The 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 second story in the series takes place about a week after the end of the first story, "The Journey Begins". As with the first one, the characterizations are based on my observations, and may not agree with your own, as we all see the world from our own unique perceptions. I would like to thank the eleven members of the Posse who graciously allowed me to use their names (as well as hair and eye color) in this story Ė youíre a courageous group!! I would also like to thank Michael Martin Murphy for the song "The Tennessee Stud" which is where this story idea sprang from.

Story Two

The Tennessee Stud

By The Traveling Dimestore Novelist

"You do it," JD Dunne hissed at Vin. "It was your idea!"

Vin Tanner scowled and glared at the package wrapped in brown paper he held in his hands as if it were all the packageís fault. He returned his gaze to the younger man. "I ainít any good at this kind of thing, JD."

"And I am?" JD shook his head as he saddled his horse. "Since we left that town two days ago, you been carryiní that in your saddlebag. Just give it to him Ė heís been grouchierín a bear with a sore paw since he figured it was ruined." JD paused. "Hey, Vin did I ever tell you the one about the three legged dog who Ė "

"I heard it, JD," Vin said with the barest hint of a smile. "And it wasnít funny."

Scowling, JD shook his head as if unable to believe nobody had liked his joke.

The ex-bounty hunter took a deep breath and let it out slowly. His fingers tightened around the paper that hid Ezraís red coat from sight. When the cat had attacked Ezra nearly two weeks ago, it appeared that his fancy coat had been ruined by the catís claws and Ezraís own blood. Vin had hung onto it, and the first town theyíd come to, heíd found a seamstress who had been able to sew it up nearly as good as new. Sheíd even managed to get all the blood stains out.

"You boys gonna stay here all day or join the rest of us?" Chris Larabee asked from atop his horse.

Although Vin knew Chris had seen the package, he hadnít asked any fool questions. Hell, Vin wasnít even sure why he had Ezraís red jacket fixed up. He didnít even like the damn thing. But, he reluctantly had to admit, it did fit Ezra and his fancy way of dressing.

JD sent Vin a helpless shrug, then mounted up. Vin took Sireís reins in one hand and walked over to Ezra who hadnít made his way into the saddle yet.

"Here." Vin thrust the package at him.

Ezra reflexively took it and stared at it in puzzlement. "What, pray tell, is this?" he asked in his slow, indolent drawl.

Vin lifted a hand negligently. "I just thought you might like it back."

Ezraís brow creased as he tore open the brown paper. His eyes widened at the sight of his red jacket, and he raised his questioning gaze to Vin.

Vin shrugged embarrassedly. "It was nothiní. There was this lady back in town who was handy with a needle and thread."

"That ainít all she was handy with," Buck Wilmington spoke up, nudging JD with his elbow.

"And how would you know?" JD demanded, then groaned at Buckís upraised eyebrows. "How do you do it?"

"You stick with me, kid, and some of that animal magnetism might just rub off on ya."

JD frowned and muttered, "If it does, Iím takiní a bath."

From atop their horses, Josiah Sanchez and Nathan Jackson grinned at the two menís shenanigans. Chris merely shook his head at the boysí typical banter.

"Thank you, Vin," Ezra said softly, then he grinned and spoke loud enough that the other men could hear. "It seems one of you has been working on improving your social skills."

Vin smiled crookedly. "Does that mean I ainít rude anymore?"

"I wouldnít go so far as to make that supposition, but you are trying, Mr. Tanner."

Ezraís twinkling green eyes belied his words, and Vinís smile grew as he stuck his boot into the stirrup and hauled himself into the saddle. He watched as Ezra tied his red jacket to the back of his saddle, then slowly and still somewhat painfully climbed up onto his horse. Ezra wrapped one arm around his bandaged ribs and grimaced slightly, but he took his reins in hand and urged his horse forward.

Vin slipped into line as they continued on the trail to Tascosa. If they hadnít encountered those mountain lions, they wouldíve been only a day or two from their destination. As it was, they hadnít even gone a fifth of the distance, but Vin accepted the inevitable without regrets. He couldíve gone ahead by himself, but it felt right riding with these six men. With all the situations theyíd run into in the past months since theyíd hooked up, nobody had been killed, and because of that, Vin had come to think that as long as they stayed together, their luck would hold.

After Ezra had recuperated enough to ride, theyíd barely made it over the mountain pass before an early blizzard had hit. Theyíd run into some of it, but fortunately, hadnít been trapped up there. After resting for a few days in a town four thousand feet below the pass, the seven men had set out once more. This time, however, they traveled through a semi-arid area Ė close to a desert but with a scant few more inches of rainfall in a yearís time. Scrub brush and cacti dotted the landscape, along with arroyos and dry washes. It was a harsh land that had no mercy for those who traveled through it. Fortunately, Vin had traversed the area a few times so was familiar with the terrain and knew where to find needed water.

By the time the sun had climbed to its zenith, Vin noticed everyone had removed their jackets. Heíd taken his off earlier, yet his blue shirt still had sweat circles beneath his arms. His scalp itched from the heat, but he resisted the urge to remove his hat Ė it gave him some protection from the sunís rays. He kept a close eye on Ezra, as he knew Nathan and the others were also doing with surreptitious glances. The gambler was healing good from the catís deep claw wounds, but heíd lost a lot of blood and it would take some time before he completely recovered.

Chris pulled up, and the others followed suit. He shaded his eyes against the sunís glare.

"Vin, you got your glass?" he called back.

Vin gave Sireís flanks a light touch with his heels, and joined Chris. He turned in his saddle to dig his spyglass out of his jacket pocket, then telescoped it and aimed it at the speck on the horizon.

"Looks like a single wagon," Vin said. "I donít see anybody around it."

"Indians?" JD asked, youthful excitement in his voice.

"If there are, theyíre probably runaways from the reservation, and not too keen on the white eyes who put them there," Chris said. "Keep a sharp eye out."

No one questioned Chrisís decision to check out the abandoned wagon. It was as if they all knew it was their destiny to seek trouble, and they all accepted the inevitability of fateís hand. He led them across the sandy ground, and the speck grew until they could see it clearly.

They slowed a few hundred feet from the wagon which had three mules hitched to it, with the fourth one obviously missing from its traces.

"What do you think?" Chris asked Vin.

"I think somethinís not right."

Chrisís horse shifted beneath him nervously. "I think youíre right." He withdrew his Colt from his holster, and the other men followed suit.

He led them closer until they were only ten feet away from the end of the large Conestoga wagon. "Hello! Anybody here?" Chris called out.

The wagonís canvas cover stirred and shifted slightly. Chrisís shoulders tightened and he could feel the others tense beside him. Then the slit opening at the rear separated and a rifle barrel made itself known. Seven trigger hammers clicked back.

"What do you want?" a decidedly female voice called out.

Chris frowned and glanced at the others who appeared just as surprised as he felt.

"We saw your wagon and thought you might need some help," Chris spoke up.

He could hear muffled voices from inside, then a "hush".

"How do we know you arenít planning on robbing us?" the same voice asked.

"If weíd have wanted to rob you, we coulda done that by now," Buck replied impatiently.

Chris cast him a scowl, and Buck only shrugged, his dark eyes glittering with annoyance.

"Look, we just stopped by to see if you needed help. Since you donít, weíll be on our way," Chris said.

He eased his horse into a walk and began to move away from the wagon.

"Wait!" the woman hollered.

Chris paused, and the seven men ringed the wagonís end. The rifle barrel disappeared, and a flurry of black skirts replaced it as a woman descended. She turned around to face them and Chris found himself staring into a nunís determined face.

"You say you want to help?" she asked warily.

"If we can, Sister," Chris said respectfully.

"Sister Adrian," she introduced. "We lost our Tennessee stud."

Chrisís mouth about dropped open, but he caught himself at the last moment. He glanced at the others, and almost laughed at Buckís dumbfounded expression. Heíd never seen Buck struck speechless by a woman before. The others looked almost as stunned.

"Your, ah, Tennessee s-stud, Sister?" Buck managed to ask.

"That stallion came all the way from Tennessee, and weíve been entrusted to get it to Tohatchi, where our convent is located," she explained, either ignoring their nonplussed reactions or completely oblivious to them.

Chris suspected the former by the twinkle in her eyes. He judged her to be in her mid-thirties, with spirit and courage enough for a couple men. And Chris found himself warming to her straightforwardness.

"Whatís so special about this horse?" Chris asked.

"Its blood. Comes from a long line of champions. One of the churchís benefactors bought it for us, to begin our own horse breeding ranch at the convent," Sister Adrian replied, her unusual dark gray eyes glowing with excitement. Her expression sobered. "But if we lose that stallion, we may not be able to keep our convent open."

"Sister, can we come out? Itís hot in here and Nutmeg wonít sit still," a girlís voice sounded from within the wagon.

"Excuse me," Sr. Adrian said and yanked open the canvas. "Come on out, girls, and I expect you to purport yourselves like young ladies."

One by one, the girls exited the wagon. Chris watched in astonishment as nine girls ranging in ages four to thirteen descended. All of them wore faded dresses except for the oldest who wore trousers Ė and an attitude.

"Gentleman, Iíd like you to meet my wards," Sr. Adrian began. She pointed to the youngest who held a ragged doll and sucked her thumb. "This is Nutmeg, sheís four. Then thereís Rina, Kristen, Misty, Kerry, Susan, Robbie, Judy, and Cal."

Buck dismounted, then swept his hat off and bowed gallantly. "Ladies, itís a pleasure to make your acquaintance. Iím Buck, the stern-lookiní fellah in black is Chris, the kid is JD, and that thereís Josiah, Vin, Ezra, and Nathan."

A few of the girls curtsied and bobbed their heads, but the one named Cal who wore the trousers only glared at them. The cold ice in her eyes surprised Chris, and he noticed she held her arm stiffly at her side.

"She hurt?" Chris asked, pointing to Cal.

Sr. Adrian nodded. "She tried to stop the men who stole our horse. One of them hit her with his rifle."

"Any of her ribs cracked?" Nathan asked.

"I donít know. She wonít let me examine her."

"Nathan knows quite a bit about doctoriní. Maybe he could look at her," Chris suggested.

"Ainít nobody gonna touch me, especially him!" Cal spat out.

Surprised by the vehemence in her voice, Nathan studied the girl closer. The boyís clothes she wore hung on her frame and most of her brown hair was hidden beneath a stained slouch hat. He gazed into her sparking blue eyes and spied a touch of fear and hatred. What would make such a young girl so embittered and angry?

Suddenly, Ezra began to slip from his saddle, and Buck caught him before he hit the ground. Nathan quickly dismounted and hurried to Buck who knelt in the sand, holding Ezraís shoulders. Nathan laid his ear against Ezraís chest and was rewarded with a strong, but rapid heartbeat. He laid the back of his hand against Ezraís cool, clammy forehead.

"Whatís wrong with him?" Vin demanded.

Nathan glanced up to see the other men surrounding them. "Itís probably just the heat. He still ainít healed good, so the sunís gonna affect him moreín any of us. We need to find a cool place for him to rest."

"You can put him in the back of the wagon. Itís cooler in there out of the sun," Sr. Adrian volunteered.

"Thanks," Nathan said.

He and Buck lifted Ezra into the back of the wagon. One of the girls Ė Nathan thought her name was Misty Ė scrambled up ahead of them and moved some things around and piled a couple blankets for them to lay Ezra on. She placed a pillow behind his head then looked at Nathan.

"Maybe I can help. My pa was a doctor," she said.

He smiled at the girl who appeared to be about twelve. "Could you get me some water while I get my saddlebag?"

She nodded eagerly and slipped out to carry out her task.

"You sit with Ezra. Iíll get your bag," Buck said, his worried gaze on Ezraís pale complexion.

He turned away and jumped out of the wagon.

"Ezra okay?" Chris asked Buck.

"I think so. Nathanís gonna stay with him." Buck moved over to Nathanís horse and retrieved the saddlebag.

Chris clenched his teeth. They shouldnít have pushed so hard. Vin was right Ė Tascosa wasnít going anywhere.

"Iím sure heíll be all right," Sr. Adrian reassured. "Your Nathan will surely take care of him, with a little help from God."

Nutmeg tugged on Sr. Adrianís black skirt. "I gotta go potty, Sister."

"Robbie, honey, could you take Nutmeg?" Sr. Adrian asked with infinite patience.

A blonde girl wearing a patched and faded blue dress with a mismatched bonnet hanging down her back, stepped forward and took Nutmegís hand in hers and led her away.

"I see youíre missing a mule. They steal that, too?" Chris asked.

The nun shook her head. "Sister Katie went after them."

"You mean a nun went after them by herself?" JD demanded in disbelief.

She smiled at him. "You havenít met Sr. Katie. She can handle a rifle better than most men, plus sheís got a distinct advantage."

"Whatís that, maíam?" Vin asked.

"Sheís got God on her side."

Chris frowned in disapproval. "No disrespect Sister, but a man who would steal from women and children wouldnít hesitate to shoot a nun."

"Perhaps, but we couldnít do nothing," Sr. Adrian countered. "Our future depends on that stallion. And remember, God helps those who help themselves."

"He also said Ďthe wicked flee when no man pursueth, but the righteous are bold as a lioní," Josiah quoted.

Sr. Adrian looked up at Josiah in surprise, then her expression changed to humor. "Have you by any chance met Sr. Katie? You sound like you know her."

"No, maíam," Josiah said courteously, "but she sounds like some other righteous I know."

Chris glanced at Josiah, and suspected who he referred to. He gave his attention back to Sr. Adrian. "How long ago did she leave?"

"About two hours ago. They went southwest," the nun replied.

"Would you mind if we left Ezra and Nathan while we go after them?"

"Heavens no. Itís the least we can do."

Buck returned from taking Nathanís medical supplies to him. "Nathan said he and Ezraíd be fine."

Vinís eyes twinkled when he looked at Chris. "Canít imagine how he figured what we were goiní to do."

Chris allowed a slight smile. "Canít imagine. Weíll bring her back, Sister," he assured.

"Donít forget the stud, too," she said.

JD turned to Buck and spoke in a low voice. "I donít think sheís talkiní about you."

"Of course she isnít." Buck leaned close to the younger man, and his eyes danced with mischief. "I ainít from Tennessee."

JD scowled, but Chris sent them both a glare, effectively cutting off any further verbal sparring.

"Letís go," Chris said.

"God be with you," Sr. Adrian called after them, and a few of the young girls waved.

The five men rode away, following the single muleís tracks.

Nathan draped a damp cloth over Ezraís forehead and glanced at Misty who watched with rapt attention.

"He dresses real nice," she commented, admiring his white shirt with ruffled cuffs.

"Ezra does like pretty clothes," Nathan said with a smile.

Misty clasped her hands together and looked at Nathan curiously. "I never knew black people could be doctors."

"Iím not really a doctor, but I know a few things about healiní," he said. "Besides, since the war, we can pretty much be what we want to be. When did your pa die?"

Misty shrugged and a shadow of sadness crossed her innocent face. "Last year. My ma, she died when I was born, so it was just pa and me. Then he died, too."

"Iím sorry, Misty. I lost both my folks, too, so I know how you feel." Nathan paused. "Would you mind sitting with Ezra for a few minutes?"

She shook her head, and animation lit her eyes. "I can do it."

Nathan touched her shoulder lightly. "I know you can. You call me if he wakes up, yíhear?"

She nodded eagerly.

After one last look at Ezra and his young nurse, Nathan slipped out of the wagon. He was met by Sr. Adrian and the other children.

"How is your friend?" Sr. Adrian asked.

"Heíll be fine with a couple daysí rest. He was hurt bad by a mountain cat a couple weeks ago and heís still healiní." He glanced at the three animals standing in front of the wagon. "Would you like me to unhitch your mules?"

"Weíd appreciate your help Ė Nathan, is it?"

Nathan smiled warmly. "Thatís right, Sister."

