Dark Times
Broken Friendships

by Jackie and Lanna

"Anything?" Nathan called to Buck almost four hours later.

"Yeah," Buck replied as he joined the healer. "I think we have a serious problem. Vin's horse is gone and so are JD, Josiah and Ezra's."

"Shit," Nathan cursed softly.

"So, I take it from that, Vin's in trouble," Buck said taking off his hat and slamming it against his leg. "What are we supposed to do now? There's only two of us....Chris ain't no help. Guess we gotta go out and find 'em." He put his hat back on his head and turned serious eyes on Nathan. "I want this over, Nate. I miss JD and the others like hell."

Nathan sighed. "So do I." He paused. "We can't do this alone Buck. Not just the two of us. Not against men who know us so well. We're going to need help. I think we should go to Ko-Je."

"Well what are we waitin' for?" Buck answered eagerly. "Lets get saddled up and go get 'im. Every second counts now, for all our sakes."

"You go get our horses saddled. I'll arrange care for Chris and meet you there." As Buck hurried off to get their horses ready, Nathan hurried to the saloon and talked with Inez. She had a huge bull of a man in her employ who got along with all of the seven and between the pair, they agreed to keep a close watch on Chris.

Nathan then headed for his room, where he got the surprise of a life time. Written on his mirror was a very short message. 'Fox Canyon. E.S.'

Taking only seconds to decipher the message, Nathan gathered what he needed, and then raced to the livery.

"They're headed for Fox Canyon!" he exclaimed to Buck. Buck looked back at him with a totally bewildered look. "How in the hell d'ya know that?" he asked, handing over the healers reins and climbing into his saddle.

"There was a message on the mirror in my room. Said Fox Canyon. It was from Ezra!"

"Ezra?" Buck asked incredulously. "What the hell...? D'ya think we can trust 'im Nathan? Thought he was in with the rest of 'em."

"You know Ezra. He could very well be pulling a con over on Calhoun. Calhoun has what he wants now which I'm starting to think was Vin all along. There's no reason to lead us into a trap. With Chris down and JD and Josiah definitely under his control, he could have taken us down right here. No reason to lead us into a trap all the way in Fox Canyon."

Buck laughed loudly. "That son of a gun," he said with a grin. "Thank God for Ezra, I was beginning to wonder whether we'd bitten off more than we could chew this time Nate."

They rode along in silence for a while, both anxious to get to Fox Canyon, and before they knew it they had reached the Indian village and Ko-Je was waiting to greet them, a worried look on his face.

"My friends," he greeted as they dismounted. "The spirits have been telling me grave things. I feel you know more. Come, we will talk." He led them to his tent and once inside, Nathan revealed everything they knew.

"We need your help, Ko-Je," he finished. "We can't do this on our own."

Ko-Je nodded. "Chanu and some of our warriors will accompany you on your journey to retrieve your friends from this great evil."

It didn't take long before they were on the trail to Fox Canyon, with Chanu and the warriors. The air was thick with tension and Nathan was about ready to scream. It seemed as though they were never going to get there. "Nathan, be calm. We will succeed. The demon will not live much longer, and all of our friends will be free of him."

"I hope you're right, Chanu," Nathan replied. 'God I hope you're right,' he added silently.

+ + + + + + +

It was near nightfall and the small group had stopped to let the horses rest as well as to eat and maybe get a little sleep. Vin was tied securely still and being watch carefully. For the moment, JD was interested only in eating and so left Vin alone. Josiah was tending horses and Ezra was approaching Vin.

"You best eat," he murmured, offering Vin a plate of food. "You'll need your strength."

"Like you give a damn," Vin said with a sneer. He did a double take when he saw the look on Ezra's face. Could he be mistaken or was that a look that told him to trust him? Vin stared back at Ezra, frowning, then opened his mouth to speak...but shut it again when Ezra raised a hand to stop him.

"Some things are best left unsaid...it is safer that way," he whispered quietly.

He glanced around, then added, "You are not completely alone. Not all the time. Now eat."

Vin was comforted by that thought and nodded slowly. "Reckon, I am a mite hungry," he replied.

"I'm going to untie you enough to allow you to eat. But trust me, I will shoot you if you try anything."

A funny look entered Ezra's eyes. One that showed an extreme internal struggle. He shook his head as if to clear it, then loosened Vin's bonds enough that the other man could eat.

"Thanks," was all Vin managed to say as he watched Ezra warily. He had seen Ezra struggling with something, and wondered whether he was right to trust him.

Ezra moved to the side a bit as Josiah came over, eyeing the pair warily. He sat down but said nothing, eating silently. Vin tried to eat, but found it difficult. He had no idea why he had been brought out here, but figured it had something to do with Calhoun...you didn't have to have much of a brain to work that one out. He knew his only hope was that Buck and Nathan realized he was missing in time to help him...although Ezra seemed to be on his side....kinda. He caught Josiah looking at him out of the corner of his eye and stared at him defiantly. One thing was for sure, he wasn't going down without a fight.

