An Eye For An Eye, part eight


Disclaimers, etc. in part 1

Mary looked up from where she was checking the bandage on Vin's side when she heard him moan. Her eyebrows furrowed in concern. The tracker's face was even more ashen than usual.

"Vin?" she said softly, moving closer to his face, speaking quietly so as not to disturb Buck, who still slept in the next bed. "Vin, can you hear me?" There was no kind of affirmative response. There was no response whatsoever.

Something was wrong. His breathing was getting shallower, less even. Mary's eyes widened with fear.

He was dying.

A split second later, she was sprinting into the kitchen, where the others in the group were gathered, planning for their attack on the Nichols. "Nathan!" she cried.

The healer looked up quickly from where he was boiling bandages. "Mary? What's wrong?" His voice was worried.

She pointed back over her shoulder. "It's Vin. I think we're losing him!"

Ezra and Nathan walked into the barn.

"You got some kind of death wish?" Nathan asked.

"No, I have no desire to leave this mortal world at this time."

"Could've fooled me." Nathan muttered. "Sit here."

Nathan gently palpated the swelling around Ezra's left eye where he had taken the rifle butt hit.

"Any dizziness?" Ezra shook his head. "Can you keep fluids down?" Ezra nodded yes. "Open your shirt." Nathan palpated the bruised area on Ezra's stomach. Ezra winced as Nathan pressed with his fingers. Nathan checked Ezra's back and frowned in concern at the deep, black bruise. "Any bloody pee?" Ezra again shook his head.

"Mr. Jackson. I'm sore but otherwise fine."

"Do you need anything for pain?"

"Nothing stronger than whiskey."

"I wouldn't recommend it right now. Not with that head injury." Ezra again nodded his head at Nathan's advice. "You can dress." Ezra stood to leave.

"Thank you, Nathan." It was the use of 'Nathan' instead of Mr. Jackson that made Nathan frown back at Ezra.

"What happened that you didn't mention before?"

"What makes you think that?" Ezra asked solemnly.

Nathan just looked hard at Ezra. "Because you've changed."

Ezra seemed to think about Nathan's answer. He didn't say anything for a bit. "Been alone my entire life. My beloved mother," Ezra shook his head in disgust, "left me wherever it was convenient. And most folks were inconvenienced. All my life had only had myself to rely on. No debts. No payments."

"What does that mean: no debts, no payments?" Nathan asked frustrated. Ezra was hard to understand most days. It was particularly frustrating when he used simple words and you still couldn't understand his meaning.

"I never expected anybody to do anything for me. Then, I wouldn't have to do anything for them."

"What happened today?"

"Mr. Skaggs died for us."

"What? And you didn't stop it."

Ezra dropped his head defeated. "Wasn't anything I could do. The Nichols gang lined all the townspeople out in the street. They were looking for Chris and JD. Mr. Skaggs was shot for helping us. And so that no one else in town would. Do you know what happened?" Ezra looked up at Nathan.

Nathan shook his head no.

"Edwin, the hotel clerk, packed bags for me. The man from livery helped me escape from town. They shouldn't have done it. They were taking a great risk. I asked why they were helping? They were repaying a debt to me." A single tear fell down Ezra's cheek.

"And you don't deserve that?"

"That's right," Ezra responded hoarsely.

"You'd be wrong." Nathan said quietly. He left Ezra in the barn. He needed to check on Vin and Buck and prepare some desperately needed bandages. He sensed Ezra needed some time alone to reconcile all that had happened that day.

Casey burst through the cabin door. Mr. Larabee and Mr. Sanchez were on the front porch. Casey skidded to a stop.

"You look very pretty, Miss Casey." Josiah stood when Casey came out.

Casey ducked her head embarrassed. She brought her hand to her cheek and felt the scratches.

"Very pretty." Chris Larabee smiled indulgently.

Oh my gosh, Casey thought - they thought I was pretty.

"You going to talk to JD." Casey nodded shyly. "You might try the hill behind the house."

Casey felt her face flush and scurried to get away.

If Casey had turned back, she would have seen them both smile. Casey picked her way up the trail to the back hill. She was nervous. Would JD think she was pretty? She could hear his footfalls. He stopped and watched her climb the last few yards to the top of the hill.

"Stop staring, JD. You've seen me in a dress." Casey could've kicked herself. Darn it that wasn't the right thing to say. Fishing for a complement, weren't you, Casey?

JD continued to stare. "You're very pretty in that dress." He said slowly.

Casey almost said, you think so, you really think so. She swallowed hard to slow down and looked up at JD. "Thank you," she responded shyly.

JD smiled broadly and reached out a hand to her. "I'm glad you came up here."

"You are?" Casey responded eagerly.

JD was solemn. "I wanted to tell you how sorry I am I couldn't stop the Nichols gang."

"JD. I don't blame you. You did all you could." Casey reached her hand up to JD's bruised cheek. She brushed it with a light touch.

"Casey." JD said so very softly as his head bent to hers.

Casey's head was screaming, //kiss him, kiss him.// But some instinct made Casey hold still as JD closed the distance between them. His lips pressed to hers. It seemed so brief and he lifted his head. JD looked into her eyes.

//Say something,// Casey thought. Casey swallowed, her breaths were shallow. JD lifted a hand and burrowed it beneath her hair to cup her neck. With gentle pressure, he pulled her to him. His head bent again. This time Casey met him halfway. As his lips touched hers, she gasped softly. JD licked her bottom lip with his tongue. He wrapped his other hand around her waist and pulled her close.

JD lifted his head just slightly. "Open your mouth," he whispered.

