Retribution and Redemption, part five


Disclaimers, etc. in part 1

Peter paced silently in the yard in front of the old town hall, his expression furious, waiting. John watched him from the bell tower with worried eyes, while Fin's men were lounging in various attitudes around the grounds, eating, smoking and seeing to their own weapons, itching to fight. It was almost noon.

A thud from behind him caused Peter to turn, and he saw Matthew locking up the cellar doors, with one of Fin's men, Mike, standing next to him, looking around idly while chewing a toothpick; they had just emerged from the basement's chilly depths. After Matthew finished this task, he straightened and he and Mike walked towards Peter, Matthew holding a coiled-up length of rope and wearing a look of grim satisfaction.

"Has our guest seen the error of his ways?" Peter asked casually, returning his gaze to the road before him.

His brother grunted while shooting a look at Mike, who gave him an amused glance and went to join his companions.

"He ain't gonna think about attackin' one of us again, that's for sure," Matthew said, standing at Peter's side and toying with the rope. "Mike and I made sure of that. But if he knew where the gal went, he's bein' mighty closemouthed about it."

Suddenly John's voice yelled from the bell tower, "Someone's coming! It's Luke and Fin!"

Peter stopped and gazed at the trio of horses slowly moving up the road. Luke and Fin were in front, Fin leading the third horse whose bloodied rider was barely keeping himself upright. As they drew nearer, Peter ran forward, his face pale at the sight of Luke, white, his face badly scratched, and holding a crude bandage to his bleeding arm. John, now down from the bell tower, was behind Peter, equally concerned as he and Matthew joined their brother.

"What happened?" Peter demanded as they reined in. He could hear Fin's men coming up behind him, all muttering angrily at the sight of Sean's wounds.

"Ran into one of those cursed gunmen," was Luke's embarrassed reply as he dismounted. "I was on my way back from seein' Ma when I found the girl wanderin' around in the mountains. How the heck did she get out?"

Peter glanced angrily at John. "Not important, those responsible have paid. I suppose she got away?"

Luke sighed and nodded.

"Don't be too hard on 'im, Peter," Fin piped up, his lilt laced with anger. "The man got Sean pretty good, found 'im almost dead on his horse. I expect the rascal had some help."

"The help of the Devil," Peter spat, fire in his black eyes. He looked back at Luke, seething as he examined the wound. "By God, it wasn't enough for them to kill half of us, now they're out to get the rest of us. They'll pay for this, Luke, I promise you."

"I can still fight, Pete," Luke replied, his own eyes flashing. "You gotta let me."

Peter met his gaze intently. "You'll get your chance, Luke, we all will. Did you see Ma?"

The other man nodded. "She still doesn't like this, Pete. She thinks God's against it."

Peter gazed at him so intently for a moment that Luke felt uneasy; then he turned and walked a few steps away, his hands behind his back.

"Maybe she's right," he said finally. "And if she is, I say, fine." He turned back to them, smiling. "We'll forget about doing this for God, and just do it for ourselves. It's more fun that way anyhow."

Luke and Matthew echoed his smile.

John swallowed.

"We can get them now, Pete," Luke said breathlessly. "They're all at St. Anthony's Mission. If we hit them now, we can finish it."

"Attack a mission?" John asked, taken aback. He was ignored.

Peter paused, then rubbed his chin as he considered this. "We'd hoped to use the girl as bait to lure them here, but if we must go to them, so be it. And it'll teach those sinners even sacred walls can't save them from paying for their crimes against our family."

"Ye can count on my help, boyo," Fin was saying, his eyes murderous as he eased Sean from his saddle; the man was very shaky, his shirt covered in blood. "I'll teach those sons of bitches to mess with Fin Gallaghar's men."

"Damn right we will," another of Fin's men growled, gripping his rifle with unmistakable fury.

Fin looked back at Peter. "Do you have somewhere we can put poor Sean and see after him before we move out?"

"There are some cots downstairs," Peter said, nodding towards the basement door. "Matt, take care of this, then everyone meet inside. We've got to plan this out, and see about acquiring-" he smiled, "-donations of any supplies we need from the local rabble."

"You're putting Sean downstairs?" Luke asked as Matthew fished the key to the padlock out of his pocket. "With that fancy-talkin' fella?"

Peter and Matthew exchanged knowing smiles, and Peter chuckled as he walked up the stairs into the town hall.

"Don't worry, Luke, that sinful wretch is no longer in any condition to pose a threat to Sean, or anybody else."

He was almost to the top step when he paused and turned around, his smile now somewhat darker.

"Besides," he said, "Mr. Standish will be coming with us."

The first sensation Ezra experienced coming out of the blessed darkness was pain. it seemed lately his life had been reduced to the abominable condition he now found himslef in. Hazy dreams of pain from his past mixed with the current, and rather alarming, one he felt now. Groaning, he tried to move , only to have new pain reduce him to violent shivering. He was cold.. he was lying on a hard floor, then he remembered. He was back in the cellar.

Ezra tried to focus on why he had thought he was 'back' in the cellar.. wasn't he always here? then he remembered. Casey! He had helped the young Miss Wells escape. He sighed. She was gone. Now he didn't need to be brave, didn't need to push his misery aside, he could let it overwhealm him and no one would ever care.

