The Great Divide
By: Margarett Cassidy
Chapter 1
The Rift

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Rating: PG 13, language and violence
Disclaimer: We don't own any of the Magnificent characters in this story, well, with the
exception of any evil ones. Then, those are ours. Oh, yeah, and any dead ones, phantasms, or
four-legged spirits. That would be inventions of our warped little imaginations also. The others
belong to CBS and the Mirisch CO. We do not intend to make any profits by the writing of this
story, but if anyone would like to send chocolate or other treats as incentive to write faster, we
will have no objection;-)
Warnings:  None really, except that this is a work in progress, The Rift being the first chapter. So
those not into reading serials, may want to wait until the entire story is finished. It will include
The Rift by Margarett Cassidy, East of the Divide by Maggie Smith, West of the Divide by
Cassie Smith, and  Estuary by Margarett Cassidy. We will try our darndest to be consistent in
posting. (bg)
Author’s Notes: This is the third story in The Cross’s We Bare Series. So, it is a good idea to
have read God’s Country and Deliver Us From Evil before tackling this baby. We also suggest
reading Death’s Shadow. There’s a possibility that a character from there may make a guest
appearance here!  Now on with the show.

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This ones dedicated to all those wonderful feedback writers out there who keep us on our toes!
Your comments mean so much to Maggs and me and we are always glad to hear from you.

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‘It’s a long, long way across the great divide.
The songs that they once sang,
Now echo far and wide.
They could still get back,
All the love that they have lost.
But only if they both will reach across.
Cause it’s a long, long way to the other side,
of the Great Divide.' -- Tim Mcgraw (All I Want. Curb records.)

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“Half-man, half-wolf, Buck?” J.D. scoffed, sitting astride his horse with a doubting expression
on his handsome face. A few dark locks of his long hair had escaped his bowler hat and tumbled
across his eyes, making him look even younger than his nineteen years. “I know you’re pulling
my leg. Again.”

The older man riding alongside him tossed the teen an innocent, charm-filled smile that spoke
volumes beyond any words.  “Would I lie to you, kid.?”

A roll of the younger man’s hazel eyes was the only reply the gunslinger received.

Wilmington feigned shock at the boy’s obvious lack of confidence in him and turned to gain
some credibility from the rider behind them. “Hey, Vin. Back me up here. Tell the boy about
werewolves. With all the time you’ve spent out in the wild, I’m sure you’ve run across a monster
or two.”

A slow smile spread across the tracker’s well-chisled features. “I’ve met more of ‘em since
coming to Four Corners. I even work with a few,” he called back, not willing to play along with
Buck’s tormenting of the kid today.

“Cute.” Wilmington scoffed and turned his attention back to J.D.

Vin Tanner stifled a laugh at the outlandish tale his friend was continuing to spin for the
youngest member of the Seven.  He sometimes wondered where Wilmington had found his
pleasure in life before J.D. had come along.

Of course, that was a stupid question. Anyone who knew Buck at all could answer it.

Women.

An indulgence the other still never got enough of. One that often got him in trouble. An
affliction that sometimes caused him to lose his good sense. Like he had with Chris the day
before.

But still, these days,  Vin believed that J.D. came first with the fun-loving gunslinger. Even if he
did have a lap in judgment now and then,  Buck had begun to take his role of the ‘older brother’
much more seriously since almost losing the kid to Ayden Cross a few months back.

Tanner sighed.  *Cross.*

Buck was definitely not the only one who thought that he had lost a brother to the hands of that
madman.

It was sobering evidence that his offhand remark, about finding scarier things in civilization than
in the wilderness, wasn’t just a joke to rile Buck.

It was a hard, sad truth.

Sure, Mother Nature had a code of her own. One Vin had faced many times in his short life. But
it wasn’t as savage as that one could encounter in the ‘civilized’ world.  It was true she could be
a little temperamental, but there was an honesty and fairness one faced when dealing with the
forces of nature that a person didn’t often get treated to when dealing with a devil of society’s
makings.

