DISCLAIMER: The following story is a work of fan fiction. It is not intended to infringe on the copyrights held by John Watson, Trilogy Entertainment, MGM, or any other powers that be. The characters, concept, and setting are not the property of the various authors involved in this story, but the authors do retain any rights to the story itself. Please don't reproduce in any way or sue without permission from the authors.

Vendetta: Blood of the Lamb

Retribution and Redemption

by the Inkslingers

"Chris!!!" Buck ran to where Chris had been sitting with Vin. His friends stood up and started to ask him about . . .

"Find JD!" he barked. "The Nichols boys have escaped."

"What?!" Chris asked, with the expression unique to him of both disgust and incredulity. The same expression, Vin thought, that Chris had had on his face when telling JD, "You don't shoot nobody in the back."

Josiah and the others ran up behind Buck. Chris was still trying to get the story out of Buck, but Buck exploded.

"FIND HIM, G**DAMNIT." Buck took off to search every place the kid might be.

As if in response, Josiah handed the box to Chris. Chris silently fingered the weeper - almost entranced by it. The contents of the box implied so much. Mindlessly, he handed the box to Vin, but held on to the weeper.

Vin's jaw flexed as he looked at the chilling contents. "Sweet Jesus. . ." The words crossed his lips as he fought the fury. A fury he knew he shared with his friends.

But it was Chris' simmering, methodical anger that had instilled fear in the mightiest gunslingers. A maniacal certainty with which he moved. Vin watched as Chris twisted the weeper over and over until it was a long tight cord. Wordlessly, Chris hoisted his foot onto the rail and wrapped the weeper around and around his thigh. Then he tied it off.

He looked up, and saw only Ezra. His normally melodic voice sounded clipped - cold somehow. For a moment the facade was gone and Chris saw the pain in the gambler's heart.

"If they hurt that boy again," Ezra's voice faltered slightly, "I will kill them, Chris."

Chris laid a taut hand on the gambler's neck and squeezed reassuringly. "Let's go get him first, bring him home safe, and I'll help you take them out."

Ezra nodded, then looked away, squinting at the bright sun. His eyes stung, and he felt strangely alone.

Buck ran up to them, out of breath, shaking his head. "He ain't here, Chris. God help him. He's gone." He grabbed Chris' arm - finding it reassuring to just hang on to his friend. "No telling what they're gonna do. They're crazy. They're f***ing crazy, Chris."

"He's tough and he's resourceful. And he won't give up." A melancholy smile softened Chris' expression. "And they don't kill the messenger." Buck ducked his head, glad that only Chris could see his rush of emotion. He collect himself as the others trotted back to them.

They had checked the livery, Casey's place. Everywhere. As they came back down the street, Nathan explained. "JD and Casey ain't back from a morning ride."

Chris nodded to Vin to get ready to track the horses, then he looked at the four trusted faces in front of him.

"Let's ride." He commanded. then he paused a moment, adding more softly, "and watch your backs."

Their horses' hooves thundered as Chris and Vin topped the rise, anxiously scanning the horizon for any sign of Casey or JD.

"See 'em?" Chris asked as Vin peered through his spyglass.

The former bounty hunter shook his head and squinted into the sun. And they rode on.

They'd all ridden out, fanned over the area in their frantic search, but Chris had purposefully paired himself with Vin, and given Ezra to Buck as a saddlemate. Ezra was an inexpert tracker, and Vin was the best there was; Chris knew they would find JD and Casey first. And if anything had happened to JD, Chris wanted to be the one to find him. A shiver ran through the gunslinger's body as he remembered the moment JD stumbled into the saloon, collapsed into his arms, bloody and half-conscious. Chris knew what the Nichols brothers were capable of, and if they had gotten their hands on JD, out here where there was no one to protect him...

...Chris wanted to be the one to find him. Not Buck. There were some sights a man shouldn't have to live with.

They rode on, forever it seemed, until suddenly Vin reined his horse in, looking at the brush at their feet. Chris peered over, and saw it.

A black strand of crepe, tied to a low-standing tree. A few yards ahead, another one. And another, maybe six yards further.

"They're markin' a trail." Vin said in his low voice; that voice held no emotion, but Chris wasn't fooled. He looked in his young friend's face, saw the hesitation there.

Vin had been in the saloon too. And he did not want to follow that trail.

But they did follow it, followed the billowing black strands that cajoled them on, up and down hills and through dense stands of trees. After a short distance, Vin pulled out his mare's leg, and Chris had his gun out before that. They wanted to be ready, for whatever came. And they both prayed that the trail would not end in tragedy.

Some time later, the two horsemen came to the middle of a dense cropping of trees and brush. Vin led his horse into the middle of it, and stopped.

"What's wrong?" Chris asked as Vin looked around.

The tracker shrugged. "That's it. There ain't no more markers."

