For Better or for Worse (Mrs. Standish AU, chapter 6)

Standard fanfic disclaimer that wouldn't last ten seconds in a court of law: these aren't my characters, I'm just borrowing them for, um, typing practice. That's it, typing practice. I'll return them to their actual owners (relatively) undamaged. This is an amateur work of fiction; no profit beyond pleasure was derived from the writing. Originally published in Let's Ride #10 from Neon RainBow Press. This is the sixth story in an AU series, and unlike most of my stories, it's not PWP. It's hurt/comfort.

For Better or for Worse

Susan Macdonald

Magnificent Seven

Chapter 6 of the Mrs. Standish AU

Four Corners, Arizona Territory, July 1878

Ezra Standish had always believed that adage about the early bird and the worm referred to the worm's just punishment, not praise for the bird. Therefore, he seldom ate breakfast with his wife. He didn't notice that she went from her usually hearty morning repast to just dry bread.

Chris Larabee sat inside the Queen of Diamonds Saloon, a cup of coffee in one hand, the Clarion in the other. He looked up from the newspaper when he heard a horse racing down the main street of town.

JD rode through town, far faster than was safe on a busy street. He threw himself from his horse and dashed into the saloon. "Chris! Chris, Vin said – " The young sheriff panted, unable to speak.

"Catch your breath, boy. What is it?" Larabee asked.

Ezra looked up from his game of solitaire, all ears.

"Vin found those rustlers. Found their trail, anyway. He sent me back for help. Too many of 'em to get by his lonesome," JD reported.

Larabee thought a minute. Nathan had been busy yesterday, trying to poultice a gunshot wound on one of Armstrong's ranch hands that had become infected. Josiah had ridden patrol last night. They both deserved a break. "Take your horse to the livery stable. Have him tended to, and borrow a fresh one. Then go find Buck. You can lead us back to where you left Vin."

JD nodded, and turned to go.

Larabee drained his coffee, folded up his newspaper, and turned to Ezra. "Let's ride."

Marina sighed when she heard a knock on the door. It was so seldom she had a chance to sit down and read Godey's Lady's Magazine. "Howdy, Miz Standish," Obadiah Jackson greeted her when she opened the door.

"Hello." The redhead was never sure how to address Nathan's father. She didn't feel comfortable addressing a man thirty years her senior by his first name, and as an ex-slave, he wasn't used to having a white lady call him 'Mr. Jackson.' In the south, the problem would have been solved by calling him 'Uncle Obadiah,' but Marina was Illinois-born and Arizona-raised: the title didn't come easily to her lips.

"Got a message. Mr. Larabee had to ride out after some desperadoes, and your mister, he likely won't be home for dinner. Didn't want you to worry."

Marina suspected that it was Chris Larabee who'd been considerate enough to let her know that her husband would be out late, rather than Ezra himself. "Thank you for letting me know. Is your Nathan going with them?"

"No, he's staying here in town. Got a patient to tend," Obadiah said proudly. "Brother Sanchez, he's in charge till they get back."

"In that case, would you and Nathan care to join me for dinner?" she invited. "There's far too much for me to eat by myself."

Obadiah shook his head. "Wouldn't be proper."

"If Nathan and I had dinner alone, certainly not. But with you there to chaperon us, no one could complain of impropriety."

Obadiah's brown eyes twinkled.

"Hasn't anyone every told you the definition of forever?" When he didn't reply, Marina continued: "Two people and a ham. You wouldn't leave me all by myself with a ham, would you?"

"It's right kind of you to invite us, ma'am. If Nathan don't need to stay with his patient, we'd be pleased to come," Obadiah assured her.

Vin Tanner brushed his long brown hair away from his pale blue eyes. He stood and nodded when his friends approached. "Glad you're here."

"Thanks for waiting for us," Larabee said.

"Hell, Chris, I ain't stupid enough t' try t' go after six men by m'self."

Larabee looked at JD. The Boston-born sheriff was barely twenty, and he was pretty much done in after riding back to fetch them, and then guiding them to join Vin. "You up to this, JD? Might be better if you rode back to town to help Nathan and Josiah keep an eye on things."

Observing the younger man's fatigue, Ezra added, "You are the official representative of law and order in our little hamlet. The denizens of Four Corners might feel comforted were you to return to your duties there."

JD shook his head. "We know for sure there's six of them, and for all we know they might be meeting up with more. You need me."

Larabee did not look convinced. His hazel eyes turned to Buck and Vin, silently seeking their opinion.

The tracker glanced at JD, then nodded.

Buck said, "He ain't a boy no more, Chris. He says he's up to it, believe him."

The gunslinger nodded. "Let's ride. Vin, lead the way."

The trail had gotten cold while Vin waited for the others to join him, but not so cold the tracker couldn't follow it. He led the way, and the others followed him as he followed the rustlers' hoofprints.

An hour later, Vin reined his black gelding, Peso, to a stop. He pointed to the tracks. "They split up."

Three sets of hoofprints led west. Three sets led northeast.

"Which set of the miscreants do you prefer to pursue, Mr. Larabee?"

"They split up. We'll do the same," Larabee replied to Ezra.

The gambler raised one dark eyebrow. "If we stay together, we shall have the advantage of numbers over the felonious rapscallions."

JD scoffed, "You know what Jock Steele said. We're the Magnificent Seven. We don't need to outnumber them to outdo them."

"Mr. Dunne, one of the reasons we lost the war was because of plantation owners and their sons who were convinced that gentlemen fight better than rabble,** and the war would be over in a matter of months. However, when Grant's 'rabble' could afford to lose three or four men to every one of ours, and still keep fighting, then it became evident that quantity matters as much as quality."

"We didn't lose the war, Ezra," Buck reminded him.

Vin snorted. "Y'all didn't. We did."

"Vin and I'll go west. You three go that way." Larabee's tone brooked no argument.

Ezra touched his hat, acknowledging the gunslinger's orders. Buck and JD just nodded.

As they headed after their half of the rustling gang, JD asked, "Bet you both have some good stories to tell about the war."

"Given that I wore gray and Mr. Wilmington wore blue, it might be best to drop the subject, Mr. Dunne."

Buck nodded his agreement.

"But it'd be real interesting to hear both points of view," JD persisted.

"Better to go quietly, kid. Don't want the rustlers to hear us coming," Buck told him.

For half an hour, they followed the hoofprints. Then Buck drew his gray mare, Lady, to a halt. The tracks split into three different directions. "We're getting closer. They split up to try to lose us."

"Or perhaps they wish to outflank us," Ezra suggested pessimistically.

"Three of them, three of us," JD pointed out, his hazel eyes gleaming.

"It would be more prudent to stay together." Ezra had little hope of reining in Buck and JD's enthusiasm, but he felt obligated to make the attempt, nonetheless. "If we captured one, surely we could persuade him to tell us where his comrades are hiding."

"Why catch one when we can get all three?" Buck retorted. "Last one back to town with his prisoner buys the drinks."

"You're on," JD exclaimed.

The two urged their horses onward, JD taking the path to the right, Buck the center trail.

Shaking his head, Ezra reluctantly guided his horse to the lefthand path. "Something tells me I'm going to regret this."

** Steal from Gone with the Wind? Me? As Nicodemus Legend said, it's not plagiarism, it's an homage.