"Iíll have Cal and Rina help you." She called the two girls and told them what she wanted them to do.

Rina nodded eagerly, and Cal merely glowered.

Nathan moved off toward the mules and Rina ran up to walk beside him, while Cal followed sullenly, holding her arm close to her side.

Nathan slowed and turned to speak gently to Cal, "If you let me take a look at that, I might be able to make it feel better."

"It donít hurt," Cal said stubbornly.

"Youíre awfully strong. I know if Iíd been hit by a rifle, Iíd be hurtiní."

Rina wrinkled her nose. "Cal says she can do anything a boy can, only better."

"Is that so?" Nathan asked, directing his question to Cal.

She stared at him, her blue eyes filled with animosity. "Iím betterín you!"

Again Nathan noticed the fear that darkened her expression and his need to heal made him want to find out what had sickened her spirit so badly. But he also knew he had to move cautiously, like handling a horse that had been beaten and lost its ability to trust.

"I betcha youíre betterín me at unhitching these mules. I never could get the hang of those harnesses," Nathan said lightly.

Surprise lit Calís face for a moment, but it was quickly masked by her characteristic scorn. She moved with startling skill in spite of her injury, and the mules were released from their traces in a matter of a few minutes.

Nathan, Rina, and Cal each took hold of a muleís halter and led them to the wagon, where they tied them to separate lead ropes that they attached to the Conestogaís side.

Cal grimaced painfully as her mule butted her, its head catching her in the side.

"Let me take a look at that, Cal," Nathan urged. "You could have a cracked rib or worse."

Sr. Adrian joined them, and her lips were pressed into a line of worry. "Let him examine you, Cal honey. You wouldnít want to get real sick just because you didnít take care of yourself."

Cal glared at Nathan, but he could see she was weakening.

"You can have Sr. Adrian or one of your friends stay with you while I look it over," Nathan said.

Cal reluctantly nodded. "Rina can stay."

Sr. Adrian cast Nathan a smile of gratitude, then moved away while Nathan, Cal, and Rina stayed on the far side of the wagon. After Rina spent a moment talking with the mules and calming them, she patted each one and joined Nathan and Cal.

"I need you to lift up your shirt so I can see your side," Nathan said, hunkering down beside Cal.

She did so with even more reluctance and Nathan spotted a large bruise covering her side. He touched her ribs lightly to determine if any were broken, and was relieved to find none were. He turned her around so he could check her back, too, and his breath caught in his throat. Long, broad scars crisscrossed her slender back and fury ripped through Nathan.

"What happened to your back?" he asked, forcing his voice to remain even.

She shrugged indolently. "I fell down when I was a kid."

"Some fall," Nathan muttered. He swallowed the block of rage in his throat. "Iím gonna get some bandages and wrap them around that nasty bruise. It shouldnít hurt quite as much then."

Cal grimaced, but remained silent and unmoving. Nathan retrieved a roll of bandages from the wagon, and checked on Ezra. He found Misty was taking her job seriously.

"He talked some, but it just was fever talk," she reported to Nathan.

"Whatíd he say?"

Misty shrugged. "Something about a full house beating three of a kind. Whatíd he mean by that?"

Nathan smiled in amusement. "Youíll have to ask him when he wakes up."

He left the wagon and rejoined Cal and Rina.

"Could you give me a hand here, Rina?" Nathan asked.

She nodded and held Calís shirt out of the way as Nathan wrapped the bandage around the girlís ribs. He tied off the bandage and Rina tugged Calís blouse down over it.

"There you go," Nathan said with a friendly smile, hoping to defuse some of Calís animosity.

Calís jaw muscle clenched, then she whirled around and strode away.

Nathan frowned, watching her flee.

"She donít like most folks," Rina said awkwardly.

He turned and gazed into her blue-gray eyes. "Whyís that?"

Rina shrugged and swept a strand of red hair behind her ear. "She donít talk about things much, but I heard her cryiní in her sleep once. She was begginí someone to stop hittiní her."

Nathan curled his fingers into fists of rage and helplessness. He had suspected as much, but the confirmation of his suspicions didnít make him feel any better. In fact, it made him feel a whole lot worse.

"Well, theyíre still headed east," Vin said, taking his horseís reins from Chrisís hand and remounting.

"You figger out how many?" Buck asked.

"Looks to be four other horses besides the stud," Vin replied. He rested his crossed wrists on the saddlehorn, squinted into the distance, at the wavy mirages arising from the heated desert surface. It was hard to imagine theyíd been in a snowstorm less than a week ago. "There ainít a whole lot this way. Just a flyspeck of a town about thirty, thirty-five miles from here."

"Think thatís where theyíre headed?" Chris asked.

Vin shrugged. "Probably, but hard to say. Whoever took that horse either has a buyer or someoneís payiní them to bring it to him."

"How do ya know somebody didnít just figure it was easy pickinís?" JD asked.

"Not many folks just happen to be crossiní this stretch of desert, JD. Whoever it was knew they had that horse," Chris said and glanced at Vin, who nodded his consensus. "Somebody wanted that horse, and they got it. At least for now."

They continued on, gratified to find the thieves werenít in any big hurry. They continued following them throughout the day and into late afternoon when the men took a break to rest the horses.

Vin pulled his spyglass out of his pocket and searched the terrain painted orange from the descending sun.

"Gotíem," he announced with a half smile. "Looks like theyíre making an early camp."

Chrisís grin didnít bode well for the horse thieves. "This should be like lickiní butter off a knife."

Vin cast a sideways glance at his friend and grinned.

"Do you see that nun whoís trailiní them?" Buck asked.

Vin widened his search and found a mule hidden behind some brush about a hundred feet from their prey. He spotted a dark shadowy figure lying on the ground not far from the mule. Sunlight glinted off a rifle barrel. "Yep, and looks like sheís gettiní ready to make her move."

Buck swore, surprising everyone by the vehemence in his tone, and Vin was glad the nun wasnít in hearing range.

"What in hellís half acre does she think sheís doiní?" Buck demanded.

"Tryiní to get their horse back," JD replied simply, staring at Buck like heíd lost what few wits he possessed.

"Weíd better ride and hope we get there before she does something stupid," Chris muttered.

The five men sprang back into their saddles and sent their horses galloping across the sandy soil. Vinís sharp eyes spotted a ravine nearly hidden by the lengthening shadows, and they swung over to follow its path, the ridge keeping them hidden from sight. As the wash-out began to shallow out, Chris brought them to a halt.

Vin scrambled up the bank, removed his hat and lay on his belly to see where theyíd come out. Chris, Buck, Josiah and JD joined him, and out of the corner of his eye, Vin noticed Buck flip JDís hat off his head.

They were still a hundred yards from the menís temporary camp. Sr. Katie was on the opposite side, even farther from them.

Suddenly Vin spotted the Tennessee stud and his breath caught halfway between his lungs and mouth. "Would ya look at that?"

Chris glanced at him, then followed his gaze. He whistled low. "No wonder they want it back."

"He looks like heís made of pure gold," Vin said, uncharacteristically awestruck.

"I ainít never seen a horse that color before," JD put in.

"Itís called a palomino," Josiah explained. "Iíve seen only a couple of them in my time."

"Geezus," Buck began, "why would anyone let a couple nuns with a bunch of kids travel with a horse like that? Hell, theyíre just beggin to have it stolen."

Chris turned to give Buck a questioning look. "You got a problem, Buck?"

Buck glared at Chris, and the air between the men solidified with tension. "If I did, itís none of your business."

Vin saw a flash of wounded surprise in Chrisís green eyes, then it was gone and only coolness remained.

"Youíre right, it ainít," Chris said curtly.

Vin frowned. Heíd seen the opposite happen between the two old friends Ė Buck had pushed too hard and Chris had set up a wall. But this time Buck had blindsided Chris.

Chris sent his steady gaze back to the thievesí camp. "Thereís not enough cover around for us to sneak up on them. Iíll have to draw their attention so the rest of you can move in behind them.

"Buck, JD, you two crawl around on the left side, Vin, Josiah, you take the right. Once I see you four in place, Iíll ride in and get their attention."

Without a word, the four men nodded and bellied over the embankment. Keeping low, they used the meager brush and few rocks to curtain them from view. Three of the men appeared to be sleeping, while the fourth stood guard. If not for the guard, Chris and the others couldíve slipped in and taken the Tennessee stud without firing a shot. Chris still hoped they wouldnít have to do any shooting.

He swung his attention to the prized stallion and admiration flared within him. The horse was long and lean, and the color of the sun. The proud arch of its neck told Chris he knew he was a champion.

Chris pulled his gaze from the magnificent horse, and searched for his four compadres. He found each of them nearing their positions. He looked in the direction of the nun, and his eyes narrowed at the sight of the dark figure crawling toward the camp.

Swearing under his breath, he pushed himself down the sandy slant, and hauled himself into his saddle. He tugged his broad-brimmed hat on and tightened the chin strap. Urging his horse ahead, he arose out of the gully and headed directly for the enemyís camp.

The guard caught sight of him immediately, but the casual approach of Chris kept him from bringing the rifle to his shoulder. Chris forced himself to remain calm Ė he wasnít alone and his partners were even now covering him.

"Hello the camp," Chris hollered out as he drew closer.

"What díya want?" the guard asked suspiciously.

The three other outlaws rose and stared at Chris, their eyes flat and menacing. Behind them, Chris saw his companions closing the distance between them. He pasted a smile on his face.

"I was just passiní through when I saw your camp. Mind if I set and light for a cup of coffee?" Chris asked, keeping his voice casual.

"Yeah, we mind," the guard, a dark, swarthy man with a scar across one cheek snarled. "Turn around and ride out, mister."

"That ainít very friendly of you," Chris said, and narrowed his eyes. "Might be that you need to be taught some manners."

A couple of the other thieves chuckled, and one of them spoke up, "And I sípose youíre goiní to be the one to do it?"

"Nope, we are!" Buck, with JD beside him, rose from behind a rock, both had their revolvers leveled at the outlaws.

On the other side, Vin and Josiah made themselves known at the same time, and the shocked expressions of the horse thieves was a sight to behold as Chris smiled crookedly.

"Hold it, all of you!"

Sr. Katie approached them, her diminutive figure dwarfed by the Winchester in her steady hands.

"Weíre on your side, Sister," Josiah stated calmly.

"Iím supposed to trust five more men with guns?" she asked, arching an eyebrow. "Iíll put my faith in something a bit more trustworthy."

"God might be busy at the moment," Josiah said.

She smiled without humor. "I was talking about my rifle. Now everyone lay your weapons on the ground."

"Sister, youíre makiní a big mistake," Buck said, his lips thinned in anger. "Let us take care of this and weíll get that horse back to Sister Adrian."

Surprised, Sr. Katie shifted her attention to Buck, giving the outlaws the opening they were looking for. The guard brought his weapon up and fired a shot at Chris.

The bullet sang past Chrisís ear, and his frightened horse reared up, nearly unseating him. Gunshots rang out all around him as he struggled to control his mount. He could barely make out the others diving for cover.

Buck cussed aloud, and wrapped an arm around Sr. Katieís waist, pulling her down behind a rock with him and JD.

"Keep your head down or youíll get it shot off," he ordered.

She stared at him, anger sparking in her blue eyes at his highhanded treatment, but Buck wasnít about to apologize. The fool woman had nearly gotten Chris killed, and still might. Not to mention him and the three other men.

A bullet sent a shower of rock fragments in Buckís face and he quickly ducked behind the stone cover. JD rose and fired off a couple shots, then hunkered back down. Despite the situation, Buck nodded to himself, glad JD was finally learning the intricacies of a well-played gunfight.

"How do you know Sr. Adrian?" the nun demanded.

Buck lifted his head long enough to fire off two rounds at the outlaws. "We run into her and that passel of girls. She told us what happened and we offered to come after you and the prized horse."

She lowered her eyes and her cheeks reddened. "Iím sorry. I didnít realize."

"Thatís right, you didnít!" Buck pressed his lips together as he stuffed cartridges into his revolverís cylinder.

Buck felt JDís puzzled gaze on him, but he wasnít about to explain. Some things werenít open to discussion.

A manís yelp of pain caught Buckís attention and he peeked over the rock to see one of the outlaws had been hit. He glanced toward Chris and was gratified to see heíd dismounted and was using a log as cover. Another holler and another thief fell to the ground, clutching his arm. Buck lifted his Colt and fired, and JD shadowed his action.

The outlaws scurried away, grabbed their horses, and quickly mounted up. One of them tried to nab the studís lead, but Vin managed to scare him away with a few well-placed shots from his sawed-off carbine.

Buck noticed none of the others shot at the backs of the retreating horse thieves, and nodded in approval. He went along with Chrisís policy of never shooting a man in the back unless it was a matter of life or death. Or the bastard just plain deserved it.

"Theyíre gone," Buck muttered. "You can get up now."

Sr. Katie rose and brushed the dust from her black skirt, then adjusted her habit. "Thank you, Mr.ó"

"Buck, just plain Buck."

"Thank you, Mr. Just Plain Buck," she said with a slight smile.

JD chuckled, and a grin tempted Buckís lips, but he held it at bay. He couldnít forget the festering pain that her kind reminded him too keenly of.

"Everyone all right?" Chris called out.

Leave it to Chris to make sure everyone was unhurt. Chris could be dying, but heíd always think of his friends first.

Everyone called out that they were okay, and Chris nodded stolidly, but Buck noticed the relief in his cool gaze.

Chris glanced over at the nun. "How about you, Sister?"

"Iím fine, although I have to apologize for my impetuousness. The Mother Superior is always telling me that I have to learn to control my somewhat impulsive nature," Sr. Katie said with a rueful tone.

Chris swept his gaze across the men. "No harm done."

"Not this time," Buck amended curtly.

Chris shot him a piercing look, but he didnít question Buckís abruptness. He wasnít about to be blindsided again. Vin approached them, leading the golden horse, and the ex-bounty hunterís expression told Chris the palomino had caught his admiring eye more than any woman had since Chris had known him.

"Ainít he a beauty?" Vin commented, running his hand along the horseís quivering withers to soothe the animal.

"Iím surprised heís letting you touch him. Only Rina, Sister Adrian, and myself can usually do that," the nun commented with a furrowed brow. "You must have a gentle hand."

Vinís face flushed and Chris hid a smile behind his hand. Heíd never seen Vin blush before.

"Thatís usually Buckís specialty, Sister," Vin managed to say.

Josiah coughed discreetly. "If we want to make it back to the wagon yet tonight, weíd best be leaving now."

Chris nodded. "JD, go get the sisterís mule."

"I can get it," Sr. Katie objected.

"Thatís all right, maíóah, Sister," JD said, his young face red, then added in his best Buck imitation, "Itíd be my pleasure."

"Thank you." She glanced at each of the men, then smiled wryly. "When I asked God for help, you werenít exactly what I had in mind."

"The Lord does work in mysterious ways," Josiah said.

She laughed. "I guess you could say that. I donít even know your names."

By the time Chris introduced each of the men, JD returned with the mule.

"Here you go, Sister," JD said, touching the brim of his hat as he handed her the reins.

"Thank you, Mr. Dunne," she replied, and glanced at the palomino that seemed to be as enchanted by Vin as Vin was of it. "Since Mr. Tanner seems to have charmed our characteristically aloof stallion, he should be able to lead it back."

JD frowned, and said softly to Buck. "She uses them words like Ezra does."

Buck leaned over to whisper in his ear. "She means that Vinís animal magnetism works on horses, not women."

JDís puzzled frown only grew but Chris, whoíd been standing close enough to overhear the exchange, didnít give Buck a chance to explain. As he and the others mounted up, Chris noticed Josiah gallantly help Sr. Katie onto the muleís back.

They rode away with haste, knowing the outlaws might gather what little courage they possessed and come after them. Vin, leading the Tennessee stud, brought up the rear, and Chris knew he was keeping a close eye on their backtrail. Buck was unusually quiet and rode by himself as JD and Josiah flanked Sr. Katie. Chris wondered what burr had gotten under Buckís hide. Heíd never known Buck to be downright rude to a woman, especially one like a nun.

