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.

Returned of the Remembered
by The Desperado's Daughter

PART ONE: There's a Stranger in Town

"What the hell is going on in there?" Buck Wilmington was more curious than irritated as he heard angry voices in the livery. A split second after he noticed them, he recognized one of them. "Come on," he said, catching Vin Tanner's sleeve.

The dark interior of the livery was in stark contrast to the blaze of midday, and the men had to squint while their eyes grew accustomed to the different light.

They stood dumbfounded as they watched JD Dunne, unarmed, squaring up to a mountain of a man.

What did the kid think he was doing?

Buck ambled over to them and spoke good-naturedly.

"JD, everything ok?"

It wasn't. The boy was quivering with anger. But neither he nor the mountain seemed to notice Buck and Vin at all.

"You owe me, boy." The stranger's voice rumbled like a brewing storm.

JD looked at the ground for a moment. Buck and Vin stayed close enough to intervene if necessary.

When JD looked back at the big man, he nodded. "You're right."

With that, the kid shot a fist into the mountain's jaw, surprising him, but not making a dent.

"You little shit," the man growled, and he lunged for the boy.

Buck grabbed JD's arm and Vin made a move to restrain the big man. But the stranger had already reared back and slammed his meaty fist into the boy's face. JD would have been thrown across the stable floor, had Buck not been holding his arm. Instead the blow knocked him around Buck and damn near pulled his arm out of socket. Dazed, JD's other hand absently went to his face and his legs wobbled a bit. Buck held him up, but his eyes flashed at the man who'd hit him.

Vin got directly in the man's face. "Let's go outside. You don't want this fight." He glanced at the entrance and saw Chris Larabee and Ezra Standish. "Trust me," Vin finished.

Still, the man never took his focus off of JD.

"This ain't over, boy," he hissed.

Buck stepped up to him, getting between the man and the kid.

"Yes it is." Buck breathed back. Chris and Ezra drew closer and closed a tight circle around the stranger. And after a long moment the stranger took a step toward the door.

Then he turned and looked back at JD.

"We'll finish this - soon."

"It's finished," Chris said, matter-of-factly.

JD had steadied himself. His anger surging again, he jerked away from Buck and staggered toward the man. Buck started to hold him back, but Chris halted him with a look. The kid had something to say. His voice was hoarse.

"You will never get anything from me," he said. "Never." JD's eyes filled. "I'm not scared of you anymore."

A cold rage emerged among JD's friends. They hadn't known many details of the kid's past. And now one of those details was standing in front of them, threatening him.

"Of course you're not. You're surrounded by your. . ." he searched for a word.

"Gang." He took a step closer to JD and felt the presence of the other four closing in around him. He smiled a familiar sick smile that JD had learned to hate. "But you won't always be."

Chris Larabee grabbed the man by the collar and threw him against the wall. The horses in the livery were becoming restless with the activity and whinnied and blew in protest.

"Mister, you must really be stupid to stand there and make a threat like that." Chris pulled his gun from his holster and dug it into the man's ribs. "Don't you know we will take you apart if you are even in the same part of town as this young man?"

Vin's voice was ever calm. "Might be good for you to think about headin' on out this afternoon. I told you you didn't want to take on this fight."

The man shook his head. "I don't want a fight." He looked at JD.

"I want my son."


The cafe was bright and Josiah Sanchez was eating a leisurely lunch. It was one of those rare moments - a moment of absolute and utter peace and serenity. He sipped on the cold lemonade and closed his eyes. Life was good.

His moment was interrupted when a pitcher of ice-cold lemonade doused him.

"Holy sh - " The preacher edited himself when he looked up into the tear-filled eyes of a woman who appeared to be at least ten years older than he was.

"Oh, sir . . ." Her voice quivered as she took a step backwards. Then her foot slid on the lemonade that had puddled on the floor beneath them, and she shreiked.

Josiah reached with his strong arm and caught her.

"Oh, dear," she said softly, a tear sliding down her soft round cheek.

"I'm terribly sorry." Her face became pink and she tried to stand up - but her foot slid again, as if she were on ice. Josiah steadied her with his other hand and rose to his feet to help her regain her balance.

He walked her away from the mess on the floor and a sob hitched in her throat. "I am so sorry," she said, her eyes avoiding his. Sensing her uneasiness, he took a step away from her, releasing her.

"No harm done, ma'am." His voice was so rich - so tender.

"There's no excuse for my clumsiness." She wiped her hands on the tired apron she was wearing and chanced a look at him. "Please - I will clean your clothes. Or, I will buy you new ones." Her voice bore a slight accent. Slavic? Josiah couldn't quite tell.

His eyes smiled at her and he cocked an eyebrow, offering her his big hand. She looked bewildered for a moment, but then she tentatively let him take hers.

"I had just been thinking how hot it is and how delightful this lemonade is." A twinkle in his eye. "And I had never considered that it could be functional in any way other than . . . drinking it. But I confess . . ." He leaned over and let his lips brush the top of her hand. "I am cooler now than I ever would have been merely sipping it."

The woman smiled through her tears, and Josiah realized that she had been pretty. She probably still was - but she had lived hard, and wore the struggles of the years in her shoulders and her world-weary eyes.

Who was this man with the powerful, soothing voice? The man who was

dressed like a mountain man, yet carried himself like a nobleman. This tall, strong man. Who was he?

As if he had read her mind, he introduced himself. "I'm Josiah Sanchez and I'm pleased to meet you."

"That is nice for you to say, but I wouldn't be pleased to meet me." She paused - having confused herself - then her small mouth curved into slight smile. "At least, not in the way I introduced myself."

"All the more delightful." Josiah tipped his hat. "And now, if you will excuse me, I am going take a dip at the bath house and change clothes."

The woman's eyes clouded. "I am so sorry."

Josiah shook his head. "All is forgiven." He stepped toward the door then turned back. "Would you consider . . . having dinner with me?"

"Oh," came the startled reply. "I . . . I can't." She shook her head sadly. "I'm sorry." She turned quickly and retreated into the kitchen. Josiah sighed. This woman intrigued him. But he'd have to wait before he could find out just why.


JD's eyes were wide and his lip quivered. He could hardly find his voice.

"What?"

"I'm your father."

How could someone make the word "father" sound so ominous?

"That's a lie! My pa is dead. You are not my father." The boy turned to Buck. "He's not."

Buck rested a calming hand on JD's shoulder. The kid's muscles were knotted with tension.

"Yes, I am, boy. Your mother . . ." The man cut his eyes over to Ezra, as though Ezra would somehow appreciate what he was about to say. "A beautiful woman - the same black hair as the boy - and lovely eyes . . . well, you know."

He turned back to JD.

The man's voice was dripping with innuendo. "Your mama was more than a chambermaid, you know." Buck could feel JD coil in anger. Then, as if not convinced that the boy would catch the innuendo, the stranger went on.

"She . . ." He pretended to search for a word. "Serviced me and the other . . ."

"Liar!" JD screamed, suddenly bolting away from Buck and diving toward the man . . .

Vin caught the boy and Buck grabbed him from behind, pinning his arms to his sides, nearly lifting him off the ground.

"Lemme go!!!" JD screamed through his furious tears.

"Get him out of here!" Chris barked over his shoulder, still holding the man. He pressed his arm into the stranger's throat while listening to JD's screaming protests.

Once Vin and Buck had gotten the kid outside, Chris spoke in a voice that made even Ezra uncomfortable.

"Mister - I don't know what business you think you have with that kid - but it ends here."

Chris was as angry as Ezra had ever seen him. His wild eyes flashed. "It is a sorry excuse for a man that would torture a boy who is grieving over the loss of his mother."

Ezra couldn't understand why the man wasn't the least bit fazed by Chris.

"Unfortunately, you don't have any say over what happens to him." The stranger's voice was hampered not by fear, but by the pressure of Chris' arm against his throat.

And he persisted. "I have legal claim over him. He's still a minor. And I have the papers that say I can take him back with me."

"You ain't taking him anywhere." Chris Larabee breathed.

The man awkwardly reached into his pocket to pull out a crumpled document. Ezra took it from him and read to himself.

"Well -" Chris cried, impatiently.

"Well, it would appear that his story is accurate, assuming this man is the party in reference and that young Mr. Dunne is in fact underage." Ezra walked over to a shard of sunlight that cut through the slats of the livery's wall. He reread it as though somehow the words would be different if he read it in a different light. He considered the options. "I do, however, question the credibility of the document and it seems to me that it would be prudent to wire for confirmation of its authority."

"Confirmation?! It's signed by a f***ing federal judge. That's all the confirmation anyone needs." The man's eyes narrowed and he grinned defiantly at Chris. "You let me go or you'll be held in contempt of court."

A chuckle escaped Ezra's throat. "Sir, I'm afraid you are a bit confused in your understanding of jurisprudence. Mr. Larabee cannot be held in contempt of court as we are not currently IN court. He can only be obstructing justice . . ."

"Ezra!!" Chris rebuked him sharply, then he got right up in the stranger's face. "If you come near that boy, I will be right there," Chris' voice dropped to a growl. "And you won't stand a chance."


What had been blistering anger was evolving into devastating grief. JD's protests gave way to heavy sobs. Buck kept a steady, comforting hand on the boy's neck. Squinting, Vin looked down the busy midday street. No one in Four Corners needed to see JD's grief. Not like this. Vin caught Buck's eye and nodded toward the bathhouse. Understanding immediately, Buck steered his young friend to the quiet structure. No one would be there this time of day.

"It ain't true, Buck," JD repeated.

"I know, son. I know." He walked him into the musty room and they sat on one of the rickety benches. Vin stood outside the door in the event that the stranger rejected the advice Chris Larabee had no doubt given him and decided to set out after the kid.

Big sobs rocked JD's shoulders and he could hardly get his breath. Buck's own eyes were stinging in empathetic emotion . . . he remembered losing his own mother . . . amid whispers and innuendos. He did the only thing he could. The only thing that had offered him any relief, and he wrapped his big brother arms around the kid, pulling him into a strong embrace.

And Buck Wilmington grieved with him.


PART TWO: Too Many Coincidences

The big preacher looked down at his shirt and smiled. Sticky, wet lemonade everywhere. He was already pulling his shirt off when he made his way through the back door of the bathhouse.

Soft sobbing. Soft voices.

Josiah tentatively made his way across the room to the bench where JD sat with his head hanging. Buck was sitting beside him, patting him on the back. Buck glanced up at Josiah, his eyes inviting the preacher to join them.

"What happened?" Josiah asked, pulling a bench over and sitting across from JD.

The boy looked up slowly, about to speak, but a sob interfered. Josiah frowned at the red welt forming across the kid's cheek and the eye that was swelling shut. He brought his big hand up to JD's chin and gently turned his face to get a better look.

"Who did this, son?" Josiah asked, although he sensed that the boy's tears weren't for his injury.

"Gray . . ." JD began. "Grayland Adams."

It was evident that Buck hadn't heard this information yet.

"How do you know him?" Buck's voice was very kind.

JD sniffed and he bit back the next sob. He looked at the ground again.

"I used to . . . work for him." He corrected himself and his voice became hard. "We . . . used to work for him. My mother and I."

He turned an angry eye to Buck. "But she never . . ."

"I know, kid." Buck did understand exactly what he was feeling. And JD read that in his friend's expression.

"Buck - I don't mean that your mama . . ."

Buck hooked an arm around JD's neck. "I know that. Don't worry about it."

Josiah was taking in the conversation and got the gist of what was going on.

"How old were you when you worked for him?" Josiah asked.

"I was too young to work the first time we lived there. Then we went back when I was twelve or thirteen. We were having trouble making enough money to live on, and Mama thought he'd hire us. And he did."

Josiah lowered his voice. "Did he ever hurt you, JD?"

The kid's eyes flashed. "Why?"

Buck jumped in. "You said you weren't afraid of him anymore. Why were you afraid before?"

JD looked confused. "I don't want to talk about this."

"JD . . ." Buck pressed.

"No! " JD jumped up. "Look, what do you want me to say? That he's evil? That he's a mean son of a bitch? Well, he is. But you've seen him. You know that already."

He started taking long strides toward the door. Buck grabbed his arm to halt him, and JD winced as he felt the growing ache in his shoulder. The big man released him immediately and JD's hurt eyes met his friend's. His lip quivered. And he left the bathhouse.


"What do you want from the boy?" Chris Larabee's voice was little more than a hiss.

"That's between me and the boy."

Chris' eyes flashed and a maniacal grin crossed his face. "You really don't get it, do you? You're not ever gonna see him."

"That's for the courts to decide."

Vin Tanner stepped closer to the stranger. He spoke evenly.

"What did you do to him?"

"I don't understand."

"He said he wasn't afraid of you anymore," Vin explained. "Why would he have been before?"

A haughty laugh. "He was a slacker. He didn't want to work. I . . . encouraged him, that's all."

Ezra ceremoniously strolled to the center of the livery, like a lawyer making a sweep of the courtroom.

"Clearly, you underestimate our knowledge of the personality traits of Mr. Dunne. There is no more diligent worker among us. I can conjure up many appropriate monikers to describe the lad . . . and 'slacker' certainly isn't one of them." Ezra's drawl had a bite to it. "Now, perhaps you would care to restate your response to Mr. Tanner's question."

"I'm not telling you anything."

With that, Chris Larabee's fist connected with the stranger's jaw.

Still he didn't respond. Chris resumed the hold he'd had on the man, his forearm pressed against the stranger's throat.

"Vin." Chris' mood changed to a sarcastic congeniality. "Didn't you see him assault JD?"

"Yea, Ezra and I both did."

"Ezra?"

"Indeed I did. That was after he attempted to separate the boy from his wallet."

The stranger squirmed. "Oh, you can't possibly pull that off."

Vin smiled. "The kid'll have a shiner to show for it."

Chris turned the man around and bent his arm behind his back. "A man like this is a threat to our townfolk."

Ezra grabbed the stranger's other arm and trained his pistol on him. "I think incarceration is the only recourse for this blight on humanity. And as hired peacekeepers for this community, it is our duty to rid the people of any threat."

"You said it, Ezra," Vin smiled.

"You certainly did," Chris said as he pushed the man out of the livery.

The stranger struggled as they led him to the jail. A few of the people in town watched, but on the whole seemed disinterested. Mary Travis stepped out of the Clarion office, her eyes questioning Chris. He shook his head slightly, and she nodded her understanding. He'd tell her later.

They reached the jail and the mountain of a man tripped on the stairs. Chris hauled him up and dragged him inside.

"You're making a mistake," the stranger said as Chris shoved him into the cell. The lock clicked and he shook his head. He spoke in low tones to Chris.

"The harder you make it for me, the harder I make it for him."

Chris' expression never changed. "Mister, if I hear you make one more threat about that boy." His voice became little more than a growl. "And I will put a bullet between your eyes."

The man opened his mouth as if to reply.

But thought better of it.


JD was packing - quickly. The emotions of the last hour were driving him to reckless action. He frantically threw a few things into his worn suitcase. He hadn't brought much with him when he'd moved out here. He wouldn't take much back with him.

He was cussing at his empty underwear drawer when there was a knock on the door.

"JD . . ."

"Leave me alone, Buck."

Not only did JD not want to answer a bunch of questions, he was embarrassed that he'd broken down so completely in front of his friends. He just wanted to leave. He needed answers.

And he needed to get away from Grayland Adams.

"Come on, kid. Let me in."

"Just . . . go away." JD was exasperated. He knelt beside his bed and reached under it for any stray items that may have taken up residence there.

A sock.

Another one.

"I'm not leaving." Buck's voice was more insistent.

Damn, he was stubborn.

But JD was, too.

He picked up his stack of dimestore novels. Why the hell had he thought life would be any different out here? He felt so stupid. He wasn't meant to have a decent life. He flung the books across the room.

"JD, open the damn door."

The kid angrily opened it and wordlessly resumed his packing. Buck stepped in, acting like he wasn't shocked to see JD leaving.

"Where're you going?"

JD didn't answer. He opened the bottom drawer of the ancient bureau and pulled out the assortment of odds and ends he'd gathered over the last year and dumped them on the floor. He picked up a bandana and held it out for Buck.

"This is yours," he said. Buck took it and looked it over. He handed it back.

"Keep it."

JD was puzzled, but he kept going through things. Buck squatted beside him and started handing him things.

Helping him.

He picked up a deck of cards and chuckled.

"Your first deck of marked cards." Buck set them on the bed. "Just don't use them with anybody bigger than you."

JD looked up at him, about to speak. But didn't. He was hanging by a thread.

Buck just sat with him. And he scanned the belongings of this young man. This kid who'd won over even Chris Larabee. A kid whose life had been upheaved too many times. And he'd be damned if he'd let this . . . Adams fellow disrupt it again.

And if he hurt JD, he'd kill him.

Buck saw the glint of metal - silver - under a handkerchief. He pulled it out.

A locket.

Wordlessly, he handed it to JD.

And the boy's eyes filled again, as he fingered the necklace and remembered the sweet woman who'd worn it his whole life. He thumbed it open with a bit of difficulty, and saw the tiny portrait of a baby.

Of him.

He showed it to Buck. Buck nodded and cocked an eyebrow. He understood the boy.

JD's voice was little more than a whisper. "I have to know, Buck."

"I know."

"Don't try to stop me."

"I won't." Buck leaned closer. "But let me go with you."

JD was shocked. He knew what to say if Buck tried to talk him out of it. But he was taken aback that his friend would be willing to pick up and leave with him. For a moment the pain diminished a bit. He did have a family.

He had a brother.

He looked up at Buck and slowly nodded. His mouth forming a "thanks" but the emotion preventing any sound.


Nathan Jackson stepped into the cafe for a late lunch. He was so tired. What he needed was sleep. But with two people recovering in his rooms, he'd have to settle for food.

He stepped over to a seat by a window, only to find the wooden seat damp and the table as well.

"Oh, Sir," said a woman with a slight accent. "I'm sorry. I spilled lemonade here and have just mopped it up. I'm afraid your clothes are wet now."

"No harm done, ma'am." How dear his eyes were. "I can sit over there." He gestured to a table at another window, and walked over to it.

"Thank you, Sir." The woman smiled and took his order.

He was halfway through his meal when Chris Larabee walked in, Ezra Standish on his heels.

They sat across from Nathan, uninvited, but it was assumed. Chris was fuming. Ezra was relieved to have a respite from his intensity. He turned to Nathan.

"You look tired, my friend," Ezra said.

"I am." Nathan leaned back in his chair and took another bite of his toast. "Long night."

"If only people would have the courtesy to be ill during the day."

Nathan grinned. "It'd be nice if it worked that way." He glanced down at Chris' hand and frowned at his scraped knuckles. "I can put something on that."

"Nah," Chris said. "It's alright."

Ezra explained. "We've had a visitor." He paused to give the waitress his order. "I don't believe I've had the pleasure," he said to the woman. Chris eyed her, suspiciously.

"I arrived yesterday." The hint of her accent was intriguing. Even more intriguing was how anxious she was. "What can I get for you?" She asked quickly.

"The special," Chris answered.

Ezra however took his time. "I'll have the bean salad. But please do not add any pepper." He leaned over to Nathan. "I must speak to you about what could be an ulceration in my digestive tract."

Nathan paused in mid-bite.

"Forgive me," Ezra caught himself. "I will refrain from this conversation until we are all finished eating." He turned back to the waitress. "That will be fine."

"So tell me about this 'visitor'." Nathan said as the woman walked back to the kitchen.

"Not here." Chris spoke quickly, his eyes following her. "There are too many coincidences."

He didn't know the half of it.


PART THREE: Lemonade

Vin Tanner sat at the desk watching the stranger in the jail cell. What did he want with JD? It couldn't be good.

The big man paced around his cell like a caged cat - eyes flashing with a growing anger - an anger that could scare the hell out of a twelve year old kid. Vin studied him. He moved with a heavy authority, a practiced carriage. His hands were massive and his fingers curled into tight fists. The muscle at his jaw flexed as he grit his teeth. He was coiled and ready to strike at the first thing he came in contact with.

And that wouldn't be JD. Vin would make sure of that.

"What are you looking at?!" The big man exploded.

Vin cocked an eyebrow and stood up, looking him up and down. His voice remained low and steady.

"Nothing . . ."


This is crazy, Buck thought as he started throwing his clothes onto his bed. He had left JD to finish packing and to try to come up with a plan. What did the kid think he was gonna find? He didn't have any idea where to begin looking.

Buck would help him, though. Truth be told, he was more concerned with keeping the kid away from that Adams man than he was with this quest.

