Retribution and Redemption, part three


Disclaimers, etc. in part 1

As Nathan waited outside with the horses, Josiah removed his hat and walked into the small courtyard, his heart fighting between the sympathy he felt for the widow Nichols' plight, and overwhelming anger at what her sons had done, were doing, and were threatening to do. The anger was winning so far, but Josiah reminded himself this was a place of God, and prayed for the strength he knew he would need to face what was coming. And entered the mission gates.

The interior of the convent was airy and sparsely furnished, with the black wrought iron and dark-hued wooden furnishings common to desert missions. A nun came into the courtyard toward him, and Josiah recognized her as the mother superior.

"Ma'am," He nodded as she drew closer.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Sanchez." The mother superior said in calm tones. "What can I do for you today?"

"Need to speak to the woman we brought in here a while back," Josiah replied, doing his best to keep his temper in check. Behold, I send my messenger..."It's real urgent."

"Certainly." The woman nodded to him politely, and motioned toward the doorway that Josiah knew led into the church area of the mission. She walked off, and he turned and made his way into the dusty sanctuary, to wait.

It was not a long wait. Josiah later figured he had not been there five minutes when the huge wooden door of the church swung open, and with a soft swish of fabric a stout woman clad all in mourning black entered, and closed the door behind. Her face was covered with a black veil, and Josiah couldn't see much of it except for two sad, lost eyes, and a tentative smile that looked like it was full of hope.

Hope that her sons had done their killing, Josiah thought with a shudder. And nearly let the anger win.

Ma Nichols curtseyed to the cross that hung at the front of the church and made the sign of the cross before folding her hands and moving to sit beside Josiah in the rough-hewn pew. Keeping her head bent, she said softly, "Mr. Sanchez."

Polite. She'd been so polite since that horrible moment, when she'd realized she had lost three more sons in her blind pursuit of Hank Connelly. So polite, her manner switching from frank abrasiveness to an almost plaintive attitude as she'd looked up at Josiah and asked in her soft Irish accent, can you forgive me?

No, Josiah had thought, but it was not what he had said. It's not mine to forgive, he'd told her instead, but now as the preacher looked at that soft, sad face with its downcast eyes he had only one thought: if you've sinned again, sister, don't ask for my forgiveness. You won't like the answer.

Let's get this over with, Josiah decided, and cleared his throat. "Mrs. Nichols, I need to talk to you."

"Have ye heard from the boys?" Ma Nichols interrupted, her head up and her eyes suddenly staring right at Josiah, large and bright.

She's proud of this, Josiah realized, proud of the bloodshed her sons have brought to this town. "Yes, ma'am, we've heard from them," He replied, and let the anger in, let it cover his words like molten lava, so she knew. "They sent it to us this morning."

"That's good." Ma Nichols replied with a nod of her head, and she stared at the floor for a moment before saying with a small smile, "They've always been good boys, preacher, in my heart I know they are all sent from heaven to be a blessing to me. They have always done as I asked, honored me, and I knew they would do so again."

Josiah felt his face harden with fury, didn't try to hide it as he bent forward and let his eyes blaze. "Ma'am, you have three sons who are dead because of the way your boys honor you. And if this continues...do you really want to lose the others too?"

Shock. Ma Nichols immediately looked shocked, and before Josiah could stop her she grabbed his right arm with both gloved hands, and stared into his eyes with frightened urgency.

"Ye wouldn't hurt my boys?" She said, in that lost, sad tone she'd adopted since that day two weeks ago. "Not after all we've been through. We just want to go in peace."

"In peace!" Josiah shook off her arm and stood, felt a hot rage coursing through him. "You call the cold-blooded murder of a Yuma prison guard peace?"

Through the veil, Josiah saw fear and surprise on the older woman's face. And loathed it.

"Ma'am, it is not my intention to frighten you," Josiah continued, digging in his pocket until he found the letter that had been in the package, and drew it out, "But after what happened last time you have to know what will happen if you carry out your plan of vengeance against us."

He unfolded the paper, and thrust it into Ma Nichols' hands. She looked at it, dazed, as Josiah loomed over her and said, "If your sons harm JD Dunne or anyone else in that town, on behalf of my friends I promise you an apocalypse that will make what you planned look like a birthday party."

He'd expected a cool response, like he'd gotten before, like Chris had gotten that day, arch words about the Nichols brand of justice, or a Bible quote. Instead, what Josiah got was what he least expected.

Ma Nichols looked up at him with a fearfully blank expression and said, "I don't understand. This isn't my message at all."

There was a small pause as Josiah digested this; then he said, "It was delivered this morning, with a box full of black crepe and a bloody uniform. JD ain't been seen since."

"No," Ma Nichols said softly as Josiah sat back down, and shook her head, kept shaking it, "No, no, that's not it at all. Did ye not get word from my Peter that I was going to a convent in Mexico, to seek forgiveness and understanding of what happened here?"

Josiah frowned, shook his head.

Ma Nichols stood suddenly, stood and walked very quickly to the nearest window, one lace-gloved hand on her heart.

"Something's happened to them," She muttered, and Josiah knew her fear was very real, "Someone's murdered them."