Casey never considered not doing what he asked. JD's lips crushed hers. He held her head still as his tongue thrust into her throat, tasting her. JD groaned and lifted her against him.

"JD. CASEY." Josiah called from the base of the hill. They pulled apart so suddenly that Casey started to stumble. JD reached out a hand to break her fall.

JD found his voice first. "Yeah, Josiah."

"Nettie needs Casey to help with dinner."

They looked at each other for a minute. "You best go."

Casey nodded and called to Josiah, "Coming."

"Casey . . ." Casey looked back at JD. He seemed like he wanted to say something. JD shook his head. "Nothin'."

As Casey returned to the cabin, Josiah, Chris and Ezra were on the front porch. They smiled gently at her. "You clear the air with JD," Chris asked.

Casey's smile was broad as she nodded eagerly. The men smiled at her response but there was immediate alarm as they heard Mary cry. "It's Vin. I think we're losing him!"

A campfire.

No. Too small for a campfire. But the same warm glow. The same feel to it. He realized what it was slowly, calmly: a lamp with the wick trimmed low.

But where? Why? Vin wanted to turn his head to see more, but it was as if his body wasn't listening to him, wouldn't do what he wanted. It just kept telling him steadily that it hurt like hell and that he ought to do something to stop it. He didn't know what, though. He dimly remembered waking up once before, here -- wherever "here" was. But the whole thing eluded him. Breathing was so slow and hard. Just breathing. He laid there feeling the air move in and out in of his chest in a long, shallow pattern, found himself wondering when it stopped for a while sometimes if it was going to start again. Wondered if he should feel more interest in that question than he did. Closed his eyes and saw darkness, opened them to the lamplight again. Heard voices somewhere, the words far away and slow to form meaning, seeping in as they did around the edges of the hurting that kept dragging his attention away from them. They were directed to someone else; he could tell that much.

"If you sit up, you'll make the fever worse. Stay down."

Fever? Maybe an army hospital. Where had he been last? He searched through battlefield images, shuffling them like a deck of cards. None of them fit. None made sense. But it had to be. Or something like that. The fire in his side had to be from some kind of wound. Had to be. And if someone else was here, too, and had a fever--

"I ain't no good to nobody like this. I'm sure as hell not gonna' lay in bed while you five--"

"That's just exactly what you're gonna' do. You've done your part, now."

"Chris! Get in here and tell this so-called 'doctor' that . . ." Vin let the voice go on without him as he stopped and hung spinning on one word:

Chris.

Vin's mind stopped shuffling. Chris. Felt things starting to fall into place. Heard more voices, the room swimming in words that suddenly made it harder to breathe. Buck, he thought. JD.

Casey.

An electric shock, a horrible sensation of dread grabbed Vin's breath right out of him, wrapped fingers in his gut and squeezed. Casey! Dear God, where was Casey? When had he lost her? She'd been there. All day, all night, right there. Never out of his sight once. But she wasn't there now, and he couldn't remember when he'd lost her, how he'd lost her. Images began to flash through his mind, each more terrifying than the one before: Casey sitting right there while he was shooting. My God! What had he been thinking? Riding, fast, she was falling. Or maybe it was him falling. Tied up. She was gagged, crying. Casey. He grew more frantic trying to remember. When had he lost her? Where would he look? Where was she? The voices in the room were getting louder, and they fueled his sense of not being able to understand, his frustration, his fear. It all boiled down, distilled finally into a single cry that left his heart as a scream but his throat as a harsh and dry whisper, the end of her name not even finishing, not coming out no matter how he willed it to.

"Case . . ."

Silence fell into the noisy room like a dead tree.

Vin felt adrift in it suddenly, as if the words had been holding him up. He felt himself falling backwards into the void of their absence, saw soft blackness curl around the lamplight and begin to swallow it. But there was a hand on his face. Someone near. New words that took a while to work their way down to the place he was sinking in to.

"Vin?"

Nathan, he thought. He opened eyes that seemed too heavy to open, saw the healer's face, dim but there. "Case...y," said Vin softly, "find her." He felt like he'd climbed a mountain, just saying three words. His heart pounded so loud in his own hears that he couldn't hear for a minute. When Nathan didn't move, Vin scowled. Didn't he understand? What was wrong with him? "Casey." Vin's voice was more insistent, more ragged. "Find her. Nathan . .. find Casey." He tried to get up, tried to raise at least a hand to grab Nathan, to make him listen. "Find . . ." he said, and was panting with the effort, nothing moving right, everything slow like in a bad dream. "Find . .. Casey . . ."

Confusion swirled around him then, things moving, voices trailing in and out. ". . . gotta' calm 'im down . . ." ". . . get her in here. . ." ". . . don't want the bleedin' to . . ."

Then Chris's voice. Close. Direct. Exceedingly calm. "Casey's right here, Vin." The tracker hadn't realized he'd closed his eyes until he had to open them to look at Chris. "Look. She's right here. Safe."

The girl glanced at Chris, then at her aunt. Her face was pale, and the scabs forming over the abrasions on her chin and right cheek stood out dark as spots of mud. Nettie nodded to her. "Go on," she said. "Make sure he knows you're safe so he'll stop frettin' and rest quiet."

Casey felt suddenly shy. But she reached out quickly before she could lose her courage and put her hand over Vin's where it lay on top of the quilt. She squeezed it gently to make sure he knew she was there. "I'm fine, Vin. We made it back to Aunt Nettie's OK. We're safe."

Thank God, thought Vin. He hadn't lost her. Thank God.

"Well, that's right good, Casey." Nathan's baritone. "You can see you've done 'im good, too. Thank you."

