Vin dropped to his knees and continued firing, not even turning when he heard the thud of the side mission door opening, then closing rapidly. he smiled a bit to himself; Josiah and Ezra had made it in. Thank God.
He looked to his right; the mission was still some distance away, and he was out in the open. Time to get back to the porch and help out Chris. Vin made his way slowly, dropping and firing, ducking down, and keeping enough bullets flying to slow his assailants. A dark shape rose and ran from the large rock to the mission wall; it was hard to tell through the dusty haze, but it looked like Peter Nichols. What was he up to?
Vin began to raise his Winchester, but before it touched his shoulder, one of the men behind the rock stood and came at him, while his companions poured their firepower down on Chris. It was the blond Irishman, Finian Gallagher, and Vin quickly aimed his gun and fired.
The shot tore across Fin's left shoulder; the man staggered a bit but came on, and before Vin could aim another shot Fin fell on him, slashing with his knife, ignoring the blood pouring down his arm. Vin cracked him across the jaw with the butt of the Winchester, and his adversary bore the blow with an agonized grunt, his grip remaining firm. Vin could feel the knife cutting through his clothes and slicing his skin, but there were no deep wounds yet.
He gritted his teeth and slammed his fist hard into Fin's wounded shoulder; as the Irishman gasped, he glared at Vin and crashed his fist across the tracker's jaw. Dazed, Vin saw his opponent raise the knife to strike. Vin's hand shot up to wrench the weapon from his foe's grasp, and the two men grappled furiously for the device, rolling over in the process; the Irishman was now on his back, with Vin over him. So intent was the tracker on the struggle that he did not see the large rock not far in front of him, or the two Nichols brothers who were intently watching the fight while taking shots at Chris.
Vin's hand found its way to Fin's throat, choking the Irishman as his other hand tried to pry the knife from Fin's fingers. He had almost gotten it when there was a deafening roar, and Vin felt himself hurled onto his back as he felt a crushing heat explode in his chest.
Aw hell, he thought, I've been shot.
The world began to spin as Vin's trembling fingers searched his chest; everything hurt, but he wanted to see where the wound was, maybe it wasn't that bad. He could feel the warm blood saturating his shirt, and his entire body felt like it was on fire. Finally he found it, a hot bleeding circle just below his left collarbone. Shit.
"What the bloody hell took you so long?" he heard Fin's angry voice demand, before another voice, angrier, almost demonlike in its fury, interrupted, and through the red haze Vin saw his adversary suddenly lurch backwards, a bullet crashing through his forehead. More gunfire, but Vin's swimming vision didn't let him see what was happening. He heard footsteps pounding towards him, felt strong arms lifting him up and dragging him away; then there was nothing but silence.
Chris had never been so happy to kill a man.
He had watched with rage as Vin and Fin had fought, his attempts to intervene hampered by the heavy fire rained down on him by Luke and Matthew Nichols. It happened so fast, yet seemed to take a lifetime; Chris could see the two men wrestling, both bloody, saw Vin grapple for the knife; then from behind the rock, the shiny barrel of a gun emerged, and the muzzle flashed as Vin toppled backwards, blood pouring from his chest.
As if from far away, Chris heard himself scream in rage, felt himself rise from his cover and fire at the blonde man, watching with satisfaction as he fell dead to the ground. Then he was running, and Josiah was behind him, running too, both of them firing at the Nichols brothers behind the rock. Chris heard a cry, and saw one of them hit the ground, grabbing his leg as the other brother stood over him, continuing to fire.
Chris crouched and fired as Josiah grabbed Vin's arms, carrying him as carefully as he could under the constant barrage of bullets. The gunslinger was transported with fury as he fired, his passion checked only when he saw that Josiah was almost back to the porch with Vin's motionless body in his arms. Chris began his retreat, still firing until his chambers clicked empty; then he ducked into the mission, to reload and come at them again.
The mission hallway was dark and quiet; Josiah was gently settling Vin against the wall, trying not to touch the ugly, bleeding wound. Chris quickly crouched beside him, battling the grief and anger boiling through him as he studied the damage. Not Vin too, he thought in anguish.
Josef ran up. "Nathan's on his way, he knows what happened."
Josiah stood, gun in hand. "We better go hold 'em off, in case they start thinkin' about comin' in here." He paused, looked down at Chris and grasped his shoulder.
Chris didn't look at him; when he spoke, his voice was low and rough.
"I'll stay with him," was all he could say. He didn't look up as the men ran back outside, and barely heard the gunfire continue. It seemed as if it would never end.
Vin moaned and tried to move; Chris gently grabbed his arm.
"Take it easy, Nathan's comin'," he said quietly. Vin paused, then his blue eyes blinked open; his expression was confused as he stared at his friend.
"Is it over?" he rasped. Chris shook his head.
Vin began to breathe harder, his eyes closing. "Dang, Chris, don't worry about me. You...you gotta get out there."
"Ain't nothin' out there Josiah can't handle," Chris assured him, feeling his gut burn when he noticed how much blood Vin was losing. Vin's head was bobbing weakly, his long golden-brown hair falling into his face. After a moment Vin slowly raised his head and grasped Chris's arms.
