M7FFA Entry


Payback Is Hell

by Buckskin Kate

WARNINGS: Some language (no more than you hear on tv), violence, Smarmy. This is a death fic, meaning that two of our guys die (kind of sort of).

NOTE: This may be a lengthy story with many short chapters. It is not complete and will take some time. I will not be held responsible for anything emotions that run amok among the readers of this story. If you hate the story, don't tell me about it. : o) Feedback is welcome. Just don't forget this is my first real effort at fan fiction (with some brainstorming with Gary Lamb). I,d like to thank my beta readers Amanda, Robyn and Sue D.

"I will exact restitution from that heinous hostler!" Ezra muttered under his breath as he examined his torn and filthy clothing.

The normally spiffy gambler's mood was getting darker with each weary step he took. It was nearing dusk and finally beginning to cool off a little, but the relief of the cool breeze did nothing to cool Ezra's anger. Ezra drug himself up the stairs and stumbled into Nathan's room.

As he let his eyes adjust to the dimmer light, he noticed Mary Travis sitting beside Billy's bed spooning broth into the sick child's mouth.

"I see our young comrade's condition is somewhat improved," Ezra commented as he attempted to slap the dust from his hat.

"Not for long if you don't quit that. You're gonna start him coughing again. What happened to you anyway?" Nathan asked as he guided the gambler to the chair in the corner.

"That miserable excuse of a horse that I leased from the livery is what happened. My steed is recuperating from a bruised appendage so I found it necessary to lease a livery plug. The despicable beast spooked from a rattler and fell and broke his let. The only Consolation is that I was afforded the opportunity to place a bullet between his eyes!"

Nathan turned his back in order to hide the laughter that was threatening to well up inside of him.

"Let's have a look at that hand," Nathan said when he felt that he had control of himself.

Ezra held out his right hand to reveal numerous cactus thorns causing his hand to resemble a porcupine.

As Nathan picked up his tweezers, he was overcome with the urge to giggle again. He could just see the fine man before him tumbling from his horse and tangling with a cactus. Not that Ezra was not an excellent rider. He was, in fact, very good. But everyone in town knew what kind of nags the livery rented.

"Ezra, next time you want to take a ride, you can borrow my horse. Or ask one of the other guys if you can borrow theirs. Except for Buck. You know he's not inclined to loan Darlin' Angel Eyes out. J.D.'s the only one I've ever seen ride her sides Buck. Now hold still. We only got a few more to go."

The room got quiet as Nathan finished removing the thorns. He washed Ezra's hand and applied a salve.

"It's gonna be kinda sore and a little stiff for a day or two, but you ain't gonna die from it," Nathan said as he dropped the tweezers into a jar of alcohol.

"You are most certainly not the bearer of good tiding, Mr. Jackson. I happen to have a very important game of chance scheduled for this evening. My opponent is an acquaintance of Mother's, a Raybern Dennis. My hands must be in top condition," Ezra lamented.

"Well, all's I can say is shuffle easy," the healer replied, "and good luck."

(At the Nichols/Lambert camp, an abandoned ranch.)

"The weak link is going to be Hiram Nechaus," Peter said as he paced back and forth in front of the fireplace.

"Are you sure we can trust him? Maybe you should take care of this one personally, Peter."

"Ma, it's already begun. We can't change the plan now," Peter said as he turned to his mother and took her hands in his own.

"In just a matter of days we will be avenged," he told her somberly.

Ma Nichols turned to her youngest son and said softly, "John, go to the bunkhouse and bring Father Manning to me. I feel the need to pray."

As John exited the small cabin, Jesse Lambert pushed his large frame into the room. Jesse was the eldest of four brothers employed by the Nichols family. The Lambert brothers, Jesse, Joel, Jerry, and Jackie had a reputation of being bloodthirsty cut throats and were quite unhappy that they were being kept in the background of this plan.

"You took your sweet time getting back from town," Peter snarled at Jesse, "Did Dennis arrive as scheduled?"

"Shore did. I ain't never seen such a dandified peacock in all my life!"

Lambert fluttered his eyelashes and sashayed across the room, demonstrating his impression of Raybern Dennis.

"That's just because you have yet to see Standish," Peter replied, "Don't let his appearance fool you. Dennis will get the job done. Maude Standish ruined him in Kansas City and he can start to recoup his losses here."

