Coercion - Part Three

Nathan Jackson was not going to ever get a good night sleep. It simply wasn't going to happen. He had learned to sleep at odd times and to stay, not only awake, but keenly alert at times when the rest of the world slept. He had spent the evening tending to the dazed, frightened and hungry child. Every step he took to help her had taken three times what it would have normally, because she had been traumatized. He and Josiah had to communicate what they wanted - to feed her, for example - then demonstrate by eating a bite themselves. Then they had to slowly present the food to her - slowly, so as not to startle her. Then allow her to take it herself. This process was difficult, if for no other reason than serving to demonstrate the trauma she must've experienced. Each careful approach underscored the fear in the little girl's eyes.

And what a strange mix of emotions the peacekeepers felt. How paternal and protective they were toward the little girl.

How blisteringly angry they felt toward the folks responsible for her - folks who had neglected her, or, God help them, folks who had hurt her.

And right now she needed safe, uninterrupted sleep.

So when Ezra Standish rapped lightly on the door, Nathan was ready to send him away until morning.

That is, until the child caught a glimpse of the gambler. . .

The man who made the cards do tricks . . .

The man who taught the children to applaud,

To defend themselves,

To play . . .

The man who had befriended the children when their world was exploding around them.

The last thing Nathan expected was the little girl jumping out of bed and hugging Ezra. Ezra looked confused, but knelt before the child and hugged her close. She trembled with sobs she couldn't let go of.

Nathan was dumbfounded, but welcomed the unlikely hero.


Camping here was not safe. If the renegades realized they had only been fighting four men, they could pick up replacements and come after them again. No, they would have to press on to Four Corners. They had lost Vin's horse. Traveling would be slow-going.

Buck and Chris helped Vin onto JD's horse. He was conscious, but he was battling dizziness now, and Chris would need to ride close just in case. Chris swung onto his own horse.

JD was trying to act as though he weren't shaken up. But he kept feeling tremors - like he was cold or something. Why couldn't he shake it?

"All right, JD, hop up." Buck had painfully mounted up, still sore from the kick in the stomach just that afternoon. He held out his arm for the boy.

"You're hurtin', Buck. I can do this myself." For once, he was not making a rebellious, childish claim. He was an excellent horseman. And he hopped up behind Buck like a trick rider - vaulting over the horse's hindquarters, but with such gentle hands, it didn't spook the animal.

Damn, kid. Sometimes Buck was amazed. JD held on to Buck lightly, knowing Buck was still sore. Good thing that JD could stay astride a horse with leg muscles only - his hands serving to assess the best way to balance.

Chris stayed alert as they made their way toward Four Corners. His eyes darted all around regularly. All the while he made sure he was close enough to Vin to catch him if he had to.


This is the strangest thing, Ezra thought, looking down at the sleeping child he held in his arms. How had he gained her trust in the short time he was in their village? He was rocking slowly in Nathan's rocking chair, overwhelmed at how thin she was. He thought for a moment that she didn't weigh any more than Maude's housecat. What the hell had happened to her? Josiah had described how long it had taken to get her to respond to him. Ezra himself had noticed the dark circles under her searching brown eyes. Her prominent bones, covered by thin skin. But even more troubling, her fear . . . A child shouldn't have to feel fear like that. Ezra felt so much emotion. She huddled against his chest. He was moved by the little girl's trust. And he felt rage that she had been abandoned

Or worse . . .

It's all right now, little one. He stroked the girl's head with his beautiful hand, and held her more protectively.

I'll take care of you.

I've got you.


Buck yawned. God, he was tired! His abdominal muscles kept cramping up on him and he was getting a headache.

The kid was unusually still - unusually quiet. Buck had to grin as he felt the weight of the boy's head fall against his back.

Then he sobered. Poor kid. He was obviously exhausted . . . and scared. It had taken a good hour for his trembling to settle. Well, thank God he could sleep.


The sunrise was rose-colored over the little town on the horizon. Chris sighed. It was a straight shot into Four Corners. He was now holding two sets of reins, leading Vin, who periodically was nodding off. Buck had fallen asleep, and Chris was surprised to see that JD had reached around his friend, and was guiding the horse from behind. He caught Chris' eye, and Chris smiled. That meant a whole lot to the boy.


Mary Travis held up her skirts with one hand, while she carried a breakfast tray in the other. At the top of the stairs, she released her skirts and knocked quietly at the door. After a moment, a bleary - eyed Nathan appeared at the door. He held up a finger to his lips, and slowly opened the door.

The picture before her startled her. The gambler was asleep in the rocker - his head leaning back, his arms filled with the little girl who, just the night before, would allow no one to touch her. Mary lay the tray on the table, and Nathan nodded toward the back room. She stepped softly to the door and peered in.

Vin Tanner lay in one bed, a cloth on his brow. Buck Wilmington in the other bed, curled tightly with his arms wrapped around his middle. Mary's eyes questioned Nathan.

He would have told her everything if the door hadn't burst open.

If the men with guns hadn't flooded the room . . .

If he hadn't heard JD screaming in the street . . .

Or the volley of gunshots below . . .

Nathan didn't have time to shield Mary. He couldn't get to her before the men did. Couldn't stop the man from grabbing her long yellow hair and tossing her back to his friends who dragged her down the stairs.

He reached for a knife, but felt the bullet burst in his side first.

Ezra had slid out of his rocker and pushed the terrified child under the bed. He drew his weapon and levelled one of them. Then he emerged - moving toward them, leading them away from where the child lay hidden.

The rifle to the jaw dazed him and he didn't see them go to the back room and tie up a struggling and bewildered Vin Tanner. He did hear the gun go off, and watched sick at heart, as Buck was carried out - blood spreading across the front of his shirt. Sweet Jesus - what was happening?


Startled shouts cut through the morning air, punctuated by gunshots. Chris Larabee was facing off with a man wearing a bandana over his mouth . . .

And dragging a wounded JD Dunne into the street.

"You don't need him . . ." Chris said, horrified by the blood emerging from the wound to the kid's face. the masked assailant backed into the middle of the street, his gun pressed into JD's side. Chris saw Josiah stealthily emerge from the boarding house. But he also saw Mary being shoved roughly down the stairs from Nathan's.

"NO!!" he cried. Two men dragged her over toward him. Her lip was bleeding, and her eyes were focused on the wounded boy in the street. She was shaking. Chris bolted. But not before her dress was ripped open in the front, and one of the men grabbed her from the back, hands groping all over her.

Chris would f***ing kill him. There was madness in his eyes as he dove into the man holding Mary. Josiah took on the other one.

And in the midst of the distraction, Nobody saw Vin Tanner and Buck Wilmington being loaded into the back of a wagon and taken away.

Five men whose identities were masked by bandanas appeared seemingly from nowhere and overpowered Josiah and Chris.

And they all retreated.

The one hiding behind the kid threw him to the ground.

And shot him in the back

Just for the hell of it.

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