SLAP. "Come on, JD!!!" Chris yelled. "Stay with me, g**damnit."
Even though it killed him to have to do it, he slapped the kid again. "WAKE UP, JD!!!!" Vin looked away from them.
Black eyelashes fluttered, but the eyes didn't open. "Huh?'
Chris Larabee felt a hitch in his throat at the familiar word, and for a split second, his eyes met Vin's. Vin would never speak of the tear that had trailed down the gunslinger's face.
"It's all right, JD," Vin spoke to the kid, but kept looking at Chris. "It's all right."
A moan . . . Vin leaned over and touched the boy's throat. The struggling pulse.
It couldn't struggle much longer.
"JD, " Chris said, his voice rough, authoritative. "Stay awake. I know you're hurtin', but you gotta work at this." Chris' fingers lightly, systemattically felt the back of the boy's head for injuries they may have missed in their haste to get him to Four Corners.
"You want to ride with us? You pull your weight, you understand? Everybody needs you, and if you quit fightin' . . ." His hand cupped the side of the kid's face. "If you . . ."
A bloodcurdling scream split the air, and Vin and Chris drew their weapons. Each shielded their hurt friend as they readied themselves for . . .
"Buck?" JD cried, grabbing Chris' sleeve and tugging. . . "It's . . . . . Buck . . ." Vin took off in the direction of the sound.
Then JD pulled him self up enough to get a better breath. And he cried out as though his life depended on it.
Casey was afraid. One of the Nichols brothers had come in and taken Mr. Standish away quite a while ago, and she wasn't sure he would be coming back. After she had helped him to the bed, she had ripped the sleeves off her shirt and bandaged his leg. The wound was bad and the bullet still inside of it. She knew enough of how life was to know he could die if infection set in and it wasn't treated.
But she was even more afraid that he wouldn't live long enough for help to arrive. Casey paced the room, already she knew every inch and there was no escape for her. She was trapped, but she wasn't down and out. Seeing Mr. Standish made her think rescue or even escape later was possible, before he had been taken they had come up with several ideas to try if the situation warranted it. She didn't really know or like him before now, but she did admire the devious ways he had come up with to gain an upper hand on their captors.
Casey tried no tto think of JD at all, knowing if she did her already heavy heart would break. Peter had said they had killed him. But did she believe him? Something inside of her told her he was still alive. He was strong...and stubborn. Casey allowed herself a smile at that thought. If anyone would survive, it would be JD. And she was sure going to try to get out of here and make sure of it herself.
The door creaked in preparation to opening and Casey whirrled around to face it, her face settling into determined lines. Were they bringing Mr. Standish back? Or had they come to tell her he was dead too, to frighten her. Well, no matter what, she wasn't going to be frightened! Nettie had raised her tougher than that! She took a deep breath and waited.
Peter Nichols entered the room , alone. And Casey's heart sank a little..did it mean Mr. Standish was dead? She prepared herself for the worst.
Nathan had given up on asking Josiah where they were going. All the big man would mumble when pressed was he was going to try another way. Another way to what? JD was missing, the Nichols brothers were on the loose, and all Hell was going to break loose. What could Josiah have in mind?
Nathan was a little surprised when Josiah led them to a small mission on the outskirts of a neighaboring town. What did Josiah want with priests and missionaries? He decided to try asking again, what the worst thing Josiah would do. Ignore him again?
"Umm, Josiah?" Nathan started, and was surprised when Josiah turned to face him and dismounted in front of the missions door.
"I know I havnen't told you anything , Nathan." Josiah looked from the door to the healer as if gaining courage. "But I promised Ms. Nichols I wouldn't tell anyone where she went."
The full impact of what Josiah was saying hit Nathan like a freight train.
"She's HERE!" HE was shoked. What had she done? Cut herself off from her family?
"She doing penance, brother Nate." Josiah said quietly. 'In her quest for revenge she killed two more of her sons. It was not something she could get over without help. I told her of the Sisterhood that helps out here, and she made the journey soon after her sons were sentenced to prison. Her own jail, if you will."
"So what do you hope to gain from seeing her?" Nathan was puzzled, the widow hated them, why should she help them against her sons?
"I hope to make her understand she had better call them off of their present path, before they are all killed." Josiah's calm voice was full of promised vengance. "If JD is dead......"
Nathan nodded. Nothing would stop the rest of the seven from killing every last one of those men. The bloodshed would not stop until one side or the other was wiped from the face of the earth. Nathan calmly dismounted and held the reins of Josiah's horse as he went and knocked on the Mission door.
"I trust you are comfortable?" Peter strode quietly into the dusty little dark cellar. Looking at Casey the whole time.
