"Well why’d ya suppose Clyde Maxwell didn’t tell anyone about losing three of his cattle?" the kid asked.

Chris looked over at Tanner then shook his head.

"Losing livestock ta predators ain’t nothin’ new kid," the tracker replied.

"He didn’t think nothin’ of it until I told ‘im about the dog pack," Larabee put in.

"Maxwell’s ranch is in the same direction as the other two attacks, so we know where to start looking," the gunslinger concluded now that he’d been filled in on all the relevant information. Standish entered the office and nodded a greeting as Chris continued.

"We need to determine where it is that they’re hold up."

The gambler cleared his throat and moved forward.

"I believe I can answer that query for you Mr. Larabee."

"You seen ‘em?"

"Unfortunately yes … I have." With all eyes and ears on him, Ezra relayed his distressing news.

"I located the mutilated remains of Joseph Langdon a short time ago. I barely managed to secure his body before the … animals in question attempted to … attain another meal, shall we say."

The other peacekeepers showed visible signs of distress at the news Standish had related. Langdon had stood up for the seven on many occasions and was genuinely friendly to them all.

"You alright Ezra?"

"Yes, Mr. Jackson. Quite." Standish looked back at the gunslinger and continued. "There were indications about the homestead that the pack had resided there … probably for a few days at least."

"Well … we know where ta go hunting," the tracker piped in as he moved forward.

Larabee nodded his head in agreement.

"We need ta end this before anyone else gets hurt… or killed. But the sun’s goin’ down. We can’t do anythin’ ‘til mornin’."

He moved towards the door as he spoke.

"No one goes out after dark. Make sure you all get some rest and be ready to ride at sun-up. We’ll try and catch the pack …"

"As they’s comin’ back from their night prowlin’."

Larabee looked at Tanner for a moment. The helplessness of the situation was realized as Chris conceded the tracker’s concerns.

"We’ve just got ‘a hope that folks listen to the warnings. We can’t go after ‘em in the dark Vin. It’s close to an hour out to the Langdon place."

"And from what I was able to observe Mr. Tanner. We need to dispense with these beasts from a united front. Should they be able to divide our attempt, there might perhaps … be greater casualties than Mr. Langdon."

Vin thought on the words and nodded his head. Proceeding cautiously might be the safest route this time, and he wasn’t about to try anything by himself. None of them liked the idea of losing more livestock overnight, but this was preferable to loosing more human lives.

James Watson cried out in pain as Jackson uncovered the injured leg and reached for the warm water.

Margaret and Andrew stood by the door and cringed at their son’s anguish.

"Easy son," Nathan prompted as he bathed the leg gently.

"It hurts Dr. Jackson."

"Indeed it does James. And I’m afraid it’s gonna be a few more days before I can get the rest of this sewed up."

"I don’t understand why you have to leave it open like that," Andrew spoke as he stepped forward. He scrunched up his face as he peered at his son’s leg then focused his attention on the healer.

"I read about this type of injury in that new book I got. It says that bone damage often causes fluid build up which blocks blood flow. That’s what causes gangrene."

Nathan spoke as he continued to bath the wound. The discomfort it was causing James was obvious to all, as the boy’s moaning persisted.

"Gangrene?" Margaret repeated. She understood all too clearly what that meant.

"Yes ma’am. That dog had a hold on the leg bone. Didn’t break it, but sure made a mess of it. Probably about the same as if it were torn clean off."

Mrs. Watson was clearly distress by the description Jackson was offering. The healer thought twice on his words as he observed her worry.

"I’m sorry Mrs. Watson," Nathan apologized as Andrew put his arm around his wife to comfort her.

"I wouldn’t be leaving the wound open if I didn’t think I should. Letting the tissue drain and wiping all that fluid right outta there before it gets a chance ta build up or fester. It’s best … "

"Are you sure Nathan?"

The healer looked deep into the distraught father’s eyes. He’d never heard Watson use his first name before and it just accented the man’s concern. He lowered his head as he finished up bathing the wound. Slowly replacing the wet towel under the boy’s leg with a clean one, he turned back to the parents and smiled.

"That fancy book’s right over there, sir," he pointed to his desk and smiled.

