Magnificent Seven Old West
Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves by Sue M

Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em…damnit!

Characters: JD, OCs

Ratings/Warnings: Some violence

Summary: Persecution raises its ugly head for the seven peacekeepers as six race against time to prevent their seventh, and an ancient people, from suffering at its hands.

Set just after Safecracker

Author's Note: I do not speak Romany, so all phrases are used in good faith and accurate to the best of mine (and the internet's) ability {just trying to make it a little more authentic ;o)}

Thanks as always to Nancy and the awesome Blackraptor M7 archive for giving my stories a home.


JD had seen the sign, it was clearly displayed, but he went in anyhow. How could he not? The children around the hole were yelling, and the one at the bottom of the shaft was crying. He couldn't walk away.

And he sure as hell couldn't now.

If his arm wasn't broken, it sure felt like it should be. All JD could hope for as he lay on his side in a crumpled heap on the shaft floor, was that the children got back to town in double quick time to raise the alarm. Night was falling and he was starting to feel real cold.

That was another dumb move. He'd taken off his jacket and hat to climb down, and now the kids were gone, and his jacket was likely still sitting up there on the ground while he lay here on sodden earth, shivering.


Well, at least he got the little one out of there…just before the bush snapped and the rope slipped. Oddly, he was mighty glad he hit his head first, 'cause he wouldn't have liked to hear the bone in his arm snap…if it snapped. He figured that at least the kids must have had the sense to ride his horse back to town. There was definitely no one around up there now and his throat, raw from hollering, was testimony to that. He hoped him being unconscious prompted them not to try to rescue him and go for help.

He couldn't help but be amazed how the kid he rescued hadn't broken any bones. Was that down to luck? Or do kids bounce when they fall? His own childhood memories eluded him right now, however, the more his head cleared, the more he recalled that the kids spoke in a strange language, so perhaps they weren't from hereabouts. JD groaned. Then maybe no one knew he was out here, and if that was true...maybe they stole his horse too.


JD jolted awake to darkness. His head, arm, and side hurt so bad…and he was willing himself not to be sick, he would hate to have to lie in that until the others came to find him. JD shivered, the cold was really starting to bite, increasing the aching, but he was in too much pain to curl up any tighter, and guessed he'd hurt a few ribs in the fall too. He swallowed against a dry, sore throat. The fellas would come…wouldn't they?

Even though he felt sure he heard something from above JD couldn't keep his eyes open any longer. He shuddered…what if it was a hungry animal? He was drifting now…so whatever happened next, he couldn't fight it even if he wanted to.

'Anytime soon would be good, fellas.'


Warm hands grasped JD's face. Someone was talking at him and he squinted back at the face close to his. Why couldn't he answer? He wanted to tell the person how much he hurt…but he was too cold, and stiff, and his eyes wouldn't open properly. Something warm enveloped him…mmm, it felt good…was that Buck talking?

And…Nathan? Was that Buck and Nathan he could hear? 'Don't move me too quick, fellas…it hurts…'

"Vin…get that rope over now…we gotta get him outta here!"

'Oh, thank God yes...please...take me home.'


JD awoke and stared into the darkness. 'Where had everyone gone?' The boy released a sad sigh when he realize it was just a dream. His friends weren't here, and he was still cold....

Wait! His brow furrowed. A face, he could see a face.

Despite valiant attempts to stay focused through the pain and cold, he knew he was slipping away. Just before doing so, there was a moment of lucidity and the blurry features before him cleared.




In the saloon all seven peacekeepers were sitting together at a table, Chris and Vin were in conversation and JD couldn't help himself. He was hanging on their every word. It wasn't guarded banter, but there were occasional covert looks and short silences that the young sheriff figured meant a whole lot to the two men, but he'd be darned if he could work them out. Buck watched, amused at JD's animated expressions, as were the other three peacekeepers, and all four men could see what was coming, but were just a bit too slow to intervene.

"What are 'travelers'? You mean like settlers?" JD swallowed instinctively as Chris and Vin focused their attention on him. He shrugged. "I was just asking. I'm heading out on patrol soon, and I they're around...I might meet 'em, and..."


JD shot Buck a glare, which simply amused the gregarious brunet further. He turned back to get his question answered.

"I was just asking," he explained to Chris and Vin.

"Mister Dunne, I fear a day may come when we will have to carve that on your tombstone," Ezra cautioned while he shuffled a deck of cards.

"Carve what?" JD asked, a slight shudder washing over him at the mention of his tombstone.

"'I was just asking'," Nathan repeated as he puffed on a fat cigar.

Chris switched his cheroot from one side of his mouth to the other, ignored the chuckles and answered JD's question. "Travelers, or as folk hereabouts tend to call them, Gypsies, tramps, thieves, vagabonds, snake-oil peddlers…"

"Them's just from name-callin' though," Vin quickly added. "There ain't nothin' to suggest they steal and cheat...leastways, not all of 'em"

Buck's grin widened when JD sat up straighter, his eyes glistening with curiosity. 'Aww hell…the kid was hooked, now they got trouble'.

"So…they're coming here, to town?"

"Just passin' through," the Texan answered. "A few came in early this mornin' for supplies."

"And then they'll move on?" JD pushed; unaware the rest of his friends were now sitting back and enjoying the impromptu sideshow.

"They're camped just outside 'a town." Vin took a long draw of his beer, narrowing his eyes at Larabee's grin.

"But, if they're just passing through, why set up camp…?"

Josiah took pity on the boy…and Vin. "They're here to offer the townsfolk a few…services, perhaps a potion, or a performance, in return for money. Then they move on."

"Services? Performance? You mean, like a show?" He glanced around the circle of faces. "Is it a show? Can we go see it?"

Buck leaned in and raised a hand to squeeze the boy's neck. "Kid…you ain't ready for the kind of shows these folks put on."

"I am too," JD defended. He looked toward Chris. "I am!"

"Not even sure that I am, son," Chris answered, his eyes flashing at a grinning Buck.

"These are the folks that give healers like me a bad name." All eyes turned to Nathan as he continued. "Selling potions out of the backs of their wagons, preaching, tellin' folks they're healers when they don't know the first thing about medicines and such…"

Tanner glared. "Who's to say they're wrong, Nathan? The Chinese sell potions and I ain't seen folks afraid to try 'em. There's more'n one way to should know that."

"Chinese?" 'There were Chinese, around here?'

JD had seen some back east. This was confusing. He hadn't been with these men two months, but was fast realizing they knew things about life that he had never even heard of, let alone experienced.

"Whole other subject, son," Josiah answered, swirling his whiskey around in its glass.

"Of course, the conjectured nefarious nocturnal activities of these itinerants are what sets them apart from your run of the mill, every day traveler."

JD frowned at Ezra "Huh?"

Josiah glanced sideways at the southerner. "He means what they get up to at night and the real reason townsfolk would rather they move on…"

"…Well, the ladies, anyway," Buck put in.

"What do they do?" JD squeaked, flustered at the sudden rise in pitch in his voice.

"JD, isn't it time you were leaving to patrol?" Chris suggested, hoping the youth would take the hint.

"Sure, I guess," JD huffed in exasperation. "But, what is it they do at night?"

Larabee cocked an eyebrow at the ladies' man. "Buck will explain it all to you when you get back, right Buck?" Chris stifled a laugh at the expression on his old friend's face.

JD scraped back his chair to stand. "You will? Thanks Buck." Downing the last of his milk, JD grabbed his hat, grinned at his companions and bounced out of the saloon's batwing doors.

An audible sigh resounded around the table, quickly followed by laughter.

Vin grinned. "Shoot, that kid can corner you faster than a grisly in a one room cabin," his obvious fondness for the youth evident by the glance that followed JD out.