A hazy memory of Matthew Nichols and another man questioning him about Casey, and where she had gone fluttered into his mind, and Ezra smiled. She must have gotten to safety for them to be this agitated! Ezra also then remembered the one thought that had kept him from feeling the blows they rained on him after they tied him to the rafters. HE was alone.

He should be used to this, but the mere whispering thought of the world sent him tumbling into the depths of despair. He had been alone in one sense or another all his life, so why should this bother him now? Ezra wondered why he had stepped into the shopkeepers store that day and volunteered his services to the Nichols... and lied to them. He had brought this pain on himself.

But he had never dreamed on anyone else getting hurt. JD had been beaten up, Josiah and Buck had been shot. And Ezra had been wholly untouched. He didn't want to be responsible for the others pain, but it weighed heavily on him all this time. Was this his punishment for the others paying for his lie all those weeks ago?

Now JD was possibly dead, Casey had been abducted and was probably never going to be the carefree, beautiful, innocent young girl she had been, and for the others? Were they even alive? And if they were, why hadn't they found him yet? Then a thought came crashing into Ezras head, searing him with the blatant possibility of his truth. What if they didn't care?

The defeatest part of Ezra's brain kicked in. All his life he had been told he was a worthless Bastard, and no one would ever truely care about him. "See, even his mother dumped him" they woulds say. Ezra had never wanted to believe those words, but they always sat in the back of his mind, haunting him. Now it looked like they were indeed true.

Slumping further into his pain induced misery, Ezra missed the cellear door opening.

"You sure the gambler fella isn't gonna give us no trouble?" One of Finn's men carrying Sean down the stairs asked.

"Matthew said he wouldn't" Came the woodenly emotionless voice of John Nichols. Then the voice gasped in shock as footsteps neared the crumpled form.

"Well." The nameless voice said, "I guess they weren't lying!"

"No." John whispered, grateful to finally catch the shallow riise and fall of Ezra's chest. "Matthew never lies. Set him on the cot. Matthew will be down in a minute to doctor him and get this one ready to travel."

Ezra was only half-listening, since they had left him alone, he didn't take the effort to really follow the conversation, he just didn't have the energy. But he did pick up the words "get him ready to travel". Were they going to take him out and kill him now?

One set of footsteps retreated back out to the outside as the other came close to him. If Ezra had the energy he probably would have wondered what he was going to get hit for now. A rustle of cloth and a quiet voice sounded next to his ear.

"Peter knows where your friends are. He is planning on attacking them soon. He is taking you with us... I think he wants to kill you in front of them, break their spirit." John's voice soft, but there was purpose in his tone again. "I'll find a way to cut you loose when we get there. I won't let Peter get away with this. He thinks he is a God! He's ignoring mother and saying if God wasn't on our side than to Hell with Him!"

Ezra opened his eyes, and tried to sit up. "So much for the ways of the Richeous."

John smiled faintly. "I love my Ma. It would kill her to see more of us die, but Peter is out of controll, he's going to do evil and he has to be stopped. The others follow him, but I won't anymore."

"Just get me there alive." Ezra croaked, new purpose filling his being. No matter what they did to him, the last thing he would do is let Peter Nichols win! "There is no way I will allow him to use me to hurt anyone else. Casey was the last being he will ever hurt again."

John eyed the injured man skepticly, he was in no condition to do anything, but John also knew this man was his only Ace up his sleeve. Sighing, John poured a cup of water and held it until Ezra's rope burned wrists and hands wrapped around it. John wondereed if they even had a prayer.

Josiah shifted uneasily as he stood guard at the gate to St. Anthony's mission; he knew he should be vigilant against any attack, but his mind was not able to stay on his duty for long. They needed him, all of them-Buck was in agony, JD was dying, and Nathan was going crazy trying to see to them both. But someone had to keep an eye on things in case the Nichols boys tried something, and the former preacher knew he could trust Sister Sophia, Sister Mayven and Josef to take care of his friends. But he wanted to be there, too...

The distant thrum of hoofbeats alerted him to the approach of riders; he straightened, steeled himself for battle, praying as he primed his rifle. After a few long, agonizing moments, the riders appeared, and Josiah almost whooped with relief.

Vin and Chris pounded up and through the gate; Josiah noticed that Casey looked exhausted, Vin was bloodied, and Chris's eyes were bright with intensity, his face tight and grim. Uh oh, thought Josiah as he walked up to where they were reining in, guess quiet time's over.

"Thank the Lord you're safe, Miss Wells," Josiah said aloud, as he helped the young lady down. She clung to him, shaking a little, but her brown eyes were full of anxiety.

"JD-" she gasped, unable to continue as she fought for air; between the hard ride and her anxiousness, she was close to being spent. Josiah tried to give her a reassuring smile and indicated the nun standing in the front doorway of the mission.

"He's still alive," he assured her. "The Sisters will take you to him."

She gripped his arm. "Thank you, Josiah," she breathed, then hurried inside, heedless of her ragged and bloody appearance.

Josiah glanced at Chris and Vin, who were wearily walking up. "You OK, Vin?"

