Magnificent Seven Old West
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When The Sun Comes Back!

by Winnie

Disclaimer: Not mine, and never will be, but it is fun to play around in this sandbox

Comments: This story has been 4 years in the making and I hope you enjoy it. Thanks to Marti and Antoinette for the wonderful beta.

Author’s Note: Thanks so much Deirdre, for your help with this story and for bringing so many wonderful characters to life. Without you, it would have lain flat, but instead it has depth and I hope people enjoy it. There is a beauty in the world . . . a beauty given to us by God and we call her Mother, Mom, Ma, Aunt, Grandma, Sister, Friend.

(File Size: 1.34 Meg)


De Rivera Hacienda

Northern Mexico

The fertile land of the hacienda covered 60,000 acres and was home to many mestizo people. The fields were alive with the rich crop of the midsummer months and would make for a bountiful harvest under a bright moon. The field workers, known as peons, were busy checking the cacao bean and the cotton plants. When the harvest was completed most of it would be sold to the Americans who frequented the cantinas in the settlements along the Rio Grande.

The hacienda owed its very existence to its close proximity to the Rio Grande. The workers had diverted the water from the river onto the lands and during the last ten years the dream had become a reality to the De Rivera name. A system of trenches and wooden funnels brought water to the crops and also brought life to what were once desolate lands. The cotton plants and cacao beans thrived under a rich hot sun because of the water that would otherwise have been unattainable.

In several areas magnolias, styrax, and hamamelis intermingled with beschorneria, agave, and cactus, some reaching as high as 60 feet, but had been cut down or uprooted to clear the land for planting. The landscape was also home to many animals, and birds, whose colors added to the beauty of what to some was rough terrain. The hot sun forced most of the animals, including Gila monsters and snakes to seek shelter during the hottest part of the day, but there were times when one darted out as if searching for an unwitting prey.

The western end of the grounds was taken up by the Haciendada’s home. A four-foot wide, cobblestone walkway led up to the Casa Principal. Bright flowering plants such as Penstemons, Angelita Daisies, and Brittle Bush lined the walkway. Two large Mimbre trees, with pink and violet blossoms stood near the entrance to the home that dominated the landscape. The main house and numerous outer buildings were made of cut stone or sandstone and stained with bright red and yellow pigment. Three massive arches were ornamented in the Baroque style. Each one held intricate etchings that depicted the Haciendada’s genealogical line since being recognized as descendants of the royal family in Spain. The front of the two-story structure sported a beautiful portico that rose from the marbled entrance to the roof. Near the top of the second floor wall was a flying buttress attached to the roof with several half arches giving the structure the effect of a castle. The second floor held a covered terrace that could be accessed through the master bedroom. The columns were done in white sandstone and supported the upper tier and the roof. A highly decorative cornice of latticework floral design ran along the roof and had taken nearly a year to complete. The windows were Palladian with curved tops and covered in shutters to keep out the hot rays of the sun when the heat of high summer invaded the landscape.

The interior of the home that dominated the well-kept grounds was as impressive as the outside. The main doors opened into a corridor with 12 foot high ceilings and windows along both sides. There were two walk-in closets with silver hooks set at two foot intervals. Further along the corridor opened on a sala with a cathedral style ceiling. A highly polished spiral staircase that opened onto the second floor dominated the sala. Along the wall were portraits depicting the family’s history since the early days in Spain. The floor was a rich marble and hardwood combination. The Palladian windows were covered in rich tapestries brought over from Spain. The walls in the sala were stained red and heirloom paintings depicting bullfights and matadors hung along one wall that was devoid of windows.

A single door to the right of the staircase led to the family chapel where a crucifix and a statue of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus sat on an altar covered in velvet and surrounded by prayer candles. Another chapel was built for the peons and Padre Francisco Garrido would listen to their prayers and hold Mass each Sunday.

An open arch led to a caverness cocina that would be used to prepare the daily meals, while a second cocino, which sported a ‘horno’ or oven, was used for baking breads and pastries for the family. The main cocino had wooden prep tables, stools, and chairs, and a variety of hand-carved stone and wooden vessels including mortars, sugar molds and cheese presses. A trastero, or open cupboard, designed to hold plates and cups within easy reach, hand woven baskets held special herbs, while large, hollowed gourds kept freshly made tortillas warm. Stacks of large clay ollas, or cooking pots, were often stacked upside down ready to be used in preparing the feast. The smells and flavors of the last meal still dominated the sala and the family dining room.

The dining room itself was in a large alcove off the cocino and sported several archways decorated with etchings of small birds and flowers native to the area. The hand carved redwood table was surrounded with 12 high backed chairs. The floors were highly polished and several oil paintings of the Hacienda grounds in its early years hung on one wall. Another was taken up with a massive redwood cabinet and held family heirlooms and china from England and France. Nowhere in the immaculate home was there a sign of dust or other debris.

The second floor held 12 bedrooms, although most were seldom used except when guests arrived from Spain. There were several that held children’s furniture, but the main nursery had not been used in nearly 20 years, yet it was kept as clean as the rest of the house. Toys were still in an honored place, waiting for a child’s hand to hold them; sadness permeated every fiber of the room and the only people who entered were the mestizo women who cleaned the hacienda. At the far end of the hallway was a water closet with an adjoining room that held a tub for bathing and shelves lined with soft towels used only by the Haciendada and his wife.

The master bedroom held a massive four-poster bed with mosquito netting and curtains that could be drawn across to keep the sunlight and bugs off the Haciendada. The furniture was decidedly masculine and even the walls held very little to prove that a woman had ever been present. Again the room was dominated with portraits of the De Rivera family who had lived on the land since being granted the large holdings by the royal family as a reward for years of service.

Off the master bedroom was a library with a roll top desk and matching chair and several bookshelves lined with books in Spanish, French, and English. A set of large French doors opened onto a sweeping veranda that ran the length of the home and offered a spectacular view of the fields and surrounding countryside.

Don Garcia de Rivera stood watching over the fields with a pride that shone in his dark brown eyes. This was his heritage, the legacy he would pass on to his son. His life since leaving Spain at the age of fifteen had been wrought with hardships, and what lay before him was the result of hard work and accounted for most of the gray hair that speckled his rich dark hair and the moustache on his upper lip. Don Garcia was still a handsome man, even at the age of 58, and could still make the field workers cringe with fear when they heard his voice.

His first wife, Adelina Rosario Gonzales had died while riding near the Rio Grande. He had truly loved her and would often sit staring at the portrait of Adelina holding their son, Alonzo. The boy had his mother’s coloring with thick black hair and dark brown eyes. The child had been chubby in his early years, but had trimmed down, as he grew older. Don Garcia stared toward the family plot at the back of his home and felt the ache in his heart. Alonzo had died at the hands of a gunslinger, but he had never been able to find out the man’s name. All he knew was that the murderer had taken his son’s life and killed any chance of an heir to the De Rivera legacy. There had been rumors that Alonzo had beaten a whore at a saloon in Purgatorio, but even if it was true his son did not deserve to die for such a deed. He had never given up on finding the gringo, but for now he had a new wife to look after.

Don Garcia made the trip to Spain and brought back a beauty whose blood was as rich and pure as his own. She came from a good family and was the middle daughter of the Montoya family. With three older sisters and two younger ones, her family had jumped at the chance to marry one of them off. In a ceremony that took place on the very day he was to return to Mexico, he’d married the 18-year-old virgin named Maria Elena de Montoya. Now, seven months into their marriage, the birth of their first child was imminent.

This should have been a time to rejoice, but Maria was not as hearty as she’d appeared and life in Mexico had been hard on her. Like a flower that had bloomed early and was struck by a late frost, she wilted and had gone to her sick bed five months into her pregnancy. She continued to lie in the bed as if waiting for death to come for her, but he could not let her go until he held his son in his arms. The child was to be his future, his hope of a long legacy, yet now, once again, it seemed to be the death of his dream. The women who worked the fields had tried to help, but there was little they could do for her. He’d sent word to the surrounding settlements in hopes of bringing a doctor to the Hacienda, but so far his men had come up empty handed.

Taking a deep breath, the aging Haciendada reached for the cane that was not just for show anymore. His limp was growing more prominent with the passing of time, yet he could still lord his ways over these people. Any man, woman, or child who dared to disobey his orders bore his mark on their bodies. He made his way toward the bedroom his wife now stayed in and silently cursed the Gods who thought it funny to snatch the victory from him when it was so near.

It no longer mattered that his wife did not share his bed, for theirs had not been a marriage of love like his first one. He needed her to provide him with a son and it did not dawn on him that he had several sons and daughters by the mestizo women who worked his fields. He made his way to the room where his young wife lay covered in the finest sheets that money and station could provide. Her hair spread across the pillows, her skin as white as the snow, and her face as beautiful as an angel. De Rivera moved into the room and reached out to touch her cheek. This was the most affection he’d shown her since she’d retired to her bed and seemed to wilt like a flower left without rain for too long. That was the least of the worries plaguing him for his son still grew inside her.

"Evita, has she eaten?" De Rivera asked the mestizo woman tending his wife. She had bore him a son, one he would have been proud to acknowledge had it not been for her mixed blood.

"Si, Patron, but very little," Evita Martinez answered. "I fear she may not be strong enough to . . . "

"Do not speak of my son! He has my blood and comes from royal blood and he will be born healthy and strong like all De Rivera men."

"Si, I did not mean," the woman cringed and returned her attention to straightening the blankets.

"Our son will be strong like his papa, and will one day inherit everything I own," Don Garcia said. He looked at the weak woman lying in the bed and walked out of the room. He leaned heavily on his cane and made his way down the stairs and outside. He stood watching as riders hurried into the front yard and Luis dismounted and strode toward him.

"We found a doctor," Luis Martinez told him. At 29 his features were unmistakably those of the De Rivera bloodline, and he knew the Patron was his padre. Yet he did not feel out of place because Don Garcia gave him everything he wanted. He would do anything the older man asked of him including lay down his life.

"Where is he?" De Rivera asked and then noticed the man standing between two of his men. "You are a doctor?"

"Si, Senor," the man said. He knew who this man was and heard stories of his cruelty, but the promised bounty made him braver than he thought possible. One of the mestizo riders handed him a bag that held his instruments and several herbs he thought might be helpful in treating Don Garcia De Rivera’s pregnant wife. He did not tell these men that his patients usually had four legs, not once he’d heard what the patron of the hacienda was willing to pay.

"My wife carries our son and has fallen ill. You will help her." It was a statement not a question and he turned to walk back into the house.

"Si, I will do everything I can for her."

"You will make sure my son is born!" Don Garcia warned.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Four Corners

Saloon

The town of Four Corners once held a reputation that rivaled the hellholes known as Purgatorio and Tombstone. There were gunfights and drunken brawls and innocent people killed because they dared try to live in such a place. That had changed the day two men stood up to a group of trail hands and saved Nathan Jackson’s life. Most people who’d been present that day swore the silent exchange had bonded the two men as brothers and was the start of the changes that overcame their town.

Mary Travis, whose husband had been murdered, had called the man dressed in black ‘The Bad Element’ and Larabee hadn’t argued the point. What Chris had argued was her use of his reputation to try and make what they’d done the day before seem ‘dirty’ in his mind. It hadn’t been, the fact was it had been a turning point in his life and no longer was he ‘The Bad Element’. Since Jock Steele’s novel the nickname of The Magnificent Seven’ had stuck and people no longer crossed the street to get away from him.

The town was attracting more and more families and instead of gunshots and fighting it was a normal part of life to hear children’s laughter. There were times when Chris felt penned in, but he had a little slice of heaven outside town where he could relax away from the pressure of keeping the peace in Four Corners. Right now he didn’t need solitude; instead he enjoyed a game of chance with the resident gambler who had a reputation of being a cheat. But those who knew him understood Standish was simply a man who’d honed his skills. Those who called him a cheat were usually sore losers who’d made the wrong bet.

They sat at the back of the saloon, a bottle of whiskey and four glasses of the fiery liquid between the gambler and the ex-preacher. Chris Larabee, Vin Tanner, Josiah Sanchez, and Ezra Standish had been ensconced in the game of poker since mid-afternoon and no one was winning any big amounts. This was a friendly game amongst friends and not a make or break gamble.

"Ez, yer bluffin’," Tanner said simply.

"I believe that is a possibility, my friend, but it will cost you to find out," Standish told him and tossed several coins into the pot.

"I’m out," Sanchez said and threw his cards on the table before reaching for the whiskey glass. "Fortune favors the faint hearted."

"Faint hearted, J’siah? No way in hell!" Tanner cursed. "I’ll call yer two dollars and raise ya one!"

"I’m out," Larabee said and tossed his cards into the center. "Looks like it’s just you two."

"Ya in, Ez?" the Texan asked, a wicked grin on his face.

"You, Sir, are bluffing," Standish drolled and placed a coin between finger and thumb. He stared at the sharpshooter and saw something in the deep blue depths before letting the coin roll down his fingers.

"Ez, Vin don’t bluff," Larabee told the gambler.

"We shall see," the gambler said and flipped the coin into the pot. "I call."

"Damn . . . " Tanner said, shoulders slumping as the smile left his face.

"See, Mr. Larabee, even Tanners bluff occasionally" the gambler reached for the pot when he showed a straight from the deuce to the six.

"Uhuh, Ez, ya’d best get yer grubby . . . "

"Grubby?" Standish said indignantly.

"Grubby paws off muh money," the tracker rasped and opened his cards to reveal a Full House of queens over sevens.

"Told you he don’t bluff," Larabee's lips quirked into a wicked grin, watching the buckskin clad man reaching for the money. His hand went instinctively toward his gun as a commotion outside the saloon reached his ears. He knew Tanner, Standish, and Sanchez were ready for anything, but what they saw brought broad grins to their faces as Buck Wilmington, as naked as his name suggested, except for a flowery towel wrapped around his waist hurried past their table and hastened his step toward the back door.

"Hey that's real purty, Bucklin," Vin chirped, his eyes crinkled in mirth. "Brings out yer eyes."

"Ya didn’t see me!" Wilmington gasped, but stopped when Sanchez’s hand caught the edge of the towel and he lost his grip on the material. Buck ducked in behind the bar and heard a soft chuckle just before a small towel struck his face and a loud bellow could be heard just outside the saloon.

"Where the hell are ya? Wilmington I swear I’m gonna cut ‘em off and feed ‘em to the fuckin’ dogs!"

"Friend of yours, Buck?" Chris quipped, taking a sip of whiskey

"Maybe we should let ‘im know yer here!" Tanner suggested.

"I got a long memory Tanner!" Wilmington said.

"For a diminutive monetary fee I would willingly . . . "

"Shut the fuck up, Ezra!" Wilmington snapped and ducked down as the doors swung open and a heavily whiskered, bear-like man filled the entire doorway. 

"Where’s that womanizing bastard?" Lars Heinrich growled.

"And exactly what 'womanizin bastard' would that be, Lars?" Larabee asked when the big man strode purposefully toward him.

"That sonofabitch Wilmington was with my wife and he’s gonna be gelded when I get my hands on ‘im!" Heinrich cursed.

"Well now, Lars, how can you be sure Mister Wilmington was the perpetrator?" Sanchez asked.

"Ain’t no one else wears them dang bright drawers and he left ‘em on the chair. I been looking for a new place for me and Martha to live and he’s plowing my field while I’m away. I’m gonna chop his balls off!"

"He doesn’t have any for you to chop off, Lars," the gunslinger noted with a straight face as he calmly poured another shot.

"What are ya talking about" Heinrich asked.

"Well see, near as we can tell Buck don’t got any fam’ly jewels like a real man," Tanner said.

"He don’t?" the big Swede asked incredulously.

"Not accordin’ to Nathan," Sanchez answered, fighting to keep a straight face as Wilmington stood up to defend his 'manhood' and was pushed back down by Inez Recillos. "Why don’t you ask Nate yourself?"

"Ask me what?" the healer asked when he joined the men at the table, but didn’t speak as the whirlwind known as JD Dunne raced in.

"Ya seen Buck? There’s a mean sonofa . . . "

"JD, this is Lars Heinrich," Standish introduced the Bostonian and the Swede.

"Oh shit!" the town’s sheriff said. "Look, Mister, Buck’s a part of the law in Four Corners and you go shooting him and you’ll find yourself in jail!"

Inez kicked the man sitting behind the bar when he whispered something about ‘You tell him, Kid!’ She coughed to hide the sound of his grunt and smiled at the man who turned toward her.

"Is it true what they told me?" Heinrich asked the dark skinned healer.

"Guess that depends on what they told ya," Jackson said.

"They tell me Buck Wilmington is a gelding . . . not a stallion?" Lars said with a frown. He turned when the pretty Mexican woman barkeeper choked and then took a broom and began sweeping the floor, a sweetly innocent smile on her face.

"Buck?" Jackson asked incredulously.

"Didn’t you tell him he’d never be a real man?" Larabee asked.

"Lost his family jewels in the war. Might as well be one of them funny cowboys," Tanner said, shaking his head sympathetically. "Saddest soldier ever ta try and stand at attention."

"That’s why the ladies flock to him because they feel sorry for the poor bastard," Dunne said, turning away when he spotted Wilmington glaring at him from behind the bar. He tried to hide his face when Inez smacked the rogue with the broom and the ladies’ man disappeared once more.

"Yeah, that's Buck," Sanchez said. "Always trying to put on a brave front when he doesn’t have anything up front at all!"

"I hear this about Senor Wilmington too," Recillos said from behind the bar. "He is like them bullets that make a loud bang, but don’t shoot nothing."

"Blanks?" Heinrich asked.

"Si, that is the right word," Inez said and smiled sweetly as she heard Wilmington grumbling.

"This is the truth?" the Swede asked.

"Yes, I’m afraid it is, but Buck keeps trying to prove he’s a man," Jackson said. "When are you leaving town?"

"I was going to leave in two days, but I cannot stay here," Heinrich explained. "If I stay I will have to defend my honor and I refuse to hurt someone like him. You make sure he stays clear of my Martha and I promise not to shoot him in the ass!"

"I’m sure he knows that, Lars," Sanchez said. "You’re a damn good man."

"Yes, unlike Wilmington I am a man . . . a real man," Heinrich said and hurried out of the saloon.

Chris looked at the man seated next to him and tried to hide his mirth, but they both lost it when Buck stood up with nothing but a glare and a small towel that covered very little.

"Funny Cowboy my ass!" Wilmington spat.

"Least ya still got an ass," Tanner said with a grin. "Course it ain't a Tanner ass, but we all can't be that lucky"

"Si, that he does, but his cheeks are flaming red right now," Recillos said with a grin.

"Damn it to hell! Ya told him I lost my family jewels! Vin, you’re gonna pay for that one!" the rogue vowed.

"Now, Buck, ya should be thankin’ us for savin’ your ass and your jewels," Jackson said and accepted a glass of whiskey from the ex-preacher.

"Now if that don’t beat all? Man thinks he knows his friends and they stab him in the . . . " Wilmington said and raced behind the bar when Heinrich’s voice was heard just outside the door.

"Yes, it is sad, but I have heard men such as him called Eunuchs," Heinrich explained to the unseen person to the right of the batwing doors.

"Sonofabitch!"

"How do you catch a unique Eunuch?" Dunne asked.

"Unique upon ‘im," Tanner said and the group roared with laughter.

"Oh yeah, I owe you boys big time!" Wilmington vowed.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Purgatorio, Mexico

The town was alive with outlaws, murderers, and cutthroats who didn’t give a damn who they robbed or where their next victim was from. Many a weary traveler had wound up in an unmarked grave because they’d wandered into the town unaware of the danger that lurked there. Dust billowed up as a hot wind swept through the streets. A mangy dog cowered under an open step after being kicked by a man who’d happened upon him.

Several buildings were in need of repair, but the owners knew it would be a waste of time and money because the gangs would simply destroy it before the paint had time to dry. There were no families living in Purgatorio because it was simply a stopping off place for Mexican bandits or murderous thieves who thought to escape into Mexico should the law come looking for them. Many a marshal had been shot dead before he’d announced who he’d come for.

The sickly odor of stale whiskey, spilled beer, urine, and vomit added to the towns unsavory elements. The lone restaurant was stained with grease, the floor covered in dirt and bloodstains from numerous gunfights. Several Mexican bandits sat near the back laughing and teasing two of the town whores while they waited for their leader’s return.

Hernando Lopez knew what he wanted and took it. He was fast with a gun and had earned a reputation that made others fear his name. Today, he was searching for news of a man who had once frequented Purgatorio. He had beaten the whore, but not so severely that she could not speak. Her beautiful face remained unmarked, except for lips swollen from the brutal kisses.

"Now, Amora, you are still beautiful, but I will scar that pretty face if you do not tell me about this man."

"I . . . I do not know who you speak of." Tears rolled down her cheeks when she lowered her head, but Lopez grabbed her chin and squeezed viciously while staring into her dark eyes.

"You lie, Amora, and I do not like people who lie to me. Perhaps you need a little more persuasion." Hernando reached for the sleek knife he kept in a sheath strapped to his leg and pressed it against her right breast. "Now, it would be a shame for me to have to mark you so. After all a whore needs her breasts . . . needs to be pretty for a man to use her. Now who is this blond gringo that pays to use you?"

"I don’t . . . " Maria cried out when the tip of the blade penetrated her flesh. She gasped when the fetid stench of his breath reached her nostrils and shivered when his free hand stole down between her legs.

"Now, Chiquita, I will ask this once more. Who is the blond gringo who wears nothing but black and is said to be as fast as I am with a gun?"

"Please, God, forgive me," she whispered and looked her tormentor in the face. Chris Larabee had shown her nothing but kindness during his occasional visits and she was about to betray him. For that she would never forgive herself, but there was no choice for her now as the damning words escaped her mouth. "His name is Chris Larabee."

"Chris Larabee," Lopez said with an evil lilt in his voice. "If you see this man before I return, tell him I am looking for him. I will prove to him who is the fastest with a gun."

Maria felt tears in her eyes when he violently took her and wished she had been stronger while hot tears of shame ran down her cheeks. She felt him leave her body and opened her eyes to look at the dark Mexican.

"You are a good whore, Amora, perhaps I shall sample you again after I cut Chris Larabee’s heart from his body and return with it to my patron." Hernando Lopez tossed a coin onto the bed and fixed his clothes before leaving the sobbing woman alone. He strode out of her room and hurried across the dust filled street and into the restaurant to find his men waiting for him.

"Did you find out who he is?" Rodrigo Marquiz asked his friend.

"Si," Lopez answered with a grin. "His name is Chris Larabee."

"He is very fast. I heard that he beat Alonzo Valadas without blinking an eye," Marquiz explained.

"Didn’t Alonzo work for Don Paulo?" Juan Vargas asked.

"Si, but he was not as fast as me. I will not be . . . "

"Hernando, our patron wants Larabee brought to him alive," Marquiz observed.

"Si, he was very insistent that if we found out who killed his son we were to bring him to the hacienda and our reward would be great," Vargas agreed.

"Perhaps if I told Don Garcia there was no choice he will still reward us for killing the gringo who murdered his son," Lopez said with a sly grin.

"The last man who thought that is buried to his head in an ant hill," Marquiz reminded them.

"Si, I remember," Hernando said and rubbed at his balls. "Don Garcia had his balls cut so the fire ants could . . . "

"Don’t remind me," Vargas said, shuddering at the thought of Pedro’s fate.

"Guess I’ll just have to find another way to prove I am faster than the gringo," Lopez said and reached for the bottle in the center of the table. They were celebrating the success of the last raid and Lopez fingered the braid he’d cut from the woman’s head before slitting her throat and leaving her in the hot sun. They were about to set out on several more raids before returning to the De Rivera hacienda with their bounty and the news that they had discovered the identity of Alonzo De Rivera’s murderer. Throwing the empty bottle across the room the band of Mexican thieves and cutthroats cheered before hurrying outside and mounting their horses. Today was a day they would rejoice in and would see them return home with the honor they deserved.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Small Homestead North of Purgatorio

New Mexico Territory

Scott and Shannon Doherty had left Ireland in hopes of starting a new life in America. With the deed to a small piece of land they built a home with their own sweat and vigorous labor. The house was a simple one-room dwelling made of wood and built near a small creek that often dried up, but the young couple persevered. The small vegetable patch was alive with the first crop and Scott smiled when his wife walked toward him. The fiery red head was the love of his life from the moment he’d laid eyes on her. She’d taken his breath away with just a smile and he’d proposed on the spot. Her folks had agreed to their marriage, but only after a courtship that led to him meeting her rather large family. Her brothers, uncles, and cousins had given him a passing grade and their wedding took place exactly a month after their first meeting. The move to America had been met with a mixture of joy and sadness, but he’d promised her family he’d look after her and anyone who wanted to join them would be welcome in their home.

The heat was hard on them both, but they’d grown used to it now and with the strength of love and hope they worked together to bring about their dreams, unaware that fate was about to betray them and their dreams would soon be shattered. Scott wrapped his arms around his wife’s waist and lifted her high in the air much to Shannon’s delight and she giggled like a schoolgirl when he placed her back on the ground. She frowned and turned toward the south when her husband scowled.

"What’s wrong, Scott?"

"Looks like we got company, Honey. Go back inside and get my gun," Doherty warned and saw the fear in her eyes. The cloud of dust seemed like a warning and one he heeded as he turned and followed his wife toward the house. He didn’t consider himself a coward, but there was no way he could face the large group by himself. He made it to the front porch before the sound of a gunshot reached his ear and the sharp pain exploded in his shoulder. The force of the impact pushed him through the open door and he landed hard against the sofa.

"Scott!" Shannon screamed, but finished loading the weapon even as she kicked the door closed.

"Senor, it would be wise for you to come out here now," Hernando Lopez said, his fingers twisting the ends of his mustache.

"Maybe they do not wish to have company, Hernando," Vargas suggested and smiled when his leader dismounted and strode toward the house.

"Americans love to have callers, Juan," Lopez said. "Isn’t that right, Senor?"

Scott made it to his feet and staggered to the window. It was open to let the slight breeze into the house, but today it would offer a way to defend his home and protect his wife. He reached for the rifle and knew Shannon was quickly loading his pistol.

"Get off my land!"

"Your land? No, Senor, this is not your land. It is part of Mexico and no gringo deserves to live here," Lopez said.

"I have the deed . . . "

"Deed? What is that, but a piece of worthless paper given by a cowardly man who hides somewhere in the north? He does not have the balls to show his face where it doesn’t belong."

"I’m only gonna say this once, Mister," Scott warned and tried to ignore the fiery pain in his shoulder. "Get off my land or I’ll blow your fucking head off!"

"Scott, there’s someone out back!" Shannon screamed and lifted the pistol. She aimed the weapon and fired, surprised when her bullet hit its mark and a bandit dropped to the ground, writhing in the dirt before growing still.

"Hernando, Juan is dead! The woman shot him!" Marquis spat angrily from the corner of the house. The other eight men had taken cover as soon as the first shot rang out.

"Your bitch has killed one of my men and for that she will pay," Lopez warned and nodded to several of his gang to set the house ablaze.

"You come near her and I’ll . . . " Doherty ducked back when a bullet struck the frame of the window.

"Don’t be stupid, Senor. There are nine of us and only two of you. How many guns do you have; one, maybe two at the most, and how many bullets? You are at a disadvantage, Senor. Send your woman out and we will spare you."

"Fuck you!" Scott said and fired the weapon at a man who tried to make a run at the house.

"Oh God!"

"Shannon, what’s . . . " Scott stopped when he too smelled smoke and felt the desperate need to protect his wife.

"The house is on fire!" Shannon snapped.

"Is it getting hot in there, Senor?" Lopez asked and motioned with his gun for the others to make their way around the house as the roof lit up with flames. "My offer still stands, Senor. Send the woman out and you can go free!"

"Go to hell!" Scott spat and took the pistol from his wife. He chanced a look through the window and spotted a man racing toward the door. He fired and was rewarded when the bandit grabbed his shoulder and ducked behind the water trough.

"That’s two of my men you have murdered and I am not a man to live and let live! You will pay for that!"

"Shannon!" Scott shouted when a man dove through the open window near his wife. He turned to fire, but was too late as the butt of a rifle connected with his head and he dropped to the floor. The Mexicans swarmed in through the open door and Scott fought with everything he had left as Shannon was pulled from the burning house. His rifle was kicked out of his reach, but he continued to struggle until a blow to his gut cut off his air and the world around him faded in and out.

Lopez grinned when the gringo was hauled to his feet in front of him. The man was bleeding from a cut above his right eye and blood stained the white shirt he’d been wearing when they arrived. "You are a very stupid man!"

"Fuckin’ bastards!" Scott cursed and felt his hopes and dreams dying around him. The bandits had set fire to the crops in the field at the same time they fired up the house.

"You have such a pretty woman, but not for long," Lopez said, moving back and allowing his prisoner to see his wife. The men had removed her clothing and she knelt on the ground trembling in fear.

"Please, let her go!" Scott begged, but one look at the leader of the bandits told him that was not an option. "Shannon . . . "

"Scott . . . help me . . . " Shannon said when Lopez pulled her to her feet.

"I’m afraid your husband is not the man you thought he was, fair lady, but I will prove that I am even better."

Scott fought with his captors when the dirty Mexican dragged his wife out of sight. He heard her scream and knew in his heart he could not help her. He kicked, gouged, and bit, but there were too many of them. He was pulled toward two trees and his arms were quickly tied to the branches. His shirt was ripped from his body and he panted against the pain slicing through his shoulder. When the men moved out of the way he caught sight of Hernando Lopez as the man wiped his mouth and fastened his pants. Tears streamed from his eyes as another man took the bandit’s place. Shannon whimpered when he took her, but there was no other sign of life in her body.

"She was very good, Senor!" Lopez said and reached for the whip hanging on his horse’s saddle.

"I will kill you!" Doherty warned.

"No, I don’t think you’ll live that long," the Mexican said and brought the whip forward in a tight arch that burned a fiery trail down his victims back. Again and again he struck out and continued to talk about what they were doing to Shannon Doherty until the fire left the Irishmen’s eyes.

By the time the Mexicans were through, Scott and Shannon Doherty were as dead as their dreams and the fire had destroyed the evidence of their existence. Lopez cut the thick long red braid from the dead woman’s body and mounted his horse. With one last look around he turned and headed back toward Mexico before the evidence of his brutality was discovered.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Northern Mexico

Evita watched the man tending the fragile woman lying quietly on the bed. In the three days since his arrival it seemed Maria De Rivera was growing worse and yet she could not question his efforts. Don Garcia had told her she was to do whatever Miguel Delgado ordered. So far she had seen the man do very little. He gave her several herbs too steep in hot water, but there were times when the aroma was enough to make her stomach churn.

"Evita, did you hear what I said?"

"I am sorry, Doctor, I did not. What do you wish me to do?"

"Have you been giving her the herbs like I explained?"

"Si, but she does not take them very well," Evita explained and gently eased a cloth over the pale woman’s face. How many times had she done this? How many more days would this poor woman suffer? Her pregnancy was not the problem, but it was adding to whatever caused her misery. This man cared nothing about her welfare and neither did Don Garcia. To him, Maria was simply a vessel to carry his heir, a son to do his bidding. Her thoughts turned to her own son. Luis Martinez was so much like his father and yet the man did not acknowledge the blood tie they had.

"If you are not going to do as I say I will have Don Garcia replace you!"

"No, please, I will make sure she drinks and eats," the woman pleaded.

"See that you do! I need to prepare several herbs for her and will return," Delgado told her and hurried out of the room.

Evita looked into the pale angel she cared for as the eyes opened to reveal a debt of gratitude. She had been with Maria from the very first day she’d come to the Hacienda. She’d often heard the Patron when he violently took his young wife and knew there was no love between them. Maria deserved better, and when she became pregnant it seemed like Don Garcia had finally realized his dream.

"E . . . Evita," the young woman whispered softly.

"I am here," Evita assured her and placed a wet cloth on her forehead.

"My baby? Is he . . . am I?"

"Your baby is fine . . . he will be born strong and make his mother proud," Evita told her.

"You will look after . . . after h . . . him?"

"I will help you," Evita smiled and felt the tears in her eyes as Maria grabbed her hand.

"I do not believe I will see my son grow up, Evita, but I w . . . will go to m . . . my g . . . grave with p . . . peace in m . . . my h . . . heart as l . . . long as I k . . . know he has s . . . someone w . . . who lo . . . loves him. Please, Evita, promise me . . . p . . . promise me y . . . you will n . . . not l . . . let Don Garcia m . . . make him in . . . into a . . . a . . . "

Evita felt the woman’s hand go slack in her own and eased it down on the bed. There was no resentment that this woman wanted her to care for her unborn child. She had long since grown used to her lot in life and her son had grown into a strong man who made her proud. Luis worked the lands that should have been his birthright with no sign that he coveted what would never be his.

Evita walked toward the open doors that led onto the veranda and gave a sweeping view of the back of the property. Her heart was in her throat when she spotted the gathering of field workers at the center of the ‘slaves’ enclosure. She could see the young man hanging from the posts and knew when this was over he would bear the marks that so many others received. Don Garcia stood in his customary spot, a raised platform that stood in the shade of a magnolia tree. She could not help the mestizo and turned away with tears escaping from her eyes.

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Don Garcia stood watching the overseer and tapped his cane against the ground with each stroke of the whip. Fernando Gores had taken over the role of overseer when several workers killed his father. Those workers had met with a very painful death at his hands and now Gores was indebted to him, but his loyalty went beyond that. The man was big, even for a Mexican, and did not question his patron. He was a man who loved to lord his position over the peons who worked the fields.

Don Garcia enjoyed watching the punishment and found his people were less apt to disobey his commands if he was present. The young mestizo, whose name he thought might be Pero Valades had taken something that had not belonged to him and would receive ten strokes with the whip. The Haciendada’s shoulders slumped when he hit his palm for the final time and the weak cry echoed around the enclosure. This was a special place where punishment was meted out and it was law for everyone to attend, with the exception of Evita Martinez who tended his wife.

De Rivera turned to see Luis standing beside him and wondered why this man showed no fear of him. Although Luis was his son he would never hold that station, he’d insisted the boy be given an education. The child had excelled in reading and studied the literature that was supplied to him. Now, Don Garcia found he craved Luis’ company and craved his respect. He wanted to know Luis did not hate him, yet he refused to show the love of a father for a son.

"It is done, Patron," Gores said while two men cut the mestizo from the posts.

"See that his wounds are tended and he is put back to work," De Rivera ordered.

"Would it not be wiser to let him rest for a day?" Martinez asked when Gores left them alone.

"What purpose would that serve except to show the others you are rewarded for wrongdoing?"

"He has suffered for what he did. Resting him would help him grow stronger and his work in the fields would be better."

"It would also prove that I am as weak as you when it comes to these people. They are here to work off a debt . . . "

"What debt?" Martinez asked, knowing he could easily end up under Gores’ hard hand for speaking in such a manner.

"They are peons, Luis. They owe me for everything. They work off that debt, but they must also pay for what they use. Pero stole from others and he is lucky I did not order the removal of his hand."

"What did he steal?"

"I do not know, but Fernando saw him do it. He ordered the punishment and I agreed with his decision."

"Why? Fernando has been accused of stealing . . . perhaps he is the true thief?"

"You overstep your bounds, Luis! Do not think I will not have you whipped because of your mother’s loyalty to me! Go now before I forget my promise to her!" Don Garcia warned and thought back to the vow he’d made when Luis had been born. He could not acknowledge whom the child belonged to, but he did promise the mother he would have a good life.

"Si, Patron, forgive me," Martinez said and hurried away. He could feel his father watching him and knew if he were anyone else he would have been struck down for what he’d said. Sighing heavily he looked toward the house that should have been his, but for his mother’s station in life.

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Jackson’s Clinic

Four Corners

Chris Larabee loved the solitude of darkness and stood outside Jackson’s clinic watching as the town he now called home settled under the cooler temperatures of the night. Chris almost laughed at that thought because cooler temperatures simply meant you had the heat, but without the scorching rays of the sun. Chris knew where the other peacekeepers were and could hear the raucous laughter from the rowdy bunch of trail hands who had ridden into town just after sundown. Ezra, Buck and JD were in the saloon; Josiah and Vin were at the jail and would be joining them for a drink before calling it a night. Chris frowned when he thought of the tracker and wondered what it was that bothered him about the other man’s actions during the last few days. Something was wrong and when he had the chance he planned to find out exactly what it was. He turned when Jackson joined him and lit a cheroot, breathing deep of the strong smoke and sighed contentedly.

"Everything still quiet?" Jackson asked, his hand unconsciously going to his neck as he remembered the trail hands that had tried to lynch him when their boss died from gangrene. Chris and Vin saved his life that day and it wasn’t long afterward that Travis had offered them a job for a dollar a day plus room and board. He often wondered what would have happened to the town if they’d refused the job and gone their separate ways.

"Yeah, guess having the boys in the saloon was a good idea," Larabee said, regretting his words as loud voices echoed over the town and the sound of breaking glass reached their ears.

"Guess ya spoke too soon," Jackson said when Larabee snuffed out the cheroot and raced down the stairs. They headed for the saloon and were met at the doors by Vin and Josiah. The four men entered to see Inez use a whiskey bottle to hit a man who held Wilmington down.

"Thanks, Darlin’!" Buck said with a grin and ducked when a fist was sent in his direction.

"Trouble, Ez?" Tanner asked when the gambler brushed off a layer of dust and struck one of the trail hands in the jaw.

"To put it mildly," Standish answered and rejoined the melee.

"Think we should help them?" Sanchez asked.

"Seem to be handling things pretty well," Jackson said, ducking when someone threw a chair in their direction.

"JD’s turning blue," Tanner said.

"Guess we’d better help out," Larabee said with a grin and grabbed the big man whose hands were wrapped around Dunne’s neck.

"Yehaw!" the Texan shouted and was soon at the center of the fighting.

Jackson shook his head and nodded at the ex-preacher before they moved to help the others and shouted when he saw one of the brawlers lift a chair and bring it down toward the other man’s unsuspecting back. "Buck, look out!"

Wilmington moved out of the way, lifting his leg and connecting with the man before he completed the downward arch of the chair. Nodding his thanks, Buck moved to pull a man off Inez and kissed her cheek before pushing her back behind the bar. He’d seen the others enter and knew they were no longer getting the tar beat out of them.

Ezra saw a man break a bottle on the bar and move toward Nathan’s back. He shoved the smaller man he’d been fighting aside and dove at the miscreant. He connected solidly with the man’s upper body, sending them both into the bar. He grabbed the hand holding the dangerous weapon and slammed it against the rail again and again until his opponent lost his grip on it.

"Fucking bastard!" the trail hand spat.

"Mothah abhors using excess force, but in this case she would agree it was warranted!" Standish said and picked up a broken piece of chair and quickly rendered his nemesis unconscious.

JD blinked the dizziness away and shouted before he swung at one of the two men who were beating Buck into the wall. He ducked away from a devastating blow and drove his head into the other man’s gut. He heard the harsh whoosh of air, but didn’t stop until he rendered the man unconscious.

Josiah kept watching his fellow peacekeepers even as he took down two men who’d tried to make a battering ram out of a destroyed table. He spotted Inez and knew she was safe, smiling when the pretty woman proved she could take care of herself.

Chris fought side by side with Vin and the duo gave as good as they got until Vin went down under a devastating right hook. Chris drove into the guy before he had a chance to kick the tracker and lost sight of Tanner when several other bodies got in the way. He tried to see Tanner and was relieved when the sharpshooter came up cursing and looking for blood. The tide of the fight changed and the trail hands went down under the fierce persistence of the seven peacekeepers.

"Damn," Larabee wheezed, bending over with his hands on his knees and a smile on his face as he wiped the blood from his nose.

"What’s the matter, Pard, gettin’ too old for this?" Wilmington asked and stretched the kinks from his back.

"He’s not the only one, Buck. Your back sounds worse than a rusty spring," Dunne teased

"Watch it, Kid, or I’ll show ya how old I am," the rogue said and moved to help with the prisoners who were still conscious. "Well, boys, looks like ya get to spend the night in jail."

"What about the damage? Who will pay for all this?" Inez asked, hands on her hips while she surveyed the damage.

"Figure these boys should pay up," Tanner said.

"That seems appropriate considering these miscreants destroyed the establishment," Standish agreed.

"Pony up ta the bar and pay the lady, boys," the Texan ordered.

"We ain’t the only ones fightin’," a scruffy man with graying hair spat indignantly.

"It doesn’t matter, because you boys started it," Sanchez said. "Empty your pockets on the bar and that includes any weapons you may still hold."

Chris watched the Texan while they gathered the troublesome trail hands and again wondered what was bothering him. He frowned when Jackson pointed out his own problem.

"Chris, better get on over to the clinic and let me take a look at that?" the healer said.

"Look at what?" Larabee said and looked down at his left side. "Damn, how’d that happen?"

"Mr. Larabee perhaps you zigged when you should have zagged," Standish said.

"Ya all right?" Tanner asked when he walked past.

"It’s just a scratch," the blond said.

"Maybe, but it’s gonna need cleaning," Jackson said. "Ya boys all right ta clean up this mess?"

"We got ‘em," Tanner said, turning away as he worked his jaw and felt the pain come alive. He hurried out of the saloon before anyone noticed.

Chris wanted to speak with the tracker, to ease his own worries, but Vin was gone before he had a chance and Nathan was hurrying him toward the clinic.

"Nate, did you notice anything wrong with Vin?"

"Can’t say as I did," Jackson said when Larabee glanced over his shoulder. "Was he hurt?"

"No . . . don’t think so," Larabee said and held his hand against his side.

"Well, you can check on him once I’ve cleaned that up," Jackson said and guided the gunman up the stairs. Once inside he lit the lamp and told Larabee to take off his shirt.

Chris opened the shirt and took it off, wincing when he looked at the jagged wound. He knew it wasn’t bad, but Jackson was right that it needed to be taken care of. He sat on the edge of the bed and watched the healer get things ready including pouring carbolic into the basin of water. Next the man pulled a chair close to the bed and made sure the lamp was close enough to illuminate the wound.

"Lay back, Chris!" Jackson ordered and waited until the blond was stretched out on the bed. The wound wasn’t as bad as he thought, but it would need stitches and the healer reached for the bottle of whiskey. He measured out a liberal shot and handed it to Larabee.

"Thanks, Nathan . . . "

"Chris, this ain’t bad and it probably don’t hurt much, but it’s gonna need cleaning and stitches," Jackson said.

Chris sighed wearily, and settled back on the bed. As Jackson worked on the wound he thought about Tanner and tried to figure out what was bothering the tracker. It wasn’t something outwardly read, but there was definitely something amiss. He sucked in a breath of air and held it, glaring at the healer when he pressed the cloth against the wound. Chris knew it was soaked in water and carbolic and that was the reason for the fierce stinging sensation.

"Shit!" The blond snarled and knew there was more to come. He watched Jackson ready the needle and thread that would sew the wound together and closed his eyes again. A picture of the Texan holding his jaw came to mind, but it disappeared when the needle bit into his flesh.

"Sorry, Chris, just a few more," Jackson said, concentrating on the neat row of stitches he was putting in.

"N . . . not digging in dirt," the blond whispered through clenched teeth. He breathed a sigh of relief when he heard the healer say he was done.

"Just stay put, Chris, and I’ll cover it," the healer explained and could see the blond’s face ease. He knew it had been a long day and the fight culminating with the shot of whiskey would probably put the gunman out before long. He busied himself getting the bandages in place and quickly finished the job of tending the blond. "All done, Chris, you just rest up while I check the others and ya can go back to your room when you’re ready.

"Okay . . . thanks, Nate . . . check Vin." Chris felt himself drifting toward sleep and barely felt Jackson’s hand on his side. ‘Need to talk to Vin,’ was his last thought before the sandman pulled him completely under.

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Vin Tanner eased into the saddle and turned Peso away from the livery. The sun was just rising when he headed out of town and he knew it was going to be another day of scorching temperatures and blistering heat. He knew the heat wasn’t what was making him miserable and his left hand went to his jaw as each jarring step sent excruciating pain through his gums. He knew he should talk to Nathan, but the thought of anyone touching his mouth made his gut clench.

He hadn’t slept very well and wanted to be up and out of town before anyone saw him, especially Larabee. The man could read him as easily as an open book and would know he was hiding something. He’d taken a blow to the cheek that had sent him to his knees and had barely escaped from Jackson’s attention because Larabee had been cut by one of the trail hands. He’d stopped by the clinic and was assured the blond was fine and would be up and around once he had rested.

Vin headed south, boycotting several homesteads in his quest to be alone. Again his hand went to his jaw and he worked his tongue around the inside of his mouth, feeling the small lump near the left side of his incisor. The area was tender to the touch and he flinched when he pressed against it. The coffee that morning had been another reminder that maybe it was time to see Nathan. The pain had been so bad he’d cursed a blue streak and was glad no one had been in earshot.

Turning Peso east, Vin gave the animal its lead and felt the wind whipping around him. This was something he loved to do, but lately with the ties to the town he’d been unable to find the time. There were so many people now who looked up to him, and he smiled when he thought of the elderly woman who reminded him so much of his own mother.

Nettie Wells was something of an enigma to most people. A woman who’d fought to keep what was hers in a land where men like Guy Royal sought to take what didn’t belong to them. Vin smiled with warmth at the thought of Nettie Wells standing on her porch with her Winchester Carbine held tightly in her hands. He admired her for her spit and vinegar stance, and knew she’d be a formidable foe as Royal found out the hard way. Without thinking about where he was going or what he was doing, Vin turned Peso north toward the Wells’ homestead.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Northern Mexico

Luis Martinez watched his mother when she exited the house and made her way toward the small building that served as a chapel for the mestizo people. It was a simple structure, but well maintained because of their faith in God. During the early morning and late evening hours there were many fieldworkers who came to pay homage to God for everything He bestowed on them.

"Luis, how is Pero?" Evita asked when he caught up to her. She dipped her fingers in the Holy Water and made the sign of the cross before entering the chapel.

"Camila is tending his wounds. He is sore, but he’ll survive." Luis also made the sign of the cross before sitting beside his mother.

"Tell her to put this on his wounds," Evita ordered and passed her son a tin of salve.

"Will you get in trouble for taking this?"

"No one saw me, Luis," she assured her son and touched his cheek. "I am careful."

"If Don Garcia . . . "

"He won’t. Don’t worry, Luis, I can handle Don Garcia."

"He is not a man who forgives easily, Mama," Luis said, gently touching the scar on her cheek. He had witnessed the blow that had caused this mark and would always look at it in anger.

"He will not hit me again," Evita assured her son. Don Garcia had promised his wife that he would not hit her attendant and so far he had kept that promise to the pregnant woman. The Haciendada would do anything and promise anything if it meant his heir came into this world strong and healthy.

"I wish I could take you away from here," Luis said.

"This is the only life I have ever known, Luis, and I have but one regret and that is the lack of a true papa for you. Don Garcia provides well for us, but he will never admit who you are. I beg you do not do anything that would make him take his whip to you for I could not bear to watch."

"I know that, and I will respect him because of you," Martinez said.

"Thank you, Hijo," Evita said. The two grew quiet, both saying a silent prayer for the other’s well-being. When she was finished, Evita pressed a kiss to her son’s forehead, and made the sign of the cross on her chest before hurrying out of the chapel. She did not see the concern on her son’s face when he too left the holy building with a final prayer that God keep his mother safe.

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Don Garcia entered his wife’s room and watched the doctor tend his wife. Miguel Delgado jumped when he turned to see the man he knew as the Patron standing at the foot of the bed. He swallowed several times before speaking; his squeaky voice gave evidence of his skittishness.

"How is she?" De Rivera asked, standing tall and elegant in an immaculate white shirt and black pants.

"She is better," Delgado lied.

"She does not look better," the older man stated angrily.

"That is because I have only been with her a short time, Patron. She will need time to build up her strength and then she will give you a healthy son."

"For your sake I hope you are right," Don Garcia said and looked around the room. "Where is Evita?"

"She was not here when I arrived," Delgado answered. He did not like the woman who questioned his every move where De Rivera’s wife and unborn child were concerned. Evita Martinez probably knew more about childbirth than he did, but he was not about to admit that to the Haciendada.

"I am here," Evita said upon entering the room with a basin of water and a bar of soap.

"Where were you?" Delgado asked indignantly. "Don Garcia was looking for you!"

"Evita, you are to watch over Maria . . . "

"Si, Patron, I was just in the chapel saying a prayer for her and the child," Martinez said. She had said a prayer and knew De Rivera believed in God, if only to try and buy a space in heaven for himself. She did not think one so cruel would ever know the reward of life after death. For Don Garcia and others like him there was a fiery hell awaiting them. She placed the basin on the table beside the bed and gently touched the ill woman’s brow.

"Evita, from now on you will use the family chapel so that you are close by if Maria needs you. She seems to know when you are around."

"Si, thank you, Patron," Evita said, but did not miss the angered sneer from the physician. She busied herself preparing the bath water and turned to the men. "I will bathe her now, but she does not like when there are others around."

"I am a doctor . . . "

"My wife’s wishes will be respected, Doctor," De Rivera warned and turned to walk out of the room. "Evita will let you know when she has completed her task."

Evita waited for the men to leave and then closed the door before returning to the young woman’s side. There was no doubt in her mind that Delgado was an enemy she could ill afford, but there were times when one had little choice. She smiled when Maria’s eyes opened and looked up at her.

"Thank you, Evita, I do not think I could stand his touch much longer."

"I am sorry, Maria, I wish there was more I could do," Martinez said and brushed back the sweat soaked hair.

"You’re being here is a Godsend," the pretty woman vowed tiredly. "I know when I go to my grave my son will have someone to care for him and teach him."

"I will do all I can for him, but you will be a wonderful mother."

"You and I both know that is not true, Evita. I grow weary and find it hard to believe I will see my son born."

"God will protect you."

"God has always given me strength, Evita, but this is something that I can foresee. Bring my son up as you did Luis and I shall die happy knowing he is someone I can be proud of." Maria smiled when the other woman reached out and took her hand. That simple touch gave her strength when she needed it and somehow she would hold on to that and see her child born.

Evita Martinez knew Maria Elena De Montoya was right. The woman’s health had always been fragile and there was nothing more she could do except keep her comfortable during the final weeks of her pregnancy. She would bathe her and see that her linens were changed and talk to her when she wanted. She wondered what this beautiful woman would have been like if she’d married a man who truly loved her. Would she have blossomed into a rose whose delicate beauty spoke of its inner strength? What would her life have been like if she’d married a nobleman from Spain and been pampered by his family? Folding back the blankets, Evita cared for the woman who had come to mean so much to her.

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Four Corners

Mid-Day

Chris sat with his feet on the rail and his chair leaning back against the wall. For all intents and purposes he looked like a man without a care in the world, yet nothing could be further from the truth. Under the brim of the dark hat, sea green eyes scanned the dusty street, watching and anticipating where trouble could come from. Larabee knew where five of the other six peacekeepers were, but Tanner had been gone when he woke up in the clinic. Yosemite told him the quiet Texan had left around dawn and would be patrolling the area until he wound up at the Wells farm at the end of the day.

Chris’ mind turned to the reasons he was worried about the sharpshooter. Vin hadn’t been himself over the last week and Chris knew there was something bothering him. The wound in his side was minor, but it irked him that he’d so easily fallen asleep in Jackson’s bed the night before without speaking with Vin. He would correct that mistake when the other man returned.

"Hey, Chris, them fellas we put in jail last night are grumbling about being hot," Dunne said with a grin and sat on the rail next to Larabee’s boots.

"Serves ‘em right," Larabee replied softly.

"That’s what I said," the Bostonian agreed. "Told them I’d let them out when I was good and ready."

"Good plan." Larabee tipped his hat when several women passed by.

JD shook his head and wondered if the blond knew just how much of an effect he had on the people of this town. It seemed whenever the ladies saw the dark clad gunslinger they watched him out of the corner of their eyes. He’d heard several eligible women talking about what Larabee would be like as a husband. Most times JD simply shook his head and walked away, but there were times when he listened to the conversations and knew that Buck was not the only ladies’ man in town. Chris was one whether he realized it or not. It never dawned on JD that most of the women found the peacekeepers attractive and secretly yearned for the dangerous element that clung to the seven.
 

"Looks like Mrs. Travis is coming this way," Dunne said and saw the almost imperceptible move on Larabee’s part. JD often wondered whether these two would ever see eye-to-eye and realize they had feelings for each other. It seemed pretty obvious to him.

"Morning, Mary." Larabee sat forward.

"Morning, Chris, JD," the blonde woman acknowledged and ruffled the paper in her hand.

"Morning, Ma’am," Dunne greeted the newcomer by tipping his hat respectively.

"Something wrong?" the gunman asked.

"I . . . Chris, I’m sorry, I know this has nothing to do with you, but I need to talk to someone."

"What’s wrong?" Larabee queried.

"Did you read the story I ran about the raids south of here?" Mary anxiously inquired.

"The ones by the bandits?" Dunne asked. Truth was he’d read about them and the murderous rampages they’d been carrying out on the homesteads north of Purgatorio. Whole families had been slaughtered and it seemed that the bandits were staying close to the border in order to make a clean getaway.

"Yes," Mary replied, worrying her bottom lip as she handed Larabee a telegram she’d gotten that day. "This is the latest report I received from Orrin."

Chris could tell there was more to it than just a newspaperwoman looking into a story. Despite their first few meetings, Chris knew Mary was not the type to run a story just to sell a paper. She cared about the town and the people who lived there and it showed in the respect people gave her. He read the message and looked at the woman for an explanation.

"They were friends of Steven’s," Mary explained. "I met them just before they married and we talked about where they wanted to settle down and start a family. Steven and Scott checked many of the homesteads before Scott settled on that piece of land. He built the house and they cleared the area. It took them a long time . . . but they were happy."

"I’m sorry, Mary," Larabee offered sincerely. Her voice was filled with raw emotion and he knew she was fighting to keep it in check.

"It’s just . . . it seems so senseless," the newspaperwoman said and looked into Larabee’s eyes.

"Murder usually is," the gunman told her.

"They didn’t just murder them, Chris," Mary told him. "They raped Shannon and brutalized her body. The bandits seem to be moving further north and I’m afraid it’ll get worse unless someone puts a stop to them."

"Does the judge want us to check them out?" Dunne asked.

"Not exactly, but he’s requested that you expand the patrols to include the homesteads south of here," Mary said and handed Larabee a second missive.

Chris read the message and nodded to Dunne. "JD, tell the others to double up when they’re on patrol."

"Sure, Chris," Dunne said and hurried off.

"Mary, it might be a good idea to run something about people taking precautions especially those near the border," Larabee suggested.

"I will," the blonde woman answered and watched a wagon coming toward them. She knew about the fight in the saloon the night before and asked. "How is your side?"

"Sore, but I’ve had worse," Larabee answered and stood up. His shadow fell across the floorboards, elongated by the sun, until it touched hers and the two seemed to be as one. He lifted his head and glanced into soft green eyes and was relieved that they’d been able to get past the events of their first meeting and the rocky relationship with Ella Gaines. "I’m going to ride out to the Wells place and make sure they take precautions."

"Just be careful."

"I will," the gunman assured her and strode toward the livery.

Mary watched the tall gunslinger move along the street. There was no sign that he’d been injured and no one could mistake the man’s confident stride as anything but what it appeared to be. Chris Larabee had a checkered past, one wrought with grief and violence, but he was still a man who deserved the respect of his peers. Sighing heavily she pushed her feelings aside and hurried toward the Clarion office.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

The ride along the trail south of Four Corners had done very little to ease the jagged nerve endings in Vin’s damaged tooth and he’d come to a decision. Resigned to the fact that he would have to see Nathan when he got back to town, the tracker had continued his trek to the Wells’ homestead. The feisty woman had found her way into his heart and he found himself drawn to her like a moth to a flame. Nettie Wells often reminded him of his mother in spite of the fact that she’d died when he was only five years old. His last image of her was ingrained on his mind and one he would keep forever in his soul. She’d been sick for so long, yet in the final moments of her life there’d been the vibrant glow of youth to her as if God had taken pity on a five-year-old boy and given him something to hold on to. Vin spotted Nettie near the barn and quickly dismounted and tipped his hat.

"Afternoon, Miss Nettie." The Texan smiled at the elderly woman in spite of the throbbing pain in his jaw.

"Afternoon, Vin, is something wrong or is this a social call?"

"Little o'both," Tanner told her and looped Peso’s reins over a post. "Wanted ta make sure ya had ever’thin’ ya needed."

"Well now, Vin, I got everything I want right here," Nettie said, smiling when the younger man looked around.

"Guess ya do. Where’s Casey?"

"She’s in the house," the woman answered, frowning when she saw Tanner studying the landscape. "What’s goin’ on?"

"Don’t want ta worry ya none, but them bandits that’re raidin’ down near Purgatorio are gettin’ bolder."

"You telling me ta keep my carbine closer?"

"Somethin’ like that," Tanner said. "Might be a good idea ta come inta town until they’s stopped."

"Ain’t no one gonna run me off my land, Vin. I know how to use that old gun and I ain’t afraid ta shoot a man if he needs it. Comes with the life out here . . . and I ain’t one ta go hide under my bed when trouble comes ta calling."

"No, Ma’am, I don’t ‘spect ya are," the Texan told her and realized this woman really could look after herself, but there were some things even a gun and a strong woman could not handle.

"Me and Casey’ll be fine," Nettie assured him. "First sign of trouble or of them bandits comin’ north we’ll come into town . . . you have my word on that."

"Jest want’cha ta be careful," Tanner told her.

"Well now it seems ta me that it’s you who needs ta be careful. Got some cider and apple pie if you’re a mind ta sit a spell."

"Ya twisted m'arm." The Texan grinned and followed the woman inside.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Northern Mexico

Evening

Hernando Lopez was not a man who feared anything . . . except this man. Don Garcia De Rivera stood before him, his cane raised high above his head and the long, bloodied, red braid clutched tightly in the fingers of his left hand. There was no doubt in Lopez’s mind that he had overstepped his bounds, but he fought for something, anything that could save him from this man’s wraith. When the patron had found out what his banditos had done, he’d ordered him stripped to the waist and made him kneel before him. Now he knew exactly what his punishment would be and his fear was very real for a man who’d raped and murdered so many men, women, and children.

"You were not to go so far north!" De Rivera spat, his nostrils flaring in rage. "You will bring the fucking gringos here and they will try to take what belongs to me!"

"They can’t cross the border, Patron . . . "

"Why the hell not?" The Haciendada snapped and brought the cane down across Lopez’s bare shoulders, leaving a fiery red welt in its wake. "What makes you think they are any more bound by borders than you are?"

"I am sorry, Patron . . . it will not happen again."

"No, it will not because I am going to . . . "

"Please, Patron . . . listen to me . . . "

"Silencio!" De Rivera ordered and felt the urge to strike the insolent man down. He struck him twice more before the man’s words got through to him and his chest heaved with the force of his labored breathing. "What did you say?"

"I know who murdered your son, Patron. I know the man’s name!"

"Who is the bastardo?"

"His name is Chris Larabee." Lopez eased back on his heels until he was looking up at the older man. There was a ferocity in the eyes that put fear in his heart and he was glad he’d deflected the man’s attention.

"Chris Larabee. Who is he?"

"A gunslinger, Patron." Lopez said, suddenly feeling some of his terseness returning.

"He will die for what he did . . . "

"Si, Patron, I am sure I will be able to take him . . . "

"You are not worthy of killing the man who murdered my son. No, he will die at Luis’ hand," De Rivera said and paced along the small pathway. Yes, that would be the best revenge for Alonzo’s murderer. Chris Larabee would die by De Rivera’s bastard son’s hand, he would see to that.

Hernando Lopez noticed the change in the older man and breathed softly in an effort to keep the man from seeing him again. The Haciendada played with the tip of his mustache and pressed his lips together, but his attention seemed elsewhere as he stroked the cane in his hand. Lopez could see the hatred in the man’s eyes and the flaring of his nostrils and suddenly he felt very glad he wasn’t Chris Larabee. He could tell by the patron’s actions that the pain he’d suffered at the man’s hands would be nothing compared to what he would do to the gringo if he caught him.

Don Garcia let his imagination run wild and for now it was running toward dark revenge. For the first time since his son’s body had been brought to him he had his killer’s name. That name he damned to a thousand deaths, each one more excruciating than the one before. By the time he was finished with the gringo he would be begging for death, but death would not come easy.

"Chris Larabee," he whispered the name and felt something akin to superiority enter his veins. He was stronger than any gringo and he would lord that power over him. He would use this cane and strip the skin from Larabee’s back and feed it to the dogs while the man was still alive. Alonzo’s death would be avenged and the chains that twisted around his heart would finally be cut.

"Hernando, find out everything you can about Chris Larabee! I want to know where he lives and who he loves! I want to know how many friends he has and I want him brought to me . . . unharmed!"

"Si, Patron," Lopez said, but remained where he was. De Rivera had not yet released him and he did not want to bring the man’s anger back on him.

"Take your men and go across the border . . . kill anyone who stands in your way and bring that black hearted bastardo to me!"

"Si, Patron," the bandito agreed and stood on shaky legs. He stayed where he was when De Rivera’s hand clutched his shoulder.

"He is to be brought to me alive, Lopez, or I will cut your heart from your chest and feed it to the pigs!"

"I will see to it, Patron," the dark haired man agreed and breathed a sigh of relief when the man’s gnarled fingers released him. The elderly man turned and walked quickly back toward the main house. He knew he’d barely escaped the Haciendada’s anger and he reached for his hat. He brushed off the dust and smiled at the thought of bringing the gunslinger here. De Rivera had said he wanted him alive, but he did not say he could not be marked. There were many ways to bring Larabee down, and the best way to do that was through the people he cared about. From what he’d gathered about Larabee, he was a ‘lawman’, but without a badge. His bandits had been going further north and would continue to do so until the gunman and his fellow ‘lawmen’ formed a posse and came after them.

"Hernando, you are okay?" Rodrigo Marquiz asked.

"I am fine, Rodrigo, but we must head north again tonight."

"I thought we were to stay out of the gringos’ way?"

"No, our patron wants us to step up our raids and bring Chris Larabee to him!"

"Chris Larabee is not a man to fuck with!" Marquiz said, a hint of awe in his voice. He’d heard stories about the dark gunslinger and the notches he was supposed to have on his gun. If even half of what he heard was true, then he had no desire to face the notorious blond.

"Neither am I, Rodrigo!" Lopez said and eased into his shirt. "Get the men together! We leave in half an hour!"

"Si, Hernando," Marquiz said and hurried off. Within half an hour the banditos, now numbering twenty were headed north with only one thing in mind, the pillaging of the homesteads on the other side of the Rio Grande.

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Wells Homestead

Outside Four Corners

Late Evening

Vin stood looking out over the land and unconsciously ran his tongue over the sizable lump on the inside of his mouth. The apple pie had been so good, but he’d barely touched it because the sweet dessert produced throbbing pain in his mouth. He’d felt Nettie watching him and managed to finish the piece she’d placed before him, but he’d refused the extra helping he usually indulged in.

"So, when are you gonna see Mr. Jackson?"

"Huh? Sorry, Miss Nettie, didn’t hear ya come out," the Texan said and stood straighter when a dark speck appeared near the edge of her property. It didn’t take long for him to pick out the figure and he turned his attention back to his hostess. "What did ya say?"

"Asked when you’re gonna see Mr. Jackson?"

"Ain’t nothin’ wrong with me," Tanner answered simply and smiled at the look of disbelief the woman sent his way.

"In that case there must’ve been somethin’ wrong with the pie. Guess I’d best throw it out!"

"No!" the young man assured her and shook his head when she laughed. "The pie’s great . . . jest not hungry . . . "

"Since when?"

"Chris’ comin’," Tanner observed in hopes of deflecting her attention.

"I see that . . . maybe I should tell him you’re ailin’," Wells stated.

"No . . . I’m fine, Miss Nettie. I’ll see Nate when I get inta town," Tanner told her.

"Sure you will . . . evening, Mr. Larabee."

"Evening, Mrs. Wells," the gunman greeted and dismounted with an air of stiffness in his body.

"Somethin’ wrong, Mr. Larabee?" the older woman asked.

"Chris got cut last night, must be feelin’ okay if’n Nate’s let ‘im ride out," Tanner told her, leaning against the railing in a relaxed manner.

"I hope it’s nothin’ serious," Nettie said.

"It’s fine," the blond assured her and turned his attention to the sharpshooter. "You all right?"

"I’m okay, Chris, was just headin’ in. Everythin’ okay in town?" the tracker asked.

"Everything's fine. Might be trouble heading this way."

"That bunch of bandits?" Nettie asked.

"Yes, Ma’am," Larabee answered. "They’re getting bolder and hit a homestead north of the border."

"How far north?" Tanner asked.

"Too far. This wasn’t a mistake, Vin. They killed a man and woman and burned their place to the ground."

"Oh my Lord," Nettie said.

"Might not be a bad idea for you and Casey to stay in town until we catch them," Larabee explained.

"Is that necessary, Mr. Larabee?"

"Maybe not yet, but if they decide to raid even further north we might not be able to get a warning out." Chris knew if anyone could convince the elderly woman to stay in town until the danger was over it was the Texan, and he looked to him now.

"Think it’s fer the best," Tanner suggested and saw the woman nod once.

"I’ll get some things together," Nettie assured them.

The peacekeepers watched her enter the house and sat back to wait for the two women. They knew it was probably not needed, but for now they would escort them into town.

"Anyone we know?" Tanner asked.

"No, but Mary did. They were friends of Steven Travis . . . Mary met them a couple of times."

"We gonna go after them?"

"Might not be a bad idea," Larabee told him.

"Are ya up fer it?"

"Hell, Vin, cut myself worse shaving," the blond answered with a grin and suddenly remembered the reason he wanted to talk to the quiet man beside him. "What about you?"

"What about me?"

Chris didn't say a word, didn't have to. A single sandy brow arched and he leaned over the pommel. The silent message of 'you're kidding me, right?' came through loud and clear.

"Nothin’ I can’t take care of," the Texan lied.

"You sure, Vin?" the gunman asked. "Gonna need to know you’re watching my back out there. These bandits are hitting too close to home and something tells me this bunch is not gonna be happy with the homesteads."

"Ya think they’ll come inta town?"

"Might . . . just no way of knowing for sure."

"Ya figurin’ on goin after ‘em?"

"Was thinking it might be a good idea. Figured we’d start at the Doherty place . . . "

"Doherty?"

"The homesteaders that were killed the other night."

"Cold trail," Tanner observed.

"I know . . . but there’s someone can read sign better than anyone I know," Larabee stated with confidence and clapped the younger man’s shoulder.

"Ain’t many men I trust, Chris," the Texan said and saw the belief in Larabee’s eyes. He’d given the blond a part of himself when he’d told him about the bounty on his head. That was not something he talked about lightly and very few people knew about that part of his past. Someday he was going back to Texas to clear his name and there was no doubt in his mind that this man would be riding beside him.

"Goes both ways, Vin," Larabee assured him. He scrutinized the quiet man and knew there was something wrong and this time he was not letting him change the subject. "What’s wrong, Vin?"

"We’re ready," Nettie said and looked from one man to the other as if reading an unusual tension there.

"I’ll hitch up the buggy," Tanner said and hurried away.

‘This ain’t over, Vin,’ Larabee thought and smiled reassuringly at Casey before taking her bag. Whatever was ailing the sharpshooter would have to wait until they were back in town. Chris just hoped it was nothing serious.

"Aunt Nettie says trouble’s comin’," Casey said while her aunt locked the door.

 "Might be, Casey. It’d be best if you stayed in town for a while," Larabee explained and was glad the two women had packed light. It wasn’t long before they were headed back to Four Corners and Chris knew they’d need to come up with a plan once they arrived. Pressing his hand against his side he waited for the throbbing ache to subside and watched the Texan’s left hand rub against his jaw.

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Four Corners

Early Morning

Two Days Later

The sun had risen with the promise of another day of blistering temperatures. The town of Four Corners baked under the torrid rays, yet inside the building that housed the freight and grain, tempers were heavy as voices were raised in incensed frustration. Stories of the bandits’ raids had spread quickly and there was a real fear that if they continued north, more deaths would follow. Most of the male population had gathered inside the structure and the women and children who happened within earshot could hear a fiery discussion.

The seven peacekeepers were seated at the back of the building, sweat beading on their foreheads while they fought to control heated tempers that matched the scorching rays of the sun, as voices rose in angry confrontation. There were several townspeople present including Yosemite and Conklin, the latter being as obstinate and belligerent as always.

"You men were hired to protect this town. What are you going to do about these bandits?" Conklin snarled.

"We’re doing our job!" Dunne snapped back.

"Easy, JD, Mr. Conklin is simply stating his position, which is very tenuous if he continues in this manner," Standish said, snapping the deck of cards in his hands.

"I don’t give a damn what those big words mean, card sharp, but I know Judge Travis pays top dollar for you men and I aim to see this town’s money is not wasted," the man spat and turned to the blond gunman who seemed to be the unofficial leader of the ragtag group of ‘lawmen’. "You need to get out there and stop them before they reach this town!"

"If’n yer in such a hurry ta waste lives git out there yerself. Rest of us are workin’ on a plan," Tanner calmly told the irate man.

"Vin’s right, Conklin," Larabee stated, hand resting dangerously on the butt of his gun, eyes narrowing dangerously when the other man’s mouth opened to speak. "You’d better think about what you’re gonna say and think hard!"

"Now see here!"

Buck jumped up, grabbed the man by the collar, and stood toe to toe with him. "You think you can do better then get the hell out there and show us instead of telling us what to do, Conklin!"

Chris stood beside the mustached man and placed a gentling hand on Wilmington’s shoulder. "Easy, Buck, Conklin’s all talk!"

"I . . . I . . . "

"Ya what, Conklin?" Tanner snorted in disgust. "Ya gonna help us or should we save ya a spot with the women and children!"

"Sonofabitch!" the townsman spat and pulled away from Wilmington’s hands. "I’m not a coward . . . "

"Then quit acting so righteous and help us come up with a plan!" Sanchez stated softly.

"He’s right, Mr. Conklin!" Yosemite shook his head in disgust at the other man’s actions. "We need to do everything we can ta help keep the people of this town safe. What do you need us to do, Chris?"

"We’ll need you and several others to take up the patrols once we leave . . . "

"You can’t leave the town unprotected!" Conklin placed his hands on the table, breathing a little easier now that Wilmington’s big hands weren’t locked on his shirt.

"We’re not," Larabee told him. "Josiah and Ezra are staying in town. The rest of us will head out this afternoon . . . check the homesteads to the south before riding into Purgatorio."

"That’s not what Travis hired you for . . . "

"Judge Travis hired us to protect the people of this territory and that’s jest what we’re aimin’ ta do," Jackson said. "That includes the people in the Seminole village and farms. The Wilsons are close ta the border and I aim ta make sure they know what’s happenin’!"

Chris calmly reached for a cheroot and lit it, aware of the heightened tempers. He understood the fears and worries, but it was people like the weaselly Conklin who made it hard for everyone. The blond knew Ezra and Josiah, with the help of people like the livery owner, could handle any trouble that came this way. The problem was Conklin, and Chris was glad there weren’t many like him. Most of the people cared about their neighbors, but Conklin didn’t give a damn about anyone except himself. Larabee drew the smoke deep in his lungs and stared at the man, smiling inwardly when he seemed to wilt imperceptively.  

"Conklin, if you’re not with us on this, you’re against us and right now there’s enough problems with the bandits . . . so shut up and sit down or get the hell out of here!" the ex-preacher ordered and turned his back on the irate townsman. "All right, Chris, any idea on where you boys are gonna start?"

"Nathan mentioned the Wilsons and that’s as good a place as any. From there we’ll head to the Doherty place and see if Vin can pick up their trail."

"If anyone can it’s Vin," Yosemite said, admiration easily read in his eyes.

"Ain’t that good," Tanner whispered.

"Damn right you are," Dunne vowed.

"Well in any case once we’re through there we’ll either head back here or send a telegram from Purgatorio," the gunslinger stated.

"You boys best be careful," Sanchez warned the others.

"Same goes for you and Ezra, Josiah," Jackson said and nodded toward Yosemite. "Make sure ya can trust the ones who’re watching your back."

"Amen to that, Brother," the older man said and looked into the empty cup. He knew Larabee and the others were treading on dangerous ground, but it was part of their lives and probably always would be so long as they chose to fight for what was right.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Northern Mexico

Mid-Morning

Evita Martinez glared at the man who entered the bedroom and silently cursed the man for the bumbling idiot he was. She knew there was no way she could remain quiet, but there was also the real possibility that Don Garcia would not listen to her. The man trusted her, but he wanted a son and if Miguel Delgado could make sure he was born, the Haciendada would not listen to her.

"Did you give her the herbs?" Delgado asked when he touched the sick woman’s forehead.

"Si, but she does not like it . . . "

"That does not matter. It will help with the fever and make her sleep."

"She has never had a problem with sleep . . . Doctor," the final word was spat and showed her distaste of this man.

"Do not think to tell me my job, Evita. I am the doctor here and I know what is best for my patient," Delgado snapped and stood facing the formidable woman. He sensed her dislike of him, and wished Don Garcia would replace her, but De Rivera held a deep respect for Evita Martinez and it would not be easy to get rid of her.

"She is not getting better . . . "

"It’s only been a few days . . . "

"That may be, but your herbs and potions are not helping her. If anything she seems to be growing worse." Evita moved to sit on the bed and touched the woman’s shoulder when Maria shivered under the blanket. Her fears for the patron’s wife were very real and her heart was in her throat whenever Maria cried out.

"It will take time for the herbs to work . . . they are not magic . . . not like some of the things I have seen your people doing in the fields . . . killing animals in the name of your gods . . . "

"My people do not use magic or kill anything. My God . . . our God is the same one my patron prays to." Evita stood and stared heatedly at the man who was proving to be a hindrance more than a help before speaking. "I will speak to Don Garcia . . .

"E . . . Evita . . . please," Maria’s head moved side to side and she sought the face of her special angel. One who could soothe the savage fires burning inside her and cool the burning fever that sapped her strength. "Help me, Evita."

"I’m here, Senora," Evita said and turned back to her charge. "Tell me what you want."

"Stay with me . . . thirsty." The voice was weak beyond anything Evita had ever heard before and she feared for the young woman’s life. There was very little she could do on her own, but she could not allow this man to endanger her further by giving her unknown herbs and potions.

"Where did you put the herbs I gave you?" Delgado asked.

"No," Maria whispered. "No more herbs . . . no more teas . . . make me sick . . . please, Evita, just some water."

"Si, Senora, I will bring water and perhaps you will eat something . . . "

"I will try," the sick woman promised.

"She needs to drink the herb teas . . . "

"No, she does not," Evita told him.

"I will speak with Don Garcia!"

"So will I, Doctor Delgado. Perhaps I shall tell him of the rumors I have heard amongst my people."

"What rumors!"

"That you are not a real doctor!"

"Now see here . . . "

"No! You see here! In the time you have been tending Senora De Rivera she has grown worse and is not eating like she should be. Perhaps if Don Garcia heard the truth about you . . . " Evita’s head rocked back with the force of the slap, but she stood her ground. Her pride and bearing was that of a woman who had never backed down and she would not allow this man to change that.

"Evita," Maria cried when she heard the heated voices. "What is wrong?"

"Nothing for you to be concerned with, Senora . . . "

"Tell him to go," the patron’s wife snapped weakly. "I do not wish to have him tend me anymore."

"You heard the Senora . . . leave now or I will have you . . . "

"Don Garcia is the patron and it is up to him whether I leave or not! You are merely a peon and have nothing to say, now get out of my way . . . "

"Evita . . . please. Make him le . . . leave!" Maria whimpered when the strange voice was raised in anger. The man was vaguely familiar, but her dislike for him was strong and she reached out to grasp the older woman’s hand. "My baby . . . don’t let him hurt my baby!"

"He won’t . . . "

"What is the meaning of this?" The voice was smooth, dangerous, and filled with anger.

"Luis, tell Don Garcia that the Senora does not wish to be touched by this . . . this . . . " Evita struggled to find the right word while her son’s eyes grew as dangerous as his voice.

"Who hit you?" Luis asked touching her cheek lightly before turning to the man who cringed away from him. "You did this?"

"No . . . yes, but she . . . " His words were cut off when a hand, large and callused gripped the collar of his shirt and nearly pulled him off his feet.

"I should kill you . . . "

"No, Luis, let Don Garcia deal with him," Evita said and turned back to see tears sliding down Maria’s cheeks. "He won’t touch you again . . . that I promise you."

"My baby . . . he will . . . need a doctor . . . "

"Yes, and we will find a real doctor," Evita vowed. "Luis, get Don Garcia and tell him I wish to speak with him."

"Si, Mama, but what of this one?"

"I do not care what happens to him . . . just make sure he does not come back in here!" Evita felt the young woman’s hand on her arm and wished she could do something to ease her fears and worries for her unborn child. Maria De Montoya was wilting like the beautiful flower she represented and there was nothing she could do to stop her imminent death, except make sure she was as comfortable as possible. She’d seen this happen before, but never had she felt so helpless for this woman was as beautiful as the sunrise that brought with it the promise of a day filled with hope.

"Thank you, Evita," Maria whispered when Evita bathed her face with a soft cloth and touched her heart as none had ever done before.

Evita watched the eyes close, but knew the woman wasn’t sleeping. She didn’t speak while she cared for her, but felt the trust that bonded them together. No one, not even the patron would hurt her charge, not if she could say or do anything to stop it.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

"Don Garcia will be very angry with you, Luis!" Delgado told the dangerous man escorting him down the stairs.

"Don Garcia trusts my mother, Delgado, and once she speaks with him you won’t be allowed anywhere near the patron’s wife."

"I am here to help her. She needs a doctor!"

"Yes, she does," Luis snapped, as he too had heard rumors that this man was not what he passed himself off as. Several times he’d heard stories that Delgado was nothing more than a horse doctor who passed himself off as a physician. There’d also been hushed talk about how he’d used herbs that only made people worse.

"Don Garcia will hear of this!"

"Si, the patron is outside having his morning meal and I’m sure his appetite will leave him when he hears what I have to say."

"You don’t know anything!"

"Are you so sure? I should have looked into your reputation further, but the patron wanted a doctor brought here . . . "

"If he finds out you were wrong he will kill you!"

"Perhaps, but I will die knowing you will not hit my mother again." With those words Martinez propelled the other man through the door and onto the veranda. The Haciendada placed his cup on the table and looked up at the intrusion.

"Luis, what is the meaning of this?" De Rivera enquired angrily.

"This man is not what he says he is, Patron . . . "

"Por favor, Don Garcia, he lies," Delgado pulled away from the younger man and spoke quickly. "He and his madre are trying to keep me from tending your wife. She is very sick . . . enfermo and without treatment she will get worse. Think of the baby . . . your hijo."

"Luis . . . explain yourself!"

"Mi madre wishes to speak with you . . . "

"Evita should know I will not be summoned!" Don Garcia warned.

"She is overstepping her bounds and should be punished!" Delgado smiled inwardly at the thought of seeing the proud woman suffer under this man’s touch.

"No, Patron, this man has overstepped his bounds and struck mi madre," Luis snarled.

"Is this true, Miguel?" De Rivera asked, his voice deadly calm.

"No . . . si, but she would not allow me to treat your wife. She thinks she knows better than I what should be done for Dona Maria."

"Mama says he is making her worse, Patron," Luis explained.

"I am doing everything I can for her!" Delgado stated. He could feel the elderly man watching him and swallowed several times in an effort to calm his nerves.

"If Evita is wrong it is my place to deal with her, Miguel. You have no right to hit anyone under my roof. What are you doing for my son?"

"I am giving herbs that will help with the fever . . . "

"Are they working?" De Rivera asked.

"It is too soon to tell, Patron. I am using herbs that . . . "

"Perhaps you are using the wrong ones," Don Garcia said and grabbed for his cane. Straightening his body he strode toward the door. He was tired beyond anything he’d ever known because his dreams had been filled with thoughts of revenge. Numerous times, countless ways and yet each one ended with Chris Larabee dying at his feet.

"No, Patron . . . "

"Bring him along, Luis," the Haciendada ordered.

Miguel Delgado felt a hand clamp onto his arm and swallowed the bitter fear that threatened to cut off his air. There was no doubt in his mind that he was in trouble, but there was still a possibility he could change the facts and make it look as if Evita Martinez was behind Maria De Rivera’s illness.

"Don Garcia, por favor, it is not I who is harming the patrona. That woman . . . she is a witch . . . "

De Rivera spun quickly and was nose to nose with the smaller man before snarling. "Evita may be many things, but she is not a witch. She is a woman of God and I will not hear you speak ill of her again. Do I make myself clear?"

"Si, Don Garcia, I did not mean to offend, but your wife . . . she is very ill and I wish only to help. Evita Martinez fights me at every turn and I cannot help the patrona if I . . . "

"Mi Madre does not trust this . . . this medico," Luis spat in disgust.

"Luis, we shall see what Evita has to say," De Rivera explained. Through the years Luis had grown into a man he could be proud of, but his own pride and prejudice in his linage would not let him openly acknowledge the younger man. He trusted his ‘son’s’ judgment and knew Luis would not lie to him.  "I will do everything in my power to see that my son is born healthy!"

"I swear I have been doing everything to make sure your son is given the best possible chance, Don Garcia. I have given her the herbs that help bring down fever and . . . "

"It does not seem to be helping," Martinez interrupted and pulled the man’s arm, forcing him to follow the Haciendada. "There is talk that you are not truly a medico . . . "

"Now see here . . . "

"Is this true, Miguel?" De Rivera spun round once more, his hand clutching tightly to his cane, raging fire in his eyes.

"I assure you Don Garcia, the talk is wrong. I am a medico and I am doing everything I can to help your wife!" Delgado cringed, inwardly quaking at the thought of the loss of the promised fee, but fear for his life over shadowed even monetary gain.

"We shall see," the Haciendada vowed. The tip of the cane landed against Delgado’s cheek with just enough force to leave a distinct red streak across the man’s stubbled face. De Rivera turned away and led them toward his wife’s room without another word.

Delgado’s hand went to his cheek while fear gnawed at his gut. There was no doubt in his mind that the elderly man would kill him if something happened before the child was born, and his resolve to stick around and collect the promised money shattered like a pane of glass during the stormy season.

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Evita silently wept for the woman who came to mean as much to her as a daughter, but dried the tears when she heard Maria’s voice. She placed a cool cloth on the young woman’s brow and smiled.

"Would you sing for me, Evita?"

The older woman couldn’t help but smile at the softly spoken words and a song she’d learned from her long dead mother came to mind. She began to sing the words that carried the promise of a new life and felt the tears flow from her eyes when Maria De Rivera sighed heavily and a beatific smile graced her pale features.

"Follow the Drinkin' Gourd

Follow the Drinkin' Gourd

For the old man's waitin' for to carry you to freedom,

If you follow the Drinkin' Gourd.

When the sun comes back and the first quail calls,

Follow the Drinkin' Gourd

For the old man's waitin' for to carry you to freedom,

If you follow the Drinkin' Gourd."

The words always filled her with a sense of freedom and she often wondered what life would be like if she were to move north, across the border and into the country that some called the land of milk and honey.

"When the sun comes back," she whispered hopefully and looked up when footsteps sounded in the hallway. She looked at her charge and was grateful the young patrona had fallen into a deep sleep when Don Garcia graced the doorway.

"Evita, how is my son?"

The older woman swallowed the bitter retort that formed when the Haciendada spoke of only the child. Maria was nothing but a vessel for his heir and it was hard for her to keep her feelings from showing.

"Mother and child are still with us," Evita answered and stood away from the bed.

"Delgado says you are not helping. That you stopped him from treating her."

"Don Garcia, I do not trust this . . . this . . . hechicero. I fear he knows nothing of the herbs he pretends to use and she grows worse instead of better."

"Luis brought him here . . . "

"Luis had no choice . . . he is the only medico in the area," Evita told him.

"Si, that is true," De Rivera told her and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "I will send word to Hernando to find someone further north . . . across the border. There are stories of several fine medicos who have traveled far to help the sick and injured."

"What if the medico refuses?" Evita asked and knew the answer before the man spoke.

"He will not be given a choice!" De Rivera answered simply and asked. "Are you so sure Delgado is a hechicero?"

"As sure as I am that the sun will come back," Martinez answered and read the uncertainty in the older man’s eyes. She knew her meaning was lost on the Haciendada, but in her heart she knew someday the sun would indeed come back into her life and when it did she would embrace the freedom and light it promised.

"Are you sure enough to accuse him to his face?"

"Si, Don Garcia, I am more than sure," Evita vowed.

"Luis, bring him here!"

"Si, Patron," Martinez said and dragged Delgado into the room.

"Don Garcia, she is the one who doesn’t know what she’s doing! I swear I am doing everything in my power . . . "

"Power, Miguel?" De Rivera asked. "What power do you have? Evita does not trust you . . . she says you know nothing of the herbs you use."

"She is wrong! I am using the skills I learned . . . "

"You are a hechicero," Evita whispered.

"Now see here . . . I am not a witch doctor! I do not sacrifice animals I heal them!"

"You heal animals?" Luis asked and saw the disbelief wash over the man’s face when he realized what he had said. "You are an animal doctor?"

"Si . . . no . . . no, I am a doctor," Delgado snapped and turned to the Haciendada. "Don Garcia, do not listen to them! I can help Dona Maria, but not with her hanging over my shoulder! I need to be able to examine . . . "

"You have done nothing to help her since you arrived. She has grown weaker and I fear you have done more damage than good," Evita explained and looked to the elderly man leaning heavily on his cane. "Por favor, Don Garcia, do not let this man near her again."

"If I do as you ask, Evita, you will be responsible should anything happen to my son!" De Rivera stated.

"I will gladly take on that responsibility, Don Garcia!" Martinez said and felt her son watching her closely.

"Luis, see that a message gets to Hernando to look for a medico while he searches for my son’s murderer!"

"Si, Patron, I will send word with Lucas," Luis assured the older man. Lucas Aguilar was part of his own banditos, and Luis trusted him with his own life. He nodded toward Delgado and asked.  "What about him?"

"Yes, what shall we do with you, Miguel?" De Rivera asked and stood in front of the cowering man.

"I will go back to . . . "

"You will go nowhere until I know my son was unharmed by your treatment. Luis, see that he is unable to leave!" the Haciendada ordered and walked over to the bed. He looked down at the sleeping beauty, but did not feel anything for her. Maria De Montoya would give him an heir before she died and the boy would grow strong at his side. 

"Por favor, Patron! I did nothing wrong! It was her . . . she is the one who harms your unborn son!"

"Mi Madre would do nothing to hurt the patrona or the child. She has served Don Garcia with nothing but dignity and respect!" Luis vowed and dragged the cursing man out of the room, but not before he saw the pride shining in his mother’s eyes. Evita Martinez was a strong woman and he knew she could handle De Rivera . . . she’d proven that again and again over the years. She would always face those who would harm anyone she cared about and never back down. Delgado’s raging curses did nothing to slow Martinez down and they soon reached the building that housed the prisoner’s cells.

Martinez realized it wasn’t much of a building, but more of a shanty built over a hole dug in the hard ground. Dynamite had been used to hollow out the area and then workers had managed to ‘smooth’ out the sides and ground until it formed a square approximately four feet deep. Next iron bars had been driven into the sides until a criss-cross pattern covered the top of what had become known as the hole. He nodded to one of his men and waited for him to lift the heavy barrier before shoving Delgado inside.

"You can’t do this!"

"Si, I can," Martinez answered with a small grin. "Don Garcia wants you here until he knows for sure whether you harmed the patrona . . . I doubt if you will last long. Make sure there is a guard stationed here."

"Si, Luis," Leon Velasquez agreed and slammed the heavy gate on the protesting prisoner. He fixed the padlock before standing and looking toward the main house. "How is the patron’s wife?"

"She is not well. Mi Madre is with her."

"If anyone can help her it’s your mother, Luis. She has a heart of gold much like her son."

"Have you seen Lucas around?"

"Si, he is at his home," Velasquez answered.

"Gracious," Martinez said and walked toward the section of houses that belonged to the peons who worked the fields.

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Southwest of Four Corners

Evening

The five riders headed south toward the Wilson farm, stopping at several homesteads and warning the families of the possibility of attack. There was very little more they could do and Chris Larabee kept his group moving south toward the Wilson home. From there they would head for the Doherty place and rely on their tracker to find a trail that was at least four days cold.

Chris unconsciously rubbed at his side and cast a sideways glance at the Texan. Tanner was a quiet man, but the last day or so he’d been eerily silent and still Chris hadn’t found the time to confront him alone. He shifted in the saddle, hiding the discomfort from the wound in his side and realized he was guilty of the same thing he attributed to the sharpshooter.

Sighing heavily the blond led the group south; ever watchful of anything that could represent danger. The bandits who were responsible for the death and destruction could easily be lying in wait for unsuspecting travelers. In the distance the sky was darkening, bringing with it the immanent promise of a storm. Chris hoped they would make the ruined Doherty homestead before the rains came, but their first priority had to be the Wilson family and two other farms to the west.

"Storm’s comin," the weary tracker rasped.

"I know . . . looks like it could be a bad one," Larabee agreed

"Might be best if we split up," Tanner suggested and winced as the pain in his jaw exploded. He turned away, closed his eyes and clutched the saddle horn in a death grip, waiting for the waves of pain to subside. He was grateful for the growing darkness that covered him.

"I don’t know, Vin." Chris shook his head when he looked at the others. "We’re already short by leaving Josiah and Ezra behind. We split up and it could lead to a pack of trouble."

"We don’t split up and that storm hits it’ll wash away any trail left at the Doherty place," Jackson interrupted. They all knew how a sudden storm could hit, bringing with it torrential rain that could raise the levels of a small creek and turn it into an ominous liquid black snake. The power of such flash floods could tear apart the landscape and wipe out entire homesteads. It could rewrite the area and leave a man lost until he found something familiar.

"We need to warn the homesteaders," Wilmington supplied and saw the tracker’s simple nod.

"Vin's right, we need to split up," Dunne offered.

"Meet up tamorrow," Tanner told them. His jaw ached as he spoke and he caught Larabee watching him closely. The inside of his mouth hurt from trying to hide the pain, but the blond could see right through his resolve to keep it to himself.

"Chris, Vin’s right," Jackson quickly agreed. "You, Buck, and JD could check the homesteads while me and Vin get over ta the Doherty place. We’ll meet you tomorrow evenin’ near Purgatorio."

Larabee knew they were right and reluctantly agreed with the new plan. "All right, Nathan, but you boys be careful. There’s no telling where these bandits are. You see them you stay clear until we meet up!"

Tanner’s simple nod kept the gunman from seeing his tightly clenched jaw and he was glad they’d be splitting up for a while. The group settled on a spot near the town of outlaws and would meet there before heading across the border into Mexico.

"Watch your back," Larabee told the Texan just before they separated.

"Ain’t tha’ yer job?" Vin turned Pony and rode southeast toward the Doherty place, glad to be out from under Larabee’s watchful eye. There was no doubt in his mind that the gunman would have asked questions, but he wasn’t ready to answer yet. The tooth was bad and would probably need to be pulled, but right now there were more important matters to deal with. People were dying, murdered and Vin wanted to make damn sure the bandits did not reach Four Corners and the people he cared about.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening

Evita Martinez stood on the verandah and watched the sun dip below the horizon. The colors of the sunset bled into one another with the promise of another beautiful day. Yet, Evita found no pleasure in Mother Nature’s display. She turned and walked back into the bedroom and sighed tiredly when she looked at the bed that had been brought in for her. Maria De Rivera needed constant care and Don Garcia insisted that she be available for his wife 24 hours a day.

Her meals would be brought to her, her chores spread out between the other servants, leaving her free to take care of the ailing woman. Maria’s belly showed her condition and every now and then Evita was blessed to see the small shape of a foot or a hand moving beneath the taut stomach. She remembered her own pregnancy and Luis’ birth. It was something she’d never forget, and it saddened her to think of the child growing inside Maria De Rivera’s womb. The child might never know his mother, but Don Garcia would give him everything he wanted, except the love of a mother.

"Lord, protect Maria and her child from the evils of this world," she whispered and made the sign of the cross on her chest before walking to her bed and lying down. Sleep was a long time coming, but when it did her dreams were filled with visions that would plague her for some time. Two men dominated her dreams, men she’d never seen, yet she felt as if she had known them all her life. One dressed in black with eyes the color of the turbulent seas, yet filled with a grief she had never seen before. The other was longhaired with eyes the color of the sky and filled with a love for all things living. There was something about the two men that tugged at her heart and she prayed the day would never come . . . yet the visions said it would. The two strangers would cross her path and change her life, whether for good or bad she did not know, but their faces would be with her when she opened her eyes to a fresh new day.

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Wilson Farm

Southwest of Four Corners

Late Evening

Chris held his hand tight against his side and realized the wound must have opened up during the hard ride to the Wilson place. He heard Buck and JD bickering beside him, but was in no mood to listen to them. He was never more relieved to see the house looming ahead. The windows were lit with a soft glow that told him Tom and Martha were still awake. He stopped near the barn and dismounted, smiling when he heard Wilson’s voice.

"Who’s out there? Whoever ya are you’d best know I got a rifle pointed at ya!"

"It’s Chris Larabee, Tom," the blond called and chuckled softly when Martha’s voice berated her husband.

"Put that blasted thing away before you shoot yourself in the foot," the woman mock scolded and hurried out to greet the newcomer. "Hello, Chris, Buck, JD . . . what brings you boys out here at this hour?"

"There’s trouble, Martha," Larabee answered.

"What sort of trouble?" Tom asked and motioned for the men to come into the house. They walked into the kitchen and Martha made a fresh pot of coffee while they talked.

"There’s a gang of bandits crossing over from Mexico," Larabee began, unconsciously rubbing his side. "It started with just a few raids here and there, close to the border, but they’re becoming increasingly more dangerous. They killed a couple of homesteaders east of here . . . "

"Oh my Lord," Martha said. "Not the Dohertys?"

"Did you know them?" Wilmington asked.

"Not well, but I’ve spoken with them on several occasions . . . Mrs. Doherty did some needlework for me," Martha explained sadly.

"Vin and Nathan rode out that way to see if they can pick up the trail, but it’s several days old," Larabee told the friendly couple who’d helped save his life when his past came back to haunt him. "We’ll be meeting up with them outside Purgatorio sometime tomorrow."

"That place is hell on earth, Chris," Martha said, shaking her head at the thought of the outlaw-infested town. "You’d do well to bypass it . . . "

"Martha’s of a mind the world would be a better place if Purgatorio was burned to the ground," Tom said, hugging his wife.

"She’s probably right," Wilmington agreed. "It’s getting as bad a reputation as Tombstone."

"Heard tell those ‘cowboys’ and Johnny Ringo are tearing Tombstone apart," Tom observed, watching Larabee closely. Something didn’t set well and he’d noticed the blond was protective of his left side. His eyes met Martha’s and he knew she’d seen the same thing.

"Chris, what happened to your side?" the concerned woman asked.

"Nothing . . . "

"Don’t give me that, Chris Larabee, you’ve been holding on to it as if a heap of red ants is digging at your hide," Martha said.

"She knows you too well, Ol’ son," Wilmington said with a mischievous grin.

"Shut up, Buck," the gunslinger groused, but moved his arm.

"My stars . . . you’re bleeding! Why didn’t you say something?" the woman scolded. "Tom, get me some water, whiskey and bandages! Chris, let me take a look at you!"

"Martha, Nathan took care of it," Larabee tried.

"I’m sure he did, but you riding around didn’t do it any good," Martha told him and folded her arms across her chest when it seemed the stubborn man would refuse.

"Oh, hell, Chris, might as well let her do her Florence Nightingale routine or neither one of us’ll get any sleep tonight," Tom said and smiled as his wife’s stern gaze was turned on him. "Hey, turn down the fire, Martha, I’m not the patient here!"

"That may be, Tom, but let’s not forget that carbuncle might need tending to," Martha reminded her husband before helping the dark clad man out of his jacket and shirt.

"Hell, Tom, that sounds painful," Wilmington said, smiling when the other man moved to the stove and poured water from the pot into a basin.

"It’s not too bad, Chris, but it does need cleaning," Martha said of the jagged wound to Larabee’s side. She reached for the carbolic and added a liberal amount to the water before cleaning the slightly inflamed area. She felt Larabee tense up, and knew he was fighting to keep from crying out. ‘Men are always so damn stubborn,’ she thought and had Buck help her wrap a bandage around the gunman’s waist to keep the wound clean.

"Thanks, Martha," Larabee said and reached for his shirt.

"Now there’s no point in you boys riding out tonight," the woman said. "Timmy and Joey are spending the night with the Jacobsons so you can have their beds."

"Don’t want to put you out . . . "

"You’re not, Buck, besides Chris should get some rest and let that wound heal some," Martha stated and saw Larabee’s determined gaze turn on her.

"No point in arguin’, Chris," Tom stopped the gunslinger before he had a chance to speak. "Martha’s mind’s made up and ya know what she’s like if you get her riled."

"Chris, you boys look like you could use a bite to eat. There’s fresh bread and stew left from supper and it won’t take much to warm it up," Martha said before handing Larabee his shirt.

"JD, we’d best tend the horses," Wilmington stated.

"There’s fresh hay in the barn," Tom told them and walked them to the door.

"Martha, you don’t have to do this," Larabee said.

"I know I don’t have to, but I want to. The Good Lord supplied us with plenty today and it’s my way of giving some back," Martha said, patting the gunslinger’s shoulder before moving to the stove and adding wood to the fire.

Chris watched the woman and couldn’t help, but smile tenderly at her. Martha was a lot like Sarah, not in looks, but where it counted. She had a heart of gold and would never see anyone turned away if she could do something for them. He eased into his shirt and realized he was looking forward to stretching out in bed and sleeping under a roof that didn’t leak.

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Doherty Homestead

East of the Wilson Farm

Dawn

Vin kept his eyes peeled for any sign of danger when they topped a ridge and looked down at what was left of the Dohertys' dreams. The buildings had been burned out and the remains of a wagon stood at the center of a cleared field. He felt his heart ache for the couple who’d lost their lives to a gang of cutthroats who cared about nothing or no one.

"Bastards . . . " Tanner whispered, wincing when the air made contact with his damaged tooth.

"Did you say something, Vin?" Jackson asked, watching the younger man closely. In the light of early dawn Tanner’s features were drawn and weary, lending an air of age to the customary youthful visage.

"Was jest thinkin’ out loud," the Texan answered.

"Damn shame ta see so little remaining of a person’s life," Jackson said and followed the solemn tracker down the ridge and into the front yard. He dismounted and waited for Vin to do the same. When he did, Nathan got his first good look at the younger man’s face. The swelling was unmistakable and he winced sympathetically. "It ain’t gonna go away on its own, Vin."

"What ain’t?" Tanner asked and turned away.

"How long’s that tooth been bothering ya?" Jackson watched the shoulders slump and knew it had been a while.

"’Bout a week or so," the Texan answered.

"Why didn’t ya say somethin’ before?" the healer asked, worried about the infection happening inside the younger man’s mouth.

"Was goin’ ta and then this happened. Figured it’d keep ‘til we caught the bandits," Tanner answered.

"Ain’t much I can do for ya out here, but when we reach Purgatorio I’m gonna see to it," Jackson vowed.

"Ain’t gonna argue with ya," the sharpshooter said and moved around the yard. There were signs of a struggle in places and the unmistakable stain of blood on the one remaining wall. Flowers had been flattened and broken near the water trough. Vin moved to the area and found a piece of fabric snagged on a nail near the bottom of the steps. Again his eyes raked over the area and picked up the signs of a struggle and spotted dried blood at the bottom of the trough.

"Anything?" Jackson asked, amazed at the ease with which the Texan could read the signs most people, himself included, missed.

"Think this mighta belonged ta Mrs. Doherty," Tanner said, showing his companion the piece of flowery material.

"Such a waste," the former slave said. "Them bastards need ta be caught!"

"We’ll get ‘em, Nathan . . . jest hope it’s b’fore anyone else gets hurt," the Texan said and moved past the healer. It didn’t take long to find the graves of the two people who’d eked out a meager living in the perils of the west. Both men said a silent prayer that they rest in peace before Vin turned his attention to the task of finding a trail they could follow.

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Wilson Farm

Southwest of Four Corners

Early Morning

Chris opened his eyes and frowned when he looked around the unfamiliar room. It took a couple of minutes before the sleepy fog left his mind and he remembered stopping at the Wilson farm. He sat up and reached for his shirt that was neatly folded across the back of a chair and knew Martha had been busy through the night.

"Good mornin’, Sunshine," Wilmington said with a grin. He’d woken at dawn, but had left the injured blond to sleep.

"What time is it?" Larabee asked.

"Well . . . the sun’s been up for a couple of hours . . . "

"Sonofabitch, Buck, why didn’t you wake me?"

"Well now given a choice between your anger or Martha’s, I’d say I made the right decision in letting you sleep. JD’s got the horses ready and we can leave as soon’s you eat . . . "

"Not hungry . . . "

"How about you tell Martha that?" Wilmington wore a devilish grin. He knew the woman could handle Chris Larabee and loved to watch her when she folded her arms across her body and stared at the blond. They may not have been related, but Martha Wilson and Sarah Connelly were about the only two women who could handle the gunman.

"I should’ve let Lars have you," Larabee told the rogue and finished pulling on his shirt.

