An Eye For An Eye, part nine

Disclaimers, etc. in part 1

Nathan and Ezra encountered hardly any sentries as they moved slowly forward, which was what they'd hoped, but hadn't counted on.

They were within fifty yards of the ammo wagon when they saw a man in dark clothes, a shadow really against the moonlit night. Nathan slipped up behind him and took him out silently. Ezra caught the sentry's rifle as it fell from nerveless hands and slid his revolver from the holster. He left the revolver and the rifle on the ground several yards farther on, behind a tree, figuring if they had to retreat it at least created the possibility of re-supply. They encountered no one else until they were smack up against the line of tethered horses.

Nathan had just run across a small opening and Ezra was straightening up to follow him when a short stocky man dressed in a muddy three-piece suit that had clearly seen better days stumbled out from between two horses. Nathan was still completely exposed, only seven yards away from him. If the man turned his head, Ezra thought...

Ezra stepped out quickly into the open space. "Excuse me, sir," he said in a clear but low voice. The man looked up at him, bleary-eyed. When he saw who was standing in front of him, his eyes began to widen. He scrabbled against his jacket, trying to find his gun. It didn't seem to occur to him to yell and before it could, Ezra hit him hard across the jaw, knocking him to the ground. He knocked him on the back of the head with his rifle butt and the man slumped and was still.

"What the hell are you doin'?" Nathan hissed in his ear.

Ezra tied the man's hands tightly behind his back and, with a slight wince at the waste, stuffed his handkerchief in his mouth. He and Nathan dragged the man another twenty yards into the dark woods and dumped him by a tree.

Ezra started back toward the ammumition supply wagon, but Nathan grabbed his arm, stopping him. "Listen," he hissed at Ezra. "You ain't walkin' out. You made that clear this afternoon. You are in this just as deep as the rest of us."

"Your point, Mr. Jackson?"

"That if you get to watch my back, then I get to watch yours. Simple. But that's the way it is. You ain't no hero, Ezra. And you're comin' out of this in one piece if I got anything to say about it. You understand?"

No. Ezra didn't understand. But he also figured this was not a good time for this discussion. "The ammo wagon," he said. "I think we have a deadline?"

Nathan shook his head as if to clear it. Why _was_ he saying this now? It wasn't the time. Maybe there never would be a time. "We protect each other. That the way we're doin'it?"

Ezra looked at him for a moment, but Nathan's eyes were too dark to read. The picket line of horses, the men shouting and laughing around the campfire, sneaking through the dark in the middle of the night, all of it set up echoes of war. But in the war Ezra would never have been standing here with this man. And that was at least one thing that was different. Ezra held out his hand. "That's the way we are doing it," he said solemnly. The two men shook hands and then slipped out of the woods back toward the ammo wagon.

Cole Preston was feeling pretty good. He had whiskey. He had good food; at least, good food for sitting outside town around a campfire. And he kept thinking about the look on Chris Larabee's face, thinking about the way his skin had stretched tighter and tighter across the bridge of his nose as Cole laid out his options. He smiled thinking about Chris trapped in that house with Tanner and Wilmington getting sicker and sicker most likely. Maybe one of them would even die. That'd be just about perfect to Cole's way of thinking. Three o'clock in the morning, dead of night, thinking of Chris Larabee in the bedroom as Vin Tanner, say, took one breath, then another, and then....nothing. Yeah, that'd be all right, Cole Preston thought. His only regret was that he wouldn't be there to see it.

He stood and stretched. Peter Nichols was sitting near the campfire about five feet away from him. He was staring into the flames with a dark frown on his face. "Peter!" he called to his old friend. "Why so serious? Things are going your way, my friend. Tomorrow morning, you'll have everything you ever wanted."

"We should have attacked at dusk," Peter said. "We knew they were weak. We knew we had them."

"They'll be weaker in the morning," Cole said. "It'll eat away at them. Knowin' we're out here. Knowin' there's nothing they can do."

"What if they sneak out? What if they escape, Cole? What about that?"

Preston shook his head. "Ain't no way, I figure. If they could have moved, they would have. Reckon Tanner and Wilmington ain't in no shape for that. No," he said with certainty. "They got nothing. And they will _never_ surrender."

Just then, he heard an odd noise behind him. He turned and looked away from the campfire toward the supply wagon. Was something different there? He saw something, a flickering shadow, just beyond the wagon. What the hell, he thought, taking one step forward--

--and then it was hard to think anything because all in one giant huge brilliant hot rush the world exploded and knocked him flat sucked him inside out and there were people everywhere all of them yelling and smoke there was smoke and then he knew. He by god never again for all time knew that something had gone terribly horribly wrong with his great and brilliant plan.

"Larabee! Goddamn you, Chris Larabee! I'll kill you where you stand!" he yelled as he rose straight off the ground, pulled his revolver and ran.

JD was on one knee checking his weapons again. He holstered his pistols only to check them one more time . . . JD paused in his weapon check when he heard Chris say to Ezra, "we'll be ready."

Josiah knelt beside JD. "How ya' doin', kid? Tell me true."

JD looked over at Josiah. "Legs are fine. Can run and ride no problem. Right arm is fine." JD quickly drew without any obvious loss of his normal speed. He then drew with his left and was obviously slower. "Problem is my left side is pretty weak."

Josiah smiled and half-chuckled. "Stay to my right."

JD looked over at Josiah. Guess he meant how was I really doing. //I'm scared to death, Josiah.// By Josiah's smile, JD realized he probably didn't need to tell him that.

Ezra and Nathan had moved out. Chris came over to Josiah and JD. "Okay, we have 30 minutes till the ammo wagon goes. You two have the left flank. Move into position and stay out of sight until the explosion. Then, overwhelm them with gunfire from your position. Do what it takes to end it here. If we get separated, meet back at Nettie's. And watch for trip wires and traps. We don't need another Vin incident."

JD smirked. Yeah, Vin was going to hear about that one for a long time and he was just the man to remind him.

JD sobered. If he ever got that chance.


"Yeah, got it." JD answered distracted. JD almost jumped through his skin when Chris laid a hand on his arm.

"Move in slow and quiet. Stay close to Josiah. Don't talk unless you absolutely have to." Chris took a deep breath and exhaled and continued to talk. "Really quiet." JD looked over shocked and Chris smiled. "Didn't say you can't talk but avoid it if you can. Walk a lot slower than normal, place your feet lightly and watch. Stay near tree lines and go low if in any open areas. Stay out of sight, cannot emphasize that enough. For this to work, Ezra needs to be able to blow the ammo wagon. If you get caught, we will lose our advantage and the fight."

JD nodded nervously. There were times when he thought he was actually good in a fight. Like shooting Peter Nichols from the window above the street. But it was times like these that he realized there was so much he didn't know. And these men relied on him to be an integral part of the fight. He begged them to take him on and he could not let them down. JD felt the weight of the burden.

