The morning sun extended it's arms through the window and bathed Buck Wilmington's face in light. He rubbed his eyes sleepily and turned on his side to shield them from the intruding brightness. Searching fingers probed the bed to his side for soft flesh--funny, felt more like a dirt floor than a bed--and found a motionless hand. He caressed it softly, eyes still closed in half consciousness.
"Buck?" a strange voice broke the silence. A deep voice, as a matter of fact. "Why are you stroking my hand?"
Buck's eyes shot open and found themselves staring directly into a pair of deep brown ones.
"NATHAN?" Buck scrambled to his feet in a fit of panic, sleepiness suddenly vanquished. He shook himself awake, suddenly remembering where he was. His bloodshot eyes scanned the small room he and his friends found themselves locked in--no, it was more like a big pit than a room--and saw three pairs of exhausted but amused eyes beating down on him.
"Sorry to disappoint you, Buck." Nathan chuckled and stretched.
"Pleasant dream?" Vin asked, rubbing the sleep from his own eyes.
"Wouldn't mind going back to that one, pard." Buck smiled wearily at the bounty hunter.
"Hell, I think we ALL would." Vin replied, leaning his back against the cool dirt wall.
Buck sat down at his place beside Nathan, taking stock of the situation. Here they were, locked in a deep ditch, a guard standing watch over the iron grates above them. They had no weapons, no food other than the slop the guard has thrown down the night before, and no obvious options for escape at the moment. What bothered Buck the most was the fact that none of them had even the slightest idea of why they were being held in this wretched hell hole to begin with.
He replayed the events of the previous day in his mind, searching for any clue as to why they had been captured and who had captured them. Chris had asked Buck to accompany Ezra, Nathan and Vin to pick up a large load of supplies from Eagle Bend and naturally, he complied. Things were fine and dandy until the return trip, when they were ambushed by about thirty-odd well armed and rugged looking men. With two loaded buckboards there was no way to outrun or outshoot them, so Vin had spoken for the group and agreed to surrender--an idea that Buck didn't particularly favor, but it sounded a whole lot better than eating a bullet.
There were no words from the gunmen--except for the graphic threats of what they planned to do if their prisoners misbehaved. Buck and his friends were bound and forced to walk, a journey that took the entire rest of the day. And then they ended up in this pit. That was it. No other words. No other events. The questions shouted up at the guards went unacknowledged.
The buckboard was left abandoned, cargo untouched by the gunmen. Buck grimaced at the thought--that could only mean that this vendetta was personal. Someone wanted them for some reason. Buck couldn't even count the number of people that may want them dead, but so far he just couldn't finger who.
He could feel his anger growing with each passing minute. If he was going to be locked up he damn well wanted to know why. As mad as he was, Buck was rather surprised he had been able to sleep the night. Their little journey across rough terrain and the occasional beatings from the gunmen must have been rougher on him than he thought.
The four men sat alone in silence. Buck tried to maintain his composure, but the endless waiting was gnawing holes in his patience.
Finally Nathan spoke. "Chris will figure out something's wrong. He won't be far behind us."
Ezra nodded and shifted uncomfortably. "I trust Mr. Larabee will remember to bring me a new suit." The gambler smiled slightly to himself as he glanced down at his torn and mud smeared red coat. Buck noted that he had been unusually quiet since their arrival in the pit. Incarceration and Ezra just did not mix. Ezra had done his best to avoid the eyes of his companions, but his profound discomfort was obvious. Buck almost felt sorry for him. Almost.
"Chris, Josiah and JD against thirty men? Not the kind of odds I'm very comfortable with at this point," Buck growled. "They don't even know what they're walking into." More silence.
Buck could hold in his welling anger no longer. "Damn it! Hey you, jack ass!" he jumped to his feet and directed a booming voice to the man above him. "Let us out or kill us, but damn it, you better do something soon!"
The guard didn't flinch.