"Now you know you wouldn’t do nothing of the sort . . . you’d miss me too much," the ladies’ man said with a grin. "Come on, Pard, Martha’s waiting to take a look at you and I believe she said somethin’ about putting some meat on your scrawny ass."

"I never said scrawny . . . I said skinny," Martha said from the doorway.

"Morning, Martha," Larabee greeted the woman with a smile.

"Good morning, Chris. How do you feel?" the woman asked, shifting slightly to let Wilmington get through the door.

"Much better . . . thanks for letting us spend the night." Chris pulled on his boots and stood up.

"Anytime," Martha said and took his arm. She led him out of the bedroom and steered him toward the kitchen where a fresh plate of biscuits, bacon, and eggs waited for him.

"Martha, you didn’t have to go through all this trouble."

"It wasn’t any trouble, Chris . . . you know how Martha loves to cook especially when we have company," Tom Wilson said, pouring a cup of coffee and handing it to the blond.

"Thanks, Tom," Larabee said. He sipped the coffee, enjoying the rich flavor and soon found his stomach grumbling expectantly.

"Think you’d better feed that beast," Martha told him and took the seat next to her husband. "I’ve packed some sandwiches for you to take."

"Martha, I don’t know how to thank you . . . "

"By staying alive . . . all of you. I know what you’re up against and I will pray for your safe return, Chris. You boys are doing the Lord’s work and I hope you know He will be watching over you."

"I know," Larabee said. He finished the breakfast, allowed the motherly woman to check his wound, and knew it was time to leave. He stood next to Pony and hugged Martha Wilson before mounting up.

"You boys be careful," Tom Wilson ordered.

"We will," Larabee assured him.

"Godspeed," Martha said and stood watching the trio ride away from the farm.

"They’ll be okay, Martha," Tom told her and pulled her close. He knew his wife well enough to know there would be tears for days to come.

"I hope so, Tom, I pray they find those animals and put the fear of God into them," Martha said and let the tears fall.

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Purgatorio

Early Afternoon

Hernando Lopez reached for the bottle of Tequila and lifted it to his lips, spilling most of it when the red haired whore landed in his lap. Her ripe breasts were bared and he grabbed the nipple, twisting until she cried out before pushing her away. She landed on the floor, but stood up quickly and moved across the smoke filled saloon.

"She does not like your rough hands, Amigo," Rodrigo Marquiz said and smiled when a small, dark haired woman kissed his mouth. She tasted of stale whiskey and sweat, but he allowed her to manipulate his body, while he eyed his friend across the table.

"We shall see," Lopez said, watching the woman move from one man to another. He enjoyed female company, but most women steered away from him when they realized he preferred to be rough with them.

"Si," Marquiz said when the woman whispered something in his ear. "Well, Amigo, I have found a little entertainment."

"Enjoy," Lopez said and turned his attention to the two men who entered the saloon. One was dark skinned while the other reminded him of a hunter with intense eyes that could read those around him. He wondered who the two men were because they seemed out of place in Purgatorio. Perhaps it was time he visited Maria and asked the pretty whore about the newcomers. He stood and moved toward the back door, unaware that at least one man’s eyes followed his movements.

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Vin Tanner moved inconspicuously toward the bar, yet those who knew him could tell he was watching everyone and everything around him. The tracker saw the man move toward the back door, and filed the man’s face away in case he ran into him again.

"Vin, did you see . . . "

"I saw him," Tanner answered.

"What’ll it be?" the gruff, heavily whiskered bartender asked.

"Whiskey," Jackson told him.

"Leave the bottle," the tracker said, hoping the alcohol would numb the throbbing pain in his mouth. He placed a coin on the counter, grabbed the bottle and two glasses before heading toward the table the Mexican had vacated.

"Vin, I need ta take a look at that tooth," Jackson said. He’d finally gotten a good look at the Texan and noted the tiny beads of sweat and the slight hint of red that spoke of a mounting fever.

"I know . . . but if’n yer gonna do that I’d rather not feel anythin’," Tanner said, his tongue touching against the swollen area on the left side of his mouth flinching.

"Yeah, well drink up ‘cause it’s prob’ly gonna need ta be pulled," Jackson said and took the offered glass of whiskey. He watched the other patrons in the saloon and wondered what it was about Purgatorio that seemed to draw the worst kind of riffraff.

"This place gets worse every day," the Texan observed, ducking when an empty bottle was thrown in his direction.

"Faster we get out of here the better," the former slave agreed.

"We leave as soon’s Chris and the others get ‘ere . . . "

"Then I guess it’s time I took a look at that tooth," Jackson said. "Wonder if there’s a room . . . "

"Chris’ told me ta see Maria if’n I ever needed help," Tanner told him.

"Where do we find her?"

"She’s got a room near the edge of town," the Texan said and reached for the bottle. The whiskey was cheap and burned his throat, but it had also deadened the pain somewhat. He stood and turned, but did not get a chance to steady himself when something slammed into the left side of his jaw and sent him flying across the floor.

Pain exploded inside his mouth and Vin spit out a wad of foul tasting bloodied pus. He barely caught himself before he collided with the edge of a broken piano and tried to stand, but his vision blurred and his strength left him. He heard several men cursing and briefly wondered who the hell had struck him, but there was no time to find out as the shouting match intensified and an all out fight ensued.

Jackson reacted instinctively and used his chair to stop the attacker, but an all out fistfight was starting. He saw the blood running from Tanner’s mouth and reached down to pull the dazed man to his feet. The back door was to his right and he quickly maneuvered the Texan outside, ducking as a chair followed them out.

Nathan clung to the Texan, wrapping his arm around the lithe man’s waist while taking Tanner’s left arm over his shoulder. He managed to keep them both on their feet and looked around. They’d come out the back way, which was fine by him because it meant staying away from watchful eyes. He heard a soft moan from the sharpshooter and knew the younger man was not quite with him.

Vin spit the foul tasting blood from his mouth and blinked rapidly. He struggled against the arms holding him until he recognized the man’s gruff manner.

"Just hang on, Vin . . . ya said Maria’s place was at the end of town . . . "

"East . . . east end," Tanner mumbled and again spit out a mixture of blood and pus.

"Just hold on to me," Jackson ordered and prayed they’d find Maria’s room without being discovered. The very fact that Tanner had been hit told him the tracker was not at the top of his game and that meant they were both vulnerable in a town full of potential enemies.

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Maria knew the man who stood outside her door and cowered in the corner of her bed. She could not face being beaten again and her hand touched the area where her face had borne the marks left by his fists.

"Open the damn door, Amora . . . I know you’re in there!"

She shook her head, her body tense; her mind filled with fear and she tried to hold back the sobs that threatened to escape. She’d been beaten before, but never with such cruelty. This man had no qualms about beating women and Maria knew if she let him in now he would kill her.

"Hey, Hernando, leave the bitch alone . . . there’s plenty more whores around!" Pedro Gonzales offered from across the street.

"Si, Pedro, there is, but Amora and I have unfinished business," Hernandez said and pounded on the door. "Amora, I can wait, but I promise you will not like my attentions if you keep this up . . . "

"Leave the woman alone!"

Hernando turned to see two men standing behind him. He recognized the newcomers from the bar and glanced around for his men. Gonzales had disappeared and there were none of the others around. "Go find your own whore . . . "

"Ya need ta learn some manners," Tanner vowed.

"And who will teach them to me . . . surely not you or the darkie!" Lopez spat and landed flat on his back when a fist impacted with his jaw and he found himself looking down the business end of a sawed off shotgun.

"I’m not gonna say it again . . . "

"Go ahead and have the bitch . . . there are plenty more around," Lopez said, standing and wiping the blood from his mouth before walking away from the two men.

Nathan was about to speak, but the door opened a fraction of an inch and he smiled at the terrified woman hiding there. "Maria . . . we’re not goin’ ta hurt ya. My name is Nathan Jackson and this here’s Vin Tanner . . . we’re friends of Chris . . . "

"Chris Larabee?" the woman asked hopefully.

"Yes," Tanner answered and glanced around when the door opened fully.

"Please . . . come inside," Maria told them and closed the door as soon as they were inside. "Is Chris with you?"

"No, but he should be here later today," Jackson explained.

"I need to warn him about Hernando Lopez," Maria told them and poured water from a pitcher into the basin on the table.

"What does Lopez want with Chris?" the healer asked, motioning for the Texan to sit down. He’d brought the supplies he needed with him and hoped he could help the Sharpshooter.

"I do not know, but Lopez was asking about a blond gunslinger and he beat me and I . . . I . . . told him about Chris. I did not mean to, but . . . "

"It’s okay, Maria," Tanner said and wished he could do more to ease the woman’s mind.

"No it’s not," Maria said and wiped the blood from the young man’s mouth and chin. She saw the swelling and discoloration and moved aside so the other man could take over. She quickly lit another lamp and brought it closer to the two men.

"All right, Vin, let me take a look," Jackson ordered. He thanked Maria for the added light and looked into Tanner’s mouth. He could see the inflamed area and knew it was abscessed, but the blow to Tanner’s jaw had ruptured it. The tooth itself would have to come out before the infection became worse. "Vin . . . "

"I know . . . jest do it!" Tanner ordered.

"Are you a doctor?" Maria asked.

"No, Ma’am, ain’t no darkie doctors, but I know some things from when I helped a doctor durin’ the war," Jackson said.

"Don’t let ‘im fool ya, Maria, he’s the best damn doctor in these parts . . . " Vin hissed, his body tensing in pain. "He's plucked bullets outta more folks, sewn up knife wounds, tended fevers and delivered babies . . . makes ‘im a doctor in m’book."

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Hernando Lopez smiled when he heard the exchange between the three people in the room. The fact that the darkie did not consider himself a doctor didn’t matter, because the other man seemed to believe he could walk on water. The man named Tanner kept calling the other one Nathan or Nate, but the title that stood out was doc.

Lopez knew he had to get his banditos together and take Tanner and Jackson. He really only wanted the doctor, but he understood he would need the other one to keep Nathan Jackson in line. He hurried back to the saloon and up the stairs, rapping on the doors until he found the man he was looking for.

"Get your pants on, Rodrigo, we got work to do!"

"Go away, Hernando, can’t ya see I’m . . . "

"Now, Rodrigo, before it’s too late!"

"What the fuck’s the matter with you, Amigo?"

"You remember that message we got from the patron?"

"Think so . . . somethin’ about findin’ a doctor?"

"Exactly . . . and one just dropped into our lap, but we need to act fast before he leaves," Lopez explained and threw Marquiz his pants and shirt. "Get your clothes on and meet me at that little place at the east end of town. Tell the others we move out as soon as we capture Tanner and Jackson. Be warned that we need them both alive, Amigo!"

"I’ll be there as soon as I’m . . . "

"Dressed . . . comprendez?"

"I hear you!" Marquiz spat and uttered a string of curses that made his friend smile.

Hernando Lopez hurried back down the stairs, motioning to the two men at the bar that they should follow him. He needed a plan to get the two men out of town without being seen and although Purgatorio was a place where most people turned a blind eye, he didn’t want to do anything that would bring De Rivera’s wrath down on his head.

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Nathan heard the words spoken by the tracker and felt an overwhelming sense of pride in what he’d accomplished with God’s help. Numerous times since the group of seven had come together, the others had told him he was a natural healer, but he still felt something was lacking. He didn’t have a paper on the wall, didn’t have the means to prove he could practice medicine, yet the town of Four Corners saw him as their doctor.

Shaking off the sense that someday he would make a mistake and undo all the good he’d done, Jackson returned to the patient sitting on the edge of the bed. He reached into the kit he’d brought with him and withdrew the bottle of laudanum. Measuring a dose into the cup Maria passed him he held it in front of the ailing man.

"Vin, take this," Jackson ordered.

Vin knew what was in the cup and took it without protest before handing the cup to the pretty woman. He knew the medicine would help him relax, that coupled with the lack of sleep would probably knock him on his ass.

"Maria, is there anywhere we could get a room for the night?" Jackson asked, spreading the items he would need out on the small table.

"You can stay here . . . "

"We couldn’t do that," Jackson tried.

"Senor Chris is a good man and he has showed me that not all men are animals. I am only returning the kindness he showed me," Maria explained. "Please, you stay and I will bring you something to eat."

"I . . . thank you, Ma’am," Jackson said and watched her leave.

"Makes ya wonder what her life was like ta make her turn ta this," Tanner said tiredly and leaned back against the wall.

"Life can be cruel," the healer stated simply. "All right, Vin, lie back now and relax."

"Ain’t ‘bout ta relax when yer gonna be diggin’ in my mouth," the Texan told him, but did as the healer ordered.

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Maria opened the door and watched the street; glad there was no sign of the Mexican bandito. She hurried across the street toward the only restaurant in town, but as she passed the mouth of the alley someone grabbed her and pulled her inside. An arm wrapped around her waist while something foul smelling was shoved into her mouth. She struggled and kicked, but her attacker was not alone and soon had her hands tied behind her back. Her ankles were also bound and she found herself on the ground trussed up like a Christmas turkey.

"We meet again, Chiquita," Lopez said, running his hand along her chin and leering hungrily at her partially bared breast. "Bring her Pedro."

"Si, Hernando," the big Mexican said and threw the woman over his shoulder. He knew his way around Purgatorio and had stashed their horses at the back of Maria’s room while Lopez gathered the rest of the banditos. The plan was to move fast and take the two men before they had a chance to realize what was happening.

Hernando Lopez led four of his men through the alley and along the back of the buildings until they reached the horses. Maria would be held there until they had Jackson and Tanner under wraps. With a couple of coins, the liveryman had pointed out the horses the two men had ridden in on. It should have been a simple matter of taking the horses and leading them out the back, but there’d been a fight to get the one animal to move. Several times it managed to nip at the handlers, but they finally managed to get it under control.

"Pedro, you and Carlo stay with the bitch. Rodrigo, Jose, watch the windows and make sure no one tries to stop us. Ernesto and Raul come with me. Just make damn sure nothing happens to the medico!"

"What about the other one?" Jose Mendoza asked and saw the familiar grin come over Lopez’s face.

"Don’t kill him . . . it will be easier to handle the medico if we bring him along!" Lopez ordered and motioned for the others to move out.

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Nathan waited until he thought the Texan was nearly asleep before going to work. He knew the laudanum would keep some of the pain at bay, but pulling an infected tooth was going to cause pain no matter what he did. He managed to convince Tanner to open his mouth and reached for the instrument he’d need.

Vin held tight to the blanket beneath him when Nathan touched the infected tooth. He held his breath, his body tensing as he tried to remain still. The pain was like nothing he’d ever felt before and he fought to control his tumultuous stomach. The pressure and agony twisted through his gut and he tasted blood, but remained still as Jackson pulled with every ounce of strength he had. He felt the tooth pull free and turned on his side as nausea churned in his gut and bitter bile came up in his throat.

"It’s out, Vin," Jackson said, standing and reaching for his gun when the door slammed open.

"Now, Doctor, that would not be wise considering there is a man at each window with a gun pointed at your friend," Lopez warned and stepped into the room.

"Who the hell are you?" the healer asked.

"Does not matter who I am . . . what matters is that we have need of your services," the bandit answered and pointed his gun at the buckskin clad man. "Don’t try anything or my compadres will be forced to shoot the whore."

"Ma . . . Mar . . . " Tanner tried to voice the name, but all that came out was a mixture of bloodied pus.

"My men are holding her and they will shoot her if you don’t come along quietly," Lopez ordered.

"Vin stay here," Jackson told the sick man.

"No, I’m afraid he is to come along," the Mexican said with a grin.

"Thought you wanted a doctor?" the healer asked.

"Exactly and how better to keep a medico in line than to make sure his patient needs him," Lopez said striding across the floor and striking the unsuspecting tracker in the face. He stepped back when Jackson snarled at him, but could not help chuckling at the man’s obvious concern.

"You bastard!" the former slave cursed and tried to steady the injured Texan.

"Such language . . . you will get him on his feet and climb out the back window or I will kill him now!" Lopez snapped knowing at least two of his men were waiting there for him. "Ernesto, get their guns and the doc’s medical bag and we’ll be on our way."

"Vin, hold on," Jackson said when the Texan tried to stand on his own.

"Move, Doc, or I’ll finish the bastardo now!" Lopez said, moving to the side and watching the two men closely. He knew Jackson would not do anything to jeopardize the other man’s life, but something about the buckskin-clad man sent a shiver down his spine. He toyed with the idea of simply putting a bullet between his eyes, but knew that would just antagonize the Negro medico.

"Vin . . . "

The Texan lifted his head and met the soulful brown eyes of his friend, but could not say the words to ease his mind. Nausea and pain combined with the laudanum made it hard to concentrate, but he shifted his gaze and glared at the man holding the gun trained on them.

"All right, Vin," Lopez used the name Jackson had and smiled when he shoved the Texan toward the open window. "You go first and if you try anything I’ll put a bullet in the medico here . . . won’t kill him, but he’ll be hobbling all the way to Mexico. Comprendez?"

Vin nodded, ignoring the fireworks the simple gesture set off and stumbled to the window. He cried out when something struck him between the shoulders and he dropped to his hands and knees.

"You sonofabitch!" Jackson growled and tried to get to his friend, but found two sets of strong arms holding him back. His eyes met Tanner’s blue ones and he saw the pain in the deep blue orbs, but there was nothing he could do that would not cause the sharpshooter more pain. He tore away from the two men and reached down to help the younger man to his feet. He supported the tracker until they reached the window and he pulled back the soiled curtain in time to see two more bandits looking in his direction.

 "Oh, just a minute," Lopez ordered and grabbed the edge of a sheet. He motioned for Pedro and Ernesto to get Jackson out of the way and smiled when the buckskin clad man leaned heavily against the wall. He quickly tore a strip and bound Tanner’s wrists before shoving him through the open window.

"You fucking animal!" Jackson spat when he heard the cry of pain from his friend and hurried out the window. He knelt beside Tanner and wondered how people could be so cruel. The Texan was hurting and sick and the new abuse was not making it any easier.

"Watch yourself, Medico, you keep it up and your friend there pays the price. Now get him on his feet and start walking." Lopez kept his distance and hid his own fear when the long haired man lifted his head and stared at him. There was something cold and calculating in the stormy blue orbs, and Hernando Lopez would be lying if he said he wasn’t afraid.

Nathan helped Vin stand on shaky legs and supported him, staggering toward the other bandits.

Vin fought to keep just how badly he was feeling from the others. His stomach was queasy and each stumbling step he took threatened to be his undoing, but with Nathan’s help, he managed to stay on his feet until they reached the area where the other banditos waited. There were too many for him and Jackson to take out, especially with Maria being held by a man with a knife to her throat.

"Let her go!" Jackson ordered and received a fist to the gut.

"I don’t think so . . . I think we should hold on to the pretty whore until something better comes along," Pedro said, licking the woman’s neck while running the knife along her chin.

"Hey, Pedro, why bring her when this one got such fine silky hair?" Ernesto stated and grabbed a handful of the tracker’s hair, pushing the sick man away in disgust, when the Texan spit out a wad of blood and pus.

"Let her go, Pedro, we have enough to deal with and I know Don Garcia is waiting for us to bring him a real medico," Lopez said and moved toward the other man when he refused to release the woman. "You want me to gut you and leave your body for the vultures, Amigo?"

"No, Hernando," Pedro said and shoved the woman to the ground.

"Tie Jackson up and get him on his horse," Lopez ordered.

"What about him?" Ernesto asked.

"I got somethin’ special in mind for this one," Lopez said with a grin, watching as Marquiz secured Jackson in his saddle. He knew the man would make damn sure the healer could not escape and turned his attention to the buckskin clad man. "Carlo, Jose, throw this bastardo over his horse and tie him face down."

"You can’t!" Jackson struggled against his bonds, but couldn’t do anything to stop what was happening. He cursed the Mexican bandits when they roughly grabbed the Texan and placed him belly down on the saddle. They’d cut through the material binding his hands behind his back and were using the rough rope to secure Tanner’s hands and feet beneath Peso’s ample girth.

"Now to make sure he can’t call for help!" Lopez said and shoved a dirty rag into the tracker’s mouth. He laughed at the stricken look on Jackson’s face before mounting up. "Now, Doc, if you want him to live you will do everything I say . . . comprendez?"

"I hear you," Jackson said, his eyes filled with anger at the cruelty of the Mexican bandito.

Vin fought the nausea churning through his gut and closed his eyes. His hands were going numb and his head was spinning as the banditos started forward. He knew Larabee and the others would search for them and prayed JD had been a good listener and understood how to search for their trail.

Maria watched them leave and tried to remove the ropes binding her hands, but the more she struggled the tighter they became. Tears of frustration filled her eyes and she let her head fall to the ground. Somehow she had to find a way to get a message to Chris Larabee, but that would not happen if she stayed where she was.

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Four Corners

Saloon

Mid-Afternoon

Josiah watched as Ezra dealt the cards to the three men who’d rode into town that morning. The trio worked for the railroad and had stopped to check on the town’s bank and hotel. There would be businessmen through the town several times a month and it meant money for Four Corners.

The sound of a wagon pulling up outside caught his attention and Josiah stood and walked to the batwing doors. He recognized the couple and stepped outside, shaking Tom Wilson’s hand before helping Martha down.

"Afternoon, Tom, Martha, where are the boys?" Sanchez asked.

"They’re playing with Gloria’s children down by the church," Martha explained. They’d picked the boys up at the Jacobson’s farm on the way into town and dropped them off at the church when the Potter children waved them down.

"Any news on the bandits, Josiah?" Tom asked.

"We got a message form Sheriff Stains in Eagle Bend that a couple of farms south of there were attacked," Sanchez answered when Standish joined them.

"Good afternoon, Tom . . . Mrs. Wilson," the conman greeted.

"Hello, Ezra," Martha said. "Was anyone hurt during the attacks?"

"The Robinson family was in town at the time, but the house was burned to the ground and the livestock killed," Sanchez answered. "Unfortunately the Callahans were not so lucky . . . the only survivor was their nine month old baby who slept through it all and God must have been with him because he was not harmed in any way."

"My Lord, what is this world coming to when hardworking folks aren’t safe in their own homes?" Martha said, wiping the tears from her eyes.

"Hopefully Chris and the others will be able to track the bas . . . them down," the ex-preacher told them.

"Chris, Buck and JD were at our home last night. They were meeting Vin and Nathan in Purgatorio today," Tom explained.

"Did they find anything?" Standish asked.

"Not that they said. Chris’s wound was bleeding and I convinced him to spend the night," Martha answered.

"You know, Tom, it might be a good idea for you guys to stay in town for a few days . . . until all this . . . "

"No, Josiah, we’re not about to let no two bit bandits scare us off what we’ve worked so hard for. Martha and I have taught the boys how to shoot and they can handle themselves. They know what to do if something happens."

"That’s good to hear, Tom, but if these bandits step up their raids . . . "

"Then we’ll take you up on your hospitality," Martha assured him. "We just came in to stock up on supplies and are heading back in the morning."

"Just be careful," Sanchez advised.

"We always are," the woman said and made her way toward the general store.

"You are a fortunate man, Tom," Standish said of the formidable woman walking away from them.

"You don’t know the half of it, Ezra. If those bandits do show up they just might be the ones in need of your pity," Wilson answered.

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North of Purgatorio

Late Evening

Buck watched the quiet man closely as they neared their destination. He knew Larabee was pissed at having to make several stops along the way, but there was nothing they could do about it. The homesteaders needed to be warned and although it took them longer to reach Purgatorio it might just have saved several lives.

Chris had always been a man who kept his emotions in check, but there were times when the blond could not keep it contained. With each passing minute, Larabee had become increasingly impatient and that could easily cause mistakes. In their line of work, mistakes usually meant lives were lost and Buck was not ready to let that happen.

The moon was peeking over the horizon, but to Buck it wasn’t the full white-bodied orb that usually brought a sense of peace with it. Right now there seemed to be a slight hint of a secondary ring that hinted at the color of blood and Wilmington silently prayed it was not a harbinger of danger.

"Buck, is Chris all right?" Dunne asked when Larabee rode slightly ahead of them.

"He’s fine, JD, just gets kind of quiet when he’s thinking," the rogue explained.

"He’s always quiet, Buck . . . you think he’s worried about Vin and Nathan?"

"Aren’t you?" Wilmington asked. "I’ve been to Purgatorio . . . hell I’ve even been dead there, but Vin’s well known from his days as a bounty hunter and if someone recognizes him he’s deader’n a beaver hat."

"Vin knows what he’s doing," Dunne said.

Wilmington heard the sense of pride in the younger man’s voice and knew Dunne looked up to them all. Since that first day when they learned he could shoot, ‘fly’, and swim, the others had taken him under their wings and tried to protect him. JD had other ideas on that and had quickly shown them he could protect himself and fit in well with their unique group.

"Yeah, he does, but sometimes that’s not enough. Sometimes things happen that we can’t stop . . . we just have to learn to live with it," Wilmington said and hoped the younger man understood what he was saying. He’d seen so much hardship in his own life that it sometimes made him cynical, but this was his family now and cynicism did not have a place here. He watched Larabee turn his horse and ride back toward them before pulling up alongside him.

"Buck, when we get to town I want you and JD to keep an eye out for Vin and Nathan while I see Maria," Larabee explained.

"Do you think she knows anything about the bandits?" Dunne asked.

"Maybe . . . Maria knows how to keep her eyes and ears open," Larabee said and spotted the town fires in the distance. "There are a couple of saloons in Purgatorio . . . just be careful."

"You too," Wilmington advised. The closer he got to the town, the more his gut clenched with anger. The last time he’d been in Purgatorio he’d nearly died, but Chris’ quick thinking had saved his life. It hadn’t quite saved him from experiencing what a dead man went through in the outlaw town.

"I’ll ride in first and meet you at the saloon near the edge of town after I talk to Maria," Larabee told them.

"Watch your back, Pard," Wilmington ordered and saw the slight nod of the man’s head before Larabee rode away.

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Purgatorio

Late Evening

Maria knew she was lucky to be alive and rubbed the salve into her wrists. It smelled foul, but she knew it was safe to use on her injuries and was glad one of the other whores had found her and cut through the ropes. She’d made her way to her room and hoped she could find a way to get a message to Chris Larabee or one of the men that followed his lead. A sound outside made her whimper, but she fought back her fears and moved to the window.

Maria pulled back the curtain and waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness outside, smiling as a rush of heat flooded her body when she realized who was standing there. "Chris," she whispered and opened the door next to the window.

"Maria . . . I’m looking . . . what the hell happened to you?" Larabee softly cursed of the bruises that marred her face, forearms, and bare shoulders.

"Banditos . . . but they are gone now," Maria explained, relief at having him so close brought tears to her eyes and she felt his arms around her as he led her to her bed and sat down with her. "Hernando is rough and he wanted . . . wanted to know about you, Chris . . . "

"What did he want to know?" Larabee asked, holding her while she sobbed against his chest.

"Just who you were and when you would be back," Maria told him and knew it was time to tell him about his friends. "Hernando took them . . . "

"Who?" Larabee asked. He tensed as he realized there were only two people in Purgatorio, other than this woman that he cared about and somehow they’d been caught up in something other than the raids.

"Nathan and Vin," Maria told him. "Vin was sick, his face was swollen.  I think he had a fever from a bad tooth.  Nathan took it out."

"Sonofabitch!" Larabee cursed and realized he was the cause of the two men being in danger. "Did this Hernando tell you where he was taking them?"

"No, but I overhear him say Don Garcia needs them to bring a medico . . . They tied Vin face down on his horse . . . he did not look too good," Maria explained sadly and reached out to touch his hand. "I wish I could have done something to help, but they left me tied up in the dirt and I could not . . . could not . . . "

"It’s okay, Maria, it’s not your fault," Larabee told her, using his fingers to lift her chin so he could see her face. "Thank you for being brave enough to tell me this."

"Chris, I may know who this Don Garcia is and if he is the same one then you cannot help Vin and Nathan," Maria told him.

"I don’t have a choice . . . I won’t let them die," Larabee said and stood up to leave, fighting the rage that continued to build inside him.

"But Don Garcia will kill you because you killed his son . . . "

"I killed a lot of men, Maria," Larabee told her and knew he had to find Buck and JD. Dunne had been out several times with Tanner and was beginning to be an asset where tracking was concerned. Chris hoped the younger man would be able to find the trail that would lead them to Don Garcia’s men and maybe they’d find Tanner and Jackson before they reached the Don’s Hacienda. God knows they were long overdue for some good luck.

Maria reached for his arm. "Don Garcia De Rivera owns one of the largest haciendas in all of Mexico and he . . . "

"De Rivera," the blond repeated and frowned as a face suddenly flashed across his mind. The face of a man who’d used his fists on the pretty woman before him and had lost his life when he tried to take Chris on. "As in Alonzo De Rivera?

"Si, it is well known that he searches for the man who killed his only son, Chris, and Hernando knows it was you. They will kill you on sight."

"Then I guess I’d better not let them see me," Larabee told her and turned so that he was looking into her moisture-laden eyes. "Maria, you can’t stay here any longer . . . it’s too dangerous."

"Where would I go, Chris? This is the only life I have ever known."

"Four Corners . . . I’m sending Buck back there and he’ll take you with him."

"I don’t know, Chris, would they accept me for what I am?"

"Not what, Maria, who you are," Larabee corrected. "There’s a woman there named Inez and she’s from a poor Mexican town south of here. She made a new start for herself and I know she’d be willing to help you."

"It sounds wonderful . . . but . . . "

"No buts, Maria, get your things together . . . I’ll send Buck to get you as soon’s he’s ready to leave," Larabee told her, hugging her before leaving as quickly as he’d come, leaving a blurry eyed Maria to silently pray for his safety.

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North of the Rio Grande

Midnight

The moon was high in the sky and bathed the dark landscape in an aura of white light that did little to ease the darkness that surrounded his heart. With each mile Nathan’s anger and helplessness increased, but the bandits seemed hell bent on crossing the Rio Grande and making good their escape. No one had spoken or taken the time to check on their prisoners as they rode swiftly south toward the river. Nathan had shown his anger and cursed their captors, but that had simply gotten him gagged as well as bound to his horse.

Nathan turned sideways and caught sight of the Texan and again felt the helpless rage course through his mind. Vin had shown no signs of coming too even as his head rocked back and forth with the motion of the horse. Tanner’s gag was still in place and he wished he’d been given the chance to check his mouth before the dirty rag had been stuffed between his lips. Who knew what kind of dirt had made contact with the raw area where the abscessed tooth had been. Nathan heard the sound of a fast approaching horse and turned his head to see one of the men ride past and pull up beside the lead rider.

"Hernando, the horses need to rest before we cross the river," Mendoza said.

"We can rest once we’re on the other side," Lopez snapped.

"I don’t think that’s a good idea, Amigo, we’ve been riding hard for a long time and they cannot keep up this pace," Mendoza warned.

"There could be people following us, Jose," Lopez told his friend.

"Then it’s important we rest the horses and ride downstream before crossing. All I’m saying is we need to take a couple of hours and rest the horses and maybe grab something to eat," Mendoza said and knew he’d finally gotten through when Hernando pulled his horse to a stop and held up his hand for the others to follow suit.

"We stop here for two hours!" Lopez ordered.

"What about the prisoners?" Mendoza asked.

"Give them some water, but don’t untie them," Lopez ordered and dismounted. He walked back to Jackson’s horse and looked at the dark skinned man. "You want him to live?"

Nathan nodded his head and gasped for breath when the dirty rag was pulled from his mouth. "I need to check him . . . he’s sick," Jackson tried and slid from his horse once they untied his hands from the saddle horn.

"Just remember he pays if you try anything stupid . . . comprendez?"

"I hear ya," Jackson said, grabbing for the Texan when they slit the ropes and the semi-coherent man slipped toward the ground. Nathan barely managed to stay on his feet and his anger intensified when he heard the sickening laughter behind him. Nathan ignored the men and dragged Vin away from the horses, returning to grab his supplies and canteen he sat down and went to work with only the bright orb of the full bodied moon to help him. He glanced up and realized there was a thin circle surrounding the moon, one that reminded him of a crimson tide that spoke of danger.

Nathan reached down and pulled the rag from Vin’s mouth, holding him as he turned his head to the side and vomited the contents of his stomach along with a mouthful of bloodied saliva. Jackson gently rubbed circles in the man’s back without realizing he was doing so and breathed a sigh of relief when the Texan turned and stared up at him through confused, hooded eyes. He held the canteen in front of the slack lips and spoke softly in an effort not to draw attention from the others.

"Na . . . "

"I gotcha, Vin, just take a sip of water and rinse your mouth," Jackson said and was relieved when the sick man did as he ordered. Nathan helped him rinse his mouth several times before Vin managed to swallow a full mouthful.

"Thanks . . . you . . . okay?"

"I’m fine . . . " Nathan Jackson turned and stared back over the ground they’d so recently traveled and felt more alone than he’d ever been in his life. His thoughts turned to the others and he wondered how long it would be before they found out about his and Vin’s abduction. How much further were they going to travel and would anyone be able to follow their trail once they crossed the Rio Grande? God, he hoped and prayed Chris, Buck, and JD wouldn’t run into trouble in Purgatorio. With a heavy sigh, Nathan turned his attention back to the injured man, but he didn’t miss the taunting smile on one mean looking bandito’s face, one that did not bode well for either of them. He held the Texan as tremor after tremor racked his body and knew he had to stay strong for both of their sakes.

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Purgatorio

Dawn

Chris knew Buck was not happy about splitting up, but there was little choice in the matter now. They needed Josiah and Ezra, hell they’d need an army if De Rivera was behind Jackson and Tanner’s disappearance. "Look, Buck, this is the only way. JD should be able to track their movements and we’ll leave signs for the rest of you to follow."

"I thought you said De Rivera had them?"

"That’s what Maria told me. You need to take Maria with you and ask Inez to help her until we get back."

"You know I will, Chris, but damn it you and JD are not enough to go after De Rivera. I’ve heard stories about how cruel he’s become since his son was killed . . . and if he knows you’re behind it . . . "

"We’re not going to try anything unless we’re sure we can get them out. We’ll wait for you and the others to arrive," Larabee assured his friend.

"You better, Chris," Wilmington warned and knew the blond understood what he was saying. They’d been friends a lot of years, and had stood beside each other more times than he cared to remember, but there were times when Larabee leapt before he thought things through. It had saved them more often than not, but it usually ended with one or both of them being in need of a doctor. They both turned as JD and Maria walked toward them. "Well, I guess this is it then . . . watch your backs."

"We will, Buck," Larabee assure him and helped the pretty woman onto her horse.

"Be careful, Senor, De Rivera is a cruel man," Maria told him.

"I will, Maria," the blond said and turned to Wilmington who had already mounted up. "Buck, be careful. We don’t know if the bandits are still raiding the homesteads north of the border."

"You know I will, Chris," the rogue assured him and tipped his hat to both men before he and Maria rode away from Purgatorio.

"All right, Kid, let’s see just how close you were listening to Vin," Larabee said, motioning toward the two horses tied to the hitching post. It wasn’t long before the two peacekeepers were riding south, away from Purgatorio and into the hell that awaited them in unknown territory.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

Evita Martinez loved this time of day when the sun was just rising, spreading a golden cloak across the land with the promise of another beautiful day. She stood on the terrace watching the workers in the fields and knew their lives were hard, but they took pride in bringing in a good harvest. The sun in all her splendor could be both an enemy and a friend to the crops and she hoped this year would bring a bountiful harvest. If it didn’t, De Rivera would blame it on the workers and they would suffer for the loss.

"Mama, you look tired," Luis Martinez observed as he moved onto the terrace and joined her.

"Si, Luis, I am, but you are not to worry about me. I have been tired before and will be again," she told him, hugging her son closely before releasing him and motioning toward the food on the table. "Sit down and eat."

"I will be leaving soon to take the false medico back to the village. Don Rivera has marked him and he will not fool anyone else," Luis told her. He knew he did not have to tell his mother the kind of mark Miguel Delgado received, she knew of his cruelty.

"I can’t say that I feel sorry for Delgado . . . he has been deceiving people for a long time," Evita told him and sat next to her son, pleased to see him enjoying the morning meal. "Has there been any word from Lopez?"

"Nothing, but you know Hernando . . . he is a survivor and he will return with a medico or Don Rivera will have him punished."

"Lopez and his men . . . they kill for no reason."

"I know, Mama, but there is nothing we can do about it. How is Dona Maria?

"She grows weaker each day, but the child inside her is strong for he continues to live and make his mama smile when he moves inside her. I believe he is the reason Dona Maria fights so," Evita said.

"She has your spirit, Mama, and with you caring for her she will survive," Luis told her and kissed her cheek before standing. "I must leave now, Mama, but I wanted to see if there is anything I could bring you from the village?"

"Perhaps some of that fine material you brought me the last time. I would like to make some clothing for the baby when he comes," Evita said and saw the smile on her son’s face.

"You are wonderful, Mama," Luis said, hugging her again before leaving.

Evita watched her son until he reached the group of men who waited for him. They were good men, all of them hand-picked by her son to ride at his side. They had done bad things, but she knew deep down they were following orders given by De Rivera. She turned and walked into the outer chamber of Dona Maria’s bedroom and hurried to check on the young woman.

"Evita, is there any juice?"

"Si, Maria, there is orange juice," Evita told her and propped her up on several soft pillows before placing a glass of juice in her hands. Fresh fruit was something Maria needed to grow strong, and Don Garcia made sure she had everything she needed, except, love. The man was incapable of such feelings since the loss of his son. Why could he not see the beauty that was right before his eyes?

"Why do you look so sad, Evita?"

"I . . . "

"Is it because of me and my little one?" Maria asked, rubbing had hand on her tummy as a smile brightened her too pale face.

"Si, Maria, it is, but you mustn’t worry about me. I will worry for both of us while you concentrate on growing strong for your little one," Evita told her. "Would you like something to eat?"

"Do you have any of those special sweet breads you make?"

"Si, we do," Evita said and moved to check the tray Rosa had brought up while she was speaking with her son. She brought the tray over and placed it on Maria’s lap and watched the feeble woman reach for the sweet bread on the plate. By the time she’d finished the first one, Evita could tell her strength had been used up and removed the tray.

"I feel so tired all the time, Evita," Maria whispered.

"I know you do, but you will grow strong again and hold your little one," Evita said.

"Sing for me, Evita . . . your voice reminds me of a nightingale," Maria sighed heavily as the several pillows were removed and the blanket pulled up to her waist.

Evita looked at the frail woman and remembered a song her mama sang to her when she was a child and began to sing. Her voice soft and lilting as a small smile formed on Maria’s face.

"Beams of heaven, as I go, / Through this wilderness below / Guide my feet in peaceful ways / Turn my midnights into days / When in the darkness I would grope / Faith always sees a star of hope / And soon from all life's grief and danger / I shall be free some day

 

I don't know how long 'twill be / Nor for what the future olds for me / But this I know, if Jesus leads me / I shall get a home some day

 

Often times my sky is clear / Joy abounds without a tear / Though a day so bright begun /Clouds may hide tomorrow's sun / There'll be a day that's always bright / A day that never yields to night / And in its light the streets of glory / I shall behold some day

 

Harder yet may be the fight / Right may often yield to might / Wickedness awhile may reign / Satan's cause may seem to gain / There is a God that rules above / With hand of power and heart of love / If I am right, He'll fight my battle / I shall have peace some day

 

Burdens now may crush me down / Disappointments all around / Troubles speak in mournful sigh / Sorrow through a tear stained eye / There is a world where pleasure reigns / No mourning soul shall roam its plains / And to that land of peace and glory / I want to go some day," as the final word left her mouth and the tears streamed down her face, Evita knew she’d brought some hope with her song and touched the sleeping woman’s cheek before standing and turning to find De Rivera watching her.

"Do you really think they allow your kind in heaven, Evita?"

"Heaven is a place where all are welcome, Don Garcia," Evita told him and returned to caring for her charge.

"You keep thinking that way as long as it keeps Maria happy," De Rivera said before leaving the room once more.

Evita knew she was lucky her son did not seem to have the patron’s angry traits and hoped he would never be half as cruel as Don Garcia De Rivera. She slowly began to hum as the sun cloaked the day in golden glory.

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South of the Rio Grande

Mid-Morning

The sun had risen and with it came the heat that made a man uncomfortable and made water a necessity. They’d ridden through the night and continued south leaving the splendor of the Rio Grande behind them. For Nathan Jackson the ride was hell as Hernando Lopez refused to let him help his friend. Instead, Tanner was thrown over the horse and tied belly down in the saddle. The disgusting rag had been shoved between the Texan’s lips and tied in place making it impossible for Vin to push it out.

Nathan’s own hands were tied to the saddle horn while Lopez held tightly to the lead reins. He could feel blood on his wrists from his struggles with the ropes, but had given up trying to loosen them when Mendoza threatened to shoot Tanner and leave his hide to bake in the sun like so much rotting meat. These men were vile and cruel and Nathan knew they would kill Vin if he didn’t do as they told him to.

Nathan knew the others would have discovered they were missing by now and hoped they were hot on their trail, yet another part of him hoped Larabee, Wilmington, and Dunne did not do anything as stupid as coming after them without reinforcements. He prayed they’d send word to Sanchez and Standish, but a small part of him held out for rescue before they were too deep in Mexican territory.

The rich soils of the Rio Grande had seen a wonderful array of trees, plant life, wildflowers, and animals, but Nathan had noticed the change the further south they rode. The land was beautiful, with a sprinkling of color that would have floored him had it not been for the circumstances they found themselves in.

"What are you thinking about, Medico? You think by looking behind us you’ll see someone coming to your rescue? Is that it?" Pedro Gonzales asked upon riding alongside the bound man. 

"He’s been lookin’ over his shoulder since we left Purgatorio," Raul said with a grin. "Maybe he misses that little puta too. Is that it . . . you miss her . . . "

"Animals," Jackson whispered, but knew he’d been heard when Raul kicked out at the semi-conscious Texan. His boot connected with Tanner’s leg and a muffled cry could be heard. "Leave him alone!"

"What are you gonna do about it, Gringo?" Raul asked.

"Raul, stop," Lopez warned. He didn’t give a damn what his men did to Tanner, but Jackson was his one way of getting back in De Rivera’s good graces . . . that and the fact that he knew who killed Alonzo De Rivera and knew the man would return to Purgatorio. That alone should make Don Garcia a happy man.

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Four Corners

Mid-Afternoon

Josiah sat on the roof of the church and wiped the sweat from his brow as he looked up at the scorching sun that baked the streets and sapped the water from a man’s body. Perhaps Ezra had the right idea when he retired to his bed just after dawn and awoke just as the bright orb was dipping behind the tree line.

His gaze wandered down the street, not at all surprised to find several homesteaders had taken refuge in the safety of Four Corners until the marauders were caught. Tom Wilson and his wife had ridden in the day before, but they planned on heading home as soon as they had the supplies they needed. This time he’d brought the whole family, because the thought of leaving his loved ones alone would never cross his mind. Although Martha Wilson would probably be able to take care of several of the banditos on her own. He waved to the couple as they went into Gloria Potter’s store and returned his attention to the task at hand.

"Josiah, has there been any news?" Mary Travis asked of the missing peacekeepers.

"Nothing since Tom and Martha got here last night," Sanchez answered. He knew Mary was worried about the men, especially Chris Larabee. He’d seen the two together on several occasions and knew things were beginning to heat up for the couple. He hoped they’d have the chance to find happiness together. "The wires are down between here and Purgatorio so we may not hear anything unless someone happens to meet up with them or the wires are fixed."

"There are several families staying in town until the banditos are stopped," Mary told him.

"I know and I think the town owes you a debt of gratitude for the way you’re handling things," Sanchez said, amazed at how well the townspeople and homesteaders were banding together during the rough times. Tiny and several other men had offered to help Josiah and Ezra patrol the southern area around town. Josiah made sure the men rode in pairs and understood that if there was trouble they should ride back and get help and not try to be heroes. So far there’d been no sign of the bandits, but that could change at any time.

"I think the whole town has banded together over this . . . even Mr. Conklin has stopped complaining and has offered to help out," Mary told him.

"The town’s come a long way since the ‘bad element’ was run out," Sanchez offered.

"Yes, it has and to think I once put Chris Larabee in that category," Mary said sadly.

"You didn’t know him, Mary, and if I remember correctly he did tell you he was the bad element."

"Yes, he did," she said with a touch of a smile. "We both know how wrong that statement is. I’m going to see if Inez needs some help . . . will you . . . "

"I’ll let you know if there’s any word," Sanchez vowed. He watched the pretty woman make her way toward the saloon and turned his head toward the south as a lone crow flew high overhead. His father had always believed that a lone crow was a harbinger of sorrow, but Josiah was not about to let one bird turn the tide on an otherwise beautiful day. He made the sign of the cross and whispered a prayer that the Lord guide and protect the missing peacekeepers.

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Late Evening

North Side of the Rio Grande

Chris watched as JD dismounted and began searching the ground for any sign of the missing men. They’d been moving steadily south toward the Rio Grande since leaving Purgatorio, but so far the kid had been unable to find any real evidence they were on the right trail. He was hot and irritable and his side burned as sweat soaked through his clothing making it adhere to his skin. He glanced at the sky, softly cursing the bright orb that beat down on them with a fierceness that could rival the heated glare he’d turned on others.

JD could feel the blond watching him as he checked the hoof prints in the mud along the banks of the Rio Grande. Chris had been impatient, more so than ever now that the sun had burned through his hat and set his mind on fire. JD wasn’t afraid of Chris Larabee, but he wanted the man’s approval and this was a way for him to prove his metal once and for all, but so far it was rough going. He stood near a bunch of reeds and found several had recently been broken, but there was no way of telling how many riders had come through here.

"Find anything, JD?"

"There’s evidence of riders crossing here, but I can’t tell if it was them."

"How many riders?" Larabee asked.

"I’d guess half a dozen or more," Dunne answered. "It looks like they crossed here."

"Looks like we’re going to do the same," Larabee said, gazing across the river and silently praying they’d find Nathan and Vin before the banditos reached their destination. It was going to be hard enough to get them back up against six or more men, but at least they’d have a fighting chance. If the De Rivera plantation was as big as he suspected then there’d be a hell of a lot more men to take out and that would mean waiting for reinforcements.

"Chris, it’s gonna be dark soon . . . I ain’t gonna be able to track them . . . "

"I know, Kid," the gunslinger told him as he guided Pony into the river. The horse was sure footed, but crossing a river was always dangerous, especially when it flowed fast and furious as they went deeper. He heard JD enter behind him and smiled when the kid cursed at finding the water colder than he thought it would be. They made it to the opposite side without incident and Chris watched as the young easterner, who no longer resembled the greenhorn who’d exited the stage that fateful day, and knew JD had earned the right to be part of the Magnificent Seven. It made him smile whenever he thought of the name Jock Steele had given to the band of unlikely peacekeepers, because their stories were now down on paper. Maybe, some day, another greenhorn kid would be reading about JD Dunne and wishing he was just like him. 

"There’s no sign of ‘em here," Dunne said, searching the banks of the river before turning back to the blond.

"They probably walked the horses further down before coming ashore," Larabee told him and headed Pony in that direction.

"Chris, do you think Nathan and Vin are okay?" the Bostonian asked, mounting his horse and riding alongside his mentor.

"I don’t know, JD, but it doesn’t sound like Vin was in good shape when he got to Maria’s," Larabee answered. They rode along in silence, searching for anything that might show them what direction the banditos had taken. As the sun dipped below the horizon and the temperature dropped as twilight overtook the land, Chris reluctantly called a halt. "We best make camp for the night and get an early start."

JD dismounted and looked at the magnificent sunset along the horizon and prayed the crimson tide was not a harbinger of spilled blood. He shivered as if a cold breeze crossed his path and turned to see Larabee watching him closely.

"They’re not dead, Kid," Larabee said and ground tied Pony near the river’s edge. He knew the younger man was worried about Vin and Nathan, truth was he wasn’t alone, but Chris was not ready to think the worse. They quickly set up camp and had a small fire going and the smell of rabbit soon wafted up on the soft breeze. Chris had surprised JD by shooting one that had appeared out of nowhere and Dunne had shown his skill with a knife by skinning and spitting the animal before placing it over the fire.

The silence of the night was interrupted by the call of a native bird that was answered several times over. Crickets chirruped in the tall grass, while a mountain cat screeched in the distance. Chris relaxed and lit a cheroot as JD handed him a cup of strong, black coffee. Without a word, Larabee pulled out his flask and added a liberal amount to both their cups, smiling inwardly at the surprised look on Dunne’s face.

"Chris, how did you and Buck meet?" Dunne asked curiously. He’d asked Wilmington about it, but had never heard Larabee speak about their first meeting and wondered what had made them become friends. They seemed so different to him, like oil and vinegar, something that didn’t mix well.

"Buck saved my life, Kid," Larabee answered.

"That’s not what he said . . . he said you saved his. He said you took a bullet meant for him," Dunne said.

"I may have taken the bullet, JD, but if Buck hadn’t been there I’d have died. We were miles from camp and belonged to different outfits. I didn’t even know he was there and I doubt he saw me, but we were both cut off from our camps. Buck," Larabee smiled as he remembered his first meeting with the rogue who even then considered himself a ‘ladies’ man’. "Buck didn’t see the bastard sneaking in behind him . . . never did like the idea of shooting a man in the back so I figured I’d stop him. Was a bit of a greenhorn myself then and thought there was no way in hell he’d get a shot off before I got him. I was wrong . . . took a bullet in the leg before Buck managed to kill the sonofabitch."

"So you did save Buck’s life," Dunne was in awe of the man lying across the fire from him.

"No . . . I took a bullet meant for him, but Buck saved my life. We were cut off . . . no supplies . . . the enemy all around us, and Buck wouldn’t let me quit. He tore up his shirt and tied it around my leg and wouldn’t let me stop. Sonofabitch kept talking the whole time we struggled to get ahead of the soldiers. It took damn near two days to reach Buck’s outfit and he told me it was okay to let go if I wanted to," Larabee explained.

"Did you . . . let go I mean?"

"I passed out and he carried me into camp . . . don’t remember much after that, but Buck was transferred to my outfit and we’ve been friends ever since. He’s a good man, Kid . . . one I’m glad I met," the blond said, reaching for his knife and cutting off a chunk of meat and handing it to JD.

"Thanks, Chris," Dunne said and grew quiet. The rest of the meal was eaten in silence and the two men settle down for what was going to be a long night.

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North of the De Rivera Hacienda

Dawn

Hernando Lopez was filled with a mixture of hope and fear as he topped the rise and spotted the Hacienda far below. He knew Don Garcia would be pleased that he’d brought a medico, but he would have felt better had he also brought along the gunslinger. The Negro called Nathan would put him in the Haciendada’s good graces, but if he’d brought Chris Larabee with him it would have secured him of the spot as Don Garcia’s right hand man. Perhaps he could still find the gunman and bring him here, but first he’d make sure the medico was in place and perhaps the other gringo would be put to work in the fields.

They’d ridden through the night, stopping at two small villages for fresh horses before riding deeper into the mountains. The second prisoner was face down on his horse and Ernesto and Raul had made a game of taunting him much to the healer’s chagrin. He’d put a stop to it when Jackson had grown angry enough to throw himself off his horse and tried to protect his semi-conscious friend. As the sun rose above the horizon, Hernando heard the telltale signs that the people of the Hacienda were awake and ready to start a new day.

It took 30 minutes to reach the Hacienda and when they did Don Garcia De Rivera and Luis Martinez met them. Hernando disliked Luis and hoped someday he would be able to prove to Don Garcia that his trust in his bastard son was ill placed. He pulled his horse to a stop and dismounted in front of the two men.

"Don Garcia, I have brought a medico as you wished," Lopez said, giving the man a half bow before pointing to the dark skinned man whose hands were still tied to the horse’s saddle.

"Where did you find him?" Luis asked.

"We found him and his friend in Purgatorio," Lopez answered irritated that Martinez seemed to be speaking for the Haciendada.

"How do you know he is a medico?" Luis asked.

"He was tending his friend . . . "

"His skin is not the right color for a medico," Don Garcia observed.

"I told him I ain’t no doctor," Jackson told the man before him. There was something cruel in the way the man held the cane, and Nathan knew the man had probably used it on more than one back.

"Hernando, is this some kind of joke?" Don Garcia asked angrily raising the cane to strike the other man.

"No, Don Garcia, I saw him tending his friend and he knew what he was doing," Lopez snapped and pulled Jackson from the horse.

"Is this true? Do you know anything about medicine?" Luis asked.

"I know some things . . . picked up some stuff when I was a stretcher bearer during the war. Been takin’ care of some folks in a town north of the border," Jackson answered and turned to the horse carrying Vin Tanner. "Please, my friend needs water . . . he’s been sick . . . "

"Your friend is no longer your concern," De Rivera warned. "What do you know of childbirth?"

"I’ve helped deliver a few babies . . . why?" Jackson asked, cursing as Raul cut through the ropes holding the Texan and letting his body drop heavily to the ground. He tried to go to him, but two men grabbed his arms and held him in place as Don Garcia made his way to the fallen man and struck him with the cane before using it as a stick and poking Tanner’s ribs.

"This animal is your friend?" De Rivera asked.

"He’s not an animal . . . he’s a man . . . a good man!" Jackson said as the Haciendada strode toward him, blocking his view of the Texan. "Please, let me help him."

"My wife is with child and she is ill . . . you tend to her and maybe I will let you see to your friend," De Rivera told him.

"But . . . "

"Si, if you insist . . . Hernando, give him water!" De Rivera said softly, but there was a hint of cruelty on his face.

"Ernesto, Raul . . . hold the bastardo while I get him some water," Lopez ordered and hurried to the well, returning with the bucket of water as Ernesto and Raul forced the Texan to his knees.

Vin struggled against the strong arms holding him, but had already been weakened from the illness and being bound face down on the horse. He lifted his head and glared at Hernando Lopez, but the man just laughed as he signaled for another man to step forward.

"Pedro, hold the puta’s head so he can take a nice long drink!"

Nathan realized instantly what they were about to do and tried to get past the big Mexican standing beside De Rivera. "No . . . damn it let him go!"

"They are only giving him the water as requested," De Rivera told him, motioning for his men to continue.

"Get his mouth open!" Lopez ordered, smiling as Pedro pulled on the long hair and pinched the prisoner’s nose until he was forced to breathe through his mouth. He took pleasure in running his hand down the corded muscles of Tanner’s throat before lifting the bucket and pouring into the Texan’s mouth.

Vin knew he was drowning and fought the hands that held him in place, but it felt as if the floodgates had opened up and his body was drowning in the liquid necessary to stay alive.

"Vin!" Jackson called and for a second he caught sight of two blue beacons of fear before De Rivera turned to him.

"I am not a cruel man and your friend has had his fill of water. You will tend Dona Maria and perhaps I will allow you to see to him when I am satisfied you have done all you can for my esposa." De Rivera said and glanced at Martinez.  "Luis, take him to Evita and tell her he is to help care for Dona Maria!"

"Si, Patron," Luis agreed and took Jackson’s arm and softly said. "You cannot help him now . . . come don’t make it worse than it already is."

"I’ll need my things," Jackson said, knowing the man was right and that if he protested further Vin would be the one who paid for it. He watched as one of the banditos grabbed his saddlebags and tossed them to Luis, before Martinez took his arm and led him to the house.

"What do you want me to do with the gringo dog, Patron?" Lopez asked of the half drowned Texan. The two men holding him had released their grip and Tanner was on his hands and knees as again and again his body shook and the water they’d forced on him was vomited onto the ground.

"Bring him to Fernando and tell him to put him to work in the fields," De Rivera ordered.

"Si, Ernesto, Raul, get him up!" Lopez told his men.

"What of the other matter, Hernando? Did you find the bastard who killed Alonzo?"

"No, Don Garcia, but we will leave here as soon as we deliver the gringo to Fernando," Lopez vowed.

"See that you do not return without him or I will have no choice, but to make an example of you," De Rivera said and walked back into the hacienda.

"Come on, Bastardo, it’s time to earn your keep," Lopez laughed, slapping Tanner’s face as he was held between the two men eliciting a sharp cry of pain from the semi-conscious man.

Vin’s face exploded in pain as someone slapped him repeatedly. Water dripped down his face and he blinked rapidly in an effort to focus on the man standing in front of him. There was no mistaking the stench of the man’s breath, and Vin remembered the rough treatment at the Mexican’s hands and understood things had not gotten any better. He looked around, hoping to see Nathan, but the man was nowhere in sight.

"The gringo medico has been taken to the main house, Bastardo, but you . . . we have a much better place for you. Fernando Gores will be very pleased to have the extra help in the fields and if you fuck with Fernando the medico will pay dearly . . . comprendez?"

"I h . . . hear ya," Tanner managed, staring into the man’s cold eyes, until Lopez’s left hand shot out and struck him in the stomach, doubling him over in spite of the men holding him up.

"You’d best learn your place right now, Tanner, or you’ll find yourself at the mercy of Don Garcia’s cane," Lopez spat. "Bring him along!"

Vin could barely breathe, but he found the strength to pull away from the two men and walked like a man who carried the weight of the world on his shoulders, or in this case the life of Nathan Jackson.

M7M7MM7M7M7M7 

South of Four Corners

Late Afternoon

Buck glanced sideways at the woman riding next to him and wondered about her story. What had brought her to a life as a prostitute in Purgatorio? Was there an abusive father or husband looking for her? Did she have family who might be worried about her? Had she found solace in the life she’d chosen simply because she’d found others with the same troubles that plagued her? He remembered his mother and the other women talking about their lives and why they’d chosen a certain path and knew underneath it all, some women just didn’t have a choice. They were born into the wrong family or simply married the wrong man and the law never too the abuse seriously. It was wrong, but it was the way of things in this day and age and Buck hoped that someday things would change for the better.

"How long . . . I mean when did you . . . aw hell," Wilmington stammered and turned away.

"How did I meet Chris or how did I end up in Purgatorio?" Maria asked.

"Both . . . I guess. If it’s too private I’ll understand . . . I just, well my mama was forced into it and I grew up around ladies like . . . "

"I haven’t been called a lady in a long time . . . except by Senor Chris. He has always treated me with dignity. He came here looking for something I couldn’t give. That night you and JD came to get him was our first night together and he was filled with sadness. He asked me if I could bring his family back and I wish there was some way to do that, but when death comes calling there is no escape . . . no turning back the clock."

"You sound like you’re speaking from experience . . . did you lose someone special?"

"Si . . . it was so long ago, yet it still feels as if it was yesterday. I married a boy from the village and we made our home south of the Rio Grande, but fate sometimes has a way of killing a dream. He was killed because he would not turn our land over to the rich man who thought it was his right to take what he wanted. His men . . . they staked him out in the hot sun and made me watch as they teased him with water, but would not give him any. They cut him and let him bleed and he lasted for three days . . . and," Maria could not finish as tears filled her eyes and streamed down her face.

"Animals," Wilmington whispered and wished he could sooth away her pain, but nothing could take away the agony of watching a loved one die. He could only imagine what they did to her while waiting for her husband to die and Buck felt angry at how some men . . . men like Guy Royal and Stuart James existed in every country . . . in every town. Men who did not believe in hard work to get what they wanted; instead they stole from the homesteaders or merchants and built an empire of greed.

"I buried him . . . and there was nothing left for me there . . . not after . . . after they bragged of what they’d done to me. I found myself as an outcast and made my way north until I reached Purgatorio. It was there that I found a woman’s body could come in handy and accepted a few coins for what those bastardos took for free.  Some people would say I chose the easy way out," Maria told him.

"My mama always told me never to judge someone unless you’ve been in his or her shoes," Wilmington told her. "I met lots of ladies and I’ve heard a lot of stories, and I doubt if anyone can truly say you chose the easy way out. It may have been the only road open to you at the time, and God knows my mama did everything she could to bring me up right and teach me to respect and protect women. There are times when I mess up, but I will never look down on any woman who’s got the guts to do what they have to do."

"Thank you, Senor Buck," Maria said as they topped the rise and looked down at the town in the distance. "I wish others felt as you do."

"They do, Maria, but they just don’t know how to show it," Wilmington said. "When we get to Four Corners I’ll introduce you to Inez Recillos. She’s had some hard times in her life too, but she found a way to overcome them and is an asset to the town. She’ll help you settle in until Chris gets back and you can decide what you want to do."

"Senor Chris is a good man," Maria told him and grew silent as they continued toward the buildings. It took another twenty minutes to reach the town and Maria took a deep breath to calm her nerves. There was no way anyone in this place could know her unless they’d frequented Purgatorio, but she was still nervous about meeting the good citizens of Four Corners.

"You’ll be fine, Maria," Wilmington told her as they drew to a stop in front of the saloon. He spotted Josiah and Ezra walking toward them and dismounted, looping the reins over the hitching post before helping her off the horse.

"Where are the others?" Sanchez asked of the missing men.

"Long story . . . let me take care of Maria and I’ll tell you about it," Wilmington offered and pushed through the batwing doors. He spotted Inez behind the bar cleaning the glasses and smiled at the pretty woman. "Inez, I’d like you to meet a friend of mine. Her name is Maria and she needs our help."

"Hello, Maria, welcome to Four Corners," Inez said, coming around the counter as Wilmington placed her bag on the bar. She studied the face, noting the eyes in particular, and the lines that spoke of a life of hardship. She knew Buck and the others had gone south to check on the marauders and wondered what the woman’s story was and if it was close to her own? It really didn’t matter because she felt a kindred spirit and knew she had to do what she could to help.

"Thank you," Maria said, unsure what she should say or do as Inez took her hand.

"Will you be staying in Four Corners?" Recillos asked. She’d come to Four Corners as a stranger and stayed because there were people here who helped her without question and that kindness was something she would offer another wayward soul.

"For a little while . . . at least until Senor Chris returns," Maria explained and allowed the other woman to lead her to a table.

"All right, Buck, what’s going on? Who’s the lady?" Sanchez asked.

"Her name is Maria . . . she’s a friend of Chris," Wilmington offered and reached for the bottle of whiskey on the bar. "We split up just south of here. Vin and Nathan went to the Doherty place while me, Chris, and JD checked the homesteads. We stopped in at the Wilson place and Martha took one look at Chris and saw he was bleeding and that was it . . . ."

"Martha told us she tended Chris’ wound," Sanchez told him.

"Are they still in town?" Wilmington asked of the friendly couple.

"No, they headed back yesterday afternoon," the ex-preacher answered.

"Tom knows how to handle himself," Wilmington said and went on with his story. "We spent the night there and headed for Purgatorio the next morning. Chris was moody . . . "

"I believe Mr. Larabee is always moody," Standish observed and saw a hint of a smile on Wilmington’s face.

"Might have a point there, but let’s say he was moodier than normal," Wilmington said. "We hit Purgatorio later than we were supposed to and Chris went to see Maria . . . " Buck continued the story, filling the two men in on everything that had happened in Purgatorio and the reason he’d returned to Four Corners with Maria in tow.

"Do we have any idea how far south of the Rio Grande De Rivera’s Hacienda is?" Standish asked.

"Not sure, but it’s supposed to be a big spread and that should make it easy to find it," Wilmington answered. "I figure we should get started."

"All right, but we need to make sure the town’s ready for anything," Sanchez agreed. "Ezra, send a wire to the judge and let him know what’s happening. Buck, get something to eat and grab a couple of hours sleep. I’ll talk to Yosemite and make sure he knows what to do if there’s trouble."

"Tell him to lock Conklin up and throw away the key if he gives him any trouble," Wilmington said.

"Yosemite knows how to handle Conklin and he’ll have most of the town backing him," Sanchez said heading for the door. "I figure we should be able to head out at first light."

"Guess you’re right . . . I just hope we have that much time, Josiah, because Nathan and Vin are in trouble and Chris and JD are about to ride right into a hornet’s nest," the rogue said and downed a glass of whiskey.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Afternoon

Nathan sighed heavily as he felt the older woman watching him. Evita Martinez had watched over him as he examined the woman in the bed. She was as intimidating as De Rivera, but Nathan understood it was because she cared about the lady who seemed so weak, a delicate flower wilting in spite of the promise of the new life growing within. Nathan knew Maria De Rivera was not a strong woman and there was only so much they could do, but he had never given up on anyone and was not about to start now. Not when three lives, Maria, the unborn child, and Vin Tanner’s depended on him staying true to his own calling.

Maria slept through his ministrations and he gently lifted the blankets up over her waist. Her dark hair starkly contrasted the paleness of her skin and only the slight rise and fall of her chest signaled that she was still with them He turned to see the older woman watching him closely.

"She is weak," Evita said.

"Yes, she is," Jackson agreed. "Has she always been . . . delicate?"

"Yes, she was never meant for this hard life with a man like Don Garcia. He can be cruel," Evita told him, reading the kindness in the soft brown eyes. She sat on the edge of the bed and gently brushed back the hair from Maria’s face. "She hardly eats enough to keep her alive."

"We’ll have to make sure she’s getting the foods she and the baby need," Jackson said. "Fresh fruits are a must . . . vegetables . . . anything soft that she can eat will be good . . . "

"Fruits and vegetables are easy to come by. Don Garcia makes sure the Hacienda is well supplied with the things needed to support his child. He can be very cruel and I am taking a chance in telling you this, but you have soft eyes and I sense I can trust you, Nathan," Evita told him.

"Senora . . . "

"Please, we will be together for a long time and Senora is a formal title for ladies like Senora Maria . . . I am Evita . . . "

"You are a lady, Senora . . . Evita," Jackson said, sensing the trust the woman was placing in him. "What I’d like for you to do is make sure there is always a fresh supply of juice and have the people working in the kitchen keep a supply of vegetables ready. They should be well cooked and easy for Senora De Rivera to take. I have some herbs with me, but not enough for a long stay . . . "

"There are special herbs grown here or Don Garcia will have whatever you need brought in," Evita told him, returning her attention to the woman on the bed when she shifted and her eyes opened.

"Evita . . . "

"I’m right here, Maria," Martinez assured her, smiling as she touched the woman’s cheek. "There is someone I want you to meet, Maria. He is a medico . . . "

"Like the other one?"

"No, not like that animal, Maria . . . "

"You trust . . . trust him?"

"Yes, I do . . . he has nice eyes," Evita said softly. "Nathan, come here."

Nathan moved closer so that the woman could see him and smiled as he looked into her eyes and felt the wayward soul searching for answers. "Senora, I’m not a real medico . . . "

"Don’t let him fool you, Maria, Nathan has a healing touch . . . a strong one," Evita told her.

"Did you ch . . . choose to come or did my husband force you to come here?"

"I had no choice, but I will not turn away from anyone who needs my help, Senora," Jackson told her.

"You will help keep me strong for my b . . . baby?"

"God willing I’ll do everything I can," Nathan vowed.

"God is always willing as long as we believe in Him," Evita told them.

"I am sorry . . . sorry my husband forced you to come here," Maria whispered. "Perhaps someday he will understand what it means to be forced to do something you d . . . don’t want to."

"Honestly, Senora, I didn’t want to come, but now that I’m here I’ll do everything I can for you," Jackson told her and looked wistfully toward the window as a thunderous sound shook the house and rain pelted off the windows. His thoughts turned to Vin Tanner and without a word he made his way toward the verandah and looked out over the fields where mestizo people, young and old, still worked in spite of the heavy rainfall. He tried to find Vin, but the distance was too great and he prayed the Texan was okay, but the underlying fear kept niggling at his senses.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Evening

Once he’d been introduced to Fernando Gores and been given first-hand knowledge of what was expected of him, Vin had been put to work in the fields. A tall, heavily scarred mestizo named Pedro had been told to show him what to do and had taken him under his wing. The man’s dark skin glistened in the sun while his nearly white hair was plastered to his head with sweat. The man had hardly said three words, but he’d shown Vin more kindness in the last hour than anyone else on the hacienda. With hand signals and guttural responses Vin knew what was expected of him and even with the ache in his jaw and the throbbing of his lower back he’d bent to his work.

Several times he’d glance toward the hacienda and hoped Nathan was all right. He’d followed much of the conversation and understood the reason Jackson had been needed. Don Garcia’s wife was with child, but she wasn’t very strong and there was a fear amongst the people that if she died, they would all be made to pay. Vin winced and rubbed at his jaw, but a sharp command and the crack of a whip had him bending to the work of pulling the weeds from the garden.

It felt as if he’d been working for hours in the sun, and his skin felt dried out as a cloud obliterated the sun and a soft wind picked up, cooling his heated flesh and sending goose bumps along his arms.

"Tempestad . . . " Pedro managed the English word to the man working beside him. He’d been watching him closely and was impressed by the hardiness he sensed in the strong jaw line and blue eyes.

Vin had no idea what the word meant, but he looked up at the sky and noticed the white clouds had given way to swirling ominous clouds that spoke of a storm brewing, one that usually tore the landscape apart with its fury. He looked up as several mestizos made the sign of the cross and hurried to find shelter. There were several shouts from De Rivera’s hands and Pedro grabbed his arm and pointed toward the row of building that housed the workers.

"Venir . . . "

Tanner did not need to be told twice and followed the bigger man toward the relative safety of the building, but a hand latched onto his arm before he could enter.

"Don Garcia has a special place for you, Gringo," Gores yelled above the gusting winds howling through the surrounding trees.

Tanner glared at the man, barely able to stand on his own two feet as two men latched onto his arms. He would have pulled away, but it would have been a waste of time and energy . . . something that he had to save until he was stronger. The two men dragged him toward a wooden cage hanging from the thick branch of a tree. The door was already open and Vin pulled away from his captors and with as much dignity as he could muster, stepped into the cage where he was forced to stand.

"Put your hand through the bars, Gringo!" Gores said and took special care in snapping the cuffs around each wrist. "Sleep while you can . . . we will have much to do when this storm is over.

Vin watched the bastards leave and tried to get comfortable, but the cage was not wide enough for him to lie down. He sat down and pulled his legs up to rest his head on them as he tried to ease the pain in his back and jaw. The rain was a welcome respite from the heat of the day, but it did little to ease the fever raging inside.

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South of the Rio Grande

Early Evening

JD knew Chris was worried, hell, truth was so was he, but it was getting harder and harder to find their way through the high winds and now the heavens had opened up and rain fell so heavily it was like stinging barbs against exposed skin. His hair was soaked and his hat and clothing were drenched and stuck to his body. The area they rode through was dangerous and he looked up at the muddy landscape high above them and glanced sideways at his companion before he was forced to hang back and allow Larabee to take the lead.

"Chris!" Dunne shouted as they exited the narrow pass and a strange, unearthly noise sounded from above them. He barely had time to kick his horse into a frenzied gallop when a mudslide, rained down behind him, bringing with it huge boulders, trees, brush, and anything else that was in its path. The sound echoed and re-echoed as if hundreds of landslides were happening all around them. He spotted Larabee up ahead and raced after him, exiting another narrow opening just as it caved in behind them. His heart beat wildly in his chest as fear gripped him and he clung to the saddle horn in a white knuckled grip. There’d been storms in Boston, but he couldn’t remember one with such ferocity.

Chris knew how dangerous this type of sudden, deadly storm could be and realized it was futile to go on and chance dying because of nature’s fury. He glanced over his shoulder and was relieved to see JD’s horse following close behind Pony. A bolt of lightning hit a nearby tree while a flash of light illuminated the younger man’s face and Chris saw the raw fear that spoke of how young JD Dunne really was. The young man had come a long way, but there were still things he had yet to experience, and Chris Larabee suddenly felt very protective of the ‘kid’ from Boston. He was forced to turn back and began searching for a place where they could hold up until Mother Nature finished unleashing her fury on the land. He could barely see ten feet in front of him and was shocked when Pony veered away from an obstruction and tried to continue along the path.

JD spotted Chris and Pony and managed to pull his horse to a stop before it followed Pony’s path. God, his mouth was drier than a desert in high summer and his hands shook as he held tightly to the reins. It felt as if his heart would burst from his chest with the force of each beat. He blinked several times and was able to make out the partially destroyed building that had cause Pony to turn so sharply. He saw Chris moving back toward him and moved his horse through the missing wall and under what remained of a roof.

"We’ll wait out the storm here, Kid," Larabee told him as he dismounted. The noise was almost unnatural as the rain hit the roof and a deafening roar of thunder blasted through the area while lightning flashed continuously sending bolts of electricity toward the ground. Chris looked up at the hole in the roof as lightning illuminated a cross that marked this spot as holy ground and without realizing he’d done so he sent a silent prayer that Nathan and Vin were okay.

"We had storms in Boston, but I don’t remember one ever coming on so fast. How long do you think it’ll last?" Dunne asked.

"Don’t’ know . . . could be hours," Larabee said tiredly. They’d ridden throughout the day, seeing only a handful of people who generally shied away from them. There had been several houses and a generous couple who’d offered them a hot meal and a bed for the night. Chris and JD had eaten the meal with them, helped the farmer remove a stump after eating the afternoon meal and then rode away with the sun beating down from overhead. Now he wondered if they’d made the wrong decision as the storm seemed a harbinger of disaster, but he was not about to let that stop him from finding the missing men.

"Looks like there might be a dry spot back there," Dunne told him and moved to the back of the structure. The church had been built flush against the mountain and some smart preacher had utilized the cave as a place of refuge. There was a torch on the wall and Dunne pulled it down and lit it, shining it ahead of him, surprised to find out just how big the cave was. "It looks like we’re not the first ones to take refuge here."

"Josiah would say it’s Divine Intervention," Larabee told him, removing the saddle from his horse and placing it inside the cave. He did the same to Dunne’s horse and made sure both animals were sheltered from the storm before gathering as much dry kindling as he could and moving into the cave. Chris smiled inwardly when he noticed that Dunne had already started a fire and the smoke wafted up through some kind of natural chimney formation.

"I’ll take care of the horses . . . "

"Already done" the blond told him and pointed to Dunne’s saddle. The two men stripped off their wet clothing and hung it over several broken pieces of furniture placed near the fire. They dressed in the extra clothing packed in their saddlebags before setting up their camp and making coffee. Their meal was leftover bread and ham given to them by the couple whose kindness would some day be repaid. Unlike the night before there was little conversation, simply because neither man wanted to voice the very real fear that they might already be too late.

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Four Corners

Dawn

Buck Wilmington hadn’t slept well and stood in the open doorway looking out at the rain-drenched street. The storm had hit at midnight with such ferocity that the rain made it impossible to see across the street. As dawn neared, the sky remained dark with tumultuous clouds that roiled into each other sending streaks of lightning across the sky. A tree near Josiah’s church had been struck and fallen on a corner of the church, damaging some of the repairs done by the ex-preacher.

Buck had laid awake listening to the storm and cursing the timing because, although the rain was needed, they could have done without the violent upheaval that saw the floodgates open up. His thoughts had turned to the damage that would be left in the tempest’s wake and his gut churned as he thought of the missing men. How long would this delay them from going after the others? They’d have to make sure the people of the town were okay and maybe check on the few outlying farms, but did Nathan and Vin have that kind of time? From what he heard and saw for himself, the banditos were cruel and that did not bode well for his friends. Josiah had commented that he’d seen such a storm only once before and that it had lasted for two days. By the time it ended the landscape had taken on a whole new look, one that spoke of the tempest that had blown through the area.

Now as the promise of a new day loomed on the horizon, Buck’s thoughts turned to the missing men once more. Chris and JD were hot on their trail, and God help them both if they ran into the marauders without anyone to watch their backs. Oh, Chris could handle himself, there was no doubt of that, but JD was still a kid, wet behind the ears in spite of his time in the west. It took years of living to understand how harsh life could be out here and Dunne had already experienced the devastation of killing an innocent person.

Buck thought about the days following Annie’s death and how he’d finally sat down with the Kid and watched him play with the food on his plate. He hadn’t said one word as JD’s head came up until their eyes met. Dunne’s softly spoken "I didn’t mean it, Buck, but I can’t take it back" had nearly broken his heart, but he’d managed to talk the younger man out of the dark turmoil hidden inside him. They’d talked about Annie and how Achilles and his gang were the real cause of her death and when all was said and done, they toasted to her life and to her death and prayed her husband would find solace in her memories.

A knock at the door brought him out of his thoughts and he moved to open it, not at all surprised to see Josiah and Ezra standing there. Both men were soaked to the skin as if they’d been standing under a waterfall. "Damn it, Josiah, couldn’t you put in a good word with Him?"

"Sometimes a man’s word isn’t enough, Brother," Sanchez offered. "We need to get some of the men to help board up the windows in the Potter place."

"Damn," Wilmington spat; reaching for the slicker he’d hung over the back of the chair.

"The beast is doing its best to tear the town apart," Standish answered and sighed heavily. "Thank God the children were in their beds, but they are frightened."

"All right . . . let’s get this done!" Wilmington said, hurrying after the two men. They reached the door leading outside and had to press against it with everything they had in order to get it open. The wind nearly blew them off their feet as the rain beat against their faces and felt as if it was cutting the skin off their cheeks.

It was impossible to hear anything above the howling winds and the pelting rain, but these men knew what had to be done and hurried toward the Potter place. They worked together, cursing when the boards and nails slipped from their hands or a hammer struck a tender thumb. There were shouts from down the street, and the sound of breaking glass told them there’d be more windows in need of repair.

Lightning flashed, illuminating the dark specters of the nearby buildings and a scream echoed through the night. Buck looked toward the hotel and motioned to the others that he’d check it out. Wilmington hurried down the street, zigzagging in an effort to steer clear of the debris being thrown around by the high winds. He reached the hotel and threw open the doors to find a man whose identity was unknown to him standing over a woman.

"What the hell!" Wilmington spat and grabbed the man by the shirt. "What happened?

"She fainted . . . she’s my wife," the man stammered.

"Thanks for coming, Buck," Hans Heidegger, the hotel owner said upon returning from the back with a wet cloth. "Mrs. Stone fainted when the window broke . . . that’s her husband."

"My wife is not a strong woman and frightens easily," the man explained

Wilmington nodded and looked toward the broken window. "You got anything I can put up to the window?"

"I got some broken boards in the back from the last storm. I’ll be right back," Heidegger said, handing the cloth to Stone and hurrying away.

"She okay?" Wilmington asked.

"She will be. As I said my wife is ‘delicate’ . . . "

"Then bringing her west was the wrong move!"

"Actually we were headed east, but this storm has delayed our departure," Wilfred Stone explained helping his wife sit up when she moaned softly. "You’re okay, Emma . . . you’re safe."

"I thought . . . the storm . . . is it over?"

"No, Dear, not yet, but we’re safe inside the hotel. Mr. Heidegger and Mr. . . . "

"Wilmington . . . Buck Wilmington."

"Mr. Wilmington is going to board up the window. Why don’t we return to our room and perhaps we could have breakfast brought to us," Stone suggested and helped his wife to her feet.

Wilmington looked up as Heidegger returned with the boards, nails, and a hammer. Between them they managed to get the window closed enough to keep the rain and wind out.

"Thank you for the help," Heidegger said and watched the man leave. He’d changed his opinion of the seven during the last few months and understood how lucky the town was to have them.

Buck pulled open the door and took a deep breath as he looked out on the town. Debris had been pushed along the street and lay against the front of several buildings until the wind swept it up and deposited it elsewhere. He blinked the rain from his eyes and looked up at the dark sky.

"Give me a break here would you?" Wilmington snapped and raced across the street and into the saloon. Inez was already pouring hot coffee for Ezra, Josiah, and several other men who’d been helping with repairs. She looked at him, tossed him a dry towel and poured him a coffee. "Thanks, Inez."

"You are welcome," Recillos told him, smiling when the mustached man spotted the woman working behind her. "Maria is helping me make breakfast."

Buck nodded and walked over to the table where Ezra and Josiah were seated and sat down. His gaze swept the saloon and finally came to rest on the table where Chris and Vin usually sat. Once more he was reminded of the missing men and turned to look out the window at the tempest that continued with enough violence to break windows and throw debris around the streets.

"We’ll leave as soon as the storm ends, Brother," Sanchez assured him.

"I just wish we knew how long that would be," Wilmington said and knew Standish and Sanchez were filled with the same fear that plagued him. The problem was right now there was nothing any of them could do about their missing friends . . . except pray.

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South of the Rio Grande

Mid-Morning

Chris Larabee stood underneath the remainder of the roof that had once been a church steeple. He lit a cheroot and let the strong smoke ease some of the tension that had kept him from sleeping. He turned to look inside the cave and a quick smile formed when he heard the soft snores that told him Dunne was sleeping soundly. Chris returned his attention to the rain that continued to pelt the ground, turning the dirt into oozing mud near the entrance. The two horses were quietly eating the grass that had broken through the floorboards.

Larabee inhaled deeply of the smoke and let his thoughts wonder back through the years. What little sleep he’d managed to grab had been peppered with flashes of dreams. There were a lot of things about his past he regretted, but killing Alonzo De Rivera was not one of them. The man was cruel and what he’d done to Maria was something no man had a right to do to any woman. The problem was Nathan and Vin were in De Rivera’s hands and if he found out who they were there was no doubt he would make them suffer for his son’s death.

Again Chris inhaled deeply, blowing the smoke in circles above his head and watching as they were quickly dispersed by the wind that blew through the opening in the wall. Lightning flashed in the distance and Chris noticed the sky was beginning to lighten, a sign that the storm was weakening. He wanted to move out as soon as the rain stopped, but he knew the unknown terrain would probably be dangerous for them, yet in his heart he knew they had to move quickly.

Chris threw the half smoked cheroot on the ground and stamped it out in the mud. The rain would have made the Rio Grande impossible to cross and that meant Buck, Ezra, and Josiah would be delayed in joining them. That meant it was up to him and JD to find De Rivera’s hacienda and figure out the best way to rescue their friends. He heard movement behind him and turned to see JD easing up off the ground.

"The storm seems to be letting up," Dunne observed as he joined Larabee. "Want some breakfast?"

"Yeah," Larabee answered simply and noticed the frown on Dunne’s face. "Something bothering you, Kid?"

"I was just thinking Buck and the others are gonna have a hard time crossing the river. It’s probably flooded the banks and is running hard."

"Probably," the blond said, watching as Dunne moved back inside and added several pieces of dry wood to the fire. "We’ll head out as soon as the rain stops."

JD nodded and watched the dark clad gunslinger for several seconds. There was no doubt that Larabee was worried about the missing men, hell, so was he, but Chris and Vin had a special friendship. One that Dunne envied at times, and wondered if he’d ever find that kind of special connection that spoke of a tie that seemed stronger than blood. Turning away he began preparing breakfast from the food left from last night’s meal.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Morning

Nathan stood on the verandah looking out over the wind swept grounds. The rain had finally begun to ease up, but the damage from the storm was readily apparent. There were several trees down to the right of the fields, and Jackson was sure there was more he couldn’t see.  It was what he couldn’t see that had the healer worried. Since their arrival the day before he’d seen nothing of the Texan and that scared the hell out of him.

The tooth had been infected, badly, and although he’d removed it there was no telling if the infection was still present. That coupled with the fact that Vin had been put to work in the fields before he’d been given the chance to clean the gaping hole in his mouth properly. Nathan leaned against the railing and let the rain run down his face, but did not take his eyes from the structure where the mestizo people lived. He silently prayed Vin was safely tucked in one of the beds, warm and dry and away from the perils of nature’s wrath.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Morning

Vin had not seen a soul during his imprisonment in the cage. Sleep had been fleeting, leaving him incredibly exhausted while the pain in his lower back kept him from finding a comfortable position. Even the rain, which was something he’d always welcomed had become a torment to his aching body. The simple clothing he’d been given was soaked and stuck to his skin, chafing in places as he moved to get comfortable.

Vin moved his hand to his jaw and felt the swollen area, slipping his tongue into the hole left by the extraction of the tooth. He tasted blood used his fingers to probe the outside of his mouth until he felt the tender lump and pressed hard. Blood and pus spilled from the abscess and he spit it through the bars of his cage as tears formed in his eyes. The pain was as excruciating as anything he’d ever experienced, but he continued to press the area, spitting the poison onto the ground until there was nothing left.

Vin looked up at the sky and opened his mouth, letting the rain fill the inside and swishing it around. It took a while to rid himself of the foul taste and then came the tremors that rocked his body. He’d always had trouble with the cold and right now he felt as if he’d never be warm again. He sat back against the bars, closed his eyes and tried to ignore the way his teeth chattered, sending pain along jagged nerve endings. Sleep finally came as the dark clouds parted slightly and the first rays of the sun broke through.

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North of the De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

Hernando Lopez rode slightly ahead of his men and thought about his life. Don Garcia De Rivera was a hard man when you were on his bad side and rotated his shoulders where the scars from his own caning remained. By bringing Nathan Jackson to the Hacienda he’d managed to erase some of the older man’s anger, but it wasn’t enough for all to be forgiven. He knew what he had to do to get back in De Rivera’s good graces and riding back to Purgatorio was a small part of his plans.

Lopez knew the name of the gunslinger who had killed Alonzo De Rivera and had a good description of the man. He had enough men with him to take the man by force and bring him back to Don Garcia . . . alive if possible, but Hernando was not a man to take chances. That was the reason behind him taking so many men with him. Oh, he wasn’t a coward, but he was smart enough to know that a man with Larabee’s reputation was a force to be reckoned with.

Lopez planned on finding out the man’s whereabouts by visiting some of the small spreads north of Purgatorio. Perhaps they could find another pretty puta to kill some time with. He knew Don Garcia would punish him if he brought trouble to his doorstep, but Hernando enjoyed using his hands on a woman . . . and leaving his mark on her.

"Hernando, are you sure going after Larabee is a good idea?" Pedro Gonzales asked.

"Larabee has to pay . . . Don Garcia will pay us for bringing him to the Hacienda," Lopez explained.

"What good is that if we are dead, Compadres? The stories I heard in Purgatorio say that he has six compadres of his own and that they are very good with their guns."

"Are you afraid, Pedro?"

"Perhaps, it would be foolish not to be. It is said Larabee is faster than lightning and has killed over fifty men."

"A reputation is just that and perhaps Larabee hides behind his friends because he is not so good with a gun," Lopez said and rode ahead. He did not care for Gonzales’ reminder of how deadly their foe was. ‘How good are you, Larabee? I bet I could take you down!’ he thought and rode along in silence as the clouds began to dissipate.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

Vin slowly became aware of the insects buzzing around him and flicked his hand at them, but they returned again and again. His jaw ached and he used his tongue to touch the spot where Nathan had pulled the abscessed tooth, wincing when he felt the lump there. He pressed his finger against the outside of his cheek and spat out the foul tasting fluid that erupted onto his tongue. He shivered in spite of the heat from the sun that shone through the bars and continued to spit the bloodied pus from his mouth until he collapsed against the bars in a huddle. He drifted toward sleep, listening to the incessant buzzing, but jolted awake when a hand reached through the bars and pulled his head back sharply.

"Hello, Puta," Fernando Gores said and jabbed the prisoner’s ribs with the foot long stick he held.

"Fuck off!" Tanner snarled and pushed the stick away, receiving a jab to the groin for his efforts.

"Did you think you could sleep all day when there is work to be done, Puta? Your kind does not eat or drink until the work is finished," Gores warned and motioned for two men as he unlocked the cuffs and opened the cage.

"Trouble, Fernando?"

"Si, Juan, this gringo puta thinks he can sleep while the others work for their beds. You and Jorge get him on his feet and drag him to the fields," Gores ordered.

Juan and Jorge reached into the cage and dragged the prisoner out, dropping him to the ground and laughing when Gores drew back his foot and kicked the downed man in the right side.

"Now, Puta, get on your feet and get moving or that friend of yours will suffer for your insolence!" the overseer warned.

Vin ignored the taunting voices and slowly drew his body upward until he stood on shaky legs. His breath caught in his throat as pain flared in his right side, but he remained stone-faced as he turned to face his tormentors. He wanted to deck the man who’d kicked him, but had no doubt Gores would find some way to make Nathan Jackson pay.

Gores fought hard not to wilt under the ice blue glare that was turned in his direction and finally shoved the American toward the line of mestizos heading for the fields. It would be hard work after the heavy rains, and normally they would wait for the sun to dry the fields, but Fernando had a cruel streak to him and enjoyed watching others suffer. The gringo was strong, and insolent, but Gores vowed to find a way to make him suffer.

"He is a strong one, Fernando," Jorge said, as the Texan stood tall and walked past him.

"Si," Gores agreed, "but the gringo's strength will only make his journey to hell more enjoyable."

"Maybe he could warm my bed...would you enjoy that, Puta?" Juan asked and the trio broke out in raucous laughter.

Vin heard their comments, but refused to be baited and stepped up beside the man he’d worked with the day before.

Pedro nodded and his dark eyes shone with admiration at how well the gringo handled himself with the cruel overseer. The young man reminded him of a friend from long ago. His name eluded him now, a result of too many blows to the head, but he vowed to keep his memory and make it a part of who he was. He did that by showing kindness to those who fell under De Rivera’s harsh ownership. The young man walking beside him had an inner strength that could not be denied and Pedro prayed he would never lose it because here, at the Hacienda, strength was sometimes the only thing that kept you alive.

Vin could feel the older man watching him, but his eyes strayed toward the building and his thoughts returned to the former slave. He knew Nathan hated what the Hacienda represented and that it was a reminder of his younger life at the Jackson Plantation. ‘Keep yer chin up, Nathan,’ Tanner thought as they reached the fields and bent to the task of caring for the new cocoa bean plants.

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Southwest of the Rio Grande

Late Afternoon

The clouds had parted and gave way to an azure blue sky dotted with puffy ones that were carried slowly on the afternoon breeze. The landscape was dotted with bright wildflowers and fruit bearing trees and they’d passed several streams that had overflowed their banks because of the storm. The sun poked out from behind a cloud and sent shadows across their trail, but neither Chris Larabee nor JD Dunne took the time to see the beauty of nature. They rode southwest, hoping and praying they were riding in the right direction. They’d stopped an elderly couple and asked about the De Rivera Hacienda and been told it was at least a two days ride over rough terrain.

JD thought about Vin and how much he’d learned from him. Tanner was a natural tracker, and could read sign as easily as most people read the newspaper. The Texan had told him he’d learned from the Comanche and Kiowa and he’d learned early on what to look for. A broken blade of grass could tell the direction a man had taken, while scuffed over stones could tell you whether the prey was in a hurry or riding at a snail’s pace. He glanced left and right along the trail and knew the heavy rains had washed away any evidence that Tanner and Jackson’s kidnappers had ridden in this direction.

"Are you all right, Son?" Larabee asked when Dunne suddenly drew his horse to a stop.

"I was just thinking about Vin . . . tracking comes so damn easy to him," the Bostonian answered.

"Vin had no choice, but to learn things the hard way, JD. He’s been alone most of his life and for him it meant natural survival."

"He showed me things I never would have thought of when checking for signs and at first it didn’t make sense, but he’s right and it’s simple things like a broken blade of grass or turned over rocks that can tell you which way a man’s gone," Dunne said.

"Vin told me you were a quick learner, Kid," Larabee praised and saw the light in the younger man’s eyes.

"He did?" Dunne’s voice squeaked as Larabee lit a cheroot and they started along the trail once more. He didn’t need an answer; the simple nod from the blond was answer enough. It was more than enough and made him sit up truer in the saddle.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening

Maria smiled at the man seated beside her bed and sipped at the sweet tasting juice he’d placed in her hand. She knew from Evita’s explanation that this man was a healer, a doctor, from somewhere up north. The fact that Evita seemed to have placed her trust in him spoke volumes to the sick woman. He was nothing like Delgado and Maria felt safe in trusting Nathan Jackson. She finished the drink and handed the glass back to him.

"Thank you, Dr. Jackson . . . for coming here to help me and my baby," Maria said softly, eyes closing as a heavy sigh escaped slack lips.

"You’re welcome, Senora, why don’t you try to get some sleep now?" Nathan smiled as he tucked the blankets around the pretty woman and turned to see Evita Martinez watching him.

"She seems a little stronger," Evita said.

"She’s weak, Evita, but if we can keep her comfortable and let her rest, eat, and drink she and the baby should be okay, but I’m not a doctor . . . "

"From what I have seen you deserve the title more than most doctors I have met," Evita told him. "Have you eaten?"

"No . . . "

"I brought some enchiladas and hope they are not too spicy for you," Evita explained and pointed to the table on the veranda.

"Inez makes spicy enchiladas and only Vin can eat them," Jackson said and turned toward the window. He’d heard the songs of the mestizo people as they worked in the fields and silently prayed the Texan was okay.

"Your friend will be fine as long as he does as he is told and does not anger Fernando," Evita told him, taking the seat he vacated.

"That’s just it . . . Vin ain’t one to take orders," Jackson said and walked out of the room. He stood looking out over the grounds as the sun dipped below the horizon. The songs had stopped, but he could see the people working the fields and felt the hatred flowing heavily through his heart. This was no different from his own life on the Jackson Plantation and knowing Vin Tanner was out there, laboring under the hot sun made his stomach sour. He leaned heavily on the ornate railing and closed his eyes before speaking softly.

"Lord, I ain’t a man who asks fer much, but I’m askin’ ya ta watch out fer Vin. He’s a good man and he’s sick and if’n I could change places with him I would. Don’t let the bastards break him, Lord . . . give him . . . give us the strength we need to hold on until help get here." A sharp voice reached him and he could make out the people as they made their way toward the buildings they lived in. He could make out three people who stopped before reaching the huts and cursed when his mind recognized what his eyes did not want to see.

"God, Vin, I’ll get ya outta there," Jackson said as the Texan was placed inside the cage he’d seen earlier in the day. He turned back as a soft voice began to sing and felt the tears slip past his closed lids.

"Oh freedom, oh freedom/ Oh Freedom over me/ And before I’ll be a slave/ I’ll be buried in my grave/ And go home to my Lord and be free . . . "

"And go home to my Lord and be free," Nathan repeated and looked down at the cage that housed his friend. His mind wandered back to the day when Vin had taken up a rifle and walked alongside Chris to save his life. He’d shown more courage than the whole damn town and now he would need to draw on that courage once more if they were to survive. "I swear, Vin, we’ll both be free."

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening 

Vin looked at the food Gores had placed inside the cage and his stomach rumbled at the thought of eating the ‘slops’, but he’d eaten worse and was not about to let Gores see his disgust. He lifted the bowl of gruel and used his fingers to force it into his mouth and swallowed without tasting it. He ate too fast and fought to keep the food inside as he threw the empty bowl to the ground. Vin didn’t know whether the bitter taste in his mouth came from the food or the infection in his gum, but he reached for the water and drank greedily.

The water was warm, but it helped moisten the inside of his mouth and he swished it around several times before swallowing. His eyes went to the main house and he hoped Nathan was fairing better than he was and settled his gaze on the light that shone from an upper window. Somehow he knew Jackson was there and he drew on the strength of knowing the healer was watching over him, even if he couldn’t see him.

‘I hear ya, Nate,’ he thought as exhaustion dragged him toward sleep. He finished the water and placed the metal cup on the floor of the cage. Closing his eyes, Vin listened to the unfamiliar sounds of the night and trembled in spite of the humid air surrounding him. He craved more water, as he turned and flicked away the insects that pitched on his heated flesh.

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Southwest of the Rio Grande

Midnight

Chris could hear JD’s soft breathing as he added several chunks of wood to the fire. He used a small stick to light a cheroot and poured himself a cup of coffee before leaning back against his saddle. The horses nickered softly as they rustled around in the tall grass and Chris relaxed as the sounds of the night reached his ears.

JD had fallen asleep soon after they’d called a halt and eaten the last of the supplies they carried with them. Tomorrow they would need to stop at one of the outlying farms and hopefully buy what they needed. His hand strayed to his side and he rubbed at the wound there. He knew the stitches would need to come out soon and didn’t really like the idea of the kid doing the job, but if it came down to it, there wasn’t anyone else he’d trust.

Larabee glanced up at the sky and thought about the six men he rode with. They’d proven to him that losing one family, although devastating, did not mean the end of the world. He’d tried to push JD away, but the kid had proven resilient and kept popping up like a bad penny until he became an important part of the Seven.

He thought about the missing men and how much they meant to him and the others. Nathan had saved their lives on countless occasions and no matter how many times he reminded them he wasn’t a doctor they kept coming back to him. He’d proven time and again that he was indeed a doctor in every sense of the word in spite of not having the paper to prove it.

Vin had ridden at his side so often it was almost second nature to turn and see him there and Chris missed that, missed having that feeling that someone was there, watching his back when the chips were down. He took a deep draw of the cheroot, enjoying the taste as he blew smoke in the air and sat forward. He wondered what Vin and Nathan were doing and what Don Garcia De Rivera was doing to them. Were they still alive? They had to be, he was sure of that because somehow he would know if Vin Tanner was dead.

Chris threw the finished cheroot into the fire and leaned back once more, watching the sky overhead and hoping they’d find the De Rivera Hacienda before it was too late. Without realizing it his eyes closed and sleep reached out to pull him into its comforting embrace.

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Four Corners

Early Morning

The high wind and rain had finally stopped and the clouds had parted offering a bright blue sky as a promise that the violent storm had ended. Buck rode back into town, shoulders slumping as a deep seeded weariness took over his mind and body. He’d ridden out to several homesteads and checked on the families to make sure they were safe. Ezra had ridden east, while he’d taken the northwest quadrant and Josiah stayed in town to help repair the damage.

There were trees down, the most noticeable one having landed on a corner of the hotel and he could see several men cutting away the branches as he pulled his horse to a stop in front of the livery. He wanted nothing more than to grab a fresh horse and ride toward Purgatorio, but the town and its people had to take precedence right now.

"I’ll take care of him, Buck."

"Thanks, Yosemite," Wilmington said and handed him the reins. "Seen Josiah or Ezra?"

"Josiah’s helping Mrs. Travis board up a back window. Ezra’s not back yet," Yosemite explained. "Inez said to tell you there’s plenty to eat and hot coffee in the saloon."

"Sounds good," Wilmington said and headed toward the saloon. He nodded to several people before reaching the establishment and stepping through the batwing doors. He spotted the pretty woman serving a young couple at one of the tables and smiled as her beauty threatened to take his breath away. She spotted him immediately and moved back behind the bar, pouring him a cup of strong black coffee and placing it in his hands. "Thanks."

"You are welcome, Buck," Inez said, deliberately leaving off the senor as she looked into weary blue eyes. "Is everything all right?"

"The Robinsons had a tree fall on their barn, but Jacob and his boys said they could handle the repairs," Wilmington answered. "The Millers and Johanssons were fine except for flooding in the lower fields."

"Thank God," Inez said and fixed a plate of food for the exhausted man. She placed it in front of him and watched as he picked up the fork and began eating the scrambled eggs and peppers. She moved to the end of the bar and filled a cup with coffee before returning to stand in front of him. "You should get some rest."

"Can’t . . . we need to ride out," Wilmington told her.

"You will fall off your horse before you reach the end of town," Recillos observed and smiled at the two men who entered the saloon. She quickly filled two cups and fixed two plates of food as Standish and Sanchez took up seats on either side of Wilmington.

"Thank you, Inez," Standish said.

"You are welcome," Inez said and left the trio alone.

"Any problems, Ezra?"

"Nothing that couldn’t be repaired with a hammer and a few nails," Standish explained.

"Same here . . . what time will you two be ready to ride out?" Wilmington asked.

"Buck, none of us have slept in the last thirty hours," Sanchez said and held up his hands when the rogue tried to argue. "Look at you . . . you’re exhausted and so are we. Now if I thought it would make a difference we’d leave right now, but falling off our horses before we’ve gone a mile is not going to help the others. We know the general direction Chris and JD went in and crossing the Rio Grande is going to be next to impossible after the heavy rains we just had."

"I know you’re right, Josiah . . . but . . . "

"No buts . . . we’ve been on our feet for over 20 hours straight and I doubt either one of us could stand in a soft breeze. Eat . . . go get some sleep and we’ll head out later this afternoon," Sanchez advised.

"Buck, we all want to find them, but Josiah’s right . . . "

"I know he is, Ezra, but it don’t make it any easier," Wilmington told them and returned his attention to the food. He ate without tasting and downed the last of the coffee before nodding to Inez and heading for the boarding house. Once he stepped inside his room and closed the door he stripped off the dusty clothing and lay back on his bed. In spite of his worry and fear, Buck was asleep almost instantly. His dreams were troubling, and soft pleas escaped his throat as he slipped even deeper into the nightmares.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

Nathan had slept very little during the night, his mind playing over and over the circumstances that had brought them here. He’d checked on his patient several times, not at all surprised to find Evita Martinez sleeping on a bed that had been moved into the woman’s bedroom. She’d opened her eyes and watched him, nodding her head in approval at the way he cared for Dona Maria De Rivera.

Nathan sipped at the strong coffee and placed the cup on the table, turning when he heard voices inside. He sighed heavily and with a final glance toward the mestizos’ quarters, Jackson made his way into the bedroom to find the elderly Patron standing next to his young wife’s bed.

"She does not seem to be getting better," De Rivera snapped.

"She has been drinking juice and has managed to eat a little," Evita explained. "It has only been two days, Don Garcia . . . give Nathan time and you will see a change in her."

"I had better," the elderly man said, pointedly turning toward Jackson. "I am not a man you should cross . . . or your friend will pay dearly."

"I’m doing everything I can, Don Garcia," Jackson said, forcing the words out and praying he’d been successful in hiding his distaste.

"See that you do that and more," De Rivera said and turned back to Evita. "You will make sure he does not harm Maria."

