Magnificent Seven Old West
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The Faithful

by Scribe

Summary: When a group of settlers vanish without a trace, Vin Tanner is enlisted to track their path through an area of the Territory considered cursed by the Indians. As the Seven follow the trail of the lost settlers, they come face to face with a monstrous evil festering in the shadows for over three centuries. Joining the seven, is Harry Luck, an old friend of Ezra Standish who believes there is gold to be found in the same place while the friendship between Chris and Vin is still strained following Vin's affair with Charlotte Richmond.

Set after the episodes "Wagon Train 1 & 2"

WARNING: Contains graphic violence.


Prologue:
The Banner of the Cross

They were called the Pranazin, a name they took in honor of the princess who once tried to warn her king, doom was coming to their land under the banner of the cross.

Carried by bearded men who wore metal casques above their brows, they would come in great ships, bringing to the Faithful, the end of the world. They would cross Teoatl, the vast water surrounding the world, from distant lands with ways so alien, the Faithful would be helpless to fight this impending storm. She had begged for him to listen, to take care and not accept the words of these strangers as a truth to be believed.

Her brother and her king did not listen.

Despite being a good ruler, he was a man of superstition and she, even if she was his sister and of his bloodline, was just a woman. He had more faith in the seers and high priests at his court than he did in her vision so she could do nothing but watch and pray that when the time came, he would know the danger and protect them. For it was not only their people who were threatened by the banner of the cross but all the peoples of the land. From the diminishing Mayans to the distant Incas, the cross threatened not just the Mexica but every last one of them.

Yet when they came, her brother had welcomed them with open arms.

He believed they were the emissaries of the serpent god Quetzalcoatl or Pahana, the lost white brother. While he saw deliverers, she saw destroyers. No matter how much she tried to convince him, the demon Cortez had worked his words of deception into her king's mind and she knew there would be no stopping the horror she had seen in her dreams.

Before the tendrils of ruin grasped them too tightly in its death grip, she decided to act before it was too late. Defying her brother and king because she knew he would listen to her no more, she walked away from the great city of Tenochtitlan, leaving behind its riches, having no wish to see its inevitable destruction. Leaving the city with a handful of the Faithful, they crept out in secret, under the cover of dark to flee the vile banner of the cross she was convinced was the symbol of death.

Abandoning their homeland, they journeyed north into terrain that was nowhere as lush and green as the lands they knew, where rain was scarce and the ground was hard like rock. The people they encountered were primitive in comparison to the races they had known before. They lived like nomads and built no great cities like Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan, nor did they take kindly to trespassers.

In the ensuing battles, many of the Faithful were lost until finally, they were driven beneath the earth, forced to hide not only from the people whose lands they invaded but also because the curse of the cross was never far behind. In the years to come, the cross would chase them into the new lands, until even those whose home this was, fell prey to them as surely as the Mexica. In the end, there was only one truth left to comprehend.

There was nowhere to run that the cross would not find them.

Finding solace in the deep places of the world, the Faithful continued to remain concealed in the darkness, thriving in the black even after she was gone. In her absence, they continued their worship of the old gods supplanted by the cross and bore great hatred for those who had stolen their lands from them. In time, they would emerge into the light and if the Faithful encountered the enemy, the soil upon which they stood would run red with blood.

The Faithful did not forget.

For the three hundred years, the plague of the cross spread across the land, until its power to encompass the world was all but complete, the Faithful hid in the shadows. Shaped by an existence in the dark, their veneer of civilization excoriated in the wake of extreme hunger, hatred, and rage, they had become something far removed from the refugees fleeing a once great empire.

They had become nightmares.

*******

Her name was Heather and she was six years old.

She knew she shouldn't be awake but tucked under the covers beneath the shelter of the canvas, trying to sleep had been unbearable to her child's mind. Even though Jenna told her she needed her rest, Heather could not sleep. She felt hot and uncomfortable, not liking the dry, raspy heat that seemed to blow over this land, even at night. She saw shadows of the other homesteaders walking by the wagon, the light from their campfires making their silhouettes long and spindly like wraiths. Heather couldn't deny they scared her a little.

Her sister Jenna wasn't able to sleep either. Jenna with her long dark hair, was in her white nightdress, sitting at the edge of the wagon, staring into the moonlight sky, her lovely frame illuminated by its bluish light. Heather adored Jenna, who was sweet and kind, who didn't tease her and call her a baby like she had seen other big sisters do. Momma had gone to heaven two summers earlier and since then Jenna had taken her place, making sure Heather didn't miss her too much even though the young girl looked into her sister's eyes and saw that sometimes, Jenna missed momma too but hid it.

"Can't you sleep neither, Jennie?" Heather broke the silence once the shadow of whom she was certain was Barney Stoner walking past their wagon, vanished.

Jenna smiled hearing the nickname, she often did when it was used by Heather, whom she sometimes called Feather because the girl was so little for her age, she was light as a feather. Before she died, only Momma used to call her Jennie and when Heather did the same it reminded Jenna of happier times and the woman who made it so.

"It's too hot," Jenna sighed, thinking about the creek nearby and wishing she could run and soak in it for hours. It wasn't safe to leave the camp she thought with disappointment as she looked up at the jagged line of mountains in the distance, watching over them like disapproving overseers of the land.

Jenna missed the city they had come from but Papa had wanted a new start after momma had passed and for some reason, he chose the Territory to make his claim for land instead of nicer places like Kansas or Oregon. Less competition, he said. Jenna didn't quite understand what he meant but if it would keep him from getting soaked in liquor every night from missing Momma, she could tolerate it.

She heard shifting beside her and saw Heather climb out from under the blankets of their sleeping place and padded silently next to her. Heather was so small, she hardly made a sound against the buckboards as she crept up to Jenna. If there was one bright spot in Jenna's life, it was caring for her baby sister. Heather wasn't a difficult child, nor did she give Jenna a lick of trouble. Momma had raised them right and even though she was still young, on Heather it showed.

Heather sidled up to Jenna and even though it was hot, Jenna wrapped an arm around her and cuddled her as they both watched the stars above. If nothing else, the skies in this part of the country were so clear, you felt you could reach out and just pluck one out of the sky. Keep it in your pocket and carry a piece of heaven with you everywhere.

"You think Papa is going to be okay once we get to the new place?" Heather asked her.

"I hope so," Jenna smiled and kissed the top of her head gently.

"He's so sad." The little girl whispered softly.

"He misses her Feather," Jenna replied, remembering how when Papa came home from the factory, the first thing he'd do after saying hello to his girls, was ask Momma if she was ready for the dance. They'd laugh quietly at the private joke they never shared with their daughters before exchanging a kiss. Until the day she died, which was closer than she knew, it was Jenna's fondest memory of her parents.

"I miss her," Heather sniffled, remembering warm hugs and the smell of freshly baked bread in the dingy apartment they lived.

"Me too," Jenna said with a bittersweet smile, noticing the pout on her sister's lips and hated it being there. "Come on, we're going for a swim."

"But Papa said it's dangerous out there in the dark," Heather pointed out, her youthful face wrinkling with concern.

"We won't be gone for long," Jenna stood up. Her father and the rest of the men were gathered around the campfire, either keeping watch or exchanging stories about their futures when they made their claims. "Don't worry," she smiled at her little sister. "We'll cool down and come right back."

The creek wasn't very deep but it was enough for Heather to get wet all the way to her shoulders. Their night dresses rested against a boulder pushing through the pebbled shore, and though Papa would be madder than hell if he found them like this, Heather didn't care. They were laughing and enjoying the water so much, this momentary bliss was worth risking his anger. Still, they were mindful of how much time they were away. At some point, Papa would return to the wagon to sleep and for sure he'd check on them.

They were still laughing and splashing when they heard the scream.

It tore the night in half, the way one would rip paper apart. Both Jenna and Heather exchanged shocked glances, frozen for a second by the abrupt end to their stolen moment of play. The scream was followed by a chaotic collision of panicked voices, bouncing against each other as some hidden menace revealed itself to the horror of all.

"Come on!" Jenna didn't waste time and swept up Heather into her arms, not prepared to wait for her sister to collect herself as she started moving toward the shore, splashing loudly.

"What's going on?" Heather whined fearfully, unable to see what was happening. The camp was just over the small hill in front of them but they could see nothing of what was causing the sudden outbreak of terrified voices.

"I don't know," Jenna said still carrying her when they reached the shore. She set down the little girl and grabbed the nightdress she had lain on the knee-high boulder, slipping the white fabric over her slick, wet skin. "I'm gonna look. You stay here."

"No Jennie..." Heather started to protest, now terrified for their own welfare after hearing what was going on beyond the hill. There were no sounds of gunfire, just screaming, from not just the women but now also the men.

"I'm not going far," Jenna assured her, kissing her gently on the forehead. "I'm just going to see what's happening okay?

"No..." Heather shook her head, shuddering with each new shriek.

"Feather, I need to go!" Jenna insisted, knowing she couldn't linger. She needed to see what was occurring to assess the situation and get Heather as far away from here as possible if it warranted it. She knew that Papa and the men of the wagon train had spoken about Apache being in the area but they hadn't seen any of the kind in the last two days. In fact, now that Jenna thought about it, they hadn't seen anyone at all since they came into the view of the mountain in front of them. "I promise, I'll be right back."

Before Heather could say any more, Jenna broke away and ran towards the hill, barefoot. Her nightdress still clinging to her teenager's body and fluttered in the wind as she moved. Jenna kept her head low, taking advantage of the bushes and overgrown weeds covering the slope, her own fear finally surfacing. There were sounds, terrible, guttural sounds that she'd not noticed before because the screaming had masked it, like the snuffling of animal guzzling down food. It made her stomach knot in revulsion.

Did a bear or a coyote get loose in the camp? Couldn't be, her mind rejected the idea almost immediately. The men would have shot dead an animal before it could cause the terror she was hearing in the camp. Getting onto her hands and knees as she reached the edge, Jenna glanced over her shoulder and could see Heather still waiting by the shore, her small face etched in fear.

Facing the campfire again, Jenna's eyes widened and what she saw gripped her mind with so much terror, she didn't even realize it when she started to scream.

Chapter One:
Absence

If Chris Larabee had a choice in the matter, there would be no way he would be in town today.

He would be at his shack, surrounded by peace and quiet, taking in the shade of the aspens and tall grass framing the property, keeping him hidden from the rest of the world and working his way into a good drunk. He'd bought the place as a refuge from the town he chose to protect even though he told himself it was just a job, that a dollar a day with room and board was a good deal to satisfy his meager needs.

Except he got tired of staying in town and soon claimed a patch of land for his own. As a former Union soldier, he didn't have to wait the customary five years to make it his for good, because the government waived the waiting period for veterans. Trying to tell himself, this hadn't been in his mind when he first applied for the title was becoming harder and harder because the truth was, he was becoming comfortable in Four Corners. Even now, as he sat outside the jailhouse, watching the goings on in the busy street wishing he was back at his shack, it was to his mild chagrin, he was calling it home.

Four Corners was especially busy today, with the number of horses riding into town creating a perennial cloud of dust in the middle of the street. With them gathered at the hitching posts and their manure piles in the street, the air stank faintly with its acrid stench and brought out the flies. Nevertheless, the townsfolk were out in force despite the less than savory conditions.

Women with faces partially hidden under bonnets traveled like flocks of geese along the boardwalks, darting in and out of stores, catching up with each other about the latest gossip while their children entertained themselves. Chris saw them running through the small alleys between the buildings, tossing balls, playing catch or skipping rope. Meanwhile, shopkeepers swept their front walks, talking to customers or helping them with packages to nearby wagons.

Chris's attention was mostly fixed on the saloons because if there was trouble in town today, it would most likely come from there. There were more saloons in town than any other business, which was often the way in the Territory. With men working on the farms and ranches, there was little for them to do to pass the time other than drink and gamble, to say nothing of the travelers riding through on their way to or from the border.

With his chair propped up against the outside wall of the jailhouse, Chris surveyed the streets, keeping a vigil on all the faces, new and old. The Fourth of July celebrations was a day away and it was part of the reason why the town was so lively. There wasn't much to celebrate in the Territory, but small communities took holidays seriously and Chris knew for a fact there was a large picnic being planned and some sort of dance.

If it were not for the inevitable trouble that came with events like this, he'd hole up somewhere and get better acquainted with a bottle of Red Eye.

"Vin's been awful scarce," Josiah Sanchez commented. Josiah who was seated next to him, a man who was prone to enjoying the quiet like himself had been nose deep in a book, during Chris's silent observation of the streets.

Chris's spine stiffened involuntarily, bristling immediately at the remark. Yeah, Vin Tanner was awful scarce these days and Chris knew why but he wasn't about to comment on it except in passing. "I guess."

The preacher glanced briefly at the gunslinger before dropping his gaze to the pages of his book once more, noticing the subtle shift in the man's manner that implied he wasn't happy about the situation. Truth be told, the rest of the seven weren't particularly thrilled by it either. Josiah, who knew the depth of the friendship between the two men could see the rift was having an effect on the gunslinger despite the man's efforts to hide it.

"Broken heart is a tough thing to get over," Josiah drawled not looking up.

"Never is," Chris remarked and once again, felt a surge of annoyance at Josiah mentioning Vin at all. Of course, it wasn't Josiah Chris was really mad at, but rather himself.

For the last year, Vin Tanner had ridden by his side, had become a trusted friend and someone he could rely upon without question. The former buffalo hunter turned bounty hunter, now town protector was one of the most capable men he knew. From the moment, they stared across the dusty street and met each other's eyes, they recognized something that was more than friendship or brotherhood. When Vin had fallen into stride next to him when they went to rescue Nathan Jackson from those drunken Texans, Chris was overcome with a sense of destiny this was Vin's place in the world. Forever at his side.

Since that day, they rode together, fought together, hell they'd gotten shit-faced drunk together and through it all, Vin had always known what was on his mind, often without Chris having to say it.

Except on that goddamn wagon trail.

Chris's head had been so filled with distractions, he'd missed all the signs of the impending mess Vin would soon land himself in. In retrospect, Chris was furious at his own lack of insight, because as close as they were, he had forgotten Vin was a young man. In fact, Vin was only a few years older than JD. He'd spent most of his life alone, first in an orphanage and then with the Comanche who took him in but would have undoubtedly kept him at arm's length because he was white. As an adult, the young tracker had spent too much time alone hunting buffalo and then fugitives.

Of course, he would completely lose his head when he was faced with a beautiful woman who showed him the interest.

Chris should have advised him instead of taking a step back. He should have taken an interest before he got as far as it had. Unfortunately, Chris had been battling his own conflicted emotions. Try as he might, the possibility Mary Travis, the beautiful editor and chief of the Clarion News, might marry Gerard Whitman had bothered him. Not enough to do anything about it but enough so he wasn't paying attention to how deeply Vin had fallen for Charlotte Richmond.

If he had, he would have told Vin what everyone could see, that Vin cared for a woman whose marital difficulties, made an affair with another man, far different from her husband, an attractive temporary proposition. It would have lasted as long as it took for Charlotte to realize he was a poor substitute before it ended up with Vin getting hurt when he was finally discarded.

Failing to advise Vin wasn't even the worst of it. When the relationship became known and the gossip was threatening friendships all around, Chris should have tried to show understanding. Instead, he remained indifferent, offering no judgment when that was precisely what Vin needed. He needed shaking and being told there were moments a man had to stand back, that he was doing Will Richmond and even Charlotte wrong by pursuing the woman.

No, the worst of it was asking Vin, if Chris could still rely on him.

What the hell had been in his head when he asked that damn question? Hadn't Vin always been at his side watching his back? In the year they'd rode together, there was never a moment when that was ever in doubt. At a time when Vin needed him most, he had chosen that instant to question Vin's reliability? Chris was mortified by his insensitivity.

The wagon train was weeks behind them but Vin had disappeared straight after they got back to town. He'd come back a couple of times but he seemed to be keeping his distance. The question had come between them, like a rift widening with each passing day. Oh, he was there when they needed him, but the threads holding the seven together, felt weak where Vin was concerned and Chris felt it most acutely.

"Maybe it's time to talk to him," Josiah suggested.

"What's there to say?" Chris stared straight ahead, watching a slender figure walking down the boardwalk, her gold hair gleaming in the light as she headed towards her newspaper office.

"I think you know."

Chris let out a sigh and averted his gaze from the pretty widow to the sage-like preacher, reading a battered copy of "An Inland Voyage " by Robert Louis Stevenson. Josiah didn't raise his eyes from the pages of the book but Chris knew he was waiting for a response.

"I should have said it then," Chris said quietly, admitting for the first time to anyone what he should have done and didn't.

"Never too late," Josiah reminded. 'Boy's young, his pride's hurt, heart too. He's used to handling feelings alone because there's never been anyone there to help him. You could remind him he ain't alone no more."

Chris stood up in his chair, shaking his head. "In the end, we're always alone Josiah."

*******

When Mary Travis stepped into the office of the Clarion News, she stopped short at the sight of someone sitting in the chair in front of her desk.

The man was in his forties, with slicked back jet hair, well-defined features and blue eyes that were hiding behind steel-rimmed glasses. He wore a black suit and white shirt, with a navy blue puff tie. While not as somber as an undertaker, he had all the look of a man accustomed to the trappings of an office. Despite herself, the widow thought he looked most out of place, not just in her newsroom but in her town.

Of course, lately, Mary realized she had become accustomed to an entirely different type of man.

"Hello?" She asked puzzled by his presence.

Upon sighting her, the man stood up immediately. "Mrs Travis?"

"Yes," Mary nodded. "I'm Mrs Travis, how can I help you?"

He took a step towards her and wiped his hand on his jacket, before extending it to her in greeting. "Mrs Travis, my name is Raymond Peabody."

Mary blinked, recognizing the name. When she assisted Gerard and his friends in establishing their rights to the land they eventually claimed, she had communicated by telegram to a Raymond Peabody who worked at the General Land Office in Silver City. He had been her chief source of information and had given her the documents proving the claim by Gerard's party pre-dated any claim by Dicky O'Shea.

"Mr Peabody!" Mary broke into a smile. "I remember you! You were so much help to us when we were contesting the land claim made by Dicky O'Shea."

"It was my pleasure Mrs Travis," he offered her a warm smile. "I'm glad to see those people weren't robbed of what was rightfully theirs. "

"Oh, they weren't, thanks to you," she said warmly. "So, what are you doing here in Four Corners?"

"Well ma'am, I was sent out here to find why a group of homesteaders who left Silver City a month ago to take possession of their land in the north-east but never arrived." His expression showed his genuine concern for them. "I know they came through Eagle Bend, Lake Valley, and Fort Seldon. They were supposed to check in at Organ but they never made it there."

"How many families?" Mary asked, not liking the possible reasons why the travelers might not have reached their destination.

"It wasn't a large caravan," Peabody explained. "Most homesteaders prefer to head out to Oregon and Kansas, the Territory isn't exactly the most hospitable place, even ignoring the bandits and the Apache. About fifty people, mostly families."

Mary frowned. Even if the worst did befall them, that was a large number for there to be no survivors at all. The Apache tended to leave homesteaders alone considering the violent response of the Army in such matters. With their lands already under threat with every broken treaty, the Apache wasn't eager to give the Union an excuse to take even more of it away. Also, this was the wrong season for any danger to fall a wagon trail moving east.

"Where was the last place you heard from them?" She asked.

"Fort Seldon," Peabody explained. "They passed through there and there's been nothing since. I've tried to get the army to investigate but they're abandoning the place. The garrison there has been shipping out since spring, it's almost empty now and there's no one up there to go look."

Peabody's face revealed the extent of his concern and Mary was touched by his sincerity. He struck her as a compassionate type and the attempt to validate Gerard and Will Richmond's claims against Dicky O'Shea would never have succeeded without his help. If he feared for these homesteaders, Mary had no doubt there was real cause for it.

"I'm not certain what you think you can do?"

"Well, I have managed to convince Mr Elkins, my superior that we need to learn what has befallen these settlers. We cannot reissue deeds on the properties they have claimed until we are certain there are mitigating reasons why they were abandoned. It could create all sorts of legal complications if we were to give deeds to other applicants only to have the original holders surface. Besides, if something terrible has happened to these people, I prefer to find out what, before we send more potential victims to suffer the same fate."

A grim possibility for certain but he had not answered her question and she was starting to wonder what exactly he needed of her. "I'll help in any way I can," she offered. "What do you have in mind?"

Swallowing thickly, Peabody glanced out the window, in particular at the direction of the jailhouse before turning back to her. "The seven men who escorted Whitman's wagon train, I believe they are town protectors?"

So that was it, Mary nodded in understanding. "Yes, unofficially they maintain the peace in this town."

"Oh good," Peabody smiled with relief. "I am told one of them is a tracker of some reputation?"

"Vin Tanner," Mary nodded. "Some would say he is the best tracker in the Territory."

It was true, Mary knew on occasion the army enlisted Vin's aid as a scout, thanks to his familiarity with the Indians and their ways, to say nothing about his expertise with the land and reading tracks as easily as she would read a book. Of course, Vin had been scarce lately and Mary frowned, knowing why and feeling sympathy for the young man who was no doubt somewhere nursing a bruised ego and very possibly a broken heart.

"Well I have been authorized to hire Mr Tanner and his companions at a rate of $30 a week per man to locate the homesteaders and if necessary escort them to their claim. I wondered if you could make the appropriate introductions."

"Of course," Mary glanced out the window and saw Chris Larabee leaning against one of the wooden columns in front of the jailhouse, deep in thought. She suspected she knew what was on his mind.

"Come on," she said gesturing him to follow her as she headed towards the door. 'There's no time like the present."

*******

There was only one place to be on a day when it was too damn hot and there were too many people on the street. Inside the Standish Saloon, Ezra Standish held court at his favorite table with his associates, engaged in a game of chance that was more for the purpose of whiling away the afternoon rather than winning any real money. The pot was small, no more than a handful of dollars, they could all afford to spare, grateful that the only excitement in town today happened to be folk preparing for the 4th of July celebrations in a day.

"Did you hear?" Buck Wilmington asked, his head swiveling on his neck from left to right as he sought out one particular face amongst the others in the room.

"That you were nowhere as successful with Miss Ellie as you claimed and her father chased you off their property with a shotgun?" Ezra said with a perfectly straight face.

"No..." Buck was still looking about when Ezra's remark fully registered and he shot the gambler a look of indignation. "NO! Her daddy did no such thing!"

"Right," JD grinned, studying his hand and putting down a card. "It was a pitchfork."

"Very funny," Buck bit back and swatted JD's hat off his head. The Bat Masterson replica tumbled to the floor, while JD laughed, no longer offended by the assault on his headgear after a year in Buck's company. There was nothing Buck couldn't do to it then wasn't already done.

"So, your dalliance with the lovely Miss Ellie Southworth went as planned?" Ezra exchanged a smirk with JD and continued to play while the younger man retrieved his hat.

"Of course," Buck stared at them as if that was ever in question. "No what I meant to say was, there's a picnic basket auction at the 4th of July celebrations."

"And you're thinking of entering?" Ezra continued. "I've tasted your culinary expertise when we have been on the trail together Mr Wilmington, if you may permit me to give you some advice, I say forget it."

"Not me, you idjit," Buck growled. "I heard Inez telling one of the saloon girls, Molly, she's thinking of entering."

"Ah," both JD and Ezra said in unison, having a very good idea why Buck was so excited at the prospect of Inez Recillos entering the competition.

Both men instinctively glanced in the direction of the sultry barmaid who was at present, serving the afternoon crowd their drinks. As always, she moved across the dim surroundings of the establishment with its stink of liquor and smoke, like a beam of light bouncing about the room. While Ezra and JD had come to consider Inez as a good friend and respected her ability to hold her own in a room full of drunken men.

To Buck Wilmington however, Inez was his Holy Grail.

It was clear to the seven Buck was well and truly smitten, even before he chose to defend the lady's honor against her pursuer, Don Paulo. However, while Inez had shown her appreciation for what Buck did for her, the lady was clinging to her virtue and her determination to not to be another notch on Buck's very considerably marked belt. Still, Buck continued the chase and the revelation of a picnic basket told both JD and Ezra, what he was planning.

"Let me guess," Ezra rolled his eyes as he gathered the discards and shuffled the deck again. "You intend to bid for the lovely Miss Recillos's basket and spend the afternoon sharing its repast in her company, hopefully charming the lady into falling for your sway, after long last."

"Good plans just write themselves Ezra," Buck grinned.

"Except you're broke," JD pointed out. "You've lost the last two hands and unless you borrow money, you ain't gonna have enough to bid for it anyway."

Buck frowned, staring at the cards in his hands and realized the young man might know what he was talking about. It didn't look as if his losing streak was going to change any time soon. Looking over his shoulder once more, he saw Inez smiling at an old prospector type at the bar, having what looked like a rather amiable conversation with the man as she served him his mug of beer. Seeing her made Buck sigh a little and the need to win her over stabbed at him again, in more than just the obvious place.

"You may have a point," Buck grumbled, realizing JD was right. "How about it JD?" He turned to the young man.

"Sorry Buck," JD shrugged. "I need my money to buy Casey's basket or else she's going to kick my ass."

"What man wouldn't want such qualities in a woman?" Ezra chuckled softly, although he found the young Miss Wells perfectly sweet. He himself preferred other qualities in the fairer sex. For instance, the robustness of her passbook.

"What about you Ezra?" Buck asked, looking at the gambler. "You got all my money."

"I won all your money," Ezra stated firmly, giving the big man a pointed look. "It is important we do not overlook that distinction."

"Whatever. You gonna loan me the money or not?" Buck asked, suspecting he was going to be refused but felt compelled to ask anyway.

"Mr Wilmington, never a borrower nor a lender be..."

"I would give it up Mister," a new voice entered the mix. "The only way Ezra loans anyone money is if it's in the aid of a con. Isn't that right Ezra?"

"Now Sir, I take umbrage at that...." Ezra started to say, raising his eyes to the stranger who had interrupted their conversation with his unsolicited opinion when his eyes widened in stunned surprise. 'As I live and breathe!"

Both Buck and JD exchanged puzzled glances at each other before they turned to the man Ezra was staring at with open-mouthed surprise.

The stranger, like Ezra, was impeccably dressed in an expensive brown suit, a light tan duster over his broad shoulders, complete with salmon colored waistcoat and silk shirt. He wore a gun belt of expensive leather and studs, with well-polished guns sitting in each holster. A cattleman's hat sat on his brow. The man appeared the same age as Ezra, except his build was stockier and his hair and eyes gave away his Gallic origins. He wore a neatly trimmed beard and mustache that made him look rather distinguished.

"It's been a long time Ezra," the man grinned broadly. "How are you old friend?"

Ezra got to his feet and the duo exchanged friendly handshakes before they stepped apart, laughing. "Gentlemen, I would like to introduce you to an old associate of mine, Mr Harry Luck. Harry, this is Mr JD Dunne and Mr Buck Wilmington."

"Nice to meet you Mr Luck," Buck tipped his hat at the man and JD raised a glass of beer towards him in greeting while Harry tipped his own hat in return. "I didn't know Ezra had friends before us. I'm feeling kind of cheated."

"Well if you're friends with Ezra, you get used to the feeling." Harry grinned widely, displaying an affable personality not too dissimilar from the ladies" man at the table.

"I take umbrage at that," Ezra stared at Harry as he gestured for the man to join them. "I never cheated you once. If you simply found yourself incapable of keeping up with the game being played, that is hardly my fault now is it?"

"He always talk like a ten-dollar working girl?" Buck inquired with a smirk.

"Always," Harry replied, guessing these men knew Ezra very well if they could come up with such a description. "Ever since boarding school. I'll tell you, he could talk anyone out of anything, just ask Sister Theresa."

"Sister Theresa?" JD had to ask.

"An extremely nubile and ultimately swayable nun at one of the boarding schools I happened to be a guest at." Ezra grinned, flashing a gold tooth as he remembered the lady in question. To this day, he still had a thing for a woman in coarse, black fabric.

The men broke into a burst of laughter that circled the table, drawing a few eyes in their direction, including that of Inez, who noted the stranger at the table and decided he would probably be needing a drink.

"What are you doing in these parts?" Ezra asked once they'd settled down again. "I thought you were chasing gold in the Dakota Territory the last time I looked."

"I did," Harry, confessed. "The trouble is, so was everyone else."

"Yeah, gold fever does catch on like wildfire," Buck agreed, having seen reasonable men lose all good sense at the possibility of striking it rich. Of course, the competition for such things was fierce and the mother lodes never as vast as anticipated.

"I'm actually traveling cross-country to New York," Harry revealed. "The place to be is not in the US at all, it's in Africa."

"Africa?" Ezra stared at him. "Surely you jest."

"Not at all," Harry sat up and leaned forward as if he were imparting to his acquaintances, old and new, some great secret only he was privy to. "Forget gold! In Africa, it's all about diamonds."

"Diamonds?" Ezra declared, thinking that elevated the stakes considerably and of course, Africa was known to be a land rich in precious jewels. "You are going to travel to the ends of the earth to a land so distant, you can barely speak the language in the hopes of becoming a diamond miner? You could barely speak French in school!"

"Ezra that's rude," JD stared at the gambler frowning. Mr Luck seemed perfectly reasonable and he'd done enough schooling to know something about the riches to be found in the Transvaal. 'It ain't so crazy, I heard of folks in Europe crossing the Atlantic to get to the Cape."

Harry broke out into a wide smile, "now that's a young man of some intelligence. And you are so right Mr Dunne, there is a fortune waiting for me. I hear stories that you don't even have to mine the diamonds, there are beaches where you just have to pick them up out of the sand."

"Gentlemen," Inez greeted coming up to the table.

No sooner than she arrived, both Buck and Harry jumped to their feet but it was Harry who spoke first.

"Now what is a dazzlingly beautiful woman like you, doing in a place like this?" Harry took her hand in his and offered a continental greeting which caught Inez by surprise, as evidenced by the bloom of color running across her cheeks. Inez flashed him a smile, one that was completely unfamiliar to the other men at the table. For a woman they knew to be immune to most attempts at charm, Inez seemed to be responding to Mr Luck.

Buck started to interject, not liking at all the newcomer's success with the object of his affections when Ezra spoke taking great amusement in the simultaneous shade of green that fell over Buck's face at the same time as Inez's blush. 'Mr Harry Luck, may I introduce to you to the fair Miss Inez Recillos. Not only does she bring weary travelers cool libations to satiate our thirst, but she is also the manager of this establishment."

"A woman of beauty and intelligence," Harry smiled at her. "I do not know which I appreciate more."

"Alright, alright," Buck interrupted unable to bear it any more. "We ought to let the lady get back to work. Just give her your order."

Sensing the somewhat proprietary tone in his voice, Harry turned to Buck with a look of apology. "I'm sorry I don't mean to be intruding..."

"Trust me," Inez spoke out, shooting Buck a dark look before capturing Harry's attention again with another radiant smile. "You are intruding on nothing. What can I get you, Senor?

"I've already been graced with your beauty," Harry replied, "I don't know if I need anything else."

Buck snorted in disgust.

"Buck, sit down," JD tugged at the big man to take up his seat again before he embarrassed himself any further. "Green ain't a good color on you."

Buck glared at him and swatted JD's hat off his head again.

*******

Inside the jailhouse, Chris and Josiah listened to Peabody's story about the missing homesteaders and the proposition from the Land Office to compensate them for a week of their time to conduct a search. Even though Chris would have carried out the search without being paid for it, he was reluctant to make such an offer on behalf of the others. He knew that a dollar a day for some of them was a pittance and the chance to make some extra cash would be welcomed. Certainly, Chris was unprepared to listen to Ezra's bitching if he refused Peabody's offer to pay them.

Besides, if it got him out of town for a few days, Chris was not going to waste the opportunity.

"So, you'll do it?" Peabody asked hopefully.

"Yeah," Chris nodded. "It's only a couple of days ride away from here and I don't much like the idea of leaving them to fend for themselves if they're really in trouble. What lies between Organ and Fort Seldon is Apache country, it may be possible these homesteaders got lost and wandered into their territory. If that's the case, getting them out isn't going to be easy."

"And when will we be leaving?"

Chris and Josiah exchanged glances before the gunslinger faced front again and asked. "We ?"

"I'm going with you of course," Peabody replied as if this had been a foregone conclusion, although to present company it was obviously not.

"Uh Mr Peabody," Mary said watching Chris's expression darken and was perfectly aware the man was about to say something with less diplomacy than usual. Josiah was trying to curb his smile, conscious of the same thing and deciding since Mary had spoken up, to let her do the honors. "Have you been out on the trail before? It can be quite rough, especially if there are Apache involved."

"May not be Apache," Josiah added. "It could be bandits or outlaws. The Territory isn't exactly the safest place for a man like yourself, accustomed to more bureaucratic pursuits."

From the look of him, Peabody was a man used to being inside an office, surrounded by books, paper, and four walls. While Josiah sensed genuine concern for the homesteaders he'd sent on their journey to Organ, his misplaced desire to join the seven on this trip could make him more of a hindrance than an asset if they ran into trouble.

"I'm going," Peabody said firmly. "I've handed out these parcels of land to settlers for the last three years, with no idea what I'm sending them into. To the Land Office, these parcels are grid squares on a map, we have no idea what the terrain is actually like. We could be sending them to hell and have no idea of it until it's too late. I can't send anyone else to take over the land if these people are lost, not until I know what it is they are risking their lives for."

It was a noble sentiment but Chris didn't much like it. However, since Peabody was a Federal representative and also the one paying for this rescue mission, Chris supposed he could not be kept away.

"Your funeral," he shrugged. "But if these people are in trouble, we need to get to them fast. You need to keep up."

"Raymond," Mary spoke up, "are you sure about this?"

While she would always worry about the seven and in particular the gunslinger in front of her, she did feel some measure of concern for Peabody who didn't seem cut out for this duty. However, by the set of his jaw, it looked like she would have no more success in convincing him to stay behind in Four Corners than Josiah.

"Yes Mrs Travis," Peabody nodded. "I'm certain. I need to see for myself what's happened to these people or I'm never going to feel comfortable doing my job again."

Josiah saw Chris shrug and decided that was that. "I guess all we gotta do now is find Vin."

Once again, Chris stiffened involuntarily, an action that did not escape Mary either this time.

"Where is Mr Tanner anyway?" She inquired. "I haven't seen him in a few days."

"He's off on his own," the gunslinger said coolly. "You know how he is. Every now and then he needs a break from the town."

Or from me, Chris thought silently.

*******

"How long has he been out there?" Nathan Jackson asked the Navajo Chief Kojay as the two men stared at one of the many hills surrounding the canyon where the village was situated.

The healer had made his monthly pilgrimage to the small reservation to check on the tribe to see if they had any need of his services. Although there were medicine men in the village who serviced the needs of the community, the Navajo, like so many other tribes in this land usurped by the white man, were susceptible to the many diseases he brought with them. While Nathan was by no means a medical doctor, he did know how to recognize the signs of such ailments and if necessary treat them.

Ever since Vin Tanner's help in exonerating Kojay's son Chanu of the murder of his wife Claire, the daughter of a white preacher, the seven had become familiar to the people this tribe of Navajo. Josiah in particular, often visited with the old chief, having developed a friendship Nathan suspected was born out of an understanding of their own spirituality and often spent many hours discussing the subject. Meanwhile, Vin who had grown up among Comanche was more at ease in these surroundings than the civilization of Four Corners.

"Two days now," Kojay replied.

"Does he talk to anyone?" Nathan asked, staring at the tracker who was probably aware he was being observed. Vin seemed to be sitting with his back to them, looking at the horizon beyond the village into a place only he could see.

"No," the older man replied. "He came and offered greeting on the first day, then he goes on his own and simply sits. Sometimes he goes to hunt but most of the time, he stares into the fire and drinks into the night."

Nathan let out a sigh and knew the behavior well enough. He'd seen Chris Larabee embark on such binges but Chris had more reason for such melancholy than Vin. Then again, Nathan knew how miserable he felt when he left Rain at the Seminole Village the first time so who was he to judge how Vin nursed a broken heart.

"What has happened to cause this?" Kojay asked, unaccustomed to seeing the tracker in this way. Even Chanu's entreaties to have Vin join them for their evening meals had gone ignored. While the tracker was never rude, it was clear he was not in the mood for company.

"What hasn't?" The healer sighed, knowing perfectly well what was wrong with Vin but was reluctant to give that information away to Kojay without the tracker's permission. "I better go see him, make sure he don't do anything stupid."

"I do not think Tanner is that unwise," Kojay said firmly. "I think he is in pain."

"Yeah I know," Nathan said and started walking towards the hill where Vin had made his camp. "Unfortunately, its pain I can't do nothing about."

The ache for her was unbearable.

Vin Tanner thought riding away from her would be the end of it. After all, they'd only been together for a handful of days, how much would it hurt him? It wasn't the first time he walked away from a woman. More recently, he'd fallen for Jenny, the homicidal killer hired by Stuart James to kill Mary Travis. He'd put a bullet into her and sure its stung for a couple of days, but he got over it. Even earlier than that, in his youth, he'd loved a Comanche girl until things became impossible and he'd left her too and like Jenny, it hurt but Vin was able to get over it.

Not this time.

Vin did not think it was possible to ache inside so intensely and for so long. Every fiber of his being wanted to get on Peso and ride out to that homestead where she and her husband were beginning their new life. He wanted to tell her he made a mistake, that Brazil was within reach and all she had to do to claim that piece of paradise for herself, was to take his hand and ride away with him. At nights, he tossed and turned in his wagon, dreaming about how she'd tasted, how she cried out his name when they made love beneath the stars on that prairie, only to wake up with this empty hole in his heart where she had been.

Leaving Four Corners to come out here had done little to alleviate the need and Vin knew he was neglecting his friends and his life because of a woman because he was wounded and he simply did not know how to heal himself. A Comanche chief once told him a story about the goldfinch who could only sing the greatest song of its existence, if it impaled itself on the sharpest spike. Vin felt a little like that, like to be with Charlotte even briefly, he'd impaled himself and know that the song was done, there was only the dying left.

He saw Nathan coming long before the healer reached the hill and braced himself for the healer trying to meddle in his business. Under normal circumstances, Vin wouldn't have minded the company but he was a wounded animal, and anyone with a lick of sense knew you left a wounded animal alone until it healed itself or bled to death. At the moment, Vin wasn't entirely sure which one he was. He supposed if anyone was going to intrude on him, it might as well be Nathan.

Nathan wouldn't judge him.

The moment that thought crossed his mind, Vin's jaw set, feeling a surge of anger and disappointment in the gunslinger he considered his best friend, who doubted him because he cared for Charlotte. As if loving a woman, made him incapable of watching Chris's back. The question had incensed him because Vin didn't feel it deserved. Yeah, he'd been foolish when he took off with Charlotte but he'd also come back when it mattered, because no matter what, he couldn't abandon his friends.

Something Chris obviously thought him capable of doing, because of a woman.

"So how long you gonna stay up here and sulk?" Nathan interrupted Vin's thoughts when he finally reached the tracker's campsite.

Vin gave him a look of annoyance. "I ain't sulking. I just need some time alone."

"Uh huh," Nathan said approaching Vin who was sitting facing the land beneath the heal, sparsely covered in shrubs and short pines. Summer had turned what grass there was gold and it was picturesque, even if the land looked dry and harsh.

Sitting down next to the tracker, he said nothing for a few seconds until Vin handed him a flask. Nathan took a swig of whiskey and handed it back to him.

"You've been out here for a few days," Nathan said after a moment. "People are getting worried about you."

"What people?" Vin asked not looking at him.

"Your friends, you dang fool," Nathan nudged him. "Me, Buck, Ezra, Josiah, JD and...."

Before Nathan could say Chris's name, Vin interrupted him. 'He knows I'd be fine."

Nathan paused and took a deep breath. "He may know it but it doesn't stop him from being worried just the same."

"Maybe," Vin replied, not really caring much about what Chris Larabee thought about him right now. He was too busy trying to rid himself of the pain that leaving Charlotte had caused him. He knew part of the reason he was staying away from Chris because it was too easy to take his anger out of the gunslinger. The rift between them was not yet irrevocable but Vin knew if he didn't get a handle on himself, if he didn't get rid of this ache for Charlotte, it could easily be misdirected at Chris and as angry as he was, he wasn't about to demolish their friendship.

"There ain't no maybe Vin," Nathan stated firmly. "He's worried about you just like we all are. I can't speak to what you're feeling right now but I do know what it's like to be alone when you're hurting. You spent too much time up here on your own and its gonna make you do something stupid. Like going after her."

Vin turned to him sharply because that thought had already crossed his mind, much to his shame. Going after Charlotte would be a mistake, not only because she belonged to another man but because going to her would keep her from trying to make it work with her husband and no matter what he told himself, it was Richmond Charlotte loved, not him.

Trouble was, a part of Vin Tanner just didn't care.

Chapter Two:
Misunderstandings

It was something Chris Larabee seldom spoke about, but whenever Vin Tanner hit town, he knew.

