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.

Go back to Parts 1-14.

Penance
by The Desperado's Daughter

PART FOURTEEN: Sacrifices

Buck Wilmington was lonesome.

He hurt. And he was lonesome.

But it wasn't lonesomeness like he had known before. That melancholy sense that occasionally swept over him when he was temporarily without female companionship. No, this was more akin to grief. Profound sadness. And the laudanum didn't help.

His ankle throbbed.

And there was no doctor to help him.

And there was no doctor to help JD.

Poor kid. Buck watched him sleep. A death sleep. He was watching his friend - his brother - slip away. . . JD had known him . . . for a moment, but he had known him. He had recognized him.

And he had worried about him. JD's one truly lucid moment was spent worrying about Buck.

And Buck was losing him.

Now Vin was gone. What the hell was he thinking, going after Chiles by himself?

Buck smiled sadly, and, for the millionth time, brushed the hair out of JD's battered face. He knew exactly what Vin was thinking. And if he'd been able to get to his feet on his own, he'd have taken off after that bastard himself. Buck's prayers were becoming instinctive. Where else could he turn? He was powerless.

Protect him, Lord. Protect them all.


He was there. Land that belonged to a man he once belonged to. Land that he had been bound to. Beautiful land had it not been for the evil that lived there.

It was not beautiful to him.

It was not his home.

It was a place where Nathan Jackson was lost and a stranger was born. It had taken years to recover himself. And he was in danger of losing himself again.

He was beginning to lose hope of rescue as he retreated from his surroundings. He tried to hold on.

He tried to make himself think of the glory days of the Seven . . .

The Magnificent Seven . . .

But they weren't Seven any longer.

They never would be . . .

He was one man.

Alone.


Judge Orrin Travis urged his horse onward. There was no time to lose. They were losing daylight and if they didn't catch up by nightfall, they may not be able to assist the travelers.

The old man was tired. But he set a pace that challenged the youngest of his crew. They were all weary, but there was work to be done.

"Rider!"

Judge Travis looked at the sentry and followed his gaze to the horizon. A big man framed against the sunset . . .

Riding like a bat out of hell . . .

Then he disappeared over the western hill.

Another rider. Faster. On a horse he knew.

One of his posse's horses.

"After them!!" Travis commanded, and the group divided, half of them taking off in pursuit.

Dust flew as horses thundered across the plain to the rise of a hill. On the crest, the sentry could see that the man giving chase was gaining on his quarry.

But there was another factor in the chase.

The train smoking through the valley.

The man in front was riding furiously toward the caboose of the train.

And he was going to reach it.

The man in pursuit wanted to raise the rifle he was carrying . . .

But he was traveling too fast, and if he stopped, he'd be out of range.

And as he watched the big man desperately dive toward the back rail of the caboose,

And haul himself awkwardly over to the other side,

As he watched the terrified horse peel away from the mechanical ship,

He cried out, "NOOOO!"

Jacob Chiles lay on the back of the caboose, breathing heavily.

Safely getting away.

And Vin Tanner hung his head

And wept.


The trio was making excellent time. The clues were so clear that they could track even as they lost daylight. Someone was helping them.

Someone wearing the colors of the Confederacy.

With each indicator, their resolve grew. Ezra Standish had a plan.

And his companions marveled at the selflessness of it.

It had to work.


Nathan Jackson sat at the edge of the camp, eating the good meal the young soldier had brought him. This boy wasn't like the others. He didn't understand their mission. And he didn't relish taking this man back to a man he knew to be cruel.

But what could he do?

The sun hadn't quite dipped behind the trees. The boy sat near Nathan and ate his own meal. He was clearly troubled. The healer had to respond.

"You may feel better if you talk about it," Nathan's voice was low and warm.

The boy turned fearful eyes to the man who was eating his meal in shackles.

"I'm not supposed to talk to you." The boy's voice was little more than a whisper. Nathan respected the fear of a soldier who had seen another boy being whipped to death. He didn't speak to the kid again, but nodded his understanding. Tears filled the boy's eyes and he mouthed "thank you" to the captive.

Something in that exchange touched the healer.

And he felt strangely

Healed.

He could never lose himself again. He could not turn his back on the man he had become.

And even if they took away his liberty, they couldn't take away his soul.

He would always be free.

And he emancipated himself.


The man who had so gallantly pursued his quarry, only to see him escape, lay his head on his horse's neck. God, he was tired. And his head hurt. And . . .

He slid off of his horse to the ground, unconscious.

In a matter of seconds, five men had gathered around him. And Judge Travis caught up in moments. He pushed his men away from the fallen rider.

"Sweet Jesus," he muttered. He knew the clothes of the bounty hunter. And he remembered how the young man had been deemed too weak to travel with Larabee and the others. What the hell was he doing tearing across the sunset plain after one man? "Mr. Tanner?" he said more loudly. He felt for a pulse. It was strong. Well, that was one thing. But he didn't wake up at the judge's voice.

And, for a man with a head injury, that was dangerous.

What had happened to the others?

This couldn't be good.


"Requesting permission to approach the encampment . . ."

What a drawl! The voice of an aristocrat. A decidedly Southern aristocrat. Was it someone from the estate?

"You may approach." The general's voice boomed, his hand raised to calm the nervous young soldiers who had, by reflex drawn their weapons.

"We are unarmed." Ezra approached the general with his hands in the air. Chris Larabee and Josiah Sanchez followed on his heels, hands likewise in the air.

Nathan's eyes widened in shock - and relief.

"You boys got a death wish or something?" The big bearded general was intrigued.

"Actually, we came to discuss with you the possibility of a trade which would clearly stand you in good stead with the owner of this . . . fine . . . plantation."

"What could you possibly have to offer that would interest us? You don't think I have any interest in . . selling . . .Mr. Jackson back to you?"

Ezra's words were clipped and calculated. "I would not presume to make an offer on the life of my colleague. . ." The gambler nodded in respect to the healer who sat on the hard ground in shackles. "My friend."

Ezra took a step forward and didn't flinch at the sound of the click of guns at the ready. He faced the general and held his hands out, wrists together.

"I want to exchange my freedom for his."


Buck Wilmington was lonesome.

He hurt. And he was lonesome.

But it wasn't lonesomeness like he had known before. That melancholy sense that occasionally swept over him when he was temporarily without female companionship. No, this was more akin to grief. Profound sadness. And the laudanum didn't help.

His ankle throbbed.

And there was no doctor to help him.

And there was no doctor to help JD.

Poor kid. Buck watched him sleep. A death sleep. He was watching his friend - his brother - slip away. . . JD had known him . . . for a moment, but he had known him. He had recognized him.

And he had worried about him. JD's one truly lucid moment was spent worrying about Buck.

And Buck was losing him.

Now Vin was gone. What the hell was he thinking, going after Chiles by himself?

Buck smiled sadly, and, for the millionth time, brushed the hair out of JD's battered face. He knew exactly what Vin was thinking. And if he'd been able to get to his feet on his own, he'd have taken off after that bastard himself. Buck's prayers were becoming instinctive. Where else could he turn? He was powerless.

Protect him, Lord. Protect them all.


He was there. Land that belonged to a man he once belonged to. Land that he had been bound to. Beautiful land had it not been for the evil that lived there.

It was not beautiful to him.

It was not his home.

It was a place where Nathan Jackson was lost and a stranger was born. It had taken years to recover himself. And he was in danger of losing himself again.

He was beginning to lose hope of rescue as he retreated from his surroundings. He tried to hold on.

He tried to make himself think of the glory days of the Seven . . .

The Magnificent Seven . . .

But they weren't Seven any longer.

They never would be . . .

He was one man.

Alone.


Judge Orrin Travis urged his horse onward. There was no time to lose. They were losing daylight and if they didn't catch up by nightfall, they may not be able to assist the travelers.

The old man was tired. But he set a pace that challenged the youngest of his crew. They were all weary, but there was work to be done.

"Rider!"

Judge Travis looked at the sentry and followed his gaze to the horizon. A big man framed against the sunset . . .

Riding like a bat out of hell . . .

Then he disappeared over the western hill.

Another rider. Faster. On a horse he knew.

One of his posse's horses.

"After them!!" Travis commanded, and the group divided, half of them taking off in pursuit.

Dust flew as horses thundered across the plain to the rise of a hill. On the crest, the sentry could see that the man giving chase was gaining on his quarry.

But there was another factor in the chase.

The train smoking through the valley.

The man in front was riding furiously toward the caboose of the train.

And he was going to reach it.

The man in pursuit wanted to raise the rifle he was carrying . . .

But he was traveling too fast, and if he stopped, he'd be out of range.

And as he watched the big man desperately dive toward the back rail of the caboose,

And haul himself awkwardly over to the other side,

As he watched the terrified horse peel away from the mechanical ship,

He cried out, "NOOOO!"

Jacob Chiles lay on the back of the caboose, breathing heavily.

Safely getting away.

And Vin Tanner hung his head

And wept.


The trio was making excellent time. The clues were so clear that they could track even as they lost daylight. Someone was helping them.

Someone wearing the colors of the Confederacy.

With each indicator, their resolve grew. Ezra Standish had a plan.

And his companions marveled at the selflessness of it.

It had to work.


Nathan Jackson sat at the edge of the camp, eating the good meal the young soldier had brought him. This boy wasn't like the others. He didn't understand their mission. And he didn't relish taking this man back to a man he knew to be cruel.

But what could he do?

The sun hadn't quite dipped behind the trees. The boy sat near Nathan and ate his own meal. He was clearly troubled. The healer had to respond.

"You may feel better if you talk about it," Nathan's voice was low and warm.

The boy turned fearful eyes to the man who was eating his meal in shackles.

"I'm not supposed to talk to you." The boy's voice was little more than a whisper. Nathan respected the fear of a soldier who had seen another boy being whipped to death. He didn't speak to the kid again, but nodded his understanding. Tears filled the boy's eyes and he mouthed "thank you" to the captive.

Something in that exchange touched the healer.

And he felt strangely

Healed.

He could never lose himself again. He could not turn his back on the man he had become.

And even if they took away his liberty, they couldn't take away his soul.

He would always be free.

And he emancipated himself.


The man who had so gallantly pursued his quarry, only to see him escape, lay his head on his horse's neck. God, he was tired. And his head hurt. And . . .

He slid off of his horse to the ground, unconscious.

In a matter of seconds, five men had gathered around him. And Judge Travis caught up in moments. He pushed his men away from the fallen rider.

"Sweet Jesus," he muttered. He knew the clothes of the bounty hunter. And he remembered how the young man had been deemed too weak to travel with Larabee and the others. What the hell was he doing tearing across the sunset plain after one man? "Mr. Tanner?" he said more loudly. He felt for a pulse. It was strong. Well, that was one thing. But he didn't wake up at the judge's voice.

And, for a man with a head injury, that was dangerous.

What had happened to the others?

This couldn't be good.


"Requesting permission to approach the encampment . . ."

What a drawl! The voice of an aristocrat. A decidedly Southern aristocrat. Was it someone from the estate?

"You may approach." The general's voice boomed, his hand raised to calm the nervous young soldiers who had, by reflex drawn their weapons.

"We are unarmed." Ezra approached the general with his hands in the air. Chris Larabee and Josiah Sanchez followed on his heels, hands likewise in the air.

Nathan's eyes widened in shock - and relief.

"You boys got a death wish or something?" The big bearded general was intrigued.

"Actually, we came to discuss with you the possibility of a trade which would clearly stand you in good stead with the owner of this . . . fine . . . plantation."

"What could you possibly have to offer that would interest us? You don't think I have any interest in . . selling . . .Mr. Jackson back to you?"

Ezra's words were clipped and calculated. "I would not presume to make an offer on the life of my colleague. . ." The gambler nodded in respect to the healer who sat on the hard ground in shackles. "My friend."

Ezra took a step forward and didn't flinch at the sound of the click of guns at the ready. He faced the general and held his hands out, wrists together.

"I want to exchange my freedom for his."


PART FIFTEEN: Backtracking

Mary Travis hadn't noticed how dark it was becoming. Her eyes had been watching the road all afternoon, pausing only to nod to passersby and to absently sip from her glass of iced tea. Her heart was heavy and she felt ashamed that she was losing hope. She should believe in them - in her father-in-law, in the star-studded posse . . .

In the men who had protected them for the last year.

But they hadn't been able to protect each other.

Oh, God, what had happened? Her pretty blue eyes filled again, and her thoughts went back to . . .

Chris.

Chris, where are you?

God, help him. Let him be alive. Let him be ok.

Her hands clasped together desperately. Please, Lord, take care of him. Take care of them all.

A flicker of panic.

JD.

He wants to grow up so fast. Protect him. Please God . . . why was there so much blood in his room? Please let him be all right. A sob hitched in her throat.

And if he isn't, please . . .

Don't let him be alone.


The little camp was reeling from the assault. The lawmen were doing what they could to tend to the injured. Tough without the doctor. And they were rounding up the prisoners who had scrambled to take cover.

One of the young posse riders wandered over to where the doctor lay lifeless. He squatted beside the body and bit back the surge of emotion that threatened to erupt. Slowly, as if in a dream, he hooked his strong arms under the doctor's and dragged him away from the boy he'd been trying to help.

And he pulled off his shirt and lay it across the doctor's face - a face still frozen with the shock that had accompanied his death.

The young man sniffed and turned to the boy lying face-down in the same place they had lain him when they had stopped here for water. He didn't want to check on him. He didn't think he could handle finding another dead body.

But if the boy was alive, he would surely get cold during the night. The young man found the tattered blanket that had been long discarded in the heat of the late afternoon. He brushed the dust and tiny pebbles off of it, then shook it open like he had seen his mother do when he was a boy. The material caught the night air and floated down as light as a feather until it came to rest on the bandaged back of the black-haired kid.

The kid never moved.

Next to him lay the big moustached gunslinger. Didn't somebody say they were brothers? Even in the middle of the melee, the big man never left the boy's side.

Thank God he had finally fallen asleep. He had to be exhausted. Two battles in one day. A shot in the ankle.

He was sleeping heavily. The young man reacheed up and put his hand on the man's forehead. Good . . . he wasn't particularly feverish. There was no sign of infection. Well, the doctor had been able to treat the wound promptly.