A low growling caught Josiah's attention and he looked toward the fire. "Something wrong, JD?" he called.

"No," JD replied. "I'm fine." He took a long pull from his flask and a contented sigh escaped his lips.

Ezra shook his head, suppressing a shudder. "Got a problem Brother?" Josiah asked, looking pointedly at the gambler. "You don't seem to comfortable there."

"Reckon he's got good reason not to," Vin cut in. "The company's a mite strange."

"I assure you I have no problem whatsoever," Ezra replied. "Other than the fact that we are out in the wilds with no comforts. You know very well my opinion on that."

"Worried Vin?" JD asked from where he sat next to the fire.

"Now why would I be worried?" Vin answered, turning his head and looking at JD with piercing blue eyes. "Reckon Calhoun wants me alive, so I figure I got nothin' t' worry about from you."

JD grinned and stood, moving over and kneeling next to Vin. His hand shot out as fast as lightning, wrapping around Vin's throat and squeezing. "He may want you alive, but he never said anything about unharmed."

Vin dropped his plate, his eyes growing wide as he raised his hands to try and pries JD's fingers from around his neck. He started to panic when he began to find it hard to breathe.

JD allowed it to continue for a few more seconds before releasing Vin and striking him hard. "Be afraid Vin," he whispered in the other man's ear. "Be so very, very afraid."

Josiah laughed out loud at Vin's discomfort. "Been wanting to do that for days JD. You beat me to it," he boomed, watching as Vin spat blood from his mouth. "Hey look, he almost looks like one of us with all that blood around him," he joked before kicking the tracker hard in the leg.

"Oh I can't wait for the Master to start digging into you," JD said with a sneer, taking out his knife and playing with the tip.

"Go t' hell," Vin spat, but still watched the knife carefully.

"Gentlemen." Ezra leaned forward, to draw attention to himself. "Would it not be wise to save something for Calhoun?"

"Would it not be wise for you to shut your mouth?" JD spat back, looking coldly at Ezra.

Ezra shrugged. "Just a thought," he replied, leaning back again.

"Reckon you think too much," Josiah added with a growl. "Me n' JD are just havin' a bit of fun, that's all. Thought you would wanna join in Ezra."

Ezra shuddered and his eyes glazed over for a split second before he became alert once more.

JD's eyes narrowed. "There's something wrong here," he said slowly, looking at Ezra closely. Vin panicked, knowing he had to draw JD's attention away from Ezra. the gambler was his only hope at that moment, and there was no way he was going to let that hope slip away.

"Yeah, 'n I'll tel ya what it is," Vin jumped in. "You three. Reckon yer followin' the master days'r nearly over...so make the most of 'em." He settled his eyes on JD. "Oh, an' don't think yer'll get back in Buck's good books so easy neither," he added.

JD's eyes snapped to Vin, forgetting Ezra. "Get him on his feet, Josiah," he said softly as he stood. Josiah stood and grabbed Vin roughly by the arms, dragging him to his feet. "Think you opened your mouth once too often Son," he whispered into the tracker's ear menacingly. "About time you were taught a lesson."

"Number one," JD growled, "The Master's days are no where near over." He backhanded Vin hard. "The master is my father and I will die to protect him. Number two, Buck's days, like your hours, are numbered." He punched Vin savagely in the stomach. "Soon as father is finished with you, we're going back to Boston, but on the way, I'm gonna stop and shut Buck up for good. Maybe let Chris out and feed him Nathan. Yeah, I'm sure he'd love that."

Vin was doubled over from the hit to his stomach. He coughed and straightened up, staring hard at JD. "Yer full o' bullshit JD. You got no hope in hell of doin' what ya say...you and that sonofabitch so called Father o' yers." The tracker knew he was going to pay for his words, but if he was going down, then he was going down fighting.

JD ducked his head, chewing on his lip. Then, with no warning, his fist drove into right of Vin's stomach, connecting straight on with a couple of ribs.

Vin cried out as the pain registered in his ribcage. He wasn't enjoying himself anymore. His mind was screaming for help, but he would never let the word pass his lips. He slowly lifted his head until he was looking at JD. "Congratulations," he ground out. "Calhoun's finally turned ya into a no account bastard."

"Awww, I think he's gone and hurt my feelings Josiah," JD said mockingly.

"Mr. Tanner," Ezra spoke up, "I suggest you shut your mouth before you end up a bloody mess." Ezra. Vin had forgotten Ezra was an ally...kind of. He waited until the pain subsided in his ribs and then spoke again. "Yer know Ezra? I can't seem t' do that. You guys bring out the worst in me." He could have kicked himself. Why didn't he take Ezra's advice and keep quiet? It would be a lot easier for him, but he couldn't seem to do it. The anger over the last few days was coming to the surface and spilling out of his mouth, almost against his will.