Josiah stood and walked over to her. "Ma'am, I don't think you heard what I just said. Your sons made a pretty clear threat to me and my friends."

"That's a lie." Ma Nichols snapped, and she spun to face the preacher. "I told my sons after their brothers died that I would help them escape, and we would go to Mexico. Whoever threatened you, it wasn't them."

Josiah paused, looked into those steely eyes burning bright with a mother's certainty. Licking his lips, he said, "Mrs. Nichols, do you know where your sons are?"

Ma Nichols dipped her head for a moment, thinking. "They must be murdered. They were to come and get me, after they escaped. If you've been given this - " She glanced at the note, tears starting in her eyes, "It's in Peter's hand, I recognize it. And they haven't come. Then one of my husband's enemies must have met them, and sent you the threat for sheltering me."

Josiah's eyebrows wrinkled together. "Ma'am...meanin' no disrespect, but could it be possible that your sons have decided to follow a different path than you intended?"

Ma Nichols laughed, a humorless sound. "Impossible, preacher. Those young men have been raised to respect me, and the devil himself could not persuade them to disobey my word."

"Could be the devil." Josiah muttered, mostly to himself.

"And don't think that just because I've told you what we're doing, that you can stop us." Ma Nichols said haughtily, peering at Josiah with a pointed glare. "When my sons come, we are going to leave this place. And your friends won't try to stop us, if they want to live."

"We won't try to stop 'em, ma'am," Josiah said tiredly as he turned away from the window to go tell Nathan they were staying until the Nichols showed up, "But if they've done anything to JD or anyone else, we might have to hava a few words with 'em, is all."

"Mark my words, preacher," Ma Nichols said as she folded the note, and tucked it away, "If anything happened to yer friends, my boys weren't responsible, not if I told 'em to leave ye alone. Ye won't change my mind on that. Not if you dragged the bodies in here, and laid 'em at my feet."

Casey and Ezra stared at the chagrined young man in surprise.

"What happened to your eye?" Casey finally breathed, not knowing what else to say. John flinched and touched it, an embarrassed expression distorting his face.

"Peter...well, I'll tell you in a minute. I've been sent down to take you up for some air."

Casey's eyes flashed as she looked firmly at the young man. "I ain't goin' nowhere. Mr. Standish needs me."

But Ezra was eyeing the young man warily, analysing his expression. "Perhaps you should go with him, my dear, if he's willing to help us."

John's eyes went hard. "Oh, I am. Now I am. After what they told-"

The cellar doors flew open, and Matthew and Luke appeared, Luke carrying what looked like a black leather bag.

"John, get her out of there!" Matthew said sharply as they descended the dusty steps. "You know Pete ain't gonna like it if we take too long."

John's face froze, and he grabbed Casey by the arm. "C'mon, we'll only be gone for a short while."

She looked uncertainly back at Ezra; the gambler's face was pale but he nodded to Casey: go ahead. So she swallowed, held her head up and allowed herself to be led out into the sunlight, trying not to look back as the cellar doors were closed behind her.

John took her some ways beyond the old town hall, glancing back at the building occasionally and nervously fingering his long rifle. They had gone a little ways into the woods, then stopped.

"I think this is far enough," he panted, letting go of Casey's arm. The girl looked at him in slight amusement.

"You look more nervous than I am," she said in wonder, though her heart still pounded. "Ain't you boys done enough to Mr. Standish for one day?"

"Aw, he'll be all right, this time," John said quickly, licking his lips. "Look, I don't have much time. I..." he hesitated, looked down at the ground, and it was then that Casey realized he wasn't much older than she was; the tough bravado had made him seem older, but now that was gone, and he looked like a bad boy caught in a shameful act.

Finally he met her eyes again and sighed, a lifetime of regret playing across his face. "Peter's gone crazy. We were talkin' this afternoon about what to do next, an' he said somethin' about how surprised Ma would be when she found out we'd avenged our brothers' deaths. I asked him how that could be when she was the one who told us to do it, and that's when he told me...all this, it wasn't her idea."

Casey scowled. "What kind of horsepile is that? I thought she sent you boys after us."

"So did I!" John said, not too loudly, but with an air of betrayed trust. "But Peter's the only one who's seen her since...She's gone into a mission, and was plannin' on us breakin' out and then all of us goin' to Mexico. But Peter said she was babblin' about tellin' the men how truly sorry she was for everything that had happened an' not wantin' any more bloodshed, and he didn't like that."

Casey's eyes darted as she remembered. "When you got us, Peter said she wanted to send an unmistakable message."

The young man nodded, his eyes sad. "Turns out she wanted us to tell 'em we were sorry before we left, so she could find some peace. This here has wracked her up awful bad. She thought killin' Hank would help her, but it's just made her more sad. But Peter doesn't want peace, an' when I found out he'd lied to us about what Ma had said-well, I got disrespectful, I guess, an' he walloped me."

Casey gave him a sympathetic look. "What about the other two?"

