Slipping Away
By: Penny Montgomery


Rating: PG13
Disclaimer: I don't own any of these characters, don't expect to make a profit, etc.
Warnings: h/c - you'll know my favorite target in the first few paragraphs; only proofed by me,
please forgive errors in spelling and grammar, keep in mind I usually know better.
Author’s Notes: I haven't written this kind of stuff in a while, but I've been inspired and thought
I'd give it a shot. The more I write the better I get - usually - so bear with me!!! (Had a real
problem with the title,  begging for forgiveness!.) Comments and suggestions are welcome and
appreciated. Hope you have as much fun reading this as I did writing it!
Thanks Maggs and Cass for your great feedback and help.
feedback welcome!


Sheriff Kane knew he was lucky. The men in Four Corners had already arrested the murder
suspect that had broken out of his town's jail two days before his  trial. Heck, the fugitive had
even been playing poker with one of 'the seven'  and in the middle of a particularly bad hand he'd
confessed to the escape, bragging that no prison bars could hold him. He might not have known
who he was blabbing to, but more than likely he did, and didn't care.

Kane warned them before they offered to bring him back. He had told them to be careful, that
Jack Taylor was a sneaky, low-life who was wanted for murder - he just neglected to mention the
rest of what he knew. He didn't want to scare the boys away from escorting this prisoner, because
he sure as hell didn't want to ride with the man. Jack Taylor was crazy and unpredictable.
Kane hated the fact that this cutthroat had gotten loose because of him, but he wasn't about to
risk his own neck to get him back.

So maybe if they'd been told he was also wanted for rape and murder in three states they would
have taken the day's ride to Bentonville a little more seriously. If they'd been aware he was an
escape artist of sorts when it came to being captured by the law, they would have kept a closer
watch on the pint-sized criminal.

And if they'd known he liked to kill, liked to maim and didn't care who might come after him,
they would have never given him a chance to get away. Of course they had no way of knowing
that Taylor was a master at blending, at making everyone think he was so little of a threat that
they'd never notice when he finally made his move.

But none of the three men riding with him knew. Until it was too late.


Vin and J.D. were laughing, J.D. eagerly rambling on about it being too quiet and asking Vin
what they were gonna do when they got into town, each on either side of their prisoner. Vin
listened to his younger friend in amused silence - "God, was there anything that didn't thrill this
kid to the bone?"

Nathan rode behind the others, his mind focused on what exactly he'd say when he met Dr.
Manfred Matthews. He had heard the doctor had moved from Louisiana to Bentonville, a tiny,
former mining town where his wife had grown up, to sort of retire. He'd opened a small practice,
but Dr. Matthews spent most of his time writing articles for physician's journals and speaking at
medical colleges. Nathan had read a lot of the man's writings and the anticipation of actually
meeting and talking to this respected surgeon was, to Nathan, as exciting as meeting Bat
Masterson would be to J.D. That's the reason the healer had chosen to ride along with them, after
all they didn't really need his help.

Alone with his own thoughts, Nathan never noticed Taylor, letting his horse hang back slightly,
edging closer to J.D.'s side. He didn't realize the man's hands were already free, and he didn't see
the lightning fast movement as he yanked one of the kid's colts out of its holster.

But Nathan heard the shot. Heard J.D. cry out as he fell off his horse. Heard Vin yell.

It was over in the blink of an eye. By the time Nathan had realized what was going on, Taylor
was disappearing into the rocky terrain. Vin got off a couple of shots, but the fugitive had
already made it to cover.

Nathan jumped off his horse and ran to J.D. Vin sat stunned, not sure if he should chase after
him or stay with his wounded friend.

"Nathan," Vin said quietly, wanting Nathan to tell him which choice to make.

"Let him go for now, Vin, we gotta take care of J.D."

Vin joined Nathan at the boy's side as J.D. lay gasping, in shock. His eyes were wide, but he
hadn't said anything or even moaned.

"J.D.!" Vin called to him, frightened by the kid's glassy stare.

Nathan had already pulled back the boy's coat and vest and was trying to assess his injuries.
"Damn, I don't see where it went out," he said,  untucking J.D.'s shirt from his pants then
pressing the wadded up cloth into the wound, trying to stem the steady flow of blood.

"Vin, give me your coat," Nathan instructed as he felt J.D. began to tremble uncontrollably.

Vin quickly shrugged off the duster and helped Nathan wrap it around J.D. as they both stood
him on his feet. J.D. slumped heavily onto Vin's shoulder, unable to support his own weight. The
tracker wrapped one arm around the kid's back to hold him up as Nathan climbed on his horse.

"Take it easy now," Nathan said to Vin as he reached down to grab J.D. under the arms and Vin
helped him lift him into the saddle in front of Nathan. J.D. suddenly stiffened and screamed and
Nathan had to restrain him to keep them both from falling to the ground.

"J.D., J.D.," Nathan soothed, "Settle down, son." J.D. moaned loudly then slumped forward,
unconscious. Nathan held on to him with one strong arm and pulled him against his chest to keep
him upright.

Vin was beside them, looking worriedly at Nathan.

"He'll be all right now," Nathan said, his voice strained. "We'll get him to Dr. Matthews."


Vin had ridden ahead and found the doctor Nathan had told him about. Dr. Matthews had just
returned home, hoping for a relaxing evening, instead he was setting out his medical supplies as
his daughter prepared a bed, bandages and brought in water.

Vin paced the boardwalk until he saw his friends approaching and he rushed out to help Nathan
get the kid inside and onto the bed.

"Melissa, get his shirt off," the doctor instructed the young lady, not seeming to acknowledge
that either Vin or Nathan was in the room.

The girl was already unbuttoning the blood-soaked garments and Nathan stepped in to help her
sit him up enough to take them off. Dr. Matthews moved in and the girl instinctively cleared out
of his way.

J.D. cried out weakly as the doctor rolled him over to check for an exit wound, then screamed as
Dr. Matthews dispassionately pushed his hand into his wounded side. J.D. started thrashing,
trying to get away from his tormenter and the girl immediately grabbed J.D.'s wrists and tried
restraining him, but he was too strong. Nathan stepped in and took over.

"Thanks," she whispered, grateful for the intervention.

Nathan held onto J.D.'s arms as the doctor continued to press his fingers deep into the boy's side,
oblivious to J.D.'s distress. The healer was torn between concern for his friend and respect for
the doctor, hating the man's lack of a bedside manner, but knowing that medically, J.D. was in
the best hands. Vin had no such conflicts and stepped toward the doctor to stop him.
Nathan shook his head, letting him know it was under control. Vin turned and angrily headed out
the door, unable to watch J.D.'s torture.

Nathan eyed the lanky doctor, realizing the man was much shorter, smaller than he'd pictured
him and his features were pinched, etched with lines from too much harshness and too little
laughter. Nathan knew he was only in his mid-forties, but the man looked 65.

"There it is," the doctor said to himself, his mind making a mental picture of where the bullet
was lodged, still ignoring J.D.'s pain-filled whimpers. "Melissa give him the chloroform now,

Nathan could have sworn the man sounded irritated at J.D. Nathan looked up into the man's eyes,
his face full of questions.

"You can wait outside with your other friend," he said, misreading Nathan's concern.

Nathan shook his head, "Naw, I'm staying with him."

The doctor shrugged his narrow shoulders, "Very well."

Nathan released his grip on J.D. and moved aside for the girl as she poured the chloroform onto
a cloth and placed it over J.D.'s nose. Pain and fear shone in the kid's dark eyes as he began to
flail again, shoving the girl's hand and the rag off his face, surprising her and sending her
stumbling backwards.

"For God's sake girl, watch what you're doing!" the doctor yelled.

Nathan was tired of watching the callous way J.D. was being cared for, famous physician or not.
Apparently he thought caring for people and caring about people were supposed to be two
separate things. Nathan sat on the bed facing J.D. and smoothed a strand of sweat-plastered hair
from the kid's face.

"J.D., it's Nathan, you're all right, son," the black man said. The boy's eyes were coated with tears
that ran down his face as he focused on the healer. He latched onto his friend's shirt, gripping it
until his knuckles turned white.

"Don't let them hurt me no more," J.D. pleaded, and Nathan felt sick.

"Dr. Matthews here is just tryin' to help, ok, he didn't mean to hurt you," Nathan said, casting an
accusing glance at the doctor. Dr. Matthews simply stared back, growing anger the only readable
emotion on his face. Nathan motioned for the girl to hand him the cloth. She hesitated, looking
at her father for guidance.

"I've done this before," Nathan assured her and Melissa slowly handed it over, convinced by the
man's soft words.

"We've got to get that bullet out of you, J.D.," Nathan said quietly as he poured more chloroform
onto the rag. "Here, this will let you sleep so you won't feel a thing."

Nathan raised the cloth toward J.D.'s face and the boy turned his head away, "No!"

"I haven't got all night for you to coddle him," the doctor spoke up. "Give me that."

Nathan snatched his hand back before the doctor could take over.

"Give the boy a minute!" Nathan spat, his temper finally showing. "He's hurt and he's scared,
don't you have any feelings?"

The doctor looked furious, but he kept his mouth shut.

"J.D., come on, when this is over you're gonna feel a whole lot better," Nathan said, wiping the
tears off the boy's cheeks. "I promise."

J.D. swallowed hard and nodded. Nathan put one hand behind the boy's head and slightly raised
him off the pillow, placing the cloth over his nose and mouth. He could feel J.D. struggle a little,
his eyes wide and terrified. Nathan knew the effect of the chloroform was disconcerting, knew it
felt like you were being suffocated at first so he tried to assure his friend everything was all right.
Within seconds he felt J.D.'s body relax and then go completely limp and he gently placed his
head back on the pillow.

"Ok, doctor," Nathan said, his voice tired, his anger drained. He had no doubt the doctor would
successfully remove the bullet, but he refused to leave his friend's side again. He trusted this man
with the physical part of J.D., but never again would he trust him with the emotional.