"JD, let's move out," Josiah directed. Both Josiah and JD took a minute to shake hands with Chris. It was an affirmation that they wouldn't have it any other way. In the fight for their lives against almost impossible odds with Chris Larabee. But also the very real awareness that for one or more of them, this might be good-bye.

Josiah moved out first, JD behind him. After initially moving at a quick pace, Josiah markedly slowed as the noise from the Nichols camp grew louder. A twig broke beneath JD's foot sounding like a gunshot to his ear, he froze, listened intently, and then moved again. JD was jumping at any little sound. The tension of moving quietly made his shoulders tight and his left arm was aching. Josiah raised a hand and immediately JD dropped to a knee, and then to his belly as two of Nichols men walked by. JD started to rise and was startled by a shape moving out of the bush to his left, he moved his hand to draw only to have it grasped tightly by Josiah. JD closed his eyes in fear realizing how close he came to drawing on his friend. Josiah seemed to take it in stride and indicated they should move out again.

Again, the slow careful pace through the woods to flank the left side of the Nichols camp continued.

Step . . . pause . . .

Step . . . pause . . .

Step . . . freeze.

//What was that?// JD looked back to see if the sentries had turned back to follow. He listened intently. //Nope, nothing.// JD turned back and panicked. //Where's Josiah?// JD felt the need to call out to Josiah welling in his throat before he tamped it down. Quiet. Absolute quiet. JD looked around frantically. //Shit. Now what do I do?// JD lowered to a knee, looked around and listened intently. He had definitely become separated from Josiah.

JD considered the options. Stay there till Josiah realized he wasn't behind and came back to look. JD rejected the idea. He had lost track of time but it had seemed like forever since they had moved out. JD decided the best course was to get in position to his job when the ammo wagon exploded. With that plan, JD carefully moved out again.

JD carefully started to move in closer to the Nichols' camp. He chose a position above the camp where he would have a good angle to lay down gunfire. He laid his rifle to his side. Checked his ammo for quick reloading and picked up the rifle again. Just a matter of waiting now.

JD looked around again. It bothered him he didn't really know where Josiah was. //Just got to make sure that I don't shoot him,// JD thought wryly. JD suddenly felt extremely tired. After feeling he was all alone in the world when his mother died, he had built a bond with these six men and they were relying on him. And there was Casey. He really cared for Casey. Was he being fair to her? He volunteered. He wanted to fight. He wanted to take the fight to the Nichols. Should he be more like Chris Larabee and push people away? If/when he rode out, was it right for him to ask Casey to wait for him?

Explosion . . . even though JD was expecting it, the concussion from the ammo wagon exploding knocked him back. He quickly grabbed his rifle and brought it to his shoulder. He could see the panic, the wild cries of terrified horses and men, some men were clearly running away while others set a perimeter and began firing. As smoke cleared, JD started to lay down gunfire. He could hear steady gunfire to his left and hoped it was Josiah. He emptied the rifle and drew his pistol and started firing as he heard the sentries off to his right return. He heard an anguished cry and assumed he managed to hit at least one. He continued to fire until he had emptied his pistol. He briefly thought of using his pistol holstered on his left, but his arm protested as he moved it. Gonna have to do this with right hand if at all.

A second explosion. JD ducked his head at the flash of light. There was an instant when all was eerie and quiet. Smoke filtered up from the campground.

But the quiet was soon broken. Men shouted. Horses screamed in fear. Gun fire.

JD knelt to reload. His fingers fumbled with the bullets.

"You just won't die, will you boy?"

JD looked up to see the bore of a gun in the hand of Luke Nichols. JD left his rifle and pistol at his feet and slowly stood. Never taking his eyes off his adversary.

"Been waiting for this for a long time," Luke drawled.

JD laughed. "What? Less than a month. Couldn't have been that long, could it?" JD smiled confidently as if he had no worries at all.

"Smart mouth. Think you're good, huh?" Luke taunted. "I think I can show that little thing, Casey, who the real man is." Luke swaggered his hips and ran his left hand suggestively down the front of his pant's fly. "And I'll treat her like one too."

JD drew his pistol with his left hand.


There was a shocked look on Luke Nichols face. Luke's pistol dropped without him getting a shot off. His hand went to his chest. Luke Nichols then fell, dead.

JD felt a supreme calmness come over him. The anxiety. The panic. The fear. The doubt. It was gone. JD felt no desire to gloat. He had a job. Men depending on him. Casey depending on him. He bent and grabbed for his rifle and other pistol on the ground and moved forward to continue the fight.

Josiah looked around in the orange-tinged blackness threaded with pearl and coral colored drifts of smoke and swore under his breath. As if enough hadn't happened the last two days -- now he'd lost JD! Shit! When had THAT happened? He'd been there -- and then the ammunition wagon had blown up --and now he was gone. Guns were going off all around, and the kid was nowhere to be seen. Damn! The big man ducked instinctively as a fist swung at him out of the gloom, narrowly missing his head, and reached out a long arm to catch whoever it was by the collar as he stumbled past, off-balance, to drag him in close.

"Bad time to rile me, Mister," Josiah growled. He picked the man up bodily, shaking him, and hurled him back the way he'd come from, smiling at the satisfying crash that resounded from the brush a moment later. It didn't make him feel any better though. Fact was, somehow it made him madder. Two days. Just two damned stupid piddly-ass days, and he had the blood of good friends on his hands and the tears of a child grown up too soon on his lapels. He could feel the anger burning in his veins the way it did sometimes, starting to boil up like it was going to just up and pour out of his hands. He leaped to snatch at another shadow darting past through the darkening pallor of smoke, lifted the man above his head, and threw him the same direction as the first man. Damn that was good! Good crash on that one, too. Real meaty. Josiah looked around the darkness with brightening eyes for another one. Come on, come on. Where are you bastards? Afraid to come out an' fight me now that I don't got no one I have to protect? He shoved his hat off to hang down his back so he could spot them better, catch the movements at the periphery of his vision. Come on! Come out and fight me!

A low whine rose into a shrill whistle as some kind of ammunition at the bottom of the pile in the burning wagon took fire where it hadn't before. How that was possible, Josiah couldn't imagine. The wagon and everything for 40 feet around it was an inferno. But there it was nevertheless, a rush of banging and cracking and flashes of white as something new gave way. The sudden increase in light showed him two men darting into the clearing where he was standing, their guns drawn. Josiah felt the hot air from the fire rising all around him, felt it lifting up his hair like a mane as the fury boiled up in his blood and he started to shake with it. Before either of the men could react, he'd grabbed their guns by the barrels and jerked them from the men's grips so hard that one of them yelped as his finger was caught for a moment by the trigger guard. The next second Josiah's big hands were on their collars, twisting the cloth into nooses snugged so tight that both men reached terrified hands to grab Josiah's enormous arms and try to pry them off.