"Saw you take out...Fin Gallagher," he said, his voice soft. A small smile creased his lips. "Nice shootin', pard. Guess you...get the bounty."
Chris felt his soul burn with rage. "That man ain't worth shit. The vultures can have 'im."
Vin smiled in agreement; then his face twisted in pain, and his grip on Chris's arms tightened as he rode out the spasm. Chris returned the grip, his mind in anguish as he helped Vin through his pain. Could this possibly be what God had in mind?
Footsteps raced down the hall; Nathan, at last, with Buck.
"Christ," Buck breathed at the sight of Vin's injury. Nathan quickly knelt by his side, studied the wound for a moment, then looked up at Buck.
"Let's get 'im to the sanctuary."
A bullet shattered the window casement above them.
Josiah suddenly leaned into the hallway, his hat off and blood trickling down his face.
"They ran back to the wall, Chris, looks like they're regroupin' for an assault. Better get Vin out of here fast as you can, Josef an' I will hold 'em here."
And he was gone.
More bullets blasted against the side of the mission, a few flying through the window and impacting the opposite wall. Chris ducked and fired out of the window as Buck bundled Vin into his arms and ran with Nathan towards the sanctuary. Chris followed them, watching their backs, his gun in the air prepared to fire at any pursuers, and his heart almost bursting with fury.
He never thought it would end this way.
They burst into the small chapel area with a rush, Buck hurrying Vin to one of the cots near Ezra while Nathan ran for his kit. Chris remained at the door, listening as the sounds of gunfire in the courtyard diminished, but he had little time to wonder what the Nichols were planning as they settled Vin onto the cot and stripped off his coat.
"Aw, damn," Vin moaned, gritting his teeth and gasping.
Chris swung the sanctuary doors shut, noticing with frustration that there was no lock, and went to Vin's side, kneeling by the cot. Nathan was already there, pulling Vin's shirt open. The tracker seemed barely conscious, his breathing heavy as he lay with closed eyes, his figure dark and dusty against the pure white sheets. The wound was bloody and large, and Nathan could not hide his alarm.
"I best get some more water," he said, and started to stand; Chris grabbed his arm, his face set with grim anguish.
"Nathan?" was all he said.
The healer paused, pursed his lips before saying, "It's bad, Chris, but I'll do my best. He won't die if I can help it."
He gently pried Chris's fingers from his sleeve. Chris remained on the floor, his head down as he wrung his hands together in fury. The black-clad gunslinger was trembling, his jaw clenched, his teeth gritted in rage. He no longer cared what he promised anyone, where he was, or what sort of wrath he might bring down.
He only knew he was going to send them all to hell, even if he went with them.
It was Vin's voice, quiet, choked, the only thing that could have cut through the wall of anger Chris was swallowed in. Startled, he looked up to see Vin looking at him imploringly, his dusty face worried. For Chris.
Surprised, Chris reached over and grasped Vin's arm.
"Vin, for God's sake, don't talk-"
But Vin ignored him, reaching out to weakly grab Chris's sleeve. "I seen that look before," he gasped, his blue eyes wide. "Don't...go runnin' out there to take revenge, Chris. Don't...get yourself killed. You got...to stay alive. For the others."
Chris wished he could stop trembling. He shook his head.
"Dammit, Vin, they've all but wiped us out," he said, barely able to speak through his rage.
Vin took a labored breath. "But y'can't go kill-crazy," he said, his voice becoming fainter. "Then you'll be as bad as them."
The other man paused. He gazed on his friend, his green eyes ablaze in their intensity and confusion. Vin was right, dammit. And Chris realized he didn't care.
Nathan was back, carrying a slopping pan of water.
"Best clear out, Chris," he said as gently as he could, kneeling down.
Chris kept his grip on Vin's arms for a moment more; the men exchanged looks, then Vin's eyes fluttered closed and he sagged back against the pillow, his hands going limp as his strength left him.
The gunfire had stopped; all was eerily quiet now, even the birds had flown away. Chris realized he was balling his hands into white-knuckled fists, and his breathing was rushed and angry. He had only felt such anger once, when his family was murdered, and he had never thought himself capable of feeling it again, so staggering was its intensity; but here it was again.
Because his family was dying. Again.
He slowly stood and backed away, giving Nathan room to work, his eyes staying on Vin's still, bloodied form. As the healer feverishly ripped away Vin's blood-soaked shirt and threw it aside, Chris turned away, sickened by rage and grief.
He walked a few steps away, listening to the quiet; only his footsteps and the frightened whispers of the nuns praying disturbed the heavy silence. He took a deep breath, hoping it would still his heart. he allowed his gaze to travel the room, until it lit on another cot close by.
Chris had not really seen what the Nichols had done to Ezra; now that he could study their work up close, he felt his fury boil up again. He walked over to the gambler's cot, a hot rage surging through him as he saw up cloose the dark bruises and cuts which covered Ezra's skin, the ugly flow of blood from his mouth, ands heard the rattling gasp as he struggled for air.
"All because he lied to protect me," Chris thought. "I never would have asked him to. Especially if I knew it would lead to this..."
Suddenly Ezra began to cough, gagging as he tried to breathe. Chris quickly crouched by the cot, sliding one arm underneath the gambler's shoulders and lifting him up slightly to ease his breathing. After a moment the spell passed, and Ezra's eyes opened a little, looking at Chris in half-conscious surprise.
