Disclaimer is stated fully in Part One of Coercion.

Coercion - Part Four

Josiah was the first to move. The dust still hung heavily over the street - testimony to the running horses, gunshots, people being dragged out of the safety of their beds into the dirt street. Josiah had seen the boy being dragged out into the street - face bleeding . . .

And Mary. . .

Chris Larabee had wrenched Mary from the grasps of the invaders and he now was kneeling beside her, holding her - almost fiercely. He had to shield her. No one could touch her.

No one.

There were screams and cries around the shaken town. People were beginning to venture into the street tentatively and tend to one another.

And JD still lay in the street. Right where the man shot him. Josiah moved quickly past Chris and knelt beside the boy. JD had learned never to shoot anyone in the back. And yet he lay face-down on the ground, hurt, no threat to anyone. Where a man had stood over him and opened fire.

But Josiah couldn't afford to give into anger just then.

There was work to be done.

In the rooms that Nathan had transformed into a clinic of sorts, a little girl peered out from under the bed, timid as a cat. She was scared but she feared more for the man who had helped her. He had pushed her to safety, then the guns fired.

She remembered guns.

Ezra pulled himself up off the floor, dazed and wobbly. His hand instinctively went to his jaw.

Broken? The gambler stood on unsteady legs, swaying slightly.

Pull yourself together, man. You're alive. Think.

He forced himself to focus. Focus his thoughts. His eyes. What happened?

He saw Nathan trying to pull himself up.

Ah, those men with the bandanas covering their faces. Coming in and shooting up the place. He took a step forward and stumbled over an bundle on the floor. Ezra steadied himself with a hand to the chest of drawers. He looked at the body at his feet and he remembered taking one of the intruders down. But it didn't stop the others from taking Mary, and Vin, and . . . as he stepped over the dead man and knelt beside Nathan . . . he pictured Buck being dragged out, bloodied . . .


Surely not.

Ezra was alert now. He helped support his friend, trying to assess his injuries. Nathan groaned. "Easy there, you're gonna be just fine."

"What happened?" the healer asked, not opening his eyes.

"We had . . . visitors." Ezra offered little explanation as he tried to shift Nathan's attention. "Now, you have sustained what would appear to be a minor injury to your side." The gambler's slow drawl was an interesting contrast to the speed of his hands. He fingered back the torn shirt and revealed the wound. Smaller than he would have imagined. "Do you hurt anywhere else?"

"I'm . . . fine," Nathan croaked, trying to sit up, but his head started spinning and he fell back.

"You're not," Ezra response was almost flippant, but he checked his friend's head with the lightest touch. "You have a bump on your head, you're dizzy . . ."

Ezra reached over to the bed, grabbed a pillow and lay it on the hard floor. Then he eased Nathan back down. The healer protested, but Ezra held him down with gentle pressure. "People are hurt. . ." Nathan managed to say.

"And you are one of them, my friend." Ezra's eyes held a compassion Nathan didn't expect. Nathan didn't fight. But he slowly raised a hand and touched the gambler's face, acknowledging the ugly bruise forming across Ezra's jaw.

"I'll be fine. I am sure it looks worse than it is."

Nathan shook his head, then winced. His head did hurt.

"I'm going for help." Ezra said, but a hand gripped his arm.

Nathan 's eyes searched Ezra's, then they looked past the gambler to the back room.

Ezra frowned and spoke in a low tone, unusually thick with emotion. "The intruders took Mrs. Travis, and Vin and Buck."

Ezra hadn't been able to keep his voice steady. His eyes dropped and he found himself studying the lines in the clapboard floor.

"Were they alive?"

"I believe so . . ."

Nathan tightened his grip on Ezra's arm, and Ezra looked up at him. "Buck . . . " Ezra spoke softly.

"What . . ."

"His shirt . . . was saturated with blood. It was everywhere. I couldn't tell if he was alive, but I don't know how . . ." The gambler's eyes filled. "He couldn't have survived that."

Nathan lay back on the pillow. Ezra stood up. "I'll get help, Nathan. We'll get through this."


He hated this. This helplessness. He hadn't had a chance to pull himself together. He hadn't had enough sleep. His head was still fuzzy from the injury he'd suffered during the night. Helpless. Powerless. Damn, it was frustrating.

He hated not being able to help. Watching his friend bleed to death. All he could do was sit with him, keeping his shirt pressed against the gaping chest wound.

And he could talk like it wasn't too bad.

But they both knew better.


Mary tried to button the front of her dress.

But there were no buttons. And suddenly she felt confused. Where were the buttons? She let her hand follow the front seam of her dress, remembering the unwelcome hands that had ripped the pretty fabric

And groped . . .

She shook violently and started to push Chris Larabee away from her.

"Easy . . ." he said gently.

"Please," she said in a voice that was strangely hoarse. "Let me have your shirt."