"I'd rather be home." Casey retorted, defiance in every line of her body. She would be d*mned if she was going to let him see her afraid again! "This isn't my idea of 'living' quarters."
"So sorry they are not to your taste, my dear." Peter smirked, and Casey could tell he opinion meant nothing to him, sh emight as well not even have spoken. "But I wanted to make sure you at least were going to stay put. Look, I'll make you a deal, I let you out of the room for some air, and you won't try to escape."
"And if I try?" Casey challenged him.
"Then I just might be forced to use our other 'guest' for some very...." Peter paused and smiled wickedly "painful.....target practice. I hear you throw knives?"
Casey sucked in her breath at the vivid images her mind called up. They were going to hurt him if she disobeyed... What should she do?
"I'll leave you tho think on this for awhile." Peter motioned to someone just behind the door. "Be wise , Casey. Or his death will be a long, lingering, pain filled one. And it will have been all your fault."
Casey gulped as Luke Nichols dragged Ezra back into the small room. Behind him was a glum looking John who was carrying a pitcher of water and a plate of food. Peter left with Luke after Ezra was dumped in a heap and John put the water and food on the floor, his face filled with uncertainty and slight revulsion. He gave Casey a sympathetic look and left her alone with Ezra.
She didn't waste any time and grabbed the pitcher and tore a little of her shirt off at the bottom. Kneeling beside the unconscious gambler, she rolled him over to get a look at his injuries and gasped.
Ezra looked worse than JD had when the Nichols boys had roughed him up, and that had been enough to frighten the young woman half to death. This - this was awful. The gambler's face was covered in blood. Both eyes were swollen almost shut and bruised to a glorious shade of purple.
With a trembling hand, Casey wet the scrap of cloth in her hand and carefully wiped Ezra's face. As she got most of the blood cleaned away, she found a few nasty cuts that would need stitching to close. "Well, Mr. Standish, Nathan's gonna have to stitch these up," she murmured softly. "If I can think of a way to get us outta here. . ."
Tearing another strip of cloth from the hem of her shirt, Casey pressed it over the worst of the gashes. Ezra flinched, groaning, when Casey dabbed lightly at the blood still steadily dripping down his forehead.
"M-mr. Standish?" Casey squeaked, peering into his face for some sign that he was coming around.
Slowly, the gambler cracked open his eyes, sucking in a gasp of pain as the situation registered. In confusion, he peered around the darkened room. His gaze finally fell on the young woman kneeling beside him.
"Miss Wells. . . ?"
"Yeah, it's me," Casey answered gently, reaching out to lightly pat his shoulder. "They hurt ya bad, huh?"
"Not to worry, Miss Wells," the gambler replied, trying for a reassuring tone but managing only to sound weak and breathless.
"Can you sit up? I need to finish cleaning up your face."
Ezra considered the request, then slowly shook his head. "I do not believe that would be a wise course of action at this time."
Casey bit her lip, nodding. "You're feeling pretty bad, I expect."
Ignoring the pain tearing through his right side, Ezra reached out to lay a comforting hand on the young woman's arm. "I'll be fine. You must attempt to escape, my dear."
The unbidden image of Peter using Ezra for target practice flew into her mind's eye and Casey swallowed hard. She shook her head, her ponytail bobbing in agitation. "I can't do that, Mr. Standish. That man, Peter Nichols, he said he was gonna hurt you if I tried to make a run for it."
Ezra smiled wryly, then winced as the split in his lower lip twinged painfully. He reached up and carefully felt his face. "I believe they have already succeeded in their goal."
Casey ducked her head, not meeting the gambler's eyes. "Yeah, I know."
"Miss Wells, the Nichols boys are merely using me as a means to frighten you into staying. I assure you. . . they will not discontinue this course of action should you choose to stay."
Staring down at the prone man, Casey tried to sort through the longwinded answer. "What do you mean?"
Pulling in a deep breath, Ezra began to explain, his voice deadly serious, "I mean that I have angered the Nichols brothers. I gave them false information in an attempt to lead them away from Mr. Larabee's homestead."
Casey's brown eyes widened as she listened to Ezra's tale.
Weakly, the gambler continued, "They promised retribution if I lied to them, Miss Wells, and now I am getting my just reward. . ."
Buck Wilmington had known heaven. He was sure of it. Lost in the arms of some talented filly he had sweet-talked into sharing his bed; but he'd never felt the unyielding agony of what Hell was like. Until now.
J.D. was gone. Ripped from them in one terrifying act of revenge for something that wasn't even their fault to begin with. But the Seven had been made to pay the ultimate price. Their youngest brother had paid with his life.
And now as the cold realization of that unthinkable thought sank in, an icy storm erupted somewhere in Wilmingtons heart and spread like a malicious frostbite through every fiber of his being. He no longer felt the torturous burning in his wounded hand because he was numb; the fire of his soul consumed and extinguished by the searing flames of the Purgatory he had fallen into. No one could reach him now. He had nothing to come back for.