"Don’t rightly know where it came from, but it’s got a lot ‘a good information. Says this process is proven. I don’t have the surgical drains that it talks about, but I’m doing what I can." Jackson got to his feet and rested a hand on Andrew Watson’s shoulder.

"I’m as sure as a healer can be."

The preacher walked quietly up behind the shadowy figure that leaned against the banisters that led to Nathan’s clinic. He watched as the man lowered his head in response to the moans coming from the room above. Convinced he had to talk to Wilmington now, Josiah took another step forward.

"The trials and tribulations of life come far too early for some."

The lady’s man scoffed at the remark and moved into the stable. Sanchez followed but purposely kept some distance between them.

"Young James will most likely survive his injuries … as did our John Dunne."

Buck looked towards the preacher angrily but thought better on a confrontation and turned away.

"Must be Larabee rubbin’ off on me at last... I can’t face up ta all this anymore… It’s easier ta run away Josiah. Chris is right … lettin’ people get close to ya just ain’t worth it." The lady’s man took a deep breath.

"It’s easier just ta walk away," he whispered.

Sanchez moved a little further into the barn and out of the cold night air.

"Seems to me two of our friends tried that a couple of months ago … and were shown the error in the ways… Chris Larabee included."

"I ain’t in the mood for one of your sermons Josiah. Let it be."

The preacher looked intently at Wilmington, smiled and shook his head. He could no more leave his friend alone than let him walk into a gunfight by himself. Reaching into his breast pocket he pulled out a letter and read quietly to himself for several minutes.

Maybe his own words couldn’t fix this particular problem, but he knew of some that might. He’d read the message many times in the past six weeks, but the poetry and meaning were puzzling without a purpose. Only now did some of the words seem to have any significance.

I leave your kinship knowing that my task was achieved, yet I know the struggles
for some are not over. Only destiny can grant my presence Josiah, so I must
entrust them to your care. Please help them to remember my words in time
of need. | 
Ezra will be as he always has been until cat arrives to soften his resolve.
Until then you must see to it that he remembers his friends, and they remember
him. | 
The cowboy is more sensitive to the world than he will ever admit. This is
a good thing. Only time will show you how. When he is troubled, do whatever
you can to cool the fire in his heart. He guides himself without knowing.
Allow him the freedom to lead all of you when the time is right. He will
always watch over your brotherhood if his purpose is clear. | 
A decisive challenge still lies ahead for Christopher. Remind him to be true
to his heart before all else. Show him patience when he tests yours. Give
him your wisdom when he needs you the most. Without acceptance there is no
forgiveness. | 
Vin Tanner... I can only wonder why the spirits left me alone with
  him. I succeeded in returning him to your fellowship. Yet my course of action
  causes his mind to wander still. Keep him close for six cycles before you
  let him roam free. My second chance may be his last. Athena

The preacher folded the paper and smiled again as he replaced it into the safety of his pocket. Well at least some of it was beginning to make sense. He thought for a moment, he guides himself…

"Then how about you own words Buck Wilmington."

The lady’s man looked over his shoulder curiously.

"What in the hell are you talkin’ about now?"

"Seems to me you told me just yesterday… let me see know … I can’t leave Josiah… I made a promise. Yeah, I do believe that’s how you put it."

The younger man turned away from his older, and clearly, wiser companion. Now he was mad at himself as well as everyone else. He shrugged his shoulders wishing the preacher would leave him alone. He didn’t want company and he sure as hell didn’t need anyone reminding him of his own foolish words.

Bowing his head, Josiah tried again.

"She cooled the fire in your heart once Buck ... "

Wilmington shifted position but the few words the preacher had spoken seemed to calm him slightly.

"Honor her words … Find the strength you need to quell the anger that you feel now. Your true purpose here will only become clear over time."

Sanchez smiled as he thought about the blessing the seven had be graced with five months ago. Although he had spoken with her only once, he understood all too well, the results of her presence. And he agreed with the request she made in her letter. Reminding these men, in time of need, could only serve to enforce her reason for coming to Four Corners in the first place. Athena was gone, but her spirit lived on in the wisdom of her words.

