An Eye For An Eye, part two


Disclaimers, etc. in part 1

Buck Wilmington blinked sweat out of his eyes and tried to shift to a more comfortable position, wincing in pain as his injured leg protested. It was Hobson's choice--don't move and his knee stiffened up so much that the pain when he finally did try to move it was nearly unbearable, or move it and start the slash wound in his thigh bleeding again. He'd tied his neckerchief around his leg to slow the bleeding and though it wasn't bleeding hard or fast, he'd been there long enough now that the neckerchief was soaked through and not really doing him much good at all.

To make things worse, while the Nichols' boys, or whoever was up there, had a bad angle on him, he had a terrible angle on them. In the hour and a half he'd been there, he'd gotten off maybe five shots. Enough to keep their heads down and to keep them from rushing him, but he was pretty sure he hadn't hit a goddamned one of them and that made him mad. What would happen when it was dark and they could move around more freely was anybody's guess. And in Buck's mind, none of the guesses boded well for him.

He wondered if Josiah had made it back to town with the kid. He'd hated leaving him. It wasn't the right thing to do. Hell, he hadn't even managed to find Vin and Casey, who were probably both dead right now because he hadn't made it there in time. But if he hadn't tried, he'd have had to answer for that, too. And Buck figured he had plenty to answer for already.

"Hallo! Hallo, down there!"

What the hell, Buck thought? He moved too fast and had to adjust quick to ease the pain that arrowed up his leg. Damn!

"You down there in the rocks. We want to talk."

What the hell were they up to? Nobody who'd strung J. D. up a tree was going to stop a gunfight to talk to him. Something was going on.

"Come on! You can't go anywhere. You might as well talk to us."

Buck scanned the area, trying to see everything, wishing, not for the first time that he could see the men he was fighting.

"Come on." The voice repeated. "Talk to us!"

What the hell, Buck thought. Always go forward. "I ain't got nothin' to talk to you about!" Buck shouted.

"Sure you do. What about that little girl? You interested in gettin' her back?"

The words froze Buck's heart and in the sudden stillness he heard the sound he wasn't supposed to hear, the faint scrape of a boot along a rock. He turned, oblivious to his injured leg, drew his revolver, and fired all in one fluid motion. A man he'd never seen before in his life, pitched off the rock behind him and fell at his feet.

Bullets rained down on him from up above and Buck dove for cover, groaning as he landed on his injured leg. He lay still for a moment and then, when the gunfire had mostly died, he levered himself upright and stared at the dead man lying a yard and a half away from him. To get behind him like that the fella had to have come five miles around the woods and the mountain. He hadn't succeeded, maybe, but now they could send another one. And if that one failed, another one. They could send two at once if they were smart. Once it was dark, in fact, they wouldn't have to go as far afield to come up on him. In the dark he'd have to stay as alert as he'd ever been in his life to stand them off.

He looked up at the sky, which was already turning purple-grey and would soon lose the light completely. He put his hand underneath his leg and tried to lever it into a comfortable position. Maybe the dark could help him too. Maybe once the sun set completely he could sneak away with no one on the cliff the wiser. Maybe...if he could walk.

Ezra had come to again by the time they heard the gunfire. Several distant pops, the heavier boom of rifle fire, and then -- unmistakably -- the dull roar of Vin's mare's leg. Nathan and Ezra exchanged quick glances and Nathan put his arms behind Ezra to help him sit up, the two men both turning to look ahead in the direction from which the sound of fighting had come. Immediately most of the contingent of flanking outriders burst into a gallop and charged up the slope through the thickets of cedar, their horses' hindquarters bunching and pushing against the steep slope. The crashing of burst treelimbs and foliage, and the rattle of rocks that had been sent rolling down the steep slope, died away. The sound of gunfire stopped.

Nathan looked around quickly only to see the pistol barrel of a rider directly behind the wagon who seemed to have read the thought forming in his mind --that with fewer outriders he and Ezra might have a chance to escape. He sighed and sat back, his gaze sliding to the gambler beside him.

"Awful short fight," he observed softly.

"Meaning either very successful or terribly tragic." The gambler's eyes rolled slowly from one to another of the riders who still flanked the wagon. "Since Mr. Tanner is obviously involved, I believe I will opt for the former."

The sound of screaming rode down a gust of wind from somewhere farther upslope, and words were almost immediately perceptible in it.

"NINCOMPOOPS! IDIOTS!"

