Magnificent Seven: Trail to Tascosa

by The Traveling Dime Store Novelist

DISCLAIMER: The following stories are works of fan fiction. They are not intended to infringe upon the copyrights of CBS, The Mirisch Group, MGM, Trilogy, or anyone else who may have legal claim on "The Magnificent Seven." I do not claim the characters or concept, and the only profit I get is the enjoyment of writing the stories and sharing them with other fans.

This series of stories takes place, as the title suggests, on the way to Tascosa to clear Vinís name. The tales will follow one another chronologically and will keep to stories involving only the seven men with no romantic entanglements or off-the-wall characterizations (I hope!). As the characterizations are based on my observations, they may not agree with your own, as we all see the world from our own unique perceptions. If anyone would like to send comments, you can send them to me at my e-mail address at the end of the story.

Story Three

Old Debts and New Friends

By The Traveling Dimestore Novelist

Josiah Sanchez held up his shot glass to the sunlight that strayed in above the cantinaís batwing doors. The slanted rays sifted through the whiskey, spiraling it with amber and golden brown hues as Josiah slowly turned the base of the glass with his fingertips. Staring into the liquorís facets, he pondered the path that had led him to this tiny hellhole called Medino. Again.

He glanced across the table at his companions, Chris Larabee, Vin Tanner, JD Dunne, and Nathan Jackson. Together theyíd downed one bottle of whiskey and had just opened another. After the incident with the nuns, their young wards, and the Tennessee stud, theyíd traveled a couple days across the devilís playground. Buckís leg hadnít been healing as quickly as it shouldíve, and Nathan thought a few daysí rest in Medino would speed his recovery along.

Josiah didnít think the bedrest that Buck was getting was exactly what Nathan had in mind. But, then, Buck drew women to him like a candle drew moths Ė Josiah only hoped he didnít burn himself up in the flames of youthful indiscretion.

"Whatís so funny there, Josiah?" Nathan asked.

Josiah glanced at the healer, noting his half smile and the twinkle in his dark eyes, and couldnít help but grant him a crooked grin. "I was merely pondering the slings and arrows of that creature called Fate."

Nathan looked over at their companions, and shook his head. "I think that means Josiahís had enough whiskey."

"Not nearly enough, my friends," Josiah exclaimed. "Ever wonder what hand brought us all together in Four Corners? I mean, men of such diversity," he looked pointedly at Ezra Standish playing poker at a nearby table with a couple of the locals and a dusty peddler. "And yet, here we are. Together."

"Youíre right," Vin drawled. "Heís had enough."

Josiah tilted his head to the side, and continued to study the varying light patterns in the liquor. "A man can learn a lot from whiskey."

"Like itíll rot your gut if you drink too much?" Chris asked with an upraised brow.

Josiah nodded. "That, too." He took a deep breath and sighed, then lifted the shot glass to his lips and swallowed the fiery whiskey in one gulp. "Then again, maybe thatís all there is to know."

"Whatís gotten into you, Josiah?" Nathan asked. "You been actiní almighty strange the last few days." He frowned suspiciously. "It ainít them damned crows again, is it?"

"I havenít seen one since we left Four Corners," Josiah replied. "Iíve seen vultures, though."

"If you ask me, theyíre worse than crows," JD spoke up, shivering visibly.

"Maybe not worse, but definitely no better."

"Whatíre you gettiní at, Josiah?" Nathan asked. "You got another one of those death premonitions?"

Josiah pondered how to answer that question without them thinking he was as crazy as a waltzing pig. "More like a life premonition."

"Huh?" JD asked for all of the confused men.

Josiah poured himself another shot of whiskey and downed it immediately, hoping to dull the sense of unease that gripped him like a desperate spinster. "Probably nothiní more than that tamale I had last night."

"Yeah, that had me up all night, too," JD said with a nod. "íCourse sleepiní in the same room as Buck, I had to get out and get some fresh air." He scowled. "He had a whole mess of beans with his tamales."

Vin and Nathan chuckled, but Chris studied Josiah with his sharp gaze. Something was bothering the ex-preacher, something that didnít bode well for anyone.

Buck charged through the swinging doors, his limp considerably less marked than it had been when theyíd arrived in Medino. He swung a chair around from another table and insinuated it between JD and Vin, then plopped down. "Howdy pards. Miss me?"

"Were you gone?" JD asked innocently.

The men laughed at Buckís feigned scowl. "Now, kid, you got to learn to be more respectable to your elders."

"I believe the correct word is respectful," Ezra interjected as he also joined them.

JD gave Buck a smug I-told-you-look, which only served to lengthen Buckís frown.

Ezra laid a box on the table and opened it up, revealing a checkerboard, but instead of checkers, chess pieces lay in the side compartments.

"Whereíd you get that?" Chris asked, picking up the black king.

"I acquired it at the gaming table when Lady Luck deserted the peddler, and settled upon my shoulder," Ezra replied. He examined a knight. "The craftsmanship appears to be exceptional."

"You know how to play?" Vin asked curiously.

"It is one of the many games of which I am quite adept."

"How about showiní us?" JD asked with youthful enthusiasm.

"Is there anyone here who understands the basic strategies?"

"I do," Josiah replied. "Been a while, but it should come back to me."

Ezra smiled, his eyes twinkling. "I hope so Ė I do enjoy a challenge."

"As long as you win," Nathan muttered, but a smile tempered his words.

It wasnít so long ago that a smile wouldnít have accompanied Nathanís comment. Even now, an occasional hint of animosity arose between the former slave and the southern gentleman. For the most part, however, the two men respected one another, and a friendship was emerging between them.

As Ezra and Josiah set up the pieces, Ezra attempted to explain the game. "Chess is a game of skill and strategy which requires each player to move his sixteen pieces according to a number of rules in order to checkmate his opponentís king."

The others simply stared at him.

"Let me," Josiah said. He held up the king. "Pretend this is the town of Four Corners." He touched the queenís head. "And this is Mary Travis."

"Donít look much like her," Buck interjected, his lips twitching with a wicked grin.

Chris shot him a warning glance, and Buckís smile faded.

"And all these other pieces are us Ė protecting the town, the king, along with Miz Travis," Josiah said.

"And the other king would be like Stuart James and his men trying to capture the town," JD interjected enthusiastically.

"I do believe there is hope for you yet," Ezra teased.

After getting the pieces set up, Ezra began. Josiah moved a pawn in response to Ezraís move, and the game went fairly quickly for the first few minutes, then the pace slowed considerably.

While Ezra and Josiah studied the board and the pieces for an endless amount of time, JD shifted in his chair restlessly. After all he drank, he needed to take a walk. He stood.

"Goiní someplace?" Buck asked with a sparkle in his eye that told JD he knew exactly where he was going.

"No place I need a wet nurse," he tossed back.

"Now donít go gettiní lost."

"If I do, Iíll just follow the hot air."

JD walked out of the saloon and around the corner of the building to follow the alley to the back where he found an outhouse that wouldíve made Top Hat Bobís breath smell good. Debating his options, JD decided heíd best not breathe too deep and hurry his business. In and out in record time, JD buttoned the last button on his trousers and headed back to the saloon.

"Look, I got no quarrel with you."

JD glanced down the boardwalk. About thirty feet away, he saw a middle-aged man talking to another man wearing a tied-down rig and smoking a cigarette. JD backed into the shadows, and hoped they didnít notice him.

"Youíre moving your cattle to El Paso, so that means we got us a quarrel," the younger hired gun stated.

"You tell your boss that Sam Barkley is takiní his cows across that open range and he ainít gonna stop me," the gray-haired man shot back.

"And how do intend to do that? All your men quit on you. Of course I canít blame them after that run of bad luck youíve been having, Barkley."

Sam Barkleyís shoulders tensed and JD could feel the effort it cost him to keep from going for his gun. "You and your band of killers are the only bad luck I been haviní, Slade"

The man named Slade laughed harshly, a grating sound that reminded JD of a braying jackass. "That bad luck is bound to find you again if you try taking your cattle across Mr. Connorís land." He tipped his hat mockingly. "Have a good day, Mr. Barkley."

The hired gun turned and went in the opposite direction of JD, his spurs ringing against the wood. Barkley spotted JD and shot him an irritated scowl. "Ainít you got nothing better to do than listen in on business that ainít yours?"

JDís face burned, but his sense of justice won out over his embarrassment at being caught eavesdropping. "It donít seem right for him to be gettiní away with that. Isnít there a sheriff here?"

"Look around, son. There ainít much of anything here, except a few rawhide tough ranchers like myself trying to make a go of it." He studied JD a little closer. "You lookiní for a job?"

"Iím just passiní through with some friends."

"I could make it worth your while. I got me a thousand head of cattle that have to be herded down to Fort Davis, east of El Paso Ė thatís about three hundred miles from here. If you sign on, Iíll deal you in for a piece of the profit."

"How many others you got?"

Barkleyís face hardened. "None yet, but that ainít gonna stop me. My wife Millie and me ainít gonna let Connor run us off. We been here for nigh onto twenty years now."

JD was tempted, but he couldnít abandon his friends, and he knew Vin wasnít likely to want to go three hundred miles in the wrong direction. "Sorry, but I canít," he said apologetically. "We got business up Tascosa way."

Barkleyís expression fell, but JD could tell the manís pride wouldnít let him beg. "All right, son, but iffen you change your mind, come on out to the Circle B, about twenty miles south of here."

JD nodded. "Good luck, sir."

"Luck ainít gonna do it, son." He patted the forty-five in his holster. "This is the only thing that will."

JD knew what Chris wouldíve said about that, but he only nodded and returned to the saloon.

"What kept you, kid? Thought I was goiní to have to come and pull you out," Buck called out.

Not in any mood for Buckís ribbing, JD said without force, "Shut up, Buck."

The older man studied JD a moment, and his expression grew serious. "You okay, JD?"

"Never better," he replied sarcastically. The other men glanced questioningly at him, and he lifted his hands. "Canít a fellah wanna be left alone once in a while? Iím goiní to sit outside."

JD felt their puzzled gazes on him. Maybe he shouldíve told them what heíd witnessed on the street, but it wouldnít have mattered. No one would want to get involved in a matter that didnít concern them.

On the boardwalk again, JD settled in a rickety chair that had a front leg shorter than the other three. He stretched his legs out and crossed them at the ankles, and rocked the uneven chair. He shouldnít care if an old man couldnít find men willing to herd some cattle to a fort in Texas. He shouldnít care that Barkley was going to be run off his own land. He shouldnít care, but he did.

"Mind if I join ya?"

Startled, JD glanced up to see Vin standing beside him. "Go ahead."

Vin smiled crookedly and leaned back in an equally decrepit chair. He pulled his harmonica out of his pocket and blew a few off-key notes. "Sometimes talkiní about it helps."

"Sorry, Vin, but I donít know nothiní about harmonica playiní," JD said, intentionally misunderstanding him.

The ex-bounty hunterís grin grew. "You been hanginí Ďround Buck and Josiah too long."

A sheepish smile tugged at JDís lips. "Sorry. Itís just that I ran into this fellah whoís haviní a tough time."

"How so?"

JD explained the situation to Vin who listened without interrupting, a nice change from Buckís constant stream of remarks.

"You think we should help him?" Vin asked quietly.

"We canít. Weíre headed to Tascosa Ė gotta clear your name."

Vin played a half-recognized tune on his harmonica, and JD could tell his mind was sifting through Barkley and his problems.

JD searched the town for the older rancher and spotted him down a block, just coming out of one of the other saloons.

"Thatís Barkley over there," JD pointed out the slump-shouldered man to Vin.

"Looks like he didnít have much luck findiní any wranglers," Vin commented.

"Doubt if he will." JD spied Slade around the corner of a building across the street. "Thatís the hired gun who I was telliní you about."

Vin looked at the shootist, then at Barkley, and his eagle gaze dashed about the town, noting a man on a roof, another behind the door of the livery, and still another in the shadows of an alley. His chair legs thumped to the boardwalk. "Get the others, JD. Thereís gonna be trouble."

JD hesitated only a split second Ė Vin wasnít one to be crying wolf Ė and dashed into the saloon.

"Trouble," he shouted to the others.

A flurry of gunshots punctuated his announcement, spurring the men into action.

Chris led the men out the batwing doors, his Colt already cradled in his palm. Bullets plowed into the doorframe and a nearby wood post, sending the six men diving for cover. Chris rolled behind a pile of crates, and a loose nail sliced across the back of his hand, drawing blood. He cursed the sting, and found Ezra next to him in the scant protection.

"You seen Vin?" he asked Ezra.

"Right behind ya," Vinís voice answered.

Chris twisted about to see Vin tucked behind a water barrel, his sawed-off carbine gripped in his hands. "You okay?"

"Yep. Thereís four shooters," he said in the same unruffled tone he used when he was playing poker or caught in the middle of a gunfight.

Chris peered around the crates, drawing a couple close bullets, and Ezra raised himself to snap off two shots at their attackers.

"Whoíre they after?" Chris called out.

"A rancher named Barkley," Vin replied. "A new friend of JDís."

Chris frowned, but now wasnít the time to get the details. "Letís see if we can flush them out. Ezra, cover me and Vin."

Ezra nodded, and fired off a few shots while Chris and Vin rushed for cover behind a wagon. Having a better vantage point, the two men took aim and sent wood splinters at the gunmen. With the loss of their advantage, the hired guns turned tail and ran.

Chris and his compadres raised themselves cautiously, and when no gunfire greeted them, they regrouped on the street. Chris was relieved to see none of the men had been injured, although Buckís limp seemed more pronounced again. His own superficial wound didnít bother him Ė heíd been hurt worse shaving Ė but he did wrap a bandanna from his duster pocket around it.

Chris watched as JD strode over to a middle-aged man.

"Are you all right, Mr. Barkley?" JD asked.

Barkley removed his hat and mopped his perspiring face with a handkerchief. "Thanks to you and your friends."

Chris and the other men joined them.

"Iím obliged to you," Barkley stated. His gaze passed across the men, and settled on Josiah. Barkleyís eyes widened and bitter anger flooded his granite features. "Sanchez, damn you to hell."

Josiah stared into the face of a man heíd hoped never to run into again. "Already been there," he said softly. "Been a while, Barkley."

"Five years and four months," Barkley said without hesitation. "You have a lot of guts showiní up here."

"Iím not going to make any excuses, but he didnít give me a choice."

"You didnít have to kill him. You coulda just wounded him."

"And he wouldíve been hung or thrown in prison for the rest of his life," Josiah said quietly. "I think he made his choice."

"He was only nineteen years old."

"He was a man."

"Someone wanna tell us what the hell is goiní on," Buck said plaintively.

"You with Sanchez?" Barkley demanded.

Buck nodded. "Thatís right."

"Donít much care for your choice of friends."

"Josiah and his friends just saved your ass," Chris said flatly, his green eyes boring a hole into the rancher.

Barkley didnít flinch beneath Chrisís intimidating stare, but remained silent for a long moment. "And Iím grateful for your help." He turned to JD. "Thanks, son, and that offer still stands."

"Those men are gonna tryín kill you again," JD said.

"I know and one of these days theyíre gonna succeed, but as long as I got breath in my lungs, Iím gonna fight the bastards." He sent Josiah a razor-sharp look. "Tell me one thing, Sanchez. How the hell can you sleep at night?" And with that, he strode away.

Josiahís complexion was paler than Chris had ever seen it, and he resisted the impulse to lay a steadying hand on the big manís arm. Instead, his fingers curled into fists. Without a word, Josiah crossed the street and entered the saloon.

"Weíd better make sure he donít do somethiní stupid," Nathan said.

