Retribution and Redemption, part six


Disclaimers, etc. in part 1

There was something incongruous about death hovering over a young person. Death shouldn't call on the wide-eyed boy. It shouldn't steal his lifeblood, or drain the color from his beautiful face.

And the sweet girl shouldn't have to watch him being taken from her. She watched her future die alongside him. But how could she be anywhere else? She had seen them hurt Ezra. She had seen what they could do. And with each cut on JD's face and the bleeding of his wrists and the cry of pain when his insides bled and no one could help him, Casey hurt, too. She longed to comfort him. She longed to heal him. She wanted . . .

She could not touch him without hurting him - except when she pressed her lips to the inside of his hand She could kiss him there. And she did.

And her hot tears bathed his palms and his fingers like a baptism.

She let her cheek linger there for a moment - and at first she didn't even feel the flutter of lashes against her other cheek. But she did feel the bruised and broken lips brush the side of her face. "I . . . I've . . ." JD wanted so badly to say it. Casey didn't move a muscle, but let him rest his hurt face against her cheek. His tears fell. "I've loved you . . . " His breath halted in his throat

And it scared Casey. She pulled up ever so slightly to look in his eyes. His breathing was shallow, and he started to lose consciousness again.

One last effort.

"I love you, Case."

"Hold still," Nathan commanded as he tended to Vin's grazing wounds.

"Nathan, you should be tending to JD. I'm fine."

"You won't be if those wounds get infected."

"They won't . . . "

Nathan raised his voice. "Shut up, Vin and let me do this."

Vin looked up at the healer, startled.

Then . . .

They laughed suddenly.

And heartily . . .

"This is . . ." Nathan began.

Vin shook his head. "Silly?"

"Yea. . . Bad timing, maybe."

Vin patted the healer's arm. "Great timing."

The wail from down the hall drew Buck from his stupor, and he ran down to JD's room.

It was surreal - - the scene before him. An eerie light angled through the missionary window, cutting across Casey's shoulders. She still wore the dress she'd put on to go for a ride with JD. Though now the dress was torn, dirty and bloodied. She was kneeling on the cold stone floor next to JD's bed, rocking back and forth -- screaming silently -- her tired body quaking.

JD was hanging off the side of the bed. His head drooped against Casey's shoulder, his arms draped around her neck, as though he had tried to hold her.

Buck ran into the room, speaking softly, moving quickly.

"Casey, hon, I need your help, OK?"

Buck lifted JD's body, easing him over onto his back . . .

And he knew immediately that the boy wasn't breathing.

"He's dead," Casey explained, her eyes terrified. She was standing up and backing away.

Buck supported JD with a strong, steady arm. And he detected it.

A wheeze.

"Get Nathan, Casey," Buck said.

"But . . . "

"GO!!!!!"

Chris Larabee looked around the sanctuary.

"Sweet Jesus . . . " he muttered.

"Yes, He is."

Chris spun at the voice. "Sorry, ma'am," he said to Sister Sophia. Josiah dropped the linens on a holy railing beside the vestibule and grinned.

"It's all right, Mr. Larabee."

"Nothing's all right, I'm afraid." He sighed. "I admire your faith, but I have to be realistic."

"You think being realistic will save your friends."

"Ma'am, I'm not sure anything can save my friends."

"Then don't shortchange faith. What realistically will happen in the next few hours?"

"You've heard of the Alamo?"

"Then I don't see that realistic thinking will afford you any chance at survival." The nun took the gunslinger's calloused hands. "So, I am going to trust God . . ."

"To heal JD?" Chris wished he had kept the sarcasm out of his voice.

"To move men's hearts." She squeezed Chris' hand. "And to open our eyes to see the alternatives He places before us." She looked into his eyes in a way that almost unnerved him. "Our greatest strengths are not always in our weapons. We have to be willing to consider the presence - the power of a greater strength than we can produce." The nun started to walk away then looked back at Chris. "I don't expect you to give up your way, Mr. Larabee. I just ask you to keep your eyes open."

Chris nodded and waited for her to leave. Then, as if by reflex, he drew his weapon and spun it in true gunslinger fashion.

That always made him feel better.

Casey burst into the room where she heard Nathan and Vin laughing. She tried to speak, but couldn't find her breath.

"JD?" Nathan asked, as he gathered his medical bag and started out of the room. She nodded and Nathan ran down the hall. Vin stood quickly and stepped over to the young girl - who would sob if she could . . .

"Casey . . . " Vin's voice was so tender. Her eyes were wide - terrified. Vin put his arms around her and held her as she shook uncontrollably. She still couldn't cry. No tears. No sobs. Just shaking. No breathing? Vin put his gentle hands on either side of her face. "You gotta breathe, honey." Vin watched her try to catch her breath. "It's all right. Calm down." Tears rolled down his face as he wrapped his brother-arms around her - more tightly this time. She'd been through so much. Too much.