"J.D.!" Chris tried to contain the teen's weak attempts to get up. "Take it easy."
"Buck!" the kid attempted to shout through teeth clenched against the obvious pain he was provoking. "That was him. He....sounds...hurt."
"If he is, Vin will help him," Larabee had both arms around his struggling friend now, but he could feel the boy's manuevers weakening with every ragged breath.
"J.D. just calm down..... Please." The last word seemed funny coming from his mouth and the look the kid gave him was almost laugh worthy. Obviously, 'please', was 'atypical of his accustomed vocabulary', as Ezra would put it.
But it worked.
The youth stopped fighting Chris and quieted in the older man's grasp. Hazel eyes held his blue gaze for a moment and a tentative hand reached out to touch another tear that had escaped the seasoned gunfighter's impenetrable defenses to streak down his dirt-covered face.
Larabee caught his hand and held it, "It's alright, J.D. Buck's going to be fine." Chris released his friend and eased him back to the ground, "You're going to be fine."
J.D. wasn't so sure.
He'd seen Buck cry; felt every tear cut through him like a white hot knife. It had hurt as bad as someone tearing his heart out. It hurt worse than what the Nichols had done.
But this was different. This was the great Chris Larabee, his hero. And if Chris was scared, then God help them all.
Casey shuddered at the finality in the gamblers voice, like he didn't expect to live long enough for a rescure to happen. Casey was suddelny faced with the prospect that she might just have to do as he said and escape...brign the others before anything more could happen to him. She realized it was up to her to save this man's life.
"You take it easy now, Mr. Standish." Casey darted her eyes about. "I'll get us out of here."
"I'm afraird, my dead lady, you will have to effectuate your release from this quaint establishment without me." Ezra gasped, his side began a slow burn and he knew he had overdoen it. He was fading and he didn't want to scare the girl any more than he had. "I do no think I will be in any shape to travel in the near future."
"I can't leave you here!" Casey exclaimed, pouring water into the only cup provided and raising his head some so he could drink. She was relieved when he managed a few gulps before tiring.
"You may not have a choice in the matter." Ezra sighed and closed his eyes, he was so tired. "Perhaps you can make use of my observations from my 'excursion' out of this hovel."
"You see the place pretty well?" Casey desperately tried to keep him awake, she didn't want him to just slip away. "Any holes in their defenses."
Ezra grinned and opened his eyes. The child was amazing, in the midst of all this caos, here she was thinking rationally and logically. "I saw a few 'holes' that you might slip through , given the proper diversion."
"D..diversion?" Casey was confused.
"A distraction, my dear." Ezra focused his thoughts. "Now here's what I know.."
The two talked for some time, formulating a plan that might get them both out, but it was risky. And it was their only chance.
Buck thought he was imagining things. Something had pulled him from the empty abyss he had been sent plummeting into. Something that sounded a lot like J.D.'s voice.
The gunslinger's head snapped up at the call of his name. But he didn't find what he had dared to hope for one desperate moment. The kid wasn't there grinning down at him for acting like a damn fool, or looking at him with concerned, curious hazel eyes.
Vin Tanner was there, at least the ghost of the tracker's normal presence, anyway.
Even through Wilmington's new pain-filled view on reality, it was obvious something had changed in his friend. He knew about J.D. That was the only explanation.
The small wagon lumbered down the dirt road, its two occupants enjoying the warm early evening air. The driver was an older man, plain and simple as the country he road through, and Spanish. His passenger was a young lady, demurely dressed in a black habit and holding a basket of eggs.
"Thank you for giving me a ride in the wagon, uncle Josef," The girl said, smiling as she held the basket firmly, "It would have been a long walk back to the mission without it."
The older man laughed amiably. "Your father would have killed me, Sophia, if he had heard that I saw you walking the desert road at dusk and left you stranded. But what are you doing on the roads at this hour?"
The young nun looked at the wicker basket on her lap, pressed her lips together. "I was sent here."
"Sent here? Oh." Josef nodded, and clicked the reins at his mule. "I understand, I think."
Sophia looked at her uncle hopefully. "You do?"
Josef nodded. "Your father told me. He's very proud of you, Sophia, giving your life to God. But he told me you have visions, and it frightens him."
Sophia trained her young eyes on the smooth white shells of the eggs as she answered. "I know. It frightens me too sometimes, but...I can't help it. Sometimes the Lord sends me messages, and I have to answer them."
"Like when your little brother was drowning, and no one knew." Josef mentioned.
Sophia nodded solemnly. "And the time I told you not to take that one road, and the bridge gave way."
