Mistakes
By: Cassie Smith
Part 1

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

Rating: PG 13
Disclaimer: Don’t own them. Really wish I did. That pleasure belongs to the unappreciative
CBS.  I’m just borrowing them for stress relief.;-)
Warning: No beta, there be h/c ahead, and probably a little smarm;-)
Author's notes:I didn't have a class today, so I decided to do a little brainstorming on 'Sins' and
'West of the Divide'. You see where it got me. I did get to practice writing Vin, Ezra, and J.D.
together though. So, we can call it a learning exercise. (Yeah, that should appease, Maggs).
Anyway, this is just a short piece that I hope to finish tonight when I get home from work.
Hopefully;-) (Don't give me that 'look' Maggie and Penny and Judy, I really do mean to finish it
tonight! I can do a short piece. I can do a short piece. I think I can, anyway. (bg)

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

God sent us here to make mistakes,
To strive, to fail, to rebegin,
To taste the tempting fruit of sin,
And find what bitter food it makes.

To miss the path, to go astray,
To wander blindly in the night.
But searching, praying for the light,
Until at last we find the way.

And looking back along the past,
We know we needed all the strain
Of fear and doubt and strife and pain
To make us value peace , at last.

Who fails finds later triumph sweet.
Who stumbles once walks then with care,
And knows the place to cry ‘Beware”
To other unaccustomed feet.

Through strife the slumbering soul awakes
We learn on errors troubled route
The truths we could not prize without
The sorrow of our sad mistakes.
----Ella Wheeler Wilcox
 

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

“Two persons cannot long be friends if they cannot forgive each other’s little failings.”

“Come on Ezra,” J.D. flashed the gambler a smile. “You’re not afraid are you?’

“I assure you, Mr. Dunne, that Ezra Standish cowers from nothing Mother Nature has created
with her meticulous touch.”

“No?” Vin Tanner quirked an eyebrow. “Then jump.”

The gambler turned a glare on his tracker friend and couldn’t miss the obvious enjoyment the
other man was partaking in due to his discomfort at their youngest partner’s challenge.

“It has not escaped my attention, sir, that you have not taken the leap of faith either.”

Vin tipped his hat at the other man and then began to disrobe. “I was only giving you the first go,
Ezra. But if you want me to show you how it’s done. Then I can do that too.” The younger man
smiled again and let his shirt hit the dirt.

“Oh, you have been quite the jester on this fair trip, haven’t you?” Standish turned his head as
Tanner stripped off his pants. “First there was the little incident with the snake, and then the
switched deck of cards when we were in that quaint little town of  Veils, and now this?”

“Don’t forget the skunk, Ezra.” J.D. snickered as he too removed his shirt.

“And how could I, my friend. I fear my favorite jacket may never be the same.”

“At least you didn’t have to worry about the tomato juice staining it.” The teen offered, tossing
his hat on one of the rocks lining the outcropping they were standing on.

“I am so thankful for small miracles.” The gambler smirked at his two half-naked compatriats.
“Just as I am greatful that I have no qualms with staying right here while you two do amuse
yourselves with this boyish good fun.”

“Ah,, come on , Ezra.” J.D. flashed the gambler ‘the look’ that always got him his way with the
older men. “It’s almost a hundred degrees out here and just think how good that cool, clean water
is going to feel.”

“That is, if you do survive the jump,” Standish deadpanned. “I dare say that Mr. Wilmington may
have some qualms about his young protege’ flinging himself off a small bluff for the sake of
entertainment.”

The teen laughed. “Are you kiddin’, who do you think showed me this place?” With that J.D.
took a running start and leaped from the cliff, giving his best war whoop as he plunged to the
deep wading pool below.

The other two men heard the large splash and then their friend break the surface. “The water’s
great, boys!” J.D. called, exuberantly, barely audible over the rushing falls around them.

Vin flashed the gambler a wicked grin. “I ‘bet’ you dinner that you can’t reach bottom before
me.” The tracker knew Ezra couldn’t resist such a challenge.

Standish stood silent for a moment, even casting another glance over the side, before he quickly
started removing his boots. “I do hope you have more currency back in town, Mr. Tanner. Since,
I  recall relievingyou of most of your funds in our little game of chance, yesterday evening.” The
gambler carefully removed his red coat. “Because I suddenly have this desire for steak.”

“Oh, I have the money, Ezra.” Vin pulled his hat off and run a hand through his long hair.
“Won’t be needing it though,” the tracker grinned, “ ‘cause , only thing you’re going to be eating,
is crow.” With that, the tracker leaped from the ledge before his friend could get the rest of his
clothing removed.

“That’s called cheating!” Standish called, watching as the bounty hunter hit the surface below.

J.D. laughed.. “You should know, Ezra.”

“Very funny, young man,” the gambler shouted, before stepping away from the edge to finish
disrobing. “I do think someone needs to enlighten you to the respect one should give his elders.”

“And I do think someone should have taught you to never take your clothes off in public.” The
gruff voice startled Standish and he whirled to face the unknown threat, instinctively going for
his weapon.

Unfortunately, he’d already removed it, along with his jacket.

“Looking for this?” Another man asked, holding up Ezra’s gun. All in all, there were five of
them. Everyone large, and armed to the teeth.

Standish cast a quick glance back over his shoulder, but knew the sound of the waterfall had
prevented his friends from hearing the intrusion, just as it had allowed him to be ambushed.
“May I inquire as to what you may expect to gain from this little display of bravado? If we have
intruded on your private swimming area, a polite request to leave would have sufficed.”

“Shut-up,” a tall, red-haired man stepped forward. He was atleast a foot taller than Ezra, and
although he probably wasn’t much older, it was apparent life had been harsher on him. “You
don’t talk , unless I tell you to, and maybe you’ll get out of this live.”

Ezra was an expert at reading men. It was a necessity in his profession, and right now his
instincts were telling him that this gunman wasn’t bluffing. Still, his mind raced with ideas as to
how and warn his partners below.

“Smart man,” Red moved around Ezra to pick up the bundle of clothes next to his.

“These the boys?”

The gambler’s heart quickened and his mouth suddenly went dry.

“I said,” the big man stood and shoved J.D.’s belonging toward Standish., “are these the kid’s
things.”

“Better answer him, pretty boy.” A younger, blong kid laughed. “Kale ain’t much for repeating
himself.

“Shut-up, Tommy.” The man standing by the youth’s side slapped him on the side of the head.

Ezra turned his attention back to the apparent leader of the group. “I have no idea what you’re
after, sir, but you cannot begin to fathom the trouble you would be aquiring if you do anything to
that boy.”

Kale tossed the clothes to a dark-skinned man to his right, and stepped toe to toe with the
gambler. “I know exactly what I’m doing.”

“Hey, Ezra!” J.D. Dunne’s voice wafted from below them, breaking the momentary silence that
had befallen the men. “You coming down or what?” Standish heard some more laughter and the
undescribable sound of Vin doing his best imitation of a squawking chicken.

“Tell them you’ve decided to walk down” Kale growled, shoving his revolver under the
gambler’s chin. “And don’t try anything funny, or Rafe over there will put a bullet in the tracker
before you can take a breath.” Ezra let his eyes drift to a man dressed in similar fashion to
Vin’s usual attire. He was hidden from the view of the pool below by one of the large boulders
around the top of the fall, but it was easy for the gambler to see exactly where his rifle was
trained.

Red must have gauged the gambler’s hesitation because he shoved the gun harder into Standish,
eliciting a gasp of pain. “I only want the kid, I don’t need both of you to deliver a message.”

“You still alive up there, Ezra?” This time Vin shouted, and it was with a trained ear that the
gambler picked up on the slight concern. The bounty hunter had a sixth sense when it came to
trouble and Standish was hoping he could use that to his advantantage.

“Do it ! Now!” Clem hissed, pulling the hammer of his colt back.

Ezra cleared his throat. “I’m going to walk down, Vincent. You and John are braver men than I,”
he called.

There was no reply for a moment then J.D. shouted back, “We knew you’d chicken out.”

Ezra squeezed his eyes shut, frustrated that apparently his ruse had gone undetected, when the
bounty hunter called out to him. “Hurry up,you're missing all the fun. This was your idea , after
all.”

The gambler hid the relief that flooded through him at those words. ‘He’ had been the one who
had adamently objected to stopping when the three were so close to home. After their three day
jaunt to Veils and back, to deliver a prisoner,  the only thing Ezra had wanted to jump into was
his feather bed.

“Good little gambler.” Kale smiled patronizingly, and patted standish roughly on the cheek,
before turning to Tommy. “Gather up the rest of these clothes and weapons, we’re running
behind schedule.”

“If you are wanting to get some sort of revenge on the Seven , sir, I ,or ,Mr. Tanner, would be a
suitable hostage.” Self sacrifice wasn’t something Ezra wasn’t accustomed to , but the thoughts
of what the gang of miscreants might have planned for his young friend, brought out his
protective side. He knew Vin would feel the same way.

“Your ‘magnificent’ group means nothing to me, Standish.” Kale was so close now, Ezra could
feel his hot breath. “I only want one man to suffer, and that boy is perfect for my plan. I’ve
waited a long time to have my retribution. “ The gunman grinned. “I think revenge is a dish
best served cold, don’t you.”

Standish didn’t reply as the red-haired man took him by the arm and started for the cover of the
woods surrounding the waterfall. He only hoped Vin could use the warning he’d given as some
sort of leverage to get them out of yet another fine mess they had once again found
themselves entangled in.

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

“What do you think’s goin’ on?” J.D. asked anxiously, as he watched Vin inconspicuously scan
the tree-line around them.

“Don’t know,” Tanner had instantly picked up on the friend of chance’s hidden message, but
found himself clueless as to what trouble might have found them.

“You think we should go up there?”

Vin shook his head, “If somebody else is with, Ezra, they may get a little trigger happy.”