Ezra threw a satisfied grin to Nathan as they both recognized Peter Nichols' voice, and Nathan craned his head back over his shoulder to look uphill for a moment before turning his eyes back to the gambler with a sigh of hope. Peter was still raging when the wagon drew to a stop in a small clearing in a grove of mixed cedar and pinon, and the two men riding it quickly spotted bodies in several places around the periphery. A tall, slender man in an immaculate suit was listening to Peter with a face that had gone nearly green with the intensity of his emotion, and he suddenly jerked spasmodically and snatched off his own hat to throw it to the ground furiously.

"Look, you didn't tell us we were going to have to fight savages!"

"I pay you to fight who and what I TELL you to fight!" Peter raged. "And to WIN!" He grabbed the man by the lapels, and the stranger responded by placing one hand firmly around the offending man's wrist.

"I tell you this man was silent as an Indian and twice as deadly. My men can't possibly be expected to handle that sort of thing." A sneer lifted one side of his upper lip. "That sort of opponent is beneath a man of my caliber."

Peter took two steps back, drew his sidearm, and shot the man through the forehead without another word. Several of the watching men in the clearing jumped at the suddenness of Peter's response, and three or four horses shied and whinnied nervously. Peter turned slowly around in place, looking carefully at the men in the circle around him, the silence deafening.

"Now," he said very softly and distinctly, "I want to hear some GOOD news."

The moment lengthened as the horses stamped here and there and jingled bridle hardware. A jay called from somewhere deeper in the forest. "Well?" prompted Peter.

"They won't get far," said a small man standing not far from the wagon. Nathan and Ezra turned quickly to look at him, fear suddenly rising in their throats at his words.

Peter took several steps in the small man's direction. "Good," he said. He went closer. "Now, tell us why you believe this."

"Flannery shot him before he got away." Ezra heard Nathan draw in his breath, and laid a steadying hand on his friend's knee. He kept his eyes on the man speaking.

"And?" Peter Nichols had drawn to within 30 feet of the small man, who swallowed nervously and looked around the circle for support that was not forthcoming.

"He's bleeding pretty heavily, Mr. Nichols. He can't get very far."

"Who's been sent to follow Miss Welles and her would-be rescuer?"

This time it was Ezra who started, and he paled but remained motionless.

"Smith and Herlihey followed them --"

"Yes?"

The small man blinked rapidly, his face flushing.

"What happened?" Peter strode closer to the speaker, his face lowering and his eyes beginning to glitter dangerously.

"They --" the man gulped. "They lost the trail and--"

"They LOST the trail?!" Peter tipped his head back suddenly, his eyes widening. "They LOST the trail of a bleeding man?" He whirled to face the rest of the men, his eyes darting among them. "Is this what I pay you for?" he said softly. He waited a long moment and then screamed suddenly, "IS IT!?!"

Silence. Nathan and Ezra exchanged a lightning glance. The sound of hoofbeats drummed into everyone's hearing as a rider pounded into the clearing from a new direction. A man on a rangy sorrel reined in with a scattering of gravel and leaped down to stand panting in front of Peter Nichols.

"We've got them," he said.

"THAT," said Peter, eyeing the men around him, "is good news." He smiled.

"At least two of them," said the newcomer, "and maybe more. It's hard to say. We have them pinned down on the ridge trail. All we have to do is get some more men down there so we can get around behind them, and they're dead." He paused to catch his breath and then continued. "They were following the trail that sneak-thief renegade made up here, after the girl."

"Take five men with you and do what's necessary." Peter turned on his heel and walked over to the wagon, where he stood regarding Ezra and Nathan with eyes that were suddenly soft with thought. "And," he added, "go cut down the body of that boy we hung up. We'll use him as bait to replace the girl for now. They won't know he's not still alive and bleeding and needing help." He was getting closer and closer to the wagon, his eyes glowing as the late afternoon light caught them and shot flame-colored rays into their depths.

Ezra and Nathan were silent. They knew exactly what he'd said, and what it meant. And they had no intention of satisfying his purpose in having said it. Nathan felt himself quivering with the fury that he was holding tightly, and he heard the shallowness of Ezra's breathing and knew the gambler was dangerously close to an outburst. Peter stepped closer.

"What do you think about all that, Mr. Liar?" A bitter smile spread slowly across his lips as he regarded Ezra, his face wreathed with smug triumph. Ezra remained silent. Peter waited several more moments, then turned and nodded to the small man who had spoken to him earlier. "If you can find and kill Misters Smith and Herlihey within the next five minutes, I will spare your life," he said.

The small man gaped, stammered part of a word, drew his sidearm,and dropped a large man standing nearby within a fraction of a second. A second man standing next to the fallen one drew at the same time, shot the small man, and was then felled by Peter Nichols. The group of men in the clearing was silent again as the gray-blue smokecloud from the guns drifted slowly from the clearing.

