An Eye For An Eye, part seven


Disclaimers, etc. in part 1

Nathan walked out of the back bedroom wiping his hands on a clean rag. The front room was nearly empty. Mary had stayed in the bedroom to watch Vin and Buck. Chris sat at the long table staring at three rifles, a shotgun and his own revolver laid out on the table in front of him. He looked up when Nathan came through the door.

"Well?" Chris said harshly, his gaze looking beyond Nathan at the bedroom door.

"Well, it ain't good. Got the bleedin' stopped. Got fresh bandages on. But," he lifted his hands in frustration. "That's about all I can do." He hesitated, rubbing his hand across his head. "And it ain't enough, Chris. Buck's fever ain't comin' down and that leg wound's infected. Vin's lost a lot of blood. And that spill from his horse sure didn't help things none."

"So, we can't count on 'em, I guess."

Nathan looked at him. "What?"

"Look at this!" Chris said rising to his feet and gesturing at the guns on the table. "We got six rifles, maybe eight revolvers. Not enough ammo to think about. And those men are comin' back. They're comin' back soon!"

"So that's what you're thinkin'? Vin and Buck are just bodies you can use in a fight?"

"That's what I can _afford_ to think right now--how to get us out of this."

"Really?" Nathan crossed the room until the two men faced each other across the table. "Well, then here's an idea. We got horses. Ain't nobody out there right now. How 'bout we just saddle up and ride on out of here? Leave Vin and Buck. They ain't no use anyway. Bein' injured like they are and all. And Miss Nettie. Likely she'll refuse to leave, but that'll be okay. She ain't nothin' but an old woman. Maybe--"

"That's enough!"

"No it ain't enough! It ain't _nearly_ enough!"

Mary came to the bedroom door, drawn by the shouting.

Chris glared at Nathan for a long tense minute. Then, something shifted in his eyes and when he finally spoke his voice was almost mild. "How many men you think they can send after us?"

Nathan didn't reply immediately. Mary studied him, waiting for his response. A sound from the bedroom caught her attention and she turned away, then disappeared inside.

"When Ezra and I were in camp there were about twenty men there. Figure about ten of them rode out. Figure we took out at least seven all told by the time we got here."

"That can't be right," Chris said, stepping away from the table. Nathan watched him, thinking this ain't done yet, Chris. We ain't finished, but there wasn't a whole lot of time and there was planning to do and he let it go for the moment. "That'd only leave three and there were more than that ridin' away this morning." He slammed his fist against the table in frustration. "We got nothin' here!"

Nathan's temper flared again. He thought about everything he needed. More bandages, herbs to take the fever down, herbs to help stop the bleeding, to draw out the infection. "Why don't you ride out and take 'em on yourself, Chris? That's what you're thinkin.' Hell, _that'll_ work."

Chris looked at him. "What's wrong with you?"

"What's wrong with me? What's wrong--"

At that moment Josiah walked through the front door and Nathan broke off. Josiah studied the two men for a minute, but then he leaned his rifle against the wall near the door and walked back to the bedroom to check on Vin and Buck. He was only in there a few minutes and when he came back out his eyes were angry. "Damn," he said. "Fool!"

"What?" Nathan said.

Josiah glared at him. The preacher was rarely angry, except occasionally in a gun fight, and it was startling to see him like that now. "Buck. Is a fool," he said tightly. "Hell, both of them. They're both damn fools. Vin couldn't wait for someone to help him rescue Casey? And Buck, what the hell does he think?...well, he doesn't think. He rode back into that camp for those guns. Did you know that? We were out. Everyone was safe and he turned around and rode back in. Coulda' been killed. Coulda' got us all killed, but he did it anyway."

Nathan looked from Chris to Josiah. He took a step backward and spread his hands out wide in front of him. "That's it," he declared. "That's enough. You both better face what's right here in front of us. You," he pointed at Chris. "You better face it. We're all in this together. And it ain't your fault no matter what you think." He saw something dark flash across Chris's eyes and he knew he'd scored a hit. "It ain't anybody's fault but the Nichols' boys. And you're stuck with us.

"And you," Nathan turned toward Josiah. "You ain't mad at Buck and you ain't mad at Vin neither. And you might as well face _that_. You're just mad. Mad that you can't cure bullet wounds, that you can't look at Buck and make his fever disappear, that your church is gone, and what you want to do is fight somethin'.