“Then what the hell are we gonna’ do?” J.D.didn’t like the thoughts of leaving one of his
partner’s alone, anymore than he liked how helpless he felt, sitting in the swimming hole,
half-naked , without any weapons.

Tanner turned back to face him, his tanned faced and sun-streaked hair causing his blue eyes to
be more vivid than usual  “I think you should get out, real casual like.” The tracker kept his voice
calm and prepared himself for the objection he knew was coming. “When I give you the signal, I
want you to make a break for the trees. Don’t look back until you’ve made it to town.”

“No way!” J.D. hissed, having the sense to keep his voice low. “I ain’t running out on you and
Ezra. It’s my fault we stopped here and I sure ain’t going to let you two be the ones to pay for it.”

“Damn it, kid.” Vin bit out. “For once, do what you’re told. Four Corners ain’t that far from here.
If you can get to your horse and reach the others, we might all get out of this.”

The teen still shook his head, his youthful features set in grim lines and his hazel eyes as hard as
stone. “I won’t do it.”
 
“What other choice do we have, J.D.?” Tanner reached out and grabbed his friend’s arm. “All
our weapons are on top of the falls. Now get your ass out of this pool and into those woods
before they make the climb down. Do you understand, me?”

The youth sighed, “You’re beginning to act a lot like ,Chris ; you know that.”

Vin gave him a slow grin, “I’ve had worse things said about me.” Tanner released the boy. “Now
get going.”

“One of these days, you all will be old and decrepit, and ‘I’ll’ be the one in charge,” J.D.
mumbled as he made his way out of the water. “I’m going to get out and warm up some,” he
called out to Vin , but for the unknown enemy’s benefit.

“I hear ya,” Vin replied and dived back under the water, trying to act as if nothing had changed.

The teen watched his friend disappear below the aquamarine ripples, before slowly making his
way towards the woods, where they had left their horses.Once he was close enough to cover, he
took off at a dead run, ignoring the tenderness of his bare feet and the roughness of the
branches on his bare skin. Only one thought played in his mind as he tore through the limbs and
underbrush; nothing mattered except saving Vin and Ezra.

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

Kale had atleast had the decency to let Standish put his boots on before making the descent down
the terrain towards the bottom of the falls. Still, the gambler felt quite rediculous wearing only
his underpants and hat. If they made it out of this in one piece, he would undoubtedly expect
more than dinner as recompense.

“I take it the man you are holding some sort of grudge against is either, Mr. Larabee or Mr.
Wilmington,” Ezra asked, as he was roughly shoved from behind, again.

“What’d I tell you about talking, Standish?” Kale grunted, and nudged the gambler with his gun.

“Sorry, but curiosity is in my nature.” Ezra knew that talking was an excellent means of
distraction. In fact, he used it quite often at the poker table. “Besides, I would like to know which
one of my associates I have to thank for this ,rather precarious, position I have been
placed.”

The big, red-haired man was silent for a moment but when he answered his voice was softer than
usual. “I ain’t got no qualms, with , Chris.”

Standish was more than surprised when the outlaw used their illustrious leader’s first name. Even
‘he’ rarely called Chris, Chris.

“But , Wilmington’s another matter.” The ice had returned to his captor’s tone and the gambler
thought it best not to innitiate any further commentary. His chest tightened. and a terrible feeling
of dread fell upon him, as the truth of what he feared, was revealed to him.

J.D. was to be used to hurt Buck; and as much as Ezra hated to admit it, Kale had made the
perfect choice. Nothing or no one mattered more to Wilmington than one nineteen year-old kid,
with a spirit and heart as great as the wide open West , itself. Anyone who knew the fun-loving
scoundrel, knew that the one way to get on his badside was to even look wrong at the teen.  J.D.
had become a kid-brother to all of the seven, but Buck had begrudgingly taken the youth under
his wing almost upon their first meeting. He often ,openly, complained about the trouble the
kid caused him, and how J.D. was constantly a nuisance, but Buck wasn’t fooling anyone.
Especially, J.D.  The kid knew he had the big, soft-hearted, gunslinger wrapped around his little
finger and the feeling was mutual. How else would Wilmington have talked him into taking his
place on the transport detail while he stayed in town to woo , Miss Kelley, one of the new saloon
girls that had arrived Four Corners. It was a decison that would, undoubtedly,  haunt Buck the
rest of his life, if J.D. didn’t make it back from the mission.

That morbid thought stayed lodged in Standish’s conscious as he and the gunmen stepped out of
the woods and into the clearing. Kale had come alongside him now and gripped his arm tightly,
his gun dug in the gambler’s side.

Vin was standing in the middle of the pool, and didn’t look surprised when the five armed men
escorted his partner out of the trees. “Where’s the boy?!” Kale yelled, dragging Ezra towards the
sandy bank.

“Why didn’t you tell me we were having company, Ezra. I would have made myself more
presentable.”

“Sorry, Mr. Tanner, but I was under the impression that you invited them.”

“Shut-up!:” Kale growled and delivered a vicious blow to Ezra’s kidney, sending him gasping to
his knees. He then pointed the gun to the gambler’s head. “Where is he, Tanner?!”

Vin started to the shore, but realized there wasn’t much he could do to help his friend. So, instead
he stopped and gave the red-haired man a lop-sided grin. “I’m guessing half-way to Four
Corner’s by now.”

“You think your smart, don’t you?” Kale motioned to the rest of his men who closed in around
the edges of the pool. “Well, you’re just lucky I happen to owe, Larabee, one. Now get out of the
water before I change my mind about killing you.”

Tanner let his eyes drift to Ezra, who was starting to get his breathing under control before
slowly making his way to the bank.

“I don’t know who you are, mister.” Vin stepped out of the water and ignored the glare Kale gave
him as he kneeled down next to Standish. “But our friend’s will be here any minute now and
unless you want this to be your final resting place, I’d advise you move on. “

“Oh, we’ll be moving on, tracker.” Kale looked towards the woods. “Just as soon as your young
partner returns.”

Vin helped Ezra to his feet, before shooting the outlaw a cold look. “I told you the kid’s gone.”

A blond boy , behind Kale, spoke up. “You don’t think we’re stupid enough to leave your horses
unguarded, do ya?”

Tanner’s heart sank. He’d been so desperate for a solution, that he hadn’t expected what may lay
awaiting J.D.

“I suppose looks can be rather decieving,” Ezra spoke up, finally able to stand straigt.

“Real cute.” Tommy made a move towards Standish but Vin stepped protectively inbetween the
two.

“Easy,” a dark-haired man with a mustache laid a restraining hand on the kid’s shoulder.
“They’re trying to goad you, boy. One of them would love to get their hands on them guns of
yours.”

“Like hell, they would.” Tommy sounded offended, but stepped back away from Vin, just the
same.

“Don’t underestimate them,” Kale spoke up. “They ride with the best, and I have no doubts that
they’d try to take us if given half the chance.”

“No try about it.” The bounty hunter’s tone was deadly.

“Good thing, you won’t be gettin’ the chance then.” Red nodded towards the woods where two
men had just emmerged , dragging a struggling J.D. Dunne between them. “But now that we’ve
got what we came for, we best be getting on our way.”

“Let me go!” J.D. jammed his elbow into one of the outlaws , while stomping the other’s foot.

The man, the kid had hit, gasped and released the boy, while his partner still tried to remain his
grasp, which wasn’t made easy by J.D.’s still-wet body.

“Let him go,” Kale ordered, once they were closer, and the henchman gladly did as his boss said.

J.D.’s hands had been tied in front of him and he was sporting a large cut under his right eye,
which was already starting to bruise, but he quickly made his way to Ezra and Vin. “Sorry, they
jumped me before I could get to Seven,” the kid explained to Vin.

“Don’t appologize, kid. I should have thought of that,” the tracker replied.

“Are you alright?” J.D. asked, noticing Ezra’s slightly green palor and the way he was holding
his side.

“I fear you have been treated worse than myself, Mr. Dunne.” Ezra glared at the men responsible
for J.D.’s wound. “I’ll be fine.”

Before the teen could say more , he had his clothes thrust at him by a giant of a man , with firy
red hair. “Put these on. We’ve got to be going.”

“I ain’t going anywhere with you, mister!” J.D. threw the clothes on the ground.

Kale sighed and scratched at his chin with the barrel of his gun. “Don’t make this harder than it
has to be, boy. I’d like nothing more than to have a reason to teach you some manners, but right
now I don’t have the time or the patience to spare. Now pick the damn clothes up and put them
on. “

Taking orders from one of the seven was one thing, but being bossed by a complete stranger was
a different matter all together. “Fuck you!” J.D. told the man, his hazel eyes blazing.

With reflexes Vin couldn’t believe a man of his size would have, Kale reached out and grabbed
their young partner by the hair of the head, nearly jerking him off of his feet. He and Ezra both
made to come to the kid’s aid, but were stopped by the moustached-man leveling his
rifle on them.

“Listen here, whelp,” Kale growled his face only inches from J.D.’s.
“Wilmington may put up with that smart mouth of yours, hell, he probably thinks it’s cute; but I
ain’t good ol’Buck.”

Red tighted his grip and the kid couldn’t help the cry of pain. “ I won’t put up with it.He was
always one to spoil a boy, but I will set you strait in no time, do you understand me?”

J.D. remained quiet, trying to control his frantic heart, so Kale yanked his hair harder. “I asked
you a question, boy!”

“Yes,” J.D. stammered. “I..I understand.”

“He said, he understood,” Vin spoke up loudly. “Now, let him go.”

Kale did as the bounty hunter said and J.D. quickly stepped away from him, backing up until he
bumped into Standish, who put a hand on his shoulder. “You alright, son?” The gambler’s voice
was almost a whisper.

“What’s going on, Ezra?”