Josef chuckled appreciatively. "Yes, there's no denying you have a gift of God, Sophia, and I'm sure the sisters will help you find out what you're supposed to do with it. But what do you mean about being sent out here? You have another vision?"
The girl shook her head. "A dream. Two weeks ago."
No sound but the soft hoofbeats of the mule. "What about?"
Sophia paused, her expression uncertain. "I'm not sure; I didn't see much, but there were swords and blood and crying. I think it was about when King Herod killed all the firstborn of Israel."
"Slaughter of the Innocents?" Josef asked, and frowned when his niece nodded. "Something like that going to happen here?"
"I don't know," Sophia looked around, into the gloomy patches of brush and trees around them, "But Jesus was in my dream too, showing me His blessed wounds, and it means something, I know it."
"Hm, maybe. Or maybe it was something you ate."
Sophia gave her uncles a small push. "Now Uncle Josef, don't tease me! You know this is something I feel very strongly about, and the sisters say my gift is very special. There's something I'm supposed to do, some purpose I'm here to fulfill, and I can't be content until I do it."
"Well, maybe the Lord just wants you to deliver those eggs." Josef suggested. "Not every task is momentous, you know."
"I know," Sophia said with a tiny smile as she looked at the basket on her lap. "But I don't think it's that. I think it's something more - "
At that moment a sound ripped through the air. They both heard it, not far away.
A man's cry.
Josef reined the wagon to a stop. Sophia clutched his arm and looked around. And then they heard another cry, weaker, younger, closer yet.
"Santa Maria." Josef said, and crossed himself. "What was that?"
Sophia's eyes searched the trees, and before Josef could move suddenly put the basket of eggs in the back of the wagon and lept down.
"Here, Sophia!" Josef called as his niece began to run away, "Where are you going?"
"Someone's hurt!" Sophia called back, and ran off into the bushes.
Josef sighed, and watched his niece disappear. Looking up to the heavens, he said, "I suppose I'm going to wait? Of course. Her father would kill me."
"Did you hear me, Buck?" The lanky tracker had knelt beside Wilmington's still form. "Where you hurt?"
"Vin?" Tanner could hear the struggle against grief in the gunslinger's words.
"Yeah pard." Vin reached out a hand and laid it gently on the other man's shoulder. "Talk to me Buck. Where ya hurt?"
Wilmington stared at the younger man trying to gauge his extent of pain, but at the moment the only thing reflecting in the bounty hunter's eyes was a mixture of worry and anger.
"They killed J.D." Buck choked out. "I didn't get there in time, Vin. I couldn't stop them. I failed him." Wilmington's voice broke in a strangled cry, both from physical and emotional pain.
"Its gonna be okay, Buck. I need to get you patched up and then we'll take care of what happened to J.D." The tracker's last words came out with an underlying fury. And that rage seemed to rebuild the fire in the other gunslinger's heart.
"Oh yeah, we'll take care of it." Buck closed his eyes and sighed. "One way or another."
Nathan fiddled with the reins, Josiah had been in the church for some time and Nathan didn't know what he was planning. But if anyone cold get those boys to stop their rampage, it was their mother. Nathan just hoped Josaih could convince the woman to come with them and save their lives. Then the door opened.
Josiah stepped out into the light shaking his head.
"Any luck?" Nathan asked.
"She's going to come with us," Josiah sighed and looked up in the sky.
"So thats good, right?" Nathan was confused, wasn't this what Josiah was after?
"She's a broken woman Nathan. She can't seem to get over the fact her need for revenge on Hank Connely caused the deaths of two more of her sons and the wounding of two others." Josiah looked over to the missions barn to see a wagon being readied. "But she doesn't want to lose any more, so she agreed to come."
Nathan sighed, and then loooked up as the widow exited the mission. In his heart Nathan couldn't find any anger for the woman, she had lost so much, and now she stood to lose it all. It looked the months had not been too kind to her, her face etched in sorrow, but there was a purpose to them as well. Maybe she could stop the insanity before anyone got hurt more than had already happened. And not knowing how the others fared, he hoped it wasn't too bad.
Larabee had left the kid's side only long enough to build a fire.
"I'm right here, J.D." Chris walked back to J.D.'s form and resumed his position at his side.
"Is Vin back with Buck, yet?" Larabee could see that even with his own pain to deal with, what was hurting him the most, was the unknown about Buck.
"No, kid. But I'm sure they'll be here soon. Just take it easy and try not move too much." The gunslinger reached over and tucked the blanket back around the kid's shoulders. There was a fever growing inside his young body and Chris wanted to stop it or at least slow it down.
"You'll wake me when he gets here, right?" J.D. raised hazel eyes to meet the stone blue ones.