JD shook his head. "You really are stupid aren't ya? It's amazing. Anyone else would have shut up and stopped trying to piss me off." He looked at Josiah. "Guess we should have expected it. Been watching ya for, what, little over a year now?"

"You've been pissin' me off fer a while....so go t' hell," Vin mumbled back. Hell, where was help when he needed it? In the jail back in Four Corners his mind told him. He sighed and dropped his head in defeat.

JD smiled in delight at movement. "There we go!" he exclaimed happily. "Put him back, Josiah." He turned his attention to Ezra. "Since you seem so concerned, clean him up. Want him nice and tidy looking for the Master," he added with a smirk.

Josiah pushed Vin unceremoniously to the floor and retied his hands before going to join JD back at the fire.

"My friend, you really should learn to heed good advice," Ezra whispered as he poured some water onto his handkerchief and began wiping the blood from Vin's face. Vin looked at the gambler with a tired expression. "Reckon yer right Ezra," he whispered back.

Ezra gently cleaned the blood up, occasionally pausing to squeeze his eyes shut and swallow hard. "I know yer fightin' it Ezra," Vin said quietly. "You can do it...I know ya can. Yer a Standish remember?"

"And you are a Tanner," Ezra murmured back. "Nathan and Buck know where we are headed. They will come and they will have help."

Vin opened an eye and looked at Ezra. "Ya told 'em?" he asked. "Ya left em a message?" he smiled a small smile. "'m proud of ya Ezra. Jest hope they get here quick, JD's too strong fer me."

"I left a message in Nathan's room," Ezra replied quietly. He glanced over at JD and Josiah, who were paying them little mind. "JD I fear has nearly gone off the deep end. Calhoun has tight control over him but I think that if that control were lost...I shudder to think what would happen."

"We have to destroy 'im Ezra," Vin whispered. "We can't help anyone until Calhoun is dead. When's he due to meet up with us? Tomorrow?" He flinched as Ezra continued to wipe the blood from his face.

"Tomorrow night at Fox Canyon," Ezra replied, glancing again at JD and Josiah.

Vin groaned. "Ya mean I got another whole day of them two?" He didn't wait for Ezra to reply. "Heck, I hope Nathan and Buck find us first."

"So do I, my friend. Try to sleep. You'll need your strength."

Vin nodded and sighed. He took a last glance over at JD and Josiah before he got as comfortable as he could and closed his eyes, in an effort to sleep.

+ + + + + + +

They were up and gone well before dawn, riding hard. They stopped only when the horses needed rest and during those times would eat and, if JD felt inclined, abused Vin some more.

Ezra continued to fight. Sometimes, he was in control and other times he wasn't. On one break, unable to control himself, he lashed out at Vin, quelling JD and Josiah's suspicions for the time being.

At long last, they reached Fox Canyon with nearly an hour and a half to spare before dark. JD looked at Vin gleefully as the tracker sat on the ground. "Won't be long now," he said. "Hope you're making you're making peace with your Gods."

"Reckon it's you who's goin' t' hell, JD," Vin shot back. "An' you better start appreciatin' me, 'cause me, Nathan an' Buck are the only people you got t' stop you from goin' t' hell."

"Desperate words of a desperate man," JD replied before giving Vin a hard kick.

"Mr Dunne, would it not be prudent to hold back on the violence a little now? After all, we want to leave something for the Master," Ezra advised the younger man. He was tired beyond anything. The battle going on constantly inside of him was taking its toll, and he was afraid that soon, the bad side was going to win. He had to protect Vin as much as he could, and was still mortified that he had inflicted pain on the tracker himself in a moment when he was losing himself inside.

JD turned to look at Ezra. "You've been showing a lot of concern for the enemy this whole trip, Ezra," he said casually as he moved over to the other man.

He circled around him, eyes moving up and down his length, hand reaching out to lightly trail across Ezra's shoulders and chest as he passed around him. "Kinda makes you wonder, don't it Josiah?"

Josiah tipped his head to the side and regarded Ezra thoughtfully. "Never could work him out anyway," he said. "Don't try and think up an excuse to beat on someone else JD. Reckon yer havin' enough fun with Vin here."

"Well, thank you Mr Sanchez," Ezra drawled, trying to keep his voice even. He had to be more careful how he conducted himself. If they found out he was fighting whatever had a hold on him he would be doomed along with Vin, and that would not help either of them.

JD regarded Josiah for a long moment, then went stiff, eyes glazing over a bit as he stared into space. It lasted several seconds and when the spell passed, JD snapped out, "The Master will be here within the hour."