Who the hell was this guy? What had he done to the kid? Why had JD been afraid of him? Buck clenched his teeth. He and Chris could get to the bottom of this. Just give them a few minutes with Adams and there'd be no more problem. When he found out, he'd beat the living hell out of Grayland Adams. Chris and the others would have to wait in line. Somehow thinking about exacting revenge on that sorry son of a bitch made Buck feel better. At least it gave him a place to direct his fury.

God, Buck you sound like one of the kid's dime store novels. He smiled sadly. Poor kid. Why couldn't things just work out for him for once?

He shook his head. He had to stay clear-headed if he was going to help the kid. He looked under his mattress to see what his money situation looked like.

Good. He had enough to get him and JD through a couple of weeks.

What if Adams were who he claimed to be? As far as Buck was concerned, if he were the kid's father, he'd as soon JD never find out. Buck threw a shirt into his knapsack. Adams didn't care about the kid. He wouldn't be any kind of family for him. Besides, JD had a family now.

Buck opened a drawer and cussed. Why did he never have clean underwear? It seemed that everytime he opened his chest of drawers, he'd run out of something. Last week it was shirts. And today when he was trying to pack for a journey, he had no underwear. Well, he'd just rinse some out tonight and talk JD into leaving in the morning.

He couldn't know that JD would be long gone by then.


Ezra Standish hadn't eaten much lunch. Somehow he didn't have an appetite. He was walking toward the telegraph office.

Even before the idea came to him.

Oh, he would indeed check out the validity of the papers the man had waved about. But Ezra wanted more than that. There was something about that man - bad enough that he had a personal vendetta against JD - but there was something else. Something almost evil. This man wasn't an opportunist. Ezra would at least understand that. No, this man seemed intent on breaking the boy. And the gambler could not stand by and let him.

It was time to call in some favors.


He couldn't quite describe the weight on his chest, but JD felt it all the same. Scrambled, frightening thoughts clouded his mind. He remembered . . .

Abject fear.

Hurt, broken bones, never his face. Couldn't let his mother see. Couldn't tell her. He never hit him in the face.

An evil man. A man his mother would never have . . .

Well, she never would have been with him. JD studied his picture of her. No. She wouldn't have done what he'd said.

His heart ached with missing her. He'd loved her so much.

And because he loved so much, he also hated. And that scared him. He 'd experienced anger, fear, annoyance, but never hatred.

Until now.

Until this man - who had made his vulnerable childhood a living hell - dared to speak ill of his mother.

Rage coursed through his veins as the horrible thought occurred to him.

What if Adams were his father? That would only be true if he had . . .

Forced himself . . .

JD's heart pounded in his chest and his eyes became cold. If this man were his father, then he had hurt his mother.

JD slipped his colts into their holsters, and grabbed his hat.

He paused, looking at the bowler.

Damn hat! Damn those stupid novels!

Suddenly, he felt like a fool for believing he could be anything like his idol. He threw the hat across the room, and bolted out, not bothering to close the door behind him.


Maybe it was his audacity. Or his smugness.

Maybe it was that he seemed to enjoy tormenting the kid.

Whatever it was, Chris Larabee couldn't stand this man. And he needed to think of some way to keep him out of Four Corners and away from JD. He couldn't keep him in jail forever.

Maybe he'd just shoot him, he thought wryly. He sometimes wished he weren't so ethical. It'd be easier to just level the guy.

He headed to the jail. Vin had been there for a couple of hours. Maybe he'd thought of something.

But someone was walking ahead of him toward the jail - with great purpose. Aw, hell, kid. What are you doing?

"JD!" he called. The boy spun around, surprised. He waited nervously until Chris caught up with him.

"Don't try to stop me, Chris." His voice was low and almost ominous.

"What will killing him do?"

"He hurt my mother . . ."

"You don't know that."

JD bristled. "If you're saying that my mother. . ."

"I ain't suggesting anything of the kind, JD. But he may not even be your father." Chris' voice was steady. "If you go in there and shoot him and he's lyin', you've still thrown your whole life away." Chris bit the tip of a cheroot and squinted at the boy. "He don't strike me as worth it."

The kid looked . . . defeated almost. Chris avoided any sentimentalism. He resisted the temptation to put a reassuring hand on the boy's shoulder. Sometimes the boy's pride was the only thing he had going for him. It could also be the thing that would kill him one day. If JD was going to get through this, he would have to feel strong. Otherwise, Grayland Adams would gain the upper hand.

And Chris would be damned if he'd let that happen.

"Ezra's checking out some of his 'claims' and I figured Vin and I could ask Mr. Adams some direct questions." Chris's intentions were clear. He'd muscle the answers out of the man if necessary. "Why don't you wait for me?"

"Buck and I are going east to find our own answers."

Buck had told Chris about this. "Well, just hold off on leaving til we find out what Ezra comes up with. And what me and Vin find out."

JD's sensitive hazel eyes searched the gunslinger's steady blue ones. Chris could see the trust that registered there. JD nodded, then lowered his gaze. Chris realized that JD didn't want Chris to see how much pain he was feeling. Long dark lashes hid the eyes that told too much. For a moment, Chris felt like his own son stood before him.

"You eaten yet?"

"Huh?" JD was startled from his thoughts.

"Go get some supper. We'll come over and tell you what we find out. Then you can tell us what you want to do."

JD sighed heavily. "Yea. All right."

Chris nodded, and started toward the jail.

"Mr. Larabee?"

Chris turned back toward the kid.

"Thank you."

Chris tipped his hat to the boy and watched as he went to the cafe.

"You're welcome, son," the gunslinger breathed. "You're welcome."


Mary Travis locked the Clarion and eyed the street. Not too busy, but there were whisperings around the jail. She resisted the temptation to check out the new prisoner. Chris would tell her.

She realized again how heavily the heat hung in late afternoon, and she mindlessly tied her hair back. She started for the telegraph office - only to be nearly run over by Ezra Standish.

"Oh . . . " He elegantly caught her elbow. "Please forgive me, Mrs. Travis. Are you all right?"

"Yes," she answered absently. "Mr. Standish, has something happened?"

The gambler frowned, then looked around. "Could we speak privately?"

"The Clarion?"

"That would be ideal." Ezra rested an easy hand on Mary's back, as they went back to the office. Mary unlocked the door and, once inside, Ezra had her lock it back.

Ezra's eyes questioned her a bit. "You must promise that you will not print anything until this matter is resolved."

"Mr. Standish, the people have a right . . ."

Ezra turned quickly to the door. "Then our conversation is over . . ."

"Wait!" Mary grabbed his arm. "Wait. I'm sorry. I won't print anything."

Ezra challenged her. "Do I have your word?"

"Yes," Mary's low voice and intense eyes reassured him.

She sat at the desk and listened to the account of the day's events. Not even realizing how dark the room was becoming in the early evening. Then, she listened, almost calculatingly, as Ezra, tightlipped, read the telegram to her.

"Why don't you incarcerate JD? For his own protection?" she suggested.

"That will only be a stopgap measure. If this is true, we have to relinquish him to that . . . ogre."

"Surely a fair judge won't send a boy to a man who is intent on harming him?"

"Well, Mrs. Travis, not every judge is fair."

And Ezra left, pondering his options.

Mary returned to the telegraph office to wire for her own kind of help.


JD's foot bounced nervously. Where was everybody? Nobody was at the saloon. Nobody had come in for supper yet. But Chris had told him to wait for him.

And he trusted Chris.

The sweet woman had already brought him an extra piece of pie - for free, she'd said, because he reminded her of a boy . . .

Did he want more lemonade?

"Huh?'

He'd been staring out the window at the familiar town, the town that had become dear to him.

And also at a world that had come down around his ears.

"More lemonade?" Her face was kind, but her eyes . . . they were troubled. Apprehensive? She kept watching the door. They were the only ones in there.

She took his old glass and put a new glass in front of him.

Later he would kick himself for not noticing that she didn't bring the pitcher out for a refill like she had before.

He stared out the window, drinking absently. Where was everyone? Why hadn't Chris come back? It must really be late. So tired. He was so tired.

Why was everything . . . fuzzy? His eyes grew wide. Something was wrong. Very wrong. He tried to turn his head, but his neck was strangely stiff. And his head pounded.

"Are you all right, young man?"

Who was that? Oh, the lemonade lady. He gathered his strength before answering her. The last thing he remembered after saying, "No ma'am," was being lifted roughly out of the chair and everything going black.


"You can't do that, Chris!" Buck yelled, kicking the dirt under his feet. "God only knows what that sick . . . bastard has done to that boy. If we just hand him over . . ."

"The boy will be a slave to him." Everyone turned to look at Nathan.

Nathan, Josiah and Buck had joined Vin and Chris beside the jail. Ezra had delivered the telegram to them and was now watching the prisoner.

Josiah nodded. "That'll break his spirit." The big man walked over to Chris. "We can't let that happen. We can't let JD anywhere near him."

Chris' voice was low. "Of course we can't."

"What the hell are you . . ."

Chris interrupted Buck. "The only thing the judge requires is that we release him. We don't have the authority to force JD into his custody."

A voice boomed from the jail. "I have the authority . . ."

Ezra's voice boomed back. "Sir, you are bordering on disturbing the peace. Now shut the hell up."

Vin had to smile at Ezra's atypical outburst. Chris motioned his friends away from the jail. He had a plan.


Mary Travis sat at a table in the cafe, watching out the window. She sighed. Where was everybody? She didn't notice the approach of the nervous woman.

"What can I get for you?" the server repeated. Mary turned to her and smiled her apology.

"I'm sorry. I'm a bit distracted." She thought a moment. "I'll just have the special.

The woman in the apron looked over her shoulder. What was the "special"? She looked down to her hands, which trembled a bit.

Mary touched her arm. "Could I just have a bowl of soup?"

The woman looked relieved. "Soup! Yes ma'am." She nodded, then scurried away.

Mary's eyes followed her to the kitchen. Where was she from? When had she gotten to town?

She turned back to the window and watched the street. Some folks were headed to the saloon. There was no sign of the peacekeepers. She wished one would come by. She had so many questions.

She also had one answer. Orin Travis would be in Four Corners on the noon stage tomorrow. He knew every judge in this part of the country, and probably knew many from other parts of the country. Even if this judge were legitimate, at least Judge Travis would argue on the boy's behalf. Travis would never let a boy be returned to an environment in which he had been harmed in any way. She sighed again.

Come on, Chris.


Grayland Adams stepped out of the jailhouse - cussing over the lost time and thundering down to the livery. He wouldn't be able to go anywhere tonight - certainly not with the kid. His damn babysitters had probably whisked him off somewhere. If only Magda could get one thing right. She at least should have set the meeting with the boy.

The big man took a step into the livery and felt strong arms grab him, dragging him out the back door. The man with the moustache - the one who'd left earlier with the kid - slammed him into the wall.

Six men faced him. Hard eyes challenged him. For a moment he thought they would beat him up. They could certainly kill him.


Magda pulled the apron over her head and tossed it to a chair in the kitchen. It slid to the floor.

No matter. There was no time. She had to leave. Her lip quivered as she thought of the boy. She hated this. But, she had no choice, she reminded herself. She slipped out the back door, and into the night.


Buck was glad to see the flicker of fear in Grayland Adams eyes - fear he knew JD had felt many times as a kid.

Chris Larabee approached the man. He was so casual, and somehow that was all the more menacing. "Stay clear of the kid. Don't talk to him. Don't contact him."

Vin crossed in front of Chris and got in the man's face. "Why don't you head out of town? You can make Southridge in under an hour."

"Gentlemen, I do have legal custody."

Ezra shook his. "No sir. You do not. The only instruction we were given by Judge Robert Loomis was to free you from your incarceration. The boy will not be delivered into your custody until Judge Loomis speaks to your . . ." Ezra pulled out the "court order" Adams had brought with him. ". . . Mr. MacGregor. One or both of the judges will come to Four Corners day after tomorrow and you may restate your claim at that time."

Adams' eyes narrowed. "I am within my rights . .."

Buck crowded next to him. "You don't lay a hand on him." Adams didn't respond, but a slight grin crossed his face. Buck grabbed a handful of shirt and shoved him back into the wall. Buck's voice was little more than a growl. "You touch him - and I'll kill you. You understand me?"

Adams nodded.

Chris lightly touched Buck's arm, and his friend slowly backed away.

Chris maintained his casual attitude. "If you so much as speak to JD Dunne, you will have six bullets to deal with. Are we clear?"

Again, Adams nodded. Chris slowly backed out of the man's way. Buck and Vin moved as well. But just as Adams was about to reinter the livery, Josiah Sanchez blocked his path. He didn't say anything. After a long uncomfortable moment, Adams walked around the preacher and disappeared into the livery.

"Let's get JD." Chris immediately barked instructions. "Buck, you take JD in the morning, but check back the next morning. Josiah, you and Nathan keep an eye on Adams. Ezra . . ."

"I'll follow up on my leads."

Chris nodded at him. Josiah headed to the church, Nathan to his infirmary. Both had a good view of Mr. Adams' actions from those vantage points.

"Where's JD?" Vin asked.

"Cafe." Chris' answer was terse. He nodded to Vin and Buck. "Come on."


Mary glanced back to the kitchen. Where was her soup? Surely it didn't take that long to ladle some soup into a bowl. She was about to go find her server, when another glance outside showed that Chris, Vin and Buck were coming to the cafe. She felt strangely relieved.

As she waited for them, another strange thought occured to her.

She'd never gotten her lemonade.


PART FOUR: A Quality Lie

Josiah watched the big shadow of Grayland Adams emerge from the livery. He was smart not to leave after dark, but Josiah wasn't happy about seeing him heading toward the boarding house. The preacher emerged from the unfinished church and he sat on the front steps. He knew Nathan was watching from his clinic.

Josiah was about to follow Adams when he saw Ezra leaving the telegraph office. He whistled a signal that only the seven knew, and Ezra glanced toward it. Josiah nodded toward the boarding house and Ezra caught sight of Grayland Adams stepping into the house . . . where visitors to Four Corners spent the night . . . and where several of his friends lived . . .

Where JD lived . . .

Ezra nodded at Josiah and followed Adams into the boarding house.


Mary stepped out of the cafe, lips pursed, anger evident. She wasn't watching where she was going, she was so lost in thought. And when Chris Larabee startled her, she spun on him, furious.

"Hold on, Mary," Chris said, holding her arms. "What's wrong?"

Vin and Buck stayed away from the scene playing itself out.

"Let go of me," Mary demanded, and Chris released her immediately.

Chris searched her eyes. "Are you all right? Has something happened?"

Mary was confused for a moment. "Other than you scaring the . . . daylights out of me?" She straightened her skirt and looked at the ground for a moment. Then she looked back at the gunslinger. "I'm sorry, Chris. I'm just . . . hungry." She glanced back at the cafe. "I waited for half an hour for my supper . . . and it never came. I never even got my lemonade." Chris looked back at Buck and Vin and motioned for them to check it out.

"Did you call for the waitress or the cook?"

"It was a new woman - she had an accent. . ."

"We met earlier. She was slow but not that slow."

"I checked the kitchen - and there was no sign of her, or the cook, or my supper, for that matter."

Chris' brows furrowed. "Did you happen to see JD?"

"No." Mary began to feel a bit anxious. "Should I have?"

"I told him to wait for me there. That was maybe forty-five minutes ago."

"Then I should have seen him." Mary turned back toward the cafe, but Chris gently touched her arm and guided her in the opposite direction. If he is in trouble, the cafe may not be safe. Josiah had made his way into the street.

"Trouble?" he asked.

"Maybe."

"Adams just went into the boarding house. Ezra's following him."

Chris sighed. "JD may not even be there. He may have been taken from the cafe."

"Then Adams couldn't have done it." Josiah shook his head.

"Maybe JD took off of his own accord." Mary knew the boy wanted answers.

Chris grit his teeth. What if JD had changed his mind and took off after Adams? What if he were waiting to ambush him?

Damn.

"Mary - Let Josiah take you to Nathan's until things settle down a bit." She started to protest. "At least until everybody's accounted for."

"But . . ."

"Chris!" Vin's voice cut the awkward moment.

The tough gunslinger turned concerned eyes to Mary. "Please . . ."

Mary nodded.

Josiah's soft baritone was calming. "Let us know as soon as you know something."

Chris nodded and ran to see what Vin and Buck had discovered.


Ezra didn't just walk into the boarding house. He almost glided. Every move he made was polished. And he looked debonaire. Anyone watching him would think he owned the town. His eyes bore an aristocratic authority, his fine features revealing only what he wanted to reveal. His voice was musical and easy, and his lexicon was intimidating to a newcomer.

There were only a couple of folks in the big room downstairs, chatting and enjoying an aperitif. Under normal circumstances, he might have joined them, but now he needed be ready to intervene if Grayland Adams had any thought of chatting with JD Dunne. Ezra hoped the boy was at the cafe like he was supposed to be.

"You just can't leave a law-abiding citizen be, can you?" Adams squared off with the gambler - towering over him.

Ezra wasn't the least bit intimidated. "Oh, I don't think you are as law-abiding as you would have us believe."

"If you intend to slander my name, you'd best have proof."

Ezra took a step back from the mountain of a man, laughing to himself, infuriating Grayland Adams. "Proof from Maryland perhaps?" Ezra prodded. "From Massachusetts?"

Adams face became ashen. Ezra cocked an eyebrow and feigned a look of great concern. "Your orphanages? Oh, that's right, they aren't in your name. But they are yours, are they not?" Ezra's eyes became cold and his finger twitched on the release of his derringer.

"What do you intend for JD Dunne? Your 'son'? What exactly do you want from him?" Ezra's voice became calculating. "Don't you find enough . . . workers . . . among the children in your filthy institutions?"

A roar erupted from Gryaland Adams as he dove on the gambler. But Ezra had anticipated the move and stepped aside. The derringer popped into his hand and Ezra stood over the man who had landed on the floor.

"Don't think about assaulting me. I still have keys to the jail, and the fact that you have already attempted to do me bodily harm has given me pause to consider incarcerating you yet again. But, as I am sure that you intend to leave Four Corners first thing in the morning, I will do nothing to hinder your departure." Ezra's voice became nothing more than a hiss. "Now get the f*** out of my building."

Adams rolled on his side and got up warily. Ezra watched him lumber down the stairs - knowing he had made a permanent enemy. And he smiled to himself. So he didn't own the boarding house.

But if Grayland Adams could lie badly

Ezra Standish would thoroughly enjoy lying well.


Buck paced around the dimly lighted cafe like a caged cat. "Then where the hell is he?"

"All I know is that someone was dragged out of here." Vin Tanner was frustrated as well. They both turned when Chris emerged from the kitchen.

"And we know that the lemonade was drugged."

"What?" both of his friends asked at once. Chris handed the glass to Buck.

"What the hell is it?" He handed the strange smelling glass to Vin.

"Nathan will know," Vin offered.

Buck slammed his fist on one of the hard tables. "How could we just . . . lose him like this? We're so busy trying to scare the holy hell out of Adams, we can't even protect the kid. Someone just snatches him right out form under our noses." Buck got right in Chris' face. "JD was scared. He was hurting over his mama. And he trusted us - he trusted ME to get him through this." Suddenly Buck's eyes filled. "I let him down."

Chris put a strong hand on his old friend's shoulder. "We'll find him. And we will get him through this."

Vin looked at the floor for a moment. Then he spoke. "They can't have gone far." He grabbed a lamp. "Which one of you wants to track 'em with me?"

Buck looked around, frustrated. "I'm gonna go find Grayland Adams and shake the truth out of him."

Chris grabbed his arm. "No. Wait til he leaves town. He'll lead us right to him."

"What if it's too late, Chris?"

Vin spoke up. "He doesn't want him dead. He wants him to be his . . . slave."

Buck nearly came flying out of his skin. "If he touches him . . ."

"We all will." Chris' promise was as binding as a legal document.

"You comin'?" Vin asked.

Chris patted Buck's shoulder. "Go on. Find him."

And Chris uttered a prayer as his friends went out in the night.

"Please God, let the kid be all right."


PART FIVE: The Trail

When he woke up, he was moving.

And he was tied up.

JD Dunne had never had a headache like this, in his life. He squeezed his eyes tightly closed and pressed his hands against his head, hoping to relieve some of the pressure.

His stomach rolled. He turned onto his side and vomited.

The woman with the accent. He remembered the accent. She spoke kindly to him, and dabbed a damp cloth at his mouth. She'd been there. She'd brought him lemonade and lunch. Whoever had kidnapped him must've gotten her, too. But why? What had happened? Something so bad had happened. Why was his mind so cloudy?

He wanted to ask the woman if she was all right, but he was so sick. He was too sick to talk. Oh God . . .

He threw up again.

"Easy, young man."

The sweet voice again. She lay a cold cloth on his forehead, and with another cloth, wiped his mouth.