Whether it was a shift in the wind, the way the tension in his spine seemed to relax just a fraction or a deeper connection he did not understand, Chris always had a sense when Vin was around. Although neither ever mentioned it to each other, Chris was certain Vin felt the same about him too. It spoke to the symbiotic relationship that developed between them from the very first and part of the reason why Chris was so furious at himself for questioning Vin's loyalty in the first place.

The tracker returned to town that night, astride Peso as he and Nathan rode through the main street. Chris who had planned on heading back to his shack, after appraising the rest of the seven of the journey they would be taking on Peabody's behalf, was glad to see the younger man. It saved him the trouble of having to find Vin out there on the range, mostly because it was Vin's skills that were vital to finding these lost settlers and no search party could begin without him.

He had been in the process of finishing his drink at the table he shared with Josiah, JD and Buck, surrounded by the saloon's evening crowd. Ezra and his old friend Harry, were at one of the felt covered tables reserved for long poker sessions, playing a duelling game where the winner was whoever could out fleece the locals. Chris couldn't say he minded Luck, who reminded him a little of Buck with a bit more polish. The man's accent certainly did not sound southern and had an air of eastern breeding behind it.

The ungainly clunk off the poorly tuned piano in the corner, the sharp tinkling of mugs and glasses and the loud chatter of voices from an assortment of patrons across the dust covered floor, indicated the busy night ahead for Inez. From cowhands to trail herders, the traveling salesmen, and bored locals, they were all here tonight, either for the celebration in two days or taking a pause before they headed home or back to their properties. The music and Inez's cheerful disposition as she flounced from table to table kept the atmosphere pleasant and lively.

"Well this was disappointing," Buck grumbled, realizing he would be missing the picnic auction and Inez's basket now they were being enlisted to head out in search of lost settlers. "I was figuring on spending some time with Inez." His blue eyes rested on her across the room as she set down a mug at a table, rewarding the man who paid the tab with a generous tip, with a radiant smile.

"Oh, I don't know," JD smirked, remembering the morning's new arrival and glanced instinctively at Harry who was still dueling with Ezra a table away. "I don't think you had any chance of getting your hands on it anyway. Looks like Ezra's friend might make a try for it."

Chris suppressed the smile that threatened to sneak across his face at the sight of Buck stiffening at the idea he might have competition. 'He ain't staying that long, he's going to Africa, remember?"

"Long way to Africa," Josiah joined in JD's teasing and added playfully, "man might want company. Besides, there's nothing like sweeping a beautiful woman away on a worldwide adventure."

"Don't even think about it," Buck warned as if JD and Josiah had any power to stop it from happening by just voicing the thought. The idea she might leave for some place so far away he couldn't even find it on a map was frankly terrifying. "Why would you want to bring a woman with you that far, when there's a whole bunch of gorgeous African fillies waiting for you.?

Buck's eyes misted over with the idea of gloriously lithe women, with flawless exotic skin and eyes like coals, their full lips flashing them smiles, before inducting him in their wild ways. "I sure wouldn't."

"He might have a taste for something familiar," Josiah pointed out, guessing where Buck's mind had gone for the last few seconds. "Although when I was in India..." he winked.

"You went all the way to India?" JD's eyes widened in fascination. He knew Josiah was well traveled but the preacher's journey to that country was unknown to him. "What's that like?"

Even Chris listened with interest.

"Hot," Josiah answered, a fond smile creeping across his face.

"And the women?" Buck, true to form, asked.

"Beautiful. They got smiles that can break your heart, golden skin and brown eyes like pools of chocolate. When they dance, it's poetry, all color and grace." Josiah replied, remembering hot balmy nights, spice-filled air and warm companionship that did much to settle his heart in the days when he was young and uncertain of what to do with himself or his service to God.

Chris's eyes shifted immediately to the batwing doors when he saw Vin stepping through them. He'd seen Vin earlier and expected the young man to eventually show up once Peso was stabled. Nathan would undoubtedly head for his infirmary first, to unload his medical bag and get cleaned up before joining them.

As it was his habit entering any room, the tracker surveyed the floor, resting briefly on Ezra and the stranger with him, before continuing his study. Their eyes made contact but instead of connection, Chris saw only walls.

"Hey, Vin!" JD called out enthusiastically, always pleased to see one of their missing number returning to them.

Vin glanced at Inez long enough to let her know he wanted a drink, before he joined them, taking up the empty chair at their table.

"How's it going, Vin?" Buck asked forgetting, for now, Inez and the possibility of having another rooster in the henhouse, to play buffer for whatever was happening between Chris and Vin.

"Alright, I reckon," Vin greeted "What's happening here? Town's seems a might livelier than usual."

"It's the Fourth of July celebrations," Josiah explained, noticing Vin's aloofness towards Chris. "It's bringing out the patriots from the woodwork. They're either coming in to take part in the festivities or get drunk watching it."

"Sounds like the way to do it," Vin remarked with a nod.

"We won't be here for it," Chris said stiffly. "We've got a lost wagon train out there, somewhere east of Fort Seldon. Seems they left Silver City a month ago and hadn't been heard from since leaving the Fort. They were supposed to reach Organ, but they never made it there."

Vin ignored Chris's usual brusque tone to ruminate on what he was just told.

"That's Apache country," Vin replied after a moment. 'If a wagon train got lost and went into their territory, I ain't holding out much hope for them." The tracker hated that outcome being a possibility but, in all honesty, could not ignore it either. If an Apache war party had wiped out a wagon train of homesteaders, there was going to be hell to pay and he hoped they knew the consequences for that mistake.

"We need to make sure," Chris stated firmly, telling more than just Vin at the table, the journey had to be made for confirmation alone.

"Hey at least we're getting paid for it," Buck declared, wanting to dispel the tension that still existed between the two men, or at least reduce it to less noticeable levels. "Seems some fella from the Land Office wants to pay us thirty dollars each, to ride out there and check it out."

"Thirty dollars?" Vin raised a brow at that. Considering they made a dollar a day, that was a month's work and Vin wasn't averse to making a trip for a little extra coin.

"Yeah," JD replied. "Could come in handy since I'm going to be spending all my money making it up to Casey for missing the auction."

"And those windows in my church are ready to have some glass put in," Josiah added. He was not one to linger on monetary matters, but he had been building his small church out of pocket and while some of the materials were donated, most of it was through Josiah's own investment. He didn't mind of course, it was his covenant with God, to give the people of Four Corners a place to worship in return for the good fortune that came with being their protectors. "I might even be able to get the stained variety."

"When do we leave?" Vin said as a mug of beer was set down in front of him by one of the servers who helped Inez on busy nights.

"We were waiting on you," Chris replied. 'Now that you're back, I'm thinking tomorrow, before the sun gets too high in the morning."

"That's fine," Vin answered, not meeting his eyes. "We should pack for at least a week. There ain't much past the Fort except a few watering holes. The Apache don't like trespassers, which is why I think we might be too late for these homesteaders."

"Hope springs eternal," Josiah returned, not about to give up on the possibility of survivors.

"You been out that way before?" Chris asked Vin, mostly because he was unfamiliar with that part of the Territory.

"A couple of years back when I was doing some scouting for the army," Vin nodded. "I ran into the Apache and they're mighty squirrely about folk in that area."

Although now that Vin thought about it, the Apache hadn't just been hostile about the white man crossing their territory but in general. It had been odd.

It was a look Chris caught. 'What?"

Vin blinked and stared at him again. "I'm ain't sure but there was something about the way they were so hell-bent on keeping us out of there."

"That's not unusual," Buck replied. "We don't seem to bring good luck to them when we go staking a claim on their territory."

"It wasn't just that," Vin mused. "They were scared."

*******

Leaving his infirmary after getting cleaned following his ride back from the reservation, Nathan made his way down the stairs, with every intention of joining his friends at the saloon. He was glad Vin had come back with him and the two had even talked a little bit on the ride back. After a year riding with Vin, Nathan had come to know the tracker well enough to suspect when he didn't talk it was because there was a lot on his mind.

Like the rest of the seven, Nathan had borne witness to the catastrophe that had been Vin's ill-fated romance with Charlotte Richmond. Being in love with a woman he had to give up playing healer and protector to Four Corners, gave Nathan a perspective on the heartache Vin was suffering and Nathan felt no need to opine on the fact Charlotte was married. Besides, there were enough people doing that already. Instead, Nathan made it clear if Vin wanted to talk, he was willing to listen and left it at that.

Reaching the foot of the steps, he noted that Mr Rosken, the owner of the hardware store above which his infirmary was situated, emerged from the doorway. As always, Rosken eyed Nathan with obvious indifference but not enough to refuse the monthly rent he received from the healer for the lease of his premises. Seeing Rosken come up to him, prompted Nathan into making a quick calculation and with annoyance, he knew he should have paid his rent today but had opted to wait until he returned from the reservation

Judging by the look on Rosken's face, it was clear Nathan should not have delayed the payment.

"Mr Jackson," Rosken spoke and the tension in his voice was clear. "Your rent was due today."

"I'm sorry Mr Rosken," Nathan apologised, aware that he had to play supplicant if he wanted to keep his premises. The infirmary wasn't just where he healed the sick of Four Corners, it had become his home. He wouldn't like to give it up and move elsewhere because he was unable to swallow his pride, even for a little bit. It wasn't as if he hadn't learned how to be expert at it after growing up on a plantation as a slave. "I had to ride out to the reservation today, I'll get it to you first thing in the morning."

By this time of the day, the banks were closed and despite Ezra Standish's belief the establishments were nowhere as trustworthy as his boot, Nathan had insisted on keeping his money there.

"See that you do," Rosken returned, not sharply but enough for Nathan to feel the sting of his tone.

"Right," Nathan replied, rooted in the spot for a few seconds while he tried not to feel quite so...black.

While Rosken had never confessed to disliking Nathan, the healer had a sense he wasn't entirely welcomed above the hardware store either. They barely exchanged words even though Nathan was always amiable and paid his rent (mostly) on time. He thought being one of the town's protectors might have earned him some goodwill but as he started walking again, realized that some folks would never really see him the way he wished to be, as a healer.

Of course, in the middle of the night when he couldn't sleep, he sometimes mined the impossible dream of being a doctor, even though wishing for something like that was like wishing for the moon. No, it was never going to happen, and the truth was, his life wasn't terrible, even if people like Rosken turned up now and then. A long time ago, someone he loved told him he had to have hope and to this day, he tried to follow that simple piece of advice.

Besides, he had a woman who loved him, respect from the people who mattered to him and friends who would die for him if necessary. Even one of those things made him a rich man.

"Hello Nathan," the pleasant voice of Mary Travis greeted him.

Lifting his gaze from the ground he had been staring at as he walked, Nathan flashed the lovely blond widow a smile as she fell into stride with him. Judging by the direction she was taking, she was on her way back to her office, which was a few doors before the saloon. There were slight stains of ink on her fingertips, indicating she had been handing out papers.

"Good afternoon Mrs Travis," Nathan offered her a warm greeting. Even though he would never presume to call her by her first name despite her numerous requests for him to do so, Nathan could not bring himself to be so informal with her, even if he thought the world of the woman. He never forgot how she had stood in front of those drunken Texans and had been prepared to fight them to save his life. 'How you doing?"

"Good, good," she replied. "Did you just get back from the reservation?"

"Yeah," Nathan nodded. "I went there to check up on them, make sure they're all okay. They got medicine men that can heal some things but others that need a doctor, though they're going to have to make do with me."

"We're lucky to have you," she said with a smile and then added. "Especially since I can't seem to get a doctor to set up shop here."

"This is a rough place ma'am," Nathan pointed out. "Hard to get a doctor from outside the Territory to give it all up to come here."

Nathan was aware Mary had been trying to get a doctor to come to Four Corners for some time, but the town was only now starting to show signs of respectability. Properly licensed physicians were reluctant to come to a place, where most of the time patients couldn't even pay except in barter and they were in danger of being shot by outlaws or attacked by Indians.

"Well, I'm going to use Stephen's newspaper contacts and advertise for one in some of the big cities. Who knows, we might get lucky."

Nathan didn't think so but remained silent on the matter.

"We certainly need one when you're not around," Mary pointed out. "As it is, we'll have to go to see Doctor Atkins, while you're away."

"While I'm away?" Nathan stared at her. "I just got back. You know something I don't?"

Mary winced. "Oh dear, I should have waited until you spoke to Mr Larabee."

"It's alright," he said not wishing her to be distressed by her slip. "I'll pretend to be surprised when he tells me." He flashed her a grin.

Mary laughed. "I don't suppose there's any harm if I tell you," she said seeing the Standish Tavern come into view. "An officer of the Land Office has to track down a wagon train that's gone missing in the Organ Mountains. They haven't been heard from since leaving Fort Seldon and he's worried they might be in trouble."

"How long ago did they leave Silver City?" Nathan asked, grateful now that Vin had come back with him. There was no way they would find anyone without the tracker's skills.

"A month," Mary answered, her face showing her doubt at their survival with so much time passed.

Nathan tended to agree with her assessment. "Well if they're out there, we'll find them."

After the friendships he'd made with the folk who were on that wagon train that caused so much trouble recently, he didn't like to see another group of travellers come to harm. He admired their courage in trying to build a new life for themselves, especially in the Territory. While homesteading was spreading across the country thanks to the Homestead Act, very few of those folks came this way because the land was hard, and the proliferation of lawlessness was rampant. To say nothing about the undeclared war being waged between the white man and the Indians who were here before them.

"Mr Peabody is also paying all of you thirty dollars for a week for your time," she added.

"Thirty dollars?" Nathan stared at her in surprise. Although his role as lawman in Four Corners meant he would not want for room or board, his dollar a day usually went to the upkeep of his healing practice. Most of his patients couldn't afford to pay him and while he took it in barter, the truth was there were medicines he needed to buy that came out of the money he earned. On top of that, he had rent to pay. Thirty dollars would take care of that for quite a few weeks and allow him to restock his supplies.

"Yes," she nodded. "After all, where you're going is out of your jurisdiction and I think Four Corners can spare all of you for a week if it means finding out what has become of those homesteaders."

"For thirty dollars," Nathan smiled, "they can have a week of my time."

"That's the spirit," she laughed as she reached the door of the Clarion News.

"Well last time I made a deal like that," he said glancing at the Standish Saloon ahead. "It didn't turn out so bad."

*******

"So," Harry Luck said after the table he and Ezra had been using to play the locals into new levels of fiscal ruin was empty and it was just the two of them, left to battle it out for the pot. The collection of coins, notes, and one pocket watch was hardly a king's ransom but nothing to take lightly either. 'What angle are you playing here?"

Harry looked around the saloon, which while lively, was strictly provincial. He was accustomed to seeing Ezra in places like New Orleans, Charleston, and even Atlanta on one occasion. This town, even if it had the most beautiful bartender in the Territory, Harry thought admiring the woman in question behind the counter, was little more than a backwater. If he hadn't needed a break in his journey eastward, he would have hardly wasted his time.

Ezra met the man's gaze. "What makes you think I am playing some sort of con?"

Harry let out a short laugh. "Come on, look at this place and this pot." He glanced down at the pile in the middle of the felt. "You can make double it in a larger town."

"I do own this saloon," Ezra replied, trying not to feel a little defensive by his lack of personal prosperity in Four Corners. Well that wasn't actually true, Maude owned it and he had a stake, but it was his name on the sign and he looked after his mother's interest in her absence. "And I believe there is potential here."

"You're kidding," Harry stared at him in disbelief. "You know, seeing you here, I'm thinking you should pull up stakes and join me."

Ezra stared at him. "On the dark continent?"

"Why not?" Harry leaned forward. "Think of it Ezra, diamonds you can pick off the beach. We'll make a fortune and come back home as millionaires."

While the idea did have its charms, Ezra knew there was more than just the saloon that kept him in Four Corners. For the first time in his life, he felt part of a group and playing lawman had tapped into a part of himself, he never knew existed, a part that wanted friendship and respect. He had those things here.

"I have made a commitment here," Ezra answered, maintaining his practiced mask of southern ease. "I am cultivating relationships here that will bear fruit after a time. As a lawman, I have a position of respect and once the stability of the community is assured, I will be primed to make inroads into other business ventures."

"For a dollar a day?" Harry stared at him skeptically. "Who are you kidding? This town is like a dozen others in the Territory, sooner or later the desert is going to swallow it up."

"I do not believe so," Ezra insisted, the chatter of the patrons seeming very distant in light of this conversation. "The railroad will be opening soon, and more business are choosing to establish themselves here now that my associates and I are bringing law and order into the area. As a matter of fact, tomorrow we are riding into the Organ Mountains in pursuit of some lost settlers, and we will be compensated for our trouble."

Suddenly Harry sat up straighter and stared at him. 'Did you say the Organ Mountains?"

Ezra gave him a look. "I did," he said gingerly, recognizing the sudden shift in Harry's tone that switched from derision to sudden interest and Ezra had to wonder what was running through the man's mind. "Why?"

"You sly dog!" Harry exploded. "You had me going there. For a minute I thought you were really going there to rescue lost homesteaders."

Ezra felt as if he had just missed something. "What?"

"You thought I'd forgotten about that story we heard from Smiling Pete Hawkins, didn't you?" Harry exclaimed, his expression almost gleeful.

Once again, Ezra tried to understand what Harry was alluding to until the mention of Smiling Pete. The name was vaguely familiar and he shifted through the faces and monikers of his past, it brought to bear a memory of a perennially drunk and elderly con man they'd met on a Charleston River boat about five years ago. Frankly, Ezra had taken nothing the man said seriously when the words were being uttered were barely intelligible through his slurred speech. However, while Ezra recalled finding the tale mildly entertaining, Harry who had a weakness for any kind of story where the end result was the accumulation of gold and lots of it, had been rather enthralled.

Ezra almost groaned visibly, realising what tangent Harry was embarking on now. "Harry, I barely remember the story. "

"Oh really?" Harry declared, disbelief oozing from every word. "You're telling me you forgot about the story passed down by the Indians in the area, about the gold hidden in those mountains. The ones carried there by Aztec refugees escaping their city because they believed Cortes was some kind of demon? "

"Considering his exploits with Moctezuma, they were not far wrong." Ezra drawled, reaching for his whisky and taking a sip because he could feel a headache coming on.

"Come on, we both know that they left their city and headed north, making it as far as the Organ Mountains to set up a new Aztec civilization, carrying their gold with them to do it."

Details began to flood into Ezra's mind regarding Pete's rather far-fetched tale and he picked up some of the narrative. "I recall the tale of course. The natives in the area were none too thrilled by this and proceeded to slaughter all of the poor souls, leaving their corpses to be picked at by the crows and their gold languishing in the mountains. Just because I know it, does not mean I believe it."

"Of course," Harry retorted, looking totally skeptical. "That's why you're playing out this charade, isn't it? Going up there? You're looking for the gold!"

Ezra stared at the man like he'd lost his mind.

"Harry it is fiction." He said firmly, wanting to put an end to his old friend's train of thought before it derailed completely, taking Harry's good sense with it. 'The Territory is filled with such tales. I have long given up any belief in such stories, especially when it is more than likely some fabrication devised by someone in our line of work, to trick the gullible into buying bogus maps leading to such treasures."

"Sure, sure, I understand," Harry said with a smile, glancing at Chris and the others at the table. "We'll say no more about it."

Ezra felt a headache coming on until he saw Nathan Jackson entered the premises. Waving the man over, Ezra suddenly needed the presence of a reasonable third party to convince Harry he was not going on a treasure hunting mission.

"Harry Luck, I would like you to meet my associate, Mr Nathan Jackson, he is the healer in these parts."

Harry stared at him in surprise and then broke into a grin. Standing up, he shook Nathan's hand. "It's nice to meet you. Ezra, you have changed."

Ezra stiffened, realizing what Harry meant to and immediately felt a wave of embarrassment at being reminded of the days when he saw the tall, healer as anything other than his friend. Harry had an eastern upbringing and never had the trouble with the Negro that he did. While he now knew he was simply a product of his upbringing and being Nathan's friend had allowed him to hurdle his prejudice, Ezra still felt somewhat ashamed, he held such unsavory ideas in the past.

Despite wearing everything close to the chest, Nathan saw through Ezra's discomfort and quickly added, "he's a work in progress but he's getting there."

"Good to hear," Harry replied, and the two men sat down again, and Ezra was grateful the moment was behind them. 'So, you're one of the Regulators protecting this town too?"

"As well as a healer, yeah." Nathan nodded. "And you're..."

"Just a businessman," Ezra replied, even though he guessed Nathan would figure it out without being gauche enough to use the word "con man'. "Harry is on his way to Africa."

Nathan's eyes widened. "Africa?"

To Nathan, Africa was a land he knew almost nothing about, except that his grandfather had been stolen away from its shores as a child and began the legacy of servitude that would see his father broken, his mother suicided and his sister... no he brushed away thoughts of Rebecca. That was one memory Nathan refused to touch. Nevertheless, on the plantation, he had heard other slaves talk about returning to the land of their origins, but the truth was, Nathan was an American. His fascination for Africa was fleeting.

"Yes," Ezra continued. "Harry is pursuing the fortunes to be made in diamond mining."

"Although," Harry grinned, "I think I'd like to stick around and help you fellas out."

"What?" Ezra stared at him. "Help us out, how exactly?"

"On this rescue mission of yours," the man said enjoying Ezra's astonishment.

"Surely you jest," Ezra replied and then turned to Nathan. "It seems we have been enlisted to go in search of missing homesteaders."

"Mrs Travis told me," Nathan spoke up quickly, sparring the gambler the trouble of telling him. "What's wrong if Mr Luck wants to come along with us. Seems we could always use another hand. Ain't no telling what we might find out there."

"See," Harry nudged Ezra in the shoulder. "You could use my help. You're not getting rid of me that easily Ezra." He finished that sentence with a wink.

"Harry, if you want to join us, by all means, I am certain Mr Larabee will appreciate the extra gun, however, if you are joining this expedition on some insane notion that there is gold to be found..."

"Gold?" Nathan exclaimed wondering what the hell he just walked into.

Ezra ignored him and continued, "you are gravely mistaken. Harry, there is no gold. We are going there to locate missing homesteaders, nothing more."

"Of course," Harry replied, putting on a sober expression. "This an errand of mercy, nothing more. There is no gold at all."

Ezra needed another drink.

*******

Since the next morning was bound to be busy, the others had opted to turn in early, with Josiah retiring to his church and JD returning to his lodgings. There was no point trying to convince Ezra to get an early night, ever since the gambler rarely turned in before midnight. Chris had been rather surprised when Harry had volunteered to join their search party, even though his participation would be voluntary without the guarantee of the thirty-dollar payday. If Ezra did not appear so utterly flummoxed by the idea, Chris would have sworn the two professional gamblers had some sort of scam up their sleeve.

While Chris didn't think Ezra would run out on them as he had during their first meeting, the man did lose all good sense when money was waved close enough to his face. However, a year in Ezra's company had taught Chris how to handle the man when he was at his most irritating, without resorting to gun violence of any kind. Nathan, always sensible, had dropped in for a quick drink and some conversation before he headed back to his Infirmary.

Wherever Buck was sleeping tonight, he probably wasn't alone.

Chris and Vin stepped out of the saloon together, leaving Ezra and his old friend to their own devices, neither exchanging more than a dozen word to each other as they left the batwing doors and the tired piano playing behind them. The saloon's crowd had diminished with only the barflies and the fools wishing to lose their money by pitting their skills against Ezra and now Harry, as well.

For a second both men stood on the boardwalk, taking in the night. The scorching heat of the day had now tempered into a cooler night, with a light breeze blowing the unsettled dust into the air. Overhead, the full moon cast an iridescent glow over the town and in that moment at least, Four Corners was more than just the place that had become home to them all, it was almost beautiful.

The silence that existed between them was more than distance and Chris knew he had to make some effort to repair the damage done before the rift between them was permanent.

"You heading back to your wagon?" Chris broke the silence unable to stand it any longer.

"Yeah" Vin nodded, his stoic expression revealing nothing.

Chris reached into his jacket and produced a cheroot. He offered Vin one.

The tracker hesitated a moment before taking it, recognizing the gesture for what it was, though at this point, he wasn't about to make mention of it. 'Thanks."

Chris lit his cheroot and offered Vin a light. As the cheroot began to burn, the gunslinger took a deep breath and exhaled a puff of smoke. "Good thing you came in when you did," Chris remarked, "saved us the trouble of going out and look for you."

Vin didn't look at him, but Chris saw his jaw tense and realized too late, that might have been the worst thing he could have said.

"I ain't running out on you again Chris," his cobalt colored eyes brushed Chris's just long enough to convey how the gunslinger's words had been taken. 'If that's what you're worried about."

"Damnit Vin" Chris bristled in annoyance, feeling his ire raised because it had not been his intention to pick at the scab of their wounded friendship. "I didn't mean it that way, just meant we couldn't do this thing without you."

"I told you, I'd be here when you need me. You ain't gotta worry about that."

Chris let out of a sigh. "I ain't worry about it," he responded but his voice betrayed him. He was worried about their friendship, about the fracture no one was able to ignore any longer. In the last few weeks, Chris had come to realise how much Vin's friendship meant to him and what a colossal mistake he had made questioning the tracker's loyalty to him. Trying to salvage the situation, he spoke in a calmer voice, determined to overcome Vin's curt one.

"Vin I'm sorry the way things went down with Charlotte. I know she meant..."

Vin shot Chris a pointed look and for the first time, Chris was on the receiving end of a glare so sharp, he could understand why his enemies flinched when he used the same tactic to intimidate them.

"I don't need you to tell me I messed up Chris," he said coldly. "I figured that out all on my own. I ain't JD, I don't need people getting in my business. All you gotta know is I have your back, I always had your back and you had no call to question that."

"Oh really?" Chris returned just as sharply, an inner voice telling him this was not the best way to proceed but the whiskey was making his temper fray easily. 'You took off with a married woman, right under the nose of her husband, just when we needed you. I think maybe I had a little bit of cause to be pissed about that!"

"I CAME BACK!" Vin fairly shouted. "I didn't have to, but I did. If I didn't give a rat's ass about you or have your back, me and Charlotte would have been in Brazil by now and you and the others would be six feet under thanks to that son of a bitch Dicky O'Shea!"

Whatever Chris was about to retaliate with was interrupted by Ezra Standish, who had been attracted by the argument from his table.

"Gentlemen," Ezra said calmly, eyes shifting to both men with the unspoken command to settle down. Ezra didn't normally exert himself, preferring to appear indifferent to the difficulties of his comrades, but what was in his eyes at this moment was telling. He didn't like to see his friends in this state. 'These are old arguments that no longer have any point. Mr Tanner is here, and we have a long ride ahead of us tomorrow. Perhaps, we should turn in for the evening."

Jesus Christ, Chris thought, how the hell had it come to this? This was not what he intended when he started this conversation with Vin. He had been trying to work his way into an apology but as usual his temper got the better of him and he only succeeded in making things worse. His best friend was staring at him with the eyes of someone in pain and Chris had added to it.

"You're right," Chris collected himself before raising his eyes to Vin once more. "We should call it a night."

Vin's unflappable mask fell over again his face again. 'Yeah, I reckon you're right."

With that, he turned on his heels and started walking away. Chris stood there watching him go and it was only until he had disappeared for a good minute, that Ezra spoke.

"He still pining for Mrs Richmond," Ezra said quietly, staring into the darkness. 'This behavior isn't entirely about you Mr Larabee, it's about her."

"Yeah," Chris nodded, grasping that much at least. "I know that."

Trouble was, he had no idea what to do about it

*******

An owl hooted in the night, making her jump in fright.

Noises frightened her, not because she was very small, and they were made by things in the dark that could harm her. No, noises scared her because they might hear it. Time had ceased to have any meaning for her because day and night bled into each other and she marked time by two things; when she could move around and when she had to hide. Her existence had become defined by these two rules because if she did not obey them, they would find her.

Pressed between the narrow walls of the fissure that had become her sanctuary, she huddled with her back to the wall, wrapped up in the woollen blanket she had taken from their wagon to keep warm. She watched the beam of moonlight penetrating the fissure that was barely a cave, taking comfort in its light because she dared not light a candle for illumination. She wasn't supposed to touch matches, Jenna had said so, but she knew how to use them and wished she could do so now. She was little and the dark still scared her.

Still she took comfort in the fact the crack in the rock she used as a door was too small for anyone except her to crawl through. She'd found it the morning after the Bad Thing had happened, when it was quiet, and she was alone. When Jenna had screamed and told her to run, she obeyed because in the absence of Momma and Papa, Jenna's word was law. Heather had turned on her heels and run back into the water, expecting Jenna to follow.

Jenna didn't.

Heather went into the creek and though she was not that good a swimmer, managed to cross it and hide in between the cluster of bulrushes and cattails along the shore. She remained still, ignoring the frogs and bugs swimming by her, threatening to give her away because, like all girls, she hated small crawling things, but fear of what was loose in the camp had kept her silent. Shivering with cold and terror, she remained hidden, clamping her eyes shut and listened to the screams and shrieks that tortured the night.

When the silence finally fell over the camp again, she waded out of the water, hoping to find a grown-up because Papa had said she was too little to be out here on her own. It was why Jenna had to take care of her, why she couldn't stray too far away from the wagons. It was a rule she agreed with because this land wasn't like the city where there were streets, people and police. Where the power of the night was broken by street lamps and you couldn't walk anywhere without running into someone.

Here, the land ran forever and there weren't many people in it.

When she came back to the camp, she realised they were all gone. A Bad Thing had happened because there was blood everywhere. She saw it splattered against the white canvas of the covered wagons, seeping into the wooden grain of the buckboard and across the ground. It wasn't just the blood, there was violence with wagons lying on their side, their contents spilled across the ground, wheels spinning aimlessly like windmills. Even the horses and the livestock had vanished.

She walked through this chaos, shaking in silence, trying to see Jenna or Papa, but they were gone, and she was alone. Crawling into the back of their wagon with its belongings scattered haphazardly across the ground, Heather had waited for someone to come because it was all she knew how to do.

But no one did.

When the sunlight bled into her eyes the next morning, Heather woke up to see the same chaos, only the light of day made it seem all the more worse. Worse yet, the blood attracted flies and buzzards. They circled over the campsite, like late comers to a feast, able only to smell the banquet not partake in any of it. It was then Heather remembered what someone had said in the camp about leaving food exposed. Animals would come.

However, as the night returned, Heather learned it just wasn't just the animals would come sniffing out for prey, attracted by the blood, they would come too. She heard them coming, their soft footsteps moving across dirt and rock, until she had no choice but to leave the wagon and find this hiding place. In the end, the little fissure of a cave had saved her life. In here, they couldn't" follow and she had learned to stay, very, very still when she heard them moving about.

When the sun came out again, she went back to get things she might need to stay warm and not be hungry. They had gone through the wagons but for some reason, they didn't much like the jerky many of the settlers stored in their wagons. Papa had brought quite a bit of it and kept it with the rest of their supplies. When she first found this cave to hide, she had taken as much of it as she could and kept going back whenever she had none left.

Heather knew sooner or later, there wouldn't be any jerky and she would starve. Pressing her small palms together, she closed her eyes and prayed to God someone would come soon.

Before they found her.

Chapter Three:
Journey

Vin Tanner had the most curious dream the night before.

After drinking himself to sleep in his wagon behind Virgil Watson's store, mostly out of guilt because he realized belatedly, once his temper cooled, Chris hadn't been trying to goad him, but make a piss poor attempt to apologize, Vin had a strange dream. For more nights then he could count after he rode out of Charlotte's life, he had been plagued with intense dreams about her. Dreams of how they'd made love on the prairie, with the stars shining over their heads, listening to their fantasies about a life in Brazil.

Last night, however, was the first night he did not dream about Charlotte.

Vin woke up and fragments of it disappeared but the feeling it left him with was one of expectation and to his surprise, excitement. He knew the cause of it of course. JD's interrogation of Josiah's adventures in India, a country even farther away then Brazil, whose folk he couldn't even begin to imagine, had managed to visit him in his slumber. Josiah spoke of beautiful women with long black hair and golden skin, who were elegant and beautiful, with smiles that could break your heart.

No wonder he dreamed he was dancing with a beautiful girl with golden skin, wearing a pink dress.

The morning had brought back his sorrow at losing Charlotte again but Vin didn't forget that for a second when he woke up that morning, she was the furthest thing from his mind. It made him think a little clearer and for the first time in too long, the ache subsided, just a little, if not very much. It put him in a better mood to ride out with his friends the next day, in search of the lost travelers.

Astride Peso, he led the way, leaving the fancy government man and Ezra's old friend to Chris and the others, while he scouted ahead. The area they were entering would fall squarely in territory earmarked as reservation land, allotted to the Mescalero Apache by the government. If the homesteaders had wandered across it, Vin didn't like their chances of survival. Thanks to the way the Indian Agency had been handling things in the area, the Apache had a lot of reason to be angry about incursions into their lands.

Even when he was here the last time, he knew supplies that were meant for the Apache were finding their way to private buyers, thanks to unscrupulous agents. As a result, rogue groups of Apache had taken to raiding cattle stocks and attacking homesteaders. Vin hadn't been pleased to hunt these men down, but their actions were doing serious harm to the folk on the reservation, already struggling to be treated fairly.

Staring into the horizon, he could see the faint outline of the mountains in the distance, across the flattened plains covered with sparse vegetation, mostly staghorn, yucca, and greasewood. The patches of green were spaced apart far enough so what scant rain there was, could enable their survival. The summer sun had yet to reach its zenith and Vin hope to make it to the trail winding between the peaks and reach a nameless creek he knew a few hours away. It had the benefit of being framed by trees and would be a good place for the horses to get water and for them to take a break from the riding. No matter how hard they rode, there would be no making it there tonight anyway.

Besides, he preferred the light when they ran into the Apache.

That encounter was almost an inevitability and truth be told, Vin preferred they ran into the Mescalero sooner rather than later, and perhaps plead their case the intrusion was necessary for their search. The last thing Vin wanted was to get their backs up because yet another group of white men had invaded their territory without asking. Besides, there was the possibility they might have seen the wagon train.

He heard the pounding of hoof beats behind him and saw Buck's horse Beavis on fast approach. Peso, in recognition of his traveling companion, offered a short whinny, as if appreciating the company. Christ knows, Vin's mood of late was probably dismal enough to depress even the animal. It made his gut clench knowing it wasn't Chris riding up to join him but Vin could hardly blame the gunslinger from staying away. After his reaction the night before, Chris probably thought he wasn't worth talking to for a while.

"Hey Buck," Vin greeted with a slight nod. 'Something wrong?"

He looked over the big man's shoulder and saw the group of travelers continuing at the same pace. Chris's dark duster giving away his position at the rear while Ezra's burgundy coat showed him flanking the unfamiliar horse being ridden by his friend Harry Luck. No, it seemed nothing out of the ordinary had taken place in the last half hour to warrant concern.

"Thought you could use the company," Buck said with a little smile. Chris had been ornery as all hell and judging from what Ezra said, Buck guessed it was because of the heated words exchanged between the gunslinger and the tracker at the saloon the night before.

"Thanks," Vin offered him a faint smile of gratitude. "How's Peabody doing?"

Buck uttered a short laugh. "Looking like he might fall off his horse at any moment. Man's definitely not used to riding the trail."

Despite their continued efforts to try and convince him otherwise before leaving Four Corners, Raymond Peabody had been determined to accompany them on this rescue mission, even though it was painfully obvious the man had never been further than Silver City before this. Chris had assigned Josiah and Nathan to keep an eye on him, to ensure Peabody didn't slow them down since they didn't have time to waste if they intended to reach the homesteaders quickly.

"Yeah, can't see why he's so determined to come along. Unless he thinks we're going to take his money without looking for those folk."

"I don't think so," Buck looked over his shoulder, even though the possibility had crossed his mind. There were unscrupulous men who would do such things, who didn't honor their word when it was given. 'I think he kind of feels responsible for sending those folk into trouble."

"Homesteaders know what they're getting into," Vin replied shortly, thinking about how headstrong Will Richmond had been. Then again, Gerard Whitman had been weak. It took all kinds he supposed.

Thinking of Richmond immediately brought to mind Charlotte and the pain crossed his face in a flicker before Vin shoved the emotion down deep, where he could feel it anymore. His stoic expression returning to his face like the sealed door of a vault.

Buck still saw it nonetheless. "How are you doing anyway?"

"I'm fine," Vin said looking straight ahead, not really wanting to talk about it. He hated people prying into his business but then realized Buck wasn't people, Buck was a friend. "It ain't nothing to worry about."

Buck nodded as Beavis settled along Peso with both animals carrying on their own conversation in the language of horses incomprehensible to their riders. "You know he feels bad, don't you?"

"Does he?" Vin asked, not about to offer Buck any more insight into the situation.

"Yeah," Buck nodded, perfectly aware Vin was playing coy. 'Chris is a good friend but he ain't the best when he's trying to say what's in his heart. Frankly, I'm kind of amazed he managed to propose to Sarah without completely screwing it up."

Buck saw the younger man's shoulder slump forward, the buckskin coat rippling as he uttered a soft sigh. "It ain't his fault Buck, none of it. It's mine."

"Come on Vin," Buck patted him on the shoulder. "It ain't a case of whose fault it is. Sometimes, the heart wants what it wants and doesn't give a damn whether it's the smart thing to do or not. Anyone who saw her looking at you knew she cared. You weren't wrong to get caught up in it."

Vin didn't want to talk about Charlotte, much less think about her. "I should have walked away. Chris was right, it was getting out of hand even before..."

"It's past now Vin," Buck stopped him from completing the sentence because he knew how difficult it was for Vin to admit his feelings. The younger man had lived his life in so much isolation and at moments like this, it showed. Vin seldom gave into his passions but when he did, the intensity of them was probably more than he could handle. 'I know it's easier said than done, but there's not one of us, except maybe JD, who don't understand what you're going through. We've all been there, at one time or another. Even Chris."

"Maybe," Vin shrugged, deciding he'd gone on about this subject as far as he cared to. He didn't want to talk about Charlotte. All he wanted to do right now was forget her. Besides, they were heading into dangerous territory and he needed his head screwed on right. Thoughts of her would only distract him from what he needed to do.

Almost on cue, Vin's eyes spotted something in the distance. Buck hadn't seen it yet but Vin's skill as a sharpshooter was due to his better than 20/20 vision, though to him, it was an ability honed through years of tracking and hunting buffalo. For a few seconds, he did not speak, studying carefully the formless shapes moving in the distance that soon became men.

"We've got company," Vin said quickly.

Buck sat up straighter in his horse, his hand reaching for his Remington while his blue eyes touched the barrel of the shotgun nestled in its holster along his saddle. "Trouble?"

"I'm ain't sure," Vin confessed, "we haven't reached Apache territory yet, so we ain't" trespassing. Could be just a bunch of folks traveling west. Best tell Chris and the others to hold up until I go check it out. If it's Apache, I don't want to give them cause to feel threatened by us."

"I'll come with you," Buck replied, not liking the idea of Vin going off on his own without anyone watching his back. While the young man was capable enough, it didn't take much skill for someone to put a bullet in his chest when he got close enough.

"It's fine," Vin dug his heels into Peso's flank, sending the horse forward before Buck had a chance to protest.

The big man uttered a curse under his breath, before tugging at the reins of his own mount and heading in the direction of the others.

*******

Vin hadn't closed more than half the distance when he heard the rhythmic beat of hoofbeats and instinctively looked over his shoulder, to see Chris Larabee's horse Pony galloping briskly across the plains to catch up with him. Even though this was utterly in keeping with Chris's behavior, the tracker nevertheless paused long enough to utter a soft curse, wondering whether the man still didn't trust him to handle things alone or was just too plain stubborn to listen to good advice.


Whatever the reason, he brought Peso a halt and waited as Pony thundered across the hard, desert terrain, kicking up a cloud of dust as horse and rider closed the distance. Meanwhile, he faced front once more, trying to see if Chris's actions had been interpreted badly at the party he was trying to reach.

Having closed in on them, Vin had been able to make out at least ten riders and on closer observation, noticed much to his relief, it wasn't a raiding party. In fact, the group was an assortment of male and female, with the leader being a man in his later years. Judging by the pack horse trailing the animals they were riding, they might be making a journey to trade. With the creation of several reservations across the Territory, it wasn't such an unusual occurrence for the different tribes to trade with one another.

The Apaches were taking Vin's lead and also narrowing the distance between them, opting to investigate instead of assuming the worst. Both parties had the numbers to make this an equal fight should it come down to it but Vin wanted to avoid bloodshed at any costs, so he took no provocative action as they approached. Vin hoped they didn't interpret Chris's sudden arrival as a sign of escalating tensions. Besides, when they got to the hills, Vin was certain the Apaches they encountered there would not be observing any kind of detente.

"You're one stubborn son of a bitch, Chris," Vin grumbled when Chris and Pony finally reached him. He was resigned to the fact the gunslinger was going to do what he wanted no matter how ill-advised it was, including being at Vin's side at the sign of possible trouble. Then again, wasn't that the heart of their relationship? They always had each other's back.

"Takes one to know one," Chris returned, not at all perturbed by the remark as his horse took up flanking position next to Vin's. "No telling what kind of trouble you'll get up to if I don't keep an eye on you." He framed the comment with a small smile of mischief.