"From now on," said Peter Nichols, "I expect you to understand the rules. You fight until you win or you die. Otherwise, you die anyway."

Casey kept thinking Vin was about to fall, and it made her so nervous that pretty soon her stomach hurt from it. Why he wouldn't let her sit behind this time so HE could have the stirrups was completely beyond her, and she was starting to get mad about it. She looked down at his right hand, which was holding the reins loosely right in front of her waist, and pressed her lips together at the traces of dried blood she saw on the edges of his nailbeds. She knew his left arm was wrapped around his own waist just above the beltline, his usual rein hand pressed tightly against his side behind her; from time to time they bumped together enough that she felt his arm against the small of her back. She craned her head around to look at his face, and he saw her and smiled a little, his blue eyes crinkling up as he did so.

"Don't you think you outta' rest?" Casey's smooth forehead was drawn together into a pucker of worry.

Vin shook his head, still smiling. "Not yet," he said. "There'll be plenty a' time for that after you're safe."

"But if you keep--"

"Anybody ever tell you ya' talk too much?"

Casey blinked in surprise and felt her temper flash. "Only JD, every day a' the--" she broke off suddenly, her voice dropping off the edge into nothingness. She turned her face away from Vin and closed her eyes. He reined in the gelding then and sat very quietly for a moment. His voice was low and hoarse.

"Casey. I didn't mean to . . ." he hesitated, then sighed.

"I know." The girl's voice was muffled, coming from her hands. Vin leaned out to look around her and see her face, his own face a picture of misery. Idiot, he was chiding himself, just rub it in. Look what you've done now. But what he said was:

"You gettin' hungry?"

Casey shook her head wordlessly, and he was certain he heard a sob drip through her fingers. Vin leaned back again and sighed, his eyes running around the darkening forest as if it might offer some solution. Then he looked back at the girl, his eyes falling on the little knot of tied-back hair at the nape of her neck, the small row of round bones that rose where it was bent, the soft movement of her pulse beneath her ear. A kid, he thought, she's just a kid and you keep hurting her more and more, every time you open your mouth. He clucked to the gelding and legged it back into a walk, his heart heavy.

Several miles went by as the sun slid lower in the sky and the sunset began to fade. Vin caught himself starting to slip away several times, and it began to scare him that it was happening more and more often. He got a firmer grip on the thick reins and set his jaw, determined to see it through. Nettie Welles trusted him, and he'd take Casey home to her safe and sound if it was the last thing he ever did on this earth. He might make her cry, clumsy lout that he was, but he'd get her home . . .

"Vin?"

He heard Casey's voice far enough away that for a moment he wasn't sure where she was. Then he remembered she should have been right in front of him on the saddle. Or was it right behind him on the saddle? He sighed, forced his eyes opened, and saw her little face looking down at him. Well, he thought, that's not good. I'm pretty sure she wasn't above me on the saddle.

"Vin? Are you ok?"

He nodded without speaking, feeling the hurt he'd been trying to push aside for hours throbbing large enough that it was getting damned hard to ignore. But he'd promised Nettie.

"Help me up, Casey."

"Maybe you should--"

"We can't stay here." The tracker looked steadily at the girl, his gaze level and his eyes tight with holding it all at bay now, and Casey swallowed finally and went around behind him and pushed against his shoulders and then his back to help get him up off the ground where he'd fallen. The gelding snorted as Vin pushed himself on up to his knees and struggled from there to his feet, Casey ducking under his right arm to help lift, and then he grabbed the saddlehorn and felt Casey slide the toe of his boot into the stirrup, and somehow he was up again. He looked down at Casey and blinked against the dizziness that tried to reassert itself, and then reached an arm down for her to haul herself up with. She sprang to the gelding's back, behind him, so lightly that she barely pulled on him, though, and he had to admit he was grateful for it. Not a whole lot farther, he thought, looking around to get his bearings again. We'll make it.

Gunfire. Distant and drifting on an evening breeze, and Vin raised his head to listen to it. He felt Casey stiffen behind him and knew she was doing the same thing. Then the breeze dropped and they were in silence again. The two people sat the horse quietly for several long moments, waiting patiently. Then it came again, the breeze and with it the lost and hollow sounds of intermittent rifle fire. Vin sighed.

"Get down," he said.

"I ain't leavin' you." Casey's voice was as firm as Nettie's, and Vin felt the vigor of the way she shook her head when she said it.

"I have to check on that," he explained, "an' I don't want you in the line a' fire."