The boy hadn't gotten immediate medical attention. He had been hurt so badly - but had to wait a day and a half before getting help from a doctor.

The young man's eyes drifted back to the doctor. His friend. His mentor. It seemed so unreal, and he couldn't get to his grief because his disbelief was overwhelming his thoughts.

He should check on the boy. But he couldn't. He just couldn't.

He stood up and went to his knapsack. He had a bedroll. Maybe he could do something to help make the gunslinger more comfortable. Why didn't he just go help the others? This was too sad.

But something compelled him. The doctor had instilled something in him that wouldn't let him leave them unattended. So, he made his way back to where the big man slept and covered him with his own blanket. He slipped a rolled up shirt under the man's head.

A groan. The gunslinger didn't wake up, but shifted his weight slightly.

It was then that the young man saw that the man had clasped the boy's hand in his strong hand.

And had fallen asleep that way.

He couldn't stay awake, but he couldn't let the boy wake up alone.


A light hand touched her shoulder, and she turned quickly, startled.

Casey Welles' anxious eyes looked into Mary's tear-filled ones. "I didn't mean to scare you, Mrs. Travis," she said quickly.

"It's all right." Mary's voice was so raspy.

"I was just thinkin' that, well, maybe you should come in. It's mighty dark, and it ain't really safe for a lady out by herself."

Mary didn't answer right away, but she reached up and squeezed the girl's hand. Casey had been a source of strength for her. For four days - that seemed like forever - they had maintained a vigil together, watching the horizon, praying, and trying to restore hope in the little town.

But Mary felt that she was failing the town. Her own hope was dwindling. How could she help them hold on when she was letting go?

Another sob. Casey knelt in front of her chair and took Mary's hands in hers, her own eyes stinging.

"It'll be all right." Casey nodded as the tears rolled down her face. "They'll be all right." Her lip quivered. "They have to be."

Casey suddenly felt very weak. Great! She had wanted to help Mrs. Travis, and here she was breaking down like a big baby. She ducked her head, embarrassed.

But Mary reached down and placed her soft hands on either side of the young girl's face, turning it toward her.

"It's ok to cry, sweetheart." Mary had comforted Billy many nights with that mothervoice.

She kissed Casey on the forehead - and suddenly Casey missed her mama very much.

Casey began to sob, and the two hugged each other - friends who had lost so much and were now losing so much more.

When their tears subsided, Casey confessed a fear that had been gnawing at her.

"JD . . ." she said. "I have an awful feeling. . ."

"No, shhh. . ." Mary leaned her cheek on the girl's head. She dared not make eye contact for fear that Casey would see the same dread there. Mary had felt great fear for the boy, but couldn't explain it.

"They won't let anything happen to him," Mary tried to assure her. If they could help him. Oh God . . .


Vin Tanner lay still. Judge Travis gently patted the sharpshooter's face.

His eyelids fluttered and he woke with a start. He balled his hand into a fist, but didn't have the strength to take a swing.

"Easy . . ." a voice said. A voice he knew.

As his eyes focussed, he recognized the judge. He put his hand to his pounding head.

And he remembered . . .

"Chiles . . ." he murmured, squeezing his eyes closed tightly.

Travis' eyes narrowed, and an oath slipped past his lips.

"A bunch of 'em ambushed us." Vin's breath became a bit shallow. "Lost some of your men . . . the doctor."

One of the men in the group gasped.

Vin continued. "We have more prisoners, but a few . . . got away." He grit his teeth. "Jacob Chiles." He clenched his fists tighter. "How could I let him. . ."

"Don't!" Travis' voice was stern. "You've done everything you could."

Wait! It dawned on him. Vin pulled himself up and leaned on his elbow.

"Why are you here? Where's Chris?"

"We saw that Chiles was backtracking. We hoped to intercept him." Travis swallowed. "But we were too late."

"But Chris? Josiah? Ez-"

"They've gone on to find Mr. Jackson." The judge interrupted.

"Not by themselves. . ." The sharpshooter felt a cold fear in the pit of his stomach.

"Their choice."

"Sweet Jesus. . ."


Ezra Standish spoke in his practiced voice - his negotiation tones. "I am proposing a fair trade." He ceremoniously rolled up his sleeves.

Nathan looked up - his beautiful eyes incredulous. He opened his mouth - but what could he say? These men had put their lives on the line for him before . . .

But this --

A friend sacrificing his freedom for him. He'd never experienced that before.

The man in charge chuckled. "Why the hell would I want to do that? Mr. Greeley wants his property returned to him. He may want to make . . . an example of him."

"But wouldn't he be happier --" Josiah stepped up. "--if he could double his investment?"

Ezra cut his eyes over to Josiah. He hadn't expected that.

"Or triple it," Chris said.

The commander looked confused. "You can't be serious." He laughed nervously. "He can't 'own' you."

"Why not?" Chris' lip curled slightly. He glanced at Nathan. "You say you can own him."

"You can't own a white man."

"You can't own Nathan Jackson either." Chris' words were clipped and the air was suddenly charged with hostility.

Ezra's easy voice soothed. "But since you clearly are governed by alternative legal strictures, we wish to appeal to Mr. Greeley's fiscal interests and compound the return on his initial investment."

"What the f*** did he just say?"

"Let Mr. Greeley decide." Josiah translated. "It may be financially valuable to consider this option."

"But he won't . . . own you."

Ezra smiled graciously. "Then let him accept our offer of service without pay - a reimbursement as it were for the loss incurred with Mr. Jackson's . . . " He chose the words carefully. "Change of circumstance."

A nervous man approached the Confederate leader. "If he hears about this and we DON'T let him decide . . ." The man didn't verbalize the consequence because he probably couldn't think one up.

"This is crazy," the leader said. Then he chuckled. "But hey, if you want to throw your lives away for a ni**"

Ezra's hand shot out and grabbed the gray uniform. "You will not refer to that gentleman with that word." Ezra's voice was venomous. His friends cringed as a rifle butt slammed into his stomach.

"Shackle them!!" the leader called.

And amid Nathan's protests, his three friends were put in chains.

It was odd. Ezra couldn't figure it out exactly. His abdomen ached, he was bound awkwardly, he was hungry

And he had a miserable itch.

But he'd never felt better in his life.

He liked being one of the good guys.


PART SIXTEEN: Choosing to Survive

The morning was ablaze with sun - but so much cooler. The heat wouldn't be oppressive today. It would be comfortable.

Comfortable. Vin Tanner hadn't been comfortable for a week. But it was different this morning. His body felt rested and his head didn't hurt. He lay - eyes closed - mind wandering. He almost felt good.

Where was he? Slowly he opened his eyes. He was outside. He turned his head slightly to the right. People were milling around, talking, shaving, eating off of tin plates.

"How are you, son?" Vin turned his head back the other way and saw Judge Travis silhouetted against the morning sun.

"OK. . ." The sharpshooter appeared to be disoriented. "Where are we?"

"We joined the rest of the posse - brought you here last night. You were exhausted, slept all the way."

Vin let that roll information roll around for a minute, then his eyes widened.

"JD?"

"He's holding on." Painfully the judge squatted down beside the bounty hunter. "He's getting much weaker, though." He paused a moment and his voice softened. "It doesn't look like he's gonna make it, son. His breathing is getting more difficult and he's got that high fever. The infection . . . he has no strength to fight it."

Vin was completely alert now, and he pulled himself up. "Let me ride on to Watertown and get a doctor to meet us in Four Corners."

"We've already sent someone." The judge put his hand on the young man's shoulder then stood up slowly.

"Judge?" Vin asked quickly. "What about the others?"

The judge nodded toward another part of the camp. "Your friend Mr. Wilmington is still sleeping. And we haven't heard anything from Mr. Larabee, yet."

Vin nodded his thanks and watched Travis walk away. He resisted the urge to go back to lie back down and return to the comfortable sleep he had enjoyed. He stood up and paused for the dizziness.

It didn't come.

He really was better. He walked across the camp, dreading what he would inevitably find.

Nobody was starstruck with the "famous" people who had been riding with them. They were up drinking out of tin cups just like the greenhorns were, and while the respect for them had only grown, they were just as human - maybe more so than the volunteers. Vin smiled sadly. JD would get such a kick out of the "legends" everywhere. He would be wide-eyed and excited.

But he lay still.

Vin saw him a few feet ahead of him.

A boy.

His friend.

The sharpshooter went over to him.

Buck was sleeping right beside the kid, and Vin felt a sense of . . . was it admiration? Sure, but he also was struck with the bonds these friends have made. Bonds he shared. In the course of the last year, these men who individually had been loners had become . . .

Family.

Brothers.

The events of the past week only served to underscore that metamorphosis. Vin ached for his friends, but for no one more than JD.

Vin reached up and touched the kid's throat. Oh, God, where was his pulse? He couldn't feel a pulse. No, he breathed, don't let him be dead. His own heart beat faster as he felt a surge of panic. He forced himself to close his eyes and concentrate.

There it was - faint, a bit irregular, but there. Vin nodded thanks to . . . God, he reckoned. He let his hand slide up into the boy's black hair and he pushed the long bangs out of his battered face.

His face looked so bad. The long gash where Chiles had cut him from cheek to jaw was covered with a bandage. Blood had soaked into the cloth a bit. Extending around the bandage, he could see that part of the bruise on his cheek was turning slightly yellow and he was swollen around his broken cheekbone. His eye had swollen shut.

The kid's breathing was wheezy and Vin remembered, heartsick, that he'd been beaten before he'd been whipped - with a rifle butt no less. He was bound to have busted ribs. He remembered that JD had been coughing blood before - - God, they were probably puncturing a lung or something.

-Oh, kid --

"I wish I . . . could have protected you from this." Vin's voice was very quiet. "I wish to God you weren't having to go through this, kid . . ."

His hand slid around to the back of the kid's neck, fingering the sweat-slick hair off of his skin. The fever-heat radiated from the boy. He needed to bring his fever down -- somebody had to . . .


It felt good to get the leg irons off. Nathan Jackson had had his first good night's sleep since the ordeal had started. His friends were watching his back.

Nathan was the only one of the seven who had been captive the entire time. And his friends insisted that he sleep - insisting that JD would be needing him . . .

JD. It had to be a miracle. How else could the kid have survived the atrocities he had suffered?

He prayed that the others were alive. But if Chiles had actually caught up with them. . .

Ezra Standish had slept well also. He had kept the first watch, Josiah the second. They had agreed that Chris Larabee needed sleep. Chris had fought the man who had beaten the kid. Fought with every bit of strength he had left. Then he turned around and headed back out to search for Nathan. He had to be exhausted.

Yet he was willing to be handcuffed and put in leg irons for the sake of a friend.

The power of friendship.

Ezra slept with an easy heart -- for the first time since he was a boy. He went to sleep last night . . . liking himself. He realized that he was indeed a changed man.

A better man.

And the others knew it. The others who had seen him as a cheat, a bigot and ultimately a coward could now count him among the brave and selfless. Chris Larabee could trust him - finally. And, even more important than that, he could trust himself. How strange, in the midst of this horrific experience, Ezra Standish was experiencing

Peace.

As the group made their way across a forgotten field, they could make out the homestead in the distance. Nathan felt bile rise in his throat, but he choked it back. Josiah nodded. He understood.

Chris was close enough to talk quietly to Nathan. "Never could have found you so easily if you hadn't left that trail."

Nathan looked puzzled. "I never left a trail. What kind of trail?"

"Bits of cloth, utensils, every few yards."

Nathan studied the young man who had stayed close to him throughout their journey, now walking ahead of them, and realized that the tail of his shirt had been ripped erratically. Nathan nodded toward him.

"He's been taking good care of me. I think he's helped me more than I realized." Nathan had been talking softly, but lowered his voice more. "If we get out of here, let's give him the chance to break out of this outfit."

Chris nodded his assent.

Their conversation was interrupted when a scout returned, thundering toward them on his palomino mount. "Sir," he called,winded, face red. "There's something really wrong at the house. Mr. Greeley . . . well . . . "

"Spit it out, son," the commander growled.

"Mr. Greeley doesn't want us to come up there. He doesn't want his man back."

"Nonsense. He was funning with you." The commander chuckled uneasily. "He was the one who had the general issue the order to round up his escaped slaves. He's the one who financed our pursuit." A frightening wildness flickered across the commander's face.

The young scout came closer to his superior. "I don't think he was kid-----"

WHACK! The back of the commander's hand connected with the boy's face, and the four captives felt another rush of rage. It was one thing to call a man out and another thing to assault a boy over whom one had authority. Chris bit his lip to keep from speaking out, realizing that provoking the commander may only serve to make things more difficult for the young man. Nathan noticed that the young soldier who had befriended him began to hang back, further away from his superior. He stayed close to Josiah. The boy had been afraid, and seeing the commander's swift anger, he decided to distance himself from the madman.

"Let's move, men!!" The command was issued, and the captives were forced to break into a little jog to keep up with the men on horseback.

As they approached the homestead, it became evident that something was very wrong. Something was frighteningly amiss. The group, the ragtag remnant of the mighty Confederacy, halted a few yards away. The sight before them sickened them. Even Chris Larabee had to look away for a moment.

And they knew they would leave this place

Free men.


Mary Travis had resumed her vigil early in the morning. She had wired Eagle Bend for more help, so that one way or another, she would get answers. If help was coming, it would be on tomorrow's stage. At least she would be doing something. Not just sitting here.

Watching. Waiting.

Today, Casey had camped out with her. Miss Nettie had proclaimed her neice no help at all, so distracted was she with worry, and relegated her to watching the road with Mrs. Travis. Casey was grateful.

But as the sun began to set, she felt her hope waning. She glanced at Mary. The pretty lady was staring down the road as though in a trance. Eyes frozen, trying to hope, but dazed. Until . . .

Casey watched, alarmed, as Mary's eyes widened in shock. Horror? What? Casey followed her gaze to where the road bent out of sight.

There she saw a large group making its way toward them. Mary stood slowly, for a moment not realizing what she was seeing. But she sprang to life when she saw Casey blur past her, running toward the caravan in a dead run. Mary gathered her skirts, and followed her.

In the dusk, Mary could make out Judge Travis leading a horse with a body tied across its back. There were riders, and men whose wrists were tied behind them who walked haltingly.