Creatures born of Earth’s bounty lived only to survive. The bear, the wolf, even the creature
Buck was so outlandishly describing, fought only to secure the basic necessities of life.

Or to protect its family.

Those were traits Vin Tanner understood.

Ones he admired.

Not killing for money, or revenge or even worse, for the pure pleasure of killing itself. Those
were ills of civilization.

When nature took a life, it was part of a never-ending circle.

A necessary evil to sustain other life.

Maybe even the very illness they were fighting to stop now, was Mother Nature’s way of
thinning out the human population. After all, what made humans any better than the deer or the
buffalo.

Still, Vin knew firsthand the suffering such a sickness could cause. Especially when it struck the
very young, the weakened, and the old.

Scarlet Fever was definitely one of nature’s crueler facets.

Maybe such disease was a fluke, a misrepresentation of all that such a powerful force could be.
Just as people like Ayden Cross were the epitome of what a human being at it’s worst could
become.

Vin shivered. He wasn’t sure if it was from the cold he’d been fighting off or the all too recent
memory of a fallen enemy. Of course it could have been caused by the cold winter wind that had
picked up again; warning of yet another storm approaching.

With a resigned sigh and a glance up to the foreboding gray sky above, he reminded himself once
again that when she wanted to, Mother Nature really could be a bitch.

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

“Your back earlier than I planned.” A tall dark figure spoke from the doorway of a small
boardinghouse room. Her haunted eyes taking in every inch of the abode before entering. It was
a habit she could not shake. One she earned at a very high price.

Several large candles cast an errie glow on the only occupant; the one she had come to find.
The slight, young woman remained sitting at the vanity in the middle of the room, and watched
the visitor’s approach in the reproduction in the mirror. “He said he had to get back,” she finally
explained, softly.

“I thought you were going to ‘convince’ him to stay the whole week, Lydia.” The newcomer
glided across the room, with a rustle of her long scarlet skirt and black cloak.

“It wasn’t as easy as I imagined.” Light blue eyes met the piercing emerald gaze in the glitter of
the reflecting glass.

“Things rarely are.” The woman picked up a silver brush from the table and proceeded to run it
through the long, blond locks of her associate.

“I tried, Marta.” The girl closed her eyes and leaned into the mesmerizing touch. “But he was
worried about the others, about the boy.”

Marta Sangria let her hand mimic each stroke of the brush, pausing when her long fingers
became entangled in the silken mane. “I feared as much. Although he was the easiest to distract, I
was afraid even your charms could not keep him for long.”

Lydia turned when Marta ceased her ministrations. “I am sorry.” A hopeful smile tugged at the
young woman’s porcelain features. “But I did learn a great deal about them.”

Marta’s slow grin didn’t reach her cold, green gaze, but it was enough to encourage the other
woman to proceed.

“They are just as close as we imagined. The leader isn’t as impenetrable as one would be led to
believe.”

“So, Chris Larabee isn’t the cold, heartless, bastard we’ve heard so many tales about.”

Lydia’s smile widened. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but he does have his weaknesses.”

“Six of them?” Marta twisted one of her friend’s yellow curls around her finger.

“Yes.” Lydia rose from the chair, her small stature unable to bring her eye to eye with her taller
associate. "But ‘three’ very big ones.”

“Wilmington,” Marta breathed, releasing the hold on the tresses. “The youngest one.” Sangria
continued and Lydia nodded enthusiastically. “And the murderer.” The dark-haired woman bit
out the last words between clenched teeth.

“Oh yes,” Lydia Savant practically beamed, as she stepped away from her friend and twirled
around, before plopping down on the huge metal bed near the window. “Buck was so kind to tell
me just how important Mr.Tanner was to Larabee.”

“I see.” Marta maintained her cool, aloof front, as she crossed the distance to join her friend. “He
has been somewhat of a saving grace to a man condemned by hatred, hasn’t he?”

Lydia reached up and gently brushed a long, ebony strand of hair away from the dangerously
beautiful face of her partner. "Tanner has been for Larabee what you have become for me.”