"Look, Vin." Casey's voice was at his left shoulder where she'd leaned forward against his back. "I refuse to be alone out here with those men around. I'm stickin' to you whether you like it or not." He felt her shudder, then, and realized that she had a point. He nodded.

"But you gotta' do what I say, when I say it, when we get closer."

"Deal."

Vin legged the black towards the ridge the gunfire seemed to have come from, and the closer he got the less he liked what he was thinking about it. He recognized it very well: it was the ridge where he'd been so careful to leave a trail for Chris and Buck and the others to follow when he'd been tracking Casey. They should be somewhere along there about now. Could Nichols' men have stumbled across them somehow? He and Casey were close enough to the ridge now that he could hear the occasional crack of rifle fire even without the wind blowing it towards him, and he grew more desperately certain with every step that whatever was happening was taking place along that very trail. Damn!

He heard Casey gasp suddenly behind him, and saw her bare arm rise out of the dusk behind him and to one side to point, finger extended, at a spot high up above the trail. "Look," she said softly.

He looked. And the next volley showed tiny sparks of yellow among the rocks where men were spread out, the muzzle blasts of their guns showing in the gathering darkness. Vin shook his head and scowled. How had he missed seeing that himself? It was so obvious. He ran his eyes along the ridge and the rocks and escarpments surrounding it, knowing well that if his friends were on the trail that they were sitting targets to the shooters above them.

He had to get above.

His decision made, Vin turned the black to one side, spurred him into a jog, and began to climb a promontory that would take him up and into range of the shooters on the ridge opposite. He felt Casey shift her weight behind him so that she could stick to the horse on the steep grade, but he wasn't worried about her. He'd fall off and go rolling down the slope ass over teakettle before Casey Welles would slip so much as an inch, and it made him smile to think about it. She was a good girl and JD was lucky to have her. Vin shook his head again, and growled under his breath. Damn it all! JD. What was he thinking? He was slipping again, and he couldn't start slipping now. He had to get up high enough to help out whoever was pinned on the trail below. Vin bit the inside of his cheek to make himself more alert, and pressed his lips tightly together. They were almost high enough now, if he could just go a little farther.

And then he was reining in and he felt Casey slide off behind him, and he stepped down from the saddle and staggered but caught himself against the black. Casey was standing in front of him, her eyes round.

"Can you get my long rifle?" he asked.

She nodded, and went around to the off side of the horse to slide the long, heavy weapon from the scabbard there and come back with it cradled in her two hands. "Is it already loaded?"

"Yeah." Vin looked across the valley at the tongues of flame leaping out here and there from the rocks, and was glad that there was at least some light left from the afterglow. But the muzzle flashes would make good targets, too. Casey shifted the rifle to one hand and put her other around his waist at the back, and Vin put his right arm around her shoulder and they went together to a cairn of stones at the edge of the bluff. Vin sat down on one of the stones and leaned out far enough to see down to the trail. He knit his brow when he realized he saw Josiah's horse grazing some distance away, its saddle empty. Even as he looked, though, he saw a familiar dark head pop up out of a protected area, fire towards the ridge, and then drop down again.

Buck.

Vin lowered himself carefully partway down the back of the stone he'd been sitting on and rested the long rifle barrel on it. He signaled Casey to get down flat behind him and she did so, her eyes large and shining like black pools. Vin lowered his eye to the rifle site and swore softly when he saw how his hands shook, took a deep breath and held it to steady up, and took careful aim on a spot across the way where he'd seen a lot of steady firing.

The gun of the unknown shooter who was trying to kill Buck flashed, then. And there was a deafening roar as Vin pulled the trigger to reply.

Josiah was still trying to get his bearings. He quickly looked around but the streets were deserted. Not a person in sight. No horses. Eerily quiet. The stores were closed. Doors shut. Windows shut. A curtain moved but it was quickly released. There was a smoky, acrid odor in the air. Josiah swallowed hard. A feeling of doom engulfed him.

He was torn as to what to do:

Care for JD.

Find Chris and Buck.

Search for Ezra and Nathan.

Protect the town.

"Mr. Sanchez. . . Mr. Sanchez . . . JOSIAH!"

Josiah startled at Mary's urgent calling. "We've got to get JD into Nathan's clinic and care for him." She stated reasonably.

Josiah nodded his assent. He turned to Buck's gray. Josiah's heart lurched. The Kid was unconscious, his head lolled onto one shoulder. Locks of his black covered his face. His shirt was in shreds. Ragged strips of fabric were tied over his wounds. The gunshot to the shoulder. The defensive wounds on the back of his forearms where he had tried to ward off a knife attack. Blood was caked on his pants legs. And then there were the bruises. The abrasions. The swelling. The ligature marks on his neck. //My God, what had this boy endured.//

Josiah pulled his knife to release the leather straps that secured JD to the travois. Josiah carefully lifted JD and cradled him in his arms. "You hold on, son."