"Well, we _got_ somethin' to fight," Nathan told them. "Are we goin' stand here arguin' with each other or are we gonna figure out what to do next?"

There was silence in the room.

After a minute, Chris walked over to the stove and poured a cup of coffee. He crossed the room and offered it to Josiah, who stared at the cup for a minute before he took it. Chris went back to the stove and poured two more cups. He gave one to Nathan and kept the other for himself. He cleared the rifles and shotguns off the table and slid his revolver into his holster. He sat.

"All right," he said. "Figure we don't know how many men. But figure at least thirteen and likely more. Figure we got nowhere near enough ammunition. We got the three of us. We got Ezra, who's in decent shape. And we got J. D., who isn't in great shape, but he can fight."

"Checked in the barn earlier," Josiah said. "We got a wagon and about ten horses. Plus a few chickens," he added.

"We got no supplies, no food, and no medicine. We can't let them trap us here," Chris said.

"We can't move Vin and Buck," Nathan said. "Even with the wagon. Besides where would we go?"

"Medicine," Chris asked. "How much do you think that'd help?"

"It'd help a lot. I need my surgical kit too. If I had that--" He broke off and looked at Chris. "What're you thinking?"

"I'm thinking we know where the supplies are. We know where to go to get them. I'm thinking if I--"

"No!" Both Nathan and Josiah said it simultaneously.

"We don't need anybody else gettin' hurt," Nathan said.

"'Sides," said Josiah. "It's a little late for that."

Chris and Nathan looked at him.

"The Nichols' brothers are going to go to town. You can be certain of that. They'd cut you down as soon as you set foot there. No, goin' to town requires someone with the ability to disguise himself, to lie, cheat maybe. It requires--"

"Where _is_ Ezra?" Chris demanded.

"Well, now, I was just gettin' to that part."

Chris rose, slapping his hands against the table. "You _let_ him? You let him leave? Hell, Josiah, you might as well write him off. Right now. He ain't comin' back here."

"You think so, Chris?"

"He's left before."

"He came back. He's risked his life plenty of times for us since then. He's put his life on the line," Josiah said.

"Men don't change overnight."

"No, but they do change."

Chris wanted a target to shoot at. It was pretty much all he wanted in the world at that moment. He wanted it more than seeing Vin and Buck awake and sitting up. He wanted it more than Mary's safety. More even than for Ezra to prove him wrong and come walking in the door with everything they needed. It kept creeping in at the corners of his brain every time he settled down and started planning, that urgent need to just ride out, find a target and blast away. He shook his head to clear it.

"All right," he said. "But we can't count on him." Josiah started to speak, but Chris went on. "I don't mean like that, but the odds are pretty much against him--gettin' into town, gettin' back out again. We've got to have a plan, something we can work with, and for now we've got to assume that what we have right here is what we've got."

He sat back down and they started planning again.

Buck woke.

Just like that, in the instant between one moment and the next. Straight from dreams of endless hot desert sand to, well,...where the hell was he? He felt lousy. And his thoughts...his thoughts kept scattering away from him like dandelion seeds on the wind. He was hot. Burning, dry hot. He moved and barely stifled a groan as his injured leg protested, feeling as if someone had taken a burning coal from hell and wrapped his leg around it.

He lay still for a moment and tried to collect his straying thoughts. The last thing he remembered was watching Nichols' men ride away, thinking that now was the time to go after them. He remembered looking toward Nettie's, seeing the others as if they were at the end of a long dark tunnel, getting further and further away, and then...he was here.

He lifted his head. Dark spots danced in front of his eyes and his head swam. He lay his head back down and closed his eyes. Damn!

There was movement near him.

"You awake, Buck?" Nathan.

Buck opened his eyes. "Yeah." He started to raise his head again, but Nathan pushed him back down. "Lie still now," he said. "Lie still. Let me get you somethin' to drink. You thirsty?"

"Yeah." His lips were parched, as if he'd spent a week in the desert.

Nathan lifted him up, which caused his head to swim dangerously again, but after a minute the dizzyness subsided and he was able to drink the water Nathan offered him. His thoughts leapt from one thing to another. "Vin?" he asked, his voice still harsh and dry. "And Casey, where's she?"