"I want to know whatís goiní on between them two," Buck added.

Chris glared at his oldest friend. "Itís Josiahís past, Buck. We got no right takiní it from him."

"Maybe, but then maybe talkiní about itíll help some, too."

Chris forced himself to meet Buckís even gaze, and knew he wasnít only referring to Josiah. He bit the inside of his cheek and tasted blood. Damn Buck for wanting to dredge up the past.

With a muttered curse, Chris followed the others to the saloon and joined their somber companion.

"You wanna talk about it?" Nathan asked quietly.

Josiah planted his elbows on the chairís arms, and steepled his fingers. "Not much to talk about, Nathan. Thereís a lot of things Iíve done I ainít too proud of Ė killing that manís son is one of them."

Chris removed his hat and pulled a restless hand through his unruly reddish-blonde hair. He had a feeling Josiahís story could be his own, and he didnít want to hear it. But it looked like he didnít have a choice, unless he was willing to walk out of the saloon.

"What happened?" Buck prompted, ignoring Chrisís warning look.

"I was hired by a local rancher Ė he had the biggest spread around Ė to keep law and order in Medino," Josiah began.

"You were a lawman?" JD interrupted.

Josiah smiled without humor. "Not exactly. In those days, I worked for whoever would pay me. Sam Barkleyís only son, Jeff, was working to get the smaller ranchers to band together. He was doing too good of job of it and thatís why I was brought in."

Josiah poured himself a shot of whiskey and downed it before continuing. "Jeff wasnít exactly an angel himself and he shot down a couple of the men who worked for my employer Ė one of them died."

"So he was a murderer," Buck stated.

Josiah shrugged. "His enemies saw him as one, but the ranchers saw him as a hero. One night he slipped into town to see this girl he was sweet on. I caught him the next morning when he was leaving. He was quicker, but my aim was better. He died on the street."

Chris could picture the scene Josiah described as easily as if heíd been there. And he probably had Ė only the town had been different.

Josiah glanced at JD. "There ainít anything romantic about watching a man die, JD."

The younger man swallowed hard, and dropped his gaze to the scarred table.

"Whatíd you do?" Vin asked.

"I got my money and left town that afternoon. And this is the first time Iíve been back since that day. I never figured Barkley would still be here."

"And it looks like heís got the same problem he had five years ago," Buck said.

"Looks like it."

The men were silent, and Chris studied his hat brim although his mind was remembering his own Jeff Barkleys. If he could turn back the hands of time, heíd do things differently. Yeah, and if frogs had wings, they wouldnít bump their asses on rocks either, he thought grimly. Life didnít give folks a second chance.

"I know I said Iíd go to Tascosa with you," Josiah began, "but Iíve got a debt to pay. Iím going to stay and help Barkley."

JD looked about nervously, and cleared his throat. "Iíll stay with you, Josiah."

"You crazy, kid?" Buck demanded. "This ainít your fight."

"Maybe not, but it ainít right for Mr. Barkley to be driven off his own land neither." He removed his derby hat, and raked his fingers through his thick, dark hair. "Seems to me a manís got to stand for something, and this is something I canít turn my back on."

Buck muttered something about not having the brains God gave a mule, then shook his head. "Looks like Iím goiní to have to hang around just to make sure you donít up and do something stupid, like get killed before I can talk you into buyiní a real hat."

JD glared at him. "This is a real hat. Bat Maó"

"I know, Bat Masterson got one just like it," Buck finished as he rolled his eyes heavenward. "And iffen I ever run into Bat again, I aim to tell him he ought to buy a real hat, too."

Chris caught Vinís eye, and recognized the clenched jaw and shuttered expression. Vin was considering staying, too. It shouldnít have surprised Chris, knowing Vinís propensity to lend a hand to those who needed help. It was an admirable quality, but Vin had to look out for himself, too, and if he didnít do it, Chris felt obliged to.

"You gotta get to Tascosa," Chris said in a low voice.

"It ainít goiní nowhere," Vin reiterated his usual litany with a crooked smile.

Chris shook his head firmly. "Damnit, Vin, youíre pushiní your luck. You need to clear your name before some bounty hunter shoots you dead."

Vinís expression sobered. "Maybe, but at least Iíll die with a clear conscience. Iffen I leave and clear my name, but that old man is killed Ďcause I didnít stay and help, I would be guilty of murder."

Chris blinked, trying to follow Vinís twisted brand of logic. In a way, he made sense and that galled Chris. Folks started caring for others, and they were bound to get hurt. He cursed aloud, startling his partners with his vehemence. "All right, but donít say I didnít warn you."

Ezra frowned. "Excuse me, gentlemen, but what exactly are we determining?"

For a moment there was silence, then JD replied. "Mr. Barkley has a thousand head of cattle to move to Fort Davis near El Paso."

Ezraís practiced poker face slipped. "You mean, we are to become cowboys Ė " he glanced at Chris, "óno offense intended, and herd one thousand cantankerous, offensive bovines three hundred miles simply because an old man needs assistance."

"Thatís what weíre sayiní," Nathan said flatly.

He laughed, but the gesture didnít touch his pale green eyes. "That, my friends, takes the proverbial cake."

"It ainít funny, Ezra," JD stated. "Heís gonna be killed if we donít help him."

"And we may meet our Maker much earlier than I plan to," Ezra countered. "If this plan is agreed upon, you may rest assured I will not be joining you. I will, however, travel to Tascosa and rendezvous with you all there."

It was rare that Chris agreed with Ezra, but this was one of those instances. However, he kept silent out of respect for Vin and the others. Whether it was a mistake or not, six of them would be risking their lives for a man all but one of them just met.

"You got a right to state your mind, Ezra," Josiah said. "And I respect you for it."

Bewildered chagrin flashed through Ezraís smooth-shaven features. He quickly recovered, his schooled expression slipping back into place. "Thank you, Mr. Sanchez."

"You know where this fellah Barkley lives?" Vin asked JD.

The younger man nodded. "He told me where his ranch was."

"The dayís almost gone. Weíll get an early start tomorrow and hire on," Chris said. "You ever herd cattle, JD?"

"No, but I read about it."

Buck snorted. "Looks like I got my work cut out for me Ė donít know whatís gonna be more troublesome, the cattle or teachiní JD how to be a cow-boy."

"Cow-hand, Buck," Chris corrected with a slight smile, although his eyes were cool and distant.

"No matter what nomenclature you give it, the employment is arduous and has appallingly low monetary remuneration," Ezra said.

"You ever done it?" Nathan challenged.

Ezra brushed some dust from his frilly white shirt. "A gentleman does not debase himself by engaging in menial labor."

"Your point?" Nathan pressed.

"I am a gentleman," Ezra replied indignantly.

Buck barked a laugh. "Yeah, and Stuart James is a saint, too."

Suddenly Chris had an overpowering urge to escape the saloonís confines. He stood. "Weíd best get some sleep. Morningís gonna come fast." He turned to Ezra and offered his hand. After a moment of surprised hesitation, Ezra gripped it firmly. "Good luck, Ezra. See you in Tascosa."

Each of the men shook hands with Ezra, then followed Chris out of the saloon.

Once they were gone, Ezra glanced around at the empty whiskey glasses and the chess pieces scattered across the board. Having spent the majority of his life alone, Ezra was not a man to be afflicted with loneliness. Until now. Heíd grown accustomed to the company of the six men. With a start, he realized heíd come to rely on them to back him up if a poker game got ugly. And he was always ready to come to the defense of his companions.

He picked up the chess pieces and laid them carefully in their box. Ezra studied the king in his hand. He had promised to go to Tascosa and help Vin clear his name. But what if Vin was killed before the tracker could rectify the situation?

When Ezra had first met Vin, he hadnít been impressed. On the contrary, the man wore a coat and hat that no self-respecting gentleman would be caught dead in Ė and definitely not alive in. But the more he got to know the plainspoken man, the more Ezra came to respect him. The incident with the mountain lions had brought the two men closer than Ezra had thought possible.

The other five men had also gotten past his layered defenses Ė defenses heíd spent years building and fortifying against such things as friendships. Getting close to others was akin to drawing a busted hand when all the chips were on the table. Heíd learned that the hard way and had the scars to prove it.

With a ponderous sigh, he set the king in the container with the other pieces and closed the box. He might only be the equivalent of a pawn, but he had an obligation to defend and protect those who deserved his loyalty.

A chuckle escaped him as he imagined what his mother would have to say about such maudlin drivel.

The sun hadnít even begun to peek over the eastern horizon when the six men entered the livery. A couple lanterns lit the interior giving the men scant light to saddle their horses and tie their gear on.

Buck yawned widely. "I should be curled up to some sweet-smelliní thing right now instead of lookiní at all your ugly faces."

"No oneís forciní you to go," JD said.

"Yeah, youíd like that, wouldnít ya? You go off on some wild west adventure by yourself and youíre bound to get in all kinds of trouble. Then whatíre you gonna do?"

JD shrugged innocently. "I donít know, Buck. Why, itís a downright miracle how I made it all the way to Four Corners by myself." He winked at Josiah.

Josiah smiled slightly, glad for the diversion. Heíd spent a restless night tossing and turning as his mind relived the death of Jeff Barkley. Josiah had killed men Ė more than he cared to recall Ė but Jeff had been the youngest. Looking at JD, he could almost imagine him as Jeff Barkley. Jeff had been full of piss and vinegar, too, and ready to fight a righteous cause, just like JD had recklessly gotten involved in the elder Barkleyís problems.

Before he joined up with Chris and the others, Josiah had given up on righteous causes. Nobody did anything without an ulterior motive Ė hadnít that realization been the destroyer of his faith? A faith he was slowly starting to regain. Helping Sam Barkley wouldnít bring back Jeff, but it might remove a festering growth in Josiahís soul.

The livery door opened and a manís faint outline could be seen entering.

"Good morning," Ezra greeted in a gravelly voice as he neared them. He wore his buckskin jacket along with a pair of brown trousers not nearly as fancy as his normal haberdashery.

"Heading out to Tascosa already?" Vin asked wryly.

"Unfortunately not," Ezra replied. "I decided an opportunity to broaden my horizons should not be spurned. Perhaps doing some menial labor, I shall divine more respect for, shall we say, cow-hands and their chosen profession."

JD poked Buck in the ribs, and whispered, "Whatíd he say?"

"Heís goiní with us," Buck replied.

JD grinned widely. "Iím glad youíre cominí with us, Ezra."

The gambler inclined his head slightly, but Josiah could tell JDís words had touched him. Ezra was a man full of contradictions Ė an accomplished cardsharp and con man, yet with a streak of vulnerability a mile wide that reminded Josiah of a small boy. Though Josiah had admired Ezraís mother like a man admires a beautiful woman, he suspected she hadnít been a very good mother to her son.

Ezra looked over at Chris, a question in his eyes.

A corner of Chrisís lips turned upward.. "Welcome aboard."

Ezraís entire body seemed to untense, and Josiah realized Ezra hadnít been sure how his change of heart would be accepted by the others, especially Chris. It was just another example of the insecurity Ezra normally kept hidden behind his self-assured mask.

A few minutes later, the men rode out of Medino with Chris and Vin in the lead. A coral glow spread across the land as the seven men traveled toward Barkleyís ranch. With the sun came a warming of the air, and the broadening light illuminated the bare landscape that was dotted with chaparral and scrub oak. Tufts of buffalo grass stuck up from the sandy soil, and an occasional ground cactus littered the terrain.

The appearance of a group of cottonwoods and an oasis of green heralded the appearance of a decent-sized ranch. The house, as well as the bunkhouse and a handful of outbuildings, however, had seen better days. As had the sagging corral fences that were bleached white by the southwestern desert sun.

Josiahís shoulders tightened, remembering how neat the place had looked five years ago. It seemed time had a way of touching things as well as people, and usually not for the better.

As they entered the yard, a brown mutt raced out to greet them, and the menís horses jerked nervously at their bits.

Barkley emerged from the house, a rifle held in his veined hands. He watched them silently, his eyes narrowed, but he kept the weapon lowered. "Buck, get over here."

Buckís head snapped up, and it took him a moment to realize he and the dog shared the same name. JD snorted with laughter.

The canine Buck joined its master, and sat down on his haunches, its tongue lolling.

The seven men drew to a stop in a line stretched across the front of the porch.

"You men are goiní the wrong direction Ė Tascosa is north, not south," Barkley stated.

"We all agreed to help you take your cattle to El Paso," JD spoke up.

Barkleyís jaundiced gaze slid across them, and settled on Josiah. "Why the hellíd you come, Sanchez? Killiní one Barkley wasnít good enough for you?"

Josiahís fingers tightened on the saddlehorn, but he kept his voice steady. "It was self-defense, pure and simple." He shifted, the saddle creaking below his weight. "But maybe I couldíve just wounded him. I donít know."

"Donít tell me you got an attack of conscience Ďcause men like you ainít got a conscience."

"Now you hold on, Mr. Barkley," Nathan broke in. "Josiahís a good man. If he wasnít, he wouldnít be here right now."

"Nathanís right, Mr. Barkley," JD said. "There ainít none of us that want to see you run off your land."

A woman came through the doorway, wiping her hands on a stained apron tied around her waist. "Are these the ones you told me about, Sam?"

Barkley nodded without looking at her. "Yep." He motioned to Josiah. "Heís the one who killed Jeff."

Mrs. Barkley looked at Josiah, but her expression appeared more sad than condemning. "Whyíd you come here?"

"Weíd like to sign on for the cattle drive," Josiah replied.

She studied each man cautiously, but when her gaze settled on JD, her eyes widened and her hand flew to her mouth. As if sleepwalking, she went down the steps and stood beside JDís horse as she stared up at the young man. "How old are you, son?"

"Twenty, maíam," he replied respectfully, though with an undercurrent of wariness.

"A year older than our Jeff when he died," she said softly. "You look just like him." After a few more moments of quiet contemplation, she returned to her husbandís side on the porch.

Barkley clearly wasnít sure if he could trust them, and Josiah couldnít blame him. If their roles were reversed, Josiah wasnít so sure he could stomach a man who killed his son, either.

"How do I know you arenít working for your old employer?" Barkley demanded.

Surprise surged through Josiah. "Connorís still here?"

"Why should he leave? Thanks to you, he owns most of the land around Medino now. Only me and one other rancher have been able to hold out this long," Barkley said flatly.

"Iím sorry, Mr. Barkley," Josiah said sincerely, but knowing his words meant little.

Chrisís big black horse stamped and swished its tail, and Nathanís mount snorted, shaking its mane. Leather squeaked and bridles jangled in the silence that stretched taut in the midmorning sun-drenched yard.

Mrs. Barkley broke the impasse, and her chin lifted in determination. "Theyíre our only hope, Sam."

After a moment, the older manís shoulders sagged and he nodded. "Millieís right. Youíre our only chance to save this place. You can throw your things in the bunkhouse, then meet me at the corral."

"Excuse me," Ezra spoke up.

Barkley turned to him.

"I have no wish to appear avaricious, but what will we be paid for our services?" Ezra asked.

"The seven of you can split twenty five percent of the profit."

"Thirty five," Ezra countered without missing a beat.

Barkleyís brows furrowed. "Thirty and thatís final."

Ezra smiled. "Itís a deal, Mr. Barkley."

Chris rubbed his chin, hiding a smile. Leave it to Ezra to take care of the monetary side of the job. What the hell, heíd gotten them five percent more. He reined his horse around to head toward the bunkhouse and the others fell into line behind him. Dismounting in front of the long sagging porch, Chris felt a damp nose against his palm. He patted the dogís head.