Josiah noted Mary releasing the cinch of the horse. She secured the horse in the alley and then, she followed him to the clinic.

Josiah stopped suddenly.

"Is something wrong?" Mary whispered.

"JD is a target. This clinic is a target. We can't take him there."

"My place."

Josiah nodded. He indicated to Mary that they should seek cover by walking close to the building walls on the alley. He paused. "Let's go down further this way, then cross the street." Mary nodded.

Their progress was painfully slow and cautious.

When they were in the alley, across from The Clarion's Office, they stopped. Josiah indicated to Mary to check the streets. "Clear." She said softly.

"You cross first. Run as fast as you can. When you go through the door, break to your left and hit the floor. I'll be behind you. Got that."

Mary quaked but assertively nodded her assent.

"On three"

"Three . . . two . . . one"

Mary darted across the street. Her skirts lifted to her knees. She reached for the handle and hurled her body through the door. She immediately rolled left.

Josiah came through the door a minute later. Broke right. Mary slammed the door shut.

Josiah's chest was heaving from the effort of running with JD. Although healing, his wounded arm ached miserably from his last shootout with the Nichols. He leaned his head to the side, using the wall for support and grinned broadly at Mary. "Ma'am, that was quite the sprint."

Mary grinned at the complement. She cautiously stood, being careful to avoid the windows. Her relief was palpable at being off the streets. She looked askance on JD.

"Let's take JD to my room," she said quietly.

Josiah's mood immediately sobered. //It was the small victories at this point.//

Josiah carefully laid JD on Mary's bed. JD stirred and regained consciousness. "Casey," he croaked.

"JD, you listen now. Vin went after her. Buck and Chris are going after him."

JD started to raise himself up. "You rest easy now."

"I can fight!"

"I know that, Kid. Ezra and Nathan are out of town too. I've got to get word to Chris. I need you to stay here and protect the town."

JD slumped back in the bed.

"You rest now. When the fight comes to you, you'll be ready."

Josiah nodded at Mary. "You go," she urged.

Josiah turned to leave. He almost exited the back door when he returned to the bedroom.

Mary had started to tend to JD's wounds. She was crooning softly and JD had apparently lapsed into unconsciousness.

"Mary"

Mary looked up. JD's eyes opened which Josiah found reassuring.

"You mentioned a message."

The color drained from Mary's face. She looked up at Josiah and her eyes started to fill with tears.

Josiah was shocked at her reaction. He crossed the room to her and engulfed both her hands in his.

"Mary, what is it?"

Mary sobbed and in a strangled voice said, "the church."

Josiah dropped her hands and bolted from the room.

"Go to him."

"JD, I can't leave you."

"Give me a gun."

"JD . . . "

"NOW." Mary thrust the handgun from the nightstand into JD's right hand. "Go!"

Mary ran after Josiah like the flames of hell were on her heels. Just like the flames that had engulfed Josiah's church. Mary dashed the tears from her eyes. Then she heard the cry then. It sent a shiver through her spine. It was like a pained cry of a wounded bear . . . but this cry had erupted from a man.

Mary rounded the corner. Josiah was on his knees at the front steps of the burned out church. Josiah hands covered his face and his pained cries echoed through the streets of Four Corners.

Mary rushed to his side. Josiah wounded cries dissolved to sobs.

"Josiah, I'm so sorry. We can rebuild it. We all can. But they need you. I canít leave. JD can't ride. It has to be you." Mary's voice broke.

Mary clasped Josiah's wrists and gently tugged. "Please, Josiah."

Josiah resisted Mary's efforts. "Please, Josiah," Mary started to sob. She was overwhelmed with emotion. //Josiah's heart break. JD's injuries. Fear for the captured Nathan and Ezra.//

"Please, there is no where I can turn. Please for Nathan. Please for Ezra," she pleaded.

Josiah dropped his hands from his face. He gently hugged Mary. She wrapped her arms around him.

After several moments, Josiah regained his composure. Mary lifted her head. Josiah's new found stoicism was frightening. "Care for JD. I'll go help Nathan and Ezra," Josiah's emotionless voice directed Mary.

Mary kissed his cheek.

"Go now."

"Take care, Josiah."

Josiah stood and headed to the livery for a fresh horse. As he exited, the stables he took a long look at the hollowed shell of his penance. "Never was much of a preacher. But I can fight." He announced to the quiet streets. He then urged his horse into a gallop.