"Casey's fine. Gone to help her aunt. And Vin," Nathan pointed. "He's right here, Buck. You can see him."

"Nichols' gang. They ain't gone," Buck said. "We got to--" he tried to sit up straighter and the movement jerked his leg. He groaned at the hot flaring pain that flashed through his body. Nathan pushed him back down.

"You don't got to do anything, Buck. You done plenty. What you got to do now is rest. Get some sleep. Let the rest of us do what needs doin.'"

Buck lay back down. He closed his eyes. But he wasn't planning on going to sleep. He could feel heat burning across his cheekbones and he knew there would be no real rest until this was over, once and for all. He thought about things he hadn't done, places he hadn't been when he was needed. He thought about things he didn't think on much anymore--his mother's life when he'd been too young to help her, a girl he'd met once in Topeka who'd been dragged off by her brother--a stone, mean man--in the middle of the night and he'd never been able to find her. He thought about the time several years ago when he and Chris had had an argument and Buck had walked out, leaving Chris to face six bank robbers all alone the next day. He thought about Sarah and Adam and he could feel the hot flames of the ranch house as it burned. This was his fight. Always had been. He'd been locked into it since the day he met Chris Larabee. And Buck Wilmington never walked away from a fight.

Ezra hesitated for a moment at the edge of the clearing. In some odd part of his mind he hadn't really expected to make it back. And now, he found he didn't quite know what to do. He was shaken a little too by what the townspeople had done for him. The liveryman's protection, the clothes and other supplies they'd gathered for him. It was the kind of thing he expected people to do for Chris or Nathan or even Josiah. But not for him. He expected everyone to see him for what he mostly was--a con man, a liar, a gambler, and a cheat. That was the barrier, the wall he put between himself and others. And now that wall was starting to come down.

He urged his horse forward. As he neared the house he saw J. D. sitting on the porch. When J. D. spotted him, he sat up a little straighter and tapped the butt of his rifle against the door of the cabin. Ezra had dismounted and was tying his horse to the porch rail when Chris Larabee exited the cabin and came down the porch steps toward him.

For a moment neither of them spoke. Ezra untied bags from his horse and handed them to Chris.

"You should have told me you were going," Chris finally said.

Ezra looked at him. This wasn't the response he was expecting. "You were busy," Ezra said. "I felt I was particularly suited to the task. Time _is_ of the essence, I believe." He untied the last bag and prepared to follow Chris up the steps. "I didn't think you'd like it."

"I don't," Chris said sharply. "What if someone followed you? What if you'd been captured? What...hell, what if you'd been killed?"

They entered the cabin and Ezra saw Josiah at the table, Nettie at the stove, stirring a pot, and Casey sleeping on the floor near the fireplace. Ezra didn't know what to say in response to Chris's last question so he changed the subject. "In addition to the supplies we need," he said as he and Chris laid the bags on the table. "I have news."

Before he could elaborate, Nathan emerged from the back bedroom and fell with a cry on the medical supplies that Ezra had brought. He looked at Ezra. "You're a damn fool," he said sternly. And then he grinned. "And thank you." He disappeared back into the bedroom.

By this time Ezra had been in the small house just about long enough. Josiah sniffed, looked at Ezra and sniffed again. "_Damn_, Ezra," he said.

Ezra straightened. "A _complete_ disguise was necessary to effect the successful emancipation of the supplies we needed," he said with dignity.

Even Chris was trying to hide a smile. "I think," he said to Ezra, "that we can wait until you change your clothes before we hear your news."

Fifteen minutes later, Ezra, Chris, Nathan, and Josiah sat at the table. Nettie insisted on feeding Ezra. "You must be starving," she said bossily. And Ezra had to admit that the stew she served him tasted better than anything he'd ever eaten in his life before. J. D. insisted on staying on the porch--to watch, he said. And Chris who knew the boy was chaffing at his limited role in the proceedings so far, acquiesced without a word.

"When I arrived in town," Ezra began, "the Nichols' boys were there."

"What!" Chris said. "And you went in anyway?"

"I assure you, I did not realize they were there until it was too late. They were looking for J. D.--and you," he said to Chris. "Peter Nichols must have well over twenty men with him. Where they are coming from I cannot imagine. Also, he's been joined by...well, a man I can only say I hoped never to meet again. Cole Preston."