"The other fellers are ready an' waitin' for the saloon to clear out. Just hope Jackie kin keep his filthy paws offa that little Mexican gal. I was kinda hankerin' fer her my own self," Jesse commented, obviously forgetting that Ma Nichols was sitting quietly in the corner, listening.

As quick as a flash, Peter's hands flew up and around the larger man's neck. As he pushed Jesse back up against the wall, he growled, "There will be none of that sort of talk around my Ma. The woman is not to be harmed. She is to be used as bait to lure Wilmington into our hands. Then they are both to be turned over to the Madera family. After that, I don't care what happens to the girl. Now, with Wilmington, you are free to do what you wish. Just keep him alive. Do you understand me?"

Jesse nodded his head. His eyes were wide and his face was beginning to turn purple.

"Good," Peter said softly, "Now get out of here."

As Lambert fled the cabin, Peter turned to his mother with an apologetic expression.

"I'm sorry you have to see this sort of thing, Ma. I wish you would have stayed home and let us handle this."

"Peter, you know I have to see firsthand the destruction of our enemies," Ma said sorrowfully. "Especially that so-called priest of theirs. Speaking of priests, where is Father Manning? I must pray and regain my peace."

As if on cue, Father David Manning walked through the door, which was left ajar when Jesse Lambert had fled the cabin.

"Peter, please leave us now and see that no one disturbs us," Ma said as she clutched her rosary in her hands.

As Peter stepped out onto the porch, he found his three remaining brothers waiting for him. John was lazily lounging on the bench, with his feet up on the porch rail. Luke was sitting on the steps whittling on a small stick. Matthew was leaning on a post, quietly watching the sun set.

"All set?" Matthew asked.

Matthew was the quietest and most somber of the Nichols. He only spoke when he had something to say, and even then he kept it short and to the point.

"Raybern Dennis arrived on schedule and the Lamberts are waiting outside the saloon," Peter responded. "Standish should be dead by morning and Wilmington and the Mexican girl will be on their way to Mexico."

"The horses are ready, Peter," Luke commented as he blew his shavings onto the ground.

Luke had always been the best of the Nichols when it came to horses. It was his true love in life. He was a bubbly, happy-go-lucky fellow who enjoyed life to the fullest.

"When do we move out, Pete? I'm tired of sitting around. I'm missing all sorts of parties and dances back in Kansas City," Luke was coming to the closest to complaining that he ever did.

"We wait until the Lamberts come through here with our hostages," Peter said patiently. "Did Perkins get back from Ridge City yet?"

"He came in an hour ago. He said Bubba Kiper should be closing in on Tanner by tomorrow afternoon," Luke answered. "And he met the Fallon twins, Nick and Rick. They've had a long, hard ride from Ft. Worth and are ready to move in on Jackson."

"Got a telegram from Fowler this afternoon. He's on his way," Matthew commented.

"Good," Peter said, smiling grimly, "So far, so good."

(The Saloon - Time is 2:45 A.M.)

Inez yawned loudly as she leaned her elbows on the bar. The saloon was quiet except for the shuffling of cards and the occasional clink of coins. The saloon had been empty for some time now except for herself and the two gamblers. Inez was beginning to become impatient to close up and go to bed.

"Senor Ezra, can you not finish your game tomorrow?" Inez asked sweetly.

"My dear, it should only be a matter of minutes now. I believe I have bested my opponent," Ezra said as he laid down his hand. Four aces and three kings.

As he looked up at Raybern Dennis, he found himself looking into the short barrel of a two shot derringer.

"You are a worse cheat than your mother, Standish. As Maude left me without my wealth, so I leave her without her son," Dennis said, inwardly proud that the cards fell just as he had planned.

As Inez watched speechlessly, Dennis pulled the trigger and fled the saloon. Ezra froze, half sitting, half standing. He looked down at his chest, at the growing red stain. Blood. His blood. He was momentarily stunned that it had finally happened. Then he gasped as the pain hit him. His knees gave out and he slumped into his chair.

"No!" Inez cried as she started around the end of the bar.

Just as she reached the end of the bar, rough hands grabbed her from behind.

"Let me g-" She screamed. As she struggled to free herself, a dirty rag was stuffed into her mouth and her hands quickly tied behind her.

