Deliver Us From Evil
By: Margarett Cassidy
‘Second in the Crosses We Bare Series’
 

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Disclaimer: We don't own or pretend to own the Mag 7. That belongs to Mirisch Co. and CBS.
Warnings: PG13 for language and violence.
Authors' notes: This is somewhat graphic, so beware,  smarm/h/c. The poem in the story is from
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. If the time period is off some, please forgive us for the creative
liberty taken. The poem at the end of the story is from 'Poems that touch the Heart'; compiled by
A. L. Alexander.
Maggs and I would like to say THANK YOU to everyone who has given us such
kind support over the last SIX!! Months!!. Yes, six long months have passed since we began the
second in the Cross’s We Bare Series but it has been a lot of fun. Although, as Maggs says,
DUFE has been like a ‘burr under our saddle’, it has been a great opportunity for us to explore a
lot of things about the characters and ourselves! It’s also given us a chance to hear from so many
you out there in computer land. We love that part the best. !! So it is with great pleasure and
some sadness that we offer up the Conclusion of Deliver Us From Evil!! Enjoy!

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Some people were never meant to exist in this  world; that’s why God gave writer’s the ability to
create their own......

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“EACH OF US IS THE EMBODIMENT OF TWO DISTINCT AND OPPOSING  FORCES;
GOOD AND EVIL.  EACH FIGHTING FOR SUPREMACY INSIDE US.”
...............HENRY JECKYLL, DR JECKYLL AND MR. HYDE

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Somewhere outside of Four Corners......

In the soft, luminescent glow of moonlight, blood glistened like liquid rubies strewn across the
frost covered ground.

“Oh God,” Vin Tanner moaned as he slowly pushed himself to his feet and stared at the carnage
around him.

Haunted lifeless eyes returned his puzzled look as if pondering the same burning question raging
through the bounty hunter’s soul. “What the hell happened?”

*************************************************************

“I can’t believe I got talked into going to Eagle Bend twice in one month.” Buck Wilmington
complained. “Isn’t it ever Ezra’s turn?”

“Do you remember the last time Ezra went to Eagle Bend?” Chris Larabee gave his friend a
sidelong glance.

“We got him out of jail didn’t we?”

“Only after we promised the sheriff we wouldn’t let him come back.” Chris frowned, “Why are
you complaining now, we’re almost home.”

“Cause I’m tired, hungry and there wasn’t one single pretty girl at Eagle Bend.”

“ ’Single’ being the optional word.”

Buck snorted, “I’ll have you know Chris that I have mended my ways considerably.” Before the
older gunslinger could reply, hoofbeats could be heard pounding in the distance, advancing on
them in a heated pace.

“Rider coming.” Wilmington said quickly, his hand automatically going to his sidearm.

Larabee’s eyes narrowed, and something resembling a grin crossed his face. “Take it easy Buck,
I’d know that horse anywhere.”

A large white stallion, with a glistening black blaze adorning its face, galloped into view.

“Well, I’ll be damned.” Wilmington muttered, as the rider pulled his mount to a halt near to
where Chris and Buck had stopped. “If it ain’t our old friend, Lukas Conley.”

“Funny, I don’t recall us being friends Wilmington.” Conley’s deep voice held no hint
of humor. “In fact, I think I swore if I ever found you in my town again, I’d bury you there.”

“Good thing we’re not in your town, ain’t it?” Buck replied with a short laugh.

“What brings you out this way, Lukas?” Chris quickly interrupted the impending argument.

The older man shifted in his saddle and focused his attention on Larabee. “I wish I could say it
was for a friendly visit. Its been a long time Chris.”

“Too long.” Larabee replied sincerely. The legendary gunslinger had never had many friends, but
at one time, he had counted Marshal Lukas Conley among the reserved few.

 “I heard you was helping Judge Travis out in Four Corners?”

“We are.” Buck was the one to reply.

Conley ignored the interruption. “You and six others.”

Chris nodded, “Thats right.”

“I might need your help.” Lukas removed his dusty, black hat and ran a hand through his short
salt and pepper hair. “I’m on the trail of a murderer, one of the sickest bastards I’ve seen in a
long time.”

“You think he’s headed to Four Corners?” Buck’s mind instantly shifted gears and went
to thoughts of their partners. Vin and J.D. should have been the only ones in Four Corners, unless
Ezra had returned from his trip to Shilock. Nathan and Josiah had planned a visit to the Indian
reservation to take medicine and supplies, and Buck was pretty sure they wouldn’t have returned
yet.

“Could be.” Lukas replied, but continued to look at Chris. “I lost his trail back in Ballintine.”

“I know the place.” Larabee nodded for his friend to continue.

“Seems the killer continued his streak there after he left my town. Use the same method and
everything. The sheriff and his deputies had already left hot on his trail before I arrived. I ain’t
never caught up with them.”

“Must be one mean hombre, to warrant such attention.” Buck eyed Chris nervously, the sinking
feeling in the pit of his stomach beginning to grow.

“If you call cutting a storekeep and his woman up beyond recognition mean, then yeah.” Luke
snapped. “Not to mention robbing a bank and blowing away a teller.”

“Take it easy Luke.” Chris held up his hand. “We’re all on the same side here.”

“Sorry,” the sheriff relented. “I ain’t had no rest since this mess started last week.”

Cold gray eyes flicked from Chris to Buck and back, “And I don’t plan on sleeping till Vin
Tanner is hanging dead from the end of a rope.”

**********************************

Vin Tanner was locked in a waking nightmare. Not only could he not remember how he had
gotten to this particular clearing in the woods; he had no idea who the three dead men scattered
around him were.

It was evident by there mutilated corpses that they hadn’t left this world under the best of
circumstances. The tracker suddenly felt very ill. There was so much blood. It was all over the
ground, splattered against the trees, and even covering his own body.

At first he had thought he had been wounded, but upon closer inspection not one scratch had
been found. Only the terrible pounding in his head and the overwhelming nausea assaulting him,
gave testament that he had somehow been involved. That and of course his bloody knife and gun
he found lying near him.

The tracker stumbled past one of the bloody bodies and made his way toward the still smoldering
ashes of the campfire. He was freezing. He wasn’t sure it was from shock or the cool October
night air. But thoughts of getting warm were soon vanquished when his eyes fell upon a black,
bowler hat and a silver star he would know anywhere.

“J.D.,” he whispered into the night, a vague memory flashing through his mind, too quickly to be
grasped. ‘Oh no.’

“J.D.!!” The bounty hunter’s yell was so loud it startled even him. Unfortunately, no reply came,
only mocking dead faces, silently watching the distraught young man.

“J.D. where are you?” Another violent wave of pain crashed upon Vin, and the tracker fell to his
knees, hands clutching his head tightly. A name, a familiar face, shown like a beacon behind shut
eyes.

“Chris,” he sighed softly. “Chris will know what to do. He has too.”

************************************

“What the hell are you talking about, Conley?” Chris Larabee’s voice had lost all it’s
congeniality.

“Is this some kind of joke?” Buck joined in, giving the Marshal a menacing glare.

“I don’t find anything funny about murder, Wilmington.” Lukas turned back to Chris whose face
had become its usual stone front. “Do you know something about this Tanner that I don’t ?”

“I know you’ve been misinformed,” the gunslinger replied icily.

Lukas shook his head. He knew his old friend had changed over the years, but he had never seen
him act so hostile. Well, unless something or someone he cared about was threatened.

“Misinformed? What the hell are ‘you’ talking about, Chris.?”

“He’s talking about you making a big mistake. Vin Tanner wouldn’t no more murder someone in
cold blood than I would.”

“Somehow that doesn’t make me feel any better, Wilmington,” Conley scoffed. “After all, I don’t
put wife-stealing, lying , and  back-stabbing scum much above a murdering bastard.”

“Why you...” Buck made to move towards the older man, but Chris quickly maneuvered his
horse between the two.

“You best watch what you say, Lukas, especially when you have no idea what trouble you’re
headin’ for.”

“I may not know what lies ahead, but I’ve seen the destruction this Vin Tanner left behind and I
aim on bringing him down for it. No matter what your friend here has to say about it.”

“Buck was speaking the truth, Luke. The Vin Tanner I know wouldn’t kill anyone unless he had
no choice.”

The Marshall eyed Larabee carefully. It wasn’t like the man he knew to take vouching for others
lightly. In fact, he knew the legendary gunslinger to be an excellent judge of character. Well,
except for where Wilmington was concerned.

“This Tanner  you claim to know, he a buffalo tracker turned bounty hunter? Wanted for murder
in Tuscosa?”

“He was framed for that!” Buck shot, vehemently, answering Conley’s question before Chris
could.

“Like I said , Marshall,” Chris never took his piercing stare from the older man. “Vin ain’t no
murderer. You’ve got the wrong man.”

“I’m afraid the facts say differently.” Lukas sighed, and looked away, uncomfortably. “There was
a witness from the first murders. He got banged up a bit when he tried to stop Tanner from
escaping. Said he recognized him from a wanted poster in Tuscosa. I checked it out, the
descriptions matched."

“That’s all you got?” Buck scoffed. “Damn, your witness might not have gotten a good look at
the killer. You did say he got in a scuffle with him.  Or he could’ve even had a grudge against
Vin, decided to finger him as the killer on purpose.”

Conley rolled his eyes, “ Then I guess the little boy who saw his mama gunned down in the
Ballintine Bank had a grudge against Mr. Tanner too? Huh?”  When Buck or Chris didn’t say
anything Lukas continued. “Because when the sheriff questioned him , he told that the teller had
called out the name Tanner just before the bandit slit his throat. His physical description also
matched that the first witness gave.”

“I don’t care what anyone said or heard. You’re wrong!” Buck insisted, getting more angry by the
minute.

Chris was mulling over the information Lukas had supplied them with when a terrible thought
suddenly crossed his mind.  “ The Sheriff from Ballintine,” Larabee’s head snapped up to glare at
Conley. “You said he and his deputies were looking for Vin also."
 
“They are,” the Marshal confirmed. “The man he left in charge told me about the witness and
what direction the small posse was headed.”

“Oh no,” Buck mumbled, realizing the possible problem.  “They could’ve by-passed us while we
were in Eagle Bend last night.. They may have already made it to Four Corners.”

“Let’s ride,” Chris didn’t give Lukas Conley a chance to object or even respond. His only
concern now was Vin  It wasn’t likely the lawmen would be too open to discussion on the bounty
hunter’s innocence and he also knew it wouldn’t be like Vin to go along quietly. And of course
there was J.D.  There’d be no way the kid would let their friend go. Least not without a fight.

“We better get there in time,” Buck growled, casting Chris a glance that let the gunslinger know
the two were on the same wave length.

Then, they were off. Conley watched the two retreating men for a moment before spouting a
number of choice curse words, and following after them at a frantic pace. Only reunited with
Wilmington and Chris for less than fifteen minutes and he already had the overwhelming feeling
trouble was nipping at his heels.

One thing was for certain, life around his old friend was never dull. Friends. He just hoped they
he and Larabee could remain that after Luke hanged Vin Tanner. Because that was exactly what
planned to do.

***********************************************

Four Corners.....................

Ezra Standish paced in front of the Sheriff ‘s office  door for at least the ten thousandth time
since the sun had come up. He didn’t know what else to do. He had tried playing solitaire. Even a
game of chance didn’t interest him. It was unnatural. Perhaps his mother had been right about
making attachments. If you cared for no one, then there would be no one to lose  But then again,
nothing ventured, nothing gained. Wasn’t that what gambling was all about?

Of course, Ezra usually made sure the cards were stacked in his favor before making a wager, but
the game of  life rarely left any opportunity for cheating. Even for a pro like himself. So, now he
was forced to wait and hope. Hope that the odds would somehow fall in his favor legitimately
and that Chris Larabee would once again prove to be their Ace in the hole.

He didn’t have to wait long.  In the distance, the gambler could see two horses racing their way
into town. No, make that three. The two in the lead were definitely Chris and Buck . But who
was the third? Reinforcements?  No, that didn’t make since. His friends shouldn’t even know
there was trouble. Unless, they had found some misfortune of their own. Although entirely
possible, Ezra hoped it wasn’t the case. The Seven, make that three at the moment, were going to
need all their efforts to stop the travesty which was about to befall one of their own.

“Ezra!” Buck Wilmington was the first to pull his horse to a skidding halt in front of the office.
“Where’s J.D.?” He demanded, practically jumping from his saddle.

The gambler started to open his mouth only to have another question launched at him. “Have you
seen Vin? How long have you been back in town? Is Josiah and Nathan back too?”

“Mr. Wilmington, if you would allow me to explain.”

“Explain what?” Chris Larabee didn’t like the guilty look on Ezra’s face. It was much too
familiar and was bound to mean he wasn’t about to like what his friend was going to say. He  slid
from his horse and didn’t bother to acknowledge the other man who followed suit.

But Ezra did. The gambler’s trained eyes gave Luke Conley a knowledgeable once over and
quickly decided the man was dangerous. Dangerous in a way Chris was dangerous. And that
worried him.

“It’s all right, you can talk in front of him.” Larabee’s words brought the other man from his
musings and for once Ezra realized he was quite clueless as what exactly he should say.

So, he told the truth "I’m afraid that while you and Mr. Wilmington were away on your
excursion, circumstances beyond my control led to the unfortunate removal of one of our elite
entourage.”

“When?” Chris asked quickly , as Buck swore and stomped his foot on the ground.

Conley was still trying to figure out what the man in the fancy clothes had just said.

“Last night. Just before dusk. Three gentlemen, and I do use that term lightly, rode into town and
proceeded to make their business known to our young sheriff. It seems as though they had
procured rather disturbing information concerning our compatriot, Mr.Tanner.”

“We know about the murders, Ezra.” Buck was in no mood for one of his friend’s drawn out
explanations. “What about Vin and the kid?”

Their card wielding friend raised a questioning eyebrow but continued on, “The lawmen insisted
on knowing if Mr. Tanner had been through our fair town as of the last forty-eight hours.  Mr.
Dunne informed them, ever so politely, that no one by that name had graced us with his presence
and that would have been that, but, unfortunately, our young bounty hunter  had spotted the three
, armed , outsiders entering the sheriff’s office and...”

“And had come to check on J.D.” Chris finished for the gambler.

“ Well, yes, and you can imagine the surprise when their wanted felon entered the local lawman’s
office and proceeded to ask them their intentions.”

“What did the kid do?” Wilmington asked, anxiously. “And don’t tell me he did anything
stupid.”

Ezra  shook his head and gave his friends a mischievous smile. “On the contrary. Our sheriff did
exactly what any law abiding public official would have done. He arrested Mr. Tanner for
murder.”

“He what!?” Buck and Chris asked simultaneously.

“He took him into custody,” the gambler explained. “It was , after all ,the only way ‘he’ could
extradite ‘his’ prisoner back to Ballintine.”

“Damn, I think I’m beginning to wear off on the kid,” Buck beamed proudly.

“You still haven’t told us where exactly the Sheriff from Ballintine or the prisoner Vin Tanner
is?” Lukas Conley was beginning to grow weary of this game. Getting a straight answer from this
man was about as difficult as finding a needle in a haystack. And much more frustrating.

“Didn’t I?” Ezra drawled casually, unwilling to let his growing uneasiness about this stranger
show. “I thought I mentioned they rode out at dusk, along with our sheriff and the ‘prisoner’, Mr.
Tanner.”

“You just let them go?” Chris said a little harsher than he meant to.

Ezra’s impassive facade wavered for a brief moment and Larabee instantly regretted the
insinuation he was sure his words had held. After all, the gambler had more than proven himself
over the last year.

“I had no choice, Mr. Larabee. The Ballintine lawmen were none too receptive to J.D. riding with
them and he was wearing a badge. I don’t think having another intruder along for the jaunt  was
exactly in their agenda. Besides, I had no way of knowing that you and Mr. Wilmington had been
informed of these turn of events. With Nathan and Josiah gone, I was elected the bearer of ill
tidings."

Chris merely nodded. Ezra was right to stay and warn the others. But, there would be time for
apologies later, after their group was intact.

“If they left late in the evening , they may have camped close to here. Which means they’d only
have a half day’s lead on us back to Ballintine.”

“I can get us some supplies and we can head back out,” Buck suggested, just as ready as Chris
was to find their friends.

“I need to send a telegraph and then I’m coming with you.” Lukas informed them, starting to turn
and head across the street. But something on the edge of town caught his eye and he stopped
mid-stride. At the end of the road, opposite the side he and the others had rode in from, came a
horse.

It was instantly obvious that there was something wrong. The horse appeared to be riderless and
was walking somewhat sideways due to his head being turned in an unnatural manner.

Conley looked back over his shoulder to see that the others were now also following his line of
sight. As he returned to watching the approaching animal he immediately saw the problem. There
'was' a rider on the horse. Slumped low against the nape of the animal's neck, hidden from sight
at a distance, the man’s right arm hung limply to the side, still grasping the reins, which were
pulling his mounts head as if to turn.

“Oh God.”  The Marshal barely heard the whispered words, before Chris Larabee rushed past
him like a whirlwind.

“That’s Bailey!” Buck would know J.D.’s horse anywhere.

Lukas only watched as all three men rushed down the street towards the approaching mount.

Chris was the first to reach the animal and Bailey shied slightly when the gunslinger quickly
grabbed her bridle. It was obvious she was spooked and after what Chris saw next, it was no
wonder.

Vin Tanner,  nearly covered from head to toe in what looked like blood, was draped across the
saddle, unmoving.

“Vin!” Buck’s loud voice startled Chris and caused the large mare to balk.

“Easy girl,” Larabee soothed. “Easy now.”  His words not only did the trick on Bailey but also
brought about a stirring from above.

“Chris?” Vin Tanner managed to lift his head from it’s uncomfortable position resting on the
saddle horn, to seek out the voice he was sure he had just heard.

The older gunslinger let out the breath he hadn’t even realized he’d been holding. “Jesus, Vin, I
thought you were dead,” he said softly taking the reins from his friends grasp and handing them
to Ezra, who was staring at the bounty hunter in stunned silence.

“I think...I should be,” Vin moaned and tried to push himself up straight in the saddle.
Unfortunately, a wave of dizziness decided to crash upon him at that very moment and he only
managed to send himself sliding off the side of Bailey.

“Vin!” Chris and Buck both rushed to their friend’s side. Larabee was the one to make it to him
first, just before the younger man tumbled from atop the horse.

Catching the bounty hunter in his arms, the gunslinger gently eased his friend to the ground.

“Shit,” Buck cussed. “Is he all right?”

“I don’t know,” the gunslinger swallowed hard and tried to identify any wound on his friend, that
could explain the great amount of blood loss. He quickly checked his chest and arms, and then
ran careful fingers over the tracker’s head before brushing strands of blood stained hair away
from his face. “I can’t find any gunshots.”

Blue eyes suddenly blinked open, and a hand reached out, “Chris? Is that you?”

“It’s me, Pard. Just lie still O.K.?”

Vin’s eyes went from Chris’s worried face to Buck’s and his eyes widened in fright. “Oh, God.
J.D.!”

Buck took a reflexive step back as if the tracker had physically struck him. “What about J.D.?”

Vin’s sudden and ghastly appearance had thrown Wilmington for a moment and he hadn’t even
considered the fact that J.D. was supposed to be with the tracker. And if Vin wasn’t injured.... if
it wasn’t his blood everywhere... then who’s was it?  “Where is he, Vin? Is he all right?"

“I..I..don’t know.”  The younger man made to sit up, but Chris gently pushed him back down.

“Don’t move. We don’t know how bad you’re hurt yet.” Larabee turned to Ezra, “Go get Nathan
and Josiah. Now.”

“Is he going to be O.K.?” The gambler inquired before swinging himself into Bailey's saddle.

“He’ll be a lot better once Nathan’s here,” Chris replied grimly.

Ezra needed no more encouragement as he tore off for the Indian village in a heated pace. It was
a two hour ride at best , but the gambler intended on breaking records to get there.

“J.D.,” Vin mumbled again, in a confused voice. “Where’s J.D.?”

“He was with you, kid, don’t you remember?” Buck placed a comforting hand on his friends
forehead but wasn’t bothering to hide his fear now. He was on the verge of panic, his mind racing
through the many ways a man could lose as much blood as Vin was sporting. “Did he get hurt or
something? Why isn’t he with you?”

“Buck,” Chris warned softly, noticing how agitated the hurt man was becoming. He was worried
sick about J.D. too, but upsetting Vin wouldn’t do any of them any good.

The tracker shoved at the hands holding him down. “I’ve... got.. to find, J.D.  I’m s’pose to watch
out for him.”

The young man’s words were not as weak now, but slurred, almost as if he’d been drinking.

“Sounds like he might have hit his head or something.”  Chris and Buck had completely
forgotten about Conley, who was now watching the scene with idle curiosity.

Wilmington and Larabee ignored the man's commentary and continued to focus their attention on
Vin. “Vin, we just need you to calm down. We’ll find J.D. I promise.” Chris assured.

The tracker calmed some but his hands tightened around Chris’s jacket. Something was
definitely wrong. “There was so much blood, Chris. All the others were dead. Dead! Slaughtered
like animals.”

“The Sheriff from Ballintine and his men..” Vin’s last words drew the Marshal closer to the three
men. “He probably killed them and finished off your sheriff too.”

Buck was instantly on his feet and in the man’s face, “Don’t you ever say that!” He grabbed
Lukas by his shirt. “Vin didn’t kill nobody and J.D.’s not dead. I’d know it if he were.”

“I’m sorry , Buck.” The tracker’s words tore at the older man’s heart  and he roughly released the
now speechless Conley.

Wilmington had never heard his friend sound so lost or defenseless and his protective instinct
sent him back to Vin’s side. “I couldn’t find him, I tried. There was just so much death and I
couldn’t think straight...” The bounty hunter was now looking pleadingly at Wilmington.

“It’s O.K., Vin. Just take it easy," Chris tried again, feeling incredibly helpless. He could almost
feel the bounty hunter's runaway heart pounding in his chest, where the gunslinger hands were
pressed.

"Yeah, I’m sure the kid’s fine. He’s pretty good at taking care of himself.” Buck forced a smile
for the younger man’s benefit. “Probably off playing sheriff, tracking the men who did this.”

Tanner shook his head, getting upset again. “No, he couldn’t.” He managed to pull one arm free
from Chris and jammed it in his duster pocket. “Not with out this, he wouldn’t.”

With one trembling hand, the bounty hunter held out J.D.’s silver sheriff’s star and waited for
Buck to take it. “J.D.’s dead. I know it.”

*************************************************

Lukas Conley leaned up against the wall of the make-shift clinic he had been waiting in for the
last three hours and watched Buck Wilmington in quiet amazement. He’d never seen the man so
still before. It was a little unnerving. The younger gunslinger had not moved more than a few feet
from his position by the door to Vin Tanner’s room and hadn’t spoken a single word. His  only
motions were to turn the small tin star he was holding over and over in his hand, stopping
momentarily to look at it as if it hid some magical answer to the location of their missing sheriff.

Luke was definitely puzzled. He almost felt sorry for Wilmington.  Almost. Hell, he’d seen men
lose their wives, even their brothers, and not look so down-hearted.

And Chris. What was up with his long time friend? He hadn’t come away from the distraught
murder suspects bedside since the three had carried him to the clinic. Larabee had never seemed
the type to forge such loyalties. But something had changed. Maybe hitching himself up with the
odd band of misfits he had aligned himself with did the trick.

Riding with Wilmington would be bad enough. But teaming up with a raving-mad murderer and
a showy, embellishing con-man? Then there was the giant of a man who kept spouting biblical
verses left and right and the colored, who the others had called a doctor!

Why, when they’d shown up from the reservation , Conley had almost choked on his tobacco.
He hadn’t even had the privilege of meeting the appointed lawman of the group, but from bits
and pieces he’d picked up, the sheriff was no more than a teenager. What in the hell was Chris
Larabee thinking? Maybe losing his wife and son had really pushed him over the edge.

But then again, these Seven, were suppose to be the best. He’d heard more than a few stories
about their magnificent feats.

Conley chanced another glance at Buck and felt a twinge deep in his gut. He wasn’t sure if it was
sympathy or maybe envy. It’d been years since he had even come close to caring so much about
another person, and even longer since some one gave a damn about him. Perhaps, there was more
to this team of men than one could see on the surface. Might be, despite their obvious
differences, their was some kind of connection that others didn’t quite understand. Maybe, that
bond would be impossible to break, and he’d have to take on seven men instead of the 'one'
wanted man he had bargained for.

Luke sighed, and ran a hand over his tired eyes. Or maybe, he just needed a good night of shut
eye.

Before anymore strange thoughts could invade the Marshal’s thinking, the door to Tanner’s room
swung open and the ‘doctor’ stepped out.

“How’s Vin?” Buck asked , anxiously.

Nathan shook his head. “I didn’t find not one scratch on him.”

“That’s good....right?”

“It’s good, but it don’t explain all the blood, or the way he was acting.”

“I’d say killing four men would account for the mess he’s in. Maybe it’s about time I question
him about that very matter, ” Luke offered, stepping towards the door, only to have Jackson
block his way.

“My patient is slipping in and out of consciousness, and barely recognizes his friends. His heart
rate is way too fast and I don’t like the look in his eyes. So, if you’d be so kind, sir, I’d rather he
not have visitors.”

Luke didn’t like it , but the look in the dark man’s eyes left no room for argument. He’d get his
moment with Tanner. After all, the law was on his side and the telegraph he’d sent would make
sure justice was served.

“What do you think it is, Nathan?” Buck was doing his best to ignore how much of an ass Conley
was being.

“I’ve seen something like it before, remember when we fought Colonel Anderson when he was
high on laudanum?”

“You think Vin took laudanum?” Wilmington asked, disbelievingly.

“Not exactly, but maybe some other kind of drug. Something that would have knocked him out
and maybe helped mess up his memory. It could explain why he’s acting the way he is and...”

“Oh, that would be convenient,” the Marshal interrupted with a short laugh. “I guess you boys
would come up with about anything to get him off the hook.”

“Shut up, Lukas,” Buck growled. “Before I give Nathan, here, another patient.”

“Easy, Buck,” the gentle doctor, laid a hand on his friends shoulder. “ We don’t need anymore
trouble than we’ve got.”

Wilmington unclenched his fists and willed himself to calm down before turning a hopeful
glance in Nathan’s direction. “Did Vin say anything else about what may have happened to the
kid.?”

Jackson sighed, tiredly, “Sorry, Buck, he’s still not making much since. Just keeps talking out of
his head. Asking Chris to help him find J.D.”

“And that’s exactly what I plan on doing.”  All three men looked up as Chris Larabee strode out
of the bounty hunter’s room. “Stay with Vin, Nathan. Buck and I will be back when we get some
answers.”

"What about Ezra and Josiah?" Buck asked, coming alongside his friend.

"I wanted them to stay here and wire Ballintine for some more information. Maybe they can
come up with some answers before we get back."

“I wouldn’t mind getting some facts on this situation , myself.” Conley spoke up. “I’m riding
with you.”

“Suit yourself,” Chris barely spared a glance in his old friend’s direction. “But get in my way,
and I’ll forget we ever had a past.”

*************************************************

Several miles out of town............

The three men had rode in relative silence. There wasn't much need for chit chat. Any
plans Conley had imagined about at least a friendly reunion with his old buddy, had
been quickly doused when he had came after one of their own. And as for Buck and
Chris, they didn't need words to communicate the thoughts running through their
heads. They knew what the other was thinking..feeling..hoping. And most of it
wasn't good.

Mindful of the ever lessening amount of daylight, they had kept their pace as fast as
possible, while still being able to track the barely visible trail Tanner and Bailey had left.

It still took them over an hour to make it to the small clearing where the doomed men
had chose to stop for the night. Chris had spotted the buzzards circling above it a ways
back, and Buck’s heart tightened with the imagined images of what lay in store for
them.

Nothing he had thought up could have prepared him.

An overwhelming coppery smell assaulted the trio upon entering the tree encircled
camp and even the hardened Conley flinched when he took in the carnage before them.

What was left of one of the dead greeted the riders with what looked like a twisted
grimace. His eyes had been dislodged by the ravenous vultures above or by some other
creature brave enough to roam during the day and his half-eaten face stared upward
with a torturous scowl.

Sitting propped against one of the trees, he seemed almost like a hideous sentry
keeping watch over his sleeping crew. Of course peaceful could not describe the
slumber his associates had been stricken with.

The other two men were lying several feet away, both had their throats cut and one
sported a gaping bullet wound to the chest. Although the major assaults had obviously
been lethal enough in and of themselves, the perpetrator had seen fit to add an
uncountable number of stab wounds to each victim.

Who ever had done this had been a monster. A cold-hearted, very angry, monster.

“Sweet Jesus...” Conley breathed, trying to control the nausea threatening to send him
to the bushes.

“Please, God, don’t let J.D. be here.”

Chris turned at the choked plea from his friend. Buck had dismounted and  was
squatted down near one of the prone forms, holding what the other man instantly
recognized as their young partner’s bowler hat.

“Come on , Buck , let’s search the outskirts of the camp,” Larabee suggested, swinging
down from his horse. Keeping his friend busy was the best way he could help him
through this, short of bringing J.D. back safely, anyway.

Wilmington nodded and pushed himself to his feet. He clutched the hat close to his
chest and took a deep breath.  Thinking the worst wasn’t going to make things any
better. Nothing would be better till J.D. was back and Vin's name was cleared.

The three split up and made a sweeping circle of the border around the clearing, neither
man finding much. After nearly a half hour, Conley found a canteen and a bandanna,
which could have belonged to any of the dead men from Ballintine. Chris was empty
handed and Buck didn't know if he was more relieved or frustrated at not having found
any signs J.D.

It was as if the boy had vanished into mid-air. He was about to call it quits when his
eyes caught sight of  a flash off of something metal near one of the outlying bushes.

“Hey , Chris, you better come over here,” Wilmington called after bending down to
retrieve the object. It was a  knife. A blood stained knife. Vin Tanner’s blood -stained
knife.

“Damn it,” Larabee muttered as he took the weapon from his friend. “This whole thing
just keeps getting worse.”

“Worse for Tanner, anyway.” Luke joined the other two men. “I'm assuming of course
that you all recognize that pig sticker. Looks like it could have been used to  do a lot of
this handiwork.”

Before Larabee could reply to the Marshal’s accusations, a thrashing in the surrounding
foliage startled all three of the gunslingers, causing each to draw his weapon and await
with bated breath for the appearance of some wretched beast. It would have been an
understatement to say the grizzly seen surrounding them had put the three a little on
edge.

To their mutual relief nothing appeared but a large black horse, wearing a halter and
what was left of a lead rope. It looked upon the three with what could only be described
as a sadness in it’s large almond eyes.

“Must have been one of the lawmen’s horses” Chris assumed. It  wasn’t Vin’s mount
and Bailey had returned with the bounty hunter.

“The rope’s been cut. There’s blood on it.” Conley had gently eased up to the animal
and now held it’s halter.

“The killer must have let ‘em go after he did what he came for.” Larabee kneeled down
next to the left over ashes of the campfire where a half-filled coffee pot still sat
untouched.

He let his eyes roam over the blood-splattered dirt, taking note of the different
footprints etched into the softened clay. Vin could have told him more, but from the
looks of it , only six different sets of prints were visible. Excluding the sheriff and his
deputies, Vin and J.D. , the killer would have had to been solo.

“You mean Tanner let the horses go?”

Chris’s eyes shot up to glare at the Marshal. “No. I mean the killer let them go to cover
his tracks. I already found three sets of hoof prints away from this place. He probably
figured it’d  be hard to tell which trail to follow, if he had several leading in different
directions.”

“Maybe your tracker friend realized the same thing.”

“Then why the hell would he come back to town, Lukas?!” Buck spat, angrily. “If he’s
the cold blooded murder you’re so sure he is, why didn’t he get as far away as possible,
while he had the chance?”

“Who knows?” the seasoned lawman shot back. “Maybe he did take some kind of
potion like your doctor said. Might be he's just plain crazy. A man’d have to be , to do
something like this.” Conley let his arm sweep around the sanguineous mess before
them. “And if he killed the boy too, then...”

Buck snapped. His hands were around Luke’s throat before Chris could catch him.
“Damn you, Conley,” Wilmington rasped. “I warned you before...”

“Buck!” Larabee grabbed his friend and pulled him away from the other man. When he
did, the Marshal threw a cheap shot to Buck’s chin, nearly sending him and Chris to the
ground.

