then touched the brim of his hat and continued on his way.

Chris noticed Nathan heading along the boardwalk with a tray, stepping carefully to avoid the throngs that blocked his path. Chris headed across the street to intercept him. "Nathan," Chris greeted as the healer reached the stairs. "How're your patients doin' today?"

Nathan shook his head. "Ornery as hell!" he grumbled. "Neither of 'em will do a thing I ask 'em. Vin's not sittin' still and Ezra's not eatin'. I don't know what I'm gonna do with 'em."

"I'll give ya a hand. Maybe they'll listen to me."

"Be my guest," Nathan said without conviction as they ascended the stairs.

Chris opened the door once they reached the upper story and Nathan headed in with the lunch tray. The healer came to an abrupt stop halfway through the doorway and demanded, "Where the hell is he?"

Vin, sitting propped up in bed, asked innocently, "Who?"

Nathan strode into the room and noisily set down the tray. "Vin, I don't have time for this. I gotta get back to patrolling. Where did that stubborn southern pain-in-the-neck get off to?"

Vin smiled at the healer and said, "Well, ya didn't say anythin' about him havin' ta stay still."

Nathan flung up his hands and faced Chris. "Ya see what I have to put up with? All the time!"

"Vin," Chris sighed. "Where'd he go?"

"He said he was tired of bein' cooped up in here and he figgered that Nate would be by with more o' that ...ah...what'd he call it... 'wretched concoction', so he cleared on out."

"Dang it, Vin!" Nathan grumbled. “It’s just soup!”

"Said it reminded 'im of the time Buck was tryin' to wash his socks. Just stuck 'em in a pot o'water and left it on the fire 'til it boiled. Stank up the whole camp. 'Member?"

"Vin," Nathan said resignedly as he gazed at the bowl on the tray -- which suddenly had become rather unappetizing -- perhaps even revolting. 

"Didn't cotton it."

"He shouldn't be movin' around. Besides, I thought his leg hurt too much to put any weight on it."

"He found that walkin' stick ya had hid back behind yer desk," Vin said with a shrug that brought a wince.

Nathan frowned. "How’d he know it was there?"

Vin laughed. "Well, 'member when you mentioned it to 'im -- tryin' to bribe 'im into behaving 'imself? Ya said you'd let 'im have it if he jus' minded ya fer a change. When ya mentioned it, ya looked right where it was hid." Vin grinned in satisfaction.

Jackson sighed. That's what he got for treating a con man and a tracker. The two could read him like a book. "If he wants that leg to heal up properly, he should stay off it. It's still swollen." Nathan rubbed his forehead and added. "He's just not up to it yet. He ain't got no energy a'tall." 

"I'll find 'im," Chris assured. "You have any idea of where he went, Vin?"

Vin shook his head. "Nah, he's been pretty tight-lipped the whole time we've been here. Hardly said a word to me...outside of his opinion on that soup." He craned his neck to see the tray. "Didja bring me a sandwich or somethin'?"

Chris left the clinic and headed to the saloon -- the most obvious place. The business was crowded, and it took a moment for Chris to scan the room. He didn't catch sight of the gambler. Chris found Inez and she stated that she hadn't seen Ezra, but the saloon had been so busy, it would have been easy to miss him -- especially if he were trying to sneak past.

The gunslinger broke into Ezra's room next, but it was pristine and empty. Chris walked slowly around the room, noting that Ezra's weapons weren't where Larabee had returned them after the incident at Falling Cross.

He must have been here at some time, Chris thought. He knew that the cardsharp felt half-naked without his guns. Ezra always expected the worst and figured that he could only rely on himself to get out of trouble.   Well, Larabee understood that feeling.

Chris had just walked out on the boardwalk, wondering where to check next, when a young man in a black suit stepped up to him.

"Mr. Larabee," Ben Mack, the town's cabinetmaker / undertaker said. He was still rather new to the area, but was well acquainted with what happened to those that crossed the lawmen of Four Corners. Few people were bold enough to question Chris Larabee, and it was, perhaps, Mack's close association with death that made him do so; he wasn't afraid of it. "It's not my business, but I was wondering why you had Mr. Standish on patrol. He really didn't look very well and I think you should be goin' a bit easier on him because..." 

Chris put up his hand to silence the earnest man. "Patrol?"

"I saw him headin' out of the livery and I asked him what he was doing. I told him that he looked like he should be in bed, but he said that he had to check the road to Eagle Bend because..."

"Eagle Bend?" Chris cut in.

"Yes, he did," Ben said, nodding down the road in the direction that Standish had taken. "He was in a bit of a hurry."

"Wantin' to get away before I saw him," Larabee said under his breath, and then spoke loud enough for the undertaker to hear. "Thank you, Ben. I'll go find out what he's doin'. Could ya poke your head in the jail and let Buck know where I've gone off to?"

Ben nodded his acknowledgement, but Larabee was already striding his way toward the livery.

Part 2:

Craig Lewis and Gilbert Haversham rode into town at an easy pace, leading a third horse behind them. The streets were crowded, and it was difficult to move with any speed. Lewis cursed as a pair of kids tore across their path and Gil gestured rudely at them. The children made it to the other side of the street and looked back at the two men with frightened expressions before they ran around the side of the mercantile.

Lewis, with sandy hair and a pinched face, grumbled as they slowly made their way across town. Gil, a large man with a walrus mustache, muttered, "This had better be appreciated."

"Yeah," Lewis returned. "It will be. Don't worry... it will be."

"What the hell's goin' on here?" Gil swatted at a sorrel horse that had come too close to his own big roan. The sorrel tried to rear away and its rider was almost thrown. "Can't hardly move."

"'Spect they're here for the hangin'," Lewis said offhand. "Must be quite a draw, huh?" His pretty little bay mare danced backward for a moment. "S'alright, Princess," Lewis encouraged her forward.

"Dang near looks like a festival," Gil grumbled.

The two men paused and watched as a man in black rode past them at a good pace, easily parting the crowd, like Moses and the Red Sea. The crowd gazed after him for a few seconds and then closed the gap. Gil and Lewis continued on their way.

"There it is," Gil said, pointing to the jail.

"Yup," Lewis returned.

A young man, slim and dourly dressed, was standing in the doorway of the jail, talking to someone within. A mustached cowboy came to the door and the two discussed something for a moment before the first one left.