"Careful. Don't hurt her, Jackie," Joel Lambert whispered, "Peter Nichols will have you shot."

Ezra blinked his eyes, unsure if what he was seeing was really happening. He tried to stand up. Inez. He has to save Inez. He just couldn't do it. The pain became more intense and he was overcome by a dark void.

Vin had just checked the bank doors, completing his rounds for the night, when he heard the gunshot from the saloon. As he turned and headed for the saloon at a run, he saw Raybern Dennis leap onto a horse and gallop away.

"Ezra!" Vin cried as he ran through the batwing doors.

The gambler looked bad to Vin. Real bad. In fact, Vin was certain Ezra could not have survived such a wound. He was immensely relieved when he found a pulse. He scooped Ezra up into his arms and ran toward Nathan's room as quickly as his burden would allow.

Buck didn't even bother to light the lamp in his room. He whistled softly as he took his jacket and gunbelt off and laid them across the back of a chair and tossed his hat onto the dresser. Damned if that Blossom Call wasn't the scratch that soothed the itch. Too bad she was always afraid of her husband coming back. It sure would be nice to wake up next to her in the morning. Buck sat down on the edge of his bed and began to pull his boots off. He heard a slight rustling coming from the hall just outside of his room and quietly walked to the door.

"Who's out there?" he asked softly. "Blossom, darlin', did you change your mind and decide to pay ole Buck a visit?"

"Senor Buck, it's me, Inez. I need to see you," Inez softly answered, hating herself for complying with the Lamberts. But with the gun against the back of her neck, she really had no choice.

"Inez, darlin'. It's about time you realized that we were made for each other," Buck said, as he opened the door.

In a blur of motion, Buck found himself on the floor with a damp rag covering his mouth and nose. Thrashing wildly, he felt his knee connect with one of his attacker's groin.

"Umph!" Jerry Lambert groaned. "Son of a bitch!"

Jerry landed several vicious kicks to Bucks ribs and one to his head before the chloroform took effect and Buck went limp and still.

"Hurry up," Jackie urged, "let's get em to the horses."

As Vin was rushing down Nathan's stairs to alert the others of Ezra's trouble, he noticed five horses headed out of town at a full run. Four had riders and the fifth, being led, carried an undiscernible burden.

"What the hell is going on now?" Vin muttered. "I'll worry about that later. Gotta get the others together first."

"He just not in his room, Chris," JD exclaimed.

"Check Blossom Call's and everywhere else he may be!" Chris growled. "Vin, tell me again what you saw."

Before Vin could reply, a soft moan came from the other room. Chris' eyes met Vin's in the silent communication that these two men shared.

The door to the inner room opened and a weary Josiah came out. As Chris and Vin turned towards him, he shook his head sadly.

"He's in the Lord's hands now. The bullet missed the lungs, but was very close to the heart. Nathan got it out, but he's just lost so much blood. Maybe too much," Josiah said softly.

The door opened again and Nathan's head popped out.

"Chris, he's awake. You can see him for just a minute," the healer said.

As Chris entered the room, he was appalled at the lack of color in Ezra's face. His pale face was beaded with sweat and the pain was evident in his expression.

"Inez," the gambler whispered, "they took her."

"Who took her Ezra? And was it Dennis that shot you? Did he take Inez?" Chris asked gently.

"Dennis..." Ezra's voice faded as he lost consciousness.

"Damn," Chris said, "What the hell is going on here?"

As Chris went back into the outer room, JD came rushing in from outside.

"I checked Buck's room again," he said breathlessly. "He's been there. His jacket, hat and gunbelt are still there. Something's wrong. He wouldn't leave his room without his gunbelt or hat."

Realization dawn on Vin and he knew all the action he'd seen in the street must have something to do with Buck's disappearance somehow.

"I saw four, maybe five riders heading out of town in a hurry. They went the opposite direction than what Raybern Dennis took," Vin said. "It'll be light in an hour or so, but I can only follow one trail. Chris, if you think you can track the five horses, I'll head out after Dennis. Maybe Buck's disappearance has something to do with those riders."

"Ezra said someone took Inez too," Chris informed the others.