Amazingly enough , both gunslingers stayed on their feet and Wilmington would have
retaliated if his friend hadn’t maintained an iron grip on his arms.

“If you ever touch me again, Wilmington, I will kill you where you stand. I swear it,
"Conley spat. “I’ll send you after your precious sheriff,  straight to the gates of hell.”

Now Chris had heard enough. He roughly pushed Buck away from him and out from
between he and Conley. In a blink of an eye, the man in black had the Marshal by the
collar and had plowed him into one of the trees behind them.

“You never did know when to shut-up, Luke,” Larabee said in a deadly whisper. “That
‘sheriff’ you keep referring to happens to mean a whole hell of a lot to Buck. And to me.
And whether he’s alive or not, there ain’t no call for you to use a boy you don't even
know to rub salt in old wounds.” Chris pushed Conley harder against the tree and then
released him. “Now either, help us clean up this mess and get these men back to town
or head on back to Camden.”

The gunslinger didn’t give Lukas a chance to reply before he turned and started back
towards Buck who was wiping at his now bleeding lip. “Damn it, Chris, you should
have let me beat that smug look off his face.”

“No time for that , Buck. We got to find J.D.”

“He ain’t here, Chris. Thank God he ain’t, but we’re right back where we started from.
You already said there was more 'an three different trails to follow. How we going to
tell which is which.?”

“We ain’t Pard,” Larabee’s hard blue eye’s met Buck’s questioning gaze. “Vin is.”

**************************************************

It was nearly dark when the three trail weary men returned to Four Corners. Chris had
pushed the horses hard, not only because of the impending nightfall, but because all he
could think of was Vin. He didn’t want his friend to wake up alone. Yeah, Nathan and
Josiah were there. Even Ezra. But something inside of Larabee knew that the bounty
hunter would need ‘him’ there. Or maybe it was Chris who needed to be there. Perhaps,
he needed to feel useful, like he was helping his best friend in some way.

In a way he hadn’t been able to help J.D. No matter the reasons, the gunslinger was
more than relieved to be home. Buck must have shared his sentiment because he had
left his post beside the horse carrying what was left of Ballentine’s lawmen and joined
Larabee in the lead. Apparently, Conley hadn’t felt the need to complain about being
the one to take the burden of leading the stray mount they had found, or maybe Chris’s
mood was as palpable as he hoped.
 
“There’s Ezra,” Buck’s words were low, and monotone. It was eerie to see the fiery
Wilmington so lifeless.

Chris spurred his horse towards the saloon. “Maybe, he and Josiah have some news for
us.”

“Long as it ain’t bad.”

“Gentlemen,” Ezra greeted his partners as they sidled up to the hitching post. His eyes
then went to Conley and the blanket covered forms draped across the unfamiliar horse
at his side. The gambler’s face grew pale. “I take it your venture was not a fortuitous
one?”

“We didn’t find J.D.,” Chris quickly supplied, knowing the path his friend of chance’s
thoughts were headed.

“Then you have better news than I,” Ezra lamented.

“Is Vin all right?” Now Chris was the one jumping to morose conclusions.

“Mr. Tanner is still unconscious, but was resting quite comfortably the last time I
checked. I was referring to the task you requested my services for prior to your
departure.”

Ezra let his eyes travel from Larabee to Luke. “It appears there was no need for me to
contact the telegraph operator in Ballintine, because their was a wire already waiting
for us from the mayor of that fair township. It seems he was very eager to know when
we would be turning over Mr. Tanner to them?”

“How the hell did they find out he was here so fast?”

“Perhaps, you should ask your old acquaintance , Marshal Conley.” Both Buck and Chris
turned to glare at Luke, who was offering no explanation. “It appears he sent word to
the mayor of Ballintine that his sheriff had succumbed to unforeseen circumstances and
would, more than likely, not be returning to duty. He also expounded in great detail
about Vin’s misfortunate condition and implied his guilt in the presumed murders.”

“You son of a bitch, “ Buck seethed. “You just couldn’t trust us to handle this could
you...?”
 
“Apparently not,” Ezra spoke up again before Conley could. “The telegraph to
Ballintine wasn’t the only wire the good marshal sent...”

“I was just doing my duty, Chris,” Conley tried to explain, but there was no need for
further words because as if on cue, Judge Orin Travis, grimed face and looking all of
like a flustered parent, stepped from the saloon.

“Judge,” Chris tipped his hat, as Buck fought the urge to pull Conley from his horse and
beat the daylights out of him.

“Chris,” the older man leaned against the railing of the porch. “Did you find the men from
Ballintine?”
 
The gunslinger nodded towards the horse behind him. “All three of them.”

“What happened?” The judge’s voice was calm and unpretentious as usual.

“They were murdered,” Lukas was the one to answer. “Killed, then cut up so bad you couldn’t
even much tell they had been humans.”

“Could it have been Indians?” Travis pushed his hat back away from his eyes a little, giving him
a better view of Larabee.

Chris shook his head. “Didn’t look like their way. One man was shot and no scalps were taken.”

“They were killed about the same way the two in Camden were, only worse. We found the
bounty hunter’s knife at the scene,” Conley spoke up. “It could be one of the murder weapons.”

“That don’t mean Vin used it.,” Buck pointed out, heatedly.

“Oh, he just gave it to the killers in his ‘drugged’ state I guess.” Lukas shot back.

“Keep it up, Conley, and I’m going to give you somethin.”

“Boys.” Orin held up his hands and spoke as if addressing two brawling children on a school
playground. “We have enough problems to consider without adding fighting amongst ourselves
to the ever-growing list.”

“It was hard to tell exactly what took place,” Chris was trying to focus on the problem at hand.
“We were losing light, and I wanted to get the bodies back before the wolves or coyotes came
out.”

Travis sighed and rubbed at his tired eyes. It had been a long four hour ride from Shilock, where
he had been holding court when the telegraph from Marshal Conley had come through. He really
didn’t feel like opening the gates of hell at this very moment, but what other recourse could he
take.

“I suppose we should go talk to Vin, since he is our only witness and suspect at this time.”

The look on Larabee’s face was painful. “What?” He finally dismounted from his horse. “You
ain’t meaning to tell me you’re buying into the possibility that Vin is guilty of this?”

Orin knew it was coming. It hadn’t took him long to see the kinship that had formed between the
seven. Hell, it was one of the reasons he knew they were right for the job. In his eyes, the
closeness, the bond, well that was an advantage. It gave them a reason to fight harder. It gave
them something to protect. Only now, he was on the receiving end of the very fierceness he had
hoped Four Corners would gain from.

“All I’m saying is that I have three dead lawmen to account for and I would like to hear Vin’s
side of the story. Perhaps he is awake and can help us clear this whole mess up before things get
further out of hand.”

“Further out of hand?!” Buck was now looking at the Judge as if he had grown another head. “If
you’d cared to have noticed, this ain’t some small travesty of Justice you can fix with a magical
rap of your gavel. J.D.’s missing! We didn’t find not hide nor hair of him, except for his stupid
hat.” The gunslinger shoved the black bowler towards the judge , and it was then Chris realized
his friend hadn’t ever released the grip he had on the hat, since finding it at the scene. Just like
he’d never be able to let go of J.D. if the kid didn’t make it out of this all right.

“I understand your concern, Mr. Wilmington,” Travis offered with a true sincerity that surprised
Chris somewhat. “ I hope to find Sheriff Dunne safe just as much as the rest of you.”

"I doubt that,” Buck grumbled but looked somewhat remorseful for his outbreak. He liked the
judge and all, but sometimes found the man crass and unfeeling. And maybe he held him a little
responsible for appointing J.D. sheriff. Well, maybe a whole lot.

“That is exactly why I think it best we talk with Mr. Tanner.”

“Only if we see him first.” Chris put his demand on the table and it wasn’t up for
negotiations. “If he’s well enough for visitors, then you can ask him about J.D. But
nothing about the murders until I say so.”

“What is up with you, Larabee?” Conley exploded. “The man’s a murder suspect , not a
piece of porcelain. I’ve seen you kill men for being suspected of less. What are you, this
kid’s protector or something ?”

“Or something,” Buck was the one to answer through gritted teeth. How could a man
like Luke Conley expect to ever understand what the Seven shared.

“Take it or leave it Conley.” Chris turned blazing blue eyes on his old friend. “As long
as J.D.’s missing, were still the law around here. You really wouldn’t want me to arrest
you for obstructing justice now would you?”

Luke was slow to reply so Judge Travis seized the opportunity to interrupt the
increasing tension. “Your request seems reasonable. If Nathan gives the O.K., we talk to
Mr. Tanner. If not, we wait until the morning."

Orin looked from Buck to Conley, " Now let's get a move on. Mary's holding my supper
and for once, I’d actually like to have some sleep when I come to this town.”

*********************************************************
 
“Has he woken up any since we’ve been gone?” Chris Larabee asked, anxiously
watching the too-still form on the cot in Nathan’s room.

“He came to a little, whilst Josiah and I were cleaning him up, but that’s ‘bout it. Didn’t
say anything, just looked really confused and all.”

“Did you find anything else wrong with him?” Buck had stepped over to the bounty
hunter’s bedside.

“Just some bruises around his wrists, and a couple on his face.”

“Like maybe someone had been holding him?” Chris offered. “These marks on his face
look like they could have been made by someone’s fingers.”

Wilmington gently touched the nasty looking purplish marks on either side of Vin’s
chin. Chris stepped around to the other side of his sleeping friend. “Maybe they forced
his mouth open , wanting him to drink something.”

Buck looked up at the other gunslinger. “That’d fit Nathan’s theory about him being
given some kind of drug.”

“Josiah thought that same thing,” Nathan stepped around Chris to lay a cool cloth
across Tanner’s forehead. “He done went over to old lady Cromley’s farm.”

“The witch?” Buck asked with some alarm. It wasn’t any secret that the Spinster
Cromley was rather feared by most of Four Corners. Generations of families had
revered her and her ancestors as workers of the evil craft. But Larabee had never been
much one for superstitious ramblings.

“She ain’t no witch , Buck.” Chris shook his head. “Casseopaya is just a lonely old
woman who likes to have her privacy.”

“An old woman who just happens to wear all black, have a black cat named Salem,
keep all kinds of bones hanging from her front porch, and don’t you remember when
she tried to put that hex on me?”

“It ain’t no crime to wear black, Buck,” Chris pointed out. “Besides, I think you and J.D.
were stealing apples from her orchard when she screamed that little curse at you.”

“Don’t make no never mind why she done it, I couldn’t perform for a whole week , if
you know what I mean.”

Chris held up his hand to ward off the horrendous story Buck was about to relate. He’d
heard it at least five times now, and it grew more ridiculous with each telling.

“Why ‘did’ Josiah go see Casseopaya, Nathan?” Larabee asked.

Nathan couldn’t help to smile at the look on Wilmington’s face. The man twitched at
the very mention of the spinster’s name. “Josiah, says he remembers hearing that the
Cromley’s dabbled in natural medicines, herbal stuff and all. Said Miss Cromley’s ma
was a gypsy, knew lots of concoctions and potions. He thought maybe Casseopaya
might have an idea as to what Vin could have been given.”

“Well, if anybody’d know how to make a man suffer, I’m sure it’d be the old witch,”
Buck shuttered.

*******************************************************

As soon as Vin Tanner opened his eyes, the horror came flooding back with frightening
clarity.. The conversation around him stopped immediately and he could feel the eyes
upon him. Moving his head slowly, he finally rested his gaze on what he hoped was his
savior.

“Where’s J.D.?” That was the only thing the bounty hunter cared to know right now.

Chris Larabee’s face was grim. He was more than relieved to see his friend awake but
he could have done without the pain and confusion he read in the tracker’s eyes. What
hurt the most though was knowing there wasn’t a way he could spare his friend.

“We don’t know, Vin. We were hoping you could tell us.”

A stillness spread inside the room. Several expressions crossed the young man’s
helpless features, until a look of sheer terror took hold. “Oh God!”

Nathan dropped to Vin’s side at the exclamation, fear clutching at him. “Vin, just take it
easy, ya hear me?”

Tanner wouldn’t or couldn’t respond. He was pale and very, very still. “I-I hear him
yelling my name.”

Buck Wilmington, who had been standing quietly until now, crouched at Nathan's side
and asked softly, “ Who do you hear? J.D.? What happened to him, Vin?” he urged
gently. “Come on pard, we need to know. I need to know.”

“He, he.... Ugh,” Vin weakly slammed his clenched fist into the mattress. “I can’t
remember.” Tortured blue eyes searched out Chris’s face. “I know he was with us on
the trail to Ballintine. I know he wouldn’t stay behind. I tried to get him to. But you
know how he is?”

“Stubborn as all get out.” Chris agreed and sat down on the side of the bed, offering
comfort with his closer proximity. Vin turned soft eyes to his friend and started to say
something when the door burst open.

**********************************************

“You’ve had enough time Larabee.” Lukas Conley looked fit to be tied. “The prisoner
looks like he’s feeling well enough to talk with us. Hell, he looks good enough to head
on down to the jail where he belongs.”

The bounty hunter jumped, startled at the unexpected entrance of the stranger looming
above them now. Chris laid a steadying hand on his best friend’s shoulder before
turning to Lukas. “Look Conley, until we know Vin’s okay, he ain’t going nowhere.”

Buck stepped around the cot to place himself protectively between the irate lawman
and Vin. “That’s right Luke. He’s not moving till we say.” Buck’s voice rang through
the room with a deadly sting but to his surprise the marshal only smiled.

“Seems the Judge has come around to my way of thinking and it really doesn’t matter
what ‘you’ say, Wilmington.”

The men were so engrossed in the impending fight, that they hadn’t noticed the judge
enter behind Conley. “He’s right Chris, maybe it would be best if Vin was taken to the
jail. Right now he’s a murder suspect, and if he has no physical wounds, we need to
confine him.”

“You were eavesdropping?” Buck addressed Conley with a barely controlled rage.

Luke smiled. “Too bad I didn’t run into old Casseopaya before you decided to up and
bed my wife , now wasn’t it.”

“That’s enough, Conley.” Judge Travis’s voice rung with authority. “I agreed to move
Vin because talk is already spreading around town. I thought it would be in everyone’s
best interest if Mr. Tanner is safely behind bars.”

“What’s he talking about, Chris?” the soft question brought Larabee’s attention back to
the patient beside him. He hadn’t wanted to tell the tracker like this. Not in front of
everyone. Not in front of Conley.

“Do you remember the lawmen from Ballintine coming to town yesterday?”

Vin thought for a minute and then nodded. “They came for me. Said something about
some murders and a bank robbery.”

“That’s right. Well, Marshal Conley over there is here under the same false pretense. He
claims he has a witness that identified you as a suspect in a killing in Camden last
week.”

The tracker’s brow furrowed. “I wasn’t in Camden last week. I ain’t never been there,
that I can recollect. I was out on the range for six days straight, remember?”

Chris gave a slight smile. “I remember, pard,” then added softer, “I’m not the one with
the amnesia..”

The tactic worked and Vin seemed to loosen up a bit. A weak imitation of his slow grin
swept across his tired features. “Yeah, I forgot.”

“You seem to do a lot of that.” Conley walked closer to the bed. “But I ain’t buying
this bit about you being out on the range, anymore I am the theory you didn’t kill those
men from Ballintine as well as your own sheriff.”

Tanner’s smile instantly faded, “Chris? What the hell does he mean?”

“Take it easy, Luke’s just spouting off at the mouth. We don’t know what’s happened to
J.D.”

“And the men from Ballintine?” A terrible scene flashed through the tracker’s mind.

“They’re dead.”

“Did ...did I kill them?”

“Why don’t you tell us.” Marshal Conley asked snidely.

“Shut-up, Luke. Before I shut you up.” Buck threatened. “You didn’t do anything
wrong, Vin. We think whoever took J.D. was the same one who killed Sheriff Wallace
and his men..”

“They must have given you some kind of drug,” Nathan’s kind voice cut in. “That,
along with the shock of what happened is probably why you don’t remember things too
clearly just now.”

“And maybe he don’t want to remember. If I’d butchered three men and killed one of
my own partners I wouldn’t be so quick to fess up to it either.”

“That does it,” Chris breathed. He rose slowly and faced off with his former friend.
“I’ve had just about enough of your cheap shots and insinuations.”

“And I’ve had enough of your tap dance routine. I never imagined the great Chris
Larabee as a Mother hen nurse maid.”

“Enough.” All five men turned and looked at Nathan, the gruff tone of his voice
surprising them. “You will not upset my patient any further with your petty bickering.”

“Your patient is also my prisoner. I believe my authority outweighs that of a wannabe
doctor any day of the week.”

The dark man turned to Conley. “As far as I remember, Marshal, a man was innocent to
proven guilty. You sure ain’t acting like Vin has a chance in hell of being innocent, so
forgive me, if I have a hard time accepting you as a legitimate lawman.”

“Nicely said, Mr. Jackson.” Judge Travis stepped forward and laid a hand on the
healer’s shoulder. He knew it was not the quiet man’s way to speak up so boldly. Of
course, it was not every day that one of his family was threatened and one will often do
more for someone he loves, than he would ever do for himself. “I think Lukas may have
forgotten that Vin is still ‘just’ a suspect and should be treated accordingly so. We’ll take
him to the jail but under his physicians care.”

Despite the judge’s intentions, Chris Larabee retained his defensive stance in front of
the bounty hunter’s bed. “He ain’t done nothing wrong. He ain’t going to jail.”

The tracker knew his best friend. Chris wasn’t going to let this go. “No. The judge is
right. If I did kill,” Vin took a slow, deep breath, “somebody. I need to be in jail so the
townsfolk can feel safe and not lose faith in the Seven.” Instead of easing the tension,
Vin’s words seemed to make Larabee even more determined.

“Maybe he’s right Chris. Ezra can’t hold off the questions and suspicions for much
longer. Besides, I’ll be with him at all times.” The healer’s logic apparently got through
because the gunslinger eased his position and moved back to Vin’s side.

“We’ll take him, but this ain’t over.” Larabee willed himself to conceal the anger he felt.
He didn’t want his friend to misread it’s direction.

“Need a hand, cowboy?” A shadow of the tracker’s old smile returned, but only briefly.

“Naw, I think I can make it.” Vin rose slowly, trying not to show his discomfort. He
could feel Nathan’s concern and quickly reassured him. “Don’t worry Nathan. I’m
fine.”

“Are you sure you’re O.K.?” Buck stepped forward and steadied the younger man once
he was up and on his feet.

Vin’s eyes met his and he sighed, “I won’t be O.K. till we find J.D.”

Buck nodded his understanding, “None of us will.”

********************************************************

Everyone was now gathered inside the jailhouse. Vin had been placed in a cell and
Nathan stood close by. Ezra had abandoned all hopes of calming the townspeople and
now stood guard outside the door. Chris and Buck had joined the judge and Conley at
J.D.’s desk where they were discussing what turn of events should take place next.

“I think he should be transferred back to Camden to stand trial,” Luke offered, in his
most diplomatic tone. Upsetting Orin Travis would not be a good idea.

“In your town? Under your watchful eye?” Buck shook his head. “Why don’t we just
hang him right now and save him the long ride.”

Chris looked disapprovingly at his friend’s choice of satirical humor, but concurred
with the underlying sentiment. “He stays here until we find J.D. and figure this whole
mess out.”

“Here under his partners’ ‘watchful’ eye. I’m sure he will be treated quite fairly.”

“At least we’ll know he’s got a fighting chance.” Wilmington snorted.

“I’d say his chances would be about as slanted as your gambling friend’s odds on poker
night.”

“Gentlemen,” Orin sighed deeply and regretted even starting this conversation at such
a late hour. “As of right now I see no need to move Mr. Tanner.”

“I knew you’d see fit to take their side.” The words were out of Conley’s mouth before
he could stop them.

“But,” Travis cut the other lawman off with a menacing glare and then faced Chris. “I
also think it would be best if I relieved you and the others of duty until this matter is
resolved.” The expressions Buck and Chris shot Travis would have struck fear in the
devil himself.

“Best for who?” Nathan softly demanded from his vigil by Vin’s now sleeping form.
Before an answer could be given, the door opened and one haggard looking Josiah
Sanchez entered.

“Evening Brothers.” The big man quickly made his way across the room and held his
hands up to the wood stove. “How’s Vin?”

“Better.” Buck replied. “But we’re fired.”

“Excuse me?” Josiah looked from the judge to Chris. “Something I should know
about?”

Larabee looked past the judge, without meeting his gaze.  “It’s not important. Did you
find out anything from Spinster Cromley?.”

Nathan had now left Vin’s cell and joined the others. “Did she know of anything that
might have fit the symptoms I told you?”

The holy man nodded.  “Belladonna.”

“Bella who?” Buck asked , puzzled.

“Not who. What.” Chris was the one to answer. “It’s an herb.”

“Brother Larabee’s right. Casseopaya told me that this magical little ingredient could be
used to put a person to sleep when used in the right quantities. But if someone ingests
too much, it can cause erratic behavior and memory loss. Even death.”

“Then it’s possible someone could have forced Vin to drink something laced with the
stuff?” Buck chanced a glance back to their sleeping friend.

“It would have had to have been someone who knew what they were doing.” Josiah
explained. “Casse said that a person dabbling in such things, without proper
knowledge, would easily finish a person off.”

“She would know.” Buck snorted.

“Did she say how long the effects might lasts?” Chris asked, standing up to pace in
front of the tracker’s cell.

Josiah shook his head. “She said it depended on the amount taken and the person
affected. You know, size, activity, physical state.”

“You don’t really expect us to take the word of an old crone as evidence do you?” Luke
asked rolling his eyes heavenward. “This just keeps getting better.”

“What if we could prove Vin had been drugged? Would you listen to Casseopaya
then?”

“And just how are you going to do that, Chris?” Judge Travis asked wearily.

“By finding J.D., and the real killer and bringing him in to confess.”

“Oh, is that all,” Conley scoffed.  He knew Larabee was good but tracking down men
that didn’t exist was even a little out of his league.

“Yep, that’s all.”

“You do that, Chris, and I might just have to kiss that old Witch Buck’s so afraid of.”

“Huh, ain't much punishment in that.” Buck grinned evilly at Nathan. “ Old Casse’s
bound to kiss better than his wife. So be prepared to pucker-up, Lukas.” Wilmington
roughly slapped the Marshal on the back “You just gave me even more incentive to
prove you wrong.  I can’t wait till J.D. gets a load of Casse’s new boy toy.”

Conley just glared at the smug faces in front of him, “That is of course, ‘if’ you find the
poor kid.”

Larabee made a move to close the distance between he and his one-time ally.  “Oh, we’ll
find him. You just make sure nothing happens to the ‘prisoner’. Because if it does, you’ll
take his place at the gallows. I’ll see to it, personally.”  With that, Larabee turned to the
healer, “Nathan you stay with Vin, the rest of us are gonna go after J.D.”

After giving the orders, and a curt nod in Orin’s direction, the gunslinger lead the way
out of the jailhouse. Once he and the others had entered the night air, Buck turned
puzzled eyes on his longtime friend.

“Chris, how we going to find J.D. , if we can’t track him. I thought that’s where Vin
came in.”

Larabee took a quick look around the now darkened streets and then met each of his
friends’ expectant stares. “Who say’s Vin ain’t coming with us?”

**************************************************

J.D. Dunne’s world was one of pain and confusion. He had awoke several hours ago to
find himself bound and gagged, lying on what appeared to be the cold dirt floor of a
cellar. His wrist’s were throbbing from being tightly restrained and he was sure the wet
stickiness covering his palms was his own blood.

The sheriff’s ribs ached and his face hurt. He recalled being hit and there was a vague
memory of someone pushing him down the stairs.

‘What the hell was going on?’  J.D. squeezed his eye’s shut and tried to ignore the
pounding in his head. He knew he had been on the trail with the lawmen from
Ballintine and Vin. ‘Oh, God! Vin. What had happened to Vin?’

The teen took a deep breath and almost choked on the dry cloth stuffed in his mouth.
Think, J.D., think. He remembered going to check on Bailey before bedding down. He
also remembered he wasn’t paying much attention because his thoughts were on Buck
and Chris and his hopes for their impending arrival. And then he heard a noise, a
footfall behind him.

He turned, figuring Sheriff Wallace had sent one of his deputies to keep an eye on him.
He was wrong. ‘Shit!’  J.D.’s eyes flew open and fear surged through every limb, as the
memory struck him like the flash of a lightening bolt.

“Buck!” The ‘kid’ tried to yell, but it only came out more as a muffled cough.  J.D. tried
not to panic, as he considered his options. He had to get away. He had to warn the
others.

************************************************

“The boy’s probably getting thirsty by now.”  Magdeline Saint said with a calculating
smile that lit her emerald green eyes.

“Probably.” The older man across the table from her, grinned and reached for her hand.
“I imagine he's also in some amount of pain, if he’s conscious yet.”

The young woman brought the rough palm up to her cheek and nuzzled it. “He could
never suffer enough for what he and his friends’ did to you.” she purred.

“My dear Magdeline, you are the only saving grace I have found in this misery I have
been made to endure.”  Black eyes hungrily roamed the length of the woman’s frame.
“Whatever have I done to deserve you?”

“I only did as the dreams told me.” Magdeline rose and with a sweep of her long black
dress, came to bow in front of the man she knew to be her savior. “My visions’
prophesized that one such as you would be sent to me. I would die for you.”

Her lover laughed heartily. “There will be no need in that my child.” He run a large
hand through her raven black hair. “There will only be seven deaths’ to come and you
shall bear witness.”

Magdeline smiled.  “Can I at least hurt the boy some more? Revenge is so sweet.”

“Oh, there will be time for that, my dark angel. With you by my side, I will introduce,
he and his accomplices’ to the lady anguish.” The big man quickly brushed a kiss atop
the girl’s head before rising. “Because I have met anguish; I have peered into her empty,
unforgiving eyes. I have touched her shriveled bosom and felt her clammy arms
holding me tight.”

The man limped the length of the room. “Her bitter sweet lips, hath burned her mark
upon mine; and that kiss has stolen my soul.” He turned back to face Magdeline. “Just
as I will take the Magnificent Sevens’.”

*********************************************

“Vin, you doing all right?”

Nathan paced restlessly across the length of the cell.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Except for I think I’ve lost my mind.”

It had been a long night and the tracker had only slept now and then. The healer had
kept vigil by his side but found himself of little use in easing his patient’s discomfort.
Nathan stopped suddenly and whirled toward his friend.

“Now don’t you go thinking you could have done any of this. Especially, anything to
J.D.”

The tracker raised to a sitting position and stared at the dark man.

“I don’t know what I’ve done, and none of you know what that drug could have caused
me to do.”

Jackson sighed, sitting on the cot beside the younger man.

“No, but I know what kind of man you are.” His dark eyes held his friends distraught
stare. “And thats all I need to know.”

“Your confidence is overwhelming.” Marshal Conley spoke up from his position behind
the desk where he had been dozing off and on. “But kinda of stupid if you ask me. As
far as I’m concerned he all but confessed to the crimes.”

“I didn’t hear either one of us invite you in this conversation.” Nathan Jackson rarely
lost his temper, but Lukas was pushing his luck.

Before the lawman could reply, the door to the sheriff’s office burst open and one out of
breath boy entered.

Jesse Parker shot a quick glance toward the occupied cell before turning panicked eyes
toward Conley. “Come quick Marshal, the livery’s on fire!”
 
Lukas looked unsure for a moment but the kid urgently grabbed at his sleeve and
headed to the door. “Hurry up sir, I believe the stable boy’s still inside.”

Nathan smiled to himself as he gave a reassuring squeeze to Vin’s shoulder. “Chris
must be on his way ,” he whispered. Jess Parker was the stable boy.

“Just take it easy son, I’m coming.” But before he turned to go, the Marshal pointed a
finger in Jackson’s direction. “I’ll be right back, so don’t even think about trying
anything.”

The healer raised his hands in mock surrender. “Don’t worry about me, you have the
keys to the cell, after all.”

Conley looked down at his belt as if making sure Nathan’s words were true and then
took off after the youngster.

Vin closed his eyes and hoped Nathan’s words were true.  The tracker hadn’t realized
how much he needed the support of the others until those few uttered words. But as
much as he wanted to stay awake, the darkness called to him, and the return of the
pounding in his head made it too hard to resist. The last thing he remembered was
Nathan’s murmured reassurances before the axis of his reality tilted and suddenly he
was assaulted by a terror-filled shout.

“Vin, help me!”

****************************************************

“I thought you said there was a fire son?” Marshal Conley came to a screeching halt
after reaching the corner that allowed him a clear view of the livery stable. “I don’t see
any smoke.”

“Maybe you aren’t looking hard enough.” Josiah Sanchez’s deep voice caused the
lawman to whirl around to face him. “A man often sees only what he wants too.”

“What is this, Sanchez, some kind of ruse?”

Before replying, Josiah gave Jesse a slight nod to send him back into the shadows. “I
thought we might have a chance to discuss our situation like gentleman.”

“As far as I’m concerned, we’ve already said all we needed to say.”

The gunslinger shrugged, and before Conley could make a move, a sharp pain erupted
at the base of his skull and he fell to the ground unconscious.

“By all means, have it your way.” Ezra Standish dropped the board he was holding and
bent down to retrieve the keys to the jail cells. “I have always been a man of few words
myself.”

Josiah smiled at his friend’s blatant exaggeration. “Sometimes silence can speak
volumes, brother.”

“Remember that sermon, Mr. Sanchez, when we find our young sheriff. I fear he will
have quite a story to tell.” The gambler’s smile could not hide the worry behind his
words as he rolled Conley over and began tying his hands.

“Sorry Ezra,” the preacher stooped to assist in the task at hand. “but  even hearing one
of J.D.’s outlandish tales would be like angels’ singing in heaven’s choir.”

Standish raised his eyes to meet his friend’s, “Amen to that, Josiah. Amen indeed.”

*******************************************************

“No,” Tanner shouted and pulled against the invisible bonds holding him. He could
hear J.D.’s voice calling to him from somewhere beyond. The urgency and fear in the
kid’s cry seized his heart in a vise-like grip. He had to break free, but something or
someone was determined to prevent that. With strength born of sheer adrenaline, he
surged forward, intent on escaping the demonic laughter echoing around him. *You’ll
never make it in time and your friend will pay the price.* An evil whisper caressed his
ear and he jumped back, blinking against the harsh light now encompassing his vision.
He was expecting to see the devil that was the cause of this torture; but instead looked
up into the worried face of his best friend.

“Vin, its me Chris. Take it easy.”

Larabee stood inside the now opened cell concerned at what he just witnessed. It had
taken both him and Buck several times to awake the tracker from the nightmare
gripping him.

“Vin, you know who we are?” Buck asked softly, stepping up behind Chris.

“Buck?” The reply was a little slurred but definitely what the three wanted to hear.
“Where’s J.D.?”

“We don’t know for sure, Vin.” Nathan kneeled beside the cot. “Don’t you remember?”

The tracker sighed deeply and ran a hand over his weary eyes. “I remember, but...” he
paused for a moment trying to collect his bearings. “but, I was sure I heard him calling
me. Someone had him, someone I should know.”

“Who Vin?” Buck urged.

The younger man shook his head in frustration and squeezed his eyes shut tightly. “I
can’t see their face, but I know their laugh.” He opened his eyes once more and
searched out Chris’s face. “ I tried, I really did.”

“I know that. We all know that.” Larabee forced a smile for his friend’s benefit. “Now if
your done with your beauty rest, its time to go, you ready?”

The bounty hunter seemed puzzled at first, then looking to Chris, nodded in agreement.

“Good. Josiah and Ezra have gone to get the horses. We need to get out of here before
first light.”

“Where exactly are we going?” Vin asked, as Larabee and Wilmington helped the
younger man to his feet.

“We’re going to the campsite where we found the men from Ballintine.” Chris
tightened his grip on Tanner’s arm when he felt the slight shiver run through his
friend’s body. The very suggestion of going back to the place where this nightmare had
begun was something none of them relished, especially Vin. “Its our only lead to J.D.”

That seemed to be the only encouragement Vin needed as a look of conviction now
replaced any traces of fear. “Then what are we waiting for? Lets ride.”

*****************************************************

The first traces of dawn were cascading around them when the six rode-weary travelers
arrived at their destination. Early morning sunshine streaming through the tree canopy
had taken away some of the harshness from what remained of the gruesome scene.
Although, blood stained earth and scattered remnants of shredded clothing provided
an eerie aura to the site.