"Hey, there, Buck," Chris said with a grin.

The animal wagged its tail and followed him into the bunkhouse.

"Looks like you got a new friend," Vin said, tossing his saddlebags on an upper bunk.

Chris put his gear on the lower one. "I wonder if this Buck likes the ladies, too."

"At least he comes by that animal magnetism naturally," JD interjected.

"Hey, mineís natural," Buck said indignantly.

"A little too natural," Vin said in a low voice that only Chris could hear.

Chris swallowed a chuckle, and looked around their temporary quarters. He figured theyíd only be there a few days while the cattle were rounded up, then theyíd be camping under the stars. Cobwebs stretched across the ceiling corners and a layer of dirt coated everything.

Ezra slapped his thin mattress and a cloud of dust billowed around him. He sneezed and waved a hand in front of his nose. "I must say the housekeeping leaves a bit to be desired."

"Mrs. Barkley probably got more important things to do than keep this place clean," Vin defended.

"Thatís right, wizened crones tend to be more adept at handling a rifle than a broom," Ezra said with a devilish twinkle in his green eyes.

Vin grinned sheepishly. "All right, so she reminds me some of Nettie Wells."

"Too bad she donít have a niece," Buck said, giving JD a slap on the back.

JDís face flushed. "How was I to know Casey would clean up as good as she did?"

Buck shook his head pityingly. "You got to start beiní more noticeable, JD."

"I believe the word is percipient," Ezra corrected.

"Per-what?" Buck demanded.

"It means discerning," Ezra explained. "Noticeable would describe your impression on the fairer sex."

"Hey, now," Buck began in a low voice. "No need to be gettiní so personal there, Ezra."

"It means that women notice you," he clarified.

"Oh, well, that ainít nothiní new," Buck stated with a magnanimous wave of his hand.

"Címon, letís go find out where we start," Chris spoke up.

Buck tossed his stuff on the bunk below JDís, then followed the others out of their quarters. A few minutes later, Sam Barkley joined the seven men near the corral. He deliberately kept his gaze off of Josiah, and focused on JD. Buck frowned, uneasy that the older man seemed to take such an interest in the youngest member of the group. It didnít help knowing that JD was a ringer for his dead son. It seemed Chris noticed Barkleyís attention, too, if his scowl was any indication.

"Most of the cattle are in a canyon about a mile north of here," Barkley said. "Since I ainít been able to hire enough help lately, the first thing we gotta do is get the calves and yearlings branded."

"Why?" Chris asked.

Barkley shifted his attention to him. "Why what?" he asked irritably.

"Why havenít you been able to hire any help?"

Barkley swallowed, his adamís apple bobbing up and down. "Connorís men have been settiní up accidents."

"Like what?" Buck demanded.

"Thatís in the past. It ainít any of your concern," Barkley snapped.

"The hell it isnít," Chris stated, his voice cold enough to give a body pneumonia. "We already know thereís men out gunniní for you. In order for us to be prepared, we got to know what weíre up against."

Buck nodded in agreement, and he could see the others straightening, listening closely to the less-than-friendly exchange. They could always count on Chris to get everything out in the open. If Buck were Barkley surrounded by seven men, one of whom could scald a cat with his deadly tone, he wouldnít hesitate to spill his guts.

Barkley and Chris parried hostile stares, but the ranchman finally relented. "Connorís determined to get my land one way or another. Heís had my water poisoned Ė lost nearly a hundred head of cattle and one of my men; strung barbed wire through a narrow pass; started a rockslide in a box canyon." Barkleyís face reddened with rage, and his fingers curled into fists. "He even burned some grassland, then shot anyone who tried to put it out. That was the last straw."

"So what youíre sayiní is that Connoríll do anything, including commit murder, to get this place," Chris said.

Barkley nodded stiffly. "And you can bet heís gonna try to stop us from getting the herd to Fort Davis."

Chrisís jaw muscle clenched and he glanced at Vin, who merely met his gaze with a steady look. Buck recognized Chrisís I-told-you-so look, and he wasnít surprised at Vinís casual response. Nothing much riled the ex-bounty hunter, not even Chrisís infamous glares.

"That just means we got to keep a sharp lookout for them," Josiah said.

Barkley spun around to face Josiah. "You used to work for the son-of-a-bitch. Whatís he gonna try next?"

Josiah shrugged. "A devil can take on many faces."

"And Iím looking into one ofíem right now!"

Nathan grabbed hold of Barkleyís arm. "There ainít no call for you to be takiní your mad out on Josiah. He beiní here should be enough to convince you heís not the same man he was five years ago."

The rancher leaned close to Nathan. "My son is dead because of him, and I got every right to hate him."

Nathan released Barkley, and shook his head sadly. "The only person youíre gonna hurt is yourself by keepiní so much hate inside. Itís gonna end up destroyiní you if you donít let it go."

Barkley kept his gaze on Nathan for a long moment, then spun away and strode about five yards away, keeping his back to the men.

Uneasy silence surrounded the seven men, and JD couldnít help but feel responsible for all the bad feelings that filled the air. Adjusting his hat nervously, he walked over to join the rancher.

"Weíre real sorry about your boy, Mr. Barkley," JD said in a low voice. "And ainít nobody sorrier than Josiah, but no matter what anyone does or how anyone feels, your son is dead. And nobody can change that."

Barkley took a deep breath and turned to JD. "A father knows his son, and I knowed Jeff wasnít a saint. Fact is, I wish heíd been more like you, JD."

JD started, unsure how to respond.

Barkley laid a hand on JDís shoulder. "Whenever I look at you, I see Jeff. Like Millie said, he looked a lot like you Ė dark hair and eyes Ė a handsome boy. But he had a wild streak I never knew how to tame. I donít see that same thing in you, though."

JD shrugged in embarrassment. "Wish youíd tell Buck Ė he still treats me like a snot-nosed kid."

"Itís only Ďcause he cares, son." He took a deep breath. "Weíd better get to work."

They rejoined the others.

"We got a lot of work to do before we head out," Barkley said to the men. "Weíd best get at it."

Buck watched as JDís youthful face glowed with enthusiasm. Had he ever been that green? Reluctantly, he recalled the excitement of his first cattle drive, before he learned of the many dangers involved in the job. Buck would have to make sure JD didnít learn those hazards the hard way.

And heíd keep an eye on Barkley Ė he didnít like the way he was doting on JD. Something just didnít seem right.

An hour later, the men rode into a grassy canyon where a whole herd of bawling cattle met their eyes. Barkley had driven a buckboard that contained the branding equipment, as well as a barrel of water and a few bags of food that his wife had thrown together for the eight men.

The older man climbed down from the wagon. "The remuda is mixed in with the cattle. Youíd each best pick out about a couple horses first and get them separated out soís you got an extra when your own mount gets tired."

JD glanced questioningly at Buck. "Whatís a remuda?"

"A remudaís the extra horses that each manís going to use on the drive. You canít expect your own horse to work eighteen hours a day," Buck replied.

JDís eyes saucered. "Eighteen hours?"

Buckís lips twitched with a barely restrained smile. "You didnít think this was goiní to be a cakewalk like that sheriff job in Four Corners, did you?"

JD scowled. "Beiní a lawman wasnít easy. I got a few scars to prove it."

Buckís humor disappeared Ė they had almost lost JD on more than one occasion because of his overzealousness in playing sheriff. Good friends were hard to come by, and Buck would be damned if he lost another one because of a foolish act of bravado. "Yeah, and if you try any fool stunts out here, Iíll hogtie you and youíll finish the drive in the back of the chuck wagon."

"You ainít gonna -- " JD began.

"Try me, kid." Buck leveled a stare at him.

JD narrowed his eyes, and his jaw muscle clenched, but he didnít argue any further.

Buck looked up at the others already picking out their extra horses. "Címon, JD, or theyíre gonna get all the good ponies."

They galloped off, and Buck headed toward a strawberry roan he picked out. Unlooping his lasso, he twirled it above his head. Standing in his stirrups, he tossed the loop and it settled neatly around the animalís neck. Buck grimaced at the reawakened ache in his injured leg, but shrugged it aside. Hell, heíd hurt worse after that night in Tombstone. Or was it Dodge City? It didnít matter Ė only the memory of those amazing feats he and those two fine ladies had accomplished did.

As he led the roan back toward the wagon, he spotted JD roping a paint pony. He had a lot of growing to do, and Buck was damn sure going to make sure he had a chance to do it. Besides, there were some women he wanted to introduce the boy toÖ.

After the remuda was settled in a corral fashioned with ropes strung between four stakes about five feet tall, the men began their work in earnest. As each man dragged a bawling calf or protesting yearling in, Josiah and Nathan held down the animal while Barkley branded it. The smell of burning hair and flesh filled the air around the fire used to keep the irons hot.

Later, after hauling in a couple dozen unbranded calves, Chris took a break on a slight rise overlooking the milling herd. He shoved his hat off his head and let it hang down his back, held by the thin leather cord. Hooking his right leg around the saddlehorn, he stuck a cheroot between his lips and lit it. Chris took a long drag, and the tobaccoís sharp tang bit his lungs with welcome familiarity. Uneasiness dogged him, and the hairs at the back of his neck hadnít settled down since heíd set foot on Barkleyís land.

It shouldnít surprise him Ė they already knew Connor and his men were out to break Barkley. But there seemed to be something else, something he couldnít put his finger on. Maybe it had something to do with Barkleyís interest in JD. Whatever it was, apprehension was going to be riding his shoulders this whole drive.

Chris shook aside his restlessness, and concentrated on the riders who worked the cattle. Vin and Buck moved with the practiced ease of skilled cow-hands, and JD was catching on fast although Chris had noticed he missed a loop now and again. Nathan and Josiah worked good as a team, and though Barkley largely ignored Josiah, he fell into a efficient routine with them.

Ezra, however, had managed to confound Chris again. He wouldnít have thought the fancy gambler would know which end of the rope to toss, but he could throw a loop with nearly as much expertise as Vin and Buck.

A rider approached, and Chris watched silently as the subject of his puzzled thoughts joined him.

The southerner took a deep breath. "Ah, to inhale air unpolluted with the stench of those repugnant beasts."

"You sure caught on to this menial labor pretty fast," Chris remarked dryly.

"Yes, amazing, isnít it?" He brushed at his buckskin jacket, and a brownish cloud arose around him like a dust devil. Sneezing, he gave up and rested his crossed wrists on the saddlehorn. His shoulders slumped.

They sat in companionable silence for a long moment.

"Whyíd you come with us?" Chris asked.

"I had nothing better to do," Ezra replied.

"Yeah, and you gamble for charity, too."

Ezra chuckled. "Sometimes it appears so." He sobered, and narrowed his gaze as he studied the tableau laid out before them. "I had the misfortune to drive a herd of cattle from Texas to Kansas. It was either that or remain in a town that had grown increasingly hostile to my attempts to bring the word of the Lord to them."

"One of your swindles?"

The southerner arched one dusty brow. "One of the better ones I have partaken in. I merely had to stand at the front of a group and call down the wrath of the Lord with fire and brimstone, then pass the hat. However, after I attempted to save the soul of the mayorís daughter, I was faced with the wrath of the townsfolk in the form of hot tar and feathers. To escape such indignity, I joined a herd moving north."

"And you stayed with them the whole way?"

Ezra hesitated, then nodded. "Once we arrived in Dodge City, I found myself surrounded by a plethora of bad gamblers who practically begged me to take their money."

"You couldíve left the herd at any time," Chris pressed.

"Yes, I suppose I could have." Ezraís gaze met his evenly, and again, Ezra and his unique sense of honor baffled him.

He returned his attention to the scene spread out below them. "Keep your eyes open, Ezra. Weíre courtiní trouble."

"Arenít we always?"

One corner of Chrisís lips quirked upward. "Guess itís our destiny, just like that little fellah Steele said."

"We never did get our portion of the royalties for that piece of literature."

Chris snorted. "If that was literature, Iím Wyatt Earp." He finished his cheroot, then tossed it away, wincing slightly at the pain at the back of his hand where the nail had sliced the skin. He slipped his right foot back into the stirrup. "I suppose weíd best get back down there."

"Lead on, Mr. Earp."

Chris flashed him a sardonic grin and the two men rejoined the others.

That evening, the men returned to the ranch sore and exhausted from the backbreaking labor. They dismounted by the corral, and Buckís injured leg nearly collapsed beneath him.

Nathan reached out to steady him. "Iíll take a look at that when we get to the bunkhouse."

Buck didnít argue, but gritted his teeth and finished caring for his horse. Buck, the canine, joined them, garnering pats from all seven men, including a reluctant Ezra, then the dog raced off to chase a rabbit.

Limping markedly, Buck followed the others back to the bunkhouse. Nathan and JD flanked him in case his leg gave out on him again, and though Buck didnít acknowledge it, he appreciated their concern. Chrisís anxious sidelong glances told Buck he was worried about him, too. But then, much as Chris hated to admit it, it was his nature to worry about his friends.

They entered the long building, and JD immediately climbed into his bunk. Ezra pressed his palms against his lower back, and stretched his spine, which popped audibly. Josiah rested an arm on an upper bunk, and closed his eyes. Buck hobbled over to a chair and lowered himself into it, stretching out his injured leg with a groan. Vin and Chris sank on to chairs beside the long wooden table. Nathan dug his medical supplies out of his saddlebag and knelt down beside Buckís leg to check the healing wound.

Vin glanced over at Chris and motioned to the bandanna wrapped around his hand. "What happened to you?"

Chris shrugged. "Just a cut."

Vin accepted his reply with a weary nod. He drew back his shoulders, grimaced, then smiled wryly. "All that town livinís made me soft."

Chris chuckled. "You and me both, pard."

"I hurt in places I didnít even know I had," JD said plaintively from his prone position.

"Welcome to the wild west, kid," Buck remarked as he leaned his head back and closed his eyes.

Nathan finished his exam. "It ainít re-opened, so I figure itís just gonna be sore for a time."

"I coulda told you that," Buck said.

A knock on the door interrupted them, and it opened to reveal old man Barkley bearing a huge kettle that immediately filled the bunkhouse with mouthwatering smells. Mrs. Barkley carried a plate stacked high with bread, and a jar of apple butter.

JD jumped down from the upper bunk, and Chris noticed he swayed for a moment. It would take the boy some time to get used to the grueling work. Hell, Chris had worked cattle before, and it was going to take him a little time to grow accustomed to it again. Though herding cattle wasnít Chrisís idea of making a living, his conscience approved of it more than hiring out his gun. Of course, heíd probably end up doing both for this job.

Josiah straightened, opening his eyes. Vin stood and moved to help with the heavy kettle. They set the food in the center of the table, and Mrs. Barkley lifted down a stack of dishes from a shelf on the wall.

"I cleaned up some in here while you were all working," Mrs. Barkley said as she arranged the plates. "If Iíd have known you were signing on, I wouldíve made sure your mattresses were aired and the cobwebs brushed out of here." She sighed heavily. "Seems I just donít have the gumption I used to."

"Donít you worry about it, maíam," Vin reassured. "Why, this is downright elegant compared to a lot of places I stayed at."

Ezra cleared his throat. "I wouldnít doubt that, Mr. Tanner."

Chris leaned a shoulder against the wall and studied Sam Barkley as his wife placed seven plates on the table and set out the silverware.

"When did your last man quit?" Chris asked the rancher.

"ĎBout a month ago," Barkley replied. "Jasper had been with me for nigh onto fifteen years, but didnít want to leave his wife a widow. I donít blame him."

"A manís got a right to watch out for his family."

"Yeah," Barkley muttered, his bitter gaze fixed on Josiah.