"Don't help when folks put fool ideas in his head." Buck's scowl was aimed between Ezra and Nathan, the latter oblivious and the former offering a small salute.

"And when were you going to share the fact that you yourself visited these very same travelers last night, Mister Wilmington?" Ezra asked as he dealt out six hands.

"Like I said, there's some things the kid just ain't ready for, yet."

"Maybe it's time to reconsider that," Josiah suggested, scooping up the cards with his large hands and fanning them open. "Most boys his age would be contemplating marriage, now. Maybe it's time the fairer sex showed him what he can expect, if he's lucky."

"Yeah, well, we tried that just th'other week, in Wicks Town…didn't really go too well, did it?" Buck reminded, wriggling slightly in his seat. "And could we stop talking about it, now? It's making me a mite uncomfortable, here."

JD just caught the erupting laughter from the saloon as he passed by, before he urged his horse into a gallop and headed out of town.


Several hours later and JD was about to make the return journey home. He was a little disappointed not to run into any travelers along the way, but it wasn't all bad, he hadn't found any trouble, either. After maintaining a lope for a mile or so, JD eased off the reins and let Milagro walk toward a wooded area to rest up a while. He noted a curl of smoke coming from the centre of the woods and patted the bay's neck.

"Maybe these travelers are camped in here, huh boy? Sure would explain why I ain't seen 'em around." With a cluck, he urged the little bay on. Deeper into the forest, Milagro reared slightly when a small boy appeared from nowhere and ran toward them. JD couldn't make out what the child was saying, but he understood the urgency of the gestures and nodded to indicate he would follow.


Soon, he came upon what appeared to be an opening in the ground, an old mine shaft he guessed, judging by a large, tattered danger sign just to one side of the small clearing it lay in. Several more children were surrounding the opening, some crying, and all pointing into the hole. JD dismounted, dropped down to lie on his stomach and shimmied toward the edge. He could just make out a child looking back at him, and on seeing him, she howled in distress

"Hold on, I'll get you outta there."

JD removed his hat and coat, and then unhooked a length of rope from his saddle. He secured it to the sturdiest of the nearby bushes, tested its strength and then proceeded to clamber down into the hole. Once at the muddy bottom, he checked for injuries while the frightened child clung to him. The boy was relieved when there seemed to be nothing more obvious than cuts and bruises. JD looked back up. It was a longer descent than anticipated, and he was more than a little winded, but the child clutching his leg, and the several pairs of eyes staring down at him spurred him on. He squatted down, and pointed to his neck and back.

"Climb on my back and hold on tight."

Despite not uttering a word, the little girl did so. JD tested the rope and then made his slow and arduous climb up the crumbling shaft wall. His back ached, and arm and leg muscles burned from the exertion, but he grit his teeth and kept going. As soon as his head cleared the ridge he called for help to get the child off his back. The children made fast work of it, but suddenly squealed out when the bush the rope was tied to made a loud cracking noise and the rope slipped. Surprised by the sudden jolt, JD's hands slid down the rope and the resulting burn caused him to lose his grip. As he hurtled down toward the shaft floor, his head bounced off the wall hard. JD was out cold before the rest of his body hit the bottom.



"Baba Marishka, Baba Marishka!"

Curious faces appeared from inside and around a circle of brightly colored wagons at a barefoot woman's call. As the hollering chavi ran from a wagon toward the two approaching riders, children took the hands of an elder Roma wise woman and guided her toward two Indians on horseback, their excitement relayed in the re-telling of how little Tasha was saved by the brave boy who got hurt.

Breathless, the young gypsy woman stopped running just before the two Hopi Indians who the gypsies had taken in during their travels. Yasmina wore tattered clothes. She was a beauty, with a full and voluptuous figure, and expressive brown eyes that scrutinized the object wrapped in a blanket and in the arms of Mahu, one of the Hopis. When the object was revealed her eyes widening and she gasped.

"Oh…tarno raklo…Baba Marishka, it's a young man."

One of the men from the camp joined her, but spat at the ground on seeing JD hurt, unconscious and in the arms of one of their adopted brothers.

"Gaje. Achh!"

Yasmina scowled at the Roma slur for non-gypsy men. " Spiro…he's just a bitti chiavala." Her gaze softened on returning to the limp, prone form. "A young boy who's hurt and needs help."

Before Spiro could refuse, Baba Marishka stepped in. She indicated to the children. "The glata tell me this is the boy who saved Tasha." She waved over more men. "Alexi, Nikolai, take him to my vardo, I can attend to his injuries, there."

As JD was slowly handed down, Nukpana, the second Hopi drew attention to the boy's injured arm. With a nod, Nikolai and Alexi took careful hold of JD and got him settled in Marishka's wagon. Shooing the curious children away, Marishka and Yasmina proceeded to carefully strip the young sheriff of his soaked and muddy, clothes, revealing cuts, scrapes and bruises.

Yasmina giggled cheekily as Marishka removed JD's undergarments. "Not so bitti." She pouted at the admonishing slap to her arm from the elder.

"Be helpful, child. Boil some water and bring it here with clean rags and bandages."

The spirited woman complied. "Yes, Baba."

Baba Marishka and Bardu, the Rom Baru, or elder male of the group, were the only ones Yasmina would ever take instruction from. It was ordained she would one day wed Spiro, but Yasmina was not yet ready, and kept the man at arms' length, teasing him with what delights awaited him when she conceded to her fate by occasionally laying with him. Spiro desired his destined mate, but knew her strong will and free spirit would not sanction their union any time soon, And so he grew frustrated.

Her desirability drew in the men...the gaje, like flies to honey, so there was no pressure from the elders to push the marriage just yet. However, two more of their group, Natalya and Katya, were also blooming into beautiful women and would soon be able to take her place in the evening show they put on for the townsmen. Spiro could hardly wait, he was eager to make this woman his own and with child as soon as possible.


Marishka ran her wizened but practiced hands over JD's clammy body. It was clear he was caught in a fierce fever. The wound where the broken bone in his arm had pierced the skin was infected, and likely the cause of it. The old woman hummed to herself as she felt around the injury, she then placed her hands around his arm, and with a skilled pull and twist, realigned the bone.

Despite his deep state of unconsciousness, JD sat up and let out a blood-curdling scream before collapsing back unconscious onto the bed.

Marishka stroked his sweat-soaked hair to sooth him,. "Hush sweet one, hush." She gazed at his youthful face. "Katar aves? Kaski kan? What is your name, sweet one? Whose are you?" She turned when Yasmina came in with supplies.

"Tell Alexi I need sturdy wood for a splint."

"Yes, Baba." After glancing at the injured but still very naked youth, the woman left.


Within the following hour JD was clean, splinted, and dressed in a rough cotton nightshirt so that his own clothes could be washed. Marishka managed to get some infused tea into him to help with the pain and fever, and then stoked up the quaint but effective stove to help him sweat it out. She marked the outside of her wagon with a sign. While it remained, no one was to enter unless bringing food or supplies. Over time, the older woman had learned that peace and quiet was a vital key in surviving injuries and a fever such as JD was experiencing now. They owed him a debt of gratitude, and his survival in her care was, in her mind, non-negotiable.


Buck was restless. It was late afternoon and JD was still not back from patrol. Buck had offered to go with JD, but Chris suggested JD could handle one patrol alone. Despite being out west for less than two months, JD had already knocked himself out at least once and was recently stabbed. While the ladies' man knew JD was far from dumb, the boy's fearlessness, openness and naivety, screamed of a disaster waiting to happen. Buck intended to be around if that day came…at best, to prevent it, at worst, to be there in his time of need.