At the mention of Preston's name, Chris grew pensive. "Preston," he said, almost to himself. I know him--big fella, mean."

"That would be Cole Preston, yes. As mean as they come. He'll make things difficult."

"Things are already difficult, Ezra," Josiah said.

"Do they know we're here?" Chris asked.

"I don't believe so, but it's only a matter of time before they figure it out."

"Then we don't wait for that," Chris said.

The men looked at him, trying to figure what it was he had in mind.

"Boys," Chris said, laying his hands flat on the table in front of him. "We've been running long enough. We've got guns now and ammunition and fresh horses. It's time to take the fight to them."

Despite his determination to stay awake, to hoard his strength and be prepared, Buck had spent most of the afternoon since he'd woken drifting in and out of a fever-induced haze. One minute he'd be in the bedroom, aware of Vin in the bed next to him, feeling someone putting a cool cloth on his head, the next he'd be in the middle of his worst nightmare, burning like the flames of hell.

Nathan had come in earlier and rewrapped his leg. It had hurt like hell, sending him drifting along straight, infinitely cruel lines of pain that made his whole body ache, but whatever it was he'd put on the wound when he wrapped it was helping a little now. It felt...cooler, maybe. Better, anyway.

Buck could hear voices from the other room and he tried to concentrate on what they were saying.

"Nichols'....Preston....town...."

Damn! He thought, they were planning something. Just like them to leave him out. He took a deep breath and by not thinking of anything at all, he managed to sit up.

"Buck!" Mary came toward him. "You've got to lie back down."

He breathed, and his breath caught against the pain and the dizziness that wouldn't go away. He pushed himself up a little more and leaned his head back against the wall. "It's all right," he said in a hoarse whisper. The heat that seemed to surround him always now ratcheted up a notch. Couldn't they open the windows in here, he thought? A man couldn't hardly breathe.

"It's not all right, " Mary said to him, laying a hand on his arm. "You're not all right," she told him firmly. "You've got to lie down and rest."

"No," he said.

Mary looked at him in frustration and left the room.

Buck waited. He'd gotten this far and he figured it was just a matter of a few minutes to catch his breath and he'd be able to get up. Just breathe, he told himself. Just wait.

Mary came into the front room. "Buck's trying to get up," she announced a little breathlessly. "He's...I can't get him to lie down."

Nathan started to rise, but Chris laid his hand on his arm. "I'll go," he said.

Chris hesitated in the doorway. He'd avoided the bedroom all day, since he'd brought Buck in and helped Mary get him comfortable. There wasn't anything he could do--that's what he'd told himself--but the truth was deeper and harder and more complicated than that. He felt guilty. And he felt helpless. And he didn't like either of those feelings. He hated the idea of Vin and Buck risking their lives and him not there, even though he knew they'd do it anyway, even though he knew that both of them made their own choices and went their own way.

He looked now at the men in front of him. Vin lay on the far bed, very quiet and very still as if it took too much of his energy even to breathe. He'd lost so much blood, Chris had seen it, and what he needed now was quiet and peace and plenty of rest. What he was going to get, remained to be seen.

He looked at Buck. He was sitting up, leaning against the wall, his bad leg stretched out in front of him. His other leg was bent at the knee and his hand rested there. His face was pale underneath his moustache, except for two bright spots, burning on his cheeks. His eyes were closed.

"Buck?" Chris said quietly.

"Yeah?"

"You need to rest, Buck. You've done enough."

"It ain't never enough."

"Well, this time it is."

"You're going after them," Buck said flatly.

"_You're_ not," Chris retorted.

Buck was exhausted and he knew it. The pain in his leg was growing, spreading in streaks across the rest of his body. All he wanted was to sink into a cool black hole and never emerge again. But he couldn't.

He couldn't.

He must have been quiet a long time because the next thing he knew Chris was beside him, putting his hand on his arm. "I'm sorry," he said.

Buck had to turn that over in his mind for a minute. It was getting hard to think again. "You got nothin' to be sorry about, Chris," he said.

"Then trust me to take care of things. Trust me to do what needs doin.'"

"It ain't--" And Buck stopped because he was too tired and too feverish and just plain too fuzzed up in his head to say what needed to be said. "I can't rest until this is finished," he finally said.