Chris met Ezra's stare; there was a very strange light in those eyes, and Chris wasn't even sure Ezra could see him. Then a flicker of recognition crossed Ezra's face, and his eyes suddenly filled-not with blame, as Chris might have feared, but something else. Then the gambler's lips moved, and Chris heard him say, in an almost silent whisper, "Thank you."
Chris sat stunned for a moment; what could Ezra possibly be grateful for, in the middle of all this hell? As if sensing his confusion, Ezra continued, although the effort to speak seemed to be costing him a great deal.
"I didn't think," he said, in a voice so faint that Chris could only really make out the words by reading Ezra's lips, "that anyone..."-here he took a ragged breath, his eyes closing-"would worry about...what happened to me. No one ever did...before." Then his eyes opened again, a little, and to Chris's astonshmant, a small smile touched his lips. "Been...an honor...riding with you. Thank you...for the second chance."
A moment later Ezra's eyes closed and he slumped unconscious into Chris's arms.
The gunslinger sat still for a moment, then settled Ezra back onto the cot, his mind whirling with rage at the Nichols. He knew exactly what he was going to do, now that he'd had to witness his men cut down one by one, and watched innocent people like Casey needlessly suffer. As Chris straightened, he knew in his heart that he would not be able to allow Peter Nichols, or any of his men, to leave the mission alive.
The sanctuary door burst open; Chris's gun was out and aimed before he realized it was Josiah and Josef.
"They've all gone behind the wall, probably gonna try stormin' the place," Josiah said as they came in and closed the door behind them. Chris's jaw clenched as he gripped his guns.
"Hell they will," he said tightly. "We can still stop 'em."
Josiah nodded. "That we can. How's Vin?"
Chris glanced over to where Nathan was tending the tracker, and felt his stomach burn. "He's lost a lot of blood," Chris said quietly, his voice rough. "Nathan's-doin' what he can." He looked back at Josiah. "But you might wanna pray too, just in case."
Josiah nodded. "Got that covered already, believe me. Now, we still have Buck, Josef, you an' me. I figure they still got five men still in shootin' condition. If we-"
Someone was beside them; Chris turned to see Buck there, his face smeared with blood and sweat, his hat gone along with the humor which usually animated his face.
"JD's askin' for you," he said, his voice deep and deadly calm. Chris gazed at him, puzzled, for a moment. Then he sighed and nodded, following Buck back to the vestibule and the too-still figure which lay there.
Casey moved away to allow Chris to enter; JD was indeed awake, just barely by the looks of it.
"Chris," JD mumbled faintly, his half-open hazel eyes bright with fever and urgency.
"JD, you shouldn't be talkin'," Chris chided gently, crouching beside the cot as Buck took his place on the other side.
JD didn't seem to hear him. "Peter Nichols..."
The other man's face hardened. "Don't worry, JD, he ain't gettin' any farther than the front door. We'll-"
"No!" JD insisted, his voice straining as his hands weakly grasped Chris's arms in two loose, trembling fists. "He's got...to come in here."
Chris gazed at him in disbelief. "Peter Nichols?"
JD nodded. His eyes were now wide open.
"He'll kill you, JD." Buck reminded him sternly. But JD was shaking his head, weak but insistent.
"No, he's got..he's got to come in here. He's got to listen." he gripped Chris's arms with the last of his strength. "Promise me...you'll let them in. They...all have to listen."
Chris stared into the young man's eyes, in agony; how could he promise to withhold his anger from the men who had devastated their number? For an instant the anger flared up again, hot and heavy, almost consuming him. Then Chris looked into JD's dying eyes, and knew what his answer had to be.
"All right," he said, in almost a whisper.
JD's eyes began to blink rapidly; with a gasp of relief he sank back into Buck's arms. JD's hands slid off of Chris's arms as Buck eased him onto the mattress. Chris stood slowly and backed away, frowning, as Casey flew back to JD's side. Turning, he saw Sister Sophia regarding him with an anxious expression.
"This another one of those visions?" he asked.
She nodded. "Probably. If he says you must let these men in, then you must."
"And risk them killing us all?" was Chris's angry reply. "I know you consider this a holy place, Sister. Surely you don't want those maniacs in here."
"I can't imagine a better place for them," she replied softly. "Your young friend is right, Mr. Larabee, I can tell. There is a message they need to hear, and this is the only place where that will be possible."
Chris's hand closed on his gun. "And if we have to kill them first?"
She sighed. "Then they'll never hear it. But neither will you."
"Chris!" It was Buck. "They're headin' this way, look!"
Chris made his way to the window; through the trees, now stripped of most of their leaves, he could see the remaining three Nichols brothers and two of their allies moving cautiously towards the mission, their crouched forms and careful progress indicating that they expected to be fired on at any minute. One of the Nichols brothers was limping, a bullet wound in his leg bound in a rough bandage, but he kept pace with the others with righteous strength. Each of them carried two guns in their hands, ready for an all-out battle to end it.
Chris felt the rage roll through him again, and tried to check it. He turned around, walked to the center of the room, thinking as he palmed his gun, his eyes flitting through the room again, lighting on each of his fallen men.