The tall cowboy looked frustrated and shouted after the man, "Dang it, Ben! Did he tell ya how me and the rest of the boys are s'pose to watch things with only four of us now?"

The first man didn't answer and soon disappeared into the undertaker's shop. The cowboy grumbled and returned to the jail.

Lewis looked at Gil and grinned. This was going to be easy.

Part 3:

There was no hope of tracking Ezra on the well-traveled path, but there were plenty of folks to ask along the way. People were flooding into town as if they expected a carnival instead of an execution. Larabee came across a group of cowpokes that remembered seeing Ezra on the trail. The men started asking Chris questions about that execution...whether or not they'd be able to get a good view of it. Chris just shook his head and headed on his way.

"What the hell is he up to?" Chris muttered as he rode toward Eagle Bend by way of Falling Cross. Why the hell is he heading back there? What could he possibly want? Is he looking for the damn snake that bit him? Is he just trying to get away....away from me?

He mulled over what had happened over the past weeks, Ezra's silence and his own malevolent behavior. He couldn't blame the gambler for wanting to put some space between them for a while. He just wanted to catch up with him and try to put things right.

Larabee watched as a wagon came toward him. Six youths were sitting in the vehicle, all of them laughing and having one hell of a time. They became quiet as the saw the ominous looking gunman nearing them.

"Boys," Chris started.

"Hey, Mister," the driver said, looking suspiciously at him. "We done nothin' wrong."

"Pa said we could take the wagon," said another. "Long as we don't run the horses too hard and bring some sugar, coffee and gingham back for my Ma."

"Yeah, me and my cousins is jus' comin' to see the hangin'," a third uttered. "Come to see that murderin' man die."

"We ain't doin' no harm," said a fourth.

"Boys, I don't care what the hell you're up to," Larabee said with a sigh. "I just need to know if you've seen a man goin' the other way on this trail."

The boys looked thoughtful so Larabee continued. "He'd be dressed too good for the trail, ridin' a chestnut horse, fancy lookin' saddle..." 

"Yeah," a fifth boy said. "We seen someone like that..."

"But he weren't on the trail," the third put in.

Chris frowned. "Well, where was he?"

The six of them pointed to the left. "He was on another trail goin' off that way," said the second boy.

"Off that way," the sixth reiterated.

Chris looked off in the direction that the teens had indicted. What was Ezra doing over there? Chris swore as a realization hit him, and he turned Job to follow the new path.

The boys released a collective sigh of relief and continued on their way.

Damn it, Larabee thought, leaving the wagon of youngsters behind. Ezra wasn't heading to Falling Cross...not to Eagle Bend. He was heading for the McCannon home. Ezra was heading back to the scene of the tragedy.

Chris spurred his horse. He'd have to catch the fool before he got there.

Part 4:

Buck sat back in his chair, glaring across the room at Edgar Wahl. Wilmington couldn't understand the man -- couldn't begin to fathom how a man could do what this prisoner did. How could a man kill a woman and her children? How could he cold-heartedly kill that family? And, why wouldn't he shut up about it? Damn, if Wilmington had to hear the story one more time, he'd open fire on the bastard.

For the moment though, Wahl was quietly pacing his cell. Perhaps the gravity of the situation finally had found a purchase on him. He would die tomorrow. He would be led to the gallows. A hood would be placed over his head, a rope drawn tight to his neck and then the floor would drop out from beneath him. The condemned man glanced out of his barred window to the wooden structure that spelled his doom, and then sat down on the cot. He rubbed his bandaged arm where he had been shot a few days ago.

Buck watched Wahl's movements, wondering if anything touched this man...this snake.

There was a sound at the door. Buck stood, reaching for his gun. He swore to himself, realizing that he had to protect this piece of shit one more time.

Two men entered the room. One of them had a thin face and sandy hair. The other was fat and had a walrus mustache. "That 'im?" the mustached man asked as he pointed at the cell. He looked to Wilmington and repeated. "That 'im?"

"That’s Edgar Wahl?" the sandy-haired one tipped his head at the man in the cell. Wahl stood and stared back at the two men.

"Well," Buck said, "seein' as he's the only one in there, I 'spect that he is." He held his hand on his gun, waiting for the two men to make their move. God help me if they try to shoot him, Buck thought. He was ready to step aside and let them at the felon.

Somewhat reluctantly, Buck stated, "If ya'll want to come for a visit, I'm afraid you'll have to leave yer sidearms here." Wilmington pointed to the desk. "Say what you want to 'im but leave the rest for tomorrow. I'm sure that a lot of citizens would feel somewhat put out if you took away their entertainment."

The sandy-haired one laughed and pulled his gun from the holster, holding it upside down and harmlessly. "I 'spect I have a word or two for 'im," he said.

"Look out!" the fat one's voice echoed in the close confines of the jail. His eyes went wide and he pointed frantically to the cell.

Buck turned, drawing his gun at the passive prisoner. What the hell? The jailed Wahl gave no appearance of threat. Buck turned back to the visitors in time to see the man with the sandy hair raise his gun. Before Buck could react, the gun was slammed against the side of his head.

Buck's knees turned to jelly. He tried to steady himself with one hand on the desk, but the world tilted against him and he slid to the floor. His peripheral vision dimmed. Blackness slid inward like a blanket until only a tiny pin-hole of light reached him. Even that faded as he collapsed on the floor.

Part 5:

Larabee caught sight of Ezra just as the gambler approached the McCannon's farmhouse. "Dammit!" Larabee growled and then shouted, "Ezra! Ezra!" The con man didn't waver as he kept the horse headed toward the place where the McCannon family had died. "Standish! Dammit!" 

Ezra heard nothing.

In his mind, Ezra could still see things as they had been. It had been sunset when he’d arrived twelve days ago. He had been happy, content. He had spent his day gaming and was ready to have a pleasant visit with the family and then head on home. He had expected to see three laughing children to greet, and try to win over Patrice -- their wise and fierce mother -- to meet their father. Instead he had found only death. Ezra felt his chest tighten at the memory of the five bloody bodies.