Chris looked at him, but Buck's eyes were closed again and he couldn't see the expression on Chris's face, wouldn't have wanted to see it--stark and tight and determined as it was. "All right, Buck," he said, his words mild, but a thread of helpless anger cutting underneath them. "Listen to me. Nothing will happen until tonight. Nothing. Will you at least rest until then?"

"Yeah," said Buck, almost gone anyway. "Yeah, I reckon I can do that."

JD was on the front porch of Nettie's cabin pacing back and forth. His shoulder ached but otherwise he didn't feel that bad. Mrs. Travis was treating him liked an invalid which was beginning to drive him nuts. It was just adding to his feeling pretty useless. Couldn't protect Casey. Can't help Buck. Not even doing his fair share around here. With all the commotion when everybody got back he hadn't had a chance to talk to Casey. To tell her how sorry he was he couldn't protect her. Pretty useless. Pretty damn useless.

From inside the cabin, JD overheard. "Buck's trying to get up," Mary announced. "He's...I can't get him to lie down."

"I'll go," Chris said.

Buck was awake. Is that what Mrs. Travis said? JD hurried into the cabin. He could hear Chris talking in the bedroom.

"Buck's awake."

Nathan nodded.

"That's good, right? He'll get better?"

"Yeah, it's a good sign. And with these medical supplies that Ezra brought I'll be able to do a lot more. But he's got a long road still and he's not out of the woods by any means. But yeah, you can consider it a good sign."

"Can I see him?"

"Hold off for now. Chris is trying to get him to settle down and rest," Nathan suggested.

JD looked around the room. Miz Nettie was at the stove preparing dinner. Mrs. Travis was leaning against the wall by the bedroom. She looked very tired. That was probably his fault. Ezra was sitting at the table, his head almost lying on the table, nursing a cup of water. Nathan looked exhausted. Josiah was on watch. And Casey. Casey was asleep on a bedroll by the fireplace. She hadn't stirred with the activity in the room.

Chris came out the bedroom and Josiah walked through the front door.

"Quiet out there?" Chris inquired as Josiah came in.

"Yeah," Josiah responded wearily. Mary handed Josiah a cup of coffee. "Thank you, ma'am." But his smile lacked the usual flash.

"I'll take the next watch," Chris resignedly.

"You need to try to get some rest, you were up all night. Nothin' gonna happen till night," Nathan ordered.

"I can take a watch." Ezra started to stand.

"Absolutely not. You need to rest more than Chris does. You took a bad beating. In fact, I haven't had a chance before now and need to check you out."

"Mr. Jackson, I'm fine."

"No, you're not." Nathan stared down Ezra. JD watched the exchange. Boy, there was something there that they weren't saying. JD thought to break the stalemate.

"I'll take the watch," JD volunteered.

"Absolutely not." This time it was Mary that protested. "You're doing too much, you need to rest."

"I've been sittin' around doin' nothin'," JD protested.

"NATHAN, TELL. . ." Mary and JD chorused simultaneously.

Nathan chuckled. They had individually come to him complaining about the other. Mary about what an awful patient JD was. JD complaining about Mary molly coddling him.

"JD's fine to take the watch."

"Watch is yours JD. Stay alert." Chris ordered.

JD straightened up. Finally get to do something. Casey stirred during the conversation and JD looked over at her. He should say something. Just didnít know what it would be. JD's shoulders drooped with weight of his guilt. He exited the cabin to take the watch.

Chris saw Casey watching JD with hurt eyes as he left. They needed to clear the air.

Mary brought a cup of coffee over to Chris. Mary lowered her voice. "You need to talk to JD." Chris looked over at the door JD just exited and then over at Casey.

"And say what?"

"That it wasn't his fault and he needs to talk to Casey about it."

Chris grinned wryly. "JD's not too interested in my advice about women."

Mary looked up at him smiling. "Mmmmm, I couldn't imagine why," Mary teased.

"Thank you."

"You're welcome," Mary laughed.

"I'll go talk to him."

Chris left the cabin to talk to JD. He could feel the eyes of Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra on him as he exited. He glared at them daring them to say anything. They grinned at his reaction but were otherwise silent.

The bustle in the cabin continued.

"Casey, how about a bath to freshen up?" He heard Mary say.

"Ezra, let's check you out." He heard Nathan say.

Chris didn't catch Ezra's drawled response.