"You see that wagon burnin' there!?" Josiah shook the men so hard by the knots he'd wound into their collars that the men's eyes blurred in the smoke and pulsating firelight. "YOU SEE IT!?!" Josiah's voice rose into a roar as he whirled so that the men were facing the roaring flames. "THAT is what you done to a holy building. HOLY." The preacher bent his elbows, drew the men closer to him, their feet desperate on tip-toes, trying to keep balance, trying not to fall, then shoved them away from him with a force that hurled both men out of the flood of light and into the darkness. His hand was on his gun the minute the men flew from his grip, and he had drawn it, and he was following them into the darker place he'd thrown them because, by God, it was about time somebody paid for that. For all this. He heard them crashing around in there, swore at them to come out, then cussed at the cowardly bastards when he heard their boots on the hard ground. Running away.

"God damn you to hell!" he roared after them. The hot air picked up his words and swirled them together with the heat and with the smoke, so that what he had said was fire and what he had said was smoke -- and as it got all mixed up into marbled threads of words and smoke and light and dark, the fire became his own words, his own curse hurled at the whole damned situation, and it roared higher. Josiah threw back his head and grabbed his soul in his two big hands and jumped right into it all, felt the hot wind lift him up on it and raise him right up into the dancing tendrils of light and dark.

Oh, that was a place he knew well. A place he hadn't been in a while.

Josiah felt the anger solidify in his blood and he wrapped his heart around it and embraced it and became it, and it became him. Sudden images were there: The horse that had said "amen" to back him up; they'd killed it. All the Bibles and hymn books in the pews; they'd burned them. Buck and Vin; they'd hurt them and hounded them and even now might chase them right to their graves. Bad as Owen Moseley, damned hypocritical bastard. They were all hypocrites, all of them. His father had been right: give a sinner an even break and he'll drag you to hell with him. Beat it out of you, Son. It has to stop. By damn. By damn! Josiah shook himself and heard the scream of the burning ammunition and the roar of gunfire all around him, and he broke his way into the dark brush to find these damned sinners and take care of them. Should have done it long before now. The dark wasn't a problem any more; he was carrying the fire with him now, shooting right out his fingertips and his eyes, and Peter Nichols would damn sure find out -- now, now that he'd started it -- what the wrath of God was really all about.

"You men, come with me." Peter Nichols was pointing, his voice grim, his face smudged with smoke. The three men looked at each other, holstered their guns, and followed Peter and the other two men he had with him. They threw surprised glances at one another when they saw he was leading them away from the fight, but they kept their silence. Nichols was the boss; what he said "do", they did. That's how it had been for four years, now, and he rewarded them well for it. He led them right to the picket line with determined steps, and half-turned to explain as he began to unfasten the reins on a strong chestnut tied there.

"Preston's self-aggrandizement is costing us this fight." He nodded his head towards the conflagration of men and gunshots and burning wagon. "But there is a way I can get vengeance still, turn defeat into sweet justice." He pulled the gelding loose and mounted up as the men with him took horses and did likewise. Peter spurred the gelding and rode away at a good clip through darkness lit with his own burning guns and ammunition, the five good men right at his heels.

And they weren't at all surprised, given what he'd said, when they saw that he was leading them back to the cabin.

Chris had made his way to the outer edge of the camp clearing when he paused to wait for Ezra and Nathan to boobytrap the ammunition wagon. Had it been a mistake to send the two of them, he thought as he settled into position? Had everything been a mistake? He felt as if he himself had made nothing but mistakes for the last two days. He'd thought the Nichols' brothers were gone for good, had let Vin and Buck ride out after J. D. and Casey, had left Buck alone under that ridge, had stuck at Nettie's last night instead of riding out...

He scanned the activity around the campfire, searching men's faces in the flickering light of the fire. He knew Josiah and J. D. were above him to his left. He knew Nathan and Ezra were across the encampment from him. The one thing left that he wanted to know before the explosion, before the shooting and the shouting and the chaos and the running, was the exact location of the two men he swore he was going to take on himself--Peter Nichols and Cole Preston.

Then, across the campfire he saw Cole Preston stand and stretch. He turned to talk to someone--Peter Nichols maybe?

As Chris studied the scene, Cole turned away from the fire abruptly toward--ah, hell!--toward the supply wagon. Chris drew his revolver and had just begun to stand when the wagon exploded. The six men closest to the wagon were knocked flat and Chris himself could feel a sharp push almost like a blow as the concussion wave brushed past him. Now, Chris thought with a certain grim satisfaction. Now!

He stepped out of the woods. From the corner of his eye he saw a man raising a rifle and he turned and fired. Then, everything was happening all at once and there was no time to think. He was ducking and rolling and rising to shoot and run again. He dove behind a line of brush and reloaded. Cole Preston was out there. Peter Nichols was out there. And Chris was going to find them.

He stepped into the open again. He felt something pluck at his sleeve as a bullet brushed past him. He turned and fired and a man fell to his right. He saw Cole Preston through the smoke from the ammo wagon fire moving away from the camp site.

"Preston!" he shouted and started running. A man stepped out in front of him and he swung at him with the arm that held his pistol, knocking the man sideways. Chris stumbled and caught himself and started running again. He could see Preston ahead of him, slipping away into the woods. 'You won't get away with this,' Chris thought. 'There ain't no way you're running out on this.'

When Chris was within twenty feet of Preston, he yelled again. "Preston!" Chris fired a shot past his left shoulder. Preston stopped, lifted his hands and turned back to look at Chris. His pistols were in their holsters.

"Now, you wouldn't shoot a man in cold blood, would you, Mr. Larabee?" Preston said. Despite the situation--Chris's gun pointed dead center at him--his face still held a look of smug satisfaction. Chris wanted nothing more in that moment than to wipe the expression clean off Preston's face.

But he wasn't going to shoot him like this. Chris holstered his revolver. "You want to go to jail or you want to face me now?" Chris said.

"Neither one, Mr. Larabee," Preston said and his self-satisfaction seemed to deepen.

"Those are the only choices you got," Chris said.

"Not the only--"

Chris heard a soft crunch, a swish of wind. That was all the warning he got, and all he needed to duck underneath the stout tree branch one of Preston's men was swinging at him. He turned, blocked a second swing with his left arm, drove his right fist hard into the man's stomach. He grabbed the man by his jacket lapels and swung him around to take another swing...There was a sharp pop, the man jerked up with a cry and then slumped. Chris let him fall to the ground. He looked up to see Cole Preston facing him with a pistol in his hand.

"Shot your own man, Preston." Chris said. "That can't be good."

Preston's smug complacency was gone. He snarled at Chris. "Shut up! Just shut the hell up because I've got you now." He took a step toward Chris.

There were shouts from the clearing, shots fired, a man screamed, horses whinnied in hysterical fright. "You're losin,' Preston," Chris said calmly. "All of it. You're losin' it right now."

Preston's attention had been caught by the sound of a man screaming for help and the sight of the burning ammunition wagon sending up a streaming flare of flame as it burned. His revolver drooped in his hand just a little as he stared at everything going wrong all at once. He'd been so confident. So cock-sure that his way would work and now this...this..._cowboy_ was winning, was taking it all away from him.