"I wouldn’t hurt her," Jackson snapped, and stood his ground when De Rivera whirled on him, showing more strength than most men half his age as he lifted the cane and brought it down on Nathan’s left shoulder. Nathan bit back a gasp as he lifted his right arm to protect himself from a second blow.

"Do not think yourself worthy of speaking to me unless I direct you to do so!" De Rivera warned.

"Please, Don Garcia, he is of no use if you injure him," Evita said and placed herself between the two men. "Dona Maria needs him."

"Evita, you overstep your bonds, but I will forgive you this time because Dona Maria needs you, but if it happens again I will strip the skin from your back!"

Nathan watched the elderly man leave and rubbed at his shoulder. There was no break, but he knew it would leave one hell of a bruise, as he tried to rotate the arm.

"I am sorry, Nathan."

"It’s not your fault, Evita," Jackson told her and moved to the bed as the ailing woman seemed on the verge of waking up. "Evita, is there any way . . . "

"Any way what, Nathan?"

"I was wondering if you could find out how Vin is doing. He was pretty sick and fevered when they brought us here and I know they’ve been putting him in a damn cage at night."

"I will speak with Luis and see if he can check on your friend," Evita told him.

"Thank you . . . Vin’s a good man." Nathan smiled as his patient opened her eyes and stared at him. "Good morning, Dona Maria, how do you feel?"

"Tired . . . but I always feel that way," she answered as her hand strayed to her swollen belly and made small circles there. "The baby is moving . . . I feel him growing stronger."

Nathan placed his hand on her stomach and smiled when he felt the baby move under his fingers. "The little one is active this morning . . . maybe he’s hungry. Would you like something to eat, Dona Maria?"

"Maybe one of Evita’s muffins," the young woman answered.

"I will have them brought up," Evita told her, glad to see a little color in the face that had been too pale for too long.

"Nathan, I heard you asking Evita about your friend . . . please be careful . . . Don Garcia can be very cruel," Maria De Rivera told him and watched as her caregiver made his way to the window.

"I wish there was something I could do for him," Jackson said.

"The best thing you can do is forget he’s here or Don Garcia will set you against each other. He will not hesitate to carry out his threats, Nathan."

"I know," Jackson said as Evita returned and sat beside the bed. He made his way out on the verandah and watched as the mestizos made their way into the field.

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North of the De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

Hernando Lopez had not slept very well and as dawn raised her glorious head, he’d woken the others and told them they had half an hour to eat and get the horses ready to ride out. He’d listened to his men grumble about the early hour, but it didn’t mean anything to him, not when he had a mission, one that would put him back in Don Garcia’s good graces. They’d quickly eaten cold biscuits and beans before mounting up and following Hernando north toward the Rio Grande.

Lopez rode slightly ahead of the others and was the first to realize there were riders coming toward them. He called a halt and motioned for the others to take up positions on either side of the gap that led into the pass. If the riders were friendly, he would let them pass unaware that they were being watched, but if the newcomers were gringos they’d soon find out what a mistake it was to be south of the Rio Grande.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

The unbearable sun beat down on the fields, drying up whatever moisture had been left from the heavy rainfall. The soft breeze that had cooled his heated flesh during the early morning had died down and not a breath of air filtered through the surrounding trees. Vin lifted his throbbing head and rubbed at his lower back, wishing he had some of Nathan’s salve as his jaw ached miserably. The little water he’d managed to take in had come back up as quickly as it went down, leaving him wondering how his body still managed to produce the sweat that ran into his eyes.

"Work . . . he comes," Pedro managed in broken English while pointing at the back of the fields.

Vin didn’t need to know who Pedro was talking about and bent back to the work at hand. The weeds were encroaching on the fertile land where cocoa beans grew in abundance. It was grueling work, made doubly hard with the heat, humidity, and insects that plagued the workers. He’d removed his shirt, but soon felt the blistering heat of the sun burning his skin and was forced to put it back on before bending to the task of ridding the field of the insurmountable number of weeds.

"Work faster, Tanner, or there’ll be no supper for you!" Gores said, punctuating his words by shoving the Texan with his boot.

Vin turned and unleashed a deadly glare at the hated overseer, but a hand on his arm reminded him that others would pay if he messed with De Rivera’s men.

"Pedro, keep your dog in check or I’ll take the cane to both your backs!" Fernando Gores warned, whistling as he walked past the two men.

"Thanks, Amigo," Tanner said, fighting to keep the mind numbing pain in his jaw at bay. He reached for a thick weed and tugged viciously, picturing Gores’ dark head of hair in place of the green shrubs. It made the backbreaking work easier, but his eyes strayed to the main hacienda and he prayed the others were looking for them.

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Southwest of the Rio Grande

Early Afternoon

JD glanced over his shoulder as the sun cast a warm glow on the worried blond. The slump of Chris’ shoulders and the dark rims around his eyes spoke of the lack of sleep. He remembered thinking Larabee looked terrible when he woke up and found him already drinking coffee.

Chris was tired, hungry, and impatient with the way things were going. He knew JD was doing the best he could, but they seemed to be getting nowhere . . . fast. With the sun beating down from high overhead and the insects buzzing around them, Chris’ patience was quickly running out. They’d reached a narrow crevice and he knew it was dangerous to pass, but to backtrack now would mean the loss of half a day.

"JD, be careful," Larabee warned when the younger man maneuvered his horse into the narrow pass. He gazed upward and listened, but there was nothing to tell him of any real danger as he followed Dunne into the crevice. There was only room for one horse at a time and at first Pony shied away, but Chris managed to keep him moving forward.

"Chris, it opens up a little about twenty feet in," Dunne called over his shoulder.

Larabee didn’t answer as they made their way deeper and the high cliff walls blocked out the sun. His eyes quickly adjusted and he scanned the ledge above them, but nothing moved. Instinct told him not to let down his guard as they neared the opening and his hand strayed to the colt strapped to his hip.

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North of the De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

"Quiet," Lopez warned and put his arm up as the riders entered the north entrance to the narrow canyon. His men were ready, and his orders were clear . . . let them come into view before taking action. If they could be taken without gunfire then so be it, if not, he wanted it over with as quickly as possible.

Pedro Gonzales motioned for those on the right side of the pass to be quiet and watched the entrance as the sound of horses reached his ears. He knew there were just the two riders and Ernesto had confirmed they were gringos once he’d returned from scaling the cliff and looking north toward the opposite end.

Raul Espinoza hid close to the entrance, but several feet above ground. He knew he had to time it right, or the plan Hernando had devised would not work. He heard Lopez’s softly spoken warning and readied himself.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

Nathan took a deep breath before stepping out into the bright afternoon sunshine. He’d been cooped up in Dona Maria’s room since their arrival and had asked Evita for permission to stretch his legs. She’d given him the okay, but warned him against heading for the fields because Gores would report his presence to Don Garcia. He fought the urge to go to the Texan, knowing instinctively that Vin would pay dearly if De Rivera should find him there.

"Mama says you know what you are doing . . . that is good."

Nathan turned to see the young man standing behind him and searched his memory for a name to go with the face. "You’re Evita’s son."

"Si, my name is Luis," Martinez explained. "Mama asked me to check on your friend . . . "

"Vin!" Nathan's pulse picked up. " . . . is he . . . is he okay?"

"He is not well. The work, it is very hard, but he learns fast. Pedro has taken him under his wing," Luis said with a slight smile.

"Pedro?"

"Si, he is a good man and has been here since I was a boy. He does not speak very well, but he does like to protect the people Gores takes a dislike to," Luis explained.

"Vin can handle himself . . . most times, but he’s already hurtin’," Jackson said, watching the face for any sign that he shouldn’t be disclosing anything, but there was an honesty about Luis Martinez, something he was sure he got from his mother.

"If Don Garcia or Fernando Gores senses any kind of weakness he will use it against you and your friend. Try not to show any emotion when they are around."

"Thanks for the warning," Jackson said.

"I will keep an eye on your friend, but there is only so much I can do. If you believe in God then you should pray that your friend keeps his mouth shut and does the work when he’s told," Martinez said and hurried away.

Nathan took a deep breath and thought on Vin's temper. He turned back toward the house, hoping and praying that Vin Tanner held onto his patience and waited for the others to rescue them.

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Southwest of the Rio Grande

Early Afternoon

JD sighed in relief as he exited the narrow pass, but he was unprepared when something landed on the ground in front of him. He recognized it the instant it poised to strike, but could not react fast enough as the terrified animal he rode reacted to the danger before it.

Chris watched as JD exited the pass and hurried Pony forward just as Dunne’s horse reared up on its hind legs sending the younger man flying backward. The gunslinger reacted instinctively, drawing his gun and shooting the snake as he dismounted. He moved to help the younger man, but a bullet kicked up the dirt at his feet.

"Don’t do it, Gringo, or the boy will get the next bullet!" Lopez warned, staring at the man dressed totally in black. "Now drop your guns and put your hands in the air."

"Who the hell are you?" Larabee asked angrily, helping the stunned Bostonian to his feet as his eyes swept the area, counting and calculated what the odds were. There were four men, each with a weapon drawn and pointed toward him and JD.

"Well, normally I might have answered that, but since you’re in my country I believe you should be the one to tell me your name . . . "

"Chris . . . who are they?" Dunne asked when his vision finally cleared.

"Hernando," Pedro Gonzales called, his voice filled with awe as he recognized the man from a description he’d heard in Purgatorio.

"What is it, Pedro?" Lopez asked, impatient to get moving.

"Didn’t you say Larabee dresses in black?" Gonzales asked.

"Si . . . why?" Lopez said and stared at the angry man before him. "Chris . . . the kid called you Chris as in Chris Larabee. Madre De Dios, could we be that fucking lucky? You are Larabee aren’t you?"

Chris didn’t answer as his eyes narrowed suspiciously and he stared hard at the leader of the bandits.

"Drop your guns on the ground and kick them over here," Lopez ordered.

"Chris we can’t . . . "

"Shut up, Chico, or I’ll kill you right here!" Lopez snapped.

"Others have tried . . . "

"Easy, JD," Larabee warned, realizing they had no chance with so many guns pointed in their direction.

"But . . . "

"Raul, shoot the boy if Larabee tries anything," Lopez ordered.

"Chris . . . we can . . . "

"No, JD, not this time," the gunslinger warned. He could see the disappointment on the younger man’s face, but unlike the battle with Anderson’s ghosts, the odds were stacked against them. There were at least a four men and each one had their weapons pointed at either JD or him and they’d need to bide their time until the odds were better.

"Very smart, Larabee," Lopez said and motioned toward the younger man once the weapons were discarded and Gonzales picked them up. "Now, Gringo, move away from Larabee and get down on your knees and place your hands behind your head."

"Let him go . . . it’s me you want," Larabee tried.

"Not a chance, Gringo, I believe this boy is going be the one to keep you from starting trouble," Lopez said with a grin. "Move, Kid, or Larabee gets a bullet in the leg."

"Do as he says, JD," Chris ordered, glaring at the Mexican bandit.

"Very good, Muchacho," Lopez said, watching Larabee closely as Pedro placed his gun at Dunne’s temple. "Now, Larabee, I believe there is someone who is going to reward me greatly for bringing him such a present as yourself. Jose, Raul, tie Larabee’s hands behind his back and make sure he cannot get loose."

"Si, Hernando," Mendoza said and climbed down from the rocks he’d used for cover.

Chris could do nothing, but glare at their captors and could see the anger in JD’s eyes as his arms were pulled roughly behind his back. He felt the rough rope wrapped around his elbow and tightened until his shoulders felt strained. A second rope was fastened around his wrists and he was forced to his knees as the bandits repeated the process with Dunne.

"Bring their horses," Lopez ordered.

Rodrigo Marquiz had caught the kid’s horse and now held both sets of reins. He brought the animals forward and waited for Lopez to give the order.

"Raul, help the kid mount up," Lopez ordered.

"What about, Larabee?" Jose asked.

"I have something more fitting in mind for him," the head bandito answered. "Tie him face down on his horse and make sure he doesn’t fall off!"

Chris wanted to fight, but he knew JD was dead if he started anything. Two men dragged him to Pony and threw him face down over the saddle. With no way to hold on, Chris knew he was going to land in the dirt and tried to roll in order to soften the blow. Unfortunately, his shoulder hit hard and the muffled curse was barely heard as a dirty rag was shoved into his mouth.

"Jose, try not to be so clumsy this time," Lopez said with a cackling laugh.

"Si, Hernando, sorry about that, Gringo," Jose said as they lifted the gunslinger and again threw him over the back of his horse. This time they held him in place and used ropes to secure him in place.

Dunne watched helplessly as the bandits used ropes to tie Chris down. There was nothing he could do as the others mounted up and they rode south, away from the pass.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening

Vin had never felt so exhausted in his life and he dropped heavily onto the floor of his cage when Gores shoved him inside. Every muscle screamed in protest when he shifted and tried to straighten his legs out. He heard Gores and the others laughing as something was pushed into his cage and he forced his eyes open as they walked away.

Tanner looked at the bowl of gruel with utter distaste, but he knew it would be the only thing he’d have to eat and his stomach grumbled at the thought of food. He looked at the cup of water and reached for it, drinking greedily before remembering there would be no refill. He placed the cup on the cage floor and reached for the bowl. The smell made his stomach churn, but he’d eaten worse and survived.

Vin used his fingers and scooped a small amount into his mouth, grimacing in disgust as he forced the gruel down his throat. It hit his stomach and he trembled as the taste flooded his mouth. His jaw ached, but he forced himself to eat what he’d been given and angrily threw the bowl out of the cage. He reached for the cup of water and took several small sips, closing his eyes when he felt the unappetizing meal coming up in his throat.

Vin knew he was going to be sick, and leaned his head against the bars. It wasn’t long before the nasty tasting food came back up in a noxious stream that landed just outside his cage. He kept his eyes closed long after the dry heaves ended and knew his body was slowly weakening as he fought to sit up. It was a losing battle and he finally gave up, curling into a ball as he lay on the floor and drifted toward sleep.

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North of the De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening

Hernando Lopez wanted to reach the Hacienda and hand his gift over to Don Garcia De Rivera, but the clouds were quickly obliterating the moon and stars. It would soon be so dark he would have trouble seeing his hands on the reins and he knew the next part of the trip was through dangerous territory. Rocky crevices, and narrow ledges were abundant this far south of the Rio Grande and he did not like the idea of taking a fall into a ravine.

"Hernando, it is too dark to go on," Gonzales called.

"Si, Pedro, we will make camp for the night," Lopez said and pointed to a small clearing ahead. He continued to hold the reins of Larabee’s horse and couldn’t help the malicious smile that formed on his face.

"What do we do with Larabee and the boy?" Marquiz asked.

"Take the boy and tie him with his back to that tree. Make sure the rope is tight," Lopez warned, dismounting and walking back to Larabee’s horse. "So, Gringo, did you enjoy the ride?"

Chris didn’t bother to answer as he tried to ignore the hated man standing beside him. He cried out when Lopez grabbed a fistful of his hair and tugged sharply, revealing the corded muscles of his neck. A knife appeared and was placed at his Adam’s apple and he fought the urge to curse his nemesis. He felt the tip of the blade bite into his skin, but refused to cry out as he glared at his tormentor. He heard a cry from JD and strained to see him, but Lopez blocked his view.

"Are you worried about your little puta, Gringo? Do you get off on young boys or perhaps they are the only ones who will let you bed them? Perhaps he can entertain us . . . can he dance?" Lopez asked and finally released Larabee’s head when his taunts didn’t get the rise he wanted from the stone faced gunslinger.

Chris was unprepared when Lopez cut the ropes binding him to the horse and held his breath when he slid off and hit the ground hard. He heard JD cursing and shook his head, hoping the young man would not do anything that would get himself hurt. Larabee was dragged to his feet, and held in place by two of Lopez’s men.

JD was dragged toward a tree and his arms were pulled behind him and secured with the rope. He could only watch as Larabee, whose ankles were still tied was dragged toward a second tree about two feet from his own. Dunne waited for the men to finish with Larabee and leave them alone before speaking. "Chris, are you okay?"

"I’m fine, Kid," Larabee said and closed his eyes as nausea churned through his gut. He could feel something warm on his left side and knew from the burning sensation that the wound was bleeding again. He drew a deep breath to clear his head and tried to loosen the ropes, but Lopez’s men knew what they were doing and the knots tightened instead. "JD, if you get a chance to escape . . . do it . . . "

"I can’t leave you with . . . "

"Yes, you can, Kid," Larabee ground out softly. "You ride north and find Buck and the others . . . "

"You got something to say, Larabee?" Lopez snapped from the fire that now blazed in the center of the clearing. He picked up a piece of burning wood, stood, and walked toward the prisoners. He swung the weapon toward Larabee’s face, missing by inches and laughing when Larabee shifted his head to avoid being burned. "I asked if you had anything to say, Larabee?" he repeated, turning toward the younger man and swinging the weapon in the same way.

"Bastard!" Dunne snarled angrily as he barely avoided being hit.

"You are not tired, Puta? Perhaps than you can you dance for us?" Lopez asked, laughing as he walked back to the fire and took a flask from his saddlebag.  "Or maybe provide other kinds of entertainment?"

"Chris . . . "

"Get some sleep, Kid," Larabee warned and closed his eyes. He knew Lopez would not think twice about acting on his threat and didn’t want to see the younger man hurt. He listened to the laughter and heated jibes coming from Lopez and the others, but drowned them out in an effort to take his own advice.

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Four Corners

Early Morning

Buck woke to a soft tapping at the window and opened his eyes, shocked when he realized he’d slept longer than he’d meant to. He turned toward the sound and saw a black crow, bigger than any he’d ever seen before and heard Josiah’s warnings about crows. He hurried to the window, opened it and was glad to see the bird fly off.

Buck looked out at the empty street and thought about his dreams and the missing men. He knew Vin and Nathan were already captives, but something told him Chris and JD were also in danger now. He wanted to get Ezra and Josiah and leave immediately, but there were several things they needed to do before they could leave. He turned away from the window, but a sharp cry from across the street caught his attention.

"Help . . . the bank’s being robbed!"

Wilmington recognized Conklin’s voice and grabbed his pants, pulling them on and slipping his feet into his boots. He reached for his gun belt as shots were fired and hurried out of the boarding house. He spotted Josiah making his way toward the alley that lead to the back of the bank and nodded as he raced toward a trough and fired two quick shots toward the bank. Buck turned his head as he heard the sound of footsteps and quickly grabbed the Potter children and used his body to protect them as he shoved them toward Vin’s wagon and made them lie down in the dirt. "Stay put!"

"I’m scared," the girl’s voice trembled as she clung to her brother.

"I know, Jane, but you and David will be fine if you just stay down," Wilmington warned and spotted Ezra moving along the building next to the bank. "I need to help Josiah and Ezra . . . okay?"

"Okay," David Potter told him.

Buck lifted his head and pointed toward the alley when they heard gunshots from the back of the bank. He ducked and ran to the alley, watching the front entrance as Ezra glanced through one of the windows. He heard more shots fired from the back of the bank and hurried toward the opposite end of the alley as heated voices rose from inside the building.

"Ya try ta come through that door and I’ll put a fuckin’ bullet through yer banker’s head!"

"Put the guns down and you might live to see another day!" Sanchez called.

Buck spotted the ex-preacher using an old battered wagon as cover and nodded when Sanchez spotted him. "How many?" he asked.

"At least three and Jake Connors is in there," Sanchez answered. "Where’s Ezra?"

"He’s around front," Wilmington answered, ducking back as a bullet hit the ground in front of him.

"Stay back, Buck, they’re firing wild!" Sanchez ordered.

"They gotta run out of bullets soon," the angry rogue snapped, firing off two shots at the bank window before taking the time to reload. They heard several shouts from the main street and could hear Ezra telling the townspeople to stay back. "Put down the guns and come out!"

"No fuckin’ way . . . ya best move back or the banker is dead!"

"Looks like it’s gonna be a long day!" Sanchez said, and knew Wilmington understood how important it was to take care of the town, but it didn’t stop either of them from worrying about their missing friends.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

The sun beat down, sapping the moisture from the men and women who slaved in the fields. There was no respite from the heat and Vin leaned back as he tried to work the kinks from his back. He spotted Gores nearby, but the man seemed intent on staying in the shade and drinking the water one of the slaves had brought from the creek. Vin returned to the task of pulling the stubborn weeds from around the plants, and noticed his hands were bleeding.

Flies buzzed around his head and he flicked them away, but they returned and pitched on his exposed skin. His stomach heaved, but there was nothing inside him to make a return journey and he swayed unsteadily. A strong, gnarled hand reached out to steady him and he looked at Pedro gratefully. "Gracias," Tanner mumbled the word he’d learned meant thank you.

"Estas enfermo," Pedro whispered, noting the sickness in the man’s eyes and face.

"Don’t know what yer sayin’," the Texan said tiredly, wiping his forehead before glancing at the sun again. "Hotter’n hell," he whispered, struggling to stay on his feet.

"Gores," Pedro whispered and nodded toward the overseer walking toward them.

"What is the matter, Gringo?" Gores asked, snapping the stick down across Vin’s shoulders. "You think Pedro should do your work too? Is that it?"

"Fuck you!" Tanner managed through gritted teeth.

"No way, Chico," Gores said with an evil glint in his eyes. He swung the stick once more and smiled when the Gringo cried out as a red welt quickly formed on his back. "Now, get back to work or you will miss supper tonight."

"Bastard," the Texan ground out, but returned his attention to the task at hand. The stubborn weed was replaced by Gores’ face and he gripped it between his bloody fingers before ripping it from the ground. He did not see Pedro’s face or the admiration in his eyes as the older man bent to the backbreaking work under the grueling orb that had risen high in the azure blue sky.

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Four Corners

Early Afternoon

Buck silently cursed as the sun climbed higher in the sky and yet they were at a standoff with the bank robbers who were still holed up inside the building. The curtains were closed and left no chance of getting a good shot without hitting Jake Connors. The town was quiet as people stayed off the streets in case the gunfire started again.

Wilmington could see Josiah and wondered where the man got his patience because every time Buck went to make a move the older man simply shook his head. "They should be getting thirsty by now," Wilmington said, knowing his own throat felt dryer than the desert at high noon.

"Just be ready in case they try something," Sanchez warned.

"Hey . . . we need water in here!"

"Right on time," Buck said with a grin.

"The Lord has provided us with plenty of water out here . . . all you need to do is put down your guns and come out with your hands raised," Sanchez called.

"Not a chance," the voice answered. "You give us the water or the banker’s a dead man."

"You kill him and you won’t live to stand trial," Wilmington advised. They stayed where they were, hoping and praying the men would heed Sanchez’s warning and come out, but the seconds turned to minutes and he knew the day was going to drag on.

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North of the De Rivera Hacienda

Late Afternoon

JD Dunne wished he could wipe the sweat from his face, but his hands were tied tightly to the saddle horn. He glanced sideways and knew his own discomfort was nothing compared to the blond’s. Chris was tied face down over Pony’s back and Lopez had found great pleasure in gagging the gunslinger while his men made sure Larabee could not escape.

The Bostonian returned his attention to the horse in front of him and saw the rotted teeth in the man’s face as he rode back toward him. He didn’t know what Espinoza wanted until the man reached out and grabbed his hat.

"I think this looks better on me . . . what do you think, Jose?" Espinoza said replacing his own hat with the new one.

"Si, Raul, much better than it looks on the boy," Mendoza said gleefully.

"You are not old enough to wear a man’s hat, Boy," Espinoza said, taunting the young American.

JD refused to be baited and took a deep breath as he stared straight ahead.

"What’s the matter, Gringo, got no balls?" Mendoza snapped when the captive ignored his friend’s jibes.

Dunne continued to ignore the two men as the sun beat down on his dark head. He knew there was no point in saying anything and glanced over to see Chris looking back at him from his precarious position. He felt the gunslinger’s pride and sat straighter in the saddle as the two men finally lost interest in him.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Evening

Luis Martinez watched his mother and wished there was something he could do to take away the pain in her eyes. He knew she was staying with Don Garcia’s wife and helping Nathan care for her, but there were times when she looked aged beyond her years. He could still see the beauty that must have turned the heads of many suitors, but the years had left deep lines sculpted in her face.

"Mama, you should rest," Luis said and found her hand against his cheek.

"I will, Luis, but Dona Maria needs me."

"You will be of no use to her if you do not sleep, Mama."

"She is weak . . . we do what we can, but it seems she is not long for this world," Evita told him.

"The baby?"

"The baby is okay for now . . . Nathan is good to Dona Maria. He knows how to treat her illness and he does not talk down to her like that butcher did," Evita spat.

"Mama, please be careful . . . do not get too close to Nathan Jackson . . . Don Garcia will blame him if something happens to the baby and I do not want anything to happen to you," Luis told her. He believed in God and knew that a mother was the most precious gift He bestowed on His children. Luis would do anything to protect her from harm, including give up his own life.

"Nothing will happen, Mi Hijo," the woman said and gently touched her son’s cheek. "I am so proud of the man you have become . . . please do not change . . . do not be like your papa."

"Never, Mama, this I promise you," Luis said and turned to leave. "I must take a patrol out tonight . . . "

"Be careful, Luis, you are all I have in this world," Evita said, tears brimming in her eyes as she watched him leave. She turned and hurried back inside and made her way back to Dona Maria’s room.

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Four Corners

Early Evening

The street was quiet, nothing moved except debris carried along by the breeze that did little to cool the heat of the sun. The people had moved inside when they realized the danger from inside the bank. They left it to the peacekeepers to protect them, but watched from behind closed doors and windows as the combatants seemed to be at a standstill. Every now and then a shot was fired, but so far nobody had been hit.

Josiah hadn’t moved from his spot, and was grateful that Inez had delivered several canteens to Buck who handed them off to him and Ezra before returning to his spot. Sweat burned his eyes and rolled down his cheeks, while his clothes stuck to his body, making it even more uncomfortable. The big man knew it must be unbearably hot inside the bank, but there was no sign of the men giving up. They’d pleaded for water, but to no avail because it would have made the standoff last even longer. Movement to his right caught his attention and he turned to see Wilmington closing the distance between them.

"Josiah, I’m going to see if I can get close enough to get a shot through that window," the weary rogue explained.

"All right . . . just don’t do anything stupid . . . right now it’s a standoff, but if bullets start flying someone’s gonna get hurt," Sanchez warned.

"Them bastards deserve what they get so unless you think we’re gonna get some Divine intervention we gotta do what we gotta do!"

"I agree, but don’t give up on Him just yet," Sanchez said and as if on cue a familiar voice sounded from inside the bank.

"Josiah, they want to give up," Jake Connors called.

"Tell them to throw out their guns and come out with their hands above their heads," Wilmington shouted and turned to see a smile on Sanchez’s face.

"Told you not to give up on Him," the ex-preacher said simply.

"Never doubted Him for a minute," Wilmington said with a hint of a smile as the would-be bank robbers exited the building through the back door. "Jake, are you okay?"

"Aside from feeling like a roasted chicken I’m fine," Connors said and wiped the sweat from his face with the sleeve of his shirt as Ezra joined them.

"I bet," Sanchez said, keeping an eye on the trio of sweating men who looked like they were going to fall over. "Ezra, let’s get these boys locked up . . . Buck, get their guns."

"On it, Josiah," Wilmington said and moved to pick up the discarded weapons as the wind picked up and fat droplets of rain began to fall. Thunder echoed in the distance and Buck stopped to stare up at the dark clouds that began to fill the sky. "Lord, if this is some kind of joke I’m beginning to hate Your sense of humor!"

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening

Vin tried to get comfortable in the cage, but no matter what he did he shivered as the fever burned through him. The meal had been plain rice and water and he’d manage to get it down, but was having a hell of a time making it stay put. He relished the slight breeze on his sweat soaked skin and looked up at the clear sky and the bright moon surrounded by a thick blanket of twinkling stars. The rest of the Hacienda was sleeping, but one light burned in the main house. Tanner knew what room it was; at least he thought he did because on several occasions he’d seen Nathan watching as they worked in the fields closest to the house.

The Texan heard a familiar sound and knew there were riders coming in from the north. He turned toward the sound and counted the horses as they took the trail that would lead them to the main building. His vision blurred, but he frowned as there was something familiar about one of the riders, but they were too far away for him to be certain.

Feeling as if he hadn’t slept in a week, Vin closed his eyes, snapping them open again as the riders pulled to a stop in front of the house. Something bothered him about the newcomers, but he couldn’t put his finger on what it was. The bright full-bodied moon leant enough light to discern shadows and the structures nearby, but he couldn’t see who the people were. The voices reached his ears, but he had trouble listening because of the fever and he released a weak breath as his eyes closed and sleep beckoned to him.

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Nathan rubbed at his eyes as he looked toward the mestizos’ quarters and prayed Vin was okay. He wanted to check on the younger man, but Evita and Luis had both warned him that Tanner would be the one to pay if he disobeyed De Rivera. Jackson didn’t doubt this was true, but it didn’t stop the guilt from clouding his mind. He looked around him at the luxurious surroundings, wondering how he could enjoy something so beautiful when his friend was living like an animal.

Nathan had managed to catch sight of Vin on several occasions during their captivity, and what he saw scared the hell out of the former stretcher bearer. The sun beat down on the workers, sapping the moisture from their bodies, but while the mestizos were given water, he’d seldom seen Vin given anything. He knew the Texan was sleeping in a cramped cage at night and each time Nathan looked at the soft bed provided for him, the pain swept through him as forceful as any rogue wave on the ocean.

Jackson’s attention was taken from the smaller buildings as the sound of approaching riders reached his ears.

"Nathan, would you like some coffee?"

"No, thank you, Evita . . . is Dona Maria still sleeping?"

"Yes, she seems to be resting comfortably, Nathan, and I am forever grateful for your help," the woman told him as she joined him at the railing. "Looks like Lopez brought more workers."

Nathan returned his attention to the scene below and gasped as he recognized the young man seated on the closest horse. "JD," he whispered.

"Do you know him?"

"Yes . . . we work together in a town called Four Corners . . . he’s just a kid . . . oh, God . . . "

"What is it, Nathan?" Evita asked when she heard the pain in her friend’s voice.

"The one tied to the horse . . . that’s Chris . . . I gotta help them," Jackson said and made his way toward the door leading back inside.

"No, Nathan, you mustn’t do or say anything," Martinez told him. "Do not give Don Garcia the satisfaction of knowing he has more of your friends. You must keep silent and help Maria . . . if there is any way I can help I will, but for now your friends are better off not knowing you are here."

"I can’t just leave them . . . "

"You have to . . . for everyone’s sake," Evita said and watched the younger man’s face as the eyes darkened with unshed moisture. She’d known him for only a short time, but Nathan Jackson was a man of many emotions and she knew his heart was in his throat as she heard Lopez give orders to his men. It surprised her when she heard Don Garcia’s name mentioned and she frowned as a sharp knock sounded on the lower doors. "Nathan, please, just stay here . . . I promise I will find out what I can about your friends and why they are here."

"Probably came looking for me and Vin," the healer told her. "Wonder where the others are?"

"I will find out," Evita said as she left the somber Jackson alone.

"Please, God, help us find a way out of this," the former slave whispered and bent his head in silent prayer before returning his attention to the scene taking place below the verandah.

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JD silently cursed as the ropes binding Chris to the horse were cut and the gunslinger hit the ground hard. The muffled grunt told him the blond was hurting, but there was nothing he could do as he was pulled from his horse’s back and forced to his knees beside Larabee.

Hernando Lopez stared at the two prisoners as Ernesto hurried up to the main door and knocked several times. He smiled when Larabee and Dunne were forced to their knees and held there. The leader of the banditos was very pleased with the gift he had for Don Garcia De Rivera and he grabbed Larabee by the chin, forcing his head up so that their eyes met. There was something deadly about the gunslinger, even though the man should be shaking in his boots because there was no way he could escape now that they’d reached the hacienda.

"Hernando, what is the meaning of this?"

There was no mistaking the voice of authority and Lopez released Larabee as he turned to face the newcomer who stood dressed as elegantly as he did during the day. "Don Garcia, I have brought you a g . . . gift," he stammered, smiling in spite of the fear this man caused.

"What gift . . . I sent you north," De Rivera snapped.

"Si, and we rode north, but we did not get far when we ran into two gringos heading south," Lopez said and pointed to Larabee and Dunne.

"I do not have time to inspect new workers, Hernando . . . "

"These are not workers, Don Garcia . . . this man wearing black is Chris Larabee," the bandito said with a grin.

"Chris Larabee," De Rivera whispered, but there was such venom in his voice that Lopez and his men took a step backward. The elderly Haciendada stepped forward and stood looking down at the man who had killed his only son . . . his heir. "You will pay for what you cost me. Did you think you could kill my son and live?"

Chris stared at the man angrily, but there was no way he could speak with the gag shoved in his mouth. He felt De Rivera’s gnarled hands in his hair and then fingers played at his Adam’s apple before squeezing so tightly he could not breathe. The fingers twisted in his hair, the muscles in his neck cording as he fought for air.

"You’re killing him!" Dunne shouted, fighting the hands that held him in place.

"We all die . . . eventually," De Rivera said, but released the death grip he had on the gunslinger’s throat. He turned his attention to the young man kneeling next to the gunslinger and smiled. "Who are you, Boy?"

"JD Dunne and . . . "

"And nothing, Boy, you travel with Larabee because you are related . . . "

"We’re friends . . . "

"Friends . . . then you are my enemy," De Rivera said, eyes dark with pent up rage as he turned back to the gunslinger. "You have a hard reputation, Larabee, but it will end here. I will break you before I kill you and feed you to the animals. I will make sure you know what it feels like to lose something you love . . . "

Chris heard the insinuation as De Rivera turned to JD and struck him open handed across the face. Dunne hit the ground hard, but didn’t make a sound as two men pulled him roughly back to his knees. Larabee bit down hard on the gag as he saw blood dripping from the Bostonian’s split lip. Anger raged inside, but there was nothing he could do as a gun was placed against the younger man’s head.

"Not yet, Lopez," De Rivera warned.

"What do you want me to do with them?" Lopez asked.

"Strip the boy down to his drawers and put him in the hole," the elderly man ordered and turned back to the gunslinger. "Bring this bastardo to the calabozo . . . there are some things I wish to show him before sunrise. You have done well, Hernando, and will be rewarded for bringing my son’s killer to justice."

"Gracias, Don Garcia," Lopez said and reached for the gunslinger. They dragged him toward a small structure located to the east of the house and unlocked the door with a large iron key.

Chris felt his gut clench as several torches were lit and he was pulled inside. He could feel De Rivera’s breath on his neck and shoved back with his right elbow, pleased when he heard the sharp gasp from the elderly man. It was short lived as Lopez slammed a rifle butt into his lower back and Chris cried out against the gag.

"Where do you want him?" Lopez asked once De Rivera regained his stature and stood over Larabee.

"Secure his arms to the hooks in the overhead beams," the Haciendada ordered, smiling as the blond was pulled to his feet and his arms were released long enough to do as he told them. Next Larabee’s ankles were encircled with rusted manacles and locked to the floor so that he stretched awkwardly and could just touch the floor with the tips of his boots. De Rivera smiled and reached up to take the gag from the prisoner’s mouth and ran his fingers down the man’s neck, relishing in the thought of choking the life from the hated body. It was too soon for that, Larabee had to suffer before he died. "Keep guards posted and make sure he does not escape or I will stake you out in the desert for the vultures."

"I’ll see you in hell," Larabee managed, wishing he’d left Dunne behind with the others and praying their friends would arrive in time to save the others, because Chris had little doubt that De Rivera would carry out his threats before long.

"Hell has come for you, Chris Larabee, and I am the demonio who will send your hide to Diablo," the elderly man said, turning and walking away from the prisoner as his heart beat heavily against his chest. Revenge would be sweet, and even sweeter would be how he took the life of the kid, JD Dunne. Larabee had shown he cared about the younger man and his death would seal the gunslinger’s fate.

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Nathan had watched with dawning horror as JD was stripped of his clothing and taken toward an area near the mestizos’ quarters. Evita had told him it was a place where De Rivera sent men for punishment. It was called ‘el orificio’ which loosely translated to ‘the hole’. Jackson knew ‘the hole’ was just that, a small cell dug in the ground, the top was made of heavy bars that took two men to remove, while the sides were mismatched pieces of wood that could shred a man’s back if he made the mistake of leaning against it.

"Nathan," Evita whispered as she rejoined him on the verandah.

"Please, Evita, we have to help them," Jackson pleaded anxiously.

"There is nothing we can do for them, Nathan. Don Garcia can be very cruel and he will not hesitate to make you or your friend Vin suffer if he thinks you know the prisoners. I do not wish to see you hurt and I am sure you do not want Vin hurt because you tried to help someone who is beyond your help," the older woman observed, taking Nathan by the arm and pulling him away from the edge.

"I can’t just stay here and do nothing," Jackson snapped.

"Yes, you can. I know you value life, Nathan . . . I have seen it in how you care for Dona Maria and the worry you have for your friends, but if you interfere in Don Garcia’s plans you will not only lose these two, but Vin as well. Are you strong enough to do what you have to in order to save one life?"

"Strong . . . I don’t know, Evita . . . I honestly don’t know," Jackson told her and stared up at the sky. "Lord, I ain’t sure why Yer lettin’ this happen, but if it’s some kind of test then it’s tryin’ my patience . . . I don’t know what ta do . . . "

 

"Nathan, God will look out for His children . . . He will not turn His back on you or your friends," Evita told him.

"He sure got a funny way of showin’ it," Jackson said and knew sleep would be a long time coming as Lopez and his men dragged Chris Larabee away.

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Four Corners

Late Night

Josiah knew Buck was losing patience, but there was nothing more they could do once the skies opened up and dropped a deluge that would have made Noah stand up and take notice. They’d locked the prisoners in the cell and headed for the saloon as a streak of chain lightning sculpted the cloud in blue-white light, followed by a clap of thunder that shook the rafters. 

"Buck, wearing a hole in the floor just makes more work for the weary," Sanchez told him.

"You think this is some kind of joke, Preacher?" Wilmington snarled, striking the table with his fist. 

"No . . . no joke, Buck," Sanchez said, and stared into the dark blue eyes that were filled with anger. "There’s nothing funny about anything that’s happened . . . "

"You’re damned right there’s not!" the worried rogue agreed and sank tiredly on the chair. "Jesus, what a fucking mess!"

"That, Mr. Wilmington, is an understatement," Standish said, watching as the rain beat against the windows. The fires were out, but he knew without looking that there was a river running down the middle of the town’s main street. Inez had made burritos, but they remained untouched in the center of the table because neither man had an appetite to do the spicy food justice.

"I don’t care how long this damn storm last . . . I’m riding out come morning," Wilmington told them.

"We’ll ride out together, Brother," Sanchez vowed, staring at the rain that pelted against the window.

"Senor, are you going to look for the others?" Inez Recillos asked, she’d heard stories around town and knew Nathan Jackson and Vin Tanner had been taken by the banditos and were somewhere south of the Rio Grande.

"First light," Wilmington assured her.

"Please be careful . . . when I was with Don Paulo I heard stories of a cruel Hacienda. If it is the same man who took Senor Jackson and Senor Tanner then it could be very dangerous. He is said to be a madman since his son died," Recillos warned.

"We know how to deal with madmen, Inez . . . with the Lord’s help we’ll bring them home," Sanchez assured her.

"I will pray that this is true, Senor," Recillos said and made the sign of the cross before moving back to the bar. She watched the trio and knew they were worried about their missing friends and prayed she had heard wrong about Don Garcia De Rivera. The man was cruel, some even described him as a monster and if the stories were true he tortured people for little or no reason at all. ‘Keep them safe, Dios, and bring them home,’ she thought as the men bid her goodnight and left the saloon. 

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De Rivera Hacienda

Dawn

JD had finally given up on moving the heavy metal grate that covered the hole. He’d tried several times without success and all he had to show for it were blisters on his palms and shredded fingernails from trying to pull the wooden planks that lined his prison. It was cold during the night, especially once they’d taken his clothing and dropped him into the hole. It wasn’t very big, maybe four feet high, three feet wide and five feet in length, leaving him unable to find a comfortable position.

JD sank down on the ground and stared up at what little he could see of the sky. The stars were losing some of their luminosity as dawn began to spread across the land. The young Bostonian had often spent hours just watching the stars while his mother worked in the hotel. He’d loved trying to find shapes in the twinkling lights and saw the wondrous beauty of what his mother called ‘God’s Hands at work’.

The land around him was unfamiliar and he listened to the different calls of the birds and other wild animals as his eyes closed. He leaned back, crying out when it felt as if the wood dug sharply and deeply into his skin. JD felt as if his body was wearing down and sighed heavily as he curled onto his side and tried to get comfortable. Sleep was something he craved, but it was hard to get comfortable with no clothing to cover his shaking body.

Something tickled JD’s back and he reached behind, striking something unfamiliar and knocking it away from him. He shuddered as he looked at the long, skinny creature that crawled away on more legs than he cared to count. "Dammit!" he cursed as something crawled on his legs. He’d never been afraid of bugs, but under the circumstances he realized no one would blame him for how he felt.

Dunne drew his legs up and wrapped his arms around his knees, praying that Buck, Ezra, and Josiah would find them before it was too late. A part of him wished they’d stay away, because something told him De Rivera would not take kindly to anyone interfering in his business. JD leaned his head down on his knees and closed his eyes as he rocked back and forth in an effort to ward off the chill seeping through his bones.

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Small Village

South of De Rivera Hacienda 

Raphael Cordova de Martinez looked at the small band of six men he rode with and thought about the two men he’d met and befriended in Four Corners. The cocky, young Bostonian had made quite the impression on him during the short time he’d known him and Raphael wondered whether Dunne had ever bought a new hat. Raphael smiled at the thought that he and Chris Larabee had put bullet holes in the younger man’s hat to show how fast they were.

"What are you thinking about, Raphael?"  Hector Ramirez asked. He knew about the price on his friend’s head, one place there by Don Paulo’s angry father upon hearing of his son’s death.

"Just thinking about some compadres," De Martinez explained.

"What compadres?"

"The Magnificos!"

"Ah . . . the gringos?"

"Si, the Chiquita had quite the bark for such a young pupa, but he is someone I would ride with," Raphael said with a smile.

"This gunslinger . . . Chris Larabee was he as fast as his reputación makes him out to be?"

"Faster . . . we did not have a chance to see who was fastest, but I think he could have taken me."

"I have seen you outdraw many men, Raphael . . . I doubt there is anyone faster," Ramirez said.

"Perhaps, but I do not intend to find out . . . I told him perhaps someday I would find six compadres of my own and someday we will meet again."

"We should head north before someone sends word to Madera that you have returned."

"You worry too much, Hector, but perhaps you are right. We will ride north and cross the Rio Grande before Madera knows I have returned," Raphael told him and finished the last of the tequila before standing and moving to his horse. He had chosen his friends well as six men followed quickly, watching his back and protecting him as he would have gladly done for them.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

Chris shifted his weight, but there was no relief from the strain on his shoulders. There were tacky trails of blood down both arms, evidence of how hard he’d tried to pull his arms from the manacles. The flesh around both wrists was torn, almost shredded because of the weight on his limbs.

Larabee could hear the guards talking outside the door, but neither one had come close to him when they’d checked to make sure he hadn’t escaped. Chris wondered about JD, was the kid all right or had De Rivera punished the young Bostonian for even knowing him. His thoughts turned to Nathan and Vin and he wondered where they were being held. If Maria was right, then they were both prisoners somewhere on the Hacienda. What kind of shape were the two men in . . . would they be able to escape and go for help?

Chris lifted his head at the change in the voices outside and took a deep breath when the door opened and bright sunlight spilled into the cell. He blinked several times until De Rivera came into focus and stood before him.

"I do hope you slept well, Bastardo," De Rivera said and spit in his captive’s face. "You will pay for what you did to my son . . . "

"Your son deserved what he got . . . "

"My son was with a puta . . . "

"No," he corrected, his eyes flashing. "She was a woman."

"She was well paid like any puta...I am sure it was not the first time someone got a little rough with her!"

"Broken bones!" Larabee snarled, his head snapping back when De Rivera’s anger made him lash out at him. "She damn near died."

"So what! There would have been another to take her place!" De Rivera said and turned to Hernando Lopez. "Put him in irons and bring him!"

"Si, Don Garcia," Lopez said and signaled for his men to enter.

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Four Corners

Early Morning

Buck stood his ground as the townspeople gathered around them. He spotted Conklin near the back of the group and wished the man had not found his way out of bed at such an early hour. Unfortunately they were not so lucky, because the sonofabitch was there and looked like he was ready to start trouble. Yosemite and Virgil Watson lead the group of men and he nodded when the liveryman handed him an extra canteen. "Thanks," Wilmington told him.

"You’re welcome . . . be careful," Yosemite said as Sanchez and Standish mounted their horses and prepared to ride out.

"You too, Yosemite . . . I don’t think the banditos will come this far north, but make sure you travel in pairs when you patrol the outlying farms," Wilmington warned.

"You gunmen are paid to watch this town!" Conklin called from the back.

"Be quiet, Mr. Conklin!" Watson snapped. Since the day he’d seen Tanner and Larabee walk shoulder to shoulder down the main street, he knew Four Corners was fortunate to have them as their peacekeepers. Conklin and men like him were cowards like the former sheriff and deputy who’d ridden out the day Nathan Jackson had nearly been hung by several drunken cowhands.

"Now see here . . . "

"I believe Mr. Watson asked you to remain silent. Now in case you are uneducated and do not understand the meaning of such a simple command I will rephrase it in terms a Neanderthal such as yourself might understand . . . Shut up!" Standish said and smiled as Sanchez clapped him on the back.

"Damn fine sermon, Ezra," the preacher said as the trio rode slowly out of the town.

Buck spotted Mary Travis and knew the woman was concerned about all of them, but she had a soft spot for Chris Larabee and he hoped someday her and Chris might find the happiness they both deserved.

"Bring them home, Buck," Mary said.

"We will, Mary," Wilmington said and tipped his hat as they continued on their journey south. He knew without turning that most of the townspeople were still watching them and it felt as if he finally had a home to come back to.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning 

Vin squinted up at the bright orb as it shone down on the fields, soaking up the dew and causing sweat to bead on his fevered brow. He hadn’t slept much, the fever-induced headaches coupled with the pain in his back and jaw were part of the cause. The dreams were what kept him from resting comfortably, or as comfortable as possible considering he was locked in a cage at night.

Tanner felt a hand on his arm and turned to find Pedro pointing toward one of the overseer’s men. Vin appreciated the elderly man’s keen eyes, which always seemed to know when they were being watched. Vin had no idea how long he’d been here, but it felt like an eternity since he and Nathan were abducted from Purgatorio. He turned his attention back to the task at hand, tugging at the stubborn weeds and gasping when pain shot through his lower back.

"It is not time for a siesta, Gringo Dog," Ignacio Figuera spat, smiling as he lifted the stick to strike again. "Do you think you are special . . . that you can resto while everyone else works?"

"Por favor . . . enfermo," Pedro tried, but the cruel man just smiled as he used the stick to lift the American’s head and stared into the glazed blue eyes.

"Enfermo or not he has work to do . . . he does not get special treatment just because he is a gringo dog," Figuera snapped, but realized too late his mistake as the man he believed to be beaten launched himself at him, the momentum carrying them both backward. He struck out twice with the stick, but Tanner wasn’t as weak and sick as he thought.

"Fuckin’ bastard!" the Texan snarled and struck the man several times before something slammed into the back of his head and everything blurred as he was dragged off Figuera.

"I warned you about him did I not, Ignacio?"

"Si, Fernando, I am sorry . . . I will not make the same mistake again!" Figuera spat.

"Get some water and wake him up . . . there is much to do," Gores told him, smiling when the other man grabbed a nearby bucket that held drinking water and threw it over the unconscious man’s face.

The reaction was instantaneous as Tanner sputtered and wiped the water from his eyes as he shook his head and tried to stand. His head felt like it was going to explode as pain slammed through his skull and his eyes watered. He glared up at the two men and fought the urge to tackle them both as Pedro reached out and helped him to his feet. He clenched his eyes tightly and swayed on his feet, but Pedro was stronger than he looked and easily kept him from falling flat on his face.

"You will be punished for attacking Ignacio, but for now you will get back to work," Gores ordered and pointed to a large area that was overgrown with tough weeds. "You and Pedro will clear that area before you are fed . . . "

"Pedro didn’t do nothin’!" the Texan spat.

"Silencio, Gringo Dog!" Gores’ snarled, his mouth curled up in a sinister smile as he drew back the stick and drove it into Tanner’s gut. He stood over him as the prisoner dropped to his knees and fought for air.

Pedro didn’t quite understand what was being said, but he did know Gores was angry at them. He turned his friend toward the new job and smiled, showing yellowed teeth and wisdom beyond his years. Vin fought the nausea churning through his gut and managed to stand on shaky legs, his vision blurring as he took the first weed and tugged it as if it was Gores’ neck instead of a piece of nature, albeit an unwanted one.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

Chris tried to pull away from the two men who were escorting him along a path toward an overgrown area outside the Hacienda grounds. Heavy manacles encircled his ankles, a thick chain linking them together and forcing him to take short, shuffling steps. His wrists were also set in metal cuffs, a second chain linking those to the ones around his ankles. He flicked at an insect that landed on his bare chest and nearly fell when Hector Lopez shoved him from behind.

"Come on, Gringo Dog . . . Don Garcia is waiting for you!" Lopez snarled, cackling loudly when Larabee nearly fell.

Chris turned slightly and glared at the Mexican, and saw a hint of uncertainty in the other man’s eyes. He held the gaze until Lopez lowered his eyes and struck him across the shoulders. Chris held his breath and managed to stay on his feet as they ventured onto a well beaten path.

Chris’ thoughts turned to JD and he wondered if the kid was okay. He hadn’t seen him since they’d taken him to the ‘hole’ the night before and the lean gunslinger shuddered as he thought of his own experience in the ‘hole’ at Jericho. It had rained heavily during his time there, and it had taken weeks for him to finally feel warm again.

"Move faster, Gringo . . . I am getting thirsty and there’s a pretty puta waiting in my bed," Lopez said and grabbed at his crotch lewdly.

Chris turned away and followed Jose Mendoza deeper into the wooded area until they reached a small clearing. His gaze swept across the area and he spotted four gunmen standing at ten-foot intervals as Don Garcia De Rivera lifted his cane and slapped it against his left hand.

"It is time to put you to work, Pistolero," De Rivera said and pointed to a shovel that was sunk into the ground at the center of the clearing. "You will dig . . . "

"Fuck you!" Larabee snarled softly, yet his voice was strong and held such defiance that Lopez took a step back before realizing he was showing weakness in front of his employer.

Hernando moved forward and shoved Larabee toward the shovel, satisfied when the blond stumbled and went to his knees. He moved to stand in front of Larabee and again grabbed his own crotch suggestively. "You will do as Don Garcia says or I will give your friend to my men . . . it has been a long time since they have had such a gringo puta!"

Chris had seen men like Hernando Lopez many times and he knew the man would not hesitate to carry out his threat. Forcing his legs to carry his weight, Chris stood and reached for the shovel. He pulled it from the ground and without a word began digging into the soft earth. He could hear De Rivera’s men talking and laughing, but each time he lifted his head from the task, his eyes locked with those of De Rivera, and he saw only the promise of death . . . his death.

It didn’t take long for Chris to realize he was digging a grave, and that if Ezra was here the gambler would lay odds that the grave was his own. Don Garcia continued to watch, but now his cane slapped against his leg every time Chris drove the shovel into the ground. The sun had risen above the trees and bathed the area in its hot rays while soaking the sweat from his body. Chris wiped at his forehead and realized the dirt was caked on his hands as he continued to dig the hole. It was approximately six feet in length, three feet wide, and Chris guessed it had to be close to two feet deep, yet De Rivera did not call a halt as the day wore on.

Don Garcia De Rivera watched as his son’s murderer continued to dig the grave. The plan had been to kill him, but that had changed when he’d lain awake in his bed and thought about the best way to seek revenge. The young American boy who rode with Chris Larabee had seemed to look up to the gunslinger and if he’d read them right, the gunslinger would reek of guilt should JD Dunne die in his place. The grave was still shallow, but the Haciendada grew impatient as the morning slipped toward afternoon. Larabee’s back was red and it would cause him great discomfort when they threw him in the same hole where his friend had been held. Yes, revenge could be a cold bedfellow, but it also held a warmth that spread through the elderly man’s mind and body. "Hernando, bring the boy," De Rivera ordered softly, making sure Larabee did not hear him.

"Si, Patron," Lopez said and hurried away. He’d seen the smile on Don Garcia’s face and knew it did not bode well for the two gringos. 

Chris continued to dig the hole and sighed tiredly as he rolled his shoulders and felt the pull of burned skin. Sweat and dirt ran into his eyes and his tongue felt too thick for his mouth as the heat sapped the moisture from his body.

"I did not tell you to stop, Pistolero," De Rivera said and brought his cane down across the reddened back, grinning maliciously when Larabee dropped to his knees.

Chris turned and made a grab for the cane, but the sound of guns being cocked reminded him that he was unarmed and out-manned.

"They will cut you down," De Rivera snapped, but moved back cautiously. There was no doubt in his mind that Chris Larabee would snap his neck if given the opportunity, but he was not about to give him such a chance. Revenge for his son’s murder was first and foremost on his mind.

Chris didn’t bother answering as he turned and continued to dig what he knew was to be his grave. Death had been something he courted during the year after Sarah and Adam’s deaths, but life had changed for him that fateful day when a raggedy assed Texan stood beside him, shoulder to shoulder, in an effort to save Nathan Jackson’s life.

"I believe that is deep enough, Pistolero," De Rivera said, motioning for Larabee to climb out of the hole.

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JD allowed Lopez to help him from the hole and tried to rub the feeling back into his legs and arms. Pain shot through him as circulation returned to his extremities, but he refused to show his enemy weakness of any sort. He forced his mind to ignore the shock and finally straightened to his full height. He glared at the two men standing on either side of him, but there was no way he could fight them both right now. He hadn’t seen or heard anything about Chris Larabee since being thrown in the hole the night before. He brushed at the dried dirt and debris covering his body, wincing as he realized he was covered in insect bites.

"Okay, Puta, it’s time to join your friend," Lopez said and prodded the younger man with his gun.

"Where’s Chris?"

"You will see soon enough," the Mexican answered, laughing when the young man stumbled and went to his knees.

Dunne ignored the man as he managed to get his feet under him and stand up. He hated the chains that had been bound to the manacles around his ankles, forcing him to take short steps and causing him to overbalance. He glanced up at the sun, blinking his eyes as the bright light stabbed at his skull. He had no idea how long he stumbled along the path, but he heard voices just before entering a clearing and spotting Chris Larabee standing near a shallow grave. "Chris!" Dunne called and fought as his escorts latched onto his arm and held him in place.

"Are you all right, JD?" Larabee asked of the dirt-encrusted youth.

"Think so," Dunne answered.

"Enough!" De Rivera snapped. He stared at Larabee, whose eyes were the darkest green he’d ever seen and knew his decision was the right one. He stood toe to toe with JD Dunne and ran his fingers along the strong jaw line before speaking. "Do you feel like dying today, Boy?"

"Let him go!" Larabee snarled.

"I do not think so, Pistolero," De Rivera spat, his eyes dark with insane rage as he pointed to the blond. "Bring him here!"

Chris was dragged toward the Haciendada and forced to his knees, facing the grave he’d just dug. He fought the two men holding him, but their hands dug into his shoulders, causing pain to flare in the sunburned skin.

"What of the boy?" Lopez asked.

"Bring him here!" Don Garcia ordered and stood beside the grave. He made sure they positioned the young man at the foot of the grave and turned to see the horror dawn on Chris Larabee’s face.

Chris now understood why JD had been brought here and he swallowed convulsively as De Rivera stared at him. It felt as if ice water hit his stomach, causing his innards to cramp. His gut felt as if it had given birth to a snake and the blood pooled in his extremities. His mind felt numb and his senses reeled as JD turned misty eyes in his direction and Larabee knew what real fear was.

"You murdered my son and it is only fitting that I take something you care about," the elderly man said and nodded to Lopez who drew his weapon and aimed it at the young man whose face seemed impervious to what was about to happen.

"Chris . . . it ain’t your fault," Dunne said, staring at the man who’d become more than just a mentor. He could see the raw emotion on Larabee’s face and wished there was some way he could rid him of the guilt that would gnaw at the blond’s ravaged soul over his death. JD thought about the others and of what his murder would do to Buck Wilmington in particular. Death was something he didn’t fear, but he had never courted it either.

Standing tall, JD squared his shoulders and turned toward Don Garcia De Rivera. He drew in a deep breath and spoke in a voice devoid of fear. "See you in hell!"

"Now, Hernando," De Rivera ordered, his gaze shifting from the boy to the man being held in place. He could see something in Larabee’s face, something he wanted to kill. A look that spoke of pride . . . somehow he hadn’t expected this from the cold-hearted bastard who’d killed his son.

"NO!" Larabee screamed, as everything seemed to happen in slow motion. The sound of the shot echoed and re-echoed through his skull as he watched the younger man’s head snap back with the force of the bullet tearing through his skull. Dunne’s body toppled backward and landed in the grave Chris had dug, taking with it the promise of a life yet unfulfilled.

"Should we cover him?" Lopez asked of the unmoving body.

"No . . . let his friend do it," De Rivera ordered of the trembling gunman whose eyes had yet to leave the grotesque image he’d witnessed. "The boy looked up to him, and now he sees how badly he failed to protect him." He grabbed the shovel and moved to where the blond was held in place by two of Lopez’s banditos. "If you wish to give him a proper burial you will do so now or he will be left for the sun and wild animals."

Chris heard the hated man’s voice as if through a thick layer of fog, but he reached for the shovel, holding it in a white knuckled grip as a cold knife of hatred lanced through what had once been his reawakened heart. Chris locked eyes with De Rivera, sending a silent promise that Dunne’s death would not be in vain. Some how, some way he would get free long enough to tear out the bastard’s dead heart. He took a deep breath and slowly started to dig up the loose dirt, closing his eyes as he felt the moisture slip past dirt encrusted lids.

JD Dunne was dead, there was nothing he could do about him now, but at least he could protect him from the ravages of the hot sun and the animals that roamed the area. He didn’t say a word as he lifted the first shovel full of dirt and threw it into the grave. With each stroke of the spade, Chris cursed Don Garcia De Rivera a thousand deaths in a thousand torturous ways. Tears slipped unnoticed from his eyes, making a clear trail down his cheeks as images of JD’s short life flashed across his mind. ‘I’ll make him pay, Kid, I’ll tear out his heart and feed it to the dogs,’ he vowed as he hardened his heart and forced himself to think about living long enough to seek revenge against the man who’d stolen something so precious as a young man’s life.

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South of the De Rivera Hacienda

Late Morning

The sun was high overhead and the heat of the day soaked their skin with sweat and caused their clothing to stick to their bodies. Raphael led his men away from the De Rivera Hacienda and would pick up the trail once they were a safe distance away. He’d never really had an opportunity to meet the elderly man and had only seen him on several occasions when the house of Madera hosted guests to watch the brutal fights between the Don’s chosen slaves.

Raphael had seen many men brutally beaten and put to death because they hadn’t been strong enough to beat their opponent. It didn’t matter that their foe was twice the size and often had the upper hand with a weapon of some kind. Cordova had once been placed in the circle of stones east of De Rivera’s Hacienda and had been forced to kill a man or be killed. It was part of the life when one was an indentured servant.

"What are you thinking about, My Friend?" Hector Ramirez asked. He knew very little of Cordova’s life before meeting him shortly after Don Paulo’s father had put the price on his head, but did not pry out of respect for their friendship.

"How long have we ridden together, Hector?"

"Close to a year," Ramirez answered.

"Have you ever seen a man forced to fight for his life with his hands because men like Madera and De Rivera thought it was good sport?"

"No, but I have heard of such things," Ramirez answered.

"Me too . . . I fought once . . . it was a choice of my life or his. I never even knew his name or how he came to be in the Arena de Muerte," Cordova explained.

"I was told it is brutal."

"It is . . . I fought once, but I have seen many such fights and helped bury the bodies . . . unmarked graves as the only sign they had ever been alive," Raphael said sadly.

"At least they were buried and not left to rot in the sun or for some buitre to feed upon," Ramirez said as the trail narrowed and they could hear voices from the nearby hacienda. He had ridden with Raphael long enough to know the man was fast with his gun, but he hadn’t known he was also good with his fists. The fights in the arena were something most people who lived in this area knew about, but it was only the wealthy who were allowed to attend. They rode in silence as they circumvented the Hacienda, but he had seen the change in Cordova and knew the man was thinking hard about his past and possible future.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

Chris lifted the shovel a final time and tossed the last of the dirt over the grave. He had no idea how much time had passed since the deadly shot had taken the life from JD’s eyes, but his mind had replayed the scene a hundred times leaving him exhausted in both mind and body. He knew Lopez and De Rivera were watching him, so he kept a tight rein on his emotions as the kid’s death seemed to take whatever life he had left.

"Hernando, see that he is put to work in the fields," De Rivera ordered.

"Si, Patron, should I let Gores . . . "

"No, you are responsible for this one . . . if he escapes you will forfeit your life."

"I thought you wanted him dead?"

"I do, but he has not suffered enough for murdering Alonzo," the Haciendada said and walked closer to Larabee.

Chris ignored the men around him and lifted his head as the angry words spilled from his arid throat. "He was a kid...you never gave him a chance to have a life..."

De Rivera’s anger grew as he watched his son’s killer and he knew he had to take back control.

Chris heard movement behind him and turned, eyes dark and dangerous as he stared at the man who’d taken Dunne’s life. "I’ll be the one to take you down, old man," he vowed softly and turned back to the grave.

De Rivera heard the softly spoken words and felt a chill run down his spine. He lifted his cane and brought it down across Larabee’s lower back, smiling when a sharp cry spilled from the man’s lips as he dropped heavily to the ground. The elderly man walked around and stared into Larabee’s face, taking pleasure in the pain he saw there. He unconsciously stepped back when the sea green eyes opened to mere slits and sent the promise of retribution through the intense glare. "Hernando . . . you have your orders!"

"Si, Patron, come on Gringo Dog," Hernando ordered and motioned for Mendoza to help him pull the captive to his feet. The sun had burned the man’s skin, but neither man cared as they dragged him toward the hacienda in the distance.

De Rivera took the lead and smiled inwardly at the thought of finally reaping the bitter harvest that had grown around his heart since the discovery of his son’s body. ‘The Pistolero will pay with his life, Alonzo, but first I will see that he pays for his crime,’ the old patron vowed.

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Wilson Homestead

South of Four Corners

Early Afternoon

Tom Wilson looked up at the sound of approaching horses, only slightly surprised when he recognized three of the peacekeepers from Four Corners. He lifted the axe and buried it deep in the chunk of wood he’d been splitting and moved toward the riders as they entered his fenced yard. "Howdy, Boys, tell me you got good news about them Bandits?"

"Hello, Tom, the bandits seemed to have stopped for now, but you need to keep an eye out for trouble," Sanchez said and dismounted as Martha Wilson exited the farmhouse.

"We’re headed south toward Purgatorio, but wanted to check on you and several other homesteads," Wilmington told them.

"You boys got time to join us for a bite to eat?" Martha asked.

"No . . . wish we did, Martha, but we need to find Chris and JD," Sanchez answered. "We wouldn’t mind filling the canteens before we leave."

"You go right ahead and I’ll fix you up some sandwiches to take along with you . . . "

"Thank you, Mrs. Wilson," Standish said of the couple’s generosity.

"Nonsense . . . it’s the least we can do after everything you boys have done for us," the woman said and hurried inside.

"So, you boys gonna tell me why ya look like you’ve lost your wife to your best friend?" Tom asked as the peacekeepers moved to fill up their canteens.

"Vin and Nathan were taken from Purgatorio . . . Chris and JD went after ‘em," Wilmington explained.

"So you’re going after them?" Wilson asked.

"Yeah, they’re probably south of the Rio Grande by now," Sanchez answered. "We’re headed to Purgatorio and then south toward the Rio Grande."

"The river is probably swollen over her banks with all those storms we’ve had lately," the homesteader observed.

"We’ll find a way to cross it," Wilmington vowed. Since leaving Four Corners he’d had the feeling that they needed to find Larabee, Dunne, Jackson, and Tanner before something happened. His worry intensified as imaginary flashes burst against closed lids. He knew Larabee, Tanner, and Jackson could look after themselves, but Dunne was still a bit of a greenhorn in spite of the lessons he’d learned the hard way.

"Buck, you boys need anything . . . just let me know," the homesteader told them.

"Thanks, Tom . . . you’ve done plenty for all of us," the worried rogue told him.

"Ain’t never gonna be able to repay what you boys did for us. We’re forever in your debt . . . "

"Now you boys make sure you eat them sandwiches and I’ve thrown in some warm biscuits too," Martha said as she exited the house and handed the wrapped bundle to Josiah.

"Thank you, Martha," Sanchez said. He tied the bundle to the back of his saddle and mounted up. The others did the same and he nodded to the couple before turning the animal around and heading away from the homestead.

"God go with you," Martha called as her husband wrapped his arms around her. "Something tells me they’re going to have their hands full once they cross the Rio Grande."

"They’ll be fine, Martha, God takes care of his children, especially those who help others," Tom said, kissing his wife as they watched the three peacekeepers disappear over the next rise. "So, did you happen to make any extra sandwiches?"

"Don’t tell me you’re hungry already?"

"I’m a mite hungry, but since the boys are at the Tucker place I was thinking we could work on a baby sister for them," Tom teased as he placed a hand on her breast.

"Hmm, I might just take you up on that offer," Martha said and took her husband’s hand before leading him into the house. With a last look toward the horizon she felt him squeeze her fingers and gave herself over to his loving touch.

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Just North of the De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon 

Darkness surrounded him, bringing with it an earthy smell and the sense of urgency as he tried to move, to breathe, but there was no air. He fought to pull his arms free as dirt entered his mouth and he struggled against the rising tide of panic that encircled his mouth. He held his breath, the pain in his skull intensifying as blind panic, born of anger lent strength that he didn’t know he possessed. He cried out as his arms broke through his earthy tomb and he pulled at the dirt that covered his face.

JD could not remember being this terrified in his life, but desperation gave him the added incentive to push the dirt from his face and lift his head enough to draw air into his tortured lungs. He gasped and clawed at his throat, choking the dirt out and as he turned his head slightly and spit the noxious taste from his mouth.

The world around him faded in and out of focus as he tried desperately to escape his tomb, but the pain and horror combined to take his breath away. Darkness reached out for him, but he fought against its pull in a frantic attempt to stay sane in a world that seemed anything but normal. With as much power as he could muster, JD kicked his legs free, but the emotional shock of being shot won out and he lost consciousness as vomit spewed from his mouth onto his would be grave.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Afternoon

Evita Martinez watched as Don Garcia returned from whatever evil he’d performed in the clearing north of the hacienda.  She’d heard stories of what went on there, but had never witnessed the atrocities that occurred there. She spotted Lopez and Mendoza dragging the man she now knew as Chris Larabee and made a sign of the cross on her chest.

"Chris," the word was whispered, yet it was filled with horror as Jackson joined her on the veranda.

"You cannot help him, Nathan . . . please do not interfere," Evita pled as she reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder.

"I can’t stand here and do nothin’," Jackson commented.

"Yes, you can and you will because to do anything else would be certain death for him . . . for you . . . for Vin Tanner . . . and for Dona Maria and her unborn child. God sent you here for a reason and He will help protect all of you if it is His will," the woman said, wishing she could ease the torment in the man’s soulful brown eyes. She heard a soft voice from inside and hurried inside to check on her charge.

Nathan stood near the edge of the veranda, leaning heavily on the wooden fence that surrounded the enclosure. His eyes remained fixed on the man hanging between Don Garcia’s two henchmen and he fought the urge to call to him. He knew Evita Martinez was right and it would mean death to Larabee if De Rivera knew of their friendship. Closing his eyes he silently prayed for the guidance and strength he needed to get through the insanity that now surrounded him.

"Lord, give me the strength to do what I have to do and the ability to live with the choices I’ve made," Jackson said softly before turning away and moving inside.

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North of the De Rivera Hacienda

Late Afternoon

Raphael knew they’d passed northwest of the De Rivera Hacienda and hoped the trail ahead was clear. They’d heard a single shot that reverberated through the low lying hills, but nothing since and hoped it had been a hunter foraging for food. He knew De Rivera’s men would recognize him on sight and did not want to chance running into them this far south of the Rio Grande.

"Raphael, there is something moving over there," Hector Ramirez said, pointing to a mound of freshly turned earth.

"It is probably an animal," Raphael told him, but his eyes swept the clearing before coming to rest on the dirt-covered ground. There was something about it, something that called to him and he dismounted, looping the reins on a low lying branch before walking toward what looked like a grave.

"Raphael . . . " Ramirez called, but received no answer from his friend who knelt down and began digging in the dirt.

"Hector, get over here!" De Martinez called as he wiped the dirt from the familiar face. "Madre De Dios . . . "

"What is it, Raphael?"

"Not what . . . who . . . ah Chiquita, what are you doing this far south?" Raphael asked, not really expecting an answer from the young peacekeeper whose face was washed out pale except for a deep groove along the left side of his forehead. The area surrounding the grotesque wound was a colorful array of purple and black that spoke of the dangerousness of the injury.

"Do you know him, Raphael?" Ramirez asked as the rest of the men joined them.

"Si, he is JD Dunne," Raphael said and watched the chest for several long seconds until he was sure his mind was not playing tricks on him. "He is alive . . . help me get him out of this!"

The men dug with their hands, removing the dirt in reverence to the miracle they witnessed. They had come upon half buried bodies before, but usually it was too late for the victim . . . but this time God’s infinite mercy had given them the chance to save a young man’s life.

"That wound needs to be cleaned," Javier D’Rosa offered.

"Not here . . . it is too dangerous for all of us," Ramirez told him and saw the truth of his words in Raphael’s eyes.

"We need to get him out of the sun," Raphael told them once they’d freed Dunne. He lifted the young man into his arms, feeling the weight as he stood up, but refusing to allow anyone to help him as he walked toward his horse.

"Raphael, let me take him . . . "

"I got him, Hector," Raphael said and then realized he could not climb into the saddle while holding the injured sheriff. He nodded to Ramirez before allowing him to take Dunne and climbed onto his horse. He reached down for the Bostonian and soon had him settled in front of him with his arms wrapped around the dead weight.

"Raphael, we better ride as far as we can because if De Rivera had him shot then he is gonna be pissed if he comes back and finds the grave empty," D’Rosa explained.

"Any idea where we can take him?" Raphael asked.

"I have a cousin . . . "

"Another one?" Mario Cortez teased of D’Rosa’s seemingly unending supply of cousins and other family members.

"Si, this one . . . she is old, but still beautiful and is always willing to put me up for the night," D’Rosa said.

"How far, Javier?" Raphael asked.

"Maybe half a day’s ride north. It is close to the Rio Grande," D’Rosa answered.

"I don’t know if this Chiquita can last that long," Cordova told them.

"What choice do we have, Amigo?" Ramirez asked.

"None . . . are you sure she will let us stay?" Raphael asked.

"Si, she will not mind the company," D’Rosa answered. It didn’t take long for the others to mount up and the group of brothers rode north, away from the De Rivera hacienda.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Evening

Vin wiped the sweat and dirt from his face and shivered as the soft breeze blew across his aching body. The sun was on its final legs, yet the day’s torrid heat made his ravaged clothing stick to his body like a second skin. There’d been no break, except a few minutes, hours ago, long enough to drink a little water and then back to the arduous task of pulling the weeds from around the flourishing plants.

The Texan blinked sweat from his eyes and stared up at the sky, rubbing at his lower back as a bird flew high overhead. The loud screeching sound brought a smile to his pale face . . . wishing he had the freedom to do as he pleased. He glanced toward the hacienda, but dropped his gaze as he thought about the overseer’s threat that his friend would pay if he didn’t do his work.

Vin hadn’t seen Nathan since that first day, but he knew he was there . . . on the veranda, watching over him. He knew Nathan was as much a prisoner as he was, and did not begrudge the former slave his place in De Rivera’s home. Jackson was a healer, a damn good one with natural instincts, and Vin was glad he hadn’t been forced to use his hands in the fields.

Taking a deep breath, Vin struggled to remain on his feet, but his legs refused to cooperate and his knees buckled. He hit the ground with a bone jarring impact even as Pedro reached for him. Vin lifted his head, shielding his eyes with his right hand as the last vestiges of the sun threatened to blind him. Strong, gnarled fingers helped him stand and Tanner found the strength to smile at the elderly mestizo who’d become his protector, his salvation in a world that had gone to hell.

"Enfermo," Pedro said, shaking his head at the sickly man who tried to stand on his own two feet. He glanced over his shoulder, relieved that Gores seemed to be busy with a bottle and unaware they’d stopped working. It was growing late and Pedro looked forward to eating and climbing into his bed, but he knew this was not the case for the young Gringo at his side. The sickness and pain in his body was getting worse, but Pedro could do nothing to help him.

"Thanks, Pedro," Vin whispered and was relieved when he heard the clanging of the bell that announced the day’s labor was over. He had no idea how he would make it back to the cage. He saw Pedro's lips moving and although he couldn't understand what the old man was saying, the intent was fairly clear. He rolled to his knees and held onto the offered arm. He stumbled upright, his legs wobbly; he was leaning heavily on his benefactor. They set their own pace, nodding in greeting as the others passed them, and were soon standing in front of the overseer who wore a smug look on his face.

"You are still not doing enough work, Gringo Dog," Gores spat as he motioned for two of his men to grab the Texan. "Perhaps a night without food would teach you that you should do your share instead of relying on others."

"He grows weak, Fernando . . . Don Rivera will not be happy if he dies," Juan observed, cringing when Gores turned to stare at him. Normally Gores had full control of the fields and the workers, but all would feel Don Garcia’s wrath if the gringo died before Dona Maria gave birth to their child.

"Perhaps you are right, Juan," the overseer finally acquiesced and motioned for one of the women to bring a bowl of beans to the cage as Juan and Jorge pushed the sick man inside. "Bring him some bread and water and see that he is comfortable," Gores said sarcastically.

Vin looked into the dark brown eyes of the young woman who brought him the food and water and nodded gratefully as he sat back against the side of the cage. "Gracias," he said and saw just a hint of a smile before she turned away and walked back to the building. He ignored the three men who watched him, eating the food as if it was the last meal he would have, and savoring the water by taking small sips at a time. All too soon the food and water was gone and he pushed the dishes through the bars of the cage, cursing when Gores brought a stick down across his knuckles.

"Sleep well, Gringo Dog, tomorrow promises to be just as backbreaking as today," the overseer said, laughing when the captive pulled his left hand back, but something about the lean prisoner sent a chill down his spine and he was suddenly glad the man was locked in his cage.

Vin watched them leave and finally looked at his throbbing fingers. Blood appeared at the knuckles and he wiped it against his clothing, hoping the bastard hadn’t broken his fingers. The sun had dipped below the horizon as he heard a commotion in the fields and he strained to see the men in the dwindling daylight they had left. He could see some poor bastard being dragged across the field and frowned as his gut clenched tightly. There was something familiar about the newcomer, but his vision blurred and he could not make out any features.

Vin watched until they disappeared from view and cradled his hand against his chest as his eyes closed. He drifted toward sleep, but was awakened a short time later when something wet struck his forehead. It took him several minutes to realize it was raining and instincts kicked in. He looked at the dishes he’d pushed through the bars of the cage and reached out with his right hand. It took several tries, but he finally managed to pull the cup back inside and he held it so that he could catch the rainwater. It wasn’t falling heavily, but anything he caught would help, and hopefully the moisture would cool the fever raging within.

The rain continued to fall and Vin raised his hand to push back the hair that had fallen across his face. It felt good and he realized the water was washing away the dirt and grime that was encrusted on his body and clothing. It felt so good just to sit there and allow one of God’s gifts ease his discomfort and he whispered a silent prayer of thanks as he gripped the cup and drained the water that had collected there. He replaced the cup and closed his eyes as exhaustion finally won out and he slipped into a dreamless sleep.

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Purgatorio

Midnight

Buck rode slightly ahead of Ezra and Josiah as they entered the outlaw infested town of Purgatorio. He remembered being a ‘corpse’ here at one point and hoped never to experience that feeling again. He had wanted to cross the Rio Grande tonight, but darkness was already upon them making it dangerous to make the trek south. He rode straight down the center of the street and drew his horse to a stop in front of Maria’s room.

There was no light from inside and Buck hoped that meant that no one had claimed Maria’s home. They had made enemies in Purgatorio and it would not do to let their guard down. He returned his attention to the door and pushed it open, relieved to find it as empty as they’d left it. Once inside he motioned for Josiah and Ezra to join him and quickly lit the lamp on the small table. "We can spend the night here," Wilmington told them.

"What if one of Maria’s clients decides to make a nocturnal visit?" Standish asked.

"Shoot the bastard and ask questions later," the rogue answered. "I’m going to see if I can scare us up some food . . . "

"In this town I would be pleasantly surprised if you found anything to tempt the palette," Standish said, hoping to bring a little levity to the situation. He was as worried as the others, but had been taught at an early age not to show his emotions. The longer he stayed with these men, the harder that became.

"Hell, Ezra, right now beans and biscuits would taste great," Sanchez observed. They originally intended to ride straight to the Rio Grande, but there were several homesteaders they wanted to check on. That had meant making several detours and was the reason they were taking refuge in this hellhole of a town.

"I’ll take the horses to the livery and be back as soon as I can," Wilmington told them and left the two men alone in Maria’s room. He took the three horses and made his way across the rowdy street, ignoring the men and women who watched him as if he wore a suit of gold. He entered the livery and found an elderly man standing there, shoveling out the stalls.

"Can I help ya Mister?"

"The horses need to be fed and given a rubdown," Wilmington said and tossed him a couple of coins. "See that they get plenty."

"Yes, Sir," the liveryman said, smiling and revealing tobacco stained, broken teeth.

"Know anyplace I can grab something to eat?"

"There’s a little cantina at the other end of town . . . near the saloon. It’s open until three or four dependin’ on how busy they get," the older man answered. "Ask Juanita if she has any burritos . . . they are very good."

"I will, thank you," Wilmington said and left the man to tend the horses. He walked down the street, keeping to the shadows and watching for anything suspicious, relieved when he reached the cantina without mishap. He pushed open the door, somewhat surprised to find several tables in use even at this late hour.

"Come in . . . sit down anywhere," a robust woman with dark hair speckled with grey told him.

"Thank you, Ma’am, but I’m kinda tired and was wondering if I could take it with me?" Wilmington said.

"Well there’s only a couple of burritos left and some bread, but you are welcome to it, Senor," Juanita told him.

"Any coffee?’

"I think there might be a cup or two left," she answered, clearing one of the tables before rushing back behind the small counter and pouring a cup of the strong black coffee.

"Thanks," Wilmington said.

"You are welcome, Senor," the woman told him and began preparing the food for him.

Buck sipped the strong coffee and a small smile formed as he thought about how strong Tanner liked his coffee. The Texan could probably stand a spoon in it especially once he added an ample supply of sugar. Wilmington sighed tiredly, wishing the younger man was there because he’d buy him the strongest, sweetest coffee he could imagine. His thoughts turned to Nathan Jackson and he wondered how the healer was doing. Were they De Rivera’s prisoners and if so were they being treated okay? Had Chris and JD caught up with them or were they also prisoners. A tremor shook his body and he was reminded of something he’d once heard in the brothel where his mother worked. It really did feel as if someone had walked over his grave, a feeling so intensely strong that his knees threatened to buckle.

"Senor, are you all right?"

"Yeah . . . think so," Wilmington couldn’t help but smile at the sympathetic woman as he paid for the food and left the cantina. He made his way back to Maria’s room and found Ezra watching from inside the darkened room. He entered and placed the food on the table; suddenly not as hungry as he’d felt when they first arrived. He heard the sound of shots and an angry curse, but in this town that was the norm and he sat down heavily as Sanchez locked the door. ‘We’re coming, Boys . . . just hold on a little longer,’ he thought and ate without tasting the meal. 

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De Rivera Hacienda

Dawn

Chris Larabee woke to the feel of a stick striking his lower back and forced his eyes open as he stood on legs that threatened to give out. His arms ached, a dull throbbing pain as he shifted his feet and took some of the weight from his shoulders. He glared at the elderly man who suddenly appeared in front of him and knew the lower back pain was caused by De Rivera’s use of his cane.

"Do you think you can sleep all day, Pistolero? There is much work to be done and the sun will be rising soon . . . "

"Fuck you!" Larabee spat, his grief manifesting in anger as he thought about the grave he’d not only dug, but also been forced to fill. He closed his eyes and an image of JD’s face appeared and drove the knife deeper into his heart. How could he live with his part in the younger man’s death? How would he face Buck knowing how close he was to JD?

"I am talking to you, Pistolero . . . I expect you to listen!" De Rivera said, striking the captive across his right thigh. "You will eat and drink what they give you and perhaps tonight you will find a way to sleep with the knowledge that the boy is dead because of you."

Chris did not acknowledge what the other man was saying because to do so would mean facing the guilt that already gnawed at his gut. For now he would eat, work, and sleep while planning for the time when he would keep his vow to JD Dunne. He heard De Rivera speaking to Lopez and dropped to the floor when his arms were released from the metal circle above his head.

Larabee managed to get to his knees, but a hand latched onto his hair and pulled back, revealing corded muscles in his neck as someone place a knife against his throat. De Rivera stood before him, a malicious grin on his aged face as he stepped closer to the prisoner.

"I had planned on killing you for murdering Alonzo, but it will be most entertaining to keep you alive, Pistolero. You will have to live with the knowledge that the boy is dead because of you," De Rivera spat, his face mere inches from the gunslinger’s.

"Your son was . . . a co . . . coward," Larabee ground out and felt the knife pulled away from his throat. Whoever was behind him no longer thought of him as a threat and Chris made him pay for it. He drove his head backward, smiling inwardly when he heard the man curse, but his attention was solely on the old Spaniard before him. Without thinking he dove forward, driving his shoulder into the older man’s chest. The force took them both to the ground and Chris took pleasure in striking out with his bound hands. He heard De Rivera’s muffled cursing and saw blood flow from the man’s split lip, but something struck him across the back and a second blow struck his head just before the darkness claimed him.

Hernando Lopez hurried to De Rivera’s side and helped him to his feet. He knew the elderly man was angry and hoped he could deflect that anger away from himself, but the Haciendada seemed to only have eyes for the unconscious blond.

"Bring him outside and prepare him!" De Rivera ordered and knew Lopez would understand and obey his command. It was time he showed the Pistolero his place. It would be a lesson Chris Larabee would not forget. He would send word to the other haciendas and invite them to the Arena de Muerte. 

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

Nathan Jackson smiled as Maria closed her eyes and returned to the oblivion of sleep. The young woman seemed to be stronger, but he wished she would take more food. The baby inside her was sapping her strength, yet she held on for the child and he prayed she and the baby would be okay. She’d eaten nearly half a bowl of the fruity, sweet mush Evita had brought to her and drank some of the herbed tea Nathan had ordered.

Nathan reached out and touched her forehead, pleased to find it cooler than it had been during the night. He knew the woman was weak, and hoped what he was doing would help, but only time would tell. Nathan turned away, walked toward the veranda and stood looking out over the fields. The sun had been up for nearly an hour and promised another day of torrid heat. He spotted two men working side by side and knew instinctively that one was Vin Tanner. From this distance he couldn’t be sure, but instincts told him he was right.

Jackson shifted on his feet when he heard Evita’s voice from below, but he didn’t speak when he heard a second voice and realized it was Luis Martinez. Evita’s son seemed to understand how he felt and something told Nathan that he might even trust the young man if it was only his life at stake. A familiar name, spoken by Luis had him gripping the railing in a white knuckled hold that spoke of his fears and sorrows.

"I wish I had better news, Mama, but the boy is dead. Don Garcia had him brought to the clearing and had him killed . . . "

"Are you sure . . . did you see him?"

"I heard the shot, but it was too late for me to do anything when I arrived. I saw the Pistolero . . . "

"His name is Chris Larabee," Evita offered sadly. "The boy’s name was JD Dunne."

"Don Garcia made the Pistolero dig a grave and bury him."

"Oh, God," Jackson whispered, eyes filled with unshed moisture as he dropped to his knees and felt as if a knife had been driven into his heart. JD was dead . . . Chris had buried him . . . no . . . God no, it couldn’t be. Jackson stayed where he was, fighting against the horror he’d just heard, yet unable to draw air into his lungs as he listened to the voices from below.

"He is a cruel man, Mama . . . I do not want to be like him."

"You are not, Luis . . . there is none of his cruelty inside you . . . I am proud of you."

"Will you tell Nathan Jackson?"

"I do not know . . . he will ask if there is word, but I do not know if he will be strong enough to keep silent, but he must . . . for all our sakes and especially for Vin Tanner. Somehow we will help them get free, but we must protect Dona Maria and her unborn child . . . to do otherwise would mean the boy died for nothing . . . "

Nathan knew the woman was right, but he did not know if he had the strength to keep up the ruse . . . JD Dunne had only just begun to live and now he was buried on foreign soil, away from the home and family he’d found in Four Corners. ‘I’ll find a way to get the others out, JD, and when I do I’ll kill the bastard who did this to you,’ Nathan silently vowed.

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Purgatorio

Early Morning

Buck was impatient to get moving, but he also knew the others were right in replenishing their supplies before heading into unknown territory. There were too many variables once they crossed the Rio Grande, the least of which was the banditos and they would need to have ammunition if they came upon them. He watched as the liveryman saddled the three horses while Ezra and Josiah visited the lone hardware store and bought the items they would need. 

"Buck . . . "

"In here, Ezra," Wilmington answered and turned to see Standish carrying several items that would need to be packed in their saddlebags. "Where’s Josiah?"

"I believe he said he needed to speak with a higher power before we head south," Standish told him. "He found a little church at the end of town."

"Leave it to Josiah to find the only source of salvation in Purgatorio," Wilmington said. Between them they divided the supplies between the three sets of saddlebags and made sure they checked the animals before leading them from the livery. Ezra took the reins of Sanchez’s horse and led the way down the street, stopping in front of a small house with a cross on the door. Sanchez stepped out a few minutes later and shook hands with the man standing in the doorway.

"Not much of a church," Wilmington observed.

"Maybe not, but in this hell hole it’s bigger than the cathedrals of Boston," Sanchez said. "The Padre will keep the prayer line open indefinitely. Mount up, Boys; it’s time to bring them home."

Buck sighed in relief as they mounted up and rode away from Purgatorio. There were too many bad memories in the town, including his being ‘dead’. Larabee had saved his life by ‘shooting’ him and making Coltrane believe that he was no longer a threat. They’d returned there several times and now it was with the knowledge that his friends had been taken from the outlaw town and were somewhere on a Hacienda south of the Rio Grande.

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Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Early Morning

Carmella D’Rosa Covas used the silver comb, a gift from her husband on their wedding night, to straighten her hair. The years had been good to her and even now at 58 it was jet black with a few scattered white hairs. Cristóbal Covas was the love of her life in spite of their marriage having been arranged by their parents at an early age. He was still a handsome man at 60 and loved to work with his hands. She heard him whistling as he came into their bedroom and she felt his arms wrap around her.

"You are more beautiful than you were on our wedding night, Carmella," Cristóbal told her.

"And you, husband, are full of what makes the flowers grow," she said and turned to kiss him. "Are you hungry?"

"For you . . . always . . . "

She smiled, but it turned to a frown when she heard riders enter their yard. "We have guests."

"I’ll get rid of them," Covas told her, but he knew his wife would never turn anyone away if they were in need.

Carmella made her way to the window and frowned when she saw the men, the frown changed to a smile when she recognized her cousin. She dropped the comb and hurried outside as the men dismounted. "Javier, it has been far too long since your last visit," she scolded as she wrapped her arms around him.

"Si, it has, Carmella, and I wish this visit was just for you, but we need your help."

Carmella’s eyes locked on the man seated astride a black horse and gasped at the sight of the young man held tight in his grasp. She hurriedly released her cousin and moved to the newcomers. "Who is this?"

"His name is JD Dunne," D’Rosa explained as he lifted the young man down and cradled him in his strong arms.

Carmella studied the handsome man who remained in the saddle. He was an imposing figure, one whose dark eyes held a hint of sadness. She had always been able to read others and this man was no exception . . . his face and his bearing told her he was trustworthy and she nodded before turning toward her cousin. "Bring him inside and put him in the guest room. The rest of you may bunk in the barn."

"This way, Gentlemen," Cristóbal ordered, smiling as his wife took charge.

"How was he hurt?" Carmella asked upon reaching the guest room, not surprised to find the unknown stranger standing behind her.

"We found him in a shallow grave," Javier explained. "Carmella, it was near De Rivera’s Hacienda . . . "

"Javier, he would kill you if he finds out you took . . . "

"I know, Carmella, but De Rivera thinks he is a God. I could not leave the boy there . . . you should have seen him when we found him. I think he woke up and just had enough strength to claw his way free of the dirt. If he had not done this he would be dead now. He is a miracle and God saw fit that he should live. Who are we to question His wishes," D’Rosa asked and saw the soft lines that spoke of a wisdom and faith far beyond his own.

"Strip him of his clothes," Carmella ordered and turned to the other man who stepped past her and went to the bed.

"Let him, Carmella, he is a friend. I will get your supplies."

"Who is he?" Carmella asked, amazed at how gentle the big man was.

"He is my amigo . . . Raphael Cordova de Martinez. You can trust him, Carmella," D’Rosa answered before leaving the room.

Carmella watched as the stranger tended to the wounded young man and felt a sense of awe at the way his hands gently removed the clothing. She stepped closer to the bed and smiled at the worried man. "Let me help . . . you hold him while I remove his shirt," she offered.

"Gracias, Senora," Cordova said and eased JD into a sitting position. The young man hadn’t moved, hadn’t uttered a sound since they found him and Raphael was worried. The last time he’d seen Dunne he was so full of life and reminded him of a young bronco, untamed, but ready to learn. It had been plain to see that he looked up to and admired Chris Larabee, and Raphael began to wonder where the others were. "Why are you so far away from your home, Chiquita?"

"Did you say something, Senor?"

"I was . . . I wondered why he is so far from his home," Cordova answered. 

"He is not from here?"

"No," Cordova told her as he gently laid the young man back on the bed. He helped her remove the dark pants, socks, and shoes before speaking again. "He is a sheriff . . . "

"One so young should not have such a dangerous job," Carmella observed.

"No, he should not, but he has six compadres who watch his back," Raphael explained as Javier returned with another man.

"Raphael, this is Carmella’s husband, Cristóbal," D’Rosa said and placed the basin of water on the small table Covas placed beside the bed.

The two men nodded to each other in greeting and stood back as Carmella began cleaning the dirt from the young man’s face. She shook her head as she uncovered the deep groove on the right side of his forehead. It disappeared into his hairline and she worked slowly to wipe the dried blood from his hair. "He needs a medico," she said worriedly.

"I know, Carmella, but if we take him to one of the villages word will get back to De Rivera and he would be returned. I do not think he would live if that happened," Javier told her.

"Si, Don Garcia is a cruel man," Cristóbal agreed, having been on the receiving end of the old Spaniard’s anger.

"Here, I can help," Cordova told her and took the cloth from her hand. He continued to work at cleaning the pale face, angered by the livid bruising that had spread to cover much of the right side of his face. "Ah, Chiquita, you will be all right . . . "

"Javier, stay with your friends and I will fix you something to eat. Perhaps you could send one of your friends to the village for supplies. We will need some special herbs if we are to help the young man," Carmella explained.

"I will send Mario . . . his horse is very fast," D’Rosa said and saw Raphael nod in agreement. He left the room, knowing that Cordova would do the same for any of them because they rode together and had built a strong loyalty during their short friendship.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

Pedro looked at his new friend with worry in his aged eyes. He knew the gringo’s name was Vin, and his instincts told him he was a good man. The problem was that Vin was sick . . . feverish and weary, but there was nothing he could do to help him. He’d given the younger man his own water that morning and saw the gratitude in the sky blue eyes. Now Vin was bent over, gasping for breath as he tugged at a stubborn root, sweat beading on his forehead and dripping from the dirty locks of hair.

Pedro looked over his shoulder, relieved to see Gores speaking with one of his men. He leaned close and added his gnarled fingers to his friend’s and tugged with everything he had. The root tore loose, spraying them both with dirt and heard a soft chuckle from the ill man beside him. He smiled as they turned their attention to the next weed and pulled it free.

"Gracias," Tanner managed; using the word he now recognized as thanks and smiled at his new found savior.

They worked side by side, but Pedro grew more worried as his friend seemed ready to collapse. The elderly mestizo looked up as a commotion sounded nearby and spotted a familiar, hated figure dragging some poor soul toward the area used for punishment. Don Rivera strode ahead of him, tapping his cane against his palm as he glanced toward the house. "Madre de Dios," he whispered.

"What’s wrong?" Tanner asked, and realized his friend did not understand him. He turned to look at what had grabbed Pedro’s attention and saw some poor sap being dragged toward an area he knew was used for punishing the workers. His eyes narrowed as he tried to focus his eyes, but dizziness washed over him and he sank to his knees with a groan. He felt Pedro’s hand on his arm, but wanted to stay where he was, yet one look at the aged face told him he could not allow someone else to suffer because he could not pull his weight. ‘Boy, you're a Tanner. Don't you ever forget that’ he heard those words as if she’d just spoken them and found the strength to stand up.

Pedro looked at his friend and was relieved to see a spark of life in the eyes once more and returned his attention to the task at hand. His gaze swept across the fields and came to rest on the man who’d been secured to the posts. He shook his head at the abuse Don Rivera enjoyed dealing out to those he thought were beneath him and remembered a time when his back bore the brunt of the Haciendada’s anger.

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Chris had no idea how much time had passed since he attacked De Rivera, but his mouth felt dryer than the desert. He licked at dry lips, but found his tongue had very little moisture as he tried to focus on his surroundings. His head felt ready to split open, his stomach churned with nauseating bile, and his skin felt as if the sun had burnt him to a crisp. His arms were cuffed to a large piece of wood above his head and his ankles were locked to hooks at the base of the wooden contraption.

Chris' heated gaze burned a hole in the hated man standing before him. His refusal to avert his eyes as Lopez struck his right leg was born from the fact he loathed these brutal tyrants and all they stood for. He’d never been one to back down and Don Garcia De Rivera did not deserve that kind of show of respect.

De Rivera could feel the fire searing him as if it was an open bloody wound. He hid the fear caused by the intense sea green eyes that stared out from beneath hooded lids. Hernando Lopez stood behind the gringo, and he could tell the man was uncomfortable, even with Larabee being unable to move. He lifted his cane and struck out, hitting the bare chest and causing a red welt from mid chest to right shoulder.

"You will pay for murdering my son, Pistolero," De Rivera vowed and repeated the blow, leaving a red 'X' across the well-honed chest.

Chris kept his head high, refusing to lower his gaze as again and again De Rivera struck out. The arrogant beast walked slowly around him, taking great pleasure in striking him with enough force to send tremors of pain dancing along ravaged nerve endings. Chris had no idea how long it lasted, but De Rivera was suddenly standing in front of him and Larabee found the strength he needed to smile, one that held little mirth, but showed a hint of insanity and a promise of retribution. Chris didn’t say a word as Lopez released him from the rack and he dropped to his knees. Again, the sea green eyes refused to show any weakness and his head came up until he found the dark eyes set in an aged face and burned the image into his mind. "You’re a dead man!" he vowed as Lopez and another man hauled him to his feet.

"Put him to work in the fields!" De Rivera snarled angrily. In spite of their roles he’d allowed the Gringo the upper hand and had garnered no satisfaction from the intense beating he’d just given him. He turned and strode away, but could feel his nemesis’ eyes staring at him and forced himself to walk at a steady pace.

"You heard him, Bastardo! Get up!" Lopez ordered angrily. He knew De Rivera wanted him to watch over the blond Gringo and hated the idea of roasting in the hot sun. He shoved Larabee toward the field and was surprised when a deadly glare was turned in his direction.

"Touch me again and I’ll cut your balls off!" Larabee growled. He saw the fear in Lopez’s eyes, but it was quickly hidden as the bandito moved away and allowed the other man to drag him toward the fields. They forced him to his knees amidst a crop of cocoa beans and stood back. Chris latched onto a plant, pulled it free of the dirt, throwing it in Lopez’s direction and letting a hint of a smile form as Lopez cursed rapidly in Spanish.

"Are you stupid, Gringo Dog?"

"Do I look like you?" he sneered.

"Pull the weeds and leave the plants alone!" Lopez snarled and kicked at Larabee’s leg as a mestizo turned toward them. He glared at the man who was working beside the long-haired gringo he’d brought to the hacienda with the medico. The elderly man turned away once he realized Hernando was watching him.

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The sun beat down on his body, causing beads of sweat to form on his flushed face as his jaw throbbed with a life of its own. Vin had lost track of time as he worked to pull the weeds from the fields and wiped the sweat from his eyes as a commotion nearby caught his attention. Two words were spoken in English, the anger obvious, the voice familiar and Tanner glanced sideways in time to catch a glimpse of dirty blond hair. His breath caught in his throat and in spite of his fever and fatigue, Vin knew the other captive was Chris Larabee. He wanted nothing more than to reach out to him, but to do so would just get them both killed.

If Chris was here where were the others? Were Buck, JD, Ezra, and Josiah also prisoners or were they searching for them? His mind could not quite make sense of his thoughts and he felt a hand on his arm. Vin nodded and bent back to the backbreaking work, praying that the others were not prisoners and were out there already planning a rescue attempt. He heard laughter and turned his head in time to see a man deliver a vicious blow to Larabee’s ribs. His temper flared and his hands drew into fists; he vowed to make the sonofabitch pay for hurting his friend.

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Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Mid-Afternoon

Carmella stood in the doorway watching as Raphael Cordova De Martinez tended to the injured young man. During the time he’d been here Raphael had refused to leave the boy’s side and had carefully bathed the dirt from Dunne’s body. She was surprised and awed by his simple gestures and hoped the young man pulled through so she could see the lines of strain leave the other man’s face. She saw the head come up and turn toward her and smiled as she brought in the tray and placed it on the table. "You must be hungry," Carmella said and lifted the cloth from the tray, revealing a plate of roast beef, potatoes, and beans.

"Gracias," Raphael said and ran his fingers through his hair.

"Has he shown any signs of waking up?" Carmella asked, concerned about how shallow the young man’s breathing was. She’d seen and cared for many sick and injured people and this was often a sign that someone was close to death.

"Nothing . . . he has been quiet," Raphael told her.

"He has a fever," Carmella observed and brushed her hand across his forehead.

"I know," Raphael said and began eating the meal she’d brought to him. "He has friends . . . good ones and I wonder why he is alone here. They would not have allowed him to come this far south on his own."

"I take it they are protective of him?"

"Si, very protective, but I believe it is the same with him or any of the others."

"How did you meet him?" Carmella asked, sitting on the side of the bed and using the cloth to wipe the fevered forehead.

"I served the House of Madera and Don Paulo wished to bring this Señorita back to his home because she had escaped him. He would not take no for an answer and attacked her . . . this is why she took a horse and escaped, but not before cutting him. We found her in Four Corners, but she had made friends there and one man, Buck Wilmington, stepped forward and there was a challenge laid down and accepted. Senorita Recillos tried to make Don Paulo leave, but he refused and told her he would kill Wilmington and then take her away."

"I detest people like Don Paulo who try to force a woman to do things they do not wish to do. How did the duel end and is the Senorita okay?"

"She is fine and is still living in Four Corners. Buck defeated Don Paulo, and now I have a price on my head, but it was worth it. There are seven men . . . it was not just Buck Wilmington who helped Senorita Recillos. Vin Tanner protected her when Don Paulo had his men following her. Chris Larabee and the others watched out for Wilmington and when Don Paulo ordered the others to fire on Wilmington they stepped in . . . Chris and I . . . it was a strange meeting, but it showed me that I did not have to take orders from men like Don Paulo."

"Is Don Paulo dead?"

"Si," Raphael told her and sighed tiredly.

"You should get some rest . . . I will sit with him," Carmella offered.

"I do not wish to leave him," Raphael told her.

"You do not have to. There are extra blankets and pillows in the trunk . . . sleep by the window and you will hear him when he awakes," the woman told him.

Raphael finished the meal and reached for the strong cup of coffee on the tray and nodded his approval. "Gracias, Senora, for everything you have done."

"Bienvenida, sleep . . . I will watch over the boy," she vowed. She studied the pale, bruised face and wished she could will him to open his eyes, but the best she could do was wash his face with the cloth.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening

The sun was beginning to drop below the horizon, a soft breeze making the leaves dance on the trees, while the work day on the Hacienda wound down. Mestizos began to leave the field in hopes of filling their bellies and finding their beds for a good night’s sleep. Pedro had been ordered to another section of the field, leaving Vin Tanner alone in the field. His fingernails were filled with dirt, his knuckles bleeding, his hands blistered from the arduous task set before him.

Vin tried to focus his mind, but the fever continued to build, sapping what remained of his strength and he dropped to his knees, shuddering in spite of the heat. He’d removed the rough shirt at some point and could feel the burned skin of his shoulder blades as he tried to climb to his feet again. There just didn’t seem to be enough energy left in his body and he slumped to the ground, breathing heavily as his chest ached.