Buck's absent-minded stroll led him to the outskirts of town. There, while he paced, the big man looked toward the vast range beyond and his heart grew heavier by each passing minute. He was just on the way back to approach Larabee when the man himself pulled Buck into the jailhouse. Inside, the other peacekeepers were gathered. Buck didn't need to ask, he knew by their faces this wasn't good.

Chris spoke. "If it were any one of you, I'd wait a little longer, but this is JD…he's new to these parts and I ain't comfortable letting this go toward nightfall…"

"Great, let's just go," Buck hissed, his patience all but gone.

"I concur," Ezra added, though no one was disputing the decision.

"Vin…can you find him?" Buck asked.

Tanner's blue eyes looked in earnest at him. "If he's out there, I'll find 'im."

With a collective nod, they looked to Chris. He opened the door. "Okay, let's ride."


JD was in hell. Visions of Indians, dark holes, strange music, and an old woman in colorful garb singing to him crowded his sub conscious. He was cold, then hot, and always in terrible pain. He restlessly tossed and turned and was sure he could hear someone cry out close by. All at once he was lifted up, and held while a soothing song and a cool cloth washed over him. Tepid liquid passed his lips and he instinctively swallowed before finally gently drifting into a peaceful sleep.

Marishka had climbed up onto the bed and was now cradling the distressed youth. As she cooled his skin and teased a herbal tea into him, she sang a lullaby and rocked as she sang him to sleep.

"I will not lose you, sweet one. It is not your time and we have still to find your people." Unknown to JD, he had been sick for two days, and in that time the travelers had stayed in routine to preserve their safety and moved on. They were now miles from Four Corners, and getting farther away with every passing day.


It had taken over a day to find and follow JD's tracks, and Vin was now crouched near the open mine shaft in the small copse JD had stumbled upon. Buck clutched JD's coat and hat to his chest, his expression grim as he waited for information. Josiah watched for the nod, and then he, Chris, and Nathan lowered Vin down into the pit, followed by a lit lantern. After an agonizing wait, Tanner tugged at the rope and re-emerged, pointing things out as he spoke.

"The footprints all around the openin' here are small, bare feet, likely kids, and one shod horse...JD's. Looks like the kid's rope was tied to that there bush'." He indicated to a snarl of branches and a cracked stump. "In the shaft I found blood." He paused to allow his friends to catch up.

"So, where is he?" Buck ground out the question through clenched teeth. His demeanor deteriorated at the look on Vin's face.

"Found tracks from two unshod ponies and footprints from skin shoes around the edge here, and in the shaft."

"Indians?" Josiah asked.

Vin nodded.

Buck groaned. "Oh God, he's dead, ain't he?"

Tanner's lean moved from one hip to the other. "Don't reckon that's so. If they'd killed him, they'd 'a likely taken a scalp and left his body to rot."

There was a collective release of breath.

"So, you think the Indians are helping him?" Ezra inquired.

"Yeah. What I don't know is why…or where they might 'a taken him."

"But, we're gonna go looking, right?" Buck's words were almost a plea.

Vin smiled sympathetically. "Yeah, Bucklin, we keep lookin'." He winked. "It's been way too quiet without the kid around."

With a nod and a flash of grateful, liquid eyes, Buck mounted up, quickly followed by all but Vin. Instead, the tracker walked ahead of the group and followed the minute clues to find the trail of their missing, and it would seem, injured friend.


The light was all but gone by the time they got to a small clearing in the center of the copse. Josiah and Nathan held up their lanterns and all six men stared around the grass-flattened area. Remnants of a camp were evident, but its occupants were long gone. Buck instantly recalled who had been here, because he visited with them the night before JD disappeared.

"The Injuns are with the travelers?" he asked

Vin nodded. "Looks that way."

"If they've moved on, what are the chances of us finding and following their trail?" Chris asked.

Vin pointed to deep ruts and tracks from wagon wheels and numerous horseshoe prints. "As long as the weather holds, our chances are good," he replied.

Larabee turned to the others.

"We go on. If anyone needs to turn back, say now."

No one so much as flinched. Chris nodded to them. "Okay, we make camp here for tonight and head out at sunup."


Yasmina looked down at the young man in her arms. Baba Marishka said he was more settled when being embraced, and she was right. Just before she held him, he was fitful and calling out. Now, JD slept. She studied his face while running her fingers along his brow line, down his bruised and scraped face to his whiskered jaw. Baba called him 'sweet one', and he was, at least he looked that way when he slept. She yearned to speak with him, hear his voice, see his eyes, learn more about him. She knew he called out for someone named Buck…and for his mama. Perhaps these were his family; mother, and a brother, maybe?

She also realized he was now likely far from his home. But their group had to keep moving, it was never safe to stay around more than one day and night. The last time they did that, Yasmina lost her Dadro. He was not an old man, but not quite young enough to win the fight that day. She missed her father greatly.

JD's fever broke several hours ago, but he was still having bad dreams. She tightened her hold as he went through the throes of another, her rocking motion more to do with the sway of the travelling wagon than her own momentum. She looked at his arm. Baba said it was healing nicely; at least there was no oozing. If only those who thought their healing practices to be a sham could see this boy, now. The young woman seriously doubted a real doctor could have done any better.

Hearing the shout go up that they had reached their destination, Yasmina eased JD back down in the bed and went to assist in setting up camp. Before she left, she pressed a soft kiss to his cheek. "Sleep, sweet one, recover your strength, and we can help you get home."


Two full days of riding and Buck's chin seemed to have become permanently attached to his chest. If it were possible, it dropped even further on seeing Vin with that look on his face when he returned to their camp from visiting yet another town on their route. Each time either one or all of them dropped by a town, the story was the same; the travelers had either stayed for one night and then moved on, or run out of the area. However, the last three towns the six men came upon denied seeing them…the six peacekeepers had lost the trail. The exhausted, downcast men found their appetites poor, and so settled down for the night.


Tanner was frustrated, and cursed the recent rocky terrain they had just traversed. Not that he was blaming the unyielding ground for his failings, he remained adamant the responsibility was firmly with him, and being told that no one could have done more brought him little comfort. When five of the men awoke the next morning, Vin was nowhere to be found, and only reappeared just as the others broke camp. He looked weary, but happy.

"I picked up their trail. They're a ways off the direction we were headin', but I reckon if we ride hard, we should be with 'em in two to three days."

His words reached into the souls of his friends and lifted each one. They knew now that they could do this.


JD blinked open sticky eyes and wondered if he still dreaming? Soft lamplight illuminated his surroundings - his very colorful surroundings. He had no idea where he was, or how he had gotten here, but one thing he did know, his head, side and arm hurt something fierce. He was thirsty and struggled to swallow. He thought of calling out, but caution got the better of him. While he was pretty sure whoever was around was taking care of him, he figured not knowing exactly who that might be was a good reason to wait.

Buck taught him that.

JD heard music. It was familiar, as if he'd heard it before but in a dream. Then there were the raised, excited voices…men's voices. He remembered he didn't like those and felt sure he'd heard those in a dream, too. Movement from the front of the wagon caused him to hold his breath. An elderly woman in bright clothing approached him and smiled.

"Sastipe. Sar Buchhos tuke?"

JD just stared; the old woman patted his arm. "Forgive me. I said Hello and asked your name."

Relieved to hear a language he understood, JD rasped out a reply. "JD, ma'am…JD Dunne."

"I am Baba Marishka." She offered him a drink, and then checked the bandages on his head and arm. "Sit tut bocklo? Are you hungry, sweet one?"