"Calm down. . . " He kept talking to her, rocking her, stroking her her and finally felt her entire body shudder. Her knees gave way and he caught her and shifted her over to the bench. Her sobs racked her slight body.

At first, Vin could hardly hear what she said next. But he understood in a split second. "He said he loves me . . . "

"He's loved you ever since he met you, Case."

"And he's gone."

Maybe it was instinct, but Buck somehow knew he had to clear JD's airway. He swabbed the kid's mouth and throat with his uninjured hand.

"C'mon son," Buck said. "Breathe. Breathe, JD"

Cough . . .

"Good kid. Good, come on," Buck urged, trying to ease the obvious pain.

Another cough. The kid hacked blood. So much blood.

JD grabbed Buck's shirt and clutched it. Struggling to breathe while he was struggling not to cough. The boy was hurting. Every move killed him.

"Buck . . . "

"I got you, kid."

JD coughed again, and then he sobbed, pulling himself as close to Buck as he could. Buck helped, keeping his strong arm around him.

"I can't . . . stand this . . . anymore."

Buck took a deep breath. "Yes, you can, son. You're gonna make it."

JD didn't answer. He lifted his face, couldn't open his eyes, and Buck cringed as the blood dripped from the corner of the kid's mouth. "I'm sorry .. ." JD whispered.

Nathan ran into the little room where Buck was holding a struggling JD.

"Nothing to be sorry for, kid, I just need you to hold on a little longer."

JD groaned in response and coughed a sob. "I will, Buck."

Nathan stepped in and gathered up the blankets around the boy. He exchanged glances with Buck. The big gunslinger slipped an arm under the kid's legs and scooped him into his arms.

"Don't . . ." JD murmured.

"I got to, kid. It ain't safe here." Buck tried not to touch his wounds, but JD was hurt on the inside and Buck couldn't avoid making his pain worse. "No, please . . "

Nathan reached up to help, draping a blanket over the boy. JD trembled and cried. "I'm trying, Buck" he said in on surge of energy.

"You're doing great, kid."

JD tried to pull himself but there was no way he could help himself. His head fell back over Buck's arm.

And he passed out . . .

Nathan's eye was on Buck. He noticed that Buck's hand was bleeding through the bandage and he started to say something. But Buck shook his head, no. They'd talk about it after JD got settled.

Josiah's jaw tightened when he saw Buck and Nathan bringing JD into the sanctuary. For a moment he thought how Jesus must have appeared being taken down from the cross. Little wounds all over his forehead and around his eyes. Wouldn't a crown of thorns render such injuries? The beaten body that had been hanging from a tree.

No, this time it was their beaten boy.

And Josiah felt rage all over again. Any inclination Chris had of trusting God to change the hearts of men was pushed right out of his mind when he saw JD. Josiah helped Buck ease the kid onto the pallet he'd made in the vestibule. JD groaned, but he didn't wake up. Chris walked over and watched silently. Nathan started to guide Buck over to a pew.

"Lemme be, Nathan," Buck hissed, never taking his eyes off of JD.

"We ain't got any time, Buck. I gotta change your bandage or you won't be able to fight."

Chris leaned over and spoke softly. "You can't fight, you can't protect him. And he needs you." Buck paused, then nodded. Chris was right.

Reluctantly, he went with Nathan, and Chris noted that his old friend's face was too pale. Worry? Yea. Infection? Most likely. Chris watched him leave, then went over to kneel beside JD - not touching him, but leaning closely enough to him that his words couldn't be overheard by anyone else.

The usually peaceful sanctuary was charged with activity - people coming and going, preparing for the onslaught.

Nathan rolled a new bandage on Buck's hand. "You've got to slow down and keep it still," Nathan warned him.

"As soon as JD's up and around . . ."

"He ain't gonna be up and around!" Nathan hated saying it, but Buck needed to hear it. Buck started to lash out at him but halted. Nathan lowered his voice. "We only got a couple more hours with him at best."

Neither said a word. What was there to say?

Vin hadn't realized that anyone could cry so hard. Casey was utterly spent and she sat beside the sharpshooter, leaning her head on his shoulder. Finally, he helped her to her feet, pausing to kiss her forehead. "C'mon," he said. "It's not safe here."

When they reached the sanctuary, there was dead silence in the big hall.

It was as though a dark angel was present among them -- her black veils, draped shawl, flowing black dress . . .But she was real. They knew this woman. They recognized . . . The weeper. . .

Every gun clicked at the ready.