Vin knew as soon as Gores spotted him he would be angry, but right now Tanner didn’t give a damn if the man beat him senseless as long as he allowed him to curl into a ball and stay where he was. He heard someone nearby and felt a hand on his shoulder and a familiar voice brought him back to the present.

Chris continued to work in the fields as the sun beat down on him with a fierceness that left a fiery burn on his bare shoulders. He glanced sideways as a single hoarse gasp reached his ears. His mind made the connection before his eyes registered the disheveled figure now curled into a ball on the ground. His heart beat against his ribs as he moved toward his friend.

"Jesus, Vin," Larabee managed, his heart in his throat at the sight of the man he’d been searching for. The Texan was dressed in the rough-hewn clothing of the mestizo people, but he’d removed his shirt at some point and his skin showed signs of sunburn. His face and upper body were encrusted with dirt, but it was the sky blue eyes and the bruises that made Chris livid with anger. He saw recognition in Tanner’s eyes and listened to the raspy voice as Vin tries to speak.

"Don’t . . . Chris . . . they’ll punish ya . . . Nathan'll pay the price . . . don’t let ‘em find out we . . . "

"What the hell are you doing, Bastardo?" Gores snarled, shoving Larabee away from Tanner. He raised the stick and struck Tanner viciously across the shoulders.

One look at Vin’s face lent credence to his warning and Larabee didn’t bother to answer, instead sending a promise through his eyes, a look that had sent people scurrying for cover. Gores wilted under the intense glare as Hernando Lopez joined them.

"Hernando, who is this man?" Gores asked.

"This man is a Pistolero . . . a murderer and Don Garcia wants him to work the fields," Hernando explained and spat on Larabee before hauling him to his feet and dragging him back to the area he’d been working.

Vin could hardly believe his eyes and followed Larabee without turning his head. He knew De Rivera would think nothing of using him against Chris, and that was something he could not allow. It was bad enough knowing that Nathan was in danger because of him; he couldn’t live with himself if anything happened to either man. Somehow they would escape and make their way back across the Rio Grande.

"Come on, Gringo, it is time to feed the animals like you," Gores spat and pulled the bone weary man to his feet. He laughed as the captive staggered and fell to his knees. Lifting his right foot he drove it into Tanner’s lower back and was pleased with the cry of pain that followed his rough treatment.

Vin managed to get to his feet, but the world around him seemed to fade in and out, making it hard to move his feet. Nausea churned through his gut while pain throbbed in his lower back and jaw. Sweat beaded on his forehead and he unconsciously swiped it away as they reached his cage. He was roughly shoved inside and reached for the cup of water, downing the contents of the cup before sighing heavily and staring at the glob of mushy, congealed food in his bowl. Vin knew he should eat it, but the thought of putting the cold substance into his mouth made him sick and he closed his eyes, hoping and praying they’d find some way to escape this hellhole.

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Chris found himself locked inside the ‘dungeon’, his cuffed arms fastened to hooks above his head. He’d been given a meager amount of water and some kind of mushy gruel before being returned to his prison. His thoughts returned to the Texan and he knew Vin was right. If De Rivera found out he knew the Texan or Jackson they’d both be in the ground next to JD Dunne, and that was something he would not allow. He closed his eyes and prayed Buck, Josiah, and Ezra were close by, and that they had some plan to rescue Tanner and Jackson. Sleep was a long time coming, and when it did, Chris was plagued with grisly images of the young man who was buried not far from the Hacienda.

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North of the Rio Grande

Late Evening

Due to the heavy rainfall the river was swollen and would be treacherous to pass, but three men were more than determined to find a way to cross it. They reached the shores just as the sun went down, but that didn’t deter them from their missions. They rode alongside the raging turbulence, searching for a place to cross, but as darkness descended they were forced to make camp for the night.

Josiah watched as Wilmington paced along the edge of the riverbank and wished there was something he could do to ease the man’s torment.

Shoulders slumped in near defeat, Buck sighed heavily and knew there was nothing any of them could do about the river, but he would not rest until they crossed the Rio Grande and found their friends. It just seemed as if the fates were conspiring against them. For every step they made forward, they were forced to take two steps back and now it seemed as if they were close, but that crossing the river was impossible right now.

"Josiah, do you believe the others are alive?" Standish asked softly.

"I have to believe that, Ezra. God protects His children no matter how many times we think he’s abandoned us," Sanchez told him.

"That’s easy for you to say, Josiah," Wilmington said as he returned to the fire. "God isn’t exactly at the top of my list right now. He’s put Chris through hell and now He’s doing it again . . . Nathan and Vin and now Chris and JD . . . "

"You don’t know that, Buck," Sanchez said. "Chris and JD could be waiting for us . . . "

"Chris would have found some way to get word to us, Josiah," the weary rogue snapped. His thoughts ran wild with the images of Chris when they’d found him in Jericho. The blond was beaten and bruised and the guilt had flooded his senses when he thought about his cavalier attitude when Mary Travis asked about Larabee.

"Perhaps the wires are down because of the storms," Standish suggested.

"Maybe, but there’s no way of knowing until we get across the damn river," Wilmington explained and reached for the cup of coffee Sanchez held out to him.

"We’ll find a way to cross come morning, even if it means we have to swim," Standish vowed.

"I’ll remind you of that in the morning," Buck told him, a hint of a smile on his face as he sat down on an old stump they’d dragged over to the fire. He glanced at the raging river as the moon rose above the trees and cast its white glow on the water. He sighed heavily and knew tomorrow would be a long time coming because sleep was going to be a rare commodity until they found and rescued their friends.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning 

Nathan checked on the woman who slept like an angel, her dark hair fanned out on the pillow. Her skin was as white as the sheets she lay on, but there was a hint of red in her cheeks that spoke of a developing fever. Jackson worried about the woman and her child, and what would happen to his friends if they were to die while under his care. He needed to keep that from happening, not just because of his friends, but because it was ingrained in him to help others.

Nathan had talked to Evita about Dona Maria’s pregnancy and found out that the woman was between seven and eight months pregnant. He hoped for the latter because he did not think Maria De Rivera was long for this world. She was like a flower, wilting under the hot rays of the sun, but in her case it wasn’t the sun contributing to her illness, it was a man. A very cruel and vile man who thought he could take what he wanted and to hell with those who got hurt in the process.

"Nathan, is my baby okay?"

Jackson couldn’t help but smile at the pretty woman as he used a cloth to wipe away the beads of perspiration. "The baby’s fine, Ma’am . . . "

"Are you sure? Sometimes I think God is punishing me because I don’t feel him moving," Maria told him sadly as she placed a hand on her stomach.

"God will take care of you both, Dona Maria," Jackson said, smiling as the woman’s eyes lit on him.

"Don Garcia . . . my husband wants a son, Nathan, but what if my baby is a girl . . . will he still want her . . . want us?"

"A man who doesn’t want his wife and child is a fool, Dona Maria," the healer told her. "Whether the baby is a boy or a girl God has a reason for giving him or her life and no one has the right to take that away."

"You are a wise man, Nathan Jackson," Maria said, shifting slightly on the bed as Evita entered carrying a tray of food. She smiled as Jackson helped her sit forward and placed several soft pillows behind her back before moving aside and allowing Evita to place the tray on her lap.

Nathan moved away from the bed and allowed the women some privacy as he stepped out on the veranda. The sun was just beginning to shine and bathed the land in golden rays that promised another scorcher. The mestizo people were already at work in the fields and his gaze swept the landscape until he spotted the Texan working alongside an older man. Twice he watched as Vin went down unable to continue and yet forced his legs back up. Guilt and despair washed over him at the thought of his friend working so hard with little to eat, drink and minimal rest while he lived in the lap of luxury.

Jackson spotted the blond being dragged from the dungeon and he tried to ignore the ache in his chest at the thought of JD Dunne buried in an unmarked grave not far from where he stood. If they managed to escape from De Rivera’s clutches how would they be able to explain Dunne’s death to Wilmington? The man had taken the Bostonian under his wing, hell they all had, but Buck and JD were closer . . . brothers chosen on the field of battle.

"Lord, give us . . . give me the strength to see things done, because right now I feel like the world has fallen apart and we’re all sinking into the ground," Jackson whispered as he watched Don Garcia and Luis Martinez walking below him. It was hard for him to believe De Rivera was Luis’ father because they were nothing alike. Luis was so much like his mother and had a heart of gold compared to the cold-hearted bastard who’d fathered him. Somehow he would find a way to free his friends and make the Don pay for everything he’d put them through. 

"Nathan, come eat breakfast," Evita ordered as a young mestizo woman placed a tray of hot rolls and fruit on the table.

Jackson sighed heavily and turned away from the scene taking place below him and reached for the cup of hot coffee she handed him. His thoughts strayed to the people of Four Corners and he wondered if they even knew of the plight of their peacekeepers.

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Luis watched as De Rivera stared at the newest slave working in the fields. Hernando Lopez stood nearby, a heavy stick clutched tightly in his hands as he watched Larabee tear at the weeds.

"There is something I want you to do today, Luis," De Rivera said, his voice husky with excitement.

"Si, Patron," Martinez said, stopping beside the elderly man.

"I need you to ride to the House of Madera and invite Don Paulo to join me at the Arena de Muerte in two days time," Don Rivera explained, his gaze never leaving the scene across the fields.

"What of the others?" Luis asked.

"No, Luis, this is to be a private fight . . . ask Don Paulo to bring his best fighters. Tell him I have something in mind that could bring us both some satisfaction," De Rivera said and leaned heavily on the cane. He knew Don Paulo had lost his son recently and perhaps he could find some solace in watching a gringo, perhaps even more than one, battle to the death. Don Paulo’s fighters were well known for their brutality and he knew there wouldn’t be enough left of Chris Larabee to bury.

"I will ride to his home this afternoon, Patron," Martinez told him, glancing up at the veranda in time to see his mother watching him. He disliked his ‘father’s’ treatment of her, but there was nothing he could do to change their station. He would serve Don Garcia as it was meant to be, but if the old man ever hurt his mother he would find out just what kind of temper Luis Martinez had.

"See that you do, Luis, and be back here tonight so that we can get the Arena de Muerte ready for the fight. I do not want the Pistolero to know what is to happen until everything is arranged."

"Will he be the only fighter you put in the arena?"

"Perhaps not . . . perhaps it will be more fitting to place Vin Tanner in there as well . . . "

"I thought you wanted Tanner here to keep Jackson in line?"

"I do," De Rivera said with a leering grin. "Perhaps it will do Jackson good to see his friend in the arena . . . "

"What if he dies?"

"I will not allow that to happen, but Jackson does not need to know that," the Haciendada told him and walked slowly toward the field. "Do as I say, Luis, go before I decide to see how well you do in the Arena."

Luis had no doubt that his ‘father’ would indeed put him in the Arena de Muerte if he chose to. He turned away, glanced up to see his mother with her hand held to her mouth and smiled in an effort to ease the torment De Rivera’s words had on her. Someday they would both be free of his influence, but for now he had to walk the path fate had chosen for him.

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North of the Rio Grande

Early Morning

Buck had been awake since before dawn when the sounds of the night faded, giving wake to the life that often came with early morning. The crickets were silent, but the birds twittering softly in the nearby trees, and the rush of the water made for a sleepless night.

Wilmington stood and walked to the edge of the river, glancing across at the land that seemed to mock him as the sky lightened with the promise of a new day. The heavy rains coupled with the run off high in the mountains made the Rio Grande a turbulent river that could easily pull a man into its murky depths without leaving a sign that he’d ever been there.

"Lord, I ain’t always a religious man and I know I’ve done plenty ta tick you off, but there comes a time when a man needs a sign that You’re listenin’. Show us the way across and I’ll tend Josiah’s services for the next month . . . hell I’ll go for the next year if You’ll just give me a sign that You’re not turning Your back on us," Wilmington whispered, closing his eyes as a soft breeze tickled his senses, bringing with it the scent of honeysuckle that reminded him of Sarah Larabee. A warmth spread through him and a smile creased his face as he took a deep breath of the morning air. "Thank you . . . Sarah," he said, knowing she’d always believed in God and that simple scent was a sign that they were not alone.

"Buck, are you all right?" Standish asked from behind him.

"I will be," Wilmington noted with a glint of determination in his eyes. "Once we're seven again ridin' home." He then headed for the horses. "We need to find the way across today."

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Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Early Morning

Mario Cortez knew he was late in returning, but it had taken more time than he’d thought to collect the herbs and other supplies Carmella Covas requested. He hoped the young man they’d rescued was still alive as he pulled his horse to a stop and dismounted before looping the reins over the hitching post and hurrying up to the front door. He lifted his hand to knock, but the door was opened and Javier D’Rosa motioned him inside.

"I am sorry it took so long, Amigo . . . how is the boy?" Cortez asked as he handed over the supplies.

"He is feverish and still unconscious," D’Rosa answered and hurried into the guest room. His cousin was working to cool the young man down, while Raphael slept nearby. It had been a long night for all of them and he’d seen the lines of strain on Cordova’s face as he worked through the night. "Mario brought the supplies you wanted, Carmella."

"Thank God," the woman said and reached for the package. "Javier, keep wiping him down while I steep the herbs and make a paste for his wound. It will help draw out the infection."

"Carmella," D’Rosa said, placing his hand on her arm. "Thank you for everything you have done."

"I only do what any of God’s children would do when faced with the hatred in this world," Carmella told him, hugging her cousin before hurrying from the room.

"She is an incredible woman, Amigo," Raphael said, slowly sitting up and moving to the chair beside Dunne’s bed.

"Si, she is," D’Rosa agreed. "She is like my mother in many ways . . . an angel of mercy sent to aide those in need."

Raphael nodded and reached for the cloth laid across Dunne’s forehead. He dipped it into the water and gently wiped it across the fever-baked cheeks, surprised to hear a soft moan from the injured Bostonian.

" . . . Chr . . . iss . . . "

"Easy, Chiquita," Cordova said softly as Dunne’s eyes fluttered and tried to open.

" . . . shot . . . Chris . . . s . . . shot . . . "

Raphael gently placed his hands on Dunne’s shoulder when the Easterner tried to sit up. "Lie still, JD," Cordova tried, amazed at the strength the young man possessed.

"Raphael, see if you can get him to drink some water . . . I am steeping some herbs, but they are not ready yet," Carmella said and passed him a cup of water.

"Javier, hold this," Raphael ordered and moved in behind the injured Bostonian. He gently eased Dunne up until he was able to scoot in behind him and hold him against his chest. He wrapped his arms around the heaving chest and held him in place while Javier tried to get him to take a drink.

"Give it to me, Javier, before you make a mess," Carmella lightly scolded when some of the water spilled on the boy’s chest. She took the water and sat on the edge of the bed, smiling as she gently stroked JD’s cheek.

Dunne continued to fight against the arms holding him, his vision blurry as he tried to escape. He struggled in spite of the nauseating pain lancing through his skull. There were voices, but he did not recognize them and hoped someone would help him. "P . . . please . . . Chris . . . where . . . wh . . . where . . . "

 "Come now, Niño," Carmella tried, smiling as the young man’s eyes seemed to look at her, but the glossiness told her he wasn’t really seeing her. She leaned forward and placed the cup to his lips, watching as his lips parted and he sucked greedily at the water until she removed it and placed it on the table.

JD tilted his head, gasping when the pain intensified and sent him toward the beckoning darkness. He cried out and leaned back into the strong chest as consciousness left him once more.

Raphael could feel JD’s heart beating in his chest and breathed a sigh of relief that the young man was still with them. He eased out from behind him and gently placed him back on the pillow before reaching for the cloth once more.

"I will be back shortly . . . keep him as quiet as you can," Carmella warned before leaving the room, confident that Raphael would care for the injured man like a brother.

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Northeast of the Rio Grande

Mid-Afternoon

The three bone weary men searched desperately for a way to cross the raging river. They’d ridden east for a couple of hours before being forced to turn back and make their way west. Now it seemed impassable as the water hit the rocks sending waves rippling violently with white caps further along until it looked like the foam on a glass of beer poured by unskilled hands. Buck rode slightly ahead of the others and fought the urge to take a chance on riding across, but he knew from experience how rough the ride would be. Losing his horse would not do Chris, Vin, Nathan, or JD any damn good no matter how desperate he was becoming.

Ezra frowned as he stared at a juncture in the river ahead and rode past the quiet rogue. He reached the area, smiling as he spied what he’d hoped for. The water was still turbulent, but there seemed to be a calm area just past a natural rock formation. He turned to the others and spurred his horse forward as he called over his shoulder. "It appears that Josiah’s prayers were not in jest . . . "

"What?" Wilmington shouted above the sound of rough water.

"I think he means our prayers have been answered," Sanchez said, joining the gambler at the edge of the river.

"Thank you, Lord," Wilmington said and move the horse closer to the calmer waters.

"Be careful, Buck, we don’t know how deep it goes or . . . "

"I hear ya, Josiah," the rogue said and began to pick his way across the river. The horse slipped several times and he had to fight to keep it under control as the ground beneath them seemed to bottom out. Buck held tight to the reins as they floated away from the rock formation, cursing as the animal’s head dipped below the water. He could hear Ezra and Josiah calling out instructions, but did not take the time to acknowledge them as he reached the midway point.

Josiah kept up a silent litany of prayers as man and animal fought to cross the Rio Grande. It felt like hours since Buck had spurred his animal forward, and Sanchez didn’t realize he’d been holding his breath the entire time. He heard several sharply spat expletives from the rider as the horse slowly made its way across the swollen river. He exhaled sharply as the weary animal seemed to regain its footing and reached the opposite shore.

"It’s deep, but passable!" Wilmington shouted.

"After you, Ezra," Sanchez offered with a wide smile and watched as the gambler began to cross the river. Again he held his breath as horse and rider reached the deepest part of the river and the current seemed to carry them downstream. "Keep his head above the water!"

Ezra could hear the ex-preacher, but he concentrated on making the final leg of the journey across the Rio Grande. Several times his horse stumbled on loose rocks beneath the surface, but Standish managed to make it across and stood next to Wilmington.

"Your turn, Josiah!" Wilmington called and watched as the big man coaxed his horse into the river. For such a large man, Sanchez seemed at perfect symmetry with the animal he rode. The two seemed as if they were joined instead of two separate living creatures as they reached the midway point and the ground dropped away beneath them. He could hear the older man talking to the horse, making the animal do what was needed as they were carried down river. It felt like an eternity before Josiah and his Chestnut Bay exited the water and stood beside them. Without a word the trio turned their horses southwest and began the search for their missing friends in a land where they were the trespassers and the law was no longer on their side.

 

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Afternoon

Don Garcia De Rivera watched the two gringos at work in the fields and knew he would have to do something to keep them alive. He glanced up at the terrace to see Nathan Jackson watching the workers and knew his gaze seldom strayed from Vin Tanner. The Texan seemed to be growing weaker and De Rivera realized it wouldn’t be much of a fight if the gringo could not stand on his own two feet.

De Rivera’s gaze shifted and came to rest on the second man, the blond who had taken his flesh and blood son from him. Chris Larabee was also wilting under the heat of the sun and would need his wounds tended if he was to provide them with some sporting entertainment in the Arena de Muerte. Reluctantly he glanced up at the dark skinned medico and knew Jackson would need to use his skills on the two men.

The elderly man glanced around his property, savoring the wealth and power he’d built around himself. His young wife would not live past the baby’s birth, but there were plenty of women who could become a wet nurse for his son. It did not matter if it was at the cost of her child as long as his son was healthy and strong.

His son would grow up and rule the Hacienda with an iron fist just like his father was doing. He would not allow anyone to interfere in the running of his property or the punishment his workers needed in order to make them work the fields. His son would make him proud; he would have the strength of the De Rivera blood running through his veins and would grow to understand what that meant. His arrogant smile held no warmth as Don Garcia walked into his home tapping his cane against his hands as he passed through the door.

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Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Late Evening

Cristóbal Covas watched his wife as she cared for the injured young man. Javier had finally convinced Raphael Cordova De Martinez that she could and would take care of JD Dunne. Raphael was sleeping on his bedroll near the window, while Javier and the others pitched in with chores around the homestead. He was grateful for the help and the repairs being done to the small corral and the barn because it was becoming too much for him to handle alone.

Cristóbal walked into the room and handed his wife a cup of hot tea with a hint of lemon. It was her favorite and always seemed to give her a little lift at the end of a long day.

"Thank you, Cristóbal," Carmella said, sipping at the hot liquid before placing it on the small table. 

"How is he?"

"There is still no change," Carmella answered and leaned into her husband when he stood behind her.

Cristóbal gently placed his hands on her shoulders and gently massaged the tension from her body. He felt her place her right hand on his and she leaned her cheek against him. Tears slipped unbidden from her eyes as she looked up at him and the love that was born years before intensified as the fire of his presence gave her the strength she needed. That this beautiful creature loved him made his heart beat faster and gave him a sense of peace as they watched over the injured young man.

"He is so young," Carmella whispered, her heart aching that someone so young had faced such evil as Don Garcia De Rivera.

"Perhaps that is on his side, My Love, he is young and strong and he has friends who will stand by him," Cristóbal told her. "You need to rest . . . "

"I am fine, Cristóbal . . . "

"Yes, you are, finer than the silken strands used to make the finest gowns, but you are only human and you need sleep if you are to care for him."

"Cristóbal is right, Cousin," Javier told her from the open doorway. "Go and rest . . . I will come get you if he needs anything," D’Rosa assured her. He smiled when Cristóbal lifted her to her feet and wrapped her in his protective embrace, amazed at the love shining in both their eyes. It was a rare gift, especially when one considered that their marriage had been prearranged, a gift that lived on in their golden years and would defy time and the trials thrown at them. Javier hoped someday he would be so lucky. He watched the couple leave, and didn’t miss the way Cristóbal clung protectively to his wife.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening

Nathan reluctantly turned away from the fields and walked back inside. Evita was placing a cool cloth across Maria De Rivera’s forehead and he could see the caring concern on the woman’s face. He’d known this woman only a short time, but his respect grew every time he saw how easily she gave of herself. He closed his eyes and silently prayed for the strength he needed to keep on while his friends were forced to slave under the hot sun. Images crossed behind his closed lids, the face of a young man, the sound of his laughter and the sorrow written on his face when he’d killed Annie Nechaus. They’d almost lost JD that time, but at least the young man would have been alive, not buried in some shallow, unmarked grave far from the place he called home and the friends who’d become his family.

"Nathan," Martinez asked worriedly. "What is wrong?"

"What’s wrong?" Jackson spat, the two words cutting through him like a knife through soft butter. "Vin and Chris are out there . . . hurting . . . but at least they’re alive. JD . . . God, the kid should have listened to Chris . . . "

"What are you talking about, Nathan?" Evita asked worriedly.

"I heard you and Luis . . . heard what he said about JD." He swallowed hard barely able to digest the bitter words. "I know he’s dead, Evita . . . "

"Oh, Nathan, I am so sorry," the woman said and reached for the younger man’s hands. She could see the sorrow in the soulful brown eyes and wished she could say or do something that would ease the guilt she saw in them. "There is nothing you can do for him now, but God will protect him and watch over you . . . "

"I have to find a way to get Chris and Vin out of here," Jackson 's voice held an impassable degree of resolve.

"Don Garcia will not hesitate to kill Vin Tanner, Nathan, he is a cold hearted . . . "

"Bastard," the former slave snarled. He could feel the anger boiling inside him, turning his hatred into a need for revenge that would see the old man suffer for everything he’d done. "Sorry, Evita . . . "

"No need to apologize for speaking the truth, Nathan, but please be careful because Don Garcia will punish you if he hears you," Martinez told him.

"I will," Jackson said and made his way out on the veranda. He watched as the workers left the fields and silently prayed that God would show them a way out of this hell. "Keep 'em safe, Lord," he paused, "please."

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Southeast of the Rio Grande

Late Evening

Buck used a long stick to poke at the fire and sighed tiredly. They’d rode steadily southwest since crossing the Rio Grande, but it felt as if they were no closer to finding the missing men. Josiah was sitting across from him, reading from the dog-eared Bible and Buck wondered why people thought the older man had lost faith. From what he saw, Sanchez had more faith in his little finger than most people had in their whole bodies.

Ezra was sitting against a tree, shuffling a deck of cards with the precision and fine tuning of years of practice. He knew the gambler was as worried as he was, and wished he could find something to keep his mind occupied, but as the moon rose high overhead, his mind wandered to the others, and whether they were safe.

Buck thought about Chris, and the long time friendship they shared. There’d been more ups and downs than he wanted to think about, but that had all changed when he saw Chris in Four Corners. It had taken some time, but they’d managed to talk and Buck had never been so glad to renew an old acquaintance.

‘We’re coming,’ Wilmington thought as the sounds of the night kept him company on his lonely vigil.   "Just hold on a little longer."

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East of the De Rivera Hacienda

Midnight

Luis Martinez rode slightly ahead of his men as they neared the hacienda. He knew Don Garcia would be happy with the news he brought and wished there was some way he could stop the fight that would take place in the Arena de Muerte. Don Paulo had smiled at the thought of a fight, and confirmed that he would arrive at the arena in two days.

Martinez looked around in the darkness, aware that the bright, full-bodied moon surrounded by a vast blanket of twinkling stars cast a soft glow on the fields. The workers had long since retired to their quarters and would not be roused until dawn when they would begin their work anew. Luis dismounted in front of the house, not at all surprised when Don Garcia spoke from his position on the porch swing.

"Did Don Paulo accept my invitation?"

"Si, Patron, he will be there at dawn in two days time," Martinez explained and although he could not see the elderly man’s face he knew the man was smiling at the thought of a fight to the death between Don Paulo’s champions and the two gringos. "It will not be much of a fight if the gringos . . . "

"Do not think to interfere, Luis, I will not warn you again."

"I am sorry, Patron, I was just thinking it would be more entertaining if . . . "

"I will speak with Jackson in the morning . . . see that Larabee and Tanner are placed in Benito’s old quarters and allow no one to see them until they meet Don Paulo’s fighters in the Arena."  Tell Hernando I wish to see him at first light."

"Si, Patron," Martinez said. He knew Benito’s quarters had been left untouched since the elderly man had died nearly a year ago. There were no windows and only a single, heavy wooden door that would make it easy to keep the two men from escaping.

"Tell Hernando I wish to see him at first light," De Rivera ordered and turned away without waiting for an answer. 

Luis walked with his men toward the stables. He knew his mother was watching him from the upper floor, but did not turn back because he knew he would feel the sorrow and pain she suffered each time he did as his father ordered. She did not blame him, but there was always that hint of despair that flowed through her mind.

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Four Corners

Early Morning

Mary Travis looked at the paper she’d just printed, and wished she had better news to impart to the townspeople. Most of them knew and understood why the seven peacekeepers had left the town in search of the banditos. Her father-in-law had hired them to protect the citizens of Four Corners, including the homesteaders and cattle ranchers who used the town as a place to buy supplies. Unfortunately there were also men like Conklin and Royal who didn’t care about anyone or anything, but themselves.

"Mary, has there been any news?" Gloria Potter asked from the open doorway.

"Not since they left."

"It’s been five days."

"I know, Gloria, but if the wires are still down there’d be no way for them to send word," Mary explained. Gloria came to see her every morning with the same question and the newspaper woman wished she had some good news, but she was as much in the dark as everyone else.

"Inez said Maria is talking about going east once Mr. Larabee and the others return," the store owner told her.

"Maria has been through a lot and I think the change would do her good," the newspaperwoman explained.

"Mr. Conklin was trying to get the townspeople riled up last night."

"I know . . . he’s the reason I want to get this edition out early. I’m hoping if the people read some positive stories about our peacekeepers perhaps it will shut Conklin and the others down."

"I hope so, Mary, I’d hate to think what this town would be like if it wasn’t for Mr. Larabee and the others. If it wasn’t for them, people like Lucas James would get away with murder and I’d have had to leave this town a long time ago. This is home for me and I’m proud of our town and the people . . . well most of the people who live here."

"I agree, Gloria . . . I want Billy to come home, but I want him to know there’s nothing to be afraid of anymore," Mary said and took the bundle of papers in her hands before exiting the newspaper office.

"I’d better get back to the store before people complain I’m sleeping late again," Gloria said with a slight smile before hurrying toward the mercantile.

Mary took a deep breath and began distributing the newspapers to her regulars. She knew she’d catch some flack from people like Conklin and Royal, but right now she didn’t really give a damn what they thought of her. She greeted several people including the Wilson family before making her way toward the saloon to join Inez and Maria for breakfast and to talk about the missing peacekeepers.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

Hernando Lopez paced in front of the main door of the house, his fingers digging into the brim of his hat. Luis had told him Don Garcia wanted to see him at first light, but so far the elderly man had not allowed him through the door. He hated being pulled away from tormenting the blond gringo, but until the patron released him he would have to remain here and wait.

"Hernando, Don Garcia is waiting for you in his office," Juanita Perez said, and held the door for the man to step inside. "Wipe your feet."

Lopez did as she told him and hurried toward the closed office door. He knocked gently and opened the door when the familiar voice told him to enter. "You wanted to see me, Patron?"

"Yes, Hernando, I have something I want you to do," De Rivera told him. "I want you to take your men and ride north toward Purgatorio. You will check the villages between here and that filthy town and make sure they know I will not allow anyone to interfere in my business."

"Si, Patron," Lopez said, frowning when the elderly man made a gesture of dismissal. "What of the Gringo?"

"The gringo is no longer your concern, Hernando, do not think to question me again."

"I am sorry, Patron, I did not mean . . . "

"Leave me before I throw you into the Arena!" De Rivera warned, a hint of a smile forming when the other man bowed before hurrying away. He’d built this Hacienda on fear and enjoyed the power it gave him over the people he thought were beneath him. Drinking the last of his coffee, Don Garcia stood and walked out through the French doors that opened onto the back of his property and enjoyed the feel of the sun on his weathered features.

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Vin shifted his aching body and tried to stretch out in the narrow confines of the cage, but there was no way to work the kinks out. He’d woken to the sounds of the mestizos heading for the fields, but Gores had passed him by with just an angry glance in his direction. Something had changed, but for the life of him he couldn’t figure out what it was. A sound to his left caught his attention and he frowned as two men, strangers to him stepped up to his cage.

"Come, Gringo," Luis Martinez ordered when his companion opened the door of the cage. One look at the American told him he wouldn’t last long in the Arena de Muerte even with Nathan Jackson’s help. The Texan was paler than any living man and reminded Luis of a ghost like those in the books his mother used to read him. The lips were flaking, showing how deeply dehydrated the man was, while a hint of red flushed through both cheeks.

"What the fuck do ya want?"

"Don Garcia wants you to be taken care of," Martinez told him.

"Don’t give a fuck wh . . . what that bastard wants," Tanner snarled.

"He will make your friend suffer if you do not do as he wishes," Luis said sadly, and saw how his warning nearly devastated the ill man. "Help him, Lucas."

"Come, Gringo, at least you will not have to sleep in this cage," Aguilar explained and helped the trembling man from the cage.

Vin soon found himself sandwiched between De Rivera’s men, but didn’t have the strength to fight them as they dragged him toward the house. He lifted his head and tried to get a glimpse of Nathan Jackson on the veranda, but there was no sign of his friend. His head dropped to his chest as they entered the house, but he kept his eyes open and tried to keep track of where they were taking him. A heavy door was opened and they were joined by a young, dark haired woman holding a lamp that flooded the darkness with light. A set of steep stairs led down to another door and Vin struggled to stay on his feet once they reached the bottom. The woman produced a heavy metal ring with a single key that she placed in the lock and twisted several times before the old mechanism gave way.

Luis held the injured man while Lucas pushed the heavy door open and Juanita stepped inside with the lamp. She placed it on the single table and hurried from the room, leaving the trio alone.

"Why?" Tanner asked when he was lowered onto one of two single cots set against the far wall.

"The Patron wants you ready to fight in two days," Luis explained.

"Fight?"

"Si, rest . . . you will be given food and water and anything else that will help you regain your strength," Martinez told him. He reached for the shackles and attached one to each of the man’s ankles before locking them into a loop set in the stone wall.

"Why are ya doin’ this?" Tanner asked, sensing that this man disliked what he was doing.

"Don Garcia is mi padre," Luis answered honestly before leaving the room.

Vin lay back against the soft pillow and let his eyes close as his body tried to adjust to the fact that it was no longer cooped up in a cage that was too small. He stretched out along the mattress, instinctively testing the shackles to see if he could escape, but the heavy metal cut into his skin. He glanced at the second bed and wondered whether someone else would be joining him in his new prison. God, he hoped not, because the Arena de Muerte did not sound like something he’d want to share with his friends.

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Chris lifted his head and stared at the two men who entered the dungeon. He recognized the one who came to stand in front of him, but could not remember his name. He licked at dry lips and waited to find out what the newcomers wanted. Something about the men spoke of pity, but Chris had never been one to accept that emotion. "What the fuck do you want?" he snarled.

"Lucas is going to release you, but if you try anything I will not hesitate to shoot you . . . perhaps in the leg," Luis warned. This man was dangerous and he knew if given the chance the gringo would take them apart with his bare hands if necessary. He held his gun on the blond as Lucas unlocked the manacles from the hook in the wall and secured them once more to the prisoner’s wrists.

Chris wondered what had happened to his usual tormentor, but he wasn’t about to ask as Luis motioned him toward the door. His legs barely held him as he struggled to place one foot in front of the other. Once outside he turned toward the field where Vin had worked, worried when there was no sign of the Texan amongst the mestizo people. Moving toward the area where he had been put to work, Chris was startled when a hand rested on his shoulder.

"Not today, Gringo," Luis said and pointed toward the main house. "The Patron wants you to rest and grow strong."

"Why?" Larabee asked suspiciously.

"He has plans for you and the other gringo," Lucas answered.

"The other gringo?" Larabee asked, afraid he already knew the answer. Vin Tanner hadn’t been in the fields when they’d made their way toward the house and Chris instinctively understood he was indeed the other ‘gringo’. He stood back as Lucas opened the door leading into the back of the house and ushered him through. There were several people working in what looked like a kitchen/storage area, but none of them looked at him as he was led to a heavy door.

"Juanita," Luis called and the pretty young woman hurried toward him carrying a heavy metal key ring. He saw the sympathy in her eyes and wished he could take away the pain that seemed so prevalent lately. This young woman worked hard and someday he hoped Don Garcia would allow him to take her as his wife, but for now he could only watch her and hide his feelings.

Chris watched as the pretty woman opened the door and led them down a flight of stairs. She used the key to open a second door and moved aside to allow them to enter. Larabee barely suppressed his anger when he saw Vin Tanner lying on a cot, his eyes closed. The gunslinger turned to glare at Luis Martinez before Lucas shoved him toward the second cot. Neither man spoke as Larabee was secured in much the same way as the Texan, but the silence spoke volumes for the two men until their captors left and the door was locked behind them.

"Ya look like shit, Cowboy," Tanner said, eyes opening to half-mast, his voice raspy with pain and thirst.

"Looked in a mirror lately?" Larabee asked seriously as he leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. He couldn’t rid himself of the images of JD Dunne and sighed tiredly as he felt Tanner watching him closely.

"Where are the others?" the Texan asked.

"Don’t know," Larabee lied.

"Chris . . . "

"We split up and Buck rode back to get the others . . . JD . . . " Larabee stopped, swallowing convulsively around the lump in his throat as the door opened and the dark haired young woman entered carrying a heavily laden tray and a pitcher of liquid.

"You must eat and drink . . . grow strong," Juanita told them, hurrying from the room as Luis followed her out without a word.

Vin watched Chris closely and recognized the pain in the green eyes as Larabee poured a cup of the sweet smelling nectar and passed it to him. "Chris, what happened?"

"We got caught," Larabee answered simply, staring into the juice as if transfixed.

"We?"

"Me and JD," the blond told him.

"Where’s the kid?" The words came out on their own and Vin knew the answer. Larabee's grim features reeked of it.

"Dead . . . "

The Texan could feel the changes in the other man as if it was part of his own emotions. The gunslinger could not meet his eyes and if he did, Vin knew what he would see there. The raw pain flowed from Larabee’s body as he lifted the cloth off the tray of food and handed a plate to him. There was no mistaking the guilt that seemed to be tearing Larabee’s guts apart and Tanner wondered what had happened to Dunne that would lay such blame at his friend’s feet.

"Killed him because of me," Larabee said, his appetite nonexistent as he finally managed to meet the Texan’s eyes. "I . . . I buried him, Vin."

Those four words said it all and Tanner knew nothing would ever ease the torment he saw on the pale face. Larabee had lived with the guilt of his family’s death, but it had nearly killed him. Vin knew burying JD Dunne had brought that same guilt back with a vengeance and he wished there was some way to ease the pain and sorrow reflected in Larabee’s eyes.

"Chris . . . it’s . . . "

"Don’t tell me it wasn’t my fault, Vin!" Larabee snapped, taking a deep breath as his heart hammered a staccato beat against his ribs.

Tanner grew quiet, watching the blond closely as he reached for his plate. The two ate in silence, grieving the loss of the Easterner who earned the right to be part of their band of brothers. "He’ll pay, Chris."

Larabee nodded and ate without tasting the food. He had no idea why they were being treated like royal prisoners, but he would take advantage of it if it meant they’d have a chance to kill Don Garcia De Rivera. "Any idea why they put us here?"

"Fatten the calf before the slaughter," Tanner answered.

"What?"

"We’re supposed to fight in the Arena de Muerte," the Texan answered.

"Yeah," Chris agreed, "Anyway you look at it, we're going to hell together."

"Maybe not, but least we’ll go down fightin’," the tracker said with a cocky grin. The two men grew silent once more, forcing themselves to eat and drink as if this was their last meal.

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East of a Village Near the Covas Home

Mid-Morning

The trio had made their way steadily southwest since leaving the Rio Grande behind them, but they had no idea how much further they’d have to travel to find De Rivera’s hacienda. Buck was the first to spot smoke in the distance and quickly pointed it out to the others. "Looks like there might be a homestead up ahead," Wilmington observed.

"Could be a village, Buck," Sanchez said, pointing out several distinct bands of smoke. 

"Perhaps it would be prudent if one of us rode ahead and scouted the area," Standish suggested.

"Are you volunteering, Ezra?" Sanchez teased lightly, arching a gray brow and a sly grin as he turned to the Southerner

"Well, if I remember correctly you boys are not known for subtlety," the gambler observed.

"And you are?" Wilmington asked with a hint of a smile as he remembered Jericho’s deputy falling off his chair after Ezra ‘drank’ him under the table.

"Indeed . . . at least it got us the answers we were searching for," Standish told him.

"He’s right, Buck," Sanchez offered. "We let Ezra check out the village while you and I stay out of sight in case the villagers are nervous about ‘gringos’. We’ll set up camp here and wait for you to get back."

"All right, Ez, go check it out, but don’t go getting involved in any card games," Wilmington reluctantly agreed. 

"I would never think of doing such a thing . . . "

"Got ya!" The rogue grinned as the other man turned and rode away; glad he’d provided just a hint of levity to ease the tension.

"We should set up camp while we wait," Sanchez said, dismounting and leading his horse to the small creek that ran to the right of the trail.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

Evita Martinez looked at the man who’d made such a difference in Dona Maria’s condition with sympathy-laden eyes. Don Garcia had told her to send the healer to him, and she hated the thought of the elderly man’s brutality. She knew he would not hurt Nathan Jackson, but he could and would easily hurt Vin Tanner. She had no idea why he chose this moment to send for Jackson, but something told her it had to do with her son’s trip to the House of Madera.

"Nathan," she called and waited for the man to turn her way.

"Is something wrong, Evita?" Jackson asked, frowning at the look on the woman’s face.

"Don Garcia wants to see you."

"Wants to see me?" the healer asked, surprised that the man would pull him away from the ailing woman.

"Si, he insists you join him in his office. Juanita will take you to him while I stay with Dona Maria," Martinez explained.

Nathan walked toward the door and smiled at the pretty woman standing there. He’d seen her a few times, but had not known her name or spoken to her. He followed her down the staircase and through the main foyer until they stopped before a heavy door rich with floral etchings and gold emblems. Nathan wondered if the symbols represented the De Rivera heritage, but didn’t have a chance to ask as the woman opened the door and ushered him inside.

Nathan stood inside the door and studied the elderly man seated behind the heavy desk. It was made of dark wood and polished until it reflected back the other furnishings in the room. Several tapestries were hung on each wall, richly embroidered with emblems Jackson didn’t recognize. A single painting hung behind the desk and showed a dark haired man standing on the deck of a ship with a stern look on his face. Nathan knew it was a very young Don Garcia De Rivera, and knew the artist had captured the coldness of the man’s eyes.

"You sent for me?" Nathan said.

"You were not told to speak!" De Rivera snapped, dropping the feather pen on the paper he’d been writing on.

"Sorry," Jackson apologized easily. He’d learned at an early age to keep his anger in check and that a quick apology, either real or not, kept him from being whipped.

"Mind your place the next time," De Rivera warned and leaned back in the heavy chair. "Your friend is to fight in the Arena de Muerte in two days time . . . "

"Vin can’t . . . he’s hurt . . . sick!" Jackson spat.

"Hold your tongue, Senor Jackson, or I will see that he receives no care before the fight," the elderly man warned.

"Care?"

"Yes, I have decided to let you care for your friend. He is to be given food, drink, and proper medical care until he steps into the ring."

"Where is he?"

"He is in the house . . . in the quarters that once belonged to a loyal servant named Benito. Juanita will show you the way and give you the supplies you need."

"He’s weak . . . two days won't be long enough to...." the irate healer's concern was aborted.

"Two days is all you have or would you prefer not to treat him at all?" De Rivera challenged, hands clasped in front of him as an amused grin formed on his face.

"No, I’ll do it," the healer told him.

"Very well . . . there is another man with him, you are to treat his injuries as well," the elderly man ordered and returned his attention to the papers in front of him. 

Nathan bit his bottom lip in an effort to keep from saying anything that might make De Rivera change his mind. The fact that he would be able to see Vin and treat his injuries gave him hope. Jackson turned and walked out the door where Juanita was waiting for him with a basket filled with the supplies he would need to treat his friend. He reached for the basket and smiled at the pretty young woman who motioned him forward.

"Please, follow me," Juanita told him in slightly broken English.

Nathan followed her to the back of the house and entered the kitchen. There were several mestizo women working diligently, but Jackson felt them watching him as Juanita led him to a doorway near the back of the kitchen. He followed her down a set of stairs and waited until she opened another door.

"I will come back with water," Juanita told him before moving aside and allowing him to enter the room.

Nathan held his surprise in check until the door closed behind him. He knew Vin would be there and wasn’t surprised to see him lying on a cot with his eyes closed, what did surprise him was the second man seated on the opposite bed. "Chris," he gasped, shock evident in his concerned features

"Nathan," Larabee managed, a hint of surprise in his voice. He heard Tanner stirring and watched as the Texan forced heavy eyelids open before managing to sit up on the edge of the bed.

"Nate..." Vin's raspy voice echoed the genuine relief that was coursing through him.

"I don’t got much time," Jackson said, ignoring the need to relish the fact that his friends were alive. "I’m here to help you. How bad, Chris?"

"I’ll live," Larabee answered and nodded to the sharpshooter. "Vin needs help."

"Vin, where are ya hurt?" Jackson asked, hoping the injured man would be honest even as Juanita and a young male carried clean water and rags into the room.

"Nathan, the patron said you have one hour," Juanita told him sadly before leaving the trio alone.

"God, it’ll take me an hour just to see what’s wrong with ya," Jackson growled under his breath. He glanced at Larabee, wishing there was something he could do about the haunted look in the green eyes, but right now he could only treat the physical injuries. "Vin, how’s your jaw?"

"Still sore . . . broke somethin’ . . . lotta shit came out," Tanner said as Jackson reached out and touched his forehead. He eased out of the remnants of his shirt and winced as the movement pulled at his aching muscles.

"Yer runnin’ a fever," Jackson said, hoping Juanita’s people had Willow Bark Tea or something equivalent to it. "Let me see that tooth, Vin."

Tanner opened his mouth and tried to hold still as Jackson checked the swollen gums. He closed his eyes as a wave of dizziness washed over him, and gagged in reflex as he tried to ignore the nausea churning through his gut.

"When’s the last time this broke?" Jackson asked.

"Last night . . . ’fore I slept," the Texan answered.

"All right . . . jest gotta keep an eye on it."  Nathan handed Vin a mug of water.  "Try and drink as much as ya can, Vin, it'll help; rinse that crap out when it builds up, especially before ya sleep. I don't want ya swallowin' none, it's makin' ya sick." Once Tanner drank his fill, Nathan gave his shoulder a gentle tug of support. "Go on, Vin, lie down," he ordered, worried that Larabee hadn’t said a word. He knew the man had to be haunted by the death of JD Dunne, but right now they had to concentrate on the living.

Tanner did as Jackson told him and soon felt the man’s hands prodding his ribs, paying particular attention to the dark bruise that covered his right side. Vin held his breath and bit his lip as Jackson hit a particularly sore spot, shaking his head when the other man apologized. He turned onto his left side when the healer told him to and heard Larabee’s sharp expletive.

"Vin, you been pissin’ blood?" Jackson asked, fingers dancing lightly over the bruised area.

"No . . . not that I noticed . . . back hurts . . . but no . . . no blood," Tanner answered.

"Good, but that’s going to be sore for a while," Jackson said and looked into the basket of supplies. He found several jars and opened two before finding one that looked and smelled like the one he used. "Vin, I’m going to rub this into your back and see if I can get Juanita to make you something for that fever."

Chris watched as the healer stuck his fingers into the salve and gently massaged it into the Texan’s back. Nathan took care as his fingers rubbed until the salve disappeared and Chris couldn’t help but smile as Tanner sighed tiredly. He could see the lean body relax as if Jackson’s ministrations worked wonders, and the blond realized that’s exactly what the former slave was doing. His mind wandered to the kid whose easy going smile and strange sense of humor had made them all cringe. Yet the Bostonian had proven his mettle each and every day since that first time when he’d shown that he could ride, shoot, and fly.

"Chris, I don’t got much time left, but I need to take a look at you," Jackson said and realized how much Dunne’s death had affected the gunslinger when Larabee peeled off his shirt, revealing the damage done by De Rivera and his men. "Sonofabitch!"

The sound of that angry curse caused Tanner's head to pop back up. "Tanner, get that mangy head down!" Chris barked and turned to Nathan. "It’s okay, Nate . . . not as bad as it looks," he lied 

"Like hell it isn’t," Jackson snarled. "Did they even clean these up?"

"No," the blond answered simply. He watched as Jackson added something to the clean water and winced when the healer pressed a soaked cloth to the wounds on his chest. It took a lot for him to remain silent as his friend cleaned the wounds, but Chris remained stoic as Jackson eased the cloth over the crusted marks.

"There ain’t much here ta put on this, but if we keep them clean it should be okay," Jackson said and turned his attention to the old wound Larabee had received in what felt like a lifetime ago. The stitches were still in place, but the wound itself was swollen as if something putrid rested just below the surface. He pressed against the wound until a putrid fluid oozed from the edges and dabbed at it with the cloth.

Chris remained silent until Jackson pressed against the wound and he gripped the edges of the thin mattress as Tanner turned to look at him. Green eyes met blue and a silent vow was issued and accepted. No matter what it took, JD Dunne’s death would be avenged and the old bastard would die a thousand times over for robbing the world of a kid who’d only just begun to live.

Nathan finished cleaning the wound, but he still needed to make sure Larabee and Tanner had no injuries he couldn’t see. Unfortunately his time was up when the door opened and Juanita told him his time was up. He wanted to stay, but to do so would probably set De Rivera on edge and he would take it out on Chris and Vin.

"We’re okay, Nathan," Larabee told him, reaching for the pitcher and pouring the water into a cup.  He drank it slow, wishing he could ease Jackson’s mind, but nothing he could say or do would rid the man of the torment mirrored in the soulful brown eyes.

Nathan left the room, wincing when he heard the sound of the lock being engaged as he slowly made his way up the steep stairs. He swallowed several times, fighting the bitter taste of anger as he thought of the two men locked in the room below ground.

"The patron said you can check them again later this evening, but for now you are to stay with Dona Maria," Juanita explained.

Nathan nodded and left the kitchen, and walked along the narrow hallway that led to the staircase. His anger intensified with each step until he could no longer control it. He lifted his right arm and drove his fist into the wall, ignoring the pain that ran the length of his arm. He grabbed a vase of flowers from the small table near the alcove and vehemently threw it at the wall. Nathan had no idea how long he stood there, breathing hard as bitter bile rose in his throat, but he didn’t regret his show of anger.

Breathing through his nose he turned to find Juanita watching him closely. He realized his anger had made more work for her, but could not find the words to apologize.

"Go . . . I will clean this up," Juanita voiced in a very sympathetic tone.

Nathan simply nodded before quickly making his way up the stairs and stepping into the room to find Evita watching him with deep seeded sadness in her eyes.

"How is your friend?"

"Hurting," Jackson said, glancing around as he lowered his voice. "Chris is there too . . . God, Evita, they’re in no shape to fight."

"Are you so sure, Nathan? Did you not tell me how strong your friends are?"

"Being strong won’t help ‘em if they’re already hurt and sick. Vin’s got a fever," the healer answered.

"Then we must pray, Nathan," Evita told him, wishing there was more she could say or do to put the man’s mind at ease. Alas, the cruelty that had surrounded her since Don Garcia De Rivera had chosen her now reached out to touch the innocent lives of others.

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Village Near the Covas home

Early Afternoon 

Mateo Ramirez looked down at his aged fingers as he worked the needle through the edge of his well-worn moccasins. If asked his age he would simply smile and say he was older than dirt and the lines on his face gave credence to those words. He spent his waking hours seated on the stump outside his granddaughter’s small house. Mateo helped her in the only way possible. He made repairs to her children’s clothing and moccasins and when his hands were up to it he showed them tricks he’d learned through the years.

Ramirez had lived in the village all his life and seldom traveled far from his home, but he made it his business to watch the strangers who entered his domain. His eyes were not as good as they once were, but his sight was better than most people half his age. The newcomer in the red coat rode his horse as if born to the saddle, yet Mateo could tell the man came from breeding. He sensed the man meant no harm, but that did not mean he wouldn’t cause trouble. Mateo sighed heavily and went back to his work while watching the newcomer suspiciously.

Ezra rode into town with an easy gait he hoped would put the villagers at ease. He felt them watching him suspiciously, and had already spotted several people staring in his direction. He’s been a stranger in many towns during his life and understood why people were suspicious. More often than not strangers meant danger and the simple people of villages like this one tended to shy away from newcomers.

Standish stopped his horse in front of a structure that looked like it might be a restaurant and dismounted. He turned and glanced around the street while pretending to check his saddle. There was an elderly man sitting on a stump outside a small structure who seemed to be watching him with interest and Ezra slowly walked toward him.

"Hola . . . hablar ingles," Standish tried and hoped he’d said enough for the old man to understand.

"Si . . . yes," the man said in a raspy voice that spoke of years of tobacco use.

"Thank God . . . "

"If you must," the man said simply, his aged eyes raking over the newcomer. "You’re a gringo?"

"Yes, I have recently arrived in your beautiful country and was looking for some friends of mine who I believe may have come this way."

"You are the only gringo I’ve seen . . . "

"Perhaps someone else has seen them?" Standish asked.

"I am always here . . . if gringos had been here I would have seen them," the man answered and stared toward the end of town as several familiar riders entered and rode as if they owned everything in sight. "You should leave now, senor, they do not like gringos."

"Who are they?" the gambler asked as six riders pulled to a stop near a cantina.

"Don Garcia’s men . . . they will kill you if they find you here."

"Don Garcia De Rivera?"

"Si, he is a cruel man and his men are just as bad."

"Can you tell me where the De Rivera home is?"

"It is southwest of here, but you will be killed if you go there."

"I have no choice . . . several of my friends are there."

"Then you should forget them and leave while you can . . . "

"I am afraid that is not an option, Sir."

"Then I will say a prayer for you and your friends."

"Gracias," Standish said and hurried to his horse as De Rivera’s men entered the cantina. He hurriedly mounted the animal and rode out of town, a hint of a smile on his face as he thought about confronting De Rivera’s men and finding out where his friends were being held.

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Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Early Evening

Raphael wished there was some way to contact the men of Four Corners, but he wasn’t even sure they were still in the town. JD had yet to regain consciousness, but even in his delirium he spoke of Larabee and Wilmington and Raphael began to wonder if the two men were somewhere on the De Rivera land. He prayed that was not the case as the elderly patron did not like gringos. 

"Raphael, my cousin made a spicy stew and would be insulted if you did not try it," D’Rosa said and handed his friend the bowl of flavorful stew.

"It’s good," Cordova told him.

"Carmella has always enjoyed cooking," D’Rosa observed and watched his friend closely. Raphael looked drawn and pale as if he hadn’t slept for days and Javier knew he would not sleep much until JD Dunne opened his eyes and told them what had happened. "He is a fighter . . . "

"Yes, he is," Raphael said with a smile.

"What are you thinking about, Amigo?"

"I think he is like a pit viper when angry. If you had seen him when he thought I was a threat to his amigos you would have seen the warrior he truly is. He was ready to take me on if it meant saving his friends," Cordova explained. He placed the bowl of stew on the table and quickly dipped a cloth in the cool water before placing it across Dunne’s forehead. The Bostonian’s dark hair was soaked with sweat, and Raphael worried that the fever continued to rise.

JD was lost in a nightmare world, one wrought with danger and pain. His head felt ready to explode, but he was forced to watch as the elderly stranger pulled a gun and aimed it at Chris Larabee. Dunne fought to help, but was held in place by two men intent on breaking his arms. He felt tears in his eyes, but refused to let them fall as the force of the bullet’s impact sent his mentor flying backward into a shallow grave. His head moved back and forth as the force of his grief sent daggers through his heart.

"No . . . please . . . no, Chris . . . watch out . . . "

"Easy, Chiquita," Raphael soothed when Dunne showed signs of coming around. He pressed the shoulders back to the bed and watched the kid’s face closely, but JD’s open eyes showed no sign of recognition as his body went slack once more. He knew Dunne was seeing something very real and began to wonder if Chris Larabee was closer than he realized.

"Why would he be this far south?" D’Rosa asked curiously.

"I wish I knew, but until he wakes up the secret stays locked in his head," Cordova explained.

"Do you think his friends are looking for him?"

"I hope so . . . or they could be De Rivera’s prisoners," Raphael told him.

"God help them," D’Rosa said and silently said a prayer as he watched Raphael care for the young man.

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Camp, East of the Village

Early Evening

Buck strode across the clearing, wearing a trail through the grass with each step he took. He knew Ezra hadn’t been gone that long, but he’d never been a patient man and wanted, needed to tear something apart as time passed and still no word on his friends. He heard Josiah reading from his Bible and turned to look at the man who asked salvation from a God who sometimes seemed cruel beyond words.

"Buck, why don’t you make some coffee?" Sanchez suggested, hoping to take his friend’s mind off his worries.

"Ezra should have been back by now!"

"Perhaps he’s being subtle in how he gathers the information we need."

"Yeah right . . . I remember the last time Ezra used subtlety to get information. It took forever and a bottle of whiskey!"

"But he got the information we needed," the ex-preacher told him. "Give him time, Buck . . . "

"How much time . . . "

"Less than a minute if he’s the one riding that horse," Sanchez said as the sound of hoof beats reached his ears just before Ezra rode into the small clearing.

"What the hell took you so long?" Wilmington growled as the gambler dismounted and joined them at the fire.

"Your concern is touching," Ezra knew the rogue was worried and held those fiery blue eyes a moment, nodding his head slightly. "I believe there’s a way to find out exactly where the others are being held, but it will take more than subtlety to get the information," Standish said and took a drink from his canteen.

"You found something in the village?" Sanchez asked.

"More like I found someone . . . or more apt several people who could answer our questions. They work for Don Garcia," the conman explained.

"How do you know that?" Wilmington asked.

"I was speaking with an elderly man who supplied the information. There were six men who rode in and he told me who they were. I believe we will be able to ascertain the location of De Rivera’s Hacienda and perhaps we could also find out how many men he has there."

"Now that sounds like a plan," Wilmington said, anxious to get moving.

"Buck, we need to think about this . . . "

"What’s to think about, Josiah . . . we go in there and make them talk!" the rogue snapped.

"There are innocent villagers who could get hurt," Standish told him. "We need to make sure they are in no danger before we take action."

"Ezra’s right, Buck," Sanchez observed. "We need to come up with a plan that doesn’t involve anyone else getting hurt."

"What about Chris and the others? How do you think they’re being treated while we make plans?" Wilmington snarled. 

"I don’t know, Buck, but I do know they wouldn’t want anyone else getting hurt if we can stop it from happening," the older man explained and watched as Wilmington’s shoulders slumped in defeat..

"I hate it when you’re right, Josiah," the rogue said. "So any idea how we should go after De Rivera’s men?"

"We should lay in wait for them outside the village and take them before they realize anything is wrong," Standish suggested.

"How do we know which way they’ll go?" Wilmington asked.

"We don’t, but the village is fairly small and we could probably keep watch from either end of the main street. When I left De Rivera’s men were in the cantina and if I’m correct they’ll be drinking themselves into oblivion," Standish told them.

"So they should be pretty drunk by the time we set things up," Sanchez offered.

"It’ll make them easier to handle," the rogue agreed.

"Perhaps, or it could make them more dangerous," Standish told them.

"We’ll handle them when the time comes," Sanchez said and placed his Bible inside his saddlebag before helping break camp.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening

Nathan sat on the comfortable armchair and rubbed at tired eyes. He’d been allowed to check on his friends twice during the long day, and wished there was some way to help the two men escape. He knew there was nothing he could do and looked at the pale woman who slept with an air of innocence he associated with children.

Dona Maria was a beautiful lady who was as delicate as the flowers taken by the first heavy frost of winter. She was as pale as the wind driven snow, yet she fought with the strength only a mother to be held. Nathan admired the woman and hoped she survived the birth of her child, but he knew childbirth would sap even more energy from her.

"Nathan?"

"I am here, Dona Maria," Jackson said and moved closer to the bed.

"My baby . . . he will soon be ready to face the world," Maria whispered.

"It will be a few weeks yet," the healer told her.

"No, I do not think so. There is pain . . . sometimes very bad. They grow worse and get closer," the pretty woman told him sadly as she placed her hand on her swollen belly. "It is too soon, but he will be strong and he will grow into a man I will be proud of. You and Evita will take care of him when I am gone."

"You’ll be here . . . "

"I wish I could believe that, Nathan, but I am tired and do not have the strength needed to see my son grow . . . promise me you will not allow my husband to hurt him."

"I will do what I can, Dona Maria," Jackson vowed.

"That is all I ask," Maria said. Her face became twisted in a tight grimace of pain and she soon felt Nathan’s hand in her own. She squeezed tightly, waiting for the pain to diminish before settling back against the pillows and allowing the tears to escape from her eyes as she studied the man before her. She knew he was worried about his friends, but there was nothing she could do or say to wipe that away. She closed her eyes and thought about the baby waiting to be born and hoped that, unlike his father, he would have a good heart.

Nathan continued to watch over his charge, but his mind returned to the two men in the cell and the memory that JD Dunne was dead because of Don Garcia. How would Larabee be able to live with the fact that he’d been forced to dig the young man’s grave and cover him with dirt? "Lord, give us all the strength we need to see things set right," he whispered and returned to the chair as dark shadows formed across the land, mirroring the darkness he felt engulfing his heart.

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Village Near the Covas Home

Late Evening

Buck listened for any sign that the six men were leaving the village. He’d found a place to hide so that he could keep an eye on the north and south entrances at the same time. Ezra and Josiah were waiting nearby with the horses and at his signal they would set in motion the ambush that would bring down De Rivera’s bandits. They’d picked out a spot to the north and the south for the ambush and would meet there before the killers left the village.

Wilmington had thought long and hard about the bandits and wondered if these men were part of the marauders who’d caused so much death and destruction north of the Rio Grande. If they were they would pay dearly for those transgressions. Innocent women and children had been murdered and that was something he would not let go unpunished. Buck wondered how many people De Rivera’s men had killed and whether they would ever know the full extent of their evil.

Movement at the Cantina doors caught his attention and he watched as six men stumbled through the door and made their way toward the saddled horses tied to the nearest hitching post. They sang some bawdy song in a guttural display of drunkenness that made his stomach churn. Buck waited until they mounted up before signaling to his friends that they were headed toward the trail leading north out of the village. He quickly mounted his horse and galloped toward the rendezvous point and was relieved when he spotted Ezra and Josiah hidden near the entrance to the pass. The idea was that they’d corral the six men and disarm them before they realized what was happening.

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Hernando Lopez knew they’d incur Don Garcia’s wrath if he found out about their transgressions so close to home. The village was small and he made sure the people would not betray them by terrorizing them to the point where they were frozen with fear whenever he rode into their domain.

Lopez was angry with De Rivera for sending him away from the hacienda and his entertainment with the gunslinger. Abusing the blond gringo had brought him pleasure and now he had to ride north when there was going to be a fight to the death in the Arena De Muerte. He’d found out about it just before leaving the hacienda and that was the reason he’d decided he deserved to take a break and have a few drinks before heading north.

"Perhaps that pretty puta will be waiting for your arrival, Hernando," Gonzales said with a leering grin.

"Si, and this time there will be no one to stop me from taking what I want!" Lopez said as they rode toward the edge of town. He knew exactly what he would do with Maria when he found her. She’d pay for ever thinking he was not worthy of her and yet she’d bedded down with Chris Larabee. He rode slightly ahead of the others, his eyes not quite able to focus because of the effect of too much whiskey in too short a time.

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East of the Covas Home

Late Evening

Raphael hated leaving JD Dunne’s side, but he knew he’d left the young man in excellent hands. Carmella Covas had promised him she would care for the Bostonian as if he was her own son. They needed supplies and he knew how dangerous it was traveling alone with De Rivera’s bandits still out there. If he was caught he would be brought back to face Don Paulo and that was something he could not allow until he was sure Dunne was taken care of.

They would ride through the night until they reached the Rio Grande and camp until morning before heading north toward Four Corners. It hadn’t been an easy decision on his part, but if they could get Nathan Jackson to ride with them then perhaps the Easterner would live to see his next birthday.

He’d left Javier D’Rosa behind in case there was trouble, but something told him the Covas’ could take care of themselves. They’d been riding for nearly an hour when they spotted the village ahead. He’d always been a cautious man and although he knew most of the villagers he knew there was also a danger from the Haciendadas in the area. He rode slightly to the left of Augusta Medina and knew the others were also watching for signs of trouble.

"Is that Lopez?" Augusta asked as he spotted several men riding away from them.

"Si, that is the bastard and if he and his men are riding north we should follow them and see that they do not harm any more innocents," Cordova explained.

"Perhaps we should just kill them and have done with their poison?" Ramirez suggested. They all knew of the raids against the homesteads and against the people who lived in remote areas and wanted to put an end to the senseless killings, but so far they’d been two steps behind the marauders.

"That would make us like them," Ricardo Alverez observed as they entered the small village and continued along the street until they reached the trail heading north.

"Ricardo is right, but that does not mean we can not stop them if they attack another homestead. Until then we stay behind them and follow until we reach the Rio Grande. Once we cross I will ride to Four Corners for help and meet all of you back at the Covas home," Raphael explained.

"It is dangerous for you to ride alone, Amigo," Augusta said.

"I will be careful . . . besides Don Paulo thinks I rode as far north as the trails allow," Cordova said just as a shot was fired ahead. "Sounds like Lopez ran into some trouble!"

"Perhaps we should stay back until whoever it is takes care of the problem for us?" Augusta Medina suggested.

"Are you a coward, Augusta?" Eduardo teased.

"No, just being smart. The cost of bullets is heavy on my pockets," Medina told them. "Do we ride, Raphael?"

"We ride," Cordova said and led the others toward the gunfire.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening

Chris Larabee lay on his left side and watched as Vin Tanner tossed in the throes of a fever that sapped his strength and gave his skin a pallor that reminded the blond of death’s shadow. He’d seen it too many times in his life and silently prayed to whatever God was listening that death would not come calling for the scruffy Texan. Nathan had been allowed to treat them twice during the day and they’d been given food and juice and water, but Tanner had barely eaten anything as he fought to keep the pain to himself.

Chris sat up and reached for the jug of water, pouring a small amount into a cup and drinking it before returning his attention to his friend, surprised to see the sky blue eyes at half-mast.

"Ain’t dead yet, Cowboy."

"Could have fooled me . . . I’ve seen week old corpses with better color," Larabee said filling the Texan’s cup with the sweet juice and waiting for him to sit up. It took several long minutes and Tanner’s entire repertoire of colorful words in several languages before Tanner was sitting up with his back against the wall.

"Yer not lookin’ so good yerself, Larabee," the Texan said, sipping the juice and relishing the sweet taste as it trickled down his throat.

"Feel like eating something?"

"What’cha got?"

"Some kind of fruit, nuts, some sweet bread," Larabee explained and watched as his friend looked on disinterestedly. 

"Sweet bread sounds just . . . "

"Like what gave you that tooth ache in the first place," the blond said, handing a piece of the soft, sweet bread Juanita had brought earlier. "Nathan said to tell you to eat and drink."

"Nate was here?"

"Twice . . . last time you were out of it," Larabee answered.

"Feel like shit . . . "

"...you look it too . . . want some more juice?"

"'kay," Tanner told him, sighing tiredly as he tried to get comfortable.

Chris handed the glass over and lay back on his bed. He hated how weak he felt as his eyes closed and realized neither he nor Vin were in any shape for a fight to the death, and yet death would come calling in less than two days. The problem with that was he wasn’t ready to die and he damn sure wasn’t going to let Vin Tanner die. He’d let one young man die in this hellhole, and that was enough to tear his heart out.

Vin watched the gunslinger as his eyes closed and he drifted toward sleep, but there was no easing of the tension that marred Larabee’s face. He knew his friend was having nightmares of JD’s death and wished there was some way he could put his mind at ease, but that would not happen until Don Garcia De Rivera was brought to justice, Larabee style. He finished the juice and lay back, closing his eyes and thinking about the loss of a friend, a brother in arms and wondered if God had finally abandoned them all. His mother’s voice came back to him and followed him toward sleep as a smile formed on his face.

‘God will never abandon you, Vin, not if you have faith in Him and in yourself.’

 

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Village Near the Covas Home

Late Evening

The element of surprise had been on their side, but Lopez and his men had not been as drunk as the three men thought. Wilmington ducked behind a rock as a bullet chipped off sharp pieces and sent them toward his face. He could hear Josiah and Ezra returning fire, but the six bandits had taken cover and hidden from view.

Ezra lay on his side behind a copse of brush and returned fire as the six men dismounted and dove for cover. He heard a sharp expletive from his left and hoped Josiah was okay, smiling slightly when the big man fired several shots toward their nemesis. A cry of pain told him the ex-preacher had hit someone and he thought about the odds against them now. ‘A little better,’ he thought as he tried to find a mark, but the bandits seemed to have found cover.

Josiah looked at the wound and realized the bullet had taken a fair chunk of flesh when it ploughed through his upper right arm. He ignored the pain and fired off several quick shots before reloading his gun. He frowned when he heard the sound of approaching riders and wondered if Ezra had miscounted. He lifted his head and gazed around the boulder, firing when he spotted a dark shape leaning against a nearby tree. He fired and watched as the man dropped to his knees before tumbling the rest of the way to the ground. He fired two more shots in quick succession and thought he heard them echoed from further away.

"We got company!" Wilmington snapped off a shot at a point where he’d seen a dark shape blended to the background, but knew he’d missed when the other man returned fire. He heard someone cry out and frowned when a vaguely familiar voice reached his ears.

"You die now, Gringo!" Pedro Gonzales warned from the right.

Buck knew he was caught, but he would not give up this easily. There was always a way out of any box and his chances were better if he could just turn the tables on the bandit who’d managed to get the drop on him.

"Drop the gun . . . "

"Not a chance," Wilmington said and suddenly realized the newcomer wasn’t talking to him when a man stumbled through the brush beside him. He turned to see another man step through, his weapon raised but pointed at the injured bandit. "Raphael."

"Wilmington!" Cordova said, but his attention was on the bandit and his shot killed the man as he lifted his weapon.

"I owe you," the rogue said as more gunfire sounded around them. Raphael moved in beside him and the two men quickly joined in the fight until silence echoed through the surrounding hills and mountains. They remained where they were for several minutes, listening for any sign of movement and looked at each other when the silence stretched for several minutes.

"How many were there?" Cordova asked.

"Six," Wilmington said.

"Raphael, we got them!" Cortez called from a short distance away.

"Are you sure, Mario?"

"Si, there are five dead and we have a couple of prisoners . . . one appears to need a Medico," Cortez explained.

Raphael and Buck stood up as Hector Ramirez and another man led their prisoners into the clearing. Buck chuckled when he saw the prisoners and heard Raphael beside him.

"Is that . . . "

"Ezra and Josiah," Wilmington supplied.

"Hector, you can let them go . . . they are amigos," Raphael explained.

"Amigos . . . are you sure . . . the fancy red coat here tried to shoot my leg off!"

"I assure you it was not your leg I was aiming for," Standish said.

"Well, Senor, there is nothing you could damage below Hector’s waist," Mario Cortez offered and put away his weapon as his friends chuckled softly.

"You are too funny, Mario," Ramirez said and looked toward Raphael. "So who are these gringos?"

"These are three of the gringos I told you about," Cordova explained.

"The ones from Four Corners?" Ramirez asked incredulously.

"Si," Raphael said and turned his gaze on Buck Wilmington. "Is Nathan Jackson with you?"

"No, but we think we know where he is," the rogue snapped. "Him and Vin were taken by De Rivera’s men about ten days ago."

"De Rivera . . . damn, I had heard his wife was ill and he was looking for a medico," Cordova offered. "Where’s Larabee?"

"They came down here huntin’ for Vin and Nate . . . "

"They?" Cortez asked.

"Chris and JD . . . we split up," Wilmington answered and saw the change in Raphael. "Raphael, tell me you know where they are?"

"JD was hurt, Buck . . . "

"How bad?" Wilmington interrupted worriedly.

"Took a shot to the head . . . "

Buck’s face blanched as he heard the words that rocked him to his soul. His legs trembled and he wasn’t sure he could stay on his feet, but a strong, supporting hand was placed on his shoulder as Raphael continued.

"We found him buried in a shallow grave and took him to Javier’s cousin. She is caring for him now, but he needs your friend," Cordova told them.

"Where?" Standish asked, the word laced with concern as Sanchez continued to support Wilmington.

"I will take you," Raphael vowed and turned to his friend. "Mario, you and Hector ride to the next village and get whatever supplies you can. We will be at the Covas home . . . " He studied Buck Wilmington's ashen face. "Are you okay, Amigo?"

"No..." Buck answered, but then the shock began to wear off and his eyes turned deadly. "But that son-of-a-bitch De Rivera is gonna wish that he was never born!"

"Do not go against De Rivera until we get back, Amigo," Cortez warned and went to gather the horses.

"How far?" Sanchez asked, wrapping a piece of cloth around the wound to his right arm, relieved when Ezra took over and tied the material tightly. "Thanks, Ez."

Standish nodded and moved to get their horses. Before long they were mounted up and riding back toward the Covas home, fearful of what they might find on arrival.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

De Rivera Hacienda

Midnight

Nathan knew he should be sleeping, but made his way out on the verandah and looked out over the silent fields. The moon was high overhead, her swollen belly hanging low as the stars surrounding it twinkled with the light of hope. How many times as a child had he stood alongside his father and prayed that someday he would be free to live his own life. The years as a slave had left scars on his body and mind, but he’d overcome both and found a family in the most unlikely place.

Now it seemed as if he’d gone back in time and once more was slave to a sadistic man who thought he could take whatever he wanted. He felt sorry for Maria and her unborn child and wished he could do something to help them both be free, but there was no way he could do anything with Chris and Vin’s life at stake. He’d been allowed to check on them every few hours and yet his anger had intensified because he knew now he was helping them so they could face near certain death in the Arena de Muerte.

"Lord, no matter what tests you give me I’ll do my best to pass ‘em, but sometimes a man’s gotta have a little help . . . a little hope that there’s somethin’ besides death waitin’ fer ‘im. My mama always told me ta be strong and have faith, but sometimes a man’s faith can only go so far. I ain’t never given up hope, Lord, but there are times when there don’t seem to be any left," Jackson sighed tiredly and listened to the soft voice inside the room. The words were hauntingly familiar and brought tears to his eyes as he watched Evita Martinez place a gentle hand on Dona Maria’s forehead.

"Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come

‘Tis Grace hath brought me safe thus far, and Grace will lead me home . . . "

Nathan let the tears slip from his eyes as he listened to Evita’s strong voice and felt a little hope flair in his heart. There was no way he could quit, not now, not when his friends depended on him. He listened to the soft words and drew strength from them as he walked back into the room. Dona Maria’s face was bathed in sweat and he knew it wouldn’t be long before the baby was born, he just hoped she was further along than they’d first thought.

"Nathan, you should get some rest."

"I could say the same thing to you, Evita."

"I can not rest when her time is so close," Evita told him. There was a sadness in her voice as she gently placed a hand on Maria’s swollen belly and felt the baby’s movement beneath her touch. "God help her and give her the strength to survive."

"The baby is coming, Evita."

"I know . . . he will be born early, but he will be strong like my Luis," Evita told him.

"Don Garcia will . . . "

"Raise him as he sees fit and without Dona Maria’s influence I am afraid he will raise him in his own likeness."

"No one can be that cold," Jackson observed, but the thought of the baby being raised by Don Garcia sent a shiver down his spine. He looked at the pale, beautiful flower and knew she would not survive the baby’s birth. "God help us," she whispered and moved to the cot set against the opposite wall. He closed his eyes as Evita cared for the ailing woman.

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Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Early Morning

Buck rode along the trail beside Raphael, his heart beating so loudly he was sure the others could hear it. ‘Took a shot to the head . . . took a shot to the head . . . took a shot to the head . . . ’ Cordova’s cryptic words echoed and re-echoed through his mind and he fought the urge to spur his horse ahead.

Buck took a deep breath as the moon illuminated the dwelling ahead and glanced at Raphael. "Is that where JD is?"

"Si, Amigo, but if you ride in there you will get a face full of buckshot. Let me ride ahead and warn Carmella you are here," Cordova told him.

Buck nodded his head and reluctantly stayed back as Raphael and his compadres rode toward the house. There was light from a single window and Wilmington knew that was where he would find JD. He silently prayed the ‘kid’ would survive the wound, but something told him it would be a hard fight. Without realizing he’d done so Buck spurred the horse forward as Raphael entered the house.

"Buck, hold on a minute," Sanchez warned.

"I need to see him," Wilmington said simply.

"I know you do, but give Raphael a chance to talk to them," the ex-preacher ordered. They pulled up at the hitching post near the corral and waited for Cordova’s return.

When Raphael did Buck slid from the saddle, dropped his reins and hurried forward. "Is he . . . "

"He is alive, Buck, but he is still unconscious," Cordova explained.

"Damn," Wilmington said and followed the Mexican into the house. He nodded to the man sitting at the table and made his way into the bedroom. His breath caught in his throat and he swore his heart skipped a beat when he spotted the Bostonian. JD’s dark hair was matted with a mixture of blood and sweat and stuck to his head. His skin was washed out pale except for a vivid bruise that totally covered the side of his face. "Jesus, Kid, should’ve made you stay in town."

"Buck, Josiah, Ezra, this is Carmella and Cristóbal Covas. They have been taking care of JD since we brought him here," Cordova explained.

"Thank you, Senora," Sanchez said as Wilmington sat on the edge of the bed and gently touched the younger man’s arm.

"You are welcome, Senor, but I did very little. Raphael has been the one to spend his time caring for your young friend. He would have died had my cousin not brought him here," Carmella explained.

"We owe you all a debt of gratitude for what you have done," Standish said.

"No, Javier told me he trusts Raphael and Raphael seems to trust you . . . that is enough for me," the woman told them and reached for the basin of water. "I will get more water and warm up the stew we had for supper."

"We don’t want to put you out, Senora," Sanchez said.

"Nonsense, there is plenty," Carmella said and hurried from the room.

"She is not one to take no for an answer," Cristóbal told them.

Buck could hear the others talking, but he did not feel like joining in as he watched the slow rise and fall of the Bostonian’s chest. "Hell, Kid, can’t leave you alone for a minute."

"Buck, he’s a fighter," Standish said and saw the rogue’s head nod simply. He knew Wilmington had taken the Easterner under his wing, they all had, but for Buck it was like he’d found the younger brother he’d always longed for. Ezra silently prayed JD would make a full recovery, because if he didn’t Wilmington would never forgive himself. "If I was inclined to make a wager I would bet everything I have on JD Dunne . . . "

"Hear that, Kid, Ezra’s sidin’ with the sure bet," Wilmington said with a slight smile. Buck watched as Josiah placed a hand on JD’s forehead, carefully avoiding the bandage that covered the wound.

"Lord, please keep him safe and protect him during his journey back to us," Sanchez said and made the sign of the cross on his chest before nodding to Wilmington and moving back.

"Hear that, Kid, you got a lot of folks countin’ on ya," the rogue said as Carmella returned with a clean basin of cool water. Without a word he took the cloth and gently bathed the feverish Bostonian’s face while the others looked on. "Josiah, we need ta go after Chris, Vin, and Nathan."

"I know . . . "

"My compadres and I will gladly help," Cordova told them.

"Good, ‘cause it sounds like we’ll need all the help we can get," Wilmington vowed.

"Senor, why don’t you and the others eat and make plans while I sit with JD?" Carmella offered.

Buck stared into her eyes and knew this woman would do everything he would to care for the younger man. He took her hand and placed a gentle kiss on it before speaking softly. "God shone His light when you were born."

Carmella smiled and understood his meaning as she took the seat he vacated. There was something about the three men she trusted and she watched as her husband moved to join them. Alone with her charge she hummed a soft tune while placing a cool cloth across his forehead.

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Four Corners

Early Morning

Mary Travis watched as the town came to life, but there was something missing. The people may not realize it, but they’d come to rely on the seven peacekeepers hired by her father-in-law. The men of the town were working together to keep ‘the bad element’ out, but they didn’t have the same reputation as Larabee and the others. So far they’d kept the unsavory characters out, but Mary knew it was only a matter of time before someone like Guy Royal or Stuart James decided to try something. She took a deep breath and turned to see Inez Recillos filling a cup with coffee.

"Mary, are you okay?" the Mexican woman asked and offered the drink.

"I’m fine, Inez," the newspaperwoman answered, accepting the cup of coffee and watching the other customers seated around the saloon. She knew the other woman was worried about a certain rogue, and wished she could put her mind at ease, but so far there’d been no word. Nothing since Buck, Josiah, and Ezra had ridden out in search of the missing men.

"Have there been any more raids?" Recillos asked.

"No, thank God," Mary answered.

"Si, I thank Him every day and pray the others are safe. There are a lot of people in Senor Sanchez’s church even though he is not around."

"People need to have faith and the church is a safe haven for anyone who believes," Mary told her as Gloria Potter joined them. It seemed like the saloon had become the meeting spot to share information and it no longer surprised her when she entered to find men and women seated at the tables drinking coffee and eating their meals. "It amazes me how many people have shown their support for Chris and the others. Everyone is pitching in to keep the town safe."

"Yosemite has done a good job of organizing the men, but I worry that Royal will try something," Potter told her.

"I hope not . . . this town has enough to worry about," Mary said.

"Mary, have faith," Gloria said softly as Inez moved to serve the couple who entered and asked if there’d been any word from the peacekeepers. "Lord have mercy . . . here comes one of the troublemakers."

Mary turned to see who Gloria spoke of and wished the man would just go away, but his next words were directed at her.

"Mrs. Travis, this is unacceptable. I demand you contact Judge Travis immediately!" Conklin snapped.

"Why is that, Mr. Conklin?" Mary asked.

"Those men are supposed to be here to protect the town not off on some . . . "

"Those men you’re talking about are doing what Orrin asked them to do. Those bandits have been killing and terrorizing people and Orrin asked Chris to look into it . . . "

"I’m sure he didn’t mean for them all to go . . . what about the people of this town?"

"What about them?" the newspaperwoman snapped. "It seems to me Yosemite and the other...men of this town are doing a wonderful job."

"They are not the ones being paid . . . "

"No, they aren’t, they do it because they know what Chris is doing is right, unlike those who have never given them a chance. Quit being part of the problem, Mr. Conklin, and start being part of the solution!" Travis spat.

"What do you mean . . . "

"She means go away and leave the protection of this town to the people who really care about it and the people!" Gloria interrupted.

"Now see here . . . "

"I believe it is time you left, Senor," Inez said upon joining the group.

"You have no right to speak to me . . . "

"She does," Mary said and stood up, not surprised to find there were several others, both men and women who stood and backed her up.

"You haven’t heard the last of this!"

"Yes, I have," Mary said and turned her back on the town’s resident troublemaker. She sat down and nodded her thanks to everyone before saying a silent prayer for the safe return of the town’s protectors.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

Nathan made his way down the stairs, his heart aching with every step he took. He knew time was getting short and that there was less than 24 hours before De Rivera forced Chris and Vin into the Arena de Muerte. Both men were fighting fevers and in spite of the food, water, and juices they were not strong enough to fight Don Paulo’s men.

Juanita unlocked the door for him and he entered to find both men sleeping, or so it appeared, but he wasn’t all that surprised when two sets of eyes opened and looked up at him. He took note of the empty pitcher and half eaten food as Juanita lifted the tray and left him alone with the two men. His heart rose in his throat at the thought of the abuse they suffered while he was practically living in the lap of luxury.

"Ain’t yet fault, Nate," Tanner offered with no need for an explanation.

"Maybe not, but it don’t make it any easier," the healer said. "How are you feeling?"

"Better’n I did," the Texan assured him, but the sheen of sweat covering his face and chest belied the words.

"Chris . . . "

"I’m fine, Nathan . . . "

"I wish that ya were," Jackson said and sat down heavily. "Look, I ain’t got much time so let me take a look atcha both."

"Yer a cranky cuss this mornin’," the Texan lightly teased. He lay back and allowed the former slave to check out the multiple bruises before easing onto his side.

"Ya passin’ any blood?" Jackson asked.

"Not since yesterday," Tanner answered. "Back’s still givin’ me fits."

"I ‘spect it is," the healer said and reached for the tin of salve. "I’m gonna rub some more of this in."

"Make sure yer hands ain’t cold . . . "

"I ain’t the only cranky cuss . . . "

Chris sat on the edge of the bed and listened to the two men talking. He knew Tanner wasn’t feeling half as good as he let on. During the long hours he’d lain awake he’d heard the muted guttural cries that escaped whenever Tanner tried to move. Tanner’s back had always given him problems and the blows he’d received made it even worse. He rubbed at his head, wishing the headache would ease, but it wouldn’t until he could get a good night’s sleep. Yet he knew that would not happen as long as the nightmare images of JD Dunne’s final moments replayed every time he closed his eyes.

"All right, Chris, let’s take a look atcha," Jackson said, his heart aching when he looked into the sad, bloodshot eyes. He hated seeing the defeat in the sea-green depths, but he understood exactly where the emotions came from. He gently rubbed salve on the angry marks left by the whip and wished there was an easy fix for what ailed them all, but Don Garcia De Rivera had no sympathy for them. The man was a bastard, one who would pay dearly on judgement day, and Nathan hoped that would come for him before any more of his friends were made to suffer.

"Nathan, you must come right away," Juanita said as she placed the tray on the table between the beds.

"What’s wrong?" Jackson asked.

"It is Dona Maria . . . she is having pain . . . much pain," Juanita explained.

"Go, Nate," Larabee ordered.

Nathan hated leaving the two men, but there was nothing more he could do for them, whereas Dona Maria was probably in full labor and he would need to help care for her. With a quick nod to both men he hurried out of the cell and raced up the stairs. No matter how much he disliked Don Garcia, Nathan would not allow that hatred to influence how he cared for Dona Maria and her baby. He entered the room to find Evita bathing the sweat soaked face.

"Where have you been?" Don Garcia’s angry voice came from the deeper shadows of the room.

Nathan glanced at him and shuddered when he was reminded of a ghoul from the old stories, for that was exactly what the haggard face reminded him of. "I was taking care of your prisoners!" Jackson snapped and moved to the bed. "How is she, Evita?"

"Nathan," Dona Maria whispered tiredly and reached for his hand, grasping it weakly as her eyes searched his. "My baby . . . he is ready to see the world. Help him be strong . . . help me see his face before I . . . before I . . . "

"Sh, Dona Maria," Evita soothed and wished she could make the elderly man leave, but Don Garcia seemed determined to stay where he was. 

"Evita, will you care for m . . . my son as you h . . . have Luis?"

"I will, but you must rest now and save your strength," Evita told her.

Nathan felt the woman’s fingers wrap tightly around his own as she suffered through another contraction. He hoped and prayed both the woman and child would have the strength to survive childbirth. He glanced toward De Rivera and wished the man would leave, but returned his attention to the pregnant woman as she gasped in pain. Nathan knew it was going to be a long day and began telling Evita what he needed.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Mid-Morning

Buck leaned back in the chair and knew he’d need to get some rest before making any concrete decisions on how best to proceed. He wanted nothing more than to charge into the De Rivera hacienda and rescue the three men being held there, but Raphael had quickly explained what a foolhardy plan that would be. They’d been talking for so long his throat felt as if it was on fire.

"There may be someone in De Rivera’s employ we can rely on," Augusta Medina explained and looked at Cordova.

"Luis?" Cordova said.

"Who’s Luis?" Sanchez asked.

"Luis Martinez. His mother has worked on the hacienda since De Rivera married his first wife. It is said that Luis is Don Garcia’s bastard son," Cordova explained.

"If he’s De Rivera’s son why would he help us?" Standish asked.

"Si, Rivera does not acknowledge him, but Luis has been loyal since his birth," Cordova said and looked at Medina. "Why would you think Luis would help us?"

"I have spoken with him and I know he does not like how his ‘papa’ treats his mother," Medina explained. "It seems Luis and his men have been doing what they can to help the villagers when the bandits attack."

"I thought the bandits worked for De Rivera?" Cristóbal observed.

"They do, but as I said Luis does not agree with De Rivera’s actions," Medina told them.

"Can we afford to trust him?" Standish asked.

"A better question would be . . . can we afford not to trust him?" Cordova said and studied Medina closely. "Do you think you could get word to Luis?"

"I know of several places he visits and can leave word that I wish to speak with him, but it could take a few days," Medina told them.

"Chris, Vin, and Nathan might not have a few days," Wilmington offered.

"We don’t have much choice, Buck. We go in there all piss and vinegar and we’re just going to get them killed. At least if we have inside help we have a chance to come out of this alive . . . all of us," Sanchez said.

"Damn it . . . we can’t just sit here and do nothing," the worried rogue snapped.

"We won’t be," Cordova said laying a hand on the tense mustached man's shoulder. "We know enough about De Rivera’s hacienda to start coming up with a plan to get the others out. Augusta, if Martinez doesn’t side with us will he be a problem?"

"I do not think so, compadres," Medina supplied. "Luis is a good man in spite of who sired him."

"I hope you’re right," Wilmington said, standing and stretching the kinks from his back. "I’m gonna go sit with JD a spell . . . you boys come up with anything just let me know."

"All right, Buck," Sanchez answered and watched the weary man make his way toward the bedroom. He knew how hard this was on all of them, but for Buck it was like watching over a kid brother and not liking where it seemed to be headed. ‘Lord, don’t take this personal, but I’m growing tired of the trials You've been sending our way.’

Buck knew the others were right, but that didn’t make the decision any easier for him. They’d talked through the night and most of the morning and plans had been made to rescue Chris, Vin, and Nathan. The problem was they needed more men if they had any chance of doing that.

Buck stood in the doorway of the room where JD slept, oblivious to the upcoming dangers. Carmella Covas had stayed with the Bostonian through the night, but Dunne had yet to regain consciousness. The kid’s features were slack, his skin paler than ever, and Buck couldn’t rid himself of the thought that he was looking at a corpse. A shiver of dread shook him to the core, but he moved into the room and ran his fingers through his sweat soaked hair.

"He is a fighter, Senor," Carmella said. She’d known who it was the instant he’d stopped in the doorway, and wished she could rid him of his fears, but that would not happen until the boy regained consciousness.

"Yes, he is," Wilmington agreed, smiling as the woman touched her hand against JD’s cheek.

"He is so young," she whispered.

"Too young to have seen the things he has, Ma’am," the rogue told her. He moved to sit on the edge of the bed and wished JD would give them some sign that he was okay. Nathan had told them how serious head injuries could be, but somehow this brought it all home. The kid was usually so full of life, but right now he was so still it scared the hell out of Buck. He reached out and placed a hand on JD’s chest, relieved to feel the rise and fall of the chest that told him the kid was alive.

"Buck, I’m going to make some lunch . . . come get me if he . . . if you need anything," Carmella said.

"I will," Wilmington said and felt his gut clench at the thought of the possibility of losing the kid who’d wormed his way into his heart. "Come on, Kid, don’t make me come in there . . . wherever you are and tear you a new hide . . . come on, JD, I never thought of you as a quitter so you’d best not be thinking of making me a liar."

Buck looked up at the sound of footsteps and wasn’t surprised to find Ezra and Josiah watching him. "He’s too damn quiet . . . ain’t never known the kid to be this still even when he’s sleeping."

"Master Dunne gives new meaning to the words a hen on a hot rock," Standish said.

"You’ve been hanging around Vin . . . " Wilmington observed, with a ghost of a smile thinking on the drawling Texan, "...too long..."

"Has he given any sign that he knows you’re here, Buck?" Sanchez asked.

"Not a damn thing," the worried rogue answered. He cupped his hands to his face and wondered if he’d ever be able to tease the Easterner about his hat or about the ladies. A large hand, gentle in spite of the size touched his shoulder and he heard Sanchez whisper a soft prayer and prayed the young man would hear their plea.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

De Rivera Hacienda

Late Afternoon

Nathan could see how much this was taking out of the woman as another contraction rocked her body and stole her breath away.  The baby fought to be born just as hard as his mother fought to draw another breath into her body. Evita continued to wash Dona Maria’s face with a cool cloth, but the glistening beads of sweat continued to appear on her forehead and cheeks.

Nathan cast a sideways glance at Don Garcia De Rivera who was seated at the table with a bottle of wine and a cigar clutched in his gnarled fingers. The Haciendada had yet to move since Dona Maria went into labor. The man’s eyes were cold, calculating, with none of the love and worry a man should have for a wife in obvious pain and distress. There was more cruelty to this man than he’d imagined and he hoped the unborn child would be like his mother. The world already had enough cruelty in it without adding another child to the mix.

Jackson turned back to the bed as Dona Maria cried out weakly and her body shook with the force of a contraction. He moved to check her progress and knew it wouldn’t be much longer. Dona Maria’s water had broken and the baby was ready to make its entrance, but it was doubtful whether his mother would live long enough to see him.

"Nathan, she grows weaker with each contraction," Evita said softly as Dona Maria reached for her hand.

"My baby . . . pl . . . please, Evita, take c . . . care of m . . . my baby f...or me . . . "

"I will, Dona Maria, but only until you are strong enough to care for him yourself," Evita vowed, leaning forward and gently brushing back the stray locks of sweat soaked dark hair that fell across the younger woman’s face.

"A boy needs a good mo . . . mother . . . "

"And he has one . . . one who will love him forever," Evita told her.

Nathan watched Dona Maria’s face and again was reminded of a wilting flower whose beauty shone through in spite of what life had thrown at her. There was also something angelic in her features and a deep sadness surrounded him as he realized he was looking death in the face and that Dona Maria De Rivera would not survive childbirth. He silently prayed she would at least get to hold her child and look into his face before God called her home.

"Nathan, my baby . . . he’s re . . . ready," Dona Maria gasped and clutched the sheets as another, stronger contraction brought beads of sweat to her forehead.

Nathan glanced at Don Rivera and again felt as if the man held no warmth for this woman. He took a deep breath and checked the baby’s position as Evita tried to calm the young woman. He’d delivered a lot of babies since finding a home in Four Corners, some had been hard births while others had been a simple matter of the mother pushing a little harder. Never in his life had he seen such a hard father who showed little or no concern about his wife. Dona Maria De Rivera was just a vessel that could give him what he wanted. 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Luis Martinez knew his mother was helping with the birth of Don Rivera’s child. A child who would be his half-brother, yet his ‘papa’ would never admit to their being brothers. Luis knew Don Garcia wanted to mold the child into his own image and prayed the boy would be spared that kind of life.

"Luis, where are you?"

"I am here, Juanita," Luis called from his hiding place behind the storage sheds. He loved this woman far more than life itself, yet Don Garcia would not allow them to be together. The elderly man felt that Juanita Perez was below them, yet he would not admit to being Luis father. He turned to see the vision of beauty walking toward him, the simple white dress did nothing to hide her curvaceous body and he reached to pull her against him.

"I have missed you so much, Luis," the trembling woman told him.

"I have missed you too, Juanita," Luis told her and waited for her to look into his eyes. "I love you . . . more than life itself."

"Oh, Luis, why . . . why can we not be together? Why can I not share your bed like a husband and wife should?"

"I would like nothing more than to take you as my wife, Juanita, but Don Garcia has forbidden it."

"We could leave here . . . "

"Si, we could, but we would always be on the run and that is not the life I wish for us . . . for you. I want to shout my love for you to the world, but if I do Don Garcia will sell you to another Haciendada and even these stolen moments will be lost to us," Martinez told her.

"Dona Maria will give birth to her son today."

"I know..."

"I wish I could bear your child . . . our son or daughter," Juanita whispered, tears slipping from her eyes as he held her close and spoke of the forbidden love they shared. Someday, God willing, they would be able to hold each other and not be in fear of their lives. For now, they would have to be content to hold each other and hope someday the fates would align their paths and they could live and love without fear of the consequences.

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Chris watched the Texan and knew his friend was sleeping and wished he could do the same, but his dreams were no longer a safe haven. Now they were nightmares filled with images of a young man’s death and his own guilt plagued him every time he thought about JD Dunne.

‘Go home, Kid.’ He had spoken those words a lifetime ago and yet the kid had stayed with them and was . . . had been an integral part of the makeshift family. Now the Bostonian would never tell another lame joke and for that Chris was filled with sorrow. A weighted sigh escaped as he stood up and moved around the small cell. He’d tested the manacles over and over, but there was no escaping their hold.

‘He’ll pay, Kid, I’ll make sure of that,’ Larabee vowed and returned to his cot. He lay down and closed his eyes, allowing a single tear to slip from his eyes.

In the next bed, Vin did not miss the pain emanating from his friend. He knew no matter what happened, Chris would harbor the guilt of JD’s death even though it was beyond his control. Sleep was hard to come by with the pain and weakness waging war in his body. He turned slightly and caught sight of something he never expected to see as the candlelight revealed a single trail of moisture down Chris Larabee’s face. ‘Lord, ain’t much fer prayin’, but I’m askin’ Ya ta give Chris . . . ta give us the strength ta get through this’ he thought before sleep finally reached for him and he fell into it willingly.

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Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Early Evening

For JD the world had suddenly become measured in pain and darkness. If he felt or heard movement around him the pain would grow to encompass his mind and nausea would churn through his gut. He tried to understand what had happened to cause him such pain, but the harder he tried the worse it got until he was sure his head had exploded in a white hot fire. He heard a voice, one that had always given him strength and fought his way through the thick layer of fog that enshrouded his mind.

"Come on, Kid, you can do it," Wilmington coaxed. He’d seen the way Dunne’s eyes moved beneath the closed lids, and prayed the young man would wake up. Carmella Covas was also present while the others were finalizing the plans to raid De Rivera’s hacienda. His shoulders slumped, and his eyes misted when the Easterner remained quiet.

"Keep talking to him, Buck, I believe he’s listening," Carmella told him.

"JD, you keep this up and I just might take pot shots at that stupid hat you wear. It’s got a bunch of holes already so it’d probably be an improvement," Wilmington said.

The voice was back, imploring in its teasing words and JD knew he could not refuse the man’s pleading tone. He slowly fought through the last vestiges of fear and opened his eyes to half-mast. It took a few minutes to focus on the man seated beside his bed and he wondered why Buck’s eyes were closed.

"Buck . . . "

"Hey, Kid, ‘bout time you woke up," Wilmington said.

"What...where..." Dunne's voice was weak and raspy.

"We're in Mexico. You went and got yourself shot, Kid . . . "

"...Shot..." JD's brows furrowed, he didn't remember getting shot.

"Don't fret on that now." Buck reassured him, rubbing his shoulder. "God, you had us worried,"

"Ti . . . tired . . . "

"I know you are, Kid . . . "

"See if you can get him to drink this before letting him sleep," Carmella ordered.

"JD, got something here for you to drink," Wilmington said and lifted him, wincing when the Bostonian cried out sharply. "Easy, Son, I got you."

Carmella held the cup of sweet juice to the slack lips and waited for the young man to drink his fill. She made sure he took several breaks, relieved when he drank most of the offering before Wilmington eased him back on the pillows.

JD felt cold inside as brief images overlaid his brief stint into consciousness. Flashes of memories, some jumbled, some clear as day; each one bringing with it the horrors he knew shouldn’t be real. Chris . . . held tightly between two men . . . an old man, hunched and wrinkled holding a cane in his hand . . . a gun . . . a loud noise . . . pain so bad it threatened to tear him apart . . . Chris crying out . . . Chris falling . . . dead . . . could that be real . . . God his head hurt.

"Chris . . . de . . . dead?" Dunne muttered before losing consciousness. He didn’t see the devastation caused by his broken sentence as the rogue’s face took on a washed out cast that nearly matched his own.

"No . . . Chris can’t . . . can’t be dead."

"Buck, what’s wrong? Did JD wake up?" Sanchez asked. He’d come into the house with Ezra Standish and heard voices from JD’s room.

"He . . . just for a minute, but . . . he said Chris . . . Josiah, he said Chris is dead," Wilmington stammered over the words as he looked from the unconscious young man to the two people who’d joined him beside the bed.

"Perhaps you are mistaken in what you heard," Standish offered.

"No . . . I’m not . . . Senora Covas heard him too," the distraught man told them.

"Si, I heard him," Carmella agreed and wished she hadn’t heard the damning words.

"I’ll kill him, Josiah, I swear on my mother’s grave," Wilmington vowed and slammed his fist into the wall next to the bed.

"Easy, Brother," Sanchez warned. "JD's head's a mess right now; it's possible he's confused. Until we see a body, don't bury him yet."

Buck held the smoky eyes for a moment but his anger still simmered, then they watched as the younger man strode out of the room, stopping Ezra from following him by placing a hand on his arm.

"I just want to . . .

"Let 'im go, Ezra, he needs to cool down." Josiah reached into his pocket and produced the dog-eared Bible. He opened it to a passage he often read and whispered a prayer for the dead before turning his attention to the living.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Evening

The hacienda was quiet, nothing moved, not even a breeze ruffled the flowers or trees. The mestizos worked the field, but they knew something was happening in the big house that dominated the lush green lawn. Word had spread quickly amongst the household servants and then to the fieldworkers that Don Maria De Rivera was in labor and that the baby would soon arrive.

Many of those who worked under the grueling sun prayed that the beautiful woman would live through the birth of her first child, but Dona Maria was a wilting flower whose husband was like the vilest weed strangling her before she’d had a chance to bloom. They knew the child would grow up under his father’s influence, but if his mother lived her hand would also be there to show the boy what was right and what was wrong.

A single, beautiful voice could be heard as it rose above the hush that filled the land and brought with it a hope that filled their hearts and caused others to join in.

"Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,

That saved a wretch like me....

I once was lost but now am found,

Was blind, but now, I see . . . "

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Don Garcia De Rivera watched as Evita gently bathed his wife’s sweat soaked face as the song filtered through the partially open window. He wanted to tell them to be quiet, but he did not want to leave when his son was about to be born. Hours had passed, and still Maria did not push the baby from her body. He knew she was weak, had known it from the first night they’d lain together in their marital bed, but he didn’t care as long as she gave him an heir.

De Rivera grew impatient, reaching for his cane and striding toward the bed, but there was nothing he could do until his child was born. His distaste for the sight of his ailing wife was evident on his face as he strode back to the chair he’d occupied since finding out Maria would soon give birth. A sharp cry from his wife told him she was having another contraction and he watched as Evita and Nathan Jackson spoke softly, encouragingly to her.

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Don Paulo’s Hacienda

Late Evening

Don Paulo stood framed in the dying light from the candle that flickered its last breath and went out in a spiral of black smoke. Tomorrow he would travel to the Arena De Muerte and there he would witness the death of two men he blamed for the murder of his son. Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were only two of the eight men he wanted dead, but he would settle for these two for now.

The sky was filled with a blanket of twinkling lights surrounding a full-bodied moon that illuminated the grounds and buildings that made up his home; a home that now stood without an heir because of a young woman who refused to give herself to his son. Inez Recillos would pay someday, he would see to that, but for now he felt the warm breath of vengeance breathing down his neck.

Don Paulo didn’t consider himself a cold man, but when it came to his family, he would exact revenge from those who thought they could challenge him. Don Garcia was not a close friend, but his missive had been like a binding contract, one that gave him the means to an end. 