Buck was ready to spit nails. "I just want something to happen. I hate all this waiting and not knowing." he said, more to himself than anyone. His foot met the wall in an exasperated kick.
As if an answer to Buck's request, there was a sudden commotion above the pit. Distant shouts, seemingly authoritative, brought the other three men to their feet in an instant. Buck couldn't make out what the voices were saying, but something was definitely happening above. The guard standing watch over the grate nodded to some obscure figure out of Buck's line of view and cocked his gun, pointing it into the pit. Buck noticed that it was trained specifically on him. The iron grated door was unlatched and swung open with a high pitched squeal. Buck leaped back and almost tripped over Vin as a large mass was shoved through the hole and landed in a heap a his feet, groaning. He knew who it was even before he saw the face.
"Chris!" Buck was at his friend's side in an instant. Two more bodies landed behind him and he swung around. No. It couldn't be. He helplessly glanced from Chris to the motionless forms of Josiah and JD sprawled out next to him. Nathan made his way to the newcomers, gingerly probing for injuries. Vin and Ezra moved in to help.
Buck concentrated on Chris, examining the deep gash across the man's forehead.
"I'm alright." Chris pushed Buck's hand away. Their eyes met and Buck could see the pure hatred in his old friend's gaze. To Buck, he looked like a caged cougar, icy hot with fury.
"Nathan?" Buck called over his shoulder, concern lacing his strained voice.
"They're okay--just pretty beat up. Probably nothing more than some broken ribs and concussions." Nathan wiped his brow looked to Chris. "You boys musta had a rough time of it."
Chris's eyes followed the wall up to the iron grate above them. "Not as rough as they're gonna have it." He coughed and bored his fists in the loose dirt of the floor with the wave of pain that seemed to be accompanying every wrong movement he made.
"Well, Mr. Jackson," Ezra plopped down next to JD. "It appears you were correct. Mr. Larabee was not far behind us after all. Who do you suppose will ride valiantly to our rescue now?"
Nathan looked from Ezra to the other five men. He was asking himself the same question.
Liana Devereaux flicked her long blonde hair out of her face. She didn't often leave it down these days, but she liked the feel of it on her back.
The saloon was fairly busy tonight, and had been steadily increasing in patronage in the past few months since she had come to work in the Four Corners Saloon. She didn't particularly like her job as a barmaid, but in her eyes it was better than selling herself and it kept her fed. And, of course, she got to meet a lot of interesting people. Like the lone stranger seated at a table in the corner, back to the wall. Li had seen tons of drifters, but there was something different about this one. Liana approached the table to take his order. The brim of his tan hat shadowed his face--HER face! Li started--not too many things surprised her anymore, but the site of a woman in buckskins was not too common a thing--even for this part of the country. She attempted to hide the look of shock on her face, but realized she was failing miserably.
The stranger looked casually up at Li and nodded.
"What can I get for ya?" Li asked after finding her voice.
"What else?" the stranger's cold blue eyes met Liana's.
"Whiskey." they said in tandum. They shard a chuckle and Li nodded. "I'll be right back." She returned a minute later with a bottle and glass.
"New in town?" Li asked, knowing full well what the answer was.
"Just passing through," the stranger replied. She poured a drink and took it down without flinching. She poured another and toyed with it, rolling the glass around between her fingers thoughtfully. "Nice looking town. Got good lawmen here?"
It was not a casual inquiry, Li knew. She nodded. "Thought you'da heard about the law in this town--they've made a name for themselves. Group o' men kinda 'regulate' the place. Good at what they do. As a matter o' fact, they frequent this very saloon," Li said, her Louisiana accent becoming apparent. "Surprised you didn't know of 'em."
The stranger stared distantly into her glass. "Been outta the gossip line lately." she said with a lopsided smile. Liana understood. She eyed the stranger's dirty attire--it was obvious she out had been out of the reach of a bar of lye soap and a hairbrush for a while. Running from something. The law? Li wasn't sure, but the stranger's question about the law was probably more telling than she would have liked it to be.