So much pain and destruction and not a thing he could have done to stop it. Then there was the funeral that he had chosen not to attend. He had no place among the mourners, feeling his own part in their deaths. Chris had given him no let-up during those days, seeming to find fault in everything he did. It was all justified, of course. Then, he had been included in that disastrous expedition to retrieve Wahl. Vin had been shot -- nearly died. My fault, Ezra thought. I was the one who let Wahl on the loose

Of course there had been the rattlesnake as well. Ezra shuddered at the memory. He still felt like hell and was insufferably weak, but at least he could breathe properly again. The memories of what followed the snake's attack were muddled. Faces came and went, and it had been so hard to draw air. The pain had been tremendous.

The deaths weren't his fault. Ezra remembered coming to that conclusion sometime during that night. But it nagged at him now, the sad fact that he had done nothing to protect the family. If he only had arrived sooner, then none of this would have happened. Neither he nor Vin would have been harmed, the family would still be alive, and Wahl... 

Ezra drew near the house. Chaucer slowed, feeling the trepidation of his owner, but the rider gave him an encouraging pat and the horse continued toward the familiar house.

Ezra was surprised to see the house look so... normal. Somehow he expected to see the grounds littered with tumbleweeds, cobwebs in every corner, paint peeling. What he saw instead was a home... a place where someone should still be living. It had only been twelve days – but death should have changed the place. He squinted at the front windows. Hadn't they been shattered? They looked complete again.

Chaucer came to a halt when Ezra spied the laundry on the clothesline. Good Lord, Ezra thought, didn't anyone think to bring it in? The laundry flapped and flailed in the breeze. It reminded him of how the curtains had fluttered at the empty windows on the night that he searched the house, looking for the little girls and their mother. He watched the clothing dance in the wind, thinking of the people who must have once worn them.

A movement drew his attention away from the laundry. The front door opened, creaking on rusty hinges. He quickly shifted his gaze to see Patrice McCannon walk onto the front porch and look at him. Ezra froze. The matriarch moved down the stairs as she wiped her hands on her apron. She's come back to haunt me, he thought.  Two weeks ago... he remembered how she had been anxious to get her children away from him -- to protect them from snakes and scoundrels such as himself. Was she coming back to accuse him of allowing them all to die?

"Dear Lord," Ezra whispered. "I'm sorry."

Chris forced Job to catch up to the con man. He had seen Ezra draw to a stop and then saw his attention drawn to the woman on the porch. As he closed on the gambler, he could see that the already pale man had gone as white as a sheet.

"Ezra! Dammit!" Chris charged forward and grabbed him by the elbow. "Didn't you hear me? I was shoutin' my fool head off!"

Ezra turned his gaze on Larabee. Where had he come from? He then snapped his attention back to the woman on the porch... not Mrs. McCannon... can't be. "Who?" Ezra asked, "Who is she?"

Chris saw the confusion on the gambler's face. Standish, who was usually so in control of his expressions, looked so lost and bewildered. Shit, Larabee thought, I should have known this would happen. "That's Aida, Ezra. It's her sister, Aida Bonham. She and her family got here four days ago. They took up the place."

Ezra watched the woman walk toward them with a toddler following close behind. She looked like Patrice, but there were differences: a little shorter, a smaller nose, lighter hair...a sister.

Damn fool, he thought. What the hell did you think you were looking at -- a ghost? Do you honestly believe that you saw a ghost? You've been sick too long and are letting your mind run wild --a stupid and childish thing to be doing.

"Mr. Standish?" Aida asked as she drew near. Undoubtedly she had learned his name due to Chris' shouts.

Ezra forced a smile and said, "At your service, ma'am. And this is Mr. Chris Larabee. You'll find that he is a force to be reckoned with, but fair in all his endeavors."

Chris shook his head, his memory of the past week still fresh. Fair? No, not always.

"Mr. Larabee, of course." She nodded to the black-clad gunslinger. "I suppose you couldn't be anyone but Mr. Larabee." She smiled. "What a surprise...a delightful surprise. I'm so pleased to finally meet you both. Won't you come in? We're about ready for lunch. Would you join us?"

Lunch... Ezra thought. But wasn't it too late for lunch? She sounded like her sister, had the same strong voice, the same lovely accent, letting Standish know that the two had grown up in Kentucky. He replied, "Thank you, Mrs. Bonham. I'm afraid that we must be on our way."

Chris swung himself out of his saddle and said, "Now Ezra, we can't say 'no' to such a nice invitation and I know for a fact that you ain't eaten yet."

Ezra hadn't moved from his horse. He glared at Chris who stood beside him now, offering a hand to help him down.

Chris turned to Aida and said, "Mr. Standish would enjoy a home-cooked meal. He hasn't been very happy with the fare he's been gettin' in town lately." He returned his gaze to Ezra and added, "And she's invited you right nicely, I'd say."

"Yes, please, Mr. Standish," Aida said brightly as her daughter clung to her skirt. The little girl had long blonde hair that fell in ringlets around her chubby face. She looked up at the man on the horse and moved so that mother was between them. Two children appeared on the porch and peered timidly over the railing. The boy was fair-haired like his mother and youngest sister; the elder girl had black hair, tied in pig-tails.

Chris could see the anguish appear on Ezra's usually placid face as he looked toward the children. That was proof enough that Ezra wasn't feeling very well. He wavered slightly in his saddle and clutched the pommel to keep his balance.

"Mr. Standish?" Aida called. "Are you all right?"

"Quite well. Thank you," Ezra said and managed to put his poker face back in place. He smiled pleasantly at Aida. "We would be delighted to join you in your repast. I could never refuse a lady."

Ezra dismounted ungracefully, needing to lean on Chris as he untangled his uncooperative leg from the stirrup. Chris couldn't help but notice that, not only was Ezra still weak from the snakebite, but he also was losing weight.

Nathan could hardly get him to eat anything during his convalescence, but Chris was also fairly certain that it had been going on since Ezra originally discovered the dead family. Larabee had been too busy with his own angry thoughts to notice such things during that week, but looking back he could recall Ezra picking at his food in the saloon, leaving his meals mostly uneaten. Chris couldn't remember seeing Standish put a bite in his mouth during the wretched trip to Eagle Bend and back. Ezra could keep up with the rest of them when it came to dining, but he never ate well when something was bothering him. Chris should have realized that from the start. If he had only paid closer attention to the reticent cardsharp, then perhaps things might have worked out a little better between them over the past few days.

