Disclaimer is stated fully in Part One of Coercion.

Coercion - Part Eight

This had to be an hallucination. He'd been hit harder than he thought. Or maybe his eyes were playing tricks on him. It was hard to tell much about anything in the dusk. The shadows were strange.

"How 'bout it, Tanner? Where do you suppose Mr. Wilmington is? Pretty bad injury, don't you think? Probably won't live long."

God, it wasn't an hallucination. Vin Tanner was lying at the feet of Jacob Chiles. Not a place he ever figured he'd be. He had hoped that the next time he saw Chiles, the man would be swinging at the end of a rope. But not this. Chiles pressed his foot into Vin's spine.

"Heard you never got to Tascosa." Vin hated that voice. "Well, Tanner, you'll be relieved to know--you prob'ly never will."

For a moment, Vin felt like his back would break. Chiles kept increasing the pressure. But the sharpshooter wasn't about to give Jacob Chiles the satisfaction of hearing him cry out. Suddenly Chiles lifted his foot, and Vin braced for a kick. Surely Chiles would kick him. That's what the son of a bitch did. He kicked the wounded, beat up on people who couldn't fight back. F***ing coward.

But the kick never came. Instead, Vin felt a hand grab his hair and jerk his head back, actually hoisting his upper body off the ground. With his other hand, Chiles dangled a thin gold chain in front of Vin's face.

The tracker's voice was menacing. "You sick bastard . . ."

"Remember this?"

Vin remembered. It was the chain that Chiles had yanked from JD's neck . . .

The bile rose in the back of Vin's throat. Hadn't someone said something about having "shot the kid in the back"?

"So you finally killed him." Vin's voice was gravelly.

"He ain't dead." Chiles dropped Vin back into the dirt. "Well, not yet anyway. No fun if it's fast."

Vin would live if only to kill this man. This would become his life's work. He began to calculate a way to get out of this mess--to get to the kid before Chiles could make good on his threat.

So he wasn't ready for the heavy kick that broke another rib.


Chris Larabee rode hard, JD right alongside him. He had to give it to the kid. He certainly could ride. They rode in silence mostly. So much had happened all at once, what was there to say? Chris knew JD was scared. Hell, he was, too. But that fear would keep them alert. They could take nothing for granted. Whoever was responsible for taking Vin and Buck had gone to a hell of a lot of trouble to paralyze Four Corners. And they'd done it very well. They'd scattered his people and worn them down before they'd ever had a chance to retaliate. JD had to be getting tired but it was Chris who insisted that they stop for a few moments to rest the horses.

Chris watched the kid closely. JD dismounted more slowly than usual. The boy had to pause a moment, leaning against his mare. When he straightened up, he excused himself for a moment, walking stiffly, but not wanting Chris to notice it. Brave kid. Chris Larabee admired this young man, their own D'Artagnan. JD might wind up being the best of them all.


Soft footsteps padded down the hall of the boarding house. Nobody noticed her. The little town was so terrified of traps and dangers that people were staying together in places already determined to be safe--the saloon, the bathhouse, the livery. No one was in the boarding house. But she looked for him just the same.

"Buzz?" The little girl tried to call for him without actually yelling. She was scared to draw attention to herself, but more scared to lose him. He had helped her. She had to help him.

"Buzz?!" she cried out, frightened, as tears folled down her dusty cheeks. She checked every room. But the man with the magic was nowhere. Behind one of the doors, she found a man . . . who had been drinking fire water. He groaned. "C'mere, little girl . . ." And she turned and ran away. At the front door, she paused a moment. "Buzz . . . " her voice trailed away, and with a sad look over her shoulder, she ran back out into the street.


Chris pulled out a cheroot and lit it. He took a long, calming draw from it and then sighed his exhale. What the hell was happening? Chris looked around for a moment. Such a calm day, yet so much tragedy. The gunslinger wandered to a shade tree and sat heavily at the base of it. There was a weight in his chest and it felt like it would kill him.

Buck. What would he do if Buck were dead? He hadn't thought of that possibility in a lot of years. His old friend was so steady. Even in the years that Chris had shut him out, he knew Buck would be waiting there for him when he was ready. When he'd caught up with Buck in Four Corners, Buck had been so genuinely happy to see him, no one would have known the hurt Chris had caused him. Buck loved living more than anyone Chris had ever known. And it was infectious. The hard, bitter man Chris had become couldn't survive in the presence of his oldest friend. And, as Chris thought about it now, he realized that Buck had rescued him. Buck had found the man he used to be and helped him to live as that man--a man Chris was proud to be.

