Blood Brothers, part two


Disclaimers, etc. in part 1

Inez winced as JD slumped beneath Don Miguel´s grip, his black hair falling into his eyes. With a serpentine smile, Miguel reached up and loosened the rope a little, just enough so the youth didn´t choke to death. Then he tilted JD´s head up, and gave Inez an evil grin.

“What do you think, Inez? Think Toro will find our young friend a good home?”

Inez´ eyes widened, and she struggled to get to her feet. She nearly slipped out of Pedro´s grasp before Miguel hissed, “For God´s sake, Pedro, get this over with.”

Pedro nodded, and Inez felt a cloth pressed against her face, noxious fumes that made her faint. She fought against the stifling odor, strained against the dizzying nothingness that hurtled toward her at lightning speed.

Opened her eyes a little, saw Don Miguel dragging JD away.

Oh, God, protect him, Inez thought frantically, a desperate, hopeless prayer -

And then she fainted.

Vin Tanner excused himself--under the pretense of visiting the privy--but truthfully, to share the laugh with Inez and JD before they told Buck about their ruse. Too bad there were more serious issues at hand or they could have stretched this story out for a couple of days. But the fact was that Buck and Inez were in danger, and they were all supposed to meet at the hotel in just a few minutes to go over a plan with Chris. Vin glanced back over his shoulder, admiring Jimmy's skill at tormenting Buck Wilmington. That could come in handy in the future. He grinned in spite of himself, and turned quickly so Buck wouldn't detect his amusement.

His grin vanished immediately when he stepped into the alley. He recognized the figure on the ground by the big duster he wore. Immediately, Vin drew his weapon and scanned the surroundings for any sign of trouble.

"Chris . . ." Vin kept his voice low. He ran over and knelt beside him. A wave of fear came over him. He knew it was very difficult to get the upper hand on Chris Larabee. He was a tough man to bring down. Sometimes it seemed that the only way to stop Chris was to kill him.

"Oh, God," Vin breathed as he looked him over. Quickly, he slipped his hand to the gunslinger's throat, praying for a pulse. Thank God, it was there, strong and steady. But his friend was unconscious and it was too dark to see what kind of injury he'd sustained. Chris was not responding to anything--his voice, his touch. Vin was just about to call for help, when he saw her.

"Inez . . ." he said. The beautiful woman was struggling to stand, leaning heavily on the building. Vin reached her in two strides, catching her before she fell.

"They are killing him . . ." she said, clutching Vin's shirt, her voice unsteady. "I am the last to see him alive." Her pained brown eyes searched his. "They are killing him."

"Easy," Vin said, helping her to sit on one of the boxes in the alley. He knelt in front of her. "Are you hurt?"

She shook her head, no, but grabbed his shirt more insistently this time. "You have to help him!"

Before he could reply, the back door burst open and Buck and Jimmy emerged, arguing. Buck turned his attention to Vin.

"What hap . . ." Buck stopped short at the sight before him. "Sweet Jesus," he said, dropping to one knee beside Chris. He too felt for a pulse, relieved that it was strong. Then, almost as an afterthought, his hand rested on his friend's forehead. "What happened?" He looked up at Inez, confused. "Where's JD?"

Tears rushed Inez' haunted dark eyes. "They've taken him. They are killing him."

"Who?" Vin asked.

"The friends of Don Paulo. They . . . kept choking him . . . but didn't kill him. They will kill him, though . . . painfully." Her emotions caught in her throat. "Find him . . . "

Buck's eyes flashed, and he stood up. "Take care of Chris." Buck nodded to Vin. "Inez, you don't go anywhere alone."

Vin grabbed his arm. "You're playing right into their hands, Buck. You're not gonna do anybody any good if they've got you."

"They've GOT JD and this isn't even about him," he said.

Vin got in his friend's face. "You go and they got no reason to keep him alive."

Jimmy's face was blanched with fear. "He is right, senor," the boy said in a small voice. "They will kill him right in front of you."

Buck took a big breath and looked at the ground. Collect yourself, he told himself, and he glanced back at Chris.

"Will they hurt him?" Buck's voice cracked as he asked the boy.

Buck batted Vin's restraining hands from his arms, and towered over the Latino boy. When Jimmy didn't answer, Buck growled again,

"Will they hurt him?"

Jimmy shrugged softly, as if trying to force the burden of explanation away from himself. He watched as Vin knelt and pulled his bandana from around his neck, using it to wipe some of the blood from the slack face of the man in black. "Don Miguel, well, Tio Raphael says he's crazy."

"No, no, no," Inez clutched suddenly at Buck´s arm. She swayed slightly, her eyes - glassy, dark pools reflecting the thin light which filtered out from the saloon - looked at him and through him as if chasing something in a dream. "No, you don't understand, it's not Miguel. It's - Miguel is taking JD to Toro."

Brow furrowing in fear and furious confusion, Buck stared at the trembling woman. She was gasping for breath through tears tracking down her face, and couldn't find her voice. The tall gunslinger was half ready to grab her and shake her until she explained who the sam-hell this Toro person was and what exactly he would do with JD, when a small, terrified voice chilled him into silence.

"Madre de Dios," Jimmy Ordaz breathed. "Toro...is here?"

When Nathan arrived at the camp Raphael was unconcious, and he counted himself lucky that the strange, silent old Mexican keeping his new patient company had not decided to shoot the healer on the spot. A few tense moments standing stock-still beside his wagon, and some slow, careful charades involving his medical bag and the removal of his gunbelt, finally convinced the old man that Nathan was there to help, and he'd lowered his rickety old rifle and resumed his lookout at the crumbling house's window.

Since then, Nathan had found himself keeping up a one-sided conversation with himself as he cleaned, examined, stitched and wrapped Raphael's wounds. He shook his head now in disgust; they were some kind of wounds, and plenty of them, too.