Chris saw the walking stick shoved in with Ezra's rifle and drew it out of the scabbard. He handed it to Ezra once Standish was on his feet. Ezra nodded his thanks and then turned his attention to the children. "Such a lovely family," he said as he smiled on the toddler. "Delightful."

"This is Elisabeth," Aida said, picking up the little one, "But we call her Bunny. Noel! Winnie!" she called to the two children on the porch. The boy and girl scampered down the stairs and stood beside their mother. The boy was no more than seven  and the girl was probably five. They smiled shyly at the newcomers.

"This is Mr. Standish and Mr. Larabee. You remember your father telling you about them."

"Hello," Noel said, ducking his head and kicking at the dirt. Winnie said nothing but watched them with wide, dark eyes, staring first at Chris' somber clothing and then turning her gaze on Ezra's bright attire.

Aida looked wistfully at her shy children and continued, "We've heard so much about both of you... about all of you...you and the other men who protect the town. There's a great many people that owe their lives to you." 

Noel grabbed his sister by the arm and whispered urgently into her ear. "They're those lawmen. They got guns. They kill people." He looked up suddenly as if he was afraid of being misinterpreted. "Just the bad people is who they shoot."

Winnie wrenched her arm out of her brother's grip and struggled to get behind him. Noel, not wanting to be in the open, wrestled with his younger sister for the more protected rear position.

"My dear boy," Ezra drawled mildly, "You are correct. We save our bullets for the miscreants and malefactors." He nodded to the two children. "You have nothing to fear while my compatriot and I are about."

The two stopped their struggling and looked at Ezra in astonishment. Chris figured that the two didn't have a clue in regard to what was just said to them, but they seemed to like the sound of it. Little Bunny chewed on the ends of her mother's apron strings. Larabee brought his gaze back to Ezra and noticed that the gambler was trying to keep his balance, leaning against the walking stick for support.

"Ezra, I'll see to the horses," Chris said. " Why don't you go on in and get off your feet."

"Yes, come with me, Mr. Standish. We'll take care of you," Aida said. Chris waited as the family led Standish into the house. Once they were within, Chris sighed and looked around the property, remembering the last time he had been here.

He and Vin had come to inspect the house the day after the murders -- after the rain had fallen and washed away any clue. What they found was blood, broken windows and a half-completed meal -- a family disrupted -- the remnants of lives ended -- and the beginning of a red rage that only recently had left the gunslinger.

Seeing to the horses was more work than Chris had bargained for. Chaucer had a stubborn streak longer than his owner. First the horse wouldn't move, wanting to keep an eye on the doorway where Ezra had vanished. When Chris was finally able to pull the horse away, the animal trotted rather quickly to the water trough to have his fill, and had to be forced to leave it. After that, he pulled away from Larabee and wander off into the kitchen garden to try a sample of the tender lettuce.

Chris just barely grabbed the loose reins in time to keep the chestnut from looting the garden. The horse kept nickering and stretching his neck toward the little fenced off space, eager to drag Larabee along with him to get toward the tasty treats. Chris, holding onto Job's reins as well, had a good appreciation of what it was like to be drawn-and-quartered.

"Hold up, ya stupid pain-in-the-neck," Larabee grumbled, trying to control the animal. "Come on now." The horse ignored him.

Finally, impatient with the shenanigans, Job gave the difficult horse a nip on the flank. Chaucer leapt back with a snort. He looked astonished, but Chris was able to get both horses into the corral outside the barn and shut the gate behind them.

"Don't know how he manages that creature," Chris muttered. "That horse is more trouble than it's worth."

Part 6:

"Good ta see ya, Lewis," Edgar Wahl said as he stretched. "Hey, Gil,"

Gil and Lewis struggled to drag the tall cowboy into the cell. Lewis grunted with the weight and then turned to Wahl. "So, how's it been, Eggs?" 

"How's it been?" Wahl muttered, picking up Wilmington's gun from the floor and shoving it under his belt. "It's been horrible, Lew. Got railroaded in that trial."

Gil helped to lift Wilmington onto the cot. "I hear tell that you stood in front of that jury and told 'em straight-out what you done."

Wahl shrugged. "The damn judge wouldn't listen. McCannon deserved what he got. The bastard owed me money -- a thousand dollars. I just come to get what was mine and the idiot stood in the way. Why that Travis didn't set me free, I'll never know."

"Well, I 'spect you got us to do that," Lewis said as he draped the blanket over Wilmington. "Hey, Eggs, think anyone will notice that this ain't you?"

Wahl cocked his head at the covered lawman. "It'll do. They've been treatin' me like I got the plague or somethin'. Won't nobody take a second look at that bed." The freed prisoner took Buck's jacket from the back of the chair and pulled it on. He then picked up the hat from the top of the file cabinet and settled it on his head.

"Hey, lookie, Lewis!" Gil nodded to his cohort. "We got ourselves a lawman here."

Wahl grinned at the attention and tugged on the edges of Buck's jacket. "It should be enough to get me out of here. Ya bring me a horse?"

"Yeah, they're all just outside. Shouldn't be no trouble at all," Gil said as he and Lewis exited the cell and closed the door behind them. The lock clicked as it engaged.

"Let's get goin' then. I got some unfinished business to take care of," Wahl stated briskly. "A matter of a thousand dollars."

Lewis groaned, "Now, Eggs, ya know we come here just to spring you. It's time we got on out of the territory. Won't make no sense to go barking up that tree again."

Wahl gave Lewis a long-suffering look and said, "The money is mine, Lew, and I aim to get it back. 'Sides, if you expect to get some sort of a reward for this, we're gonna have to go get it. McCannon was about as predictable a man as ever been created. That money is still on the premises." 

"Then why didn't you get it the first time you was there?" Gil asked.

Wahl ran the back of his hand over his mouth and his eyes carried a far away look. "Got distracted," he muttered.

The three men left the jail and stood a moment on the boardwalk, watching the bustling crowds, and then they mounted their horses and were gone.

Part 7:

When Chris entered the kitchen, he found Ezra delighting the children with card tricks. Little Bunny was perched on his lap while Noel and Winnie sat on either side of him, their eyes glowing with enchantment.