"Great, can't wait t' see him again," Vin drawled sarcastically, earning him a glare from Ezra. The gambler despaired with the scruffy tracker. How was he supposed to even try to keep him alive if he didn't keep that Texan mouth of his shut.

JD smiled. "He can't wait to see you again either." He glanced around then, eyes narrowing. He sensed...something. "Josiah," he said slowly, "Take a ride around the perimeter. Just in case."

Josiah nodded and walked towards his horse while the other three watched.

"You have an uncanny ability of unnerving me Mr Dunne," Ezra said, finding a fairly clean spot and seating himself on the ground near Vin. "What pray tell are your senses telling you now?"

"I don't know," JD replied slowly, eyes continuing to scan the area. "Can never be too careful though," he added.

Ezra shrugged and cast a glance at Vin, who was watching JD closely. He sensed someone's eyes on him and turned to look at Ezra. 'We can do it...together,' the gambler mouthed to him.

Five minutes passed during which time JD began to grow anxious. He paced, his eyes never leaving the path they had been tracing, hands flexing. Josiah rode in just as the other two men thought JD was going to burst.

"No sign of anything out there JD," Josiah informed the younger man. "Maybe you're just tensed up, waiting for the Master."

"Maybe," JD muttered back, but didn't look or sound at all convinced. His gaze landed on Ezra and suspicion flashed through his eyes but he said nothing as the sound of a horse approaching caught his attention. A smile crossed his lips.

"Master!" he called. "Father!"

John rode in quickly, a smile on his lips. "JD my boy! Glad to see you, son," he said as he dismounted. He wrapped an arm around JD's shoulders, squeezing affectionately. His gaze landed on Vin and he smiled again. "Mr. Tanner," he greeted. "It's a pleasure to see you again, too. So glad you could join us."

"Wish I could say the same," Vin stated, with a look of hate on his face. "So, what sordid little plan you cooked up now, Calhoun?" he asked.

"Such contempt, Mr. Tanner. Didn't you enjoy the ride out here among your comrades?"

Vin screwed his face in distaste. "They ain't no comrades o' mine no more...you saw t' that." He shifted uncomfortably on the ground, trying to loosen the ropes that bound him. He was itching to get at Calhoun, and kill the sonofabitch right where he stood.

"He ain't been able to shut his mouth the whole time," JD said. "Stupid bastard kept asking for it." John nodded. "I can see that. Really now Mr. Tanner. One would think you enjoy pain."

"Hope you do Calhoun, 'cause yer gonna experience some real soon," Vin returned.

John laughed. "You really are an amusing boy. I almost wish I didn't have to kill you."

"An' while we're on the subject, why do ya have t' kill me?" Vin asked. "Did I get too close t' the truth for ya Calhoun? Is that why?"

"Oh no, no, my dear lad," John replied. "See, I had been looking for you all along. I've been looking for you for about four years now."

"Four years?" Vin frowned. "What the hell ya been lookin' fer me fer? I never saw ya before in m' life 'til that day ya showed up in town."

John sat down across from Vin and gazed at him. "I don't suppose you would remember a young lad by the name of Tyler Black," he said, speaking as though he were having a conversation with an old friend.

Vin searched his memory, trying to recall and it didn't take long. "Yeah, that name sounds familiar, what's it got to do with you?"

"That boy was my sister's only son. My only nephew. He was hung because of you, Mr. Tanner. An offense I plan to avenge."

Vin looked back at Calhoun in disbelief. "All this because in your warped mind it was my fault he hanged? I ain't proud of the fact I took some people to the noose Calhoun, but he was guilty and I took him in...that's what it boiled down to."

"The only thing that boy was guilty of was misplaced trust!" Calhoun suddenly snarled. "He had finally come to his senses and was coming home when you took him! My poor sister wouldn't come out of her room for six months! She's still grieving!"

Vin shook his head. "Look I'm real sorry 'bout yer nephew....an' if you've got a mind t' kill me then do it. But there was no need t' drag m' friends int' this. Let 'em all go free an' I'll go peaceful with ya."

John regarded Vin for a moment, then laughed. "Boys?" he said, glancing around at them, "Do you want to leave your master's side?"

JD sniggered. "What do you think? Never! I started living the day I began to follow you John." Josiah nodded in agreement. "Amen to that Brother, I got no intention of leaving your side."

They all looked to Ezra who got to his feet and brushed the dirt from his clothes. "I certainly have no desire to return to my meager existence in that ghost of a town."

"Could have fooled me," JD said, eyeing Ezra.

John looked from JD to Ezra and back again. "JD?"

"He's been acting real strange ever since we left town," JD replied. "Been so worried over Vin's welfare and all that."

John raised a brow, turning his gaze back to Ezra. Ezra could feel himself backed into a corner. Now what did he say?