Li decided not to inquire further. "Well, if ya be needin' anythang you just holler. Mah name's Liana Devereaux," she smiled politely and offered an outstretched hand. The stranger hesitated. Been a long time since anyone had offered her a hand of friendship.
"Pleasure," she said finally, grasping Li's hand in a firm shake.
"Don't believe I caught your name."
The drifter's expression hardened as she downed another shot. "That's right, you didn't." Liana nodded and started for the bar, knowing full well that was her cue to leave.
"Call me Cal."
Liana turned back to the mysterious woman. "Is that short for somethin'?"
"Yup," Cal smiled. "Trouble."
Liana chuckled to herself and went back to work leaving Cal alone with
Jean Pander sat on the steps below Nathan's room and sighed. The sun was beginning to come up on the horizon, bringing with it the fear. The young woman bit her lip nervously and tried to quell the feeling rising in the pit of her stomach, realizing dejectedly that no amount of self-assurance would make it go away.
Sunrise had always been her favorite time of day. She loved to sit alone in the early morning stillness and welcome the new day, drinking in the magnificent hues of lavender and pink. Yes, she loved the sunrise. It seemed a symbolic "rebirth" of sorts. A chance to begin anew. Just as she had been given another chance here in Four Corners. Her mind drifted back several months to that rainy, moonless night she had stumbled into town, soaked, freezing, and half-starved. She had been running. From the past. From the future. Ezra, she smiled at the thought of the gambler, had found her curled up in an empty stall in the livery, shivering. He brought her to Nathan, who took her in and gave her a new chance at life. When the healer discovered her skill at nursing the wounded, her asked if she would stay on and assist him in running his makeshift clinic. She had agreed, feeling a desperate need to pay back Nathan and his friends for all their help. She owed them. And she didn't take debts lightly.
The butterflies started up again, pulling her back to the present. She watched the sun come up, but this sunrise didn't bring a reassuring feeling with it on this morning. Instead, it brought the beginning of a sixth day with no word from the boys. Nathan had gone along on an assignment to pick up supplies, but they had not returned--which could mean only one thing. Trouble.
Jean wished she had argued with Chris Larabee when he insisted she stay behind and man the clinic while he, JD and Josiah went looking for their missing associates. She understood his reasoning, but it didn't make the waiting any easier.
Six days. What if they were all injured somewhere? Or worse...
She shook the thought away and shifted as the clunking of footsteps on the walk caught her attention.
"Any word at all?"
"None." Jean shook her head and sighed, angrily fighting off the tears that suddenly seemed to surface in her eyes. She looked up to see her two friends, Rachel and Catharine at her side.
She studied the two women briefly, noting the concern in their eyes that equaled what she was feeling in her gut. Catharine, or Cat as she was often called, had her curly blonde hair pulled up this morning, and was dressed as she usually was--in her favorite brown dress, complete with black leather whip. Jean often wondered how she used that whip, but hesitated to ask.
Rachel, who had recently become the owner of the Four Corners Saloon, towered over Jean, even when the young nurse stood up straight. Her blonde hair was meticulously pulled back in a bun, not a strand out of place.
"Something's wrong," Cat whispered, staring into the sunrise as if seeking an answer in the sea of purple clouds.
Jean attempted to answer in agreement, but shut her mouth, afraid her voice would crack. She had come to care deeply about the seven men who protected this town, and couldn't help fearing that her services might be needed yet again for them. Thanks to those men, she had learned more about doctoring wounds in the past few months than she had in her entire life.
"If they're not back by tomorrow, we'll call a town meeting," Rachel said finally. "We'll do it in the saloon if we have to."
Cat nodded and placed a hand on Jean's shoulder. "They'll be okay."
Jean nodded and watched her friends head back toward the saloon to begin
preparing for the day. "Yes, they will," she told herself silently.
"If I have to fight with my bare hands, I'll see to that."
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