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.


Continued in Part Fourteen.


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