"You gotta be kidding?" Vin's voice interrupted his thoughts. "I owe some o' these bruises to Ezra, he's a low life sonofabitch jest like the rest o' ya. Seems ta me JD here jest likes t' find trouble."

"I think you've said enough Mr Tanner," Ezra finally said, booting Vin in the back. He had to fight not to wince when he heard Vin's groan. "In my own defense, I was trying to save some of him for you John. JD was in danger of killing him before you arrived."

"The hell I was!" JD growled back. "I knew exactly what I was doing and at no time was he ever in danger of dying."

Before he could continue, John held up a hand. "Enough. We'll deal with potential traitors later. Right now..." His form shimmered as he began changing..."It's time for some fun," the other form finished.

Vin's eyes widened in shock and he tried to shuffle backwards away from the creature in front of him. He made himself a promise there and then that there was no way he was going to die by Calhoun's hands...or his alter ego. He felt tremors run through his body as he heard his three former friends laughing evilly.

Calhoun's other form laughed, sending chills up and down the spines of everyone present. "The fear," it hissed.

It moved fast and before Vin knew it, it was on top of him, pinning him down. It wasted no time in sinking its fangs into Vin's neck. Vin lay shocked, and cried out as he felt the fangs pierce his neck. He struggled and kicked out with his legs, trying to get free but the form was too strong for him.

Suddenly, the pain and weight were gone. Calhoun was back sitting where he had been, back in his human form, wiping his mouth. He grinned at Vin. "I've injected a poison into your blood stream, Vincent. In just a few moments, your penance will begin. You will enter a hell beyond your imagination. And when you are begging to die, I will take more of your blood, but not enough to kill you. Just enough to bring you back, and then you will enter a new hell."

Vin lay still on the ground, still in shock from the attack. Calhoun's words sunk in slowly and he felt panic rising in his chest as reality dawned. It was over for him now, but he could still save the others. Oh, how he wished Buck and Nathan were here now.....and Chris....


Nathan checked his medical supplies for what must have been the hundredth time since the group had stopped and scouts had gone ahead. He was worried and nervous as thoughts that Vin may not be alive kept rushing through his mind. He jumped when the sound of the scouts returning reached him and quickly turned, watching as the two Indians spoke quickly with Chanu.

"They are just ahead," Chanu reported to the two remaining peacekeepers. "The demon has bitten Vin," he added gravely.

"What else can go wrong?" Buck exclaimed loudly.

"Don't ask Buck," said Nathan before turning back to Chanu. "Can we get him back too? How bad is he? Is he still alive? How long til we can kill Calhoun? Are we too late to save any of 'em?" The healer suddenly realized he was rambling and stopped himself. "I'm sorry Chanu, I just need this to be done and finished....and I want my friends back."

"So I do, my friend," Chanu replied, then turned and spoke quickly to the other braves. As they hurried away, Chanu turned back to Buck and Nathan. "They are going to surround them. Come, we will take up positions and strike quickly."

Chanu mounted his horse, waited for Buck and Nathan, then led them to the position one of the braves had told him about. "There," he whispered, nodding down at the camp below.

Buck and Nathan looked down on the scene of the camp. "Shit!" Nathan exclaimed. Vin was laying sprawled on the ground, surrounded by the other four men. "What the...?" Buck began. "Am I mistaken, or does Ezra look as though he's not quite with the others?"

Nathan nodded. "Confirms what I thought back home. He left the message on my mirror but look at him. Even way up here, you can tell he's fighting himself. Or something in him." Nathan paused. "Uh oh. Careful, I think JD feels us."

Down below, JD had stiffened and was looking around carefully again. "John," he murmured. "I think something's wrong."

"I know," John replied. "We have visitors."

"Quickly, we have to act now...." Chanu said urgently. "They are aware of us, and Vin is starting to have a reaction to the bite."

Nathan's head snapped around and he looked down at the camp. Sure enough, Vin was writhing on the ground, obviously in agony.

"My warriors and I will do what we can. You must kill the demon!" Chanu exclaimed right before he let out a war whoop and launched the attack.

From around the rocks, the other warriors let out war cries and rushed from their hiding places to the attack.

"I knew it!" JD shouted. "Protect the master!" he screamed even as Calhoun changed into his demon form.

"Quick, let's get down there!" Buck cried launching his horse towards the camp, with Nathan hard on his heels. They both drew their guns but knew they would have to be careful where they shot, not wanting to hit any of their friends. "Stop him getting Vin again!" Nathan yelled as his eyes found Calhoun in his demon form.

"With pleasure!" Buck ground out, managing to draw a bead on the thing bearing on Vin. He fired his gun and let out a yell of glee as the bullet slammed into the beast and it went down. Instantly, Ezra dropped to the ground where he remained, unmoving.