J.D. gasped and opened his eyes. The throbbing in his side confirmed the  incident on the trail
had been real - not just a horrible nightmare he could  awaken from. The room was quiet and for
a moment he almost panicked thinking  he was alone. He let out a small sigh of relief when he
saw Nathan nearby, his head dropped to his chest, a book open on his lap. His side hurt
tremendously, especially after the girl had changed the bandage, but he hadn't wanted to let her
see him whine about it. It was embarrassing enough that once when it had gotten so bad he
couldn't help but cry out. He hated that he didn't have the strength to fight the pain, but she hadn't
seemed to mind.

He smiled at the thought of her. She reminded him a lot of his mother in the gentleness of her
touch and the way her long dark hair fell on her shoulders, but the comparison ended there. She
was the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen and even in his fevered state he was enamoured with
her. He laughed to himself, remembering waking up and believing he was being taken to heaven
by the most glorious spirit ever imagined.

A hot stab of pain hit him as he moved slightly and his stifled scream came out as a high-pitched
moan. He saw Nathan shift in his chair so he pretended to be asleep in case his friend woke up.
He lay quietly and soon heard Nathan's rhythmic breathing once more. J.D. opened his eyes and
let out a long sigh, cursing to himself as he felt a tear roll down his cheek and settle in his ear. He
was so tired and any minute movement sent waves of pain coursing through his body. He
couldn't sleep so there was nothing else he could do, but lay there and cry.


Nathan didn't wake up when Lissa came back in and put a blanket on him and one on Vin, nor
did he stir when she sat next to J.D. and tried to console the youth.

Lissa had awaken from a deep sleep herself and decided to check on the boy to ease her mind.
She'd found him sobbing, and gave him another dose of the herbs to calm his nerves and help
with the pain. She'd told Nathan the truth about her father not approving of her herbal remedies,
she just didn't tell him that he basically disapproved of any type of pain killer at all. He'd
give laudanum usually, like he did with J.D., but it really didn't do much more than dull the
senses. He'd give morphine now and then, but unless they were missing a limb or something, he
thought they were better off without it. Lissa hated going behind his back, but she couldn't stand
to see his patients suffer.

"There, that'll make you feel better," Lissa said, as J.D. swallowed the awful tasting concoction.
"Next time tell me you're hurting."

"I'm sorry," J.D. said, biting his lip to stop it from trembling. "I didn't want you...anyone to see
me crying like a baby or something." J.D. turned his head from Lissa and he reached up with his
hand, angrily wiping the tears off his face.

"J.D., everyone, even tough gunfighters need a release, and I'd be lying to you if I said you were
the first grown man I've seen cry," Lissa said.

J.D. rolled his head back to look in her eyes, his face a little less tormented, the words "grown
man" would have made him beam had he not felt so bad.

"Matter of fact, I've seen some really mean outlaw-types bawling for their mommas and they
weren't in nearly as much pain as you're in," she smiled. "It's the fever and the terrible ordeal
you've been through. Trust me, nobody's gonna think you're a baby."

Lissa laughed softly at the boy's lost puppy-dog gaze, but J.D. didn't take offense. The melodic
sound of it even triggered a grin, knowing she wasn't making fun of him.

"Are you a doctor?" he asked, his voice raspy.

"Let's just say I've studied a lot and I've helped my father since I was a little girl. So I guess that
means I know a little bit about being a doctor."

"You're good at it," he said, closing his eyes.

"Thanks. It's just the woman in me," she smiled, putting her hand on his and squeezing

J.D. wished he had the strength to pull her close and kiss that wonderful mouth, but all he could
do was smile blissfully at the notion. This girl was different than any he'd ever encountered. She
seemed so confident, so poised, older but with an innocent face that belied her wisdom.

"J.D.? What is it?" she asked, noticing his peaceful expression.

"Nothing," he said, opening his eyes.

"So what do you do in Four Corners?" she asked, snapping the boy back from his fantasy.

"We're sorta the law there," he said proudly.

"Oh, really?" Lissa said, her voice rising as if extremely impressed. "Just how old are you, J.D.?"

"Older than I look," he countered, forcing his drooping eyelids to stay open long enough to focus
on Lissa's incredible eyes.

"So, that makes you...what...about, oh, 45?"

J.D. laughed, then immediately regretted it. "Ohhh," he cried out as the pain in his side stopped
him cold.

"I'm sorry, J.D.," Lissa said, grimacing in sympathy. "My jokes usually don't get much of a

J.D. grinned in spite of himself, "Mine either."

"Come on, stop fighting the medicine and go to sleep," she said, tucking the blankets around his

"Is Buck coming?" the boy asked, trying to distract her from the sleep issue.

"I don't know. Who's Buck?"

"My best friend," J.D. answered quickly.

"Oh, yeah? Is he as handsome as you?" Lissa asked.

J.D.'s already flushed face turned redder as he nodded slightly. "Buck always gets the girl."

"I don't know...," Lissa's voice trailed as she shook her head in disbelief. "I'm sure you've broken
a few hearts yourself." She winked and leaned in, kissing him softly on the forehead.

J.D. could feel his head swirling in a way that had nothing to do with his physical condition. He
smiled weakly, grateful for her understanding and her company. Lissa wiped away the last traces
of J.D.'s tears with her fingers.

J.D. grasped her hand. "Don't leave, please," he whispered, his eyes pleading with her.

"I'll be right here if you need me, ok? I'm not going anywhere." She brushed the hair away from
his face. "Now get some sleep!" she said softly, but with authority.

J.D. nodded, afraid any more words would bring on another flood of tears. He didn't want to
sleep, he wanted to watch her sweet face, wanted her to stand over him and protect him forever.
J.D. could feel his mind drift, his logic become fuzzy as he finally slipped into a deep slumber.


At first light, Vin had sneaked past Nathan and Lissa and rode back to the spot where they'd lost
Taylor. He purposely avoided the exact same path he and Nathan had used, not wanting to see
any reminders in the form of J.D.'s bloodstains along the way. He'd steeled himself for seeing the
place they'd been attacked, but pulled his mount short when saw the dark splatters along
the rocks and the puddles still drying in the dirt. Vin turned his head, choking down a gag and
forced himself to focus only on Taylor's tracks.

Anger replaced nausea as he followed the outlaw's path. Anger at himself almost as much as
Taylor. "Can't blame Nathan," he thought to himself. "Can't blame J.D. either, he was following
me. I know you never, never let your guard down with a man like that."

But Vin knew he had, and when he relaxed the kid had too, and that lack of judgement had
almost gotten J.D. killed, hell, had almost gotten them all killed. His mind lead him to retrace his
mistake over and over, telling himself what he should have done differently, but didn't, and it was
the fact he couldn't take it back that tormented him so. And now, oh God, he even felt
a twinge of guilt for being glad he wouldn't be in Bentonville when Buck got there. Nope. Vin
had rather butt horns with the devil himself than witness that gut-wrenching look the man got
when the kid got hurt. And no matter what happened, Buck always somehow found a way to
blame himself. Vin knew he'd appointed himself the kid's big brother without ever really
meaning to, but it was done - etched in stone - period - and Buck took his role seriously.

Vin admitted to getting a little of those paternal feelings more than once himself, even though he
wasn't much more than a few years older than J.D. The kid just seemed so young and naive it was
hard not to over-protect him sometimes. Vin swallowed hard, his mind drifting from the trail he
was following to the last look he got of J.D. before he set out. He could see the boy's pale face,
how shallow and labored his breathing had been, and that damn doctor who seemed to care less
about J.D. than his ability to play God.

Vin couldn't understand how Nathan could admire someone like that - how he could just stand by
and let him treat J.D. so callously. The anger flared up again, strengthening Vin's resolve. He
turned all his attention to his mission - to find Taylor and pray the man gave him a reason to
blow his head off.


"Damn it, Melissa! Don't you know how this looks?!"

Both Melissa and Nathan awoke abruptly to the sound of Dr. Matthews booming voice. Nathan
jumped up, bracing himself to face the intruder, but the doctor was focused on his daughter.

Dr. Matthews grabbed Lissa by the arm and dragged her from the chair at J.D.'s bedside.
"Sleeping in the same room with strange men!" he screamed.

"Father!" she cried out softly, startled by his outburst, her heart thumping wildly.

"Dr. Matthews!" Nathan exclaimed, his gaze directed at J.D. as the boy opened his eyes in panic.

"Let her go!" J.D. yelled and sat up, half-asleep, not even sure of what was going on, but
determined to protect Lissa. He cried out as he felt the rip in his side and collapsed back onto the

Nathan rushed to him and Lissa yanked her arm out of her father's grasp and turned to J.D.

"I'm ok, J.D., just take it easy," Lissa soothed, trying to calm him.

"Melissa, get me some more bandages and cool water," Dr. Matthews said as he firmly pushed
her aside to examine the boy. Nathan bristled and looked toward the window. Vin was gone.

"She's been doing a real good job with him," Nathan said, his voice strained with controlled fury.

The doctor said nothing as he pulled down the blanket. He quickly and expertly removed the
bloody bandage from J.D.'s side and the boy let out a pain-filled gasp.

Lissa stopped short of the door and started to turn around, but Dr. Matthews shot her a stern look
and her worried eyes met Nathan's just a moment before she continued to do as she'd been

Nathan turned his attention back to J.D., who was moaning and trying to pull away from Dr.
Matthew's experienced, yet totally unsympathetic touch.

"Hold him still, will you," the doctor said as he poured the carbolic solution into the wound and
J.D. almost launched himself off the bed.

Nathan grabbed the boy's shoulders and tried to pin him to the sheets. "Just hang on, son, you're
gonna be ok" Nathan said.

"Where's Lissa?" J.D. gasped, breathing in ragged gulps.

"She'll be back in a minute, kid," Nathan soothed, watching as the doctor went about his business
of re-bandaging the wound. Nathan looked on with contempt as he compared this man's rote
method with the tenderness his daughter had shown and how much easier it had been on J.D.
when he was in her care.

If J.D. hadn't needed this man, Nathan would have punched his teeth in right at that second. The
arrogant, dispassionate attitude was infuriating and Nathan was finding it harder and harder to
keep his tongue in check.

