God’s Country
by: Margarett Cassidy
First in the Crosses We Bare Series

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Words are power, and that, sometimes, is a writers only reward....
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Rating: PG13
Disclaimer: Ain't ours.
Authors' Notes: This is our first story as a team, so we hope you enjoy it and the series to come.

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But God hasn’t moved to the mountains; his holy address hasn’t changed. He’s in charge, as
always, his eyes taking everything in, his eyelids Unblinking....not missing a thing.
Psalm 11:1-2,4

*********************Shilock, Arizona: Genesis Hotel***************************
 

“This God-forsaken thing-a-mabob is choking me to death,” Buck Wilmington complained for at
least the hundredth time , as he fidgeted with the tie he was wearing.

“Sorry, Mr. Wilmington but any self-respecting man of means from Boston wouldn’t be caught
out in the public eye without the proper apparel,” Ezra Standish’s Southern drawl floated across
the room, annoying Buck even more. “Including that neckerchief you are sporting.”

Buck rolled his eyes at his friend’s going on and swatted at the young dark-haired man in front of
him, who was attempting to help him with his task.
“Damn it, J.D., I told you I could do it.”

“And I told you it’s crooked as all get out,” the teenager insisted with an exasperated sigh.

“Like you know anything about fancy duds, Squirt. You can’t even pick out a decent hat , for
Pete’s sake.”

“At least I know enough to get my tie straight,” J.D. mumbled, eyeing himself in the cheval
mirror. “Besides, my Ma use to make me get dressed up and wear a caravat to church every
Sunday, back when I was a kid.”

Buck snorted, “What do you mean by ‘back when’? You’re still a kid.”

Vin Tanner, who had been watching the display with his usual amused smile, had to stifle a laugh
as he swore JD’s face turned as red as the shirt he was wearing. Chris had surely picked the
perfect two of the seven to play at being brothers. That was for certain.

“At least young Mr. Dunne isn’t deprecating about his current obligation like some spoiled
infantile,” Ezra pointed out, from his seat on the bed, where he was shuffling his lucky deck of
cards.

J.D. grinned and silently mouthed “Deprecating??” to Buck who only returned his smile and
offered an unknowing shrug of the shoulders. It was obvious that Ezra wasn’t happy about the
present turn of events.

“While I’m not too sure of what he said, J.D. I do believe our friend of chance is a little jealous.”

The gambler casually flipped over a card, revealing an ace of spades before looking up, “Jealous?
Of you , Mr. Wilmington? Why that lariat must be depriving your brain of precious oxygen, my
friend. I believe you are experiencing some kind of grandiose elusion.”

“So you mean to tell me you ain’t the least bit upset that I get to parade about as the rich Mr.
Ableson , while you ride shotgun with that snooty Farnsworth.”

Ezra shrugged, “If Mr. Larabee can’t see that I would make a much more believable man of
dignity and class than someone of your stature and enormous lacking of etiquette graces, then
who am I to question.”

Wilmington’s brow furrowed and he frowned at J.D. “Did he just insult me, kid ?”

“In a nice kind of way,” J.D. laughed and tried to grab Buck when he made a lunge for Ezra.

“Buck!” Chris Larabee’s deep voice resonated through out the small hotel room as he and Mr.
Fergus Farnsworth entered. “I told you that the real Mr. Ableson would probably refrain from any
and all of your bad habits, including your temper.”

Buck stopped in his tracks but still shot Ezra a hateful glare. The gambler only smiled and looked
up innocently at Chris.

“There is still time to rethink the wiseness of your earlier impaired judgment, Mr. Larabee. I
would have no difficulty in carrying off this charade of a well-bred, schooled, gentleman. I assure
you that.”

“Yeah, he’s probably conned and cheated enough of them,” Buck snapped, getting riled again.

Chris held up his hand to stop the escalating argument.

“Ezra,” he explained, in his usual flat tone. “Mr. Ableson and his brother are from Boston, which
is no where near South Carolina or any other Southern state that I know of. Just how would we
explain your accent if you accidentally slipped up?”

“Humph,” Ezra scoffed, and picked up his deck of cards again. “I have never apologized for the
good graces of being Southern and I don’t intend to start now.”

“Good, then it’s settled.” Chris affirmed. “Buck and J.D. will pretend to be Michael and Brennon
Ableson and take the stage to Jubilee as decoy. Josiah’s also booked passage on the coach. while
Nathan and Ezra ride with me to  escort Mr. Farnsworth there with the actual treasure.”

“I didn’t have a problem getting the manager to sign me up as a shotgun on the stage, after he
received that telegraph from the Judge,” Vin spoke up. “He also promised to keep quiet about the
arrangement.”

“Good, “ Chris nodded to his friend. “I’ll feel better knowing they’ll be back up just in case
something goes wrong.”

Actually Chris wouldn’t feel better until this whole maneuver was over and the Seven were back
in Four Corners. Splitting up and putting two of his men in the line of fire wasn’t his idea of a
wise plan. As if reading his mind , J.D.’s young voice broke he gunslinger’s line of morose
thinking.

“Do you think this plan will really work, Chris?”

“Maybe,” Larabee tried to sound hopeful as his eyes went from J.D.’s to the smaller man sitting
quietly in the corner , wringing his hands nervously. “If Mr. Farnsworth’s hunch is right and the
bandits who broke into the Ableson Estate haven’t given up on getting their hands on that
treasure.”

“Oh, I assure you those heathen have no intention of letting the Ableson Legacy go anytime soon.
“ Fergus Farnsworth spoke up , in the squeaky voice that had earned him the nickname Fergus
the ferret , courtesy of one Buck Wilmington, of course.

“After the break in , the sheriff  was able to catch one of the perpetrators. He spoke of a man who
had hired him and two others through a mutual friend to steal the fortune. Although he never told
the name of the man in charge of the operation.”

“But this man was supposedly from Jubilee?” Buck asked, wanting to get the details once more.
He hadn’t been in town when the Judge had informed Chris of his desire to help this Mr. Michael
Ableson out, and he still didn't like the idea none too well. But he trusted Chris.

“Correct sir.” Farnsworth dabbed at his ever sweating brow. “It seems the gentleman had heard
of the treasure and it’s pending departure to a highly guarded museum in San Francisco. The
plans were in all the newspapers and on all of society’s tongue, I’m afraid.
 
“Sounds pretty bright of Ableson to make it known like that,” Buck sighed.

“ Almost as bright as it would be for Ezra to announce all those aces he keeps up his sleeve
before sitting down at the card table.”

“I resent that implication, Mr. Wilmington,” Ezra replied, dryly before turning his predatory gaze
on Fergus.  “But I must say , Mr. Farnsworth, that my curiosity is rather piqued by the prospects
of what fine assortment of wealth might provoke such an elaborate scheme of treachery.”

The nervous little man shifted from foot to foot under the scrutiny of five pairs of eyes. “Let’s
just say it is an  heirloom of not only great sentimental worth, but one of extreme monetary value
as well. It has been in the Ableson’s family for centuries.”

“So why’d they decide to ship it off to some museum?” J.D. asked, not quite understanding why
a person would give up something so seemingly important.

“Master Ableson decided that the treasure should not only be shared with the world but would be
better off in a more secure setting than he could offer. We have had several attempts at theft in
the past.”

“Sometimes the best place to hide something is in plain sight,” Vin commented, from where he
still stood in the background.

“Exactly.” Farnsworth crowed. ”Michael thought that same thing.”

“Well, 'Michael' also blabbed to everyone in Boston about his idea,” Buck snorted, unimpressed
with the ferret’s applause of  his boss’s cleverness.

“I assure you Mr. Wilmington , that Mr. Ableson had no idea that anyone would attempt such a
vile act against his family.”

“But they did,” Chris pointed out. “ And from what your telling us. They more in likely plan on
doing it again.”

“I’m afraid so.” Fergus’s pudgy red face turned an even deeper shade of crimson. “But that’s why
Judge Travis suggested we get your help. The weakest point in the trip to San Francisco was after
all the treck from Four Corners to Jubilee, seeing as how there is no train.”

“So, your Mr. Ableson called in a few favors from our friend the Judge and then you two let it be
known that Michael and his brother were personally escorting the treasure to Jubilee themselves
because of the break in.”

“Yes,” Farnsworth concurred with Buck’s assessment. “We were hoping the bandits would fall
for the ploy and attack the Ableson’s, during the weakest stretch, that being the days ride through
the desert I believe you called The Devil's Lair. That way we would not only have the culprits but
I could escort the true treasure safely to Jubilee and meet the train and several armed guards.”

“But of course, Mr. Ableson and his brother weren’t up to making the trip?” It was Vin who
pointed out the problem with the whole great plan.

“You must understand Mr. Tanner that Michael and Brennon would do anything to protect their
family’s honor but ...”

“But why put your own fat in the fire when you can hire some other fool to throw themselves in
the flames?” Buck finished, in his not so tactful way.

“Well, yes.” Fergus removed his wire-frame glasses and began cleaning them furiously with his
handkerchief. "When Judge Travis spoke of the similar ages, and seeing as how you men are
much more suited for this type of work, things just sort of fell into place.”

"And what if whoever is after this grand inheritance recognizes Buck and J.D. not to be the real
Ableson’s?” Vin didn’t really care if the Judge was a personal friend of Ableson’s or that this
Michael had promised Four Corners enough funds to build a school and a library if the treasure
was delivered safely to Jubilee, his friends weren’t an affordable risk.

“I don’t believe that will happen, Mr. Tanner.” Fergus explained. “You see, although Master
Ableson and his brother are quite well known, they are also very private, almost eccentric you
might say. And besides Mr. Wilmington rather looks like Michael ,even more so after he bathed
and acquired decent attire.”

Chris held back a smile at the disgusted look on his oldest friend's face and rushed to cut off the
angry retort he could see building behind Buck’s dark eyes.

“Besides if the main man ran the operation from Jubilee, he’s probably never even been close to
Boston to get a good look at the Ableson brothers and nobody should know Buck or J.D. here in
Shilock.” Larabee turned to Vin. “Besides, you’re there in case anything like that does happen.”
Sometimes the older man’s faith in Tanner was frightening and letting down Chris Larabee was a
thought Vin refused to entertain.

“Just the same , it might be better if J.D. stayed here,” the bounty hunter offered, “Ezra could
pretend to be this Brennon.”

“Perhaps, Mr. Tanner has a point,” Ezra joined in, despite the all too familiar stubborn look now
adorning J.D.’s face. The gambler had grown rather fond of the young sheriff , despite himself,
and detested any thoughts of harm coming to the youth that had somehow managed to become
somewhat of a surrogate kid brother.

“Don’t start this again ,” J.D. growled. “I can handle this job just fine. I mean all me and Buck
have to do is get on the stage, pretend to be these Ableson brothers, and act like we have no idea
who Josiah or Vin is. Besides,  these thieves may not even try anything.” The teen looked up at
Wilmington, hazel eyes large and hopeful. “Tell ‘em , Buck. We can do this. Together.”

Of course, all the older gunslinger’s resolve went right out the window. He had been leaning
much more towards Vin and Ezra’s side of the argument but one look at the boy’s face and ...

“Ah, hell, the kid’s right. We can handle it, no problem.”

Chris Larabee looked from Buck to the bounty hunter and then back to J.D.

“We ‘can’ handle ourselves , Chris,” the young man spoke up, boldly, a look of determination
crossing his young features.  Sometimes the kid reminded Larabee way too much of himself at
that age.

"This from a boy who still needs help dressing himself,” Buck snorted and cuffed the younger
man on the back of the head.

“Cut it out, Buck!”

“J.D.,” Chris interrupted, getting the younger man’s full attention , immediately. “That’s
‘Michael’ not Buck. Got it?”

A huge smile spread across the young sheriff’s face, “I got it.”

Larabee actually let a grin seep through his usually rough exterior.  “Just make sure you
remember it on the trip.”

“Yeah, I’d hate to get my head blown off because ‘Brennon’ here couldn’t keep his mouth shut.”
Wilmington started in again.

“Don’t worry about me , 'Michael'. You’ll have enough trouble remembering not to spit and
scratch in public.”

“Oh my, “ Mr. Farnsworth regarded the two younger men , now consumed in yet another
argument, with a worried fret. “ Are you sure they will be able to pull this off. I can’t say that I’ve
ever seen Michael and Brennon behave in such a manner.”

Chris answered the much shorter man with a look that left no room for arguing his judgment,
before turning and checking to see if the coast was clear in the hallway. . After all, this plan may
have not have been his idea, but he was still in charge.

“Don’t despair, my fine fer.., I mean fellow,” Ezra spoke up , nonchalantly as he slid up behind
Farnsworth. “No one will have a problem believing those two are quite eccentric, I assure you.”

The businessman forced a peevish smile as Mr. Standish dropped one long arm across his slight
shoulders and guided him toward the door way , where Chris had just motioned them through.

“Now why don’t you enlighten me more as to the details of this secret treasure we’ll be
carrying.”

Larabee rolled his eyes, as he caught his gambling friend’s words as the two men passed. No
doubt Ezra would have poor Mr. Farnsworth conned out of the treasure , even if they did make it
safely to Jubilee.
 
“You boys should get some sleep, “ Chris practically had to shout to be heard over Buck and
J.D.’s  discussion. “That stagecoach leaves early in the mornin.”

He waited till the two stopped their heated battle long enough to acknowledge his words , then
followed Vin out into the corridor of the hotel and closed the door behind them.

“I’m counting on you to keep a sharp eye on ‘Cain and Able’ in there,” Chris said , once the two
were alone.

Vin let a slow smile grace his handsome face, “ That shouldn’t be a problem. I’ve managed to
keep you breathing this last year, haven’t I?”

Chris shook his head and favored his friend with an uncharacteristic smile. When in the hell, had
this man managed to find his way past the famous Larabee armor. “That you have.”

A silent moment passed between the two friends before Vin spoke, “ I guess I better head on out.
Best if we ain’t seen together, if this plan of Farnsworth’s is going to work.”

Chris nodded and watched the bounty hunter start to go before a sudden thought crossed his
mind, “ And Vin?”

The younger man stopped and faced the man in black once more.

“Something about this whole thing doesn’t bode well with me. You better watch your back out
there.”

Vin smiled , “Always do , Cowboy.” He turned once more, but hesitated. “And Chris,” he called ,
facing his friend’s direction again. “You better watch Mr. Farnsworth’s back out there.”

Larabee looked puzzled until he recognized  the mischievous glint in Tanner’s eyes. “I mean, you
know how fired up Ezra gets around any hint of treasure.”

“Just be careful,” Chris sighed, trying not to show his amusement , at the thought of Ezra taking
Mr. Farnsworth to the cleaners. “I  really don’t want to ride across that damn desert to come and
get you all.”

Vin tipped his hat,“ Don’t worry. Just have me a drink waitin at that saloon in Jubilee. We’ll be
there.”

