Disclaimer is stated fully in Part One of Coercion.

Coercion - Part Five

It was an odd gathering.

The location was odd. A two-room clinic, cramped with just the healer and a couple of patients. It was decidedly more cramped with the little crowd that had gathered there that morning.

The people there, while familiar to each other, were somehow out of character. Ezra, the gambler, half of his face bruised, sat in a rocker holding a malnourished little girl. The little girl wouldn't let anyone else touch her. She kept her frightened face buried in Ezra's shoulder and would speak to no one. Ezra comforted her so gently, his easy voice lilting in old southern lullabyes.

Nathan lay in the bed in his own clinic. How odd. The healer becoming the healed.

Mary sat in a straight chair, her arms folded tightly in front of her - hiding herself, almost. She still looked shocked. And detached. Her eyes never lingered long on anyone else's face.

Josiah seemed like a caged animal. The space was far too small for the big preacher. And his blistering anger made his presence all the more overwhelming. It was strange. He was so relieved that Nathan and JD hadn't been mortally wounded, but he was livid that anyone would try to make it appear as though they were. Why would anyone create such an elaborate diversion to kidnap Vin and Buck? There were many easier ways.

He wandered around the cramped room trying to find a comfortable place to sit. But it was futile. He finally stood in the doorway, his formidable body separating the little gathering from the outside. And he did fill the entire doorway.

JD was unusually quiet. He sat on the floor in the doorway which separated the two rooms of the clinic. He was leaning against the doorjamb, looking, not at his friends, but at the empty bedroom. He stared at the bed where Buck had fallen asleep just a few hours ago. Now saturated with his friend's blood. JD was so confused. He'd had too much excitement for . . . twelve hours. God, just yesterday, he'd been sitting, relaxed and happy, by the water. Fishing for the very first time.

He was lost in flickering memories - images of the sun on the water - of Vin helping him bring in the big catch - the sunset -

The gunfire - Vin falling - the dead horse - shooting the guy - he had to, the guy would have killed them. Buck was there soon, though. Buck was always there. Buck . . .

A tear rolled down the boy's cheek. He didn't care. He hadn't been this lonely since his mother died.

Buck and Vin were both gone. Buck couldn't be alive, he thought, looking at the sheets on his bed.

But he couldn't be dead.

JD wrapped his arms around his knees and continued staring into the empty room.

Josiah looked at the boy. He looked so much smaller huddled there in his nightshirt. So much more vulnerable. JD didn't need to see everything he'd seen. He shouldn't have lost all he'd lost. Josiah knew what it felt like, losing everyone you had ever loved.

Chris Larabee was pacing the room - a room with no pacing space at all. He cursed when he tripped over the body in the floor. "Why is this here?"

"Because the domestic help hasn't arrived as of yet this morning."

Ezra's tone was biting, and Chris turned on him, eyes flashing. But as he watched Ezra rocking the little girl so gently, his look softened. Chris paused and nodded at Ezra.

Truth be told, Chris had no idea how to handle this situation and it frustrated the hell out of him.


They weren't moving anymore. Vin had pulled Buck into his lap and was keeping steady pressure on the chest wound. Buck wasn't conscious - he hadn't been for a while now. And Vin found himself praying.

The heavy canvas that created the tent over the wagon suddenly parted and a bandana-masked man appeared silhouetted against the blazing sun.

"Get up," the voice commanded.

"He's hurt," Vin answered softly.

"I don't give a shit. Get up!" And with that, the man reached in and grabbed Buck's arm, pulling him out of the wagon and dropping him on the dusty ground.

"You son of a bitch!!!!" Vin screamed, diving on the man. The momentum of his assault drove them both to the ground near where Buck lay. Vin fought harder than the other man and could have killed him, but the sound of a rifle shot splitting the air halted him. In the momentary pause, the man's fist slammed into Vin's jaw.

Strong arms pulled Vin up and held him. Two men holding him? Had to be. His arms rendered useless, the man he'd been fighting now had free rein to beat the hell out of him.

And he did.


"JD!!" Chris' harsh voice jarred the kid from his thoughts.


Startled, the boy turned toward his leader.