"Oh, hell," Vin said gruffly, "One of those riders was smaller than the other three and the fifth horse was carrying what could have been a man tied belly down over the saddle. Damn. Chris, you can't go after them by yourself."

"JD, you and Josiah come with me," Chris ordered. "We'll get Mary to help Nathan with Ezra. She'll be here sitting with Billy anyway."

As the men rode out of town in opposite directions, none of them noticed the young clean cut man watching from behind the livery. As soon as the men rode out of sight, the young bounty hunter, Bubba Kiper, mounted up and rode out after Vin with visions of gold coins dancing in his head.

The rain fell harder, running in rivulets onto the trail. The three men were drenched and Josiah's horse had pulled up lame.

"Damn it!" Chris growled. "We're gonna have to turn back."

"We can't! If they do have Buck and Inez, we need to get them back!" JD's face was filled with worry over his closest friend. No, Buck was more than a friend. A brother. A mentor. JD just couldn't imagine life without Buck.

"JD, we've lost the trail," Josiah said gently. "Let's go back to town and regroup. Maybe Vin will be back. If anyone can pick up the trail, he can."

Josiah placed a comforting hand on JD's shoulder. The boy's eyes filled with tears.

Vin was becoming extremely weary and irritable. The rain was drenching him to the skin. Not only had he lost Dennis' trail in the mud, but now he had committed the unforgivable. He forgot to watch his back trail.

As Bubba Kiper climbed into the rocks just over Vin's head, he was aware of the tracker's dulled senses. As Vin rode beneath him, Kiper jumped out of the rocks, knocking Vin from his horse. As the two fell into the mud, Kiper raised his gun and clubbed Vin in the side of the head. Vin never knew what had hit him.

Humming merrily, despite the miserable weather, Bubba bound the tracker and tied him to his horse.

"Tascosa, here we come," he said.

There was so much a young man like Bubba could do with $500. And to think the Nichols had doubled that amount! Full of high hopes and dreams, the bounty hunter and his bounty set off for Texas.

As Buck came to, his stomach lurched violently. He found himself in the miserable position of being tied, belly down, to a saddle. His mouth felt like cotton and his head swam and ached. He couldn't quite remember what had happened, all he knew is his head was aching to beat all, his ribs hurt with every breath he took, and nature was screaming out his name with a vengeance. And his heaving stomach didn't help matters any. And the rain. It felt good on his aching head, but damned if he wasn't getting chilled. Sure could use my jacket, he thought. A low moan escaped his lips.

Inez heard Buck moan. She was frightened and worried about his condition. She had noticed that they were headed south towards the border. Purgatory? Why? She had tried to question her captors, but had only been warned to keep her mouth shut or her "lover" would suffer even more.

As they rounded a curve in the trail, a small rundown cabin, bunkhouse and barn came into view. As they approached the cabin, Peter, Luke, and Matthew Nichols came from the barn and mounted their horses. Jim Perkins came from the bunkhouse, caught up the reins of his horse, and led it over to where the Nichols waited for the incoming riders.

"How'd it go?" Peter asked, as the Lamberts rode up, Buck and Inez in tow.

"'Zactly as planned," Jackie answered. "The gal was easy and Wilmington put up a fight just as we figgered. Just ask Jerry there. I 'magine his jewels is still a little sore."

Jerry ignored the snickering. He figured he'd already started to get even and he'd get the opportunity to get his satisfaction.

Joel started to dismount, saying, "I shore could use a good feed 'bout now. My gut's startin' ta think my throat's been cut."

"No time for that," Peter said, receiving a dour look from Joel. "Martinez will be in Purgatory by sundown tonight. Jesse has already left to meet him. You boys meet up with them and them and Martinez take you to the Maderas. It'll take you about three days of hard riding. Then, after you turn those two over to Ramon Madera, you can get that 'feed'. Until then, no fires and keep moving."

The Lambert brothers were obviously not happy and by the sheer look of terror on Inez's face, neither was she. Buck, still not fully understanding what was going on, began to squirm.

"Can I at least use the little house out back?" Buck's voice was muffled by his position.

"The 'little house' has fallen in. Jackie, you have enough time. Take him around back," Peter watched as Jim Perkins mounted up. "Let's go get that preacher, boys," he said as he headed towards Four Corners.