Larabee wasn't the type of man to be envious of another, but he did envy the way Ezra had with children. A few minutes ago the three had been shy tots, clinging to their mother. Now they belonged heart and soul to the cardsharp. Larabee watched with a smile as Ezra performed another feat of magic -- pulling an Ace of Spades out of thin air and making it disappear just as quickly.

The older children gasped and clapped. The youngest, apparently, just wanted to chew on the cards. Ezra let her have a joker to save the rest of the deck. She'd look up from time to time to see why her siblings were cheering and she would clap along with them, flailing the soggy card. After looking about for a moment, she would return to examining the image of the joker.

"Mr. Larabee," Aida said. "Please have a seat. My husband should be here shortly and then we'll have lunch. You're in luck. Henry's been seeing to the milk-cows that arrived today and so we're eating a bit later than usual."

"Anythin' I can do to help, ma'am?" Chris asked as the woman returned to the wood stove.

"Actually, Mr. Standish is doing me a tremendous favor, keeping the children occupied."

Chris sat back and watched as Ezra played with the children. Standish had a certain way of speaking to them, he noticed. Most people, when they spoke to kids, treated them either as little pets -- too precious to be true -- or as something hardly worth paying attention to. Ezra dealt with the children as if they were his equals, listening to their questions and ideas... weighing his answers seriously and giving them well thought out replies. He spoke to them... not at them. He devoted his attention entirely to them, making the children feel important.

The children ate it up. Where'd you learn how to do that, Ez? Chris thought. Standish treated the children so civilly, it made the gunslinger wonder about the gambler's childhood. Had Ezra been treated in the same fine manner or had it been the opposite? Did Ezra behave toward these children in the way he had only dreamed of being treated himself? 

"Aida?" they heard a voice urgently call from the yard. "Aida! Are you all right? Aida?" A man rushed into the kitchen and came to a halt when he saw the scene.

Aida quickly went to the man and took up his hands. "Everything is fine, Henry. This is Mr. Ezra Standish and Mr. Chris Larabee," she said, indicating the two men.

Henry's tense look finally dropped and he released his wife to shake hands with both of the men. He had the same dark hair as his elder daughter, the same dark brown eyes. "My Lord, you gave me a start. I saw the strange horses in the yard and I ... well...I..." His gaze fell upon his children that were crowded around the gambler. "The mind sometimes thinks the worst..." He left it at that.

"Understandable," Chris replied.

"I've been meanin' to come by and see you both, and that Mr. Tanner too," Bonham continued. "I just wanted to thank you all for everything you've done for Aida's sister and her family."

Aida nodded. "It was such a tragedy. We just wanted to thank you and let you know how sorry we are for what happened."

"Sorry?" Ezra asked, perplexed. "You? My good lady, you're not the one to be sorry. You lost your dear sister and brother-in-law, your nieces and nephew, all due to the fact that..."

"Ez," Chris said, cutting him off.

"When we heard about what had happened to you and Mr. Tanner, we were both horrified," Aida said, sitting down at the table. "First to lose Patrice, Albert and their children, and then for you and your friend to suffer because of our tragedy."

"I'm only sorry that it couldn't have been averted in the first place," Ezra replied quietly.

Aida smiled sadly and nodded. "I was meanin' to send you some of my soda biscuits. I'll make some up to take back with you."

Henry kissed his wife and said, "She does make the best soda biscuits in the territory."

"I’ll be looking forward to the delicacy," Ezra drawled.

Aida returned to preparing the meal while Ezra continued to astound the children. Chris and Henry discussed the family's recent move and how they were settling into the house. Aida was the only living relative of either Patrice or Albert and had inherited the land and the buildings. The Bonhams had been living in rented rooms in Tucson up until that point and had welcomed the move.

In a few minutes, lunch was ready. Noel and Winnie demanded to sit on either side of Ezra. Bunny cried and fought when her mother pulled her from the gambler's lap, but she became fascinated by her spoon once she was transferred to her highchair.

Chris almost laughed seeing the look on Ezra's face when he was presented with soup. Standish dipped his spoon tentatively into the bowl and stirred the contents.

"Don'tcha like my mom's soup?" Noel asked.

Winnie curled up her nose and said, "I don't think I like it either. I don't like those funny bits there."

Ezra smiled at each of the children in turn and said, "I'm certain that your mother is a fine cook and has prepared an exquisite soup that I shall be more than happy to consume -- even the funny bits. Miss Winifred, perhaps you'll join me?"

The family and the two lawmen shared a companionable meal with each other, not knowing what was approaching them.

Part 8:

"Hey, Buck!" JD shouted as he entered the jail. He frowned when he saw no one on guard. He gazed into the cell, noting the prisoner curled up under a blanket on the cot. "Buck?" he called, looking about for a minute before stepping back onto the boardwalk. Jed Green was standing at the doorway of his store, watching the tides of people flow past.

"Mr. Green?" JD called as he stepped up to the shopkeeper. "Mr. Green, you see Buck lately?"

Green nodded. "Yeah, rode off with a couple of fellows."

"When'd he do that?"

"Been a while." Green shrugged. "I ain't been payin' much attention to that. I've been busy here tryin' to protect my business from looters." He curled his lip at a man who seemed to want to enter the store...but seeing the look on Green's face the man turned abruptly and continued on his way.

"Gee, you'd think you'd have lots of customers with all these folks."

"Well, yeah." Green looked indecisive. "'Cept if I let 'em in, they might bust up the place. I figger it's better to keep 'em out."

JD wasn't sure if he agreed with Green, and he really didn't care. Buck rode off with a couple of guys? That didn't sound right. The sheriff darted back into the jail and checked on the prisoner.

Wahl was asleep. Well, that's good, JD thought. I won't have to listen to him while I'm here. Still, it don't mean that Buck should be out. At least no one's come in since Buck took off. Dang, that would'a been somethin' if I came on in here and found Wahl was gone.

The door swung open and JD turned to face the visitor, ready for trouble. He slapped his hands on his guns and prepared himself to draw.

"Mr. Dunne," the gray-haired gentleman said with a surprised look on his face.

"Judge Travis," JD exclaimed, and then pulled his Colts, twirling them quickly before returning them to his holsters, to let out the tension in his hands. "Didn't expect you."

"So I surmised," the judge said as he approached the cell. He regarded the prisoner with a cold eye. He had heard quite a bit of testimony in his days... had seen the guilty and the innocent. Never before had he seen someone for whom the line between guilt and innocence was so firmly drawn.