JD looked . . . dazed almost. And Chris remembered how terrifying the last few hours had been for the kid. He had been caught in a crossfire that would shake up the most seasoned gunfighter. He had been grazed by some of that gunfire. And he'd had to kill a man to protect his friends. Then after only a few hours of sleep, he is dragged out of bed harshly, dragged to the middle of the street and "shot" in the back. And now he faced losing his closest friend.

Instead of questioning the kid about the details of the last night, the legendary gunfighter walked over to the kid, and dropped down beside him. Sitting crosslegged, he draped his arm around the kid's neck and pulled him close. "I'll find him, son. I'll find both of them." He hugged the kid, as much for his own comfort as to comfort the kid. JD impulsively slipped his arms around Chris' waist and cried into his shirt.

There was no sound in the room except for the kid's hitching sobs. Ezra held the little girl a bit more tightly. His eyes stung as he kept reliving the invasion in his mind.

Josiah looked away from the scene before him and looked out at the reeling town. The people were nervously assessing the damage, cleaning the debris, working in relative silence. People were so resilient. Maybe that's what the scripture meant about people being created in the image of God. God created order out of chaos. Maybe he gave his children a bit of that capacity as well.


Something was wrong.

Well, there was the horrific pain - but he was familiar with it.

Something else. A sound? A cry?

You know that voice, Buck. Open your eyes.

Open your eyes, g**damnit.

It felt like he was trying to lift one of Maude's rock-filled suitcases. It couldn't be that difficult.

There was that sound.


Open your eyes.

Open your eyes.

Buck fought to raise heavy eyelids. Vin needed him. Vin was in trouble. Help him, Buck. Help him.

Slowly, Buck opened his eyes and saw his friend.


Two guys were holding Vin - Vin couldn't even hold his head up. And another guy was hitting him. Why did he keep hitting him?


Everyone was shocked to hear the booming voice come from the corpse on the ground. No one more shocked than Vin Tanner.

Tanner's assailant lost interest in him for a moment and walked over to where Buck lay on the ground.

Vin cut his pained eyes over. "No . . ." His voice was little more than a groan.

Vin watched as the man toed Buck's body over onto its back. "Worried about your friend? Is that it?" The man squatted beside the wounded gunslinger. "Would you rather take his licks for him?"

"For God's sake," Vin said. "Leave him be."

Buck forced his eyes to stay open.

"How about it? You want to go a round with me?" The man continued to taunt him.

Buck glared at him. "F*** you," he breathed. The man laughed and stood.

And kicked Buck as hard as he could in the side.

He reared back to do it again. But a booming voice halted him.

"Tie 'em up and let's get moving. . . "

Through the haze of pain, Buck realized . . .

He knew that voice.

It was getting hot in the little room. The friends were piecing together the events of the past night. Chris was still sitting on the floor beside JD. They had established that there was no way the assault on Vin and JD could have been accomplished by Gentry's people. Unless . . . they had come from Four Corners.

"Josiah," Chris said softly. "Would you check the telegraph office and find out about any wires coming through in the last twenty-four hours? They had to have had people here waiting for us. And if Gentry is behind this, he had to have notified someone close to town to be able to intercept us in the hills."

The big preacher nodded. He wanted an excuse to go outside again. The room wasn't big enough for him and his anger.

"JD - I want you to go look for any indication that they were here in town."

"I've gotta go look for Buck," JD replied.

"I'll find him, kid. You need to do what I say."

JD wasn't trying to be rebellious, and Chris wasn't trying to be authoritative. JD looked into Chris' eyes, searching. "Trust me, JD. I love him too, you know." JD looked at the clapboard floor for a moment, then turned his eyes back to his idol. "I know. I'll do whatever you say."

With difficulty, the boy stood up. He had to pause once he found his feet to let the dizziness pass. Chris stood quickly to catch his elbow, steadying him. JD started to turn for one last look at the empty bedroom, but Chris shook his head.

"Don't . . ."

JD nodded and looked at his friends, new tears clinging to his long black lashes, then he left hurriedly.


Josiah walked heavily to the telegraph office, cursing as he went. If Tyler had received a message that could have tipped them off, if he'd known something that could have prevented this travesty, he'd . . .

His anger stirred to a peak, Josiah stepped into the cramped little office.

But no one was there.