Chrisís lips thinned to a grim line Ė Buckís ma had raised him Catholic, but Chris knew theyíd never gone to Mass. At the time, he hadnít thought anything of it. Now, however, Chris couldnít help thinking that something mustíve happened to stop them from going. He shook his head, banishing the useless thoughts. It wasnít any of his business Ė Buck had made that crystal clear.

They traveled past dusk and into the evening, their trail lit by a bloated moon hanging low in the night sky. It was after eight oíclock when they finally caught sight of the wagonís silhouette, and Chris breathed a silent sigh of relief. He hadnít expected the thieves to try to steal back the stud right away, but it was good to know there wouldnít be any more gunplay tonight.

"Sister Katie, is that you?" Sr. Adrian called out.

"Itís me," she replied. "And we got the Tennessee stud, too."

Whoops and hollers from the girls sounded, and Vin had trouble keeping the stallion calm. A girl came out of the group and approached the stud slowly, holding out her hand. The horse lowered its muzzle, sniffed the redheadís hand, then nuzzled her shoulder.

"You must be Rina," Vin remarked with a friendly smile.

She glanced up at him, then shyly looked away, and rubbed the stallionís nose. "Thatís right," she murmured. "Howíd you know?"

Vin dismounted and stood beside Rina, hooking his fingers in his gunbelt. "Because Sr. Katie was telling me you have the touch."

She brought her puzzled eyes to his face. "What do you mean?"

"It means you and animals got a special bond. The Indians believe folks who have the gift are very special people."

"Do you have the gift?" Rina asked.

Vin stood and ran his palm along the stallionís neck. "Not like you, but I got a feel for them."

"Goldie donít like a whole lot of people, so you must have the touch, too," Rina said soberly.

Vin studied her smooth face, much too somber for a child her age. He wondered how she ended up with the nuns.

"Goldie Ė thatís a right good name for him," he said with a smile. He looked around to find the others had moved away and were unsaddling their horses on the far side of the wagon. "Think you can take care of Goldie while I take care of Sire?"

Rina brushed her hand across Vinís black. "Sire Ė I like that name."

"Iím sure heís glad to hear that, arenít you, Sire?" Vin drew his hand through his horseís mane. "You need any help?"

"Me and Cal always take care of Goldie," Rina said.

Cal, the trouser clad girl, stepped out of the shadows. "We donít need no help."

"I can see that," Vin said mildly.

He laid a hand on Rinaís shoulder a moment, then walked away, leading Sire. He spotted Nathan talking to Chris who was rubbing down his horse.

"Howís Ezra?" Vin asked.

"Heís doiní fine. Slept most of the day. Misty and Kristen is with him now," Nathan replied.

"He ainít teachiní them how to play poker, is he?" Vin asked suspiciously.

Nathan shrugged. "Could be, but I think they were more interested in his fancy clothes."

"Something tells me these girls havenít had much of anything but heartache in their lives," Chris said.

Nathan nodded. "Theyíre either orphans or their folks abandoned them."

Vin whistled low. "Poor kids. I can feel for them."

"Cal Ė the one who wears the pants Ė got a bad bruise from those fellahs who stole the stallion." He took a deep breath, and his dark eyes were troubled.

"What is it, Nathan?" Chris pressed.

"She got scars on her back," he replied, barely restraining his fury.

"From the nuns?" Vin demanded.

Nathan shook his head. "She didnít join them until a few months ago and them scars are olderín that. Looks like she was whipped."

Vin glanced at Chris who caught his gaze. They both knew about Nathanís past, and his former status as a slave. Nathan had overcome his enmity and used his skills to heal folks no matter what color they were. Cal, however, had a chip as big as Texas on her shoulder.

"Did she say who done it?" Chris asked, his eyes hard and silvery in the moonlight.

"Said she fell down," Nathan answered bitterly.

Vin shook his head in disgust. "Iíd like to take that whip to whoever done it to her."

"Youíll have to stand in line," Nathan said. "They left a scar worse than that whip on the inside." He paused a moment. "You have any trouble with the horse thieves?"

"Nothing we couldnít handle," Chris answered. "Sr. Katie almost ruined it when she came storming into the camp, telliní us weíd all best toss down our guns." He rubbed his jaw, and a hint of a smile curved his lips upward. "For being such a slip of a gal, she has a lot of grit."

Vin unfastened his saddleís cinch. "You think those fellahsíll try to steal him back?"

"Did Top Hat Bob have bad breath?" Chris asked, his eyes twinkling.

Vin snorted, and Nathan grinned.

"I think we ought to escort them down to Tohatchi," Chris stated, then looked at Vin. "I know thatíll take us the opposite direction of Tascosa, but Iím afraid those scum are going to try again and they might do worse than just bruise one of the girls next time."

Vin removed his saddle from Sireís back, and turned to face Chris. "You know I ainít gonna leave these girls alone out here. I figgered on talkiní to you about it, but you beat me to it. Besides," he paused and a small smile teased his lips. "Tascosa ainít goiní nowhere."

Chris eyed his friend a moment, noting the compassion in his hazel eyes. Vin often joked about going to hell, but Chris had an idea the hunter would end up on the other side. His concern for other folks ran deep; sometimes too deep.

"All right. You two talk to the others, make sure itís okay with them, and Iíll tell Sr. Adrian," Chris volunteered.

"Yaíall better get something to eat," Nathan said. "Thereís a big kettle of dumplinís over the fire."

"Sounds good to me," Vin remarked.

The three men walked together toward the camp. Vin and Chris deposited their saddles a few yards from the huddle of men and children. Seeing Ezra seated on the ground with a blanket around his shoulders, Chris and Vin went over to the still-pale gambler.

"Good to see you up and about, Ezra," Chris remarked.

"I would not have recovered so expeditiously if not for my two lovely attendants, Misty and Kristen," Ezra said.

"You ainít been teachiní them--?" Vin asked, deliberately looking at the deck of cards in Ezraís hands.

"Why, Mr. Tanner, how can you even suggest I would corrupt such young ladies of culture and discrimination."

"Then whatíre you doing with those cards?" Chris asked.

"Heís been showing us how to spot a cheater dealing from the bottom of the deck," nine-year-old Kristen interjected.

Vin rolled his eyes heavenward.

"These girls arenít like Olivia," Chris stated. "Besides, theyíre headed for a convent."

"Can I help it if they asked me?" Ezra said innocently.

"No, but you didnít have to answer."

Ezra grinned boyishly. "Iíll remember that for next time."

Knowing Ezra could change his nature as easily as a cat could change its stripes, Chris didnít press the issue. For all of Ezraís faults, he had just as many good qualities Ė most of them heíd discovered only recently. And he had a soft spot in his heart for children.

Chris and Vin walked over to the fire where a girl with blonde hair gilded by the flickering firelight stood. "Would you like some dumplings?" she asked.

"That sounds just fine," Vin said.

She smiled shyly, and turned to scoop some dumplings onto a plate.

"Whatís your name?" Vin asked as he accepted the plate from her outstretched hand.

"Roberta." She wrinkled her nose. "But everyone calls me Robbie."

"Thanks, Robbie," Vin said quietly. He took a spoonful. "Tastes mighty good. You do the cookiní in this outfit?"

She shrugged. "We take turns and I got stuck with it tonight." Robbie handed Chris his plate.

After thanking her, Chris moved off to hunker down at the edge of the group. His gaze roamed across the strange combination of men hardened by the violent life theyíd led and the innocent girls, too young to understand what dangers theyíd be facing in the years ahead.

Josiah had a girl on either side of him as he related some yarn probably from the Bible. Chris recognized the shoulder-length blonde as Kerry, and the somewhat younger one, whose green eyes were like saucers, as Judy. Both girls were entranced by Josiahís low voice and the story he told. Chris knew too well how Josiahís deep, rumbling voice could rise and fall hypnotically Ė heíd been caught more than once in that same web Josiah now spun for the girls.

Nathan sat by Sr. Katie and they seemed to be involved in an earnest conversation, and Chris could bet what it was. Calís situation had hit Nathan hard, and he wouldnít rest until he found a way to get past her defensiveness to the soul below the tough exterior. He suspected Nathan had his work cut out for him.

JD and Buck sat side-by-side and were having some kind of argument. That didnít surprise Chris since it seemed they were always arguing. What did bother Chris was that each man appeared to be truly angry, not the made-up angry that Buck usually used with his protégé. Their voices were low so Chris couldnít hear what they were quarreling about, but he had an idea it had something to do with Buckís strange behavior around Sr. Katie, and to a lesser extent, Sr. Adrian. Heíd have to keep an eye on his oldest friend and make sure he didnít blow up like a keg of dynamite.

A few feet away, Vin had Robbie and the youngest, Nutmeg, perched on either side of him. For a man whoíd never been around kids much, Vin seemed to be handling it pretty well.

Holding her doll in one hand, Nutmeg reached out with her other and touched Vinís long hair. "You got nice soft hair, Mister Vin."

Vin gave her long dark braid a teasing tug. "So do you, little sister."

Nutmeg giggled, and settled herself on Vinís lap. The startled expression on Vinís face nearly brought a chuckle to Chris, but he held it back as he watched the younger man wrap an awkward arm around her waist. Nutmeg only made herself more comfortable, leaning her head against Vinís chest and staring up at him with huge brown eyes.

"You got any sisters?" Robbie asked.

Vin turned his attention to the eleven-year-old. "Nope. It was just me and my ma until she died when I was a little older than Nutmeg here."

"Did you have to go to an orphanage?"

"For a time, but they couldnít keep me. I pretty much lived on my own, with some folks giving me a place to spend the night or feed me when I got so hungry I couldnít take it no more," Vin explained.

Chris listened as attentively as Vinís small audience. Although heíd known Vin for over six months, he knew little about the manís past. Heíd never bothered to pry because Chris understood the value of a manís privacy.

"Did you do bad things?" Nutmeg asked.

Vin smiled ruefully. "Sometimes, but I didnít have no one telliní me right from wrong like you do."

Nutmeg sat up straight. "I get in lots of trouble. Donít I, Robbie?"

Robbie nodded. "Sr. Adrian says youíre incor--, whatís the word?"

"Incorrigible?" Vin guessed.

"Yeah, thatís the one," Robbie said. "What does it mean?"

"Damnó" Vin cleared his throat. "Darned if I know. But Iíd guess it means she gets in lots of trouble."

"Yep, thatís Nutmeg all right," Robbie said. "One time she caught a mouse and put it in Rinaís bed."

"Rina didnít care," Nutmeg exclaimed. "She liked it lots and took care of it until Sr. Adrian made her let it go outside."

"But there was the time you found the cake in the kitchen and we all got in trouble," Robbie added. She looked up at Vin. "It had seven kinds of chocolate in it! It was supposed to be a treat, but we ate it all the night before."

"And we got bellyaches, too," Nutmeg said, then yawned widely and laid her head back down on Vinís chest. Her eyelids drooped.

"She acts like a baby sometimes," Robbie said.

"Do not," Nutmeg objected in a voice heavy with sleep.

Chris glanced away from the bittersweet scene and puffed on a cheroot, trying not to think of the evenings Adam had fallen asleep in his arms, just as Nutmeg was doing in Vinís lap.

Chrisís eyes settled on a girl with curly brown hair that hung in ringlets almost to her waist. Although he wasnít real good at judging a kidís age, he suspected she was probably eleven or twelve, a little older than Adam had been when heíd been killed. Her downtrodden expression yanked at his heart, and he quickly glanced away. He didnít want or need someone elseís misery Ė he had enough of his own to deal with.

Sr. Adrian approached him, and lowered herself to a rock. "I canít thank you and your friends enough for what youíve done, bringing back Sr. Katie, as well as the stallion."

"We only done what anybody else wouldíve," Chris said, uncomfortable with her gratitude.

"No you didnít, but I can tell youíre not the type of man who likes to have his good deeds pointed out. I like that in a person, makes him a lot more trustworthy in my book."

Chris wasnít sure how to respond, so he ignored it. "If you donít mind, weíll ride along with you to Tohatchi."

Sr. Adrian blinked in surprise, then gazed at Chris with eyes the color of the sky before a rainstorm. "You donít have to do that, Chris. Since we know those men are out there, weíll be on our guard. Forewarned is forearmed."

"I donít think thatís in the bible, Sister."

"Itís not Ė itís in my book."

Chris smiled and shook his head. "Youíre not like any nun I ever met."

"And how many have you met?"

"Not many," he admitted. "But you arenít like any ofíem."

She laughed, a full rich sound that made Chris smile.

"Thatís the reason Katie and I were chosen for this mission," Sr. Adrian said. "We both grew up on Texas ranches and know our way around livestock and weapons. If those varmints come back, weíll be ready for them."

"And what if some of the girls get between you and them? You wouldnít want any of them hurt, would you?"

Anguish passed across her face. "Youíre right about that. I was worried enough about Cal when she tried to stop those men the first time." She studied him for a long moment, and he forced himself not to squirm under her discerning gaze. "All right, Chris, I accept your offer with heartfelt appreciation. Besides, God had his reasons for sending you and your friends this way." She glanced around at the strangely peaceful scene. "The girls miss having a father figure. Iím amazed at how fast the girls took to them."

"Looks like it goes both ways," Chris commented, noticing Judy and Kerry sleeping against either side of Josiah, and Nutmeg asleep in Vinís arms.

"What about you? I see you sitting here by yourself watching everyone, but making no attempt to fit in." She narrowed her perceptive eyes. "I have a feeling you werenít always that way."

"Life can take a person down roads they never wanted to travel. I got off on a few of those roads, Sister, and it takes a long time to get back on the right trail."

"If you ask me, youíre already back on it." She patted his arm. "You just have to convince yourself of that."

Sr. Adrian stood and began to gather up the girls to go to bed.

Chris watched Vin carry Nutmeg to the end of the wagon, where Robbie took her from the ex-bounty hunterís arms. Josiah lifted Judy in one arm, and Kerry in the other, and delivered them to the back of the wagon. Sr. Katie smiled her gratitude and led the sleepy girls back into the wagonís bed.

The tall girl whoíd been sitting by herself walked stiffly to the wagon and crawled into it. She glanced back at Chris, and he found himself looking into mirrors of his own green eyes, complete with overpowering sadness and loss. The connection jolted him to his soul and he quickly turned away.

"That was Susan," Sr. Adrian explained softly from behind him. "Her folks and younger brother were murdered. She never talks about it, but I have a feeling she saw everything."

Chrisís gut churned, and his fingers curled into fists.

"Good night, Chris," Sr. Adrian said, and went to the wagon.

"We should post guards," Vin said as he and the others joined Chris.

Chris dropped his cheroot, and ground the stub out with his boot heel. "We should have two on each shift," he said. "Vin and Iíll take first watch, then Nathan and Josiah, then Buck and JD."

"What about me?" Ezra asked indignantly.

"Youíre going to get a good nightís sleep so you donít fall off your horse tomorrow," Chris said, a twinkle in his eye. He sobered. "Youíre still not all healed yet, Ezra, and I wonít let you overdo it and kill yourself."

Ezraís startled expression was all the gratitude Chris needed. Ezra had gotten off to a shaky start with the group, and had nearly gotten them all killed, but heíd returned to rectify his mistake. That in itself told Chris how much courage Ezra possessed, even if the gambler didnít see it in himself. Ezra had turned into a man to ride the river with, and his decision to accompany them to Tascosa had been a welcome, but not totally unexpected surprise.

"Go get some sleep. Weíll have a long day tomorrow," Chris said.

All the men but Buck went to get their bedrolls and spread them by the fire. Vin moved off toward the horses, and Chris suspected heíd be keeping a close eye on the stallion.

"Nathan tells me that weíre goiní to escort these ladies all the way to Tohatchi," Buck began.