Buck stood over JD, watching out the window as Casey cradled the young man's head next to hers, held his hand and whispered into his unhearing ears. Chris felt tears of rage sting his eyes; JD didn't deserve this, he was too young to die a bloody death in a strange bed. Casey should be teasing him, not waiting for him to die, her youth and innocence dying with him. God, kid, Chris thought as he battled the hot swell of emotion pressing through his heart, this isn't what you bargained for when you joined us at the Seminole village. You came to fight the bad guys. But you didn't think the bad guys might win.
Not far away lay Ezra, unconscious now, his increasingly labored breathing, and the blood which continued to flow from his mouth, indicating the approach of the inevitable. Chris rubbed his face wearily, thinking of the times when he had questioned Ezra's loyalty. There was no questioning it now; Ezra was dying because he had lied to the Nichols to protect Chris, and Chris yearned to pay back that debt in the only way he knew how-by sending Peter Nichols to hell.
And now Vin...Chris looked down at Nathan, valiantly working despite his bleeding arm, cleaning the wound in Vin's chest, with his forceps nearby ready to remove the bullet. The blood seemed to be everywhere, far more than Chris would have thought possible. Vin's skin was frighteningly pale, the dirt and blood stark now against its whiteness. As Nathan turned away to rinse some rags out, Chris crouched beside the bed and studied Vin's face, the closed eyes, the features lined with pain.
You can't die, dammit, he thought, his chest burning with anguish. We've got to got to Tascosa to clear your name, you've got to know what it is to ride through the hills as a free man again. You're a Tanner-
A hand came down on his shoulder, large and gentle. Chris didn't even have to look to see who it was. he shook his head.
"How can I do this, Josiah?" he asked quietly, watching as Nathan returned to cleaning Vin's wound. "How can I stand the sight of that bastard without blowing his head off? It's too much to ask of a man, even for God."
Josiah's grip tightened. "I don't know, Chris. I guess it's a matter of faith."
Faith. Chris swallowed, a bitter taste in his mouth as he stood and faced Josiah.
"Faith?" Chris said, in a tired, bitter voice, looking around. "In what, Josiah?"
The other man looked at him steadily. "In what we're doin' here," he said softly. "In what we're fightin' for. We're tryin' to stop an evil, Chris, an' that ain't never easy. JD an' Ezra an' Vin knew that, but they fought anyway. They weren't lookin' for any reward save victory, an' we can still win that for 'em."
Chris looked at him, his green eyes dark with anger. "I don't see how anything in all this mess could be called a victory."
Josiah sighed, toyed with his hat before looking back at Chris. "Ezra wanted you to know, Chris, that he wasn't sorry for protectin' you from the Nichols, even though they all but killed him for it. He knew the price he might pay, we all did. The victory is in doing battle anyway, to our last breath if need be, to end this fight for good. Least we can go to our graves knowin' we did our duty."
Chris gazed at him for a few moments, his eyes uncertain; then he looked once more around the room, at JD, at Ezra, at Vin. At Sister Sophia, her face bright with wondrous hope, and Sister Mayven and the other nuns who knelt in supplication at the altar, praying for peace. At Ma Nichols, a black figure in the shadows, bent over in guilt and grief.
Then he headed for the door.
"Josiah, Josef, you stay in here."
"You're not gonna fight 'em alone, are you?" Buck's voice was a disbelieving whisper. Chris glanced at Sophia.
"If this goes as it's supposed to, I won't be fighting them at all."
She smiled a little.
Josiah hoisted his rifle. "We'll be on the other side of the door, just in case."
Chris nodded, and pulled the door open; down the hall he could hear them coming, their heavy boots echoing on the hard floor. Chris palmed his gun, stepped through the door, heard it close behind him.
Buck wasn't listening to the world anymore.
He had been; as the fight between his friends and the Nichols began, Buck had had his gun out and ready, been firing out the sanctuary windows as the nuns behind him knelt and prayed in the dusty pews. It had felt good, to get some of the anger out, to shoot at the cause of all his anguish and turmoil, to feel that there was something he could do. Buck had heard the sound of battle, and it was a balm to his tortured soul.
But that was changing.
First he had seen Ezra being dragged into the harsh morning sunlight, and felt his heart stop; the gambler looked so bad, Buck thought he was dead. He wasn't, but only a well-placed bullet had saved Ezra from a gruesome fate. And as he watched Josiah rescue their friend, Buck's world became smaller, and more quiet. He didn't want to listen to the sounds of battle anymore.
After a while the wooden doors of the sanctuary had opened, and Josiah and Nathan brought Ezra in, to safety. Buck had been at JD's side then; the boy was asleep, or passed out, and Casey was holding his hand, but Buck had been so distracted by the tumult of emotions that he felt as if he was losing touch with reality. Seeing Ezra only heightened that feeling, and for a moment Buck had felt completely lost. Had he said anything to the gambler, who was now lying unconscious on a pallet a dozen yards away? Buck had blinked at the sight of Ezra's beaten face, pale and unmoving as Nathan sat beside him; the healer's own arm was bleeding as he reloaded his gun and watched the closed sanctuary door grimly. Buck shook his head; he didn't remember.