Nathan had never really met Raphael the time he and his young charge, Don Paulo, had come to Four Corners. But, he'd seen the man in action, and knew from the few words Chris had said about him that Raphael was an honorable man above all else. Something about the Latino man's demeanor reminded Nathan a lot of Chris, actually. Quiet strength; a steady resolve touched by a bit of soul-deep weariness; and, apparently, the habit of making enemies who took vengeance very seriously.

"Unfortunately," he muttered to his motionless patient, "I just got done stitchin' up wounds just like these a little while back, so's I ain't wantin' for practice. Course, you're a heck of a lot better patient than Buck was." Nathan paused in his stitching, holding the dark thread taut as he groped for the antiseptic-soaked rag to dab at the oozing wound. "Only thing you got goin' for you is whoever did this was a whole lot neater about it than Don Paulo...."

"To some it is an art."

As deep into concentration as he had been, the barely audible wheeze startled Nathan, and for a moment he thought he had imagined it. Then, a glance at Raphael's pain-lined face caught the swarthy man's lips quirking up into a little smile, and the dark eyes struggling to open.

Nathan cursed and snatched one-handedly at his satchel. As he searched for the vial of pain-killing draught, he asked, "How long you been awake? Why didn't you tell me, I could have given you something for the pain a long time ago -" He pulled the bottle out and worried the cap off with his teeth.

Raphael reached for the bottle with a weak, trembling hand, but a gnarled hand intercepted his, and laid it gently back to the ground. The old Mexican took the vial from the healer and pressed it to Raphael's lips, holding the younger man's head tilted up as he sipped.

"You don't need too much, now, that's pretty strong stuff."

Nathan retrieved the bottle from the old Mexican, who picked up a clean, damp rag, and began to stroke Raphael's feverish face. Nathan waited until Raphael's body began to relax, and his eyes drifted shut again.

"That's right," the healer murmured, "Try and get some rest." He quickly, efficiently continued sewing up the man's wounds, maintaining a soothing, nonsensical monologue as he worked.

Finally, he finished, and he sat back and sighed. He splashed some antiseptic on his hands and wiped them off; then pulled a thin blanket up over his patient's heavily bandaged torso. Nathan glanced at the old Mexican, who watched his injured companion with steady compassion.

Raphael looked to have Chris Larabee's penchant for collecting a rag-tag group of allies, too, he thought. This silent man with the gnarled hands and leathery tanned skin; the edgy, defiant, yet unaccountably solemn young man who had given Nathan directions to this run-down little sanctuary before heading off to share the patrol of Four Corners with Vin; and Raphael himself, confident and strong, even while fighting off the pain of his recent torture. It didn´t take more than one quick look to see a familiar loyalty and friendship between the three very different men. Hell, it was something Nathan would recognize anywhere, because he saw it, and was outright mystified by it, every day in Four Corners among the seven men who kept the town safe.

Hopefully, Nathan prayed, rubbing his weary eyes with stiff fingers, that friendship was hard at work right now, keeping Buck safe from Don Miguel.

The healer sat back on the hard-packed dirt floor, stretching out his long legs and grimacing as his knees popped and his calves uncramped after having been bent in kneeling so long. He was tired. In the morning, if Raphael was up to it, they would load him into the wagon and take him back to town, where Nathan could care for him better.

As he gathered up his supplies, the injured man spoke up again. His heavily accented voice was slurred from the pain and the pain-deadening drug, and this time he didn't bother opening his eyes. "Did you warn your frien'? Abou' Miguel?"

"Chris is takin' care of that, don't you worry."

"I worry." A pause to lick dried lips. The old Mexican uncorked his canteen and let Raphael drink. After several long swallows, he lay back and continued talking. "Miguel...is crazy. His father...his father owns a plantation. He is an enemy of my patron...Don Paulo's father." Eyes cracked open, filled with firelit intensity. "He is <b>my</b> enemy." The eyes closed again, and the man lay still, simply breathing for a while.

As curious as he was about this crazy Don Miguel and his family, Nathan hoped Raphael would sleep now, let himself rest and heal; but Raphael needed to speak.

"That <b>man</b> -" Raphael nearly spat the word, "Came from...the south...from the mountains. His people, a war destroyed them. El padre de Miguel, he came north to Mexico for...more people." Panting from the strain of talking, Raphael fell into silence again.

Nathan was confused. "More people? I don´t understand. Are you talking about slaves?"

Surprisingly, it was the old Mexican that answered; Nathan had figured from the man´s silence that he didn´t know English, but instead, his rich, smooth voice handled the language perfectly.

"Slaves," he confirmed. "For plantations in the south, for mines, and for the beds of the caballeros. This man is a stealer of children, of young men and women."

"They are without honor," Raphael hissed, balling his fist and thumping it with surprising strength on the ground beside him. "Father and son both. Cowards. Killers." He caught Nathan with open, clear eyes and held him with the passion in his gaze. Anger filled the man with energy, and his next words spilled out with steady determination. "You must find Miguel before he finds your friend. But take care, because his father follows him. His father plays other games than revenge..." a hand ghosted up to touch the bandages beneath the blanket. "To him, people are either pieces of barter...or...or like a tree in the path, to be cut out of the way."

The healer shook his head in disgust; he´d known plenty like Raphael´s description in the South. "Does Chris know about Miguel´s father?"

The Latino man shook his head slightly. "No time to tell. Watch for him, si? You will know him when you see him. He´s big, bigger than you, and even bigger than your preacher friend. A cunning bull of a man. He is called El Toro."

Ezra walked with exaggerated care up to his door, sighing in relief that he was finally home. He'd come up the back way in an attempt to avoid anyone in the lobby, not wanting to be diverted from his objective. He wanted nothing more than a long night's oblivion.