God, Buck, be all right. Buck had been hurt before but he was so damn resilient, he would always bounce right back. Bounce back this time, buddy. Chris leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Ole Buck. Steady, good-hearted and somehow invincible. Be invincible now. I'll find you. I swear, Buck.

A snap of a branch jerked him out of his reverie and he jumped up and drew his weapon.

"Whoa, slow down, it's me." JD's eyes were wide, and he stood stock still, hands out as though keeping a wild animal at bay.

Immediately Chris holstered his weapon. "Sorry kid," he said, but JD didn't move. Chris took a slow step toward him. "JD?"

The boy chuckled nervously. "Yeah, it's all right. I must've spooked you."

Chris eyed him curiously. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his bandanna. "Your neck's bleeding a little," he said as he handed it to JD. Instinctively, the kid's hand went to his neck and he felt a slight trickle. "Thanks."

Chris sat back down. JD walked over and sat down beside him, trying to give the impression of moving easily, but the sharp intake of air gave him away.

"You hurtin'?" Chris asked.

"I'm fine," JD answered too quickly. He never looked up. Chris waited a long moment before saying more.

"You know, Nathan told me you were lucky the way the pellet hit. Even a pellet is dangerous, especially when you get hit in the back."

JD didn't answer. He was sore all over, but his heart hurt the most. "What do you think's gonna happen?"

"I wish I knew."

JD's voice became very small. "Do you think he's dead?"

Chris took another long draw of his cheroot. "They're using him and Vin to bargain with . . ."

JD looked at him quickly. "For what?! What do these guys want?"

"We'll know when they tell us. If they think they need Buck, they'll try to keep him alive. If they don't, he's dead already."

"Damn them . . ." JD muttered, wincing as he leaned his back against the tree. Immediately he leaned forward. "Shit . . ."

"Let me see your back."

"It's ok. I'm sore is all."

Chris could have spoken harshly to the boy, but he knew he didn't have to. "JD, we're the only ones who can save the day here. If you can't give me 100%, I need to know that. We'll have to make a plan according to what you can do."

"I'll give my all no matter how I feel."

"Your heart will, but your body won't. And if you give out, I'll have to divide my energy between helping you and helping them."

JD looked at the ground. Chris put his smoke out in the dirt, then eased his hand onto the boy's shoulder. "It don't mean you're weak, JD."

JD looked up at his mentor, then slowly and awkwardly turned away from him, reaching around to pull the back of his shirt up. It was the giving of his permission.

With great care, Chris took over and lifted the shirt away from the bandaged back, then his breath caught in his throat. JD never took his shirt off in front of the guys anymore, and with everything else going on, Chris hadn't even thought about it. But the wicked scars all over the boy's back were a stark reminder. Jesus . . .

JD never talked about the whipping--probably the only way he could live with what had happened, but the memories rushed Chris now.

"Looks disgusting, I know." JD's words were followed by a nervous chuckle and even though it was hot outside, the boy trembled a bit. Chris kept a stronger hand on his shoulder. The pellet wound wasn't that bad, but there were bruises around his lower back and Chris remembered that the bastards had yanked the poor kid out of bed.

Like that night. . .


Bait. He was lying in the dirt with a hole through his gut because Jacob Chiles was using him as f***ing bait. Bait to entrap Chris Larabee no less.

It wasn't in his nature to hate. But Buck Wilmington had grown to hate Jacob Chiles. And he thought he hated Jacob Chiles as much as it was possible to hate anyone. But that wasn't so. When Buck heard that they'd killed JD, his hatred settled in the pit of his stomach. And Buck became a man possessed.

The big gunslinger rested his hand on his chest and felt the hot damp blood that was soaking through Vin's makeshift bandage. If he kept bleeding like this, he'd die--maybe before nightfall.

Where was Vin? What were they doing to him? Buck was feeling lightheaded. He needed to think straight if he was gonna help Vin. He had to help Vin and warn Chris. But . . .

He looked down at the blood on his chest and he laughed. This was so stupid. Look! He lay his head back and looked at the blazing blue sky.

Buzzards. Circling. And he laughed harder.

"I ain't ready for you yet!" he screamed into the air, but the effort. . .

The effort hurt him and he curled in on himself.

"F*** you, Chiles!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" he screamed before he passed out.

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