J.D. gave a loud groan, "Nathan, I'm gonna be sick." He leaned forward, toward Dr. Matthews
and threw up. The doctor escaped with only a few splatters on his coat but he quickly stood up,
holding his arms away from his body like he was in danger of contracting the Black Plague.

Lissa walked in with fresh blankets and bandages and stared at the scene in front of her. Where
Nathan read disgust on her father's face, he saw only compassion on the girl's.

"Melissa, get this cleaned up, I have some house-calls to make," Dr. Matthews said, stepping
away from the bed, grabbing one of the rags from her arms to clean his sleeves.

That was the last straw, and Nathan could hold back no longer. He motioned for Lissa, who sat
down her bundle and came to J.D.'s side. "It's ok, honey," she said, wiping his mouth with a clean
cloth. J.D. was very close to tears again, but he held them back for her.

Nathan stalked his way around the bed and stood in front of Dr. Matthews. The doctor looked up
from his task and took a slight step backwards. Nathan's eyes blazed and nothing was going to
prevent him from venting his thoughts.

"Outside, now," was all Nathan said as he escorted him into the hallway.

"Now listen," Matthews stammered as Nathan pulled the door shut behind them.

"No, it's your turn to listen," Nathan said, leaning down into the older man's face. "I've watched
your daughter in there, takin' care of that boy like it was her brother and all I've seen you do is
berate her and tell her she's not good enough to wipe your boots."

Dr. Matthews stared, dumbstruck that a...a "negro" would have the nerve to speak to him in such
a manner. But the underlying anger in Nathan's voice made the doctor think twice before pointing
that out to the larger man.

"Whether or not she ever learns a thing about medicine, she's still a better doctor than you'll ever
be!" Nathan said, his voice growing louder as he edged toward the doctor.

Dr. Matthews' defenses raised at the last statement and he stood straight and looked into Nathan's
eyes. "If that is how you feel about it, then I suggest you take the boy and get him to a doctor you
find more to your liking. I'll give you until tomorrow morning to get out of my house."

The doctor pushed past Nathan and stomped out the door. Nathan knew he'd messed up, messed
up bad for J.D. He couldn't be moved right now, and Dr. Matthews knew it. He wasn't sure what
was going to happen when they both cooled off, but Nathan hoped Chris and the others had
gotten Vin's telegram and would make it to town before Dr. Matthews tried to throw them out.


Later that afternoon, Nathan was getting extremely worried about J.D. The boy's fever was still
hanging on and any attempt to help him sit up or get out of bed sent him into screaming fits. He'd
gotten sick twice more, but at least Lissa had the foresight to put a wash basin near his bed so
they weren't changing sheets each time.

After the doctor left that morning both had been so busy with J.D., neither had spoken about
what was said between Nathan and Dr. Matthews. Lissa had disappeared shortly afterward and
Nathan was worried that her father had forbidden her to come back. He breathed a heavy sigh of
relief when the girl softly knocked on the door.

Nathan opened it and she came in quickly, carrying a stack of medical books from her room.
"I'm sorry, I didn't realize it was so late," she said, out of breath. She placed the books on the
floor by J.D.'s bed.

"How's he doing?" she asked, laying her hand softly on his cheek.

"He's had a few rough spells," Nathan said, standing beside her. "Finally got to sleep about a half
hour ago."

"I thought we'd read through these and see if we can find a reason he's having so much trouble,"
she said, pointing to the books.

The door opened and Lissa jumped, quickly pushing the textbooks under the bed with one quick
motion of her foot.

Dr. Matthews stood briefly in the doorway before making his way to see his patient. "Do you
mind if I check the boy?" he asked Nathan, his manner sincere.

Nathan nodded and walked to the opposite side of the bed and the two locked eyes. Neither said
a word, but Dr. Matthews got Nathan's message loud and clear - don't hurt him. He gingerly
pulled up the bandage and laid his hand lightly on the boy's bruised abdomen. J.D. shifted and
groaned, but didn't wake up.

"He's thrown up a coupla more times and says it feels like he's being stabbed with a hot knife
when he tries to move," Nathan told him.

"He has a slight infection, probably brought on from the stress of the ride here," Dr. Matthews
answered as replaced the bandage and put his palm on the boy's forehead. "Continue to bathe
him in cool water and keep carbolic acid in the wound. I'll have the cook prepare some broth, he
should be able to keep that down."

"Yes, Father, but it shouldn't hurt him so much to move, should it?" Lissa asked, her eyes
begging for his advice.

"He has a hole in his side," he quipped, then softened. "Give him laudanum when he can't sleep,
he should be fine within the next couple of days." He picked up his medical bag and started
through the open door. "Oh, and Melissa."

Lissa looked up at him, knowing that tone of voice was not to be ignored.

"See that you're in bed at a decent hour. I don't want a repeat of last night," he said firmly as he
disappeared into the hallway.

Lissa sighed in frustration and shut the door behind him.

"Maybe your daddy's right, Lissa, we had a hard ride here and I didn't have a chance to clean the
wound," Nathan's voice trailed.

"Maybe…but I just have this feeling we're overlooking something. I know Father is very good at
what he does. He's been using techniques other doctors started out laughing at him for, you
know, like soaking instruments and sutures, even his hands  in carbolic acid to stop infection."

"I know," Nathan said. "I've read most of his articles, even tried out a few of his procedures

"And so have those same doctors who made light of him. They end up following his methods
too, because they work." She smiled sadly, "Now if I could only get him to actually take
someone else's advice…"

J.D. started mumbling and tossing his head, obviously dreaming. Nathan let out a weary sigh and
placed a hand on the kid's shoulder to calm him. "No," J.D. said, struggling slightly, but his voice
was relaxed. Nathan soaked another rag with cool water and began to wipe the boy's flushed
face. J.D. jerked slightly at the touch, then settled back into his pillow. Nathan couldn't deny he
had the same nagging doubt, something just wasn't right.

Nathan looked up into Lissa's sincere eyes and at that moment he trusted her opinion more than
he'd ever trust her father's. His was a medicine based on fact, hers was of gut instincts and human
concern, and Nathan knew there were times when that proved more valuable than all the training
money could buy.

"If he won't listen, then we'll have to figure it out ourselves," Nathan said.

Lissa stooped to retrieve the books from under the bed. "Good, I was hoping you'd say that," she
grinned, "Personally, I have all night."

Nathan nodded his head. God, he was tired and emotionally whipped, but eager to do anything
but just sit here and watch J.D. suffer. He reached across the sleeping boy and took one of the
books the girl handed him. "I hope that's all it takes," he said solemnly. "Your father wants us out
in the morning."

"When did he say that?" she cried, her eyes narrowing.

"This morning. I  guess he didn't like me giving him my opinion on a few things," Nathan

"Don't worry about that, you're not going anywhere, ok?" Lissa said defiantly. "He won't kick you
out, I can assure you of that."


As darkness closed in, Vin stopped his search and set up a makeshift camp. He sat, stoking the
fire he'd made, not really feeling like cooking anything now that he'd gotten it started. An almost
silent crunch of boots on rocks caused him to jump, pulling his gun up and leveling it at the

"Mr. Tanner, I'd appreciate it if you would abdicate your weaponry before some innocent
bystander is shot dead where he stands."

"Howdy, Ezra," Vin said, laying his rifle beside him. "You too, Chris."

Chris appeared out of the shadows behind the gambler and grinned. "Now how'd you know I'd be
fool enough to follow you?"

"Just a guess," Vin smiled, his eyes tired. "I must have taught you a thing or two about followin' a
trail, didn't think you'd find me so soon."

"You weren't exactly hiding your tracks," Chris said, plopping himself on the ground next to
Vin's fire. "What's for supper?"

"Whatever you brought."

Ezra finished tethering the horses then joined the pair. "I for one, gentlemen, would just as soon
sleep, if you don't mind. Mr. Larabee deemed it necessary to expedite our journey and I was
unprepared for such a laborious endeavor."  He settled back against a boulder, using his bedroll
as a pillow and closing his eyes.

"Yeah, I'm tired too," Vin said, a small grin breaking on his face.

"What happened Vin?" Chris asked, his voice soft and low.

Vin shook his head. "We just weren't paying attention and he got the jump on us." Vin looked at
Chris, then at Ezra who had remained alert enough to listen to the conversation. "It was stupid. I
should have kept my eye on him," he said softly.

"Mr. Tanner, the man you were escorting was a most anomalous criminal. He's extremely crafty
and quite experienced in escapes," Ezra interjected. "No one's been able to retain possession of
him for any extended period."

"I take that to mean he's famous for gettin' away?" Vin asked Ezra.


"How come we'd never heard of him?"

"He likes changin' his name, and what he looks like so it's hard to keep track of him. That's how
he fools just about everybody," Chris drawled, then seeing Vin's frustrated expression added.
"You plannin' on bringing him in alive?"

The question surprised Vin, and he let out a soft chuckle, "Got to admit I hope not. I can't believe
I let the runt get the jump on us."

"No way to foresee somethin' like that," Chris said. "Make it a lesson for the next time."

Vin looked at him, his eyes not hiding the weariness and guilt he felt.

"Well, my lesson almost got J.D. killed," Vin said quietly.

Chris shrugged his shoulders. "Just the way things are, Vin. Seems it's always the innocent who
end up payin' for everyone else's mistakes," Chris said sadly, the gunslinger's gaze reminding Vin
that he knew the pain that of that truth too. "Beatin' yourself up over it won't change a thing."

"I reckon, but nothin' else to do 'til I catch him," Vin said, settling back into his bedroll and
pulling his hat over his eyes.

"Then I reckon we'd better hurry up and get him then," Chris replied.


By 7 p.m., Nathan and Lissa had been studying for more than three hours with no real answers.
Nathan felt his eyes start to shut and he got up to stretch his legs. Lissa put down the book she
was reading and let out a yawn.

"It's too early to be this tired," she chastised herself.

"Naw," Nathan shook his head and walked to the window and lifted up the pane. The sky was
growing dark and the wind had picked up in the last few hours since he'd been outside - it
seemed like a week ago. He watched as a rider came trotting in front of the office and stopped.
Nathan straightened up, recognizing the horse and its occupant immediately and went outside to
met him.