JD nodded, weakly. "Yes, ma'am." He watched her leave, to quickly return with a bowl. Placing it down, she got behind JD to rest him back against her, then picked up the broth and held it to his lips. JD felt like he hadn't eaten in forever, and tried to sup greedily at the simple soup. However, a few minutes later Marishka was replacing the top bedding which JD had thrown up over. He was no longer hungry, and was exhausted from the exertion of vomiting.

"I'm real sorry, ma'am."

Easing JD down into the clean bed, Marishka offered him a few sips of water, before stroking his hair until he was asleep. The old woman sighed, but was not too concerned. Being sick was to be expected, all his stomach took recently was water and herbal tea, not forgetting that the boy had been so ill. She would try feeding him again in the morning. Tonight, their activities were coming to a close and there were things to do before they could sleep.


Despite the dim light of the place he was lying in, JD knew it was morning due to the noises and movement outside. He watched a beautiful, raven-haired woman enter the wagon and, tray in hand, sashay toward him. Her clothes were ragged and torn, and her chest well exhibited in the peasant blouse she wore but she walked tall and proud. Her eyes seemed kind, and he smiled at her.


Touching his face, tenderly, Yasmina returned the smile. "Hello. You had us worried, sweet one. It is good to see your beautiful eyes. I was fearful I never would."

"I was that sick?" he asked, shocked.

She nodded. "Va…yes. Very." She raised the tray. "Baba Marishka said to try you with some broth again. Would you like some?"

"Yeah, I would, thanks."

This time, with Yasmina's help, JD took it slower and he succeeded in eating half a bowl. "Thank you, that was good."

Yasmina beamed and placed the bowl back on the tray. "It was I who made it."

JD tried to get comfortable. "Who are you? Where…where are we?"

"I am called Yasmina. From where do you come?"

JD swallowed. "A Place called Four Corners, not far from the Mexican border." He felt a surge of panic when her gaze faltered.

"You are many days ride from there. Bardu, our leader, said that when you are able, we will take you to a town where you can arrange to travel home."

JD figured he could do that, or maybe send a wire. He pointed to his splinted arm. "Broken?"

"Va. It was the cause of your ill health" She stroked his face and hair. "We are in your debt, JD. You saved our bitti Tasha."

At first JD frowned, but then smiled as he recalled the rescue. "I'm glad she's alright." He gestured to his arm and surroundings. "I reckon we're about even, now, don't you?"

"Oh no. Your injuries were caused when helping us, the debt is forever ours."

Feeling stiff, and tired, JD tried again to get comfortable, but paled when moving his arm caused pain to shoot right through his body, taking his breath. Yasmina carefully helped him to sit up, and held him close until he recovered.

"Thank you," he gasped. After a short pause, he looked at her. "I uh, I was wondering. Did I dream that Indians found me?"

"Oh no, it was so. Mahu and Nukpana are Hopi. They were captured by white men, taken far from their people, and tortured. Their tongues were cut out before they were left to die. We found them near to death and took them in. They now travel with us as family, and are good, kind men with many skills, but unable to form words."

JD shuddered at the graphic explanation, and wished he hadn't asked. Yasmina could see JD's eyelids getting heavy, so after propping several pillows behind him, she sung softly and stroked his hair until he was asleep.

"Much happiness to meet you, JD Dunne."


Grateful for a good, home cooked meal, beer, whiskey, and a real bed for the night, the six peacekeepers studied their surroundings. On their arrival, and after procuring beds and refreshments, they asked after the gypsies. The responses to their questions left them troubled and in no doubt the travelers would not be welcomed back to this town any time soon. They finally understood why when, after their meal, a man of medium build, snow white hair, and dressed in a dark suit, approached them in the saloon.

"I understand you boys were asking about the gypsies that stopped here two days ago?" He scowled as he spied Ezra dealing out cards. "We don't gamble in this town, mister. Gambling's a sin."

Ezra's gaze on the man never faltered as he continued to deal. "Thank you, sir, for the information, however, where sinning is concerned, I happen to be a lost cause."

Larabee drew the attention back to the original question. "That's right, we were asking after the travelers. Is there something you can tell us?"

The man extended his hand, but no one moved to accept it. "Name's Reverend Aaron Collier. This town takes its church and worship seriously, but because of the gypsy harlots, several of our men strayed. I wished them luck in their journey and made it clear that they were never to return here. The towns along this valley are God-fearing…they'll have little fortune, or welcome, in either."

Josiah finally shook the offered hand. "Josiah Sanchez. A friend of ours may be injured. We think he's with them."

The reverend shook his head. "Can't say I saw anyone other than two injuns with 'em when they came in for supplies. Your time and questions are wasted here." He stood, and with a smile neither of the regulators considered friendly, Reverend Collier left the saloon.

Josiah gestured toward the retreating man. "He's right. This valley likely won't be tolerant of these people. We may find they're in danger, which, if JD's with 'em, puts him smack dab in the middle of it."

Buck stood. "Well then, we need to move out."

Chris raised a hand. "Easy, Pard, not at night, I don't like it. We'll head out at first light."


The six weary men rose before dawn to leave. In the livery and just about ready to mount up, Vin suddenly spun around, his mare's leg drawn a split-second before the other five men's sidearms. "Show yourself!"

A youth timidly advanced from the shadows of one of the stalls with his hands raised above his head. "Don't shoot, mister."

Relaxing, Vin urged him forward. "Somethin' we can help you with?" They all noted the bruising on the youth's face and the stiff way he moved.

He nodded. "I was one who went to the gypsy camp while they were stopped here. I never saw no fella that looked like he might know you, but I overheard some old lady talking about someone who was sick and being tended to."

Chris offered a rare smile. "Thanks." He pointed toward him. "You get beat for going up there?"

The young man lowered his gaze. "Yessir. I never did nothing…just watched the pretty lady dance."

Josiah pressed a coin into the youth's hand. "Thank you, son. We appreciate the risk you took to help us."

The young man smiled. "They seemed nice folk. But Reverend Collier, he really didn't care for 'em…said he was gonna wire other towns about 'em heading their way. My pa never once raised a hand to me 'til the reverend came to town. He told my folks 'spare the rod, spoil the child', and now they follow everything he tells 'em. It got me to wondering what he might 'a told folks in other towns about the gypsies, 'cause while they were here, he told 'em that if they didn't move on, the men would hang, the ladies would be taught the ways of the Lord, and their camp would be burned to the ground."

The words alarmed the six men, who thanked him again, mounted up, and rode out. Their quest had always been important, but now it was urgent, too.


JD sighed contentedly. This morning, Yasmina helped him outside and he was now blanketed, and sitting in the fresh air for the first time in days. He tilted his head back. The dappled sunshine through the trees felt warm on his face. It felt good to have his own clothes on, too. He blushed. Even though it did feel better to feel clean and less sticky and smelly, he hadn't been too thrilled with Yasmina and Marishka washing down his naked body before helping him dress.

Once he was more alert, Yasmina, Katya, and Natalya visited with him frequently. The three women were beautiful, and stood out against the older women. JD was wary of Spiro…he didn't seem too friendly, but Alexi and Nikolai were always happy to stop and talk with him. So far though, Mahu and Nukpana, kept a cautious distance.

The leader, Bardu, spoke with him today, just after JD was helped outside. He talked a little of their culture and why the way they made money to survive, was also why they constantly needed to move around. He explained it was always to be…it was their calling. JD couldn't quite figure out why a lady dancing or the group selling healing potions and telling fortunes would cause them problems, but nodded respectfully at the information shared with him.

After a while of sitting alone in the ornate, padded chair, he forced a smile when Yasmina joined him and sat down on a tree stump next to the chair.

"Your smile is like the sun, warm, welcoming, and bright. Why today do you hide it, sweet one? Could it be you are thinking of home?"