"Allow me," Jerry exclaimed as he awkwardly dismounted and headed for Buck. He quickly cut the ropes binding Buck's feet to the left stirrup and went around to the other side of the horse. As he cut the ropes binding Buck's hands to the other stirrup, he yanked on Buck's collar, and pulled him into a heap on the ground. Buck gasped in pain and slowly and painfully got to his feet. He ached all over. Before he could completely get his balance, Jerry grabbed him by the arm and began to drag him roughly towards the back of the barn. Buck could do nothing but stumble along with him.

As Buck finished buttoning his pants, he pondered his situation. Not good. His back was cramping too bad to try to make a run for it. Best to go along with them for now, look for an opportunity. A three day ride, he'd heard Peter say. Surely he'd find an opportunity.

Jerry yanked Buck's arms behind his back and retied his hands.

"Move," he said, and he spun Buck around and marched him back to where the others were waiting.

"You gonna tell me what's going on?" Buck asked tiredly.

"Shut up," Jerry said.

"You gonna let me ride sittin' up?"

"Whatcha think, boys?" Jerry asked the others, "Should we let him?"

"Wal," Joel drawled, "he'd have to behave himself. And maybe sayin' please might help."

Buck glared at Joel and said, "Go to hell, you son of a bitch!"

Jerry's fist caught him off guard as it connected with his jaw. Buck hit the ground and Jerry immediately put his foot on his throat, cutting his breath off. Joel dismounted, ready for some action.

"Now, that ain't no way to be talkin'. Apologize to my brother. Now!" Jerry ordered.
by now Buck was getting lightheaded and seeing black spots.

"Sorry," he croaked. Got Inez to think about, he thought, can't let my damn pride get in the way.

"That's better," Jerry said as he pulled Buck to his feet. "Now, 'til you learn some manners, you ride the way you have up 'til now."

Jerry and Joel slung Buck up over the saddle and secured his hands and feet to the stirrups.

"Let's git, boys. Jesse'll have our hides ifn we're late," Jackie said as he led off.

Bubba Kiper handed Vin the canteen.

"Sorry I hit you so hard. I didn't mean to," he said apologetically.

Vin drank greedily and said nothing as he handed the canteen back to Bubba. His head hurt, but it appeared he hadn't been out for very long, so the wound probably wasn't very serious. But he was pretty angry at himself for getting into this situation.

"Stupid. Stupid." Vin muttered to himself.

"Well, my ma always told me stupid is as stupid does, but for the life of me I never figured out what she meant," Bubba said quietly. "Better get on your horse now. We have a ways to go."

"Where ARE we going?" Vin asked. As if I don't already know, he thought.

"To Tascosa. Now get mounted," Bubba told him as he put the canteen back on his saddle, never taking his gun off of Vin.

Vin figured he'd have to wait to make a run for it until they stopped for the night. Hell, with Kiper holding the reins of his horse and his feet tied to the stirrups, he was helpless.

As they rounded a bend in the trail, Vin caught the glint of the sun reflecting off of an object in the rocks above them. Though his vision was still somewhat blurred from the blow he had taken, he made out a rifle barrel being aimed at Bubba.

"Hold up a minute," he said to the bounty hunter.

Bubba stopped his horse, allowing Vin's horse to come along side his own. With no time to spare, Vin shoved Bubba and knocked him off the horse. At the same time, they heard the report of the rifle and a bullet plowed into the bounty hunter's saddle.

"What the hell'd you do that for?" Bubba exclaimed, grabbing the reins of both horses, while managing to avoid the dancing hooves.

"Take a look," Vin gestured at Kiper's saddle.

"Oh, shit. I reckon I owe you, Tanner. Wonder who it was?"

"Didn't see the shooter, just the gun," the tracker replied, "you can repay me by lettin' me go."

"Nice try, Tanner, but you're wanted for murder and I really could use the reward," Bubba said as he remounted.

"I was framed for that murder, not that I expect you to believe me," Vin said softly. "By a man named Eli Joe."

"Eli Joe? I ran into that stinkin' scum a coupla years back," Bubba's brows furrowed as he recalled his meeting with Eli Joe. "He killed my brother."

"Well, he's dead now. A friend of mine killed him. 'Course that kinda left me in a fix. Eli was the only person that could have cleared my name," the tracker said sadly.