"If Josiah said he shot your son in self-defense, you can believe him," Chris stated in a low voice.

Barkley returned his attention to Chris. "You know him long?"

"Long enough."

The older manís brows beetled. "I got a feeling you done your share of killiní, too."

"Only when I didnít have a choice." Chris kept his voice devoid of emotion.

"Fact is, I been watchiní all of you, and Iíd say everyone except maybe JD ainít strangers to hiring out your guns."

Chris shrugged. "Donít let JDís looks fool you Ė heís been in his share of scrapes, and heís still among the living."

Barkley remained silent for a moment as he continued to study JD who was being ribbed by Buck Ė whatever Buck said had caused the kidís face to flush.

"He got any kin?" Barkley asked.

Chris didnít have to ask who he meant. "He donít talk much about his past," he replied vaguely.

"Howíd he hook up with the likes of you and the others?"

"Askiní a question like that could be dangerous to your health."

Barkleyís lips thinned to a grim line. "He seems like a decent kid. Iíd hate to have him turn out like Sanchez."

"He could do a lot worse."

"He could do a lot better."

Chris glanced at him questioningly.

"Me and Millie had three boys Ė one ofíem was born dead, another died of typhoid when he was five, then Jeff. I got no one left to leave this place to."

Chris hid his astonishment behind a bland mask. "You sayiní what I think you are?"

"I can read a man pretty well, and what I see in that boy I like."

"Have you talked to JD about this?"

Barkley shook his head. "Thought thereíd be time enough later on the drive after we got to know each other a little better."

Barkley wouldnít wait long Ė the boy had grit and courage, more than Chris had first given him credit for. His gaze slipped over to Buck, and his eyes narrowed. What if JD accepted Barkleyís offer Ė how would Buck take it? Not very well, Chris thought, knowing that was an understatement.

Still, the life Barkley could give JD beat the hell out of the life he had with him and the other five men. And hadnít Chris himself tried to keep JD from getting involved with them at that Seminole village? He glanced at Mrs. Barkley who was speaking to JD, a maternal hand on his shoulder.

Though Chris had been ravenous a few minutes ago, his appetite was now gone. He should be happy for JD, but his stomach tightened with the thought of leaving JD here when the rest of them continued on to Tascosa. Provided they all lived through the next month.

Millie Barkley joined her husband. "Letís go and let these boys eat before they fall asleep on their feet," she said.

Barkley leaned close to Chris. "Iím hopiní you wonít be mentioniní our conversation to anyone, Ďspecially JD."

"Itís not my place," Chris replied solemnly.

The two men exchanged a look, then the Barkleys left the men alone.

"You cominí to eat, Chris?" JD called out.

Chris smiled at the boy who was seated by the table, surrounded by the odd assortment of men. "Iíd better if I plan on getting anything."

He sat down across from Buck, who studied him closely. "What were you and the old man talkiní about so serious-like over there?"

Chris removed his hat and hung it on his chair. "Didnít involve women, horses, or guns, so I doubt youíd be interested."

Ezra passed him a plate filled with a stew that was more meat and vegetables than gravy, and Chrisís stomach growled in response.

"My sentiments exactly," Ezra commented.

Shaking his head in tolerant humor, Chris dug into his meal. He could feel Buckís uncanny gaze on him, and knew Buck recognized his lie of omission. But he wasnít about to tell him that the boy heíd damn near adopted might not be with them for much longer.

After an early breakfast of biscuits, gravy, and a few gallons of coffee, JD and his companions were in the saddle and continuing where theyíd left off the day before. Today, however, every man took a turn as rastler instead of Josiah and Nathan working the muscle-straining job the whole time.

It was mid-afternoon when JDís turn came up to wrestle the calves and yearlings to the ground. The sun beat down mercilessly on his shoulders, and sweat stained his back and armpits. Thankfully, he was partnered with Vin who, with his usual patience, taught him a few tricks in bringing down cattle that weighed a helluva lot more than the two of them combined.

Ezra brought in a calf that looked almost full-grown and JD swallowed hard. Vin took the flank, reaching over the calfís back and grabbing a couple handfuls of skin, then leaned back and flipped the young cow on its side. He caught the top foreleg and held it, while JD took hold of the top hind leg and pulled it backward, stretching it out while he braced the other back leg with his foot. Ezra kept the rope pulled taut to help the two men hold down the bawling calf.

Barkley brought a red-hot branding iron over and JD felt his foot slipping from the calfís hind leg. He shifted just as Barkley laid the iron on the young animalís side, and the calf kicked out of JDís hold. His cloven hoof caught JD in the gut, punching the air from his lungs and dazing him with an explosion of pain.

Vin rolled away from the scrambling calf, and Ezra quickly dragged the wild calf away from him and JD.

Vin scurried over to JD, whose arms were wrapped around his middle and his knees drawn up to his chest. He laid a hand on his shoulder. "JD, you okay?"

JD tried to suck in some air, but his lungs didnít seem to work. Just as he figured heíd never breathe again, the air tumbled into his lungs, making him gasp, which made his ribs protest. He groaned.

"Ezra, get Nathan," Vin called out.

Barkley knelt down on the other side of JD. "He hurt bad?"

Vinís brow creased in worry as he shrugged impatiently. "Feel like you got a broken rib, JD?"

"Donít know," he managed to say. "Never had one."

Nathan, followed by Ezra, Buck, Chris, and Josiah galloped into the branding area. The healer dismounted before his horse came to a stop, and he hurried over to JD as Vin moved over to make room for him.

"Let me look at ya, JD," Nathan said.

"Get outta my way," Buck demanded, nearly shoving Barkley away from JD. Oblivious to the pain in his healing leg, he knelt down beside JD and laid a hand on his shoulder. "Youíre gonna be okay, kid. Nathaníll take right good care of you." He glared at Nathan, as if it was his fault JDíd been hurt. "He is gonna be all right, ainít he?"

Nathan eased JDís shirt down over his chest and nodded in relief. "Looks like he was real lucky Ė just bruised."

"Looks like you donít have to strain yourself cominí up with somethiní nice to say at my funeral yet," JD managed to say with a weak grin.

Something flickered across Buckís face Ė something between soul-clenching fear and gut-wrenching anger. "What did I say about your fool stunts, kid." He shook his forefinger at him. "Donít you go scariní me like that again or Iím liable to get good and mad. And you ainít gonna like it if I do."

Buck pushed himself to his feet, and limped off. He grabbed his grayís reins from Chrisís outstretched hand and wheeled his horse around to trot back toward the herd.

"What the hellís his problem?" Barkley demanded, his glare following Buckís hasty retreat.

"Donít mind him," JD said, frustration edging his voice. "He blows up like that all the time."

From atop his big black, Chrisís jaw muscle tightened. Buck was gonna smother the boy if he wasnít careful, and that didnít bode well for JD sticking with them. JD was like any other kid his age, trying to prove himself and he couldnít do that if he was ambushed every step of the way. Even if Buck did mean well.

"Why donít you go take a break, JD," Barkley suggested. "One of the others can help Tanner." He glanced at Ezra. "How Ďbout you, Standish? You ainít had your turn at rastliní yet."

Ezra straightened his shoulders. "A gentleman does not stoop to such common labor."

"But a cow-hand does," Chris retorted with a faint smile and a twinkle in his eyes.

Ezraís indignant expression brought laughter from his surrounding friends. JD wrapped an arm around his torso and his chuckle turned into a grimace.

"Come on, JD, letís get you out of the sun," Barkley said, gently taking hold of his arm.

Nathan, on JDís other side, helped him over to a miserly piece of shade.

Chris watched as Nathan rejoined them, but Barkley stayed a few more moments with JD. He said something to the boy, which brought a proud smile to JDís face. Chris had a feeling Barkley was congratulating him on a good job in spite of the mishap.

Although Chris didnít like how things were shaping up, he wouldnít stop Barkley from currying JDís favor. JD deserved this chance, and Chris would be damned if he got in the way. He wheeled his horse around and continued working.

By the fourth day, all the calves and yearlings were branded, and the men had begun to gather the thousand head theyíd be herding to Fort Davis. The evening before they began the drive, five of the seven men sat in the bunkhouse. Nathan and Vin were out riding night herd, and would be replaced by Ezra and Josiah in a few hours.

Chris, Ezra, Buck, and JD were sitting around the table playing poker. For a change, Ezra wasnít winning the majority of the pots.

"You must be tired, Ezra," Buck commented as he raked in the latest pile of matchsticks. "I donít think I ever seen you play this bad before."

Ezra tried to stifle a yawn and failed. "I must admit to an excessive lassitude after such arduous labor."

"Maybe youíd best get some sleep before you gotta go out to ride herd," Chris suggested, not unkindly.

Ezra smiled, a pale shadow of his normal ebullient grin. "I believe I shall implement such a fine suggestion." He stood, and moving like a man twice his age, shambled to his bunk and lay down without removing his boots. His quiet snores told them he was asleep in less than a minute.

"He done a lot betterín I thought he would," Buck commented, keeping his voice low as not to awaken their sleeping companions.

"Ezraís full of surprises," Chris simply said. He studied Buck, then JD, who seemed to have regained his usual enthusiasm. "Howíre you feeliní, JD?"

The boy grinned. "Right as rain. Mrs. Barkley gave me some special liniment to put on the bruise. Took the soreness right out."

"Yeah, those Barkleys should be nominated for sainthood," Buck muttered.

JDís smile faded. "Theyíre good people, Buck. You got no call insultiní them."

"Maybe theyíre just a little too good."

Anger darkened JDís features. "And what do you mean by that?"

Buck held up his hands, palms out. "Now donít go gettiní all huffy, JD. Itís just that they seem to have takiní a shine to you."

Chris rested his elbows on the chair arms and steepled his fingers, observing the exchange from beneath hooded eyelids. He had known it would only be a matter of time before Buck noticed the Barkleysí interest in JD.

"Youíre imagininí things, Buck," JD growled, though he didnít meet Buckís gaze.

Whatever Buck was about to say was lost as Sam Barkley entered the bunkhouse. He noticed Ezra and Josiah asleep, and the animosity he nursed for Josiah colored his expression for a moment. Turning his attention to the men at the table, the older man smiled at JD.

"Thought Iíd come by and let you know what I decided as far as whoís got what positions when we head out tomorrow," Barkley began. "Larabee, you and Tanneríll take point Ė I can tell you two arenít no strangers to driving cattle. Wilmington, you and Jackson will ride flank, and the fancy gentleman and Sanchez will ride drag." He settled his gaze on JD. "You, son, will be the wrangler."

JD frowned. "Whatís that?"

"Youíll be in charge of the remuda. The horses got to be moved every day, but you gotta make sure you arenít far soís the others can switch off throughout the day. And at night, youíll be settiní up their corral and makiní sure they got enough food and water," Barkley explained.

Chris noticed Barkley didnít tell JD that was where the least experienced man worked, but he wasnít about to spoil the party by explaining that little fact. He glanced at Buck and knew he was thinking along the same line, but Buck, too, was keeping quiet. Chris suspected it was because a wranglerís job was about the least dangerous, and theyíd all feel better knowing JD was out of harmís way. Especially big brother Buck.

But there was something else bothering Chris. "Thereís no reason for Ezra and Josiah to ride drag the entire way. Weíll rotate the positions so no one gets stuck eatiní dust the whole time."

Barkleyís mouth tightened. "Iím the boss and Iíll say who works what position."

Chris shook his head, keeping his rock-steady gaze on the rancher. "We may work for you, but nothiní says we have to stay. We could just ride out tomorrow and not look back. You need us, Barkley, whether you want to admit it or not."

The older manís face reddened, and his fingers curled into fists at his sides. "Damn you, Larabee."

"A lot of folks have tried," Chris said mildly.

"Chris is right, Mr. Barkley." JDís dark eyes darted anxiously between Chris and Barkley. "Now I know I donít know much about herdiní cattle, but I do know it ainít fair for any of them to have to stay in one place the whole time."

"You think I ainít beiní fair?" Barkley demanded.

JD lifted his chin and nodded resolutely. "Thatís right, sir."

For a long moment, Barkley stared at JD who didnít relinquish his own gaze. Finally, the tension in Barkleyís features eased. "Maybe youíre right, son. Itís just that I got a hard time dealiní with the man who killed my own flesh and blood."

"Josiah ainít no cold-blooded killer," JD stated firmly.

"I admire your loyalty, son, but you donít know Sanchez like I do."

"Or maybe we know him better," Buck spoke up, his voice deceptively quiet.

Barkley tensed, then forced himself to relent. "He has been doiní a good job out there," he admitted reluctantly. "Fact is, I could probably like him iffen he hadnít killed Jeff."

"Your son was a grown man," Chris said quietly. "He made his own choices, and you got to realize he chose his own destiny."

Barkley shoved his hands in his pockets and glanced down, then looked back up at Chris. "Maybe so, but Sanchez worked for Connor, who may kill all of us before this drive is over."

"And Josiahís gonna be right beside us fightiní Connor," Buck added. "Youíd do well to remember that."

Barkley took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. "All right. Weíll switch positions every day. Weíll start out the way I said, then rotate each day after. May as well do the same with the wrangler job Ė after JD gets used to it, he can exchange and learn the other positions."

JD smiled widely and his hazel eyes glowed. "I canít believe Iím actually goiní on a cattle drive! Iíve read about them ever since I was a kid and now Iím goiní to be part of one."

"This ainít a normal drive, though, JD. You make sure you keep your eyes open for Connorís men," Chris warned, trying to tamp down his enthusiasm a bit. If the boy were a ball, heíd be bouncing off the four walls.

"Donít worry, Chris, I will," he promised solemnly.

"Youíd all better get some sleep. Weíre headiní out at dawn," Barkley suggested.

He shuffled out of the bunkhouse, his shoulders bowed under the heavy weight of responsibility. Chris empathized with him, then cursed his lapse. Every man chose his own path and nobody could walk that trail with him. Maybe he had some companions for a time, but they wouldnít be with him forever. That was the nature of living Ė a person came into the world alone and he went out the same way.

Melancholy settled in Chrisís chest. The only thing that would prevent his six friends from leaving to follow their own paths someday would be for them to die while they were together. Or maybe it would be himself who would meet his Maker. A year ago he wouldíve welcomed death, but his soul, which he thought had withered with Sarah and Adamís mortal remains, had been re-awakened by the friendship he shared with Vin, Ezra, Buck, JD, Nathan, and Josiah. But it wasnít only them; there was also Mary Travis and her son Billy back in Four Corners.

Chris lifted his hand to rub his eyes, and grimaced slightly at the shaft of pain from the five-day-old cut. Damn thing was taking longer to heal than a bullet wound.

Buck and JD rose, and moved to their bunks without the usual bantering, which told Chris they, too, were tired. Chris stood and stretched, feeling aches in muscles he hadnít felt since his involuntary time with the chain gang at Jericho. A shiver chased down his spine and he shoved the thoughts aside Ė he still had nightmares about his time there, especially the days and nights heíd spent in the hole.

He sat on his lower bunk and removed his boots, then his shirt and trousers. After tonight he wouldnít have the luxury of sleeping in only his drawers. Ensuring that his holster and gun hung within easy reaching distance, he lay down and fell asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow.

Josiah tightened the bandanna about the lower half of his face, then tugged his hat brim down to shade his eyes. The sun beat down on the men and beasts as they moved across a land only the devil could take delight in. Aptly, dust devils and Devilís Canyon and devil wood and devilís darning needles could all be found in this godforsaken desert.

For Josiah, this drive represented a crucible that he hoped would burn away a portion of the guilt heíd carried for so many years, for so many Jeff Barkleys.