"It's --" The girl hesitated, looking at Chris's somber face. "It's the least I can do. Considerin'." She ducked away and went to Nettie, who drew the girl into a brief embrace and then led her from the room. Vin closed his eyes, but still heard the voices. Easier to hear the words now, although they still just flowed over him like water, swirling in eddies sometimes as the hurting pulsed higher and then ebbed again.

"So how is he, Nathan?"

"Looks like he's comin' around, Buck. Kinda' slow, but steady."

"Well, that's Vin all over."

"Buck, sick or not, you're gonna' get a fat lip from me if you don't lay back down like Nathan says."

"Chris, I--" Buck's voice started to rise in protest, and Nathan cut through it with tight exasperation.

"Now I ain't gonna' have no arguin' in here right now."

Chris and Buck stared hard at Nathan, and the healer stared right back. Chris turned suddenly, without a word, and went into the cabin's other room.

"Shit," muttered Buck, "Damned fever. Damned leg."

"You're lucky to still have that leg, Buck. An' if you wanna' keep it, you'll do what I say. That fever ain't goin' nowhere an' you got to respect it." Nathan was watching the shallow pulse in Vin's throat as he spoke. He saw the tracker shiver, heard him moan softly. Gently he lifted each of the man's hands and tucked them under the quilt. He pulled it higher, tucked it around his shoulders. "Take it easy, Vin."

"What happened?" This time Vin's voice was steadier, if still so weak as to be nearly a whisper.

"We made it in, like Casey said. We're at Nettie's. Everyone's safe."

"Chris?"

"Chris, too. Mary, JD, Nettie. They're all in the next room eatin' supper."

A look of confusion drew the tracker's brows together. Supper? The sun had just come up, hadn't it? Nathan understood without him saying a word.

"You been out most a' the day." The healer laid a warm hand on Vin's forehead and then the side of his face. "I'm gonna' get you some water. I don't want you to move so much as a finger while I'm gone. And I mean it."

"Can't," said Vin simply, and Nathan looked close to see if -- well, by damn, if there wasn't the faintest hint of a smile at one corner of the man's lips. Nathan grinned and patted the tracker's shoulder affectionately, then started to leave the room.

"Don't you move a finger, neither, Buck," he said without looking back.

"Well," said Buck, crossly. His voice was thick. "Damnation."

The people sitting and standing around the room eating looked up expectantly at Nathan as he came in. "Miz Nettie, might you have a couple more blankets I can put over Vin?" He spoke as he headed for the bucket and dipper to get water, glancing at the woman quickly and then carefully avoiding anyone else's eyes. Nettie silently set a pan of biscuits down on the table next to a heaping plate of fried chicken that already showed significant inroads upon its contents, and wiped her hands on an apron she'd fastened over her skirt. She went to a chest and raised the lid to draw out two heavy quilts that she took into the other room without a word. Nathan could feel the others' eyes on him as he ladled cool water out of the bucket into a tin cup and turned back around. Chris was the one who braced him, of course, his voice low so it wouldn't be overheard in the next room.

"So?"

Nathan paused. He realized suddenly that the chicken smelled good, and that he was hungry. He sighed.

"If we can keep him quiet so the bleedin' don't start again, I think he'll make it."

"And otherwise?"

"Look, Chris, I gotta' get Vin this water while he's awake enough to drink it."

"I've finished eating. I'll do it." Mary took the cup from Nathan, who looked carefully at her. "I'm not very hungry," she admitted, "so I might as well sit with them for a while again."

Nathan nodded reluctantly. "All right," he said, "but keep his head as low as you can. Better to spill a little water than to raise his head up too high right now."

Mary took a deep breath, as if for courage, and nodded. She disappeared into the sick room, and Nettie came out a few moments later, shaking her head to herself, her eyes somber.

"Damned shame," she complained softly. "The two a' them laid up that way. Those Nichols' should be hung. Every last one a' them."

Chris smiled gently. "You'll get no argument from me, Nettie." He looked at Nathan and inclined his head. "Well?"

Nathan sighed and ran a hand through his hair in a gesture that told the others much more than he realized it did. He looked around the room with a tired expression. "Vin's about as close as you can get to bleedin' to death an' still be alive."

"What can we do?" Chris was persistent, calm but persistent.

"All we can do is keep 'im quiet long enough for -- well, for him to get more blood again. That takes a while."

"Nathan." Chris was getting exasperated, and everyone heard it. "Tell me the whole thing."

"Man loses too much blood, he goes into shock. It gets too bad it'll stop his heart. That's what nearly happened earlier, when Vin started to go out on Mary. We were lucky, though, an' caught 'im." The healer paused, looked down at his hands a moment. "He could still die from shock tonight if I'm not real careful, though. Especially as much pain as he's in; I don't know why, but that makes it worse. I'd like to give 'im some laudanum, but as weak as he is it's not safe. He's just hangin' right at the edge, and he keeps goin' a little deeper into it than I like to see. The only way I know to fight it is to keep 'im warm an' quiet, an' give 'im plenty to drink. That's why he's gotta' drink as much as I can get in him, an' it's why I had Nettie put more blankets on. After tonight, the chances get a little better. As long as he don't lose no more blood anyway. But it takes about a week to make more, and 'til then he's livin' on the edge."

A gust of wind burst into the room as the cabin door opened, and Ezra leaned into the room from the porch, one hand on the door latch and the other holding a rifle.

"I think you gentlemen had better come out here right away," he said.