Buck ducked low as a bullet chipped the rock in front of him. The air around him was grey, almost dark, and he couldn't hardly see anything anymore. Only a matter of time now before they started sneaking down the trail toward him. Only a matter of time before he ran out of bullets and options and time.

He loaded the rifle with the last of the ammunition Chris had left him. His fingers shook slightly from the advancing chill and the shock of slow but steady blood loss and the throbbing in his knee. Hell, he thought, this was not the way he was going to die, trapped like a rat in a hole. He laid the rifle across his knee and pulled his revolver--five bullets left there.

A shot rang out and then another, followed by a sharp yell. Buck's head went up. Had that last shot come from another direction? From behind him, maybe? And what were they yelling about up there now? Hell, he was probably hearing things. Probably start hallucinating pretty soon. It was time and past to move.

Vin heard a yell and, barely, through the thickening darkness saw his target fall. He lined up again quickly and fired again where he remembered seeing another muzzle flash. He heard another yell, though he couldn't tell if he'd hit anyone or not. He fired again and he could see dark shapes scrambling to move out of his line of fire. He smiled grimly. At least he could shake them up a little. But, he wondered, where was Josiah? His horse was down there. He and Casey had seen it. Was he lying injured somewhere? Considering how Vin himself was feeling, weak and used up and almost finished, and considering that he didn't know what shape Buck was in or where Josiah was or even how many men might be riding toward them right now, it seemed as if they'd better finish this fight right quick.

Casey gasped. "Look," she said and pointed.

Vin looked where her finger pointed. "Ah, hell, Buck," he breathed. Below them, looking like a dark shadow against the lighter rock face, Buck had stood and was moving slowly toward the trail, firing his rifle steadily at the men above and in front of him. Damn you, anyway, Buck, Vin thought with a kind of desperate fatalism, couldn't you have given me five more minutes? And then he stopped thinking and settled down to pick off the men one by one by one.

Buck stopped firing when he heard the sound of horses galloping away. He shook his head wearily and pressed his left hand against his leg. Someone had been helping him. That much was clear. And he'd been luckier than he deserved to be. Never break cover he'd told J. D. more than once. And here he was doing it himself...again. Good thing J. D. hadn't been here to see him. Thing was, a man had to go out fighting. And sometimes that messed things up considerably.

Was it Chris up there behind him? Had to be, he figured, but what was he doing up there instead of down here? And why had he only heard one gun? Chris should have Nathan and Ezra and Josiah with him. He limped painfully back to the rock outcropping to get his hat. But when he got there it seemed like a good idea just to sit down for a minute. Just for a minute. Just to gather his thoughts. Yeah. His brain felt as if it were filling up with cobwebs. Light, fluffy things that made it impossible for him to think straight. His leg throbbed and he could feel his heart beat in response. He closed his eyes...

...and jerked them open again. What had he been thinking? He couldn't stay here. He looked around. He'd been out long enough that it was full dark now. He needed a horse. He needed to get back to town or to find Chris or something. He couldn't stay here. He hauled himself to his feet, gritting his teeth against the stiffness in his twisted knee. He had three bullets left in his revolver and two in the rifle. The rifle in his left hand felt like an iron weight. He settled his hat on his head and he took a step.

Well, he thought, that didn't kill him, though it hurt like hell. He took another step and he started to think maybe he could make it. If he could find something to lean on...

Behind him came the soft sound of a small twig breaking. Buck's brain went into automatic--draw the revolver, turn, and sh--

"Buck?"

--and he barely stopped himself in time from shooting Casey.

For a moment, he just stood there stupidly, looking at Casey frozen in front of him.

Then, he released the trigger with a shaky hand and reholstered the revolver. "Damnit, Casey! What were you thinking? Sneakin' up on a man like that?" The anger in his voice covering the relief at seeing her alive and apparently all right and the fear at how close he'd just come to killing her.

And Casey, who'd been good and brave and competent and altogether tremendous throughout the whole horrible stinking day, looked at Buck's face and burst into tears.

Chris picked his way through the trees. He'd been sticking to the high ground. Keeping off any trails or roads. He couldn't afford to get waylaid on his way to town to get Nathan and Ezra. Buck couldn't afford it.

The sound of pounding hoof beats caused Chris to pause. Urging his horse to the edge of the cliff, he saw Josiah riding hard in the direction of where they found JD.

Chris turned his horse to intercept Josiah.

Josiah reined in hard, causing his horse to prance.

Chris smiled. "Good to see you, Preacher." Josiah froze at the nickname.