"Thank you," he tried to say, but his head hurt so badly. Maybe he could ask her to rub circles on his head. His mother always did that when he was sick. Yea, he'd ask this nice lady for help.

But he passed out instead.


Progress would be slow. There was only so far they could go at night with just a lantern. But they had an advantage in that whoever had taken JD knew nothing about covering tracks.

"This ain't gonna be too bad . . . " Vin said. "The trackin' part, anyway."

Buck didn't say anything. For a long time. And oddly enough, that bothered Vin. Even though he himself wasn't talkative, Vin enjoyed with his talkative friends.

Especially Buck.

But when Buck was quiet . . . well, it was eerie. And it left too much room for thinking.

This was such a bizarre situation. Here was a man who could easily kill JD with his bare hands. For that matter, he could have killed him this afternoon.

And what did JD have that would be worth so much to a man like Grayland Adams? It obviously wasn't money. JD didn't have anything, and even if he did, Adams wouldn't need it. He clearly had plenty.

If he were JD's father, he certainly didn't have any affection for him. That pissed Vin off as much as anything. He was a heartless son of a bitch if he was his father - and just plain evil if he wasn't. Either way, Vin Tanner had no use for him.

Did he want to make JD work for him? Free labor, was that it? Surely not. He had other sources and means. It wasn't likely that he would travel so far just for that.

Maybe the kid knew something - something so horrible that Adams needed to shut him up. Or was it revenge? Maybe that was it. But what could JD possibly have done that would anger a man like that enough to track the kid all the way across the country? Maybe he had been tracking JD for a long time and finally caught up with him.

Maybe he would have killed JD if they hadn't been interrupted.

Damn!

With every consideration, Vin became more and more angry.

But it was the other possibility - the as-of-yet unspoken one - that was unthinkable.


Grayland Adams wandered down the street. If that prissy gambler wouldn't let him spend the night in the boarding house, there was always the saloon.

It was lively. Adams had to give it to this piss-ant town - they knew how to drink. He slammed a meaty hand on the bar and ordered the strongest drink the establishment had. That would pass the time until he could catch up with the others. At least he knew they had the kid.

That was one thing that hadn't gotten totally messed up.

"Well, Mr. Adams, isn't it?"

The prissy gambler was sitting at a poker game with one open seat.

"Shit," the big man muttered.

"Would you care to join us in a game of chance?" Ezra acted as though nothing had passed between the two. "I'd be delighted to play opposite you. What is your game?"

"Is there no escaping you, Mr. Priss?"

Ezra chuckled, and Adams heard other voices chuckling at a table in the shadows in the back of the saloon.

"Mr. Priss?" Ezra repeated. "Next thing you'll do is call Mr. Larabee a 'cowboy.'"

"Hazardous to your health," Josiah emerged from the shadows. "Either way you call it."

"So what're you planning?" Chris' voice cut through the air.

"As in 'When the hell are you making your departure?'" Ezra continued, dealing the cards to the three regulars sitting at the poker table and to an empty space no one occupied as of yet. Josiah or Buck usually took that seat if it was still available. Sometimes Chris would.

Adams took a long swallow of his drink, patted his abdomen and pulled out an impressive roll of cash. He sat across from Ezra and looked over his cards. He could make easy work of these yokels.

Little did he know.


There was a treacherous bounce. The rickety wagon couldn't absorb the jerk, and JD was thrown hard into the wooden side.

He groaned and tried to sit up - but bound as he was, it was damn near impossible. He had to get his bearings. He had to open his eyes. But his head hurt. And the nausea.

He took a big breath. He could fight this. He could do it.

He squinted until his eyes got used to the dark. It took a minute. And now that it was nighttime, it was even harder to see inside the canvas cover.

Finally, JD could make out a face. A woman's face. A sweet face.

"Are you all right, ma'am?" he asked.

"Yes sir . . ."

"Sir?" he questioned. Poor woman. She was mixed up. "Oh, I'm not a 'sir' yet," he said. Something had to relieve this excruciating pressure. Where were his friends? He needed to get out of here. He couldn't exactly remember the really bad thing that happened. Buck would know. He needed to get out - and he needed to get the woman out, too.

"I'll find a way to get us out of here, ma'am." He looked at her more closely. "They didn't hurt you, did they?"

She shook her head quickly. Satisfied, JD closed his eyes again. "Well, be ready to move with me, ok?"

She didn't answer.

"Ma'am?" His voice was soft and kind.

She was sobbing quietly.

"It'll be all right," JD said. "I promise."


How long had they been traveling? A couple of hours? She ached where she had been thrown against the side of the wagon. How long ago had they hit that crater in the road?

thank God, the boy had fallen asleep again. This was wrong. What Grayland Adams wanted to do was wrong. Taking this boy away from the people who obviously loved him - that was wrong. Even if this boy were his son; no, especially if he were Grayland Adams son, this was wrong.

But what could she do? How could she win her freedom back without working off her debt? And there was her own daughter to consider. She couldn't jeopardize her chance at a better life. Even if she had to hurt this young man to do it.

Oh, if she could only explain it to the boy - maybe she could make him understand.

But she couldn't betray Grayland Adams. She had a debt to pay.

He was a good and kind soul. He wanted to help her - even as he suffered from that god-forsaken concoction they'd put in his lemonade. He'd fought to stay conscious - for her sake. But the poison was too strong and the best he could do was fade in and fade out.

She studied the young man - the pale skin, the boy's beard that was trying so hard to grow, the shock of black hair. Even unconscious, she knew he hurt. His face was lined with the pain. And the fever was starting to rise. He was an innocent. And Adams would do whatever he could to take that from him.

She had liked the young man from the moment he entered the cafe. He had seemed distracted somehow, then he quickly had apologized to her for being rude - for not paying attention to her when she came by to take his order. She had watched him drink the lemonade. He had realized in only a moment that it wasn't right. She had cringed when the two muscle men jerked the boy out of the chair and took him out to the wagon, tying him up and roughly throwing him into the bed of the canvas-covered transport.

But he didn't know she was an accomplice. He didn't know she had poisoned him. And now, anytime he woke up, he was trying to find a way to rescue her. The hard sobs that racked her body were for him. And for the guilt she knew would accompany her for the rest of her life.

She couldn't think of what would happen to the boy. He looked so fragile somehow. Oh God, save him. And save me. Mea culpa.


"We never should have let him out of our sight."

It was the first thing Buck Wilmington had said since leaving Four Corners.

"Well, we never let the man who posed a threat to him out of our sight." Vin made sure his answer was very calm. "There was no way to know anyone else was looking for him."

"There was something in JD's reaction to that man. I've seen the kid when he's afraid - when he's trying to hide that he's afraid. But this . . . It was something completely different." Buck's voice became huskier. "That man had gotten to his core somehow. He'd . . . hurt him . . . deep. And his hatred for the man,"

"Is a scary thing to see in a kid that young." Vin finished.

"When I think of that man . . hurting a child . . ." Buck had to stop talking for a moment. His throat was aching. "I can't stand it. And JD? Who would want to hurt him?"

They rode on in silence, then Buck continued. "JD has such a good heart."

"His mama must've been something."

"Have you seen his pictures of her?" Buck smiled as he remembered.

"No."

Buck sighed. "She really was beautiful."

"What did she die of?" Vin asked.

"JD never said, but I think she got sick."

Suddenly Vin pulled up short.

"What?" Buck asked.

The tracker was off his horse in less than a second, scouting the trail and the great gaping hole in the path ahead. The wagon had traveled through here, and had left some debris on the trail.

"Buck?"

The gunslinger squatted beside his friend and examined the items on the ground.

They found splintering wood, a couple of sacks of meal, and a couple of pieces of torn cloth.

"Someone's been sick," Vin explained.

Buck felt a weight on his chest. God help him - if they'd done anything to the kid, he would kill every last one of them. It was bad enough that this Adams fellow had wrecked JD's childhood, if he hurt him again, he would kill him

And he would make it hurt.


PART SIX: The Chase

After an all-night poker game, Grayland Adams had accrued substantial winnings. He would not know until much later that these winnings were acquired due to the gambling skill of Ezra Standish. Ezra was so gifted that he could bilk money from one party and deliver it to another. All this he could accomplish without anyone realizing what was happening--even those who benefitted by it.

As soon as morning broke, Adams gathered his winnings and started out. It was at this moment that the charade began in earnest.

"Mr. Adams." Ezra stood and walked to the door with the big man. "I trust that you will remember our conversation last night. My friends and I will not be so gracious on any subsequent visits you make to our little township. When our young friend wakes up this morning, I want to be able to assure him that he will never have to interact with you in the future. Do you understand?"

"I don't have to promise you anything."

Ezra's little derringer slid into his hand. "Well, sir, I would have to disagree with you on that matter. You will promise to leave Four Corners and never return, or I promise that I will shoot you where you stand."

Ezra smiled and Adams smiled back. "No need for that," Adams said. "Put your weapon away." With a mock flourish, he put his hand over his heart. "I promise that I will leave Four Corners and never return."

Adams took one more step toward the door, but Ezra blocked his path, his pistol still trained on the stranger. "Just remember that once I get documentation from the towns where you have institutions, the circuit judge will issue a 'shoot on sight' ordinance any time you set foot in this town. Six men in this town witnessed your threatening of a young man. And I daresay any of those six will carry out that order."

Ezra stepped out of the way and let the man pass. He called after him. "I will tell Mr. Dunne that you are gone and you will not return."

Adams kept walking. He didn't see the two riders who had positioned themselves just outside of town, waiting to follow him.


Voices. He couldn't make out what they were saying yet. It was frustrating, but he'd figure it out later.

JD felt a little better. His body did anyway. His heart didn't, though. He couldn't get the thought out of his mind--Grayland Adams couldn't be his father.

Where was Buck? Where were his friends? When would they come to "save the day"? He knew they would . . . eventually.

He glanced around. Something was different, but he didn't know what. He was still fuzzy. They were still moving.

Where was the woman--the one who'd helped him?

Oh God, what had they done to her? JD strained to hear the voices better. It was hard to hear them, especially because he was still so groggy. He couldn't move much because his hands were bound, and whatever they had drugged him with made it hard for him to think clearly. But he knew he had to help her. He'd promised her.

The sun was barely pinking the eastern sky. That could either help or hurt his efforts to make a move. He wouldn't have the safety of darkness if he waited much longer, but, on the other hand, if he had some sun, he could see where he was going.

The voices should give him some idea of what he was up against.

So he waited and he listened.


The silence between Buck and Vin was not the easy comfortable silence of two friends on a casual trip, nor was it an awkward silence. No, it was a safe silence. Speaking their horrible, fearful thoughts might reinforce the unacceptable possibility that they could be true.

So the two friends rode along, tracking. Their journey was punctuated by an occasional discovery of some discarded item, the most interesting of which being a scrap of cloth in which someone had become sick.

"If whatever they used to knock the kid out was poison, he'd have gotten sick from it." Vin tried to keep his voice matter-of-fact, but his anger was all too clear.

When the sun started to crest over the eastern horizon, they picked up their pace. They had to find the kid. And they had to find him fast.


Grayland Adams was pissed.

No, it was worse than that; he was infuriated.

Not only had the boy slipped through his fingers, but those g**damn gunslingers had wrecked a whole day. Well, at least the night was profitable. He rested a hand on the saddlebag. Not a total loss. He was glad he had waited until morning to leave. If they were gonna follow him, better to let Magda and his men get a head start with the boy. Magda better have that boy with her, because he'd be damned if he was ever going back to that hell hole.

He was oblivious to the riders shadowing him. He had looked for anyone following, but he had no idea how skilled his adversaries were. He'd never had anyone trail him before, so he didn't realize that they could stay out of sight and still chase him.

That kid better be worth the trouble. Stupid shit kid. Adams shook his head and spurred his horse on.


Did these people never stop? Or maybe he'd been unconscious when they stopped last. Well, they'd better stop soon. At least he was clearer than he'd been the last time he woke up. But he'd also been blindfolded.

Oh, God, he thought.

Grayland Adams. Grayland Adams was behind it.

And he remembered. Everything. Yesterday. Years ago. He remembered. His heart pounded and he began to tremble. This can't be happening. This can't be happening.

Please Buck, please. Please come get me. Come find me. Chris. You've gotta come after me. Somebody.

Grayland Adams. He was probably on the wagon with them. JD felt a panic rise in his throat. It was one thing to stand up to the man when his friends were in town, and another thing entirely to be drugged and bound and now blindfolded. He could not be at that man's mercy.

He hated that his eyes filled. . . that that man could still make him wake up in a cold sweat.

Don't lose your head, JD told himself. Keep it together. If you don't . . .

He tried to slow his breathing and he made himself listen to the voices in the front of the wagon.

And none of them belonged to Grayland Adams. He was almost afraid to feel relieved.

But they mentioned Grayland Adams - catching up with him, "delivering the boy". And worst of all. . .

She was part of it. The sweet woman with the accent. She had drugged him.

He had to get away.

And he had to get away now.


As the sun opened the sky and revealed all of the secrets of the nightworld, Buck began to feel sick. He'd been concerned, but now he was a panicked. He'd seen guys like Adams hanging around when he was a kid. His mother had protected him from them, but what if JD's hadn't.

Oh, God.

"How old do you think JD is?" Vin asked. "Really?"

Buck was lost in his own thoughts.

"HEY!" Vin said.

"HUH?" Buck stopped cold. Vin put his hand on Buck's arm. "Easy. I just asked a question."

They started moving again.

"Sorry," Buck muttered.

"You were 'bout a million miles away."

"And I said I was sorry!"

Vin didn't let Buck's tone of voice faze him. "It wasn't an attack. I'm worried about him, too."

Buck looked over at his friend. "I know." The big gunslinger shook his head. "I just can't imagine what his life must have been like . . . "

"I know. How old do you think JD is?"

Buck shrugged. "No older than nineteen - if he was he'd say so - no younger than . . .sixteen?"

"That's what I was figuring, too."

"Either way, he's just a kid. And he's had a tough time of it."

"I'm glad he's riding with us. I think he's learned a lot." Vin took a swallow of water and handed the flask to Buck. "And he's happy. I reckon he hadn't been for a long time."

"Hurts to lose your mama no matter how old you are."

Vin pulled up short.

"What?"

Vin slid off his horse and knelt in the path. "They stopped here. Footprints . . . two men, one woman. JD's aren't here so either he's not with them . .."

"Or he couldn't get out of the wagon." Buck hissed. Vin looked up at him and nodded.

"We gotta find him." Buck's voice was charged with anxiety.

Vin hopped back up on his horse. "We will."


From this distance, Grayland Adams didn't look nearly as formidable as he did up close. Chris Larabee watched him . . .

And Nathan watched Chris Larabee.

"Nathan." Chris said, chewing absently at a bit of cherroot. "Does it look like Mr. Adams is heading toward Yuma Pass?"

Nathan let his gaze follow Chris' and he nodded. "Looks that way."

"Why don't you ride on ahead and . . . prepare the way for him?"

"Why, I think that would be a fine idea," Nathan answered and Chris nodded. "I'll stay on him, and we'll meet . . ."

"I'll wait for him, then I'll find you."

A grin tugged at Chris' mouth. "That'll work."

And Nathan rode on to sabotage the trail.


It was taking him forever to make any progress at all. JD was scooting ever so slowly to edge of the wagon. He didn't know how far off the ground he was. And, except for rough or smooth, he couldn't tell what the topography of the land was. He could be getting ready to plummet off a cliff for all he could tell. But even that was better than one more minute in the presence of that man. He felt the wagon wheel shimmy, and he realized that that could be the very impetus he needed.

God help me, he prayed as he silently hoisted himself on the back railing of the wagon. He worked his head through the canvas. Boy, they didn't know about traveling through this part of the country, not to even have a rear senty posted. Well, that was a break for him.

Oh, man, this could be suicide. But he had to try. He waited for the right moment, but when it came, he wasn't ready at all. He couldn't have prepared for the boulder that caught the back wheel and threw him out of the wagon. The wagon almost lost the wheel. At least he had the presence of mind not to cry out when he fell.

He landed hard and prayed that the people in the front of the wagon wouldn't stop--that they hadn't heard him. His momentary fear distracted him from how much he hurt.

The wagon kept rolling. The people kept talking. The horses kept clopping. JD listened as it rolled away. Thank God.

So he lay there--bound and blindfolded--with no idea where he was. He had to get away from the road. But how?

He'd hit his head. On a rock? Probably. It throbbed, but he didn't think it was serious. It was bleeding, but hadn't Nathan said that head wounds bled a lot? Even when they weren't serious?

He moved a bit.

And cried out. With his hands bound so tightly behind his back, and considering that he landed on his arm while it was bent at an awkward angle, he was certain that he'd broken it.

What did he think he was doing? He lay there. He could feel the sun starting to beat down on him. He couldn't see it for the thick blindfold that had been tied tightly over his eyes. So he lay there. And he laughed.


Ezra Standish was waiting at the telegraph office before it opened. Going to bed for an hour didn't seem worth it. Besides, he was worried about the young man, too. He paced in front of the office, his temper shorter for his lack of sleep, and for the fact that he'd forgotten to eat supper the night before. He frowned and pulled his watch out of his pocket. He sighed. Ten minutes before time for it to open. Leave it to Nolan to wait until the last minute to open up.

"Ezra?"

The gambler turned to face Mary. "I thought you could use some breakfast," she said, holding out a plate with a cover over it.

Ezra smiled. "That is so thoughtful of you, Mrs. Travis." He looked at the hearty meal she had brought. "I confess that I missed last evening's repast in the midst of all of the . . . excitement."

"I know you did." A grin crossed her face. "The 'owner' of a boarding house can find himself at the center of quite a bit of activity."

"The liberty I took with the truth was most satisfying, I can assure you."

"I only wish I'd been there to see you oust him." Mary's look sobered. "When did he leave town?"

"About an hour and a half ago. With full enough pockets to give him reason to stay and play all night. At least Vin and Buck got a good head start. And I am certain that Chris and Nathan will find ways to . . . hinder Mr. Adams' progress."

Mary looked at the plate in Ezra's hand. "That's gonna get cold."

Ezra nodded and sat on the bench outside the telegraph office.

"I'm not going to run the story yet," Mary said.

"That's best." Ezra looked at his watch again and looked down the street.

Mary smiled. "It's still a little early." She was used to seeing the telegraph operator puttering down the street about ten minutes late every morning. "He won't get here on time, but he is so good about staying late with people." Ezra nodded. She was right and it diffused his impatience at having to wait. He pulled the top off of the breakfast plate and tasted a biscuit. "Oh, Mrs. Travis, this is delectable." Mary chuckled. "I'll pass that along to Mrs. Parker. She fixed your breakfast."

"I'll be sure to find her and thank her myself."

Mary pointed down the street. Nolan was ambling down the street. He waved and sped up a little when he noticed that they were waiting for him.

"Thank you," Ezra said. Mary nodded and turned to open the Clarion office.


Nathan Jackson rode hard toward Yuma Pass. He was glad to be able to do something to slow this man down. It was strange. He didn't think very often of white people being in a position of "servitude". In conversations with JD, he had gotten the impression that his life had not been easy. But he had never entertained the idea that he had been abused in any way. What was wrong with people?


They were making much better time, now that the sun was high. Vin and Buck had shared little conversation in the last hour or so. They should be overtaking the wagon any minute now. They would too, were it not for the boulder with blood on it. Both riders dismounted to check it out. Buck fingered the blood. "Fresh . . ." Instinctively he checked out the sky.

Vin checked the ground for tracks. "Whoever it is, he's not on foot."

"How the hell is he gettin' around then?" Buck couldn't keep the irritation out of his voice.

Vin bowed his head for a moment, then looked up at Buck, handing him a scrap of material. "It's JD. He's bound hand and foot." He looked out toward the spread of rocky land around them. "And he's out there."


PART SEVEN: Tracking and Backtracking

"G**damnit! Where the hell is he?!" The wiry man driving the wagon turned to see the other man crawling around the back, screaming obscenities. Magda bit her lip.

"How could he go anywhere?" the wiry man asked. "He was tied up."

"Well, do you see him?"

Magda's voice trembled. "Mr. Adams is going to be very angry."

The driver cut his eyes over to her. "Mr. Adams is never gonna know." He turned around. "Lucas, take the paint and go back and find him. He couldn't have gotten far."

Lucas cursed and grabbed a knife and a shotgun. Magda grabbed his arm as he went by. "Please, don't hurt the boy."

"If he'd stayed in the g**damn wagon, we wouldn't even have to talk about it, would we?" He walked on up and tossed his saddle on the back of the paint.