The tracker nodded, swinging his Winchester up to rest on his shoulder. "Just got grazed a few times. 'Nother few inches an' you'd be talkin' to a corpse, tho."

Josiah sighed. "One of the Nichols boys?"

"Yup. Almost got Casey up by the river," was the mild reply, although Vin's eyes were far from calm.

"Look like they've hired help, and they know where we are," Chris added, leaning on one of the pillars supporting the porch roof.

Josiah looked after Casey. "How's Casey doin'?"

"She got grazed a few times, an' she's mighty sore," was Vin's soft answer. "She was tellin' Chris an' I how they kept her locked up, thinkin' to use her for bait to lure us out. Guess one of the Nichols boy didn't like what was happenin' and helped her escape."

Josiah looked at them both. "Did she see Ezra?"

Vin nodded, taking off his hat and toying with it as he sighed. God, he was tired. "She said they been beatin' on him pretty bad. I remember he told us they swore to make 'im pay if they found out he was lyin' to 'em." He looked back at Chris and Josiah, a grim set to his jaw. "Guess they got their chance."

Chris gritted his teeth and stopped just short of swearing; but his fist curled up into a tight, white-knuckled ball. Vin studied his face and knew what he was thinking; Ezra had lied to protect Chris and Chris's father-in-law, Hank Conelly, and now the gambler was paying for it-though not for long, if the light in Chris's eyes was any indication.

Vin pondered this, then looked at Josiah, his eyes softening. "JD?"

Josiah's expression turned tense, and he looked down as he bit his lip. he said nothing, and nothing needed to be said; Vin had seen that expression too often, on other faces, to misunderstand its meaning. he sighed and looked away, his blue eyes burning. After a few tight, deep breaths he looked at Chris.

"Damn, Chris," he breathed through clenched teeth. Chris's own face reflected the look on Vin's, grief mixed with insatiable anger. Josiah remained silent as well; there was nothing anyone could say, but words were unnecessary anyway.

Finally Chris nodded, his lips parting a bit in a fierce scowl. "They started it this time, I say we finish it, now. Only question is, where."

Josiah pursed his lips, then looked at Chris. "I'd like to say we're safe here, Chris, but I ain't so sure any more."

Chris stayed silent for a few minutes, then gazed out across the courtyard, his green eyes ablaze. "If we stay, we'll endanger the mission. But if we leave JD here he'll be a sitting target."

Chris sighed as he straightened. "We got five of us still able to fight, if Buck's able to use his other hand all right. Vin, Josiah and I could go out and meet 'em, while Nathan and Buck stay here to look over JD and Casey."

Josiah blew out a short breath. "Nathan ain't gonna let us ride off to face them boys alone, Chris. An' Buck's gonna want a piece of 'em, too."

"Gonna be hard to protect the mission, if they come here," Vin noted, looking around.

"God will protect the mission, Mr. Tanner."

All four men turned to see Sister Sophia standing in the doorway, smiling as she came to meet them. Vin stood back a little, surprised.

"Vin, this is Sister Sophia," Josiah offered. "Both she and JD are the ones who told us you might be needin' assistance."

Vin started a bit, surprise in his blue eyes. he looked at Josiah for an explanation, but the former preacher could only shrug.

"Just accept it for a divine mystery, Vin," he said softly. "An' one we're all right glad for."

"If they hadn't warned us about you bein' in trouble, you'd be dead," Chris added. "Don't understand it myself, Vin, but she and JD were right."

Vin eyed them both, then nodded to Sophia, tugging a bit at his hat brim. "Pleased to meet you, Sister. Don't mean no disrespect, just- guess I'm a bit unsure how to take sayin' thanks to a vision."

She smiled and shrugged a bit. "It was God who gave us the message, Mr. Tanner. We merely delivered it."

Vin looked at Chris. "Didn't know JD could do that, too."

Josiah shifted uncomfortably. "He couldn't, before, least never could that I knew of."

"Perhaps Mr. Dunne has a connection to God that we can't see at the moment," Sophia replied.

The tracker's face grew blank, his eyes sad as he looked away. "Maybe it's cause he's dyin'."

Sophia paused, then clasped her hands and spoke earnestly. "Your young friend is quite remarkable, Mr. Tanner, and his attachment to you men is unmistakable. It may be that our Lord is using him to ensure the safety of you all so that you may survive to achieve a higher purpose, I don't know. But I can say that He is with us, and he will let nothing harm the mission, I'm sure of it."

Vin grunted and hitched his thumb in his belt as he scrutinized the grounds. "I'm afraid the Nichols ain't gonna care much who's lookin' over the place, Sister. An' the last thing we want is for any of you to get hurt."

"Well, we don't want that either," she said firmly. "But we have faith that God will watch over us, and your friends. You are strongest when you are together, and I-I think you should stay here together, and do what you must to end this."

Chris considered this, then fixed her with a stern gaze. "Do you have somewhere everyone can go to be safe? We'll try to prevent it, but there could be shootin'."

Sister Sophia nodded. "We'll be fine, Mr. Larabee, I assure you. God is with us."

Josiah grunted as he surveyed the courtyard, already imagining the scene which could soon take place there. "Trouble is, the Nichols boys believe the same thing."