Chris surveyed the surrounding area. They needed this reprieve and setting up at Nettie's had been a good decision. Better than he ever realized initially. They were all together -- they were a formidable force together -- the seven. Even with their injured, Chris was feeling more optimistic because they were all here. The not knowing about one of them was much more fatiguing. Chris laughed at himself, never knew I was such a worrier. But he felt the weight of leadership, had to take care of his men. Chris smiled, yeah, just like they took care of him. Chris remembered Jericho and their search for him.

They also had the high ground here and that was keeping the Nichols gang at bay for now. At least until it was dark and they could sneak up on the cabin. Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra had discussed options. They had talked about moving the ladies out of danger. But splitting their limited manpower was considered too dangerous. It was also making the huge assumption that they would leave. Chris grinned -yeah; nobody was willing to take that one on. The final decision was to wait and see how it played out. They had fortified their defenses and if need be, they could make a stand. Chris was hoping for an opening that they could take the offensive. Never was one to wait for the fight to come to him.

Chris's eyes tracked JD has he walked the perimeter. Chris walked out to intercept him.

"I can handle the watch," JD bristled.

"I know you can. Thought you might want to talk."

JD looked sideways at Chris. Chris smiled. "I take it you mean about Casey."

"Yup."

"I couldn't protect Casey. Should have been more a lot more alert. They were on us before I ever knew it. My head was down. I wasn't looking. Just should have been more alert. She could've run for it. Then, I let Peter Nichols shoot me. Wasnít fast enough. Should've shot him. And they took her away and I couldn't stop them. I wanted to stop them, wanted to stop them so bad. Should have been able to protect her. What kind of a man am I if I can't even protect her?" JD finally paused to catch his breath. The words had been tumbling out that Chris didn't have an opportunity to get a word in edgewise.

"JD. There is no doubt in my mind that you can protect Casey."

JD looked at Chris skeptically. "Oh right, proved that," JD responded sarcastically.

"JD. No doubt. Sometimes the other guy has the advantage in the fight. There was no reason to expect you would be jumped. There was no warning. No reason to expect the attack. They were lying in wait for you. The advantage was all theirs. None, none of us, could've done any better in those circumstances."

"But, but, they got her, they took her away."

"And Wickes took Mary. Did I fail her? I had warning. Should've put a watch on the girls."

"That wasn't your fault Chris."

"That's right, not my fault."

JD stopped and looked up a Chris. "What do I say to Casey?"

Chris pondered the question. "You sure you want my advice on that?"

JD laughed remembering what he said when they had arrived at Nettie's. "Yeah, I would."

"I think you say I love you."

JD looked at Chris shocked. "That's it."

Chris smiled, nodded, and turned back to the cabin.

"That's it." He heard JD call back at him. Chris laughed at him. Told Mary, JD wouldn't want his advice.

Casey groaned as she tried to sit. Nathan came over to assist her.

"I think a bath would be just the thing. Clean those wounds up, help with stiffness," Nathan commented.

"We didnít get a chance earlier," Nettie came over from the stove. "Already set up the tub and a curtain."

Josiah stood. "I'll bring in some more water."

"You really don't need to do that," Casey protested.

"No problem, Miss Casey." Josiah smiled at the young lady.

"I was looking forward to cleaning up myself," Mary commented.

"Mary, do you mind keeping an ear out for Vin and Buck. They're both resting quietly right now," Nathan asked.

"Sure I can."

"Ezra, let me check you out. We'll go outside to the barn."

"Mr. Jackson, I assure you . . . " Ezra's voice trailed off as he saw the stubborn set of Nathan's chin. He nodded his acquiescence.

The bath water was brought in, heated and poured.

"Thank you, Josiah."

"Ladies," Josiah tipped his hat. "I'll be on the front porch should you require anything."

"If you two are alright, I'll check the boys and work on dinner."

"We'll be fine, Nettie."

Mary assisted Casey out of her dress and into the bath water. Mary gasped softly at the bruises on Casey. There were black marks on her arms, back, hips and legs. On her arm, Mary could see the distinct imprint of fingers that had pressed her flesh cruelly. Her wrists were chaffed with rope burns. Oh Casey, what have you endured? She had been lost in the concern over the men.

Casey eased into the water. "I feel so dirty." She picked up a cloth and soap and started to vigorously rub her skin. Tears welling and spilling down her cheeks.