"Well, I owe your friend one, too, then. But that's too bad for you, Tanner. Guess it's up to a jury now."

"You know damn well I can't get a fair trial in Tascosa."

Silence overtook the two as they rode on, wary of any places a sharpshooter might hide.

(Four Corners)

The three weary riders pulled up at the livery. The ride back to town was longer than the trip out due to Josiah's lame horse. It was shortly after noon and all three were hungry as well as exhausted, but they wanted to check on Ezra before they went to eat. As he climbed the stairs outside of Nathan's room, JD realized he really had no appetite due to his worry about losing Buck. And Ezra. Maybe they'd already lost Ezra. The dread was overwhelming. Although the gambler was not really close to any of the others, he was one of them. One of the seven. JD just felt that the special camaraderie the seven enjoyed just couldn't be the same without Ezra. Of course not. Seven is a whole. Six is incomplete.

As the three reached Nathan's door, they hesitated, each feeling a heavy dread come over them. Chris opened the door and they quietly went inside.

Nathan, hearing the others come in, came out from the inner room. He looked haggard and exhausted.

"He's had a rough time of it," the healer said. "Got the fever under control for now, but he's so weak. I just don't know. Mary's here so after I clean up a bit I'm gonna go get somethin' to eat. Y'all want to join me?"

"I'm going in to pray for Ezra first. I'll be along shortly," Josiah said.

"I'm not hungry," JD said. "Think I'll just go to the saloon."

"JD, son, that is not going to help matters. We don't need you runnin' yourself down. You have to eat. For Buck," Josiah said the magic words - "for Buck". "Chris, Nathan and me will see you down at the cafe in a little bit."

Chris and JD headed out the door. Chris didn't have much of an appetite either and in his opinion, JD's idea of getting a drink sounded really good. Gotta be a good example for the boy, he thought. Chris was surprised at his own worry about Ezra. True, he had never really thought much of the gambler, but recently Ezra had begun to fit in a little better and he definitely had his usefulness. In fact, Chris downright liked the man. And Buck. Where was he? Did someone take him? Buck was Chris' oldest friend. They'd been through a lot together and Buck had stood by him through thick and thin. The thought of losing Buck made Chris sick to his stomach. Wonder when Vin will be back, he thought. Figured he should've been back by now.

Nathan finished cleaning his instruments and looked over at Josiah. The preacher was just finishing praying over Ezra. He had laid his hands on the gambler and used coal oil to anoint him with. It wasn't olive oil, as the Bible instructs, but coal oil was the closest thing he had and he figured God wouldn't split hairs over the type of oil. Mary had joined Josiah in prayer and the laying on of hands.

"Ready?" Nathan asked softly.

";Guess so. He sure does look bad."

"Mary, I'm going to get something to eat. When I get back I want you to go home and get some rest. You won't do Billy any good if you get sick," the healer admonished.

Josiah and Nathan left the room and went down the stairs. It was quiet in town today. Thank God. Three of the seven were not around and Nathan already had enough patients to look after.

"You go on, Josiah," Nathan said as they came to the dry goods store. "I've got to restock some supplies. I'll be right over when I'm done.

"Right," the preacher nodded his head. "I'll order you a plate."

Nathan decided to take the supplies he had picked up at the dry goods store back to his room before he went to the cafe to meet the others. As he opened his door, he noticed Mary Travis sitting in a straightback chair in his outer room. She looked very uncomfortable and tense. Something was wrong. Very wrong. As he looked a little closer, he noticed that she seemed to be sitting on her hands. No. They were tied behind her.

"Miz Travis, you OK? Is Billy --" Nathan never saw the club that crashed into his head.

"Lady, you did fine. We stick by our word. We won't hurt your boy, you or even that other fella in there," Nick Fallon nodded towards the door to the room where the patients lay. "We just gotta leave you tied up and gagged. Don't want you alarmin' the town before we kin get out."

"There ain't no one on the street. Let's get the hell outta here." Rick Fallon urged his twin brother.

Nick quickly tied Nathan's hands and the two of them hurriedly dragged Nathan out the door.

"Damn, he's big!" Rick said as they descended the stairs.

As they rounded the corner into the alley, where their horses waited, Rick spotted a woman coming out of the millinery shop. "We gotta hurry. Hope that lady didn't see us," he said to his brother.