"And they're right," Sister Sophia said quickly, in a firm tone which surprised the men surrounding her. "But He may be moving among them in ways they don't expect, just as He is doing here. Now you must excuse me, I must help Sister Mayven prepare for what lies ahead."

With that she bowed slightly and went back in to the mission. The men watched her go, all with solemn expressions.

"I still don't like this," Vin said softly, his blue eyes cautious, "but she sure seems convinced."

"Faith has won more battles than bullets have," Josiah offered. Chris nodded as he pulled himself away from the post he'd been leaning on and adjusted his hat.

"Yep," he said, squinting out at the calm landscape, imagining the menace which lay just beyond it, waiting to come forth, "and it looks like today we're gonna need plenty of both."

He walked slowly back into the mission, and the others followed him, all silent as they went to prepare for battle.

Someone was singing somewhere, in one of the rooms off of the large sanctuary, far away but not too far to hear, if one really listened. A choir practice perhaps, melodic and sorrowful, the echoing tones mingling with the morning sunlight and the glittering collection of votive candles that flickered in the small vestibule where Buck sat, his head in his hands. There was singing, somewhere. But Buck didn't hear a single note.

He didn't move until he heard soft footsteps approaching, felt a gentle touch on his arm. Then he flinched as if he'd been struck, peered up to see Sister Sophia looking down at him, endless concern in her dark eyes.

He looked back down, at the bloodied cloth he still clutched in his hands. JD's blood... "If you don't mind, Sister, I'd rather be alone."

"I don't mind," The young woman answered calmly, "But you looked upset, and I wanted to offer you some comfort."

Buck shook his head. "I just got some...pretty bad news. Actually, it's - " He winced, as something stabbed him deep down inside, and stopped talking. Words were useless.

Sophia paused, then sat down next to Buck and put a hand on his shoulder. "Would you like me to pray for you?"

"No," Buck said quickly, raising his anguished eyes to meet hers in forlorn sincerity, "Pray for JD. Please ma'am, if you could do that, what you say's bound to carry more weight than the ones comin' from an old sinner like me."

Sophia gave Buck a gentle smile. "The Lord hears everybody's prayers, Mr. Wilmington, if they come from a sincere heart. And yours is, I can see it in your face."

Buck looked at the cloth again, swallowed hard.

"If it will bring you peace," Sophia said, leaning close to Buck so she could speak in a whisper, "I will pray for your brother. And for you."

"JD ain't - " Buck began, and stopped. Turned the cloth in his hands and thought a moment.

Yes he was. In every way that mattered.

Buck watched as the young nun stood up and knelt before the tiny altar in the vestibule, felt his insides lurch at the thought of what she was praying for. As she folded her hands and bowed her head, Buck thought, see God, we got a nun praying for JD now, you got to listen to that. Please, he wasn't askin' for any of this. He was just out sparkin' Casey, and maybe he had what you'd call impure thoughts, but that ain't no reason to take him. Them Nichols boys, they hurt him, they...please make JD better, Lord, you don't want him yet anyway, he'll just pester You and cause you a world of...a world of...

Suddenly Buck couldn't think anymore, and put his head in his hands and fought back tears.

"Please don't."

Buck started a little, looked up at the quiet sound of Sister Sophia's voice. She had said that word, was still facing the worn and battered crucifix at the altar, not looking at him at all. Buck blinked, pulled out of his sorrow a little in confusion.

As if in answer, Sister Sophia shook her head a bit, glanced at Buck with a look of shy embarrassment. "I'm sorry, that wasn't me."

Buck cocked his head; he didn't understand.

"Sometimes," Sister Sophia continued, facing the altar again, "In my visions, people speak, and what they say in my mind is so strong it just comes out."

Buck shivered, even though he knew, somehow, he didn't have to be afraid. "Was that God that spoke to you just now?"

Sister Sophia shrugged, shook her head. "Yes, I think - I don't know." She looked at Buck, her eyes glowing. "Do you know any women with dark hair?"

Buck thought, perplexed. "A few, but...why?"

Sister Sophia looked at the floor and murmured, "I was praying, for you, for JD, for all your friends, and God showed me a field of wildflowers bathed in golden light. There was a woman standing in them, a woman with dark hair, black almost. She looked up at me, but then she looked over my shoulder and said, 'Please don't.'"

Buck frowned, took a deep breath. It hurt to think, anymore.

Sister Sophia moved from the altar, sat once again by Buck's side and placed a hand over his. "I don't know who she is, but she's at peace. She wants you to be at peace, and not worry about JD."

The tears threatened again, and Buck clutched the cloth in his hands, twisted it. How could some phantom in a vision know what he was going through? In a choked voice he whispered, "Can't help it, Sister. Boy don't have no one else on this earth that cares for him."

"But he does in Heaven." Sister Sophia replied, in such smooth tones it almost didn't sound like her for a second, and Buck looked at her, blinked.

JD's mother. That's who was in the field of wildflowers. His mother.

"It's not his time," Sophia whispered, with such confidence that for a moment Buck's anxiety lifted. "One day it will be, when his work here is done. But not yet."