Don Paulo had chosen several men to face Larabee and Tanner in the Arena De Muerte. There was no doubt in his mind that his champions would easily lay waste to the two peacekeepers, but he’d told them he wanted the murderers to suffer before they died. He turned back toward his home and stepped inside, anxious for the night to be over and the start of a day of reckoning.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Night

Maria De Rivera knew she was weakening as the strength of the labor pains increased. Her child waited to be born and she pushed as Evita held her hand. The pillows and sheets beneath her were soaked with sweat as her body reacted to the pain, hope, and promise of the baby’s birth.

"I see the head," Nathan said and heard the woman’s soft sobs as she bore down and pushed with what little strength she had left. He could see tears in Evita’s eyes and chanced a glance in Don Rivera’s direction. The old man remained where he’d been since he’d been informed that the baby’s birth was imminent, yet Nathan knew it was for selfish reasons and not for concern for his wife.

"Please . . . so tired," Dona Maria whispered as the contraction eased and she lay back on the bed. Her rest was short lived as another contraction hit on the heels of the one before and Evita helped her sit forward.

"Push, Dona Maria, that’s it, you’re almost there," Nathan said as the head crowned.

"I can’t . . . "

"It’s okay, Dona Maria," Evita said and eased her back against the pillows before reaching for the wet cloth and washing her face.

"Evita, please, watch out for my baby . . . don’t let him . . . " She didn’t finish as another contraction hit and she pushed with everything she could.

Nathan reached between her legs as the baby was pushed through the opening and quickly cut the umbilical cord. He could hear Evita speaking to the baby’s mother, but he continued to clear the newborn’s mouth and nose. It worried him that the child had yet to make a sound.

"Let me see my son!" Don Garcia ordered.

"Just a minute!" Jackson snapped.

"Do not speak to me . . . "

"The baby’s not breathing!" Nathan told him and ignored the irate Haciendada as he cared for the child.

"Bring him to me," Dona Maria whispered and Nathan did as she asked, fear and worry evident on his face as he placed the babe in his mother’s arms.

"You will live to be strong like your grand . . . father," she said and kissed his forehead. The instant her lips touched the child, the baby let out a cry and Maria took one final breath before her eyes closed and the Angel of Death came for her.

Evita looked at him, her eyes filled with tears as he shook his head. The woman’s fight was over, but at least she’d had the chance to hold her baby and that was something Nathan was grateful for. He watched as Evita lifted the wailing child and wrapped him in a blanket made of the softest wool.

Evita turned to the man who’d sired the child and wished she could refuse to show him his son, but that was not her place in this world. She felt the baby relax in her arms and knew he was asleep; exhausted by the fight he’d made to make his appearance in this world.

"He will grow to be a strong man," Don Garcia said.

"Yes, he will," Evita agreed.

"You will find a wet nurse for him," the Haciendada ordered and turned to Nathan Jackson. "You will see to the two men and have them readied for the Arena!"

"And if I refuse?" Jackson snarled.

"Then Tanner will die by my hand and Larabee will face the challengers on his own. I believe they may have a chance together, but alone Larabee will certainly die. It is your choice, Senor Jackson!"

"You’re a cruel bastard, Don Garcia!"

"Watch your mouth . . . or I’ll have you whipped!"

"Please, Don Garcia, Nathan is tired . . . he does not mean what he says," Evita offered, hoping she could keep the man from harm.

"Very well . . . if he apologizes he can tend to his friends," Don Garcia offered.

"Please, Nathan, do as he asks," the woman told him.

"I’m sorry," Jackson said easily, his head held high as he said the words without emotion.

"Very well . . . I will arrange to have Dona Maria buried in the family plot," De Rivera said and walked from the room.

"How can a man be so cruel?" Jackson asked.

"He has always been that way," Evita answered. "He will not even be there when she is laid to rest."

"The old bastard is the devil’s spawn," Jackson whispered.

"Yes, he is," Evita agreed. "I am sorry, Nathan, but I must find a wet nurse for him." 

"I need to go check on Chris and Vin anyway," the former slave told her and turned to look at the woman who’d lived for such a short time, yet had left a beautiful mark on this world. "God has brought another Angel home," he whispered before covering her face and hurrying from the room.

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Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Late Night

Josiah slumped against the porch railing and stared up as a blanket of stars dotted the sky, surrounding a full-bodied moon that seemed bigger than usual. The others were sleeping, except for Buck who was seated in a chair watching over the unconscious JD Dunne. The young man remained unaware of his surroundings even when they managed to force water down his throat.

Josiah was worried, more so than he let on as he thought about the missing men. Nathan, Chris, and Vin were in the lion’s den, and he silently prayed they would live through the experience, much as Daniel had done when he’d been tossed into the lion’s den. He heard movement behind him and turned to find Raphael standing in the open doorway.

"Thought you were sleeping," Sanchez observed.

"Too damn hot," Cordova answered.

"It is warm," the ex-preacher agreed and nodded toward the doorway. "Is Buck still sitting with JD?"

"I do not think wild horses could drag him away," Raphael said. "He is worried."

"We all are, but Buck took JD under his wing a long time ago." The large man paused and found a soft smile. "When JD's wounded, Buck's the one who bleeds."

"He is strong . . . "

"Who . . . JD or Buck?"

"Both . . . all of you. You are a band of brothers in a war against people like Don Garcia and Don Paulo."

"As long as there are people like them we’ll never find peace," Sanchez told him.

"Peace is not all it is cracked up to be," Cordova said, lighting a cheroot as he leaned against the wall and stared out into the darkness. The two men remained silent as they listened to the night birds in the surrounding trees.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Night

With a heavy heart, Nathan made the trip to the cell housing his two friends, but he wasn’t sure he had the strength he needed to care for Larabee and Tanner. The loss of a life was always something that tore at his soul, even when there was nothing he could have done to change things.

The worn healer stopped in the deserted kitchen and grabbed some fresh fruit and juice from the table before heading for the basement. It wasn’t much and he briefly wondered if he could help his friends escape, but movement in the hallway alerted him to the fact that he was not alone. There were guards stationed throughout the house, the grounds, and even the surrounding area, making it impossible for them to escape. The condition of the two men also made it hard to consider escaping because neither man seemed to have the strength.

Nathan made his way down the stairs, forgetting that the door was locked and had to return to the main floor in search of the keys. His frustration grew when he didn’t find them, but spotted Luis Martinez standing near an open window. "Luis . . . "

"Nathan . . . did Dona Maria give birth?"

"Yes, you have a brother," Jackson said as the lamp showed a hint of a smile on the other man’s face.

"What of Dona Maria?"

"She saw her son’s face before the Lord called her home."

"I am sorry to hear that, she was a good woman."  Luis observed sadly.  "A boy should not grow up without the love of his mother."

"Your mother will help raise him, Luis, and if he’s half the man you are then he should be able to stand proud."

"I have nothing to be proud of, Nathan, I am my father’s son."

"You are also your mother’s son and someday you’ll realize your proper place in this world. It is something we have to find for ourselves."

"Si, that it is . . . why are you down here?"

"Don Garcia told me to check on the prisoners," Jackson said, hoping he kept his emotions from showing.

"I have the keys," Luis said and motioned for Jackson to follow him. They made their way down the stairs and Martinez quickly unlocked the door to allow the former slave to enter. He handed him the lamp and looked at the two men in the room. Both seemed to be sleeping; yet Luis knew appearances could be deceiving. The set of their shoulders told him neither man ever really let down their guard.

Luis heard movement in the kitchen and the soft sound of a baby crying. He knew it was his half-brother and thought about the life that lay ahead of him. The child would want for nothing . . . except a mother’s loving hands to guide him. His mother’s voice reached his ears as he heard her softly singing to the babe and he felt tears in his eyes. Somehow he would make sure the baby knew what it meant to be loved, no matter what it took.

"Nathan, I will be in the kitchen when you are finished."

"Thanks, Luis," Jackson said and sighed as he rubbed tiredly at his eyes.

"Ya look like shit, Nate," Tanner observed softly.

"Looked in a mirror lately, Vin?" the former slave asked.

"Cain’t say I ‘ave," the Texan said with a hint of a smile on his pale face.

"How do you feel?"

"Pro’bly’s bad as I look," Tanner offered.

"Ya eat or drink anything?"

"Ate some . . . drank some."

"Vin," Jackson started, his breath catching in his throat as he looked at the two men who’d saved his life on a dusty street before they’d even known his name. "Ain’t nothin’ I can do about tomorrow, but if you and Chris get a chance ta run . . . "

"Ain’t ‘bout ta run out and leave ya here," Tanner vowed.

"Christ, Vin, from what I hear you and Chris don’t stand much chance."

"We beat the odds b’fore, Nate, ain’t one ta back down in a fight . . . ’sides I got Chris ta watch muh back."

"Ya both need to eat and drink . . . I’ll come back before they take ya to the arena. God help me, but I wish there was somethin’ more I could do."

"Yer doin’ it, Nate," Tanner said and offered his hand in more than friendship. "See ya on the other side."

"You’d better," Jackson said before leaving the room.

Chris had lain awake and listened to the two men talk, but his mind was on the young man lying in a shallow grave. During the long hours since JD’s death, Chris had thought of the many ways he could make De Rivera suffer for what he’d done, but nothing really satisfied his need for vengeance.

"Stop thinkin’ so damn hard. Yer makin’ muh hair hurt," Tanner drawled.

"Thought you were sleeping."

"Sleep? With yer damn silence hoverin’?" the Texan asked and turned on his side so he could see the other man bathed in the light of the lamp Jackson had left. "He’ll pay, Chris, ya got muh word on that."

With a nod of his head, Larabee closed his eyes and let the sound of his friend’s breathing ease him into a troubled sleep.

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North of the De Rivera Hacienda

Dawn

Luis Martinez rode as if the devil was on his heels and there were times when he swore he could feel the creature’s talons digging into his legs. He’d never been one to set much store in the tales of devils and fairy creatures the mestizo people in the village spoke of, yet his own father could easily have been the legend such things were made of.

Martinez had stayed long enough to see his half-brother and help find a wet nurse for him, but then the urge for flight had caught him and he’d saddled his horse. Now with the wind whipping the hat from his head and the warm breeze sending his hair flying in all directions he felt free, but understood it was a false sense of freedom. He would never be free as long as Don Garcia De Rivera had any influence over his life.

Luis spurred his horse forward at breakneck speed, hoping and praying he could put a safe distance between himself and the hacienda. He knew it was only a temporary reprieve, because there were people he cared about who were still under Don Garcia’s rule of thumb, his mother and Juanita were first and foremost on his mind. He’d ride with the wind, but at some point he would turn the horse around and go back to his home.

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Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Early Morning

There was no mistaking the sound of a rooster crowing in the distance and Buck reluctantly opened his eyes, frowning as he realized he’d spent the night in a chair. A soft sound from somewhere in the room had him searching for the source and a weary brow shot up as memory returned with the light of day.

"Easy, Kid, I’m here," he whispered. He reached out and placed his hand on Dunne’s shoulder and sighed, as JD seemed to settle with his touch. The sun was peeking through the partially opened curtains that seemed to dance on the morning’s breeze, yet Buck felt none of the warmth he usually associated with this promise of reawakening.

The weary rogue leaned back in the chair and hoped the headache he felt coming on would not become more irritating than it already was. He knew sleep was the only cure, but real sleep was something of a rare commodity, sort of like one of Ezra’s expensive drinks of choice.

"God, Kid," Wilmington said, wondering when he’d ever felt so tired, so alone. His mind wandered back to the dark days that followed the deaths of Sarah and Adam Larabee and Buck knew this was just a step above that. He knew in his heart that JD would make it, yet somewhere deep inside he knew Chris Larabee was dead. The darkness having left him, but the evil had still ensnared him in its trap.

"Are you all right, Buck?"

Wilmington turned to find Ezra watching him and it was a testament to the younger man’s feelings that he didn’t try to hide behind the five dollar words he was so damned proud of. "Yes . . . no . . . Hell, I don’t know, Ezra. Are any of us all right?"

Ezra moved into the room and stared down at the pale-faced young man and took a deep breath before speaking softly as if the sound of his voice might cause JD Dunne more pain. "No, I do not believe we are . . . not at this precise moment, but we will find the others and everything will be all right."

"I hope so, Ez, because I’m too damn young to have a head full of gray hair," Wilmington said seriously.

"I’ll stay with Master Dunne if you want to partake of breakfast with the others," Standish offered and watched as the blue eyes came up to meet his.

"I guess I oughta eat somethin'," Buck decided, his eyes flitting to the pale body in the bed.

Standish read the hesitation and moved closer, resting a hand on Wilmington's shoulder. "If he as much as flutters an eyelash, I will summon you post haste."


"You readin' minds now?" Buck teased, seeing clearly how much Standish was concerned .He stood and sighed hard, giving the conman a grateful nod. "Thanks, Pard."

Ezra waited until Buck left and then stared at the pale face, the nearly undetectable rise and fall of the chest, and reached out to touch Dunne’s arm in an effort to reassure himself that he was still counted amongst the living.

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South of the Covas Home

Early Morning

Augusta Medina knew he was taking a chance, but continued south on the trail that would intercept with the main one leading to the De Rivera Hacienda. He knew if he was caught by anyone, but Luis Martinez, his life would be forfeit. That was the way of his chosen life, and it was too late to change it now. He rode with Raphael Cordova De Martinez by choice, not by force and that’s what bred loyalty.

Medina had led a hard life, one ripe with punishment and fear. Then one day, as if the fates had ordained it he’d met Raphael and was soon riding alongside him. He left nothing behind, his family having died long ago, leaving an orphan to fend for himself. He’d stolen food, just enough to keep him alive, but it hadn’t mattered to the Don he’d taken the biscuits from, because he’d been forced to work for him.

Augusta had often wondered what his life would have been like if the fates hadn’t intervened and shown him he could have ‘brothers-in-arms’. That a man’s true worth was measured by the real friends he had and not by the amount of money in his coffers. He owed Cordova more than just loyalty; he owed him his life. Medina would ride to hell and back if Raphael ordered him to and he wondered what it was about the man that seemed to instill a sense of loyalty in those who chose to follow him.

Medina thought about the injured boy at the Covas home and remembered the stories Raphael had told them all. Stories of heroism and loyalty in a band of brothers that was even more misconceived of than the one he belonged to. Every man had a place in this world, a reason for living, and Augusta knew it was his lot to follow and aid those who helped the innocent. Raphael deserved that much, and more, and he would give his life if that’s what was needed.

With those thoughts running through his mind, Augusta Medina rode toward the lion’s den in hopes of meeting one who would not sharpen his claws on his body.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

The sun had barely risen when a lone man made his way toward the small chapel. It had been a long night with very little sleep as nightmares intruded every time he closed his eyes. The death of Dona Maria De Rivera weighed heavily on his mind, filling Nathan’s heart with a sadness he hadn’t felt since his mother’s death.

Nathan pushed open the door, relieved to find the chapel deserted at this hour and moved to light a candle on the altar. He made the sign of the cross and knelt at the front as his eyes filled with unshed moisture.

"Lord, I ain’t got Josiah’s voice and I ain’t much fer preachin’, but it seems I’m always askin’ fer things lately. It ain’t for myself . . . not direc’ly anyways," Jackson began and took a deep breath as he thought about the baby. Evita had told him the child’s name would be Santos, a special name given by his mother and was said to be given in order to invoke the protection of the Saints. Santos Garcia De Rivera, the name sounded strong and Nathan hoped the child would grow up with his mother’s qualities in spite of his father’s influence. "I know the birth of a baby is a blessed event and I’m prayin’ you’ll be watchin’ o’er him. The boy is gonna need ta be strong if he’s to survive, and I know Evita will look after him, but his father is a cruel man, Lord, and he’ll try ta meld the boy in his own image. I’m beggin’ ya not ta let that happen."

Nathan sighed tiredly at the thought of the two men in the cell and what the fates had in store for them. Again he made the sign of the cross and closed his eyes in prayer. "Lord, Chris and Vin . . . they’s got a fight ahead of ‘em and I’m hopin’ ya’ll have their back ‘cause neither one of ‘em’s strong ‘nough fer what’s ahead. Give ‘em the strength they need and I’ll try and keep the faith that yer not gonna forsake us . . . Amen."

Nathan heard sounds outside the door and stood up. He knew he’d said his peace and hoped it was enough, but for now it was all he could do. He needed to get his things ready if he planned to be of any help to Chris and Vin.

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Luis Martinez returned to the Hacienda as the early morning sun brought with it the promise of a new day. In deference to Dona Maria’s death, the fields were quiet and would remain so until after she was laid to rest. He drew his horse to a stop near the stables and dismounted as a soft breeze blew across his face.

Dona Maria’s fight was over, but there were two men who would face death today and he knew there was nothing he could do to change those circumstances. He had a half-brother to worry about now, and his mother was still under Don Garcia’s rule of thumb and that placed a heavy burden on his shoulders.

Luis turned and drew his gun at the sound of approaching footsteps, surprised when a man stepped from the shadows holding up a piece of white cloth. It took him a few seconds to recognize the newcomer, but his instincts would not allow him to let down his guard so quickly.

"Nice to see you have not lost your touch, Amigo," Medina said softly.

"I have never seen us as amigos, Augusta, but we are not enemies either . . . at least not yet," Martinez offered.

"I hope I never give you reason to see me as an enemy, Luis," Medina explained.

"Why did you come?" Martinez asked.

"I ride with Raphael Cordova De Martinez . . . "

"I heard that. He is a good man," Luis said.

"Si, he is," Medina agreed and took a deep breath. "There is trouble, Luis . . . trouble only you can help with."

"What kind of trouble?"

"Don Garcia is becoming more dangerous and he is hurting people north of the border. His bandits have raided several homesteads and the laws north of the Rio Grande are different than ours. There are several men who protect a town called Four Corners . . . "

"I have heard of them."

"Then you know they are dangerous."

"Si, but what does that have to do with Don Garcia?"

"He has prisoners and if I am correct they are the men from Four Corners . . . "

"Watch yourself, Augusta. What you speak of is not your business."

"Perhaps not, but I tend to make it my business when I see men like Don Garcia get away with murder through his men. I know you well enough to know you would question your ‘padre’s’ orders, Luis," Medina said and continued when the other man remained silent. "Did you know he killed a boy, only the boy was not as dead as he thought?"

"You speak in riddles . . . I have no time for them."

"The boy I speak of is one of those men from Four Corners. He is alive. We found him when we were on the north trail."

"The boy is alive?"

"Si, he is, but he was hurt badly and has been unconscious since we brought him to Javier’s cousin’s home."

"What does this have to do with me?"

"Maybe nothing, but with your ‘padre’ plenty," Medina answered. "We know he is planning a fight at the Arena De Muerte . . . "

"There is always a fight at the arena," Martinez explained.

"Si, but this one is of interest because the fighters are gringos. Do you owe Don Garcia your loyalty, Luis?"

"He is my padre."

"Just because a man is your ‘padre’ does not mean he has earned your loyalty. What of your Madre . . . does she approve of what is happening?"

"Mi Madre has never approved of Don Garcia," Martinez answered. "What do you want me to do?"

"Raphael would like your help to stop Don Garcia and save those men."

"It may be too late . . . they are to fight in the arena this afternoon."

"This afternoon . . . there is no way we can stop that, but perhaps you could keep them alive until we can rescue them?"

"I will see what I can do, but Don Garcia . . . "

"Is thirsty for blood? Si, we know this, but there comes a time in a man’s life when he must make a stand for what he knows is right."

"Even if it costs him his family?"

"Si, when the family is a man like De Rivera."

"You should go before someone sees you, Augusta," Martinez said and made his way toward the main house without a backward glance. He knew whatever decision he made it would mean the life or death of more than the men, it would mean his own life as well, but at least Juanita would have a reason to be proud of him.

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Arena De Muerte

East of the De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Morning

The Arena De Muerte was so named because of the fights set up by the Dons of neighboring haciendas. Weapons were used on special occasions such as the fight that would take place today. A ritual marking of the fighters would also be implemented, a cut made to the right forearm that was meant as a tribute to those who’d fought before. Only when blood dripped onto the soil would the combatants be allowed to attack and a loud cheer would echo through the surrounding hills and mountains.

Most fights ended in death for one or more of the combatants with the victorious Don celebrating with a large amount of coins, new slaves, or a promise of a share of the crops. Although rich beyond most men’s dreams, the Dons loved the sport involved in a death struggle and would often raise the stakes once the first blood was spilled.

There were several spectators from each faction already present because word had spread that Don Garcia De Rivera and Don Paulo De Madera had arranged for a fight that would end in blood. These two Haciendadas were notorious for the rivalry that had grown between them, but it was also well known that the duo would fight beside each other against anyone who stood in their way.

The arena itself had been carved out of a stone outcropping. Nature’s hand could sometimes work in wondrous ways, but it was man’s hand that turned it into something dark and dangerous. The blood of many men had been spilled for the enjoyment of people born to the higher circle, but even amongst the upper echelon, there were those who were sickened by the whole affair.

It seemed as if even the hardiest of plants would not intrude on the Arena De Muerte, leaving the soil dark and dried by the sun’s rays. The bright orb had barely risen over the natural arena, yet it clearly shone on the section where the spectators would sit and watch the combatants. Those seats were empty now, but would soon be filled with people who’d heard about the battle and were bloodthirsty for the horror that went with it.

There were some who thought they could hear the cries of the dead, but did not speak of it to others for fear of being ridiculed. A small rodent scurried across the ground, unaware of the spilled blood that had soaked into the soil. Birds flew high overhead with no regard to the fight that would soon take place.

Don Paulo rode slightly ahead of the others, his head held high, and his shoulders straight; a true testament to the man’s regal bearing. His white hair showed beneath the hat, his mustache speckled with black, while his face was pockmarked with lines that spoke of age. He kept his eyes forward as he rode through the narrow opening and finally dismounted. This was a day of reckoning and would end in the deaths of at least two of the men responsible for his son’s death.

"Miguel, see that everything is in order," Don Paulo ordered.

"Si, Don Paulo," Miguel Gutierrez agreed and turned to the rest of their party. There were eight men who rode with him as protection for the House of Madera. There were four fighters on horseback, men who looked like they’d fought more than their share of battles, but Gutierrez knew they were the best Don Paulo had to offer. It was strange that Don Garcia was only supplying two men, while Don Paulo was supplying four and Miguel couldn’t help, but smile. Death would come to the Arena De Muerte, but the dead would not come from the House of Madera.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning 

Don Garcia De Rivera stood on the verandah overlooking his property. The fertile lands and the people who worked them now had an heir and he would rule them the same way his father did. The boy now had a wet nurse and would be cared for by Evita Martinez and would grow strong with each passing day.

De Rivera watched as the casket housing his wife’s body was carried along the path toward the family cemetery at the north end of the property. He knew the mestizo people would speak some words and say some prayers over her, but there was no reason for him to be there. She had simply been a vessel to carry the child who slept in the nursery on the second floor.

De Rivera turned away as Evita made her way toward the small entourage and knew she would care for his son while he was away from the Hacienda. His heart beat rapidly in his chest as he thought of the ‘festivities’ that lay ahead. The birth of his son was a cause for celebration, but that would have to wait until after the fight in the Arena De Muerte.

Don Garcia looked toward the fields; empty this morning because of the mestizos’ need to show their respect for the dead. Luis was walking toward him and he knew his bastard son would be getting things ready for the trip to the arena. He wanted Larabee and Tanner dragged from the house and motioned for Luis to join him.

"I am sorry for your loss," Martinez said, but knew his sympathy held no power for this man.

"She gave me an heir . . . that is all I asked of her," De Rivera said and turned away from the solemn parade of mourners. "Make sure the gringo bastardos are ready to leave in fifteen minutes. We must not keep Don Paulo waiting."

"I will see to it," Martinez said and brushed past his father. His distaste for the man who’d sired him had grown with the man’s seeming dismissal of the death of his wife.

"Make sure my steed is readied for me," De Rivera said and stepped off the porch in time to see the parade of mourners disappear into the trees. "Today the bastardos will pay for murdering you, Alonzo," he vowed.

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Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Mid-Morning

Buck could not remember ever being so exhausted. Even during the dark days after the loss of Sarah and Adam Larabee, he’d managed to get some rest while Chris slept off another drinking binge that left him mindless and near comatose. He could not sleep, not while JD fought to keep the Angel of Death at bay.

"God, Kid, we need you to wake up," he whispered, running his fingers through his hair before rubbing his lower back. "You need to tell us about Chris, Vin, and Nathan . . . are they . . . are they alive?"

JD Dunne could hear a voice, a rich warm one that soothed his shattered heart, but he could not find the strength to reach for it. His head hurt, agony twisting like a knife through his skull when he tried to open his eyes. Who was it? Why couldn’t they just leave him alone? Why did they want him to suffer?

"Come on, JD," Buck whispered, his voice taut with fear, "Just give me a sign that you know we’re here . . . that I’m here," Wilmington begged, but there was still no sign of life except for the shallow rise and fall of the bare chest. Then a faint whisper brushed his ears.

"Hur . . . hurts . . . "

Buck wasn’t sure he’d heard anything, but he watched the pale face closely for several agonizing minutes before noticing the eye movement. "That’s it, JD, you open them eyes and I swear I’ll never tease you about that damn sissy hat again . . . hell, I’ll even wear one just like it if that’s what it takes."

"I will hold you to that," Standish said from the open doorway.

"You won’t have to if it brings him back," Wilmington vowed.

"Mr. Dunne . . . JD," Standish said softly as he reached the bed. "Please don’t deny the world that chance."

"It’s time, Kid, come on . . . "

"He . . . head hurts . . . "

"JD?" Wilmington said, shocked to hear the whisper soft words as Josiah Sanchez joined them at the bedside. "Come on, Kid, open your eyes."

Dunne fought through the thick layers of fog that seemed to enshroud his mind, but he didn’t want this. He didn’t want to face the pain that would slam through his head if he answered the desperate call. There were more voices now, each one filled with worry and fear, making it harder for him to ignore their softly spoken pleas. He knew those voices, and one in particular would not be denied. JD felt a hand on his shoulder and forced his eyes open, crying out as the bright sunlight sent dagger like pain through his tender skull.

"Easy, easy," Buck soothed, rubbing the stricken youth's shoulder. "Josiah, close the damn curtains," he ordered softly once he realized what was causing the grimace on the younger man’s face. "Come on, JD, you’re okay . . . open your eyes . . . "

"Si . . . sick," Dunne said and was surprised to find himself wrapped in strong arms and lifted forward. His stomach churned and his gut clenched as bile rose in his throat. He trembled uncontrollably as pain and nausea assaulted his exhausted body, but there was something he needed to tell the others. Something they had to know, but it was too hard to make sense of anything with the hammer pounding inside his head.

"Here, JD, drink this," Sanchez ordered as Wilmington continued to support the injured Bostonian.

Carmella stood in the doorway watching as the trio tended to the younger man. She’d made a herbal tea that would help with the nausea and pain, but somehow she knew it was these men that would be the medicine JD Dunne needed. There was no doubt in her mind that they would stand by him and she felt a strong arm around her waist.

"They are good for him, My Love," Cristóbal whispered against her back.

"Yes, they are," Carmella agreed and turned away from the tender scene as her husband took her hand and led her from the room.

"That’s it, Kid," Wilmington coaxed, relieved when the younger man drank most of the warm liquid before surrendering to the sandman once more.

"Thank God," Sanchez said as he watched the steady rise and fall of the Bostonian’s chest.

"I just did," Wilmington whispered and lifted the blanket up over Dunne’s chest. He knew the younger man still had a hard fight ahead of him, but it was a good sign that he’d woken and even managed to drink the tea Carmella supplied.

"Rider coming in," Standish said from the partially open window. "I believe it is Senor Cordova’s compatriot."

"Good, maybe we can finally get some answers," the worried rogue told him.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Morning

Luis Martinez hated what he was doing, but for now he was in no position to help the prisoners. Don Garcia was already mounted and waiting for him to bring Larabee and Tanner outside and he sighed tiredly as Juanita unlocked the door. He felt the cold metal shackles in his hands and the use of such devices grated on his nerves.

"Oh, Luis, is there nothing we can do to help them?" Juanita asked sadly.

"I wish there was, Juanita, but Don Garcia is a cruel man and he has a dark soul that craves vengeance."

"Vengeance will only make his soul darker," the pretty woman said before opening the door and moving back. 

Luis took a deep breath and stepped into the small cell. He knew Jackson had been down to check on them earlier and that the medico would be accompanying them to the arena at Don Garcia’s command. He would be forced to watch as his fellow countrymen were forced to fight to the death as many others had done over the years.

Luis looked at the two men sitting on their cots and took a deep breath. There was something strange, something he could not explain happening between the two gringos. If he believed in some of the stories he’d heard as a child, he’d say there was a strength between them, a strength born of brothers who stood shoulder to shoulder.

"It is time to go," Luis told the two men, watching as the duo’s eyes met before they both stood erect before him. "I wish things could be different, but Don Garcia wishes for you to be chained. If you fight this he will have Nathan Jackson punished."

"Ain’t yer fault," Tanner rasped.

"Put these around your wrists," Martinez ordered and passed the manacles to the prisoners. One set is for your wrists, the other is for your ankles."

"What’s your boss afraid of?" Larabee asked softly, his eyes dark with rage as he watched the Texan do as he was told. He stared into Martinez’s dark eyes and read the sadness there.

"I wish . . . " Martinez grew quiet as he thought about the message from Raphael. He wanted to tell Larabee that the boy was alive, but something told him the gringo needed the rage at the boy’s death to see him through the fight ahead.

Chris snapped the cuffs around his ankles and wrists and stood shoulder to shoulder with Vin Tanner.

"See ya in hell, Cowboy," the Texan vowed, offering a nod of the head and a grim smile.

"Cocky bastard, aren't you?" Larabee returned the grin and caught those sky blue eyes sending his fierce loyalty with a solid stare and slight dip of his greasy blond head. Then he remained by his friend as they began the slow walk toward what would probably be their final hours. Chris knew he was going to hell, but he would not be going alone because somehow Don Garcia De Rivera would pave the way with his own blood.

‘I won’t forget, Kid,’ he thought.

Luis Martinez knew his men were watching as he led Larabee and Tanner out of the hacienda and over to the wagon they’d be riding in. Don Garcia did not want them on horseback, and ordered both men shackled and locked to the metal loops attached to the floorboards.

Chris lifted his head and stared at the arrogant man sitting on a beautiful steed near the wagon. Don Garcia De Rivera would regret ever having laid eyes on JD Dunne, Chris made that his final vow. He didn’t say a word, but he could tell De Rivera was troubled by his gaze and Chris couldn’t help but smile, one that did nothing to ease the other man’s tension.

"Get them in the wagon, Luis!"

"Si, Don Garcia," Martinez said and motioned for two of his men to help the Americans.

"Don’t need yer help!" Tanner growled and managed to haul himself into the wagon. He turned to see Larabee staring at the elderly man and cried out a warning just before a blow to the lower back sent the gunman to his knees.

"Not the time, Chris," Jackson said as he moved to help his friend.

Chris knew the healer was right and was grateful for his help as he climbed to his feet and moved closer to the wagon. One look at Jackson told him the man was being eaten alive with guilt and he vowed to get even with De Rivera for forcing Jackson into this situation. He waited for the pain to ease before leaning back against the wagon as chains were attached to the manacles encircling his and Tanner’s wrists. It wasn’t long before they moved out of the hacienda’s yard with Nathan Jackson riding alongside the wagon.

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Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Late Morning

Buck knew JD would understand, but it still didn’t sit well with him. Medina’s return had brought with it the welcome news that Tanner and Larabee were alive, but they were going to fight in something called the Arena De Muerte which roughly translated to something like the arena of death. The two men were being forced to fight for their lives against several men from Don Paulo’s hacienda.

It would take them several hours to reach the Arena De Muerte, hours that Chris and Vin could not afford; yet it was all they could do. The horses were saddled and ready to go, but Buck could not leave without checking JD one more time.

"I will care for him until you return," Carmella Covas vowed.

"Thank you . . . the Lord was smiling the day you were born," Wilmington said and kissed her hand. "Tell him we’ll be back . . . and we’ll be bringing Chris, Vin, and Nathan with us."

"Si, I will make sure he knows," the pretty woman told him.

Buck took a deep breath before turning away and walking out of the house. The others were already mounted and he reluctantly joined them. With a last glance at the house he saw Carmella Covas framed in the open doorway and realized he was leaving JD in the best possible hands.

"She’ll take care of him, Buck," Sanchez said and waited for Raphael to take the lead. There was a chill wind that felt out of place, yet Josiah understood it had more to do with the fight ahead than anything Mother Nature designed.

"Let's ride!" Buck growled, determined to get justice.

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Arena De Muerte

East of the De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

Don Garcia knew they were running late, but the wheel had broken on the wagon and needed to be repaired before they could finish the trip. The rocky formation was growing closer and his heart beat faster in his chest at the thought of the days’ festivities. He sat erect in the saddle as they covered the distance and entered through the opening as jeers and cheers echoed through the surroundings.

Nathan took a deep breath and glanced around, but there was nothing he could see that would help Chris or Vin. There was no way he could stop what was about to happen and he shifted uncomfortably in the saddle as the sun beat down on them from high above. He glanced at the hated man riding nearby and wondered how he could be so cruel. His wife, the mother of his son, had been laid to rest, but Don Garcia didn’t even have the decency to pay his respects.

Vin could hear the gathered crowd even before the wagon entered through the natural opening in the rocky arena. There was no doubt as to what they expected and the Texan had a feeling they would not be disappointed. He lifted his head and stared at the man seated beside him, his fellow combatant, and brother-at-arms; he knew there was no one else he would rather have fighting at his side.

Chris could feel Vin watching him and glanced at the younger man. It felt good that Vin would be the one fighting at his side and he trusted the Texan with his life. Larabee knew they would probably die before the day was through, but he vowed to take as many of the bastards with him as he could. A slight nod of the head told him Vin was in tune with his thoughts as they entered the outer circle of the Arena de Muerte.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

Evita Martinez looked at the beautiful baby in her arms and felt an emotional tide wash over her. The baby had cried as if he knew his mother was no longer a part of this world. She’d managed to settle him down with the help of one of the young mothers whose body was blessed with plenty of milk. The child had nursed for a short time before falling asleep in Evita’s arms.

Evita sat in the wooden rocking chair her son had built many years ago and she wished he would take the time to use his gifted hands for woodwork instead of using a gun. The baby seemed restless and she held him close as she began to sing softly to him.

"There’s an angel up in Heaven,

And she is watching o’er you.

There’s an angel up in Heaven,

And she grows strong through you.

If tomorrow brings you sorrow,

If there’s no way to make you smile.

There’s an angel up in heaven,

And she’ll walk that lonely mile.

She’ll protect and watch o’er you,

Through every trial you face.

She’s a mother and she’s walking,

In God’s holy Grace . . . "

Tears filled her eyes as she thought of the beautiful woman who’d given birth to the child she held close to her heart. Santos Garcia De Rivera had a full life ahead of him and she prayed he would be strong like Luis. The thought of her own son, growing up in his father’s home without the title that went with such a high station, yet she knew she did not want that life for Luis. He had grown to be his own man and he was strong and did not bend to his father’s wishes.

"You will be like Luis, Santos, and you will be fair with the people who live on the lands. You will not hurt them as your father has and you will rule them with your mother’s gentle soul. I pray that someday the Arena De Muerte will no longer hear the cries of those who died there. I pray that the fights will end for those who are forced to battle because men like Don Garcia and Don Paulo think it is sporting," she whispered as a small hand grasped her finger and the child seemed to stare up at her. She kissed his forehead and took this as a sign that he would grow up with his mother’s strength of soul. Evita felt a tear slip from her eyes as she cradled him gently in her arms.

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Arena De Muerte

East of the De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Afternoon

Don Garcia looked at the men Don Paulo had chosen and smiled as he tipped his glass and drank the sweet tasting wine. There was no way Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner would live through this day and once he knew his son would not face any problems, Nathan Jackson would also be put to death. He knew the man would be an invaluable asset to the Hacienda, but there was no way he would continue to be under his rule of thumb without Tanner.

"How long do you think Larabee and Tanner will last against my champions?" Don Paulo asked as four men were paraded in front of the seated guests.

Alejo was the first and strongest of the four men he’d chosen. The man was well over six feet tall with arms and legs like tree trunks. His dark hair was cut short except for a long thin braid that hung down his back. The right side of his face was scarred from under his chin to above his eye, while the left side was unmarred. His hands were huge and it was plain that he’d used them for fighting for many years. Once he defeated Larabee and Tanner he would be well rewarded for his victory.

Chico was shorter by six inches, but he was well built and had the scars that proved he was a champion in his own right. His hair was dark and hung low across his forehead, concealing the patch he wore over his right eye. The man was deaf and unable to speak, but that did nothing to curb his enthusiasm for a fight. His body was also scarred, knife wounds that were puckered and healed badly, yet he refused to hide the hideous wounds and thought of them as his personal trophies to be displayed.

Iago was thin and just under six feet tall, his skin bronzed by the sun and his hair the color of coal. His father was a white man who’d taken a Mexican woman to his bed, leaving her with a child growing inside her womb. The mother had died in childbirth and the boy had grown up as a slave until Don Paulo discovered how well he could fight. He’d purchased him from his previous owner and now Iago proved he was worth the purchase price.

Pino was the final man he’d chosen and Don Paulo knew the man was lethal with not only weapons, but with his bare hands as well. He had trained for many years and knew some strange and deadly fighting techniques. He’d once torn apart a man with his bare hands until he was no longer recognizable and some said that he had once partaken of the flesh of a man he’d killed.

The four men would fight together in the Arena De Muerte and when the sun sank below the horizon Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner would be dead. There would be no wagers on today’s battle, because the death of the two men would be enough cause for celebration.

"I believe you have chosen well, but I am hopeful they allow the American bastardos to suffer for many hours," Don Garcia finally answered, reaching for the bottle of liquor and refilling both glasses.

"I have told them to see that the gringos last all day," Don Paulo said and lifted his glass. "To their deaths . . . may they burn in hell!"

"They will," Don Garcia said. "Alonzo’s death will finally be avenged."

"Si, and my son’s murderers will be brought to justice."

"To our brand of justice," Don Garcia said.

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North of the Arena De Muerte

Mid-Afternoon

Josiah glanced sideways at the man riding next to him. He’d never seen the man so quiet or withdrawn and knew Buck’s mind was working overtime. There was no doubt in his mind that Wilmington would kill Don Garcia if given the chance. Hell, he’d be lying if he said he didn’t think the man deserved to be flayed alive.

"We’ll find them, Buck," Sanchez offered.

"I know, but will we be in time?" Wilmington asked. They’d slowed the horses when the terrain had become treacherous, but each step set his nerves on edge.

"We have to believe we’ll get there, Buck . . . for JD . . . and for Chris and Vin," Sanchez vowed.

"I wish I had your faith, Josiah, but right now I don’t."

"Then I guess I’ll have to have enough faith for both of us," the ex-preacher said and looked toward the sun. The miracle of life was a wonderful thing to behold, but there were times when miracles seemed few and far between. He just hoped today would be blessed and God would give them the strength they needed to see this through and find their missing friends.

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Arena De Muerte

East of the De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Afternoon

Chris and Vin remained in the wagon bed, chained in place as Don Paulo’s champions were allowed to walk amongst the spectators. Chris shifted, wincing as he looked at the Texan seated next to him. Vin looked paler than he’d ever seen before and he hoped the tracker would find the strength he’d need to get through this day.

"Vin, do anything you can to take these guys down," Jackson said.

Tanner looked at the man standing on his own near the opening to the arena and wished he could wipe the guilt away. Nathan’s face was dark with sorrow and pain and Vin knew if he and Chris did not survive this day, Jackson would carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. ‘Have faith, Nathan,’ he thought.

"I learned from the best," Tanner replied of the training he'd undertaken during his time with the Kiowas and Comanches.

"It is time, Bastardos," De Rivera spat as he motioned for Luis Martinez to release the two men.

"You can’t do this!" Jackson snarled and quickly moved toward the two men as a lump formed in his throat. He felt helpless and an inner rage made his blood run cold. How could this be happening? How could he stand by and let Chris and Vin face death while he sat with the bastards who'd arranged this? How could he help them when he couldn’t even help Dona Maria?

Chris glanced at Vin and knew he could see the same emotional turmoil in their friend’s body language. The slumped shoulders spoke of defeat, the moisture-laden eyes spoke of deep sorrow, the constant movement of his Adam’s apple screamed regret and shame, and the sheer panic on his face spoke of a helplessness they’d never seen before.

Without a word they moved as one until they stood in front of the man who’d proven he didn’t need ink on a paper to prove he was a doctor. Chris lifted his right hand and soon found it covered with Vin’s. They waited for Nathan’s head to come up, reading the anguish in the soulful brown eyes.

Nathan saw the gesture and found the strength he needed to place his right hand on top of Vin’s. Chris’ left hand covered his right while Vin placed his left over Chris’ and Nathan finished the offering with his left hand. He swallowed and allowed his face to show just how much their gesture meant to him. The fact that these two men were facing death did not stop them from showing him a strength of faith few people would ever know.

Don Garcia De Rivera’s face screwed up in rage as he saw the shared faith of the trio and he knew he needed to break the hold they had on each other. He turned to the man standing nearby and spoke sharply. "Luis, see that Jackson has the seat next to mine so that he will be able to watch his friend’s death."

"Si, Don Garcia," Martinez said and hoped Raphael and his men would arrive in time to stop the fight.

"Why are you doing this?" Jackson spat.

"It’s okay, Nathan," Tanner said and took a deep breath as he forced a smile to his face at the anger emanating from De Rivera. "Me and Chris’ll be okay . . . it’s them bastards that’ll need yer help."

Nathan felt someone grab his arms and drag him away from the wagon, but he fought against their hold to no avail. He glanced over his shoulder as Chris and Vin were led toward the opening to the arena. Once there, the gringos were stripped of their shirts, leaving them standing in only the pants that signaled what they were, slaves whose lot in life was to fight to the death for their owners. He closed his eyes and silently prayed the two men would not die today, not when it would be a senseless, meaningless death at the mercy of a heartless bastard. His captors forced him to sit on the cold stone between two cushioned chairs.

"Say a prayer for your friends, they will not survive this fight," Don Paulo said.

Jackson glared silently at the man and helplessly watched as Larabee and Tanner entered the arena.

Alejo stood beside Pino and watched as the chained men were led into the arena and smiled at the thought of beating the American swine to death. He watched both men, sizing up their bodies and studying their eyes as they stopped in front of him. Both men oozed danger, but he’d faced dangerous men before and came out victorious. He bared his teeth and stared at the man whose long hair was blowing in the soft breeze. The man had an air of coldness to him that would freeze a normal man in his tracks, but Alejo was not a normal man and he would take this man down no matter what it took.

"The breed is mine," he whispered to Pino as the chains were removed from Larabee and Tanner.

"Si, I will take the blond gringo," Pino said as Don Garcia’s men left the arena.

Chris and Vin stood shoulder to shoulder as Don Garcia’s men left them to face Don Paulo’s men. They had no misgivings about this being a fair fight, it was a battle to the death and a dark shadow seemed to darken the sky above their heads.

"Hell . . . "

"And then some," Larabee finished as he studied their opponents. He could hear the people gathered shouting obscenities, but ignored their impatience as Vin nudged him and reached for his arm. They clasped each other’s wrists before turning to meet the four mean looking bastards who looked like they could eat them alive.

Nathan watched as two of Don Paulo’s men lunged at Larabee and Tanner. The sheer difference in their sizes would have been enough to send some men running, but Chris and Vin stood their ground and let the bastards come to them. The behemoth on the right reached for the Texan, but Vin used his smaller stature to duck under his arms and strike a blow to the man’s groin.

Nathan’s eyes were drawn to Larabee as another man reached out to grab him, but Chris managed to twist out of his grip and kick out with his left leg, catching his attacker in the right knee. "That’s it, Chris . . . stay out of his reach!"

Vin sensed the man on his right poising to move, and drove backward with his left leg. He heard a muffled grunt, but his first attacker had his undivided attention as they circled each other. The Texan knew the man would kill him if he managed to get close, but Vin didn’t plan to give him that chance. He back away, sidestepping as his opponent swung a beefy fist at his face, but didn’t quite move fast enough as his head was rocked back with the force of the blow. He felt blood dripping down his cheek, and quickly wiped it away as his second attacker moved in.

Chris sensed the movement behind him and dove to the right as the bigger of his two foes kicked out at him. He came up quickly, driving his fist into an exposed gut even as a fist was driven into his lower back. He fought back the nauseating dizziness and turned to deliver a quick jab to the scarred face of the man standing in front of him.

Chico had no doubt that the ‘breed’ would kill him if given the chance and allowed Alejo to take the fight to their enemy. He’d seen people fight like the wiry gringo, watched them destroy their enemies without a backward glance and knew the man’s hands were as lethal as any weapon he’d ever fought against. Alejo went down under a devastating kick to the groin area and Chico lashed out with his right fist, catching the blue-eyed gringo in the lower back. He smiled, showing a mouthful of broken teeth as his nemesis dropped to his knees holding his back, but the man recovered quickly and was back on his feet as if he’d been swatted by a child. Chico felt a small amount of respect for the man, but he squashed it before it blinded him to the reason this place was called the Arena De Muerte.

Iago watched as Pino kept lashing out, connecting with the blond gringo and spilling fresh blood from several cuts to his face, yet the bastardo stayed on his feet. Iago circled behind their opponent as Pino reached for him, driving his foot into the back of the blond’s left knee. He heard the man cry out, but was surprised when he stayed on his feet. Iago moved to the left as Pino moved to the right, yet the blond seemed to be watching them both, his body poised and ready for action. They moved together, but not fast enough to take the man by surprise, but they managed to connect with his ribs and move back before he could retaliate.

Don Garcia could not help, but feel a certain degree of respect for the two American gringos. They were doing far better than he expected against the bigger and stronger challengers supplied by Don Paulo. He grudgingly admitted to himself that he would have liked to see the two men fight more often, but his need to see Chris Larabee dead won out as Pino and Iago moved in. They connected solidly with the lean body and he knew there would be bruises and broken bones once the fight was finished.

De Rivera watched the second gringo as he dodged several fast blows that would have crippled him had they connected solidly. Tanner was a smart fighter, but he was also using things Don Garcia had seen a few times when they’d captured several Indians from north of the Rio Grande. Something told him Vin Tanner would make one hell of a fighter given the proper training, but that was something that would never happen.

Don Garcia glanced sideways at the man seated beside him and smiled at the way his hands were fisted at his sides. The medico’s skin glistened with sweat, his face filled with horror, and his eyes locked on the six men fighting for their lives. Time seemed to slow down as again and again the combatants struck with deadly fists or booted feet, marking each other’s bodies with bruises, cuts, and broken bones.

"You have to stop this!" Nathan said as Tanner went down under three successive blows that struck his lower back.

"This is only the beginning," Don Garcia said as Iago and Pino slipped past Larabee’s defenses and reined several blows down on his body before the blond gringo managed to move out of their reach. He had no idea how much time had passed since the six men were placed in the arena, but he couldn’t remember ever enjoying a fight as much as this.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Afternoon

Evita looked at the freshly dug grave that was covered in fragrant wildflowers and felt the sorrow deep in her heart. Dona Maria had been like those flowers and had wilted before her time, but her beauty would live on through the heart of her child. The baby slept now, sated by the breast milk of the wet nurse and she had come here to pray for guidance.

"Lord, I know I seem to be asking a lot of you, but there are men . . . good men who need your help. Don Garcia is a cruel man who makes others suffer and he does not see past the hatred that has blackened his soul. Santos is a wonderful boy with his mother’s heart and soul and I pray his father does not corrupt him the way he does everything else in his life. My son . . . my Luis is the one good thing to come from that man and Santos would do well to look up to his big brother."

Evita felt tears in her eyes as she picked up a blood red flower and held it to her heart as the whisper soft breeze ruffled the petals and brushed against her face. "Lord, Don Garcia has hurt many people in his need for vengeance and there are three good men facing death because Don Garcia believes himself to be a ‘god’. Please do not let this happen . . . not again when so many have already suffered because of Don Garcia’s hunger for power."

Evita made the sign of the cross and looked toward the sky as several large crows flew high overhead. Her father had once told her that crows were a harbinger of death and she prayed that was not the case this time as the sun was suddenly hidden by a dark cloud that sent a chill down her spine. She placed the flower back on the grave and hurried back to the Hacienda with tears sparkling in her eyes.

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Luis Martinez had never been a man who liked violence of this manner. If he was honest he’d have to admit to disliking violence of any kind and had often dreamed of owning his own place where he could raise a family and live off the land the way his mother’s family had done before being forced to give up the life they were used to and work for men like Don Garcia De Rivera.

Luis watched his father with growing distaste as the fight continued in the Arena De Muerte. There was blood on each of the combatants, but Larabee and Tanner seemed to have found the strength needed to fight Don Paulo’s fighters. Iago had gone down under a powerful fist driven into his face and hadn’t moved since.

Martinez turned his attention to the trio who seemed to be locked in a primitive dance that would only end when there was only one man standing. The Texan’s hair was matted to his head with sweat and blood, but the eyes seemed to be wild with blue fire as he drove an elbow into Chico’s face and ducked beneath a fist from Alejo. Tanner was a fighter and he knew how to handle himself as he drove his foot into Chico’s groin that dropped the man to his knees as he grabbed his balls and cried out. Alejo’s attack was quick, but again the gringo managed to twist away before the boot caught him.

Vin knew he was weakening, but he could not afford to show just how hurt he was as his two opponents continued to attack him. Sweat dripped from his matted hair stinging his eyes and sliding down his cheeks as he tried to ignore the fatigue and pain ravaging his slick body. Chico still hadn’t recovered from his kick, but Alejo pressed forward, backing him up until he tripped over the downed man. Vin had no illusions that he could win, but he was not going down without a fight. As soon as he hit the ground he struck out with his feet and caught Chico as he turned toward him. He heard the distinct sound of bones breaking, but didn’t have time to check the man as Alejo was on him. The big man’s hands reached for his throat, but Vin managed to get his own arms up and grunted as his foe tried to bring his knee up into his groin.

"No . . . not so to . . . tough, Breed . . . "

Vin didn’t bother wasting his breath and simply smiled as he shifted slightly and used his left hand to keep the man’s hands from his throat. At the same time he let the fingers of his right hand form a claw and snapped them forward. He knew he’d caught the man unaware when his eyes grew wide with fright and blood streamed from his ruined throat. He shoved the bigger man off and fought for air as Alejo brought his hands up to stop the steady pulsating blood from escaping his body at an alarming rate. Vin knew the man would be dead in a matter of seconds, but he didn’t regret his actions as he turned to find Larabee.

Larabee had seen Tanner go down, but Pino was pressing and there was nothing he could do to help the Texan. As his attacker lashed out with a foot, Chris sidestepped and drove an elbow into the man’s exposed back. Chris could feel his reflexes slowing down and relied on instinct to keep him on his feet as Pino turned and began to circle him. Sweat and blood dripped into his eyes, but he kept an image in his mind as he fought to stay alive long enough to kill the bastard who’d robbed the world of a young man who’d only just begun to live.

JD Dunne’s face as he fell backward into the grave sent shivers of pain through his mind, but it also gave him the strength and resolve to keep fighting. Death was coming for him, riding a dark black horse, but he would not allow the specter to reach him, not until Don Garcia De Rivera paid for his sins. Chris lifted his left arm to block a blow to his face and quickly drove his right fist into the man’s face, driving him backward, but Pino managed to stay on his feet.

Vin called on everything he had left to get to his feet as he spotted movement to Larabee’s right. He knew Chris had not seen him and there was no way he could allow this man to take advantage of the blond while his attention was focused completely on his foe. The Texan managed to get to his feet, and thought he heard someone cheer, but he knew that was not possible, not when those present were friends or workers of the Mexican devil who thought he was god.

Iago managed to get to his feet and moved to rejoin the fight with Chris Larabee, but something attacked him from the right and drove him backward into the natural barrier that made up this side of the arena. He tried to untangle himself from his attacker, but felt several blows strike him before he could roll away from the other man. Iago turned to face the longhaired breed and grinned showing broken teeth and bleeding gums as he struck out and sent the other man sprawling in the dirt.

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North of the Arena De Muerte

Mid-Afternoon

The sun was high overhead as the riders continued their trek toward the Arena De Muerte. No one spoke of the men who fought there, but each one prayed that they’d get there in time to stop De Rivera from killing the missing men. There was a sense of urgency in the way they rode, the wind bristling through their hair as they rode along the hard trail.

Buck rode slightly ahead of Josiah and Ezra, but he could sense their determination to reach the Arena De Muerte. He glanced sideways at the man riding next to him and knew Raphael Cordova De Martinez was a man he could call amigo. The man had ridden into Four Corners with Don Paulo and would have taken Inez Recillos by force, but there’d been an innate goodness in him that made him back away. He’d fired one of the bullets into Don Paulo when the man tried to kill Buck, thus having a bounty on his head from Don Paulo’s father.

"The arena is not far ahead. We need to be careful so we do not alert De Rivera to our presence," Cordova said.

"All right," Wilmington answered and slowed his horse so that the others could catch up to them. The plan was for him, Raphael and a couple of Cordova’s men to ride in through the main passage, while Ezra and Josiah took four men and came in through the eastern entrance. It would take Sanchez and Standish longer to reach their destination and that meant Buck and his group would have to wait until they heard the call sign from Raphael’s men.

"Buck, be careful," Sanchez said.

"You know that's my middle name, preacher," Wilmington said and found a grim smile as Sanchez, Standish, and four men split from the main group and bypassed the main trail to the Arena De Muerte.

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Arena De Muerte

Mid-Afternoon

Luis knew Don Garcia was angry, angrier than he’d ever seen the man before, and it felt good to see defeat in his ‘father’s’ eyes as he watched the fight taking place in the arena. Larabee and Tanner now stood back to back and faced their remaining opponents with a ferocity he’d never witnessed before. Pino and Iago would not last much longer and one look at Don Paulo told him the man was angered by the loss of his most skilled fighters.

"Luis, kill them!" De Rivera ordered as Pino fell under a vicious kick to the knee. He watched as Larabee raised his hands above his head and brought them down on the man’s shoulder with enough force to crack bones.

"No," Martinez said softly and turned to see the anger in his father’s eyes.

"Luis, you will do as I say!"

"There has been enough killing and they have earned their freedom!" the younger man snapped as Tanner kicked Iago in the side before striking him in the face and sending bone fragments into his brain. Luis knew the man was dead even before his body hit the ground.

"No, they must die!" Don Paulo spat and grabbed a gun from the man next to him. He raised it and pointed it toward the two remaining combatants.

"Chris . . . No!" Tanner cried and shifted his body to protect his friend. He felt something rip through his side and felt Larabee ease him to the ground.

"Godammit, Tanner," the blond managed as he protected the injured man with his body.

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"We need to get down there!"  Wilmington spat. He knew there was no point in waiting now as several more shots were fired in quick succession. Whatever had happened it did not bode well for his three friends and Buck was not going to waste any more time trying to move quietly. It was time to show De Rivera that he’d fucked with the wrong men.

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Nathan reacted on instinct as the first shot was fired. He grabbed Don Paulo’s arm and wrestled the gun from his hand as gunshots were fired around him. He heard the old man shouting in Spanish and felt a blow to the lower back, but he would not relinquish his hold on the gun. He had heard De Rivera and wanted to kill the bastard, but his attention was focused on the man who’d shot Vin Tanner.

Jackson struggled with the elderly man and pulled the gun from his hand just as several riders entered the outer area of the arena. Gunshots continued around him as he shoved Don Paulo away from him and turned to look for De Rivera, but the elderly Spaniard was nowhere to be found.

"You cowardly bastard!" Jackson spat when he saw the old man disappear through a narrow passage not far from the entrance to the Arena De Muerte. He wanted to go after him, but one look into the arena told him there were two men who needed him more than he needed revenge.

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Josiah and Ezra felt the same sense of urgency as several shots were fired from inside the Arena De Muerte. There was no point in hiding their presence any longer and Josiah motioned for the others to follow him as all hell broke loose and a volley of gunshots echoed through the rocky arena.

There were shouts from below and a bullet ricocheted off the rocks to Ezra’s left and he felt it slice through his arm, but he did not take the time to acknowledge the wound as he pulled his gun and jumped from his horse. He found a small recess and ducked inside, firing toward several of De Rivera’s men as Sanchez dismounted and found a place to return fire.

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De Rivera’s retreat had not gone unnoticed by the two men in the arena and Vin turned steady blue eyes on the shaky blond as he spoke. "...git after that bastard...gettin' away...go...after..."

"I won’t . . . you got my word on that!" Larabee managed and felt as if he was watching the life leave his friend before easing out from under him and forcing himself to stand. He glanced toward the spectators, ignoring the shots that were fired all around him and saw Nathan glance in his direction as De Rivera slipped through a narrow opening on the right.

Chris staggered toward the opening and stopped when Nathan stood in front of him. "Get out of my way, Nathan!"

"Chris, sit down before you fall down!" Jackson ordered.

"I'm not lettin' that yellow bastard ride away!"

"You’re in no shape to go after him!" the healer said as gunshots echoed around them.

"Watch me!" Larabee said and pushed past the former slave. "See to Vin . . . he’s . . . he might be . . . might be . . . "

Chris couldn’t finish the words and ignored the fighting around him as he stumbled toward the opening De Rivera had used. He could hear horses as he forced his body through the narrow fissure. He made it through in time to see the elderly man ride away from the tethered animals and was glad there was no sentry watching over them. His body ached and he knew before long there’d be more than just the minor ache plaguing him, but he was a man with a mission and nothing would stop him from getting to the bastard that killed JD Dunne.

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Wilmington and Cordova entered the Arena De Muerte in time to see an elderly man take aim at Nathan Jackson who knelt beside an injured man. Buck fired his gun and heard a cry of pain as the man dropped his gun and turned in his direction. He dismounted and fired at a man aiming at Cordova and realized they were outgunned, but with Sanchez and Standish adding their weapons to the fight things looked better.

Buck knew there were several men who would be on their side, but until he knew who they were he could take no chances with Jackson’s life and made sure to offer covering fire for him as he dragged the injured man closer to the south wall of the arena. "Nathan! Stay down!"

"Buck!" Jackson called in surprise.

"Yeah! Just stay put . . . "

"Vin’s bleeding bad . . . I need . . . "

"Hold on . . . I’m coming," Wilmington said, worried about the injured Texan as he grabbed the saddlebags from his horse, ducked low and raced through the opening. He tossed the bags to Jackson and fired at a man who tried to aim his gun in their direction. He spotted Josiah moving down through the heavy brush at the east side of the arena.

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West of the Arena De Muerte

Mid-Afternoon

Don Garcia De Rivera could hear the echoing sounds of gunfire behind him as he raced his trusty steed toward the hacienda. His bastard son had betrayed him and his mother would pay for that betrayal with her life. No one turned their backs on him and got away with it. He’d had people put to death for less and his anger spurred him forward, unaware of the danger riding behind him.

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The green fire in his eyes provided more than enough fuel to compensate for the blood and extensive damage to his body, as he raced along the unfamiliar terrain. Chris knew where De Rivera was headed and remembered the trail that led toward the hacienda. His hatred flowed through his veins, feeding the adrenalin that kept him from falling flat on his face. The sun beat down on his bare skin, but he didn’t give a damn as he let the bitter hatred fester and drive him forward.

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Arena De Muerte

Mid-Afternoon

Nathan did not take the time to greet the others as he worked to save Vin Tanner’s life. His hands were covered in blood, hovering ghoulishly above the bandages and other items placed on the ground beside him. His eyes were misted with unshed tears as his heart felt like it would burst from his chest.

‘Please, God, give me the strength to save him,’ Jackson thought.

"Tell me what you need, Brother," Sanchez said and saw the surprise and relief in his friend’s eyes.

"I need to stop the bleeding . . . I need to see that bastard dead," Jackson finished in a voice that left no doubt that he meant exactly what he said. The shoulders slumped in heavy defeat as he bowed his head. "I did this to him . . . to Chris . . . "

Vin did not have the strength to speak, but his eyes were like windows as he looked up at the man whose heart was laid bare. He wanted to ease the healer’s mind, to wipe away the horror he’d seen, but his body refused his mind’s commands. He silently cursed the weakness that left him unable to help his friend and closed his eyes, snapping them open when he heard something akin to a soft sob escape the other man’s throat.

Vin tried to find the energy he needed to do the simple act of moving his hand, but even that seemed to be an insurmountable task until Nathan’s hand touched against his side, close enough that Vin could almost feel the heat of his body. He tried again to speak, but what came out was a rasping moan and Nate’s eyes once more filled with more pain than he could ever imagine one man bearing.

" . . . no . . . not . . . fau . . . "

"Vin, what’s wrong?" Jackson asked when the raspy voice hit him as something brushed against his thigh. He looked down at Tanner’s hand and flinched when he saw the damage wrought by his fight in the Arena De Muerte. A fight that should never have happened, and yet it had, because men like De Rivera and Don Paulo thought they owned the world.

" . . . can’t . . . fu . . . fu . . . "

The rasping whisper was filled with pain and sorrow and Nathan knew he had to bury his own soul if he was going to help Vin. He reached for the Texan’s hand and gently cradled it before speaking.

"Okay, Vin, I hear ya," Jackson managed to smile, and hoped it was enough to convince the Texan. He released the younger man’s hand and took a deep breath in an effort to control his warring emotions. No matter how he felt, Vin needed him to be strong, but how could he find that hidden strength others said they saw in him.

Vin knew he needed to say something more and concentrated on moving his right arm. It came up, a fraction at a time until he was finally able to cover the healer’s hand with his own. Again he tried to speak, but it sounded more like a cry of pain as he looked at Jackson.

"What?" Jackson asked softly.

Vin knew he had to rid the former slave of the pain he saw in the moisture laden brown eyes, but it was getting harder and harder to simply perform the task of breathing let alone speaking. He thought of the newborn babe and a hint of a smile formed as he finally managed to find his voice.

"b...ba...ba...by...'live...ba...by..."

Nathan could not believe the words spoken so softly, but stronger than the mightiest shout. They invaded his battered soul and took hold. He gripped Tanner’s trembling hand in his own. His eyes locked onto the Texan’s and a soft sob escaped his throat as he nodded. "Thank you, Vin Tanner."

Vin nodded and allowed his eyes to close as the darkness reached out for him and he surrendered to it.

Nathan swallowed hard and held tight to Vin’s hand for several seconds and reached out to touch the Texan’s chest. He felt the man’s heart and breathed a sigh of relief before saying a silent prayer that his hands would not fail him now.

Josiah felt humbled to have been present at such an emotional scene between these two men. He knew if he lived to be a hundred he would never see such raw pain or forgiveness and silently thanked God he’d been present for this one.

"Nate, how is he?" Wilmington asked softly upon reaching his friends.

"Burnin’ up . . . hurtin’ . . . Josiah, hold this fer me," Jackson said and removed his hands so that Sanchez could put pressure on the bleeding wound.

"Buck, what about the prisoners?" Sanchez asked.

"Raphael and his men took charge of the prisoners, but I can’t find Chris," Wilmington said.

"You won’t . . . he went after the bastard who did all this," Jackson explained.

"So he’s okay?" Sanchez asked hopefully.

"Far from it," the healer answered. "He rode off . . . "

"And you let him!" Wilmington spat.

"Easy, Brother, Nathan had his hands full," Sanchez offered.

"Shit! I didn’t mean . . . damn, where’d he go?"

"De Rivera’s probably gone back to his hacienda," Jackson offered.

"Where’s the hacienda?" Wilmington asked, turning as Raphael, Ezra, and another man joined them.

"I will take you," Augusta Medina offered.

"Be careful, Augusta, there are still more of De Rivera’s men at his home and if he reaches there, he will be ready for trouble," Raphael warned.

"That bastard's mine!" Wilmington vowed and sealed the deal by spitting into the dirt. Buck’s blue eyes were clouded with a dangerous light that did not bode well for the man who was to blame for his friend’s condition.

"As will I," Ezra stated.

 "Ezra, sit down ‘til I get a chance ta look at that arm," Jackson warned.

"Mistah Jackson, I assure you . . . "

"Assure me of nothin’ and sit yer ass down. I ain’t got time ta be arguin’ right now," Jackson snapped and returned his attention to the unconscious Texan. He briefly wondered if he should tell the others about JD, but wasn’t sure how to broach the subject without setting Buck off.

"Josiah, I need ta see if it went through."

"It went through, Sanchez said as he lifted the injured man slightly.

"Place this against it ‘til I . . . Sweet Jesus, we need ta get him off the ground and I need water and more bandages and God help me we need . . . "

 "Easy, Brother, tell me what you need and I’ll make sure you get it," Sanchez vowed.

"The wagon . . . make a bed in the back of that wagon and we’ll get him back to the hacienda. There’ll be water and clean bandages and Evita . . . she’ll help me," Jackson said, swallowing the anger and fear he felt as he looked at the unconscious man. He’d never been all that confident in what he knew, but never so much as he was now in the wake of Vin’s injuries, not to mention Chris who was probably in much the same shape as Vin.

"Ezra, stay here," Sanchez said and turned to see Wilmington and Medina speaking with two of Raphael’s men.

"Josiah," Jackson spoke the name in a hushed whisper and waited until the older man turned to face him.

"What is it, Nathan?"

"JD . . . the bastard had him killed . . . " Jackson's voice wavered and it was hard to control the unshed tears burning in his eyes. Everything around him seemed to be fading away and the unwelcome vision of Dunne's corpse loomed instead, giving him a shiver.

"JD’s alive, Nathan . . . "

"Made Chris watch and bury him," his throat constricted as he forced the damning words out and let the tears slip from his soul through his pained brown eyes.

"No, Nathan . . . "

"Chris’ in so much . . . so much pain . . . blames hisself." Jackson’s eyes seemed vacant and Josiah knew he had to do something to get through to his lost friend.

"LISTEN TO ME!" Sanchez growled, grabbing the disoriented healer hard by both shoulders and using the preacher's fire in his eyes as they tried to burn into the hollow brown ones.

"JD IS ALIVE!"

"Si, it is true, me and my compadres found him!" Raphael insisted.

"JD’s . . . "

"Alive," Standish finished as Jackson slumped against Sanchez. The man’s broad shoulders shook with the force of exhausted, relieved sobs and Ezra watched as Josiah Sanchez held the emotionally traumatized healer and allowed him this release. How much had the healer seen since De Rivera captured him and Vin and did he have the strength he needed to see this through? Ezra had never been a praying man, but found himself praying that Nathan would find the strength he needed to see him through.

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East of the De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Afternoon

Buck leaned forward on his horse as if he could force the animal to go faster even as the wind whipped at his clothing and tried to stop him from reaching his destination. Augusta Medina and several others rode with him and even though he didn’t know their names, something told him they could be trusted. The sound of hoofs hitting hard packed earth echoed and re-echoed through the surrounding valleys and hills.

Death came to the area riding a dark horse and the moniker Buck Wilmington.

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Luis Martinez knew he should have told the others where he was going, but once he’d noted his padre’s absence he’d known where the elderly man was going. He’d defied the man and went against his orders and that did not bode well for his mother. There was no doubt in his mind where De Rivera was headed and he knew he had to stop him before he reached the woman who’d always had a kind and gentle heart for all living things.

He’d ridden away from the arena with one thing in mind and nothing else mattered except saving his mother even if it meant killing the bastard who’d sired him.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late-Afternoon

Evita looked down at the babe who slept solidly, tucked into her arms and wrapped in a soft blanket made by one of the ladies who worked in the field. She’d said more prayers lately than most people said in a lifetime and hoped God had listened to her, but as she looked out over the fields her eyes wandered to the area used for the De Rivera burial ground and thought of the woman who’d been laid to rest. She hoped Maria De Rivera was at peace and vowed to make sure her son was sheltered from his father’s cruel ways.

Evita felt tears in her eyes as she looked toward the sky and thought about the three men De Rivera had brought to the arena that morning. She felt sorry for all three, but it was the dark skinned man who’d helped bring this baby into the world that made her weep with sorrow.

Nathan Jackson, whose heart was that of a healer, had been forced to watch as his friend was forced to work in the fields in spite of his obvious injuries and illness. Nathan, who’d been given a room in the house and plenty of food and comfort, could only watch as the young man slowly weakened in the sun. How much pain had she seen in the healer’s eyes every time he took a bite of food or drank from a glass filled with fresh juice? If they survived, would Nathan be eaten up by the guilt and pain that had wrapped itself around his soul? Could he live with what he’d seen?

She looked toward the entrance to the hacienda as De Rivera rode his horse as if the hounds of hell were after him. She carried the baby into the nursery and gently placed him in his bed before arranging the netting over the hand crafter crib. She looked up as Juanita entered and smiled at the young woman whose heart belonged to Luis and wished she could offer her hope for the future.

"Stay with Santos, Juanita."

"Si, Evita," Juanita said, her voice filled with fear as she heard Don Garcia’s angry voice from below.

"Evita! Come down here now!"

Evita moved toward the door and smiled when Juanita’s hand touched her arm.

"Please . . . he is angry."

"It will be all right, Juanita. You just see to Santos and do not come downstairs for any reason," Evita warned and closed the door as she exited the room and heard the great door slam open as De Rivera’s voice echoed through the house.

"EVITA!"

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Don Garcia De Rivera started up the staircase and spotted Evita Martinez watching him without a trace of fear on her face. He did not speak, but the sound of his cane hitting each step echoed through the silent house.

Don Garcia had nearly reached the second floor. The sound of the door opening behind him did not register until he heard heavy footsteps from below. He turned and spotted a dark figure shrouded in white light shining through the window and knew this man was the harbinger of death . . . his death. 

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Evita knew Don Garcia meant to kill her, but there was no fear in her as she watched the man slowly advance up the steps. Years of being beaten down had left scars on her mind and body, but she’d never allowed them to make her bitter.

De Rivera’s eyes were as dark as his soul and the sound his cane made on each step was like a clock ticking away the final seconds of her life. She thought of her son and prayed he would have the strength to help his half-brother become a man, one that could stand up to his father and have a heart of gold like his mother.

Evita heard Santos’ cries and Juanita’s soft singing and hoped the young woman would keep the boy in his room, safe from the horror his father was bringing with him. She began to pray and heard the sound of the door opening as De Rivera slowly made his way toward her. What she saw was an angel framed by golden light. An angel born of darkness, yet bathed in God’s grace as he gestured for her to leave.

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Every step he took had been a lesson in pain, but Chris would not give up, not when the object of his anger was so close. He felt the warmth of the sun shining through the window and glanced up toward the second floor.

Chris watched Evita leave and fixed his eyes on the man standing near the top of the stairs and slowly walked across the floor that reflected the sunbeams as if it was showing him the light.

"Tonight you die, Bastardo!" Don Garcia warned and shook his cane at the battered blond.

Chris didn’t say anything, he didn’t need to, not when his intentions were already clear and no amount of words could convey what his eyes did. He lifted his foot onto the first step and a smile, deadly in its intensity, formed on his face as his right foot found the second step.

Larabee’s unholy smile came easy as sweat stung one of the numerous cuts that marred his face and mingled with blood as it trickled down his face. He didn’t think about what he must look like as he slowly advanced on the man he planned to send to hell.

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Don Garcia De Rivera had never been afraid of anything, yet there was something terrifying in the sound of the gringo’s footsteps on the stairs. Each one echoed across the empty interior and sounded like a blacksmith’s hammer striking an anvil. He knew to stay would mean certain death, but he had not lived this long by being foolish. He turned and hurried toward his room even as Larabee advanced toward him. He heard Santos crying and the soft sound of Evita’s angelic voice as she sang softly to his son. She would die, but first he would take care of the bastardo who’d taken his first-born son from him. 

He made his way toward his room and hurried to the cabinet where he kept a collection of guns handed down from his family. Some were over 100 years old, but the one he wanted was a new acquisition from his dead wife’s father. He reached inside and grabbed the silver weapon and quickly made sure it was loaded before turning toward the door. His heart was beating too fast and he felt slightly light headed, but he would not let that stop him.

Death would come to his home today, but it would not come for him, it would come to claim Chris Larabee’s black heart. Don Garcia De Rivera listened to the sound of footsteps echoing through his home and waited for the bastardo to arrive.

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Arena De Muerte

East of the De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Afternoon

Josiah looked around at the people who had yet to leave the arena and wondered if they realized that the day’s entertainment was over. Raphael had left soon after Buck, but he’d left several men behind to make sure there was no trouble. He glanced at his friend, exhausted, both emotionally and physically and wished there was time for him to rest. Unfortunately Nathan would not take the time to rest until he had done everything he could for the injured at the Arena De Muerte. Right now his biggest task was keeping Vin Tanner alive, and to most people that was an undertaking that was destined for failure, but these people did not know the quiet man with the healer’s heart.

"Josiah, I need to . . . " Jackson started, but his bottom lip trembled and the words would not come.

"Take your time, Brother," Sanchez said and smiled as Ezra handed him the silver flask. He handed it to Jackson who took a quick drink before kneeling beside the Texan. "Tell me what you need."

"I need a doctor . . . a real one," the healer answered softly.

"You are a doctor, my friend, and I will wager everything in my boot that you could stand taller than most physicians at Johns Hopkins," Standish vowed. Josiah had wrapped the wound on his arm until Nathan had a chance to look at it, but there was still so much to do for Vin Tanner.

"Thanks, Ezra," Jackson said and took a deep breath before looking around. "Josiah, can you rig up some blankets in the back of that wagon?"

"I can . . . what else?" Sanchez asked.

"Anyone in need of help should follow us to the hacienda. Everyone else should just go home. Don Paulo’s people should be told that he is dead," Jackson said and gently cleaned the minor cuts that covered Vin’s face and arms. "I want to take him back to the hacienda . . . Jesus, what if . . . what if Don Garcia is still in control?"

"If he is, Buck will send someone to tell us," Sanchez assured him.

"Ezra, I should see to your arm," Jackson said.

"Mr. Sanchez does not have your soothing touch, but he quite capably cleaned the wound," Standish told him and placed a hand on Jackson’s shoulder. "It will keep until you are rested, Nathan."

"Thanks, Ez," Jackson said and swallowed past the lump that threatened to choke him as he looked at the man who, along with Chris Larabee, had saved his life.

"Nathan, the wagon is ready," Sanchez said.

"Bring it closer. It’s gonna be hell movin’ ‘im and I ain’t ‘bout ta make ‘im suffer any more’n I have to," Jackson vowed. He waited until the wagon was pulled up alongside the injured man and turned to find two men who rode with Raphael watching him. "Josiah, we’re gonna need help liftin’ im."

"I can help," the gambler said and was relieved when the former slave nodded his acceptance. He moved to Tanner’s right leg and was not all that surprised when several others moved to help without being asked.

"All right, we’re gonna move ‘im, but I want ‘im kept as straight as possible. He took quite a beating and I ain’t sure if there’s anything busted up inside so we do this slow and careful," Jackson ordered. He moved to take the Texan’s head, noting the way the long hair was soaked in sweat and matted to his forehead. Shaking himself, Jackson nodded that he was ready and hardened his heart when the move awakened the injured man.

Vin knew the instant he entered hell and screamed deep in his throat as hands were placed on his body and lifted him. There were voices, but the words were unintelligible in the wake of the horrific pain that seemed to spread through every part of his body. Tears slipped from eyes that opened wide in sheer panic, but there seemed to be no relief in sight. Someone seemed to be making weak sounds nearby, and he suddenly realized those cries were coming from his own throat.

"God, Vin, I’m sorry," Jackson said and could no longer fight the emotional waves that threatened to drown him. He knew they had to keep going, but that didn’t make it any easier as Josiah and another man reached for the injured Texan and guided him into the wagon.

Vin gasped as his body was settled onto several blankets, but there was no relief from the rampant pain that flooded his body. He clenched his eyes and felt the moisture on his cheeks just before darkness won out and he descended into an oblivion that kept the misery at bay for now.

"Nathan, why don’t you sit with Vin while I drive the wagon," Sanchez offered.

"God, Josiah, how am I gonna help them when it feels like I’m the cause of it all," Jackson said tiredly.

"You’re not to blame, and someday you will realize that, My Friend. For now, rest, because you may not have faith in yourself, but we . . . your friends . . . do," Sanchez vowed, squeezing the healer’s right shoulder before moving aside so Standish could climb in beside the former slave.

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Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Mid-Afternoon

Carmella Covas looked up as a sound reached her ears and watched as the young man’s head moved from side to side. She reached out and touched her hand against his cheek as the eyelids slowly parted and the eyes latched onto her own.

" . . . where . . . Buck . . . "

"Your friends are fine, JD, they’re safe, but they’re worried about you. How do you feel?"

" . . . head hur . . . "

"Yes, I’m sure it does, but it will get better. I have something I’d like you to drink," Carmella said as her husband came into the room with a cup of warm broth.

JD frowned when he looked at the newcomer and tried to make sense of where he was and why he felt weaker than a day old calf. He thought Buck had been there . . . and Chris . . . no, Chris was . . . Chris was . . . God, he couldn’t think clearly.

"Here, JD," Carmella said as her husband lifted the young man’s head and she helped him drink from the cup. He didn’t drink as much as she would have liked, but he soon drifted back to sleep, one she hoped would help heal his wounds, physical as well as emotional.

"Carmella, Love, you need to rest," Cristóbal said and helped her stand.

"What if he wakes and needs something?"

"Then we will tend to his needs, for now you need a siesta," Cristóbal told her and led her to the room they shared. "Do not worry, Carmella, you will hear him if he awakens. Your heart has always been in tune to those in need and it has yet to let anyone down."

"Oh, Cristóbal, you always know what I need."

"Yes, I do," he said and lay down beside her, loving the feel of this woman, a gift given by God, and entrusted to his love and devotion. He listened for the soft sigh that usually escaped just before she slept and smiled before allowing his own mind to drift off.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Afternoon

Chris Larabee was a man on a mission and nothing was going to stop him. He reached the top of the stairs and slowly walked along the corridor. There was only one man who would recognize the battered man and that was Buck Wilmington, who’d seen Chris through the wildness after the murder of his wife and son.

Chris staggered forward, using the upper railing as a crutch as he checked each room he passed. There was nothing left of the man who’d emerged once he’d become part of the seven men protecting the town of Four Corners. The man, whose body wore warrior's tattoos in bruises, cuts, and blood was intent on sending De Rivera to hell to burn in the fires of damnation where he belonged.

Chris was prepared to die, but not until he made Don Garcia pay for killing JD Dunne. He could almost hear Dunne’s voice, pleading for his acceptance, and a thin smile, unholy in its lack of humor, formed on his face as he stopped in front of an open door.

"Die, Bastardo, die!" De Rivera screamed and brought the weapon up.

Chris reacted on impulse, his body moving even before he realized what his nemesis held. Instinct sent him lunging toward the Don, barreling into him like a human battering ram even as he felt a searing pain through his left side.

Don Garcia felt the air driven from his lungs as his son’s killer hit him and the gun flew from his hands. A table shattered under the weight of the two men who were hell bent on killing each other no matter what the cost.

Chris felt his body slam into the wall, and something connected with the right side of his head as he slid to the floor, dazed and angered by his weakness. He felt blood in his right eye and shook his head in an effort to clear the fog that had suddenly engulfed his mind. He turned to see Garcia climbing unsteadily to his feet and knew the other man was far from finished.

Chris managed to get to his knees, shaking his head in an effort to rid himself of the dizziness and blood that ran down the right side of his face. He sank to the floor and lay there until an image of JD’s head snapping back with the force of a bullet striking him renewed his need for revenge.

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Buck rode as if the hounds of hell were hot on his trail and anyone who knew him would have recognized a man on a mission. Buck knew Medina and Cordova rode with him, but it didn’t matter because Buck was alone with his thoughts and could not drive the demons from his soul. Chris Larabee was more than a friend, he was a brother, a kindred spirit, and no one could hurt him and get away with it, not as long as there was breath in his body.

Images flashed across his mind, pictures that flowed showing the years of friendship he had with Chris. The few short years of love he’d had as a married man and shorter still as a father. The glow that radiated from an awestruck first time father as he gently stroked the silken cheek of his new son and then kissed the woman who held his heart. Then came the long days and nights after Sarah and Adam’s murder, dealing with the man’s anger at God, at everyone around him, at the world, and especially at himself.

Buck knew he would never reach the hacienda in time and silently cursed Don Garcia. His head was filled with the events of the last few weeks and he thought about the young man at the Covas home and prayed he was still with them. God help De Rivera if JD, Vin, or Chris died because of him, because Buck would unleash his own demons if that happened. He turned onto De Rivera land and headed his horse toward the front of the large house.

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Don Garcia looked around for anything he could use to finish the gringo off, but there was nothing within reach as Larabee climbed to his feet. He understood now that Larabee was possessed by demons that would not relinquish their hold on him until vengeance had been served.

There was nowhere for him to go now, but he slowly backed up until he felt the warmth of the sun on his back and exited onto the upper verandah. He glanced around, again searching for something, anything that would save his life as Larabee followed him out into the bright afternoon sunlight. There was no mistaking the smile Larabee wore. It was a sign of insanity, a sign of death, his death and De Rivera looked for some means of escape.

Chris felt nothing, but a primal rage as he stepped through the open glass doors and spotted De Rivera near the railing. The sneer he wore gave little doubt of his intent as the sunlight shone down on a body riddled with damage, yet untouched by the pain that would have floored a normal man. Right now, Chris Larabee was anything but normal as he continued to force one foot in front of the other.

Don Garcia spotted the tray of fruit on the table and smiled with relief when the sun glinted off a shiny blade. He lunged forward and grabbed the handle as Larabee turned in his direction. He raised the knife, aiming to finish this once and for all.

Chris’ vision blurred and he blinked several times as the sun stabbed at his eyes, robbing him of sight for several deadly seconds. He heard movement on his right and turned just as the sun shone off a deadly weapon that arced toward his chest. He stepped sideways, and lunged at his foe, crying out when the blade was buried deep in his shoulder and he sank to his knees, but not before seeing Don Garcia De Rivera disappear over the edge of the railing.

Chris didn’t have the strength to stand, but he used what little he had left to drag himself across the floor. He reached the railing and heard a commotion from below, but there was no way he could stand and look over. He lay on his side, panting in the sunlight as his left arm stretched out toward the familiar voice from below.

"Bu . . . Buck . . . " he whispered and closed his eyes.

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Luis Martinez dismounted just as the sound of riders erupted behind him and a body fell from the upper level of the house. "Madre de Dios," he whispered and hurried toward the fallen man. He heard an angry voice behind him, but did not take the time to acknowledge the irate man.

Buck hadn’t been far behind the other man and had seen the body fall over the railing. His heart leapt to his throat, cutting off his air as he dismounted and staggered forward. "Chris!" he managed, relieved when he realized the man lying broken on the ground was not who he’d first thought.

Buck hurried forward, anger racing like ice water through his veins and shoved the other man aside. He quickly grabbed Don Garcia by the shirt and pulled him up until they were nose to nose. "Where is he?"

Don Garcia coughed as blood spilled from his mouth as he stared up at the man. Air wheezed in and out of his lungs with a sound that most people would recognize as a death rattle, yet there was still enough hatred in the man for him to speak the damning words.

"He is . . . de . . . dead!"

"No! You sick sonofabitch!"

"Leave him," Luis Martinez said and tried to pull the man’s hands away, but Wilmington was not so easily moved.

Buck’s hands wrapped around Don Garcia’s neck, choking the final breath from his body just as a single red droplet landed on the stone beside him. His fingers loosened their death grip and he slowly turned toward the house. What he saw tore through his heart as he watched the single trail of blood on the stark white stucco wall, its journey diverted every time it struck a deviation in the wall itself.

His eyes slowly followed the trail, his heart beating too fast as a roaring began in his ears and he fought to tear his eyes away, but he had to see. He had to know. Slowly, inch by agonizing inch his head came up until he saw something that made his blood run cold. A hand, unmoving seemed to be stretched toward him, and Buck knew he’d found his friend.

"He is dead . . . "

"Noooo!"

Luis recoiled at the depth of the agonized wail that left Buck Wilmington's lips.

Wilmington realized the man was talking about De Rivera and didn’t know about the body above them. "I need to get up there!"

Luis stood and looked up and nodded that he had also seen the hand and the blood. He spotted De Rivera’s overseer coming toward him, and knew he would have to handle Fernando Gores as Wilmington raced into the house.

Buck entered the house and spotted the staircase at the center of the large room. He raced toward it, not caring that he scared the hell out of the people who worked here and took the stairs two at a time. He saw a woman; eyes filled with moisture and hoped the sadness he saw there was not because of the loss of her Haciendada.

"Where . . . "

"Through those doors," Evita Martinez said and silently prayed this man was a friend.

Buck raced through the adjoining rooms and burst out onto the verandah, his heart bursting with pain when he saw the body sprawled on the floor. Terror shot through him when he saw the handle of a knife sticking out of his shoulder. He staggered forward, a feral cry of pain escaping as he felt his soul shatter. ‘No . . . God, Chris, don’t do this to me,’ he thought as he took in the body so marked with damage as to be unrecognizable except for the matted, sweat soaked, blond hair. He took a deep breath and knelt down, pulling the unmoving body against him as he shook with anger at himself, at Don Garcia, and at God himself.

"You stubborn bastard . . . couldn’t wait . . . no, had to . . . to go off and do it all your fucking self," Buck said and cradled the body against his own, unaware of the hand that moved to touch his arm.

"Not a fuc . . . fucking whore, Buck . . . "

"Huh," Wilmington managed and pulled back to see a pair of green slits beneath a sea of red, but a relieved smile formed and he choked out. "Jesus . . . you scared the shit out of me."

"Sor . . . ry . . . tri . . . tried . . . pro . . . "

Buck held his friend as he tried to speak, but could not understand what he was saying. He felt Larabee tremble just before he lost consciousness and Buck closed his eyes as he felt the slight rise and fall of Larabee’s chest.

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Evita knew Santos was safe with Juanita and hurried down the stairs. She’d heard voices raised in anger and recognized her son’s anger as she exited the door and raced toward him. "Luis!"

"Madre, you should not be here," Luis said, but held her close as one of the field workers covered Don Garcia’s body with a rough-hewn blanket.

"He is dead?" Evita asked.

"Si," Luis answered and watched his mother make the sign of the cross.

"I will not mourn him, Luis," Evita said, but wiped away the telltale tears that escaped from her eyes. There was a baby to care for, one who would grow up an orphan, but that did not mean he would not know what it is like to be loved. She would care for him, raise him in the same way she’d raised the man before her. She would make Dona Maria De Rivera proud of her son; that was something she would see to herself.

"Neither will I, Madre," Luis said and looked around as Gores began ordering the workers back to the fields. "No, Fernando, leave them alone . . . "

"The plants will not care for themselves, Luis, and since I am the overseer . . . "

"Not any more, Fernando. I will not allow you to beat on the workers while you sit back and grow fat while others work their fingers to the bare bone. You are no longer needed here . . . "

"You cannot fire me!"

"Si, I can, Fernando, or do I have to remind you of who you are speaking with?"

"Don Garcia never said you were his son!"

"Perhaps not, but there are many that know the truth and I am going to make sure my brother grows up knowing what is right and what is wrong. Get your things and leave now, Fernando, or I will have you escorted from my home!" Luis said.

Fernando Gores knew there was no help for him from the workers or Luis’ men. Knowing that there would be others Luis had angered, the former overseer turned to leave with a silent vow that Luis Martinez would pay for what he’d done.

"Luis . . . "

"Madre, I must see to Don Garcia and make arrangements for his burial."

"Si, Luis, I can help."

"No, Madre, you are needed here. Santos is crying and I believe Nathan Jackson will be here with the injured from the Arena De Muerte."

"Madre De Dios, I had forgotten. I will need help to fix the rooms and make sure everything is in readiness," Evita said and looked up when she heard movement and silently prayed the man who’d saved her life was still alive.

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Four Corners

Mid-Afternoon

Mary knew most of the townspeople were anxious for word on the men who kept the peace in Four Corners and the outlying areas. Yosemite and several others, including neighboring farmers like Tom Wilson were taking patrols and watching for trouble. So far there’d been very little for them to handle, but there were two men locked up in jail for being drunk and disorderly.

Mary moved toward the saloon with the day’s newspaper in her hands, but there was very little to report. At least the raids on the homesteads to the south had stopped and Mary silently prayed the seven men would return safely.

"Mrs. Travis, is there any news from Mr. Larabee and his friends?" Heidegger called and waited for her to join him in front of the hotel.

"No, Mr. Heidegger, I’m afraid there’s nothing new," the newspaperwoman answered sadly.

"They are probably off drinking and whoring in Purgatorio. What are we paying them for?"

"Mr. Conklin, we are not the ones paying Mr. Larabee and the others, my father-in-law is taking care of that."

"Your father-in-law is not here to make sure they protect his investment . . . "

"Do not listen to him, Mrs. Travis," Heidegger said and turned away from the pompous man who never had a good word for anyone.

"I bet if I sent a telegram to Judge Travis he would be as angry as I am."

"Don’t count on it, Mr. Conklin," the blonde woman said. "Orin will be here on the next stage and I’m sure he’d be very interested in hearing your complaints, although I’m sure he’s probably heard the same drivel from the cowards in every town he’s visited."

"How dare you!"

"Problems, Mrs. Travis?" Yosemite asked from behind Conklin.

"Nothing I can’t handle, Yosemite, Mr. Conklin was just giving his opinion about how Judge Travis should spend his money." Mary smiled condescendingly at Conklin before handing a newspaper to the others and hurrying toward the saloon. She knew men like Conklin would always blame others for their own shortcomings, but that didn’t mean she had to let them away with it.

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East of the De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Afternoon

Nathan had no idea how long it would take to reach the hacienda, and cursed the heat that sapped the moisture from the landscape. Vin Tanner remained unconscious, yet there could be no denying the fact that the injured Texan was fighting for his life. Guilt gnawed at his gut when he took note of the weight the younger man had lost and he hoped Vin had the strength to keep fighting.

Nathan’s thoughts turned to another young man, whose injuries he had yet to see, but at least JD was alive. The relief the news brought had nearly floored him, but the relief had ebbed and had been replaced by worry. Josiah had filled him in on what they knew of Dunne’s injuries and he wished he could see how much damage had been done. 

Jackson reached out and touched Tanner’s forehead and knew the fever had a strong hold on the injured man. The faster they got to the hacienda, the faster he could mix the herbs and medicines the Texan needed. The wagon lurched to the left, but was quickly righted as Sanchez brought the animals back under control.

"Any idea how much further?" Sanchez asked.

"No, I wasn’t paying attention when Don Garcia brought us here . . . sorry," Jackson apologized, but felt a hand on his arm.

"You had other things on your mind, Nathan," Standish said simply, not bothering to hide behind what Vin had called his five-dollar words. He nodded toward the Texan and hoped the healer understood what he meant as they topped a rise and looked down into a lush valley. In the distance he could see several buildings and from the look on Jackson’s face he knew this was De Rivera’s hacienda.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Afternoon

Buck looked up as Raphael and Augusta joined him on the veranda. He clung to Chris as if to release him would mean losing what little life was left in the lean body. The knife needed to be removed, but he remembered Nathan’s warning that it could be the only thing stopping the wound from bleeding freely and God only knew Chris had already lost too much. He knew they had to move the blond inside, and sighed heavily when Raphael knelt beside them.

"How is he?" Raphael asked softly.

"He’s alive . . . that’s about all I can say," Wilmington answered.

"Senorita Martinez has a room ready for him," Augusta advised.

"Mario just rode in," Raphael told the worried rogue. "Nathan should be here soon."

"Thank God," Wilmington said and realized the blond wasn’t as out of it as he thought. "Chris, we’re going to have to get you inside."

" . . . do it . . . " Larabee ground out as he lifted a bloodied hand to touch Wilmington’s chest.

"Raphael, you and Augusta take his legs," Wilmington ordered and slowly made his way to his feet. He felt the lean body tense just before they lifted him off the floor. Buck steeled his heart against the weak sounds that escaped his friend as they carried him through the doors and into the hacienda.

"Bring him in here," Evita ordered once they reached the upper hallway. The house servants had readied the twin beds and turned down the blankets while she’d been busy making sure everything was ready in the kitchen. Juanita would stay with Santos and make sure the baby was cared for while the others helped with the injured.

Buck moved into the room and settled Larabee on the bed closest to the window. The sunlight filtered through a set of floral curtains, but Buck felt chilled to the bone when he realized just how much damage had been done to his friend.

"Senor, I will have water and bandages brought for you," Evita offered.

"Thank you, Senorita," Wilmington said. He could hear others around him, but his attention was solely on his injured friend and he silently wished Nathan was there. He looked up as a young man entered carrying a basin of water and bandages and watched as the servant’s eyes wandered to the knife sticking out of Larabee’s shoulder.

"Do you need anything else, Senor?" the young man asked and waited for Raphael to repeat his words in English.

"No," Wilmington answered and dipped a cloth into the water. He began cleaning the dirt, revealing more and more bruises in varying shades and several marks that made him curse softly.

"Nathan is here, Buck," Raphael told him.

"Tell him to get the hell up here!" Wilmington snapped when he noted that Larabee had lost consciousness again.

"He is helping bring Vin . . . Augusta told him there were two beds in this room," Raphael said and moved to turn down the blankets on the next bed.

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Nathan felt the fear rising in his throat when the wagon was pulled to a stop in front of the hacienda. He had no idea what to expect and suddenly realized he was bringing more hostages to Don Garcia De Rivera. He swallowed convulsively as a familiar figure moved toward him.

"Don Garcia is dead . . . there is nothing for you to fear any longer," Luis explained.

"I’m sorry . . . not because he’s dead, Luis, but because you have lost your father."

"He never acknowledge me as his son, and I will not allow his death to bring sorrow to the people he walked on," Martinez said. "There is a room ready . . . "

"What about Chris? Where is he?" Jackson asked.

"He is injured, but he is not alone . . . "

"Nathan, you go with him while I get some men to help carry Vin inside," Sanchez ordered and motioned for three familiar figures to join them.

"Josiah, it’s gonna be hell movin’ him. Luis, do you have something we can use to keep him as straight as possible?" Jackson asked.

"Si, I can do that," Luis said and gave several commands to the fieldworkers before turning back to the healer. "It is being done."

"Thank you," Jackson said, glancing at the unconscious Texan before turning his attention to Standish. "Ez, you’re not gonna be able to help so you might as well come with me."

"I assure . . . "

"Assure me of nothin’ . . . come on Ezra or I’ll have someone give you some menial labor to do," Jackson said and hurried into the hacienda. He hurried up the stairs, but stopped at an open doorway as Evita Martinez wrapped her arms around him.

"It is good to see you, Nathan."

"Thank you, Evita. Where’s Chris?" Jackson asked.

"He is in the room next to the nursery. Juanita is staying with Santos," Evita explained and led the way toward the bedroom. "How is your friend?"

"He’s in bad shape. Luis is helping bring him up here," Jackson said and took a deep breath as he entered the room. He quickly took in the damage inflicted on Chris Larabee and moved to the bed as Wilmington stood back.

"I didn’t want to remove the knife until you took a look at it," the worried man explained.

"Yuh thought right, he could have bled t'death," Jackson said.

"He was shot too, Nate . . . went through, I’ve been trying to clean him up . . . keep hearing you telling us how dangerous infections can be," Wilmington said.

"I’m gonna need more water and . . . Evita, do you have any carbolic?"

"I am sorry, Nathan, what is carbolic?" Evita asked and listened as Nathan explained what he needed. "I do not know if it is the same thing, but there are herbs and liquids used by the fieldworkers. I will speak to Pedro and have him bring whatever they have."

"Thank you, Evita," Jackson said and took a deep breath as he motioned for Buck to continue the task of cleaning the dirt from Larabee’s body. "Ezra, sit down."

"Nathan, I can help," Standish said.

"Yes, you can, by sitting down. I know that wound ain’t as bad as it could’ve been, but it’s bad enough and it’s gonna need time ta heal," Jackson warned as he began examining the area around the knife wound. "Buck, I’m gonna need ya ta hold him still while I get this out."

"I got him," Wilmington said, relieved that the bed was not pushed up tight against the wall. He did his best to hold the injured blond down as Nathan pulled the knife from the wound. The pain filled cry was weak, but it echoed through the house and a second one joined it as Vin was carried into the room.

"Sweet Jesus," Sanchez said, but held tight to his burden as Tanner tried to come off the board he was carried on.

"Ezra, stay put!" Wilmington said as Jackson pressed a piece of cloth against the hole in Larabee’s shoulder.

"Easy," Sanchez soothed Vin, after Larabee grew quiet beneath the healer’s touch.

"Chris . . . "

"Nathan’s with him. Just hold on while we get you in bed and you’ll see for yourself."

"Hurt . . . hurting . . . "

"Him or you?" Sanchez asked as he helped move the injured Texan.

"Josiah, make sure he stays put!" Jackson ordered.

"He’s not going anywhere," Sanchez vowed and placed his hands on the heaving chest. "You can’t help him right now, Vin."

Vin knew Josiah was right and lay back against the pillow with a soft moan. He turned his head until he spotted the shadowy shapes across the short distance, but his vision refused to focus. His stomach churned as pain flooded his senses and threatened to send him back into the dark void he’d been in. He gagged and clenched his eyes tightly as strong hands eased him onto his side as dry heaves racked his body.

"Easy, Vin, I got you," Sanchez said and gently held the man until the tremors stopped. He placed him back on the pillows and noted that someone had added another one so that the injured man could sit up without putting pressure on his injuries. He noted the beads of sweat on the Texan’s face and chest and looked up when a basin of water was placed on the floor beside him.

"Keep wiping him down, Josiah," Jackson ordered, relieved to find Evita was taking care of the essential needs.

"Nathan, Pedro will bring the herbs and salves."

"Thank you, Evita . . . for everything," the healer said and took a deep breath as several servants entered the room carrying buckets of water and extra towels and bandages.

"Tell me what you need," Evita said.

"A doctor . . . "

"The Lord has gifted you with the heart and soul of a healer, Nathan Jackson . . . I have seen you work and feel honored to be in your presence," the woman said and placed a hand on his shoulder before speaking softly. "Now tell me what you need?"

"Gonna need hot water . . . maybe some broth fer Chris and Vin."

"Done," Evita said and looked at the newcomers. "I will see that there is food for everyone."

"Thank you," Jackson said and returned his full attention to the injured blond. He looked at the man opposite him and swallowed convulsively as Wilmington’s blue eyes locked on his and gave a slight nod of his dark head. There was no need for words; everything that needed to be said was evident in that single motion.

Buck watched as Nathan worked to clean the ravaged flesh around the knife wound and turned his attention to the blond’s left side. He’d grabbed one of the clean towels and pressed it against the entrance wound and another against the larger exit wound. He’d seen the marks that crisscrossed Larabee’s chest and back and cursed Don Garcia for his cruelty.

"Buck, I need you to clean him up for me while I check this head wound," Jackson ordered, his voice stronger than he thought possible. A table with herbs, salves, and a basin of water was placed beside him and he knew they all owed Evita Martinez a debt of gratitude. He reached for a clean cloth and gently began removing the mixture of dirt and blood on Larabee’s face and knew the gash on his forehead would need stitches.

The area around the cut was already darkening with a livid bruise that matched the ones that covered Larabee’s body. He glanced at the table, surprised to find what he needed to sew the wounds closed. Taking a deep breath, Nathan tuned out everything around him except the job at hand.

Buck watched the change in the man and knew Nathan did not see himself the same way those around him did. Jackson was a man whose emotions were easy to read and Buck knew there was no one else he’d rather have taking care of Chris, Vin, and Ezra. He knew once the trio was taken care of they’d have a decision to make regarding JD Dunne. He trusted Cristóbal and Carmella Covas, but JD needed Nathan . . . he needed Nathan to tell him the youngest member of the peacekeepers would be all right.

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Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Late Afternoon

JD could hear a soft voice nearby, and smiled as a warmth spread through him. The words were unintelligible, but the angel standing beside his bed was beautiful. Her dark hair hung over her right shoulder in a long braid that touched her hips as her hands worked at something he couldn’t quite make out.

"Ma," he whispered, but there was no sign that the woman heard him as she continued to sing softly. He wanted to move, but nothing seemed to work as he struggled against the nauseating dizziness that threatened to send him back into the dark abyss he’d been drowning in. 

Carmella continued to darn her husband’s sock while singing a song her mother had taught her at an early age. It had often soothed her during the times when she was ill and she hoped it would do the same for the injured young man. She’d been sitting with him since waking to find Cristóbal working in the field. She stood in the doorway, watching him and falling in love all over again before picking up the basket and sitting beside the bed.

"Ma?"

Carmella’s head came up and she stopped singing as the young man’s voice reached her ears and she smiled before placing the sock and needle back in the basket. She hoped she could get through to him, and placed a gentle hand on his cheek as she tried to convey a sense of safety as she spoke.

"JD, you are safe. No one will hurt you here," Carmella explained and smiled as she reached for the herbal tea she’d placed on the nearby table. She helped him lift his head, but eased him back down as a muffled cry escaped tightly clenched teeth.

" . . . ick . . . " Dunne managed and was grateful when she’d turned him on his side. He regretted the fact that he’d made a mess on the floor, but the woman’s voice was a soothing balm on his conscience.

"Would you like to try that again?"