Wahl was lower than scum in his book. Here, this sleeping shape before him, was a loathsome man who not only killed women and children, he veritably crowed about it. Usually Travis felt some remorse when looking upon a condemned man, but for Wahl he felt nothing except disgust. How could the man sleep so deeply, knowing what he had done... knowing what was about to befall him?

"I was looking for Mr. Larabee," the judge stated.

"Oh," JD shrugged. "I ain't seen 'im today."

"Mr. Jackson said that he was looking for Mr. Standish."

"Ezra? Really?" JD looked astonished and then grinned. "He get away from Nathan finally?"

The judge shook his head and stated, "Standish does have a talent for escapes."

"I ain't seen him, but I'm wonderin' where Buck's gone off to. I hear he rode off with a couple of guys, but that don't seem right. We'd better find 'em soon, 'cause this crowd ain't gonna get any easier to handle with nightfall."

Travis nodded his agreement. "I think you boys are in for a passel of trouble. Best muster the troops and get a plan into action."

"Yeah," JD agreed and sat down on the desk to glare at the prisoner. He wished Buck were there and that all of this was over with. He banged his feet on the desk and stared at the still form in the cell.

Part 9:

"Delectable," Ezra said luxuriously as he set down his spoon. "The best meal I have eaten in ages and a much finer repast than is available in other establishments. Mrs. Bonham, you are a superb cook."

Aida blushed and said, "Why, thank you, Mr. Standish. I'm afraid it's rather simple. We weren't expecting guests."

"Don't worry about that," Chris said as he mopped up his soup with a piece of hearty bread. "What you made here is just what the doctor ordered." He glanced at Ezra who raised an eyebrow at that comment. "Mighty tasty."

Henry smiled at his wife. "She's truly a treasure... and beautiful, too."

Aida's blush increased and she picked up a towel and fluttered it at her husband. "Now you stop that, Henry Bonham!" She turned to her guests and stated, "You all may be more comfortable on the porch than in this stuffy kitchen. Henry, why don't you take our guests there?"

Henry nodded and shooed the children to their chores, then nodded the way to Ezra and Chris. Ezra stood unsteadily, grabbing for the cane before following Bonham out the front door. Chris noticed that the gambler was weaving as he walked, but at least he had eaten a decent meal. Lord, Chris thought, Standish must have eaten more in that one sitting that he had put in his mouth all week.

The front porch was breezy and mild and, as Aida had promised, much less stuffy than the kitchen. Ezra settled himself on one of the benches and Chris stood by the porch railing.

Henry smiled nervously. "I hate to be a bad host, but I need to go check on the stock. Just got us some milk-cows today and I think one of 'em's a bit on the ornery side. If you'd excuse me for a spell, I'll amble off that way..." When Henry received a nod from his guests he jumped down from the porch and hurried around the back of the house.

The two lawmen sat in silence for a moment before Chris spoke up. "It's a nice place -- a real fine place."

"It is, indeed, a fine place. The Bonham family should be happy to have such a home." Ezra leaned his head back and closed his eyes.

Chris kept his gaze on Standish. "Why'd you come here, Ez?" he asked.

"I felt the need to see this homestead again."

"Ya could've waited a bit."

"No, I needed to see it now. After hearing Mr. Wahl's endless recitation of what happened, I needed to see..."

"So that you could figure out what you could 'ave done to stop it?"

Ezra opened his eyes a crack and looked at the gunslinger before he closed his eyes again with a sigh.

"Ezra," Chris stood beside the tired man. "I thought we had this figured out."

"And what is that, Mr. Larabee? What did we have figured out?"

"That you weren't at fault for what happened here."

Ezra smiled and said, "Not at fault, no." He lowered his voice and looked out of slitted eyes, glancing to the doorway. "I do realize that it was Mr. Wahl who pulled the trigger, who saw fit to destroy the lovely family who once lived here. But I also realize that if I had been less diverted, I would've been here in time to save them."

Ezra shifted his narrowed gaze to Larabee and continued. "And now they are dead. It's a crime to deprive the world of those children -- such innocence; to deprive Mrs. Bonham of her sister and extended family. If I'd been less concerned with my own enjoyment, they could all still be alive today. If I hadn't allowed myself to be drawn in so deeply, Mr. Tanner and myself would've escaped our own grave injuries. If I had been less of a snake..." Ezra paused, closing his eyes again and furrowing his brow.

"Now Ezra," Larabee growled, "that ain't right."

"Your own words, Mr. Larabee, and well chosen," Ezra continued, "If I'd been less of a snake, then the Bonham children would've had a chance to grow up, knowing their cousins. If I had been less of a snake, Mrs. McCannon would've seen to the rearing of her family and this world would've been blessed by their addition. If I'd been less of a snake, then Ginny and Linda, those little girls, would never have known such horror, would never have ended their lives in such..." he stopped talking, drawing his lips tight.

"Damn it, Ezra," Chris sighed, and sat down beside the cardsharp. "When the hell were you planning on leaving Eagle Bend on that day?"

"I'd planned to leave after breakfast, but was diverted due to my own lack of moral fortitude."

"And when did ya eat your damn breakfast? I know you don't rise before 10:00 if you can help it."

"I arose at 10:00 as you surmised. Enjoyed an agreeable repast..."

"And were planning on getting on the trail by when...11:00?"

"If I had not been distracted."

"Even if you left exactly when you were plannin' to go, you wouldn't 'ave made it here in time," Chris said quietly. He watched the con man's face, looking for a sign that Ezra understood what was being said. "They must'a been killed at about the time you were planning to leave Eagle Bend."

"If I had awoken earlier..."

"Damn it, Ezra," Chris growled between his teeth. "You're gonna eat a hole in your gut if you go on that way. If I had left Mexico sooner... if I hadn't gone at all..."

Ezra fully opened his eyes and looked at Chris curiously. He spoke solemnly, "I had no intention of comparing this situation to your own, Mr. Larabee. Please accept my most humble apologies if that is how it appeared."

"God, Ezra," Chris muttered. "I ain't comparing anything here."