Vin rolled his eyes. "Screw you."

"You ain't my type," Chris quipped, still wearing that little sneer of a smile when he said it.

"Yeah, I ain't drunk enough," Vin returned, finding himself unable to keep from responding in kind.

For that instant at least, their quarrel seemed distant and they were two men who trusted each other implicitly, who seemed to know each other's thoughts without speaking and shared a bond deeper than blood. Vin realized how much he missed that camaraderie and hated the fact he'd ruined it by his impulsive actions, even though he still felt Chris's doubt was unwarranted. Nevertheless, as they nudged their horses forward to meet the Apache in front of them, he supposed that resentment could be tabled for now.

As observed earlier, Vin was correct in thinking the group of Apache riders coming towards them did not have hostile intentions, even though both sides were tense, as was the case during such first meetings. Approaching each other at a relaxed pace, Vin saw the party comprised of men and women, young and old. Judging by their features, there was enough familiarity for the tracker to believe they were all family. The men were clad in leather breeches, with cotton tunics of varying color, with leather headbands tied around their foreheads. The women, there were two in this instance, were wearing the normal high moccasin boots, leather skirts and loose calico blouses. Their long hair was adorned with a feather over one ear.

The youngest of the two women looked no more than eighteen. She was lovely, with dark hair that swayed as the horse trotted forward and soft brown eyes that studied the newcomers with interest. The older woman, who was obviously her mother by the resemblance, was nowhere that trusting and she eyed the two white men with suspicions as well as a little apprehension.

With a sudden flash of insight, Vin realized what was happening.

"Chris," Vin tilted his head slightly at the gunslinger. 'I think they're on their way to a wedding."

"A wedding?" Chris stared in surprise and supposed that might be the case since the riders were almost all related and the pack horse trailing in the back was carrying everything from furs to blankets, most likely gifts.

"Dah-ahn-zho," Vin greeted once they were in earshot and saw mild surprise cross the face of the old man who rode in front of the others to greet them.

Chris didn't bother trying to say the word but tipped his hat in greeting in a gesture of respect.

"Dah-ahn-zho, " the old man answered with a heavy gravelly voice that fitted his regal bearing. His black was speckled with grey and his skin had the texture of oiled leather from a life spent too long under the sun. Even though he was dressed no differently than the others, save an ornate necklace around his neck, there was no denying the authority he projected among the braves assembled.

"I am Vin Tanner and this is my friend, Chris Larabee." Vin introduced himself and Chris politely.

"I am Tasso," the older man answered, approving of how the two white men were attempting to be civil, which was not always the case when they encountered the First People alone in the Territory. "You travel to the Fort?"

While his words had an accent, his command of the language was impressive and Vin decided to be truthful since this could be an opportunity to gain some valuable information, particularly if this chief and his family were familiar with the area.

"Not exactly," Vin explained, giving Chris a look to tell the gunslinger in this instance, it was best to put their cards on the table, as Ezra would say, to get the answers they needed. 'We're gonna be stopping there but we're looking for some settlers who may have gotten lost in the area. They left Silver City a month ago, heading for Organ. Last we heard of them was at Ford Seldon but no one has heard from them since then. All we know is they never got there."

"We think they may have gotten lost and wandered off the trail they were supposed to be taking," Chris added helpfully, using the same conciliatory tone as Vin. It was not lost on him how the warriors in the group were eyeing the seven and their companions with suspicion. Chris had a feeling if he and Vin put one step wrong with the chief, they would not live long enough to regret the mistake.

"That is not good," Tasso frowned, a shadow falling across his face, speaking of a menace not unlike what he encountered when hunting down a raiding party accused of stealing supplies and cows some years back. Not that they didn't have cause, he thought bitterly. The Indian Agency meant to administer the reservations had done a sorry job of maintaining them. Not to forget the bloodshed being caused by the trouble in Lincoln County that inevitably spilled onto reservation land.

Vin thought the worst for the moment, wondering if the Chief's sour expression was because a war party had taken exception to the settlers wandering onto their territory. With Peabody's presence in the group, the government man only needed to report to his masters what had taken place for the powder keg of retaliation to be ignited, deserved or not.

"We have not seen them. They did not pass through our lands." Tasso explained but he appeared disturbed by this fact.

At first, Chris thought this was a good thing until he considered it further. At the very least, the Apache should have sighted the homesteaders even if they did not interact with them in any way. Normally such encounters would have resulted in two ways, confrontation or evasion. If it was the former, there would be no hiding it and if it was the latter, the Apache had no reason to lie about it.

However, not seeing them at all was worrying.

"Could they have gotten to Organ any other way?" Vin inquired although it would put a lot of days on the trip if the settlers had attempted to circumnavigate Apache land.

Tasso considered the possibilities but his expression showed he was discounting many of them. "There are other paths they might have traveled, to avoid our lands but most of these paths are narrow and too dangerous for wagons."

"They've got women and children," Chris said not just to Tasso but to Vin as well. "They'd try to avoid that. There ain't much out this way, if anything happened to them, help would be long coming. I don't think they would risk it."

Vin tended to agree and faced Tasso again.

"Is there any other way around your lands that would take them to Organ, without it being too dangerous?" Vin asked, suspecting Tasso was being so helpful because he wanted to keep them off Mescalero territory as much as possible. "Some place your people wouldn't go?"

Vin asked the question because he remembered the reaction of the Apache when he asked these same questions years ago when he and the Army were trying to track down renegades. The Apache scouts who accompanied them on the ride had been adamant about staying out of certain areas and had been pretty closed mouth about why. While the army believed them to be protecting their own, Vin had recognized their emotions for what they were. Fear.

"There is one way," Tasso spoke after a long pause and his expression showed clearly, he disliked even mentioning it. 'There is a canyon through which the great river sends one of its children, where none of the Indee will walk. That canyon and the land near it lives under a dark shadow for many years. No one goes there because those who do, never come back. It is said that in the summer months, evil spirits come from the deep places of the world and take with them the souls of those foolish enough to wander their land."

While Chris's expression showed his skepticism, it appeared Tasso did not take offense, apparently more than accustomed to the white man dismissing their folklore as superstition on numerous occasions prior. However, Vin wasn't so quick to discount it because the fear was real and the Apache did not scare easily. If there were afraid of something, they ought to pay attention.

"How long have folk been disappearing in this place?" Vin had to ask because if this was happening as far back as two years ago, it was not just superstition. Something was going that bore investigation.

"As long as I can remember," Tasso replied. "My father gave me the warning when I was a boy and he was told by his father. The canyon has been a place of evil long before your people came to this land."

That was a long time, Vin thought.

"Has the army ever gone in there to investigate?" Chris asked, unable to imagine the Union being frightened by such tales.

"Two seasons ago, they went in search of others who disappeared in the summer months but found nothing. When they went, it was already winter, and the spirits had returned to their hiding places. There were no signs of the travelers they were seeking, merely emptiness."

Chris was thinking hard. If the wagon train did decide to avoid Apache territory, they may have well chosen the canyon as an alternate route, especially if there was a tributary running through it from the Rio Grande as Tasso revealed. He did not for one minute believe there were evil spirits there, but it was a place to start.

"I say we take a look at it," Chris suggested and saw some reluctance on Vin's part to discuss the matter in front of Tasso, whose expression revealed his unhappiness at being the reason more men went to this place.

"If you must do this thing," Tasso spoke, this time directly to Vin, who seemed the more sensible of the two. "Go during the day. Do not be there when the night comes."

Vin nodded, taking the advice given to him so earnestly. "We'll do that. What is this place called?"

We call it Owl Valley," the chief replied and Chris saw Vin stiffen.

However, instead of commenting further on it, Vin merely nodded and they bade the Chief farewell before turning on their mounts to ride back to the others. It was only after Tasso and his family were a distance behind them that Chris finally asked the question.

"In Apache," Vin said tossing a glance at Tasso and his family, disappearing into the horizon, "the owl means death ."

*******

Well, that just proves it," Harry declared sitting down next to Ezra beneath the shady spot along the stream they decided to stop at, a few hours after leaving the Apache family. There's definitely some truth to Smiling Pete's story."

Ezra rolled his eyes. This was the kind of tale he and Maude sold to gullible fools with too much money, usually supported by some bogus but ancient-looking map. If the mark required an extra bit of convincing, a worthless trinket that bore a striking resemblance to gold usually did the trick. However, hearing Harry's enthusiasm for Smiling Pete Hawkins's story, obviously something the drunkard conjured up for a con, concerned Ezra because men in their line of work, could not get lost in the fiction they were fabricating for others.

It was a sure-fire way to land oneself in a shallow grave.

Not far away, the horses were happily taking a drink from the waters of the stream rushing by them. As always, Mr Tanner's expertise had led them through the wilderness to this small oasis with its shade of cotton trees, salt cedar and Russian olive shrubs framing the rocky embankment. The noonday sun had passed its zenith, promising milder temperatures on its journey across the sky, allowing them more comfortable travel for the remaining daylight hours.

While Mr Peabody had made an admirable effort to keep up the pace in concert with the rest of the seven, it was painfully clear as the day dragged on he was unaccustomed to riding the trail for such a prolonged period of time. To his credit, the man was determined not to slow them down despite obviously suffering the aches of a lengthy ride. Before his pains grew acute enough to hinder their progress later, Chris decided for all their sakes, they needed to take a break.

Almost wearily, Ezra looked up at Harry and his friends around him, who were stretched across the grass, against downed logs or perched on the rocks, in the spot they had chosen for their brief sojourn. "How on Earth so?"

"Think of it," Harry said enthusiastically, catching the attention of the others nearby. 'A cursed canyon no one will go near? That sounds to me like the possible burial place of those Aztec refugees."

"Aztec refugees?" Josiah lifted his eyes from beneath the rim of his hat and looked at Ezra. "This sounds interesting." He rumbled like some stone dryad suddenly coming to life. "Do tell."

"It is a fairy tale Mr Sanchez," Ezra tossed Harry a look of exasperation, not wishing to be regaled with another rendition of Smiling Pete's story, having heard about the possibility of gold all the way from Four Corners. He never imagined Harry's susceptibility to gold fever ran so deep. 'It means nothing."

Harry was not about to be put off, wanting to gauge interest in the six remaining lawmen in case he needed to enlist their aid in going after the gold when it was uncovered. After hearing the specifics of the tracker's conversation with the Apache chief, he was convinced Owl Canyon might be the fabled hiding place of the Aztecs in Smiling Pete's story. If nothing else, it was the most promising clue he had heard in years regarding the subject.

"Ignore him," Harry said giving Ezra a grin before regarding the former preacher. "Legend has it that Aztec refugees from Cortes's time, fled their city out of fear he was some demon sent to destroy them. It is believed they came this way but were slaughtered by the Apache or whatever tribe was living in the area at the time. Supposedly, they buried all their gold in caves somewhere in the Organ Mountains."

"Would Aztecs have come this far?" Peabody spoke up for the first time. The man had been reluctant to speak in their company, mostly because he felt so out of place among them. However, the power of a good story was its ability to draw everyone out.

"It's possible" Josiah commented. "The Aztecs had plenty of warning Cortes was coming, through their omens and prophecies. Stands to reason, some folk might not want to stick around if they thought a demon was coming to their land."

"And you think they're connected to the legends around Owl Canyon?" JD asked, the younger man's imagination always easily inspired by a good story.

The idea of Aztec anything had fired up JD's interest and judging by the level of interest in his voice, Ezra just knew Harry had found a believer. He made a mental note to keep an eye on the young man, to ensure Harry didn't talk him into any foolish ventures that would probably lead him into trouble.

"Why not?" Harry remarked glancing at Vin. "According to Mr Tanner there, Owl Canyon is cursed with evil spirits. I can think of no better reasons for malevolent spirits to be roaming about, snatching up locals than in vengeance for some past transgression."

"You are reaching Sir," Ezra pointed out, starting to feel a little embarrassed by Harry's insistence on the existence of gold. He was suddenly given a rather unfavorable perspective of how he must have behaved when they discovered the land on which the wagon train they escorted was brimming with gold.

"I'm surprised you ain't more into this Ezra," Nathan teased, deciding at that moment to remind him. "You were awful interested in gold when we were on that wagon train."

Ezra groaned inwardly, wondering if this nightmare would ever end and answered with great dignity. "This isn't some legitimate claim Mr Dicky O'Shea was trying to swindle the locals out of. At least, we saw the gold ourselves. I'm certain that right now, Mr Whitman, Mr Richmond and all those charming frontier folk are living like Midas. They certainly made the better choice in staying than following us back."

When Vin stood up abruptly and dropped his gaze to the floor, muttering some excuse about checking on Peso, did Ezra realized what he inadvertently said. Fool! He cursed himself for reminding Vin of Will Richmond, who would undoubtedly lead the tracker to Charlotte, the woman he was forced to leave behind.

"Mr Tanner...." He started to say.

"It's okay Ezra," Vin shrugged but cut out of there anyway.

Ezra let out a heavy sigh and noted Chris's hard gaze staring him down. His jaw was not exactly clenched but there was enough menace in his eyes to show he wasn't happy about Ezra's slip or the persistent mention of gold.

"Listen up," Chris said now in a voice that was hard as granite, not just for Harry's benefit but for all his comrades. "We're here to find these settlers if they're still alive and that old chief wasn't telling us a ghost story, he was scared about what he thinks is in that canyon. I don't know if there's any truth to it or not, but I want us sharp and not distracted by gold fever." Turning to Harry, Chris added, "Mr Luck, we're allowing you to tag along but if you put anyone in danger chasing after gold, you won't be alive long enough to enjoy it."

"Of course," Harry said seriously, his face sober as a judge, able to recognize the threat in Chris's voice was not an empty one. "I promise I will do nothing to compromise my fellow riders."

Ezra was rather surprised to see the genuine sincerity in his voice on that point. Harry could lie with the best of them, it was after all a tool of the trade but Ezra had also made his living being able to spot an untruth, and in this instance at least, Harry was being honest. Besides, if there was gold to be found, he thought, unable to deny his baser instincts, they'd figure some way to get their hands on it without endangering anyone.

"See to it," Chris grumped before getting to his feet. "Get ready," he said to no one in particular, "I want to make Fort Seldon before nightfall."

They arrived at Fort Seldon to find it exactly in the condition Peabody had described it before the seven left Four Corners. The garrison was being dismantled, its personnel being shipped to the expanding Fort Bliss at the edge of Texas. Manned by a skeleton force, comprised of both white and negro soldiers, the place had seen better days with dilapidation setting in as fortifications were on the verge of collapse with the buildings in severe need of attention.

Nevertheless, as luck would have it, its commander, Major Lucas Simmerson was a Union soldier both Chris and Buck served with during the war. In those days, Simmerson had been a lieutenant but men in the last days of the war, when everyone was up to their necks in blood and shit, rank didn't seem to matter when you were surrounded by so many dead. They'd developed enough familiarity with each other for Simmerson to offer the duo and their companions the hospitality of the Fort's dwindling resources.

For men who were accustomed to sleeping out in the open, with the stars above their heads and the elements around them, the promise of hot food and a roof was good enough for them, after the long ride from Four Corners. Vin who was still smarting from Ezra's innocent remark earlier was secluding himself on the ramparts and Chris decided it was probably for the best. At some point soon, he knew he was going to have to have it out with the tracker, not just to clear the air between them but to help Vin through the loss of Charlotte Richmond.

"I don't know what to tell you," Simmerson stated as he entertained his guests and old friends at the mess hall that evening. The food was hot and there was plenty of it, so no one at the table was complimenting its quality, even if it was prepared with the typical expertise of all army cooks. 'They were fine when they left here."

"How long ago was that?" Peabody asked, wanting to hear for himself the details of the last sighting of the settlers he'd sent across the Territory.

"Ten days ago," the Major answered. "We didn't have much in the way of supplies to offer them but we did have plenty of cured meat and flour, which we were happy to let them have. There were children in their party and none of us wanted to see them go hungry."

"That is most generous of you Sir," Ezra complimented, before looking down to stir the stew in his bowl, in the hopes the liquid's displacement would make it look more appetizing.

"That's what we were here for," Simmerson volunteered. "We were meant to protect the settlers but there just aren't that many willing to come out this way."

"Agreed," Peabody nodded, confirming this fact to the others at the table. "Most of them want to head to Kansas or Colorado."

"So, is there any truth to what the old chief told us?" Chris asked. "Any chance they could have run into trouble at Owl Canyon? The man seemed to think the place is haunted or something."

"These people are always making a fuss about some burial site, sacred hunting ground or some cursed place full of evil spirits," Simmerson declared. Chris ignored Simmerson's prejudice, grateful Vin wasn't here for this. The tracker would not have taken kindly to the man dismissing the warning as nonsense. "You can't take it seriously."

"The old chief seemed pretty spooked though," Chris answered neutrally, noticing Josiah's jaw tightening, perfectly aware the preacher didn't care for that kind of talk but was restraining himself because they were guests in this place. Josiah had developed a close friendship with Kojay in the Navajo village near Four Corners and often participated in their sweat lodge sessions with the elders. "I don't get the impression he scares easily."

Simmerson let out a little sigh, supposing he could not entirely discount Tasso's claims. The Major was familiar with the Apache elder and found him to be one of the more reasonable tribal leaders he had to deal with at the reservation. Tasso didn't strike him as the type to carry tall tales. 'Well I don't believe there are any evil spirits roaming about Owl Canyon but I have to say, there are some strange goings-on taking place around them."

"Really?" Josiah asked with interest. 'In what way."

"Last summer, we were running down rogue Apache party who had gotten into a tussle with some of the local ranchers. They stayed well ahead of us and I didn't think we had a chance of catching them since this is really their traditional lands. Figured, they'd surface after a while and we'd get them then."

"What happened?" Chris asked, the eeriness of Tasso's words starting to affect him, though he did not know why.

"They could have gotten clean away, cut through Owl Canyon and we would never have caught them, but they doubled back when they got to it and ran straight into us."

"Doubled back?" Buck raised a brow.

"Yeah," Simmerson answered and for the first time, even he seemed affected by the warning. "They refused to enter Owl Canyon. They were so scared of going through there, they risked getting caught by us just to avoid it. It does make you wonder."

"Yeah," Chris nodded. "It does indeed."

*******

Heather woke up with a start.

The scream that tore through the night was sharp and distinct. It also sounded familiar. She remained in her hiding place, huddled beneath the blanket she had taken from the wagons and tried to remain still as the screaming continued and before they became mindless shrieks of pain that vanished into the night. As she listened to it, she had started to cry as only a small child could in such circumstances. She wished Jenna was here or even Papa. They would both take her in their arms and tell her that nothing bad would happen to her.

Until the Bad Thing, Heather had believed it.

The scream had come out of nowhere and upon waking her, Heather realized it was not the only sound she could hear, there was the relentless beating of drums, like an orchestra playing thunder, rumbling in the dark. It was not music she was hearing, for she had heard bands with drums in the city where she grew up and knew the sound was nothing like this terrible thing that pounded in her ears like fists beating against walls to escape.

The pounding continued for another hour and though it was dark outside and she had learned after many days to never venture into the night, something about that drum beat, tore her from the safety of her crack in the wall, to emerge outside. As she did so, she almost imagined Jenna's voice telling her to stay inside and not take the risk.

"You mind me now Feather," Jenna would say. "I'm only telling you for your own good."

But Heather left the cave anyway. She crawled into the night air and drew in a breath of air, relishing how crisp and clean it smelled. Even though she tried to wash, she had to admit, she didn't do it nearly as often enough and she smelled a little. The cave she hid in too, smelled and though she tried to do her business far from the mouth of it, she didn't dare stray too far away from if They came, she needed to get back to it quickly.

The other night, she had heard them outside her cave, watching them cast shadows through the small mouth she used as an entrance. With her back pressed hard against the rock, she was so afraid she almost wet herself and knew if she did that, they would smell her and knew she was in there. She imagined they would wait her out, like someone waiting for a gopher to come out of its hole. She held her water and after a few seconds that felt like forever, they finally went away again.

There was no one around when she left the cave, her eyes searching the land like a frightened animal coming out of its hiding place, sniffing the air experimentally to make sure there wasn't a predator lying in wait, ready to lunge. In the distance, she continued to hear the drum beat and try as she might, the pull of that sound was irresistible.

Curiosity killed the cat, Heather had once heard someone say and she had never understood what that meant until now.

She walked across the stony ground barefoot, finding in the last few days, she moved faster and more quietly without her boots. Jenna wouldn't be happy about her doing it and knew that if her sister was here, she'd earn a swat across her backside by now. However, Jenna wasn't here and the scream that drew her out tonight had been the reason she dared to break her own rules about keeping still and hiding.

For a moment, Heather thought that scream might have belonged to Jenna.

She followed the sound and noted as always, there weren't many animals around. They didn't like to come here and the largest critter she'd seen thus far had been a rat even though on the way here, she had seen lots of different animals. Bears, bobcats, deer, and elk, but nothing big like coming here and she wondered if they knew there was something bad in this place to stay away.

Crossing the gravel covered ground, she no longer felt the pain of grit and rocks biting into the soles of her feet. If anything, though she would be hard-pressed to articulate it, the pain kept her alert. Each stab against her skin made her aware of her surroundings and she was learning to listen really well, to notice when there was something in the wind that was different. Her night vision was getting better too, she realized. She wasn't stumbling around as she had been during the first few nights, now she could read the dark a little, to see the vague shapes and recognized the textures against her skin.

With the creek behind her, as well as the ruined campsite where the wagons still remained like canvas graves that would be swept away in time, she approached the first of the rocky shelves that lead up one wall of the canyon. She climbed over the large boulders, careful to be silent, all the while listening to the drumbeat that was leading her onwards. Like the Pied Piper, she thought and then recalled those children never came back, if the story Papa had told her was the truth.

However, as she climbed across the rocks, she finally reached the mouth of a cave in the wall of the canyon. It wasn't like the small crack that allowed her to crawl into her cave for safely. This was large and when she stared at it, it felt like she was staring into the mouth of a giant monster. A monster, thanks to the stalactites and the stalagmites framing the entrance, with a mouth full of sharp teeth. The drums continued and she heard another sound, almost like a scream. Against her better judgment, she continued into its depths, determined to go far enough to see what was making that awful noise. If she didn't she'd think about it all night and not sleep.

She was small and thanks to this ordeal, she knew how to be quiet now.

It didn't take her long to see them because the amber light of their torches showed them to her. What she saw made her turn on her heels and start running, wishing she had never made the attempt.

They were making those screams using a human skull.

Chapter Four:
Blood

They saw the first signs of the wagon train when they left Fort Seldon and took the road to the Organ Mountains.

Thanks to the lack of rain in the area, Vin was able to pick up their trail, traveling along the most likely route the caravan of covered wagons would have taken. Vin followed the grooves left behind by numerous wagons and horses traveling together across the hard-baked earth, the cold ashes of recent campfires and the usual leavings of human occupation. Judging by their progress along the terrain, it appeared that the settlers had been largely unaccosted during their cross-country trek, confirming the chief's claim the Apache had not encountered them at all.

Nevertheless, it soon became clear the homesteaders reached a point in their journey where it was no longer possible to avoid crossing into Apache territory. They attempted to skirt its edges for as long as possible but eventually, the terrain became too rough and dangerous for the wagons to traverse and they were forced to find an alternate route, or risk encroaching on reservation land.

As Tasso feared, that route had taken them straight through Owl Canyon.

Even though Vin told himself there was no such thing as evil spirits wandering canyons in search of helpless victims, he still felt wary about reaching it in the darkness. The story told by the Chief and Simmerson's own observations about the region had crept into their minds more than any of them wanted to admit, and no one complained when Chris kept them on a brisk pace to reach the place.

Even Peabody managed to keep up, even though it was clear the man was suffering the aches and pains that came with a novice rider's first long trip on horseback. Chris had even suggested the man remain behind at the Fort and let him and the others continue the search for the homesteaders but Peabody was adamant. Still, the thirty-dollar wage he was paying them bought a great deal of tolerance from the others, even if Chris's main concern was the homesteaders.

When Owl Canyon finally came into view, Chris could well understand why it had gained such a sinister reputation among the locals. It certainly did look ominous and foreboding as they approached it from a distance. While Chris was not remotely religious, not after losing Sarah and Adam, the entrance to the canyon made him think of the verse from the Bible about walking through the valley of the shadow of death.

The narrow passage through the canyon, through which the tributary ran from the Rio Grande was flanked by walls almost a hundred feet high. Judging by the dried and exposed riverbeds, the water level was nowhere as high as it probably was during the rainy season. Chris suspected during the rains, the stream would have burst its banks and most likely narrowed the passage through it significantly.

Had the caravan come through here any later, they would have almost certainly been unable to cross the terrain. Considering what might have happened to them, Chris had to wonder if that might not have been better. Entering the canyon, the great stone walls appeared to be nowhere as steep as Chris originally thought and climbing them was certainly possible although any fall was going to cause some serious hurt. There were enough shelves and boulders to allow someone to make it at least half way up the cliff before the gradual incline became a sheer cliff face.

The height of the walls kept out the sun, ensuring the canyon was trapped in a state of perpetual shadow. What vegetation there was in the narrow passageway was limited to shrubs of greasewood, staghorn and yucca plants. There was nothing as formidable as the ironwood trees that had been a constant during their journey here. A chill ran down Chris's spine as he was hit with the absurd thought the canyon was swallowing them whole when they entered it. Something didn't feel right about the place but for the life of him, Chris could not figure out what.

"Charming place," Ezra commented as his eyes scanned the jagged edge of the canyon wall as they left the open plains behind them. 'It certainly lives up to its name. One can certainly feel as if we were descending into a stygian underworld."

"You getting caught up in the chief's ghost story too?" Nathan asked, surprised Ezra could be moved by such things. Ezra was the self-appointed cynic of their group, who never believed in anything he couldn't see, or spend for that matter, even if his friend Harry was dangling the lure of gold in front of him.

"Not at all," Ezra flashed Nathan a look of mock hurt at the suggestion as his eyes ran over the gloomy vista before them. "I simply mean that if one were to perpetrate a hoax about a supernaturally maligned locale, this would be an excellent choice of venue. It does permeate an ominous quality."

"Yeah it does seem kind of creepy," JD agreed, his eyes traveling over the place, the shadows cast across the craggy surface resembling gremlins lying in wait to pounce. Of course, it was possible the warning issued by the chief and Harry's talk about slaughtered Aztecs was starting to let JD's imagination run away with him. Without meaning to, the apprehension crept into his eyes.

"It's all a bunch of HOOEY!" Buck's voice loudly boomed in his ears, the sound echoed through down the canyon walls, startling both JD and his horse. Around him, those who had seen the ladies" man leaning into to deliver the prank had broken out laughing, dispelling the tension of the moment with much-needed levity, even though JD seemed none too happy about it.

"Quit it, Buck!" JD shoved the big man who was riding alongside him, his face twisted red with annoyance. "You're spooking Bill," JD glared at Buck, before stroking the flank of the horse he'd named Wild Bill after the famous gunfighter who was one of his childhood heroes.

"Yeah, it's the horse that's spooked," Buck scoffed, wearing a big grin across his face.

"Don't worry kid," Harry spoke, feeling pity for the younger man. "If there are Aztecs here, they've been dead for hundreds of years."

"I know that," JD shrugged, feigning nonchalance even though it was obvious he was a little affected by all the talk. 'I know it's just a story."

"All stories start from a truth," Josiah declared, giving JD a look after he scoured the imposing walls around them. His friendship with Kojay at the Navajo village had given him a healthy respect of the First People and their insights into things. "There are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in our philosophy JD.'.

"What? You don't mean you believe this place is actually haunted?" Nathan stared at him.

"I've traveled the world and see many things that could be considered strange," Josiah answered. As a man of God, he was conditioned to believe in an existence beyond the flesh and his journey across the globe had revealed situations and experiences that could be considered supernatural. 'I'm saying we simply can't discount what the chief was saying. He may have been trying to warn us of a threat he simply did not know how to articulate."

"That is true," Ezra nodded. "Perhaps in this instance, the old adage of where there is smoke, there is also fire, may be more accurate than we like to think."

"Well That is an alarming thought," Peabody said nervously. Unlike the rest of the group who were taking the warnings in stride, the government agent did look anxious as if there was really something to fear. "I suppose amidst all our speculation of what could be here, there is no chance that an Aztec party could have survived in these parts, hidden since Cortes's time, could there?"

While the question had seemed impossible when discussed casually now that it was given serious consideration, everyone fell silent.

"How long ago would that have been?" Buck asked no one in particular.

"At least 300 years," Ezra volunteered, glancing at Harry and Josiah for confirmation since they were the three most educated in the present group to know for certain.

"About that," Josiah nodded.

"Not a chance," Buck stated once he heard the number. 'With all the trouble going on in these parts, with Indians, outlaws, and bandits running loose all over the place, looking for every nook and cranny to hide, they couldn't stay hid for long."

"Unless they're very good at it," Harry remarked, his eyes fixed on the canyon walls once more, thinking.

Vin was worried about something.

At first, Chris attributed it to his state of mind of late, what with his break up with Charlotte and the fragile state of their friendship. However, as the two men rode side by side into the canyon, a short distance ahead of the others, Chris could see there was more to Vin's troubled expression than he thought. For starters, the tracker was concentrating hard on the terrain ahead, studying it with deeper scrutiny than usual. Normally Vin could just look at the ground and pick up tracks, but right now his cobalt colored eyes were following the shore of the stream as if he was searching for something.

"Okay, what is it?" Chris finally asked, unable to bear the suspense anymore, especially when everything he saw in Vin's eyes signalled trouble.

Vin didn't answer for a moment and the silence stretched a little longer until Chris was ready to ask the question again, when the tracker finally spoke. "There ain't any animal tracks by the water, not a one."

"Could have been washed away," Chris pointed out, even though he knew if it were the case, Vin would have reached that conclusion far quicker than him.

"It's been a hot summer Chris," Vin looked at him. "The streams run a little dry in this heat so the tracks ought to be there to find. There should be some for pronghorn, mule deer, coyotes, bats and bobcats in this country, but I can't see tracks for any of them. That ain't right."

Chris couldn't argue with that and he certainly wasn't going to take lightly the observations of an experienced buffalo hunter. If there was one thing Vin knew better than any of them, it was the land and the critters who lived on it. If he felt something was wrong than Chris was taking it as gospel. Lifting his steely gaze to the suffocating walls around them, he studied the terrain once more and suddenly felt the tug of Tasso's warning on his consciousness. While it did not take the form as anything so outlandish as evil spirits, he had to admit feeling some unease.

"What are you saying then? Something got them all?"

Vin, whose eyes had been fixed along the water's edge, turned to him. "What? Evil spirits?" He almost looked amused.

Chris shot him a patented Larabee glare which the tracker shook off easily. Vin was one of the few people who could do that, other than Buck and Mary Travis that is. 'All this talk about ghosts, Aztecs and now animals disappearing, probably got...."

"I didn't say got , pard," Vin interjected, able to see Chris's patience was fraying quickly. "I think something scared them off."

"Like what?" He couldn't imagine what could do such a thing other than...no, he couldn't say it. Evil spirits.

A sudden gust of hot wind travelled down the canyon, like the first hoarse breath taken after a hard run. Vin was in the process of answering him when suddenly, the tracker's expression changed from playful to deadly in an instant. Without uttering another word of explanation, he dug his heels into Peso's flank and sent the horse sprinting forward along the water's edge leaving Chris behind.

"VIN!" Chris shouted, cursing under his breath as he saw the tracker galloped forward, not looking behind him.

Chris's call to Vin immediately alerted the others and Chris looked over his shoulder long enough to shout after them. "Come on!"

When Chris finally found Vin around a bend in the canyon, Chris understood immediately why he had taken off like he had.

The tracker had dismounted Peso, who was clearly agitated if the animal's stomping and unhappy whinnying was any indication. He was standing on top of the embankment flanking the stream. As Chris approached, Pony started to snort uncomfortably as well. Behind him, he heard the rumble of hoofbeats signalling the arrival of the others. Chris resisted the urge to reach for his handkerchief to cover his nose because the smell that was making the horses go crazy, soon assaulted him in stomach turning waves.

Once Chris had been travelling through Silver City and had happened by an abattoir. The smell of animal carcasses, exposed entrails and blood turning rancid had challenged even his iron constitution. As he dismounted his horse and started up the rocky slope to join Vin, he braced himself to what he would find because whatever was there was giving off the same horrid stench.

Vin didn't react to Chris's approach. The minute that gust of wind had swept past him, he knew what he was going to find, he just didn't know how bad. Life with the Kiowa and the Comanche had taught him to hone his senses and aside from possessing a keen eyesight, he also had an equally strong sense of smell. What was carried on that dry breeze told him all he needed to know about the fate of the wagon train

"Jesus Christ."

Spread across the flat space between the embankment and the canyon wall, was what remained of the wagon train. Buckboards and covered wagons were either tipped along their sides, scattered haphazardly across the space, their canvas coverings soiled with dust or shredded. What supplies and belongings they were carrying were spread across the ground like someone had ransacked everything of value and simply discarded what they found to be useless. Tools, utensils, clothes, furniture and even food supplies had been flung about the place. There was less chaos in the aftermath of an Indian raiding party.

But none of that was as disturbing as the blood.

The ground of the clearing resembled the killing floor of a slaughterhouse. Blood was everywhere, it was splattered over the wreckage left behind, it stained the wooden grain of the wagons and it soaked into the dirt. Flecks of it turned bushes brown as the blood dried in the heat. The reek was unholy and bloated flies buzzed lethargically over the smorgasbord they had been inadvertently provided with. It was carnage Chris hadn't seen since the war.

Except there were no bodies.

Not a single one. While the evidence of a massacre was evident by the blood left behind because Chris had seen the aftermath of such savagery, where a tomahawk had been the weapon of choice, there was not one sign of a corpse. Neither human or animal. While their death was clear by the blood, there were no signs of what had become of them once the carnage had ended. Overhead, buzzards circled unhappily, able to smell the death but unable to see the feed.

"Yean," Vin said simply, his jaw tight.

"Where are there?" Chris asked and his voice almost hushed, as if he couldn't believe what he was seeing and that wasn't far from the truth. The lack of bodies was more disturbing to him than anything else.

"I don't know," the tracker said quietly and descended the embankment into the doomed campsite, his boots crushing the gravel and dirt ground as he walked.

Chris lingered a moment, composing himself before he followed Vin down the hill into the campsite, hardening himself and then thanked God, he'd shot down Mary's suggestion to join them on this ride. He couldn't imagine allowing her to see this. He joined Vin whose eyes were studying the ground, trying to decipher what had happened here. His jaw was clenched and Chris was certain, it was fury he saw bleeding into the younger man's face.

"Oh my God," Chris heard Buck's voice behind him and looked over his shoulder to see his companions standing at the top of the embankment, the horror in their faces no doubt mirroring his own earlier. Buck was holding his scarf over his face, while JD looked positively green. The kid was about ready to lose lunch and had turned away, not because of the blood but because of the stink. "What the hell happened here?"

"I don't know," Chris admitted honestly as he saw them descending the slope.

JD was holding back and fortunately, Josiah was taking a moment to see to the boy's welfare. Peabody was nowhere that composed and had actually retreated the way he came, no doubt to hide the retching he was about to experience. Ezra was covering his face with one of his fancy linens, while Harry's happy go lucky demeanour had vanished and his expression was decidedly grey. Only Nathan was striding toward him unimpeded by the stench but then Nathan had spent time in an army hospital during the war. This was a reek, Chris had no doubt he was familiar with.

However, in this instance, Nathan's haste was not simply due to his tolerance to the awful smell but because as a healer, he was certain this much blood could not be the result of anything but serious injuries. His eyes surveyed the scene and then discovered the same mystery confronting Vin and Chris a moment ago.

"Where is everyone?" Nathan demanded, heading toward the nearest wagon. Peering inside it, he saw nothing but ransacked supplies, more splatters of blood and once again, no bodies.

"We don't know," Chris replied. "But that's a lot of blood..."

"They're dead," Vin said flatly.

"You can't know that," Nathan retaliated, refusing to believe all those people could be gone. However, sweeping his gaze across the campsite, his gut twisted with dismay because he knew Vin was right. There was simply too much blood. This was caused by random wounds, he knew of no kind of survivable injury that could explain what he was seeing.

"Nathan," Vin gestured to the ground at a particularly grisly spot of blood. There deep striations in the dirt, amidst the red earth and when the healer stood over it, his eyes raised to meet Vin's as he reached the same conclusion.

"God," he whispered.

"What?" Chris came up to them, seeing Nathan turn grey.

"An axe made these," Vin gestured to the marks in the earth and after a second, Chris could see it. They criss-crossed each other on the ground, one after the other. 'Chris. Someone was killed here and chopped up."

"Chopped up?" Buck exclaimed. "Why? It wasn't enough to kill them? Why hack them up?"

As Buck Wilmington surveyed the area, he wasn't sure he wanted to know but the horror of the situation was descending on him, bringing with it a monstrous possibility. It dawned on him as he saw the supplies left behind, the bags of flour, the tins of food, the spilled cans of coffee, sugar and other foodstuffs one would have to go to a general store to buy. These were supplies even the Indians wouldn't squander.

"For the meat," Vin said softly. "For the meat."

*******

A deeper search of the campsite revealed their first impressions were correct

There were no bodies. Despite all the blood left behind, there were no corpses to find, examine or bury. As they spread out, searching behind every rock, bush or ditch where anyone might hide, the lack of success served to deepened their revulsion and heightened their anxiety. Even the tracks were a confusing overlap, one that challenged even Vin's formidable skills. What there was in abundance, to the horror of all those present, were the terrible marks in the dirt. The thin scars across the ground, one on top of another, filled in by dry blood, made the entire campsite resemble a butchers block.

Peabody had not been able to handle the carnage. Chris dismissed him to the stream and told JD to keep watch on him, mostly so the boy would go without taking it as some slight that Chris didn't think him capable of handling what they were seeing. It wasn't far from the truth. The sight of all this blood, even without the bodies, was working the younger man's imagination into a more frenzied state than all the tales of evil spirits could ever do.

"What are we going to do Chris?" Buck finally asked once they'd exhausted their search of the area and found no one alive, just more scenes of blood which implied horror without the actual gore. "Do we keep searching?"

For the first time, Buck had no idea what to do. His first impulse was to ignore the reality everyone was dead. While he had witnessed ugliness in his time, he refused to become jaded and he wanted to believe there were folk to find. However, what he was seeing here now, told him otherwise. The kind of butchery Vin believed took place here, could mean nothing else. Still, he was incapable of admitting it and needed Chris to make up his mind for him.

"I ain't sure," Chris said shaking his head, his granite mask revealing nothing of his horror but it was there. Of course, he dealt with horror by allowing fury to take over and right now, he was a volcano about to erupt in righteous wrath.

"Vin," he looked to the tracker who was continuing to study the tracks in the dirt, even if to everyone else, they seemed indecipherable. 'What do you think? You see anything to make us think we'll find someone if we go looking?"

Vin looked up, his blue eyes fixed on the canyon walls and he surveyed the nook, cracks and possible caves hidden amongst the jagged edge of rock shelves and deep indentations. "We might but I ain't holding out hope for it. The tracks I'm seeing, the ones that ain't of boots, tell us our homesteaders never left this cleaning. But I'm also seeing fresher tracks in the last day or so. Someone's been coming back.

"Pray tell for what?" Ezra who had been searching the far side of the clearing returned with Harry. 'Why would anyone wish to return to this hellish locale to be confronted with this?"

Ezra's face was partially covered by a handkerchief and Chris thought he looked like some southern dandy about to drop his linens and demand satisfaction. Harry merely stared at the scene, still horrified, his expression dark.

"I ain't certain," Vin admitted, "but someone's definitely been back."

"Can you tell how many there are?" Buck inquired, thinking that it had to be a good number of assailants to take out the entire caravan.

"Hard to say," Vin replied. "There's a few of them."

"And they're quiet," Chris added, his expression as he continued his scrutiny of the location and noticed something else about the destruction which was just as disturbing as everything else they were seeing thus far.

"Yeah," Vin caught his gaze, proving once again that even with their strained friendship at the moment, they still shared that symbiotic knowledge of each other's thoughts. 'They are. They managed to get in here and do all this without a shot being fired."

It was true, despite all the carnage and destruction, none of it had been caused by gunfire. There were no spent shell casings, no bullet holes riddling wood or rock. However, the wagon train was overcome, it had been done with such speed and stealth, no one had a chance to draw. While Chris could imagine a stealthy approach might be possible in the initial stages of the attack, he could not imagine the absence of gunfire once the alarm was sounded.

"How on Earth is that possible?" Ezra exclaimed, "this savagery was not conducted by wraiths. Axes," he shuddered as he remembered Vin's comment about meat, "need hands to handle them."

"Maybe it is evil spirits," Harry replied.

Chris shot the man a murderous glare. "Mr Luck, we don't need that kind of talk right now."

"Sorry," Harry spoke up, appeasing the gunslinger he suspected was quick on the draw and had no hesitation shooting people who annoyed him.. "I didn't mean actual evil spirits but consider what that Indian chief said about that, about people disappearing from the area in the summer months and why the Apache won't come near the place."