Chris looked through the open doorway into the bedroom and saw Mary staring at him. "Put out the light in there so they can't see in," he said softly. She moved quickly to the lamp and blew it out. Dusk dropped into the room immediately, and poured over the sill into the main room where Nettie was already banking down the fire and pinching out the two candles she'd lit earlier as it had begun to get late. Chris moved onto the porch, stepping into the thick blue light that was spreading across Nettie's land like a long shadow. A nearly full moon, heavy as a Japanese lantern, hung just above the trees. Fifty feet away, Peter Nichols was stepping casually and slowly towards the cabin, his eyes on Chris. And he had Cole Preston with him.

Ezra's voice was soft at Chris's shoulder, his eyes never leaving Nichols' form. "Remember," he said, "that they started shooting last time while you were still in the middle of peace talks."

Chris shot a sidelong glance at Ezra and smiled a tiny and bitter smile. "I ain't planning on no 'peace talks' this time. But thanks for the reminder."

Josiah raised a rifle at one of the front windows; Chris saw the barrel glint in the moonlight reflected off the pane of glass. A gentle cough alerted him to Nathan's presence, at the side of the house, watching other approaches. He knew JD must have gone to watch the back. Good.

The two men had drawn to within about 25 feet of the porch. "That's close enough," called Chris. He didn't yell, but his voice was clear and strong, and it rang through the evening air like a church bell. The two men halted and Chris saw the white of one them smiling broadly, his teeth gleaming through the dusk.

"That's hardly sociable." Peter Nichols' voice was thinner than Chris's, and seething underneath with anger that he wasn't controlling well. He could run an entire syndicate in a major city, but this one man and his little group of back-woods hicks -- well, it was insupportable. Inexplicable. Nichols' eyes were dark in his pale face as burned holes. It was not going to continue.

By contrast, Chris's voice sounded almost friendly. Certainly conversational. "Didn't know you made social calls, Nichols. Thought you pretty much limited yourself to sneakin', lyin', murderin' -- kidnappin' little girls."

"Oh that!" Peter turned his back on Chris as if he was so exasperated that he hardly knew what to do with himself, then whirled back and gestured to the man next to him. "All that's water under the bridge," he said. "What matters now is that you meet an employee of mine. Someone who -- ah -- makes certain that my wishes become reality. If you understand."

"Peter, you tellin' me this man here wetnurses you?" The smirk on Chris's face inflamed Peter Nichols' fury.

"You won't be laughing a few hours from now, Larabee! Explain it to the uncivilized pig, Preston! It's beneath my dignity to deal with him any more." Nichols turned on his heel and walked away, vanishing into the shadows that hugged the treeline. Chris frowned when he saw how easy that was to do now that the light was failing. Damn.

"So, Larabee." Chris looked back at the tall, suave man who was shaking out a match with the grace of a dandy in a New York salon.

"What's on your mind, Cole?"

"Talking. About what you're going to do."

"Oh that's easy. I'm plannin' to escort you to hell."

Preston chuckled. "You always did have a way with words."

"Yeah? Well you had a way with not keepin' 'em. I got nothin' to say to you."

"Right." Preston drew on the slender cigar he'd just lit and blew out a cloud of smoke with a satisfied sigh. "It's me that will do the talking this evening, and you that will listen."

"I think not." Chris was turning to leave when Cole stopped him.

"Tanner and Wilmington still alive in there?" Chris half-turned to fix Preston with a stare that sliced the dusk like a saber. Preston smiled urbanely, gestured with the lit tip of his cigar. "Oh, it was easy enough to figure out. I mean, how else do you think we knew where you were? You can't lead a dozen and more men down a mountain in a running fight and then expect them to just walk away. Not when they have reinforcements. Back-up." He flicked ash off the end of his cigar with his middle finger, a scowl running briefly across his face.

"If you have a point, make it." Chris's voice had gone hard and tight, and Preston looked up quickly, a smile flashing across his face.

"Ah! I see you're beginning to understand the gravity of the situation. Well, let me clarify it further." Preston's left hand came up, a large ring glittering briefly as it caught the waning light, and he began to fold up one finger at a time as he counted. "One, you're down to four men and a wounded boy. Two women. And a girl. Two, you have seriously wounded men in there, probably dying ones. Three, you don't have the things you need to keep them alive. How much water have you got? Food? Bandages?" Preston flicked the end of his cigar again. "Not to mention ammunition. That's four. And that's enough right there to make you listen to me."

Silence extended over the yard, the men. Chris turned more fully to face Preston. "I ain't hearin' nothin'," he said.

"You have until dawn," said Preston. His face closed in and grew hard as he said it. "I'm giving you that long to come to grips with the odds. To watch your men die a little more. To count your dippers of water. At dawn, I'll be back to accept your surrender."

"And if we don't surrender then?"

"Then we will storm you. And you will all die. I mean," Preston smiled, an expression chillingly devoid of meaning, "how many of us can you take out with the 8 or 10 shells you probably have left? You could always throw the guns at us, I suppose." He chuckled. "But if you surrender, the girl and the woman, Mary Travis, live."

Chris bit back the fury that threatened to unseat his calm. Now was not the time. He knew exactly what Preston was insinuating by omitting Nettie from the survival list. He fixed Preston with a penetrating stare.

"Then you'd best be prepared to pay in blood for every step you take. Because we won't sell cheap."

"If it gets too expensive, we'll just wait a while. Limited ammunition, short on water, wounded men . . . It's almost too easy. But you understand, we'd rather get it over with quickly, save ourselves any inconvenience. We do have other business matters to attend to elsewhere, you understand."