"Oh, Casey." Mary took the cloth and soap from her. Kissed her cheek and gently began to bathe her.

Mary looked at Casey with tortured eyes. She wanted to ask if those men had done anything to her but she was afraid of what the answer would be. "Casey, those men, did they . . ."

Casey sobbed but shook her head no.

Mary reached out her arms and Casey wrapped her arms around her, sobbing.

When the sobs subsided, Mary picked up the cloth and continued to bathe Casey.

Finally Casey started to talk. "Sixteen years old and never been kissed. My Aunt Nettie was married by the time she was my age. And I've never been kissed." Casey wrinkled her lips in distaste. "Don't think you can count the time Billie kissed me on a dare when I was eight years old."

Mary chuckled. "No, I don't think that one counts."

"JD's never kissed me. Do you think he wants to?"

Mary smiled. "Yes, I think he wants to."

"We went fishing. And I was teasin' and pushed him in the water. And he pulled me in. We were standing in the water and I thought he was going to kiss me. His head bent towards mine. And I felt hot and cold at the same time. I got nervous and swam away."

"Why were you nervous?"

"That he wouldn't like it. Wouldn't like me. That I wasn't pretty enough. That I wasn't enough woman for him. Do you ever feel that way with Mr. Larabee?"

"Nervous?" Casey nodded. Mary sighed. "It's not nervous exactly. Maybe more scared that I'll say the wrong thing. Which I do on a fairly regular basis, by the way."

Casey laughed. "You're not the only one. Itís so hard to talk to JD. He takes offense so easily, especially when I do stuff better than he does."

"JD is feeling pretty bad right now."

"Why?" Casey exclaimed.

"He blames himself for you getting kidnapped."

"Wasn't nothin' he could've done?"

"You might want to let him know that."

"Do you think so? Really think so?"

"Yes, I really think so. Let's find a pretty dress and do your hair. There's a rock on the back hill. Wait there for him and talk to him. I know it will be okay."

Casey was eager to get dressed. Mary fixed her hair leaving it loose and pulled the front pieces and tied it with a ribbon. Mary always wanted a daughter. Maybe one day.

"You look very pretty. Go have that talk with JD."

"Thank you, Mary." Casey rushed out of the cabin.

"Thank you, Mary." Mary looked up at Nettie.

Mary shook her head. "It wasnít anything."

"No, you give her something I can't. Confidence in herself as a woman."

"I think JD is the one that needs to do that."

Nettie cackled at Mary's answer.

He was floating.

Wait a minute. How could he be floating? People didn't just.....drift.

Did they?

He couldn't rightly remember.

Darkness. Velvet darkness. Satin oblivion surrounded him, and he wondered why that was so comforting.

A single pinprick of light marred the perfect black around him, and he reached out to it. It was only vaguely that he realized he wasn't using an arm to touch the light. He saw it broaden and grow, pulling him back to awareness.

Pain.

Searing, blinding, soul-cursing pain.

The groan he wanted to loose refused to pass his lips. The sheer act of breathing was almost too much for him to handle- it hurt so much! Oh, God!

Concentrate.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Heart beat. Beat again. And again.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

He wanted desperately to be back in that glorious absence of pain. He saw the light around him swirl, shrink, and dissipate. Then he was surrounded by the black again, and the pain was only a dull ache in his memory.

God, what had happened to him?

Memories flickered. The Nichol's gang. JD. Casey.

OH, GOD! CASEY!

For a moment, he was back in that pain-filled world, dragged there by duty. //CASEY!// he screamed mentally. //CASEY! RUN!//

But she hadn't run.

And they'd gotten her.

The Nichol's brothers had gotten her.

And he hadn't done anything to stop them.

A hitching moan breathed past his lips.

Failed. He'd failed.

Buck. Was Buck OK? He hadn't been doing too well, as Vin remembered. Had he survived the mad dash to Nettie's cabin? What about the others? Was Chris here? Chris would get Casey back. Of course he would.

If he was here.

Where was he again?

Oh, right. Floating.

He really wished that dot of light would just disappear. It was too painful to look at it, and even worse to touch it. It brought pain, both physical and emotional.

//Oh, God, Casey. I'm so sorry.//

If only it would go away.

And as if on cue, the spot of light began to fade.

Part Eight