Vin Tanner. Praise God. Riding further back. Riding beside a buckboard. Buck Wilmington riding on the other side.

She couldn't see Chris. Where was Chris? Mary's tired eyes brimmed with remembered tears.

Oh God. Surely that wasn't Chris' body tied to the horse. Mary froze in fear.

When Vin saw Casey, he rode toward her and swung off his horse beside her, blocking her way.

"JD?" she asked, angry tears in her eyes as she fought the sharpshooter to get past him. She knew the black haired figure lying so still on the buckboard. Vin held her arms firmly. "He's hurt . . . really bad." Casey couldn't stop a sob as she watched the buckboard drag by.

"Oh, God." Casey said her eyes following it. JD didn't even look like himself. What she could see of his face was dirty, bruised, and strangely misshapen. Vin hadn't anticipated having to explain to other people the horrors of the past six days.

"Listen to me," Vin said, as the group cut its way around them. "Listen - Casey!"

"Huh?" She still couldn't take her eyes off of JD.

Gently, Vin turned her face toward him. "He's . . . dying, Casey. He shouldn't have survived this long."

"No," she sobbed.

"But listen to me." She stared at the ground, but he lifted her chin again. "He has made it this far. He is . . ." Vin searched for the right word. "willing himself to hold on. He is choosing to survive. And every time we thought he was gone, he rallied." Vin put his gentle hands on either side of the face of the young girl he had grown to love like a sister. "He's fighting for his life. He hasn't given up. And I'm not giving up on him either." Casey's voice hitched in another sob.

Vin gathered her into a hug and held her as she cried softly. But he realized she was working hard to pull herself together. And in a moment she took a step back, sniffed and spoke.

"I'm never giving up on him." Casey spoke with an authority that belied her youth.

Vin smiled. "That's probably why he's fighting so hard." He swung his arm around the girl. "C'mon." And he led her back to Four Corners.


The homestead was but a skeleton. Only the big stone outer walls stood. There was nothing inside. Nothing. And there was no roof. Only ashes and dirt

And a man sitting in a rocker on what had once been a veranda. His face was drawn and he was clearly emaciated. His hair was long and wiry gray. And lined up down the ancient porch were bodies. Skeletons, more accurately, still in tattered clothes, arms folded in death. A woman. Two smaller skeletons. Eight or nine more . . . wearing the faded gray uniform of the South.

"Hello! The house!" the commander called. But Greeley never looked at him.

"Go!" came the answer.

"We brung you your property." The commander swung down from his horse and ran back to Nathan. He dragged him toward the man in the rocking chair. "Here he is, like you wanted."

The man stood and faced them. And they could see for the first time that half of the man's face was burned beyond recognition. The one eye that worked studied the commander for a long time. Then he exploded.

"IT'S F***ING OVER!!!!!" the old man screamed. "He's not a slave any more than you are." The man had no voice but the high squeal of a man who had inhaled so much smoke that he'd destroyed his vocal cords. "Don't you know, you worthless bastard. . ." He laughed, convulsing his entire body. "There're no slaves anymore. There's no cause. There's no Confederacy. There's no South." Greeley drew close to the commander. "We failed our families." A bony finger poked at the gray uniform. "YOU failed our families. It's over. It's over. Go home." He wandered around the perimeter of the little group. "You're living a g**damn lie!! Don't you see??" He waved his arms. "Go home to your families." He walked back over to Nathan. "You don't belong to me anymore, Boy." Nathan didn't flinch at the name that used to infuriate him. In fact, the only feeling that came to him now was compassion. Compassion and pity. He nodded to Nathan. "Go home," he said softly. Then he backed up and made his way to his place on the veranda. "Let them all go home."

The commander froze for a full minute. Then he took a few steps away from Nathan - toward the shell of the house. And with his back to his men, and his eyes on Greeley, he put his pistol in his mouth

And blew his brains out.


PART SEVENTEEN: Home and Family

Buck Wilmington nearly collapsed into the bed. Sheets, a blanket, soft pillows . . . He'd had a good hot meal, a strong dose of laudanum. His bandages had been changed and he'd had a bath. He should have felt better.

But nothing would be right as long as JD lay dying beside him.

Nettie Welles had helped Mary Travis bathe the boy who had been unconscious for two days now. They tended to most of his wounds, but were afraid to take the bandages off of his back. Oh, the bruises on his body - all over his body. What had they done to him? Why would anyone hurt him like that? What could anyone possibly gain by torturing a nineteen year old?

Gently they had washed his hair. It had gotten so long. Nettie had shaved his chin and his neck and the part of his face which wasn't cut.

His ashen face, so young, so hurt. . .

Mary felt a devastating sadness, but Nettie felt a blistering anger. Nettie had seen too many young lives needlessly and senselessly destroyed, in the War Between the States, in the journey westward, and now in the little town of Four Corners. And too often destroyed at the hands of the adults around them. Dear God, when would people learn? How many precious young lives would have to be lost before the atrocities would end?

She would be damned if they would lose this one.

Vin had insisted on carrying the kid when they took him to the bathhouse, and he had carried him back to the boarding house. Mary had cleared out the big room on the ground floor and the townspeople had brought beds from upstairs and linens from home. They had made the sickroom as comfortable as they could.

Once he was settled in the bed closest to Buck's, Nettie began to pull the first bandage off of the upper part of his back . . .

Her breath caught in her throat at the sight of the torn flesh and she quickly replaced the bandage. "Mary!" she called sharply. Mary appeared at the door, an armload of clean sheets almost blocking her face.

"Boil as many bandages as you can and bring them here. Also get any whiskey you can find. We need to tend to the boy's back."

Something about Nettie's swift, sure actions were comforting to Buck. He lay on his side and watched, his eyes growing heavier. Nettie was talking constantly to JD - about ordinary things - the weather, the progress on Josiah's church, what Casey had made for supper the night before. She even fussed at the boy in a familiar motherly way - chastising him for never remembering to bring her his suit jacket to be mended, and for neglecting a haircut until the bangs covered his eyes.

"You have wonderful eyes, young man," she said. "I can see your soul in those hazel eyes. But I can't see anything but scraggly black hair if you insist on avoiding the barber. I've got a good mind to give you a haircut myself."

Buck's eyes closed slowly as he listened to the comfortable maternal litany. And he fell asleep.


Judge Travis shook the hand of his colleagues as they set out with the prisoners. With fresh horses, a hot meal in their bellies and a few hours of good sleep, they would make it to Eagle Bend quickly.

Mary, on the other hand, hadn't slept at all. She had been preparing bandages for JD and the other wounded men. She was glad to be busy - at least she was doing something useful. But she still felt like she should be watching the road for the others, as though somehow her watching would bring them home.

Silly, she knew, and yet she stole a glance everytime she went outside.

Vin Tanner needed rest, but he felt compelled to help. And to stay alert for fear that trouble could make its way into Four Corners. After too many ambushes in the past week, Vin was convinced that anything could happen, and with the posse gone, they were vulnerable again.

He wanted to help JD, but the best Nettie would allow was lying in a bed on the opposite side of JD from Buck - Buck who was finally snoring in a deep sleep.

Vin lay on the mountain of pillows. Oh, his head had missed real pillows. He knew if he got too comfortable, he would sleep for a week. So he insisted on remaining fully dressed with his rifle at his side. And he watched as Nettie and Mary pulled the layers of bandages off of JD's back.

Sweet Jesus . . .

Vin squeezed his eyes closed and tried to clear his mind of the image. Mary became nauseated, but Nettie spoke harshly.

"Get a hold of yourself, Mary. There's no time for falling apart. This boy needs help. and we're the only ones here who can help."

Mary bit her lip and nodded. Nettie patted her arm, and went back to the task at hand. She was glad she had not allowed Casey to come in to the sickroom. Casey was stationed outside watching for the stage. It should bring the help Mary had requested, and maybe the doctor. They had sent someone after a doctor. Why hadn't a doctor come?

Well, there was no doctor, but there was a dying boy.

And Nettie Welles would save him.


Casey was angry.

Angry and scared.

And that made her even angrier.

JD needed her. He was dying and he needed her. Why wouldn't they let her stay with him? She wasn't a baby. They didn't need to protect her. She'd seen people die before - even people she loved.

But it was Vin who had insisted that she stay outside. Vin - who had always been her ally. Why would he turn against her at a time like this? Didn't he understand anything?

He understood all too well. He had seen the horrors of war, and Indian attacks, and range wars.

But he had never seen anything like what had been inflicted on JD. He'd seen grown men tortured, but not like this. And he would carry this horror with him for the rest of his life.

Casey didn't need to carry this graphic evidence of man's evil around with her forever. She had had enough heartache in her young life. Losing JD would be bad enough. Watching him die was unthinkable.

Casey frowned as she watched the road. This was stupid. Anybody could tell the doctor where the injured folks were. She pulled a whittling knife out of her pocket and, with a practiced hand, whipped it into the wooden plank of the porch. Seeing the knife wobbling, the point buried in the wood grain, she felt a sudden rush of tears.

Why did she have to make JD feel bad by showing off? Why did she have to be better at this than he was? She had humiliated him. More than once. And now he was never gonna know she was sorry.

She was so sorry.


He didn't know how long he'd been asleep, but Nettie's harsh words startled him awake.

". . . no time for falling apart . . ."

Had something happened? God, why couldn't he open his eyes?

"What's hap . . ." Buck couldn't finish his question.

But he finally forced his eyes open, and watched the women peel back the dirty, saturated bandages - bandages that a couple of days before had been carefully placed across the boy's back by a good man - a good doctor.

The horrible infection was everywhere. No wonder the kid was burning with fever. Nettie worked efficiently, but she wasn't sure what to do next. Once JD's back was exposed completely, she looked around the room at the dear faces around her - caring, frightened faces watching. . .

"I am going to pray. And if any of you are praying folk, I suggest that you do the same." Nettie wasn't praying as a last resort,

But as a first one. She reached down and held the boy's limp hand. Mary took his other hand. Nettie closed her eyes and prayed her private prayer aloud. As she asked the Lord for direction, for healing, for help, and as she thanked Him for bringing the boy back to Four Corners alive, Vin Tanner slid out of his bed, and touched his young friend's arm.

And he saw Buck, lip trembling, put his good foot on the ground. And he half knelt, half fell at the boy's bedside. As Nettie talked to God, he did too. And again, his big hand stroked the soft black hair, continually brushing the bangs back out of his eyes. The big man leaned his forehead against the white bedsheet, tired tears wetting the linen. Mary was touched by the depth of feeling these men had for the boy - a bond that had been forged in struggle and pain,

And a bond that would last for the rest of their lives.

"Amen . . . " Nettie said, in a matter-of-fact way. Prayer was as sensible to her as boiling cloths for bandages. Vin admired her faith and was comforted by it. It reminded him, as did so many things about Nettie, of the faith of his mother. And as he climbed back into bed, he had a strange sense that the tide was about to turn.


Casey studied each face that emerged from the stage,

But there was no doctor.

And there were no lawmen.

And this infuriated her. She approached the driver.

"Did you leave anybody behind?" she asked accusingly.

The driver looked at her like she was crazy. "Why would I leave anybody behind?"

"There was supposed to be a doctor. . ."

"I pick up anyone waiting for the stage with a ticket."

"But . . . did you leave anyone behind because they didn't have a ticket?" she challenged.

The man was getting frustrated. "Listen, kid, I don't keep track of people who DON'T get on board. Now why don't you run along. I've got work to do."

"But . . ."

Casey jerked as she felt a strong hand on her shoulder. Judge Travis guided the girl away from the stage.

"Come on, Miss Welles. There'll be another stage tomorrow at noon. Right now, I could use a good supper, and I bet you could too."

"But tomorrow could be too late." Her eyes flashed in fear.

The judge faced the young girl and placed both hands on her shoulders. "I don't know much about these sorts of things, but I believe that boy has a guardian angel. It is a . . . miracle . . . that he is alive. He has survived more than one death. I cannot account for it. But something is keeping him alive." The judge smiled slightly. "It may just be sheer pigheadedness."

Casey felt a giggle bubble out, while tears rolled down her cheeks. "Now that sounds like JD."

The dapper gentleman put his arm around the girl, and, after stopping at the boarding house to report on the stage, the two went to the cafe for supper.


Buck stayed on the floor beside JD's bed, talking to him and stroking his hair. The women cleaned the wounds as best they could, and swabbed it with whiskey-soaked cloths. The boy never reacted to the painful treatment - and still his fever raged. Vin had finally fallen asleep, and Buck was glad. He needed it.

The ladies finished dressing JD's wounds, and Nettie patted Buck's shoulder.

"You need to get back in the bed," Nettie said.

"Give me a minute," Buck's voice was tight. Nettie smiled. "Just a minute. . ." Nettie guided Mary out of the sickroom, leaving Buck to talk to the boy for a little longer.

"OK, kid, you need to come back to us, you understand? We're home now. Nobody's gonna hurt you anymore. I'm right here, and I ain't goin' anywhere. Vin's here and Miss Mary, and that little Casey - she's worried to death about you."

Buck hadn't meant to cry - but he did. He folded his hands in his lap and leaned his head on the kid's bed. "Oh, God - JD. please. Please. I know you're hearing me. I know you are. . . For God's sake, wake up." He chanced a look at his friend's face, but his eyes were still closed.

"God . . ." Buck pleaded, and he ducked his head,

And sobbed.

He prayed like he had on the rock formation, like he had with his mother, and he prayed like he had never prayed. He no longer had words . . .

And he didn't need them.

Somebody had to hear him.

Somebody had to.


Mary was exhausted. She pushed the blonde hair back out of her eyes and kept her lips tightly closed. If she opened her mouth, she would surely scream . . . and never stop.

Her emotion boiled inside. Anger, fear, horror. She had never seen anything like this.

And she could only wonder what was happening to Chris. Or what had happened to him. How could he have escaped these horrors? Why weren't they back yet? Why weren't they home?

Nettie walked with her across the street, but Mary didn't go into the cafe with her. She tried to excuse herself, but no words would come. She was hanging by a thread. She was shaking, and turned to go to Josiah's church. Nettie watched her uncertain steps, and she went into the cafe.

"Casey," she said gently.

