~~ Deliverance ~~

by TJ

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

"Done with the rounds, Kid?"

"Yeah," Dunne nodded as he joined Wilmington at the bar. "Everything's quiet." He smiled his 'thanks' to Inez as she set a beer down in front of him.

"Just the way we like it," the ladies' man watched the pretty senorita walk away.

Glancing around the saloon, JD noted Standish at his normal table. The southerner was engaged in a game of poker with two of the stage passengers. "I see Ezra's up to his usual tricks."

"Yeah… fleecin' the establishment's unsuspectin' patrons," the rogue announced in his best 'Ezra' impression.

Dunne looked back at his friend and laughed. "Five dollar words just ain't your style, Buck. You'd best stick to honey. You like what it attracts."

Raising his glass, the rogue grinned mischievously. "That I do, my friend… that I do."

JD sipped at his beer happily. "You, eh… seen Chris since he got back from his shack?"

Wilmington pointed to the far side of the saloon. "Usual corner."

Casually, the kid glanced over, but then squinted. "Who's that with him?"

Buck followed the kid's stare and frowned. "Must be Vin," he mused. "Only one besides me, who's dumb enough to sit in the dark with Larabee."

Dunne smiled at the thought before his inquisitive nature took over. "So, how'd Vin make out with Miss Ginny today? He's been kind 'a quiet since all this started."

Taking another sip of his beer, Wilmington licked his lips and smiled. "It seems Miss Ginny likes Vin's hair."

"Really?" JD asked quizzically. "Somehow… I can't picture that."

Buck was still grinning for ear to ear. "Well, it must be true."

The kid cocked his head, "how's so?"

"Cause it came from her mouth, not his."

Dunne smirked before taking another drink. His expression became thoughtful. "Makes sense, though. Vin ain't one for talking anyway. Least wise, about himself."

"Miss Ginny don't think so," the rogue continued. "Says he's a real interestin' fella once you get him talkin'."

JD was surprised. The tracker was the last person in the world he'd think of as 'talkative'. "O-kaaay," he shrugged.

Wilmington cocked his head, too. "She sure is somethin'. Seems to 've put on a twist on everyone she's talked to."

"What about you, Buck?" the kid asked. "How'd your meetin' go?"

"Didn't," he shook his head. "Miss Ginny had a busy day. She was gettin' mighty tired. Vin's the one that insisted she get some rest."

Taking another sip of his beer, Dunne nodded his understanding. "So you get ta meet her tomorrow then."

Wilmington was thoughtful for a moment before a gentle smile breached his lips. "Feel like I know her already, JD."

"Buck," the kid raised an eyebrow, "you say that about every lady you meet."

The rogue's customary laugh echoed throughout the saloon.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

The next day brought a heavy rain to Four Corners.

The town's mood changed with the storm front and most folks kept to themselves.

Virginia Spencer was tired, the weather dampening her spirits as well as everything else.

Late in the morning, Nathan was called out of town to help with a birth.

Josiah, Buck, and Vin rode with him as the panic stricken husband didn't 'want no 'darkie' touchin' his wife'. Only the thought of losing mother and child had allowed for the concession… but, one of the other men had to remain with the healer at all times.

When the four peacekeepers rode back into town well after sunset, they were all tired. Inez prepared a light snack and served it with a round of drinks.

Few words were exchanged and their mood was still somber when they finally turned in.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

"You boys got in late last night."

Josiah looked at Chris thoughtfully before taking up the seat beside him. "Yep," he said quietly. "Had a little burial to perform."

Larabee's eyes closed briefly and then his gaze drifted off up the street. "Man cause trouble?"

The preacher shook his head. "We thought it best to spare him. Rest of the men on that wagon train weren't any friendlier."

The gunslinger frowned. "Spare him?"

Sanchez nodded slowly. "Sometimes, I really do think God watches over us."

