Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em - damnit!
Characters: Nathan, JD
Ratings/Warnings: Some violence
Summary: Can Nathan help some neglected souls?
Thanks, as ever to Nancy for keeping my stories safe and accessible.
Any mistakes are mine alone, so please forgive me.
JD glanced around the Seminole Village, the place where seven men had joined together to fight for justice for the people of these lands. It was his first visit here since that time, but it was not a happy reunion. Nathan had been called upon to help a Seminole family. Their child was sick, sicker than one medicine man could help with, and now JD and Buck hovered, while Nathan ministered to the ailing child.
A warm hand squeezed JD's shoulder and the boy's head turned to meet the deep blue gaze of the man who had taken him under his wing in this very place. No, more than that; had almost died for him here.
"Finding it hard to be back, Kid?"
JD shrugged. "A little. Lot of ghosts here."
Buck nudged him and winked. "At least mine ain't, huh?"
JD gave the man a little push. "Don't say stuff like that."
With a chuckle, Buck draped an arm around the boy's shoulders. "Aww, come on, I was just joshin' you. 'Sides, I'm too ornery to die, Kid." He was surprised the solemn expression on JD's face never changed.
"You just keep right on believing that."
The penny dropped and Buck looked toward the hut. "Nathan not doing so good, huh?"
His throat tight, JD rasped out a reply. "No."
Buck tightened his hold on JD. "Damn."
Inside the family's dwelling, sweat glistened on Nathan's brow and upper lip as he went into his fifth hour of ministering. The child had lung fever; he knew it, the medicine man knew it, and Nathan was pretty sure the child's folks knew it, too. The little lungs were so congested that even the herb-infused sweat hut Nathan fashioned had not eased the labored breaths. The black father and Indian mother each took a precious hand, and while they cried, held tight until the last, raspy breath took their cherished one from them.
Next morning, and after the little girl was buried, Buck and JD sat atop their horses while waiting for Nathan to say his farewells.
The healer toyed with the hat in his hands as he nodded to Chief Tastanagi. The grieving parents stood close by, but not with the chief.
"I'm real sorry for the village's loss," Nathan said, sincerely, a hint of emotion in his tone.
"It was Ayesha's time, and you did everything available to you to ease her passing, and for that we thank you. Me doh, haenyeha."
"Me doh, my brother," Nathan replied. He mounted his waiting horse, took one look back at the distraught but appreciative parents, and with a nod to his companions, nor another word, he led the way home.
Sitting in the saloon with Ezra, Josiah, and Chris, Vin was watching a couple of large, bawdy, scruffy men at the bar. The other regulators were aware of them, but were leaving it with Vin. Too much interest could set the pair off, and while annoying, they were no real trouble right then. All four looked to the swinging batwing doors when Buck pushed through them, slapped his dusty hat on his thigh, replaced it on his head, and then joined the other four at the table. Chris pushed a whiskey bottle and a glass across the table, and with a grateful nod Buck poured a drink, swallowed it down, poured another, and downed that one, too.&
"That bad, huh?" Chris commented.
Buck wiped at his mouth. "Not one of our best trips."
"Where's Nathan?" Josiah asked.
Buck looked at him. "He went on up to the clinic."
"And the Kid?" Vin wondered.
"JD took the horses, wouldn't take no for an answer."
Chris and Ezra exchanged looks, as did Josiah and Vin. Buck in a poor mood, JD being unsociable, and Nathan tucking himself away spoke volumes to how the three were taking the now apparent loss.
"Game of chance, gentlemen?" The southerner knew his words sounded callous, but he also knew these men; and that a distraction offered them an opportunity to put their troubles aside for a time while maintaining dignity in front of the townsfolk. He shuffled the cards.
Josiah stood. "Count me out, Brother." No one was surprised, each man knew he would want to check on Nathan sooner rather than later.
Vin also got up. "Reckon I'll just go stretch my legs."
Chris nodded, and as he picked up his freshly dealt cards, he smiled at the surety that Vin's leg stretch would reach the livery.
From inside the clinic, the somber healer continued putting away his supplies as he returned the call. "It's open."
Josiah opened the door and stepped inside to face Nathan's back. "You were missed. I've come to ask if I can help."
Nathan paused in his task and bowed his head. "I couldn't have done more."
Josiah took two more steps. "Neither I, nor anyone else doubts that for one moment, my friend."
"Poor little thing." Nathan turned to Josiah. "It took them three years to have her, and three days to lose her, and all I could do was . . . "
" . . . Your best to make her transition easier," Josiah interjected and rested a comforting hand on Nathan's shoulder. "You are an exceptional healer, Nathan; you only have to look at all you've done for your friends, the townsfolk, and others living further out. You were put on this earth to minister to the sick, even if all it entails is a comfortable passing. Think on. How would the end have been for that little one without you and the village's medicine man?" He noted Nathan's horrified expression.
"I rest my case. Now, how about some food, a beer, and a chance to beat Ezra at his own game?"
Nathan's grin slowly formed. "I'll be right along. Got me a few things I need to do."
The pair shook hands and Josiah left.
"You'll be down to skin iffen you brush that horse any harder."
Inside the livery, JD slowed his brushing, patted Nathan's horse and turned to Vin. "Reckon you're right." He dropped the brush into an empty pail. "You going somewhere, Vin?"
"Nope, just takin' me a stroll is all. With Buck comin' in the saloon on his lonesome an' grittin' his teeth like he could chew the sight off a six-gun, I figured you boys had a rough trip."
JD sighed. "Nathan was real quiet on the way back."
Tanner nodded. "Man's deep. Takes too much to heart when it comes to fixin' up folk." Plucking up a stalk of hay to chew, Vin gestured with his head. "Thirsty?"
JD picked his jacket up off the straw, and then took off his hat to scrub at his hair. "Yeah, reckon I am at that. I'll just check the horses got some oats, first."
Taking that as his cue, Vin touched his hat and left.
"Double or nothing, gents?" Ezra asked as he scooped up the cards.
Buck supped his beer and huffed. "Go ahead and deal, but I reckon the only way to double my money with you is to fold it in two and put it in my pocket."
Chris chuckled before glancing toward the two noisy cowboys who were making a big deal about leaving. Vin walked in through the swing doors and got pushed back against them as the two men staggered out. With a shake of his head, the tracker rejoined his friends.
"Good stroll?" Chris asked.
Nodding to be dealt into the game, Vin took a sip of whiskey and replied without looking at anyone. "Helpful," was his one-word answer, but it spoke volumes.
Josiah entered the saloon, and glanced back into the street. Talking to the other regulators, he thumbed back that way. "I reckon trouble follows those two like flies chase a herd."
"Heard 'em say they were headin' out," Vin said.
"Good enough," Chris commented as he tossed a card down.
Buck looked at Vin, and was rewarded by a sharp nod. The ladies' man winked back his thanks, and ordered a glass of milk for when JD joined them. "Nathan alright?" he asked Josiah.
"He'll be joining us shortly," the preacher confirmed, lifting the mood instantly.
Ezra grinned. "Fresh quarry, marvelous."
Still frustrated, but more accepting after Josiah's visit, of his efforts for Ayesha, Nathan closed up the clinic and jogged down the stairs to join his friends. He watched two men on horseback trot out of an alley, but he halted in his tracks when he saw what followed them out. Two little girls were shackled by the wrists and waists and each one connected by rope to the horn of a rider's saddle. They were struggling to keep up, and the horses were only walking, but worst of all, their little faces showed that they were resigned to their fate.& &
The sight sent the gentle healer into a rage and he flew at the riders, pulling on the horses' reins to stop them from leaving.
"What is this? You let these girls go, now . . . NOW!" His declaration that slavery was dead and the children were owed their freedom simply had the big men laughing and they began attacking him with drafting whips while the girls dropped to the ground and cowered together.
Having just left the livery, JD saw the clash in the street and ran hard and fast to help. He grabbed at the man nearest and pulled him off his horse, freeing up Nathan to focus on the other rider. JD yelped as the whip still in the man's hand was aimed at him. To escape its biting sting, and to keep the fella occupied, JD jumped on the man's back and held fast while the lout twirled him in circles in an effort to dislodge the punching, kicking, hollering boy.
Consumed with anger, Nathan wasted no time in attacking the second rider. He tore him from his saddle and threw him to the ground. Nathan snatched at the whip that had just been lashing into him and held it over the cringing coward. "Let's see how you like to be beaten you yellow-bellied sack o' dirt." He raised his arm, but before he could bring it and the whip down, a hand grasped his wrist and a Texan drawl sounded in his ear.
"Got your back, friend."
Trembling, Nathan relaxed his arm. His gaze instantly went to where the girls were and he was relieved to see Ezra and Josiah with them. He allowed Vin to take charge of the man in the dirt while he joined the two men and the children.