Buck had his eyes closed. He was trying to recall the softness in her voice and the purposefulness with which she spoke. Slowly he lowered his head as the gently voice penetrated his mind.

The preacher tapped his breast pocket, cocked his head and smiled before turning to walk away.

"Mr. Wilmington?"

Buck looked up to see Mrs. Watson standing at the bottom on the stairs. Having relinquished himself to remembrance, he’d obviously lost track of time. He patted his horse gently, set the brush down and moved out into the stable.

"Ma’am," he replied cautiously.

The lady’s man moved further out of the barn and watched the woman as she gazed upwards at the clinic door.

"Is everythin’ alright ma’am?" he asked.

"Oh … yes," the woman answered, "I just wanted to thank you Mr. Wilmington."

Taken aback by the proclamation, Buck tried to dismiss the remark.

"No need ta thank me ma’am."

Margaret Watson took a few steps towards the tall man and rested her hands on his arms.

"Not enough of us … thank you men … each and every day Mr. Wilmington." She looked up into his dark blue eyes and smiled.

"Thank you for coming to warn us. Thank you searching for my children so patiently… and thank you for getting James to Dr. Jackson so quickly Mr. Wilmington." She squeezed Buck’s arms tightly before letting go.

"I can never repay you or the others for the good you have done for this community…"

She looked into Buck’s eyes one more time, then turned towards the stairs. Taking the first two steps she turned her head.

"I can never repay you for the life of my son."

They exchange smiles. The lady’s man followed Mrs. Watson with his eyes and felt a strange sensation starting to overwhelm him. Not wanting to let anyone else see the emotions, he headed down between the two buildings. The meadow lay beyond the structures, and with it, there came time and space.

The seven were gathered on a small rise about a mile behind the Langdon homestead. They had made a wide arc completely around the immediate area before securing their horses on the back side of the rise. Vin had been trying to count the dogs while the gunslinger attempted to formulate a plan.

"I see twelve … no fourteen," Tanner whispered as he lowered the spyglass. He looked at Chris and shook his head.

"We get much closer and they’re gonna pick up our scent," Nathan commented quietly.

"And I dare say that we shall be easily discovered should we attempt an assault on horseback," Standish piped in softly.

"They’ll scatter like deer with a cougar on the loose," Vin agreed.

Behind the four men Josiah was busy laying out a mock-up of the Langdon compound in the dirt. He was listening to their banter and trying to formulate a plan of his own. The large house to the north was represented by a comparably large piece of dead wood, while the large and two smaller barns to the west were now similar sized rocks. The preacher had etched the north/south approach into the dirt and the smaller outbuilding east of the road, were represented by piles of pebbles. Just laying out the corrals using twigs, Sanchez looked up as JD knelt down.

"What you doin’ Josiah?"

"Playing in the dirt is not exactly your style Mr. Sanchez. I do hope there is a point to your efforts." The gambler joined them and moved around to position himself with his back to the rising sun.

Watching the shadow as it cast itself over his creation, the preacher smiled and looked up at the two men surrounding him.

"That’s exactly my point Ezra. Thank ya."

Enjoying the obvious confusion on the gambler’s face, Josiah turned his attention to Larabee and Tanner.

"Chris," he called. He motioned for the two to come over, as they looked his way. Jackson followed close behind and called for Wilmington to join them. Buck had been looking out over the property from his resting spot under a large tree. He had been enjoying the apparent calm the surrounding countryside provided.

As the remainder of the seven gathered around, the preacher took hold of a small branch. Using it as a pointer he described his plan.

"Ezra and Vin are right about us goin’ in on horseback. They’ll hear us comin’ and that’ll probably spook ‘em before we close enough ta do anything."

"I agree," Larabee commented. He looked at the preacher and smiled.

"Am I gonna like this?" he asked rather dubiously looking at the model in the dirt.

Sanchez smiled his usual broad smile and raised his eyebrows. Pointing the stick to the smaller outbuilding to the east he cocked his head and looked at his fellow peacekeepers.

"If we leave the horses here and circle ‘round to the east … we can approach from behind these buildings. By the time we get close enough for them to smell us, we’ll have the element of surprise."

"And just how’d ya figure that Josiah?" the kid piped in.