"Mr Tanner, when you stated they were hacking up meat, I do assume you meant livestock am I correct?" Ezra asked as a horrific thought surfaced in his mind.

Vin's silence was even more terrifying than an answer.

*******

She heard people.

At first, she wasn't sure if she was dreaming. Crouched in her little cave, she slept late because Jenna was no longer here to wake her and when she did rise, it was usually well after dawn. She woke up, went to relieve herself by the creek, so animals wouldn't come, attracted by the smell and then washed up a little a further upstream. After so many days alone, Heather had tried to do things that Jenna would want her to, if only to remind the little girl of her sister that she was now certain was dead.

She didn't go back to the campsite anymore because the smell was so bad now, it made her sick. Besides, she didn't like walking into all that quiet, surrounded by blood. A few days ago, she'd taken everything good to eat back to her cave, including blankets, pillows and a doll that belonged to Wendy Stephens. She'd admired the doll before, an expensive thing of porcelain with pretty gold hair and silky green dress. Wendy had been nice and she and Heather often played together when wagon trained had camped for the day.

Heather named the doll Lootie after the book Jenna read to her, about Princess Irene and her nurse Lootie who fought goblins. She supposed the bad people in the cave could be called goblins too.

Heather had slept every night since with Lootie in her arms, taking it everywhere because she was like Princess Irene who needed Lootie to not make her feel not so alone. The night time scared her and holding the doll made her feel like she had a friend in the darkness, so she wouldn't feel so scared. At night, she dared not move around because she knew that was when they came out of their cave and after what she saw a few nights ago, Heather knew she never wanted to be found by them.

At first, she wasn't sure what to do when she heard the voices.

The child in her was elated by the sound of grownups but living in the city had also made her wary. Jenna and Papa had told her she should never talk to strangers and those voices she could hear distantly were definitely strangers. However, she also knew that Jenna and Papa would want her to get help and so clutching Lootie in her hands, she climbed out of the small crack, flinching at the bright sunlight that hurt her eyes after being shrouded in darkness for hours.

She saw no one at first, not until she approached the creek, keeping herself hidden amongst the rocks that framed the water's edge. Their voices were clear and she heard different ones, so she knew there were many of them. Perhaps if there were enough of them, they could go find Jenna and Papa, maybe find all the friends that were lost. A part of her knew they were most likely dead. The screaming she had heard the night the Bad Thing happened, was steeped in finality but she was too young to give up hope.

Steeling herself, she dared to look over the edge and she saw a tall man, who blocked out the sun, because he was so big. He wore a big black hat and there were red patches on the shoulders of his coat. Looking at his face, Heather's heart fluttered because he looked like Papa. Was he Papa? Hope filled her chest and she stood up.

"Papa?"

The child emerged out of nowhere.

She stood up so quietly she took both Nathan and Josiah by complete surprise. The two lawman had been scouring the water's edge as per Chris's instruction, with the vain hope someone might have tried to cross the stream and escape the massacre they all knew had taken place. The idea of there being no survivors was too hard to bear even though it was becoming painfully obvious to all, this was exactly the case.

Neither man knew what they were searching for as they scoured the grey shore flanking the stream, with its patches of tall shrubs and large boulders. However, both were unanimous in their gratitude to be away from the choking stench surrounding the campsite. Here, the air was a little fresher and each breath drawn was taken in without the corresponding sense of revulsion of a short time before.

Even though Nathan had coped well enough earlier with the stench, thanks to his experiences as a stretcher bearer during the war, he didn't much care for it. The reek was too closely associated with the other atrocities of that period. Once again, Nathan was forced to relive memories of men united in their pain, where it didn't matter if they were wearing the blue or the grey. Such things held little weight in the face of amputated limbs, ruined and exposed flesh. He remembered the doctors who were stretched to the limits of endurance, performing surgery with instruments, sterilized with alcohol which they also used as an anesthetic during surgery.

Within their line of sight, further down the shore, they could see the vague shapes of JD and Peabody. Peabody's pallor had been so grey when Nathan checked on him earlier, the healer was rather concerned he wasn't suffering some kind of shock. The man had spent his life in safe surroundings, where his bible was the numbers and records he devoted his life to inside the benign walls of the office. Death was some far away thing that happened to other people. He had never been confronted with it as starkly as he had been today.

It was a brutal initiation for any novice.

JD kept a vigil on him as per Chris Larabee's order. While the kid was accustomed to seeing dead bodies before, Nathan suspected his reaction was no better than Peabody's. While there was an absence of corpses, a fact in itself was quite disturbing, the blood splattered across the campsite and the stench left behind, allowed no mystery about to their fate. Sometimes, imagining what had happened to the settlers was almost as bad seeing it for himself and they all knew, JD had too much of an active imagination to let him assume the worst.

"I say we head back," Nathan suggested when their search had come up empty and it was obvious that no one had reached the water. 'We ain't going to find anything here."

"Yeah," Josiah nodded sombrely, wishing it were otherwise. "Sometimes, when you pray to God for the best, he sometimes spares you the worst by not answering."

Nathan shrugged, his own beliefs about God fractured, as it only could for one who was born into bondage. He had started to turn away when suddenly, something shifted in the extreme range of his vision. Spinning around quickly, his hand going for his gun, his finger's dropped away immediately from the reassuring hold of the butt when he saw a small, waif like figure staring at him, startled by his sudden movement.

"Josiah," he said quickly but kept his tone from being too sharp, to avoid scaring the child away.

Josiah turned and stopped short, when he saw what Nathan was looking at.

Standing in front of them both, was a little girl who could not be any more than six years old. She was so small and fragile, she almost looked like a fairy child who had stepped out of the mists. She was clad in a night dress that might have been white once but was now coated with dust and bits of mud. Her feet and her hands were dirty and her long mane of dark, brown hair hung around her shoulders in thick, ropey strands. She was clutching a doll like it was the most precious thing in the world and Josiah swore his heart broke a little knowing that.

"Papa?" She stared at him with green eyes, wide and full of hope.

It took Josiah a second to realise it was him she was addressing. His heart crumbled at hearing the desperate need for it to be true in her voice, but he could not let that illusion linger. He had to crush it with the truth.

"No honey," he exchanged a glance with Nathan, offering the man a slight instruction to let him speak. "I ain't your pa but we're here to help you. My name is Josiah."

Her face dropped along with her shoulders in disappointment, though he suspected she knew this already and it was hope that deluded her into believing the differences could be hurdled enough for it to be the truth.

He took a step towards her and she flinched. Seeing her reaction froze Josiah in his tracks and he continued to speak. "Easy little one," he said as if he were talking to a frightened fawn, "We ain't gonna hurt you. We just want to make sure you're okay." He held out his hands to show her he was not wielding a weapon. "What's your name?"

She didn't answer at first but both Nathan and Josiah saw her pursing her lips, as if she was struggling to make her mouth work. Just how long had she been out here alone? Josiah wondered. It was difficult to gauge exactly how old she was by her appearance. She looked six but could be younger because she was so small.

"Heather." She said after a moment.

Josiah broke into a smile, trying to disarm the child who was quite obviously traumatised by what she might have witnessed. His chest tightened at the possibility she might have seen the carnage in the campsite and was grateful her mind was in one piece, instead of ruined into catatonia from the horror of it. 'It's nice to meet you Heather and who is that with you?" He asked glancing at the doll.

"Lootie." She answered, her voice barely a whisper. Saying the doll's name made her clutch it tighter.

Josiah took another ginger step forward and was grateful when she didn't sprint away in fright. "Lootie? That's an interesting name."

"It's the name of Princess Irene's friend," she volunteered, still watching him and Nathan cautiously.

"Princess Irene?" Josiah asked. "Is that from a book?"

He was talking to keep her distracted, so he could get in close. He had a feeling if she had been here alone for all that time and managed to avoid being taken by what caused the horror at the campsite, she was probably very good at hiding. If they approached her badly, she would scurry away to her hiding place and they might never find her again.

She nodded slowly. "Jenna it to me every night."

"Jenna?" Josiah asked, "is that your sister?"

Once again, she nodded. "My big sister Jenna."

Josiah was now almost within reach of her. She'd allowed him to get lose because he suspected she was drawn to their voices and aware that they might not be a danger to her. Unfortunately, she was still a child who might have been traumatized by what she might have seen happen and children weren't given to trusting adults easily, especially a group of strange men. He almost wished Chris had relented and allowed Mary to come with them as the lady would have been able to soothe the girl's fear better. However, he recanted as soon as the thought crossed his mind.

This was no place for a woman or a child to be.

"Is Jenna here too?" He asked suspecting not.

She shook her head and in her eyes, Josiah saw the despair and the anguish of loss. It made his breath catch in his throat as he extended his hand towards her. Slowly. She looked at it a moment, her expression unreadable and for a second, Josiah thought she was going to bolt and was poised to grab her if she tried. It was not an action he wished to take, because the child was in enough of a state without him manhandling her.

Suddenly, she rushed forward, dropping Lootie against the sand. The little girl wrapped her thin arms around the top of his legs and buried her face against his hip, before breaking into a heartbreaking sob of anguish. Her small body shuddered against him as she wept the tears she had been holding back for so many days. Josiah looked at Nathan, whose face revealed his own emotions of pity as the little girl cried loudly. Bending over, Josiah picked her up from under her arms, marvelling how she weighed almost nothing and held her close in an embrace.

"It's alright Princess Irene," he said softly, "you're not alone anymore."

The child was still clinging to Josiah's arms when Nathan went to fetch Chris and the others over the embankment. Josiah had no desire to discuss anything with the gunslinger anywhere near the campsite where Heather would have to revisit the place of her trauma. Nathan had given her Lootie back before setting off and the girl clutched the thing while still clinging to Josiah, allowing him to carry her the way a father would do for a precious bundle like her.

"Can she tell us what happened to the others?" JD asked, joining Josiah when he saw the preacher return with the little girl, much to his and Peabody's surprise.

"We haven't had that conversation yet," Josiah said holding her, not willing to bombard the girl with questions until she was ready to talk. It was clear by her physical and mental state what kind of ordeal she had gone through. If she was the last survivor of the caravan that lay decimated on the other side of the embankment, what she might have seen would be more than any child ought to be witnessing.

"Has she been out here alone, all this time?" Peabody asked, horrified by the idea that this small, frail child had been forced to fend for herself and inwardly cursed for not pressing harder to mount this search mission sooner.

"I think so," Josiah said quietly, not wanting to talk over the child but it was clear she wasn't listening to them.

"Oh my God, do you think she saw what happened?" Peabody's voice filled with horror at the thought.

"Who can say?" Josiah shrugged.

"I say we get out of here," JD spoke up. 'We're too late to stop what happened here."

"You can't know that," Peabody insisted, still clinging to the belief there were people to find, now that the girl had surfaced. If she survived, a child who was so young she clung to Josiah like a baby, then maybe the others had too.

"Mister," JD shook his head. "Did you not see what was in that campsite?"

"They're all dead."

Everyone fell silent as Heather finally spoke, her voice soft.

Behind them, Nathan returned with Chris and the others. The men were just as shocked as Nathan and Josiah had been when they discovered the girl. Ezra's jaw was taut, having a soft spot for children and seeing one in this condition, stabbed at his traditional southern core. Chris's eyes were hard because he was once a father and the idea of Adam being privy to something like this would have driven him mad with rage.

"What did you say honey?" Josiah asked, wanting her to repeat it for the benefit of the others just arrived.

Heather lifted her head, realising she had to talk. The sun was going down soon and they needed to understand what came with the shadows. 'They're all dead."

"Did you see them die?" Chris asked, his tone gentle. It always surprised him how old habits surface when he was around children, just like the first time he met Billy.

She shook her head. "I heard it."

"Jesus," Buck whispered, trying to imagine how terrible that must have been.

"How did you get away, dear heart?" Ezra asked, unable to imagine how she could have escaped the fate of the others.

"Jenna said we could go for a swim because it was so hot," she glanced shyly at the water, as if admitting this trespass now, would exact punishment. "It happened when we was swimming. She told me to wait and she went to find Papa," her lip started to quiver, "but she never came back."

With that, she buried her face in Josiah's shoulder and sobbed again.

"Did you see who they were, who hurt Jenna and the others?" Chris had to ask.

She shook her head while still pressed against the fabric of red velvet. After a moment, she lifted her head and looked at them. "But we gotta go away from here. It's almost night time."

Vin stiffened, remembering Tasso's warning. "What happens at night time?"

She looked him directly in the eye. "They hunt.'

Chapter Five:
Wiindigookaanzhimowin

Despite Heather's chilling warning, Chris wasn't certain he was ready to tuck tail and run without knowing for certain there was no one left to find. Heather's presence alone meant there could be survivors, even with obvious evidence of a massacre. By her own admission, Heather had not seen the others killed and in her young, terrified mind, the sound of all that screaming might have sounded like death to a six-year-old. Nevertheless, her words did send chills down all their spines upon hearing of it and with an hour or two left of the sun in the sky before the night descended upon them, there was an opportunity to investigate further.

Climbing up the rocky slope, Chris glanced over his shoulder and saw Vin keeping pace behind him, navigating the jagged protrusions of stone providing hand and foot holds for them to scale the steepening wall. A scouting mission didn't need the rest of their number and truth be told if the danger was what Heather believed it to be, Chris didn't want to risk anyone unnecessarily. Besides, if things got dangerous, Peabody was useless in a fight and they still had a child to get back to safety.

Pulling himself along the jagged terrain, Chris had to admire Heather for making it up this far on her own. It took concentration to climb up the uneven ground and a misstep could result in a nasty fall Nathan would get conniptions about if he saw it. According to the child, she heard voices emanating from their destination as late as a day ago, which means someone was there to find. Chris hoping that someone might be survivors.

Still even as Chris pulled himself higher and higher from the ground, he had to admit being affected for the first time about the talk about supernatural monsters and crazed Aztecs, especially when his hyper-alert state of being, was screaming warning bells in his mind. Pausing, he looked about the canyon walls surrounding them, as if his penetrating gaze could see the secrets behind the rock.

"You see something pard?" Vin asked, stopping when Chris did.

"No," Chris shook his head a few seconds, "nothing. Just feels as if..." he struggled to find the right words.

"Like someone is watching us?" Vin finished for him.

Staring pointedly at the tracker, Chris wondered what was this connection between them that allowed Vin to know his thoughts so exactly.

"Yeah," he nodded. "You feel it too?"

Vin raised his eyes to the sun, checking how much daylight was left before answering. "Something is here."

"You think we should head out?" Chris asked as he resumed climbing, thinking he knew Vin well enough to know what the younger man's answer would be.

"No," Vin replied. "Something's been happening in these parts that's been allowed to go for on too long. What we found down there," he glanced in the direction of the bloody campsite. "That ain't right. Folk who can do that to another, ain't human. Ain't an animal either. I don't know what yet, but we can't let it go on."

With that, Chris couldn't disagree. While he didn't propose the lawmen of Four Corners take care of it themselves, there was an army garrison nearby, still with enough troops to do something about it if needed. It took another minute of climbing before the two men reached the lip of rock before the cave entrance and climbed over it.

The mouth of the cave was deep enough to be concealed from the ground but once standing in front of it, it very much resembled the gaping jaws of some terrible creature, especially with limestone stalactites and stalagmite framing the opening like serrated teeth. Once again, Chris glanced over his shoulder, trying to catch a glimpse of little Heather down in the canyon. How in Christ had a six-year-old had looked at this without losing her wits was beyond him. The thought of Adam facing something like this alone, made his gut twist in horror just thinking of it.

A wave of admiration for the child filled him and he resolved one way or another, to get her out of this place and back to safety.

"Well that don't look scary at all," Vin drawled as he stared down it and it wasn't just the sight of it that looked so ominous. His keen sense of smell could detect the scent of rotting meat and animal spoor like they were about to step into a den used by some grizzly bear for winter hibernation. His face revealed his disgust and for reasons, he couldn't explain, his fingers reached for the butt of his mare's leg, needing to feel the soothing feel of the wood for some reason.

"Come on," Chris replied, stepping forward, prepared to tackle the darkness to get some answers. He had not missed the look on Vin's face and knew whatever was in there, was unnerving the younger man a little.

Once they were past the threshold, the path into the cave led downwards, allowing some of the diminishing light to illuminate the passageway. Fortunately, they'd come somewhat prepared, with Vin having tucked a makeshift torch in his belt on the climb up. The walls of the cave narrowed after they'd left the entrance behind but was still wide enough for them to move easily. The cave floor was a maze of columns, formed after the marriage of stalactites and stalagmites. Some of the stalactites had grown so large, they were almost like giant boulders in the middle of the cave floor, while the formations on the ceiling were smaller and sharper making the roof jagged and sharp.

Somewhere in the darkness, they could hear the dripping of water and with all the formations across the passage, Chris suspected there was a water source somewhere inside this mountain. There were the flutter of wings, slow and languid which added to the sinister nature of the place.

"Bats," Vin remarked.

"I figured," Chris replied and wondered why he was whispering.

The passage began to taper, becoming a narrow ledge along one wall, creating a chamber with high walls resembling a kind of amphitheater. Peering over the edge on their right flank, they were confronted by the edge with a sheer drop into an abyss they couldn't see. By now, the light had almost drained completely and to continue ahead without it was dangerous. He wondered how far Heather had gotten before fear turned her back. He reached for the inside of his duster and produced the tinderbox he kept in one of the pockets.

"Vin, give me the torch."

Vin nodded, not at all liking the darkness because the smell promised so much danger, it was palpable enough to choke you. He handed the torch to Chris, which was little more than a stick of wood, swaddled with a bit of rag and fat, to make it burn longer. The gunslinger wasted no time bringing the torch to life within seconds. The swaddling began to burn quickly and illuminated the chamber.

Chris almost wished it hadn't.

The torch revealed the ledge they were on would eventually empty onto the floor of the chamber. Like the rest of the cave, was uneven and rocky, with the numerous stalactites standing like statues, throughout the large space. Some of them stood like columns, reaching for the roof like Atlas holding up the world. Others took on the more sinister appearance of teeth like they were stepping through the mouth of some great beast that would awaken at a moment's notice. Certainly, the smell of the place was like the hot, fetid breath of some unspeakable horror.

In the center of the chamber, Chris saw what had made Heather flee in terror. One of the formations had been flattened, undoubtedly by human hands and tools. It was smoothed to resemble a slab, not unlike the altar Josiah had in his church. The stains of blood across it left no doubt as to its purpose, nor did the collection of skulls arranged carefully around it. The ground surrounding the altar was caked in brown dirt, Chris knew, without doubt, was blood. None of it, however, shook Chris as much as the canvas hanging on the wall behind it.

It was shaped the way the Indians cut and made blankets from animal hide, crude but serviceable, with uneven edges. However, this was not made from hide, Chris knew without even having to examine closer or getting Nathan's opinion. The patchwork of color, some fresh, some turned leathery from time, belonged to only one animal he knew. Human.

"Jesus Christ," he heard Vin whisper next to him and for the first time, Vin's unflappable mask was shaken to the core.

Painted across the grisly canvas, in colors of ochre, indigo, and mustard was the depiction of what he knew to be some heathen god. Chris had no idea if it was Aztec or Inca, but he knew these were not Indian. He did not have to even look at Vin to know that much. Suddenly, Harry's tale about missing Aztecs hiding gold came back to haunt him. Seeing it made his throat go dry and while Chris did not scare easily, he knew these creatures had been here for a long time.

Which meant there could be a lot of them.

"Pard, I don't know about you," Vin said after a moment. "But I think we should get the fuck out of here."

Vin seldom swore but when he did, Chris listened. "Yeah, I think you're right."

Suddenly, Chris spun around because he'd seen something in the corner of his eye, like a shadow almost. His mind told him it was the flicker of the torch but his instincts knew better. No sooner than he'd turned around, he saw the shape coming at him and Chris reacted on reflex, unsheathing his peacemaker and pulling the trigger before he even had the chance to consider the wisdom of it.

The gunshot ripped through the air like an explosion inside the chamber, it echoed throughout the cavern until Chris was almost deafened by the sound. The thunderous burst almost masked the inhuman scream of the creature in front of him, the one Chris saw for a second before pulling the trigger. The figure fell backwards because Chris had aimed for dead centre and he did not know how to miss when caught unawares.

The body landed on its back and even as they approached it with the torch, allowing the amber light to show them what had been shot, they could hear distant cries, as if the gunshot had been church bells ringing in time for Sunday service. Throughout the cavernous chamber, in secret nooks and crannies, they had yet to see, something was waking up.

What was lying in front of them, was barely clad, its loins protected in a covering made from leather and hemp. The smear of blood across his chest was almost as vibrant as the tribal marking across his face, which Vin knew came from no Indian tribe he was familiar. The face was carved with odd markings, not tattoos but something carved into flesh. The eyes were still open and neither Chris nor Vin knew if it was the dying that caused it or was it how it actually was, because the corpse's pupils were so wide, his eye sockets were almost black. His lips were pulled back into a rictus of pain and when they saw his teeth, Chris knew they had to get the fuck of out there immediately.

They were serrated.

*******

'Ezra."

Ezra who had been filling up his canteen with water, necessary for those few occasions when the whiskey contained in his flask would not do, stood up straight and looked over his shoulder. Behind him was Harry who had left the others, a short way up the stream, waiting for the return of Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner.

Since the discovery of little Heather, Harry had been silent on the subject of gold and Ezra was grateful the man had rid himself of that particular delusion, mostly because the situation seemed extremely inappropriate for it. With the possibility of a massacre looming over them with as much foreboding as the canyon walls around them, it seemed profane to be thinking of gold. Ezra was not ashamed to admit what he had spied in the campsite had shaken even his well-practised gambler's facade and he had needed to down a couple of shots from his flask to steady himself in the aftermath.

"Harry," Ezra greeted, "it has been quite a day hasn't it?"

"That's putting it mildly," Harry replied. "I had no idea when we were talking about Aztecs, that any of them would actually still be alive."

Ezra blinked and stared at him. "Excuse me?"

"Aztecs Ezra," Harry said taking a step closer to him, keeping his voice down so Ezra's friends wouldn't hear him. "That's who's responsible for this. Haven't you figured it out by now?" Harry stared at him as if this was the most obvious assumption to make.

Ezra tried to play catch up to join the train of thought that Harry had obviously embarked upon, even if it was heading over a cliff. "You believe the perpetrators of this heinous act are Aztecs?"

Ezra didn't know whether to laugh or shake his head in exasperation at Harry's refusal to abandon Smiling Pete's tall tale. He was really starting to believe his old friend was obsessed.

"Of course," Harry looked at him like the one who was insane now. "Who else could it be? You heard what the old Indian said. None of the tribes will come here and that its evil has been around for a very long time. I mean it fits with what Smiling Pete said about the Aztecs waging a war with the tribes and were slaughtered. What if they weren't slaughtered?"

Ezra was about to dismiss Harry's comment when something of what the man said began to sink in, as outlandish as it was. Who else could be responsible for what they had seen so far. If the Apache were anxious enough to offer white men warnings about the area and too terrified to wander into it themselves, then it implied a third party that was in the game. Not wishing to add fuel to Harry's obsession, Ezra had to begrudgingly give credence to his assertion.

"You may be right," Ezra shrugged. "It does appear there is a third party in all this that is neither Indian or white man. If it is the Aztecs, then we have a great reason for concern."

"No kidding," Harry replied. "It also means the stories about the gold are true."

Ezra almost cursed out loud, realising what his acquiescence had wrought. If he had known this would only add fuel to the fire of Harry's obsession with gold, he would have considered his words more carefully. Especially now that he realised rather belatedly, Harry had a hidden agenda for approaching him away from the hearing of his associates.

"Harry, what pray tell do you have in mind?"

"If those Aztecs are real, then so is the gold they brought with them from the Aztec empire. Since they weren't welcomed here and they haven't traded with anyone, the gold could still be here." Harry raised his eyes across the expanse of the canyon. "In fact, they could be in the very same cave Larabee and Tanner have gone to check out. We need to get up there ourselves and conduct a search."

Ezra's eyes widened by the sheer recklessness of the subject that for a few seconds, he was incapable of speech, choosing to hold his tongue and formulate a response that did not end up insulting his friend.

"Harry for all we know, the Aztecs could have dispersed into the rest of the America's taking with them their gold. It could be some misanthropes who were responsible for the deaths in the area." It was a weak argument and he knew it but Ezra also knew the gleam in Harry's eyes all too well.

In their youth, they had gotten along because they dared to take risks but while Ezra took such gambles, making contingency plans in case he was faced with a worst-case scenario, Harry did not and often landed into more trouble than he ought to. They had been such good friends because Ezra had been able to be the voice of reason whenever Harry was about to embark on some perilous situation. Like now.

"Come on Ezra," Harry dismissed the idea, not about to be deterred from the plan in his head. "You know as well as I do, if there were Aztecs here, they never made it past the Apache tribes in the area. The gold is still there, we just need to find it."

"Are you insane?" Ezra exclaimed, loud enough for the others to look his way before falling silent and composing himself. Harry winced in annoyance at his outburst and took a step closer.

"It's there Ezra," he hissed, not wanting to share the booty by involving too many people. "You know that's why I came on this rescue mission in the first place and I thought it was the same for you?"

Ezra almost threw his hand up in exasperation. "I came because my associates and I were being paid to do so," he replied, trying to maintain his cool facade, one that was slipping because he could see what Harry intended to do and it was nothing less than suicide, after what they had so far discovered in this canyon and following the girl's account regarding the fate of the homesteaders.

"Harry," he met the man's gaze so his old friend would know how serious he was. 'Under any other circumstances, I would be happy to embark upon this endeavour with you, but did you not see that campsite? These people were dismembered like animals in a slaughterhouse. Not only did they managed to overwhelm the entire wagon train, they did it without one bullet being fired. These are not individuals with which we want to become embroiled."

"I know that," Harry declared, not blind to that fact. "However, you heard what the little girl said. They move around at night. We can sneak past them while they're out hunting. Get in there and get out before they know we've been there. Besides, by the sounds of it, they're not interested in gold. All they took were the livestock. They left everything else."

"They took the homesteaders Harry," Ezra reminded pointedly. "And I doubt they are keeping those poor souls alive. Frankly, judging by all the blood, I do not think they survived the night. Do you really wish to incur the wrath of such creatures?"

"Ezra," his old friend replied. "There's a fortune waiting for us in those caves. I don't know about you but I'm going to try for it. Are you telling me, you're not even going to make the effort?"

The manner in which Harry looked upon him made Ezra feel somewhat self-conscious as if he'd lost the edge he once had as a con man and grifter. Maude had humiliated him under the guise of teaching him a lesson to keep his skills sharp. Was it true? Was playing constable to Four Corners atrophying his honed instincts. Glancing at Josiah and Nathan who were at this moment, presiding over young Heather further along the stream, not to mention Buck and JD at the horses, he knew part of it had to do with his affection for the six men he rode with, whom he was starting to see as friends.

Realising he didn't wish to lose face in front of Harry, at least when he couldn't answer the question definitively, Ezra replied, knowing he was going to regret his next words.

"Don't be foolish. If an opportunity presents itself, of course, we'll aim for the gold but I would like to be alive to spend it." Just to prove his point, Ezra smirked, his gold tooth flashing in the diminishing sunlight.

"Of course," Harry replied coming up to him and wrapping an arm around his shoulder and squeezing it with that broad grin, so reminiscent of Buck's easy going manner. "I don't want to get killed before I can spend any of the gold. Trust me Ezra, we play it smart, we're going to come out of this very rich."

Or very dead, Ezra thought.

If not by the Aztecs, by Chris Larabee's hand.

*******

'How is she?" Josiah asked looking over Nathan's shoulder at Heather, making sure he was in her line of sight so she wasn't too anxious at being forced to relinquish her hold of him.

Ever since he picked her up, she was reluctant to let him go and Josiah suspected it was probably because he bore some resemblance to her missing or most likely dead father. He had not forgotten her reaction when she first saw them and was convinced she would have remained hidden if not for that. Now she was perched on a rock, silently allowing Nathan to wipe down her arms and legs with a wet cloth to clean off the dirt, so the healer could see if she had any bruises or cuts in danger of becoming infected. In her filthy state, after leaving rough and alone for possibly weeks, it was a risk Nathan rather not take.

Nathan straightened up and set the rag aside, giving Heather a little smile. She remained non-responsive, with only Josiah capable of engendering any emotion. The healer was unsurprised by this. If this little girl had been forced to witness what took place at the campsite, to say nothing about evading those responsible and live out in the wilderness as she had, it was no wonder she was somewhat traumatised after the fact.

Once he'd manage to get her away from Nathan long enough to examine her, he concluded the child needed a bath, if only to let him see the extent of any injuries she might have incurred during that time. In the end, he had to be satisfied with cleaning her off, because the sun was setting rapidly overhead, a thing the girl was noticing quite acutely, they might have to leave quickly. Especially when no one wanted to remain in Owl Canyon any longer than they had to.

It was bad enough Harry's talk about Aztecs and the Apaches warning about evil spirits had put them on edge before they even arrived at Owl Canyon. Now in the light of what they'd found at the campsite, to say nothing about the girl's warning regarding the mysterious "them" in the mountains, everyone was understandably spooked and wanting to get the hell out of the place.

Before sundown.

"She's okay," he said giving the girl an encouraging smile even if it did nothing to dispel that anxious expression on her face. 'She's got a couple of bruises and scrapes but nothing too serious. I'm going to put some iodine on the deeper cuts, to kill any infection before it gets any chance to get started. Other than that, she's okay. She does need some feeding though. I think she's been living on what she's been able to find in the wagons."

"Maybe we should rustle up some food now," Josiah suggested. Every man on the trail had the sense enough to pack a bit of jerky and some cans of food to supplement their meals if it wasn't possible to catch something for supper. The girl had probably subsisted on the non-perishables during her lonely exile here and while he couldn't profess to know much about the rearing of children, he was certain they needed greens and milk in abundance.

"Might not be a bad idea," Nathan suggested. "If we're going to be riding out of here before dark, we should all get something to eat."

The girl suddenly sat up straight, her dull eyes becoming hard and alert. The shift was so sudden, Nathan was frankly surprised. It reminded him a little of the change that swept through Chris Larabee whenever there was danger. After almost a year riding with the man, every member of the seven knew to pay attention when Chris's instincts for trouble were provoked.

Heather jumped off the rock, she was sitting on and before Nathan could stop her, had run back to Josiah. Upon reaching him, her small hand clasped his and she spoke urgently. "We gotta go! They've woken up!"

"What?" Josiah exchanged a look with Nathan. "What do you mean they've woken up?"

"They're woke up," she insisted, having no way to articulate this. All she knew was that after more than a week out here alone, evading capture, she could feel it when they were on the move. Whether it was a slight shift in the wind, carrying their scent to her from their dark den, or something deeper than that, Heather could not say. She only knew, she felt the danger. 'I can feel it."

"I'd trust her more than not right now," Nathan confessed. The child had survived here on her own, when even Ezra Standish would have refused to gamble on such poor odds, the healer was not about to dismiss her worries.

"Yeah," Josiah agreed, reaching the same conclusion.

"Buck!" Nathan called to the rogue, who was tending to his horse with JD.

Buck's face immediately turned towards him with JD's bowler head bobbing up at the same time. The tension in his voice had Buck striding towards them immediately, the happy go lucky visage he wore like a shield, dissolving into something harder. Peabody who had been recovering on a nearby boulder, also got to his feet, his face still sallow.

By the time Buck reached them, Heather's state had gone from worry to clear agitation. Josiah found himself hanging onto her small hand firmly, certain if they didn't move fast enough for her liking, she was liable to jump back into her hiding place and they would never find her.

"What's going on?" Buck demanded.

"We have to go Josiah!" Heather implored as the men surrounded her. "They're coming!"

"What do you mean they're coming?" JD asked, anxiously surveying the canyon walls around them, trying to see some signs of the intruders that were rapidly closing in on them, according to Heather's ominous words.

"I don't see anything," Harry exclaimed doing the same. For once, the thought of gold was nowhere in his mind. Like JD, Harry saw nothing but the lonely emptiness of the canyon, shrouded in silence that was broken only by their anxious voices and the contrasting babble of the stream rushing by.

It didn't matter whether he did or not, because when the gunshot rang out, they knew trouble had come.

*******

Despite the darkness, both Chris and Vin were running at full stride.

After laying their eyes on what they had killed and both coming to the firm conclusion that neither were willing to call it a man at this point, they realised with growing urgency, the time for slow footing it was over, they needed to get the hell out of there. Chris was well read enough to know what kind of people filed their teeth and if even half of what he suspected was true, then the homesteaders had gone to a fate worse than death. Just the idea of it was stomach turning. It was one he was not eager for himself or his friends to experience firsthand.

Yet as the cavern came alive all around them, it appeared that might actually become a terrifying possibility.

As both men ran up the walkway with the amber glow of their torch lighting their descent into madness, the drum beat of their laboured breathing could not mask the other sounds making themselves heard with chilling clarity. It chilled the blood in their veins.

Voices that might have been human, now sharpened by some unknown nightmare, howled in the darkness with animalistic fury. Theirs was a language of screeches, shrieks and screams, crisscrossing the expanse of the cavern so everyone capable of hearing, was aware of the message being passed. Both Chris and Vin recognised the howling for what it was; a call to arms.

In the midst of the terrifying cries, was the barely audible sounds of movement. Scuffling noises, gravel crunching underfoot and rocks shifting ever so slightly combined to create an orchestra of menace, slowly reaching crescendo. Without seeing any of it, Chris and Vin knew things were moving in the shadows, silent predators who had caught the scent of prey who had unwittingly wandered into their den and worse yet, awakened their slumber with the murder of one of their own.

Even though their descent into the cavern took no more than a few minutes, both men felt as if the attempt to escape it felt longer, as if the minutes had suddenly stretched into eternity. Despite the illumination provided by the torch, the narrow and winding, rocky path, with its stalagmite formations interspersed along the way, had to be navigated with care. It was too easy to stumble or worse yet fall and with what they knew to be in pursuit, that could be an accident with fatal consequences.

"What the hell Chris!" Vin managed to say as he saw the mouth of the cave in the distance, the sunlight pouring through the entrance, feeling like the gateway to heaven after being surrounded by this suffocating dark and the things within it. 'That weren't no Indian."

"Not from around here," Chris panted as he rounded another stalagmite, suddenly hating the things. They felt like obstacles put in his and Vin's way, to delay their escape so the denizens of this cavern could close in for the kill. 'Harry wasn't wrong. I think these are goddamn Aztecs and they've been hiding in this place for a long time."

"Too long!" Vin stated. "You see the eyes?"

"I saw," Chris nodded, remembering the creature's irises opened so wide, like that of a nocturnal hunter, unaccustomed to the light. "They've been in this place so long, they've turned rabid. We gotta get out of here and get the army, smoke them out or something but this is bigger than us."

For once, Vin did not disagree. While Vin had every confidence in what he and the rest of his six friends could accomplish, especially with Chris Larabee leading the charge, the monstrosity of what was breeding in this cavern was nothing he wanted to tangle with anytime soon.

Vin looked over his shoulder and almost froze at what he saw behind him. "Jesus."

The tracker's voice made Chris halt and he glanced over his shoulder to see what had wrung that almost terrified gasp from the tracker. What he saw made him wish he hadn't.

"MOVE!" Chris barked, snapping Vin out of his brief lapse.

Behind them, the rest of the Aztec refugees, if that was indeed what they were, were emerging from every dark corner imaginable. They spilled onto the walkway, a short distance behind the two lawmen. The torch provided just enough radiance for Chris to see the silhouettes of curved axes with multiple blades, spears with cruel looking edges far more vicious than those he'd seen wielded by the Indians and their tomahawks. None of it however, was as sinister as the gleam of serrated teeth in the darkness. Even though he could not see their eyes, he knew they were glaring at him and Vin with manic hunger.

They weren't just on the path, he could see them climbing out through cracks in the walls, large enough for a human body to crawl through. He had no doubt the cavern was honeycombed with such tunnels, turning the entire structure into a nest for these beings to thrive in the shadows. Some were clawing their way over the edge of the path, having scaled the wall from below. Chris couldn't even begin to imagine the years of familiarity with this dark hell for them to achieve such agility and something told him that Harry's story about Aztecs had been wrong in one particular aspect.

They weren't slaughtered by local tribes. Instead they were driven into this darkness to become monsters even worse than the ones they were fleeing.

The notion of being overwhelmed by such beings was enough to shake even Chris Larabee's iron resolve. The numbers he was seeing closing in on them, meant not only would he and Vin be overwhelmed, but if they were still in pursuit when both of them reached the others, not even the seven would be able to hold off this horde. Without a second thought, Chris drew both his guns and opened fire, aiming at the thickest part of the group.

Unleashing a deadly barrage of gunfire, he wasn't certain how many he hit but the resulting screams told him some of his bullets struck home. He saw the swarm retreat a little but not enough as some of their number tumbled to the ground, their bodies quickly stampeded by the others who paused long enough to register the deaths but little more. Once again, they aimed those dark eyes at Chris and Vin with masks of rage and hatred. Brandishing their weapons in anger, they charged again.

Chris halted their progress with another barrage of gunfire, until both his guns were spent and he was forced to reload. The blasts had held them back a few more seconds but not much. The bastards were almost frenzied with blood lust. Retreating backwards, he didn't have to take more than a few steps when a familiar shape was at his side.

"GO!" Vin shouted, covering Chris's back as soon as he heard the first round of shots thundering through the air, muting the creatures fearful howling. Anticipating the gunslinger would soon need to reload by the way he was firing, Vin's own mare's leg was primed and ready for the moment. No sooner than the audible click of an empty chamber was heard, Vin pulled the trigger on his Winchester.

If the sound of the gunshots felt deafening, then the discharge of a sawn-off mare's leg felt like the bellowing of an angry god. No corner of the cavern escaped the thunderous boom. Even though it was most likely his imagination, Vin was certain the cavern trembled from the ear splitting boom. By the time the second or third shot had been fired, the hordes chasing them had temporarily halted their advance, trying to determine if the blasts were not in fact an earthquake. Such tremors were prone to happen in these parts, though not to the degree that would bring buildings down.

The pause gave him and Chris enough time to widen the gap between themselves and their pursuers, with the light pouring through the cavern mouth only fifty feet away. Vin suspected once they reached the light, these creatures would fall back. Heather's warning about their movements during the night implied these people were nocturnal hunters and after seeing their eyes, Vin could believe it.

Suddenly, without realising why and feeling the hair on the back of his neck stand on end, Vin glimpsed something in the darkness above them. He looked up just in time to see the movement there and realised to his horror, these people had mastered every inch of their domain, including the ceilings. The cobwebs they had seen clinging to the stalactites were not entirely strands of dust, but rather rope.

Vin processed this realisation just as he saw a dark figure leaping off one of the formations, headed straight for him.

"Shit!" He cursed as he raised his gun to fire, trying to prime the lever action in the split second before the man reached him. The boom of the rifle rang in his ears, muting the screech of pain as his attacker's body went limp in mid-air. What landed on him was a deadweight, driving Vin to the ground and causing him to lose his grip on his gun. The loss of the weapon filled him with panic and it was almost with relief, when he heard Chris's voice shouting over him.

"Vin! You hurt?"

"I'm alright!" Vin shouted back.

Yet even as he lay on the ground, he could see more of them scurrying like cockroaches, across the roof of the cavern, attempting to cut them off before they could reach the light, by any means necessary. Even with ropes, the tracker couldn't even begin to imagine how they were moving across the ceiling like they were but then there was nothing human in their movements. The speed and agility he saw in their ability to scale those heights, sent a fresh wave of horror through him and prompted Vin to quickly shove the body off him. His stomach clenched at the sensation of blood that was not his, soaking the front of his shirt.

Getting to his feet, he regained his hold on the Winchester on the ground and saw the momentary pause created by the loud boom of the weapon had dissipated and the hordes were renewing their pursuit. Now they weren't just coming from the path leading from the bottom of the cavern but from the roof and along the walls of the walkway. Like wolves, they were closing in on their prey from all direction.

Allowing him to catch his breath, Chris was covering him, now the gunslinger had the opportunity to reload. He was firing again, the muzzle flashes from his bullets illuminating the faces of the angry horde as they were driven back, uttering their gutturals and inhuman screams of fury. They were human to the slightest degree and yet Chris couldn't even call them animal. Animals did not wear such twisted masks of manic hatred. Whatever Tasso had thought was haunting Owl Canyon was nowhere as terrifying as the reality they were now facing.

Right now, he would take evil spirits over a cannibal horde.

And that was exactly what they were. Cannibals.

Chris had only ever read about humans who had been driven to such extremes, and hoped to never encounter such a thing in his lifetime. He knew about the homesteaders who became trapped in Truckee Lake in winter forty years ago and were forced to eat their dead to survive. Yet one look at these varmints told Chris, these men did not wait that long. In fact, they had gone hunting for any soul unfortunate enough to be in this region after dark and bring them down like anyone would do to game.