Opening the door, he stepped into the dark room and automatically groped around for the lamp he kept near the door. His hand knocked against the tin box he kept matches in and he grabbed quickly, just barely saving them from a tumble to the floor. Cursing softly, he took one out, struck it, and finally lit the lamp.

Putting the box back next to the lamp, he looked over at the bed and came to a dead stop.

"Hello, there," she said in a sultry voice.

The brandy had gone to his brain enough that he took a moment to recognize her. Just as realization hit him, someone grabbed him from behind, pinning his arms back so that he couldn't get his derringer or his revolver.

"Claudia?" he asked, for a moment too stunned to struggle.

"You do remember." She smiled wickedly, running a finger along the lace of her décolletage. "And Henry thought you wouldn't."

Ezra's eyes widened as he slowly put together who must be holding him captive. But that made no sense. Why would Henry <b>and</b> Claudia . . .
 
Before he could finish the thought, Claudia rose sinuously from the bed and advanced toward him with all the grace of a panther stalking her prey. Still smiling that same provocative smile, she slowly raised her skirt to reveal a scabbard strapped to her thigh.

Then, in a move so fast Ezra couldn't track it, she whipped the knife out and plunged it into his chest.

The oddest thing about it was that he felt nothing but a piercing cold and an almost overwhelming bewilderment. Henry, he could understand, but Claudia. . . ?

He tried to ask, but his mouth wasn't quite working right, and then there was a burst of laughter outside the door and he was thrown to the ground . .. and then the pain hit.

Dear Lord, the pain.

The last thing he remembered was the sound of the door slamming and his own voice whispering, "Why?"

<b>Three hours (or so) later</b>
There was dead silence in the alley. Vin tried not to think about how appropriate that expression might just prove to be, and turned his mind to what needed to be done. Jimmy and Inez both were in a panic about this Toro man, whoever he was, and that didn't bode well for JD or Raphael . . . or for the rest of them, since he was thinking about it.

"Who's Toro?" he asked gently, not wanting to spook the young Mexican any more than he already was, but urgently needing to know the answer. One of his own's life could depend on it, and Vin had never taken such a thing lightly.

Jimmy's eyes darted around the dark alley as if he expected the boogie monster to jump out at him right then, but he answered in a determinedly calm voice, "El Toro . . . he is Don Miguel's father. He is crazy, that one, crazy like a rabid dog. He's built like a bull, that's why they call him 'Toro,' but you'd be safer in the path of a raging bull than anywhere near him when he is angry at you."

Buck snorted, his wild eyes making him look a little like a raging bull himself. "I don't care what he is, I aim to get JD back, and I'll damn well kill anyone who gets in my way, whether they call him El Toro or El Worm-o."

"Now, calm down, Buck," Vin said as patiently as he could manage. That wasn't much, given that he was as worried as Buck, and couldn't help the niggling feeling that they wouldn't be in this situation if Buck hadn't made JD mad and given him reason to be out here with no one but Inez for company in the middle of the night. "We ain't gonna get nowhere if we go off half-cocked. We need Josiah and Ezra in on this, we gotta get Chris inside and woke up, and we need to make a plan so we can get JD back without losin' anyone else."

Buck bristled, and for a second, Vin thought the gunslinger was going to challenge him. Then there was a soft moan from the man still sprawled in the dirt, and they both moved to his side.

"Chris?" Vin patted his cheek gently. "Time to wake up, pard."

Chris moaned again, his eyes blinking open. An instant later, he was lunging for his guns, Vin was sprawled back in the dirt, and Buck was half-lying on him, saying in an insistent, soothing tone, "Easy, Chris, easy. Just friends here. Don't go shootin' Vin, now, we might need him later."

Chris stared around wildly for a second, then seemed to place where he was. . . or at least, that he wasn't in immediate danger.

"What happened?" he asked hoarsely, allowing Buck to help him sit up. He shot an apologetic glance at Vin. "Sorry about that."

Vin shook his head, grinning wryly. "Glad to have you back, cowboy."

"Senors," Inez broke in, her voice sounding more normal than it had since they'd found her, "you said you wanted Senor Josiah and Senor Ezra. I will go find them . . ."

"No." Vin shook his head as he got to his feet and brushed his pants off. "You don't need to be walkin' around town by yourself, ma'am. Young Jimmy here can run fetch Josiah and Ezra while me 'n' Buck escort you 'n' Chris back into the saloon."

"Since when do I need an escort to walk ten feet?" Chris protested.

Vin, noting the way he winced as he raised his voice, wasn't intimidated. "Since you took a crack on the head that woulda killed anyone who didn't have your thick skull. Jimmy, Josiah's in the church at the end of the street and Ezra's in the hotel at the other end of town. I'd get Josiah first, 'cause Ezra ain't likely to open the door to someone he don't know without a gun in his hand."

Jimmy nodded earnestly and ran off.

"C'mon, Chris, let's get you back to the saloon," Buck said, slipping Chris's arm over his shoulders and helping him up.

Protests aside, Chris swayed dizzily once he got his feet under him, and Vin moved quickly to take his other arm. They made a strange procession walking back into the saloon: Inez in front, hugging her arms around herself with uncharacteristic anxiousness, and Buck and Vin leading Chris, who walked with his eyes closed and his steps uncertain.

<

Josiah had never much liked being awoken from a sound sleep, but it had happened to him enough in his life that he could go from unconscious to running for his life in seconds. He was sleepily grateful that <b>that</b> much awareness wasn't required of him as he stumbled to the sanctuary doors to answer the insistent pounding. He did, of course, take his gun with him, but that was instinct and didn't require any real wakefulness at all.

"Who's there, this had better be good!" Josiah called out, grumbling.

"Please. Senor." A boy's voice came from the other side. "The others sent me to get you. There is trouble!"

Josiah opened the door aand took in the appearance of the smaller boy. He'd seen him ride into town with Chris and Vin earlier that evening; the boy had been introduced as one of Raphael Martinez's friends. Nodding to him, he gestured for the boy to tell him more. Trouble. Nothing new there, he just wondered two things. Who was involved, and what had happened so far.