"I promise, J.D." Chris brushed the black strands away from the sad eyes and patted his head gently. "It'll be okay."
This seemed to ease the young man's pain somewhat and he drifted into a injured doze.
"No matter how long it takes." Larabee growled the whispered vow and turned his attention to the empty hillside behind him. *Hurry up Buck. He needs you now more than ever.*
"That hand looks pretty bad, pard. We'll need to patch it up before we move on to meet Chris." Vin had ripped some pieces of cloth from J.D.'s discarded shirt and was drenching it with water to clean Buck's wound.
"I'll be fine. Just leave the damned hand and lets go." Wilmington had slowly risen to his feet and was turning to go to his hitched horse, but a firm grip on his arm stopped him.
"I've already had one partner suffer, I ain't about to let another." Tanner's gruffness surprised the gunslinger. He looked into the blue depths and saw more than just the present pain, but a pain ground in deep from the past. It was hard to absorb, considering the younger man never allowed anyone a glimpse into his soul. Except Chris, and then it was like they were looking in a mirror.
"Alright, Vin. Have it your way." Buck allowed the tracker to take his hand and clean and bandage it, but as soon as that was finished, neither spoke a word as the gunslinger retrieved his mount. "Lets go."
Vin nodded and headed back up the hill to where he left Chris and J.D., hoping the defeat he had witnessed in Buck's eyes earlier would diminish when he saw what was on the other side.
"Don't worry, Buck." Tanner turned and pinned the other man with a hard gaze. "J.D.'s suffering will be over soon. And so will ours." The bounty hunter resumed his course and didn't wait for a reply.
Wilmington just stood in stunned wonderment at what his friend had meant. He expected Josiah to spout the double meaning or the prophecy, but not Vin. Well, a lot had changed with each of them, and from what Buck was feeling, would never be the same.
"So as long as we stick to the plan, my dear." Ezra gasped, as he attempted toshift himslef to another, more comfortable, position. "I feel out odds of your escape are in our favor."
"I still don't want to leave you here." Casey sulked. "Isn't there another way?"
"This is the only way to guarantee your emancipation from this local to a safer one." Ezra wasn't much in love with the plan either, since it left him behind, but he knew with his leg, he couldn't walk. "I will attempt to hold them off long enough for you to return with the others."
"I just wish we could get you out too. I don't see how it would be possible for you to hold out long enough for me to find everybody." Casey was concentrating so hard she didn't hear the door open.
"What if he had a hostage?" Came a quiet voice from the door.
Casey started in fear, thinking it was Peter. Instead, in the doorway was John Nichols, with a black eye, and a defeated look on his face.
Vin could almost hear the thundering of Buck's heart as they topped the ridge and took in the view below them. Chris could be seen in the glow from the flickering firelight. His countenance was grim as he sat cross-legged near the unconscious form of J.D., tending to his wounds as best he could.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Wilmington turned on the tracker with a look of confusion written all over his face.
"What was there to tell? How could I tell you?" Vin voiced the last question as if it were a slip of his own private thoughts. "He's bad , Buck, to be honest, I didn't know what we'd find when we got here."
The older gunslinger took a deep breath and let it out slowly, as if preparing himself for his worst nightmare, all over again. "He's alive, that's more than I had a few moments ago."
With that Wilmington nudged his horse and left Vin wondering how they had come to this point and hoping that whatever saints had watched out for them in the past would somehow answer their unspoken prayers yet again.
Buck pulled his horse to a stop not far from the dancing flames and watched his old friend halt his ministrations to the kid to meet his gaze.
Something behind the ice blue stare caused Buck's breath to hitch. It was a look he hadn't seen on Chris's face since the fire that took Adam and Sarah. And now with the campfire tossing menacing shadows across the gunman's face and with the hiss and pop of the blaze as it consumed each ounce of wood and oxygen , a terrible feeling of deja vu and forboding took hold of Wilmington's heart.
He wanted to dismount, to go to J.D, but his body refused to obey his mental commands. He was scared and that fright paralyzed him.
Larabee's soft voice startled him back to the present and he opened his mouth to reply, to say something to ease the worry he saw reflected in his partner's face, but what miracle could mere words work.
So with courage born of sheer determination and a unrelenting need he had not felt before, Wilmington slid from his horse and crossed the abyss seperating him from home.
"How is he?" the voice that Buck heard sounded foreign coming from his mouth.
Chris shook his head, he couldn't lie, wouldn't. Not to Buck. "It ain't lookin' good. I don't think..."
Before Larabee could finish his morose thought, a soft voice interrupted. "Buck?"
The kid instictively knew where to find Wilmington's arm, and his fingers wrapped around the older man's jacket sleeve, but his eyes remained closed.