Chris watched his friend turn and go. It wasn’t easy letting any of the Seven set off on their own
anymore, especially Vin or J.D.. Never in a million years did he think he would ever feel so
responsible for anyone again. After losing Sarah and Adam,his wife and young son,  Larabee
swore no one could ever get close enough for him to feel a loss , if they ever were to leave. But
somehow, not only had one person managed to do that, but six had accomplished the feat
perfectly. Just another surprise in the game of life , he supposed. But as he , himself,
prepared to leave to meet Nathan and the others, he made a silent promise never
to be cheated again. The stakes were much too high, this time.

*************Dawn the next morning, Livery Stable: Shilock, Arizona*************
 

“Mr. Hayes this is Vin Tanner. He just signed on to be your shotgun to Jubilee, “ the gray-haired
dispatcher was trying to console his not-so-happy stagecoach driver.

“I thought I’d be solo this time.” Arliss Hayes day was not going good. Having a greenhorn along
for the ride was not in the plan. The boss was not going to be happy.

He rubbed a meaty hand through his stringy blond hair and sighed, “Why do I need a back-up
anyway? I’m not carrying anything valuable, am I?”

“Of course not, “ the older man stuttered, a little too quickly. “Mr. Tanner is strictly along to
learn the route. We may have need for an extra driver later on.”

Hayes eyed the ever quiet Tanner with a disbelieving scowl. “I guess in that case, I don’t have
much say in the matter , do I?” Glancing once again at the young, much too confident-looking
stranger leaning against the coach, the disgruntled Arliss roughly took the log from
the dispatcher and signed out.

“I hope you ain’t got no romantic notions, tender foot,” Arliss grumbled as he passed Vin. “It’s
kind a boring since the army up and corralled the red-skin savages. Not much in Devil's Lair
these days but rattle snakes and scorpions. And I’m not much one for baby-sitting or
entertaining.”

Vin exhaled slowly, holding his temper in check, “ I like a little boredom every now and then,
Mr. Hayes.”  His slow grin spoke louder than his words. “ But I can be more a man of action, if
the situation demands it. You won’t have to worry none about me."
 
Arliss shrugged but inwardly pondered if he should take those words as a threat. There was no
doubting one thing, this man could definitely mean trouble. And if he got in the way, then he'd be
dealt with appropriately.

“Well, then, we don’t want to keep our passengers waiting. Let’s get this wagon rollin.”

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

The four travelers who would be making the trip from Shilock to Jubilee were already seated and
talking amongst themselves.  Buck and J.D. had acclimated to the roles of Michael and Brennon
Ableson much easier than they had imagined. The two were busy interacting in their own little
world while Josiah  had fit quite comfortably into his character  of the lone gunslinger.

The fourth passenger was a last minute sign on from up around Bennetsville way. Josiah had
heard him tell the livery stable attendant that he was a preacher going to do missionary work in
San Francisco. Although Sanchez didn't like the idea of having a innocent man around if there
was trouble to be seen, it never hurt to have one of God's flock along for extra blessins, that was
for sure.

The first  three hours of the excursion had been rather uneventful and JD was beginning to get
fidgety. He had thought about tempting Buck to play a game of cards, but thought better of it
considering the rough ride and the mood of his friend. And of course engaging in a lively
conversation was out of the question, considering , Chris had told them to talk as little as
possible.

After all Buck’s lively rantings and ravings would hardly be of the same experience of a finely
bred gentlemen. Even though there was only one stranger on the coach with them, the two had
decided it better to keep up the charade. But ,dang it,  J.D. was bored.

So, he began to hum softly while tapping his foot and fingers in rhythm, enjoying the serenity of
the desert. That was until a large hand roughly covered his.

“If you don’t refrain from that, ‘brother’,” Buck bit each word out , carefully. “I will see to it than
I am suddenly an only child.”

J.D. rolled his eyes in disgust, but quieted his motions.

“Ah , the exuberance of youth.” the unknown parson, looked up from his Bible and spoke for the
first time.  Giving J.D. a quick smile he offered, “You’re welcome to borrow the Good Book if
you’d like. It always does wonders to ease my restless spirit.”

Buck stifled a laugh, “That’s mighty kind of you , Father, but you’d need a couple a pieces of
rope, and a gag , to alleviate his eagerness.”

“Nothing wrong with a boy being a little high strung,” the stranger lamented. “Being cooped up
on a beautiful day like today is a sin, especially for someone so vibrant.”

“I guess ,” Buck smiled. “But he doesn't have to annoy others in the process.”

“I guess I should be glad that my breathing doesn’t annoy you,” J.D. huffed.

“Oh it does,” Wilmington flashed his friend a mischievous grin. “ I just ain’t figured out how to
remedy it without going to jail.”

“Or Hell?” Josiah Sanchez, lifted the brim of his hat to peer at the other passengers. “I mean
murder is a sin, and killing one’s brother has to be one of the worst, wouldn’t it Pastor?”

The holy man smiled, “I’m sure Able thought so, Mr.....”

“Sanchez,” the big gunslinger shifted in his seat and offered his hand to the so-called preacher.
“Josiah Sanchez.”

“So tell me Mr. Sanchez do you know much about killing?” the stranger inquired, glancing
pointedly at the others side arm, as he shook the offered hand.

“We’ve been introduced a few times but I hope your not one to cast stones, Mr.......”

“Cross. But my friends call me Ayden.”

“Well, with a name like Cross you sure didn’t miss your calling,” Buck observed, with a laugh.

Ayden seemed unfazed by the teasing, “And what might your name be , Sir?”

“Michael Ableson and this is my brother Brennon. ”The lie came out perfectly smooth.

“Pleasure to meet you both,” Cross’s gaze was anything but pleasant.

“Might I inquire as to your purpose of this fine journey?”

“Strictly pleasure, Sir,” Buck eyes shone with mischief, not at all perturbed at the Father’s seedy
manners. “That’s the only business I know.”

J.D. sighed. His older friend wasn’t sticking to the story. And Chris was worried about 'me'
blowing this. “We’re going to Jubilee for a short visit with friends,” the younger man explained,
confidently.

Cross looked from Buck to J.D., letting his eyes linger on the youth.

“The young always seem so sure of their destination. in this life. Never thinking they may lose
their path. ”

Before the sheriff could reply, Josiah’s soft voice interrupted, breaking the growing tension.
“Speaking of getting lost, it seems that our driver may have strayed from his designated path. If
my memory serves me correctly , the ride to Jubilee was never this
beautiful.”

All four men gazed out the side windows captured by the sudden oasis of beauty, amidst the
usual desolate desert.

 “Wow,” J.D. whistled. “Where are we?” The young man’s awe was reflected in each of the
passenger’s expression.

“Welcome to God’s Country,” Josiah whispered, as memories of a time long ago came flooding
back.

“God’s Country?” Buck questioned, growing more puzzled. ”What do you mean?”

“Yes, by all means , Mr. Sanchez , do tell us what you are talking about.” Ayden said in a way,
that sounded almost like an amused challenge.

“This place,” Josiah tore his eyes from the splendor that lay beyond his window, to face the
others with a haunted look. “ It reminds me of the story an old missionary I once knew told me.
He talked of a legend about a  Valley some believed to be the lost Garden
of Eden."

“Eden?!” Buck Wilmington scoffed. “Damn, Mr. Sanchez , I thought you were a gunslinger, not
a yarn spinner.”

J.D., who was easily enthralled by a good story, cast his friend an annoyed frown. “ What else
did he say about this place?”

Cross leaned forward, “Yes, please, do tell.”

Josiah looked out the coach once more and continued, “ "Legend had it that the place only
appeared once every hundred years or so. He said it was a rose among the thorns, a paradise for
the road weary,” the big man turned back to his cohorts, with a frown.
“And that it would show itself in the place that no one would ever think to search for God."

"Like the Devil's Lair?" J.D.'s eyes were as big as saucers.

Josiah nodded, "He said it held unimaginable beauty and treasures untold, but..."

“But what?” Buck asked, being drawn into the story, also, against his better judgment.

“But that there was a price to pay. Most people who went in, never came out to tell about it.  For,
although it held the most beautiful trees and plants and other  wonders, it also contained the most
dangerous.”

“Dangerous? ”Mr. Dunne asked, totally captured now.

Cross laughed. and surprised everyone by answering.

“Ah, yes, like a thorn of a flowering bush that holds the venom of a serpent’s strike and a
mysterious, ghastly Guardian that prowls the grounds, keeping watch in the form of a snow white
mountain lion, with pale blue eyes.”

Now Josiah’s eyes grew wider. “ How’d you know?”

“I, too , have heard these stories, Mr. Sanchez. Most holy men have. But alas, they are just that,
stories.”

J.D. looked disappointed, “ Then how do you explain this place? We’re suppose to be smack dab
in the middle of the Devil’s Lair.”

“I assure you , young Brennon, you are still in Satan’s house. ”Cross let his eyes travel once more
outside to the panoramic view. “Or at least in his company,” he added , barely audible.

“Well, I don’t like it,” Buck spoke up, heatedly. “I’m going to get the driver’s attention and find
out exactly what’s going on here.” The gunslinger made to stand up , but was stopped
immediately as Preacher Cross withdrew a small derringer from a secret
compartment in his Bible, of all places.

“Maybe you should just sit back down, Michael , and enjoy the beautiful ride. One should never
look a gift horse in the mouth, after all.”

In that one terrible split second, Buck Wilmington, J.D. Dunne, and Josiah Sanchez realized that
they had made a grave mistake. While expecting the stagecoach to be assaulted by bandits, they
had never considered the possibility of being infiltrated by one of the enemy before even starting
the trip. Talk about your wolf in sheep's clothing.

“Just who the hell are you?” Buck snarled, but slowly sat back down.

“I thought we had already covered that, Michael. Weren’t you paying attention?”

“I take it you don’t have a hard time keeping your congregation in line?” Josiah asked, casually
eyeing the gun, and trying his best to think a way around this turn of events.

Ayden laughed, “I like you, Brother Sanchez. And that may just be what saves your life on this
fine excursion into God’s Country.”

“But I thought you said that God’s Country was just a myth?” J.D. tried not to flinch as Cross
swung the gun in his direction.
 
“And I thought you said you were headed to Jubilee for socializing with friends, Brennon? It’s a
sin to lie, you know.”

“I’m sure it’s a sin to pull a gun on somebody too, Cross. But that didn’t seem to deter you
none.” Buck spat, drawing the armed man’s attention back to him, and away from his young
friend.

“The more you come to know me , Ableson, the more you will realize that there is not much in
this world that does deter me from getting what I want.”

“I don’t care to get to know you,” Buck breathed.

“Why what a terrible thing to say , especially after I spent so much time learning about you and
your brother.” Cross smiled, keeping his gray eyes locked with Wilmington’s. “I bet Mr. Sanchez
would be quite interested in finding out what you and Brennon are really doing on
this trip?”

“Never been much one to interfere in other’s personal affairs,” Josiah yawned, as if he were
getting bored.

“Not even if paying attention could make you a very , very wealthy man, sir?”

Sanchez arched one eyebrow, and folded his arms across his chest. Making a move on Cross now
could prove detrimental to Buck or J.D. He'd just have to play along. “I might be willing to offer
an ear if the price was right?”

“And how about offering a gun??” Cross queried.

Josiah nodded, grimly, and let a practiced, menacing smile grace his face. “Never had a problem
doing that.”

Ayden beamed, “Then I will be happy to tell you that Michael and Brennon Ableson are here
because I invited them.”

“Funny, I don’t recall that .” Buck tried to hide the  uneasy feeling growing in the pit of his
stomach.

“Why of course, you do , Michael. It was I who sent that little ransom note to you and Brennon ,
after, I so easily relieved you of the magnificent ‘Keys to Eden’.”

“Ransom note? Keys to Eden?” J.D. was getting that same bad feeling he always got when one of
the Seven managed to pull the wool over his eyes. But this time he had a premonition that the
punishment may be a lot worse than suffering through a few embarrassing laughs
and hassles from Buck.

“Don’t look so surprised, Brennon. Did you really believe a crook , such as myself, would
actually keep my word when I said I would meet you in Jubilee and exchange the Keys for the
money? Did you think I didn’t realize exactly what I had?”

Buck looked at J.D. and shrugged. Farnsworth had a lot of explaining to do when they made it to
Jubilee. That was, if they made it to Jubilee. “I guess you can’t trust nobody these days, brother.”

The younger man swallowed hard, trying to gain some reassurance from his friend’s calm stare,
“Guess not.”

“What exactly are these Keys?” Josiah asked, keeping the preacher talking.

A gleam danced in the fraudulent holy man’s eyes, “Why, only the find of the century. The
means to the greatest treasure known to mankind. My pass to fame and fortune. And yours too ,
my good fellow, if you so choose.”

“If these Keys mean so much, why offer them back to the Ableson’s here for a ransom.”

A dark look crossed Ayden’s face. “I’m afraid, I didn’t do my homework as quite as well as I
thought I had. You see, I heard the legend of God’s Country from a drunken old man , several
years ago. Didn’t pay him much mind at the time, you see. Thought he was merely babbling
nonsense.”

Cross turned to face Buck and J.D. once more. “But then I’m out East and happen to read in the
paper about Abelson and his incredible donation to the Museum of Art in San Francisco. Funny
how it coincided almost with the exact date that the old man claimed God's Country would
appear on.  The name struck a chord  too and when I saw that the treasure was an ancient scroll
and two gold keys encrusted with jewels, I figured the old man wasn’t crazy after all.”

“But what exactly was it you missed?”

“Not much, “ Ayden snapped. “Just the most important part of the puzzle. The keys don’t work
with out the right touch. Guess I should have paid more attention to the old coot."

“Meaning?” Josiah pushed.

“Meaning I came all the way out to this desert for nothing. I had the map to get there, and the
means to enter, but just not the secret password , you might say.”

“And now you do?”

“And now I do.,” Cross confirmed, with a distorted grin. “Thanks to Michael and Brennon, that
is.”

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

Vin Tanner had known something was wrong as soon as saw the large green peak in the distance.

“Hayes, did you take a wrong turn and forget to fill me in about it?” The bounty hunter knew
they should have gone right at that last fork.

“If there is something you need to know ,‘Buckskin’, I’ll tell ya. But till then sit back and enjoy
the purty scenery. Trust me, you won't see it again for a long time. ”Arliss laughed, as if telling
an inside joke, and spat his tobacco over the side of the coach.

The man was right about the pretty part. Endless dry sand had suddenly given way to lush
emerald grass, dotted with purple and golden wild flowers and rolling hills were beginning to
converge on either side of the dirt road they were traveling.  For a moment , Tanner  wondered if
he were experiencing what they called, a mirage. “Where the hell are we, Hayes?”

“Don’t worry, Rookie. I just took a little short cut, that’s all.”

Vin was getting a very bad feeling . This ‘place’ was like no other short cut he’d seen. “Won’t
this little detour add more time to our trip. By the looks of it , we’re headed away from Jubilee.”