Continuing to fire, Chris ignored the horror of the situation, determined only to escape it. It was hard not to feel fear, not when he could see how many bodies were closing in on them. There were so many converging on the lawmen, it was like a wall of flesh, each one mutilated with extreme scarification, revealing a crude depiction of ancient tribal design. Definitely Aztec, it would fit with that cultures bloody thirst for sacrifice. He supposed it made sense. How hard would it be to make the leap from human sacrifice to cannibalism when one was starving?

Chris also noticed their hesitation between the pauses of the gunshots were becoming less and less. The loud noises were no longer affecting them. Their hunger for blood had overridden their fear of guns. One way or another, these creatures intended to have him and Vin for their supper. The thought made him empty the rest of his bullets into the sons of bitches and felt mildly satisfied when he saw two of three of the bastards stumbling into the dirt.

As if waiting for him to be empty, something caught his attention in the corner of his eye and Chris looked up just in time to be knocked to the ground by something from above. It landed on his back, giving him little or no chance to fight back. Nails dug into his hair as teeth snapped over the back of his neck, prevented from reaching skin thanks to the collar of his shirt. He felt the hot, rancid breath against his neck and in his nostrils, prompting a wave of disgust from the pit of his stomach.

Reacting immediately, Chris snapped his head back hard, impacting against the hard edge of pointed teeth and uttered a cry of pain when he felt skin broken. It was like being stabbed by a fork. Uttering a soft grunt of pain, he could feel blood under his hair and against his scalp. His knees radiated pain after landing hard against the rocky ground but as always, Chris used it to focus his concentration, not dull it.

Jamming the barrel of the gun into what felt like the fleshy part of a cheek, he pulled the trigger. The detonation made him utter the cry of pain his attacker's teeth had not managed to do. His eardrums rang from the powerful blast and for a second, all sound drained from the world. Almost dazed, Chris looked over his shoulder to see his attacker's body tumbling to the dirt, landing on his side. There were no longer any distinguishable features on the man's face, not with half a skull missing. The bullet had blown out the back of his head and the pulpy wetness Chris could feel on his collar and shirt, he realised with revulsion, was brain matter.

"Chris, come on!" Chris felt Vin's hand gripping his arm and hauling him to his feet. He managed to stand, feeling a little shaky after the hard landing on the ground. The gunshot left him a little dazed and for a few seconds, he saw the approaching horde through a soundless void. Even the wind whistling through the cavern seemed to still and the only awareness he registered were the faces of madness, crowding in on them with serrated teeth, gnashing in fury.

Vin shoved him forward, forcing him to get his legs moving. Chris focused on the sunlight pouring through the cave entrance, drawn to the safety of its warmth. Behind him, Vin was still shooting. Each blast was followed by a scream of pain or murderous outrage. Chris could no longer tell the difference. Shaking his head clear of the disorientation because he knew Vin couldn't fight them off on his own, Chris quickly reloaded his guns, painfully aware his supplies of ammunition was getting low. They had to get out of here now.

That thought was interrupted by his sighting of another cannibal descending from above, attempting to ambush the younger man.

Without thinking, Chris fired at the figure, causing it to crash against the rocky ground a foot away from where Vin would have been standing. Another was clawing its way up the edge of the path and the gunslinger fired again, no longer distinguishing one face from another, relying on autonomous reflexes to do the thinking for him. The bullet caught the attacker in the forehead, a spray of blood appearing briefly behind his skull before disappearing into the darkness. Soon, it and the man tumbled into the depths of the cavern once more.

"I gotta reload!" Chris heard Vin shout.

"I got you!" He told the younger man. "Keep going!"

Vin nodded, retreating up the passageway while his hands worked deftly to reload the Winchester in his grip. He couldn't keep track of how many there were now, knowing it was more than dozens. They were once men, Vin knew that much but something had turned them into monsters because he could describe what was coming after them in no other way.

Then with a sudden flash of memory, Vin recalled a ritual he once heard of from a Cree medicine man. The army had done its worst to the man's tribe and the once respected tribal elder was now a drunk sitting outside some one horse town, making trinkets for the locals. Vin had shared a bottle with him and heard of a ritual the Cree performed during times of famine to stave off surrender to their worst instinct. What had he called it? Wiindigookaanzhimowin?

Wendigo.

Chris was continuing to shoot, trying to pick off the ones bold enough to rush him but even Vin could see he was fast running out of bullets, especially with both guns firing. Vin saw another one of these creatures clambering up the wall of the walkway, using some kind of three bladed axe to haul himself over the edge to get at them. Vin wasted no time aiming the mare's leg in his direction, pulling the trigger on the rifle and ending the threat before it could reach Chris.

Unfortunately, Chris's accuracy with his guns was making him the primary focus of the enemy. While they made some effort to reach Vin, it was Chris drawing all their aggression. The gunslinger was making every bullet count, knocking off their pursuers like flies, pausing only to reload, while Vin kept them off his back. Chris's expertise with his guns, was not only in the speed of his draw, but how quickly he was able to reload. The man's dexterity with bullets would have made Ezra Standish envious.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a dark shape leapt through the air, flying toward the gunslinger with every intention of downing Chris Larabee one way or another. Vin was in the process of fighting off another one of these varmints, when he saw the danger.

"CHRIS! WATCH OUT!"

Chris turned to see the shape coming at him. He barely had time to register the enemy before he lifted his guns to fire. As the barrel of his peacemaker blazed to life, the man barrelling towards him uttered a frightful shriek. However, instead of dropping down to the ground dead, the attacker had a bit more life to him and continued forward, arms flailing as the gunslinger tried to fire again.

He never got the chance.

Vin watched in horror as both Chris and his attacker went over the edge of the walkway, tumbling into the darkness.

"CHRIS!" Vin fairly screamed, but it was to no avail. As the others turned their attention to him, Vin realised with despair, Chris was gone.

Chapter Six:
A Great Pig

By the time that single gunshot evolved into the chaos of a battlefield exchange, the rest of the seven, except for Peabody and Josiah were already making their way up the cliff, following the path taken by Chris and Vin a short time earlier. Although Josiah had wished to accompany them, the truth was, the older man was needed to deal with Heather who was near hysterical after the shooting erupted. Fearful leaving her in Peabody's hands would allow the child to escape back to her refuge, Josiah remained behind, not only to calm her down but to keep watch on the government man who was almost as anxious as Heather.

As the remaining five made their way up the canyon wall, they were able to distinguish the back and forth shift of weapons being fired. It took no clairvoyance to determine Chris and Vin were waiting for each other's guns to exhaust themselves before taking up the slack to maintain a constant barrage of suppressing fire, as if they could ill afford the pause between reloads. Whoever their enemy was, they were closing in fast and it was taking everything Chris and Vin had to keep them at bay.

"We've gotta get up there!" Buck exclaimed, making a proclamation no one disagreed with. He hauled himself onto the uneven path after finding another handhold, driven like a man being horsewhipped by the stark desperation in each fresh burst of gunfire.

"Just take it easy! You slip and fall, you'll crack open your head and be no good to anyone!" Nathan warned, just as anxious to reach Chris and Vin as the rest of his comrades but not about to ignore their safety either. How in the hell had Heather made it up here? Nathan wondered. A regular visitor to the Seminole village where they shared their first adventure, the community was enclosed in canyon walls like this and he had treated enough injuries from falls to know the kind of damage that could be incurred by a misstep.

Buck opened his mouth to offer argument but thought better of it because the healer was right. Even now, as he looked down, he could see jagged rocks running along the steep slope they were climbing. A fall couldn't just injure them, it could damn well kill them. On top of the melee propelling them upwards with such urgency, they didn't need one of their number hurt as well.

Still, it did not help they could hear Chris and Vin hollering at each other, with uncharacteristic alarm in their voices. These were two men who were always in complete control of their composure which was part of the reason they got along so well. Anything that could shatter either man's iron resolve was something they ought to fear.

And as they continued up the canyon wall, they could almost hear what that was, because amidst the brief pauses in gunfire, overlapping Chris and Vin's voices, was another sound just as chilling. They were not voices and yet they knew these could only come from a human animal. It was an unholy mix of the gnashing of animals and the shrieking made by crazed banshees. It turned the blood in their veins cold and knew, without doubt, the gunslinger and the tracker had encountered those responsible for the carnage in the campsite.

JD who was the youngest and probably the fittest was the first to reach the ledge leading towards the mouth of the cavern Vin and Chris had found themselves earlier. As he stood up and dusted himself off, the hail of bullets and voices felt close enough to touch. He wrestled with the urge to go on ahead without the others, knowing full well Buck would lose his mind if he did. In the end, he ignored such considerations because his friends were in trouble.

"JD wait up!"

Buck's voice bounced off his back as he ran towards the rather ominous looking cave, which to him, did appear to look like the maw to some underworld hell. Drawing both guns, he was ready to fire, perfectly aware only something dire was capable of reducing Vin and Chris to such alarm. Shoving his own fear deep into the place he frequently stored such feelings since his arrival in the Territory, the youngest of the seven drew upon his reserves of courage instead.

Suddenly the gunshots stopped abruptly, and a cold chill ran through JD as he processed why that might be. The possibility of both men being overcome rose darkly in his mind, like the fetid stench of a foul bog. It made his gut churn unhappily, even as he heard Buck cursing behind him for his impetuousness. Worse yet, while the gunfire stopped, that terrible shrieking, full of madness and raged intensified, as if some unseen climax was reached and they had missed it without being able to help either Chris or Vin.

JD was resolved to go in there anyway because those two men were more than his friends, in the last year they had become his family and he was not going to abandon them, no matter how hopeless the situation might seem. Even as he heard the others behind him, JD hurried forward, prepared for the worst and ready to fight if it wasn't.

He never had the chance to do either because he was halted by the crunching of gravel as Vin Tanner appeared a second later, running out of the cave, out of breath with his mare's leg in his hand, looking over his shoulder to ensure no one was following. After becoming accustomed to Vin's stoic mask for the last year, the tracker's expression revealed naked emotion not present even after the man's unfortunate dalliance with Charlotte Richmond.

It stunned JD to realize Vin was shaken to the core.

"Vin? What's happened? Where's Chris?"

Vin didn't answer. He stumbled away from JD and dropped to his haunches, squatting on the stone floor and dropping his rifle into the dirt. Covering his face in his hands, he drowned the world out as the ramifications of what happened inside that cave sunk in, even as JD waited for an answer, staring at him with shock. Buck soon appeared followed by Ezra, Nathan, and Harry.

Vin did not react to their approach, but he stood up and turned his back on them, staring at the cave in which he'd left Chris Larabee, his best friend. He should have held his ground, should have made some effort to try and reach the gunslinger. Yet even as the thought crossed his mind, Vin knew it was impossible. Even if he had been able to get through the horde of savages trying to kill them both, he had to face the reality there was no way Chris could have survived that fall. They had been almost to the top when he went over the edge and the drop would have broken every bone in his body.

And if he did survive... Jesus. The thought of what his fate might be almost made Vin double over and puke. Instead, all he could do was utter an anguished scream of rage and frustration because he had left his best friend in hell.

"FUCK!" Vin fairly screamed, startling the five men around him.

"Where's Chris?" Buck demanded more forcefully and seeing JD shrug in answer, even though Vin's expression was answer enough and the thought that Chris Larabee was dead was too much for any one of them to accept.

"In there!" Vin gestured towards the mouth of the cave, staring at it as if he could see right through it to where those varmints were hidden in the darkness, held back only by the dwindling light of the day. The sun had well passed its zenith and was beginning the rapid descent into the mountains. As soon as it took its light with it, Vin knew what would be spilling out of the cave like a swarm of ravenous locusts.

"What happened?" Buck grabbed Vin by the arm and spun him around. "Where the hell is Chris?"

The others were similarly shaken, unaccustomed to seeing Vin in such a state, not after a whole year of riding together. If there was one among their company who could be counted to keep his head, it was the tracker. Seeing him like this was almost as jarring as the realization Chris Larabee was missing.

"Buck take it easy!" Nathan spoke up, able to see the anguish in Vin's face to know the younger man was still reeling from what it was that had happened. He wanted to know where Chris was too, but he wasn't so blinded by emotion that he failed to recognize Vin's state of mind.

"Chris is somewhere in there!" Vin shouted and silenced them all by that statement. 'I don't know if he's still alive! We got ambushed by the crazy sons of bitches that wiped out the wagon train. They're all holed up in that cave. I can't even count how many of them there are, but they've gone rabid. All of them!" He remembered the number he had seen chasing them up the walkway, climbing across the ceiling and up along the ledges. There had been so many, it was more than dozens, more than the number they'd faced when Colonel Anderson was leading his Confederate army of "ghosts'. "We were just about to get out when one of them went after Chris. They both went over the edge! He was gone before I could even get to him...."

"My Lord," Ezra exclaimed in uncharacteristic shock. 'Could he have survived the fall?"

"I don't think so," Vin shook his head. "It was almost a fifty-foot drop and the ground was covered in rough rock..."

"We've got to go in there and get him!" Buck said starting towards the cavern when Vin suddenly came to his senses and yanked him by the jacket, stopping him in his tracks.

"NO!" Vin roared. "You ain't going in there! None of us are!"

"Get your hands off me!" Buck shook him off, eyes blazing with fury. "How could you just leave him in there!"

"BUCK!" Ezra reacted immediately, refusing to allow Buck to continue. The gambler could see Vin was gripped in guilt at having to leave the gunslinger but fortunately, the fugue he had been in was quickly dispersing and Vin was stepping up again, proving once more why he had Chris's confidence.

"You listen up!" Vin grabbed him by the arm to make him understand. It was tearing Vin apart knowing he was driven out of that cave, unable to go to the aid of his friend, but Vin also knew if Chris were here, he'd want to ensure everyone was safe. 'We ain't going back in there! In less than an hour, it's gonna be dark and then they'll be coming. The only reason they ain't out here yet is that the light hurts their eyes I think. I saw more than forty of them in there, do you get me? I reckon there's a hell of a lot more that will be itching to get at us once the sun goes down."

"The light hurts their eyes?" Nathan the healer among them had to ask. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, they got eyes like owls!" Vin took a deep breath trying to explain, remembering the creature they killed, because he couldn't bring himself to call it a man. "It looks like they ain't got no white left in their eyes at all and their teeth," he shuddered visibly, remembering the sharp points gleaming in the darkness. "They're all sharp, like they been filed down."

"Why would they sharpen their teeth like that?" JD had to ask. He knew of no Indian tribe they had so far encountered did that. The idea of how it would feel to do something like that made him shudder involuntarily.

"Because they've gone wendigo!" The tracker snapped.

"What?" Buck exclaimed, staring at Vin in a mixture of astonishment and outright disbelief. "You're crazy! That's a ghost story! No Indian tribe has done nothing like that in ... in... I can't even remember when!"

Of course, Buck knew the legends. It was a ghost story, much like Tasso's evil spirits. Such tales have been around for as long as there had been Indians but everyone with a lick of sense knew not to take them seriously. There hadn't been a recorded case of such a thing, though he knew the Indians sometimes used the tale of a malevolent creature like that to scare off superstitious Christian folk looking to settle on their land.

"What's a wendigo?" JD asked puzzled, looking around the group.

"A cannibal," Harry declared grimly. "A wendigo is a cannibal."

"You mean they eat..." the young man turned pale at the realization.

"It don't matter what they are," Vin cut through the chatter. "We've gotta get out of this canyon before it gets dark because sure as shit, as soon as it does, they'll be coming for us."

"And Mr Larabee?" Ezra asked, hating to think if Chris Larabee was alive, they'd left him with such heinous creatures.

"Is there any chance he's still alive?" Nathan asked, staring at that cave, understanding now the source of those terrifying screeches and shrieks.

Vin took a deep breath. He couldn't bring himself to think Chris Larabee was dead. He simply couldn't. As mad as he had been about Chris questioning his loyalty, it felt stupid in the face of losing the best friend he ever had. Chris had been willing to break him out of jail when that corrupt marshall tried to take him in. Hell, the man had offered to come to Tascosa with him to clear his name. That weren't the actions of someone who was anything but a friend and Vin had been a dang fool not to see it.

Charlotte had confused him enough these last few weeks, having driven a wedge between him and Chris and now, now there was every chance Chris might be dead without Vin being able to tell the gunslinger, it wasn't him Vin was mad at. It was his own stupid self at being so blind about things. He should have known better than to mess with a married woman, to begin with. Richmond had been pissed enough as it was the Judge appointed the seven to accompany the wagon train to their promised land. Vin's foolishness made an already incendiary situation into a powder keg that eventually blew up in all their faces.

Chris had offered no judgment, did not rebuke him even after he had taken Charlotte and abandoned his friend, with a mind of heading to Brazil. What did he expect Chris to say after that? Maybe Chris had no cause to doubt his loyalty but then again, Vin had not exactly behaved right either. They should have just talked it out or got drunk and traded a couple of punches and sort the whole thing out, not allow this rift to form between them. A rift that may now become permanent if the man was dead.

No, something inside Vin refused to believe it. He wouldn't. If Chris Larabee were dead, Vin Tanner would know it. He had more faith in their connection than he had in God himself.

"I don't care," Vin said firmly. "We can't be here when those sons of bitches come out tonight but we're coming back at first light with enough ammo and torches to burn them out if we have to and...." he stared down the others with absolute certainty in the cobalt blue of his eyes. "We're going to find Chris."

*******

Pain.

It woke him up in searing waves of agony, slicing through the disorientation of the concussion he suffered when he went tumbling off that ledge into the darkness. There had been a moment of clarity when he saw the black rushing up at him and Chris cursed at what a fucking dismal way this was to die, before he landed somewhere that was a lot higher up than he expected. The landing had been blunted by the body beneath him and if the bullet he fired at the savage hadn't killed the man before, the impact against the jagged rock certainly did.

Not that he escaped unscathed. He felt the crack of ribs as they both slammed against the rock and Chris had been thrown off, not into the black once again, but into a fissure in the cave wall that had him tumbling like a rolling dervish. The fissure was angled steeply enough for him to roll down the narrow chute before landing in a hole with barely enough space for him to stretch his legs, let alone stand up. The small enclosure was big enough for one person to sit up but no more than that. Chris had landed so hard against the ground, he'd been knocked unconscious.

When he came to, after spending a few seconds cursing a blue streak at the hangover he thought he was having and the whore who'd taken his money and left him in the middle of nowhere in the dark, before the memories flooded back into his mind. Sitting up so abruptly, Chris almost brained himself against the roof of the cave, before being able to take stock of his situation. Using the tinderbox still in his coat pocket, he lit a match long enough to get a better look at his surroundings.

To his relief, it seemed his gun had made the journey with him. It was half buried in the dirt, having fallen there after the slide down. Before the light of the match died, Chris reached for the weapon and fumbled with it for a few seconds in the dark, trying to determine how many bullets were left in the chamber. He counted three and there was still a full chamber of rounds left on his gun belt. Nine shots weren't nearly enough to get out of trouble but then again, he had no plans to leave this hideaway just yet. His body ached, and his head was throbbing as if all the demons of hell were trying to claw their way out of his skull.

Leaning against the wall, he reached into his coat and produced the flask he kept there for situations that warranted a stiff drink. Such as now. Taking a sip of the whiskey, he felt it burn as it slid down his throat. He suspected no one knew he was down here and if they did, the only way to reach him was to climb down after him. With nine shots left, he could make them regret the attempt. Nevertheless, he made a mental note to save one bullet for himself, because there was no way he was ending up like the poor folk of the wagon train.

Chris only hoped Vin made it out and it stuck in his craw that the answer to that question eluded him. The last thing he heard of the tracker, was Vin's fearful cry as he went over the edge and prayed Vin was sensible enough to get out before those varmints got him. If Vin did escape, then Chris had faith Vin would get the others out. The tracker would know better than to remain in the canyon past dusk. These beings, whatever they were, favored the darkness and no doubt would be out in force once nightfall descended.

No, if Vin was smart, he'd get the others and start riding before the sunset. The sheer number of the creatures inhabiting this cave was more than his comrades could handle. He'd seen the same thing Vin had and knew they were facing many creatures who can move through the darkness with the ease men moved through daylight. Not only were they exceedingly vicious, but they were also fast and knew the terrain better than his men. Vin's best shot at stopping these varmints was to get to the garrison and alert Simmerson to what was happening here.

In the meantime, he decided as he took another sip of his flask and let the alcohol dull the pain in his head and the ache in his ribs, to stay put until daylight. Reaching into his coat pocket, he took out his pocket watch and lit a match to see what time it was. Mindful of not wasting his supply, because he might need it to escape, Chris knew it was well after dark. If he tried to make the climb out of here now, he would run into those savages.

Best to wait until daylight and then make the attempt. If he could climb out of this hole and find his way back to the walkway, he would have a day in the sunlight to put some distance between himself and this canyon. Closing his eyes, he rested against the wall and tried not to listen to the sounds he could hear coming from the chute, the shrieks that sounded like a cry of battle.

Instead, he thought of golden hair and hoped he might see it shimmer in the sunlight again.

*******

"We're leaving?" Peabody asked when Vin and the others returned from the cavern.

When Josiah saw the others return without Chris Larabee, he knew instantly they should have heeded Heather's warning and left while they could. Throughout all this, it was the child who knew better than anyone the magnitude of the threat they were facing, having avoided it for the duration of her exile in Owl Canyon. However, even as well traveled as he was, Josiah had to confess he was just as shaken as the rest of his comrades at the revelation of the true nature of the spirits evil spirits roaming this land.

During his travels across the world, one thing was universal, the condemnation of cannibalism by most cultures. While he was aware it existed, having encountered monks in India who consumed the remains of the dead to achieve spiritual enlightenment, it was a practice conducted on those already dead. There were also tribes in the Pacific and in Africa, so isolated from the world, that the breaking of this taboo was commonplace for them. However, despite this, the knowledge of such cultures was a horror story he could take comfort in knowing was far distant from the world he lived in. Until now.

Owl Canyon was three days ride from Four Corners, where his church stood. That was too damn close for comfort.

"You are," Vin said to Peabody as they readied themselves to leave the canyon. The tracker was painfully aware of the setting sun and knew they had not much time to put some distance between themselves and the canyon. Tasso didn't say just how far these spirits were capable of traveling but Vin wasn't about to find out the hard way. Turning to Josiah, Vin explained. "Josiah, you gotta take Heather and Mr Peabody here to the garrison, tell them the homesteaders are all dead."

"Vin," Nathan interrupted, cautioning the tracker to mind his words. There was a child in their company, a child who was already deeply traumatized by what she had seen in this canyon and did not need to hear the fate of her family put so bluntly.

Vin looked puzzled for a second until he realized what Nathan meant and quickly cursed himself for his own lack of sensitivity. Of course, it was too late now. Heather who was standing behind Josiah, her small hands making the preacher's own look even bigger, appeared downcast, her small bottom lip quivering in pain at that bit of truth.

"I'm sorry Heather," Vin apologized though he knew it would matter little to her. A wave of admiration filled him for the child, who against all odds managed to survive here alone, even with such evil roaming this place. It made him doubly determined to get her out of here alive, while they still could.

"Josiah," he resumed speaking. "You need to tell Simmerson, there's folk living in Owl Canyon who've gone rabid. Judging by how many of them there are, they've been here a long time and while they are in these hills, no one is safe. Even the Indians won't come near this place and that's saying something."

"Amen to that," Josiah nodded, realizing now why Tasso made the claim he had. The Chief had not been far wrong about evil spirits snatching up travelers across this land. While he did not like the idea of leaving the others to get back to Fort Seldon, he also understood why Vin wanted him to go. Heather had been through enough already, she needed to be gotten to safety and the child would feel more comfortable with him than traveling with Peabody, whose ability to get to the fort alone was questionable.

The light was starting to fade from the sky and long shadows were stretching across the landscape, threatening to turn into darkness in a matter of time. Very soon, the night would offer their enemies the perfect cover to come down upon them and as they began climbing their mounts one by one, Josiah could tell by the way Vin's eyes kept shifting to the landscape, the tracker was mighty concerned they might not make it out of the canyon in time.

"Let's get a move on," Vin spoke up as if aware of what was on Josiah's mind. "I want this place behind us before dusk."

"Do you think they're going to be able to catch up to us?" Nathan asked, also noting the tension Vin was displaying and had to confess to feeling a similar vein of dread running through him.

"I don't know," Vin remarked, glancing at the stream thoughtfully. "But killing us is the least they'll do to us if they catch up to us. Me and Chris saw something that looked like a butcher's block made from stone. There was something hanging behind it, something scrawled with blood and pictures. It was made from hide."

He did not have to say what kind.

"Dear God," Ezra gasped, feeling a little sick hearing that. Suddenly Harry's idea of going back into that cave in search of Aztec gold was not only unlikely but after hearing the nature of its occupants, Ezra knew he wanted no part in any such insane plan.

"It fits," Harry chose that moment to speak. While vindicated his talk of Aztecs was now proven as truth, he could take no satisfaction in it. "If these are the Aztecs from Smiling Pete's story, that was probably some kind of altar."

"The Aztecs were known for blood sacrifices," Josiah agreed, choosing his words carefully. "As well as cannibalism. Bernal Diaz the Conquistador claims he saw cooking pots in the temple of Tenochtitlan."

"Then that's what those marks on the ground were," Nathan replied, shuddering at the memory of those blood striations in the dirt. "You were right. It was about cutting up the meat."

"Chief Tasso claimed these heinous beings only emerged in the summer months to scour the region for victims. That may suggest that they are harvesting..." Ezra glanced at Heather and chose another description as he checked his gun, suddenly needing for it to be in perfect working order. 'Supplies. I mean for winter hibernation. It may explain why they are scarce in other seasons. They return to their enclave once sufficiently supplied and do not emerge again until spring."

Josiah picked up Heather and lifted her onto the saddle of his horse Preacher. The little girl was still clutching Lootie. "You ready to go Princess Irene?"

She nodded, appearing a little withdrawn after her earlier hysterics. Her eyes were darting from his face, to the sky and to the canyon behind her, as if she needed to keep a vigil for the enemy she knew with utter certainty would soon be coming for them. "We have to go Josiah. They'll be coming and there's a lot of them."

"Did you see how many darlin?" Buck spoke for the first time.

He was still reeling from the possible loss of Chris, despite Vin's hope they might still find the gunslinger in the morning. After all the stories he was hearing about sacrifices, cannibalism, and wendigos, he didn't hold much hope they would find the Chris alive. In truth, a part of him wanted to keep searching Owl Canyon for Chris, but the danger Buck saw in Vin's eyes was real and anything that could shake the tracker was nothing to take lightly.

She glanced at Josiah as if requesting leave to speak as she would normally do if Jenna or Papa were here because she had been raised well and taught to mind her manners. In the absence of both, she looked to Josiah for such guidance, especially if the man in the skin coat was right, that both Jenna and Papa were dead.

Josiah caught the look and nodded, "it's alright. Go ahead."

Pouting, she looked shyly in Buck's direction and spoke in that little girl voice. It felt profane hearing such ugly talk from a small child. "I went into the cave cos I thought I heard my sister Jenna's voice," the disappointment of learning it wasn't showed on her face. "But when I got close, it wasn't her, but I heard lots of hollering. It was very loud and scary. They were making it with head bones."

Vin's jaw tensed, remembering the collection of skulls he saw on the floor of that chamber, the ones arranged almost reverentially. Music for whatever bloody ritual they were performing.

"Yeah," he said mounting Peso. "I saw them too."

"I saw them all," Heather continued speaking as Josiah climbed onto the saddle behind her. His heavy brow furrowed as he scanned the canyon walls and felt reassured by the sunlight he could see. They needed to leave soon. "They filled up the whole place. I couldn't count them all," she said turning a little red. "It was more than my hands and toes, three times over."

"Sixty!" JD exclaimed, horrified. "There were sixty of them?"

"Oh my God," Peabody almost turned ashen and quickly mounted his steed, his movements laced with panic.

"Alright that's it," Vin decided, they had discussed the matter enough. What mattered now, was getting out of Owl Canyon alive and putting enough distance between themselves and those savages to last the night, so they could go find Chris at daybreak. 'We're getting the hell out of here."

After everything they heard so far, no one disagreed with him.

*******

Chris woke up suddenly.

Having fallen asleep some hours ago, he checked his timepiece and saw that it was three in the morning.

The hour of the wolf, he thought and considering his surroundings, it seemed apt.

He was still trapped in his dungeon deep beneath the canyon, his presence still gone unnoticed by the savage occupants of the cave. So far, none of the creatures had tried to invade his sanctuary and Chris had to admit to feeling a little grateful for that. While his throbbing in his head had subsided somewhat, the pain in his ribs had not and he knew that climbing out of this hole at daybreak was going to be an ordeal and a half. With this in mind, he saved the rest of the whiskey in his flask, knowing he would need it later.

He'd fallen asleep against the wall, his duster providing him some protection from the cold, though thanks to it being summer, it was nowhere as chilly as it ought to be. Still, the cave suffered from the lack of sunlight and bore the cold of a place perpetually shrouded in the dark. He wondered briefly how deep underground he was and then realized such thoughts did nothing but dampen his mood and he didn't need to be any more demoralized than he was already.

Instead, he focused on the reason for his sudden awakening, aware that something had roused him abruptly from his sleep and strained to listen for it. This cavern was undoubtedly honeycombed with tunnels, small holes like this and large chambers, all of which the occupants of this canyon had put to good use. He supposed if they were just like Harry said, Aztecs hiding in here since the days of the Conquistadors, they had plenty of time to learn everything about it. It was most likely why they had been able to hide for centuries.

It was not lost on him, this place reminded him a great deal of the hole he'd been imprisoned when he was Inmate 78. Even now, as he thought of that place, he felt a surge of fury at what had been done to him and was disappointed he hadn't delivered to the warden a more painful death. At least in this hole, he wasn't trapped, he could make an escape, even if it was a somewhat arduous one. Nor was he completely cut off from all life. Like that cell, he could hear the voices of the living beyond the walls of his temporary cage.

Most of the time they were unintelligible chatter. The rock was an excellent conductor of sound and with all the tunnels in the place, sounds echoed through the cavern. Even though Chris could not speak the languages of the First People, he recognized enough words to know what was being spoken by these savages was none of those. There was a harshness to it, however, with too many words barked instead of speaking, as if being trapped in this place didn't just rob them of any semblance of morality but also the fundamentals of speech.

Suddenly he heard something that made him sit up ramrod straight. If not for his gut reaction to it, a sense he trusted more completely than any other since it was most responsible for keeping him alive, Chris would have thought he imagined it. However, when it was repeated, this time with more clarity, Chris knew he had missed nothing.

Someone had screamed, in English.

Pressing his ear against the cold wall, he tried to hear it again, hoping whoever it was who had spoken would utter that same cry again. A second later, he was not disappointed because the voice screamed again, and it was filled with such terror and desperation, Chris felt his heart clench in frustration at being unable to help. The voice, almost certainly female, was screaming pitifully for mercy, her cries responded to by those unintelligible barks he could not interpret but whose tone he understood well enough.

Indifference.

The cries lasted for no more than a minute but to Chris, they felt like an eternity. An eternity where he could do nothing but listen helplessly as some terrible fate befell the woman whose voice was abruptly silenced and with unmistakable finality. Leaning heavily back into the wall that had been his sleeping place, he took another swig from his flask, suddenly needing a stiff drink because he was remembering a joke he once heard and the thought of it, almost made him puke from the sheer monstrosity of it.

A traveling salesman had ridden past a farm one day and seen a pig with a wooden leg. A week later, taking the same route back, he saw the same pig, except this time, the pig had two wooden legs instead of one. When he came back the some weeks later, he saw the same thing. The pig had three wooden legs and he was certain when he headed home again, the thing would have four.

Sure enough, on his way back, the pig had four wooden legs, and this piqued his curiosity enough for him to ask the farmer what the reason for this was. The farmer had grinned at him and said proudly.

"Well, she's the greatest pig alive. About a month ago, he saved my wife and kids and me from our burning house by waking us up in the middle of the night just in time to escape without any harm! She's like one of the family. A couple of weeks ago, our youngest fell into the river and the pig dang fished him out just in time to save him from drowning! She's one of a kind."

"Okay," the traveling salesman accepted the accomplishment of this particular porcine but hadn't had his question answered. 'But that don't explain what happened to her legs?"

"Well now," the farmer declared. "When you got a pig that great, you don't eat her all at once."

Tasso had claimed the "spirits" only came out in the summer months and snatched victims who were unfortunate enough to be in the area. With the Indians giving the place a wide berth, just how many victims would there be really? Certainly not enough to feed the number that Chris and Vin had seen during their firefight. Even if they cured the meat, Chris shuddered at the thought, it still wouldn't be enough.

The plantation owners of the south had kept negro slaves to maintain their workforce, perpetuating their supply of free labor by allowing breeding. Nathan Jackson was born into that hell. He had been put to work in the fields alongside his siblings, whom the man was most averse to speaking about. What if these varmints did the same thing? What if trapped in this underground hell, wasn't just the rabid Aztecs from a doomed civilization, but the poor victims kept alive like livestock.

So they'd have a constant food supply?

"Jesus Christ." He whispered into the darkness around him.

He had to get out of here.

*******

Elsewhere, some distance away from Owl Canyon, Vin Tanner stared into the crackling fire feeling as if the heart had been ripped out of him.

When he left Charlotte behind, the hole in his heart had ached so bad, there were nights he could barely stand it. Hiding himself away from his friends, he'd tried to heal alone because he was too proud to let them see his pain for he was not one that knew how to share feelings with others. In the orphanage he'd grown up in, after his ma had passed, the cruelties of the place had ensured he had faith in no one, save himself. When he tired of having the so-called Christian warders beat God into him, Vin escaped into the wilderness before finding refuge with the Comanche. They took him in, but he was never allowed to forget he was not one of them.

Vin spent his entire life, always being the outcast. Until the day he looked across the street and met the gaze of a black-garbed stranger who shared the same sentiment about letting an innocent man die at the hands of a drunken mob. Without saying a word, both men understood each other than and the friendship that came from that finally fulfilled in Vin the long-buried need to belong. Chris Larabee had been his best friend and Vin knew then, without understanding how his place would always be at this man's side.

They were camped near the river because the horses needing water after the hard ride and truth be told, for what they intended to do come daybreak, all of them needed the rest. Vin and Buck had opted to keep watch while the others slept. Even though Owl Canyon was behind them, Vin was not about to let down his guard, especially after what had happened to Chris.

"I should never have left him," Vin whispered into the fire.

"Now don't you say that," Buck Wilmington spoke up immediately.

Like Vin, the big man had been ruminating on the events of the day and Vin's comment made him remember the accusation he made when he first learned that Chris had been left behind. Buck, who knew he could run off at the mouth when he was angry, felt immediately guilty at having said what he did to Vin, knowing the depth of the friendship between his oldest friend and the young tracker.

"You made the right choice. If Chris was here, he'd be the first one to say so." Buck pointed out and was surprised by how strongly he believed it.

"Maybe," Vin offered him a look of gratitude at the attempt at absolution, "but I should have done something..."

"Like what?" Buck asked gently, "get yourself killed? Look if he's alive, we'll find him, Vin."

Vin let out a sigh, feeling weak enough to expose some home truths he'd been holding onto for way too long. "I've been a dang fool, Buck. I've been mad at him when I had no call to be. He was the only one who didn't try to give me advice, didn't tell me I was wrong for doing what I did with Charlotte, even though you all were right, it was a mistake taking up with her, not with the way her husband was acting."

Buck was glad Vin brought up the subject because he had wanted to talk to the younger man about it, knowing Chris wouldn't be able to. As much as Chris might feel for Vin, Buck knew his oldest friend well enough to know it wasn't in Chris's nature to discuss matters of the heart. Hell, the man had enough trouble with his own feelings, let alone someone else's. Buck. on the other hand, did not have such difficulties. Not simply because he had more experience with the ladies, but because he understood people better than most gave him credit. However, Vin was so private, Buck was hesitant to offer him any unsolicited advice. Now that Vin had opened the door, Buck decided to take the opportunity to speak.

"Look, Vin," Buck sighed. "Sometimes, the heart makes us do dumb things. There ain't a man alive who hasn't done something foolish because of a woman. You did the right thing walking away from a bad situation, but no one blames you for stepping into it either. Charlotte cared for you, we all saw it. It just wasn't meant to be, that's all."

Vin said nothing for a moment, his first inclination was to refute Buck's statement, but he was right, and Vin knew it too. If he didn't feel that way, he would never have let her go. Swallowing thickly, he struggled to find the words to say to explain where his mind had been of late. He had a sense that it was time he talked about it, because holding it was doing nothing but making the wound fester. Perhaps confiding in someone, was what he needed to heal.

"I have this...." Vin started to say when his voice broke a little and he had to compose himself because the emotion churning inside him felt overwhelming. After a few seconds, he resumed speaking, having regained his composure. "I got this ache in my heart I can't seem to shake, no matter how much I try. I just can't seem to get her out of my heart Buck. Sometimes, I want her so bad, I'm almost tempted to saddle up Peso and go riding out to that homestead where she is and run away to Brazil. I know in my head it's wrong, that I ain't doing her any kindness but I can't help it. I feel like I'm torn up inside and I don't know how to heal myself."

Whether or not Vin knew it, this was not the first time Buck had encountered such hurt. Chris Larabee suffered the same pain and once upon a time when the world and he was younger, Buck had loved a girl with sun-streaked blond hair, who wore pretty pink ribbons who made him believe he could be the marrying kind. Buck lost her in the worst way possible, so he was more than familiar with the wounds Vin was referring to.

"Vin, when you love that hard," Buck sighed, "it doesn't heal quick and sometimes, it doesn't heal at all. I can't say nothing to you to make it hurt any less, except that it will get better. One day, you're gonna wake up and find out life's got something else planned for you that might even be better. You never know when it's going to hit you, when the girl you're meant to be with is just around the corner, waiting to change your life."

Vin didn't know if he was meant for something like that. Every woman he seemed to care for was taken away from him, by one means or another. He was starting to think that maybe, he wasn't meant to find someone, the way folk was supposed to. That maybe he'd go into the ground alone.

The tracker was about to articulate the thought when suddenly, his blue eyes widened at the sight of something moving in the darkness. The stealth of its approach gave him only a second or two to process what he was seeing before he leaped up from the ground and was running at Buck. There was no time to give the big man any warning as Vin tackled him to the dirt a second before the axe being hurled him, bounced off the rock Buck had been sitting on.

The sound of metal against rock was soon eclipsed by another more terrifying sound, the screeching war cry of an ambush.

"WAKE UP!" Vin shouted at the others, rolling off Buck, just in case anyone was still sleeping after that racket.

Across the campsite, everyone had snapped awake and were scrambling to their feet or reaching for their guns. Too many years sleeping under the stars and living with trouble had made most of the seven light sleepers. As Buck jumped to his feet, he saw the approaching savages through the glow of the campfire, their shadows making their number look even greater. They were heavily armed with axes and what looked like spears. Even though he was armed with a gun, the gleam of serrated teeth through the dim light, sent a chill through Buck's spine.

"How the hell did they catch up to us?" Buck demanded, surprised by how stealthy these bastards were. Even the Indians didn't sneak up on you so quietly. Thank Christ Vin was with them because he had no doubt, they would have been butchered in their bedrolls otherwise.

Vin thought quickly and swore. The creek! They'd come through the goddamn creek! The thing ran all the way from Owl Canyon to the Rio Grande. How could he have been so stupid? Just because they didn't have horses, didn't mean they wouldn't have an alternate means of travel.

"Over the water!" Vin shouted and heard someone curse at the answer. As the gunfire erupted, he thought it might have been Ezra.

As they closed in, they repeated that inhuman howl Vin now knew to be a war cry, prompting him to take aim with the mare's leg he'd unholstered in the last second and pulled the trigger as they charged. The bullet fired caught one of the rabid assailants in the chest, sending him flying backward. His death sent the others into a frenzy and they rushed forward in much the same fashion as they had done inside the cavern.

Elsewhere, Josiah's first thought upon being so rudely awakened, was where Heather was. He'd put the girl to sleep in a made-up bed roll not far from him, since the child preferred remaining close. Fortunately, what was happening around her had kept the girl frozen in place, and she had not fled into the darkness, as she might have done if they were still in Owl Canyon. Nevertheless, the terror on her face was unmistakable and Josiah felt a surge of rage, at seeing it on her face. He had hoped taking her away from the canyon would spare her this, but it appears the natives were not about to let their potential meals get away so easily.

"Heather, stay where you are!" He said as she gaped in wide-eyed fear as the evil she had been eluding the past weeks, materialize around them. She uttered a frightened scream when she saw Buck's gun putting down another one of the creatures. The man tumbled into the light, his fearsome visage bared for all to see and gave everyone a firsthand glimpse of the terror that chased Vin from the cavern and might have ended Chris Larabee's life.

"Mother of God!" Peabody gasped at the inhuman creature wearing a man's skin in front of them.

Josiah fired into the darkness, at a shadow moving towards him and did not wait to see if he had hit his target, requiring only a shriek of pain to confirm it. Crossing the space between them, he hurried over to Heather who was clutching Lootie in her grip, her face almost white with fear. As Josiah took her arm and pulled her closer to him, he saw the others fighting battles of their own as the enemy attempted to breach the light of the campfire to reach them.