"It’s down wind," Jackson answered.

"And the sun will be at our backs," Standish added. He suddenly realized why his shadow had caused the preacher such amusement.

"Lookin’ inta the early mornin’ sun ain’t no good fer no one’s eyes. Most ‘ll avoid it given half a chance," Tanner finished up.

"So they won’t smell us or see us until it’s too late," Dunne concluded.

Chris nodded his head to Josiah and looked about at his men. The consensus seemed to be unanimous. Following Larabee’s lead, they all stood and moved towards the backside of the rise. Sanchez put his arm around the boy’s shoulder and smiled, as JD looked his way.

"Let’s just pray it works as good as it sounds," he announced as they followed the others.

Using the finely tuned sign language they had perfected over the past two and a half years, Larabee directed his men to fan out and advance on the small buildings that lay ahead of them. Weapons drawn at the ready, the men followed directions and silently approached the structures.

Tanner had taken point and made his way to the branding shed before any of the others. He grabbed his spyglass and checked on the dozing hounds that lay out and about around the large barns in the distance. He signaled to the others ‘so far, so good’, then proceeded on to the larger tool shed.

The seven gathered in a small group behind the last building that stood between them and the wild dogs they had come to kill. They all checked their weapons again and made ready for the assault that was about to happen. Josiah said a small silent prayer and they watched as Tanner again signaled the okay to proceed.

Between the animals and the men lay the dirt courtyard which Joseph Langdon took such pride in. The driveway, which approached the house from the south, widened into the large open section in front of the house.

A very large, very old oak tree stood in the middle of the semi circular gravel courtyard. A wide cavity had been created around the tree with large rocks forming a retaining wall to hold in rich soil. From the well-tended earth sprang an assortment of greenery, and even the coolness of the October air couldn’t mask the promise of the vibrant colors that amazed everyone in the spring. The grandeur of the modest garden had been Mrs. Langdon’s gift for all that came up their entranceway. Joseph had preserved his wife’s memory in the beautifully cultivated spot.

Knowing that the wild hounds would spot them soon after they cleared the small buildings, the peacekeepers had decided to spread out as they advanced. Josiah and JD moved north of the garden to cover off the smaller barn northwest of the house. The remaining men moved south of the greenery and advanced on the larger barn directly in front of them.

As they approached the center of the courtyard, two of the dogs sprang to their feet and started to growl wildly. Chancing a quick glance to each other, the men continued their cautious approach. They wanted to get as close as possible in order to be certain none of the animals escaped.

All of the dogs were now on their feet and vicious snarls accompanied bared teeth. Vin took the first shot as the largest of the hounds began his charge. As the shot rang out the remaining dogs followed their apparent leader. A flurry of gunfire and growls ensued. The wild canines seemed to sense they were in a fight for their lives, and the viciousness of their response reflected that. They tried to use each other as protection as they attempted to get close to their attackers.

The seven peacekeepers stuck to their plan. They formed a staggered line and presented an unwavering front. As the number of hounds remaining began to dwindle, JD moved up and around to the north while Ezra circled from the south. The line of men in between widened, so that their ranks remained evenly spaced.

Five minutes seemed to pass in the blink of an eye, but soon the sounds of the wild dogs were silent. Nathan made his way around the fallen animals and finished off those who were still waiting to die. The remaining men doubled checked the buildings cautiously to ensure all of the beasts were accounted for. Thankfully the whole business was over and those who were destined to die had met the maker as mercifully as possible. .

"Thank you again, for watching Billy for me Lydia."

"Oh, I’m always glad to help Mary," Mrs. Haynes replied to the widow. They had agreed that the burial of Joseph Langdon was no place for their boys. Billy would stay and play with Cody, while his mother attended the service.

Lydia was happy to stay with the boys. She had no desire to take her three-month-old daughter to the service on such a cold day. And Martin Haynes had left earlier in the morning to help dispose of the carcasses that littered the Langdon ranch.

"Billy said you got ‘em all Mr. Larabee," the younger Haynes commented shyly to Chris as the three ‘boys’ came around the side of the house. He seemed less reluctant to talk to the gunslinger when Billy was around.