Chris knew he was missing part of their conversation. Yet, when he looked at the calm on the preacher's face, he felt a strange peace himself. He understood not to press the issue. Josiah wasn't ready to tell the whole story… not yet. "You seen Buck?" he changed the subject.

The older man shook his head, his gaze focused on something… or nothing, down the street.

Getting to his feet, Larabee sighed. "Well, if you see him… tell him Miss Ginny is waiting on him. She'll be ready whenever he is."

The preacher's head turned. He looked up at Chris and nodded slowly.

Sensing something akin to sorrow, the gunslinger paused, eventually forced a gentle smile, tipped his hat, and then departed.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

Settling into the chair across from her, Wilmington strained to smile. He wasn't one to dwell, but right now, he'd much rather be some place else… preferably the saloon. "So," he began, trying desperately to sound cheery. "We finally get ta sit down and talk," he announced, slapping his knees.

"Yes," Virginia replied happily. "Although we have talked quite a bit. Your friends do seem to think you have a… a talent for it," her eyebrows rose teasingly.

"Oh, yeah," he cleared his throat. "Don't you mind them none. They're just jealous is all." There was a pause as he searched for a distraction. "Besides," he continued quickly, "You ain't had the chance ta see my handsome face, yet. That's gotta count for somethin', don't it?"

Listening to his laughter made the young woman want to join in, but there was something else in Wilmington's voice…

Something she recognized too well.

She smiled for him, but the glow slowly faded as she sat back in her chair, arms folded across her chest. "You're always so happy, Buck… How come?"

The rogue's grin wavered for just a moment. His eyes drifted and he licked his lips…

He needed to keep up the act…

"Well, hell, Darlin'… someone's gotta keep everyone happy. That job falls to ol' Buck here. And, I do a mighty fine job of it, too, if I do say so myself."

There was a pause as Miss Spencer listened to the forced inflections in his tone… Listened to what he was really saying…

Wilmington knew she suspected his disposition. There was tension between them and, as much as he sensed her mood change, the rogue also understood that she could see right through his deception. "Course, Chris might disagree with me on that," he pressed on. "He gets a might ornery sometimes. But he knows he can't put one past me. If there's one person alive who can make that man smile… well, I guess that's gotta be me. Less 'a course it's a woman… or he's really pissed…" The ladies' man suddenly realized what he'd said. " Oh, excuse my language, Miss Ginny. I didn't mean to say that."

"Quite alright, Buck." Wanting to stay focused on the man's 'act', she tried desperately to hide her amusement. "You just say what you want to."

"Reckon I said enough… don't ya think?"

Taking a deep breath, the young lady leaned forward in her chair and set a hand on his knee. "Then how about if you tell me… what you don't want to say."

As she gazed up into his dark pools, the rogue felt himself struggling. Today was not the day to be doing this. He closed his eyes, attempting, against all hope, to whisk himself away.

It was no use.

Getting to his feet, Wilmington stood at the back of his chair, fingers pawing tensely at the wood. "Ya know… Maybe we could do this another time," he scratched the back of his head.

Her eyes had followed his movement, and for just a moment, they wavered. When she looked back at him, her face was empty. "I've lost one day already, Buck… I… can't afford too many more."

He knew it was the truth. His expression bore the anguish of that fact, and all the other painful realities that had passed in his lifetime. From all that sorrow, Buck always managed to find a way to make it all right. "Well, how about you pick a topic," he forced away his demons. Smiling, as though nothing was wrong, the ladies' man sat back down and grinned from ear to ear. "I'm sure you got things you can tell me about, Darlin'. Lots that I'd wanna hear."

Her movements were slow and deliberate, as though in a dream. Her arms reached out for him. Her hands touched his chest and drifted to his neckline, and then on to his chin.

"Miss Ginny..." he tried to object.

"Shh," she insisted, soft fingers coaxed his lips into submission.

He wasn't ready for this.