“I’ve seen battlefields will less blood spilled.” Nathan observed with ghastly awe.

“Be glad you were spared a personal viewing of the participants in this particular war,”
Ezra lamented as he dismounted his horse. “I helped Mr. Sanchez in delivering the
remains to our friendly undertaker, Mr. Choi. And its not a task I’d care to repeat.”

“Just be glad you weren’t here when it happened.” Vin replied with a far away look.

“Are you remembering something?” Buck had pulled his horse alongside the bounty
hunter.

“Flashes mostly.” Tanner sighed and dismounted Bailey. “Nothing that makes any
sense really.”

“Don’t push it,” Chris was suddenly behind him. “We brought you here to track, not
force you to remember.”

Vin rubbed at his throbbing temples. “I know, but its just so damn frustrating.”

“God reveals all mysteries in time, Brother Tanner.” Josiah had now slid from his horse
also, and stood by the bounty hunter.

“Josiah’s right Vin.” Nathan agreed. “You’ll remember when your mind’s ready.”

“Where does that leave J.D.” The buffalo hunter was not to be comforted.

Chris wanted to say something but knew no words could give his best friend the peace
of mind he needed. Nothing short of unraveling the puzzle could do that. “The tracks
we found are over here.” The gunslinger touched the younger man’s shoulder before
heading to the south end of camp.

Buck followed while the others hung back to give the tracker some room. It was hard to
watch their friend suffer through a battle none of them could assist in; but they were
appeased by the knowledge that vengeance was close at hand.

******************************************************

A hand touched his forehead, a soft voice called to him. J.D. slowly pulled himself from
the serenity of sleep. “Buck?”

A soft giggle alerted him that his visitor was definitely not the one person he wanted to
see. Memories of the last 24 hours flooded his mind and he jerked completely awake.
Hazel eyes blinked open and quickly focused on the smiling face of a young woman.
 
She seemed somewhat familiar and J.D. tried to speak, but the dryness in his throat
hindered his words. “Who?” he finally croaked.

The girl laughed again and knelt closer to him. “I’m the dark angel,” she said proudly.
“Magdeline, betrothed of the chosen one.”

The kid swallowed hard and tried to discern if he was still caught in some bizarre dream.

“And you are to be the sacrifice at our union.”

Okay, so it was nightmare.

Long fingers reached out and touched his dark hair. “Its a pity that something so lovely
must perish.”

J.D. attempted to scoot away, but found himself tied securely to the bed he was now on.

Magdeline’s piercing eyes seemed eerily vacant as she continued stroking the sheriff’s
hair. “Alas, it is how my love wants it.” Her hands slid down to touch his face and the
kid shivered at their icy caress. “And I will deny my prince nothing.”

In an instant her gentle brush changed and a burning sensation flared across his face
where sharp nails had viscously sliced down his cheek. He gasped in pain and cursed
loudly which only seemed to amuse his tormentor.

“Oops,” she cried innocently. “Did I hurt you?”

“Get away from me,” J.D. breathed as Magdeline leaned even closer, their mouths
almost touching.

“I will enjoy your death, almost as much as that of your friends’.”

“What about my friends’?” J.D.’s heart tripled its beat, all concern for himself forgotten.

The evil witch seemed not to hear him as she let her tongue slide along the wound he
had just suffered. The kid flinched at the sickly warm sensation and Magdeline pushed
herself away. She smiled and licked at her blood stained lips. “Your blood will be our
wine, your flesh our bread.” Planting a gentle kiss against his forehead, she
whispered, “And the destruction of the seven guardians' shall serve as
our entertainment.”

************************************************

“There was at least five different horses’ here.” Vin looked around at the trampled
ground, squeezing his eyes shut as a vague memory called to him. *I’ll leave you a
horse just in case you survive my pet’s little concoction.*

A hand on his shoulder brought him back to the present. “You all right, cowboy?”
Chris’s face was a mask of concern.

Vin blinked and shook his head. *I’m sure J.D. will be anxious to see you again, that is if
I decide to let him live.*

Larabee was knelt in front of him now. “Come on, Vin, whats going on?”

Tortured blue eyes looked up at the gunslinger but it wasn’t Chris’s face the tracker
saw. A blurred image of a beautiful woman swam before his eyes. The bounty hunter
jerked away from the vision as vile laughter filled his ears. *Sleep my sweet, I will take
good care of your friend.*

“Vin?’ Buck’s urgent tone broke the spell and Tanner was relieved to find his partners’
before him once more.

“There was a woman,” he muttered. “She was with the faceless man.”

Chris shot a disturbed look to Wilmington. “Maybe you should get Nathan.”

“No,” Vin objected. “I’m okay. I was just remembering. The girl was the one who gave
me the potion," he explained. "The man with her is still a blank. I can hear his voice, but
his features are still blurred.”

“But you think its somebody we know?” Buck asked anxiously.

The younger man sighed. He knew this was eating away at his friend and he hated
being the cause of such heartache. “I feel that it is, but I can’t be sure.”

“There’s only one way to be sure,” Chris spoke up. “We split up and follow these trails
until one of us finds the son-of-a-bitch behind this.”

******************************************

Vin adjusted his spyglass and watched his two friends slowly pick their way down the
sloping valley that led to the small cabin in the distance. They had come across the
dwelling about an hour after splitting with the others. It seemed quiet enough. No one
had came or gone in the last little bit since they had been watching, so Chris thought it a
good idea to check it out.

If the smoke pouring out of the rock chimney was any indication, someone lived there.
And maybe, if they were lucky perhaps that someone had at least seen the people who
had killed the deputies and taken J.D........

J.D.

The bounty hunter lowered his glass and rubbed at his weary eyes. He prayed the kid
was all right. He had to be. And if he wasn’t, Vin would never forgive himself. Oh sure,
the others kept telling him that none of this was his fault, that he was powerless to
prevent what took place.

Still, a part of Tanner clung to the notion that he had failed. He knew it. J.D. knew it.
And even Chris knew it.

The older gunslinger would never admit it. On the contrary, he was Vin’s most
supportive ally, and vehement defender. Larabee would go any distance to protect a
friend, a brother. That was not questionable. But a part of being their unvoiced,
unappointed leader, was accepting the weaknesses of each of his men. Weaknesses like
Vin’s inability to remember vital details that could save one of their own.

But what even Chris wouldn’t risk was a flaw that might bring more harm upon them.
Vin sighed and rolled his head from side to side, trying to ease the tension building in
his taught shoulder muscles. That was why he was still up on the ridge watching Chris
and Ezra ride towards the house alone.

His friend had insisted it was for the best; that Tanner could keep an eye on them and
get the others if worse came to worse. But Vin knew how to read Larabee like a book.
Hell, what was hard to see, when you were looking in a mirror. Chris was worried.

Worried about Vin and what might occur if he went along.

The tracker raised his glass once more and watched as Ezra and Larabee dismounted
and hitched their horses on one of the rails of the porch. He couldn’t blame Chris really.
His headaches were getting worse, not better. It was as if something was trying to
pound its way to the surface of his brain and using a very large hammer to achieve the
task. The attacks had increased in intensity since finding the scene earlier that morning
and Nathan tried to comfort Vin with the fact that the more frequent occurrences could
mean he was close to remembering.

But all Vin saw was that he was becoming more of a liability. And watching as Chris
knocked on the door, he was glad his friend had insisted that he not come. At least he
couldn’t put them in danger that way or fail to back them up as he had done J.D.

Yeah, Chris had done the right thing, he thought as the door was opened and he easily
caught the okay sign Ezra sent him by removing his hat.

Vin started to lower the glass when his heart leaped from his chest and into his throat.
Sweat sprung up on his forehead and if he hadn’t been alone he’d of swore someone
had punched him in the gut.

It couldn’t be.

His mind had to be playing tricks on him again. The tracker blinked his eyes and
refocused the glass on the grinning old man talking to Chris.

“Oh God,” Vin whispered, swallowing back the fear that suddenly made it hard to
breathe.

It was like a dam had broke from somewhere deep inside of him and memories that
seemed completely locked away before now washed over his consciousness threatening
to carry him away in the swell.

He remembered who killed those men. He recalled being roughly grabbed from behind
as he recovered from the shock of seeing a ghost appear out of the darkened forest
carrying J.D.’s hat and star. He remembered the demon from the past taunting him with
J.D.’s fate and he recalled watching the evil man slit the Ballintine sheriff’s throat right
in front of him as he was held helpless to prevent any of it.

Now that things were becoming clear, Vin had no problem imagining what kind of sick
soul could wreak such havoc. After all a monster didn’t have to worry with any such
thing as a conscious. Josiah had been right when he called the man a devil and now
Chris and Ezra were about to innocently enter the gates of Hell.

The bounty hunter scrambled to his feet and his mind raced with questions of what
exactly he should do. The cabin was too far away to shout a warning. He could have
fired his gun but that could have brought about sever repercussions from the man now
holding the door open for his friends. Of course, one expert shot could have pierced
the bastard's heart, but that same bullet could also rob Chris or Ezra of their life if either
moved the wrong way. Vin wouldn't take that chance.

Once again he was forced to play the part of the helpless spectator as he watched Ezra
and Chris disappear into the cabin, totally innocent of who their host was.

The last thing he saw before the door to the dungeon swung closed, was the knowing,
sadistic smile of Ayden Cross.

*******************************************************

“So brother Nate,” Josiah watched as Nathan leaned closer to the fresh set of hoof prints
they had just come across. “How close do you think we are?”

Nathan shrugged his shoulders. “Close, but I’m not sure of exactly how old these are.
They could have been made this morning.”

Josiah sighed and kneeled next to his friend. “Maybe the others are having better luck.”

“And maybe their not,” An unfamiliar voice spoke up behind them. Nathan and Josiah
whirled to face their unannounced visitor but both were stopped short by the click of
yet another gun from their right.

“Easy there, boys. Sam’s a little bit jumpy, you don’t want to do anything that might
spook ‘im.”

“Bolton’s right, I have an itchy trigger finger.” The tall dark-haired man now holding a
shotgun on them grinned revealing a set of crooked yellow teeth. He spat a mouthful of
tobacco juice on the ground in front of him and pushed his coon-skinned cap away from
his bushy eyebrows. “Shot the last three men I killed by accident.”

“Nothing I dislike more than a careless gunman,” Nathan quipped, reluctantly raising
his hands in the air.

The man Sam had called Bolton now stepped around in front of the two prisoners to
join his accomplice. “Nothing I dislike more than a darkie who don’t know his place in
the order of things.”

Josiah watched as the gangly blond kid stepped closer to the healer. “Don’t speak
unless we tell you to, got it.”

Jackson clenched his jaw but nodded. It wasn’t the first time he’d run up against
ignorant prejudice and was certain it wouldn’t be the last. The fool sure wasn’t worth
dying over.

“Good boy,” the younger gunman snickered and stepped back a couple of feet. “You
listen real good, a lot better than the kid.”

The kid? J.D.?

Josiah’s anger continued to grow but he pushed it back with years of learned patience.
Such emotions clouded a man’s mind and rarely did anything but hinder his task.

“May I be so bold as to ask what wrong we may have inflicted on you gentleman to
warrant such measures?”

The older assailant named Sam grinned and scratched at his bearded chin. “I reckon
you can ask, but I doubt we’re gonna tell ya.”

Bolton snorted as if he’d just figured out the punch line to some private joke. “Damn
straight. The boss wants that pleasure himself.”

“And this boss, I suppose we have wronged him at some point and time?”

“Yeah,” Bolton nudged Sam. “You could say your paths have ‘crossed’.”

Josiah exchanged a wary glance with Nathan. He was beginning to get a very bad
feeling about this whole thing. Even worse than before.

“Enough talk,” Sam’s rough voice broke his reverie. “We’ve got business to attend to.”

The old man lifted his gun higher and aimed it straight for Josiah’s chest. “Are you the
preacher of the group?”

Josiah met the dark, empty eyes and nodded. “That would be me.”

The kid, Bolton, smiled wider and moved around the side of the big, holy man. “Then
forgive me father, for I am about to sin.”

The last thing Josiah remembered was hearing Nathan shout his name, before a
thousand stars exploded behind his eyes and he was sure he saw crows circling around
his throbbing head.

*******************************************************

Buck pulled out his pocket watch and quickly noted the time as almost noon. Almost 36
hours since J.D. had disappeared.

A day and a half in the hands of God only knew, suffering through any number of vile
things that Wilmington’s vivid imagination insisted on revealing to him. It had been
even longer than that since he’d seen the kid. He and Chris had left a few days before
and he and J.D. hadn’t parted on the best of terms. It wasn’t anything serious, just
one of their usual spiffs.

J.D. being stubborn, Buck being even more stubborn. Now it all seemed so stupid, a
complete waste of precious time, but like his Ma always said, hindsight was always
twenty-twenty. If Wilmington had felt any premonition of what lay in store for them, he
wouldn’t have let the kid out of his sight. In fact, once they found J.D. he may never let
him go out alone again. That was if they found the kid.

“Damn it,” Buck swore out loud. He couldn’t think like that. Wouldn’t think that. Buck
Wilmington didn’t give up. Especially on one of his friends. Never on J.D.

With a new determination the gunslinger spurred his horse on along the path and it
was when he rounded the next bend that he heard it. Crying. A woman crying.

Buck pulled his mount to a creeping pace and cautiously made his way towards the
noise. She was huddled in the middle of the trail, knees pulled up to her chest, head
resting in her hands. Long black hair hid her face, but her slight shoulders were shaking
as she was wracked with sobs.

Wilmington dismounted and noted the distraught girl didn’t even look up. He could
see the rips in her dress sleeve and the dried blood splattered on her white dress tail.

He knew Vin had said there had been a woman with his attackers. But maybe she had
been as much a victim as he and J.D. Maybe this poor creature was that same girl. Either
way, Buck couldn’t ignore a hurt woman.

“Mam?” the gunslinger inched closer to the girl. “Are you all right?”

The woman slowly lifted her head and frightened brown eyes peered up at Buck under
long dark eyelashes. Her face was angelic and under any other circumstance Buck
would have been quite taken.

“Don’t hurt me,” A soft, lilty voice pleaded with a child-like ring.

Wilmington smiled and kneeled a couple of feet away from her. “I won’t hurt you miss,
I’ll help if you let me.”

The girl shook her head and scooted further away. “I don’t know you,” her voice broke
and she chewed at her trembling lower lip.

“We can fix that,” the gunslinger replied reassuringly. “My name’s Buck. Buck
Wilmington.”

A slight smile crossed the girl’s face and she quickly reached up to brush at the last
remaining tears streaking down her prominent cheeks. “I’m Magdeline.”

Buck smiled and he stepped closer. “Nice to meet you Magdeline.” He extended his
hand and slowly the girl took it and allowed herself to be pulled to her feet. “Are you
hurt?”

Magdeline released his hand and took a step back, shaking her head. “I’m O.K.”

Buck tilted his head and took in the woman’s haggard appearance. “I hate to say this
mam, but you don’t look O.K.”

The woman frowned and once again she bit her lip, running a hand over her unruly
curls.

Buck held up his hand in apology. “Not that you don’t look as pretty as a picture.” And
she did. “But this is an unlikely place for a young woman such as yourself. And you
were crying.”

“I don’t remember how I got here,” she confessed looking down at her hands. “I don’t
remember much of anything.”

Buck sighed, “Its O.K. I have a friend with the same problem.” Wilmington stepped to
her side and took the chance of putting a comforting hand on her shoulder. “He’s
starting to remember though, I’m sure you will too.”

Magdeline surprised him by latching her arms around his waist and burying her face in
his chest. “Its terrible,” she sobbed. “Not knowing what happened to you. Not knowing
what was done to you.”

Buck wasn’t quite sure how to react. But he knew the girl was suffering. He’d watched
Vin go through the same torture the past two days. He’d watched, unable to do much to
comfort his friend, but if he could offer some solace to this woman, he would.

“Shh,” he said softly, “Your safe now.”

Magdeline quieted some but didn’t release him. “And your friend, is he safe?”

Buck nodded. “He’s safe.”

“I have a friend too,” the girl confessed in lighter tone. “But he’s not safe. He’s hurt.”

Wilmington listened silently, willing to let the girl tell her tale.

“Some men hurt him and I had to watch.”

“I’m sorry,” Buck told her.

“He kept asking for them to stop, he kept calling out a name.” Magdeline’s voice had
become stronger now, but her grip was loosening.

“Your name?” Wilmington asked gently.

Magdeline laughed. “No.” She lifted her head and met Buck’s sympathetic gaze.
“Yours.”

“What?” Buck realized his mistake much to late to remedy it.

The weeping, fragile girl had the reflexes of a copperhead snake. In one fluid movement
she pulled Buck’s gun from his holster and held it firmly against his chest.

“Buck, help me.” She taunted. “Buck, please.”

“Who the hell are you lady?”

The girl laughed once more. “Why I’m just a poor lost girl waiting for a big, strong man
to come along and save me.”

Wilmington took a threatening step forward but Magdeline inched back and pulled
back the hammer of the revolver. “I’m also an excellent shot and not discouraged in the
least by messy displays of violence.”

One look into the dark pools of insanity and Buck knew she would easily drop him
where he stood.

“Where’s J.D.?” he bit out between clenched teeth.

“Somewhere safe,” Magdeline replied sarcastically. “Just like your poor Mr. Tanner.”

“If you’ve...”

“What?” she interrupted jerking the gun up to rest between Buck’s eyes. “Hurt them?”

The girl tightened her grip. “Like you hurt my love.”

“I don’t know what the f**k you’re talking about lady.”

“So it is you who can’t remember now?” Magdeline laughed bitterly. “Well my Dark
Prince remembers. He recalls every horrid thing you and your friends did to him and I
promise you Mr. Wilmington no amount of pain I helped inflict on your friends could
ever quench my thirst for revenge.”

The girls full lips contorted into a thin twisted grin. “But I enjoyed every little ounce of
pain I helped inflict on your J.D. Every scream was music to my ears. Every plea for you
or one of your other pathetic misfits brought a wave of ecstasy through my body. I can
still taste the sweetness of his blood, smell the fear...”

“Shut-up!” Buck shouted. “Just shut the f**k up.”

“What? Is the truth as painful as not knowing? Would you wish I give you a little
something to ease your mind.”

“Like what you gave me?”

Magdeline tried to turn quick enough to cover Vin Tanner, who had just stepped out of
the surrounding woods, but she wasn’t quite quick enough. Buck lunged for her taking
them both to the dirt covered ground and knocking the gun from her grasp.

The girl fought like a mountain lion to squirm from Wilmington’s grip but her efforts
proved quite useless as Buck roughly tossed her aside and retrieved his gun from Vin.

“Don’t even think about moving,” the gunslinger warned, wiping at a place on his
cheek where she clawed him. “I’d love to have a reason to shoot you.”

“Go ahead cowboy,” Magdeline spat. “My master’s love shields me from
your evil.”

Buck glanced a look at Vin. “This witch the woman you remember?”

The tracker nodded. “Oh yeah.”

“Yes,” the girl’s voice had grown soft again. “Vin and I shared some quality time
together.”

The bounty hunter glared down at the girl.

“Didn’t we my sweet?” Magdeline cajoled. “We even traveled together.”

“Shut up Magdeline,” Buck ordered, not liking the glazed look coming over his
younger friend’s face.

The woman only grinned at Buck. “We went to Eden, don’t you remember ‘Eden’,
Vin?”

At the mention of the word Eden, the bounty hunter let out a short cry of pain and
crumpled to the ground, holding his head in both hands.

“Shit,” Buck cussed, going to his fallen friend. His concern for the younger man
outweighed his desire to punish his captive.

“Vin, you alright?” Buck heard Magdeline get up and scurry away. He knew he should
stop her, but seeing the pain etched on Vin’s face convinced him that staying with the
bounty hunter was his only option.

“Hurts,” Vin managed to get out, rocking slightly on his heels.

“Take it easy,” Buck comforted, not sure what to do. The tracker had seemed fine. Fine
until Magdeline had said something about Eden. What the hell had that meant.

“Damn it,” Vin gasped, his breath coming in short pants. “I’m sorry.”

Buck laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Just keep breathin’, pard. Nice and easy.”

“My head felt like someone had stuck a knife right through my skull.”

“Are you going to be O.K.?”

Vin nodded and finally lifted his head to meet Buck’s concerned gaze. “It’s gettin’
better.”

“Good.”

“The girl,” Vin looked around. “She got away.”

“She won’t get far.” Buck assured. “We can track her back to where J.D.’s being held.”

Vin’s eyes met Wilmington’s. “I already know where J.D.’s being held.”

The older man looked confused.

“Chris and Ezra are there too.”

“How?” Buck had been so consumed with their present situation he hadn’t even
noticed the absence of the two men he knew were suppose to be with the tracker.

“We found a place about a mile west of here. They went down to check it out.”

“And..” Buck prodded.

“And thats when I saw him.”

“Saw who?”

“I was watching from the ridge above and at first I thought my eyes were playing tricks
on me.”

“What do you mean?”

Vin looked up at the older man, “It was Cross, Buck. Ayden Cross is alive and he has
Chris, Ezra, and J.D.”

Buck shook his head as if his hearing wasn’t working quite right, “What’d you say?”

Vin took another deep breath, more than a little relieved that the pain in his head had finally
subsided, “I said Cross is the one behind this. Somehow he survived what happened back at the
cave.”

“Come on, Pard. You’re talking a little crazy here.” Wilmington refused to believe what his
friend was saying. “I saw the kid shoot him, we both saw the sick bastard fall in that crevice.”

“I don’t know how he managed it, Buck,” Vin said exasperated. “We were pretty much about to
meet the maker ourselves, if you remember?”

The gunslinger stood up and started to pace in front of the tracker, I try not to think about that
whole God’s Country thing. It was worse than one of those books J.D. reads or stories Josiah
tells.”

In fact, none of them had talked about the incident since it happened.

“It’s not one of my favorite memories either, Buck.” Vin carefully pushed himself up. “I don’t
remember much except for Cross, and I try to convince myself that most of what I recall about
him was just my twisted imagination.”

Buck sighed and rubbed at his eyes where a rhythmic pounding had set up, threatening one hell
of a headache in a couple of hours, “Well, I remember everything about Preacher Cross. I
remember the way he tried to remove my heart while I was still breathing,  I remember how he
immensely enjoyed watching you bleed to death, and I sure as hell remember how he felt about
the kid,” Wilmington said angrily, facing the bounty hunter. “ So you can understand why I have
a little problem accepting the fact that the evil son-of-a-bitch is back and has J.D. and the others.”

Vin took a step towards Buck, “You’re not tellin’ me anything I don’t know already. I was there,
too.”

Buck threw his arms up in the air. “Yeah, but were you there every night, for weeks after we
made it back, waking J.D. up from some horrible nightmare. Promising him that you were
alright, that I wasn’t dead, and that he was safe.” Wilmington grabbed hold of his friend’s jacket.
“I promised him Vin. Cross was dead. He’d never hurt him or any of us again. Don’t even tell me
I was lying.”

Tanner didn’t know what to say. He couldn’t blame Buck for his anger because he felt the same
encompassing rage whenever he thought of Cross. Not only was the sick monster the one who
screwed up his head and took J.D, but now he had Ezra and Chris. And if there was one thing
about his first encounter with Ayden Cross that Vin was thankful for, it was that some of them
had been spared the faux preacher’s cruelty. Chris had been spared. But now it seemed as if
Ayden had returned from the grave to take even that small morsel of comfort from him.

“I’m sorry , Buck. But I’m not wrong about this.”

Wilmington released him. “Damn it!” The older gunslinger swore and ran his hands through his
dark hair. He looked back at Vin. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to take this out on you.”

“It’s O.K. I felt the same way when I saw that grinning bastard back at the cabin.”

Wilmington nodded and tried to regain control of his temper. He didn’t want the younger man to
misinterpret exactly ‘who’ he was angry at, but he had to be sure the tracker wasn’t experiencing
some after effect of the drug he’d been given. “So you remember everything? You remember
Cross being there when the murders went down?”

“He was there alright,” Vin replied grimly.

Buck sighed wearily, “Maybe you better tell me what happened with Ezra and Chris.”

*******************************************************

Chris hadn’t really liked the looks of the place. The cabin was unkempt, not cared for, as if no
one had lived there in a long time. The shabby dwelling looked ominous even in the brightness of
midday and he had found himself fighting back a feeling of dread as he and Ezra had stepped up
onto the poorly constructed porch.  But now as he stood in the main room of the small house, he
felt somewhat bad about jumping to conclusions.

The old man who had cautiously let them in, was in a wheelchair, which could explain the
dilapidating state of the place. He had explained how he and his granddaughter were the only
residents, and preceded to offer them a cup of coffee, which Ezra had tried to tactfully decline.

“Mr. Ableson, we don’t mean to dispel your hospitality, but it isn’t necessary. My associate and I
only wish to engage in some discourse concerning a young friend of ours.”

“Where are you from , son?” their frail host chuckled slightly, scratching at his silvery beard. “I
ain’t ever heard such work go into asking a simple question.”

Ezra smiled and shot Chris an amused look, “I do tend to get rather carried away at times. I
suppose it is in my nature.”

Ableson nodded, “Well, I myself prefer the direct method.” The man of the house turned his
chair to face them, all thoughts of refreshments forgotten. “Now what exactly is it you two want
to know, Mr. Standish?.”

Later, Chris would wonder why he nor Ezra hadn’t picked up on the old man calling the gambler
by name. Neither had related the information. And how they had missed the importance of the
fake alias the stranger had given them, could only be accredited to carelessness and worry.

“We were hoping you might have seen some strangers pass through here sometime yesterday.
They could have had a woman with them and a younger man, in his teens.”

Ableson rolled closer to Chris and lifted his head so their eyes met, “This country ain’t much the
sort for women and children.”

Something inside Chris’s gut twisted. He’d seen eyes like those before. They were the eyes of a
predator.

“Did you see anyone or not old man?” Larabee asked in a tone that drew a quizzical look from
Ezra.

“Don’t reckon I did,” Ableson smiled and glanced down at the blanket covering his motionless
legs. “But then again, I don’t get out much.”

“What about the lady of the house?” the gambler inquired. “You mentioned that your
granddaughter resided here with you.”

“I did at that.”

“So where is she?” Chris asked, looking around the small house, he’d already gave a once over to
upon entering. There was one room off to the side with the door closed, but he had heard nothing
to indicate anyone else was home.

Ableson shrugged, “I believe she was out looking for one of her lost pets.” His eyes went to
Chris’s once more, “But you know how young ones are these days.  You let them out of your
sight for a few moments, and they’re gone in a blink of an eye.”

“Would you have any inclination as to when she may be returning from her quest?” Ezra was
beginning to grow annoyed with their host’s little dance.

“I’m sure it won’t be too long now but...”  As if on cue, and before Ableson could finish his
thought, footsteps pounded on to the front porch and the door to the cabin was flung open in a
rush of excitement.

Both Ezra and Chris pulled their weapons and whirled to face the prospect of an unwelcome
threat. However the only sight that greeted them was the somewhat winded and disheveled form
of a young woman.

“Speak of the devil,” Ableson’s voice chimed from behind them. “Gentlemen, meet my
granddaughter, Magdeline.”
 
*******************************************************

“So, Chris and Ezra went into the house with Cross willingly ?” Buck asked as he and the bounty
hunter carefully made their way back along the trail that would lead them to the cabin where
Chris and the others were apparently being held . “They weren’t being forced or anything?”

Vin shook his head, “Why would he need to force them? Neither of them have ever saw Cross.
Besides, from what I could see, Ayden seemed kind of sickly and he was in some sort of
wheelchair. He looked like a helpless old man and the last thing he appeared to be was a threat.”

“And we both know what an act the man can put on.”

“I started to warn them,” the tracker continued. “But then I began remembering. I know that there
were others with Cross, at least two besides the girl, and I was afraid of setting the preacher off.
You know how unstable the bastard is.”

“You did the right thing, Vin,” Buck assured. “We’ll find Nate and Josiah so the odds are in our
favor when we bust in on Cross’s little party.”

Tanner averted his eyes from the other man, “I was suppose to be watching their backs. Chris
was counting on me.”

“You wouldn’t have done them any good if you’d went in there alone, Vin. Then Cross would
just have one more of us than he does now, and there’s no telling what Magdeline had in store for
me.”

The bounty hunter slowed his horse a little and looked back at Wilmington, “What the hell do
you think Cross is up to, Buck?’

The older gunslinger sighed, “I wish I knew, pard. I wish I knew.”

*******************************************************

“Gentlemen,” Magdeline quickly stepped into the cabin and crossed the floor to stand beside
Ableson. “I hope I am not interrupting.”

“I take it you did not find your lamb, my dear?”

Magdeline’s face flushed and she knelt in front of the old man’s chair. “I found him, but a wolf
appeared and carried him away. I’m sorry I failed.”

Ezra and Chris exchanged looks, as Ableson petted the woman.

“Hush now child. God’s will should never be apologized for.” That seemed to appease the girl
and her personality appeared to change in a flash of clarity as she stood and faced the other men
in the room.

“Now will you gentlemen be joining us for dinner because I must begin preparations?” A feral
grin crossed the woman’s face as her eyes lighted on the gambler. “I do hope you will be joining
us, Mr. Smiley-Pants.”

A cold chill danced down Ezra’s spine and he instinctively took a step closer to Chris. “I regret
that we will have to decline your kind invitation, mam, but duty does call us elsewhere.”

“My, my, you do talk real pretty.” Magdeline noted with delight. “And I do love your red coat.”

“Miss,” Chris stepped in front of Ezra to face the girl. “We were hoping to ask if you might have
saw some strangers passing through here sometime yesterday.”

“Strangers? We don’t get many newcomers out here.” Magdeline tilted her head. “Were they on
horses?”

Chris looked down at Ableson, who was watching the exchange with something akin to
amusement. “They most likely were on horseback.”

“Then, no,” the girl smiled sweetly. “I saw some devils, but they were traveling by the wind.”

Chris felt a hand on his shoulder. “Perhaps, we should go now, Mr. Larabee. I think we have
wasted enough of these fine citizen’s time.”

“Must you leave so soon?” Magdeline stepped around Chris to peer at the gambler with innocent
emerald eyes. “I was hoping we could get to know one another better.”

“Maybe we should go,” Chris interjected, pinning Ableson with a hard stare. “But if need be,
we’ll be back.”

“I look forward to it.” The older man grinned.

“Mam,” Chris tipped his hat at the sulking woman and followed the gambler to the door.

“If we do return, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra said softly. “I will gladly keep look out with Mr.Tanner.”

Ezra didn’t wait for a reply before continuing his hasty retreat. He could still feel the disturbed
woman’s eyes on him and he said a silent prayer that J.D. had not encountered those two
characters.

His hand was nearly on the door when it was kicked open with a force that caused him to stumble
back a couple of feet.

Chris’s hand instantly went for his sidearm as Nathan Jackson was roughly pushed through the
entrance way and an unconscious form of Josiah was dropped before them.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Mr. Larabee.” Ableson’s voice sounded behind them, and Chris
turned side ways to try and cover both angles.

Their ailing host from before had now shed the wool blanket to reveal a sawed-off shotgun
resting on his lap. “That is if you hope to see your young friend alive again.”

Ezra had also revealed his derringer but was now facing a standoff with the two men who had
brought in their partners.

“What if I just kill you now,” Chris held his weapon steadily at Ableson’s heart.

“Then Sam over there will shoot Mr. Standish as he tries to kill Mr. Bolton, who will
undoubtedly try to avenge my death.”

Not to Chris’s surprise, the older man slowly stood up from his wheelchair and lifted his shotgun
towards Josiah’s unmoving form. “I will, on the other hand, maybe get off one round, ending
your poor excuse for a holy man’s life. It would all be rather messy, don’t you
think?”

A laugh escaped from Magdeline, who was now perched on the corner of the kitchen table. “And
I do detest an untidy home, Mr. Larabee.”

Chris considered his options. There wasn’t many. Nathan was unarmed and by the looks of it his
hands were tied behind his back. Josiah was out and Ezra was outnumbered, and the old man had
mentioned J.D. Larabee slowly lowered his weapon and motioned for Ezra to do the same.

“Who the hell are you, Ableson?”

The older man smiled, “I’m your worst nightmare, Larabee.”

***************************************************

“Damn it to hell.” Buck cussed as he watched Nathan and Josiah being taken into the cabin
below them. “We’re too late.”