Chris nodded calmly. "Thatís right."

"Why?"

"Because those men are going to try again, and this time theyíll have reinforcements with them."

"You donít know that!"

"Whatís your problem, Buck?" Chris demanded, his temper fraying. "Ever since we run into these nuns, you been acting like a rattlesnake on a hot skillet."

Buck threw his arms in the air. "And you been acting like a damned guardian angel. Them nuns knew the risks they were taking when they decided to bring that stallion with them. It ainít our fault theyíre stupid enough to do a fool thing like that."

Chris grabbed a handful of Buckís shirt and gave it a jerk. "You watch your tongue around these women, Buck, or youíll answer to me."

Buck glared at Chris who stared right back at him.

Nathan and Josiah joined them, and pressed themselves between the two snarling tomcats, forcing Chris to relinquish his hold on Buck.

"Iíll stay, but only Ďcause I promised Iíd help clear Vinís name and I aim to stick to that, but donít expect me to be takiní orders from you," Buck said, his eyes piercing Chris.

Buck spun around and stomped away into the darkness.

"Whatís gotten into him?" Josiah asked, gesturing toward Buckís retreat.

Chris shook his head. "I donít know. In all the years Iíve known him, I ainít ever seen him like this before."

"Whateverís eatiní at himís gonna tear him up if he donít get it squared away," Nathan said quietly.

Buck stopped his headlong flight into the moonlit desert and stared out across the desolate flat. Removing his hat, he ran a trembling hand through his thick hair. Why in the hell did they have to run into a couple of nuns? Any other kind of woman he couldíve handled Ė even the little girls who were cuterín buttons Ė but not Sisters of the Church.

Sr. Adrian hadnít been quite as bad, but seeing Sr. Katie had damn near undone him. With her compassionate blue eyes and foolish courage, she reminded him too keenly of his mother. Even though his mother had died in a whorehouse after one of her customers had taken his pleasure in her pain, Buck remembered her as she looked when he was a child. Heíd told JD she was a saint, although nobody but himself saw her that way. The Catholic Church hadnít when heíd requested a funeral Mass. It had been her dying request, and Buck hadnít been able to fulfill it.

He rubbed his eyes, fighting the memories that stole up to haunt him. She always smelled like lilacs in the springtime. Sheíd died when the lilacs were in full bloom and Buck had piled her favorite flower on her grave, hoping it in some way made up for his failure to give her what sheíd truly wanted.

And knowing deep down that it never could.

Ross Calendar slammed his meaty fist on the desk. "I want that horse, do you understand?"

"They were hired guns, Mr. Calendar," the swarthy thief whined.

"I donít give a ratís ass what they are! You round up twenty men and go get that stud."

"What about those gunhands?"

"Bring them here and weíll hang them as horse thieves. Thatíll make folks think twice about crossing Ross Calendar."

The outlaw rubbed his scarred face nervously, then dared to ask. "Why is that horse so important?"

"Itís a racer and I want to breed a whole herd of my own winners. If thereís one thing I like better than a horse race, itís winning a bundle of money from betting on my own horses." He skimmed his palm across his silver hair. "Seems thatís the only challenge around here anymore Ė nobody worth a bucket of spit can beat me at poker."

The hired thief wanted to tell him that was because he cheated better than everybody else, but didnít dare. Heíd already earned enough of Calendarís wrath to last a few years. Besides, he wasnít going to argue with the richest man in the territory.

He nodded. "Weíll get the stud and those five men, Mr. Calendar."

The wealthy manís blue eyes turned ice cold. "If you donít, youíd best not show your ugly face around here again."

The scarred man swallowed convulsively and nodded, then backed out of the opulent room. Scurrying out of the mansion at the edge of the small town, he cursed the five men whoíd made a fool of him. Theyíd pay with a rope around their necks unless they did something stupid and happened to get shot.

Either way, theyíd get their due.

The afternoon sun beat down on Chrisís shoulders as he halted his horse and stood in his stirrups to stretch stiff muscles. He studied the single wagon that followed a quarter of a mile behind him and the horsemen who rode beside it. Squinting, he could make out Sr. Katie and Sr. Adrian on the wagonís bench and one of the girls Ė Chris thought it was Kristen by the color of her red-tinted hair Ė sat between the nuns.

He shook his head at his companions who each had a young girl riding with them. If that dime store novelist Jock Steele could see them now, he would see those hardened gunhands in a whole other light. Of course, Steele would only use it as fodder for another of his made-up stories.

Chris had been scouting ahead most of the morning and had returned only to grab some food while theyíd stopped to make some lunch. With the sun halfway down to the western horizon, Chris decided to go back to the wagon and find out how much further the Sisters wanted to go.

He urged his horse down the ridge, and loped down to join the others. Little Nutmeg with her ever-present doll, sat in the saddle in front of Vin, and hollered a hello to him. He smiled at the girl and tipped his hat, producing a torrent of giggles and making Vin tighten his hold on her so she wouldnít fall off Sireís back.

"See anything?" Vin asked.

Chris shook his head. "Quiet as a church on Monday. Everything okay here?" He deliberately sidled a glance at Buck who rode a little ways ahead of the wagon.

"Heís been all right. Even been giviní some of the kids rides."

"We arenít goats, Mr. Vin," Nutmeg chirped up. "A kid is a goat. Robbie told me so."

"You gettiní me in trouble again?" Robbie called from her place behind JD atop his horse.

"Nope, this time itís me whoís in trouble," Vin spoke up, winking at Chris.

With a grin and a shake of his head, Chris drew his horse up alongside the wagon. "Everything goiní all right, Sisters?"

"Just fine, thank you, Chris," Sr. Adrian replied, holding the mulesí reins like sheíd been doing it most of her life. And probably had.

"What time would you like to make camp?"

Sr. Adrian glanced at Sr. Katie who shrugged.

"A couple more hours maybe," the younger nun replied, and shifted the rifle laying lengthwise in her lap. "We keep going at this pace and we should be in Tohatchi in a couple days."

"As long as we donít have unwelcome visitors." Chris squinted and glanced up at a sky so blue it nearly hurt his eyes. "And as long as the weather holds."

"This is a desert. What kind of weather could we possibly get?" Sr. Katie asked with a quizzical frown.

"Gettiní into flash flood season. If we happen to be passiní through a wash at the wrong time, weíd have big trouble. And we donít want anything to happen to any of them girls."

"Heís right," Sr. Adrian stated solemnly. "Iíve seen a flash flood or two in my day and theyíre more dangerous than a pack of horse thieves."

"Iíll ride ahead and see if I can find a good place to set up camp." Chris touched the brim of his hat, and allowed the wagon to roll ahead of him.

He spotted Susan walking by herself between the rutted wagon tracks, and held his horse steady until she caught up to him.

"You want to ride for a bit?" Chris asked her.

With her gaze aimed at the ground and a bonnet on her head impeding her side vision, she hadnít seen him and stumbled slightly in surprise. "Uh, no, thatís okay, Mr. Chris."

She continued on, and Chris had his horse keep pace with her. "Have you been walking all day?"

"I like walking."

"My feet would get mighty sore," Chris said lightly.

Susan shook her head, her curls swishing across her back. "Iím used to it."

They traveled along in silence for a couple minutes, Chris keeping his horse even with the girl.

"Sr. Adrian was telling me about your family," Chris began.

Susanís shoulders stiffened, and she pressed her lips together.

"Iím sorry," he said awkwardly. "I know how you feel."

She stopped abruptly and spun around to face him, startling his horse who jerked his head up. Susanís green eyes flashed, but they also glistened with moisture. "You canít know! Nobody can know how it feels. Just leave me alone."

She ran ahead of him, her bonnet slipping down her back.

Chris remained motionless. Susan was wrong. He knew exactly how she felt, and maybe that was reason enough to leave her alone.

Evening fell, and camp was made on a slight rise. Chris had chosen the location to keep a better eye out for the thieves who he felt still hadnít given up on their prize. Even if they were able to round up a few more men, Chris doubted theyíd be much of a challenge Ė unless they caught them in an ambush. But the seven men would be watching for them, and Chris was confident theyíd be able to spot a trap.

Supper had been eaten, and everyone gathered around the cheerful fire for one of Josiahís stories, this one about Job and the tests he endured. Even Chris found his attention held by Josiahís storytelling ability.

The girls had once again placed themselves around the men. Rina, whose responsibility it was to care for the stallion, had found a place near Vin as had Robbie. Little Nutmeg had moved over to Josiahís lap and she stared up at him with wide eyes as she listened raptly to the story. Judy was seated next to Josiah, and Kerry had shifted over to JD. Misty and Kristen had staked their claim by Ezra, who didnít seem a bit bothered by their adoring gazes.

Cal and Susan had again placed themselves apart from the group. Susan remained withdrawn, her expression haunting and sorrowful. Cal, however, stared out at the world like she was looking to pick a fight. If sheíd been a boy, Chris had no doubt sheíd already have a gunbelt strapped around her hips.

"So you see, Job never gave up," Josiah concluded. "Even when he lost everything Ė his belongings, his family, and his health Ė he didnít curse God for all the bad things that happened to him."

"Kinda like us," Judy piped up. "We donít have anything either, but we donít get mad at God for what happened."

Susan stood, and her fisted hands were pressed into her skirt folds. "Maybe you donít, but I do! My folks went to Mass every Sunday and prayed, but that didnít stop God from killing them. And I hate Him for taking them!"

She spun around and plunged into the darkness, leaving a thick, awkward silence.

Sr. Adrian arose and began to follow her, but Chris stopped her. "Iíll talk to her. I know what sheís feeling."

The nun studied him a moment, then nodded. "I think you do."

Chris took a deep breath and wonder what devil possessed him to go after the girl. With a resolute step, he went after Susan and followed the sound of her soft cries. She heard him and tried to stop crying, but the sobs turned into hiccups, and her slight shoulders shuddered.

"Leave me alone," Susan said with a tear-husky voice.

"I canít do that," Chris said gently. "I lost my family, too, so you see I do know what youíre feeling."

She turned slowly, and the tear tracks on her cheeks glistened in the moonlight. "Then you know why I hate God."

Chris took a small step closer to her. "You donít hate God. You hate the men who killed your folks and brother."

"But God let them do it! Why didnít he stop them?" Susan demanded.

"I asked the same thing when my wife and little boy were murdered," Chris said softly. "I never got an answer."

"Then you must hate Him, too."

"No, not anymore. Your hate is aimed at the wrong place, Susan. Vicious men killed our families, but God took them up to heaven to wait for us. I have a feeling your folks and brother are sittiní up there and lookiní down at you, and worrying about you. You see, theyíre in a lot better place now."

"Then why couldnít I go with them?" she asked plaintively.

Chris had asked himself the same question a thousand times, and had never come up with a good answer. Until now. "I guess it just wasnít our time. God has something else in mind for us, and itís up to you and me to figure out what that is."

Susan remained motionless for a long moment, then moved toward Chris and wrapped her arms around his waist, burying her face in his chest. "I miss them so much."

Chris swallowed the block of emotion in his throat, and cupped the back of her head with his palm and wrapped his other arm around her back. He could feel her pain as keenly as his own. "I know, Susan. I know," he whispered.

She cried out her grief and sorrow as moisture clouded Chrisís vision. He closed his eyes, wanting to yield to his own anguish, but there was still too much anger inside of him. Maybe someday when his own guilt was purgedÖ.

"Iíd like to check that bruise, Cal," Nathan said gently.

All of the girls had moved to the wagon except Cal, who remained seated by the fire.

"Itís okay," she muttered.

"You should let him take a look at it," Josiah added.

"What do you know, preacher man?" Cal shot back.

"Not as much as I used to," Josiah said softly. "But enough to get by."

Cal appeared startled by his reply, but quickly masked her expression. "You talk real good, but that doesnít mean nothiní. My step pa talked good, too, but heó" She broke off, as if realizing sheíd said too much.

"Was it him who gave you them scars on your back?" Nathan asked.

"It donít matter anymore."

"What happened to him?" Dark foreboding settled in the pit of Nathanís gut.

She shrugged. "Died."

"How?"

Josiah glanced at Nathan, comprehension in his troubled eyes.

"I killed him," Cal admitted defiantly. "And I ainít sorry I did."

"Did he do more than whip you?" Josiah asked gently.

Cal pressed her lips together and stood. "Iím goiní to bed." She glanced at Nathan, and there was a slight easing in her hostile expression. "Iíll have Sr. Adrian check the bruise."

With long, boyish strides, she went to the wagon and climbed into the back end.

"That girlís been through as much heartache as Job ," Josiah said.

Nathan nodded, his stomach muscles tight with rage. "Back before I was freed, I remember some of the girls I grew up with. When they was about Calís age, the masteríd call them to the house. When the girls came back, they were never the same. I didnít know what he done to them, and when I found out I wanted to kill the bastard. Thatís how I feel right now."

"Itís amazing sheís not more scared of us than she is," Josiah commented softly.

Nathan took a deep breath and tried to calm himself, but the submerged memories were rising too quickly. "Iím goiní for a walk."

From the other side of the camp, Buck watched Nathan stride away into the darkness and frowned in puzzlement. "Wonder whatís got Nathan wound up?"

"He was talkiní to Cal. Maybe she said something," JD offered.

"Could be. Sheís the prickliest female I ever run into."

Sr. Katie joined the two men and smiled a greeting. She looked up at the bowl of stars high in the heavens. "Itís too beautiful of an evening to waste it sleeping."

Buck pressed his lips together. If sheíd been anything but a nun, he wouldíve responded with one of his usual flirtations.

"It sure is," JD commented, filling the awkward silence. "What made a woman like you become a nun?"

Sr. Katie laughed, a sound that reminded Buck of musical chimes in the breeze, and he shoved the fanciful thought aside.

"Well, it wasnít one a visitation from an angel or anything that dramatic. It was more like a slow realization."

"What do you mean?" JD asked.

"I was a normal girl, lassoing the boys and trying to outride and outshoot them, until those boys became men, and I started seeing them a whole lot different than Iíd ever looked at them before. When I was eighteen, I was betrothed to the son of a neighboring rancher. I thought I couldnít love anybody more than I loved him." She glanced at Buck, a twinkle in her eyes. "He looked a lot like you, Mr. Wilmington."

Buck shifted his weight from one booted foot to another. Damn, he didnít want to hear this, but he couldnít force himself to move away either.

"The Sunday before I was to be married, I went to Mass with my folks like we always did," Sr. Katie went on. "Every time I stepped into that church, I felt like I had come home. I always figured it was because Iíd attended Mass there for as long as I could remember. Afterwards, I told my mother about it and she looked at me like she was seeing me for the first time and she said, ĎKatie, honey, have you ever thought that maybe God has been telling you that your home is in the Church?í" She paused, her eyes glowing. "At that moment, I realized what God had been trying to tell me all along. I broke off my engagement and entered the convent, and Iíve never regretted my decision."

"You had two good, church-abiding parents, and God figured you were good enough to become a nun," Buck stated, his tone uglier than JD had ever heard it. "What about them folks who didnít have such a nice upbringing? What about a woman who had to sell her body or starve to death? What does God and the Church think about her? Iíll tell you what they think Ė they think sheís a sinner who canít ever go to Mass again because of the sin of survival! And those same so-called holy people like you wonít let her baptize her baby boy that was born because she wasnít careful with one of her customers. So she lives with the guilt and fear that her son will die and go to hell because of her sins." Buck trembled with a rage that had been bottled up for too many years.

"That, Sr. Katie, is why I canít stand you and all the other hypocrites who preach love and compassion, but who donít have any inside of you to give to those who really need it." Buck took a deep, shuddering breath, and closed his eyes a moment, gathering his shredded self-control. "My mother was closer to a saint than youíll ever be!"

Buck spun around and marched away.

Shocked by his outburst, JD could only stare at his retreating back.

Sr. Katie touched his arm gently. "You didnít know?"