He glanced over at Ezra who rode a couple hundred feet to his right. He had traded his frilly snow-white shirt for a sturdy blue one that looked like something Vin would wear rather than Ezra. Josiah had seen Ezra carefully place his things in the corner of the mess wagon reserved for the menís belongings and bed packs. He could imagine what his fancy clothes would look like after nearly two weeks of being stowed, and almost felt sorry for him.

Ezra caught his eye, and motioned that he was to move up to the flank position to take the place of Buck, who spelled Chris at point. Every four hours or so, the men took turns going to the remuda to swap out their horse, which set into motion a temporary rotation to cover the absent man.

Josiah sent him a nod that he understood and moved to a more central place at the back of the bawling cattle. A rider approached from the east and Josiah tensed, his hand moving to his pistolís grip. A few moments later, he recognized the bay mare as Barkleyís mount, and Josiah eased his fingers away from his weapon.

"Howíre you doing, Sanchez?" Barkley asked gruffly.

"Iím trying to understand why the Lord saw fit to create such a desolate, soulless place," Josiah replied.

Though Josiah couldnít see the manís expression because of his scarf, he could make out a hint of surprise in Barkleyís eyes.

"When did you get religion?" Barkley demanded.

"This may shock you, Mr. Barkley, but I used to be a preacher."

"Youíre right, it does. What turned you into a hired gun?"

Josiah shrugged, and fixed his gaze on the shaggy beastsí backs, undulating like a large dragon across the sandy terrain. "Letís just say that saving souls involves more than preaching the gospel, especially when the devil is working against you."

Barkley rode silently beside Josiah, his face thoughtful. "You believe in the devil, Sanchez?"

Josiah nodded. "Sometimes I believe in him more than I believe in God."

"Maybe the devil is what made Jeff change so much the last couple years of his life. Up until he turned seventeen, he was a good boy. Never had no problems with him. After that, it seems he was gettiní in one scrape after another."

"Sounds like another boy I knew. His father was a missionary, but he preached one thing and lived another. He thought the devil had taken hold of his son, too, and maybe he did for a time." Josiah threaded the leather reins through between his gloved fingers. "Iím sorry about your son, Barkley. If it's any consolation, there are days when I look in the mirror and see Jeffís face."

Barkleyís eyes misted, and his voice was husky. "The same thing happens to me. Maybe Iíve been wrong blaming you all this time, Sanchez. Maybe nobodyís to blame. Maybe Larabee was right Ė Jeff was a man who made his own decisions, and towards the end, I didnít approve of most of íem."

Josiah remained silent, knowing there was nothing he could say to change what had happened five years ago. And no words he could offer a man who realizes that heíd lost his son long before a bullet had taken him.

Chris spotted JD and the remuda about half a mile back from the rear of the herd. JD saw him coming and held up the small herd.

"Which one you want, Chris?" JD called as he neared him.

"Give me the star faced chestnut," Chris replied, dismounting about thirty feet from the milling horses.

He watched as Buck the dog kept the horses in line while JD roped Chrisís new mount and led it to him. The dog had proved an invaluable helper to JD in keeping the animals herded together, as well as getting them moving in the morning.

"Howís it goiní, JD?" Chris asked as he removed his saddle from his tired horse.

JD rubbed his cheek, smearing dust across his features. "Itís kinda boring."

Chris grinned. "Driving cattle isnít exactly the most exciting job in the world."

JD shifted his backside, and smiled sheepishly. "I sípose I shouldíve known it wouldnít be like them dime novels. Jock Steeleís dime novel about us wasnít anywhere near the truth."

"Youíre learniní, JD." Chris tightened the saddle cinch on the chestnut, then rested his forearms on the seat. "Life is what you make it, JD, and if it sees fit to offer you some good, youíd best grab onto it and hold on. It donít happen moreín a few times in a personís life."

"I figure the day I jumped off that stagecoach in Four Corners was one of them good things. If I hadnít, I wouldnít met you and Buck and the others."

Although touched by JDís declaration, Chris said, "Maybe, but you ever wonder what wouldíve happened if youíd stayed on that stagecoach?"

JD nodded somberly. "Iíd probably be dead. Itís been the six of you thatís kept me alive; taught me how to survive out here."

Chris swallowed hard. JD was more than likely right. Heíd been as green as they come when Chris had first seen him, but heíd proved he had grit. And JD wasnít scared to admit his mistakes and learn from them.

He glanced at the boy and out of the corner of his eye, he caught the glint of sunlight off metal.

"Get down, JD!" Chris hollered.

JD ducked low over his horseís back and a bullet passed through the space where his back had just been. He slipped to the ground, and followed Chris behind a rock that offered sparse cover from the hail of bullets that rained upon them.

The remuda scattered in a frenzied gallop, accompanied by whinnies of terror, and the dog took off after them.

JD wrested his revolver out of its holster as he sneezed from the dust the escaping horses kicked up. "How many?"

"Four, maybe five," Chris replied, peering around the rock. A Winchester cracked and a bullet struck stone, throwing splinters against Chrisís neck and face. He ducked back, cursing. "Theyíve got more range with those rifles than we do."

"We gotta get closer," JD said. Sweat rolled down his brow and he swiped at it impatiently.

"How?" Chris demanded. "Thereís no cover. Theyíd pick us off like weíre at a turkey shoot."

More bullets kicked up around them, and the two men huddled close behind the sparse cover. Suddenly gunshots sounded from behind them.

"Now theyíre behind us, too," JD said, a note of panic in his young voice.

From his hunched position, Chris tried to spot the new arrivals. A grin broke his somber countenance. "Looks like we got some help."

JD twisted around to see Buck, Nathan, and Ezra galloping toward them, firing at the attackers. The distinguishable boom of Vinís carbine cut through the other gunshots.

"Vin and Josiah mustíve went around," Chris said.

The shots tapered off, and blessed silence filled the empty land.

Chris and JD stood, and Buck dismounted to join them. His expressive face revealed his concern for his two friends, but it was quickly masked by anger that he directed toward the younger man.

"Didnít I tell you to be careful?" Buck demanded, jabbing a forefinger into JDís chest. "Weíre not even out a day, and youíre already gettiní in trouble!"

JDís eyes widened with shock, then indignant anger. "We were ambushed! How was I supposed to see íem?"

"You were supposed to keep yours eyes open, and be payiní attention. How many times have I told you you canít let down your guard!"

"Like youíre perfect?" JD hurled back. "Hell, how many times have you got caught with your pants down?"

"This ainít got nothiní to do with that."

Buck stood toe-to-toe with JD, but the smaller man didnít back down. "The hell it doesnít! Youíre accusiní me of somethiní you done more times than I can remember."

Afraid they were going to come to blows, Chris moved to separate the two men. "Hold on now, both of you."

"Stay out of this, Chris. Itís between him and me," JD ordered, surprising the surrounding men with his assertive tone.

"Youíre right about that," Buck said. "It started in that Seminole village when you damn near shot my ear off."

"I saved your life!"

"Thatís enough," Nathan broke in. "You two just go cool off before one or the other of you says somethiní youíre gonna regret."

"Buck already did," JD said, then spun around.

Chris watched the young man stalk away, and his brow creased in concern when he saw Barkley join him.

"It wasnít JDís fault," Chris stated in a low voice, close to Buck. "I was just damn lucky I saw the sunlight off the rifle."

Buck removed his hat, and raked his hand through his thick dark hair, leaving strands sticking straight out from his head. "I know that, Chris, but it damn near kills me when I see how close he comes to gettiní his head shot off."

"Donít you ever worry about me?" Chris asked in a teasing voice, trying to draw Buck out of his too-serious mood.

Buck stared at Chris, his dark eyes troubled. "Always, but you gave up listeniní to me three years ago."

Chris swallowed hard. "I had reason enough."

"Maybe, but JD donít. I donít want that kid gettiní killed before he becomes a man. Heís got to be able to live some first." Buck climbed back into his saddle and rode back toward the herd.

Chris gazed silently at Barkley and JD, noting the older manís arm around JDís shoulder in a fatherly manner. Buck was right Ė JD had too much of life ahead of him, unlike him and the other five men whoíd seen their share already.

"JD ainít gonna be with us much longer, will he?" Vin asked softly from beside Chris.

"Not if Barkley has any say in the matter." Chris turned to face him. "How manyíd you get?"

"One for sure, a second maybe. Both of íem rode off so neither was dead. Yet." Vinís cold smile sent a shiver down Chrisís spine Ė heíd hate to be on the wrong side of the ex-bounty hunter.

"Recognize any of them?"

Vin nodded. "One of íem for sure was part of that ambush in Medino."

"Connorís men."

"Yep." Vin thumbed back his hat. "Iím kinda surprised they waited this long to try something. Been expectiní them to hit earlier."

"Does seem kinda strange, doesnít it?" Chris asked, frowning. "What were there Ė four, five men that shot at me and JD Ė why not more and why just the two of us? If theyíre aiminí to stop the drive, they gotta do betterín that."

Vin searched the surrounding terrain. "Theyíre planniní something big."

"Yep, and theyíre gonna spring it when our guardís down."

"Then weíd best not let our guard down." Vinís blue eyes twinkled. He glanced around, noting that they were alone. "Looks like you need a ride, pard."

Chris grinned. "Looks like."

Vin mounted his blaze-faced horse, then kicked the left stirrup free and Chris climbed up behind him and settled on the horseís rump. Taking hold of the saddle seat, Chris hissed at the sharp twinge from the cut on his hand.

"You okay back there?" Vin asked.

"Iíll be better when I get my own horse."

Vin chuckled, then nudged Sireís flanks and they rode off to join the others.

The sun disappeared behind the western hills, cooling the air with startling swiftness. Where the men had been sweating an hour earlier, now they pulled on their jackets as they gathered around the end of the chuck wagon where a dutch oven had been set up. Buck the dog lay on the ground beside a wagon wheel although he was turned toward the remuda as he kept guard over them.

Mrs. Barkley filled their metal plates with blanket steaks, rice mixed with canned tomatoes, and biscuits made with cinnamon and sugar. The men moved off to hunker down to devour the meal.

"This is real good, Mrs. Barkley," Nathan complimented with a generous smile.

The older woman tucked a strand of graying hair into her bonnet. "Thank you, Nathan. I havenít been on a drive for years, and I was hoping I hadnít forgotten how to cook out here."

"You may lay that fear aside, dear lady," Ezra said. "Your culinary expertise is a most welcome diversion from the difficult drudgery."

"Thank you, I think," she said with a smile. "Have you always talked that way or did you have to work at it?"

"I prefer not to work at anything unless I am given no other option."

"So whatíre you doing here?" Sam Barkley asked, stepping into the campís firelight.

"I am still trying to ascertain that," Ezra replied.

"Weíre the only ones whoíll put up with him," Buck interjected.

Ezra smiled and the flickering flames reflected off his gold tooth. "Perhaps you have a point, Mr. Wilmington. Or it could merely be that I am the only civilized gentleman among you so feel a responsibility to instruct you all in the ways of tact and diplomacy."

Buck and Josiah exchanged amused looks, then spoke as one. "Are you calling us rude?"

The menís laughter sounded comforting in the eveningís empty silence.

"Who goes out when Larabee and Tanner come in?" Barkley asked.

"Me and Josiah," Nathan replied.

Barkley nodded, and found JD among the group. "Youíll have to make sure each man has a fresh horse saddled throughout the night."

JD frowned. "What for?"

"In case thereís a stampede overnight, there isnít time to saddle the horses. A manís got to get out there right away to stop íem."

"You gonna need any help, JD?" Buck asked.

"I think I can handle it," JD replied, his voice sharp with sarcasm.

Buck swallowed a piece of the biscuit, and it settled in his stomach like a piece of lead. He hadnít meant to get JD all twisted out of shape; all he wanted to do was make sure the boy didnít let his vigilance down. While Buck was riding herd, he couldnít very well keep track of JD. It was just damn lucky Chris had been with him when Connorís men had ambushed them.

JD finished his supper, then without a word moved off toward the roped corral where the remuda was held. Buck narrowed his eyes when he noticed Barkley follow him.

"Be back in a minute, boys," Buck announced with a mischievous grin.

"No need to rush on our account," Josiah said.

Buck pushed himself up, and handed Mrs. Barkley his empty plate. "Thank you, maíam. It was mighty fine."

After patting the dogís head, Buck moved off in the opposite direction of JD and Barkley, but once he entered the darkness at the fringe of the camp, he circled around.

Keeping quiet, he eased around the clumps of buffalo grass and prickly cactus. He heard the murmur of voices, and closed in until he could see their dim forms standing beside the makeshift corral.

"Youíre doiní a right good job, JD," Barkley was saying. "I wouldíve never guessed this was your first drive."

"Thanks, Mr. Barkley," JD replied. "It might just be my last, too."

"Whyís that?"

Buck could hear the frown in Barkleyís voice.

"Itís a lot different than I imagined," JD admitted.

"Itís hard work. But anything worth haviní in this life is."

"Maybe," JD said with a dollop of skepticism.

"What do you wanna do with your life, JD?" Barkley asked.

For a long moment, JD was silent as he ran his hand along the paintís neck. "I ainít sure. Iíd read about the west since I was knee high to a grasshopper, and I wanted to experience everything that was in those books. I met Chris in Four Corners." He smiled, his teeth a pale white in the darkness. "The first time I saw him he was with Vin. They were trying to save Nathan from a lynching. Two men against a dozen Ė it was just like Iíd read about. I wanted to help, but my idea of help was shootiní a man in the back. Chris taught me right off that wasnít the way to be doiní things."

"I figured Larabee to be cold-blooded when it came to killiní a man."

JD shook his head vehemently. "Folks who donít know him think the same thing, but Chris ainít like that at all. Heís about as honorable as a man can be."

"Sounds like you admire him."

"Heís a man to look up to."

"What about the others, Wilmington, Standish, and Sanchez?" Barkley asked.

"Ezraís a gambler by trade, but heís a square player. At least, he is now. Josiah can preach from the Good Book betterín a lot of real preachers I know, and you can tell heís lived through a lot of them bad things the bible talks about, so he knows what temptation and sinniní is all about." He took a deep breath. "And Buck, well, Buck is Buck. I ainít figured him out yet. He treats me like Iím still in knee pants, but thereís other times I think heís proud of me. He never says it, but I can see it in his face."

Buck clenched his teeth Ė it was easier to rail at JD than to give him praise. That way, when JD left, heíd never know how much hurt itíd give Buck. It was a sight easier to hide pain behind a curtain of anger.

"You ever think about haviní a place of your own?" Barkley asked JD, bringing Buckís attention back to their conversation.

"What man doesnít," JD replied. "But thatís a long way off."

"What if I was to offer you my ranch?"

Buckís shoulders tensed.

"Iíd have to pass. I donít have moreín five dollars to my name," JD replied, apologetic regret in his voice.

"Iím not talkiní about selliní it to you. Iím talkiní about leaviní it to you, like a man leaves a place to his son," Barkley explained.

"We ainít related."

"Maybe not by blood, but I feel like I know you like a son, JD," Barkley said. "Youíre a good worker and eager to learn. You couldnít lie if your life depended on it, and you keep your word. A man couldnít ask for a better person to leave his lifeís work to."

JD turned to gaze into the darkness, and Buck instinctively ducked low.

"What about the others? Theyíre my friends," JD said plainly.

"Theyíre friends whoíre gonna lead you to your death."

"Thatís crazy," JD fired back.

"Is it? Each of those men make a living off their guns, even Standish. They canít help it Ė itís just their path in life. But you donít have to follow them down that trail. Iím offeriní you a home, a place to build a life instead of destroying it."