Vin hoisted the man up and as he marched him to the jail, he leaned in. "I'm gonna enjoy tellin' you what we do around here to men who hurt little kids." The squeak from the man was satisfying, but the tracker was too mad to smile about it.
In one mighty snap, Josiah had severed the children's shackles, but his anger-driven brute strength made the girls cry and huddle in fear. Seeing how afraid they were, Ezra sat on the boardwalk next to them.
"Well, who have we here? Good day to you, young ladies. May I interest you in a little trick?" Getting no response, he changed tack.
"Before I begin, I seem to be having trouble locating the coin I need. Have either of you seen it around here?"
A pair of wide brown eyes responded to his question. The southerner softened his tone and tilted his head. "Hello there. Have you seen my special coin?" There was a shake of the head, which prompted the second little one to look up and lean into the first.
"Or perhaps this young lady has seen my coin? No?" he patted his pockets. "Where could I have put it?" Ezra gently reached forward, paused when the girls stared hard, and then moved his hand again to just between their heads. Retracting it, he smiled at the coin now upright between his fingers.
"Well, thank you, you found it for me."
Two little jaws dropped in amazement, but quickly clamped shut when Nathan joined them.
Squatting next to the children, he spoke softly while his large, skilled hands gently ran over the girls' heads, shoulders and arms in the search for bumps and broken bones. Ezra and Josiah were in awe of how the girls became immediately at ease with Nathan's calming tone.
"Are you hungry?" Nathan asked.
Both little heads nodded.
"Thirsty," one whispered.
"Can my friends and me take you to get something to eat and drink?"
Still shaky, the girls nodded and separated, allowing the three to fully appreciate how very thin and dirty they were. The men flanked them, and were openly touched when little hands slotted into theirs, convincing Nathan that these little ones hadn't long been separated from their family. He wanted to check them over more thoroughly, but as they were walking pretty well, for now, it could wait.& &
Unable to hold on any longer, JD was shaken free of the large man and landed hard in the dirt. Dwarfed by the giant, JD sat in the street dazed and sore, but was undeterred as he went for him a second time, and before the fella could wield that darned whip again. He was caught out by a punch to his face instead, and this time struggled to get off his butt.
Trying to duck the meaty fist once again aimed at his head, JD heard a thwack, and felt the breeze from the swing, but no pain. Looking up, he saw Chris and Buck stood facing the giant; and Buck's fingers curled around the fist he had stopped mid punch.
"New game," Chris growled out. With a nod, he let Buck punch the fella out before taking him off the ladies' man's hands to join Vin in the jail with his prisoner.
Buck leaned in to help JD up. "Boy, you'd find trouble in an empty town."
Despite feeling giddy, JD was ready to defend himself, but on seeing Buck's twinkling grin, he just leaned on the tall man and dabbed at his bloodied nose, instead. "Is Nathan alright?" He turned sharply. "The girls . . . "
"Easy, slugger, they've gone to get some grub." He eyed the scrapes to JD's jaw and cheeks. "Let's go to Nathan's place and get you cleaned up before it gets crowded up there."
In the jail, the two strangers glared back at their indifferent captors. One curled his fingers around the bars and shook them. "You let us outta here. You got no right keepin' us locked up like this."
A furious Chris raised an eyebrow as he glared at the man. "For one, you both took whips to two lawmen of this town, mister, and if that ain't reason enough in my book . . . "
" . . . what you was doin' to those little girls, is," Vin finished.
The other man was at the bars now. "Them girls belong to us fair an' square. We found 'em next to their dead kin, and took 'em in, fed 'em, and watered 'em." He jolted and jumped back when Vin angrily slammed the outer bars.
"They ain't horses for feedin' and waterin'. They're folk like you and me; just little kids that are scared an' half-starved and I'm about ready to open these here bars and show you some good ole Injun hospitality."
If Vin's words hadn't been so painfully accurate, Chris would have laughed at the damp patch now adorning the second man's britches. He patted his friend on the back and gestured toward the door.
"Let's go get some air and let 'em stew awhile."
Still vibrating with anger, Vin took a breath, nodded, and followed Chris out. Without a word, the pair went to get a drink to settle them before catching up with Nathan.
In the restaurant, three men watched in a mix of sorrow and amazement as over the next hour the two girls polished off porridge with honey; bacon, beans, and biscuits; and pancakes with caramelized apple slices, and all washed down with two glasses of milk each. It had taken some prompting to get them to eat at first, almost as though they were afraid it would be snatched from under their noses, but once convinced that wouldn't happen, there was no stopping them. Mary, joined them at Chris's request, and with a promise from the restaurant's proprietor Eliza Tibbett, of dinner to be brought to the clinic later, the girls were escorted there by Nathan and Mary.
Inside the clinic Buck and JD were just finishing up. Nathan approached the boy and held his shoulders. "Thanks, Kid."
JD appeared a little taken aback at being thanked for helping a friend. He glanced at Buck, who simply smiled. "Uh, sure, Nathan. Glad I could help."
The girls entered the clinic each holding one of Mary's hands. On seeing their saviors together, the pair ran forward and huddled close to them both. Buck almost laughed aloud to see JD's surprise and him patting one child's head; but the youth quickly took Nathan's lead and was soon talking to the little one.
"We need to bathe these girls, check 'em over and dress them in some fresh clothing," Nathan stated after a moment or so.
There was a knock on the door and Gloria Potter came in with several dresses her daughter had outgrown. She felt confident she could save the dresses they were wearing but, like the girls, they would need a thorough washing. Chris and Vin arrived, followed by Ezra and Josiah, and all four hovered out on the veranda. Nathan swiftly ordered them to bring up buckets of hot water to fill a large wooden washing pail sitting in the corner of his room.
Once happy with the temperature, Josiah, Ezra, Buck, and Vin left. Mary and Gloria helped the girls undress, but didn't need to prompt them to climb into the water. The older girl positively sighed as she sank into the deep, wooden, water-filled tub, and the younger one actually smiled as she plopped herself down and splashed. Mesmerized, JD grinned, took off his jacket, and squatted down next to the pail. He rolled up his sleeves, and in keeping with the little one's game, he gently splashed her, while ensuring every inch of her got wet.
They allowed the girls to play for some time before Mary and Gloria moved in to lather the pair up. As the dirt dissolved, Nathan's practiced eye was able to determine actual injuries and bruises. The smiling adult faces in the room turned somber when evidence of recent beatings emerged. Unexpectedly, Chris took off his hat and crouched down close to the tub.
"Would you like for us to find your folks for you?"
Reaching up to clasp Nathan's hand, the older girl's wide, brown eyes glistened. She shook her head. "Not here no more."
"It was just you, your ma and pa?" Chris asked.
The child nodded.
"Have you been with those fellas long?" Nathan inquired.
The girl simply shrugged.
Large towels enveloped the pair and Mary and Gloria scooped them up to dry and dress them before, as promised, dinner arrived. The day had flown by and Nathan talked to Chris as the girls tucked into chicken stew and dumplings, and tapioca jelly.
"They can sleep here tonight."
Chris nodded. "Any clue as to how old they are?"
Nathan looked back at the pair. "Reckon the older one's around eight or nine, the little one, five maybe."
"Indian?" Chris guessed.
"Sure is some in there."
Some black too, I reckon." Nathan tilted his head. "Just a hunch but, I don't think these kids have been separated from their blood relations too long. I ain't aware of any new families in the area, so if they was traveling to these parts," He looked to the girls. "Maybe they were looking for kindred spirits."
Chris frowned, and then relaxed his features. "Like the Seminoles?"
Nathan watched as JD, Mary, and Gloria helped the girls with their food. "Word gets out as to where tribes have settled. Been some new arrivals at the village since our time with them."
Chris had an idea where Nathan's thoughts were heading. "Well, let's get them to sleep, and we'll think on it some more tomorrow."
Rallying, Nathan agreed. He looked around. "Where did the boys go?"
Chris smirked. "Don't know about the others, but I'm pretty sure Vin planned on sharpening his big ole hunting knife while on Jail duty."
The pair laughed and Chris slapped Nathan on the back before turning to leave. He went to call JD, but stopped when he saw how the little one was holding onto the kid. He smiled, and winked at Nathan.
"Reckon the girls ain't the only company you'll have tonight."
The healer returned the smile. "Reckon you're right."
"What you lookin' at, half-breed?"
From the chair behind the desk, Vin smiled as he continued running a large blade across the leather strop he'd fashioned from an old belt. Due to him sharpening the knife on a whetstone from the moment he walked into the jail, the tracker wasn't surprised the prisoner was on his last nerve. He glanced up briefly when Buck breezed in and stood in front of the bars.
"Reckon I should be paying you, Vin."