Buck Wilmington saw the dark angel who, with the drop of a square of white lace, turned Four Corners into a bloody graveyard.

An angel at whose command four men beat a defenseless boy--

At whose command the same boy was tortured.

A dark angel who now dared to enter the boy's sanctuary and stand at his deathbed.

Buck's eyes were wild, his voice seething. "You stay the hell away from him--" He moved to stand between JD and the woman.

"I . . . don't know . . ." the woman stammered, glancing around, helplessly. "I don't know what you're talking about. : "I came to help . . ."

"To drop another lace 'call to arms'?" Chris asked quickly.

"Lady, we sure as hell don't need your help," Buck said, but before he could say anything else, Casey jerked away from Vin, and walked toward the dark figure in the doorway, silhouetted against the late afternoon sun.

"Did you mean to kill him?" Casey asked in a strange voice.

"To kill . . . whom. . ." That clipped accent, halting words, tight sound.

Casey turned toward the vestibule. The woman tried to see inside and she took a hesitant step forward.

"NO!!" Buck cried. "Don't let her anywhere near him."

The woman's frightened eyes darted around the sanctuary. Then they met Buck's and they widened in horror.

"What have they done?" Ma Nichols asked.

Buck's voice thundered. "They did . . .EXACTLY what you told them to. They brought your apocalypse . . . to a NINETEEN-YEAR-OLD KID." The wounded gunslinger took a step closer to the woman he held responsible for all the struggles of the last months. "Is that what you wanted, lady, because that's what you've got. That boy . . . who never did anything to you or your family. . . is dying in there. You've got your eye for an eye. So know I reckon you'll be at peace, won't you?"

The mother's mouth opened to speak, but nothing came. Josiah put his arm around the tortured mother who had seen too many of her sons die. "No matter what you've done," the preacher said softly, "you're always welcome in God's House."

"The hell she is!" Buck cried. "She ain't welcome anywhere near here."

"This ain't your house, Buck!" Josiah said. "You got no say about it."

Buck drew his gun on the woman, holding his weapon in his wounded hand. "You ain't going anywhere near JD."

"Buck, put that away." Chris strode purposefully to his friend and took his gun. Buck looked at his old friend, bewildered. "Sit down, Buck. You're sick."

"I'm not. Don't let her near him. She'll kill him. She's come back to finish what she started."

"None of us will let her hurt JD. You know that."

Buck's head fell forward on Chris' shoulder, and Chris squeezed his neck. Then Buck went limp, unconscious. In one easy move, Chris lay Buck down on a church pew. Relieved this confrontation was over.

It wasn't.

Casey Welles stood in front of the pallet where JD lay.

Her voice was uncharacteristically low. "C'mon."

The old woman moved forward, still leary of the guns directed at her, and let the girl show her what her boys had done.

This was stupid, he thought. Here they all were. They would probably all die. Ready to go. Sensing the thundering hooves nearer and nearer.

But Vin suddenly realized.

He was hungry.

Really hungry.

But it didn't seem like the time to ask for a bowl of soup.

Silently he reached around in his pocket for a stick of jerky. Why did that beef jerky suddenly strike him as funny. His bit his lip a moment and then took a bite of the salty strap.

Ma Nichols approached JD very slowly.

Reverently.

Chris watched closely.

"Oh, God," she intoned.

Casey's voice bore no anger, just a cold detached quality. "He's dead," she said simply.

The woman knelt beside JD. And she couldn't believe what she was seeing.

She remembered this young man. He was the one who had been lying under her son's heavy foot in the saloon.

And he was the one her boys had beaten up - to deliver the message to the Larabee gang.

But this . . .

The cuts all over the pale lifeless face - why?

As if on cue, Casey piped up. "One of them had the decency . . . not to gouge out his eyes."

The old woman touched his hand and saw the bandaged wrists. "Forgive me, Father," she breathed.

His poor bruised and bloody face. "What have I done?" she said, then she turned and spoke to everyone in the sanctuary.

"I have come to stop my boys from perpetuating this senseless bloodshed." Her vocal quality returned to the authoritative sound she used to manipulate her sons.

"NO!!!!!!!!"

Ma Nichols quickly turned to see JD screaming and backing away from her. "It's all right, son." She tried to make her hard voice sound comforting. "I'm not here to hurt you."

Casey quickly pulled the woman away and then she went back to JD's side. "You're alive . . ."Casey murmered.

JD didn't know her. He had seen the woman, and he screamed, his body trembling, his instinct to make as much distance as possible between himself and the Nichols".

"They got me," he cried. "They got me!" Chris ran over, a groggy Buck on his heels.

"Go!" JD cried. "They're gonna kill us all!" He tried to climb up and Chris struggled to hold him. For a split second he recognized Chris. "Get everybody out of here," he said grabbing Chris' shirt.