"Yeah Cody… we sure did," Chris replied.

"There, you see," Lydia said to her son as he came to stand beside her. "I told you."

"Ma’am?" Chris questioned.

"Oh it’s nothing Mr. Larabee," she dismissed her comment happily. "Cody was helping Martin saddle his horse this morning and thought he saw one of the wild dogs. Martin looked. He couldn’t find anything."

"Would you like me ta check Mrs. Haynes," Chris questioned cautiously.

"Oh no Mr. Larabee. Martin looked around. As I said, he found nothing… and like you just said," she smiled and ruffled her son’s hair. "You killed all of the dogs yesterday."

"All right then ma’am," Chris tipped his hat. He smiled at Mary and helped her to the seat of the buckboard. Untying his horse from the back of the buggy he mounted up.

"See you in a couple of hours," Mary smiled to Lydia as she set her horse in motion. Chris tipped his hat once again and followed.

"Bye Ma…" Billy called out. "Bye Chris."

Lydia Haynes smiled at the two adults as they left. Together and yet not quite she amused herself with thoughts. She turned her attention back to the children.

"Right you two," she smiled. "Don’t go getting into any trouble now… ya hear."

"Yes Ma," Cody replied as he took off running towards the barn.

"Yes ma’am," Billy chimed in, as he too, took off running.

Mrs. Haynes smiled again as she shook her head and went on into the house.

The burial of Joseph Langdon was taking place on his property. Several hundred feet east of the big house stood a white picket fence. Inside the enclosure, the headstone of Ruth Langdon stood surrounded by its own little garden of greenery.

Many of the townsfolk had gathered for the funeral and Josiah was presiding over the service as Langdon had requested in his will. Josiah concluded the ceremony with the customary quotation and the gathered crowd watched as the casket was lowered into the waiting ground. Mr. and Mrs. Langdon would reside here… together again, side by side for all eternity.

"Lovely service Josiah," Mary commented to the preacher as they walked towards the big house.

"Why thank you Mrs. Travis."

"Yes, I can quite appreciate why Joseph requested you to perform the service…" Standish added to the conversation as he joined them.

"But?" Sanchez questioned. He could tell when the gambler was thinking too much.

"It puzzles me to no end…"

Josiah looked at Ezra and raised his eyebrows questioningly. Quickly realizing that he had spoken out loud, the gambler concluded his comment.

"I can not understand why Mr. Langdon would have willed his entire estate to his younger daughter."

"I’m not sure I follow you Mr. Standish," Mary said. She too was puzzled. Not by the legal papers she had been requested to witness yesterday, but by Ezra’s focus on that particular aspect of the will.

"Well you see," the gambler began as he stopped in front of Mary’s buckboard, "Joseph hasn’t seen or heard from the younger Langdon in quite some time. In fact… if I read his reaction correctly. I assumed that there was quite an amount of… ‘animosity’… between them."

"And you know this … how?" Josiah inquired.

"He spoke of her only once." His facial expression reflected indignity as he continued, "…and then told me to mind my own business."

The widow and the preacher were both amused and surprised by Ezra’s statement.

"You’re right Mr. Standish. Joseph didn’t get along very well at all with Katrina."

"You know the young lady in question?" Ezra had been intrigued since Joseph had told him not to ask any questions.

"No, not really," the widow devolved. "She left about the same time Steven and I arrived. Ruth Langdon did tell me once that they were too much alike to ever get along. Katrina didn’t even come back for her mother’s funeral."

"Curious," the gambler commented as he thought on Mary’s words.

"I’m sure Joseph, had his reasons for what he did. You were there to witness the reading of his Last Will and Testament. We have no right to question his final requests."

"Oh, I can assure you Mrs. Travis, I would do nothing of the sort." The gambler turned to continue his walk towards the large barn. "I was simply pointing out the peculiarity of the proclamation."

"Peculiar!" the preacher repeated. "That would be the part about you being executor… wouldn’t it Ezra?"

The southerner simply raised an eyebrow to the remark, tipped his hat to the pair and left their company. Josiah shook his head at the gambler’s reaction. He smirked and waved the widow to her waiting chariot. Lending his hand in assistance, the preacher stepped back as Mary made herself comfortable and took hold of the reigns.