Chris glanced around, at the ground, the bushes below them. No sign of Casey or JD, or their horses. "You sure?"

Vin nodded. "They want us to stop here."

The hackles rose on the back of Chris' neck, and once again his eyes scanned the brush around them. Perhaps the Nichols brothers never found JD or Casey, and this was about something else. Maybe there was another clue they were supposed to find. There had to be, because the trail was ended and there was no one around at -


Chris started at the tiny sound at his shoulder, like a drop of rain. He hadn't expected it, and brought his hand up to the tiny dot of wetness on his shirt. Tapped it, looked at his hand.

A small dab of red.


Chris looked up almost instinctively, into the thick twining branches above their heads.

And went numb all over.

"Vin!" Chris cried out as he dismounted, so swiftly he didn't even remember doing it. The other man looked over, saw Chris looking up and followed his gaze upward; then dismounted even faster, with a curse.

JD was hanging in the trees over their heads, dangling by a knotted rope that had been tied around his bleeding wrists. He was too far up for Chris to tell much, but his clothes were tattered and bloodstained, and a black strip of crepe had been tied over his eyes. Beneath the listless strands of black hair that hung in his face, Chris saw blood and bruises. JD looked like he was dead.

Vin was halfway up the trunk of the tree, knife in hand, when Chris found the knotted end of the long rope that had been used to hoist JD onto the thick tree branch. It was coiled around the trunk, and fastened on a protruding knob at the tree's base. Without thinking, Chris leaned down and grabbed the rope, frantically wanting to untie it and let JD down. God, he looked like he wasn't breathing -

"Chris, don't!"

His friend's cry startled him, and Chris looked up to see Vin staring at him in fear, still a third of the way from where JD was hanging. Confused, Chris said, "The end of the rope's down here, Vin. We can let him down - "

But Vin was shaking his head rapidly, clearly afraid. "Larabee, don't - untie that rope. Look."

He pointed at JD, and Chris looked. And understood.

There was a noose tied around the boy's neck, separate from the other rope, invisible from the ground; Chris would never have seen it if Vin hadn't pointed it out to him, it was obscured by twining crepe and JD's long dark hair. No, Chris never would have seen it, would have untied the rope and let it go -

- and quickly strangled JD to death, before either of them could stop it. Jesus Christ.

Chris was a hard man, but he found himself trembling with anger and dread as he watched Vin edge his way out to the limb that was supporting JD's slight weight, and carefully cut through the rope that encircled the boy's neck. Then, with a sigh of exhaustion, Vin looked at Chris and nodded, and in the thunderous silence Chris unknotted the rope that lay tightened at his feet, and slowly lowered JD's unconcious form to the forest floor.

He's dead, Chris thought numbly as the youth's body draped itself onto the earth, and he knelt close; those bastards, they killed him. JD wasn't moving, lay sprawled in the dead leaves and underbrush, his bloodstained clothes fluttering in the slight wind, his blindfolded face slack and senseless. dark stains blotched his white shirt, hinting at serious injuries underneath, and there were slash marks here and there, and more blood. His face was mostly covered by the blindfold, but Chris saw rivers of blood on JD's chin and neck, saw dried flecks clinging to the boy's swollen lips. Thank God Buck's not here, he thought in shock. Thank God...

Vin made his way down the tree in an instant, was at JD's side even quicker. He pressed a hand to JD's mottled neck, paused a moment. When he looked up at Chris, it was with uncertain hope.

"He's still breathin'." He whispered, and hurriedly unsheathed his knife to cut the bloody ropes that were binding JD's wrists. As he did so, Chris touched JD's other shoulder, his stomach twisting at the sight of that young face, covered with welts and bruises beneath the black folds, and so still. He swallowed his rage, so much rage. Later.

"Hey, kid?" Vin whispered as he carefully cut the ropes. "Kid, you still with us?"

"JD?" Chris said gently, and moved to take the blindfold from the youth's face. "JD, you - "

As soon as he touched the blindfold, Chris saw JD shudder, and before either of them could react the youth suddenly let out a loud gasp and began to thrash around, yanking his hands out of Vin's grasp and desperately shaking his head away from Chris' grip.

"No, JD! JD?" Chris cried out, grabbing at the blindfold so JD could see them, "It's Chris, it's Vin, you're OK - "

JD continued to struggle, not saying anything but breathing in a short, staccato whimper that spoke too much for words to be needed.

"Kid?" Vin said, quickly sheathing his blade and gently taking JD by the shoulders, "Kid, it's Vin, you're all right, take it easy. It's all right. It's all right."

As Vin continued to talk, low and comforting, JD's struggles slowed a little, partially because the boy was so exhausted he was losing the energy that great rush of fear had given him. Finally, he paused, listened to the tracker's words for a moment, as if he was still unsure. Then he whispered in a cracked voice, "Vin?"