The one time in his life, when he didn't want a lady's touch and it had to be now…

As her hands traveled the length of his jaw, Buck's eyes searched for a distraction. His heart beat faster and his breath quickened, yet, he was approaching panic, not being aroused. "Ginny… Darlin', I can't do this right now…" he took her hands in his and held them tight. Looking into her beautiful brown eyes, he kissed her fingers and smiled.

Virginia moved back as he slipped out of his chair again. Their hands lingered momentarily before he let go. She heard no more words from him as he walked to the door, paused briefly and then left. Her unseeing eyes drifted slowly down… and then closed.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

William rose quickly from his seat as the healer exited his sister's room. "What's wrong, Nathan," he asked quickly.

Jackson shook his head. "I told you yesterday, Mr. Spencer. Ain't nothing wrong with your sister, 'cept what we already know."

"There must be something else," the young man said desperately. "She's been closed up in her room for three days."

"Well, she is very tired…."

"What aren't you telling me?" he pulled Jackson by the arm.

Glancing up from the hand that held his elbow, Nathan forced himself to relax as it was withdrawn. "Miss Ginny did say she was about ready to announce her decision."

William pulled back, staring at the healer blankly. Clearly, he didn't want to hear what she had to say. "Already?" he looked away.

Resting an arm on the young man's shoulder, the healer spoke quietly. "I don't think there's much time left, Will."

Spencer's face was expressionless as he looked into Jackson's reflections.

"She wants to talk to you."

Nodding, his eyes drifted to the door. "Thank you, Nathan," William managed to say before turning for the entrance. He knocked softly, waited, and then went inside.

Jackson bit his lip as the door closed. His dark pools shut briefly before he nodded solemnly and then walked away.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

"She looks awfully pale," Dunne whispered as William and Virginia entered the saloon.

It was late in the evening and the seven peacekeepers had gathered around their usual table at Spencer's request. He'd said only that his sister had an announcement to make.

"She looks mighty pretty, if you ask me." Buck's gaze searched the other faces. They all nodded or mumbled their agreement... all resigned to finally hear her decision on a positive note.

"Good evening, gentleman," William announced as the couple arrived at the table.

Assorted greetings were directed at the Spencers, cautious smiles offered as well.

Hearing the vigilance in their replies, Virginia breathed heavily, snapping herself into a happy frame of mind. She, too, was determined that gloom wouldn't rule this decision. "I'm in the mood for a drink… anyone care to join me?"

Frowns were exchanged as Spencer voiced his objections. "Really, Ginny… you shouldn't be…."

She turned quickly on his arm, her practiced hand rising instantly to his cheek. "No more games, Will," her demeanor was way too serious all of a sudden. Her voice fought to remain calm. "Not anymore… we do this my way, from now on… We both know there isn't much time."

William's chin dipped into her hand as he kissed it softly.

As he nodded, she pulled him to her shoulder, forcing back her tears. Once more, she took a deep breath, and turned, her brother straightening in her wake. "So, who has a drink for me… whatever you're drinking is preferable."

Always excelling at masking his true feelings, the gambler responded, trying to change the mood. "You may regret those words once you've tasted it, Ginny. The present alcoholic beverage that my companions are… subjecting me to is rather… crude, shall we say."

Her cheerful persona was back where it belonged. "My dearest, Ezra… if you can drink it, then I'm sure I'll manage."

The southerner could only grin.

Two more chairs were brought to the table.

Two more glasses accompanied another bottle of whiskey. Even William decided he would try the evening's refreshment of choice. He coughed wildly as it burned the back of his throat and the other eight occupants of the table reacted with varying degrees of amusement.

The young man was a good sport. His smile however, waned slightly as his sister prepared to drink. "Just take a sip, Ginny," he urged. "Remember what Mr. Standish said."

The lady frowned. "Is that the best way?" she mused. "Or the easy way?"

"Both," JD answered from across the table.

"Well," she replied, eyes wide. "We can't have that, can we?" And, in one quick motion, the young woman downed the entire shot.