"They sent me to get you, then someone named Ezra." Jimmy half-ran ahead, trying to keep up with Josiah's long strides. "They said he would not open the door to someone he did not no. He is a careful man, Si?"

"Si, me amigo." Josiah grinned. True enough, Ezra would shoot first and ask questions later, considering the mood the gambler was in lately.

As the two made their way up the stairs, Josiah noticed a strange couple downstairs, waiting for something. Something about those two struck him as funny. Soon they were at Ezra's door. Josiah knocked loudly enough to wake Ezra, but not loud enough to wake the whole floor.

Nothing.

Josiah knocked again. Still no answer. Frowning, Josiah tried the handle; it was unlocked. That was wrong. Ezra was never that unwary. Carefully opening the door, Josiah called out. "Ezra?"

Still no answer, and no click of a gun being cocked either. Either Ezra wasn't there, or he was dead asleep. Josiah opened the door all the way and stood, staring in shock at what it revealed.

"Madre de dios!" Jimmy exclaimed. "What has happened!"

"Ezra!" Josiah called out, running to the figure curled up on the floor. A small pool of blood covered his chest, and a wicked looking knife stuck out of it. Noting the lack of severe blood loss, Josiah breathed a sigh of relief and didn't pull the knife out. It might be the only thing keeping Ezra alive. They needed Nathan.

"Go get the others." Josiah looked up at the frightened boy. "Hurry!"

Jimmy left at a run, his footsteps echoing down the empty hallway, leaving the door open behind him. Josiah tried to stem the small but steady stream of blood out of Ezra's chest with a cloth he found on the dresser. Ezra was still breathing, a good thing. Josiah only hoped help would come soon, or Ezra would die!

Keeping a slight pressure on the wound, Josiah gently straightened Ezra out into a more comfortable position. The gambler made a soft sound, not quite a whimper, and Josiah rested a hand on his forehead.

"Easy, now, don't try to move," he soothed. Ezra might or might not be able to understand him; it was the familiar, safe voice that counted right now. That, and getting Ezra warmed up. There was no telling how long Ezra'd been lying here--maybe several hours, by the amount of blood on him and on the floor. He'd long since caught a chill, at any rate, and that could kill him even if the knife wound didn't.

"Just hang on a minute, son." He stood and quickly crossed to the bed, jerking the rumpled comforter off impatiently. Returning to Ezra, he lifted the gambler enough to slide the comforter under and around him, then eased him back down. "You'll likely complain about how I ruined your fine bedding, but at least you'll be alive to belly-ache, my friend."

Ezra stirred again, beginning to struggle against the confines of the blanket. Josiah returned his hand to Ezra's forehead, wincing at the cold, clammy feeling of his skin. He murmured something pointless, as much to calm himself as to soothe Ezra. From where he was sitting, he could see smears of blood on the wooden floor, as if Ezra had thrashed around . . . or had tried to reach the door for help.

Josiah couldn't even imagine what it would be like, lying alone with a knife in your chest, feeling the blood seep out of you and knowing you were likely going to die . . . and worse, knowing that there were at least six people not too far away who would take care of you, if you could only reach them. At least, he hoped Ezra had known that; with the gambler, it was hard to tell what he believed.

The image left Josiah with an anger in his chest that was as familiar as it was frightening. This same rage had gotten him in trouble before; when someone he cared about or someone who was defenseless was hurt, he found it all too easy to lose control. He wasn't going to lose control this time, though, because when he found the man who had done this to his friend and left him here, alone . . . he wanted to enjoy every minute of it.

If only Nathan wasn't out of town . . . If only the others would hurry and get here. He didn't dare try to move Ezra himself with the knife sticking out of him, but he couldn't stay on the floor much longer, and they had to do something about getting the knife out and getting him bandaged up.

And then, they had to find whoever had done this, and make him pay.

Jimmy ran as fast as his young legs could carry him, bursting through the bat-wing doors of the saloon. His frightened eyes searched the room, finally seeing the men his cousin Raphael called the Magnificos.

Vin's hackles rose as the breathless youth crossed the sawdust floor to stand beside their table. "What's wrong, Jimmy?" the tracker growled.

"Josiah said to come quickly. Your friend, Ezra -- he is hurt. Josiah needs your help."

Buck lunged to his feet. "What? What's wrong with Ezra?"

Jimmy swallowed. "He has been stabbed. You must hurry."

Buck bolted for the door, Vin and Jimmy on his heels. Chris unsteadily rose to his feet, ignoring the throbbing in his head and the way the room spun as he took a couple of tentative steps toward the door.

"Chris, you must sit down," Inez advised, grabbing the gunslinger's arm and steadying him. Tugging on the arm, Inez tried to lead Chris back to his chair.

"Like hell I'm going to sit down. I've got to get over to the hotel. Ezra needs help."

"Josiah, Buck and Vin are already there. They will help him. You can't help if you're passed out on the floor," she scolded.

Chris knew her advice was sound but he ignored it, heading once more for the door. Rolling her eyes in frustration, Inez followed the stubborn man and hoped she'd be able to catch him if he passed out.

Josiah heard the heavy footsteps pounding up the stairs, then Buck, Vin and Jimmy burst into the room, pausing as they took in the scene before them. Josiah crouched on the floor beside the limp form of the gambler, one hand absently patting Ezra's arm in a soothing motion. In the dim yellow glow of the kerosene lamp, Ezra's face was ashen, his features slack in unconsciousness.

Vin didn't mince words. "He still alive?"

Josiah met the tracker's angry gaze, nodding. "Yeah, for now. He's lost a lot of blood, but it ain't as bad as it could've been."