Screaming.

Dying.

"JD?" Buck pushed roughly past Ma Nichols to get to where JD was struggling against Chris' grasp. He didn't spare a glance at the old woman, but knelt down and tried to take ahold of the JD's hands, which were clutching frantically at Chris' shirt.

"Casey - " JD gasped, his face shining with his exertions and far too pale. His head fell against Chris' chest and he closed his eyes, suddenly weak, but still he whispered, "Get Casey out - please - "

Chris locked eyes with Buck as JD cringed against the black-clad gunslinger's shirt, shivering all over with exhaustion and terror.

Buck cleared his throat and reached out his hands. "I'll take him, Chris."

Chris nodded, and as gently as he could pulled himself away from the dying boy, and settled him into Buck's arms. He then moved out of the way and let Buck and Casey get JD comfortable again, his blue eyes icy as he watched.

"Buck, please get Casey out of here," JD pleaded quietly, his eyes opening halfway as his friend set his head back on the pillow. "Their mother's here, she'll hurt her again. Please, Buck - "

"Now just hush," Buck chided as Casey untangled the blankets that had fallen in a heap on the floor. He put his face close to JD's so he could speak in as low a tone as possible, "You don't worry about that, nothin's gonna happen to Casey. We're in a church, we're in the safest place there is, and that's a fact. And Chris, he ain't gonna let that woman hurt a hair on Casey's pretty little head. Now you just get some rest now, OK? You do that for ol' Buck?"

JD was so pale, and when he looked into Buck's eyes the gunslinger almost flinched at the faint and faraway look in those hazel eyes.

"I'm so tired, Buck." JD whispered, and it was hardly loud enough to be a whisper.

Buck sighed as Casey tucked the blanket around JD; as she moved to sit beside the youth and stroke his forehead Buck said, "I know, son, that's why you got to rest and not excite yourself."

JD nodded, just barely, and closed his eyes.

It was then that Buck turned and looked at Ma Nichols, with an expression of such hatred and accusation that the widow took a step back. She paused, and seeming to know it was useless to talk to Buck turned to Chris instead and said, "They'll listen to me. When they come, I will talk to them, tell them to stop this abomination."

"You're so sure they're comin' here?" Buck snarled, standing up to face the widow with barely-controlled fury. "Maybe you told 'em we were here. Maybe you're just in here to size us up so's you can go back to that pack of wolves and tell 'em what a good job they've done."

Chris frowned. "Buck - "

Ma Nichols blinked, apparently bewildered. "No, I...I don't even know where my boys are. I only wanted to atone for whatever wrong God thinks I've done, that he's caused me so much unhappiness. This - " She glanced at JD, who was curled up in Casey's arms, his head lying against her shoulder, "This has to stop. I will make it stop. I...I swear to God I'm not here to hurt any of you. I only want to - to understand. And keep my boys from getting killed."

Buck's eyes narrowed, and he regarded Ma Nichols suspiciously. Every fiber of his being wanted to strangle this woman, who had so calmly and efficiently ordered the bloodshed that had nearly gotten them all killed that day in the saloon. She didn't care about getting her sons killed then; why did she now?

There was a movement behind him, and a gasp; Buck turned to see JD writhing feebly in Casey's arms, and immediately forgot all about Ma Nichols.

"Buck - " JD muttered as the gunslinger hurried to his side. The boy forced his eyes open, and when Buck looked into them, saw the hurt and fading life, he immediately felt ashamed. What was he doing wasting time arguing with that woman, when JD was -

"I'm right here, pard." Buck said as he put a hand on JD's arm and looked into those unfocused eyes. "You need somethin'?"

JD shook his head, winced with the effort. He seemed to be trying to say something, but then his eyes widened suddenly and he began to cough, doubling up in pain and nearly falling out of the bed before Buck caught him.

"Nathan, I need some help." Buck said, looking around for the healer as JD gagged against him. Casey pressed a clean cloth against the boy's face, and Chris came close enough to stand behind Buck and press a hand to JD's uninjured shoulder. Nathan hurried over, and taking JD's head in his hands talked to him in soothing tones as the convulsions racked his frame, and he was sick again.

The nuns in the sanctuary had stayed back, out of courtesy, and now most of them were watching the scene mutely, a few of them crossing themselves or praying, their lips barely moving. Buck looked up for a moment, swept the room with his glance, only stopped when he saw Ma Nichols standing there. She was farther away than she'd been before, as if she'd backed up; her hand was clutched to her throat, as if something was choking her, and she wore an expression of absolute horror on her face. Horror - but at what? She had to know what her sons were capable of. She had to have seen their handiwork before. Why would this make her turn so white?