"Damn, Buck, it's good to see you," he greeted his friend.

"Nathan, is he all right?" Buck asked, taken a little off-guard by Nathan's welcome.

Nathan shook his head, "We got the bullet out, but we can't figure out why he's still hurtin' so

Nathan led the way inside and Buck rushed to the bed where J.D. lay, tossing restlessly. He
noticed the girl sitting beside the bed and managed a weak smile.

"Hello, Miss," Buck said, removing his hat and reaching for her hand.

Lissa stood up and smiled as he kissed her hand, "Call me Lissa. You must be the infamous

Buck's eyes brightened. "Now don't go believing everything this kid here tells you about me," he
said winking.

J.D.'s eyes fluttered and he turned his head toward his friend's voice, "Buck?"

"I guess I'd better make an appearance at supper," Lissa said, quickly moving toward the door as
Buck's attention returned to the boy. He sat down on the edge of the chair she'd just vacated and
leaned over J.D.

"Hey, kid, how you doing?" Buck said, relief and worry crossing his face in the same instant.

"I'm fine," J.D. answered automatically, then recanted, "Well, that might be an exaggeration,

"Just might," Buck said, smoothing the kid's wet hair off his brow and letting his hand rest on his

"Hey, Buck," he looked over for the girl. "Did you see Lissa?"

"Sure did, and that's a mighty fine lookin' nurse you got there."

"No, Buck, she's a doctor." J.D. stated firmly. "Buck," he whispered.

"Yeah, kid," Buck whispered back without realizing it.

"I think...I think I'm in love with her."

Buck couldn't control the grin that spread across his face and he looked across the room at
Nathan who returned his smile. "Well I can't say as I blame you, J.D."

"So don't go using that animal magitism stuff on her, ok?" J.D. said, fighting to hold his eyes

"I'll try to keep it under control, kid," Buck said, his voice cracking slightly.

"Good," J.D. sighed and closed his eyes, exhausted from the short exchange.

Buck stared down at his young friend and slowly tousled the boy's hair. He bit his lip and looked
helplessly at Nathan.

Nathan couldn't stand the look on Buck's face, knowing he wasn't doing a good job of hiding his
worry either. Buck got up and walked over to him.

"Where's that doctor you were going on about, Nathan? Isn't he helping you take care of him?"

"We, uh, sort of had a disagreement, I'm not sure he'll be back," Nathan said bluntly.

"What!" Buck's voice rose, but he quickly brought it back down to just above a whisper. "Nathan,
if you don't know what's wrong with him, then we need that other doctor, right?"

"He don't know either, Buck. That's what I'm trying to tell you."

"So, what does that mean? You've both given up?!" Buck yelled softly.

"No, at least I haven't...and Lissa hasn't," Nathan said, hurt that Buck would think he'd just let
J.D. die without a fight.

"J.D. said she's a doctor too, is that right?"

"Not exactly, but she's darn close enough. Better than me and probably gonna be a hell of a lot
better than her daddy."

"Gonna be?"

"We just gotta wait and see what happens, and hopefully, between Lissa and me, we'll figure this

Buck was too tired to argue anymore. He knew Nathan would do everything he could for J.D.
and he didn't want to make him think otherwise. And, too, Buck didn't really want to know what
would happen if they didn't find out what was wrong with the kid. He wasn't ready to cross that
bridge just yet either.

"Get some sleep, Nathan, you look like hell," Buck said, slapping his friend on the back.

"Thanks," Nathan said sarcastically, then added. "Buck, where's Chris and the others?"

"Josiah stayed in town, Chris and Ezra went after Vin," Buck stated.

"How did he know..."

"Chris knew Vin wouldn't wait on us, so he figured he needed to find him as soon as he could,"
Buck said. "He was pretty damn mad about everything Nathan."

"Mad at us?"

"No, mad at the sheriff that sent that feller with you guys without warning you. That man's
murdered eight people, including two women. Travis knows about him, says he likes to get
caught cause he likes the challenge of getting loose again. But most of all, this guy likes to kill,
enjoys it, gets a thrill out of it."

"Crazy son-of-a-bitch. You'd have never guessed it, Buck. He was so meek and never talked back
or acted like he wanted any trouble. I guess that's how we let our guard down," Nathan said,
shaking his head slightly.

"Ain't your fault, that's what he's good at," Buck said, running a hand absently through his hair as
he looked over at J.D. who was finally sleeping quietly. "Damn, if there's trouble within 40 miles
how come that kid can always find it?"

"It's a gift," Nathan said. His tone was serious and that's what made it so funny to Buck. The
tension of the past two days came flooding out as they both broke into  fits of laughter, shushing
each other to keep the noise down.


The Matthews' evening meal conversation consisted of brief pleasantries and pass this or that.
Lissa was exceptionally quiet and her mother was worried.

"Lissa, honey, what's wrong," her mother coaxed.

"I'm fine, Mother," Lissa said, trying to finish her food so she could leave her father's company.

"You've hardly said a word all evening," she continued.

"And I must say it's been a most peaceful change," Dr. Matthews smiled, eyeing his daughter.

Lissa shot him a "go to hell" look that took the man by surprise.

"Young lady, I will not have you rolling your eyes at me," he said, his voice stern, but controlled.

"What on earth is bothering you, honey?" her mother's insistence finally giving Lissa the courage
to confront her father.

"Did you tell Mr. Jackson he had to get J.D. out of your house by morning?" Lissa said, her eyes
blazing and unwavering from his.

"I don't see how that's any concern of yours," he stated, taking another bite of his steak.

"I've been taking care of him for the past day and a half, that makes him my concern," Lissa said,
her own rage barely below the surface. "And I won't let him die because of your stubbornness!"

Both her parents gasped at their daughter's outburst.

"Lissa...stop being overly dramatic…" her mother started, but the poor woman was all but
ignored as father and daughter focused solely on each other.

"I am the doctor, this is my practice. You will not interfere in my business, Melissa," he said, his
voice calm, but his eyes warned her she was on dangerous ground.

"Business? You think practicing medicine is just a business?"

"I do not have to explain..."

"What about the Hippocratic Oath, Father!" Lissa interrupted, her voice growing steadily louder
as she pushed her chair back and stood to face him. "Or do you think a mere girl is too stupid to
understand what that means either?"

"Melissa, I am growing tired of this rebellious attitude and this ridiculous notion you have about
becoming a doctor! Now sit down and get control of yourself before I do something we will both
regret!" Dr. Matthews screamed, slamming his fist down on the table.

Mrs. Matthews jumped, then put her head in her hands in total despair.

"Please, please, just stop it!" she cried.

Lissa and her father continued to stare at each other, neither averting their eyes nor saying a
word. In total frustration Lissa threw her napkin on the table and stormed out of the room.

"What in the hell has gotten into her?!" Dr. Matthews yelled, throwing his own napkin as well.
"She's becoming Dorothy all over again, and I for one will not allow her to be anything like your

"She's just restless, dear, she'll settle down once she starts her own family," her mother said,
defending her daughter to her irate husband.

"Well, she's taking her sweet time about finding a husband! Half the men in this territory would
kill to court her and she's not the least bit interested in any of them, is she?"

"There aren't a lot of suitable candidates around here, Manford," she said, her voice steady.

"We've introduced her to plenty of eligible young men. She's just going to have to stop being so
picky, because I refuse to put up with her back talk any longer!" he said, getting up from the table
and grabbing his coat. "I need some air," he told his wife and he let the door slam behind him.


Lissa took a deep breath, composing herself before going back into her father's office. Buck still
sat next to J.D.'s bed, same as when she'd left. He looked up and smiled when he saw her.

"How's he been?" she asked, hurriedly, choking back tears from the confrontation earlier.

"Still sleepin'," Buck said. He noticed her face was red and her eyes looked ready to overflow.
"Are you all right, Lissa?"

She nodded, and faked a smile as she placed her palm on J.D.'s flushed cheek.

"Did you talk to your father?" he asked.

"Uh, sort of. He's never going to listen to me, Buck," Lissa said, a tear escaping and rolling down
her face as she looked up.

There were few things Buck couldn't ignore, and a woman in distress was at the top of that list.
He quickly got up and wrapped his arms around her slight shoulders in a bear hug. The girl didn't
resist; instead she hugged him back without hesitation.

"It'll be ok, sweetheart," Buck comforted the distraught girl, holding her head close to his chest as
her body shook and her tears moistened the front of his shirt. "I'm not gonna let anything happen
to J.D. or to you."

Lissa had known this man less than an hour, yet she instinctively knew he was a trustworthy
friend. Their mutual concern for the boy sealed that bond and filled in the gaps time had not yet
had a chance to. Buck adored her already, because J.D. did. And Lissa had never seen such
devotion to friends as she'd seen Buck, Nathan and Vin show toward their young partner and it
touched her soul.

Lissa sobbed for a few minutes before breaking the embrace. Buck gripped her slender arms and
held her in front of him.

"Lissa, I don't know exactly what's going on between you and your father, but he doesn't, you
know, hit you or anything does he?"

"Oh no, he wouldn't do that," she replied, shaking her head.

Buck looked deep into her eyes to see if she was lying, but he didn't think so.

"I have decided that as soon as J.D.'s well enough, I'm going to stay with my Aunt Dorothy in
Boston. She's told me she can help me get into New York Medical College. Something I've
wanted do my whole life."

"I think that's great, Lissa, but why now?" Buck asked.

"I didn't want to disappoint my father, I guess. I wanted to have his blessing first, but he's never
going to change - is he?"

Buck shook his head, "I don't know, darlin'. From what Nathan's told me, it seems he's pretty set
in his thinkin'."

"That's what I thought," she smiled weakly.

The hurt in Lissa's eyes brought out the mother hen in Buck and all he wanted to do was make
her feel better. "I truly appreciate all you're doin' to help J.D." he smiled, his dark blue eyes
sparkling with gratitude.

"He's a great kid," she smiled, casting an affectionate glance at her patient.