Buckís gut muscles tightened, and his fingers curled into his palms. His first reaction was to step out of his hiding place and punch Barkley. He had no right tryiní to take JD away from them.

Then he realized what Barkley was actually offering JD Ė a safe haven where he wouldnít be in the line of fire of the enemies he and the others had made through the years. Buck wouldnít have to worry about JD getting killed by someone like Stuart James or Cletus Fowler. Or pinning on a badge again and making himself a target for any liquored-up cowboy.

The more Buck thought about it, the more he recognized the value of the gift Barkley was offering JD.

"I donít know, Mr. Barkley," JD said, his voice uncertain. "Iím honored that you think that highly of me, but those six men are my friends. I just donít know if I can leave them behind."

"Then offer them jobs at the ranch. God knows we can use the cowhands."

JD smiled weakly. "They arenít cowhands. It was me and Josiah who talked them into stayiní and helpiní you."

Barkley clapped JD on the back. "You think about it, son, and let me know when you make your decision."

"Yes, sir."

Barkley turned away and walked back to camp, passing within five feet of Buckís hidden position. Buck remained where he was, watching JD who was staring up at the stars as if they held the answer.

Buck rubbed his brow, and swallowed hard. JD had a secure future with Barkley; with him and the other men, JDís future was uncertain at best. He considered telling JD to his face that heíd be a fool to pass up the offer, but decided the kid would just dig in his heels deeper. It seemed him and JD hadnít exactly been on the best of terms lately, and Buck took a large portion of the blame.

Maybe if he pushed a little harder, JD would decide to accept Barkleyís offer rather than put up with Buck any longer. It might work. Hell, it had to work. He cared too much for the boy to have him die in a blaze of so-called glory.

Though he knew he made the right decision, Buck couldnít help but feel a deep abiding sadness at the thought of losing JD. But it was better to lose him this way Ė at least he could visit him now and again at the ranch Ė than lose him to death.

With heavy footsteps, Buck made his way back to the camp.

Theyíd been on the trail four days when the first fisticuffs erupted between the men, and Chris wasnít surprised it was Buck and JD who traded blows. The tension between the two men had been rising steadily the last couple days.

Mrs. Barkley had served supper, and five of the seven men sat around the fire, silently eating. Josiah and Nathan were out watching the herd. Chris was hunkered down between Vin and Ezra who sat cross-legged on the ground. Although the air was cool and the men wore jackets, Chris still felt warm and hadnít donned his own coat.

Sam Barkley entered their midst, and accepted a plate from his wife, then leaned against the wagon to eat. "Whoís on drag tomorrow?" Barkley asked.

"Me and Nathan," Buck replied in a monotone.

"Then you two decide whoís gonna be wrangler tomorrow Ė Iím goiní to have JD move over to drag."

Chris smiled to himself, knowing Buck would jump at the chance to get out of eating dust. And it was time JD got to do a little herding.

"He ainít takiní my place," Buck stated flatly.

Chrisís eyes widened, and he noticed Ezra and Vinís startled reactions, too.

"Then Jackson can be wrangler," Barkley said.

"Not unless youíre gonna get someone else to ride drag with the kid," Buck said.

JDís mouth gaped. "I aim to pull my weight."

"All you been doiní is herdiní a few ponies. You got no idea what itís like to do real work."

Pain flickered across JDís face, then he scrambled to his feet. His body vibrated with fury. "Iíve had it, Buck! You been treatiní me like a two-year-old ever since this drive started."

"Maybe thatís ícause you act like one," Buck taunted, rising to tower over the smaller man. "Someday you might become a man, but I ainít gonna hold my breath waitiní."

Chrisís brow furrowed. Something was wrong here. Buckís usual rantings were a cover for his concern, but he didnít hear anything other than meanness in Buckís tone this time. He stood, determined to put an end to their short-fused tempers.

"Look whoís talkiní about beiní a man Ė you act more like a randy boy than a man," JD charged angrily.

"Itís betterín you who donít even know a beautiful woman when you see one. Hell, maybe Iíll head back to Four Corners and see how Caseyís bloomed out myself."

JD swung his fist with blind rage, and caught Buck on the chin. The bigger man staggered back, and wouldnít have fallen except his weak leg gave out on him. JD closed in, and struck him again.

Chris noticed Buck didnít even try to defend himself, and grabbed JD from behind. "Thatís enough."

JDís muscles untensed and Chris released him.

"Donít you even think about sniffiní around Casey, or so help me, Buck, Iíll kill you." JD spun around and disappeared into the darkness. It didnít surprise Chris when Barkley followed him.

Vin and Ezra joined Chris who stood over Buck.

"That, Mr. Wilmington, was the most asinine and callous remark I have ever heard you utter," Ezra stated in disgust. "After such despicable display, I will be astounded if JD ever speaks to you again." He turned and retired to his bedroll about twenty feet away.

Chris and Vin squatted down on either side of Buck.

"JD gone?" Buck asked in a hoarse whisper.

Chris nodded. "So you gonna tell us what that little show was all about."

"Howíd you know?" Buck demanded.

"Even though you have a reputation with the ladies, I know you well enough to know youíd never do anything with Casey," Chris replied. "Not knowiní how JD feels about her."

"Help me up, will ya," Buck growled.

Vin and Chris each took hold of an arm, and helped Buck stand. They didnít let go until he quit swaying.

"Press this against your face, Mr. Wilmington," Mrs. Barkley said, extending a damp cloth to Buck.

"Thank you, maíam." He did as she said, and hissed slightly. "JDís gettiní a wicked right hook."

"Serves you right," Mrs. Barkley stated, crossing her arms beneath her bosom. "JDís a fine boy Ė you had no call riling him like that."

"Yes, maíam," Buck said with a weak smile.

She narrowed her eyes, then spun around and marched away.

"Let him make up his own mind, Buck," Chris said softly.

"I aim to, but I thought giving him a push in the right direction might help," Buck said.

Vin shook his head. "It ainít his decision if youíre shoving him one way. Besides, whoís to say whatís right for him."

Buck took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a moment. When he reopened them, anguish filled their dark depths. "Sometimes in my mind, I see JD gunned down in some godforsaken one-horse town, and all I know is that I could never live with myself if I didnít do everything I could to stop something like that from happening."

"The same thing could happen to any of us," Chris said.

"Yeah, but weíre expectiní it. JD ainít."

Chris glanced at Vin, who didnít appear convinced, then back at Buck. "Maybe you should lay off of him, Buck. Right now heís going to make his choice in anger, and like Vin said, that ainít fair to him."

"Life ainít fair," Buck said softly. "Iím goiní to hit the sack."

"You gonna talk to JD?" Vin asked Chris in a low voice after Buck had limped away.

Chris shook his head. "Iím not sure I agree with Buck pushing JD like that, but JD deserves a better life than what we got to give him."

Vin hooked his fingers around his gunbelt. "I still donít think thatís for us to decide, but I wonít be sayiní anything to him either."

Chris glanced at Vin, and for a moment, the hunter blurred and Chris blinked. A wave of dizziness made him stagger back, and Vin reached out to steady him with a hand on his arm.

"Hey, you okay, Chris?" Vin asked.

"Just tired is all," he said sheepishly.

"Youíd best get some rest then. We got to be out riding in a couple hours."

The two men went to their bedrolls and settled in for a quick nap.

JD coughed and his eyes teared, but he didnít complain. In the bright sunlight, he squinted over at Nathan who rode drag on the other side of the herd. Buck had grudgingly taken the wrangler position after Barkley had ordered him to do it. But JD had to wonder why Buck wouldnít have preferred that job instead. Staring at a bunch of cowsí backsides and narrowly missing being pissed on was enough to make JD wish heíd never heard of a cattle drive. The dust clogged every pore in his body, and even with his bandanna around his mouth and nose, he could barely breathe.

Nathan began to move toward him, and JD eased his own horse toward the middle of the back end of the mass of beeves.

"Howíre you doiní?" Nathan asked.

JD didnít even try to lie. "I canít believe anyone would want to do this for a liviní."

Nathan chuckled. "You and me both." He sobered. "I saw Buckís shiner this morniní, and was surprised you didnít have one just like it."

JD shifted in the saddle, the leather creaking below him. "He was askiní for it."

"Seems kinda strange that he didnít even land one punch."

"I mustíve caught him off-guard."

"That musta been it."

JD picked out Ezra and Josiah at the flank positions, and Chris and Vinís tiny figures at the front of the bawling herd. "Whyíd you decide to go to Tascosa?"

Nathan shrugged broad shoulders beneath his dust-dulled shirt. "I owed him my life."

"But you paid that back with all your doctoriní."

"When a man saves your life even when he donít know ya, heís deserviní to be called a friend," Nathan explained. "And friends help each other out."

"Have you ever thought of settliní down, like with Rain?"

"Sure, but she knows I got things to take care of first."

"Like helpiní Vin clear his name?"

Nathan turned to look at JD. "That and other things."

JD took a deep breath, and sweat rolled down his chest. "If someone offered you a place to call home Ė a place that would be yours forever Ė would you take it?"

Nathan was quiet for a long moment. "I donít know, JD. It would depend on what I got left to do, and who I could share that place with." His deep brown eyes settled on JD. "Has Barkley offered you a home?"

"Howíd you know?"

"A man would have to be blind not to see him and Miz Barkley favor you, and knowing their son was killed when he was your ageÖ" Nathan shrugged.

"What should I do?" JD asked plaintively.

"What does your heart tell you?"

JD frowned. "I donít know. I used to think ridiní with you and the others was all I wanted to do, but Buckís always treatiní me like I donít know nothiní."

"Heís just tryiní to teach you how to stay alive out here."

"Well, I donít like the way heís been doiní it."

They rode in silence for a few minutes. JD watched a couple of vultures soar high above them, and quickly looked away. No matter what Josiah said, vultures were a helluva lot worse than crows.

"Donít go makiní any hasty decisions based on the way Buckís been actiní lately," Nathan said quietly. "Think about the time he saved your life by taking that saber for you, and the other times he risked his life for yours. Then make your choice."

Ezra made a circling motion with his arm.

"Ezraís goiní in to change horses Ė you want to try your hand at flanking?" Nathan asked.

JD nodded, and with a wave at Nathan, rode ahead even as he considered the healerís words.

The following evening as he rode around the herd, Chris felt an edginess in the air. With a new moon, only the stars that capped the desert lit the night. He squinted and found JD, his partner, on the other side of the milling cattle. Usually by midnight, the cows were bedded down, but tonight they were moving about restlessly. Chris wished he had a more experienced rider with him, but couldnít fault JD for his work. After riding drag yesterday, JD had tackled his first night herding job and Vin had said heíd done well. Today, JD had ridden flank, leaving Ezra to play wrangler.

Chris tried to dismiss his worries, and continued around the cattle, humming some half-remembered tune his ma had sung to him as a child. Though Chris could see his breath wisp in the cool air, he wiped a trickle of sweat from his cheek. If he didnít know better, heíd say he had a fever. He glanced down at his hand, still wrapped in a bandanna. The two inch long gash the nail had made continued to throb, and it had swollen up a bit. Chris shouldíve had Nathan look at it, but it seemed the men were always busy, either with the herd or keeping watch for unwelcome visitors or sleeping.

JD approached, and the two men stopped their horses side by side facing each other.

"The cattle werenít moving around so much last night," JD commented in a low voice.

Lightening cut a jagged path above the western horizon, and a few of the cows snorted.

"I sure hope that heat lightening donít come any closer or weíre gonna have a stampede on our hands," Chris said.

JD moved his reins from one hand to the other. "What do we do then?"

"We have to chaseíem down, tryín cut their path and bring them around in a circle, keeping them going round and round until they get so tired they canít run anymore."

"Sounds dangerous."

Chris nodded somberly. "It is. Letís just hope it doesnít come down to that."

Riding in opposite directions, Chris and JD continued circling the herd slowly, and met again half an hour later.

"Looks like we might be okay," Chris said. "The lightening stopped."

"Then why ainít the cattle settled down?"

"Could be anything. With so little food and water in the past few days, theyíre more apt to be restless, too."

Suddenly a gunshot shattered the nightís silence, and the cattle surged to their feet. Before Chris could yell a warning, what he hoped wouldnít happen did.

Buck was out of his bedroll and racing for his horse before he was even conscious of why he was doing so. The thunder of four thousand hooves on the hard-packed earth brought the realization home in a split second. The cattle had stampeded. His second realization came quickly on the heels of the first Ė JD and Chris had been on night herd.

Cursing, he twisted around to see Vin, Nathan, Ezra, and Josiah riding beside him, and he knew their anxious expressions mirrored his own.

"We got to turn the herd," Vin shouted. "We gotta get the leaders to turn back into the drag. Whoever gets up there first, yell atíem, slapíem with your lasso, shoot close to their heads - just get them turned. Everyone else work on the same side so we arenít working against each other."

"What about Chris and JD?" Buck demanded.

"They should be the first ones up there so watch foríem," Vin replied.

"Excuse me, gentlemen, but we seem to have another more pressing matter to deal with," Ezra spoke up.

The men turned in their saddles to see fifteen riders headed their way, each one toting a revolver or rifle. Bullets kicked up the ground around their horsesí hooves, and the stampeding cattle were forgotten with the more immediate danger. They pulled out their own weapons and fired back at their attackers.

In the exchange, one of the outlaws went down. Buck spotted an outcropping of boulders on a rocky hill, and he pointed toward it. They veered in that direction, dodging bullets and hoping their luck would hold.

A hundred yards from cover, Vinís horse squealed and went down to its knees. Vin instinctively kicked free of the stirrups and flew over his mountís head to land in a stunned heap ten feet in front of the dying animal. As he recovered his scrambled senses, he became aware of fourteen guns aimed at him.

Remaining on the ground, Vin glanced at his horse, glad it wasnít Sire, but angered by the loss of the experienced cattle pony. "Would one of you boys put him down so he donít have to suffer?" Though he phrased it as a question, the steely anger in his voice was unmistakable.

After a moment, the apparent leader of the group nodded to one of his men, who took care of the horse with a single shot.

"Mind if I get up?" Vin asked.

"Go ahead," the leader, a man about Vinís age, but with JDís smaller stature, answered with a sneer.

Vin got to his feet slowly, his body aching from the tumble to the hard ground. His hat had come off in the fall, and hung in front of his chest. He shifted it around so it rested against his back, then he brushed back his tangled shoulder-length hair that had fallen across his face.

"Lose the holster and sawed-off carbine," the same man Ė Vin remembered his name was Slade Ė ordered.

Taking his time, Vin unstrapped the gunbelt as he surreptitiously searched the rocks for his friends. He spied Buck and Josiah peering at him from behind one of the boulders. Sighing mentally, Vin was relieved to see they had gotten to safety.

"Give yourselves up," the leader hollered. "You got no place to go."

"Go to hell, mister," Buck shouted back.

"I donít think so. If you want your friend to live another day, youíd best throw your guns down."

"Donít do it," Vin called out. "Theyíll kill us all."

The leader cocked the trigger of his revolver, and aimed the barrel at Vinís temple. "You have to the count of five. OneÖ.TwoÖ.ThreeÖ."

"Donít shoot. Weíre coming out," Buck yelled.

"I want to see those guns first."

Four revolvers and a couple rifles were tossed out, and Vin nearly groaned aloud. Now they didnít have a snowballís chance in hell. Ten of the outlaws rode up to surround Buck, Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan as they walked down out of the rocky outcropping, hands held high above their heads. They were ushered over to join Vin.