The stunned silence was incredible as Virginia's shock took her breath away. Moments later, a sudden wave of fresh air burst into her lungs and she coughed and spluttered all over, accompanied, quite hysterically, by an explosive fit of giggles and laughter.

At first, the men weren't quite sure what they should do.

Nathan patted the young lady on the back and William touched her shoulder reassuringly. The remaining six men showed varying degrees of concern once more. Worried looks vied for dominance over knowing smiles.

"Oh… my… goodness," Virginia finally blurted out. "That's got to be… the worst thing I've ever tasted."

"I did warn you," the gambler smiled.

Her eyebrows rose. "Yes… you did… Ezra," she coughed. "Quick… someone pour me another," she tapped the glass on the table.

"You can't be serious," her brother protested.

"I can, and I am," she banged the glass again.

"Coming right up," Larabee announced without hesitation. He leaned over the table and poured the liquid into her tumbler.

Once Ginny's glass was full, the bottle was passed around and the men watched incredulously, as she downed her second shot… theirs following quickly behind.

It didn't take quite as long for her to recover this time, but there were still a few moments of ambiguous silence.

The quiet was finally interrupted as she began to nervously tap her glass on the table. For several long seconds, Virginia worked to regain her breath. The men exchanged a few apprehensive looks before she finally looked up. Her eyes searched around the table and she smiled for them "Well…" she choked mockingly on the alcohol. "Now that I've found my strength… it would seem that I've come to a decision…."

The mood was sedate and several of the men nodding understandingly.

Chris cleared his throat. "We're all ready to hear… whatever it is you have to say, Ginny."

Licking her lips, the young woman seemed to hesitate. "Not like you have a choice…" she smiled. "But, first… I want to tell you all… that it's been my absolute pleasure to get to know each and every one of you over the last nine days." Her lips pursed before she continued. "I only hope that my… being here… hasn't caused too much discomfort…."

Doubt and denial broached several faces, each man concerned with subduing his own memories and feelings.

The ensuring silence was broken as Miss Spencer wet her parched lips and continued. "Nathan," she turned slightly in her chair. Reaching for his hand, she squeezed it when their fingers met. "Umm…One might assume you to be the logical choice to be with me when I pass from this world."

Jackson squeezed her hand in response... his breath was pensive yet his face was calm.

"But, I won't do that to you this time. It's a choice for me… and too many times, it's a choice you haven't had the luxury of making," her struggle to remain unemotional was clearly evident. "An unfortunate duty… bound to you by the profession you practice." Bowing her head briefly, she looked back at him and smiled. "I thank you for your caring and your dedication… but this patient isn't going to die in your arms. Not this time…."

The healer forced back the feelings that welled. "It's been a real pleasure, Miss Ginny," he tapped her hand before she pulled it free. Glancing around the table, Nathan quickly found his whiskey.

There was a pause before the lady continued. "JD?" she called out as her chin lifted to look back at the men.

The young man practically jumped out of his skin at the sound of his name. He looked at the outstretched arm and froze.

Wilmington frowned, nudging the kid and indicating that he should secure the offered hand.

Taking a deep contemplative breath, Dunne reached for Miss Spencer's searching fingers. "Here, Ginny," he spoke nervously.

"Oh, JD," she squeezed his hand tightly and looked up to stare at his face. "You've lived beyond your years already… I won't subject you to anything like this."

For days, the kid had been waiting to hear those words but now that they had been spoken, he couldn't help but object. "I ain't afraid, Ginny. I can do this if you want."

Reaching the other hand to his, she tapped it lightly. "This isn't up for debate, JD…" she smiled. "I appreciate your courage… I never doubted you could find the strength in your heart to deal with this… The problem isn't you… it's me. I don't possess the strength to ask this of you." It was her turn to take a deep breath. "They'll be far too many more things in life for you to deal with," she pulled her hands back. "Save your spirit for the challenges that lie ahead. The ones… you'll have no control over."

Dunne lowered his head as though he'd done something wrong. He searched for the right words to speak. Finding none, he nodded nervously. "All right, Ginny," he eventually replied.