She looked over towards the large barn then averted her eyes. She had seen Vin and Chris in the distance as they stood beside the dead dogs.

"At least I can travel in safety without the fear of…"

Josiah could see how uncomfortable Mary was with the sight before her.

"We showed them more mercy than the owners who abandoned them Mrs. Travis. Be happy that we did … and they have found peace at last."

The widow smiled at the big man and refocused her thoughts.

"Well, I have to pick up Billy before I can get back to the article I need to finish for tomorrow’s paper." Mary smiled again and set her rig in motion.

"Good day Mrs. Travis." Sanchez tipped his hat as the widow departed and then watched as Andrew Watson backed his large wagon over to where the carcasses lay.

"One more task to accomplish," he whispered to himself. He glanced skyward then headed over to the other men to lend his assistance.

Reciting something about the setting sun, Josiah had suggested the western property line of the Langdon ranch as the final resting-place for the beasts. This meant the pit was nearly eight miles away. Andrew Watson offered the use of his large cart so the task could be accomplished in one trip. Given the deeper sides on the bailing wagon, it seemed like a good idea. Everyone had agreed to the plan, and everything was happening as scheduled.

Claire Watson sat on the corral fence and watched apprehensively as the group of men loaded the dead dogs into their bailing wagon. Seeing dead animals was nothing new for the young girl, but these ones scared her, even in their current state.

"I sure am glad the weather’s been cool," Vin commented as he passed another body up to the wagon. He pulled the bandana away from his nose and wiped his forehead on his sleeve.

"Can’t imagine the stench if this‘d happened in the summer," Dunne piped in as he added another carcass to the pile.

"Well, that’s it brothers." Josiah looked around and took off his gloves. "The unloading should prove easier than the loading."

"Amen to that," Jackson said as he pulled down his bandana.

Andrew Watson jumped down from the bed of his wagon and smiled at the gunslinger as he approached.

"That’s all of them Mr. Watson … We’ll follow you out to the burial site and then we can be done with this.

"Chris," Jackson called. "I’m gonna head back ta town and look in on James."

Larabee nodded his head as the healer smiled at Watson, slapped him on the back and headed back towards the house.

As the other men started to disperse a small voice spoke, "What about the big one Pa?"

Watson looked at his daughter as she came closer to their wagon. The young girl’s words had also drawn the attention of the four peacekeepers.

"They’re all here Claire. Mr. Larabee and his men shot them all."

"No sir," the girl replied cautiously.

A sudden worry came over Wilmington as he began to pay attention to what was going on. He left his perch at the fence, knelt down beside the girl and took hold of her shoulders so she was facing him.

"What did you see that we missed Claire?"

The girl looked up at her father for comfort and he nodded his head in reassurance. Claire looked up at Larabee and Dunne then looked back at Buck.

"The dog that bit James…"

The lady’s man looked the young girl in the eyes and smiled. He could tell she was unsure about the news she had to deliver. Buck nodded his head and smiled again.

"The dog that bit James ain’t here Mr. Wilmington," she said slowly. Buck flashed Chris a nervous look as he let go of the child and stood up.

"Are you sure Claire?" her father questioned.

The girl looked up at her father and then over at the wagon. She closed her eyes and a tear ran down her face.

"I bashed it in the head ta make it let go of James’ leg." She looked up at her father and started to cry even more. Andrew knelt down and wrapped his arms around her in comfort. They all took a moment to acknowledge the girl’s torment at what she had been a part of.

"You did real good Claire," her father whispered. "James is gonna be just fine… It’s okay."

Larabee stepped towards the man and his daughter. He hated to press the girl, but they needed to be sure of what she was saying. Watson looked at the gunslinger and silently acknowledged the request.

"Are you sure Claire?" he asked again. He stood up still holding the girl in his arms. "Are you sure that dog ain’t here?"

Claire pulled herself away from her father’s shoulder and looked him in the eyes. She nodded her head resolutely as she wiped a tear from her face.

"If I saw that dog again Pa… I’d know … he ain’t here."

Buck, Vin, JD and Josiah quickly followed Chris as he headed for his horse.