“They must have doubled back on them,” Vin sighed, taking his spyglass from Buck and looking
back towards the house.

“It looked like Josiah was hurt,” Wilmington growled. “Its no tellin what happened to Chris and
Ezra.”

“I know,” Vin agreed grimly. “I can’t see a damn thing through those windows.”

Buck looked at his friend, “Then maybe we should get a little closer.”

******************************************************

“You didn’t answer my question.” Chris said as he was disarmed by the strange girl, who he
seriously doubted was the old man’s granddaughter now.

Magdeline also took Ezra’s gun and winked at him as she skipped away.

“I’m an old friend,” their captor explained with a sweep of his hand. “One you have been
deprived of making the acquaintance of.”

“I’m beginning to believe I would much rather have left well enough alone,” Standish drawled as
his arms were roughly pulled behind him by the very large mountain man who had carried Josiah
to the cabin.

“Now don’t be so hasty, my boy,” Ableson chided. “I wouldn’t want Sam to get riled up at you.
He detests rudeness.”

The grizzly of a man jerked the gamblers arms even tighter as if in agreement to his colleagues
statement.

“It’s nice to know you’ve taught him some manners.”

Ableson shook his head, “And I thought the kid had got most of his smart mouth from
Wilmington.”

“You have J.D.?” Chris was tired of the word play and wanted some answers.

The old man smiled, “I can’t get use to calling him that, but yes, I have your young partner.
Perhaps now would be a good time to bring him out and let him go about the grand
introductions.”

*At least he’s alive.* Chris sent up a silent thank you. “I think that would be a good idea.”

“Magdeline, go have Avery bring up the boy.”

The girl giggled and disappeared through the one doorway Chris had noted and so Larabee took
the opportunity to kneel next to Josiah, who was starting to come around some. Ableson didn’t
protest, but the gangly kid who had come in with Nathan held his revolver on them.

“They hit him pretty hard,” Nathan’s voice held an unfamiliar anger. “Said the boss wanted to
surprise him.”

“Turn about is fair play, my dear doctor,” the old man made his way over to where Jackson was
now being secured by Sam. “Josiah, after all, did pull the wool over my eyes not too long ago.”

Josiah moaned and his eyes slowly blinked open. “Take it easy, Josiah,” Chris soothed.

“What hit me?” the big man asked, struggling to sit up.

“That would have been me,” Bolton snickered, only to recieve a silencing glare from Ableson.

“Hold your tongue, boy. Or I will cut it out.”

Sanchez quickly turned his head towards the voice he’d tried unsuccessfully to erase from his
memory over the last six months. “Oh God! I’m dead.”

Chris looked at Nathan and Ezra who both returned his puzzled stare.

Josiah, with Chris’s help, shakily pushed himself up to a sitting position. “I just never thought I
messed up bad enough to end up in Hell.”

Their captor laughed, “You did always say the most amusing things, Brother Sanchez.”

“You know this man, Josiah?” the black-clad gunslinger’s voice didn’t seem to break the spell
over Josiah. He seemed unable to pry his eyes from the gloating man.

“I know him.”

“Who is he?”

“Yes, by all means, brother, do tell your friends who I am.”

Josiah swallowed hard and finally met Chris’s gaze, “He’s the devil.”

******************************************

“I counted eight horses in the barn,” Vin joined Wilmington behind a small stand of trees about
seventy-five yards from the cabin. “Two were Nathan and Josiah’s, and mine was there also.”

Wilmington nodded towards the house, “Chris and Ezra’s are still out front.”

“The tall sage gave me minimal cover to the barn, but there’s nothing the rest of the way to the
house,” the tracker informed his friend.

“Maybe they’re not expecting us.”

Tanner shot his friend an incredulous look, “This is Cross we’re talking about here, Buck. He
knows we’ll come after the others. He’s counting on it.”

The other gunslinger seemed to think for a moment then a slight smile crossed his face, “Then
maybe we give the man exactly what he’s waiting for.”

*******************************************

Larabee looked to Nathan as if maybe Josiah had been hit on the head a little ‘too’ hard, before
turning concerned eyes back to the wounded man. “What do you mean?”

But before Sanchez could answer another voice stole everyone’s attention.

“Chris!”

Larabee turned to see J.D. being roughly drug into the room by yet another large outlaw.  The
kid’s hands were tied and a bandanna hung loose around his neck as if maybe it had served as a
gag before. He was pale and his face held the evidence of the rough treatment he had endured.

Chris felt a wave of relief wash over him at seeing the kid still breathing but that was soon
replaced with anger. The man holding J.D. shoved him and the kid nearly fell flat on his face
before the big man caught him by the hair of the head and steadied him.
“Did I tell you to talk?” the teen’s captor growled.

“Get your hands off of him,” Larabee said coldly.

J.D.’s tormentor just smiled and pulled the kid closer to him. “Or what?”

The old man Josiah had revealed to be the devil held up his hand to quiet his henchman,
“You’ll have to look over my brother, Mr. Larabee, he tends to get a little zealous when it comes
to his work; a habit from his long years in prison I suspect.”

“I never look over men like him. *Thats* not in my nature.”

“Oh yeah, once a hero always a hero.” Avery snorted in disgust. “But that might be changing
pretty soon. It’ll be hard to find people to look up to you like this kid does, when your wanted for
robbery and murder.”

“Is everyone in this house delusional?” Ezra said, trying to inch away from Magdeline who was
now inspecting the buttons of his jacket with extreme fascination.

“They’re not delusional, Brother Ezra. They’re evil.” Josiah spoke up.

Their host stepped toward J.D. and dropped an arm around the young man’s shoulders. “Now
J.D., can you believe the way your friends’ are talking about me.”

The kid was uncharacteristically silent as he tried to wiggle himself free from the man’s grasp.
Chris had never seen him so shaken. Whoever this man was, he had done something to make J.D.
a believer.

“What do you want from us?” The gunslinger asked, trying to draw the attention away from the
frightened youth.

“Retribution,” Ableson answered simply, patting J.D. roughly on the side of his already battered
face.

Chris clenched his jaw, but his expression remained impassive. “Retribution for what?”

“For causing me to lose the greatest fortune known to man and leaving me for the buzzards.” The
first hint of anger Chris had heard from the man now tinged his words. “I was on the verge of
greatness, when you and your miserable friends took it all from me.”

“You shouldn’t have done that.” Magdeline had perched herself across Ezra’s legs and now
whispered in his ear.

“Excuse me, Mr. Satan, but could you please, before you continue your lamenting on exactly
how we wronged you, remove your housecat from my lap.”

“Magdeline, get off the man. You can play with him later.”

The girl didn’t seem to pleased about it, but did as their captor said. “Thats okay if you don’t
want to play, Mr. Smiley-Pants. I can always play with my old friend J.D.”

“Look Ableson, or whoever the hell you are.....” Chris started when J.D.’s strained voice cut him
off.

“Cross.” The kid’s eyes met Larabee’s. “He’s Ayden Cross.”

A disturbing scene of watching Vin Tanner die in his arms, flashed before Chris’s eyes. “Cross?”
he mumbled, trying to let his mind wrap around that unthinkable concept.

“Hallelujah brothers, he’s seen the light.” Avery proclaimed, giving J.D. a viscious punch to his
abdomen. "But I still didn't tell you that you could talk."

“Touch him again and you are a deadman,” Chris warned, giving the younger Cross an icy glare.

“And I suppose you believe looks can kill, Larabee,” the man laughed and delivered another
blow to J.D.’s side. The kid doubled over but the henchman jerked him back upright keeping his
arm tight across the kid’s chest.

“No, but being sanctimoniously drawn and quartered will do the trick quite nicely, I assure you,”
Ezra’s voice had lost it’s grace now, which was being quickly replaced by barely controlled rage.

Avery laughed but released the kid and let him drop to the wooden floor, “Then that might be an
idea for you Mr. ‘Happy Jeans’, wasn’t it.”

“Enough, Avery,” Ayden’s voice halted his younger brother’s move toward Ezra. “We’ll need
the rest of them basically healthy if they’re going to pull off the job.”

“What job?” Chris asked defiantly, walking across the room to where J.D. was struggling to
regain his breath. He hadn’t been tied yet, like the others, and he assumed there was a reason for
that. The gunslinger knelt beside the kid and laid a hand on his shoulder.

“Why the one you’re going to do for me and my associates, Mr. Larabee.,” Ayden replied
casually. “After all you do owe me a small fortune.”

J.D. looked up and scared hazel eyes met cool blue ones. “You alright?” the gunslinger inquired
and waited for the teen to nod before turning his gaze back on Cross.

“We ain’t working for you and I don’t know where in the hell you get off thinking ‘we’ owe you
a damn thing.” The very thought of being in the same room with the man who had inflicted so
much suffering on those closest to him, threatened to send Chris over the edge.

Ayden shrugged his shoulders and stepped up to the fireplace to deposit another log in the dying
orange embers. “And I had thought you such an intelligent man, Chris; a worthy adversary in this
little game of mine.”

“I don’t play games, Cross. If you knew anything about me at all, you’d know that.”

Ayden turned and gave him a curious look, “But I’ve seen you do it,” the older man let his gaze
fall on J.D. “You’re here aren’t you.”

The gunslinger felt a shiver run through the kid’s slight frame and he moved so he was blocking
Cross’s view. “I came for J.D. and for answers, that’s it.”

“Ah, yes,” Ayden sat back down in the chair Magdeline was curled beside. “Answers to the woes
young Mr. Tanner has been suffering through. I understand you and he are quite close.”

Chris stiffened at the very mention of his best friend’s name.

“I assume he’s in quite a bit of trouble with the law. But he was a wanted man before, so he
should be quite use to it by now.”

“It’s obvious 'you' don’t have any problem playing with other people’s lives,” Nathan spoke up
from where he and Josiah had now been tied to chairs in the corner by Cross’s other men.

Ayden smiled and gave him an innocent shrug, “If the stakes are high enough, I have no problem
doing what I have to.” His gaze then went back to Chris, “I feel Mr. Larabee and I have that in
common. Perhaps all of us do.”

“I doubt we have anything in common, Cross.” Chris had helped J.D. to his feet now and guided
him to a small sofa near the window. The kid, Bolton, had kept his weapon on them the whole
time.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Cross run a hand over Magdeline’s hair and twirled one long strand around
his finger. “We would go to any lengths to protect what is important to us.”

“And what exactly is important to you, Ayden?” Josiah’s voice had regained some of it’s
strength. “Money? Revenge?  Those things mean nothing to us.”

“Your low thoughts of me are painful, Preacher,” the older Cross feigned a hurt look. “I am a
man of much deeper sentiment once one comes to know me better.”

“And I’m sure a rattlesnake has redeeming qualities of its own, but I’d still rather not parley with
it to find out,” Ezra observed.

“Well, you have no choice but to converse with me, Mr. Standish. None of you do. I am, after all,
holding all the cards.”

******************************************************

“You sure this is going to work?” Vin gave Buck an unsure glance as he quietly made his way to
the first stall in the barn.

Wilmington tried to appear more confident than he felt, “It worked on Conley.”

“But this is Cross,” the tracker pointed out. “Conley’s a different breed of man.”

Buck sighed, “Do you have some other plan up your sleeve that I don’t know about?”

The younger man only stared at his friend a moment before leading out the large gray he’d seen
Cross on the night he took J.D. “I see your point.”

Wilmington nodded following his partner out with two more horses, “I don’t want to leave the
others in there with Cross any longer than we have to. And it ain’t like nobody in town is going
to be willing to come to our rescue.”

“You don’t think...” Vin didn’t even want to voice the unspeakable.

Buck shook his head, “If he’d wanted any of us dead, he’d have just killed you and J.D. that night
instead of going to all this work. The bastard is up to something but..”

“But he’s not above hurting them in the meantime,” Tanner finished the other gunslinger’s
thoughts. They both new how Ayden’s mind worked and the things he came up with were never
pretty.

“Let’s just say the sooner we get them out of there and bury Ayden Cross, the better I’ll feel.”

Vin let silence speak the words he couldn’t . Ayden was going to be his. And this time he’d make
sure the man had no chance of returning from the grave.

*******************************************************

“Funny how things never turn out quite how you expect them to , isn’t it?” Ayden inquired now
standing in front of Ezra.

“I’ve learned if one rarely expects anything; then one is seldom disappointed,” the gambler
replied casually.

“But I mean you and your friends here,” Ayden swept his shotgun to cover Nathan and Josiah.
“You all believed you’d find young J.D. over there, rescue him, and then bring ‘fire and
brimstone’ down on the heads of those who dared to mess with the Seven.” Cross leaned his
scarred face closer to the younger man. “That’s kind of vain, wouldn’t you say?”

A small smile crossed Standish’s face, “No more so than believing one worthy of taking that
which belonged to the Almighty.”

Cross’s grin disappeared and with a sweep of his hand he brought the butt of his shotgun across
Ezra jaw, sending the other man and the chair he was secured to crashing to the floor.

“Ezra!” J.D. said and started to get up but a restraining hand from Chris stopped him. `

“No need to despair, young man,” Ezra assured weakly, barely keeping his grasp on
consciousness. “I have endured far worse blows at the poker table.”

“Where are you going with this, Cross?” Josiah asked hoping to distract Ayden, who seemed to
be trying to get a grasp on his anger.

Dark, hateful eyes turned on the big holy man , “I was merely pointing out that your arrogance
was as fool-hearty as your other two partners.”

Ayden turned to look out the one small window of the cabin, “They think they’re so smart.”
Cross whirled to face Chris, “Death must have diminished there minds a little.”

Larabee took a step closer to allow him a better look from the casement. He didn’t see anything.
“I don’t know what your talking about,” Chris started only to have the sharp whiny of a horse cut
him off.

He peered out the window again, noticing a small trail of smoke now billowing from the barn, off
to the side of the cabin. *Damn.*

“I would have thought them a little more inventive though,” Ayden said now smiling again. “But
then again Wilmington is probably worried sick over his young ‘brother’ and Tanner just isn’t
working with his normal wits about him.”

“Chris?” J.D. looked to his friend, concern filling his hazel eyes.

Nathan and Josiah also looked to the gunslinger as if he could miraculously figure some way to
prevent what they all feared was about to happen.

Larabee clenched his jaw and hoped to hell Buck and Vin had not come after them alone. If they
had...

Cross seemed to read the other’s thoughts as he stepped closer to the Seven’s leader, “They
weren’t very smart to come here without back-up, were they? But, I forgot, ‘you’ are their
backup.”

Before Chris could reply Ayden turned to his brother, “Avery, take Sam and Bolton and go
distract yourselves putting out the fire in the barn. I believe we are about to have company.”

The older Cross turned back to leer at Chris, “That is the plan, don’t you think?”

Avery looked confused at his brother’s instructions for a moment, “Shouldn’t I stay here with
you. You might need my help.”

Ayden continued to glare at Larabee, “Go. I’ll give you a sign when you’re needed.”

“If you hurt them..” The grim-faced gunslinger let the threat hang in the deathly silence.

“Don’t worry, Chris, Buck and Vin and I are old friends. I wouldn’t dream of hurting
them,” Ayden backed away from Larabee, more cautious now that his accomplices were
following Avery out the front. “At least until they’ve fulfilled my needs.”

Larabee searched the room for anything he could use as a weapon, anyway he could prevent this.
But unfortunately, Ayden had hit the nail on the head. He ‘did’ hold all the cards. The shotgun he
was wielding was the biggest threat, even if Chris could get the upper-hand on the man, there
was
a chance of one of the others being caught in the crossfire. That was a chance he couldn’t take.

But maybe he could warn Buck and Vin.

Again Ayden seemed to anticipate his every move, “And Larabee,” Cross limped back to his
wheelchair near the fireplace and eased himself down, “Don’t even consider tipping off your
partners.” Their captor aimed his twelve gauge at J.D. and then covered with his blanket.
“J.D. and I were ‘never’ friends.”

Magdeline, who had busied herself helping Ezra up from the floor, seemed giddy with
anticipation as she actually took the time to place the gambler’s hat back on his head, “Can’t
have you lookin’ poorly when your friends arrive , Mr. Fancy.”

“Heaven forbid,” Ezra winced as the girl, used the sleeve of her dress to wipe blood from his
busted lip, before cantering off to stand beside Ayden.

As if on cue, of some morbidly executed show, a loud crash erupted from the back of the cabin
and Buck and Vin burst into the room, guns at the ready.

“Boys,” Buck instantly trained his weapon on Ayden, as Vin searched the room for any other
threats. They hadn’t been sure of how many men Cross had with him, and even after seeing their
ruse bring three from the cabin , they had to be wary.

“Why Michael, I can’t believe you decided to join us,” Cross said with faked wonderment. “And
you brought Mr. Tanner along, what a surprise.”
 
“Shut-up , Ayden,” Buck growled, his anger growing by the minute. He’d already seen J.D.’s
bruised face, and Ezra and Josiah didn’t look much better.

Wilmington pointed his gun at Magdeline now, “Back away from him, missy. I wouldn’t want to
accidentally shoot you if he makes one false move.”

The girl smirked at Buck’s weak attempt at humor but did as the gunslinger said.

“Keep an eye on him, Vin, while I help Chris free the others.”

The tracker nodded, meeting Larabee’s eyes for an instant before training his gaze on the enemy.
Something in that shared moment told Vin things weren’t what they seemed. He could read Chris
better than most, hell, probably better than anyone. Larabee was trying to warn them, but Buck
was so caught up in the moment, he didn’t have a clue.

Everything seemed to happen in slow motion. Vin started to turn back to Buck, to suggest he
wait , when he felt a searing pain rip through his left side, seconds after he heard the discharge of
a weapon.

The tracker’s eyes came back to meet Ayden’s sincerely surprised face, and he staggered once,
his hand instinctively going to cover the wound.

“Vin!”

Chris’s voice cut through the agonizing pain and he tried to turn to find his friend. That’s when
he saw Magdeline holding a gun that looked a whole lot like Ezra’s derringer; and if the wicked
smile on her face was any indication, she was obviously pleased with her marksmanship.

Tanner faltered as another wave of pain crashed down upon him, and he would have hit the
ground if Chris hadn’t been there to catch him.

Buck had heard the shot as he bent to cut the ropes binding J.D.’s feet, and instinctively turned to
take out the source. He hesitated for one moment, never being faced with the prospect of
shooting a woman, but that was one moment too long.

Ayden had stood from his wheel chair and now held a sawed-off shotgun pointed at
Wilmington’s head, “Don’t even think about it, my friend. Magdeline may have been a little
hasty , but I do like the way she improves the decor of the place.”

Apparently, Avery thought the gunshot was his sign to return because he, Bolton and Sam now
appeared in the front vestibule; destroying any hopes the Seven may have had of escape.

*******************************************************

“Nathan!” Chris said instinctively, not remembering that  the healer was still tied and sitting
across the room.  His thoughts were focused completely on Vin and the task of trying to control
the blood flowing steadily from the wound in the younger man’s side.

“Put pressure on it , Chris,” Jackson said calmly, straining against the ropes holding his hands.

“Untie, Nathan, Cross,” Josiah said angrily. “Let him help them.”

“Why should I,” Ayden laughed. “I’m finding the whole scene quite amusing.”

Chris was oblivious to their captor’s remark as he quickly ripped a large piece of fabric from his
shirt and pressed it to Vin’s side.

The bounty hunter bit back a cry of pain, but Chris could see the slight panic in the younger
man’s eyes.

“Take it easy, cowboy,” Larabee said softly, pressing harder than he wanted to, but knowing it
was necessary to save his bestfriend’s life.

“You let him help, Vin,” Buck’s deadly voice bellowed, “Because if he don’t make it , you’ll
have to kill us all, right here and now.”  Wilmington met the other man’s gaze, “And I don’t
think that will fit too well with whatever sick little plan you have in store for us.”

Ayden smiled at Buck but then nodded to Avery, “Cut the good doctor loose. Let’s see what
miracles he can work.”

Magdeline had dropped Ezra’s gun on the table and now made her way to where the fallen man
lay on the floor. She bent down, slowly and mechanically, as if in some sort of trance,  and
reached to touch the ever growing circle of crimson on Tanner’s shirt.

But before her trembling fingers could make contact, Chris struck with the speed of a serpent,
grabbing her wrist and squeezing it with every bit as much force as he was being made to use on
the tracker.

“Don’t you fu**ing touch him.”

The woman gasped in pain, but Larabee maintained his vice-like grip until the girl cried out and
he felt cold steel touch the back of his neck.

“Let her go, Mr. Larabee,” Ayden’s voice sounded more intrigued than concerned, but Chris
knew better than to push his luck. As much as he would love to have tore the girl from limb to
limb, he had to keep his cool.

For Vin. For all of them.

So with a rough shove, that sent Magdeline skidding on her rump, the gunslinger turned his
attention back to his friend.

The tracker’s pain-filled blue eyes were staring at him and he tried to answer the unspoken
question with a look of confidence, “You’re going to be fine, pard. Nathan’s on his way.”

J.D. had been watching the whole scene with a detached silence and when Buck reached out to
touch his shoulder, the kid nearly fell off the sofa.

“Easy, kid,” Buck eyed his friend worriedly. The teen was as white as the driven snow and his
eyes had a glazed look that sent a silent shout of warning to the other man.

“Is he goin’ to be alright?” J.D. finally got the words past his lips.

“Of course he is,” Buck faltered slightly under the haunting hazel gaze. “All of us are.”

Nathan had now made it to Vin’s side and it didn’t take him long to determine the danger their
friend was in. “The bullet’s still in there,” the healer met Chris’s fiery gaze.

Tanner, who was tryin’ his damnedest to get his breathing under control, looked from Nathan to
Larabee. Even if he could only force his mind to half-concentrate on what was being said, he
could read the looks his partners were giving each other. Especially the look on Chris’s face. And
he knew he was in trouble.

“Can you get it out?” the black-clad gunslinger asked earnestly.

“With the right supplies,” Nathan looked up at Ayden who was still consoling Magdeline, “Like
my medical bag.”

“True healers don’t need such toys,” Cross said seriously. “You can work on him, but only using
what you can find in here.”

“Damn it, Cross,” Buck snarled, “This ain’t no fu**ing game.”

Ayden didn’t acknowledge Buck’s words but continued to watch Nathan, “Take it or leave it,
saw bones. I could care less if the hero makes it or not. I let him bleed to death once before, I can
just as easily let it happen again.”

“We’ll take it,” Chris was the one to reply, his voice cold and incontestable.

“Chris,” Nathan put a hand on the other man’s shoulder. “You don’t know what your agreeing
to.”

Ice blue eyes turned on the healer, “I’ll do what it takes to save him.”

Ayden’s hearty laugh caught them by surprise and J.D. flinched closer to Buck, who silently
slipped a steadying arm around the kid’s shoulders.

“I told you we were more a like than you were willing to admit, Larabee,” Cross said motioning
to Avery and Bolton. “Move the tracker in the bedroom so the healer can work his magic.”

Chris didn’t favor their captor with a reply but the two continued to stare one another down in
silence, until the stillness  was interrupted by a cry of pain from Vin, who was being roughly drug
to his feet by Bolton and Avery. The others watched helpless to intercede, as Larabee
was pulled from the tracker’s side by the burly mountain-man, Sam.

“Get your hands off of him!” Chris shouted, and made his way back to the bounty hunter,  only to
have a revolver shoved in his face.

“Back off, gunslinger. I have no qualms with puttin’ your lights out,” Sam snarled through his
crooked yellow grin.

“Take it easy, Chris,” Nathan’s calming voice did little to quell Larabee’s rage. “I can treat him
better in the other room, ‘specially if there’s a cot or somethin’ in there.”

“Tell your goons to let him go, Cross,” Chris ordered, still not accepting of the fact he wasn’t in
control. “I’ll help Jackson with Vin.”

“Now where’s the fun in that?” Ayden chided. “I’d much rather see every expression on your
face as you hear his struggle and  know that you can’t do a damn thing to help him.  Then maybe
you will understand  what helplessness really feels like.”

“I’m going in there with him, Cross,” Larabee seethed. “You’ll have to shoot me to stop that
from happening.”

Vin had reached out and grabbed a fist full of Larabee’s jacket sleeve, “Don’t .....Chris.”

“Listen to your friend, Larabee,” Avery smirked. “My brother may just take you up on that
challenge.”

“I would never dream of such a thing, Ave,” Ayden moved closer and smiled at Chris. "I need
Larabee for my plan. I’ll simply kill young J.D.”

“Like hell you will, you no good son of a bitch,” Wilmington was on his feet now, placing
himself
between Cross and the kid. “You’re not doing anything to him.”

“You can’t prevent what’s already happened, ‘Michael’,”  Cross shrugged. “Just like Mr. Larabee
can’t go back in time and stop the bullet Magdeline put in your young friend..”

“I’m really sick and tired of your cryptic babbling, Cross,” Buck seethed.

“Then maybe I should just shoot you instead,” Ayden offered, lifting his shotgun to rest against
Wilmington’s chest. “Finish what I started in that cave.”

“No!” J.D. tried to stand on wobbly legs, but nearly ended up on the floor. “Don’t hurt him.”

Buck had reached out to steady his young friend and now guided him back to the sofa.

“Leave them alone,” Chris’s voice was deadly. “I’ll stay here.”

The gunslinger’s eyes never left his wounded friend as Sam and Bolton started towards the other
room with him.

“I’ll take care of him,” Nathan’s attempt at reassurance was kind, but not much comfort to
Larabee.

“Damn you to hell, Cross.” Chris Larabee’s voice could have stripped paint from the walls.

“Your friends have already tried that,” Ayden let a malicious grin adorn his face, “But you’re
welcome to finish the job, if you can?”

Larabee surveyed the situation in front of him. Cross held his 12 gauge at a  slant toward the
floor and Avery’s attention was on the others.

In that moment of silence, Chris felt the rage of his past surface and merge with the trauma of his
present and without another thought he began to advance on the evil before him.

“Chris!”  Nathan Jackson came hastily from the other room. “I need your help in here.”

The healer’s words subdued the suicidal tendencies of the gunslinger.  Larabee jerked his body
toward Nathan.

“What’s wrong?” Chris could feel the fear rippling through his taut muscles.

“Vin won’t calm down. He doesn’t want Bolton or Sam touching him and all his struggles are
causing him to lose more blood,” Nathan chanced a desperate look at their captor and then turned
back to Larabee. “He keeps asking for you.”

Chris saw the anxiousness in the healer’s eyes, knowing that time was of the essence.  The
gunslinger looked over his shoulder at the man behind the mayhem and realized he would have
to surrender something precious now, if Vin was to live to fight another day.

“Let me go to him, Cross.” Chris’s calm tone seemed to surprise the other man. “He needs me.”

For a moment Ayden’s face reflected nothing of his thoughts and Larabee began to wonder if he
had misread some of the ‘rules’ to the insane man’s game.  The other man’s emotionless,
unfeeling, expression in the face of another’s suffering only increased the hate building in the
seven’s leader.

“Please.” Larabee flinched slightly as the word left his mouth. But he knew instantly that was
what the older man had been waiting for.  It was obvious by the gloating smile that crossed
Ayden’s face.

“Why Chris, you figured out the magic word. All you had to do was show me some respect.”

Cross’s triumphant chuckle brought him matching glares of loathing from the rest of the Seven.
It was no secret to either of them  what the little scene had cost the man they all respected, and
each vowed to return the favor to Ayden whenever fate would allow them the opportunity.

“Go comfort the poor lad, Larabee. The other’s and I have some catching up to do anyway,” the
old man said casually, nodding to his younger brother to let the gunslinger pass.

Chris gave the others a quick reassuring glance and then followed Nathan to his awaiting friend.

*******************************************************

Chris was not happy to find the scrawny kid, Bolton, leaned over Tanner in an attempt to try and
restrain him. It was obvious by the cruel smile on Sam’s face, as he watched with amusement,
that the boy was doing nothing but inflicting more pain upon Vin and causing the tracker to resist
more fiercely.

“Let him go,” Chris growled, grabbing Bolton by the collar and flinging him to the floor, as if he
were removing some troublesome pestilence.

Sam stopped grinning and turned on the gunslinger, “You’ll have to pay for that , mister.”

The beastly man’s threat would have frightened most, but Chris Larabee wasn’t the type to scare
easily. Especially when one of his own was in danger.  Sam was nothing but an obstacle in his
path, “Put it on my tab, and get the hell away from him.”

The mountain man seemed to weigh his options and wisely decided that now was not the
opportunity to go head to head with the legendary gunslinger.  So, he slowly backed away from
the bed.

Chris moved in and grasped Vin’s hand , “Hey cowboy, I heard you wanted to see me.” The
words did their trick and the injured man ceased his struggle.

“Chris, you alright?” Larabee almost laughed at the absurdity of that question, but the younger
man’s sincere concern stopped him.

“I’m fine, seeing as how I’m not the one with a bullet in me, and by the way , Nathan needs to
take care of that.”

The gunslinger paused and let his words sink in, “You ready?”

Tanner held his bestfriend’s gaze and drew from the strength he found there. “As long as you
ain’t plannin’ on going nowhere.”

Chris tightened his grip on the tracker’s arm, “Only if we go together.” Larabee let a mischievous
grin touch his face, “And I don’t think hell or the devil is ready for that.”

Nathan moved to the other side of the bounty hunter and ripped apart his shirt to expose the
wound. “This would be a whole lot easier if I had some laudanum or even whiskey, Vin. Like it
is, it’s going to hurt. Bad.”

Tanner only met the healer’s sympathetic gaze and nodded his understanding.

“Chris,  I’m goin’ to need you to hold him.,” Nathan said giving Larabee a worried glance. “Are
you sure you can handle this alone. Maybe you should let Bolton help.”

Larabee looked to where the hired guns had placed themselves across the small room, against the
wall, and then turned his attention back to the healer.  “I don’t need anyone’s help. Let’s just get
it done.”

Chris did as Nathan instructed and eased Vin up enough so that he could brace himself behind
the tracker, giving him better leverage in case it was needed.

“Do it, Nathan.” Tanner’s voice was weak and a little slurred, but Jackson saw that his eyes were
determined and clear. The clearest they’d been in days.

The healer couldn’t push the words past his throat, so instead just nodded and reached for his
knife from the small fireplace in the bedroom.

Vin watched the reddened blade come closer to him and unwillingly began to tense.

“Easy, cowboy. It’ll be alright,” Chris said, trying to sound confident as he laid one arm around
the lanky man’s chest and kept his left hand entwined with that of Vin’s. “Hurry up, Nate. I don’t
think he can take much more.”

As Chris’s statement passed his lips, Nathan did as he said and with as much care as possible, let
the blade pierce flesh. The bounty hunter’s body bucked instantly and a strangled gasp escaped
through his clenched teeth.

“Oh God.”  Tanner clutched his friend’s hand so fiercely Chris was afraid he had broken it.

But the pain did nothing but remind Larabee of the tracker’s peril, “It’s almost over. Stay with
me.”

Nathan dug deeper, and once again Vin nearly jerked from Chris’s grasp, as he yelled in agony.
“Oh God...Chris.”

Larabee knew there was nothing he could do for the younger man. That only made it worse.
Ayden knew what he was doing when he had allowed them no supplies.

If only they had something to dull the pain....

But Cross had seen to that and for that Ayden would pay dearly.

Vin’s breathing had increased and become ragged, so much so, that Chris was almost hoping his
friend would succumb to the pain, and pass out. “Shhh, take it easy.”

Those were the only words Chris seemed able to utter, his mind reeling from the torturous
despair evident in the tracker’s actions.

“Damnit, Nathan, can’t you hurry?” Larabee’s rage-filled eyes met Jackson’s intense stare.

“The bullet went deep. I’m doing the best I can.”

And he was.

But still, the healer could literally feel every ounce of pain he was inflicting on his wounded
friend. On both his friends. And with that realization, he wished to God that it was Ayden Cross
on the bed before him, suffering the merciless procedure that Vin was enduring.

Vin.

He was weakening and Nathan knew he had to find that bullet. Soon.  “You still with us , Vin,”
he asked, not looking up from his search for the elusive slug.

Chris began to worry when the tracker didn’t reply. “Vin, talk to me.”

“What....do ...you ....want ...me ...to ...say?” Each word came out with a short gasp but Chris still
smiled at the reply.

“Just let us know you’re hanging in there, alright.”

Vin nodded, but once again tried to pull from Larabee’s grasp when Nathan obviously touched
the bullet with his blade.

“I’ve almost got it,” Nathan announced, letting his relief show. Unfortunately, he knew the worst
wasn’t over yet.