"Uh - huh." The tracker said as Chris once more take ahold of the blindfold, and gently untied it and removed it from JD's face. The youth blinked into the too-bright sun, and Chris groaned at what he saw when he removed that cruel band; both of JD's eyes were black and red, half-swollen shut, and around them were a myriad of cuts and small marks, like someone had stabbed at his face with a knife. Those bastards.

JD drew in a breath, loud and hitching, and closed his eyes as he clutched his abdomen; then his whole body shivered, and he curled up a little, and relaxed into the underbrush, too spent to move.

"Take it easy, kid." Vin soothed as he once again drew his knife to cut the punishing bonds. "You're gonna be all right, we'll get you home."

"Casey," JD muttered weakly as Chris uncorked his canteen to give the boy some water, "The Nichols, they've got Casey..."

Vin and Chris exchanged dark glances; but Vin said, "Don't worry, JD, Casey's all right. Let's get you home, we'll get her back before the sun goes down."

JD lay in the grass for a moment, and Chris could tell as he gently moved to lift JD's head that the boy was struggling mightily to not succumb to his injuries, to not weep with the horrific pain that had to be wracking his wrists, his arms, probably every inch of his body. And Casey was gone...

"Here's some water, JD." Chris said, and tipped the canteen so the youth could drink. Some of the water missed its mark, but JD was alert enough to accept the liquid, although his eyes were still closed, and he wasn't moving anything he didn't have to.

Vin stood as Chris continued to minister to JD, and scanned the horizon.

"I'm goin' after Casey." He said simply, in low tones so only Chris would hear, and his stance said he would brook no argument.

Chris knew that was what had to be done, but..."You can't go alone. We'll find the others, you ride with them."

Vin was pacing a bit, balling his hands into fists as he looked at JD's tortured face. "Chris, we ain't got time - "

"Vin, you're not going after those men alone." Chris replied sternly as JD turned away from the canteen, and he removed it. He still held JD's head from the hard forest floor.

The former bounty hunter winced, shook his head and nodded acquiescence, then knelt down once more at JD's side. The boy had drifted off, or passed out. Neither man could tell.

"We gotta stop this, Chris," Vin said in uncharacteristically hard tones, and when Chris looked at him the tracker's face was grim, his blue eyes burning with fury. "Whatever it takes, whatever I got to go through, I'll do it, just so you know. They declared war on us..." He paused to brush the hair from JD's injured face, and his jaw was set in deepest determination.

"I reckon it's time to fight."

While Chris and JD were busy taking JD back to town , Buck was driving Ezra batty with his behavior. The tall gunslinger, normally affable, was turning more bitter with every dead lead.

"C'mon Ezra! Move it!" Buck yelled, as he climbed up the peak to survey the valley below. "We ain't got all day to find 'im!"

"Mr. Wilmington, it's been hours since we lost any trail we were supposed to be following. What makes you think we are any closer to finding them at this late juncture?" Ezra grunted and pulled himself to the top. Trust Buck to get him to do more physical labor than previously intended. Something in Ezra knew in an instant they were in trouble. "Buck..."

"Stay where you are!" A voice orderd from behind him. Ezra froze, he knew that voice!

"Turn around slowly," Another voice added.

Slowly Ezra turned, Peter Nichols had Buck by the throat, gun to his head, the other Nichols boy was holding a gun on Ezra. Suddenly Ezra remembered quite distinctly the threat made upon his person two months ago. He was going to die, he knew it.

"Guess what Peter?" The other brother smirked. "Providence smiles upon us! First we get your paramour, now we get to visit retruibution on our lying, sinning friend here."

"So it seems, brother." Peter smiled cruely, "And we get the bonus of another of the vile heathens who killed our kin as well. Maybe we should string him up like our dearly departed messenger?"

Buck looked about as angry as Ezra had ever seen him. If Ezra was to turn the situation around, he would have to do it quickly. He slightly turned his head, signalling Buck to duck left and tensed, waiting for his chance. It came sooner than he thought.

Peter turned his attention to the rim of the canyon wall, seeing his chance Ezra popped out his derringer and shot, just as Buck ducked left, ramming himself into the Nichols brother holding the gun on Ezra.

Luck deserted Ezra, as his shot went wild, but Buck managed to tackle the younger brother to the ground and knocked him out wth a punch to the face. Peter was forced to drop to the ground as Ezra fired the second and last shot in the derringer, as he and Buck ran for it.

"Buck! Head for the horses!" Ezra, the last down the narrow trail, took out his Remington to cover their escape.

Buck sprinted to here they had tied the horses, hoping that the Nichols brothers were lying and JD wasn't already lying dead somewhere. Maybe Chris and Vin had found him in time. He hurriedly mounted his grey, and spurred himself towards Ezra's position.