"Relieved to find you too," Josiah somberly replied.

Chris startled at the tone of his voice. His heart sunk. "We lose JD."

"No, no, no."

"Nathan's taking care of him?"

Josiah shook his head. "Nichols gang hit town. They have Nathan and Ezra."

"How? When?

"This afternoon. They have a lot of men from what I can gather from Mary. Town's gone into hiding. Everything shut up tight."

"That's probably for the best. Is Mary safe?"

"I left JD with her."

"YOU LEFT JD WITH HER AND NO PROTECTION." Chris reared his arm back to throw a punch at Josiah.

Josiah's quick reflexes intercepted the blow. "There weren't many options."

Chris backed off. He raised his hands, palms out. "Sorry."

Josiah waved him off.

Chris was trying to figure this out. He wiped a hand over his face trying to clear the fatigue. "Buck and I got ambushed. Had to leave him to get help." Chris started to turn his horse back toward where he left Buck. Josiah reached for the reins. "Where'd you leave him?"

"On the cliff trail."

"I'll go help Buck."

"We both will."

Josiah shook his head emphatically. "You need to go to Four Corners. Get Mary and JD, out of town."

"Josiah, you were right. They're probably okay. We need to go save Buck. Then go after Vin to help Casey, Ezra, and Nathan."

"Chris, listen. They don't just want to kill us. They leave messages. They want to hurt us. JD is already a target. And I'm afraid I've just made Mary one by leaving JD with her. Get 'em out of town."

Chris didn't say anything for a minute.

"You're right. But we need a meeting place."

"How 'bout Nettie's? Vin'll want to head there when we get Casey."

Chris nodded in agreement.

They turned their horses in opposite directions. Chris towards town, Josiah towards the cliff trail to aid Buck.

Chris turned back to Josiah. "Watch your back."

Josiah grinned but there was a grimness to his voice. "Always do."

JD tracked Mary's movements with pensive eyes and she gathered the supplies to tend his wounds. By mutual, though silent, agreement they had decided not to discuss Josiah or the church. Not really anything to say.

"I'm going to remove your clothes," Mary stated matter-of-factly.

"WHAT!" JD yelped.

"I need to remove all your clothes. I need to check for any hidden wounds."

JD pulled the sheet to his chin.

Mary reached for the sheet and a tug-of-war started to develop.

"I'll wait for Nathan," JD stubbornly insisted.

Mary paled. //What was with that?// JD wondered. Before he could ask . . .

"Look, Nathan's not here. There is only me."

"But youíre a lady," JD stammered.

Mary stopped tugging on the sheet. Stepped back and placed on a hand on her hip. "I was a married woman. You don't have anything . . . " Mary paused. She tried a different tack. "I will keep you covered with a sheet."

JD was shook his head vigorously no. He stopped and eyed the pistol beside him on the bed.

Mary apparently read his thoughts and snatched it away.

"You're one tough lady."

Mary didn't say anything for a minute.

"Yes, well. You'd be wrong about that," she said quietly.

JD gave up the fight and relaxed back in the bed.

Mary returned the pistol to JD's side. She picked up her sewing shears and proceeded to cut off what remained of JD's clothes.

After JD's clothes and the old dressings were removed. Mary brought in a bowl of warm water and started to bathe JD.

Mary started to sing softly. Some of tension eased from JD and he relaxed back letting Mary tend to him.

Chris slipped into town. He stopped short when he caught sight of the burnt out church. Josiah's church. He hadn't said anything. Guess that was Josiah was referring to when he talked about messages. Would hate to face Josiah in a battle right now. Big mistake, boys. Big mistake.

Chris made a quick survey of the town. Nobody shot at him. That was at least something, he thought ruefully.

He went to the livery to hitch a wagon.

As Chris methodically carried out the task, he tried not to think. Not to think of Buck. He should've never left him alone. What would he do if he didn't come back? It had been ten, no twelve years, as Buck liked to remind him since they first met. They'd travel different paths over the years but always seemed to meet up. Buck could be so frustrating, but you could never doubt his heart was in the right place.

It seemed like forever since he had any word of Vin. Never in Chris' life had he got so close to a person so fast, than Vin Tanner. It was to the point that they rarely had to complete their thoughts in conversation. They just knew . . .

Chris stiffened. He almost had the wagon hitched when he sensed a movement. He drew his gun and the livery manager came out of the shadows, a rifle in his hand.

"You're in quite a bit trouble," the liveryman commented gravely.

Chris eyed the older black man. Nearing sixty years old, his weathered eyes had seen so much. Never one to talk. This was the longest conversation Chris had ever had with him.