And his world grew smaller yet.
Then, finally, Vin had been wounded, and Buck had seen Chris' rage, felt the spasms of helplessness and barely-controlled anger that surged through his friend. Vin's blood spotted Buck's clothes, and Buck could still feel the heaviness of Vin's body in his arms. They had brought Vin into the sanctuary, for safety, but mostly, Buck thought, so Vin could be among friends when he died. And Buck saw it in Nathan's face: Vin would die. Like Ezra. Like JD.
But this knowledge left Buck curiously numb; Buck found himself beyond feeling, beyond hearing, had walled himself up in a fortress where he couldn't hear the sound of the gunfire ripping through the sacred walls; couldn't smell the blood of his friends as it stained his clothes and hands; couldn't see them dying, one by one. He was detached, could even watch without emotion as Chris listened to JD's heartfelt plea - an insane plea - to let the Nichols into the sanctuary. Chris had agreed, the last wish granted to a dying friend, and then walked out the door to face the men responsible for this whole nightmare. Buck thought that it was very possible that Chris might be killed, and he would never see him alive again. And felt nothing. His breaking point had been reached, surpassed. He was in another world it seemed, where he could see the nuns quietly praying, could smell the flowers that bloomed outside, could hear the muffled thuds of bullets hitting old plaster and yielding flesh, and feel nothing. Nothing.
Buck was safe in that world. For a few moments, he was coccooned from all possible pain.
And then a small hand touched his arm, and Buck's world collapsed with a thunderous crash.
Buck blinked, came back to himself with the painful abruptness of a wakened dreamer. Had he been asleep?
"Casey?" He whispered, stunned at how quiet the sanctuary was. It was Casey who had touched his arm. He turned, looked around him, felt every emotion flooding back.The nuns were all praying; Sister Sophia was behind Casey, kneeling at the little altar. Nathan was tending his patients, Josiah at his shoulder, helping. Ezra looked pale and fading, and Vin was still bleeding. And JD -
Buck turned to the last, against his will. Knew why Casey had touched his arm and brought him back to himself.
JD was dying.
He was cuddled against Casey's shoulder, where she had slipped it beneath his head so she could hold him. His face was bright with fever, his breath so light and shallow Buck could hardly sense that he was breathing at all. The dark circles under his eyes were more pronounced, and the cuts around his eyes stood out in ghastly relief to his pale features. Death was close; minutes only.
Buck let out a small moan as he felt the walls he'd built crumble, knelt by Casey's side and instinctively put his arm around her, to shore her up. He didn't want to be feeling anything right now, wanted to make a joke or run off and pretend everything was all right, but it wasn't going to happen. JD was dying, beaten and bleeding and so weak that Buck found himself doing something he'd never done before in his life. A thing that pained him to the core of his being, and brought so much agony that he almost cried out loud.
Buck Wilmington gave up hope.
As he squeezed Casey's shoulder and looked into JD's suffering face, Buck stopped praying for JD's recovery; that was past now, the time for miracles was over. The boy had been through so much, had been in so much pain, and Buck had prayed and prayed and no help came. Now the demons were descending, were right outside the door, and there was only one thing left to do.
The one thing Buck thought he would never do.
He prayed for JD to die.
A soft sigh escaped JD's lips, and as Buck and Casey watched he opened his eyes a little and whispered, "Casey?"
Such a tiny sound, as if it were made of smoke. Casey edged closer to JD's face, tightened her grip on his hand. "I'm right here, JD."
JD opened his eyes a little wider, blinked slowly. "I can't see you anymore."
Casey sniffed, took his left hand and held it against her face, against her tears. "I'm here, JD, I ain't leavin'."
He's so sick, God, Buck thought as he glanced at the altar over where Sister Sophia was still praying. I was selfish before, wantin' him to stay. Make him feel better, God, whatever you wanna do, if you gotta take him home, well... just take that hurt out of his eyes. Please.
There was the sound of movement behind Buck, and he glanced over to see Ma Nichols standing there, her face gone pale. Buck knew he should have cared, but he didn't. Let her watch. Maybe it'll haunt her too.
JD closed his eyes again, didn't move as Casey held his hand against her cheek. After a moment he muttered, "Buck?"
The gunslinger was quick to move as close as he could to JD's side, held his right hand so JD knew he was there. "I'm here, kid."
The eyes came open again, searching. JD moved his head, just a little. "Casey..."
"Don't you worry about her," Buck soothed, patting JD's hand, "She'll be just fine. You got my word on that, JD."
JD blinked, not looking at Buck at all but at some spot beyond him. Suddenly he shivered, and Buck clutched his hand, knew it was close now. Very close.
"Oh - " JD gasped, and closing his eyes once again feebly pulled Casey's hand to his swollen lips, and kissed it. For a long, breathless moment JD held her hand to his lips, and Buck saw the dying youth's face wince beneath the flopping black hair and the deliberate injuries. Then JD forced his eyes open once more, just a little, and whispered in a small voice full of pain, "I don't wanna go, Case."
Casey shuddered, and she put her forehead to JD's and began to cry in earnest. "JD, don't fight it. Please don't fight it anymore."