JD shook his head and his lips moved but no words came forth. He tried again. "I knew his mother had been a whó" he broke off, embarrassed. "But I never knew she was Catholic."

Sr. Katie brushed her hand across her compassionate face. "I feel for his pain, and know of others like him that carry such a burden. Most sisters and priests arenít like what he described, but Iím afraid he and his mother werenít fortunate enough to have one like them in their parish."

JD swallowed hard, finding it difficult to imagine the usually carefree, cocky Buck so full of rage and tore up inside. Oh, heíd seen Buck mad Ė even a few times really mad Ė but heíd never known him to harbor so much anger toward anyone or anything. Of course, the argument theyíd had earlier had already told JD how bothered he was about something.

"Why donít you go talk to him, JD? I think he needs a friend right now."

"He wonít listen to me. He thinks Iím still a kid," JD said with a scowl.

"Then donít talk. You listen to him," the nun suggested gently.

After a moment, JD nodded. "All right, but if you hear gunshots, youíd best send Nathan."

Sr. Katie smiled slightly. "He wonít hurt you Ė even I can see how much he cares for you."

"Donít know where youíve been lookiní," JD muttered, but moved off to track down Buck.

He found him a few moments later, leaning against a rock with his arms folded across his chest. JD approached him warily.

"I ainít ever seen you act this way, Buck, and it ainít just me. After your words with Chris last night, everyoneís thinkiní youíve gone loco."

"Maybe Iím the only one who ainít loco. You ever think of that, JD?"

Buckís frustrated anger relented at the hurt look in JDís eyes, and the older man took a deep breath. "Look, JD, this has nothiní to do with anyone but me."

JD took a step toward him, his fingers nervously wrapped around his gunbelt. "Then whyíre you takiní it out on Sr. Katie?"

"You stay out of my business, boy, and donít you go guessiní about things that you donít know nothiní about."

JD stared at him a long moment, and his boyish expression transformed to that of a manís understanding. "I thought we were friends, but I guess I was wrong."

A part of Buck wanted to tell JD, but the truth of the matter was he didnít know how to open that wound without spilling too much blood.

"Go get some sleep," Buck muttered not unkindly.

JD was tempted to do so, but Buckís uncharacteristic mood swings alarmed him. Tentatively, he approached Buck and settled against the rock beside him. "I didnít know your ma was Catholic," he began.

Buck shrugged. "It doesnít matter anymore."

"It does to you or you wouldnít be so all-fired up about it."

"Itís in the past, JD, let it go," Buck said wearily.

JD wouldíve liked nothing better than to let it lie, but something told him the man who was like a big brother to him needed to get it off his chest. And JD wanted to help him, even if Buck didnít want his help.

"Maybe I ainít so smart about some things Ė and you donít have any problem pointing out them things Ė but I do know youíre not actiní like the Buck I know."

"And love?" Buck teased.

JD laughed, more in relief at seeing the old Buck. "I ainít one of your female admirers," he said. "You ever go to Mass?"

Buck was silent for a moment, then shook his head. "Ma wanted me to, but I wouldnít go without her. She taught me the beads when I was a kid." He paused. "I havenít touched a rosary since the day she died."

"Why?"

An abiding sadness filled Buckís face. "As Ma lay dyiní, she asked me to have her buried by a priest." He rubbed his eyes. "I tried as hard as I could, JD. I even waved my gun around, but he wouldnít do it Ė said my mother had too many mortal sins on her soul, includiní the sin of not going to Mass." He chuckled without humor. "It was him who wouldnít let her enter the Church."

JD bit the inside of his cheek. He couldnít even imagine someone standing up to Buck like that, especially denying a woman her dying wish. If heíd been in Buckís boots, he wouldíve done more than waved his gun.

"I couldnít give Ma her last wish, JD, and I ainít ever been able to forget that," Buck confessed. "I even tried to get baptized after she died, but couldnít get that neither. Ma lived every day feariní that her only child would go to hell when he died because I was never baptized."

"Maybe you can get baptized at this convent weíre goiní to. Thereís bound to be a priest there, right?" JD suggested enthusiastically. "You could ask Sr. Katie. Iíll be she could get a priest to do it."

"No!" Buck said sharply. "I ainít gonna go down that road again. I failed Ma once, I ainít gonna try for a second time."

"Butó" JD began.

"Let it go, JD," Buck menaced. "I donít want to talk about it anymore. As soon as we get these nuns and those girls delivered to the convent, weíll be on our way and everythingíll be back to normal."

JD ached for his friend. He knew when Buckís back was against the wall and this was one of those times. If nothing else, heíd learned how far he could push Buck without getting pushed back. Of course, maybe he had to get pushed around some for Buckís sake.

"You donít know that," JD said.

Buck shoved away from the rock and turned to glare down into the shorter manís eyes. "If you donít shut up, JD, youíre gonna regret it."

"Butó"

"Thatís it, JD!"

Suddenly a gunshot, then a few more broke the nightís silence, and their argument was laid aside. JD and Buck ran toward the camp and stumbled into a beehive of activity. More shots sounded and Buck stumbled, falling to the ground. JD knelt beside him protectively and held up his revolver, trying to find a target amidst the army of men that circled them.

"Drop it, boy!" a man hollered out.

JD frantically searched for his companions and found Chris hunkering down beside a fallen Vin, and Josiah standing above them. Ezra and Nathan were nowhere in sight.

"Do like he says, JD," Chris called out. "Theyíll shoot you dead if you donít."

JD could hear the pure rage in Chrisís tone and knew they had to be far outnumbered for Chris to be surrendering when he was in that mood. He tossed aside his weapon, and a couple strangers came forward to jerk him and Buck to their feet. Buck groaned and JD saw the blood stain on his leg, above the knee.

They were unceremoniously ushered toward the other men. JD noticed the nuns and girls for the first time. They were dressed in their nightgowns although a few had had enough sense to grab a blanket and the girls huddled close to share the warmth. Their round eyes told JD how frightened they were, and he empathized with them. He wasnít brimming with courage at the moment either, but no one was going to know that by looking at him. If heíd learned one thing from his friends, it was that only a foolish man wasnít scared; the brave man is the one who feels fear but keeps it inside.

The men shoved him and Buck, and JD caught Buck before he slipped to the ground. He bowed under the bigger manís weight, and was relieved when Josiah lent his support. He glanced at Chris who was still on the ground beside Vinís still body.

"Is heó" JD couldnít finish his question.

Chris shook his head. "Bullet grazed his head. Heís unconscious and itís bleediní a lot."

JD clenched his teeth, knowing how tricky head wounds were. By the anxious look on Chrisís face, he knew it, too.

"Buck?" Chris asked.

"Iím okay, but I ainít gonna be winniní any footraces for a while," Buck replied with a pain-roughened voice.

JD turned his attention to their captors and recognized a couple of the men from the four thieves whoíd stolen the stallion originally. Theyíd obviously been intimidated enough to get a small army to steal the stud back.

"Saddle up your horses. Youíre going with us," the leader of the gang ordered.

"We got two injured men here. Canít we leave them?" Chris asked.

The outlaw nearest Chris swung his rifle stock into Chrisís face, knocking him to the ground. JD tensed, but Buck tightened his hold on him.

"Wait for an openiní, JD," Buck said hoarsely.

Chris rose, shaking his head like a dog that had been kicked by a mule.

"I said, get five horses saddled up," the leader ordered.

Josiah and JD settled Buck on the ground beside Vin, then helped Chris to his feet. As the three men got the horses saddled, Sr. Adrian came forward with a few strips sheíd torn from a blanket. One of the thieves blocked her from getting too close to Buck and Vin.

"Their wounds should be attended to," Sr. Adrian said indignantly.

"Where theyíre goiní, it donít matter," the outlaw stated in a gravelly voice.

Sr. Adrian thrust the crude bandages at the thief. "At least give them these to wrap around the wounds."

He stared at her a minute, then shrugged and snatched them from her hand. "Get back over there with the others."

Sr. Adrian did as he ordered, and he tossed the strips of cloth at Buck. "Here, use them if you want."

Buck glared at him, but reached for the strips and set to work wrapping one about Vinís forehead. Vin groaned as Buck knotted the bandage at the back of his head.

"Itís okay, Vin. Iím just gettiní you fixed up," Buck said softly.

Then Buck took care of his own bullet wound, hissing in pain when he tied the bandage tightly.

Chris, Josiah, and JD led their horses, as well as Buckís gray and Vinís blaze-faced black, over to the two injured men. Two of the outlaws grabbed Vin roughly.

Nutmeg broke away from the other girls and with tiny fists, punched the thieves whoíd hauled Vin to his feet . "You bad men hurt Mr. Vin. Let him go!"

One of the men raised his hand as if to hit her and Sr. Katie hurried over and grabbed Nutmeg, pushing her behind her skirt. The two outlaws eyed the nun with a lecherous look that caused JD to cringe. Sr. Katie merely met their gazes with a defiant tilt of her chin and a steady stare. The two men looked away first, and Sr. Katie tugged Nutmeg back to the group.

The outlaws lifted Vin into the saddle, then tied his wrists to the saddlehorn. Josiah helped Buck onto his horseís back, then climbed up into his big Mexican saddle. Once everyone had mounted up and had their wrists tied to the saddlehorns, the outlaws rounded up their own horses.

JD pulled at his rope, but the man whoíd bound him had done his job well. The knot didnít give at all. He nudged his horseís flanks and moved closer to Buck whose face was wreathed in sweat in spite of the cool air.

"Donít look so worried, kid. We got a couple aces in the hole," Buck said in a low voice.

JD nodded. He glanced around, hoping to spot Ezra or Nathan but neither man was in sight. It was a miracle they hadnít been caught, too. Of course, the horse thieves hadnít known about them since only Chris, Vin, Josiah, Buck, and himself had gotten the stallion back.

"Where are you taking them?" Sr. Adrian demanded.

"Weíre going to show folks how Ross Calendar takes care of horse thieves," the outlaw leader replied.

"Youíre going to hang them?" Sr. Katie asked, her face pale.

"Thatís right, Sister." The outlaw sneered. "A fitting end, donít ya think?"

"But that horse is ours. We have a bill of sale," Sr. Adrian argued.

"So does Mr. Calendar."

"Forged by the best, Iím sure," Chris said dryly.

"I wouldnít know about that, mister," the grizzled thief said. "But if you know whatís good for you, youíll keep that big mouth of yours shut, or I may just use a bullet instead of a noose."

Chris narrowed his eyes, and JD shivered at the cold stare he gave the outlaw.

"Have a good evening, ladies," the outlaw leader said with mocking gallantry. "And if youíre in Ruthville day after tomorrow, you can have front row seats for the hangings."

If looks could kill, Sr. Katie and Sr. Adrian wouldíve mortally wounded the outlaw.

He swung his horse around and the others followed, keeping Chris, Vin, Josiah, Buck and JD surrounded so they wouldnít attempt an escape. However, JD wouldnít even have tried if heíd seen an opening Ė Buck and Vin wouldnít be able to make it, and JD wasnít about to leave them behind. And he knew Chris and Josiah felt the same way.

Theyíd have to wait for Ezra and Nathan to make their move. JD only hoped theyíd be in time Ė being hung as a horse thief wasnít one of those experiences JD yearned to experience in the uncivilized frontier.

Ezra moved out of the brush heíd been hiding behind, and spotted Nathan approaching the camp from the opposite side. Ezra trembled from the unspent adrenaline coursing through his veins. The scene heíd just witnessed brought back too many memories of the one and only time heíd abandoned his friends. This time, however, he had wanted to plunge right in, save Chris and the others, but the odds had been stacked against him. He didnít have to be a gambler to know one man against twenty wouldíve been suicide. Still, he felt like a coward for hiding while the others had been tied and led away like cattle to the slaughter.

"Ezra," Nathan called out, and hurried toward him. "You okay?"

Ezra nodded, his fancy words seeming trite in the face of their situation.

The nuns and girls gathered around the two men.

"Thank the Lord you two were spared," Sr. Adrian said. "Itís a good thing those outlaws didnít know about you or they wouldíve turned the camp upside down."

"Whatíre we going to do? Theyíre going to hang Mr. Chris and the others," Susan said, tears staining her cheeks in the faint light. Ezra felt a tightening in his chest at the girlís obvious distress.

"And they hurt Mr. Buck and Mr. Vin," Judy piped up.

"Those men were bad!" Nutmeg exclaimed.

"I couldnít have said it better myself," Ezra drawled, laying a hand on Nutmegís slight shoulder. He looked at Nathan. "We have to go after them."

Nathan nodded.

"Weíre going with you," Sr. Katie stated, lifting her chin stubbornly. "Itís our fault your friends are in danger."

"No offense, Sister," Ezra began, "but how can yaíall be of assistance?"

Sr. Adrian narrowed her eyes. "You might be surprised, Ezra. We may be nuns now, but we could shoot a rifle by the age of seven, as well as ride with the best. Besides, two men against that army is not very good odds."

"Sheís right, Ezra," Nathan said. "Fact is, weíre going to need all the help we can get."

Ezra nodded reluctantly. "All right, but weíd best be moving out right away. If I heard correctly, theyíre going to hang them day after tomorrow which doesnít leave us much time."

"Whatíll we do when we get there?" Robbie asked quietly.

"That, Robbie, is a very good question, and once we get there, I hope to have an answer for you," Ezra replied.

"Okay, girls, letís get to work," Sr. Adrian called out. "Cal, Rina, get the mules hitched up. The rest of you get everything stowed in the wagon."

The girls quickly went to work, leaving Ezra and Nathan alone.

"You think we can save them?" Ezra asked softly.

Nathan shook his head, his dark eyes somber and worried. "I donít know. I think we might need one of them miracles this time."

Ezraís stomach twisted into a knot. "I hope the Lord sees fit to overlook my past transgressions, and gives us that miracle we require."

Nathan and Ezraís gazes met and held for a long moment, each one knowing miracles were few and far between, but hoping the nuns would give them the advantage they needed.

Buck shifted his position on the dirt-packed floor of the cell, and groaned at the pain that arrowed up his wounded leg.

"You okay, Buck?" JD asked quietly in the pre-dawn darkness of their prison.

"Donít you be worryiní about me, kid. Iíll be just fine," Buck managed to say in an even voice.

Buck was sitting up, his back against the dank brick wall of the cell, and JD sat next to him, their shoulders touching. A couple feet from JD Josiah lay sleeping, his soft snores strangely comforting. On the other side of Buck lay Vin, whoíd regained consciousness only a few minutes in the twenty-four hours since theyíd been unceremoniously dumped in the fetid blockhouse. Chris sat on the other side of Vin, and by the rhythm of his breathing, Buck knew he was awake. In fact, Buck would be surprised if Chris had slept at all since their capture.

He knew how worried Chris was about Vin and himself with the leg wound Ė the fact that Chrisís cheekbone had swelled and turned a sickly shade of purplish blue didnít trouble Chris in the least. It was his friends he was concerned about. And the fact that if they didnít escape in the next twelve hours, theyíd be dangling at the end of a rope when the sun set that night.

Buck swallowed hard, remembering the vicious words heíd hurled at his oldest friend. Now that they were facing death, their argument seemed unimportant. He looked toward Chris and picked out his dim form. "I owe you an apology, Chris," Buck said quietly.

Chrisís head turned slightly. "What for?"

"For them things I said to you a few nights ago." Buck scrubbed his grizzled face with his palms. "Seeiní them nuns brought back a whole wagonload of memories, most of them bad, and I took it out on you."

"Donít worry about it," Chris said off-handedly. "Ainít a man alive whoís said things he didnít mean."

"Maybe, but I didnít want to face my Maker without gettiní that off my chest."

He and Chris stared at each other, the apology accepted and the words forgotten in that brief communion of gazes.

Vin moaned, and Chris laid his hand on the younger manís shoulder. "Itís all right, Vin. Everythingís just fine."