Tanner began to struggle more, so Chris pulled his friend closer to his chest, as if by mere
physical contact, he could absorb some of the agony the tracker was suffering. “Easy.”

“I got it!” Each man’s body visibly slumped with relief at Nathan’s exclamation.

Chris let his head drop to rest against the top of Vin’s, “You okay, pardner?”  Larabee could hear
the exhaustion in his own voice and could only imagine how his best friend was holding up.

“Couldn’t be better.” The reply was soft and weak, but it held some of the old Tanner grit.

“Well, I’m glad you feel that way,” Nathan’s gaze met Larabee’s and then fell on tired blue eyes,
“Because the only way I got to close that wound is to cauterize it.”

Chris raised his head and felt his heart drop. He knew Vin didn’t have the endurance for that.
“Isn’t there some other way?”

Nathan saw his own feelings of helplessness mirrored in the gunslinger’s face and his heart
constricted. It was hard enough dealing with a patient’s family when one of their own was hurt. It
was impossible when that patient was also part of your own family.

“If I had my supplies, yes. But....” Jackson let the statement hang between them. They both knew
who was the cause of this. There was no need to voice it again.

“Just do it, Nate.” Vin reached up with his free hand and touched the healer’s sleeve. “It’ll be
alright.”

The doctor held the confident gaze for a moment before turning to where Bolton and Sam were
still leaned against the wall, “I need a bullet and a match.”

Bolton’s face paled at the implication, as the black man’s words sank in, “You mean you’re goin’
to...”

Nathan nodded, “Your boss told you to help us.”

“Give it to him, kid,” Sam said with a twisted grin.

Bolton may have been green, but the older man had been around. He knew exactly what was
about to happen and was enjoying it.

The gangly kid stepped forward with a slug in one hand and quickly fished a match from his vest
pocket. He handed both to Nathan and quickly stepped back, as if he too may be touched by what
the ‘crazy’ doctor was about to do.

Jackson turned and retrieved his knife to open the bullet and extract the gunpowder.

Chris felt a slight tremble course through the tracker’s body and he instinctively tightened his
grip, “I’m right here,” he said so softly, that only Vin could here.

Nathan sprinkled the black substance generously around the incision and took one last look at his
friends. He registered the dimness in the tracker’s eyes and knew the younger man wouldn’t
withstand this in a conscious state.

He then met Larabee’s stare and saw a flame fueled from hatred burning behind those ice blue
orbs. He almost felt a twinge of sympathy for the devil in the other room. Almost.

“You ready?” Nathan locked gazes with his patient one last time before the hiss of the lit match
spread throughout the silent room.

Chris watched as Vin closed his eyes and he tightened his grip on his friend’s hand and waited
with bated breath.

The scream of pain still caught him by surprise as it echoed through the cabin walls like a terror
wind trying to uproot its foundation. His grasp almost failed as the body writhed beneath him.

But it was over.

“Chris?” The choked whisper tore at the older gunslinger’s every fiber.

“Right here, cowboy,” Larabee raised his hand from Vin’s chest and pushed sweat-drenched
locks from his friend’s sheen-covered brow.

“The others...” The tracker’s words were lost as he slipped into a trauma induced sleep.

“Just rest, pard’. I’ll worry about the others,” Chris couldn’t keep the venom out of his voice any
longer as he looked up to meet Nathan’s weary face.  They had just suffered through a nightmare
of an ordeal and his rage was back with a vengeance of its own.

Ayden Cross was going to Hell if Chris had to escort him through the flaming gates himself.

************************************************************************

Buck Wilmington’s soft, yet stressed tones, were the only sounds in the front room of the cabin.

“He’ll be okay, J.D. You know he’s almost as stubborn as Chris.” Buck was rubbing the younger
man’s arm lightly hoping the minute contact would ease the kid’s tension. Vin’s agony filled
shouts had rattled the youth. Hell, it had rattled all of them.

“What if he’s not, Buck. What if this time Cross succeeds in killing him, and then you, and then
Chris.........” J.D. would have continued but Wilmington had grabbed his head between his hands
and was shaking it slightly.

“Listen to me, son. There's no way I’m gonna let that happen. Vin’s going be alright and so are
the rest of us.” Buck stared intently into the teen’s eyes, trying to will the other to not lose faith.

“He’s right, J.D.," Josiah's strong voice broke in. "Cross did not accomplish his first attempt at
destroying us and this time will be no different. Evil will not prevail.”

The kid looked at the holy man and blinked a couple of times trying to clear his foggy brain.

“You sure Josiah?”

“If I were you, Mr. Dunne, I would take Mr. Sanchez’s words as the gospel,” Ezra added his
confident vocable to help strengthen the distraught youth. “He does have an inside track with the
dealer himself you know.”

J.D. couldn’t or wouldn’t reply so he just nodded his head, which was still loosely held by Buck.

“See there. Didn’t old Buck tell you everything was just fine.” Wilmington patted the teen’s
cheek softly and let his hands fall back to his sides.

“How touching. I was almost deeply moved to believe all that drivel myself, gentlemen.” Ayden
clapped his palms in mock applause. “Too bad it was nothing but wishful thinking. I'm quite sure
your young hero won't survive this last hijinx of his.”

Buck rose to his feet to advance on their captor, but a voice stopped him.

“I wouldn’t be so sure, Cross,” Chris Larabee’s deadly tone along with his blood soaked
appearance actually caused Ayden to flinch. He recovered quickly, though, knowing any sign of
weakness in front of these men right now would be fatal.

“Well, I see our mutual friend must either be unconscious or dead,” Cross’s cool voice revealed
none of his underlying tension. "I do hope the latter.”

“He’s resting, and very much alive.” The answer  was directed to the four anxious faces staring at
Chris. Larabee looked at each of his men, not only to assure them of Vin’s mortality, but to
appease his worry over them.

He saw Josiah and Ezra seemed no worse for wear than when he had left, but J.D.’s flushed face
and drooping gaze concerned him.

“Buck, whats wrong with the kid?” Chris stepped toward the youth, ignoring any protest Ayden
or his men may have.

Wilmington, who was still standing, hadn’t noticed the deterioration in J.D.’s condition.

“J.D., what’s wrong?” Buck knelt by the teen’s side as Chris came to stoop in front of the youth.

“I don’t know. I’m not feelin’ so good.” J.D.’s words were slurred and distant, which worried the
men even more.

“Isn’t that a shame. The poor boy’s feeling sickly. Maybe we should put him in the other room
with his ailing friend.” Ayden reached up and grasped Magdeline’s hand as if it pained him to see
the youth in agony. “Don’t you think the young man would be better off in there, dear.”

The woman took her free hand and stroked the gray streaked hair of her lover and grinned, “I do
believe it would be best if he be surrounded by death, so to acquaint him with his future.”

“Shut up, before I shut you up,” Buck seethed. “Woman or no.”

“Now, now, Mr. Ableson, oh excuse me, Mr. Wilmington,” Cross smirked. "Old habits do die
hard, don't they." Ayden rose from his chair and stepped closer to Buck, " You wouldn’t want to
piss me off. I still have an ace up my sleeve that could drastically change the outcome of this
little game of ours.”

He raised his shot gun and leveled it on the trio in front of him. “You see, I know just having you
under the gun, so to speak, shall control you for a bit, but I’m not stupid." The older man's
scarred face twisted into a feral grin, " Even a fence will not hold a wild mustang for long. So I
devised a way to quash any and all mundane attempts against me.”

“Cross, I think that drop off the ravine addled your brain more than it was before, because your
sounding crazier than ever.” Josiah’s deep voice was etched with anger. He had a terrible feeling
he wasn't going to like where this conversation was headed.

“Get to the proverbial point, sir. I’m afraid my attention span is waning.” Even Ezra’s gambler
mask of disguise was beginning to show cracks.

“You boys never struck me as the impatient type," Ayden sighed. "But trying times can effect a
man, can’t they?”

Cross had sidled over to stand next to his brother, Avery, who had just came from his perch on
the porch.

“All quiet on the front, dear brother?” Ayden never let his eyes stray from Chris’s stone gaze.

“Nothing out there but the bugs.” Avery grinned, as he noticed the fallen expression cross the
youngest’s face. “Expecting the calvary boy?”

J.D. flinched from the gruffly barked question. His hearing seemed extra sensitive, probably due
to the pounding ache in his head, and if the truth be known, he was expecting some kind of
miracle to save their hides.

Buck’s hand instinctively came to rest on the kid’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, J.D. Help will be
here when we need it.” Wilmington tightened his grip on the teen, and for the first time realized
he could feel the fever radiating from his friend's body.

He turned concerned eyes to Larabee, all thoughts of Cross's tirade lost in his worry for J.D.
“You think Nathan can take time to check J.D., Chris? I think he’s getting worse.”

Chris glanced from the distress-filled eyes of his friend back to their ill partner in front of him.
“Yeah. Vin should be out the rest of the night.” Larabee rose from his crouched position and
started to approach the room he had left the healer, when Cross intercepted him.

“That won’t be necessary, Mr. Larabee. I can fully diagnose the young man myself.” Ayden
handed his sawed-off 12 gauge to Magdeline and came to stand a couple of feet from J.D.

“You see, your friend here is suffering from a rare form of poison.”

“Poison?” Buck came to stand beside Chris and blocked the evil man’s direct view of the kid.

“Have you gone deaf or dumb?” the younger Cross's sneer caused Wilmington to tense
even more.

“Easy Ave. I want the gentlemen to hang on my every  word, so I need their undivided attention.”

“Spit it out, Cross.” Larabee’s voice had dropped to an even more menacing snarl.

“You see, I had the foresight to allow my dear Magdeline to use her talents as an alchemist, and
poison young J.D.” Cross paused allowing the full context of his statement sink in. “It was an
ingenious little concoction."

"Oh yes," Magdeline joined in the fun. "I used some dragon's tail for the fever and some verusa
root for disorientation," the woman paused and let her eyes fall on Buck, “And of course some
rattlesnake venom for the pain. It's an old family recipe you know."

"You bitch!" Buck growled and would have gone after the taunting loon had Chris not had a hold
of his arm.

“So, my dear fellows," Ayden started again. " You understand now that young J.D. only has 24
more hours to live, give or take a few, unless you cooperate will my plan.”

The stunned expressions of the four quickly turned to unleashed anger.

“You sonuvabitch. What makes you think we would do any damn thing for you now,” Buck spat,
every muscle in his body tensing with a rage he'd never experienced the likes of before.

"Easy Buck," Chris's grip tightened on his friend, but his voice remained it's usual even tone. "As
much as I would love to rip his throat out with my bare hands, we have to listen to what he has to
say. For now. For J.D.’s sake.”

Wilmington continued to shoot daggers at the enemy before him but slowly accepted what
Larabee was saying. He gave his head a swift nod and turned his full attention back to the now
pale kid.

“Don’t sweat it, son. This’ll all be over soon.”

“Very well put, Wilmington.” Cross grinned and went to take back possession of his weapon.
“It will be over for him, real soon. One way or another.”

“I’m so tired of this, Buck.” The sadness and defeat in the youngster’s tone made the
gunslinger’s eyes fill with tears.

“I know kid. But you can’t give up, you hear me.” Wilmington knelt to his friend's level and
grabbed the youth in a hug, hoping to hide his own grief with physical strength, and not giving a
damn what Cross or anyone else thought.

“Oh, I do feel so sorry for them.” Magdeline had watched the scene in quiet amazement and now
was looking at them in an almost sincere fashion.

“Don’t waste your sympathy on us, my dear. I would save those emotions for your master’s
funeral, which I will gladly donate some of my hard-earned monetary winnings to arrange.” Ezra
had also been effected by the scenario of his friends’ and was appalled by the witch’s intrusion.

The woman gazed at the gambler in surprise, as if she had forgotten his presence. “You must be
joking with me. My dear prince cannot die, he is my angel.”  Magdeline's face had lost any traces
of compassion it may have held and once again set in a grim contrast of beauty and insanity. She
gave her beloved an adoring look and then went to stand in front of Ezra. “Besides, the
death of the Seven shall be our salvation.”

She reached out and ran her fingers through the gambler’s hair. As she started her second trip
through the locks, she entwined her fingers with the silky tresses and yanked with all her might.
“That was the promise given to me and it will come to pass.”

Ezra tried to keep his face from showing the immense pain the woman was causing, but feared he
was failing miserably.

“Leave him be, my sweet. You can still trust in my words," Ayden's voice gave the gambler the
reprieve he was hoping for, "No matter what they may say.”

Magdeline let her grip loosen and then slide from the gambler’s hair. But before she returned to
her lover’s side, she raised her hand and slapped Ezra across the face.

“Never talk about him that way again.”

Standish rolled his head gently from side to side, hoping to shake off the attack.

“You alright, brother?” Josiah’s concerned voice helped ease Ezra’s agony a little.

“Oh, yes," Ezra nodded, and gave the preacher a reassuring a smile. "Nothing a bottle of whiskey
and a good old-fashion witch burning could not cure, my friend.”

“I hope you boys are quite finished. I’m getting rather tired of your troublesome ways and need to
focus on the ultimate task at hand.” Ayden gave his full attention to Chris once again.

“Before that, I want to know one thing, Cross.” Buck  stood again and placed himself
protectively in front of J.D. “How the hell did you survive?”

The question seemed to intrigue the older man. “Well, actually its quite simple. You need to
teach the young man better aim. He missed my heart by a good three inches. I was also spared the
horrible death of being broken when surprisingly I landed on a bed of very soft grass." Cross
smiled, "Seems the lord does have a weak spot for us sinners."

Their captor limped back to his chair and sat once again. “Then, after the fall, when I regained
consciousness that is, I found myself in the middle of the desert once again. It seems God’s
Country decided not to take me along for the next 100 year ride.”

“So, your telling us that when the valley disappeared and you were left in the wasteland?”
Josiah’s disbelieving tone was etched in the faces around him. “I guess that gives 'cast out your
demons' a whole new meaning."

“Perhaps," Cross didn't seem insulted but amused, " No matter, thats exactly what happened. I lay
there for about two days, when my dark angel here found me and nursed me back to health.”
Cross gave Magdeline a soft smile before turning flashing cold eyes back to the six men.

“I figured I was spared for a reason. And that was to have vengeance on those who tried to
destroy me and of course to have you take for me, what you owe me.”

Chris had listened to the ramblings with obvious skepticism. “And what do you mean by take for
you what we owe you?”

“Ah, I’m so glad we finally got back to that. You see, my competent sources tell me  that there is
this Army payroll wagon coming this way tomorrow afternoon loaded with a million dollars
worth of gold coins and I have decided that should compensate my loss from God's Country
quite well.” Ayden ended his announcement with a sadistic laugh.

“And pray tell how are we suppose to accomplish said feat?” Ezra was beginning to realize the
extent of their predicament.

“Oh, I have that already planned out for you. The wagon will come through Sutter’s Pass
tomorrow around 1:00 p.m. I figure a nice rock slide will deter their movement forward long
enough to allow you and the others to relieve them of said treasure."

"And to ensure the perfection of the natural disaster, I have acquired seven sticks of dynamite to
be placed strategically on the ridge above the pass. I hope you recognize the appropriate
significant number of explosions.” Cross waved his hand to the bag lying on the table. “If all
goes as planned, I will give you the antidote for the brat after I have my gold."

“You're even more insane than I thought,” Sanchez muttered the phrase to no one in particular.

J.D. who had been watching the exchange with the other men in silence was now feeling himself
slip away from the conversation all together. “Buck?!”

The quiet demand jerked Wilmington back to reality. He turned in time to see the kid start to
waver, “Kid!” The gunslinger rushed to the youth’s side and took hold of his shoulders, "J.D.?"

"My stomach," the teen gasped. "It hurts." J.D. wrapped his arms around his mid-section and
leaned his forehead against the older man's chest.

“Breathe, son, breathe. Nice and easy,” Buck soothed, and then turned blazing eyes on
Magdeline. "What the hell is happening to him? "

"Don't get so excited, Mr. Mustache," the woman giggled. "It'll go away in a minute, the
symptoms come and go."

Wilmington looked to Chris with something akin to defeat in his eyes. “He needs Nathan.”

“Avery, take the poor soul in the next room to our healer. I’m afraid these boys will be useless
until they believe Mr. Jackson has taken over his care.” Ayden didn’t look happy about losing the
center of attention.

The younger Cross holstered his sidearm and lifted the youth  out of Wilmington's arms. Buck
started to protest, but one glance at Chris told him now was not the time for heroics. The
gunslinger watched helplessly as the now unconscious form of J.D. went to join the rest of their
family in the other room.

“Hang on, kid. I promise it’ll be alright,” Buck’s muttered oath was only loud enough for his
ears, but he prayed his friend understood.

"Haven't I warned you about making promises you can't keep, Wilmington?" Ayden asked, with a
raise of one of his silver brows. Obviously, his psychosis hadn't effected his hearing.

Wilmington stepped around Chris and faced Ayden. "I plan on keeping that promise even if I
have to kill you and beat the antidote out of your demented whore."

"Buck," Chris warned, with no luck.

A maniacal grin lit Cross's face, "I always did fancy your sense of humor, Wilmington." The
older man's eyes grew impossibly colder. "I hope you'll find it just as  funny when the boy is
screaming out for you and your no where to be found."

"Oh, I'll be here, Cross."

"Yes, you'll be here!" Ayden swept his arm around the room. "He stays in there, with the other
invalid."

Cross turned to the others, "Larabee can baby-sit your ailing partners while I suggest the rest of
you get some sleep." Ayden turned and took Magdeline's hand, "I'm afraid you will need all your
energy for tomorrow's festivities. It is after all, a mission of life or death."

*******************************************************

Chris hated feeling like this.  Like a caged tiger or a wolf caught in a trap.

He’d heard of animals chewing their own leg off to free themselves from such bindings and now
he knew how that could be possible.

It wasn’t like he was tied like Ezra, Josiah, and Buck. No, Cross had left him free. It was more of
his twisted game.

A taunt. A slap to Chris’s pride.

Cross relished in the fact of building the perfect cage to hold Larabee.  A prison where the bars
were not made of metal but of pain, suffering, and responsibility. It was like the ultimate check
mate for him. He was, in his mind anyway, chipping away at the formidable opponent he had
found in Larabee.

Yes, Ayden was the master craftsman of revenge and he had immensely enjoyed using J.D. and
Vin as his tools.

That’s all they were to him.

Their lives held no worth or value except the leverage they provided Cross. They were merely an
advantage over Chris and the others and as ironic as it seemed that single fact had been their
saving grace so far.

But for how long?

Chris run a hand through his hair and looked at the too-still form on the bed. He’d covered J.D.
with an old blanked he’d found in the small closet in the room, but the boy still trembled slightly
in his fevered sleep.

His eyes moved to the figure next to the boy and he sighed in frustration. They both looked much
younger than usual. Young and vulnerable. Vin had not regained consciousness from the
procedure that had been necessary to save his life; but Nathan kept reassuring Chris that was
normal.

Normal?

That was a joke.

If things were normal, they’d be back in Four Corners watching Ezra take Josiah’s money in a
card game and Buck trying to convince Inez to go on a midnight stroll with him, and, no doubt,
listening to J.D. worry over one of his bundled exploits with Casey.
 
Yeah, normal never sounded so good, or seemed so far away.

J.D. stirred slightly and Chris reached his hand out and laid it on the boy’s head. It was no tellin’
what God-forsaken toxins were coursing through him, leaving destruction in their wake.  He was
so hot and even the cool cloth Nathan had been using to bathe his face and neck had proved
useless against the chemical demon causing the fever.

Nathan.

Larabee let his gaze switch to the chair on the other side of the bed and grimaced at the position
his friend had fallen asleep in . A smile, lacking any humor, touched the gunslinger’s face.
 
Nathan was a good man. He was as much a slave to his duty as a doctor as he had ever been to
the man that had once ‘legally’ owned him.  It was one of the things Larabee admired most about
him.

That, and his kindness.

Chris had never been one to be kind. Not really.

But he’d never been cruel either.

Cruelty was shooting someone for the fun of it and then making then suffer needlessly to make a
point.

Cruelty was poisoning a kid who had barely had an evil thought enter his mind, less on acted on
it.

Cruelty was Ayden Cross. Pure and simple.

J.D. moaned in his sleep, bringing Chris’s attention back from his useless line of pondering. The
kid’s brow furrowed in pain and he mumbled incoherently.

“Shh, J.D.,” the gunslinger whispered softly, not wanting to disturb the other two men.

Hazel eyes blinked open to peer blankly at the gunslinger.  “Buck?” J.D.’s hand reached out and
Chris grasped it in his own.

“No, kid. It’s Chris, just take it easy.”

“Where’s Buck?” J.D. asked, a slight note of panic to his scratchy voice.

“Buck’s in the other room, son. He’s fine.”

The teen didn’t look convinced and struggled to sit up. “I want to see him, Chris. Somethin’s
wrong.”

*Damn*

The kid had awoke several times before and every time was the same.  Chris tried to push the boy
back down, “Not right now, J.D. You need to rest.”

“Please, Chris,” the young man pushed weakly at the hands holding him and the tone of his
request pulled at the gunslinger’s heart.

Larabee was tired.

Tired of watching people he cared for hurt. And tired of having to add to that suffering.

“No. J.D.!” His words came out much harsher than he meant them to and the look on the kid’s
face was like a punch in the gut.

*Damn it to hell.*

“Chris?” the weak voice startled Larabee for a moment and he was surprised to see familiar blue
eyes watching him in the darkness.

“Vin?”

“You alright?” The two asked simultaneously, and some of Chris’s grief disappeared when a
slow smile touched the tracker’s tired features.

The moment was short lived though as J.D. suddenly convulsed and gasped in pain, bringing
both men’s full attention to the youth; and nearly causing Nathan to fall out of his chair.

“Chris!” the kid latched on to the gunslinger’s shirt, rolling on to his side and curling his knees
into his chest. “My stomach...”

“Easy, J.D.,” Larabee grasped the boy’s shoulders. “Just breathe, nice and slow.”

“Can’t,” J.D. choked, tensing his body even tighter and clenching his jaw.

“What’s going on?” Vin’s distressed question didn’t go unheard by Chris, but his attention
remained on the kid.

“Yes you can,” Larabee assured J.D. “Concentrate on breathing, just like Buck told you.” Chris
pushed the kid’s hair away from his face, “Remember?”

“Nathan?” the tracker’s worried gaze fell on the healer who had begun to busy himself checking
Vin’s wound. Jackson didn’t need to watch the scene with Chris and J.D., but he didn’t meet the
bounty hunter’s imploring stare either.  He’d already witnessed three such episodes with the kid
and after the first one he knew there wasn’t a damn thing he could do to ease his friend’s pain. It
tore at every doctoring instinct he had, but Nathan knew Chris could calm the boy better than
anyone. Well, except for Buck.

“He’s sick.”

The healer’s simple answer sent Vin’s gaze back to Chris who seemed to be making some
process with J.D.

“That’s it, kid. Try to relax.” Larabee’s eyes raised and he shared a knowing look with his
bestfriend. Vin knew that expression. It was one that assured the tracker that Ayden Cross would
regret the day he had ever met Chris Larabee.

J.D. still had his eyes squeezed shut but he had calmed considerably. Chris kept up a soft litany
of words and in moments the youth was staring at him, eyes glistening with unshed tears, but not
panicked like before.  “Thanks,” he said, tiredly.

“Your welcome,” Larabee forced a smile.

“Can I see Buck now?

The healer stopped his ministration to Vin and looked up in time to catch the flash of emotion
that darted across Larabee’s face.

“After you sleep,” the gunslinger said, with a calm Nathan was amazed he still held.  Chris
reached out and laid his hand across the boy’s eyes to close them. “You need to rest.”

“Just for a minute?” J.D. pleaded, his eyes popping open again just as soon as Chris removed his
palm.

The older man had thought it impossible to hate Ayden Cross any more than he did this
afternoon, but that notion was being quickly disproved.

By the expression on Vin and Nathans’ face, his partners shared the same feeling.

So, with a another look at the kid and his weary hazel eyes, the gunslinger did the only thing he
could do.

In one fluid motion, he stood up and lifted J.D. , blankets and all , into his arms and started for
the door.

“Chris?” Nathan’s surprised voice echoed in the room. He couldn’t let his friend go off and do
something stupid.  “Cross said...”

Unfortunately, Larabee’s mind was set.

“F**K Cross!”

The gunslinger cut off Nathan’s objection and was gone before either of his two partner’s left
behind could reply.

“Nathan,” Vin caught the healer’s arm after he heard the door shut. “Why is J.D. sick?”

Jackson eyed his patient, warily. Dark circles shadowed the bounty hunter’s usual alert, blue eyes
and his color, although much better than earlier, was still a ghost of its normal pallor.

“Damn it, Nathan, “ Vin urged, knowing good and well the doctor was accessing his condition.
Although part of him understood that it was done out of concern on the black man’s behalf, part
of him really hated being treated like a kid. “Tell me what’s going on.”

The healer sighed, knowing good and well that Tanner wouldn’t rest until he knew the whole
story. “Cross had Magdeline fix up some kind of potion to give him.”

“Like what she gave me?”

The other man shook his head, “Worse. It was a poison. Slow acting, but real nasty stuff.”

The doctor’s words were tinged with a bitterness Vin rarely, if ever, heard in the man’s voice. Of
course for someone who’s every instinct was formed around saving lives, a senseless act of
trying to destroy one, had to be unthinkable.

“But you can help him, right?”

Vin’s hopeful gaze met his friends and he saw the healer flinch.

“I ain’t no miracle worker, Vin.” The words came out before Nathan could stop them. He didn’t
mean to snap but sometimes his partners' faith in him was unnerving.

“Besides, Magdeline’s the only one that knows the antidote. Without it, ain’t much anyone can
do,” Nathan added in a softer manner this time, regaining his usual unshakable demeanor.

“So, what does that mean for J.D.?”  Vin was trying to sit up now but a stern look from the healer
changed his mind.

“It means the kid is in trouble,” Nathan replied, elusively.  He stood and went to get a glass of
water off the wash stand . “Cross is using the situation as blackmail to get the others to pull a
robbery for him.”

“So that’s what all this has been about?”

Nathan nodded, returning to his friend’s bedside. “He get’s his money and gets to ruin the Seven
in one big swoop.”

“What are we goin’ to do?” Vin asked, wishing he was still unconscious and caught in the throws
of some illusory nightmare.

“Right now,” Nathan bent down and offered the water to his friend, “You are going to drink this
and then get some more rest.”

A rebellious scowl come across Tanner’s face, “Nathan, you’ve seen enough of Cross to know
that the man ain’t likely to give a damn about honoring his word or even less , some kind of deal
he made with people he hates.”

Jackson set the water on the nightstand, since it was obvious Vin was in no mood to be tended to,
and pulled his abandoned chair closer to the tracker’s bed. “That’s probably so, but we don’t
have much choice but to play along with the man. I don’t think Cross is lying about that poison.”

“All the more reason for us to do something, Nate.” Vin ignored Nathan’s silent protest this time
and carefully pushed himself to a sitting position, with only a slight gasp of pain.  “J.D. ain’t
going to have a chance, even if we do go along with this crazy scheme of Ayden’s.”

The doctor rubbed his tired eyes, trying to wipe away the image Vin’s words were conjuring up.
They couldn’t lose J.D. Nathan wouldn’t allow it.

“I hear what you’re saying, Vin, but there doesn’t seem to be another way out of this. No one’s
goin’ to help us with this one. If you haven’t noticed, we’re all caught in the trap.”

The bounty hunter’s mind was turning in a hundred different directions. He understood what his
friend meant. The seven always relied on one another, watched each other’s backs. But who did
they turn to in a time like this?

Suddenly, the fog muddling Vin's thoughts lifted, and a sudden light revealed the answer he was
searching for. He knew exactly who would help them and what ‘he’ had to do to make it
possible.

“What’s that look about, Vin?” Nathan asked with some dread. He’d seen that glint in the
tracker’s eyes before. It never meant anything good.

“It’s about you and me working together to find us a way out of this mess.”

The healer held up his hands as if to stop whatever plan was brewing in his patient’s head. “No
way, Vin. I’d rather face ten of Cross than the wrath of one pissed-off Chris Larabee.”

“Nate,” the tracker sighed. “We’re talking about J.D.’s life here. Chris would do anything to keep
him safe.”

“Anything but risk ‘your’ life.” Jackson pinned his friend with a hard stare. “He went through
hell when I was getting that bullet out of you this morning and he’s been awake with the kid most
of the night. I ain’t going to bring no more worry down on him."

“And like watching the kid die ain’t going to do that?” Vin threw his arms up in the air and he
instantly regretted the act he’d picked up from Buck. His breath caught as a sharp pain knifed
through his abdomen and Nathan laid a hand on his shoulder to keep him from toppling forward.

The tracker took a few breaths and finally unclenched his fists from around the blankets on the
bed. The pain wasn’t ‘that’ bad. He’d had worse. And it sure as hell wasn’t enough to change his
mind.

“Easy there. You ain’t ready for any fast movements,” the healer told him, sternly.

Vin lifted his eyes and met Nathan’s concerned stare, “Does that include riding?”

*******************************************************

“Chris?” Buck’s voice caught as he looked up from gazing into the dancing flames of the
fireplace and watched as his friend entered the main room of the cabin.  Any thoughts  of
sleeping had long since been erased form the gunslinger’s mind and he instead had focused his
energy into worry over J.D.

With the cabin deathly quiet except for the soft breathing of his other friends and the annoying
tapping of Bolton’s shoe, as he kept watch over them, Buck had been able to hear the kid calling
out for him during the night.

Cross had gotten his revenge.

Although Buck was thankful for Chris and Nathan being  with his young friend, he’d have given
anything to go to J.D.

But now, receiving the answers to his quiet prayers was more worrisome than it was comforting.
Had the kid gotten worse? Why would Chris leave Vin’s side, not to mention risk pissing Cross
off any further?  Had J.D.....

“He needed to see you,” Chris said , recognizing the fear in his old friend’s eyes. Larabee shot
Bolton a look that dared him to even think about waking Cross, before gently placing J.D. on the
davenport where Buck was tied.

Wilmington’s eyes met Chris’s and a silent thank you passed between them. “How’s he doing?”
Buck asked, shifting as much as his bindings would allow him.  At least he could see the kid
now.

“I’m fine,” came the weak reply.

Buck couldn’t fight back the stupid grin as he looked at the pale face staring up at him.
“Well you look awful.”

J.D. forced a weak smile of his own, “That’s damn near impossible.”

“Funny how you have a selective memory when it comes to recalling things I tell you.”

The kid started to reply when he felt the beginnings of the pain he was getting all too familiar
with. It hit him faster this time, slicing through his mid-section and threatening to take his breath.
The agonizing intensity made him want to cry out, but instead, he bit his lip and rolled closer to
Buck, whimpering softly as he rode out the torment.

“J.D.!” Wilmington pulled at the robes holding his hands around the sofa’s leg, wishing he could
offer some measure of comfort with his touch.

He was so focused on the kid’s distress that Chris startled him when he placed a hand on his
shoulder, “Easy now,” Larabee’s soft voice was calm and steadfast and Buck wasn’t sure if he
was talking more to him or the kid, as Chris used his other hand to stroke J.D.’s hair.

Wilmington hadn’t seen this side of his old friend in a long time.

Not since Adam.

He’d forgotten how caring the other gunslinger could be. Maybe, he’d just blocked it out.
Sometimes it was too painful to remember the ‘Chris’ he lost in that fire.

“Buck?” the teen’s choked plea brought his attention back to the situation at hand. “Make it stop.
Please.”

Wilmington had to swallow the lump in his throat before he could speak, “I wish I could, J.D.
God, I wish I could.”

“J.D.,” Chris had both hands on the kid now, trying to get him to calm down. “It’ll be gone in a
minute. Just try to relax.”

Larabee took the kid’s hand and placed it on Buck’s arm. “Right, Buck?”

Wilmington had rage in his dark eyes but his voice resounded with only compassion and
confidence, “I’m sure of it.”

The kid tightened his fingers around a fistful of Buck’s coat and tried to do as Chris said. J.D.
hoped Chris knew he was trying. The pain was bad, real bad, but he was fighting it. At least Buck
was with him now. He now knew Cross hadn’t hurt the older man or worse. Not like the daunting
nightmares he had been having over and over tried to convince him of.  No, Buck was alive.

He was alive.

They were all alive.

Even if it did feel like he was dying at the moment.