Tanner put the knife down and looked at the ladies' man. "How's that, Buck?"
Buck tilted his head as he stared at the prisoners. "Only fair to pay to look at a freak show."
One man stood and slammed the bars. "Why don't you walk in here and say that, you sonofabitch?"
Buck's eyes narrowed. "You'd best smile when you call me that, butt wipe."
The other prisoner tugged at his partner. "They ain't worth wastin' your breath on, Quinn, sit down."
Quinn waved off the request. "They got no right," he turned to address Buck and Vin. "You got no right takin' them girls. They're ours. We been feedin' em, an' . . . "
"Beating on them."
Vin remained unmoved by the new voice, while Buck glanced toward Chris as he entered the jail and moved to stand beside him.
Chris's expression was pure fury. "You boys been beating on little kids, huh? You think you're tough?"
Buck snorted. "Tough? I got me saddle sores tougher than these two."
"Maybe we should let 'em outta there and show 'em some good ole frontier hospitality," Vin suggested, as the knife he'd been sharpening moved from hand to hand. He glanced sideways when Chris hesitated.
"Waiting on word from the Judge," Larabee eventually replied. There was a tinge of regret in his voice. While Mary had done the right thing in contacting her father-in-law, he sorely wanted to mete out his own brand of justice on these men. He sensed the others tense for a question, but the second prisoner cut in before them.
"You tell that Judge o' yours that them girls are ours. We got us a deal in Sonora."
Hearing Quinn's warning, Slade clammed up.
Chris instantly picked up Vin and Buck's rising tempers to the near slip-up. "Boys - how about we go get ourselves some air?"
There was hesitation to follow Chris outside, but noting the determined glare from the gunslinger, Buck and Vin took their cue and walked backwards out of the jail as they eyed the prisoners. Clear of the building, Vin studied his friend and then made a statement.
"You figure the Judge is gonna let 'em go."
Chris nodded. "Yeah."
Buck was furious. "He'll what? Even when he hears they planned to sell those little girls on?"
Larabee's resigned expression said it all. "Short of that near slip, we don't have proof of that. You know the Judge won't convict without facts."
Buck roared and kicked a chair hard enough to send it skittering along the boardwalk and cause a few passing townsfolk to speed up. He nodded when Vin's hand gripped his shoulder.
"Well if that's the case, we'll make sure they have a good sendoff," Buck threatened.
Chris looked at Buck and then Vin. He nodded. "Yeah."
As the setting sun cast shadows across the clinic walls, Nathan lit the lanterns. He smiled at the girls cuddled together and asleep in the bed.
The older girl had trusted them enough to tell them her name, and also her sister's - 'Nuna'. It was progress. They would talk when he spoke first, but as of yet hadn't initiated any conversation. He walked up to the big chair close to the bed and smiled at the sight of the slumbering youth before tapping JD's knee. He shushed the boy as JD awoke with a jolt.
"Get to bed. I'll see you in the morning."
Rubbing at his eyes, JD nodded, stood, and stumbled to the door.
The easterner turned. "Hmm?"
Nathan smiled. "Thanks again for today."
Even though he was tired, JD's grin was dazzling. He turned to leave but stopped. "What's gonna happen to them, Nathan? Are we gonna go find their folks?"
The healer uttered a soft sigh. "I don't reckon they got any folks alive, JD. Tomorrow we'll ask around town, see if anyone here can take 'em on. Maybe get word to the surrounding farms, and smallholdings, too." He noted JD's look of horror, and smiled.
"Hey, we ain't gonna let 'em go to just anybody, okay? And whoever takes the girls is gonna have seven uncles keeping an eye on things, too."
Offering a satisfied nod, JD went on home, and Nathan was left to ponder the tough task ahead, and as to whether he was doing the right thing.
A few days on, and from the open church window he was working on, Josiah greeted Nathan as he approached. "Good morning. How are our young guests today?"
Nathan grinned. "Eating everything that's put in front of them, and looking a mite brighter, too. JD's been taking care of 'em, so I can get down to business. Right now he's at the livery showing them the horses."
"I gather you've had no luck finding them a home in town."
The healer nodded. "Was wondering if we should go find out if they got any other kin alive."
Josiah perched on the ledge of the window frame. "I reckon Vin'll track where those varmints came from if you care to ask him. Meanwhile, while you continue to ask around town, I'm sure one of the boys will help me get around the surrounding smallholdings."
Nathan grinned. "I knew I could rely on you, Preacher." The pair clasped hands
"Glad to help, Brother, glad to help."
In the livery, the girls were feeding slices of apples and carrots to each of the Seven's horses. JD taught them how to hold the offering so as not to get a finger bitten, and stroked the nose of his own Bay while the girls went from horse to horse. He hastily called out a warning.
"Watch Vin's horse, he can be ornery, even with Vin."
The big black snorted.
"Don't you deny it, you know I'm right."
The horse seemed to nod, and the girls giggled. "He said yes to you," Kaya stated.
JD's eyes shimmered as the first unprompted words were uttered. He smiled, broadly. "So he should. There ain't one of our horses he ain't nipped at one time or another, or us, for that matter."
He looked down as Nuna approached and pointed at his horse. "Yours?"
"Uh huh. This here's Milagro. He's the first friend I made out here." JD smiled. "Just before I found me a family." He crouched down. "Would you like to sit on him?"
"Me too?" Kaya asked.
"Sure, come on." He lifted each girl up and stroked the contented horse's neck as they sat there and gently played with its mane. Suddenly the girls looked up and their eyes widened. With a hand on his gun, JD turned to the direction they were looking.
"Shoot, Buck. Quit creeping around like that."
"Didn't want to scare them." He winked at JD. "Weren't too concerned about putting the wind up your britches, though."
With a grin, JD elbowed the tall man. He then looked at the curious youngsters and pointed to Kaya. "You know that you're Nuna's big sister."
"Well this here's Buck, and he's kinda like my big brother."
Biting back the pride from JD's introduction, Buck swept off his hat and made a grand bow. "Good morning, lovely ladies."
The girls squeaked out giggles and Buck's eyes shone with delight. "Now ain't that just the most beautiful sound in all the world." He winked at JD. "Next to Blossom howling out my name while - "
"Buck! Little ears."
"Ooh, right, right." He looked at the girls' feet. "No shoes?"
JD shrugged. "Vin said to leave it with him. I carried them to here."
Buck pondered for a moment. "Say, how about JD and me put you on our backs and give you a ride to the saloo...uh, the restaurant to get us some lemonade."
Both girls frowned.
"A drink?" JD prompted.
Two little heads nodded vigorously. JD set Kaya on Buck's back, and encouraged Nuna to slip from Milagro's back onto his own.
"Ready?" Buck asked.
Three heads nodded.
"Let's go. Giddyup!"
To the sounds of squeals of laughter, the two lawmen 'galloped' their way to where Chris was sitting and whittling. The relaxed gunslinger looked up and grinned at the spectacle. He then stood and approached each girl and handed her a hand-carved horse.
"For you," he said, simply, before once more taking up his seat.
Still on Buck's back, Kaya stared at her gift and a slow smile lit up her usually somber expression. Nuna wiggled to get down. JD eased her onto the boardwalk, where she plopped down close to Chris's legs and quietly galloped her wooden horse around and under his chair. Chris watched, the hint of a distant memory playing through his mind as he sat there. When the little one stood and leaned against him to move the figure across his legs, Chris's arm came around her waist to gently hold her.
Not to be left out, Kaya squirmed. Buck helped her to the ground, and he and JD watched in amusement while the two girls included the gunslinger in their game.
"We, uh, was gonna go get us some lemonade. You want a glass, Stud?" JD failed to notice the look, but Buck laughed at the stare that told him Chris would much prefer a whiskey. Buck appreciated though that what Chris was saying with his eyes, was definitely not being displayed by the man's relaxed body language.
"What are your plans for these two today?" Chris asked.
"Figured they'd be safe and more relaxed in the church," JD replied. "Not a whole lot for kids to do around here."
As Chris nodded his approval he noted the familiar gate of Vin Tanner approaching. The Texan was carrying something in each hand, and when he reached the group, he squatted down next to the girls. He handed each child a pair of moccasins.
"So's your feet won't get hurt on the stones in the dirt."& Vin glanced casually as JD stared, and mentally counted down how long it took the curious youngster to - yup, there it was.
"You made those?"
"I didn't know you could sew."
"Did uh, did Miss Nettie teach you?"
Vin stood, and smiled as Chris and Buck helped the girls put on the footwear. "My ma gave me a few lessons."
Leaning against a hitching rail, JD watched in silence for a while, but soon couldn't help himself. "You like sewing?"
Vin shrugged. "I guess."
"Comes in handy, huh?"
"Sure." Vin grinned at JD's sigh at his vague answers. "Had to sew m'self up one time or another."