"Ma . . . made . . . mess . . . "

"It can be cleaned," Carmella said and held the cup to his lips and allowed him to take a few sips before taking it away. "You can have more, but let that settle first. How do you feel?"

"Head . . . hurts . . . "

"I know," Carmella said sympathetically. "Why don’t you close your eyes and sleep?"

" . . . kay . . . " Dunne said, but frowned as an image of an irate blond formed, but disappeared as darkness won out and he lost consciousness.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Evening

Luis Martinez knew he should say something over his father’s grave, but there seemed to be nothing he could say to erase the cruelty of Don Garcia De Rivera. The fieldworkers and many of the house servants were present as the body was lowered into the ground and he heard several mumbled prayers as his mother took his hand in hers. 

"Luis, he may not have said it, but Don Garcia was proud of the man you became."

"Was he? No, Madre, I believe he would have been proud only if I did as he asked. I could not bring myself to hurt anyone else in his name," Luis explained sadly. It had been his choice to bury Don Garcia quickly instead of waiting for word to spread and people to give their condolences.

"Luis, you are a good man . . . one I am proud of and I know you will help raise Santos to be as kind and forgiving as his mother was," Evita said as two of the workers began shoveling the dirt into the grave. Don Garcia had ordered a specially made casket, one that had cost more than most people earned in a lifetime in the fields. It had been stored in a small room that had once been used for De Rivera’s honored guests and kept clean by the servants.

"It will be hard for Santos . . . growing up as an orphan."

"Perhaps it will not be as hard as you think, Luis. Santos has you and he will look up to you. I believe in my heart that Dona Maria will watch over her son and help guide him with the knowledge of what is right and what is wrong."

"I know I should say something, Madre, but I find my heart is not in it. I can not speak the words of forgiveness . . . "

"It is not for us to forgive, Luis, it is God who will decide whether Don Garcia deserves forgiveness for his sins," Evita said.

"God have mercy on his soul," Luis managed past the lump in his throat. He watched as several of the fieldworkers made the sign of the cross and placed flowers on the new grave. He knew he should feel grief at the loss of life, especially of the man who was his father, but all he felt was an emptiness that swallowed him up.

"Come, Luis, there are many things you must see to," Evita said and hoped her son would understand his new role as Haciendada until Santos De River was old enough to make decisions of his own.

"How are Nathan’s friends?" Luis asked as they walked past Dona Maria’s grave.

"They are hurting, but I believe God has given Nathan a gift that flows through his hands. He does not know how much his friends trust him and yet he would do anything for them. He has an old soul . . . a healer’s soul," Evita explained as they walked back toward the house.

"I wish I could have stopped what he did to Nathan . . . to his friends," Luis said.

"I wish I had the strength to leave when you were born, Luis, but there was nowhere for us to go," Evita told him. "You must be careful."

"Why?"

"You have made an enemy of Fernando Gores and he will not forget what you did here today," Evita warned.

"Gores is a coward."

"Si, he is, but even cowards grow strong when they have others to hide behind," Evita said and hugged her son. She silently prayed he would draw on the inner strength that emanated from him, a strength that was solidified by the men who chose to ride with him.

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Buck watched as Nathan checked both men before dropping heavily onto the chair that had been placed between the two beds. He could see the lines of strain on the healer’s face and wondered what this man had been through since they’d last seen each other north of the Rio Grande.

There were no injuries, at least none that were visible to the naked eye, but Buck knew in his heart that Nathan had been put through emotional hell. The man would not leave Chris or Vin’s side, and right now that was where he was needed, but at some point in time Nathan would need to talk through what had happened.

Buck looked at Josiah who was standing near the open doorway and saw the truth of his own thoughts mirrored on the older man’s face. Ezra had been convinced to take advantage of the bed in the next room once Nathan had cleaned and stitched his wound. There was still one man missing, and Buck was worried and wanted him under Jackson’s care . . . and under his own watchful eyes.

"Buck, how bad is JD?" Nathan’s voice was soft as he replaced the cloth on Larabee’s forehead.

Wilmington ran his fingers through his hair and leaned back in the chair before answering. "He was awake for a bit, but didn’t seem to know what was going on. He’s got a bad head wound, Nathan . . . "

"Why’d you leave ‘im alone?" the former slave snapped.

"We didn’t, Brother," Sanchez said. "When we left him he was in good hands."

"Is he . . . can someone get him and bring him here?" Jackson asked.

"He’s in rough shape, Nathan. Maybe if we used a wagon, but it’d be hard on him," Wilmington supplied.

"Damn it!" Jackson snapped and looked at the two unconscious men. "I need . . . "

"You can’t be in two places at once," Sanchez said and placed a hand on the weary man’s shoulder. "I’ll see if we can borrow the wagon . . . maybe set up a mattress in the back and get some blankets to keep the sun off of him."

Jackson nodded simply and turned to walk out onto the veranda.

"He’s taking this hard," Wilmington said, not missing the slumped shoulders or downcast eyes that spoke of inner turmoil.

"Nathan’s always carried a heavy load, but something tells me there’s more to the story than we know," Sanchez offered. He glanced from Larabee to Tanner and knew both men had a hard fight ahead of them. No matter how hard it was for them, it would be doubly hard for Nathan, but somehow they would help the healer through the hell De Rivera had created. Josiah knew that at some point in time he would have to get his friend to open up or whatever he’d seen would fester until it wore a hole in his heart.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening

Evita watched with pride as her son talked with the field workers and could see the difference in the way they looked at him. Don Garcia had been a hard taskmaster and many of the peons bore the marks left by his cane or whip. His cruelty had seen many people crippled or in the grave, and now there seemed to be a sigh of relief amongst those gathered at the front of the house.

Luis was a strong man whose appearance differed from his father and for that she was grateful. He reminded her more and more of her own father and she knew he would have been proud of his grandson. She turned to find Juanita Perez watching her and smiled at the young woman who had captured Luis’ heart. At least now she would have the chance to see them happy and hopefully she'd have grandchildren of her own.

"He is strong, Evita."

"Si, he is and he will make sure Santos has the same inner strength he has. Santos will grow up without his padre’s shadow and will have Luis’ heart to help guide him. You are good for him," the older woman said with a smile that was filled with a peace she’d felt only once before on the day her son was born and placed in her arms.

"Thank you, Evita, I love Luis very much."

"I know you do and now you can show him how you feel without worrying about Don Garcia’s anger," Evita told her.

"Your blessing means so much to me, Evita. I have always looked to you for guidance," Juanita said as Luis moved to join them.

"I have always known how you and Luis felt, Juanita, and prayed that God would make it possible for you to be together," Evita said and hugged her son. "You chose wisely, Luis."

Luis hugged both woman and knew things were far from settled, but at least now these people had a chance at a life so different from the one they’d known. He knew Don Garcia had treated them badly and regretted being unable to help them, but for now the Hacienda was his to run until Santos was old enough to take over. He would be there to help guide his brother and give him advice and would also tell him about his father.

"Luis, it is time for you to eat and rest," Evita told her son.

"Si, Madre, but first I will check on Nathan and his compadres," Luis said and hurried into the house. He made his way up the stairs and into the room where his father’s victims remained unconscious and under the watchful eyes of their friends.

"Come in, Luis," Sanchez said of the handsome young man standing in the doorway.

"Thank you, Senor, how are they?"

"Not good, but Nathan is doing everything he can," the ex-preacher answered.

"There are many of my people who are praying for them. Mi madre has seen that there is plenty of food and I am sure she is making something for Senor Tanner and Senor Larabee."

"Thank you, Luis; I don’t know how close you were to Don Garcia . . . "

"He was mi padre . . . "

"Then I’m sorry for your loss," Sanchez said and made a sign of the cross.

"Do not be," Luis told him. "Mi Padre was a cruel man and does not deserve our sorrow or forgiveness."

"Still, he was your padre, and yet I sense no cruelty in you," the older man said.

"You do not know me, Senor," Martinez whispered.

"Perhaps not, but my instincts tell me you are a far better man than your padre," Sanchez vowed.

"Where is Nathan?" Luis asked.

"He is on the veranda," Wilmington answered from his position near Larabee’s bed.

"Nathan is a good man and did not deserve what mi padre did," Martinez said.

"What did he do to Nathan?" Wilmington asked and watched as Ezra shifted his position on the floor next to Tanner’s bed.

"Nothing, Buck," Jackson answered and re-entered the room. His eyes were heavy lidded and his shoulders slumped as he moved to check on the injured men. He swallowed convulsively as he moved to Vin and noted the pale skin that glistened with perspiration. There was no way of telling whether the fight in the arena or from the damaged tooth caused the swelling on his face. He checked the bandage covering the bullet wound and shook his head when he lifted it away and revealed the ravaged wound.

"How does it look, Nathan?" Sanchez asked.

"How do you think it looks, Josiah? He’s been beaten, shot, mistreated, half starved, and forced to work in a fucking field while I . . . while I . . . " Nathan gripped the basin of water and threw it against the opposite wall, watching as the contents slowly slid down the wall.

"Easy, Brother," the ex-preacher said and placed a gentle, callused hand on Jackson’s shoulder.

Nathan threw off the reassuring hand and turned on the older man. "Don’t touch me, Preacher!"

"Nathan, you are exhausted . . . perhaps you should take advantage of our assistance and rest," Standish offered.

"I need . . . "

"Nathan, Ezra’s right," Sanchez interrupted. "Luis, is there somewhere Nathan can get some sleep once he’s eaten?"

"I will see that there is a room ready for him," Martinez assured them and left the room.

"I should stay with . . . "

"No, Brother, you need to let us take care of them for a while!" Josiah said, but there was no mistaking the tone the man used. Nathan turned away from the ex-preacher, but Sanchez was not to be denied. "Nathan . . . "

"Leave me the hell alone, Josiah!"

"I don’t think so! I’ll carry you out if I have to, Brother, and you know I can do it too," Sanchez said softly, but left little doubt that he would remove the man bodily if he didn’t listen to reason.

"Nathan, you’ve shown us what to do and it’s time you let us take over! It ain’t gonna do any good if you fall on your face and we can’t wake you when they really need you!" Wilmington snapped and knew Ezra was ready to take up the gauntlet even with his arm in a sling.

"I..." Jackson felt the anger drain from his weary body and felt the exhaustion wash over him like waves on a stormy sea. He knew these men were right, but it did not make this any easier. "You’ll wake me if they need me?"

"You know I will," Sanchez said. "Go get something to eat and take advantage of a bed for a few hours."

"What about JD?" Jackson asked, holding his ground.

"It’s too late to go get him tonight, Nathan," Wilmington said with a heavy sigh as he ran his fingers through his hair.

"He’ll be fine until we can bring him here, Nathan," Sanchez tried to sound reassuring, but it fell short because of his own fears where the youngest peacekeeper was concerned. He watched Jackson closely and knew the man needed to rest, but as always, their healer would not leave until he was sure the injured were as comfortable as possible. He shared a look with Wilmington and understood the other man would help him carry Jackson out if that’s what it took. For now they would allow him to finish caring for Vin and Chris, but if he did not leave they would make good on his earlier threat.

Nathan knew there was nothing he could do about JD and returned his attention to the task at hand, hiding the anger that still seethed inside him. He cleaned the wound and had Josiah hold the unconscious Texan while he wrapped new bandages around his waist. "Keep wiping him down with cool water . . . gotta get the fever down."

"We will, Nate," Wilmington vowed and moved aside so Jackson could care for the blond.

Nathan took a deep breath and sat down in the chair. Where Vin was pale, Chris’ skin had that washed out caste that reminded him of a corpse and he forced himself to concentrate on what he was doing. He checked the bandage covering the shoulder and decided to leave it alone as there seemed to be very little blood showing through. The bullet wound to his side also appeared to be okay, but several marks made by De Rivera were showing signs of infection and Nathan suddenly felt the weight of the world on his shoulders as he turned to the others.

"What’s wrong, Nathan?" Sanchez asked.

"I’m gonna need to clean these."

"What do you need me to do?" Wilmington asked.

"Need you to hold him down for me. Evita gave me some things her people use and I ain’t sure how much they’ll hurt him . . . could be like carbolic," Jackson warned and moved to check the items Evita gave him. He found the ones she’d told him were used to clean open wounds and returned to the bed. He mixed it with the clean water Josiah poured into the basin and placed on the table beside him.

"Tell us when you’re ready, Nathan," Sanchez said as he took Larabee’s feet while Wilmington placed his hands on the blond’s bare shoulders.

"I’m ready," Jackson said, and took a hitching breath before gently pressing against the first wound. The putrid smell hit them at once even as Larabee moaned and struggled to get away from whatever was causing him pain.

"Easy, Chris, Nathan’s just gonna fix you up," Wilmington said and held tight to the shoulders as he watched Sanchez struggle to hold the long legs.

Nathan repeated the process with the second wound, working methodically as he fought the bone deep exhaustion as he called on what little energy he had left. He heard Ezra say something to Vin and hoped the gambler could keep the Texan down. It took several long minutes to clean the infection from the wounds and by the time he was done he was drenched in sweat and nausea churned through his gut as Larabee slumped against the pillows, eyes closed and his breathing ragged. He’d never really regained consciousness, but he’d given Buck and Josiah a fight worthy of a prizefighter he’d once seen.

Josiah and Buck exchanged a look over the healer’s tense back and both men knew Nathan looked as if he’d been beaten down. There was no doubt in their minds that he was working on remote and sooner or later he would collapse if they didn’t make him rest.

"Nathan, we can take it from here," Sanchez said and saw the dark head nod once, concerned when the younger man did not even look at him.

Nathan stood and left the room without a backward glance because to do so would reveal just how hard this was for him. He made his way downstairs and smiled thinly when Evita handed him a plate of food. The smell was enough to make his stomach rumble, but he found he had no desire to eat. He took the plate and sat down, picking at the spicy food, not really tasting it before he finally pushed it away.

"Nathan, I have a room ready for you," Evita told him.

"Thank you, Evita," Jackson said and followed her up the stairs. Once in the room he closed the door and dropped to his knees as his body shook with the accumulated effects of the last few weeks. His shoulders slumped as his hands fisted in anger at the atrocities he’d witnessed and been unable to stop. He’d seen so much on the plantation and now it felt like his life had come full circle and he’d been forced to watch as his friends were beaten. He struggled to his feet, staggered across the short distance to the bed and dropped heavily onto the mattress.

Nathan curled onto his side, but what little he’d eaten churned through his stomach. He reached for the basin on the table and wretched several times until his body shook with the sounds of dry heaves. When they finally stopped, Nathan wanted to get rid of the sour smelling vomit, but his body refused to move and he placed the basin on the floor and fell back against the pillow. His eyes closed and silent tears made a trail down his cheeks as exhaustion won out and he dropped heavily into a nightmare world of suffering he’d long since thought was buried deep in his subconscious.

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Covas Home

South of the Rio Bravo

Early Morning

Carmella reached for the cloth and placed it on the young man’s forehead. During the night he’d been feverish and crying out and it had taken a toll on his body. There were times when he looked too young to have been through so much, and she wondered what his life had been like to lead him to this position.

"No . . . too close . . . can see their eyes . . . Buck, help . . . "

"It’s okay, JD, you’re safe," Carmella soothed when the dark head tossed from side to side and sweat glistened on his bare chest and face. She reached for a second cloth and ran it over his chest even as he struggled in the throes of whatever nightmares held him in his grip.

"Carmella, Love, you are tired," Cristóbal said and massaged her shoulders as a soft cry escaped her throat.

"Oh, Cristóbal, he is so young."

"Si, he is, but he is very strong and he has friends. They will help him," Cristóbal told her.

"If they are alive. I expected them to return, but . . . what if . . . what if something happened to them. You know Don Garcia is a cruel man and if he . . . "

"Sh, Love, they will return for him. God will see them safe for they do His work," Cristóbal offered.

"Chris dead . . . no, Buck . . . where are . . . mama . . . cold . . . " Dunne’s eyes shot open, but it was obvious to the couple that he was not seeing them, but something that plagued his nightmares.

"JD, you’re safe," Carmella explained softly.

"Ma . . . ma?" Dunne’s voice was filled with sorrow and hope as his eyes fixed on the woman whose hand caressed his brow. A warmth spread through him at her touch and his fevered brain latched onto a vision from his childhood. "Mama . . . so tired."

"I’m here, JD, go ahead and sleep," Carmella said and watched the eyes close, even as he reached for her touch.

"He will sleep now, Love," Cristóbal said and helped her stand. "Now you must do the same.

"I don’t want to leave him alone."

"I will stay with him. Go to our bed or I will be forced to watch over you and leave the boy alone," Cristóbal warned and knew he’d said the right thing.

"Wake me if he needs me."

"I will . . . you said just what he needed to hear, Carmella," Cristóbal told his wife and gently wiped the tears from her face. "His mama must have been a beautiful woman if he is mistaking you for her.

"You are a romantic old fool, Mi Amore," Carmella said and kissed her husband before leaving the room.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

The dawn of a new day came with the sun peeking her golden crown above the horizon while soft white clouds made their silent journey as if nothing mattered but the advancement of time. Colorful native birds twittered in the nearby trees while animals scurried on the trails in search of food. 

Nathan stepped out onto the veranda and sighed tiredly. He moved to the edge and stared out over the land whose beauty should have filled him with wonder, instead he felt nothing but an icy chill running through his veins. How could he see beauty in a land whose owner was filled with cruelty and had nearly claimed the lives of his friends?

Nathan could see the field workers moving through the abundant crops and shook himself as a vision of Vin Tanner, bare-chested and feverish flashed across his eyes. He knew the Texan was safe from De Rivera and Gores, but he still had a fight ahead of him before he could reclaim his life back in Four Corners.

Nathan thought about his own life and knew the experiences on the Hacienda had changed him as tears formed in his eyes. He blinked several times and wiped away the moisture as he fought to keep his emotions in check. He was so lost in his thoughts that he didn’t hear anything, but his own ragged breathing, and jumped when a hand landed on his right shoulder. He whirled on the man and raised his fist, but found his hand engulfed by strong fingers.

"Easy, Brother," Sanchez said.

"Jesus, Josiah, I’m sorry."

"It’s okay, Nathan, I should have said something earlier," Sanchez said. "You look like hell . . . did you get any sleep at all?"

"Slept some," the former slave answered.

"Not nearly enough," Sanchez observed of the deep-set eyes that were clouded with sorrow and pain.

"I’m fine . . . " Jackson dismissed and frowned when the older man chuckled softly. "What’s so funny?"

"You’ve been hanging around the rest of us too long, My Friend. Fine indeed," the ex-preacher said with a grin.

"Hell," Jackson whispered and sat down wearily. "How are they?"

"Vin’s fever seems to be coming down some, and we managed to get some water into him," Sanchez answered.

"He was sick before they took us. Diseased tooth, but the bastards bustin’ it might’ve helped some. I’m gonna need to keep an eye on it . . . might have to drain it again if it swells up again."

"He’s tough," Sanchez complimented.

"What about Chris? Have you been able to get him to drink anything?"

"No, he hasn’t moved since you left last night," Sanchez offered.

"What about his fever?" Jackson asked and watched Sanchez’s face closely when the man didn’t answer immediately. "Josiah?"

"He’s burning up . . . "

"Why the hell didn’t ya wake me up?" Jackson snapped, pushing past the older man in his hurry to check on the injured men. He entered the room to find Buck seated between the two beds. "Where’s Ezra?"

"We managed to convince him to get some sleep," Wilmington answered.

"His arm botherin’ him?" Jackson asked, taking the seat the ladies’ man vacated.

"Yeah," Wilmington answered.

"I’ll take a look at it when he wakes up," Jackson said, turning his attention to the unconscious blond. "This fever’s got a tight hold on him."

"I’ve been wiping him down," Wilmington offered.

"Josiah, ask Evita if there’s any ice," Jackson ordered as he eased back the blankets to check Larabee’s wounds.

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***"Chris . . . it ain’t your fault," Dunne said. Standing tall, he squared his shoulders and turned toward Don Garcia De Rivera. He drew in a deep breath and spoke in a voice devoid of fear. "See you in hell!"

 

"Now, Hernando . . . "

 

"NO!" Larabee screamed as everything seemed to happen in slow motion. The sound of the shot echoed and re-echoed through his skull as he watched the younger man’s head snap back with the force of the bullet tearing through his skull. Dunne’s body toppled backward and landed in the grave Chris had dug, taking with it the promise of a life yet unfulfilled.***

"No . . . JD . . . no . . . go home kid . . . "

"Chris, can you hear me?" Jackson asked. He wasn’t sure what he was hearing or what Larabee was seeing, but whatever he was dreaming about was tearing him apart.

" . . . home kid . . . go home . . . don’t . . . " Chris struggled against the hands that touched his shoulders, His body arched upward with a fierce strength that defied description. He lashed out at the enemy before him, eyes wide and seeing only the nightmarish images that followed him through his nightmares.

"Na . . . "

"Stay put, Vin, or so help me I’ll tie you down!" Jackson warned when Tanner’s eyes shot open at Larabee’s cry.

" . . . so . . . sorry . . . Buck . . . couldn’t save . . . tried . . . " Larabee’s head tossed weakly from side to side as he fought to get away from the images that plague him. "JD de . . . ad . . . God, Kid . . . I’m sorry . . . "

"JD’s not dead, Chris . . . you hear me? JD’s not dead!" Wilmington said.

"...go home kid . . . too late . . . my fault . . . dirt . . . so much dirt . . . "

Buck heard the damning words and knew Chris believed JD was dead, and he remembered the days following Sarah and Adam’s deaths. Chris had struggled to live, even though his heart had been ripped from his chest and the sorrow and pain in his voice now was reminiscent of the early days following the loss of his family. There was one major difference between then and now, JD was alive, or he had been the last time Buck had seen him.

"Nathan," Evita said upon entering the room. "I am sorry, but we have no ice. Luis has sent several men to check the nearby haciendas, but I do not know if they will be successful."

"Damn it!" Jackson softly cursed. He needed to bring Larabee’s fever down, but right now there didn’t seem to be any way of doing that except with water.

"Are there any streams nearby, Evita?" Sanchez asked.

"There is one that runs along the north side of the fields. The workers use it to water the crops there," the woman answered.

"How far is it?" the ex-preacher asked.

"Perhaps an hour," Evita said.

"Nathan, what if we took Chris there?" Sanchez asked.

"I don’t know, Josiah. He’s weak and a trip like that could be too much for him," Jackson said and placed a cloth across Larabee’s forehead. He turned to look at the Texan whose eyes were only partially visible now that the swelling from the vicious fight in the arena was more pronounced. He knew how close Tanner and Larabee were and hoped the two men would be sputtering at him before long, yet he knew in his heart that would not be the case until Chris was awake and lucid. He rubbed at his eyes and took a deep breath before moving to check on the younger man. "How do you feel, Vin?"

"Like stir fried shit," the Texan answered and got the hint of a smile he’d been hoping for. "How’s Chris?"

"Not good," Jackson answered honestly, eyes downcast and unable to look at the injured man. "Look, Vin, he’s in bad shape and right now yer not doin’ that great, but you can help me by doing what I tell you. I need you to drink as much as ya can and tell me when somethin’s hurtin’ worse than b’fore."

"Thirsty," Tanner managed and took several sips from the offered cup before glancing at Larabee and finally letting his eyes close. He listened to the others talking, but did not have the strength to open his eyes as sleep beckoned to him once more.

Buck ran his fingers through his hair and sighed heavily as he looked at the injured men and thought about the youngest member of their group. He knew he had to make a decision, but he felt like he was between a rock and a hard place. He wanted to go and bring JD here, but he didn’t want to leave Chris and Vin until he was sure they were going to be all right. He stood up and walked out onto the veranda and soaked in the warm rays of the sun.

"Something on your mind, Brother?"

"Yeah, Josiah, I was listening to Chris and what he was saying," Wilmington said.

"He’s delirious," Sanchez offered.

"I know, but he thinks JD’s dead and he’s blaming himself. If what Nathan told us is true then he thinks he’s to blame for it and that guilt . . . hell it could kill him . . . could make him give up on fighting," the rogue said and leaned against the railing. "I think we need to get JD here before it’s too late."

"And you’re torn between the two?" Sanchez asked.

"Yeah," Wilmington told him. "I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t."

"Do you trust Nathan to know what Chris and Vin need?"

"More’n I’d trust any doc with a piece of paper on his wall," Wilmington vowed.

"Then the decision should come from your heart. Do you think Chris needs to know that JD’s alive?"

"I tried telling him, but he ain’t hearing me."

"Chris is a man who holds himself accountable for what happens to those around him, Buck. It comes with a heavy price tag on his soul, one that can be hard to bear. You said that fire burned away half his soul and I believe he’s been fighting hard to keep what’s left of it."

"He has, Josiah, he’s fighting damn hard," Wilmington said.

"But he’s not fighting alone, Buck," Sanchez said.

"No, he’s not," the rogue agreed as he spotted Raphael and another man helping Luis Martinez remove a platform that had been used to punish the peons who worked on the hacienda. "You and Nathan . . . you’ll make sure he keeps fighting ‘til I get back with JD?"

"We’ll do the best we can, Buck," Sanchez vowed and knew the other man understood the promise that was between them.

Buck moved toward Raphael and helped him with the last of the hated platform before standing and wiping the sweat that trailed a path down his cheeks. He accepted a dipper of water from the other man, drank half, and dumped the rest over his head.

"The sun is barely up and already it burns the land," Raphael observed.

"Gonna be another scorcher," Wilmington agreed.

"Are you going for the boy?"

"I figure it’d be best for him and Chris."

"Si, they will need each other. I will ride with you," Raphael offered. He’d seen the friendship between Buck, Chris, and JD during his short stay in Four Corners. That friendship had been strong and he’d been envious of not only these three, but also the close brotherhood of the seven men. It was the reason he’d sought out six compadres of his own.

"Thanks," the worried man said and admired the strength and courage of the man beside him, it was a rare combination, but Raphael Cordova de Martinez had it in spades. Buck cleared his throat and glanced around before observing softly. "We’ll need a wagon to bring JD here?"

"I’ll speak with Luis and have Augusto bring the wagon. It will probably be best to ride at night."

"Probably . . . .expect JD’ll have a hard ‘nough time with headaches," Wilmington said as they made their way toward the corral that held the horses. He stood for several minutes, wondering how he could get word back to Four Corners and knew it would take several days even if there was a place nearby where he could send a telegram. "Raphael, would you ask Luis if there’s a telegraph office . . . "

"I will ask, but I am afraid this is a primitive land without the luxuries you Americans have," Cordova told him, but there was no malice in his voice. "It might be faster to send a rider to your town."

"Probably, but I don’t think any of us want to leave until we know Chris, Vin, and JD are okay," the rogue stated.

"I could send one of my compadres with a message," Raphael offered.

"We owe you, Raphael . . . ain’t no way we’ll ever be able to repay what you’ve done," Wilmington said and offered his hand to the man who’d shown them not just friendship, but brotherhood. Raphael’s grip was strong and he finally broke it off in order to get things ready for the trip north.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Morning

God, it was so damn hot, yet he shook as if a cold breeze swept across his bare chest. A sound reached his ears and he fought to make sense of it, but it seemed just out of his reach. Hands touched against his cheek, rough, but gentle and something cold and wet was pressed against his mouth. He drank greedily, but choked as the liquid hit his parched throat.

"Easy now, not too much . . . "

He knew that voice, trusted the man it belonged to and he tried to open eyes that seemed glued shut. He silently cursed when the cup was taken away and lifted his hand, at least that’s what he tried to do, but the strength just wasn’t there. He fought to make the words come out, but again that sound, scratchy and weak, was all he heard.

"Just lie still, Vin, you’re okay . . . "

There it was again, that voice that always seemed to be there when he was hurting. Hurting? Why was he hurting? What had happened? Where was . . . where was . . . blue eyes shot open and a hand reached out and latched weakly onto the one that held a metal cup.

"Easy, Vin . . . "

" . . . where . . . " The word was barely recognizable and lacked any strength as glazed sky blues fought to open and a mind bogged down with fevered visions, tried to make sense of the pain running rampant through his body.

Nathan reached for the cloth once more and eased it over the Texan’s sweat soaked face. The cracked lips parted, but whatever Tanner was trying to say barely made it past his parched throat. Jackson fought the waves of guilt that racked his body and forced himself to tend to the injured man.

Vin knew he could trust the man, but there was something that nagged at him and again he tried to speak, but it came out as a weak moan as he feebly lifted his arm only to have it drop heavily back to the bed. The cloth brushed gently across his baked skin and he squinted in an effort to clear his blurred vision. He blinked several times until his mind made some sense of what he was seeing.

Blond hair framed a face that went far beyond pale and panic swept through the confused Texan as a name formed on his lips. " . . . C . . . Chr . . . isss . . . "

"Don’t try to talk, Vin . . . "

" . . . hap . . . en . . . "

"You and Chris were hurt in a fight," Jackson said and watched as Tanner’s eyes filled with anger while his right hand fisted at his side. Nathan could sense the frustration in the tense body even as the Texan lost consciousness. He heard someone enter the room, but didn’t have the energy or willpower to acknowledge them as his shoulders slumped.

"Nathan, you should rest," Ezra Standish said softly and placed his hand on Jackson’s shoulder.

"I’m fine," the former slave said and didn’t miss the soft chuckle from behind him.

"You’ve been hanging around the rest of us too long, Brother," Sanchez said with a hint of a smile that did little to relieve the lines of worry on his face. He placed a tray of food on the small table and moved to check on the injured men. "Evita said you didn’t eat this morning so she said it was my duty to see that you finished this."

"I’ll eat later . . . "

"You’ll eat now," Sanchez ordered and left little doubt that he meant what he said.

With a heavy sigh, Nathan stood and made his way to the table as Ezra sat between the two beds. The food was intoxicating with unknown spices that would normally have him anxious for the first taste. Right now all it did was turn his stomach with churning nausea that made him shake with self-loathing. He reached for the cup of strong coffee and took several sips while listening to the others talking.

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Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Late Afternoon

Carmella watched as her husband cared for the young man with a gentleness that would have surprised those who didn’t know him. This was a side of him that had slowly taken shape over the years of their marriage and made him the man she loved today. She knew he would have made a wonderful father, but that was a gift they would never know. God had never given them a child of their own, but there were many children who’d learned the value of a loving aunt and uncle. Those children were now married and living their own lives, and when she received a message or visit from them it was worth far more than gold.

Tears had often spilled from her eyes, but Cristóbal had loved her even after it became obvious that theirs would be a childless marriage. She moved into the room and gently massaged her husband’s shoulders, sighing contentedly when his callused hand covered her own.

"Did you sleep well?" Cristóbal asked softly.

"Si, you should have woken me to fix lunch," Carmella lightly scolded.

"You have not slept well since Javier brought the young man to us. I have seen the worry in your eyes . . . "

"Are you saying I look my age, Husband?"

"Only if you are ageless," Cristóbal vowed and pulled her down on his lap. "You grow more beautiful each time I feast my eyes on you."

Carmella placed her head on his shoulder and looked at the unconscious young man. Since the others had left he had not regained consciousness, except for the few times when it was obvious he was reliving nightmares that caused him pain. She wished she could do more for him, but he needed his friends to help bring him back from whatever hell he resided in.

"He is strong," Cristóbal offered. 

"Si, but is that enough?"

"It is when he has you to watch over him," Cristóbal said softly and watched as his wife gently touched JD’s cheek. The tender hand of a woman, especially one as kind and loving as his wife, would surely help heal the young man, but only if God wasn’t ready to call him home.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Evening

Luis Martinez smiled at the young woman who had captured his heart. Juanita had yet to see him and he leaned against the open doorway as he watched her care for his half-brother. There was no doubt in his mind that she would make a wonderful mother, and he hoped they would be married soon.

"You look tired, Luis," Juanita said when she’d placed the sleeping infant back in the cradle. She’d known he was watching her, and had taken the time to study his face. His hair was slightly too long, his eyes were sad, and his face lined with strain, but no other man could hold a candle to him. She loved him so much and her heart went out to him for what he had done and still needed to do.

"I am fine, Juanita," Luis said and wrapped his arms around her trim waist. He nuzzled her neck and drank in the scent of her as a soft breeze lifted the curtains from the window behind him.

"You have been working so hard to make sure everything is as it should be. Don Garcia may have been your padre, but there is more of your madre in you than him. I love you, Luis, for not letting your padre darken your soul," Juanita vowed.

"Now may not be the time, Juanita, but I would be honored if you would be my wife."

"Oh, Luis, are you sure this is what you want?" the young woman cried and held tight to the strong man who had captured her heart.

"I have never been more sure of anything in my life," Luis vowed as he looked at the sleeping baby. "Perhaps we will even have strong sons and daughters of our own."

"Yes . . . many," Juanita told him and sealed their fate with a kiss that showed the love they shared.

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Nathan watched over the two men as they slept, both silent now except for the occasional moan that escaped dry, slack lips. Josiah and Ezra were sleeping in the next room. Buck, Raphael and several others had left to get JD just after the noonday meal and he hoped Dunne was strong enough for the trip. He wanted to go with them, but with Vin and Chris both feverish and, God help him, there was no other way to say it, but they were near death. It was at times like this that he questioned his own skills and his faith in a Divine Power.

Nathan rested his face in his hands and fought the emotions that seemed to have taken on a life of their own. How many times had he failed to protect the people he cared about? His mother? His father? Friends? Now the two men who’d saved his life in a town whose people often looked at them as if they were dirt to be trampled underfoot. He knew that was not true of everyone, but lately it seemed like people like Conklin were raising their voices and being heard.

Nathan reached out and touched Chris’ forehead, silently cursing the heat emanating from the inert blond. There had to be something he’d missed and he slowly folded the thin blanket down to reveal the discolored chest. He eased back the bandages and reached for the cloth that was soaking in a mixture of herbs gathered by the field workers.

Nathan had never thought of Chris Larabee as a man who needed to be on the move, but he’d never seen him so still and silent. Even though Vin had once said Chris never spoke more’n ‘three words a day’, Nathan knew that wasn’t true either. Sure, there were times when Chris’ very presence was all that was needed, but there were also times when he said what he needed to in order to keep the peace. That was the Chris he wanted to see now, not this silent body who reminded him of a barely breathing corpse. 

"Come on, Chris," Jackson pleaded his hands trembling as he worked to clean the raw wounds that seeped bloodied pus. "Don’t let that bastard win!"

"Nathan, why don’t you go get some rest. I’ll stay with them," Josiah Sanchez offered. He’d been watching his friend for several minutes and knew Jackson was both mentally and physically exhausted.

"I’m okay, Josiah . . . "

"No, no you’re not, Brother," Sanchez said and slipped into the room. "You’re going need to rest if you’re going to take care of them. Buck’s bringing JD here sometime tomorrow and you won’t be any use to him if you don’t get some sleep. I’ll come get you if they need you."

"What time is it?"

"Going on two," Sanchez answered and helped the other man to his feet. He held his arm until he was sure Jackson wasn’t going to keel over and maneuvered him toward the door.

"Just keep wiping Chris down, Josiah . . . his fever’s not comin’ down," Jackson said and glanced at the Texan. "Vin’s doin’ better, but keep a close watch on him . . . get him to drink if he wakes up."

"I’ve got it . . . now go," Sanchez said.

Nathan knew there was no arguing with the older man and leaned wearily against the wall outside the door. He heard Josiah speaking softly and recognized it as a scripture from the Old Testament. He took a deep breath and made his way along the empty hallway, stopping in front of the open door that led into the baby’s room. He knew Evita was sleeping on a small bed they’d moved into the room and silently stepped up to the bed.

Nathan was surprised to hear the baby’s soft cooing sounds and reached down to pick him up. The child was swaddled in a blanket made by one of the woman who worked in the fields and Nathan was surprised at the softness of the material. He glanced at Evita, relieved to see she hadn’t moved and stepped outside. The moon was high overhead and turned slightly on its belly, casting a white glow across the landscape.

Nathan took a deep breath of the warm air and caught scent of the wildflowers that grew in abundance on the outer edge of the field of crops. He carried the baby to a rocking chair that had been placed near the table and sat down. The baby made soft noises and seemed on the verge of crying until Nathan eased the blankets away and tickled the tiny chin before rubbing his fingers across the soft cheeks. He took the tiny hand in his own, amazed at the difference in size and placed a gentle kiss on Santos’ forehead as a single tear escaped his eyes.

"You have a wonderful life ahead of you, Santos, one without the influence of your father. I hope and pray you will follow in Luis’ footsteps and take after your mother. Dona Maria was so proud of you and I know she would have loved to see you grow up, but God saw fit to call her home and now she’s smiling at you from heaven. If you get lonely and need to feel her presence then just look up at the sky like we’re doin’ now and find the biggest star there is. That star shines for you because a mama’s love is the brightest beacon we’re given. Follow it and you’ll find that love in your heart. See that one . . . the one that’s shining brighter than the rest . . . that’s my Mama. She used to hold me like this when I was scared and she’d wipe my tears away. She always told me a man shouldn’t be afraid of his tears because they were God’s way of cleansing the soul and helping heal the wounds that run deep down. She was a woman who cried a lot, but not when the master was around . . . he never let us cry . . . said it wasn’t our right and all, but everyone has the right to cry . . . to feel pain."

Nathan sighed heavily and let the tears slip from his soft brown eyes. "I’ve seen a lot of cruelty in this world, and I know God is lookin’ out for us, but there’s times when I feel like he’s not there. I seen good men like Chris and Vin and JD beaten down, but they just keep on comin’ back as if God’s standin’ behind ‘em and showin’ ‘em the way. They’s strong . . . stronger’n I’ll ever be and I’m hopin’ they’ll have the strength to get through this ‘cause God knows my doctorin’ ain’t what its s’posed ta be. That’s not what they believe though . . . Josiah and Chris . . . Vin and the others . . . they put their lives in my hands and sometimes it feels like I ain’t never gonna get the blood off."

Nathan watched as the baby’s eyes closed and felt the warmth of the small body nestled so close to his own. He kissed the boy’s forehead, before returning him to his bed and heading for the room he slept in. He lay down on the bed and closed his eyes as his memories weighed heavily on his battered soul.

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North of the De Rivera Hacienda

Late Afternoon

Buck Wilmington wiped the sweat from his forehead and reached for the canteen hanging over his saddle horn. He took a long drink of the warm liquid and glanced up at the sun as it continued the final leg of its daily journey. The heat of the day continued to sap the fluids from his body, but his riding companion seemed unaffected by it.

Raphael had made the arrangements with Luis Martinez and a wagon would be following them at a slower pace. They would not reach the Covas home until well after midnight and the wagon would not arrive until sometime after daybreak. Buck was anxious to reach their destination, but there was also a hint of fear fighting to make itself known. What if he was too late and JD had succumbed to his injuries? No, he couldn’t think about that or he’d face losing two men who were as close to brothers as he ever had.

Without even realizing he’d done so, Buck spurred his horse forward and fought the images that played across his mind. He’d always considered himself a strong man, who could face anything, but the thought of losing Chris and JD sent a dagger through his heart and he knew the pain wouldn’t ease until he saw for himself that JD Dunne was alive. He felt Raphael riding beside him, but kept his eyes forward as if he was in a race against the devil to save two souls that meant more to him than life itself.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Afternoon

Ezra watched over the two men as the soft breeze gently shifted the curtains, making the floral patterns come alive as shadows on the floor. Nathan was doing everything he could for both men, yet it seemed that neither man was getting any better.

Vin’s body was bathed in a light sheen of perspiration that spoke of the fever running through his body. Every now and then he would cry out as if fighting demons only he could see. Ezra reached out and placed his hand on his friend’s shoulder, surprised when the trembling seemed to stop as if his touch gave solace to the troubled man’s dreams.

Ezra left his hand where it was and turned to the other bed. Chris Larabee remained unconscious and unlike Vin Tanner they’d been unable to get him to drink anything. The fever and the heat were slowly taking their toll and Ezra understood why Nathan was so concerned. Chris’ body was no longer sweating, and if Nathan’s fears were real then they were dangerously close to losing the man to dehydration.

"Ezra, how’s the arm?" Sanchez asked softly.

"Sore, but I assure you it is nothing to be concerned about," Standish said.

"You need to let Nathan take a look at it when he wakes up," Sanchez said.

"I will," the gambler told him, sighing heavily as the ex-preacher exchanged the cloth that covered Larabee’s forehead. There was no sign that the injured gunman even felt that as his fever baked body remained unnaturally quiet.

"Has he shown any signs of waking up?"

"No," Standish answered with a heavy heart. "I tried to get him to drink something by massaging his throat, but I was unsuccessful."

"What about Vin?"

"He took some water and a little broth, but I fear even that isn’t really helping either."

"Every little bit helps, Ezra," Sanchez answered.

"I suppose," the gambler allowed. "We should get word back home and let them know what’s happening. I know people like Conklin probably don’t give a damn, but Mrs. Travis, and Mrs. Potter and most of the town are probably worried."

"I agree, but there’s no telegraph office nearby. I spoke with Luis and he’s sending a couple of men across the Rio Grande and they’ll send word to Mary."

"I just wish we had better news for them."

"We do . . . Chris, Vin, and JD are alive and right now that’s reason enough to rejoice," Sanchez said and smiled as Juanita entered the room carrying a tray of food and a pitcher of juice. "Thank you, Juanita."

"You are welcome," the young woman said and hurried out of the room.

Josiah watched as Ezra nibbled disinterestedly at the sweet bun in his hand and glanced from one bed to the other. He silently prayed that all three of their ‘brothers’ would heal and return to the fold.

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Four Corners

Late Evening

Mary Travis stood on the front step leading into her home and felt a chill race down her spine. It had been far too long since there’d been any word from the seven men who looked out for the town and most of the people were worried. She’d begun running a small column in her paper telling any news she had of the peacekeepers, no matter how inconsequential it seemed. So far there’d been no real news, except what was brought to them by a family that had stopped on their way west.

The Petersons had heard rumors that a fight had taken place somewhere south of the Rio Grande, a fight involving several men in an arena whose reputation seemed to be well known in Purgatorio. Maria had told her stories, tales that sent fear through her heart, yet she continued to hold onto the hope that the seven men would return home.

Her thoughts turned to Chris Larabee; a man who’d called himself ‘The Bad Element’ and a small sob escaped as she stared toward the chair outside the saloon. The spot where the so-called ‘Bad Element’ watched over, and protected the people of Four Corners, but it was now conspicuously empty.

Mary looked at the small fires in the middle of the street before turning and walking back into her home. Silent tears streaked down her face at the thought of the seven men and her heart beat a little too fast when her mind conjured up an image of Chris Larabee. When had she fallen in love with the strong man? What if he never returned? Could she deal with that kind of loss all over again?

"Please, bring him . . . bring them home safely," she whispered into the darkness before making her way to her bedroom and lying down as soft sobs escaped her throat. It was a long time before sleep came for her and her dreams were filled with a blond’s strong arms holding her in a warm embrace.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening 

Chris Larabee knew there was no escaping the demons that insisted on holding him captive in a nightmare realm that knew no bounds. The ebony shadows surrounding his heart were nothing compared to the darkness that enshrouded his soul. Too many people he cared about had died while he was forced to live on and try to make sense of their loss.

Countless faces whose names he no longer remembered flashed across his mind, people he’d known, and even those he hadn’t, were dead because of him. Sarah, Adam, and now JD were dead because of him. How could God keep taking them and leave him alive? Maybe it was how life was meant to be for him. Hell on earth held a new meaning for him as his mind and body twisted in the throes of living nightmares.

Sarah and Adam . . . crying out helplessly as their home burned around them. Their screams were silent now, but he still heard them as if they were standing next to him. How many times had he relived those terrifying moments when he realized his life had been snatched from him, but he had not died? Instead he’d been forced to live with the horrific memory.

Chris turned away from those images, but new ones were born as the darkness slowly faded to be replaced by a blood red sunset. He felt himself stand and from somewhere a shovel appeared in his hands. Again and again he dug into the crimson colored soil as a voice taunted him.

‘The boy’s death is on your hands, Pistolero!’

‘No!’ Chris screamed as the scene played out once more. JD’s head snapping back as droplets of blood shimmered and formed and spilled even as his body toppled backward into the grave Chris had dug. Again the shovel was in his hands and he filled it with dirt and dumped it onto JD’s body. His eyes misted with tears, but his heart beat too fast as he stared into JD’s lifeless eyes.

"I’m sorry, Kid, should have made you leave," Larabee whispered reverently as his heart shattered into a million pieces.

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Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Late Evening

Buck saw the lights in the distance and unconsciously slowed his horse. He had no idea what he would find once they reached the Covas home and wasn’t sure he could face it if . . . if JD had died. The kid could be annoying at times, and that damn sissy hat was an eyesore, but Buck would give anything to see Dunne’s easy smile as he placed it on his head.

"Buck, is something wrong?" Raphael asked.

"No . . . I don’t know, Raphael. What if . . . what if he’s . . . "

"JD is a strong kid . . . a strong man, Buck. Do not give up on him."

"I’m not, but . . . he was in bad shape when we left . . . I shouldn’t have left him."

"If you hadn’t Chris and Vin might have died."

"They still might," Wilmington said and wiped the sweat from his face. "Jesus, Raphael, everything’s so fucked up!"

"They are alive, Buck, just hold on to that and have faith in the strength of your compadres," Raphael told him as they reached the small house and dismounted. He hooked the reigns over the hitching post and waited for Buck to do the same before making their way to the front door. He knocked lightly, but was not surprised when the door was opened and Cristóbal Covas pointed a gun in their direction.

"How’s JD?" Buck asked even as their host lowered his weapon and motioned them inside.

"He is the same," Cristóbal answered as Carmella exited the room. "Carmella is doing everything she can for him."

"I owe you both for taking care of him," Wilmington said and hung his hat on a hook near the door.

"Nonsense, God brought you to us and it is not for us to turn you away," Carmella said.

"I need to see him," Wilmington said.

"Of course. I will make sandwiches and coffee," Carmella offered.

"Thank you," the rogue said and took a deep breath before entering the room where JD lay so deathly still. He step-staggered to the empty chair and sat down, silently cringing at the dark bruise that peeked out below the bandage that covered the horrid bullet wound.

"Jesus, Kid, you look like hell," Buck whispered painfully and watched for any sign that the young man heard him. Dunne’s face and exposed chest were washed out pale and Buck couldn’t stop the shudder that ran through his body. It was hard to see the virile young man whose very exuberance could be likened to a twister.

"Come on, JD, show me you’re still fighting," Wilmington said tiredly. He took a deep breath and leaned back in the chair and thought about the young man who’d integrated himself into their lives. He rubbed at tired eyes and soon found a cup of hot coffee pressed into his hands. "Thank you."

"You are welcome," Carmella said and reached out to gently touch her fingertips against Dunne’s pale cheek. "He is a fighter."

"I know . . . has been from the first time he set foot in the west," Wilmington told her. "Chris told him to go home, but JD didn’t listen. Figured he was man enough to take on the world with them two guns of his. Damn fool kid should have listened to Chris."

"A man must choose his way in the world."

"Yes, but sometimes we choose the wrong path."

"If a man chooses to help others it is never the wrong path," Carmella observed. "You and your friends are protectors and God will always bless those who help others. Senor Cordova tells me you wish to bring him to Don Garcia’s hacienda. Are you sure this is a wise idea?"

"I don’t know, but I think it’s what JD and Chris need. Chris thinks JD’s dead. They need each other," Wilmington said.

"I have spoken with Cristóbal and we would like to accompany you," the woman said.

"What about your home?"

"We will not stay long, but I would like to help . . . "

"You’ve done so much already, Ma’am, and I’d appreciate having you along to help with JD," Wilmington told her.

"You should rest."

"I will," the weary rogue assured her and knew sleep was something of a rare commodity for him and would remain that way until Chris, Vin, and JD were awake and cursing Nathan’s horse piss.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

Don Garcia De Rivera was buried in the family plot, but very few people mourned his passing. His cruelty was well known and although death was tragic, it sometimes brought with it a sense of peace. The field workers moved to their daily tasks with renewed vigor as the sun slowly worked its way across the morning sky.

Luis Martinez moved amongst the peons, listening as they spoke of things that could be improved. At first they were unsure of themselves, as this was something Don Garcia had frowned on. He ruffled a young boy’s hair and felt some of the tension leave him as the child laughed and didn’t bolt away from him. 

Luis spoke to the boy’s father before moving toward the hole that had been used as punishment for far too long. He motioned for two men to follow him as he picked up a shovel and took a deep breath. Speaking in their language he quickly explained what he wanted and was the first to shovel dirt into the hole. He watched their faces suddenly light up as they grabbed their own shovels and joined him at the edge of the pit.

It took nearly an hour of sweating in the hot sun, but the symbol of despair was soon obliterated and Luis felt the burden lifted from his shoulders until he spotted the structure Don Garcia had used to punish his workers with either his cane or a whip. Without a word he strode toward it, unaware that several field workers fell into step behind him. 

Luis was shocked when they motioned for him to stand back and with their bare hands began pulling the beams apart. He knew they should use the tools, but understood this was something they needed to do. It would take a long time and would probably end up with sore backs and bleeding hands, yet somehow he didn’t think they would complain.

Luis reached for the shorter board that served as a balance for one of the larger pieces and pulled with everything he had and was only slightly surprised to find a virtual stranger helping him.

Josiah had seen Luis and the workers fill the hole and move to the structure. He knew what it was for and hurried to join them in pulling it apart. He grunted as he shifted his weight and added his strength to the mix. He’d known hatred and defeat at the hands of others and knew these men needed an outlet for the years of mistreatment at the hands of Don Garcia De Rivera. It was something a friend had once called therapeutic.

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Covas Home

Early Morning

Buck stood and stretched the kinks from his back as the sunlight danced across the floor and kissed JD’s face. Wilmington knew he should have slept, but he could not leave the younger man’s side in case JD woke up and needed him. He looked toward the window and the promise of another beautiful day and silently prayed Chris and Vin would be alive to see God’s gifts to the world.

"Buck, Augusto is here with the wagon, but perhaps it would be better to wait until the evening when the sun is not so hot," Raphael explained.

Buck nodded and returned his attention to the man on the bed as a soft moan reached his ears. He sat on the chair and gently placed his hand on Dunne’s bare right shoulder. He watched the dark eyelashes flutter and spoke softly. "Come on, Kid, open your eyes. Show me you’re in there."

"I think he hears you, Buck," Raphael said as Dunne’s head turned slightly toward Wilmington.

"JD, you keep this up and ol’ Buck’s gonna have more gray hair than old man Garvey," the rogue said of the elderly curmudgeon who chewed tobacco and teased the ladies who walked in front of the hotel.

JD could hear someone talking; the voice familiar and pleading and he knew there was no point in fighting it. Slowly, his eyelids fluttered and he fought to open them as dark shadows formed and solidified before him. He knew the figure sitting beside him and tried to reach for him, but there seemed to be no way to make his body obey his commands. He tried to speak, but the sound came out as a mere whisper, yet the dark head came up and the blue eyes locked on his own.

"Damn, Kid, gonna be the death of me yet," Wilmington said as relief washed over him. "You look like hell."

" . . . sick," Dunne managed and felt Wilmington’s strong hands ease him onto his side. Again and again his body shook in the throes of violent vomiting until there was nothing left but dry heaves.

"I gotcha, JD," Wilmington vowed and gently lowered the younger man back to the pillows.

"Head hurts," Dunne rasped.

"I ‘spect it does," the rogue said. "You got shot, JD, but you’re gonna be all right."

"Mama . . . here?"

"No, Son, your mama’s not here, but there’s another lady who fills your mama’s shoes and she’s been taking good care of you," Wilmington explained.

" . . . thought . . . angel . . . "

"An angel of mercy, JD, and she’s the reason you’re still here," the rogue answered and watched as a slight frown formed on the too pale face. JD was quiet and still for a long time and Buck thought he’d gone back to sleep, but the young man’s eyes shot open and he cried out as he tried to sit up. "Easy, JD, don’t try to move around . . . "

"Chris . . . ple . . . please . . . "

"Chris is all right, JD. Nate’s with him and we’re gonna take you to him," Wilmington explained.

"Chris . . . alive?"

"Yes, he is," Wilmington said and prayed it was the truth as Dunne’s eyes closed in sleep. He ran his fingers through his hair; a gesture that seemed to be part and parcel of him during the last few weeks and silently prayed Larabee and Tanner were alive.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

Nathan stood on the veranda overlooking the grounds of the hacienda. It was a spectacular sight with the peons working the fields that were ripe with growth. The crops would soon be ready for harvest, and that would be a time for celebration, but for him there was nothing to celebrate. Three men fought for their lives because of the cruelty of a man who thought himself above others. That was something he remembered from his childhood and he bore the marks on his back from the cruel overseer’s whip. 

Nathan knew he needed to sleep, but each time he closed his eyes he was assaulted with visions that belonged only in a man’s worst nightmares, yet he’d lived through them. The truth was he was still living through them. He closed his eyes against the bright sun, snapping them open again when he heard a cry from inside.

Nathan rushed into the room to find Ezra and Josiah trying to hold Vin down on the bed. The Texan’s sweat soaked face was filled with fear as his eyes darted round the room in search of something he needed. "Ezra, stay back with that arm!"

"I assure you I am . . . "

"I know you are, but right now you need ta let me see ta him," Jackson ordered and took the gambler’s place as Josiah finally got the raging tiger under control. "What happened?"

"Don’t know for sure, but my guess would be a nightmare," Sanchez answered.

"Lord knows he’s had more’n his share," Jackson said.

"He’s not the only one, My Friend," the ex-preacher offered softly and shook his head when Jackson chose to ignore his comment. The former slave may not be ready to talk about the things he’d seen, but eventually it would catch up with him and when it did he would fall. Fall hard if Josiah was right about the pain that had wrapped itself around his heart and soul. 

"Vin, it’s okay . . . you’re safe," Jackson soothed and reached for the cup of juice Evita had brought with the lunch tray. "Sit him up a little, Josiah."

Sanchez moved behind the Texan and helped him sit forward as Nathan tipped the mug to the slack lips. He listened as the healer spoke softly but firmly until Vin drank several sips before coughing harshly and wrapping his arms around his midsection.

"Easy, Vin, just go slow," Jackson said once the attack subsided and Tanner’s glazed eyes focused on him. "Let’s try that again, but this time just a little at a time."

Vin nodded slightly, unable to find the strength he needed to form words as he sipped at the juice. This time he managed to drink it without choking and finally leaned back against Sanchez’s strong chest. He closed his eyes and waited for the nausea to ease and opened them when something else was pressed against his lips.

"Vin, your fever’s come down some and this will help with the pain," Jackson explained. "Ya keep this down and we’ll see if Evita can make up some broth . . . maybe even a few vegetables. You’ve almost got this licked, Vin."

Vin nodded slightly and sipped at the ‘horse piss’ while Josiah held him. He turned his head slightly and spotted Ezra seated by the next bed. He glanced past the gambler and swallowed several times when he took note of the occupant who seemed deathly pale. He tried to speak, but again found it hard to form the words.

"Vin, Nathan’s doing everything he can," Sanchez said. He knew how close Vin and Chris were, brothers by choice if not by blood and hoped he would see the two men ride side by side again.

Vin simply nodded and closed his eyes as Sanchez eased him back onto the pillows. He turned his head slightly, sighing heavily as he closed his eyes in exhaustion. Sleep came to him, but his dreams were filled with sorrow as the fingers of his hands encircled the handle of a shovel and he moved to a grave that was set between two crosses. Chris Larabee had finally been reunited with his family, but his absence left a devastating hole in the lives of those he loved.

Nathan turned away from the Texan and moved to check on the second man. Fearful of what he would find, the former slave closed his eyes and silently prayed for God’s help with the injured gunman. Chris’ skin was dry and Nathan knew things were becoming desperate. They had to get him drinking on his own, or he’d have to turn to something he’d only seen done once and he wasn’t even sure he could find the tools he’d need.

"Josiah, ease Chris up a bit. I’m gonna try somethin’ my mama showed me," Jackson said.

"All right, Brother," Sanchez said and gently placed a hand on Vin’s head before moving the short distance to the next bed.

"What are you going to do, Nathan?" Standish asked.

"I’m gonna trickle water down his throat," the former slave answered.

"Won’t he choke?" the gambler observed worriedly.

"Not if we take it slow," Jackson assured him, although there was a slight tremor in his voice. "Ezra, see if Evita has a small jug or bottle with a narrow opening."

"I’ll be right back," Standish vowed.

"What if this doesn’t work?" Sanchez asked.

"I saw somethin’ one time, but I ain’t sure I could do it, Josiah. It’d mean putting somethin’ down Chris’ throat and feedin’ ‘im through it. The doc I saw do it was desperate."

"Did it work?"

"Not sure . . . the woman died, but it was a miracle she lived as long as she did," Jackson answered, guilt gnawing at his gut as he looked from one injured man to the other. God help him, but why had he been spared while Chris and Vin had been put through hell?

"Will this do, Nathan?" Standish asked upon returning with a small, clean jug with a narrow lip. He also carried a pitcher of water that he placed on the table between the beds.

"That should work," Jackson said and poured water into the smaller vessel. "All right, Josiah, I need you to tip his head back a little and massage his neck like this while I dribble the water into his mouth."

"Just tell me when you’re ready," Sanchez said and watched as the healer took a deep breath and nodded slightly. He tipped the blond head back, resting his arm beneath it as Nathan opened the mouth slightly and slowly dribbled the water inside. Josiah gently massaged the throat; silently praying this would work, yet he felt nothing beneath his fingertips. 

Ezra could only stand back and watch as Nathan and Josiah did their best to get the unconscious man to drink. Josiah’s fingers worked their magic, but it still seemed like forever until there was the slightest movement and he watched Sanchez closely. It didn’t take a genius to know that what little they got into the blond wasn’t enough, but at least it was something and that in itself was a start.

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Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Early Evening

Carmella Covas gently touched the young man’s cheek and smiled when his eyes opened and he looked at her. She could tell he wasn’t quite focused and spoke softly before reaching for the cloth and bathing his face and chest.

"Mama?"

"No, JD, I am not your mama, but she would be proud of her son. You must rest while you can for the coming trip will be hard on you, but I believe your friend Buck thinks it is something that must be done," Carmella explained and watched the frown form as JD Dunne tried to make sense of what was happening. 

"Buck . . . here?"

"Si, he is helping Raphael and Cristóbal fix up a pallet for you in the wagon," the woman answered. "How do you feel?"

"Head hurts . . . thirsty," the Bostonian told her.

"Here, just a little," Carmella warned as she helped the injured man drink the sweet nectar she’d made from several different fruits. She knew he needed to keep drinking and hoped this would help him regain some strength. She didn’t give him much and would make sure he continued to drink water during the trip to the De Rivera Hacienda.

Carmella continued to care for her charge and hummed softly while she waited for her husband and the others to finish getting the wagon ready. The song she hummed was one her mother had often sang to her when she was young and one that she held dearly as it always brought memories of a childhood rife with the love of her parents. 

"Carmella, the wagon is ready," Cristóbal said upon joining his wife and seeing the concern in her eyes. "How is he?"

"He is a strong young man, Cristóbal, and I hope that strength will help him through this journey."

"It will and he will have you by his side to make sure he knows he is not alone. Do you not think he is strong enough for this trip, Love?"

"He should be with his friends," Carmella answered softly and wrapped her arms around her husband before laying her head on his shoulder. "If what Buck told us is true then I believe he needs them as much as they need him."

"We’re ready to take JD," Wilmington said and was floored by the sight of the couple as they held each other. He’d seen this type of love and devotion only once before and the man had been devastated when she was taken from him. Sarah Larabee and Carmella Covas were nothing alike in features, but their inner beauty was equal in how they cared for those around them. "I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt."

"You did not interrupt, Buck," Carmella told him and moved from her husband’s arms as she straightened her long skirt. It had been decided to move JD in the sheets he lay on and she moved aside as Raphael and Augusto moved to one end of the bed while Cristóbal and Buck took the other end.

The four men easily lifted the semiconscious young man and carried him out to the wagon. The sun would be down shortly, but that would not stop them on their journey. The sky would be as wondrous as it always was with a full bodied moon hanging heavy in the sky, its swollen belly giving off a light of its own while a myriad of stars added their own twinkling warmth to light the way.

Carmella climbed into the wagon and moved to sit beside the pallet that now held the young man she’d been caring for. She heard a soft whimper and reached out to touch him in an effort to sooth his pain. She began humming again as Cristóbal climbed into the front of the wagon and the journey began. Buck Wilmington sat opposite her, his face a living sculpture of worry and she knew it would remain that way until his friends were riding at his side once more.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening 

Nathan Jackson took a deep breath and walked out of the house. It felt like ages since he’d slept without the nightmares that plagued him, dreams that seemed to run into each other without giving him a chance to differentiate between them. Tonight was no different and he’d finally given up on sleep when one dream merged into another.

Nathan slowly walked along the path leading away from the hacienda and listened to the sounds of the night. A soft breeze whispered through the trees, several night birds called to each other while the scent of wildflowers hung heavy on the humid air. He felt tears slide from his eyes and felt a heavy weight on his heart as he thought about the two men who’d saved his life that fateful day in Four Corners. 

Why had they done that? What possessed them to stand up against the angry mob of trail hands? Why had they thought his life was worth saving? Why had God deemed him worthy to live when so many other good men had died?

Nathan turned and glanced toward the house as a soft voice reached him and tears flowed unstopped from his eyes.

 

"Oh, Jesus, my Savior, on Thee I'll depend

When troubles are near me You'll be my true friend

I'm troubled

I'm troubled

I'm troubled in mind

If Jesus don't help me

I surely will die

When ladened with troubles and burdened with grief

To Jesus in secret I'll go for relief

In dark days of bondage to Jesus I prayed

To help me to bear it, and He gave me His aid"

 

Nathan sank to his knees as Evita’s voice filled the air around him and a plea for help escaped his lips. "Please, Lord, give me the strength to help them. Don’t let them die . . . don’t take them . . . not when they’re needed to do Your work here."

Tears streamed down his cheeks as he stared up at the stars and he remembered his mama telling him that the world itself was God’s House and He would always listen if a man opened his mind and spoke from the heart; his shoulder’s shook with the force of the sobs that tore from his body and soul.

"Please, Lord, give me your strength to heal them," Nathan whispered as Evita’s voice subsided and left him with just the sounds of the night as company.

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Evita had seen the tormented man walking away from the house and knew his soul was troubled. There was no doubt in her mind that Nathan Jackson was a good man and one the Lord had gifted with a healer’s heart. She hadn’t known him very long, but felt as if there was a lifetime of trust between them. She’d watched him when he cared for Maria and her newborn son, and felt his pain when the young woman died.

She’d been reminded of her own troubled youth and the song her mother had sung for her when she thought she’d lost her own way. The words were meant to soothe the soul and help show her the right path and she hoped they would have the same effect on Nathan Jackson.

Evita heard the baby’s soft cries and turned away from the healer as she stepped into the room. She moved back the netting and reached inside to take the baby into her arms. She talked softly to him while touching his small hands and placing a kiss on his forehead while she waited for the wet nurse to join her.

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On the Trail

North of the De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

Buck had always believed in angels and right now that’s how he viewed the woman who cared for JD Dunne. Carmella Covas spoke softly each time she touched the young man and JD seemed to be drawn toward her. Buck knew what a mother’s love felt like and how her touch could help a troubled soul.

"Thank you, Carmella."

"I have done nothing . . . "

"Don’t say that," Wilmington told her and reached out to take her hand in his. "Your very touch helps him rest more than any of those fancy drugs they use. Your voice cuts through whatever nightmares he has. You have a gift, one God gives to mothers . . . "

"I have no children . . . "

"Children don’t make you a mother . . . I’ve seen plenty of women who were gifted with children, but I wouldn’t call them mothers. They treat their children as a burden and not a gift of God’s love. I don’t know why God never gave you and Cristóbal children, but I look at you and I know you’ve given your love freely. Look in your heart and you’ll see I’m right," Wilmington told her and saw the tears in her eyes.

"Thank you," Carmella told him as a soft moan escaped from the injured young man. She reached out and touched her hand against his cheek as his eyes shot open.

Buck’s reactions were instantaneous and he turned the young man on his side as his stomach gave up its contents. He rubbed circles in the shoulders and finally eased the younger man back onto the soft pillows when his breathing seemed to return to normal.

"You are safe, JD," Carmella vowed and soon felt a hand in hers. She looked into the eyes that were so filled with pain and wished there was more she could do.

JD could barely see the woman who spoke, but he felt safe as he turned his head and closed his eyes. His head felt ready to explode and his gut churned even as he heard the familiar voices talking. He couldn’t quite remember what had happened and briefly wondered where they were going, but the darkness reached for him and he had no choice but to give in to it.

"Just hang on, Kid," Wilmington said.

"When you return to your home would you write me and tell me how he is doing?" Carmella asked softly, a hint of sorrow in her voice.

"I will," Buck vowed as the wagon continued along the trail toward the hacienda.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Morning

‘The boy’s death is on your hands, Pistolero!’

 

The words tormented his soul and he knew in his heart it was his fault that JD Dunne was dead. No matter how he looked at it . . . people died when he was around . . . Sarah . . . Adam . . . Jake . . . Maria . . . ma . . . pa . . . JD . . .

The list went on and on and seemed to be an endless roadmap to his soul. JD’s head snapped back just before his body fell into the grave . . . the grave that Chris had dug. The grave that Chris had filled, covering the youth’s body with soil as Don Garcia De Rivera watched with hatred in his eyes.

‘The boy’s death is on your hands, Pistolero!’

 

"No."

"Chris, come on, Son, open your eyes for me," Josiah Sanchez tried, but Larabee remained unaware of those around him.

‘The boy’s death is on your hands, Pistolero!’

 

Josiah heard movement in the next bed and wasn’t surprised to see Vin Tanner trying to sit up. It would have been funny except that the Texan’s skin was as white as a ghost and his eyes remained unfocused. The ex-preacher moved to help him and placed several pillows behind his back. "Stay put, Vin, or Nathan will have both our hides!"

"Chris . . . "

"He’ll be fine, but I need to help him and I can’t do that if you don’t stay where you are!" Sanchez warned.

"Go . . . help him . . . "

"Stay put!" Sanchez ordered and moved back to Larabee’s bed to find the gunman moaning softly. He reached for the glass of water and lifted the blond head, worried about how dry the man’s skin felt. He pressed the glass to Larabee’s lips, but the man had already surrendered to the darkness once more.

Vin wanted to help Chris, but right now the truth was he didn’t have the strength to help himself. He could only watch as Josiah tried to get the injured blond to drink, and knew it hadn’t worked when Sanchez placed the untouched glass back on the small table. "Josiah . . . "

"It’s not good, Vin," Sanchez answered the unasked question. He moved to Tanner’s side and handed him the cup of broth Evita had brought earlier. It was still warm and he watched as the Texan forced it down. "Nathan says you can have something a little more solid this afternoon."

Vin nodded and closed his eyes. He thought about the events that led them to this place and time, and silently hoped the number seven was as lucky as some people seemed to think it was. Josiah had once told them of the Biblical references to the number and Vin prayed the man was right.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Evening

Luis Martinez took Juanita Perez by the hand as they walked along the path to the west of the hacienda. The sky was awash with vibrant colors that made up the sunset as the sun dipped below the horizon. Darkness would soon claim the land, but it would not be the cold darkness that had surrounded the hacienda during the time Don Garcia De Rivera ruled the people with a heavy hand.

Luis had often prayed during those times and his mother had told him that God would listen, but that he might not see the answer until it became clear. Death had come for his padre, but there was none of the sorrow that should have been there when a life ended. He knew that was because of his padre’s bitter hatred. Since his death the people worked to toil the fields without fearing repercussions should they lose any of the crops. It was as if a peace had fallen over the hacienda.

"What are you thinking about, Mi Amore?" Juanita asked softly as she moved her lithe body in front of him and reached up to touch his face.

"How things change," Luis answered, staring into the eyes that were soft and filled with a love he so desperately craved.

"For the better, Luis," Juanita told him. "In two days you have brought such peace to the people and they know you will not harm them like Don Garcia did. They will follow you by choice, Luis, not with the fear that filled their hearts when your padre wielded his cane or his whip."

"People should not be treated as property, Juanita, they should be treated as equals." He thought about the years past and the way Don Garcia De Rivera had mistreated those around him. A part of him worried that buried somewhere deep inside him a part of his father remained, a part he didn’t want to face. He looked around and finally stopped when he looked into the eyes of the woman he loved. A woman who was his future and he smiled at the thought of having strong sons and daughters who would embrace the love of their parents. He placed a finger beneath her chin and softly vowed: "When we marry I promise to always treat you as my equal no matter what others think."

"As will I, Luis," Juanita said and felt strong arms encircle her waist and lift her so that their mouths touched and the warmth of the touch sent heated temptation through her body.

"We should go back," Luis said.

"I want you so much, Luis," Juanita whispered as a soft breeze blew across their bodies.

"I want you too, but I would not forgive myself if we go further before we are properly married. I will send word to the priest and ask him to come to the hacienda as soon as possible," Luis said and forced himself to ignore the feelings coursing through his body. "Come, we must return before mi madre grows worried."

Juanita knew he was right and allowed him to take her by the hand and lead her back along the path. The excitement of his words made her tremble with delight. She looked forward to the night when she could lay in his arms and complete the journey her heart had begun on the first day she’d seen this virile man standing next to Don Garcia De Rivera.

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Evita stood on the veranda watching as her son and future ‘daughter’ returned along the path. The sky was darkening with the onset of night, but there was no mistaking the love in the way they clung to each other. She knew they belonged together and would see that Luis spoke with the priest as soon as possible. A soft crying sound reached her ears and she returned to the nursery where Santos De Rivera was making his displeasure known.

Evita lifted the tiny baby into her arms and smiled when the cries seemed to die down slightly at her touch. She moved to the small table set next to a shelf that was filled with everything she’d need to care for the baby. She changed his diaper and placed him back in the crib before placing the soiled diaper in a basket to be washed.

Santos gurgled happily as he sucked on his tiny fists and kicked his feet in the air. She stood watching him, seeing signs of both his mother and father, but also seeing her own son in his features and actions. She laughed softly when he popped a thumb into his mouth, before his eyes closed and he slept once more. 

Evita knew someone was watching her and looked up to see a hint of a smile on her son’s face. She moved to him and hugged him before standing back and looking into his eyes. Some of the sadness was gone and she knew she had Juanita to thank for that and vowed to do just that when she saw the young woman later tonight.

"You are good for him, Madre, Dona Maria is smiling at last," Luis told her and moved to the small crib.

"He is so much like you when you were a babe, Luis," Evita said softly. "He will miss his mother’s touch . . . "

"No, he will know a mother’s touch each time his eyes open and he sees your beauty," Martinez vowed.

"I was never a beauty . . . "

"Beauty is not just what a man sees, Madre, it is what he feels and you are more beautiful than the whispered breeze through the wildflowers," Luis said and turned as Juanita entered the room. "I have come to ask your permission to speak with the padre about marrying Juanita."

"Oh, Luis, you do not need my permission . . . not when I have seen the love you share. Speak with the padre, and Juanita and I will plan a fiesta."

"Gracias, Madre," Luis said and hugged her.

"I will stay with Santos while you get some sleep, Evita," Juanita offered.

"Gracias, Juanita, he has been changed, but he will need milk soon . . . I will send Elena to you," Evita told her. She turned and left the room and knew Santos was in good hands. She reached the room where Nathan Jackson was caring for the injured men and stepped inside. Vin Tanner seemed to be sleeping, yet she could see the lines of pain on his face as Nathan cleaned the wounds caused by De Rivera.

Evita turned to look at the second man and wished he would open his eyes so that his friends would know he was all right. She had heard Nathan and Josiah talking and understood how bad things were where this man was concerned. The bruises on his face and chest were a vivid reminder of Don Garcia’s cruelty. She whispered a prayer before reaching for the basin of sullied water on the table. 

"I’ll get that, Evita," Nathan said.

"You stay with your friends. Have you eaten anything?"

"I had a sandwich," Jackson said, but didn’t mention that it had been during the early afternoon. His stomach churned at the thought of food and yet, he understood he needed to eat.

"I will bring you something," Evita told him and paused in the doorway. She watched Nathan caring for his friends and sensed the deep pain he tried so hard to hide. She sensed that something was broken inside him and hoped the others would see it and help him heal. ‘Your friends will help you if you allow them to see your pain, Nathan,’ she thought before leaving the room.

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Small Village West of the De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening

Fernando Gores nursed the bottle of strong liquor as rage made his knuckles white with the pressure he placed on his fingers. He stared at his own reflection in the mirror behind the bar and cursed Luis Martinez with every breath he took. One way or another Don Garcia’s bastard son would pay for pushing him aside.

"Do you not work for Don Garcia?"

Fernando looked at the man standing beside him and growled deep in his throat before answering. "Don Garcia is dead."

"Then who is . . . do not tell me it is that woman . . . "

"His bastardo son is running things. He told me I was no longer welcome, but why does this concern you?"

"I was caring for Dona Maria and her unborn child until that bitch told him I was an animal medico," Miguel Delgado cursed and sat down. "Perhaps you and I could do something about Luis and Evita Martinez."

"Tell me what you got in mind," Gores said, a hint of a smile forming on his face as he poured Delgado a drink.

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On the Trail North of the De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

The trip was taking its toll on JD, but for the most part the young man remained blissfully unaware of the trip made in the darkness. The heat sapped their moisture and Buck knew it would have been twice as bad if they’d traveled by the light of day. During their last stop he’d tied his horse to the wagon and climbed in beside the young man who’d come to mean so much to him.

Buck took a deep breath as he reached out and gently touched Dunne’s chest, relieved when he felt the rise and fall that signaled the Bostonian was still with them. JD was strong, but head wounds were tricky and he’d often heard Nathan say it was the worst kind of wound because a man could survive, but could easily end up not knowing who he was or who his friends were.

Buck reached for the canteen and took a long drink as he stared up at the sky that was just showing the first telltale signs of dawn. He silently prayed that the promise of a new day came with the promise of new life being breathed into the injured men. He looked up to see Raphael watching him and nodded that he was okay.

"We are nearing the hacienda," Cordova told him.

"How much longer ya think it’ll be?" Wilmington asked softly.

"It is just over the next rise then down into the valley," the Mexican answered. "How is the boy?"

"He’s still got a fever, but he’s fightin’."

"He is spirited . . . like the horses that run free on the mesa," Cordova said. He thought back to the confrontation in the saloon and how JD Dunne had not backed down in spite of his own reputation. "He has a fire inside, no?"

"Yes, and a good thing he does," the worried rogue offered.

"I will ride ahead and make sure everything is ready for you," Cordova said and spurred his horse forward. 

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

Josiah watched his friend closely and knew the man was thinking about the injured men. The sun was just starting to show above the horizon and with it came not only the splendor of God’s gifts, but the oppressive heat that added to Larabee and Tanner’s fevers.

"Josiah, Chris can’t take much more of this . . . his fever’s bakin’ him inside," Jackson said as he watched the field workers moving around below.

"What do you want to do?" Sanchez asked.

"Ain’t got much choice but ta take him ta that creek," the healer explained. "It’s gonna be hard on ‘im, but we gotta get that fever down."

"I’ll speak with Luis about getting a wagon," Sanchez told him. "What about Vin?"

"His fever’s comin’ down and he’s eaten. Not much ‘cause his mouth’s still sore from that infection, but at least he’s able ta drink."

"He’ll be worried about Chris."

"I know . . . that’s why I wanna give ‘im somethin’ ta knock ‘im out ‘til we get back," Jackson explained.

"Brother Vin won’t like that," Sanchez observed.

"I’ll deal with that when the time comes. It’ll tear ‘im up inside if he knows what’s happenin’ and he’s already hurtin’ enough as it is," the healer said.

"I know, but we’ll all deal with Vin . . . you’re not alone in this, Nathan," Sanchez offered and saw the sorrow in the other man’s eyes. He reached out and squeezed Jackson’s shoulder, felt the slight tremble course through his body, and wished he could spare the man this. "When do you want to get started?"

"No sense puttin’ it off . . . Chris’ll jest get worse," Jackson said and moved toward the room where Chris and Vin slept. He’d already asked Evita to steep some of the herbs Pedro had brought to him and hoped they were strong enough to make the man sleep. He moved to check the wound in Tanner’s side and smiled slightly when the man’s eyes opened and looked at him before straying toward the other bed.

"Nathan, I’ll be back in a few minutes," Sanchez told him.

"All right," Jackson said and waited for the Texan to look at him. "He’s the same, Vin."

"Do some . . . thin’," Tanner ordered.

"I’m doin’ ever’thin’ I can, Vin, but his fever’s not comin’ down."

" . . . fuckin’ bas . . . tard dead?"

"De Rivera is dead, Vin," the healer offered and wished he could give the man good news where Chris Larabee was concerned.

"Nathan, I brought you and Vin some breakfast," Evita said upon entering the room with a tray laden down with food, coffee, and juice.

"Thank you, Evita," Jackson said and helped the Texan sit forward, ignoring the sharp gasp of pain the move elicited from the injured man as Evita placed several pillows behind him so that he could eat his meal.

Vin’s face was covered in sweat and his eyes were tightly clenched while his hands fisted at his side. It took several agonizing minutes for the nauseating pain to recede and he took several deep breaths through his nose. He forced his eyes open and looked into Nathan’s soft brown orbs and tried to smile, but knew he wasn’t fooling Jackson.

"Just concentrate on breathing, Vin," the healer said, relieved when the younger man finally focused on him.

"H . . . hell . . . "

"I know," Jackson said and pressed a cup into his hand. "Drink all of it and then you can have some . . . "

"Looks like m . . . mush," Tanner said with distaste.

"I do not know what mush is, but Juanita made this and it is very good. If you would rather have this mush I will see if we can . . . "

"No," Tanner whispered, finding a weak grin at the misunderstanding. He shook his head vehemently as he placed the empty cup on the tray and reached for the spoon. He took a small spoonful and was pleasantly surprised at the sweet fruity taste. "It’s good."

"I will tell Juanita," Evita said and smiled at Jackson before leaving the room.

Nathan turned away from the Texan and moved to check on his other patient. Larabee’s breathing was so shallow that at first it was hard to detect. The skin of his face seemed to be stretched taut over the cheekbones while the bruises stood out in stark contrast to the white sheets and pillows he lay on.

"Come on, Chris, don’t go givin’ up on me now," Jackson said softly and turned when he heard the sound of the spoon hitting the floor.

"Da . . . damn . . . ti . . . tired . . . "

"Go ahead and sleep, Vin," the healer said and made a mental note to find out whatever it was Pedro had given him that worked so fast on the Texan. He made a quick grab for the tray and was pleased to see the injured man had managed to eat the fruity paste Juanita had made.

"If I am not mistaken, Mr. Tanner is down for the count," Standish said, leaning against the doorframe while rubbing at his injured arm.

"Thank God," Jackson said.

"I had a conversation with Mr. Sanchez."

"Then you know what we gotta do," Jackson said and saw the gambler’s façade drop before the younger man was able to bring his emotions under control. 

"How can I help?"

"Stay here with Vin and make sure he don’t do nothin’ stupid if he wakes up before we get back," Jackson answered.

"I thought you would need my help with Mr. . . . with Chris?"

"Me and Josiah are takin’ ‘im and I’m sure Luis can spare a couple of people to help us," the healer told him and knew the gambler would sit on the Texan if he needed to. "Ezra, let me take a look at that arm?"

"My arm is fine, but I shall consent to your examination," Standish said and eased out of his jacket and shirt. He sat in the chair and held his breath as Jackson removed the bandage and checked the wound.

"This looks good, Ezra, but I don’t want you doing anything more strenuous than shuffling a deck of cards," Jackson warned as Sanchez returned.

"The wagon is ready. Luis saw that we have a mattress and anything else you need to take care of Chris," the ex-preacher explained.

Nathan looked at Vin and was glad to see the younger man’s face relaxed in sleep. He turned to the second bed and wished there was some other way to do this, but Chris’ fever wasn’t coming down. "Where’s that board ya used t’bring Vin in."

"I think it’s outside," Sanchez assured him.

"Bring it in . . . we’ll need to move Chris. Easiest way is to lift him using the sheet he’s on," Jackson explained and eased back the single sheet that covered Larabee.

"Nathan, we’re ready to move him," Sanchez said softly.

"I know, but we need ta be careful," Jackson ordered relieved to see Luis and another man standing with Sanchez. "Josiah, you and Luis take that end."

"Carlo, you help Nathan," Luis ordered as they positioned themselves around Larabee’s bed.

Jackson took a deep breath as they each took an end and lifted Larabee’s inert body and carried it the short distance to the board he’d be carried on. The blond head lolled to one side, but that was the only sign that there was life still in the body. There were several men waiting outside the room and they quickly moved to help with the injured man.

The trip down the stairs was a hard one, but they managed it without incident and carried Larabee out into the bright morning sunshine. The wagon had been pulled up close to the main door and Jackson and Sanchez climbed into the back and helped shift the injured man from the board onto the mattress.

Nathan knew Larabee was unaware of anything around him, but he gently covered him with the sheet and did everything he could to make sure the man was as comfortable as possible given the extent of his injuries. ‘Don’t you go givin’ up on us, Chris,’ he thought and settled down beside Larabee as Sanchez moved to the front of the wagon with Luis.

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Four Corners

Early Morning

Mary Travis walked slowly along the street and handed out the morning edition of The Clarion News. Life went on for most of the townspeople, but for a select few, herself included, there was something missing. The seven men had become like family to her, but it was Chris Larabee that had her heart aching.

"Mrs. Travis . . . Mrs. Travis!"

Mary turned at the excited sound of the woman’s voice and smiled as the lady who ran the telegraph office and diner came running toward her. "Good morning, Mrs. Miller."

"Good morning, Mrs. Travis," the woman said and tried to catch her breath. "I have a telegram for you . . . it’s about Mr. Larabee and the others."

Mary took a deep breath as the newspapers dropped to the ground and she reached for the small piece of paper clutched in the other woman’s hand. She swallowed several times before looking at the hastily scrawled words and reached for the hitching post as she read the missive.

"They’re alive, Mary, the Lord is watching out for them and for us," the older woman said, purposefully using Mary’s first name as she touched her arm.

"I know," Mary whispered shakily. Chris, Vin, and JD were injured, but they were all alive, that was the extent of the message and she silently prayed the seven men would return home soon. She saw Gloria Potter exit the store and hurry toward them and wished she had better news to tell her.

"Mary, are you all right?"

"I’m fine, Gloria," the newspaperwoman said and bent to pick up the papers. "Mrs. Miller just brought me news about Chris and the others."

"Are they . . . "

"They’re alive, but Chris, Vin, and JD were hurt. The raids by the banditos should be over," Mary told her. 

"Thank God," Gloria said and helped Mary with the papers. "When are they coming home?"

"It doesn’t say," Mary answered worriedly, eyes misting with tears she refused to allow. She took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders as a man strode purposefully toward them.

"Mrs. Travis, I want to lodge a complaint with Judge Travis!"

"That is your right, Mr. Conklin, but I refuse to be your messenger any longer. If you wish to speak with Judge Travis then you can spend your own money to find him!" Mary snapped and walked away from the irate man.

"Who does she think she is?" Conklin spat and suddenly realized he was talking to himself in the middle of an empty street.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Morning

The wagon made slow, steady progress through the long night and continued the journey through the morning hours. Buck stayed with JD as they topped the rise and looked down on the picturesque hacienda where men and woman worked in the fields. It was hard to believe that such a peaceful setting had belonged to a vicious SOB who thought people belonged to him.

Buck breathed deeply of the warm air as they started the final leg of their journey and watched as several people stopped what they were doing and looked in their direction. It was another ten minutes before they pulled the wagon to a halt in front of the house and Buck hopped down from the back of the wagon. He looked at Dunne and then at the house before meeting Carmella Covas’ eyes.

"Go, I will stay with him until you check on your friends," the woman ordered and felt her hands engulfed in his large, callused ones.

"You are an angel, Carmella Covas," Wilmington said and hurried into the house. He took the stairs two at a time and entered the room where he’d last seen Chris and Vin. His breath caught in his throat and he nearly choked as he stared at the empty bed. His legs shook and he dropped to his knees as grief made it impossible to think of anything except the man who had been part of his life for over a decade.

"God . . . no . . . "

Ezra turned to see the man kneeling in the doorway and at first didn’t understand the grief he saw on Wilmington’s face. His own heart beat faster as he realized the implication of the empty bed.

"Mr. Wilmington," Standish began and softened his voice. "Buck . . . "

"I should have stayed," Wilmington said, swallowing convulsively as he lifted his head and stared at the man whose hand rested on his shoulder.

"Whatever do you..." Standish's words halted when he realized what the grief-stricken eyes were misreading. It dawned and he could feel the tremble coursing through the other man’s body. "He's alive, my friend."

"Chris . . . he . . . he’s not," Wilmington tried to find the right words as hope soared through him with Standish’s words.

"No, he’s not dead," the gambler reiterated.

"Where is he?" the worried rogue asked and stared at the man who seemed on the verge of waking. "What happened?"

"Nathan and Josiah took him to the nearby creek. His fever is very high and Nathan is hoping that immersing him in the water will help bring it down. How is JD?"

"He’s still out of it . . . woke up a couple of times, but he don’t seem to know where he is or what’s happened to him. Mostly remembers bits and pieces."

"That is to be expected with head wounds. Nathan will know more when he gets back."

"I hope so," Wilmington said and turned to see Raphael standing in the open doorway.

"Senora Martinez had the room next door ready for JD," Cordova told him.

"I’ll be right there," the rogue said. He made his way to the bed and cast a warm eye on the Texan. "How’s Vin?"

"He managed to eat a little and keep it down. Nathan gave him a sleeping draught and it should keep him out for a few hours," Standish explained.

"Are you okay?"

"This is but a minor affliction," Standish said of his wound and quickly resettled himself in the chair beside Tanner’s bed. "Go tend to our fearless young sheriff; I'll keep the vigil with our noble Texan."

Buck knew Ezra was worried and that his use of the formal title was his own way of distancing himself so that people could not get a read on him. The man was a fraud, one that Buck and the other five men were proud to have riding with them. Once he made sure JD was settled, Buck planned on riding to the creek and checking for himself that Chris was all right.

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Creek, West of the De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Morning

The ride from the hacienda had taken longer than expected with a tree having fallen across the path. It had taken nearly an hour to return to the hacienda and get several workers to help remove the obstruction. The sun beat down on the wagon as it pulled to a stop near the creek and Josiah jumped down from the seat to join Jackson in the back.

"How is he?" Sanchez asked.

"Same as he was. He’s burning up, Josiah," Jackson said softly.

"Then we’re doing the right thing," the ex-preacher assured him as two men moved to help lift Larabee from the back. "Tell me what you need me to do."

"I’ll need your help to carry him, but you need to be careful of his wounds. I got me a feelin’ that once we’re in the water Chris’ll come ‘round and he ain’t gonna like it. Luis said the water’s fed from the mountains and it’s bound ta be cold," Jackson observed and stared at the creek as Luis rode up to him.

"The creek is shallow near the shore, but it is very deep in the middle," the man explained. "I will show you."

"Thank you, Luis," Jackson said as they stripped down to their drawers and moved to lift Larabee from the wagon. "Josiah, once we’re in the creek I want you to hold Chris against you so I can tend his wounds. The water should help clear out some of the infection he’s got too."

Josiah nodded as they eased Larabee from the wagon and carried him the short distance to the creek.

"Stay near the pile of rocks on your left, Josiah," Luis ordered as they did their best to stay on their feet.

"Josiah, keep his head up," Jackson ordered as Sanchez moved to sit in the cold water. Chris had remained still until they began to lower him beneath the surface. The shock of having the frigid water touch against his heated flesh caused the lost man's eyes to shoot open and his body bucked. His lips parted and a sharp inhalation of shocked air emitted. "Easy, Chris, we got you."

Sanchez sat in the shallow pool and pulled Larabee down with him until only his head was above the surface.

"Josiah, I need to get a few things. Can you hold him?"

"I got him," Sanchez assured the younger man. He felt Larabee trembling in his arms and silently prayed they were doing the right thing. He heard a fast approaching horse and looked up in time to see Buck dismount and stride purposefully into the water until he could touch the injured blond.

"How is he?" Wilmington asked of the too quiet man nestled against Sanchez’s chest.

"He’s still with us and that’s something to be thankful for," Sanchez offered as Jackson joined them.

"Buck, how’s JD?" Jackson asked as he eased the water soaked bandages from Larabee’s shoulder.

"He’s still out of it, Nathan," Wilmington answered. "Evita set up the room next to Chris and Vin’s and there’s a cot there for me."

"That’s good. He needs to know he’s not alone," Jackson explained and continued to care for the unresponsive blond who’d returned to whatever nightmare plagued him.

"Neither are you, Nate," Wilmington said and placed a hand on the man’s shoulder in an effort to ease the torment he saw in the soulful brown eyes.

"Thanks, Buck," Jackson managed and pressed against the shoulder wound until the blood ran clear without the putrid poison that had been present.

"Tell me what you need me to do," Wilmington said.

"I need to look at his side next so you’ll need to help Josiah keep him still for me," the healer ordered and saw the dark head nod once. It took nearly half an hour to clean the wounds and Jackson was satisfied they’d done all they could for the injured blond. They lifted him from the water and wrapped him in the clean sheets Evita had sent with them. Larabee’s teeth chattered and his body trembled with the cold, but Nathan knew the fever could easily come back as they rode toward the hacienda.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

Vin tried hard to moisten his lips, but it felt like there was nothing left inside his arid mouth. He felt his head lifted and a cup placed against his mouth and gratefully drank the cold water. He opened his eyes when the offering was removed and looked at the man seated beside him before turning his attention to the other bed.

"They’re not back yet," Standish answered the unspoken question.

"...time’s it?" Tanner managed in a voice he hardly recognized as his own. 

"Early afternoon . . . nearly one," the conman told him. "I know you are worried, My Friend, but trust in Nathan’s abilities to ensure Chris makes a complete recovery."

"None better," the Texan vowed.

"Yes, I believe we all agree with that statement," Standish said and heard voices from downstairs. "Stay where you are and I will see if they have returned."

Vin lay still and listened to the voices from below, recognizing Nathan’s as he gave orders to those around him. He shifted on the bed, gasping as he levered himself up and tried unsuccessfully to maneuver the pillows behind his back.

"Bring him in," Jackson said and fixed Tanner’s pillows while Josiah and Buck carried Larabee inside and placed him on the empty bed.

"Nathan?"

Jackson read the expressive blue eyes easily and knew what question was unspoken. "His fever’s come down for now, Vin, but he ain’t outta the woods yet." He touched his hand against the Texan’s forehead. "How do you feel?"

"Ain't my best day," Tanner answered honestly.

"You hungry?"

"A little," the tracker said, but continued to watch as Sanchez and Wilmington worked to make Larabee comfortable.

"I’ll see if Evita will send something. How’s the jaw?"

"Better’n it was."

"That’s good," Jackson said. "Look, I’m gonna check on JD, but if ya need anythin’ . . . "

"M’fine, Nate," Tanner assured him and watched as the healer stood and left the room. There was pain in the man, so much pain that it could scar his soul if he didn’t let some of it go. Vin leaned back against the pillows and turned his head so that he could watch Chris Larabee and hoped the man fought his way back to them.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Afternoon

Nathan pulled the blanket up over the young man and sighed tiredly as he rubbed his lower back. The swollen area around the bullet wound was a mottled collection of black, green, and yellow and he knew JD would suffer from major headaches for some time. He breathed a sigh of relief and whispered a silent prayer of thanks that Dunne was alive. The problem was that Chris Larabee thought he was dead and if Nathan was right the blond needed to see JD in order to let the healing really begin.

"Nathan, he’s going to be all right isn’t he?" Wilmington asked. He’d changed into dry clothing provided by several of the field workers and looked at home in them with his dark coloring.

"I don’t know, Buck, I’ll do my best, but head wounds are tricky and until he’s awake and able to tell us what he remembers then it’ll be up to him and God," Jackson answered tiredly ringing his hands as he took a deep breath.

"You look as bad as he does, Nathan," Wilmington observed. "Why don’t you get some rest and leave these boys to me, Josiah, and Ezra. We’ll come get you if they need you."

"I’m too damn tired ta argue with ya, Buck," Jackson said. He stood, stretched the kinks from his back and left the room unaware of the worried look Buck cast his way.

Buck moved to the bed and sat on the edge before gently flicking back the stray strands of damp hair from the younger man’s face. "All right, Kid, I know you’re as stubborn as a Missouri bull so you’re not gonna let something like this keep you down. I need you to wake up, JD . . . Chris needs to know you’re alive or he’s going to give up. I don’t know if I’m ready to lose him like that, Kid . . . don’t know if I’m ready to lose any of you."

Buck stood up and walked to the window. He looked out at the sun brightened fields as the workers seemed to be lost in the task of making sure the crops continued to grow. God help him, but he wished life could be that simple . . . that by just giving his friends the food and water a body needed that they’d survive the ordeal that faced them. Instead, Buck felt as if he was caught up in some nightmarish twister and couldn’t quite find his way out of it.

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Darkness surrounded him and with it the cold that clamped down on his heart and threatened to send him to the depths of hell. How could God take those he cared about and leave him to bury them? Each time he lifted the shovel and dropped the dirt into the open grave a part of his soul went with it.

It had to be a dream, a nightmare, and one that would end as again and again JD Dunne’s body dropped into the grave and a voice whispered in his ear.

‘You murdered my son and it is only fitting that I take something you care about . . . should we cover him . . . no, let his friend do it . . . if you wish to give him a proper burial you will do so now or he will be left for the sun and wild animals . . . You murdered my son and it is only fitting that I take something you care about . . . should we cover him . . . no, let his friend do it . . . if you wish to give him a proper burial you will do so now or he will be left for the sun and wild animals . . . ’

The words continued to echo through his fevered mind even as dark images played one after another. JD’s head snapping back with the force of the bullet . . . JD’s words telling him it wasn’t his fault . . . the life disappearing from the young man’s eyes as Dunne’s body dropped into the grave dug by his hands . . . the sound of the body hitting the dirt . . . the feel of the cold shovel in his hand as he lifted the soil and slowly covered the body of a friend . . . one whose life was lost because he’d dared to accept the hand of friendship from Chris Larabee.

"No . . . please . . . sorry, Kid . . . didn’t mean . . . "

"Easy, Pard," Wilmington tried to cut through the pain and despair in his friend’s voice.

"He awake, Buck?" Tanner asked and shifted his upper body so he could look across the short distance. His own fever was nearly gone, but there was no mistaking the weakness that confounded any attempt he made to sit up on the edge of the bed.

"If you want to call it that," Wilmington answered. "He’s dreaming . . . but I don’t think they’re good dreams."

"Can’t say’s I blame ‘im fer havin’ bad dreams," the Texan said. "What’s Nate say ‘bout bringin’ JD in?"

"The kid’s still out of it," Wilmington said. "Nate don’t want to move him around too much. He’s not sure JD’s gonna make it."

"Chris needs ta know he’s alive."

"Nate knows, but Chris already seen him die once . . . don’t think he could take seeing it happen again," the worried rogue offered and reached for the cloth, soaking it in the cool water before placing it across Larabee’s forehead once more.

Vin watched as Buck spoke softly to the injured blond, worried when Larabee showed no indication that he knew anyone was with him. He’d seen the friendship between Larabee and Wilmington and understood where the emotions he saw on Buck’s face came from. They had years behind them, years that had seen Chris lose his heart and soul and Buck had been the one to stand by him and help him through the worst part of his life. Sometimes he envied Buck that closeness . . . not because of the friendship, but because Buck had seen Chris before the darkness had claimed three years of his life.

Vin lay back and closed his eyes, listening to the labored breathing that told him Chris was alive and hoping Buck’s voice could get through to him.

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Arena De Muerte

East of the De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening

Fernando Gores looked at the men seated around the fire that blazed in the center of what had been used for the fights hosted by the Haciendadas in the area. Many men had lost their lives here, their lifeblood seeping into the soil even as the spectators sipped at the liquor and toasted the victor. Don Garcia had rarely allowed him to see a fight, but the ones he had seen had thrilled him with their brutality.

Gores had never liked Luis Martinez and now that dislike had turned to hatred. He’d enjoyed his position at the hacienda, using the whip or cane as a means of keeping the field workers in line. He’d admired the heavy handed Don Garcia De Rivera and he’d felt the man’s wrath himself, but not as much as the peons Don Garcia owned. Luis Martinez was nothing like his father and in Gores’ eyes he was a weakling and not worth the air he breathed.

Gores looked around and knew they needed more men if they were going to go up against Luis Martinez and his men. He’d sent Pablo Gonzales to the hacienda earlier in the day and the big man returned with the news that Martinez had more men than just those who rode with him. Gonzales had recognized Raphael Cordova De Martinez, a man well known because he’d worked for Don Paulo before betraying him by killing his son. There was a price on Cordova’s head and Gores thought he just might be the one to collect it.

"Fernando, if Pablo is right about the men at the hacienda then we need to find more guns," Miguel Delgado said.

"Men are easy to find, but we must have the coin to pay them," Gores said with a hint of a grin. "Perhaps it would be better to find another way to get to Luis and his madre." 

"What do you have in mind?"

"Juanita Perez."

"Who is she?"

"A pretty young puta who works in the main house," Gores explained in a voice heavy with lust.

"Will she help us?"

"No, not willingly, but she just might get Luis away from the house."

"What of his madre? I want that bitch to pay!" Delgado cursed.

"If we watch closely I am sure we can get them both and force Luis to come to us," Gores said. "It will mean watching the house and waiting for the right time."

"Do we have enough men for that?"

"To take two women?" Gores said with a grin and reached for the bottle Gonzales offered. "We have more than enough. To killing Don Garcia’s puta and their bastardo son."

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening

Evita Martinez sat in the wooden rocking chair, humming softly to the babe held protectively in her arms. Santos had awoken just before midnight and she’d taken over from the wet nurse once he’d been fed. Now she simply sat holding him to her, his small fingers wrapped tightly around her pinkie.

She felt tears in her eyes as she looked at the boy who reminded her so much of Luis when he was first born. She knew it was not possible to know what changes the future would bring, but she silently prayed the boy would be like his mother and half-brother. Santos had a future ahead of him and she prayed he would find someone to look up to in Luis. Between them they could make something of the hacienda.

"You would do well to follow in Luis’ footsteps," Evita said and looked up to see Nathan Jackson standing in the doorway. She could see the weariness in his eyes and knew the man was not sleeping very well. Nathan was a man who had the heart and soul of a healer and she wondered how deep the scars were on his soul since being forced to watch what had happened to his friends.

"How is he doin’?" the former slave asked softly.

"He is restless," Evita answered.

"Your voice soothes him," Jackson observed as the baby cooed softly. "He needs you."

"I promised his madre I would be there for him."

"There’s no one better to take her place, Evita," the healer vowed.

"Thank you, Nathan. I will see that he knows who his madre was and what he meant to her."

"As long as he has you he will know a mother’s love," Jackson offered.

"He will also have his brother’s hand to show him the way," Evita said while playing with the baby’s fingers.

"Good . . . Santos will need someone to look up to and I doubt he’d find a better man than your son," Nathan said softly.

"Are you all right, Nathan?" Evita asked, eyeing the man closely.

"I’m fine, Evita," the former slave whispered and sighed heavily. "I need to check on Chris, Vin, and JD."

"Your friends are well cared for, Nathan . . . perhaps it is time for the healer to allow someone to heal his wounds."

"I ain’t got no wounds," Jackson snapped before hurrying from the room.

 

‘Not the kind that you can see, Nathan, but your heart is bleeding deeply,’ Evita thought and looked at the sleeping baby as tears slipped from her eyes.

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Nathan had to hurry from the room before his emotions got the better of him. He had the feeling that Evita had seen right through him, but he wasn’t ready to talk about him, not when his friends had real injuries that needed his attention. He stopped in front of the partially open door and listened to Carmella Covas’ soft voice and prayed JD was awake. He pushed the door open and was disappointed when it became obvious that the young man was still unconscious.

"Dr. Jackson . . . "

"I ain’t no doctor, Ma’am," Jackson snapped and immediately regretted his tone. "I’m sorry . . . ain’t got no reason to snap at you . . . "

"I understand, Senor . . . "

"Please, just call me, Nathan," the healer said and moved to touched his fingers against Dunne’s forehead. "His fever’s come down some."

"He is dreaming and sometimes calls for his madre, but his voice is filled with such pain," Carmella explained.

"His ma’s dead . . . we’re ‘bout the only family he’s got left and I want to thank you for taking care of him."

"He is one of God’s children and I would never turn him away," the woman assured him.

"God don’t seem ta be around lately," Jackson said.

"God is always around, Nathan; just open your heart and you will find him there."

"Ain’t sure that’s a good idea right now . . . "

"Nathan!"

Jackson turned at the concerned shout from down the hallway and hurried out of the room to find Buck looking for him. "What’s wrong?"

"Chris . . . something’s wrong!" Wilmington snapped and jumped to the side as Jackson rushed by him.

Nathan hurried into the room to find Josiah manhandling a convulsing Larabee back on the bed. He’d been expecting something like this because of the fever raging through Larabee, but had hoped that immersing him in the water would have prevented it from happening. He glanced at the sleeping Texan, relieved that he’d given the younger man a heavy dose of laudanum and hoped it would keep him from waking up.

"When did this start?" Jackson asked.