John shook his head. "Luke an' matthew, they're like Pete-got so used to killin' they don't want to stop. Neither did I when I thought it was what Ma wanted. But she don't want this, an' it ain't right that Pete's disobeyin' her. An..." He took a deep breath and looked at the ground. "I don't want to lose no more brothers, even if we ain't gettin' along. We all been through enough."

He was silent for a moment, the only sound the leaves rustling in the hot wind.

"It's funny," he continued, looking at her earnestly, "When Hank Connely was shot, I thought that'd be the happiest day of my life. There hasn't been a day gone by that I ain't missed David somethin' fierce. But I can't be happy about what's happened, an' I know David wouldn't be. He was a good man who wouldn't like all this killin'."

His companion pursed her lips. "That why you want to help us?"

John gave her a haunted look and nodded. "Shouldn't be too hard for my rifle to 'accidentally' fall into Mr. Standish's hands, an' I can be his hostage for as long as you need to get away. Peter'll get me good for bein' careless, but if it'll stop all this it'll be worth it."

She nodded, her brown eyes keen with concentration. "If I can get a horse I know I can get back to town."

John gave her a serious look. "Just so's you know, I ain't doin' this out of no love for that fancy fella nor them gunmen. They killed my brothers an' I'll be a long time in forgivin' that. I just...don't want to bury no more of my kin."

They heard the cellar doors slam open behind them, and Matthew and Luke appeared. Luke motioned.

"OK, we're done! Put her back in!"

John grabbed Casey's arm, training the rifle on her as they walked back towards the old town hall.

"Whenever you're ready, we can do this," he whispered, then tightened his grip on her arm as they neared the building. She answered with a flicker of her eyes, then tried to look defiant as she was led to the cellar steps. Luke and Matthew were eyeing her contemptuously, smiling and passing what seemed to be crude comments.

"Get 'er back in, Pete wants a word with us-probably going to tell us our next move," Luke advised.

John gave a quick nod and looked at Casey: they might have to move sooner than they thought. He gave her a small push down the stairs, then shut the cellar doors over her and proceeded to wrap the long chain around the handles.

Casey blinked as her eyes adjusted to the cellar gloom; finally she saw Ezra lying back on his cot, his eyes closed, looking decidedly shaken.

"You all right?" she said as she ran to him, noticing how pale he was, and the sweat beading on his face. His eyes blinked open, and he gritted his teeth as he pulled himself up to lean on his elbows.

"Better than when you left, my dear, thanks to the none-too-tender ministrations of our psychotic friends," was the gasped answer. Puzzled, Casey saw that he was gesturing to his leg wound; there was fresh blood around the hole in his pants leg, but the wound itself had been rebandaged in crude but clean wrappings.

To her confused expression, Ezra explained, "They removed the bullet and treated the infection-although," he added as he rubbed his bruised wrists, "I must complain about their bedside manners."

Casey sat down on her cot opposite him. "I thought they wanted you to die."

Ezra shook his head, his eyes dark. "They want me to suffer. Something as merciful as death is not in their plans at the present, it would seem, and they were afraid that my wound might kill me before their revenge was sufficiently wrought." His eyelids fluttered, and he lay back down with a weary sigh and covered his eyes with one hand.

Casey bent towards him, her bright eyes hopeful. "Will you be able to come with me now?"

He shook his head, removing his hand from his bruised face; his expression was calm, but she could see the pain in his eyes. "While they may have removed the bullet, their...technique...was less than gentle. This wound will still take several days to heal, and my crippled state would only endanger you. JD needs you at his side as soon as possible. Was young Mr. Nichols of any help?"

She nodded. "He said he'd let you take him as a hostage so I could get away."

Ezra turned his head to look at her, then he raised himself on one elbow, took her hand and looked into her eyes. "Then we must rely on your bravery, which I'm sure is more than capable of this assignment. You mustn't worry about me, just ride as quick as you can and find help. I will try and do what I can here to forestall disaster."

Casey drew herself up and gave him a firm nod. "I ain't gonna let none of you down."

"I'm quite sure of that," Ezra said, and released her hand as he eased himself down on the cot, his face going pale from the exertion. "Did he say why he has decided to assist us?"

She sighed. "Peter's been lyin' to 'im, tellin' them their Ma wants you all dead. They know that's a lie now, but John's the only one who wants to stop what they're doin'. He don't want no more of his brothers to die."

Ezra settled back in his bed, closing his eyes once more.

"If we are successful, perhaps we can keep both of our families, such as they are, intact. It will all depend on what is brewing in Peter Nichol's fevered mind."

The mission hadn't been much to look at on the outside. Peeling white paint adorned the large structure and although the grounds were apparently kept, they had not been tended to in a manner that allowed the flourishment of much vegetation.

Dead rose bushes clung to each side of a large archway leading up to the main vestibule and an aged sculpture of the Virgin Mary welcomed weary travelers with open arms as one ascended the dillapitated steps of the entranceway.

Buck had been weary of bringing his friend here upon their arrival. It looked much too like a place one would come to die. And he sure as hell hadn't brought J.D. here to die.