Buck squeezed his eyes shut. Vin had bled plenty from the head wound, and they were all scared that the bullet had plowed too deeply into his brow, maybe cracking his skull. The few minutes heíd been awake had only unsettled them further Ė heíd ranted and raved about rats and death and some massacre. It hadnít made a whole lot of sense to Buck, but he didnít know Vin that well. Fact was, nobody knew Vin that well, but that didnít matter a whit. The only thing that really mattered is they knew he was a good man by his actions. In the western frontier, that was pretty much the highest compliment a body could pay to another.

Buck opened his eyes to see Chris trying to get Vin to drink some water the guards had left behind. The liquid dribbled out a corner of Vinís mouth, and Chrisís hand closed into a fist.

"Take it easy, pard," Buck soothed in a low voice.

Chris rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. "I feel so damned helpless, Buck," he said hoarsely. "There has to be something I can do."

"Not unless you got some way to overpower ten armed guards."

"I been watching them," JD said. "And ainít a one of them fell asleep."

"Even if they did, we couldnít do much with the door locked," Buck said.

Chris pushed himself to his feet in one fluid motion and paced the small square of open floor. "The whole damn town canít be loyal to Ross Calendar! Thereís got to be somebody who might help us."

Josiah awakened and sat up, his back against the wall. "Calendar is smart enough to make folks believe heís a real philanthropist," he said. "That way nobody will turn against him."

"What about Ezra and Nathan?" JD asked in a hushed voice. "They ainít gonna give up on us."

"As good as they are, theyíre no match against twenty guns," Chris said.

"Sr. Adrian and Sr. Katie arenít going to sit still while Ezra and Nathan work on a plan," Josiah said with a slight smile.

Buck scowled. "They better not get anywhere near here or Calendarís meníll shootíem down, nuns or not."

Vin began to thrash about on the floor, and Chris knelt beside him, taking hold of his upper arms. Vinís compact body contained muscles earned by honest labor and Chris had to struggle to restrain him.

Vin fought against the hands that held him. He wouldnít go back to the orphanage where he was punished for making a pet out of a squirrel or going outside after dark to search for his mother among the stars in the heavens. His mother had told him to remember he was a Tanner, and he always would no matter how long Mr. Jenkins locked him in the cellar.

With a surge of strength, Vin pushed away from his captor and his eyes flew open. Pain exploded in his head and he stared at the men who looked back at him.

One of them laid a hand on his arm, and leaned close to him. "Itís okay, Vin. Weíre your friends."

Slowly, recognition seeped into Vin, and he slumped forward into Chrisís arms. He closed his eyes a moment, gathering what little strength he possessed to battle the weakness that made him want to slip back into his world where there was no pain. Chris helped him to a sitting position, bracing his back against a wall.

"Thanks," Vin managed to say past the drums that pounded through his skull.

"Want a drink?" Chris asked.

Vin began to nod, thought better of it, and said, "Yeah."

Chris poured some water into a tin cup then handed it to him. He drank the contents and Chris took the cup back from him. Vin raised his hand and tentatively touched his wound, then hissed through gritted teeth. "Damn, what the hell happened?"

"You were shot," Chris replied simply.

Vin sought to recall what had happened after heíd gone to check on the stallion that night. "The horse thieves?"

"Yep. Only this time they got us and the stud."

Vin bit back the cuss words that sprang to his lips. "You were right Ė they didnít give up." He rested the back of his head against the wall, and closed his eyes. "How long I been out?"

"Over twenty-four hours," Chris replied.

Vinís eyes flew open once more, and he focused on the men around him, noting that Buck had been injured, too. He also noticed Ezra and Nathan werenít there, which sent a shaft of fear through him. "What about Ezra and Nathan?"

"Theyíre still out there. The outlaws didnít know about them," Josiah answered.

Relief flooded through Vin. "So, whatís gonna happen to us?"

"Weíre gonna be the evening entertainment," Buck said dryly. "Theyíre hanginí us before sundown."

Vin was silent for a long moment. They hadnít even made it to Tascosa and here he was facing a hangmanís noose. "We got a plan?"

"Not yet," Chris replied. "But you can bet Ezra and Nathan ainít sittiní around twiddliní their thumbs."

Although the night was cool, Ezra removed his green jacket, handing it to Kristen, then glanced at Misty who looked dwarfed by his red coat that she wore over her shoulders. "I am entrusting you both with the care of these until I return Ė a most important mission."

Kristen accepted the coat reverently. "Iíll take care of it, Mr. Ezra."

"Me, too," Misty stated.

"I have the utmost confidence in you both," he said with a smile.

"I canít get my hair to stay inside," Susan murmured as she attempted to stuff her long, curly hair in the nunís uniform.

Sr. Katie, wearing a pair of Calís trousers, helped Susan finish with her masquerade.

"I hope the Lord forgives us for our slight fib," Sr. Katie remarked.

"Itís for a good cause, Sister," Nathan said. "Since the men who stole the stallion will be lookiní for a couple nuns, weíd best have two for them to see."

"A slight prevarication is the least of our worries, Sister," Ezra said. "In order for our stratagem to work, I must have something to wager, and that means we have to get the stallion back."

"Are you sure you can beat him at poker?" Sr. Adrian asked, concern furrowing her brow.

Ezra smiled, revealing his gold tooth. "That Sr. Adrian, is like asking Shakespeare if he can create a sonnet."

"Pride goeth before a fall, too," Nathan murmured.

Ezra arched an eyebrow. "Pride is of little consequence; itís confidence in my God-given gifts."

Nathan snorted, but didnít comment further.

Sr. Adrianís eyes twinkled, then sobered. "I wish I was going with you."

"You have to stay here with the girls in case someone comes lookiní around," Nathan said. "Ruthville is only a few miles away and Calendarís men are probably watchiní for you. With Susan dressed in Sr. Katieís habit, theyíll see two nuns, and we just have to hope they didnít count the girls." He glanced at Cal and Rina who would go with him, Ezra, and Sr. Katie to steal back the stallion. "Iím not sure this is such a good idea, but I ainít got a better one."

"We can handle Goldie so he donít get scared," Cal said.

Nathan smiled slightly at Calís willingness to help. "You and Rina be real careful. Anyone sees you two near the horse, theyíre gonna shoot first and ask questions later."

Cal met his gaze with an expression that bordered on friendliness. "Donít you be worryiní about us, Mr. Nathan. You look out for yourselves."

"Weíd better ride so we can get in and out before the sun rises," Sr. Katie said.

Sr. Katie and the two girls rode mules, while Ezra and Nathan rode ahead of them on their own horses.

"It mightíve been easier to break Chris and the others out," Nathan said to Ezra.

Ezra shook his head, uncharacteristic somberness clouding his face. He and Nathan had spent the late afternoon scouting out the town and learning as much as they could about Ross Calendar, and where Chris and the others were being held. "They have too many guards around the facility. And with Buck and Vin wounded, the chance of successfully extricating them isnít favorable."

"Buckís leg wound didnít look serious, unless it gets infected." Nathan took a deep breath. "Vin didnít look too good, though."

Neither man spoke aloud their fears that Vin might already be dead.

They rode in silence and drew to a stop a few hundred yards from Calendarís barn where the stallion was kept. Pale shadows moved across the ground, produced by a breeze that rustled the bushes and sighed through the nightís stillness. They dismounted and huddled close.

"Rina, you and Sr. Katie will be with me. Cal, you will accompany Nathan," Ezra instructed in a low voice. "Keep low and quiet and move around the side of the barn. Once we get inside, Rina and Cal will get Goldie while Sr. Katie, Nathan, and I keep a sharp eye out for visitors." His gaze captured the eyes of the three females. "Do not attempt to be a heroine. If it appears that we will be unable to complete our mission, you will get back here as quickly as you can and ride out."

"What if you or Mr. Nathanís hurt?" Rina asked softly.

"Youíll leave us. Your safety is the most important issue, as Iím certain Sr. Katie will agree." He glanced at the nun, and she nodded reluctantly. "All right. Letís proceed."

Ezra, Sr. Katie, and Rina moved out as quietly as they could.

Nathan glanced at Cal, and she nodded, then he led the way toward the barn. They moved swiftly and soundlessly. Every ten yards, Nathan checked to make sure Ezra and his companions were doing all right, and to ensure Cal was close behind him. A coyote howled in the distance, and another echoed the call from a ridge further away. A bush rustled, and Nathan halted abruptly. Cal bumped against his back, and followed his gaze.

"See anything?" she asked in a nearly inaudible voice.

"A squirrelís all."

Nathan heard her sigh in relief, and they continued on. Arriving at the corner of the barn, he paused to see Ezra, Sr. Katie, and Rina at the opposite corner. Keeping their backs against the side of the barn, Nathan and Cal sneaked around to the front of the building.

A horse snorted from inside the barn, and Nathan heard a manís muffled voice, then an answering one. There were at least two men inside keeping guard on the stallion. It didnít surprise Nathan Ė he and Ezra had suspected as much. It only made their task a bit more difficult.

He spotted Ezra approaching the front door from the other side and, using hand signals, told him there were guards inside. Stymied for a moment, Nathan spied a rope on a pulley used to lift hay into the upper level of the barn. He pointed to it and Ezra nodded in comprehension.

"Wait here," Nathan whispered, close to Calís ear. "Iím goiní to climb up and take care of the guards."

Her blue eyes wide, Cal nodded.

Ezra met Nathan at the rope.

"Iíll go up and get the drop on them. You come inside when you hear me holler," Nathan explained to Ezra.

"Iíll go with you."

Nathan shook his head. "You ainít strong enough to climb a rope yet."

Ezra couldnít deny it, but his expression told Nathan he didnít like it.

Nathan quickly shimmied up the rope and swung into the open door. He waved down at Ezra to let him know he was okay, then moved carefully across the hay-littered floor. At the ladder leading down, he paused and let his eyes adjust to the lamplight. Fortunately, there were only two guards and both of them appeared to be tired. One leaned against the stallís gate, his chin touching his chest as if sleeping. The other sat on an overturned bucket, his elbow plopped on his thigh and his head resting in his palm.

Surprise was on his side, and he considered his chance of jumping to the ground below without breaking a bone. Not good. Heíd have to get the drop on them from the high ground and hope they didnít try anything stupid.

Nathan raised his revolver, and held a knife in his other, ready to let it fly if one of the men did try something stupid. "Raise your hands!" he called down.

The two men awakened instantly and one of them went for his weapon. The next moment, he was clasping his forearm where Nathanís knife had embedded itself.

The door to the barn flew open and Ezra entered, covering the men so Nathan could climb down the ladder.

Sr. Katie and Cal found some rope, and quickly trussed up the two men, while Nathan and Ezra held the outlaws at gunpoint. Using the menís own bandannas, they gagged them so they couldnít holler out to their friends.

Rina approached Goldie slowly, and the stallion greeted her with a soft nuzzle to her neck. She untied his lead rope from the stall, and opened the gate to lead the palomino out.

"That went quite satisfactorily," Ezra commented with a twinkle in his green eyes.

"Weíre not out of this yet," Nathan said cautiously. "Letís go."

With Rina and Cal on either side of the stallion, the group hurried out of the barn with as much haste as they dared. The sky was beginning to lighten as they made their way back to their horses and mules. In a few minutes, they were hurrying down the road, the prized stud in their possession once more.

The approach of footsteps alerted Chris to the arrival of company. He glanced out the small barred window at the early morning and wondered what brought them so early. His blood ran cold. Had they decided to hang them in the morning rather than the evening?

A key turned in the lock and the thick wooden door swung open. Ross Calendar himself stood in the doorway, his impressive girth filling the opening.

"Where the hell is he?" the man demanded.

"Where the hell is who?" Chris asked mildly.

Calendar strode into the cell, and four men stood close behind him, their weapons in hand. "The stud."

Chris laughed. "So somebody beat you at your own game. Thatís right nice to hear."

Calendar drew his boot back and kicked Chrisís side viciously. Chris grimaced but didnít give the bastard the satisfaction of hearing him cry out.

"I want that stallion back," Calendar roared.

"Youíre either as dumb as you look or just plain stupid Ė how could we have stolen it when we been in here the whole time?" Buck asked.

Calendar advanced on Buck, and his gaze flickered to his injured leg. Without warning, he kicked the wound. Intense pain flowed through Buck, and nausea gripped his gut, threatening what little contents were in his stomach.

JD jumped to his feet, his fingers curled into fists. "Leave him alone," he stated, his deadly tone at odds with his boyish face.

Calendar dipped his head, and two of his cronies came forth to grab JDís arms. Calendar grabbed a handful of his dark hair and jerked his head back, then brought his face inches from JDís. "Tell me where he is!"

JD swallowed, his adamís apple bobbing up and down, but his voice was scornful. "How would I know?"

Calendar crashed his fist into JDís middle, and JD nearly buckled. He struggled for air that wasnít there, then gasped when oxygen finally found its way back into his lungs.

Chris surged to his feet, ignoring his throbbing side. "Leave him be, Calendar. How would we know what happened to Ďyourí horse?"

Calendarís narrow-set eyes pierced Chris, but he didnít back down from the pig-like manís intimidation. Finally, Calendar nodded and the two men released JD who fell to his knees beside Buck. "If I find out youíve been lying, Iíll have you whipped," Calendar stated. "Right before I hang you."

Then he whirled around and stomped out of the cell, his entourage following closely behind. They waited until they could no longer hear the men.

"It appears Nathan and Ezra have been busy," Josiah said in a low voice.

Chris nodded, wrapping an arm around his throbbing ribs. "You okay, Buck, JD?"

"Fine," JD managed to say.

Buck merely nodded as he continued to fight the demons that had been awakened in his wound.

"Wonder what Ezra and Nathan got in mind?" Vin asked, his voice raw.

"Hard to say, but I suspect weíd best be ready to travel when they make their move," Chris said.

He knelt beside Buck whose eyes were tightly shut, and checked his leg wound. New blood stained the dirty bandage, and he cursed.

"Canít keep your mouth shut for a minute, can you?" Chris asked, his anger colored with concern.

"You know me too well, pard," Buck admitted with a slight smile, but his eyes remained closed.

His dark mustache contrasted sharply with his faceís pallor, and Chris added another mark against Ross Calendar. The man had a lot to answer for, and Chris would make sure he did, even if he had to do it from the grave.

He glanced up at JD whose anger and worry for Buck was clearly reflected in his dark eyes. For a moment, the past merged with the present and Chris saw himself in Buck, and Buck in JD. Where the hell had the years gone? And where was the man he used to be?

Ross Calendar wasnít a happy man. To have his stallion stolen twice was about more than he could tolerate. If he didnít need the men so badly, he wouldíve had the two guards whoíd allowed the stud to be taken shot. Instead, heíd sent them out with the search party that combed the area looking for the palomino. All but five of his men were out searching now, and he expected to have the animal back by the time he hung the men in his jail.

A man entered the restaurant, glanced around, spotted Calendar and hurried over to him. "Thereís a fellah in the saloon whoís lookiní for ya."

"Who is it?"

"Ezra Smith Ė fancy gambler type."

Calendar frowned in puzzlement. "He say how he knew me?"

"Nope. Just said heíd heard that Ross Calendar liked a challenge and said he was the man to give it to you."

His curiosity piqued, Calendar tossed his napkin down on the restaurantís table and stood. Maybe a poker game would do him good Ė get his mind off the horse for a time. He left the restaurant and followed the messenger to the Silver Lady saloon. He paused inside the door of the nearly empty establishment. Clean-shaven and wearing a red coat with a ruffled snow white shirt beneath it, Ezra Smith appeared every inch a professional gambler. A wave of excitement coursed through Calendar Ė now there was a man who would be a worthy opponent.

Calendar approached the table, and Smith glanced up. He rose, smiling a too-charming smile. "Mr. Calendar, I presume?"

The cardsharpís southern accent added a note of authenticity to the gambler, and Calendar stuck out his hand. "And youíre Ezra Smith."

Ezra took the manís offered hand. "Your reputation precedes you, Mr. Calendar."