Arliss was getting a bit annoyed at Vin’s incessant questioning. “I told you, Tanner, I’m in charge
and if you don’t like the ride, I can let you off right here.”

Vin  knew he was pushing , but he could not escape the uneasy feeling that something had gone
terribly wrong. “The ride is fine. It’s the company that’s beginning to bug me.”

Apparently Arliss was not pleased with the bounty hunter’s vocalized opinion, because in the
blink of an eye, Tanner was greeted with a flash of metal just before it connected with his head.”

Buck and J.D. looked at each other, neither one knowing quite what to say.

“You see, Mr. Sanchez, these little beauties,” Ayden reached in his coat pocket and pulled out
two glistening medallions of gold and rubies, “are the legendary Keys of Eden. They allow a
person entrance into the King’s Throne where the Tear of God is supposedly held.”

“The Tear of God?” Josiah asked, still admiring the intricate detail of the jeweled  keys that
Cross held.

“Yes, a perfect, flawless, diamond the size of a man’s fist, “the preacher looked at Buck. “They
say it was formed from the one tear that the Lord shed when Eve took the apple from the tree of
life.”

“And you believe this?” Sanchez looked skeptical.

“Ask Ableson,” Ayden defended. “His Great, great, great grandfather spent half his life scheming
on how to get his hands on it. His tenacity paid off though when he came across the Keys and the
scroll on a venture to England. Although , I heard he nearly had to sell his soul to the devil to
obtain them.”

“I still don’t understand the point in getting these two all the way out here, if you had these
keys.” Josiah didn’t like the way Ayden’s mind worked. Getting anything out of the man was as
hard as squeezing blood from a turnip.

“The problem,” the preacher held the medallions up to the light, “Is that ‘these’ are not the true
Keys to Eden.” Cross laughed and looked across the coach at Wilmington and J.D. “They are.”

“We are?” young Mr. Dunne stammered, holding the preacher's stare.

“Of course we are,” Buck confirmed, confidently.  If Cross already had the Ableson Legacy and
merely needed the brothers for no other profound reason than ‘being’ Michael and Brennon; then
that was the only thing  keeping them alive at the moment.  And Buck damn well planned on
keeping himself and the kid alive. “But what in the world makes you think for one minute that
we’d help the likes of you, Cross?”

The preacher looked from Buck to Josiah, and then swung his gaze to J.D. Faster than the strike
of a rattlesnake, Cross had reached out and latched onto the boy, pulling him to Josiah’s and his
side of the stage. Keeping one arm firmly around the struggling sheriff's neck, Ayden pressed his
derringer to J.D’s temple. “Because if you don’t , I have no qualms in sending the youthful,
exuberant, and oh so naive, Brennon straight to Heaven’s gate!”

Buck tried to control his runaway heart. Damn! The man was quick. And crazy.

"I thought you needed us both for this plan of yours," he tried to reason.

"Oh, I do, but if you ain't planning on cooperating, what's the use of keeping him around. He's
rather annoying , as you yourself, pointed out earlier."

So much for reasoning. Buck had no doubt that the preacher would do exactly what he
threatened. One look at J.D. and Wilmington sighed heavily. “I’ll do whatever it takes, Cross.
Just don’t hurt him.”

Ayden’s sadistic smile returned and he started to loosen his grip on the kid’s throat, when a yelp
of pain  from outside broke the deafening silence and the coach took a violent lurch, sending all
the passengers nearly sprawling in the floor.

“What the....??” Cross bit out, regaining his balance and keeping a hold on his weapon, but not
before Buck was able to pull J.D. from his grasp.

“You O.K.?” Wilmington’s eyes searched the boy's face.

J.D. nodded and tried to will his heart to stop racing. “What’s going on?”

“That’s a good question!” Josiah braced himself against the seat as the coach took another
sudden turn. ”Mr. Cross?”

Ayden only glared at the other man before covering Buck and J.D. with his weapon once more.
“I’m sure it’s nothing my man can’t handle.”

Before another word could be voiced, the stage came to a sudden halt and angry shouts exploded
around them.

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

The pounding inside Vin’s head was making it hard to concentrate on the situation at hand. Arlis
had taken him completely by surprise and he had barely managed to avoid the full blow to his
temple. . Although the driver gave the bounty hunter a bad feeling right from the
beginning, he had never expected him to be an immediate threat. So much for insight.

How about brute force? The tracker grabbed Hayes wrist and yanked the driver forward, using
the other man’s momentum from the second impending blow he was about to deliver to the
already stunned Tanner. The move worked and both men nearly toppled from the stage as Arlis
came crashing on top of Vin, still holding the reins to  the horses, who were jerked roughly to the
right, threatening to overturn the coach.

Arlis knew that even weakened, the younger man was more than he could handle. He quickly
pushed himself up and slammed on the foot brake, jerking the team to a halt as he did. Although,
Hayes had braced himself, Vin wasn’t so lucky. With a startled gasp, he landed
painfully on the rigging between the horses.

The bounty hunter was seriously considering giving into the welcoming darkness of
unconsciousness when the click of a gun made him push back the growing fog and open his eyes.

“You are in deep shit, Mr. . Tanner.” Arlis’s yellowed teeth were bared like that of a frenzied dog
ready to attack. “If that’s even your name. I have a feelin you’re no more a stage driver than I am.
So, just who the hell are you?”

“Let’s just say I’m a man of many talents, ”Vin quipped. Seeing his chance he kicked  upward
with his leg before Hayes could even react and caught the man square on the chin.

Ignoring the growing ache developing in his side, Tanner took advantage of the driver’s startled
and pain-filled state , tackling Hayes and sending them both to the grassy ground with a
bone-jarring thud.

Arlis somehow managed to hold onto his weapon during the fall and now tried to squeeze off a
round. Vin was quicker , however, and knocked the gun from his opponent’s hand.

“You are really starting to get on my bad side , Hayes!”

The smaller man rolled out of the tracker’s grasp and tried for the gun again only to have a
vicious right cross delivered to him for his trouble.

“Oh no you don’t.” The bounty hunter grabbed the Colt and shoved it in Arlis’s direction. “You
best stay down. I’d really hate to kill you.”

“And you best drop that gun, boy. Because I’d really enjoy killing Mr. Ableson here.”

Vin turned slowly at the sound of the unfamiliar voice behind him, but kept the gun pointed at
Arliss, who still lay on the ground in front of him.

“I’ve been informed that the prospect of that would be somewhat of a deterrence to you,.” Cross
smiled, from his position near the coach door, where he once again held a gun on J.D.

“Sorry, Vin,” the kid’s voice sounded somehow younger than usual. Maybe it was just the threat
of the situation.

“I had to tell him  that you worked for us,” Buck spoke up, from beside the stranger, where
Josiah also stood.

<p> “ I had to admit that I was none too surprised that Michael here would hire a bodyguard , but
going about it in such a devious manner ," the new threat shook his head as if disappointed, "now
that surprises me. Kind of makes me a little angry.” The calculating grin never left Ayden’s face
as he delivered a viscous blow to J.D.’s side , sending the kid to his knees.

“You Son of a....” Buck roared and started for the preacher.

“Ah, ah, ah,” Cross chided, now placing the gun back to J.D.’s temple. The boy didn’t seem to
notice as he struggled to catch the breath that had been so savagely driven from him. “Don’t
threaten my mood again, Ableson. I need the kid alive, not healthy!"

Buck stopped in his tracks but cast a distraught glance in the bounty hunter’s direction. As much
as the tracker wanted to help, to drop this vile stranger where he stood, there was nothing he
could do.

Being an expert marksman wouldn’t help J.D. none if the man holding the gun on him got off a
shot before he drew his last breath . It was a risk Vin couldn’t take..

“ Vin, is it?” Cross’s voice interrupted Tanner’s bleak analyzation of the situation. “  If you
would be so kind to give Arlis his weapon back , handle first, please. And slowly step away from
him.”

The bounty hunter reluctantly did as he was told. Hayes roughly took the gun and wiped at his
bloodied lip. “You’re going to pay for making me look bad, Tanner.”

“No more than what you are going to pay , Arliss, if you mess up on this trip one more time.”
Ayden’s voice was like ice. “I have no qualms about relieving you of your duty. Permanently.”

Hayes ducked his head and looked sheepishly at Ayden, “Sorry Mr. Cross, but he jumped me
when I wasn’t lookin,” the man lied.

“Don’t bother straining your self trying to think up excuses that will in no way placate me, ”the
preacher snapped. Get some rope and tie Mr. Tanner’s hands. He’ll be joining me and the
Ableson’s in the back.”

Cross turned to Josiah, “You can join Arliss up front.”

Sanchez nodded, glad for the opportunity Ayden was affording him. If he got out of the
preacher’s sight maybe he could turn things around.

“After you give me your weapons for safe keeping that is.”

Damn, Josiah cursed silently. “I don’t give up my gun to anyone, Preacher.”

Cross smiled. “Then you will be a lucky man to call such a lovely place your final resting spot.”
The big gunslinger didn’t even have to look to know that not only did Cross have a perfect shot
at him if he so decided, but his scrawny henchmen would too
 
“I suppose change can be a good thing,” Josiah growled, but slowly withdrew his sidearm and
handed it to Ayden.

“Don’t be offended, Brother Sanchez. It’s not that I don’t trust you . I just don’t trust anybody.”

The preacher placed Josiah’s gun in the leather satchel he was carrying and motioned for J.D. to
get up. Buck stepped forward to help but one glare from Ayden stopped him. “There comes a
time when a man must stand on his own, Brother Ableson.”

The boy looked up and met Wilmington’s gaze, “I’m O.K.,” he assured but gasped slightly, as he
pushed himself up from his knees.

“And does a man pick on defenseless kids, too?” Buck hissed, unable to control himself.

Cross gave J.D. a push, once he was on his feet,  in the older man’s direction. Buck barely caught
him before he hit the ground yet again.

“A man does what it takes to get the job done Ableson. But I guess a rich city slicker ,that has
had everything handed to him on a silver platter, wouldn’t know much about being a real man.”

“I’ll show you how much of a man I am, you no good...”

“Mr. Ableson,” Vin’s calm voice pierced the air, from where Arliss was now none too gently,
tying the bounty hunters hands behind his back.

“I’d advise you hold your tongue if you want to make it out of this in one piece.”

Ayden laughed heartily, “ And I’d advise you listen to your man over there, Michael. You did ,
after all, hire him to keep you alive on this fair trip.”

Buck was so angry he was shaking. J.D had seen his friend this mad a couple of times and it
never did bode well. But to his surprise, the older man slowly unclenched his fists and relaxed
his stance, but never once took his dark gaze from Cross’s sneering face.

“Now, that’s the practical businessman I know and despise,” Ayden sighed. “So be a good boy
now and get in the stage. We still have a ways to  go before we camp.” Buck and J.D. grudgingly
did as their captor told them and Cross motioned the now bound bounty hunter on in
front of him, also. “After all, God’s Country isn’t the best place to be caught out in  during the
night.”

“I don’t see how it can get much worse,” Vin quipped, as Ayden joined them in the coach, and
Arliss started the horses going once more.

“Trust me, Mr. Tanner. For you and the Ableson's , it's going to get a lot worse."

********************************
 
*********************Jubilee, Arizona:  Dead End Saloon**********************
 
The ride to Jubilee had been long, hard and dusty. The four men had made better time than Chris
had hoped, making it to the town just before dusk. The shortcut around The Devil's Lair had paid
off. It wasn't the easiest of terrain’s, barely manageable on horseback , but it had paid off.

“I don’t believe Mr. Farnsworth has enjoyed our trip to much.” Nathan Jackson looked at
Larabee as they pulled their horses to a stop in front of the ‘Dead End Saloon’. Chris dismounted
an eyed the city slicker Nathan was speaking of. Fergus was slowly making his way alongside Ezra and had begun to look
rather wilted.

“This was his brilliant idea.” Chris stated simply, not really caring too much for Farnsworth’s
comfort. Something about the timid businessman was beginning to be unsettling to the seasoned
gunslinger.

“If it were up to me, I would have preferred to left him back in Shilock. Better yet, even, Four
Corners.”

“You worried about the others?” Nathan asked, noting the agitation in his friend's tone.

Chris sighed. “I just don’t understand why Farnsworth hasn’t seemed one bit nervous since we
left Shilock this morning. I mean he’s been calm as a July breeze.”

Nathan scratched his chin and watched as Ezra and Fergus hitched their horses near the other end
of the establishment.

“Don’t really make since, seeing as how he was acting before we all left. You’d think he would
be more worried about his precious cargo now that were here in Jubilee, where the threat came
from.”

The bad feeling growing in the pit of Chris's stomach started to get worse and terrible thought
entered Larabee’s mind. “Unless the treasure isn’t here,” he mumbled more to himself than to
Nathan, before setting off to meet up with the other two men before they entered the saloon.

“ So Mr. Farnsworth, now that we have arrived safely at our predetermined designation, do you
think it expedient for me to behold this accolade of yours?”

Chris could see the gleam in Ezra's eyes and hear the slight excitement in the gambler’s tone.
Although he had gave strict orders about thirty miles back for his friend not to mention the
treasure one more time, he wasn’t annoyed. In fact, the gunslinger wondered that if
for once he and Mr. Standish weren’t on the exact same page.

“Yeah, Farnsworth, perhaps we could have a look at those jewels of yours.” Chris strode
purposely to stand directly in front of Fergus, who was now clutching his saddle bag against his
chest.

“Yes, a private viewing while we languish for your train,” Ezra quickly suggested, quite pleased
with Chris’s turnaround. All color drained from Farnsworth’s face.

“I don’t see as how that would be prudent, gentlemen.”  he stammered. “ No telling who could be
waiting in the wings to snatch it from under our noses.”  The weasly little man looked around the
darkening street as if he feared every shadow.

“Funny, you ain’t seemed too scared until now,” Nathan observed, joining his two friends to
make a circle around Fergus.

“Well, I....I.” the business man began and took a step back from the other men. “I was in good
company. I mean Judge Travis assured me that the Ableson legacy would be safe.”

Larabee took another menacing step forward, pinning the much smaller man with his intense
glare. “Then why are you so concerned now? Nobody’s around and its only another hour or so
until your train arrives.”

Ezra was slowly beginning to realize that Chris’s desire to see the treasure was driven by
different motives than his own propensity. Putting his ambitions aside, the gambler decided to
play for Larabee’s team.

“Why yes Mr. Farnsworth, I do indeed believe we deserve a look for the outstanding service we
rendered.” Ezra’s hand shot out as quick as lightening and latched on to the businessman’s bag.

Surprisingly enough, the ferret was able to keep a grasp on the satchel. <p> “Mr. Standish!” the
smaller man protested, “I demand you let go at once.” <p> The Bostonian attempted to reclaim
his parcel; but only managed to turn it upside down, allowing the contents to slip free and
tumble to the ground.