JD sighed. How did she guess? "Yeah, I was. It showed, huh?"

She held his uninjured hand. "When you speak of home, it either raises you up and lights up your face, or it brings with it the face you show now…a look of longing and sadness. Bardu says, when we clear this valley, there is a large town where you will be safe and able to find transport."

"Thanks, but, maybe I can ride by then. I see my horse is here."

"Marishka thinks not. Your arm is still healing and should it be damaged further, may limit its usefulness." She stroked the strapped arm. "Do you shoot with this hand?" She hadn't missed that his gunbelt carried twin guns.

"I can shoot with both, and I'd hate to lose the use of either," JD answered. He turned more toward her, pausing for a moment before he spoke again. "I keep wondering…if they think I'm dead…my friends, I mean."

"You fear they may give up on you?"

JD nodded. "Maybe not at first, but…it's been a while, now, and…well, I ain't really known them all that long…I guess six men like them got better things to do than run around after me, huh?" His teeth worried at his lower lip. "'Sides, Vin's a real good hunter and when he sees the tracks he might think Indians took me someplace not realizing Nukpana and Mahu are with you."

Yasmina tilted her head. "This Vin…he is a tracker?"

"Yeah," JD smiled. "The best. And then there's Buck…he and me are pretty good friends, I reckon. He might keep searching…at least for a while…" He released a crooked grinned at her expression. He was pretty much answering his own concerns. "Sorry, I guess I just miss 'em, y'know? It's the first time I've felt like I belong since Mama passed."

"Va, I understand." She smiled, and released his hand. "I have things to do, but I will return soon."

Nodding, he watched her move away. JD shuddered and pulled the blanket around him, more for comfort than warmth. He hoped he would see his friends again soon. These people were really nice and all, and had helped him a lot, but the idea of going home sounded real good right about now.


It quickly became clear to the six regulators that the towns they were now coming upon were definitely less than welcoming, hostile even, in the face of a large number of strangers entering their God-fearing boroughs. For that reason, they had returned to camping out again rather than taking rooms. From what little information they had gleaned, the travelers' presence had not been welcome and they were forced to pass through. The six men were becoming increasingly concerned for the gypsies and JD's wellbeing.


That night after making camp outside the town of Oak Ridge, Vin reckoned they were less than a days' ride behind them, which prompted Buck to urge them to simply keep going. He appreciated that it was a foolhardy request, but at least he knew the others recognized it as an understandable one.

Buck's demeanor was improved and more confident now he believed JD was still alive and being cared for. His and the others' main concern was getting to JD before something bad happened. Judging by the mind-set of the towns already visited by the travelers, not to mention JD's natural ability to find trouble, Buck feared a grave outcome looming.

The next morning they began their day's ride for the borough of Prudence.


JD awoke and looked sleepily around him. For a moment, he was a little disoriented after his nap, but soon recalled where he was when Nukpana smiled at him, at least, he hoped it was a smile. JD groaned when he attempted to sit upright. His arm was hurting, and the bruises down his one side were making their presence felt. Subconsciously he touched his good hand to his bandaged head.

God, what a mess.

Nukpana made his way toward the injured sheriff, carrying with him a large colorful blanket. After laying the blanket on the ground at JD's feet, he sat cross-legged on it and from a skin shoulder pouch he slowly revealed a selection of feathers. But these weren't any feathers; they had been intricately painted with scenes, birds, and animals. JD had never seen anything like it and watched, enraptured as the Indian held up each one to show him.

"You painted these?" he asked, unsure if the native would understand him, and pleased when his question was answered with a nod and a smile. Two in particular caught JD's eye; one of a woman he felt sure was Marishka, the other of a landscape and a bay horse and foal. Nukpana held the two feathers out, indicating for him to take them. With a smile, JD awkwardly and one handedly held them by the shafts. Concerned he might disturb the delicately painted vanes and barbs that the images decorated, he offered them back, but the Hopi gently pushed his hand back at him and nodded, once.

"I can have these?"

Nukpana smiled and nodded. A breathy laugh escaped the Indian at JD's huge grin.

"Thank you."

With a final nod, Nukpana carefully gathered up his things, rose, and returned to his small tent.

Mahu appeared as if from nowhere, startling JD as he hovered over him holding a large, bone-handled knife. Turning the knife in his hand to hold the sheathed blade, Mahu offered the handle to the youth. Resting the feathers on his thigh, JD took the knife, and stared at the Hopi for a moment while he tried to work out what he wanted. The native's hand gently pushed the knife in JD's hand toward the boy's chest.

"For me?" JD asked.

Mahu nodded, and then left. A little confused as to what had just happened, JD simply sat there, unsure of what to do next. Bardu joined him and carefully took the feathers and the knife.

"I will put these safe for you."

"Why did they give them to me?" JD asked.

The leader smiled. "You saved one they consider to be as their own. It is their way. A gift of thanks to show their gratitude, and one of protection for when they will no longer be with you."


Later, a large fire pit blazed and smoked in the center of the gypsy camp. Inside it, large, lidded cooking pots were stacked one on top of the other. JD had watched in fascination, as hot ashes were added to the top of each lid before a pot was placed on top, to be repeated until each stack was about three pots high and topped off as well as sandwiched between hot embers. As the afternoon wore on several women continued to rotate them and replenish the hot ash, sending tantalizing aromas around the encampment. JD's stomach growled and he hoped he would be able to have whatever was being offered this evening. He was a little tired of broth.

When the group gathered for dinner, he smiled when Yasmina brought over a plate of rabbit stew and a hunk of bread.

JD grinned, took the plate and spoon, and rested them on one knee. "Thanks."

Yasmina sat on the ground next to him. "You are hungry?"

JD nodded, speaking around a mouthful of the stew. "Mmmm, starved."

She smiled as she used her bread and fingers to scoop up the thick gravy, meat and vegetables. "Good to see you have your appetite back,"

Still chewing, JD pointed at his plate. "This is good."

"Thank you, I will pass on your respects." They ate in companionable silence for a while.



"At night…have I heard music or are they just dreams?"

Setting down her half-empty plate, she looked at him. "Later, men from town will come around to buy potions, have their palms read, and watch me dance. For that they pay extra if they wish to stay. It is how we buy supplies."

"Is it just you…that dances, I mean?"

"It is the honor of the oldest unwed female to dance. Soon, I think, Spiro will take my hand…then the honor will fall to Katya."

JD nodded. "Will you miss dancing?"

Yasmina bobbed her head. "Yes, but not the looks the gaje give me. I am grateful our men are always close by." She paused, and then stood. "We have berries. Would you like some?"

"Uh, no, I'm good, thanks." JD watched her go, and smiled as Natalya brought him a cup of hot tea. "Thank you." By the time his cup was drained, JD could hardly keep his eyes open. Minutes later, he was asleep.


Spiro and Nikolai carried JD to his bed. Marishka settled him and turned to a watching Yasmina as she explained why she put sleeping potion in JD's tea.

"It is for the best. He will stay out of sight, and so remain safe." She took her arm. "Come, it is time."


They were still half a day's ride from Prudence, but the six men decided to stop and make camp. The horses were exhausted, as were they, and with it almost sundown they decided to rest up.

Firelight flickered across the faces of the weary men. Buck sighed, causing them all to look his way.

"I can't help to wondering why, if JD was awake, the travelers didn't just leave him in a town someplace."

Nathan answered. "I guess it depends on how badly injured he is. That boy a few towns back suggested whoever the gypsies were tending to, was sick."

"And," Ezra added, "there is no telling if JD has currency on his person to afford a bed in town, much less medical assistance. I also have serious doubts as to the travelers having sufficient funds to assist."