Hearing the acceptance, however reluctant, her eyes again wandered the table before bowing. "Vin," she whispered.

The tracker sat forward in his chair and reached for her arm. "Over here," he said, his voice as quiet as hers.

Virginia's head was still down when she touched his taut fist. She caressed the back of his hand; her fingers tracing the length of his as he slowly relaxed. "Not this time," she whispered. She still did not look his way.

Tanner could only nod. For the second time that week, he understood her compromise. "Deal… Miss Ginny."

She squeezed his hand before Vin pulled it back. He nodded once more and reached for his drink.

Virginia rocked back and forth several times, seemingly searching for a way to continue. "May I have some more whiskey?" she finally spoke, tapping her glass lightly on the table.

Dunne glanced at William and Nathan questioningly. Seeing no argument from either man, he reached for the closest bottle. "Coming right up," he announced as he leaned over and poured.

She glanced in the kid's direction and smiled. "Thank you, JD." Awaiting the liquid with anticipation, she listened to the shot fill and then slowly brought it to her lips. She only took a small sip this time; the glass lingered at her mouth before she slowly let it settle.

The hesitation was hard not to notice.

"You alright?"

Reaching for her brother, Virginia closed her eyes, her head nodding gently. "I have to finish this, Will."

"I know," he whispered back, trying desperately to keep his feelings in check.

Miss Spencer turned back to the table. "Chris," she called, her momentary intermission giving her renewed conviction, her voice a little more cheery.

"I'm right here, Ginny," the blond answered confidently.

A grin crossed her lips. "Where else would you be," she responded matter-of-factly. "Here is where you belong now… I can't ask you to leave, Chris. You've found another place… other people to care about… who care for you… Deny it or except… either way, it's the truth. I won't take you away… to face this again… alone."

Larabee's lips pursed as he acknowledged her words. He'd admitted more to this woman than he had anyone else… except, perhaps Buck. Chris had just wanted to show Virginia that he had the fortitude to complete any request she asked of him. Unknowingly, he had given her reason to spare him a deed that no man should have to perform twice in a lifetime. "You're the boss," the blond said quietly.

Her gentle laughter echoed sorrowfully. "Oh, now wouldn't that be nice… then none of this would have to happen at all."

They all tried to make light of the situation, yet none of the men could quite manage the necessary joviality. Once more, all seven were glad for Virginia's sightless eyes. Yet, all, it seemed, had forgotten her incredible perception.

The young woman swallowed back another lump in her throat. It was quickly choked down with more whiskey. "Well, that's four of you off the hook," she announced, trying to lighten the atmosphere yet again.

The gambler thought his added comments might help. "Most assuredly, Miss Spencer, none of us consider this assignment 'a hook' as you put it. It is our utmost pleasure to grant you your final request."

"Well said, Ezra," she turned, the seriousness of her words lost in her continued good mood. "After all, one should expect final wishes to be honored…."

Standish lowered his head to hide the smirk on his face. Virginia was most certainly one of the bravest individuals he had ever met. Her 'poker face' at the table of life made him thankful that he'd never had to face her alone, in a genuine game of chance.

" But… it won't be of you… that I make this request."

At her declaration, the grin on the southerner's face disappeared. The slow rise of his chin brought his eyes to meet hers. "I am… sure your choice was made with great thought, my dear," he said hesitantly.

"Indeed," the lady smiled. Her gaze lingered in his direction for just a moment before it turned away once more.

"So, that just leaves two," she quietly. Her eyes remained averted for a moment. Nevertheless, when her chin rose again, her eyelids were shut tight… the weight of her decision, and the words, clearly resting heavily on her shoulders.

Buck and Josiah exchanged a brief look. They were both a little apprehensive about Virginia's choice, showing concern for the events transpiring, and their participation. They managed resolute smiles before movement drew their attention.

Swallowing down the remainder of her whiskey, Miss Spencer winced at the taste but pushed it from her thoughts. "Remind me not to do that again," she spoke aloud.