“Gladly.” Ezra smiled, releasing the leather strap he had been tugging at. The startled Fergus
stumbled back from the recoil, while Chris quickly bent down to retrieve the treasure.

The black strong box was padlocked but Larabee wasn’t deterred. He moved away from the
others and dropped the box back on the ground.

"Stand back," he ordered.

“Don’t do this Larabee. You have no right.” Farnsworth stepped forward, only to have Nathan
hold up a restraining arm.

Chris removed his gun and took aim. “My friends are risking their life for whatever is in here.
That gives me the right.” One loud shot broke the relative night filled silence and successfully
removed the lock.

Ezra looked over the gunslingers’ shoulder as Nathan kept a tight grasp on Fergus. “And it
appears our companions are not valued at much.” The gambler commented dryly as Chris lifted
the lid and dumped four rather large rocks on the ground. “Unless, sandstone has
appreciated greatly.”

“What is this Farnsworth?” Chris slung the empty box aside and flashed the businessman a
deadly stare. “And don’t even think about lying to me again.” The harsh whisper left no room for
discussion.

Nathan released the trembling man and stepped away as Chris closed in.

“Its not as bad as it looks, Sir. I assure you.” Farnsworth practically pleaded.

Nathan and Ezra looked at each other with dread. Why was it when someone said something like
that things turned out ten times worse.

“Exactly how bad is it?” Chris asked between clenched teeth.

“Well,” Fergus paused, “it depends on how you choose to view things.”

Larabee sighed in frustration and very calmly pushed Farnsworth against the wall of the saloon.
“Where is the treasure?”

Nervous brown eyes looked everywhere but at Larabee, “Well, I'm not exactly sure, seeing as
how it was stolen from the Ableson Estate last month.”

“What?!” Chris demanded coolly, twisting his fists in the other mans dust coated suit jacket.

“Yes, you see, Mr. Ableson was devastated when his family’s heirloom was taken and he
realized his only chance for recovering it was to flush out the thief who had stolen it.”

“And just how was he to accomplish that minute task?” Ezra spoke up before Chris could.

“By using the right incentive.” Farsnworth answered quietly.

“You mean by using Buck and J.D. as bait.” Larabee growled.

“Bait?” Nathan asked somewhat confused by this turn of events. “If the bandits already had the
treasure, why would they want the Ableson’s.” Farnsworth looked from Jackson to Chris but
remained silent.

“I believe the good doctor asked you a pertinent question!” Ezra’s usually controlled tone was on
the verge of explosive.

“The thieves only took part of the treasure.” Fergus began. “The keys and map actually. At the
time they didn’t realize a necessary part of the puzzle was not in their possession.”

“And this would be?” Ezra queried.

“Michael and Brennon.” Fergus answered shamefully. Chris practically lifted the smaller man off
the ground.

“So you decide to offer Buck and J.D. to them on a silver platter, hoping they can’t resist the easy
pickin’s.”

Farnsworth shrugged, “Mr. Ableson had heard of your reputation and seeing as how Four
Corners was so close to the destination...”

“Was the Judge in on this?” Larabee seethed, not even wanting to imagine the possibility of such
a betrayal.

“No.” Fergus stammered. “Michael told the Judge exactly what I told you.”

Chris let out the breath he hadn’t even realized he had been holding.

“Why was Ableson so sure of where the thieves would be headed?” Larabee roughly released
Farnsworth.

“Because the ransom note hinted at that."

"Ransom note!" Chris fumed. "This just keeps getting better.

"And the treasure is more than likely located in that stretch of desert you so fondly call the
Devil's Lair. Well actually, it's in God's Country but that..."

“God’s Country?” Nathan mummered. “That sounds familiar.”

“A lot of stories have been told about it. I was quite surprised when none of you knew the tales of
the Ablesons. The legend is quite famous, you know."

“So your telling us, that you endangered the lives of our four friends, to protect some legend?”
Nathan asked, rather stunned at Farnsworth's laxed attitude.

An irritated look crossed Fergus’s features. “The treasure is more than mere myth, Mr. Jackson.
It is a responsibility that has been passed down from generation to generations of Ablesons’.”

“And just who gave the Ableson’s this obligation?” Ezra asked skeptically.

“Thats rather a long story, Mr. Standish.”

Chris took Farnsworth roughly by the arm, “Well, your in luck, we’ve got all night. Let’s finish
this inside.”

*****************Somewhere in the heart of God's Country *********************

The evening sky was almost  upon them before Cross agreed to stop for the night. It had been a
hard ride, ,even across the rolling Green pastures of the Valley. The horses were exhausted and
so was one J.D. Dunne. With no sleep from the night before, the kid found himself leaning over
on Buck as the day waned on. He had to struggle to keep from dozing off several times along the
way, especially after the adrenaline wore off from Ayden Cross’s earlier revelation.

Who would have thought that the thief would have boarded the coach with them, not to mention
paid off their driver, and already held the treasure that they thought they were protecting. What
the hell was going on? And what was going to happen to them now? He and Buck sure had
'handled' it all right. His confident words spoken to Larabee with such conviction sounded
terribly foolish to him now. Not only had they got themselves in deep, they had blown Vin's
cover, and now Josiah was caught, just as much as them. Chris was definitely  going to kill
them. That was, if they ever made it out of the present circumstances alive.

Buck nudged J.D. in the side, interrupting his private beratement,  as he felt the stage come to a
halt.<p>  “Looks like we reached our destination,” the older man smirked, and looked at Cross,
who still held his weapon on them.

“At least for the night, ”Ayden let a predatory smile spread across his face. “Even the Almighty
rested on the seventh day.”

Cross motioned for Buck to open the door , and then watched as J.D. and Vin followed him out
into the chilled dusk air.

“Well, I do have to admit they were right when they called this place God’s Country,” Buck
admired gruffly, as he took in the picturesque grove of trees they had stopped near, and the
flowing stream that lay several yards beyond them.

“I don’t like it ,” J.D. spoke up, looking up into the star-peppered sky. “It gives me the willies.”

“Too much perfection makes a sinful man wary,” Cross closed the coach door behind him. “Kind
of like going to church with a guilty conscience. Are you feeling guilty about something, young
Brennon?” Ayden gave J.D. the same sacrificial lamb stare he had been using
earlier. It caused the kid to take a reflexive step back. “I’m always open for confession.”

Buck stepped in between the two, shielding his young friend from the older, and much larger
man’s dark eyes. <p> “If anyone should feel uncomfortable in the Lord’s house, it should be you
Cross.  I’d think someone who gets a kick out stealing other people’s property, kidnapping and
scaring kids would be much better suited for the likes of Hell..” Buck lowered his voice and
practically growled the next sentence. “Give me the slightest chance and I’d be more than  happy
to send you there.”

“My ,my,” Ayden laughed. “ I never pictured Michael Ableson as such the physical sort, in fact
you’ve been described as rather, wimpy.”

“They say adversity breeds strength, ”Joshiah remarked cooly, hopping own from his perch on
the coach's driver's seat. “Obviously, Mr. Ableson is finding that out the hard way.”

Before Cross could reply his accomplice came around the side of the stage, “What should I do
with him , Boss? ”Arliss motioned towards Tanner, with a menacing gleam. It was obvious what
his hopeful intentions might be.

“Untie his hands, but keep your gun on him at all times. Have him help you unhitch the team and
bed them down for the night. I’ll have the good Josiah here, start us a campfire so Mr. Ableson
can cook us some fine eatins.” Ayden shot Buck an icy grin. “ I mean , you know what they say,
idle hands do the Devil’s work. ”Cross was definitely enjoying himself at Buck's expense.

Hayes snickered and decided to join in on the fun, “Do you think he can whip us up some of
those fancy dishes his servants make him?”

“The only thing I’ll be whipping up on....”Buck took a step toward the paid gun  but stopped
when he heard the safety click on Cross’s weapon.

“Tskk, tskk, Michael. Be thy brother’s keeper, remember.,” Ayden pointed the gun at J.D. “ As in
keep your brother alive, by doing exactly what I tell you to do.”

Wilmington unclenched his fists and took a step back, willing himself to remain as calm as
possible.

“Now that’s better,” the preacher made a quick move and captured J.D’s arm in his grasp.
“Young Brennon can accompany me to the stream to fetch some water while you busy yourself
with the food. I’m sure you won’t test my patience while we’re gone.”

In the distance hoof-beats pounded and Cross stopped in mid-stride, holding his weapon ready.
J.D. thought for an  instant that perhaps a miracle had just occurred and Chris and the others had
once again come to the rescue. Unfortunately, all his hopes were dashed when the preacher’s face
contorted into a maniacal smile. “’Bout time you got here, Raven. ”

“What in blazes took you so long?” Arlis piped in as the biggest Indian JD had ever seen  pulled
his Paint to a stop not far from the coach, and slid from his saddle.

“Ran into a little trouble.” Raven Blackfeather explained , with a glance at the captives. “Seems
you picked up a tail after leavin Shilock.”

The newest member of Cross’s gang wasn’t dressed like any red man the bounty hunter had
encountered. His long hair and dark skin were the only real tell tale  signs of his origin. From the
leather boots he was wearing, the way he talked , and the fancy leather saddle he used,
Vin figured him to be only part Native or at least raised in the white man’s way.

“Is that so?” Cross smiled, looking at Buck. “Some more of your hired thugs, Ableson?”

Buck didn’t reply. Even if he had known what the man was talking about he wouldn't have told
Cross.

“If he did hire em, they won’t yield much of a return investment, I’m afraid. I fired them, you
might say.”

“You mean you kilt them?” Apparently Arliss had not expected blood shed this early in the
adventure or else he was enthralled at the prospect. Vin wasn't sure of which, as he caught the
excited gleam in the shorter man's eyes.

Raven let loose a cold and mean laugh. “ I shot them both dead before they even knew I was
upon them.”

“Good work, Raven. No use in having sinners follow us into the Holy Land.” Ayden glanced at
Josiah. “This here is Mr. Sanchez. He may be joining our little outfit after I determine if he’s
worthy, that is. And this..” Cross waved his gun at Buck and JD, “is Michael and Brennon
Ableson, our guests for this little spiritual quest.  And that over there is another of the brothers’
little surprises, hired gunman, Mr. Vin.”

The self-proclaimed holy man turned back to his new arrival. “ Mr. Blackfeather , is my protege ,
you might say. I rescued him from a treacherous Indian Village I was ministering to when he was
just a boy. He’s been with me ever since.”

Raven barely acknowledged JD and Buck before glaring at Josiah,. “Why do we need him for?
Just another man to split the find with.” Josiah met his stare, not looking away until the other
man’s black eyes wavered.

“Gluttony is a sin, my son,” Cross spoke up icily, in a tone that left no room for challenge. “And
besides Mr. Sanchez might prove to be helpful if we happen to have any more unwanted guests.”

“You’re the boss.” the Indian finally conceded, not daring to meet Cross’s hateful black eyes.

“That’s true,” Ayden looked from  Raven back to Buck, who was still trying to process all the
new and puzzling information. . “ And it would be productive if everyone noted that particular
fact.”

“Now, where was I ?” Cross’s usual smile returned. “Ah, yes. Young Brennon and I were off to
get some water." Ayden rubbed his hands together in anticipation. "Raven, you keep Mr. Ableson
and our new associate company while we’re away.”

J.D. felt a cold chill dance down his spine when Cross’s bony fingers latched around his forearm
again. It wasn’t like the young man to get spooked. He’d seen plenty of bad men since coming
out West . But something about Ayden Cross was different, worse than any evil he had
encountered thus far, and in a slight panic he shot a pleading look to Buck and then to Vin before
he could stop himself.

“Just leave my brother with me, Cross. I won’t cause anymore trouble,” Buck had never seen the
kid look so frightened before and it got his protective hackles all in an uproar.

“Nonsense, Michael,” the preacher chided, as if placating to a small child. “We wouldn’t want
the boy to become spoiled now would we. Some work will do him good. Burn off some of that
pent-up up energy from the trip.” With that, Cross pushed the canteens towards J.D. and gave the
younger man a hard shove to get him going.

Buck caught Vin’s gaze from where he had been silently watching the scene play out. He noticed
the quick nod toward the trees where the tracker and Hayes were headed with the horses. The
message was more of a silent vow than anything. Vin would have a vantage point to keep an
eye out for their youthful colleague and would do what he could to keep him safe.

“Don’t worry about your brother, Ableson,” Raven's words brought Buck's attention back to his
position. “Cross really takes to the young boys. I’m sure they’ll be fast friends.” The Indian
laughed and started to turn away when something in Wilmington snapped.

“What the hell you mean by that?” Buck shouted and started towards Blackfeather. Unfortunately
for the irate gunslinger , Josiah had expertly judged the situation and quickly extended his foot at
the precise moment. Buck hit the ground hard.

“He means you better pipe down and do as your told if you want the runt back in one piece!” the
big man growled loudly, giving Wilmington a kick in the side for his trouble.

The Indian gave an approving smile, “Why don’t you make sure our friend gets supper started,
Sanchez. I’m sure the boss will be famished when he gets back.”

Josiah nodded and grabbed hold of Buck, jerking him back to his feet.

"Why'd you do that for?" Wilmington demanded in a quiet voice, rubbing his side where Josiah
had barely assaulted him.

Once Blackfeather had turned to start tending to his horse, Josiah answered him in a harsh
whisper, "Because ,damn it, Buck, if you don’t control that temper of yours , you are going to get
us all killed. That man already suspects something and you ain’t helping matters any, acting like,
well, yourself.”

Buck pulled away but bit back the angry retort he wanted to let loose. He knew Josiah was
speaking the truth and trying his best to keep them all alive.

The younger man sighed. Maybe Chris should have picked someone else to play this damn fool ,
Ableson.

“I’m sorry, but the man just knows how to hit all my sore spots and Cross has it in for the kid, I
can feel it. So help me, if he lays one finger on that boy, I’ll...”

Josiah put a hand on his friend's shoulder, "Believe me brother Wilmington, Cross could drive a
Saint to his threshold; and I’m no more happy about his toying with our young friend than you
are but we have got to be careful, especially with these new turn of events. Somehow, I don’t
believe Mr. Farnsworth   was exactly on the level with us. Do you?..”

Before Buck could reply, a scream, not possibly human, ascended from the direction of the
stream. Even in the growing darkness , the two men could make out Vin’s form in the shadows,
running towards the water , where Cross and J.D. had gone,  with Hayes right behind him.

“What in the hell was that?” Buck muttered, hoping that whatever it was, JD was far from it.

“I don’t know,” Josiah answered the rhetorical question, as all possibilities assaulted his
overactive imagination. “But I suggest we find out.”

Apparently Buck needed no further encouragement because he had already took off towards the
darkened path that led to the creek.

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

JD Dunne was definitely rethinking the wiseness of this plan. Maybe Chris should have let
someone else play at being Brennon Ableson. After all, Buck hadn’t wanted him to do it. Even
though the older man had sided with him, J.D. could tell it was against his initial judgment. Ezra
had offered, but JD had insisted he could pull it off.