But once inside the ancient dwelling, one was welcomed to a completely different view. Immaculate wooden floors led down several hallways, one of which opened to a sanctuary that's hand-painted mural ceiling would have had Josiah on his knees in the blink of an eye. Candles glowed in every window and a soft floral/spicy scent wafted throughout giving the mission a warm, peaceful feeling.

It felt like coming home.

Sophia and Josepf had been extremely kind and had not once questioned the men as to how J.D. had came about his injuries. The nun had seemed content with what little information she had gathered herself and her Uncle seemed use to the young woman's take-charge nature. It had been a quiet ride and even the wounded boy had slept, although somewhat restlessly, the entire way.

Another blessing to be thankful for.

Upon their arrival, Sophia had introduced them to Father Marcus and Sister Mayven. Both had been at the mission for over twenty years and now shared in the duties of overseeing its running. Sister Mayven,miraculously, was even blessed with having some experience in treating the wounded.

It seemed that the aged sister had served as a make-shift nurse to her father, who had been a country doctor in a small town back East. The fisty nun had no qualms about tending to the ill or telling her entire life story.

She had took one look at J.D. and began ordering several of the younger sisters to prepare a place for their newest visitors.

Father Marcus, although outwardly wary of Buck and Chris's appearance, and their weapons, was genial enough and agreed to let them stay; even after Chris's explanation on the possible dangers of allowing them refuge.

The Padre seemed as confident as Sophia had been that no harm would befall any of them. Perhaps it was their faith, or maybe just wishful thinking. No matter , Buck just hoped they were right.

He had experienced just about all the disappointment he could stand and J.D. had endured about all the punishment he could take.

Wilmington sighed and winced as a twinge of pain coursed through his injured hand. He looked down at the bandaged appengage now covering J.D.'s smaller palm and and then let his gaze fall on the kid's battered face.

The boy didn't look as bad since Sister May had methodically cleaned each cut and scratch and wrapped clean white bandages around his wounded eyes. But still, he looked much too still and far too young.

Sister Mayven and Chris had tried to get Wilmington to get some rest himself, but the gunslinger would hear none of it, even after he had suffered through the sanitizing of his infected wound.

J.D. was all that mattered at the moment. And as long as the kid needed Buck, he sure wasn't going to let him down again.

Wilmington swallowed back the surge of emotion that once again threatened to overcome him and reached out to brush the kid's hair away from his brow. He closed his eyes as his fingers brushed against the hot forehead and wished to high heavens that the fever would subside.

The sister had been most worried about that and the abdominal pain the kid had complained of. She hold told an anxious Chris and Buck that there could be injuries that they couldn't see from the outside and that someone more experienced would be needed if that turned out to be the case.

Nathan was more experienced.

He had served in battle and surely he'd tended to men hurt as bad, if not worse, as J.D.

At least Buck prayed the healer would know what to do. That was, if they could ever get to him.

The gunslinger opened his eyes and found himself staring at a small golden plaque hanging above J.D.'s bed.

It was a crucifix.

Wilmington shuttered as the kid's word's from before came back to haunt him and he would have closed his eyes again had not a small squeeze on his injured hand grasped his attention.

"J.D.?" he asked leaning closer to the kid.

"Buck?" the teen's voice was still so weak.

"It's me, kid. I'm right here." Wilmington put his good hand on the boy's uninjured shoulder.

"Buck!" fear could be heard in J.D.'s voice now. "I can't see, Buck. I can't see you."

"Take it easy,J.D. Your eyes are bandaged. They need time to heal."

Wilmington took the hand he was holding and gently guided it to the white strip encircling the kid's head,"Feel that,son. Sister Mayven said that was some of her finest work." The gunslinger tried to let his voice sound light. Chris had warned him about keeping a check on his own fear, for the kid's sake.

"Oh," J.D. said simply and let his hand be placed back on the bed. "I dreamed they took my eyes."

The statement caught Buck off guard and for a moment he was sure his heart faltered.

"No, kid," Buck whispered. "They didn't do anything we can't fix."

"Vin?" J.D. turned his head away from Buck as if he had heard the tracker somewhere nearby.

Wilmington wasn't sure why but a chill danced down his spine at that very moment and he suddenly felt very uneasy in the ominously quiet room.

"No, J.D. Vin's not here."

The kid's head swung back to Buck, "He's in trouble."

It was a statement but Wilmington chose to view it as a question.

"No, kid. Vin's fine. He's gone to help Ezra and Casey."

The kid was growing more agitated, "Promise me you won't go too, Buck."

"I ain't going no where, J.D."

"Don't go. They'll get you...like Vin."

"J.D.," Buck tried to soothe. "You were just having a bad dream. Like before.Vin's fine." *He better be.*

"No," J.D. argued, but quieted some. "It was different than a dream."

Buck put his hand on the kid's forehead again. The fever was getting worse, not better,"Shhh,don't try to talk any more."

He knew J.D. needed to rest and if he was truly honest with himself the boy's ramblings were starting to scare him.

"Vin's in trouble,"the youth mumbled softly, feeling the pull of unconsciousness once again. "It wasn't a dream."

"It was probably a vision," Sophia's melodic voice carried into the room, causing Buck to jump slightly.