“I suggest you put your clothes on, boy.” This time it was the moustache who spoke and his voice
held an almost sincere concern. His dark eyes met Vin’s.and Tanner saw a hint of compassion.
“It would be better if he comes quietly. We’re taking him one way or the other.”

“Why me?” J.D. asked, looking to the tracker for answers. “What’s going to happen to you all.”

“They’ll live,” Kale had regained some of his composure and now knelt to pick up the kid’s
clothes once more. “If you do as your told.”

Vin took the clothes from the outlaw and handed them to J.D. “Put them on, kid. It’ll be okay.
We’ll get you out of this, somehow. I promise.”

“But what’d I do?” J.D.looked younger than usual, as his hazel eyes searched Vin’s face for a
clue as to why this was happening.

“You haven’t done anything, young man.” Ezra stepped around to join his partners. “These,
gentlemen, and I use that term loosely, “ the gambler shot a glance over his shoulder, “have a
grudge against, Mr. Wilmington , I’m afraid.”

Both Vin and J.D. looked surprised. “Buck?” the teen nearly choked on the name.

“That’s right, kid.” Kale pushed past Standish. “Your big brother is a murderer, and I plan on
seeing him pay for it.”

“Buck ain’t no murderer!” The look of confusion had passed from the teen’s face and was now
replaced by one of anger.

“He’s killed plenty of men, boy."

“In self defense,” J.D. shot back, looking the man square in the eye. “He’s killed men like you,
but killing animals ain’t murder, is it?”

Kale reached for the boy again, but Vin pulled the teen around to face him. “Shut-up, kid.”

J.D. started to open his mouth but the look in the tracker’s eyes stopped him. “You do as they
say, and don’t let that temper take over your good sense.” It would kill Vin to let the men take
their young friend, but he knew they had no other choice.

“But Buck..”

“‘Buck’ would tell you the same thing, J.D,” Vin gave his friend’s shoulders a slight shake. “He
wouldn’t want you getting hurt because of him, you know that.”

J.D. lowered his eyes to the ground but didn’t say anything, so the tracker turned his gaze to
Kale.  “If you hurt him, you’ll live to regret it.”

The red-haired man let an evil grin spread across his face. “Just tell, Wilmington , that I’ll be in
touch.” Kale took the kid by the arm and pulled him from Vin’s grasp. “Tell him I’ll treat his kid
brother much better than he did mine.”

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

“Would you please watch your hands?” Vin grumbled as he and Ezra continued to try and free
themselves from their predicament.

Kale and his men had left with J.D. atleast an hour before, taking not only the horses but their
clothes as well. To add insult to injury, they had tied the two men , back to back, on one of the
rocks out in the middle of the wading pool.

“I’m am sorry, Mr. Tanner, but I think you will be glad to know that I believe I have almost
liberated my appendage.”

“That’s great, Ezra. But you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t get too excited considering we still
have to get back to town, with nothing but our boots.”

“I did manage to procure my hat,” the gambler added, finally jerking his right hand free. “And
they did allow us our underlinen.”

“That was mighty considerate of them,”Vin sighed in relief as Ezra untied his hands. “But it still
ain’ t goin’ to be no picnic making it to Four Corners.”

“Neither is explaining to , Mr. Wilmington , why we are returning without J.D.”

A somber look crossed the tracker’s face and Standish regretted his words. “It was not your fault,
Mr. Tanner. You did what was best for our young partner.”

Vin rubbed at his sore wrists. “Yeah, maybe. But, I don’t think Buck’s going to see it that way.”

The gambler clasped his friend on the shoulder. “Let’s just hope he is so amused by our apparel
deprivement, that he shows us some sympathy.”

Vin shook his head, “He’s going to laugh at us, and then he’s going to kill us, you know that
,don’t you.”
 
Ezra smiled. “After we make our entrance into town, death may seem a viable retreat.”

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

Mary Travis was exhausted.  She had spent most of the day chasing Billy and his cousin Frannie,
who was staying with them for the summer, all over town.. Mary loved her older sister , but she
had severe misgivings about her parenting techniques, especially after having the spirited
five-year old for the last two weeks. Luckily, Casey had volunteered to take the two on a picnic ,
so Mary had managed to investigate three stories and was beginning to start on the new edition of
the paper, when she heard the shriek in the alleyway behind the Clarion.

She cautiously made her way to the back door and cracked it slightly. At first, she didn’t see
anyone, but then an out-of-breath , Mrs. Flannery, rounded the corner, her chubby  face as red as
the skirt she was wearing.

“Mrs. Flannery, are you alright?” Mary stepped down from her doorway and gave the older
woman a concerned look.

“Oh dear, “ the woman panted. “ I do wish your father-in-law would have a talk with his band of
hooligans.”

Mary crossed her arms over her chest and quirked an eyebrow. “I presume you are speaking
about the Seven?”

“Who else?” Mrs. Flannery threw her hand in the air.”I do believe they have gone too far this
time. I mean children and young women like yourself should not be exposed to such
tom-foolery.”

Mary bit her lip to keep from smiling at the woman’s dramatics over the town’s protectors, and
wondered what they had done, and which ones were behind it. Her first guess would be Buck
Wilmington and J.D. Dunne, but J.D. was still with Ezra and Vin. “What exactly happened,
Myrtle?”

The woman blushed heavier and stepped closer to Mary, as if someone might overhear their
conversation. “They exposed themselves to me,” she whispered, laying a hand across her robust
chest. “Nearly sent me into one of my fits, it did.”

“They what?” Mrs. Travis looked at the woman as if she had grown a second head.

“You know , dear.” Myrtle bobbed her eyebrows. “ Gave me a peak at the goods. Opened the
barn so I could see the horse.”

Mary covered her mouth with her hand, and tried to control herself. “Oh my,” she choked,
holding back her laughter. “When?”

“Just now.” Mrs. Flannery waved towards the side street crossing the alley. “I was just coming
from the general store and decided to take a short cut. Imagine the surprise when I find that
tracker and Mr. Standish skulking about in their unmentionables.

Mary  let her eyes travel the length of the street and them focused back on Myrtle. “I’m sure there
is some plausible reason for their behavior, but I’ll talk to them just the same.” Some of Mary’s
amusement faded, as she wondered what Vin and Ezra could have been up to. She turned from
Myrtle and started  in the direction the woman had come from, when a hand on her arm stopped
her.

“You watch yourself, Mary. Those two could be hard on a woman.” Mrs. Flannery fanned
herself. “ They come from good stock, if you know what I mean.”

Mary smiled and patted the woman’s hand. “I’ll keep that in mind, Myrt.”

“You do that.” Flannery smiled and turned to walk away, a small spring in her step.

The grin returned to Mary’s face as she heard the woman mumble something about young
stallions, and she made her way to the sidestreet. At first, she didn’t see anything unusual, but
then she heard it.

“I found it first, Ezra.”

That was definitely Vin Tanner’s voice.

“But it is in my possession at the moment, my friend, and we both are quite informed with where
the law stands on that.”

And that was Ezra.

“Only becuase you jerked it out of my hands when that Mrs. Flannery started screaming at us.”

Mary stepped around the corner and froze in her tracks. There, at the edge of the general store’s
back door was Vin Tanner and Ezra Standish. Both dressed in only their boots and underpants
and obviously fighting over a large piece of material that the seamstress must have abandoned.
“Gentlemen?”

“Mary!?” Vin exclaimed, but both men looked horrified at her sudden appearance.

“May I ask what it is that you two are doing here?” The blond let her eyes fall on them, before
quickly glancing away, but still couldn’t quite keep the blush from creeping onto her cheeks, as
Myrtle’s words came back to her.

“It’s a long story,” the tracker replied, a hint of misery in his voice.

“Perhaps, you could find our associates and spare us the agony of recanting it twice,” Ezra
suggested.

Mrs. Travis nodded and started for the saloon. “And Mary?” Vin’s voice stopped her, but she
didn’t turn around to face the him. “Could you tell them to bring us some clothes.”

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

“They’re where?” Chris Larabee looked up from his drink to stare at the petite blond.

“Behind the general store,” Mary replied, avoiding the puzzled looks she was getting from
Nathan Jackson and Buck Wilmington.
 
“So why didn’t they just come on over here?” Buck asked with a grin, laying his hand of cards on
the table.

“They didn’t want ,” Mary cleared her throat, “ to cause a scene, I think.”

“Mary,” Chris stood. “What’s going on?”

“Vin and Ezra said you should all come,” she stated again. “And for you to bring them some
clothes.”

“Clothes?” Nathan grinned. “Don’t be tellin’ me Ezra ain’t coming into the saloon ‘causin his
fancy duds are dirty?”

“That sounds like Ezra, but not Vin or J.D.” Buck laughed.

It was then Mary realized. “J.D. wasn’t with them.”

“Well, where was he?” The smile fell from Wilmington’s face, a sudden feeling of dread
catching him in the gut.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know. Maybe he was just embarrassed and hiding somewhere or..”

Chris didn’t give his friend time to finish before he brushed past her, Buck right on his heels.

“I’ll get some of their things,” Nathan called , giving Mrs. Travis’s arm a reassuring squeeze
before also leaving.

Mary sighed and plopped down at the table. Myrtle was right. Men like them were hard on a
woman.

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

“You should drink this,” the big man with the mustache handed J.D. his canteen. “The heat can
really drain a person.”

The teen only glared at him, and continued to stare at the door of the cabin.At the moment, they
were alone in the house. “Kale won’t be back for a while. I’d advise you to watch yourself when
he does return.”

“Why do you care?” J.D. leaned against the wall , and looked at the outlaw.

“Let’s just say that Buck and I were friends at one time.” The man sat the canteen next to the boy.
“My name’s, Kade.”

“I find that hard to believe, Kade."

“My ma had quite a sense of humor,” Kade smiled, trying to lighten the mood. When J.D. didn’t
return the sentiment he sighed and run a hand through his hair. “Can’t say I blame you, I’d be
angry and scared , too. But , I was telling the truth about me and, Buck.”