"You get him back," the driver said, he looked around, thinking. "I'll . . . change that wheel out. At least we'll have an excuse for being late for the meet." The driver spoke more softly. "And make it clear to the kid not to screw around with us again."

Lucas nodded and rode off.


Chris Larabee crested the ridge and frowned as he scanned the valley. JD was out there somewhere and so was a man he was deathly afraid of. There were "good guys" out to rescue the boy and keep him safe and "bad guys" who wanted to return him to Grayland Adams. It was a chess game, only no one knew where the other players were. And there were no rules. There was only right and wrong.

Dead wrong.

Sometime in the course of events, Chris had committed himself to overcoming evil. He couldn't tell just when, but he had some idea of why. And since he'd taken a stand, he had seen firsthand many of the evils one person could inflict on another. It always made him angry.

But when evil touched an innocent, it made him insane.

And JD Dunne was an innocent. As much as JD wanted to be the tough gunslinger, he still had a tender heart. In many ways, he was just a boy--a boy who had clearly suffered more than Chris had realized. Well, Chris Larabee would do whatever he could to make it right for him. And he would lay down his life to protect him.

If only he could find him. . .


"How far could he have gotten?" Buck Wilmington was becoming very impatient.

"Not far." Vin's voice was calm, but he wasn't. The tracks were becoming harder to find. The wind was picking up and blowing away what little trail there was.

Buck was leading Vin's horse, and looking for a place to rest both of the hard-ridden animals. He could see a stand of trees just west.

"Would he have tried to make it there?" Buck asked, pointing.

Vin looked, then frowned. "He should have," he said. "That would have been the sensible thing to do, but he isn't really going in any particular direction."

The realization hit Buck like a dead weight and his voice became thick. "He's blindfolded, isn't he?"

"Seems like it." Vin paused and he glanced at the tall gunslinger. Buck was nearly shaking with rage and he would be no good to anyone that way. "Why don't you take the horses over there? We'll head into that rocky scrub on foot. For a little while anyway."

Reluctantly Buck nodded and started off. But Vin's voice stopped him. "Look!" He pointed.

A rider on a paint was galloping across the rocky plain toward them. But as he grew nearer, they could tell that the rider wasn't heading directly for them. He was veering a bit to the west. Vin brought his spyglass to his eye and looked. The rider rode furiously then drew up short. He swung off his horse, and kicked at something. Over and over. Vin couldn't see what it was.

But he had a good idea.

"Come on," Vin growled, grabbing his weapon and hopping up onto his horse, Buck on his heels.


Everything he tried seemed futile. He had no idea where he was. He couldn't see anything. His arm hurt. He was just wearing himself out but why? What good did was it doing?

Riding with the guys had really been too good to be true. He'd been a real "hired gun" like in the books he'd read. But that was too good to last.

Lying in the wilderness bound hand and foot and blindfolded. This was what his life really should be. It was more like his past anyway.

His stomach growled. He was hungry. Well, good. That would take his mind off of his thirst. If he were free, he'd know how to find food and water. The guys had taught him so much: how to defend himself, how to survive in the wilderness, how to be an honorable man. But this particular situation had never come up. JD made himself concentrate. What would Vin tell him to do? His hands still bound behind his back, he touched the ground and noticed the dirt was sandy. There seemed to be very little foliage. He could feel jagged pebbles. He had to be pretty far out of Four Corners. He tried to think--but nothing was coming.

What do I do, Vin? Oh, God, Vin help me. He pulled himself a little farther along. Somebody . . .

He couldn't afford to be terrified. He had to keep his thoughts clear. If only he felt better. He probably had fever. Nathan said if someone broke a bone, he usually ran fever. That was the body's way of keeping infection from setting in.

What if he died out here? What if nobody found him and some coyote came by and finished him off? What if he got snakebit? He didn't want to give in to his fear.

But he did anyway.


That stupid shit kid. Lucas was hot and dusty and he was about to have Grayland Adams breathing down his neck. All this because the kid jumped out of the wagon. That stupid kid. Where did he think he was going anyway? How far did he think he was going to get?

Lucas retraced the trail. Waste of time. Stupid waste of time. He was driving the horse pretty hard and made himself slow down. It'd do no good to wear the animal out on the first leg of the trip - not when the horse would pull double duty on the way back carrying the boy too. He was starting to wonder if maybe he'd missed him. Until he caught sight of the dusty figure on the ground maybe one hundred yards from the trail.

"Hyah!" he cried, urging his horse off the trail and into the craggy wasteland. This was a stroke of good luck. He may make it back in time for Adams after all.


JD woke up to the sound of hoofbeats. How long had he been sleeping? Wake up! His head was pounding. He tried to open his eyes but . . . that's right, he was blindfolded. Hoofbeats closer. He knew the voice screaming at him and he wished he could protect himself, but he couldn't. Oh, God, they'd found him. He curled up as tightly as he could and waited. For a moment, he thought the rider would run right over him. He heard the horse whinny as it stopped.

No.

Don't.

Please.

He tried to curl up tighter yet, but he couldn't stop the metal-toed boot from connecting with his ribs. The attack he couldn't see drove all breath from his body. And he couldn't recover his breath, because there was another kick and another. He could hear the man cussing, but it seemed to grow distant.

Finally the man reached down to secure the ropes and tighten them. During the respite, air rushed into the boy's lungs and he coughed.

"You will never make a move like that again, you got that, boy?"

As he said it, the man jerked him up by JD's hurt arm.

And the kid screamed.


Nathan Jackson watched as the big man approached the pass. The shape of the gap itself had made the sabotage much easier. A rider would be in the middle of the pass, and find that the pass veered sharply to the left. Nathan had blocked the gap at its narrowest point, creating the illusion that there had been an avalanche. It would buy twice as much time--allowing the rider to make it almost completely through the pass and then requiring the rider to double back to take a long way around.

He just hoped Grayland Adams wouldn't try to clear the passage--that he would just accept the appearance of the avalanche. If he tried to clear it, he would realize very soon that it had been a ruse.

Nathan said a prayer as he watched Grayland Adams disappeared into the narrow pass.


They both heard JD scream. Vin motioned to Buck and peeled away toward some low brush. As Buck rode on, Vin left his horse there and ran on the light feet of one who had lived among the indians. He stole around behind the man who was assaulting his friend. Buck, on the other hand, rode toward them like a bat out of hell.


"Shut the f*** up!!!"

Lucas had grabbed a handful of the kid's shirtcollar. With a heave, he pulled JD to his feet. Tied up as he was, the boy couldn't balance and fell back to his knees. That earned him another kick.

Thundering hoofbeats. JD's captor peered toward the sound. "G**damnit!" he cried. His eyes were wild with anger. "You f***ing little shit!" he screamed. He drew his pistol.

There was a moustached man approaching him from the front, looking like the devil himself. But Lucas never heard the stealthy footsteps coming up behind him.

Lucas aimed his weapon at the boy's head and faced the devil. "Turn around and ride outa here."

"Not without the kid."

JD knew that voice. "Buck?" he asked, his voice strangely hoarse.

Lucas reached back to strike the boy, but a hand caught his arm. At the same time, Lucas felt the barrel of a shotgun at the base of his skull. "Back away from him . . ." Vin Tanner breathed. A long moment passed with Lucas' gun trained on JD and Vin's shotgun trained on Lucas. A stalemate. Lucas had to decide if he were more afraid of the guns trained on him or of the wrath of Grayland Adams. Well, if he surrendered, at least he could share the blame of losing the boy with the others in the wagon. If he were dead, he couldn't share the blame with anyone. Lucas dropped his weapon.

Suddenly, everything seemed to happen at once.

The man who'd come up from behind tossed him to the ground roughly.

And the moustached man turned all of his attention to the boy.

JD felt wildly disoriented. Who had dropped a weapon? Were his friends all right? His side hurt.

Buck knelt beside him, but JD jerked away.

"No . . ." his voice was little more than a whisper.

Buck backed off immediately. "JD . . ." He kept his voice steady. "It's Buck. Let me take the blindfold off, ok?"

"Buck?"

"Yea, kid. It's me." Buck easily touched the boy's shoulder, but again JD pulled away . . . this time curling into himself completely.

Buck glanced up at the man. "What the hell did you do to him?"

Lucas kept his mouth shut. Buck's anger raged. He would have torn into the man, but a moan from JD drew his attention back.

"It's all right, son. You're all right." Buck drew a knife from his belt. "I'm gonna take the blindfold off now. Keep your eyes closed."

First Buck rested his hand on JD's neck and waited until the trembling eased. Then, he gently brought his hand up to the knot at the back of the kid's head and he started working the knot out, talking constantly. Finally, he lifted his knife to the cloth and finished loosening it. It slipped off easily.

JD gasped when the light hit his face and he ducked his head behind his good arm. After a long moment, he finally squinted up at Buck, then he closed his eyes and seemed to relax a bit.

"Where do you hurt?" Buck asked quietly.

"I think I broke my arm." JD almost smiled. "I fell out of the wagon."

Buck picked up on the humor immediately. "Well, JD, one of the first things I taught you was not to fall out of a wagon when you're tied up and blindfolded. Just tied up? OK. Go ahead and fall. Just blindfolded? Ok. But kid, not when you're tied up and blindfolded." As he spoke, Buck carefully cut the bonds from JD's arms and legs, then he examined the hurt arm. "Doesn't look too bad." JD looked at it himself and nodded. Buck started to help him up, but JD groaned and doubled over.

"What is it?" Buck asked anxiously, trying to support his friend.

"May . . . have a. . . busted rib or two." Now breathing was a major challenge. "Oh, God. . ."

"Easy, kid. Do you need to sit up?

JD couldn't answer. He gasped. His good hand flailed back to find Buck's.

"I got you, son." Buck's big hand gripped JD's. The boy leaned his less injured side against Buck's leg and his head dropped.

"Buck . . ." JD cried, fighting to breathe.

"You're gonna be all right, JD. Just try to relax. Relax your breathing, ok?"

The kid didn't answer, but he was trying to settle down.

Vin was tying up the prisoner and he looked over at Buck. "How is he?"

"Dunno yet. He can't breathe." Buck glared at the man lying at Vin's feet.

Vin picked up Lucas' foot, showing Buck the metal toe on the boot. "Yea, well, this fellow who likes to kick people who can't kick back . . . is gonna tell us everything about what's going on." And with that, Vin toed Lucas over onto his back and pressed his foot against his throat. "Ain't that right?"

"I ain't telling you a damn thing."

Vin cocked his shotgun and pressed it to Lucas' forehead. "Mister, I got nothing to lose. Killing you is no skin off my nose."

Buck continued to help JD, but he hollered over his shoulder. "Kill him slow, Vin. You'll get more outa him that way."

But it was JD who gave them the first information. "They were taking me to Gray," he said breathlessly. "They were supposed to meet up . . . somewhere. I was asleep a lot."

"They drugged you," Buck explained, and he helped the kid get into a more comfortable position.

Vin pressed his foot further into Lucas' neck. "Where were you meeting him?"

"Go to hell!"

Vin removed the shotgun from Lucas' head and aimed it . . . lower.

"Hey, man, get him off of me," Lucas cried. "He's f***ing crazy!"

Buck laughed. "Well, he's been called worse. But at least no one has ever lied about him." Buck smiled as the prisoner squirmed. "Word of advice? You'd best talk or start practicing singing treble."

JD's struggling voice interrupted. "He'd never sing . . . as good as Ezra, though."

Then JD fell forward, unconscious.


PART EIGHT: "You Think You Can Protect Him?"

Chris Larabee scanned the landscape around the opening of the pass with a practiced eye. No action yet. No Grayland Adams, and no Nathan Jackson. But Chris knew Nathan was there, ocross the rocky slopes from him. He pulled out his silver medallion and held it until it caught the sun. Then, he sent the message.

Adams

He waited for about a minute, during which time he realized--he was damn hungry. He frowned and reached down into his saddlebag for . . . well, anything. But his eyes never left the rock face. He fumbled awkwardly, angling sideways to reach down further. Damn.

A flash.

Ah, Nathan. Good. Chris read the short message that said everything.

yes

Adams had arrived and ridden into the gap. Before Chris could ask, Nathan signalled back.

one hour

Chris smiled. They'd know soon if the man had bought the deception. Chris could now look into his saddlebag for some hardtack. Why didn't he ever think about food when he left to go on the trail of some outlaw? He got so caught up in the mission that regular needs of life lost all priority. Well, except water. Chris had been in enough tough situations on the trail that he never went anywhere without water. He took a long drink as he pondered his lack of food. That might ward off the wrenching hunger. Besides, Nathan would have something. He always came prepared.

Hoofbeats. Someone was riding hard. Chris watched the gap and within seconds, Grayland Adams came thundering out of the pass. Which way would he travel, now that the pass wasn't an option?


Ezra looked out at the road leading out of town. The afternoon was unbearably quiet and all he could do was wonder what in the hell was going on. He figured Josiah was doing the same at the church. They might as well worry together. He didn't even notice the glass of whiskey he still held in his hand as he crossed the empty street and stepped into the church.

"Ezra!" Josiah said, not even looking up at his friend's approach. "What brings you to the house of God this afternoon?"

The gambler didn't answer. He was trying to take in what Josiah was working on. Clearly he wasn't making improvements on the church. Ezra sat down on a pew across from the preacher and watched Josiah as he took the clip apart, studying the way the magnificent repeater rifle worked. Ezra frowned.

"This is not the place I would expect a man of God to study a weapon of war."

"This is not the place I would expect a sinner to engage in the 'imbibing' of devil water." Josiah never missed a beat in his mockery. Ezra looked down at the glass in his hand and grinned.

"You make an excellent point, Mr. Sanchez."

Ezra took a sip of his drink and watched Josiah's handling of the parts which made up this state of the art piece of weaponry. "Dear God, who would have thought one man would ever need to fire twelve shots in one minute?"

"War is a strange catalyst for invention," Josiah commented.


Vin Tanner tied the man's wrists tightly and dragged him away from where Buck was tending to JD. He was not satisfied with the vague information the man had given him, Lucas having sworn ignorance about Grayland Adams and his intentions. But Vin would find out the truth.

Once they got out of JD's earshot, Vin shoved Lucas to the ground and, gun trained on him, pulled the prisoner's boots off.

"What the hell are you doing?!!!" Lucas cried.

"Disarming you," Vin hissed. He rubbed a thumb over the metal toe of the boot.

Blood . . .

JD's blood.

Vin angrily placed the barrel of the gun between Lucas' eyes. "How could you kick a kid like that who's tied up and blindfolded? He couldn't do anything to you."

"He cost us a day's ride, and damn near cost us a fortune. If he'd gotten himself killed, we'd all been up a creek."

Vin listened, incredulous, as the man talked about his friend as though he were some kind of livestock or something. "He's a kid, for crying out loud."

"A kid worth lots of money to Grayland Adams."

"For what?" Vin cried.

"I don't know!!" Lucas yelled. 'None of us do."

"Then why'd you agree to kidnap him."

"It's his own son. It ain't kidnapping."

This was getting them nowhere. "Would he want you hurting his son like this?" Vin shoved the boot in Lucas' face.

"Hell, he's done lots worse to him."

In a rage, Vin leaned over him. "Why don't I just blow your f***ing head off?"

"'Cause then you can't find anything out about Grayland Adams."

In one swift move, Vin swung his rifle around and connected the butt of it with Lucas' jaw.

"We have JD now. We'll keep him safe. And, as much as I want to find Adams and take him down, I can find out what I need from somebody else. So don't think your life is all that precious to me right now. You'd best cooperate. That's the only thing that will keep you alive."

Lucas was dazed, his mouth bleeding, but he wasn't deterred. "Adams will get his boy. Nothing you do will change that. You think you can protect him?"


With gentle hands, Buck eased the ropes off of his friend's wrsts and ankles. JD kept his eyes closed. He had settled into a fearful silence. Buck didn't push him. Except for the arm and the ribs, JD was in pretty good shape. His body would mend quickly.

But his soul? That was something else entirely. What was this Adams thing about? Whywas JD so terrified of him? Buck kept close watch as the kid rested on the pallet Buck had made for him. The poor boy was exhausted. He'd been out here for several hours and then got beaten up for his trouble. If that wasn't enough, Buck figured that there was some leftover poison in his system.

"I'll get you home, kid," he said softly as he reached into the saddle bag for water. At least he and Vin had had the foresight to keep from drinking up too much of the supply. Buck sat down beside his friend.

"You need to drink something," Buck said. JD squinted up at him and nodded. He started to sit up with a groan. Buck slipped a strong arm behind him and eased him up. JD drank, slowly at first, then started gulping.

"Easy . . ." Buck said, reluctantly pulling it away from him. "You won't keep it down . . ."

He almost didn't, but he was able to fight the nausea.

Buck helped him lie back down. "You ok now?"

JD nodded and closed his eyes. Buck started to get up, but he felt JD's hand grab his arm.

"I really am all right, Buck."

For the first time since he and Vin had found the kid, Buck smiled.


Grayland Adams rode his horse hard to the west of the rock formation. Nathan waited before following him, so as not to alert him to his being followed. Adams was making up for lost time and Nathan wondered if any of their horses would be able to maintain that pace all afternoon. Looked like he was heading toward Yuma. He calculated the towns between where they were and Yuma. They were a long way from anywhere unless they turned around and went back to Four Corners. The meet had to be somewhere in the desert. Nathan glanced back over his shoulder, knowing Chris would be close behind him.

He hoped against hope that Buck and Vin had found JD, because their horses wouldn't have the steam to make a fast getaway with the kid. He hoped Chris had a plan, because it was looking bleak. Adams rode like a crazy man, and they were having to ride their horses into a lather just to keep up.


The late sun meant there would be no long travel for JD. He'd had a tough enough day. So Buck and Vin decided to head for the little grove of trees they'd seen earlier and make camp. By sunset, there was a low campfire and JD had fallen asleep beside it. Vin had bound Lucas hand and foot and deposited him on the other side. Then he took off to find food. Buck sat near JD, coaxing him to drink water periodically, and keeping an eye on their prisoner. He hated the man. He hated the smirk on his face, the sarcasm in his voice, and the certainty he expressed when he talked about Adams. And he hated the effect he had on JD. Not just the beating, but Lucas seemed to be an extension of Adams himself.

And JD was afraid.

Well thank God he was asleep. Maybe he could have a little peace.

Come on, Vin. What was taking him so damn long? The urge was coming upon him, and he needed to make a little trip to relieve himself.

"Damn . . . " he muttered.

"What . . ."

Buck patted JD on his good shoulder. "Go back to sleep, kid. It's ok."

Clear hazel eyes looked up at him. "What's wrong?"

Buck laughed. "Nothin'--just the call of nature."

"So go."

"Vin'll be here in a minute then I'll go."

"Buck, your eyes are floating. Go on. I'm all right."

Buck wiggled uncomfortably, then stood up. "OK. I'll be right over there." He pointed to a little stand of trees nearby. "Call me if you need me."

JD closed his eyes, sleepy again. "I will--just go, before you have an accident all over me."

Buck left, chuckling. It was good to hear JD sound like himself.


"Don't think for a minute that this is over."

JD's eyes shot open, but he didn't say anything.

"You can't hide from him, you know that. And your guys--they aren't gonna be able to watch you every minute."

JD still said nothing, but slowly pulled himself up, trembling. He wished Buck and Vin were closer. Buck'd said for him to call if he needed anything, but this guy couldn't hurt him--he was tied up, for crying out loud. Get yourself together, JD.

Well, he couldn't hurt his body.

But he could hurt his heart.

"Gray told me . . what you did." The man's voice grew more menacing and JD felt a familiar fear. "He told me . . . what you were. . ."

The boy's eyes shot up at the prisoner. Remembered fear.

"He told me everything about you." Lucas looked at him with a knowledge that could destroy him. "Maybe you could tell me . . . alone, maybe . . ."

"Shut up," JD whispered, wishing he sounded more threatening . . . but he just sounded . . . weak.

Lucas never let up. "How about your gunslinging pals? Have you told them? Do they know they ride with an arsonist?" He chuckled, pushing the kid further. "I guess you wouldn't care so much if they knew that. . ." JD turned away and stared into the campfire, old tears returning. If his new friends found out about his old life . . .

He squeezed his eyes tightly closed. No, that wouldn't happen. It couldn't . . . His good hand tightened into a fist and he couldn't stop shaking.

Lucas chuckled. "I guess the apple don't fall far from the tree . . ."

Don't say it. Don't say it. JD could feel the rage surge into his throat. Don't say it.

"Guess we couldn't expect any different from a boy whose mama was a . . ."

"NO!!!!!" the kid roared and he sprang at the prisoner. He reared back and hit Lucas. "You didn't know her . . ." the kid screamed, holding the man by the collar. "You didn't know her at all . . ."