JD grimaced. "That musta hurt."
"You get used to it." The tracker was still watching the girls and actually laughed when they began walking around the boardwalk while staring at their new shoes.
"I reckon they like 'em," Buck announced to no one in particular.
"Reckon they do," Vin agreed before touching his thumb and forefinger to his hat and walking on toward the livery. Nathan had asked if he could track which direction the two jailbirds had come from and Vin agreed.
"Kid, take the girls on over to the church and I'll get us a jug of lemonade," Buck suggested.
With a nod, JD gave a soft whistle to get the girls' attention, and with a little hand clasping each of JD's, the three headed for the church.
Buck watched them go before speaking to Chris. "Any word from the Judge?"
Chris shook his head as he stood. "Not yet. Suits me, the longer he leaves it, the longer those two blowhards stay behind bars."
With a nod of agreement, the men separated. Chris headed toward the jail, while Buck went to the restaurant.
Inside the church, Josiah and Ezra stared dejectedly at Nathan.
"Not one family?" Ezra asked.
Nathan shook his head. He had returned from trawling the rest of the town for a new family for the girls. "Nope. Times are tough, money's scarce. Folk can't take on more mouths to feed right now." He noted Ezra started walking away. "Ezra?"
"If I make a start now, I can reach over half the nearby smallholdings before dusk."
Josiah smiled and stood. "Reckon I can make the other half by then, too."
Nathan nodded his gratitude. "Remember, these girls've had it tough; we ain't looking to offload 'em to spend their days toiling, at least, not 'til they're properly and happily settled in with a family."
Josiah patted the healer's shoulder. "Fear not, Nathan, our precious charges will only go to a loving home."
All eyes turned toward the door and hands went to guns when the church door opened. The three men relaxed when JD entered with the children in question.
"'Morning, fellas," JD called out.
The three nodded their greetings as Nuna came running in and proudly showed off her footwear to sounds of approval. Ezra lifted the little one and spun her around, causing her to chuckle. Kaya walked up to Nathan and showed him her wooden horse.
"Real nice, Kaya," Nathan said with a grin.
"Like the one Pappy made," she said, softly.
With no words forthcoming, Nathan swept her up in his arms and gave her a hug.
"Can we stay here?" JD asked.
"All are welcome in God's House," Josiah replied.
"Josiah and Ezra are gonna ride out to the farms. I have a couple folks waiting on me. Will you be okay for a while?" Nathan asked.
JD nodded. "Oh, sure, Buck's coming over as soon as he's gotten the girls a drink."
With the intention of checking in with Chris before leaving town, Josiah and Ezra left the church. Nathan decided to hang around and play with the children until Buck arrived
"JD, I had me a thought."
"I ain't had no luck around town in placing the girls. Josiah and Ezra are gonna try around the smallholdings and farms, and Vin's trying to backtrack the direction those two men came from. I figured, if we're unlucky, I'd ride out to the Seminole Village and have a talk with Chief Tastanagi."
JD frowned, and then smiled. "About taking on the girls?"
Nathan nodded. "Couldn't hurt. The Seminoles are close to their kind and would offer them a new start."
JD nodded as he watched the girls walk their wooden horses along the dusty floor. "Makes sense."
"It'll mean leaving the girls in your hands for the day."
JD straightened. "I can do it."
The healer smiled. "You bet you can." He sighed. "Let's hope I won't need to go."
Outside the telegraph office, Chris stared at the wire from the Judge.
No case to answer Stop
Release prisoners Stop
Advise their escort to Mexican border at your convenience Stop
He screwed up the wire and shoved it into his jacket pocket. Chris wasn't surprised by the decision, so what was important now was to put as much territory between those men and the little ones, as possible.
By sundown, the girls were in bed in the clinic, and while JD was sitting with them, Chris brought the others together in the saloon. Vin hadn't yet returned, and likely wouldn't at least until daylight. Josiah and Ezra were of a solemn disposition. Their search for an outlying family to take on the girls had been fruitless, and now Chris had informed them that the men were to be released.
"I'll ride those good ole boys outta town, Chris," Buck offered.
Chris didn't react to the venom in Buck's tone, he simply nodded. "When Vin gets back, you, Vin, and Ezra can each have the pleasure." He eyed the tall man and the message was clear. 'Just do your job', though he wouldn't be asking how it went when they returned.
"If the news Vin brings back about their folk is as bad as we feared, I'm heading out to the Seminole Village to ask if they can take the girls," Nathan stated.
Each man nodded his approval.
"Good idea," Chris praised.
"If the Seminoles agree, I'd like for JD and me to take them there. Reckon the kid's earned the right to see 'em settled, and say his goodbyes."
Chris knocked back his whiskey. "That's agreed, then."
Out on the range, and in the glow of his campfire, Vin stared at the small, raggedy doll in his hand. He hadn't been able to locate any trace of the girls' family, but the trail had offered up a few clues as to the plunder of whatever they were carrying on their journey. A few things considered of no value had been discarded at a camp site Vin figured was left by the two men, and tomorrow he would return to town with two dolls, and a simple rope and bristle comb, all that was left of the life the girls were forced away from.
Vin tossed the dregs of his coffee onto the fire before settling in for the night. At first light he would head back to town, but the burden of the news he would be sharing on his return would not bring him much rest tonight.
Sunrise one day later and Nathan was galloping across the plains toward the Seminole village. The seven regulators had spent the previous day deciding what to do about the girls and keeping away the drifters that had held them captive.
Despite the affection held for the waifs by the men, they knew a life with them was unrealistic; and with no takers either in town, or from the surrounding settlers, the healer resorted to his backup plan. With JD watching over the children, and Buck, Ezra, and Vin escorting the two men to the Mexican border, Nathan rode fast, and hoped with all his heart this was the right thing to do. The girls had been through so much, but they needed more than he, or the others could offer.
They needed, and deserved, a fresh start.
The battered features of Quinn and Slade stared nervously at the three men riding with them. Buck and Ezra flanked the cuffed pair, while Vin rode several feet ahead. As they left town, Chris didn't order the three to behave, but the way he reminded them to simply do their duty had the desired effect. While the three wanted nothing more than to beat the tar out of the two men, and though a few well-placed punches were administered for good measure, it became more important to get them the hell away from the girls.&
A whole other country seemed the way to go, but the journey was a long and difficult one.
And traveled largely in silence.
At the Seminole Village, Chief Tastanagi greeted Nathan warmly. "Come, sit with me and tell me what troubles you."
Nathan grinned. "Nothing gets by you, Chief." The pair walked into the chief's hut and sat cross-legged on the skins spread across the floor. Tastanagi poured them both some tea and nodded for the healer to speak.
"Several days ago me and the men who fought side by side with you here, freed two mixed breed girls from two white men. The children were shackled, beaten, neglected, and thin from lack of food, but in the last few days have improved in health and appearance, a lot. We haven't been able to place them, and were unable to trace their family."
"You believe they were headed for this village." Tastanagi's words were a statement, not a question.
Nathan nodded. "Yes, I think so."
The chief offered a small smile. "My dream told of two chicks floundering in the dessert, and a large, black eagle swooping to their aid." His brow creased. "Shadowing the eagle was a bluebird; its vest a vivid brown. Not native to here, but of Eastern descent."
Nathan smiled. "That would be JD. He helped me that day."
Tastanagi nodded. "Ah yes, the young one with the heart of an old warrior." Chief Tastanagi stood, prompting Nathan to do likewise. "The children will be welcome here. We are one family, with open arms for all."
Nathan raised one hand. "Me and my friends don't want these girls split. They must be together."
The chief nodded. "You have my word. When shall we receive our new children?"
Smiling widely, the healer squeezed the chief's arm. "In the time it takes me to return to town, get them ready, and come back." They exited the hut and Nathan smiled at Rain, who was close by and waiting to see him.
"While you are gone, I will seek out their new family." With a knowing glance at Rain and Nathan, Tastanagi walked away.
Rain approached. "How long can you stay?"
Filled with regret, Nathan touched her face. "I can't stay, but I'll be returning real soon. Will you wait until then?"
Rain's gaze met his. "This I will do. Safe journey."
On the Mexican border, a few miles from Juarez, Vin, Buck, and Ezra halted. If Quinn and Slade were nervous previously, they were near to soiling their britches now, as they eyed the solemn expressions on the three men's faces. They paled when Buck leaned in and unlocked their cuffs. Ezra handed them one canteen.
"Ride." Vin stated, simply.
Quinn straightened. "Where's our saddlebags?"
"Ride." Buck restated.
"You got no right keepin' our property. We want our - "
" - I believe our superfluous miscreants are hard of hearing." Ezra leaned in. "Allow me to make things clearer. With two shots, we could ride away and leave your festering bodies to the crows and buzzards."