"Yeah."

"You're movin' 'em out town." It was a statement, not a question.

"Going to take them . . . "

The liveryman interrupted Chris. "Don't say anymore. Then I can't tell them."

Chris realized the danger this man was putting himself in. "You probably need to come with us."

"No."

Chris didn't press him on it.

The old man put his rifle against a stall wall and started to remove the tack from Chris' horse.

They worked in silence finishing their tasks. The old man placed the saddle in the wagon bed and tied the horse to the wagon.

The liveryman then led three horses out of a stall to the wagon. Already saddled, they were Ezra's, Nathan's, and Buck's horses.

"This one," he inclined his head to Buck's gray, "has been rode hard. The other two are fresh."

The old man turned and picked up his rifle. Chris mounted the wagon.

The old man went to the barn doors. Opened one and ducked into the shadows. A minute later he returned and opened the other door. "Clear."

Chris nodded and drove the wagon out of the livery and into the back alley where Mary's building was.

There was no trouble along the route.

Chris used his key to Mary's offices to let himself in. She had given it to him when he'd kept an eye on the place during her last visit to Denver. He'd never returned it. He fingered the key remembering the times he had wanted to use it and be with her without the whole town knowing. He shook his head to clear the thought. Wouldn't be fair. He didn't have anything he could offer her.

He heard JD's animated voice coming from Mary's room. Chris smiled. The Kid must be in better shape than he thought.

Mary was standing by the bed. A set of sewing shears in her hand. She made some snipping motions in the air.

Snip. Snip.

"JD, I need to cut your hair so I can see that head wound."

JD's eyes widened.

Mary started giggling. . .

JD sat up suddenly and pushed Mary to floor with his left arm despite his shoulder injury. In his right hand was the gun that had been on the bed . . .

Chris walked in. "Little slow there, Kid"

"Chris." JD greeted him with relief. He relaxed back in the bed.

Chris walked over to Mary and extended a hand to help her up off the floor. Embarrassed, Mary started to pull her hand free. Chris wouldn't let her. He started to stroke her hand with his thumb.

Mary looked up at him. "It's good to see you," she said breathlessly.

Chris felt himself drown in the crystal depths of her eyes. Chris lightly tugged on her arm to bring her closer when JD stirred in the bed. Chris looked down at JD. His chest was bare. One naked leg was free from the sheets. Chris looked up at Mary.

She stiffened. She pulled her hand away from his. "I just finished. I'll get JD some clothes."

Chris smirked and his eyes tracked her leaving the room. Body was so stiff that it would shatter like a dropped china cup.

He turned back to JD. "You up to moving."

"Now."

Chris nodded curtly.

JD sat up in the bed and pulled the sheet away from his nude body.

"You might wait till Mary brings you those clothes," Chris commented dryly.

JD gasped and grabbed for the sheet to cover himself just before Mary's return.

Chris started laughing. Mary returned with the clothes.

"We need to get you two out of town," Chris informed Mary.

"You have a plan, Chris," JD asked.

//Plan. A plan. He had left Buck fending for his life. Josiah was alone trying to get to him in time. Vin was alone trying to rescue Casey. And he had told them no man travels alone. Nathan and Ezra captured. He was particularly concerned about Ezra as a prisoner . .. he would be a particular target for the Nichols brothers. A plan, right. The sum total of the plan was to get Mary and JD out of town.//

Not letting on to all the problems. Chris nodded. "Yeah. But in case anything goes wrong, I'd rather not say. Get dressed."

Chris took Mary's elbow and led her to the hall.

"He'll probably need help."

"I'll go back in a minute to help him." He tipped her chin up. "How are you doing?"

"I . . . I'm fine," her voice quavered.

"Liar," Chris whispered.

A single tear rolled down her cheek. Chris pulled her into his arms. His tongue snaked out to catch the tear. The tear hit, he tasted the salt, and Chris' body tightened with longing. He started to bend his head to her lips . . . paused to look at face . . . then, closed the distance to press his lips to hers.

Her mouth opened and Chris accepted the invitation, plundering her mouth with his tongue. He increased the pressure of his arms so her body was tight against him. He lowered his hand to her hip to press her closer, so she could feel . . .

"Chris." JD's voice broke the private cocoon that enveloped Chris and Mary.

They broke apart as if an irate Judge Travis had caught them. Chris smiled ruefully at Mary. "Get what you need." Mary turned to do his bidding. "And Mary," she turned back to look at him expectedly, "any guns and ammunition." Mary nodded.

Chris returned to the bedroom to help JD.

Part Three