Josiah nodded. "You also have to consider, that simply being associated with these travelers could potentially be life-threatening. My guess, if indeed he is with them, is that is their main concern."

Chris and Vin exchanged glances, their gazes resting on a very uneasy ladies' man. The former spoke.

"No matter what, we reach Prudence by midday tomorrow. I don't want these people getting any further ahead."

"Need to break camp and be gone by sunup," Vin suggested.

Tossing the dregs of his coffee into the fire, Chris stood. "Best we get some shut-eye, then."


Having retired to bed early, though, for the life of him he couldn't recall doing so, JD began to rouse when sounds outside drew his attention. He had heard music for several nights, but this was the first time he'd been awake enough to take a look. Shuffling his battered body carefully around in his concealed position inside Marishka's vardo, JD peeked out through the wagon's small window next to the bed. Men from the nearby town had formed a large circle around the campfire. The glow from the firelight lit up their faces, revealing their anticipation of what was to come, and their growing excitement as the fiddler began to play.

JD caught a gasp as a sparsely dressed woman banged a tambourine and danced as if possessed while the men threw money toward her. His heart thumped in his throat as he watched. He'd heard Buck tell of such things, but had never seen it. JD's eyes shimmered, mesmerized by the spectacle, and his fascination grew when he recalled the woman dancing semi naked in front of the excited men, was Yasmina. He knew Yasmina was a beautiful woman, but like this, she was…captivating.

When the men's enthusiasm grew to occasionally lunge for her, JD was concerned for what might become of Yasmina should the men get out of hand. When they did, one of several gypsy men standing close by would take a half step forward, and any excited male would drop back to the ground.

Exhaustion, and the remnants of the drugged tea still in his system, was making him yawn, so JD reluctantly moved away from the window and hunkered down in the now familiar bed. His dreams that night were filled with music, pretty dancing ladies and disturbing images of his friends riding away from him.


Early morning and Bardu was staring at a broken spoke on one of the wagons' wheels. It had separated from the hub and would need to be repaired. This setback was causing concern…it would mean they had to stay in the area for an extra day, or at least part of it, and judging by the report back from town that Nikolai and Alexi conveyed, staying around was possibly not a safe option.

Regardless, the repair was necessary, so while the women continued to prepare to leave and make breakfast, the men got to work on hitching the horses and fixing the spoke.


Six men were riding hard, now just hours away from the town of Prudence. While hope remained high in their hearts that they would find JD this day, something ominous about their current destination seemed to be spurring them on. Their fears were unspoken, but each man knew the others were feeling it, too. They had not come all this way to lose their youngest, now.


JD groaned aloud at his awkward and pain-filled attempts to put on his pants The vardo door was open, but a heavy curtain veiled off the outside. He jerked when it was pushed aside, and his good hand instantly covered his nether regions, despite him wearing undergarments.


The woman laughed, whimsically, before tugging up his pants when she came near and buttoning them. "The time for modesty is past, sweet one. Myself and Marishka have seen far more than your underdraws."

JD groaned again, but this time it wasn't in pain. He blushed. "My mama's the only woman who's ever seen me…you know…"

The woman eased a shirtsleeve over his broken arm, and smiled. "Not anymore." Re-strapping his arm and placing it in a sling, she tugged the edges of his shirt together to button it. As it hung open, her hand touched his face, and then moved to rest on his bare chest, just over his heart. Their gazes met.

"If I were younger, your departure from this group would not be encouraged." She leaned in to kiss his cheek, but changed course and planted a soft kiss on his lips, instead.

JD's eyes widened. "Uh, not to mention you being promised to a big, strong gypsy fella who'd likely knock my butt right back to Four Corners…or worse."

They laughed. "Mmm, there is that," she grinned.

"You heathen!"

JD and Yasmina looked sharply toward the door to see a man standing there and glaring. The gun in his hand was pointed at them.


Reverend Forbes stared at the delicate fingers enfolding the edges of the open shirt of the young man before him. He spat on the floor. "You lay with these barbarians? You're white for God's sake."

JD was confused, but suddenly aware of noise and shouting all around them from outside. "Huh? Who are you?"

Another hulk of a man clambered into the wagon and hurried past the armed reverend. His meaty hand coiled around Yasmina's arm and he tugged the struggling, howling, hostile woman outside.

JD stepped forward, grabbed the man and tried to pull him off the girl. "Hey! HEY! Leave her alone! Aaaahhh!"

The reverend brought the butt of his rifle down onto a point between JD's shoulders and he went down hard, though managed to save his injured arm. Struggling to clear his head, JD could hear screams from outside. His assailant yelled to someone just before hauling the boy to his feet and dragging him out of the wagon.

Squinting at the bright morning sunshine assaulting his eyes, JD gasped to see armed townsmen all over the encampment. The gypsy men were being corralled into one corner. He could see Bardu and Nikolai were injured, but it didn't appear serious. The women and children were held in another area, and a howling Yasmina was thrown toward them. JD's eyes filled to see people he had come to care for and admire mercilessly manhandled at gunpoint. Mahu and Nukpana were detained to one side and JD was also dragged that way.

"This Godless child is also to be punished," the reverend ordered, pointing at JD and then the two Hopi. "Show them the way of the Lord…then hang them so they may meet their maker directly after their atonement."

Despite his stiffness and pain, JD didn't like what was happening around him one bit, the part about hanging was sitting particularly unfavorably. Hollering out, he broke free of his captor and charged head first at the reverend, successfully taking the man off his feet and disarming him. Lying over the winded preacher, JD was just reaching for the discarded rifle when a boot kicked a blow to his gut, then another. His already bruised ribs protested the abuse as he rolled over in agony. Breathless, and doubled up, he was again dragged to his feet and taken toward a wagon.

Reverend Forbes was helped up and he called after the struggling sheriff. "Go with God, my son…he will embrace you, welcome you home and forgive you your sins."


Because of his strapped arm, JD's good wrist was lashed to the side of a wagon by four strong men, the rope coiling from his wrist, through a wheel and around his body to secure him in place. His shirt was still open and he hissed when the rough wood scratched at his exposed skin. Looking sideways he saw the two Hopi similarly secured. He was unable to turn enough to see who was behind him or what they were doing, but, seconds later, as he heard Yasmina's voice cry out in the distance, he felt the sting and burn of a switch across his back. One of the townsmen sporting a thin, flexible branch, swiped viciously at him, over and over. Shivering, JD fought not to cry out, but with each brutal blow sending his body into pain-filled spasms, and the sounds of two other beatings close by, was making it hard not to.

'Oh God! Someone help us.'


As soon as the six custodians rode into Prudence they knew something was wrong. Despite it being well into morning, the town was quiet. There were several women standing around, some wringing their hands, some staring out toward the horizon as if watching for something. And then it hit them. There were hardly any men around, just a few, mostly old, and some sheepish looking, younger males. Jumping off his horse, Vin walked into the saloon, returning instantly.


Halting his black in front of a man sitting on a barrel, Chris leaned onto the saddlehorn and spoke. "Where is everyone, old timer?"

"Ain't no concern of yours, stranger," the man replied, puffing on a clay pipe as he eyed the angry mustached man glaring down at him.

"We're making it our concern," Buck hissed. The only reason he was still mounted and not shaking the snot out of the old man, was due to Josiah's iron grip on him. "A friend of ours is missing; we think he's with some travelers. Have they passed through here? Well, ole-timer? Answer me, damnit…HAVE THEY?"

"Stay out of it, son," the man said, almost compassionately and not particularly intimidated. He jerked as Tanner spoke next to him.