"What’s the matter Chris?" Vin asked anxiously.

"Cody Haynes told his parents that he saw a dog out at their place this mornin’," he relayed the information quickly as he mounted up.

"Lydia Haynes is out there by herself with Cody and Billy…"

"And Mary…" the preacher added. "She left about an hour ago."

Larabee’s face betrayed the emotions he was feeling as he set his horse into a gallop. The other four men gathered their horses and followed as quick as they could.

"She’s just so beautiful," Mary commented to Lydia as she handed back the baby to her mother.

Mrs. Haynes smiled at the comment yet her heart was hearing the yearning in her friend’s voice. Their boys were almost the same age, and Mary too should have been sharing in the joy of a new child. Billy and Cody had become fast friends after the school was realized at the beginning of the year. Lydia and Mary had become close friends too, yet the young mother still couldn’t comprehend how Mary dealt with being widowed at such a young age.

Bundling her daughter against the cool breeze, Mrs. Haynes looked up at the sound of the boys playing out by the barn. They were attempting to roll the hoops Martin had made, and Lydia laughed as the children rolled their ‘toys’ inside the building.

"Looks to me like you should grab that young man of yours before they disappear," Mrs. Haynes said happily.

"And you should get that baby back inside before she catches a cold. I won’t hear the end of it if Nathan knows it’s my fault."

The two women smiled as they acknowledged each other’s truths, before parting company. Mrs. Haynes walked a few steps to her doorway while Mrs. Travis headed across to the barn to find he son.

Not more than twenty seconds later Lydia looked up from her cooing baby and her heart sank. The boys had grown quiet and Mary had stopped in her tracks two thirds of the way to the barn. Standing off to the right, just in front of the workshop, stood a large dog. Its eyes were trained on Mary as it began to snarl.

Mary’s eyes moved slowly from the boys, to the dog as she realized why they had stopped playing. She turned her head and looked towards the house.

"Take … the … baby … inside … Lydia," she called out desperately.

Mrs. Haynes shook her head no, but she was torn between what actions she wanted to take. Moving her baby out of harm’s way would have been perfectly acceptable had there not been three other people in danger. The fact that one of them was her six-year son didn’t help matters either. Slowly she backed closer to the front door and felt for the handle.

Mary turned her attention to Billy and Cody. Raising her hands slowly she motioned for them to go back in the barn. Given his mother a distressed look, the younger Travis took a step towards his mother. The loud snapping, growling sounds coming from the predator brought Billy to a stop.

"Very … slowly," Mrs. Travis began, "walk … backwards … into … the … barn … until … you … are … out…. of … sight." She chanced a glance at the dog before continuing.

"Ma! …"

"Billy … please. Get … up … the … ladder…"


"Just … do … it … Billy," she smiled at her son in an attempt to calm him down. "Please…" she begged as the dog took another step forward.

Billy and Cody looked at each other and then back at Mary Travis. They seemed to acknowledge her directions in unison, and started to back away. Their sudden movement caused the dog to move towards them.

The widow momentarily panicked and took two steps forward to block the animal’s path. She wasn’t thinking of herself. The only thoughts going through her mind were for the safety of her son and his closest friend. Distracted from the moving targets the dog refocused onto the closer one and growled maliciously.

"Slowly!" Mary called out again before looking the dog in the eyes. She kept the animal’s attention while the boys gradually slipped into the barn. Several long seconds passed before the animal steadied itself on his hind legs and charged at his intended victim.

Mary’s senses ceased to function as the large, savage animal flew towards her in its bloodthirsty rage. Shock blocked out the agitated screams that came from Lydia Haynes. The widow didn’t hear the desperate cry that came from the hayloft’s second story access hatch. Her six-year-old son watched in horror as the wild creature attack his mother.

As the hound’s weight forced Mrs. Travis to the ground, she instinctively started to push it away. Her frantic screams drowned out the voice that called her name as he rushed towards her.

"Mary," a desperate Chris Larabee called out as he reined in his horse and sprinted the distance to her fallen body.

"Mary," he called again as he pushed the dead animal off of the widow. In the last desperate seconds before the dog reached Mrs. Travis, the gunslinger’s bullet had found its target and silenced the beast once and for all. As he forced the dead animal away he pulled the woman to his shoulder and held her tight.