His face transformed into a glittering mask of hate. "Damn you!" he screamed. "If I'm going to hell, I'm taking you--"

Chris could see it all coming as if it were happening at some other, slower speed than real life. He could see Preston's face change, hear him start to speak, see the gun begin to rise in his hand. Chris dove to his left, drew his revolver and fired, hitting the ground just as Cole Preston began to fall, dead in less than an instant with Chris's bullet in his heart.

"Mary, it's time," Buck called urgently from the main room of the cabin. His voice had a tight edge to it.

Mary looked down at Vin Tanner. His eyes were closed. His skin had almost a gray cast. His breathing seemed almost deliberate, like he had to work to keep air moving in and out of his body. And she noted his hand twitched under the cover fingering the trigger of the mare's leg. He was still with them. By some miracle, he was still with them. "Vin, I have to leave now. I'm going to take care of Casey."

Mary thought she saw him smile slightly but there was otherwise no indication that he had heard. She felt reassured that she was doing the right thing. She had a son and Casey was young enough to have a future. When they initially had discussed the plan to move to the root cellar, Mary resisted. She had gotten quite good with a gun. She could fight. But she knew her responsibilities. There was a time to fight and time to strategically retreat. As much as she wanted to save Nettie, Vin, and Buck; she realized she could do more for Casey and Billy than she could for them.

As Mary exited the bedroom, there was a second, smaller distant bang. "Casey, let's go," Mary ordered in a no-nonsense voice. Mary knew Casey was reluctant to hide when her aunt and good friends would be in danger. No shrinking violet either, they both wanted to stay. But Mary knew their duty and she just conveyed it to Casey.

"Buck?" Casey looked at him with pleading eyes.

"You go, girl." Buck pulled her to him and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek.

Casey raised up and gave her Aunt a tight hug. "I love you."

Nettie's eyes welled. "You have been the light of my life for many years. I love you too, child."

"Take care," Mary walked up quietly to Buck.

Buck flashed one of his broad, "I have no worries" smiles that turned many a girl's heart to mush. Mary's eyes welled with tears and she wanted to beg him not to die. Buck reached out a hand to her. "You take care of our girl."

Mary couldn't choke out any words past her tear-filled throat. She squeezed his hand tightly. Gave Nettie a quick hug. And then took Casey's arm as they made their way under the floor of the main house to the root cellar.

If anything it was even darker than the night enshrouded cabin. It seemed like hours since they extinguished the candles to begin their night vigil. And the night still had many hours left.

Mary was slightly ahead of Casey as they went down the narrow staircase. The air had a damp chill to it. Mary shivered, only to have Casey shiver as well. Mary saw the rifle and pistol Nettie had placed for them earlier. She was relieved Nettie had thought of that earlier. When the time came, it was so hard to leave the others, Mary didn't think she would have thought that clearly to remember to bring them.

Nettie was at the top of the stairs. Mary and Casey found places to sit while there was still some light from the moon. "Take care, girls," Nettie said softly as she closed them in.

Mary fingered the rifle. She brought it up to her shoulder. Tested the weight of it. Checked her aim. She raised and lowered the rifle over and over again to make sure she could bring it up and on sight when required.

"Casey, you have the pistol."

"Yes, it's in my lap. I know what to do."

Mary laughed shortly and softly. //Yup, I bet you do.//

Mary occasionally heard a footfall upstairs. She assumed it was Nettie. Vin and Buck were so badly hurt. Mary smiled. It was just like them to take up the fight. Never would consider otherwise. Four Corners was indeed lucky the day those two men rode into town. Buck .. . Oh, Buck. You will be leaving a trail of broken hearts throughout the territory. But beneath his rogue's heart, there was seriousness to Buck that he tried to hide. He was like a kid who took care of every wounded bird. Fought against every bully for those who couldn't defend themselves. Who was going to fight for you, Buck? Huh? Mary's eyes filled with tears. When you're wounded, Buck, who will fight for you?


Mary choked back a sob. Unless he was on patrol, Vin was the first person she saw in the morning. She'd put on a pot of coffee and finished the run of the paper. She would leave the back door unlocked for him. He'd grab a cup of coffee and sit on the front porch and sip it. It used to be Chris would soon join him. That changed since Chris moved out of town. She remembered Vin being the first person to come to her aid when Billie had gone missing. Through her terror, she remembered his calm. Mary couldn't imagine him not being around but knew that day would come soon. No matter how the Nichols war ended. He would leave. Mary sighed. She would mourn that day.

"Mary," Casey whispered to break her reverie.

"Yes," Mary responded softly.

"I made a big mistake."


"How'd ya know?" Casey squeaked.

Mary laughed softly. "I'm a good guesser. Plus, I was having my own regrets."

"Your own regrets?"

Mary sighed. "Chris came out to talk to me before he went to the Nichols camp."

"What did he say?"

"He asked me if I was killing the potatoes." Casey laughed softly at Mary's response. "You talk about everything except what you really need to say."

"I know what you mean," Casey quietly responded. "I haven't talked to JD since before dinner."

"What happened?"

"Well, I've been kissed." Casey laughed, obviously embarrassed. "Really kissed."

"What do you think?"

"I think I like being really kissed."

Mary laughed. "Uh huh."

"It seems so long ago now. I told him I didn't blame him for what happened. And I wanted him to kiss me. Of course, I didn't tell him that. But I thought it." Casey sighed wistfully, "And he did."

"Was that your big mistake?" Mary questioned.

"Oh, no." Casey sighed. "I just wish I told him how I felt about him. That I really care for him."

"I know what you mean." Mary said quietly.

The quiet of cellar was shattered. There was a bang, and gunfire, and windows breaking.

And then there was more gunfire. Quiet. Gunfire. The battle seemed to last forever or it could have been a few minutes. More gunfire. Quiet.

And then quiet shattered by the small door to the cellar being opened. Mary had the gun raised and her finger pressed the trigger . . .

Nettie shut the door to the root cellar and straightened up in the darkness with a ragged sigh. She rubbed one hand against the small of her back and let her eyes drift over the inside of the little house she'd called home for so many years now. Maybe it would keep them all safe one more night. It sure had so far. She picked up the Spencer she'd leaned against the wall while she helped Mary and Casey down into the cellar and fingered the stock like an old friend. We've faced down an awful lot together, she thought. Just help me out this one more time. Her eyes drifted to Buck, and stopped there. Dark as it was, she could see the way the tall man was leaning over the table, his posture clearly showing how ill he was even though he'd insisted all evening he was doing fine. She shook her head to herself, hoping he'd be all right. Dear Lord, what would they do if--


Directly overhead. Nettie caught her breath, looking at Buck as he vibrated like he'd been slapped and looked up at the roof himself. They both heard it a second time, then: the light but unmistakable sound of a footstep on the roof. Nettie and Buck realized it at the same time, too: he was headed for the chimney. Something thrown over it right now, with the fire a smoking bed of coals, would force them out of the cabin into the open in less than five minutes. Even as Nettie realized it, Buck had lifted the heavy pistol off the table and fired through the roof three times in rapid succession. There was a heavy crash up there, a scraping sound -- a sliding that came to a halt somewhere over the porch.