Apparently, the woman had not spotted the Fallon brothers taking the unconscious healer into the alley. They loaded Nathan onto a horse, secured him, and rode out of town at a gallop.

"Wonder what's keepin' Nathan," JD mused around the last bite of his ham sandwich.

"I don't know, but I'll go check on him," Josiah offered as he pushed his empty plate away. "I just hope Ezra didn't take a turn for the worse."

Chris was getting restless to get back on the trail and was becoming concerned that Vin had not yet appeared. "I'm gonna pick up some supplies for the trail. JD, go tell the boy down at the livery to have fresh horses ready for us. Hopefully Vin will show up any minute now. We meet at Nathan's."

The other two nodded their agreement and they went their separate ways.

Josiah was preoccupied as he headed toward Nathan's. Strange things were going on. Buck and Inez missing. Vin not returning as expected. Ezra struggling for his life. Now Nathan had not appeared for lunch. Maybe he had to see a patient. As he passed the alley, he was grabbed by two men in dark clothing and slammed against the wall. Just before he was tied and gagged, he managed to drop the small leather pouch that contained his bottle of oil. As he was forced onto a horse, he saw that there were four men. He recognized three of them: Peter, Luke, and Matthew Nichols. The fourth was a handsome man in his early sixties. He was slender and had silver hair and brilliant, jolly blue eyes. In Josiah's opinion, this man didn't fit in with the ruthless Nichols clan.

Josiah was forced onto a horse, and the five riders left town in a hurry. Josiah paid close attention to where they were going. South. Hell, he thought, there's nothing out this way 'til you get to Purgatory. Except for a couple of abandoned ranches. Paying very close attention to the trail several miles out of town, Josiah spotted a red satin ribbon hung up in the base of a cactus. A woman had been past here. Recently, too. The ribbon appeared to have weathered the early morning rain, but was not yet faded from the desert sun. Josiah was wracking his brain to remember who he had seen recently with a red ribbon in her hair. Inez! Inez was wearing one just last night. Chris, JD, and Josiah had ridden past this very spot just before they lost the trail. Josiah was irritated with himself for not seeing it. Vin would have spotted it, he thought. No, he probably would not have seen it either in the rainy darkness.

Jim Perkins began to whistle a lively tune as they rode at a swift trot. Funny, Josiah thought, that fellow just did not seem like a criminal. Something about his eyes. They were too kind.

Chris had finished at the general store and asked Mrs. Potter's young son to take the supplies to the livery for him. He flipped a coin to the boy as he went to the door and proceeded down the boardwalk toward Nathan's place.

JD had finished helping the stableboy saddle fresh horses and was also heading for Nathan's when he spotted Josiah's small leather pouch lying in the alley. Wondering how it got there, he picked it up.

JD met Chris at the foot of Nathan's stairs. "Look what I found, Chris," JD said, holding the pouch out for Chris to see. "It's Josiah's prayin' oil. You know, the stuff he rubs on sick people's foreheads."

"It's called anointing, JD. Some people believe if you put a few drops on the forehead, along with prayin', a person can be miraculously healed," Chris explained. "I've never seen Josiah without it."

"Wow, " JD said, "Do you believe that healin' stuff?"

"Well, I'll put it this way. I've seen it work a time or two. Let's hope God was listening when Josiah prayed for Ezra."
by this time, the two had ascended the stairs. Chris opened the door and they went in. When Chris saw Mary's situation, he was immediately angry. He rushed over to her and began to cut the ropes binding her hands. "JD, go check the other room!" he ordered.

In a very soft voice, he asked Mary if she was hurt as he removed the gag.

"I'm fine," she answered with a bit of a tremor in her voice. "Just a little frightened. But they took Nathan!"

"Who took Nathan," Chris asked her.

Before she could answer him, JD came in from the other room.

"No one in there except Ezra and Billy. They're both sleeping." JD informed Chris.

"Who took Nathan?" Chris asked again.

"Two men. Yes, there were two. They were just about JD's age. And they must have been twins. They looked exactly alike."

Chris and JD looked at each other, uncertainty in their faces.

"Now, Mary," Chris took her hands in order to still them. "Are you sure you're alright? They didn't hit you or anything, did they?"

"Oh, no. They told me that if I cooperated, no one would be hurt. But they hurt Nathan. Then they took him," she said.