"He's been waitin' for you." Chris reached out and squeezed Wilmington's shoulder before turning his eyes towards the lone figure watching from the hill above them. "I'll be with Vin."
Buck swallowed back the lump that had seemed to have taken up permanent residency in his throat, and nodded. "Thanks."
The black-clad gunslinger stood and disappeared into the emptiness surrounding them, leaving the two to their own personal anguish. Their's was a heartache that could not be shared.
"Shhh," Buck said softly, laying a comforting hand on the kid's hot forehead. "I'm here now."
Hazel eyes fluttered opened to stare up at Wilmington with a mixture of concern and pain, "Are ...you..alright?"
The older gunslinger couldn't stop the laugh that escaped him. Here his bestfriend was, on death's doorstep, enveloped in torturous pain, and he was worried about 'Buck's' health. Wilmington didn't know whether to be proud or angry. "I'm fine."
J.D. was having none of it. A frown marred his bruised face, "You look awful."
"I thought I told you before,kid, that was damn near impossible," Buck winked and almost shouted with joy when his remark brought about a weak imitation of the smile he loved.
His happiness was short lived though, as a coughing fit siezed his wounded friend and caused the younger man to yelp in renewed pain. "Oh God, it hurts, Buck."
"I know,kid. Just keep breathin' ; nice and easy."
"Make it go away, please." J.D. had curled into a tight ball now and rolled closer to his friend. "I can't take much more of this."
"Hang on, J.D.," Buck leaned over the younger man, in an attempt to shield him from the invisible assailant causing the boy such anguish. He felt so helpless as the teen writhed beneath him, caught within the fortress of agony even Wilmington couldn't free him from. "Please, hang on. I need you to stay with me, here."
The gunslinger took the kid's face in both his large hands and forced the teen to look at him, "Breathe, J.D. It'll help, I promise."
Finally, trusting gold-green eyes locked onto Buck and the kid seemed to relax some as the tendrils of pain loosened their grasp. "Buck?"
"Don't talk, kid. Save your strength."
"Want to tell you," J.D. continued, a stubborn look crossing his face.
"Damn it, kid, would you listen to me for once." Wilmington said with a resigned sigh, stroking some dark strands of hair from the boy's sweat-drenched brow.
J.D. swallowed and took another shallow breath before continuing, "You're the only family I have left... I want you to know.."
"J.D.," Buck stopped him. "I know everything I need to. Words ain't goin' to change that. Nothing will."
The two shared a knowing moment of silence before J.D.'s eye's started to drift close, "Promise me,somethin'," he whispered, his hand closing around Buck's.
"Anything, kid." Wilmington's own dark eyes started to sting.
"Find Casey, tell her I'm sorry."
Buck wanted to yell at the kid. To make him get it through his thick skull that he had nothing to be sorry for. None of this was his fault, although he'd been the one to pay restitution. But instead he forced a grim smile and tightened his grip on J.D.
"I promise, J.D. I'll make everything right."
The boy forced his eyes open once more and he tried to express every emotion coursing through him at that moment, "You always do, Buck."
"How is he?" Vin had his back to the camp below and was staring at the clouds drifting overhead.
"He's still breathing." Chris came to a stop at the young man's side. "Barely."
The two stood in companionable silence, each drawing support from the other's presence. They both knew what the other was thinking, as if the thoughts had passed through one's mind and straight into the other's.
"You think the rest of the boys are alright?" Tanner's voice was scarcely above a whisper.
"I don't know, but if they ain't...." Larabee let the statement hang with a deadly echo.
"You think Buck will survive if..?" This time the bounty hunter turned his troubled gaze to the older man.
Chris took a few seconds and thought over his response before facing the expectant look of the tracker.
"He won't take his own life. I'm sure of that." Larabee paused.
"But that won't stop him from trying to get someone else to take it for him." Vin finished the concept the gunslinger had induced.
"How would you handle something like that?" Chris asked, slowly taking in the different emotions passing over the younger man's face.
"J.D.'s like the kid brother I never had, so..." Tanner stopped when he noticed the sudden frown on Larabee's face.
"I wasn't talking about J.D." Chris's statement took the bounty hunter offguard.
He had envisioned how he would feel if one of the other's was to die, but he knew Chris was referring to their relationship. In all honesty, he had avoided the idea, even in the midst of their numerous battles'. The death of Chris Larabee just wasn't fathomable. He was invincible, at least in Vin's eyes.
But, the tracker thought over the possibility and then braced himself for the answer he was about to give.
"There's many ways a man can die without intentionally taking his life." Vin took a long breath. "And I'd make sure one of those circumstances came up."
Tanner watched the change in the other man's expression. "Yeah, I know a few of those myself." Chris looked dead in Vin's eyes.
The two let the unspoken words transfer between them and then both glanced to the forms huddled near the fire.