Peter Nichols was seething, never had he been defied like this before and now that lying, devil had gotten him twice! Peering down from the cliff, he saw the taller man, "Buck" the gambler had called him, riding up with the horses. Peering down the barrell of his rifle, Peter waited for his target to appear. Soon he would get his revenge against the liar, but first he would have some 'fun' with him.

He smiled as Ezra broke cover, and carefully sighted down the rifle, then squeezed the trigger. With a cry of pain , his target fell to the ground, shot in the leg. Peter smiled and lay down more fire, preventing help from geting close to his prey. This was becoming more fun than he anticipated!

Ezra cried out again as he tried to stand. He couldn't get to his feet and the rifle fire from the gun above prevented Buck from getting close to him. Ezra made a decision, and for the life of him, couldn't think of why he made it.

"Buck!" He shouted, pain shooting through him as he moved. "Go get help! You can't help me anymore!"

"I ain't leavin' ya!" Buck shouted back and tried to get closer again, firing at the cliff above, hoping to hit their shooter. Another shot got clost to Buck, almost hitting him.

"Getting yourself killed won't help any!" Ezra tried to turn over to give Buck some cover. "Mr. Larabee will need to know which way they went. So both of us dying won't solve anything!"

"Damnit Ezra!" Buck shouted, but knew the gambler was right. Chris had to know which way they went with Casey, and Ezra could easily have been dead several times by now. Maybe he did have some time to get the others and come back. Another shot came close and he swore. Either way he didn't want to leave Ezra here with that lunatic and his brothers. But he also didn't have a choice at that either.

"Buck!" Ezra shouted, firing at the ridge above. "GO! before it's too late!"

Then the decision was made for Buck as a shot from above scored his hand holding his reins and his startled horse bolted away from the fight. Helpless, with no controll over the frightened horse, Buck hung on trying not to get thrown in the headlong dash. Soon he was out of range and out of danger, but he couldn't help loking back at the disappearing form of Ezra, and he prayed his friend would be alright until he could bring help back.

Ezra watched Buck's horse retreat and sighed in relief, at least now the others would know what had happened. The firing from above stopped and Ezra concentrated on his own plight. He had to figure a way out of here, but he couldn't stand up and his horse was gone. And he had only one bullet left.

"Well, well, well." Peters voice drifted from above him. "Look what I have in my sights! Surrender to me, or I swear to God I will hurt that girl I took! And you know exactily what I am capable of."

Ezra desperately tried to think of a way out of this, but at the mention of him having 'the girl', it had to be Casey Wells, he knew he had to do what Peter wanted or the girl would suffer. No matter what, Ezra would not let any harm come to that child if he could prevent it. So Ezra lay down his gun on the dusty floor of the canyon. He surrendered.

Buck rode furiously, his head and heart seething with fury as he tore across the plains. His injured hand burned with pain, but he barely felt it as he rode, his blue eyes fixed on the way ahead but only really seeing two things.

JD two weeks ago, lying bloodied and half-conscious on the barroom floor; and Ezra shot from his horse, falling into the hands of the men who had vowed vengeance on them all, but Ezra in particular.

He fought his emotions as he rode, knowing he was on the verge of a rage, and Buck knew he did not always act well when he got carried away. But he couldn't help himself, the bloodied image of JD kept flashing in front of his eyes; last time they'd roughed him up pretty bad, but they had been restrained. This time the restraints were obviously off.

If they hurt one hair on that boy's head, he thought, then checked himself. That was useless, of course they hurt JD, maybe even killed him, and Buck made a solemn vow to himself that if that happened it was all over. He'd hunt them down and kill them, simple as that. if only he was still alive...

Just ride.

Damn it, Buck thought as he gallopped on, the others have to be around here somewhere, Chris or Vin, Josiah or Nathan. He couldn't save Ezra alone, and every lost moment drew the gambler closer to whatever horrible fate the Nichols brothers had in store for him. They could have both been killed, but the Nichols didn't want that; they wanted Ezra alive, and they wanted Buck to tell the others.

Guess I'm their goddamned messenger boy now, he fumed as he bent low over his saddle. Well you boys get ready, cause you're gonna get a message too. A loud, clear message. Count on it.

Ezra bit his lip for the hundredth time as the jouncing ride scorched his wounded leg with pain. His bound hands weakly grasped the saddle horn, but this proved of little help as he swayed dangerously in the saddle, dizzy from pain and the blood he'd lost.

Briefly righting himself, he glanced at his captors and felt his blood run cold again. The memories returned, him giving them wrong directions to Chris's house to throw them off his trail so that Vin and Buck could warn Chris that the Nichols brothers were coming, and the litany of violent retribution they offered him should his information prove false. It had of course proven false, but Ezra had assumed that the situation was over once the miscreants were under lock and key.

He never dreamed the nightmare would return.