"Did they mention where they were going? Did you hear any names?" Chris gently grilled her.

"No. Nothing. Maybe I should go wire Oren. You two and Josiah seem to be all that's left of our peacekeepers." Mary said, concern written on her face.

"If you're sure you're alright, I'll walk you half way. JD can stay here and watch Ezra and Billy. " Chris turned to JD. "I'm going to find out where Josiah got to."

As Chris and Mary went out the door, JD went into the inner room to keep an eye on the two patients. Billy was stirring, but not quite awake. Ezra was sleeping very soundly or was unconscious. He really looked bad. He had a slight fever and was very pale.

JD softly walked over to Ezra's bed. He knelt down and took one of the gambler's hands.

"God, I know we haven't been on good speaking terms since Mama died. But please don't let Ezra die. God, something strange is going on. Me and Chris and maybe Josiah are the only ones left of our group. We're like family. Brothers. Please keep Buck and the others safe. I don't know if I could go on if Buck never came back. Why do you let things like this happen? I don't understand. Josiah always says to trust you, but we always seem to be havin' trouble. It's hard to trust you anymore." JD had tears in his eyes now. "Help us, God!" he choked out.

The kid laid his head on the edge of Ezra's bed and before he knew it, was asleep.

Mary was beginning to calm down. Chris had maintained a light pressure on her arm as they walked towards the telegraph office.

As they approached the alley where JD had found Josiah's pouch, Chris turned to Mary and asked her if she was sure she'd be OK by herself the rest of the way to the telegraph office. She assured him she would be, and went on her way. Tough little lady, he thought, as he turned to go into the alley. Chris Larabee was not much of a tracker. He usually relied heavily on Vin. The sign would have to be quite clear for Chris to pick up the trail. But there it was: five horses and an undetermined number of boot tracks. The horses headed south out of town.

Chris went back to Nathan's to find JD kneeling on the floor with his head resting on Ezra's bed. He was sound asleep. Memories stirred inside of him as he recalled the strange positions his son Adam had fallen asleep in. JD was quite a bit older than Chris' deceased son, but Chris found a tenderness for the boy that he hadn't felt since he last saw Adam alive. He's exhausted, he thought. He decided to let the boy sleep for a little while. At least until Mary returned.

Billy was stirring again. This time he was waking up. It seemed his fever was completely gone and the boy looked much better. He was happy to see his hero, Chris in the room gazing down at him. "I'm thirsty," Billy said hoarsely. "Where is Mama, Chris?"

"She had to run an errand," Chris said as he helped Billy sip water from a glass. "She should be back in a few minutes."

"Can you read to me?" Billy asked the black clad gunslinger.

Chris had to swallow hard. He was remembering the last time he had read to his son. Adam had loved to be read to. As he came back to the present, he realized that Billy was waiting for an answer. "Sure," he said softly.

He was just finishing the storybook when Mary entered the room. Tears sprang to her eyes as she recalled the last time Stephen had read to their son.

Chris hurried to her, concerned that she was still upset from her earlier ordeal. "Mary, are you OK?" he asked.

"Yes, of course. I was just remembering - uh - for a second there I thought you were Stephen reading to Billy," she said, embarrassment in her voice.

Chris decided it was best to leave this alone. He went across the room and woke JD.

As the two men discussed their options, Mary tended her patients. Billy was much better. So much better, in fact, that Mary thought he might be able to go home in a day or two. As she stepped over to Ezra's bed, she noticed that his color was better than it was earlier. She felt his head. The fever was gone! She breathed a sigh of relief as she turned to see what Chris was planning to do about the missing gunmen.

"We'd best go after Josiah," Chris was saying to JD. "His was the most recent disappearance. Maybe we can get to him quickly."

As the men left, Mary sat down wearily in Nathan's rocking chair. Would this town never settle down? She was extremely worried about the four abducted men and the injured one here with her. In the last two years she had become quite fond of the men. It was like having seven brothers. Billy had nodded off again and Ezra was still sleeping. Mary's eyes drifted shut. I'd better rest now while it's quiet, she thought. No telling what kind of injuries the men would have when Chris and JD brought them home. There was no doubt in her mind that they would find the others alive and bring them back. She could not even consider otherwise.

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