Preston's eyes ran across the men lined up along the porch inside and out. He smiled again. "Gentlemen, I suggest you think carefully about my offer. We're having a bit of a holiday down the hill here, celebrating the fun we're having on our little camp-out, the good time we'll have tomorrow when we get to let off a little steam. There's venison, plenty of whisky, cards . . . you're welcomed to join us, any of you that care to. I know you're the kind of men who like to be on the winning side. Just look for the bonfire, listen for the fiddle."

Preston tipped his head towards Chris, nodded, turned on his heel, and left.

Chris stalked back to the cabin followed closely by Ezra. Josiah stepped out onto the porch and watched for several minutes after Preston had completely disappeared from view.

Chris pushed open the door to the cabin and stopped short. Buck was sitting at the table loading the extra revolvers. He slid the bullets home, snapped the cylinder closed, laid the revolver down and picked up the next one. He had a dark scowl on his face and he didn't look up when the door opened.

"What the hell are you doing?" Chris snapped at him.

"What does it look like I'm doing?"

"It looks like you ain't doin' what you're s'possed to be doin'," said Nathan coming into the room behind Chris.

"What _am_ I supposed to be doin'? Lyin' in there while twenty men and more come down on this place like Josiah's plagues and locusts?"

"Listen, Buck--"

"Ah, hell, Nathan!" Chris shouted over both of them. Anger radiated from him, a burning rage that encompassed not only the absent Nichols' brothers, but everyone in the room. "If he wants to kill himself, let him. We haven't got time for this!"

Nathan glared at him, but held his tongue. Buck returned to the business in front of him--loading revolvers.

Chris looked at him for a minute, then shook his head and said, "We know where they'll be. Thanks to Cole Preston. We know how much time we have." He grinned, a sharp, bitter grin without a trace of humor in it. "I believe they have finally given us the opportunity we need."

Josiah, who had re-entered the cabin a minute earlier, took a step away from the door. "Just what do you have in mind?"

"We need a distraction," Chris said. "Something big. Something that's going to let us move right up on top of them before they know it." He paused, watching Ezra turn his head as if startled by a thought and then, actually start to grin.

"Gentlemen," Ezra said, reaching into his jacket pocket as he stepped forward. "I believe our salvation is at hand." And he pulled a fistful of blasting caps from his pocket.

Nathan was startled into a sharp bark of laughter. "You bin carryin' those around all this time? It's a wonder you didn't blow yourself to hell."

Ezra gave him a sardonic look. "Mr. Jackson, please. I assure you--"

"What you got in mind, Ezra?" Chris asked impatiently.

"I believe our friends, the Nichols', have a wagon full of ammunition. What I propose, gentlemen, is that this could well be the perfect night for fireworks."

"You'll have to get mighty close, Ezra," Josiah said.

Ezra spread his hands. "Please. Why, once in New Orleans--"

"Ezra!"

"I can do it. You can count on me."

Chris looked at him for a long uncomfortable minute. "I am," he said.

He moved aside the guns that Buck had been loading and sat down at the table. "The place they're campin' in has cover here, here and here." He sketched a map with his hands on the rough wood of the table...

Chris was standing on the front porch watching the darkness intensify when Nathan joined him. He'd been expecting the healer to get him alone at some point, ever since he'd laid out the night's agenda. He hadn't wanted to say it all right out in front of Buck and Mary and Nettie, but Chris knew he didn't like the way things were set to happen.

"I don't like leavin' em here," Nathan said, getting right to the point.

"I need you, Nathan." Chris figured there wasn't time for beating around the bush, for telling it any other way than what it was. "I don't figure a way that we can take out that wagon, spook their horses and pin them down without at least five of us. You want me to take Nettie instead of you? She'd go. You heard her in there. She's mad as hell we're leavin' her behind."

"No," Nathan said. "Don't reckon that'd work either." He looked off toward the trees to the east. "But I don't like it. Vin he's--well, he ain't good. He sure don't need no excitement. And Buck--his fever's spikin.' I can't control it. If this ain't over soon--"

"If this isn't over soon, it won't matter anyway," Chris said harshly.

"No," Nathan said after a long pause. "I guess it won't."

The next one to confront him was Nettie. He was out checking the perimeter when she stalked up to him. "Look, I know you don't want me," she said. "But I can fight. I've gotta tell you, you haven't got much, Chris Larabee. You haven't got a chance in hell. So, you shouldn't be turnin' down a good rifle when you get one."

Chris smiled at her. She glared back at him.

"Look, Nettie. I need you here. Vin can't do much right now. Buck is...well, you've seen him. I'm countin' on you."

Nettie looked at him. Her sharp-featured face turned to one side to study him. "You're a damned liar, Chris Larabee. You want me out of the way and you know it. But I got a feelin' things aren't over here. And now that you mention it, I'm just as happy stayin' right here with my Spencer carbine. Yes," she said as she walked away. "Stayin' right here."

Chris watched her leave and though he tried to smile he found that her words made him uneasy and he headed back to the cabin to look each man who'd be riding with him in the eye and take his measure one more time.

Chris found J. D. on the front porch, checking his guns more by feel than anything else, since the sun had long set and the moon cast more shadows than light.

"J. D.," Chris said. "How you doin'?"

"I'm doin' great, Chris." J. D. slid one of his pearl-handled revolvers back into its holster.

"Whatever happens, you stick with Josiah."

"I can shoot, Chris. I'm okay." He lifted his arm to prove that he could and Chris pretended he didn't see the sharp wince he made when he moved too far.

"This won't be like anything you've done before," Chris said. "You've got to remember where you are, where _we_ are. You've got to be sure of your target, but you can't hesitate either. Hesitate and any one of those men will take your head clean off. There'll be smoke, fire, shouting. A man can get confused."