He tried to fight down the fear and think of a way out; there had to be one, if he could keep his wits about him. But it was hard to ignore the gnawing uncertainty; these were no mere thugs, and they had already proven themselves to be quite creative in their cruelty. The things they had said they'd do to him...He shivered and pushed that thought aside, but he still found himself trembling.

His horse jolted again, and he suppressed a groan as his head spun in agony.

The brother leading his horse, Luke, looked back at him. "Hey, Peter, he looks like he's gonna pass out."

Peter didn't even look back. "We'e almost there. If he falls off we can tie him down." Then he did look back, and his small smile and manic glint in his eye caused a sickening lurch in Ezra's gut. "You won't escape judgement so easily."

The ground grew uneven and hilly; they were heading into the foothills, a place of dense overgrowth and rocky soil. The brush gave way to an overgrown road, once paved with coarse stones whose way was now choked with weeds. The road turned, and through bleary eyes Ezra could see a small collection of structures ahead, previously hidden by the rocks and trees. A mining camp, or what was left of one; now it was only a few falling-down wooden shacks and cabins, a walled-up mining shaft, and a brick town hall, its windows boarded up, its bell tower long silent. As they drew bearer Ezra could make out figure holding a rifle in the bell tower, one which looked down on them as they approached.

"John!" Peter yelled to the figure. "Get down here!"

The figure disappeared.

They reined in by the church, and Ezra almost sighed in relief that the jouncing was over, until he remembered that the worst was probably yet ahead. hands grabbed him and dragged him from his saddle, and he found himself on his knees in the dirt, tight fists clutching his collar, forcing him down. His leg throbbed; he fought to keep from crying out.

Peter walked over to stand before him, still smiling. "Enjoy your ride?"

Ezra glared at him through the sweat running into his eyes. "What did you do to JD?"

His adversary chuckled as he adjusted the fingers of his smooth gloves. "Oh, nothing we won't do to you, I promise. But try to wait your turn-patience is a virtue."

He flicked his hand, and Ezra was dragged to his feet and up the short wooden stairs into the hall.

It was dark inside the building, the only light coming from a few gaps in the warped wooden roof and the flickering glow of several lamps. There were a few pieces of furniture, an old wooden table and a few chairs. In one corner sat a stove, its interior glowing red, on which some food simmered. As they walked further into the building, their boots echoing loudly on the dusty wooden floor, the other two brothers came in, each toting shotguns.

"You got one of those gunmen!" one of them exhulted as Ezra was once again thrown to the ground and held there. Peter's eyes glowed with pride.

"Yes, God was good to us today, Matthew." Then his tone turned cold and efficient. "Did you boys get that other one strung up after I left?"

Ezra's ear strained to listen through the pounding of his heart; he meant JD.

"We did," was the firm reply as matthew propped his gun up on his hip. then he looked at the other brother, who seemed younger and thinner than the others. "However, not all went as planned."

"Oh?" Peter straightened. The younger brother-John, Ezra supposed- gulped, and Ezra could see fear behind the glasses the boy wore.

"I'm sorry, Peter," he finally sighed, keeping his eyes on the ground. "I tried but - I've never gouged out a man's eyes before. I-I just couldn't do it."

Ezra ducked his head down, silently thanking God for the boy's squeamishness. A heavy silence fell in the hall, then the dreadful sound of peter's footsteps erupoted as he approached John, shaking his head.

"John, John, John," he admonished, shaking his head. "Ma and Pa would be most disappointed in you."

John grimaced. "I know."

"You've disobeyed my instructions, John, and disobedience must be corrected."

John lifted his eyes up and stared at his brother for a moment; Peter simply smiled at him, then planted a firm punch in the boy's stomach.

John groaned and dropped to his knees, clutching his gut as his gun clanged to the floor. Ezra stared, apalled, but said nothing; he was hardly in a position to interfere.

"Don't worry, John, we all forgive you, I'm sure," Peter said, removing his hat and setting it down on one of the chairs. "Is our lovely young guest comfortable?"

Casey, Ezra thought, his heart racing again. She's here.

"You bet, Peter," Matthew said, helping John back to his feet. "She's not going anywhere."

"Bet you've got plans for her, huh, Pete?" said Luke, the brother holding Ezra. The gambler tensed at the vile insinuation, quickly vowing that if they touched Casey, wound or no wound, alone or not, he'd have to tear them apart himself.

But to his surprise, it was Peter whose eyes burned, who charged over to Luke and gave him a punch square across the jaw. Ezra collapsed to the floor with a gasp as Luke lost his grip on him and reared back, one hand to his bruised jaw.

"I won't tolerate such blaphemous talk," Peter bellowed, his face red with fury. "No man of God touches a woman til they're married." He looked at his brothers, his eyes blazing. "I better not hear of any of you touchin' that gal. That's not part of the plan."