"A vision?" Wilmington asked, doubtfully, his eyes never leaving the young nun as she joined him at J.D.'s bedside.

"Same as the ones I've been having,"the sister explained without a blink of her soft brown eyes.

The gunslinger shook his head and let his gaze rest once more on J.D.'s unconscious form, "He's delirious from the fever and the pain. That's all."

"Sometimes its hard to believe things we can't see for ourselves."

Buck looked up at the girl, a firy gleam in his eye, and lost what little patience he had left, " Look Sister,I just left one of my bestfriends,who happened to be wounded, in the hands of some very bad men; the same men who methodically beat and tortured a kid, that I love more than my own life, to the brink of death. And now you want me to believe that another person I care for is hurt or maybe dead just because you say J.D. saw it in some vision? Well, that ain't going to happen."

"What I want you to realize," Sophia's voice was nothing but empathetic as she dropped her hand to cover Buck's that still rested on J.D., "Is that some things will happen whether you want to believe them possible or not."

Higher.

He had to position himself high enough to see the mission and the approach from several different directions.

Vin Tanner had left Chris and Buck and JD when the sisters took them to the mission. He knew he could protect them better from a higher vantage point so he folowed their progress from a ridge overlooking the trail. He only wished he could have done more.

He wanted to find Casey. He had become so close to the family, that he had come to think of the girl as a sister. And the thought that she was being held by those . . . He squeezed his eyes closed. God, keep her safe.

Peter was pacing around the main room of the cabin. All of the men gathered around him watched silently as he mumbled to himself. John looked doubtful as Peter stopped his mumbling and faced them.

"We need to send word to Ma we're still fighting the righteous fight." He said, eyes blazing with inner fire. "Who is willing to go and speak with her?"

"I'll go, Peter." Luke spoke up; "It'll be nice to see her again."

Peter nodded to him. "Make sure you stress all we have done in her name!"

John gulped; maybe with a little time Ma would diffuse the ticking time bomb that was Peter's insanity. John sighed in relief as Luke nodded and left the room to pack and go.

"But we have another occasion to attend to until he gets back with. Ma." Peter continues. "While he is gone, we have to show our guest more of our hospitality. He must atone for the sins he has committed against our family and the Lord."

John looked at him with fear in his eyes. If he was ever going to help Ezra and Casey escape, this was the time to do it. If he didn't act soon, all his ideals would be lost!

Peter's voice dripped with menace "It's time sweet Casey learned what I have to offer."

"John, go and bring Miss Wells up to see me. I'd like to talk with her before I attend to her sinful friend."

John's blood turned to Ice. Peter was deranged! What would he do to the girl if he got mad? John knew it was now or never!

John swiftly made his way down to the cellar and paused at the door. This had to work. If it did not, he didn't know how he could help Casey. He hurriedly unlocked the chain with shaking hands and strode into the cellar.

As he approached Casey and Ezra, he tipped his hat to signal that it was the time to act.

Imperceptibly Ezra nodded and, since John was alone, took his hand and accepted his aid in standing. "Well, this is it, my dear." Ezra gasped when the world stopped spinning.

He took a pistol from John and Casey helped him walk; John in front as the 'hostage'.

As they ascended the last steps up into the night's darkness, John peered around looking for sentries. "All clear, if we hurry Casey can get to the horses without being seen", John whispered and the three slowly moved towards the barn. When they reached the barn, John helped Casey onto a horse as Ezra leaned against a pillar for temporary support.

He was white and shaking in effort to remain upright, but grim determination lined his face. This was the only chance to get Casey away, and he wasn't going to wreck it!

He maintained his aim at John, however, in case they were interrupted by one of the Nichols.

Casey glanced down at the gambler's face. For as long as she lived she would never forget what he was doing for her. "I'll bring help back in a jiffy!"

"I know." Ezra whispered, "Ride well, Miss Wells."

Casey took off, fortunately the barn was next to the entrance to the hideout and she could get away quickly.

As Casey roared out the gates, an alarm was sounded and someone took a shot at the retreating figure.

"Peter!" the lookout yelled, "Someone's gettin' away!"

"Time for our drama." Ezra grunted, pushing away from the column and wrapping his arm around John's neck, who took most of his weight so Ezra could move. The two walked out the barn door and into the night, to a tree which Ezra leaned against.

"Not another shot or this pathetic excuse for a man dies!" Ezra shouted.

"Pathetic?" John whispered, annoyed.

"Go with it!" Ezra hissed.

Peter and Matthew rushed out of the house followed by their followers. They stopped a few feet away from the tree, weary of the situation.

Ezra cocked the pistol. "I mean it! One more shot at either me or the lady and this brother of yours is filled with lead!" Ezra winced as his leg shifted, it was getting harder to stand.

Peter's eyes were filled with rage once again. How could John have allowed this to happen? He vied never to trust his brother with such a simple task again.

"How long do you think you can keep this up, sinner?" Peter hissed. Peter signaled his men to lower their guns for the moment.

"As long as it takes to get that young lady safe." Ezra replied defiantly.

"I'll just have to take her back." Peter grinned maliciously.