"But not before making sure vengeance was mine." Chris laid his hand on Vin's shoulder, needing the physical connection along with the spiritual one.
Tanner nodded slightly, not needing to express his agreement his words. As they stood watching over their partners, a haze of red began to surround them as the sun started its descent behind them.
Buck was in pain. He'd hidden it well. From JD, anyway. Long enough for the kid to be satisfied that Buck had only suffered a "scratch." Chris sat beside his oldest friend - who wouldn't leave the side of their youngest.
"Lemme take a look at that hand."
Buck didn't look away from the boy's face, but he raised his arm and let Chris take it. "What were they trying to do to him?" Buck asked his friend.
Chris carefully unwrapped the bloody dirty bandage. It would stick to itself and in some places, the crusted blood sealed the cloth to the wound itself. Chris frowned as he reached in his hip pocket for the flask of whiskey.
Buck's voice was weaker and his kind eyes were dazed in disbelief. "Why would they cut him around his eyes like that?"
Chris didn't answer. What could he say?
"Just torture him for the sport of it. What kind of justice is that?" Buck lay his good hand on the boy's black hair, and stroked it so gently.
Chris' mouth drew into a tight line as he looked at Buck's hand for the first time. "The eye for an eye kind . . . "
Buck finally looked up at Chris, the sick reality of it sinking in for the first time. He said nothing, but the old friends understood each other. They knew what thay would do.
After a long moment, Chris looked back down at the wounded hand, now becoming infected. Buck followed his gaze.
"We gotta do something about this, Buck." Chris was about to open the flask, when they saw that JD's eyes had fluttered a bit.
"Right here, kid."
But JD was trying to open his swollen eyes.
"No, son. Rest them. Your eyes are tired."
But he wouldn't be daunted. And ever so slowly, the boy's own hand lifted, shaking, his poor wrists still bloody. His mouth opened and fresh tears rolled down his face. He reached tentatively to touch Buck's hand.
The wounded hand. The boy smiled and his finger brushed Buck's hand.
The scarred hand.
JD's voice was almost inaudible, but the name was clear.
. . . Jesus . . .
Buck traded worried glances with Chris in the firelight, didn't like the too-bright gleam in JD's wounded eyes as the youth held Buck's injured hand and quietly mouthed that word, once, then again. Buck took JD's shaking hand, gently laid it back down as he said softly, "Just take it easy, JD. You're dreamin', is all." That had to be it.
But no, the boy's eyes were half-shut and gleaming with the onset of fever, but he grasped Buck's hand with an iron grip, repeated the word, almost loud enough to hear, a rough whisper of pain-filled hope:
Then his eyes closed again, and the grip softened as he passed out once more.
Buck paused for a moment, studied JD's hand in his own, then his other hand, hurt and sore with infection that he wasn't even feeling at the moment. Then he gently laid JD's hand.on the boy's chest and leaned back, still not speaking, his eyes dark as he glanced at Chris, then at the fire.
"It's the fever." Chris said in what might have been a matter-of-fact way if it hadn't been for the emotion there. He once more took Buck's inflamed hand, uncorked the whiskey bottle and poured a generous amount onto the clean bandage he held. "Don't mind it, Buck."
"We got to get him home, Chris," Buck muttered, not looking at what Chris was doing for the very good reason that he knew *exactly* what Chris was doing, and elected not to watch. Instead, his eyes were on the injured youth lying before them. JD's wounds had been tended to, the ones they could see; his mangled wrists had been bandaged, the cuts and scrapes cleaned as best as could be managed, but there were other injuries they couldn't help, the cuts around his eyes, the awful-looking rope burns on his neck. And what other injuries were tormenting the youth, making him double up and cry out in pain? Buck cleared his throat and said, more firmly. "We got to get him to Nathan, so's he can get some proper help."
"We will, Buck." Chris said, picking up the whiskey-soaked cloth and glancing at his friend. Okay, this is going to hurt. Tell him, or just do it? "But he's hurt pretty bad, Vin didn't think we should move him any more. We'll find a way to get JD home, as soon as Vin gets back."
Chris's eyes darted to where Vin had been last, on the top of the rise, just after Buck had told them both about Ezra's capture, and Vin had insisted on going to find the gambler, and Casey. Chris had argued, and Buck had backed him up, but Vin was insistent, and in the end Chris had to let him go.
I'll be careful, Chris, Vin had said. Won't cause no trouble, but maybe I can find where they're at. Then I'll come get you, and we'll settle this thing together.
Chris winced as he looked at the cloth,then looked at Buck's hand. He'd wanted to go with Vin, but couldn't leave JD; of course, Buck would protect the kid with his last breath, but the gunslinger was wounded and distracted with worry, and Chris knew what would happen if the Nichols boys decided to come calling, and finish with JD what they'd started. So, he'd stayed.