"Oh, don't let him hear you call him that," Buck grinned. "I think J.D.'s done fallen head over
heels for you, Miss."

"Happens all the time," she laughed. "Of course, then most of them recover from their delirium
and I'm outta luck."

Buck took her hand and gently squeezed. "You could have the pick of any man with decent sight
and a working brain…and I'm not running a fever," he winked.

Lissa blushed and looked at the floor, embarrassed by his kind words. Buck reached out his hand
and lifted her chin to look him in the eye. "Just make sure you get one who'll treat you like the
princess you are."

Lissa held her breath and stared into his eyes. Never had she dreamed of encountering a man so
gentle and kind, that was also stronger than her father, in his harshness, could ever be.

"Thank you," she whispered, forcing herself to break his gaze. "Uh, where's Nathan?" she
stammered, just now realizing the healer wasn't there.

"He went to grab a bath and a meal, he's been cooped up in here too long."

"Why don't you go do the same, I want to sit with J.D. for a while."

Buck started to protest and she shook her head. "Now I don't want to hear any excuses."

Buck's face relaxed and he feigned shock, "So you sayin' I need a bath?"

Lissa laughed at his mock look of hurt, "A lady would not be so bold as to come right out and say
it, but you did have a hard ride here and..."

Buck threw up his hands, "Ok, ok, I can take a hint. I won't be gone long, but come get me or
Nathan if he needs anything, all right?"

"You know I will."

Buck socked his hat on and grinned widely as tipped it at her before he left. She felt her cheeks
burn as she watched him cross the street to the hotel, still reeling from a near drowning in Buck's
charisma pond. She laughed to herself as she imagined her father's horrified reaction if she
introduced him as the man she'd chosen to marry. Especially in comparison to all those well
to do, yet snobby, mamma's boys her parents were constantly pushing on her.

Whether Lissa knew it or not, Buck had just made her realize exactly what she wanted in a
husband, and it was something very, very different than what her mother had settled for.


As Buck crossed the street to the hotel, he caught a glimpse of the sheriff's office. A wave of
anger welled in his heart and he decided to pay the coward a little visit.

Sheriff Kane was busy having an evening drink and game of cards in the saloon when Buck
finally found him. The man wasn't behaving out of line, but he did chose the wrong time to bust
into laughter, infuriating the already on edge gunslinger.

"Somethin' funny, Sheriff?" Buck asked, towering threateningly over the man wearing the silver
badge as he sat with three of his friends.

Kane looked up at him, trying his best to look mean, but his round face and pot-belly made his
display appear more comical than menacing. "What's your business, Mr.?"

"You missin' a prisoner, sheriff? Cause I got three friends out there looking for an escaped
fugitive and another friend bad off because of him," Buck seethed, leaning into the man's face.
"And you're in here playing poker. Don't exactly seem right, does it?"

Kane's face burned a bright red as he tried to shake off the stranger's words to his friends.
"Excuse me gentlemen, I have a matter to settle here," he said, pushing his chair away from the
table and extricating himself from it.

He motioned for Buck to follow him to the far end of the bar, away from the curious ears of
everyone who'd witnessed the exchange.

"Now, Mr…" Kane started.

"That don't matter." Buck said. "What does matter is why my friends are risking their necks to
find YOUR prisoner and you're not lifting a fat finger to help!"

Kane's flushed face paled, realizing he'd been figured out. "Look, I'm the only thing standing
between order and chaos in this town, so don't go telling me my place is out there in the middle
of nowhere looking for a man who ain't gonna be caught 'til he's damn good and ready!"

"You did know," Buck said, taking a step closer to the trembling man. "You knew who he was
and you didn't say anything to my friends who were bringing him back to your lazy hide!"

"I warned them," he argued. "I told them to be careful. I figured you fellows could handle
yourselves with a dangerous criminal, so don't go laying this on me when it's your friends who let
him get away!"

Buck's eyes flashed as he grabbed the sheriff's collar in one hand and ripped the star from his
lapel with the other and tossed it across the bar. "You don't deserve the honor of wearing a
badge," he said, his tone low and full of rage. Buck gave Kane a little shove and let go, sending
the man stumbling into a row of bar stools as he stomped out, past the man's friends who stared
wide-eyed, but made no move to stop him.


Nathan emerged from the hotel, his body clean and his stomach full, but his heart was still in turmoil. He'd tried to clear his head,
not think about the kid for a little while, but he found that task impossible. As he headed for the doctor's office he spotted Dr.
Matthews sitting in a chair outside his door. Nathan's muscles tensed involuntarily from the thought of any further
contact with this man.

Nathan politely acknowledged his presence with a nod as he climbed the steps onto the boardwalk. He started around the
corner to the clinic where J.D. was when the doctor's voice stopped him.

"I know you think I'm an incredibly harsh man, Mr. Jackson," Dr. Matthews said. "But I do care about my family more than you
can imagine."

"I guess I just don't understand why you're so hard on Lissa," Nathan said, turning to face him.

"She's a headstrong girl, I have to be tough on her or she would be out of control," Dr. Matthews said. "It's not that I don't think
she'd be a good doctor . . . I do." He smiled sadly and added, "She's got the gift, I see it everyday."

"Then why deny her that calling?" Nathan asked, taking a few steps closer.

"Because as independent as she is, she's too sensitive, too trusting and too tender-hearted for this type of work, Mr. Jackson.
No matter how much she thinks she wants it," Dr. Matthews said, rising to his feet, his face flushed with emotion. "Because I
don't want Melissa to experience the kind of rejection she surely will, even if she were to become the most skilled surgeon in
this country. No hospital would hire her, no town would allow her to practice and even if they did she'd be disillusioned within
six months. Then what? By then she'd be too old to have a family, too set in her ways to marry."

Dr. Matthews paused, gazing into the star-filled night sky. "Have you noticed her eyes?" he asked, turning back to face Nathan.

Nathan looked at him quizzically, not sure where he was going with this.

"The sparkle, the sheer joy of life is mirrored in her eyes and I don't ever want to see that light extinguished by the cruelties of
this world," Dr. Matthews said. "I'm sure you know what it's like...people judging you before you've even opened your mouth,
people not wanting you to touch them, distrusting you."

"Yeah, I know what that's like," Nathan stated.

"Then maybe you can see why I don't want her to suffer those kinds of injustices simply because she's a woman in a man's
profession," Dr. Matthews said.

"You know how much easier it'd be on me to just disappear from the world, ignore this desire I have to help people? But that
wouldn't fill up the empty hole I'd have in my gut because I denied who I was meant to be," Nathan said, his tone softening.
"And as much as you love your daughter, you can't make that kind of decision for her."

"Oh, but I have to. That's what a father does. He decides what's best for his children and does anything he has to make sure
that is what happens, even if it means she hates me right now," he said, his cool exterior resurfacing.

Nathan looked at Dr. Matthews, frustrated at still not getting through to him.

"Life's not just about pretty roses and sunshine, Father."

Both turned to see Melissa standing at the edge of the boardwalk, neither knowing exactly how much of the conversation she'd
overheard. From the determined stride she used to approach them, it was probably most of it.

Nathan subtly nodded to Lissa and slipped around the corner, leaving the father and daughter to talk.

"Why haven't you ever told me that before?" she asked.

Dr. Matthews looked at his daughter. "Melissa, I.."

"All this time I thought you never believed I was smart enough. I didn't realize you were just trying to make me quit!" Lissa said,
her voice betraying the hurt she felt.

"I was doing it for your own good," he said sharply as he grasped her shoulders and brought her to face him. "You're too young
to understand yet, I know what's best for you."

"Oh, really. You know what it's like to be me, to dream of something more than giving up who I am so I can be somebody's
wife? Do you know about that, Father?" she snapped, her voice rising with every word.

"Melissa, stop shouting," he said, shaking her slightly. "Can't you understand I don't want my beautiful little girl to become a
bitter old woman, sitting in her rocking chair and wishing she'd done things differently!"

Lissa looked up at him. Her bright eyes were misted over with tears, but anger flared from deep within. "Like Mother?"

Dr. Matthews released his grip and stepped back. "What are you talking about?"

"You know…at least you should."

The doctor shook his head and turned away, "Your mother is very happy with her decisions."

"Is that what you think?" she challenged. "Or is that just what you *want* to believe?"

Lissa walked around to look in her father's face. "Tell me you didn't know that she wanted to be independent and successful
just like her sister. That they had planned to sail to Europe and write a journal about their adventures, until you came along and
convinced her that her notions were stupid and no woman should ever have dreams that grand?! But Aunt Dorothy proved you
wrong, didn't she!"

"Your mother isn't cut out for the kind of life Dorothy lives," he said. "She's too...needy."

Melissa looked at her father as if she'd never seen him before. "Only because you made her that way! She rarely gets out of the
house anymore, doesn't even talk to anyone in town unless she looks at you for permission," Lissa shouted.

"That is not true, young lady! I have never stopped your mother from voicing her opinions."

Lissa laughed softy, wanting him know she was no longer fooled by his words. "I used to believe she was happy, she spent her
whole life acting as if she was for me and William's sake, but now," she shook her head slowly and lowered her voice to a
whisper, "… now I see through it."

Manford stared at his daughter. The gorgeous eyes that he was used to seeing dance with life were now filled with disgust,
probably for him, and he couldn't bare it.

"Melissa," he started, but she wouldn't let him finish.

"No. You've already condemned her to a life as just a part of you, instead of a whole person," Lissa seethed. "And YOU are
the only one who's satisfied with that!"

He reached to touch her hand and she yanked it away. "You're trying to do the same thing to me, Father. But, you won't . . . I
won't let you!" she said as she backed away a few steps, "I won't let you!" she yelled a final time, then turned and ran.

"Melissa!!" he shouted, his tone half-crying and half furious. He stopped when he noticed a couple of townspeople staring at him
and shook his head in disbelief. "Ungrateful kids," he sighed, for his own sake as much as the spectators and walked back

He hung up his coat and made his way into the dining room where his wife still sat as the maid cleared the dishes.

"I was waiting for you," she smiled.