"You'll be dead before that can happen. We know about you now!" Ezra leaned against the tree more, easing pressure off his leg.

Casey pushed the horse she was riding harder than she had pushed any other. Her fear over what would happen to Mr. Standish while she was gone filled her with terror. All she could think of was getting him help in the form of Mr. Larabee and the others. But where would she find them?

Casey had been riding for some time, finally she noticed the landscape turning gray in the predawn hours. It was getting light and Casey hoped she could find help soon. Time was running out!

Ezra knew it was just a matter of mere minutes before he couldn't stand anymore. The dawn was fast approaching, and Casey would be almost home soon. Ezra's vision blurred suddenly and he slipped inches down the tree trunk; it was beginning.

Peter and his men could see the gambler weakening and a wicked smile spread across Peter's face.

"Save some face, son." Ezra whispered so softly John that almost didn't hear him. "Take me down."

John whirled around; grabbing the pistol just as Ezra lost all strength and fell onto his side. With all his strength gone, now he would pay for what he had done.

John aimed what looked like a vicious kick to Ezra's ribs, but in reality only hit the dirt at his side. Playing along, Ezra cried out in mock pain and curled around himself.

Peter approached the two men in a flash. As John turned around to look at his brother, he was met with a hard punch to his jaw. "That's the last time I ask you to do a simple task. You have ruined my plans once again." Peter shouted angrily. John fell to the ground with a groan of pain, holding his mouth as he fell.

Peter turned to Ezra, the ice in his eyes piercing Ezra's soul.

"And for you my friend." Peter said, bringing the chain that had held the cellar door shut "You have a new sin to atone for!"

Ezra cringed as the chain was raised above Peter's head; he couldn't help tense his body as the whistle of the descending chain grew louder in his ears......

Chris walked as silently as he could through the tiled hallways of the mission, acutely aware of how his hard boots rasped against the floor, how loud and incongruous his spurs sounded as they rattled in the reverential quiet. He walked as silently as he could, and it was still far too loud.

Night had fallen at the mission, soft and peaceful. Candles had been lit, vespers said, and Chris knew as he walked down the arched corridor that was scented with flowers and candles and warm night air that he would meet no one, unless it was Sister Mayven, Father Marcus, or danger.

Fortunately, when he met a shadowed figure some time later, it was Sister Mayven. Danger, Chris knew, would come later. And much too soon.

"I thought you would like to know," Sister Mayven said quietly as the gunslinger approached and took off his hat, "We sent Josef out an hour ago, to find your friends. They should be here shortly, by the will of God."

"Thank you." Chris breathed, and could not believe how exhausted he was. He raked one hand through his blond hair and sighed.

"You mentioned one of them was named Josiah Sanchez," Sister Mayven continued in her reassuring tones. "We've been seeing quite a bit of him at the mission of Saint Sebastian. Josef will go there first, it's not too far away."

Chris nodded, his eyes travelling down the hall, where he knew Buck was still sitting at JD's side. "Thank you, ma'am."

There was a pause, and in that pause Chris turned and looked out onto the small courtyard that opened beyond the stucco arches of the hallway. It was a clear night, and the stars were shining brightly in the desert sky, brilliant and white and full of a hope that felt to Chris foreign and useless.

JD was badly hurt, Buck was injured; Ezra was missing, and who knew what Vin had found? If Josef could find Josiah and Nathan, tell them what had happened...they would come, perhaps Nathan could save JD, heal the cruel injuries that had been done to him by the Nichols brothers. But then what? They had vowed revenge, and with the Seven scattered and broken, they might get it. Josiah and Nathan could both be dead...

There was a hand on his arm, and Chris turned to see Sister Mayven regarding him with a concerned, gentle expression. Feeling suddenly ashamed, he stammered, "I'm sorry ma'am, that was rude of me. I should get some sleep, I guess."

Sister Mayven nodded with a knowing smile. "We have rooms for you, and your friends when they come. But sleep does not come to a troubled heart, Mr. Larabee. Perhaps if you laid your burden at the Lord's door, you would find some peace tonight."

Chris looked at the floor and shook his head. "You're very kind, ma'am, but if the Lord's been payin' attention he already knows what my burdens are. Only thing that'll ease my heart is gettin' JD home, and takin' care of the men who hurt him."

A shadow passed over the nun's face, briefly, and Chris kicked himself. He knew better than to talk about revenge and bloodshed around these people, but he was tired and worn out with worry, and part of him just didn't care any more. So, Sister Mayven could take his anger any way she wanted.

But, surprisingly, she didn't frown or shake her head at his words; instead, she placed her hand on his arm and said quietly, "Mr. Larabee, come over here and sit a minute."

She led and Chris followed, to a small bench in the courtyard where it was cool and candlelit, and the plants around them shifted and sighed in the evening breeze. Chris sat down beside Sister Mayven, looked above him and saw the endless canopy of stars, and felt suddenly very small and unimportant. And he desperately wanted to sleep.

Sister Mayven folded her hands in her lap and looked up at the stars also. After a moment she said, "Mr. Larabee, what are you afraid of?"

