Coercion - Part Nine

"OK, Ezra, don't move."

Ezra chuckled as he stared at the shotgun pointed at his heart. "And here I was preparing to dance the minuet, albeit without a partner."

Josiah Sanchez was trying to study the elaborate trap from every possible angle. "Well, I ain't much into dancin' so I regret that I must decline your offer."

Again, Ezra laughed, this time more nervously. "Believe me, my friend, it was not an offer. Am I to deduce from your levity that the situation is not so grave?"

"Don't mention 'grave' Ezra."

Ezra sighed, still careful to keep any movement--even breathing--minimal. He heard the floor groan beneath the preacher's weight. "Easy, Josiah."

"Right," Josiah said, mindlessly. He was looking at the strangely rigged device. Double triggered at least. And that was just what he could see. Without taking a step, without even shifting his weight, he looked to either side. Dear God, there were more.

"Ezra, there isn't a square foot that I can see that isn't rigged somehow."

Ezra wished he had a witty retort, but the most appropriate thing he could say . . . was nothing.

Josiah continued. "Remember that almost everything has been more bark than bite."

"We'll tell the telegraph officer's family that." Ezra hadn't meant for his words to be so curt.

"You're right. We can't know. But I'll just take it a string at a time and . . . figure this out."

Ezra's voice became unusually soft. "Do not endanger yourself, Mr. Sanchez."

"No more than you would do for me, Mr. Standish."

And they both knew that meant he would risk everything.


"Get your hands offa me," Vin Tanner hissed.

A lot of good it did. Hands held him tightly and turned him around. The tracker winced as a blindfold was tied over his eyes. One eye was already swollen shut. Someone jerked him back around and he swayed. He was so dizzy. He hated being disoriented.

"Where's Buck?" he asked.

He was backhanded in answer. Already unsteady, he fell against a hard surface . . . that rolled. He heard the step and misstep of horses.

"Damn it, James, you knocked him into the g**d**n wagon."

Other, gentler hands lifted him to his feet. "You ok?" a voice whispered.

"Yea. . . who . . ."

"Never mind that. I'm no friend of yours, if that's what you're wondering."

"Where's my friend?"

"I'm sure he's dead. They took him to a place off the trail a ways. Figured no one would come across his body for a while."

"You've gotta let me help him. . . "

"Wasted effort. We gotta roll."

"Please . . ."

A harsher voice interrupted their conversation. "Get him on the wagon."

The hand holding him pushed him a little. "Come on." He guided Vin back to the wagon. "I'm sorry about your friend," he said. "It wasn't s'posed to happen like that."

"Well it did happen like that," Vin said as the gentle hands helped him up and rougher hands dragged him over into the wagon.

"Shut up!!"

"We can't leave him out there!" Vin cried as the wheels rolled.

A sick familiar voice from the front of the wagon called back. "Too late for that. It's done. Besides, we need a place for Chris Larabee."

And Jacob Chiles laughed.


Chris let his hand rest on JD's shoulder as he studied the boy's back.

The entire Jacob Chiles experience rushed the seasoned gunfighter and he felt his throat clinch. The kid had been through too much. Too much.

"One day," JD began, softly, "I held up one of Casey's hand mirrors and looked at the reflection of my back in Miss Nettie's stand up mirror behind me." A nervous chuckle escaped his throat again. "I got sick . . ." The boy's voice cracked. "I know it's . . . grotesque."

"No, son." Chris chose his words thoughtfully. "They're the marks of a hero."

JD turned his head around slowly, his hazel eyes full. Chris gently pulled the shirt back down but held the young man's gaze. JD's voice was little more than a whisper. "But I get . . . so scared."

"So do I, son. We all do. But it's what you do with your fear that counts." Chris squeezed the boy's shoulder and stood up. "Come on. We got work to do."


Little bare feet crept quietly up the back steps of the newspaper office. The pretty lady with the yellow hair worked there--the sweet one who had hugged her. She'd help her find her friend.