JD sighed, then closed his eyes again and relaxed against Casey's shoulder. Then as Buck watched his face grew slack with a kind of wonder, his breathing grew shallower yet. Buck ducked his head, held that hand tightly; felt the warmth in it fading.
"Mama." JD breathed quietly, so quietly only Buck and Casey heard the word, said like a prayer.
He should have died then, Buck thought, his pain should have ended, but when the gunslinger looked at his young friend's face the struggle was still there, the torment unabated.
Leaning close Buck said, "Go to your mama, JD. Go on, it's all right. You done all you can, time to - to rest now."
He felt presences around him, knew Josiah was behind him. Did not waste a moment to glance behind, but felt Josiah's big hand on his shoulder as he knelt next to the young girl and watched JD's spark flicker fainter and fainter. Go on, JD, he prayed silently, feeling tears come and not even attempting to hide them. JD winced again, and Buck started, afraid another attack was coming; please God, don't let him die that way, the gunslinger prayed frantically. Let him go peacefully. Please, God...
Peter Nichols swaggered to the sanctuary door and looked Chris up and down, fingering his hands in their black leather gloves as he spoke.
"You ready to give up yet, sinner?" He drawled, letting a slow smile snake its way across his face. "I know we got to have you outnumbered now, probably by three to one."
Chris' gun twitched in his hand. He hated Peter Nichols, hated him with a white-hot passion, wanted to kill him slowly so it hurt. But he couldn't. He'd promised JD.
So he shook his head instead and said simply, "You think long odds scare me?"
Peter dropped his hands toward his revolvers and said, "I think your men dying around you scare you. And they're dying slowly too, aren't they? No quick and merciful deaths for them, no sir."
Chris felt his composure slipping, fought the urge to bring up his gun and put out both of Peter Nichol's smug, arrogant eyes. So much hate -
But no. He promised Vin too. Deep breath. "I've been asked to offer you a deal."
Peter grinned in an oily way. "That's it. Beg me for your friends' lives."
Fight it, dammit. Chris forced himself to stay civil. "Somebody in there wants to talk to you. Your ma's in there too. Come with me, maybe we won't shed any more blood today."
Peter's face said he couldn't believe what Chris was saying. He looked behind him, at Luke and Matthew, at Fin's men, and almost laughed.
"Vengeance is ours today," He exulted, putting his hands on his hips and glaring at Chris triumphantly, "And yet you would make it sound as if it's your idea that we walk into that room and take the rest of our revenge."
Chris didn't try to hide his contempt. "Even you wouldn't shoot off a gun in a church."
Luke and Matthew both exchanged uncertain glances, looked at Peter with what Chris saw as a very nervous expression. Peter just gazed at Chris evenly and finally said, "How do I know this isn't some kind of trap?"
Chris sighed. Said quietly, "I swear to God it's not."
There was a pause. Luke leaned toward Peter and whispered, "Ma's in there, Peter. Maybe we can just take her and get to Mexico."
A grin covered Peter's face, slowly. He eyed Chris and said, "I and my men will walk into that room and be unharmed."
Chris nodded, the hardest thing he had ever done. The bastard who hurt JD, who tortured Ezra and shot Vin. This slimy bastard was going to go in there and gloat. If only he hadn't promised...but JD was dying, and seemed to want it so badly. A tight whisper: "You have my word."
"You leave the door open. We smell a trap, I can't make any promises regarding the actions of my men."
Chris just blinked at him. God, he was so tired.
Peter leaned back on one hip. Seemed to think it over.
Finally grinned and said, "Naw. I think I'll just shoot you."
Chris whipped up his gun.
Peter and the others raised theirs.
Before a single shot was fired, the sanctuary doors opened.
And Sister Sophia stepped out.
Peter and Chris both stopped, surprised. Peter's eyes widened, and he looked Sophia up and down appreciatively.
"Well, well, well," He said in a soft whistle, "And what do we have here?"
Sophia smiled, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Chris was trying to put himself between her and the Nichols. "My name is Sister Sophia. I've been sent to bring you into God's presence."
"Is that right." Peter grinned, holstering his gun and casting a gleaming eye on the young nun.
Sophia nodded, her liquid gaze falling on Luke and Matthew, who just stared, amazed. Then her expression turned dark. "But we have to hurry. There isn't much time."
Peter's eyes slid to Chris, and the gunslinger felt fresh rage at the triumph he saw there.
Then Peter waved one gloved hand toward the open door and said in the smoothest of tones, "Lead on, my dear. Please."
Buck felt the air change when Peter Nichols and the others walked in, felt it charge as if with a jolt of electricity. He instinctively moved Casey a little to his left, fought the urge to jump up and throttle the grinning son-of-a-bitch who stood at the door, looking over the sanctuary like it was his prize trophy room. Vin and Ezra were both unconscious, but Josiah and Nathan were glaring at Peter like he was the devil himself. And maybe he was.
As soon as she saw her sons, Ma Nichols came forward. "Peter - "
"Why, mother," Peter responded laconically, smiling at the devastation around him and not looking at his mother at all. "You're still alive. What a surprise."
The widow shook her head, her face pale and beseeching. "Son, this must stop. Please give yourself up before these men are forced to commit a sin in this holy house."