Ezra eased himself onto the floor, trying to find a comfortable position for his leg. At least they seemed willing to leave him alone for a moment.

"OK, OK, we won't do nothin' to her," he heard Luke mutter.

Peter glared at them all before going to the stove and lifting the coffee pot. "If all goes according to plan, the men who murdered our brothers will fall into our hands before long. We must be ready and cleanse our minds of impure thoughts which may weaken us."

Matthew was shaking his head. "They got to pay, Pete."

Peter chuckled as he poured some coffee into a battered cup. "Oh, they will, don't worry. Meanwhile..."

Ezra lifted his head; Peter was staring at him, his black eyes gleaming. Luke once more grabbed the back of his jacket, holding him in a sitting position on the floor while Peter set down his cup and very slowly walked towards him, smiling as he removed his gloves.

"I'll bet you thought we'd forget all about your lies, Mister. But the mind of God never forgets the acts of the unrepentant. I imagine you were pretty smug in your sinfulness, weren't you? But you can't escape the justice of God."

Now he was standing right in front of Ezra, who was doing his best to glare at him, his green eyes defiant despite his trembling.

"You've sinned quite a bit against us, haven't you?" Peter asked, still smiling. "I saw you destroy our wagon and cause the death of our brothers. With fire, wasn't it? Fitting tool for a devil like yourself."

Ezra tried to ignore the pain which threatened to overwhelm him. "If I recall, your sainted briothers were trying to kill us. Not quite a holy activity."

Peter smirked. "Ah, but it was in our case. As you can see, we live by the Word of God, whose instructions are fairly plain. For instance, it has told us exactly what to do with you."

Ezra's throat went dry, but he didn't flinch. Peter kept his eyes on him as he walked over to the table and picked something up. It was a small axe, its blade rusted and dull; Peter palmed its handle with satisfaction as he walked back over, holding the weapon with reverence.

"You offered to engage our brothers in cards," Peter said quietly, "and gambling's a sin, as any man of God knows. 'And if your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off, and throw it from you'. Course," Peter continued, looking straight into Ezra's eyes, "you've been sinning with your right and left hands, so I guess they'll both have to go. We will also have to remove that lying tongue of yours, so you will not be able to lead anyone else astray with it."

Ezra stared at him, as completely horrified as he'd ever been in his life. They can't do this, he thought, terror seizing him. They can't...

Peter smiled at his fear. "It will be a blessing to you, to lose those sinful parts of yourself. As you are now you aren't worthy of such blessings, but don't worry. You will be purified through suffering soon enough, I promise you. For the time being we will let you contemplate what awaits you."

Luke dragged Ezra to his feet; the gambler could barely keep his legs beneath him, as weak as he was through pain and now horror. As he was pulled upright he glared at Peter and hissed, "You're monsters."

Peter gave him a bemused look. "We are wreaking God's holy vengeance."

"Yes, well," Ezra replied, "some of us sinners may feel compelled to end your righteous war."

He received a cold smile in reply.

"That's what we're counting on."

Pain erupted through Ezra's entire body as he hit the hard-packed floor of the dark cellar; the doors above his head slammed shut, and he was left in almost total darkness. They had untied his hands, and he tried to stop his fall, but his efforts were less than completely successful. As he rolled onto his side, trying to ease the searing pain in his leg, he attempted to end the spinning of his head but it wouldn't stop.

There has to be a way out of this-

"Who's there?"

Ezra's head shot up, trying to see through the darkness; was he imagining things?

"Miss Wells?"

"Yeah!" came the gasping reply; he could hear her fumbling in the blackness towards him; suddenly she was practically tripping over him.

"Easy, easy," he cautioned, as she sank to the floor beside him, grabbing his arms. "Are you all right?"

"Have you seen JD?" She was almost sobbing. "Is he hurt?"

"I'm afraid I'm as in the dark as you are-um, figuratively speaking," he said, patting her arms; he could see only her dim outline in the gloom. "But the others will find him, and if he can be saved at all Mr. Jackson will do it, I assure you."

"Oh," she gasped, holding him tightly; he was a bit surprised, but tried to comfort her, as he would any frightened child. "I tried to stop them-they said they were gonna kill JD-"

"Now, now, we must hope for the best," he said, although his own heart was threatening to leap into his throat.

He heard Casey sniff. "I know-I shouldn't be actin' like such a ninny, but I'm just bustin' inside wonderin' if he's OK."

"I'm sure he is, and...I'm..." Suddenly Ezra became very lightheaded, and he slumped towards the ground. Casey caught his head before it hit the floor, and he weakly tried to wave her wawy.

"Thank you, my...dear," he breathed, as he struggled to right himself. "I should probably tell you I am not in perfect health."

She gasped. "They shot you?"