It was very quiet. She walked through a room filled with paper and many other things. Then she heard them. Low voices. Men's voices. She froze and listened and stole closer to the door, where she could hear better, and her face brightened.

Buzz . . .

She took two steps into the room, but Buzz's voice halted her.

"NO!!" he cried harshly. Her eyes filled and she took a step back, only to feel a cord wrap around her ankle and see a shotgun swing down toward her face.

"Ezra?" Josiah asked, calmly.

The little girl's breath caught in her throat and her mouth opened in shock. She was paralyzed with fear.


Sweet Jesus, what was she doing here? Ezra's heart pounded mercilessly, but he forced himself to remain calm.

"It's all right, my dear," he said, the comfortable lilt returning to his voice. He lifted his hand to gesture for the child to stay still. Her frightened eyes met his and she nodded slightly--so he'd know she understood. But a tear rolled down her cheek and she was trembling.

"Josiah--we have a young and very pretty visitor."

"Oh, God. . ." the preacher said. Ezra kept a smile in his voice as he described the horrible predicament. He knew Josiah couldn't see the predicament, so he made sure he was absolutely clear about the danger.


Josiah admired the way his friend made his voice sound like he was telling a story.

"The bastards who rigged this . . ." Ezra said in his molasses voice, and, still smiling, ". . . were aiming for the . . . proprietess' heart."

Good work, Josiah thought. The little girl knew Mary's name and she could become excited or scared at the mention of it. He listened as Ezra continued.

"So the double barrelled firearm is directed at our young friend's . . .face." For once Ezra's flowery language was useful. His voice remained gentle, but Josiah could detect his disdain. "And perhaps most maddening is that this is all rigged with double trip wires, so the victim would see that she was going to . . . expire. She would know that one step or move would pull the trigger. Or that the arrival of a rescuer would likely trip it as well." Ezra spoke to the child again. "We're going to be fine, my dear."


"Buzz . . ." The voice was so fearful. It tugged at Ezra's heart. He looked at her seriously, no smiling. She knew what a gun was and what it meant. He was about to say something when she spoke again. "Buzz." She nodded to him then said, "I . . . am . . . Kee."


Then she said her full name, which was very long and Ezra smiled.

"Kee," he repeated. He would use her nickname. "Josiah, our friend's name is 'Kee'."

"Ah," Josiah murmured, obviously distracted. Ezra knew his friend was considering every possible way to get out of this situation. He grinned when the preacher asked him, "Buzz, can you tell if either weapon can be disarmed?"

Ezra had studied every inch of the weapon trained on him. "I think we may have more success trying to . . . dive . . . out of the line of fire."

"Your sleight of hand is impressive, Ezra. But you ain't faster than a bullet."

"You got any prayers for the doomed?"

"We ain't doomed just yet." Josiah said. "But I'll pray just the same."


He didn't even care that he was groaning out loud anymore. He hurt so much. He was thirsty. His shirt was sticky. His moustache itched. But he'd be damned if he was gonna die here.

"You ain't gonna get me, you sorry son of a bitch!!" he cried, and his shaky hand covered the poorly-dressed wound in his chest.It was almost as though he were trying to keep the blood inside. He laughed defiantly then screamed at the buzzards overhead.

Then he sang, taking big aching breaths in between lines:

"Oh the buzzards they fly high in Mobile . . .

Oh the buzzards they fly high in Mobile . . .

Oh the buzzards they fly high

And they doodle-dee-doo in your eye

Aren't you glad that cows don't fly in Mobile . . ."

He gathered his waning strength and screamed again.



JD watched Chris closely. He was slowing down. The trail was harder to follow in the dusk, and JD knew they didn't have much light left. Long shadows distorted the natural boundaries of things, and twice already, JD miscalculated the trail.

The first time, he veered away from Chris slightly, only to have the gunslinger whistle a signal for him to return.

The second time was nothing short of a miracle.

JD saw a strange shadow . . . like a wagon rut . . . veering away from the trail. He followed it on horseback for a ways, then jumped down to study it on foot.