Chris started, blinked; he thought she was going to lecture him on the wrongfulness of seeking vengeance. He thought the question over, then whispered in a low voice, "Letting my men down. Making the wrong decision, and getting them all killed."

Sister Mayven nodded, kept silent.

Chris thought harder, swallowed, considered how quiet it was. "There's some men out there that want us all dead. They got JD, they hurt him and they got another of my men too, and a young girl who shouldn't even be involved. They might be...I can't stop what's happening to them, and that scares me, sister. That scares me real bad."

Sister Mayven nodded again, put a reassuring hand on Chris' arm. "You would trade places with them, if you could."

Chris didn't even have to think about it. "In a heartbeat. But God don't work that way, and I know it." He looked down at the broken tile beneath their feet, and felt his heart sink. Vin could be dead too...

Sister Mayven kept her hand on Chris' arm, looked at the shimmering stars above them.

" 'No greater love has any man than this," She said quietly, "Than that he lay down his life for his friends.' " She turned to look at Chris. "I don't know what paths you are taking, but the good you have done is well known by everyone around here. God keeps his eye on the sparrow, and the smallest of His creatures; and I am sure He is watching over your friends tonight."

Some part of Chris thought that sounded ludicrous, wanted to scoff. There was no God, only the destructive hate of the Nichols brothers, no peace to be found but that of a swift grave, for all four of them. But how would that heal JD? And Ezra, and Casey...

"Yes, He's watching them," Sister Mayven repeated reassuringly, and squeezed Chris' arm, "Where you cannot protect them, He can. Even if they are in peril."

Chris shuddered, did not want to think of any of them in danger, even though he knew that for Ezra and Casey it was probably true. And JD. "I hope you're right, Sister. Cause right now I need all the help I can get."

"Then you'll get it. God gives strength to the faint of heart, they have but to ask for it." Sister Mayven said, and stood up. Chris stood as well, and walked back into the hallway with this mysterious woman, who had so much confidence where Chris couldn't muster up a thimbleful.

"Come morning," He said in soft warning as they reached the golden candlelight of the hall, "Or thereabouts, we might have a lot of trouble. Probably be best if you put a few men up in the towers, keep a lookout."

Sister Mayven nodded, turned to go, saw Chris' face and once more touched his arm. "Please go get some rest, Mr. Larabee, and have faith. The Lord is holding your friends in the palm of His hand."

Chris smiled a little, watched her walk away with a twinge of envy. It felt good, to believe that somebody was watching out for them; it felt comforting to think that maybe they'd get JD home all right, that Nathan would come and heal him, that Ezra and Casey would be safe and sound and the Nichol brothers would stop their bloody war. But Chris' heart was still troubled; there were no assurances...

With a heavy sigh, Chris started the long walk to his room, pausing by the slightly open door to JD's room to say good night to Buck. He peeked in, pushed the door a little wider; went inside.

Buck was asleep, sitting up in the rough chair by JD's bed, his arms folded and his head tilted to one side. JD was slumbering also, his face twitching and troubled beneath the bandages that bound his eyes, and shiny with feverish sweat. Chris' eyebrows knit in concern; as if in reply, a nun appeared in the door with a basin of cool water, and without taking notice of Chris she set the basin down and wrung a clean cloth in the water, and put it on JD's forehead. The boy moaned in his sleep, and almost in answer Buck shifted in the chair, and tilted his head to the other side, all without waking up.

Chris stood in the doorway a moment, watching the young nun bathe JD's face, his bruised neck. The youth seemed so fragile in the candlelight. They all did...

In the palm of God's hand. He's protecting them...

Chris' eyes went to the crucifix that hung on the wall, and he felt a surge of helplessness and despair that he checked; no need for that. Strength, that's what he needed. And not to be afraid.

"All right then," He whispered to the image on the wall, so softly even the nun didn't hear him, "But I hope You know, I'm counting on You."

And went to bed, and slept.

John watched in horror as Peter struck the heavy chain across Ezra's sprawled form; he had never seen his older brother so mindlessly enraged. The blow was only partially deflected by Ezra's upraised arm; but as the unforgiving metal tore across his body, the gambler fell back into the dirt without a sound, unconscious. Matthew merely watched, his expression intense as he stared at Ezra with open hatred.

Peter's arm was raised again when John lept to his feet and grabbed his brother's arm, preventing the blow from falling. Shocked, Peter turned his head to stare at him, his wide black eyes demanding an explanation.

"You're already facing my anger, John," Peter hissed.

"I know," the younger man stammered, glancing at Ezra's motionless form, "but look, you're wasting your energy. He's unconscious."

Peter lowered the chain, an expression of disappointemnt dancing across his handsome features. he nudged Ezra with the toe of his boot, and grunted when the gambler didn't respond.

"Huh. So he is." He looked up and drew a deep, steadying breath. "I won't waste my time on him now. We'll take care of him later, when he's awake enough to feel every agonizing moment. Right now we have to see about finding that girl."

Matthew smiled.

"Besides," Peter grinned smoothly, handing the chain to John, "I'm sure we can be more creative than simply beating his sinful hide with a chain."