JD didn't know that Lucas had cut his ropes, so he wasn't ready when Lucas flipped him onto his back.

"You f***ed with the wrong guy," and with that, Lucas drove the short blade into JD's hand.

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!"JD screamed, writhing in pain. "Oh, God."

"JD?!!!!" Buck cried, running up, rifle drawn. But he froze when he reached the little campsite.

"Put your gun down," Lucas said. He jerked JD up, the knife still in his hand, and the kid cried out. "Please, Buck . . ."

"It's ok." Buck held the rifle out and, moving very slowly, he lay it on the ground.

Lucas frowned. "Now we've got a whole day's ride to make up. But at least I'll have someone to blame."

In the light of the fire, Buck saw JD's eyes roll back.

And so did Vin.

And when the boy collapsed, Vin put a bullet between Lucas' eyes.


PART NINE: Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

Nathan saw it first--the wagon, the woman from the cafe, another man . . . or two? A campfire in the making. They hadn't yet seen Grayland Adams riding toward them furiously. Nathan motioned for Chris Larabee to cross behind the group, while he took off toward a ridge directly overlooking the site. The trail up the ridge wound out of sight of the little clearing. Nathen wished he could see the "reunion" but he knew he would be more help to JD and Chris if he were in a position to cover them. But although he couldn't see Adams reach his party, he could hear it.

And, praise Jesus, JD had gotten away.


JD didn't feel Lucas' body fall heavily on him. He didn't see his glassy dead eyes. He didn't hear Buck and Vin talking to him as they pulled Lucas off. He didn't know Vin had shot Lucas, and, thank God, he couldn't feel his injured hand.

It was a good time to have passed out. He didn't have to endure Vin's examination of his hand. The small blade had gone straight through right beside his thumb. If he were lucky, it hadn't messed up too many little bones and muscles inside. He was lucky enough not to hear Vin and Buck discuss whether or not to leave the knife in his hand until they could get him to Nathan. But Nathan was miles away. If they could clean the wound and dress it, they could likely ward off infection. They could bind it tightly enough to keep it from bleeding too much. Yes, the knife needed to come out and Vin was glad the boy didn't have to be awake for it. With Buck supporting JD's arm, Vin moved the knife very slowly, careful not to injure the hand any more than it had been. It was tedious and difficult. Buck kept wiping the blood away, but it was still hard for Vin to see what he was doing.

"You need more light?" Buck asked.

"Yea, but I need you to keep doing what you're doing more." Vin grimaced. "I wish I knew what the hell I was doing."

"You're doing great."

JD moaned and both men froze and remained silent, like that would keep him from waking up and feeling this whole procedure.

He didn't wake up. And Vin was able to get the knife out without any complications. Buck poured whiskey into JD's hand on both sides, and took one of his clean undershirts out of the saddlebag to make a bandage.

Vin put a hand on the kid's forehead. "No fever."

Buck nodded. "Reckon if we give him lots of water and get him home and in bed soon, he'll be ok." He framed it as a statement, but Vin knew it was a question.

"He'll be fine." Then Vin's eyes stole across the horizon. "If that's all he has to deal with."

Buck frowned. "That man won't get anywhere near him."

"Lucas did." Vin didn't mean it as an accusation, but Buck felt the jab just the same.

"I never would have left him. . ." Buck breathed.

"I know that," Vin said. He nodded to JD. "He does, too." The tracker stood up and stretched his legs. "I better find a good place to keep watch from."

"I won't leave him this time."


"I'd like to have had this when the Nichols' boys came through here," Josiah said, studying the strange rifle.

Ezra frowned. "May I?" he asked and Josiah handed it to him. The gambler ran fine hands over it. Josiah noticed how different their hands were. Ezra's had manicured nails and a dexterity he'd never seen in any hands other than a surgeon's. His own were beefy and thick--calloused with work.

"I wonder, Brother Sanchez, what would happen if each of the Nichols' boys had had one of these."

"No one would have survived."

"But if we'd have had them, more lives could have been spared." Ezra admired the firearm. "It's quite an achievement, wouldn't you say?"

Josiah nodded, unsure of where Ezra was headed with this conversation. He waited while Ezra studied the craftsmanship, examined the workings of the weapon. And he took the rifle back when Ezra gingerly returned it to him.

"In the hands of the law, it protects; in the hands of the outlaw, it kills more efficiently than any other rifle there is." Ezra popped his little derringer into his hand, and looked it over. "Makes this look like a capgun." Ezra sighed. "I hate to think of a world in which one man has so many chances to kill." He chuckled wryly. "But if someone facing me down has that capability, I want it to."

"I just think that, as the law, we should be armed with the very best weaponry available." Josiah didn't sound defensive. Rather, he sounded . . . resigned.

"But imagine . . . JD Dunne armed with a weapon like this. He has turned into a fine shot and he's saved my life more than once. But if he has the capacity to fire successive shots, he may not yet have the eye to focus that quickly for each shot."

Josiah nodded. "I figure I'll let Vin try this one, see what he thinks about it. Then we can see if it's something any of the rest of us want to fool with."

Ezra stood up, took off his jacket and replaced his pistol in its holster on his forearm. "Aren't you a little . . . forlorn that there is even a need for this kind of weapon?"

"Yes, Mr. Standish. Indeed I am."


Chris was careful to stay out of sight. He inched closer to the little camp and listened to the ravings of Grayland Adams. JD was long gone, evidently, and Adams could have killed someone.

"You helped him!!!!" he screamed at Magda, grabbing her dress collar. The woman's body stiffened in self-defense and she twisted her head away from the backhand that was sure to follow.

But it didn't yet. Adams just shook her, and Chris could imagine a black-haired twelve-year-old being grabbed like that and hauled off his feet. Chris forced his rage down. He had to think clearly. JD's life could be at stake.

"You wanted him to escape!" Adams said.

"No sir," Magda answered, her accent thicker as her fear became more prevalent. "I gave him the medicine to make him sleep. I did everything you said."

"Everything except keep him!!" Adams hands tightened on the woman's collar and she started to choke. Chris almost dove into him, but thought better of it. He couldn't help any of them if he didn't have the advantage. He would have jumped up anyway if Adams hadn't thrown her to the ground, with a gutteral oath, "Damn you . . ."

Adams thundered over to the rig's driver, who cowered against the wagon. "Lucas went to find him, sir." The man's voice quivered, and Chris wondered what Adams held over these people. Adults couldn't be that terrified of a bully. Why would they stick with him when he treated them like shit?

A kid wouldn't have a choice. A poor kid like JD who only wanted to do right by his mother.

Damn you, Adams.


Buck helped JD sip on the willowbark tea he'd made for him. That would take the edge off of the pain. That and some of the whiskey they had. JD was none too comfortable when he woke up, but he finally settled again.

Buck thought the kid was asleep when he felt those wide eyes on him. "You all right, son?" Buck asked easily.

JD didn't answer. Instead, he asked, almost fearfully. "Did you hear what he was saying?"

Buck scooted closer to the boy. "JD, I heard you scream at him and then I saw him holding you with that knife in your hand. I didn't pay attention to anything else but getting you away from him."

"Are you sure?" JD's voice sounded more agitated, a little higher.

"I'm sure. Everything's ok now."

JD was still laying propped up on his side. Vin had rolled up his big coat to make a pillow for him and JD watched Buck sideways. Buck wondered if he may have felt . . . safer not having to look him square in the eye..

"Lucas said . . . if you knew . . . everything . . . you guys wouldn't want to have anything to do with me."

"That's just crazytalk, JD. You're a good kid. I know you."

"No you don't, " JD said quickly, his eyes filling.

"But I know all I need to know."

JD stared into the fire. His eyes looked bigger, the pain in them deeper. He didn't even look scared anymore, just . . . sad. Buck took a long drink of whiskey, then spoke softly.

"JD, you don't have to talk about anything you don't want to talk about. Not ever." Buck's voice grew softer yet and very serious. "I will never push you to talk about something you don't want to."

The kid's eyes brimmed with tears, but his face never changed expression. He never looked up at his friend. Buck continued. "There's something you need to be very clear about, son." Buck's voice became husky. "You can tell me anything and I won't think any differently about you." There was a long pause. "I know you--I know the kind of man you are. You're my friend, and that's all that matters."

The tears that had glistened in his eyes now rolled slowly down JD's face, but still, he showed no other emotion. The boy whose feelings were always readable in his expressive face now seemed . . . numb.

Buck waited for a moment, thinking carefully about what he was about to say. "JD, I know what it's like to carry a secret around with you. It can eat you up. You feel like a. . . fraud."

JD just lay there watching Buck. And Buck understood that the young man was deciding. Deciding just how much he trusted his friend. "I . . . need help with this, Buck. I can't carry this around no longer." It was odd hearing the usually articulate young man slip into an old familiar vernacular. Buck realized that JD had to work to speak well. He was letting his guard down in increments, and Buck let the moment unfold at the boy's pace.

The boy's voice was very low--very different from what it usually sounded like.

"I worked in his stables. He was mean. Mean to everybody. Especially mean to his animals. He'd beat 'em sometimes and when I tried to stop him . . . he'd beat me."

Buck's heart clutched. He'd suspected as much, but hearing the kid actually say it . . . well, it made his heart hurt.

JD didn't seem to notice the change of expression on Buck's face. He just kept staring into the fire as though he could see the story playing out in the flames.

"It went on like that for a long time. One time one of his horses died--and he beat me for it." JD's voice was devoid of emotion. "I didn't see my mother much. She lived in the big house and I lived in a room over the stable. I think if she'd known what was going on, she'd have moved us."

"Why didn't you tell her?"

"She needed the money and jobs were hard to come by. Besides, she'd have blamed herself. She'd have made us leave if she'd known how bad he was to the horses. But if we'd left, I couldn't have done anything about it. I knew I had to stop him. What he was doing was so wrong.

"So one night, I opened the stable doors. . . and ran the horses out--let 'em all go." JD's voice trembled slightly. "Then I set the stable on fire." JD paused and Buck figured that JD'd never said that out loud. "Everybody came running and they all started throwing water on it and trying to stop it. It . . . distracted Gray enough that most of the horses were long gone by the time he got around to tracking them. Everybody was saying that I'd done well getting the horses out . . ." JD's voice grew softer. "But Grayland knew. He knew what I'd done."

The flames were burning lower and some had died into embers. The night was getting chillier. "Mama. . . she'd been so scared. She thought . . . that I'd been in there. I think that Gray must've told her that I was dead. She got so sick right after that.

"I found her trying to get into the stable. She'd have died just trying to get me out. She was coughing and she'd burned her hand." Another long pause. "I was carrying her back to the house, when he . . . came up behind me. He made one of his valets carry her the rest of the way. And I really thought he would kill me--just kill me and get it over with." Finally a great sob caught in his throat. "And I wish now that he had."

Buck had to work to control his reaction. JD meant what he was saying, and that scared the hell out of Buck. Any other time, Buck would have gone over to the kid and clapped a big hand on his shoulder. But somehow, he recognized that the boy needed space--a little distance. Buck didn't speak and slowly JD's eyes turned to him, as if to judge Buck's reaction to what he was saying.

Buck made sure that what he found in his eyes was understanding. Buck's eyes told him that it would be all right for him to go on with his story. Now JD's face was saying so much. There was more . . . and it would be worse. Ever so slightly, Buck nodded. JD looked down at the ground. Was he really even seeing anything anymore?

"He dragged me out across the fields and got a couple of the workers' horses. He . . . tied me up and threw me over the back of one of them. On my stomach--like a corpse. He tied my hands and feet under the horse's belly and then . . . he pulled me upside down so my head was under him. And he ran that horse all the way to town." For a moment, Buck thought JD was falling asleep with his eyes open. Everything about the story was suspended for a moment. Then he went on. "By the time we got there, I was unconscious. Hurt my neck and I caught the corner of a hoof once or twice. . ."

Now JD seemed to withdraw. He curled up smaller and he could hardly talk.

"He took me to a part of town I'd never been to . . ."

Buck felt his own heart pound. He couldn't stand what he was hearing. JD went on, still staring at the ground.

"He took me to a strange tavern. It was quieter than the saloon. Some folks were drunk. Some were smoking strange things. They had opium. They were all in a kind of haze. Gray made us sit at a table in the corner and he told me I had to pay him back for what I'd done. And since I didn't have any money . . . I'd. . . have to . . . work in the tavern at night. I didn't like the place. It felt . . . evil, and I knew my mama would never let me come here, much less work here. But Gray said that if I didn't, he'd bring her here to pay off my debt. There was no way I would let that happen." A sound between a chuckle and a sob bubbled from JD's throat as he remembered how naive he'd been. "I thought he'd want me to work at the bar. . ."

JD crossed his arms tightly around his knees and closed his eyes. There was a ragged sob that choked him. He'd have to say this all at once or he'd never be able to.

"He . . . sold me, Buck. To whoever'd pay the most. He said if I ran away, my mother would have to work there. And I could never let that happen. He bargained for me. He sent me to a room . . . with . . . someone I didn't know." Suddenly, JD gagged and he pulled himself up on his good arm just in case. He didn't look at Buck. It was almost as though he didn't dare. "If the . . . man . . . wasn't happy with me, Gray beat me. Sometimes they'd hit me, they'd . . . hurt me." There was a long silence. Buck's hands clenched in painful fists, and tears rolled down his face. Finally JD could speak again. "I worked like that for a while. It didn't happen all the time, usually when Gray was drunk. I did it, because I was so scared for my mother. She never got well after that fire." Another long pause. "When Mama died, I ran. I ran as far as I could. I worked odd jobs or do stable work just to have money to move farther and farther away. Until I got here. I've really been happy with you guys, Buck." JD turned his face into Vin's coat, leaving only his mouth exposed. "I thought he was out of my life. I thought he'd never be able to find me." Then he said it. "I was too stupid to think I could be one of you." And with that, JD pulled himself back up and faced Buck, a look of utter dejection on his tired face. "I understand if you don't want to ride with me." JD smiled sadly in the fire. "Lucas was right. I am a whore."


PART TEN: Nightwatch

Ezra Standish hated waiting. He hated it even more than losing. At least when he was losing he could still do something about it. Waiting served no purpose whatsoever. Not that Ezra wanted to "serve a purpose" particularly. He just hated waiting.

To Josiah, waiting was an art. He was practiced at introspection--at extended hours of contemplation and prayer. And he was practiced at hanging out at the saloon for hours feeling no pain. Either way, waiting didn't drive him crazy.

Worrying? That was another thing altogether. The big preacher became restless when he was worried. He couldn't stand the not knowing. Between his worrying and Ezra's intolerance for waiting, the two started calculating a plan to go out and find their friends.

"Well," Ezra said, as his fork alternately made a hill or a pancake out of his creamed corn, ". . . assuming Chris and Nathan caught up with Mr. Adams, and Buck and Vin caught up with JD, everything should be well in hand."

"So why aren't they back yet?" Josiah asked, watching Ezra's fork. Without shifting his gaze, he grabbed his third biscuit and absently spread marmalade across the top of it. "This Adams is a whole different kind of evil from . . ."

". . . your everyday common variety demoniac?" Ezra finally took a bite of the creamed corn and frowned.

"Other men are driven to do evil by greed or . . . revenge . . . or hate, but a man like Adams thrives on evil itself." The thought troubled Josiah long enough for him to stare, eyes still focussed on Ezra's plate. Ezra paused in mid-bite and looked down at the plate then back up at Josiah. His lips formed the word "what" when Josiah began speaking again. "I don't understand that kind of man."

Ezra swallowed and set his fork down. "I can't say that I do either. But I am sure that our friends can handle whatever Mr. Adams has in store."

"As long as he didn't run into JD first."

As though the thought somehow made the whole meal distasteful, Ezra pushed his plate away. It took a long moment for the full weight of Josiah's statement to sink in. "I for one would have a very difficult time trying to . . . restrain myself from tearing Mr. Adams apart if he were in any way to have harmed JD."

"And you have more restraint than Buck or Chris either one."

Ezra considered this. "I hope they aren't given any reason to exact retribution."

"So do I." Josiah's brows furrowed. "If they haven't gotten back by tomorrow morning, one of us should start looking."

"Both of us," Ezra said, eyes challenging the preacher.

"What if Adams doubles back?"

Ezra's fingers drummed on the table until, too agitated, the gambler stood up and began to pace. "There are six of us guarding this little backwater and we can't even keep one sick obfuscating tyrant away from a teenager. And now we are reduced to being divided with one man waiting to handle any trouble that may ride into town. This is unacceptable."

"Unacceptable or not, it's the way things are." Josiah stood up and laid a few coins on the table. "I figure that I should be the one to go." He didn't mention that his own tracking skills far exceeded Ezra's. He knew he didn't need to.

"I hate this."

"So do I, Ezra." The preacher laid his hand on the gambler's shoulder. "So do I."


The coffee was bitter, leftover grounds floating in the bottom of the cup. And it was cold.

Grayland Adams threw the tin cup at Magda. "Can't you get anything right???" he screamed, and she cowered. He took heavy steps toward her and grabbed her by the arms. As a reflex, she twisted her head away from him. "How could you let him get away like that? How difficult is it for three people to hang on to one drugged, tied up kid?" He threw her to the ground and in the next move, jerked her back up. She was shaking, but didn't utter a sound. His rage had to be terrifying, but her response was almost . . . routine. She seemed to know exactly what was coming.

But it never did.


Nathan Jackson could have applauded when he saw Chris Larabee grab Grayland Adams' meaty arm before he could strike the woman. He'd have rushed him himself if he'd been close enough. Instead he did the next best thing . . .

He trained his shotgun on the big man.

Chris Larabee had had to use his entire body as leverage to wheel the man around, and he managed to land one decent blow to the man's jaw before the bully recovered enough to turn on him and take him on.

Nathan knew once they settled into a fight mano a mano it would be a lost cause. Chris was no match for a man who was twice as big, but then Adams was no match for Chris' Colt. So, Nathan figured, it all evened out.

He watched as the big man pulled himself up.

"Try it!!" Chris screamed at the man. Nathan recognized the maniacal grin on Chris' face. He was looking for an excuse.


This time of night . . . with the clouds clearing for the moon and stars, a cool breeze tempering the day's heat . . . this was always Vin's favorite time.

But not tonight.

He felt like somehow they'd all intruded on JD's past . . . on his pain. If they couldn't prove that Adams was a fraud, JD's memories of his mother, the most precious part of his childhood, would always be suspect. Vin knew that that would tear him up.

He turned everything over in his mind, seeing JD square up against a man he had no chance in hell of defeating, hearing the innuendoes made about the boy's mama, hearing his pitiful sobs.

Vin could barely see the little camp from where he was. But he knew Buck was taking care of the kid.

As much as anyone could under the circumstances.

He had a feeling that there was a lot more to this situation than any of them knew.

And he was right.


Grayland Adams glared up at Chris Larabee. "You've got no right to interfere in my business."

"Business? Looks to me like you were gonna hit a lady."

"Believe me, she's no lady." Adams started to pull himself up, but Chris Larabee pushed him back to the ground with the toe of his boot.

"You'll apologize to the lady," Chris' voice was menacing, but it still didn't faze the big man.

"You just don't get it, do you, Larabee? I am within my legal rights here . . ."

"The hell you are!" Chris cried.

"She's mine, bought and paid for!" Adams countered, cautiously pulling himself up again.

God, Chris hated this man. "Mister, in this country, you can't own another human being."

Adams chuckled. "It was her choice. She wanted passage to this country and was willing to sell herself and her services for a period of seven years."

''That ain't legal," Chris said, his face reflecting the incredulity he felt.

Grayland Adams was finally on his feet and he gestured toward Magda, only to hear Chris' gun click at the ready. " Back off."

"I'm not gonna touch her," Adams said. Then he smiled at the frightened woman. "Tell the man about our agreement."

She looked around at the men in the camp, clearly bewildered. But she nodded at Chris. "What he said . . . is true . . ."

Chris' voice became very gentle. "Ma'am, you don't have to stay with him. We'll get your money troubles worked out." Chris thought he saw a flicker of hope in her sad eyes, but then her eyes trailed over to Adams and her face seemed to cloud over. Chris continued to speak gently. "You don't have to stay with him."

"Magda, you can leave me--but you know I'll find you. You can't hide from me. No more than the boy could."

Chris got a better grip on his gun. "Seems like the kid has done a good job of staying clear of you so far."

For once the man that drove for Adams spoke up. "I'm sure Lucas got him, Boss. Hell, he was bound hand and foot. He had a blindfold on. How far could he go?"

Adams spun on his heel to face this idiot. He would have hit him if Chris hadn't warned him off again.