“I ain’t scared,” J.D. looked away from the dark eyes, and wished ‘he’ was telling the truth. “I
just don’t understand this.”

The outlaw pulled a chair away from the table and brought it to where J.D. was sitting on the
floor. “Revenge is a complicated thing.”

Hazel eyes peered up at the man. “No, I get that. Kale thinks Buck hurt his brother , so he takes
me to hurt , Buck. What I don’t get is you. If you and Buck were friends, why would you ride
with Kale?”

Kade frowned. “Because he’s my brother, and family has to look out for one another.”

J.D. was surprised at the revelation, but didn’t let it show. “That I understand. That’s why I feel
sorry for you and brother, ‘cause when ‘my’ family comes for me, they ain’t going to be as
confused as you are about what side they’re on.”

Kade shook his head. “You got guts , boy. I see a lot of Chris Larabee in you; but you’re not very
smart. I’m the only friend you’ve got here, I’d suggest you don’t look over that.”

“I got all the friends I need,” J.D. replied, letting his head rest against the wall, and squeezing his
eyes shut. “Just leave me alone.”

Kade sighed, but stood up anyway. “Suit yourself, kid. But I think you’re making a mistake.”

“Won’t be the first,” the teen mumbled,  surpressing the urge to stop the man from going. He
didn’t want to be alone, but he wasn’t willing to make nice with the enemy either. What he really
wanted was Buck and the others to hurry and find him. Hopefully, before Kale got back.

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

“What in the HELL happened to you two?” Chris Larabee took in the condition of his bestfriend
and Ezra Standish and lost it. “We were expecting you back this morning.Where have you been?
How in the hell did you lose your clothes?” .

“Chris,” Vin held up his hand to stop the barrage of questions. “If you’ll give us a minute..”

“Where’s J.D.?” Buck asked, unable to hide the huge grin on his face. “Did he talk you two into
taking a dip out at the falls and run off with your clothes?” The gunslinger laughed, relieved that
his friend must have been hiding out from his two victims “I told him how I did that to Chris
once , but I didn’t think he’d try it.”

Larabee gave his friend a cold glare. “We were kids, Buck.”

“So’s he,” Wilmington replied , with a twinkle in his eyes.

“J.D. didn’t do this, damn it!” Vin’s sharp tone caused both men to look his way. “A gang of men
did.”

Chris stepped closer to his friend. “What are you talking about, Vin?”

“He’s referring to the horde of barbarians that took advantange of our lax behavior earlier this
morning , while we did stop for a moment of relaxation.”

“Then where’s , J.D.?” Buck made his way around Chris to look at the tracker.

“They took him,” Vin repied softly, meeting the dark gaze of his friend.

“Took him?” The gunslinger tilted his head , and the pained look that came across his face hurt
Vin almost as much as watching J.D. being drug away from them earlier. “Took him, where?”

“We don’t know.” The tracker looked to Larabee. “They said they’d be in touch.”

“So you and Ezra just let the bastards take him?” Buck voice rose and he started to advance on
the tracker, but Chris’s hand on his chest stopped him.

“Easy, Buck. You know better than that. Let them finish tellin’ it.”

“They caught us while we were swimming out at the falls. You were right about that part. It was
hot and the kid wanted to cool off, before we come back to town. We never expected anyone to
be following us.”

“Why’d they take , J.D.?” Chris was afraid of the answer. There had been too many times his
friends had been hurt because of him.

“It seems the gentlemen knew us.” It was Ezra that answered. “Although, they didn’t go into
great detail.”

Both men were trying to delay telling Buck the rest.

“I don’t understand.” Wilmington run a hand through his hair. “If they were after the Seven, why
just take the kid:?”

“They weren’t after the Seven, Buck.” Vin brought his eyes up to meet those of his friend’s .
“They were out to get you.”

The words hit the gunlsinger like a sledgehammer . “Me?” he asked, not willing to believe that
J.D. was in trouble because of him.

“Did they say who they were?” Chris asked, his gaze moving from Ezra to Vin.

“There was seven of them , but the ring leader was a big, red-haired man.”

“The others referred to him as , Kale, I believe,” Ezra added, watching his partner’s face for signs
of recognition.

“Oh God.” Buck looked sick and brought his hand up to his mouth.

“Shit,” Chris swore, and reached out a hand to lay on Buck’s shoulder. He knew the memories
that name brought back were hard enough, but to think J.D.was now caught in a web of old debts
was more than his old friend would be able to accept.
 
Neither Ezra nor Vin quite knew what to make of the situation, but they both had a sinking
suspicion that things were not going to get better from here on out.

“Was there a dark-haired man with him, and a younger boy?” Larabee asked.

Vin nodded. “Man about Buck’s age with a mustache, and a punk kid.”

“Kade and Tommy.” Wilmington’s voice was hollow. “I can’t believe they’re doing this , Chris.”
Buck turned towards his friend. “We got to find him. Kale’ll kill him. You know he will.”

“Come on, Buck.” Larabee soothed. “Kale was a lot of hot air back then, and Kade’s got more
since than to think they could get away with something like this. Dane died a long time ago.”

“That don’t matter,” Buck pulled away from his friend. “Time don’t erase losing a brother. It
wouldn’t for me.” Wilmington looked helplessly  toward Tanner and then back at Chris. “Would
it for you?”

The gunslinger caught his friend’s meaning and his face set in grim lines. He’d ride to hell and
back to find the person who dared to harm Vin Tanner, and although that spoke volumes about
the depth of his and the tracker’s relationship, it did not shine any light of hope onto J.D.’s
situation.

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

“How’s, Buck?” Vin looked up, as Chris entered the saloon and made his way to the dark corner
table in the rear of the establishment.

Larabee shook his head and sat down, motioning Inez for a drink. “Not good. It took me and
Josiah a good thirty minutes to talk him out of going back to the falls.”

The tracker sighed wearily and ran a hand through his hair in frustration. “I was sure I could pick
up their trail when we went back out there. Somebody knew what they were doing.”

The remaining six of the Seven had ridden back to Silver Falls that afternoon, hoping they would
be able to find a trace of their partner’s whereabouts; but , unfortunately, whomever had been
riding with Kale was as talented in tracking and disappearing as Vin was.

“It’s not your fault, cowboy.” Chris waited for the bounty hunter to focus on him. “None of this
is. You’ve done all you could. All any of us would have been able to do.”

Inez stepped up to their table and Vin waited until she had filled Larabee’s drink and left before
replying. “Tell that to, J.D. To, Buck. I don’t blame him for being pissed.”

The gunslinger held his bestfriend’s guilt-filled gaze, recognizing ,all too well, the self-inflicted
agony in the blue depths. “Buck ain’t mad at you, Vin. Hell, he blames himself for this mess.
He’s never stopped blaming himself since, Dane Cantrell, was killed.”

The bounty hunter nodded, rembering how Wilmington had appologized to both him and Ezra
for jumping at them, but instead of easing the men’s conscience; it had made them feel worse.
“What happened to Kale’s brother?” The question had been burning in the tracker’s mind since
the scene in the alleyway, but he had held his tongue, waiting for a better time.
 
Chris continued to stare across the table, but his focus seemed somewhere faraway. “Buck and I
tended to get into some scrapes when we were younger. It didn’t matter if we wanted it or not,
trouble would always come calling at the most inconvenient time.”

A slow grin touched the tracker’s face. “Somethings never change.”

“We were hanging out in Orillo, a little town near Sante Fe, doing odd jobs for ranchers and
stuff, when we met the Cantrell brothers. They owned a huge spread and raised some of the finest
horses in the parts. We’d heard they were taking a herd of theirs’ up to Durango for a sale
and needed some hands for the trip, so Buck and I decided to hire on.”

Vin watched his friend shift in his seat, as if the memories he were recalling were suddenly
making him uncomfortable, but Larabee continued. “Kale had taken over the running of the place
after his father passed away. He had a real head for business and the men respected him,  where
Kade had a way with the horses. Dane was only sixteen, but he was already on his way to making
a name for himself breaking mustangs.”

Chris smiled. “He wasn’t shy about telling a person how good he was, either. Imagine J.D. with a
bigger mouth, and a little more size on him, and you have a pretty clear picture of , Dane.”

“I take it he and Buck hit it off?”

Larabee nodded. “Buck’s nature always made it easy for him to charm women and children. He
had a heart for strays, those who didn’t have much of anyone to call their own. Guess it came
from not having much of a family himself.”

“But Dane had two brothers,” Vin pointed out.

“Three actually,” Chris replied. “Tommy was the youngest. He was about nine or ten and always
causing somebody grief. Kade split most of his time between raising the boy and caring for the
stock; and as for  Kale , well, he just seemed interested in the
running of the ranch.”

“So, Dane was sort of left out in the cold.”

Larabee nodded again.”He hung out at the bunkhouse a lot; playing cards with the hands and
listening to the stories men will tell, when they have a naive audience.”

“The kind of tales that Buck can spin.” Vin grinned.

“Yeah. Dane sure was impressed with us after ol’Buck was through filling his head full of wild
adventures. Half of them true, all of them exaggerated.” Chris picked up his drink and finished it.
“By the time we all made it back from Durango, Dane would  have probably followed Buck to
Hell and back, if he asked him to.”

Tanner gave his friend a questioning look. “How’d Kale take that?”

“Kale hadn’t made the trip. He’d put Kade in charge, while he stayed at the ranch to run things.
Kade was an easy going type, and we got along with him well enough. He seemed greatful to
Buck for taking time with Dane.”

Chris sighed, and ran a hand over his mouth. “The trouble started when we got back to the
Circle-C, and Kade asked Buck and I to stay on for a while. It didn’t take Kale long to see that
Dane had formed a kinship with Buck, and it didn’t take long for that tension to escalate.”

