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?"


Go to Part Eight.


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