"Or, you could just ride," Vin added, the venom in his voice glaringly obvious.
Message now clearly received, and with a kick to their steeds' flanks, the two drifters galloped away. The three friends made camp, and waited to head back to town for half of the day before they were satisfied enough that the two men were long gone.
Nathan returned from the village, but it was another two days before the girls were ready to leave. Though unwilling to take on the children full time, the townsfolk had rallied and donated clothes, toys, and shoes. Gloria Potter packed up some candies for the little ones, as well as another generous package for them to share with the Seminole children. Eliza Tibbett gave Nathan a cloth bag bursting with food, a canteen filled with lemonade and a large cake for their journey. Everyone was thanked for their generosity and compassion.
While trail cowboys were enjoying a rowdy respite, the mood in town was a mix of sad, and energized. The seven regulators especially, were feeling the loss of their charges even before Nathan and JD had ridden away. As four men gathered on the boardwalk, Chris stepped toward the three horses waiting to leave. Approaching, he smiled at the two girls sitting together on a gentle Gray, each child hugging a doll and a carved horse. He then stepped between Nathan and JD's horses.
"Are you sure you're alright to go without extra guns?"
Nathan gestured around. "Looks like you got enough going on here to keep five of you busy. We'll be fine, 'preciate the offer, though."
Chris looked up at JD. "I know it's tough to see them go, Kid, and even though you did real good in taking care of these little ones, they need more."
JD gave a dimpled smile. "Yeah, I know you're right, Chris. It's gonna be hard to say goodbye, but it'll be real good to see them happy, and settled." He glanced across at Buck, who winked and nodded from his position leaning against a support post. From the opposite side of the same post, Vin touched his hat to the two riders, as did Ezra and Josiah who were standing either side of Buck and Vin.
Kaya's quiet farewell and Nuna's cheery wave brought a lump to each man's throat. With a nod to the five men, Nathan clucked his tongue and urged his horse on. While the healer led the way out of town, JD took up the lead rein of the girls' horse and with a grin to his friends, followed close behind.
"The Camptown Racetrack's five miles long, oh, de do dah, day.
Gonna run all night, gonna run all day, I bet my money on a bob-tailed nag, somebody bet on the bay."
"Again!" the girls chorused.
Halfway into their journey, and as JD chuckled at the request, Nathan shook his head.
"We sang it about ten times already. How about we stop and eat some of this good food we got with us instead, huh?"
"Great, I could eat."
Now Nathan was chuckling. "JD, the day you say you ain't hungry, I'll be real worried about you." He stared around and spotted a shaded area past some large rocks. "C'mon, that looks like a good spot."
JD's belly rumbled in reply, which made the girls laugh. "See, told you I could eat," the boy said with a grin.
Once settled, Nathan laid out the small cloth that the food was wrapped in and set out the feast. The four tucked in to a tasty picnic, the two men letting the girls share the lemonade while they happily made do with water. JD stripped off his hat and jacket and led the girls in a game of chase. The laughter was infectious and Nathan found himself chuckling at the three while he cleared away the remnants of their picnic.
"Don't be getting them too hot and bothered, JD. Can't have 'em falling asleep and slipping off their horse before we get there."
A little breathless, JD swept up the pair and dangled them upside down as he approached Nathan. The healer laughed and took a wriggling Kayla off JD's hands and sat her on his hip. "Do you ladies need the outhouse before we leave?"
Both nodded and Nathan had to grin at the alarm in JD's eyes. "I'll see to it, Kid. You get the horses packed up and ready."
Setting down the little one in his arms, JD nodded. "Sure."
A few minutes later, Nathan lifted the girls up onto the Gray. JD went to grab his hat and jacket, but before he was able to, or he and Nathan could mount up, bullets ricocheted around them, kicking up sand, and slicing off chunks of rock from the immediate landscape. Nathan suddenly cried out and grabbed at his left arm. JD was barely able to hold the Gray as the gunfire spooked it and caused the girls to squeal while they hung on for dear life.
"Whoa, easy boy, easy; whoa." Finally winning the battle, he glanced urgently at the healer. "Nathan?"
The grimacing black man looked at the boy. "It's not too bad." With his back to a protective rock, Nathan steeled himself for an order he had to give. He waited for a break in the gunfire. "JD, get the girls outta here, and I'll cover you."
JD looked horrified. "No! I'm not leaving you, Nathan. You're likely outnumbered, and you're hurt, too." The boy stared at the healer as he approached and his large hands held JD's shoulders.
"You've got to. The fellas trust us to keep the girls safe. With someone out there shooting at us, we can't go forward, so I'm relying on you to get them back to town unharmed."
"Then you go, and I'll cover you."
"You're a good rider, JD, and this trip's gonna need one."
Nathan watched as revealing, hazel eyes displayed realization and eventually resignation. He smiled and moved his hands to cradle JD's face when the youth's usual intense gaze turned misty.
"You know I'm right."
"Nathan . . . " Unable to turn away due to Nathan's hold on him, JD nodded, and took a shaky breath. "Okay."
Nathan relaxed his hold. "When I start firing, get the hell outta here."
While the healer took up a position, JD spoke softly to the Gray, and then leaped up onto his back to sit behind the children and take the reins. Feeling anything but confident, he smiled at the scared little ones. "We'll all be fine, you'll see."
Both men exchanged looks, and then nodded to each other. Moments later, JD slapped his own rider-less horse's rump to encourage him to run, and Nathan began firing at their unknown attackers.
JD kicked the Gray's flanks, and then hunkered down to protect the girls and attempt to outrun the lead flying after them. Just before reaching a bend, a hot pain to his back told him he might not have entirely succeeded.
Armed with one of JD's Colts, his own Spencer Carbine, and Remington, Nathan took cover and fired at wherever the bullets came from. Despite a bandanna protecting the wound, his injured arm throbbed, but Nathan knew it wasn't life-threatening so put it behind him to ensure JD, Kaya, and Nuna made a clean getaway.
Eventually the Spencer Carbine, and then JD's Colt ran out of ammunition. Now all he was left with was his Remington, and a gunbelt half full of bullets. Nathan was so focused on returning fire that he failed to notice the gunfire had slowed a little. He stiffened on hearing a hauntingly familiar voice to one side of his hiding place.
"Well, darkie Doc, looks like we'll get us a chance to show you just how we feel about your interferin' th'other day."
Nathan dropped the gun and raised his hands on seeing Quinn Pars pointing a firearm at him. "I guess you boys didn't get the message to disappear too good, huh?"
Quinn grinned, dryly as he approached. "Sure we did; and we're gonna, just as soon as we show you and your friends what we think of folk who meddle in our affairs."
He slammed Nathan face first against the large rock he'd been sheltering behind and quickly relieved the healer of the knives strapped to his back. Slade Rhodes joined them and gathered up Nathan's weapons. He then tied the healer's hands behind his back before wrapping the slender man's arms and body with taut rope. Slade leaned in and kidney-punched Nathan.
"Where's our kids?"
Nathan straightened gingerly from the blow. "They ain't yours." He grimaced and arched from another blow to his back.
"Look at this, Quinn, Darkie fella's bein' real unhelpful." He leaned in. "If that's how it's gonna be, by the time we finish with you, you're gonna be wishing you was dead."
With alarming satisfaction, Slade kicked hard at the back of Nathan's knee, before dragging the semi-lame, wounded man along with him. "We gonna go after that boy and the girls, Quinn?"
Pars was pacing out the ground and looking off into the distance in the search for clues. "Yeah, but I reckon they can wait. Them lawdogs can't watch 'em every minute of the day, so let's do this and get it over with. Then we'll go back for what's ours."
JD kept up the pace, and landscape flew past in a blur as the galloping Gray's flying hooves ate up the distance. The kid was succeeding in controlling the horse while holding on to the girls; not that the latter was too difficult, their little fingers dug into his arms as they clung to him in terror.
Despite the breeze whipping through the three riders' hair, the sun was getting hotter, and without hats they were feeling the effects of its increasing heat on their heads and faces. He talked to the little ones as often as he could, about anything from food, to what their new home looked like, and how he came to know. The only replies were occasional nods, but at least it proved they were listening.
"Where's Nathan?" Kaya finally asked.
Wiping sweat from his eyes with his shirt-covered shoulder, JD replied. "He'll follow us as soon as he can. But we're gonna go get the other guys out here, too, just to make sure he gets home safe, yeah?"
There was a pause, and then a nod.
"Tuck in tight, we're nearly there."
JD hollered out his promise over the headwind. Earlier, his shoulder burned from what he figured was cramp, and exertion, but now his one side was mostly numb. The boy was glad they weren't too far away from town as he wasn't sure how much longer he could ride at this pace and still keep the girls safely mounted. He was pretty sure they weren't being followed, but with the thought in his head, he somehow urged more speed from the blowing Gray.