Then reality intervened, and Buck shook his head forlornly, looked at the spotted cloth. "He's - he's bleedin' inside, I've seen that kind of hurt before. Only thing we can do is..." He paused, took a deep breath. Another one. Shook his head. "Sorry, Sister, but I reckon I'm kind of mad at...it ain't fair. That's all. You figure we're in a mission, maybe the devil wouldn't win this time."

"He hasn't yet." Sister Sophia said matter-of-factly.

Buck kept his head down, thought of JD leaning against him, retching weakly into his bandanna, feverish and wounded and so much blood. And Ezra, shot and probably hurting himself, if he wasn't dead already. And what if Chris hadn't gotten to Vin in time? And Casey...

Buck shook his head, felt his insides crumple with despair. He pushed against it, tried to fight it, but felt as if he were drowning, as if everything he thought was good and enjoyable about life would end when JD died and when the Nichols came to finish them off. The devil hadn't won yet? It sure looked like he had. Or would soon. And there was nothing Buck could do but watch, watch and feel his own soul tear apart as they all slipped away from him, one by one by one -

Buck didn't know that he had passed out until he came to in a sitting position on the vestibule, and felt Sister Sophia's arms around him, steadying him. He felt dizzy and disoriented, but gradually became aware that the young woman was talking, very low, almost as if she was asleep.

"Hear my cry, O God, give heed to my prayer," She muttered, and Buck realized she was quoting the Bible. "From the end of the earth I call to Thee, when my heart is faint. For Thou hast been a refuge for me, a tower of strength against the enemy. Let me dwell in Thy tent forever; let me take refuge in the shelter of Thy wings."

Buck had never been a big man on religion, but he clutched at those words as if they were vines hanging over a bottomless pit. He needed a refuge, a shelter, but not for himself. And maybe they were just words, but without intending to Buck thought of JD, sheltered somewhere safe under God's wings, and it made him feel better. Danged if it didn't.

"Buck?"

The gunslinger opened his eyes, uncertain whether he'd heard that voice or dreamed it. But no, there was Vin, hurrying through the sanctuary doors, Chris and Josiah right behind.

"He's fine." Sister Sophia said, quickly getting to her feet.

Vin's all right, Buck thought hazily as the tracker leaned down and offered an arm up.

"He'll be better once he eats," Buck heard Nathan say as Vin's strong arm helped Buck up. "Between not eatin' and what he's been through, I'm surprised he's gone this long."

"Where's Casey?" Buck asked. He knew Vin would not have come back without her.

"She's fine," Vin assured him as Buck regained his feet. "She went to JD."

Buck's stomach lurched again. That poor little girl.

A hand on his shoulder. Buck looked up. It was Chris.

"We're gonna need you later," He said, his blue eyes as tortured as Buck had ever seen them, "You gonna be all right?"

Buck looked down, at the cloth in his hands. A fight coming. All right? JD was dying, Ezra was gone. As dark as it had ever been...

And a woman standing in a golden field of sunflowers, asking him not to cry.

Buck took a deep breath, looked at Chris, pictured JD, sheltered in the wings of the Lord. And nodded.

The light was so bright...

JD was drifting, floating in a soft deep netherworld where nothing existed, not anger or worry or time. He hurt, but it was a dull, faraway ache, and he wondered in a vague, unattached way how it could be that dying didn't bother him.

It should. It really should...

He turned in the glistening world he was in, tried to remember things but came up short. Images came, pleasant ones mostly, and JD settled into the warm feelings they produced: Riding, his friends, the summer sunshine glimmering in soft auburn hair.

Casey.

She was there, in his dream world, but her image troubled JD, and he struggled to remember why. She was so pretty, and she didn't mind him being so stupid around her, didn't seem to care that he was so awkward and unused to courting a girl. She smiled at JD in his filmy-edged dreams, and JD reached for her, but she was so far away, and the light was so close. Run, Casey, JD called, but she didn't hear him. I'm going, do you want to come with me? Nothing hurts here, it's like nothing ever hurt. It feels so good...

But it's not what I want.

Casey was fading, his friends were fading, JD felt a curtain coming down, separating them. Wait. Wait. There's something ...

The light was brighter, closer. JD felt light, breathed and felt breath come. There were no more bursts of sharp agony from his middle, no fever burning him from the inside. He felt cool and free, and didn't understand until he was enveloped by a feeling he couldn't misplace, couldn't forget if he hadn't felt it in a thousand lifetimes. He turned, and knew who he would see.

Mama?

It was beautiful, all so beautiful. Later there would be things he would be asked about this time, questions his friends would all have, but this experience JD would share with no one but Casey, and then not for two more years. It was so beautiful, JD knew he could never describe it, or what it felt like to stand in that impossible field of the most brilliant flowers, and see his mother, and feel at that moment that he was home, in the safest, most loving, most perfect place that could ever be. No, JD knew he could never tell his friends what it felt like to live in that breathless space for a second of eternity -

- and know he could not stay.

The air was so thick and full of perfume, yet so clear it sparkled, sending tiny prisms scattering around him, in the flowers, in his mother's hair. She wasn't far away, and she smiled at him, and the light was so bright and welcoming, but JD saw it in her eyes, knew it in his heart; he was there only to know what the suffering meant, only to feel home and gather strength in his heart, not to stay. Staying was later. Staying was after.