Damn! He'd gone about a quarter mile and realized it wasn't a trail at all. Shifting shadows had lured him away from the path. The ground beneath him was becoming rockier and he felt his footing slip slightly. He grabbed a low root to steady himself, and peered over a little rise ahead.

His heart leapt into his throat as he saw he had nearly taken a step over the side of a ridge. The ground cut away drastically, and if he'd stayed on horseback, he could have gotten himself killed. He cursed himself, and was about to signal a warning to Chris when he saw something. He recognized the hat. But he'd been seeing things in the shadows for the last hour. Maybe he was seeing Buck because he wanted so badly to find Buck.

He watched the prone figure lying in the ravine, and signaled Chris. He dared not call out to Buck. What if this were a trap?

Come on, Chris . . .


Chris Larabee heard JD's signal -- a code that meant to approach with caution. He rode in the direction of the call a little ways then left his horse with JD's.

"Careful, there's a bad drop ahead of you . . ." he heard JD whisper. By the time he reached JD, he was crawling up to him on his belly. JD lay on his stomach looking over the side.

Chris followed his gaze.

"He ain't moving!" JD said, breathlessly. "We gotta help him."

Buck Wilmington lay in the clearing below, the front of his shirt dark. Even in the waning light, there was no mistaking that it was blood. Oh Buck . . .

Chris saw no sign that his friend was alive, but he wouldn't let on to JD yet. He'd find out for sure first.

Chris clasped his strong hand on JD's arm. "I think I can get to him," Chris said softly. "You stay here and keep watch. We can't do any good for him if we're ambushed."

Chris took off down the steep incline without giving JD a chance to protest.


Be all right, JD prayed. Please . . .

He trusted Chris. Chris would help him if it wasn't too late already.

Buck looked unnatural lying there. JD peered through the gathering darkness, finally losing Buck's outline altogether.

JD felt a panic. He couldn't see Buck and now he couldn't see Chris either. God help them . . . please.

JD's eyes stung. This couldn't be how it would end. Damn it, Buck.

Then he heard it. Weak, tired . . .and beautiful.

"Aren't you glad that cows don't fly in Mobile?"

It seemed like an eternity, but it had only been a long afternoon. Josiah had gotten Mary to guard the door of the Clarion, to keep people from going in. And he had succeeded in clipping several of the trip wires leading to the gun trained on Ezra.

He listened as Ezra told elaborate stories to Kee, the little Seminole girl, knowing she couldn't understand his words. He changed voices to portray different characters, and managed to stay remarkably animated, in spite of being very tired.

The preacher had made his way far enough into the office that he could see Kee. Ezra had told her to be brave, and it was obvious from the controlled terror that shook her little body that she was trying her best.

The last rays of sunlight leaned into the little office from the west, leaving strange shadows on the floor and the far walls. Josiah worked meticulously, patiently, quietly. But he knew that it would become very difficult to unravel the lengths of wire once the sun went down. Even with lanterns, it would be impossible to follow the trail of every string.

"Whoever did this was sick." Josiah hadn't meant to say it out loud, but evidently he had.

"Oh, Mr. Sanchez, I think we established that sometime around dawn this morning."

"Sorry," the preacher muttered.

"No need. When Miss Kee and I are free of our respective predicaments, I will announce to the world what I *really* think of the people who crippled this town."

Josiah was now within arms length of Ezra. He reached up to clip the wire that was tied to the trigger of the gun pointed at the gambler. "Easy, my friend," Ezra drawled.

"Let's neither one of us breathe for a minute," Josiah said--only half-joking.


"It's all right, Kee," Ezra said, his voice melodic and soothing.

Josiah chuckled. "You've got quite a way with the child."

"You sound surprised," Ezra replied, as he watched his friend work. "You seem to forget that I used to BE a child myself."


"And now you're a free man," Josiah said.

Ezra sighed and he let his shoulders sag. Obviously relieved, his chin dropped to his chest. He reached out and put a hand on the preacher's shoulder.

"Thank you . . ." Ezra was suddenly winded.