He glanced around the room. Damn - he'd have to go to Tyler's cabin to question him. The coward was probably hiding from them. Gentry's men must've paid him off. Josiah was getting angrier - if that were possible. He shuffled through notes on the desk.


He left, letting the door slam. It would take an hour to get to Tyler's and back. He started back toward the livery, but spun on his heel and returned to the telegraph office. He hadn't checked the perimeter. And he needed to.


He'd figure that out later.


Chris and Nathan studied the body on the floor. Mary had to step outside. She wasn't typically squeamish. But today had been too much. She stood on the balcony overlooking her town. Everything was in upheaval. And she was scared.

Footsteps beside her startled her.

"Easy, Mrs. Travis," the southern lilt gave Ezra away.

"You shouldn't sneak . . ." Mary began, but then she looked at Ezra. He still held the child in his arms. Her expression softened, and she moved around so she could look the little girl in the face. Her mother-hand touched the child's face and for once, the little girl didn't flinch at the touch.

Mary extended her arms out to the her, and the child let her lift her into her own arms. As if to be sure his feelings weren't hurt, the little girl kept her little hand on Ezra's face - careful not to touch the ugly bruise on his cheek. In turn, Ezra took her hand in both of his and kissed it. "Everything will be all right," he said gently.

He nodded his thanks to Mrs. Travis, and stepped back into the clinic.

"Do either of you know this guy?" Chris asked Nathan and Ezra.

"Never seen him," Nathan said.

"Probably some poor reprobate that was hired for this one job," Ezra added.

Nathan frowned. "Not much older than JD."

Ezra nodded. "It would have been just as easy for JD to sign on with someone like Gentry as it was for him to join up with Mr. Larabee."

"He wouldn't arbitrarily open fire on innocent people," Chris said crisply.

"He'd shoot up a room if you asked him to," Ezra countered. "If he thought he were upholding the law and the people inside weren't innocent."

"DO WE HAVE TO DO THIS NOW?" Chris exploded. He looked at the dead man in front of him. JD wouldn't end up like this.

They were wasting time. Every minute wasted was putting more distance between the kidnappers and him. He needed to head after them, but he needed to know what he was up against. This was not an ordinary kidnapping. It was far more elaborate. Chris needed a plan. He couldn't out man them - but he could damn sure out-wit them.


Josiah's heavy footsteps made the twigs crunch beneath his feet. He looked for footprints, for notes, for . . . anything.

He hadn't counted on . . .

An arm.

Dear God, he breathed. Furiously, he pulled the brush off of the body which had been hurriedly covered. Josiah knew he would find the body of Lucas Tyler. He swallowed all of the unkind thoughts he'd had about Tyler just a moment ago. And damn near choked.

The telegraph officer had been strangled . . . with wire ironically. Josiah bowed his head and, as a natural reflex, prayed over him. And he asked God for forgiveness for his own ill thoughts. Josiah pulled off his overshirt and laid it across the dead man's face. He had to go tell the others.

But he didn't get the chance.


JD was glad for a few moments alone - glad to be doing something to help. But it wasn't enough. Why wasn't Chris trailing them. Why didn't he go after Buck and Vin? He should rescue them before it was too late.

But JD trusted Chris. Chris must have a reason - must know something the rest of them didn't. The kid was studying the nooks and crannies of Four Corners. He'd brought Casey to a couple of them. Buck had shown him every possible hideout to woo a lady. JD smiled, then his eyes filled again. Buck . . .

JD forced himself to look for clues. He was behind the bath house, studying the changing rooms. An eerie feeling came over him, and his hand went to his colt - just in case. He approached the last door and opened it quickly.

That's the last thing he remembered.


The explosion rocked the clinic. In a lightning fast move, Chris pulled Ezra to the floor beside him. Glass shattered and there were screams everywhere. Mary staggered into the clinic, still carrying the terrified child. Chris jumped up, a bit too quickly, and guided them to the bed.

"The bathhouse. . ." Mary sputtered. "It was the bathhouse." For a moment Chris was relieved. At least it wasn't the boarding house. It was not crowded this time of day.

But then he realized . . . and he walked toward the door, slowly.

"Chris?" Nathan called after him.

"See if anybody got hurt, Nathan," Chris said. "I gotta find JD."

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