Josiah stumbled, let out an angry roar and took a shot at Buck. It missed and another roar left Josiah's lips as an arrow flew into his shoulder.

Calhoun, meanwhile, had recovered from the blow of the bullet and was again making his way to Vin.

JD, who also had an arrow in his shoulder, was fighting several Indians at once, trying to get to Calhoun.

"No!" Nathan yelled, firing a shot at Calhoun that hit him in the shoulder sending him backwards again. Vin shuffled his legs, trying to get more space between him and the man who was trying to kill him, all the while trying to loosen his bond. He saw Ezra lying still near him, and could see Josiah growing weaker. Calhoun was struggling onto his feet once more, his evil glare fixed on Vin. The Indians were managing to hold off JD, although the young man's strength was making it a hard job.

"You will not stop me killing him!" Calhoun bellowed to Buck, Nathan and Chanu as they neared the camp. "He will die...Now!" With renewed strength he pounced once more at Vin.

A brave who had made his way around so that he was facing Calhoun let loose an arrow that drilled itself straight into the creature's heart. It fell backwards and seconds later, Calhoun's human form appeared. Josiah moaned and slipped to the ground, unconscious.

JD screamed and began fighting harder, desperate to get to his master's side. Calhoun broke the arrow off and began to struggle to his feet.

"Die you bastard!" Buck yelled, sending another bullet into Calhoun, who fell back again but was still breathing. Buck's eyes shot to JD who was fighting for all his was worth to get to his Master's side. Then the scoundrel turned back to Calhoun who had been hit but yet another arrow, and was struggling once more to his feet, still on his mission to kill Vin.

"We need to get him down long enough to cut out his heart!" Nathan shouted, taking another shot. Both Calhoun and JD let out shouts of pain, giving Nathan pause. Calhoun looked up, blood leaking from him everywhere and shouted in a voice that shouldn't have carried that well, "If you kill me you kill the boy! Can you do that?"

They both looked to Chanu for guidance, not wanting to take the chance if it was true. "There is a chance that will happen." the Indian informed them. "But we can help JD. We have to kill this demon, he cannot live."

Nathan and Buck glanced at each other, then both raised their guns and emptied them into Calhoun's body. He lay on the ground, too stunned and hurt to move, and Nathan raced over with his bag. Calhoun was barely moving but he was still very much alive.

Holding back his nausea, Nathan took out a knife and wasted no time in plunging it into the body and ripping the chest open to get at the heart.

"Holy Shit!" Buck exclaimed, swallowing hard. He watched as Nathan took a deep breath and pushed his hand into Calhoun's chest, trying to grab the man's heart. The healer was almost ready to lose the contents of his stomach when he saw a hand reach over and lay over his. "I will help," Chanu said softly from beside Nathan.

Nathan nodded and gave a weak smile. He swallowed, then together, he and Chanu managed to get to the heart and rip it out.

"Get him to the fire!" Nathan called even as he hurried toward it. The second he tossed the organ in the fire, he turned and slipped to his knees, finally losing the contents of his stomach. Buck and Chanu brought Calhoun's body over and swiftly tossed it in the fire to join the heart. The second it happened, JD let out a horrible, inhuman scream and then slipped bonelessly to the ground. The Indians who were fighting him gathered around, one quickly checking to see if he was alive.

"He lives!" he shouted to the intense relief of Buck and Nathan.

Chanu nodded his head slowly. "He will be alright." He looked around the camp at the other ailing peacekeepers and nodded again. "And so will they."

"And Chris? Will he be okay when we get back?" Buck asked as he walked towards Ezra and Vin.

"You will know when you return home," Chanu replied and Nathan couldn't help sensing some evasiveness in the young warrior's voice. He dismissed it for the moment and hurried over to Vin. The younger man was thrashing around on the ground, eyes wide open and full of fear.

"Vin! Vin can you hear me?" Nathan called out, taking note of the tracker's injuries.

"N...Nathan? Th..that you?" Vin stammered, trying to focus on the shimmering face before him. "Get out o' here n..now. Calhoun's gonna....he's gonna..." His voice trailed off as something only he could see in his delirium took his attention, his eyes growing wide. He grabbed onto Nathan's arm in a vice like grip and then sagged, unconscious.

"It's alright Vin, we got ya." Nathan said quietly. He turned his head to Buck. "How's Ezra and Josiah doing?" he called.

"They're both out!" Buck called back. "Ezra looks a little better than Josiah but I think they're both all right." He got up and rushed over to JD. "Shit," he muttered as the examined the boy. "JD don't look so good!"

"We must get them to your town, there we can help them," Chanu said, beckoning to some of the warriors who were watching Calhoun's remains burning on the fire.

"Best idea I've heard for a while," Nathan muttered.

"We're headed back now?" Buck asked, having heard them as he joined them.

Nathan nodded. "Sooner the better. It'll be slow going, but we need to get back home."