Besides, Vin would be there for back up, and Josiah too. They had never let the young man
down. At least, that’s what JD had argued to himself as he talked  Chris into letting him go. Now,
though, after meeting Cross and having the terrible feeling he knew exactly what a Turkey felt
like at a Thanksgiving dinner, JD wished like crazy he had for once let his friends talk him out of
riding along.

Of course, all the dark thoughts playing through his mind at the moment wasn’t making the task
of keeping  his eyes straight in front of him and concentrating on not tripping  over the stony path
to the creek any easier. Even in the bright moonlight, it was a difficult feat. One that wasn’t made
more pleasant  by Preacher Cross, who insisted on giving him occasional shoves with his nasty
looking gun.

“Not use to the great outdoors are you, city boy?” Cross laughed, as JD nearly went to his knees
after catching his foot on an unseen root. “I’d say this is probably your first trip out of your
‘civilized’ culture.”

JD jerked away from the older man’s attempt at steadying him, “I might surprise you,” the kid
mumbled and received another push for his trouble.

“Nothing surprises me , Ableson,”

As if in rebuttal to Mr. Cross’s challenge, a blood curtailing shriek pierced the silence , causing
J.D.’s heart to skip a beat.

“What the hell ?” Ayden looked around to see a flash of white pound from a jutting rock near the
stream.

“The Guardian,” J.D. whispered, remembering the tale from before.

Another screech assaulted them and Cross spun around, pulling J.D. in front of him like a shield,
and starting back up the trail in the direction they had just came.

“Like Hell,” he spat. “That’s just a mountain cat, Boy. A big one by the sound of it.”

“Behind you!” a voice J.D. recognized instantly as Vin’s ,shouted to them. The preacher whirled
but wasn’t quick enough to get off a shot. The large luminescent cougar snarled and  launched
itself at Cross, in a streaking flash of white.

Unfortunately, the kid was still held firmly against the older man, who thrust him forward and
leaped to the side, as a cowardly means of saving himself.

“NO!” Vin shouted as he watched J.D. be taken down by the massive creature. He knew he
would never be in time as he reached for the hidden knife in his boot and flung himself at the
beast.

The big cat quickly turned when Vin, transferring all his anger into brute force, sank his blade to
the hilt in the animals shoulder.

Letting out a pain-filled cry, the enraged animal swung a massive claw, catching it’s attacker in
the abdomen with deadly force, before escaping back into the blackness from which it had
appeared.

Vin gasped in pain ,clutching at the jagged tear now criss-crossing his side. He tried not to think
about the agonizing fire ravaging his mid-section, as he rolled to the ground, coming to rest
beside the all too still form of J.D.

“J.D.?” he whispered, clenching his jaw and raising on one elbow to get a better look at the kid.

*He had to be all right.*

Hayes, who had arrived at the scene just in time to catch a glimpse of a white blur leap back into
the shadows, faced his employer with fright filled eyes, “ What was that thing?”

Cross smiled, dusting the dirt from his knees as he pushed himself up from the ground, “A God,
a Devil maybe,” the silver-haired man shrugged his shoulders and laughed an insane little laugh
at the pale parlor of his man. “But a definite reassurance that we are on the right track to that
treasure, Mr. Hayes. I can guarantee you that.”

A shout from above them caused both to look up, “Kid!!” Buck called, amazingly enough
remembering not to call out J.D.’s name  in the presence of Cross, who was now towering,
untouched above Vin and their youngest partner.

“He’s breathing,” Vin gasped, as Buck skidded to a halt beside him , and fell to his knees. “I
think he might have hit his head.”

“Shit!” Buck cursed, noting the large stain of crimson now covering the front of Vin’s shirt.
“What the hell happened?” he asked, laying one hand on J.D.’s forehead ,just to reassure himself,
and keeping the other on Vin’s shoulder, to prevent him from siting up.

“A big cat,” Vin hissed as Buck pulled his shirt up to look at the wound on his friend’s side. “It
came after the preacher.”

“Too bad it missed,” Wilmington seethed, when he saw the deep horizontal slashes marking the
younger man’s body.

Vin shook his head slightly, “Didn’t. Cross pushed J.., Brennon, in front of him.” Buck quickly
pulled off his jacket and started removing his dress shirt to use as a bandage, all the while
thinking up slow torturous ways he could make Cross’s death as long and painful as
possible.

Josiah, torn between playing his role of the detached gunslinger and the surging need to help his
friends, struggled with how to react to the situation. “That’s some nasty cuts he has there,” he
finally said in an indifferent tone. “ If we don’t stop that bleeding soon and get him back to camp,
we’ll have every wild animal in these parts coming down on us. Grizzlies, wolves and such can’t
resist a fresh kill.”

“Grizzlies? Wolves?” Hayes stammered, whipping his gun around behind him in the darkness, as
if he were to become the stalked prey at any moment. “Do you think this place has them, too?”.

Raven who had now also joined the others, drawn by the commotion, let his eyes meet Josiah’s
but showed no emotion as he said, “We could just as easily put a bullet in his brain and let the
river carry him down stream away from us.”

Buck jerked his head up to glower at the man, “Like hell you will.! You kill him and you’ll never
get the damn treasure , I promise you that.”

Cross stooped down on the other side of the still unconscious form of J.D., “ You know I find it
interesting that this man,” he motioned to Vin , “Hired protection, now mind you, would go as far
as risking his own life to save this boy; and now, you risk, not only your life but
that of your brother’s to save him.”

“He’s worked for my family for a long time,” Buck growled , between clenched teeth. “ And you
should know how hard it is to find good help these days. Just take a look at Arlis, there.”

Cross seemed to find the last statement amusing and laughed loudly, before pushing himself back
to a standing position. “ Arlis, give Mr. Ableson a hand carrying his ‘associate’ back to camp. I
really can’t deprive the man of such an honest and loyal hand, now can I. I mean, after all, he’s
done such a bang up job of keeping his wards safe. Plus, Michael already lost two employees this
fine evening to Mr. Blackfeather’s outstanding aim.”

“I’ll help Mr. Hayes with the bodyguard,” Josiah spoke up. “Mr. Ableson can get his troublesome
brother.”
 
Raven merely shook his head and started back up the trail. “Suit yourself but he’ll probably be
dead before mornin and you two can be the ones to put him in the ground.”

Buck looked up at his tall friend and sent a silent thank you. Josiah understood that the younger
man needed to look after the kid, if only to ease his own nerves as much as anything else.

Once Josiah and Arlis had Vin up on his feet and steadied between them, Buck quickly turned his
attention to J.D. “Come on, kid. Time to wake up and show me you’re all right,” he gently patted
the younger man’s face as Cross looked on in mild amusement.  “You’re safe now, I’m here.” He
said softly, running a hand over the youth’s forehead , trying to wipe away the creases of pain he
saw etched there.

Slowly J.D. began to stir and dark eyelashes fluttered open to reveal glassy hazel eyes, “Buck!”
he practically shouted , struggling to sit up.

Relieved to have him back but annoyed at his choice of first words, Buck looked up at Ayden to
see if he had noticed too. “No, Brennon, it’s me, Michael, remember,” the gunslinger crooned.
“Buck, our ‘dog’, is back home in Boston.”

“Dog?” J.D. blinked and shook his head. “Not a dog , Buck. A cat!  A big white Cat with
glowing blue eyes , just like Josiah said.”

Buck sighed and tried to calm his friend, “Brennon, you took a hard blow to the head when that
mountain lion jumped you. Just take a deep breath and try to remember , OK?”

J.D. wasn’t quite sure of anything but the intense pounding behind his eyes,  but something in the
urgency of Buck’s voice was getting through. Then it hit like a lightning bolt. Cross!

The kid turned to look behind him and saw the big man in black towering above them like a
scolding school marm.  He slowly turned his head back to see the concerned face of his friend,
“Sorry, Michael, I guess everything’s kind of fuzzy.”

“It’s OK, kid.” Buck put a steadying arm around J.D.’s shoulders and helped him to stand.
“Everything’s going to be fine. I promise.”

“A man should never promise what he can’t deliver, Ableson.”  Cross came to stand beside them.
“One, is after all, only as good as his word.”

Buck only glared at him as he slowly started J.D. on his ascent up the trail. “Come on Brennon,
we need to get back to camp and check on Vin.”

“Vin?” Fear gripped J.D. as he recalled hearing his friend’s warning shout before the ghost cat
had pounced. “Is he all right? Did the Guardian hurt him?”

“Don’t worry ,young Ableson, he’s probably dead by now, and gone on to a much better place,”
Cross said in that mock comforting tone ,as he roughly slapped the kid on the back. “ The Lord’s
Angels  will surely welcome such a hero home with open wings. He did give his life for another,
after all.  Your loss will certainly be the Kingdom’s gain. We should envy Vin, going from God’s
Country straight to God’s House.”

“What?” J.D. choked. Vin couldn’t be gone. How would the Seven survive as Six?  What would
they tell Chris?

“Vin’s not dead, kid.” The certainty in Buck’s voice gave the younger man cause to doubt the
preacher’s vile words. “ And he’s not going to meet the maker anytime soon. Buck pulled J.D.
closer to him before addressing Cross, who was obviously enjoying torturing the younger man.

“So save your sympathy for some one who needs it , you sick Bastard.”

Ayden laughed and gave Buck a hard shove to get them going faster, "People have surely not
given you credit, Ableson. You’re not half the dull stiff I was expecting.”

Wilmington ignored the preacher and tried to steer J.D. up the path , without stumbling too badly
in the pitch black. It only took a few moments before the glowing flames of the campfire could
be seen and Buck could make out the large form of Josiah attending to Vin, who was now
reclined on some bedding.

“How’s he doing?” J.D. quickly asked Josiah, once Buck had helped him sit next to their friend.

“I’m fine,” Vin assured , through gritted teeth as Josiah finished cleaning the last of his  wounds
with some Whiskey he had found. “How bout you?”

“I’m OK,” the kid answered a little too quickly. “I hit my head is all...”

“And we all know what a hard head he has, the rock he hit probably didn’t fare as well as him,”
Buck teased, bringing the wounded man some comfort with the familiarity.

“You sure you’re OK?” Vin asked J.D. again.

“Yeah, thanks to you.”

Vin forced a smile for the kid’s sake. “Couldn’t rightly explain to Chris how I let a big cat have
you for supper, now could I?”

“Poor cat would have died of indigestion.” Buck joked, but the look on his face reflected his fear.

“I sure could wish a lot worse things on that demon cat right at this moment.” Vin gasped
through clenched teeth.

“Just take it easy, pard. I’ll make sure Cross gets double what that cat deserves.”  Before anymore
could be said, a dark presence was upon them.

“Mr. Ableson, I believe you still have the chore of cooking us something to eat, don’t you?”

Buck looked up and was greeted with that frosty smile he had come to loathe. “I’ll do it, but only
because I’m hungry and Vin needs to eat.”

Cross ignored the last remark and let Wilmington past him without even a glare. He then turned
to Josiah, “And Mr. Sanchez, maybe after you finish doctoring the hero here, you can scrap us up
some more firewood. Just in case we have anymore visitors tonight.”

“You think that mountain lion will come back?” Hayes asked, pacing nervously in front of the
fire.

“Well, Mr. Tanner did wound it.” Ayden eyed Vin. “And there’s nothing more dangerous than an
animal in pain.”

“Since your so worried about it Arlis, you can take first watch tonight.” Raven sneered, from
where he was sitting, away from the others.

Josiah finished tying the last strip of the makeshift bandage around the bounty hunter’s chest and
lightly squeezed his shoulder as he got up.

“That should keep you from bleeding to death, Mr. Tanner.” He then looked to J.D. “You’ll need
to give him some  water and keep an eye on him to watch for fever.”

“Thanks,” Vin said weakly. He knew Josiah had done the best he could under their current
stressful situation. As the big man nodded and started off to gather some kindling, Cross knelt in
his place.

“You know, I could give him his last rights if you want me to Brennon?”

Vin looked up into the mocking dark eyes of Ayden. “I’d save those prayers for somebody who
needs them.”

“Like you and your no-good partners.” J.D. finished for the ever weakening tracker. Once Chris
Larabee found out what Cross had done, there'd be no mercy for him.

Preacher Cross merely laughed. “Suit yourselves, but come morning when you're burying Mr.
Tanner, don’t come crying to me.” With that he was gone, leaving J.D. and Vin relatively alone.

“Don’t pay him no never mind, J.D. He’s just trying to keep you off guard. Thats where men like
him get their power.”

J.D. looked down at his friend, trying to draw strength  in the conviction he saw in the
pain-dulled eyes. “I’m okay Vin, you just get some rest.” The younger man said bravely for the
wounded man's benefit, wishing he could really believe that they would all come out of this all
right. But something in the ever growing quietness whispered to him the absurdity of that
hopelessly naive thought.

*********************Dead End Saloon: Jubilee, Arizona**********************
 
“So what you're telling us is that Alec Ableson and his brother Matthew were the first two to
discover this God’s Country,” Chris was sitting at the table, in the back of the saloon, across
from Farnsworth.

“Yes, Alec made it his life’s ambition to find the Tear of God. Some say he was completely
obsessed with the idea of it. He wasn’t exactly the most stable of person’s you see. The boys had
lost both their parents to Influenza at an early age and had been raised by a rather
vile Uncle."

“But Alec was clever enough to unravel this timeless mystery and lay claim to the missing pieces
needed to afford him passage into the King’s Throne?” Ezra arched an eyebrow, and downed his
second shot of whiskey.

“Actually, Matthew did that. He was a brilliant scholar, studied in several schools in England, but
he seemed bent on helping Alec fulfill his plans to secure the treasure. Perhaps, his reasons were
more pure than that of his brother.”

“But he was the one to pay the price for Alec’s greed?” Nathan interjected, with a disappointed
shake of his head.  Just like his friends could pay the ultimate Price for Michael Ableson’s
money lust.

“Unfortunately. Matthew was bitten by some kind of snake during their treck through the
mystical garden, or so the story goes. He was near death when the brothers finally did reach the
cave where the Tear was found.”

“So Alec got what he wanted, but lost his brother?” Chris leaned over the table and leered at
Fergus. “Looks like the family values haven't changed much."

“That's not exactly what happened, “ the little man cleared his throat, “Alec was struck with such
grief that he begged the Guardian of the treasure to help him. He promised to give up anything in
return, even his own life.”

“And ?” Nathan pushed.

“The Guardian was touched by the selfless display of love. He granted Ableson’s wish and let
him leave with the ‘real’ treasure of God’s Country.”

“Alec procured the Tear of God?” Ezra’s eyes lit up at the thought.

“The true treasure was never really the diamond at all, but God’s greatest gift..., life. Everyone
seems to miss that fact,.” Farnsworth looked somewhat embarrassed at his revelation.