The manís chest puffed out so much Ezra thought heíd pop his shirt buttons. "I am known to enjoy a game of chance, Mr. Smith."

"Call me Ezra," he said, using his disarming smile to cover his enmity. "I thought perchance you would be willing to pit your abilities against my own."

"You have money?"

Ezra lifted a roll of money from his jacket pocket. "What about you, Mr. Calendar?"

"I own this town and everybody in it," Calendar responded without hesitation.

"Then perhaps I shall be able to relieve you of that burden and take it upon myself if you see fit to wager your fair town."

Calendar chuckled. "I like you, Mr. Smith. You remind me of me."

Ezra didnít find that comforting, and reminded himself this was just another con, albeit the stakes higher than anything heíd ever played for before. If he lost, Chris, Vin, Josiah, JD, and Buck would pay with their lives. He forced the sobering thought from his mind to concentrate on the game at hand.

The two men sat down and Ezra offered Calendar the card deck. "Be my guest."

Calendar tipped his head in acknowledgment, and shuffled the cards, then dealt them. "Limits?" he asked.

"I prefer to play without such impediments. It makes the game more stimulating."

Ezra tossed a twenty dollar bill into the tableís middle, and the game began in earnest. The first hand was won by Ezra, the second and third by Calendar. They continued back and forth throughout the afternoon, neither man winning nor losing all the time.

The sun slanted in the batwing saloon doors, telling Ezra time was growing short. From the information theyíd gathered, the hanging would happen soon.

"I have a proposition to make, Mr. Calendar," Ezra began. "That is if you are interested in upping the ante."

"What do you have in mind?"

"It has come to my attention that you have some horse thieves you will be hanging this evening."

"Thatís right."

"I wish to play for the highest stakes of all Ė their lives."

Calendarís eyes narrowed, and Ezra could almost see the wheels spinning. "And why would you want to do that?"

Ezraís easygoing expression fled, replaced by a flat, hard look. "Those men are good friends of mine, and I would not take it kindly if you hung them." He forced himself to relax once more. "And I have your precious Tennessee stud."

Calendarís fist crashed down on the table. "You son-of-a-bitch, you stole him."

"One cannot steal something which the other party did not own," Ezra said mildly.

"Where is he?"

"A safe place. The wager is as such Ė you win, you get the stallion; I win, I keep the stallion and you release my friends."

"Whatís to stop me from having you thrown in jail with them?"

"That would not be very smart Mr. Calendar, because you will lose the precious stallion. You see, I donít even know where the horse is. I will contact my partner who will bring you the stud if you win. Your wisest choice would be to agree to my wager Ė that way youíll have a chance at regaining that which youíve lost."

"How do I know I can trust you?"

Ezra laughed without humor. "That is rich, Mr. Calendar. It should be me questioning your integrity."

A tic started below Calendarís left eye. "I could have you shot where you sit."

Ezra nodded calmly. "That, sir, you could, but that be a foolish course of action. And you are not a foolish man." He smiled brightly. "What is your decision?"

The bartender and a man slumped over a table in a drunken stupor were the only people in the establishment. A fly buzzing and a womanís faint voice from outside back-dropped Calendarís stentorian breaths. The air was still and heavy, hanging over them like a funeral shroud and Ezra quickly shoved that image aside. He had to keep his wits about him Ė for everyoneís sake.

Finally Calendar nodded. "All right, Smith, you got yourself a wager."

Ezra caught himself before sighing in relief. Keep the facade in place. He handed the cards to Calendar. "Be my guest, sir."

Without appearing to do so, Ezra watched him closely. He could spot a cheater a mile away and Calendar struck him as someone who would force the odds to favor him. Ezra didnít want to think about his own past when he wouldíve admired a man like Ross Calendar.

"Draw poker, deuces wild," Calendar stated.

Ezra nodded. He picked up his cards Ė a mess of nothing. He had to use all his self-control to keep his expression relaxed. He glanced up at Calendar who, much to Ezraís chagrin, only tossed one card away. Deliberately, Ezra stretched out the waiting and was gratified to see a bead of sweat roll down Calendarís doughy features. He studied his cards once more and finally threw three cards away, facedown.

Satisfaction lit Calendarís expression as he dealt three cards to Ezra and one to himself. If he was cheating, Ezra didnít see it and a frisson of anxiety rifled down his back.

Ezra picked up his first card, then the second. His heart nearly clogged his throat Ė he was missing one card for a straight flush. His chest tightened, threatening to cut off his oxygen as he slowly lifted the third card Ė a deuce. This was the miracle heíd been hoping for.

"Well, Mr. Smith?" Calendar prompted, looking like a cat about to pounce on the poverbial canary.

His palms slicked with sweat, Ezra held his breath and fanned his flush on the table. Calendarís tic started again and Ezraís relief nearly made him giddy.

"Well, Mr. Calendar?" Ezra parroted.

He slapped his cards down, revealing four jacks, then stood so quickly his chair crashed to the floor. He pulled a revolver from a shoulder holster and aimed it at Ezra. "I donít know how you done it, but you cheated me, mister!"

"And how pray tell did I accomplish that, Mr. Calendar? You yourself dealt those cards," Ezra related calmly.

The figure slumped over the table rose silently and turned, planting a Coltís barrel in Calendarís back.

"Heís right," Nathan said with a flinty voice. "Ezra donít need to cheat."

Calendarís expression turned to granite, but he lowered his weapon and held his hands up. "You wonít get away with this. Iíll track you down if it takes Ďtil hell freezes over."

Ezra stood. "And here I thought you were a gentleman, Mr. Calendar. Obviously I was under a mistaken assumption." Ezra lost his easygoing manner and his eyes turned as cold as a mountain lake in the spring. "You will ante up, Mr. Calendar, or I will personally carve your heart out of your chest. That is, providing you have a heart."

Nathan grabbed Calendarís arm and shoved him toward the door. Behind them, the bartender reached below the bar and Ezra spun around, his sleeve gun appearing in his hand. "I wouldnít."

The bartender raised his hands, and Ezra covered him while Nathan propelled Calendar out onto the boardwalk and toward the blockhouse that had five guards lounging around it.

"If you would like to live to see another day, I would suggest you behave yourself," Ezra said in a low voice, close to Calendarís ear. "Tell your men to drop their weapons."

They stopped about five feet from the first guard, and Nathan gave Calendar a nudge with his revolver Ė a little reminder to do as Ezra had said.

Calendar hesitated a moment, then said, "Drop your guns."

The outlawsí slack-jawed faces revealed their bewilderment. Nathan took a step away from Calendar, revealing the revolver aimed at their boss.

"If you wish to be paid, you will follow your employerís orders," Ezra spoke mildly, but with an undercurrent of steel.

Another moment passed, then the men let their weapons slip to the ground. Cal, Susan, Rina, Robbie, and Misty appeared from behind one of the buildings to scoop up the guns. Sr. Katie and Sr. Adrian, along with the rest of the girls, emerged from their hiding place to join them.

With the nuns and Ezra keeping Calendar and his men covered, Nathan hurried to the blockhouse and grabbed the ring of keys off the outer wall. He jammed a metal key in the lock and opened the door.

Chris squinted in the bright light that streamed in through the open door, and focused on the tall familiar man who stood there. Nathan Ė he and Ezra had done it!

"Yaíall goiní stay in here or come join the rest of us?" Nathan asked, a smile in his voice.

JD whooped which brought a grimace to Vin and his aching head, but Vin still managed a smile. Josiah gave Vin a hand, while JD and Chris got on either side of Buck to help him out of the rank cell.

The girls gathered around them, their relieved and excited faces telling Chris how worried theyíd been. It was a humbling experience to realize how much the seven men had touched their lives in the short time theyíd been with them.

He glanced up to see Ezraís concerned gaze on him and he sent the gambler a reassuring nod. Ezraís expression eased only slightly, and Chris didnít blame him Ė the five men were filthy with whisker-grizzled faces and bloody bandages, and they all limped to varying degrees.

"Where are the others?" Chris asked Ezra as he neared him.

"Out looking for the stud," Ezra replied. "Weíll put Calendar and his men in your former abode and see what they think of the accommodations."

Chris grinned, but no warmth emanated from it, only icy anger. "Maybe we should shootíem first."

Ezra didnít bat an eye. "Superficially or mortally?"

"Dealerís choice," Chris replied with a shrug.

Sr. Adrian and Sr. Katie exchanged amused looks, knowing Chris and the others well enough to know they wouldnít shoot unarmed men.

"Ah, hell, just throw them inside," Chris growled, then turned on Calendar. "But if I see your face again, youíd best kiss your ass goodbye because Iíll shoot you on sight."

While Ezra and Sr. Adrian herded the men to the jail, the girls distributed the weapons theyíd picked up to Chris, JD, Josiah, Vin, and Buck. As the men buckled the belts around their hips, Nathan bent down to examine Buckís leg. Sr. Katie hovered nearby, ready to help.

The sound of hoofbeats on the dry-packed earth startled everyone, and Chris looked up to see the rest of Calendarís men returning.

"Damn," he muttered.

Calendar and the guards were just beginning to enter the blockhouse, and Calendar stopped to look back at the returning hired guns. He opened his mouth to shout something, but Sr. Adrian stopped him with a rifle butt to the back of his head and Calendar stumbled into the cell.

Although a nun, Sr. Adrian didnít have any trouble using a show of force when required, and Chrisís respect for her notched upward.

She and Ezra locked the door behind the thieves and their leader, but the damage had been done. The search party caught sight of the seven men and the women and girls, and drew their guns.

"Find cover!" Chris hollered, then all hell broke loose.

Buck found Sr. Katie and Rina on either side of him, helping him over to a couple barrels. His leg throbbed, threatening to give out, and he leaned heavily on the two much smaller females. They tumbled down behind their sparse cover, and Buck choked back a colorful cuss word.

"Buck?" JDís voice rang out above the thunder of gunshots. "Buck, you okay?"

Buck glanced over to see JD hidden behind a water trough a few yards away. He had Kerry with him, and both of them lay prone behind the scant protection. "Get your hat off, JD, or youíll get your fool head shot off!" Buck shouted, using anger to cover his concern.

Without hesitation, JD removed it, then lifted himself to fire a couple shots at one of the outlaws who was running across the street. The man fell to the ground, but Buckís approval was short-lived as two others opened fire on JD, and the bullets plunked into the trough, splashing water onto JD and Kerry.

Buck managed to find the rest of his companions. Sr. Adrian and Ezra had taken refuge along the side of the jailhouse and they stood back to back, covering each other. Chris and Susan had managed to dive behind a wagon wheel, and he had Susan behind him as he used his own body to shield her. Vin, along with Nutmeg and Robbie, were fairly well sheltered inside the general store across the street. Josiah, with Judy, Misty, and Kristen, were well-protected in a narrow alley between two buildings. Nathan and Cal had the worst position on the ground by a hitching post.

Buck spotted the four outlaws who were moving in on Nathan and Cal, and ignoring the brutal pain in his leg, he squeezed off some shots toward their attackers. Sr. Katie noticed what was happening and added her rifle to their defense. Two of the gunhands fell, and Nathan took the chance to rise and, grabbing Calís hand, the two of them ran hellbent for leather toward the saloon across the street. Bullets kicked up dust around their feet, and Buck noticed Ezra and Josiah added their firepower to protect Nathan and Cal.

Chris ducked as a bullet whistled past his ear. How the hell did they get themselves in this position? They needed some high ground to gain an advantage or the outlaws would slowly pick them off Ė including the girls. He glanced across the street, noticing the general store had an upper level with a few windows.

"Vin!" he hollered.

Vin lifted his head and peered out the general store window which no longer had any glass in it. Chris motioned upward and Vin nodded, understanding the signal.

"Robbie, Nutmeg, címon, we gotta get upstairs," he said urgently.

Robbie took Nutmegís hand and Vin ushered them up the stairs in the room behind the counter. Vinís head pounded, making his stomach churn and his legs wobble, but desperation drove him upwards. He stumbled, and Robbie turned.

"Keep going upstairs," she urged Nutmeg.

Robbie leaned over and wrapped her arm around Vinís waist. He slung his arm over her shoulders and they continued the last few steps. Vin motioned toward the room overlooking the main street, and they hurried over to one of the windows. Vin slipped to his knees, and struggled to raise the window. Breaking the glass would only call attention to himself, something he didnít want until heíd had a chance to pick off a couple of the men. Without a word, Robbie helped him raise it, and he gave her a quick smile.

He handed Robbie a revolver. "Know how to use this?" She nodded, her blue eyes wide. "You and Nutmeg go into the corner and keep down," Vin ordered, his tongue feeling swollen and awkward.

"I want to stay with Mr. Vin," Nutmeg pouted.

"Go on, girls, I donít want either of you gettiní hurt," Vin said.

Without any more arguments, Robbie and Nutmeg moved off to the far corner. The gunshots from the street below abated slightly so it didnít sound like an all-out war anymore; instead it reminded Vin of the drawn-out battles heíd fought in the War. Wiping the sweat from his eyes, he raised the rifle and wished it were his own. Checking the sights, he picked out an outlaw sneaking up behind Chris and Susan, and fired. A blossom of blood appeared on the manís chest, and Vin turned his sights on the next target. Another outlaw went down.

His arms trembled, and Vin had the god-awful feeling he was going to throw up or pass out. More than likely both. He concentrated on picking his targets, and bullets splintered the window frame, throwing wood chips in his face. The gunshots increased, and Vin hoped Chris and the others were taking advantage of having the outlawsí attention on him.

"Hold it!" a voice commanded from the doorway.

Vin froze. Damn, he shouldíve known someone would get into the general store and get the drop on him.

"Throw down that rifle and turn around slow-like."

Vin had no choice but to do as the man ordered. His carbine fell to the floor with a dull thud, and he twisted around to look at his captor Ė soon to be executor if Vin was any judge of killers.

The outlawís finger began to squeeze the trigger and a shot exploded in the roomís close confines.

From behind an overturned poker table, Nathan raised himself cautiously to look out on the quiet street, and he smiled broadly. "Looks like we gotíem," he announced to Cal.

The trouser-clad girl stood slowly, brushing her tousled brown hair back from her forehead.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

She nodded shakily. "I think so. At least I ainít shot or anything like that."

"What do you say we go join the others?"

"I donít think so, mister!" the bartender arose from behind the bar and raised a double barrel shotgun.

Nathanís heart skipped a beat, and he took a step toward Cal to place himself between her and the shotgun. "Itís over. Calendarís finished," he stated.

"Not yet it ainít!" He snugged the weapon tighter against his shoulder.

Cal took a long step away from Nathan, putting herself back in the open. "You planniní on killiní me, too?" she demanded insolently.

The bartenderís gaze flickered to Cal, giving Nathan a moment to grab the knife that hung at his back and fling it at the man. The blade struck the manís shoulder, forcing him to drop the shotgun. Cal quickly grabbed it from the bar top and aimed it at their would-be killer.

"Give me the gun, Cal," Nathan said.

"Iím gonna kill him!"

Nathan inched toward her. "Donít. Weíll put him in jail so he can answer for his crimes."

"He woulda killed you, Mr. Nathan! Iíll take care of him so he doesnít ever try to kill anyone again."

Compassion coupled with a sense of astonishment struck Nathan at Calís willingness to protect him. "I appreciate you tryiní to help me, Cal, but I canít let you kill him on account of me. Heíll get his due in court."

She didnít take her eyes off of the bartender, nor did the shotgun barrel shift from its intended victim.

Nathan took another step closer. "Please, Cal, donít be doiní this. Thereís been enough killiní." He reached out and laid a hand on her shoulder gently. "You shoot him and youíll be no betterín he is. And I know deep down youíre a whole lot betterín him."

The shotgun wavered, and Cal allowed Nathan to take it from her grasp. A tear rolled down her cheek. Keeping the bartender covered, Nathan wrapped his other arm around Cal, drawing her shuddering body against his side.