J. D. wondered briefly how many fights Chris had been in, how much of his life had been spent planning battles and drawing his gun. J. D. bet he'd seen lots of smoke and fire and shooting. J. D. figured nothing much threw a man like Chris Larabee and he hoped if he stuck with him long enough he could be that kind of man too. "I can do it, Chris. You can count on me."

Chris looked at him with his odd hat and his too-long hair, the bruises on his face and the blood staining the shoulder of his jacket. He's got no idea what he's gettin' into, Chris thought. It wasn't that J. D. couldn't fight. He'd proved that more than enough times--in the Seminole village way back at the beginning, during their first encounter with the Nichols' brothers. It was more that Chris didn't want him to learn the things he himself knew, the things no one knew would break their soul until it was too late and they couldn't ever unknow them again.

"You be careful, J. D," Chris said, his voice sounding more harsh than he'd intended. He touched the brim of his hat, turned away and walked inside.

Buck was still sitting at the table when Chris entered the cabin. He'd loaded all the revolvers, all the gun belts, and checked and re-checked all the rifles. Right now, he was opening a shotgun to load it. Chris sat down across from him and waited while he finished.

"Casey," Buck said when he was through and Casey came running from where she'd been sitting, perched on the edge of a chair. Buck handed her the shotgun. "Put this with the others and bring me that one," he pointed. "Yeah, that's the last of them, I think."

Casey laid the loaded shotgun carefully with the rifles, picked up another one and brought it back to him. She handed it to him and turned away. He grasped her arm gently and after a moment's hesitation, she turned back to look at him. He smiled at her. "Don't look so worried there, sweetheart. It'll work out okay."

Casey looked at him gravely. There were dark hollows sunken into his face underneath his cheekbones. Casey put a hand up to feel his face, but he stopped her hand when it was still an inch away from touching him. He shook his head gently. "It'll be okay," he said softly. "I don't want you to worry about it."

Casey pulled her hand away from him and brushed the back of it across her cheek. She took a step away from him. Her breath caught and she turned away, disappearing into the bedroom.

Buck reached out for the box of shotgun shells, but Chris slid it away from him. Buck looked at him. His eyes were half fire and half darkness as if the fever were burning the life right out of him.

"I wouldn't do this if there were any other way," Chris said. The whole scenario set up uncomfortable echoes of leaving Buck underneath the ridge, pinned down by the Nichols' gang.

"Why are you tellin' me this?"

"You got no backup. If they get through..."

"I got Nettie."

"Are you going to talk to me about this or not?"

Buck reached out and took the box of shells from underneath Chris's hand. He opened it and withdrew two shotgun shells. He opened the shotgun. "There isn't anything to talk about."

If Chris had known what he wanted to say, he'd have said it. Truth was, it wasn't the words that were important, it was the act of saying them that mattered, the contact when the chance existed that they might never make contact again. And Buck wasn't going to let him do it. "Fine," Chris finally said. "Have it your way."

Chris rose and headed toward the back bedroom. Just as he reached the doorway, he heard Buck. "Chris." He turned back to see Buck looking at him. "Go careful."

I will, Buck, Chris thought, but I sure as hell wish you'd go careful, too. What he said was, "Yeah."

In the back bedroom, Casey was sitting in a chair beside Vin's bed watching him sleep with fervent intensity. She jumped, startled, when Chris walked into the room. "Oh," she said. "I was just..." She didn't let Chris say anything before bounding to her feet and leaving the room.

Chris pulled out the chair she'd vacated and sat down. He looked at Vin for a minute. The tracker shifted slightly, but he didn't waken. "We gotta go, pard." Chris said to him. "Gotta finish this one way or another. All you gotta do now is hang in there. Nathan says that's enough. Just hang in there until we get back and you'll be okay." He was quiet for a minute. The light in the room was dim, just one tiny lamp near the door and it cast flickering shadows against Chris's lean face. "You did good, Vin, bringing Casey back. Now, we're going to take care of the rest of it for you."

Chris rose and left the room. He didn't see Vin's eyes flicker open and closed again as he walked away.

Nettie was back inside when he walked into the front room again. "Where's Mary?" he asked her.

Nettie gestured with her chin. "Out on the back porch, peeling potatoes."

This seemed like a singularly useless activity to Chris right at the moment, but when he walked through the back door he saw Mary stabbing a knife savagely into a potato. "I think you killed it," he said.

Mary jumped, spilling the bowl in her lap on the ground. "Oh," she said sharply, "look what you made me do."

Chris reached out and took her arm as she reached down to gather the potatoes, pulling her toward him. "I will be back, you know."

Mary studied him for a minute. Then, she took a step away from him. "Don't tell me things like that," she said. "Do you think it ever makes a woman feel better to hear that?"

"I don't know," Chris admitted, surprised to hear the words coming from his mouth. "To tell you the truth, I don't know what makes a woman feel better."

Mary smiled just a little bit. "Well, it would make me feel a _whole lot_ better if you said it was all a big mistake and you don't really have to go out there tonight. But," her face turned serious and she looked straight into his eyes. "since that seemes unlikely at this point, well then, I'd just like you to tell me--"

But whatever she was going to say was cut off when Josiah opened the back door. "It's time," he said. "Horses are saddled. Everything's ready." He looked at Mary. "Sorry, Mrs. Travis." And then he disappeared back into the cabin.

Chris looked at Mary. "Mary, I--"

Mary turned away from him. "Just go," she said. "Go now."