Unable to get through the gunfire, the savages were hurling their weapons and Josiah saw Nathan jumping clear of a spear that landed in the middle of the fire. As the flames spread up along its shaft, Nathan rolled across the dirt to stand up one knee, before firing into its owner. Another furious scream screeched through the night as the soft thud of a body hitting the dirt was heard. The healer appeared unhurt and Vin was at his side in a second, helping him up with one hand while firing his rifle with the other.

"Mr Peabody, get down!" JD was barking at the government official whose efforts to handle the gun was almost as dangerous as the wendigo savages trying to kill them. The man had never shot a gun in his life and it was showing by his hesitation in pulling the trigger. The young sheriff got in front of him and fired both guns at the oncoming enemy, downing one man with both shots. The force of the bullet flung the assailant backward and Peabody looked as if he was ready to soil his pants where he was standing.

"Reload!" Buck shouted at someone and found his call answered by Harry Luck, who took up the slack as Buck quickly slid the bullets into the chamber of his Remington.

Josiah was trying to keep Heather in the center of the campfire, surrounded by the others when he saw Ezra suddenly stagger where he stood. Until a second ago, the gambler had been holding his own, his deadly marksmanship ensuring their campsite was not breached. For a moment, Josiah thought he had been hurt but there was no sign on the gambler being struck by any weapon. Ezra dropped to one knee, clutching his neck and even from where he was, Josiah knew he was about to hit the ground.

Good God, the answer came to him like an exploding cannon inside his skull.

"DARTS!" He shouted on top of his lungs, startling Heather next to him. "They've got blow darts!"

He had no sooner given that warning when something sharp penetrated the fabric of his jacket and he looked down to see something resembling the spine of a porcupine, protruding from his arm. Josiah opened his mouth to speak, but whatever it was coursing through his bloodstream, worked fast.

The last thing he knew before he hit the ground, was one of those shadows emerging from the night to take Heather.

Chapter Seven:
Cage

Lootie.

It was the first thing Josiah Sanchez saw after his eyes flew open and consciousness returned to him, while surrounded by the wreckage of last night's ambush. The little sliver of spine lying half buried in the dirt on the ground, not far from the bed roll he was lying against, flooded his mind with his most recent memories, like a tidal wave. Sitting upright with a sudden start, he was propelled into awakening by one singular thought at seeing the doll.

He had failed Heather.

"Take it easy," Nathan Jackson's voice soothed, even though there was a tone to it that told Josiah the healer knew the request would be ignored.

Sitting up on his bedroll, Josiah uttered a groan that was part reaction to the dull throbbing in his head and the anguish at knowing the little girl he'd sworn to protect, had been wrenched from him, screaming, by the monsters she had feared so much. Until he got her back, the image of her terrified eyes would follow him like Orestes being hounded by the Furies. As the fog receded from inside his mind, other sounds filtered into his awareness, aside from Nathan's caution.

The voices of his friends, Buck's in particular, the crunching of gravel beneath boots and the knicker of their horses. The aroma of hot coffee wafted into his nostrils, shaking his stomach awake in interest. Unlike the night before, their voices were no longer panicked or excited, even if the urgency still lingered. The disjointed conversations seemed purposeful and were traded with the rapid-fire exchange of artillery.

Glancing upwards, the stars and the darkness had been banished for the morning with the sun making its journey across the sky like a racehorse leaving the gate. It made Josiah squint and take stock of his surroundings. He was sitting on his bed roll, next to the soft cackling flames of the fire in the center of the campsite. Bubbling in its pot above the flames was water for coffee. Josiah decided he definitely needed some.

Josiah noted lying against his own bedroll, with his black hat next to him, was Ezra Standish. The gambler was starting to come out of his slumber, just as Josiah was so suddenly startled into waking earlier. Sweeping his gaze across their campsite, the former preacher saw his other companions, dragging the bodies of their assailants into a pile a suitable distance away, no doubt for an incendiary burial to avoid attracting predators.

"What's going on?" The former preacher asked as he rubbed the tender flesh on his neck where the dart had struck him. Nathan's hand dropped on his shoulder and Josiah looked up to see a cup of coffee being offered to him. "What happened last night?"

"After you and Ezra got hit, we managed to chase those bastards off. The darts were laced with some kind of sedative, I'm thinking curare or dart frog poison. You and Ezra have been out for most of the night." Nathan explained before retreating back to his log. In truth, it was nowhere as simple with Nathan having kept a watch on both men for most of the night to ensure the poison didn't affect them more adversely than that. It was during such moments Nathan wished he was a real doctor, who could be more certain about his diagnoses.

"Still, if it wasn't for your warning, the rest of us might have gotten hit as well," Nathan added, trying to blunt the guilt he could see marking his old friend's face.

Josiah couldn't be consoled. Not when he could still see Lootie lying in the dirt instead of being in the clutches of her owner. "And Heather?"

Nathan uttered a soft sigh and shook his head slowly. "I'm sorry Josiah. By the time we got to you, they'd already taken her. They kept us plenty busy to make sure we couldn't go after her. They disappeared in the dark before we could even blink."

"DAMNIT!" Josiah bellowed.

The preacher's outburst was so sharp, it made everyone stop what they were doing and turn immediately to him. Even Ezra who was still groggily clawing his way back to consciousness sat bolt upright by that furious roar.

Josiah got to his feet, propelled by frustration and fury, ignoring how rubbery his legs felt. "I promised her she was safe! I promised to get her home! She managed to hide from those monsters all that time, safe! She knew how to get around them. Less than a day with us and all it ended up doing was letting those bastards get their hands on her to do..." he couldn't even bring himself to finish the sentence. The thought was just too horrible.

No one could refute his words, having experienced similar feelings of guilt in the wake of the ambush. Worse yet, seeing Josiah's fury shook JD in particular. The young man was usually accustomed to seeing Josiah calm and stoic. This burst of anger felt like the rumble of an angry volcano about to erupt. In the rare instances when Josiah allowed his rage to surface, even Chris Larabee knew enough to stand back and take cover.

Almost panting from fury, Josiah secured the gunbelt around his waist and checked his weapon, more than ready to ride immediately to Owl Canyon and go searching for the girl.

"I'm going to ride back there and I'm getting her back!" Josiah announced with just enough menace to warn anyone trying to stop him, they were going to regret it. "I'm not going to let her get hacked up by those savages for meat!"

"No, you ain't!" Vin strode across the campsite and was in front of the preacher in a second, clamping a hand around Josiah's forearm, more than prepared to restrain him if he attempted to do anything so foolish.

"We ain't gonna let her die Josiah, but I'm not gonna let you go get yourself killed either. You won't be no good to her that way and no good to us either. There's one way to get her and Chris back alive and that's if we do this together. You saw how many of them there were last night."

Josiah wanted to snap back at Vin, to tell the young man to get his hands off him in a burst of violence but the preacher knew Vin was right. The tracker felt the same way about Chris Larabee and probably burned with the same fierce desire to reach the gunslinger before it was too late. However, Vin was correct about the numbers they were facing and the need to do this thing right. If he went in there half-cocked, he'd only get himself killed and Heather would never see the light of day again.

"She's just a baby!" Josiah spat angrily. "We were supposed to protect her and we let them get to her!" He turned away and saw Lootie still lying in the dirt where Heather dropped her. With a groan of defeat, he pulled away from Vin and went to the toy, picking it up off the ground and brushing the dirt from its hair. "Can you imagine how terrified she must be?"

No one could answer but they could imagine it. The poor thing had been near hysterical when she thought the monsters were coming.

"We're going to get her back Josiah," Buck Wilmington added his voice to the mix, laced with sympathy and understanding. The idea of that little girl in the hands of those savages infuriated Buck to the core as well, so he could appreciate Josiah's fury. "Count on it."

Josiah nodded at Buck in gratitude and then turned back to Vin. "So what do we do?"

Glad to see Josiah was a little calmer, Vin tossed a glance at JD. "JD and Mr Peabody are riding back to Fort Seldon. They're going to get help. What's in the canyon is a bigger problem than we can handle. We're going in there to get Chris and the kid but once we're done, we're going to have every one of those varmints hunting us. I don't want another ambush like last night."

It struck in Vin's craw he had not foreseen the possibility of the bastards coming upstream after them. Until the arrival of white men, horses had not been known to the Indian tribes. It had taken them more than three centuries to get to this point. Vin had believed because these varmints may have hidden in Owl Canyon that long, they wouldn't have had the means to pursue their attackers. Tasso had said nothing about them traveling on the water and Vin knew he had assumed too much because of it.

"If we're fixing to go into Owl Canyon again like you and Chris did, they'll sure as hell becoming," Nathan added.

It was a sound plan. Peabody was no good in a fight as last night proved and getting him back to the Fort was a prudent idea. Furthermore, JD was the best rider they had and he could ensure both men moved fast. Besides, if anyone suggested he go in JD's place, he was going to put a bullet in their knee just for the sheer stupidity of it.

"We'll ride hard," JD announced, unhappy at having to leave his friends but understanding why he had been chosen to go. He needed to get Peabody back to the fort. Alone, he might have trouble convincing Simmerson the army's intervention was needed but Peabody was a representative of the Land Office, he had the authority to demand action.

"And I'll keep up," Peabody insisted, aware of his limitations and having no wish to be any more of a hindrance than he already was. Last night had been a sobering experience for the government man who realized just how ill-equipped he was to deal with the dangers in the frontier. "I don't want that poor child harmed any more than she has already been."

Even though his interaction with Heather had been slight, Peabody felt enormously guilty for the child's circumstances, even though logically what had taken place was no fault of his. He was determined that she at least survived since it was clear the rest of her family had not.

"In the meantime," Vin spoke up, getting back to the subject at hand. "Everybody saddle up, we're leaving here in the next ten minutes. I ain't wasting a second of daylight."

"For pity's sake Mr Tanner," Ezra grumbled as he started to get to his feet, the effect of the dart on his system much more potent since he was smaller in stature than Josiah. "Give me a moment."

"We don't got it, Ez," the tracker replied shortly, displaying some impatience that was very much a trait of the man he was attempting to save. "We gotta get to Owl Canyon and find the kid and Chris, then get the hell out of there before sundown. I gotta feeling once we've invaded their territory, they're going to come after us with everything they got."

No one liked that prospect very much, Ezra included.

"Here," Harry handed Ezra a cup of coffee. "Drink this."

The gambler took the tin cup and started drinking hungrily, gesturing at his old friend to keep the coffee coming until he had returned to full alertness. When he was able to catch his breath, he asked. "Pray tell what happened last night anyway?"

"You mean after you were hit by a blow dart?" Harry asked with a little smirk.

"A blow dart?" Ezra exclaimed looking at his comrades for confirmation, his eyes going to Nathan first.

"Afraid so Ezra," Nathan nodded. "As I said to Josiah, it was strong enough to put you both down for most of the night. We managed to drive them off, but that's when they took Heather."

Ezra's jaw tensed and he drained his refill of coffee. "Then I agree with Mr Tanner, we need to depart sooner rather than later. What is our plan once we arrive at Owl Canyon?"

The gambler could tell both Vin and Josiah were chomping at the bit to get going. Not that he blamed them of course. After seeing for himself what those savages were capable of, the idea of that little girl caught in their power facing a fate worse than death was more than the southern gentleman he was could stomach.

With an expression so glacial, it seemed to lower the temperature around them, Vin Tanner's normally too soft voice sounded like the hiss of a knife slicing open flesh.

"We're going to find Chris and Heather and kill anything that gets in our way."

Josiah thought of Heather's scream in his ears and nodded. "Sounds good to me."

*******

When he finally went to sleep, trying not to think of being carved up like a Sunday roast, a fate that had a distinct possibility of becoming a reality if he did not escape his current situation, Chris's dreams were nowhere pleasant. He dreamed his flesh and blood limbs had been replaced by wooden stumps and promptly woke up in a cold sweat. It was hard enough to fall asleep in the first place with the terrible sounds of inhuman chatter that at one point in the evening rose to almost fever pitch, masking the screams of fear and terror.

When Chris finally fell asleep again, it was from sheer exhaustion.

When he awoke, he was still bathed in pitch black darkness and risked another match to determine the time. It was a little after seven and Chris knew the sun would be well and truly out by now. If he was going to have any chance of escaping this hell alive and bringing help back for those poor unfortunates trapped here like livestock, he had to make as much use of the daylight as he possibly could. There was every chance Vin and the others might still be in Owl Canyon but his instincts said the tracker would have gotten the others safely away from the place until daylight.

Taking a deep breath and another swig of his flask, Chris slid his gun back into its holster and began the long arduous climb up the slope. Using his arms and legs to brace against the walls as he inched up the length of the shaft, he was too afraid to make haste less he slipped and wound up back in the hole again. The sharp pain in his ribs remained and he knew he had broken something but the alcohol was going some way to dulling the pain as he continued to climb.

As he made his way up, Chris realized just how far down he had slid and was rather grateful he hadn't broken his neck when he landed. While there were a few grooves and handholds for him to cling to, for the most part, the shaft was smooth. No doubt, it had been carved out by water hundreds of years ago. He continued to climb, even though he saw no light at the end of the tunnel and reminded himself, he was deep below the cavern, so there wouldn't be anyway.

With beads of sweat running down his forehead and his back, he paused at intervals to take catch his breath, thinking as if he was trying to claw his way from the bottom of the world. At least fresh air flowed through the shaft as he climbed up, offering him some respite from the suffocating heat generated by his exertions. More than anything, Chris wanted a drink of water. He thought about the creek running through the canyon and decided his first act upon leaving this place, would be to soak in it, boots and all.

Such thoughts were running through his head when he came to the opening of another shaft adjoining the one he was climbing. This one did not run at an angle but traveled almost horizontally through the rock. For a moment, Chris pondered what he ought to do. He knew the shaft he was crawling would lead back to the ledge he had landed on when he and the savage had fallen. However, he did not know if there was a way to get back to the walkway once he reached it. Furthermore, if he slipped, he would find himself at the bottom of the shaft again.

While he might not know where the horizontal shaft might lead, it was worth exploring, just to see if it could lead to a more navigable route of the cavern. Deciding he had nothing to lose and everything to gain, Chris stretched across the shaft and climbed into the new passage. Once inside it, he was almost to move quickly on his hands and knees. There was fresh air moving through this passage too, which was encouraging.

The cavern had gone silent and Chris suspected its occupants were hibernating for the evening. No doubt, they would remain that way until dark, unless of course, another pair of lawmen decided to stumble inadvertently into their lair and wake them up prematurely. Still, after the hollering and chatter from the night before, Chris now found the quiet somewhat disturbing and strained to listen for every sound as he moved through the darkness.

Making his mind up to retrace his steps if he reached the end of this shaft and found nothing useful, Chris was more than painfully aware he was a novice in this place and had no intention of getting lost. He crawled for a good five minutes, feeling the heat in the long passageway making his sweat harder and hoped the odor of him did not reach the savages living in this cavern.

He paused a moment and caught his breath, feeling as if his own breath felt too loud in the darkness. He could see nothing ahead and wanted to light a match but decided against it, reminding himself to be careful he didn't crawl right out of the shaft into a drop he couldn't survive. Leaning back against the wall, he thought of the sunshine and how much he wished to see it. Invariably, that always brought him back to thoughts of her.

It bothered him more and more these days, her wasn't Sarah.

A few months ago, he had confessed to Buck he couldn't remember Sarah and Adam anymore, that though he missed them, he couldn't see their faces. It wounded him to make that admission and yet Chris knew Buck was right, it was time. As much as he hated at the core of him to admit it, he was starting to move on subconsciously. Besides, Sarah herself would be the first to tell him to get on with it. She had no patience for stagnation. She had been practical, to the point and perfectly aware when left to his own devices, he could overthink things.

With a sigh, he decided he didn't want to ponder this too deeply right now. It led to places he felt uncomfortable with and right now, he had enough troubles with his present situation. Chris resumed his travels, feeling gratified when he felt what was fresh air rushing through the shaft, an indication he might be nearing its end. Wherever it emptied into had access to fresh air, which meant a way outside.

However, it took but a split second for that discovery to turn rancid. What drifted with the initially fresh air was an acrid odor anyone who had ever been in the vicinity of a barn or an outhouse would recognize. The stomach-turning scent almost made him turn back but riding that disgusting stench was something that made him freeze where he was and listen closely. A few seconds later, he was crawling again, compelled to answer that call, no matter what the consequences.

Chris paused long enough to fumble for the handkerchief he had in his coat before tying the thing around his face so he could cope with the smell. It was just as well because he continued along the shaft, this time with a little more urgency. He could feel it penetrating the fabric and knew it was getting stronger. Just as the sound that kept him moving grew louder and louder until there was no doubt in his mind what he was hearing.

Weeping.

As the sobs reached him through the shaft, Chris saw something else in the darkness. It pierced through the black the way the moon punctuated the canvas of the night sky. Its glow was dim but he knew it wasn't daylight he was seeing but the illumination of flame. Continuing forward stealthily, he unbuttoned the flap of his gun holster, ready to draw if necessary. If all possible, Chris wanted to avoid using the peacemaker as long as he could, because he knew the instant he did, his anonymity would be gone.

Reaching the end of the shaft, Chris peered down into the cavern it emptied into and felt the blood in his veins turned to ice. He forgot all about the smell or the fear of capture. He would never let them take him alive, not after seeing this. Below him in cages constructed of wood, were the creature's captives. What was left of them anyway. They had yet to see him but inside those cages of wood and hessian, were children.

The children were mostly female and what boys there were, weren't very old. Even though it was difficult to tell in the scant light and malnourishment might have been a contributing factor, the boys appeared no older than seven or eight. No older than Adam, he thought and the realization struck too close to home as a monstrous idea formed in his head. Boys grew up to be men and if these savage were using their victims for food, then it was likely that was the fate of the older male children. A wave of nausea crept up his stomach, threatening to make him puke.

It wasn't often Chris's iron constitution was challenged but this shook him to the core.

Chris was relieved to see it wouldn't be difficult to climb down or back up for that matter. If he was to save any one of these children and there was never a question, he was ever going to do anything different, he would need to remove them from the area quickly. Once again, Chris remembered the bullet he saved for himself.

If this went wrong, he might need to use it.

*******

It took no more than an hour of hard riding to reach Owl Canyon once they left their campsite. JD and Peabody set out first, heading in the direction of Fort Seldon to alert the army to what had happened to the homesteaders. Once again, they found themselves racing against time as they returned to the place. The day before they had been trying to outrun the night and now, they were riding towards it to make use of the day.

Approaching the canyon, they were once again struck by how sinister it looked. Before they knew the true magnitude of the horror existing within its rock walls, it had merely seemed ominous. Now it appeared as if the gates of hell had opened for them. The shadows cast by the two rock walls drained the warmth from the air and painted the terrain before them in a perpetual shade of grey, which seemed to suit the nightmarish reality of the place.

Vin wondered how many had been taken throughout the centuries. Tasso had claimed the warning about Owl Canyon was given to him by his father when he was a boy, which implied the longevity of these creatures" habitation. Ezra's friend Harry Luck believed they were Aztecs who had gone mad hiding in the darkness all that time. The Apache who ruled this area had created their own monster by driving them into the Earth.

How long had it taken them to turn from men into the monsters they were now?

It don't matter, he told himself as they took the familiar path through the cliff walls to the cavern once again. He was still going in there and he was going to bring Chris back. There was no way in hell he was going to turn tail and run again. While Vin understood there was every possibility Chris had not survived that fall, something inside Vin Tanner refused to believe it. Just the idea of Chris being gone created such a stab of pain in his heart, he could hardly breathe from the sheer agony of it.

The night before he could hardly sleep thinking that Chris might be gone and supposed if there was any comfort to be had from his lack of sleep, it was the fact he was no longer thinking about Charlotte. For the first time, Vin was fine with that. Charlotte was continuing her life with Will Richmond and Vin decided it was high time he did the same. She had her husband to share her life with and Vin was done neglecting the people in his own. What they shared together as beautiful as it was brief, was a dalliance, nothing more. Even he knew that now. Eventually, the ache in his heart would fade.

Unlike the anguish that would be, if he had left Chris Larabee to die.

With Vin leading the way, it did not take the rest of the seven to discern where the tracker was going and while they knew better than to query the reason for his destination, no such restraint held Harry Luck back. While Vin had little to do with Harry since the man joined them on this ride, the younger man had heard enough to know Harry's motivation had little to do with rescuing homesteaders and everything to do with Aztec gold.

Vin didn't care if he was here for gold but the tracker made a promise if Harry did anything to hinder their rescue of Chris and Heather, he would gut the greedy son of a bitch himself.

"What are we doing here?" Harry asked upon reaching the bloody campsite where the homesteaders met their terrible end.

Leaving the horses at the creek after dismounting the animals who were once again agitated by the stench, the others followed Vin as he stepped into the encampment. Once more, they were assaulted by the grisly impact of the scene. The upturned wagons, with their wheels spinning languidly with the breeze, the flapping canvas smeared with blood and the armies of flies circling the feast of saturated dirt, was just as potent as their first viewing of it.

"Yeah Vin," Buck winced as he covered his face with his handkerchief so he could tolerate the reek, feeling the need to side with Harry on this point. There was nothing to be done in this place. It was painfully obvious they had arrived too late to be of any help to the poor souls whose blood had salted the earth beneath them for all time. "What are we doing here?"

As it was Buck could see Josiah anxious to get going after Heather and knew the preacher's patience could not tolerate any delays by whatever detour Vin was making. Still, Buck had to remind himself Vin seldom did anything rashly, unless of course, it involved beautiful wives having marital troubles. For the sake of his continued existence, Buck chose to keep that thought to himself.

Vin did not answer immediately because he was concentrating on the detritus left by the settlers following the massacre. No doubt some scavenger might have some use of the personal items the enemy had no use for in their mountain. Clothes, books, utensils, keepsakes and furniture were strewn across the place, intermingling with the food the savages deemed inedible and left rotting in the sun, providing sustenance not only to the maggots growing in it but to the birds that would be attracted by them.

Stepping into one of the wagons lying on its side, Vin disappeared out of sight for a few seconds as he rummaged through the contents, his faint silhouette visible by the flutter of canvas. They could hear him searching through the wagon for the next few seconds until curiosity got the better of them with Nathan being the first to break. The healer was about to ask what he was doing when Vin emerged, carrying a small barrel they recognised immediately.

"Is that..." Nathan asked.

"Yeah," Vin nodded in confirmation. "Gunpowder."

"Damn Vin," Buck said impressed. "I like the way you think. Pity we ain't got dynamite to go with it."

"I doubt that would do us any good," Ezra stated, understanding how Vin intended to use the substance. "If were were to employ such explosives, we may be in danger of bringing down the entire structure."

"That's right," Vin tipped his hat in the gambler's direction. "The gunpowder will give them something to think about if we need to get past them or through them." Vin didn't think it mattered which at this point.

"I'm all for that." Josiah agreed already starting to look around the other wagons, to see if any of the other settlers might have carried similar caches with them.

"Alright listen up," Vin spoke up using a voice that sounded odd coming from him. He rarely exerted himself, allowing Chris to do the barking since the gunslinger was better at it. However, there was no denying its command. "Everyone spread out. Check the rest of the wagons for supplies. We can use gunpowder, liquor, lamps and oil. We need as much as we can carry and we need to make up torches too. We're gonna bring the light to these sons of bitches."

Understanding what kind of hellfire the tracker intended raining down on the savages in the cavern, the others nodded in agreement and quickly spread out across the doomed campsite, searching for anything they could use to aid their rescue attempt. For once, Josiah was not above bringing down the wrath of God on the nest of vipers who caused so much carnage, for so long.

He thought of little Heather who had been forced to listen to the murder of everyone she loved, while driven to taken refuge in the dark, simply to survive. Josiah prayed when they found her, she was not only alive but her mind was intact. After the trauma of what she had suffered, he didn't know if she could take much more. More than anything, he wanted to return Lootie to her.

Soon, they had gathered up what they needed. Vin hoped they might find a stick or two of dynamite, despite Ezra's concerns about its effect on the cave. Burying the savages under a tonne of earth was the least the bastards deserved after what they had done to so many victims throughout the years. Especially if they had brought harm to either Chris Larabee or Heather.

Nevertheless, he was satisfied with the lanterns they'd found and filled with oil, to say nothing about the numerous bottles of liquor kept amongst the homesteaders" stores. Some were the expensive stuff Ezra liked and others were plain old rotgut, the stuff Nathan warned would make you go blind if you kept drinking it for long.

Vin didn't care, as long as it burned.

*******

'Ezra," Ezra heard Harry hiss quietly as they began the climb up the treacherous slope leading to the mouth of the cavern occupied by their savage assailants.

They had spent no more than an hour in preparation prior to making the climb, taking the same path Vin and Chris had done the day before to such disastrous results. Even with the additions to their arsenal, there was a mood of anxiousness as they scaled the slope's steep height, conscious of how much daylight remained between them and the night. Ezra supposed it didn't really matter whether the sun was out or not. The instant they entered the cavern, they were going to be bathed in darkness and faced with a fight to the death.

Ezra and Harry were the last two in the briskly moving caravan up the canyon wall and the gambler was already in a disagreeable mood after the indignities the night before. Wincing at the jagged rocks digging into his palms as he hauled himself up another narrow shelf in their journey, he looked over his shoulder and regarded his old friend with mild irritation. "What is it Harry?"

"This is the moment Ezra," Harry said, barely able to conceal the excitement in his voice. "This is our chance to get the gold. While they're looking for Larabee, you and I can go look around for it."

The idea was so unbelievably reckless, not to mention dangerous, it stopped Ezra in his tracks and made him look over his shoulder at Harry in utter astonishment. While Ezra had often taken his life in his hands on occasion for the sake of a stipend, he was sensible enough to know when the odds were against him and this wasn't just a gamble, it was suicide.

"Have you lost your fucking mind?" It wasn't often Ezra used such coarse language but Harry's plan warranted it. "After what we have seen in the last day, you still harbour hopes of finding this gold?"

The sudden rise in octave made Nathan glance over his shoulder at Ezra before a confrontation with a tricky bit of terrain returned his attention forward once more, disregarding Ezra's outburst as something he'd ask the man about later. Meanwhile, Harry was gesturing at Ezra to lower his voice, lest they be overheard by the rest of the southerner's companions.

"Of course," Harry stared at him, wondering how Ezra could imagine for one moment, he had lost sight of the gold. The lure of Aztec treasure was too much for Harry Luck to abandon, especially now there might be a way to acquire it. "Ezra, it's our only chance of getting our hands on it. If we don't get it now, the army will, when they arrive and you know they're not going to be given us any finder's fee. It's now or never. Besides, with the ruckus your friends are going to cause, with this rescue, they'll never know we were there."

For a second Ezra did not speak. He was too busy searching his memories, trying to recall if Harry was always this obsessed with gold or had he simply not noticed? The idea of wandering around the inside the domain of the creatures they fought last night in search of gold, where the consequences for capture wouldn't simply be death but something far worse, sounded to him insane. Yet Harry was proposing it with nary a thought to the danger.

The gambler had no intention of embarking on such a foolish venture, even with the promise of treasure. This was more than just fighting off miscreants like Dicky O'Shea for a piece of land, this was battling creatures bereft all humanity and were little more than rabid animals. Perhaps being in the company of his associates had blunted his edge a little as Maude alleged but he also knew, he was not abandoning them to hunt for gold.

Still, the gleam in Harry's eyes told Ezra if he refused to help, his old friend was going to make the attempt nonetheless. As misguided as Harry Luck was in this endeavour, Ezra did not wish to see him come to harm. Better to let Harry believe he was going to indulge this insanity so Ezra could keep an eye on him and prevent him from doing anything stupid.

"If the opportunity arises, we will pursue it," Ezra replied, placating Harry for now, since he was convinced they would be lucky to get out alive, let alone go traipsing about for ancient Aztec treasure.

"That's the Ezra I know," Harry cracked a grin, satisfied by that answer.

Yet as Ezra continued to climb, he had to wonder was it Harry he was seeing clearly or was it simply because he had changed and was no longer the Ezra Standish who first arrived in Four Corners. That man had been an opportunistic bigot, with little or no redeeming features. Maybe he had lost his edge after all and become soft.

Then again, if he had been anything like Harry was now, perhaps this was not a bad thing after all.

"Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate."

Josiah muttered when he found himself standing in front of the entrance leading to the cavern where Tasso's evil spirits resided. No wonder Heather was so terrified of the place. The mouth of the cavern resembled the widened jaws of some terrible creature, ready to swallow them whole. Beyond the reach of the light was more than just darkness, it felt like the gateway to a hell they couldn't imagine, where too many had been taken to their doom already.

"What did you say?" Buck asked him.

"Abandon hope all ye who enter here," Ezra explained helpfully.

"Let's try and keep a little optimism here," Nathan spoke up for the benefit of everyone present. What they were facing felt ominous enough without talk like that.

"I concur," Ezra agreed. "I have no intention of meeting my demise in there. I plan on dying rich, thanks to the fortune of the future Mrs Standish."

"Right," Harry chuckled. "You're going to marry yourself an heiress with the last name of Rockefeller, Vanderbilt or Avery?"

"Let's get on with it," Josiah growled, in no mood for levity. Heather was in there waiting for them to save her.

Vin was staring at the entrance, sharing similar hopes Chris Larabee was still alive, possibly hurt from that fall and laying low until his friends came to get him, as they had when he was Inmate 78. The idea of anything else was something the tracker was not about to entertain in any shape or form. Taking a deep breath, he took the lead and turned back to the others.

"Let's light up the lamps and torches," he said firmly. "It's gonna be as dark as hell when we get in there. The more light we can shine on them, the harder it is for them to see and come at us. Chances are they'll try and stay out of it and ambush you like they did Chris, so everyone watch each other's backs and keep an eye on the shadows. You've seen how fast they move. You put down fast and hard. If you don't they'll do it to you and it won't be as quick."

No one could argue with that.

*******

Before he dropped into the chamber, Chris surveyed the place first.

Since he was alone and may well be embarking on an ill-thought rescue of the poor souls trapped in those cages, he decided it was a prudent course of action. The cages were beyond primitive but appeared sturdy nonetheless. Its prisoners were trapped inside by way of ropes that held the door in place, secured to around the stalagmites protruding from the ground. Once again, Chris was struck by their resemblance to teeth and considering the ultimate fate of the prisoners, he supposed, it was a gruesomely apt metaphor.

Once he took stock of what entrances there were to this cave, Chris lowered himself onto the floor of gravel and dirt. As of yet, none of the prisoners had seen him but this was unsurprising. He knew how to move quietly through the darkness and since they were children who were probably traumatised by the nightmare situation they found themselves, it was understandable if they were somewhat distracted.

Fortunately, the dim light radiating from an old oil lamp provided enough illumination for Chris to navigate the uneven terrain, his senses on high alert for any of the savages who were maintaining this cavern of horrors. Having seen no lights during his explorations with Vin, Chris suspected the appearance of it now was for the benefit of the captives who did not possess the developed nocturnal vision of their captors.

It did not take him long to determine the reason for the stench forcing him to breathe through his handkerchief. The cages were lined with dry grass like one would shovel fresh hay into a horses stall at the livery. His jaw tensed in outrage at the idea of anyone being forced into a position like this, having their humanity stripped away from them, a bit at a time while waiting to become someone's next meal. It only reinforced his determination to never end up in the same position.

Following the sound of the weeping that drew him to this place to begin with, he realised it was coming from one of the outermost cages. Approaching it quietly, he neared the rough-hewn wooden bars and peered through it at its unfortunate occupants. What he saw inside it, made him reconsider how much more grotesque this situation could become.

Chris turned away, needing to compose himself because what he had seen threatened to overload his senses and drive him mad with fury. As his agile mind quickly reached the hideous conclusion of what he just witnessed, Chris swallowed down the lump of bile in his throat. When he was able to stave off his disgust, what replaced it was a black well of hate not experienced since he learned Cletus Fowler was responsible for murdering his family.

On the battlefield of Gettysburg, he and Buck had stood on the plains, seeing the mangled and broken bodies of fallen comrades and enemy alike. In the final accounting, the screams of young men who no longer cared whether they wore blue or grey had burned into their memories and Chris thought after that day, nothing else could shock him after seeing such carnage.

Until now. What he saw in that cage was not only barbaric, it was obscene.

Four figures were occupying the cage. Three were in the corner, while one was huddled in the middle, hugging herself and rocking back and forth weeping. However, it was the three who were still and silent that he noticed most. They were adult women although what was done to them, probably made each wish they had been drowned at birth. While he could not be certain of it, Chris knew they were in their childbearing years and how this must have been achieved, was in itself another fresh atrocity, because he couldn't imagine any other reason why they would have been left alive.

Wearing soiled dresses whose pattern and colour had long since vanished into grey, it was difficult to tell if these were white women because of their filth covered skin. Their hair hung around their faces in unruly clumps and greasy tangles. However, that was the least of the cruelties inflicted on them. Chris was grateful Buck was not present for this, because he had no idea how his oldest friend would have coped with seeing this.

None of the three women had hands or feet.

Their limbs ended just beneath the forearm and the knees, most likely hacked off since Chris was certain these savages did not count a surgeon among their number. Their arms and legs were stumps attached to their bodies and Chris knew, without even hearing it from them, this had been done for the same reason plantation owners hobbled a particularly stubborn slave insistent on escape. To prevent them from running.

On two of them, the scars from the crude cuts were old, at least what he could see of them in the dim light. How long ago had this terrible thing been done to them? Chris's heart clenched in pity at the suffering they must have endured since, helpless and at the mercy of a people who had no business living. The wounds on the third woman were still fresh. Her flesh was still healing and with revulsion, Chris realised she was most likely one of the homesteaders who survived the massacre, though he was certain she had since wished otherwise.

The one who was sobbing in the middle of this triad of horror was a young girl, no more than a teenager. She was sitting in the middle of the cage, hugging her knees and rocking back and forth, sobbing like an animal awaiting the axe to fall. It was her tears that had brought him here and he wondered if she was lamenting the reality she was most likely going to share the same fate as her cellmates.

"Hey," he spoke, stepping out of the shadows so she could finally see him.

The girl looked up sharply, while the others merely stirred as if the hope of rescue was forever beyond their reach and futile to entertain.

For a few seconds, she didn't speak and simply stared at him, trying to decide if he was real or some aspect of the madness she was slowly embracing to escape the nightmare of what was to come.

"Hey, talk to me," he tried again. "I'm going to get you out of here."

She blinked then and whispered. "Are you really here?"

"Yeah," Chris nodded. "I'm really here. What's your name?"

She shuddered as if the question took her by surprise and she did not know the answer. After a few seconds, she spoke, her voice breathy and uncertain. "Jenna."

"Jenna," Chris smiled faintly. "Jenna, I'm going to get you all out of here."

Her brow furrowed and she looked around before facing him again, realising he was alone. "But you're by yourself."

If he was alone, he was going to be caught soon and when he was, they were going to do to him what they had done to her papa and Heather.

"Not for long," Chris said firmly and believed with all his heart it was the truth. He knew Vin Tanner. If the tracker wasn't on his way back here with help, he wasn't far away. After almost a year of riding with the man, Chris knew without a doubt, Vin was coming. He should never have questioned that, not even after what happened with Charlotte and the wagon train. Vin had never let him down and Chris was convinced he wouldn't do so now. "Help is coming."

Suddenly a new voice spoke and it didn't come from the girl, but from one of those mutilated souls in the corner of the cage.

"Mister..." her voice was a croak as if she had not used it for a long time. "You don't got much time. Most of them are sleeping now but some of them are awake and may come down here."

"I know," Chris said, having guessed that much from the encounter the day before. Just to reassure himself, he brushed his fingers against the butt of his peacemaker.

"Can you get the children out?"

Chris looked over his shoulder at the other cages before facing the woman whose features he could barely see through the dirt on her face. "I'm getting all of you out."

"We can't move. You'll get yourself killed trying to get us out," she spoke and even though her voice was barely a whisper, he heard the anguish and the utter defeat in it. The outrage at what was done to these poor women filled him with rage and made his desire to wipe out the animals who did this to them even more potent.

"It's too late for us," she whispered and though he could not see her face, he knew she was weeping. "But you can save the children. They don't keep the boys, only the girls for the breeding. The boys they kill and cure for the meat."

Chapter Eight:
Honor

This time when Vin Tanner entered the darkened enclave of the enemy, he was ready.

Unlike the day before, when his lack of understanding with what he was dealing with had quite possibly cost Chris Larabee his life, Vin was poised to act at the first sign of trouble when he and the rest of the seven entered the cavern. As darkness enclosed them like a fist of malevolence, Vin's situational awareness was on high alert and he demanded the same from his comrades because he would lose no one else in this hell where the shadows had teeth. Carrying his knife instead of his mare's leg which was within comfortable reach in its holster, Vin knew the first one of the savages they encountered would be a sentry. If so, then Vin was going to take him out quietly if possible.

These bastards weren't the only ones who knew how to use the darkness.

Unfortunately, even if he was perfectly content to stalk his prey in the black, Vin had to concede the others did not possess his nocturnal vision and needed light to see through the rather treacherous terrain inside the cavern. Using a single lantern to light their way, because the descent to the bottom of the cavern was obstructed with jagged formations, Vin wanted no one falling off the edge of the walkway as Chris had been pushed a day ago. Even now, the idea his best friend might be dead, despite his most vehement determination to believe otherwise, twisted Vin's gut with anguish. Finding Chris's dead body at the floor of the cavern, bleeding and broken would be an image branded into his mind for all time.

Despite the light radiating around them was a dead giveaway, Vin treaded stealthily through the darkness, his eyes scanning for even the slightest signs of movement. The varmints knew how to blend into their surroundings, to take advantage of the rocky formations and move across its surfaces like the wendigo spirits they so resembled. Once again, he heard the distant drip of water and small crawling things skittering across the rock.

"Christ, this place feels like a tomb," Buck observed, his voice barely a whisper. The silence made him nervous and he spoke only because he could stand it no more. This place had done the unimaginable, it had got him scared. He could feel his palms moistening over his Remington's grip, as he clutched it tight. The eeriness of the place was working its dark spell on him, burrowing dread into his mind like a railroad spike in the ground.

"Can't say I blame you," Nathan agreed, his own nerves on edge as they moved down the narrowing walkway, picking up unpleasant scents that were too reminiscent of his time at an army hospital as a stretcher bearer. "I'm getting a whiff of things I don't much care for."

"I concur," Ezra agreed, speaking through the fancy monogram handkerchief he had pressed to his face to endure the reek. His other hand remained fixed on the butt of his gun because the ominous atmosphere was affecting and he couldn't deny it was penetrating his normally indifferent manner. He did not like this place and worse yet, he had no wish to be here. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Harry wearing a similar grimace of dislike and was glad to see he wasn't the only one unnerved by their surroundings.

Despite the poor lighting afforded by the lamp, the evidence of the gun battle that saw Vin fleeing the cave and Chris Larabee was taken from them, was obvious. Empty shell casings left behind by gunfire were scattered across the gravel, the pieces of brass catching the light to blink through the darkness. Also strewn across the ground were broken pieces of more primitive weapons, an axe handle, the fragment of a spear and other remnants of a culture shrouded in mystery and known mostly for their blood rituals.

And of course the blood. Vin had lost track of how many they had killed during their escape but judging by the splatter of blood on the ground and across the rocks and boulders in their path, it was clear both men had used their proficiency with guns to the fullest. The bodies were gone but the savages had removed their dead, leaving behind tracks and drag marks across the gravel and dirt. Vin wondered if they buried their dead or were they true cannibals who wasted nothing, not even the flesh of their own.

Vin decided he never wanted to know.

Meanwhile, Josiah remained silent, his jaw tensing with every new observation about the place as they continued down the narrow ledge to the floor of the cavern and the grisly temple Vin described with such vivid imagery. The idea of Heather being trapped here, no not just Heather, but of anyone being trapped here, was more than he could stand. How could anyone maintain their sanity surrounded by this pervading blackness that sapped away the soul, hounded with the constant stench of death and the terrible knowledge of the nightmarish fate awaiting them? It was like being trapped in Purgatory.

After what felt like an eternity, even though it was only a few minutes since they began their journey, the walkway spilled into the floor of the cavern. Vin's description did it no justice even with the tracker's surprising ability to wax lyrical. The altar took centre stage of course but it was surrounded by an audience of jagged stalagmites and stalactites, whose shadows made it seem as if they were not entirely alone in the place. With the light, they were able to see the opening to another chamber though whether it would lead them to Chris or Heather was unclear, nevertheless, it would be a threshold they would soon cross.

Josiah could only stare at what he supposed the worshippers of this brutal religion would consider its centerpiece, hanging behind the altar. It drove home why Vin had been so determined they ensured there was plenty of daylight in which to make their escape from the canyon even though all of them were armed with guns. Having traveled the world, Josiah had seen much that could curdle the blood but the tapestry hanging before him was possibly the most horrific thing the ex-preacher had ever seen.