And that was the end of having time to listen. The door burst opened on that instant, at the same time that the glass broke out in the window just next to it and a long gunbarrel was thrust in through it all silver in the moonlight that lit on it slantwise. Long trailers of flame shot out the end of it, the bullets flying wild in the pitch dark of the cabin's interior, the intent only to lay down a cover for others coming in the door even at the same moment.

Buck threw down the pistol and grabbed his shotgun, stood up and emptied both barrels at the window right then. Glass, casement, the whole thing blew out with the explosion of the two shotgun barrels going off simultaneously, the light and smoke filling the small room like it was going to take what was left of the roof right off. Nettie fired at a dark shape already coming in the door the same instant, a black silhouette running half-crouched, clearly determined to hurl himself past whatever could stop him. She dropped him before he even cleared the doorsill, as the door was still rebounding off the wall behind it. She worked the action to load another shell even as another man leaped the one she'd killed and caught her by one arm before she could do a damned thing about it. He ripped the Spencer from her and then his hand was on her throat and she saw the barrel of a pistol come up to her head even as she fought him with every ounce she had, and his finger was moving on the trigger.

Buck felt the shotgun recoil threaten to knock him into the wall behind him, but he caught himself against the side of the stone fireplace with one hand as he threw aside the empty shotgun with the other. He grabbed up his pistol again, but before he could use it the man he wanted to get had Nettie in his hands and the woman was fighting him so hard that Buck knew he'd be as likely to hit her as him if he shot. He grabbed the table, threw it aside with a cry of rage, and just leaped right through the pain in his leg and his knee that threatened to turn the whole night as electric as lightning, across the intervening space as the man brought up his pistol to blow Nettie Wells' brains out. Caught the pistol, deflected it upward as it discharged, grabbed the bastard by his shoulder and spun him back and around to get him off Nettie. The man didn't just let go of her, though. He flung her, threw her away from him, into the stone fireplace. She struck the edge of it and fell to the floor hard as Buck grabbed the man's shirtcollar and raised his own pistol.

Before he could fire, the bastard had grabbed Buck's wrist somehow, though, in his hands. Buck tried to hold on to the gun, bring it to bear, but he could feel his strength draining right out of him as he stood there trying to fight and it made him want to scream with rage and frustration. Then the pistol broke from his hand, flew across the room and hit the wall to clatter to the floor. Buck heard the growl come out of his own chest without even knowing he'd made the sound. Felt his fist connect with flesh, felt a return blow that staggered him back into the wall next to the bedroom door, rallied to drive a low-held fist into his attacker as the man hurled himself back at Buck again. It should have dropped him, Buck thought, but it didn't. His head was getting heavy, and he couldn't understand how the man was still fighting him. Damn, another blow. He staggered back again, this time into the bedroom. Vin. He couldn't let this bastard -- but there was another blow. Buck felt his leg give way that time, realized he was going to fall, grabbed his assailant by the lapels as he started to go and pulled him close. Won't get away from me this time, by God! Hit him hard. Twice. Heard the bastard's breath whistle out on the second blow. But he was dizzy. He shook his head. Felt the pain in his leg reaching out like a scream that ran all the way to his fingers. Realized suddenly that there was a really big gunbarrel coming up into his face. Closing fast, yet seeming to move so slowly. He could see the gleam on it of the moonlight outside. Felt his body dropping in the man's grasp as his leg gave way completely and the darkness started to grab him. No. He tried to raise a hand--

And the room exploded. Cotton batting blew up everywhere, a look of shock on the man's face, the barrel of the gun so close to Buck's head dropping, slowly, spinning down, lowering . . . Buck staggered, let the man slither to the floor even as he felt himself going down. How the hell? Blinked and saw the enormous rent in the quilts over Vin, the smoke drifting up there. Oh God. What had happened? He felt the wood of the floor hit the side of his cheek, feeling cool but way too hard, as he hit it.

Vin had heard it all. Laid there and silently cursed the weakness that wouldn't let him get up to go help. He knew they were coming in. He heard the table go over when Buck roared to his feet, heard Nettie's strangled gasps. He was trying to slide to the edge of the bed as he heard it, a fraction of an inch at a time, but he couldn't seem to get there. He couldn't make it. They were going to be killed and needed help NOW and he was clawing for a quarter of an inch and a quarter of an inch. Then he heard the crash, felt the shock of Buck hitting the doorway and wall just beyond his head. A moment later the fight was in the room. And Vin stopped trying to get out of the bed and started sliding the mare's leg along between the sheets instead.

Hurry. They were exchanging solid blows, Buck still holding his own. Hurry damn it. Buck groaned and a hand went to his leg as he started to go down. Damn. Get the butt of it against my hip. Got to get some leverage. Pistol barrel coming up, heading for Buck's head and Vin could see his friend couldn't do anything about it, he was sagging even farther, losing at last after all that. Get it in the right place. Vin blinked against the sweat that ran into his eyes for a moment, making it hard to see. The two men were so close together. And he couldn't get the angle he needed for the shot. But it was about to be out of time. Wouldn't matter. Because that pistol was getting too damned still, freezing into the instant before a man pulls a trigger, and Vin pulled the stock of the mare's leg against his right hip to steady it and set his jaw and bit his lip and raised up on the business end of the weapon so that it came up just a hair off the bed under the covers, slipped into just the spot it needed to be. And he pulled the trigger.

There was a roar, a flash of flame, smoke and the both of them were down and he couldn't see what had happened and the pain ripped through him from the recoil shock and lifted him up like it was a tornado wind and threw him like a rag doll into someplace else.


A man stepped over the dead man lying across the doorsill. Paused to look at Nettie's crumpled form by the fireplace. Stepped to the doorsill of the bedroom to look inside at the men there: two on the floor and one on the bed with the quilts smoking and batting still floating down to the ground like snow.

Peter Nichols turned back to the main room and thought for a moment. The other woman and the girl had to be here somewhere. And it was all he needed to complete his revenge. His eyes ran across the features of the room quickly, a practiced eye used to finding the places people hid things. And he saw the little door in the floor. Ah. How quaint. A cellar. He started to bend down to take the handle and heard a low moan from the bedroom. A scowl ran across his face. One of them was still alive? He straightened, drew his pistol, and stepped into the bedroom with a grim face. The woman and girl could wait. Wilmington and Tanner had to be dead first. Period.

He stopped to peer into Tanner's face where it lay at a cross-angle on the bed, his hair across his features from the way he'd been thrown sideways by the recoil of his rifle. Didn't even seem to be breathing. Not him. He stepped across the room to look down at Wilmington and -- who was that with him? Peter rolled his own man over with the toe of his boot and saw that it was Darnell. Dead as a doornail, too, so it wasn't him who'd moaned. That left Wilmington. Even as he thought it, he heard the low moan again, and shook his head. Well. This was working out better than he'd planned really. He was going to get to take out one of them himself before he took the two women -- which would drive Chris Larabee right into the gates of hell itself. Peter smiled and aimed his pistol at the unconscious man's head.