Buck didn't care. She wouldn't look at him, but he glared at her anyway. You did this to my friend, he thought. And I won't ever forget it.

As Buck held JD tightly, he turned slightly to look around the little vestibule, and was startled to see Sister Sophia there. She was close, kneeling behind him at the small altar in the room, facing sideways so Buck could see her eyes were closed and she was praying. Praying very hard.

Help him, sister, Buck thought as he swallowed hard and felt JD shuddering in his arms. I can't do more than this, but somebody can. Somebody has to.

JD was trembling so hard Buck had to wrap his arms completely around him to steady him, and gasping in such anguished, terrified gulps of air Buck could feel his body heaving with each breath. But after a minute the attack was over, and the youth slumped into his arms; with a sigh of relief, Buck moved to lay him back onto the cot.

Nathan took his hands from JD's face and stood up slowly, his face full of worry as he looked at Chris. Chris' eyes were full of grim reality as he regarded first the healer, then his friend, and finally the wearied youth curled up and moaning on the small cot. He knew it, as certainly as Nathan did. This attack was the worst so far. The next one would be worse still, and there was only one possible outcome.

JD would die.

"Buck..." JD whispered as Buck settled his head back onto the pillow. He reached up to weakly grab at Buck's shirt, and almost frantically Buck took his hand and held it.

"Yeah, JD." Buck said, clearing his throat. He knew it without having to be told; it wouldn't be long.

"They're coming." JD said; it was almost a sob.

Buck frowned. "The Nichols?" he glanced up at Sister Sophia, who was now standing behind him, and saw a knowingness in her eyes as she pursed her lips and nodded. JD was having another vision.

"Ezra..." JD whispered painfully, his breath coming a little quicker.

"Ezra?" Buck was surprised. "You see him? Is he alive?"

A tiny nod, then JD's face contracted in a pained grimace. "But he's hurt. He's hurt."

"Well," Buck faltered for a moment, then tightened his grip on JD's hand and said, "Well, don't you worry son, we'll get Ezra back and take care of them Nichols boys. They ain't gonna get anywhere near you. We'll f- "

"No," JD gasped, and with a supreme effort opened his eyes and looked at Buck with an urgent, anxious expression on his battered face. "No, they have to come in here. He has - he wants to talk to them."

Buck turned puzzled eyes to Sophia, who shook her head. Then, leaning toward JD he asked, "Who does, JD?"

But it was no use. JD had shut his eyes and passed out again.

Buck leaned back a bit, gently let go of JD's hand and placed in on his chest. Then he turned to Sophia and said, "You know what he's talkin' about?"

Sophia once again shook her head. "But if it's God's will that those men come in here, then they must."

"Over my dead body." Buck breathed, then looked at Casey and cursed his choice of words. She was staring at JD, biting her lower lip and batting at the tears that were welling up in her eyes. She reached out one trembling hand and put it over the youth's, then bent over his still form and started to cry.

"Oh, Casey," Buck said, putting his arms around her shoulders and hugging her close as she bent over JD, "Oh darlin', I'm sorry."

Casey shook her head, continued to cry and settled her head on JD's chest, and didn't say another word.

Chris watched the melancholy scene, felt his heart wrench. He hated being here, hated watching JD die and know there was nothing he could do about it; hated knowing Casey would never be the young girl she was before this started, that Buck would blame himself and be thrown into another self-imposed prison of guilt and mourning, like he had been when Sarah and Adam died. And these people, the nuns and the mission workers, they had nothing to do with any of this and yet they were in danger too; if Peter Nichols were as crazed as Chris was afraid he was, this might not end until the mission was in ashes and they were all dead. Them or the Nichols. Either way, death would visit this place. Very soon.

Too much. Too much suffering and pain, and Chris Larabee was getting sick of it.

As Casey's sobs and Buck's soothing words rang in the silence of the sanctuary, Chris turned and headed for the door, ready at that moment to face the Nichols, to rip their throats out and avenge what he and his friends had gone through, would go through. He paused as he passed Ma Nichols, who was still standing as she had been, staring in shock, her hand at her throat. She looked at the floor, as if ashamed, but Chris didn't care.

"You ready to finish this?" He asked, his voice leaden with the dread of a future he could not avoid facing.

Ma Nichols bowed her head, and said nothing.

But she followed Chris when he walked out the door.

Peter felt his heart soar as they got closer to the mission; no sentries in sight, just as he thought, they didn't have enough men to post a lookout. Oh, this would be glorious.

Luke and Matthew road beside him, Fin and his men behind. Peter turned his head slightly as they drew closer.

"Remember the plan," he said softly, the black coals of his eyes smoldering with anticipation of the fire to come. "We'll give them a demonstration of our intentions and a chance to surrender themselves peacefully. When they refuse it-as I'm sure they will- we move in."