“It seemed Kale didn’t think Buck was a good influence on the boy and decided to have Dane
start spending more time with him, working on the business end of the ranch.”

“I guess that didn’t sit very well with, Dane.”

Larabee leaned closer to the table, his elbows resting on it’s top. “Did I mention he was as about
as hard-headed as J.D., too?"

"Him and Kale had a big blow up one night in the barn. It came to blows and they nearly burnt
the place down when a lantern waa knocked over.”

“Is that how he died?”
 
Chris shook his head. “No. Luckily, Buck and I were just finishing our rounds and saw the
smoke. We were able to get them both out, along with most of the horses.”

“Unfortunately, Kale and Buck decided to finish the brawl outside, once the fire was under
control. You saw what a big man, Cantrell , was?” Larabee waited until Vin nodded. “Well, Buck
didn’t think too much of him deciding to go a round with his youngee brother, who was half his
size. Before I could stop him, he’d given Kale a black eye and a bloody nose to match the ones
Dane were sporting.”

“Did he fire, Buck?”

“He wanted to.”A ghost of a grin lifted Chris's lips. “But he was out-voted by his other two
partners. Dane insisted that the fight wasn’t Buck’s fault, and Kade backed him up.”

Tanner watched Chris’s countenance become grim once more. “It’d probably been best if we had
left then. It wasn’t more’an a week later, that the boy was killed.”

“How?” Vin asked, not wanting to push his friend; but needing to understand why they were now
in danger of losing one of their own.

“Kale had purchased this big grey from another rancher and wanted her broke.  Buck had done
his fair share of that type of work over the three months we’d worked for the Cantrell’s so, Kale
left the job to him.”

“The problem was, he forgot to inform Buck that he’d promised Dane the horse, already. The kid
wanted to break her, for himself.  When Buck found out, he went to Kale and asked him to let the
boy do it, since the animal was going to be his.”

“Kale threw a fit about Buck not being able to follow orders. He told him the mare was too wild
and that Dane was too inexperienced. He told him to break her or to move on.”

“I’m willing to bet, Buck , didn’t like that.” Vin arched an eyebrow, knowing , from experience,
how stubborn Wilmington could be, when it came to something he believed in.

Chris sighed. “Buck didn’t think the horse was dangerous. She’d never shown any sign of being
overly aggressive towards a man.”

“So, he let Dane ride her?” The pieces of the puzzle were starting to form a trajic picture for the
tracker.

“The kid was doing good at first, but then the mare balked,started acting crazy and fighting him.
Dane stayed on for a while, but she was too much for him. After he was thrown, we tried to get to
the boy, but the horse wouldn’t let us in the corral.I hadn't ever saw anything like it. It was like
she was possessed by one of those damn demons Josiah’s always preaching about.” The
gunslinger paused and rubbed at his eyes.

“I finally had to put her down, so we could help Dane. By the time we got to him, he was already
gone. The horse had stomped him to death.”

Vin was quiet, unsure of what to say. Sometimes trajedy outweighed any spoken words a man
could offer. Silence seemed the rightful respect.

“Buck was in bad shape, so, we left after the funeral,” Chris continued. “Kade told us that we
didn’t have to go. He tried to convince Buck that he held no hard feelings, that it had been a
terrible accident, but Kale felt differently. He called Buck a murderer and promised he’d pay
someday."

"Funny thing is, Buck payed a little everyday after that, for a very long time.”

“And now J.D.’s paying,” Vin said softly, his thoughts going back to their missing partner.”Why
do you think the Cantrell’s waited until now?”

Chris raised his gaze to meet the tracker’s . “That’s a good question.  Kale never struck me as
anything but a bully, not the type to carry out his words, and Kade never offered to put the blame
on Buck. Besides, Dane’s been dead nearly ten years now.”

“Men don’t usually let things stew that long,” The tracker leaned forward. “Something had to
bring them here now.”

Larabee sighed. “Maybe, but hate is a powerful seductress. She don’t let go very easily.”

Vin met the other man’s stare. “Still, maybe we could wire the Judge. He may have friends in
Orillo. Might be able to find out what the Cantrell’s have been up to since you and Buck moved
on.”

Chris agreed with the tracker. Knowing more about a situation could only shed light on it. But,
sometimes, it seemed much more peaceful to stay in the dark.

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

J.D. Dunne could tell it was nearly dark outside. Kale and the others had returned about an hour
before, and had pretty much left him be, except for bringing his supper to him.

Kade had untied his hands to enable him to eat, which he had refused to do at first. Of course,
after some ‘encouragement’ from Kale, J.D. had decided that a plate of lousy beans wasn’t worth
another black eye.

Now, he wasn’t so sure he’d made the right decision. Since eating the meal, he’d felt sick. Really
sick.

He leaned back on the bedroll one of the goons had tossed to him, and gazed up at the small
window above him. The stars didn’t seem as bright as usual and he wondered if that had
something to do with the headache that had set in, or the fact a terrible feeling of homesickness
had come over him.

In fact, not only was there a pounding in his skull, but a dull ache filled his stomach, threatening
to make him lose what dinner he had consumed. With a deep breath, the teen chalked it up to
Kale’s lack of ‘culinary prowess’, as Ezra would say, and convinced himself that sleep
would be the best cure. At the least, the refuge of slumber would allow him to escape his
situation, if only for a few hours.

Maybe he could even forget how much he wished he was in Four Corners, and how much he
missed his friends. He  missed the comfort of knowing that they were asleep, just a few feet
down the hallway and he even missed hearing Buck’s snoring in the next room. * Buck.* God, he
missed , Buck.

The teen could only hope that the morning sun may bring some more tangible reprieve, like six ,
very angry, gunmen; whose only goal was to rescue him, and kick some Cantrell butt. That last
thought brought a slight smile to his face and as his hazel eyes fluttered and closed J.D. drifted
off to a fitful journey into the dreamworld.

Kade Cantrell took a draw from his cigar and slowly exhaled, as he let his dark gaze fall on the
boy now sleeping in the corner. He looked young, younger than Tommy even, and a twinge of
guilt knawed at him, as he took in the large bruise on the kid’s face , and the shivers coarsing
through the slight body.

He had almost talked himself into retrieving a saddle blanket for their captive when his older
brother’s laugh stopped him.

“You feel sorry for him, don’t you?” Kale was sitting across the table from the younger man, a
bottle of whiskey in his hand. “You always were a soft son of a bitch.”

Kade turned to glare at the other man. “I just don’t think the boy should have to suffer for
something he had no hand in.”

Kale’s face redened, taking on a hue similar to that of his hair. “Just like Dane shouldn’t have
died because of Wilmington’s screw-up.”

“Damn it, Kale! When you talked me into this fool scheme, the plan was you’d take Wilmington
only. Not put innocent people in jeopardy.” The dark-haired man leaned across the table. “You
know Larabee and the others aren’t going to let us get away with this. Even with the men
you’ve hired, we’re no match for them.”

“But you forget , brother, I have a trump card. If the magnificent ones want to see their friend
again, they’ll do as we say. Buck won’t let them do anything to jeopardize that kid, I know him
well enough to be sure of that.”

“But Larabee., “ Kade started, only to have his brother hold a hand up to cut him off.

“If Chris gets any ideas, we’ll take ‘his’ brother.” A dirty grin played across the oldest Cantrell’s
face. “We have plenty of room here.”

“You’re a damn fool, Kale.” Kade slid his chair back and stood up. “You’ve pushed Chris
Larabee by taking Dunne. If you go after, Tanner, it’s as good as committing suicide. I know
‘him’ well enough to be sure of that.”

Kade didn’t give the other man time to reply before turning and leaving the cabin. Kale didn’t
seem to mind, his smile growing even wider. “But I know ‘you’ best of all, little brother,” Red
whispered, taking another swig of whiskey and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “I do
know you so well.”

*******************************************************
 
Buck Wilmington had been sitting on the steps of the church for better than an hour, now.
Darkness had long since fallen and no one had approached. For that, he was thankful. He had
enough company with ghosts from the past calling on him.

He let his eyes lift to the stars twinkling above in the midsummer night’s sky, and cursed them
for their brilliance. They seemed much too bright and vivid for his mood, and he would have
been much happier if the sky had opened up and showered rain down upon him. On second
thought, hail would suffice quite nicely.

A good beating was more than he deserved.

Deciding Mother Nature was in no mood to cooperate, the handsome gunslinger let his gaze
return to the earth and run a hand through his dark hair. “Damn, kid. I am so sorry I got you into
this.”

“Do you really believe, J.D., would blame you for what’s happened?” Buck turned at the sound
of Josiah Sanchez’s voice, but didn’t reply, so the big preacher eased himself into a sitting
position beside the other man, and let his soulful eyes search his friend’s face. “Seems to me, you
know the boy better than anyone, and if you think he’d be inclined to that, then maybe I’ve been
reading him all wrong.”

Buck looked away from Josiah. “He wouldn’t blame me, but then I’m a little smarter than he is.”

“People make that mistake a great deal , you know.” The holy man waited until dark eyes fell on
him once more. “They think the young foolish for their notions, for their naivete.”

Wilmington frowned. “I don’t think the kid’s foolish, it’s just that he thinks with his heart before
he does his head. He trusts me too much, is all.” * Just like , Dane, trusted me.* “Hell, he’s
probably expecting the lot of us to bust in and free him, any minute now.”

Josiah tilted his head, seeming to see straight through Buck’s gruffness. “But isn’t that what
makes him, J.D.?”

For a moment, the gunslinger was silent, his defenses slowly dropping. When he did answer his
voice was rough with emotion. “I can’t stand the thought of losing him, Josiah. I thought Dane
dying was bad, but if J.D.’s hurt or killed because of the mistake I made, I couldn’t take
that.”