Josiah nodded, then out of his periphery he saw it--

The movement. A simple reaction to Ezra's release. One little footstep.

Oh God, no!

Josiah was diving across the room as the horrific blast sounded.

Then he heard nothing.


Chris Larabee barely heard the sound coming from the ground below, but it was enough. He felt a rush of relief. He made his way down the rocky slope as quickly as he could.

"Buck, you keep singing that g**d**n buzzard song, and I've a good mind to leave you laying there."

"Chris!!" Buck drew a shuddering breath and something akin to a chuckle escaped from his throat. "Oh, God. . . Thank God. . ."

Before Chris could even reach the bottom, Buck was reaching out for him. Chris couldn't imagine how Buck had lasted this long. God love him, he was just too stubborn to die.

Chris slid the last few feet and skidded down beside his friend. He grasped Buck's trembling hand in his strong gloved one.

"Easy, Buck . . ."

"Thank God . . . aw, Chris." Buck was struggling. "I was startin' to think . . . you weren't gonna make it."

Chris worked feverishly, examining the hideously bloody bandage that wound around his friend's chest.

"C'mon, Buck." He kept his voice calm. "You know I couldn't let you go too far. You still owe me fifty bucks from that card game last weekend."

Chris' jaw tightened as he saw the extent of his friend's injuries. Buck had a relatively fresh bruise in his abdomen. Those bastards had hit him after he was shot.

Buck's eyes had closed and his breathing became more shallow. Chris grasped his shoulder firmly. "Don't fade on me now, Buck, ok? You gotta stay with me. You gotta help me now."

The injured man's eyes fluttered. "Chris?"

"Yeah, where's Vin?"

Buck frowned. "Bastards took him." Suddenly the big man's voice cracked. "JD . . ." His breathing grew agitated. "They shot him in the back."

"No, Buck, he's fine. He's here."


"JD is fine. He's here." Chris kept working, pulling Vin's makeshift bandage off the chest wound.

Oh God, Buck. Chris was overwhelmed with the massive injury.

"No, no, no, no . . ." Buck muttered over and over. Chris soaked his bandana with water and cleaned the injury as well as he could. He talked softly to his old friend. Looking up, he signalled for JD to come down, but gestured for him to come around the slope.

Buck was fading in and out of consciousness. "JD's here?"

"Yeah. He's fine. Shaken up a little, but he's ok." Chris reached into the knapsack and pulled out the clean bandages that Nathan had sent. "Is Vin in any better shape than you?"

Buck squinted against the pain. "They beat him up . . . " Suddenly, Buck jerked up and grabbed Chris' arm. "It's a set-up, Chris. . . we're the bait . . . They're after you . . ."

"Who's after me?"

Buck had to work to collect his breath. "Chiles . . . " Spent, the big man lay back on the ground.

"Jacob Chiles?" Chris couldn't have heard him right.

Buck nodded slowly and struggled to remain conscious. His eyes connected with Chris'. "Get . . . the kid . . . outa here."


It hadn't been a ruse. It hadn't been an elaborate hoax designed to scare the editor of the Clarion.

The shotgun was real. The bullet was real.

Josiah had been hit in the back, so the little girl wouldn't be hit in the face.

Ezra Standish bent over his friend. The preacher still had his arms wrapped around the child whose life he'd saved.

"Dear God . . ." Ezra murmured, reaching up to feel for a pulse. It was very weak. Ezra eased Kee out of the big man's grasp, trying to move Josiah as little as possible.

"Are you all right?" Ezra asked the child, but she didn't understand.

He looked at her, turned her around, and, satisfied that she was unharmed, he turned his attention back to his friend.

"Josiah," he said, knowing he wouldn't get an answer. He gently pulled the material off of the wound. But there was so much blood. He had trouble even seeing the parameters of the injury.


He looked up and saw Mary Travis silhouetted in the doorway. The gambler voice felt tight and strained. "Get Nathan . . . and hurry."

Ezra pulled off his own shirt, wadded it up and pressed it against Josiah's back. He closed his eyes and uttered a prayer he remembered from his childhood. It couldn't hurt.