"Do you always tie up your children, Adams?"

Adams turned back to Chris and his eyes looked hard and evil. "The bad ones . . ."

SMACK! Chris' fist met the big man's jaw again, driving him backwards.

"Larabee, when my lawyers get through with you, you ain't gonna see daylight again for a long time." He grinned. "I believe you have spent some time incarcerated."

"We'll see." Chris signalled up to Nathan, and the healer made his way down to the little camp. He helped Chris tie the men up. They let Magda be. She had been through enough. Chris would help her, whatever it took.

And he would bring Grayland Adams down.


Buck Wilmington was speechless--his throat hurt, his chest was tight, his heart . . .

He sat for a long time, until he realized that JD may be misinterpreting his silence for disapproval.

The boy had pulled his hurt hand back in to himself and closed his eyes. Buck realized, heartsick, that JD couldn't bring himself to look at him. Buck wanted to say something, but the lump in his throat was thick and choking. He eased over until he was sitting right beside the boy--careful not to touch him, though. How could he approach his friend? What could he say?

He'd seen the kid slowly withdraw until he lay curled into a protective huddle. The horrible truth was out and JD appeared to have been intensely diminished by it.

"JD . . ."

"Don't . . . Buck." JD's words were quick. "Don't say anything."

Buck reached very slowly--carefully--and slipped his hand on JD's neck. JD shuddered, but Buck kept his hand steady, strong. After a moment, the boy settled a bit, but he still never looked back up.

"JD," Buck's voice was low and even. "Son, a 'whore' is someone who sells themselves for selfish reasons . . . somebody who doesn't . . . value herself."

Buck reached under JD's chin and lifted his face. "You . . ." Buck smiled gently at the boy, "you are strong, JD." He let his hand drop to the kid's shoulder. "You are a good son."

Buck felt the boy's body tremble slightly and JD ducked his head. Buck continued. "You sacrificed . . . " his voice waivered ". . . so much. You did just what you had to do, Son. Ain't nobody gonna fault you for it. You protected your mama. And that's all that matters."

JD said nothing, and for a long moment, the silence became almost heavy. Then JD looked up at Buck, his eyes searching. And he was somehow reassured. He could hardly find his voice.

"Thank you, Buck."

Buck nodded through his own tears, and watched as the kid curled up next to him. He glanced up at Vin, who was keeping watch on the ridge, and he looked back down at JD, who had already fallen asleep.

Maybe in sleep, the kid could find a little peace.


For the second time in as many days, Ezra woke up much earlier that was his custom. He felt strangely helpless. Sleeping late in the midst of this crisis would only serve to make him feel even less useful. he wondered what Josiah was up to this morning. He stepped out into the early morning sun and heard hammering coming from the church. Ah, Josiah was already at work. Ezra smiled. He might just have to roll up his sleeves and do some of the dirty work today. It could be theraputic.

But then again, maybe not. Ezra felt ennobled by having the thought, though. Maybe there was hope for him yet.


Buck handed Vin a cup of coffee.

"How is he?" Vin asked, quietly, as he took a sip.

Buck looked over at the kid asleep. JD lay a few feet away on Buck's big coat. He was curled up, guarding his bruised stomach, and cradling his wounded hand against his chest.

He needs a haircut, Buck thought. JD's whole face was hidden by his long black hair. The gentle voice of the tracker interrupted his thoughts.

"Buck?"

Buck looked back at Vin and took a deep breath. "He's been sleeping for a couple of hours. Kept waking up during the night. His hand was hurting him a lot, but he finally went on to sleep." He looked at the ground and took a long drink of his tepid coffee. He felt Vin's hand rest on his shoulder.

"Are you feeling ok?" Vin asked him and a quick chuckle escaped from Buck's throat. He looked back at JD. "No. . ." he said, shaking his head.

Vin waited. Buck turned to face him, and wished his eyes weren't full.

Buck chose his words carefully. His voice felt low--husky even. "That man . . . has to be stopped, Vin. I don't want that kid to ever have to see him again. If I have to take JD away from Four Corners until you boys stop him, I will."

Buck looked Vin in the eye. He wanted to be sure that there was no

mistaking his meaning. "But if I see him first, I will kill him."


Vin listened to Buck's words, troubled by them. Not by Buck's threat about Grayland Adams. Buck ultimately made good, fair decisions when facing down an adversary. No, Vin was troubled by the implication. Buck knew what the man had done to the kid. JD must've told him. Vin had heard enough of the shouting match between JD and that Lucas guy to know that some of his suspicions about Adams had been right on the mark.

Buck would never betray JD's confidence. Vin knew that. But Buck had communicated the . . . intensity . . . of Adams' abuse of the boy. He didn't have to say anything else.

The two friends sat while Buck's words hung uneasily in the air.

"What do you think we oughta do?" Vin asked, finally.

Buck shook his head and looked over at JD. He really didn't seem to have an answer. Vin followed his gaze.

"I don't think we should take him back to Four Corners," Vin said. "Leastways, not until we know Chris and Nathan have caught up with Adams."

Buck poured the rest of his coffee on the embers of the campfire. "So where do we go?"

Vin thought about it for a minute. Then a smile crossed his face. "Why don't we go where we will be greeted with 'hospitality.'"

Buck grinned. "Now, there's an idea."


PART ELEVEN: A Hero's Heart

"Hey, JD," Buck Wilmington spoke gently. "Come on, son, wake up."

He was kneeling beside the boy, ready to help. JD was laying on his side, his injured hand and arm still cradled against his chest. But his face was turned almost completely down into the big coat Buck had rolled up and placed under his head the night before.

"JD," Buck repeated, a little louder this time. The mop of black hair didn't move, but Buck heard a groan--then a muffled voice.

"Oh, God . . . "

"Easy, son. Don't move too quickly."

"Unh . . ." JD started to raise his head, but he fell back to the ground. Buck reached out a steadying hand, resting it lightly on his shoulder. He was shocked when JD suddenly jerked away.

"Hey," Buck kept his voice calm. JD rolled over his hurt arm and skittered away, curling into himself when Buck took a step toward him.

"JD . . . "

"Don't touch me," the boy's voice was scratchy. He clutched his shirt more tightly around himself. Buck glanced up and saw Vin. The tracker didn't speak, but watched.

Buck took a couple of steps back from the boy. "Ain't nobody gonna hurt you, JD. OK?"

"Please . . ." JD's voice quivered, and he didn't look up. "Just . . . leave me alone."

"Look at me." Buck said softly. "JD, come on now. It's Buck and Vin and we ain't gonna let anybody hurt you. You know that." Buck felt a great lump in his throat. Why should the kid believe him when just last night they let that Lucas animal put a knife through his hand?

JD turned his head slightly. Maybe he was listening.

"That's right, kid. It ok. Listen to my voice. You know me, kid. Everything's ok now."

"Buck . . ."

"Yeah." The big man sighed with relief. He didn't move closer, but he eased down onto the ground. Maybe JD would look at him. Maybe. "I know you're hurtin', JD," Buck said. "But we'll get some help for you."

JD tilted his head up and looked at his friend. "I'm sorry, Buck."

Buck smiled. "Sorry for what?" he asked. What on earth could the kid feel sorry for?

JD didn't answer. He bit his lip and looked at Buck. His hazel eyes filled. Then his eyes trailed away. For a moment, he seemed to be trying to remember something. He looked at his hand, then at his arm. He seemed confused. He turned his bewildered eyes to Vin.

"How're you feelin', kid?"

Again, JD didn't answer, but he ducked his head and his shoulders shook slightly. Buck got up to go over to him, but he felt a strong grip on his arm.

"Listen . . ." Vin whispered, and in the quiet that followed, Buck heard it.

"Sorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorry . . . "

The muscle in Buck's jaw tensed and he squeezed his own eyes shut. He would kill Grayland Adams for what he'd put this boy through.


Grayland Adams was, in Chris Larabee's estimation, a walking dead man. He knew Adams was a bully, picking on women and children, and, to Chris, there was no lower form of life.

"What are you looking at?" Adams asked.

Chris squinted up at the big man. "Figurin' how big a rope it'd take to hang you."

"You'll never find out."

"All set!" Nathan called from the wagon. Magda was sitting next to Nathan, where he was ready to drive the team. The fellow who used to drive was trussed up in the back of the wagon. Chris was riding behind, having tied Grayland Adams securely to the saddle on the back of Nathan's horse. The horse had been tied to the back of the wagon.

"Move out!" Chris called back, and slowly the group turned around and headed east.

"Hey," Adams' rusty voice growled. "This is not the way to Four Corners."

Chris grinned. "No, it's not."

"Where the hell are you taking me?" Adams cried. Chris didn't answer.

"I've got a right to know."

Chris pulled up next to him. His voice was little more than a hiss. "Mister, you gave up your rights when you raised your hand to my friend. Now shut up or I'll gag you, too."

Adams didn't reply, but Chris knew by the look in his eye that Adams was thinking of how to exact retribution from him. Well, try it, Chris thought. It'll make my job a hell of a lot easier.


This was a nightmare. How had he ever gotten messed up with Grayland Adams again? Adams would be here any minute now, and JD knew he'd have to explain why he'd failed. How could he say anything? "Sorry" wasn't gonna get him very far. It couldn 't save him from Grayland Adams' wrath any more than it could save him from his fists.

"Sorrysorrysorrysorrysorry . . . " Somehow JD felt like this mantra could absolve him--in God's eyes, if not in Adams'. JD repeated the word in hopes that God would forgive him for for all the commandments he was breaking. He also wanted to get forgiveness ahead of time, in case Adams killed him the next time he beat him.

"Sorrysorrysorrysorry . . . " JD learned to repeat this mindlessly when he was hired out, when he was hurt, and when he wanted to die.

Like now.

His hand hurt, and his arm hurt, but worst of all, he'd told. He'd told and he'd sworn to God and he'd sworn over his mama's grave that he'd never tell another living soul. But he'd told.

Grayland Adams would kill him now.


Vin Tanner was angry. Even as he gently led Buck away from JD, he thought of JD facing down that mountain of a man, standing his ground. He could imagine that, even as a little boy, the kid had tried to stand up to Adams, and certainly got the back of the man's hand for it. He figured that JD probably stood up to him until the big man broke his spirit, and all he could do was hide.

Vin had seen folks recover when the body was broken, but rarely when the spirit was. Maybe JD would be one of the lucky ones. For all he'd evidently been through, JD had brought enthusiasm with him when he'd come to Four Corners. Surely that remained with him.

Buck's arm was tense. Vin released him and moved his hand to the gunslinger's shoulder. "He's gonna be all right, Buck," Vin said.

"You don't know that." Buck didn't even look at Vin as he replied.

Vin nodded. "You're right." Vin glanced back at the boy who had fallen asleep again. "But we've gotta keep believing in him so he don't give up believing in himself."

"Them's pretty words, Vin, but you don't begin to know . . . "

Vin spun around and faced Buck. "I don't know everything he told you, but I got a good idea about it. He was gettin' past it until that Adams guy found him. Think how he fancies them dime store novels, Buck--how proud he is to ride with us. It means the world to him. So we know he can live in spite of his past."

Buck watched Vin as he spoke, but then his eyes trailed back to JD.

"Oh God . . ." Buck's jaw dropped, then he looked at the ground. "The stories."

"What?"

Vin tried to follow his train of thought. "What about 'em?"

Buck looked up at the tracker with sad eyes. "He fancies Bat Masterson, and Chris, and . . . hell, all of us . . . because . . ."

Vin had never seen this expression from his friend. He listened quietly.

Buck swallowed and when he spoke again, his voice was rough. "He wants to be somebody else . . . because he figures that there's something wrong with being JD."

Vin felt a sudden catch in his throat, but he didn't say anything.

Buck began to pace as he talked. Vin figured he was trying to work all this out in his head. "He lives trying to be worth something, and scared of letting us down. He thinks he let his mama down, and here comes this god-forsaken son of a bitch telling him he ain't worth the trouble. And then makin' him . . ."

"Don't . . " Vin interrupted, keeping his voice gentle as he firmly caught Buck's arm. He placed a hand on the back of his friend's neck. "That's between you and JD. He'll tell me if he wants to."

Buck bit his lip.

"He trusts you, Buck. He knows you'll believe in him no matter what. You're the one he told." Buck's head dropped and he seemed to be studying the ground. Vin knew he was listening. "You may be right about him and his hero-worship. He may want to be a different person. But it's possible that he may just be looking for the best in himself. And as long as you stand by him . . . as long as all of us do, he'll know that just being JD is good enough."

"I hope you're right, Vin." Both men looked back at the boy now sleeping soundly, his bad arm held close, his good arm wrapped protectively around his knees.

"God, I hope you're right."


Ezra Standish was up way too early. He cursed his lack of sleep, and he cursed the fact that folks in Four Corners might mistake him for a conscientious person. If that became the consensus, then people may come to the conclusion that he could be called on to do something and then be expected to follow through with it. That wouldn't do. No, that wouldn't do at all.

He considered just lying in bed all morning. At least then he could remain true to form. But then he realized that he could surprise people, thus keeping them guessing, thus remaining an enigma. That worked better for him that day. He was anxious to check the telegraph office. Maybe he could do some more sleuthing about Grayland Adams. He could wire his friend in Boston . . . not "friend" really, but a man who owed Ezra money. That should be good for a favor or two.

He would do what he could to nail Grayland Adams. Ezra had known weasels in his life, but most of the weasels still had an unspoken code of honor. Everything about this Mr. Adams indicated that he was a different kind of weasel--the kind that was despised by criminal and citizen alike. If Ezra's hunch was right, once Adams went to prison, he would become a target very quickly.

That would suit Ezra just fine.


It was the pain that woke him up again. JD tried to move his arm and then the pain exploded. He screamed before he could stop himself and writhed on the ground. He closed his eyes as he fought it.

"JD!!"

He looked up to see Vin and Buck hovering over him.

"'m sorry," he gasped, then rolled away from them again. "It . . . hurts."

Buck reached out to steady the kid. While JD didn't fight his friend this time, tremors ran through his body at the touch.

"I ain't gonna hurt you."

JD could hear the concern in his friend's voice. "I know . . ." the boy answered, through clenched teeth. JD was biting back a scream.

"Your hand must hurt like hell . . ." Buck said, grabbing JD's good hand. JD held on, and then with another groan, he rolled in toward Buck.

"My arm . . ." JD pressed his face into Buck's shirt, hiding his hot tears. Buck kept a strong arm around his friend as Vin knelt next to them.

"Can I check your arm, kid?" Vin's voice was somehow reassuring to JD and he nodded, pulling himself up using Buck's strength as leverage.

"Easy, JD . . ." Buck said, shifting his weight a little. "I got you."

JD opened his eyes, sniffling slightly. God, he hated this. He hated that Vin and Buck had to see him cry. They'd never see him the same way--especially Buck. How could he have told Buck? JD felt a sob--a traitorous sob.

He almost wished Vin would hurt his arm. At least he'd have a real excuse for his tears. But then none of the other guys cried when they broke a bone.

Vin reached up and undid the sling that he'd made out of Buck's shirt the night before. JD cried out at the movement. He felt like his arm was coming apart.

"Sorry, son." Vin's voice was gentle. He then unrolled the oversized bandage they'd made and he gasped.

"What?" JD heard Buck ask.

Good Buck. I can't think right now.

JD was fading and he didn't fight it. Unconscious was better than the pain he felt every time Vin moved his arm. He tried not to scream out, but he couldn't help it.

"I'm sorry, kid." Vin's voice sounded farther away.

Then everything went black.


Buck had watched Vin pull the sling off of JD's arm, and he felt JD tremble in response. Buck strengthened his grip on JD's good hand even as he eased the kid back against him. JD was struggling so. Buck felt JD press his head back into his shoulder as another wave of pain threatened to overwhelm him. Then exhausted, the boy's head fell to the side, the black hair flopping across his face. Buck eased his free hand down to feel the kid's forehead.

Fever.

He let his hand slide up to the boy's hair, and push it back.

Then he heard Vin gasp.

"What?" Buck asked quickly.

Vin didn't answer, but Buck followed his eyes to the boy's arm.

Bone, cutting through the flesh in two places. Bleeding and strangely swollen. Vin was literally holding two parts of JD's arm.

Buck realized JD had gone limp in his arms.

"God, Vin, it didn't look like that yesterday," Buck said.

"He hadn't cut his hand when we made this bandage. And I was so worried about his hand, it didn't occur to me that he could have hurt his arm worse. He didn't say anything about it."

"He could've rolled on it this morning," Buck said, as he fought the nausea he felt. He had to look away for a minute.

Vin's shoulders dropped slightly as he held JD's arm.

"I don't know what to do for him. I don't know how to put his arm back . . . together to even get him to a doctor."

Buck forced himself to look at it again. "Well, we gotta keep it from bleeding, keep infection from setting in."

"We can clean it with whiskey."

"Yeah, and we shouldn't let it move around."

"A splint?"

Buck frowned. "Yeah, but we'll have to straighten it out."

"But then all the blood will go down his arm and his hand will bleed."

"His arm's gonna bleed before it can get to his hand." Buck said. "Damn."

Vin looked at the injured arm. "We have to stop the bleeding or he'll bleed to death."

Buck decided that he hadn't heard that right. Surely. "Don't be talking about death," Buck said.

"We ain't gonna let that happen. I'm just telling you. We can try to bandage it together so tightly it won't bleed. . . ."

"Let's do that then."

"Or we can stop his blood from going down that arm at all."

Buck nodded. "Better yet." Why did Vin look so upset still?

"No, Buck. It's not better. If we keep the blood out of his arm, his arm will die and a doctor will have take it."

Vin was talking crazy now. "What the hell is wrong with you? Ain't nobody gonna cut off this boy's arm."

"If we don't stop his bleeding, he'll die."

"Ain't nobody ever died from a broken arm, Vin," Buck yelled.

"But folks bleed to death, Buck." Vin yelled back, then he quickly lowered his voice. "We're talking about his life here, and I don't know what to do."

Buck held JD a bit tighter and looked at Vin. He could tell his friend was suffering. Buck managed a smile for the tracker. "We do the best we can," Buck said. "We try to save his arm, and if we can't, we make damn sure we save his life."

Vin nodded, his eyes full. "Good plan, Buck."

"Yeah, it is."


PART TWELVE: Fear

The telegraph clicked furiously and Ezra Standish paced just as furiously. This needed to be right. This needed to be it. He fought the urge to hurry the telegraph man, knowing it wouldn't make the incoming message come in any faster.

This Grayland Adams must be a popular fellow for this much information to be sent about him.

Well, Ezra really didn't care how much of a wanted man Adams was, he just wanted to be sure there was no way Adams had any claim on JD Dunne.

The gambler ran his hand through his hair. Maybe this much information was bad. Maybe there was some kind of mandate in Adams favor. . .

All Ezra knew was he was not letting that boy close to that man.

"Here you go," the telegraph officer said. He handed two pieces of paper to Ezra. "Unbelievable . . ." the man said under his breath, and he watched Ezra.

"Thank you, Sir . . ." Ezra took the messages out of the office. He didn't relish having his reactions studied by the officer who had precious little to do in the course of the day.

Ezra read as he walked--tripping on the step in front of the telegraph office. He caught himself, but his attention was never diverted from the message. He stood frozen on the side of the street.

He had to read it twice. Surely this wasn't true.

Then he shook his head. "Dear God. . ."


Even if Grayland Adams weren't an evil man, he would still get on Chris Larabee's last nerve. The man was a talker--a complainer--a self-serving high-falutin' Easterner and Chris was ready to arrest him right there for being annoying.

Instead, he nodded at Nathan and the healer found a bandage and gagged Grayland Adams with it.

"That's better." Chris grinned.

Adams kept yelling even though his words were unintelligible. The big man looked like he was about to explode. He turned beet red and the veins in his head raised as he grew angrier.

Nathan looked like he was going to laugh, but Chris noticed a decided change in his expression. Nathan was looking beyond Adams and back to the wagon. Chris followed his gaze and saw that Magda was shaking violently. Nathan ran to her.

"What's wrong with her?" Chris called.

Nathan was approaching her slowly and he didn't answer. It was as though he were trying to make contact with a frightened deer. Chris moved closer to them, but he was careful not to startle the woman.

"Miss Magda?" Nathan spoke gently. The woman was sobbing . . . although silently. It was very strange--like someone who had learned to hide the strongest of emotions.

"What is . . . " Chris' question was interrupted by Nathan's hand.

"I've seen this," Nathan said very softly. "She's having some kind of hysterical reaction, but she won't let herself make any noise."

"What causes it?"

Nathan looked back at Adams. "Can you imagine being having that anger directed at you and not being able to defend yourself?"