Chris said nothing and eased his hold on her, though he didn't move away from her. He quickly took off his shirt and draped it around her quaking shoulders. She pulled it around herself tightly. It swallowed her in fabric, and she huddled into herself, shutting Chris Larabee out.

For the first time, Chris looked up at the scene before him. Josiah was bending over the prone body of JD. The preacher looked up at the gunslinger, and Chris' jaw tightened.

"His heart's strong," Josiah said. And that was a miracle in itself. How could he have been shot in the back and still have such a strong heartbeat.

But as Josiah examined the wound in the boy's back, he realized it wasn't bleeding nearly enough. Not to be a gunshot wound inflicted from such close range. It should have blown his back apart. But instead, it made a small wound.

A groan.

And JD started to pull himself up.

"Easy, son," Josiah said, keeping a big hand on JD's shoulder.

"Wha- " He sighed and tried again, using the strength of Josiah's arm as leverage so he could sit up. "What happened?"


Such a simple answer, with such a huge implication. JD looked at him questioningly, but didn't get an answer. Ezra had stepped out of the clinic and was calling for help. The gambler's steps were halting - he must've been hurt.

Chris stood up, satisfied that Mary wasn't hurt. He barked a command to Josiah. "Take care of both of them."


The one thing Vin and Buck had in common was an unflagging loyalty to Chris Larabee. And, in a way, that united them as brothers. They each had a special tie with the gunslinger. Buck was Chris' connection to his past, and Vin was his connection to his future. It was odd that there was no jealousy between them. Rather, they complemented each other. Vin and Buck were like two sides of the same person. They shared values and friendships. Both were courageous and fiercely loyal.

But their personalities werepolar opposites. Vin was quiet, steady, pragmatic. He liked to observe the world around him. Buck, on the other hand, was impulsive, gregarious, witty. He didn't have the patience to observe the world. He had to be in it. Vin hardly ever spoke; Buck almost never shut up. Vin made no attempt at humor; Buck looked for humor at every turn. And the ladies - Vin would fall once and fall hard, then he'd struggle with the remaining heartache for a long time. Buck loved women - and women loved Buck. He rarely got his heart broken . . . and he tried his best not to break any hearts himself. Vin liked the way Buck could just drink life up. Living, loving . . . and happy.

They were good men. They trusted each other. They'd die for each other. Hell, they even liked each other, though neither really gave pause to think about it.

Yea, Buck was one of a kind. But he was also one of the most highly principled men Vin had ever known. He'd rather die than betray his values. And he'd rather die than betray a friend.

And he was dying now - not for friend or principle.

But for the hell of it . . .

And Vin's anger burned. He'd help Buck. He'd find a way.


Chris followed Ezra back into the clinic and found Nathan sitting up, holding a mirror to examine the wound in his side. He was frowning.

"This is . . . bird shot or something. Certainly nothing fatal." The healer looked up at Chris and Ezra. "This was all for show."

"What?!" Chris cried sharply.

"Buck Wilmington didn't have a wound that was just for show," Ezra commented.

"What about Buck?" Chris asked.

"Chest wound . . . bleeding everywhere. It had already soaked his shirt." Ezra saw no need to elaborate further. "They took him - and Mary and Vin."

"Mary's all right. She's with Josiah." Chris spoke softly as he examined Nathan's injuries. Then he stood and went to the back room. Ezra was right. The bed where Chris had last seen his friend Buck was saturated with blood. There was no way a man could lose that much blood that quickly and live. Chris bit his lip and squeezed his eyes shut, fighting the grief that threatened to overtake him.

No time for that. There was work to be done.


"Hang on, Buck. Hang on." Vin kept the shirt pressed tightly against the chest wound. But he needed a new bandage. Looking around, he found a rag. Vin smelled it before treating his friend with it. Good thing - it had a strange smell. A chemical smell? He couldn't tell.

"I've got you, Buck," he repeated, and found a dishrag in a knapsack. Good. That was a start anyway.

He pulled the old bandage away. God, it was horrible. Vin could see the inside of Buck's chest - ribs, muscle. Oh, God. What could he do. Frantically Vin looked around the little space. Surely someone had a stash here. Folks didn't travel long distances without whiskey. But then this wagon hadn't been used for years, it would seem.

Vin sorted through everything, until he found it. So old he didn't know if he could open it. But he'd try. And he kept talking to Buck.

He worked on the top of the bottle as he prepared his friend.

"Buck, I gotta pour whiskey into this wound and it's gonna hurt like holy hell. You understand?"

No answer.

"You understand me, Buck?"

"Do it."

"And Buck - you gotta bite on this stick while I do it. You can't make a sound. You got me?"

"Not a sound. . . "

"All right - here we go." Vin placed the stick in his friend's bloody mouth and tilted the bottle toward the wound.

When the fire water began soaking the wound, Buck's already pained eyes shot open wide and he fought the unbearable agony. Biting the stick. Biting hard. Then closing his eyes as tightly as he could. Sweet Jesus, he'd never known pain like this. He fought in silence.

Until he lost consciousness.

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