"The pain and sorrow you suffered at the loss of your wife and child cannot compare to my own feelings. You lost so much and I lost nothing at all." Ezra sat up and rested the palms of his hands on the bench. "I've never had a connection to anyone that equals the one you lost, not by a long shot. I've never cared for anyone to such a degree, nor have I received such concern in return. There is, indeed, no one who would mourn my loss."

"You don't mean that."

Ezra smiled mildly at Larabee and continued. "It's a necessary matter of my profession. I cannot make strong ties to anyone or anything. A 'tie' by its very definition is meant to bind and to hold in place. I cannot be so encumbered. It's rather amusing really that I should be so bothered by this incident. It is, in fact, something that should hardly register with me. I didn't know the McCannons, truly, didn't know them at all. Their deaths, in fact, are of no consequence to me. Now, if McCannon had owed me money..."

"So, you're just a cold-hearted son-of-a-bitch?"

"It's exactly what I mean to be."

"A damn snake in the grass?"


"Ezra," Chris grumbled.

Ezra suddenly stiffened beside him. "Riders," he said, nodding toward the approaching shapes.

Larabee stood and squinted at the distant images. "It's just Buck," he said after a moment of inspection.

Ezra watched the approaching horsemen. "If it's Buck, then why's he riding another man's horse?"

Chris kept his gaze on what was coming. Yes, it was the wrong horse, but maybe Buck's gray had thrown a shoe... wasn't ready for a ride for some reason...that was easy to explain. But who were those other two men? The man in Buck’s clothing didn’t ride like the gunslinger’s friend.

Ezra continued, "And why would Mr. Wilmington see fit to leave the town, seein' as how you are already errant in your obligation and there’s a need for lawmen to protect the town at present. Why hasn't he shouted a greeting yet, as his is custom." Ezra glanced at Larabee and said, "Perhaps we should alert Mr. Bonham and his family. There may be a place of safety here for them. Perhaps..."

"Get inside, Ezra," Chris said suddenly, feeling the hairs stand up on the back of his neck.

Part 10:

Ow...dang...Buck furrowed his brow. Shit, that hurt. He groaned and tried to roll over, but was assaulted with a wave of dizziness and nausea. He decided to lay still. His stomach was currently at odds with his body and his head wasn't happy at all.

He could hear voices talking...JD and someone else... who was it? Oh yeah, that would be the judge. Damn, why did his head hurt so badly? He must have gone on one hell of a binge. Those two talking didn't help his headache any.

He groaned again. His whole head ached -- what the hell happened? Last thing he remembered was ... watching Wahl...two men came in. "Goddamn..." Buck muttered.

"Quiet down in there," JD shouted and banged against the bars, making Wilmington wince. "I ain't gonna listen to you no more. Don't want to hear you cursin' neither."

"What the hell?" Buck opened his eyes and stared at the back wall of the cell. How did I...? "Ah shit," he grumbled.

"What did I tell you? You just shut your mouth in there," JD yelled again, his voice ringing in Buck's head with unnecessary vengeance.

Buck rolled over slowly. "You stop that yellin', kid," he said thickly as he managed to pull back the blanket to blink at Dunne and Judge Travis -- both of whom looked rather startled.

"Buck?" JD gasped out.

"Mr. Wilmington!" The judge stepped to the cell and stared at the man who was trying to sit up.

JD grabbed the keys and hurriedly unlocked the door. "Omigod! Omigod! What happened?"

"Where's Wahl?" the judge put in.

Buck moaned and held his head in his hands. "Couple of guys... caught me off guard. Hit me." Buck touched the back of his head and instantly pulled his hand away. "Shit that hurts!"

JD had reached Buck by now, his eyes wide. "You okay, Buck?"

"Better step back, kid," Buck said, squinting his eyes.


"'Cause I'm gonna puke."

Part 11:

Chris tried not to run through the house, but he quickened his pace until he reached the kitchen where Aida and her children still remained.

"Mr. Larabee?" she asked, and seeing the look on his face became instantly quiet.

"You got a storm cellar…root cellar?" he asked, and received a nod in response. "Get ready to go there if I give the word." Again, she nodded, reaching out and drawing her children close.

Chris continued out the back door and shouted in the direction the farmer had taken. He could see Henry among a small group of cows, some distance away. "Bonham! Bonham!" But the young farmer didn't lift his head. Damn, Chris thought, and headed back to the house.

Aida was on the back porch now, her three children huddled around her.

"Ma'am," Chris said. "It's probably nothing, but you and your kids here may want to step into that cellar for a bit." Aida nodded wordlessly, her face pale as she tugged the children along behind her, toward the door to the storm cellar.

Larabee headed back through the house, hoping to see Ezra within. He swore, not seeing the southerner. He emerged on the front porch again, still no Standish. The riders were much closer now, close enough to make it obvious that the man in Buck's coat was not Buck at all.

Chris felt a cold hatred pass through him as he recognized Edgar Wahl. The murderer that had caused so much trouble was on the loose. "Ezra!" Chris hissed as he walked to the porch rail, keeping his eye on the approaching men. He caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned his head toward the motion. Ezra was at one of the outbuildings, raising two fingers to Larabee as he held his gun ready.

Larabee didn't like the idea, but he knew that it would to be better if they split up -- to better cover the area and to protect the family. Damn, this wasn't going to be good. He met Ezra's eyes and the two exchanged a nod. They were ready.

Chris turned back to the approaching men. "That's close enough!" he shouted and the three horsemen came to a halt. "Put down your weapons and give yourselves up." Wahl was insane. Getting Wahl to stop would be difficult. Chris just hoped he could get through to the other two men at least. What part did they have in this? he wondered.

"Is that Larabee?" Wahl shouted back. "Good to see ya, pard."

"Where the hell is Buck?!" Larabee returned, eyeing the familiar jacket and hat, keeping his hand ready to draw.

Wahl grinned. "May be dead. Don't know for sure. Lewis hit 'im kinda hard."

Buck! Larabee thought, feeling his hatred for the man only intensify.

"Look, I don't want to waste a lot of time here. Why don't you step aside and let me and the boys get what we want and we won't have to kill you."

Chris nodded to the other two horsemen. "Why don't you two lay down your weapons and let justice be served on this animal."

Wahl's smile never dipped. "There's three of us Larabee, and only one of you. What good do you think that'll do?"

"You should revise your count," they heard a voice calmly drawl. The three riders turned to see the other man at the outbuilding. Chris' gaze didn't flicker from Wahl or his associates.