Puffs of dust rose from a broom as Mary Travis swept the dirty boardwalk outside her newspaper printing business. Her mind, for once, was not on her next headline, but on whether the two little waifs that the town's protectors had saved would be happy in their new home. She wondered how many towns they were dragged through while their captors ate and drank, and likely whored to their fill. She stopped brushing and looked out toward the town's periphery. Poor little things. They must have believed they were doomed to such a horrible existence. 'Thank God for these seven men', she thought, once again brushing at the dusty boards.
The sound of a fast approaching rider caused Mary to look up. She narrowed her eyes to gaze back along the street. They widened, and she dropped the broom and stepped into the street to catch the flailing reins of a familiar Bay running her way. Successfully slowing the winded animal, she turned her head and called out.
"Mister Larabee! CHRIS!"
Five men hurried out of the saloon. While Buck checked the horse over, Vin climbed up onto a roof and used his spyglass to look beyond town,
Chris got to the point. "JD?"
Mary shook her head and gestured to the anxious, lathered Bay. "Just Milagro."
"No injuries, and no blood," Buck reported back. "Let's mount up."
Chris agreed and Josiah and Ezra took their cue and jogged to the livery.
"Big dust cloud 'bout a half a mile out," Vin called down from the roof. "One horse, I reckon."
There was no reason to wonder what was going through each man's mind, their expressions said it all. Five tacked horses were already being brought out from the livery, while Chris and Buck waited on Vin to report the progress of the incoming rider. His next words confirmed their fears.
Tanner kept the spyglass to his eye as he tracked the incoming rider. Suddenly, he pulled the brass instrument from his eye, before putting it back again to double check. He cussed softly, and then shouted down to his waiting friends.
Seconds later, Vin climbed down to join them, openly satisfied to see the horses ready to go.
Once again, JD swiped at the sweat blinding him, but the action was no longer helping to clear the misty focus he was experiencing. Breathing had become a struggle too, but the issues stayed firmly at the back of his mind as he remained committed to his goal. He could hear the girls crying, and feel the sobs vibrating through their bodies, but with home in sight, he just held them tighter and plowed on.
Suddenly, the open plains were replaced by buildings. JD felt the horse being halted and hands on him. A little disorientated, he struggled, but Chris's familiar voice broke through the haze.
"JD! Easy, Kid, you're home. What's happened, son?"
Josiah and Ezra took the two little ones, but they wanted to stay close to JD and now they struggled. The men were urged to pass the distraught girls into the waiting arms of Mary and Gloria.
JD shivered as the weighty warmth from in front of him disappeared. "Nathan . . .& Nathan! We, we gotta go back, now!" He felt strong arms around his waist and he fought as he was taken off the Gray.
"No, wait, I'm going too!"
Buck got JD to the ground, and held on tight. The men were alarmed to see blood on Nuna's dress and feared she was hurt. In moments it became clear neither girl was - and who could be. While Mary and Gloria took the girls away, Buck pulled JD against him. Chris and Vin lifted JD's shirt and vest to examine the boy's bloody back. JD groaned and both men's features went dark.
"Shot," Chris said through gritted teeth.
"Bullet's still in there," Vin added.
Buck was shocked. He looked down at his surrogate brother. "JD, where's Nathan?"
Panting now, JD didn't look up. "We got bushwhacked, at the outcrop just after . . . Big Oak Flats." He panicked and tried to straighten. "The girls!"
"They're okay," Chris assured.
"You got them back safe, Kid," Vin reminded. He looked at the others, the message clear; they had to go - now.
JD was unable to stay upright without support. "He's lost a lot o' blood," Buck growled out as he clung to the youth. Delicate hands unexpectedly covered his.
"Let me and Gloria take care of him, Buck. Nathan needs help."
Buck stared at Mary. He hadn't noticed her come back. The tall man suddenly snapped into action and scooped JD up. Buck's heart clenched when the boy cried out in pain. "Where to, Mary?"
"The clinic," Mary decided.
Chris gestured that he would help Buck with JD. "Vin, Josiah, Ezra, get going and pick up the trail. We'll be right behind you."
With a nod, the three mounted up and rode off at speed.
In the clinic, the girls were no longer crying, but eerily quiet, as they had been when the men first liberated them from Quinn and Slade. They were sitting down and being offered drinks by Gloria. From the moment he was brought in, their wide, sad gazes never left JD.
Once Buck and Chris eased JD onto the bed, Buck held the palm of his hand to the boy's cheek. "We'll be right back. Get some rest." He saw JD grimace with pain, then tired, unfocused, hazel eyes peek through wet, dark eyelashes. JD nodded.
Chris put a hand on the boy's sweaty head. "We'll be back with Nathan before you know it."
"I . . . I didn't want to leave him," JD half sobbed through his struggling breaths.
"You both did the right thing for the girls," Chris assured. He watched JD's eyes close in sleep.
After moving to the door, and one last, hesitant look back, Chris and Buck were gone.
On harder terrain a few miles from town, Ezra and Josiah watched while Vin walked around and examined the ground at a fork in the road. The tracker had picked up JD's and Nathan's tracks going out, and could see the hoof prints of the Gray on the way back in. Fashioning an arrow in the dirt with stones as a marker for Chris and Buck, Vin nodded his success to Ezra and Josiah. Pointing the way, Vin mounted up, and the three rode on.
Well before the three men reached Big Oak Flats, Chris and Buck had caught up. Together, five somber men rode hard, determined to find their missing friend.
After riding fast and hard, Nathan's captors had set up camp.
With his wrists tied and secured by rope to a tree branch above his head, Nathan's shirt had been torn from his body and he was fighting back the screams from the beatings inflicted by Slade and Quinn by means of thorny switches. The spiky barbs hit home over and over, and Nathan's dark skin was striped with blood and glistening with sweat. He stared defiantly at his torturers, determined not to satisfy them with a cry out. It just made them more dogged.
"He ain't screaming in pain, Quinn," Slade complained as he lashed out in anger.
Quinn nodded his agreement. Looking around, he spotted a solid tree limb on the ground and picked it up. He swung it at Nathan's buttocks, smiling on seeing the reaction as the black man arched his back. "Oh, yeah."
He hit out at Nathan's shoulders and legs, but when the limb crunched into Nathan's ribs, Quinn Pars finally got the howl he wanted. With a grin, he aimed for Nathan's belly, causing the healer to exhale fast and painfully.
"Come on then, Darkie, ain't you gonna interfere with what we're doin'? Not so tough without your friends, are you, huh?" As he spoke, Slade gleefully continued attacking with the thorny sticks.
Nathan raised his head and glared at the man. "Go - to - hell."
Quinn's expression turned sadistic and once again he viciously swung his club at Nathan's ribs. Nathan's head went back, and the healer screamed out in agony before his head lolled forward when he passed out.
"Ha, good one," Slade praised.
Panting from exertion, Quinn nodded. "Cut him down. We need to get outta here in case his friends are comin' for him." He put in one last punch, causing Nathan's limp body to swing. "When we leave, I'm gonna drag him behind my horse so's there'll be nothin' left of him for 'em to find."
A glint from a rise caught his eye and he looked up to see a large row of mounted Indian Braves outlined against the skyline.
Slade also saw them and frowned. "Them Injuns are back, watchin' us, just like back when we killed the kids' kin."
Quinn shrugged. "They never bothered us then, why should they bother us now?" He gestured to the rope holding Nathan up. "Hurry up an' slice him down."
Slade approached the swinging healer. "They weren't so dang close last time."
Both men looked up in alarm when in one, unbroken line, the Braves began to ride down the hillside, hollering and picking up speed as they went along. Quinn paled.
"Forget him, Slade, we got trouble. Get goin' - NOW!"
Vin led Chris, Buck, Ezra, and Josiah as the group rode like men possessed. Vin was sure he knew where they were heading; to a place almost halfway between town and the Seminole Village. It was a shaded outcrop, and a perfect spot for resting up and staying out of sight. What he feared - and Vin was sure the others did, too - was what they would find when they got there. How long had Nathan been able to hold off the shooters? Who were the shooters? Random robbers? Someone who had followed the little entourage from town?
And if so, why?
As they rounded a bend to the outcrop, a collective gasp went up on seeing ahead of them, Nathan's battered form dangling from a tree by his wrists.
"Dear Lord," Josiah stated for all of them as five men reached him and hastily dismounted.
While Vin and Ezra stood as lookouts, Buck gathered up their blankets, and Chris and Josiah carefully cut down the unconscious, bloodied healer. With the greatest of care, the two men laid Nathan down onto the blankets that Buck spread out. Josiah instantly got to work cleaning Nathan up. Ezra disappeared momentarily and came back with Buster, Nathan's horse. He untied the ever-present medical bag from the front rigging and took it to Josiah. The southerner's face paled at the sight of the ravaged body.