“At least that is the Legend in the Ableson’s family. The Guardian only had one request, and that
was for Alec and Matthew to promise to protect the Keys of Eden and never to allow a repeat of
their dilemma.

All I know for sure is that both men lived to a ripe old age and that two gold medallions and a
scroll have been handed down to every generation after them, with instruction to guard  the
artifacts at all cost.”

“Then why ship them off to a museum all the way across the country?” Larabee inquired. “Or
was that a lie too?”

Fergus shook his head. “No, that was the truth. That’s what started the trouble in fact. Michael
had only the best of intentions. With the anniversary date coming up,  he thought the safest place
for the Keys would be in San Francisco.”

“Anniversary?” Nathan was beginning to feel more than a little overwhelmed .

Farnsworth sighed and took out his handkerchief. “Yes, you see, God’s Country only appears for
one full moon cycle every hundred years,” the businessman dabbed at his brow and avoided the
intense stare of the gunslinger before him. “The moon will only be full for a few more
nights and then will start waning again.”

“So that’s how you knew the thieves would have to make a move soon?”

Fergus nodded. “It was apparent to Master Ableson that whoever had taken the Keys did not
realize that only the brothers could use them, well until the ransom note arrived."

"Ransom note?!" Chris practically growled. It was taking every bit of his control not to pull
Farnsworth across the table and strangle him.

"Yes," the smaller man wisely avoided Larabee's eyes. "It demanded that Michael and Brennon
bring a requested amount of money to Jubilee. In return, the Keys and the scroll would be
returned safely. But if both brothers did not show, then they would never again see their
family’s legacy.”

“If only Michael or Alex can obtain the treasure, then how have past family members guarded
this great responsibility of the Ableson clan?" Even Ezra had been drawn into the tale.

“Actually, the myth states that two true brothers must use the Keys simultaneously. Interestingly
enough, some say Cain and Able may have been the first possessors of the medallions and that..”

"Farnsworth," Chris warned, before the man could get started off on another tangent.

"Well, the point I was trying to make," Fergus quickly amended, "is that no where does it state
that the brothers must be Ablesons’, only that they must be brothers. I suppose the thieves missed
that little point."

"Obviously," Ezra drawled, pouring himself yet another drink.

“But Buck and J.D. aren’t brothers,” Nathan pointed out, understanding all to well that
undeniable fact could easily cost his friends their lives.

“Well, I know, ”Fergus stuttered . “That didn’t seem important at the time because Michael only
planned to use them long enough to draw out the henchmen and then of course they would easily
be apprehended and the treasure secured.”
 
“And how did you expect this little plan to work if you didn’t inform us about your escapade, Mr.
Farnsworth?” Chris’s sharp, clipped words never gave way to his true emotions.

“I...I...I was planning to tell you  if the stage didn’t arrive by the time my train left.”

“How convenient.” Larabee’s look could have melted a stone wall. He was tired of talk. It was
time for action. It was time to go get the others.  “I suggest you give us all the details on the way,
‘Fergus’.”

“What do you mean on the way?!” A look of sheer terror was plastered on the short man’s face.

“We’re going to find our friends and you’re going to help us. I'm sure you've seen the map to
where we need to go.” Chris's tone left no room for objection as he and Ezra headed for the door,
baring attitudes the grim reaper would have been frightened of.

“Come on Mr. Farnsworth ,"Nathan's voice was uncharacteristically cold, “you won’t be harmed,
unless....” the healer let his last word hang in the air, an unspoken promise, before grasping
Fergus by the arm and following after his friends.

Farnsworth sighed , knowing he was completely outnumbered, and beginning to realize just how
underpaid. It was apparent that God’s Country was about to get three more unexpected visitors
and one very reluctant guide.
 
******************************God's Country*******************************

Morning light fell upon the sleeping men in amazing shades of pink and purple hues on the
horizon. It had been a short night with little rest and practically no peace, but somewhere during
the wee hours, the weary travelers had slept.

Ayden was the first to come to, yawning and stretching himself awake. First thing he noticed was
that there was no fire. No fire meant, that there was no morning coffee. And this could only mean
that Arlis was in big trouble.

Cross had given his not-so-bright henchman direct orders last night not to fall asleep on his
watch and to wake him at first light. The preacher had a feeling, Hayes had failed to comply with
either rule. And failure was one trait Ayden Cross did not tolerate.

“Arlis! Where in blue blazes are you?” The harsh tone of Ayden’s words brought about the
stirring of the others.

“What’s going on?” mumbled Raven, who was slowly pushing himself up to a sitting position.

“Hayes is nowhere to be found.”

“Maybe he went to take a piss and one of those lions or bears he was ranting about half the night
ate him. The man doesn’t have the brains God gave a tree stump,” the Indian snapped irritably.

Cross rubbed a hand over his weary eyes. “If thats the case, then you my friend are now in charge
of fixing me some coffee.”

“What about Sanchez?”

“What about me?” Josiah asked gruffly, not being much of a morning person, even in the best of
situations. “I never was one to make a decent cup of brew.”

“Just make the damn coffee, Raven. Mr. Sanchez is going to help me look for Arlis.”

Buck waited for Cross and Josiah to vanish into the woods before stiffly making his way to
where J.D. and Vin were. “How’s he doing?”

“He’s got a fever,” J.D. replied with a worried look. “And the bleeding still hasn’t stopped all the
way.”

“He’ll be O.K.,” Buck assured, laying a hand on the still sleeping man’s forehead to gauge just
how high his temperature was. “Nathan will have just what he needs when they find us.”

“You really think they’ll get here in time?” J.D. lowered his voice, although Raven was several
yards away, “ cause Cross is going to be real mad when he realizes you and I aren’t the miracle
entrance into that throne he keeps raving about.”

Buck frowned and chose to ignore his young friend’s question. After all , it was better than lying.

“How’s your head?”

J.D. sighed and rolled his eyes, “My head’s perfectly fine, Buck.”

The older gunslinger smiled , “It wasn’t that to begin with, kid. I meant did you feel dizzy or was
your sight blurry or anything?” That was the questions Nathan always asked  when one of the
Seven was unlucky enough to suffer a blow to their thick skulls.

“The only thing bothering me is how we’re going to get out of this mess,” J.D. replied irritably.
“Vin needs a doctor now, Buck.”

“Don’t you think I know that? But we can’t make a break for it , not with him in this condition.
Besides, Cross or Raven has been watching us like hawks the whole time. The best thing we can
do is to wait for the others. We should have been in Jubilee by now, Chris will know something’s
wrong.”

Buck’s litany of reassurances didn’t seem to ease the younger man’s tensions, “Do you really
think Chris will know?”

Buck looked down at the pale,  unconscious form of Vin Tanner, “He’ll know, kid. He’ll know.”

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

The four horsemen made excellent time in the return trip towards Shilock and there wasn’t any
signs of trouble on the ground they had covered so far. Unfortunately, this only increased their
worry. It was as if the coach and everyone on it had vanished.

They had reached a fork in the trail when Ezra noticed a rider-less horse near the path opposite
them. “Mr. Larabee, I believe I may have uncovered a clue.”

Chris and Nathan followed the gambler’s gaze, “That’s no horse I know,” their mild mannered
doctor tried to hide the worry in his voice, but failed. Without a minute's thought of any lurking
danger, the three friends immediately went to investigate.

The horse tried to bolt as they came closer, but it’s reins seemed to be hung on something they
couldn’t quite make out yet. Chris was the first to dismount and noticed the obstruction. “Son of
a ...” Lying at the horse’s hooves was a blood covered body, a cold stiff hand still clutching the
leather straps leading to the animal’s bridle.

“It looks like he was back shot,” Nathan had joined Chris and was now examining the cadaver.

“And it appears he did not leave this world encumbered by lonliness, ”the gambler was now
standing about ten yards or so away, with another prone form by his feet.

Chris and Nathan rushed to join him, afraid it may have been one of their own. The healer rolled
the carcass over and found the poor soul had been shot between the eyes. Luckily, it was no one
they were familiar with.

“What the hell is going on? Who the devil are these men?” Chris’s question was directed at the
ever quiet Farnsworth.

It was easy to read the man's reluctance to inform Chris of even more bad news. “These are two
Pinkerton detectives that I hired to follow your men in case there was any trouble.”

“So I suppose this means that there was a 'great deal' of trouble.”  Ezra spoke the obvious , seeing
that their leader was too livid to comment.

Chris glared at Farnsworth a moment before starting back for his mount. “Let’s ride. We may not
have much time.”

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

A FRIEND LOVES AT ALL TIMES; AND A BROTHER IS BORN FOR ADVERSITY.
PROVERBS 17:17

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

“Ain’t he dead yet?” Raven Blackfeather leaned over the shoulder of Buck Wilmington to peer at
the prone form of Vin Tanner.

“Aren’t you suppose to be making coffee or something, Blackfeather?” Buck growled never
turning to acknowledge the Indian’s sudden appearance behind him.

“Don’t try to give me orders, Ableson. Your money don’t mean a thing to me.” Raven laughed.
“And it looks like all your power and prestige ain’t doing your friend a bit of good either. Unless,
you plan on buying his way into the pearly gates.”

Buck turned hateful dark eyes on their captor, “Is that why your along for this little adventure?
You think that diamond is gonna pave your way to salvation?”

“I don’t give a damn about my soul, Ableson. I plan on living ten lifetimes with the money we’ll
get from your family’s fortune.”

“Well I wouldn’t count your chickens before they hatch.” J.D. spoke up defiantly, his mind
shifting to the rescue party he had to believe were on their way.

Raven cast a disgusted look to the unconscious bounty hunter. “And I wouldn’t count on your
friend here making it through the day.”

Buck knew it was a move Michael Ableson wouldn’t consider, but then again he wasn’t that
damn fool. In a wink of an eye, Wilmington whirled and caught the unexpecting Indian in a full
body tackle, bringing the larger man to his knees. With a force born of rage and pent-up
frustration, Buck delivered a crushing blow to his adversary’s jaw.

J.D. sat watching in stunned silence as the two men rolled on the ground. Buck seemed to be
getting the best of the larger man, when a shot rang out in the early morning quietness.

“Ableson, what the hell do you think your doing?”

Wilmington looked up quickly to see Cross angrily enter the campsite. It was only an instant, but
it was enough for Raven to land a viscious right cross that sent the gunslinger sprawling on his
back.

“Buck!” J.D. yelled and started to rush to his friend’s side, when an unexpected hand closed
around his.

“Stay out of it J.D.,” Vin Tanner’s voice was weak but steady. He only hoped Cross hadn’t
caught the younger man’s slip of the tongue. “You’ll only make things worse.”

“Vin! Your awake.”

“I didn’t want to miss all the excitement.”

“Back off Raven. I can handle Mr. Ableson.” Ayden’s cold words immediately drew their
attention. Blackfeather stood up lashing out with a sadistic kick to Buck’s side.

“Why don’t I just finish him now?”

Ayden quickly closed the distance between him and his henchman.

“What? And lose your *half* of the fortune?”

“Half?” Raven asked, taking a step away from Wilmington.

“Yes, it seems Arlis has disappeared without a trace.”

“Well, wouldn’t that make his share a third?” Josiah Sanchez’s deep and slightly winded voice
echoed from the other side of the camp. He had been several yards away when he heard the
gunfire thinking the worse. He was more than relieved to see all his friends still breathing, but a
little upset that Buck had apparently lost his temper yet again. “You ain’t planning on
double-crossing me, are you Preacher?”

“Why I wouldn’t dream of it Brother Sanchez. We need all the help we can get, especially since
Mr. Hayes has chose to depart from us.”

“I don’t know as he had much say in the matter.” Josiah held up Arlis’s hat and rifle he had
found in a clearing nearby. “Looked to be quite a struggle where I found these.”

“Good,” Buck had regained enough breath to add his thoughts on the matter. “I hope that hell cat
had his fill.”

“Shut up, Ableson.” Cross snapped, roughly jerking the gunslinger to his feet. “Don’t push your
luck. Like I told you before, I only need you and your brother breathing.” A slow, maniacal smile
spread across the evil man’s face. “And I don’t need your hired help, for a damn thing.”

Buck understood the threat loud and clear, and for once in his life decided silence was the best
way to handle the situation.

“Now pull yourself together, and get your band of merry men ready for travel. We’re burning
daylight.” Cross let out a loud whoop, followed by a hallelujah. “Gentlemen, I hear that diamond
calling my name.”

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

Somewhere in God’s Country.....

The horses could feel the urgency of their riders and therefore, they pushed harder. The set
determination was etched in three of the four travelers. The fourth, looked as if he were a
condemned man, headed for the gallows. The change of scenery was drastic and somewhat
startling, but due to the adrenaline and fear driving them on, nary man made mention of it.

“Chris, over there!” Nathan was pointing towards a clump of trees to their left.

“I see it,” Larabee spurred his horse faster, coming to an abrupt halt near the barely hidden stage
coach.

“You see anything?” the healer waited anxiously as the gunslinger quickly searched the inside.

“Not a damn thing.” The answer was more of a frustrated sigh.

“Mr. Larabee, Mr. Jackson,” Ezra’s voice wafted from somewhere behind them.

“Where you at, Ezra?” Nathan couldn’t see hide nor hair of the gambler in the thick foliage, until
finally his eyes caught sight of his friend’s red coat about twenty yards beyond them.

“It seems I have stumbled  upon the recent remnants of a make-shift abode.”

Chris quickly made his way to the still smoldering ashes of a doused campfire. He was hoping to
assess a time frame. Vin’s skills sure would have been a big help now, but that was a mute point
at the moment.

“Chris , you best come here.”

The gunslinger rushed to where Nathan was crouched. “Looks like someone’s hurt bad and
loosing a lot of blood.” The dark man lifted strips of cloth ,caked in red ,to emphasize his point.

“It also would appear that one of our fine compatriots saw fit to leave us a guiding totem.”
Standish directed their attention to a small cropping of rocks, which looked to be in the shape of
an arrow.

“Vin,” Larabee breathed, recognizing the quick thinking of his friend.

“There’s blood on the rocks , too, Chris.”

The grim-faced gunman whirled to face Farnsworth, “You better hope our men are in one piece
and still breathing when we find them, or I will personally hold you and the Ablesons’
responsible.”

“Perhaps we should be on our way,” Ezra spoke up, recognizing the deadly glint in his friend’s
narrowed gaze. It wasn’t that he didn’t concur with Chris’s feelings, it was just that pummeling
Farnsworth to a pulp would take up an excess amount of time, which at the moment, they could
not spare. “After all we have received our formal invitation to this little party, and being
fashionably late is not part of the agenda.”

With a renewed since of urgency, the men mounted and took off at an electric pace, hoping upon
hope that they would be in time.
 
*************************

GREATER LOVE HAS NO ONE THAN THIS, THAT HE LAY DOWN HIS LIFE FOR HIS
FRIEND. JOHN 15:13

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

Cross wiped the sweat from his perspiring forehead with a sigh. It had been a long day, especially
after they had abandoned the horses to continue on foot, and the sun was getting lower with each
passing moment.