When he opened his eyes, he saw Kee, her eyes closed, her head bowed as his had been. Suddenly, his own eyes stung.

"Kee?" His voice was very tender.

She opened her eyes and looked at him, then at Josiah. When she looked back at Ezra, her eyes were full. She took a step toward them and squatted beside Josiah. Keeping her gaze on Ezra, she lightly stroked Josiah's hair. Ezra nodded his approval and she continued.

The gambler and the child sat together in the darkening office, waiting for help and praying for the gentle giant who had saved them both.


JD's heart pounded as he led the horses down the hill. He was impatient but dared not ride. Even though it wasn't as rocky this way, it wouldn't be sure footing for them.

I'm coming, Buck.

It only took a couple of minutes, but it seemed like forever. JD rounded a corner and saw Buck, clutching Chris' arm, a hole in his chest. For a moment, the kid stopped breathing. The last time he'd seen Buck hurt like that, he'd taken a sword across the chest for him. Now, he looked worse, if that were possible.

Get a hold of yourself, JD told himself. You can't help him if you lose it.

JD took a deep breath, secured the horses, and walked toward his injured friend.

Buck was talking anxiously. //Get the kid out of here.// Why? JD's face registered bewilderment until he heard the name.


Was Buck out of his head? He didn't seem to be. Maybe JD misunderstood. But then he heard Chris repeat the name.

Jacob Chiles.

JD retreated a few steps and turned away. He thought he would be sick. For a few moments, panic gripped him. There was no way he could go through that ordeal again. The young man leaned over, his hands on his knees, and forced himself to breathe deeply. God help him. This was nothing short of a nightmare.

We're gonna be all right, JD told himself. Chris'll figure this out. He had to.

"Don't you quit on me now!" It was Chris' voice. "Buck! Come on."

Forgetting his own fear, JD ran to his friends. "Buck?" JD asked softly, kneeling beside his friend, and grabbing his hand. "Hey, wake up. Come on. . ."

Buck didn't wake up but he shook his head. "No, no, no . . ."

JD looked up anxiously at Chris.

Chris frowned. "G**d***it, Buck, talk to me."

"Buck!!" JD raised his voice more. "Would you wake up? Please. . . I need you."

"JD . . . "

"Yeah, I'm here. Chris is here."

"Go home, kid."

"That ain't gonna happen."

"Don't argue . . . with me."

JD's eyes trailed down from Buck's face to his chest, and once again, he felt the urge to heave. He closed his eyes tightly.

Chris kept working to clean and dress the wound. "He has to argue with you, Buck, that's his job."

Buck suddenly gripped Chris' arm tightly as a wave of pain came over him. JD's eyes were wide as he watched the big man struggle.

"Easy there." Chris gripped Buck's hand. "You can ride this out. Come on, Buck."

"JD?" Buck gasped.

"Right here." The boy took Buck's other hand. "I'm with you."

"No . . . Go home."

JD looked up at Chris, but the gunslinger's eyes were hard--unreadable. JD knew that meant he was scared. Well, he was scared and angry both--a decidedly lethal combination. The kid turned his focus back to Buck, who was starting to relax from the onslaught of pain. Chris sighed and went back to work on the bandages.

"What do you want me to do, Chris?" JD asked, very softly.

"Keep him talking," Chris said.

"Where'd you learn that stupid buzzard song?" JD asked.

Buck looked at the kid, released his hand, and reached up to touch the boy's face. "You gotta get outta here."

"No way . . ."

Buck let his arm fall limp. He seemed exasperated. "Chris?"

"He's worried about you, son." Chris explained. Then he looked at JD. "Jacob Chiles is involved in this."

JD hadn't meant to react, but a shudder coursed through his body hearing that name again.

"I know." JD said, then he explained. "I heard you say it when I was tending to the horses." JD reached down and took Buck's hand again. "I'm safer with you guys than I am alone." The kid smiled sadly. "I ain't leaving you. We beat him once. We can do it again."

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