Lissa's words reverberated in his ears as he stared into the woman's face. Her eyes were once so much like their daughter's,
free and eager, lighting up at the wonder of most anything. Now those eyes were too weary to shine, too worn down to reflect
joy - too much like his. When they'd married he considered her a wild foal he'd have to tame to keep at home. Had he tethered
that spirit so long he'd broken her?

He swallowed hard, choking back the tears he had never allowed himself to shed. He walked over to his wife, taking her head
in his hands and kissed her more passionately than he had since the kids were babies.

"Manfred," she gasped, startled by his uncharacteristic show of affection.

"I'm sorry…," he said, extending his hand and helping her from the chair. "Sorry I haven't done that in such a long time.

She looked up at him, her eyes moist, but he smiled when he thought he also saw a familiar spark there. He hugged her close,
not sure if he didn't need it more than she did.


It was shortly before daybreak as the trio entered the hotel/saloon, dog-tired and eager to get a bit of rest before starting their
search again. As they stepped through the batwing doors, Ezra looked over at Vin to confirm that the familiar face he just
spotted across the room was indeed their intended target. Vin's eyes and the slight nod of his head let his friend know the man
engrossed in an ongoing poker game was Taylor.

"Interested in a more involved game of chance?" Ezra asked, appearing at the outlaw's shoulder. Taylor looked up, a flash of
recognition crossing his features moments before panic of realization.

Taylor quickly scanned the room and saw Vin leaning at the bar, and another shady looking character he assumed was
connected with this little party stood near the door.

"Why, yes," Taylor said, upending the poker table and shoving it towards the gambler in one smooth motion. Taylor ducked
behind it as Ezra slammed into the railing, flipped and hit hard on the other side. The outlaw's gambling companions scattered in
the confusion.

Chris and Vin rushed the outlaw, their guns drawn and ready, but the man was no longer behind the table. "Where the hell?"
Chris asked, searching for the slippery criminal.

"Ezra!" Vin called, glancing at his friend dazed on the floor.

Ezra sat up, holding his head in his hands. "Go on," he said, waving them after their quarry. "Just a momentary delay."

There was no other way out except up, so Chris and Vin took the stairs two at a time. An open window at the end of the
hallway looked promising, but Chris motioned for Vin to stay near the staircase in case it was a trick. Chris cautiously stuck his
head out and surveyed the roof.

"Well?" Vin called.

Chris shook his head, convinced the man wasn't there when he caught a slight movement in the dim light. His precarious position
made it impossible to react as quickly as he needed to and he couldn't escape the crushing blow of a gun barrel on his skull.

Vin heard Chris grunt and rushed to him as the gunslinger's body slumped unconscious in the windowsill. Vin caught a glimpse
of Taylor making his way across the roof as he pulled Chris' limp form back inside and helped him to the floor.

Hotel patrons lined the hallway or cautiously peeked out from behind closed doors to see what the commotion was about.

"Can you help me out here, please" Vin said softly to one of the women who looked less shaken than the others. "I've got a bad
guy to catch," he added as she took over tending to Chris. Vin grabbed his gun and exited through the window.



The kid's panicked cry broke through the early morning silence, awakening his friends and probably half the town. Buck was
already at the boy's side and Nathan was close behind.

J.D.'s eyes were wild and confused and he let out a bloodcurdling scream. "Oh, God…it…hurts!" he cried, clutching his side
and springing upright.

"J.D., calm down, please," Buck pleaded as he pushed the boy back onto the bed.

Nathan lay one hand on the kid's forehead, "Stay still, J.D. You'll just make it worse," he soothed.

"Whatta we do, Nathan?" Buck cried, his voice almost as panic-stricken as the kid's. Nathan shook his head in frustration,
trying to figure out what exactly he *could* do.

The interior door of the office swung open and Lissa rushed inside, "What's wrong?" She stopped cold, her heart sinking as she
watched the two men hold J.D. down as his body spasmed and he let out another cry of agony.

"I'll go get Father," Lissa said, disappearing as quickly as she had burst in. She held up her skirt tails and climbed the steps two
at a time. She banged on her parent's door, her father opening it immediately. He had apparently already heard the screams and
was getting dressed. "Get my things, I'll be right down."

Lissa nodded, grabbed the medical bag off the hall table and flew back to the clinic.


Lissa was only gone a few minutes, but to Buck and Nathan, it seemed like an eternity. They both tri ed to keep J.D. still, but he
continued to writhe beneath their grip, his pain-filled howls reminding them they were helpless to stop his torment. Buck
wondered to himself if they were hurting him worse by holding him down, but he was pretty sure the poor kid would have flung
himself onto the floor if they hadn't.

"Come on, J.D., you can ride it out, son," Buck said, wavering between panic and tears as he held on to his friend's flaying
arms, finally resorting to resting one knee on the bed and throwing the other leg across the boys' kicking ones to restrict his

Lissa hurried back inside and knelt beside J.D.'s head. "Father's on the way," she said to the men, then turned her attention to
the youth.

"Shh, just try to relax," she whispered to J.D., smoothing his sweat-drenched hair with her hand, cursing herself for being just as
stubborn as her father by believing she knew how to properly care for this boy. Now he was much worse than when he'd came
in and she couldn't help thinking it was her fault.

"I'm sorry…I can'," J.D. gasped his teary eyes begging. "Make it...stop… Nathannnn!" he yelled, his back arching
and stiffening as another wave of pain crashed into him.

Dr. Matthews moved in quickly beside Nathan. Buck started to get up, but when J.D. saw Dr. Matthews he began to fight

"Nooooo!" he screamed, not sure how this man could make his pain any worse, but from past experience he didn't want to
chance it. Buck looked helplessly at Lissa as he struggled to keep J.D. from hurting himself more.

"Lissa, go ahead and put him under," the doctor said, his voice steady and authoritative, but not harsh.

Lissa had anticipated his request and was already soaking a cloth with chloroform. J.D. didn't fight this time, he trusted her and
he welcomed the relief. Buck stayed where he was until he felt the kid's muscles relax, then pulled himself to his feet, completely

Dr. Matthews made sure his patient was completely out before stripping off the bandage and examining the wound on J.D.'s

"Lissa you've kept carbolic acid poured in this?"

She nodded, and Nathan backed her up "Yeah, we both have," Nathan said. "There's no reason it should be infected."

"Father, I've been reading..." Lissa stopped abruptly, not sure how far over the line she'd just stepped, but damn it, J.D.'s life
depended on it and she didn't care. "I've read that sometimes a piece of bullet or bone can get trapped in the wound and cause
severe pain like he's having," she stated.

Buck stood up from beside the bed. "Could that be it?"

"It could be, but I assure you I did a through job of removing that bullet," the doctor said, his tone defensive.

"I know you did - but something's definitely wrong, doctor," the black man said firmly.

"I'm not opening that boy back up just to prove to you I did my job the first time!"

Lissa looked at her father with puzzled and desperate eyes. "Father, please. I don't think he's going to make it if you don't help

"Melissa, I am the doctor, you are my assistant on most occasions, but tha t does not make you an expert," Dr. Matthews said,
refusing to accept the possibility that not only he'd been wrong, but that his daughter and this man who wasn't even a real doctor
could be right.

"Nathan," Buck said quietly, his pain-filled gaze pleading.

Nathan took a deep breath. The look of complete trust in Buck's eyes made him uncomfortable, but he didn't waver from his
gut reaction. "It's just not normal, something else is wrong and we gotta find out what."

"You heard him!" Buck snapped, moving threateningly toward the doctor.

"Why would you trust me now? If you think I made a mistake before, why would you put his life in my hands again?" Dr.
Matthews spat.

Buck couldn't answer, but Nathan did.

"Dr. Matthews, I've admired you for a long time. That's the reason I rode out here with J.D. and Vin - to meet you and tell you
that. I could only dream that someday I would be half the surgeon you are," Nathan said, his eyes gentle and deeply sad.

"I forgot to take into account that you are a man - just a man. And men make mistakes, that's what makes you human. Refusing
to admit them makes you ignorant."

Dr. Matthews listened in silence, not so much stunned this time as humbled. Nathan's soft voice and sincere tone kept the
comments from sounding like an attack. "The question is not whether you have made an error…it's whether you want to correct
what's already done, or risk making another one?"


Vin saw the outlaw's shadow moving stealthily across the roof and watched as the man moved to the front of the saloon. The tracker cautiously made his way along the sloped wood and was almost on Taylor when the man spun around.

To Vin's surprise, the fugitive didn't looked so much shocked as he did amused, and he quickly lunged and struck his opponent in the chest with the butt of his rifle. Vin struggled to keep his feet underneath him on the uneven surface, trying to bring the mare's leg up at the same time.

Taylor laughed as he slapped Vin's weapon with his own gun, knocking it from the peacekeeper's grip. Vin lost his footing and slid into Taylor, bringing the man down on top of him. Vin rammed his fist hard into Taylor's eye, then landed a more violent blow under his jaw, knocking the scrawny man away. Vin's feet were the only thing that stopped the criminal from rolling off
down the incline and into the street.

As Vin struggled to get up, Taylor drew back his leg and delivered a vicious mule-kick into the tracker's abdomen. Vin rolled and doubled over as his breath exploded from his lungs and he tried desperately to suck in another one before he passed out. Taylor took advantage of his daze and attacked again, the toe of his boot meeting with Vin's ribs, but this time he threw
himself off balance in the process.

Vin struggled to stay conscious as waves of dizziness and the stabbing pain in his gut threatened to drag him under. He watched as Taylor slipped, then recovered with amazing agility. The next thing he saw was his enemy towering above him, grinning maniacally as he lowered the gun barrel in Vin's face.

Vin looked up into the man's glazed eyes and knew it was now or never. He swallowed hard, reaching deep into his inner reserves and simultaneously grabbed the muzzle and lurched forward, a wail of anger and agony emitting from deep within as his aching body protested the necessary effort. Taylor yelped as his momentum carried him backwards over the edge of the roof and into the dirt.

Vin sat up, struggling to catch his breath, trying to figure out a way to avoid the excruciating pain it caused.