"My friend asked you a question, mister. Where are they?" His voice was soft but its gravelly quality made the menace in it clear.

The old man paused, glanced around at the six anxious faces, and then to the few people dotted around the street. He finally raised an arm and pointed. "Thataway, 'bout a half-hour ride. You best hurry."

Under no illusion now as to what might be happening, Vin jumped up onto his horse and the six rode hell bent for leather for the gypsy camp.


Barely conscious, JD's beaten body dropped to the ground the instant he was untied. His back, legs, and shoulders burned and ached, but all he could think of was thank God it hadn't gone on any longer. He watched, wearily as Mahu and Nukpana were untied and marched toward a large tree and three horses positioned underneath three nooses. The latter did not register initially, as he marveled at how they still walked proud and upright, while his sorry butt sat miserably in the dirt. While JD focused on riding out the burning pain, a heated debate close by filtered through to his drained mind.

"I don't care what the Reverend says, he's just a kid and he's white…one of us. I ain't hangin' no white man."


JD's head jerked up, and his terrified gaze moved to the two Hopi being manhandled onto the waiting horses. Their hands had been tied behind their backs, and their heads covered with sacking. When the nooses were dropped over their heads he gasped in shock. 'No…no…'


Gritting his teeth, JD somehow struggled to his feet, only to be quickly pushed back down. A voice hissed in his ear.

"Stay down, pup, 'lessin' you wanna hang alongside those redskins."

His heart racing, JD shoved off the hand and stared at the man, unashamed as his tears flowed unchecked. "This is murder. You can't do this…they've done nothing wrong. Please mister…you can stop this." His words halted to the simultaneous sounds of horseflesh being slapped and gunfire somewhere in the distance, and all the while, the despairing, angry corralled travelers were desperately trying to intercede.


Considering their job done, the men around JD walked away. Struggling back onto his feet, JD swayed, but his own pain was momentarily buried as the horror of two men hanging from a branch stole his breath. He could see Mahu's legs jerking violently, while Nukpana's barely twitched. Torn over who to help, JD rallied and went to the man moving. Grabbing the flailing legs with his good arm, JD's shoulder took the strain as he attempted to lift and ease the pressure from the Indian's throat.

"Easy, I'm…trying to…help you…"

JD's frantic efforts were spotted, and a furious reverend, gun in hand, marched toward him. Despite seeing the man cock the hammer, JD defiantly held his ground, though expected a bullet to tear through him any minute. Instead, the pounding of hooves caught his attention, and also that of the townsmen. The armed violators scattered when six horsemen rode into the encampment. The liberated gypsy men and women ran to help JD, but some of his own friends were already closing in.

His body now shaking with the exertion, the young sheriff screamed out. "Someone help us!"

Spiro was already at Nukpana's still body, while Josiah and Chris relieved JD. "Got him, son."

Vin turned his horse with his knees as he aimed his rifle and fired three shots. The first went clean through Nukpana's rope, dropping the man into Spiro's and also Ezra's arms, and the second two through Mahu's, releasing him to Josiah and Chris. Laying the Hopis down, the hushed gathering waited to see if they had survived. The only sounds were the sobs of the gathered travelers and JD's labored, emotional breathing, as he kneeled close by. Buck dropped to JD's side while all gathered watched Marishka and Nathan examine the Indians.

JD looked tearfully up at Bardu as the leader drew close. "I…I couldn't help both of them…I'm sorry…"

Buck put a protective arm around the little guy he was growing mighty fond of, daring anyone to accuse JD of anything.

Bardu placed a hand on JD's head. "You served our people well. Pachave tut…thank you," he said softly. His welling gaze returned to the drama at hand.

Mahu was eased into a sitting position. He was pale and shaken but alive. He turned to see Nukpana had not moved. JD hunched over and dropped his head, guilt at having to choose between them gnawing into his weary bones.

"I'm sorry…"

Buck frowned at the whispered words. "Easy, boy…seems to me you did all you could, here," he soothed, while well aware he wasn't getting through right now. He ran his gaze over his friend. God, the kid looked like hell and about done in. They watched as Mahu was helped to his feet. The Hopi fished around in the pocket on his belt and took out a tiny leather pouch. Kneeling next to Nukpana, he opened the Hopi's mouth and placed a few drops of the liquid within the pouch under the prone man's tongue. Placing a hand on his fallen brother's head, Mahu bowed his own head in silent prayer.

JD could see Vin was pondering something. He took a guess that the prayer or chant was usually out loud. "They can't speak," JD rasped. Vin nodded his acceptance of the explanation.

A choking sound was heard, followed by a large gasp. Mahu pulled Nukpana upright, and the latter rubbed at his ravaged throat as he looked bemusedly around at the worried and stunned faces staring at him. One thing he noticed was JD's gaze leave his and drop to the ground. A quick glance at Mahu and after a few hand signals, the recovering Hopi nodded. Extending his hand, Nukpana was helped to his feet. The pair shakily approached JD and waited until the boy looked at them.

"I'm sorry," JD whispered, still finding it hard to believe a man was just apparently brought back from the dead.

Squatting down, the Indians stretched out one arm and each placed a hand on one of JD's shoulders, then one on each other's. For almost a minute, the three remained huddled together. Vin glanced at the other five peacemakers and winked as he watched the proceedings approvingly.

Comforted by their actions, JD's guilt eased but a moan escaped when his aches and pains came back with alarming speed. With a nod, the Hopis released JD to the one who hovered, stood and then shuffled over to their adopted family. In seconds they were led away, no doubt to rest and recover from their ordeal.


Wherever Buck touched as he tried to help, JD hissed and cried out, and in exasperation, the big man stood and turned to Nathan. The healer lifted JD's shirt and examined their youngest, his expression growing angrier on seeing dozens of fresh bruises appearing. JD's back was exposed and all six were shocked.

"You been whipped?" Nathan semi-growled." He saw JD glance toward a wagon, its wheels still holding remnants of soiled rope. The boy nodded, and his head dropped in shame.

Most jolted when Buck roared in anger and it was all Chris could do to stop him and others from riding after the fleeing townsmen. "I know how you feel, but right now, these people need us more," Chris said quietly. "And so does the kid."

Hurting and dizzy, JD raised his head. Beads of perspiration glistened on his top lip and brow, the latter causing black tendrils of hair to hang limp and heavy over his eyes. "It's okay, Buck, I'm... fine."

Moments later the pain beat him and JD blacked out into Buck's arms.

Buck looked at the others in alarm. Josiah waded in, leaned forward and took the limp youth into his powerful arms, allowing Buck to jump to his feet.

"Come on, let's get him to somewhere he can rest up."


Marishka joined them and led the way. In no time JD was settled into the bed he had used for almost a week, but this time he'd been carefully laid on his stomach. While he slept, Marishka and Nathan tended to his injuries, and applied salve to his beaten back and legs. Looking over the pot of balm, Nathan nodded his approval; it wasn't one he was familiar with, but he could see it was already reducing the redness and swelling. As he handed it back, Marishka closed his hands around it in a gesture for him to keep it.

"Thank you."

"Naj pala soste. You are welcome."

Outside the vardo, Buck paced. He stopped momentarily when a beautiful gypsy woman joined him. He smiled and touched his hat. "Miss."

She pointed to the wagon. "You are JD's family?"

Buck nodded, not even stopping to consider the answer. "Yeah."

She smiled. "He hoped you would come, but was unsure if he was worthy."

"He what?" Buck shook his head and glanced back at the wagon. "Stupid damned kid."

Yasmina tilted her chin, her eyes flashing "He is not stupid, he is kind, brave, and honorable."

Buck's grin widened. "Oh, I know that, darlin'. And only I get to call him stupid."