"Is, is he still.....?"
As he stood, watching, Chris's reply was strained. "Yeah." He squatted, and leaned in to tease some water into Nathan's slack mouth, and had a little success. When he tried again, Nathan choked, and coughed. Anxious moments passed while everyone waited with bated breath to see if the man came to. He did, and just as Vin joined them, it was painfully clear Nathan was in a world of pain.
Tanner stared at his injured friend for a few moments before announcing his findings. "Two riders. Looks like they headed south east, with a bunch of Indian ponies followin'."
Buck looked up, sharply. "Indians?"
Vin nodded. "And chasin' the fellas that were here."
"Good," Josiah growled out. "I hope they catch the lowlife." No one disagreed.
Nathan made a sound and Chris raised him up a little. "What is it, Pard?"
With eyes blackened and semi-closed, Nathan whispered a reply through swollen, split lips. "It, it was, Pars an' Rhodes..."
Vin's eyes flashed with fury. He turned away and angrily kicked at the stone-spattered ground. Buck and Ezra looked stunned.
"Save it," Chris soothed. "If a man wants something, he'll get it, no matter how hard we try to stop him."
Nathan grabbed the front of Chris's duster. "JD the - little ones?" he asked.
"Safe," was all the gunslinger was prepared to say, for now. He eased his friend back down onto the blankets.
Closing his eyes, Nathan nodded. "Good, boy JD, good kid."
Josiah placed a cold, wet cloth to Nathan's brow. "You're both very courageous men, my friend. Real brave." He reached for the laudanum that Ezra passed over from the medical bag and encouraged Nathan to drink some. There were still a lot of the worst cuts to clean, and Josiah needed his friend to be pretty out of it when that happened.
With a pat to Josiah's back, Chris stood and approached a wary Vin. "Indians?"
Tanner shrugged. "We know they're out there, in the hills, just never usually come this far down."
"Should we be worried?"
Vin shook his head. "If they wanted us they'd be on us by now."
Chris took a breath. "Was wondering whether Nathan's gonna be able to ride."
Looking at the sleeping healer, Vin nodded. "Reckon it's best. I could fashion a travois, but with his back and front cut up like that, it'd be a rough ride."
Chris grimaced, but agreed. "Josiah's horse is sturdy. I'll have Nathan double with Josiah, and Buck and myself'll ride either side." He looked at Nathan, and then back at Vin. "What about the two scum that did this?"
The tracker actually smiled. "With a group of Indians on their tails, I reckon they got plenty of trouble right now. I could go take a look around."
"Yeah, do that. And be careful." He almost laughed at the look Vin gave him before he headed for his horse. Chris turned when Buck approached.
"Where's Vin going?"
"Just gonna check the area out."
Buck went to follow. "There's Indians out there. He shouldn't go alone."
Chris held Buck's arm. "He'd prefer it, Pard. Vin knows what he's doing."
"Sure hope so, there's been enough bloodshed."
Chris offered a tight smile. "I hear ya. How's Nathan?"
"He's resting up. With night drawing in soon, we should make camp."
"Yeah, let's do that. Vin'll likely need coffee when he gets back."
Tracking two shod horses followed by close to a dozen unshod ponies was easy. Vin hoped he could find the end of the trail before nightfall, but he was being led further and further away from the outcrop. His head turned toward a sound, and he stopped his horse to listen. The ground beneath him showed a lot of disturbance, and Vin figured he'd found where the tracks he was following led to.
Urging his black on, he climbed a nearby rise, dismounted, and crawled on his belly through undergrowth until he reached the edge of an arroyo. For a while Vin stayed low and watched the braves that were there. Once satisfied they were no threat to him and his friends, he left quietly to head back to camp.
It was full dark when he whistled to announce his approach to the camp. Larabee was immediately on his feet to greet him, and was surprised to find Vin particularly deep in thought.
Tanner nodded. "Never better. The Indians are no threat to us. How's Nathan?"
"Comfortable, considering all he's been through. We're gonna head back at first light." He patted the Texan's shoulder. "Got some coffee and grub waiting for you."
Vin glanced toward the campfire and his friends seated around it. "Coffee sounds good." He walked toward the others, leaving Chris to wonder what Vin might have come up against while he was gone that would put him off eating.
Early the next morning saw Nathan still in pain, but more alert and eager to get home. Wearing borrowed clothes, he walked stiffly toward his own horse.
"Double up with Josiah," Chris ordered.
Nathan offered his first smile. "Chris, I appreciate your concern, but I've suffered more whippings than I care to recall. I'll be fine."
Understanding how proud the man was, Chris simply smiled. "Even so, I'd prefer it if you rode with Josiah. We'll be traveling at your pace but if you need to stop - "
The healer nodded. "I'll holler." He smiled. "Thanks."
The others watched in admiration as, with Josiah's help, the man slowly mounted up. They were in no doubt he was in pain, but he was also in remarkably good spirits, which was aiding his healing.
"You ready?" Josiah asked.
"You bet," Nathan replied.
"Hey! What about those two pigs who did this to Nathan, and JD, too?& Ain't any of us going after them?" Buck asked.
Vin leaned over and patted his shoulder. "No need to worry 'bout those two. Let's get goin'."
The men knew better than to question Vin at times like this, but hoped one day he would share what he'd seen that made him so confident. With the campfire out, and everyone mounted up, the group of regulators headed for home.
Several miles back, in the arroyo, two white men minus their clothing - and tongues - were staked out under the searing sun while fire ants swarmed over and through every part of their reddening bodies. A party of Apache Braves watched as the pair's bodies writhed from the torture, and their throaty, near-silent screams went unheard to all but the Apache.
It was dusk by the time the slow procession of men rode into Four Corners. Nathan was still riding but out cold and resting against Josiah's back while the preacher was hunched forward to accommodate the body slumped behind him. True to his word, Chris flanked one side of the pair, and Buck the other, to ensure Nathan stayed on the horse.
Yosemite and his stable boy came out to greet them and take their horses so that the men could get their injured friend to bed quicker. Once sure there was more than enough help for Nathan, Buck took off and jogged up the clinic stairs to check on JD.
Nathan awoke the instant the horse stopped, and it was evident he regretted it. Josiah dismounted and waited for the healer to catch his breath. On Nathan's nod, Josiah and Chris helped him to the ground. Ezra once again grabbed the medical bag, and he and Vin led the way up the stairs while Nathan leaned on Josiah for the long, painful climb. More than aware of the growing interest from the townsfolk, Chris brought up the rear, his heart going out to the injured man who was trying his damndest not to cry out with each agonizing step. The gunslinger's thoughts switched to Pars and Rhodes, and where they could be right then. He decided to talk to Vin later. Now everyone was home safe, Chris had an urgent hankering to find the pair and dish out the justice the regulators had been deprived of previously.
Buck just managed to control his eagerness before entering the clinic. With great care he quietly opened the door, fully expecting to find JD sleeping or - Buck's heart clenched at the thought - in the throws of a fever. His handsome face lit up on seeing JD awake and sitting up in the spare cot. Gloria stood at the small stove brewing herbs, and the girls were seated on the bottom of the bed. On seeing Buck, they leaped to their feet and called out a joyful greeting as they ran to him. Dropping to one knee, he opened his arms and embraced the excited pair.
"Hey there, how's my two favorite ladies?"
"Did y'all come back?" Kaya asked, softly.
Noting JD looking for the answer, too, Buck grinned and nodded. "We sure did. Nathan's on his way up right now." The girls went to run, but Buck held tight.
"No, you hold on there, he's had a bit of a bad time, but he'll get a whole lot better once he's seen you're okay, and he's had a good rest."
Gloria encouraged the girls to go with her, leaving Buck to visit with JD. Shimmering blue eyes looked the boy in the bed up and down before the tall man took up the chair between the beds and straddled it.
"You look good, Kid, which surprises me, seein's how ugly you are."
JD giggled, making Buck's grin widen before he turned to Gloria.
"Is the bullet still in there?" he asked.
Missus Potter smiled. "When Mary and me cleaned JD up, we found a small bump at the front, just under his ribs. I made a little cut, and the bullet was right there. It was just like pulling out a tick." She winked at JD, who was nodding along to her account, and grateful she left it at that.&
"His breathing improved a lot once I did that, and his bullet wound has been healing nicely." She leaned forward a little. "He did lose a lot of blood though, so don't be fooled when he says he's 'fine'."
JD huffed, and Buck chuckled. "Don't you fret, Ma'am, I won't." His expression sobered. Buck hadn't been fooled and knew there was more to that story than either of them was letting on. He figured he'd get to the full account eventually.