"Do you gentlemen know what this is?" He asked, looking up at the immense mountain peak
before them. "Care to wager a guess, Mr. Sanchez?"

"I take it that this here mountain is what you've been leading us too?"

Ayden nodded. "May I present to you the King's Throne."

Josiah gazed at the majestic formation. It was truly awe inspiring, but something about it held a
warning. A sacred sign he knew Cross would never yield to. "So where's the Tear of God?"

It was Raven who answered. "It's inside this god-forsaken lump of dirt." The Indian scoffed, and
cast doubtful eyes to Ayden. "We found the rock facing the setting Sun just like the map said. It
was supposed to be the lock for opening the door, but it didn't work."

"Ye have little faith, Raven." Cross laughed. "Like I explained then, we merely needed the right
keys."

"We had the keys," Blackfeather snorted. "Lot of good it did us."

"Yes, we may have had the keys, but 'we' didn't have the golden touch." Cross cast a covetous
glare in J.D. and Buck's direction, where the two still stood with Vin draped between them. The
trip had taken its toll on the bounty hunter, who was slipping in and out of consciousness, in a
fevered state. "But, Micheal and Brennon are going to provide us with what we need. Aren't you
boys?"

Buck tried not to appear nervous, "And how exactly are we suppose to do that?"

"Now Ableson, you should know the rest of the legend. Only two true brothers, holding the keys
of 'Eden' can enter the King's Throne."

"And for some reason it doesn't work?" J.D. swallowed the lump in his throat, and tried to
contain the fear surging inside him.

"Why wouldn't it work, boy?" Cross countered, becoming agitated.

"It is, after all, just a legend." Buck spoke up calmly.

Anger was beginning to seep through Ayden's cool facade, "Or maybe your not who you claim to
be?" The Preacher looked from Buck to J.D. "Don't take me for a fool. I haven't been blind on
this trip."

Wilmington forced a smile, "As much as I wish I wasn't at this moment, I'm the only Michael
Ableson I see."

"Then take the fu**ing keys and open the portal." Cross roughly pulled the medallions from his
coat pocket and thrust them into J.D.'s hand.

The 'kid' accepted the talismans' letting Buck take Vin's whole weight so he could escort him to
Josiah.

Wilmington's eyes met his friend's with a hint of sorrow. As he relinquished his hold on the
bounty hunter, Vin shuddered slightly at the extensive movement, but tried not to let his pain
show.

"Take it easy, pard. Don't worry, I'll try to think of something to get us out of this." Buck tried to
summon one of his usual smiles, but failed miserably, knowing all to well the failure awaiting
them.

"I'm not worried," came the weak but confident reply.

Buck cast a concerned glance to Josiah, who only shrugged before looking back to their wounded
comrade.

The tracker favored them with a faint imitation of his familiar slow grin and explained, “Not all
brothers are bound by blood. You and J.D. will do fine."

Buck squeezed his friend's shoulder, holding back the emotions threatening to overcome him.

"For all our sakes, let's hope so."

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

Chris's worried mind had been relieved momentarily, upon picking up the trail of their friends'. It
was short lived however, when Nathan discovered the growing accumulation of blood stains.

"Up ahead, Chris." The excited tone in the healer's voice brought the gunslinger out of his
morbid reverie.

"I count four horses, but no signs of any passengers." Ezra relayed his take on the situation.

"Must have had to go the rest of the way on foot." Chris thought out loud.

"Does that mean we will have to walk, Mr. Larabee? I mean it is going to get dark soon."

If looks could kill, Fergus would have been dead where he stood.

"If I were you, Mr. Farnsworth, I wouldn't push my luck. You could easily be left behind."

The little man visibly shuttered at the thought of being left alone in the wiles of God's domain.
"On second thought, a walk may do my cramped muscles a world of good."

Nathan smiled, "I would think that would keep you healthy for now."

"Do you perceive us as being very dilatory for our rescue mission?"

Chris turned a puzzled look to Ezra, wishing for once his friend would speak simple English.
And feeling a sudden pang of loss, as he realized the absence of J.D., who would have quickly
asked for a reiteration from Buck.

Ezra, noticing the distressed look on their leader's face, swiftly restated himself. "Do you think
we'll reach them in time?"

Larabee sighed, "I sure the hell hope so."

But as if to punctuate the uncertainty of the gunslinger's confession, gunfire erupted in the
distance.

Without the need for further words, the three men cast themselves into the proverbial lion's den,
with an unsure Fergus following behind.

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

J.D. handed Buck one of the keys, as he reproached the three who were standing near the rock
Cross had identified as being the lock.

Sure enough, two small slits could be seen etched in the stone.

"Anytime gentlemen." Ayden motioned for the two to proceed.

Wilmington nodded for the 'kid' to follow his lead as he inserted his key and waited for J.D. to do
the same.

With a short prayer, and a nervous hand, the younger man turned his medallion in synchronicity
with his friend.

At first, nothing happened. Then the ground beneath them gave a slight shutter and the face of
the mountain turned inside out, to reveal a hidden cave.

Raven let out a war whoop and Cross actually looked surprised. "Well, I'll be damned. I guess
you two are the brothers' after all."

Before the still shaken Buck and J.D. could reply, Raven spoke up.

"Enough talk, let's go get us a diamond." The Indian rushed inside only to feel himself stumble in
the blackness. He let out a short yelp as he fell face first into the dirt. When he lifted his eyes, a
deathly stare met his.

Arlis Hayes lay a mere two foot in front of him with a dagger protruding from his chest.

"Uh, Boss!" The Indian called, scrambling back out of the cave. "I just found Arlis."

"What the hell are you talking about?" The preacher now appeared in the entranceway, carrying a
torch and pushing Buck and J.D. in front of him. Before Raven could explain, Cross held the
light up to reveal the grizzly site.

"Thats Vin's knife." J.D. breathed, backing up and nearly bumping into Buck.

"The knife he left in that cat, if I'm not mistaking." Josiah added, coming up behind them, still
supporting the limp bounty hunter. "Last time I checked, cats' didn't need the use of a blade to do
their killing."

"Well, somebody killed him and drug him in here." Raven stammered.

"All the more reason for us to get the treasure and get out of here." Cross sighed.

Stepping over Arlis's prone form, the preacher pulled J.D. along with him, knowing the others
would follow his lead.

Holding the torch in front of him to light his way, he quickly made it to the center of the cavern
where several candles stood on a small altar. Igniting each one sent dancing shadows along the
walls, and illuminated the space they were in. The cave was basically sparse, except for a small
stream running through it, and a large crevice that would have been hidden in the darkness.
 
“Where’s the treasure?” Raven demanded, pushing his way past Josiah and Vin. “I don’t see
anything but rocks and water.”

“Then you do not look hard enough,” the soft tenor voice came from the far end of the cave,
startling all six men. A tall, vintage man with flowing white hair, dressed in a brown tunic and
yielding a silver staff, stepped from the darkness. He looked as if, he could have just stepped out
of a story from the Bible, itself.

“Now this is gettin a little strange,” Buck whispered to J.D., who only nodded, still watching the
ancient apparition.

“Who the hell are you old man, and where is the treasure?”

“I am the Guardian,” light blue eyes gazed at Raven. “And the treasure is all around you.”

Cross made a step forward and leered at the stranger. “Listen, Moses, we aren’t up to any of this
double talk, I figured out the puzzle, I have the keys of Eden, I even brought the two damn
brothers that were needed. Now I want my reward and I expect to get it one way or another.”
Ayden punctuated his words by raising his gun and pointing it at the man.

“I am not the one keeping you from what you seek, my son. The limitation is found within your
heart. It is you who do not see.”

“Give me a break!” Raven shouted, lifting his own rifle and firing at the unarmed stranger. A
shot that should have delivered a death blow, seemingly vanished on impact. Blackfeather was
infuriated and raised his gun once more at the smiling man. But as his weapon rang out in a
deafening roar, the image before them disappeared.

“Where did he go?” Cross muttered , looking into the lurking shadows.

“Maybe he didn’t go anywhere,” Buck muttered. “ Might be he’s just invisible, like your so
called treasure seems to be.”

The preacher’s eyes flared with anger. Ayden Cross was over the edge. “That’s it, Ableson! I’m
sick and tired of your antics and since I don’t need you anymore, you are a dead man.”

“No!” J.D. shouted, as Cross turned his gun on Wilmington. “Please, don’t do this.”

“No need to worry , Brennon. You’ll be joining your brother on the other side real soon.”

Raven was so enthralled in watching Ableson finally get what was coming to him, that he hadn’t
even noticed Josiah's movements. The big man had slid Vin carefully to the ground and quickly
removed his own sidearm.
 
“I’d rethink that if I were you , Brother Cross, or you may be making that journey first.”
Sanchez’s tone was soft, but deadly.

Ayden looked up , surprised at the sudden betrayal. Buck took the best opportunity he was going
to have and tackled the armed holy man, knocking the gun from his hand and sending both men
sprawling to the rocky ground.

Raven , unable to get a clean shot off at Buck, whirled to face the righteous traitor. “I knew you
couldn’t be trusted, Sanchez,” he roared.  Before Josiah could swing his weapon back to cover
Blackfeather, he found himself , looking down the business end of the Indian’s rifle, unable to
make a move.

Blackfeather’s hand shot out and quickly retrieved the older gunslingers weapon, “After all, any
real man would have killed this invalid like I suggested.” Raven laughed evilly and aimed
Josiah’s gun at the barely conscious bounty hunter. A twisted smile crossed his face as he pulled
back the hammer, “But I’ll remedy that mistake right here and now.”

****************************
 
J.D. watched in horror as the two men rolling on the ground neared the edge of the gaping ravine.
“Buck, look out!” he shouted , as he began to frantically search for Cross’s discarded weapon.

Buck heard the kid’s warning as he felt his body connect with Arlis’s rigamortified corpse, on the
edge of the crater. Even without a weapon , Ayden had proven to be a worthy adversary. His
muscular frame and taller stature was allowing him to gain the upper hand.

“Damn’it !” Wilmington gasped as he received a bruising blow to his abdomen, which left him
breathless. Cross quickly took advantage of his stunned opponent. His dark eyes lighted upon the
pig sticker protruding from his former partner’s chest and a maniacal gleam filled
his dark eyes.

In one fluid motion, Cross yanked the blade from Haye’s body and lunged at Wilmington. Buck ,
who had recovered enough to realize what was happening, raised his arm to deflect the blow.
Unfortunately, Cross was quicker, and his aim was true. The knife plunged into the gunslinger’s
chest with a sickening thud.

J.D. , who’s hands had just closed around cold steel, looked up as a strangled cry of pain reached
his ears. In the dimly lit cave , all he could really make out was the now standing form of Cross,
and the bloody dagger clutched in his hand.

“Oh God, No...” the boy mumbled, letting his eyes fall to the writhing form of Buck Wilmington
at the Preacher’s feet. This couldn’t be happening. He couldn’t lose Buck. He wouldn’t.

Cross was smiling, “Go to hell, Mr. Ableson. And be sure to give the Devil my regards.”

J.D.’s hands shook with cold fury as he raised the revolver. “You first , you son of a bitch,” Cross
looked up at the boy’s venomous words but never knew what hit him as a bullet caught him high
in the chest and tumbled him backwards into the gaping abyss below.

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

Josiah said a silent prayer as he watched Raven take aim at the helpless Vin and then did the only
thing he could do. The big man started to lunge at the Indian , when, two almost simultaneous
gun shots echoed off the cave walls.

Expecting to find the worse, he watched in stunned silence as Blackfeather fell dead at his feet,
revealing the grim face of Chris Larabee and his smoldering weapon.

“Hallelujah, brothers,” Josiah breathed, “I was beginning to lose faith.” His eyes quickly went
from his three friends that had just entered,  to search for his other partners, Buck and J.D. What
he saw took all his momentary relief away.

Although Cross was no where to be seen, it was clear that he had left destruction in his wake.
Their young sheriff sat not far from the ravine holding on for dear life to the very still form of
Buck Wilmington.

“Nathan, check Buck,” Chris’s voice echoed with an unfamiliar resonance of fear, as he quickly
dropped by the other of his wounded men. “How is he?” His blue eyes searched Josiah’s solemn
face.

“Not good,” the big man answered, kneeling by their comrade also. “He’s lost a lot of blood, and
infection has set in.” The guilt in the holy man’s voice was apparent. “I did all I could do under
the circumstances.”

“What the hell happened?” Chris’s worry-filled  words were aimed at Josiah, but not meant to be
accusing.

It was Vin that answered. “I faked left when I should have went right,” tired blue eyes looked up
at the older gunslinger, as the bounty hunter forced a small smile.

“He saved J.D. from a mountain lion,” Josiah filled in.

“Thought I told you to watch your back , Cowboy,” Larabee put a hand on his friend’s shoulder
to keep him from trying to raise up.

“Sorry," Vin grimaced , as an all too familiar wave of pain washed over him. “I know you didn’t
want to come back to this damn desert.”

Chris forced a grin, “You just had to take that as a challenge, didn’t you?”
 
“Got a keep you on your toes,” Tanner gasped.

“Hey, take it easy,”  Chris soothed, “Don’t talk, Nathan’ll get you fixed up in no time. Just as
soon as he’s done helpin' Buck.”

“Buck?!” Vin tried to move his head to see around Larabee, who was blocking his view. “What
happened? Where’s J.D.? Did Cross hurt' em?”

“Easy, partner.”

“Cross’s dead.” Josiah’s words were sharp and laced with an anger that surprised Larabee.
Whoever this Cross was , it was evident the type of man he had been. So much so, that Chris
found himself wishing he weren’t dead, so he could make him suffer, just like his friends were
suffering now.

“But what about Buck and J.D.?” Tanner insisted, become more agitated.

“I’ll go see about them,” Chris relented. “But you stay put till Nathan gets here.” The older
gunslinger waited until his friend gave in, and relaxed back on the ground with a slight moan of
pain.  “Stay with him, Josiah.”  Sanchez nodded and Larabee pushed himself up to a standing
position. With an overwhelming feeling of dread , he took a deep breath and headed in the
direction of the others.

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

BE DEVOTED TO ONE ANOTHER IN BROTHERLY LOVE; HONOR ONE ANOTHER
ABOVE YOURSELVES.       ROMANS 12:10

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

“Buck!” J.D. Dunne had quickly dropped Cross’s gun after shooting the preacher with it, and
made his way to his fallen friend’s side.

“Nice shootin', kid” Buck bit out , as the teen’s worried face, suddenly loomed above him.
“Guess, I  ain’t a half bad teacher, after all.”

“You’re hurt,” the boy spoke the obvious, but his frightened hazel eyes told the terrible truth.

“Ah, it ain’t bad,” Wilmington lied, and clenched his jaw against the pain. “Cut my self worse
shavin'.”