The girl bolted from the chair and asked breathlessly, "How is he?"

Nettie stroked her niece's hair. "No change, dear. But I have a job for you." She lowered her voice. "Mrs. Travis needs help. And I think you're the best person for her right now. She's going to the church. You must go to her." She reached for her hand. "Be strong, Casey."

The girl nodded and hurried out.


Mary entered the half constructed church, and looked around. Everywhere were reminders of the seven peacekeepers. She could see Josiah working in the rafters, and Nathan sanding the pews. Buck pulling his hat off and wiping the sweat off his brow with his shirtsleeve.

And JD mimicking the action.

Ezra leaning against the support beam, "supervising."

And Chris, working without speaking, intensely focused on the job at hand - hammering, sanding, lifting, aligning. . .

"God . . ." Mary began. Then her fury erupted.

"WHY DID YOU LET THIS HAPPEN???" She screamed. "Why? These are good men. And JD is just a boy. Why, God . . . Hasn't he been through enough?" She paced the unfinished aisle. "Haven't they all been through enough?"

She paused at the rough-hewn cross. "Chris as suffered so much. Why can't he have some peace? Please . . . " She sank to her knees. "Oh God, where is he? Please . . . let him be ok . . . let him be ok . . . please . . . please . . ."

She screamed and sobbed . . .


Nettie hoped that Buck had gone back to bed. But she would check on him to be sure. Judge Travis had finished his supper, but he sat at the table, waiting for Nettie's dinner to be brought.

He was suddenly painfully aware that he wasn't thirty anymore. This trip had worn him out. It had been physically exhausting, but it was the emotional strain that had drained him most. He wished he could sleep for three days straight.

But he wouldn't. He'd sleep tonight and then tomorrow, when the reinforcements arrived, he'd take his new posse and head out after Larabee and the others. Oh, he was getting too old for this.

"Whiskey!" he called. It was gonna be a long week.


Casey paused outside the church. Mary's cries scared her. What should she do? Why did her aunt send her?

The young lady bit her lip, tentatively, then, taking a deep breath, she walked in.

"Oh, Mrs. Travis . . ." she whispered. Her friend was kneeling on the dusty floor - skirts billowing around her - her face turned to heaven. Casey thought for a moment that she looked like an angel, or maybe like Jesus' mother might have looked when she cried over her son.

The spent tears still glistened on Mary's face. "Please God. . ." she was praying. "You've got to help us. You've got to hear us." Her voice grew weaker with each phrase, hoarse and tired. "Please . . ."

As naturally as if comforting a child, Casey knelt beside Mary, and put her arms around her, drawing her close. The last person to hold Mary while she cried

Had been Chris.

Mary let herself collapse in the young girl's arms. And as Casey rocked her gently and spoke words of comfort to her, Casey realized why her aunt had sent her to help Mary . . .

Because helping Mary was the only way to truly help herself. . .


Nettie paused in the doorway of the sickroom - but, she didn't go in. Her mouth opened slightly, but no words would come . . .

Buck Wilmington was sitting on the floor at JD's bedside, sobbing softly, his head hanging.

And slowly, weakly, shakily

A boy's hand slid out from under the sheet

And dropped onto the big man's shoulder.

Resting there while he wept.

Then reaching, with great effort, to stroke his hair . . .

It couldn't be . . , Buck thought. Oh, God . . .

Ever so slowly, Buck lifted his head and found himself looking into JD's eyes . . . his open, clear and very concerned eyes.

Buck reached up and caught JD's hand - and held it in both of his. His face broke into a relieved smile, while tears still streamed down his cheeks.

"Hey, kid . . ." Buck's voice was rough.

JD started to open his mouth, then squeezed his eyes in pain. It hurt to move. He gasped.

"Easy . . ." Buck breathed, and he pulled himself up. He reached up and put his hand on JD's forehead. It was still hot.

JD opened his eyes again.

And he was scared. . . but he couldn't tell Buck why . . .

His lip quivered, and his wide eyes filled. And he looked so young.

Buck could see the fear change to terror - suddenly

And he knew JD was remembering.

"You're home, son." Buck spoke with certainty. "You're alive. And I'm alive. And we're gonna make it." His eyebrow raised slightly. "They can't hurt you anymore."

JD was listening, but his eyes still searched Buck's for . . .

A reason?

Buck couldn't give him that. How could he explain abject evil to a boy who didn't have a mean bone in his body?

"JD . . . I am . . . so sorry they hurt you. God, I'm sorry." Buck leaned closer. "I wish I could make it go away, but I can't." JD closed his eyes and big tears rolled down the bandaged cheek. "I can't. . . But I promise you, son, I'll be right here, right with you. Whatever it takes to get you well." Buck smiled, a little sadly. "You're gonna be just fine." His voice cracked with emotion, and he spoke more softly. "You gotta be, kid. I need you. You're my family."

JD looked up. And he tried one more time to speak. He couldn't move his mouth much, but he tried nevertheless.

"You . . ." The effort was exhausting. "Hurt."

"A scratch, kid. It's nothing."

"No . . . I saw . . . him . . ." A sudden cough racked his body.

"JD . . ."

Nettie Welles was at the boy's side in an instant.

"Now, settle down, young man." She lay a cold cloth across his neck. JD pulled his hand away from Buck and tried to lift himself off of his ribs.

"Can't breathe," he said all at once, coughing again. "Oh, God. . ."

"Calm down, JD." Nettie spoke sternly. "And don't try to breathe so deeply."

But the movement had hurt him, and his breath caught in his throat.

"Buck . . ." he cried out. "God, it hurts . . ."

Buck found his hand again and squeezed it. "Send the pain to me, kid. I can handle it." JD's eyes met his, and he couldn't help but cry in front of him.

But Buck felt him tighten his grip on his hand. "That's it, kid. Ride it out. You can do it." JD was struggling, but he finally started to relax. "That's right. There you go." The boy was winded with the effort. And he lay very still again.

Buck was alarmed for a moment. But Nettie patted his arm. "He's all right. Let him settle back. And you. . ." She helped him stand up. "Back to bed."

They shared a relieved smile. "I'll get him some laudanum," she said.

"And water!" Buck added quickly. "He hasn't had water in a couple of days at least."

Nettie nodded. "We'll take the best care of him." She started out, then turned back. "He's gonna make it," she said softly.

Buck sighed and smiled. "Thank you, Miss Nettie."

His eye trailed back to JD who was sleeping again.

And he realized that Vin was awake - taking in everything, and, in a way, watching over them. Buck nodded at him and he smiled.

Words couldn't have said as much.


PART EIGHTEEN: The Recall

Vin Tanner adjusted his hat, then stood in the doorway waiting as he reconsidered the benefits of wearing a hat on his still-tender head. But the sun was glaring. He decided he could stand the hat more than the blinding light.

He had declared himself well enough to stay out of the sickbed. He was going absolutely stir crazy. He needed to be doing something. Besides, he figured, the town needed him to keep an eye on things.

The town. He stepped into the street. Four Corners. His town.

Their town.

And with half of his family still unaccounted for, it was a decidedly empty town.

He sighed and scanned the street with a practiced eye. Things looked normal enough. Well, too quiet, but there seemed to be no impending danger. He started over to the cafe, when he saw a swirl of blue skirts in his periphery. Casey Welles. Running off. Vin took a quick step in her direction and called her. She kept running. He'd have run after her if he could have, but he had no strength left.

A familiar hand took his arm. "She'll be all right." It was Miss Nettie. "We just have to let her be for a while."

"Did she see him?"

"Not up close." Nettie looked straight ahead. "He didn't want her to." For a moment she sounded apologetic. "And . . . I didn't want her to either." She looked at Vin intently. "I've seen a lot in my life. I've seen war and I've seen people die. But I've never . . ." Sudden tears rushed the old woman's eyes. "I've never seen anything like what has been done to that boy."

Nettie Welles drew herself up quickly and the tears left as suddenly as as they had arrived. "I can't think of how to explain this kind of violence to Casey."

They sat down together on a bench in front of the cafe. Nettie continued. "And what's worse -- what will be harder to explain --" She paused a moment. "Is how much . . . hate . . . I feel for the ones who did this. I want you boys to go out and kill every last one of them."

"That's understandable, Ma'am," Vin said. "And I aim to bring 'em to justice."

"Justice is one thing, son. But hate . . .that's something else entirely. Hate doesn't accomplish anything. It only hurts the one doing the hating."

Vin thought about this. An easy breeze drifted through. Nettie turned her face toward it.

"It isn't so much that she couldn't stomach seeing the extent of the boy's injuries. Not that it isn't a horrible thing to behold." The image intruded, and she paused. "If some horrible accident had happened, I could at least explain it. But, as taken as she is with him, I'm afraid she may never get over knowing how someone deliberately hurt him."

"I don't think any of us will."

Nettie looked at the wooden slats that comprised the porch. "I see a frightening hate in Mr. Wilmington's eyes."

"I think you'll see some in all our eyes. You can't witness something like that and let it go." Vin paused as the memory was suddenly and vividly resurrected. He hadn't talked about it since the day it happened. Nettie waited. They sat in silence for several long minutes.

"I was really . . . sick -- the heat -- my head -- I kept fading in and out. We were all lined up on the side of the road at this little army settlement. God, we hadn't all seen each other til then. Buck and Chris and I had been held in the same place, but we hadn't seen the others since . . . well, since we were captured."

Vin was lost in the recollection, Nettie's firm grip on his arm his only contact with the present. The woman who had become like a mother to him listened without comment, understanding that the bounty hunter needed to unload some of this burden.

"They'd brought Josiah and Ezra out. I don't remember much . . . Nobody knew for sure about Nathan and JD. Then, I saw this big . . . muscle man. And he pulled his shirt off . . . and I saw . . . that . . . whip. And I thought . . . they would make an example out of Chris." Vin shook his head. "Then, I heard that some guy had died - Nathan couldn't save him, and I figured they were gonna whip him." Vin's jaw tightened. "Then Chiles came out . . . and he walked over . . and he told Chris. . . that 'somebody didn't cooperate.'" The blistering anger was barely held in check, and Nettie felt the young man's arm flex as he spoke. "He said . . . 'you need to teach the boy better' . . . and we knew. We knew. Chiles was gonna get back at us . . . by hurting the kid. . . God, he's just a kid." Vin waited a long moment. "Chiles had pressed him for information about us, but he wouldn't talk. He knew they'd probably kill him for it, but he wouldn't talk. Chiles went across the street and got him. And some guy brought Nathan over." The voice quivered. "JD was limping. They'd already hurt him. Buck said they'd beaten him when they captured him . . . and Chris said he took a rifle butt in the face for yelling a warning to him." More quietly. "The kid looked so . . . dazed. And scared. Chiles kept pushing him." The mighty bounty hunter's eyes filled. "JD was tied up. He couldn't have gone anywhere. . .But the bastard kept pushing him. We couldn't do anything. We couldn't help him. . . JD . . .couldn't even stand up straight, and Ezra said that some kid soldier had hit him that morning and broken his ribs. Chiles dragged him right up into Chris' face . . . And put a knife to his throat." The words came harder now. "Buck said something . . . pissed him off, and so Chiles . . . cut the kid . . . across the face." A slight sob rose unchecked in Vin's throat. "They . . . tied his arms . . . over his head . . . to a wagon they'd . . . turned on its end." Vin struggled to catch his breath, his voice little more than a whisper. "Chiles . . . ripped . . . the back of his shirt . . . and they . . . whipped . . ."

He couldn't speak a moment. His shoulders shook. Nettie drew him to her, gently removing his hat, and holding his head against her heart, rocking a slight rhythm. He wasn't sobbing, but he was trembling. He held onto the dear woman's arm until his breathing settled.

It wasn't awkward. No, it felt as right as rain, letting Nettie hold him like his mama had. He pulled himself up and looked at her with sad eyes.

"They kept hitting him . . . and hitting him . . . and he tried so hard not to scream . . . but finally . . . he couldn't help it . . . and after a while . . . his body just . . . couldn't . . . Nathan said he was dead . . . and they still hit him. . . God . . ."

Vin looked at his feet. "Why did they have to hurt him? Why not one of us?"

"Because," Nettie observed, "by hurting him, they did hurt all of you."

Vin looked into her wise eyes. "And I let that son of a bitch get away . . ."

"No, son." The old woman brought her hand up and touched his face. "You and Mr. Wilmington saved the boy's life. That's all that really matters."

Vin tried to smile, and he nodded his thanks to her. He started to speak, but thought better of it and stood up. She handed him his hat, and he gingerly put it back on his head.

Then he tipped his hat to her, and walked away.

Nettie Welles sat and thought about what she'd heard,

Knowing she'd eased young Mr. Tanner's burden

But carrying a new burden of her own.


The noon sun gave way to a mass of gray clouds. Judge Travis was frustrated for a second time that day. First he had met the morning stage, only to find that there were no men aboard to help him. And there was no doctor. Now he was going to have to deal with rain. Rain that muddied tracks. He frowned at the sky, wondering why he couldn't catch a break. He would have to leave hours before he planned if he wanted to beat the storm. But if he left before the afternoon stage, he might miss the very help he needed.

And he was worried about Mary. He hated leaving her. Oh, she was a strong woman. He knew that. But somehow this was overwhelming her. And he was about to take off again, and add to her worries.

He squinted at the sun, which was being edged out of the sky.

Damn. Lousy timing. The afternoon stage wouldn't arrive for another two hours.

So he was on his own.


"Buck . . ." The voice was weak.

Pained.

Buck opened his eyes and almost fell out of bed, he jumped so suddenly.

"Yea, kid."

JD looked lost. Lost and scared. His eyes searched his friend's for . . . reassurance?

"Are you hurtin'?"

The boy didn't answer.

"JD?"

Why couldn't he move?

What had Buck asked him?

"Huh?" Why did he feel foggy?

"How do you feel?" Buck asked again.

JD had to think about that one for a while. He couldn't move. He closed his eyes again and tried to think. Buck watched him, not pressing him to talk.

"Where are we?"

"We're home, kid."

JD's eyes fluttered open again. He hadn't considered that possibility. "Oh."

He watched Buck with an easy familiar eye contact. To Buck, he looked like a sleepy child - black, too-long bangs hanging in his face. He probably looked even younger since only the side of his face was showing.