"In the leg, yes," Ezra replied, as lightly as he could; no use in frightening the poor girl. "Mr. Wilmington and I were taken unawares, but he effected his escape and is doubtless notifying the others of our situation even now. But it's not a bad wound, I've had far worse. I just have to rest for a bit."

"C'mon, they've got an old cot over here," she said, and carefully led him to a space in the corner. A small lamp burned on a low table, providing some meager light; Ezra grited his teeth as he lowered himself onto one of the rickety cots and swallowed.

"Thank you, my dear," he said, gingerly rubbing his wound. She sat next to him and looked at him in concern.

"What should we do now?" she asked finally. "Maybe we could figure a way out of here."

Ezra pursed his lips. "I considered that, Miss Wells, but between the guard outside, my wound, and our lack of horses and weapons, I'm afraid we would not get far."

Casey scowled. "Shoot."

He sat for a moment, thinking, then took her hand and held it very tightly.

"I'm afraid, my dear, that we are in the lion's den, and we must wait and be brave until help arrives, which I am sure it will."

She nodded, her brown eyes glistening in the faint glow. "I hope they got an extra gun, so I can fight too."

Ezra smiled at her spirit. "You would do well to hold on to that thought, my dear. We may both need that courage in the times ahead."

There was fire in his hand.

White-hot fire.

Buck was holding onto the saddle horn with his one good hand, the reins slipping down on the grey's neck. Given his mouth, the horse made his way toward Four Corners by rote. Buck lay his head back and closed his eyes against the ungodly pain in his hand . . .

The horse was cantering rhythmically. And the tall rider let the wind whip against his throat and catch his hair and make his eyes water. . .

Buck had left Ezra. Ezra was hurt and he'd left him there. What kind of man was he? And where the hell were the others? He should have come up on them by now.

Oh, God . . . where are you, kid? His anger surged again, and he lifted his head again, looking ahead.

A wave of dizziness.

The grey loped the familiar trail toward Four Corners and gradually Buck's chin fell forward to his chest. His hand was on fire. On fire, and his consciousness drifted toward it. Toward the fire.

Toward hell.

Sweet Jesus, what had he done?

The boy wouldn't live to reach Four Corners.

Vin Tanner was astride his horse, cradling their youngest against his chest like a child. Twice he lost the heartbeat. Twice he mumbled a prayer. And twice he found it again, ever fainter, ever more erratic . . .

How had the kid survived?

"Chris." Vin's voice was husky. Chris pulled up beside him. The gunslinger, dressed prophetically in black, felt a plummet in his stomach. JD . . . please don't tell me we've lost him.

"We can't move him anymore." Chris looked in his friend's eyes. And he saw tears.

Vin was holding JD so easily. Trying to keep his head supported, but turning to Chris, the boy's head fell back over Vin's arm. Black hair flopping across his . . . disfigured . . . face. Wordlessly, Chris dismounted. He looped the reins over a branch and stepped over next to the kid.

Chris slipped his hand behind the boy's neck, and carefully eased the weight of JD's upper body out of Vin's arms and into his own. Then, again, as if in slow motion, he moved away from Vin, gradually taking JD entirely into his own arms. It was as though Chris could feel the life leaving the boy.

Once JD was clear, Vin slid off his horse and pulled off his overshirt, making a pallet on the forest floor. He helped Chris ease the kid down. JD's breath was so shallow - so shallow. They needed to help him. They needed to get help for him. Hell, they needed a f***ing miracle.

Vin shook his head frantically examining the kid's injuries. "God Chris, where do we start?"

Chris didn't answer, but he saw the enormous flow of blood from JD's shoulder. It had already saturated the crude cloth bandage they had secured around the gunshot wound not ten minutes ago.

"God," Chris echoed, tearing his own undershirt into long strips. Vin pulled the soaked bandage off the shoulder, and JD moaned - a high, young noise. His breath grew more rapid and shallow and he became more agitated.

"Hold on, kid, this won't take long . . ."

"Go . . ."

Vin's low voice was soothing. "We ain't leaving you, JD."

"Don't try to talk." Chris reached back in his saddlebag and pulled out the whiskey again. His eyes met Vin's and the bounty hunter positioned himself to hold the boy down. Chris pulled the top off of the flask . . .

JD drew on all his energy. "Go . . . find her." He tried to pull up, the effort shaking his entire body. If he could open his eyes, they'd be able to see that he was serious.

He didn't hear their protests. He was beyond feeling their grasps. He was being pulled . . . home.

Say it, his mind screamed. There's no time. . .

Now, before the light. Before. . .

With his last rally, with his last thread of voice . . .

"Don't . . . . let him . . . hurt her . . . Don't . . ."

His breath rattled . . .

The grey took a misstep and Buck jerked awake. He wasn't even holding the reins anymore.

He was cradling his bleeding hand.