“You still with us, kid?” Buck sounded tired. Tired and scared. J.D. wanted to answer, wanted to
lift his eyelids so the older man would know he was O.K., but decided all he could manage at the
moment was a nod.

“That’s it,” Chris spoke again and J.D. felt a hand on his brow, pushing his damp hair away from
his face. “Just sleep now.”

J.D. sighed and his body untensed some, but his grip on Buck didn’t loosen.

“You’re safe, kid,” the boy heard Wilmington whisper. “I’m right here.” Buck’ s glassy eyes met
Larabee’s gaze, “We both are.”

*******************************************************

Chris had been sitting on the divan for almost an hour now. He was anxious to return and talk
with the tracker, now that he was conscious, but he knew Nathan would come get him if Vin
needed him.

He also knew Bolton was staring at him.

Had been since he’d brought J.D. in, but Larabee could have cared less at the moment. Avery had
left the gangly kid on watch while going to the barn to sleep. Chris assumed the mountain man
Sam was probably there also, willing to let the youngest of their gang tough out the night. It
wasn't like the Seven was going to escape anyway.

The boy wasn’t much older than J.D. but he was nothing like the kid that had come to be such an
intricate part of the Seven. Bolton was mean and spiteful and full of himself in a manner that
didn’t breed confidence, but destruction.

In all fairness, he hadn’t alerted his partners or Cross when Larabee disobeyed Ayden’s direct
orders. But still, he was a part of the damnation that had caused this mess. He was probably
responsible for part of the fading bruises on J.D.’s face and he was more than likely one of the
bastards who had held Vin while Magdeline forced him to drink her potion, that started this
whole mess.

And as bad as Chris hated it, he’d have to kill Bolton for that. It was merely how things were.

The gunslinger lifted his head from where he had rested it against the back of the sofa and looked
down at the boy curled next to him. J.D.’s feet were thrown across his lap and his head was
nestled against Buck’s arm at the other end.

Buck.

Larabee was relieved his friend had finally drifted into an exhausted slumber.  Although his
precarious position on the floor only proved Chris’s theory that Wilmington could fall asleep
anywhere.

A sad smile tugged at the corner of Chris’s mouth as he remembered a time when Adam had
conned the two-hundred plus gunslinger into sleeping in his homemade fort with him.

The fort had consisted of a bunch of logs left over from some repairs Chris had done on the barn
and a whole lot of mud that Adam had spent hours carting form the river’s edge.  But to his son,
it was as grand as the Alamo.

The whole thing wasn’t much bigger than a dog house but Buck had somehow managed to fit
inside and made it look like he was having a good time doing so.

Sarah had nearly laughed herself to tears at the sight of Buck’s snoring form curled up like an old
hound the next morning, but Adam couldn’t have been more pleased.

Chris loved Buck for that.

Just like he loved him for all the things he was to J.D.  Friend. Mentor. Brother.

And Chris loved J.D.

For all the things he brought out in Buck. For all the things he brought out in him.

That was what families were all about.

They allowed you to be the person you were meant to be. They brought out the best in you.

Perhaps that’s why when Chris lost his first family, he became a stranger.

And maybe that was why now that his new family was being put through hell, he could feel the
dark side of him self emerging. And he had a feeling that this was a side of Chris Larabee that no
one had yet to see.

*******************************************************

“I still don’t see the point in this, Judge,” Lukas Conley rubbed at his weary eyes and poured the
last of the coffee over their dying campfire. “If Chris Larabee don’t want to be found, ain’t
nobody goin’ to find him.”

Judge Travis eyed the lawman and then looked towards the still darkened horizon. “But Chris
ain’t running away from something . He’s looking for someone.”

“You still don’t believe Vin Tanner is guilty of those murders, do you?”

Orin shook his head , “I’ve seen him risk his life too many times to save that town. And when it
comes to the men that ride with him,” the judge’s gaze fell back on Lukas, “He’s the most
watchful protector of them all.”

“They all seem pretty loyal to one another, “ Conley bent to pick up his bed roll and blanket.

The Judge sighed, “That’s there biggest strength and most fatal weakness.”

Lucas stood and pinned the other man with a hard stare. “You thinking someone went to all this
trouble to set the seven of them up?”

“It wouldn’t be the first time. The boys have made a lot of enemies since they’ve been together.”

“Larabee and Wilmington were always good at that. Especially Wilmington.”

Travis couldn’t supress his smile, “I assume you ‘had’ a real pretty wife?”

The younger lawman’s face flushed, “No disrespect, Judge, but that’s none of your damn
business.”
 
“No,” Orin admitted. “Not unless you let some past grudge effect your judgment as an official
lawman.”
 
Lukas turned and started making his way towards the horses. “My first duty is to my badge, sir. If
we find the allegations against Tanner are false, I’ll do what’s right.”

“Good thing,” Travis slapped the marshal on the back, “I’d hate for Larabee to have to kill an old
friend.”

*******************************************************

Chris didn’t know exactly when he had drifted off to the waiting arms of sleep. He hadn’t
planned on it. The gunslinger had meant to take J.D. back to the room where Vin and Nathan
were before dawn; but the kid had looked so peaceful and actually seemed to be getting some
much needed rest. So, Larabee had been reluctant to take him from the only reprieve he’d found
since this whole ordeal had begun four days ago. He couldn’t take him form Buck’s side.

Of course, that had been his first mistake.

A blunder he recognized the instant he felt the blunt impact to the side of his skull.

The slap immediately tore him from the grasps of unconsciousness and sent him reeling back into
unwelcome reality.  Any other time the attack would have brought the seasoned gunfighter
straight to his feet, but J.D.’s legs still lay across his lap, pinning him to the sofa.

As it was, Chris ‘s eyes shot open and he instinctively raised his arm to fend off any further
blows.

“On your feet, Larabee!” Avery Cross’s bitter snarl filled the cabin now, shattering all remaining
traces of night’s solitude.

“What the hell is he doing in here?” Sam’s gruff voice demanded somewhere to Chris ‘s left and
he assumed the large mountain-man was scolding his young consort, Bolton.

“Back off, Cross, “ Chris breathed, meeting Avery’s dark gaze with a barely contained rage of his
own.  The gunslinger carefully slid J.D.’s legs off and repositioned them back on the davenport
as he stood.

“I thought my brother told you to stay in there with the tracker and to keep the runt with you.”
Avery stepped closer to Chris and poked him in the chest with the barrel of his revolver.

“If my memory serves me well,” Ezra’s soft Southern drawl drew Cross’s attention from
Larabee, “Your deranged relation ordered Mr. Wilmington to keep company with us. Mr.
Larabee received no such directive.”

“Shut the f**k up, Standish,” Avery spat, starting towards the gambler, but stopping at the sound
of Bolton’s voice.

“I should’ve woke you, Ave, but he wasn’t causing no harm and...”

“You’re right,” Ayden Cross’s deep baritone cut Bolton’s stammering short. “You should have
woke him.” The elder Cross entered the room from the front door and Chris wasn’t sure where he
and Magdeline had disappeared to the night before, but they both had changed clothes and
appeared rested.

Ayden limped the length of the room , Magdeline shadowing in his quake, until he was hovering
above his hired gun. “I don’t pay you to analyze a situation. I expect you to follow orders.”

“Yes, Mr. Cross, I’m sorry, but Larabee...”

Again Cross silenced the boy, this time with a raise of his hand.  “I agree that you’re sorry and I
know exactly what Mr. Larabee is capable of .”

“And we know what you’re capable of , Cross.” Buck’s voice was still rough with sleep, but that
hid none of the disgust behind his words.

“Then you should know not to push me,” Ayden pointed out snidely, making a move towards the
divan where J.D. still rested soundly.  Chris quickly stepped forward to block his path to the teen.
Cross stopped, but turned a rueful smile on the gunslinger, “I assume my insurance has lasted the
night.”

“No thanks to you,” Larabee finally trusted himself to speak. Keeping his cool with Cross was
the hardest thing he’d ever had to do, but if he wanted to defeat the devil, he had to keep a check
on his temper.

“He does look rather poorly though,” Magdeline observed from her perch near the fireplace,
where she had started a pot of coffee to boil. “I do hope I didn’t give him too much of Mama
Rua’s brew.”

Wilmington’s eyes instantly went to J.D.’s young face. The kid’s cheeks were still flushed from
fever but his breathing was slow and steady. He sent a silent thank you up to whoever may have
been listening to their prayers.

“I doubt you’d make such a mistake, considering our cooperation with your plan depends on the
boy’s survival,” Josiah pointed out, shifting in the wicker chair he was still tied to, trying to
awaken sleep stiffened muscles. “If he dies, so does your hopes for the ultimate revenge.”

“We could always just hang the lot of you,” Avery snorted. “Just like I wanted to from the
beginning.”

“But where’s the fun in that , brother?” Ayden quirked an eyebrow at his sibling. “Seeing the
great seven ‘angels’ fall from grace is what I’m here for.” Dark eyes turned on Chris. “That’s
what kept me alive in that God-forsaken desert all that time. Well, that and the promise of
monetary rewards wasn’t a bad motivator either.”

“And here I thought it was Magdeline’s  feminine charms that resuscitated the ailing gentleman,”
Ezra commented dryly, drawing a frown from the disturbed woman who was now busy slicing
some kind of carcass she had thrown on the table.  Apparently she didn't take to his tone because
in one swift motion she flung the butcher knife she was holding across the room, missing the
gambler by mere inches.

It’s sharp blade stuck deep in the wooden wall with a resounding thud, causing Ezra to quickly
rethink the intelligence of his provoking. “Speak ill of me again, you silver- tongued serpent,
and I will cut your heart out and cook it up for breakfast.” Magdeline let her haunting eyes rest on
Standish for a long, silent moment before returning to her task.

“Lucky for you, sir, we do not have time for such trivial things as eating,” Ayden said, his usual
humorless smile returning to twist his scarred features into a sadistic grin. “Or I’d let my pet have
her way with you.  But , alas, we have much to discuss before we head out for our mission.”

“I’ll get the doctor and the bounty hunter,” Avery suggested, starting to move for the bedroom
door. The younger Cross was growing tired of all the chit-chat and was more than ready for the
real fun to begin.

But Ayden stopped him with a look.

“Let Bolton do that. I’d much rather you stay out here and help Sam with Mr. Wilmington.”

Chris felt a sudden tightening in his chest. He hadn’t known Cross  for long; but he recognized
the underlying malice in his casual tone. It was one of the first things he’d picked up on about
Ayden and one of the first things he’d come to hate.

“We may not have time for breakfast, but there’s always time for learning.” Ayden let his eyes
travel from Chris to Buck, who met his stare with a fearless calm. “You see, Mr. Larabee
disobeyed my orders, why, he might as well have spit in my face. He even caused one of my
own men to be insubordinate and I can’t tolerate such blatant disrespect.”

“If you have a problem with me, Cross, you keep it between us,” Chris stated fiercely, moving
that so he now blocked both Buck and J.D.

Ayden shook his head as if disappointed with Larabee’s performance. “I’m effective at what I do,
Chris, because I do what works best. Hurting the people you care about is the only thing that you
respond well to. So, Mr. Wilmington will bare the brunt of your mistake. Just like Mr. Tanner
and young J.D. have been made to pay for your sins against me in God’s Country.”

“I wasn’t even there , you fu**ing monster,” Chris exploded, unable to contain his rage any
longer. He refused to sit by and watch anyone else he cared about be hurt.

Cross laughed and it was obvious he was pleased with pushing the gunslinger’s buttons. “But
you came up with the plan. It was all your idea to out-fox the old fox. At least that’s what the
Ableson brothers told me when I paid them a little visit after my recovery.”

Ayden stepped closer to Chris, lowering his voice to a menacing whisper. “They told me ‘all’
about you Larabee. In fact, they were screaming details all the way to their graves.”

Cross didn’t give Chris a chance to reply before spinning on his heal and motioning to Sam,
“Take Wilmington outside and teach ‘Mr. Larabee’ some respect.”

“Don’t do this,” Chris growled as he was roughly shoved out of the way by Avery and held at bay
by the Colt that was shoved in his side.

Sam bent down to cut the ropes that bound Buck’s wrists and it was at that moment that J.D.
decided to awake. He moaned softly and stirred, drawing the large mountain-man’s attention
away from Wilmington.

It was all the time the newly freed prisoner needed.

Buck lashed out with his feet first, sending Sam stumbling back in pain, and then plowed into the
overgrown grizzly’s midsection with a brute force that took both men to the floor once more.
After gaining the advantage, Wilmington used his hands, that were still bound together with a
leather strap, like a hammer to land a solid blow across his much larger opponent’s face.  He had
no illusions of escaping, not in one piece anyway, but he could at least get in a few good licks
before Ayden’s perverse little plan was played out.

“Buck?” The weak, gravely voice reached Buck’s ears about the same time as the click of the
hammer did.

“Get off him now, Wilmington , or I swear I’ll shoot your ‘little brother’  somewhere non-fatal,
but extremely painful.”  Ayden’s voice was as icy as ever, and Buck only had to take one look
into J.D.’s scared hazel eyes to know that he wasn’t the only one who knew Cross didn’t bluff.

Buck reluctantly pushed himself off the floor where he’d been straddling Sam and stood up. The
mountain man was on his feet in a considerably quick fashion for a man of his size and wasted no
time in returning the sucker punch Wilmington had bestowed on him.

“Buck!” J.D. said again and struggled weakly to free himself from Ayden.

Sam bared his teeth and growled before landing another blow to the gunslinger’s abdomen.
Wilmington fell to his knees, gasping, but before Sam could make another move Ayden crossed
the floor to intercept him, dragging J.D. off the davenport with him.

“Finish this outside,” Ayden suggested, giving J.D. a quick shove in Sam’s direction. “Let the
boy enjoy the show.”

Sam caught J.D. in one meaty palm and used the other to grab Wilmington by the shirt collar,
jerking him to his feet in one easy tug. “No problem. I always did like an audience.”

“We’ll need Buck to pull off this robbery, Cross,” Chris spoke up from where Avery still had
him cornered, his mind grasping at any idea that may stop what was about to happen. “It’ll take
five healthy riders at the least.”

Ayden seemed to think for a moment before replying to his nemesis’s observation. “How about
we have  four healthy riders and I’ll let Tanner ride along with Wilmington, so between them
they can be a somewhat whole man.”

Chris’s gaze grew even colder, “Vin ain’t able to ride with us. He stays here or no deal.”

“Don’t dish out demands to me, Larabee!” Cross bellowed. “You will do as I say or I will let the
kid die. You are not in charge here, you arrogant self-centered, son of a bitch.” Ayden’s face had
turned a bright shade of red, making him look much more like the devil he was. “Wilmington
rides with us! Tanner rides with us! There are no other deals!”

“Uh, boss?” A tentative voice from the bedroom doorway tore everyone’s attention from
Ayden’s tirade.

“What?!” Cross yelled, turning black rage-filled eyes on Bolton, who had returned to the living
room with an unhappy Nathan at his side.

“There may be a problem with Tanner riding with us.”

“And why is that?” Ayden had regained some of his composure now, but his hand still shook
when he run it through his disheveled silver locks.

“B..b..because he’s gone,” the kid stuttered, reflexively taking a step back as if he expected his
employer to lash out at him.

“Gone?” Ayden roared.

*Gone?* Chris’s heart sank and he turned questioning eyes on the healer. The apologetic
sympathy he found in his friend’s gaze brought a shattering end to any hopes he had. Vin was
dead.

“Gone as in dead?” Avery asked, pushing Chris toward the divan and turning to face Bolton.

“Gone as in talking to St. Peter as we speak?” Ayden demanded, waving his arm in the air
dramatically. “Gone as in singing with the Angels in heaven’s choir, gone?”

“No,” Bolton shook his head, and swallowed the large lump that had suddenly sprung up in his
throat, threatening to steal what little voice he had left.  “Gone, gone. As in escaped through the
window, gone.”

*******************************************************

'Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen.'

*******************************************************

The two men had been traveling since sun-up and the conversation was null as soon as they
mounted their horses. Judge Travis was lost in a worry he hadn’t felt since his son, Stephen, had
died. It was the concern a parent held for a child; seven sons to be exact. Orin didn’t know how
these unique set of men came to mean so much to him; he just knew they now resided in his
heart, right along with the rest of his family.

He had been receiving letters constantly from Mary and young Billy regarding the protectors
many exploits of saving the town. The older man suffered right alongside them in each tale, and
this time he wished it was just a penned message instead of the real thing.

He knew in his heart Vin could never harm anyone unprovoked, and that the others would go to
their grave to prove that, no matter who got in their way. At the thought, the Judge turned to the
obstacle beside him and noticed Conley had stopped and was dismounting.

“Lukas, what is it?”

The Marshal raised his hand in silence and pointed to the tree line to their right. Travis was
about to join him on the ground, when he too heard the slight rustle of the bushes.

He squinted in hopes to penetrate the shadows and identify the noise but was unsuccessful. Lukas
walked softly forward to position himself for whatever was headed their way. He reached the tree
closest to the trail and poised himself to pounce on the intruder.

Conley heard the snort of a horse and then saw the animal and its occupant. At first, the lawman
couldn’t make out the identity of the rider, but slowly recognition dawned. “Tanner!?”

At the marshal’s harsh exclamation, the handler jerked as if he had been struck. He tried to react
but just managed to slide off his horse and to land unsteadily on the ground.

“Vin?” The Judge stepped forward cutting off Lukas’s approach to the tracker. “Whats wrong,
son?”

Tanner knew that voice, it was one of a friend. “Judge?”

The question was a weak whisper, but definitely determined.

“Yes, Vin. Its me.” Travis lead the young man to a nearby log and made him sit down.

“What the hell’s wrong with him now?” Conley was surprised to see the bounty hunter,
especially alone.

Orin threw the lawman a withering look and then returned his attention to Vin. “You hurt?”

The Judge waited a few seconds for a reply, but when none came he proceeded with an
examination of his own. He quickly found a small, free-flowing blood stream down the man’s
left side.

“Damn, he’s been shot.” Orin attempted to rise and retrieve his saddlebags but a hand and a soft
voice stopped him.

“Its alright. Nathan’s already taken care of it. We’ve got to go, now.” Vin stared at the older man
hoping his eyes could help relay the urgency of his words.

“Go where, son?” Travis saw the pleading look in the tracker’s gaze and knew something was
terribly wrong. “Are Chris and the others hurt or in trouble?”

Lukas came to stand next to the two men when he heard the Judge’s questions. “Yea, did you kill
them too?”

“Damnit, Conley. I thought we had an understanding.” Orin began to turn on the lawman, but
Vin’s next words stopped him dead in his tracks.

“Ayden Cross is alive.”

*******************************************************

Chris lowered himself to the divan and let his head rest in both hands. What the hell was Vin
doing? Besides trying to give him gray hair. The damn fool had nearly died only hours ago and
now he was on some kind of suicide rescue mission.  If it wasn’t for the unrelenting pounding in
his skull, the gunslinger would have been sure he was still asleep and having his worst
nightmare.

“This is not happening!” Ayden’s thunderous voice echoed Chris’s very thoughts and brought
Larabee from his reverie. “What is it with that man and his constant need to play the hero?”
Ayden’s angry words resounded through the cabin , which had grown deathly quiet after
Bolton’s revelation. “I should have killed him when I had the chance.”

“He couldn’t have gotten far,” Avery looked uncertainly at his older brother. “I mean that doctor
of theirs just patched him up. He ain’t in any condition to be gallivanting across this terrain.”

“He wasn’t in any condition to live through the night either, but that didn’t stop the stubborn  son
of a bitch, now did it?”

“You want us to go after him, Boss?” Sam asked, his task with J.D and Buck forgotten.

Ayden took a deep breath and run both hands through his long silver hair. “No, we don’t have
time to go traipsing after no dead man.”

Cross’s eyes went to Chris “Because that’s what he is , Larabee. He might have survived
Magdeline’s bullet , but taking off like he did will be the end of your tracker.”

“Shows how smart you are,” J.D. spoke up from where he now stood unsteadily in the middle of
the room. His voice was weak and laced with pain , but he let every word ring with conviction.
“Vin’s alive and he’s gone to get help.  He won’t give up until he sends you straight back to
hell.”

Everyone seemed to be holding their breath as Ayden stepped closer to the youth. Cross smiled
and put a hand on the kid’s head. “My dear boy, your confidence is touching. Really, it is.”
Ayden let his fingers twist in J.D.’s dark locks until the younger man gasped.

“Leave him alone!” Buck demanded, trying to break the hold Sam had regained on him.

Cross ignored him, his eyes dancing with a blinding hatred. “But you forget, that if I don’t get
what I want, you don’t get to live.”

J.D. flinched as the wretched man pulled his face closer to his. “That is, thanks to my sweet
Maggie’s kiss of death.” With that Ayden pressed his lips roughly to the boy’s head before giving
him a vicious shove to the floor.

J.D. hit hard and yelped as Ayden lashed out with a devastating kick to his midsection. “The
innocence of youth is so overrated.”

“Get the f**k away from him!” Chris lunged from the sofa and was facing Ayden in a blink of an
eye. He lashed out at Cross so quickly the man didn’t have a chance to even register the blow to
his face before he found himself sprawled on the floor, near where J.D. lay.

Sam released Buck and swung around to stand off with Larabee.  “That was a mistake , mister.”
The mountain man snarled and started for the gunslinger, who was trying to get a reign on the
surge of emotion that had just possessed his being.

“Leave him be,” Ayden laughed, allowing Magdeline to help him up. “That’s the first sign of
weakness the man’s shown.” Cross smiled at Chris and licked at the blood trickling from his split
lip. “It’s good to know I’m not the only one who has a dark side.”

******************************************************
 
The bounty hunter’s revelation had ceased any and all conversation between the three men.
Lukas still had no idea what was going on, but the sudden loss of color in the Judge’s face told
him, it wasn’t good.

Orin busied himself rewrapping Vin’s wound, hoping to stop the blood loss and at the same time
trying to put together what the tracker was saying. He had been appalled, to say the least, when
Chris had revealed what had taken place on the journey to Jubilee. Especially, since it had been
his idea to help the Ableson’s. He suspected the gunslinger had left pieces of the adventure
unsaid to spare him more guilt.

“Judge, we ain’t got much time.” Tanner was attempting to stand and go to his horse when
Travis shook himself from his reverie. “They need help, quick.”

Orin also stood to follow the young man but Lukas blocked their path. “I ain’t going nowhere
until I know what the hell is going on.” Conley stepped toe to toe with the tracker and poked his
finger in his chest. “And who is this Cross character? Your evil twin who’s really responsible for
the murders.”

Vin stared into the lawman’s eyes and tried to keep his temper in check. He was tired, worried,
in pain, and basically not in the mood to do this little dance with the Marshal.

“Get out of my way, Conley.” The low menace of the bounty hunter’s voice should have warned
the older man to back off, but it apparently fell on deaf ears.

“Like I said, not until I know whats going on.” Lukas ambled closer if possible.

The Judge knew something had to be done quick or this would get way out of hand.

“Look, Conley. Cross is a man, who some would say was the devil himself, and if he has the
others, he wouldn’t think twice about hurting or even killing them all.” Orin explained. “Further
details will have to wait. We have to do what Vin says and go.”

The Judge gave the tracker a slight push toward the horses and didn’t even glance back to see if
the lawman was following. He could care less if he did or didn’t.

“If your wrong, Judge, you’ll be helping a murderer.” Lukas came to a stop near his horse and
turned to Travis.

“I ain’t.” Conley looked into the older man’s gaze and then glanced to the bounty hunter and
what he saw convinced him something or someone else was behind this mess. The two men
locked gazes and Lukas saw clarity in the eyes that just a few days before screamed madness,
and the look of murder that he saw was definitely provoked.

“All right. Lets go.” Vin gave the marshal a small nod and breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe, the
calvary was on its way after all.

*******************************************************

Buck had made his way to J.D. now and was trying to comfort his friend. “Easy, kid,” he
breathed, pulling the boy protectively closer to him.

“Vin’s bringing help, Buck, I know it,” J.D. told the older man between ragged breaths. “I don’t
care if I die or not ; but you all take Cross down.”

“Shh,” Wilmington brushed the kid’s hair away from his face. “You ain’t going nowhere. We’ll
take the bastard out together,” he whispered, letting his chin rest on top of the boy’s head.

“The only one being taken out around here is you,” Sam supplied, intruding on the private
conversation. “I’m going to take you outside and teach you a lesson you won’t soon forget.”

“No!” J.D. tried to keep a firm grasp on Buck’s sleeve as the mountain of a man grabbed
Wilmington’s still bound hands and roughly dragged him to his feet.

“Its alright, kid,” Buck tried to soothe the sick youth. His eyes went to Chris as he was pulled
away from the boy. Larabee looked rattled, his jaw was clenched so tight that the veins in his
neck were bulging and his hands were curled into fists; but his eyes relayed a strength
Wilmington was searching for.

“Are you truly so arrogant that you think you have time for such displays of false bravado, Mr.
Cross?” Ezra’s voice reflected none of the chaos around them.

“He’s right, Ayden.” Josiah agreed, picking up on the gambler’s stall tactic. “You said it
yourself, Vin has a way of pulling off the impossible. For all you know, he could be on his way
back here with the calvary.”

Cross remained silent as Magdeline busied herself cleaning her lover’s wound, but Avery looked
worried.

“Maybe they’re right, Ayden. We might ought too get out of here whilst we have the chance.”
 
“Their bluffing, Ave.” Sam barked, not wanting to miss the chance of taking his frustration out
on Buck. “The only savior that tracker found was St. Peter himself.”

“You don’t know that, McQuaid,” Avery countered. “You can have your fun with Wilmington
after we get the cash.”

“And here we were led to believe that our freedom would be guaranteed after said job was
accomplished.” Standish admonished, with a shake of his head.

“Shut up,” Avery roared at the gambler.

“All of you shut up!” Ayden finally shouted. “Enough of this bantering!”

Every eye fell on the old man. “As much as I hate to admit the possibility that Tanner could be
alive, I’m no fool. The man is nothing if not resilient. So, it would be in our best interests to start
our little adventure now.”

*******************************************************

“You mean to tell me this Cross fellow has framed you for murder and is blackmailing the others
to rob a payroll wagon?” Lukas turned a disbelieving eye to the Judge. They had reached the hill
overlooking the cabin and were trying to come up with some kind of plan that didn’t involve
suicide.

“Thats right.” Vin answered. “He gave J.D. some kind of poison and refuses to give us the
antidote until he has his money. At least, thats what he says.” Tanner leaned heavily against the
rock outcropping behind him and lowered his spyglass. He had been trying to see what was going
on inside the cabin, but the windows were covered.

“But, you think he’ll kill them all as soon as he gets what he wants.” The judge suspected more
than just greed behind the madman’s actions. Ayden would never be satisfied without a reward of
revenge to soothe his wounded pride.

“Yeah, I do. He wants us dead, one way or another.” The tracker gave Orin a knowing glance and
then looked through the spyglass once more, hoping to catch a glimpse of anything helpful.

“Then what are we going to do?” Conley still had his suspicions, but his instincts and past with
Chris Larabee outweighed those feelings.

The bounty hunter cased the rest of the property before answering the marshal. As his eyes fell
on the barn, he turned and gave the others a hint of his usual mischievous grin.

“I have a plan.”

*******************************************************

“Sam, you and Bolton take the gambler and Sanchez out to the barn to prepare the horses. Avery
and I will gather our supplies in here.”

“Your lucky, Wilmington.” The colossal giant shoved Buck back to the floor and did as his boss
told him.

“What about the healer, Mr. Cross?” Bolton still stood fearfully in the doorway where he had
delivered his grim news.

“Take him along,” Ayden dismissed the boy with a wave of his hand. “The more men helping
you, the faster you should finish.”

Sam cut the ropes binding Josiah and Ezra, while Avery kept his rifle trained on them. The two
prisoners let stiff, underused muscles carry them to the entrance of the cabin as Bolton pushed
Nathan out behind them.

*******************************************************

“Mr. Bolton, don’t you think now would be a good time to curb your wicked ways. There is still
time left for us to help you escape this insanity.” Ezra, Nathan, and Josiah had been herded in
front of the gunmen and had nearly reached the barn.

“Shut up, Standish. The boy ain’t as stupid as he looks. He knows which side his bread is
buttered on.” Sam was bringing up the rear with the kid and keeping a steady line on Nathan’s
back with his weapon.

“Wouldn’t want the boy to speak for himself, would we?” The healer felt a sharp jab to his back
after his comment, followed by a snort from his burly assailant.

“You’d know how that feels, wouldn’t ya Jackson?” The grizzly man noticed they were standing
inside the barn doors now. “Thats far enough. Sanchez, you and the gambler saddle those horses,
while me and the doc watch.”

Bolton stepped around Sam and motioned for the two men to get at it. He walked to the center of
the aisle so he could keep an eye on both of them.

Josiah and Ezra had thrown the blankets across two of the animals and was about to put the
saddle on them, when a noise from the back of the room stopped them. The three hostages dared
not to move, afraid of the consequences, yet at the same time knew this may be their only
chance.

The kid swung his weapon toward the sound. “Who’s there?”

The seconds ticked by in silence. Sam stood ramrod with Nathan held in front of him. “If
anybody’s back there, you best come out now or he dies.”

The mountain man waited but nothing happened. “Musta’ been some kind of critter. Lets get on
with this, we ain’t got all day.” Sam relaxed his stance and lowered his gun from Jackson’s
back. “Bolton, you go make sure there ain’t nothing back there.”

The kid nodded and turned to head to the opposite end of the room, but stopped when he heard a
loud crack and then Sam’s groan. Bolton started to swing back around but a gruff voice behind
him made him think twice.

“Drop it or die.” Vin stood up from behind a nearby hay bale and trained his rifle on the boy’s
chest. “I don’t want to kill you, but I will if I have too.”

Bolton felt the sweat sliding in between his fingers and saw the look in the tracker’s eyes.

“Don’t shoot. I give up.” The kid let the gun fall out his hands and weakly raised his arms in
surrender.

“Good boy.” The bounty hunter motioned the youth toward the front and then began to follow
him.

“Mr. Tanner, might I say your timing is impeccable, as usual.” Ezra tipped his hat to the tracker
and gave him a soft smile.

“You boys alright?” Vin looked over each of his friends and sighed in relief when he saw no new
injuries.

“I’m more worried about you.” Nathan stood up from where he was checking Sam to make sure
he was no longer a threat and turned a concerned look to Tanner.

The bounty hunter gave the healer a slow grin. “I’m fine and from the looks of it Chris wasn’t as
mad as you thought he’d be.”

Jackson rolled his eyes, “Oh he’s pissed alright, and I suspect you’ll be hearing all about it as
soon as we get out of this mess.”

“Where’s Larabee and the others?” Josiah jumped at the voice and turned to see Conley standing
near the unconscious body.

“Brother Lukas, good to see you again.” Sanchez gave the lawman a slight nod which the
marshal returned reluctantly.

“Our other compatriots are still being held in the sanitarium, awaiting the arrival of their steeds.”
Standish moved from inside the stall and approached the frightened form of Bolton. “Now,
young man. I assume you are going to make this easy on yourself and keep your mouth shut.”
The kid nodded fiercely as his eyes danced between the gunmen. “Good. I’m guessing you
gentleman had a plan before entering this abode.” The gambler gave Vin a questioning look as
he went about claiming Bolton’s discarded weapon.

“Well, we did. The problem is; this is as far as I got in the planning stages.” Tanner shrugged his
shoulders at the disbelieving looks of his friends. “Its worked so far.”

“I’m hoping that you have help other than the good Lord and the Marshall. No offense, Conley.”
Josiah didn’t want to set the lawman off, seeing as how he was finally working on their side.

“The Judge is on the ridge.”

“And?” Ezra spread his hands and bowed slightly, waiting for the list to grow.

“And thats all.”

“Wonderful. Even a man with four aces up his sleeve, wouldn’t play the odds on this one.”  The
gambler shook his head and began pacing the aisle.

“Just because we know how much help we got, don’t mean Cross knows.” Nathan interjected.
“We can still use a surprise attack.” Jackson looked to each man and hoped they were catching
on to his suggestions.

Vin knew what the healer was saying but didn’t know how to make it work, until his eyes fell on
Sam.

“Conley, you think you can wear that coat.” Tanner pointed to the mountain man’s body.

“Yeah. It might be a little big in places, but I can manage. Why?” The marshal gave the younger
man a questioning glance.