Chris wanted to reach out and touch one of the pale strands of hair that had escaped her tie-back. He wanted to say exactly the right thing in that moment. But he didn't and he couldn't. "I _will_ be back," he said. "I promise."

When Mary turned around, he was gone.

The cabin was eerily quiet following the departure of Chris and the other men. Darkness enveloped the small building with frightening rapidity, until all was black.

Mary stood near the smoking coals of the fire, which Nettie had doused a short time earlier with a bucket of water. Casey had kicked up a fuss about the smoke this would cause, but the elderly woman had said it couldn't be helped. So now Mary stood there, staring into the hearth, thinking about what was happening around her.

It seemed.....surreal, somehow. As though it were happening in a dream. That odd feeling of nervous security she usually felt before a gunfight wasn't there this time. The odds were just stacked too high against them. Five men, all of them the worse for wear, going up against a superior force, with little more than blasting caps and blind determination working in their favor. //Oh, Chris// she thought sadly, //bring us through this.//

The heavy sound of guns being arranged drew her attention from the fire to the table. Buck still sat there, checking and rechecking the pistols and two rifles that lay before him on the wood surface. The ghostly light of the moon outside outlined his form in silver, while the darkness of the cabin enshrouded him, hiding how pale his face was.

Mary shook her head minutely. It didn't seem right, wrenching this man from the brink of death, only to throw him at it's feet again. He was weak, even if he wouldn't admit it to anyone. But he kept on relentlessly, as though sheer force of will could keep his ailing body going.

The blonde widow stepped away from the hearth and crossed to where he sat. "Buck, you should rest," she said softly.

He raised dark eyes to her. Flashing her a bright smile, still dazzling despite his illness, he replied, "No time for that, Miz Travis. Our boys are going to be set up soon. Gotta be ready for the fireworks." And he went back to checking the breech of the nearest rifle.

Mary made as though to speak again, but was cut off by Nettie's entrance. She stepped softly into the room, and Mary thought she had never seen the elderly woman look so frazzled. "What's wrong?" the younger woman asked in a whisper.

Nettie passed a weary hand over her face. "Ain't nothing, dearie. Just hate waiting is all." She jerked a thumb back in the direction of the sickroom she had just exited. "Be a dear and go take over for Casey, will you?" Mary nodded and slipped out of the room, with one last worried look over her shoulder at Buck.

"And Aunt Nettie says I have to go down into the cellar when all the fighting starts, and she won't let me help," Casey was saying to Vin, who still lay unconcious on the bed. At the older woman's entrance the girl looked up, and even in the moonlight, Mary could see the worry lines that criss-crossed her face. "Aunt Nettie said I should talk to him. That it might help him to wake up."

Mary nodded, and couldn't help a smile. "Your aunt wanted me to take over for you," she whispered. They'd all been talking in whispers since the others had left.

Tense whispers.

Casey cast another worried look to the silent tracker. "He ain't moved in all the time I've been in here." Wide eyes turned to the blonde widow. "Do you think he's going to be OK?"

Mary moved to the girl's side, knelt beside her, and forced a smile onto her own lips. "Yes, Casey. I do."

A flicker of hope sparked in the girl's eyes. "Really?"

Mary nodded. "Really."

A bright smile lit up Casey's face. She stood quickly. "Best go see what Aunt Nettie wants," she whispered, and skipped from the room.

Mary stayed where she was on the floor for a moment, one hand resting on Vin's bed, her eyes turned down to the floor. Truth be told, she didn't know if ANY of them would survive, and of all of them, Vin was weakest right now. //When did things become so complicated?//

A hoarse voice from the bed brought her out of her thoughts.

"Mary?"

Her head snapped up, and she pulled herself into a sitting position on the edge of the bed. Looking into Vin's face, she saw the tracker's eyes were open, and fairly lucid. "Shhhh, Vin," she whispered. "You should rest."

His mouth worked, and she leaned a little closer to hear what he was saying.

"My gun."

She turned her head to look down at him, puzzled. "What? Why?"

The tracker paused for a moment, gathering strength. "Give me my gun, Mary. The mare's leg."

Mary stood slowly. "No, Vin." His eyes showed no loss of determination, so she continued. "You can barely move, Vin, let alone fire a gun. And even if you could, you'd just start yourself bleeding again, and you can't afford that." Her eyes were gentle but firm. "I can't afford to be a part of that."

Vin looked up at her, his blue eyes tunneling into hers. Just when it was getting to the point where Mary would have to look away from that intensity, he spoke.

"Mary," he forced out, "I brought Casey here......" He paused to take a breath and regather his strength, then continued. ".....here to.....keep.....her safe." He let his eyes drift closed as his head reeled from the effort of speaking. When they reopened, they shone with such intensity that, even with the moonlight, they seemed the brightest light in the room. "Let me finish wh........what I started."

Mary tried to keep her face passive, but it wasn't working. She was warring with herself: give this sick and obviously weak man a gun that he probably couldn't use anyway, and if he could, would probably cause himself serious harm, possibly to the point of death; or leave him there, prone and alone, unprotected.

In the end, she had no other choice.

She moved to the dresser and lifted the mare's leg, carrying it back to the bed. It felt heavier than she'd imagined.

"Under.....under the blankets," he wheezed, and she slid the firearm beneath the covers by his right hand. When she looked into his face, the gratitude in his eyes was almost unbearable. //But if he has to fire that thing, I've just signed his death warrant// she thought with a pang of sadness. The kickback would surely start him bleeding again, and Nathan had said in no uncertain terms that the tracker couldn't afford that.

"Swear to me you won't use that unless you have to," she whispered almost without thinking.