Those hazel eyes that had been so full of enthusiasm. Eyes that had trusted him.

Now were empty. Not even sad, really. Just empty.

And bewildered.

But then his eyes clouded. He remembered . . .

Buck - screaming -

Shot? Had he been shot?

"You're all right, son." Buck kept his voice low and soothing. "Settle down." The kid was getting agitated.

"Are you all right?" JD asked, breathlessly.

"Sure, kid." Buck leaned forward, trying to get the boy's attention. "Look at me."

JD squeezed his eyes closed, breathlessly. "No, you were . . . shot."

"I got a flesh wound is all. Nicked my ankle. Didn't hit a bone or anything." Buck had to raise his voice. "JD - look at me."

He waited as JD turned scared eyes back to his friend. Buck's broad smile comforted him momentarily. The gunslicker pulled the blanket away from his leg to show him his bandaged ankle. "See? It's ok. But I'm gonna have to be laid up a while, so if you don't mind some company . . ."

JD nodded, a bit absently. He paused a moment. It took so long for a thought to form in his clouded mind. But he could remember, vaguely . . . "Vin?"

"He's doing so good he's out and about today."

"Good." JD seemed to doze a minute. Buck watched him closely. He wished he could spare him the remembering.

Gradually, the boy's brows furrowed and Buck couldn't tell if he was dreaming or in pain.

Suddenly, the boy gasped and his eyes shot open.

"What, kid?"

"Chris?!!"

The question blindsided Buck. And he was about to answer when he realized that JD was trying to pull himself up.

JD's eyes reflected the horrific pain. His breath came in difficult gasps.

"My . . . side . . . hurts . . ."

He suddenly looked terrified, as the nerves throughout his body came alive.

"Just breathe easy, JD. You got a busted rib or two. You'll be ok."

JD struggled to get into a position that didn't make him feel like he was being stabbed in the side. But no sooner did the pain ease than he began to feel the sick burning in his back. He clenched his teeth. Maybe he could ride out the pain.

But he realized that something else was bothering him, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it.

Oh yea. Where was Chris? Hadn't he asked Buck about it?

Buck must be hiding something from him.

"Where's Chris?" JD breathed.

"You know Chris. He's fine."

"Oh God, Buck. What?" JD was becoming more agitated. "Is he dead? He's dead, isn't he?"

"Now simmer down, son. He ain't dead. He and Josiah and Ezra went to fetch Nathan is all. They'll be back any time now. Hell, they'll probably be here by this afternoon."

JD didn't look convinced. His eyes grew wide. And he looked away. Far away. Like he was trying to remember something.

Or trying not to.

But he was remembering.

Buck screaming.

Ezra riding away.

That soldier - the blonde-headed one. That soldier had hit him.

Chris being dragged away.

And walking.

Walking forever.

Blindfolded. He'd been blindfolded, hadn't he"

Chris and Josiah and Buck and Ezra. Standing there in the sun. Waiting.

And Vin was sitting. Vin was hurt. He looked . . . sick.

Nathan saying it would kill him.

Buck . . . He was looking at Buck

And he felt the intense shock before he felt the pain. The cold blade had cut him. His face.

What were they gonna do to him? Why were they tying him up?

His shirt . . .

Oh, sweet Jesus . . .

A tear rolled down his cheek.

"What is it, son?" Buck's gentle voice belied his alarm. "Come on, JD. Come back, now. . ."

But the boy turned his bandaged face into his pillow and drew his hand up to cover his eyes.

And Buck recognized the light tremor in the boy's shoulders.

He was sobbing . . . silently.

Buck started to get up to go to him, but a muffled voice stopped him.

"Don't . . . " JD's voice was soft but emphatic. And he seemed almost to curl into himself. "Please . . ."

When he looked back on this moment, Buck would see this as the beginning of JD's withdrawal from him.

From everyone.


For the third time that day Judge Travis was perturbed. The stage brought no help for him. The rainclouds had obliterated any evidence of the sun. And now an injured sharpshooter was saddling up to ride out with him.

The Judge was working out a logical, persuasive argument against Vin Tanner's accompanying him, but his thoughts were jolted back to Four Corners when he heard the sound of people running down the street.

Vin was already clutching his carbine, running to the doorway, careful not to step out into some kind of ambush. The judge followed closely on his heels.

Vin peered around the corner.

And saw the four weary, dusty travellers --

His brothers --

Who had come home.

Safe.

At last.


PART NINETEEN: All in the Same Room Again

He was dead.

That was it.

They'd all died.

What other explanation was there?

They'd all died and gone to Heaven.

Or Hell.

That was the only explanation. Why else would Chris Larabee be standing next to him with Ezra and Josiah?

But, why would he have died? He only had a flesh wound.

This couldn't be right. Buck Wilmington had his eyes open, but he wasn't quite awake. He forced himself to lucidity.

And saw his friends.

Soaking wet, filthy, bruised, scratched, and dog tired

And beautiful.

"Nathan . . ."

Chris nodded toward JD's bed where the healer was making a careful assessment of the boy's injuries.

Buck's face clouded. "He's been so sick . . ." he explained and his gaze lingered there for a moment, then he reached up and grabbed Chris' sleeve. "Are you all right?"

"Couple of busted ribs." Chris' drone comforted his old friend. "I'll be fine."

"And the others . . ."

"Really tired, and really hungry, but everyone's in one piece. How's your leg?"

"I'll live."

A low voice spoke from the doorway. "I didn't think we'd all be in the same room again." Vin Tanner smiled at his war-weary friends.

Ezra Standish turned to the bounty hunter. "How do you feel, Mr. Tanner?"

Vin sighed. "Sore . . . but I'm better."

Ezra tentatively put a hand on Vin's shoulder. He was not given to much physical display of emotion, but his perspective had changed during the last week, and he had been overcome with the realization of how fragile life could be. His jaw tightened. "I'm glad." Then recognizing that he was feeling more emotion than he could control, he shifted back to humor."Besides, better is the only direction you could go without actually meeting your Maker."

"I reckon we all came pretty close to it."

Josiah made his way around to the other side of Buck's bed, speaking in low tones. Ezra watched the little scene and felt another rush of emotion. He ran his hand down his face, not really knowing how to handle this . . . feeling. He'd never really known family.

Yet here he was surrounded by family. Vin must have picked up on it somehow, because he laid an easy hand on the gambler's shoulder. Ezra looked at him a moment, then blinked back the burning in his eyes.

Nathan looked up and interrupted the quiet conversations around the room. "His fever broke," he announced, his voice hitching. "His fever broke," he repeated, almost to himself. He turned back to the boy. "It's all right, son. You're gonna be all right."

The healer pushed the sweat-soaked hair out of JD's eyes and the men were sobered by the battered face. The kid's eyes opened slowly. His lip quivered when he saw Nathan, and he reached up to take his friend's hand. Nathan smiled broadly and held JD's hand in both of his.

The dark eyes studied the hazel ones, now brimming with tears. And the former slave recognized something he hadn't seen in long years. Something he should never have to see in any soul - certainly not in one so young. He would not be able to describe it to the others - they'd have to see it themselves. But it touched him deeply, and he wished he could spare the boy the trauma that awaited him.

Instinctively, Nathan reached up and stroked the young man's brow, trying to communicate an understanding.

He knew what this was like.

"You got friends here, son." Nathan said and he gently set JD's hand back on the bed. Wordlessly, he stood up. For a moment, JD's eyes met Buck's, and for the first time, Buck couldn't read his young friend.

There was something there beyond bewilderment, beyond fear, beyond questioning . . .

A black shirt eclipsed his field of vision. He'd have to figure it out later.

Chris Larabee knelt beside JD's bed and for a moment he studied the kid's face. Every bruise and every bandage was evidence of this boy's sacrifice . . .

And of Chris Larabee's failings . . .

Why hadn't he protected him? Why had he let this naive kid ride into Hell with them? JD should be fumbling over his words trying to ask some pretty girl to go out with him, not lying here like this.

Chris couldn't look him in the eye at first. And JD picked up on this.

A thin voice. "You couldn't have stopped them, Mr. Larabee."

Mr. Larabee.

It was a little thing. But the respect JD still afforded the great gunfighter was the young man's way of absolving him.

Chris lowered his head, and when he looked up, a smile pulled at his lips and his eyes were full. He took the initiative and held JD's hand. It seemed like forever before he could speak.

"You saved my life, JD." Chris took a ragged breath. "I'd have died in the street that first night if you hadn't warned me." He reached up and touched the kid's face just below the bandaged broken cheek, seeing, in his mind's eye, the rifle slam into his face in retaliation. JD watched him closely, remembering as well. Chris' voice waivered, "I'm . . . so sorry." JD blinked back a tear. Remembering was so hard. But he couldn't let his idol see him cry. He had to turn his face away - into the pillow, now damp with sweat.

Chris stood and leaned close to the boy's ear. His hand gently touched his wet hair, and he spoke in a voice thick with emotion.

"I have never known a braver man."


She didn't hear him come in. The heavy rain had lulled her to sleep - a much needed sleep. She was exhausted. A week of not-knowing, of doing what little she could to help, of tending to a very sick young man . . .

She would never have deliberately taken a nap,

But she'd put the paper to bed.

And she couldn't sit on the porch, watching, because the rain was torrential, blowing a cold mist under the overhang.

She'd just sit by the window, pulling her shawl around her shoulders, watching, listening to the rain.

The rain lullabye

She drifted

To sleep

Sleep.

"Mary . . ."

The low voice - a voice she knew in her dreams . . .

But she wasn't dreaming. She opened her eyes. And

There he stood. His duster did nothing to hide the evidence of his ordeal.

But he was alive.

Mary's jaw dropped in shock.

Then she ran to him.

He held her. Forever.

He hadn't known he needed her. But right now she was the only living soul who could afford him comfort. She was the first beauty he1d seen in a torturous week. And he would hold on to that beauty.

A beautiful heart.

No words. Why words? Everything was so complete in this moment. Chris Larabee kissed the top of her head. The soft scent of her golden hair was intoxicating to him and he wrapped his arms around her more tightly.

She clung to him.

He1d come back. She had feared so for him. And she had relived a time when someone she'd loved hadn't come home. At first it had surprised her. Oh, she cared about these men - all of them. But it was Chris that kept invading her thoughts. Chris whose brooding eyes haunted her restless dreams.

And Chris who had brought something back to life in her. Something she thought she had buried with her husband.

She took the hurt face in her soft hands and studied it. Chris didn't fight it. His eyes searched hers and, in this unguarded moment, he recognized the man he had once been reflected there. The man who had loved a wife and child. The man who could live robustly and enjoy his friends. The man who hadn't yet been burdened with unrelenting guilt. For a moment, he found himself.

And he could hope.


Buck Wilmington wasn1t good with crutches. He'd forget to use them and when he did use them, his arms hurt. Damn his ankle. He took a couple of faulty steps across the porch in front of the boarding house. And nearly toppled when he stepped off the porch to the street.

A hand caught him, but instead of thanking the helper, he spun on his heel and snapped, "I can do it!!!!!" Vin Tanner didn't let go of his friend's elbow. The bounty hunter didn't react to his friend1s outburst. Buck had kept a vigil at JD's bedside for two weeks now, and the boy seemed to be drifting farther and farther away from them. His body was healing - slowly. But his spirit was broken. And nobody seemed to be able to help him. This frustrated Buck to no end, and that frustration erupted in little outbursts of anger.

But his friends let it roll off. They shared his concern for JD, and were concerned for him as well. Vin had taken it upon himself to stay close to the gunslinger. Josiah had buried himself in working on the church. Nathan was at JD's bedside every day. Ezra, uncharacteristically, was quiet, and running on a short fuse himself.

And Chris, Chris stayed clear of his old friend. It was strange. He cared about him, loved him like a brother, truth be told. But he also knew he was more likely to antagonize Buck, and they would inevitably start sparring, if for no other reason than to burn off excess stress.

So Vin was the one who would make sure Buck was all right.

Like he was doing now.

"Come on," he said, waiting until Buck had steadied himself to release his hold on his arm. "I could use a drink."

Buck nodded. "Me too."

They slowly made their way to their only haven.


JD saw him - plain as day.

A face that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

The face returned more vividly when he was alone. When his friends were nearby, he had to tune out their pity. That energy pushed the face back into the recesses of his mind.

But he was alone now, and he saw it.

Those blue eyes, staring at

Nothing.

A blonde head he tried to cradle in his arms. The body of a soldier wearing a tattered gray uniform.

The boy had apologized to him. Or had he imagined it. Apologized for hitting him that morning.

The poor guy didn't even know the War was over. He was just trying to do his job.

And they killed him for it.

And when JD was staring down the barrel of a shotgun, knowing he was

going to die,

A blur of gray flew in front of him.

And he heard the shot. Then saw him fall. And JD held him as the life flickered out.

Why had the boy smiled at him? Smiled while he was dying. Why?

He shouldn't have died. Not for him. He probably had a mama who would cry over him. Someone who needed him. He didn't deserve what he got.

If only those eyes would leave him alone. Maybe he could find some peace.

But he knew somehow they would stay with him forever.

How could he live with that horrible image in his mind?

Then it occurred to him. . .

So simple . . .

He couldn't.


Sanctuary. That's what they called it, wasn't it? A blessed place - sacred space where he could find respite.

And Nathan Jackson needed respite, if only to have a quiet lunch away from everyone. It was chicken and dumpling day at the cafe, and Nathan brought two plates to the dark unfinished hull of a church. He heard the soft grinding of a saw, and knew Josiah hadn't left all morning.

"Josiah!!" he called. "Lunch!!"

The grinding sped up, then stopped. And then Nathan heard the big man grunt as he thudded to the ground from his perch in what would be the baptistry. "Coming. . ."

Nathan set the two big plates on a work bench and Josiah sat with him, the tired bench groaning beneath his weight.

"How is he?" the preacher asked.

Nathan finished a bite of chicken, swallowing, thinking.