"You all right, cowboy?" a weary voice yelled from the open window.

Vin half laughed, half-cried as he leaned forward clutching his wounded belly.

"Never…better," he gasped, the slight smile on his lips turning into a grimace. "You?"

"Hell of a headache," Chris grinned.

"Be thankful you ain't him," Vin said as he risked a glimpse of the outlaw's prone form on the street and Ezra leaning over him.

"My Lord, he's still alive," Ezra called up to them, astonished at the very idea.

"Figures," Vin mumbled to himself as he tried to stand up, but his head swam and he felt an urge to heave at the effort. Finally he just crawled toward the window and let Chris help him inside.

Dr. Matthews cleared his throat as he looked past Nathan at J.D., He stared at the boy's pale face, noticing for the first time how young and helpless he looked sprawled on the bed. The cold glint in the man's eyes softened as he realized what his daughter already knew; that J.D. was a living, feeling person, not just a medical challenge. His gaze traveled up slightly and met
his daughter's tear-filled eyes and he knew what he had to do.

"Get my instruments ready," he said to Melissa.

Lissa quickly snatched up the medical bag and rushed to soak them in carbolic acid while her father prepared to operate. Her nerves were on edge, but this felt right. Her father was finally accepting other's opinions and maybe someday even hers.

"Would you assist me, Mr. Jackson?" Dr. Matthews said, his tone subdued after Nathan's confession.

"I would be honored," Nathan smiled, his expression changing as he saw J.D. starting to wake up. Dr. Matthews saw it too and quickly doused the rag with more chloroform and quieted him before he could fully come to his senses.

Lissa set out the instruments on the surgical tray as Nathan and Dr. Matthews washed their hands in the basin of antiseptic.

"Buck, why don't you sit with him and tell me if he starts to wake up," Lissa said.

Buck nodded, still in a daze, but glad to be of some help, and he kneeled on the floor next to J.D.'s head.

Nathan watched, his features a mix of fascination and concern, as Dr. Matthews expertly reopened the wound on J.D.'s side and used his fingers to probe inside. Lissa held the lamp for her father as Buck focused his attention on watching the kid's face. He couldn't stomach seeing them cutting him up like that and he said a silent prayer begging that his friend couldn't
feel what was being done to him.

Nathan tried to keep the blood soaked up so the doctor could see.  Dr. Matthews' face turned ashen as his expert fingers felt something along the edge of J.D.'s ribcage. "Bring the light closer," he said and Lissa knew exactly where to place it where he could see and still work.

"I'll be damned," he mumbled to himself. "I'll be damned!" he mumbled as Lissa handed him the forceps. He inserted them carefully, latching onto the foreign object and firmly removing it.

"Bone?" Lissa asked, intrigued by the tiny, but sharp sliver of rib bone that had apparently been the cause of J.D.'s trouble.

Buck looked up, his curiosity getting the better of him. "That's what was causin' him so much pain?" he asked in amazement.

"Oh, yeah, it was stabbing his insides," Lissa answered, then looked somewhat sheepishly at her father, "Right?"

"Something like that," he answered, a bit amazed at his daughter's knowledge of the subject. "The more he moved, the more it worked free until it was likely pressing against nerves. No wonder the poor boy was screaming like a banshee," Dr. Matthews said the last sentence softly, more to himself than the others, but they heard him anyway.

Dr. Matthews returned to his patient, now confident that he'd found the source of J.D.'s distress and began to explain his actions to Nathan. "It was still attached to the base of the ribcage so it hadn't migrated," he said, checking for evidence of further damage the bone splinter might have caused.

"See, Mr. Jackson, there doesn't seem to be any signs of excessive bleeding," the doctor concluded, a look of relief crossing his face as he poured in the carbolic acid and stitched up the incision.

Buck looked questioningly at the two healers as they wiped their hands on clean cloths. He wondered how they could tell because it sure looked like a lot of blood to him.

"Does that mean he's gonna be all right?" Buck asked, searching each face for confirmation.

Dr. Matthews looked up and caught Lissa staring at him, her eyes full of something he hadn't seen in them since she was a tiny girl - admiration. Dr. Matthews felt a catch in his throat and had to glance away from his daughter's adoring gaze.

"I do believe he will," Dr. Matthews said recovering his composure as he lay his hand on J.D.'s chest, checking the boy's condition. He suddenly felt arms encircling his waist.

"Thank you, daddy," Lissa whispered before planting a kiss on his unshaven cheek. "I'm sorry," she added, hanging her head slightly.

He stared at his child and smiled, remembering how much he'd missed this side of her. She hadn't called him daddy in over 10 years, that was before she'd lost faith in him, before he'd felt obligated to navigate her life.
"No," he said, hugging her and planting a kiss on her forehead. "It's me who's sorry. Just give me time to absorb all this and we'll figure out something. I promise."

Vin, Chris and Ezra had arrived in Bentonville late that evening, their prisoner thrown across his horse and bound hand to foot. Despite the man's complaints Chris wasn't going to take any chances with him, especially since he and Ezra were nursing splitting headaches and Vin was barely able to stay upright in his saddle.

Sheriff Kane made a public show of thanking the protectors for returning the alleged murderer, unaware Chris was just as close to killing the rotund little man as Taylor ever had been.

Chris reached under the horse to untie the ropes securing Taylor, but a firm hand on his arm stopped him.

"Wait, Mr. Larabee," Ezra drawled warily as he pulled his pistol. "I'm not entirely sure this scoundrel has been rendered harmless, even in his present state of restraint."

Chris grinned slightly as he yanked on the ropes, then pulled the man off into the dust. Taylor cried out as much as he could with a gag in his mouth and Chris roughly stood him on his still hobbled feet.

"My leg's broke!" Taylor cried through the cloth as his knee buckled beneath him. Chris shoved the man into the sheriff's arms.

"Better see to your prisoner. My people need tendin' to first," the gunslinger said softly, then turned to help Vin from his horse. Ezra waved his gun threateningly, at the sheriff as much as Taylor, before returning it to its holster and following his friends to the doctor's office across the street.

Buck greeted the scraggly looking bunch warmly, the relief they were all in somewhat one piece shown in his twinkling eyes as he clapped Chris on the back.

Nathan stood up and instinctively rushed to his friends. "I wish that just once, one of you'd come back without needin' doctorin'," Nathan said, shaking his head and taking Vin from Chris' grip. Nathan tried to usher the sharpshooter to the other cot, but he balked.

"No, Nate. I gotta see J.D. first," Nathan let out an exasperated sigh and helped his friend over to the boy's bed and into the chair that hadn't been vacant for any length of time since the kid was brought in. Vin winced as he leaned over the sleeping form, gently touching his shoulder, causing J.D.'s eyes to flutter open.

"How ya doin'?" Vin asked, his features clearly etched with concern. J.D. blinked slowly, trying to focus on the face in front of him. "We got Taylor, kid. He's in the jail, all tied up like a branding steer."

J.D. was still groggy, but seemed to understand what he was being told. He smiled slightly, trying to communicate to the tracker that he was happy to see him. J.D. desperately wanted to tell him so, but he didn't have the strength to make himself say it. He was just too sleepy and couldn't help it when his eyes closed again and he drifted off to the sound of his friends' muffled voices.

Vin kept his head low, trying desperately to keep the others from seeing the tears welling in his eyes. He wiped them quickly, embarrassed that his own worsening pain had weakened his defenses and allowed his emotions to overwhelm him. He didn't complain when Nathan helped him up and led him to the bed. Nor did he protest when Nathan pulled off his dusty boots and lifted his legs onto the sheets. Dr. Matthews joined the healer and started unbuttoning the tracker's shirt so he could check his injuries.

Chris moved over and stood by Buck at J.D.'s bedside, and lay a callused hand on the kid's soft hair. "He all right?" Chris asked, fatigue and worry straining his voice so it was barely audible.

Nathan looked over at the gunfighter and smiled. "Yeah, Chris. He's gonna be fine," The healer glanced back around at Dr. Matthews, both pairs of eyes reflecting genuine gratitude for what each had done for the other.

Nathan turned his attention back to Vin, grimacing at the black and blue patterns on his stomach. "What'd the other guy look like?" he asked, only half-joking as he allowed Dr. Matthews to continue to examine his friend.

"Unfortunately not as hideous as the lot of us," Ezra said, sitting down gingerly and cradling his throbbing head in one hand.

"Taylor probably needs to be looked at when you're finished here," Chris interjected quietly.

"Owww," Vin groaned and jerked out of the doctor's grasp as the man touched a particularly sore spot on his belly. Memories of J.D. writhing under his touch flooded back into Vin's mind, along with a rush of anger, but Dr. Matthews' bedside manner had improved greatly in the last two days and he quickly tempered the pressure.

"Sorry," he said quietly. "I need to make sure there's no internal damage, ok?"

Vin looked at the doctor, curious that the brash, borderline cruelty he'd witnessed before didn't seem to be evident anymore. He turned to Nathan for reassurance and got a confirming nod.

"Ok," Vin said, still wary of the man's intentions.

"Good, now just tell me when it hurts," Dr. Matthews said as he pressed into Vin's side again and felt a soft gasp escape the injured man's throat.

"Not bad," Vin said through clenched teeth.

"Uh, huh," Nathan said, watching Vin's face contort with pain at almost every touch of the doctor's hands. Dr. Matthews knew he was trying to hide the seriousness of his injuries too and finally touched where he knew he should be the most tender.

Vin jumped again, a sharp yelp piercing the air despite his struggle to contain it.

"How bad is he?" Chris asked. He moved closer, stopping next to Ezra's chair.

"Nothing feels ruptured or broken, just seriously bruised," Dr. Matthews said, then turned his attention back to his patient. "You need to rest, and I don't mean for a few hours, I mean a few days."

Vin nodded, not up to arguing or resisting those orders. "I can live with that," he croaked.

"You better," Nathan threatened. He looked over at Ezra who was still holding his head like if he let go it would fall to the floor. Nathan saw blood seeping from between the gambler's fingers, and chastised himself for not noticing sooner.