"All right," Buck replied. "I'll get some of the braves and start building litters." He turned and hurried off.

Nathan turned his attention back to Vin. "Better take care of some of these wounds before we head out," he murmured.

Buck walked to the group of braves that were keeping a watch on JD and managed to communicate to them that they needed litters. After they had gone he was left alone with his young friend. Sitting on the floor beside him he glanced over to where Nathan was tending Vin and sighed. He picked up JD's hand and looked at the pale face. "Fine can o' worms you opened this time kid," he said softly, his voice catching in his throat.

There was no response in JD. He was as still as death and if it hadn't been for the very slight rise and fall of his chest, one would have believed he was dead.

It was a good number of hours later before the group was able to leave. Ezra had stirred a couple of times but had not awakened. Josiah had mumbled in his unconscious state but had not awakened either and JD hadn't changed. Vin continued to go through delirium, although it looked as though it might come to an end soon. The journey home was slow and arduous. But Buck and Nathan both felt a sense of relief. At least they had fulfilled what they set out to do. Calhoun was dead. All they had to do now was bring their friends back from whatever hell they were each going through. Thoughts of Chris also entered their heads constantly, both wondering what they would find in the jail when they reached town.

+ + + + + + +

It was almost two days later when they finally got home. After settling the boys in the clinic, both Nathan and Buck hurried to the jail to check on Chris. As it was dusk, they expected him to be awake if he had not changed. Inez's employee greeted them outside.

"Glad to see you back," he said. "Mr. Chris has been very hard to handle."

"What d'ya mean?" Nathan asked with a frown. He pushed past the man who had just spoken and walked to the cell where Chris had been imprisoned. "Didn't he seem like he was normal at all?"

Chris, who had been crouched on the cot, sprang at the cell doors, rattling them loudly the second he saw Nathan. He didn't look any better. In fact, he looked worse.

"That answer your question?" the man, Robbie, replied. "He had the whole town thinking we were under attack a couple nights ago. Sounded like he was in mourning or something. Was terrible."

Buck couldn't take his eyes from Chris. "How we gonna help 'im Nathan? Does it say anything in that book of yers? 'cause if it don't, we're in big trouble, pard."

Nathan closed his eyes, an almost defeated sigh escaping his lips. "Go get cleaned up and have something to eat, Buck," he murmured. "I'll be in the clinic reading and tending to the others."

"You look like you could use something to eat too, Nathan. Want me to bring something back with me?" Buck asked the healer as they left the jail and an angry Chris behind them.

Nathan nodded. "Thanks."

They parted ways and Nathan returned to his room. He checked on the men, then settled down and began to read. He had only been reading ten minutes when a low moan filled the room. "Please tell me I won the poker game that instigated this dreadful hangover," Ezra moaned as a hand reached up to touched his head.

Nathan chuckled despite his worry. "No, sorry Ezra, 'fraid you tangled with a demon," he said quietly, walking over and putting a hand to the gambler's forehead. "In fact, you missed quite a battle."

Ezra blinked up at him groggily. His eyes then widened and he attempted to sit up as he exclaimed, "Vin!"

Nathan grabbed his shoulders and held him down. "It's okay Ezra, Vin's here...he's bein' taken care of." He nodded his head in the direction of Vin's cot. "Calhoun's dead, now we just gotta piece all o' you back together again."

Ezra relaxed a bit at Nathan's words, looking up at him with more emotion than he usually allowed to show.

"I had hoped you would have found my message in time," he murmured.

"We wouldn't have done it without you, Ezra," Nathan told the gambler sincerely. "Now get some rest, that inner battle you were fighting took its toll." He watched as Ezra nodded and closed his eyes, before he could blink the gambler was asleep.

Restless mumbling caught Nathan's attention and he moved quickly to Vin's side. "Easy Vin," he murmured as he sponged his fevered brow down. "What did that bastard do to you?"

Vin's eyelids fluttered open and he squinted his eyes to try and make sense of the blur before him. "N...Nate?" he murmured, before closing his eyes again. "Hurts everywhere. JD stomped on m...me, n' son of a bitch, Calhoun b....bit me," he added barely above a whisper.

"I know Vin, I know," Nathan replied softly, gently running the cloth along Vin's skin. "You're safe now. Calhoun's dead. You're safe."

Vin sighed softly and closed his eyes. The next instant his eyelids flew open again and he struggled against Nathan's restraining hands. "Chris! What happened with Chris? He okay now?" the tracker asked, frantically searching the room for the gunslinger.

"Easy Vin, Easy!" Nathan soothed, easily restraining the weak man. "Don't worry about Chris right now. You need to concentrate on kicking this fever. Okay?"

"He's alright now...he's gotta be....Calhoun's dead..Tell me he's alright Nate," Vin mumbled. Even before the last word had completely left his lips Vin was asleep again.