"Standish?" Wahl laughed. "My God, Standish, my amigo! It's good to see you again. I thought for sure that I'd seen you breathe your last, but yer boys kept sayin' that you were alive. I couldn't quite believe it myself."

"I would do as Mr. Larabee says and set down your weapons. He's rather fast on the draw." Ezra looked at the two other men. "Certainly, gentlemen, you don't wish to hang alongside your companion. If you were to end this now, you may escape death by the noose... or the more probable death by bullet."

Lewis and Gil looked to each other. The house was supposed to be unoccupied. They hadn't gotten into this to be shot at by the law. They had heard about Larabee and knew about his speed. There were rumors about Standish's accuracy...that he could put six bullets into the same hole. Neither of the men wanted to die.

Wahl glared at his companions and saw the indecision in their eyes. With one quick move, he raised his gun and fired.

Lewis' mare screamed as she lurched backward. Lewis tried to get Princess under control, but the horse collapsed, giving her rider hardly any time to leap out of the way. A second bullet brought down Gil's sturdy roan.

The action was so unexpected that Larabee didn't know how to react. At the sight of the gun, his own weapon had leapt to his hand, but with the screaming of the horses and the startled cries from the men, Larabee was, for a few seconds, uncertain who to aim his gun at. Wahl had not fired at a person yet, had shot only animals -- Wahl was an animal.

Larabee raised his weapon to fire, but the murderer had turned his horse and was riding away. Chris held his aim on the man's back. He's a killer...Chris thought. He's killed children... a mother... a father... destroyed a family...shot Vin... threw everything to hell. He held his aim, remembering his code to never shoot a man in the back... but could this creature be truly called a man? He couldn't let that murdering son-of-a-bitch get away.

The crack of a shot and wood splintering by his head brought his attention back to the other men. Gil and Lewis were crouched down behind the bodies of their dead mounts, firing at the porch. Damn it all! He thought, returning the fire.

He heard a sharp whistle and a moment later saw Ezra streaking off on his chestnut gelding, chasing down the departing Wahl. No! Chris thought...stay put! But at the same time, he realized that Wahl should never be allowed to get away and that Ezra was the only one who could reach the horses to do the job.

Lewis and Gil looked up too and would have taken out the gambler if Larabee hadn't provided him cover. "Damn it... damn it... damn it!" Chris muttered.

Ezra was soon out of range and the two outlaws returned their attention fully to Larabee. Chris glanced up at the departing horses when he was able, praying that the cardsharp would be all right.

Part 12:

"Shut up!" Buck groaned, rubbing his pain-filled head. "Won't ya jus' shush for a bit?"

Nathan stepped back and examined his handiwork. He had bandaged Wilmington's head, but knew there was little more to do at this point beside keep Buck still and have a bucket nearby. "You should be okay, Buck. Just don't stand up for a bit. You'll just be on the floor again in a minute."

Buck glared at the healer and tried to push himself to his feet. He wobbled before collapsing back onto the jail's cot. His stomach roiled and he groaned in his misery.

"Stay put," Nathan admonished.

"Gotta get Wahl," Buck moaned. "God, how could I let 'im get away?"

Josiah leaned against the bars and said, "JD, Nathan and I will do the looking."

"I'm goin'!" Buck insisted, but didn't move from his position.

"You need to stay, Buck," JD said. "Gotta have someone guard the jail still."

"Ain't nothin' to guard!" Buck shouted and then thought better of it as the sound reverberated through his skull.

"I'm afraid they don't know that," Judge Travis stated, nodding to the crowded street. "And the longer you keep up this façade, the better chance you'll have of keeping the peace. If this group discovers that Mr. Wahl has escaped..."

Buck grimaced and realized that they were right. "So you leavin' me to pretend t'watch the jail... meanwhile nobody'll be watchin' the town?"

Travis picked up a rifle that leaned against the wall and said, "I believe I'll be capable of providing protection." The four men looked at him and the judge continued, "I've been known to be fairly helpful in a fight and am more than capable of handling this weapon." There was no denying the fact that Judge Travis looked formidable with the rifle in his hand.

"How 'bout I do my guardin' from the boardwalk outside?" Buck said. "Least ways I can keep an eye on things that way."

They needed all the help they could get. A chair was placed just in front of the doorway to the jail, then Josiah and Nathan discreetly settled Buck onto it.

JD, Nathan and Josiah left the jail a few minutes later, heading toward the livery. Nathan paused before he entered. "I'd better take a quick look in at Vin. I've got a sinking suspicion..."

The suspicion was well founded. They found Vin halfway to the door, leaning against Nathan's desk and breathing raggedly.

"Vin! What d'you think you're doin'?" Nathan growled. "What the hell did I tell you? Don't you listen to a word I say?"

"Well," Tanner said, quieting his breathing. "After hearing JD tell what happened, I figured you boys needed a bit of a hand."

"Josiah, get this fool back in bed," Nathan ordered.

Josiah raised an eyebrow. "If we set him up on the balcony with a rifle..."

"I was thinkin' the same," Vin responded.

"He's got a point there, Doc," JD said. "We can use the extra gun."

Nathan shook his head. "Fine! Fine! Just don't come complainin' to me if ya feel like hell for all this nonsense." The healer grabbed a chair and headed out the door, leaving Josiah and JD to get the tracker through the door and to his vantage-point. It took a few minutes, but they soon had Vin set up with a rifle in his lap.

Nathan headed down the stairs without looking back. JD was close behind.

Josiah started to follow, but he turned and asked Tanner, "You got any idea of where Wahl may have gone to?"

"I'm thinkin' he either lit out of town as quick as a rabbit and you boys'll never find 'im... or..." Vin winced slightly as a flare of pain shot through his chest.


"Or maybe he returned to the scene of the crime. Sounds as peculiar as hell, but you'd be surprised at how many..." Vin caught the expression on Josiah's face. "What's wrong, J'siah?"

"Buck received a message sayin' that Chris was chasin' Ezra back toward Eagle Bend."

Vin bit his lip. "Same general area."

"Yeah." Josiah nodded grimly.

"Better hurry. They got some time on ya."

Josiah nodded brusquely and ran down the stairs after Nathan and JD.

CONTINUE on to the second half