"I think you ought to have your head examined, Ezra," Nathan said as he approached the southerner.

"I've been informed of that on more than one occasion, Mr. Jackson," Ezra retorted, not resisting when Nathan moved his hand to get a better look at the gash.

"Well, looks like I'm gonna have to sew up that hole before the rest of your brain spills  out," Nathan joked, his mind finally at ease at the knowledge his friends were a bit banged up, but safe, for now at least.

After a day and a half of sleep, J.D. was recovering quickly and made his restlessness to be up and about known to anyone who made the mistake of asking how he was feeling. Lissa, Nathan and especially Buck would hear nothing of it, so he had resigned himself to keep himself amused by entertaining his new roommate. Of course, much to Vin's horror, the boy had three days worth of pent up talking to release and Buck seemed eager to keep him riled up.

"Come on, Buck," J.D. protested as his friend tried to help him sit up. "I can do it!" he huffed, his effort cut short by Lissa's arrival into the room. J.D.'s mouth stayed slightly open, but his tongue refused to move as the girl smiled sweetly at him.

Buck laughed out loud at the boy's love sick expression. He saw the girl stop to check on the still sleeping Vin and he leaned in close and whispered, "Mooooo," in J.D.'s ear.

J.D.'s face turned a bright crimson. "Shut up, Buck!" he spat under his breath, but his mortified expression only made Buck laugh louder.

Lissa raised up, looking suspiciously at the two kids across the room. "Ok, what's going on?"

"I was just helpin' the boy get comfortable," Buck smiled, winking to let her know there was more to the story than he was letting on.

"You feeling ok, J.D." Lissa asked, walking over to him.

"Uh, huh, much better now," he sighed and Buck rolled his eyes

"You want to sit up?" she asked, and J.D. nodded eagerly and Buck cleared his throat, letting him know he wasn't fooling him.

J.D. shot Buck a look that told him to keep his trap shut and he responded with a wide-eyed innocent expression. "Let me help you with the boy," Buck said to Lissa, grabbing J.D.'s arm with one hand and plumping the pillows behind him with the other. He knew the kid was about to kneel over from embarrassment, but that only added to his fun. Buck patted his young friend
on the head for the finishing touch and felt J.D.'s eyes burning through him.

"Well, I think I'd better see about gettin' myself something substantial," Buck said straightening up. "Saloon's open this early, right?" he grinned, his blue eyes dancing.

"Now how would *I* know that?" she retorted, in mock seriousness.

"Oh, my, you are so right, Miss," Buck said, a mischievous grin plastered across his face. Lissa blushed and J.D. started clearing his throat, his gaze warning Buck to get out.

"I'll be back, kid," Buck responded, socking his hat on and walking out the door.

"You've got some interesting friends, J.D.," Lissa said, still smiling at Buck's retreating form.

"Yeah, well that one can sure get on your nerves sometimes," he grumbled as he settled back onto the pillows behind him.

Lissa sat on the bed facing him and his mood brightened again. "So, you'll be able to go home in a couple of days," she said, a hint of sadness in her voice. "I'll bet you'll be glad, huh?"

"Yeah," he said, averting his eyes before continuing. "But, I'll miss you."

"I'll miss you too, J.D.," she said. "I'm glad I got to take care of you."

J.D.'s cheeks burned. "Lissa," he ventured, his eyes dropping to the blanket he was unconsciously twisting in his fists. "I was just wondering, uh, you know, if, uh,…" his voice trailed, unable to remember exactly what he was planning to say.

"What is it?" Lissa said, leaning down to look into his face.

"I was just gonna ask, if it'd be ok with you, if I, uh, if I can come back sometime, you know, and visit you," he said the last words quickly, afraid if he didn't they'd get stuck in his throat.

"You'd better," she laughed, causing J.D. to raise his head, big hazel eyes grateful for her enthusiastic answer.

"And you could come see me too," he crowed, his confidence growing.

"I'd love to," Lissa said, watching the boy's face light up as he rambled on about Four Corners and what he did there and what his friends did. As she listened, she also realized there was nothing else she'd ever want to do than see such life in eyes that were once so full of pain and know she'd had a hand in that transformation.

"For God's sake, kid, you're gonna talk her to death 'fore any of us can leave," a gravelly voice spoke up from across the room.

Both J.D. and Lissa turned to see Vin roll over to face them, groaning with the effort.

"Geez, Vin, I didn't know you were awake," J.D. said, a hint of panic in his voice.

"Kinda hard to sleep with all your yackin', J.D."

"Sorry, Vin," the kid apologized, his eyes clouding.

"It's ok, kid, I'm just tired," Vin said softly.

Lissa got up and went over to Vin. "You want me to get you something to help you sleep?"

"No ma'am. I just need help getting *him* to sleep," Vin said, his voice low enough to keep J.D. from hearing.

Lissa laughed, but her tone turned serious, "He's done enough of that already."

"I know," the tracker answered, a little embarrassed for his comment.

"It's ok," Lissa said. "I'll ask father if maybe he shouldn't get some fresh air, give you a break."

"It's all right, really," Vin said, then whispered. "I'm glad he feels like talkin' again, just don't let him know I said that." Vin laughed, suddenly clutching his middle as sore stomach muscles spasmed.

"Hey Vin, you better get some rest," J.D. shouted over at him. "You look terrible."

Vin sunk back into the pillow, his energy spent, but he couldn't help the grin that spread across his face, "Ok, forget what I just said. Get him outta here, will ya?"


Chris, Ezra, Nathan and Sheriff Kane stood guarding the entrance of the cell, guns ready, not taking any risks with the wiry man known for his knack of slipping away from his captors. They all knew firsthand how deceiving his looks could be and none of them were lax about watching his every move, despite the fact he was handcuffed to the bed.

"Fell from a building, you said?" Dr. Matthews said, shaking his head in disbelief as he finished examining Taylor.

Ezra nodded, wincing at the pain that small motion still caused. "Plopped to the ground like an overgrown buzzard."

Dr. Matthews exited the cell and Ezra quickly slammed the door shut behind him, grinning nervously as the doctor whirled around, not entirely sure he'd made it all the way out. The gambler had already had one run-in too many with this killer and something about the man just wasn't normal. This was one instance in which Ezra did not want to take any chances.

"Amazing, simply amazing," the doctor muttered. "No broken bones, barely a scratch on him."

"Maybe he IS part buzzard," Nathan said, staring at the sorry excuse for a human on the other side of the bars. Taylor projected defeat, from the slumped shoulders to the dejected expression on his face, but Nathan knew better. He watched as Taylor looked up at him, an apparent play for sympathy, but the cold, soulless gray eyes made shivers run up the black man's spine. He'd always thought Chris could strike someone dead with one of his stares, but this was different. Nathan was mesmerized as a passage from the Bible flashed through his head and he realized he was as face to face with the devil as man could get.

"Nathan!" Ezra's voice pierced through the room, shaking the healer from his trance, "Go on, now. I expect to be relieved of this repugnant obligation within the hour."

Nathan shook his head and glanced back at Taylor, but the spell had been broken. The man resting on the cot looked like just any run of the mill, lowlife. Nathan swallowed hard and hurried to get outside and away from the ordinary-looking demon that would love nothing better than to kill them all.

When Nathan stepped out into the bright sunlight he saw Chris making his way toward the saloon with the sheriff following and shouting, no, more precisely he was begging.

Dr. Matthews stepped up beside the healer. "I think our useless excuse for a lawman is trying to get your friend to stay until after Taylor is tried next week."

Nathan shook his head. "He'll stay 'til the others can ride, that's all," he said, watching the portly man try everything short of falling to his knees to make Chris listen to him. The gunslinger walked on, slowing down only long enough to say something to the sheriff that made him stop dumbfounded in his tracks.

"I… no, my wife and I have decided to let Melissa try a semester at the medical college," Dr. Matthews said, turning Nathan's attention away from the sheriff's pitiful display.

"It's still against my better judgment, mind you," he continued.

"I think she'll be a great doctor," Nathan smiled.

"Oh, no doubt," the physician laughed, the worry still clearly evident in his eyes. "Who knows, maybe she'll prove all of my theories wrong."

"Oh, no doubt," Nathan laughed as he tossed the doctor's words back to him.

The next day Chris decided he and Nathan should head back to Four Corners. The other four made the trek a couple of days later and were settling back into their old routines, including their daily ritual of gathering at the saloon. All were engaged in a card game, a conversation or nursing a drink when Mary nervously strode through the batwing doors. She smiled quickly at
the protectors before hurrying over to Chris and handing him a telegram.

"This just arrived for you," she said, catching her breath. As Chris read, the others sensed that the message was not good news and they moved closer.

Chris slowly raised his head to face his friends. "Taylor's escaped again," he said bluntly. "Killed the sheriff and two deputies that'd come for him too."

"Aw, hell," Vin said softly, setting his beer down heavily on the bar, the frustration in his words shared by them all. Ezra absently brought his hand to the still visible lump on his head.

"What about Dr. Matthews and his family?" J.D. asked, the color completely drained from his already pale face, his dark eyes wide with concern.

"He sent the telegram, I'm sure they're all fine, J.D.," Chris answered.

J.D. nodded, his mind easing for his new friends, but the grip of panic was still there for the ones in the room with him now.

"I sure hope we never see the likes of him again," Nathan sighed, his pinched features not hiding his concern.

"Amen, brother," Josiah spoke up. "Amen to that."
"He won't come back here, J.D.," Buck said confidently, picking up on his friend's distress and placing strong hands on the kid's quivering shoulders. His eyes told a different story as he desperately locked gazes with Chris, hoping for some confirmation of the promise he'd just made.

"Probably in Mexico already," Chris answered, throwing the telegram on the table and pulling himself to his feet.

"See, I told ya," Buck said, releasing his grip and clapping the boy's arms firmly between his outstretched hands.

J.D. grinned slightly and nodded, but he wasn't buying it. And something told him none of the others truly believed it either. Taylor would be back. J.D. was sure of it. He only hoped they'd all be ready when the inevitable happened.

THE END ^..^