Heard a step at the bedroom doorway. Turned his head just as he saw in his peripheral vision that a shaking figure there was raising a big, long Spencer. Short silver hair, white against the dark of the cabin, shaking arms, hollow stare -- the image burned into his brain even as he started to turn so he could bring the pistol he'd been pointing at Wilmington to bear on her instead. And mid-turn, the room exploded in light and a deafening roar. And the last thing Peter Nichols felt, he was surprised to learn . . .

was surprise.

Nettie leaned sideways against the door frame and lowered the Spencer slowly, watching to make sure Nichols wasn't going to move any time soon. She needed to go make sure he was dead, but it was going to have wait a moment. At least until her legs stopped shaking and the room stopped spinning. She could hear herself panting, wanted to sit down, but knew if she did it might be just too hard to get up again. And God only knew what was coming next.

It seemed like she'd no more than thought that than she heard it: a soft, slow, deliberate step on the front porch. Oh God no. Nettie raised herself off the door frame and turned around slowly. She felt so tired all of a sudden. How many shells are left in this damned Spencer, she wondered. Tried to count back, found she couldn't. It had happened so fast. She saw the shadow of another man fall across the doorway, rippling over the form of the dead man already there in the open door between the house and the porch, and she raised the Spencer with a sense of dread clutching her belly. Maybe this time was the one they would go out together.

If so, they would sure as hell take at least one more with them.

The smoke cleared and the moon shone through.

Chris picked his way through the underbrush, his gun still gripped in his fist, pulse still pounding with adrenaline.

Preston was dead.

A grim satisfaction rolled through the stormy gunslinger as he pictured the other man falling to the ground, stone-cold dead, that self-satisfied smirk wiped from his face for all God-loving time.

But Chris' victory was soured, and it nagged at him.

Where was Peter? The gunslinger tightened his grip on his pistol. He had a bullet in there especially for the Nichols brother, and he didn't much fancy letting it go to waste.

He stepped into the clearing. The ammo wagon still belched fire and smoke into the air, but the inferno had subsided somewhat from the blaze of just a few minutes earlier. //Ezra, Nathan, you done good// Chris thought, for the first time letting a smile curl the corners of his mouth.

They'd won.

He stepped over the body of one of Preston's men. By God, they'd won! He took a deep breath, trying to calm his pulsing heart. He had to think clearly, keep on the lookout. Just because they'd beaten the shit out of Preston and his men, demoralized them, killed them like the sons-of-bitches they were, didn't mean the stragglers couldn't still hold a gun.

"You! Get down!" Chris swung his head in the direction of the voice, gun at the ready. He quickly lowered it, though. It was JD, herding up a few of the beaten, weary survivors. He had them on the ground, hands on the backs of their heads.

The younger man noticed the black-clothed gunslinger. "Chris!" A quick scan of the boy showed that he hadn't been reinjured, though he seemed to be favoring his left arm even more than he had earlier.

Chris jerked his chin in JD's direction, indicating the limp arm, and asked, "You all right?"

JD stayed where he was, gun covering the two men on the ground, as Chris pulled up beside him and looked down at his left arm. "Yeah, fine. This just got more of a workout than I'd planned." At Chris' puzzled look, JD replied. "I killed Luke."

No explanation.

No gloating.

A job done and completed.

Chris just looked at the kid for a moment, letting his words sink in. Finally, he turned away, looking back into the camp. He said nothing in response to JD's statement. Nothing needed to be said.

Grabbing his bandana from around his throat, Chris knelt and began to bind the hands of one of the men. "Where's Josiah?"

Before the younger gunslinger could respond, the preacher emerged from the woods several yards away. Chris saw that a long cut trailed down the preacher's cheekbone, but Josiah didn't even seem to notice it. //I'd damn well notice something like that// Chris thought. //Must hurt like hell.//

When the preacher didn't seem to realize they were there, Chris called out, "Josiah!"

The big man turned towards them, and Chris nearly fell back from the vile ferocity in his eyes; they seemed to burn with a feral intensity. Chris was suddenly very glad he had never found himself staring down the barrel of the preacher's gun.

The big man crossed the space between himself and the other gunslingers with ground-chewing strides. Chris felt JD shy unconciously away from the preacher, and knew the younger man must have noticed the preacher's eyes, too. "You doin' OK, Josiah?" Chris forced himself to ask, already binding the other prisoner's wrists with the man's own belt.

Josiah drew abreast of them and spoke. "I'm doing just fine, brother Larabee." He ran a broad hand through his hair, and even as he watched, Chris saw that dangerous fire ebb from the preacher's eyes. "Just taught some sinners about the wrath of God is all."

//I can believe it// Chris thought, holding in a shudder. "You should take care of that cut," was all he said out loud, standing slowly.

Josiah brought a hand to his cheek and pulled it away to look at the blood that coated his fingertips. "Now when did I get that?" he said softly, distantly.

"Nathan probably has something you can put on it," JD piped up. "I think that's him over there." He jerked his chin to their right, and the others followed his gesture.

Indeed, it was Nathan. He knelt before another man, and appeared to be wrapping a bandage around the patient's head. //Ezra?// Chris thought. But the man didn't LOOK like Ezra..... "Come on," he said, and started towards the healer.

JD kicked the two men on the ground on the soles of their boots. "Get up!" The two men struggled to their feet and stumbled forward, JD right behind them, gun trained on their backs. Josiah followed, his own gun at the ready.

Bodies littered the clearing's floor. Most were gunshot, though Chris noticed that some had been knifed, most likely by Nathan's uncanny skill, and at least two appeared to have had their necks broken. Chris couldn't hold in a small shiver; only Josiah had power enough in those arms of his to do something like that.

"Nathan," Chris said as he drew closer to the healer.

Nathan looked up from the man he was bandaging, and managed to smile. "Well, looks like you all came through this in one piece."

"Just the worse for wear," JD jumped in, pulling up near Chris. The two men he covered just stood there, looking thoroughly dazed and confused.

Nathan saw them and gestured with his chin to a spot some distance away. "You can put them with the others," he said. Chris looked in the direction the healer had indicated and saw that Ezra sat about ten yards away, a pistol and rifle trained on five trussed men.

As JD took his two prisoners to join the others, Chris spoke up. "Looks like you two have been busy." Nathan nodded. "Everything go all right?" Chris asked, and tried to communicate his double meaning.

Nathan looked straight into the gunslinger's eyes, and Chris could see the other man knew what he was asking. "Yeah, it all went fine. Ezra and I got it all set up, and it went off without a hitch." The healer glanced in the gambler's direction, to see the southerner helping JD rebind the two new prisoners. "Ezra. He's a good man to have in a fight. I'd fight beside him anytime." He brought his large brown eyes up to meet Chris' again, and a silent communication passed between the two men.