"Damn it! Who did this to him?" Buck snapped, his voice tight with frustrated rage as he crossed the room and dropped to his knees beside Josiah.

The ex-preacher shook his head. "Don't know. I'm gonna need your help; we gotta get him off the floor without jostling the knife any." As he spoke, Josiah pulled the comforter back, revealing the knife protruding obscenely from the bloody linen of Ezra's shirt. The hilt bobbed up and down with each gasping breath the gambler drew into his body.

"Aww, damn," Vin muttered, his face leeching of color.

"You said it, Brother," Josiah softly agreed. "Let's get him up on the bed."

Working together, Vin, Buck, Josiah and Jimmy slipped their arms under the gambler, carefully lifting him and shuffling the few paces to the bed. Ezra wasn't the biggest of men, but now, limp in their grasp, he seemed as frail and fragile as a child.

As they set the injured man down in the center of the bed, Ezra let out a low, agonized moan, the sound coming from the very depths of his soul. Wincing in sympathy, Josiah grabbed a pillow and tucked it under the gambler's head. Buck snatched the bloody comforter up from the floor and tucked it around the shivering form.

"That knife's gotta come out," Buck announced grimly, glancing at his two friends.

The ex-preacher sighed, running one large hand through his grizzled hair. "We're gonna have to get Nathan to do it. He ain't bled much -- the knife's probably the only thing keepin' Ezra's blood inside 'im. You pull it and he could bleed to death."

Vin nodded, looking down at the wan figure on the bed. "Is he gonna make it 'til I can ride out and get Nathan?"

Josiah was about to reply when a sudden shadow crossed the open door. Buck and Vin drew their weapons, ready to protect their defenseless friend should his attacker show himself. Breathing a collective sigh of relief, the four men watched as Chris and Inez slowly walked into the room. The Mexican woman had a tight grip on Chris' arm, helping the obviously unsteady gunslinger over to the bed.

Inez gasped, her dark eyes wide with shock, as she saw Ezra. She quickly looked away, biting her lower lip to stifle the sob that suddenly welled in the back of her throat. Josiah thought he saw tears glistening in the corners of her eyes as she dropped her gaze to the floor.

"How bad is it?" Chris questioned, his voice flat as he stared down at their injured companion.

"It's bad, Chris. I'm gonna take Jimmy and ride out and get Nathan," Vin replied, nodding his head toward the young man standing at the foot of the bed. Jimmy met the tracker's gaze, finally giving one short, sharp nod of agreement.

Chris' eyes narrowed. "Any idea who did this?"

"Nope. The only ones who know for sure are Ezra and whoever did this to him, and Ezra ain't telling," Josiah answered, his face set into a determined mask. "When we find out, though, I'm gonna personally send the sorry bastard to hell."

The alleyway was dark, the two figures in silhouette as they skulked in the forbidding shadows.

Henry spoke first. “You didn´t have to stab him.”

The woman Claudia turned away, one hand brushing her long black hair. “And you didn´t have to pin him back while I did it. But didn´t it feel glorious?”

The man shrugged, an indifferent movement in the indifferent dark. “He had it coming. Don Miguel asked us to create a distraction so he wouldn´t be followed, and I guess we gave him one. Now what?”

Claudia tilted her head toward the faint light of the saloon across the street. She smiled lazily. “We watch my lover Ezra die.”

Henry gave a small, hiccoughing laugh and pulled out a lace-trimmed handkerchief. “Now that I´d pay to see.”

“So would I.” Claudia said with a soft snicker as she reached into her low-necked dress. Pulling out a not-too-small wad of cash she whispered, “We have the money to pay for such an extravagance, don´t we, love? Now that we´ve thrown the baggage out.”

“It´s enough.” Henry said almost resentfully.

Claudia nodded and kept smiling, her eyes almost rapturous as she eyed the lamplit window that fronted Ezra´s bedroom. “I made the wound shallow enough so he would suffer.”

“Good.” Henry groused as he blew his nose into the handkerchief. “He should suffer, after robbing me of all that money. He should - “

At that moment the saloon doors burst open, and the long-haired man in the fringed jacket ran out, a young Mexican boy at his heels. The man practically threw himself onto a nearby horse, and swiftly held a hand out to the boy, who swung himself up behind him in the saddle. In a moment horse and riders tore out of sight, into the darkness.

Henry walked to the front of the alley to watch, felt Claudia´s hand slip onto his shoulder as she purred, “They´re trying to save him. Isn´t it amazing? He actually has friends.”

“Huh.” Henry grunted. After a moment´s hesitation he added, “I hope he doesn´t have any doctor friends. If Standish recovers we´re finished.”

“Oh, but my love forgets,” Claudia responded sweetly as she squeezed her husband´s shoulder, “We have friends too. And they are destroying his friends...”

Henry turned his head toward Claudia, toward the dreamy sound of her voice.

She smiled gently at him, and playfully reached up with one slender finger to tap his nose as she whispered: “One...by...one.” And smiled in the shadowy dark.

“Slow down!” Jimmy cried to Vin as he held onto the tracker´s jacket for dear life. “You´ll kill us both!”

Vin shook his head, his sharp eyes scanning the moonlit scrub until he spied the small fire that marked his destination. “No time for dawdlin´, kid! Just hang on!”

Jimmy groaned and held onto Vin´s jacket tighter. The fire loomed closer, closer. Vin brought his horse to a quick stop as he saw a shadow stand up in front of the fire. It was Nathan.

“What are you doin´ here?” the healer asked in slight irritation as Vin quickly dismounted. “You find that Don Miguel guy?”

Vin shook his head, out of breath as his eyes took in Raphael´s sleeping form, and the old Mexican next to him. Looking at Nathan he panted, “No, but somebody sure found Ezra. He´s got a knife stuck in his chest.”

Nathan´s eyebrows shot up. “He ain´t - “

Vin shook his head again, faster this time. “He ain´t dead yet, but we could sure use your help.” His eyes shot to Raphael, desperation in their blue depths. “He fit to ride?”