Calming her cries with his soft voice, he pulled her closer. And as the widow slowly came to the realization that she was safe, her tears ceased and she allowed herself to rest in the comfort of his strong arms. For a long moment there was no one else in the world for these two people.

The tracker did a quick check on the dog. Acknowledging that the creature was indeed dead, he joined Dunne in the barn and retrieved the panicked youngsters. Repeating ‘It’s okay’ over and over, Vin and JD slowly returned the distressed boys to the ground from the safety of the hayloft.

Josiah and Buck answered the despondent cries from the house. As Sanchez tried to calm Mrs. Haynes he handed the screaming infant off to Wilmington. Desperate eyes alternated between the preacher and the terrified child as the lady’s man tried to figure out what he should do.

"Just rock her gently," Josiah whispered as he guided the despairing mother inside and looked for a chair.

"Shhhhh," Wilmington called out as he did his best to follow the directions he had been given. When the preacher waved the big man towards the door, Buck reluctantly complied with that instruction too and went back outside.

"Shhhhh," the lady’s man called again, more gently this time. The child was beginning to calm and Buck could sense it. He looked out and watched as Mary and Chris let go of one another as Billy came running out of the barn and flew into his mother’s arms.

Smiling softly at the declaration he witnessed in two pairs of eyes, Buck rocked the baby softly as she started to settle. Speaking quietly to his charge, Wilmington started to walk slowly around the house.

"Easy Billy," Tanner urged the boy, as he grabbed a hold of his mother and squeezed tightly.

Mary tried to calm her son with words of comfort as Larabee got to his feet and looked into the tracker’s eyes. They shared a common nod of the head as they accepted the completion of their task.

The sound of hoofs prompted the men to turn around.

"Pa," Cody Haynes yelled as he moved away from JD. He approached his father cautiously as Martin stopped his horse, jumped down and grabbed his son.

"Cody," the senior Haynes called out as he held the boy. Having seen the five peacekeepers rush off back at the Langdon ranch, he had asked Andrew Watson what was wrong. Receiving the desperate news, he had made his way home as quickly as possible.

Taking great comfort that his child was safe, he looked around anxiously.

"Where’s yer Ma?" he asked quickly when he couldn’t locate his wife.

"She’s in the house Mr. Haynes," Dunne responded. She ain’t hurt, but she’s mighty upset. Josiah’s seeing to her."

"Are you alright Mrs. Travis?" Martin asked. He could see the blood on the widow’s dress and was notably concerned.

Mary looked at the carpenter blankly. Although she heard his question, she was still too focused on her son to react.

"She’s fine," the tracker answered. "It’s the dog’s blood not Mary’s."

Martin looked around at the scene before him and closed his eyes for a brief second. He didn’t want to think about what might have happened had these men not been here, but the thoughts wouldn’t stay away from his mind. Becoming visible upset with the whole incident, he turned towards the house.

"Thank you," Martin Haynes whispered as he directed his son to the house.

"Mary," Chris called out quietly after the man had moved away. Receiving the woman’s attention he held out his hands to help her to stand.

"Can you get up?" the gunslinger questioned.

Nodding her head in response, she kissed Billy on the head as Vin prompted the boy to move. She took the strong arms that were offered to her. Letting Chris help her to her feet, the widow held on tight as the blood rushed away from her head.

Watching his mother gain her feet, Billy turned to JD and Vin and smiled.

"Easy," Larabee spoke softly. "I got ya."

He smiled at the gentle face that turned to him for comfort. He held her close to reassure them both, that she was safe. For the second time in as many minutes, Mrs. Travis found herself comfortable in the strong arms of one Mr. Chris Larabee. She welcomed his touch and took comfort in the strength of his caress as he ran his hand across her back.

Outside the Haynes residence, a contented Buck Wilmington solemnly surveyed the spectacle he was witnessing. He smiled at his friends, then gazed down at the sleeping baby in his arms. Somewhere, deep inside, Buck knew that the pieces of a very large puzzle were coming together… one tiny piece at a time.


Continued in
Thankful Hearts