Sanchez reached out and gripped his friend’s shoulder, wishing he could do more to ease his
suffering. “No matter what happens, brother, it’s the Cantrell’s who have made the mistake, not
you. And it’s one they’ll have to answer for.”

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

The first time Kade called the boy’s name, he got no reply. That worried him.

When he’d come in from his walk, Kale, Tommy, and the others had been asleep and he’d only
meant to cover the boy and then turn in, himself; but  the soft whimper had changed his mind.

On closer inspection, he’d realized that their captive wasn’t fairing well. His hair was damp with
sweat, and his shivering was much more pronounced now. He’d known the boy wasn’t feeling
well after supper, but figured it had more to do with his situation than his physical condition.
Unfortunately, the lines of pain etched into the much too young face, was evidence to his faulty
assumption.

“J.D.?” Kade whispered again, giving the kid a shake now. To Cantrell’s relief, J.D. finally
opened his eyes to peer blearily up at him.

“Buck?” he gasped.

Kale’s heart clenched. “Sorry, son. It’s Kade.”

“Hurts,” J.D. managed, squeezing his eyes shut again.

It was then, Kade noticed the way in which J.D. had his arms wrapped tightly around his
mid-section.

“Is it your stomach, boy. Is that what’s troubling you?” The gunman put a tentative hand on the
youth’s shoulder. “What can I do?”

The teen merely curled tighter in on himself. “Buck, “ he moaned again.”Please.”

Kale moved his hand and laid it on J.D.’s forehead. “Damn!” he swore, softly. The boy was
burning up. The distraught man stood and looked around the darkened cabin. There was nothing
he could give the boy to ease his pain, and even if he had supplies, he wasn’t no doctor.

It was possible that whatever was giving the kid trouble wasn’t that threatning, but it was also
possible it could be serious. It could even be deadly.

Kade’s eyes fell on his older brother, and his words from earlier came back to him. If something
happened to J.D. Dunne, he had no doubts that Kale would follow through with his threats to
kidnap Tanner. Then more innocent blood would be on their hands. On his hands.
 
That was something he couldn’t live with and he realized there was only one thing left that he
could do to remedy the mistake he’d made.

So, after making J.D. as comfortable as possible, and with one more look to his sleeping
brothers, Kade Cantrell took his first step towards redemption.

He was going to find Wilmington.

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

Josiah had left Buck to his misery sometime after midnight, and the gunslinger still sat silently in
front of the church. He had no intention of going back to the boardinghouse, walking past J.D.’s
empty room would be too much. Of course, he’d thought of going to the saloon, but then the
temptation to drown his worry and fear in a bottle of cheap whiskey would have been too strong.
Getting drunk would help no one, least of all, J.D.

The jailhouse was an option, but Ezra was on duty , and as much as Buck felt bad about accusing
he and Vin of letting their young partner be taken, he still didn’t want to see the gambler. Just
another reminder of how Buck had failed. Failed to keep J.D. safe.

With a defeated sigh, Wilmington stood and decided a trip to the telegraph office would at least
make him feel as if he was doing something useful. He’d left strict orders for Mr. Farley to come
get one of the six protectors if any messages came in, but the older man did have a short memory
when it came to anything that might inconvenience him. Delivering a message after midnight
might just be one such instance. So, the tall gunslinger stretched his stiffened muscles and started
to step from the stairs when he heard it.

It sounded like someone called his name.

For a moment, Wilmington was sure he was losing his grip on reality; but when the whispered
call came again, he whirled to the darkened side of the church from where he was sure it had
originated.

“Buck!”

This voice didn’t sound familiar, so the gunslinger let his hand drop to hover just above his
weapon and took a cautious step forward. “Who’s there?”

The figure that stepped from the shadows, was no one Wilmington had expected. Although time
had turned some of his dark hair gray, and deeper lines now furrowed his tanned face, Kaden
Cantrell was easily recognized.

“You son-of- a- bitch!” Buck growled, lunging for the man, before a logical thought could
penetrate his brain. His charge obviously startled the other because Cantrell barely blinked before
Wilmington’s momentum sent them both to the dusty ground.

“Where is he, you bastard?” Buck straddled his breathless opponent, his fists  wrapped in the
older man’s lapels. “What have you done to, J.D.?”  The furious gunslinger lifted Kade’s upper
body off the ground and then slammed him back to the solid earth

Cantrell fought to regain his senses as he felt his head connect with the rocky surface beneath
him. He tried to say something, anything to reason with Buck, but he soon realized he’d have
about as much luck trying to calm a riled grizzly. He was expecting to feel another blunt pain to
the base of his skull, but the jarring impact to his mouth caught him by surprise.

“Answer me!” Buck exploded, laying a right cross to Kade’s jaw.

Cantrell’s mind was reeling. How was he suppose to say anything? It was hard to talk when
another man’s fist was connecting with your face. With a desperation born of part adrenaline and
part anger, Kade managed enough strength to shift himself to the right, throwing his attacker
off balance.

Before Buck could react to the sudden manuever, the wiry man beneath him caught him with a
jab of his own. The blow held more power than Wilmington had imagined the smaller man
capable, but he suddenly recalled watching Kade best more’an a few ranch hands in his time, just
as he was treated to yet another strike to his face.

“Damn it, Wilmington , I’m trying to help you!” Cantrell spat, finally rolling free of the irate
gunslinger.

“Help me!?” Buck was on his feet in an instant, gun drawn and leveled on the other man. “You
sure as hell could have fooled me.”

“If you give me a chance to explain..,.”Kade started, only to be cut off by another voice.

“Your words ain’t worth much ‘round here, Cantrell.”  The lanky form of Vin Tanner was leaned
up against the side of the church, his mare’s leg also trained on Kade. He’d been on his way to
the jail when he’d heard the scuffle and decided to check it out.

“Let me handle this , Vin,” Buck warned. “I know just where to shoot a man, so that he holds on
for agonizing hours.”

The tracker smiled. “I ain’t plannin’ on interferring. I just wann’ watch.” Vin lowered his gun,
but stepped closer to Cantrell, who had made it to his knees, and now had his hands raised in
surrender. “Nothing could please me more than to see this one suffer.”

“How about saving, J.D.?” Kade offered, his voice surprisingly steady.

In one fluid movement Buck was nearly on top of him again, his revolver digging into the
kneeling man’s temple. “Don’t say his name, like you
know him.” Wilmington clenched his teeth. “You don’t know nothing about that boy.”

“I know he’s sick!” Cantrell spoke harshly. As much as he could understand Wilmington’s
reaction, he was growing weary of this game. “That’s why I’m here.”

“What do you mean he’s sick?” The grin had completely disappeared from Vin’s face, as he too
closed in on Kade. “He was fine this morning.”

“I mean he has a fever and he’s hurtin’pretty bad.”

“What did you do to him?” Buck pulled back the hammer of his gun, his voice as cold as ice.

“I didn’t do anything to him!” Kade said defensively. “No matter what you may think, I never
intended for the kid to be hurt.”

“That wasn’t the impression you gave us at the falls,” the tracker pointed out. “Why should we
believe you now?”

“Because I’m here, aren’t I?” Cantrell shot back, heatedly. “I didn’t have to come.”

“Why did you?” Most of Buck’s anger had been replaced by fear, fear for what J.D. was
enduring, so he lowered his gun and stared suspiciously at the man he’d once called a friend.

Kade cautiously made to stand up, and although Vin allowed it, he now had repositioned his
weapon to cover the kidnapper. “I came because I wanted to give you the chance to save the
boy’s life, without anyone else getting hurt.” The ex-rancher  run a hand through his wavy locks
and faced Buck. “And because he kept asking for you, and I couldn’t imagine Tommy being in
trouble and me not being there.”
 
“You expect us to believe you turned from outlaw to good samaritan in just under twelve hours?”
Tanner scoffed. “I’d buy a lame horse with one good eye before I would that line of bull.”

“It’s the truth, godd**nit!” Kade whirled on the tracker. “I only got into this mess because I
wanted my brother to let go of the pain he’s been holding on to for ten years.! If it took him
killing Wilmington to do that , then so be it. But I didn’t count on innocent people gettin’
hurt.”

“You let Kale kidnap , J.D., cause you thought it’d make him feel better?” Buck couldn’t believe
what he was hearing. “What kind of sense does that make? “

“After we lost the ranch last year, Buck, not much things did make sense.” Kade’s voice
trembled, and he had to take a deep breath to continue. “ After Dane died, Kale just couldn’t let it
go. He drank and gambled and before I realized what was happening, he’d lost control of
the business.We held on to pieces of it for as long as we could, but in the end , we had to concede
defeat.  I know it sounds crazy, but his revenge against you was all he had left, so I did the only
thing I could do to keep my family together.” Kade turned imploring eyes to Vin. “I just wanted
my brother back. Can’t you understand that?”

“Yeah, I can,” the tracker replied, never letting his gaze leave Cantrell’s . “You’ve made sure of
it.”

Wilmington looked from Vin’s to the other man. “You know I never meant for Dane to get hurt,
let a lone die,” the gunslinger’s words rang with remorse, “but, you had no right kidnapping J.D.
to undo some kind of wrong you think’s been done, Kade.

“I realize  that now,” Cantrell conceded. “That’s why I’m willing to take you to where Kale and
the others are. Tanner can come along and bring the boy back with him.”

“What the hell are you suggesting?” Vin didn’t like the implication he was hearing. “You don’t
seriously think we’re going to let your screwed-up brother kill Buck do you?”

Cantrell ignored the younger man and let his dark eyes lock with Wilmington’s . “You, for the
boy. No one else gets hurt.”

“You’re crazier than I thought, if you think we’d go along with that,” Tanner answered before his
friend could reply. “What’s to stop us from getting the rest of the Seven and taking your gang
apart.”

Kade didn’t even face Vin, before he spoke. “I won’t tell you where they are, and the boy may
not have the time it’d take for you to track them down.”