“I think I just found our surprise.” The tracker let a smile crease his lips and some peace seep
into his heart, as the thought of Ayden Cross’s demise entered his head.

*******************************************************

Buck and Chris had managed to get J.D. to the divan without any protests from Avery. He and
Cross were busy gathering their belongings and left Magdeline to cover the three charges.

Chris put a hand to the kid’s forehead. “How you doing, J.D.?”

Tired hazel eyes peered up at the gunslinger, “Vin’s alive, Chris, I know he is.”

Larabee sighed, “He better be, kid.”

Buck set down near J.D and chanced a glance out the double windows behind them. “Well, just
in case he doesn’t make it back here in time, you got any ideas how we’re going to get out of this,
pard?” Wilmington kept his voice low and let his gaze fall back on Chris.

Larabee’s blue eyes swept the room around them, hoping for a weakness he hadn’t seen before.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t one to be found. As Ayden had pointed out earlier, he held all the
cards.

The sight of J.D.’s pale, trembling form was an all too painful reminder of that. “We wait. That’s
all we can do.”

Buck let his head drop in his hands and growled in frustration. He had never been a patient man,
even in the best of times, but he also knew Chris was right.

“Don’t look so glum, Buck.” Magdeline chided, from her perch on one of the wooden chair’s
parallel to them. “Your suffering will be over soon.”

Buck let dark eyes fall on the vixen. “You plan on eatin’ a bullet from that gun real soon,
darlin’?”

Maggie laughed. “That would make you feel better, now wouldn’t it?” She brought the small
derringer up to her temple. “Maybe I’ll do just that. After all, I’m not afraid to die for love, Mr.
Wilmington.” Her emerald eyes displayed the insanity she was a victim to. “Of course, I’d take
the cure for poor J.D. right along to the grave with me.”

“Go ahead and do it,” J.D. said softly. “It’d be worth dying to get rid of you, bitch.”

“Tsk, tsk now,” the girl taunted and lowered the gun. “Flattery will get you nowhere with me,
Mr. Dunne. I am a girl of virtue.”

Before anyone could reply, Ayden stepped around his paramour. “And what a lovely virtue it is,
my dear.”

Magdeline beamed, “Is it time, my love?”

Cross let his eyes drift over the three men in front of him, “Yes, my angel. The time of reckoning
is at hand.”

*******************************************************

Vin had left the Judge his spyglass so he could keep tabs on what was happening. Orin had
wanted to be more involved with the rescue, but Tanner had quickly convinced him they needed
him out of sight just in case something went wrong.

Travis watched the proceedings unfolding before him and was afraid that things had definitely
taken a turn for the worse.

*******************************************************

Nathan, Ezra, and Josiah had saddled all the horses, while Conley had changed into Sam’s attire
and Vin kept watch by the barn doors.

Tanner turned from his vigil and saw the men were now prepared for their maneuvers. He
glanced to Luke and realized that if not closely inspected, he would easily pass for the
unconscious captor.

“You boys ready?” The tracker’s voice was laced with exhaustion.

“I’ve been waiting for this particular moment since this madness began, Mr. Tanner.” Ezra’s
words brought the desired effect from the bounty hunter.

Vin shook his head and smiled. “Lets just get this done.”

The tracker swung the doors wide and watched his friends pass, followed by Conley and Bolton.
The kid had agreed to go along with the charade and now carried an empty weapon. It had been
decided Vin should stay inside the barn and keep them covered until the time was right.

The three men spread out in front of the porch with Lukas taking position next to Sam’s horse
and Bolton standing near Ezra. They waited with bated breath for whatever circumstance fate
would bring them next.

*******************************************************

Ayden reached out and grabbed J.D. despite Buck’s protest. “You know the deal, Wilmington.
The kid stays with me until the job is finished.”

“This won’t ever be finished.” J.D. yelped, as Ayden tightened his hold. “’Least not ‘til your
dead.”

“J.D.” Chris’s voice was firm and left no room for disobedience. “Keep your mouth shut and do
as he says, son.”

The kid looked like a scolded pup, but remained silent as he was drug to the front door, where
Avery already stood sentry.

Magdeline motioned for Buck and Chris to follow before bringing up the rear. Avery cautiously
opened the door and stepped onto the front porch, seeing that Bolton and the others had gathered
with the horses.

“Any signs of trouble, Sam?” He called to his partner, who seemed to be busy inspecting his
horse’s hind shoe.

“Everything’s fine.” Bolton was the one to answer from his position alongside Ezra. He could
feel the revolver digging into his side and dared not say anything to give away his captors.

Avery chanced a glance back at his brother before making the first move.

Ayden’s dark eyes scanned the ridge above them and J.D. found himself holding his breath,
waiting for some miracle rescue that probably would never come.

The boy felt Cross shift behind him and he started to step outside into the fresh air, when Ayden
tensed. The demonic man’s gaze had skirted the men standing beyond them and had stopped on
the familiar form of Sam.

But something wasn’t right.

Coon skin hat.

Buckskin coat.

Cowboy boots.

*Cowboy boots!*

The revelation set an alarm off with Ayden. Sam McQuaid never wore boots a day in his life. He
had wore moccasins since the day Cross had met him.

“Its a trap!”

*******************************************************

At his brother’s shout, Avery had grabbed for his gun, but wasn’t quick enough. Conley had
whirled, crouched, and fired as soon as the ruse had gone bad. The youngest Cross was flung
backwards by the impact of the bullet and an anguished cry erupted as the lifeless body slid to the
wooden planks, leaving a trail of blood in its wake.

*******************************************************

Cross jerked J.D. back inside and kicked the door shut. He turned to face the others, holding the
kid in front of him like a shield.

“Its over, Ayden.” Chris informed his captor as they all heard the echo of a gunshot.

The distraught man whipped his head toward the front of the house as his brother cried out when
death clutched him to her bosom.

“No!” Cross shouted, loosening his grip on J.D.

The moment of distress was all Chris needed. His eyes fell on the butcher’s knife that was still
embedded in the wall from Magdeline’s little tirade with Ezra.

If only he could reach it.

Chris was so focused on his task that he hadn’t realized Magdeline was still a threat. The woman
had moved unnoticed around the men, and recognized the gunslinger’s intentions. She quickly
brought her weapon up to stop him but Wilmington was faster.

Buck tackled the girl with a brute force born of pent-up up frustration and rage, sending them
both crashing through the plate glass windows in the front of the cabin. Their momentum had
tumbled the sofa and toppled a table that held a burning lantern. Its flames burst free and leapt to
consume the curtains lining the casement.

“Buck!” J.D. cried, struggling to break free from Cross.

Ayden shoved the boy towards Chris and went for his sidearm. Larabee instinctively caught the
kid, but found himself now in the sights of Cross’s weapon.

“Give it up Ayden, there's nowhere to go.” The crackling of the growing flames accentuated
Chris’s every word.

“I’m not letting you leave here alive, Larabee. So, don’t waste your breath on me.”

“At least let the boy go. I’m the one you’ve wanted from the beginning.”

“No,” J.D. gasped, beginning to cough from the smoke now filling the room. “I won’t leave
without you.”

A demented smile crossed Ayden’s face. “I suppose it could be much more interesting without
the boy as a distraction. He’s as good as dead anyway. And what fun would it be if Wilmington
didn’t get to watch his peril.”

“Then you’ll let him go?” Chris queried.

Ayden nodded. “If you tell your men to get back and you give me your word you’ll stay and
finish this.”

“Done.”

********************************************

'Faith sees the invisible, believes the unbelievable, and receives the impossible...'

********************************************

The sudden appearance of Buck and the flailing body of Magdeline caught the men outside off
guard. Josiah, Ezra, and Conley had gotten the horses somewhat under control after the first
gunshot and Vin had come running at Ayden’s shout. He was now standing near the front porch
watching the rolling pair that had erupted from the building seconds earlier.

Magdeline seemed to be getting the upper-hand. She had landed on top of the gunslinger when
they hit the ground and now she had gotten her body positioned so Buck couldn’t maneuver.

“Well, it looks like I’ll get the satisfaction of watching one of you die.” She brought the derringer
up, that she had finally wrenched from Wilmington’s grasp, and aimed for his heart.

Buck was powerless, the woman fought like a wildcat. She had pinned his arms, which wasn’t
hard considering his hands were still tied, and he couldn’t stop the inevitable. So, the gunslinger
did the only thing he could; he closed his eyes and prayed.

The shot echoed around the crowd outside the cabin but as the smoke began to clear, they found
the slumped form of Magdeline Saint sagging against Buck.

Wilmington realized he was still alive, so he shoved the carcass away from him as quick as his
body would allow. He glanced up and saw Vin lowering his rifle and knew it took everything the
tracker had in him to shoot the one person who could have saved J.D.

Josiah rushed to the gunslinger’s side and turned Magdeline over to make sure she was dead. As
he leaned in and slid her eyelids shut, he noticed a shiny, gold locket hanging around her neck.
He picked it up and was about to open it when Wilmington’s shout caused him to stop. He
quickly jerked the necklace loose and pushed it in his pocket and turned to see the gunslinger
heading back to the cabin.

“J.D.!” Buck jumped to his feet, the dead woman forgotten, as he noticed the flames now licking
at the shattered window frame. He had to go back in there and get the kid and Chris.

“Hold on, Buck.” Nathan stepped in front of the determined gunslinger. “We don’t know how
things stand inside.”

“I know whats happening. He’s gonna kill the kid and then Chris, not to mention the damn place
is on fire.” Buck resumed his course but stopped when the front door opened slightly.

“Buck?” Larabee’s voice could be heard, but he wasn’t visible through the thickening smoke.

“Yeah, Chris.”

“You and the boys draw back to the base of the ridge.”

“What?!” Wilmington’s temper began to rear its ugly head.

“Cross has agreed to let J.D. go if you all fall back.” The men heard some words being passed
back and forth but couldn’t make any of it out. “Just do it, Buck.”

The gunslinger glanced at the others around him and then slowly inched his way backwards. The
rest began to follow him and then they all stopped about 100 yards from the porch.

“Alright, we’re clear.” Buck hoped his voice sounded calmer than he felt. *Why would Cross let
J.D. go?*

*******************************************************

“J.D., you’ve got to go now.” Chris coughed, pushing the youth toward the door.

“But Chris?”

Larabee put a hand over the kid’s mouth before he could protest further and pulled him into an
embrace. “Trust me, J.D. I’ll be right behind you.”

“Get the hell out, brat, before I change my mind.” Ayden yanked J.D. from Chris’s grasp and
shoved him toward the door.

With one final look over his shoulder, the kid did as he was told.

“Looks like its just you and me now, Larabee.”

The smoke was thickening in the room which played to Chris’s advantage. He had backed
himself up near the fireplace where Magdeline had been boiling coffee. He let his hands play
along the rock facing until they touched the metal pot.

“Would you prefer, I shoot you now or would you rather go out in a blaze of glory with myself?”
 
Chris followed Cross’s gaze to the bag of dynamite lying near his feet. *Shit! He’d forgotten
about Ayden’s little surprise for the payroll wagon.*

“Actually, I prefer neither.” With that said, Chris flung the boiling substance at his captor and
lunged for the man in one fluid motion.

“Damn!” Ayden screamed, clutching at his face but amazingly keeping hold of his weapon.

Larabee tightened his hold on the gun just as it discharged sending a jolt through both men, who
had fallen to the floor in the struggle. It took Chris a moment to realize he hadn’t been hit. Ayden
had taken the bullet square in the chest.

“You think you’ve won.” The wounded man gasped and clutched at Chris’s shirt. “But your
coming to Hell with me.”

The gunslinger cut his eyes towards the mantle where the fire had almost reached the explosives
and feared Ayden may have been right.

*******************************************************

The front door opened fully and they watched as an unsteady J.D. made his way to the steps. The
kid blinked a couple of times to adjust his eyes to the light and as soon as he spotted the others,
tried to hurry his pace. But his body still wasn’t functioning right and he soon fell face first. He
started to pick himself up when he felt arms encircling his upper body and tried to protest, but a
familiar voice eased the struggle.

“Its alright, son. I’ve got you.” Wilmington had rushed to the boy as soon as he stepped off the
porch. He threw the kid’s arm around one of his shoulders and was heading toward the group
watching them. “We’re almost there, kid. Just hang on.” Buck felt the slight nod against his
chest and hoped this wasn’t another of Cross’s sick traps.

They had made it within 50 yards of the others when the two men felt the sensation of hot breath
mixed with the eruption of thunder. They began falling and the last thing Buck Wilmington
remembered was Vin Tanner’s scream.

“CHRIS!”

*******************************************************

Its funny what goes through a person’s mind in the moment that they realize their life is about to
change forever.

For Vin Tanner, it was voices. Voices from his past, voices from the present, all telling him
words of comfort. Words that were meant  to try and ease past heartaches or soothe failures he
had encountered. They echoed through his shattered thoughts, right along with  the haunting ring
of the explosion.

One can not cheat death. Not even Ezra.

For every winter, there is a spring.

Life is about change. Change is what makes up life.

The only certainty we can be sure of, is that there is no certainty.

For every sunset , a glorious dawn.

For every loss, there is a new beginning.

But all these fancy sayings, the pretty words of wisdom everyone had  insisted on lavishing upon
him at some time or another, they were just that, words.

Words that , in a round-about way, pointed out the painful truth Vin already knew.

That in a blink of an eye, the very existence you know, the reality you depend on to hold the
fragile shape of who you are in place, can crumble. Just like that, in one agonizing moment, it
can be blown to hell by a cruel twist of fate and the workings of a mad man.

“NO!!” His own shout tore through his body like that of a strangers, sounding foreign and unreal.

He wished to God it wasn’t him from which the mournful howl of disbelief and anger had
erupted.

He prayed to anyone that was listening that he wasn’t Vin Tanner at that moment.

At least the Vin Tanner who had been naive enough to believe one could be given a second
chance or that one could count on another person.

He wished he wasn’t the Vin Tanner who had loved Chris Larabee like the brother he’d never
had.

That Vin Tanner was a fool.

A damn, sorry,  fool who’d just watched his world go up in a puff of smoke.

“Chris!”  he yelled again and tried to get from his knees, where the force of the blast had sent
him.  The tracker knew he had to try and save Chris. He had to help his bestfriend; but something
was holding him back and that something had a grip he couldn’t break, no matter how hard he
struggled.

“Damn it, Vin, stop it, now!” Josiah’s voice was loud and firm. “You’re going to rip that side
open again.”

Vin would have laughed if he’d had the energy . Why did it matter if he started bleeding again;
his death was all but written. Josiah might as well have let him go and saved Nathan the trouble.

“We’ve got to get him out,” Tanner tried, knowing his argument would be rejected even before
the words passed through his lips.

“He’s gone, son,” Josiah told him, his hot breath brushing against the side of the bounty hunter’s
face.  “No one could have been inside that house and survived.”

Vin struggled again , not giving a damn about what the big holy man believed. He’d heard
Sanchez  use that condescending tone with J.D., even Buck, but it wouldn’t work it’s magic on
him. Nobody was going to take Chris Larabee away.

He’d fight the almighty himself if he had to.

Josiah sensed the younger man’s resistance and knew he was in for a fight. It would be a
skirmish without any victors and he refused to let there be any more casualties that day.

He was searching his soul for any words that may provide him an affront to the tracker’s
hell-bent self-destruction when a shadow fell upon them and Josiah knew reinforcements had
arrived.

Ezra Standish looked like hell, but his solemn face reflected a refined solace that quite possibly
held the answers Josiah had been lacking.

“Mr. Tanner, I suggest that you cessate this nonsense and regain control of your mental capacities
so you can assist us in helping our partners.”

Vin finally jerked away from Sanchez and the preacher let him go, knowing the gambler would
prevent him from making a break for it.

“I’m trying to save our partner, damn it!” the tracker bit out, hugging both his arms around him
to help ease the aching in his wounded side.

“Mr. Larabee no longer requires your help, Vin,” Ezra’s voice held a gentle quality Josiah had
only heard in the presence of children. “But J.D. does.”

Vin had planned on slugging his friend of chance with what little energy he had left and then
heading for the roaring flames that had completely engulfed Cross’s cabin now. But with the soft
mention of the kid’s name , what little adrenaline born strength  the tracker had left, dissipated
and he would have fallen had Standish not been there to catch him.

“J.D.’s dying too,” the words were barely audible and rough with pain. Vin’s body had gone limp
and Standish went to the ground with his friend, taking the brunt of the impact upon himself.
“Maybe Chris will be waitin’ on him.”

Ezra knew the other man was hurting. Both physically and emotionally. The tracker had endured
more trauma in the last few days than most were made to suffer in one life time, but it still hurt
hearing those words come from him.  Hopelessness was not an emotion one often heard in the
tracker’s voice. And Ezra wasn’t ready to hear it now.

Just like he hadn’t been ready to lose Chris.

Just like he wasn’t willing to lose J.D.

But an undeniable truth resounded in Tanner’s words and that was a fact even Ezra couldn’t
gloss over.

“Maybe not,” Josiah’s soft voice caused both younger men to look up at him. “ We may not have
kept Cross from taking Chris; but we might have a chance to spare J.D.”

The preacher held out his hand to reveal an oval shaped gold locket with what looked like some
type of bird etched on it,  “I took this from Magdeline.”

“And ‘that’ changes our predicament, how?” Ezra asked, his words tinged with frustration and
anger.

“Does it have the cure?” Vin’s voiced his own question, trying to regain his fleeting strength.

Sanchez shook his head and opened the locket, turning it so both men could see its contents.

Inside were two pictures. One photograph was of an older woman, striking yet sad, and the other
of a similar featured girl, that could have easily passed for Magdeline’s sister.

“Both women are wearing this locket in their portraits, as was Magdeline,” Josiah pointed out for
his friends.

“Many families aquire heirlooms that are passed from generation to generation,” the gambler
offered. “In fact , my mother and I...”

“Ezra,” Josiah cut his partner’s litany of words short, “I’ve seen this very charm before.”

Vin struggled to get to his feet again. Chris would have wanted them to take any chance to save
J.D. And once that was done, then Vin could deal with the choice he’d eventually have to make.

“Where?”

Josiah closed the locket and let his fingers tighten around it’s cool metal, his determined stare
meeting Tanners. “Casseopaya’s.”

“You believe she may have known Magdeline?”

The preacher nodded, “I think one of the women shown here ‘is’ Casseopaya. At least, it favors
the portrait she has on her mantle.”

“I hate to play Devil’s advocate gentlemen; but, the likelihood of this proposal panning out in
such a fashion as we would hope would have odds even a croupier such as myself would frown
upon.”

Vin, who had gradually made it to standing with Ezra’s help, shot a quick glance over to the spot
where the remaining three of what was left of the seven were gathered. J.D. seemed to be
conscious but in the glow of the fire the tracker could make out the worried look on
Wilmington’s face.  “At this point,” Vin’s voice was cold as he let his eyes travel from his
friends to the crackling flames of Cross’s cabin, “It’s the only shot we’ve got.”

“J.D.”, Wilmington was pleading now, “Nathan needs you to calm down. The more upset you
get, the worse it makes it.”

“Chris?” the kid implored weakly, between coughs. He tried to push Buck’s hands away, “Did
Chris get out? He said he'd be right behind me.”

Nathan watched as Wilmington fought a losing battle to control the emotions threatening to
overcome him.  “Kid,” he choked softly. “Just take it easy, please!”

“Did he kill, Cross?” J.D. continued to try and turn his head so he could see around the older
man. “I want to see him, Buck.”

“Damn it, J.D.,” Wilmington snapped. “Chris is dead. Do you hear me? He’s gone!”

Nathan and the kid both flinched at the other man’s gruffness. Buck watched as the immense
pain he felt was instantly mirrored on the teen’s face; unbelievably doubling the intensity of his
own agony.

“He’s dead?” J.D.’s lower lip trembled and he tried to blink back the tears he could feel starting
to sting his eyes. “Th..th..that’s not possible.”

Buck took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He had to push his own pain away, for J.D.’s sake.
“I’m sorry, kid.”

J.D. looked away from Wilmington’s bowed head and his fevered gaze fell on the healer, “Am I
dead too?”

The question caught the healer by surprise and before he could reply Buck looked up and his dark
eyes pinned J.D. with a determined glare. “Don’t even think that, kid. There’s no way in hell I’m
losing you too.”

“Buck’s right, J.D.,” Jackson assured, knowing Wilmington couldn’t handle much more of the
kid’s pain -induced ramblings. “You’re alive. We’ve got you.”

“And we ain’t lettin’ go.” Vin Tanner’s words held a conviction that almost had Nathan
convinced.  The tracker knelt beside the kid and took his hand  and waited for J.D.’s hazel eyes
to focus on him.  “Cross may have won the battle, kid, but this is one war he’s going to lose.”

*******************************************************

“I can’t believe he’s gone.” Luke Conley looked from the smoldering cabin to Judge Orin
Travis’s stricken face. “Chris Larabee is dead.”

Travis didn’t meet the marshal’s gaze but instead let his eyes travel to the six figures huddled in
the distance. “You’re wrong , Conley.  As long as one of the Seven takes in air, Chris Larabee
will always be alive.”

*******************************************************

"Without faith, a man can do nothing; with it, all things are possible."   - William Osler

*******************************************************

The ride to Casseopaya’s was the longest journey that Josiah Sanchez had ever experienced.

In his many travels on this Earth , he had waged countless battles; some with mortal enemies,
like Cross, and others with internal demons brought out by circumstances in his life.  But never
had the holy man been faced with such a conflict of the spirit, a war of the heart.

He let his weary eyes scan the other men riding alongside him, each lost in their own personal
hell.

Nathan was in the lead, his dark form silhouetted by the setting sun. He kept shifting his eyes
from the terrain ahead to his patient on the horse beside of him.

J.D. had grown steadily worse after the scene at Cross’s cabin. And Buck had went down hill,
right along with him. Wilmington hadn’t spoken a word since the six had started for widow
Cromley’s, except to comfort the kid in his moments of consciousness. He had rode with J.D.
cradled to his chest the whole leg of the journey, unwilling to let the others take the boy or
relieve him, even for a while.

It was almost as if he were afraid that if he let the young man go, he’d disappear.

Just like Chris had disappeared.

Banished from their lives in a flash of insanity.

And now Josiah feared that even if Casseopaya was able to save J.D. ; Chris Larabee would not
be the only casualty that the Seven would endure.

Vin was sure to follow in the legendary gunslinger’s quake. Perhaps, not physically, but most
certainly, spiritually.

The preacher cast a glance over his shoulder to make sure that the man in question was still
behind them. Vin was there, but the tracker seemed to be going on reflexes alone; a shadow of
his usual self.

In some ways , Josiah already knew a part of his friend had died with Chris. It would only be a
matter of time before they had to let the rest of him go.

And, that would not be easy.

Especially for Ezra. The gambler had attached himself to the younger man’s side and seemed
unwilling to concede that Tanner was unreachable. He’d hung back, keeping a pace that kept him
near the bounty hunter, but allowed the grieving man the space he needed. And although he said
nothing, understanding his friend’s need for silence, perhaps feeling a need for solitude himself,
he made his presence known.

Unfortunately, Josiah had to doubt that Ezra’s support would be enough to save their friend. It
was unlikely that even the combined efforts of their broken family would be able to pull off that
miracle.

Especially if they lost J.D.

Then, there would be nothing left to salvage.  Buck would be gone, Vin would be gone and
Josiah doubted the others would have the heart to continue.

He knew the Lord worked in mysterious ways and that sometimes the lessons to be learned from
the Almighty’s tests were hard to see; but losing Chris seemed senseless and tragic beyond mere
mortal comprehension. And the suffering around him just seemed cruel.

With an exasperated looks toward the ever darkening heavens above them, the preacher supposed
once again that the wisdom of his father’s words had come back to haunt him. For he was right
when he had once told his son that when faced with great evil, one must face their deepest fears.
And that more often than not, those fears were not brought by the enemy; but hidden away inside
one’s self.

It was a hard truth, but one that resounded with deafening clarity. What the Seven feared most
had not been Cross or any power Magdeline may have possessed; but the thought of losing their
most precious strength....each other.

Before Josiah could ponder on the fate of his friends any further, he was abruptly brought from
his musings by the whinny of his horse. They were entering Casseopaya’s courtyard now and
Genesis always raised a little ruckus upon approaching the widow’s place.

The mare tossed her head and snorted slightly; sending puffs of condensation into the cold,
autumn air.  The sun was bidding the horizon it’s final farewells and Josiah watched the last of
its glowing shards fall across the front of the cabin before them. He watched the rays bounce
rainbows of light across the frost covered path leading to Casseopaya’s door, before turning in
time to see that Vin had dismounted and was now helping Buck lift J.D.’s unconscious form
from Wilmington’s horse.

Once the gunslinger was to the ground, he carefully relieved the tracker of their friend and gave
the bounty hunter an unsure look before starting for the front porch.  The others followed suit, so
Sanchez also dismounted and caught up to them. It was at the foot of the steps that Buck faltered;
as if he were about to step out onto a ledge that he was unsure of; or perhaps take a leap of faith
from a sheer cliff.

It wasn’t hard to understand his hesitance. The man had just lost his oldest friend in the world to
a heartless bastard and now he was being forced to entrust a brother’s life to a witch, who , under
normal circumstances,  he wouldn’t have brought his worst enemy to.

Josiah stepped up behind the solemn man and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Sometimes our
paths lead us to unexpected places, Brother Wilmington.”  The preacher waited for Buck’s eyes
to meet his, “That doesn’t mean that we’ve taken a wrong turn; just that the Lord is reading from
a different map than we are.”

Buck eyed the big man, his face still smudged with soot and ash from the fire, before looking
down at the young man he held in his arms. Then, with a silent nod of understanding, he began
his climb to the entrance. He had just taken the first step, when the cabin door swung open and
Casseopaya appeared.

“All my apples are gone for the season, Mr. Wilmington.” The old woman wore a plain black
dress that swept the floor with a soft swoosh when she walked and her long frosted hair hung in
loose waves that framed her lined and weathered face.

Buck had to clear his throat before he could speak and even then his voice was rough with
emotion, “I didn’t come for your produce, mam. The boy’s real sick; we thought....”

The widow didn’t wait for Wilmington to finish before stepping quickly to him and placing a
knarled hand against J.D.’s  fevered cheek. “Yes, I can see that he is.” Her eyes , which unlike
the rest of her, held a youthful vibrancy, met Buck's gaze. “But you have a healer,” she turned her
head to glance at Nathan before letting her emerald orbs settle back on the gunslinger, “And you
do not hold me in the highest regards, Mr. Wilmington. I do not understand your trusting
something so valuable to you, to my care.”

“We’ve come to you because of this.” Vin , who had been standing in the background until now,
moved around Buck to hold out the glistening gold locket.

“Where did you get this?” Casseopaya snapped, reaching out to take the charm from Tanner. The
tracker was faster though and quickly pulled the necklace away from the woman’s clutches.

“We got it from a woman who called herself Magdeline.” Josiah’s tone was kind, and
unaccusing.

Still, the widow’s hand went to her chest and she reflexively took a step back. “She’s dead?”

“Yes, mam.” The preacher's sympathetic voice seemed to go unheard by the woman, who seemed
lost in a moment of disbelief. “She was killed in a gunfight.”

“By one of you?” Casseopaya didn’t sound angry, just confused.

Josiah finished his ascent of the stairs and came to stand near the old woman. “Magdeline was
involved with a very evil man. she helped him kidnap us, she poisoned young J.D., and would
have killed Mr. Wilmington had she not been stopped.”

“I know my granddaughter was disturbed, Mr. Sanchez. You do not have to coddle me like some
child.” The widow’s proud stance deflated some as she continued with a faraway gleam in her
eye. “My daughter married badly; both her daughters were born under the curse.”

“I’m sorry that she was your granddaughter,” Buck broke in, not wanting to be disrespectful of
the woman’s loss, but wanting to prevent losing someone else he loved. “But we’ve lost one of
our family today also, and you have the chance to stop anyone else from dying, if you’d only help
us.” Wilmington didn’t need to be a doctor or some sort of mystic to know that J.D.’s time was
running out.

Casseopaya’s owlish eyes glanced from one man to the others , until they stopped on Vin Tanner.
“He’s speaking of , Mr. Larabee?”

The tracker didn’t answer but she had already gotten her reply. Pain was an emotion easily read,
even on the faces of such seasoned warriors. Besides, she had never seen the protectors together,
without their leader; especially if one of them was in danger. From what she had seen, Chris
Larabee was a man of honor and integrity and that one of her own had helped in his demise,
pained her greatly. Maybe, there was still time to make things right.

“Do you know what type of poison Magdeline may have used on your friend?”  Widow Cromley
looked to Nathan, who grimly shook his head in the negative.

“She may have not been forthright in her explanation of what she had done to young J.D., but she
did go into some detail about the contents of her concoction,” Ezra supplied. “I believe she
mentioned it was composed of snake venom, verusa, and the posterior of a reptile.”

“I’ll take it you mean Dragon’s Tail?” Casse eyed the gambler with some amusement.

“That would be it, mam,” Josiah answered, throwing his friend of chance an exasperated look.
“Your granddaughter also mentioned a name. MamaRu?”

“Oh dear,” The widow’s slight gasp was almost inaudible. Almost.

“What?” Buck anxiously took a step towards the woman, holding J.D. impossibly closer. “Does
that mean that you can’t help us?”

The shaken woman straightened her stance and took a shuttering breath before replying. “No, Mr.
Wilmington, I’ll try and help the boy. It just means that my work will need the hand of God.”

She paused for a moment, as if hoping for some divine intervention, and then let her verdant eyes
lock on Vin.  “I need for you to bring me the leaf of a Dog’s Paw and a cutting from the Beaver’s
Tooth.”

Vin started to object. Although the names of the plants sounded familiar, he wasn’t confident
enough to risk J.D.’s life.

However, the widow cut him off with a point of her finger. “You must go now before darkness
takes away any chance that you might have of saving your friend.”

With a whirl of her skirt tale, she turned and started back in the door, “Bring him inside, Mr.
Wilmington, before we have to pick you both off the floor.”

Vin watched the others follow her in and had to wonder if the old woman hadn’t known that he
was the one to kill her granddaughter. Perhaps, this was a way of getting back at him. Maybe she
wanted him to fail and be the cause of J.D.’s death.

Just like he’d been responsible for Chris’s.

He sighed heavily, knowing his mind wasn’t ready to think about his loss yet, and was about to
turn and go when the creak of the cabin door halted him and Casseopaya emerged once more.

“You may need these on your journey.” The woman handed him a soft leather pouch and a heavy
coat.

Vin took the offering with a questioning look.

“You’ll need something in which to store your find,” she explained with an annoyed glance. “The
weather is going to be cold tonight and I don’t need anymore sick men on my conscious.”

The bounty hunter stuffed the bag in his duster pocket but remained steadfast in his stance.
“Is J.D. going to die?”

Casseopaya’s eyes softened some as she took in the haunted look on the tracker’s handsome face.
“Are you afraid of death, Mr. Tanner.”

The young man wasn’t surprised or shocked by her question. He was beyond any of that.
“Dying holds no fear for me, mam.”

“Perhaps,” the old widow sighed, sounding like she was saddened by some blunder the tracker
had made, “You are more afraid to survive.”

With that said, she was gone and Vin was left alone to ponder the meaning of her enigmatic
words. He only hoped he’d have better luck with his hunt.

*******************************************************
                                     I shot an arrow into the air,
                                   It fell to earth, I knew not where;
                                   For so swiftly it flew , the sight
                                   Could not follow it in its flight.

                                    I breathed a song into the air,
                                   It fell to earth, I knew not where;
                                 For, who has sight so keen and strong
                                 That it can follow the flight of song?

                                   Long, long afterward, in an oak
                                   I found the arrow, still unbroke;
                               And the song, from the beginning to end,
                                 I found again in the heart of a friend.
 
Why that poem reverberated through out his thoughts he wasn’t sure. But he could hear it,
clearly, like a soft whisper on the wind.

He tried to take a ragged breath and nearly choked as the dust-filled air entered his dry throat,
tasting of decay and death.

He thought how funny it was, the things that go through a person’s mind when your life is about
to end. You see pictures of the past, mixed with the faces of loved ones that left you behind.

Then a flash of light allows you glimpses of those in the here and now, those tying you to the
world of the living.

He wondered how someone could choose to stay or go?

In one aspect, you could be rejoined with those you thought lost to you forever; but at the same
time you're being pulled to those who depend on you to remain.