"Letís go see if everyoneís okay," he said softly.

Cal nodded, and Nathan motioned for the wounded man to go out ahead of them. They walked out onto the street and found the handful of remaining outlaws had been rounded up.

Chris glanced around, surprised to see Nathan with Cal bringing a prisoner out of the saloon. He smiled slightly at Nathanís reassuring nod, then continued to account for everyone. Nobody else had been wounded. Buck leaned heavily on Sr. Katie, and though his face was pale, he was smiling at the nun. It appeared that whatever had been stuck in Buckís craw had worked itself out. Ezra, Josiah, and JD along with the girls and Sr. Adrian circled around Chris.

Only Vin was missing. He lifted his gaze to the second story window and spotted Nutmeg. A moment later, the girl screamed, "heís dead!" and her sobs filled the silent street.

Adrenaline coursed through Chris and he dodged across the street to the general store. As he climbed the stairs two steps at a time, he realized Nathan and Ezra were right behind him, leaving Josiah, JD, Buck, and the nuns to watch over the captured ambushers.

Had Vin been killed before he could clear his name? If so, Chris swore heíd go on to Tascosa by himself, and prove Vin innocent of murder. If nothing else, it would ease Chrisís crowded conscience Ė if not for him and the others, Vin wouldíve been to Tascosa months earlier.

He plunged into the room, nearly tripping over the body of a stranger. He saw Robbie and Nutmeg kneeling beside Vinís still body, and crossed the room in three long strides. Chris hunkered down beside them, and Ezra gently moved the two girls away. Nathan bent down to place his ear against Vinís chest.

Nathan lifted his head, a smile easing his tense features. "Heís alive."

Chris wiped a shaky hand across his brow, and looked up to see a mirroring expression of relief on Ezraís face. "He been hit again?"

Nathan did a quick examination and shook his head. "He mustíve passed out."

Ezra examined the fallen outlaw. "This gentleman has a piece of lead in his back, but he appears to be alive."

"I shot him," Robbie confessed, her face threatening to crumble. "He was going to shoot Mr. Vin so I had to do it."

Ezra turned to face Robbie, going down on one knee so he was at eye level with her. "I know shooting a man is a very difficult thing to do Ė as well it should be Ė but you saved Vinís life. And for that, we owe you a great debt of gratitude."

The girlís eyes glistened with unshed tears. "I didnít want to do it, but I knew if I didnít, heíd kill him."

He laid his hands on her shoulders. "There are times in a personís life when they have to make life or death decisions. Iím only sorry yours had to come so early. Remember this, Robbie, you saved a friendís life, and when all is said and done in this world, that is what is truly important."

Robbie nodded somberly, and wrapped her arms around Ezra. He looked over her shoulder to see approval and understanding in Chrisís eyes, and Ezra felt as if he was truly starting to become a part of the seven men.

Vin groaned and tried to sit up, but didnít succeed until Nathan and Chris helped him. Comprehension came quickly to Vinís hazel eyes, though it was hazed with weariness. "We get the bad guys?" he asked with a husky voice.

Chris grinned. "We gotíem, thanks to you."

Vin smiled crookedly. "Yeah, Iím a regular hero, ainít I?" His gaze slid over to Robbie who stood close to Ezra. "Did you shoot him?"

She nodded hesitantly.

"Thanks, Robbie. Iím in your debt," Vin said warmly.

"Youíre a friend, Mr. Vin, and a person has to take care of their friends," Robbie said softly.

The touching silence was broken by four-year-old Nutmeg who tugged on Ezraís arm. "I gotta go potty, Mr. Ezra."

Ezraís shocked expression brought a round of laughter from his friends, and he fixed them a glare, then helplessly allowed Nutmeg to lead him out of the room.

A week had passed since the shootout in Ruthville, and Buck and Vin were well on their way to recovery. Theyíd left Calendar and his hired guns in the care of a US Marshal who showed up a few days later after having been contacted and apprised of the situation. Right after heíd arrived, the seven men had escorted Sr. Adrian, Sr. Katie, and the girls the remaining distance to Tohatchi. A couple days of resting up there and the men were ready to continue their journey.

Chris and Sr. Adrian stood beside the Tennessee studís corral and watched the palomino cavort about the enclosure.

"There was a time when I had a dream of having a horse ranch myself," Chris said softly.

"What happened?" Sr. Adrian asked.

Chris shrugged. "I lost my heart and soul." Their names were Sarah and Adam, he thought, the sharp taste of sorrow piercing him anew.

"Youíll find them again someday."

"Maybe," Chris said skeptically. He straightened and smiled. "Good luck, Sister. I have a feeling your horses are going to be known far and wide someday."

"I expect you and your friends to come calling in a few years so you can see for yourselves the miracle youíve given us," Sr. Adrian said.

"If we can, we will."

Sr. Adrian seemed to understand what was unspoken. She put her hand through the crook of his arm, and the nun and the ex-shootist walked back to join the others.

Nathan sought Cal among the group of girls, but didnít see her. He stepped over to Rina. "Have you seen Cal?"

"I saw her in the barn a few minutes ago," the redhead replied.

"Thanks."

Nathan strode to the building, and entered, then waited a moment for his eyes to adjust. He followed the sound of quiet sobs to an empty stall where Cal sat cross-legged in the straw. His chest tightened at her obvious distress and he stepped into the stall. He lowered himself to the floor beside her.

"I didnít want to leave without sayiní good-bye," Nathan said softly.

Cal rubbed her eyes, and said curtly, "Good-bye."

"Is that all I get? I thought we were better friends than that."

Cal slowly turned toward him and the dim light illuminated her tears. "Why is it everybody I care about leaves me?"

Nathan smiled gently. "They donít leave you, honey. Theyíll always with you, in your heart and in your memories. Just like youíll always be with me, and Iíll be with you."

"Do you think Iím gonna go to hell?"

"For killiní your step pa?" Cal nodded. "You were only protectiní yourself and the Lord knows that." Nathan paused a moment. "Not everybody is tryiní to hurt you, Cal. You gotta start learniní to trust folks again."

"I trust you, Mr. Nathan," she said softly.

Her simple declaration warmed Nathan. Little did she resemble the hostile girl heíd first met. "Thatís a step in the right direction. You got good people around you here Ė Sr. Adrian and Sr. Katie and all the other girls. They care about you."

"I know that now." She took a deep breath. "I reckon I might even put on one of them dresses every once in a while."

Nathanís chuckle was deep and true. "When I come back to visit, Iíll look forward to seeiní that." He stood and offered Cal a hand which she accepted without hesitation. "Come on, letís go join the others."

They walked out of the barn together.

Ezra gazed at Misty and Kristenís forlorn expressions and tried to think of some way to brighten their moods. Of course, he had grown somewhat fond of the urchins himself, and would miss the young girls more than he wanted to admit.

He squatted down in front of them, and took a hold of each of their arms. "You donít want me to depart looking upon those disconsolate faces, do you?"

"We donít want you to leave," Kristen said plaintively.

"Yeah, whoís gonna teach us how to spot a sharper dealing from the bottom of a deck?" Misty asked.

Ezra pressed his forefinger to his lips. "Shhhh, you wouldnít want the others to discover our secret, would you?"

Misty and Kristen shook their heads solemnly.

"I do appreciate your diligence in the guardianship of my green and red jackets. Without your assiduousness in the care of them, I daresay they wouldíve been ruined beyond repair," Ezra said gallantly.

Kristen looked at Misty who shrugged.

"We got no idea what you said, Mr. Ezra, but it sounded real nice," Misty said innocently.

Josiah, standing within earshot of their conversation, swallowed a chuckle.

"Whoís gonna tell us stories, Mr. Josiah?" Judy asked, her eye bright.

Josiah brought his attention back to the two girls standing by him. "Iíll bet Sr. Adrian and Sr. Katie have some good ones for you."

"But I like your voice better. It makes me feel all safe and cozy," Kerry said.

Josiah smiled, a part of him wishing he could stay. He enjoyed the evening story time as much as they did, if not more. Here he could do the Lordís work and be a father to the orphaned girls Ė a combination that tempted him greatly. He lifted his gaze to Chris who approached with Sr. Adrian, then Nathan, Ezra, and Vin Ė the men he owed his spiritual and mortal life.

"All you have to do is close your eyes at night and if you listen real close, youíll hear my voice in the wind," Josiah promised in his gentle, rumbling tone.

Nutmeg tugged Robbie over to Vin who leaned against the porchís post, a piece of straw between his lips.

"Me and Robbie got something to give you," Nutmeg spoke up.

Vin smiled. "And what would that be?"

Robbie drew her hand out from behind her back and presented him with a necklace made of flowers. "I know only girls wear necklaces, but we couldnít think of anything else to give you."

Vin swallowed the block of emotion in his throat and accepted the garland. "Itíll remind me of both of you Ė pretty and sweet-smelliní."

Robbie blushed, while Nutmeg grinned mischievously.

"We got them from the garden out back," Nutmeg announced.

Robbie put her palm over the small girlís mouth. "Shush! Do you want to get in more trouble?"

Vin lifted a hand to hide his smile. "Well, they say itís the thought that counts."

Chris approached the line of saddled horses, and the other men hugged the girls good-bye, doing their best to maintain their own stoic fronts.

Susan walked up to Chris shyly. "I want to thank you, Mr. Chris. You helped me see things a little clearer. I still think of my folks and get sad, but now I donít feel so angry." She looked skyward. "I know theyíre up there somewhere looking down on me, just like your familyís looking down on you."

Chris pressed his lips together and gazed upward also. For a moment, he thought he saw Sarah and Adam waving down at him, then they were gone.

"I think youíre right, Susan," he said softly. "One of these days weíll be with them again, but until then, we got to live each day making them proud of us."

Susan nodded, then hugged Chris. "Thank you," she whispered.

Chrisís arms moved around her shoulders and returned the embrace. "Youíre welcome."

She stepped back, keeping her face averted, and Chris suspected she felt the sting of tears in her eyes, too.

He and the other men mounted their horses, then Chris looked around. "Anyone seen Buck or JD?"

"Maybe Buck has been called to be a brethren of the church," Josiah said with a twinkle in his eyes.

"That, Josiah, will occur only when there are no fair ladies left on Godís green earth," Ezra said.

"Buck said to pick him and JD up at the church," Nathan said.

Vin removed his slouch hat and ran a hand through his long, tousled hair, careful of the bandaged wound on the side of his head. "They been actiní almighty secretive since we got here. I wonder what theyíre up to."

The men wheeled their horses around and rode out of the convent yard, waving at Sr. Adrian and the girls whoíd wormed their way into each of their hearts.

The priest poured a steady stream of water across Buckís forehead. "I baptize thee in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit."

Sr. Katie crossed herself and JD glanced around nervously, wondering if he should attempt to make the sign of the cross himself, then thought better of it. The priest handed Buck a towel and he dabbed his forehead dry.

"Thank you, Father," Buck said with heartfelt gratitude.

"Youíre welcome, Mr. Wilmington. Itís always a pleasure to draw a lost sheep back into the flock," the gray-haired priest said with a paternal smile.

Buck, JD, and Sr. Katie walked out of the church slowly, with Buck leaning on a cane. They paused outside in the warm morning sunlight..

"Your mother can rest peacefully now," Sr. Katie said softly.

Buck gazed at the compassionate, courageous nun. If she hadnít become a Sister, he wouldíve been mighty tempted to forget about his footloose ways and settle down. "Thank you, Sr. Katie, for everything."

"It was my pleasure, Buck. Saving souls is a side benefit to being a nun, and one I wish I experienced more often than I do," she said, her blue eyes bright and clear. "Now that youíre baptized, you wonít go to limbo when you die. You may join your mother in heaven."

JD grinned. "Provided he makes it there." His dark eyes twinkled with mischief. "Yíknow, Buckís got quite a reputation with the ladies Ė he calls it animal maggotism."

Buck slapped him in the chest with his hat. "Thatís magnetism. And you shouldnít be talkiní about stuff like that Ė Sr. Katieís a nun, for Godís sake."

"You got that right," JD shot back.

Sr. Katie laughed, a sweet, melodic sound, and she stepped between the two men, putting her hands through the crook of each oneís arm. "Itís a good thing you two care so much for each other, or one would think you didnít get along."

She walked them to their horses. "How can I thank you for the hope youíve given us?"

"Just make sure that Tennessee stud has lots of foals," JD said with a smile. "Who knows, I may come back someday and buy one."

Sr. Katie shook her head. "You wouldnít have to buy one Ė itíd be our gift to you. All of you earned that and more. Youíve also given the girls some joy in their too tragic lives, and for that Iím extremely grateful."

Buck grinned roguishly. "I might come back in about ten years and see what kind of flowers they blossomed into."

"Donít worry, Iíll come along and make sure he behaves himself," JD assured.

Sr. Katie studied JD a moment. "With two such handsome men, I doubt any of the girls would have a chance."

JD blushed, but Buck held back from teasing the younger man. Buck had been uncomfortable asking JD if heíd witness his baptism, but he needed two witnesses. Sr. Katie had been an obvious choice since sheíd arranged the sacrament to be given to Buck. Heíd considered Chris, but he wasnít certain Chris would understand why he felt the need to be baptized. JD knew the truth, and accepted it without judgment, so had been an obvious choice.

Buck glanced at his young friend Ė a man more like a brother Ė and fondness welled within him. He could trust JD with his secret, as he could with his life. Although he and JD had grown up a thousand miles apart, Buck suspected he and JD shared a similar childhood. One where they were taunted for not having a father and other children were warned not to play with them. A lonely upbringing with only a mother to love.

Buck shook off his thoughts. The past was only that Ė the present was what counted. He glanced heavenward, gave his mother a nod and knew she understood.

"Weíd best be ready to ride, JD, or weíre gonna be left behind," Buck said.

Sr. Katie hugged JD, whispering, "Take care of him."

JD nodded.

Then Sr. Katie gazed up at Buck, and he saw what couldíve been in her expressive eyes. He smiled warmly and embraced her carefully, as if she were made of delicate china. "I can never thank you enough," he said.

"You already have," Sr. Katie said. She brought something out of her pocket and pressed it into Buckís palm. "Perhaps youíll have need of this someday."

Buck looked down at the rosary in his hand, and heartfelt emotion made words impossible for a moment. "Thank you," he said huskily. He put the beads into his pocket and limped over to his horse.

Buck carefully lifted his foot into the stirrup, and grabbed the saddlehorn to pull himself up, trying to keep most of the weight off his healing left leg. He felt JDís hand on his arm, helping him, and he settled into his saddle. Although grateful for his assistance, Buck glared down at him. "Ainít you ready yet, JD? Youíre about as slow as a snail climbiní a greased log."

JD sent him a scowl, then turned to mount his horse. Buck sent Sr. Katie an impish grin and winked.

The sound of approaching horses alerted them to the arrival of their friends. The men touched the brims of their hats respectively and greeted Sr. Katie.

Chris glanced at Buck who appeared more relaxed than heíd been in some time and Chris wondered what theyíd been up to. "You boys ready to move on?"

Buck nodded. "More than youíll know, Chris." Then he glanced at JD and the two of them exchanged a look which Chris couldnít interpret.

Though it wasnít any of Chrisís business, he couldnít stop the niggling feeling that something important had happened and for the first time, Buck had locked him out.

Vin brought his blaze-faced mare up to join them. "Weíre burniní daylight, boys," he said with a crooked grin.

After saying good-bye to Sr. Katie, the men rode off, leaving behind a cloud of dust that glittered more brilliant than gold in the dazzling sunshine.

Sr. Katie lifted her hand in farewell and for a moment, thoughts of a different kind of life tempted her. Then she turned her gaze to the cross at the top of the church and a sense of peace filled her.

"Take care of them, Father, for they are good men, all of them," Sr. Katie prayed aloud, then crossed herself, and said softly, "amen."

The End

 The Trail to Tascosa #3: Old Debts and New Friends

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