Nathan sighed, scratched his head. “Maybe by morning, I was gonna put him in the wagon. He´s been hurt bad, and by somebody who knows how. This Don Miguel, he´s beginning to sound like he´s some bad news.”

Jimmy had been standing with Vin´s horse, but at Nathan´s words he came forward and blurted, “He is, but Toro´s worse. Can we take Raphael to town now, so he´s safe? Please?”

“Toro?” Nathan´s brow furrowed, and he looked at Vin quizzically, “Raphael was tellin´ me about some man named Toro.”

Vin sighed, took off his hat. “Yeah, after you left we found Inez knocked out in the alley. Chris too.”

Nathan took a quick breath. “They OK?”

Vin nodded, “But JD was with Inez, and I guess Don Miguel got the drop on him. When we found Inez, JD was gone. She told us Miguel was taking him to this Toro.”

“Oh, no.”

Vin and Nathan both turned at the sound of Raphael´s voice. He was still lying by the fire, half-propped up by the broken wall, but his eyes were open a little and he seemed to be struggling to open them wider. As the old Mexican reached out to help him, Raphael pushed himself with one arm and looked at Vin apprehensively as he and Nathan hurried over, Jimmy at their heels.

“Take it easy,” Nathan soothed as he knelt close, but Raphael didn´t seem to hear him. With one trembling hand he reached for the front of Vin´s jacket, gripped it tensely as his widening eyes searched the tracker´s face.

“Tell me I heard you wrong,” Raphael whispered, all his strength in those halting words. “Tell me the chiquito is not in that bastard´s hands.”

Vin peered at Raphael´s anxious face, saw the fear there and felt his stomach knot painfully. Couldn´t bring himself to answer.

Raphael´s eyes widened further, and he dropped his hand from Vin´s jacket. Looking at the old Mexican he said, “Load your guns, Diego. And get my clothes, quickly.”

Diego nodded, and got to his feet.

Nathan watched him and turning serious eyes to Raphael said, “Now just a minute. You ain´t in any shape to go anywhere till morning - “

“No time for that, senor,” Raphael was pulling himself into a sitting position, “One of your friends is badly injured, and the other - “ His eyes shot to Jimmy, who was hovering by the fire and looking at Raphael with naked fear in his round eyes. After a moment he shook his head and gasped, “No, I have been idle too long. We must get to your town, your compadres need our help if any of us is to come out of this alive.”

Vin felt the knot in his gut tighten, watched as Nathan helped Raphael to his feet, slowly. Seeing the grim resolution in Raphael´s face Vin said, “Now don´t go getting yourself more hurt. Just tell me where this Toro is and I´ll track him down.”

“No,” Raphael said hoarsely, giving Vin an almost frightened glare, “No, senor, not by yourself. He would snap you in half, slowly, to watch you suffer. We need a plan, all of us. Then we will act, swiftly.”

Vin turned his head slightly, felt a hot frustration. “Raphael, what would this Toro want with JD?”

Raphael hesitated, waited until he was standing on his own before saying softly and in a voice full of pain, “Don Miguel wants revenge on your friend Buck. The chiquito, he means something to your friend, so Don Miguel wants to make sure he never sees him again.”

“And how is Toro gonna help him do that? By killing him?” Vin asked anxiously.

Raphael looked at Vin sadly as Nathan ran to get his horse, then shook his head. “Toro will sell him, senor. And then he will be worse than dead.”

Water.

JD felt himself waking up, heard the distant sound of rushing water and decided he must still be lying in the alleyway, asleep and dreaming; he poked at the edges of his consiousness, felt that he was lying face down on what felt like rough wooden planks, smelled a sour dampness. He tried to move, and discovered he was bound hand and foot.

What a crummy dream, he thought. He heard the quiet lap of water again and opened his eyes, saw at first only darkness and stared into it curiously. Finally he made out something craggy and moonlit sliding slowly by, and frowned. Oh, wait. Those look like...cliffs? Rocks?

“There it is.”

The unexpected voice above his head made JD cringe instinctively, and a painful shock ran through him as he thought, oh my God, this isn´t a dream. That voice - in the alley -Inez. And Chris -JD brought his head up, looked around as much as he could without moving too much and attracting attention to himself. He saw the edges of a small boat, the same cliffs some distance away.

The voice had come from behind him...JD slowly turned his head and saw the black outline of two men, both with oars and paddling silently. One man was short and stout, and the other was tall and lean.

JD blinked, remembered the man who had strangled him, put a boot on his chest and told Inez she would be the last person to see him alive. JD supposed that he should have been scared, but he wasn´t; he was angry, really angry because that man had hurt Inez, probably hurt Chris, and worst of all wrecked his revenge on Buck.

Getting out of this mess would be easy; JD tested his bonds and felt certain that he could probably get out of them, throw these two into - well, he guessed they were on a river, it was too dark to be sure - and head back to Four Corners. Heck, they couldn´t be that far away. So, JD wasn´t worried about that. But dang it, Inez was probably telling them all about the note and them hiding in the kitchen, and sure enough Buck would give him holy hell for putting Inez in danger. Dang it. Why didn´t his plans ever work out?

The tall man shifted, and JD quickly put his head back down so they´d think he was still out. Think, dammit, he told himself, and tried to. I haven´t been out that long, there´s only two of them, I don´t remember any rivers with big cliffs around Four Corners but that´s OK, how hard can it be to turn a boat around? Geez, I hope Chris is OK. What the hell is this all about anyway?

 “We´d better put a light on,” an unfamiliar voice said over JD´s head. That must be the shorter man. “If Toro doesn´t know it´s you, he´ll shoot us both as soon as he hears our oars.”