Nathan appeared from behind the curtain and smiled at the five men hovering close by. "He's resting. His arm is broke but looks to be healing well. He's gonna be a mite sore for a few days, not sure how we're gonna get him home."

Overhearing, Bardu stepped forward. "We have a buckboard. It is yours."

The men nodded at his gracious offer. These people had very little, so offering the buckboard was a big deal.

"I'll see it's returned to you," Chris promised.

"If we are back your way again…we will come for it." Bardu extended his arm and he and Chris shook hands.

Seeing Baba Marishka exit the vardo, Buck slipped inside to sit with JD. He gaped at the ornate and colorful interior, smiling to himself as he moved closer to the bed and took a seat next to the object of his concern. Buck was surprised when, after only a few minutes, JD blinked open his eyes and looked sleepily at him.


Buck nodded and leaned in. "Well…got kinda boring in town, so we figured we might as well. It gave us something to do."

JD's cheek dimpled. "You're still full of crap, Buck," he rasped.

Buck chuckled. "What can I tell you, kid? You bring out the best in me." Sensing all or some of the others were in the small doorway watching and listening, Buck added to his words.

"'Course, we had to make the journey, place was falling apart while you were gone. Chris was gettin' all antsy 'cause you was taking so long, an' Vin was missing those questions you like to ask him. Ezra...well, he started goin' soft and letting folk win at poker, while Josiah almost took his fingers off fixin' up the church, and Nathan...well his only patient after you left was ole Bessie's made-up friend."

He grinned. "Coming after you was something they all needed to do to keep 'em from going stir-crazy and me...I just followed 'em."

JD tried to fight the sleep that was claiming him, but was failing. His gaze locked with Buck's. "Thank you," he sighed.

Buck leaned in further, and without thinking brushed damp hair from JD's closing eyes. "No sweat, Kid. Truth is, I kinda missed you raggin' on me."

Once JD was asleep, Buck turned his head and bobbed his eyebrows at the others. "Did I miss anything?"

Laughing softly, the five men backed away from the wagon and went to help the gypsies put their affairs in order.


Dawn the next morning saw both groups packed up and ready to head out. Bardu and Marishka, and Chris and Vin met in the cleared area and shook hands.

"Are you sure you don't want us to go after the men that attacked you?" Chris asked.

Bardu looked around at his people and shook his head. "No, thank you. It is done, and we will soon be gone from here."

Larabee nodded. "Safe journey."

"Zhan le Devlesa tai sastimasa…go with God and in good health," Bardu returned.

Propped up with pillows and cushioned with quilts, JD watched from the back of the buckboard. He'd made the expected arguments for riding home on his horse, and lost…no great surprise…but in truth, JD wasn't sorry. Every part of him was sore and stiff this morning, and he seriously doubted he would get far before he was struggling as his butt, legs, and back were stinging from the previous day's beatings.

His gaze saddened when it fell on Nukpana and Mahu. Ezra, seated patiently on his horse while waiting for Vin and Chris to mount up, noticed JD's change of manner and walked his horse over to the open wagon.

"Mister Dunne, are you in pain?"


"Your demeanor has somewhat…deteriorated. Is there something you need?"

About to say no, JD looked at the southerner. "Can I ask you a question?"

"Ask away, my friend," Ezra smiled, then wondered what he might have let himself in for as he recalled JD's amazing penchant for raising questions.

"Ready when you are, JD."

"When…" JD swallowed. "After they beat me and the Hopi, I heard one man say he wouldn't hang me 'cause I'm white. I got to thinking…did those folks hate the Hopis and the gypsies because they don't always speak English? 'Cause they ain't much darker than me."

Ezra smiled at JD's interpretation of 'white' and cleared his throat. "Prejudice comes in many forms, my friend. Color, creed, nationality, ability, status…it takes a special person to see beyond them. I would like to think I'm getting there, I already know, you, JD, are already there, as are most of the rest of our little group. Don't take it to heart, son, just be yourself…and hopefully many more will one day see the light as you do."

JD turned his head as Nukpana approached. He wore black paint on his face from below his eyes up to his hairline, and a small headdress of part-yellow-dyed, and grey fur with white and black feathers. He handed JD an earthenware pot with markings all around it. Bardu drew near, along with Chris and Vin, who both mounted up as they reached their horses.

"This pot," Bardu explained, "is a tradition of theirs." He pointed to the patterns. "It tells a story…your story, from the moment we met you, until today."

JD's eyes glistened as he turned it in his hands. "Thank you," he said softly and he looked back at the Indians. "I wish I had something to offer, too." he said to the Roma leader.

Bardu smiled and squeezed his good shoulder. "You gave them your courage and the gift of life. This is but a token of their gratitude to you. The debt is still owed, and always will be."

JD leaned in. "Why is Nukpana wearing black paint on his face? Is he mad about something?"

Bardu glanced at Vin and acknowledged his desire for him to answer.


The boy looked toward the tracker.

"Outside of war, the color black is the mark of mournin'. Reckon it to be for the loss of their birthright." Vin's cheek dimpled. "For Nukpana to wear it in front of a white man, shows their respect and trust."

JD swallowed. "After what I saw them go through, I hope they understand how much respect I got for them, too."

Bardu nodded and turned to join his family. "They do, chiavala. They do."


With Milagro tied to the back of the buckboard and their own horses pulling the wagon, Josiah and Nathan were seated and ready to leave, as were the other four mounted men. Yasmina called out and ran to the wagon. She climbed on

"I came to say goodbye."

JD looked at his friends. "Anyone have a dollar?"

Buck raised a hand. "I got this." He flipped a coin to JD and the youth snatched it from the air.

JD handed it to Yasmina. "I watched you dance. Figured the least I could do was pay you."

The woman giggled, took the coin, bit it, and slipped it between her breasts. "You sly one!" She touched her hand to his face. "Did you like what you saw?"

JD blushed. "Uh huh."

As his friends laughed, she leaned in and kissed his cheek. "Well, that is good to know."

Jumping down, Yasmina joined Marishka and Bardu and all the gypsies gathered to bid goodbye. "Latcho drom! Dza devlesa! Goodbye! And God go with you!"

Chris tipped his hat to them then looked around at his friends. "Alright, let's ride!"


While they traveled, JD studied the earthenware pot. "Hey, Vin!"

Tanner pulled alongside. "Yeah, Kid?"

"Do you have any idea what all these markings mean?"

Vin nodded. "Some, maybe."

"Do you think you can work out what the story is when we get back?"

"I can try."

"Do other Indians do that, or just the Hopis?"

The other five men were chuckling at the exchanges. Vin made a face at them.

"I reckon all tribes make clay pots."

There was a pause.

"Hey, Vin, how'd they make the paint for their faces?"

"Well, black is from powdered charred wood, and black earth, mixed with buffalo fat." Vin chuckled, softly. "Hey, Kid."

JD looked at Vin, his eyes wide. "Yeah?"

Tanner leaned over and gently punched his arm. "Welcome back."

JD grinned. "Thanks. It's real good to be going home." He eased himself down into the padded wagon and yawned. "I have a whole heap of new things to ask."

Tanner looked around at his amused compadres. "Well, Bucklin's been sayin' he's missed your jawin', so I reckon he can handle it, Kid."

JD recognized the tease in Vin's tone. He giggled at Buck's disgruntled features and played to Vin's lead. "Gee, thanks, Buck."

Buck huffed, noisily, but there was no irritation in it. "Laugh it up, boy…that ain't all we'll be talking about."

Hunkering down further, JD snickered softly and whispered to himself. "I wouldn't want it any other way, big brother."

The End
Thanks for riding along