Apprehension coated the atmosphere at the table. The lack of response to her attempted humor led the lady to feel that reaction far too clearly. She glanced around before her hands outstretched, gauging the position of the final two peacekeepers. "Buck," she waited for him to take her hand. "Josiah," her fingers curled around his. There was a moment of silence as she explored the flesh that touched hers.

Finally, with a small squeeze, she continued. "For each of you… I have a task…" her face showed no telltale signs of emotion, yet, her words, when finally spoken, exhibited audible signs of distress. "It is my sincerest wish, Josiah… that you help William..." her eyes fell briefly before she looked back at the preacher. "You've… helped him sooooo much… already. I ask that you continue to guide him over the coming days. Do not let him leave Four Corners without… peace in his heart," her voice broke slightly at the last words. Another deep breath forced back her feelings yet again.

Sanchez glanced at the rogue and acknowledged the woman's choice before concentrating on Virginia herself. "Whatever I can do to assist you, my dear." Looking at William, the preacher bowed slightly, allowing the pain in the young man's eyes to fill his being. "It is my honor to serve you both in any manner I can."

Mr. Spencer blinked away the water from his eyes, his weary gaze unable to focus on anything but his sister.

"Thank you, Josiah," the young woman offered quickly. Her grasp on the preacher's hand finally relinquished, she drew the clenched fist in tight. "And from you, Buck Wilmington… I ask the most…"

The rogue moved his other hand to hers.

"Guide me to a place of my choosing…" she said calmly. "Stay with me until… my passing… Commit my body to the ground… and my soul to the heavens."

Several of the other peacekeepers shuffled uncomfortably in their seats. The unintended depth of Virginia's words caused more than one of them to reach for their whiskey.

As her brown eyes gazed intently at him, the ladies' man saw the faintest hint of dread. And then, as though a door had opened, he could see every emotion that she'd kept so carefully guarded.

At that moment, it hit him... Buck hadn't been prepared for her choice…

Virginia had locked herself away in her room shortly after their brief meeting.

She had not seen him as she had done the others.

They had not spent hours talking, as the other six had done.

Why had she chosen him when their work was not complete?

"Buck," JD whispered as he nudged the older man's arm.

His attention drawn to the kid, the rogue quickly looked back at Miss Spencer. "I'd… I'd consider it… my greatest honor," he stuttered.

Virginia didn't believe him… not for one minute. Nevertheless, her choice had been made, and nothing was going to change her mind. "We leave at sunrise, the morning after next," she said quickly. "Can you be ready?"

The ladies' man was still reacting sluggishly. He stared for just a moment before responding. "Yes, Ma'am," he replied, trying to feed some semblance of enthusiasm into his strained voice.

"Good," she smiled, pushing the chair back as she got to her feet.

William and Nathan were at her side as she swayed.

"Whoa there, Miss Ginny," Jackson coaxed. He gave Mr. Spencer a negative shake when the man shot him a worried glance. "You just ain't used ta that whiskey, Ma'am. You'd best let William take you to your room. I'm thinkin' you'll be sleepin' mighty fine ta night."

Virginia smiled, letting the healer slowly guide her around the table. "Thank you, Nathan… for everything."

"My pleasure, Ma'am," Jackson replied as her brother directed her to the door.

Seven peacekeepers watched the couple leave, and then, each man, in turn, focused on Buck.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

"You gonna eat that," Larabee questioned his oldest friend.

Lost in his thoughts, Wilmington barely registered his leader. He glanced up slowly, dark blue eyes registered the man gradually, but his ears hadn't heard what he'd said.

Taking up the seat beside the rogue, Chris frowned. "Inez tells me she served you that food over half an hour ago. She's asked you twice if there's anything wrong and you haven't answered her."

Buck cocked his head, pushing the plate away. "Well, I didn't ask for it in the first place. Damn fool woman thinks I need to be taken care of."