The taller man grunted, and JD heard some fumbling about, the wooden thunk of things being rustled around in the boat. Now why the hell were they on a boat? The next sound was the sulfuric flare of a match. They must be lighting a torch or something, JD decided. Who are they signaling? Maybe I´d better move now -BANG!! JD froze. Where did that come from?

“Hey!” He heard the taller man hiss in a loud whisper. “It´s me! Miguel!”

Miguel, JD thought, turned the name over. Nope, wasn´t familiar. But damn, he hoped they weren´t hailing more than a few more people, or he´d probably have a really tough time escaping.

There was a pause, and a third voice, not very far away, said in a deep, irritated tone, “Hell! You had better have a damn good reason for coming after me.”

A pause, then a loud thunk as the boat jarred against something wooden. Another boat. JD groaned inwardly; this was getting trickier by the second.

There was another pause, and the third voice, much closer now and right above JD´s head, said louder and more angry, “Well? Don´t you know you could have been followed? Stupid!”

“No one followed me, Toro.” The tall man replied, a little defensively JD thought. Then he thought, Toro?

“So you hope,” Toro snapped, “If they did and I am found out, I will skin you alive, whether you are my son or not. Well, what is it? Did you kill Wilmington?”

“Better.”

JD felt the boat rock, as if someone was getting off. Another pause. “What? Him? You brought Wilmington to me, what for?”

“That´s not Wilmington,” JD heard as footsteps approached him. “It´s his little brother. How far south can you sell him?”

<b>Sell</b> him? JD´s mind jangled. Did he say -

Suddenly, a hand grabbed the back of his collar and dragged him across the boat like a bag of flour. JD gasped, shocked, and opened his eyes as he tried to gain purchase with his bound feet. He failed, but at the same time saw where he was, and felt his legs collapse under him anyway as he stared in shock.

They were going down a river, a wide and fast-moving river bounded on both sides by high, unscalable canyon walls. There was nothing familiar, no trees or bushes or land, just the canyon and the river, stretching endlessly away.

JD felt numb; he had absolutely no idea where he was, except it was nowhere near Four Corners. But - but if he could get away he could still -

Another hand grabbed his shirt, much bigger and stronger, and JD felt himself yanked four feet into the air and dropped again, hard, onto the deck of another, larger boat.

Shaking his head as he stared at deck he blurted out, “Hey! What´s the big - “

WHACK! The blow came out of nowhere, caught JD on the right side of his face and spun him around before he fell back onto the deck, stunned.

As the stars danced in front of his eyes he heard Toro´s voice say, “You want me to sell this one? I can tell already he is too much trouble. Slit his throat and throw him over, I have more important things to do.”

“No.” JD heard Miguel say petulantly, and slitting his eyes open JD could see both men, towering above him. Miguel dark against the stars behind him, and Toro -My God, JD thought. That´s the biggest man I ever saw.

Toro was huge and muscular, like one of those strong men JD remembered seeing in a circus once, with long black and silver hair that was pulled back in a ponytail. He wore a white shirt that was open at the collar, and his sleeves were rolled up to reveal massive, thick forearms and fingers studded with gold rings.

JD gulped and thought, I´ve got to get out of here. <b>Sell</b> me?

“No,” Miguel repeated, and pointed to JD as if the youth were a bag of flour, and couldn´t hear him. “Listen to me, father, our house can rise again. The town this filth comes from, we can own it, once the Magnificos are gone.”

JD saw Toro turn toward his son, didn´t like the light that was shining in his dark eyes.

Miguel saw it too, and smiled. “Two of them are gone already. This one, and another.”

Another? JD swallowed his fear. Chris? Someone else?

Toro tilted his head. “So those people I sent to you were of use?”

A nod, JD assumed. “It seems the woman knew one of them from some years ago. She created a distraction, to make sure I was not followed.”

A grunt from Toro. “And now what?”

Miguel looked down at JD, glared at him with such hate that the boy stared back in surprise; he didn´t know what else to do. “First, my revenge against Wilmington. Sell this little rat as far away as you can, to one of the ships in South America, or the mines in Brazil. I don´t want that bastard to ever know what happened to his precious little brother.”

JD´s eyes widened and his mouth went dry. Were they talking about slavery? That was nuts, there hadn´t been any slaves in America since - oh, this was just -Toro was nodding.

“I can do that. I like how your mind works.” Miguel grinned, and nodded to someone over JD´s shoulder.

Rough hands grabbed him again, and JD decided he´d had enough. Shaking himself loose he said, “Hey! Get your hands off - “

WHAM! This time the blow struck JD on the back of his head, slamming him face first into the deck. His forehead hit the jagged wood hard, but before he could recover someone grabbed him by the hair and jerked him to his knees. In a second, JD found himself staring into Toro´s wide, infuriated face.

For a long moment the big man just stared at him, and JD resisted the urge to shrink away, or even look scared. He could feel the blood trickling down his face, and had the weird sensation that he really was asleep, and dreaming all of this. People didn´t get sold into slavery anymore. It just didn´t happen. It was all...it was all <B>wrong</B>.

Toro continued to stare at him, tightening his grip on JD´s hair until JD thought maybe his scalp would come off. JD glared back at those big black eyes, thought I don´t care how big you are, I´m not the green kid that jumped off a stagecoach yesterday. I´ll figure a way out of this, and I´ve got friends. I´m not afraid of you.

Finally, after staring into JD´s eyes for what seemed like an eternity, Toro simply smiled in a small, oily way and said softly, “Look at the fire in his eyes. I will enjoy breaking this one´s spirit.”

JD wanted to spit in his face, very nearly did it. But Toro tossed him to the deck before he had a chance, and said, “All right Miguel, you have your revenge.”

The rough hands grabbed JD again, began to haul him across the deck as Toro continued, “I´m taking a cargo south, to Colombia. Probably he´ll end up in the mines, or on a ship somewhere.”