//Thank God.// Chris thought. //I didn't make a mistake pairing those two up.// "Josiah here has a nasty gash," he said out loud, gesturing to the preacher.

At Nathan's worried look, Josiah held up a hand. "It's nothing, brother Nate. Just a long scratch is all."

Nathan stood. "Let me have a look at it."

As the healer checked on Josiah's cut, Chris let his eyes scan the clearing. "You see anyone ride off?"

Nathan nodded. "Yeah. Saw a group take off like the devil were after them. Don't think we'll be seeing any of them again." He pulled away from the preacher. "You just press something against that and stop the bleeding. It should be all right. Might need some stitches, though."

"Was Peter with them?"

Nathan turned back to Chris. "Peter?"

Icy eyes turned on the healer. "With the men who rode off. Was Peter Nichols one of them?"

Nathan shook his head, understanding dawning in his eyes. "No. He wasn't." His voice was hollow. "I thought you got him."

Chris just shook his head. "I got Preston. Not Peter."

"I know where he is."

The voice was so soft they almost didn't hear it. But Chris zeroed in on it fast as lightning.

It came from the man on the ground.

"What'd you say?" Chris spat out.

The man raised his head. Nathan must have trusted that he was wounded enough to not consider running off because he wasn't bound like the others. The white bandage around his forehead glowed in the moonlight that illuminated his face, which had been hidden this whole time, sitting on the ground as he was. Now Chris got a good look at him.

It was Matthew Nichols.

"I said I know where he's going," the Nichols brother restated.

Chris just stared at him for a second.

Then, a roar of pent up rage and frustration ripped from his throat, and without a thought, he reached down, grabbed the man by the collar and wrenched him to his feet. "Where is he?!" he bellowed into the man's face. His fist clenched tighter around the man's collar, twisting the material into a garrote-like hold. "Where!"

Matthew sputtered something incoherent, and suddenly Nathan was at Chris' side. "Easy, Chris! You'll kill him!"

But Chris didn't really care at this point. He'd had enough of these brothers; enough of the Nichols in general. If he had his way, every last one of them would be erased from God's green earth.

Still, Nathan had a point. If he killed Matthew, he killed his source of information. So he loosened his grip a little, and spoke again, his voice a deadly whisper. "Where's Peter?"

Matthew sucked in a few shallow breaths, and spoke. "C-cabin."

The world froze and the heavens started to fall.

The cabin.

Of course the cabin!

Where else?

With a strangled cry, Chris thrust the man away from him, and turned to sprint for the nearest horse.

The cabin.






//Oh God, no! Not again!// He ran pell mell and sprang into the first saddle he found that was slung on a horse.

It was only vaguely that he realized Nathan was beside him. He turned to tell the healer to go, but something in the other man's eyes defied his unspoken words. "I'm coming with you," the healer said. "Vin, Buck.... them all's going to need my help." Chris tried to ignore the grim underlying message in Nathan's statement.

Them all didn't just apply to the two wounded gunslingers at Nettie's cabin.

It meant everyone unfortunate enough to be trapped inside that small wooden deathtrap.

//God, Mary,// Chris thought with a ripple of panic. //Vin, Buck....//He couldn't finish the thought. It was too painful.

"Let's ride," he said, and without another word, spurred his horse towards the cabin.

Heaven only knew how much of a headstart Peter had in this mad rush through the woods.

And hopefully that same Heaven would be on Chris' side when it came down to who won the race.

Chris pushed the strange horse as fast as he could. He couldn't be too late. But he knew already, somewhere deep down in the pit of his stomach, that he was. He was too late. Ever and always, since that day three years ago when he and Buck had ridden over the hill and seen the smoke from the burning ranch house.

Too late.

And now, it was Vin and Buck and Nettie and Casey and Mary. Shouldn't have stayed here. Shouldn't have ever gotten involved again. He could vaguely sense Nathan galloping beside him. Chris wanted to tell him it was a waste of energy. He could already picture the scene. There'd be a couple of bodies outside. Buck would take out at least two. But then,...then there'd be too many, they'd be coming too fast. Buck would be too weak and too sick...and Vin couldn't help him. There was only Buck and Nettie, who would do her best, but would it be enough? It couldn't possibly be enough. Chris shook his head ferociously. He didn't need to see this now. He'd see it all too soon anyway.

Chris reined in his horse hard just at the edge of Nettie's clearing. He could see the dark shadow shapes of horses tethered around the side of the barn. Damn! Too late! He'd known it would be too late. He flung himself from the horse, aware of Nathan galloping in behind him.

He heard the loud roar of a rifle and he froze. He could see a dark shape on the roof, unmoving, something bulky lying in the open cabin doorway. As he started to move forward again, he saw a shadow detach itself from the cabin wall and move toward the doorway.


And though he was infinitely, always, and forever too late, Chris lunged forward with the desperate hope that desire alone would carry him across the distance and, more important, back in time to a place where he could actually make a difference.


This time he shouted it out loud. The shadow stopped, mid-step across the threshold, hesitated for just a second and started to turn. Chris saw the man's face, outlined in moonlight, saw the man's pistol sweep toward him. He fired, still running, and the man stopped turning abruptly, just stood for a second, frozen in time and then fell, the gun slipping from his hand and clattering on the porch floor.

Inside, Nettie shook her head fiercely. Musta hit my head harder than I thought Had there just been a man coming toward her? Had she imagined it? Had she heard a gunshot or had her head been ringing too much? She shook her head again and straightened one more time. She listened. Was there someone out there or not? And then it came. There was no mistaking the sound of boots on the steps. _Someone_ was coming. She heard a low moan behind her in the bedroom. She thought of Casey and Mary down cellar. Lord, they must be worried to death She raised the gun.

"All right, you Nichols!" She shouted, defiant to the last. "Come straight at me if you dare and I'll take out every last one a'ya!"

The footsteps stopped. There was a long moment of silence. Then...


Nettie sagged against the wall in relief. "Chris Larabee? My lord, boy, you nearly scared me to death!"

Chris came into the room slowly, his gun still drawn. Nettie looked at his sharp sillhouette and a shiver went through her as she realized how easily she could have shot him if he hadn't stopped and called out to her.

After looking carefully around the room, Chris came over to Nettie. He took her arm and bent down to look at her face. He touched her head where it was bleeding slightly from her fall. "Nettie? You all right?"

She brushed his hand away. "Oh, it ain't nothin'." But then she paused. "But Vin, Buck...I don't know."

She didn't even realize that Nathan was in the room with them until he brushed past her to enter the bedroom.

Chris almost followed Nathan, but then he turned back to Nettie and said sharply, "Mary and Casey. Nettie, where are they?"

Nettie could feel cobwebs creeping into her brain. Not yet, she told herself sternly. Not now. She gestured toward the cellar door. "In the root cellar," she said. "They went down there and hid when the wagon went up."

Chris released her arm and strode over to the cellar door. Nettie had a sudden vision of him pulling open the door, of Mary standing in the darkness and firing the rifle without ever knowing it was Chris. Hell, it's what I almost did Chris reached down for the handle.