"His body's healing. His soul ain't." Nathan picked up a roll and still lost in deepening thought, set it back down. "I'm not sure it's gonna heal." He searched Josiah for some understanding and found instead a willing listener. "I've seen too much of this. You know, I was born on that land where you found me. I was born . . . already belonging to somebody else. As early as I can remember, I saw beatings. Some would rather die than give Greeley the satisfaction of hearing them scream. But there were grown men, strong men who screamed for . . . mercy. Sometimes I would fall asleep hearing the screaming." The former slave squeezed his eyes closed tightly. Josiah never even started eating his lunch. Somehow it seemed more appropriate to wait.

"I thought I'd never have to hear that again." The friends sat in silence for a long moment before Nathan opened his eyes. "JD hasn't ever seen anyone tortured before. Except for what he's seen with us, everything he knows is from them dime-store novels. The good guys always win." Nathan shook his head. "He's only a boy. How is he supposed to get over something like this?"

Josiah had been listening, thoughtfully. He tilted his head slightly and challenged the healer. "How did you?"

Nathan bit his lip. He'd have to remember - after so many years of trying to forget. "Lemme work on that," he said.

Josiah nodded and picked up Nathan's roll and handed it to him. Then he took a bite of his own and they shared a silent meal together.


Ezra Standish pulled out his pocket watch and glanced at it. Two o'clock in the afternoon. He was so restless. Everything was different now. Things mattered to him that never had before. People mattered to him. More than that, he cared about what kind of man he was. And because of these things, the evils of the world infuriated him. He was perpetually angry. And there seemed to be no relief from it. None of his former diversions interested him. Cardplay reminded him of Emil Devereaux. Drinking didn't seem worth it. And he didn't care to talk to anyone.

And seeing JD only fueled his anger and strengthened his resolve to find Jacob Chiles and bring him to justice.

His own version of justice. The "eye for an eye" kind.

But he would go see JD.

Every day.

He stepped into the boarding house and heard . . . a struggle?

In JD's room.

Silently, Ezra drew his pistol crept up to the door. Cautiously, he peered in, only to find JD struggling to get up.

"Careful, son!" Ezra called, holstering his weapon.

JD had crawled back onto his heels. He'd been lying on his stomach for so long and now was kneeling in bed, teetering a bit. "Do you want me to find Nathan?" Ezra asked as he took hold of his elbow to steady him.

JD was winded from the effort.

"No, please," JD interrupted. "Just, let me . . . catch my breath."

The boy's breath came in shallow gasps, and Ezra could hear the slight wheezing. And he remembered the rifle connecting with JD's ribs.

And he felt a rush of anger.

But he set it aside for the moment. The gambler almost asked him why he hadn't waited for someone to help him. Then, he thought better of it. Somehow Ezra knew that JD needed to try to do things for himself. He had to know he could.

JD's hair had gotten so long, and it completely covered his face when his head was hanging as it was now. "Wanna . . . sit up . . ." he said.

"Well, judging from your current position, you may find it simplest to . . . lay on your side . . . and swing your legs out. Then you can pull yourself up."

JD nodded. He took a couple of breaths, then slid back down to the bed onto his side. But the effort not only robbed him of his breath, it also hurt. JD squeezed his eyes against it. Ezra stood beside him, resisting the strong temptation to help him.


PART TWENTY: The Breaking of the Spirit, the Dying of the Soul

JD was about to swing his legs forward - but it was too much. He lay down on the pillow, exhausted. With one arm, he kept himself propped up on his side.

"Would you like more pillows?" Ezra asked.

It was a breathless minute before he could answer. "No - thanks -"

Ezra sat on the made-up bed that had been Buck's. The boy didn't look at him. For a while, he seemed to be trying to find a comfortable angle. But even that seemed to defeat him.

He lay . . .

Resigned.

"Ezra?"

"Hm?"

"You know about . . . legal stuff, don't you?"

"Enough to keep myself as far removed from it as is humanly possible."

JD didn't feel like responding to the gambler's attempt at levity.

"Can you help me make a will?"

Ezra's eyebrows shot up and he turned to the boy.

"Mr. Dunne, I hardly see the need . . . "

For an instant, JD's face clouded. "I know I don't have much, but . . ."

"Son, you miss my meaning. I didn't mean that you didn't have anything of value. I meant that your interest in a will is . . . premature, that's all."

"I could have used one a couple of weeks ago."

Ezra leaned closer. "But you survived, son. And you're gonna survive."

If JD were listening, it didn't deter him from his mission. "I just want to know that my mama's things . . ." Suddenly, as in a panic, the boy's hand went to his throat, searching.

"Mama's keepsake. . . " He looked to Ezra.

The gambler's expression remained kind, but his eyes flashed in anger. "Mr. Chiles . . . removed it from your neck when . . ."

He didn't have to finish. JD looked for a moment like he would weep, but then, closed his eyes and painfully, turned back onto his stomach.

Ezra hadn't become accustomed to the intense need he felt to offer comfort to another, and he found it frustrating. He couldn't make this right for the boy. And it pained him.

So any inclination he had toward comforting JD translated into a calculated hatred of Jacob Chiles - a hatred that would eat him up if he didn't do something about it.

He looked back at the boy, but the boy had withdrawn so completely that there was nothing he could do to help him.


The nightmares revisited him. Nathan Jackson woke up in a cold sweat, heart pounding, long buried memories resurging with vivid reality. And he cursed them.

"Nathan, are you all right?" JD was sitting up, trimming the lamp.

"Too much screaming. . ." Nathan said, his breath ragged, eyes focused somewhere far away from Four Corners. JD was alarmed. He looked around, trying to figure out a way to help. Then, stiffly, he stood and took a wobbly step toward Nathan. Another one. Then he awkwardly slid to his knees beside the healer's borrowed bed. And then he pulled himself up to look at his friend.

"Nathan . . ." JD's voice was so gentle. "'S all right. You're all right." The boy found Nathan's hand and held it in both of his. Nathan tightened his grip. How strong his hand was, JD thought. His gentle, healing hand . . . Gradually Nathan pulled himself out of his dream and opened his eyes.

"JD." Nathan was shocked to see that the boy had gotten out of bed. "How did you . . ."

JD shrugged. "I thought . . . you needed me." Nathan lay back and closed his eyes. He nodded. "I do need you."

He said nothing for a few moments. And JD grew anxious. "Nathan?"

"I know now."

"Know what?"

Nathan took a deep breath and sat up. "Let's get you back to bed." He climbed out of bed and pulled one of JD's arms across his shoulders. He hoisted the boy to his feet, and then, slowly, walked him back to bed.

It was frustrating to JD that such a simple move would so utterly exhaust him, but by the time he got back in the bed, he was winded. Nathan waited while he got settled.

JD lay on his side, a bewildered expression on his face. "What did you mean before-that you'know now'?"

Nathan sat in the chair beside the boy. He reached over and turned the lamplight up until it was very bright. "Lemme show you something."

The former slave stood up and pulled his shirt off. He knelt by JD, then turned his back to him.

And JD saw the long trailing scars. The kid had known that Nathan had been beaten, but he hadn't seen the scars.

"Go ahead," Nathan said. And the young man extended a pale hand and touched the brown skin, tracing the lines with a gentle finger. After he'd studied his friend's back, he let his hand rest on the man's shoulder.

"I am . . . so sorry, Nathan," JD said, and the healer turned back around.

"And I wish there had been a way I could have kept this from happening to you. But . . ."

"I know."

Nathan pulled the chair very close and sat beside him. "I've been worried about you, son. I know your body will heal, but I didn't know how to help your . . . heart."

JD was listening intently.

Nathan continued. "Josiah asked me how I got through it. And, for the life of me, I couldn't remember. I couldn't remember. And now, something you said. It all made sense. You said you thought I needed you."

"How did . . ."

"I remember feeling . . . useless. I hadn't been able to save my family. I hadn't been able to save myself. I thought I was no use to nobody. But then, I was working with the doctors, and this boy, oh, he was probably about your age, grabbed my hand and begged me for help. And I could help him. And I realized I could help other folks. I knew that I was needed. And if I was needed, there was a reason I was put here."

Nathan squeezed JD's hand. "We need you, boy. We aren't complete without you."

JD was listening, but Nathan still sensed a distance between them. "I know getting hurt like you did, it's humiliating. And if you feel shamed, just know it'll pass."

JD nodded, but Nathan realized that he couldn't tell JD how to get through this. He'd have to find his own way.


Casey Welles was sick of this. She sat across from Mary at the Clarion, fidgetting and heaving big impatient sighs. And it was getting on Mary's last nerve.

"Casey, why don't you go help your aunt?"

"Already have."

"Then why don't you see if Judge Travis needs anything?"

Casey exploded. "Why does everybody want to get rid of me? Why doesn't anybody see . . ." a great sob interrupted, "how hard this is for me?"

Mary was startled. She took a step toward her young friend. But Casey spun on her heel and walked to the window. "He's not the only one who's gotten hurt here," she continued. "He hurts . . . and I hurt for him." She turned back around to Mary, wringing her hands. "And it hurts worse that he won't let me help him." Tears rolled down her face and she almost wailed. "Why did this have to happen to him?"

Mary hugged her. "I don't know, Sweetheart." Casey had been remarkably strong throughout this ordeal. But now, she was at a loss.

"Go see him." A gravelly voice.

The women looked up to see Chris Larabee standing inside the doorway. He crossed his arms and leaned against the doorjamb. "Sometimes what's best for a person isn't always what he wants. He's been pulling away from all of us. It's time that we pull him back."

Casey hastily wiped her eyes with the heels of her hands and collected herself. "Are you sure, Mr Larabee?" The girl waited.

"Go ahead."

Casey ran to the door and paused long enough to impulsively kiss the gunslinger on the cheek. Then she ran across the street to the boarding house.

A smile tugged at his lips.

But Mary frowned. "Are you sure?" She challenged, hands on her hips.

"I'm not sure of anything right now. But I know we're losing him. Every day he has less to say."

"I thought Nathan said he was getting better."

"Oh he's healing. But there's something going on with him. Something . . ."

"Well, he's been through a trauma, Chris. Of course he's going to have trouble accepting what's happened."

"But there's more. And I can't figure out what."

Mary went to him, and touched his face. "You will."

"Somebody better. I've got a feeling we're running out of time."


Casey ran into the boarding house, but forced herself to slow down as she approached the sick room. She didn't want to startle JD. As it turned out, he wouldn't have noticed her entry, because Buck Wilmington was hollering at him. She waited outside, knowing she shouldn't eavesdrop. But, she so wanted to know what was going on.

"Why in thunder do you want to give 'em away?" The big man was yelling. "They mean a lot to you. And you're just gonna give 'em away. Just like that."

Why didn't JD answer him? Normally, that tone of voice alone would send him into a rage. But he just . . . took it. And that bugged Casey.

"What are you thinking?" Buck yelled. "You can't just give up on everything. You got to snap out of it."

Casey stepped inside and saw JD standing by the window, staring. His back was to her. He looked so thin, the long drapy painters' shirt swallowing him. The pants Aunt Nettie had made for him tied loosely around his narrow waist. Buck was pacing. He looked like he could strangle somebody.

"i just wanted you to have them." JD's voice was small. "I figured they might be special to you one day."

Buck stopped cold. He looked like someone had hit him. "JD," Buck said softly. "They're special to you and you're special to me. Keep them and give them to your own son someday." He walked over to put his hand on the kid's shoulders, but it didn't seem like the time.

Casey stepped further into the room. Buck looked at her, helplessly. Then he turned back to JD. "Thank you for thinking of me, kid. But I can't."

Buck left hurriedly.

Casey stood, frozen in place. JD looked so thin. His face was hidden by the long black hair. Really long hair, she thought.

"JD?" She felt like she was intruding on his isolation. But she'd come this far.

For a moment, he didn't move a muscle. Then painfully, he turned to her. She had to stifle a gasp. His face was gaunt and deathly pale. A long scar stretched from just under his eye to his jaw. And his cheek looked different somehow.

But his eyes scared her the most.

They were dead.


The next two weeks found Four Corners trying to resume something of its old rhythm. Ezra, Chris and Vin had been called away to Eagle Bend to offer testimony against the men who had been arrested for the atrocity. Upon their return, Nathan and Josiah and a reluctant Buck set out to do the same.

And JD's body continued to heal.

And his soul continued to struggle.

And Jacob Chiles was living large

In Mexico.


PART TWENTY-ONE: Guardian Angels

He could finally wear regular clothes, though they were now decidedly too big for him. He'd gotten a haircut, not because he was really concerned with how he looked, but wanting it out of his eyes.

His skin was still pale and his face was so thin, making his new scar all the more startling. His cheekbones were more pronounced and his eyes seemed hollow somehow. He looked like the ghost of the boy they'd known.

JD kept to himself mostly. He got tired easily. And yet, he tried to contribute to the town that had helped him. He worked with Josiah in the church and he went with Vin to Miss Nettie's to help repair the fence behind the house.

His friends couldn't read any emotions he may have felt - maybe because he felt nothing. He was always polite, and he never seemed to get angry. It was as though nothing interested him anymore. And how he struggled to participate in anything.

He ate dinner with Casey a couple of times, but not really like a date. And he would stop by the saloon every now and then, but only to see if anyone needed anything.

He went through life dutifully. That was the word. Dutiful. Not for the love of life, but because . . . what else could he do?

Chris watched him as the boy took Vin's horse from the tired bounty hunter. Vin had made a run to Eagle Bend and back. He strode over to Chris and followed his gaze back to the kid.

"He's moving better . . ." Vin commented.

Chris didn't say anything - he just kept watching JD.

Vin waited until the kid disappeared into the livery.

"Saloon?" Vin asked.

A moment passed. Chris frowned, lost in thought.

"He's dying inside," he said, finally.

"He's been through a lot."

Chris shook his head. "He's given up. He's not living. He's just going through the motions."

Vin lifted his head, listening.

"I know the look," Chris continued, his eyes drawn back to the livery. "I've been where he is." Chris glanced back at Vin. "And it's a mighty dark place"


Judge Travis sat in the cafe, finishing a bowl of soup. It was too hot for soup, but he'd felt a little weak after the events of the last month. He was trying to eat well and catch up on sleep. He thought back on the hearings. They'd gone well - as well as they could considering Jacob Chiles was still out there. That coward. It was just a stroke of luck that he had been able to find people to hook up with him. What a hairbrained idea? How did Chiles pull it off?

He hadn't.

Not alone.

There was no way.