Nathan closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. 'God help me,' he thought before moving to check on Josiah and then JD. He looked at JD worriedly. The boy wasn't doing well at all. 'Damn you, Calhoun,' he thought as he moved away. "Nathan?" Came a deep voice from the corner of the room. Nathan's head snapped around and his eyes rested on Josiah. "How do you feel?" the healer asked the big man as he turned and walked towards him.

"Like I've been drawn and quartered," Josiah replied with a grimace.

"D' you remember much about what happened?" Nathan asked, checking the ex preachers bandage.

"Last thing I remember was talking to Vin in the church," Josiah replied slowly, then frowned. "No, after that, John and JD came in and then all I really remember is...fear. Lots of...fear," he finished slowly.

"Tell ya what Preacher, you get some rest now an' I'll fill ya in on all yer wicked deeds later alright?" Nathan told Josiah, a small smile playing on his lips.

Josiah smiled slightly and closed his eyes, only to open them again. "Nathan?" He raised a hand and gently felt the bandage around his shoulder. "Were we in a fight? Have I been shot?"

"You were hit by an arrow Josiah," Nathan replied. "Now, don't go gettin' excited on me, like I said, I'll explain when you've rested up. Jest know that everyone's gonna be alright, okay?"

Josiah nodded, eyes drifting closed. He was asleep again within seconds. Nathan checked once more on JD, noting that the boy looked worse than he did just moments ago. With a worried sigh, Nathan turned and went to his desk, returning to his reading.

The door opened several minutes later and Buck came in. Nathan looked up and nodded to him. "Josiah and Ezra both woke up," he reported softly. "Think they're going to be just fine."

"Wish we could say the same about Chris," Buck said softly. His eyes drifted from Vin to JD, both asleep. "How 'bout the other two?" he asked Nathan, "JD don't look too good."

"Vin woke up for a moment. He's still pretty out of it." Nathan glanced over at JD and shook his head. "JD...he's in pretty bad shape. I think he's in shock."

Buck nodded slowly, a deep frown on his face. He walked toward Nathan, noting the book in the healer's lap. "That the book that's gonna have the answers to how we cure Chris and JD?" he asked.

"God I hope so," Nathan replied tiredly. He rubbed the bridge of his nose, exhaustion plainly clear through his whole body.

Buck took pity on the healer and reached out his hand. "Go and get something to eat, I can carry on reading for a while. And if any of your patients wake up and I don't know how to help 'em I'll send for ya...deal?" He stood with his hand out, waiting for Nathan's response.

"I don't know, Buck," Nathan replied. "I really...should keep..." he trailed off blinking rapidly and swaying a bit even though he was sitting down.

"Right, that settles it," Buck said, taking control. He took the book from Nathan's hands and half pulled him from his chair. "Go get something to eat, and then I reckon you need some sleep. If we're gonna help our friends, we need to be bright eyed and wide awake to do it."

Nathan nodded, admitting defeat. "All right. I'll be back," he murmured and quietly left the room. "Mr. Jackson does too much," Ezra spoke softly, his eyes leaving the door and settling on Buck. Buck glanced over at the prone figure that had just spoken. "Yeah, and you talk too much," he said. "Go back to sleep, we need ya to get well." He settled in the chair Nathan had just vacated and opened the book where the page had been turned over by the healer to mark his place, moments before.

"I have tried sleeping," Ezra replied, carefully sitting up. "It is not my friend at the moment."

Buck looked as him exasperated. "Well, keep it quiet then, there's other sick people in here, and I'm tryin' to read."

"I shall be as quiet as a mouse as I leave," Ezra replied, slowly getting to his feet. He swayed, got his balance, then caught sight of JD. He moved over to the boy's bedside and sat in the chair, gazing down at him.

"He's not good, Ezra," Buck informed the southerner. "That's why I gotta read this book. The answers are in here, and we can't help JD or Chris 'til we find 'em."

Ezra nodded and without looking up said softly, "You should have seen him, Buck. You wouldn't have recognized him. He took such delight in hurting Vin and I'm pretty certain he was making plans for me as well. I never want to see that...thing wearing JD's body again. I want that sweet, naive Kid who would do anything to protect his friends backs." He reached out and gently took JD's cold, trembling hand.

Buck winced at the realization that JD was the one who had hurt Vin and he cast a look at the tracker, still sleeping quietly in his cot. He looked back at JD and sighed. He hadn't allowed himself to think of the young, excitable man that had been missing for so long, replaced by a hateful, scheming shadow of a human being. His heart ached for the day when he would be able to tease his young friend again, and that made him more determined to find the answers in Nathan's book. "Me too Ezra, me too," he said finally, before returning to his reading.


Comments to: Lilandriss@yahoo.com