“Oh, I have ways of making a man talk, Cantrell,” the bounty hunter growled, his finger tightning
on the trigger.

“Easy, pard,” Buck held up his hand. “I think we should listen to the man.”

“Don’t even say that, Bucklin.” Vin did not like the look in his friend’s eyes. He’d seen that same
‘look’ when Wilmington had insisted on fighting Don Paulo to save Inez  and countless other
times when the gunslinger had let his stubborness and pride get in the way of common
sense. “Let’s just go get Chris and the others, and then we’ll talk this over. All of us.”

Wilmington shook his head. “J.D. may not have time for that. He’s counting on me, and I sure as
hell ain’t going to let him down again. It’s my decision.”

Vin started to object when something in Buck’s gaze stopped him. There was a hint of
desperation, but also a twinkle of mischeif, which always meant Wilmington had a plan.  “I need
your help, pard. J.D. needs your help.”

The worry and weariness in the gunslninger’s tone is what cinched it. “Damn it!” Tanner swore,
throwing his hands up in defeat..“ I’ll go with you, but I can’t promise anything more than that.”

Buck nodded and looked at Kade, who eyed both men cautiously. “I’ll have to ask that you leave
your weapons here.”

Again, the tracker started to tell Cantrell a thing or two but Buck held up his hand. “I’ll give you
my gun, but Vin keeps his; with his word he won’t use it, unless there’s trouble.”

The ex-rancher seemed more than a little hesitant, so Wilmington continued. “You’re asking us
to trust you, we’re only expecting the same. Besides, I don’t think one gun is going to have much
effect against the eight-plus your gang has.”

Kade run a hand over his aching jaw and sighed. “I don’t expect there’ll be any trouble. If things
work out we’ll get the boy out , and put you in his place, before Kale even rolls over.” Cantrell
nodded. “I’ll do it, but only if I have his word.”

Buck looked to Vin, who was beginning to hate this plan more and more by the minute. “You
have it,” the bounty hunter relented.

“Good.”Wilmington handed his side-arm to the other mustached man, before turning solemn
eyes on his friend. “Let’s go get, J.D.”

Tanner let his gaze go back to the saloon once more before starting after the other two men.
Every fiber in his being was shouting to him that this was wrong, but he couldn’t discount the
trouble the seven’s youngest partner was in; nor could he escape  the feeling that he had already
let Wilmington down once.  Still, he had a sinking feeling that even if he and Buck made it back
to Four Corners alive, Chris was going to kill them both.

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

“Ezra!” Chris Larabee’s stern voice, echoed through out the quiet jail, sending little spikes of
awareness into Ezra Standish’s subconscious, shattering his moment of slumber.

“I swear I have no conception of how that lovely lady found her way into my hand,” the gambler
rattled off, even as he sprung to his feet in indignation.

Chris shook his head, wondering at how that very statement could be taken if it had been Buck
who had said it. Seeing as it was the Seven’s man of chance, Larabee assumed his friend was
denying palming a queen. “Take it easy, slick. It’s me.”

Standish let out an audible sigh of relief and run a hand over his sleep laden eyes. “Mr. Larabee, I
do wish you would refrain from such exuberant and intrusive entrances, especially in the wee
hours of the night. Sometimes, I wonder at who young J.D.is most like, you or Mr. Wilmington.”

“You’re on duty, Ezra. We don’t sleep on duty,” Chris said simply, making his way over to the
desk, and rifling through some papers.

The gambler cast an irritated glance at the gunslinger before reclining once more in his vacated
chair. “Seeing as how our only occupant tonight is the lonely little rodent that takes up residency
in our wall, I doubt if anyone would dare denounce my lack of vigilance.”

“I would,” Larabee answered, finding what he was looking for, and starting for the door.

Before Ezra could come back with some retort that Chris knew would be a rhetoric on his
inflexibility as the alpha male in the territory, Larabee turned to face his friend once more. “And
just so you don’t find yourself so bored, that you may slip off to your dream poker game
again, I want you to find Vin and Buck; then all of you come meet me at the saloon. “

Standish listened to their illustrious leader with feigned apathy.”So, I am being promoted from
warden to a rat, to shepherd for our straggling sheep, I suppose.”

Chris gave the gambler a hard look. “Just do it, Ezra. I think I may have a lead on the Cantrells.”

“And how could I refuse such a kind request?” Ezra smirked, as Larabee left the building, but
pushed himself to his feet once more, despite his disdain for being ‘ordered’ to do anything.
Fortunately, he was willing to dispense some amount of tolerance to his friend, considering
the stress they were facing.

Chris often took it upon himself as a personal affront, and failure, when one of their infamous
group was placed in danger. The gambler believed that was partly due to his position as executor,
partly due to the type of man he was. It was a trait Ezra had come to admire, but one
he did not envy.

The weight of such responsibility could make Chris Larabee a very intense man in the best of
situations, even with his closest friends,  but as an enemy he was dangerous and deadly. As the
gambler went in search of his partners, he had no doubt that they would once again be
witness to the destruction that their leader’s dedication to the Seven could unleash. He held no
sympathy for its victims , however. The Cantrell brother’s had already sealed their own fate.

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

Vin figured it was nearly three in the morning before the three riders finally reached a small
clearing at the foot of, Satiri Mount. Kade hadn’t been bluffing when he said the hideout would
have been difficult to find. These days, not many people traveled the area around the
mountain,that some had once believed contained an abundant silver mine. This was partly due to
the fact that after several shaft cave-ins and numerous deaths, folks had begun to tell stories
about the place being haunted. Even though it never failed to amuse Vin how superstitious others
could be; as he took in the eerie forest around them and the looming shadows of the ominous
hillside, he could almost understand their fright.

“The cabin is nestled right up against the side of the mountain. Our grandfather use to mine
here.” Kade’s deep voice broke the silence that had been prevalent most of the trip. “He left it to
our mother when he passed on, but it’s mostly been deserted, 'til now.”

“Served your plan well enough, I ‘spose.” Buck’s tone was terse. “But I’d rather we hurry and get
J.D., instead of listening to your family history.”

Cantrell merely sighed and pulled his horse to a stop. “We should walk from here. Kale’s a sound
sleeper, but some of those men he hired are as antsy as a june bug in a chicken house.”

Vin and Buck dismounted also and after sharing an unsure glance, followed ‘Daniel’ into the
lion’s den. There was a small glowing light in one of the far windows of the cabin, but no one
seemed to be stirring.

“I’ll go in and bring the boy out. You two wait here.” Kade pinned Buck with a hard look. “But I
have your word that you’ll stay. If you do anything different, I’ll alert the others.”

Wilmington nodded and watched the ex-rancher disappear behind the door of the shack, before a
rough grip siezed his arm and pulled him around. “What the hell do you think you’re doing,
Buck?” Vin kept his voice to a harsh whisper, but that hid none of hid anger. “You don’t really
mean to stay here with those lunatics, do you?”

“I’ll do what it takes to get you and the kid out of here.”

Buck’s remorseful gaze told the tracker all he needed to know. “You believe this is some kind of
way of making up for Dane’s death, don’t you?” Vin let go of his friend and took a step back.
“You tricked me into believing you had some kind of plan to get out of this, when you had no
such thing in mind.”

“I ain’t planning on any kind of self-sacrifice, if that’s what you’re hinting at, pard.” Buck’s
frustration was beginning to get the best of him. “But I sure as hell ain’t going to let someone
else pay for my mistake. Especially J.D.”

“There has to be some other way.”

“You heard, Kade,” Buck threw his hands up. “The kid’s sick and Kale sure ain’t concerned if he
lives or dies. We didn’t have time to wait on him to make the next move in the game. ‘This’ was
our only chance.”

“Well, ‘this’ could also be your last stand,” Vin pointed out. “How do you think that’s going to
make J.D. feel?”

“Has anyone told you that you're beginning to sound a lot like Chris?" Buck asked, and Vin
merely glared at him.
 
"Don't try to change the subject, Bucklin."

"Look," the gunslinger sighed and rubbed at his tired eyes, "all I can think about right now, is
him getting out of this alive,” Wilmington gave his friend a concerned look. “and getting both of
you back to Four Corners.”

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

J.D. could feel himself being pulled to the world of consciousness. A part of him wanted to fight
his revival, to hide in the darkness where his misery seemed less likely to enslave him, but
another part, desperately wanted to surface. That was the part which hoped Buck and the others
would be waiting for him.

“Come on, son. We’re getting you out of here.” A deep voice whispered the words the teen
wanted to hear, as he felt himself being gingerely lifted from the floor.

“Buck?” J.D. asked hoarsely and forced his eyes partially open. In the dim glow of lantern light,
the teen could barely make out the dark features of the person guiding him towards the entrance
of the cabin.

“Shhh, “the man replied.”It’s me, Kade.”

The teen started to fight the assistance, but remembering the agony his stomach had caused him
earlier, he thought better of it. “Wh..where’re you takin’ me?”

“Somewhere safe,”Cantrell answered, loosening his grip on the kid just long enough to enable
him to open the door. If he hadn’t been so focused on his task of keeping J.D. on his feet, and
making as little noise as possible,then he may have noticed the silent scrutiny he was recieving
from his brother’s cot.  But then again, he hadn’t considered himself a part of the prey in Kale’s
hunt for justice, either.

The cool night air seemed to clear J.D.’s muddled thoughts some, and he was even able to take a
deep breath of air, without doubling over in pain. However, each step that the larger man forced
him to take sent a wave of nautiousness crashing upon him, and he knew if he had any thing
left in his stomach, to come up, it would have. As it was, he took another gasp of air and willed
himself to continue. Fortunately, the urgent and concerned voice that reached his ears as he and
Kade made it to a stand of trees several yards from the cabin, gave him all the incentive he
needed.