"Wait!" Nettie shouted. Shaking her head to clear the fogginess, she hurried over to him and pulled his arm away from the door. "It better be me," she said.

Chris looked at her for a minute, then he realized that Mary and Casey had been sitting down there in the dark, had heard the gunfire most likely, had heard the silence that followed. They'd have known that the odds were stacked against them. They'd have known how unlikely it was that Vin and Buck and Nettie'd survived. They'd be ready to shoot at anything about now.

'And I got you into this, Mary,' Chris thought with despair as he stepped away from the door.

Mary never thought she'd hear anything in her life as wonderful as Nettie's voice from the top of the stairs. She'd raised the rifle to her shoulder, her finger was on the trigger. 'This is it,' she was thinking. 'This is how it ends.' As the door creaked open in seemingly infinite slowness. Then...

"Mary? Casey, child?" Nettie! Oh, god, Nettie! "It's all right. You can come out now." Nettie's voice sounded a little shaky, but it was Nettie's voice and that was what counted.

Casey ran up the steps and threw herself into Nettie's arms. "Never again!" she cried. "I'm never leaving you like that again. And you can't make me."

"Hush, child," Nettie said softly. "Now, hush."

Mary followed her more slowly, the rifle gripped tightly in her hand. She felt a second rush of relief almost as strong as the first when she saw Chris Larabee waiting for her at the top of the steps. "Oh, Chris," she said, because just for that one moment she couldn't help herself. "You're all right."

He didn't say anything, just took her in his arms and hugged her. Not too late. Not this time.

"Where's J. D.?" Casey asked.

Before Chris could answer, he heard Nathan calling from the bedroom. "Chris!" There was a quiet urgency underlying his usual calmness. "I need you in here. Now!"

Dread built inexorably as Chris made his way across the small room. No, he thought. Please no.

He stopped at the bedroom doorway, trying to make sense of the scene in front of him. The floor of the small room seemed to be covered in bodies.

Nathan had lit the small lamp near the door and it cast long shadows across the room. "Mary," Nathan said as she also appeared in the doorway. He showed no surprise at seeing her there. His mind had leaped completely away from the fight with the Nichols' brothers to the work he had to do right now in this room. "Mary, come over here," he said. "I need you to put pressure on this wound of Vin's. We got to stop the bleeding right away."

"Is he.." Chris asked harshly.

"Well, he ain't dead yet," Nathan said. "But he ain't got much blood to lose. What did he think he was doing, firing a gun in his condition?"

Mary gasped at his words and bent to her task with energy. Come on, Vin, she thought. Don't leave us now.

Chris looked at Vin, at the torn quilts on his bed, at the bodies on the floor. One of them was Peter Nichols, he realized. Damn! "What--" he began, but before he could finish the sentence he heard Buck call out sharply.

"Can't!...Stop!...No!..." He tried to push himself up, but there was no strength in his arms and at the slightest pressure his muscles started trembling uncontrollably and he collapsed.

Chris knelt down beside him. "Jesus, Nathan! He's burning up!"

"He doesn't know it's over. He can't hear me. I need you to talk to him, Chris! Tell 'im he can relax now. Let us take care of him."

Chris knelt beside Buck. He wasn't conscious. His eyes weren't even open. Just running on automatic, unable even now to quit, because just maybe someone might need him. "Buck," Chris said. Then, more sharply, "Buck!"

Buck's eyes drifted open, but they were blood-shot and unfocused. Chris knew he couldn't see him. "Buck, it's over," Chris told him. "You done good, pard. You can rest now."

Buck shook his head. "Got to...Nichols..."

Chris looked at Nathan. "Let's get him on the bed," Nathan said. "Nettie, I need some water. I got to cool him down."

Even as weak as he was, it wasn't easy to move Buck. He continued to move restlessly, making weak movements to get up. Nathan laid a hand on his chest. "Lay still, Buck. Damnit!" He turned to Chris. "He doesn't have much energy left. He can't be wastin' it all like this!"

Chris turned to pace and almost tripped over Peter Nichols' body. He was tempted to kick it, but he knew it wouldn't do any good. "What do we do? He can't hear you. He can't hear me."

"Buck?" Chris turned to see that Casey Wells had slipped past him as he'd stood talking to Nathan. She perched on the edge of the bed and took Buck's hand in both of hers. "Buck? It's me, Casey. Buck, you told me it'd be all right. And it is. It's all right. You can rest now."

There was a moment where it seemed as if the whole room held its collective breath. Then, Chris saw Buck's eyes flicker open and this time there appeared to be a glimmer of recognition there. "Casey?" Buck's voice was hoarse and low. "That you?" He reached up a hand and touched her hair. Then he sighed and closed his eyes again. And this time he lay quiet.

Casey looked up at Nathan. There were tears in her eyes. She looked at Mary, still bent over Vin, who lay completely still and unmoving. "It's too late, isn't it?" she said, voicing the exact words sitting like heavy stones on Chris's heart.

Nathan took her arm and pulled her gently off the bed. "Now you listen to me. It ain't too late until I say it's too late. You hear?" Casey nodded, gulping back tears. "Now, you go help your aunt with that water. Can you do that?"

Casey nodded again and rushed out of the room.

There was silence for a minute as Chris looked at Nathan. I ain't a little girl, Nathan. I want to hear the truth.

As if Nathan could hear Chris's thoughts, he said, "I don't know yet, Chris. I just don't know."

The next hour passed quickly as Chris dragged bodies from the bedroom and the porch out beyond the barn. He stripped the guns from them and wrapped them in burlap. In the morning they'd cart them into town and let the undertaker take care of them. He doubted Nettie wanted them buried anywhere on her land. When he came back up to the house, wiping the sweat from his forehead, after he'd dragged the last body down to the barn, he found Casey waiting for him on the steps. Her hands were clasped tight around her knees.

"You never said," she told him when he was finally standing right in front of her. "You never said about J. D. And about the others too," she added in a rush. "I mean, well,...I just want to know if they're all right."

Chris sat beside her on the steps. He looked toward the horizon where the moon was drifting lower. "When I left," he said. "It was pretty much over. J. D., he, well, he did all right, Casey."

"He wasn't hurt or...anything?" Casey asked him. There was an intensity in her voice that almost made Chris smile.

"No, Casey. He wasn't hurt."

"And the others. They were all right, too?"

"Yeah," Chris said, realizing for the first time since the ammo wagon had exploded, that the fight was really over, that they'd really won.

He heard heavy steps on the porch. Nathan. Chris closed his eyes. Almost won, he reminded himself. Almost. He hoped. Even though he told himself not to. He turned slightly so he could look up at Nathan. "Well?" he asked.

"Bleedin's stopped," Nathan said, sitting down himself on the top step. "Buck's fever's down a little." He rested his hands on his knees and looked out across the small clearing. In the distance it was still possible to see the smoke from the ammo wagon. "What we do now," he said. "Is wait."

Part Ten