"You shouldnít have given up," Vin said in a low voice.

"We couldnít let them shoot you down," Nathan replied.

"Now theyíll shoot us all."

Their horses were led over to them and the five men were ordered to mount up. Ezra climbed into his saddle, then offered Vin a hand up. They rode double as the outlaws led them back the way theyíd come. Vinís shoulders tightened as they neared the camp.

Ezra turned slightly and asked softly, "You think they killed the Barkleys?"

"Either that or they got them like they got us," Vin replied in a low voice.

They rode in, and Vin saw Sam Barkley standing with a protective arm wrapped around his wifeís shoulders. Five men had taken over the camp. One of them was dressed in fancy tan trousers tucked into shiny black boots that hugged his calves. In a brown-gloved hand, he held a riding crop. It didnít take Vin long to figure out he was Connor.

Vin slipped off the horseís rump, and waited until the others joined him.

"The two who were guarding the herd got away," the leader of the outlaws reported.

Connorís mouth drew taut. "Take some men and find them."

Slade nodded, picked out five men and the six of them rode out of camp.

"Chris and JD arenít going to have a chance," Ezra said hoarsely, close to Vinís ear.

"Donít write them off yet," Vin said quietly.

One of their captors grabbed Vinís arms and pulled them behind his back, then another man lashed his wrists together, tying the rope so tight the hemp cut into his skin and drew blood.

Connor looked over the prisoners as they were being tied up. Spotting Josiah, he frowned and walked over to him. "Sanchez, isnít it?"

"Nice to see some things never change," Josiah said, and Connorís expression told him he wasnít sure if heíd been insulted or not.

"Seems to me youíre working for the wrong side."

"Not this time," Josiah stated.

Connor narrowed his eyes and tapped the quirt against his thigh. "Does Barkley know you murdered his son?"

Josiahís gaze didnít waver. "I didnít murder anyone."

"Do you believe him, Barkley?" Connor asked over his shoulder.

The elder rancher gritted his teeth and remained silent.

Connor suddenly smiled and the expression was pure evil. "Bring Barkley over here."

Although his hired killers were puzzled, they didnít question him, and did as he said. Barkley stared at Connor, hatred written into every line of his stiff body.

"Iím going to give you a chance to avenge your sonís death." Connor handed Barkley his revolver. "Sanchez is all yours."

Josiahís muscles tensed, but he kept the alarm from his expression. He stared into Barkleyís eyes, which were filled with indecision.

"ĎA life for a life, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,í" Josiah quoted softly. "Thatís what the Good Book says, but we both know killing me wonít bring Jeff back."

"He had his entire life ahead of him," Barkley said, his voice low and ragged.

"Thatís all any man has, but what he does with it is how he shall be judged." Josiahís voice grew even softer. "Kill me if you truly believe I murdered your son."

Barkley aimed the Colt at Josiahís heart, and Josiah felt sweat beads form on his forehead, but he refused to look away. He listened for a crowís call Ė the portent of his death as it had been ordained that morning twelve years ago.

In his mindís eye, he could clearly see that crow, hear its harsh cawing, when heíd awakened after a night of too many spirits. Josiahís faith, already eroded by the hypocrisy and atrocities heíd endured, had toppled completely that morning. The only thing left for Josiah Sanchez to live for was death.

And heíd been prepared for the pale rider the morning he rode away from Four Corners with the men who, strangers then, became the foundation of his returning faith. Men who lived by the gun, yet they didnít seek violence Ė violence sought them. Just as it did now.

The Coltís barrel wavered, and Barkley dropped his gaze, then abruptly turned the revolver on Connor. He shook his head. "I ainít gonna do your dirty work for you, Connor. It ainít my place to be judging Sanchez." He cocked the hammer. "Besides, it seems to me if anyone is to blame for Jeffís death, itís you."

Relief and surprise filled Josiah. Again, death had spared him, allowing him more time to atone for the crimes heíd committed on earth.

"Your son would be disappointed in you," Connor taunted.

Barkley shook his head. "I donít think so." He squeezed the trigger and the revolver clicked on an empty cartridge.

"You didnít think Iíd give you a loaded weapon, did you?" Connor asked scornfully. "Take the gun and tie him up," he ordered his men.

After the older rancher has been trussed up, he was shoved over with the Josiah and his fellow captives. His wife was allowed to remain free, though one of the gunmen became her shadow.

"Whatíre you gonna do with us?" Barkley demanded.

"As soon as my men return with the two that got away, youíll all become victims of an unfortunate accident," Connor stated, his eyes glittering with malice.

Josiah looked at his companions, and realized his life and the lives of his friends had only been given a temporary reprieve. It seems the crows may yet claim their next sacrifices.

JD didnít know how long he and Chris had been chasing the cattle Ė or how many miles they covered. Heíd followed Chrisís lead and the two of them had managed to steer the lead cows back in toward the drag. JDís horse was lathered, as was Chrisís, but the stalwart creatures continued on. The night sky began to lighten as the exhausted herd finally began to slow and the spiral began to tighten. As the sun peeked above the eastern horizon, the cattle came to a stop. Some of the cows lay down on the ground and fell asleep, while others munched at the sparse buffalo grass.

JDís clothing was drenched in sweat, and rivulets of mud had created streaks down his face. His throat felt like it had been slit, and his tongue was swollen. JD reined in about twenty feet from the edge of the cattle and dismounted. His knees nearly buckled beneath him and he leaned against his trembling horse for a long moment as he closed his gritty eyes.

The approach of hooves forced him to draw away from the horse, and lift his gaze to Chris. The older manís face appeared ashen, his eyes deep and sunken. Startled concern brought JD upright.

"You okay, Chris?" he asked with a husky voice.

Chris only stared at JD with heavy-lidded eyes.

"Chris?" JD reiterated, taking a step closer.

Chris slumped in the saddle and his eyes closed, then he slipped to the side. JD caught him as he fell from his horseís back, and he staggered under Chrisís weight. He lowered him to the ground as carefully as he could manage, then knelt beside him. What would Nathan do? Or Josiah or even Buck?

He stared down at Chrisís frightening pallor, and listened to his raspy breathing. Helplessness overwhelmed JD. The last time heíd seen Chris this sick was when theyíd found him in Jericho. It had taken him over a week to regain his color, and even longer to replace the weight heíd lost on his already spare frame.

Was he sick or just exhausted? No, Chris could go for long periods of time without sleep, and had done so on more than one occasion. This was something else.

JD spied the bandanna wrapped about Chrisís hand and his brows drew together as he unrolled it. A swollen, angry red gash caught his eye and JDís breath caught in his throat. The infected hand didnít appear to be gangrenous yet, but JD knew it was only a matter of time. He knew a man back East who had lost his leg to gangrene; the man became a beggar on the city streets and died an agonizing death less than six months later. He wasnít going to let that happen to Chris.

JD drew his forearm across his brow, then searched the barren terrain for a sign of the other men. With their horses saddled and ready to go, the others shouldíve been right behind them. Unless something had happened.

Something like Connor and his hired guns.

Although he was sweating, JD felt a chill creep across him. If he and Chris were the only ones left aliveÖ. He thought of Buck and the last words theyíd exchanged Ė heated words that had led to a fight. A one-sided fight because Buck hadnít fought back for some unknown reason. What if Buck was dead?

JD swallowed hard. He couldnít afford to think that way.
 

Chris groaned, and his eyelids fluttered open, revealing confused green eyes.

JD leaned close and laid a hand on Chrisís shoulder. "Take it easy."

"What happened?" he asked hoarsely.

"You passed out and fell off your horse. I tried to catch youÖ" JDís voice trailed off. "I think your handís infected bad."

Chris tried to sit up, and JD helped him, then Chris studied the back of his injured hand. "I kinda thought so."

"So why didnít you have Nathan take care of it?" JD demanded.

Chris managed a weak grin. "Anyone ever tell you youíre sounding more like Buck every day."

"A man could do a lot worse."

"Thatís right, he could," Chris said softly. He looked around blearily. "He and the others here yet?"

JD shook his head. "And Iím thinkiní something happened."

Chris rubbed his forehead, and grimaced. "I thought it was a gunshot that started the stampede, and if it was, that means that Connor made his move." Chris began to push himself up. "Give me a hand, JD."

The younger man helped him to his feet and stayed close, a hand on Chrisís arm to steady him.

"We gotta get back and find out what happened," Chris said.

"You ainít in any shape for hard riding," JD argued. "Iíll leave you here, and go back myself."

Chris shook his head. "You canít take all of them on by yourself, JD."

"Maybe not, but I been learniní from you and the others. I can take them down one by one."

"You might be able to, but if Iím there, I can help." He awkwardly reached for the saddlehorn and wrapped his fingers around it. "Help me up."

"Youíre too sick."

"Damnit, JD! If theyíre not dead yet, theyíre gonna be soon."

JDís stomach roiled with the thought of the others dead, and he reluctantly helped Chris up into the saddle. He quickly mounted his own tired animal, and the two men left the now-quiet cattle herd behind.

An hour later, they approached a garden of boulders the size of small houses. The shade beckoned, and JD glanced at Chris. The older man was slumped over his horseís neck, but he was still conscious. Barely. JD had to get Chris to stop and rest, or heíd lose him, too. He didnít want to believe the others were gunned down by Connor, but hope dwindled as time pressed on.

"The horses need to rest," JD spoke up, hoping Chris would accept that excuse.

"No, we got to keep goiní," Chris slurred.

"If we keep goiní, weíre gonna lose the horses then weíll be afoot."

"Donít matter. Gotta get back in time to save them. Theyíre alone at the ranch."

JD blinked, and halted his mount, then grabbed Chrisís horseís bridle to stop him. He studied the older man close, noting his flushed cheeks and fever-hazed eyes. "Weíre going to rest for a few minutes," JD stated.

"Canít. Gotta get back to Sarah and Adam."

JD swallowed hard, and laid a hand on Chrisís shoulder. "Your wife and boy are dead, Chris. And youíre gonna be the same if we donít stop."

"Donít care."

JDís lungs constricted. "Whatís Buck gonna say if I let you die? And what about Vin and Ezra and Josiah and Nathan? Theyíre gonna be madderín a stepped on rooster at both of us if you up and die."

Lucidity invaded Chrisís green eyes for a moment, and he nodded tiredly. "All right. Weíll rest."

JD dismounted and led the horses to a sheltered area among the rocks, then helped Chris to the ground. He rolled up his jacket and used it as a pillow for Chrisís head.

"Thereís whiskey in my saddlebags," Chris said hoarsely. "Pour it over my hand."

JD dug through the bag until he found a flask and returned to Chrisís side. After removing the bandanna around the wound, JD unscrewed the flaskís cover. He glanced down at Chris and caught his glassy gaze on him.

"This is gonna hurt like hell," JD said, his voice trembling.

"I know, kid, but you gotta do it."

JD stared into Chrisís pain-hollowed eyes, his gut twisting. "Ió"

"Do it!"

Chrisís sharp command startled JD into action. Keeping his hand as steady as he could, JD poured the liquor across the open, angry gash. Chris hissed and squeezed his eyes shut. His face turned the color of a desert-bleached skeleton, then he slumped limply.

"Chris!" JD cried in alarm.

The shallow rise and fall of Chrisís chest reassured JD, and he heaved a sigh of relief, then put the cap back on the flask. He carefully examined Chrisís injured hand, and frowned. The whiskey cleaned the outside, but the poison still needed to be drawn out of the wound. Thinking back, he recalled the cookís son at the house where his ma had worked Ė the boy had gotten blood poisoning and his mother had put tobacco on the cut. It had drawn out the poison and the boy had healed good as new even though heíd been even sicker than Chris was.

JD stood and moved back to Chrisís saddlebags to replace the flask. He dug around and found three of the smelly cheroots Chris smoked. Wrinkling his nose, JD removed the scarf heíd worn since riding herd, and unrolled the little cigars, crumbling the tobacco on to the cloth. He added a little water to create a poultice then wrapped the scarf around Chrisís injured hand, the tobacco against the open cut.

Satisfied heíd done all he could for him, JD set to work unsaddling the horses and rubbing them down. When he was finished, his own body ached and exhaustion clouded his mind. He sat down across from Chris and rested his back against a rock. Crossing his arms, he closed his eyes.

Although his body craved rest, JD couldnít sleep. Instead, he thought of their five companions and wondered what fate had befallen them. Each one of the men had touched JDís life profoundly in the last eight months: quiet, steadfast Vin; gentle, thoughtful Nathan; generous, selfless Josiah; cunning, educated Ezra; and Buck.

JDís eyelids fluttered open and he squinted in the bright sunlight. What was Buck to him? Brother? Mentor? Tormentor? He pictured the concern in Buckís eyes when JD had been shot a few months ago, and how Buck had been the first one heíd seen when heíd regained consciousness. The circles beneath Buckís eyes had been testament to the concern he hadnít spoken aloud.

So why was Buck harassing him so much lately? Because he worried about JD? Or was there something else involved? The more JD thought about it, the more confused he became. Since theyíre less-than-auspicious meeting at the Seminole village, Buck had taken a special interest in JDís welfare, moreso than any of the other men. The majority of that could probably be explained by their common childhoods Ė boys growing up without their fathers. And Buck had taken it upon himself to become JDís surrogate father. Not that JD minded. Fact was, he admired Buck more than heíd ever admit. JD had been so foolish and inexperienced when heíd gone to the Seminole village Ė the memory of his enthusiasm in shooting his first man, and his subsequent guilt in Buck taking a saberís blade for him, made his cheeks burn with embarrassment.

If Buck and the others were dead, the guilt would lay squarely on JDís shoulders. Heíd gotten them involved with Barkley despite Chris and Buckís warnings to stay out of a situation that didnít concern them.

He turned slightly to study Chrisís sleep-slackened features. He appeared vulnerable, so different from the first time heíd seen him in that cemetery in Four Corners. JD could picture the scene as if it happened yesterday. Chris could have stepped out of a dime novel, dressed completely in black, from his long duster to the hat pulled low over his clear eyes. And the fact that no bullets touched him or Vin during that gunfight seemed to re-enforce JDís belief that they were the Ďreal westí. And JD wanted to be just like them.

Only JD had learned that Chris and the others were as human as anyone else. They could be hurt, both physically and emotionally. When Buck had told him about Chrisís wife and son with a voice filled with sadness and regrets, JD hadnít wanted to believe him. He couldnít imagine Chris as a family man, yet thatís what heíd been until circumstances had stolen that life.

Hooking up with the six men had been the best thing that ever happened to JD. Heíd learned that life and death werenít as clean as the dime novels proclaimed them, and that friends were the only thing a man could count on in this life.

Could he exchange those friendships for a piece of land and a house? If the others were still alive, could he walk away from them knowing they could be killed the next day? Could he say good-bye to Buck not knowing if heíd ever see him again?

JD clenched his teeth as his heart thudded against his ribs. Buck better not have up and died before he could explain to JD why the hell heíd been acting like such an ass since they signed on with Barkley.

JDís eyes closed once more and exhaustion claimed him in seconds.

A few hours later, JD awakened and he listened intently to what had brought him out of his slumber. The ring of horsesí hooves on the rocks alerted JD to the approach of some riders. He raised himself slightly to look down to the path about fifty feet away and his palms grew moist when he saw six men riding past their hiding place. He glanced at his and Chrisís horses and hoped they would remain silent. Fortunately, they appeared as tired as their owners.

As the riders passed, JD recognized the leader as Slade, the gunhand whoíd argued with Barkley in Medino. They were obviously searching for him and Chris. Did that mean theyíd already taken care of Buck and the others? JD swallowed hard as his hand inched toward the butt of his revolver. Heíd die before he allowed Slade and his fellow outlaws to take him and Chris.