Echoes. There were echoes in the air, pulling him, calling him, and JD looked at the crystal sky, felt his spirit tug a little at him. He trembled, knew what going back meant, stood there for an eon hoarding that blissful peace, that easy breath, that body that wasn't there at all and had no pain inside it. Heard the echo again, slipping past the light, calling his name, a voice he was so scared he would never hear again. But he was hearing it, he was.

And it wasn't a dream.

Then the light began to fade, and the beautiful vision with it, and JD looked at his mother, drew strength from her eyes. Nothing was said; nothing needed to be. Was she crying? He couldn't tell...

For him? Don't cry, mama.

Pain, a little, the dull ache of the body creeping through as the light retreated, Casey's voice closer, she sounds all right is she all right?

Getting darker, heavier, oh - oh - it hurts...

JD? JD?

So much. Can't open my eyes. Casey?

A soft hand caressed his cheek, then JD felt small arms wrap around him, small but oh they were strong, strong and fierce and burning with life, she's all right, thank God, but she's crying, don't cry, Casey, don't...

The light again. But no, sunlight. Morning? Wasn't it night a minute ago?

JD, oh my God, oh my God. Quiet sobs. The cool wet feel of her cheek against his bruised and battered face.

Then she pulled back, and JD felt one hand stroking his hair out of his face. No words, just the sound of frightened tears. Her hands are so soft. So soft...

Open the eyes. A little, it's so hard.

The light is so bright...

"JD?"

She's all right. She's all right.

It's so cold...

Casey. A whisper, the best he could do. A half-formed word, then the full cost of returning crashed into him.

A shock of pain, everything gone red, the world spinning in agonizing crimson streaks around him, oh - oh -

JD?

He clutched at her, at anything that could stop it, but the universe pitched sideways and he was dragged with it, feeling only the riotous pain, the horrifying nausea mingling with snatches of words far above his head.

- Miss Wells? -

- hold onto him -

- oh JD, it's gonna be okay -

Then dizziness, a sweeping sensation, something soft and thick held against his mouth as the attack came, and JD surrendered to it, had no strength left to fight, and it hurt, it hurt, but there were comforting arms around him now and a soft voice murmuring in his ear as a little more of his life left him, and the light came a little closer once again.

Then it was over, and he relaxed into those arms, that voice, curled into the refuge that would sustain him until it was time for the other. She was all right. And she was here. His friends were here, and when the time came, JD knew he would have the strength to do whatever he needed to.

And then go home forever.

The yard in front of the old town hall was alive with activity, as the Nichols brothers, along with Fin Gallaghar and his men, made ready to move out. Weapons were checked and loaded, ammunition stockpiled, and food packed for the ride to Mexico once the battle was over.

John strode through the proceedings, eying it all with uneasiness. He had been there when Peter discussed his plans, knew all about what he intended to do. He had not dared to say anything when the room was full of men thirsting for revenge; but he knew now that Peter was in there alone, and hoped that some quiet reasoning might dissuade him from his course.

He looked around the yard as he climbed the stairs; Fin and Luke had just returned, driving a wagon 'donated' by one of the local farmers, loaded with food and supplies. John noticed that his brother's rough clothes had been slightly spattered with blood, but Luke barely took notice of it. Now they were readying the conveyance; soon it would be time to go.

John steeled himself as he entered the town hall; it was now or never.

Inside, the dusty hall had become brighter; one of the windows had been unboarded, and Peter was standing before it, watching the preparations. As John's footsteps echoed on the old wooden floor, Peter barely turned his head to acknowledge him.

"I see Luke and Fin found a wagon," Peter said.

John nodded.

"Perfect!" Peter exulted, leaning closer to the window. "After we're finished at the mission, we can come back, pick up Sean, and head for Mexico." He paused for one last look, then picked something up from the table and held it out to John. It was the axe. "See if you can't get that a little sharper, will you? I think there's a pumice stone around here somewhere."

John took the axe with uncertainty, then swallowed as Peter walked away. "Uh, Pete, about attacking the mission-"

Peter sat at the table and began to load his revolver. "Hmm?"

The young man took a deep breath. "Well-are you sure this is a good idea?"

Peter stopped and looked up at his younger brother, surprised. "You getting cowardly, John? Pa wouldn't like that."

John fidgeted. "No, of course not, it's just-look," he said, laying down the axe and stepping closer, "we've got the wagon, Sean is hurt, there are only four of us left now."

"Exactly!" Peter cried, slamming his gun on the table and staring at John with angry eyes. "And why is that, John? Because those murdering sinners saw fit to interfere in our family's business and slaughtered our kin. Should they go unpunished?"

"Of course not," John replied, beginning to feel anxious, "but-remember what Ma said, after Mark and the others died?"

Peter snorted as he picked his gun back up and snapped open the chamber. "Ma was in shock. She wasn't thinkin' right, still isn't."

"She said," John insisted, "that God had forsaken us because we were doing work that belonged to Him."

Peter gave him a bitter glare. "And why do you suppose that was? Because God was doing such a lousy job of it, that's why. He let the Devil get in the way and threw us off our goal. We lost three more of our kin to that damned Larabee, and his men walked away practically without a touch. If Luke hadn't shot Conelly we would not have gotten any satisfaction at all."