Get yourself together, he chided himself as he bandaged the wound with his neckerchief. For what little good it would do.

He shook his head. He had to think straight. He had to stay clear. Lives depended on it. Ezra's . . . Ezra - shot in the leg - screaming for him to go get help. The one who lied to protect Chris Larabee, now injured and at the mercy of those who wanted nothing more that vengence. No telling how they would torture him for the sheer hell of it.

Buck had seen the Nichols boys' vengeance - they all had - in the form of a beaten, dazed kid staggering unnoticed across the saloon and up to the bar, where he held himself up long enough to warn them.

"I got a message for everybody."

Buck and the others had seen him collapse.

"They're gonna kill us all for helping Hank."

Kill us all . . .

Not if we kill them first, Buck had breathed. Carrying the image of JD's bloodied and bruised face, his eyes half closed, and knowing he'd been hurt by four seasoned fighters who were bigger than he was, the Guardians of Four Corners looked more like a gang of hardened desperados. Chris barked orders furiously, Vin remained frighteningly silent, his jaw tightening to train the intense fury he felt. Nathan's dark eyes smoldered as he prepared to take on the "righteous."

He was following the example of the preacher who would not be turning the other cheek to the Nichols.

And Ezra - a hardened desperado? He was that day. Buck had seen the usually light-hearted gambler take the initiative in caring for the boy. The gambler who risked everything to stop the iron carriage . . .

Buck rolled his shoulder, still stiff from having been wounded that day, and the pain in his hand spiked in response.

Damn! It wasn't even worth cussing out loud. He thought about tying his hand up in a sling to keep it higher than his heart. Nathan had said that would take the ache out out of swelling injuries. And bleeding injuries?

He tried awkwardly to unbuckle his belt with one hand and still stay on his horse. He'd slip his belt off and make a sling. He was about to cuss again, when he saw the bit of rope on the leafy trail.

Bloody rope.

Buck swung off his horse and knelt on the ground. There was rope, and . . . what was . . .

His mouth opened - almost rigidly - and his throat tightened - and the upheaval of nausea caused him to break into a thick sweat. He stared in horror at the blood-soaked weeper and JD's ripped bloody shirt . . .

And a noose . . . that had been cut down . . .

They'd done it.

They'd killed him.

Life for life . . .

Sacrificial lamb . . .

For lamb . . .

Buck sat back on his heels and took the boy's shirt and held it. And rocked. And wept

But for a moment no sound came. Buck looked up to heaven, but saw no heaven through the thick foliage. Only a hanging tree. No heaven. No God.

And his brother was dead.

Buck raised his fist, still clutching JD's shirt, and screamed.

Mary Travis stretched her stiff shoulders. She had spent the better part of the afternoon setting the type for tomorrow's edition of The Clarion. Satisfied with the office appearance, she was about to return to her personal quarters at the back of the building when she heard the wagon halt. Peering outside she noted it was Nettie Wells, one of the original settlers in the Four Corners region. //Now, that was strange. I just saw her this morning?// Mary wondered as she stepped out onto the porch.

"Nettie, what brings you to back to town?"

"Mary." Nettie stated sternly. Nettie dismounted from the wagon. She turned back to collect her rifle.

Mary noted Nettie's agitation and felt her own anxiety rising. "Nettie, is something wrong?"

Nettie didn't immediately respond. She opened the rifle breach. Apparently satisfied that it was loaded, she closed it with a firm click. "Nothing that my friend here and the preacher can't solve."

"The preacher. You mean, Mr. Sanchez?"

"He is the only one around here who calls himself preacher?"

With some trepidation, Mary corrected Nettie. "Actually, I don't believe Mr. Sanchez refers to himself as a preacher."

"He'll do."

"He'll do for what, Nettie?" Mary tried to placate an obviously agitated Nettie.

"Marrying them."

"Marrying who?"

"JD and Casey."

"JD and Casey." Mary parroted. "Nettie, I don't understand."

"Left this morning for a ride and have yet to return. It's been ten hours and will be dark soon. Casey, for that matter JD, knows that she is to be home by dark." Nettie wagged her finger for emphasis.

Mary bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing at Nettie. She sure had her dander up. "Nettie," Mary used her let's be reasonable voice, "it's not dark yet. I'm sure there is some innocent explanation as why JD and Casey have been gone so long."

"*Innocent*." Nettie harrumphed. "Innocent, my foot. With that ladies man Buck Wilmington involved! Don't think I don't know he has plans for those two. Now, where is that preacher?"

Nettie marched off down the boardwalk toward the church.

//Come to think of it, where was Josiah? For that matter, Nathan. They had said they would be over after lunch to fix the leak in my roof.// Mary scurried to catch up with Nettie. //I have to beat her to the church. I have dibs on Mr. Sanchez's services. It will be just my luck it rains before those repairs are done.//

Part Two