Once the hired guns disappeared out of sight, JD let out his pent-up breath. He doubted they had someone like Vin who might be able to pick out his and Chrisís horse tracks amid the cattle hoofprints.

JD remained vigilant although the hot sun tempted him into oblivious slumber. He glanced at Chris from time to time to make sure he remained sleeping. Hopefully Chris would sleep until the early evening when they could continue on in the cooler air.

A couple hours later, Slade and his men returned, again bypassing their shelter. The men rode tiredly, and only Slade seemed to be alert, but he only gave the boulders JD and Chris hid behind a passing glance.

JD returned to his place across from Chris. He, too, needed some sleep and the danger from Connorís men seemed to be over for now. For a moment, JD wondered if he shouldíve tried to pick off some of the six men himself to cut the odds for later. Mentally shaking his head, he realized heíd have only drawn unwanted attention and be forced into a prolonged gun battle. One that he and Chris had little chance of winning even if Chris werenít sick.

"You still got that pea gun up your sleeve?" Buck asked close to Ezraís ear.

Ezra nodded tightly. "However, trussed as we are, I have no chance of engaging it."

"Maybe youíll get your chance iffen I can get these ropes off," Vin whispered hoarsely. He grimaced, the orange glow of the campfire reflecting off his weathered features.

"And when Chris and JD show up," Buck added.

"Theyíre dead," Barkley stated in a low-pitched voice. "And if these ropes were any tighter, theyíd be cuttiní into bone."

Buck shook his head in disgust. "You donít know Chris and JD."

"Connorís men said they couldnít find them and they figured they were trampled by the cattle during the stampede," Barkley argued.

Buckís temper notched upward and he clenched his teeth a moment to regain control. "Like I said, you donít know Chris and JD like we do. Ainít no cattle gonna get them. Theyíre just bidiní their time until Connor and his men let down their guard."

Barkley grunted. "They bide their time any longer and they ainít gonna find anything but our bodies."

"And here I thought JD would be better off with you than us! Hell, youíre williní to write them off before you got any proof."

"After a thousand cattle trample a body, there ainít any proof left."

Buck jerked toward Barkley, anger surging through his veins. "Just shut up, Barkley, or ropes or not, Iím gonna kill you myself."

"Take it easy, Buck," Nathan said soothingly. "Ainít gonna do anyone any good if we start fightiní among ourselves."

Buck eased back on the ground, but fury still vibrated through him. He wasnít going to let Barkley convince him that Chris and JD were dead. Heíd feel it if they were, and Buckís gut told him their two friends were out there someplace. His only doubt was why they hadnít made their move yet.

"Howíre the ropes cominí, Vin?" Nathan asked.

Vin shook his head, frustration evident in his furrowed brow. "Theyíre tighterín a ladyís corset."

"Now thereís a fine image to ponder," Ezra said with a slight smile. "Wouldnít you say, Buck?"

In spite of his worries and their impending fate, Buck couldnít help but grin. "I ainít never met a corset so tight I couldnít handle it."

"That doesnít surprise me," Josiah commented wryly.

Buckís humor faded once more as he surveyed the camp. Even if Vin got loose, and Ezra got his sleeve gun free, the odds werenít altogether encouraging. Although Connor had sent half of his men to get Barkleyís herd, that still left more than enough when all the firepower he and his friends had was Ezraís two-shot derringer.

Of course, that wasnít counting Chris and JD. Provided they were still alive. And they damn well better be!

JD followed Chris across the dark desert as heíd been doing for the past four hours. When Chris had awakened at dusk, he had felt better. Heíd been surprised by the tobacco poultice, but realized it was working. He hadnít even complained when JD had crumbled three more of his cheroots for a new poultice.

"Hold up!" Chris whispered hoarsely, halting his horse.

JD stopped immediately, wondering what Chris had detected. A moment later, JD heard something, then Buck the dog was dancing about them, startling their horses. The dog, however, didnít bark but whined as if wanting them to follow him.

"You think heís tryiní to take us to them?" JD asked.

Chris nodded. "Iíd bet on it. Weíll have to tie him up out here so he doesnít get in the way."

"Canít we use him?"

Chris turned in his saddle to look at JD. "How?"

JD was silent for a moment, then he smiled widely. "Buck made an awful good wrangler, didnít he?"

Chris frowned, wondering what JD had up his sleeve.

"The suníll be cominí up in another hour," Vin said softly. Heíd given up on escaping his bonds after deciding the only thing he was doing was soaking the rope with his blood. And now he had very little feeling left in his hands.

"Which means we shall probably become unfortunate victims of some perceived accident," Ezra said.

Barkley turned to Buck. "You still think your friends are gonna show up?"

Buck clenched his teeth and remained silent.

"Talk like that ainít doiní any good, Mr. Barkley," Vin stated. He didnít add that he had begun to doubt if Chris and JD were still alive. Itíd been over twenty-four hours since theyíd ridden after the stampeding herd. And a suspicion that something was wrong with Chris kept nagging at him. He had thought Chris was only tired when heíd swayed on his feet a few nights ago, but the more Vin chewed on it, the deeper his doubts grew.

Vin looked around at the mostly silent camp. Only a couple hired guns remained awake as they guarded the six men. Mrs. Barkley had lay down beside the wagon and seemed to be dozing restlessly. If Chris and JD were still alive, they shouldíve made their move by now.

He glanced at Buck and caught his worried gaze in shadowed eyes. Buck would feel the two menís deaths keener than any of the others since heíd known Chris the longest, and had formed a deeper attachment to JD. Still, Vin knew Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan would also grieve for them. Just as Vin himself would in the privacy of a secluded mountainside.

Suddenly a dogís barking broke the silence, and Buckís namesake came dashing into the camp toward the outlawsí horses, which were enclosed in a pen erected from a couple strung ropes. The ponies began to whinny and their eyes rolled, revealing the whites. A few reared up, further frightening the others. They surged against the flimsy corral and the rope was pulled free.

The outlaws staggered to their feet blearily, shouting curses at the horses that stampeded through their camp.

"Donít anybody move!" Chrisíís voice rang across the chaos.

Buckís heart leapt into his throat. Where was JD? Had the fool kid went and got himself killed?

Connor and his hired guns froze at the steely command.

Chris motioned to the two men guarding the prisoners. "Drop your weapons nice and easy like."

Slowly, the men did as they were ordered. As they did, Sladeís hand inched toward his gun and a bullet into the dirt at his feet startled him into motionless.

Buck looked in the direction the shot came from and JD stepped out of the shadows at the opposite end of the camp. Buck grinned, relief making him giddy. The boy was still among the living.

"íBout time you two showed up," Buck commented. "You mind untyiní us?"

Chrisís lips quirked upward at one corner. "Go ahead, JD."

JD nodded, but kept his gun in one hand as he cut through the ropes binding Buck, then handed Buck the knife so he could give his full attention to helping Chris ride herd on the outlaws. As soon as Ezra was free, his sleeve gun slid into his palm to aid Chris and JD cover the captives.

"You may have won this round, but you canít hold me," Connor stated, his lips twisted into an ugly sneer.

"Donít bet on it," Barkley replied. "Youíre out of your territory here. Iím gonna take you and your men to the nearest town and make sure you stand trial for cattle rustling."

Connorís face paled, but hatred gleamed in his eyes. "Donít count on it."

"Oh, I think he can," Josiah said, coming up behind Barkley. "Last I heard, this is Sheriff Pat Garrettís jurisdiction and heís not going to let someone like you tell him what to do."

An hour later, Connor and his men had traded places with Buck and the others. They sat trussed on the ground as the Barkleys and the seven men caught up on what had happened since the stampede.

"So you didnít think for one minute that me and Chris mightíve been killed?" JD asked with a quirked eyebrow.

"Hell, no. I knew a bunch of cattle wouldnít have gotten you two," Buck said with a large dose of bravado. He angled a glare at Barkley. "Course, Barkley here, wrote you two off right away."

JD studied Barkley who shifted uncomfortably, then moved his attention back to Buck. His black eye hadnít begun to fade yet, and JD felt more than a little guilt.

"So who came up with the idea of using Buck the dog as a diversion?" Vin asked curiously.

Chris smiled. "JD. If it hadnít been for him, none of us would be alive," he said, gazing at the younger man proudly. He showed them his bandaged hand and described how sick heíd been.

Nathan shook his head, either in disgust or tolerance Ė JD wasnít sure which.

"I knew it!" Buck exclaimed. "I taught him everything I know." He grinned mischievously. "Well, maybe thereís a few things I still got to teach him about the ladies."

JD didnít rise to the bait like he normally did. It felt too good to sit here among his friends whoíd all miraculously survived. Ezra, unable to sit still, had a deck of cards in his hand, automatically shuffling and fanning them. Nathan was wrapping Vinís bloody wrists, and Josiah had that thoughtful look on his face, like he was ruminating on something JD couldnít even begin to understand.

He looked over at Barkley who was studying him, and JD was reminded of the decision he had yet to make. A ranch or the companionship of his six friends?

Later that day, as Josiah, Nathan, Ezra, and Barkley were escorting the prisoners to the town ten miles away, JD got his nerve up to pull Buck off to the side.

"What is it, JD?" Buck asked, leaning against a boulder and crossing his arms.

JD rubbed his nose, and took a deep breath. "Why didnít you fight me?"

Buck tilted is head slightly. "The other night?"

JD nodded. "You didnít even try to hit me."

"I couldnít."

"Then whyíd you pick a fight?" JD demanded.

"I followed you the other night when Barkley talked to you off by the remuda," Buck admitted in a low voice. "I heard what he offered you."

JD rubbed his palms together nervously. "Then you know I didnít give him an answer."

"Thatís why I was pushing you so hard. I figured youíd get mad enough at me that youíd accept Barkleyís offer."

"You want to get rid of me?" JD asked, unable to keep the hurt from his voice.

Buck pushed away from the rock to stand directly in front of the younger man and laid his hands on his shoulders. "No, that wasnít it. I want you to be safe, JD. I want to know that you wonít be gunned down by some trigger happy cowboy."

JDís throat clogged and for a moment he couldnít speak. "Youíd rather have me be trampled by a stampede?"

Buck snorted. "You know what I mean, kid. Youíll live a longer life if youíre someplace safe like a ranch and not hanging around with the likes of Chris and me and the others."

Anger sifted through JD. "Donít you think thatís for me to decide, Buck?" He stepped away from his friend. "Ever since I joined up with you, you been treating me like a kid. Maybe I deserved it in the beginning, but not anymore. I think Iíve proven myself more than a couple times and you never once made any mention of it."

"You have proven yourself," Buck said quietly. "Itís just that them kind of words donít come easy to a man like me."

JD paced. "I got to make this decision on my own, Buck, without you tryiní to push me one way or the other."

Sorrow rose in Buck, but he nodded slowly. "I understand. And I respect you for that, JD." He turned and walked away, his footsteps heavy.

A couple hours after the men returned from taking the prisoner to town, the rest of Connorís men returned driving Barkleyís cattle. Not a single shot was fired, and when the gunhands were faced with being shot, thrown in jail like their former boss and associates, or leaving the territory, there was little choice. The hired guns rode away without looking back.

The drive continued without any further trouble, and a few days later, they arrived at Fort Davis. The men split their thirty percent seven ways, then went to wash down the trail dust in the nearest saloon.

Barkley joined them at their table and bought a round of drinks for all of them. "Any of you interested in hiring on for the long term? I know of a place that could use some good men."

"Sorry, Mr. Barkley, but we got other business to take care of," Chris replied, glancing meaningfully at Vin.

Vin grinned sardonically, and held up his whiskey glass in a salute to Chris then downed the gutwarmer.

Barkley took a deep breath and sighed. "I figured so, but I had to ask. Fact is, I wasnít sure about you, but you all proved yourselves and Iím grateful to everything you did." He raised his gaze to Josiah. "That includes you, Sanchez. I can never forget that you shot the bullet that killed my son, but it was a fair fight, not cold-blooded murder like I kept trying to tell myself. Jeff is gone because of the choices he made. If it hadnít been you, it wouldíve been someone else sooner or later."

Josiah nodded reverently. "Thank you, Mr. Barkley. Your words mean a lot to me."

He held out his hand and, after a moment, Barkley grasped it firmly.

Chris noted the exchange silently, knowing Josiah had been given a gift Chris might never receive. He swallowed hard, banishing the images of the men heíd killed in self-defense. Although he hoped never to have to do so again, Chris knew the impossibility of his wish. Men like him attracted trouble like a dog attracted fleas.

Barkley turned to JD, and Chrisís gut tightened. JD had been particularly quiet ever since theyíd gotten rid of Connor. Even Buck hadnít been able to draw him out of his uncharacteristic reveries, and Chris was afraid JD was beginning the process of pulling away from all of them. Heíd gotten used to JD and his exuberance, and would miss him. Chris could only imagine what Buckís reaction would be.

"Well, son, have you thought about my proposal?" Barkley asked, his voice husky.

JD nodded slowly. "Thatís all I been doiní. To have a ranch and raise cattle and horses has been a dream of mine."

Buck dropped his gaze to the tabletop and Vin tugged at the brim of his hat as if to hide his expression. Chrisís fingers curled into his palms. This was it.

"But I canít accept," JD finished.

Buck whooped loudly, startling the other saloon patrons, and causing Ezra to glance up from his poker game a table over. Ezra smiled widely and nodded at Chris, then returned to his cards.

"Iím offering you a home," Barkley argued. "A place to call your own."

JDís cheeks flushed slightly. "I know and Iím grateful, but I canít. Thereís too many things I want to do before I settle down." A grin tugged at his youthful features. "Besides, somebodyís got to look out for Buck."

Buck tried to muster some outraged indignation but failed, and he slapped JDís back, raising a cloud of dust. "I think you got that backwards there, kid."

"And who rescued who from Connor?" JD demanded, though his dark eyes twinkled.

Buck sobered and said, "You did, JD, and Iím damn proud of you."

JDís expression slipped. "Thanks, Buck. That means a lot cominí from you," he replied.

"Weíre all proud of you, JD," Josiah added.

"Youíve become a man without us even noticing," Chris said.

JD didnít speak, but Chris noticed his shoulders became a little straighter.

Barkley stood. "I guess thereís nothing left for me here. The offer still stands, JD, so if you ever change your mind, youíre always welcome."

"Thank you, sir," JD said, shaking Barkleyís hand.

The older man turned to leave, then paused. "By the way, whatís your Christian name?"

JD grinned. "Letís just say that I prefer JD."

Barkley smiled, then walked out of the saloon.

"Címon, JD, weíre your friends. You can tell us," Buck said.

"Ainít nobody that close of friend," JD retorted. "I donít know about you, but I canít live with my smell no more. Iím headed to the bath house."

He stood, and Buck, Nathan, and Josiah joined him. As they left, Buck put an arm around JDís shoulders, and Chris could hear him trying to cajole JD into revealing his secret.

"You think JDíll tell him?" Vin asked, his blue eyes dancing.

"Only if he wants the rest of the world to know," Chris replied with a smile. He filled his and Vinís whiskey glasses, then raised his. "To Tascosa and clearing your name."

Vin lifted his shot glass and grinned. "And to every adventure along the way. As long as it ainít driving cattle."

Then they tossed back their drinks. For today, theyíd enjoy the comfortable companionship of friends, the quiet of a dim saloon, and the soothing burn of the whiskey. Tomorrow was soon enough for the next adventure to begin.
 

The End

The Trail to Tascosa #4: Chains of the Past

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