J.D. was having none of it. He had never seen so much blood. “God, Buck,” he choked, trying to
hold back the tears threatening to overcome him. He didn’t want to look like the terrified kid he
felt so much like at that very moment.

“It’s O.K., J.D.," the older gunslinger gave up on trying to stop the hemorrhaging in his chest and
reached for the kid instead. “Everything’s going to be fine.”

It was just like Buck to try and protect him, J.D. thought, suddenly angry. Even on his own
deathbed.

“Nothin’s ever going to be fine again,” the words came out as a whisper, instead of the fury-filled
retort he had planned.

Buck grasped J.D.’s hand and squeezed it. The kid looked down, feeling the wet stickiness of his
best friend’s blood seep between the bond. “You’ll be fine. I’ll always be with you.”

The sheriff let his eyes lift to meet those of the man who had become more than a friend, or a
mentor, but a true brother, and J.D. Dunne was sure at that moment, time froze; and he felt the
actual pain of his heart shattering into a million irreparable pieces.

So consumed by despair was he, that he didn’t even notice Nathan and Ezra until someone was
pulling him back away from Buck.

“Come on J.D., let the good doctor get a more concise view of Mr. Wilmington.”

“Ezra?” the younger man, blinked and tried to resist the gambler. “What are you doing here?”

“Trying to arrive at the exact optimal moment to save the day , of course,”  the Southerner  said
lightly.

“Wish you could have made it just a little earlier,” Buck’s tone had a touch of his usual humor,
but his labored breath made it difficult to speak.

Ezra smiled sadly, “I would have gladly given ten fortunes to have done just that, my friend.”

“Looks like you really wanted to test my skills, huh, Buck,” Nathan’s voice trembled as he
fought to somehow control the enormous amount of blood flowing from his friend’s chest
wound. It was apparent that an artery had been knicked or cut in two, by the looks of it.

“I always  said  ..you were...good,” Wilmington tried to keep from crying out in pain as Nathan
attempted to cease the flow of blood with ample pressure, but unfortunately lost the battle.

“Buck!” J.D. pulled away from Ezra and started back to his friend’s side. Ezra attempted to
restrain the younger man, but a hand on his shoulder stopped him. Chris Larabee stood still,
watching in stunned silence.

Wilmington weakly put his hand atop the doctor’s, “But, you’re not that good, Nate,” he smiled.
“Go help Vin. He needs you.”

“Don’t do this , Buck,” J.D. choked. “Please.”

Wilmington had to look away from his young friend as Nathan reluctantly did as his patient
asked , and Buck’s eyes sought out the man he knew would be there. “Look out for him, Pard.”

Chris met and held Buck’s stare. With only a nod he made a promise he’d go to his grave to
keep. But he wanted to say something, anything, to help ease Buck’s mind and J.D.’s heart, but
Nathan’s concerned voice stopped him.

“Chris, you better come quick.”

Damn it, this wasn’t happening. “I’ll be back , Buck. Just hang on.” Wilmington nodded and
Chris took off towards the wounded bounty hunter and the grim news he feared.

He couldn’t stand the thought of losing Buck. He was a precious link to a past long gone and the
best friend he’d ever had, but if Vin didn’t make it, then surely part of Chris Larabee would die
too.

“What’s wrong , Nathan?”

“He’s lost almost as much blood as Buck, and his fever is raging,” the doctor replied quietly,
trying to prevent Tanner from hearing. It wasn’t his way to discourage any man with a grim
diagnosis. After all, he’d seen the human spirit heal many more illnesses than any doctoring
he could do.

“What are you saying?” Chris searched the dark man’s face and then turned his attention to
Josiah who was still seated near Vin, but now had his eyes closed in the midst of some mirthless
prayer, no doubt.

“He’s saying. I’m dying,” the tracker’s voice held no bitterness or fear, just acceptance.

“You running out on me, Tanner?” Larabee’s voice trembled ever so lightly, and Nathan wasn’t
sure if it was from anger or grief.

“Sorry, Pard, but it don’t look like I have much say in the matter,” Vin’s eyes met his friend’s
and in them saw what he feared more than dying.....disappointment.

“I can’t believe this,” Chris shouted, echoing in the ominous quiet of the cave.

“Neither can I,” Ezra’s voice rose also as he stood in the middle of the cavern, watching Buck
slip away on one side of him and Vin Tanner the other. The gambler knew ,perhaps better than
the others would give him credit for, what such a loss would do to his make-shift family.

Not only would Wilmington and the bounty hunter be gone, but so would their fearless leader
and the kid. Nothing would make things the way they were again. The way Ezra had come to
expect them. The way the once loner, man of chance, had grown to love them. And one and only
one thought entered his mind. “Where in the hell is the treasure!?”

“What??” rang out in unison, and Standish knew that if words could have harmed him, the
sharpness of that one magnanimous vocable would have torn him to shreds.

“The treasure,” he explained , calmly. “The gift of God,” his voice rose slightly. “The supposed
wealth of the Holy Kingdom , that Farnsworth was ranting about.”

It took Chris Larabee only two long strides to reach his friend and with a controlled fury that
surprised even Ezra, proceed to lift the smaller man nearly off the ground by the collar. “How
could you even think of such a thing, at a time like this?”

“Easy,” Standish breathed. “I’m trying to save the best hand I was ever dealt.”

For a moment Chris only stared at him and then, slowly, allowed Nathan to pry his fingers away
from the gambler’s throat.

“The treasure,” Ezra continued, “it may allow us the opportunity to make things right, Mr.
Larabee.”
 
“There is no diamond. At least, not any we saw.” J.D.’s voice was flat, and held none of the
youthful exuberance the others had come to expect.

“That’s not the treasure of which I am referring, son. The most precious gift one could have, in
the eye’s of God, would be life.” Ezra turned back to face Chris, “Don’t you recall what Fergus
avowed to us about the Ableson brothers?”

Nathan began to shake his head, “He’s right Chris, he said that Ableson was given his brother’s
life as a gift from the Guardian.”

Chris's brow furrowed, “That was a story! Nothing but a myth," the gunslinger raged. “This is
reality, and in reality you lose people you care about and there ain’t a damn thing you can do
about it. Believe me I should know.”

“You should also know about second chances,” a melodious voice spoke from the shadows.
“And about new beginnings.” The same tall stranger from before appeared at the edge of the
stream, running through the cave.

“You’re back?” J.D. marveled from his position still at Buck’s side.

“I never left,” came the simple reply.

“Who are you?” Larabee demanded, his hand ready at his side.

“What’s more important is who ‘you’ are, Christopher.”

“And who might that be?” Chris didn’t like games , even in the best of moods. But now, at a time
when his life was spinning out of his control, he detested even the hint of a run-around.

“You are their leader, their guide, their brother.” The stranger stepped closer to Chris. “The
treasure is yours to give as you see fit. You have the choice.”

“What choice? What treasure? Unless you can save my friends I’m not interested.”

“That is exactly what I’m offering.”

“What do you mean?” Chris’s eyes never left the unnaturally pale blue ones of the vision in front
of him.

“Mr. Standish spoke the truth. Ayden Cross was after the Tear of God, one he believed to be in
the form of a diamond. But our Lord has shed many tears, and they lie here before you in all their
saving grace. Unfortunately, people usually find only that which they expect.”

“What exactly are you trying to tell me?”

“I’m telling you that the most precious of treasures is a life and as it is written and pledged,
God’s Country will honor you with one.”

“But I have nothing to give in return,” the gunslinger pointed out. “Ableson gave up the diamond
he had found.”

The old man smiled, “And if you had a hundred diamonds to give, would you not do the same?”

Chris only regarded the man with silence.

“It is the thought that counts. As I have said one of your friends will be spared.”

“One?” Chris’s sudden surge of hope faltered.

“That is the choice.”

“You want me to choose between Buck and Vin.”

“God gave us all freedom of will, my son. It is a wise man who uses great discretion in asserting
it.”

Chris couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He searched for an answer in the faces of his friends,
but Ezra and Nathan both seemed as puzzled as he. He then turned towards J.D. and the now
unconscious Wilmington.  The kid held his gaze for only a moment, but it was long enough to
feel the unbearable weight of despair. Then finally Chris’s eyes fell upon Vin,  who had been
watching silently since this Guardian appeared. How could Larabee choose, it was impossible.
To save one would mean the loss of the other.

“I can’t do it! I just can’t.” Chris’s word’s revealed the torture he so overwhelmingly felt.

“You don’t have to,” the bounty hunter’s voice was soft with sympathy. “I’m making it for you.”

Vin used every ounce of his remaining strength, and with Josiah’s help, managed to stand up.
There was no way he’d let Larabee suffer through the rest of his life , knowing that either choice
he made was in part the right one, and in even bigger ways, the wrong one.

“What are you doing?” Chris demanded, quickly making his way to the younger man’s side.

“I choose for Buck to live. I won’t accept the gift. That has to make a difference.” Vin looked in
the stranger’s direction and spoke as loud and confidently as his agonizing pain would allow.  He
then turned to look at the horrified face of his friend, "J.D. needs him. You need him.”

“God can only give , what one will accept.” The stranger watched Vin and Chris for a moment
before turning and gathering some water from the stream behind him. He walked towards J.D.,
who was keeping a firm hold on Buck, but watching the scene with a detached look of
wonderment.

“In the hands of God lies the soul of every living thing,” the man let the water fall across Buck’s
chest. “And the breath of all mankind.”

J.D. looked up at him when Buck’s only response was to shift slightly in the kid’s arms. “He will
be fine, my son.” The stranger favored him with a smile and placed a comforting hand upon his
shoulder before turning to go.

“Wait!” Chris shouted. “You have to help him.” Larabee was of course referring to the bounty
hunter, who had suddenly collapsed in his arms. “Please.”

“He made his choice,” the man said with a touch of sadness. “He made the only choice a brother
could.”

“Then reward him for it, damn it,” Chris ground out. “He doesn’t deserve this. All he did was
protect someone he cared about, without any thoughts for his own safety. Doesn’t that count for
something?”

The old man shook his head sadly , and started to turn once more when J.D. Dunne’s outburst
stopped him.

 “Wait!” The boy gently eased away from Buck, who was slowly coming around and stood up.
“You can’t do this. Vin shouldn’t have even been injured in the first place. Chris was right, he
got hurt protecting me from that mountain lion.” He took a step towards the ancient one, “If
anyone should die , it should be me.”

The last statement brought Buck Wilmington fully alert. “Please tell me I’m still asleep and just
dreamin' the kid actually said something that stupid.”

“Buck! You’re awake!” J.D. couldn’t supress his elation, even in light of the present
circumstances.

“Yeah,” the older man grumbled and tried to get up. “Just in time to save your butt, by the look
of things. You ain’t going no where without me.”

“Well, if Mr. Wilmington insists on accompanying young J.D. to the great beyond, then I’m
afraid I must also insist on joining them. I always did want to stroll down streets of gold,”  Ezra
Standish joined in.

“Ezra thinks he’s gettin into heaven?” Nathan spoke up. “Well, I’ve got to go along just to see
this.”

“Amen, Brother Nate,” Josiah’s deep voice rang out. “I can almost hear  St. Peter laughing now.”

“You gentleman’s confidence in me is truly overwhelming,” Ezra smirked.

“So, it looks like if Vin goes, we all go,” Chris said matter-of-factly, clutching the tracker closer
to his chest. “I guess it’s your turn to choose.”

The Guardian glanced from one determined face to another, marveling at the devotion and
loyalty he found residing there. Letting a soft smile grace his face, he spoke.

“I only wish I had known such brotherhood.” Walking until he reached Chris and Vin, he bent
down and laid a hand over Vin’s heart. “You are thy brother’s keeper.” With that, the stranger
rose and sauntered back into the shadows from which he had come.

Larabee felt the younger man suddenly stir in his arms and then tired blue eyes looked up at him.
“Did you let me eat Buck’s bad chili again?” His voice was weak, but to the six standing around
him, it sounded like Angel’s singing.

Chris sighed with relief and smiled down at the other man, “After what happened the last time,
are you kiddin'?”

“Then what ‘did’ just happen?”

“A miracle of God, no doubt,” Josiah’s deep voice rang out.

“You must not be sinnin' as much as Josiah keeps tellin' me you are,” J.D. whispered to Buck.

The older gunslinger looked down and laughed, “Maybe not , kid.” Wilmington absently rubbed
a hand over his own chest, where only minutes earlier a gaping wound had been. “But I might
ought to be a little more thoughtful from now on.”

“Does this mean , Mr. Wilmington , that you may consider a reforming of your wicked ways
where the fairer sex of our fine community is concerned?” Ezra asked with a crooked grin and
quirked eyebrow. “Perhaps, even leave some fruit on the tree for your fellow
brothers.”

“You should be so lucky,” Buck snorted. “But I was thinkin' more along the lines of cutting back
on my whiskey. After all, the Lord wouldn’t want to deprive the good ladies of Four Corners of
my praise or attention. That would truly be a sin.”

Before any of the others could reply a slow rumble started to grow from the back of the cave,
causing the ground to shake beneath their feet.

“Maybe you should rethink the virtue of that statement,” Ezra commented, as he and the others
were showered upon by a wave of dust and small pieces of rock.

“Maybe, we should get the hell out of here,” Chris stated wisely, helping Vin up and steadying
him enough to start their departure from the now trembling cavern. “This whole place is going to
come down."

“What about the keys?” J.D. asked, looking back over his shoulder. “Raven had them.”

“Never mind them, kid,” Buck replied, grabbing the boy's arm and trying to shield him as much
as possible from the now larger falling debris. “We’ve got all we need.”

“But their worth a fortune,” the young sheriff protested , trying to pull away. “And we promised
to get the treasure safely to Jubilee.”

“A fortune??” Mr. Standish had no doubt, caught the youth’s last words, even over the growing
thunderous roar.

“Don’t even think about it , Ezra!” Larabee gave the gambler a hard shove to get him going
before helping Vin towards the exit.

“Yes, the Lord may be merciful, but I don’t suggest pushing our luck,” Josiah added, bringing up
the rear.

“Amen to that.” Nathan agreed making his hasty escape into the refreshing dusk air.

Farnsworth looked upon them with half fright and half surprise, as the men made their hasty
retreat from the now unstable mountain. From his given post, where Chris had ordered him to
stay, he had not been able to hear or see what had gone on inside.

"Did you retrieve the treasure?" The 'ferret' asked anxiously.

Chris Larabee glanced from Buck to Vin and then at the others before replying.

"We got what we come for, Farnsworth."

As the mountain was swallowed into the earth below it, the seven mounted their horses and
headed toward the sunset that would lead them home and their own piece of heaven.

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

AND I SAW SEVEN ANGELS WHICH STOOD BEFORE GOD; AND TO THEM WERE
GIVEN SEVEN TRUMPETS OF GOLD....     REVELATIONS 8:2
 
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