The gunslinger sighed. "Well… from what I can see… she might be right."

"Just got a few things on my mind, is all," Wilmington scowled. "You understand that… don't ya?"

Drawing on every cautious, serious, and earnest instinct that he'd ever possessed, Larabee pulled up straight in his chair and looked his friend straight in the eyes. "Talk to me, Buck. If you're not up to this… for whatever reason… you got 'a tell me now. I'm not about to let you go off with…."

The rogue interrupted, "I can do this, Chris." Staring at the green eyes that held him so sternly in their gaze, he licked at his bottom lip before speaking, "you know me better than any man alive… you know I can do this."

It took a long moment before the gunslinger slowly nodded. "I might know well, Buck. But no one knows what goes through your head when it comes to the ladies… besides the obvious," he relaxed a little.

"You ain't…."

"No," Chris cut him off before he could speak the offensive words. "But, that's just it. There's things about you and women that… Hell, I don't wanna know… Just makes me wonder is all."

Looking at the blond intently, Wilmington finally relented. "I can do this, Chris."

Larabee studied his oldest friend again. Several long tense moments passed before he finally nodded again. "Alright," he mumbled. "But, you better be sure."

Watching the man in black stand, Buck's chin dipped just a little. "I am, Chris," he looked back and grinned solemnly. "I am."

Slightly more reassured than when he'd arrived, the gunslinger took a deep pensive breath, pursed his lips, and then relented, turning and departing without another word.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

"Ginny," Sanchez poked his head around her door. "You wanted to see me?"

From her place on the bed, Miss Spencer waved the preacher on it. "Come sit," she tapped the spot on the mattress.

Standing beside the bed, the big man frowned. "Now it just ain't proper for a gentleman to sit with a lady on her bed."

"It is, if she says he can," Miss Spencer quipped back.

"Well, alright then," Sanchez settled in beside her happily.

The two shared a quiet solemn moment. They gazed and smiled before Virginia slowly moved her hands out.

The hint obvious, the preacher retrieved the wayward limbs. "What do you need, Ginny. You know I'll do anything I can."

Her head lowered and her hands shook nervously. All manner of emotion quickly welled in her soul, overwhelming the defenses that had managed to keep them a bay all this time. "I… I'm… Oh, Josiah," her voice broke.

Pulling the woman into his arms, Sanchez cuddled her softly, acknowledging for only himself that he might understand her feelings. "Shh," he comforted, slowly stroking her back.

They remained like that for endless minutes before the preacher spoke. "Tell me, Ginny."

Slowly wiping the tears from her eyes, Miss Spencer righted herself, looking up into his eyes. She smiled; touching the strong jawbone, knowing his strength was more than physical. "Oh, Josiah," she repeated, stray water trickling down her cheek. "I was so sure this was the right thing to do for Will. He's just… so… attached."

"Happens… when you love somebody."

Ginny could hear the calm in his voice and she smiled again as more tears escaped. Relinquishing his touch, she settled to his chest. "Is it possible to love someone too much, Josiah… Will's done everything for me. He's given up his life for me…."

"Sounds… like you're as attached as he is."

Pulling away, Virginia looked at the preacher, astonishment in her eyes. Yet, as she thought about the calm reassuring tone of this man's voice, she smiled, knowing he was urging her to talk. "I think… we have always been close… even before all this happened."

"Family is a precious gift, Ginny. Be glad that you have him." Josiah pulled the covers around the lady as she leaned back against him. He held her, the solace evident in the simply gesture.

Tears threatened to crest once more and Miss Spencer did nothing to hide them. "Help me, Josiah. How do I… how do I say goodbye?"

The preacher shook his head slowly; pursed lips quelled his own feelings. "Just hold him, Ginny…" he said quietly. "Hold him and tell him how much you love him."

Her emotions flowed freely again as quiet sobs filled the air.

Josiah pulled her close, offering as much reassurance and comfort as he could.