“J.D.!” Buck Wilmington took one look at the pale and shaky form of his bestfriend and quickly
rushed to meet him and Cantrell. “Kid?” He practically shoved Kade out of the way as he took
the teen’s arm and lead him to where Vin was waiting underneath a large pine.

“Buck,” J.D. sighed, leaning into the man’s touch. “About time you showed up.”

“Sorry, kid. I got a little distracted,” Wilmington explained, as Tanner helped him get the boy
settled on the ground.

“With Miss Kelley?” J.D.asked with a hint of a smile.

Buck flinched at the remark, even as he realized the teen was trying to lighten the situation with
their normal banter. Unfortunately, it had been his preoccupation with the fairer sex that had cast
his friend into a situation that made him an easy target; and that was a truth that hit hard with the
gunslinger.

“Are you kidding?” Vin started, when he decided Buck was wrapped up in a moment that had
robbed him of any response.“ He never made it close enough to buy the lady a drink. Seems she
wasn’t affected by that famous animal magnitism.”

“May..be he’s losin’ his touch.” J.D. squeezed his eyes shut and tried to surpress the moan that
escaped him, as he was made to lie back on the cool grass.

“Easy.” Wilmington finally found his voice. “We need to check you out, before the trip back
home.”

The teen nodded and hazel eyes opened once more to focus on Buck. “Home sounds real good.”

“When did you get sick, J.D.?” The urgency in Vin’s tone brought the youth’s attention to him.

“After I ate,” the kid explained. “It hit me all of a sudden.”

Buck laid his hand on their partner’s forehead, and frowned as he registered a slight fever.”How
are you feeling, now?”

J.D. closed his eyes again and licked at his dry lips before attempting to answer. “Better. My
stomach still hurts some, but not as bad.”

“His fever isn’t like it was,” Kade inserted. “I don’t understand it. He seemed fine before..”

“Before you kidnapped him!” Buck interrupted, letting his dangerous gaze settle on the other
man. “Maybe something you did caused him to get sick.”

The accusation brought a look of anger across Cantrell’s face. “I seen the boy wasn’t harmed,
Wilmington. Why would I come get you if I knew why he was ill?”

“This ain’t gettin’ us nowhere,” Vin pointed out. “We all agree that J.D. needs to be back in Four
Corners, so that’s what we should be workin’ on. Not who’s to blame.”

“He didn’t hurt me, Buck,” J.D. reached up and wrapped his fingers around the gunslinger’s shirt
sleeve. “He kept Kale from it, too.”

Buck covered the smaller hand with one of his own, his voice soothing once more. “I believe
you, kid. Besides, as soon as Vin gets you to Nate, he’ll be able to fix you up in no time.”

J.D. was nothing , if not perceptive. Instanly, he picked up on the exclusion Buck had mindlessly
given away. “What about you?”

Wilmington gave Vin a helpless look before facing the teen once more. “I’m staying here , kid.
There’s some matters that need to be straightened out.”

“No way,” J.D. declared pushing himself to a sitting position, despite the hold the tracker now
had on him. “We won’t leave you here. That, Kale, is about as stable as a case of dynamite. He
wants to kill you , Buck.”

“You listen to me, J.D.,” Buck spoke softly. “No matter what happens, I need to know that you’re
safe, do you understand me. This has nothing to do with you or Vin. That’s why you both are
going to hightail it out of here.”

“Damn you,” the teen said , heatedly, his hand going to his stomach, as the strain of his rage took
it’s toll. “I ain’t no boy that you can order around, Buck. I won’t do it.”

“Yes you will, son.” Kade’s voice was cool and stern , as if he had dealt with a rebellious youth
on regular occasions. “You won’t like it, but one way or another, you and the tracker are
leaving.” The older man pinned J.D. with an icy look that dared him to disagree.

The teen didn’t seem affected as he met the glare with one of his own. “You might as well finish
me now.”
 
“J.D.,” Buck started only to have Vin raise a hand in the air to silence him.

“Something’s not right,” the tracker said softly, standing up and whirling around to scan the
tree-line behind them.

“Funny,” a deep voice growled. “I think things are going right as planned.” Kale Cantrell stepped
from the shadows, a rifle held at ready.

Vin cursed inwardly for letting them be ambushed yet again,  as two more men emerged from the
cover of the forest to take his weapon and Kade’s also. They must have came from the back of
the cabin.

“Kale! What the hell is going on?” The younger Cantrell turned on his brother.

“Don’t act so shocked and indignant, Kade. Afterall, I should be the one questioning you.” The
big red-haired giant poked a long finger at the shorter man. “You did betray me and Tommy after
all.”

Kade let his eyes drift to the young blond who was looking at him like some preacher that had
just witnessed a vile act of blasphemy. “I can explain.”

“You don’t have to,” Kale laughed , unexpectedly, throwing an arm around his brother’s
shoulder and pulling him close to his side. “You did exactly what I expected you to, junior. Hell,
I don’t think things would have turned out any better if I’d planned it myself.”

The oldest Cantrell paused, and then scratched at his head as if he were remembering something.
“Wait a minute! I did plan it , myself.”

Buck and Vin exchanged confused glances, and by the look on Kade Cantrell’s face, they weren’t
the only ones that were feeling lost. “What?”

“Kale said you’d go against us on this one,” Tommy’s tone held an edge of disappointment Buck
always feared he’d have to hear in J.D.’s one day. “I didn’t believe him.”

“Tommy, I wasn’t going to...”

“What?” Kale slapped his brother on the back. “You weren’t going to let our prize get away?
You weren’t going to squash our only hopes of avenging Dane’s death? What exactly do you call
this, visiting hour?”

“I was going to let the boy go. He’s sick, Kale.” Kade defended , earnestly. “His death was never
part of the plan.”

Red grinned, his eyes finally meeting Buck’s . “The boy wouldn’t have died. I was real careful
about what mushrooms I used.”

“Mushrooms?” Wilmington threw a withering look at the tracker, who had positioned himself at
J.D.’s side.

“Tasty little garnishes, if you eat the right ones.” Kale shrugged.

“Deadly if you don’t know what you’re looking for,” Vin said, angrily. “You could have killed
him.”

“You poisoned the boy!” Kade grabbed the front of his brother’s coat. “How could you?”

“Only with the help of my brothers, of course,” Kale replied. “I had Tommy gather the fancy
fungus, and I made sure they were chopped up nicely so as to blend right in with those beans, that
‘you’ convinced J.D.to eat. You know what they say, a family that melees together, stays
together.’’

“You sonuvabitch,” Kade shoved the older man. “You used me. I was just another piece of your
sick puzzle.”

“I knew you couldn’t watch the kid suffer, Kade. It’s nothing personal, but you’re not cut out for
killing.”

“And you are?!” The dark-haired Cantrell threw his hands in the air. “And Tommy is?! Is that
what you want for him? What the hell’s happened to you, Kale.”

“ ‘He’ happened to me!” Kale roared, swinging his gun to cover Buck. “He created the person
you see now.”

Besides a look of pure outrage, Buck stood impassive to the oldest Cantrell’s fury. “You’re
right,” Wilmington agreed. “I caused Dane’s death. I should have listened to you. But, my
mistake doesn’t belong to my friends. Let them go, Kale.”

The big man slowly regained some of his control. “I can’t do that , Buck, old buddy. The whole
reason I had my brother play the hero is so I wouldn’t have to contend with the legendary seven.
Even I’m not arrogant enough to believe that this rag-tag band I’ve put together could take on the
likes of Chris Larabee and his patriots. It would all be for nothing if I let your friends go.” Kale
grinned, menacingly. "Besides, I'm going to enjoy watching you when your little brother dies."

“We had a deal.” Buck turned to Kade. “You gave me your word that J.D. and Vin wouldn’t be
harmed.”

“It doesn’t look like I have a say in family business anymore,” Kade snarled, bringing his
brother’s attention back to him. “I must have..” the middle Cantrell brother stopped mid-sentence
and shook his head. “I must have., “ he tried again, only to stop and put a hand over his
chest.

“You alright, Kade?” Tommy’s young voice no longer sounded brash like before. It was encased
with sincere concern.

“I ..I..don’t., “ Kade stuttered, before bending over with a moan.

Kale instintively reached out to catch his younger brother, a move Kade had counted on.

In one swift movement the middle Cantrell raised his head and plowed full-force into his older
brother, sending them both sprawling. Buck took advantage of the distraction, throwing a punch
to one of the goons behind him, while Vin wrestled a weapon away from a tall man dressed in
a buckskin similar to his.

J.D.’s will to survive, and to protect his friends, overpowered any lasting effects of the poison he
had unkowingly ingested, so he, too, joined the fray.

Buck was in the process of besting two of the hired guns, while Vin had taken down his
opponent and was about to assist J.D., when a shot rang out.

The unexpected eruption startled the group of  brawlers and they froze in mid-action, each man
searching for the source of the disruption.

“Oh god.” Buck heard J.D. gasp, and followed his line of sight to where a very stunned, Vin
Tanner stood motionless.

The tracker’s face registered his surprise, and in seemingly slow motion, he stared down at the
crimson stain now spreading across his shirt.

“Vin!” Wilmington shouted, all thoughts of his opponents cast aside. He started for the bounty
hunter and was almost at his side, when Tanner’s pain-filled blue eyes met his, before he
collapsed in a heap at Buck’s feet.

J.D.’s  chest constricted, and a chilling numbness engulfed him as he watched his friend fall. He
pulled away from the bandit he’d been sparring with, and searched out the shooter responsible for
the dispicable act.

He was more than surprised when his eyes fell on a gaze similar to one he often found when he
looked in a mirror. Tommy Cantrell seemed almost as pale and astounded as Vin had been when
the bullet tore it’s way into his gut. It was obvious that Tanner wouldn't be the only victim of
the fated act, and J.D. couldn’t help but to wonder how Chris Larabee would feel when he was
forced to take the life of someone so young.

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

Continued in Part 2