"Not long, but he’s strong as a bull when he’s like this!" Sanchez said.

"What do you need us to do?" Wilmington asked.

"Go down to the kitchen and see if there’s any ice. Evita’s in with Santos . . . "

"I’m right here, Nathan," Evita said from the open doorway. "What do you need?"

"Do you have something we can put him in . . . maybe a tub and we’ll need water and ice if you got any," Jackson answered and turned when Evita did not answer right away.

"Nathan, there is an old tub in a room that once served as a place for the wine maker to rest. Don Garcia called it a wine cellar, but I believe it is also called a root cellar and is below ground and much cooler than these rooms."

"Where is it?" Jackson asked.

"The entrance is through the kitchen at the back of the pantry. I will see that the tub is cleaned and cold water can be pumped through the underground spring," Evita explained.

"Nathan, should we be moving him?" Wilmington asked skeptically.

"We need to get him cooled down, Buck. Them convulsions he’s havin’ ain’t doin’ ‘im any good," Jackson answered worriedly and was glad to see Tanner remained blissfully unaware of what was happening around him.

"I will see to having the room readied for you," Evita said and hurried away.

"Josiah, be careful," Jackson said as the big ex-preacher continued to hold Larabee down. "Buck, talk to him . . . see if you can calm him down."

Buck nodded and moved closer as Ezra Standish stepped into the room and moved to help Josiah and Nathan. He heard the gambler cry out, but his attention was on the sweat soaked face of his long-time friend. "Hey, Pard, ya want to tell me what’s got you so riled up? Nate’s gonna be ticked at you if you break them stitches he put in you. We both know how he gets when someone wrecks his handiwork . . . "

"No . . . Kid . . . didn’t mean . . . shouldn’t . . . should have . . . go home, Kid . . . "

"Chris, listen to me. JD’s fine and you are too, but you gotta stop this," Wilmington ordered and was shocked when Larabee suddenly went still. "Nathan?"

Jackson reached out and pressed his fingers against Chris’ throat and was relieved to find the too fast pulse there. "He’s still with us, but his pulse is racing."

Wilmington sighed tiredly and ran his fingers through disheveled hair as he looked from Larabee to Tanner and his mind wandered to the young man in the other room. He knew Jackson was worried and wished there was something he could do to ease the healer’s mind, but that would not happen until Larabee, Tanner, and Dunne were back on their feet.

"Ezra, I’ll need ta take a look at your arm in a minute," Jackson said tiredly.

"My arm . . . "

"Ya want ta be able ta shuffle them cards ya’d best do as I say," Jackson ordered and moved to help Sanchez and Wilmington with the trembling gunslinger.

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Buck knew they were doing what needed to be done, but it didn’t make it any easier. They’d carried Larabee down the main stairs, past several workers who seemed to be watching with a mixture of curiosity and fear. The room Evita had told them they could use was down a narrow set of stairs, but they managed to get down them without mishap. He felt the difference in the temperature almost immediately and hoped it was enough to help keep his oldest friend from suffering any more convulsions.

"Nathan, the pump is working," Evita said as they carried Larabee inside and moved toward the freshly made bed. A cot had also been set up near the door.

"Thank you, Evita," Jackson said and tested the water in the large tub in the corner. "Buck, you and Josiah bring him over here."

"He’s gonna fight," Sanchez offered.

"I know, but we gotta do this," Jackson said as Evita left the room. "The water’s cold so be ready."

Buck nodded as he and Josiah lifted Larabee over the side and immersed him in the cold water.

His body felt like it was being consumed by fire and Chris knew he was in hell. The flames would consume him the same as they’d consumed his heart and soul that fateful night that seem an eternity ago. He could hear voices, but he could not make sense of what was being said until something changed and he felt the heat surrounding him change as if a chill wind blew across his skin. Larabee reacted immediately as his eyes shot open and he cried out, his voice hoarse, but the pain unmistakable as he fought the two men holding him down.

"It’s okay, Chris," Wilmington soothed, but didn’t relinquish his hold on the struggling man.

"...fuck...off..." he snarled, glaring at the blurry mustached enemy, "...cold..."

"I know it’s cold, Chris, but we need ta get your fever down and then we’ll get you into bed and let you rest," Jackson explained, but understood Larabee wasn’t hearing him as the green eyes remained open, but unfocused.

Buck tried to duck as Larabee lashed out and connected with his right cheek. It scared him that his friend didn’t seem to have the strength of a newborn calf, and he reached out to place a hand on Chris’ shoulder as Nathan used a cloth to bathe the fevered face. Time seemed to crawl as Larabee fought weakly against those who were trying to help him. He could hear soft pleas from the injured man, and wished there was another way to do this.

"How much longer, Nathan?" Sanchez asked.

"His fever’s come down some, but he’s still hot," Jackson said tiredly, fighting the urge to order the two men to lift Larabee out of the tub.

"He can’t take much more," Wilmington said and stopped short of adding ‘neither can I’. It seemed like forever before Jackson ordered them to take Larabee out of the tub and quickly dried the blond and laid him on the bed. He checked the wounds, not surprised to find the blond had slipped back into unconsciousness.

"Nathan, you need to get some rest," Sanchez ordered when Nathan eased a thin sheet over Larabee’s body.

"I need to stay with him . . . "

"I’ll stay with him, Nate," Wilmington said, torn between staying with Larabee and checking on Dunne.

"You both look like hell," Sanchez observed. "Nathan, go to bed. Buck, go stay with JD and I’ll come get you if anything changes."

"Are you sure . . . you ain’t slept much either," Jackson said.

"I’m going to take advantage of that cot," Sanchez vowed.

"All right, but if he needs . . . "

"I will," the ex-preacher said before the healer could finish the sentence. He watched the two men leave before turning to Larabee and placed a hand on his forehead before saying a soft prayer that their number would be whole soon.

"Seven's my lucky number," he noted and shifted his heavenward-trained eyes to the stilled body. "His too..."

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Buck made his way to the room where JD remained blissfully unaware of what was happening around him. He smiled at the woman seated next to the bed and reached out to take her hands in his own. "You, Lady, are God’s gift to man . . . your husband is a lucky man . . . "

"My husband is also a jealous man, but I thank you for making me feel young . . . "

"You are young where it counts in both beauty and mind," Wilmington said and kissed her hand. "I’m going to stay with JD and I’m sure your husband would like some time with you."

"That he would," Cristóbal said from the doorway. He’d seen the exchange and felt no jealousy at the man’s words, simply because what he said was true and Cristóbal Covas considered himself the luckiest man in the world.

Buck watched as Cristóbal took his wife’s hand and led her from the room. There was no doubt the couple shared a love he’d only seen once before when Chris had married Sarah. God, how he wished he hadn’t convinced Larabee to stay that one extra night. Could they have stopped what happened or would they have also burned in the fire. Probably the latter, because if there’d been any chance of saving Sarah and Adam he would have joined Chris in bursting into the inferno.

Buck shook away the morbid thoughts and moved to sit in the chair Carmella Covas had vacated. He took a deep breath and ran his fingers through his hair. God, he was tired, more tired than he’d ever been before and he knew he wouldn’t get any real rest until he was sure Chris, JD, and Vin were going to be all right. He closed his eyes and the soft, even breathing of the youth lulled him to sleep. The next thing he was aware of was a warm voice nearby. He blinked, sat up, coughed and noticed Raphael watching him.

"How is he?"

"About the same."

"This Chiquita . . . he is strong," Cordova offered with open admiration for a young man who’d proven his worth again and again.

"Yeah, he is . . . I just wish he’d wake up enough so we could let Chris see him," Wilmington said.

"Why does Nathan want to wait?" Cordova asked.

"Chris already saw JD die once, Raphael, and he don’t want him to have to relive it if . . . if . . . "

"He is a fighter . . . he reminds me of a pit viper and I do not believe he is ready to quit."

"I hope so, Raphael, I don’t think . . . " Wilmington couldn’t finish as Cordova leaned against the wall and joined him in a silent vigil over the injured man.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

The sun streamed through the partially open window and danced across the floor as a soft breeze gently lifted the floral curtains. The scent of nearby flowers teased the lone occupant into opening his sleep-drenched eyes, but it took nearly a minute before Vin remembered where he was. His body ached and his mouth felt dryer than the desert at high noon. His tongue flicked out, but stuck to his lips as he shifted and turned away from the window.

Vin looked at the bed opposite the one he lay on and frowned as he tried to figure out what was wrong with the picture. There was something missing, not just the sheets and blankets and he tried to figure out exactly what he wasn’t seeing. He closed his eyes and felt the weakness invading his body and mind and shifted on the bed until he had a clear picture of the one across from him. Panic set in and he gritted his teeth and tried to sit up, but found he lacked the strength to do so.

"Chris," he whispered, his heart breaking at the thought of losing the man who had become an instant brother. He tried to call out, but froze when he heard familiar voices speaking in hushed tones outside the room.

" . . . put up . . . fight . . . "

" . . . never thought . . . end like that . . . "

"Chris . . . a quitter . . . fought hard . . . life depended on . . . dead . . . "

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"Chris Larabee is not a quitter and he fought hard as if it was not only his life that depended on it. He is not dead because of Nathan’s wondrous gift," Standish said and leaned tiredly against the wall outside the room where Tanner slept, glad that the Texan had been spared listening to Larabee’s cries when they’d immersed him in the tub.

"Si, he is a good man," Luis Martinez agreed, relieved that the injured man was still alive. He did not know these men well, but his instincts told him they were good men.

"In case no one has thought to say anything I wanted to say thank you for everything you’ve done for Chris, Vin, and JD. Their lives would otherwise have been sacrificed because of Don Garcia’s cruelty," Standish said and shook the man’s hand.

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" . . . lives . . . sacrificed . . . "

Vin tried to listen to the voices, tried to make sense of what they were saying, but his mind had latched onto several words that tore at his heart. End and dead . . . those two words told him everything he needed to know and he sank back into the void where nightmares were now real and he once more walked alone in the darkness.

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The darkness that surrounded him was filled with images that spoke of a life of torment, yet Chris knew it wasn’t real . . . couldn’t be real. How could God have taken so much from him? Why did fire surround him? Why did it feel like he was burning alive and ice cold at the same time?

Too many people had died because of him, some by his own hand, some who deserved it, but there were some who might still be alive if he’d just made them listen. Young men like JD Dunne . . . he hadn’t pulled the trigger, but he’d been the one responsible all the same. Now JD’s body was buried in a shallow unmarked grave, but Chris vowed that somehow he would get word to Buck before he died and make sure the kid had a decent burial. It wouldn’t atone for what he’d done in his life, but it was the least he could do for JD.

He struggled against the lead weight on his chest, but the pain of loss was a heavier burden than any he’d ever suffered and a silent plea was born as he sank deeper into the darkness surrounding him.

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Field to the North of the Hacienda

Mid-Morning

Evita smiled at the woman who’d stolen her son’s heart and picked up the basket off the table. She knew Luis had chosen well and wanted to talk to Juanita alone. In the weeks since the vegetables had ripened she’d been happy to have the younger woman accompany her and it pleased her that Luis had found love with a woman who was beautiful on the inside as well as on the outside.

They didn’t speak as they exited the house, but Evita smiled as Luis glanced their way before riding away from the main house. She knew he was going to check on the villagers to the north and arrange to trade some of the crops for staples like flour and material for clothing. Santos would need more clothes if he continued to eat the way he was.

"Luis has made a wise choice," Evita said as they made their way toward the north field.

"I am the luckiest woman in the world, Evita. I have loved Luis since I first saw him, but he was Don Garcia’s son and I knew I could not be with him as long as Don Garcia was alive."

"Perhaps, but I believe Luis would have spoken to his padre about you. Luis is strong and his love for you could not be stopped because his padre was blinded by his own prejudice. I asked him to buy me some of the finest material in the village. It is time we thought about your wedding dress. We will sew it together if you will let me help you," Evita told her.

"You are so good to me . . . I would be honored to have you help me with my wedding dress," Juanita said, dropping her basket and hugging the older woman with tears in her eyes. "Thank you, Evita."

"You are welcome," Evita said as they continued toward the field.

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Pablo Gonzales hated the bugs that surrounded him while he waited for Juanita Perez and Evita Martinez to make their way to the field in order to collect vegetables for the afternoon meal. According to Gores the two women often did this chore on their own instead of taking one of the field workers from his daily routine. He looked across the clearing and knew Alfonzo Gutierrez was watching from his vantage point and would signal to him when he spotted the two women.

Pablo wasn’t happy with what they were about to do and knew Luis Martinez was not a man to mess with. He may not be as hard or cold as his padre, but when it came to his family, he could be lethal. Gores had promised them they’d be rewarded for taking Juanita Perez and Evita Martinez, but he wasn’t sure any reward would be enough. A leering grin formed when he thought about Juanita Perez and an idea formed as heat flared in his groin. Just maybe he would get his own reward with the pretty puta before Luis found out what they’d done.

Pablo was shaken from his thoughts when a soft whistle reached his ears and he turned his attention to the field. He’d seen the women before when he'd visited the hacienda and done several jobs for Don Garcia De Rivera, and recognized the duo carrying the empty baskets. He took his knife from the scabbard at his side and nodded that he was ready as Gutierrez mirrored his actions. It would be a simple task to grab them, but Pablo knew anything could happen.

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Evita breathed in the scent of wildflowers as she walked beside her future daughter-in-law and considered herself blessed in more ways than she’d thought possible. She stepped onto the narrow path that led to the field where they would pick the vegetables needed for today’s meals. She stopped and listened, frowning when she noticed the absence of sound.

"Evita, is something wrong?" Juanita asked when the older woman stopped.

"We must go back," Evita said, but realized her mistake when a man grabbed Juanita around the waist and placed a knife against her throat.

"Scream and I cut her throat," Gutierrez warned.

"Let her go!" Evita ordered and searched the field behind her for help, but there was no way anyone could see what was happening because of the dense brush along the north field.

"I do not think so," Pablo said from behind her. "Now if you cooperate you will not get hurt. If you try to escape or do anything foolish, Luis will find what is left of your bodies, after we carve you like those birds that are served across the river."

"What do you want?" Evita asked, keeping her voice calm in spite of the anger coursing through her veins as Juanita struggled against the man holding her.

"Be still, Puta, or I will cut your breast . . . Luis won’t think you are so pretty then will he?" Gutierrez snarled and ran his tongue along the side of her neck.

"Now, Evita, we are going to go for a little ride and you and Juanita are going to do everything I say if you want to see Luis again," Pablo ordered.

"Why are you do . . . doing this?" Juanita stammered, crying out as her captor increased the pressure around her waist.

"Stop!" Evita ordered.

"Put your arms behind your back, Evita, or Alonzo will cut her," Pablo warned, pleased with the control he had over the two women.

Evita knew she had no choice but to do as he said and soon felt her arms bound roughly behind her back and a soiled cloth pressed into her mouth. She watched helplessly as the second man did the same to Juanita and moved deeper into the brush where two horses waited. They were thrown onto the horses and held in place as the two men mounted behind them and urged the horses away from the field. She had no idea who these men were, and she hoped Luis would find them before Alonzo did anything more than touch Juanita Perez.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Morning

Josiah looked up from the dog-eared Bible he so often sought comfort in. The words held meaning for him again now and his faith in the Lord was renewed. Part of it was due to finding his own penance, but if he was truthful with himself, the six men he called ‘brothers’ had been instrumental in him finding his way once again.

Chris Larabee was and always would be a natural born leader and he recognized that distinction the first time they’d met. There were not many men who could take such a diverse bunch and make them work together without giving them direct orders. It just seemed that they’d all looked to Larabee whenever something needed to be done. Even young JD who’d been given the distinction of town sheriff had gone to Chris when he needed advice.

Josiah thought about the man who had once been described as not saying ‘more’n three words in a day’ and wondered at that statement uttered by Vin Tanner. While it was true Chris didn’t mince words, he could be downright talkative when the situation warranted it. He’d been there for Billy Travis when the boy needed it and helped him deal with witnessing his father’s death. He’d also given Nathan advice when the healer wasn’t sure about his feelings for Rain. Larabee had simply asked him ‘cause you lost ‘em, are you sorry you ever had them?’ Nathan had told him about it and Josiah had used that line several times during his Sunday sermons.

"The Lord takes care of His own, Chris, and I know He’s watching over you, Vin, and JD," Sanchez said and made the Sign of the Cross on Larabee’s forehead, relieved that the fever, although still there, wasn’t as bad as it had been the day before. He knew Chris still had a long road ahead of him, but it was one he would not walk alone.

"How’s he doing, Josiah?" Nathan asked upon entering the room. He’d slept longer than he’d wanted, but it wasn’t a restful sleep. It was fraught with images that tormented his soul, yet he would not speak of the hell that invaded his mind.

"His fever’s still down, but he’s restless," Sanchez answered, aware of the lines of strain on his friend’s face. Somehow, when all this was over they’d have to find a way to get through to Nathan. They needed to show him that what he’d been forced to do was just as hard on him as the physical wounds were on his friends.

"That’s good news, but I ain’t gonna say he’s outta the woods yet," Jackson said as Sanchez moved back to allow him access to the injured man. He took his time checking the wounds and listening to Chris’ soft cries as he fought whatever demons invaded his dreams. "You’re okay, Chris, ain’t no one gonna hurt you now."

" ...JD . . . sor . . . sorry . . . ka...ka...kid"

"JD’s fine, Chris," Jackson said, but he knew his words were not getting through to the injured blond.

"How is JD?" Sanchez asked.

"He’s in and out . . . ain’t certain he’s himself either. That head wound’s got me worried . . . just wish he’d wake up so’s we could let Chris see im," the former slave said.

"I know you’re worried about how Chris will react when he sees JD, but wouldn’t it be good for him . . . for them both?"

"Maybe, but Chris already lived through his death once, Josiah . . . I ain’t ‘bout ta put ‘im through it again," Jackson answered and touched the wound in Larabee’s side. "I need to drain this."

"Tell me what you need," Sanchez said and quickly brought what the healer asked for. He saw the sadness in the brown eyes just before Jackson closed them and placed a hand on his shoulder as a soft shudder left him drained. "Why don’t you tell me what to do, Brother?"

Nathan knew Josiah was offering more than assistance with Chris Larabee. As grateful as he was for those strong hands and all that went with it, he shook his head. "Thanks, Josiah, but I’m okay. He pressed the edges of the wound, hardening himself as the first weak cry escaped from the semiconscious gunslinger.

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Luis Martinez smiled at the group of workers who listened to what he wanted them to do. He knew his padre had been a hard man and had them working from dawn to dusk, but he’d shortened the hours and knew he’d still get the same yield because they were well rested.

Luis had seen his madre and Juanita walking toward the north field and wanted to join them, but for now he had to see to these people. He quickly told them what he wanted them to do today and turned to find Ezra Standish watching him as he dismissed the workers.

"You are a natural leader, Senor Martinez," Standish said.

"Gracious," Luis said and took a deep breath. "How are your friends this morning?"

"Nothing has changed, but I have confidence in Nathan’s healing abilities," the gambler answered.

"I watched him . . . you put your faith in a good man," Martinez told him. "How is the arm?"

"I believe Nathan is correct in his diagnosis and I shall have the same dexterity as I always had when it comes to dealing and shuffling a deck of cards," Standish said and looked out over the fields.

Luis did not know the man very well and his first impression had been that Ezra Standish was a rich bore, but he’d quickly changed that assessment. The man had proven that these men were his friends and he would do anything he could to help them. "A man can usually count his true friends on one hand, but I believe you are the exception. I have watched you and your compadres and believe you are more than friends. Mi madre has always said the number seven is special and I believe it is in your number that you will find the strength to help them heal."

"Josiah is a spiritual man and he has spoken of the divinity of the number seven on several occasions. Religion is something I knew very little about until I met Josiah Sanchez and listened to him speak."

"Is Josiah a priest?"

"He was." His voice tinged with sadness, Ezra continued. "He has delivered several rather touching sermons that would undoubtedly impress anyone who believes himself a religious zealot," Standish said and realized he’d said more than was necessary as Martinez looked toward the north.

"I have yet to speak with Padre Santiago, but if he is not available would Josiah marry Juanita and me?"

"The lovely Senorita Perez will make a beautiful bride. Would you like me to speak with Josiah for you?"

"Let me speak with Padre Santiago first."

"Certainly . . . "

"Senor Martinez, there is a problem in the south field. Pedro said for you to come right away," Pero called frantically.

"Excuse me, Senor Standish."

"Of course," the gambler said and watched the man hurry away before walking back into the house.

He knew Buck was with JD and that Nathan and Josiah were checking Chris’ wounds which left him to keep an eye on Vin. He hurried up the stairs and entered Tanner’s room to find the Texan sleeping, his untouched tray on the table between the two beds. Frowning, Ezra eyed the platter of sliced fruit, sweet sticky buns and juice. He wondered if Vin even realized the food was there. Unless their tracker began to eat more, he wouldn't have the strength to combat his injuries. He laid a gentle hand on the slumbering man's shoulder.

"Vin?" He paused, watching for signs of life to emerge. The tanned face twitched and a scowl formed. "Vin, you need to wake up now and eat."


Vin had been lost in the netherworld between deep sleep and wakefulness. His dreams ran the gamut of emotional turmoil that ended with the words that cut him to the core. Chris . . . a quitter . . . fought hard . . . life depended on . . . dead. The last word seared through his tortured brain, creating a mantra from hell. He was forced to admit to himself that he’d lost the first man he’d ever considered a brother.

"Come on, Vin, Evita sent up some fresh fruit and sweet rolls. I know Inez and Mrs. Wells make wonderful sweets, but I can confirm that these are just as delicious to the palette," Standish tried and watched as the tracker’s eyes moved beneath the closed lids. "Vin, I know you are awake and you must be ravished by now." He saw a single blue slit appear and observe him, then disappear. "I saw that!" He accused, shaking Vin's shoulder again. "I'll help you sit up."

"Ain’t hungry," Tanner said and turned away before the man could see the pain of loss in his eyes.

"Vin . . . "

"Go 'way, Ez," the Texan snapped and found it difficult to draw air into his lungs as he thought about going back to Tascosa to clear his name without Chris Larabee at his side. "Sho . . . udda...took...care o'it...b'fore . . . " he mumbled aloud.

"Taken care of what, Vin?" Standish asked worriedly. There was something wrong here, something that had not been a part of Tanner's demeanor, but the savvy conman couldn't place exactly what was different. His handsome face creased in annoyance at the observation skills he usually used with ease.

"Nothin’, look, Ez, I’m ti . . . tired," Tanner said and hoped the gambler would leave him to his thoughts and dreams, no matter how morbid they might be. "Jest leave me be..."

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Arena De Muerte

Early Afternoon 

Fernando Gores watched as two horses approached the arena and couldn’t help, but smile as he recognized the riders and their captives. He felt Miguel Delgado beside him as Pablo Gonzales and Alonzo Gutierrez dismounted and roughly pulled the women off the animals.

"Did you have any trouble?" Gores asked, eyeing the very ripe Juanita Perez hungrily.

"No, it was just like you said, Fernando. These two came walking along the path as if they owned it. Me and Alonzo waited until they were out of sight of the hacienda and took them without a fight," Gonzales answered.

"Did you leave any tracks for them to follow?" Delgado asked.

"We took the back trail and then stayed in the creek following it south for fifteen minutes before doubling back and heading north. It will confuse them for a while until you are ready for Luis to find them," Gonzales answered and smiled at the anger blazing in the women’s eyes. 

"You know if we hurt either of them, Luis will kill us," Delgado said, beginning to doubt the wisdom of this move.

"Not if we do not give him the chance," Gores said and reached out to cup Juanita’s chin with his right hand. "We send him a message to come alone and make him watch while we enjoy showing his women what a real man can do."

"I want a piece of that one too," Gutierrez said with a leering grin as he eyed her ripe breasts.

"There’ll be time for everyone to enjoy them once Luis arrives . . . for now I am hungry and Evita has always been a great cook," Gores said.

"Are you going to untie them?" Delgado asked.

"Just their hands . . . bring me some rope," Gores ordered and took the hemp Gonzales offered. "Now, Ladies, I’m going to tie Evita’s left ankle to Juanita’s right ankle with maybe a foot of rope in between. If either of you tries anything the other one will be taken into the arena itself and each man will be given half an hour to enjoy themselves with her body. Nod your head if you understand."

Evita glanced at Juanita and nodded her head at the same time as the younger woman. By now someone at the hacienda would have noticed they hadn’t returned and hopefully the twists and turns would not be too hard for her son to find. There was no doubt that these men would hurt her and Juanita, but for now they needed to bide their time and watch for an opening to escape. Perhaps they would all get drunk, but she didn’t think they would be so lucky as Fernando Gores tied the rope between her and Juanita’s legs. Then he reached for the ropes around her wrists and quickly released her as Delgado did the same with the younger woman.

"All right, Ladies, get started and make sure it tastes good or I’ll have to sample your bodies instead," Gores warned and smiled as he shoved them toward the open fire.

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Four Corners

Early Afternoon

Mary Travis was tired of men like Conklin who didn’t care about anyone, but themselves and she silently cursed when she spotted him heading toward her. She desperately wanted to avoid a confrontation, but he’d already seen her.

"Mrs. Travis, is it true the judge will be on the stage?"

"As a matter of fact he is," the newspaperwoman answered.

"It’s about time . . . perhaps he will see the mistake he made in hiring those gunslingers to protect this town. They have been gone far too long and there is no point in throwing good money after bad," Conklin spat.

"Is that really what you think, Mr. Conklin? Perhaps it’s time you opened your eyes and saw what those men have done for Four Corners. Have you noticed there is no need for the children to be afraid of playing outside or for people to lock their doors at night? Have there been any bank robberies or shootings since those men began patrolling the area?"

"That is not the point, Mrs. Travis . . . "

"Isn’t it? Orin hired Chris and the others to make this town a place we could be proud of. A place people would be proud to call home and I know I’ve seen new people moving here and more coming each day. I told Chris it was progress and that was something we never had when the streets ran red with the blood of anyone who got in the way of the ‘bad element’ . . . "

"You yourself called Chris Larabee the bad element, Mrs. Travis . . . or do you deny that?"

"No, but I was wrong and I thank God for showing me that not all ‘bad elements’ are on the wrong side of the law. Now I know you have nothing better to do than bad mouth other people, but I have a stage to meet so excuse me," Mary said, lifting her skirts and stepping around the man. She passed Potter’s store and smiled at her friend when she passed.

"Well said, Mary. That man should learn to keep his mouth shut," Gloria explained.

"I know, but he’ll never learn . . . even if Chris or Buck or any of those men were to save his life he’d find a way to blame whatever happened on them. He’s a fool and always will be."

"Has there been any news from Josiah?" Gloria asked.

"Nothing new, but if they have to travel to send a telegram we may not hear anything for a few days," Mary answered.

"Please let me know as soon as you hear anything."

"I will," Mary said and hurried toward her home to await Orin Travis’ arrival.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Afternoon

JD opened his eyes, forcing himself to keep them open as he tried to make sense of where he was and what had happened to make his head feel like it was going to explode. It was warmer than he thought possible as he slowly looked around the unfamiliar room. The walls seemed wrong; the furniture strange, while colorful tapestries hung from decorative hooks. He frowned, setting off the fireworks in his skull as he tried to focus on something just out of his grasp.

"Wh . . . where . . . " he whispered, and fought the nausea that churned through his gut and felt a hand on his forehead. He opened his eyes and stared at the man who now stood over him, and tried to make sense of his surroundings.

"Welcome back, Son," Jackson said and gripped the younger man’s shoulders when he tried to sit up. "Be still, JD, you’re not goin’ anywhere for a spell."

"What . . . what happened?" Dunne asked, frowning at how strange his voice sounded.

"JD!" Wilmington hollered without realizing how loud the single word was for the concussed younger man.

JD moaned, cringing as he closed his eyes and desperately sought relief from the pain running rampant through his skull. "Tryin’ . . . to k . . . kill me, Buck . . . "

Buck noticed the obvious pain and sank down on the chair, his eyes filled with sorrow as he watched the young man who’d come to mean so much to him. "Jesus, Kid, I’m sorry," he whispered.

Dunne reached up to touch the bandage covering his head, but his hands were caught and lowered back to the bed.

"Don’t go touchin’ that, JD," Jackson warned.

"Hap . . . happened?" Dunne repeated

"What do you remember, JD?" the healer asked, keeping his voice low in regard to the young man’s injury. He watched JD’s face and knew the young man was trying to remember what had happened, and knew it was something they should not push.

"I don’t . . . I can’t remember."

"That’s okay, Son, it’ll come to you, but right now you need to rest," Jackson said and filled a glass with the sweet juice Evita had mixed and handed it to Wilmington.

 "Here, Kid, got something for you to drink."

JD sipped the juice and sighed tiredly, closing his eyes as he turned away from the offering. He fought to make sense of the images that flashed through his mind, but nothing seemed real. Last thing he remembered was riding with Chris, but the harder he tried to grasp those memories the more his head hurt and his stomach churned nauseously.

"Come on, Kid, don’t tell me it’s not sweet enough," Wilmington tried to coax the younger man to drink some more.

Dunne closed his eyes as the images formed and dissolved so quickly they made him dizzy. He slumped back against the pillows as darkness reached out for him once more and he surrendered to it before getting the answer he wanted.

"Nathan, I think it’s time we told Chris that JD’s ok," Wilmington said.

"I know," Jackson said tiredly.

"When are you planning on puttin Chris back in with Vin?"

"Not for another day or two. I want ta make sure he’s got that fever beat," Jackson said and turned away as a wave of guilt washed over him. Every time he looked at Vin, JD, and Chris he was reminded of De Rivera’s cruelty and yet, here he stood, untouched by the man’s heavy hand while his friends fought for their lives.

 "Nate . . . "

"I’m okay, Buck," Jackson said and walked out of the room.

"No, Nathan, I don’t think you are," Wilmington said and sighed as he sat down and ran his fingers through his hair. Chris, JD, and Vin might be the one’s physically injured, but there was no doubt in his mind that Nathan Jackson ‘bled’ right alongside them. Somehow they needed to find a way to bring all four men back into the fold and heal the damage done by Don Garcia De Rivera.

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Arena De Muerte

Late Afternoon

Evita Martinez watched as Fernando Gores and the men he was with drank heavily from the bottles of whiskey they’d brought with them. She felt the men watching her and Juanita Perez and knew it wouldn’t be long before they lost interest in the whiskey and turned their attention elsewhere. After cleaning up from the meal Gores had ordered his men to tie her and Juanita back to back in the middle of the Arena and she knew their only chance was to wait until they passed out. Unfortunately Gores and Delgado had stopped drinking and were watching them closely.

"Evita, we need to get out of here before they run out of whiskey," Juanita whispered.

"The ropes are tight, but I believe I can get free if there is enough time," the older woman said and continued to watch the men as she worked to free her hands. She stopped as Fernando Gores stood and staggered toward them. "Be still, Juanita, the animal is coming this way."

"So, Evita, what do you think Luis would say if I sent his puta back to him as a soiled woman?" Gores asked, lust evident in his slurred words.

"Touch her and I will castrate you, Fernando!" Evita warned.

"Why? Would it make you jealous, Evita? Would you rather I attend to your needs since it must be many years since Don Garcia placed his hands on your breast like this?" Gores said and roughly squeezed her right breast. "Do you like it rough, Evita? Perhaps I should give you to the men. Would you be able to satisfy them with that pretty mouth of yours?"

"No!" Juanita cried, unable to listen to the hated man’s vulgarity any longer.

"Do not worry, Juanita, you and I will get to know each other very well, but for now I will leave you both alone. My men will soon deliver a message to Luis and we’ll see if he has the balls to come alone," Gores told her and moved to kneel in front of the younger woman. He grabbed her head and forcefully pressed his mouth against hers.

"Luis will kill you!" Juanita managed and pulled away from the man.

"Luis will not get the chance, Puta . . . perhaps when I am done with you I will turn you over to my men. You and Evita will not be so pretty when they get through with you, but there are whore houses that will take anything so long as they are not diseased," Gores said and chuckled softly as he ripped a piece from her dress. "This should convince Don Rivera’s bastardo son that I have you."

"He is disgusting," Juanita grimaced in distaste as tears filled her eyes when the former overseer walked away. She heard him tell one of his men to ride to the De Rivera Hacienda and deliver the news to Luis Martinez.

"Luis will make him pay," Evita said and returned her attention to loosening the ropes.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Afternoon 

Luis Martinez pumped water from the well into a basin and washed the dirt from his face and hands. Pedro was not used to being allowed to make decisions on his own, but that was something he hoped to change. The older man understood the workings of the hacienda and someday he hoped to reward all the field workers who helped make it a success. Someday he would have to turn everything over to Santos, and by that time Luis hoped to have a family of his own with fine sons and beautiful daughters. It was a dream, one that now seemed possible as he thought about Juanita Perez.

She really was beautiful and the fact that she loved him was still something that took his breath away. He finished washing and went in search of the woman who would soon be his bride. He strode through the main doors and frowned when he heard Santos’ cries from the upper floor. He hurried toward the stairs and took them two at a time before rushing into the nursery and finding Santos held in the arms of the wet nurse.

"Madre De Dios, Senor, I have tried everything to calm him," the woman said and wiped the sweat from her face as Luis took the baby from her arms.

"Where is mi madre?" Luis asked.

"I do not know. She was not here when I arrived to feed him."

"How long ago was that, Senora?"

"More than an hour. Senora Martinez was not here when I arrived and when I asked no one had seen her," the woman explained.

"Mi madre would not leave him alone for long," Luis said as Santos closed his eyes and stuffed his thumb into his mouth. He gently placed the baby in the cradle and rocked him as a frown marred his face. "Can you stay with him a little longer?"

"Si," the woman said and began gently rocking the cradle.

"Gracious," Luis said and hurried from the room as Nathan Jackson came to the top of the stairs. "Nathan, have you seen Mi Madre?"

"Not since she and Juanita went to the field for vegetables," Jackson answered. "Come to think of it I haven’t seen either of them."

"Mi Madre would not leave Santos for so long . . . something is wrong," Martinez said.

"Let me check on Vin and I’ll help ya look for her," Jackson said. 

"Thank you, Nathan," Luis said and hurried toward the kitchen, silently praying that his mother and Juanita were there. "Consuela, have you seen mi madre or Juanita?"

"No, Senor, not since they went to the north field this morning," the older woman answered. "Is something wrong?"

"I am not sure. Ask the others if they have seen mi madre or Juanita since this morning," Martinez ordered and exited the kitchen. He checked with the other servants before going outside to speak with the field workers only to get the same answer as Consuela gave him.

"Luis, what is wrong?" Leon Velasquez asked upon seeing his friend searching for something. He listened as Martinez explained about the missing women and realized he had not seen them either. "I will gather the men and we will search the fields."

"Thank you, Leon," Luis said as Nathan Jackson and Josiah Sanchez hurried out of the house.

"Did you find them?" Sanchez asked.

"No, we need to search the fields and nearby trails," Luis ordered and soon had several search parties organized. The hacienda was a large area and he knew they would need many people to cover every inch of it, but there were many volunteers and he couldn’t help but feel the pride well up inside him.

"Can we help?" Raphael asked and was soon assigned an area to the west of the hacienda.

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Buck Wilmington was torn in four directions at once, and silently cursed Don Garcia De Rivera for his cruelty. He wanted to stay with JD, but knew that Carmella Covas would make sure the young man was well cared for. He wanted to check on Vin, yet he knew he was in good hands as Ezra would watch over him. He wanted to help in the search for the two women who had helped his friends, but right now he needed to be right where he was.

Buck turned back to the bed that held Chris Larabee and wished he could erase the lines of pain that marred the pale features even in sleep. Ever since they first met Chris had suffered from nightmares that had grown worse since Sarah and Adam were murdered. Now things were even worse with him believing he was responsible for JD’s ‘death’. Buck moved to the bed and sat down with a bone weary sigh as he dropped his hat on the floor next to the chair.

"Come on, Chris, stop beating yourself up over the things that ain’t your fault," Wilmington said and touched Larabee’s forehead. The fever was still there, but it was nowhere near what it had been and for that he was grateful. It tore him apart to see the damage Don Garcia had inflicted on the four men and he hoped the man burned in hell.

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Vin felt the dream slipping away and winced as he moved on the bed, but didn’t open his eyes. He could hear someone in the room and didn’t feel like talking, not while he felt like the other half of his soul had been torn away. Chris had suffered so much in his life and did not deserve to be called ‘the bad element’. He’d helped so many people, and yet some of those ‘good’ people would turn and cross the street if they saw him coming. People like Conklin were a dime a dozen and couldn’t hold a candle to Chris Larabee.

Vin tried to stifle a yawn, but could not quite hold it as his eyes popped open and he gazed at the window. The shadows seemed to dance across the floor, but with an unreal quality to them that made him frown. His gaze shifted to the empty bed and he swallowed the lump that formed in his throat. There was a stillness to the room and a chill swept over him in spite of the warmth provided by the sun streaming in through the window.

Vin forced his eyes away from the bed and closed his eyes, snapping them open again when it finally registered that someone was standing at the foot of his bed. The shadowy figure came into focus and he gasped when he realized it was Chris Larabee. He tried to speak, but there was something wrong with what he was seeing. The green eyes were filled with remorse, but Vin sensed the depth of their friendship sent through that single locked gaze. He waited for his friend to speak, but Chris did nothing but stare at him.

Vin frowned when something seemed out of focus and suddenly realized what was off about Chris Larabee. He could see right through the shadowy figure even as Chris turned and walked away dissolving as if there was nothing there.

He gasped for breath and tried to stand, but the weakness and pain left him unable to rise. His heart trip-hammered against his ribs with such force he thought it would burst from his chest. His eyes darted around the room as a cold sweat coursed through his body. He slid his legs over the bed despite the fact that the room was moving, and tried to follow his heart.

"What are you doing?"

"No . . . Vin fought off the arms that forced him back. " . . . he’s jest here . . . I need ta . . . go."

"Who?" Standish asked

"Chris," Tanner whispered and closed his eyes as the pain of his loss washed over him. He felt a flush of embarrassment when he realized he'd not seen Chris at all, it was a dream. He slumped back exhausted as if his bones melted.

"It was a dream, Vin," the gambler said and placed a comforting hand on the man’s shoulder.

"...fuckin' nightmare..." Vin rasped, swallowing hard. No matter what he did, the pain remained inside; a horrible throbbing ache that wouldn't leave him. His eyes shifted to the empty bed again. "...he's gone..."

"Gone?" Ezra repeated. Puzzled by the tracker's noticeable grief and the odd words, Ezra felt a pain himself as he looked into the sorrowful eyes that were now trained on the empty bed. Then the realization of the words coupled with the deep sorrow hit him like bullets. He wasn't sure how or why Vin made the assumption, but felt awful that he'd been grieving unnecessarily. He knew why his friend was consumed with anguish. He reached out and took the slumped shoulders, turning him so that he could help him lie back and forcing the Texan to look into his eyes.

"Vin, he’s not dead. Is that what you thought?"

"Don't lie t'me..." Vin snarled, turning away.

"I would never jest about something so serious, My Friend," Standish vowed and waited for the other man to look at him again. The matted head rose slowly and the tortured eyes were burning with an odd fire. He rested his hand on Vin's shoulder and tried to restore hope to those stormy orbs. "Mister Larabee's fever had morphed into an ominous degree of delirium and Nathan feared he might be seized with convulsions. He was transported to the cavern below and bathed in a cistern that had been used for vinification..."

"Jesus, Ezra, I can barely keep up with yer prattle when I ain't fevered and hurt. Don't be spittin' a fuckin' dictionary at me!"

"He's alive, we moved him to the cellar," Josiah translated, coming in to the room with a tray of food. "We put him in an old wine tub, killed the fever."

Vin heard nothing after Josiah’s proclamation of ‘he’s alive’. He felt a huge weight lift from his fatigued frame. He could barely contain his breathing. Chris was alive! He felt his soul shudder and reclaim it's wholeness. His stomach muscles clenched tightly at the thought of the dream and now the reality that it hadn’t happened. He laid back against the pillow, eyes closed, as he tried to ride out the waves of mixed emotions running rampant through him. His hands began to shake and he reached down to pull the blanket up over his body in an effort to hide it.

Ezra easily read the turmoil in the injured man and reached out to grab the shaking hand by the wrist. "Don’t hide that, My Friend, cherish it." Ezra said softly and watched as the Texan swallowed convulsively.

Josiah poured the juice from the pitcher into a glass and held it out to the younger man who took it with shaking hands. "Sorry, Brother...didn't realize you'd jump to that conclusion."

"I heard ya...in the hall...talkin' about it," Vin said and sipped at the sweet nectar before continuing. "Thought he was dead . . . heard ya say he fought ta the end."

"You were out of it, Vin, drugged up and only heard bits and pieces," Sanchez observed and watched as the Texan finished the juice. He knew the man was trying to come to terms with everything he’d been told and took the opportunity to refill the glass and place the tray on his lap.

Vin swallowed several times as a thin smile formed on his pale face. "He beat the devil again."

"That he did, Brother," the ex-preacher answered with a toothy grin. He knew the three injured men had a long road ahead of them, but there was no doubt in his mind that the number seven was still a Biblical number and leant strength to all of them.

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Arena De Muerte

Early Evening

Evita knew the time to act was now as she looked at the drunken men slumped in different areas around the arena. She’d managed to pull her hands free of the ropes and untied Juanita without garnering any attention from the one man who remained vigilant. She’d seen Miguel Delgado drinking, but the man still watched them with lust in his dark eyes.

"Juanita, we must go," Evita said once Delgado turned away and seemed to lose himself in the whiskey bottle.

"My legs are numb," Juanita told her.

"Mine also, but we cannot let that stop us. We make for the trees and hide until dark," Evita explained. "They have been drinking all day and we may not have another chance. Come, follow me and stay low."

"Si, Evita," the younger woman said and stood on shaky legs. She bent low and moved swiftly toward the trees, silently praying their escape would go undetected until they were safely hidden. They reached the edge of the nearby brush and felt the branches scrape their legs.

Evita knew they could not outrun the horses, but the animals had been tied on the opposite side of the arena. It would have been a mistake to try and get to them with Delgado still awake. She knew at any time they could hear the man raise the alarm, and wanted to get as much distance as she could between them.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Evening

Alonzo Gutierrez pulled his horse to a stop as he watched several men searching the grounds near the hacienda. He looked for Luis Martinez, but the man was not amongst the group. He turned the horse and rode south toward the trail leading up to the main house and smiled at the thought of the pretty puta back at the arena. He couldn’t wait to sample her supple breasts, but that wouldn’t happen until he delivered his message to Luis. It never dawned on him that he might not live long enough to fulfill his dark thoughts as he spotted the entrance to the main grounds of the hacienda.

Alonzo pulled out the piece of material and pressed it to his nose in an effort to remember her intoxicating scent. He still had it pressed against his face when a man stepped out of the underbrush and looked at him in disgust.

"What are you doing here, Alonzo?" Leon Velasquez asked and reached for his gun, pointing it at the man as he spoke.

"None of your business, Velasquez," Gutierrez snarled. "I am here to see Luis."

"Luis is busy and does not have time . . . "

"Give him this," Gutierrez spat and threw the piece of Juanita’s dress at the man. "Tell him I will be waiting for him near the east trail and he is to come alone if he wants to see his madre and puta again!"

"Where are they?" Leon asked, his voice edged with anger.

"I will tell you nothing!" His lip curled up in arrogance. "You are just a messenger . . . a bad one at that," Gutierrez said and turned his horse away with a high-pitched laugh.

Leon knew there was no point in going after the bastardo and hurried to find Luis. He silently cursed Alonzo Gutierrez and whomever he was working for. The man was not smart enough to do this on his own, and Luis would know what to do. He hurried back toward the house and hoped they could rescue Evita Martinez and Juanita Perez before it was too late.

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Luis Martinez knew they were doing everything they could in the search for his mother and the woman he loved, but so far nothing had turned up. They’d found the empty basket in the field, but had been unable to find either woman. He knew it would be getting dark soon and they’d be unable to search as he moved back toward the house. He spotted several figures near the door, but it was the man hurrying toward him that made his heart beat a little faster.

"Tell me you found them!" Luis said.

"No, but I have news. Is this Juanita’s?"

"It looks like part of the dress she was wearing this morning. Where did you find it?"

"Alonzo Gutierrez brought it to me. He said for you to meet him at the east trail . . . he said for you to come alone, Amigo, but this does not sound like a good idea."

"I do not have a choice, Leon."

"Si, you do. I will have my horse saddled and follow you from a distance," Leon told him.

"If he sees you he will kill them," Martinez said.

"Then I will make sure he does not see me . . . you cannot do this by yourself, Luis," Velasquez told him as the others joined them.

"Only you, Leon. No one else is to follow," Luis ordered.

"They will do as you ask, Amigo," Leon vowed and hurried to the horses that had already been saddled.

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West of the Arena De Muerte

Early Evening

Evita knew they had to rest, but there was nowhere they could hide that would keep them safe from Delgado and Gores. She knew Juanita was just as weary as she was, and searched the area for a safe haven when she heard the sound she’d dreaded since their escape.

"Fernando, the women are gone!"  

"Evita, they’ll be after us!" Juanita whispered sternly.        

"Si, but we will not let them catch us," Evita said. "We must keep ahead of them and stay in the forest until it is dark."

Juanita knew the older woman was right and continued to run in spite of the ache that had spread through her legs. She could hear Evita’s harsh breathing as they raced for their lives, for there was no doubt in her mind that Gores would kill them if he caught them.

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Trail East of the De Rivera Hacienda

Early Evening

Luis Martinez rode into the small clearing near the east trail and spotted Gutierrez leaning against a tree with a cheroot in his mouth. He wanted to shoot the man where he stood, but that would do nothing to help him find his madre and Juanita. He slowed his horse down and stopped in front of the smirking bandito.

"Where are they, Gutierrez?"

"They are safe . . . maybe, it would depend on how well they treat mi compadres," Gutierrez said and licked his lips before taking another draw of the cheroot.

"If you hurt them . . . make no mistake because I will kill you."

"I don’t think you’ll get the chance, Luis, but perhaps Fernando will let you watch the party. Your madre and that pretty little puta will make for some fine entertainment."

"I will kill anyone who touches them!"

"I’m sure you will try, but I do not think you will get the chance," Gutierrez said and climbed into the saddle. "Fernando is not a patient man. Oh, give me your weapons . . . and please do not make the mistake of thinking I do not know about the knife you hide in your boot!" 

Luis did as he was told and quickly handed his guns and the hidden knife to Gutierrez who placed them in his saddlebag. The man smiled, a taunting grin that Luis vowed to wipe from the bastard’s face before this was over.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Evening

Buck lay on his left side and watched the man sleeping on the other bed. Chris had yet to wake up enough to understand what was happening around him, but at least the fever was gone. He knew Jackson had made the right call in leaving Larabee in the wine cellar, but hoped they could move him back upstairs soon.

It was hard being down here while Vin and JD were upstairs, because he wanted...no, he needed to know how they were doing. God it felt like he was being torn in so many directions he might just leave pieces of himself all over Mexico. He sighed heavily and sat up, reaching for the pitcher of water on the table and poured himself a glass. The good thing about being down here was that the liquid stayed cooler longer. He downed the water and looked at Larabee, worried about how still and pale the man remained.

Buck put the glass back on the table and reached across the short distance so he could place his hand on Larabee’s chest and assure himself that the blond still breathed.

"God, help me, Chris, but between you, Vin, and JD I’ve got more gray hairs than Ol’ Lady Henderson," Wilmington said of the elderly woman who’d lived in the homestead near Chris and Sarah’s home. It was rumored that she was closing in on 100, but somehow she still managed to flirt with him whenever he visited them.

"You’re scarin’ me, Pard, and ol’ Buck don’t take kindly to being scared . . . except by the ladies," the weary rogue said and sighed heavily before sitting back on the cot. "Come on, Chris, show me that fightin’ spirit that got us both through more tangles than most men see in a lifetime."

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Trail West of the Arena De Muerte

Late Evening

Evita listened to the sounds of the night surrounding them and prayed that Gores and Delgado would not find them. Several times they’d heard shouts, but no one had come close to their position and for that she gave thanks. Juanita huddled beside her, taking advantage of the small recess near the entrance to the arena. They’d gotten turned around in their bid for freedom and by the time they realized they were back where they started it was too late. 

"Evita, what if they find us?" Juanita asked softly.

"If we remain quiet they will not find us. God will watch over us until Luis arrives."

"Fernando will kill him."

"Do not think that, Juanita, have faith in the man whose heart you hold," the older woman whispered and signaled for silence as voices reached their ears.

"They cannot have gotten far! Check the trail . . . "

"We already checked the trails!"

"Then check them again!"    

"They are getting closer," Juanita whispered.

"They will not find us," Evita repeated her earlier thoughts, relieved when the voices seemed to be moving away. She huddled closer to Juanita and silently prayed that her son would find them before Gores or Delgado.

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Trail West of the Arena De Muerte

Late Evening

Leon Velasquez had managed to get three others to follow Gutierrez and knew he could have found many more if they’d had the time, but for now he rode with Raphael Cordova de Martinez and understood this man could be trusted. It didn’t take long to realize where they were going and it was a simple matter of taking an overgrown side trail that would get them to the arena before Luis and Gutierrez. Once there they would split up and wait for the opportunity to rescue Evita Martinez and Juanita Perez.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening

Nathan Jackson checked on each of the injured men before making his way to the nursery. He’d found himself drawn to the baby who slept blissfully unaware of the dangers he would face during his life. Santos had already lost his mother, and now was in danger of losing Evita Martinez. Nathan knew what that kind of loss felt like and thanked God that the boy was too young to understand.

"How is he?" Jackson asked the wet nurse.

"He has been very upset. I believe he misses Senorita Martinez," the woman answered.

"I’m sure your own children miss you so why don’t you go be with them and I’ll stay with Santos."

"What if he wakes and is hungry?"

"I’ll send someone for you. Go home and rest," Jackson ordered and smiled when she picked up the basket of material she’d brought with her and left the room. Nathan moved to the small crib and looked down into the face of innocence, and prayed Santos would never know the horror his father had caused to so many.     

"God watches over the fools and the innocent," he whispered as he reached down and gently touched the soft cheek. It had been so long since he’d helped bring a life into the world, especially one who could mean so much to so many people. If Evita could bring Santos up with the same love and values she’d instilled in Luis, then the De Rivera hacienda would flourish. He knew he should let the baby sleep, but he needed to feel the life against him as he lifted Santos in his arms and cradled him against his chest. He walked to the rocking chair and sat down, unaware of the tears that slipped down his cheeks.

"You grow strong like your brother, Santos, and treat people like Evita does and you’ll find your world is a far better place. Don’t let the evil inside and always let the sun brighten your horizons," Nathan whispered and smiled when he noticed the baby’s eyes open and watching him. The small left hand had managed to escape from the blanket and latch onto his fingers.

"Often times my sky is clear, joy abounds without a tear. Though a day so bright begun, clouds may hide tomorrow's sun. There'll be a day that's always bright, a day that never yields to night; and in its light the streets of glory, I shall behold some day." Nathan sang softly, his voice laden with sorrow so deep it threatened to drown him, but he swallowed several times as he listened to the soft breathing of the babe held against his chest.

"God bless the child," he whispered and felt his heart breaking once more as he thought of the three men De Rivera had nearly killed.

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Arena De Muerte

Late Evening

Luis Martinez pretended to be docile as he was lead toward the arena. Gutierrez had been watching him closely at first, but the closer they got to the arena the more the man seemed complacent. Luis knew his friend was out there and hoped he remained hidden until they had a chance to take stock in what was happening.

Luis heard the faint caw of a bird and knew it was Leon’s way of telling him he wasn’t alone and a hint of a smile formed as they rode along the dark trail. He listened for any sign of life and heard several angry voices up ahead and understood they were searching for something.

Voices, raised in anger, reached his ears and he listened to what was being said as they moved closer to the arena. He felt the tension as Gutierrez glanced in his direction and knew he also understood what was happening.

"Don’t try anything stupid, Martinez!" Gutierrez ordered and motioned the man ahead of him.

Luis continued toward the arena, waiting for the right time to make his move and hoping Leon had heard Gores and Delgado.

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Raphael motioned for Javier D’Rosa to follow him around the north edge of the arena. So far they’d been able to stay away from the group of men who were searching for Evita Martinez and Juanita Perez. He hoped the women had managed to escape and silently prayed these men would not find them.

"Perhaps the angels are smiling down on us," D’Rosa said and pointed toward two figures huddled against several small boulders.

"We must be careful, Javier. If we startle them they might try to leave," Raphael said softly.

"That would not be good," D’Rosa agreed. "How do you want to do this?"

"You watch for Gores and his men while I try to get close enough to tell them they’re safe," Cordova told him and eased away from the other man. He knew Javier would signal him if there was trouble and hoped they could get the women away before Luis’ arrival.

Raphael knew Evita had seen him, but would she be able to recognize him in the darkness or would she panic when he called to her. He knew he had to do something because the men searching for them would soon realize they needed to check the arena. Once he was close enough, Raphael called the woman’s name.

"Evita, do not be afraid. My name is Raphael. Luis sent me." No answer came and Raphael knew the women could bolt if he didn’t convince them he was a friend. "Luis is on his way, but we need to go before Gores decides to search for you here."   

"Gores will kill Luis," Evita whispered.

"Luis is smart and he knows you have escaped. We must get you to safety," Raphael explained, relieved that the women recognized him. "Stay low and follow me."

Evita nodded to Juanita and followed their rescuer deeper into the trees that surrounded the arena. She prayed her son would be safe and knew her prayers would be answered.

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Leon Velasquez watched from his perch on a twisted branch that had grown out over the trail as Gutierrez rode toward him and knew they would soon reach the arena. There was no doubt now that the women had escaped and no point in allowing Luis to be captured by the bastardos.

Leon waited until the man was directly below him and dropped onto the horse, driving them both off the horse and landing hard on the ground. He rolled out of the way as the horse galloped off down the trail. He struck Gutierrez in the face several times until the man went still.

"Leon, what the hell are you doing?"

"Juanita and your madre escaped. Gores and Delgado are leading the search parties to the west. Raphael and Javier are near the east side of the arena," Velasquez explained.

"We must find them," Luis said and grabbed his gun from the ground where Gutierrez had dropped it. He listened as several birdcalls were exchanged and thanked his lucky stars that Leon had not come alone.

"We need to find Raphael and join forces in case Gores or Delgado come back," Leon said and moved into the trees where Mario Cortez waited with his horse.

"Someone’s coming," Luis said and motioned for silence as the familiar birdcall sounded nearby. "Raphael?"

"Si, Luis," Cordova said and joined the four men in the clearing. He stood back as Evita and Juanita hurried toward Luis and smiled at the joyous reunion. "We must leave before they return."

"Juanita, you will ride with me. Madre, you can ride with Leon," Luis said.

"Javier and Mario will stay with me and make sure you are not followed," Cordova told them.

"I owe you, Amigo. Stay safe and I will return with men to help take care of those bastardos," Luis said and climbed onto the horse before reaching down and lifting Juanita so that she was behind him. He waited until she wrapped her arms around his waist and knew his mother had done the same thing with Leon before riding away from the arena.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Dawn

The darkness had given wake to the twilight of a new dawn when Nathan heard horses below. He’d spent a restless night sitting outside on the verandah and caring for Santos when the baby woke up. He watched the newcomers until they were close enough to make out the figures and a smile was born when Evita Martinez dismounted and looked up as if she sensed him there.

"Thank you," he whispered, his eyes looking up as he fought back the tears that had formed in his eyes. God had seen fit to bring the two women home and for that he was grateful, now it was time to heal the wounded and he silently prayed for the strength to go on. The guilt gnawed at his gut every time he looked toward the fields. Far too many days Vin had been forced to labor under the hot sun while fighting a fever that burned through him.

Nathan made his way inside and heard a sound from the crib. He hurried over and picked up the child as Evita entered the room. He smiled and passed the boy to her. "I think he sensed you were back."

"Thank you for taking care of him, Nathan."

"I didn’t do much," Jackson told her.

"Yes, you did," Evita told him. "How are your friends?"

"Better than they were, but they’ve still got a fight ahead of ‘em. Chris’ fever finally broke, but he’s weaker’n a newborn calf," Jackson answered.

"What about JD? How is he?" Evita asked and rocked the baby gently.

"He’s been awake . . . still confused and he ain’t eaten’ much, but head injuries will do that to a man," Jackson explained.

"He is strong . . . like you, Nathan Jackson."

"I ain’t strong, Evita," Jackson said. ‘Or I would’ve found a way to stop Don Garcia,’ he thought as he left the room.

"You are stronger than you think, Nathan, and I hope your friends are able to make you see that," she whispered and moved to the rocking chair. She smiled at the baby and watched as his eyes closed and kissed his head as tears slipped from her eyes.

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Arena De Muerte

Early Morning

Raphael watched as the sun peeked its golden rays above the horizon and listened for any movement from the Arena De Muerte. Javier and Mario were scouting along the edges for the returning men and listened when voices reached him from the west.

"Fernando is loco . . . I am not going after Martinez."

"Si, it is foolish of him to go to the hacienda when Martinez has so many of his compadres surrounding him."

"Perhaps the women are hiding in the arena."

"If they are I would not mind having some fun with that pretty little puta."

"Si, she has curves in all the right places."

Once Raphael knew there were only two men riding toward him, he waited until they were closer before drawing his weapon. He pointed it at them as they rode past his hiding place. "Do not try anything foolish," he said when the two men realized they were no longer alone. It didn’t surprise him when they turned their horses and drew their guns. He fired quickly, his aim true as Gores’ men fell to the ground and the frightened animals rode off along the trail.   

It would not take long for others to reach his position and he moved back into the thick underbrush before making his way toward the spot where he’d tied his horse. He tugged the reins free of the branch and climbed into the saddle before riding away from the dead men.

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Miguel Delgado cursed as he returned to the Arena De Muerte and found it empty. Gores had ridden west toward the hacienda, but his madre had not given birth to a fool. It would be better to ride away and fight another time when Luis Martinez was not around to protect his madre.

Delgado reined in the animal and dismounted near the remains of the fire and reached for the empty coffee pot. It dropped from his fingers when he heard gunshots nearby and he hurried toward the exit in search of a place to hide. There was movement near the entrance and he aimed his gun in that direction just as a horse and rider came through. He fired once and knew he’d made a mistake when the man fell from the horse and it turned and raced away.

Delgado moved toward the man he’d shot and realized he’d killed one of the men Gores had hired. He turned and looked around the arena, but nothing moved and he knew he could blame the man’s death on someone else. He looked for his horse, but it had run off when he’d fired the gun.

Delgado listened for any sound, but there was nothing except the breeze whistling through the trees. Even the birds had stopped singing and he swore he could hear his own heart beating in his chest. He jumped when the silence was interrupted by the sound of a gun being cocked.

"Do not do anything stupid . . . just drop the gun and put your hands above your head," Mario Cortez ordered.

"I . . . "

"Do as I say or I will put a bullet in your leg," Cortez warned.

"Who are you?" Delgado asked.

"No friend of yours," Cortez snapped and took the gun from Delgado’s hand.

"What have you got here, Mario?" Javier De Rosa asked upon joining his friend in the arena.

"Not sure, but he’s not one of Luis’ men," Cortez answered. "Stupid bastard did do us a favor by killing that one."

"One less to worry about," Javier agreed, whirling when he heard footsteps behind him. "Madre de Dios, Amigo, that is a good way to get shot."

"Your eyes are not that bad yet, Javier," Raphael said and stared at the man whose hands were raised above his head. "Who are you?"     

"I am a doctor. I was on my way to visit a patient when this man tried to kill me. I shot him in self defense," Delgado explained.     

"I do not believe that, but it is easy to find out who you are," Cordova said with a smile. "We will bring him with us."

"Are we heading back?" Cortez asked.

"Si," Cordova answered and tied Delgado’s hands together. "I am sure someone at the Hacienda will know if he is who he says he is."

"I have to check on my patient . . . "

"Your patient will keep," Cortez said, not believing the man’s story. 

"Mount up . . . it is time to go," Cordova ordered and smiled at the look of fear on the captive’s face.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

Buck stood and stretched the kinks from his back and moved back so that Nathan could take a look at the injured blond. He’d seen the exhaustion on the healer’s face and knew they would have to do something about that soon. He knew the best man to talk to Nathan was Josiah and hoped the ex-preacher would be able to get through to their friend.

"Has he been awake at all, Buck?" Jackson asked once he’d finished examining the blond.

"Not really, but I managed to get him to drink a little water," Wilmington answered.

"Least that’s something. Evita and Juanita are back. Luis is gonna take some men and go looking for Delgado and Gores. Hope he kills the bastard," Jackson cursed at the thought of the man who’d enjoyed torturing the Texan. He’d seen the man’s heavy hand with the others who worked in the fields and had heard stories of men, women, and children who’d been close to death because of Fernando Gores.

"When are we gonna bring Chris upstairs? Wilmington asked and frowned when there was no answer from the quiet healer, and knew this man had some healing of his own to do. "Did you hear me, Nathan?"

"Sorry, Buck, I was thinkin’ on something. What did you say?"

"I asked when we’re gonna bring Chris back upstairs," Wilmington answered.

"His fever’s gone . . . I’ll get Josiah and a couple of others to help carry him up and put him in the room with Vin."

"Sounds like a plan. How are Vin and JD?"

"Vin’s bein’ cooperative . . . ain’t sure why, but I sure as hell ain’t arguin about it. JD’s been in and out . . . "

"De . . . dead . . . "

"Chris, you awake?" Wilmington asked hopefully.

"Chris, can you hear me?" Jackson asked and watched as the lids lifted and revealed green eyes that seemed to have lost much of the fire he was used to seeing. "How do you feel, Chris?"

"I’m . . . tired," Larabee answered and found it hard to look at the man looking over Jackson’s shoulder. "S . . . sorry, Buck, God, I’m so sorry."  

"You got nothing to be sorry for, Chris," Wilmington said, frowning at the deep-rooted sadness he heard in Larabee’s voice.

Chris gave his oldest friend's face a hard gaze. His brows furrowed in confusion. How could Buck ask him that? He had to know by now that Dunne was dead. Wilmington loved the kid like a brother. He wasn't even upset.

"JD's dead," he whispered in a voice that sounded like sandpaper and felt just as odd. He gripped the blanket in anger, fisting the cloth in a chokehold. "...and it's my fault."

"Chris, listen to me," Wilmington said and sat on the chair Jackson vacated. "JD’s alive."

"Don’t you lie to me, Buck," Larabee snarled weakly.

"I’d do that?" Wilmington snapped back in anger, his dark blue eyes flashing.

"I saw him die! I buried him after that bas . . . bastard shot h . . . him!"

"That may be, but JD’s alive, Pard. Raphael found him and the grave was shallow. That’s what saved the kid’s life, Chris. He’s in a room upstairs and when you’re strong enough you can see him."

Alive!

Chris laid his head back and his eyes closed in relief. One word, but one that was almost too much for the injured man to bear. Chris didn't know where he was, how he got here or how long he'd been here. He didn't know how the others were, or what had happened. His throbbing head was trying to absorb all that at once, and now had to make room for the unthinkable. He'd seen the grave. He'd left him there. How was that possible? He sighed hard and blinked, gazing at a spot beyond where the others couldn't see.

"He’s alive, Chris, I swear we’re not lying about this. He’s weak and he’s gonna have some real bad headaches for a while, but like you and Vin he’s gonna be okay if he lets the rest of us take care of him," Jackson offered and saw something change in the green eyes set in the still too pale face.

"I buried him alive," Larabee whispered, his eyes burning with unshed tears.

"Now you listen to me, Chris Larabee," Wilmington said. "There’s more’n enough guilt going around and it’s time you realized it don’t belong on your shoulders. Don Garcia was a miserable sonofabitch and he took pleasure in hurting those around him. Hell, if he wasn’t dead I’d put a bullet between his eyes myself. You, Vin, JD, and Nate did nothing to that old bastard and yet he hurt you all and let’s not talk about what he’s done to Evita and his son. I hope he’s in hell where he belongs."

"Chris, I’m going to get Josiah and a couple of others so we can get you back upstairs," Jackson said and hurried from the room before either man could see how hard things were for him.

"The kid’s still with us," Larabee rasped as his eyes closed.

"Wait, Chris, you need to drink this," Wilmington ordered and helped the blond sit up a little as he placed a cup against the slack lips.

Chris opened his eyes, took a couple of sips, coughed and held his arm tight against his ribs before succumbing to the sleep his body demanded. 

Buck eased him back down and placed the cup on the table. He ran his fingers through his sweat soaked hair and massaged the back of his neck to ease the ache burning there. It wasn’t long before Nathan returned with Josiah and two other men. They worked to get Larabee onto the flat board and began the slow, awkward trip out of the wine cellar.

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Vin watched through hooded eyes as Ezra tried to shuffle the deck with his injured arm and was amazed at how the man felt at home with the cards. He knew it would be some time before his friend regained the dexterity in that arm, but there was no doubt in his mind that he would succeed.

"Mr. Tanner, I do believe in your attempt to convince me that you are in a deep slumber you have merely succeeded in convincing . . . "

"Shut the hell up, Ez, and deal the fuckin’ cards already," Tanner ordered, but frowned when he heard movement outside the room. He shifted on the bed and watched as Juanita came into the room and drew back the covers on the other bed. His heart beat a little faster when Buck and Josiah helped ease Larabee’s makeshift stretcher through the doorway.   

"It appears your roommate is returning," Standish observed and moved out of the way as Larabee was brought inside and gently placed on the second bed.

"Nathan, is he okay?" Tanner asked of the pale blond.

"He’s better, Vin, but like you he’s gonna need to give himself a chance to heal," Jackson answered and moved to make sure the short trip hadn’t done any damage to the blond’s wounds.

"He looks like hell," the Texan said worriedly.

"And you don’t?" Sanchez asked with a hint of a smile.

"Ez thinks I'm purty, ain't that right?" Tanner peered at the gambler who bared his gold tooth.

"Mister Tanner, as usual your timing is impeccable!" he lauded and chuckled, his jade eyes glinting in mirth.

"Let them rest," Jackson told the others.

"I’m gonna go check on JD," Wilmington said and walked out of the room. He made his way into the other bedroom and smiled at the couple who seemed to have unofficially claimed the young man as their own. "How is he?"

"He has been awake a few times, but he is still confused," Carmella Covas answered.

"Nate says that’s normal," the rogue answered and moved closer. "Head wounds are bad, but JD’s a feisty kid and he’ll come out of it."

"You and he are close?" Cristóbal observed.

"He’s the kid brother I never had," Wilmington answered softly and gently touched his fingers against the pale face that was still marred by heavy bruising.

"Tell me about him," Carmella said.

"JD lost his ma a couple of years ago and decided to come west because he read these dime store novels that make it sound like an exciting place to be. Chris tried to tell him to go home, but JD wasn’t having anything to do with that."

"Perhaps he decided he had found a new home . . . a new family," the woman offered.

"Maybe, I know he’s as ornery as they come and we all thought he was a greenhorn," Wilmington said and smiled as he sat on the edge of the bed. "First time he tried to join us he showed us just how well he could ride, shoot, and fly."

"Fly?" Cristóbal asked with a frown.

"Yep, he shot his gun, the horse reared up and he flew right off the back into the horse trough. Funniest thing I ever saw . . . except for that sissy hat he wears . . . wonder where that went," Wilmington said and knew he’d have to find out if it was around anywhere. "JD’s proven he’s one of us many times since that day. He ain’t perfect . . . then again Chris once said ‘if he was perfect, he wouldn’t be one of us’. JD’s been shot, stabbed, and beaten, but he’s never been defeated. He’s as stubborn as they come and maybe that’s why he fits in so well with the rest of us. He took the sheriff’s job when nobody else wanted it . . . "

"JD is a sheriff?" Carmella asked, awed by the story she was hearing.

"Sure is, but he ain’t alone. We sort of keep an eye out for him . . . guess you could say we’re his deputies," Wilmington said with a grin.

"It sounds like he has had a hard life," the woman said and watched as Wilmington’s eyes misted over.

"Yes, he has, but he’s a fighter, Ma’am, and he’s not gonna let something like this beat him," the rogue said. "Think I’ll sit with him a spell. Why don’t you two get some rest . . . I’ll watch over him."

"Come, Love, let’s give him some time with his ‘brother’," Cristóbal said and took her arm before leading her from the room.

"Come on, Kid, don’t make a liar out of me," Wilmington ordered and vowed to make sure the younger man knew he was not alone.

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West of the De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

Fernando Gores stayed well back of the trail as the riders approached. He’d seen Delgado on one of the horses and knew the man was a prisoner. Somehow the women had escaped and were back at the hacienda, but he would have his revenge. He knew how to approach the house and knew where he could hide out until the time presented itself and he could kill Luis Martinez. That was his driving force right now because Don Garcia’s bastard son had overstepped his bounds. He would die by Fernando’s gun when the time was right.

Fernando moved back into the brush as the horses moved past his position. He would be patient and watch for just the right time to kill his enemy and maybe he could have the pretty puta for himself.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

Luis Martinez had spent the morning with his mother and future bride. He didn’t want to let either woman out of his sight, but he knew he had other work to do. He’d sent several men to the Arena De Muerte in an effort to find Delgado and Gores, but it could be hours before they heard anything.

Luis hugged his mother and Juanita before making his way outside. He’d placed several of his men in the house with orders to watch over them and knew they would lay down their lives for him and his family. He exited the house and heard the sound of approaching horses. He leaned against the post at the edge of the front porch and waited for them to draw closer. He stood up when he recognized the man seated in the saddle of the horse being led by Raphael.

Luis reacted instinctively and pulled the man from the saddle. He struck him several times, ignoring the man’s pleading voice until blood ran from his nose.

"Please . . . I beg you . . . have mercy."

"Did you show mercy when you took Juanita and mi madre?" Luis spat and hit the man again.

"It was not me, Senor, I swear it was not me!" Delgado cried.

"I do not believe you," Martinez said and shook the man viciously.

"Please, it was Gores . . . he made me do it! I would never . . . "

"You are a liar, Senor," Evita said from the verandah above them. She’d been with Santos and had heard the commotion and now she knew why her son’s voice had been filled with anger.

"I do not lie!" Delgado said, but cringed when Luis Martinez gripped his shirt and threatened to choke him. "Gores made me do it!"

"I do not believe you! You will hang for what you have done!"

"You have no right!"

"I have every right. You are on my land . . . "

"It is not your land! You are nothing but the bastard son . . . "

"The blood of Don Garcia runs through my veins and I am claiming this hacienda as my birthright until Santos is old enough to claim it as his own," Martinez said and shoved the man hard enough to send him spiraling backward. He reached for his gun, but felt a hand on his arm.

"He is not worth it, Mi Hijo," Evita said. "He will pay for his choices and his lies."

Miguel Delgado watched as the hated woman held tightly to her bastard son’s arm and fury burned through his gut as a man reached down to pull him to his feet. He reacted on instinct and grabbed for the gun so close to his bound hands. "I will kill you!"

Luis drew his gun and fired as several other shots rang out. He watched as Delgado toppled backward, blood spilling from several bullet holes in his chest. "Get that piece of garbage out of here!"

"We will take care of it, Amigo," Javier De Rosa vowed and watched as mother and son walked back into the house.

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Four Corners

Early Morning

Judge Orin Travis watched the man striding toward him, not bothering to hide his utter disdain for the man. Steven had written several articles about Conklin, none of them flattering and Orin trusted his son's judgement. The man struck him as a sniveling coward who wanted everything done his way, but unwilling to help make sure the town was safe for those who lived there or in the surrounding area.

"Judge Travis, I want a word with you!" Conklin called and hurried across the street.

Orin knew there was no way he could ignore the man and looked into his empty coffee cup. "What can I do for you today, Mr. Conklin?"

"You can fire them near-do-wells you hired to protect this town."

"Now why would I do that?"

"Isn't it obvious? They are nowhere to be found and have not been protecting the good people of Four Corners. They left us defenseless and at the mercy of..."

"Of what, Mr. Conklin? I have spoken with several townspeople including Mr. Heidegger and my own daughter-in-law as well as several ranchers and homesteaders and yours is the only complaint. It seems that Yosemite and several other able-bodied men are making patrols and keeping the bad element away from Four Corners."

"That is the problem, Judge Travis. We are not paying..."

"We, Mr. Conklin, since when have you offered to pay anything to the town's peacekeepers?"

"I would if they were doing their job!"

"They were...as a matter of fact they were doing something that I asked them to do. The people of this town are not the only ones I hired Chris Larabee and the others to protect. The people who have homesteads and ranches are also under their protection and I sent them to check those ranchers and homesteaders. If you want to be angry at anyone then it should be me!"

"Look, Judge..."

"You'd be advised to watch your tone of voice." He paused, directing a stern gaze. "If you think you can do a better job than the men I hired then you can pin on that badge and I'll see that you get a dollar a day plus room and board."

"Now see here..."

"I believe I made myself clear. Either take the badge or keep your opinions to yourself. Because if I find out you're undermining my authority, then you'll find yourself on the wrong side of my desk. I won't hesitate to make you sorry you ever laid eyes on the seven men who protect you in spite of your constant bellyaching." The Judge nodded to Mary who had exited her home and stood behind him. "Now, since my daughter-in-law has made lunch I suggest you leave before you ruin my appetite with those sniveling complaints that no one gives a damn about!"

Mary smiled as Conklin turned and strode away like a dog with its tail between its legs. She disliked Conklin and was glad Orin had told him off, yet she knew he would be back because the man was like a rabid dog where Chris Larabee and his friends were concerned.

"I wish he would keep his discontent to himself," Mary said.

"Men like Conklin are full of themselves and if they think someone is listening they'll keep talking."

"I'm glad most of the people in this town believe you did the right thing in hiring Chris and the others. They've done so much for the families in the area and new people arrive each month and some decide to stay because they can see a future here."

"I'm sure if it was up to Conklin the town would go back to what it was and men like Royal and James would have final say on who made their homes here."

"I shudder to even think about the people they'd choose," Mary said and handed her father-in-law a plate with a roast beef sandwich on it.

"I'm just glad we don't have to worry about that," the judge told her and took a sip of the strong coffee. "Has there been anything new from Buck?"

"Nothing since the message that they'd found Chris, Vin, and JD," the newspaperwoman answered softly, surprised when she felt a hand squeeze her own.

"Mary, they'll be back...he'll be back," Orin vowed and easily read the look on her face. He knew she had feelings for Chris Larabee and wondered if the duo would give themselves the chance to love again. He settled back to watch the town and hoped word would come before the day ended.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

Buck watched as a frown marred the younger man's face and silently cursed the evidence of De Rivera's sick cruelty. The bruises had finally begun to fade, but the sickly yellow and green hues that still covered much of JD's face were enough to make him cringe. He reached out and placed a gentle hand on Dunne's shoulder and watched as the eyelids slowly opened, revealing confused orbs that took several seconds to lock onto his own. He smiled in relief when he placed a glass of cool water against JD's lips and he took a tentative sip, followed by even more. 

"M...more," Dunne managed when the glass was taken away.

"Easy, Kid, you can have more, but not too fast," Wilmington warned and again placed the glass to the injured man's mouth

"How's he doing, Buck?" Jackson asked upon entering the room with a tray of supplies he'd need to check JD's wound.

"He's awake...and thirsty," Wilmington answered and moved back to allow Jackson access to the concussed Bostonian.

"JD, how do you feel?" Jackson asked once Dunne was looking at him.

"Like Casey hogtied me and threw me off a cliff," Dunne answered honestly.

"That sounds 'bout right," Jackson said and eased the bandage from the wound. It looked raw, but there was no sign of infection and Nathan gently cleaned the area before placing a new bandage over the ravaged flesh. "JD, do you feel up to takin' a little broth?"

"Water," Dunne said and drank a small amount before the glass was removed once more, but this time it was replaced by a mug that held something that smelled heavenly. He drank slowly, savoring the taste of the sweet juice on his parched tongue until he'd finished the last drop. He looked over Nathan's shoulder at the man standing there and wondered why Buck looked so worried. "I'm o...okay, Buck."

"Sure you are, Kid, that's why you look like five miles of bad road," Wilmington said with a hint of a smile, but frowned when Dunne tried to look around him. "What's wrong, Kid?"

"Wh...where are we? Where's Chris?" Dunne asked, reaching for his head, but finding his movement stopped by Nathan Jackson.

"Don't touch that, JD," Jackson warned. "You've got a nasty wound and it's gonna hurt for some time, but you're gonna be fine if you do as I say. I don't want ya tryin' ta get up on your own."

"Chris?" Dunne managed and frowned as several images flashed through his mind. He saw Chris beaten and whipped and thrown over a horse and heard his cry of rage and pain. He sat forward, trying to rise, but was held down by Nathan and Buck.

"Don't, JD," Jackson ordered and heard a cry of pain from the younger man as he lay back against the pillows and breathed through tightly clenched teeth.

"Chris is okay, Kid, he's in another room...he's hurt, but like you he's gonna be all right if you do what Nate says," Wilmington said.

"Chris...bastards beat him...made him...made him," Dunne frowned and tried to make sense of the images that kept flashing through his mind, but he couldn't quite grasp them as pain throbbed through his skull and the darkness drew him down.

"He's sleeping, Buck," Jackson assured the worried man.

"He is gonna be all right isn't he?"

"I think so, Buck. The fact that he's drinking now and seemed to be more alert this time is a good sign, but ya need to remember head injuries are tricky. We need to make sure he's drinking and if he keeps it down then we get some real food in him," the former slave explained.

"I know, Nate," Wilmington said and looked into Jackson's eyes. He was used to seeing worry in the brown eyes, but there was something else there, something that tore at his heart and he knew Jackson was hiding something, but he wasn't doing a very good job of it. He reached out and touched the man's arm. "Nathan...."

"Stay with him, Buck," Jackson said, pulling away. "I'll be back to check on him."

"All right, Nate," Wilmington said, silently vowing to make sure Jackson was all right.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Afternoon

The soft breeze circulated the air in the room, but it did little to cool off the occupants. Josiah had left to go get some food, leaving Vin alone in the room with Chris Larabee. Vin glanced sideways at the man sleeping in the other bed and shifted slightly in an effort to find a more comfortable spot. He was alone with Larabee for the first time while Josiah went down to the kitchen to get something to eat. Vin eased his aching body to a sitting position and slid his legs over the edge of the bed.

A wave of dizziness threatened to send him to the floor, but he managed to stay upright as he wiped the sweat from his forehead. Larabee had slept since being brought up from the basement, not even stirring when Jackson changed his bandages. He was used to the man being quiet, but this unnatural stillness grated on his nerves.

"Chris, ya awake?" he asked when a soft sound reached his ears. The sound was repeated and he thought he saw movement behind the closed lids. "Come on, Larabee, show me that glare."

The blond head moved on the pillow and turned slightly toward him, but the eyelids remained closed. The lean chest heaved as if it was an effort to breathe and Vin heard the rasping hiss of breath a few seconds later as green eyes fought to open.

"Welcome back, Cowboy," Tanner said, sending every bit of pent up emotion through his words as Larabee finally focused on him.

"Th...thanks," Larabee wheezed and held his arm tightly to his chest as a series of wet coughs escaped his throat. He felt strong arms ease him onto his side and silently cursed as pain shot through his chest. He heard familiar voices speaking to him and was soon lying back on the pillows with a mug of sweet smelling liquid held in front of his mouth. He drank a little before it was taken away and he looked into concerned brown eyes.

"Take it easy, Chris, but don't fight that cough. Ya need ta do it ta keep your lungs clear. Ain't good if you go gettin' pneumonia on top of everything else," Jackson grumbled tiredly. He'd walked into the room just as the injured blond started to cough and shot a glare at the Texan who'd been trying to stand on his own. 

"I'm o...okay," Larabee managed a thin smile as he looked at the two men standing behind Jackson. There were two men missing and he needed to know they were all right as he returned his attention to the healer. "JD and Buck?"

"Buck's with JD, Chris," Jackson said, fighting to keep his emotions in check.

"JD okay?" the blond asked, not bothering to keep the worry and guilt from his voice.

"Not yet, but he will be. He's got some memory loss and he's confused, but that's bound ta happen with head injuries," Jackson explained.

"None of this is yer fault, Chris," Tanner said when he saw the look come over his friend's face.

"You weren't there, Vin...I buried him alive," Larabee said and fought to keep his rebellious stomach in check.

"Ya thought he was dead, Chris," Tanner said.

"I should have checked..."

"You're no doctor, Chris...anybody would have thought JD was dead when that bullet hit him. Don Garcia was a mean bastard and he knew it would hurt ya if he killed JD. He prob'ly saw what it would do to you if he forced ya to bury him, Chris. Ain't no point in ya dwellin' on it, 'cause I know JD ain't gonna blame ya for what happened," Jackson explained.

"Nate's right, Chris. Don Garcia is ta blame fer what happened ta JD and ta you. He was real mean ta the field hands," Tanner offered.

"He treated his wife even worse. Dona Maria gave him what he wanted, but he treated her like she was dirt under his feet. He didn't even see her laid ta rest," Jackson said bitterly as he thought about the beautiful young woman whose life had ended too soon. "I hope the bastard is burnin' in hell."

"Easy, Brother," Sanchez said and placed a hand on Jackson's trembling left shoulder. He'd returned from the kitchen with a tray of juice and fruit, but no one had noticed his arrival until now.

"She died because I didn't know enough, Josiah."

"No, Nathan Jackson, she died because she was not strong enough for childbirth," Evita Martinez offered from the open doorway. She'd heard their voices and could not help, but listen to them talking and wished she could help them heal. "Dona Maria knew she would not live through childbirth, but you gave her enough time to see her son before He called her home. Do not think that you are at fault for her death, because that would be untrue. You gave her a gift that all mothers wish for and she went to her grave knowing she gave birth to a strong boy who now has the chance to grow up with the love of a brother to guide him."

"Luis will be good for him and so will you, Evita," Jackson said softly before returning his attention to Larabee. "Chris, you gotta cough up that crud and spit it out. I know it hurts, but it'll get a whole lot worse if ya get pneumonia on top of everything else."

"Try," Larabee said and gave in to the exhaustion that sapped his strength.

"Vin, how do you feel?"

"I'm okay, Nate, not great, but okay."

"Do you feel like movin' around a little? Maybe sit out on the veranda in the sun for a spell?"

"Lead the way!" Vin enthused weakly, eager to be outdoors. The walls seemed to be getting closer to him every day.

"All right, but give me enough time ta get things set up for you," Jackson said and knew Sanchez would help him make things comfortable for the injured man.

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The noonday sun shone down on the lone man seated on the veranda. A soft breeze blew down from the mountains and ruffled the Texan's hair. Vin could smell the earth, could sense the water trickling in the nearby stream and longed to swim and let it ease the ache that crept through his bones. He heard footsteps behind him, but didn't need to turn to know who was there.

"I brought you some lunch, Son," Sanchez said and placed the tray on the table next to the younger man.

"Thanks, Josiah," Tanner said and reached for the soft corn tortilla folded around something that smelled wonderful. He took a tentative bite of the spicy smelling meat and smiled as the taste re-awakened his senses. 

"Want some company?" Sanchez asked and reached for the plate before taking the seat next to the younger man. Josiah had ridden to the nearby town with several of Luis' men in order to get supplies and update Mary Travis on what was happening.

"Nathan give ya any idea when we can go home?" Tanner asked.

"Never asked him...I expect it'll be when you, Chris, and JD are strong enough to make the trip," Sanchez told him.

"Chris and JD are in bad shape..."

"And you're not?" Sanchez said with a grin.

"I'm up."

"That you are, but I'm willing to bet that short trip out here took all your strength," the ex-preacher said.  The resignation on the handsome man’s face and the sigh of annoyance told him he’d won that bet.

 "I’m tougher than I look," Tanner conceded, reaching for the glass of juice. It was a mixture of fruits that was sweet and tart and he enjoyed the way it tickled his taste buds.

"Wish we could take this home," Sanchez said.

"Readin' my mind, Josiah?" Tanner asked and reached for another piece of the tortilla wrap as Sanchez filled both their glasses from a jug. He could feel his strength returning, but he knew it would be some time before he was up to the trip home.

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Buck reached out and touched JD's forehead, relieved to find none of the heat that had ravaged the younger man's strength. He knew Dunne wasn't out of the woods yet, but he seemed to be getting better. Buck would wager a year's pay that the kid had what his mother used to call 'gumption'.

"Mama would have called you a little spitfire, Kid," Wilmington whispered.

"Ain't a kid."

The words were soft and barely reached his ears, yet they brought a smile to Buck's face as he waited for Dunne to open his eyes. "Welcome back."

" . . . here . . . where?" Dunne managed and frowned as he tried to make sense of his surroundings.

 "Slow down, I know it’s confusing."

"Where...are we?"

"We're in Mexico," Wilmington answered, keeping it simple, reading nothing but confusion on the puzzle creased features of the injured youth.

"Mexico?" Dunne said the word softly, but couldn't quite make sense of why they were here. 

"Yeah, you and Chris got into a bit o’trouble down here," the rogue said and watched as the doe-like hazel eyes closed once more, silently cursing himself for not getting Dunne to drink anything.

JD tried to make sense of the images he was seeing. Chris digging in the ground...a gunshot...sharp pain...falling...Chris falling...dirt...the smell...more pain...Chris crying out...dead...he's dead...no. Chris!  His eyes shot open and he tried to come off the bed, but strong hands held him down.

"Buck...Chris...where's Chris?"

"Chris is sleeping in the next room."

"Is he...Don...Don Garcia...shot Chris...buried him?"

"No, Kid, Chris is okay. He just needs to rest. Here, I got something for you to drink," Wilmington said and helped the young man sit up before placing the extra pillows behind him. He held the cup of juice to Dunne's mouth and watched him drink it slowly, relieved when JD took all of it before closing his eyes and falling asleep. Buck eased the pillows out from behind the Bostonian and sat back to watch over him.

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Four Corners

Early Morning

The pretty woman smiled as her son hurried toward her with a piece of paper in his hand.

"Ma, he said I should give this to you right away," Billy said and passed her the telegram. He had no idea what it said, but Mr. Watson had told him it was important that he go straight home and give it to his mother or grandfather.

"What is it, Mary?" Orin asked from the open doorway of the Clarion.

"It's from Josiah. He says Chris, Vin, and JD are getting better, but Nathan doesn't want to chance coming home until they're stronger," the newspaperwoman answered.

"That is good news," the judge told her.

"I know, but I wish...I wish there was something we could do," Mary told him. "I'll send a message and ask if there's anything we can do to help in the trip back."

Travis watched as the people of the town went about their daily business, and felt a hint of pride when most of them stopped to ask after the seven men who protected the town.

"Ma, when Chris gets back will he take me fishing?" Billy asked hopefully.

"He will, Billy, maybe not right away, but I'm sure he'll take you," Mary answered.

"Maybe you could show me where he takes you and we could catch some fish for supper," Orin suggested and wondered at the way his grandson shook his head.

"I can't take you to mine and Chris' secret spot. He says other people ain't quiet enough and scare the fish away," the boy said.

"Well, what if we find our own spot?" Orin asked.

"I guess that'd be okay," Billy said. "Ma, can I take Grandpa fishin'?"

"Sure, Billy, but not until you finish your chores."

"Ah, Ma!"

"Listen to your mother, Billy, the fish aren't going anywhere," Orin said and tousled his grandson's hair, smiling when the boy tried to pull away. "Come on, if I help you we'll be finished before lunch."

"Thanks, Grandpa," Billy said and took the man's hand to lead him into the house.

Mary watched them go and re-read the missive, silently praying the seven men would get home safely. She thought about Chris Larabee and knew in her heart she didn't want to lose him. Putting the paper in her pocket she picked up the newspapers and hurried to deliver them.

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North of the De Rivera Hacienda

Late Afternoon

Fernando Gores continued to watch for an opportunity to take his revenge against Luis and Evita Martinez. Two days had passed since Miguel Delgado was killed and there'd been no way he could get to either of the women. He wanted Juanita Perez, but it seemed that Luis Martinez was keeping his women close to the hacienda.

Gores had made camp less than a mile from the house, and kept out of sight when riders passed close to the cave he was using. He cursed Martinez for making him sleep in the damp cave with little food and none of the comforts he was used to. He leaned against the wall of the cave, silently seething as he sipped from the nearly empty whiskey bottle.

Gores closed his eyes and thought about Juanita Perez and how long he'd wanted her, but Don Garcia would not let him take the pretty puta because Luis had eyes for her. He doubted Luis even knew Don Garcia had seen him and the woman together, but it didn't matter because Don Garcia was dead. Fernando Gores was very much alive and would soon make Juanita bow down to him.

Fernando closed his eyes, rubbed at his beard and allowed himself to dream of the things he would do to her. Once he was through with her no other man would ever want her.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening

Luis stood on the veranda overlooking the fields that were now silent and covered in a cloak of darkness. He had his arms wrapped around Juanita Perez and drank in the scent of her as the rain fell softly from the sky. It soothed his nerves, much the same way as being with this woman soothed his mind and body. He loved her and wanted to spend his life loving her.

Padre Santiago had agreed to marry them and would be there the next evening. His madre had finished altering the dress his bride would wear, but he had not seen it and had no idea what it looked like. The rain would cleanse the land. He was a true believer in the power of prayer and hoped the rain would also cleanse the evil that had spread so much blood and sweat over the land. He knew that by mid-afternoon the sun would be shining on them as if God was giving them his blessing.

 His only worry was that Fernando Gores was still out there, he could feel him close by, yet there was nothing more he could do. Raphael and his men were helping in the search for the man, but so far they'd come up empty.

"What has you so worried, Luis?"

"What makes you think I am worried?"

"We have known each other for many years, and I have always known when something worries you," Juanita told him and turned her head to look into his eyes. "Is it Fernando Gores? Is he what has you so tense?"

"Si, I wish my men would find him," Martinez answered honestly and held her tight against his body.

"You are doing everything to make sure he does not hurt anyone."

"Is it enough? Perhaps it would be best if you and mi madre visited..."

"I will not run like an animal with its tail between its legs," Juanita warned.

"That's not what you would be doing. Gores is a dangerous man, Juanita, and I know he has wanted you for many years. I could not live with myself if he took you from me."

"Would you still love me if he did?"

"I will always love you no matter what," Luis vowed.

"Then together we will be happy no matter what Gores tries to do to us," Juanita told him.

"Juanita, it is unlucky for a man to see his bride before the wedding," Evita Martinez said upon finding her son and future daughter-in-law on the veranda. 

"Si, Evita, but I could not resist the call of the rain and Luis was already here," Juanita said and kissed her future husband before walking back into the house.

"You are a lucky man, Luis," Evita said.

"Si, Madre, I am," Luis said and hugged his mother before turning to watch the lightning as it lit up the sky to the north. He stayed where he was for a long time, hoping and praying that God smiled down on them the next day.

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North of the De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

Fernando Gores watched from his vantage point high in a tree just north of the fields and knew something special was being planned. The peculiar glass he'd found amongst Tanner's possessions brought everything up close and he could make out the faces of the fieldworkers who seemed to be ignoring their work. That alone told him the preparations he was witnessing were for a happy occasion; one that brought with it the bitter taste of betrayal.

Luis Martinez had taken everything from him and now he was flaunting the woman who should have been his. Juanita Perez was no better than the putas who worked in the bordellos he'd visited in the towns to the west. She had no right to deny him, yet she had, and now she thought she could make a life with De Rivera's bastardo son.

"You will not live long enough to have her as your wife," Gores vowed. He panned the special glass around the house and stopped when he saw the man seated on the veranda as if he belonged there. The breed had also garnered his hatred and if he had the chance he would put him in his grave too.  He had managed to steal some food and bullets from the supply shed at the edge of the property, not enough to be noticed, but enough to keep him from starving and perhaps kill two men who thought they could raise themselves above the level they'd been born to.

Fernando spotted someone moving along the trail toward the hacienda and focused on the driver. He recognized the padre from the nearby village and understood why the field workers were excitedly making preparations for a wedding. There was no way in hell he would allow that to happen, but he needed to wait for the right moment, and make the pretty puta a widow before she had a chance to consummate a union with Luis Martinez.

Fernando stayed where he was, his anger intensifying each time he looked through the glass. He should have been the one to take Juanita Perez to the marriage bed, not Luis. It was his right, his position as head of the field workers, yet with De Rivera dead Martinez had control...at least for now.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

Nathan sat on the chair next to Larabee's bed and gently touched his hand against the man's forehead. The fever was all but gone; yet, he knew he had to be vigilant in his care of Larabee's wounds. The man was pale and weak evidenced by his gaunt features, and had lost more weight than he could afford. His breathing was slightly off as he fought to rid himself of the mucus on his lungs.

Nathan didn't think it was pneumonia, but if he let it fester it could very well become that, and if that happened then it would become a fight that he wasn't sure they could win. The wounds to his body were vivid with the bruises having spread to encompass much of his chest and face, yet they were fading and he knew given time the blond would heal.

"Nathan, can we bring him in now?" Wilmington asked.

"Hold on, Buck..."

"Is he all right?"

"He's sleeping," Jackson said, but was surprised when Larabee's eyes opened to half-mast. "Well, he was sleeping. How are you feeling, Chris?"

"Like someone's sitting on my ch...chest," Larabee answered.

"I bet...look, you've got some congestion there and you need to cough to clear it up."

"I'm trying," Larabee groused.

"I know...do you feel like some company?" Jackson asked.

"Where's Vin?"

"He's on the veranda," Jackson answered and helped the man sit forward before placing an extra pillow behind his back. "JD's..."

"Is he...where..." Larabee's voice was filled with emotion as Buck carried JD Dunne into the room and placed him on the chair Jackson vacated. He tried to speak, but couldn't find the words as his eyes met Dunne's and knew Wilmington would not leave the younger man's side.

"I'm sorry, Chris," Dunne managed.

"For what?"  Larabee whispered and managed to raise his arm and weakly tap his own chest. " . . . should never have buried you . . . m’sorry . . . "

"He would have killed me if he'd known I was alive," Dunne said and hoped someday the guilt he saw in the green eyes would disappear. God, his head hurt, but he'd live and maybe someday he would remember everything that happened, but right now he was just glad they were all alive and the seven would soon be whole again. He tried to hide just how much pain he was in, but Jackson's keen eyes watched his every move.

"All right, JD, it's time you got back ta bed," Jackson said.

"I just got here," Dunne protested, but noticed the leader needed sleep as well. "I'll be back, Chris."

"I know," Larabee said with a hint of a smile. He sighed contentedly and allowed the relief to wash over him as JD leaned on Buck and walked out of the room. It wasn't a long visit, but it did wonders for him to see Dunne with his own two eyes. It validated what the others had told him and gave him hope. He sat forward and slid his legs over the edge of the bed.

"Going somewhere, Chris?" Jackson asked.

"Have to take care of some business," Larabee answered.

"Stay where you are and I'll get the commode," Jackson ordered.

"Come on, Nathan, I need to..."

"You need to let the rest of us do things for you until you're strong enough to do them yourself. You still got a touch of a fever and you break open them wounds and we'll never get home."

"When?" Larabee asked.

"When what?"

"When can we go home?"

"Not until you, Vin, and JD are a whole lot stronger than you are right now," Jackson said tiredly. "Look, Chris, you're far from out of the woods and JD's still ailing and we put him on a horse he's gonna fall and break his face. Then we'll have Casey blaming us for not taking care of her beau."

Larabee wanted to protest, but he knew the former stretcher-bearer was right. If he wanted to ride home, he'd need to take the time to heal. He closed his eyes, thinking about JD and the fact that the kid was a lot stronger than any of them realized. He opened his eyes when Nathan placed a hand on his shoulder.

"Sorry, Chris, I thought you might need this before you go to sleep," Jackson said. He helped the injured man take care of his more pressing needs before easing him back on the bed.

"Thanks," Larabee said, shocked at how little it took to wear him out.

"Chris, I want you to drink this," the healer said and helped the man sit up long enough to drink the Willow Bark tea. He worried that Larabee's breathing could be compromised by lying down so long and knew he'd have to get him up and moving around. The problem was moving around was not going to help Chris' wounds heal. He felt like he was between a rock and a hard place.

"Nate, you look worn out," Larabee observed.

"I'm okay, Chris."

"Sure you are," the blond said and realized Nathan had the hardest job of them all, himself included He'd been through as much hell as JD and Vin, maybe not physical wounds, but the emotional ones were just as telling. "Get some sleep, Nathan."

"I will...as soon's I check on Vin," Jackson said.

"You said Vin was outside...he wouldn't be if you didn't think he was strong enough. Take your own advice, Nathan, and get some rest," Larabee said and realized he was out of breath. He closed his eyes and drifted toward sleep, hoping the former slave would take his advice.

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Evita looked at her son, so full of love that she could not speak as he reached out and hugged her. Today was as special for her as it was for him and his future bride. Luis was dressed in black pants and a white shirt with a black bola tie that accented his dark hair perfectly. Today was the proudest day of her life, the day her son took his bride and faced a future that was full of promise. 

"Madre, you have been at my side all my life and Juanita and I want you here to help raise our children as you have raised so many on this hacienda."

"You two will raise many children, Mi Hijo, and you will show them the love a parent has for their children. Your bride is as beautiful as the sunset," Evita told her son and kissed his cheek. "I am proud of who you are, Mi Hijo."

Luis hugged his mother and smiled as his friend entered the room. Leon Velasquez was as close to a brother as any man of blood could be and would stand at Luis' side as he pledged to love and protect Juanita Perez for the rest of their lives. He reached for his mother and hugged her, letting his love flow through his touch. 

"Padre Santiago is here," Pero said, honored that he had been asked to help with the marriage ceremony. It was something he had never expected, but there were many changes since Don Garcia's death and his people were grateful to Luis and Evita Martinez.

"Thank you, Pero, tell Consuela to make sure everything is ready," Evita told the older man, pleased that he seemed to have thrived since Don Garcia's death. Many of the workers on the hacienda seemed to have a glow about them, as if they'd suddenly been given a new life. In truth, she supposed, that was exactly what had happened.

"Si," Pero said, bowing as he left the room.

"I must go see to your bride, Mi Hijo. Leon, see that he is not late."

"I will," Velasquez vowed. "You heard your madre, Amigo, let's not keep your beautiful bride thinking you will leave her at the altar. Then again, if you do perhaps I would..."

"Leon, you are my friend, my brother, but if I find you flirting with my wife I will cut off your balls and feed them to the pigs," Luis warned with a smile.

"You wound me, Amigo, I would never..."

"Good, let's go talk with Padre Santiago," Martinez said and frowned.

"Is something wrong?" Velasquez asked.

"Did you put extra men on look out?"

"They are watching for Gores. If he shows his ugly face we will shoot it off," Velasquez vowed as they walked out of the house.

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Vin stretched his legs out and tipped his hat so that it blocked the sun. He'd seen the lone man arrive in a buggy and watched as several people spoke to him and knew the man must be the padre. Josiah had spoken to the man before nodding toward Vin and moved to help Ezra and the field workers set up chairs and tables for the celebration.

Vin unconsciously rubbed at the bullet wound, cursing the itch that had started there. He knew it was a sign that it was healing, but it felt like a bunch of fire ants were chewing at his innards.

"Vin, don't be touching that," Jackson said as he placed a tray of food on the table beside the Texan.

"It's itchin'," Tanner told him.

"That means it's healin'," Jackson said. "Brought ya some stew...Evita said ta tell ya she'll make ya somethin' spicy tomorrow."

"She's somethin' ain't she?"

"Yes, she is," the healer said as Tanner picked up a piece of bread and dipped it into the rich gravy.

"How's Chris and JD?"

"JD's sleepin...Buck's with him."

"Chris?"

"He's sleepin'."

"What's wrong, Nate?"

"He's still got a fever, Vin. It's come down some, but if it gets any worse I'm gonna need ta see if I can find out what's causin' it," Jackson told him.

"He's strong."

"I know he is...stubborn too. The whole lot of ya are," Jackson said and sighed tiredly as he rubbed his hands over his face.

"Ya should get some sleep," Tanner suggested, not missing the healer’s face painted in shades of fatigue far too deep.

"I will, but I want to...I need to be down there. I need to see something good come of all this," Jackson told him, his voice soft, but filled with emotional turmoil as he looked at the people mulling around near the front of the hacienda.

Tanner had seen Nathan Jackson through some hard times, but even his father's death had not cause the guilt he saw in his friend's dark eyes. There was no doubt in his mind that the healer needed to talk to someone before it ate up everything that made Nathan Jackson the man he was. Normally he'd talk to Chris about this, but with him down maybe he could get some help from Josiah.

"You eat all that, Vin, and I'll come back ta check on ya," Jackson said and left the Texan alone with his thoughts.

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North of the De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Afternoon

Fernando Gores was a man with a mission, one that could only end with the death of Luis and Evita Martinez. He knew he would have to get closer to do what needed to be done, and had quickly realized everyone's attention would be on the bride and groom. Once the ceremony was over, and before the fiesta could begin, he would make sure Juanita Perez was a widow.

Gores cursed as he bit into the stale bread and threw it at the ground before picking up the special glass and panning it around the hacienda grounds. The veranda was empty, and he cursed the fact that he would not have a clear shot at the breed. He searched the people who were now taking their seats as Luis and his mother appeared, and stood before the padre.