Virginia cried quietly in his arms while the preacher rocked her gently. He couldn't help but wonder how long it had been since she'd allowed herself to feel like this and he was so very glad that she was able to do it now.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

"How's she doing?" Jackson asked of Sanchez as the big man appeared at the door.

Several hours had passed, and stepping inside their office, Josiah nodded to Buck. "Sleeping soundly," he glanced at the healer and smiled.

Wilmington finished rolling the extra blanket and turned to Jackson. "She's been doing that more in the last few days, Nathan. How…" he hesitated. "How long...?"

The healer was flustered at how to answer his friend. "Can't say for sure, Buck. She's… she's got her own feelin's about it though…."

"So… you don't think it'll be long?"

Getting to his feet, Jackson ventured closer and set a second blanket down. He looked the rogue straight in the eye. "Not long at all…" he confirmed quietly.

Returning the all too serious stare, Buck nodded before lowering his head. "How will I know…?"

Jackson's chin dropped, too. Again, he was uncertain of his answer. "Can't say as I know for sure…" he began. "William said the doctors weren't exactly sure themselves."

It was obvious that Wilmington was fighting to find the right words. His lips pursed several times, his eyes searched for something… anything to focus on. "Is there gonna be any pain?" he finally managed to ask.

Jackson cleared his throat and did his best to reassure the ladies' man. Trouble was, there wasn't any extensive information to pass on. "Ain't a lot they know about this, Buck… but, from what I've read… no," he shook his head. "Don't think there'll be any pain. No real sign that anythin's different. Just her being tired, is all. Most likely, it'll happen real quiet like."

Cocking his head, the rogue showed his discontent. Retrieving the extra blankets, he headed for the open doorway. "Thanks," he murmured as he left.

Josiah and Nathan were left to exchange unsettled looks.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

When Buck arrived at the livery the next morning, the two horses were all saddled and ready to go. The packhorse had several bundles already strapped down and Dunne was busy putting the food and utensils into another bag.

"What ya doin', JD?" the ladies' man grinned.

"Oh, hey, Buck," the young man smiled. "Just helping out a bit. Something I can do to help… before Miss Ginny leaves."

"It'll all be over soon, Kid," the rogue lowered his head. "We'll be out 'a here… once all the good-byes get said…."

"Oh… she don't want no good-byes," JD responded slowly.

Wilmington looked back and frowned. "Josiah told us all yesterday," he glanced away. "Any of us that wanted to, were supposed to go see her last night."

"How come I didn't hear about this?" Buck stood with his hands on his hips.

There was a moment of silence while Dunne simply stared, bewildered. "Cause… you ain't one of the lucky ones," he said quietly.

Wilmington could see the regret on the younger man's face as his chin dipped, hiding his hazel eyes from scrutiny.

Going to the kid's side, he clamped both hands on either of the kid's shoulders. "We're all the lucky ones, JD," he smiled as their reflections met again. "We've all been honored to know a wonderful… courageous, and spirited young woman."

Dunne was thoughtful as Buck relaxed his hold on him. He looked up into the big man's eyes and furrowed his brow. "Do you remember what you said when Will and Ginny first got here…? About wanting to have a reason to go over and introduce yourself."

The ladies' man allowed the memory to drift into his consciousness. "Yeah," he nodded.

"We were just 'eavesdropping' like Josiah said…."

Again, the taller man indicated his agreement, this time, with a grin.

The calculated expression was clear on the kid's face. "You reckon Will's right? That fate brought them here… that you…."

"JD," Buck broke the ensuing silence. "I don't know how she picked this town… Why she ended up… picking me… but, what I do know," he straightened his shoulders. "Is that I intend to fulfill my commitment and allow that woman her final request… with all the grace and dignity that she deserves."

Swallowing hard, Dunne turned back to the satchel he was stuffing "I'd… better get this bag packed then."

Acknowledging the emotion in his young friend, the ladies' man took a deep breath, averting his eyes, and forcing a smile. "Yeah, son… you'd better."

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~


~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~