Chris felt his own anger rise. "He can't hurt you anymore, ma'am," Chris told the terrified woman.

She shook her head, no.

Chris leaned in closer, but still kept some distance. "I won't let him touch you."

Magda turned toward Chris and looked at him, then to Nathan. Nathan nodded. "He can protect you. We all will."

The woman looked back at Adams who was still fuming. Lips trembling, she spoke in broken English to Chris. "You have . . . angered him . . . too much." Her voice was scarcely more than a whisper. "He will kill you."

"No," Chris said, and he too looked at Adams. "He's a coward."

Magda cried out loud. "Then he will take his anger out on someone weaker . . . " She reached out and grabbed Chris' arm. "He will beat me for not keeping the boy in the wagon. He will beat me for letting you find us. . ."

Chris closed his gloved hand over her trembling one. "Look at me, Magda," he said. She was still watching Adams. "Magda . . ." He spoke a bit more harshly. She jerked back toward him.

"Trust me," Chris said simply. She studied his eyes, and for a brief moment, he could see relief in hers.

Chris gently squeezed her hand, then looked up at Nathan. "Ride with her for a while, would you?" Nathan nodded. Chris released her, but Magda grabbed his arm once more.

"Don't let your boy near him," she whispered again. "He will surely kill him."

"We'll take care of JD. Don't worry about anything."

Magda nodded, and Chris left to get Adams to shut the f*** up.


Vin frowned as his hand lingered on JD's face. Buck was asleep holding the kid against his chest. JD's sleep was fitful and the fever was beginning to overtake him. Maybe JD would sleep through Vin's examination of his arm.

Very gently, Vin began to work the bandage off of JD's hand. The kid groaned slightly, but didn't wake up. Good. Maybe Vin could do this without hurting him. He worked slowly and deliberately, moving even more slowly when he pulled back the cloth that directly covered the wound. It had drained some during the night, but didn't look infected in anyway. Thank God. This wound wouldn't kill him. Still he would need to see a doctor so he wouldn't lose any function in his hand.

Vin had boiled some cloth during the night so there would be clean bandages this morning. He replaced the old bandage on JD's hand with one of these new ones.

Now he'd have to check out the kid's arm. This fever was not good--not good at all, and Vin shuddered to think what it would look like. What if he undid the bandage and removed the makeshift splint only to have the arm . . . come apart.

He'd just have to try.

JD groaned again and the sleeping Buck murmured something that Vin figured would have been "easy there" if Buck's speech weren't so slurred with sleep.

"Buck . . ." Vin tried to wake Buck without waking JD.

"Huh?"

"I need to check JD's arm and I need your help."

Buck squinted at him. "Oh, man." Buck reached up and felt the kid's forehead. "He's burning up."

"I know."

Buck moved slightly to get a better balance. "My shirt is soaked. He's been sweating."

"We'll have to change his clothes or he'll get chilled."

Buck nodded.

"His hand looks better," Vin said. "Don't look like infection has set in."

"Thank God." Buck frowned. "What about his arm?"

"Don't know yet."

"Something must be really wrong for him to have this fever."

Vin didn't say anything. What was the point?


Chris Larabee rode next to Grayland Adams for a couple of hours. He was trying to figure out what the man had to gain by coming back for JD. He could only suspect the evils the kid had suffered at that man's hands . . . the beatings alone would be enough to terrify him. Watching Magda's reaction to Adams' anger made Chris more certain than ever that Adams had to have some kind of racket going on somewhere.

And it made Chris Larabee sick to think that the victims were women and children.

He would find a way to put this man away forever.


An arsonist.

Ezra Standish couldn't . . . no, wouldn't believe it. JD was enthusiastic--to a fault, Ezra had thought on more than one occasion. But at heart, the boy was gentle. The boy was a good person.

So how could Adams come up with the charge of arson? And why, if JD had committed such a crime, would Adams keep him on.

Unless it was to blackmail him . . .

Or his mother . . .

As terrible as that message was, the other wire bore worse news.

And Ezra didn't know how to proceed with that information.

He needed help. But how could he even ask without further jeopardizing JD's situation, not to mention his reputation.

Maybe it was time to trust the judge.


The scream was bloodcurdling. Buck felt it reverberate from JD even as he held the boy tightly. Buck kept one big hand on JD's forehead, pressing the back of JD's head into his own shoulder. With his other arm, he held JD around the waist. The kid was trembling and bucking against the excruciating pain in his arm.

Vin was trying not to hurt him. Buck knew that. But JD's arm was overcome with infection--swollen, seeping and even bleeding some.

"Please, stop . . ." JD breathed.

"Almost done, kid," Vin said as he tried to wrap it up again.

"Buck . . ."

"He's gotta do this, son," Buck answered.

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO . . ." the boy screamed again, and then, thankfully, he lost consciousness.

"Jesus," Buck muttered and he looked up at Vin. Vin's eyes were red.

"We gotta tie it off, Buck. We can't let the poison get into his body."

Buck nodded and felt his own eyes sting. "I know. Let's do it."


PART THIRTEEN: Separations

Where the hell were the guys? Surely they'd found JD. He just hoped against hope that they had gotten him away from Adamson. Ezra wanted to nail the bastard--but he also wanted to clear JD.

Arson. It wasn't in the kid. Ezra knew it. He trusted that his colleagues knew it as well. JD would never set a building on fire, certainly not a stable full of horses. If JD had done what the telegram said, he had to have been defending himself--or someone he loved.

But it was the other telegram that disturbed Ezra the most.

When he had wired one of his . . . associates . . . back east, he decided that sometimes it could be beneficial having a few seedy friends. Ezra wouldn't ever admit to knowing people like that--certainly not to the men he rode with. But he needed information that could only be retrieved from people who traveled in the darker circles--the back room gamblers, the outlaws, the lawmen who weren't above working both sides of the law, and the proprietors of establishments where one could . . . satisfy . . . most any desire.

He knew one of his people would know Adams--what he was into, what kind of business he did. It had never occurred to Ezra that one of his contacts would remember a beautiful black-haired boy that Adams had so ill-used.

As a matter of principle, Ezra avoided taking on crusades. Usually he would back up the guys hesitantly, involving himself as a last resort. He didn't regret participating--especially after the fact when he could see the good he'd done--in the Indian village and in Chinatown. But he would take on JD's crusade. Adams was the lowest form of life and he had made the young man, Ezra's friend, suffer atrocities Ezra had only read about.

Ezra Standish couldn't abide that.


How could he tell JD?

Buck was by himself, relieving himself in the sandy ground beside a tree that shouldn't be surviving in that climate. He buttoned his fly again but waited a moment.

How do you tell a kid he's gonna lose his arm? How do you tell him it has to be done without any laudanum? How do you ask him to live through something you yourself wouldn't? Hell, Buck would rather be dead than crippled.

And JD would know that. Maybe Buck should get his own thoughts clear before he tried to convince to live the rest of his life with one arm.

G****mn Adams--how much do you have to take away from this boy?

Well, Buck would exact retribution from the man who had come to town and turned JD's life upside down. That thought kept Buck going. Adams would pay. Buck would make him suffer before he'd make him dead.

Buck leaned his head against the tree. He couldn't stand this.

But if anyone was gonna tell the kid, it'd be him.


Nathan Jackson rode with Magda. She was still trembling.

"You don't have to be afraid of him," Nathan said softly. "He won't hurt you any more."

"He will be . . ." Magda lifted a handkerchief to her face and continued . . . "so angry with me."

"That doesn't matter. He has no hold over you anymore."

Magda cried now in earnest. "But . . . I need him. I have nothing. . . no one . . . you don't understand . . ."

Nathan shook his head. "I do understand, ma'am. When I escaped from the plantation, I didn't have anything--no place to live, no job, no money, no family, no skills. How could I live outside the land I knew?" Nathan looked at Magda and slowly her eyes rose to meet his. She was listening. "I remember," he went on, "that I almost didn't leave. One of my friends said that I was more comfortable with the devil I knew than the devil I didn't know. And I thought about it. I didn't know what I would face out there, but freedom . . ." Nathan's eyes filled. "Freedom has been worth any price I had to pay."

Magda looked at Adams, tears streaming down her face. "The devil I know . . ." she echoed.

"We'll see to it that you are safe and cared for, ma'am," Nathan said gently.

"He'll find me."

"We will protect you--and besides he will probably spend the rest of his life in jail."

Magda's lip trembled and she spoke so quietly that Nathan had to struggle to hear her. "Will you . . . will you really help me?"

Nathan smiled. "Yes, trust me."


Vin was heating implements in a fire. He looked up when Buck walked over. Buck squatted down next to him.

"Are you all right?" Buck asked his friend.

Vin didn't answer. He just shrugged. "You?" Vin asked.

"No. I hate this."

"It's gotta be done," Vin stated.

"I know. I still hate it." Buck put a hand on Vin's shoulder. "But we'll get through it." He used the leverage to stand up. "I'm gonna go talk to him."

"You need me?" Vin asked.

Buck shook his head. "No. I need to do this alone."

Vin nodded. "Holler if you need me."

"I will . . ."

Vin watched as Buck walked over to the sleeping boy. "Good luck, my friend," Vin said under his breath.


At first, Buck thought he would throw up, but he forced himself to breath easily and the wave of nausea passed. Buck eased himself beside JD. The young man was sleeping fitfully. He was suffering even in his sleep. Buck gently stroked the boy's hair and gradually JD stirred.

"What is it, Buck?" JD asked, without even opening his eyes.

"How do you feel, son?"

A moment passed and Buck thought the kid had fallen asleep again. Then JD spoke. "I'm . . . sick, Buck."

Buck continued stroking the kid's hair. "I know."

"My arm hurts."

"I'm sure it does." Buck felt his throat tighten.

JD struggled to open his eyes. "I'm dying, Buck."

"You're not gonna die."

"I . . . feel it. I can tell."

Buck took a deep breath. "You are dying. But it's because there's poison in your arm now. Infection's set in. We can save your life, JD . . ."

The young man was looking at Buck, his expression fearful.

Buck knew the only way to say it was just to say it. "We've gotta take your arm."

"No," JD whispered.

"We need you alive, JD. We'd rather have you alive with one arm than dead with both."

"God, no, Buck. You can't."

Buck opened to say more but nothing came. JD grabbed Buck's shirt with his good hand. "Please Buck. I'd rather be dead."

Buck put a strong arm around the boy and held him closely. "If it were me, JD . . ." He paused a moment to turn JD's tearful face toward him. "If it were me, would you let me give up?"

"Not a fair question," JD said.

"What would you tell me to do?"

JD waited, a sob nearly choking him, then he said, "I'd tell you . . . to live."

JD turned his face into Buck's shirt and didn't sob, didn't weep, didn't even speak--he just quaked. Buck bit back the ache in his own heart over his friend. They could put the boy through this only to lose him anyway.

Well, they had to try.

Buck held JD for a long time and waited for Vin's signal.

This was it.


PART FOURTEEN: Convergence

"This is kidnapping, you know. Once we get . . . somewhere . . . somewhere where there's real legal authority, you and your 'gang' will go to Yuma for the rest of your lives."

Why couldn't he just shut the hell up? Chris gnawed angrily on a piece of beef jerky. Why had they taken the gag out of his mouth? Everytime they did, they regretted it.

Adams was obviously not afraid of much. He was not afraid of them, that's for sure. And he was even less afraid of the law. What made a man so . . . cavalier about being able to hurt people? What made a man like that, who seemed to have way more power than the average man--what made a man like that ride all the way across the country to bring one kid all the way back to Boston?

Chris thought about it. Somehow JD must pose a threat to the man. But how?

". . . never see the light of day again. Why, by the time you get brought before . . ." Surely sometime the man would run out of things to say. Time to shut him up again.

"Nathan!"

"Got it."

And Chris grinned as the healer put a sock in the big man's mouth.


Josiah rode out of Four Corners. Because there was the possibility, albeit remote, that someone else may be looking for the boy, Vin didn't leave their special clues behind. The Seven had established certain tracking signs so they would be able to find each other if necessary, but they had decided not to risk even that.

At least Josiah had an idea of possible hideouts they would seek out if they did find JD. He felt certain they wouldn't come back to Four Corners until they knew Adams was . . . neutralized in some way.

The damnable shame of it was that if a judge had ruled that Adams had some claim to the boy--if indeed JD was a boy--the law didn't protect JD. Unless they could prove some harm had been done to JD while he was in Adamson's care, the law protected Adams. There was no doubt that Adamson had hurt the boy, but there was no proof. And if Adams had some kind of hold over JD, JD might not fight to save himself.

A bank of low black clouds crept across the western sky--ominous like some approaching evil that nobody, not Josiah, not the law, not a host of angels could push back.

God help us. Josiah let his head fall to his chest.

"God help that boy," he said aloud. "He's needing you now. . . " The rest of the words were spoken by his heart. Truth be told, he didn't know what to ask for.

He just knew he needed to ask.


God, I can't do this . . .

Vin Tanner looked at the crude implements on the fire and suddenly felt his breakfast surge. He took two staggering steps to a tree and retched.

God . . .

What was he thinking? He didn't know how to do this. He didn't know how to seal off the blood veins. What if he didn't seal it up right and an artery kept bleeding? How could he seal it anyway? What if the poison was already in his brain? Why put that poor boy through this if he was gonna die anyway?

Oh God. . . Every cell in his body quivered and Vin felt another wave of nausea. He heaved, but there was nothing left. So he just dry heaved until a hitching sob overcame him. How could he do this? How could he even think of doing this? He'd be killing JD as surely as if he put his gun to his head and pulled the trigger.

He stepped away from the tree and looked toward where Buck sat with the kid. He was too far away to hear them, but could see that Buck had gathered the boy in his arms. From here, JD just looked like he was sleeping. From here, it was impossible to tell that a deadly poison was killing him.

But even from this far away, he could tell that it was killing Buck. Vin watched them for a long moment, then he pressed his eyes closed as tightly as he could, not minding that hot tears were rolling down his face. He had to get clear before he could help JD.

He turned and walked far enough away so that Buck wouldn't be able to see him--for a minute anyway. He looked up at the brilliant sky and wondered by the sun hurt.


Judge Travis was both intrigued and seriously troubled. Ezra Standish aka Ezra Simpson aka Ezra Smith. This man was a con man . . . a man who'd swindled folks in one town and then moved on to another, a man who had jumped bail . . .

A man who'd stepped in front of a bullet to save Mary's life.

Ezra Standish had summoned him from Morgantown and said it was urgent. He made it clear that Mary was all right, but his cryptic message said little else. Well, looking at it over and over again wouldn't clarify anything. With a "hhmph", the judge returned the message to his jacket pocket and looked out the dirty window of the stagecoach.

What a strange sky! The sun would be dazzling if the windows weren't so mud-clouded, but from the west, there was a great shadow. If he hadn't known the landscape, Travis might have imagined that there was a black mountain range to the west. But no, it had to be one hell of a storm brewing. The judge smiled at the double entendre. That surely wasn't the only storm he was gonna face today. Not by a long shot.


Buck was glad JD was out again. If he were unconscious, he wouldn't hurt, he wouldn't be scared. Buck wouldn't have to see his terrified eyes--wouldn't have to hear his weak voice begging him not to take his arm. Oh God, hasn't this boy suffered enough?

Buck held onto JD, careful not to hurt him. He had one strong arm wrapped around his boy's torso, and, with his other hand, slowly stroked his sweat-soaked hair. He kept talking,. Even if JD couldn't hear him, he'd know Buck was there. He'd know Buck loved him.

Buck's heart hurt for Vin, too. He'd seen the tracker stagger to the tree. He knew the young man had gotten sick, and if Buck weren't holding JD just then, he'd have joined him. This was more than a friend should have to face. And for all Vin had seen in his young life, he was still . . . so young. If there were anything Buck could do to keep Vin from having to do this--and to keep JD from having to go through this--he would.

But this was how it was. This was the way it had to be. All three of them wanted JD to live. So they'd all have to get each other through this.

JD stirred a little.

"Easy, son." How could Buck tell him that? Who could rest easy under these circumstances?

But JD wasn't waking up. He was talking a bit, though. Buck leaned his head down to hear . . .

And his heart quaked.

". . . sorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorry . . ."


Magda had finally fallen asleep. She had been so terrified and her heart had pounded so furiously that Nathan was worried that she could have a heart attack. He finally gave her some medicine tea to relax her. Once he was sure that she was alright, he pulled up alongside Chris.

"How is she?" Chris asked.

"Sleeping . . . finally." Nathan stole a glance back at the wagon. "She's been terrorized for a long time. I guess she figured that as long as she did what Adams said, he wouldn't hurt her as bad. But now she ain't got control over this situation. Adams is likely to find a way to blame her for it."

"He ain't getting near her," Chris snapped.

"She don't know that," Nathan said. He needed to make this clear to Chris. "That's a powerful fear she carries."

"What's your point?"

Chris Larabee could be a real pain in the ass sometimes.

"My point," Nathan said, his words clipped, "is that her reaction to him is proof that he abuses her. If we can find a way to convince her that she's safe, we may be able to get her to tell us what he's done. That would at least give us something to convict him on."

"And that would keep him away from JD," Chris followed.


For the second time that day, Ezra Standish sorted through his clothes. He wanted to be taken seriously. He wanted Judge Travis to see him -- not the gambler and not the bailjumper. Ezra wanted the judge to see the peacekeeper he had hired--the man Judge Travis had helped him to become.

Ezra had dashed back up to his room when he decided his vest was a bit flashy for this meeting. But if he dressed too conservatively, he wouldn't be believable. The judge would think he was up to something.

Ezra had to make this work. For once he had to make someone believe the truth. Oh, he could make people believe most anything. But this was the judge--a man who knew he had a propensity for . . . obfuscating. Judge Travis needed to know that JD's life was at stake. And he needed to know Ezra wasn't working some kind of con. Mary would back him up but it was still up to him to convince the staunchly "by the book" judge to challenge not one, but two of his brothers in the bar. He--Ezra Standish whose first interaction with the judge was from the wrong side of the bench--he had to get Judge Orrin Travis to investigate two rulings. One of the rulings had been rendered all the way back in Boston. Ezra had to convince the judge to take a career risk for the sake of a boy he didn't even know very well.

But the judge was a fair man and, while he was committed to upholding the law, he was more committed to seeing justice done. He had demonstrated this in Nathan's father's trial. Never had Ezra witnessed greater kindness. And that was why he decided to trust the judge to help him.

Ezra took off his jacket and hung it up carefully. Then he took off his vest and lay it on the bed. He paused and glanced in the mirror that was standing on his dresser.

He saw a very different man than he'd seen there before. That day he'd headed out of town with all that money, he hadn't been able to stand looking at himself. But now everything had changed. His mission wasn't about him. His mission was selfless--and that felt remarkable.

It also scared the hell out of him. Someone's future could very well be in his hands. Right now he was the only one in a position to challenge Adams' claims. The others had to keep him safe now. Ezra had to ensure his safety for the rest of his life. If what he'd discovered was true, JD would be remanded to Adams' custody until he reached his majority, then he'd go to prison for the rest of his life. JD was a tough kid, but prison would kill him--if Adams didn't first.

Ezra shook his head. What was he doing? His argument was strong enough. He put his vest back on and the same jacket. The judge knew him. He'd wear what he'd been wearing and trust himself to influence the judge with his words.

And he'd trust the judge.


Riding alone gave a man time to think. And Josiah preferred not to think. If he ruminated on this for too long, he'd work himself into enough of a rage that he might just exact a little retribution on Mr. Grayland Adams.

It was just a good thing that his knowledge of the situation was limited. Bad enough that JD had ever been afraid of the man. Now there was a radically different aspect to the story, and whatever it was enfuriated Ezra. Josiah found that it took an awful lot to anger the affable Southerner. Ezra distanced himselves from most causes. If it required any effort on his part, the gambler wanted none of it--unless of course the pay made it worth it. In that case, he would do what was required of him and not a whit more.

But for all of his apparent apathy, Ezra did have a code. At his core, he couldn't abide the hurting of an innocent--particularly an innocent who couldn't defend him or herself. The more grievous the crime, the more angry the Southerner became. Josiah didn't know whether this had developed since Ezra had been working as a peacekeeper or whether he had been a champion of the innocent his whole life. Josiah suspected that Ezra had always felt strongly about it, but perhaps he hadn't let those feelings translate into action until he became one of the "Magnificent Seven". When he thought about it, Josiah could never remember Ezra ever swindling someone who couldn't afford it. Even when he beat JD at poker, he would see to it that the boy won his money back within the week. And, bless his heart, JD never realized it.

JD . . .

Lord, let him be all right.