His stomach hollowed as he took a step closer to it and saw the different patches of skin, white, black, red, the savages had little preference it seemed. To them, skin was skin and the gruesome quilt was worn like leather in places and still soft and fresh like velvet in others. It spoke of how long it had taken to craft this macabre creation and how many had died to complete it. Josiah only prayed the sacrifices for this monstrosity were dead when the skinning had begun.

"Mother of God," he heard Nathan whisper behind him.

Josiah looked over his shoulder and saw Nathan had actually grown pale, staring at the thing. The preacher had never seen the healer so utterly horrified and this was saying something from a man who had seen the worst carnages in the last war.

"What are those markings on the....'Nathan couldn't bring himself to say it, merely gesturing at the markings of blood and odd symbols.

"I cannot say," Ezra confessed, slowly coming up alongside Nathan, his expression somewhat ashen. He was attempting to maintain his cool gambler's facade but it was failing. Both men were united in their revulsion. "It does bear the look of a Mesoamerican culture but I can add nothing more than that as to its purpose."

Harry spoke up then, surprising all of them.

"Let it be soon, O my jaguar mat, we who lie opening our mouths toward the four directions. We are very thirsty and also hungry. Bring us meat for the feeding, we the children of Pranazin. We who are the Faithful. "

"You speak Aztec?" Nathan stared at him somewhat stunned that this con artist and grifter possessed such an unusual skill set.

"When one has spent one's life in pursuit of Aztec gold, I assume one picks things up," Ezra answered, guessing quickly just how Harry had come to learn the language, aware the man's fascination with Aztec gold had spanned far enough through the years for him to acquire the knowledge.

"You know me so well Ezra," Harry shrugged because the gambler was absolutely correct. In chasing down every legend he could find about the Aztec people and their treasures, Harry was forced to learn the language or be at the mercy of unscrupulous types, (like himself), who might try to take advantage of his lack of understanding in his pursuit. While he was no scholar, Harry had learned enough to be able to translate some of their texts. "I'm no expert but I'm pretty sure I'm reading this right."

"Pranazin," Josiah mused, recognising the name and concentrating hard to remember when exactly it was he heard the reference. It came to him after a moment, mostly because of his readings in seminary school. "She was the sister of Moctezuma. I read something written about her by a Franciscan friar named Bernardino de Sahag'n about Hernan Cortes's arrival in the New World."

Ezra turned sharply to Josiah. "The Moctezuma?"

"Who the hell is Moctezuma?" Buck blurted out, returning to the others. He had been keeping an eye on Vin who was scouring the rest of the chamber, trying to find any evidence of Chris after the man had taken his tumble.

"He was the Aztec king when the Spanish came to the New World," Josiah explained. "Pranazin was his sister who was supposed to have visions. One night, she had a dream that strangers would be coming to the Mexica, who would bring destruction. She believed Cortes was some kind of a demon and warned her brother not to welcome him into the city. She was convinced he was going to bring doom to their people."

"She wasn't wrong," Nathan agreed. "So what's she doing here?"

"I can't say," Josiah admitted. "It was never recorded."

"Well," Harry spoke up, sensing he might have the missing pieces, "Smiling Pete's story about the gold, claims the Aztecs came to these mountains. Maybe she led them here, looking to start a new life away from the Spaniards, only the Apache drove them underground."

"That was almost three hundred years ago," Ezra declared. "You believe that they became this," he gestured to the tapestry with clear disgust, "because they were persecuted by the Apache?"

"It doesn't matter."

Vin's voice cut through the conversation with the sharpness of the blade he was carrying. Stepping back into the light, his cobalt colored eyes seemed almost black, as black as the hat he held in his hands, one they all recognized immediately. "We're going to kill them all."

While the others had been studying the altar, Vin scoured the cavern, in particular, the area beneath the edge Chris had gone over. A part of him almost prayed to find Chris's body because at least that meant Chris had died quickly, without suffering. He hated himself for praying for such a thing but the alternative was far worse. The idea that his best friend, Chris Larabee, one of the most fearsome gunslingers in the Territory, not to mention their leader, had died being hacked to pieces or worse, was more than he could stomach.

Then as if his prayer was belatedly answered, the air was stilled by the sound of a gunshot.

*******

Her name was Betty and she had been trapped in this hell for ten years.

Years.

Just hearing that number had horrified Chris. Ten years of hell where she and those with her were used for breeding, routinely raped until they produced crop, crop that would eventually end up as food. How she had maintained her sanity, how any of them had, was beyond his ability to comprehend. He thought of the women he knew, Mary, Casey, Inez... God Sarah, in such circumstances and the fury that bubbled inside of him, was almost paralyzing.

Use it, Larabee, he told himself, use it.

And he did. Harnessing that white-hot rage as he had done all his life, he fed the mechanism making him the meanest son of a bitch anyone would cross when the mood took him, as Cletus Fowler had found out and Sarah and Adam's killer would someday learn. He used his fury and channeled it where it would do the most good, into the cast iron needed to get these women and the children they were forced to spawn to safety. While there was breath in his body, he would see it done.

Besides, she was right. He couldn't hope to get them out, not if he wanted to save the children and for these women, it was the children who had to come first. Still, the idea of leaving Betty and the women with her in this filth, completely at the mercy of those bastards made him balk but she was right and he knew it. If he could save the children and escape, then he could come back with the rest of the Seven, not to mention the Army and deliver these women from their hellish circumstances.

Once he accepted this course, Chris resumed cutting away the ropes securing the door to their cage, using the knife he kept in his boot, a practice he'd adopted after being tied up by Colonel Anderson's men during the Seven's first adventure together. The fibers gave way easily under the knife accustomed to whittling wood. Once severed, the door shifted clumsily towards him and gave way once Chris applied a little effort to pull it open. When the cage was open, he heard the woman speak again.

"Go on Jenna," Betty croaked. "Get out of here."

"Come on honey," Chris tried to sound kind but they were pressed for time. He had no idea where the enemy was or how close to discovery he might be. He could make every bullet he had, count, but if he got into with them, Chris knew he would lose. They needed to get out of here without facing the hordes he saw the day before. "We've gotta move."

Jenna looked up at the blond man offering her salvation, still not entirely convinced she wasn't having a dream of deliverance. After her ordeal since the night, she witnessed the murder of everyone she knew, she had been trapped in a nightmare where she was forced to care for the three women sharing her prison. Forced to clean their stools and feed them because they were unable to do it themselves, Jenna knew ultimately the mutilation they suffered would be her fate too.

"But..." she finally spoke, looking to Betty and the other two women, one of which was Marjorie Dawkins whom Jenna had seen during their journey through the wagon train. Marjorie had been beautiful, tall and vibrant. Now she was without limbs and brutalized beyond all recognition from the woman Jenna had known.

"Go!" Betty snapped loudly enough to startle Jenna into movement. "You gotta help this fella here get the children out! All of them?"

"Is this the only place they're keeping you?" Chris asked because it had occurred to him there were too few children to keep these bastards fed for too long, even if they were cultivating these women and children like some macabre crop.

"No," Jenna found her voice. It was soft, almost waif-like and hearing it made Chris's heart break a little. "There's another cave, I saw it when they brought me here."

"All right," Chris nodded, deciding that was information for later. For now, he had to get them out of here, find somewhere to hide them until he could get out and bring back help. Considering how difficult it had been for him and Vin to leave this place without detection, Chris did not harbor much hopes he could sneak these children out of this cavern without giving themselves away but he had no desire to leave them to languish here either.

As the girl emerged from the cage, Chris regarded Betty and the women he was leaving behind. "I'll come back for you," he said quietly, wishing he could give them more assurance than that, or at least end their suffering but he didn't know how. "I promise."

"Just get them out Mister," she replied. "That's the only promise we care about."

Chris nodded in understanding and gestured Jenna to follow as he made his way across the cavern towards the other cages where the children were kept. Most of them were huddled in the corners, kept in cages that looked like animals stalls. There was not one of them older than nine Chris estimated and despite the dirt on their faces, he could tell they were all painfully thin and malnourished by their hollowed cheeks. They stared at him with a mixture of emotions. Some were wide-eyed with the possibility that escape was in reach, while others appeared so traumatized and bereft of hope, it was very possible they had never known life outside this cage.

"When we get them out," Chris explained to Jenna, who was starting to become a little more animated now that she was out of her prison. "We go through the hole I came in. It's going to lead to a smaller cave that I don't think they know about. I've been hiding in there since yesterday and I think if we can get the kids in there, they'll be safe until I can come back with help."

"You gonna leave us?" She stared at him almost panicked.

"No," he said firmly, wanting her to understand this first and foremost. "I am not leaving any of you but there's too many of them and I need help. I got men who need to know I'm here and we're gonna call the army in to end this once and for all, so no one else goes through what you have. Do you get me?" He placed his hands on her shoulder and gave her his most reassuring stare.

She nodded quickly, understanding and Chris was satisfied that he might just get out of this alive when suddenly Jemma's eyes filled with fear and Chris felt something tickling the back of his neck that made him go for his gun. He turned around just to see one of the savages coming at him, having used the shadows to attempt an ambush. Without thinking twice, Chris drew and blew a sizeable hole in the man's head, the gunshot sounding like thunder in his ears.

As the man's blood turned the ground red, Chris realized he had just shot his escape plan to hell.

*******

The single gunshot was so loud, it echoed through the entire cavern like the clang of a church bell.

As the sound reverberated into nothingness, the six men froze at the sounds that immediately followed. Sounds that were a confluence of chattering voices, gravel crunching and the soft shuffling that came from movement, all signalling the awakening of something monstrous in the dark, rising like a creature from the black depths. This time, however, Vin was ready for them. In fact, they all were. The gunshot which ought to have been a reason to worry also gave them the much-needed proof Chris Larabee was alive when they were at the moment of believing otherwise.

Once they recovered from their shock, it was Buck who spoke first, aware they were going to have to move and quickly. If they heard that gunshot then the rest of the "Faithful" would have done the same. If they weren't already on their way to its source, they soon would be.

"Can you tell where that came from?" Buck asked Vin, knowing of them all, it was Vin who had the better senses in the dark.

"This way," Vin was already running across the floor of the cavern, heading towards the doorway he had seen earlier. "We gotta let him know we're here."

"How do you suggest we do that Mr..."

The discharging Winchester silenced Ezra with one single shot.

Once again, the roar of the Winchester was like a thunderclap in comparison to the gunshot that preceded. Vin hoped it was a shot fired by a pearl-handled peacemaker. Those who weren't expecting the sudden burst of sound jumped startled, with Ezra throwing Vin a pointed look.

"Mr Tanner, was that such a wise idea?" Ezra asked as Vin started moving again.

"It'll confuse them," Vin replied, already considering the effect of the second shot on their situation. "Two shots, two different places, if nothing else, it will split "em up some."

He hoped.

Guttural screams of indignation and outrage rose like an ocean swell following the dissipation of the rifle burst, its effect like a bugle horn at reveille. They could hear movement echoing through the numerous catacombs honeycombing the place, scratching, with clawing noises that didn't seem quite human truth be told, these Faithful, had lost the right to humanity long ago. What they were now, wasn't man or animal.

It was abomination.

"Let's make them a little more excited," Josiah declared and took the lamp Nathan was carrying. Without offering any explanation, Josiah walked to the vile tapestry at the head of the room and flung the lamp against it. Landing hard against the banner, it shattered thanks to the wall behind it, spraying glass and oil across the breadth of the vile quilt. A loud whoosh of sound filled the air like a gasp as the tapestry burst into flames, illuminating the entire cavern with light.

"Come on!" Vin ordered certain they had only minutes to leave this place and search for Chris before the Faithful fell upon them like ravenous dogs. He had a rough idea of where the gunslinger might be but knew reaching the man would be difficult. After what Josiah had done, the desecration of their banner was going to send the Faithful mad with rage.

No sooner than he barked the orders, one of the savages came running out of the passageway he was about to take to reach Chris. Brandishing an axe and spear, the creature halted at the sight of the intruder and opened his mouth to reveal those terrible sharpened teeth, in readiness to utter a piercing shriek of warning. Suddenly something flew past Vin's shoulder and struck the man in the throat, silencing him with a strangled cry. Clutching the knife embedded in his throat beneath the chin, he uttered sickly, wet gurgles as he sank to his knees.

"Nice throw," Harry found himself complimenting Nathan as the man fell flat on his back, still twitching while a pool of blood formed beneath him.

"Don't think it did much good," Nathan replied, hoping to delay the onslaught of the other occupants of the cavern for a bit longer with his precise throw.

"Thanks, Nathan, Vin nodded at the healer in gratitude before adding, "watch each other's back. They know every nook and cranny in the place, including how to come at us from above. We ain't doing anything fancy. We find Heather and Chris and get out. Leave these varmints to the army, they got the men for it."

"You'll receive no argument from me, Mr Tanner," Ezra remarked as the tracker took the lead and stepped through the passageway leading out of the main cavern.

"We need another light," Buck declared as they were shrouded in dark again. The Faithful were being mobilised because the lawmen could hear angry voices throughout the passage. Vin was right, the second gunshot was confusing the Faithful. The savages knew they had intruders, they just weren't sure where they were. Yet.

"Here," Harry produced one of the lamps he had taken from the campsite and flooded the passage with light.

This section of the cavern was an angled corridor with smooth rock walls and high ceilings. Like the ceilings in the main cavern, Vin could see the same jagged protrusions of rock that allowed the savages to move across the roof like they had done when they descended on him and Chris. Furthermore, the close quarters of the passage they were journeying hid too much in the shadows and with more gunfire erupting in the distance, their time was running out fast.

"We better find Chris in a hurry," Buck declared, his expression showing his heightened anxiety for his old friend. "The way he's shooting, the whole damn place is gonna know where he is."

"They may already," Josiah rumbled. He was trying to imagine where Heather could be in this maze and the idea that he might not reach her in time made him sick to the stomach.

Vin was concerned too but his thoughts were centered on just how many bullets Chris had in his gun before he ran out. During their escape, the day before, both of them had been firing almost continuously to keep the enemy at bay. Even before Chris's tumble into the darkness, the gunslinger was running low on ammunition, if he had any left now, Vin knew it couldn't be much.

They were approaching the mouth of another chamber, one Vin hoped was less enclosed than this one. Having seen how capable the Faithful were climbing across the roof, he did not like how vulnerable they were. The thought had no sooner entered his head when the savages suddenly appeared from the darkness, falling around them like spiders lowering themselves from unseen webs, riding strands of silk. The tight surroundings meant using their guns was risky, an advantage the enemy was well aware of when one of them dropped to the ground behind Vin.

The speed in which the man closed in on him made Vin think of the Wendigo, except this one had a blade it was about to use on him. Sidestepping the thrust of the spear before it planted itself in his gut, Vin grabbed the shaft of the weapon and yanked hard, pulling his assailant forward before slamming his forehead against the enemy's skull and sending him sprawling. Without giving the savage the chance to retaliate, Vin turned the spear on the man and jammed the sharp point through his throat before he could get up. He uttered a gurgled scream of pain before falling back down, writhing as he remained pinned to the dirt.

Vin stepped over him and kept going.

The crack of a single gunshot made Vin spin around and he saw Ezra putting a bullet in the forehead of an assailant who had attempted to ambush him from behind. The gambler had used the compact but highly efficient derringer secreted in his sleeve to defend himself, the result of which was the brain matter now sliding sickeningly down the wall. Ezra stepped back, wincing at the chunks of bone and flesh that created grisly cave art before he sighted another one of the manic creatures heading towards Josiah. Ezra slammed into the man with his shoulder, keeping him away from Josiah before he used the remaining bullet in the derringer to put the savage down permanently.

Meanwhile, the preacher had grabbed another one of these Faithful leaping at him and tossed the man against the wall, before slamming his head hard enough against the rock to knock him senseless. They were attempting to avoid using their guns because, in this narrow space, stray bullets would cause more harm than good. Besides, the close quarters ensured both sides were evenly matched as it afforded the savages less opportunity to overwhelm them with numbers.

Elsewhere, Nathan was going blade to blade with one of the savages, proving once again how adept he was with knives as a swordsman and as a surgeon. The clanging of steel made their teeth chatter as blade struck blade. Nathan, who once sparred with his master on the plantation, was more than capable of fending off a less skilled opponent who normally relied on speed and sneak attacks to dispatch victims. When his opponent's impatience caused him to lunge at Nathan, the healer used the opening to thrust his blade through the man's stomach, eliciting another sharp cry of agony. By the time he retracted the weapon, his opponent was in no position to offer any further resistance.

For a few seconds, no one moved as they stood surrounded by dead and unconscious bodies, bleeding out into the dirt. It was Buck who broke the silence first.

"Everyone all right?" Buck asked as he looked down at the dead man at his feet. The two of them had tussled and the fight ended with a gunshot to the man's heart when Buck was finally able to fire. Still, his arm flared in pain at where the enemy had gotten the drop on him briefly and cut open a bit of bicep. The wound was not serious, but it stung like hell and Buck knew with an inward grimace, Nathan wasn't going to be happy about the injury until he took a look it.

"It appears so," Ezra remarked, looking around and seeing Vin was already moving out of the cavern when he was struck by a sudden, unpleasant realization. "Where is Harry? "

*******

Harry Luck knew he was insane. He knew it.

When those Aztec devils had attacked Ezra and his friends, Harry saw the opportunity to seek out the gold, now it was clear the Faithful were well and truly occupied elsewhere. He would have asked Ezra to cover his back but Harry strongly suspected Ezra was too attached to his new comrades to leave them, in order to go hunting for gold. Somewhere along the line, Ezra had strayed into respectability, no matter how much the gambler might deny it. Harry supposed he couldn't begrudge him for that. No matter, when he found the gold, he would make it up to Ezra.

Going on ahead during the fighting, he emerged from the passageway into another large cavern. He kept his gun close, keeping to the shadows, painfully aware how dire things would be if he were discovered. He could see the movement through the darkness and knew the Faithful were so hell-bent on intercepting the lawmen of Four Corners and Chris Larabee, they didn't notice him as they passed. Only after they had gone, did he the use of one of the torches they'd made up before venturing into this place.

As he progressed deeper into the maze of tunnels, he was suddenly assaulted with a stink so strong it almost made him wretch. Yet as much as that disgusting odor made him recoil, he also heard something else that compelled him forward. The sound of a child's tears.

The cavern was a perfect echo chamber, carrying the pitiful sobs to his ears easily. Freezing in place, Harry listened closely, trying to determine in which direction it was coming and realized he need only let his nose lead the way.

For a second, he debated what to do.

The opportunist in search of gold, who just left his comrades behind, wanted to turn away and resume his hunt. Yet the part of him who considered Ezra Standish a friend, who was glad the gambler could see a Negro as a man and not some relic of a time best left forgotten, that damnable bit of him that maintained some semblance of decency, could not. Fate rarely gave a man the chance to do something heroic and hating his weakness at succumbing to that vanity, Harry knew there was only one thing to do.

Go save some children.

His gun poised ready to fire, he saw one of those savage devils emerging from the numerous tunnels running through the cave and quickly withdrew behind a column before he was seen. Harry waited until the man passed him by before stepping out to lock an arm around his throat. Using the blade he extracted from his boots seconds earlier, he delivered a single, deep cut with expert precision before there was an opportunity of a struggle. Blood spilled over the man's bare chest as he writhed in Harry's grip for a few seconds until his body went limp and Harry released him, letting him tumble into the dirt, face down.

Not waiting to see if the man was dead, Harry was confident enough in his ability to know the enemy was done, when he continued on his way.

Once again, that terrible stench almost gave him pause but those tears kept his feet moving and when he entered the cave the savage had emerged from and saw what was inside it, he realized he had sent the man to his god with far more mercy than was deserved. Like Ezra Standish, he had traveled across this nation and being fairly familiar with its underbelly, had encountered much ugliness in his time. He was certain nothing had the power to shock him anymore, even after discovering what the Faithful were about.

He was wrong.

Those tears were coming from children. Children trapped in cages. When he traveled the south before the war, the bondage of the slaves had horrified him and he honestly believed nothing could be worse but these children held in cages, whose purpose there could be no doubt, made him re-examine the depths of human depravity. Suddenly, he felt inordinately ashamed for lusting after gold as he had, when this was happening.

On whatever honor he had left, Harry swore he was getting these children out of here.

"Hello?" He approached the nearest cage and called out in a voice loud enough to be heard but not enough to be carried.

He got an answer almost immediately. "Harry!"

A face pushed itself to the front of the group immediately and Harry let out a sigh because it was one he knew.

"Heather?" He saw the little girl press her frightened face against the bars, staring at him with pleading eyes.

With her were at least five other children, equally terrified and in such filthy condition it filled Harry with anger just looking at their unkempt state. They were all young, no older than seven or eight and the terrible conclusion at what might have been the fate of the older children, if there had been any, turned his blood cold.

She stuck her hand through the bars, reaching for him and though he had almost nothing to do with the girl since her discovery the day before, Harry enclosed her small palm in his to assure her he was not going to abandon her.

"Is Josiah okay?"

Harry crooked a little smile at that. "Yeah honey," he dropped to his knees in front of the small cell and tried to discern how he was going to open the door. " He's fine. He's here with the rest of us. I'm going to get all of you out of here but you have to be quiet."

Glancing over his shoulder to make sure none of the savages snuck up behind him, Harry went to work cutting through the ropes holding their cage together. As he did so, he continued to reassure them, using the same charming tone he used to run cons all across the Territory and found children were a good deal harder to convince than well-heeled marks. Of course, he never had much experience with children, to begin with. Using the same blade that was used a short time ago to kill a man, Harry sliced through the fibres holding the lengths of wood together.

"Are you okay?" He asked as he continued to cut. "Did they hurt you?"

"No," she shook her head, speaking in that soft voice of hers, even as her eyes kept shifting from him to the entrance of the cave.

"What about the rest of you?" He asked, briefly glancing at the older children who appeared to be in worse condition than Heather if such a thing was possible. Like Chris Larabee, it angered Harry to no end to see the extent of their trauma and their state of near starvation.

Heather looked at her companions with whom she had been trapped with since the Bad People took her away from Josiah the night before. She recognized Renee Richards, Derick Rickman and Tommy Merrick from the wagon train. They were really little like her and though she had not played much with them, knew them to be nice kids. Tommy had told her stories of the place he had come, far across the sea, where there was a real live king and queen.

"We're okay," Tommy finally spoke and Harry realized the boy had a thick English accent.

"Good," Harry smiled and gestured them to step back when he yanked two of the bars towards him forcefully after loosening the ropes holding them in place. Their removal created enough of a gap for the children to slip through easily with Heather being first to emerge, and the others following suit. Once again, he felt a surge of anger and disgust seeing how young they were and then thought back to how many others had there been in the past. By his own reckoning, these Aztecs had been here for three hundred years, how many children like this had there been. The potential number was horrifying.

"Okay," he said once they were all out and he prepared to lead them out of the cavern. "I'm going to get you out of here but you all have to be very quiet, do you understand? "

In the dim light, Harry could see several heads bobbing in understanding with a soft "yes sir" from a few of them. He was glad to see some kind of response from the other children because there was no telling how damaged they were going to be by this experience. In any case, it was something to be debated later, right now, he just knew he couldn't allow them to remain in this situation any longer.

With that, he headed out of the dungeon, certain they would follow. Glad to leave the stink behind, Harry used the lamp to keep track of his new charges as he returned to the chamber where he had killed the savage. For once, he was grateful for the commotion the others were making because it made it easier to find them. Gunshots, screams of pain and the sounds of fists against flesh echoed through the air, making the children jump in fear. Fortunately, Heather was keeping her head and the children were taking their lead from the little girl, possibly because she was the one who knew him.

"You okay back there?" He asked quickly as they moved across the cave with its jagged rocks and looming shadows, wanting more than anything to see the sunlight again. He hadn't even considered how he would explain himself to Ezra and supposed he was going to have to take his medicine for running out on them.

"We're okay," Heather answered and Harry gave her an encouraging smile when suddenly her eyes widened and she screamed.

"LOOK OUT!"

Harry turned sharply to see two of the bastards coming at him, most likely using the numerous stalagmites to mask their approach to appear as if they had come out of nowhere. With lightning fast reflexes he fired his gun, halting the first assailant in his tracks but not before the second hurled what appeared to be a tomahawk at him. Harry barely registered it flying through the air and by then, it was too late for anything.

There was a moment of exquisite pain when he felt the blade bury itself in his chest. Strange, Harry thought as he dropped to his knees, it wasn't how he thought being struck by an axe would feel like. Where was the bone-crunching agony, the splatter of blood or the scream that should be escaping his lips? It just felt as if the wind was knocked out of him. Of course, this state of affairs lasted briefly because the excruciating pain soon exerted itself upon his senses and with that came clarity in bright vivid colors.

His would be killer was still coming at him and if he succumbed to the son of a bitch, it wouldn't just be his life that was forfeit but Heather and the children he was trying to save. No, that was not going to happen. As the savage closed in, Harry fired his gun again, ending the thread of him once and for all. The man crumpled to the floor just short of reaching Harry, the bullet having struck him dead center.

As Harry's arms went slack, he became conscious of Heather's frightened squeal as she ran to him, not caring there was an axe still planted in his chest.

"Harry, you're hurt!" She whined and he realized the other children were also around him, their faces filled with fear and concern.

"Yeah," he grunted. "But that doesn't matter." He looked her in the eye, with his teeth gritted. "All of you need to keep going. Head for the gunfire! Do you hear me? You head for the gunfire! Josiah is there!"

"But we can't leave you, Mister!" Tommy interjected.

"You have to," Harry insisted, feeling the life draining out of him fast. "You need to get going now!"

But Heather wasn't ready to leave him yet. She had not known this man for very long but like all of Josiah's friends, he had been nice to her. He had found them in that bad place and saved them all. Knowing he was going to die because of it made her heartache.

"Harry...you got to come..." she whined, tugging at his coat.

"No honey," Harry shook his head. It was a struggle to remain lucid because the black encroaching on his vision wasn't just the darkness of the cavern, it was the twilight of his life. "You gotta go but you need to do me a favor. Can you do that for me?"

Her face twisted into a pout but she nodded. Tears were running down her dirt covered face and Harry supposed if he had a little girl cry for him in the last moments of his life, he could do worse. But before the end, there was one thing he would have her do.

"When you see Ezra, can you give him a message for me?"

Tearfully, Heather nodded and stepped closer to Harry to hear what it was. Although she did not understand the message when it was relayed, she guessed Ezra would.

*******

When Chris heard the thunderclap of a Winchester rifle echoing through the cavern, he thought it might have been the most beautiful sound he ever heard.

Even though Vin Tanner was not present, Chris knew the shot had been made for his benefit. The tracker wanted him to know what help was on the way and for Chris, no message could have been more timely because he sure as hell needed it. After dispatching the savage who had entered the chamber where he found Jenna and the others, Chris knew the escape he wanted to make was no longer possible and they had to leave this dungeon fast.

With the light of the torch from the cave illuminating the path away, he led the children out of the place, taking note that Jenna's spirit had returned with a vengeance after hearing the gunshot and also because tending to the children was helping to alleviate her own traumas.

As expected, they were coming at him from everywhere now and Chris had managed to dispatch one or two using his bare hands but knew when they came at him in force, he would need his gun. He was trying to save every bullet until that moment descended on him, even though realistically the fight he put would be brief. They would overwhelm him with numbers. He could hear more of them closing in despite the distraction Vin and the others were providing if the gunfire he was hearing was any indication.

Heading towards the commotion, they were about to enter another chamber when Chris saw something in the darkness that made him pause. Handing the torch to Jenna, he drew his gun and reloaded with his remaining bullets.

"Hold this," he told Jenna. "And get to the corner over there."

"But..."

"Do it," He ordered and then added. "Anything happens to me you keep going. Head for the gunfire. My men are here, they'll get you out safe."

Jenna was about to protest until she saw three figures rushing towards them. Uttering a short scream of fear, she turned around quickly to run, leaving Chris to deal with them as she ushered the children away. With a split second to act, Chris drew his gun and fired, dropping the first assailant in mid-step. The savage tumbled to the floor in a heap, causing his companion to trip over his suddenly prone body. The varmint landed on his hands and knees, looking up just to get a face full of Chris's boot. The third savage seeing his two companions attacked, shrieked in fury and threw a spear with surprising speed.

Chris managed to sidestep it enough to avoid a gut full of spear as he pulled the trigger. His bullet entered the man's face as the weapon bounced off the rock column behind him. However, the savage he had kicked was on his feet like a cat and he launched himself at Chris with surprising speed, tackling the gunslinger to the ground. Before Chris could stop him, the man sank a knife into Chris's flank and the lawmen hissed at the sting of the blade as it cut into flesh.

Uttering a groan, Chris slammed his forehead hard against the man's nose, feeling bone shatter as the pain flared across his skull before the son of a bitch could twist the blade in any deeper. Marshaling all the strength he could muster despite the stabbing pain running through him, Chris shoved the savage off him and rolled onto his knees, just as his attacker readied to lunge again. Without thinking twice, Chris who still had his gun in his hand pulled the trigger, not caring who the hell heard, putting the bastard down for good this time.

Four shots out of nine, he counted as he waved Jenna to him so they could continue their escape, even though he now knew his lifespan had suddenly become five bullets long. Somehow, he had to get these children to Vin and the others before they ran out.

Clutching his side and trying not to look down and see how badly he was hurt, Chris could feel warm blood pulsing out of the wound each time he moved. His shirt was becoming soaked and his legs were starting to feel shaky beneath him. Fuck that, he told himself. He wasn't dying in this place and certainly not before he got them to the others.

After that, he'd save the last bullet for himself if necessary.

Chapter Nine:
Showdown

By the time Vin Tanner heard the third and fourth gunshot, he had a pretty good idea which direction the sound was coming from, even if it was amplified as loud echoes that seemed to shake the walls of the cavern as they ran through it.

"This way!" Vin shouted racing through the darkness, both blade and gun drawn, prepared to kill anything that got in his way.

Leaping over a small boulder in front of him, Vin landed just in time to see another savage closing in on him and he reacted promptly, blowing a hole through the man's chest before he got going again, not even pausing to see where the varmint had gone tumbling into the shadows. Behind him, Buck was managing to keep up despite the wound on his shoulder. Like Vin, Buck's fears for Chris was propelling him forward, forcing him to ignore the pain.

Another gunshot from Buck's Remington wrenched a scream from the savage attacking him but did little to distract the tracker who was forging ahead with ruthless determination. He barely paused when a Faithful jumped out at him, fending the man off with a vicious blow to the face with the butt of his rifle. Bone cracked as Vin stopped long enough to swing out with his knife in a deadly swipe that opened the man's throat in a single, expert cut.

The Faithful weren't the only ones who knew how to butcher meat.

They were starting to appear out of every shadow, although nowhere in the numbers they had done the day before. Vin suspected they were probably cautious after their failed nocturnal attack, unprepared for the resistance when their advantage of surprise was gone. Even so, there was still too much dark in these caves, allowing the Faithful the chance of sneaking up on them at every turn. While Buck was keeping up with him, Vin could hear his strained breathing and knew his wounded shoulder was ailing him more than he was letting on.

Josiah was behind Buck, still clinging to the hope Heather was alive and awaiting rescue. Vin honestly hoped the preacher wasn't disappointed. The idea of that poor little girl ending up here, after everything she did to survive on her own, filled Vin with anger. As someone who had been forced to get by on his own at a young age, he understood and admired her ability to do the same when so many others had failed.

It wasn't lost on him she had only fallen into the Faithful's hands after they had found her.

Ezra was unusually quiet and Vin suspected this was the case because he was still reeling from the fact his friend Harry Luck had run out on them. Vin was hardly surprised by this and if it were not for the fact the stupid bastard would almost certainly get himself killed hunting gold, Vin might have taken the same exception to it as Chris had done when Ezra abandon them at the Seminole village. As it was, Vin doubted Harry would live long enough to get his gold and that was punishment enough.

As if he had been tempting fate, Vin caught a flutter of movement from above and immediately looked up. Squinting in concentration, he studied the shroud of black overhead and could see the silhouette of things moving quickly in the dark, using the stalactites above to scamper across the roof. For a moment, they didn't seem too unlike roaches crawling up against the wall of some filthy outhouse.

"Up there!" Nathan pointed out before Vin could issue the warning.

No sooner than the words left Nathan's lips, the five men opened fire, sending a deadly barrage of bullets into the air and blasting the enemy from their lofty perches. The hail of bullet tore screams from the enemy attempting to strike from above, penetrating flesh and rock at the same time. Very soon the Faithful were plunging through the air, landing hard on the ground with a sickening squelch, with fragments of rock and dust covering their bodies. Others who managed to avoid the bullets began hurling their weapons at the men below, taking advantage of the high ground while they still had it.

"Buck, watch out!" Ezra shouted as the gambler saw an axe headed at the Lothario.

Both men rolled across the ground as the axe landed, the blade embedded almost an inch deep into the dirt. There was no time to rest for they looked up to see another member of the Faithful descending on them. Ezra fired first, employing the lightning-fast reflexes that allowed him to survive as a hired gun as well as a card sharp. The bullet caught the savage just as he jumped, with both Ezra and Buck exchanging a quick glance of realisation before rolling aside when the man plunged towards them. He landed heavily in the space they had occupied and Ezra wasn't sure if he died from the fall or the bullet. Whatever the cause, the savage moved no more.

"Thanks, Ezra," Buck said getting to his feet. "I didn't know you cared."

"I have lost one friend today," Ezra shrugged, never comfortable with having his heroics recognised. "I have no intention of losing another."

"Look, I'm sure he'll be all right," Buck assured him, ever the optimist, able to see just how worried Ezra was for Harry, as stupid as the son of a bitch was to have taken off as he had. "We're causing so much ruckus they probably have no idea he's wandering around here alone."

"Mr Wilmington, I think you and I both know how unlikely that is," Ezra said glumly, "but I thank you for the effort. "

As the gunfire stopped, the Faithful had retreated for the moment and Vin was about to resume his search for Chris when suddenly Nathan halted them all in their steps.

"Wait a minute!"

For a few seconds, the healer did not speak but they all saw the concentration on his face. Instead of continuing on the path they were headed, Nathan suddenly veered off the track, heading in a completely different direction.

"I can smell something..." he said looking past a row of stalagmites, his hand on his gun, ready to shoot down anything that might seek to surprise him.

"Like what?" Ezra asked dusting himself off, disappointed because he hoped Nathan might have heard Harry. He still couldn't believe Harry had run off on his own and for the first time, could understand why Chris Larabee was so incensed when he had done the same at the Seminole Village. Nevertheless, as infuriated as Ezra had been by Harry's behaviour, he was even more angered by the fact Harry's reckless behaviour was most likely going to cause him his life.

"I don't think so..." Nathan was fixed on the stench now growing stronger and stronger. He knew it well, mostly because he was accustomed to smelling blood and shit from the close confines of an army hospital. Nearing the mouth of yet another cave, he lifted the lantern to see down the darkness when suddenly, he heard an excited voice.

"NATHAN!"

Nathan gaped with shock as Heather and a group of children spilled out of the cave, hurrying towards the light of his lamp. There were at least half a dozen of them, so young and small it felt profane imagining them in a place like this.

"Heather!" Nathan grinned and looked over his shoulder. "Josiah! It's Heather!"

Josiah had started running the instant he heard her voice.

A surge of gratitude filled his heart at knowing she was all right even though he had no idea why this little waif meant so much to him. Perhaps it was because he had failed another girl once, and was trying to find absolution in keeping this one safe. In seconds he was by Nathan's side, relief filling his chest as he saw her, alive and well, with a group of children standing a foot behind her, regarding the men staring at them with some caution.

"Heather!" Josiah exclaimed and Heather's face lit up seeing him.

"Josiah!" She practically leapt into his arms.

Josiah swept her up, twirling her around once, thinking God did answer some prayers as he held her tight, grateful for her life. "Hey Princess Irene," he said looking at her. "How did you get away?"

At that question, the joy suddenly left her face and she turned her sad eyes at Ezra. "Harry found us. He helped us escape."

"Harry?" Ezra exclaimed with surprise, searching the passage the children had emerged from for his friend and turned to her when he saw no sign of the man. "Where is he?"

"He...." her voice faltered, unable to finish the sentence and her expression told Ezra all he needed to know.

The gambler turned away for a moment, hiding his face from his associates because he had no wish to share his sorrow with his friends. Harry had been a gambler and scoundrel but the man had always played it straight with him and was one of the few people he considered a friend before riding with the seven. Knowing Harry had forgotten about his quest for gold long enough to save these children, made the loss of his friend doubly hard to deal with.

"I see," he said quietly when he turned back to the others once he regained his composure.

"He said to tell you something," Heather said, seeing through his gambler's facade into the sorrow in his eyes.

"What is it, my dear?"

"Harry wanted you to know you weren't the only sucker in town."

*******

Upon learning Heather was safe, Vin and Buck kept going because those gunshots were closer and even though they ought to have known better, the two men were compelled by their friendship for Chris Larabee to continue, no matter how dangerous it was to go on alone. When Vin saw Heather and those children, he knew they were out of time. Vin was counting every shot fired and knew Chris was fast going through his bullets. Even if his peacemaker was fully loaded, Vin counted at least four shots already discharged.

"CHRIS!" Buck called out, hoping to get an answer.

Vin would have warned him against doing that because they were still vastly outnumbered and if the bastards chose to attack on mass, they weren't going to get out of there alive, even if they were prepared for the onslaught. However, Chris had to know they were here by now and with time running out fast, Vin was willing to take the risk by trying something more drastic to find the gunslinger.

Suddenly he was slammed against the wall by one of the savages who had been hiding behind a column. He ran into Vin with enough speed to send the tracker's shoulder hard against the rock. Vin felt the sickly squelch of bone, followed by white-hot pain and knew immediately his shoulder hurt. The knife in his hand dropped to the ground, out of reach but there was no time to dwell on the pain, not when he could feel the savage's hot breath against his neck, preparing to bite down on his throat. Snapping his head forward, he connected with a row of teeth and felt those jagged points digging into his skin.

The Faithful staggered back but Vin was more hurt than his assailant. There was blood running down his forehead from those serrated teeth and his shoulder injury made his left arm near useless. Going for his gun, the savage ran at him again, this time brandishing an axe. Vin ducked as he swung and jammed the butt of the Winchester at him, prepared to fire when another assailant slammed into his side and knocked him off his feet. The rifle flew out of his hand and Vin landed on his injured side, forcing a cry of pain to escape him.

As he struggled to get to his feet, he saw Buck having problems of his own, as the big man was fighting off one of the savages, with no ability to help Vin out of his current predicament. As the two Faithful closed in, like wolves about to converge on a wounded animal, Vin saw the knife he had dropped when he was crushed against the wall. Scrambling towards it, his movements were agony. Pain stabbed at him with every inch of ground he gained towards the weapon. Seeing the outline of the blade's hilt, Vin snatched it up and turned towards his assailants who were less than a foot from him and threw the knife.

The blade embedded itself in the chest of the one closest to him. The man uttered a satisfying scream of pain and staggered back, forcing a corresponding scream of fury from his companion. The remaining savage glared at Vin with the yellowed eyes of a rabid animal and to Vin, these Faithful were more or less that. A pack of rabid humans who had gone feral after being trapped in this cave for so long they didn't know what it was like to be men anymore. As the savage closed in on Vin, wearing a black mask of rage that promised to tear him apart, Vin struggled to get to his feet to put up a fight when suddenly a gunshot rang out.

The man's face disintegrated with blood and brains splattered across the lower half of Vin's pants. Blood dribbled out of his mouth and his eyes rolled back into his head as he dropped to his knees. When he collapsed, another shot rang out and this time, the bullet entered the opponent Buck was fighting. The shot caused the savage to stagger sideways since the projectile entered his temple and the spray of blood that appeared briefly showed which direction it had departed the man's body.

"So this is your idea of a rescue?" Chris Larabee asked, lowering his gun. "Making me use my last two bullets to save both your asses?"

Vin didn't speak for a moment as he stared at the gunslinger, standing before them, large as life, looking like hell but very much alive. In the second it took for Vin to speak, he thanked God, the various Indian deities and just Fate, for pulling him back from the possibility of having to face Chris might be dead. As he ran the gauntlet of emotion, always hidden behind that unflappable mask, Vin got to his feet and approached Chris with a little smirk.

"Yeah, and you better be grateful, pard."

Their eyes locked for a moment and Chris saw the emotion Vin was trying so hard to hide and knew in that instant, the anger and enmity between them the last few weeks was no more. All that foolishness seemed trivial in the light of what had almost been lost. It was as it had been when they stared across the street, deciding unanimously without a word spoken, there would be no lynching today.

Buck, however, was nowhere that restrained. "CHRIS! I knew you alive! No way you could get taken out by a bunch of half-crazed varmints!"

He crossed the rocky floor of the cave, more than ready to wrap Chris up in a typical Buck Wilmington bear hug when he noticed the slick patch of blood on Chris's side and sobered up immediately.

"You hurt?" He asked concerned.

"I'll live," Chris shrugged, although secretly, he was nearing the end of his considerable endurance. The wound was still bleeding and he felt a light-headed and weak, with the palm clutching the peacemaker in his hand feeling somewhat clammy. He recognised the symptoms for what they were but he was fighting it with adrenaline. "We need to get going."