But dammit! None of this should be happening. They should all be at the saloon listening to JD complain about how he couldn't work up the nerve to kiss Casey, not sitting in the middle of nowhere, miles from town, with Buck wounded, Ezra missing, and JD...
Tell him first, Chris decided, once again looking at the whiskey-soaked cloth, and Buck's injured hand. Yeah, that would be right. "Buck - "
At that moment there was a sound in the trees in front of them, loud and clumsy. Buck jerked his hand away from Chris' grasp and drew his gun with his good hand, leaning his body over JD as he did so. Chris jumped to his feet, pulling his gun also, and aimed it with deadly precision.
"Show yourselves." He barked, his patience frayed and spent. Let's finish this.
But the figure that emerged from the bushes was not one of the Nichols, and it was not an enemy.
It was a nun.
Chris relaxed first, quickly holstering his pistol and instinctively tipping his hat as he stared at the dark-eyed stranger. "Ma'am, you really ought to be more careful."
The nun walked a little closer, her eyes sincere but lit with youthful uncertainty. "I'm here to help you. I'm Sister Sophia, from the mission."
Buck frowned as he leaned back on his heels and holstered his weapon. "Mission?"
Sophia nodded. "I know it sounds foolish, but my uncle Josef and I were returning to the mission and I - " her eyes fell on JD's bloodstained form and she stopped, her face draining of all its color.
Buck saw her concern, didn't feel Chris once again take his wounded hand as Sophia bent close to the injured youth. Appreciating the distraction, Chris swiftly applied the cloth to Buck's hand and began to tie it. Buck didn't notice.
"He's hurt pretty bad," Buck said softly as Sophia gently took ahold of JD's bloodstained collar and pulled it back to look at the rope marks, "He needs to get somewhere warm, and all we got is our horses. "
Sophia's eyes brimmed with anger as she took in the bandaged wrists, the bloodied abdomen, the cuts around JD's eyes. She touched each wound, with a reverence almost Buck thought, and said softly, "Jesus..."
Buck started a little. "Beg pardon?"
Sophia shook her head. "Um - a wagon. Uncle Josef, he has a wagon, just over there. We can take your friend to the mission, and get him help. It's close."
"Could you, ma'am?" Buck asked, "We'd sure appreciate it."
Sophia nodded, and stood up. Chris stood up too and said, "Just a moment, Buck. Ma'am, we appreciate your offer, but there's things going on here that you might not want to be involved in. Taking our friend to your mission might be very dangerous."
"No it won't." Sophia answered firmly, and turning quickly walked back into the bushes.
Buck looked up from JD's side, puzzled. "She said that pretty confidantly, didn't she?"
Chris nodded. "The conviction of the righteous." He knelt down opposite Buck, studied JD's unconcious face for a moment before laying a hand on his bruised forehead. A little warmer...
"We take him to the mission," Chris said with a sigh, "And we'll be in for a lot of trouble if the Nichols boys show up."
JD stirred, gave a small whimper and clutched weakly at his bloodstained shirt, opening his eyes only after Buck bent close and put a concerned hand on his uninjured shoulder.
"Kid, you all right?" Buck said quietly as Chris watched.
JD shook his head mutely, his face shining with sweat and his fevered eyes full of pain as he gazed up at his friend. He coughed, his slight form doubling up from the effort, and as Buck moved quickly to support his back JD leaned toward the fire and threw up.
Chris looked away, knowing JD wouldn't want an audience at such a time, and when he looked back the youth was trembling against Buck's shoulder, his battered face pale as he reached up to awkwardly wipe his mouth with one bandaged wrist before Buck could stop him.
"I'm sorry, Buck," JD was muttering, obviously ashamed at his weakness but unable to help it. "I'm - "
Buck yanked his bandanna off and leaned JD back onto the ground as he dabbed at JD's mouth with a smile. "Aw, never mind that son, you seen me in the alley behind the saloon enough times to know that don't bother me. You just relax now, we gonna get you someplace safe real soon."
"Hurts." JD said plaintively, and once again put his hand over his stomach and curled over on his right side.
"I know son, but you'll be fine," Buck said, and gave JD's shoulder a reassuring pat as he balled the bandanna up in his bandaged hand.
"Casey...I'm sorry..." JD mumbled, and shook all over.
Buck raised his eyes to Chris, asked him to come close. Chris stepped over, and Buck held up the bandanna he'd used to wipe JD's mouth with.
There was blood on it.
"We get JD to that mission," Buck said in a soft, determined voice, "And if those bastards wanna argue I'll be happy to oblige."
Chris looked into Buck's eyes as Sophia returned with her uncle, and didn't say another word.