"But maybe it should end there, Pete," John answered, pleading. "We did what we wanted, we got Hank for killing David, but it didn't help. Ma don't want this, certainly David wouldn't."

But Peter's eyes were on his gun, which he was loading furiously. "Look, John, you don't know what the family used to be like, before Pa went to prison. You're the youngest, so you don't remember when we used to command respect wherever our shadows fell. Nobody messed with us-" He clicked the chamber of his gun shut with a decisive snap and looked at John, his eyes gleaming, "-NOBODY. And just cause Pa's dead and Ma's lost her mind doesn't mean the Nichols family now has to skulk off to jail like a bunch of cursed sheep. We never forget an insult or a debt, John, and we won't start now."

"But-" John hated the hard glitter in Peter's eyes, "but David would hate that he was the cause of all this. You know he didn't like violence."

Peter looked off into the distance. "David was a wonderful brother, John, but if he'd listened to Pa and stayed with us, he'd be alive now, and none of this would be happening. It's for David, and Mark, and all of our fallen kin, that we're doing this."

John set his jaw and looked at Peter defiantly. "And if Luke falls, or Matthew, or me? Then will you continue this, until we're all dead?"

"Of course not, John," Peter scoffed, holstering his gun. "Just until THEY'RE all dead. Don't be so defeatist, we've got eight men and a ton of supplies, they've only got five, and they're holed up in that mission. God will not allow that infestation of sinners to continue."

Peter rose and straightened his coat, looking into his brother's face. "I do hope you're only nervous about the fight, and aren't having any thoughts about betraying us."

John said nothing, simply looked at Peter with an uneasy gaze. Their eyes remained locked for a moment, then Peter picked up his hat and the axe and walked out. John stood alone in the hall, thinking, then turned and followed his brother outside.

"How's it going, Fin?" Peter was asking as John stepped into the bright sunshine. Fin was crouching in the wagon, smoking a cigar as he inspected the boxes they had procured from the area farmers. The Irishmen grunted as he closed a box of ammunition.

"Matthew took a few slugs outta Sean, he'll be fine," he said as he shut the latch on the box. "Meanwhile, we got enough bullets an' guns to defend Dublin, an' sure enough t' smoke out the damned rascals that have done us both wrong."

"Hmm," Peter mused, then waved his hand a bit at the crowded floor of the vehicle. "Clear enough space for the gambler there, would you? He won't be able to ride."

"Ah," Fin nodded, shifting some boxes around. "Makin' the bastard comfortable, eh?"

Peter gave him a wry look. "By no means, he just has to stay alive until we get there. If he wants to die after I'm done with him, that's his business."

There was a slight scuffle behind them , and they turned to see Matthew and one of Fin's men coming out of the cellar, hauling Ezra between them. John almost gasped aloud; Ezra looked so much worse in the daylight that he wondered if the men hadn't thrown a few last punches at him before bringing the gambler upstairs. Ezra's clothes were torn and covered with dirt and bloodstains, old and new; dark bruises discolored his skin, and the few untouched patches were pale, almost ashen in color. Ezra had little strength to walk, and was pretty much dragged to the wagon, where he was unceremoniously dumped at Peter's feet.

"Well, good afternoon, my Hell-bound friend," Peter said, smiling as he handed the axe to Luke and folded his arms. "Repented of your sins yet?"

Ezra didn't respond; he lay in the dirt, barely moving as he tried to lift his head. Peter sighed and nodded to Matthew; he and Fin's man reached down and hauled Ezra to his knees.

"Geez, Pete," Matthew said with a small grin as Ezra's head lolled on his chest, "I don't think he heard you."

"Hmmmm," Peter replied, leaning forward. With one hand he grabbed Ezra by his bedraggled hair and forced his head up; John winced at the sight of the gambler's cut and bruised face, the swollen eyes. After studying his captive for a moment, Peter reared back and delivered a resounding slap across Ezra's right cheek. Ezra let out a choked groan and, gasping for breath, mustered enough strength to lift his head slowly and glare at the smirking Peter.

"That's better," Peter said, his eyes gleaming. "I'll repeat the question-ready to repent and apologize for your scurrilous lies to myself and my brothers?"

Ezra gritted his teeth and said nothing, just stared angrily at Peter. His adversary merely seemed amused.

"Nothing to say?" he said, smiling. "Are you sure? You won't have that tongue in your head for much longer."

The gambler took a deep breath, keeping his green eyes on Peter, but remained silent.

"Surely you realize now how wrong you were," Peter continued, straightening. "Look at how much trouble those so-called friends of yours have gotten you into. Surely they can't be worth all this. You must see now the error of your ways in trying to protect those sinners. What do you say?"

Ezra continued to glare at Peter, trying to control the trembling which had seized his wounded body. Finally he licked his lips.

"I am...only sorry,' he said, his voice faint, "that I lack the strength...and saliva...to spit in your face."

Peter's eyes flashed for an instant; then he began to chuckle, looking to the other men, who shared in his enjoyment of Ezra's statement. Then he lashed out quickly, giving Ezra a fierce kick in the ribs which sent the gambler sprawling.

"Get him loaded up," Peter barked. John helped Matthew pick Ezra up out of the dirt and carried him over to the wagon; as John lifted him in, he noticed Ezra groaning and clutching weakly at his left side, his breath coming in painful gasps.

"Hey, Peter," he called, "I think you really hurt him. He ain't breathing right."

But his older brother seemed unconcerned. "Well, we promised he'd suffer. Nobody can call the Nichols brothers liars. Just make sure he lives a few hours more, then he can die at his leisure."

Some of the men chuckled, and went to mount up, checking their weapons. John clenched his jaw as he climbed in next to Ezra, carrying his rifle; he was ready to say something to Ezra, but the gambler had passed out.

Luke walked by and noticed this. "He's still alive, isn't he?"

John nodded, still aghast at Ezra's injuries.

"Good," Luke said shortly, and put the axe into the wagon before walking off to his horse. John looked at the axe with loathing and gripped his rifle tighter, wondering how he could stop this before it was too late.

Peter rode up, mounted on his dark horse, his face lit up with the prospect of battle.

"We're all set, bucko," Fin announced, as he rode up beside Peter, his long blonde hair shining in the afternoon sun. His three remaining men followed him, all armed to the teeth. "Me men are ready to avenge Sean, that's for sure."

"Good," Peter replied grimly, his manner becoming cold as he turned forward in his saddle and looked with anticipation at the road before them. "Now, men, I think we should move out. It is time for our enemies to finally face the Apocalypse."

And they began down the road to St. Anthony's Mission.

It was wrong.

This was wrong.

Preparing for battle in the house of the Lord. It made Buck sick. Here he'd found sanctuary. A bit of peace. A moment of respite from the horrible weight of the outside world. But, like those who don't deal with God on a daily basis, Buck felt like his respite was contingent on somehow doing what God expected of him. Like he had to tow the line if God was going to help JD get well. And preparing to do battle in God's House was wrong. He sighed as he gathered ammo. Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, Colonel Travis - they'd done it. But it still felt wrong. Surely there was a better way.

"Buck," Josiah said, lifting an armload of linens and bandages. "We need to get JD into the sanctuary. He won't be safe in the bedroom. We need to be able to watch each other's backs."

Buck shook his head slowly. "We can't move him, Josiah. It'll kill him." Josiah walked over to his friend. "If we don't, they will." Buck's voice became very soft. "Are we doin' right? I mean. . . do you think God wants us to . . . "

"Go back and see to JD. You'll find your answer there." Josiah left, moving more slowly - more belabored than usual.

Buck's gaze followed him until he disappeared, then he turned toward the bedrooms. He couldn't bring himself to go down there. He couldn't stand seeing the kid hurt like that. He just froze for a moment. "God . . . help. . . "

"How you holding up, Cowboy?" Vin slid next to Chris and eyed the sacred ground which would soon become a battlefield. Chris paused before answering. The slight lull wouldn't last long.

"It ain't right for the good people of the mission to be put in this kinda danger." Chris rubbed his tired eyes. Eyes red with hurt. "We can't beat them. Not the way things are."

"What are you thinkin'?" Vin asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.

Chris still didn't look at him. "I've never seen anything like what they rigged for the kid. I've never seen anyone . . . cut all over the face like that. He's dyin' because he's ridin' with us. I read about stuff like this happening during the Crusades. I know some of the Apache will mutilate an enemy - but not without provocation. JD . . . he didn't do anything. And there's no telling what the Nichols boys will do to the mission - to anyone who helps us. Evil in the name of God . . ." Vin couldn't say anything. He rested a strong hand on his friend's shoulder.

Chris turned and looked intently at Vin. "All hell's gonna break loose and folks are gonna die. And for what?" Chris' eyes filled slightly. "I can't rally the troops when there are no troops. And once they get through us . . . " his voice caught in his throat. "And they get to JD - they'll just . . . torture him again. No man should have to endure what he has. And I'll be damned if I will let him go through that again. If I thought . . ." Chris lowered his voice to a near whisper. "If I thought he'd have to suffer again like he has, I'd . . . put a bullet . . . behind his ear." The look that crossed Chris' face was nothing short of maniacal. "They'll kill him anyway, just more slowly."

Vin listened thoughtfully. "We've got an idea of what they can do. If we can't hold them, they'll kill us all. And what'll they do to Casey? And to the sisters?"

"I don't see a lot of options here, Vin." Chris pulled himself up and watched everything with his practiced eye. It was gonna happen. Any minute.

"I gotta give myself over to them." Chris said quickly.

"WHAT??"

"Offer myself in exchange for . . . everyone else."

"That's mighty noble of you, Chris, but all it'll mean is that we'll be one gun shorter than we already are. You think they're gonna let us go just because you surrender?" Chris cut angry eyes at Vin. "Chris - they don't go by any rules of honor. They follow no sense of justice. Certainly they don't abide by religious teachings."

"I'll make 'em listen."

"You can't reason with them, Chris."

"The hell I can't."

"Chris . . ." Vin reached out and grabbed his friend's arm. Chris turned demon-shadowed eyes to his friend. But when he looked at Vin more closely, he frowned.

"You're bleedin', Vin."

"It's nothing."

"'Nothin' don't bleed like that." Chris helped his friend up. "C'mon . . . "

Part Six