The sound of hoofbeats approaching sent them all grabbing for their guns; several horsemen were rounding the corner of the road leading into the old mining camp, appraoching at a fast clip. After a tense moment, Peter smiled with excitement as he holstered his gun.

John gasped. "Is that Fin?"

Peter nodded, watching as the men came closer. Matthew laughed as he put away his gun.

"Those gunmen had better start prayin' now, with Fin here," he said with vast amusement.

"That won't help them," Peter said with confidence, glancing down at Ezra. "You two take this sinner back to his cot, and chain the door tight. Can't have him trying to follow his friend. I'll greet our guests."

Peter walked away towards the horsemen, who were now reining in, as Matthew and John saw to Ezra.

"I don't believe it," whispered John as he took Ezra's shoulders. "I thought Fin went to Mexico."

"Leave it to Pete to find him," Matthew said proudly, hoisting up Ezra's feet. "It's a grand day for our family, John. Our revenge will soon be complete."

John said nothing as they carried Ezra away.

Peter strode happily up to his dismounting guests, surveying their small number. Five, that was good. There were only five of the Seven left now, and with his brothers and Fin and his men Peter's group would number nine. More than enough.

The new arrivals were all lean young men, dusty from travel but well-dressed in stylish but slightly worn clothing. One of them, a sharply-clad slender man with long blonde hair curling down the back of his neck, saw Peter's approach and doffed his top hat, his handsome face wreathed in a smile.

"Big Jack Nichol's boy, you're a rare sight indeed," he said with pleasure, and a strong Irish lilt, as he shook Peter's outstretched hand. "Imagine hearin' from you again, and under such circumstances."

"Soon to change, I'm sure, Finian," Peter replied with delight, "if we may have your help, and that of your men."

"To their last drop of blood, and mine too," was the emphatic reply. "My best days were spent workin' alongside your amazing family, and you'd have never lost your brothers to those murderin' cowboys if my gang hadn't been forced to Mexico last year."

"Ah, yes," Peter sighed, looking over the silent, hard-eyed men accompanying his old friend. "Real shame that you couldn't get the man who saw you do those murders before he squealed on you. Your gang were the best accomplices we ever had, Fin. Pa couldn't praise you highly enough."

Fin shook his head. "Rotten shame him dyin' in prison. And what your telegram said broke my heart."

Peter nodded, his black eyes burning. "Three more of us are dead now, thanks to Chris Larabee and his heathen gang of hired murderers."

Fin sighed as he pursed his lips. "As if David wasn't enough."

The other man's eyes were distant. "Ma thinks we can have peace. But there will be no peace until Larabee and his crew are in Hell. It seems David was only the beginning."

Fin smiled in anticipation as they began walking towards the old town hall. "Well, me men are at yer service, as am I. As you can see, we've managed to acquire some fine animals and equipment, compliments of the locals who had no more use for them, since the fools were no longer breathin'."

Peter gave him an amused smile. "Still a cutthroat, eh, Fin?"

Fin fingered his gun. "You don't get nowhere in life by bein' soft, me boy. But I admit shootin' is faster than cuttin' throats, when it comes down to it."

His companion simply shrugged. "Frankly, I'm fine with either way, as long as the blood flows. Luke went to try to talk some sense into Ma, we'll put our plans together when he gets back. We've already made our, ah, intentions clear."

Fin's blue eyes lit up. "Ye murdered someone, eh?"

"Perhaps, depending on if his friends saw the little surprise Matthew and Luke rigged up for them in case they tried to cut him down. But he's probably dead by now anyway, mouthy little brat. However," Peter stopped and looked at Fin, "we have another of their men in the cellar here, awaiting our divine retribution for his participation in our brothers' murders."

Fin's eyebrows went up. "You haven't killed him yet?"

"No," Peter's eyes flickered in anticipation,"he's not going to be that lucky. Unfortunately," he continued, his black eyes smouldering as he gazed off into the hills, "we also had a young lady, who saw fit to escape whien John was careless enough to get himself taken hostage."

His partner grinned. "Got a lass on the run, eh?"

Peter heaved an exasperated sigh, rubbing one fist into the open palm of his other hand. "If she gets help, we could have trouble, probably have to leave here. I was going to send Matthew after her-"

"Oh, Peter, my lad!" Fin cut him off with a chiding laugh. "Matthew's a fine boy, but don't be after sendin' him to a job like this. I'll take Sean with me-" he indicated one of his men, a sturdy red-haired lout-" an' we'll have her back here in no time."

Peter grinned. "I do recall that you were rather good at finding those who tried to escape our grasp."

"Aye, an' we've been rather bored in Mexico-it'll feel good to get back in the game again," Fin nodded, adjusting his riding gloves. "All we'll need is some fresh animals and the direction she went in."

"West, and help yourself to the stables," Peter said, sweeping one hand towards the back of the old town hall. "And I should warn you, she might have found one or two of those gunslinging bastards to hole up with."

"Ha!" was Fin's answer to that as they moved off towards the broken-down building where the horses were kept. "I hope so, I been itchin' to practice on a movin' target."

Part Four