Perhaps it was the black sky that was slowly overtaking the familiar sun-filled one. Or it could be the fact that no one seemed to know where anyone else was. But Josiah Sanchez felt hopeless. He had long since lost the giddy fervor of a young man first recognizing the Presence of God. At times like this, he didn't experience any joy in his communion with the Spirit. The best thing that religion afforded him was moments of Peace--true Peace, and occasionally some Understanding.

Right now, he wished for a little hope.

Yet for all of his faith, Josiah felt that his prayers were somehow weak. It felt as if he . . . didn't know how to pray about this. Maybe it was because he didn't know the extent of the evil they were facing.

But Ezra Standish did. And he hadn't told a soul. He had explained to Josiah that it was in JD's best interest not to. So Josiah hadn't pressed it. He'd never seen Ezra so intent on righting a wrong. And Josiah could tell from his expression that JD's past could hurt the young man for the rest of his life.

This was incredible. Each of the men he rode with had skeletons in his closet. He never figured the kid had any. Oh, he knew JD had had a hard life--but nothing like the truth that was being borne out.

Well, JD had friends--friends who knew his heart--and they would do whatever they had to to protect him.

Was this trek really gonna do any good? Josiah couldn't tell if he were on the right trail or not. If he couldn't find a sign of anyone or anything by nightfall, he'd camp out then head back to Four Corners in the morning.

As if his question were some kind of prayer, he saw it . . . up ahead . . .

Josiah swung a long leg over his horse and dismounted quickly. He felt the aches that had become more a part of his life over the last few years. He took a moment to stretch before leaning over to examine the change in the color of the dirt. Someone had cleaned it up well, but Josiah's practiced eye could see that there was a change. As he got closer, he could see that it was grain of some kind. Vin knew the birds or animals would get the rest of it up quickly. And there was very little left.

But it was enough to know someone had been here.

"All right," he said, and he looked up to the sky and tipped his hat.

Maybe he was getting some Help after all.


Chris squinted up at the sky. He didn't like the looks of the storm clouds blowing in. And he didn't like the look on Nathan Jackson's face. The healer was driving the wagon and Magda was still sleeping in the back. The driver was bound tightly to Nathan's saddle. And Grayland Adams? He rode bareback on his own horse, his arms tied around the stallion's neck and a rope as a makeshift girth tied under the horse's belly and bound on either side to the man's feet. Oh, and Adams still had a sock in his mouth.

Chris pulled up beside Nathan. He didn't have to ask what he was thinking. Nathan started talking as soon as Chris drew close enough.

"If JD fell out of the wagon," he began, "and it was moving--and he was tied up and blindfolded," Nathan's voice grew more bitter as he spoke, "how could he have survived out here?"

"Let's hope Vin and Buck found him," Chris said, but his words sounded hollow.

"What if 'Lucas' found him first?" Nathan cut angry eyes toward him. "That boy didn't stand a chance."

A voice wafted from the back of the wagon. "He will not kill him."

"Ma'am?" Nathan whispered back.

Magda had crawled close to the front and looked out fearfully.

"It's all right," Chris said.

The woman's lip quivered and she whispered angrily. "It's not all right. You keep saying that but it's not all right."

"Ma'am, you said . . ." Chris was interrupted when Magda slipped back behind the safety of the wagon flap.

"Don't let him see you talking to me."

Chris pulled away a couple of feet and gave the impression of talking only to Nathan. The healer picked up the conversation--anticipating what Chris was going to ask. He kept his voice low. "You said Lucas wouldn't hurt him."

"No, I said he would not kill him." Chris had to strain to hear her. But there was no mistaking the anger and fear in her voice. "Mr. Adams would not let him kill the boy. But Lucas will most certainly hurt him."

"Won't that make Adams angry?" Nathan asked.

There was no answer at first, then there was a sob. "Mr. . . Adams would be angry . . . if he did not . . . punish him."

"Punish him," Chris echoed. "What could that boy . . . have possibly done . . ."

"I don't know," Magda said. "I don't know why Mr. Adams hates him so much. He's a good, sweet boy . . . "

Nathan's voice was hard. "Then why did you drug him."

"Nathan . . ." Chris didn't raise his voice but he tried to stop his friend from pursuing this with that poor woman.

"Why did you take part in delivering him to a man you knew would hurt him?"

"I was scared."

"All the more reason to protect him."

Magda didn't say anymore. And the only way Chris knew she was crying was by the slight gasp in her breathing.

"You had no cause to do that, Nathan," Chris said. "She ain't the enemy here; she's the victim."

"You don't tell me what I can and cannot say." Nathan was as angry as Chris had ever seen him. "If she hadn't done what she did, JD would be home safe."

Chris felt a surge of anger toward his friend, but his concern for Nathan outweighed it. "What's going on here?" Chris asked softly.

"What the hell do you think is going on?" Nathan snapped. "We're not calling the shots." He nodded toward Adams. "He is. You don't think they know where this Lucas has taken the kid? We think we've taken over this situation, but we haven't."

"He don't look like he's in charge from here."

"But he don't look like he's worried either."

Nathan had a point. Oh, Adams was uncomfortable, and clearly he was angry, but he was holding an ace somewhere and Chris didn't like it. He pulled over to ride next to the big man--who didn't look so big tied to his horse like he was.

"So, comfy?" Chris grinned. "So, tell me, where would this Lucas take JD?"

Adams cut murderous eyes toward Chris.

"Oh, that's right, you can't talk. You've got a sock in your mouth." Chris chuckled, then in a flash, he grabbed Adams by the hair. "Now, if you try to bite me, I'll shoot your ear off, you understand?" Adams didn't answer.

"I reckon that's a 'yes"," Chris said and he put his gloved hand in Grayland Adams' mouth and pulled the sock out--but not before deliberately gagging the man. Still Adams had evidently taken the gunman at his word and wasn't stupid enough to risk an ear.

"Where's the boy?" Chris asked.

There was no answer.

Chris shook his head. "A while ago you wouldn't shut up. Now," Chris grabbed Adams hair again and this time, he drew his pistol and lined it up with the man's earlobe. "Where is he?"

"He's supposed to be here," Adams said.

"Well, he's not."

"If I knew where he was, you would, too. You've been on my tail ever since we left Four Quarters."

"I also know you'd have a back-up plan in case something went wrong. Now where would your man take that boy?"

It was then that Adams said something so wrong that Chris Larabee would kill him now no matter what.

Adams looked Chris in the eye and grinned. "To a level of pleasure I have not enjoyed for a couple of years now."

Chris Larabee pulled out his knife and cut the man from his horse, careful to tie his hands and feet back together. He tied him like some big steer he'd just roped. Then, wordlessly, rage driving his actions, the famed gunman put his knee in Adams' chest, put his hand over his face and shot him.

OK, he grazed him.

Well, his earlobe.

He had the good sense not to kill the man who might be his only link to JD.

Chris wondered vaguely why Nathan hadn't tried to stop him, but then he knew.

Nathan was standing over another man.

A dead man.

Lying with a bullet in his brain.

"Good God!" Adams' wagon driver said. "It's Lucas."


Buck held on to JD as if, by holding on, he could somehow hold everything together. The boy was leaning back against him, resting almost comfortably. Of course, that was deceptive. He had lost consciousness when the pain became more than he could bear. Buck would buy into that deception for now, though. For a moment, time was suspended and he could deny what was about to happen. For a moment, JD was all that existed. Buck closed his eyes and, with one hand, he cradled the boy's head against him, and he pressed his other hand against JD's chest, feeling his friend's heartbeat. As long as they stayed like that, they'd be all right. As long as JD's heart was beating, as long as Buck could hold on to him like that and protect him, they'd be just fine.

But this little respite didn't last long. A grumbling roll of thunder drew Buck's eyes to the sky.

Storm.

Sweet Jesus! Bad enough that JD couldn't make it to the shelter of the Indian village. If it rained, Vin couldn't do what he had to do. And if Vin didn't do this, that precious heartbeat would stop.

"You gotta do something here, Lord." Buck commenced to talking to the Lord about this. If someone asked Buck Wilmington if he ever prayed, he'd say no. He didn't pray in the church like other people, but he had lots of conversations with God. Yeah, he prayed. Never more fervently than right then. "There's that storm coming in. If you'd just . . . hold it back for a while." He'd pray out loud and then he'd pray to himself, and as the next roll of thunder answered him, he looked up and saw Vin.

Looked like the sharpshooter was over his sudden sickness, and now Vin approached, a corked bottle of whiskey in one hand, and the other carrying an open bottle of whiskey with a couple of knives in it. Buck raised an eyebrow.

Vin shrugged. "Seen Nathan do it. Put the knife in the fire then keep it in whiskey. Says something about it keeps the wound cleaner."

"Hunh?" JD's eyes didn't open, but he talked.

"Nothing, son," Buck tried to make his voice very calm.

The boy started to squirm, but as soon as he moved, his whole body began to tremble and he cried out . . .

"Oh God . . . Buck . . ."

Buck moved his hand from JD's chest and encircled his arm around the boy's waist. "I got you, son. Just keep your arm as still as you can."

JD jerked up and threw his head back over Buck's shoulder. "Help me . . . " The kid's cry was pitiful. Buck looked up at Vin and recognized his expression.

Resolve.

Vin had gotten his emotions out of the way. He looked much stronger than Buck felt. JD pressed his hot forehead into Buck's neck and cried out--something between a groan and a wail.

"I know, JD," Buck said, reaching out to Vin for the unopened bottle of whiskey. Vin set down the bottle of implements and opened the other one. Buck took it and held it to JD's lips. "Drink this," Buck said. "It'll help."

JD tried to, but choked on it instead. He began coughing.

Vin squatted in front of him and Buck let the boy fall forward into the gentle arms of the sharpshooter. The top of JD's head leaned into Vin's chest, and his coughs gradually changed to sobs. Buck kept a hand on the boy's back--so hot with fever. Vin held the boy's neck. Finally, JD raised his head. With his good hand, he reached for the whiskey and took a long drink. Then he spoke softly.

"Vin, I know . . . you wish this . . . didn't have to . . happen." Buck couldn't see JD's face. And that might have been why Buck could bear this at all. JD's voice . . . he did sound like he was younger than he'd said he was. And his voice was getting weaker as he spoke.

"You gotta know . . . " JD paused and he took another shot of the whiskey. "I know this could kill me."

"No sense talking like that, JD," Buck said more sharply than he'd intended.

"It's gotta be said, Buck." JD set the whiskey bottle down and used his good hand to grab a hold of Vin's shirt. "If I die, Vin, it won't be your fault."

Vin looked at the ground. "JD . . ."

"Well, I ain't planning on it." Why did that make JD laugh at himself? Vin's head popped up and the sharpshooter smiled slightly.

"Well, that's good, kid. It'd make my trying to save your life a lot harder if you were."

JD chuckled--or did he cough. "I'm grateful you're doing this. I don't know . . . if I could . . . if the tables were turned."

"You do what you gotta do, kid," Vin said, but Buck could hear the dread in his voice.

"You'd do great, JD," Buck said.

The boy was trembling. "If I say . . . anything ugly to you while you're . . . working, I won't mean it personal."

Vin put his hand up to JD's face. "I know that."

"I'm . . . really . . . scared."

Buck knew that was hard for the kid to say. JD never wanted them to see any weakness in him.

"So am I," Vin said.

In a whisper, JD gave them his blessing.

"Do it."


Josiah knew how Vin cleared tracks--and he had here. But as Josiah looked around, he saw some anomalies. There were "body" tracks. It was as though someone had come through who had been dragged.

No, that wasn't right.

The track was more like someone had had to move without benefit of arms and legs. Someone who'd . . .

Rage. Rage that rushed through his entire body and into his muscles and made his fingertips tingle and twitch. The person who had made those tracks had been tied up. And it was evident by the lack of direction that the victim had been blindfolded.

Why would anybody have to tie up and blindfold an unarmed boy who had already been drugged? Josiah could only hope that Vin and Buck had found him before one of Adams' folks had been able to backtrack to him.

The fury Josiah felt at that instant was the one that scared the hell out of him. It was the one he feared he wouldn't be able to control. The way he would usually distance himself from it was by pouring red eye all over it.

But he wouldn't distance himself from it today. Because today the situation wasn't hopeless. He'd let his anger drive him to find the boy . . .

And help the boy. And protect the boy.

But if the boy were dead . . .

Not even God could keep Adams safe from him.

Besides, Josiah figured that God would be on his side in this.

God, let him be all right. Please.

Josiah took a few minutes to rest his horse and to answer the call of nature. A bolt of lightning split the approaching black sky. Judging from the time between the lightning and the thunder, it was still several miles away. It would be a powerful storm. Josiah couldn't afford to stop for long.

JD needed him.

Somehow, Josiah got the feeling that his horse knew there was something important about this trip. Either that or the approaching storm was making him antsy. At any rate, he seemed as anxious as Josiah to move on.

If Vin and Buck had found JD, they most likely wouldn't take him back to Four Corners until they were sure Adams was gone. Where would they take him?

Josiah smiled. Someplace where they would be greeted with hospitality.


"YOU F***ING SHOT ME!" Grayland Adams screamed from the ground where he lay. "YOU HAVE NO IDEA . . . " the big man blustered, ". . . HOW COMPLETELY DEAD I'M GONNA KILL YOU."

"You have no idea . . . " Chris Larabee replied, ". . . how completely scared I'm not."

Made about as much sense, Chris figured. He kept his gun trained on the man while he took the few steps over to where the man they called "Lucas" lay dead. "I'll shoot the first one of you who moves," Chris said. He tipped his hat to Magda. "You too, Ma'am. Just stay put there."

Nathan was already examining the body. Chris spoke quietly to him. "Whattaya got?"

"Looks like Vin shot him," Nathan said.

Chris sighed in obvious relief. "Then Vin has likely got JD."

"Yeah," Nathan nodded, but he was frowning.

"What?" Chris asked more softly.

"Somebody else is hurt."

Chris knelt down near the body and listened as the healer explained. "You can see where the bleeding is that's from the head wound. He'd have died instantly." Chris nodded and glanced back at his captives. No one had moved an inch.

With his gloved hand, Nathan lifted the dead man's arm and showed Chris. "Lots of blood on his hand and his sleeve and shirt and all over the ground . . . behind me." He pointed to an area near Chris. "Over there."

Chris followed his reasoning. "But 'Lucas' has that one head wound that killed him instantly."

"Looks like he got in a tussle with someone, but no other bleeding injury."

"So it's one of ours."

"Probably."

Chris pulled his hat off and ran his fingers through his hair. "Damn."

"They wouldn't try to take JD back to 4 Corners if they weren't sure where Adams was. And if any of them's hurt, like you say, they'd likely find the nearest shelter."

"The Indian Village."


An anticipatory drizzle started to fall in Four Corners not three minutes before the stage pulled in. Ezra Standish sat with Mary Travis, waiting. Somehow, during their conversation, Ezra's hand had found hers--not in a romantic gesture. Rather, it was the sharing of a crisis. Mary could see that Ezra was carrying a load that exceeded even his concern for his friends' immediate safety. He had been receiving telegrams daily ever since Mr. Adams arrived. And none of them had brought good news.

But Ezra wouldn't tell her anything beyond the fact that Adams had filed custody for JD Dunne and that JD was still a minor. But she knew there were other things--things that seemed to Ezra to be. . . unspeakable. Mary could see in his eyes that he was protecting the boy with his silence. She respected that and never asked him about it.

Ezra had been so distraught and so certain that he needed the judge's help, that Mary contacted her father-in-law. She wasn't sure how the judge would take to a request from the formerly nefarious gambler. Oh, the folks in Four Corners had come to know Mr. Standish and most had begun to develop a trust, albeit tenuous, in the peacekeeper. But the judge hadn't been around him that much. So she was more than pleasantly surprised when the judge said he'd drop everything simply because Ezra said he needed him.

The stagecoach pulled in and Mary squeezed Ezra's hand. But instead of releasing it, the gambler brought her hand to his lips. Then he held it in both of his. His eyes were full and, for a moment, she could see his lips tremble.

"Ezra?"

"I am so grateful," he said in a voice very unlike him. Then, recovering quickly, he blinked hard, patted her hand and turned to greet the judge.

There was a deafening crash of thunder and the storm began in earnest.


Josiah rode, still ruminating, but about the oddest things.

Frog giggers. Three-legged dogs. "He can ride. He can shoot. He can fly. He can swim."

Oh, John Dunne. Who have I ever known who embraced life as you have?

Maybe it was because of the worry or the rage or maybe he was just plain tired, but Josiah felt his eyes fill and he rode just a little harder until he heard the gunshots.

His heart stopped for a moment. Then he realized.

The signal. That was the Seven's signal. He rode toward the sound just as the rain began to fall.


They rode as quickly as the wagon would allow. If it weren't for the fact that someone up ahead was probably injured, they'd have left the wagon. But Nathan felt like they couldn't take that chance. Adams was fuming. His wagon driver and Magda were afraid, and Chris Larabee, who was driving the wagon now, was silent. Nathan wished they could just leave Adams somewhere. But without knowing for sure where JD was, it was safer to keep Adams in sight.

They were outrunning the storm--or trying to, but when Nathan looked over the crest of the next short hill, everything changed.


JD lay on his back, his belt in his mouth, ready for him to bite down on it when the pain started. Buck sat on one side holding the boy's good hand and stroking his hair. Vin took a deep breath. "JD," he said as he started easing the kid's broken arm out, "You're gonna . . ."

He was interrupted when JD screamed. JD tried to kick, but Buck swung around and sat on the kid's legs. "I know you hurt, boy," Buck said, and Vin could see the big man's eyes fill.

But Vin couldn't afford tears just then. He'd had to let go of his grief back when he let go of his lunch. Right now he had a job to do.

"JD," Vin said. The boy was terrified. His eyes were almost wild. His breathing was too fast and too shallow. "JD!" Vin repeated sharply, as he continued straightening out the hideous appendage. The boy looked over at it, but Vin grabbed his jaw and turned JD's face away. "NO!" Vin yelled. "Don't look at it. Ya hear me." JD looked away, tears streaming down his face, but he was doing what Vin told him. "Good, kid," Vin said, more gently. He squinted up at the black sky, hoping the rain would hold off. Then he leaned down very close to the boy's ear.

"JD," he said. "You'll survive this. You understand me? I've seen people go through this and live." Vin touched the boy's chin gently,and turned his face toward him, but not so far that he'd see the horrible injury. "Buck and I wouldn't have considered this if you couldn't survive it. You're strong and you're tough. And you're gonna live. You hear me?"

JD didn't answer.

"JD?" Buck said. "I gotta know, boy. I gotta know you're gonna hang on."

JD looked at each of them, and nodded. He spoke, his words hampered by the belt in his mouth and slurred by the whiskey he'd had. But his words were beautiful. "I'm gonna live."

Vin smiled. "That's right, JD. You're gonna live."

Buck gripped his hand more tightly and JD looked away from his arm. Vin reached into the whiskey bottle for the knife.


"My God," Nathan said. From this distance, he couldn't tell what exactly Vin was gonna do, but he could guess. Buck was sitting on JD's legs, holding him down. Vin was poised over the kid's arm, and he had . . . a knife?

Nathan raised his gun and fired the signal into the air. Vin and Buck looked up at them, and the rain started to fall.


"I'm gonna live."

Buck wanted to believe that more than anything. He nodded his support to Vin and then focused on talking JD through this. Vin's hand was poised over the kid's arm when they heard it.

For a split second Buck thought it might have been thunder, but when he heard it again, he realized it was the signal.

Vin's hands started shaking and he looked up. Buck followed his gaze and saw a sight nothing less than angels.

"Nathan," he whispered. Buck reached in his holster and drew his pistol and returned the signal.

And the cavalry came thundering toward them as the heavens crashed open and it started raining. Vin covered JD's arm and put the knife back in the whiskey. Buck moved back to JD's side and tented his coat over him.

"It's gonna be all right now, son. Nathan and Chris are here. Nathan's got his doctoring bag and he's got laudanum and you don't have to hurt no more."

JD reached with his good hand and took the belt out of his mouth. "Promise?" the boy asked.

"Promise," Buck whispered back.

And together, he and Vin gathered the boy up and carried him into the wagon. Josiah met them at the wagon and it was only when the big preacher dove into Grayland Adams did Buck even realize that that son of a bitch was there. The only reason Buck was glad that Chris and Vin pulled Josiah off the man was because he wanted a shot at him.

But that would have to wait. JD needed him. And Buck couldn't help but think maybe . . .

Well, maybe God had intervened. Maybe Nathan could figure out a way to save JD's arm.

And maybe things could work out for the kid after all.

To be continued . . .


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