Peter grunted in disgust. "No faith in my abilities, mother? How unlike you." He began to walk, slowly, every eye in the room following him as he went. "Surely you have seen our handiwork, the noble legacy of our father carried on in his sons. You're so certain my blood will be spilled?" he stopped, tilted his head down and gave Ma Nichols a taunting look. "Whose blood is on this floor, mother. You tell me."
The old woman shook her head again, more strongly. "It's shameful what we've done, Peter, it's wrong. It doesn't bring peace. You have to stop it now, to save your soul."
Peter brought his head back. "There you're wrong, mother. I've never felt so peaceful, so alive and so full of righteousness. This is the Lord's work we've done this day."
Josiah stood protectively in front of Ezra, his gun drawn on Peter as he shook his head. "You call this the Lord's work. You should be ashamed of yourself."
"And yet I'm not." Peter said in a flip way, looking down to check his revolver.
"Please," Sister Sophia interjected, coming to Peter's side and taking his arm gently, as if he were the most innocent being in the world. "Come over here. He wants to speak with you."
Peter smiled lasciviously at this attention. "Why, anywhere with you, my dear." He cooed, then looked puzzled as they drew near the cot where JD was lying curled up in Casey's arms. The young girl glared at Peter, wrapping her arms protectively around JD's head as Peter came close.
"Well, my my," Peter trilled as he grinned at Casey, at Buck who seethed at her side, at the pale and wasted youth who lay nearly dead in the young girl's arms. "He's not dead yet? Truly remarkable."
Buck let out a small growl, narrowed his eyes.
JD stirred in Casey's arms, fought to open his eyes. With a mighty effort he gasped, "I've got to..."
Peter's eyebrows went up, and he looked at Sophia in astonishment. "My God, he can still talk. I'm surprised he has the strength, with all the blood he's probably been vomiting."
Buck nearly stood up. "Why you - "
"Enough of this." Peter said tiredly, and before anyone could move whipped his arm around Sophia's neck and pulled his revolver out with his other hand. It was at Sophia's temple in an instant.
With a loud click every gun in the room came up and aimed itself. Buck, Chris, Josiah and Josef trained theirs on Peter; Fin's men trained theirs right back. Matthew and Luke stood in the middle, clearly uncertain what to do.
Peter grinned widely and looked at Buck, his eyes bright. "Now, what do you say me and my men get safe passage out of here, hm? Is that worth this girl's life to you?"
"You let her go." Buck growled, his gun steady.
"Peter!" Ma Nichols barked. "Stop that nonsense this instant."
"Shut up, mother," Peter yelled, taking a step toward the door. "Your mind's been poisoned, just like John's. But it won't stop me. I've already won."
JD stirred in Casey's arms, his breathing more ragged and desperate as he whispered, "No..."
Sister Sophia was perfectly calm, placed both her hands on Peter's confining arm and said softly, "You cannot harm me if it is not God's will."
"Oh, with all due respect, Sister," Peter sneered, "Yes, I can. If they don't let me go, I'll splatter your virgin brains all over this room."
Luke and Matthew both turned white. "Aw, come on, Peter - " Luke attempted.
"No... stop it." JD panted, pushing himself away from Casey's grasp. He only went a few inches, then lay sweating and half-conscious on the cot.
Buck looked at JD, went to him and put a hand on his shoulder. The youth's wrists were bleeding again, and he looked grey. "JD, calm down."
Peter snickered, stopped his backward journey toward the door and tilted his head at the youth whose hazel eyes had struggled open and were staring past his shoulder. "No, by all means, let him get worked up. It's more fun to me if he's in a lot of pain when he dies."
Buck stood up quickly, his face black with anger. "You son of a - "
"Buck, stop it." Chris commanded, stepping far enough forward to push the barrel of his gun into Peter's back. In the calmest of voices Chris said, "Let Sister Sophia go."
Peter stiffened, but didn't move. He brought Sophia's ear close to his lips and whispered, "Oops. Sorry, sister, guess somebody's gonna get harmed after all."
At that moment there was a gasp at the door, and all eyes turned to see John Nichols leaning against the door jamb, blood running down his arm.
"John!" Ma Nichols cried, going to her youngest son.
"I'm all right, ma," John gasped, stumbling into the room.
"You dare to show your face to me." Peter glowered, toying with his gun even though he was being covered by Chris and three other men. "You traitor. Judas."
John shook his head as he came to stand between Peter and where Ezra lay motionless. "I'm sorry, Peter, but this isn't right and you know it. Ma doesn't want it, I don't want it. David wouldn't want it. We've hurt too many people, and it's time to stop - "
"Shut up!" Peter screamed, and smacked John across the face with his fist. The youth tottered backwards into Josiah's arms.
Luke and Matthew gasped. Ma Nichols took one step forward.
Chris raised his gun and cocked the hammer.
"No!" Ma Nichols shouted, lunging at Chris and pulling his arm away.
Peter laughed, jammed the gun into Sophia's temple and fired.
There was a collective gasp as the snap of the hammer echoed through the sanctuary. Astonished, Peter numbly dropped his arm from around Sophia's neck, didn't even look as she calmly walked away from him; Instead he glared at his gun in an insane way, then snapped his revolver open and checked the chamber. Fully loaded.