Fernando knew Luis' friends were probably watching for trouble, but he was smart, and he'd make sure they were busy elsewhere when the time came. It would not take much, just a simple fire in one of the huts where the peons lived. That would keep everyone out of his way. The time was close and he knew it was time to set his plans in motion.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Mid Afternoon

Luis Martinez smiled as his mother began to sing while the rest of the people took their places. His stomach was doing flip-flops as he waited for his beautiful bride and he wasn't disappointed when she appeared and started walking toward him. The dress she wore accentuated every curve of her body while her face was covered in a sheer white lace as she came toward him carrying a beautiful spray of wildflowers.

"You're a lucky man, Amigo."

"That I am, Leon," Martinez said as his intended bride reached him. The padre began the ceremony and asked that everyone bow their heads while he blessed the happy couple.

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Cristóbal Covas looked at his wife and smiled at the woman whose beauty outshone any woman who'd ever been born. He'd fallen for her a long time ago, and yet his love for her now was even stronger with the passing of the years. He wrapped his arm around her and listened as the padre talked of love and God's will and knew he would always cherish the moments spent with this woman.

"He is a lucky man," Carmella whispered.

"Not nearly as lucky as I am," Cristóbal said and saw the smile form on his wife's face before returning his attention to the ceremony.

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Vin loved the warmth of the sun on his face, but he knew if he stayed where he'd been since noon he'd wind up burned to a crisp. The Texan didn't want to add to all the other problems Nathan was dealing with. He stayed in the shadows cast by the trees near the house and settled in to watch the celebrations below.

Tanner's gut was telling him something was wrong, but there was nothing out of the ordinary. Luis and Raphael had men covering the house and grounds, but Vin knew Gores was not so easily derailed. In the brief time Vin had been under his 'particular' brand of punishment. His body still ached from the brutality, and the reminder of Fernando Gores was enough to chill him to the bone.

"Vin, you all right?" Wilmington asked from where he leaned against the doorframe.

"I'm fine...how's Chris and JD?"

"Sleeping," the rogue answered, and recognized the tension in the way Tanner sat. Anyone who didn't know the man would think he was relaxed, but Buck had known him long enough to recognize the signs. "What's got you so worked up?"

Vin didn't answer right away, his gaze steady as he felt instincts born of years living on his own as a bounty hunter continue to make him uneasy. "Fuckin’ animal is out there . . . "

Wilmington knew whatever was bothering Tanner was tying him up in knots. He placed a hand on the man's shoulder and nodded that he understood as he asked. "Who?"

"Gores."

"The bastard who worked you over?"

"Me and a few others. He's not done yet and I got a feelin' he's watchin' and waitin'," Tanner answered.

"There's nothing we can do until he shows himself," Wilmington told him.

"Might be too late then," the Texan observed and watched as the ceremony began with the bride's appearance.

"Maybe you should go back inside and get some rest," the rogue suggested when Tanner shifted uncomfortably and stood up.

"I ain't goin' nowhere," Tanner said and moved toward the edge of the veranda. He gazed across the grounds toward the trees in the distance and listened as the padre spoke to Luis Martinez and Juanita Perez. A bird twittered in a nearby tree while the soft breeze brought the scent of wildflowers. He spotted a couple of men patrolling the area, and hoped they were enough of a deterrent to keep Gores away.

"Not much you can do if he is out there, Vin."

"Ya'd be su'prised," the Texan whispered, relieved that he'd brought his weapon with him. The sawed off shotgun had been found with De Rivera's guns and returned to him by Luis Martinez early that morning.

"No, somehow I don't think I would be," Wilmington said with a grin.

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Gores moved through the trees, staying back far enough so he wouldn't be seen by the people who were celebrating the life and soon to be death of a groom. It would take time for him to reach the peons homes, but when he did he would set fire to several and make sure the commotion brought the others running. He knew Martinez would lead the way, and Fernando would be waiting for him.

Gores heard laughter from the gathered people and felt his blood boiling at what was taking place. It should have been him standing next to the pretty puta. It should have been his right to take her to his bed tonight. Luis Martinez did not deserve her; he was just the bastardo son with no right to the property or the peons. He should have been the one to guide Santos De Rivera through his childhood and teach him the things that would have made his father proud. Instead, Luis Martinez and his puta madre would raise the boy.

Fernando stopped and took the spyglass from his jacket and panned it around the grounds, cursing when he saw Luis lift the veil and kiss Juanita. The anger raged to a boiling point at the thought of another man touching her, taking her innocence, and making her think she was an equal. It would all change soon, because he would take her the way she deserved for betraying him.

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Vin watched the happy couple kiss, but his head jerked toward the trees near the mestizos’ homes and waited for whatever had caught his attention to come again. The sun glinted off an object hidden back in the trees, but he knew what it was, and he knew who had it. He stood up and looked around before signaling to Raphael Cordova De Martinez who stood with Josiah and Buck. 

Vin pointed to the trees, as music began to play and the guests watched as bride and groom began their life together with their first dance. Raphael gestured toward him as Buck and Josiah turned away from the dancers. Again, Tanner motioned toward the trees and this time all three men looked in that direction as the sun reflected off the lens of the spyglass.

The Texan picked up the Mare's Leg and moved to the edge of the veranda. It wasn't an impossible shot, but it wasn't an easy one either. If Gores was the man hiding in the trees, then he'd soon find out they were ready for him. He searched the area and spotted the man as he stepped from the trees and moved toward the nearest hut.

Vin had learned long ago to watch and wait and now was no exception. He knew Buck and Raphael's men would investigate even if they hadn't seen Gores, but if the man made a move that looked hostile, then he'd take him down. He hated the idea of killing a man while a man and woman were celebrating life, but he would not hesitate if it meant saving their lives.

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Buck had no idea what Vin had seen, but he trusted the Texan and knew damn well something was happening. He nodded to Raphael when the man signaled to his men that they should follow him. Josiah pointed toward the mestizos’ homes and raced toward them, keeping low as he moved while Buck did the same on his right.

Wilmington still didn't see anything, but instinct told him that whatever Vin had seen posed a threat to the happy occasion. He just hoped they could stop it before anything happened to darken the ceremony. He turned to see Josiah pointing to the last of the huts, and Buck nodded before veering off and heading toward that one while Josiah went to the next. Raphael and his men were searching the nearby trees.

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Gores cursed when he saw the men coming toward the huts and knew he'd been spotted. Not that it mattered, because it simply meant he needed to forget making a commotion. He'd simply go past the row of huts and stay within the trees until he reached the closest point to the main house. All he needed was a clear shot of Martinez, and that would happen, especially if the men he'd seen continued to search the huts. Maybe that was all the distraction he needed.

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Luis Martinez had seen Sanchez, Wilmington, Raphael and several of his men as they moved away from the festive celebration, but did not want to alarm his new bride or his mother. Leon would warn him if something was happening and he nodded when his friend signaled that he would go after Wilmington.

"Are you happy, Mi Marido?"

"Si, Mi Amor," Luis said and smiled as he stared into her eyes. "I am the luckiest man in the world."

"Will you feel this way when I am old and wrinkled?"

"I will always feel this way," Luis said and lifted her off the ground amidst the laughter and cheers of the onlookers. "Perhaps we should see what mi madre has done to our marriage bed."

"We have yet to cut the cake."

"Si, but I would rather enjoy the sweetness of your lips," Luis whispered.

"The music has stopped, Amigo..."

"Not for me, Leon," Luis said and smiled when his wife blushed.

"Juanita, I do believe this is my dance," Leon told her and pulled her out of her husband's arms before dancing into the center of the circle.

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Vin’s hawk-like gaze continued to scour the tree line while Buck and the others checked the mestizos' homes. His gut told him Gores was close by and he needed to stay alert if he was to be of any use. The tension he felt didn't show, but he could feel it in every bone in his body, a constant reminder of the abuse he'd suffered since De Rivera's men had kidnapped him and Nathan. At least with the old man's death, there was one less bastard in the world.

Tanner breathed in the scent of wildflowers mixed with gun oil as he spotted movement south of the huts. He lifted the mare leg and aimed it toward the area as a dark shadow appeared amidst the sea of green. The sun glinted off the barrel of a gun and Vin knew it was time to take his shot as Gores stepped out in the open and called out to Luis Martinez.

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Luis recognized the man's voice and turned as Juanita screamed and the sound of a gunshot echoed through the surrounding trees and hillsides. He heard several shots fired at once and a cry of pain from his left, but did not look to see who had been shot as Fernando Gores fired again. He cursed the fact that he wasn't wearing his gun and looked up toward the veranda as a single shot was fired. He could not see the shooter, but he turned back in time to see Gores fall backward as Wilmington raced toward him.

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Chris was jolted from his fevered dreams by the one sound that cut him to the core. He sat bolt upright, crying out as the movement pulled on healing wounds and ignored the pain that awakened with a vengeance. He cursed as a second and a third shot were fired and slid his legs over the edge of the bed. He searched for his gun, angry when he didn't see it, but he would not stay here when his friends could be dying outside. 

Larabee grabbed the pair of pants he found on the end of his bed and struggled to get them on. He staggered toward the door, but didn't quite make it that far as his vision blurred and he would have fallen if he hadn't managed to grab the edge of the door. He leaned against the doorframe for several minutes, but the sound of another gunshot made him ignore the pain and move. He used his hands to guide his way along the wall, yet he was literally blind because he had no idea of the layout of the house.

Chris could hear shouts from somewhere and nearly fell when he reached an open doorway and almost fell through. He heard movement in front of him and a familiar drawl reached his ears.

"Where the hell ya going?"

"Vin?" Larabee managed, his knees threatening to give out.

"Yeah."   Tanner reached for him and tried to keep them both on their feet. "What the hell d’ya think yer doin’?"

"Heard gun...shots...what hap...pened?" Larabee asked as the Texan eased him onto a chair.

"Gores...bastard tried ta kill Luis," Tanner explained. "Nate's gonna give ya hell fer bein' outta bed."

"Gores dead?" the blond asked and held his arm tight against his side as he tried to quell the mounting nausea.

"Think so," the worn warrior answered. "Ya ready ta get back ta bed?"

"Hell no. Just got out of it," Larabee said and seemed to wilt as what little strength he had left him shaking.

"Fine by me," the younger man imparted with an arched brow. "Course Nate’s gonna git his ruff up when he sees yer empty bed."


"Dammit Tanner," the injured man hissed and finally managed to focus on his friend. "You okay?"

"I ain't the one that looks like stir fried shit," Tanner chuckled.

"You haven't looked in a mirror lately," Larabee said and heard a commotion from somewhere behind him, not surprised when he heard Jackson's irritated voice.

"What the hell are ya doin' outta bed?" Jackson snarled.

"He was comin' ta the rescue," Tanner said.

"Ain't gonna happen...Buck, get Chris back ta bed. Vin, ya best go lie down b'fore ya fall down!" Jackson ordered as Leon Vasquez and Luis Martinez supported an injured man up the stairs.

"Who?" Tanner asked.

"Cristóbal," Jackson answered as Carmella walked past them with tears in her eyes. "Ain't serious, but I need ta clean 'im up and put in a couple of stitches. Ya think ya can get him back ta his room?"

"Go on, we’ll be fine," Tanner affirmed as Cristóbal was helped into a room further down the hall. "Come on, Cowboy, let’s get ya back ta bed."

"I got it Vin," Josiah announced, as he and Buck reached the landing. His long legs quickly took him to the struggling tracker’s side and he relieved the younger man of his burden. Sanchez took control of Larabee. "Lean on me, Brother."

"Don't seem to have much ch...choice," Larabee told him.

 "Buck, check on JD...make sure he ain't up like this fool." Jackson decided.

Chris allowed the older man to help him back to the room and gratefully sat down as he trembled uncontrollably. He coughed, his arms wrapping around his chest as he tried to stave off the sharp pain of damaged ribs.

"Here, Chris," Sanchez said and helped the man drink the cool water from the cup Vin had filled from the pitcher on the table.

Larabee swallowed gratefully, but there seemed to be no relief as he tried to breathe through the tightness in his chest. He leaned forward, trying to catch his breath as someone rubbed circles on his back. He had no idea how long the attack lasted, but when he was finally able to breathe through tightly clenched teeth he vaguely made out two worried faces. Chris did not have the energy to acknowledge the concern he saw in their eyes as Sanchez eased him back on a mound of pillows and lifted his legs. He closed his eyes and let the darkness claim him, well aware of the people who would watch his back while he healed.

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Raphael and Javier took care of Fernando Gores and returned to the hacienda once they left him in an unmarked grave west of the hacienda. The panic had quickly subsided once Tanner had taken the shot from the veranda that killed Gores.

Raphael had been surprised at the accuracy of the shot, and knew of only a couple of men who could have made it. One was standing next to him; the other had been his brother. Raul was dead now, a victim of a bloody range war that he should never have been involved with, but that was the way of life for them all.

They reached the hacienda and found most of the people were still in shock and made sure they understood that there'd only been one gunman and he was dead. It was hard for the mestizos to comprehend that the danger was over and that they could once again celebrate the future that lay ahead of them. Raphael nodded toward the couple that exited the house; relieved to see Luis and Juanita were fine and would make sure the people of the hacienda would be all right.

"Cristóbal will be fine," Luis said and smiled as his people gathered around them. "Nathan Jackson has taken care of his wound and it is not serious."

Juanita smiled at the men and women and walked amongst them as her husband spoke to Raphael. She had lived with them all her life and they trusted her just as they trusted Luis and his mother.

"Raphael, thank you for taking his body away. We owe you for what you have done and hope that you will consider making this your home."

"Gracious, Amigo, but who knows what tomorrow will bring," Cordova told him.

"We share the same last name, Raphael."

"Si, we do and perhaps we are blood, but that is something we will never know. I will stay until Larabee and the others are ready to travel, then I will help see them safely home. Perhaps once that is done I may return if me and my amigos are still welcome."

"You will always be welcome," Luis told him and shook his hand before helping his new bride with the people.

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Four Corners

Early Evening

Mary Travis stood outside The Clarion's office and watched as people went on with their daily lives as if nothing had happened. She knew she was being hard on them, and that most of the people made it a habit of asking after the seven men. It was just so hard not knowing how they were and just how badly they were hurt. She wanted them home, she wanted him home, she needed to tell him how she felt or it would tear her apart.

"Mary, I know you are worried, but they would have sent a telegram if anything had happened," Orin told her.

"I know," Mary said as Billy and his friends played a game of tag near Nathan's clinic. God, it looked so empty and she wished they were all home.

"Why don't you come inside and eat. Evie has taught me a few things in the kitchen and I made sandwiches," the judge told her.

"I'm not really hungry."

"What is it you tell Billy?"

"That he needs to eat," Mary said with a hint of a smile as her father-in-law hugged her.

"Judge Travis, when are you going to put an end to these men taking money from the town they were sworn to protect?"

Mary whirled on the man who'd spoken, fire in her eyes as fury raged through her mind. "I doubt you could understand this, Mr. Conklin, but those men are here to protect everyone...not just you! I wouldn’t expect someone like you to understand the kind of courage those men have!"

"Now see here..."

"Mr. Conklin, I would advise you to shut up and leave now." Orin warned.

"I have the right to state my opinion!"

"Not when the men you are talking about are not here to defend themselves," Orin told him and stepped between the man and Mary. "I hired Chris Larabee and the others to protect the people of this town..."

"Exactly..."

"And the people who live nearby. When those bandits started killing the homesteaders who help keep this town alive, I asked them to find out where they were hiding and they have done that, or have you chosen to ignore the fact that there have been no further attacks! Go home and keep your mouth shut unless you wish to apologize to myself or Mary or the rest of this town for being the coward you are!"

"I am not a coward!"

"Really, then where have you been when the men of this town banded together to help protect it while Chris and the others were away?" Mary snapped.

"I was not hired..."

"No, you sure weren’t!" Mary said in disgust and turned away from the man before she slapped his face.

"Judge Travis..."

"Go away, Mr. Conklin, and be warned if you continue to speak with such disregard for others I will find a way to charge you with something and have Yosemite lock you up for a very long time," Travis warned and wasn't surprised when Conklin, coward that he was when confronted with stronger wills, turned and walked away.

"God, that man is so infuriating," Mary snapped.

"Yes, he is, but you handled him wonderfully. Chris would have been proud," Orin said and led her into the house.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning 

Evita Martinez sat in the rocking chair with Santos snuggled in her arms. The baby had satisfied himself with the wet nurse, but wouldn't settle down until she cradled him against her own body. Her son was a grown man now, with a wife who loved him and would give him many strong children.

"You will grow up to be a man your madre would have been proud of. Luis, Juanita, and I will see that you will always be loved and that you will know your madre and your heritage. We will speak of your father, but you will not know of his cruelty. Instead you will grow to be like your brother with a heart of gold and the love of your people. They will do as you ask out of love, not out of fear...that is a promise I will make to Dona Maria," Evita vowed and looked up to see Nathan standing in the doorway.

"He is lucky to have you, Evita," Jackson admired.

"Thank you, Nathan," Evita replied and saw the sadness in his dark eyes. She cursed Don Garcia for what he had done to this man, for filling his soul with guilt that did not belong there. "How are your friends?"

"JD's sleeping. He'll be doing that a lot, but he don't seem as confused as he was a few days ago," Jackson answered.

"That is good news. What of Vin and Chris?"

"Vin's chompin' at the bit ta be up and movin' around, but he needs ta take it easy." He managed a fleeting smile. "He’s a stubborn cuss. Chris' is weak and his breathin's a mess...lungs sound like they's fillin' up."

"Perhaps I can help," she offered, needing to do something to ease the unwelcomed burden this kind man carried. "There are herbs I have used before that might help."

"Can I see whatcha got...was thinkin' of settin' up a tent. Make him breathe in some vapors," Jackson explained.

"I have seen this done and will get you what you need. Juanita knows herbs well, but she is not yet awake. I will show you where we keep them." Evita gently placed Santos back in his bed. She draped the netting over the crib, made sure he was sleeping and motioned for Nathan to follow her out.

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Carmella looked at her husband and smiled as she gently eased his arm into the sling Jackson had fashioned. He'd slept well, but she'd been unable to sleep because she kept seeing him when the bullet struck him. Tears filled her eyes at the thought of what she'd nearly lost and she knew this man would always be her rock as he pulled her close.

"I am fine, Mi Amor," Cristóbal said and kissed her lips.

"I know, but when I saw you were shot I thought I was going to lose you. I could not bear to live without you by my side," Carmella told him.

"You are my life, Carmella...even when you cannot see me I will watch over you," Cristóbal vowed and lifted her face so that he could see her eyes. "Come, I know you wish to see JD."

"You should rest," Carmella suggested.

"I am fine. Nathan said it was a simple wound and it does not hurt so much now," Cristóbal said and wrapped his good arm around her as they stood up. It was a short trip to the room where JD Dunne was sleeping under the watchful eyes of Ezra Standish.

"Buenos días," Standish said and smiled at the couple standing in the doorway.

"Buenos días, Senor Standish, how is he?" Carmella asked and moved to touch Dunne's pale face, smiling when a soft sigh escaped his throat.

"He is better this morning and had a restful night," Standish answered and wondered at the concern he saw on her face. What was it about this couple that made him realize just how much he'd missed growing up?

"That is good news," Carmella observed, and looked at the well-dressed man, who had certainly stayed all night in the chair and wondered at the fancy clothing he wore. It spoke of a haughtiness that seemed out of place and she wondered what his life was like. "I will stay with him if you wish to go for breakfast."

"Are you sure?" Standish asked.

"Si, Cristóbal would you go with Senor Standish and ask for a tray to be sent up for JD and I?"

"Perhaps after you and your husband have eaten," Standish said.

"I am not hungry, but you must be after spending the night in that chair," Carmella said.

"Come with me, Senor Standish. There is no point in arguing when mi esposa has made up her mind," Cristóbal said and led Standish from the room.

"You are a lucky man, Senor," Standish observed.

"Yes, I am very fortunate," Cristóbal said. "I have always wondered why I was blessed with her love."

"She saw you for the man you are," the gambler said as they made their way down the stairs. Although it was still early the smell of baking bread and coffee mingled with the aromas that had been present the day before. There were several people seated at the table, but neither man recognized them as a young woman poured coffee into cups and motioned for them to sit down.

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Buck sat between the two beds and watched over his friends. The feisty Texan had slept through the night, except for those times when Larabee would cry out or thrash on the bed in the throes of fever induced delirium. When that happened Vin would rise from his own sick bed and move to the chair. Once there he would talk softly to Larabee until the blond settled, and Tanner could return to the rest he needed.

Chris sounded terrible, his breathing labored, even after a fit of coughing that sounded like his lungs were being torn from his chest.

Nathan and Evita had stopped on their way downstairs to let him know what the plans were. He knew what the tent would do and hoped Nathan would find the herbs he'd need to help Chris. For the first time in his life, Buck felt every bit of his age and knew what the meaning of bone deep weariness was. If given the chance he would lie down on a bed of nails and not feel a damn thing. He yawned tiredly, scrubbing at the dark stubble on his jaw and wondered how long it had been since he shaved. Time seemed a rare commodity since the banditos had started raiding the farms north of the Rio Grande.

Wilmington stood and went to the window, his gaze sweeping over the fields in the distance and wondered what was happening at home. He needed to send another telegram and let them know how the injured men were doing, but he wanted to wait until he was able to give them a rough estimate about when they would be heading for home. 

Buck was glad Luis and Juanita had been married and with Gores' death at least they could live without that threat. It was too bad Don Rivera hadn't been dealt with before he'd gotten his hands on Chris, Vin, Nathan, and JD. How could one man do so much damage in such a short time? People like Don Rivera deserved to burn in hell and Buck was glad Santos would grow up free of the bastard's influence.

Wilmington heard soft footsteps and turned to see Jackson enter the room with a thin blanket in his arms. He moved to help him drape it over the headboard and hoped Larabee remained asleep while they got everything ready. He glanced at Tanner who sat up and watched them set up the croup tent. It was something they'd all seen the healer use, and he hoped the steam and herbs would help Larabee's breathing.

"Evita will send up the herbs as soon as they're ready," Jackson explained as he draped the blanket over the board at the foot of the bed.

"He rode the bed awful hard last night," Tanner rasped, cautious eyes on the activity being done to save his best friend. "That’ll help."

"I'll sit with him," Wilmington vowed.

"It's gonna be stiflin' under there," Jackson advised.

"I know...been there a few times over the years," Wilmington told them.

"All right...it's important ya keep it from tippin' out on 'im," Jackson explained and saw the dark head nod. "I want to check on JD, but I'll be back in time to help with setting things up."

"All right, Nathan," the rogue said and watched Jackson leave the room. He'd already checked on the kid and knew Carmella Covas was sitting with him. The woman was amazing and she seemed to have taken JD under her wing. The Bostonian seemed to respond to her when she was in the room with him. 

Vin stood up and gingerly stretched, ignoring the way the movement pulled at not just the wounds, but the muscles that had been inactive for some time. He ran his fingers through his hair and wondered just how far the creek was from the hacienda.

"What are you thinking about, Vin?" Wilmington asked.

"Need a bath," was all the Texan said.

"Yeah, you do, big place like this probably got a room for it."

"Rather know where the creek is," Tanner answered, worried when Larabee coughed and held his arm tight across his chest. The man's breathing was getting worse and he hoped what Nathan had in mind would help. 

"I bet you would, but do you really think Nate will agree to you getting on a horse?"

"Prob'ly not, but what he don't know ain't gonna hurt 'im," Tanner grinned impishly and wagged his brows at the taller man who laughed. 

"Maybe not, but I don't think you'll get past him. Look, Vin, just ask Evita about bathing here for now. Once you’re stronger, I’ll show you where the creek is," Wilmington offered, relieved when the Texan nodded his agreement. "As soon as Nate gets back I'll go ask Evita about it."

"Ask Evita about what?" Jackson asked.

"A bath," Vin replied.

"Ya sure you're up to it, Vin?"

"Might be smart before I start drawin’ flies," the itchy tracker noted and drew a laugh from both his friends.

"There's a room downstairs near the kitchen...got a big tub in it. Why don't ya go on down and get some food while they heat up the water?" Jackson suggested.

"Easier if'n I went ta the creek."

"Maybe, but ya ain't up ta the ride just yet," Jackson told him. "Give it a few more days, Vin, then ya can have a day under the sky, I know ya prefer the outdoors." 

"Alright," Tanner reluctantly agreed and glanced at the injured blond. "How long b'fore we can head home?"

"Don't know...depends on you, Chris, and JD," the healer answered, relieved when there was no argument from the tracker. "Go on, now, I need to clear this room and ya need t’eat and have a long soak." He watched as Vin paused by Larabee’s bed a moment, then nodded once and departed.

"I'll be back," Tanner said and left the room.

"He ain't nearly as healed as he lets on," Jackson said.

"I know," Wilmington said as Evita came into the room with a basin and a kettle of hot water. She put them on the table between the beds and looked at the three men.

"Buck, I want you to get in behind Chris and sit him up a little. Let him lean back against ya while I put the basin at the end of the bed.

"Nathan, we can use the breakfast tray Luis had made for Dona Maria. It is in her room and it will keep the water steady if we place it correctly," Evita explained.

"That'd be great, Evita," Jackson said and moved to help sit Larabee forward so Buck could get into position. The heavy wheeze was a cause for concern and Nathan hoped this treatment would help, because there was no way in hell Larabee could survive a full blown case of pneumonia in his weakened condition. 

"You're doing everything you can, Nathan," Wilmington said when he noted the slight tremble in Jackson's hands.

"What if it's not enough, Buck? What if...what if he had a real doctor? Would that make a difference?"

"He does have a real doctor, Nathan Jackson," Buck declared angrily. He didn’t like that self-doubt and especially from one of the strongest men he’d ever met. Nathan was better than some doctors he’d suffered through, and there was something in his tone that was disturbing. "You cut that out right now! I’ve seen good doctors and bad doctors, that sheepskin hangin’ on a wall don’t mean spit. You’re not only somebody I’m proud to call friend, but you’re a damn fine man of medicine."

Nathan swallowed the lump that formed in his throat at the words his friend used. The way they were said and the look in Wilmington's eyes spoke volumes and he found it hard to speak. That this man...these men held him in such high regard was not lost on him and he nodded simply as he got his emotions under control.

"Nathan, trust in yourself and you'll see what the rest of us do," Wilmington said as Larabee groaned, but settled against him as Evita returned with the tray. He nodded as Jackson finished setting everything up and listened to the heavy wheeze that spoke of a sickness in the lungs. God help him, but he wasn't ready to say goodbye and he'd be damned if the grim reaper would take Larabee, not while he had a say in the matter.

"All right, Buck, just keep him still and make sure ya talk ta him," Jackson said.

"We're good, Nate, why don't you go get something to eat?" Wilmington suggested.

"I'm not hungry," Jackson said.

"Come, Nathan, I believe there are fresh rolls and biscuits, and I know I'm hungry. With Luis and Juanita taking their breakfast in their room I would enjoy the company," Evita told him.

"All right, Buck, if you need anything just ring the bell and I'll come back," Jackson said and tucked the ends of the blanket around the bed in an effort to form a tent.

Buck heard them leave and held tightly to the blond whose fever had risen during the night. Nathan had told them they had to treat both symptoms, but right now they needed to ease the wheezing and try to clear up his lungs. Wilmington shifted slightly and heard Larabee moan  and could only hold him as he coughed several times, a harsh sound that did little to ease his troubled mind.

"Come on, Stud, don't you go thinking about quitting on me," Wilmington said and held the man, praying he didn't cause more damage than had already been done. He had no idea how long he sat with his friend, but he knew instinctively when Larabee woke up. "Easy, Chris, I got you."

"B...Buck?"

"Yeah, how are you feeling?"

"Feel better if you weren’t fishin’ for something that isn’t there," Larabee griped of a motion he knew his handsome friend used on every female he’d bedded.

"Well, hell, I was just trying to let you know I was here." The gregarious man paused,  "I think my feelings are hurt."

"You could have told me...I'm not a passenger on one of your hot rides."

"All right, but the ladies say I've got magic fingers," Wilmington bragged. "Among other parts."

"Save the magic for them th...then," Larabee snapped and heard a familiar chuckle. "What’s so damn funny?"

 "You were, that mornin’ in New Orleans when you woke up with that French bitch's husband pointing a saber at your nuts."

"That wasn’t funny!" Larabee wheezed, coughed and was grateful for the instant resolution of his best friend’s death-grip. Among their travels had been a stop in New Orleans and they’d been coerced by a beautiful woman and ended up drunk in her bed. She took their money and her husband damn near took a lot more. "And as I recall you were the one that ended up on crutches."

"Not my finer moment," Buck agreed of the leap he’d made off a balcony, naked; a feat that broke his leg and the law. "But damn we had some good times, Chris." His voice dipped then, lingering in a wistful state

"You’re getting soft . . . "

"Soft? I'll give you soft," Wilmington said, but grew serious when the blond began to cough. Buck sat him up a little more so that he could breathe in the dwindling vapors, but there didn't seem to be any relief. He heard footsteps, and wasn't surprised when Jackson pulled back the blanket and removed the basin and breakfast tray.

"Lift him up a little more, Buck," Jackson ordered and helped lean the blond across his arm before thumping several times on his back.

Chris had no idea how long he endured the misery, but was grateful when they finally eased him back on the pillows. He heard the others talking, but didn't have the strength needed to open his eyes as he fought to take in enough air to keep his lungs satisfied.

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Tanner languished in the tub, allowing the water to soak away not just the sweat and dirt, but the aches and pains caused by his injuries and being laid up for so long. It wasn't often a man could afford such luxuries as a simple bath in his line of work, but when that time came he took full advantage of it.

Vin shifted slightly and knew it was time to get out, but ducked his head beneath the water one last time before standing and stepping out of the tub. Evita had left several soft towels for him and from somewhere she'd produced britches and a shirt in his size. The woman was amazing and he knew his mother would have liked her. They were both strong women, but there was an underlying softness that gave them the added strength to face the hardships life set before them.

The Texan dried his body off and heard his stomach rumble. He knew he needed to eat, but he also wanted to see how Chris was doing. If anything had gone wrong with the treatment they'd have sent for him, but he still wanted to see for himself. He grabbed the pair of soft skinned moccasins and slipped them on his feet, relishing in the feel against his skin as he stood and walked to the door.

Vin pushed it open and smiled when he caught the scent of fresh baked pies, apple to be exact and looked longingly toward the kitchen. He made his way to the stairs, but Evita's voice stopped him in his tracks.

"Come, Vin, Chris is well cared for and you need to eat. There are roast beef sandwiches and warm apple pie."

"Sounds good ta me," the Texan said and followed her through the kitchen and out onto a small area with a cover, but was open on three sides to allow the soft breeze to touch his skin and ruffle his still wet hair. The sun shone bright, but he relaxed in the shade as birds twittered in the nearby trees. Everything seemed so peaceful, it was hard to believe the horror of the last few weeks; yet Chris, JD, Nathan, and him had all been shown the worst side of hell on Earth. 

Vin sighed as he leaned back and poured a glass of juice. It was sweet, but he couldn't quite place the taste as Evita brought him a plate with slices of roast beef between thick slices of warm bread. He smiled and said thanks before taking the first one and biting into it. The first taste awakened the monster in his stomach and he knew he'd made the right decision to come out here.

"You clean up very well," Evita said with a smile. 

"Thanks," Vin said and reached for a second sandwich. "A man could get used ta a place like this."

"You are welcome to stay as long as you wish."

"Thanks...but..."

"You have to follow your heart and your family," Evita observed and saw the truth in the sky blue eyes. She refilled his glass with juice and poured one of her own as she studied his face and saw so much more than she should in someone so young. Whatever hardships he'd faced, he'd learned to make them who he was and he wore the mantle of a hero whether he knew it or not.  It seemed the same could be said of the seven men who were guests in her home. They were heroes who didn't seek the title, but had earned it and maybe someday their stories would be told to children who would sit in awe of their exploits. 

"Thanks, Evita, for everything ya've done fer us," Tanner said softly, the truth of his words easily seen in his eyes as he stared at the woman seated across from him.

"There is no need for thanks for doing what is right, Vin Tanner. I believe you reap what you sow and by now you should be wearing a mantle of the finest silk."

"I ain't one fer finery..."

"No, but you are a fine man, and I count myself lucky for being granted the time to get to know you and your friends," Evita told him. "I am proud of my son and see him in all of you."

"That's a mighty fine honor ya give us...Luis is a good man."

"Thank you, he is like my father in many ways."

"He got it from you too," Tanner said. Evita Martinez was a wonderful woman and he wondered what his life would have been like if his ma had lived. How different would he be if he'd had her hand guiding him along the path of life? Would he still be the man he was today? The answer was whispered as if on the soft breeze, and Vin knew deep down that his ma still watched over him. That she was proud of who he was and what he'd done with his life. He finished the sandwiches with relish before standing and smiling at the woman before him.

"You go see Chris and I'll bring you some pie and fresh cream," Evita advised as she picked up the empty plate.

Vin nodded in thanks and hurried inside. He quickly made his way to the stairs, ignoring the pain that reminded him he wasn't as healed as he led the others to believe. By the time he reached the second floor, he knew he'd overdone things and leaned wearily against the wall as he tried to keep from losing the meal he'd just eaten with such gusto. A hand touched his arm and he looked into Ezra's green eyes before the man supported him and maneuvered them toward the room he shared with Chris Larabee.

"Easy, Vin, just sit down and I'll get Nathan," Standish said of the missing healer.

"No...I'm fine. Jest need ta lay down a spell," Tanner said and turned to see the man in the other bed. The tent had been removed and although Larabee seemed to be sleeping, Vin could hear the heavy wheeze that spoke of sickness. The eyelids were closed, and there was a flush to his cheeks that spoke of the fever that he still fought.

"He's fighting, Vin. Buck stayed with him during the treatment and Nathan says his breathing sounds a little better," Standish offered and waited for the Texan to close his eyes before moving to the seat near the single window. It was open to allow the soft breeze to bring the scent of wildflowers into the room. He listened for any problems, but both men seemed to be sleeping now and he'd make sure there was nothing to disturb them.

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Nathan walked along the path that led away from the hacienda and felt the weight of the world on his shoulders. God, help him, but how could he have stood by while Don Garcia De Rivera treated his friends as if they were beneath him. The man was dead, but he'd left behind a heritage of pain, both physical and mental that would take years to erase.

Dona Maria died during childbirth, and although he knew and understood that babies and their mamas often died in childbirth, it was still a hard lesson to learn. He'd lost a couple of babies and mamas in the years since discovering he could help people, but none had been so hard as watching the light go out of Dona Maria's eyes. The baby survived and that was part of the hardship for him, because the baby would not have a mother's tender touch to counteract his father's coldness.

That had all changed with the death of Don Garcia De Rivera. Luis would look after his half-brother and teach him that human life was not to be taken for granted or taken advantage of. Santos had a chance for a good life now with two people, three if he included Juanita, looking out for his interests. They would see to it that he understood that people worked better when they had full bellies and weren't punished if they didn't reach the goals set out for them. A thin smile formed when he thought about the changes he'd already seen since the death of the Haciendada. It was as if new life had been breathed into the dismal lives of the mestizo people.

Nathan continued to walk and swallowed the bitter pill that nearly choked him when he thought about sleeping in a feather bed while Vin had been forced to sleep in a hole in the ground. Sick and alone he'd managed to survive until help arrived, but not without consequences. He'd been beaten, forced to fight for his life, and shot before Don Rivera was killed. Even then what had he done? What had he done to help his friends? Nothing...not a damn thing and yet the others did not hold that against him.

Nathan felt tears slip down his cheeks and a soft sob escaped as his legs trembled and threatened to give out. He dropped to his knees and pressed his knuckles against the side of his head as a cry of anguish escaped his constricting throat. How could he face them knowing that he was as bad as the people who lived on the plantations The ones who turned a blind eye to the suffering of others while they languished in the luxury of a home built by the blood, sweat, and tears of workers who knew nothing of the freedom they had.

Nathan knew in his heart he had no choice, but to do as Don Garcia ordered, but that didn't mean he could live with that knowledge. There was no doubt in his mind Vin would have been killed or subjected to even worse tortures if he'd tried anything. Still, that didn't do anything to ease the torment raging within him. He stayed where he was, letting the tears fall until his body stopped trembling and he knew it was time to go back to the house and check on the injured men.

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Seminole Village

Late Morning

Rain looked at the blanket she was scrubbing in the stream while her sisters did the same not far from her. There was very little news from the town, but what she did know was that the seven men were alive. Nathan was with them and uninjured, but sometimes wounds were hard to see if they were not of the flesh. She had sensed his pain, knew how deep it ran and wished she could hold him and soothe away the doubts and fears she knew were always present.

Rain knew her heart belonged to the man who had a healer’s touch and wished she could be near him now. She wanted to hold him and soothe away the fear and pain she sensed now more than ever. Her father had once spoken of a soul mate and how there was one person in the world who would always be a part of her. Their heart and soul belonged together and when she met him, she would know who he was. Those words were with her now, even though he was miles away. She felt the sorrow and pain as if it was her own and vowed to show him that he was worthy of the love they shared.

"Be strong, Nathan, for I am with you and always will be," she whispered and turned her attention back to the task at hand.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

Nathan walked back to the hacienda just as the people who worked the fields stopped for the noon repast. He spoke to several of them, even broke bread with Pero before making his way back to the house. He spotted Josiah speaking with Luis and Juanita near the main door and wasn't surprised when the big man excused himself and walked toward him.

"Where have you been, Brother?" Sanchez asked.

 "Just felt like getting away for a bit," Nathan deflected. 

"Lord knows if anybody needs that, it’s you." He saw Nathan’s eyes move to the house and knew what he was thinking. "Vin and Chris are stable, maybe it’s time you took some time for yourself. You just had me worried. I know how hard this has been on you," the ex-preacher said. 

"On me? I ain't the one that bastard hurt, Josiah."

"Aren't you? You forget how long we've known each other, Nathan. It's easy to read what's right in front of my eyes," Sanchez observed.

"I need to check on..."

"You need to get something to eat and get some rest," Josiah said.

"Later..."

"Now, or do I have to remind you that you're as human as the rest of us?"

"You don't..."

"Good, come on. Evita made sandwiches and apple pie," Sanchez said and motioned for the man to precede him through the main door. He wasn't kidding when he said he saw the pain in the other man's eyes. The truth was the raw pain was abundantly clear and the healer's heart was near the breaking point. It would take time for that to heal, but even more than time would be the recovery of the three men who'd borne the brunt of Don Garcia's physical torment.

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Buck and Ezra moved out of the way as Nathan stepped into the room. They'd both heard the healer and Josiah coming up the stairs and knew Jackson wanted to check on the three patients. Josiah stood just outside the door and waited for the two men to join him.

"Mr. Jackson appears to be suffering from some form of malady," Standish observed.

"He's not sleeping," Sanchez told them.

"He feels guilty," Wilmington advised.

"He looks exhausted," Buck reflected on the weariness that he saw embodying the healer.

"Guilt takes an awful toll on a man," the wise preacher thought aloud.

"Perhaps," Standish noted, as a keen observer most of his life, he looked a little closer at Nathan.

"Nathan was forced to watch Vin work in the fields while he was living in the house. Then he had to watched Chris and Vin fight in the arena. Then JD being hurt and well, hell, there's just so much a man can take before his burden becomes too much for him to bear," Wilmington observed.

"How do we correct this misappropriation of guilt?" Standish asked.

"We be there when it becomes too much," Sanchez answered.

"We catch him when he falls," Wilmington agreed and watched as the man who'd saved their lives more often than he wanted to think about worked his special magic again. If the old saying about a man wearing his heart on his sleeve was true, then Buck was a witness to it, right here, right now.

"Easy, Chris, I'm not going to hurt you. I just need to make sure you're all right," Jackson soothed when the blond moaned softly and tried to move away from his touch.

"No....kid....God...I should have...should have stopped him...not his fault....accident...didn't mean to s...shoot Annie... "

"No one's perfect, Chris...least of all me," Jackson whispered and continued to talk to the fevered man who seemed so lost in nightmares, both past and present. He had his own demons to fight, but right now he was needed to help his friends and forced those demons into the darkness where they belonged. He had work to do, and would not allow his own feelings to get in the way.

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JD looked at the man and woman seated beside his bed. He couldn't help, but smile when the woman reached out and touched her fingertips against his cheek.

"Your fever is nearly gone, JD," Carmella said with a motherly smile, her eyes filled with the care of a woman who did not like seeing anyone hurt.

"How do you feel?" Cristóbal asked.

"Hungry," Dunne answered and smiled sheepishly when his stomach rumbled at the thought of food.

"I will go see if there is any of the stew left," Cristóbal told his wife.

"Bring some juice too...and maybe some of the apple sauce Evita made," Carmella ordered and turned back to the patient. "You need to get your strength back, but you must not overdo things. You can have foods in small amounts until we are sure you will not be sick again."

"My ma always said that when I was sick."

"Your madre was a smart woman."

"You remind me of her. She took care of me when I was sick and she used to touch her fingers against my cheek to test for fever like you did," Dunne told her and looked toward the door in time to see Buck standing there.

"How are you doing, Kid?" Wilmington asked.

"I ain't a kid..."

"I am not a kid," Carmella lightly scolded.

"Just like ma," Dunne said and smiled weakly as Buck helped him sit up. "How are Chris and Vin?"

"Vin's doing better...not great, but better," Wilmington answered.

"Chris?"

"He's still fightin' a damn fever," Wilmington knew there was no point in trying to hide the truth from the younger man. JD was too smart for his own britches at time.

"He's a fighter, Buck, don't go giving up on him," Dunne ordered.

"I'm not, but I wish I could do more."

"You're doing everything you can, and he knows that. Just have faith," Dunne told him as Cristóbal returned with a tray of food. He placed it across JD's lap and smiled when the young man lifted the spoon and tasted the savory beef stew.

"Buck, Carmella and I are going to take a walk. Will you stay with him?"

"Of course I will," Wilmington said and smiled as the couple clasped hands and left the room. "JD, I do believe you've got yourself adopted."

"Huh?"

"Them two have been taking care of you since Raphael found you."

"How did he find me, Buck?"

"What do you remember?" Wilmington listened as the younger man told him what he remembered and filled in any blanks he found. He knew Dunne might never remember everything, and maybe that was a blessing. Being shot and buried in a shallow grave was not something a man needed to live with, not if his own memory didn't want to face it.

"I can't...I remember Chris being there and that damn Don saying something about digging a grave," Dunne said, but the memories stayed just out of reach.

"Don't try so hard, JD, some things we're better off not knowing," Wilmington advised, watching as JD ate most of the stew before pushing it away and closing his eyes. It wasn't long before the young man was sleeping and Buck took the tray away, eased the pillow from behind the kid's back and covered him with the blanket. JD still looked like hell, but at least he was awake and eating and that alone was a major victory when it came to the serious head wound he'd received.

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Four Corners

Early Morning 

Mary looked up from the printing press as her father-in-law entered the newspaper office. She spotted the piece of paper he held and wiped her hands on her apron before joining him. "Orin, what's wrong?"

"It's from Buck. They're still at the De Rivera Hacienda and they're not sure when they'll be coming home."

"Why?"

"Chris isn't well enough to travel. He's fighting a fever and Nathan's worried about pneumonia setting in."

"Oh, God," Mary said and breathed deeply as she tried to make sense of what was happening. How could De Rivera be so cruel? For the first time in her life, Mary could have danced on Don Garcia De Rivera's grave and not feel the least bit guilty for it.

"Here, Mary, drink this," Travis said and handed her a glass of water.

"Thank you, Orin."

"You're welcome. You need to have faith, Mary, faith in Chris and faith in God that he is watching over them," the judge explained. 

"I know and I'm trying, Orin. God, help me, but I need to...I want them to come home. I want Chris to come home."

"Do you love him?"

"I don't know...I think so, but he can be so exasperating," the newspaperwoman said.

"Stubborn."

"Yes, stubborn and loving and...I need him to come home, Orin. I need the chance to see if we can have a life together."

"You'll get that chance, Mary," Orin said and hugged her. "Why don't you put an article in the paper so the town knows how things are with Chris and the others?"

"I will, Orin, thanks," Mary said smiling when her son passed by the door with the Potter children chasing him. Billy loved Chris being around and if she was honest she enjoyed his attention.

"He needs someone like Chris to teach him what a woman can't," Orin told her.

"I know, Billy's so much like Steven," Mary whispered.

"Yes, he is, and Steven would be proud of both of you. He would want to see you happy, Mary. He wouldn't want you to be alone for the rest of your life," the judge observed. "Evie and I wouldn't want you to do that either."

"Thank you, Orin, did you reply?"

"I did. I told them to let us know if they needed anything for the trip home," Travis said.

"Ma, me and David..."

"David and I..."

"David and you?" Billy frowned.

"Never mind," Mary said with a smile. "What did you and David want?"

"We want to go fishing. Yosemite said he'd take us. Can we go?"

"He did, did he? What about your chores? Have you done them yet?"

"I can do 'em when I get back and if we catch fish you don't have to make no stew," Billy said, grimacing in distaste.

"Who has to cook the fish and clean up afterward?" Orin asked.

"Last time Chris cooked the fish on a stick over the fire and it sure tasted good," Billy recalled, eyeing his mother. "’member that Ma?"

"Yes, Billy," she replied warmly, thinking on the impromptu picnic when she rode out to find the pair when they didn’t return on time. She'd stolen a few moments and watched the patience the blond man took in quietly explaining to the boy the right way to clean the fish. One of the many small things a father did that her son was missing.  


"When’s he comin’ back?" Billy asked, and when his mother continued to stare over his head, he tugged on her sleeve. "Ma, when’s Chris comin’ back?"

"Soon," she answered, ruffling his fair locks. 

"Ma cooks the best fish. Even Chris says so. When is he comin' home, Ma?" the boy asked.

"Soon, Billy," Orin said as Mary turned away.

"Good, 'cause he knows the bestest fishing holes."

"The best fishing holes, Billy," Mary corrected her son.

"That's what I said," the boy said, frowning as he shook his head. "Grown-ups," he thought aloud.

"All right, Billy, you can go fishing, but you'll be cleaning up after supper and you won't argue about getting a bath."

"Ah, Ma!"

"You heard your mother, Billy, so get moving before she changes her mind," Orin said and watched the child hurry off in search of his friends. "You're doing a great job with him, Mary."

"Thank you, Orin," Mary said and hoped Chris and the others returned home soon. She started printing the papers again and wasn't surprised when her father-in-law moved to help her.

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De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Morning

Raphael leaned against the column holding up a part of the veranda and watched as Josiah helped several mestizos working to build a shed that would be used for storage. He remembered how good the ex-preacher was with his hands and admired that trait. There'd been many times he wished he'd used his hands in the same way instead of honing his skills with a gun.

"How long will we stay here, Amigo?" Javier De Rosa asked.

"It is beautiful here."

"That it is, but is it where you wish to stay?"

"I don't know. There comes a time in a man's life when he wants to settle down and have a family."

"I thought we agreed we are the only family we need."

"I know, but a man needs to leave a legacy...one not written in blood," Raphael told him.

"Sometimes blood is needed to bring peace before settling down."

"Yes, it is, and I feel we have spilled enough blood, Javier. I am thinking of asking Luis if he needs men to help him. Are you willing to give up running for a chance at a life here?"

"More than willing," De Rosa answered. "What about your enemies?"

"Don Paulo is dead and has no family left for me to fear. I would like to ask Luis if we can come back once we help bring these men back home," Raphael told him.

"If not, Cristóbal and Carmella would welcome us into their home," De Rosa assured his friend.

"They are good people."

"Yes, they are. It is why I had us take the kid to their home. I knew they would not turn us away," Javier said and smiled as Josiah walked toward them.

"You boys look like you were doing some heavy thinking," Sanchez said.

"We were talking about settling down," Raphael said.

"Ah, there comes a time in a man's life when he needs to think of his future. I know there are times when I wonder if there is a woman who would take me in spite of my past," Sanchez told them reflectively.

"Were you ever in love, Josiah?" De Rosa asked.

"I was."

"What happened?" Raphael asked.

"Let's just say our paths departed and when they rejoined there was no way to rekindle what we once had."

"Was she beautiful?"

"She was, but the years changed her, both inside and outside and she became someone I didn't recognize. I keep her picture with me as a reminder that love doesn't always win, but at least I have the memories of our walks along the Embarcadero."

"I'm sorry it didn't work out for you," Raphael said.

"I'm not, because she was not the Emma Dubonnet I remembered. Sometimes the past should remain there," Sanchez said.

"Very true," De Rosa observed. "Your friends...how are they today?"

"Vin's chomping at the bit to get home. JD's still having headaches, and Chris, well, he's making Nathan use everything he learned and then some."

"Is he still running a fever?" Raphael asked.

"Yeah, but it's come down a little. Problem is he's not movin' around much and he's got a lot of shit on his lungs," Sanchez explained.

"Seen that before...hard to breathe and feels like you're drowning," De Rosa offered.

"I know, but he's so damn weak he's worn out just standing to use the chamber pot," the ex-preacher told them.

"Chris will not quit, Josiah. Even De Rivera could not make him back down," Raphael said.

"I know and that's what makes him strong. I need to go help Nathan." Sanchez nodded to the two men and headed into the house; silently hoping they would soon be crossing the Rio Grande and headed for home.

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Nathan lay on the bed in the room next to the one Chris and Vin shared and felt the weight of the world weighing him down. He knew he should get some rest, but every time he closed his eyes he saw his past, his failures, the people he could not help.

Sometimes it was the war torn lands of the south, bodies strewn across bloodied battlefields. He walked amongst them, ignoring the stench of rotting flesh as he searched for any sign of life. He'd had this nightmare many times in the past, but never had it been this vivid. He'd walk along a narrow path, seeking out life, but when he found it there was nothing he could do for the poor soul who was bleeding out through a belly wound. Nathan knew there was no hope, but he knelt beside the young man, only to find it wasn't a young man, it was a boy. A child who should have been swimming or fishing with others his age, instead of carrying a weapon and killing those who professed to know right from wrong. He tore up the remnants of his shirt and pressed it to the wound, tears forming in his eyes as the boy cried out, his body rigid as the life drained from his body and the spark of light in his eyes was extinguished.

Nathan shuddered as the scene changed and he was back on the plantation, the only home he'd known until he'd escaped and joined a contingent of soldiers fighting for their right to freedom. Mr. Jackson had been hard on his slaves and Nathan remembered being forced to treat those who went against their master. It had seemed a natural thing for him to help the injured, and he did so with his heart and soul because without his help they would die. Sometimes they cursed him for not allowing them the freedom that only death could bring and he'd shed more than a few tears on the graves of those he couldn't save, even more over the pallets of those he did.

Jackson turned on his side and felt his mind slipping toward sleep, filling him with a sense of loss as he replayed the death of Dona Maria De Rivera. He could not help her, he could not save her from the labor of childbirth, and he hoped she'd found peace with God, because sometimes he wanted to curse Him as much as praise Him.

"I'm sorry...God, help me, I'm so sorry," he whispered as the dark nightmares played behind closed lids.

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Josiah had heard the whispered words from the room and looked inside to see Nathan sleeping on his side. To anyone who walked past it would seem like the man had finally given in to the need for sleep and was resting peacefully, but he knew his friend. He saw the lines of strain, the haggard features, the slight tremble of the lips and the trail left by silent tears.

Nathan had always been a natural healer, a gift given by God, yet sometimes he felt it as a curse when those abilities failed to save the people he cared about. He was his own worst enemy at those times, harder on himself than anyone else. Josiah knew these last trials were the hardest Nathan had ever faced, because he'd been forced to watch his friends suffer and unable to do anything about it.

Sanchez sighed heavily, unsure whether he should wake Nathan, or allow him to sleep. He needed the latter, but there was no doubt he was having nightmares that prevented him from actually resting.

"He is a troubled man."

Josiah turned to see Evita Martinez standing beside him. The woman held Santos in her arms, and the child seemed content as she cuddled him the way a mother would. This woman had been through a lot and now she had chosen to help raise the baby and he knew the child was lucky to have her and his half-brother.

"Yes, he is. Nathan's always had a healer's soul, but when he can't help someone he only sees failure," Sanchez said.

"Then we must make him see that he is not a failure. That he has a gift that he uses to help people," Evita said.

"Sometimes he sees it as a curse," the ex-preacher told her.

"Because he cannot save everyone?" the woman asked and saw the slight nod of the man's head. "It is not our place to question God's mercy, but that does not mean it does not affect us. Be strong for him and be there when he needs someone to lean on until he finds his way again."

"I will, Evita," Sanchez vowed. He turned to see Buck and Vin watching him and knew Nathan would not be alone in his journey back from the hell De Rivera had caused. 

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Afternoon

Chris was tired of being stuck in the damn bed and wanted to go home. He knew there was no point in arguing with Nathan until the man said he was strong enough for the trip. It would take longer than normal because according to Nathan he wasn't the only one not ready to ride a horse. JD and Vin were both in rough shape and would need to ride in a wagon. 

Larabee turned to see Tanner sitting on the edge of his bed and staring out the window. There was just enough light in the room for him to see just how young the Texan was, but Chris knew, in this case, that looks were deceiving. Vin might look young, but he'd been through more in his short life than most men saw in their lifetime. The younger man had told him about his life before he'd found himself in Four Corners. No one, especially not a child should have to go through what Vin had endured. Yet, Tanner told him he also had the love of his mother and his adopted people once she was gone.

Chris studied the other man's profile for several minutes, and felt the warmth of brotherhood deep down in his soul. He'd been told how strong he was to have survived after losing Sarah and Adam, but like Vin he didn't see his own inner strength until someone else pointed it out to him. More often than not it came from Buck, because he'd been there when Chris was at his lowest and they still stood beside each other.

"Ya interested in more than lookin, it’s gonna cost ya," Tanner teased softly as he continued to stare out the window.

"In your dreams, Tanner." The grin came out on its own, a natural reaction to the Texan’s wry humor.  

"More like my nightmares," the Texan said and turned to his friend. "Ya look like somethin' the cat dragged in."

"I must be getting better...last time I looked like a day old corpse," the blond chased back.

Vin eyed his best friend and arched a brow of appraisement, "Freshly dead . . . things is lookin’ up."  

"Nathan say anything about heading home?"

"No, jest says we ain't strong 'nough yet," Tanner answered. "Buck sent a telegram yesterday...told them we's alive, but still not ready fer a long trip." 

"How's JD?"

"He's better'n he was, but Nate says them headaches could hit him anytime," the Texan said and saw a flicker of guilt in Larabee's eyes. "Chris, what happened ain't yer fault."

"Maybe not, but I buried him, Vin."

"Ya thought he was dead. Ain't nothin' ya could've done dif'rent. We been through this...De Rivera is the bastard ta blame...not you...not me...and not JD," Tanner said and looked up as Sanchez came into the room carrying a tray.

"He's right, Chris, don't go blaming yourself for something that was beyond your control," Sanchez said and placed the tray on Vin's bed before helping Larabee sit up and placed extra pillows behind him. "Lord knows there's enough guilt being shouldered by people who have nothing to feel guilty about."

"Nathan," Larabee said simply and knew he was right when Sanchez didn't answer. He closed his eyes and silently cursed men like Don Garcia De Rivera. "We need to go home."

"He won't go anywhere until he's sure you, Vin, and JD are all right," Sanchez observed.

"Then we convince him we're fine," Larabee said.

"That's easier said than done," the ex-preacher said and placed the tray across Larabee's lap. "The sooner you start eating the sooner you'll get your strength back and we can head for home."

Larabee nodded and took a taste of the beef stew, relieved that it actually had some kick to it. He listened to Vin and Josiah talking, but kept reliving the instant JD was shot and De Rivera's warning that he either bury the body or they would leave it for the animals. He couldn't shake the feelings of guilt, especially when that little voice kept repeating that he'd buried JD alive.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

De Rivera Hacienda

Late Afternoon

Carmella knew her husband was right, and sighed heavily as she looked at the boy...the young man who had quickly taken a piece of her heart. If she'd been blessed with a child, a son, she would have liked him to be like JD Dunne. He reminded her of Cristóbal when they'd first met and fallen in love.

"Carmella, I know how hard it will be to say goodbye, but it will be easier now while he continues to grow strong," Cristóbal told her.

"I know that, Mi Amor, but he is still weak," Carmella said.

"Do you trust Nathan Jackson and the others?"

"Of course...Nathan is gifted," the woman said as her husband came to stand behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. "I just worry that he does not take care of himself."

"JD has plenty of people..."

"Not JD...Nathan. He tries to hide his pain, but it is in his eyes. You know how hard Don Garcia was on those around him and how cruel he was to his family? From what Evita told me he was forced to stay in this house while his friends were abused in the fields. It is something no one should have to witness."

"I know, but it is over now and with Nathan's help they are healing."

"Si, they are, but who will help heal the healer whose soul has been torn apart?"

"His friends," Cristóbal answered simply. 

"They are like brothers," Carmella said.

"Yes, they are."

"What time do we leave tomorrow?"

"I was hoping to leave as soon as we help with breakfast. We have been away from our home for too long," Cristóbal said and held her close as he felt a slight tremble run through her body. "Perhaps, when the time is right we will travel north of the Rio Grande and check on JD and his brothers. Would you like that?"

"Si, I would like that," Carmella said and placed her right hand over her husband's. This man's love was everything she needed and she would never stop thanking God for blessing her this way.

"Come, Mi Amor, we should spend some time with JD and tell him of our plans," Cristóbal said and took her hand as they walked toward the door leading to the veranda.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Chris knew if he wanted to go home, he needed to do what Nathan told him, but he was damn tired of this bed and the four walls. Vin had gone outside for some air, which left him alone. A gentle breeze blew through the window and Chris could hear children playing in the nearby fields. He had a feeling that was something new to the hacienda and hoped it was the beginning of the healing process these people needed after suffering under the brutality of Don Garcia.

"Hey, Pard, what's got you thinking so hard?" Wilmington asked from where he leaned against the doorframe.

"The sound of those kids laughing again," Larabee answered and found a soft smile. " . . . just like Adam . . . "

"It's a good sound," the big-hearted man agreed.  "Are you hungry?"

"A little," Larabee answered.

"Well, Nathan said if you're feeling up to it you can join the rest of us on the veranda," Wilmington said and saw the hope in his friend's eyes.

"Hell, yeah," Larabee growled but then paused, frowned and glared at his oldest friend.

"What's wrong?"

"Last time you said that was when I was shot and Sarah had me stuck in that bed for a week. She 'bout tore me a new hide when she saw me up. Did Nathan really say that?"

"I look like a fool to you?" Buck grinned when a single sandy brow arched back in reply. "Okay, bad choice of words. Let me help you get dressed. It might just mean we'll have the morning meal instead of the evening one though," Wilmington teased the injured man.

"Shut up and hand me my pants!" Larabee ordered with a hint of a smile. He gingerly bent down to put them on and grimaced when the move reminded him he wasn't as healed as he wanted the others to believe.

"Easy, Pard, just go slow and let me help you," Wilmington offered, worried when Larabee gave in and accepted his help. Chris wasn't a man who liked to admit he was hurting, and right now the fact that he was willing to accept his help told Buck just how bad things were. "I could tell Nathan you were sleeping."

"No, I'm okay, Buck, just need to go slow," Larabee said, relieved when Wilmington nodded and helped him into his clothes. He reached out and laid a hand on his friend's shoulder and smiled. "God, Buck, how many times have we done this?"

"Too many," Wilmington answered truthfully. "But as long as it means we're alive then I guess it's a good thing."

"You're full of shit," Larabee said with a grin.

"Ain't the first time you said that either. You ready?"

"Not really, but let's do it anyway," the blond said and waited for Wilmington to help him stand. Once on his feet he swayed dangerously and was glad when Wilmington kept him steady.

"Easy, Pard, just get your bearings...there's no hurry," the rogue told him.

"Feel like I got two speeds...slow and stop," Larabee told him.

"More like stop and stop," Wilmington teased as they began the slow process of joining the others outside. It took nearly ten minutes and a whole lot of curse words before they reached the veranda and Buck nodded in thanks when Josiah came to lend a hand.

"Set him down over here," Jackson ordered and motioned to the chair in the shade. "Chris, we can get ya back ta bed..."

"Hell, Nate, I just got here," Larabee ground out.

"I know, but..."

"I'll let you know if I need to go back," Larabee said and stared into the soulful brown eyes.

"All right...feel like eating something?"

"As long as it's something I can sink my teeth into," the blond said.

"Evita sent up some roast beef sandwiches and there's plenty of fruit," Jackson said.

"Perhaps this would meet with your approval, Mr. Larabee," Standish said and put a plate with a sandwich and several pieces of fruit on the table beside the injured man.

"Thanks," Larabee said and sat back as Nathan moved back to his seat. Chris took the time to look at his friends. Of the seven of them, only Buck, Josiah, and Ezra looked like they wouldn't be blown down by a gust of wind. He didn't want to look at himself, because he knew damn well if he looked anything like he felt then he still had a lot of healing to do. Vin looked pale, but he moved and that was a whole lot better than he could say for himself. JD's face still bore the signs of the bruise caused by the bullet that had nearly claimed his life, and it was easy to tell the kid was trying to hide his pain.

Larabee's gaze finally came to rest on Nathan. And what he saw was a pain from the kind of wounds he knew went far beyond physical. The emotional turmoil of the last few weeks were carved into his features and reflected in the haunted, hollow brown eyes. Chris knew that the injuries he, JD and Vin suffered would heal in time, but what Nathan endured went far beyond that. Those wounds would only heal when he came to terms with what happened, and realized that he was not at fault for what De Rivera made him do.

"Chris, ya best eat," Tanner said and looked into Larabee's eyes. He knew the blond had seen the same thing the rest of them had and wondered if there was some way they could make Nathan see the truth before it tore his soul apart.

"I'm getting to it," Larabee grumbled, and heard soft laughter from the Texan.

"The rest of us'll be bedded down b'fore ya git through that," Tanner told him.

"Least I won't choke on it," the blond observed. He could see the others watching them and felt as if the world was righting itself. One look at Nathan, standing alone in the far corner, told him there was still something out of balance. He knew Nathan well enough to understand what he was feeling; God knows he'd held onto guilt long enough that it had nearly cost him Buck's friendship. The bottle and his gun had become the only weapons he had against the feelings gnawing at his gut. Then, one day, he woke up with an empty gun in one hand, a shattered bottle of rotgut in the other, and smelling like he'd never been inside a bathhouse.

Sarah's voice had shattered the drunken wall he'd built up around him and within a week he was dried out, cleaned up, and feeling almost human again. He'd been surprised to find Pony was still with him and not stolen during one of his drunken bouts. A smile had formed when the animal's head came up and seemed to sniff the air. Chris had given him a good brush down and headed for the last place he'd heard anything pertaining to Buck Wilmington. It hadn't taken long for him to find the rogue, but instead of asking him to ride at his side again, they'd settled down and now called Four Corners home.

"Nate's gonna think ya ain't ready fer this if'n ya keep lookin' like yer gonna toss yer cookies," Tanner said.

"Nice," Larabee said and took another bite of the sandwich. "JD looks like he's going to fall over."

"Guess ya ain't looked at yerself," the Texan observed.

"You're one to talk," Larabee told him.

"Guess we're all a mess..."

"Speak for yourself, Vin, the ladies are saying I'm lookin' mighty fine," Wilmington said with a grin.

"You tell 'em 'bout your condition?" Tanner asked seriously.

"What condition would that be?" the rogue asked.

"Animal maggots in ‘im," Vin supplied, shaking his shaggy head. "Don’t reckon Nate’s got anythin’ fer that."


"It’s animal magnetism!" Buck defended, tossing an apple core at the grinning Texan. "You’re just jealous because the ladies are drawn to it."

"No, I'd say it's more like they want them little gifts ya give 'em," Tanner said.

"Vin's got a point, Buck," Larabee observed. "You stop buying them those little trinkets and I'd bet..."

"Did someone mention a bet?" Standish said, interest piqued at the thought of monetary gain. "If so, I would gladly hold the stakes until such time as a victor can be declared."

"Just tellin' Bucklin if'n he stopped givin' gifts, he'd find out jest what the ladies thought of them maggots he’s go in ‘im," Tanner said.

Chris placed what was left of the sandwich on the plate and closed his eyes. He knew he should get someone to help him back to his bed, but right now he was enjoying the camaraderie.

"Come on, Brother, let's get you back to bed before you fall on your face," Sanchez suggested.

"Damn," Larabee swore when he realized he must have dozed off for several minutes. He looked longingly at the fruit, but he knew he did not have the strength to eat it, let alone keep it down. He accepted Josiah's hand and stood up, a slight tremble in his legs once he was finally upright.

"Need some help, Josiah?" Wilmington asked.

"No, I think we're good," Sanchez said and walked alongside the injured man.

Larabee could feel the older man's presence and knew the ex-preacher would catch him if his strength gave out. It felt good to be on his own two feet, but when they reached his room and he lay down, Chris realized just how easy he tired. Sanchez covered him with a light blanket before leaving the room.

Chris knew it wouldn't be long before sleep took him away, but he vowed that he would talk to the others about going home. Nathan needed that. Hell, they all needed the familiarity of being back in Four Corners. He thought about Mary Travis and a warmth spread through him at the thought of seeing her again. Maybe it was time to take it one step further.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

Buck watched as JD hugged the man and woman who helped save his life. He saw tears in Carmella's eyes as she looked into the eyes that were laden with moisture.

"You mind Nathan and do as he says," Carmella said and climbed into the buggy beside her husband.

"I will," Dunne said.

"You better, because if she finds out you didn't I will be the one taking her to Four Corners, and listening to her," Cristóbal said as the others came to say goodbye. The only one missing was Chris Larabee, but they'd stopped in to wish him well and tell him he, and his friends were welcome at the Covas home anytime. 

"Buck, make sure he gets the rest he needs," Carmella told him.

"I will...we owe you...I owe you. Anytime you need me I'll come running," Wilmington vowed.

"You owe me nothing. I did...we did what anyone would do," Carmella said and sighed as she looked at Nathan Jackson whose eyes belied the pain he tried to keep inside him. She placed her hand on her husband's arm as the buggy started forward and briefly wondered if she would ever see these men again. 

"Come on, Kid, let's get you back to your room," Wilmington said when he noticed Dunne shading his eyes from the bright sunlight.

"I ain't no kid!" Dunne snapped, but refused to move until the buggy was out of sight. Carmella Covas was filled with motherly concern and although she'd never had children, JD wondered how many others, like him, she'd helped. He turned toward the house and moved slowly inside as Wilmington walked beside him. He stopped at the bottom of the stairs and looked up, grimacing when his head throbbed and his legs shook.

"Easy, Kid, why don't we see if there's a place you can lie down on this floor," Wilmington said.

"I can do it," Dunne said, grabbing the rail stubbornly. He forced himself to take one step at a time, eyes closed at times until the dizziness passed. He had no idea how long it took, but he breathed a sigh of relief once they reached the top. The hallway didn't seem nearly as daunting as the stairs, but he was grateful when Buck lent him a hand as they made their way to his room.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Chris had opened his eyes when he heard shuffling footsteps in the hallway and slid his legs over the edge of the bed. He sat up and watched as Buck helped JD along the hallway and forced himself to stand. God, he still felt so damn weak, but he wasn't going to let that stop him. He needed to get moving, to get his body back in shape.

Larabee made it to the door, and cursed the fact that he felt like he'd just run from Four Corners to Eagle Bend. God, why was it taking so damn long to get back on his feet? He leaned against the wall and used it as a guide as he walked toward JD's room.

"What are you doing?"

Chris whirled and smiled at the woman standing at the top of the stairs. Evita Martinez carried several articles in her hands, but she placed them on the table before hurrying toward him. "I was just going to check on JD."

"Do you care about Nathan?"

"Course I do," Larabee spat, unnerved at the way she scolded him.

"Then why are you making it difficult for him?" Evita asked and hooked her right arm through his left.

"I'm not..."

"Not yet, but when you fall on that pretty face he'll have to listen to you complain about being stuck in that bed," Evita said, but helped him along the hall to Dunne's room to find Wilmington helping the younger man back to bed. 

"Chris, I thought Nate wanted you resting up," Wilmington said.

"Just wanted to check on JD," Larabee said, smiling as Evita released his arm and allowed him to make his way inside.

"Since you are up I will bring food for you and JD," Evita said, shaking her head at how stubborn these gringos were.

"God smiled in wonder when he sent an angel to earth," Tanner said from the open door.

"That he did," Wilmington agreed as the Texan joined them in the room. "Hard to believe she's been through so much in her life...was talking to Pero and Luis. They told me what it was like for her. Luis stayed because of her and had no love for his father. He wanted to take her away, but when Dona Maria got pregnant she wouldn't leave her."

"Don Garcia was a bastard...treated ever'one like they's somethin' ta scrape offa the bottom of his boots. His graves gonna be as cold as he was," Tanner said and eased his lanky frame onto the bed as JD looked at Chris Larabee.

"He don't deserve any pity," the Bostonian whispered.

"Ain't feelin' no pity fer 'im, JD, just sad that life was wasted when God gave him breath," Tanner said.

"Maybe, but he was Luis father and although he's nothing like Don Garcia the world is a better place because of him," Wilmington said. Luis Martinez had made a lasting impression on all of them and they knew Santos would have a big brother he could look up to and learn from. 

"Don Garcia didn't see the wonder in front of his eyes," Larabee told them.

"Most animals don't," Tanner said.

"Chris, Nathan said to tell you he's glad you're feeling better, but if you want to go home you need to get some rest," Josiah said and entered the room carrying a tray laden down with food.

"Seems like resting is all I've been doing," Larabee said and reached for one of the burritos. He knew they were probably not as spicy as she would normally make, but the seasoned meat and beans would help him regain his strength.

Buck handed one to JD and smiled when the younger man took the first tentative bite. Dunne had been eating soups and finally keeping it down and ate half the burrito before sighing contentedly.

"Damn," Dunne said, and wished he could do the meal justice. He lay back and closed his eyes, smiling as he thought about going home and seeing Casey Wells. She'd been in his thoughts a lot since the confusion had lifted and hoped no one had caught her eye since he'd been gone.

"Chris, come on...I'll help you back to bed," Sanchez said.

"Not yet. I want to take a walk," Larabee told him.

"Ya sure yer up ta it, Cowboy?" Tanner asked.

"Keep it up, Tanner, and you might just get shot," Larabee said and stood up. He glanced at Dunne and realized the younger man was sleeping and bit back the guilt as he heard Don Garcia's damning words in his head before walking out of the room with Sanchez close at his side.

"Nathan ain't the only one with a shitload of guilt ta git rid of," Tanner said softly.

"Ain't that the truth," Wilmington agreed. "The problem is it won't happen while we're here. We need to get them home."

"Ain't arguin' with that, but until Nate says so we ain't goin' nowhere," the Texan observed.

"You're not exactly spry yourself, Vin," Wilmington said.

"Ain't arguin' with ya there," Tanner said and gingerly stood up.

"Where are ya goin'?"

"Was thinking that little creek Luis told us 'bout is callin' my name."

"Want some company?"

"I do, but since I'm a gentlemen ya'll have ta do. Might even clean some of them..."

"Give it up, Tanner," Wilmington interrupted as he placed everything back on the tray. "Come on...maybe we can get some soap and get cleaned up good and proper. You're smelling kind of ripe."

"Look who's talkin'," Tanner said, and motioned to the bed. "Think he'll be okay?"

"He's gonna sleep for a while, but I'll ask Evita to keep an eye on him," Wilmington said and carried the tray from the room.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Creek, West of the De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

Vin smiled as he dismounted and ground tied the horse close to the water where the grass was high. Buck and Josiah did the same with their animals before joining him near the water. Chris had wanted to come with them, but had fallen asleep soon after returning to the room they shared. He knew Nathan had been relieved that Larabee had given in to the need for sleep. After checking to make sure Vin's wounds were okay, Jackson had told them to go ahead, but also warned him not to overdo things. 

Tanner began to remove his clothing and felt a tingle of excitement at the thought of lowering himself into the water. He quickly removed his boots and stripped completely, unaware that his friends were watching him closely.

Buck had always thought Vin was shy, but the Texan was anything but as he walked into the water and dove below the surface. He swam halfway across before his head came above the water and he floated on his back with the sun warming his body and wearing a cocky grin.

"Ya'll comin' in?"

"What do you say, Brother? Feel like washing away the layers of dirt?" Sanchez asked and was soon as naked as the younger man while Buck did the same.

Tanner heard them enter the water, but kept his eyes closed as he let the sun warm his skin. The water was colder than he'd expected, but it felt good to soak away the sweat and fatigue while the gentle waves soothed his aching muscles. He thought about the weeks since the judge had asked them to find out who was killing the homesteaders around Four Corners. It hadn't taken them long to find the banditos, or for the banditos to find them, but it felt like a lifetime since he'd been home.

Vin thought about the town of Four Corners and why the seven had decided it was worth settling down there. Even he'd been drawn to the idea of setting down roots. He'd seen the way Chris looked at Mary and knew they had feelings for each other, and hoped they'd act on them before it was too late. Life was short and sometimes you had to grab the bull by the horns. Maybe Mary would do just that when they finally made it home.

The Texan turned over and swam toward the bottom of the creek before surfacing closer to the shore. He could see Josiah, his hair lathered up and soap covering most of his upper body and couldn't help, but be reminded of his grandfather. The man had always told him that cleanliness was next to godliness and said he should always take advantage of a little soap and water.

"Wanna share that," Tanner said and caught the soap. He quickly lathered it through his hair and down over his body as Wilmington joined them. "This might help with yer condition."

"You know, Vin, I might just have to prove it's real," Wilmington said and took the soap.

"How do you propose to do that?" Sanchez teased.

"I'm gonna stop giving gifts...well, except for the gift of my company," Wilmington answered.

"That'll free 'em up quick like," Tanner said and dove under the water before Buck had a chance to reply. He stayed under long enough for the soap to wash away and realized it was time to get back. His energy was nearly spent and he reluctantly made his way toward the shore as Buck and Josiah moved to join him.

"This place is like Heaven on Earth," Sanchez observed once they were dressed and ready to ride back to the hacienda.

"Even more so without Don Garcia," the Texan said and reached for his horse's reins. His head ached, and the pain in his lower back told him he'd overdone things. Without conscious thought he rubbed his lower back and tried to ignore the wave of dizziness that washed over him. He knew he'd pay for overdoing things, but he didn't regret the swim or the time on horseback.

"You okay, Vin?" Wilmington asked, relieved that he had taken care of saddling Tanner's horse. He hadn't missed the hand straying to the back or the way Vin shaded his eyes from the sun as if his head was bothering him more than he let on.

"We can rest here for a while if you need to, son," Sanchez offered.

"I'm okay. Let's jest get back," Tanner said and mounted up.

"Just don't go falling off the horse or Nate will kill me and Josiah," Wilmington said and allowed Tanner to take the lead so he could keep an eye on him during the ride back.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Four Corners

Late Afternoon

Mary Travis read the message she'd received from Josiah Sanchez and felt her heart skip a beat. It had been a week since the last one and most of the townspeople had asked her if she'd heard anything about when they'd be coming home. She now had the answer and smiled as Orin Travis looked up from the newspaper in his hands.

"Good news, I hope," Travis said when he saw the paper in her hands.

"Chris is coming home," Mary said and realized how that must have sounded. "They'll be leaving tomorrow."

"That is good news," the judge said and reached for his coffee. "Perhaps the town should plan a celebration."

"That sounds like a wonderful idea. It would be a perfect way to show them how much we appreciate what they've done for our town," the newspaperwoman said and sat across from her father-in-law. "I'll ask Yosemite to get word to the Wilsons and Carters. I think Nettie and Casey will be in town today, if not I'll make sure they get the message. We should also invite Rain and her people."

"That sounds good," Travis said, shaking his head when he spotted the only man who could put a damper on things.

"Judge Travis, why are we still wasting good money on men who are not even here to perform their duties."

"Good afternoon to you too, Mr. Conklin," Travis said and smiled when Mary stood up to face the man.

"Mr. Conklin, since when did you start contributing to their wages?" Mary snapped.

"I was not talking..."

"Why not? Don't I have as much right to speak my mind as you do?"

"But you're a..."

"What? A woman? A productive member of this town? Or do you still believe I should sell the paper and start making little finger sandwiches and sipping from a tea cup with my pinky sticking up in the air?"

"A woman's place..."

"Is whatever she wishes to make it," Mary spat. "This isn't The Dark Ages, Mr. Conklin, and women are able to ride horses and shoot guns and even have a mind of their own."

"Are you going to let her..."

"Speak her mind? Absolutely and I never tire of witnessing my daughter-in-law putting you in your place. Now, Mary and I were discussing a celebration and since you would probably disagree with welcoming them home you should find somewhere else to be," Orin spat.

"Now see here..."

"No, you see here and you listen to what I'm going to say or I'll make sure you are locked up until after the celebration or better still if you don't like what's happening here find some other town where someone is will to listen to a blithering idiot," Travis said and turned away. "Mary, why don't we let everyone know Chris and the others are coming home."

Mary linked her right arm through her father-in-law's left with a smile on her face as they headed toward the saloon to give the news to Inez Recillos and several other townspeople who were already there.

Conklin watched them leave, his hands fisted at his sides as his nostrils flared angrily. Orin and Mary Travis were wrong to believe he had no say in what happened to this town and he would not let them get away with this. He knew exactly who he was going to talk to and maybe this little celebration would end a whole lot different than the Travis' believed.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning.

Evita Martinez held Santos as her son and daughter-in-law stood beside her. The people, once so downtrodden and sickly, were now smiling and healthy, as if Don Garcia had never existed. The babe sleeping in her arms and her own son were proof that he did and were the two things he could have been proud of had he chosen to. Instead he'd used fear and threats to make the people bend to his will, but that was over. They could all look forward to a life without the threat of a whip.

Evita watched as the supplies were loaded onto the wagon and wondered what the future held for the seven men who'd come into their lives. Would Fate smile upon them and give them the happiness they deserved or would she turn her back on them. She felt a pang of sorrow at the thought of them leaving, yet she knew they had homes, perhaps family waiting for them.

Nathan Jackson was making sure everything was ready for the injured men who would be riding in the buggy. She had heard him arguing with Chris and JD, and was slightly surprised when both men gave in without much of a fight. Vin would be driving the buggy while JD and Chris rode in the back. Evita smiled at how easily Nathan had maneuvered it so the injured would not be riding horseback for any length of time.

Buck, Ezra, and Josiah would take turns driving the supply wagon, while Nathan kept an eye on the trio in the buggy. She took the time to study Nathan and knew the man had a lot of healing to do before he could put the events of the last few months in the past where they belonged. The guilt he wore on his face was also evident in the darker area around his eyes and the gaunt features that spoke of lack of appetite and sleep.

Evita watched as Buck, Ezra, and Josiah escorted Chris, JD, and Vin out of the house. She walked over to Nathan as the others said goodbye to Luis and Juanita and several of the fieldworkers.

"Evita, we owe you a debt we can never repay," Jackson told her.

"No, Nathan, you brought Santos into this world and made it a better place. We are forever in your debt and there will always be a chair at the table for each of you."

"Thank you, Evita," Nathan said and looked at the babe in her arms. "He is lucky to have you and Luis to show him what it means to have family. The love you give him will go a long way toward making him the man Dona Maria would have been proud of. You're his family and that means a lot."

"Yes, it does, and like Santos you have family that cares about you, Nathan, do not be afraid to lean on them and let them help you heal."

"I'm okay, Evita."

Evita Martinez had seen a lot in her life, but she could not remember ever seeing such despair hidden in the brown eyes staring into hers. She reached up and touched his cheek, gently, wishing she could somehow find a way to erase the lines that were now carved in his face. "No, you are not, Nathan, but you are wise beyond your years and you will realize that you did what you had to do to save the lives of those you care about. There will come a day when the sun comes back and the clouds will part so you can find your way home. On that day your heart will not be so heavy and you will lay down your burden and know what I say is true."

"Maybe, but right now I just...I need to take care of Chris, Vin, and JD. They're the ones that were hurt," Jackson said and walked over to the buggy.

"They may have borne the brunt of the physical pain, Nathan, but they will heal. A man's soul is harder to heal," Evita whispered as tears formed in her eyes. She kissed Santos' forehead and silently prayed that Nathan's friends would be strong enough to help him heal when he reached out for them.

Evita felt a hand on her shoulder, looked up at her son, and leaned into his touch as Juanita joined them. Together with the rest of the people they watched as the small entourage rode north. She felt as if a part of her was riding with them and hoped their journey home would be a safe one.

"Nathan will find his way, Mi Madre," Luis said softly as he watched the tears slip silently from her eyes.

"I know he will, but his burden has always been heavy. His heart is scarred by the loss of those he could not save, and until he looks around him and embraces those he did save his burden will weigh heavy on his shoulders. It is the way of life," Evita said.

"Raphael has asked if he can make his home here," Luis told her.

"What did you tell him?" Evita asked as Luis wrapped his right arm around her shoulders and his left arm around Juanita's.

"I told him we would welcome him and his men. They are strong and Javier has already started working with Pero to build a new shelter for Juan and Daniella. They are expecting their third child."

"Yes, I have already spoken to her and she has asked for my help," Evita said and sighed as the last of Nathan's people rode out of sight. 'May God shine His light and help you find your way home, Nathan Jackson."

"Would you like me to take Santos inside, Evita?" Juanita asked.

"Thank you, Juanita," the older woman said and passed the sleeping babe over. "I will be in the chapel should he need me."

"I need to check with Pero and make sure everything is ready for the harvest," Luis said and kissed both women before hurrying toward the fields.

Evita walked to the chapel, relieved to find it empty as she made her way to the front alter. She made the sign of the cross and knelt in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary. Many times in her life she would make her way here and speak freely without fear of retribution from Don Garcia. She'd shed many tears after she found herself with child, and prayed that her son would not be like his father. She had thanked God that Luis was a strong man who was not fooled by the power Don Garcia De Rivera held.

"Lord, I know I have asked for many things in my life, and I am grateful for the gifts You have given me and my son. The men who left here today are doing Your work and they have been through more than most men see in a lifetime. I know, thanks to the gift you placed inside Nathan Jackson, that their physical wounds will heal, but I worry about Nathan. He is strong, but he has seen many bad things in his life. He deserves happiness and I pray that his soul will be healed and his heart will stop hurting. He needs Your strength and Your help to get him through this."

Evita closed her eyes and made the sign of the cross before leaving the chapel. She felt some of the burden ease, but she knew in her heart it would be a long time before she released the pain of living under Don Garcia's rule of thumb. Freedom had never been a sweeter word and a small smile formed as she made her way toward Santos' room. Time would heal and with God's help, so would Nathan Jackson and when it did the sun would shine brighter than ever before.

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Trail, North of the De Rivera Hacienda

Late Morning 

Nathan continued to drive the buggy north along the trail that would lead him home. Home, now there was a word that had very little meaning to him until he set foot in Four Corners. Even the plantation had never really been home for him, but he'd found people accepted him because of his skill. Skill, something else he never associated with himself no matter how many people told him he was a natural healer.

They were traveling steadily north, but at a pace that would not be too hard on the injured men. He glanced over his shoulder to find both Chris and JD sleeping, and hoped they'd stay that way for a while longer. Raphael had told them of a good spot to stop for lunch and maybe stay in the shade for the hottest part of the day. It meant added time to their journey, but for the most part it made sense.

Nathan looked at the man riding beside him and was glad to have Josiah's strength. The ex-preacher could still give one hell of a sermon, but when it came to his friend, his words were strong, and the emotion behind them shone in his eyes.

"Do you need a break, Brother?" Sanchez asked. Driving the wagon with the injured men was hard, every bump or rut making the job even harder. The buggy was more of a supply wagon with room for Larabee and Dunne to stretch out while Tanner sat between them with his hat resting over his eyes.

"I'm all right for now, Josiah. Chris and JD are sleeping," Jackson answered.

"I could spell ya, Nate," Tanner said from the back of the buggy.

Josiah smiled, a grin really that did little to hide the humor he found in the Texan's proclamation. "Sunstroke, Son?"

"Well I could..."

"You get your head down and rest before your back starts giving you fits," Jackson ordered.

"Raphael says the creek is about an hour north of here," Sanchez offered.

"Good...we'll spend the afternoon there and give us all a chance to rest and stretch our legs," Jackson said.

"It'll take us a couple of days to reach the Rio Grande," Sanchez said.

"Maybe that's a good thing. I'm thinking it'd be a good idea for Buck and Ezra to take one of Raphael's men and ride ahead. They could scout out the best place to cross," Jackson said. The river was deep in places and the current could be strong at times. He'd heard stories of men and horses being washed away because of a careless mistake.

"I spoke to Raphael about that and Javier is probably the best man to send. He knows the area and rode across the river at different points during every kind of weather. Least that's what Raphael said."

"Sounds good. Tell them they can set out later in the day. It's gonna be too damn hot to ride even when you're not hurtin'," Jackson said.

"I'll talk to them. You let us know if we need to stop." Sanchez said.

"I will," Jackson said and continued to drive the horses steadily north.

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Creek, North of the De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

Chris wasn't sure what woke him, and he bit back a muffled cry when he tried to sit up. His head pounded and he cursed himself for having drunk too much the night before. The problem was, he couldn't remember drinking and shaded his eyes from the bright sunlight before shifting his body upward until he leaned against the side of the wagon.

"Pro'bly be better if'n ya waited fer Nate," Tanner said with a lopsided grin.

"What the hell...where are we?" Larabee managed through tightly clenched teeth.

"Nate's got ever'one settin' up camp. Said ta tell ya he'd skin ya alive if'n ya try ta git outta here," the Texan answered.

"Where..."

"Jest told ya...camp," Tanner said.

"JD?"

"Nate's got 'im layin' down in the shade...ya look like ya been rode hard and put away wet," the Texan observed.

"Feel like it too," Larabee said as Jackson returned to the buggy.

"All right, Chris, let's get ya outta this sun," Jackson said and leaned in to brace the man as he shifted his weight toward the edge.

Chris eased his aching body over the edge and held his arm tight against his body as Nathan supported his weight. They made their way toward a small clearing beneath several large trees with a small stream running nearby. He stretched his legs and walked slowly toward the creek as Jackson released him and returned to the wagon to help with supplies.

"Chris, don't go far...I need to take a look at ya," Jackson said.

"I need to take care of something you can't help with, Nate," Larabee said and moved into the trees. He could hear the others talking and quickly did what his body demanded before slowly making his way to the bedroll in the shade of the trees.

"You're moving like an old man there, Stud," Wilmington said with a grin.

"Fuck off, Buck!" Larabee growled and eased himself down on the blanket and leaned back against the saddle someone had placed there.

"Okay...you move like an old man and you sound like..."

"Buck, he's got his gun back," Sanchez said.

"Yeah, but he wouldn't shoot me," Wilmington said.

"If I was a betting man..."

"Hell, Ezra, you are a betting man," the rogue said and moved to help Sanchez with lunch.

"Yes, but I was attempting to point out that Mr. Larabee would not think twice about shooting you," Standish told him. He watched as Vin slowly crossed the small clearing and sat down near a large rock. He could easily read the pain etched in the man's features as he leaned back and closed his eyes. There was no mistaking Tanner's sigh of relief at being able to stretch out his legs, and Ezra could tell this journey would be hard on the three injured men.

"Ezra, how do you feel about fish?" Wilmington asked.

"I believe that would depend on what you are alluding to," Standish said as Wilmington took several items from his saddlebags.

"I don't got a clue what alluding means, but I figure we could try to catch some fish. Would be nice to have something for supper," Wilmington said.

"With the noise you two make it'll be next week's supper. It might be better if you leave the fishing to people who have the patience for it," Josiah offered.

"Do I perceive a challenge, Mr. Sanchez?" Standish asked.

"I think that's exactly what he's saying," Wilmington said. "Are you up for such a challenge, Mr. Standish?"

"I have never backed down from such an interesting endeavor," Standish said.

"Mind if I join you, Josiah?" Raphael asked.

"That hardly seems fair..."

"What's not fair, Buck?" Josiah asked.

"You and Raphael..."

"Against you and Ezra. Two against two...sure seems fair in my book, but if you're worried you can go upstream and have first chance at the fish," Sanchez offered as Raphael pulled out everything they would need to catch fish, except for the bait, but he knew where they could find that pretty fast.

Chris listened to the four men as they talked about what the winner would get and what the loser had to do. He hoped they did catch some fish although right now he wasn't sure he could eat anything. He glanced sideways to find JD curled on his right side, sleeping soundly and briefly wondered if Nathan had slipped something into the water he'd been given.

"Chris, ya feel up ta eatin'?" Jackson asked.

"Not really," Larabee answered.

"You need to eat if you're going to get your strength back," the healer told him.

"I know and I will...just not right now," the blond said.

"All right," Jackson said and walked away.

Chris watched the man and wished he could do something to wash away the damage done by Don Garcia. The problem was there was no way he could do that without turning back the hands of time. He closed his eyes and listened to the others as Buck, Ezra, Josiah, and Raphael hashed out the requirement for their bet.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Buck and Ezra watched as Raphael pulled another fish from the creek and tossed it into a bucket they'd taken from the supply wagon. So far Josiah and Raphael had caught six fish, while he and Ezra had nothing, but their wet clothing and wounded pride to show for their troubles. "What the hell are we doing wrong, Ezra?"

"I have no idea, Mr. Wilmington, but I believe Mr. Sanchez and his partner have us at a distinct disadvantage."

"Ya can say that again," the rogue snapped as Sanchez landed another good-sized fish.

"Good thing they didn't leave it up ta you two," Tanner said. He'd given up on trying to sleep and was trying to walk off the pain in his lower back. He'd found a comfortable spot on a fallen tree and spent the last half hour watching Wilmington and Standish. It reminded him of two men he'd seen in a show one time when he was younger. Neither man spoke, but kept hitting each other with anything they could get their hands on.

"Vin, what the hell's wrong with our bait?" Wilmington asked.

"Ain't yer bait," Tanner said.

"Then do tell us why we have been unable to catch anything worthwhile," Standish said.

"Yer makin' a ruckus," the Texan said.

"What is a ruckus?" the gambler asked.

"He means you're too noisy," Jackson advised. He'd come down to the creek to get water for coffee and found himself drawn to the scene before him. He'd even laughed when Buck and Ezra got tangled up and fell on their asses in the water.

"That's right and yer sendin' the fish downstream...straight ta Josiah and Raphael. Looks like the two of ya git ta gut and clean 'em," Tanner advised with a grin.

"We still have time, Ezra," Wilmington said, and cursed when Raphael triumphantly held up a large fish. "Ezra, let's get these lines untangled!"

"Good luck with that," Tanner said, chuckling softly as the two men tried to untangle their lines, but only made things worse.

"You could help!" Wilmington glared at the grinning tracker.

" . . . can barely make ya out . . . " the prankster feigned blinking his eyes and ‘coughing’. " . . . amazin’ I ain’t passed out yet . . . "

"What a load of crap!" the rogue said.

"Well, time's nearly up, Boys, so I would say you'd best get on back ta camp and get ready ta eat crow while the rest of us eat fish," Sanchez said.

"We still have time," Standish said.

"Well, our bucket is full, and if I remember the terms it was two hours or a full bucket...whatever came first," Raphael told them.

"Dammit, Ezra..."

"Don't go blaming me for your shortcomings, Mr. Wilmington! At least I managed to catch one," Standish observed.

"That's not a fish! It's one of them little things you use as bait," the rogue observed.

"It's still more than you caught," Standish said. "Since that means you are at the bottom of the Totem Pole, you should clean the fish while I make sure..."

"No way in hell, Ezra, we both clean the fish and then Josiah cooks it," Wilmington observed and knew no one would argue with Sanchez cooking the fish. The man knew his way around a cook fire and there'd be no arguments with letting him work his magic again.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

He never meant to fall asleep, and had no idea how much time had passed. The rumbling of his stomach told Chris that the aroma was the result of a certain bet. He opened his eyes and blinked away the cobwebs as he sat up and looked around. JD and Vin were both sleeping while Josiah was busy at the campfire. The smell of fish and onions made his mouth water and he could tell Vin wasn't really sleeping. Buck, Ezra, and Raphael were talking near the horses, but one man was conspicuously absent.

Chris stood on stiff legs, stretched the kinks from his back and looked around until he spotted Jackson down by the creek. He nodded to Sanchez and walked past him, hoping he could relieve himself and make sure Nathan understood how much he appreciated what he'd done for them. He took care of his physical needs and slowly made his way to the edge of the water.

"You should be resting," Jackson told him and shifted to the right so the injured gunman could sit beside him on the flat rock.

"I did."

Nathan knew this man was not used to being so inactive and the disgruntled look on his face only emphasized that. "Ya need it...the three of ya were hurt pretty bad, Chris, and sometimes rest is the only thing ta help a body heal."

"You might take a dose of your own medicine, Nathan."

"I'm fine, Chris, or I will be as soon's we get you three home," Jackson told him and skipped another stone across the water.

'Fine, my ass,' Larabee thought, but understood how Jackson felt and his need to come to terms with what happened on his own. He had a feeling Rain was the one person who could help Nathan, and vowed he would be there when the time came. He stared hard into the soulful brown eyes and let a light shine through his own, the kind of inner light that is painted with deep strokes of boundless gratitude. "I owe you, Nate."

"I just did what needed to be done, Chris, there ain't no debt owed for that."

"There is, but it's not something that can be repaid with money. You can't put a price on that. I'm pretty sure I speak for the others when I say thank you for saving my sorry ass, Nathan Jackson."

Nathan smiled thinly at the other man, but he could not console himself with Larabee's words. He knew he had no reason for feeling guilty, but every time he closed his eyes he saw Vin's battered body, or JD's too still form, or Chris bathed in fever. All the while this was happening, he slept in the lap of luxury with three meals a day and anything else he wanted. God, help him, but he couldn't let go of the image of Vin being tortured by De Rivera and his men.

"Don’t go there," the blond warned, easily seeing the guilt rising in the hollow eyes. 

"You don’t understand." How could he?  How could any of them understand? " I saw what he was doing to Vin and didn't stop him! I saw what he did to you and I watched him put you both in the arena with those other men and I did nothing!"

"What would De Rivera have done if you'd tried to stop him?"

"He would have killed you both!" 

The words came out so fast and with such force, that the speaker had not even felt the ripples of their effect.  Chris knew where Nathan was, hell, he’d lived in that dark place more than once. It was only the brave man that could conquer the darkness and fight his way back. Although you could try to provide some light, it was up to the bearer to forge the path on his own, with his heart and soul as a compass.

"At least in the arena we had a chance to fight for our lives. If he'd thrown you in with us we all could have been killed. Guilt can weigh a man down, Nathan. God knows I've carried enough of it around to know. When Sarah and Adam died I blamed myself, then I blamed Buck and it damn near cost me his friendship. Not many men would have put up with what Buck did and still stand at my side. It's taken me a long time to stop being an ass and allow Sarah and Adam's memories to push back the darkness that almost buried me. Believe me I know guilt and I know you should not be carrying that load...not now...not ever," Larabee vowed.

"I keep telling myself that, Chris, but every time I close my eyes I see what he did to you, Vin, and JD. The man was a real bastard..."

"Yes, he was and he's dead, but we're alive because of you and what you can do with your hands and your mind. That's something that doesn't come from a book, Nathan; it comes from your heart. Believe me when I tell you we all see it even if you don't," Larabee told him, and smiled when his stomach rumbled.

"Think maybe we best get back ta camp before that monster decides it can't wait no longer," Jackson said and stood up. When he offered his strong arm to help the injured man stand, the smile that came back hit him like an invisible force. He felt something when the pale hand met his dark one. Something strong, something good, something that only comes from a friend.

"Give it some thought," Chris suggested, seeing a flicker of hope for the first time in the lost gaze. "You’re a good friend, Nathan, you stand taller than most."

"Thanks, Chris," Nathan complimented, "and I’ll try."

"You won’t fall, you...lean on me...on us, we'll help you," Larabee said, hoping that this proud man, who had fought far too many battles alone his life would take that offer.’

"Supper's ready!" Sanchez called and began dishing up the fish. He handed one to Larabee and the other to Jackson before serving the others. "Eat hearty, boys, there's plenty more."

"No thanks to Buck and Ezra," Tanner teased.

"Ha," Wilmington snapped. "What were you doing while Ezra and I were..."

"Making enough noise to wake the dead?" Sanchez asked with a toothy grin.

"They sure woke the fish the hell up," Tanner added.

"Mr. Wilmington, I do believe we should just bow out gracefully," Standish said.

"I don't think so," Larabee said with a smile. "I believe you two are donning aprons and cleaning up."

"You can't be serious..."

"I believe he is and that was our agreement," Standish said, and nodded toward Sanchez. "I believe Mr. Sanchez' culinary talents are underrated. This is better than the finest delicacies in Paris."

"Merci," Sanchez said.

"Je t'en prie," Standish said.

"Ah, hell, next thing you know you'll have us wearing napkins and keeping our pinkies up and saying please and thank you and pardon me," Wilmington grumbled.

"A little class..."

"Is what they have in school; a little class of little children," Wilmington interrupted.

"You, Mr. Wilmington, are uncouth and barbaric..."

"Thank you," the rogue said.

"Don't think he meant it as a compliment, Pard," Larabee said.

"Don't matter none...I'll take it as one," Wilmington said and scooped up another piece of fish before smiling in Standish's direction and belching loudly.

"Ever the portrait of class," the gambler said with a shake of his head.

"In Italy that would be a compliment wouldn't it?" Dunne asked.

"Hey, I think the kid's right," Wilmington said and burped again. "There you go, Josiah, I compliment you on your...what was it Ezra said? Oh, yes, culinary talents. My compliments."

"Thanks, I think," Sanchez said as Vin and JD chuckled at the look on the rogue's face.

The rest of the meal was eaten in relative silence until it was time to clean up. The trouble started when Era and Buck picked up the dishes and scraped the bones into the fire. The whole time Ezra grumbled under his breath about his 'sainted mother'.

"What was that, Ez?" Wilmington asked.

"I said my hands were not meant for such trivial things as washing dishes. They were meant for finer things."

"Yeah," Vin laughed, his blue eyes crinkled in mirth, "Fer woman’s work."

"You'll make someone a good wife, Ezra," Dunne said. "One of them funny cowboys Buck likes."

"I don't go for those funny cowboys, Kid, so watch what you're sayin'...don't want ol' Buck's reputation ruined by rumors like that," Wilmington said and piled the plates on Ezra's arms.

"Yeah, kid, it might chase all of them animal maggots out o’im," Tanner called, and unconsciously rubbed his lower back.

"You bunch think you're funny, but you're not," the rogue said and started toward the creek.

"Excuse me, Mr. Wilmington, but I believe you should be helping with these," Standish said and waited for Wilmington to take some of the dishes.

"No, they seem to be nicely balanced," the ladies' man said as Tanner walked past him.

"Lessen I do this," the wily Texan said and pulled out the second plate. Tanner smiled as the gambler tried to juggle the rest.

Ezra could not quite do the balancing act as dishes went flying and Wilmington's leg caught in an exposed root. He grabbed for anything to hold him up, and managed to latch onto Ezra's jacket. Standish tried to pull away, overbalancing them both as they sprawled headfirst into the water amidst raucous laughter from the rest of the men.

"You, sir, owe me a new jacket and pants!" Standish grumbled and stood up.

"Uhuh, not me...Vin owes us both," Wilmington snapped and turned to look at the men seated around the campfire. The laughter seemed to have been the trick and he didn't mind being the cause of it. Chris, Vin, and JD were still with them and that was something he would gladly give thanks for. "Come on, Ez, let's get the dishes cleaned up and get these boys home."

Standish had seen the same thing Wilmington had and smiled as he began picking up the spilled dishes. It wouldn't take them long to wash them and get everything ready so they could continue their journey home.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening

Evita Martinez held the baby in her arms as she rocked on the veranda overlooking her home. Santos slept, oblivious to the wonderful painting created by God's majestic hand. The colors of the sunset were as breathtaking as anything she could ever imagine and she hoped the sunset was a harbinger of wonderful things to come.

Luis and Juanita had gone for a ride and would return soon, but she enjoyed this time alone with her son's half-brother. Holding him like this reminded her of the days after Luis' birth and the love she'd felt just feeling his breath against her breast when she fed him. Santos had the same thick black hair as Luis and when he smiled it lit up his face. She hoped he would have Dona Maria's personality so that he could guide the Hacienda with a loving heart instead of an iron fist.

Her thoughts wandered to the seven men who had been thrust into their lives because of Don Garcia's cruelty. God willing they would be home in a few days, and she would probably never see them again, but they had touched her heart. She was grateful for having met them and been given the chance to see how seven men, not related by blood, could band together and be stronger than brothers.

Evita felt tears in her eyes as she looked at the baby and thought about the man who'd helped bring him into this world. Nathan Jackson had suffered so much at Don Garcia's hands. He may not bear the physical wounds of the others, but the emotional pain had been evident even after he knew his friends would survive. She knew how he felt, she'd lived it every day since Luis was born, but she would never change the man he'd become. He was someone she could be proud of and had a strength born of love. If she read the others right, Nathan would find he had that same strength and hoped he would harness it.

"Be strong, Nathan, and when the sun comes back into your life embrace the brothers God gave you for they are your strength and you are theirs in return. There is no other gift as strong as the family we have beside us," she whispered and began to sing softly as the bay squirmed in her arms. He quickly calmed at her voice and she knew Do