Travis was convinced that there had to be someone else, someone who could mastermind a plan as intricate as this. Someone who had been smart enough to stay the hell away from the action.

Someone who wouldn't be satisifed until the job was done right . . .


He didn't hear him at first. His erratic hammering consumed him as he tried to secure a nail in the baptistry at an impossible angle. Finally the tack popped out and the railing popped up and Josiah Sanchez popped out with an explitive which would never be appropriate in the house of the Lord. "Sorry," he muttered automatically.

JD turned quickly to leave. This certainly wasn't the time to ask Josiah what he needed to.

"JD?"

Too late. The preacher had seen him.

"'S nothing. I can come back later."

Josiah climbed down and walked over to the boy. "No. No need. It's time for a break." He looked back at the baptistry and smiled. "Besides, I'm damn close to bein' struck by lightning."

JD nodded, a fleeting half smile crossing his face. Then he waited awkwardly. Josiah guided him to a bench and they sat down. "What can I do for you?" The big man's eyes were warm, and JD felt bolder. He had to ask this all at once or he might never work up the nerve again.

"Take me to his grave." JD's voice was throaty. Josiah looked puzzled. He leaned forward.

"Whose grave, son?"

Af first, JD looked incredulous. How could he not know who he was talking about? Wasn't everyone overcome with the injustice that had been done that poor reb? The young, scarred face that had been so void of emotion suddenly looked panicked. "The soldier's. The one who . . . " He didn't even realize he had clutched Josiah's shirt. "I have to go." His voice became thick and he began to tremble. JD struggled to contain this strange rush of emotion that threatened to overwhelm him. "He shouldn't have died. He's . . . alone. I need to go see him."

Josiah was alarmed at the expression in the boy's eyes. It was something akin to madness. And in one awful moment, he realized what this young man had been carrying all this time. He reached out to hold him, but JD withdrew.

"NO!" JD cried, jumping up. "Don't . . . comfort me. Don't . . ." Josiah was by his side in an instant, but JD shook him off, tears rolling down his face, eyes wild. "No . . . I don't . . . deserve . . ."

"What, son?" Josiah grabbed the boy's arms, and held him as he struggled weakly. "JD . . ." he spoke so gently. Finally JD quit fighting him and hung his head, defeated. "It doesn't matter. Just . . . take me, OK?" He looked up. "Please Josiah."

"I'll take you, but what did you mean . . . you don't deserve - "

JD pulled away, suddenly. "Just forget . . ." He waved his hand around, wildly. "That doesn't matter."

"It does," Josiah said, taking a tentative step toward JD. "Why didn't you tell anyone you felt like this?"

"Like what, Josiah?" The boy was bewildered. "You all know how he died. Why . . . he died. That should NEVER have happened." JD backed toward the door, avoiding the preacher's eyes. "This was a bad idea." JD was talking to himself now. "Bad idea."

Josiah grabbed his arm, harder than he intended to, and was horrified by the sudden terror in the kid's face. He let go immediately, sputtering apologies,

And JD ran off.


The message came a little after five - and Buck Wilmington was there waiting. "Hot damn!!!!!" he whooped and ran all the way to the saloon. He burst through the doors, and one of the doors narrowly missed Ezra Standish.

"Damn you, Mr. Wilmington, if you think . . . "

Buck patted his cheek. "Cuss me out later, Ezra. I've got the Holy Grail in my hand." He turned and walked over to the table where Chris and Vin were sitting with Nathan. "Gentlemen," he said, grandly. "Fear not. I've got just the right medicine for the kid. Read this!" He handed the yellow note to Chris and watched, satisfied, as his friend grinned in response.

"All right," Chris said, nodding, and he handed the paper to Vin.

Ezra strolled over. "Well, since nobody seems concerned with the fact that Mr. Wilmington almost . . ."

"Oh, pipe down, Ezra," Buck said, and the gambler couldn't keep from smiling as he read over Vin's shoulder.

"My apologies, sir," he said. "You have indeed 'saved the day' it would seem."

"Not until next week," Nathan said, smiling as he read the note Vin handed him. "But this may really do it."

"May I stand you to a drink?" Ezra asked Buck.

"Why yes, Mr. Standish. That would be most delightful," Buck answered, trying to approximate the gambler's expert use of language.

Chris laughed. "Give it up, Buck. Just thank him and drink."

If it weren't for the scream, Buck would have made a witty reply.

A shrill, blood-curdling scream. The men jumped up and drew their weapons.

Mary was running down the street toward the boarding house. "Casey!!" she called. Chris caught up with her. "That's Casey," she told him.

"Go to the Clarion and lock the doors. Wait for us. We'll take care of Casey."

His tone left no room for debate. She nodded and ran into the office. God, what if Chiles had come back? It can't be happening again.


Josiah sat cross-legged on the ground across from the new marker. The grave was getting a fresh growth of grass and it saddened the preacher. It seemed wrong somehow that a boy could be killed and every trace of his existence disappear in a couple of months. Every trace except for a make-shift headstone without even a name to identify him.

But his face would live forever in the heart of a troubled boy. God, where had JD gone? Josiah had followed him to the boarding house, only to find that he'd locked himself in his room. He just wanted to take a nap, he'd said. He was sorry to have made a fuss. Maybe the heat was getting to him. He'd get Josiah to take him to the grave later. Go home, Josiah, he'd said. He was fine, he'd said.

The preacher stayed outside his door. He couldn't leave him. Something was so wrong. And the fact that JD calmed down so quickly . . . well it wasn't natural.

So why the hell had he fallen asleep?

He'd called out for JD, only to be rewarded with a sick silence. Dear God, what had the kid done? He pounded on the door and finally, kicked it in.

A tentative relief came over him when he saw that the bed had been slept in, but the boy was gone.

Where had he gone?

A quick perusal of the room indicated that he'd climbed out of the window.

Josiah could have tracked him,

But he knew where JD would go.

So he'd go there and wait.


Casey nearly tripped over her skirt as she ran sobbing into the street. She landed in Chris Larabee's arms.

"You've gotta find him," she pleaded, grasping his arms.

"Who?"

"JD!" she looked at the anxious faces around her. "You've gotta stop him."

Buck put his hands on her shoulders. "Stop him from what?"

Her voice caught on the words. "He's gonna kill himself."

"WHAT?!"

Buck took the letter she handed him. "Oh, sweet Jesus. . ." he breathed, handing it to Chris. He pulled away from them and ran up to JD's room, Vin on his heels. Why had the door been kicked in? Why had he had to escape out the window?

Maybe he wasn't gonna kill himself. Maybe Chiles had caught up with him and he was trying to divert them with the letter. Maybe he was out there running for his life.

Help him, Lord.


"We split up," Chris commanded. "But watch your backs. Buck's right. This could be a set up." He looked at Ezra. "You stay here with the judge and cover the town. If there's trouble, fire two shots and we'll know. Vin, you and I'll take the south side and work our way around the western perimeter. Nathan, you and Buck start on the north side and work your way down the eastern side." He glanced around. "Where the hell is Josiah?"

"Haven't seen him since lunch," Nathan said.

"I don't like this a bit," Buck said. "Chiles could have both of 'em."

Vin looked up and nodded at Casey who stood in the doorway of the Clarion, Mary Travis holding the young girl close. He and Chris mounted up and headed south.

And Buck and Nathan made their way north.

And the people of Four Corners prayed.


It had been too long. Surely JD would have asked someone where the soldier was buried. It wasn't a secret or anything. But he hadn't come. And it had been hours.

Josiah stood up and brushed off the seat of his pants. He should have gotten help when the kid first bolted out of the church. He could have gone anywhere. And he was in no condition to be traveling alone. But Josiah felt like JD had confided in him and he didn't want to breach this fragile trust.

The preacher headed back toward town. He'd start over again.

With help this time.


His foot was asleep where he had been sitting on it for the last three hours. The thick undergrowth had provided good cover, even though something was itching him. He could see the grave from here. And Josiah.

Thank God he was leaving. JD felt guilty for hiding from him, but he HAD tried to explain everything to him. And of all of his friends, Josiah was the one that he thought would really understand. Hadn't he talked about paying penance?

But this went way beyond penance.

JD couldn't ever make this right.

He was shivering . . .

But he wasn't cold.

And he wasn't scared.

He was . . .

Lost.


Ezra kept watch from the Clarion office, staying with Mary and Casey. The judge was waiting at the jail, guarding a cowboy who had been picked up for public drunkenness. The rest of the town was strangely quiet, word about potential danger having spread like wildfire. Everyone was hunkering down, doors locked, shutters drawn. No one was taking a chance of falling prey to the evil that had befallen their guardians.

Casey had cried until she had no more tears. Her fear was turning to blistering anger

At JD.

At herself.

She folded her arms in front of her tightly and bit her lip. She leaned against the windowsill opposite Ezra - but not looking at him. She stared out at the empty street.


Mary stepped over to the cafe, to bring supper over to their little group and to ask the cook to stay open a little longer in case the searchers came back hungry. The intensity of emotion at the Clarion had made her even more nervous . . . and so tired . . .

She paused to sit for a few minutes. And in a moment, she was staring at the tablecloth, lost in troubled thought.

"Mrs. Travis?"

Mary glanced up at the wide-eyed girl who had tentatively approached.

"Yes?"

The girl took a cup of hot tea off of her serving tray and set in front of her. "I thought you might like some," she said softly.

Mary smiled, and turned glistening eyes to her. "Thank you . . .that's very thoughtful."

The girl nodded, a bit shyly, and started back to the kitchen. But she paused and turned back, not sure whether it was all right to say something. Mary sensed her awkward hesitance and took the initiative.

"Would you like to join me?"

"Oh, no ma'am. I mean . . . I'd love to, but . . . I'm not allowed to sit down with the customers when I'm working . . . I mean, I just wanted to say . . ."

She faltered, embarrassed.

"It's all right . . . go on . . ."

The girl stepped close and lowered her voice. "It's just that . . . well, my mother says that God has sent these good men to our town to protect us, sort of like our guardian angels . . . and she says that He's got an angel watching over each one of them. That's why they all came back to us. That's why they all lived." The girl smiled. "He wouldn't bring 'em back and then stop caring for them. They'll come back."

"NANCY!" the voice from the kitchen boomed.

"I've got to get back to work." She whispered, then turned. "Caming!" she answered.

Mary thought about the girl's words, and a comfort came over her. How right that wise young one was. It was nothing short of a miracle that these men all came back alive. And surely God was with them now.


Ezra felt that familiar anger again.

But when he looked at the angry young woman standing at the window with him, he felt

Sad.

Poor girl had lost her mama and daddy. She'd had to see her treasured heirlooms and remembrances taken from her and she'd had to fight to get them back. She'd had to fight to help her aunt keep their home.

And at a time when her heart was most tender, she'd fallen in love for the first time in her life, only to have the boy taken from her.

Even when he was returned to her, it wasn't the same. He was broken and hurt.

And when she tried to help, the wall had already been put in place. She couldn't save him from the ones who'd hurt him.

And she couldn't save him from himself.

"Miss Welles," Ezra began softly. "When we were out there, fighting for our lives, nobody fought harder or more nobly than Mr. D . . .uh, JD. But none of us knows everything he suffered, everything he saw. He's carrying a burden . . . one that we cannot see . . ."

Ezra stepped closer. "We all tried to help him carry it. But he never let us . . ." He looked into her eyes with an uncanny intensity. "And if he could have, if there had been any way, I'm sure he would have communicated to you how very much . . . he cares for you. Perhaps, it is his concern for you that kept him from wanting to burden you with his sufferings."

"But I could have handled it." Casey wished she could sound more fierce.

A charm twinkled in the gambler's eye. "Miss Welles - ever since I saw you stand up to that distasteful 'collector,' I have never doubted your ability to handle anything you confront." He looked out the window as if trying to place his next thought. "But this isn't something you can confront for another person. These are JD's own demons. Even if he had been able to tell you about it - or any of us for that matter - he would still have to find a way to . . . live with it. He has to go through it and, God willing, come out the other side."

"But . . . I could . . . " Casey's lip trembled and she followed Ezra's gaze out the window. " I could hold his hand."

The gambler looked back at the young girl. She wanted to be strong. And she was. But she needed someone to be strong for her now. Ezra reached out and took her hand. Startled she looked at him

And saw the tears in his eyes.

"You could hold mine." Ezra's voice was thick.

Casey hadn't realized that the often abrasive gambler had feelings for anyone but himself. But now, it seemed like he genuinely hurt for her. For JD. He was grieving . . . She couldn't know he was grieving for the years he'd lost - years he could have shared with people. He missed out on so much because instead of treasuring the people around him, he had swindled them. But all that was different for him now. And even this young provincial girl could see that he was suffering.

"It's like 'Lonesome Valley,'" she said.

"Hm?"

"That hymn, 'Lonesome Valley.'" She recited softly. "'I must walk this lonesome valley. I have to walk it by myself. Oh, nobody else can walk it for me. I have to walk it by myself.'"

Ezra squeezed her hand gently. "But it helps to know there's somebody waiting on the other side."


Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner made quick work of their leg of the search. There was no sign of the kid or the preacher, but, thank God, there was no sign of any struggle either.

"I should have seen it coming," Chris said as they headed north to meet up with the others.

"What?"

Chris was talking to himself as much as anything. "He's been planning this. He was getting his affairs in order."

Vin listened closely, trying to pace with him.

"Yea," Chris continued. "He's been giving things to people. And paying off debts."

"Damn!" Vin muttered.

Chris turned and looked at him sharply.

Vin didn't look at him. "Ezra said he was wanting to make a will. He didn't take it seriously. Thought he was just reacting to having had such a close call. Oh, man."

Chris didn't answer but urged his horse on, the bounty hunter on his heels.


Footsteps . . . not far . . .

Nathan raised his hand to quiet Buck. They strained to hear. One man, heavy footsteps. Coming closer.

They drew their weapons, and Buck slid silently off his horse. He crept forward very slowly. But before he could overtake his quarry, he heard Nathan.

"Josiah?"

"Nathan?"

Buck holstered his weapon and ran toward the preacher.

"Where's JD?" Buck asked breathlessly.

Josiah looked so distraught. "I been looking for him. He was so upset this afternoon."