He didn't answer.

"Vin Tanner," she continued, "I will not be a party to your death. Now swear to me you won't use that gun unless you have to." There was a twinge of panic in her voice.

"Can't."

"Why not?"

His eyes closed, and when he spoke again, his voice was so weak it chilled the widow's heart. "If I'm goin'.....to hell.....reckon.....I'm gonna take..........some of them.......with me."

He was silent then.

"Vin?" Mary said softly, moving closer to him. His chest still rose and fell in the crystalline moonlight, and she breathed a sigh of relief. "Vin, do you hear me?"

There was still no reply.

She sat in the chair Casey had vacated just a short time before. "You aren't going to hell, Vin," she said to the unconcious man. "Not now, not ever."

And the waiting began again in earnest.

Vin listened to the soft breathing of the woman in the chair beside him, and silently thanked God that she wasn't talking to him. It helped him concentrate on his own thoughts.

Breathe. Breathe.

God, he hurt! He felt like Sire had trampled him. The slow burn in his side where the bullet had gotten him was maddening, almost too much to bear.

Almost.

Swirls of obsidian danced behind his eyelids, but he forced them away. He was not going to let himself give in to this. Not yet. Not now.

He still had a job to finish.

Fingers made weak from blood loss twitched against the cold metal of the gun at his side. It felt good to have it so close; made him feel less helpless. His mind chattered away, planning how he would hold the firearm, hoist it up against him, how he would muster the strength to even pull the trigger. He played the scenario out in his head over and over, memorizing every phantom movement until he could almost feel his useless arms going through the motions.

If he had had the strength, he would have smiled.

As it was, all he could do was concentrate on staying alive.

Breathe. Breathe.

Heart beat. Beat again.

Just a little longer.

"Buck, do you think it's going to turn out all right?"

The haggard gunslinger looked up from the pistol he was examining, and forced a smile to cross his face. "Casey, honey, I ain't never been so sure of nothing in my whole life."

The girl's face fell. "Buck, you ain't no good at lying."

//Lord, Nettie, hurry up putting them guns in that cellar and help me here!// Buck let his smile fade a little, but not all the way. He leaned forward ever so slightly, ignoring the black curtains that threatened to fall across his vision with the motion. "You listen to me, Casey," he said softly. "Chris, Ezra, me, all of us, we're the orneriest bunch of fellers this world's ever been blessed with seeing. And there ain't no way we're going to let them Nichols brothers get away with what they've done. And besides," he finished, resting back in his chair, "God wouldn't curse even the devil with all seven of us in one sitting, now would he?"

That brought a much wanted smile to the girl's face. "Naw, guess not."

Buck's grin widened again. "So don't you worry, Casey. This'll all work out in the end, you hear?" She nodded. "Good. Now, go fetch me them bullets from out of my jacket, will you?"

She leapt up to do so, just as a deafening roar rattled the windowpanes.

Buck's eyes shot to the window as Casey screeched, "What's that, Buck?"

He kept his eyes trained on the sky outside and replied, "That's all hell breaking loose, honey."

Mary leapt to her feet and well nigh flew to the window when she heard the boom. Her eyes swept the sky, and she felt a cold knot of fear settle in her stomach. A pale hand crept to her throat, and she felt her eyes drift closed. //Oh God, Chris. Please, come through this. Please, Lord, get us ALL through this.//

Vin's muscles tensed as the sound washed over him. His fingers, the only mobile part of his body, clutched loosely at his mare's leg.

Willing his muscles to relax, he forced his mind back to concentrating.

//Just a little while longer God I hurt just a little longer just want to sleep NO have to keep awake have to protect them protect Casey it hurts so much can't move can't move so tired make the pain stop.//

//Please.//

Breathe.

Breathe.

Heart beat.

Lungs expand.

Heart beat.

Lungs deflate.

Just a little longer.

And outside, an enormous plume of smoke erupted into the sky, illuminated orange and scarlet from the fire of the explosion that had created it. It swelled and spiked into the sky, as though emanating from the gates of hell itself.

Meanwhile...

Chris held up his hand and the men around him reined in their horses. Even from a quarter mile away they could hear the sounds from the Nichols' encampment.

"We'll leave the horses here," Chris said. There was quiet activity for a moment or two as they dismounted and gathered together the things they'd need. They didn't speak to one another, there was no need for that. They knew why they were there; they knew what was at stake. There was nothing left to talk about.

"Nathan. Ezra," Chris said when it was clear that all the last minute checks and rechecks were finished. "You ready?"

Ezra looked at Nathan. Nathan, with his quietness and his deadly knives, was certainly the person he wanted at his back as he snuck into the enemy camp, but he wondered sometimes what Nathan really thought of him. Not much, he imagined. But then, why had he jumped in front of the lash for him back at the Nichols' encampment? Ezra couldn't figure the angle on that. And it bothered him.

He looked at Chris. "I believe we're ready, yes," he said.

Nathan merely nodded.

"Figure half an hour?"

"No less," Ezra assured him. "More if there are several guards."

Chris looked at him intently, then he nodded. "We'll be ready."

Bent on their respective tasks, uncertain really if they would ever meet again (though they didn't think much on that, all things considered) the men set out. Josiah and J. D. would take the high ground. They had most of the guns and ammunition and they'd find a likely spot along the low rise just to the south of the Nichols' camp. Nathan and Ezra would take out the ammo wagon and from there they'd just keep moving leaving as much destruction as possible in their wake. Chris would do what Chris did. And he'd most likely do it smack in the middle of the heaviest gunfire.

Part Nine