Such decisions are sometimes taken out of ones hands; but, there are instances where it is your
heart that makes the final push to decide the correct path.

Some people would believe that letting go was a sign of weakness, and in this case, he had to
agree. It takes the courage of a warrior to confront the fear of living we all face at some point or
another.

And if his time on this earth has taught him anything, it was that he was not a coward. He had
faced the horror of war, the tragedy of lost love, and the brutality of loneliness.

Even after all these, he still survived and was even better for having traveled the journey.

Maybe, that is why the voices of his new family now echoed through his being, giving proof of
which choice he must make.

One voice called above them all, playing the bitter music of a sad melody, drawing him, begging
him, to cross back over once more and complete the song of the Magnificent Seven.

So, with a new determination, he tried again to take a breath, and this time Chris Larabee tasted
only the bitter-sweet sensation of life.

*******************************************************

‘ALTHOUGH IT IS FAITH THAT MAKES ALL THINGS POSSIBLE; IT IS LOVE THAT
MAKES THEM EASY...’

**************************************************************

Buck carried J.D. to the room Casseopaya had instructed and placed him on a large iron bed in
the center of the room. The gunslinger moved away from the boy to retrieve a blanket from a
wooden chest near the window and was more than surprised to find two hazel eyes peering up at
him when he returned.

“Hey kid,” Wilmington smiled and draped the woven quilt across his friend. “How you feelin’?”

“Where are we, Buck?” J.D.’s voice was hoarse and his gaze held a hint of confusion. Buck laid
a hand on the youth’s forehead as he sat down on the bed. “We’re at the Widow Cromley’s
place.”

“The witch?” J.D.’s face was stricken with fear and confusion. “We’re in hell, aren’t we?”

“Take it easy, kid.” Buck let his hand slide from the teen’s brow to his shoulder. “She’s going to
help you get better.”

The younger man started to shake his head, but winced at the pain the movement brought. “But,
Buck....”

“Shh,” Wilmington comforted. “Don’t go getting all worked up again.”

J.D. took a deep breath and tried to will himself not to panic. “But she doesn’t like us, Buck.
You said it yourself that she cursed you.” J.D. lifted a hand to latch onto his friend. “What about
your string of bad luck with the ladies...”

“I’m quite certain that Mr. Wilmington can disgrace himself in front of many a young woman
without my help, Mr. Dunne.” Casseopaya entered the darkened room carrying a candle and a
small glass of liquid. “And as for my feelings toward you, young man, the only thing I did not
like was you and your accomplice taking my apples without asking.”

“I’m sorry,” J.D. stammered, shying closer to the older gunslinger.

Casse smiled, her face seeming much softer than before. “Then I forgive you,” she said simply,
setting the candle on the night-stand, and swatting Buck out of her way.

“So, you’re not a witch?” the youth asked, as the widow placed a hand to his cheek.

“Well, I prefer dark enchantress of magic,” the old woman winked at J.D. as she let her touch
slip from his face. “But that sounds like something your fancy friend would call me, now
doesn’t it?”

Buck marveled at the change in the lady before him. She seemed much less like a threat and
much  more like a grandmother now.  She actually had the kid smiling.

“Mr. Wilmington, if you insist on being underfoot, could you please hand me that glass there.”
Casseopaya motioned toward the dark amber liquid she had brought in with her.

Buck nodded and did as the widow instructed. Once she had the vile in hand, she turned back to
her patient.

“Now, I need for you to drink this, J.D. I’m hoping it will stop the poison causing your sickness.”
She started to hold the glass out for the teen when Wilmington’s hand on her arm stopped her.

“I thought you had sent Vin out for some ingredients you needed for the antidote.”

Casseopaya shrugged out of the man’s grasp. “I sent Mr. Tanner for something ‘he’ needed. I
had all that I required here.” With that said, the widow turned once more to J.D., leaving the
older man with a puzzled look.

The young man glanced from Cromley to Buck, unsure of what he should do.

“I do not mean to be harsh, J.D.,” she started softly. “But, time is not something you are
abundant with at the moment.”

“But, I feel some better now,” J.D. countered, not liking the thought of ingesting anything he
wasn’t sure had come from Ezra’s saloon or a cow.

“The subsiding of your pain is just a phase of the illness, child. Its a part of its ploy, a guise,
mind you.”

Wilmington knelt next to the bed and pushed some dark strands of the kid’s hair away from his
face. “I think you should do as she says, J.D. We’re going to need you to stay with us.”
Buck held the boy’s stare. “I need you.”

The youth watched the emotions play across the older man’s face. Buck looked awful. He looked
more exhausted than J.D. could remember and there was a sadness in his eyes that the teen could
never recall being there before.  Buck had to be suffering because of all that had happened; and
although the details were foggy, J.D. knew it was bad and that his death would only hurt the
gunslinger more. He also knew he couldn’t let that happen.

And although his instinct for self-preservation was strong, his desire to protect Buck was even
greater.

“I’ll take it,” he conceded softly.

Casseopaya smiled and lifted the liquid to J.D.’s lips. “When you are well, young man, I’ll expect
you to do some chores around here for those apples you stole.”

The youth swallowed the bitter tasting concoction and then sank back into the pillows. “Buck ate
a lot more than I did,” J.D. told her with a hint of a smile.

“Then I’m sure he’ll be glad to help.” Casse looked from the young man to Wilmington, who
hadn’t taken his eyes off the boy.

“If J.D. can help,” hopeful eyes finally averted to meet the woman’s, speaking much more than
the gunslinger’s words avowed. “I’ll build you a brand new place, if you want.”

Magdeline’s grandmother pushed herself up from the bed and patted the man’s shoulder as she
passed.

“Stay with him, he’ll need your strength.”

*******************************************************

Vin was thankful for the full October moon shining above him in the autumn sky. It made his
mission easier.

Without it , he’d never been able to pick his way along the trail leading away from Casseopaya’s
. And , although he wanted to fight the light and craved the darkness, he knew that right now J.D.
needed the glowing orb more than he needed a hiding place from his grief. So, he pushed on to
his destination and hoped it wasn’t a trek made in vain.

The tracker knew that Beaver’s Tooth grew along the creek bank. The Shaman of the Indian tribe
he’d lived with for a time taught him that. In fact, Silver Feather had taught him a lot of things.
Ways to track, ways to hunt, and harder things.

Things about himself.

Vin thought it ironic that he would think of the man now. It had been Silver Feather who had
given him his Indian name, Walks With Night. And now, here he was , riding around in the pitch
dark, searching for plants that Vin was almost positive were used to control bleeding and to treat
head wounds. J.D. needed neither.

Silver Feather would have laughed his ass off if he could have seen him now.

Or maybe he would have been sad.

Sad that his friend had failed so miserably. Sad that the young boy he’d taken into his tribe and
under his wing had failed a brother.

*Chris.*

Vin’s heart ached at the thought, but now was not the time lose control of his emotions. J.D.
needed him. Chris would never need him again.

The tracker pulled Bounty to a stop when he finally heard running water. He knew the creek
helped replenish the plants and therefore they were abundant at the edges of the bed. Vin just
hoped that some had survived the early frosts of the fall.
 
He had reached the clearing leading to the creek bank, but stopped suddenly when something
glistening in the grass caught his eye. Blood. He felt the familiar dizziness enveloping his brain
and tried to push the memories away, but failed.

Damn. Not again.

Dead bodies, sparkling with crimson tinges swam before his closed eyes and the bounty hunter
grabbed his head and tried to control his labored breathing. But when he opened his eyes once
more the blood still called to him from the earth’s surface at his horse’s hooves.

*This isn’t real.* Vin slid from his mount with every intention of proving his hopes, but as he
reached his hand to the sanguineous spot, the moisture disproved his earlier thought. It was real.
Very real.

Tanner swiveled his head from side to side, trying to pinpoint the source from which the scarlet
drops had originated. As his gaze was sweeping the left side of his position, his glance stopped
as the outline of a body entered his field of vision. He heard a horse’s whinny from the same
direction and had to place his palm on the ground to keep himself from floating off into the past
once more.

“Take it easy, Vin. You’re alright.” The tracker mumbled to himself, trying to calm his racing
heart again as the massacred faces of the men from Ballentine and the maniacal grin of Ayden
Cross hovered in his memory. He was about to drift to the long ago once more, when a soft moan
wafted toward him.

Tanner jerked his head to the prone form, now recognizing the silhouette of the horse standing
above it.

It was Ayden Cross’s mount.

The bounty hunter arose slowly, still shaky from his reflections. He ground tied Bounty and
began a slow, cautious, walk to the figure. Vin grabbed for his Winchester and quickly cocked it.
He looked from the horse to the body below it and felt a mixture of terror and pure hatred seep
into his heart.

The form was as tall as Ayden and being covered with a coat, looked to be the same size. Tanner
stepped closer, his gun never wavering from its target. He stopped about two foot from the body
and stuck the toe of his boot into the side of the man. He heard another slight moan and waited.

No movement followed, so this time he stuck his right foot under the body and rolled it over.

The moonlight shone bright onto the unconscious man and Vin took an reflexive step back,
blinking in disbelief. Maybe he had truly lost his mind this time.  For there in front of him was
the battered, unconscious, but apparently, very alive, form of his best friend.

He expectantly stood with bated breath. “Chris?!” Tanner jumped slightly at his own voice. He
had not meant to vocalize the name searing his mind, fearing that one small noise or false move
would shatter the spell and Chris would vanish again. And he couldn’t take losing his bestfriend
twice in one day.

“Chris?” The bounty hunter's voice was softer this time, kneeling beside Larabee as he spoke.
Although his friend didn’t respond, he quickly saw the rise and fall of the gunslinger’s chest and
sent a prayer of gratitude to the powers that be. “Hang on, cowboy. I’ll take care of you.”

Vin carefully positioned the older man so that he was comfortable and safely away from the
running brook. He was about to turn and retrieve his horse, when a tug on his sleeve stopped him
dead in his tracks. Tanner pivoted back around and felt his heart leap with joy as his eyes
encountered the familiar blue orbs of Chris Larabee.

The bounty hunter couldn’t keep the grin from spreading across his handsome features
and grabbed the now outstretched arm offered him. “Damn, Chris. You scared me to death.”

Vin wasn’t surprised to hear the grief in his words, but chuckled slightly at Larabee’s response.

“Payback’s a bitch, cowboy.” The gunslinger never took his eyes off his friend. He too feared this
may just be a cruel hoax of his over taxed mind.

The two men let their eyes convey the message of relief, gratitude and friendship and then
allowed their hearts to break through the walls so recently built.

“I can’t believe its really you.....” Tanner’s voice broke and he couldn’t finish his statement.

“I had my doubts a few times, but here we are.” Chris grasped the younger man’s arm tighter and
sent his own thank-you’s to whoever was watching over them.

They were afraid to break the physical contact, scared that it may turn out to be a dream, or yet,
another nightmare.

“How?” Vin finally got the words past his lips.

Chris sighed, “A man like Cross always has a way out. A trap door."

“There was a cellar?” Vin asked, astonished and thankful once again that Chris’s mind worked
the way that it did.

“Some kind of a secret room, there was a passage way leading to the barn outside.”

“Maybe the house had been used to hide escaped slaves,” Vin suggested, not really caring what it
‘had’ been. He was just grateful for the refuge it had provided his friend.

“I made it to the stairs just as the place went up,” Chris explained, as Vin started to recover from
the shock of finding ‘the holy grail’.

“I guess that explains what happened to your head?” The tracker reached out to touch the nasty
looking gash on the other man’s brow.

“I’m fine,” Chris lied, but shied away when Tanner probed at the wound.

“Why don’t I believe that?" Vin frowned and answered his own question. "Maybe, cause you had
a house fall on you?”

“I made it out of the cabin,” Chris countered. “I just took a spill down the stairs. I was knocked
unconscious for a few hours.”

Vin laughed. “Is that all?”

“How’s J.D.?” Chris asked, not only wanting to change the subject, but needing to know how the
youngest member of their team was fairing. He'd been trying to track his friends when the pain
had gotten to be too much.

Larabee tried to raise up , only to have the tracker place a restraining hand on his shoulder.

“The kid’s at Casseopaya Cromley’s place.”

“Casseopaya’s?” *That explains why they were moving away from Four Corners.*  Chris
blinked, trying to clear the pounding in his head enough to comprehend what Vin was telling
him. "Why?"

“It’s a long story.” Tanner stood up and stepped the short distance to Bounty, retrieving the extra
coat that the witch had insisted on him taking.

Returning to his friend’s side , he used the duster as a blanket and covered the gunslinger, who
despite his fierce stubbornness, had begun to tremble.

“I take it that you being out here in the middle of the night is part of that tale.”

Vin nodded grimly and pulled the pouch Casseopaya had also given him from his belt.  It was
only a hunch; but one Vin hoped panned out. “I think that old witch knew that you were alive,
even if we didn’t.” Tanner opened the leather sack and couldn’t supress the grin that split his
face.  *Beaver’s Tooth and Dog’s Paw.*

“I also think she sent me out here to help you.”

Larabee smiled faintly. “I knew I liked her for some reason.”  The gunslinger couldn’t supress the
gasp that escaped as he tried to shift his position once more. He wasn’t sure what hurt more, his
head or his ribs.

“Easy,” Vin scolded. “Just lie still until I get you checked out.”

Chris didn’t look to happy about it, but he did what the younger man said. “You been takin’
lessons from Nate?”

“Maybe,” Vin replied, digging into Casse’s pouch and retrieving some of the Dog’s Paw, which
he deftly crumbled and rolled into a small poultice. “I guess I’ve had enough first hand
experience lately, huh?”

“Yeah, you have.” Vin picked up on the worry in his friends words. “How’s your side?”

Tanner reached out and placed the herb against the gash on Chris’s temple. “It’s fine.”

Larabee hissed and pulled away from the tracker’s ministrations. “You’re definitely lacking
Nathan’s finesse.”

The tracker quirked an eyebrow at his friend. “If you’d stop distracting me, I could finish this up
faster.”

Chris eyed the younger man. “Your bedside manner could definitely use some work, too.”

The bounty hunter shook his head. “And you say I wait until I’m hurt to decide to be the big
conversationalist.”

Larabee only shrugged so Vin continued. “I need to go get some water to mix with the Beaver’s
Tooth. I’ll make a tea that should help with your headache.”

“No,” Chris resisted. “We need to get to Casseopaya’s house to check on the kid.”

The tracker put a restraining hand on the gunslinger’s shoulder. “We need to take care of you
first. Anyway,  I think Casseopaya has everything under control. What I need for you to do is to
lie still.” The younger man pointed a finger at his friend as he said the words but made no
attempt to rise.

“Don’t worry, I ain’t goin’ nowhere.” Larabee let a small smile pass over his lips. The tracker
nodded and stood up, grimacing slightly at his still tender wound.

“You alright?” Chris saw the small hesitation.

Vin looked down at his friend and shook his head. “I’m perfect compared to your sorry butt.”

The gunslinger felt a chuckle escape his lips. “Well, I did just get blown up.”

The bounty hunter sobered as Chris’s words brought back the horrific picture. He knew he was
caught in the waking nightmare once more and was afraid he wouldn’t steal away this time, but a
firm hold on his hand broke the illusion.

“Its over.” Chris knew what was going through his friend’s mind. “Cross can’t hurt any of us
anymore.”

Vin glanced into his bestfriend’s eyes and this time a genuine grin lit his face. He squeezed the
hand still holding his and then turned to go get his supplies.

************************************************************

Buck reached his hand out and pushed the hair away from J.D.’s glistening brow.

He sighed, wishing like hell that he could do something, anything, to erase the pain-filled creases
lining his friend’s face.

As far as he was concerned, the kid had hurt enough for two life times.
 
But there was nothing the gunslinger could do. Well, except wait. And that was slowly driving
him crazy. Casseopaya had explained, to a very distraught Wilmington, that the antidote wasn’t
much easier on a body than the poison was. It caused a lot of the same symptoms as the poison
itself did, as it waged war with its sister toxin to counter the devastating effects of Mama Ru’s
special brew.

Unfortunately, the old woman had already had J.D. drink the stuff before filling in the grim
details.

Maybe she knew that Wilmington had doubts. Doubts about bringing J.D. to her. Doubts about
trusting the relations of a woman who had brought such misery down upon his own family. Hell,
if the truth be known, Buck Wilmington was having doubts in just about anyone or anything he
had once believed in.

J.D. mumbled something in his restless sleep and Buck moved his hand back to the feverish
forehead.

*Damn.* The kid looked so young. Young and helpless. Buck would have gone to any lengths to
have switched places with him. Endure the misery, that the younger man was suffering, for him.
Protect him from Ayden Cross’s evil that had survived when he hadn’t, like some dark legacy he
had cast upon the seven before leaving this world.

Or should he say six?

*God. Chris.*

Wilmington removed his hand from J.D. and rubbed his weary eyes. He was so tired.

Josiah had tried to convince him to get some sleep, that he or one of the others would sit with
J.D.; but leaving the kid’s side wasn’t an option Buck was willing to consider. With the kid
waking ever so often, when the pain unforgivingly pulled him from the refuge of
unconsciousness, the older man was needed.  He was the only one that could comfort the kid.
Especially, now that Larabee was gone and Vin was off on some goose chase devised by
Casseopaya.

It wasn’t that the others didn’t care just as much for J.D.

They did.

Maybe more than they wanted to. More than they’d ever admit.

And the kid adored them. But even so, it was Buck that J.D. called out for in his somewhat lucid
moments. It was Wilmington he held on to as he rode out the effects of the dastardly poison
coursing through his weakened body. And it was Buck that he pleaded with to help him.

No matter how much the others loved J.D. , they couldn’t understand what that particular
sensation felt like. And for that, Buck was thankful. He wouldn’t wish that gut-wrenching
anguish on anyone.

It was almost as bad as the pain he felt when he had turned around to find Cross’s cabin engulfed
in raging flames and knowing that he had lost Chris forever.

Not just a part of the gunslinger, like he did in the fire that had claimed Sarah and Adam, but all
of him. And with him, all chances to recapture the essence of the person he’d once been.

The person Buck caught rare glimpses of every now and then. Like the ghost of a man he
observed when Chris was talking or joking with Vin, or giving young Billy Travis riding lessons.

Wilmington’s thoughts faltered and he let his eyes travel back to J.D.

Or the way Larabee treated the kid.

All those things had given him such hope that the old Chris he’d grown up with , the Chris he’d
have rode to hell with in the blink of an eye, was on his way back. But now, those hopes were
dashed.

Destroyed by Cross.

“It’s often darkest before the dawn, Mr. Wilmington.”  Buck felt the hand on his shoulder at the
same moment that he caught a whiff of the floral-spicy scent that he’d come to associate with
Casseopaya.

The gunslinger quickly pulled himself from his gloom-filled musings and wiped a hand over his
eyes as he felt their hostess move around him to check on J.D. She offered him a small smile as
she eased herself on the edge of the cot. “Now is not the time to lose hope. Young J.D. needs
your faith.”

Buck looked up into the hauntingly familiar green eyes that gazed on him with a sincere
sympathy that Magdeline’s had never hinted at. “Is he doing alright?”

Casseopaya placed the palm of her hand against J.D.’s cheek. “He’s a strong boy. He’s made it
longer than most would have.”

Wilmington sighed. “That’s not exactly an answer.”

Casse shrugged her slim shoulders and looked on the man with the patience a mother would have
for an insolent child. “Some answers only the creator hold.”

Buck frowned. “Well, I’m not exactly on speaking terms with him at the moment.”

The old woman watched as the gunslinger rose and paced towards the window.

“Because you feel that he has taken Mr. Larabee from you?”

Wilmington shot her a hard glare over his shoulder. “If you’re going to preach to me that ‘The
Lord giveth; the Lord taketh away’ crap, just save it.”

Casse took a shuttering breath and rose also. “I dare say that what happened to your friend had
little to do with the Lord, Mr. Wilmington.”

Buck turned to see the old woman retrieve another blanket to place over J.D.

“ I'm afraid that people mistakenly see his hand in many works that they can not explain in any
other way. They assume that bad things are just as much a part of him as the good things are.”
With another slight smile, Casseopaya walked to stand in front of Buck. She reached up and
drooped the blanket over the gunslinger’s shoulder, pulling it snugly across his broad chest.
“Assumption is the root of much evil, son.”

Casseopaya winked at the young man and patted his shoulder. “You should get some rest. The
sun will be greeting us soon.”

Buck caught her hand as she turned to go, noticing how it trembled lightly in his. In a much
practiced fashion, he brought the withered hand to his lips and planted a soft kiss upon it. “You
are quite a lady, Miss Casseopaya Cromley.”

He held the emerald gaze for a moment and a hint of his usual charm-filled grin appeared as the
spinster actually blushed.

The old woman merely nodded and discreetly cleared her throat once he had released his tender
grip on her. “I will wake you in a couple of hours.”

It was Buck’s turn to nod and as he watched her slowly go, he hoped the morning would bring
some much needed reprieve for all of them.

*******************************************************

The dawn slowly kissed the dew goodbye as the sun began to top the ridge. The three men on
Casseopaya’s porch sat enthralled, and a little mystified, that such beauty could occur after the
heartache they had endured.

But what was life about, if not sunrises.

“You think he’ll come back, Josiah?” Nathan was sitting in the rocking chair near the front of the
cabin and finally decided to voice the fear he had been battling with since Vin had left the night
before.

Sanchez drew his intense gaze from the horizon and met the deep brown eyes of his friend. “Yes,
Brother Nate. I do believe he will come back, but only to find out about J.D.”

“But after obtaining the diagnosis on our young proteges health, Mr. Sanchez?” Ezra rose from
his seat near the door and walked over to join Josiah, who was propped on the railing, basking in
the early dawn rays.

“Then, I think Vin will leave us.” The preacher’s baritone voice carried a hint of sadness.

“Unfortunately, I tend to agree with your judgment, Josiah.” The gambler sighed and returned his
attention to the coming of the day. As he was about to lose himself in his thoughts, a movement
near the tree-line caught his eye.

“Ezra, you alright?” Jackson had noticed the slight pallor of Standish’s face.

“Dear Lord......” The southerner raised a shaky hand and pointed toward the approaching forms.
“Gentlemen, would you be so kind as to reassure me that I have not lost control of my faculties.”

Josiah and Nathan stared at the flabbergasted man before them, afraid the stress had finally
gotten to the gambler. Jackson glanced to the preacher and then slowly stood, turning to where
Ezra had indicated.

As the two mens’ eyes fell on the amazing sight ahead, they felt the air around them begin to
crackle with life.

“No Ezra, you ain’t crazy,” The healer sighed softly and sent a silent prayer of thank you to the
heavens’ above.

“This is truly a day of miracles, brothers.” Sanchez slapped Nathan on the shoulder and smiled.

“Well, I for one will never doubt Mr. Tanner’s tracking abilities again. It seems he used his
extended absence to ride to Hell and retrieve Mr. Larabee.” The gambler didn’t try to keep the
grin from engulfing his face as he realized exactly what the Seven had just received.

“Mornin’ boys.” Chris pulled his horse to a stop about three feet from the steps and let his eyes
travel over his friends. The site of them alive and well caused some peace to ease his troubled
heart.

“Mr. Larabee, am I to assume that your presence here means that Mr. Cross is now safely in the
arms of the Devil?” Standish couldn’t keep the bitterness from his words or the slight tremble out
of his voice.

The gunslinger gave Ezra a small smile and began dismounting. “You can bet on it.”

Vin, who had remained quiet during the exchange, turned an expectant gaze to the healer.
“How’s J.D., Nathan?”

Jackson allowed his eyes to meet the tracker’s and sighed heavily. “He’s still holding his own.”

Tanner nodded and then slowly slid from his saddle, but didn’t move once he hit the ground.
Chris had started up the steps and noticed Vin wasn’t following. He looked over his shoulder and
saw the troubled expression on his best friend’s face.

“You comin’, cowboy?”

The bounty hunter locked gazes with Larabee and saw the strength he needed etched there.
“Right behind you.”

The tracker came to stand beside the gunslinger and felt a sudden fear at what could be waiting
for them on the other side of the door. Chris observed Vin’s slight hesitation and gently laid a
hand on his friend’s upper arm.

“Don’t worry, there’s nothing we can’t do together.” The gunslinger glanced first at Nathan, then
Josiah, then Ezra, and finally settled back on Tanner. “And I’ll be damned if I ever let anyone or
anything change that.”

*******************************************************

J.D. could feel a warmth on his face, a soft caress pulling him from the cold darkness of sleep.
He tried to pry his eyes open but they seemed too heavy to lift. In fact, his whole body felt
sluggish and unresponsive. It was as if every muscle had been overworked to the state of
exhaustion.

For a moment, the boy considered abandoning the fight and surrendering to the peaceful state of
unconsciousness again; but something urged him to try once more. So, with a renewed desire to
meet the day, hazel eyes blinked open and squinted against the streams of bright sunlight
sparkling through the window.

J.D. tried to raise his arm to shield his sight but found it even more uncooperative than his eyes
had been. It was impossible to move. For one panicked moment he feared the worst, but upon
turning his head , he almost smiled at the source of his problem.

Buck Wilmington was sitting in a chair next to the bed with his head and forearm resting across
J.D.’s right side. There was an instant that J.D. puzzled over what exactly Buck was doing in his
room draped across him like some protective guard dog; but then the painful surge of
realization tumbled from his rattled mind, and he couldn’t prevent the startled gasp that escaped
him or the slight jump that nearly sent Wilmington to the floor.

“J.D.!” Buck was on his feet in a flash, eyes searching out any lurking enemy.

“Buck? “ The teen’s voice was weak and rough from disuse but to the older man , it was sweeter
than any Angel’s song.

“Kid,” the gunslinger breathed, sitting on the edge of the bed this time. He carefully laid a hand
on his bestfriend’s chest, as if to reassure himself of what he was seeing. “How you feeling?”

“I..I’m not sure,” J.D. replied honestly. He watched some of the older man’s elation disappear,
only to be replaced by concern.

“Are you still hurtin’? Feeling sick? “ Buck asked anxiously.

J.D. took a moment to take stock of exactly what he did feel like. No Headache. No stomach
pain. No chills. In fact, he felt perfectly normal. Well, except for one thing... “I’m kind of
hungry.”

“Hungry? “ Wilmington breathed, then laughed out loud. “ Hungry! Now ‘that’ I can handle.”

J.D. let out a small chuckle of his own as he was engulfed in a crushing ‘Buck’ hug.

“You had me scared half to death, kid. I was sure I was going to lose you too.”

The words escaped Buck before he realized it. Only when J.D. tensed in his arms, did he
recognize his blunder.

“Chris?” J.D. whispered the name like some desperate prayer.

The older man pulled back but kept a hold on the kid’s shoulder. With a sudden dread and
overwhelming sadness he looked in to the teen’s frightened eyes. “What do you remember?”

J.D. met his friend’s concerned gaze. “We were in Cross’s Cabin. You and Magdeline went
through the window, and I was afraid that you were....” The kid let his words trail off. He took a
deep breath and Buck let him take his time. “ It was just Ayden, Chris and me. Chris made Cross
let me go.”

J.D. paused again and Buck nodded. “Yeah, they sent you out of the house.”

The gunslinger felt the tremor ripple through the younger man.

“Then the cabin blew.” The teen finished for his friend.

“Chris is dead, isn’t he?”

Buck tightened his grip and never let his gaze falter. “Yeah, he is, kid. I’m sorry.”

J.D. shook his head in denial, unwilling to accept the fact his heart had already known. “He can’t
be. He promised he’d be right behind me.” The boy had clenched his fist around a handful of
Wilmington’s shirt sleeve now. “I would never have left him if I thought...if I thought...he
promised, Buck.”

The older man let go of the kid’s shoulder and let his large hand cover the one now so fiercely
holding on to him. “I know, J.D. And you know Chris would never lie to you. Not on purpose.”
Buck swallowed hard, trying to push back the emotions threatening to overwhelm him. “But
sometimes. Sometimes people make promises they can’t keep.”

“But I’m not one of those people.”

Both Buck and J.D. turned startled glances to the bedroom doorway .

There, in the sun-bathed entrance, looking much like a vision sent down from the heavens above,
stood one Chris Larabee.

“I’ll be damned,” Buck mumbled in disbelief, slowly rising from the bed. “Chris?”

“You expecting someone else?” A slow crooked grin tugged at the black-clad gunslinger’s lips as
he braced himself for what he knew was coming.

“Hallelujah!” Buck shouted and launched his self at the other man, enveloping him in a bruising
embrace. “I should’ve known the devil wouldn’t want you around giving him any competition.”

“Easy, big fellow,” Chris gasped. “People might start to talk.”

“Not to mention that he may aggravate those injuries of yours,” Nathan fussed, entering the room
along with Josiah and Ezra.

“Ah hell, Nate,” Buck scoffed, but released his friend just the same. “This old war dog can take
it.”
 
A surprised smile lit the healer’s face as he eyed a very alert and very exuberant J.D. Dunne
watching the scene play out before him. He looked like a kid who’d just got everything he’d ever
wanted for Christmas.  “You’re awake!” the healer announced.

“Awake and hungry,” Buck cheered loudly, slapping Josiah on the back.

“I’ll say it again, brothers. Today is truly a day of miracles.” The big preacher looked proudly at
the diverse men around him. Men who had somehow become a family.

“Well, I do hope we have not exceeded our limit on the fortuitous blessings, as we are yet to
explain this whole sorted mess to Marshal Conley.” Ezra spoke up, casually making his way over
to stand near J.D. “Not to mention that young Mr. Dunne has to espound to Miss Welles as
to why he missed their rendezvous last week.”

“Ezra,” J.D. paled considerably. “You were supposed to tell her I went to help Vin.”

“I’m afraid that during the unusual circumstances surrounding our situation, I found little time to
parlay with Miss Casey.”

“Ah man,” J.D. slumped back against the pillows. “She’s going to kill me.”

“Don’t fret, kid.” Buck smiled and threw an arm around Chris’s shoulder, before winking at the
other man. “Maybe old Casseopaya could whip you up some kind of love potion.”

J.D. groaned loudly and pulled the covers up over his head as the others enjoyed the first sounds
of laughter and feelings of happiness they had felt in days.

*******************************************************

“You should be celebrating with them, young man.” Vin, who’d been watching his friends from
the doorway, had not heard Spinster Cromley approach.  “You have much to be thankful for.”

Tanner turned to meet the old woman’s gaze. “I am thankful. Especially to you.”

Casseopaya raised her hands in a gesture of humbleness. “I did nothing but point you in the right
direction, son.”

The tracker stood in thoughtful silence for a moment before speaking again. “But to a man that’s
lost his way; that makes all the difference.”

Before the woman could reply, the bounty hunter planted a shy kiss upon her cheek. “Thank
you,” he whispered, before turning to finally join the others.

Casseopaya watched Vin go and couldn’t help the smile of joy that lit her face.  The seven
saviors had weathered this particular storm and remained whole.  The wickedness that had
consumed her family had not touched theirs.

But years of living had not left Casseopaya naive. For she had been rewarded with more than
wrinkles and arthritis for her time on Earth. She had gained wisdom; and with that wisdom came
a knowledge of the darker side of things.

For every good; there as an evil.

For every faith; a lost hope.

For every God; a devil.

And although the Seven men before her had survived this particular crucifixion, she could not
help but to wonder at what crosses they had yet to bare.

The End

********************    FAITH      **********************

I will not doubt, though all my ships at sea
Come drifting home with broken masts and sails;
I shall believe the Hand which never fails,
From seeming evil worketh good to me;
And, though I weep because those sails are battered,
Still will I cry, while my best hopes lie shattered,
“I trust in Thee.”

I will not doubt, though all my prayers return
Unanswered from the still, white realm above;
I shall believe it is an all-wise Love
Which has refused those things for which I yearn;
And though, at times, I cannot keep from grieving,
Yet the pure ardor of my fixed believing
Undimmed shall burn.

I will not doubt, though sorrows fall like rain,
and troubles swarm like bees about a hive;
I shall believe the heights for which I strive,
Are only reached by anguish and by pain;
And , though I groan and tremble with my crosses,
I yet shall see, through my severest losses,
The greater gain.

I will not doubt; well anchored in the faith,
Like some stanch ship, my soul braves every gale,
So strong its courage that it will not fail

To breast the mighty, unknown sea of death,
Oh, may I cry when body parts with spirit,
“I do not doubt,” so listening worlds may hear it
With my last breath.

Author: Ella Wheeler Wilcox