"No argument there," Vin agreed, removing the stampede string around his neck and hanging Chris back the hat he had held onto since finding it. The black hat was a little scuffed from his tussle with the Faithful a few minutes ago but no worse for wear.

Chris nestled it back on his head, giving them both a little smile at how grateful he was to be back amongst them again.

The moment could not last because the sounds of gunfire resumed from further down the cavern, to say nothing about the growing rumble of voices they knew belonged to the Faithful. The tidal wave they had so far avoided was about to descend upon them and it was time to get moving before they got caught up in it.

"Let's get the hell out of here," Vin said quickly, his eyes surveying the chamber they were in and though he sighted none of the savages yet, their imminent approach was plain by the fevered pitch of their voices echoing through the cave.

"Amen to that," Chris agreed and looked over his shoulder before calling out into the shadows. "Jenna, you can come out now."

Buck and Vin followed Chris's steely gaze and saw the emergence from the black, shrouded in the faint light of a torch, a teenage girl dressed in a filthy nightdress that might have been white once but was now grey. She was holding the torch in one hand and the palm of another child in the other. Shuffling after her, just as cautiously, were more children who looked in the same bedraggled and malnourished condition as the ones they'd discovered with Heather.

"You found these kids in cages too?" Buck asked, his jaw tensing at the horror he saw etched in all their faces, especially the girl. The violence of any kind against the opposite sex provoked nothing less than outrage in Buck Wilmington. Even more so, now that he realised there had been more than one cache of children hidden in this dark hell, imprisoned like calves for the slaughter.

"Yeah," Chris's piercing gaze shifted from Buck to Vin in quick succession. "How did you know?"

"We found some of them too. With Heather." Vin explained, wondering just how many cages there were and was it right to abandon them if there were. Already he could hear the rallying cry of the Faithful, whipping up their numbers for an attack, he was certain none of them would be able to fend off for long. They had to leave and now.

"Heather?" Jenna suddenly came alive, shedding the cloak of trauma since Chris had found her in that terrible dungeon. Her eyes lit up as she hastily approached the three men and repeated herself, her eyes wide with hope. "Did you say, Heather?"

"Yeah, little lady," Buck said kindly. "Heather. You know her?"

Jenna's hand flew to her mouth and she looked as if she was on the verge of bursting into tears. The emotion on her face was so palpable it was difficult not to be affected by it. "Oh thank God!" She exclaimed, her voice near breaking from the feeling choking her. "Heather is my sister! She's my baby sister! I...I...thought they killed her!"

"No Miss," Vin shook his head, glad to hear something good had come out of this but the situation was too urgent to dwell on it. "We found and she's safe, but she ain't gonna be if we don't leave now."

No one could argue with that.

*******

With the war cry of the enemy gaining momentum around them, the lawmen and their entourage left the area before the savages descended upon them again. The pause in the hostilities felt like the eye of the storm and no one wished to be present when it broke. Returning to the chamber where they had left the others, they were intercepted by Nathan who had come in search of them. Although Chris was not at all pleased to see Nathan on his own, considering the fearful ability of the Faithful for ambush attacks, he understood why when the healer explained himself. Ezra and Josiah had wisely taken Heather and the children with her out of the cavern, refusing to endanger them any further by bringing them along on a search for their missing comrades.

It was a decision Chris agreed with since he too wanted Jenna and the children he'd liberated as far away from this place as possible to spare them any further trauma at the hands of the savages. As it was, Chris couldn't bring himself to tell the others about the poor women he left behind because at this point, there was little the seven could do to help them, not until JD got back with Simmerson and the army. He would suffer the guilt of that himself. Chris only hoped, the creatures Vin was calling the Faithful, did not take out their anger on the trio before they could be rescued.

"It's good to see you in one piece Chris," Nathan said after he'd apprised the gunslinger of the situation. "Looks like you found some friends," he glanced at Jenna and the children with her.

"Yeah," Chris nodded. "This here is Jenna, she's Heather's sister. I found her in a cave with these kids."

"Heather's fine," Nathan said to the teenager. "Your sister's a brave little girl."

Before she could answer, another high pitched shriek pierced the air, making Jenna jump and sending a ripple of fear through the children. Jenna's eyes swept across the roof of the cave as if she could see through the darkness at the enemy closing in on them. After weeks being held as their prisoner, she knew what that cry meant. There were other noises too, sounds Chris recognised as footsteps approaching across gravel, the scraping of bodies moving against stone and the sharp clinking of weapons striking rock as the Faithful converged on the intruders.

"We gotta go now," Chris replied, distilling the disparate cacophony into one word. Attack.

"No kidding," Buck agreed and started to move when he saw Nathan making a beeline for Vin.

This time, Nathan was compelled by more than his healer's instincts to approach the tracker. Before Vin could question what he was doing, Nathan had grabbed Vin by the shoulder and back. Vin felt the pressure of the man's strong hands against his skin followed by a moment of exquisite pain that damn near overloaded his receptors.

"Nathan what the hell...." he started to curse before the agony reached crescendo and he heard that sickening snap of bone again.

The pain was so intense Vin thought he saw spots and yet when it subsided, Vin realised, it took with it his arm's earlier disability. Sure it still stung like a son of a bitch, but he now had use of both his hands. Vin shrugged his shoulders and though it was still tender, he realised he was more than capable of firing his Winchester again.

"Thanks," Vin said looking at him in a mixture of wonder and gratitude.

Nathan grinned, "I figure if we're going to get out of here alive, we're going to need all the guns we can get."

"Amen to that," Chris replied, "now let's get the hell out of here."

*******

The storm that Chris feared broke the instant they left the chamber where Heather was found.

It reached its zenith like the climax of an opera before the crescendo of its most powerful aria was abruptly snapped in half. The outraged screams of creatures who were once men a lifetime ago, now stripped of all connection to humanity, vanished into nothingness. It was the pause of armies poised for attack, the held breath of a volcano about to erupt and the silence of a predator in the seconds before the kill.

Of all the things Chris Larabee had seen since entering this hellish place, nothing terrified him more than that ominous silence.

Emerging into the cavern where the altar of the Faithful lay, the tapestry of flesh was still burning, its evil radiance lighting up the breadth of the place as if hell had chosen to open an eye and stare back at them. Until now, the enemy had used ambushes as its main form of attack but after the desecration of their holy relic and the theft of their food source, the Faithful were no longer content to send small parties after them.

They were all coming.

The savages were spreading across the ceiling like a swarm of insects escaping the split belly of a rotten corpse. They emerged from previously unseen cracks, from tunnels in the ground and from behind rock formations, each of them revealing killing points of sharp teeth, waiting for meat to chew and with the arrival of the lawmen, it had.

"Jesus Christ," Buck whispered, trying to comprehend how the hell they were going to get to the walkway, let alone across the floor of this chamber without getting torn to pieces. Behind them, he could hear Jenna and the children they were trying to protect beginning to weep, realising with far greater understanding the doom about to befall them.

"We keep going," Vin stated, refusing to give up, not when they were close to escaping. "I ain't dying in here."

Chris sucked in his breath, thinking of those women in their cells, their hacked limbs and knew that if they were captured alive, it was a good bet they would end up in a similar fashion. Except their limbs wouldn't be hacked away to keep them from escaping. Once again, the punchline to that terrible joke chose to make a timely return to his mind, giving him a much-needed reminder of what fate they were facing.

When you got a pig that great, you don't eat her all at once.

"We're leaving," Chris said almost quietly, "we're going to die trying because we ain't going to be taken alive. Trust me on this, if it comes down to it, you save a bullet for yourselves, do you understand me?"

All three men turned to him in shock, until they saw his eyes.

"Will they leave the children alive?" Nathan had to ask.

"Yeah," Chris nodded. "They need the children, they don't need us and what they'll do to us is worse than any bullet."

Chris swept his gaze across the cavern and saw the enemy was waiting, daring the lawmen to run and Chris knew the instant they did, the dam would break and come at them with Perdition's fury, Gripping his peacemaker tight, he looked at the four men he rode with, who had become his family this past year, whose presence in his life had started to heal the heart in his chest, excoriated by fire. If he was to die, he could do worse than falling at their side.

Taking a breath, he shouted the words he never imagined he would say in his life.

"RUN!"

The entire cavern came alive with movement as the lawmen with the exception of Vin, picked up the children they could with one arm while using the other to defend themselves. Jenna did her part, carrying one of the children while ensuring the others followed the lawmen closely. Across the ceiling, the Faithful were descending from the stalactites above, lowering themselves through the air using ropes, while the ones already on the ground closed in on the seven.

His mare's leg fully loaded, Vin began firing at the thickest part of the group converging on him. The light of the burning tapestry allowed him to see clearly so he was able to make each bullet count. Aiming high, he ensured the bullets fired put down his targets fast, either through the heart or the skull. There were 15 rounds in the Winchester 73 and Vin Tanner was just fast enough to make every one of them hit something.

Nathan who was himself as fast a draw with a gun as he was with a blade, was watching the tracker's back, even as he carried a little boy whose small arms were so spindly around his neck, it enraged Nathan to know just how much starvation had to be endured to get him that way. The healer saw the savages trying to converge on Vin whose precision with a rifle demanded their immediate action to bring him down. They descended from the roof of the cavern, attempting to jump him from above, forcing Nathan to open fire before they could reach the younger man.

His bullets struck them in mid-air, causing their bodies to jerk like marionettes under the mastery of a poor puppeteer before their strings were cut permanently. They plunged towards the ground, their bodies splitting across the rock like ripe fruit upon landing, blood splattering across the dirt in angry bursts of colour. Vin spared him a look over his shoulder and nodded in thanks before facing front. Suddenly the boy he was holding screamed in fright.

"BEHIND YOU!"

Nathan turned to see one of the bastards slipping out of the shadows at lightning speed, tackling him to the ground and causing the child in his arms to fall away like the discarded skin. He saw the child scrambling away on all fours but had little time to pay him any more mind than that when he felt jagged teeth sink into his collarbone and bite down. Nathan uttered a scream, possibly the first one since they tried to strip the skin from his back during a whipping at the plantation. The creature on top of him was trying to reach his throat as Nathan fought to throw him off when suddenly a loud crack was heard and the man went limp on top of him.

"Nathan are you all right?" Buck demanded as he dragged the varmint off the healer, whose shirt was quickly becoming stained with blood. As he did so, he saw another savage coming at him and fired another shot, putting the manic creature down.

"Yeah!" Nathan got to his feet and saw the child he carried being ushered by Jenna towards Vin Tanner who was still clearing them a path, though not quickly enough. Getting to his feet, Nathan felt the teeth marks in his neck and knew a few more inches up and the savage would have ripped open his jugular. That was all the time he got because more of the Faithful were closing in and he was firing again. Thankfully, he had managed to keep his gun in his grip when he went down and was able to hold back the creatures coming at him.

"RELOAD!" Vin shouted to no one in particular.

"I got you!" Chris answered, ignoring the pain in his side as he put down the little girl he was holding. He had gotten this far on adrenalin and knew that eventually his strength would give out but not before he took a hell of a lot of these sons of bitches with him. Covering the tracker's back as Vin lowered the mare's leg and hastily began reloading, Chris emptied as many rounds as he could in the Faithful attempting to ambush the tracker. Thanks to his replenished ammunition, Chris was able to protect Vin while at the same time ensuring that the crazed savages did not attempt to retrieve any of the children in their care.

Jenna's fear was obvious but the teenager seemed to be drawing strength from the need to protect the younger children in her care. He spared a moment to admire the courage that had to exist in her and swore once again, he would die before allowing what happened to Betty and the others happen to her. Ducking when a spear came at him, it scraped by his shoulder and ripped open flesh, forcing a hiss of pain from his lips but right now, the pain was a constant companion and he no longer noticed its presence. He was still riding high on adrenaline and was far from the inevitable crash that was coming.

He turned towards his attacker just in time to see the man's chest burst into ruined flesh when Buck put a bullet in him, before moving to another target, barely avoiding an axe at the same time. So far their bullets were keeping the bastards at bay but as Chris stole a glance at the forces arrayed before them, started to realise they may not have enough bullets to get them across the floor, let alone the walkway leading to the exit. With a sinking feeling, he realised that was what the bastards were doing, trying to force them to exhaust their ammunition long before they could reach that escape route.

An audible click when he took aim to fire at another savage gave the crazed cannibal the opening needed to rush him. Chris saw an axe being flung at him and dove for the ground, just as another jumped on him from another corner.

"CHRIS!" Vin shouted and threw a kick in the man's face, sending him rolling across the floor before promptly turning around to unload another barrage of gunfire from his now replenished Winchester. The boom of the rifle was deafening and snapped Chris out of his temporary disorientation. He felt a hand grip his forearm, helping him to his feet.

"You okay?" Buck asked as he helped Chris upright.

"Yeah," Chris nodded at the big man when suddenly, he shoved Buck out of the way and fired the peacemaker at the son of a bitch about to plant an axe in his old friend's back. The bullet slammed into the savage's forehead and blew his skull apart, but even as he fell, another took his place and Chris squeezed the trigger again. Chris heard the explosion of another gunshot near his ear when Buck covered him in much the same fashion. Sparing a glance around him, he saw Nathan had resumed watching Vin's back, with Jenna and the children following closely behind him.

"Come on!" Buck grabbed him by the arm and dragged Chris forward even as he raised his gun to fire again, this time at a savage descending down the nearby rock wall.

They were halfway across the cavern, approaching the flaming tapestry. It seemed to burn even brighter, as if it were the doorway to the hell they would not be escaping. As they maintained their murderous gunfire, every one of them knew they were fast running out of ammunition and the same dilemma that confronted Chris and Vin the day before was about to hit them with the force of a locomotive. Nearing the tapestry, the heat of the flames prickled the skin and the moment to use that last bullet was approaching with similar speed.

"Buck!" Chris shouted as he pulled the trigger again. "How much ammo have you got."

Buck looked at him and the blue of his old friend's eyes was the black of obsidian. "Not enough."

Chris nodded and for a second both of them knew what was in each other's thoughts. They had survived a war together and if this was the end, they were going out on their terms. It was the fate of the others that bothered Chris most. Vin and Nathan, they were young, yet to really start living. It wasn't fair for them to end now and certainly not in this way.

"We go down fighting then!" Chris said with a bitter smile and continued across the ground, the pain in his side starting to penetrate the dwindling flow of adrenaline running through him.

"Hell, we were probably living on borrowed time anyway..." Buck started to say when suddenly the sound of glass shattering, silenced him.

BOOSH!

An explosion of fire followed the breaking of a bottle landing in the middle of a group of savages attempting to rush them. The ignited liquid within immediately splashed across the bare skins of the cannibals, drawing screams of agony as their skins caught on fire. As the flames began to consume them, they descended into panic in the attempt to put it out. More sound of breaking glass was heard and both Chris and Buck looked up to see Josiah and Ezra on the walkway, hurling flaming bottles of liquor and oil at their assailants

"COME ON!" Josiah's voice boomed like God Almighty telling them to help themselves.

While Josiah flung the flaming bottles, Ezra who was perched on the edge of the walkway was armed with a rifle and covering their retreat. While not as proficient with a rifle as Vin, Ezra was still a hell of a shot, giving them the breathing room they needed to get to the narrow ledge leading them off the floor of the cavern.

Vin was the first to reach it and as he did, he paused and waited for Nathan to overtake him with Jenna and the children. The sound of another breaking bottle was followed by the loud whoosh of fire spreading and the awful screams that came with being burned alive. The chaos being created by the gambler and the preacher above, allowed Vin to reload when his gun was empty and as he did so quickly, shouted at Nathan.

"GO! GO! GO!"

"Come on," Nathan ordered Jenna and the children to keep close as he reached the narrow pathway leading them to the sunlight. "You stay close to me and mind your step!"

Now that they were so close to escaping, he had no intention of allowing any of them to come to harm, not after what they had been through and how well they'd managed to hold themselves together despite the danger around them. Nathan wanted Jenna to have her reunion with her sister, he wanted all these children to see life away from the horrors they must have witnessed in the hands of these monsters.

Hurrying up the path, he saw one of the savages scaling the edge of the walkway, trying to intercept them and wasted no time putting a hole through the man's head. The cannibal's body retreated backwards from the force of the bullet, disappearing into the darkness below. Thanks to Jenna's instruction, the children were running up the path now, skirting the foot of the wall, as they hurried to the top.

Nathan looked over his shoulder and saw Vin blasting away at the savages attempting to reach Chris and Buck who were almost to the walkway themselves. Meanwhile, Josiah continued to lob the bottles of flaming liquor and oil they'd gathered and left them at the mouth of the cave for their eventual escape. The preacher ensured each time a bottle landed, it did so in the vicinity of the savages, splattering them with flammable liquid and giving them something else to occupy their attention other than the murder of the lawmen.

Chris was starting to feel his strength falter as the wound he had managed to so far ignore was starting to make itself felt most acutely now. He was running on fumes and even though he was shooting almost on reflex, he knew sooner or later, the injury was going to catch up with him. Another audible click as he pulled the trigger made him swear but as the savage closed in, the bullet from Ezra's gun took him down and the man tumbled to the ground in front of the gunslinger who promptly stepped over the still dying body.

"I need to reload!" Chris shouted at Buck.

"Do it!" Buck declared even as they saw Vin waving them forward. Not needing the incentive, both men ran as if the hordes of hell were on their heels and he supposed considering what was behind them, it was not an untrue comparison. While Chris reloaded, Buck put down another one of the bastards, this one leaping over the altar, making a last ditch effort to keep them from getting to the walkway.

As he fell face first into the ground dead, Chris finally snapped the cylinder of his peacemaker close now that the chambers were reloaded again. With whatever reserves he had left, Chris finally reached the walkway, running past Vin with Buck following close behind. No sooner than he and Buck had passed by, Vin was on his feet, retreating along with them.

Maintaining a constant barrage of gunfire between himself and the Faithful attempting to follow them, Vin made every shot count, because he knew just how much ammunition he had packed for this rescue and his supply was not inexhaustible. As it was he was conscious of how many rounds he had left each time he paused to reload. Fortunately, his plan of using liquor bottles and oil lamps as artillery was being put to good use by Josiah who flung yet another lamp along the walkway this time a few feet behind him, creating a wall of fire between himself and the Faithful giving chase.

It did not stop the varmints from trying to come at them from the edge, however, but the combined efforts of Buck and Chris were keeping them at bay, allowing Vin's retreat to be devoid of any sneak attacks. Vin lifted his eyes to the roof and saw the Faithful attempt to cross the roof with their collection of rope bridges and tethers. They were making their way steadily to Ezra and Josiah, trying to stop the deadly barrage that was scattering their forces and allowing their quarry to escape.

Ezra Standish had not missed the sneak approach and immediately turned his freshly reloaded rifle to the stalactites hanging off the roof. Ropes were coiling around the jagged formations, held in place by crude metal spikes driven in deep. He wondered how they had installed the ropes in the first place and decided it didn't matter. These savages had killed Harry Luck, whom Ezra had counted as one of his oldest friends, who despite his less than honourable intentions had redeemed himself by saving Heather and the other children.

"Josiah, go high!" He shouted, shifting the trajectory of his gun barrel.

The preacher saw what he was doing and shouted, "I hope you're a good shot."

"I take umbrage at your questioning of my abilities," Ezra remarked as Josiah threw a bottle of liquor towards one of the closest formations around which there was rope. What they had not seen earlier because of the lack of light was the latticework of ropes that allowed the Faithful their passage through the air and undoubtedly brought death to so many unsuspecting wanderers into these caves. "At your convenience."

Josiah hurled the bottle as hard as he could, watching it tumble through the air, the flaming rag hanging from it giving Ezra something to aim at. The gambler waited until it had almost reached the rock and fired, ensuring its ignited contents landed on the hessian fibres holding the web together. As the glass shattered and flammable alcohol lit up the darkness, the liquid splattered against the rope and began to burn.

"It's time Ezra!" Josiah shouted as he saw Nathan and, more children it seemed, fast closing the distance between them. The healer was bathed in sweat and dirt, trying to reload as he kept watch on the children. Josiah could tell the man was on the ragged edge of panic, fearing the pause in reloading might give the enemy who was still coming at them, time to retaliate.

"Get to the top!" Nathan waved Jenna and the children ahead, now that Ezra and Josiah were in sight.

The young woman, who was carrying a small girl in her arms, nodded quickly and continued up the way, ushering the children with her along the path that would allow them to reach the mouth of the cavern, and possibly even to safety. Jenna could see the two men standing at the top of the walkway, hurling a bottle of fiery liquid. She heard the Faithful scream and thought of the abuses suffered at their hands and knew, with her jaw clenching, that whatever pain they suffered, wasn't nearly enough.

Meanwhile, Nathan had loaded his last shells into the chamber of his Remington and knew whatever happened after he exhausted those rounds, he'd have to do it with knives. Chris and Buck were coming up right behind him, with the healer noticing how badly Chris was moving. The gunslinger had staved off shock for as long as he could, but even Nathan could see he was nearing the end of even his formidable endurance.

Chris was starting to falter and he knew it but he could not turn tail and run, not when Vin had yet to join them. The tracker's deadly barrage with the mare's leg ensured the Faithful were focusing all their energies on reaching him. They were climbing up the edge of the walkway and, trying to ambush him from above. Fortunately, their ability to wage sneak attacks was severely diminished because the fire created by Ezra was slowly coiling around the network of robes dangling overhead.

"Go!" Chris ordered Buck. "Help Nathan get the kids out of here!"

"To hell with that," Buck snapped. "You're in no shape..."

"I know what shape I'm in," Chris retorted sharply. "Just watch our backs while I go help, Vin."

Buck shifted his gaze towards Vin and understood immediately. "I'll see to it."

*******

Four shots.

The savage reeled back, clutching his chest, blood flowing rivers through his fingers, his face a rictus of pain, made more grotesque by the gleam of those white teeth. Yet even as he staggered over the ledge, leaving behind the axe he had intended on planting in Vin, another was climbing over the edge of the walkway. Hands first, then elbows, before a head lifted up, revealing a face scarred with tribal markings Vin never wanted to understand, his eyes gleaming with malevolence

Three shots.

Vin pulled the trigger, clipping the edge of the enemy's left ear. He uttered a howl of pain but remained steadfastly attached to the rock, refusing to let go and continued to pull himself unto the walkway, determined to reach Vin. The pure hatred in his eyes, mingling with the madness of the Wendigo curse, sent a surge of uncharacteristic fear through Vin, forcing the tracker to pull the trigger once more.

Two shots.

This time, the close range of the rifle blast lifted the savage off his feet and while he didn't quite fly over the walkway into the abyss, he landed so hard against a boulder, Vin heard bone crunch upon the landing. The man lay across the stone, spreadeagled and Vin knew his back was broken, not that he would feel it with the bullet hole in his chest.

Movement had Vin looking up as a dark shape attempted to jump on top of him. Without thinking twice, Vin raised his rifle and fired. The war cry was cut short, the shriek used to such good effect to terrify the hell out of their victims, ended abruptly as the man slammed into the ground next to him. Not that Vin had time to react because his distraction from above had allowed another one of the bastards to close in. Vin lifted his gun to fire and heard the audible click of an empty barrel.

"Aw hell!" He cursed as the Faithful tackled him to the ground.

Both men toppled to the ground, with the savage slashing and pounding at him in a frenzied attack, determined to end Vin now that the hated gun was empty. Vin fought him off but though he had full use of his arm after what Nathan had done, it was in no shape to fight such a barbaric opponent. Once again, he felt teeth snapping at his neck and slammed the butt of the exhausted Winchester into the man's side to dislodged him but the savage was determined to take a bite out of him.

Suddenly the man's head was yanked back by the hair so hard, his body was almost arched over Vin before a gun barrel was jammed against his temple.

"Eat this!" Chris Larabee hissed and pulled the trigger.

The side of the man's face exploded outwards, covering the ground in blood and bone as Chris let go of the handful of hair he had clutched to make his fatal shot. The body collapsed limply against Vin who reacted immediately by shoving him away. When he looked up, he saw Chris offering him a hand.

"Saving your ass is becoming habit forming," he grinned.

"No shit," Vin smiled back and took the hand offered and got to his feet. "Make up for all the times I've had to watch your back!"

"If you ladies are done talking!" Buck hollered a few feet away. "MOVE!"

They looked up in time to see Josiah lifting a small wooden barrel which Vin knew to be the gunpowder they had taken from the campsite. The preacher had been saving that particular cache for last and knowing what the man intended to do with it, he agreed wholeheartedly with Buck's demand to get moving. Chris was moving but not fast enough and that slick patch against the man's shirt had not lessened. It occurred to Vin that Chris was barely keeping up his strength.

Taking hold of the man's arm, he said quietly. "I have your back pard, always."

"I know that Vin," Chris's eyes met his and answered just as quietly, despite the contrasting sound of gunfire from both three different guns. "I always knew that."

Both men exchanged a silent nod of understanding before breaking eye contact. That was enough. Every doubt about their friendship during these last few weeks was no more. They were what they'd always been. Brothers.

Josiah saw Vin and Chris nearing them at the top of the walkway and knew it was time to end this.

Throwing the small barrel of gunpowder into the abyss, Ezra's kept the object in his crosshairs until it was almost to the ground and then fired. The explosion that followed felt like the earth had ripped open, shaking the ground and causing Chris to stumble slightly. However, Vin was there to keep him on his feet. The tremendous shudder had caused the cavern to fall silent for a brief second and then something that resembled the cracking of rock heaved its way into their hearing. A stalactite broke off from the ceiling and plunged through the air towards the ground.

Seeing the opening, Josiah hurled another small barrel of gunpowder and just like the first, Ezra blasted it before it hit the ground, igniting the combustible material in mid-air, creating another explosion. The thunderclap noise amplified by the cavern was almost deafening and more and more chunks of stone began to break free from the ceiling. Pretty soon, giant cracks appeared along the roof as more and more pieces of rock crumbled to the ground.

"I don't think it's going to stop..." Josiah declared, watching the destruction they had wrought with those two explosions.

"This might be an opportune time for us to make our departure," Ezra suggested as their party reached them.

"I second that," Nathan said looking for Jenna who was smart enough to have headed for the mouth of the cavern as soon she saw daylight. Of course, none of them was making a move until Buck, Chris and Vin joined them.

"Good to see you in one piece, brother." Josiah declared as he saw Chris.

"Same here," Chris said with a nod, panting and pale, the moisture on his skin caused by more than just sweat.

"Gentlemen," Ezra spoke up with his usual eloquence, "while I am not one to use coarse language, do you think we might get the fuck out of here now?"

It was a statement no one was arguing with and the lawmen hurried away from the edge, feeling the ground quake as more and more chunks of rock broke free and crashed against the floor of the temple in the darkness. Chased by a cloud of dust that was like the last gasp of a drowning man reaching for air, they fled into the light, leaving behind the screams of the Faithful and knowing those shrieks would haunt their dreams for many nights to come.

Epilogue:
Closure

Being bathed in sunlight after almost a day trapped in stygian darkness, Chris was almost blinded when he emerged outside once more. Even though it had only been a day since he had taken his fall, he felt as if he had aged a lifetime. Everything he had seen in that dark hell had aged him a thousand years and only the sun's rays above could strip those years away.

For a few seconds, he did nothing but stand there at the edge of terraced lip beyond the entrance to the cavern. They could still hear the cries coming from inside the canyon, the screams of pain as the cavern continued its collapse over the enemy's heads. The cloud of dust that had chased them out of the cavern had become smoke and it rolled into the sky as if Perdition had belched hellfire after a particularly tasty meal.

Chris ignored it. In fact, they all did. Instead, they chose to bask in the light and heat instead, as if it were the elixir needed to wash away the horror of what was seen in the Faithful's Lair.

Unfortunately, it could not last. In far less time than he preferred, Chris began to feel the pain of his wounds, temporarily receded during his sojourn, return with a vengeance. It sapped whatever energy he had left and reminded him most acutely, he had injuries needing attention immediately. As it was, he was going to have to climb down this slope himself and it was an ordeal he was not looking forward to at all.

Taking a moment, he noted Jenna had already started to lead the children they'd liberated down the slope, wanting to get as far away from the source of their trauma as possible. He couldn't blame her for that. Since being given charge of them, Jenna had become a she-wolf protecting her cubs. As she helped them down the rough terrain, he could see her face wrinkling at the bright sun in her eyes and realized it was because she hadn't seen the sun in weeks.

Hearing footsteps crunching behind him, Chris glanced over his shoulder and saw Vin approaching. The tracker was still rubbing his shoulder, indicating the dislocation still bothered him even if he had not allowed it to hinder his movements during their flight.

"Chris, we shouldn't stay here long," Vin said when he came to a stop alongside the gunslinger. "You know what's gonna happen as soon as it gets dark."

He did and threw another glanced at the open mouth of the cavern, once again struck by its resemblance to the jaws of some terrible creature bearing sharp teeth. He knew as well as Vin, the only thing keeping the Faithful from spilling out of their lair and wreaking bloody vengeance on them all, was the sun. As soon as the day turned to night, they would emerge, hunting for the men who caused the deaths of so many of their number, as well as retrieving the children lost in the process.

"Yeah I hear you pard," Chris agreed. "We're out of here as soon as we clear out one of the wagons left behind by the homesteaders for the kids."

Vin nodded in agreement with that plan. There was no other way to transport the children and they needed to get away from here fast. Behind them, the others were also preparing to descend the slope, with Buck reaching them first.

"JD's on his way here with Simmerson," Buck stated as he looked into the horizon as if he could see the young man riding hard on the way back. "We should run into them before they get here."

In truth, Buck had no desire to go back into that cavern for any reason. What he had seen inside the place scared the hell out of him and fear was an emotion Buck rarely felt. Nor did he want JD anywhere near it. Whatever calamity they had caused on the way out, Buck was convinced it was not the end of the Faithful by any measure. That cavern had been a maze of caves and tunnels, providing too many places for the bastards to stay hidden if they had an idea of what was coming. He had no idea how Simmerson would deal with them and frankly he didn't want to know.

However, Buck could take comfort in knowing if there was one thing the Union Army knew how to do better than anyone else, especially in the Territory, it was how to commit genocide.

*******

When Josiah told Heather to wait by the stream after he and Mr Standish brought them out of the Bad Place, Heather had almost cried, not wishing him to go. After narrowly escaping the Bad People, she did not want him to go back into their cave again, not after what happened to Harry. Harry had saved them but he paid for it with his life and Heather had no wish to see the same thing happen to Josiah. Josiah had been kind to her. He had saved Lootie for her and called her Princess Irene, like in her book. Even though it was not him who saved her and the others from the cage, Josiah had kept his promise to keep her safe when he came to find her in the Bad Place.

Now all Heather could think about as she waited for him to return, was what would happen if the Bad People hurt Josiah too, if they hurt all the men that came to help her. If that happened, she would be alone again, not just her, but Tommy, Derry, and Ren too. She didn't know if her small cave would fit the others if they had to hide again. The sun was still up in the sky but Heather was all too aware of what would happen when the dark came and Josiah didn't come back.

As it was, she warned Tommy and the others not to go back to the campsite, because some of them had wanted to. She remembered the terrible smell, with the flies and buzzards circling the blood. The campsite was now a Bad Place and there was nothing there for them except nightmares that would chase them into their sleep. It was bad enough the sound of gunfire emanating from the cavern had filled them all with dread without needing to see the campsite where all their family had died.

She was still mulling over the possibility of having to fend for herself when the earth suddenly rumbled beneath her, making her jump to her feet. It happened again and a ripple of panic moved through the children as they looked up the slope they had descended, only to see smoke spewing out of the cavern, like those smoke signals in the sky Papa had pointed out on their way here and said were Apache messages. Seeing the clouds of black, drifting against the blue made Heather feel very afraid for Josiah and she worried something truly awful had happened to him.

It was Tommy who saw them first and as always he shouted loudly, pointing to the people coming down the slope. Heather who was perched on a rock next to the stream, stroking Lootie's hair with one of Mr Standish's brushes, (he had a few of them), until the tremor, hoped it was Josiah and his friends coming back. Disappointment filled her when she saw it was not but more kids and they were led by...

"JENNIE!"

Heather was up and running across the shale ground before she even knew she was moving. Dropping Lootie against the shale-covered ground, with her heart bursting with happiness, she saw Jenna reacting to her name immediately. Just as Heather knew her from so far away, Jenna knew her voice and was immediately searching from where it had come. When their eyes met, Heather burst into the widest smile ever, because it was really Jennie! Her big sister looked exactly as she had that terrible night when this all began, wearing the same nightdress, except it was covered in filth much like hers had been.

It didn't matter because at that moment Jennie was the most beautiful girl in the world.

"FEATHER!" Jenna wept as she reached her sister and practically lifted her off the ground when she swept her up in a powerful embrace.

Even though Jenna had been told Heather was still alive, it wasn't the same as seeing her baby sister in the flesh. Nothing made it feel as real. Not until now.

After seeing their father butchered by the Faithful, Jenna was certain the same fate had been delivered upon Heather when she wasn't among the children taken. Thinking Heather as dead had broken her. Raising Heather since Momma passed had been what Jenna used to cope with her own grief. Doing all the things that Momma used to do for Heather, made Jenna feel as if she wasn't really gone and she still lived in Jenna.

But there was no longer any doubt of it now, as Jenna held her little Feather in her arms, weeping tears of gratitude and joy because despite all the terrible things she had seen, God had seen fit to rekindle her faith in him. Heather was here and Jennie was holding her, the way she did when Heather had a nightmare that needed chasing away or when they both needed a hug because they were missing Momma.

"Oh Jennie, I thought the Bad People killed you too," Heather said happily, her voice full of wonder and gratitude.

"I'm still here Feather," Jennie spoke through her tears continuing to hold her sister. "I'm with you and I'm never going to let you go again. I promise."

And it was a promise she intended to keep from this day forward.

*******

While they didn't exactly hear what was said when they descended the canyon wall, the lawmen witnessed the scene as Jenna and Heather made their tearful reunion, and decided it wasn't really necessary. The joy on both girl's faces was a language of its own and one that needed no translation. The language of love and joy was read in the heart. Josiah smiled to himself, thanking God, in the midst of the barbarity and cruelty they had just seen inside that dark cavern, where hell had decided to establish a franchise, the man upstairs could provide moments of unbelievable hope.

"Now that is worth what we just went through," Nathan commented as he followed Josiah during the climb down. Fortunately, their descent was easier which the healer was grateful for because most of them were sporting injuries of some kind. He saw Chris being flanked by both Buck and Vin, while Ezra barely noticed the terrain, probably because he was still thinking of Harry.

Josiah gave him a quick look and Nathan saw the satisfaction on the preacher's face.

"God does answer prayers sometimes," Josiah said with a little smile. "And sometimes that answer is even yes."

*******

Chris Larabee woke up in his bed, more than a day later, in a cold sweat and realized he had been dreaming of women with amputated limbs and skin tapestries.

For a few seconds, he had no idea where he was as he stared around the empty ward of Fort Seldon's Infirmary, a large room with rows of beds and fresh air blowing in through the open windows. Once the disorientation wore off, he remembered he and the others had arrived here the night of their escape from Owl Canyon, having ridden nonstop to put as much distance as possible from the cursed place before the Faithful made their emergence from their lair.

During their journey there, they had encountered JD and Simmerson and explained the extent of the situation, prompting the Major to return with them to the Fort to gather an entire company of soldiers to deal with the Faithful instead of the platoon he had originally set out with. The man had yet to return as far as Chris knew and following their report, taken enough dynamite to level the entire cavern if necessary. Considering the maze of tunnels and chambers, Chris did not think this was overkill.

However, Chris did manage to tell Simmerson privately about the women who were trapped there and how he had been forced to leave them to save the children. The man did his best to absolve Chris, even though the guilt would be with the gunslinger for some time. Fortunately, Chris was assured by Simmerson's horror, the major would do his best to free Betty and her companions, or give them a merciful ending if it came down to that.

In any case, for once Chris was happy to wash his hands of the whole affair. He just hoped Simmerson annihilated every one of those godless fucks.

"How are you doing pard?" Vin Tanner asked, snapping Chris out of his thoughts when the tracker approached his bed in his usual stealthy way. Pulling up a chair next to his bed, Vin's arm was still in a sling. Chris wished he was similarly injured, so he could leave his bed at least. Unfortunately, Chris was condemned to remain in bed for the next day or so, lest he wanted to face Nathan's utmost displeasure. Not even Chris Larabee was prepared to face Nathan Jackson's wrath when it came to the health of his patients.

"I'm better," Chris replied, sitting up a little straighter in his bed now that he had company. His side was still tender from the stitching Nathan had to do and the dull throbbing in his head from the mild concussion he'd received during the fall had withered to tolerable levels. Even so, Chris would have been willing to risk the discomfort to ride home, since he felt the sudden need to be back in Four Corners, far away from Owl Canyon and the Faithful.

"Simmerson's back," Vin said quietly, aware Chris would want this news delivered privately since the man had told none of them about what he had asked of Simmerson when the Major went to confront the Faithful. Simmerson had inadvertently revealed his news to Vin when the tracker went to find out how things had gone with the savages.

"How did it go?" Chris asked just as sedately.

"About as well as you'd expect it. They went in there guns blazing and, killed everyone they could find, not before filling the place with enough smoke to make sure the ones they didn't get, would die choking."

Chris blinked slowly, thinking about those three women and the salvation he could not give them. He saved their children but he had wanted to help them too. He thought of the horrors they must have endured, the terrible mutilation and the abuse their bodies were forced to suffer, producing children whose only purpose was for the slaughter. It was obscene.

Vin saw the distress Chris was trying to hide and then added quickly, "the women are dead Chris."

Chris's eyes flashed and locked onto the tracker. "How?"

"The smoke from all the fires must have gotten to them in that cell of theirs," Vin explained. "They choked."

"Jesus," Chris whispered, leaning back into his pillow and raising his eyes to the ceiling. "I wanted to help them, to get them out of there, but I couldn't do it on my own and they knew it too. They knew I couldn't save them without getting caught. They knew they were going to die in there and accepted it just the same, as long as I got their children out safe."

"Well we did that for them at least," Vin empathized with Chris's anguish. Simmerson had been just as shaken when he described what he found in that cage. There were tears in the man's eyes and Vin suspected he was not someone moved easily. "Peabody's gonna do what he can for as many of those children. With any luck they got families to go to but the rest will probably end up in orphanages."

Vin disliked that solution intensely, having no fond memories of his years in such a place but the tracker was a realist. For some of those children, who were conceived and born in the dark, the Faithful was the world they knew. Even if the orphanages had not changed from his day, that situation had to be better than where they had been. Perhaps the orphanages might even do some good helping their transition into society.

"What about Heather and Jenna?" Chris asked, hating to think either of them would end up in an orphanage after everything that happened to them.

"Well," Vin said with a faint smile, liking the outcome that had arisen unexpectedly regarding the two sisters. Neither had left each other's side since they were reunited and Jenna who had been the more traumatized of the two, seemed to be getting back her color now that Heather was with her again. "It seems Peabody has offered to take them in. He and Mrs Peabody ain't got no children of their own and he wanted to give them a home. I think he still feels kind of responsible for what happened to them."

He shouldn't, Chris thought but it was an outcome Chris imagined Josiah would approve of. "Josiah okay with that?"

"Yeah." Vin nodded, thinking how pleased the preacher had been to learn the two girls would have a proper home and Silver City which wasn't all that far away from Four Corners if he chose to take a ride and visit them, which Vin suspected he would. "I think he is."

A silence fell between them and Chris spoke up before the pause started to get awkward. "Vin, how are you doing?"

Vin looked up at him, thinking at first Chris meant the injury and then caught a glimpse of the man's eyes to know he didn't mean that at all. Understanding made him stiffen a little because he was never good with expressing his feelings but he could tell Chris was asking out of worry, not judgment. Besides, he supposed he owed Chris an explanation after his behavior the last few weeks.

"I still miss her Chris," Vin confessed. "I still want to ride out to Richmond's farm and take her away from him but I know now, it wasn't ever meant to be." The tracker looked out the window into the sky, seeing something beyond the blue. "I should have listened when everyone tried to tell me to stay away but my heart..."

"Doesn't always give you a choice," Chris stated, wanting Vin to know that everyone made such mistakes at times. It was just life. "Vin, you couldn't help how you felt or how things turned out. I know I can't tell you not to feel badly about it. It will sting for a time but someone will come along one day, someone you'll know from sight you're meant to be with."

"Was it like that for you?" the younger man asked, genuinely interested.

Chris blinked again, thinking of how lost he had been when he first saw Sarah. It was like she drew all light to her and you could hardly be in her presence without being drawn to the sunlight she radiated. Sarah had made him a better man, made him feel like he could soar every day he was with her. Every time he saw her smile, heard her laugh or just by the way she would look at him, she made him feel like he was all she would ever want.

"Yeah," Chris nodded. "It was."

Vin said nothing, leaning back into his chair, staring at the world outside the window, with its endless possibilities and found he wasn't thinking about Charlotte for a change but about a dance he had taken in his dreams.

With a girl wearing a pink dress.

THE END

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