"Thanks, Gloria." Buck turned to JD and couldn't help laying a hand on the blankets.
"It's good to be home and see you doing okay."
JD smiled. "I'm fine." He offered a dimpled grin at his slip, before a more serious expression appeared. "Nathan?"
Buck swallowed, and glanced quickly toward the girls. "I'll explain more later. He took quite a beating."
JD's eyes filled. "He'll be okay though, right?"
Before Buck could reply, the door banged open and Ezra and Vin led the way before Josiah half-walked, half-carried Nathan into the clinic. Chris came in last and closed the door while Josiah eased Nathan onto the bed.
Nathan groaned when his injuries pulled as he lay on the bed. The room was quiet, and he opened his clenched eyelids to see why. He couldn't help but smile when he saw the two little girls standing right next to him. Nuna kissed his bruised cheek, while Kaya cried, softly. Raising his hand, Nathan stroked each girl's face.
"There, now; I'm okay. Are you?"
Both girls nodded and they glanced toward JD.
With a heavy grunt, Nathan rolled a little to see JD in the bed just across from him. Shakily, he extended his hand. Buck moved a little for JD to take it.
"Good work, Kid."
"Oh, God, Nathan."
The healer could see JD was distraught about his condition. "Ain't nothing that won't heal, Kid." Still holding JD's hand, Nathan's head dropped back onto the pillow and his eyes closed as sleep beckoned, but when JD let go, the healer's eyes snapped open. His tone was urgent, and filled with concern.
"What you in bed, for?"
JD smiled, coyly. "Nothing that won't heal." His gaze remained fixed to Nathan's scrutinizing stare until finally too tired to keep it up, Nathan dozed off.
Vin approached JD's cot and playfully nudged the boy's head with his hand. Each man in turn greeted the boy either before or after a hug and a fuss for the girls. When Chris approached JD, the youth didn't hold back.
"Who did this, Chris?" he asked.
The five men exchanged glances. Chris replied. "Quinn Pars and Slade Rhodes."
JD's shock sent the room into silence. Gloria broke the lull.
"Alright now, you fellas shoo and let me take care of these boys." She looked at Josiah. "Once you've helped me take off Nathan's shirt and pants."
The preacher smiled and nodded before turning to the others. "Mine's a beer with a shot of whiskey please, boys."
"Hey, I don't recall anyone being too bothered about taking *my* britches off," JD sulked.
"Didn't need to at first," Gloria replied. "Then, once you were resting we asked Yosemite to help out."
"He what!" JD groaned with shame and slid down in the cot.
Chris, Vin, and Ezra were unable to hide their grins, while Buck and Josiah outright chuckled. With touches to their hats, the former three left. Buck however seemed reluctant to go. JD patted his hand.
"Go on Buck, you've had a tough ride but, uh, will you come back, later?"
Standing, Buck grinned and squeezed JD's shoulder. "You bet. I'll bring you some milk." With a final glance at the two beds, and a hug for the girls, Buck followed the others.
The little ones joined JD, and after Nathan was stripped, the three watched Josiah and Gloria clean and bandage the man's wounds, and make him comfortable. Before Josiah left, he succeeded in getting some beef broth, and herbal tea into his friend. With a touch to JD's head, and a peck on the cheek for the girls, the preacher finally moved to join the others, and leave the injured to have a healing night's sleep.
In the saloon, the four seated men were quiet. Chris eventually spoke.
"Was thinking on riding out tomorrow to look for Pars and Rhodes."
"Count me in," Ezra stated, simply, but before anyone else could chip in, Vin spoke.
"Ain't no need to go lookin' for them fellas."
Chris glanced at his friend. "Vin?"
Tanner put a shot of whiskey to his lips. "Just gonna have to trust me on this."
In no doubt the tracker knew more than he wanted to share right then, the three other men raised a glass. Eventually joined by Josiah, all five spent the rest of the night drinking away more than just the trail dust.
Within a day of returning to town, Vin and Ezra had ridden out to the Seminole Village to explain the delay for the girls' arrival. Now, almost two weeks on, all seven were escorting them to their new home. Nathan was still sore, but his cuts had healed. JD's arm remained strapped, but there was no way he wasn't going too, and no one planned on stopping him.
The group made good time, and as they rode into the village, all who lived there came out to greet them. Chief Tastanagi appeared delighted to see them, and warmly welcomed them all as they dismounted. Nathan brought the girls before him, and the chief laid a hand on each little head.
"Greetings, my children. There are many here who wish to raise you as their own." He smiled when the little ones hugged him. His life had always been blessed by the love and affection of others.
The girls peeked around the chief to view the smiling faces looking back at them. Unexpectedly, and hand in hand, they walked away from their saviors and new leader and toward the eagerly waiting families. However, they bypassed them all to approach a quiet couple hovering on the group's periphery.
The girls stopped in front of Ayesha's grieving parents. Nuna took the woman's hand, and Kaya the man's. Tastanagi was about to tell the girls that this couple was not yet ready for another family when, as she stroked the children's faces, the mother's liquid gaze met his. With a nod and a smile to the couple, Tastanagi turned to the Seven while Nathan quickly explained to his friends that these were the parents of the child he couldn't save some weeks back. The Seven, Tastanagi, and the Seminole folk watched spellbound while the tearful couple dropped to their knees and hugged Nuna and Kaya as if they had always been theirs.
"The Lord moves in mysterious ways," Josiah said, softly.
Tastanagi joyfully clasped his hands together. "It was their destiny."
JD tried to stifle a sniff. Seven pairs of eyes looked at him. "What?" he squeaked. JD grinned when Buck chuckled and grabbed him playfully by the shoulders, which prompted laughter from the others.
"Come, let us eat," Tastanagi encouraged.
"I could eat," JD and Vin said together, grinning and shrugging at the comments that followed as they joined the other Seminoles.
Nathan dropped back to watch the girls and Ayesha's parents bonding. Tears flowed from the tender-hearted healer as he watched nothing short of a miracle occurring before his eyes. It didn't bring merit to the tragic losses that brought these families together, but this union would help to heal deep wounds and create happier memories from their pasts to cherish, instead of fear.
He couldn't have wished for, or planned things, better.
Not wanting to disturb the happy foursome, he swiped at his tears and quietly walked away to catch up with the others.
Early the next morning, seven tacked horses waited patiently while their masters said goodbye to two little girls who would always be in their thoughts, and hearts. While their friends said their farewells, JD handed over the cloth sack of candies that almost didn't make it after their last trip, and after picking out a few favorites for the girls, Nathan gave Tastanagi the bag of clothes, shoes, and toys.
JD then took his turn with the girls. "Be happy," was all he could say before emotion overtook him. He and the little ones hugged for a long time, and then he kissed each one before walking away to stand between Buck and Chris.
Nathan squatted to look into the girls' smiling faces; a far cry from the forlorn, lost expressions of little ones who once believed the world had forsaken them. The three hugged.
"You'll be happy here," Nathan said as he pulled back. He smiled at their nods. "I guess y'already are, huh?"
More nods and their new parents joined them to thank him.
"No, thank *you*," Nathan insisted as he stood. "God bless."
Tastanagi waited for Nathan to say goodbye to Rain, and then approached the healer. "A dream showed me two eagles soaring, with a tiny bird between them, sheltering beneath their great wings." He gestured toward the girls and their new parents.
"I believe that three souls who have gone on to the Great Plains, have also found each other."
Nathan's eyes filled again. "I'd like to think that," he replied.
"I, too, my friend."
Nathan joined the others and all seven mounted up. The girls led the waving, and with a final brandish or touch of their hats, the seven friends turned away and rode for home.
Along the way, JD pointed to the sky and at two birds of prey seemingly hunting a smaller bird. "Hey, see that? Those two birds are chasing after that little one. I guess he's gonna be lunch, huh?"
Nathan glanced knowingly at Vin and Josiah, and replied. "Them's Golden Eagles, and far from hunting that bird, I reckon they're protecting it. See how their wings are covering the bird so no other hunters can get it?"
JD stared and then nodded. "Oh yeah, it does kinda look that way."
While JD almost did himself a mischief trying to keep track of the birds, Nathan felt a sense of peace wash over him. Like most of the whippings and beatings he'd experienced as a slave, he could now barely recall what Slade and Quinn did to him. Events, and his natural defense mechanism for blocking out personal horrors had a hand in his healing, and while he still didn't know what happened to Rhodes and Pars, Nathan somehow felt assured they would never be bothered by them again.
Filled with a happiness the like of which he had rarely felt in his thirty years on this earth, Nathan settled into a steady ride home while savoring the brotherhood of six men he would always consider to be exceptional and magnificent, and whose companionship he would cherish for as long as he lived.
Thanks for riding along.
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