Buck listened to Josiah's account of the day's events, growing more fearful the whole time. This fear erupted into blistering anger. "Why the hell didn't you tell somebody? Couldn't you see he was hanging on by a thread?"

"I wanted to give him some space."

"SPACE?" Buck was fairly screaming at him now. "He left to blow his f***ing brains out, Josiah!"

Nathan jumped down. "Stop it, Buck! He didn't know that." Buck turned away, breathing in ragged gasps. Josiah stood there as though someone had hit him. He turned to Nathan, his jaw hanging open. His mouth started to form the words.

"What?" A silent question. As gently as possible, Nathan related the story of JD's letter. The preacher hung his head. "Jesus . . ." he breathed. Nathan put his hand on the big man's shoulder.

Buck deliberately walked to his horse and swung on. He turned red eyes to his friends. "I'm sorry, Josiah." The preacher nodded slowly.

Nathan stopped Buck's horse. "Where're you going?"

"Back to that gravesite. We can't stop looking."


He took a tentative step out from his hiding place and approached the grave as though it were an altar of some kind. The Colt was in his hand. There was something almost surreal about it. He was there - but he was watching himself, too.

The grave was real. The night was real. The stone that marked the place was real.

That simple stone marker.

All that was left of a boy's life.

JD had imagined this moment for a few weeks now. Standing at this grave. Making his peace.

Now that he was here, he was overwhelmed. He fell heavily to his knees.

"God . . ."

Was he praying?

He saw the boy with the blue eyes. The boy who'd said he was sorry.

JD could hear him - talking to him - telling him to live.

He could feel the slight arms that had held onto him. Where had they been? A cave? The arms that tried to help him.

He remembered . . . phrases . . .

. . . sir, don't you think he needs to rest?

Help. Someone was helping him. But he couldn't see him.

He's had enough

They'd hit that boy. Just for trying to help him.

I broke his ribs I think That voice . . . he remembered it so clearly. But he'd been sorry. He'd said so. He'd asked JD to forgive him. He'd asked God to forgive him.

Why couldn't he remember? Surely he told the boy it was ok. Surely he'd let him know that he forgave him.

Oh God, what if he hadn't?

JD didn't realize that he was crying. Trembling - crying - praying,

"God, I'm sorry. . . "

I'm sorry for what they done.

"It's ok. It wasn't your fault."

I didn't know . . .

"Wasn't your fault. It was my fault."

He remembered gunshots. Rolling. Off the backboard. Asleep. Awake.

Racking sobs. JD curled in on himself, rocking, gripping the gun more tightly.

That man - the one with the whip -

Had a shotgun now. Aimed at his heart.

"GOD . . . " JD squeezed his eyes closed.

But closed eyes couldn't block it out. The gray. The blur. The blast.

The body.

He remembered the eyes. The shocked blue eyes. Terrified at first. But then smiling before becoming glassy. The hint of a smile was on his lips. The soldier had seen him.

And JD absorbed the boy's eyes.

Eyes that became glassy.

Then became lifeless.

Still looking at him.

Looking at him now.

Why had the boy gotten in front of him? Why had his own men killed him? Why did he die? It wasn't right.

JD was shuddering now, panic rising. He was holding the boy. Holding him. Trying to will life back into him. He heard Buck scream. They'd shot Buck too.

Buck screaming.

Sweet Jesus, what was happening?

Live.Live.Live.Live.

Over and over he told the boy.

He was still holding the boy. But the boy wouldn't wake up.

Wake up, damn it!

Buck screaming. He needed to get to Buck. Buck was dying.

The boy was dead. In his arms. And it was his fault. If he had died, the boy would be alive.

God, change this. Take me. Bring him back.

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!" He screamed at God. Holding the boy.

Buck. Buck wasn't screaming anymore. Buck wasn't screaming. Buck.

Buck was dead.

Chris was dead.

Vin was dead.

Ezra was dead.

Josiah was dead.

Nathan was dead.

They'd all ridden away. With that kid. And he was left. Alone.

His fault. His fault. He couldn't stop Buck and Josiah from taking the boy hostage. The boy was a hostage because of him.

If they'd just left JD tied up back there, nobody else would have had to be hurt.

"God.God.God.God.God.God. . . ." JD mumbled. He looked at the colt in his hand. When had he chipped the handle? It was a good thing he left Buck the other one.

Buck was dead, though.

JD's breaths came too fast. He was so mixed up. He'd talked to Buck that morning.

No, do this.

Do this.

Make it right.

If you don't, you'll be alone. They've gone ahead.

No.

I'm going crazy. Lord, I'm going crazy.

He closed his eyes and the blue eyes were back. The blue eyes. Buck screaming. Ezra riding away.

It had to stop.

He didn't open his eyes. He didn't have to. He put the barrel of the colt in his mouth. Aware of the foreignness of the metal and dirt against his tongue. He closed his lips tightly, pressing his teeth against the rough barrel. His hand trembled, and he adjusted the position of the tip so that he could feel it against the roof of his mouth.

No mistakes now.

He opened his eyes for a split second and glanced at the grave. Then he closed them again.

Still the eyes.

And the screams.

His finger twitched on the trigger.

the eyes.

the trigger.

the scream.

God forgive me.

I'm coming, Buck.


He never thought anything could be worse than watching JD being hurt like he had. He would carry that image in his heart as long as he lived.

But nothing could compare to riding over the ridge and seeing that huddled body silhouetted against the night sky - quaking . . .

For a split-second Buck couldn't tell what was in the kid's mouth. Too short to be a beer bottle. Too wide to be a smoke.

Then he knew - in harsh relief against the moon, the barrel of a colt.

"GOD JD, NO!!" he cried, galloping toward him.

JD didn't respond.

But he didn't pull the trigger either.

He rocked, heaving dry sobs now.

Buck reached him in a minute, careful not to touch him. Not to scare him.

"JD, don't." Buck dropped to his knees in front of the boy. "Don't do this, kid." JD squeezed his eyes more tightly, and his hand shook more.

"JD, look at me." Buck kept the panic out of his voice, but not the urgency. "JD - open your eyes, son." The gunslinger slid closer. "Look at me." His voice was almost a whisper. "It's Buck." The boy tilted his head away slightly. Avoiding the voice.

"JD, open your eyes, g**damnit!"

The kid's eyes shot open, terrified. And Buck's voice grew gentle again. "Come on, kid. Put it down." He slid even closer - close enough to hold him. But he didn't touch him. "Whatever it is, we'll handle it. We will. I swear. But this ain't the way." JD was listening, tears rolling down his scarred face. But he kept the colt in his mouth.

"Please, son." Was Buck crying? Don't cry, Buck. "I've seen you die once. Please - I can't watch that again."

There was unspeakable pain in the boy's eyes as he slowly, shakily pulled the pistol out of his mouth. But he still held it, with an unsteady hand - pointed at his own heart. He looked at his friend, then looked beyond him to the grave.

"Give it to me, JD."

JD had travelled back to that nightmare world he had created from flashes of memories, and he spoke as though in a trance.

"My fault," JD said simply.

"JD, nothing is your fault."

"He's dead because of me."

"He's dead because the bad guys shot him, JD. It had nothing to do with you."

"It had everything to do with me!" JD cried, sobbing again and ignoring the danger he held in his hand. He was pleading with Buck to understand. "If I'd died, you wouldn't have taken him hostage."

"What?! He wasn't a hostage, JD."

"I see him, Buck. I see his eyes. Everytime I close mine."

Buck was watching for an opportunity to take the gun away.

"Give me the gun, JD." Buck realized that the boy was burning up. "Come on, you're sick. Let me take you back. Give me the gun."

"They shot you, Buck." Suddenly, the boy looked at him, a pathetic concern in his eyes. He looked at Buck's shirt and with his free hand, he put his hand on the big man's chest. Hadn't he been shot in the heart? JD was confused.

And Buck took his chance.

He took the weapon away from his friend and in the same move, pulled the kid to his chest in a tight embrace. JD had a raging fever, and Buck noticed that the boy was soaking wet, shivering, scared.

Buck was shivering, too, and once he had unloaded the colt, he tightened his hold on the boy, and spoke in his ear.

"Don't ever do that again. Promise me." He shook the boy slightly, "OK? You gotta promise me, JD."

JD didn't answer, but he nodded.

"This wasn't your fault. None of it. I can't believe you been carrying this around all this time." Buck put his hand on the kid's head. "Aw, Jesus, JD, you're burning up . . ." He took off his jacket and wrapped it around the shivering boy. "It's gonna be ok now."

"Shouldna stopped me. . ."

"JD . . ."

"He's dead because of me."

"No. He died standing up for what he believed was right. He admired you. And he was ashamed of what his people did to you."

"Why . . . did you take him hostage?"

Buck held his friend closer. "He was never a hostage, JD. He left the others willingly. He wanted to be free. It was his choice."

JD didn't answer right away, but Buck felt him relax slightly.

"He smiled at me. Right when he died . . . "

"He saved your life." Buck leaned back so he could look at JD. "And that saved his soul." JD's lips trembled again and new tears rolled down his cheeks. He lowered his head and leaned into his friend's chest. He was so tired.

Neither of them had noticed the arrival of their friends. Nathan handed the reins over to Vin and slid off his horse. His eyes met Buck's over the top of the boy's head.

"He is so sick," Buck said softly. With Nathan's help, he eased JD down to the soft ground. The boy's eyes fluttered and closed. Nathan slipped his fingers up to the young man's throat.

"He's passed out is all." Nathan looked up at Buck. "Let's get him home. We gotta get this fever down." But he paused and squinted at the gunslinger. "You all right, Buck?" Buck didn't even try to hide his tears. He couldn't answer, but he nodded. Easily he lifted the unconscious boy, cradling him in his arms. Josiah walked up wordlessly and touched the boy's head. He glanced up at Buck, a world of remorse in his eyes.

"It's all right, Josiah." Buck's voice was husky. "I'm sorry I . . ."

"No need for that." Josiah patted his friend's shoulder.

Josiah took JD from Buck while the gunslinger mounted his horse. He was alarmed at how thin the boy was.

"Vin," Nathan said. "Ride on ahead and get that sickroom ready." He looked at the others. "It's gonna be another long night."


The sun was extraordinary. Beautiful sky. Not too hot, not too humid. Perfect.

"What time is it?"

Ezra peered out from under his hat and slowly pulled his watch out of the pocket of his vest. "Well, Mr. Wilmington, you'll be happy to know that . . ." he peered more closely at the dial, "three minutes have passed since your last inquiry."

"Well where the hell is it?" Buck paced nervously. Ezra was too amused to be annoyed. He noticed Vin trotting over.

"Any sign of it?" he asked, squinting down the road.

"It's late." Buck was exasperated.

"It's not noon yet, Buck." Chris Larabee was not wearing his trademark black. He sauntered over to his friends and grinned. "You're like an expectant father."

"Well pardon me for having a bit of enthusiasm." He tried to sound irritated, but he couldn't.

"How's JD?" Chris asked.

"Fever's almost gone. He's bouncin' off the walls."

Chris smiled. "That's better."

Ezra sighed. "I am quite certain Miss Welles doesn't mind keeping him occupied." He frowned. "Surely she would not give our little 'secret' away."

"No," Vin piped up. "She likes a good scheme, I think."

"Well . . ." Ezra didn't get his next sentence out, because of the cloud of dust that appeared on the horizon.

Buck whooped as the stage thundered into town.


Nettie Welles pursed her lips in disgust as JD squirmed.

"You are not gonna get well if you don't build up your strength."

"I'm well!" JD caught himself raising his voice and then he softened. "I am grateful for all you've done for me . . ."

"BUT" Nettie and Casey said at once. JD's jaw dropped open. "Oh, come on. I'm not that bad."

Casey looked conspiratorily at her aunt. "You were well when you got sick."

"Huh?" JD scrinched his face up - then laughed. "Casey, that sounded like something I'd say."

"I just meant . . ."

"I know what you meant," JD said.

"Good to hear you laugh again, son." Nettie smiled then set the tray in his lap. "Now, eat!" she commanded.

"Yes ma'am."

Soup. And it really was good. JD finally had an appetite. It had been so long - he'd been so sick. And it felt good to feel

Normal.

The influenza had damn near killed him. And no one realized he was even sick, because he'd kept to himself. He had been to consumed with this irrational quilt to pay attention. His resistance had been so low. How could anyone have known that the influenza in Eagle Bend could have traveled back with the men?None of them had gotten sick. JD hadn't even been to Eagle Bend. Nathan had a theory about how it had happened. JD'd have to ask him about that.

Buck's head poked around the door. "Hey kid!" He was grinning. JD had to grin back.

"What?"

"Look what I got ya." Buck sauntered in, holding a hat out as though it were on a dinner tray or sonmething.

The boy's face lit up. "Wow!! You got me a new hat!" JD was especially excited that Buck got him a bowler hat. Buck hates his hat. JD reached out. But Buck withdrew his hand and looked shocked.

"This?" Buck said in mock indignation. "This ain't what I brought you. And this ain't your hat."

Buck stepped aside and let the legend come into the sick room.

"It's his."

Buck handed the hat to the lawman.

And JD Dunne was dumbfounded as he came face to face with Bat Masterson.

"Hello, young man," Mr. Masterson said, pulling up a chair. "I've got to say, you've had more adventures than I had had at your age."

JD was still trying to find words, and Buck got tickled. JD didn't see his friends walk in. He was overwhelmed to see his idol. And his eyes filled.

Buck smiled at his friends, and they all left the two in the sickroom, to talk for the rest of the afternoon.


Buck and Chris sat with Judge Travis in the cafe. "That was a great move Buck." Chris raised his glass to his friend.

"It was almost too late," Buck observed.

Chris shook his head. "That boy has a guardian angel.

"I'd say he has six," the judge commented. He took a long sip of his coffee. Then he peered up at the two.

"And he's gonna need you."

Chris nodded. "This ain't over. As long as Chiles is out there, the kid'll be a target."

"We'll get him," Buck said soberly.

"And then get the guy who was the brains behind him." The judge took his time finishing his coffee. Chris and Buck looked at each other. They hadn't wanted to consider that possibility.

The judge stood up and laid a few coins on the table.

"You're right Mr. Larabee. This is nowhere near over."

THE END


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