“I don´t care,” JD heard Miguel answer as he felt himself being picked up, and the loud squeak of a door being opened, “As long as he´s far away from Wilmington, and anyone who can help him.”

Then JD was pushed through a square hole into damp darkness, and the door was shut above his head.

JD rolled down a small flight of stairs, hit the bottom with a loud thud. It wasn´t a very deep hold, and for a moment he lay there listening to the conversation above him.

“Now tell me how selling that little puppy will that make me patron in that town.”

“The Magnificos will go berserk searching for him. They will be devastated that he is gone, distracted. They will fall like wheat before a reaper´s knife.”

JD sat up slowly, shook his head. The hold smelled very bad.

“You are so sure? What if Raphael helps them?”

JD caught his breath. Raphael? He remembered that name, remembered the black-clad Mexican who risked his life to help Buck. Raphael...were these people related to Don Paulo somehow?

“Raphael is no longer a threat. And soon the Magnificos will be gone.” There was a pause. “There is a woman in that town you might like, a blonde-haired woman Pedro told me about.”

JD blinked in the almost-darkness, his eyes slowly reading shapes he didn´t understand.

“Oh?” Toro sounded intrigued. “Blonde, you say?”

Miguel chuckled. “You see, I know how to make you interested. Take the town, and I am sure she will be yours. She runs the newspaper.”

Good God, JD thought in a panic. He´s talking about Mary Travis.

A sigh from Toro. “You know my weakness. Bah! It cost me a lot of money today, and for nothing.”

JD´s eyes grew accustomed to the gloom in the small hold, and he began to understand the shapes he was seeing around him. Patches of light and dark, moving, huddled together, the deep hopeless clank of iron chains.

People. The hold was full of young men and women, most his own age, some younger. At one end of the hold, near the stairs, a man sat scowling by a lamp burning so low it was almost out. He held a pistol in his hand, and the men and women were gazing at him, stupified with fear.

JD looked around him, convinced he was in a nightmare. I have to get out, he thought to himself, even though he knew it was crazy, he´d get killed. But still - oh Christ, they can´t help me, even Vin couldn´t find me on a river, I´ve got to get out of here. But - but -

Above him, Miguel said, “What do you mean, cost you a lot of money?”

“Oh - “ Toro sighed, and JD shifted himself on the dank floor, looked around for someplace else to be besides sitting in the middle of the hold.

“Oh, I found these people who knew my business and had a child they didn´t want, and wanted some quick money. Little blonde thing, they really wanted to get rid of her, and I thought of the senoras on the plantations, how they´re always complaining they can´t find house help.”

“So you bought her?”

“Yes - “

JD shuddered at how evil this man was, how awful that child´s parents were, and at the same time caught sight of a young girl opposite him, sitting with her legs drawn up to her chest and her face buried in her arms, the picture of forsaken misery. Her hands and feet were tied with ropes, JD guessed because they didn´t have any chains small enough for her. Her fine blonde hair glistened in the dim light of the hold.

“I bought her all right,” Toro spat, and JD heard the contempt in his voice. “But those people tricked me, had the little brat hold a handkerchief to her nose while they told me she had a mild cold.”

Another chuckle from Miguel. “The blonde hair made a weak bargainer of you, eh?”

The little girl lifted her head as JD heard Toro growl, “I can´t make a peso off of the little bitch. She´s deformed.”

The girl looked at JD, and in the low light he could see what Toro was talking about: she had a harelip, a small split in her lips right under her nose, but it really wasn´t that bad, just about you couldn´t even see it. JD saw it, but only for a second because the girl was looking at him with such sadness and loneliness that it blotted out everything else, and JD felt at once more sympathy and anger than he ever had in his life.

“So what are you going to do?” Miguel asked, and JD heard the hollow thunk of boots walking across the ship.

A pause. “Throw her out, probably. No sense hanging onto garbage.”

JD went numb. Throw her out? Who were these people? The girl put her head back down, and JD made a quick decision. Okay, maybe he was in a tough spot. Maybe the others couldn´t help him, maybe he´d never even see them again. But if Chris were there, if it was Vin or Buck tied up in that hold hearing the things he was hearing, they sure wouldn´t be thinking about escape. So JD made up his mind that he wouldn´t either. Not while there was somebody who needed his help.

Moving was awkward, but JD managed to get himself turned around in the hold so he was between the little girl and the man with the gun. Nobody was sitting close to her, so JD manuevered himself in the small space next to her and listened as the footsteps faded away.

After a moment, the little girl lifted her head and looked around, then up at JD. Gosh, she looks so scared, JD thought, but something else too - like she expects to be treated like this. JD tried to smile at her, give her a little hope. The girl just looked at him with solemn green eyes.

“Don´t you worry,” JD whispered, low enough so only the girl would hear him. “Just stick with me and I´ll look after you.”

The girl blinked, looked almost amazed.

From the deck, JD heard Miguel ask, “So what happened after you found out those people had tricked you? Did you kill them?”

“No,” Toro replied as the boat rocked a little; JD thought, Miguel must be getting off. “I wanted to, but they begged for their lives so I put them to use instead. I sent them to help you.”

A pause, and in that pause JD felt the little girl lean against him a little bit, just a little. He smiled to himself; I can do this, he thought. Maybe I´ll never see my friends again, but that Miguel and Toro don´t know them. They won´t be so easy to beat. And I´ve got something to do here.

“Oh!” Miguel´s voice came faintly, as if the boat were already pulling away. “You mean the little deformed monster´s parents are - “

“Yes,” Toro answered somewhere over JD´s head. “That crazy woman and her lover. Claudia and Henry.”

The girl cringed a little against JD´s side, and he closed his eyes and put his arm as far around her as he could. A few moments later there was only silence, and he knew Miguel was gone. JD sighed and tried to calm his own heart as the boat floated down the quiet river, away from his friends and everything he knew.

Part Three