"I told you," Sophia in the gentlest of tones, turning to face him. "You cannot harm me if it is not God's will."
Peter made an angry face, began to raise his hand again.
"I'll take that." Chris said flatly, and reached for the gun.
Quick as a snake, Peter snapped the gun closed and aimed it at Chris as Fin's men brought their rifles up once again. The men looked around; every gun in the room was aimed at someone else.
"Well, well." Peter grinned as he stared down his shiny revolver at Chris' head. "God may be protectin' the nuns, but I don't think he's protectin' your sinning soul." He cocked the hammer and said in a silkly voice as his black eyes wandered the room, "Looks like we got a stalemate. Who wants to fire first?"
JD let out a small sob, and as Casey stroked his burning forehead whispered, "I can't..."
"Shhh," Casey soothed, her universe melting into that tight space as she cradled JD close. "Let it go, JD. Just let it go."
But JD was shaking his head, so faintly Casey could barely feel it. In a voice so soft only Casey heard him he said, "Help me..."
Casey cradled him closer. Didn't know what to do.
She felt a hand at her shoulder, saw Sister Sophia kneeling down next to her, her face glowing with a light that Casey didn't understand. But she wanted JD in that light, and so asked, "Can you help him? Please?"
Sophia nodded simply. And closed her eyes in prayer.
Peter kept his gun aimed high at Chris' head, his face gleaming with pride as he said, "We may rejoice, my brothers. This is our triumph. MY triumph. I've crippled your men, driven you into hiding, and now I will complete my task of vengeance."
The nuns still huddled in the corner, watching the raised guns with fearful eyes. Peter, his brothers and Fin's men held their guns on Chris and Josiah, who aimed theirs right back, each waiting for the other's move. And beneath them, in mournful silence, Ezra and Vin silently faded. Nathan was kneeling between their cots, his hands bloodied, his face lined with weariness and frustration. And JD was almost gone.
For a long moment everything froze, and nothing was heard except the songbirds outside, and Ezra's labored breathing. The air was tight, ready to explode.
Buck positioned himself in front of Casey and JD and prayed as he aimed his gun that the boy would die in peace and quiet, not in a hail of gunfire. Come on God, Buck thought, his eyes darting around the tense scene, we need that miracle Sister Sophia's been talkin' about. Can't see no other way out of this, frankly...
Utter silence, before the nightmare din of war...
...and a small sound, seemingly out of nowhere...
"Don't. Petes, don't."
The room was so quiet, JD's raspy whisper had the impact of a cannon. The youth moved again, opened his eyes and looked around at the empty air, his face bright with fever, the cuts and bruises around his eyes in ghastly relief against his pale skin.
John's eyes shot to the dying youth on the cot, then to Peter. Chris kept his gun trained on the madman, saw him start a little at JD's voice, knew he could be whipcord fast.
Peter blinked, and looked somewhat surprised. He stared at JD, who was struggling to sit up with a frantic, renewed energy. Peter paused, then suddenly raised his gun at the youth.
Buck's was up in less than a heartbeat. "You even think about it," he growled, "And I'll shoot you where it'll take you a month to die."
Peter reconsidered. And lowered his gun, his face ashen, but not because of Buck's threat.
JD was sitting almost upright in Casey's embrace, breathing in great hitching gasps, and when Buck hurried to his side the boy grabbed his shirt for support and leaned his weight against him. Buck saw that JD's wrists were bleeding again.
"She's helping," JD whispered as he closed his eyes against Buck's chest, "They both are, but it's so hard, Buck...I'm so tired..."
Buck grit his teeth, angry that God was letting JD suffer instead of taking him home so he could be at peace, but another glance at the youth's face brought him up short; JD was slumped against Buck's shoulder, but his face no longer looked tormented or in pain; and Buck realized that JD had crossed over already, was merely waiting for his body to catch up. Already he felt lighter in Buck's arms, as if the soul was already gone. Confused, Buck glanced up, saw Sister Sophia looking at JD with a radiant light in her eyes. Buck didn't understand it.
"What the hell's going on here?" Peter snarled, taking a few steps towards JD's cot. "I thought that brat was dead."
JD opened his eyes again, and Buck saw the same radiant light there, knew something was happening that was out of his understanding. Casey saw the light too, pulled herself closer to JD as the dying boy looked at Peter as steadily as he could and shook his head. "He's standing right behind you. He's - he wants to talk to you. He's saying Petes, you've got to listen. Now, before it's too - "
"Stop calling me that!" Peter cried out, his gun up now but jerkier than before. "Nobody calls me that, I hate that name."
JD's tranquil face took on a trace of confusion, his eyes flickering to a point over Peter's shoulder. "But...that's what he's calling you. Petes."
Chris noticed that Luke and Matthew were both turning very pale, and looking at their mother. Ma Nichols herself had sunk down in a pew, her face beatific with recognition.
At Ezra's side, John had turned white as well and whispered, "Oh, my God."
Nathan heard his remark and asked, "What is it?"
John shook his head. "Only one person ever had the guts to call Peter Petes. He was the only one who got away with it."
Nathan cocked his head. "Who's that?"
Josiah looked at John's face, at Ma Nichols, at Peter. At JD's face, burning with an urgent message. And they all said the same name, at the same time: