The following story is a work of fan fiction. It is not intended to infringe on any copyright or to make a profit. The Magnificent Seven belong to John Watson/Trilogy Entertainment, MGM, and probably others; only the story is my own. Please do not copy, post, or redistribute without permission from the author.

Penance
by The Desperado's Daughter

PART ONE: Nobody Saw It Coming

Nobody saw it coming. . .

Buck Wilmington was in a dead sleep when the rough hands pulled him up out of the bed and through the haze of unfinished and partially intoxicated sleep, he saw the reflection of the hall light on a gun directed at him. Before he could utter a sound, a fist barreled into his torso and he doubled over. He couldn't begin to fight back. He couldn't free his arms. There had to be two holding him from behind.

"What the hell is this?" Buck croaked, not yet able to stand up and look at them.

No one spoke and Buck felt rough ropes being pulled tightly around his wrists. He tripped over his blanket when one of the gunmen pulled him toward the door.

"Go on," a man behind him breathed.

"At least let me put on my pants. . ."

A moment passed and there was a chuckle from the gunman pushing him. Buck looked up and for the first time saw the outline of the two men in front of him-masked with bandanas and heavily armed.

"Pants would be good," a voice behind him said. He could hear guns click ready and felt the ropes loosen. Trying to fight would be suicide. He'd just go for the pants.

CRASH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Next door. . .breaking glass. . .an horrendous struggle. Buck's blue eyes widened as the realization hit - they were going after the kid. Buck seethed, "Whatever you want, you don't need him."

"Shut up!" Again rough hands bound his wrists - more tightly this time. Buck struggled - it was four against one but he had to try. Another blow to his already bruised torso. "I swear to God," Buck's voice was thick with pain, "if you hurt him, I'll kill you."

"You'll try. . ." someone behind him said and he pushed Buck toward the door. Buck felt a panic as he listened to JD fighting for his life. The voices next door grew louder and Buck cussed a blue streak as they dragged him toward the door.

But it was the sharp report of a gunshot that stopped everything.

"Oh God," Buck whispered and his heart stopped a moment.

"You little shit!" a voice cried out and all the voices grew loud again. Buck was dragged into the hall just in time to see JD being hurled against the wall at the top of the stairs. The kid's mouth was bleeding and his eyes were wide. The man who held him pressed his meaty forearm against his throat, pinning him against the hard wall and nearly cutting off his air. He also pressed a gun into the kid's ribs. "You're a f--ing dead man!"

"Leave him alone!" Buck cried. At his voice, JD's scared eyes cut over to him, bewildered.

"Buck. . ." the boy could hardly make a sound.

As JD's assailant released the hammer of the Colt, a man staggered out of JD's bedroom. His arm was bleeding - a gunshot wound.

"Don't kill him," the injured man said quickly. "Boss wants 'em alive."

For an angry moment everybody froze. The man holding JD started to release him, but then in a blinding flash, his fist connected with the kid's jaw. The blow knocked the boy a few steps down the stairs. JD caught himself just as two men jerked his arms behind his back and tied his hands tightly. His head was hanging and clearly he was dazed. If only Buck could get to him - if only he could help. But there was nothing he could do. Not a damn thing. And that infuriated him.

"Get your hands off of him!!" Buck's rage found a voice. His own captors led him the other way down the hall toward the back staircase. The last he saw of JD, the kid was being thrown roughly down the last few steps where he crumpled to the floor.


Ezra Standish took another sip of cognac then he swept his hand over the table, drawing the collection of chips to a place he'd cleared directly in front of him.

"Gentlemen, forgive my garnering of the spoils," his easy drawl buttered his words. "I am willing, however, in the spirit of good sportsmanship, to offer you an opportunity to recoup your losses. Perhaps. . .double or nothing?"

Josiah Sanchez shook his head. He didn't know how his friend kept his winning streak going but it intrigued him. He'd watched Ezra closely for weeks and still hadn't spotted any patterns or tricks.

"Put your eyes back in your head, Brother Sanchez. You will never master the fine art of gambling by watching the master." A wry grin crossed Ezra's face as he played out his pun. "That is how he remains. . ." he tapped the deck of cards. . ."the master." Ezra eyed the others at the table with self-assured satisfaction. "So what will it be, gentlemen?"

He was answered by a chorus of clicks as everyone at the table, except Josiah, drew a weapon and trained it on them. And in the same instant, two masked men drew up behind them and pressed the barrels of their pistols into the base of their skulls.

"Perhaps I assessed the outcome of our little amusement prematurely," Ezra's voice never waivered. "Allow me to make recompense for my error in judgement."

"What the hell did he just say?" the man next to Josiah asked.

"He'll give you your money back," Josiah translated.

The men around the poker table stood up and Ezra and Josiah felt strong arms haul them to their feet. As they were tied up, Josiah spoke softly to his friend.

"You know, maybe I don't really want to know your secret."


Finally, the patient settled down and dozed. Maybe Nathan could settle down and doze himself. What a long night it had been - and where did this guy come from anyway? He had just. . .shown up on Nathan's doorstep with a frighteningly high fever. Nobody knew who he was. But he needed help and that was all Nathan needed to know.

The gentle former slave had dedicated his life to healing other people. Perhaps the pain of his own life had fostered a certain compassion in him. He had seen too much and hurt too much. Sometime a few years before, he realized that he could live in bitterness over his lot in life or he could rise above it and do something to rid the world of its evils. He chose the latter.

There was a chill outside and the little room was starting to get too cool. Nathan went over to the hearth and stoked the fire. For a moment, he simply stared into the flames - so tired and bleary-eyed. Sighing, he straightened out his tall frame and stretched, then he eased himself into the chair by the fire. He was asleep in minutes.

The sound of heavy footsteps on the stairs startled him awake. His hand went to the knife in the sheath on his back. And he'd have gotten to it in time if his patient hadn't sat bolt upright in bed and pointed a pistol at him. By the time the other men burst into the room, Nathan had his hands in the air and his "patient" was disarming him. It looked like the night was going to get longer yet.


What the hell happened? Vin Tanner tried to remember but his head wasn't clear. The first sensation he experienced was a pounding headache. Had he been hit or something? He just couldn't piece things together. Everything smelled musty - where the hell was he? He forced himself to take inventory. He wasn't shot. Well, that was something. He wasn't cut anywhere. OK, this might not be so bad. He was, however, bound hand and foot and this was not good. Straining, he lifted his head enough to check out his surroundings. A cabin or shed of some kind, long abandoned. No light except for the cold moon through the jagged broken glass.

Footsteps. . .

Bounty hunters maybe? Well, it was bound to happen sometime. He lay his aching head back down on the hard floor. He couldn't focus his thoughts well enough to fight them and he started to give in to the black emptiness of unconsciousness.

"Vin!!"

He knew that voice.

"Vin, are you ok?"

"That you, Buck?"

"Yea - you had me scared there for a minute."

Vin didn't even try to look up at him. "What the hell is happening?"

"Damned if I know. Four guys dragged me out of bed. All wearing masks. And they got JD. . ."

Vin painfully pulled himself up beside Buck and squinted at him. "Is he ok? Did they hurt him?"

"They hurt him," Buck said, his eyes reflecting the anger he felt. "He shot one of 'em. God only knows what they'll do to him." He shook his head slowly. "And I couldn't help him. . .I just watched them. . .hit him," his voice grew husky.

"Did you see where they took him?"

Buck shook his head, no. "But I'm gonna find him."

"I'll help you," Vin said. "As soon as the room stops spinning."


Chris Larabee looked up at the old Regulator clock in the sheriff's office. Nearly three a.m. Damn, he must've fallen asleep. He stood up stiffly and glanced at the prisoner asleep in the cell. Where was Vin? He was supposed to relieve him two hours ago.

The brisk night air felt good to him as he stepped into the silent street. He headed toward the saloon. Vin was probably asleep himself at some corner table. How many nights had he started sleeping in a chair before ever getting to bed? This was one of those pointless questions that crossed his mind when he was too tired to think of anything else.

He never heard the man with the knife.

But he did hear JD's warning.

"Chris!! Behind you!!"

Chris' reflexes almost saved him. He easily took down the man trying to accost him.

But the two gunmen who appeared from behind the jailhouse had too much hardware. And now they had Chris Larabee.

"JD!" Chris called out, but the kid didn't answer. He had paid for alerting Chris by having a rifle butt connect with his face. Chris watched them drag the boy away and although his voice was steady, his eyes were cold and calculating. "Let the kid go," he said simply.

"Or you'll what?" one of the masked men taunted.

"Mister, you don't want to know."


PART TWO: "You Have No Idea What You're Up Against"

The sun was trying to come up without a lot of success. It wouldn't even make an appearance. The clouds had formed a grey shell separating it from this strange world. In the middle of what would turn out to be nowhere, strong hands pulled a bound and blindfolded Chris Larabee from his horse. He landed roughly on the hard ground. Someone pulled the blindfold off and Chris found himself face to face with the tall, almost spectral figure of Jacob Chiles. Chris' mouth curled in a sarcastic grin.

"You're still alive? I thought you would have died of something by now."

"You're gonna die of something pretty soon, Larabee," Chiles was amused with what he perceived to be a witty retort. He had never been too bright. He wasn't too brave either. He was just. . .well, he was richer than God. And it wasn't anything he earned; he just happened to be the sole heir of an eccentric great-uncle who thought he was Lafayette. Chiles was able to surround himself with people who would do anything at all for a dollar, usually outlaws or nickel-and-dime criminals. If Chiles had been a criminal for the money, it would have been bad enough, but he was a bully. He looked for fights and thought nothing about killing someone who irritated him. Or, more accurately, he would have the person killed.

But Chris Larabee was a whole different story. Chris and the boys had not irritated him -- they had humiliated him. They exposed him for the coward that he was and put him away for the rest of his life. How the hell did he get out? Chris would have to figure that out later.

"What do you want, Chiles?"

The lanky man walked away for dramatic effect. "An eye for an eye. Blood for blood." Chiles turned his head slightly. "Brother for brother. . ."

Of all of Chris' skills he had honed over the hard years, none served him better than his ability to receive information with absolutely no visible reaction at all - no twitch of the jaw muscle, no flash in his eye. It was disarming. And it contributed to the mystique of the legendary gunslinger. It was almost menacing.

Chris maintained a steady eye contact with Chiles. "I forgot you can't speak in complete sentences."

"UGH"

Chiles kicked him in the stomach. "Don't have to."

Chris was not deterred. "So you have a problem with me and you're taking it out on a kid." He eyed Chiles as though assessing him in some way. "Well, that sounds about right."

Chiles grabbed Chris' collar and got in his face. "You have no idea what you're up against. You don't begin to know the extent of my power." Chris didn't respond, but kept glaring at him. Chiles' "power" obviously didn't impress him - and that unnerved the weaker man. Chris Larabee could be condescending in absolute silence. Chiles' men didn't need to witness that. Chiles kicked him again and walked away. "Get him out of here."


The big man squirmed. Being tied up was a damn nuisance and Josiah had quit asking his Maker for patience about ten minutes ago. He had not quit jerking around ever since. With a grim determination, he scratched one leg with the heel of his boot. Then he resumed scooting back and forth on the floor, bumping into a tired and equally frustrated Ezra. Finally he stopped.

For two seconds.

With a massive jerk, he shook fiercely.

"Please!!!!" Ezra cried.

Josiah was startled. For a moment, he froze. Then he looked away, suddenly embarrassed. Ezra almost felt guilty for saying anything. Josiah bit his lip.

"Sorry," he said, and in a softer voice. . .

"Chafing."

"Excuse me?" Surely Ezra misunderstood him.

"I'm chafing, all right?" Josiah snapped at him. "Chafing, itching. Sweating in denim will do that to a man - no change of underwear since. . ."

"All right! All right!" Ezra interrupted him. "There is no need to paint such a vividly detailed portrait of your unfortunate condition." His voice grew intense. "I need no enlightenment."

Josiah never looked up. "You're chafing too."

"Oh god yes," Ezra lay his head back, sighing. "This . . ." he searched for a word.

"Stinks. . ." Josiah finished for him.

"Yes, decidedly."

"I know, brother, I know."


Buck was trying to figure out where he was. It didn't seem like the cabin had ever been a home. It was more like . . . a business of some kind or. . . hell, he didn't know. But it was precious little shelter against the fierce wind. There was a storm coming up.

Vin had slept fitfully for the last couple of hours. Buck woke him up regularly and talked to him. Somehow he remembered Nathan saying that that was important if someone had a head injury. Bound as he was, he couldn't do more for his friend . . . just like he couldn't do anything for JD.

God, where had they taken him?

Buck couldn't get the picture out of his head - the kid looking to him, scared and confused. And so young. Sometimes Buck forgot he was just nineteen. They had such fun cutting up and horsing around. JD seemed older to him at those times.

Buck had to smile at himself. It wasn't that the kid seemed older. Buck became younger around JD, and that was a good thing.

But there was more to it than that. Buck had lots of friends - even close friends like Chris. Friends he could stand by and stand up for, but they were always people who could take care of themselves. JD, though . . . well, there was a kid who needed somebody - a father, a brother, a friend. He had had none in his life. And somehow he had latched on to Buck.

Or maybe it was the other way around.

JD had become the pet of the group - a kid brother to the seasoned gunmen. He had brought with him an enthusiasm which they had long ago lost, a remnant of their own lost boyhoods. He reminded them of everything they used to dream about, and in his admiration of them, they reclaimed something of themselves.

For the first time in his young life, the boy belonged. He had friends who would die for him - and a brother who would love him . . .

But was it worth it? God only knew what was happening to him. The friendships he cherished could have cost JD his life . . .

Buck's thoughts were interrupted when Vin stirred.

"Take it easy," Buck said. "You're ok."

Vin started to lift his head, but then thought better of it.

"Don't try to move." He sniffed.

"Has anything happened?"

"You mean something other than getting dragged out of bed, beat up, tied up and brought out to this god-forsaken hellhole? No, nothing much . . ."

Hoofbeats . . . galloping closer. Vin groaned. "Our ride is here."


This was sickeningly familiar. Nathan felt a revulsion at having lost his freedom - freedom so precious to him now. Well, he wouldn't let things stay this way. He'd rather be dead. . .

Voices. . .

"Mr. Sanchez, I think we may have been moved to higher quality accommodations. . ."

"It's a tent."

Ezra appeared in the tent opening. "But it is a clean one." His captor shoved him into the space and he tripped a bit. Josiah walked in unaided. "With a friendly face, no less."

"Would you shut up?" the lanky guard said as he walked away.

Nathan peered up at his friends.

"God, Nathan, are you hurt?" With difficulty, Josiah knelt beside him.

"What?" He realized after a moment that Josiah and Ezra were both looking at his shirt. He looked down at it himself. "Oh, yea," his hand went to the bloody stain. "I took a bullet out of one of 'em."

Ezra was trying to sit on the ground with the least disturbance to his person. Nathan eyed them both closely. "Are you all right?"

Ezra and Josiah glanced at each other uncomfortably.

"Yes." Both answered at once.


Buck and Vin waited with bated breath as footsteps approached the cabin. Then the door burst open and a figure all in black was thrown in with them. And just as quickly, the door was locked behind him.

Chris pulled himself up - his eyes flashing. The look changed to concern when he saw Vin.

"Is he ok?" Chris asked Buck.

Vin answered, "He's ok."

Buck shook his slightly, indicating to Chris that Vin was not entirely ok.

"How 'bout you?" Chris asked his old friend.

"They got JD. . ."

Chris nodded. "I know."

"You saw him?"

"More like he saw me. He warned me before they jumped me," Chris' eyes became hard. "And I'm sure he paid for it."

"Bastards!"

Chris nodded toward Vin. "What happened to him?"

Buck shook his head. "He doesn't remember. He must've got hit on the head. Do you know what the hell is going on?"

"Whatever it is, Jacob Chiles is involved."

Vin looked up. "Jacob Chiles? He couldn't pull off something like this. Not alone anyway."

Vin struggled to sit up.

"Easy, pard. . ." Buck's voice had become a comfort.

Chris frowned. "He seems unusually sure of himself, but I haven't seen anybody around except for his hired muscle."

"The guys who jumped me were wearing bandanas-I couldn't tell anything. But the guy who worked JD over," Buck's eyes burned, "I knew his voice. . .But I couldn't place him."

Chris spoke softly. "How bad did he hurt him?"

"I don't know. The kid is tougher than he looks. But he shot one of them and that's gonna cost him."

"Why didn't they kill him?"

Buck knit his brows. "It didn't register with me at the time. But the guy he shot said, 'Boss wants 'em alive.'"

"They must have all of us," Vin said, finally sitting up a bit.

"What do you think they want?" Buck asked.

"We'll know soon enough," Chris answered soberly.


His feet wouldn't work. They wanted him to walk, but he couldn't quite make his feet work. His face hurt. His ribs hurt. His throat hurt. His head hurt. His ankle hurt. And his heart hurt.

A heavy hand shoved him forward and someone cussed at him. He landed on his knees. Maybe he could just stay down - rest for a minute. But then hands pulled him back up and made him walk again.

It would be easier if he could see where he was going, but this damn blindfold . . .

What he didn't know hurt the most.

What had they done to Buck? Where had they taken him? Why had they taken him somewhere else?

And Chris? Even the mighty Chris Larabee hadn't seen it coming.

"Move!!" a harsh voice repeated.

I'm trying. I swear, I'm trying. And he'd have said it too . . .but nothing worked quite right. He managed to keep walking haltingly for a few more steps.

"Sir," that was a new voice. A young voice. "Don't you think he needs to rest?"

"I don't give a shit what he needs," a voice he remembered . . .

"Sir, he's had enough . . ."

SMACK . . . "I decide what happens in this camp, private. Get back to your post." A long moment passed before the older voice yelled, "And don't you EVER cross me again."

In the long run, it didn't matter that they wanted him to walk, that he needed to rest, that he'd had enough.

He fell.

Welcome unconsciousness. . .


PART THREE: Daybreak

Mary Travis watched anxiously for the stagecoach. It had been two days since the little town of Four Corners had been upheaved, and the information she had been able to piece together offered her no comfort.

Boarding house residents had heard the sounds of a struggle, but the gunshot they heard prevented anyone from taking the initiative to help. Evidence of the struggle was everywhere - the broken lock at the front door, the stairwell where pictures had been knocked off the wall, the cracked rail of the back stairwell. Mary had found blood trailing out of young JD Dunne's room and both his room and Mr. Wilmington's bore evidence of even more violent struggles.

Hadn't anyone else heard anything? Please - you can talk about it, the danger has passed. Isn't there anybody?

One townsperson had heard shouts in the street sometime around three a.m.

But he had been afraid to look out the window.

When was the last time anyone saw one of them? Well, the bartender had entrusted his establishment to the big man who had been a preacher, as he had done so many nights when the gambler was on a roll. And no, he hadn't recognized the young men who were getting cleaned out at the poker table. No, the only other ones there were sitting at the corner table sleeping off the effects of too much whiskey. He hadn't seen their faces, but they seemed older. Probably ranchhands who were moving a herd - glad to find even the smallest vestige of civilization. Didn't seem like troublemakers.

It wasn't until the next morning that Mary realized that anything had happened. She had been staying with Miss Nettie, tending to her and her neice, Casey. They were finally recovering from a lingering case of the influenza. Mary had started back early, satisfied that her charges were well enough to take care of themselves.

The first indication that Mary had that there had been trouble was a horse wandering down the street - saddled but with no rider. Wasn't that Mr. Tanner's horse?

How could he have wandered off? Mr. Tanner was very conscientious. Something must've happened.

Mary had looped the reins over the hitching post outside the Clarion and then she'd hurried over to Nathan Jackson's. If Mr. Tanner had been hurt or taken ill, Mr. Jackson could help.

But she'd found the little makeshift clinic abandoned - sad embers glowing in the hearth and Mr. Jackson's knives on the bed. And that man with the fever was gone. What was happening? In a panic, she had sought Chris Larabee, but . . .

Thank God! The stage thundered into the town bringing help - bringing hope.


JD opened his eyes slowly. Well, he wasn't walking anymore. That was good. Oh, but every inch of his body was sore - and his face . . .

It was nighttime and he was in a - was it a tent? There was the sound of sleep-breathing, and light snoring. JD started to get up, but he was bound hand and foot. He groaned in spite of himself.

One of the bodies in the tent with him stirred and he was overcome with now-familiar fear. Would they kill him this time?

He bit his lip and made himself very small, curling up as far away from the others as he could. Like that would help anything.

"JD?"

It took a moment for the voice to register with him. "Josiah?"

At the sound the others woke from their light sleep.

"Thank God, he's awake," Josiah said, keeping his voice low, then he moved a bit closer to the boy. "How do you feel, son?"

JD didn't answer - his face hurt. He was disoriented. He tried to discern who was in the tent with him, but his eyes hadn't adjusted to the dark.

Maybe this was a trick. Maybe it was a trap. Maybe he just thought it was Josiah. He pulled away from the voice.

"It's ok, kid." Nathan worked his way closer, the effort difficult because of the ropes binding him. "Tell me where you hurt."

JD tried to move further away, but couldn't. He became completely paralyzed with fear. Josiah's eyes burned. Dear God, what had they done to the boy? Even the usually impervious Ezra Standish was affected. And a strange protectiveness came over him. Nathan and Josiah continued trying to calm JD, then Ezra took a shot.

"Mr. Dunne," Ezra said in his calculated molasses drawl. "You'd best let the surrogate doctor evaluate your injuries or you will not be in any condition to win back your substantial losses at the poker table." The boy was listening. There was no way this could be a trick. "Clearly, you have met with greater calamity than any of us have on this little adventure and if you are going to be of any value in effecting our escape, you must be in a more physically efficient state."

"Huh?" JD's typical answer to the gambler's ramblings was a source of relief to his friends.

"Ezra is worried about you, son," Josiah translated. "We all are. Now, where are you hurt?"

JD looked at the preacher with a tentative trust.

He started to answer when another thought interrupted and his face clouded. "They got Buck."

A palpable disappointment swept through the little tent as the other men realized that the ambush had been even more extensive than they'd thought.

"Have you seen him?" There was a heartbreaking plea in the kid's voice.

"'Fraid not," Nathan's answer was gentle. "But Buck can take care of himself. Try not to worry yourself about it."

JD squeezed his eyes closed. Buck, where are you?

"Kid," Nathan's pulled his thoughts back. "I need to know . . ."

"Chris - have you seen Chris?"

"Sweet Jesus . . ." Ezra breathed.

"No," Josiah masked his own sudden sense of hopelessness. "Did you see them take him, too?"

JD started to answer, but hot tears filled his eyes, and he could only nod, yes. He choked back a slight sob that caught in his throat and then he bit his lip. He looked searchingly into the faces of the more experienced gunmen.

"Well, I imagine Mr. Larabee has figured out a way to make his abduction work to everyone's advantage. He and Mr. Wilmington are probably biding their time until the perfect opportunity presents itself for overtaking these . . . hoodlums."

Ezra sounded so convincing that even Josiah and Nathan glanced over at him . . . then back at JD.

There was the faintest glimmer of hope in the boy's eyes.

Josiah tried a different approach. "What happened to your face?"

"Rifle butt . . . I warned Chris . . . they hit me . . ."

The men felt utter rage.

"I think . . ." JD searched for the rest of his thought. "I think my face is broken." A nervous chuckle escaped from his throat.

"What else, JD? Anything else broken?" Nathan asked.

"A rib maybe? A couple? I don't know," JD frowned. "I don't know."

"How about your breathing? Does it hurt?"

"Oh, I'm still breathing," he answered too quickly.

Nathan had to smile. "Yea, that's good. Does it hurt to breathe or is it hard to breathe?"

"It hurts . . ."

A thought suddenly occurred to him. "Are you guys all right? I didn't even ask you."

The others looked at one another. This was quite a kid.

"Well, I, for one, was relieved of very large winnings at the poker table - Mr. Sanchez can attest to that. But other than that - and I am in no way downplaying the negative effects of monetary loss - we are all faring surprisingly well."

Josiah's eyes twinkled. "That is not entirely true, Brother Standish."

Ezra grinned and he picked up Josiah's thought. "No - it seems that Mr. Sanchez and I share a common affliction as a result of our unfortunate ordeal." He leaned toward JD and spoke more softly. "I confess that it is a less than delicate irritation of the skin which has been caused by and aggrevated by the lack of variety in our apparrel." Ezra was having fun now. "This coupled with the unavoidable presence of perspiration has created a most uncomfortable situation."

"Huh?"

"Chafing," Josiah translated.

"Oh." JD nodded.

"We're fine," Nathan said. "And I reckon Buck and Chris are, too."

JD began to relax a bit, talking more freely. Nathan was able to at least hazard a guess at the extent of the boy's injuries. He would recover if he could get some rest and stay off of his ankle. He had most likely sprained it. The ribs would heal and his face would heal. But the poor kid was exhausted. And he was scared. Whoever had kidnapped them seemed to have a personal vendetta against the boy and the hard truth was - they couldn't protect him. At least not the way things stood.

As a soft rain pattered against the heavy canvas, Ezra entertained him with lively conversation which was over JD's head. Once he was sure the kid was asleep, he leaned his head back and spoke to Josiah and Nathan, his voice frighteningly even. "As soon as we are out of this god-forsaken void, I am going to find Mr. Dunne's assailants and introduce them to my Derringer."

Josiah nodded. "I've got a couple of friends I'd like to introduce them to as well. I certainly do."


Mary finally could sleep. The wheels were in motion and tomorrow the posse would head out. And what a posse!

Judge Travis had arrived as promised on the four o'clock stage. He and Mary had seen each other through the hardest of times. He would get her through this. She had embraced her father-in-law for a long moment, her eyes glistening with tears. She had done everything she could do by herself, and thank God, now she had help.

Lots of help, she had realized as two vaguely familiar faces emerged from the coach. She'd looked at the Judge inquisitively.

"I've been investigating, and this thing is bigger than Four Corners." he'd told her as he put his arm around her and walked her to the Clarion. "And we've got more help coming." His voice was always a comfort to her. "It's gonna be all right."


"Get up!!"

Buck felt the hard toe of a boot in his side. A hell of a way to wake up.

"Damn!" he cried and he instinctively rolled into his assailant.

"Easy, Buck" Chris warned, and he winced as Buck took a harder kick in the stomach.

God, his ribs had had enough, but he bit his lip. Chris was right. Fighting right now could get him killed and this wasn't the hill he needed to die on.

"Hey!" Another man stood over Vin. The bounty hunter opened his eyes groggily, but evidently not fast enough, because the next thing he knew, he was hauled to his feet and slammed against the wall.

"You sonofabitch!!" Buck cried.

Chris got up. "Leave him alone," he said. "He's hurt. He won't give you any trouble."

The man spun on Chris, drawing his revolver and waving it at him. "You don't have any say in this, Larabee. You ain't in charge."

Chris wasn't intimidated. "Leave him alone." He stated it in the same tone of voice as he had before, but something in his eyes communicated a very real threat to the two-bit hood, and he backed off.

Buck had painfully stood up and he had made his way over to Vin. "Lean on me," he said and Vin balanced against Buck's shoulder.

"Where're we going?" Vin asked softly.

"Damned if I know," Buck answered and they were led out.


Sunrise came too early for the exhausted prisoners. Josiah awoke first and looked at his sleeping friends. There had to be a way out of this. All of their attempts to loosen each other's bonds had been futile. Their captors were pros.

The boy was sleeping well. How young he looked, with his beaten face, and his too-long black hair. He had finally shaved the non-commital facial hair that refused to grow evenly on his face. The fact that it had taken him so long to grow it had proven miserably frustrating. And he had taken all the ribbing he could stand about it. But when he shaved, he looked a couple of years younger yet. Too young to be involved in anything like this. Josiah wanted to get him out. Maybe they could work out some kind of deal, a trade of some sort - but what could they bargain with? Certainly not their lives - they were already in the hands of the enemy.

"'Scuse me . . ." a voice from outside the tent spoke quietly before the tent-flap was lifted. In walked a tow-headed boy just a few years older than JD, wearing what used to be a confederate uniform and wielding a military issue rifle. His expectant blue eyes were maybe a touch fearful.

"Mornin'" the greeting sounded trite, given the circumstances. At the noise, the others woke up.

"I got you breakfast. And I'll take you to the privy . . . one at a time, of course." He squatted beside JD and cut the ropes that bound his ankles.

JD looked at him quizzically. "Hey, I know you . . . your voice, I mean." He sat up a little. "You tried to help me. You tried to get them to let me rest." JD saw the red mark on the boy's face and knew he had gotten that because of his protest on JD's behalf.

The blonde boy looked thoughtful for a moment. "Well, I didn't think what they was doin' was right. I don't care if you have been court-martialed - they got no cause to treat you like that."

"Court-martialed?" Josiah asked.

"Well, yea. Colonel said you been court-martialed and you're traveling with an escaped slave."

"Jesus Christ," Ezra uttered.

Josiah spoke gently. "Son, the war is over. General Lee surrendered. The slaves have been freed. Do you understand?"

The boy's eyes grew wide in disbelief. "What?" He shook his head and stood up. "No . . . no . . . you're . . . trying to get me mixed up." He became agitated and his grip tightened on his rifle. "Don't do that." He started to raise his voice. "It's like you Yanks to pull that kind of thing."

"Excuse me," Ezra drawled. "Do I sound like a 'Yank' to you? I am from the great state of South Carolina and I consider it a personal affront that anyone wearing the proud colors of the Confederacy would mistake me for one of those Northern traitors." He spoke the last words with dripping disdain . . . an indication that perhaps there was more truth in his little discourse than he would have his associates believe.

A wild look came into the boy's eyes. "Oh, no. You can't pull that. You're the one that was spying for them."

"I assure you . . . "

"He ain't a spy," JD's voice was surprisingly calm. "We haven't been court-martialed." JD used every ounce of strength he had to stand up and face the boy. "We were kidnapped." The boys' eyes connected. "Please, you gotta help us . . . and you gotta help the others."

"Others?" the boy said. "Ain't no others."

"Sure there are," JD said. "I saw them take . . ."

"NO!!" the young man's fear drove his anger. "Now, I don't want to hurt you. But I will. You quit talking crazy like this. Just eat your breakfast and SHUT UP!"

JD maintained a steady gaze with the frightened soldier. "I ain't lyin'"

The soldier waited a moment, then rammed the butt of his rifle into JD's torso, knocking him into Josiah. JD curled up and writhed in pain. His beaten body couldn't take much more.

"Oh God . . ." the soldier's eyes filled when he realized what he'd done. "Oh God, I'm so sorry . . . I'm . . ."

"Get out." Ezra's voice bore none of its former gentility. And the soldier left abruptly.


The twenty men Judge Travis had gathered pulled out of Four Corners at daybreak. Tracking would be more difficult because of the intermittent rain of the last three days. But the clouds had moved out and finally there would be sun. A humid sun, but sun nevertheless. It was a good start, anyway.

Mary watched them to the horizon, then she went to Josiah's church.

And prayed . . .


Damn these ropes!

Nobody could help him. They couldn't ease his pain. They couldn't do anything at all for him.

JD groaned and moved away from them . . . withdrawing into the shadows, making himself as small as he could.

"JD," Nathan tried. But the boy was unreachable.

Loud voices outside.

Two men with masks appeared in the tent. One grabbed Nathan and, amid protests from Josiah and Ezra, dragged him out of the tent. The other one went for the kid, turning him over and grabbing him by the collar.

He was met, not with fear, but with acquiescence. The kid had no fight left - like a puppy who had been kicked too often and couldn't fight back.

The masked man's anger was blistering. "You better pray that the doctor man can work a miracle. The man you shot . . . he's burning with fever. And if he dies, I swear to God, you'll follow him."

He threw the boy back to the ground and stormed out.

Josiah's eyes met the kid's, and he realized, heartsick, that the kid's spirit was already dying.


PART FOUR: Penance

They had been standing in the midday heat for almost an hour. The little grouping of tents and small buildings had, at some point in the distant past, constituted some kind of military installment. But beyond the boundaries of the makeshift town there was nothing but scrub brush as far as the eye could see.

They had been there at the end of the street waiting - but for what? The heat was becoming oppressive and Vin was wearing down fast. His dizziness had let up, but the combination of the concussion, poor sleep and almost no food or water had sapped his strength. Every so often, a blonde youth in a tattered gray uniform brought them water - carefully watching over his shoulder for his colonel. And seeing that Vin was weakening considerably, he finally brought a bench over and helped the bounty hunter sit down.

"Thanks, kid," Vin said in a voice that sounded strangely hoarse. The young soldier nodded nervously and walked back to the other side of the street.

"You ok?" Chris asked. Vin nodded. "Better now."

"Look," Buck nodded toward the other end of the town. Two figures were being led out of one of the tents. Their hands were bound and they moved with the stiffness of inactivity.

Josiah towered toward them and they quickly recognized the other man by the dichotomy of filth on finery. Ezra made no attempt to carry himself with his usual fluid grace. His entire body was taut with rage and, as he drew closer to his friends, they could see that his eyes were uncharacteristically cold. It was a startling transformation.

Josiah reached the others first and nodded toward Vin, whose head was hanging between his knees. "How is he?"

Chris spoke softly. "He'll be ok if he can get some food in him and get him out of this heat."

Buck looked very anxious. "JD?" he asked breathlessly.

"They kept him in the tent," Josiah answered soberly. "He's in bad shape."

Buck was about to come unglued. "How bad?"

"They broke his face." Ezra anger was reflected in his crisp, percussive words. "They broke his ribs, and that sorry excuse for a Southerner," he nodded toward the blonde-haired boy, "he . . . broke his spirit."

Chris was calculating retribution. And Buck . . .

"Nathan?" Chris interrupted his own thoughts.

"He's tending to the man JD shot," Josiah answered and filled them in on the court-martial story. They tried to piece together the events of the past three days. And they all knew that it wasn't close to over. Not by a long shot.


The waiting was wearing on them. "What do you reckon this little show is about?" Buck asked.

"Don't know. . ." Vin answered, but Ezra nodded at a strange wooden structure being brought out to the middle of the street. Chiles emerged from the livery and directed the placement of what appeared to be an upended wagon. Missing its wheels. A muscle-bound man followed, then he paused to pull his shirt off.

And they all saw the long, coiled, black whip in his thick hand.

"What the hell are they doing?" Buck asked, although it was sickeningly clear. They would exact retribution from Chris for setting Chiles up - or maybe from Nathan for letting the man die. . .

Chiles walked over to them, a strange grin curling his thin lips. He addressed them as though he were a sergeant briefing a platoon, strolling slowly in front of them.

"We need to make an example out of. . . somebody. You boys have been making life," he searched for a word, "difficult for folks in my profession. You cost me three years of my life and you cost me my brother. . ."

Vin spoke up. "Your brother was about to shoot a man in the back."

"So you decided to take the law into your own hands, Mr. Tanner." Chiles got in the bounty hunter's face. "Well, I'm taking it back."

He walked over to Ezra. "You have a few thousand dollars of mine. And I believe you owe Mr. Deveraux even more."

"I cannot owe what was willingly wagered," Ezra answered coldly.

"We'll see about that," Chiles kept walking.

"As of today you've cost me two more good men. That good-for-nothing doctor let them die."

"He never claimed to be a doctor," Chris countered.

"Be that as it may, I met up with a couple of other businessmen and military men that have similar complaints against your 'gang.' It seemed like a good idea to get together and, " he paused in front of Chris, "stop you."

"I knew there was no way in hell you could have pulled this off without help, Chiles."

The lanky man's fist barreled into Chris' jaw, knocking him to the ground. He waited while Chris slowly rose to his feet.

"As I was saying, we need to make an example out of somebody." Chiles continued his pacing. "And somebody didn't cooperate." He took his time getting back to Chris, then got in his face. His voice grew quieter. "You need to teach the boy better."

Buck exploded, "You son of a bitch!!" Chris blocked Buck with his body.

Chiles smiled and shook his head. "He would go to his grave to protect you. We couldn't make him talk for anything."

Buck seethed. "For God's sake - take me. You'll f--ing kill him!"

"That's the idea!" Chiles said as he walked over to the tent across the street. A long moment passed, then he brought the kid out. Another man led Nathan out as well. JD was limping and they could all see the bruises on his face. His jaw dropped slightly when he saw Buck.

Buck and Chris - alive!! Thank God.

The kid glanced around, disoriented - then he saw the whip and he stopped a moment and looked at it. Chiles pushed him and he stumbled. His friends felt rage. Nathan had seen the whip as well. He moved up behind Chiles. "Don't do this . . ."

"Fifty lashes!!" Chiles' voice rang out.


Nathan's eyes grew wide. He started to speak, but waited until he reached the others. He leaned over to Chris. "He won't survive this," Nathan said softly.

"You don't have to do this," Chris said.

"Don't have to?" Chiles led the boy over to him and pulled a knife from his hip. He brought the blade to JD's throat. The kid tried to keep the fear out of his eyes as he looked to Chris for help.

"I told you you need to teach him to . . . cooperate . . . or he's gonna get himself killed one of these days." He chuckled as he reached down and cut the ropes that bound the boy. "Maybe this day . . ."

"You do this," Buck breathed, "And I will f--ing kill you."

Chiles twisted JD's arm sharply behind his back. JD's breath caught in his throat and he felt the blade press against his bruised face. Chiles walked him over to Buck.

Slowly he pulled the tip of the blade down the boy's cheek, cutting him. JD squeezed his eyes closed against the pain and Buck screamed obsenities at Chiles.

"Not fifty," Nathan said.

"He ain't supposed to live through it," Chiles explained.

JD's voice was threadbare. "I'm going to . . ." he whispered to Buck, his lip quivering slightly - his earnest eyes meeting his friend's.

Chiles jerked the kid away and roughly led him to the structure. His men tied the boy's arms over his head and Chiles ripped the back of his shirt open.

"OK-" Chiles called out and everyone cleared out of the way.

The big man with the whip took his stance, Buck screamed in protest, Josiah muttered a prayer.


The first strike ripped through the boy's skin and he stifled a cry. Buck shuddered as though he himself had been hit and his blue eyes filled. Chris' face was hard. Vin and Ezra looked away. Nathan stared into another time and remembered . . .


He lasted until eighteen in relative silence, but nineteen brought forth a cry, twenty an agonizing scream.

By thirty-one, when the man with the whip handed it over to the next man, the kid was hanging by the ropes that bound his hands. His legs were limp. Buck's voice quivered with emotion as he leaned over to Chris. "I will kill Chiles and then I'll get the bastards whipping the kid, I swear I will."

Chris nodded.

Vin looked up. "I'll help you."

Most of the onlookers had left by the fortieth lash. Even Chiles went back into his room. The only ones left watching were his friends, the man with the whip and a young soldier who had hit him with the butt of a rifle that very morning - a young soldier who had begun to sob.

Nathan watched JD closely. He began to notice that the boy's body could no longer react to the blows.

"My God, he's dead . . ." Nathan said.

There was a moment of absolute silence - then the air was split with another crack of the whip.

"NO!!!!!" Buck screamed, hot tears rolling down his face. Vin hung his head and Chris - Chris' eyes narrowed, but he never took his eyes off of the boy who had wanted only to prove himself to a man he admired. Chris felt a rage he had not experienced since the fire. . .

And still the man whipped him.

Forty-nine.

Fifty.

It was over.

The man with the whip began to coil it up again. The blonde-haired boy stared - devastated.

And the six men standing together took a long look at the slight figure with blood covering his back, black hair hiding a bruised and bloody face, wrists bound over his head . . .

Hanging on a make-shift crucifix . . .

Their sacrificial lamb.


PART FIVE: Aftermath

Maybe his head still wasn't clear. His vision was a bit blurred. And the heat . . . it encompassed him. He felt a nausea sweep over him and he fought to remain conscious. Surely the image in front of him was some kind of sick hallucination. He hadn't just witnessed the incremental execution of an innocent man - an innocent youth . . .

His friend.

He felt himself slip away and in the distance, he heard a voice that used to be familiar.

"We're losin' Vin."

Another voice.

"Vin . . . come on, man." The voice got closer to his ear. "Don't let go now. We need you."

Did he have a choice? He wanted to tell the voice that he would hold on if he had a choice but . . .

The voice became suddenly very angry. "Leave him alone!" it cried just as he felt a hand jerk him up roughly.

For a moment, his vision cleared and he could see Nathan Jackson yelling. It occurred to the trapper that he was being dragged away from Nathan and the others.

The others.

Buck was shaking with rage. Josiah and Ezra were looking off into the vast wasteland that surrounded them. And Chris - he had a look on his face Vin had never seen. An almost maniacal glare . . . a focus on something terrible. Vin followed his gaze and that incredible weight returned to his chest . . .

It hadn't been an hallucination.

He took one long look at the body hanging on the upended wagon . . .

Then his head started swimming again and he let go . . .


Emil Deveraux was a sharp dresser. The beautifully tailored burgundy vest no doubt matched a jacket that would make an appearance on a less humid occasion. Tasteful jewelry and a flat-brimmed conquistador hat completed the ensemble. Even in this cultural vacuum, the French gambler (yes, with the Spanish hat) managed to be impeccably groomed. Under normal circumstances, Ezra would have been impressed. At one time, in fact, Emil had been as close to a gambling "friend" as Ezra had ever had. They enjoyed playing against one another because they were evenly matched challengers. Tough to find in the sparse West.

It all changed, though, when the stakes became outrageously high and Ezra made the bulk of his recent wealth at Emil's expense.

Emil Deveraux meant to get it back.

He elegantly strolled up to Ezra Standish, enjoying the disheveled appearance of his often arrogant associate. He pulled a flask out of his pocket. "Care for a drink?"

Ezra's hard stare didn't faze him.

"No??" He ceremoniously took a long drink and then put the cap back on and returned the flask to his pocket. "That's a shame - seein' as how we usually share a drink when we undertake a business negotiation."

Ezra didn't have the stomach for witty repartee at that moment.

"Mr. Chiles said he recovered his lost funds - plus interest - when he took stock of your 'person'. So I'm sure my portion is no longer in that boot." He expected some response from the gambler, but got nothing. "You will no doubt understand my need to escort you to the bank in Four Corners to recover my money."

He put an almost courteous hand on Ezra Standish's sleeve, startled by the taut coiled arm that jerked away violently.

"To put that young man through everything you have put him through for the sake of money," Ezra's voice was chilling, "is unconscienable."

"That was Chiles' thing. . ."

"You are here, are you not? You took part in his capture, you held him hostage, you as much as whipped him yourself."

"I had no part of that."

"YOU DID NOTHING TO STOP IT!!" Ezra paused a moment and lowered his voice. "You had best kill me, Mr. Deveraux, because I will make it my life's work to exact retribution from you in a manner commensurate with what you have inflicted on that boy."

It was odd. Deveraux actually seemed surprised that anyone would consider him responsible for anything other than kidnapping Ezra. And how strange it was that he felt so intimidated by Ezra Standish - charming, easy-going, "never make attachments anywhere" Ezra Standish. Somehow he knew beyond any doubt that Ezra would make good on his threat. Emil Deveraux resolved then and there to get the money and then bury the gambler who had bilked it from him.


Chris said nothing but noticed everything. And as his friends were systematically removed from him, his resolve to avenge everything that had happened grew stronger - it would become an obsession.

They had taken Vin - his poor, hurt friend

Who sat on a bench in the relentless heat, dying . . .

They had taken Ezra - the gambler who had overcome his own weakness to share in the mission of the Seven . . .

The Seven . . . why was that ever coined? When did this odd group of people transcend their individual personalities to become this entity? An entity that ended one boy's innocence . . .

Yes, they had taken JD.

And Chris didn't know if he could ever forgive himself for letting the kid get mixed up with them. He should have just put the boy on a stage back to Boston - or wherever it was he had come from. But he had let the boy ride with them, finding that the kid was tenacious and fiercely loyal. And possessed of true honor and a courage that belied his years. God, he didn't deserve this.

And although his oldest friend was standing right beside him, they had taken Buck as well.

Only Nathan and Josiah retained anything of themselves. Both knew a certain connection with things spiritual . . . and, while it would not always protect them from the horrors that surrounded them, it allowed them to stand strong in the face of them . . . and Chris wished he could find some vestige of comfort or hope for himself . . .

But that wish evaporated in the presence of the body before him. He didn't even respond when the soldiers came out and led him back to the little settlement. It was strange, but he noticed that the soldiers were kinder, as though the events of the past hour had sobered them in some way.

Nathan Jackson, however, did respond to being led away and the usually gentle healer launched into a blistering tirade to anyone who could hear him. He had resolved many years ago never to watch that type of punishment inflicted on another human being. He would die first.

That would have been easier.


Josiah Sanchez realized that the blonde youth had been charged with returning him and Buck to . . . wherever they were going to be returned to. Everyone else had cleared out and only the three of them remained - at the edge of town - by the upended wagon . . .

How strange that the world looked almost normal out here among the scrubbrush. The soft sounds of life going on - the quiet in the aftermath of everything that had happened.

The youth didn't seem to know what to do, so horrified was he at all he had seen. He kept staring at the body. Staring at it. . .

Josiah walked past Buck, whose rage had been supplanted by disbelief. Like the young soldier, Buck stood staring but not seeing.

Deliberately, Josiah kept his voice calm and he moved near the young man. "You've never seen anything like this, have you, son?"

The boy couldn't answer for a long moment.

"I never seen combat. My uncle used to tell us stories about the war and said it was up to us to keep fightin'" His voice broke. "Aw God, I swear I didn't mean to hurt him. I didn't know they was gonna kill him. He's younger than me even."

He fought to keep from sobbing. "I don't know why they had to kill him."

"They didn't have to," Josiah said. "He didn't do anything but defend his friends."

The blonde boy looked at the ground. "But I hurt him too. And he never done anything to me."

"That's what hate does to a man."

"But I didn't hate him. I just . . ."

"I know," Josiah answered softly.

He waited a moment before introducing another idea to the boy. "You can do one thing."

The soldier looked up, suspiciously at first, but he saw the truth in the preacher's eyes and listened.

"Let us bury him."

The kid thought a moment, then nodded, glad to have something to do which could redeem him, if even in the smallest way. He looked around, and, satisfied that his superiors were nowhere to be found, he left and went to find a shovel.


"Buck. . ."

It took Buck a moment to focus on his friend.

"We're gonna bury him."

Buck couldn't even answer. His eyes were searching for something from Josiah, but there was nothing the preacher could offer.

The soldier had returned quickly. He tucked his rifle under his arm, and then he cut the tight ropes that bound Josiah's hands. The young man's hand lingered for a moment on Josiah's as he studied the bruises and cuts on the gentle man's wrists. He turned bewildered eyes to the preacher. Then he handed Josiah the knife, and backed away so he could keep the weapon trained on them, though now his heart wasn't in it. But he had to stay alert, he told himself. God, if he screwed this up, the colonel could punish him like he had punished the black-haired boy.

Josiah carefully cut the ropes that had sliced into Buck's wrists, and in one sweeping gesture, he hugged his friend tightly. At first, Buck just stood limp, his heart empty, but in a moment, he returned the embrace, holding on to his friend as though his life depended it.

Maybe it did.

Buck almost sobbed, but he stopped himself. Not yet. There was work to be done. He backed away and looked at Josiah. And even though Buck had spent the last few minutes staring at JD's lifeless body, he couldn't bring himself to face it again. He stood - trembling for a moment.

Josiah touched his shoulder. "I'll do it," he said softly.

Tears filled Buck's eyes and he shook his head with a sad smile. "No, I have to do this."

Josiah's hand stayed on Buck's shoulder as he slowly turned around.

What he saw wasn't just a body anymore.

It was his friend.

It was his friend with that stupid hat, that damn stupid bowler hat - the kid who wanted to be just like Bat Masterson - who stepped up to become sherriff when no one in town would take the responsibility. The kid who could ride like the wind, but who could trip all over himself in the face of a young lady.

The friend who loved him enough to stand up to killers rather than betray him.

Buck took a shaky step toward the kid. He relived the ordeal as he drew closer and could see where the whip had torn the flesh from the boy's body. His back so ripped that Buck could see the bone in places. JD's head was hanging forward and his arms seemed strangely angled from the weight of the body hanging from them.

He got right next to the kid -

And froze for a moment.


Buck tentatively moved his hand toward his friend's face - still hidden by the too-long black hair.

He paused, lip quivering, tears rolling down his dusty cheeks. This was unbearable - how could he bury this boy who had become a brother to him. Josiah watched patiently, respectfully.

With a gentle hand, Buck brushed the bangs out of the boy's eyes, and he felt another wave of fury when he saw the long cut over the heavy bruises that covered one side of his face -

For a moment, Buck's hand rested on the kid's neck and he looked up at Josiah, almost pleadingly.

Josiah reached up and cut the rope binding JD's right hand. As the boy's arm fell, his body collapsed against Buck - hanging by only one hand now. Buck fell to his knees and pulled the kid to him, hooking his arm around his neck. Josiah cut the rope on the other side and the boy's other arm fell across Buck's shoulder. As it did, Buck heard it.

A moan . . .

But, this wasn't possible.

"JD?"

Feverishly, Buck put his hands on either side of the kid's face and looked closely - and he leaned his ear close to his mouth.

The boy was breathing. He was breathing - barely - but, Praise God, he was breathing.

"He's alive," Buck could hardly find his voice. He looked up at Josiah and tried to say those words again, but couldn't . . .

He pulled JD to his chest, hugging his neck as though he could somehow help the boy hold on to the thread of life that was left.

"I got you, kid," Buck held him, careful not to touch his back. The gunslinger felt a sob rise in his throat and a prayer rise in his heart. He looked at the dark head resting on his shoulder. The kid had suffered so much. . .

"They ain't gonna hurt you no more," Buck's voice strengthened. He would have to stay strong now. "It's gonna be ok, kid. I got you."


PART SIX: "They Can't Hurt You Anymore"

Evil would be easier to confront than abject delusion. Chiles was evil and he would deserve anything that came to him. But these soldiers -- these young, misled, yet fiercely dedicated soldiers. . .

They were as committed to an ideal as any lawman was. With all their hearts, they believed their cause was just, and somehow they had been shielded from the realities of Appamattox and the Emancipation Proclamation.

They did not see Nathan Jackson as Chris Larabee did. They did not see the man who had saved so many lives, the healer. They did not see the man JD Dunne admired and Josiah Sanchez respected, that Buck Wilmington would trust with his young friend's life. In truth, they did not even see the man at all. They saw him as Ezra Standish had seen him when he first met him - as a lesser being of some sort.

But over time, Ezra had developed an entirely different perspective. He quit seeing the stereotype that had been drilled into him from infancy. He started seeing Nathan Jackson - a good, decent, honorable man who had stood by him and risked his life for him. He came to recognize the man as an equal. And he gradually decided that Nathan was more than his equal . . . he was, indeed, a better man.

Ezra's heart had changed. He himself had become a better man for having known Nathan.

These soldiers however did not know Nathan Jackson. They didn't know this man at all.

But they thought they did.

And they treated him accordingly.


Chris Larabee's entire body was taut with fury. His eyes flashed and his lips were drawn in a tight line. But he said nothing as he was taken to a crude office and tied to a chair. He said nothing as he watched Nathan being roughly tossed to the floor. And when he was offered a meal and Nathan wasn't, Chris' protest was a silent refusal.

Nathan had always felt free to speak his mind among his friends. The healer had spoken of the ills of making a profit off of someone else's back. And Chris saw in Nathan a bravery - a quiet courage - which surpassed his own. Nathan had had nothing of his own except his soul. He had endured unspeakable humiliations and losses - experiences which Chris had only imagined . . .

Until today.

Chris had witnessed horrible gun battles and grisly deaths. But he had never seen a man whipped to death. The reality was far more devastating than the image he'd had in his mind - an image diluted by a lack of first-hand experience.

But everything changed that sweltering noon.


"We gotta get him out of here," Buck told Josiah. He was still holding JD, trying to ease him to the ground without hurting him - slowly, gently, until the boy was lying on his stomach.

Josiah glanced behind them at the young boy who'd been charged with guarding them. He had crossed to the other side of the street - where he had turned away and retched.

He was keeping the rifle trained on them, although it seemed as though he were merely going through the motions. His eyes seemed lost and his face was very pale.

Josiah knelt beside Buck and JD and he pulled off his overshirt to make a crude pillow. He slipped it under JD's face.

"Other way. . ." Buck said quickly and he carefully turned the boy's head so he would be lying on the side of his face that wasn't hurt so badly. Josiah reached up with his kind hand and fingered the hair off of JD's face. It was the first time he'd seen the long laceration that extended from the kid's cheek to his chin. The preacher's jaw tightened and his hand rested lightly on the back of the boy's head - almost as if to bless him. . .

Buck slid around beside the kid and started trying to pull remnants of his shirt away from his back, and he realized, with sinking heart, that he had no idea how to help him.

Josiah put his hand on Buck's shoulder, bracing himself to stand and he walked slowly over to the young soldier. . .


JD lay so still - dead still.

Buck suddenly felt panicked and he reached up to the boy's throat.

Yes, his heart was beating, but it was so weak.

Buck leaned over close to his ear. "Listen kid, you gotta hold on, ok? You're gonna be fine. But you've gotta stick with me. I'm gonna be right here. I ain't going anywhere." His eyes filled again, but he kept his voice steady. "I'm not gonna let anyone hurt you, JD. You hear me? They ain't gonna hurt you anymore."

He managed to pull the tattered shirt off, easing first one shoulder out of the sleeve then the other. JD's breath caught in his throat a moment as a wave of pain washed over him.

"It's ok, kid." Even though his words seemed hollow, he felt like he was, in some way, connecting with the boy. If he could only keep the connection going . . . "We'll get you home and get you some of that corn chowder you like so much." He continued to talk to him, in the easy conversation so familiar to both of them. As he kept up the light patter, he became more and more overwhelmed with the extent of the boy's injuries.

God, how could he survive this. . .

He felt a strong gentle hand on his shoulder and he looked up to see Josiah and the young soldier standing behind him.

"He's coming with us," Josiah said. "He's gonna help."

Buck nodded his appreciation and turned back to JD. "How the hell do we move him?" he muttered.

The soldier's blue eyes widened. "On a blanket," he suggested. "You could make a . . . hammock, and he could stay on his stomach."

"You got a blanket?" Buck asked.

The soldier started to answer, but something drew his attention back to the settlement. The little town was starting to come to life, late lunches over and the last cigar smoked. Clearly, there was no time to take precautions. Someone would realize soon that the little group wasn't where it was supposed to be.

"Jesus. . . " Buck almost prayed, and he glanced up at Josiah. Together they eased JD up over Buck's shoulder. The boy groaned.

"Sorry kid," Buck hated hurting him, but they had to move. If they didn't get away, JD didn't have a chance. . .


"How much will we get for him?"

"Hell, I don't know. After Chiles gets his cut. . . "

"I say we don't give him a cut. He didn't get Tanner. He ain't getting him to Tascosa. In fact, he hasn't done a damn thing to help us."

"Well, we couldn't have gotten him if Larabee and his men hadn't been taken out."

"The hell we couldn't have. Nobody even knew he was gone."

"Still. . ."

"'Still' nothing! I say we drop the body off and get on to Tuscon. Chiles can't do anything to us. We'll be halfway through Arizona by the time he makes it to Tascosa."

"I reckon you're right."

"Hell yea, I'm right. That body's gonna fetch us enough money to live like royalty for a year at least."

"Sounds good to me."


Buck hadn't realized how sore and stiff he was until he tried to run through the scrub brush with JD hoisted over his shoulder. The soldier was leading them. He was pretty sure no one in the town was planning to travel in this direction - well, at least no one that he knew of. Josiah was following, covering their tracks. There was a rock formation looming in the distance . . . they would go there.


They think I'm dead.

Maybe I am.

No, my head hurts too much to be dead. Dead would feel a hell of a lot better.

Vin Tanner slowly opened his eyes and became aware of a wave of nausea - aggrevated by the strong smell of . . . mildew? Was it mildew? He fought the sickness silently. . .

JD . . .

Every time Vin regained an uncertain consciousness, he had to remember all over again what they'd done to JD. And it was killing him.

Why was it black? Why was everything black?

His lucidity was clouded, but Vin realized he must've lost his sight. He'd heard that a head injury could result in blindness.

An ironic chuckle caught in his throat.

A blind sharpshooter . . .

He choked back the nervous laugh, and his eyes filled. He squeezed them tightly.

Damn, these guys were good. They'd figured out a way to break each one of them, but not before priming them by forcing them to watch as they whipped the life out of the kid.

Whipping the life out of all of them. . .

Now he would lose his honor in Tascosa.

Ezra would lose his money.

Buck would lose his love of life and his optimism - just as he had lost a little brother.

Nathan lost his hard-won freedom.

There was nothing left for Chris to lose.

Maybe Josiah would escape this without losing his soul.

A blind sharpshooter . . .

They really did think he was dead.

He moved his hands ever so slowly. He wasn't bound. And his feet?

They thought he was dead and so they had taken no precautions. He couldn't do anything for JD, but he could try to get back and help the others.


Ezra Standish, on the other hand, was bound. His "friend" had tied his fine hands behind his back. They were heading in the opposite direction of Vin Tanner and his non-observant bounty hunters. Ezra was going back to Four Corners. And he had sworn an oath to himself that when he got there, he would see to it that justice was done - no matter what it took. He'd start with this little weasel and work his way back to Chiles himself until he had exacted retribution from everyone responsible for the torture and slaying of his young friend.

He took a deep breath. How had he developed an affection for this reckless boy trying to be at once roguish and sophisticated? Why did he want to help him - to teach him - to protect him?

When had the boy become a friend . . .

For the first time in his life, Ezra felt utterly committed to a cause - and oddly, it was not a self-serving one. Maybe he was becoming worthy of his friends.


The craggy boulders provided a bit of relief from the relentless sun, and once they found a relatively secluded space, Buck and Josiah eased JD to the rock floor. The young soldier who was accompanying them climbed up to a point from which he could see the little settlement in the distance. He would keep watch.

JD was struggling to get his breath. Clearly he was in pain.

"This was too much for him," Buck breathed. After a moment, Josiah started to pull the boy up.

"What are you doing?"

"He's choking," Josiah answered and he braced the kid's body against his own to support him. Buck held JD's face as he started to cough, and he realized that he was coughing up blood.

"Dear God," Buck said.

JD's eyes fluttered open for a moment and he looked at Buck, tears rolling down his face, and his bloody mouth trying to form a word.

"Help. . . "

Buck stroked the black hair. "I'm gonna take care of you. You're gonna be fine." He tried to smile for the kid.

JD almost nodded, but then his battered body was racked with another cough. Josiah held him, and after a moment, the boy's head fell forward onto Buck's shoulder. Buck still stroked his hair, and he turned tearful eyes to the preacher, whose kind eyes were filled with tears as well.


It took a moment, but Chris Larabee determined that an exodus was about to occur. There were sounds of horses, wagons, packages being loaded and commands being called.

One of the voices he could hear was Chiles. And the voice grew nearer.

Nathan eyed his friend, alarmed at the glazed look in his eye - a look that could only be described as murderous . . .

"Larabee!"

The towering figure of Jacob Chiles hovered in the doorway. He looked at Chris from hollowed eyes and smiled - obviously pleased with himself.

"The kid lasted longer than I thought he would."

Chiles dramatically took a seat in the only decent chair in the little room, and both Chris and Nathan recognized the gold chain that had belonged to JD's mother, now being fingered in Chiles' bony hand.

"Cheap, but then I could maybe get a decent meal for it." He slipped the chain around his neck.

The kid's most precious keepsake had become his final humiliation. Chris' heart grew harder.

Nathan's ached.

"That body is no doubt attracting the buzzards by now." He paused. "How long before it starts to rot?" He turned to Nathan. "I'm sure you've had experience with this. Does it rot right away or does it take a few days?"

Nathan was beyond anger. He resumed the old, pitifully familiar detachment that had saved him when he was enslaved. He said nothing, but his eyes were defiant.

Chiles turned back to Chris.

"How old was the boy? Eighteen? Nineteen? Kind of a stupid kid. We told him . . ." Chiles laughed, again more for effect than anything, "that you'd gotten away. We pressed him for anything he knew about you or your other . . . friends. He wouldn't utter a word - about anybody. He must've thought he could . . . protect you." Chiles shook his head. "That stupid kid."

Why did Chiles think that needling Chris in some way asserted power over him? As well try to annoy a rattler while he is in a cage. His bite was still lethal and given any chance for freedom, he would strike hard. And fast.

Chris Larabee would end this man.


PART SEVEN: To Hell With The Odds

You would think his first reaction would be relief.

But for Vin Tanner, it was embarrassment.

It took a few excruciatingly frightening minutes for him to understand. Vin was looking at the world with eyes that couldn't see. His fears were governed by a mind that had been clouded with injury and oppressive heat. So when his thoughts cleared and he realized that he was not blind, but that he had been covered with a heavy blanket, he chided himself for panicking.

Especially when there was work to be done.

First order of business - determine everything he could about his surroundings. He was in a wagon or cart of some kind. Traveling over rough terrain, although not steep. A poorly built wagon - the wheels were wobbly. Likely the owner was not wealthy.

That smell of mildew . . . the blanket.

Mildew and . . .

God, there was the nausea again. A hell of a lot of help he would be as sick as he was. Damn it Vin, pull yourself together. Chris needs you. Buck needs you. They all need you.

The tracker forced himself to breathe through his mouth so he couldn't smell the mildew and dank blood which saturated the blanket. He forced his nausea down, and began to focus on the voices.

He tried to remember - weren't there two voices before? Arguing over whether or not to give Chiles a cut of the bounty. That was it. Well, he'd be damned if that son of a bitch was gonna get a dime off of his head.

"Gimme some more of that." A low raspy voice. Probably in his fifties?

A moment passed. The same voice spoke. "How much we got left?"

"Not enough."

That voice was younger - and decidedly intoxicated. Vin listened to their inconsequential conversation that became less and less coherent as his captors emptied one whiskey bottle and started on another. As they drank, the sharpshooter took stock of his own condition.

He wasn't blind - well, that was one thing. A big thing. But his head still throbbed and Vin figured that when he sat up, dizziness would be a problem.

Damn. What was he thinking? He didn't even know where the hell he was. He had no idea where his friends were or even if they were alive. How the hell could he do anything for them? He was unarmed. He had a fever. He had a head injury. And there had been so many people involved in the capture of the Seven. How could he begin to change the course of events which had already been set in motion?

God, what they did to the kid. The bastards. He squeezed his eyes closed. Even the blanket couldn't block out the image of the boy, hanging lifeless with his hands tied over his head and his back ripped apart. The familiar black hair hiding the hurt face - his young friend's head hanging.

Vin's jaw tightened and his teeth clenched. He would avenge this. Whatever it took. He would get away, he would find every last one of the bastards that had hurt the kid - that had hurt his friends, and he would avenge all of them.

Vin Tanner didn't have his strength. He didn't have his rifle. He didn't have his bearings. And he didn't have his friends with him.

But now he had one thing going for him.

Fury.

Intense, powerful, focused fury.

For the first time since this nightmare began, Vin felt a surge of energy. To hell with the odds. He had to try.

Keep drinkin', boys. I can wait. . .


He couldn't remember the last time he prayed.

Maybe he'd prayed for Chris when Sarah and Adam died. He wasn't sure. He knew he had prayed for his mother. And he had prayed with his mother all through his boyhood. Not in church, though. She had never been welcome in church. But she would kneel beside him at bedtime and together they would talk to God.

It had been a long time since Buck Wilmington had talked to God.

But he would today.

From his post as lookout, he could see Josiah gently spread the soldier's shirt over JD's back. It would be poor protection against infection, but he knew Josiah had to try. JD didn't react to the touch. He was fading.

The soldier was pacing nervously. Poor kid. He had gotten caught up in something he could never have imagined. And now he wanted to make it right. How odd that this young man felt so responsible for JD - such overwhelming remorse - while the men who had held the whip and beat the boy were probably getting drunk right then. And Chiles no doubt was proud of himself for pulling this atrocity off.

Damn them!!

Buck felt such rage, such hatred.

And such helplessness.

How could he pray with such anger in his heart?

He clutched the young soldier's rifle as he looked back toward the settlement. Where was Chris? No doubt he would face some hideous, torturous death.

And he would face it alone.

Buck felt so torn. He longed to make his way back to the settlement, sneak in and get Chris the hell out of there. He wanted to get Nathan. He wanted to find Vin. And Ezra. God, let them be alive. He wanted to help them.

But JD needed him.

There was no way Josiah and that young soldier could get him to a doctor by themselves. Not through this wasteland with outlaws on their tail.

Even with Buck's help, they probably wouldn't make it. Hell, they only had one gun. One old Confederate-issue rifle that had probably not been fired in years.

What was happening to Chris? It made Buck's heart hurt. He hated feeling helpless. Why had this happened? Why had Chris' life been dismantled? Why had Sarah and Adam died? Why would grown men take turns whipping a boy to death?

And why was he himself allowed to live while JD was dying?

Buck felt his lip quiver and, after a moment, the mighty gunslinger turned his eyes heavenward.

The first words wouldn't come out of his mouth. There was only an awkward rasp.

But somehow he knew God heard him. And he settled into his conversation with God as easily as a child settling back into his mama's lap. For the first time since this ordeal began, he gave himself fully over to his grief.

Weeping for his oldest friend.

And his youngest one.

Buck didn't have to put his heart into words. His Father knew.

His sobs finally subsided and he could speak.

"Please, he's such a good kid. He didn't deserve this, Lord."

Buck looked down at the still form and the two men kneeling beside it.

"Please Lord. Take care of him. We need him." He looked to the ground.

"I need him. . ."

The soft wind whispered through the craggy rocks and Buck listened for a while.

His Amen was silent.

And as he looked back over the scrub brush plain, he knew he had recovered something long lost.


Chiles didn't know when to quit. He kept describing JD's ordeal to Chris and Nathan - every detail about what they had told the kid and how he wouldn't talk - what they did to him . . .

Nathan withdrew further into the safety of detachment. Chris was alarmed at his friend's condition. He had seen this sort of thing after the war - men who had reached the threshhold of what they could tolerate. Men who had been strong in battle, so tortured now by the nightmares of what they had witnessed. Nathan had emerged from the horrors of his past gallantly. He had done such good for so many people. He had been able to let his suffering fuel his mission to make life better for others.

Of course, he thought he had left that other life behind forever. Oh, he had seen the evils people could do to one another. But that beating . . .

Somehow being surrounded by soldiers - young men who were fighting to restore a way of life which denied him his - and seeing the personification of evil in front of him - it was more than he wanted to fight.

So he withdrew.

It unnerved Chiles that Larabee would not talk at all. Gradually Chiles' glib, almost sarcastic diatribe gave way to playground jabs. Still, Chris would not grant him the victory of reacting to his taunts.

So Chiles kicked Nathan.

The hardest thing for Chris Larabee to do was to remain emotionless in the face of this abuse.

But Nathan's life could depend on it.

Chris would have to set aside his blistering rage and play the part of the apathetic gunslinger.

"You really have only one hand to play, don't you, Chiles," Chris' voice was lazy. "You won't call me out. You won't face me alone. You just keep going at the guys I ride with like that's gonna . . . punish me somehow." Chris' mouth slid into a sneer. "Chiles, you really are a f---ing coward. You think I give a damn about these guys? Christ! Why do you think I recruited them?" Chris now appeared almost maniacal. "They're expendable!" Chris laughed a sick laugh. "You CAN'T hurt me by hurting them. Don't you get it?"

Chiles was confused for a moment but he rallied. "You can't tell me you don't care about Buck Wilmington."

Chris' apathy turned. "My wife and son are dead because of Buck Wilmington."

"Then why on earth would you have him ride with you."

"Because he'll spend the rest of his life trying to shake off the guilt. He'll try to atone. And because of that, there is no one I'd rather have watching my back." Chris' strange grin returned. "But sooner or later, I'd have plugged him myself."

"You better watch your back, Larabee," Chiles had run out of tactics. "This ain't over. . ."

"I'm countin' on it."


"They're leavin'," Buck called down to Josiah. "Horses - wagons starting to move out."

"Soldiers?" the young Confederate asked.

"Hell, kid, I can't tell." Wish I had Vin's glass.

Josiah's voice boomed. "Which way they headed?"

"Some are headed South it looks like." Buck squinted, trying to get a better idea of the movement in the distance.

"Aw, shit!"

Josiah and the young man waited.

"Five or six are headed this way." Buck scrambled down the rock face to join them.

"They know we're gone. We've gotta hide. If I try to take a couple out, the rest will know where we are."

The young soldier was already scouting for a better place.

"How long til they get here?" Josiah's voice was low. Buck knelt beside JD.

"About twenty minutes. Maybe less." Buck pushed JD's hair back and let his hand linger on the kid's face. "Jesus, he's burning up."

Josiah nodded, wordlessly.

"I hate to move him."

"We don't have a choice."

"Hey," the young soldier ran back to them. "I found a cave. It's big enough once you get inside, but the opening could be a problem."

"We'll make it work," Buck said, and he and Josiah hoisted JD over Josiah's shoulder this time.

Still shielded from view by the craggy rock face, they made their way further into the rock formation. The path became narrower and negotiating the turns became more difficult. It was much harder to see now that the sun had begun to dip behind the horizon. Buck stayed close to Josiah so he could steady JD if necessary. The big man slowed as the surface became less of a path and more like the side of a mountain.

"Up there," their blonde-haired guide pointed.

About five yards up a treacherous slope, there was a small dark opening in the rock face.

"Damn kid, that ain't big enough for a gopher!" Buck said, but the young man scurried up and demonstrated that the space was just big enough for him. Part of the opening was concealed from the little path. That fact could save their lives.

"OK, let's do this."

Buck looked at Josiah and started up the slope a few steps. They wouldn't be able to carry JD the way they had been. Buck would have to pull him up.

Josiah turned around so Buck could reach the kid's head and shoulders. Carefully, Buck slipped his arms under JD's and slid him face-down toward him. He had to put his arms around the boy's back. The soldier's shirt which Josiah had lain over him was saturated with blood. It could not help protect JD from the pressure of Buck's grasp.

Slowly, Buck inched his way backward up toward the little cave. Josiah helped by lifting the boy's legs so his lower body wouldn't scrape against the rocks.

This was taking too long. Buck looked back over his shoulder to assess the distance. He would have to move faster.

"Talk to me," Buck called to the soldier waiting at the top. "I can't see where I'm going."

"Straight back," the boy called back and Buck made a mighty push upward, still holding JD's chest against his own.

"You gotta go a little to your left." Buck obeyed and made another strong move up the rock face. He was startled to feel hands behind him, helping him. And together the soldier, Buck and Josiah managed to get JD to the cave opening.

Buck pulled JD across his lap so he could balance the kid's body without having to keep such a tight grip across his back. Josiah crawled over them and tried to figure out how to best get JD into that cave.

Thundering hoofbeats . . . coming nearer. There were more than five or six guys.

Damn - they must have regrouped.

"Let's go," Buck breathed. The soldier crawled through the tight space, ready to receive their wounded friend. Josiah looked grim as he pulled JD up.

And his eyes filled as he turned the boy onto his back.

"You can't . . . " Buck watched in disbelief.

"We have to." There was no time to argue.

From inside the cave, the blonde haired boy grabbed the wrists of the black haired one, and pulled with all his strength.

If JD could have screamed, he would have. His protest emerged as a pitiful cry . . .

And still the other boy pulled.

The rocks pulled the thin shirt away from JD's back and suddenly he couldn't breathe. He gasped . . . and he cried.


Freedom . . .

Vin Tanner breathed in the fresh air. The sun had eased just below the rocky horizon and the cool of the early evening air made him feel so much better. His head still ached, but he could live with it.

His escape had been remarkably easy. One of his captors had taken a horse and ridden off for more whiskey. The other was passed out in the front of the wagon.

Vin made off with a couple of rifles, some food . . .

And a horse.

The tracker had disabled the makeshift wagon and then backtracked like a bat out of hell.

He managed to find his way back quickly. They couldn't have traveled far. Hell, with his head as messed up as it had been, he figured it had been days since they had left. But it was more likely a few hours.

He could track their path easily, and he felt a surge of hope. Finally, he could help someone. . .

But when he got within sight of the little settlement, his heart sank.

Abandoned? Vin reached down and laid his head beside his horse's neck. His tired eyes burned. He was too late. God help him, he was too late.

Where the hell were they?

He could make out the upturned wagon. But JD wasn't there. They must've cut him down.

Vin felt a hard lump rise in his throat and bit his lip. His grief battled with his anger, and he suddenly felt as though he would collapse at any moment.

Carefully, he slid off his horse. His feet hardly caught him when he landed. He squeezed his eyes closed and leaned his head against the saddle.

He had to decide what to do. His head pounded and his strength ebbed. He knew he would have to search the little town. He had to be sure they were gone, or he'd have to do the unthinkable.

Recover the bodies of his fallen friends.

He didn't know if he could. . .

Please let them be alive. . .

He watched for signs of life.

There were none.


Listening to Emil Devereaux's sappy sarcasm made Ezra begin to hate himself. He had always prized himself on the artistic way he could turn a phrase - his "elegant elocution" as it were. It had enabled him to baffle lesser minds and weasel his way out of any number of dangerous situations.

But now, words repulsed him. Emil's references to the "unfortunate lad" and the "beautifully executed retribution" made him physically ill. For once, Ezra had nothing to say. Words seemed foolish. He rode in silence.

At first this amused Emil, but as time wore on and the journey grew more tiring, it began to irritate him. By sunset, he was angry. Emil was about to lambaste his former gambling friend when they both heard a rumbling sound in the distance.

Thunder?

Emil looked at the sky - maybe there were clouds coming in. But it didn't seem like storm clouds.

Ezra looked in the direction of the sound.

And he saw it. And he screamed as loud as he could.


Nathan Jackson rode in the wagon in shackles.

He had been plunged back into another time - another experience. An experience he couldn't - wouldn't relive. The first chance he had, he would take his life. There was more honor in that.

He began to calculate ways he could do it. And he felt relief.

But in the midst of his fantasy, he recalled words he had heard. Words from a man he trusted. . .

"Hear me, Nathan . . ."

Nathan hadn't looked at Chris Larabee, but he had listened to him.

"I will find you." For all they had been through, Chris Larabee's voice was as clear and strong as it had ever been. "You have my word, Nathan. I will find you."

Maybe he would stay alive long enough to give Chris a chance to make good on his oath.

After all, the soldiers who came in to take Nathan

Had freed Chris Larabee.

"We got no gripe with you, Mr. Larabee," one of them had said. "We all know Anderson was . . . crazy. What he did to them Indians, well, it wasn't right."

"Then you have no gripe with this man either," Chris had said. "He's a free man, just like you or me."

"I'm sorry, sir, but we have orders to take him back and return him to his owners. If he is a free man, like you say he is, they'll straighten it out."

"Damn it boy, they'll lynch him before anyone ever has a chance to straighten it out."

The soldier had paused a moment, but then grew angry. He trained his rifle on Chris Larabee as the other soldier pulled Nathan to his feet.

"We're trying to do right by you, Mr. Larabee. We didn't want no part of that Chiles man's revenge. but we have a job to do. And we aim to do it."

With that they led Nathan out.

Chris' words stayed with him.

"You have my word. I will find you."


Buck Wilmington squeezed through the small rocky opening into the cave. The top of the opening cut his back, and he realized that JD would have been hurt worse if he had gone in on his stomach. Buck could hear the boy whimper and pulled even harder to get all the way into the cave. Josiah would never make it.

And he knew it.

"I'll keep watch," Josiah said.

"For God's sake, be careful."

Buck hated to leave him, but he knew they would be safer with a lookout.

The horses thundered nearer and Josiah made his way to a better vantage point. He checked out the rifle and grinned. He'd probably blow his hand off if he tried to use it.

Maybe it wouldn't come to that.


It was totally dark inside the cave, but the young soldier was right. There was plenty of room. Buck made his way over to JD, who was gasping for breath and trying to talk.

"Easy, kid," Buck said gently.

"Is he gonna be ok?" The soldier sounded much younger than he had outside.

"He's gonna be fine." Buck said it for JD's sake, but he could feel him slipping away. JD was still lying on his back. "Let's turn you over," Buck said.

The kid was trembling all over and struggling to breathe. When Buck started to move him, JD grabbed his shirt and held on.

"Can't . . . breathe," he gasped.

"Yes you can, JD. Calm down and breathe slowly."

The boy cried softly. "Can't . . ."

The young soldier scooted beside them. "I bet it's his ribs. He really can't breathe. I . . . hit him this morning," the soldier's voice cracked with emotion. "I broke his ribs I think . . . Oh God. . . When I pulled him into the cave, he started gasping."

Buck would have to kill this soldier later. Right now, he had to help JD breathe. The kid was doubled over. Buck lifted him slightly.

"God-noooo!!" JD cried. Buck's eyes filled. "You're ok, kid. Hold on to me." Buck propped him up against his own chest. His fever raged.

"Mama . . ." The voice sounded so weak. "I . . ." A wave of pain swept over him and he squeezed Buck's shirt as his breath caught in his throat.

"I got you, kid," Buck could hardly keep his own voice strong. He took the boy's hand and held it tightly. JD sobbed softly, but Buck noticed that his breathing was easier.

"You're gonna be fine." He spoke softly in his familiar patter, knowing full well all hell could be getting ready to break loose outside. JD settled down and seemed to have fallen asleep again. He was so hot. And would occasionally tremble with chills. Buck prayed for the second time that day.


The town had been cleaned out. The faded sunset offered little help in Vin Tanner's search, but he had to try. He moved stealthily as he had learned from the Indians. Maybe not finding anything was a good thing.

He stepped into the little office. Had it been Chiles'? But the click of a gun at the back of his neck halted him. His little run of luck had run out.

Or had it?

"Vin?"

The tracker turned slowly and saw Chris Larabee holster his weapon.


PART EIGHT: In Good Company

The thundering of horses hooves was deafening - so close - so many. Where had they all come from? Josiah watched as most rode right by, but kept a keen eye on the five men who were charged with combing the rocks for the escapees.

Inside the little cavern, the thundering was dulled - removed almost. It was like being underwater during a gunfight. Danger was everywhere, yet the listener was deceived into feeling he was insulated from it.

Buck Wilmington knew better.

He held JD, talking softly to him. The boy was so feverish; chills swept through him too frequently. He would cry out, then he would sob softly. He clutched Buck's hand, deliberately holding on to his life.

Buck choked back his own emotions, trying to keep his voice reassuring. In the blackness, he could not see the kid slipping away from him - he could not see the anguish on his young battered face.

But he could feel his struggle. Maybe that was worse . . .

The soldier hiding in the cave with them had retreated into the void, his guilt becoming heavier.

A wave of pain . . .

JD screamed.

If anyone found them, JD would have no chance at all. Buck immediately clamped his big hand over the boy's mouth. And it killed him to have to.

It scared JD and he tried to twist his head away from Buck's grip.

Buck bent over close to his young friend's ear. "It's ok, kid. I'm not gonna hurt you. You're ok. . . We're hiding from the bad guys. Don't want them to find us, do we?"

For a moment JD seemed to hear him - to know him. Slowly, Buck pulled his hand away and the boy summoned all of his strength. And he tried to speak.

"Please . . . " so weak, so tired, so young. "Don't . . . hurt . . ."

Buck stroked the boy's hair and murmured "shhh".

"No more," he managed to put the words together. His breathing grew more labored. Softly sobbing. . .

"Kill . . . " he took one more difficult breath. "Kill me. . ."

Buck couldn't stand this. He kept talking to JD, trying to convince him that he was not his enemy - but clearly the kid was afraid of him. He fought the restraint, he fought the pain, until he couldn't fight any longer. . .

Buck Wilmington felt the body in his arms go limp.

"No," he whispered. "Don't do this, JD." He tried to find a pulse, but he couldn't. "Come on, kid, please."

The panic rose in the gunslinger's throat. He opened his mouth . . .

And screamed - silently . . .


He knew the voice.

Vin Tanner turned slowly and faced . . .

Chris Larabee.

The tracker started to speak, but all the heat, the headache, the struggle, the sick . . . the grief

Left him speechless.

He couldn't move - he couldn't make his body move.

Chris walked up tentatively to his weary, wounded friend, and, in a rare expression of emotion, the feared gunfighter's eyes filled.

"God, Vin, I thought they killed you . . ."

Vin would've said "I thought they did, too," but he was suddenly so tired -- he looked up at his friend, bewildered.

Just as his knees started to give way, Chris caught him and steadied him. "Easy."

He helped the tracker sit down and went to find him some water. Vin leaned his head back, but as soon as it touched the wall, he winced. His head still hurt. And he was so tired. How was it that two minutes ago, he was searching the settlement, and now he felt like he couldn't go another step?

Chris returned immediately with a canteen of water. He handed it to Vin and watched him closely as he drank. "Not too fast," Chris cautioned.

Vin took one more sip, and handed it back to his friend. "Thanks." His throat hurt and his voice sounded husky. Chris was still watching him closely.

"How are you?" Chris asked him.

"I'm OK."

Chris tried to decide whether to believe him or not. He reached up and felt his head. He wasn't feverish. "They hurt you?" Vin asked.

Chris shook his head, no. But Vin knew that Chris carried everyone else's pain. They had hurt him - with every lash inflicted on the kid. With the dismantling of the Seven. By letting him live . . .

"The others?" Vin asked.

Chris looked at the ground. "Soldiers took Nathan. Some guy took Ezra back to Four Corners to clean him out." He looked back up at Vin, a look in his eyes that could only be called defeated. "I don't know what they did to Josiah . . ."

Chris' voice caught in his throat. "Or Buck."

Chris was grieving. That was clear. But now he didn't have to be alone. Vin needed him. Finally he could help one of his men.

Vin suddenly realized why he felt so utterly drained.

He now had someone to help him. It wasn't just up to him anymore. He could let his guard down, if only for a moment. He'd been at a loss to figure out how to find his friends, much less help them. But together . . .

Chris still watched him - his studied eye assessing Vin's condition. Well, he was much better than he'd been at noon. But then again, he'd been damn near dead at noon. But the tracker's eyes looked clear. He would be ok.

They stayed in the little cabin for a few minutes, telling each other what they knew about what had happened. Even comparing notes, they had precious little to go on. They covered almost every event of the day.

But neither had been able to talk about JD, even though both were replaying it over and over in their minds. Vin finally took the initiative and reached over and put his hand on Chris' neck.

"You couldn't have done anything," he said in his gentle way.

Chris didn't look at him, but his voice was thick with emotion. "Chiles destroyed that boy because of me."

"Chiles did what he did because he's evil, Chris. Not because of you."

"I should never have let him ride with us. He had no business out here. He should have been in school or working as a clerk somewhere. Not . . . gettin' the life beat out of him."

Thank God it was Vin sitting there. Chris wouldn't want anyone to see his tears. Vin wouldn't watch or even acknowledge that he noticed them.

"He didn't deserve that." Vin paused a moment. "But I think . . . he was happy - riding with us. And, from what little he's said, his life was hell back east. Even before his mama died."

Chris listened.

"He and his mama worked for some pretty sorry folks in his lifetime. I imagine there were times when his life wasn't much different from Nathan's." Vin kept his eyes on the floor. "It's sad, how some kids never catch a break." He started to get up and put his hand on Chris' shoulder, as much for leverage while standing as an expression of comfort. Vin would take another look outside and try to figure out their next step.


Judge Orrin Travis pulled his hat off for the hundredth time and wiped his sleeve across his forehead. At least it was starting to cool. But the heat had hung heavily in the air all day and the posse was wearing down.

The scream startled everyone.

The judge turned in time to see one man on a horse shoot another man and then ride away furiously. A seasoned voice shouted orders quickly and the posse divided and moved as if choreographed. The judge and two others rode to the injured man while the rest of the group pursued the shooter.

When he came within a few yards, Orrin Travis recognized the fallen man as the gambler Ezra Standish. He pulled up close and swung down from his horse. He knelt beside the man in the tattered finery.

"Mr. Standish . . ." he began, but Ezra was already pulling himself up.

"I'm not hit," Ezra said quickly, and the judge began to cut the bonds that bound the gambler. "I 'fell' off the horse when Mr. Devereaux pulled his gun on me."

Travis realized that Ezra Standish bore none of his usual affectations. He dispensed with the pleasantries and asked pointedly, "What happened?"

Ezra stood, with the help of his rescuers. He started to answer but the words wouldn't come.


"He ain't dead," the young soldier spoke breathlessly. He reached over and found Buck's hand then guided it to JD's throat. "Feel it? He's just passed out."

Before Buck could answer, Josiah called into the cave.

"They're gone."

"You sure?" A stupid question, Buck realized as it came out of his mouth. He still had his hand at JD's throat, reassured to feel the faint lifepulse under his fingers. "I don't think we can move him again." Buck spoke softly.

"But can you take care of him in there?" Josiah asked.

"No," Buck snapped, exasperated. His fear drove his frustration, and Josiah knew this.

"We can take it slow this time. That'll make it a lot easier."

"We hurt him last time," Buck's voice was scarcely more than a whisper.

"We won't. We'll take as long as we have to."

As long as we have to turned out to be about a half hour, but if they had hurt JD, he never knew it. He never regained consciousness. Josiah had pulled JD from outside the cave while Buck guided the boy from the inside. Once JD was safely through the small space, Buck turned his attention to the soldier.

"C'mon son."

Buck found the boy's arm in the dark and started to lead him. The soldier was trembling. "It's alright." Buck's voice was soothing, he put his strong hand on the scared boy's back.

The boy's voice quivered. "I am so sorry."

"It ain't your fault. You're a good kid. If it weren't for you, we wouldn't have a chance, and JD would be dead already."

"But I . . ."

"It's ok. C'mon. We stay in here too long, folks will start talking."

The boy chuckled in spite of himself.

"C'mon," Buck repeated.


Emil Devereaux was fighting fiercely when the rest of the posse returned with him to meet up with the judge and company. Ezra was struck by how small the gambler looked next to the other men. A big house of a man had the prisoner in an iron grip, and all he could do was wriggle and writhe like a disobedient child.

Ezra walked over deliberately and pulled Emil to the ground. Without a word, he dove on the man and fought like he never had before. The judge waited a moment before pulling Ezra off of him.

Ezra was out of breath. He pointed at Emil and spoke with blistering rage. "He . . . and his compatriots . . . tortured and killed JD Dunne."

Judge Travis' eyes flashed.

"I didn't . . ." Emil protested.

"YOU LET IT HAPPEN!!!" Ezra screamed. "You dragged him out of his bed. You beat him. You whipped him." Ezra's eyes were wild. "He was nineteen years old, you miserable bastard. He was a boy. He was just a boy." Tears were streaming down Ezra's face and he turned back to the judge.

"Jacob Chiles and his hired . . . goons got together with Mr. Devereaux," Ezra's voice dripped with disdain as he said the name. "It seems they encountered some renegade bounty hunters and some . . . deluded remnants of the Army of the Confederacy who are still loyal to the martyred Colonel Anderson. They conspired to ambush each of us individually and then take us down." Ezra seethed. "They were each seeking penance for some wrong done them. And they exacted their retribution lash by lash." Ezra leaned over and grabbed Devereaux by the starched collar. "That boy never did anything to you. He didn't hurt any of you. Why him?"

Ezra didn't expect an answer. He knew the answer. And after a long, frustrating moment, he threw Emil Devereaux back on the ground.

The judge put his hand on Ezra's shoulder, which was knotted with tension and fury. He guided the gambler away from the rest of the posse.

"Where are the others?" Orrin Travis asked evenly.

"God, I wish I knew."

Ezra related everything he could as Judge Travis got him some beef jerky and water. The gambler was famished. Once he started eating, he ate ravenously.

They sat in silence for a while - the judge overwhelmed with the story he'd just heard. He'd hired these men. He had a responsibility to them.

And he had the best help in the country. He looked up as some of that help approached, cautiously.

"How is he?" a mustached man asked, nodding toward Ezra.

"He'll be ok, but we've got our work cut out for us. You had it pegged. I'll fill you in and we can leave at daybreak."

Ezra looked up at the men who had joined them, and was about to speak when he realized who was standing before him.

And he dropped his jerky in the dirt.


Chris stood up stiffly. He felt so damn old. He stretched and rolled his shoulders. God, he needed sleep.

Vin reappeared in the doorway, looking more like himself.

"We can't stay here," he reported. "We're sittin' ducks if we do. There's a rock formation that's not too far. We can take cover for the night."

Chris grinned. "You actually got a horse."

Vin grinned back. "I got supper and blankets." He raised the rifle. "And I got more ammo. We're set."

Chris put his hand on the tracker's shoulder, and they left the little town.


There was a chill in the night air. The blonde-haired soldier was finally asleep. Buck's big heart went out to him. In a way, that young man was in more pain than anyone--feeling responsible for their suffering, yet himself a victim of men who abused their authority, endoctrinating the young ones into their twisted delusions. The soldier looked so young. Buck knelt beside him and pulled the makeshift blanket - his jacket - up over the boy's shoulder. As almost an afterthought, he patted his arm, then he stood up and went back to sit by JD.

Josiah and Buck had silently settled into their most comfortable roles - Josiah alone on lookout, perched on a higher part of the rock formation, the prophet listening on the mountain - and Buck taking care of the boys. They both needed sleep desperately. But neither would be able to sleep tonight.

JD lay on his stomach, but propped on his side slightly. this relieved his broken ribs, which in turn eased his breathing. Josiah and Buck had pulled off his ripped jeans and put Buck's shirt over the lower half of his body.

But not before they'd seen the boy's back and legs fully for the first time.

Long red stripes marked his body from his neck and shoulders all the way to the backs of his knees. Oh, God, his back . . .

Buck kept vigil over JD, occasionally stroking the boy's head - the only place he could be sure his touch wouldn't hurt.

He wished he could hope . . .

But JD's fever was raging - and he was dying - he shouldn't have survived the relentless whipping, much less being moved so much. JD had fought valiantly. He had protected his friends.

But he had no fight left.

And he wouldn't live 'til morning.

Buck wrapped his arms around his knees and rested his head on his wrists. His eyes were closed but his mind was racing, reliving.

A hand on his shoulder startled him and he jumped. Josiah had the rifle in hand and motioned for Buck to come with him.

"We've got company." Josiah's low voice mingled with the gentle night sounds.

"How many?"

"Two."

"Did you get a good look?"

"No - they looked like a heavily armed Mary and Joseph - one riding a horse and the other leading it. They came from the direction of the military installment."

"Sweet Jesus . . ." Buck said and he glanced back at JD sadly. "We can't take him back to the cave." He took a heavy breath looked at Josiah. "We've gotta take these guys out."


Chris and Vin were cautious, but still didn't see the ambush awaiting them. Vin was slumping a little.

"We're almost there," Chris said. "Stay with me."

"Where would I go?"

Good - his humor was intact.

A big bright moon shone overhead. That would be of critical benefit as they made their way up into the shadows of the rocks. When they reached the edge of the rock stand, Chris helped Vin off the horse and they tied the animal out of sight with water and feed.

Chris draped Vin's arm across his neck and held him around the waist and together they started into the rock sanctuary. Chris never knew he was in a rifle site.

And Buck didn't know he was about to blow away his best friend.


PART NINE: Absolution

Buck kept his eye trained on the target. He couldn't tell much in the shadows. What if these were the guys who'd hurt the kid? The rage he'd kept at bay made his stomach churn and he gripped the rifle more tightly. Images flooded his mind - JD in that bastard's grip, the blade cutting his already hurt face, the boy's hands being tied over his head, Chiles tearing the back of his shirt, the first lash of the whip. Buck shuddered with rage and almost pulled the trigger before the targets were in range. But he waited, still reliving the horrors - Vin's lifeless body being taken to Tascosa - and Chris . . .

He had never been able to rescue Chris Larabee - not from his grief, not from alcohol, not from Jacob Chiles.

No, he couldn't save him, but he could sure as hell avenge him.

And he'd start with these two.

Two men. The shadows still obscured his vision. But he could still make out two figures.

Wait. Was one supporting the other? Was one injured? Buck reluctantly pulled his rifle up and watched. If one was injured, he may be able to take them down without having to shoot this rifle from the Dark Ages. His revenge may have to wait. The men didn't appear to be searching for them. In fact, it looked like they were setting up camp for the night. Buck still couldn't see their faces, but they were close enough for him to tell more about what they were doing.

The injured man sat down and the other squatted beside him and started rummaging through a knapsack.

Food.

Water.

God, JD needed water.

Buck watched the man pulling items out of the bag. It looked as though he were examining the contents for the first time. He would look at an item and set it aside, as though he were categorizing everything. Until he found his own personal motherlode.

The man stood slowly and stiffly. With a practiced hand, he brought the cherroot up to his lips. Buck didn't have to wait to see him light the smoke to know it was Chris Larabee. He knew his moves.

Buck's heart raced and his face broke into a broad smile. He didn't dare call out to him. What if there were renegades from the installment camped in these rocks for the night? Josiah and Buck and the young soldier hadn't been able to scout the whole area, so there was no way to know how secure the area was. He couldn't call out. But he could run like hell.

Buck recklessly set out to make his way down the rocky slope.


Footsteps - running.

Chris and Vin both grabbed weapons. Whoever was coming toward them obviously wasn't concerned with being found out.

"Hey!"

Chris froze for a moment, dumbfounded, then he holstered his weapon. Vin looked puzzled but Chris was smiling. "Buck," he explained simply.

A moment later their friend rounded the corner. He looked at Chris and nodded. They didn't need words. In one move, Buck hugged his oldest friend and Chris held on to him. The emotion was too strong to express. The relief palpable.

Buck sighed his relief audibly. Finally he backed up and looked his friend over. He grabbed his friend's neck and nodded. Chris was alive, thank God.

Thank God. Buck bit his lip and uttered his silent prayer of gratitude. Maybe God was with them. It would be all right.

"You okay, Buck?" Vin asked.

"Hey pard," Buck said, kneeling beside the tracker. "I'm fine. But I thought you were . . ."

"So did I."

Buck looked Vin in the eye and assessed his condition. "How's your head?"

"Sore - better." Vin tried to smile. "I'm better"

"Are you really?"

Vin nodded ever so slightly. Buck patted his shoulder and stood. Then he looked intensely at Chris. "Are you hurt?" he asked. Chris shook his head, no.

"You?"

"No."

"Are you alone?"

Buck shook his head, no. "Josiah and I brought JD here. We gotta get him some water."

"He's alive??" Vin jumped to his feet.

"Barely," Buck started replacing the contents of the knapsack. "But he won't be for long. We've gotta get him some help." He was almost afraid to ask. "Is Nathan . . .?"

Chris' expression became hard. "Those . . . soldiers. They've taken him."

"God, they'll lynch him," Buck said.

"Not if I get there first. And as soon as we can get JD and Vin to safety, I'm going after him."

"I'll go with you," Buck said soberly.

"What can we do for JD?" Vin asked in his gentle voice.

Buck shook his head. "I wish I knew. We got out of there with nothing. No water, no blankets, nothing. I don't know how the kid has survived this long. He's got such a high fever. And he's . . ." The words caught in his throat. How could he begin to describe the kid's condition? They would see soon enough.

The three made their way into the rocks, filling each other in as they went. Once they were close, Buck announced their approach so Josiah wouldn't ambush them.

"You get 'em?" Josiah asked.

"Sure did." There was a smile in Buck's voice that Josiah didn't expect and he was watching the path curiously when they appeared.

Josiah stood with his mouth hanging open. "Praise God!" he finally uttered. He walked over to his friends and embraced them. The big man's eyes filled as the relief flooded him. He took the knapsack from Buck and easily tossed it across his strong shoulder. Once he was satisfied that his friends were indeed all right, he asked the question that had been nagging at him. "Nathan?"

"Soldiers took him." Chris' answer was short. Josiah looked at the ground. He couldn't bear the thought of his friend having to spend any time in shackles, being treated as less than human.

"I'll find him." Chris' voice bore an authority that comforted the preacher.

"We'll find him," Josiah said as he put a hand on Chris' shoulder - but Chris wasn't looking at him.

He was looking beyond him to the black-haired boy lying face-down on the hard ground. His heart was in his throat. The reality of the day's horror lay in front of him, shivering and occasionally moaning even in his unconsciousness. How slight he looked. How young.

Chris walked over to him slowly, Vin on his heels. Buck went ahead of them and resumed his familiar place at JD's side. He reached up and stroked the boy's hair again. It probably comforted Buck more than it did the kid. Almost in slow motion, Chris knelt beside their youngest - at once relieved that he was alive and horrified that he was suffering so on his behalf - on behalf of all his friends.

Chris squeezed his eyes closed. Vin had settled on the ground beside Buck and put a firm hand on his shoulder. Buck loved that kid - they all did. They couldn't bear watching him die a second time in one day. Buck eased JD up and poured a sip of water into his parched mouth. Most of it dripped down his chin. He didn't wake up.

Chris took a deep breath and pulled off the sticky, damp shirts that covered the boy, exposing his mutilated back and legs. Even the seasoned gunfighter was not prepared for what he saw. Chris' jaw tightened and his lip quivered . . . in anger? Grief? It didn't matter which. Vin quickly turned away and fought back the nausea that had plagued him earlier that day. He couldn't bear seeing the boy hurt like that. This time it was Buck who hooked an arm around the tracker's shoulders - supporting him through the dry heaves.

"Easy . . ." Buck's voice was more of a murmur - an intonation he had repeated to JD all evening, now comforting Vin as well. Vin's heaves gave way to soft sobs. Buck held him. They all needed to grieve for the day - for the kid - for each other.

Chris grit his teeth. He wouldn't let the boy die. He'd do whatever it took. The gunfighter pulled off his big duster. He had been able to rescue it from the little encampment before he and Vin took off. Ever so gently, he laid it over his young friend. It swallowed the boy. Chris tucked it all the way around.

"Vin . . . "

The tracker was a step ahead of him, already pulling off his coat. He stood up and laid it over the duster. Buck nodded at Chris. They would sweat the fever out of the boy.

Vin swayed a bit.

"Whoa!" Buck caught him and steadied him. "Come on, pard. You need sleep." Vin didn't argue. He let Buck lead him to a spot near the soldier. Buck laid a mat down for him and helped him get settled. He rolled Vin's overshirt and made a lousy pillow. But it was better than the rock surface. Vin was asleep immediately. "Sleep well, my friend," Buck said, and he returned to JD and Chris. Josiah had resumed his perch on the mountain.

"He's been on watch for a long time. He needs sleep, too," Buck said as he watched the preacher.

Chris never looked away from JD. "Josiah is where he wants to be right now," Chris said. "He'll be all right."

The old friends sat in silence for a while, the only sound the soft breathing of the sleepers. JD wasn't shivering as much. Maybe that was good.

"Go to sleep, Buck," Chris said. "You look like hell."

"I can't leave him." Buck's voice was raspy and tired.

"He'll need you tomorrow. We've gotta get him to safety, and you need to be strong. You need to be alert. We have no idea what's out there."

"What about you?" Buck asked.

"I'm ok." A sideways grin crossed Chris' face. "I'll wake you up in a couple of hours."

Buck nodded and felt JD's forehead one more time. The boy was still burning up. Chris pulled Buck's hand away. "It's gotta work its way out of him. He'll be ok. I'll wake you up if there's any change."

Reluctantly, Buck got up. "I'm glad you're all right," he told his friend.

"You, too." Chris' words said little.

But his eyes said everything.

And Buck understood.


The night was deathly quiet. Buck slept fitfully. Vin slept soundly, a healing sleep - finally.

Chris lay his head back. What would they do tomorrow? They'd have to get supplies. They didn't have enough water. They certainly didn't have enough food. And he had no idea where they were.

JD coughed a bit and it hurt him. "God . . ." he breathed.

"Easy, son." Chris lifted him a little. JD coughed again, and Chris realized he was coughing up blood. He grabbed one of the old shirts tore off a clean part then carefully wiped the kid's mouth. JD was becoming agitated. "You're all right JD. Just breathe. . ."

"Hurts. . ." He coughed again.

"I know . . ." Chris positioned himself so he could support him. He carefully pulled the boy up and held him as he struggled to breathe. The legendary gunfighter spoke gently, calming him, comforting him.

For a moment, Chris was holding his own son. He hadn't been able to comfort Adam. Maybe he could help now.


Buck awoke to a bright morning sun . . .

And JD's voice.

Buck nearly tripped jumping up before he was actually awake.

Vin was sitting beside the boy, holding his hand.

The duster and the coat lay to the side and JD's lower body was covered with Vin's shirt. He couldn't tolerate anything touching his back. And he didn't understand why he hurt.

But anyone who looked at him did. In the light of day his back looked so much worse, and it appeared to be getting infected. Buck bit his lip and his eyes met Vin's - searching for . . . hope, something. But the tracker could only shake his head.

When Buck reached the kid's side, he realized that JD's words were random. He had not regained consciousness. And his words, punctuated with weak sobs, broke their hearts.

"No more . . . don't. . ." He was writhing in pain. Vin squeezed his hand. Buck stroked his hair.

"Mama . . ." The boy's breathing was agitated. "They got Buck . . . I can't . . ." A soft sob escaped his throat. "I can't . . . help him."

Buck tried talking to him, but JD didn't know him.

"Don't leave me . . . Mama . . ."

The young soldier who had helped them escape stood off to the side and watched everything with wide fearful eyes.

Vin wet a cloth with a bit of their precious water and he lay it across JD's neck.

The boy settled a bit, but he continued murmuring "don't leave me" like a mantra.

Buck felt sick. He leaned over to Vin.

"I'm gonna f---ing kill every last one of them."

Vin didn't answer, but his eyes flashed in angry silent agreement.

The soldier withdrew from the scene - suddenly ashamed of the remnants of the uniform he was still wearing.


OK, now he had his bearings. They were southwest of Four Corners. From the back of the horse, Chris Larabee had been able to scout a bit. He began to recognize the change in terrain and could assess the distance from Four Corners. It would be a day's ride at least. And they were gonna be mostly on foot. It would be better not to move JD at all, but there were no resources close. And there was little security where they were.

The hoofprints which he had picked up beside the rock stand led almost due north. That was good. Chris would lead his travellers northeast. Their paths wouldn't cross.

The same oppressive sun that had punished them yesterday was every bit as relentless today. The tired gunfighter pressed forward toward Four Corners until he found water. He eased himself down from the horse and thrust his calloused hands into the clear cold stream. Cupping his hands, he brought the water to his dry lips and drank.

It was good. Chris hadn't realized how parched he was. He drank like he couldn't get enough. Then he drank some more. Finally his thirst was satisfied. He splashed his face. He hadn't even realized he was sunburned. He poured the water down the front of his shirt. The cold was invigorating. He filled the canteens he had brought with him, and galloped back to the rock formation.


It was slow going. JD had been tied facedown to a buckboard that had been hitched to the horse - certainly not the easiest way to travel. On the contrary, he was jostled so much that Josiah proposed that carrying him would have been easier. The boy would fade in and out of consciousness. Yet even unconscious, he would moan or sob. During his rare lucid moments, he was in agony.

With every step, the men's resolve grew. This would not go unanswered. Josiah easily supported Vin - Vin's arm looped around the preacher's neck. The tracker insisted that he could manage fine on his own.

He couldn't.

Buck stayed close to JD, watching him. Listening for some word that would assure him that the kid would come back to them.

But the boy was far away.

Chris was walking ahead of the weary little group, watching the horizon for signs of any trouble. The blonde haired Confederate soldier kept watch behind them. And they made their way across the barren expanse, the promise of water and rest encouraging them to press onward.


The first shot spooked the horse, but Josiah managed to hang on to the lead line. A flurry of shots followed, one ricocheting off of the buckboard, and one catching Buck in the ankle. He screamed and rolled dangerously close to the hooves of the terrified horse. Immediately, Vin threw himself over Buck and took quick aim at the band of heavily armed men racing toward them on horseback. Chris Larabee had already picked off two and was still shooting. Buck squirmed out from under Vin and looked for JD. God, his ankle hurt. But he had to do something. On the buckboard, the kid was a perfect target. Buck searched his pockets for a knife, then he pulled himself up and cut JD loose. Just as he did, the horse bolted, and JD rolled heavily off the back of the buckboard.

Buck looked up in time to see one of the attackers taking aim at Josiah. He reached frantically for the pistol he had been carrying and, with hardly time to aim, he fired a shot.

Buck steeled himself against the blinding pain in his ankle and forced himself to look for JD.

It was too late. God help him, it was too late.

The kid was curled up watching a man standing over him . . .

Pulling the trigger of a shotgun aimed at his heart.

"NOOOOOO!!" Buck screamed. The blast rocked everything around it. Buck threw himself on the short man with the shotgun. He dug the pistol into the man's ribs and pulled the trigger.

Nothing. There were no shots left. The two rolled over and over, and Buck realized he was fighting one of the men who had whipped JD - a man who finally finished what he had started just yesterday. Buck found his knife again and just as the muscled assailant had gotten a better hold on his shotgun, Buck killed him. He reached back to stab the dead man again, tears streaming down his face, but a hand caught his before he could. He turned fiery eyes toward the person who held him.

Josiah.

The preacher pulled him out of the way and after a bewildering moment, Buck realized that the enemy was losing ground.

Someone was helping them. In fact, the band of assailants was surrounded by twenty or twenty-five gunmen, And the situation was neutralized very quickly.

Buck was dazed.

"JD." He spoke softly and he and Josiah looked over where JD had faced his killer.

Both of them saw the dead boy.

With blonde hair.

Who had stepped in front of the black-haired boy.

And taken a bullet for him.

Absolution.


PART TEN: Letting Go and Holding On

Ezra Standish galloped up to his friends, followed closely by Judge Orrin Travis. Josiah was holding Buck - who lay writhing in pain. Vin was sitting on the ground, exhausted.

And JD was alive . . . Oh, God - JD was alive. . .

The gambler jumped off his horse and ran to the kid. He slid to the ground next to him.

JD didn't know he was there. He was hugging a body - another kid's body. And he was staring straight ahead - eyes glassy and terrified.

"JD," Ezra began softly. But the boy was in some kind of shock. His battered body trembled violently and his mouth was open like he would scream, but no sound came. Tears streamed down the boy's bruised, broken face. Ezra would have held him if he could find a way to do so without hurting him.

"It's over, son." The gambler's voice was infinitely gentle.

But JD looked down at the blonde-haired boy he held in his arms - and Ezra realized it was the soldier who had hit JD with the butt of a rifle just the morning before. JD slowly looked at Ezra, almost saying his name, looking pleadingly at the gambler. Still dazed, he looked around. Vin was laying on the ground. And Buck. . .

Buck had been hurt.

God, no . . . not Buck . . .

JD looked up to heaven, then his gaze returned to the boy in his arms.

And he started to cry out, but it emerged a blood-curdling scream.

And he screamed.

And screamed.

Startled eyes looked to the kid. Buck tried to pull away from Josiah to go to him, but the preacher held him fast. Vin crawled to JD and Ezra, and Chris Larabee got to the kid's side at the same time. They tried to pull the soldier's body out of JD's arms, but the boy held on with an iron grasp. His horrific screams finally subsided, leaving him with not much more than a hoarse cry.

"You have to let him go, son," Chris's voice was firm, but kind. JD didn't seem to know that anyone was there.

"JD!" he said sternly. "Look at me, boy."

Ever so slowly, JD turned his head toward his leader, his mouth still gaping open, sobs and coughs racking his tired body. After an eternity, his eyes met Chris' and something seemed to connect if only for a moment.

"Let go, JD," Chris repeated, more softly. And he and Vin pulled the dead soldier out of the boy's arms. Chris glanced at the gambler, quickly assessing that he was ok, then nodded. There would be time to talk later.

JD didn't see where they took the body. He coughed violently and Ezra caught him as he collapsed. The gambler eased him to the ground on his stomach.

And saw the boy's injuries for the first time.

He'd never seen anything like this and for a moment he froze. But the touch of a hand brought him back. JD was reaching for the gambler - and Ezra held the boy's hand in a strong grasp. He cradled his head against his chest.

It was unusual for Ezra to be comforting somebody. But it felt right.

And as he held the boy, he realized with absolute certainty, that he was part of a family. And although he had tried not to let it happened, he had grown to care about these men - his friends - his brothers. He hurt when they hurt.

And he hurt for JD.

"We need help here!!" Ezra called and soon a man came running toward them.

With a medical bag.


Strange protocol.

Soldiers without a war. Yet following the letter of a law that no longer governed anybody.

These young soldiers with leaders too young to lead.

Or too old.

Oh, not too old in years, but too old in spirit. Years of living in an obselete world had hardened the fathers of the young soldiers. And fear of losing their way of life had caused them to fight desperately.

Even when there was no hope left.

A small band of renegade fighters, carrying on what their fathers and grandfathers had died to preserve. Boys who knew nothing of the world outside of their circle. And any information they encountered in their travels was suspect - the propoganda intended to delude them into giving up.

They would never give up.

And they would fight to regain their land and their way of life one battle at a time.

Righting one wrong at a time.

Returning property to the rightful owners . . .

One escaped slave at a time.


The mighty posse gathered the prisoners and tended to the injured. Chris Larabee searched the faces of the captured, looking for the hollowed features of the man who had orchestrated this travesty.

But Jacob Chiles wouldn't be anywhere near this place.

For he was a coward.

Chris Larabee's patience was wearing thin, when he did come across a familiar face.

A face that yesterday had squinted in the noonday heat, peering at his target, coiling a black whip with practiced hands. A face that had never changed expression. The face of a man who had exhausted himself by pouring all of his considerable strength into the back of kid.

Chris' eyes flashed with the maniacal anger that had startled his friends the day before, and in a split second, he had his knife in his hand.

But he didn't cut the man. Vin put an easy hand on Judge Travis' arm to keep him from intervening just yet.

Roughly, the gunfighter cut the bonds that bound the executioner's ankles, then jerking him to his feet, he cut the bonds on his wrists. Chris tossed the knife aside and, before the other man could get a foothold, Chris was fighting him with every fiber of his being.

The other man was decidedly stronger, but Chris was faster.

And he was furious.

Chris fought for JD.

For Buck.

For Vin.

For Nathan.

For all of his wounded friends.

And he fought for himself. To regain something of the spirit that had nearly been driven from him.

He fought for Sarah.

For Adam . . .

All the evils one person could inflict on another found personification in the big muscle man Chiles had hired. And Chris Larabee would fight until one of them was dead.

Onlookers, both posse and captives alike, encircled the two.

And they damn near killed each other.

It didn't last long. When the other man lay unconscious, and Chris Larabee could barely hold his head up, the group started to disperse. Judge Travis and a couple of the men from the posse started to move the big man, and Vin and Josiah went to tend to their leader. Chris was on his knees, breathing heavily, mouth bleeding, but there was a look of unmitigated satisfaction on his face. He nodded to his friends.

"That felt great," he grinned. It didn't make up for the evils of the world. But it sure as hell made him feel better.

Josiah eased him to his feet.

And he promptly collapsed.

Easily, Josiah lifted the gunfighter and carried him to where the doctor was working on Buck Wilmington's ankle. The doctor had poor equipment, but he had come on board to catch one of the many criminals who seemed to have it in for the seven peacekeepers from Four Corners. He hadn't planned on doing surgery in the dusty wasteland.

He had done what he could to help the boy who'd been whipped. There was already so much infection, and such fever, that he didn't know if he'd helped him at all. And he couldn't do much for the broken ribs - they were making the boy's breathing so difficult.

No, the young man probably wouldn't make it. The doctor had admonished his friends to pray.

When JD had finally fallen asleep again, Ezra had gone to help wherever he was needed.

The doctor was digging his crude forceps into the wound to pull the ball out of Buck Wilmington's ankle. And Buck was yelling!

The doctor dropped the ball into a tray on the ground. He snorted.

"It missed the bone," he stated. "You're damn lucky."

"Oh yea, that's me," Buck said through clenched teeth. "Lucky."

He threw his head back and fought the pain as the doctor poured bourbon into the wound. "Oh, God . . ."

Neither of them had noticed JD.

He had only moved a few feet. He had crawled over on his stomach, pulling himself along slowly until he reached Buck. His friend's cries had scared him.

The doctor looked up in disbelief as the dying boy pulled himself up on his elbow, and gasping for breath, reached up to place a trembling hand on the side of Buck's face.

Buck turned his head and found himself looking into JD's worried eyes.

"Hold on, Buck. Please . . ."

The voice was little more than a whisper, and the breaths came in short gasps. But the kid was there.

And he knew him.

"You're gonna be . . ." JD struggled then he tried again. "You're gonna be ok." The effort left the boy winded, and he paused a moment, leaning the top of his head against Buck Wilmington's chest.

The big man's eyes brimmed with tears, and his face broke into a sad, sweet smile. He held the boy's neck and leaned his head down gently on top of JD's.

He held him for a moment. "Yea, I'll be ok." He turned the boy's face back toward him, and looked into his clear hazel eyes. "And you will be too, kid." He helped JD ease back down to the ground beside him and the boy promptly fell asleep at his side.

"You will be, too."


PART ELEVEN: A Wisp of Memory

"You have got to be the most obstinate, pig-headed son of a bitch who ever lived."

"I made a promise, Buck," Chris Larabee said as he buckled the unfamiliar holster which he'd hung loosely over his narrow hips.

Buck was sitting propped up against a stack of gear, his bandaged ankle stretched out in front of him. It hurt like hell, but the laudanum would kick in soon.

"You don't have to go," Buck repeated emphatically. "You've got a dream posse going after him." He watched as Chris painfully leaned over to pick up his hat. "Look at yourself," Buck kept at it. "You're in no condition to take on fight like that."

Buck was right. Chris knew it.

Buck knew he knew it.

But they both also knew Chris would go.

He slowly squatted and looked Buck in the eye. "I told him I'd find him. I mean to do it."

Buck squinted back at his oldest friend and chuckled. "Well, I had to try to talk you out of it. It's my job . . ." He extended his hand and Chris reached out and grasped it firmly.

"Be safe, my friend," Buck said softly.

A wry smile crossed the gunslinger's face. "Always," he answered.

Without releasing his hand, Chris nodded toward the slight figure sleeping soundly face down on the ground beside Buck.

"Take care of him . . ." Chris said, soberly.

Buck looked down at JD and rested an easy hand on the boy's hair.

"Always. . ."


It had been just over a day.

Just one day.

And he had lost everything.

His friends, his freedom . . .

Himself . . .

His wrists were bound. His ankles were bound. Mindlessly he curled his arms around his knees and lay his head down. The wagon was rolling over rougher terrain, jostling him and the sun was even more abusive than it had been the day before, if that were possible.

But he didn't really care about the discomfort. He didn't even care that he had lost so much.

He was separating from himself. He had long ago mastered the art of numbing himself - and the process was almost complete. A deadly apathy was setting in and it would protect him.

Only one thing kept intruding, upsetting the process.

One thing would not allow him to give up completely.

One shred of hope that was too much to hope for.

"I will find you."


Judge Travis had the posse divided and organized in under an hour. Prisoners bound and a plan in place. Even jaded gunslinger Chris Larabee was impressed by the assortment of men who had dropped everything to come and help. The assault against Larabee and his friends had involved a veritable who's who of outlaws. It would only stand to reason that a who's who of lawmen would set out after them.

Josiah and Ezra would go with Chris and the posse to find Nathan Jackson. And, God willing, they wouldn't be too late. They took horses from the prisoners, leaving their captives to double up or walk.

The preacher had to chuckle at the sight of Ezra Standish trying to eat beef jerky.

"Never thought I'd see you eating beef jer- ......."

"I unfortunately dropped my last one in the dirt, having been overwhelmed with the . . . esteemed company of the posse." The gambler swept an elegant hand toward the great peacekeepers who were talking with Chris Larabee and Judge Travis.

"Yea - that's quite a group." Josiah took another bite of his lunch.

Ezra tried to take a delicate bite, but the attempt was unsuccessful.

"You have to eat it like an animal, Ezra, or you're gonna go hungry."

"Yes?"

"Yes." Josiah put a shrunken strip of salty beef in his mouth and demonstrated, ripping a bite and chewing with his mouth open.

Ezra looked self-conscious. He looked at the strange food and brought it to his lips as though it were a croissant.

"What have you eaten the last two days, man?"

"Biscuits."

"You can't live in the desert on biscuits. 'Man cannot live on bread alone.'"

"I am quite certain that is not what the writers of the gospel had in mind in that bit of scripture. But nevertheless, it is germaine to this situation. All right, Mr. Sanchez." The gambler took a large bite of the beef jerky, and Josiah thought for a moment that the fine gambler looked like an adolescent as he sloppily chewed - with his mouth open.

Ezra Standish then committed the ultimate breach of dining etiquette. He spoke while chewing. "This is . . ."

"Fun . . ."

Josiah laughed heartily for the first time in a week. "Well, you've had your initiation"

Ezra swallowed and regained his demeanor, but a twinkle remained in his eye.

"My baptism of fire, as it were."

The men continued to eat, talking easily. The familiar patter offered them a bit of relief - before going back out to face enemies they could not understand. This whole evil experience had threatened to plunge all of the men into an insurmountable despair.

But they had each other. And, at least for now they had JD. And they had help.

And they had beef jerky.

"You know, Sir, I regret that I have previously dismissed the culinary delights of hardtack."


"Easy . . ." Buck was barking orders from the big chestnut he was riding. "Watch it -- he's got broken ribs."

Buck watched impatiently as a couple of the younger riders in the posse moved JD to a new buckboard.

And they weren't doing it carefully enough to suit him.

"Hey - hey - turn his head the other way." Buck yelled, exasperated. "Don't let anything touch that side of his face . . ."

One of the two turned a hard eye toward Buck. It was too damn hot for this. A fleeting thought crossed his mind that he may just take that sorry son of a bitch's horse and leave him in this barren wasteland.

But then he looked back at the boy they were moving. He probably wouldn't last all the way back to Four Corners. Obviously the big man cared for the boy.

"You brothers or something?" he asked the man on the horse.

Buck thought for a moment and a tender smile crossed his face.

"Yea, I reckon we are."


Don't move me again. I been moved enough.

"Don't . . ." the ragged word finally made it from his brain to his lips.

The hands that lifted him were trying to be gentle - but they were unfamiliar.

Someone was taking him away from the others.

But they couldn't do that. Buck was hurt.

He thought he heard Buck's voice . . . but it was distant. He forced himself to open his eyes and try to focus.

"No . . ."

Why didn't anyone hear his protest?

They were laying him on something wooden. No - he remembered. Wooden. And very gently, someone was binding him to it.

"No," he cried out, louder this time.

"It's ok, son. It's ok."

He didn't know that voice.

And it wasn't ok . . .

"Lemme go." JD didn't have the strength to fight.

But he could damn sure try.

"It's for your own good, son." Someone was holding him down, easily restraining him.

And suddenly, JD panicked.

"No! God, no!" he yelled. Last time someone tied him up, they hurt him. He couldn't remember what happened exactly. But they hurt him.

And if he let them tie him up again, they'd probably kill him.


"No! God, no!" The kid's voice cut through the din of horses, riders, moving. . .

Faster than he should have, Buck swung his injured ankle over the horse's neck and jumped down, landing on his good foot.

And jarring his bad one. Ugh, he shouldn't have done that.

"JD!" he said as he hobbled over and practically fell down beside him. "Hey, kid, what's wrong?"

JD didn't look up, but clearly he was terrified. "Don't let 'em . . . tie me up, Buck." His voice sounded so young and and it quivered with apprehension. "Please . . . you gotta help me. Don't let . . ."

The men backed away from him and let Buck take over.

"It's ok," Buck's voice was easy. "You know I'm not going to let anybody hurt you." He took the frightened boy's hand in his big one. "These boys ain't gonna hurt you, JD. They're just helping you get settled on the buckboard, so we can take you home."

JD couldn't follow his friend's reasoning. "No, Buck. They're taking me with them." He was still so feverish. It almost seemed as though his moments of lucidity were more frightening than his unconsciousness had been.

"Oh, no, JD," he brushed the hair out of the boy's eyes. "You're coming with us. We're not letting anyone take you away."

"They're . . . killing me."

Buck spoke comforts to him, but his mind was drifting away.

He tried to look up. But it hurt him.

Everything hurt him.

He closed his eyes tightly and squeezed his friend's hand.

Then he remembered something through the haze of the laudanum.

Buck had been shot.

"They hurt you," he said simply.

JD didn't realize Buck was still talking to him. The boy was delirious.

"You shot him . . ." JD cried to those guys who tried to tie him up. "You hurt him." His voice became more hoarse as he yelled louder. "You bastards . . . bastards. . . "

Buck kept trying to reassure the kid, but it was no use. JD was wearing himself out. He would lose consciousness again in a moment. Then he would have some respite from the mental torture that would inevitably plague him the rest of his life. Just a moment of relief for JD. That would be a blessing.

"YOU F***ING KILLED HIM!!" JD's scream rocked the buckboard and he began to struggle.

Everyone in the camp turned toward the poor kid on the buckboard.

Chris and his other friends rode up close, dark expressions on their faces. They watched, heartsick, as the boy struggled with the terror, the laudanum creating a haze through which his friends couldn't reach. JD was hanging on by a thread, suffering the excruciating physical pain. But that couldn't compare with the emotional pain. And that was the most frightening of all. How do you explain to a teenager why someone would hurt him like this? How could they help him find peace?

Jacob Chiles was a dead man. Once they brought Nathan back and everyone had healed a bit, they would ride.

They would ride to the ends of the earth.

They would make their own justice.

"Oh, God!!!!!!" It was JD's momentary response to physical pain. His friends ached to help him. If they could have taken on his pain, they would have. But there was nothing they could do.

But ride.

Each renewed his own commitment to avenge this.

JD tried to regroup. "I can't help you, Buck. God I'm trying. They won't let me go."

He had no idea the hand holding his was Buck Wilmington's. He fought him, and it killed Buck that he had to hold him down so he wouldn't hurt himself.

"Lemme go! I gotta help . . . " And he fought some more.

A dry sob caught in JD's throat. "Buck . . . don't be dead . . .don't be dead. . ." Buck kept a steady litany going, but his words didn't make a dent. The kid couldn't hear him.

"You shot him. I'll kill you. I swear to God I will." JD kept yelling until he couldn't anymore.

The young members of the posse who had tried to move the boy were dumbfounded for the second time. They had already been overwhelmed when they initially saw JD's back. But this had to be worse.

The big gunslinger with the mustasche turned to them with red eyes and nodded for them to come help him tie JD to the buckboard. Very gently they held the wounded boy while Buck slowly and carefully lifted JD's arm and pulled the cloth tie around his wrist.

Something.

The wisp of a memory.

Something.

Hurt.

And JD began trembling violently.

Whimpering, mumbling . . .

Remembering. . .

Then he exploded.

"Oh, God - NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

The scream tore from his aching throat.

And everyone in the camp paused in sober silence.

"Don't. . . .let them . . ."

The boy shaped his lips before the next word came.

"Whip me. . . . . . . .."


PART TWELVE: "He Needs All of Us"

Nathan Jackson wasn't being mistreated, particularly - but he wasn't being treated well either. No one had beaten him. But no one had fed him that day either. He figured he hadn't eaten since. . . well, it had been the night before. They had fed him some supper and one of the adolescent soldiers had brought him a pillow and a blanket. He hadn't slept well. He had slept cautiously - the light sleep of the captive, ever ready to defend himself.

Or ready to try to, anyway.

This morning, breakfast rations had been low and feeding a prisoner was not a priority. He hated that empty stomach sensation that had been a part of his life before.

Maybe they'd feed him some supper again.

He closed his eyes and concentrated.

"I will find you." Well, Chris, I'm counting on it.

If anyone else had said it, he'd have been skeptical. He didn't know how Chris Larabee would do it under the present circumstances.

But Chris said he would find him.

And that was good enough for him.


Thank God the kid had passed out. With trembling hands, Buck finished securing him to the buckboard. JD would have made some stupid-ass joke about that. . . Buck and the buckboard. The gunslinger would have even liked to hear about the three-legged dog. That damned three-legged dog.

But the boy simply lay - spent.

A gentle voice.

"Let's get him home, Buck."

Vin Tanner was in the saddle of a big black stallion and he held the reins of another horse - saddled without a rider.

Buck's bewildered eyes scanned the faces around him for something. Comfort? Reassurance?

But his friends could offer neither. They were looking at the scene before them with different expressions - blistering anger - profound sadness -

Shock.

But all with determination.

The doctor was kneeling on JD's other side, checking him out. Buck nodded at Vin. They did need to get the boy home. Buck tried to stand, but, with his hurt ankle, he couldn't pull himself up.

Strong arms gripped his shoulders and caught him before he could fall.

Chris Larabee had swung off his horse and beside his old friend. Now he pulled Buck's arm across his shoulders and gave him the leverage he needed to stand. Once they were on their feet, Buck practically fell into an embrace.

Chris would typically shrug him off with a quip. But he hung onto Buck. He felt like someone needed to. Buck was hanging by a thread.

Another strong arm of support.

Josiah.

Buck backed away from Chris and looked him square in the eye.

"Did you kill that son of a bitch that hurt him?"

"If he ain't dead, he will be . . ."

"Did you see the other one?"

Chris shook his head, no. Then a quick thought crossed his mind.

"Buck - listen to me. You cannot take these guys on right now. I don't care if Jacob Chiles himself shows up. You're in no condition for a fight. You understand me?"

Buck looked disoriented.

"Buck, I mean it now. We'll get every last one of them. But you can't do it yourself."

Chris put his hand on Buck's neck and he lowered his voice.

"The kid needs you, Buck. When he wakes up, you gotta be right there. If you get yourself killed . . . JD doesn't have the strength to deal with that right now."

Buck glanced at the wounded boy on the buckboard.

"You hear me?"

He didn't look up.

"Buck!! He needs you."

The big gunslinger turned weary eyes back to Chris Larabee.

"I hear you . . . He needs me." Buck's voice cracked. He angled his head slightly and looked at Chris and Josiah. "He needs all of us. You bring Nathan back to us, ok?"

Chris nodded. Together he and Josiah were able to get Buck on his horse. They watched as the buckboard was pulled forward a few feet, the doctor checking to be sure it would be relatively safe - as safe as it could be anyway.

Chris and Josiah mounted their horses and, with Judge Travis leading the posse to find Nathan, started off in the other direction. Vin led Buck's horse in the direction of Four Corners.

Ezra Standish waited a moment before joining the posse. He thought for a moment and then slowly eased his way to the buckboard. He spoke to the kid - who opened his eyes a bit - but didn't seem to really see the gambler.

Ezra closed his eyes tightly for a moment, tipped his hat in respect, and then galloped off, letting the wind dry any tears he may have shed.

A couple of the esteemed lawmen also delayed their departure. They were making sure everything was in order in the group heading for Four Corners. This part of the posse would be traveling with quite a number of prisoners - and once they left their wounded in Four Corners, they would take the outlaws on to Eagle Bend to stand trial. The three peacekeepers returning to Four Corners were injured and since half of the posse was going after Nathan, there was minimal manpower.

Either mission could wind up being a suicide mission.

But it had to be done. Justice had to be served. There had to be law in the land.

There were no guarantees. There weren't even great plans.

But there were good men.

And good men could overcome the most impossible odds.

Once the posse leaders were relatively satisfied that the transport of prisoners could make it back without incident, they rode on after the others.


Painfully he opened his eyes and saw a confusion of horses hooves and dust.

And he saw Chris Larabee riding away . . .

And . . .

Josiah . . .

They were riding away from him.

Somewhere in the distance he thought he heard Buck, but his mind was playing tricks on him.

He could barely see Buck riding away in the distance.

Buck moving away from him, too.

Or was he moving . . .

WAIT!

His voice wasn't working right. It felt raw and hoarse.

"Buck . . " Nobody could hear him. He couldn't hear himself.

Everything was slipping away.

Everything and everybody.

Slipping away.

"I trust that you will be resting comfortably when we meet again, my friend."

Ezra's voice floated through the haze.

Ezra on a horse, about to ride away.

He tipped his hat to JD then he slipped away, too.

Everything was slipping away.

The light, the sound, his friends. . .

Everything was slipping away.

Or maybe he was.

Maybe he was slipping away . . . or letting go . . .

That made sense.

He was dying.

So this was dying . . . JD was bewildered, but vaguely relieved.

Dying . . . somehow he thought it would be more horrible.

But dying was just slipping away.

He could just let go and die.

And if he died, the pain would end.

And he could finally see his Mama again . . . . .

His eyes fluttered and he began to drift away forever . . .

When he saw him.

It couldn't be.

The eyes that were about to succomb to a long sleep worked hard to focus. Who was . . .

The man on horseback following Ezra . . . was . . .

Was . . .

Famous!!

JD tried to make his voice work.

"Hey - " he croaked.

"Sir!!"

But the legend rode on . . .


Chris looked so tired to Josiah - haggard almost. He had borne the responsibility of leading the seven peacekeepers, his "Magnificent Seven." And they had been divided and broken and he hadn't been able to stop it.

He carried guilt heavily.

And that guilt, coupled with exhaustion, pulled at Chris' eyes and tried to pull at his shoulders.

But he rode with shoulders straight.

Nathan needed him.

And he would ride until he found him.

Josiah pulled up beside him and rode with him.

In silence.

Sometimes the best minister ministers best without words.

The mighty presence of Josiah Sanchez steadied him. The big, kind, tough-as-nails preacher would ride with him.

Stand by him.

Die with him.

And Chris Larabee began to let go of the responsibility. There were fine men riding with him. He could be part of the posse. He didn't have to lead it anymore - well, not now, at least.

Hoofbeats coming up behind them - fast.

Chris spun around, then relaxed.

Ezra.

Chris nodded toward him. Ezra didn't look either of his friends in the eye. He just rode with them. Silently.


"WAIT!" Buck Wilmington's voice halted the group just as it was pulling out toward Four Corners. He lead his horse back to the place he had been when the ambush started. Vin followed close on his heels.

He called a couple of the younger members of the posse and nodded toward a body on the ground. The body of a blonde-haired boy in a ratty gray uniform.

"Bring him." Buck said through tight lips.

"Why?"

"He deserves a proper burial."

One of the young men spat back at him. "He's a f***ing Reb." He kicked the body and it rolled over twice.

But before he could regain his balance, Buck had his gun trained on him.

"Buck!"

Vin's voice.

"Don't."

A tall, formidable man with heavy gray whiskers rode up and addressed the young men standing beside the body.

"Wrap that body in a blanket and tie it on a horse. And never - never let me see you desecrate a body like you just did."

"Yes sir," the boy answered and the young men of the posse worked together to wrap the body.

Buck withdrew his gun - very slowly. Vin pulled up close and waited until he holstered his weapon.

"C'mon," Vin said, taking the reins of Buck's horse and leading him.

Buck let him. He was so tired. Tired of seeing death. Tired of seeing the people who mattered most to him suffer.

And the laudanum was starting to make him a little sick. He held on to the horn of the saddle, and let his head drop to his chest. Vin was glad his friend could sleep - if only for a little while.


He was starting to recognize the new terrain.

He had been here when he was a child.

Memories . . . his mother and father, brothers and sisters. Then being taken from them.

Working. Working hard.

The sweat. The empty stomach.

Memory mingled with reality and he felt himself become the man he used to be. The man who belonged to another person.

The slave.

He would have to work to hold on to the healer. The Peacekeeper.

One of the Seven.

Come on, Chris. I want to go home.


PART THIRTEEN: Separate Ways

The encampment looked much smaller this trip - smaller and eerily desolate. Ghost-like, as though the horrors that had occurred there still lingered somehow. This time they wouldn't be staying. They'd just examine the premises for any clues they may have missed and then they would take off after Nathan Jackson.

Chris Larabee could hardly hold his head up. The exhaustion and his injuries were making him sick. But he insisted on searching the grounds anyway. Josiah followed him, waiting for the inevitable collapse. He knew Chris wouldn't stop of his own accord. So when his knees gave way, Josiah simply caught him and carried him into the officers' quarters, where Ezra was examining the room closely. Josiah laid Chris on the ancient cot and sat with him while he slept - if only for a few moments.

Ezra Standish was no tracker.

But he was a keen observer of details. He could read the slightest alteration in a card or facial expression. It was his business - his livelihood.

He knew, for instance, that the coffee remaining in the tin cup was not domestic, but European. And someone without his power of perception could tell that it was still warm.

"Sweet Jesus," he muttered.

"What?" Josiah asked.

"Someone has been here today." Ezra lifted the cup and waved it slowly in front of Josiah. "And from the hint of cinnamon and nutmeg, I would say it was someone of . . . nobility . . .or 'assumed' nobility. Someone who could afford to import his coffee."

"Chiles!" Chris Larabee was awake immediately. He stood up - more quickly than he should have. Josiah steadied him as he took the cup from Ezra. He smelled it and frowned.

"Jacob Chiles gets his coffee from a company in Vienna. I know because when they arrested him, the shipments kept coming."

"Well, if he were here . . ." Ezra began.

"He's backtracking," Josiah and Chris said at once.

They went out into the street and found Judge Travis barking orders. They had discovered tracks leading back toward Four Corners. These tracks, however, would go along the opposite side of the rock stand. But the distance was almost the same. Chiles would overtake the others soon.

"How many?" Chris asked, sick at the thought.

"Twenty, twenty-five. . ." The judge answered.

Chris ran his fingers through his hair. For a split second he realized how much longer it was. The thought distracted him for a moment - from a decision he couldn't make. For the first time since this ordeal began, Chris Larabee felt hopeless. Buck, Vin and, God help him, JD. . . They wouldn't make it through another ambush.

And Nathan . . . he'd promised. He'd promised.

Ezra's voice cut through the myriad of thoughts whirling through Chris' brain. "I have an idea. It's a long shot. But then again, long shots have always been my strong suit."


All Vin Tanner wanted was sleep.

But he needed to keep an eye on Buck. Buck was hell-bent on avenging JD that he was bound to get himself killed.

The sun that had so mercilessly beat them down over the last couple of days now slipped beautifully behind the horizon. A benediction. Four Corners was less than a full day's ride away. By the time the sun set tomorrow, they'd be home.

And they could begin to rebuild themselves.

Or could they?

From his vantage point above the camp, Vin sadly watched Buck sitting by the fire with JD and the doctor. JD had not been conscious since the posse split up. And now his soaring fever was vigorously fighting the infection that was taking over his battered body.

His chances of survival were diminishing with every passing hour.

The bounty hunter felt a weight on his heart as he watched the scene. Somehow watching Buck was harder than watching the kid. Buck kept talking to him. He'd occasionally put his hand up to the boy's brow. And he'd bow his head.

Vin leaned his head back. It was pounding again. But at least he didn't feel like his head was swimming. He could focus.

Buck Wilmington hadn't meant to fall asleep. He intended to stay awake until JD woke up. But the pain-killer overwhelmed his already weakened system and he slept.

And dreamed. Of a boy excitedly riding up and promptly falling off his horse. A boy wearing a stupid hat. A boy with a silver badge on his lapel - no, under it. He'd at least taken Buck's advice about that. A boy hanging in the noonday sun - whipped within an inch of his life.

A wounded boy crawling up to him - putting his hand on Buck's face when the big man had been hurt.

A boy clutching the dead body of another boy amid gunshots.

Gunshots . . .

GUNSHOTS!!!!

Buck opened his laudanum-heavy eyes in time to see the doctor's shocked, dead eyes before he fell heavily across JD.

"Sweet mother of God," Buck breathed. For the second time in less than twenty-four hours, they were being ambushed. Like a drunkard who sobered immediately in an emergency, Buck became sharp quickly. He looked around, but could tell nothing in the dusk shadows. A gun battle raged all around him. He searched for cover, but nothing was close. If he carried JD to shelter, he would make him a target.

Buck did the only thing he could to protect JD. He pulled the lifeless body of the doctor around so it completely shielded JD.

And it sickened him.

Vin Tanner saw the doctor fall. He saw the camp spring to life. And he tried to lay cover as Buck scrambled to protect JD. Damn it, why couldn't he reload faster. He realized that there was no way Buck could get to cover, not with the ankle injury. Besides, he would never leave the kid alone in the middle of the melee. The dusk shadows made everything appear distorted and it took Vin twice as long to get a shot off for fear of hitting one of the peacekeepers.

Instinctively, Buck reached for the gun on his hip, but he realized he didn't have a weapon.

And Vin realized it, too. The sharpshooter assessed their surroundings - well, as much as he could at dusk. Could he protect his friends better from his perch on the side of the hill or did he need to join them in the pickle barrel.

He had to decide fast. The trained lawmen of the posse seemed to be holding their own. A quick glance to the two next to him, a shout of "Cover me," and he took off down the hill toward his friends.

His movement sparked a flurry of shots - the posse laying cover for him, the attackers trying to respond.

A shell whistled past his ear.

Too close.

He dove behind the equipment cart where a couple of the younger ones were shielding themselves.

He reloaded.

"You got an extra gun?" Vin asked breathlessly.

In response, a rifle was thrust into his hand. Again he eyed the situation. Well, there would never be a good time to bolt into the middle of it, but what choice did he have?

Buck was covering JD's head with his upper body, and he covered his own head with his arms.

Vin gathered both rifles and some ammo and he sprinted to his friends. He had to shake Buck to get his attention. Buck swung around with a fist, but Vin grabbed his wrist before it could connect.

"Easy, Buck," Vin said, and he handed his friend a rifle. "The enemy's out there. . . "

Clearly Buck was shaken. Shell shocked?

But his eyes met Vin's for a moment, and he seemed to become anchored.

"Fight them," Vin said.

And side by side they fought

And watched the tide turn in their favor.


Chris Larabee watched the mighty posse ride back toward Four Corners. He bit his lip and squinted at the late afternoon sun. They had maybe two more hours of daylight. Oh God, let them get there in time. Please God. . .

Josiah was examining the terrain. The soldiers were heading southeast and there must be thirty at least. Maybe five wagons? They hadn't tried to cover their tracks. That was certain. On the contrary. It was almost as though . . .

"Chris!" the preacher called. The man in black turned to him, startled. At the sight of the grin on Josiah's face, he raised an eyebrow. He joined him.

"Look," Josiah said, pointing to a shred of cloth on the ground. Chris felt a grin pull at the corner of his mouth. Ezra Standish had come over and was looking over Chris Larabee's shoulder.

"Well," he said. "I think our fortune may be changing."

Someone was helping them.


It ended as quickly as it started.

"You all right?"

Buck didn't answer. He was clutching the rifle and shaking all over.

"Hey!!" Vin's voice cut through the din. "Buck!!"

Buck turned weary eyes toward the sharpshooter. Vin smiled.

"You all right?" he asked, more softly now.

Buck nodded, but instead of answering, he looked down at JD. He could barely see the side of the boy's face. Ghostly pale.

Deathly still.

Buck started to pull the body of the doctor away and realized how heavy the man was. Vin scooted around to help him.

JD didn't react to the movement at all.

Vin slipped a hand up to the kid's throat.

A pulse. Very weak.

"Stay with us, kid." Vin leaned close to his ear and whispered. "You gotta hold on."

He read the question in Buck's eyes and nodded. Buck again breathed a prayer of thanks, and he settled back onto the ground beside JD.

Vin rested his hand on Buck's shoulder and looked at the aftermath of the assault. There were more dead this time. The tired posse riders were gathering the new captives and they were tending to the wounded. Buck could feel the effects of the laudanum again and he was suddenly very tired. He felt his eyelids grow heavy and he could barely keep his eyes open.

Just before he faded completely, he noticed Vin straighten his shoulders. The tracker reached in his pocket and pulled out his eyeglass. He brought it to his eye.

His jaw dropped.

"What?" Buck asked.

Vin was watching an angular figure silhouetted against the late sun. He clenched his teeth and answered Buck in a hiss.

"Chiles . . . "

Without another word, the bounty hunter bolted. He easily swung up onto the nearest horse and took off after the man who had instigated the whole horrible incident.

Buck sat up on his elbow.

"Vin!!" his voice boomed.

But it was too late.

His friend was gone.


PART FOURTEEN: Sacrifices

Buck Wilmington was lonesome.

He hurt. And he was lonesome.

But it wasn't lonesomeness like he had known before. That melancholy sense that occasionally swept over him when he was temporarily without female companionship. No, this was more akin to grief. Profound sadness. And the laudanum didn't help.

His ankle throbbed.

And there was no doctor to help him.

And there was no doctor to help JD.

Poor kid. Buck watched him sleep. A death sleep. He was watching his friend - his brother - slip away. . . JD had known him . . . for a moment, but he had known him. He had recognized him.

And he had worried about him. JD's one truly lucid moment was spent worrying about Buck.

And Buck was losing him.

Now Vin was gone. What the hell was he thinking, going after Chiles by himself?

Buck smiled sadly, and, for the millionth time, brushed the hair out of JD's battered face. He knew exactly what Vin was thinking. And if he'd been able to get to his feet on his own, he'd have taken off after that bastard himself. Buck's prayers were becoming instinctive. Where else could he turn? He was powerless.

Protect him, Lord. Protect them all.


He was there. Land that belonged to a man he once belonged to. Land that he had been bound to. Beautiful land had it not been for the evil that lived there.

It was not beautiful to him.

It was not his home.

It was a place where Nathan Jackson was lost and a stranger was born. It had taken years to recover himself. And he was in danger of losing himself again.

He was beginning to lose hope of rescue as he retreated from his surroundings. He tried to hold on.

He tried to make himself think of the glory days of the Seven . . .

The Magnificent Seven . . .

But they weren't Seven any longer.

They never would be . . .

He was one man.

Alone.


Judge Orrin Travis urged his horse onward. There was no time to lose. They were losing daylight and if they didn't catch up by nightfall, they may not be able to assist the travelers.

The old man was tired. But he set a pace that challenged the youngest of his crew. They were all weary, but there was work to be done.

"Rider!"

Judge Travis looked at the sentry and followed his gaze to the horizon. A big man framed against the sunset . . .

Riding like a bat out of hell . . .

Then he disappeared over the western hill.

Another rider. Faster. On a horse he knew.

One of his posse's horses.

"After them!!" Travis commanded, and the group divided, half of them taking off in pursuit.

Dust flew as horses thundered across the plain to the rise of a hill. On the crest, the sentry could see that the man giving chase was gaining on his quarry.

But there was another factor in the chase.

The train smoking through the valley.

The man in front was riding furiously toward the caboose of the train.

And he was going to reach it.

The man in pursuit wanted to raise the rifle he was carrying . . .

But he was traveling too fast, and if he stopped, he'd be out of range.

And as he watched the big man desperately dive toward the back rail of the caboose,

And haul himself awkwardly over to the other side,

As he watched the terrified horse peel away from the mechanical ship,

He cried out, "NOOOO!"

Jacob Chiles lay on the back of the caboose, breathing heavily.

Safely getting away.

And Vin Tanner hung his head

And wept.


The trio was making excellent time. The clues were so clear that they could track even as they lost daylight. Someone was helping them.

Someone wearing the colors of the Confederacy.

With each indicator, their resolve grew. Ezra Standish had a plan.

And his companions marveled at the selflessness of it.

It had to work.


Nathan Jackson sat at the edge of the camp, eating the good meal the young soldier had brought him. This boy wasn't like the others. He didn't understand their mission. And he didn't relish taking this man back to a man he knew to be cruel.

But what could he do?

The sun hadn't quite dipped behind the trees. The boy sat near Nathan and ate his own meal. He was clearly troubled. The healer had to respond.

"You may feel better if you talk about it," Nathan's voice was low and warm.

The boy turned fearful eyes to the man who was eating his meal in shackles.

"I'm not supposed to talk to you." The boy's voice was little more than a whisper. Nathan respected the fear of a soldier who had seen another boy being whipped to death. He didn't speak to the kid again, but nodded his understanding. Tears filled the boy's eyes and he mouthed "thank you" to the captive.

Something in that exchange touched the healer.

And he felt strangely

Healed.

He could never lose himself again. He could not turn his back on the man he had become.

And even if they took away his liberty, they couldn't take away his soul.

He would always be free.

And he emancipated himself.


The man who had so gallantly pursued his quarry, only to see him escape, lay his head on his horse's neck. God, he was tired. And his head hurt. And . . .

He slid off of his horse to the ground, unconscious.

In a matter of seconds, five men had gathered around him. And Judge Travis caught up in moments. He pushed his men away from the fallen rider.

"Sweet Jesus," he muttered. He knew the clothes of the bounty hunter. And he remembered how the young man had been deemed too weak to travel with Larabee and the others. What the hell was he doing tearing across the sunset plain after one man? "Mr. Tanner?" he said more loudly. He felt for a pulse. It was strong. Well, that was one thing. But he didn't wake up at the judge's voice.

And, for a man with a head injury, that was dangerous.

What had happened to the others?

This couldn't be good.


"Requesting permission to approach the encampment . . ."

What a drawl! The voice of an aristocrat. A decidedly Southern aristocrat. Was it someone from the estate?

"You may approach." The general's voice boomed, his hand raised to calm the nervous young soldiers who had, by reflex drawn their weapons.

"We are unarmed." Ezra approached the general with his hands in the air. Chris Larabee and Josiah Sanchez followed on his heels, hands likewise in the air.

Nathan's eyes widened in shock - and relief.

"You boys got a death wish or something?" The big bearded general was intrigued.

"Actually, we came to discuss with you the possibility of a trade which would clearly stand you in good stead with the owner of this . . . fine . . . plantation."

"What could you possibly have to offer that would interest us? You don't think I have any interest in . . selling . . .Mr. Jackson back to you?"

Ezra's words were clipped and calculated. "I would not presume to make an offer on the life of my colleague. . ." The gambler nodded in respect to the healer who sat on the hard ground in shackles. "My friend."

Ezra took a step forward and didn't flinch at the sound of the click of guns at the ready. He faced the general and held his hands out, wrists together.

"I want to exchange my freedom for his."


Buck Wilmington was lonesome.

He hurt. And he was lonesome.

But it wasn't lonesomeness like he had known before. That melancholy sense that occasionally swept over him when he was temporarily without female companionship. No, this was more akin to grief. Profound sadness. And the laudanum didn't help.

His ankle throbbed.

And there was no doctor to help him.

And there was no doctor to help JD.

Poor kid. Buck watched him sleep. A death sleep. He was watching his friend - his brother - slip away. . . JD had known him . . . for a moment, but he had known him. He had recognized him.

And he had worried about him. JD's one truly lucid moment was spent worrying about Buck.

And Buck was losing him.

Now Vin was gone. What the hell was he thinking, going after Chiles by himself?

Buck smiled sadly, and, for the millionth time, brushed the hair out of JD's battered face. He knew exactly what Vin was thinking. And if he'd been able to get to his feet on his own, he'd have taken off after that bastard himself. Buck's prayers were becoming instinctive. Where else could he turn? He was powerless.

Protect him, Lord. Protect them all.


He was there. Land that belonged to a man he once belonged to. Land that he had been bound to. Beautiful land had it not been for the evil that lived there.

It was not beautiful to him.

It was not his home.

It was a place where Nathan Jackson was lost and a stranger was born. It had taken years to recover himself. And he was in danger of losing himself again.

He was beginning to lose hope of rescue as he retreated from his surroundings. He tried to hold on.

He tried to make himself think of the glory days of the Seven . . .

The Magnificent Seven . . .

But they weren't Seven any longer.

They never would be . . .

He was one man.

Alone.


Judge Orrin Travis urged his horse onward. There was no time to lose. They were losing daylight and if they didn't catch up by nightfall, they may not be able to assist the travelers.

The old man was tired. But he set a pace that challenged the youngest of his crew. They were all weary, but there was work to be done.

"Rider!"

Judge Travis looked at the sentry and followed his gaze to the horizon. A big man framed against the sunset . . .

Riding like a bat out of hell . . .

Then he disappeared over the western hill.

Another rider. Faster. On a horse he knew.

One of his posse's horses.

"After them!!" Travis commanded, and the group divided, half of them taking off in pursuit.

Dust flew as horses thundered across the plain to the rise of a hill. On the crest, the sentry could see that the man giving chase was gaining on his quarry.

But there was another factor in the chase.

The train smoking through the valley.

The man in front was riding furiously toward the caboose of the train.

And he was going to reach it.

The man in pursuit wanted to raise the rifle he was carrying . . .

But he was traveling too fast, and if he stopped, he'd be out of range.

And as he watched the big man desperately dive toward the back rail of the caboose,

And haul himself awkwardly over to the other side,

As he watched the terrified horse peel away from the mechanical ship,

He cried out, "NOOOO!"

Jacob Chiles lay on the back of the caboose, breathing heavily.

Safely getting away.

And Vin Tanner hung his head

And wept.


The trio was making excellent time. The clues were so clear that they could track even as they lost daylight. Someone was helping them.

Someone wearing the colors of the Confederacy.

With each indicator, their resolve grew. Ezra Standish had a plan.

And his companions marveled at the selflessness of it.

It had to work.


Nathan Jackson sat at the edge of the camp, eating the good meal the young soldier had brought him. This boy wasn't like the others. He didn't understand their mission. And he didn't relish taking this man back to a man he knew to be cruel.

But what could he do?

The sun hadn't quite dipped behind the trees. The boy sat near Nathan and ate his own meal. He was clearly troubled. The healer had to respond.

"You may feel better if you talk about it," Nathan's voice was low and warm.

The boy turned fearful eyes to the man who was eating his meal in shackles.

"I'm not supposed to talk to you." The boy's voice was little more than a whisper. Nathan respected the fear of a soldier who had seen another boy being whipped to death. He didn't speak to the kid again, but nodded his understanding. Tears filled the boy's eyes and he mouthed "thank you" to the captive.

Something in that exchange touched the healer.

And he felt strangely

Healed.

He could never lose himself again. He could not turn his back on the man he had become.

And even if they took away his liberty, they couldn't take away his soul.

He would always be free.

And he emancipated himself.


The man who had so gallantly pursued his quarry, only to see him escape, lay his head on his horse's neck. God, he was tired. And his head hurt. And . . .

He slid off of his horse to the ground, unconscious.

In a matter of seconds, five men had gathered around him. And Judge Travis caught up in moments. He pushed his men away from the fallen rider.

"Sweet Jesus," he muttered. He knew the clothes of the bounty hunter. And he remembered how the young man had been deemed too weak to travel with Larabee and the others. What the hell was he doing tearing across the sunset plain after one man? "Mr. Tanner?" he said more loudly. He felt for a pulse. It was strong. Well, that was one thing. But he didn't wake up at the judge's voice.

And, for a man with a head injury, that was dangerous.

What had happened to the others?

This couldn't be good.


"Requesting permission to approach the encampment . . ."

What a drawl! The voice of an aristocrat. A decidedly Southern aristocrat. Was it someone from the estate?

"You may approach." The general's voice boomed, his hand raised to calm the nervous young soldiers who had, by reflex drawn their weapons.

"We are unarmed." Ezra approached the general with his hands in the air. Chris Larabee and Josiah Sanchez followed on his heels, hands likewise in the air.

Nathan's eyes widened in shock - and relief.

"You boys got a death wish or something?" The big bearded general was intrigued.

"Actually, we came to discuss with you the possibility of a trade which would clearly stand you in good stead with the owner of this . . . fine . . . plantation."

"What could you possibly have to offer that would interest us? You don't think I have any interest in . . selling . . .Mr. Jackson back to you?"

Ezra's words were clipped and calculated. "I would not presume to make an offer on the life of my colleague. . ." The gambler nodded in respect to the healer who sat on the hard ground in shackles. "My friend."

Ezra took a step forward and didn't flinch at the sound of the click of guns at the ready. He faced the general and held his hands out, wrists together.

"I want to exchange my freedom for his."


PART FIFTEEN: Backtracking

Mary Travis hadn't noticed how dark it was becoming. Her eyes had been watching the road all afternoon, pausing only to nod to passersby and to absently sip from her glass of iced tea. Her heart was heavy and she felt ashamed that she was losing hope. She should believe in them - in her father-in-law, in the star-studded posse . . .

In the men who had protected them for the last year.

But they hadn't been able to protect each other.

Oh, God, what had happened? Her pretty blue eyes filled again, and her thoughts went back to . . .

Chris.

Chris, where are you?

God, help him. Let him be alive. Let him be ok.

Her hands clasped together desperately. Please, Lord, take care of him. Take care of them all.

A flicker of panic.

JD.

He wants to grow up so fast. Protect him. Please God . . . why was there so much blood in his room? Please let him be all right. A sob hitched in her throat.

And if he isn't, please . . .

Don't let him be alone.


The little camp was reeling from the assault. The lawmen were doing what they could to tend to the injured. Tough without the doctor. And they were rounding up the prisoners who had scrambled to take cover.

One of the young posse riders wandered over to where the doctor lay lifeless. He squatted beside the body and bit back the surge of emotion that threatened to erupt. Slowly, as if in a dream, he hooked his strong arms under the doctor's and dragged him away from the boy he'd been trying to help.

And he pulled off his shirt and lay it across the doctor's face - a face still frozen with the shock that had accompanied his death.

The young man sniffed and turned to the boy lying face-down in the same place they had lain him when they had stopped here for water. He didn't want to check on him. He didn't think he could handle finding another dead body.

But if the boy was alive, he would surely get cold during the night. The young man found the tattered blanket that had been long discarded in the heat of the late afternoon. He brushed the dust and tiny pebbles off of it, then shook it open like he had seen his mother do when he was a boy. The material caught the night air and floated down as light as a feather until it came to rest on the bandaged back of the black-haired kid.

The kid never moved.

Next to him lay the big moustached gunslinger. Didn't somebody say they were brothers? Even in the middle of the melee, the big man never left the boy's side.

Thank God he had finally fallen asleep. He had to be exhausted. Two battles in one day. A shot in the ankle.

He was sleeping heavily. The young man reacheed up and put his hand on the man's forehead. Good . . . he wasn't particularly feverish. There was no sign of infection. Well, the doctor had been able to treat the wound promptly.

The boy hadn't gotten immediate medical attention. He had been hurt so badly - but had to wait a day and a half before getting help from a doctor.

The young man's eyes drifted back to the doctor. His friend. His mentor. It seemed so unreal, and he couldn't get to his grief because his disbelief was overwhelming his thoughts.

He should check on the boy. But he couldn't. He just couldn't.

He stood up and went to his knapsack. He had a bedroll. Maybe he could do something to help make the gunslinger more comfortable. Why didn't he just go help the others? This was too sad.

But something compelled him. The doctor had instilled something in him that wouldn't let him leave them unattended. So, he made his way back to where the big man slept and covered him with his own blanket. He slipped a rolled up shirt under the man's head.

A groan. The gunslinger didn't wake up, but shifted his weight slightly.

It was then that the young man saw that the man had clasped the boy's hand in his strong hand.

And had fallen asleep that way.

He couldn't stay awake, but he couldn't let the boy wake up alone.


A light hand touched her shoulder, and she turned quickly, startled.

Casey Welles' anxious eyes looked into Mary's tear-filled ones. "I didn't mean to scare you, Mrs. Travis," she said quickly.

"It's all right." Mary's voice was so raspy.

"I was just thinkin' that, well, maybe you should come in. It's mighty dark, and it ain't really safe for a lady out by herself."

Mary didn't answer right away, but she reached up and squeezed the girl's hand. Casey had been a source of strength for her. For four days - that seemed like forever - they had maintained a vigil together, watching the horizon, praying, and trying to restore hope in the little town.

But Mary felt that she was failing the town. Her own hope was dwindling. How could she help them hold on when she was letting go?

Another sob. Casey knelt in front of her chair and took Mary's hands in hers, her own eyes stinging.

"It'll be all right." Casey nodded as the tears rolled down her face. "They'll be all right." Her lip quivered. "They have to be."

Casey suddenly felt very weak. Great! She had wanted to help Mrs. Travis, and here she was breaking down like a big baby. She ducked her head, embarrassed.

But Mary reached down and placed her soft hands on either side of the young girl's face, turning it toward her.

"It's ok to cry, sweetheart." Mary had comforted Billy many nights with that mothervoice.

She kissed Casey on the forehead - and suddenly Casey missed her mama very much.

Casey began to sob, and the two hugged each other - friends who had lost so much and were now losing so much more.

When their tears subsided, Casey confessed a fear that had been gnawing at her.

"JD . . ." she said. "I have an awful feeling. . ."

"No, shhh. . ." Mary leaned her cheek on the girl's head. She dared not make eye contact for fear that Casey would see the same dread there. Mary had felt great fear for the boy, but couldn't explain it.

"They won't let anything happen to him," Mary tried to assure her. If they could help him. Oh God . . .


Vin Tanner lay still. Judge Travis gently patted the sharpshooter's face.

His eyelids fluttered and he woke with a start. He balled his hand into a fist, but didn't have the strength to take a swing.

"Easy . . ." a voice said. A voice he knew.

As his eyes focussed, he recognized the judge. He put his hand to his pounding head.

And he remembered . . .

"Chiles . . ." he murmured, squeezing his eyes closed tightly.

Travis' eyes narrowed, and an oath slipped past his lips.

"A bunch of 'em ambushed us." Vin's breath became a bit shallow. "Lost some of your men . . . the doctor."

One of the men in the group gasped.

Vin continued. "We have more prisoners, but a few . . . got away." He grit his teeth. "Jacob Chiles." He clenched his fists tighter. "How could I let him. . ."

"Don't!" Travis' voice was stern. "You've done everything you could."

Wait! It dawned on him. Vin pulled himself up and leaned on his elbow.

"Why are you here? Where's Chris?"

"We saw that Chiles was backtracking. We hoped to intercept him." Travis swallowed. "But we were too late."

"But Chris? Josiah? Ez-"

"They've gone on to find Mr. Jackson." The judge interrupted.

"Not by themselves. . ." The sharpshooter felt a cold fear in the pit of his stomach.

"Their choice."

"Sweet Jesus. . ."


Ezra Standish spoke in his practiced voice - his negotiation tones. "I am proposing a fair trade." He ceremoniously rolled up his sleeves.

Nathan looked up - his beautiful eyes incredulous. He opened his mouth - but what could he say? These men had put their lives on the line for him before . . .

But this --

A friend sacrificing his freedom for him. He'd never experienced that before.

The man in charge chuckled. "Why the hell would I want to do that? Mr. Greeley wants his property returned to him. He may want to make . . . an example of him."

"But wouldn't he be happier --" Josiah stepped up. "--if he could double his investment?"

Ezra cut his eyes over to Josiah. He hadn't expected that.

"Or triple it," Chris said.

The commander looked confused. "You can't be serious." He laughed nervously. "He can't 'own' you."

"Why not?" Chris' lip curled slightly. He glanced at Nathan. "You say you can own him."

"You can't own a white man."

"You can't own Nathan Jackson either." Chris' words were clipped and the air was suddenly charged with hostility.

Ezra's easy voice soothed. "But since you clearly are governed by alternative legal strictures, we wish to appeal to Mr. Greeley's fiscal interests and compound the return on his initial investment."

"What the f*** did he just say?"

"Let Mr. Greeley decide." Josiah translated. "It may be financially valuable to consider this option."

"But he won't . . . own you."

Ezra smiled graciously. "Then let him accept our offer of service without pay - a reimbursement as it were for the loss incurred with Mr. Jackson's . . . " He chose the words carefully. "Change of circumstance."

A nervous man approached the Confederate leader. "If he hears about this and we DON'T let him decide . . ." The man didn't verbalize the consequence because he probably couldn't think one up.

"This is crazy," the leader said. Then he chuckled. "But hey, if you want to throw your lives away for a ni**"

Ezra's hand shot out and grabbed the gray uniform. "You will not refer to that gentleman with that word." Ezra's voice was venomous. His friends cringed as a rifle butt slammed into his stomach.

"Shackle them!!" the leader called.

And amid Nathan's protests, his three friends were put in chains.

It was odd. Ezra couldn't figure it out exactly. His abdomen ached, he was bound awkwardly, he was hungry

And he had a miserable itch.

But he'd never felt better in his life.

He liked being one of the good guys.


PART SIXTEEN: Choosing to Survive

The morning was ablaze with sun - but so much cooler. The heat wouldn't be oppressive today. It would be comfortable.

Comfortable. Vin Tanner hadn't been comfortable for a week. But it was different this morning. His body felt rested and his head didn't hurt. He lay - eyes closed - mind wandering. He almost felt good.

Where was he? Slowly he opened his eyes. He was outside. He turned his head slightly to the right. People were milling around, talking, shaving, eating off of tin plates.

"How are you, son?" Vin turned his head back the other way and saw Judge Travis silhouetted against the morning sun.

"OK. . ." The sharpshooter appeared to be disoriented. "Where are we?"

"We joined the rest of the posse - brought you here last night. You were exhausted, slept all the way."

Vin let that roll information roll around for a minute, then his eyes widened.

"JD?"

"He's holding on." Painfully the judge squatted down beside the bounty hunter. "He's getting much weaker, though." He paused a moment and his voice softened. "It doesn't look like he's gonna make it, son. His breathing is getting more difficult and he's got that high fever. The infection . . . he has no strength to fight it."

Vin was completely alert now, and he pulled himself up. "Let me ride on to Watertown and get a doctor to meet us in Four Corners."

"We've already sent someone." The judge put his hand on the young man's shoulder then stood up slowly.

"Judge?" Vin asked quickly. "What about the others?"

The judge nodded toward another part of the camp. "Your friend Mr. Wilmington is still sleeping. And we haven't heard anything from Mr. Larabee, yet."

Vin nodded his thanks and watched Travis walk away. He resisted the urge to go back to lie back down and return to the comfortable sleep he had enjoyed. He stood up and paused for the dizziness.

It didn't come.

He really was better. He walked across the camp, dreading what he would inevitably find.

Nobody was starstruck with the "famous" people who had been riding with them. They were up drinking out of tin cups just like the greenhorns were, and while the respect for them had only grown, they were just as human - maybe more so than the volunteers. Vin smiled sadly. JD would get such a kick out of the "legends" everywhere. He would be wide-eyed and excited.

But he lay still.

Vin saw him a few feet ahead of him.

A boy.

His friend.

The sharpshooter went over to him.

Buck was sleeping right beside the kid, and Vin felt a sense of . . . was it admiration? Sure, but he also was struck with the bonds these friends have made. Bonds he shared. In the course of the last year, these men who individually had been loners had become . . .

Family.

Brothers.

The events of the past week only served to underscore that metamorphosis. Vin ached for his friends, but for no one more than JD.

Vin reached up and touched the kid's throat. Oh, God, where was his pulse? He couldn't feel a pulse. No, he breathed, don't let him be dead. His own heart beat faster as he felt a surge of panic. He forced himself to close his eyes and concentrate.

There it was - faint, a bit irregular, but there. Vin nodded thanks to . . . God, he reckoned. He let his hand slide up into the boy's black hair and he pushed the long bangs out of his battered face.

His face looked so bad. The long gash where Chiles had cut him from cheek to jaw was covered with a bandage. Blood had soaked into the cloth a bit. Extending around the bandage, he could see that part of the bruise on his cheek was turning slightly yellow and he was swollen around his broken cheekbone. His eye had swollen shut.

The kid's breathing was wheezy and Vin remembered, heartsick, that he'd been beaten before he'd been whipped - with a rifle butt no less. He was bound to have busted ribs. He remembered that JD had been coughing blood before - - God, they were probably puncturing a lung or something.

-Oh, kid --

"I wish I . . . could have protected you from this." Vin's voice was very quiet. "I wish to God you weren't having to go through this, kid . . ."

His hand slid around to the back of the kid's neck, fingering the sweat-slick hair off of his skin. The fever-heat radiated from the boy. He needed to bring his fever down -- somebody had to . . .


It felt good to get the leg irons off. Nathan Jackson had had his first good night's sleep since the ordeal had started. His friends were watching his back.

Nathan was the only one of the seven who had been captive the entire time. And his friends insisted that he sleep - insisting that JD would be needing him . . .

JD. It had to be a miracle. How else could the kid have survived the atrocities he had suffered?

He prayed that the others were alive. But if Chiles had actually caught up with them. . .

Ezra Standish had slept well also. He had kept the first watch, Josiah the second. They had agreed that Chris Larabee needed sleep. Chris had fought the man who had beaten the kid. Fought with every bit of strength he had left. Then he turned around and headed back out to search for Nathan. He had to be exhausted.

Yet he was willing to be handcuffed and put in leg irons for the sake of a friend.

The power of friendship.

Ezra slept with an easy heart -- for the first time since he was a boy. He went to sleep last night . . . liking himself. He realized that he was indeed a changed man.

A better man.

And the others knew it. The others who had seen him as a cheat, a bigot and ultimately a coward could now count him among the brave and selfless. Chris Larabee could trust him - finally. And, even more important than that, he could trust himself. How strange, in the midst of this horrific experience, Ezra Standish was experiencing

Peace.

As the group made their way across a forgotten field, they could make out the homestead in the distance. Nathan felt bile rise in his throat, but he choked it back. Josiah nodded. He understood.

Chris was close enough to talk quietly to Nathan. "Never could have found you so easily if you hadn't left that trail."

Nathan looked puzzled. "I never left a trail. What kind of trail?"

"Bits of cloth, utensils, every few yards."

Nathan studied the young man who had stayed close to him throughout their journey, now walking ahead of them, and realized that the tail of his shirt had been ripped erratically. Nathan nodded toward him.

"He's been taking good care of me. I think he's helped me more than I realized." Nathan had been talking softly, but lowered his voice more. "If we get out of here, let's give him the chance to break out of this outfit."

Chris nodded his assent.

Their conversation was interrupted when a scout returned, thundering toward them on his palomino mount. "Sir," he called,winded, face red. "There's something really wrong at the house. Mr. Greeley . . . well . . . "

"Spit it out, son," the commander growled.

"Mr. Greeley doesn't want us to come up there. He doesn't want his man back."

"Nonsense. He was funning with you." The commander chuckled uneasily. "He was the one who had the general issue the order to round up his escaped slaves. He's the one who financed our pursuit." A frightening wildness flickered across the commander's face.

The young scout came closer to his superior. "I don't think he was kid-----"

WHACK! The back of the commander's hand connected with the boy's face, and the four captives felt another rush of rage. It was one thing to call a man out and another thing to assault a boy over whom one had authority. Chris bit his lip to keep from speaking out, realizing that provoking the commander may only serve to make things more difficult for the young man. Nathan noticed that the young soldier who had befriended him began to hang back, further away from his superior. He stayed close to Josiah. The boy had been afraid, and seeing the commander's swift anger, he decided to distance himself from the madman.

"Let's move, men!!" The command was issued, and the captives were forced to break into a little jog to keep up with the men on horseback.

As they approached the homestead, it became evident that something was very wrong. Something was frighteningly amiss. The group, the ragtag remnant of the mighty Confederacy, halted a few yards away. The sight before them sickened them. Even Chris Larabee had to look away for a moment.

And they knew they would leave this place

Free men.


Mary Travis had resumed her vigil early in the morning. She had wired Eagle Bend for more help, so that one way or another, she would get answers. If help was coming, it would be on tomorrow's stage. At least she would be doing something. Not just sitting here.

Watching. Waiting.

Today, Casey had camped out with her. Miss Nettie had proclaimed her neice no help at all, so distracted was she with worry, and relegated her to watching the road with Mrs. Travis. Casey was grateful.

But as the sun began to set, she felt her hope waning. She glanced at Mary. The pretty lady was staring down the road as though in a trance. Eyes frozen, trying to hope, but dazed. Until . . .

Casey watched, alarmed, as Mary's eyes widened in shock. Horror? What? Casey followed her gaze to where the road bent out of sight.

There she saw a large group making its way toward them. Mary stood slowly, for a moment not realizing what she was seeing. But she sprang to life when she saw Casey blur past her, running toward the caravan in a dead run. Mary gathered her skirts, and followed her.

In the dusk, Mary could make out Judge Travis leading a horse with a body tied across its back. There were riders, and men whose wrists were tied behind them who walked haltingly.

Vin Tanner. Praise God. Riding further back. Riding beside a buckboard. Buck Wilmington riding on the other side.

She couldn't see Chris. Where was Chris? Mary's tired eyes brimmed with remembered tears.

Oh God. Surely that wasn't Chris' body tied to the horse. Mary froze in fear.

When Vin saw Casey, he rode toward her and swung off his horse beside her, blocking her way.

"JD?" she asked, angry tears in her eyes as she fought the sharpshooter to get past him. She knew the black haired figure lying so still on the buckboard. Vin held her arms firmly. "He's hurt . . . really bad." Casey couldn't stop a sob as she watched the buckboard drag by.

"Oh, God." Casey said her eyes following it. JD didn't even look like himself. What she could see of his face was dirty, bruised, and strangely misshapen. Vin hadn't anticipated having to explain to other people the horrors of the past six days.

"Listen to me," Vin said, as the group cut its way around them. "Listen - Casey!"

"Huh?" She still couldn't take her eyes off of JD.

Gently, Vin turned her face toward him. "He's . . . dying, Casey. He shouldn't have survived this long."

"No," she sobbed.

"But listen to me." She stared at the ground, but he lifted her chin again. "He has made it this far. He is . . ." Vin searched for the right word. "willing himself to hold on. He is choosing to survive. And every time we thought he was gone, he rallied." Vin put his gentle hands on either side of the face of the young girl he had grown to love like a sister. "He's fighting for his life. He hasn't given up. And I'm not giving up on him either." Casey's voice hitched in another sob.

Vin gathered her into a hug and held her as she cried softly. But he realized she was working hard to pull herself together. And in a moment she took a step back, sniffed and spoke.

"I'm never giving up on him." Casey spoke with an authority that belied her youth.

Vin smiled. "That's probably why he's fighting so hard." He swung his arm around the girl. "C'mon." And he led her back to Four Corners.


The homestead was but a skeleton. Only the big stone outer walls stood. There was nothing inside. Nothing. And there was no roof. Only ashes and dirt

And a man sitting in a rocker on what had once been a veranda. His face was drawn and he was clearly emaciated. His hair was long and wiry gray. And lined up down the ancient porch were bodies. Skeletons, more accurately, still in tattered clothes, arms folded in death. A woman. Two smaller skeletons. Eight or nine more . . . wearing the faded gray uniform of the South.

"Hello! The house!" the commander called. But Greeley never looked at him.

"Go!" came the answer.

"We brung you your property." The commander swung down from his horse and ran back to Nathan. He dragged him toward the man in the rocking chair. "Here he is, like you wanted."

The man stood and faced them. And they could see for the first time that half of the man's face was burned beyond recognition. The one eye that worked studied the commander for a long time. Then he exploded.

"IT'S F***ING OVER!!!!!" the old man screamed. "He's not a slave any more than you are." The man had no voice but the high squeal of a man who had inhaled so much smoke that he'd destroyed his vocal cords. "Don't you know, you worthless bastard. . ." He laughed, convulsing his entire body. "There're no slaves anymore. There's no cause. There's no Confederacy. There's no South." Greeley drew close to the commander. "We failed our families." A bony finger poked at the gray uniform. "YOU failed our families. It's over. It's over. Go home." He wandered around the perimeter of the little group. "You're living a g**damn lie!! Don't you see??" He waved his arms. "Go home to your families." He walked back over to Nathan. "You don't belong to me anymore, Boy." Nathan didn't flinch at the name that used to infuriate him. In fact, the only feeling that came to him now was compassion. Compassion and pity. He nodded to Nathan. "Go home," he said softly. Then he backed up and made his way to his place on the veranda. "Let them all go home."

The commander froze for a full minute. Then he took a few steps away from Nathan - toward the shell of the house. And with his back to his men, and his eyes on Greeley, he put his pistol in his mouth

And blew his brains out.


PART SEVENTEEN: Home and Family

Buck Wilmington nearly collapsed into the bed. Sheets, a blanket, soft pillows . . . He'd had a good hot meal, a strong dose of laudanum. His bandages had been changed and he'd had a bath. He should have felt better.

But nothing would be right as long as JD lay dying beside him.

Nettie Welles had helped Mary Travis bathe the boy who had been unconscious for two days now. They tended to most of his wounds, but were afraid to take the bandages off of his back. Oh, the bruises on his body - all over his body. What had they done to him? Why would anyone hurt him like that? What could anyone possibly gain by torturing a nineteen year old?

Gently they had washed his hair. It had gotten so long. Nettie had shaved his chin and his neck and the part of his face which wasn't cut.

His ashen face, so young, so hurt. . .

Mary felt a devastating sadness, but Nettie felt a blistering anger. Nettie had seen too many young lives needlessly and senselessly destroyed, in the War Between the States, in the journey westward, and now in the little town of Four Corners. And too often destroyed at the hands of the adults around them. Dear God, when would people learn? How many precious young lives would have to be lost before the atrocities would end?

She would be damned if they would lose this one.

Vin had insisted on carrying the kid when they took him to the bathhouse, and he had carried him back to the boarding house. Mary had cleared out the big room on the ground floor and the townspeople had brought beds from upstairs and linens from home. They had made the sickroom as comfortable as they could.

Once he was settled in the bed closest to Buck's, Nettie began to pull the first bandage off of the upper part of his back . . .

Her breath caught in her throat at the sight of the torn flesh and she quickly replaced the bandage. "Mary!" she called sharply. Mary appeared at the door, an armload of clean sheets almost blocking her face.

"Boil as many bandages as you can and bring them here. Also get any whiskey you can find. We need to tend to the boy's back."

Something about Nettie's swift, sure actions were comforting to Buck. He lay on his side and watched, his eyes growing heavier. Nettie was talking constantly to JD - about ordinary things - the weather, the progress on Josiah's church, what Casey had made for supper the night before. She even fussed at the boy in a familiar motherly way - chastising him for never remembering to bring her his suit jacket to be mended, and for neglecting a haircut until the bangs covered his eyes.

"You have wonderful eyes, young man," she said. "I can see your soul in those hazel eyes. But I can't see anything but scraggly black hair if you insist on avoiding the barber. I've got a good mind to give you a haircut myself."

Buck's eyes closed slowly as he listened to the comfortable maternal litany. And he fell asleep.


Judge Travis shook the hand of his colleagues as they set out with the prisoners. With fresh horses, a hot meal in their bellies and a few hours of good sleep, they would make it to Eagle Bend quickly.

Mary, on the other hand, hadn't slept at all. She had been preparing bandages for JD and the other wounded men. She was glad to be busy - at least she was doing something useful. But she still felt like she should be watching the road for the others, as though somehow her watching would bring them home.

Silly, she knew, and yet she stole a glance everytime she went outside.

Vin Tanner needed rest, but he felt compelled to help. And to stay alert for fear that trouble could make its way into Four Corners. After too many ambushes in the past week, Vin was convinced that anything could happen, and with the posse gone, they were vulnerable again.

He wanted to help JD, but the best Nettie would allow was lying in a bed on the opposite side of JD from Buck - Buck who was finally snoring in a deep sleep.

Vin lay on the mountain of pillows. Oh, his head had missed real pillows. He knew if he got too comfortable, he would sleep for a week. So he insisted on remaining fully dressed with his rifle at his side. And he watched as Nettie and Mary pulled the layers of bandages off of JD's back.

Sweet Jesus . . .

Vin squeezed his eyes closed and tried to clear his mind of the image. Mary became nauseated, but Nettie spoke harshly.

"Get a hold of yourself, Mary. There's no time for falling apart. This boy needs help. and we're the only ones here who can help."

Mary bit her lip and nodded. Nettie patted her arm, and went back to the task at hand. She was glad she had not allowed Casey to come in to the sickroom. Casey was stationed outside watching for the stage. It should bring the help Mary had requested, and maybe the doctor. They had sent someone after a doctor. Why hadn't a doctor come?

Well, there was no doctor, but there was a dying boy.

And Nettie Welles would save him.


Casey was angry.

Angry and scared.

And that made her even angrier.

JD needed her. He was dying and he needed her. Why wouldn't they let her stay with him? She wasn't a baby. They didn't need to protect her. She'd seen people die before - even people she loved.

But it was Vin who had insisted that she stay outside. Vin - who had always been her ally. Why would he turn against her at a time like this? Didn't he understand anything?

He understood all too well. He had seen the horrors of war, and Indian attacks, and range wars.

But he had never seen anything like what had been inflicted on JD. He'd seen grown men tortured, but not like this. And he would carry this horror with him for the rest of his life.

Casey didn't need to carry this graphic evidence of man's evil around with her forever. She had had enough heartache in her young life. Losing JD would be bad enough. Watching him die was unthinkable.

Casey frowned as she watched the road. This was stupid. Anybody could tell the doctor where the injured folks were. She pulled a whittling knife out of her pocket and, with a practiced hand, whipped it into the wooden plank of the porch. Seeing the knife wobbling, the point buried in the wood grain, she felt a sudden rush of tears.

Why did she have to make JD feel bad by showing off? Why did she have to be better at this than he was? She had humiliated him. More than once. And now he was never gonna know she was sorry.

She was so sorry.


He didn't know how long he'd been asleep, but Nettie's harsh words startled him awake.

". . . no time for falling apart . . ."

Had something happened? God, why couldn't he open his eyes?

"What's hap . . ." Buck couldn't finish his question.

But he finally forced his eyes open, and watched the women peel back the dirty, saturated bandages - bandages that a couple of days before had been carefully placed across the boy's back by a good man - a good doctor.

The horrible infection was everywhere. No wonder the kid was burning with fever. Nettie worked efficiently, but she wasn't sure what to do next. Once JD's back was exposed completely, she looked around the room at the dear faces around her - caring, frightened faces watching. . .

"I am going to pray. And if any of you are praying folk, I suggest that you do the same." Nettie wasn't praying as a last resort,

But as a first one. She reached down and held the boy's limp hand. Mary took his other hand. Nettie closed her eyes and prayed her private prayer aloud. As she asked the Lord for direction, for healing, for help, and as she thanked Him for bringing the boy back to Four Corners alive, Vin Tanner slid out of his bed, and touched his young friend's arm.

And he saw Buck, lip trembling, put his good foot on the ground. And he half knelt, half fell at the boy's bedside. As Nettie talked to God, he did too. And again, his big hand stroked the soft black hair, continually brushing the bangs back out of his eyes. The big man leaned his forehead against the white bedsheet, tired tears wetting the linen. Mary was touched by the depth of feeling these men had for the boy - a bond that had been forged in struggle and pain,

And a bond that would last for the rest of their lives.

"Amen . . . " Nettie said, in a matter-of-fact way. Prayer was as sensible to her as boiling cloths for bandages. Vin admired her faith and was comforted by it. It reminded him, as did so many things about Nettie, of the faith of his mother. And as he climbed back into bed, he had a strange sense that the tide was about to turn.


Casey studied each face that emerged from the stage,

But there was no doctor.

And there were no lawmen.

And this infuriated her. She approached the driver.

"Did you leave anybody behind?" she asked accusingly.

The driver looked at her like she was crazy. "Why would I leave anybody behind?"

"There was supposed to be a doctor. . ."

"I pick up anyone waiting for the stage with a ticket."

"But . . . did you leave anyone behind because they didn't have a ticket?" she challenged.

The man was getting frustrated. "Listen, kid, I don't keep track of people who DON'T get on board. Now why don't you run along. I've got work to do."

"But . . ."

Casey jerked as she felt a strong hand on her shoulder. Judge Travis guided the girl away from the stage.

"Come on, Miss Welles. There'll be another stage tomorrow at noon. Right now, I could use a good supper, and I bet you could too."

"But tomorrow could be too late." Her eyes flashed in fear.

The judge faced the young girl and placed both hands on her shoulders. "I don't know much about these sorts of things, but I believe that boy has a guardian angel. It is a . . . miracle . . . that he is alive. He has survived more than one death. I cannot account for it. But something is keeping him alive." The judge smiled slightly. "It may just be sheer pigheadedness."

Casey felt a giggle bubble out, while tears rolled down her cheeks. "Now that sounds like JD."

The dapper gentleman put his arm around the girl, and, after stopping at the boarding house to report on the stage, the two went to the cafe for supper.


Buck stayed on the floor beside JD's bed, talking to him and stroking his hair. The women cleaned the wounds as best they could, and swabbed it with whiskey-soaked cloths. The boy never reacted to the painful treatment - and still his fever raged. Vin had finally fallen asleep, and Buck was glad. He needed it.

The ladies finished dressing JD's wounds, and Nettie patted Buck's shoulder.

"You need to get back in the bed," Nettie said.

"Give me a minute," Buck's voice was tight. Nettie smiled. "Just a minute. . ." Nettie guided Mary out of the sickroom, leaving Buck to talk to the boy for a little longer.

"OK, kid, you need to come back to us, you understand? We're home now. Nobody's gonna hurt you anymore. I'm right here, and I ain't goin' anywhere. Vin's here and Miss Mary, and that little Casey - she's worried to death about you."

Buck hadn't meant to cry - but he did. He folded his hands in his lap and leaned his head on the kid's bed. "Oh, God - JD. please. Please. I know you're hearing me. I know you are. . . For God's sake, wake up." He chanced a look at his friend's face, but his eyes were still closed.

"God . . ." Buck pleaded, and he ducked his head,

And sobbed.

He prayed like he had on the rock formation, like he had with his mother, and he prayed like he had never prayed. He no longer had words . . .

And he didn't need them.

Somebody had to hear him.

Somebody had to.


Mary was exhausted. She pushed the blonde hair back out of her eyes and kept her lips tightly closed. If she opened her mouth, she would surely scream . . . and never stop.

Her emotion boiled inside. Anger, fear, horror. She had never seen anything like this.

And she could only wonder what was happening to Chris. Or what had happened to him. How could he have escaped these horrors? Why weren't they back yet? Why weren't they home?

Nettie walked with her across the street, but Mary didn't go into the cafe with her. She tried to excuse herself, but no words would come. She was hanging by a thread. She was shaking, and turned to go to Josiah's church. Nettie watched her uncertain steps, and she went into the cafe.

"Casey," she said gently.

The girl bolted from the chair and asked breathlessly, "How is he?"

Nettie stroked her niece's hair. "No change, dear. But I have a job for you." She lowered her voice. "Mrs. Travis needs help. And I think you're the best person for her right now. She's going to the church. You must go to her." She reached for her hand. "Be strong, Casey."

The girl nodded and hurried out.


Mary entered the half constructed church, and looked around. Everywhere were reminders of the seven peacekeepers. She could see Josiah working in the rafters, and Nathan sanding the pews. Buck pulling his hat off and wiping the sweat off his brow with his shirtsleeve.

And JD mimicking the action.

Ezra leaning against the support beam, "supervising."

And Chris, working without speaking, intensely focused on the job at hand - hammering, sanding, lifting, aligning. . .

"God . . ." Mary began. Then her fury erupted.

"WHY DID YOU LET THIS HAPPEN???" She screamed. "Why? These are good men. And JD is just a boy. Why, God . . . Hasn't he been through enough?" She paced the unfinished aisle. "Haven't they all been through enough?"

She paused at the rough-hewn cross. "Chris as suffered so much. Why can't he have some peace? Please . . . " She sank to her knees. "Oh God, where is he? Please . . . let him be ok . . . let him be ok . . . please . . . please . . ."

She screamed and sobbed . . .


Nettie hoped that Buck had gone back to bed. But she would check on him to be sure. Judge Travis had finished his supper, but he sat at the table, waiting for Nettie's dinner to be brought.

He was suddenly painfully aware that he wasn't thirty anymore. This trip had worn him out. It had been physically exhausting, but it was the emotional strain that had drained him most. He wished he could sleep for three days straight.

But he wouldn't. He'd sleep tonight and then tomorrow, when the reinforcements arrived, he'd take his new posse and head out after Larabee and the others. Oh, he was getting too old for this.

"Whiskey!" he called. It was gonna be a long week.


Casey paused outside the church. Mary's cries scared her. What should she do? Why did her aunt send her?

The young lady bit her lip, tentatively, then, taking a deep breath, she walked in.

"Oh, Mrs. Travis . . ." she whispered. Her friend was kneeling on the dusty floor - skirts billowing around her - her face turned to heaven. Casey thought for a moment that she looked like an angel, or maybe like Jesus' mother might have looked when she cried over her son.

The spent tears still glistened on Mary's face. "Please God. . ." she was praying. "You've got to help us. You've got to hear us." Her voice grew weaker with each phrase, hoarse and tired. "Please . . ."

As naturally as if comforting a child, Casey knelt beside Mary, and put her arms around her, drawing her close. The last person to hold Mary while she cried

Had been Chris.

Mary let herself collapse in the young girl's arms. And as Casey rocked her gently and spoke words of comfort to her, Casey realized why her aunt had sent her to help Mary . . .

Because helping Mary was the only way to truly help herself. . .


Nettie paused in the doorway of the sickroom - but, she didn't go in. Her mouth opened slightly, but no words would come . . .

Buck Wilmington was sitting on the floor at JD's bedside, sobbing softly, his head hanging.

And slowly, weakly, shakily

A boy's hand slid out from under the sheet

And dropped onto the big man's shoulder.

Resting there while he wept.

Then reaching, with great effort, to stroke his hair . . .

It couldn't be . . , Buck thought. Oh, God . . .

Ever so slowly, Buck lifted his head and found himself looking into JD's eyes . . . his open, clear and very concerned eyes.

Buck reached up and caught JD's hand - and held it in both of his. His face broke into a relieved smile, while tears still streamed down his cheeks.

"Hey, kid . . ." Buck's voice was rough.

JD started to open his mouth, then squeezed his eyes in pain. It hurt to move. He gasped.

"Easy . . ." Buck breathed, and he pulled himself up. He reached up and put his hand on JD's forehead. It was still hot.

JD opened his eyes again.

And he was scared. . . but he couldn't tell Buck why . . .

His lip quivered, and his wide eyes filled. And he looked so young.

Buck could see the fear change to terror - suddenly

And he knew JD was remembering.

"You're home, son." Buck spoke with certainty. "You're alive. And I'm alive. And we're gonna make it." His eyebrow raised slightly. "They can't hurt you anymore."

JD was listening, but his eyes still searched Buck's for . . .

A reason?

Buck couldn't give him that. How could he explain abject evil to a boy who didn't have a mean bone in his body?

"JD . . . I am . . . so sorry they hurt you. God, I'm sorry." Buck leaned closer. "I wish I could make it go away, but I can't." JD closed his eyes and big tears rolled down the bandaged cheek. "I can't. . . But I promise you, son, I'll be right here, right with you. Whatever it takes to get you well." Buck smiled, a little sadly. "You're gonna be just fine." His voice cracked with emotion, and he spoke more softly. "You gotta be, kid. I need you. You're my family."

JD looked up. And he tried one more time to speak. He couldn't move his mouth much, but he tried nevertheless.

"You . . ." The effort was exhausting. "Hurt."

"A scratch, kid. It's nothing."

"No . . . I saw . . . him . . ." A sudden cough racked his body.

"JD . . ."

Nettie Welles was at the boy's side in an instant.

"Now, settle down, young man." She lay a cold cloth across his neck. JD pulled his hand away from Buck and tried to lift himself off of his ribs.

"Can't breathe," he said all at once, coughing again. "Oh, God. . ."

"Calm down, JD." Nettie spoke sternly. "And don't try to breathe so deeply."

But the movement had hurt him, and his breath caught in his throat.

"Buck . . ." he cried out. "God, it hurts . . ."

Buck found his hand again and squeezed it. "Send the pain to me, kid. I can handle it." JD's eyes met his, and he couldn't help but cry in front of him.

But Buck felt him tighten his grip on his hand. "That's it, kid. Ride it out. You can do it." JD was struggling, but he finally started to relax. "That's right. There you go." The boy was winded with the effort. And he lay very still again.

Buck was alarmed for a moment. But Nettie patted his arm. "He's all right. Let him settle back. And you. . ." She helped him stand up. "Back to bed."

They shared a relieved smile. "I'll get him some laudanum," she said.

"And water!" Buck added quickly. "He hasn't had water in a couple of days at least."

Nettie nodded. "We'll take the best care of him." She started out, then turned back. "He's gonna make it," she said softly.

Buck sighed and smiled. "Thank you, Miss Nettie."

His eye trailed back to JD who was sleeping again.

And he realized that Vin was awake - taking in everything, and, in a way, watching over them. Buck nodded at him and he smiled.

Words couldn't have said as much.


PART EIGHTEEN: The Recall

Vin Tanner adjusted his hat, then stood in the doorway waiting as he reconsidered the benefits of wearing a hat on his still-tender head. But the sun was glaring. He decided he could stand the hat more than the blinding light.

He had declared himself well enough to stay out of the sickbed. He was going absolutely stir crazy. He needed to be doing something. Besides, he figured, the town needed him to keep an eye on things.

The town. He stepped into the street. Four Corners. His town.

Their town.

And with half of his family still unaccounted for, it was a decidedly empty town.

He sighed and scanned the street with a practiced eye. Things looked normal enough. Well, too quiet, but there seemed to be no impending danger. He started over to the cafe, when he saw a swirl of blue skirts in his periphery. Casey Welles. Running off. Vin took a quick step in her direction and called her. She kept running. He'd have run after her if he could have, but he had no strength left.

A familiar hand took his arm. "She'll be all right." It was Miss Nettie. "We just have to let her be for a while."

"Did she see him?"

"Not up close." Nettie looked straight ahead. "He didn't want her to." For a moment she sounded apologetic. "And . . . I didn't want her to either." She looked at Vin intently. "I've seen a lot in my life. I've seen war and I've seen people die. But I've never . . ." Sudden tears rushed the old woman's eyes. "I've never seen anything like what has been done to that boy."

Nettie Welles drew herself up quickly and the tears left as suddenly as as they had arrived. "I can't think of how to explain this kind of violence to Casey."

They sat down together on a bench in front of the cafe. Nettie continued. "And what's worse -- what will be harder to explain --" She paused a moment. "Is how much . . . hate . . . I feel for the ones who did this. I want you boys to go out and kill every last one of them."

"That's understandable, Ma'am," Vin said. "And I aim to bring 'em to justice."

"Justice is one thing, son. But hate . . .that's something else entirely. Hate doesn't accomplish anything. It only hurts the one doing the hating."

Vin thought about this. An easy breeze drifted through. Nettie turned her face toward it.

"It isn't so much that she couldn't stomach seeing the extent of the boy's injuries. Not that it isn't a horrible thing to behold." The image intruded, and she paused. "If some horrible accident had happened, I could at least explain it. But, as taken as she is with him, I'm afraid she may never get over knowing how someone deliberately hurt him."

"I don't think any of us will."

Nettie looked at the wooden slats that comprised the porch. "I see a frightening hate in Mr. Wilmington's eyes."

"I think you'll see some in all our eyes. You can't witness something like that and let it go." Vin paused as the memory was suddenly and vividly resurrected. He hadn't talked about it since the day it happened. Nettie waited. They sat in silence for several long minutes.

"I was really . . . sick -- the heat -- my head -- I kept fading in and out. We were all lined up on the side of the road at this little army settlement. God, we hadn't all seen each other til then. Buck and Chris and I had been held in the same place, but we hadn't seen the others since . . . well, since we were captured."

Vin was lost in the recollection, Nettie's firm grip on his arm his only contact with the present. The woman who had become like a mother to him listened without comment, understanding that the bounty hunter needed to unload some of this burden.

"They'd brought Josiah and Ezra out. I don't remember much . . . Nobody knew for sure about Nathan and JD. Then, I saw this big . . . muscle man. And he pulled his shirt off . . . and I saw . . . that . . . whip. And I thought . . . they would make an example out of Chris." Vin shook his head. "Then, I heard that some guy had died - Nathan couldn't save him, and I figured they were gonna whip him." Vin's jaw tightened. "Then Chiles came out . . . and he walked over . . and he told Chris. . . that 'somebody didn't cooperate.'" The blistering anger was barely held in check, and Nettie felt the young man's arm flex as he spoke. "He said . . . 'you need to teach the boy better' . . . and we knew. We knew. Chiles was gonna get back at us . . . by hurting the kid. . . God, he's just a kid." Vin waited a long moment. "Chiles had pressed him for information about us, but he wouldn't talk. He knew they'd probably kill him for it, but he wouldn't talk. Chiles went across the street and got him. And some guy brought Nathan over." The voice quivered. "JD was limping. They'd already hurt him. Buck said they'd beaten him when they captured him . . . and Chris said he took a rifle butt in the face for yelling a warning to him." More quietly. "The kid looked so . . . dazed. And scared. Chiles kept pushing him." The mighty bounty hunter's eyes filled. "JD was tied up. He couldn't have gone anywhere. . .But the bastard kept pushing him. We couldn't do anything. We couldn't help him. . . JD . . .couldn't even stand up straight, and Ezra said that some kid soldier had hit him that morning and broken his ribs. Chiles dragged him right up into Chris' face . . . And put a knife to his throat." The words came harder now. "Buck said something . . . pissed him off, and so Chiles . . . cut the kid . . . across the face." A slight sob rose unchecked in Vin's throat. "They . . . tied his arms . . . over his head . . . to a wagon they'd . . . turned on its end." Vin struggled to catch his breath, his voice little more than a whisper. "Chiles . . . ripped . . . the back of his shirt . . . and they . . . whipped . . ."

He couldn't speak a moment. His shoulders shook. Nettie drew him to her, gently removing his hat, and holding his head against her heart, rocking a slight rhythm. He wasn't sobbing, but he was trembling. He held onto the dear woman's arm until his breathing settled.

It wasn't awkward. No, it felt as right as rain, letting Nettie hold him like his mama had. He pulled himself up and looked at her with sad eyes.

"They kept hitting him . . . and hitting him . . . and he tried so hard not to scream . . . but finally . . . he couldn't help it . . . and after a while . . . his body just . . . couldn't . . . Nathan said he was dead . . . and they still hit him. . . God . . ."

Vin looked at his feet. "Why did they have to hurt him? Why not one of us?"

"Because," Nettie observed, "by hurting him, they did hurt all of you."

Vin looked into her wise eyes. "And I let that son of a bitch get away . . ."

"No, son." The old woman brought her hand up and touched his face. "You and Mr. Wilmington saved the boy's life. That's all that really matters."

Vin tried to smile, and he nodded his thanks to her. He started to speak, but thought better of it and stood up. She handed him his hat, and he gingerly put it back on his head.

Then he tipped his hat to her, and walked away.

Nettie Welles sat and thought about what she'd heard,

Knowing she'd eased young Mr. Tanner's burden

But carrying a new burden of her own.


The noon sun gave way to a mass of gray clouds. Judge Travis was frustrated for a second time that day. First he had met the morning stage, only to find that there were no men aboard to help him. And there was no doctor. Now he was going to have to deal with rain. Rain that muddied tracks. He frowned at the sky, wondering why he couldn't catch a break. He would have to leave hours before he planned if he wanted to beat the storm. But if he left before the afternoon stage, he might miss the very help he needed.

And he was worried about Mary. He hated leaving her. Oh, she was a strong woman. He knew that. But somehow this was overwhelming her. And he was about to take off again, and add to her worries.

He squinted at the sun, which was being edged out of the sky.

Damn. Lousy timing. The afternoon stage wouldn't arrive for another two hours.

So he was on his own.


"Buck . . ." The voice was weak.

Pained.

Buck opened his eyes and almost fell out of bed, he jumped so suddenly.

"Yea, kid."

JD looked lost. Lost and scared. His eyes searched his friend's for . . . reassurance?

"Are you hurtin'?"

The boy didn't answer.

"JD?"

Why couldn't he move?

What had Buck asked him?

"Huh?" Why did he feel foggy?

"How do you feel?" Buck asked again.

JD had to think about that one for a while. He couldn't move. He closed his eyes again and tried to think. Buck watched him, not pressing him to talk.

"Where are we?"

"We're home, kid."

JD's eyes fluttered open again. He hadn't considered that possibility. "Oh."

He watched Buck with an easy familiar eye contact. To Buck, he looked like a sleepy child - black, too-long bangs hanging in his face. He probably looked even younger since only the side of his face was showing.

Those hazel eyes that had been so full of enthusiasm. Eyes that had trusted him.

Now were empty. Not even sad, really. Just empty.

And bewildered.

But then his eyes clouded. He remembered . . .

Buck - screaming -

Shot? Had he been shot?

"You're all right, son." Buck kept his voice low and soothing. "Settle down." The kid was getting agitated.

"Are you all right?" JD asked, breathlessly.

"Sure, kid." Buck leaned forward, trying to get the boy's attention. "Look at me."

JD squeezed his eyes closed, breathlessly. "No, you were . . . shot."

"I got a flesh wound is all. Nicked my ankle. Didn't hit a bone or anything." Buck had to raise his voice. "JD - look at me."

He waited as JD turned scared eyes back to his friend. Buck's broad smile comforted him momentarily. The gunslicker pulled the blanket away from his leg to show him his bandaged ankle. "See? It's ok. But I'm gonna have to be laid up a while, so if you don't mind some company . . ."

JD nodded, a bit absently. He paused a moment. It took so long for a thought to form in his clouded mind. But he could remember, vaguely . . . "Vin?"

"He's doing so good he's out and about today."

"Good." JD seemed to doze a minute. Buck watched him closely. He wished he could spare him the remembering.

Gradually, the boy's brows furrowed and Buck couldn't tell if he was dreaming or in pain.

Suddenly, the boy gasped and his eyes shot open.

"What, kid?"

"Chris?!!"

The question blindsided Buck. And he was about to answer when he realized that JD was trying to pull himself up.

JD's eyes reflected the horrific pain. His breath came in difficult gasps.

"My . . . side . . . hurts . . ."

He suddenly looked terrified, as the nerves throughout his body came alive.

"Just breathe easy, JD. You got a busted rib or two. You'll be ok."

JD struggled to get into a position that didn't make him feel like he was being stabbed in the side. But no sooner did the pain ease than he began to feel the sick burning in his back. He clenched his teeth. Maybe he could ride out the pain.

But he realized that something else was bothering him, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it.

Oh yea. Where was Chris? Hadn't he asked Buck about it?

Buck must be hiding something from him.

"Where's Chris?" JD breathed.

"You know Chris. He's fine."

"Oh God, Buck. What?" JD was becoming more agitated. "Is he dead? He's dead, isn't he?"

"Now simmer down, son. He ain't dead. He and Josiah and Ezra went to fetch Nathan is all. They'll be back any time now. Hell, they'll probably be here by this afternoon."

JD didn't look convinced. His eyes grew wide. And he looked away. Far away. Like he was trying to remember something.

Or trying not to.

But he was remembering.

Buck screaming.

Ezra riding away.

That soldier - the blonde-headed one. That soldier had hit him.

Chris being dragged away.

And walking.

Walking forever.

Blindfolded. He'd been blindfolded, hadn't he"

Chris and Josiah and Buck and Ezra. Standing there in the sun. Waiting.

And Vin was sitting. Vin was hurt. He looked . . . sick.

Nathan saying it would kill him.

Buck . . . He was looking at Buck

And he felt the intense shock before he felt the pain. The cold blade had cut him. His face.

What were they gonna do to him? Why were they tying him up?

His shirt . . .

Oh, sweet Jesus . . .

A tear rolled down his cheek.

"What is it, son?" Buck's gentle voice belied his alarm. "Come on, JD. Come back, now. . ."

But the boy turned his bandaged face into his pillow and drew his hand up to cover his eyes.

And Buck recognized the light tremor in the boy's shoulders.

He was sobbing . . . silently.

Buck started to get up to go to him, but a muffled voice stopped him.

"Don't . . . " JD's voice was soft but emphatic. And he seemed almost to curl into himself. "Please . . ."

When he looked back on this moment, Buck would see this as the beginning of JD's withdrawal from him.

From everyone.


For the third time that day Judge Travis was perturbed. The stage brought no help for him. The rainclouds had obliterated any evidence of the sun. And now an injured sharpshooter was saddling up to ride out with him.

The Judge was working out a logical, persuasive argument against Vin Tanner's accompanying him, but his thoughts were jolted back to Four Corners when he heard the sound of people running down the street.

Vin was already clutching his carbine, running to the doorway, careful not to step out into some kind of ambush. The judge followed closely on his heels.

Vin peered around the corner.

And saw the four weary, dusty travellers --

His brothers --

Who had come home.

Safe.

At last.


PART NINETEEN: All in the Same Room Again

He was dead.

That was it.

They'd all died.

What other explanation was there?

They'd all died and gone to Heaven.

Or Hell.

That was the only explanation. Why else would Chris Larabee be standing next to him with Ezra and Josiah?

But, why would he have died? He only had a flesh wound.

This couldn't be right. Buck Wilmington had his eyes open, but he wasn't quite awake. He forced himself to lucidity.

And saw his friends.

Soaking wet, filthy, bruised, scratched, and dog tired

And beautiful.

"Nathan . . ."

Chris nodded toward JD's bed where the healer was making a careful assessment of the boy's injuries.

Buck's face clouded. "He's been so sick . . ." he explained and his gaze lingered there for a moment, then he reached up and grabbed Chris' sleeve. "Are you all right?"

"Couple of busted ribs." Chris' drone comforted his old friend. "I'll be fine."

"And the others . . ."

"Really tired, and really hungry, but everyone's in one piece. How's your leg?"

"I'll live."

A low voice spoke from the doorway. "I didn't think we'd all be in the same room again." Vin Tanner smiled at his war-weary friends.

Ezra Standish turned to the bounty hunter. "How do you feel, Mr. Tanner?"

Vin sighed. "Sore . . . but I'm better."

Ezra tentatively put a hand on Vin's shoulder. He was not given to much physical display of emotion, but his perspective had changed during the last week, and he had been overcome with the realization of how fragile life could be. His jaw tightened. "I'm glad." Then recognizing that he was feeling more emotion than he could control, he shifted back to humor."Besides, better is the only direction you could go without actually meeting your Maker."

"I reckon we all came pretty close to it."

Josiah made his way around to the other side of Buck's bed, speaking in low tones. Ezra watched the little scene and felt another rush of emotion. He ran his hand down his face, not really knowing how to handle this . . . feeling. He'd never really known family.

Yet here he was surrounded by family. Vin must have picked up on it somehow, because he laid an easy hand on the gambler's shoulder. Ezra looked at him a moment, then blinked back the burning in his eyes.

Nathan looked up and interrupted the quiet conversations around the room. "His fever broke," he announced, his voice hitching. "His fever broke," he repeated, almost to himself. He turned back to the boy. "It's all right, son. You're gonna be all right."

The healer pushed the sweat-soaked hair out of JD's eyes and the men were sobered by the battered face. The kid's eyes opened slowly. His lip quivered when he saw Nathan, and he reached up to take his friend's hand. Nathan smiled broadly and held JD's hand in both of his.

The dark eyes studied the hazel ones, now brimming with tears. And the former slave recognized something he hadn't seen in long years. Something he should never have to see in any soul - certainly not in one so young. He would not be able to describe it to the others - they'd have to see it themselves. But it touched him deeply, and he wished he could spare the boy the trauma that awaited him.

Instinctively, Nathan reached up and stroked the young man's brow, trying to communicate an understanding.

He knew what this was like.

"You got friends here, son." Nathan said and he gently set JD's hand back on the bed. Wordlessly, he stood up. For a moment, JD's eyes met Buck's, and for the first time, Buck couldn't read his young friend.

There was something there beyond bewilderment, beyond fear, beyond questioning . . .

A black shirt eclipsed his field of vision. He'd have to figure it out later.

Chris Larabee knelt beside JD's bed and for a moment he studied the kid's face. Every bruise and every bandage was evidence of this boy's sacrifice . . .

And of Chris Larabee's failings . . .

Why hadn't he protected him? Why had he let this naive kid ride into Hell with them? JD should be fumbling over his words trying to ask some pretty girl to go out with him, not lying here like this.

Chris couldn't look him in the eye at first. And JD picked up on this.

A thin voice. "You couldn't have stopped them, Mr. Larabee."

Mr. Larabee.

It was a little thing. But the respect JD still afforded the great gunfighter was the young man's way of absolving him.

Chris lowered his head, and when he looked up, a smile pulled at his lips and his eyes were full. He took the initiative and held JD's hand. It seemed like forever before he could speak.

"You saved my life, JD." Chris took a ragged breath. "I'd have died in the street that first night if you hadn't warned me." He reached up and touched the kid's face just below the bandaged broken cheek, seeing, in his mind's eye, the rifle slam into his face in retaliation. JD watched him closely, remembering as well. Chris' voice waivered, "I'm . . . so sorry." JD blinked back a tear. Remembering was so hard. But he couldn't let his idol see him cry. He had to turn his face away - into the pillow, now damp with sweat.

Chris stood and leaned close to the boy's ear. His hand gently touched his wet hair, and he spoke in a voice thick with emotion.

"I have never known a braver man."


She didn't hear him come in. The heavy rain had lulled her to sleep - a much needed sleep. She was exhausted. A week of not-knowing, of doing what little she could to help, of tending to a very sick young man . . .

She would never have deliberately taken a nap,

But she'd put the paper to bed.

And she couldn't sit on the porch, watching, because the rain was torrential, blowing a cold mist under the overhang.

She'd just sit by the window, pulling her shawl around her shoulders, watching, listening to the rain.

The rain lullabye

She drifted

To sleep

Sleep.

"Mary . . ."

The low voice - a voice she knew in her dreams . . .

But she wasn't dreaming. She opened her eyes. And

There he stood. His duster did nothing to hide the evidence of his ordeal.

But he was alive.

Mary's jaw dropped in shock.

Then she ran to him.

He held her. Forever.

He hadn't known he needed her. But right now she was the only living soul who could afford him comfort. She was the first beauty he1d seen in a torturous week. And he would hold on to that beauty.

A beautiful heart.

No words. Why words? Everything was so complete in this moment. Chris Larabee kissed the top of her head. The soft scent of her golden hair was intoxicating to him and he wrapped his arms around her more tightly.

She clung to him.

He1d come back. She had feared so for him. And she had relived a time when someone she'd loved hadn't come home. At first it had surprised her. Oh, she cared about these men - all of them. But it was Chris that kept invading her thoughts. Chris whose brooding eyes haunted her restless dreams.

And Chris who had brought something back to life in her. Something she thought she had buried with her husband.

She took the hurt face in her soft hands and studied it. Chris didn't fight it. His eyes searched hers and, in this unguarded moment, he recognized the man he had once been reflected there. The man who had loved a wife and child. The man who could live robustly and enjoy his friends. The man who hadn't yet been burdened with unrelenting guilt. For a moment, he found himself.

And he could hope.


Buck Wilmington wasn1t good with crutches. He'd forget to use them and when he did use them, his arms hurt. Damn his ankle. He took a couple of faulty steps across the porch in front of the boarding house. And nearly toppled when he stepped off the porch to the street.

A hand caught him, but instead of thanking the helper, he spun on his heel and snapped, "I can do it!!!!!" Vin Tanner didn't let go of his friend's elbow. The bounty hunter didn't react to his friend1s outburst. Buck had kept a vigil at JD's bedside for two weeks now, and the boy seemed to be drifting farther and farther away from them. His body was healing - slowly. But his spirit was broken. And nobody seemed to be able to help him. This frustrated Buck to no end, and that frustration erupted in little outbursts of anger.

But his friends let it roll off. They shared his concern for JD, and were concerned for him as well. Vin had taken it upon himself to stay close to the gunslinger. Josiah had buried himself in working on the church. Nathan was at JD's bedside every day. Ezra, uncharacteristically, was quiet, and running on a short fuse himself.

And Chris, Chris stayed clear of his old friend. It was strange. He cared about him, loved him like a brother, truth be told. But he also knew he was more likely to antagonize Buck, and they would inevitably start sparring, if for no other reason than to burn off excess stress.

So Vin was the one who would make sure Buck was all right.

Like he was doing now.

"Come on," he said, waiting until Buck had steadied himself to release his hold on his arm. "I could use a drink."

Buck nodded. "Me too."

They slowly made their way to their only haven.


JD saw him - plain as day.

A face that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

The face returned more vividly when he was alone. When his friends were nearby, he had to tune out their pity. That energy pushed the face back into the recesses of his mind.

But he was alone now, and he saw it.

Those blue eyes, staring at

Nothing.

A blonde head he tried to cradle in his arms. The body of a soldier wearing a tattered gray uniform.

The boy had apologized to him. Or had he imagined it. Apologized for hitting him that morning.

The poor guy didn't even know the War was over. He was just trying to do his job.

And they killed him for it.

And when JD was staring down the barrel of a shotgun, knowing he was

going to die,

A blur of gray flew in front of him.

And he heard the shot. Then saw him fall. And JD held him as the life flickered out.

Why had the boy smiled at him? Smiled while he was dying. Why?

He shouldn't have died. Not for him. He probably had a mama who would cry over him. Someone who needed him. He didn't deserve what he got.

If only those eyes would leave him alone. Maybe he could find some peace.

But he knew somehow they would stay with him forever.

How could he live with that horrible image in his mind?

Then it occurred to him. . .

So simple . . .

He couldn't.


Sanctuary. That's what they called it, wasn't it? A blessed place - sacred space where he could find respite.

And Nathan Jackson needed respite, if only to have a quiet lunch away from everyone. It was chicken and dumpling day at the cafe, and Nathan brought two plates to the dark unfinished hull of a church. He heard the soft grinding of a saw, and knew Josiah hadn't left all morning.

"Josiah!!" he called. "Lunch!!"

The grinding sped up, then stopped. And then Nathan heard the big man grunt as he thudded to the ground from his perch in what would be the baptistry. "Coming. . ."

Nathan set the two big plates on a work bench and Josiah sat with him, the tired bench groaning beneath his weight.

"How is he?" the preacher asked.

Nathan finished a bite of chicken, swallowing, thinking.

"His body's healing. His soul ain't." Nathan picked up a roll and still lost in deepening thought, set it back down. "I'm not sure it's gonna heal." He searched Josiah for some understanding and found instead a willing listener. "I've seen too much of this. You know, I was born on that land where you found me. I was born . . . already belonging to somebody else. As early as I can remember, I saw beatings. Some would rather die than give Greeley the satisfaction of hearing them scream. But there were grown men, strong men who screamed for . . . mercy. Sometimes I would fall asleep hearing the screaming." The former slave squeezed his eyes closed tightly. Josiah never even started eating his lunch. Somehow it seemed more appropriate to wait.

"I thought I'd never have to hear that again." The friends sat in silence for a long moment before Nathan opened his eyes. "JD hasn't ever seen anyone tortured before. Except for what he's seen with us, everything he knows is from them dime-store novels. The good guys always win." Nathan shook his head. "He's only a boy. How is he supposed to get over something like this?"

Josiah had been listening, thoughtfully. He tilted his head slightly and challenged the healer. "How did you?"

Nathan bit his lip. He'd have to remember - after so many years of trying to forget. "Lemme work on that," he said.

Josiah nodded and picked up Nathan's roll and handed it to him. Then he took a bite of his own and they shared a silent meal together.


Ezra Standish pulled out his pocket watch and glanced at it. Two o'clock in the afternoon. He was so restless. Everything was different now. Things mattered to him that never had before. People mattered to him. More than that, he cared about what kind of man he was. And because of these things, the evils of the world infuriated him. He was perpetually angry. And there seemed to be no relief from it. None of his former diversions interested him. Cardplay reminded him of Emil Devereaux. Drinking didn't seem worth it. And he didn't care to talk to anyone.

And seeing JD only fueled his anger and strengthened his resolve to find Jacob Chiles and bring him to justice.

His own version of justice. The "eye for an eye" kind.

But he would go see JD.

Every day.

He stepped into the boarding house and heard . . . a struggle?

In JD's room.

Silently, Ezra drew his pistol crept up to the door. Cautiously, he peered in, only to find JD struggling to get up.

"Careful, son!" Ezra called, holstering his weapon.

JD had crawled back onto his heels. He'd been lying on his stomach for so long and now was kneeling in bed, teetering a bit. "Do you want me to find Nathan?" Ezra asked as he took hold of his elbow to steady him.

JD was winded from the effort.

"No, please," JD interrupted. "Just, let me . . . catch my breath."

The boy's breath came in shallow gasps, and Ezra could hear the slight wheezing. And he remembered the rifle connecting with JD's ribs.

And he felt a rush of anger.

But he set it aside for the moment. The gambler almost asked him why he hadn't waited for someone to help him. Then, he thought better of it. Somehow Ezra knew that JD needed to try to do things for himself. He had to know he could.

JD's hair had gotten so long, and it completely covered his face when his head was hanging as it was now. "Wanna . . . sit up . . ." he said.

"Well, judging from your current position, you may find it simplest to . . . lay on your side . . . and swing your legs out. Then you can pull yourself up."

JD nodded. He took a couple of breaths, then slid back down to the bed onto his side. But the effort not only robbed him of his breath, it also hurt. JD squeezed his eyes against it. Ezra stood beside him, resisting the strong temptation to help him.


PART TWENTY: The Breaking of the Spirit, the Dying of the Soul

JD was about to swing his legs forward - but it was too much. He lay down on the pillow, exhausted. With one arm, he kept himself propped up on his side.

"Would you like more pillows?" Ezra asked.

It was a breathless minute before he could answer. "No - thanks -"

Ezra sat on the made-up bed that had been Buck's. The boy didn't look at him. For a while, he seemed to be trying to find a comfortable angle. But even that seemed to defeat him.

He lay . . .

Resigned.

"Ezra?"

"Hm?"

"You know about . . . legal stuff, don't you?"

"Enough to keep myself as far removed from it as is humanly possible."

JD didn't feel like responding to the gambler's attempt at levity.

"Can you help me make a will?"

Ezra's eyebrows shot up and he turned to the boy.

"Mr. Dunne, I hardly see the need . . . "

For an instant, JD's face clouded. "I know I don't have much, but . . ."

"Son, you miss my meaning. I didn't mean that you didn't have anything of value. I meant that your interest in a will is . . . premature, that's all."

"I could have used one a couple of weeks ago."

Ezra leaned closer. "But you survived, son. And you're gonna survive."

If JD were listening, it didn't deter him from his mission. "I just want to know that my mama's things . . ." Suddenly, as in a panic, the boy's hand went to his throat, searching.

"Mama's keepsake. . . " He looked to Ezra.

The gambler's expression remained kind, but his eyes flashed in anger. "Mr. Chiles . . . removed it from your neck when . . ."

He didn't have to finish. JD looked for a moment like he would weep, but then, closed his eyes and painfully, turned back onto his stomach.

Ezra hadn't become accustomed to the intense need he felt to offer comfort to another, and he found it frustrating. He couldn't make this right for the boy. And it pained him.

So any inclination he had toward comforting JD translated into a calculated hatred of Jacob Chiles - a hatred that would eat him up if he didn't do something about it.

He looked back at the boy, but the boy had withdrawn so completely that there was nothing he could do to help him.


The nightmares revisited him. Nathan Jackson woke up in a cold sweat, heart pounding, long buried memories resurging with vivid reality. And he cursed them.

"Nathan, are you all right?" JD was sitting up, trimming the lamp.

"Too much screaming. . ." Nathan said, his breath ragged, eyes focused somewhere far away from Four Corners. JD was alarmed. He looked around, trying to figure out a way to help. Then, stiffly, he stood and took a wobbly step toward Nathan. Another one. Then he awkwardly slid to his knees beside the healer's borrowed bed. And then he pulled himself up to look at his friend.

"Nathan . . ." JD's voice was so gentle. "'S all right. You're all right." The boy found Nathan's hand and held it in both of his. Nathan tightened his grip. How strong his hand was, JD thought. His gentle, healing hand . . . Gradually Nathan pulled himself out of his dream and opened his eyes.

"JD." Nathan was shocked to see that the boy had gotten out of bed. "How did you . . ."

JD shrugged. "I thought . . . you needed me." Nathan lay back and closed his eyes. He nodded. "I do need you."

He said nothing for a few moments. And JD grew anxious. "Nathan?"

"I know now."

"Know what?"

Nathan took a deep breath and sat up. "Let's get you back to bed." He climbed out of bed and pulled one of JD's arms across his shoulders. He hoisted the boy to his feet, and then, slowly, walked him back to bed.

It was frustrating to JD that such a simple move would so utterly exhaust him, but by the time he got back in the bed, he was winded. Nathan waited while he got settled.

JD lay on his side, a bewildered expression on his face. "What did you mean before-that you'know now'?"

Nathan sat in the chair beside the boy. He reached over and turned the lamplight up until it was very bright. "Lemme show you something."

The former slave stood up and pulled his shirt off. He knelt by JD, then turned his back to him.

And JD saw the long trailing scars. The kid had known that Nathan had been beaten, but he hadn't seen the scars.

"Go ahead," Nathan said. And the young man extended a pale hand and touched the brown skin, tracing the lines with a gentle finger. After he'd studied his friend's back, he let his hand rest on the man's shoulder.

"I am . . . so sorry, Nathan," JD said, and the healer turned back around.

"And I wish there had been a way I could have kept this from happening to you. But . . ."

"I know."

Nathan pulled the chair very close and sat beside him. "I've been worried about you, son. I know your body will heal, but I didn't know how to help your . . . heart."

JD was listening intently.

Nathan continued. "Josiah asked me how I got through it. And, for the life of me, I couldn't remember. I couldn't remember. And now, something you said. It all made sense. You said you thought I needed you."

"How did . . ."

"I remember feeling . . . useless. I hadn't been able to save my family. I hadn't been able to save myself. I thought I was no use to nobody. But then, I was working with the doctors, and this boy, oh, he was probably about your age, grabbed my hand and begged me for help. And I could help him. And I realized I could help other folks. I knew that I was needed. And if I was needed, there was a reason I was put here."

Nathan squeezed JD's hand. "We need you, boy. We aren't complete without you."

JD was listening, but Nathan still sensed a distance between them. "I know getting hurt like you did, it's humiliating. And if you feel shamed, just know it'll pass."

JD nodded, but Nathan realized that he couldn't tell JD how to get through this. He'd have to find his own way.


Casey Welles was sick of this. She sat across from Mary at the Clarion, fidgetting and heaving big impatient sighs. And it was getting on Mary's last nerve.

"Casey, why don't you go help your aunt?"

"Already have."

"Then why don't you see if Judge Travis needs anything?"

Casey exploded. "Why does everybody want to get rid of me? Why doesn't anybody see . . ." a great sob interrupted, "how hard this is for me?"

Mary was startled. She took a step toward her young friend. But Casey spun on her heel and walked to the window. "He's not the only one who's gotten hurt here," she continued. "He hurts . . . and I hurt for him." She turned back around to Mary, wringing her hands. "And it hurts worse that he won't let me help him." Tears rolled down her face and she almost wailed. "Why did this have to happen to him?"

Mary hugged her. "I don't know, Sweetheart." Casey had been remarkably strong throughout this ordeal. But now, she was at a loss.

"Go see him." A gravelly voice.

The women looked up to see Chris Larabee standing inside the doorway. He crossed his arms and leaned against the doorjamb. "Sometimes what's best for a person isn't always what he wants. He's been pulling away from all of us. It's time that we pull him back."

Casey hastily wiped her eyes with the heels of her hands and collected herself. "Are you sure, Mr Larabee?" The girl waited.

"Go ahead."

Casey ran to the door and paused long enough to impulsively kiss the gunslinger on the cheek. Then she ran across the street to the boarding house.

A smile tugged at his lips.

But Mary frowned. "Are you sure?" She challenged, hands on her hips.

"I'm not sure of anything right now. But I know we're losing him. Every day he has less to say."

"I thought Nathan said he was getting better."

"Oh he's healing. But there's something going on with him. Something . . ."

"Well, he's been through a trauma, Chris. Of course he's going to have trouble accepting what's happened."

"But there's more. And I can't figure out what."

Mary went to him, and touched his face. "You will."

"Somebody better. I've got a feeling we're running out of time."


Casey ran into the boarding house, but forced herself to slow down as she approached the sick room. She didn't want to startle JD. As it turned out, he wouldn't have noticed her entry, because Buck Wilmington was hollering at him. She waited outside, knowing she shouldn't eavesdrop. But, she so wanted to know what was going on.

"Why in thunder do you want to give 'em away?" The big man was yelling. "They mean a lot to you. And you're just gonna give 'em away. Just like that."

Why didn't JD answer him? Normally, that tone of voice alone would send him into a rage. But he just . . . took it. And that bugged Casey.

"What are you thinking?" Buck yelled. "You can't just give up on everything. You got to snap out of it."

Casey stepped inside and saw JD standing by the window, staring. His back was to her. He looked so thin, the long drapy painters' shirt swallowing him. The pants Aunt Nettie had made for him tied loosely around his narrow waist. Buck was pacing. He looked like he could strangle somebody.

"i just wanted you to have them." JD's voice was small. "I figured they might be special to you one day."

Buck stopped cold. He looked like someone had hit him. "JD," Buck said softly. "They're special to you and you're special to me. Keep them and give them to your own son someday." He walked over to put his hand on the kid's shoulders, but it didn't seem like the time.

Casey stepped further into the room. Buck looked at her, helplessly. Then he turned back to JD. "Thank you for thinking of me, kid. But I can't."

Buck left hurriedly.

Casey stood, frozen in place. JD looked so thin. His face was hidden by the long black hair. Really long hair, she thought.

"JD?" She felt like she was intruding on his isolation. But she'd come this far.

For a moment, he didn't move a muscle. Then painfully, he turned to her. She had to stifle a gasp. His face was gaunt and deathly pale. A long scar stretched from just under his eye to his jaw. And his cheek looked different somehow.

But his eyes scared her the most.

They were dead.


The next two weeks found Four Corners trying to resume something of its old rhythm. Ezra, Chris and Vin had been called away to Eagle Bend to offer testimony against the men who had been arrested for the atrocity. Upon their return, Nathan and Josiah and a reluctant Buck set out to do the same.

And JD's body continued to heal.

And his soul continued to struggle.

And Jacob Chiles was living large

In Mexico.


PART TWENTY-ONE: Guardian Angels

He could finally wear regular clothes, though they were now decidedly too big for him. He'd gotten a haircut, not because he was really concerned with how he looked, but wanting it out of his eyes.

His skin was still pale and his face was so thin, making his new scar all the more startling. His cheekbones were more pronounced and his eyes seemed hollow somehow. He looked like the ghost of the boy they'd known.

JD kept to himself mostly. He got tired easily. And yet, he tried to contribute to the town that had helped him. He worked with Josiah in the church and he went with Vin to Miss Nettie's to help repair the fence behind the house.

His friends couldn't read any emotions he may have felt - maybe because he felt nothing. He was always polite, and he never seemed to get angry. It was as though nothing interested him anymore. And how he struggled to participate in anything.

He ate dinner with Casey a couple of times, but not really like a date. And he would stop by the saloon every now and then, but only to see if anyone needed anything.

He went through life dutifully. That was the word. Dutiful. Not for the love of life, but because . . . what else could he do?

Chris watched him as the boy took Vin's horse from the tired bounty hunter. Vin had made a run to Eagle Bend and back. He strode over to Chris and followed his gaze back to the kid.

"He's moving better . . ." Vin commented.

Chris didn't say anything - he just kept watching JD.

Vin waited until the kid disappeared into the livery.

"Saloon?" Vin asked.

A moment passed. Chris frowned, lost in thought.

"He's dying inside," he said, finally.

"He's been through a lot."

Chris shook his head. "He's given up. He's not living. He's just going through the motions."

Vin lifted his head, listening.

"I know the look," Chris continued, his eyes drawn back to the livery. "I've been where he is." Chris glanced back at Vin. "And it's a mighty dark place"


Judge Travis sat in the cafe, finishing a bowl of soup. It was too hot for soup, but he'd felt a little weak after the events of the last month. He was trying to eat well and catch up on sleep. He thought back on the hearings. They'd gone well - as well as they could considering Jacob Chiles was still out there. That coward. It was just a stroke of luck that he had been able to find people to hook up with him. What a hairbrained idea? How did Chiles pull it off?

He hadn't.

Not alone.

There was no way.

Travis was convinced that there had to be someone else, someone who could mastermind a plan as intricate as this. Someone who had been smart enough to stay the hell away from the action.

Someone who wouldn't be satisifed until the job was done right . . .


He didn't hear him at first. His erratic hammering consumed him as he tried to secure a nail in the baptistry at an impossible angle. Finally the tack popped out and the railing popped up and Josiah Sanchez popped out with an explitive which would never be appropriate in the house of the Lord. "Sorry," he muttered automatically.

JD turned quickly to leave. This certainly wasn't the time to ask Josiah what he needed to.

"JD?"

Too late. The preacher had seen him.

"'S nothing. I can come back later."

Josiah climbed down and walked over to the boy. "No. No need. It's time for a break." He looked back at the baptistry and smiled. "Besides, I'm damn close to bein' struck by lightning."

JD nodded, a fleeting half smile crossing his face. Then he waited awkwardly. Josiah guided him to a bench and they sat down. "What can I do for you?" The big man's eyes were warm, and JD felt bolder. He had to ask this all at once or he might never work up the nerve again.

"Take me to his grave." JD's voice was throaty. Josiah looked puzzled. He leaned forward.

"Whose grave, son?"

Af first, JD looked incredulous. How could he not know who he was talking about? Wasn't everyone overcome with the injustice that had been done that poor reb? The young, scarred face that had been so void of emotion suddenly looked panicked. "The soldier's. The one who . . . " He didn't even realize he had clutched Josiah's shirt. "I have to go." His voice became thick and he began to tremble. JD struggled to contain this strange rush of emotion that threatened to overwhelm him. "He shouldn't have died. He's . . . alone. I need to go see him."

Josiah was alarmed at the expression in the boy's eyes. It was something akin to madness. And in one awful moment, he realized what this young man had been carrying all this time. He reached out to hold him, but JD withdrew.

"NO!" JD cried, jumping up. "Don't . . . comfort me. Don't . . ." Josiah was by his side in an instant, but JD shook him off, tears rolling down his face, eyes wild. "No . . . I don't . . . deserve . . ."

"What, son?" Josiah grabbed the boy's arms, and held him as he struggled weakly. "JD . . ." he spoke so gently. Finally JD quit fighting him and hung his head, defeated. "It doesn't matter. Just . . . take me, OK?" He looked up. "Please Josiah."

"I'll take you, but what did you mean . . . you don't deserve - "

JD pulled away, suddenly. "Just forget . . ." He waved his hand around, wildly. "That doesn't matter."

"It does," Josiah said, taking a tentative step toward JD. "Why didn't you tell anyone you felt like this?"

"Like what, Josiah?" The boy was bewildered. "You all know how he died. Why . . . he died. That should NEVER have happened." JD backed toward the door, avoiding the preacher's eyes. "This was a bad idea." JD was talking to himself now. "Bad idea."

Josiah grabbed his arm, harder than he intended to, and was horrified by the sudden terror in the kid's face. He let go immediately, sputtering apologies,

And JD ran off.


The message came a little after five - and Buck Wilmington was there waiting. "Hot damn!!!!!" he whooped and ran all the way to the saloon. He burst through the doors, and one of the doors narrowly missed Ezra Standish.

"Damn you, Mr. Wilmington, if you think . . . "

Buck patted his cheek. "Cuss me out later, Ezra. I've got the Holy Grail in my hand." He turned and walked over to the table where Chris and Vin were sitting with Nathan. "Gentlemen," he said, grandly. "Fear not. I've got just the right medicine for the kid. Read this!" He handed the yellow note to Chris and watched, satisfied, as his friend grinned in response.

"All right," Chris said, nodding, and he handed the paper to Vin.

Ezra strolled over. "Well, since nobody seems concerned with the fact that Mr. Wilmington almost . . ."

"Oh, pipe down, Ezra," Buck said, and the gambler couldn't keep from smiling as he read over Vin's shoulder.

"My apologies, sir," he said. "You have indeed 'saved the day' it would seem."

"Not until next week," Nathan said, smiling as he read the note Vin handed him. "But this may really do it."

"May I stand you to a drink?" Ezra asked Buck.

"Why yes, Mr. Standish. That would be most delightful," Buck answered, trying to approximate the gambler's expert use of language.

Chris laughed. "Give it up, Buck. Just thank him and drink."

If it weren't for the scream, Buck would have made a witty reply.

A shrill, blood-curdling scream. The men jumped up and drew their weapons.

Mary was running down the street toward the boarding house. "Casey!!" she called. Chris caught up with her. "That's Casey," she told him.

"Go to the Clarion and lock the doors. Wait for us. We'll take care of Casey."

His tone left no room for debate. She nodded and ran into the office. God, what if Chiles had come back? It can't be happening again.


Josiah sat cross-legged on the ground across from the new marker. The grave was getting a fresh growth of grass and it saddened the preacher. It seemed wrong somehow that a boy could be killed and every trace of his existence disappear in a couple of months. Every trace except for a make-shift headstone without even a name to identify him.

But his face would live forever in the heart of a troubled boy. God, where had JD gone? Josiah had followed him to the boarding house, only to find that he'd locked himself in his room. He just wanted to take a nap, he'd said. He was sorry to have made a fuss. Maybe the heat was getting to him. He'd get Josiah to take him to the grave later. Go home, Josiah, he'd said. He was fine, he'd said.

The preacher stayed outside his door. He couldn't leave him. Something was so wrong. And the fact that JD calmed down so quickly . . . well it wasn't natural.

So why the hell had he fallen asleep?

He'd called out for JD, only to be rewarded with a sick silence. Dear God, what had the kid done? He pounded on the door and finally, kicked it in.

A tentative relief came over him when he saw that the bed had been slept in, but the boy was gone.

Where had he gone?

A quick perusal of the room indicated that he'd climbed out of the window.

Josiah could have tracked him,

But he knew where JD would go.

So he'd go there and wait.


Casey nearly tripped over her skirt as she ran sobbing into the street. She landed in Chris Larabee's arms.

"You've gotta find him," she pleaded, grasping his arms.

"Who?"

"JD!" she looked at the anxious faces around her. "You've gotta stop him."

Buck put his hands on her shoulders. "Stop him from what?"

Her voice caught on the words. "He's gonna kill himself."

"WHAT?!"

Buck took the letter she handed him. "Oh, sweet Jesus. . ." he breathed, handing it to Chris. He pulled away from them and ran up to JD's room, Vin on his heels. Why had the door been kicked in? Why had he had to escape out the window?

Maybe he wasn't gonna kill himself. Maybe Chiles had caught up with him and he was trying to divert them with the letter. Maybe he was out there running for his life.

Help him, Lord.


"We split up," Chris commanded. "But watch your backs. Buck's right. This could be a set up." He looked at Ezra. "You stay here with the judge and cover the town. If there's trouble, fire two shots and we'll know. Vin, you and I'll take the south side and work our way around the western perimeter. Nathan, you and Buck start on the north side and work your way down the eastern side." He glanced around. "Where the hell is Josiah?"

"Haven't seen him since lunch," Nathan said.

"I don't like this a bit," Buck said. "Chiles could have both of 'em."

Vin looked up and nodded at Casey who stood in the doorway of the Clarion, Mary Travis holding the young girl close. He and Chris mounted up and headed south.

And Buck and Nathan made their way north.

And the people of Four Corners prayed.


It had been too long. Surely JD would have asked someone where the soldier was buried. It wasn't a secret or anything. But he hadn't come. And it had been hours.

Josiah stood up and brushed off the seat of his pants. He should have gotten help when the kid first bolted out of the church. He could have gone anywhere. And he was in no condition to be traveling alone. But Josiah felt like JD had confided in him and he didn't want to breach this fragile trust.

The preacher headed back toward town. He'd start over again.

With help this time.


His foot was asleep where he had been sitting on it for the last three hours. The thick undergrowth had provided good cover, even though something was itching him. He could see the grave from here. And Josiah.

Thank God he was leaving. JD felt guilty for hiding from him, but he HAD tried to explain everything to him. And of all of his friends, Josiah was the one that he thought would really understand. Hadn't he talked about paying penance?

But this went way beyond penance.

JD couldn't ever make this right.

He was shivering . . .

But he wasn't cold.

And he wasn't scared.

He was . . .

Lost.


Ezra kept watch from the Clarion office, staying with Mary and Casey. The judge was waiting at the jail, guarding a cowboy who had been picked up for public drunkenness. The rest of the town was strangely quiet, word about potential danger having spread like wildfire. Everyone was hunkering down, doors locked, shutters drawn. No one was taking a chance of falling prey to the evil that had befallen their guardians.

Casey had cried until she had no more tears. Her fear was turning to blistering anger

At JD.

At herself.

She folded her arms in front of her tightly and bit her lip. She leaned against the windowsill opposite Ezra - but not looking at him. She stared out at the empty street.


Mary stepped over to the cafe, to bring supper over to their little group and to ask the cook to stay open a little longer in case the searchers came back hungry. The intensity of emotion at the Clarion had made her even more nervous . . . and so tired . . .

She paused to sit for a few minutes. And in a moment, she was staring at the tablecloth, lost in troubled thought.

"Mrs. Travis?"

Mary glanced up at the wide-eyed girl who had tentatively approached.

"Yes?"

The girl took a cup of hot tea off of her serving tray and set in front of her. "I thought you might like some," she said softly.

Mary smiled, and turned glistening eyes to her. "Thank you . . .that's very thoughtful."

The girl nodded, a bit shyly, and started back to the kitchen. But she paused and turned back, not sure whether it was all right to say something. Mary sensed her awkward hesitance and took the initiative.

"Would you like to join me?"

"Oh, no ma'am. I mean . . . I'd love to, but . . . I'm not allowed to sit down with the customers when I'm working . . . I mean, I just wanted to say . . ."

She faltered, embarrassed.

"It's all right . . . go on . . ."

The girl stepped close and lowered her voice. "It's just that . . . well, my mother says that God has sent these good men to our town to protect us, sort of like our guardian angels . . . and she says that He's got an angel watching over each one of them. That's why they all came back to us. That's why they all lived." The girl smiled. "He wouldn't bring 'em back and then stop caring for them. They'll come back."

"NANCY!" the voice from the kitchen boomed.

"I've got to get back to work." She whispered, then turned. "Caming!" she answered.

Mary thought about the girl's words, and a comfort came over her. How right that wise young one was. It was nothing short of a miracle that these men all came back alive. And surely God was with them now.


Ezra felt that familiar anger again.

But when he looked at the angry young woman standing at the window with him, he felt

Sad.

Poor girl had lost her mama and daddy. She'd had to see her treasured heirlooms and remembrances taken from her and she'd had to fight to get them back. She'd had to fight to help her aunt keep their home.

And at a time when her heart was most tender, she'd fallen in love for the first time in her life, only to have the boy taken from her.

Even when he was returned to her, it wasn't the same. He was broken and hurt.

And when she tried to help, the wall had already been put in place. She couldn't save him from the ones who'd hurt him.

And she couldn't save him from himself.

"Miss Welles," Ezra began softly. "When we were out there, fighting for our lives, nobody fought harder or more nobly than Mr. D . . .uh, JD. But none of us knows everything he suffered, everything he saw. He's carrying a burden . . . one that we cannot see . . ."

Ezra stepped closer. "We all tried to help him carry it. But he never let us . . ." He looked into her eyes with an uncanny intensity. "And if he could have, if there had been any way, I'm sure he would have communicated to you how very much . . . he cares for you. Perhaps, it is his concern for you that kept him from wanting to burden you with his sufferings."

"But I could have handled it." Casey wished she could sound more fierce.

A charm twinkled in the gambler's eye. "Miss Welles - ever since I saw you stand up to that distasteful 'collector,' I have never doubted your ability to handle anything you confront." He looked out the window as if trying to place his next thought. "But this isn't something you can confront for another person. These are JD's own demons. Even if he had been able to tell you about it - or any of us for that matter - he would still have to find a way to . . . live with it. He has to go through it and, God willing, come out the other side."

"But . . . I could . . . " Casey's lip trembled and she followed Ezra's gaze out the window. " I could hold his hand."

The gambler looked back at the young girl. She wanted to be strong. And she was. But she needed someone to be strong for her now. Ezra reached out and took her hand. Startled she looked at him

And saw the tears in his eyes.

"You could hold mine." Ezra's voice was thick.

Casey hadn't realized that the often abrasive gambler had feelings for anyone but himself. But now, it seemed like he genuinely hurt for her. For JD. He was grieving . . . She couldn't know he was grieving for the years he'd lost - years he could have shared with people. He missed out on so much because instead of treasuring the people around him, he had swindled them. But all that was different for him now. And even this young provincial girl could see that he was suffering.

"It's like 'Lonesome Valley,'" she said.

"Hm?"

"That hymn, 'Lonesome Valley.'" She recited softly. "'I must walk this lonesome valley. I have to walk it by myself. Oh, nobody else can walk it for me. I have to walk it by myself.'"

Ezra squeezed her hand gently. "But it helps to know there's somebody waiting on the other side."


Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner made quick work of their leg of the search. There was no sign of the kid or the preacher, but, thank God, there was no sign of any struggle either.

"I should have seen it coming," Chris said as they headed north to meet up with the others.

"What?"

Chris was talking to himself as much as anything. "He's been planning this. He was getting his affairs in order."

Vin listened closely, trying to pace with him.

"Yea," Chris continued. "He's been giving things to people. And paying off debts."

"Damn!" Vin muttered.

Chris turned and looked at him sharply.

Vin didn't look at him. "Ezra said he was wanting to make a will. He didn't take it seriously. Thought he was just reacting to having had such a close call. Oh, man."

Chris didn't answer but urged his horse on, the bounty hunter on his heels.


Footsteps . . . not far . . .

Nathan raised his hand to quiet Buck. They strained to hear. One man, heavy footsteps. Coming closer.

They drew their weapons, and Buck slid silently off his horse. He crept forward very slowly. But before he could overtake his quarry, he heard Nathan.

"Josiah?"

"Nathan?"

Buck holstered his weapon and ran toward the preacher.

"Where's JD?" Buck asked breathlessly.

Josiah looked so distraught. "I been looking for him. He was so upset this afternoon."

Buck listened to Josiah's account of the day's events, growing more fearful the whole time. This fear erupted into blistering anger. "Why the hell didn't you tell somebody? Couldn't you see he was hanging on by a thread?"

"I wanted to give him some space."

"SPACE?" Buck was fairly screaming at him now. "He left to blow his f***ing brains out, Josiah!"

Nathan jumped down. "Stop it, Buck! He didn't know that." Buck turned away, breathing in ragged gasps. Josiah stood there as though someone had hit him. He turned to Nathan, his jaw hanging open. His mouth started to form the words.

"What?" A silent question. As gently as possible, Nathan related the story of JD's letter. The preacher hung his head. "Jesus . . ." he breathed. Nathan put his hand on the big man's shoulder.

Buck deliberately walked to his horse and swung on. He turned red eyes to his friends. "I'm sorry, Josiah." The preacher nodded slowly.

Nathan stopped Buck's horse. "Where're you going?"

"Back to that gravesite. We can't stop looking."


He took a tentative step out from his hiding place and approached the grave as though it were an altar of some kind. The Colt was in his hand. There was something almost surreal about it. He was there - but he was watching himself, too.

The grave was real. The night was real. The stone that marked the place was real.

That simple stone marker.

All that was left of a boy's life.

JD had imagined this moment for a few weeks now. Standing at this grave. Making his peace.

Now that he was here, he was overwhelmed. He fell heavily to his knees.

"God . . ."

Was he praying?

He saw the boy with the blue eyes. The boy who'd said he was sorry.

JD could hear him - talking to him - telling him to live.

He could feel the slight arms that had held onto him. Where had they been? A cave? The arms that tried to help him.

He remembered . . . phrases . . .

. . . sir, don't you think he needs to rest?

Help. Someone was helping him. But he couldn't see him.

He's had enough

They'd hit that boy. Just for trying to help him.

I broke his ribs I think That voice . . . he remembered it so clearly. But he'd been sorry. He'd said so. He'd asked JD to forgive him. He'd asked God to forgive him.

Why couldn't he remember? Surely he told the boy it was ok. Surely he'd let him know that he forgave him.

Oh God, what if he hadn't?

JD didn't realize that he was crying. Trembling - crying - praying,

"God, I'm sorry. . . "

I'm sorry for what they done.

"It's ok. It wasn't your fault."

I didn't know . . .

"Wasn't your fault. It was my fault."

He remembered gunshots. Rolling. Off the backboard. Asleep. Awake.

Racking sobs. JD curled in on himself, rocking, gripping the gun more tightly.

That man - the one with the whip -

Had a shotgun now. Aimed at his heart.

"GOD . . . " JD squeezed his eyes closed.

But closed eyes couldn't block it out. The gray. The blur. The blast.

The body.

He remembered the eyes. The shocked blue eyes. Terrified at first. But then smiling before becoming glassy. The hint of a smile was on his lips. The soldier had seen him.

And JD absorbed the boy's eyes.

Eyes that became glassy.

Then became lifeless.

Still looking at him.

Looking at him now.

Why had the boy gotten in front of him? Why had his own men killed him? Why did he die? It wasn't right.

JD was shuddering now, panic rising. He was holding the boy. Holding him. Trying to will life back into him. He heard Buck scream. They'd shot Buck too.

Buck screaming.

Sweet Jesus, what was happening?

Live.Live.Live.Live.

Over and over he told the boy.

He was still holding the boy. But the boy wouldn't wake up.

Wake up, damn it!

Buck screaming. He needed to get to Buck. Buck was dying.

The boy was dead. In his arms. And it was his fault. If he had died, the boy would be alive.

God, change this. Take me. Bring him back.

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!" He screamed at God. Holding the boy.

Buck. Buck wasn't screaming anymore. Buck wasn't screaming. Buck.

Buck was dead.

Chris was dead.

Vin was dead.

Ezra was dead.

Josiah was dead.

Nathan was dead.

They'd all ridden away. With that kid. And he was left. Alone.

His fault. His fault. He couldn't stop Buck and Josiah from taking the boy hostage. The boy was a hostage because of him.

If they'd just left JD tied up back there, nobody else would have had to be hurt.

"God.God.God.God.God.God. . . ." JD mumbled. He looked at the colt in his hand. When had he chipped the handle? It was a good thing he left Buck the other one.

Buck was dead, though.

JD's breaths came too fast. He was so mixed up. He'd talked to Buck that morning.

No, do this.

Do this.

Make it right.

If you don't, you'll be alone. They've gone ahead.

No.

I'm going crazy. Lord, I'm going crazy.

He closed his eyes and the blue eyes were back. The blue eyes. Buck screaming. Ezra riding away.

It had to stop.

He didn't open his eyes. He didn't have to. He put the barrel of the colt in his mouth. Aware of the foreignness of the metal and dirt against his tongue. He closed his lips tightly, pressing his teeth against the rough barrel. His hand trembled, and he adjusted the position of the tip so that he could feel it against the roof of his mouth.

No mistakes now.

He opened his eyes for a split second and glanced at the grave. Then he closed them again.

Still the eyes.

And the screams.

His finger twitched on the trigger.

the eyes.

the trigger.

the scream.

God forgive me.

I'm coming, Buck.


He never thought anything could be worse than watching JD being hurt like he had. He would carry that image in his heart as long as he lived.

But nothing could compare to riding over the ridge and seeing that huddled body silhouetted against the night sky - quaking . . .

For a split-second Buck couldn't tell what was in the kid's mouth. Too short to be a beer bottle. Too wide to be a smoke.

Then he knew - in harsh relief against the moon, the barrel of a colt.

"GOD JD, NO!!" he cried, galloping toward him.

JD didn't respond.

But he didn't pull the trigger either.

He rocked, heaving dry sobs now.

Buck reached him in a minute, careful not to touch him. Not to scare him.

"JD, don't." Buck dropped to his knees in front of the boy. "Don't do this, kid." JD squeezed his eyes more tightly, and his hand shook more.

"JD, look at me." Buck kept the panic out of his voice, but not the urgency. "JD - open your eyes, son." The gunslinger slid closer. "Look at me." His voice was almost a whisper. "It's Buck." The boy tilted his head away slightly. Avoiding the voice.

"JD, open your eyes, g**damnit!"

The kid's eyes shot open, terrified. And Buck's voice grew gentle again. "Come on, kid. Put it down." He slid even closer - close enough to hold him. But he didn't touch him. "Whatever it is, we'll handle it. We will. I swear. But this ain't the way." JD was listening, tears rolling down his scarred face. But he kept the colt in his mouth.

"Please, son." Was Buck crying? Don't cry, Buck. "I've seen you die once. Please - I can't watch that again."

There was unspeakable pain in the boy's eyes as he slowly, shakily pulled the pistol out of his mouth. But he still held it, with an unsteady hand - pointed at his own heart. He looked at his friend, then looked beyond him to the grave.

"Give it to me, JD."

JD had travelled back to that nightmare world he had created from flashes of memories, and he spoke as though in a trance.

"My fault," JD said simply.

"JD, nothing is your fault."

"He's dead because of me."

"He's dead because the bad guys shot him, JD. It had nothing to do with you."

"It had everything to do with me!" JD cried, sobbing again and ignoring the danger he held in his hand. He was pleading with Buck to understand. "If I'd died, you wouldn't have taken him hostage."

"What?! He wasn't a hostage, JD."

"I see him, Buck. I see his eyes. Everytime I close mine."

Buck was watching for an opportunity to take the gun away.

"Give me the gun, JD." Buck realized that the boy was burning up. "Come on, you're sick. Let me take you back. Give me the gun."

"They shot you, Buck." Suddenly, the boy looked at him, a pathetic concern in his eyes. He looked at Buck's shirt and with his free hand, he put his hand on the big man's chest. Hadn't he been shot in the heart? JD was confused.

And Buck took his chance.

He took the weapon away from his friend and in the same move, pulled the kid to his chest in a tight embrace. JD had a raging fever, and Buck noticed that the boy was soaking wet, shivering, scared.

Buck was shivering, too, and once he had unloaded the colt, he tightened his hold on the boy, and spoke in his ear.

"Don't ever do that again. Promise me." He shook the boy slightly, "OK? You gotta promise me, JD."

JD didn't answer, but he nodded.

"This wasn't your fault. None of it. I can't believe you been carrying this around all this time." Buck put his hand on the kid's head. "Aw, Jesus, JD, you're burning up . . ." He took off his jacket and wrapped it around the shivering boy. "It's gonna be ok now."

"Shouldna stopped me. . ."

"JD . . ."

"He's dead because of me."

"No. He died standing up for what he believed was right. He admired you. And he was ashamed of what his people did to you."

"Why . . . did you take him hostage?"

Buck held his friend closer. "He was never a hostage, JD. He left the others willingly. He wanted to be free. It was his choice."

JD didn't answer right away, but Buck felt him relax slightly.

"He smiled at me. Right when he died . . . "

"He saved your life." Buck leaned back so he could look at JD. "And that saved his soul." JD's lips trembled again and new tears rolled down his cheeks. He lowered his head and leaned into his friend's chest. He was so tired.

Neither of them had noticed the arrival of their friends. Nathan handed the reins over to Vin and slid off his horse. His eyes met Buck's over the top of the boy's head.

"He is so sick," Buck said softly. With Nathan's help, he eased JD down to the soft ground. The boy's eyes fluttered and closed. Nathan slipped his fingers up to the young man's throat.

"He's passed out is all." Nathan looked up at Buck. "Let's get him home. We gotta get this fever down." But he paused and squinted at the gunslinger. "You all right, Buck?" Buck didn't even try to hide his tears. He couldn't answer, but he nodded. Easily he lifted the unconscious boy, cradling him in his arms. Josiah walked up wordlessly and touched the boy's head. He glanced up at Buck, a world of remorse in his eyes.

"It's all right, Josiah." Buck's voice was husky. "I'm sorry I . . ."

"No need for that." Josiah patted his friend's shoulder.

Josiah took JD from Buck while the gunslinger mounted his horse. He was alarmed at how thin the boy was.

"Vin," Nathan said. "Ride on ahead and get that sickroom ready." He looked at the others. "It's gonna be another long night."


The sun was extraordinary. Beautiful sky. Not too hot, not too humid. Perfect.

"What time is it?"

Ezra peered out from under his hat and slowly pulled his watch out of the pocket of his vest. "Well, Mr. Wilmington, you'll be happy to know that . . ." he peered more closely at the dial, "three minutes have passed since your last inquiry."

"Well where the hell is it?" Buck paced nervously. Ezra was too amused to be annoyed. He noticed Vin trotting over.

"Any sign of it?" he asked, squinting down the road.

"It's late." Buck was exasperated.

"It's not noon yet, Buck." Chris Larabee was not wearing his trademark black. He sauntered over to his friends and grinned. "You're like an expectant father."

"Well pardon me for having a bit of enthusiasm." He tried to sound irritated, but he couldn't.

"How's JD?" Chris asked.

"Fever's almost gone. He's bouncin' off the walls."

Chris smiled. "That's better."

Ezra sighed. "I am quite certain Miss Welles doesn't mind keeping him occupied." He frowned. "Surely she would not give our little 'secret' away."

"No," Vin piped up. "She likes a good scheme, I think."

"Well . . ." Ezra didn't get his next sentence out, because of the cloud of dust that appeared on the horizon.

Buck whooped as the stage thundered into town.


Nettie Welles pursed her lips in disgust as JD squirmed.

"You are not gonna get well if you don't build up your strength."

"I'm well!" JD caught himself raising his voice and then he softened. "I am grateful for all you've done for me . . ."

"BUT" Nettie and Casey said at once. JD's jaw dropped open. "Oh, come on. I'm not that bad."

Casey looked conspiratorily at her aunt. "You were well when you got sick."

"Huh?" JD scrinched his face up - then laughed. "Casey, that sounded like something I'd say."

"I just meant . . ."

"I know what you meant," JD said.

"Good to hear you laugh again, son." Nettie smiled then set the tray in his lap. "Now, eat!" she commanded.

"Yes ma'am."

Soup. And it really was good. JD finally had an appetite. It had been so long - he'd been so sick. And it felt good to feel

Normal.

The influenza had damn near killed him. And no one realized he was even sick, because he'd kept to himself. He had been to consumed with this irrational quilt to pay attention. His resistance had been so low. How could anyone have known that the influenza in Eagle Bend could have traveled back with the men?None of them had gotten sick. JD hadn't even been to Eagle Bend. Nathan had a theory about how it had happened. JD'd have to ask him about that.

Buck's head poked around the door. "Hey kid!" He was grinning. JD had to grin back.

"What?"

"Look what I got ya." Buck sauntered in, holding a hat out as though it were on a dinner tray or sonmething.

The boy's face lit up. "Wow!! You got me a new hat!" JD was especially excited that Buck got him a bowler hat. Buck hates his hat. JD reached out. But Buck withdrew his hand and looked shocked.

"This?" Buck said in mock indignation. "This ain't what I brought you. And this ain't your hat."

Buck stepped aside and let the legend come into the sick room.

"It's his."

Buck handed the hat to the lawman.

And JD Dunne was dumbfounded as he came face to face with Bat Masterson.

"Hello, young man," Mr. Masterson said, pulling up a chair. "I've got to say, you've had more adventures than I had had at your age."

JD was still trying to find words, and Buck got tickled. JD didn't see his friends walk in. He was overwhelmed to see his idol. And his eyes filled.

Buck smiled at his friends, and they all left the two in the sickroom, to talk for the rest of the afternoon.


Buck and Chris sat with Judge Travis in the cafe. "That was a great move Buck." Chris raised his glass to his friend.

"It was almost too late," Buck observed.

Chris shook his head. "That boy has a guardian angel.

"I'd say he has six," the judge commented. He took a long sip of his coffee. Then he peered up at the two.

"And he's gonna need you."

Chris nodded. "This ain't over. As long as Chiles is out there, the kid'll be a target."

"We'll get him," Buck said soberly.

"And then get the guy who was the brains behind him." The judge took his time finishing his coffee. Chris and Buck looked at each other. They hadn't wanted to consider that possibility.

The judge stood up and laid a few coins on the table.

"You're right Mr. Larabee. This is nowhere near over."

THE END


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