Luke looked up the road at the small mission, growing larger as they neared. "Sure wish Pa could see this, Pete."

"Oh, I'm sure he can," Peter replied lightly, spurring his horse along. "Mark, Pa, David-all of our wronged kin are smiling down on us now. That's why we will be triumphant."

"Well," Matthew offered, hoisting his long rifle with a grin, "I wouldn't call that the only reason."

Peter chuckled. "Yes, thank God for that, too. Don't be afraid to use the lead, buys, we've got plenty. Although," he added with a smile, "you don't necessarily have to shoot to kill. We must allow them the privilege of suffering for their sins before they die."

"Well, me men know a thing or two about that line of work," Fin announced, unsheathing his knife and flipping it in the air a few times, catching its handle with easy grace. "If its sufferin' ye want we won't disappoint. Just don't keep all the fun to yourselves."

"Oh, don't worry, Fin," Peter replied, a dark expression on his face as he rode along, "there will be plenty of 'fun' for everyone today."

Chris's footsteps echoed along the hallway of the mission as he walked towards the entrance way. Dust swirled and danced n the sunlight filtering through the windows, and he broke through their translucent beams without even noticing, so absorbed was he by what was about to happen. He had seen ma Nichols follow him out of the corner of his eye; but she had stopped at the sanctuary door. He didn't turn back to her, but knew by the sound of her soft footsteps that she had gone back into the chapel to pray. For them or against them, he had no idea.

Chris lifted his eyes and glanced up the hallway; some nuns were hurrying about up the hallway, their sharp, frightened whispers bouncing off of the walls as they sped away. Chris felt his hand tighten involuntarily around the cold grip of his gun; of all the places to have a gunfight...

But they couldn't leave JD.

They had to come here. JD said someone wanted to talk to them. But who, and what could anyone say at this point to stop all this. He had the burning feeling that Peter Nichols was not going to be in the mood for calm reasoning.

Sharp footsteps sounded behind him, and he turned to see Nathan and Josiah walking up the hall, their forms passing through the dust-choked sunbeams as they walked by the windows, alternately bathed in halos of light and swallowed by shadows.

"Looks like everyone's set in the sanctuary," Nathan said as they reached Chris. "Vin went out front to keep watch."

Chris nodded a little and looked away, only saying in a quiet voice, "Good."

"Buck an' Josef are gonna guard the place," Josiah said, stopping himself next to Nathan and placing his hands on his belt. "Josef said he did some fightin' in the War, so we don't need to worry about him, I think. An' Buck's ready to kill them men with his bare hands."

"Hmmm," Chris nodded, knowing the feeling. Josiah gave him a concerned look.

"Y'okay, Chris?"

The black-clad gunslinger eyed his friend sharply, then looked away and sighed, shaking his head.

"Afraid I'm havin' some mighty unholy thoughts right now," he admitted wearily, his face contorting a bit in anger as his fists clenched. "JD says God wants those men in the sanctuary, but right now I feel like just shootin' 'em on sight."

The other men were silent for a moment, then Josiah leaned back a bit and nodded.

"This ain't the place for bloodshed," Chris continued softly, looking at the polished floors, the cloistered halls, before directing his eyes back at his two comrades. "An' it sure ain't the place for the feelings I have towards those men."

Josiah nodded slightly, his eyes meeting Chris's. "Well, Chris, even the Lord got himself worked up pretty good, when He chased the money-changers out of the temple. And this seems as good a place as any for a righteous fight. Maybe it's the only place where we have any hope of turnin' their hearts."

The men stood for a moment, pondering this thought and clinging to the tranquility of the quiet afternoon. Outside they could hear the trees softly rustling in the hot breeze, the birds arguing among their branches. Then they heard footsteps walking quickly up the wooden boards of the porch, and Vin appeared in the doorway, Winchester in hand, his face announcing the news before his words did.

"They're comin'."

The courtyard of the mission was still in the hot afternoon sun; only the rustle of the nearby trees, and the gusts of yellow dust wafting across the wide open space, disturbed the drowsy tranquility. To the casual observer, the scene embodied the quiet nature of cloistered life; to the five men waiting within the mission walls, it was a setting for war.

Chris stood on the porch, crouched behind an overturned table, and glanced around. his eyes squinting in the bright sun; everyone was in their positions.Josiah was standing at one of the windows; Vin was at the other, his rifle ready as his blue eyes scanned the horizon for the trouble which was surely coming. Nathan stood in the doorway, ready to stop anyone who might try to get into the building, and Buck, Chris knew, was at the small window of JD's vestibule, more than eager to stop the men who'd harmed his young friend.

All right then, he thought, as he looked past the gate; we're ready for you. Let's get this over with.

The sound of horses and wagons grew louder, then stopped. There was a pause, then a loud blast from a rifle, as the lock to the iron gate was blown off. The men tensed, their rifles and guns brought up to the ready; Chris had known the gate wouldn't stop them for long. The vultures had descended.

There was a brief lull; then a solitary figure walked through the gate with a confident stride, coat thrown back to reveal the two guns he carried, and the sun glinting off the weapon strapped around his leg. Even from a distance Chris recognized Peter Nichols, and he fought the rage which boiled through him at the sight of the man who'd mortally wounded JD.

"Easy, Chris," he heard Josiah murmur; was it that obvious? He realized how tightly he was gripping his rifle, but he didn't relax. To do so when faced by Peter would be a fatal mistake.

Peter walked halfway to the building and stopped, eying the men on the porch before him with a smile. "I'm pleased to see my information was correct," he called out, his voice carrying through the hot air. "Although I had feared you might have cleared out."

"We don't run from a fight," was Chris's casual reply.

Peter laughed. "You don't abandon your wounded, you mean. I know that young boy is in there somewhere, licking his wounds, if he's still alive to do so."

Chris heard Buck growl and thought, "Easy, Buck."

"You're all very noble in the treatment of your fallen comrades," Peter continued. "I wish you would have been as merciful with my brothers."

"Your brothers were killers, same as you," Vin noted, shifting his mare's leg. "We don't quite cotton to that."

"No, of course not," Peter said, folding his arms. "Although your hands are hardly spotless. I intend to give you the chance to repent your sins."

At this, more men came through the gate, five in all, every one armed to the teeth, carrying pistols and rifles. Chris recognized only one of them as being one of the Nichols brothers, the young kid, John. The rest were strangers, but had the same look of casual bloodthirstiness about them. A tall, long-haired blonde man in a top hat sauntered up to stand next to Peter, and Chris heard Vin suck in his breath.

Chris turned his head slightly. "Know that guy, the blonde one?"

"Yup," was the terse reply; he couldn't see Vin, but he could almost feel the intensity of the tracker's gaze. "Fin Gallagher. Tough Irish bastard from St. Louis, hunted 'im once. Couldn't find 'im tho, guess he ran off."

"Looks like he's back now," was Josiah's dry observation. "Is the bounty still good?"

"Let's hope we get a chance to find out," Nathan muttered, his fingers dancing around the trigger of his gun.

"As you can see, you're outgunned," Peter said with pleasure, as soon as the men were in place," and I would hate, as I'm sure you would, to profane this holy ground with violence. So I'm going to give you a chance to surrender yourselves to God's justice."

"Your justice, you mean," Chris spat, "an' from what I've seen, it ain't so just."

"That's what I'd expect from a sinner like you, Chris Larabee," Peter replied with heat. "Just remember, it was your blood that started all this, and your blood will end it, and that of your men. Come with us now, or this mission and all within will be destroyed."

Josiah cocked his head. "That's kind of a no-no in God's book, son. Or haven't you read it lately?"

Peter's oily smile spread across his face. "Oh, I've read it, preacher. In fact, it's given me inspiration on how to show you that we mean to do exactly what we say."

Peter turned and waved his hand; amid much rattling an old wagon was driven into the compound and stopped off to the side, about half way into the courtyard. Chris and the others tensed as the warm afternoon air became charged with anxious dread; what were they up to now?

The driver of the wagon-another of the Nichols boys, which one Chris couldn't remember-reined in the horses and jumped down, nodding to the fourth brother who sat in the back. They met at the back of the wagon, reached in, and hauled something out, watching with little concern as it fell to the ground in a dark, motionless heap. All of the men on the porch and watching from the vestibule could see it, and Chris felt the anger boil up around him as they realized what they were looking at.

Damn it, Chris thought, his jaw clenching. It's Ezra.

"As you can see, one of your number has not escaped God's justice," Peter was saying as his brothers dragged Ezra over. The men glanced at each other uneasily at the sight of Ezra's condition; pale, bloodied and bruised, he gave a clear indication of the severity of the Nichols' anger, and Nathan noticed that he seemed to be having some trouble breathing. Chris heard Casey gasp from the vestibule, and cursed the Nichols for inflicting another nightmare image on the young girl.

Peter was looking around the courtyard, and finally pointed to a small, flat-topped rock, about two feet high, near the center. As the other two brothers pulled the half-conscious gambler over to the rock, Peter once more turned to the mission, a smile on his lips.

"God has seen fit to use us to enact His holy justice on your wandering friend here, just as we plan to enact it on you. I do hope this demonstration of our intentions will convince you to surrender yourselves."

By this time, Ezra had been dragged up onto his knees; his hands had been bound together, a long rope leading from the cords binding his wrists. As one brother held Ezra upright by his hair and collar, the other took the rope and pulled it in front of Ezra tightly, stretching the gambler's arms out in front of him, his wrists laid on the baking rock. Peter walked back to the wagon and lifted something out of the back, talking as he walked.

"You may think us monsters, gunslingers," he said, "but we're really quite merciful. For example, we've given Mr. Standish here every chance to repent of the lie told to protect that murdering Hank Conelly and his accomplice-you, Chris Larabee."

Chris's eyes narrowed as he thought, "You bastards."

"And yet," Peter went on, standing once more before Ezra, "he has refused to cleanse himself before God and admit his wrong. So we must do the cleansing ourselves. Right, Standish?"

Chris could see that Ezra's eyes were open, and that he was staring in angry defiance at Peter; even from where he stood, Chris noticed Ezra trembling violently, but the gambler said nothing. Something flashed in Peter's hands, and the porch occupants could see that it was an axe.

Peter regarded Ezra solemnly, his voice deadly serious. "Our Lord has commanded us to cast away those parts of ourselves which lead us astray," Peter pronounced, hefting the axe. "Your card-playing friend here is about to embody that principle."

"'If your right hand makes you stumble...'" Chris heard Josiah moan, his tone appalled. "Aw, damn."

"I think I'm gonna be sick," Nathan muttered, his hand tightening on his gun.

Chris's eyes flashed; then he heard a noise which caused him to both relax and tense up at the same time. The other men heard it too, and readied themselves.

It was the metallic ratcheting of Vin's sawed-off Winchester.

"Once we have deprived this man of his lying tongue and sinful hands," Peter announced, turning to the mission, "you will surrender yourselves, or suffer the wrath of the Lord."

The air was filled with small clicks as the men behind Peter raised their guns and aimed them at the porch, ready to fire at the first sign of attempted rescue. Peter poised himself above the rock, palming the axe as he prepared to strike.

*

It was like a dream, or more a nightmare; Ezra wondered if it was really happening, if he truly was kneeling in the hot dust of this unknown place about to suffer the most unimaginable fate. The whole scene had a very surreal quality about it; he felt so dizzy and detached that he could convince himself it was only a dream. But the pain certainly seemed real, everything hurt, and the stabbing ache in his left side was making it so hard to breathe.

He had bitten back a groan as they forced him into the choking dust, stopped himself from crying out as they pulled his aching arms out in front of him. There was no use in struggling; he could barely keep himself conscious, and Luke's hold on his hair and collar now were so tight that he could feel the man's fingers almost tearing his hair out in their fierce grip. If he had been unhurt, he could have freed himself from the ropes with ease; it would have been a simple trick for someone with Ezra's remarkable dexterity. But Matthew's pull on the rope was too strong to allow for any movement, and Ezra had to admit to himself that he could not remember when he had ever been so thoroughly trapped.

As Ezra wearily pondered his fate, he had to ask himself if he'd done the right thing in lying to protect that shopkeeper, Hank Conelly, and Chris. Part of him was bitterly railing at this turn of events; this was what happened when you took someone else's part. He should have walked on, ignored what was happening, saved himself. He knew he was no hero, and he desperately hated that it had come to this.

Yes, if he hadn't acted, he would be safe, and none of this would be happening. And Chris and Hank Conelly would most likely be dead, their group disbanded or killed as they sought their own revenge, and he would be left with the knowledge that he might have prevented it.

Would that have been better?

Ezra had little time to ponder the answer, but in a strange way, he felt he already knew what it was.

Pain roared through Ezra's chest; he coughed, struggled to breathe, tried not to black out just yet. It was only a matter of time, he could feel it, and he was so tired, but he refused to give Peter the satisfaction of seeing him collapse now. Catching his breath, Ezra kept his eyes on the men on the mission porch; he didn't expect them to engage in any heroics for him, but he hoped they'd see that he wasn't going to be giving these demons any satisfaction. A gentleman never let his opponents see him beaten, even when he lost.

And Ezra swore not to lose, not even if he died, which he certainly would. He knew Peter was saying something, couldn't quite make it out over the relentless thudding in his ears, but he hoped whatever it was, it would not make Chris surrender. Ezra fought through the searing fear and dread , glaring at Peter with mute rage as he thought, "I hope you're ready, my friend. I can't fight you anymore, but they still can. And they will."

Peter loomed above him, axe in hand, ready. The time had come. Ezra squeezed his eyes shut, and waited.

Peter studied his target for a moment, then swung the axe in the air, its blade flashing in the sun as it paused before beginning its descent.

Part Seven