Marta smiled and caught the fragile hand in hers. “Sweet Lydia, my dearest friend.” She
tightened her grip until the other girl gasped in pain. “Charming words will not hide the fact that
you failed on your mission.”

“But Marta,” the blond stammered. “I did what you said,” she cried. “I got him out of town, I
planted the seed of doubt between them, just as you wanted.”
 
The other woman continued to apply pressure to her friend’s appendage, a feral gleam in her
emerald gaze. “I wanted him gone long enough to alienate Larabee.”

“I think it worked,” Lydia hissed and Marta released her with a shove.

“What makes you say that?”

The girl clutched her bruised hand to her chest. “I saw Buck before he left.” The blond was
quick to explain. “To give him the pendant like you wished.”

“Go on.”

Blue eyes blinked to fight back the threatening tears. “He was in a foul mood, pissed at Larabee
form what I could gather. They didn’t even ride out together.”

“Where were they going?” Marta’s hand instinctively went to her chest, searching out the cool
feel of silver she needed to calm herself.
Another habit born of tragedy.

“Wilmington, Tanner, and that kid were going to retrieve some sort of antidote form Veils.”

“How ironic?” Marta smirked, rubbing the charm between her fingers.

“There’s some kind of virus outbreak in Arden. The train carrying the supplies they needed was
unable to complete the journey, so...”

“So our heroes are going to the rescue.” Sangria interrupted her associate, rising from the bed
and making her way to the window. She looked down upon the waking town below. “I suppose
that will change our plans.”

“They will ‘all’ be in Arden, eventually.” The other offered, cautiously braving a step closer to
her friend. “Then we can go there and I will gladly do as you asked.”

A hard emerald glare pinned Lydia, freezing her approach. “You will kill, Wilmington?”

The young , angelic face twisted into a vicious grin. “Before you can even breathe the word
Revenge, Sangria.”

Marta tossed her head and laughed. “You do please me, Savant. You will make a fine mistress of
the craft some day.”

“So we will be leaving for Arden?”

“No.” The witch shook her head. “We would never be there in time. The terrain is treacherous,
and I’d much rather prepare for the arrival of the others when they return here to Four Corners.”

“But what about , Buck.” The blond pouted. “I endured his company for far too long, not to
enjoy his death.”

Sangria smiled patiently, stepping forward to stroke Lydia’s cheek with the back of her hand.
“Console yourself with the fact that you have brought much misery upon Mr. Wilmington by
presenting him with my little gift.” Marta touched her own pendant again. “It will not only
bring its owner bad luck, but shall prove to be his mark of death, also.” Green eyes glistened as
they met the tainted blue gaze of a false innocence. “I have friends in Arden.”

Lydia laughed, the warmness of her lilty voice completely gone now. “Then perhaps this will be
the beginning of the Magnificent Seven’s end, after all.”

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

Chris Larabee pulled his coat tighter around him as a gust of frigid wind picked up. The
gunslinger shifted closer to the campfire Josiah had just built and rubbed his hands together near
the small dancing flames. The sparks jumping from the dry leaves  mesmerized him and for a
moment he was called back to yesterday, to the saloon in Four Corners, when sparks of a
different kind had definitely been flying.

** “I don’t give a shit how pretty she was, Buck. You disappeared for four days.” Chris was
yelling now, something he rarely did.

“Well, hell, Chris if I’d known you’d up and assigned yourself as my nursemaid, I’d have
checked in with you before leaving.” Buck Wilmington smiled and downed the shot of whiskey
that Inez had just placed in front of him. “I’ll be needin’ another one of those, Darlin’.”

The dark-haired beauty rolled her eyes, but did as the gunslinger said. Buck winked at the
woman and started to reach for the drink she’d just filled, when a hand on his stopped him.

“Damn it, Buck,” Larabee growled. “You could have let someone know where you were. We
didn’t know if you’d been taken or God knows what.”

“Sorry I worried you,” Buck snorted sarcastically and pulled his hand away from the other man’s.

“I wasn’t worried,” Chris lied. “J.D. was.”

Wilmington’s face softened some at the mention of the younger man’s name. “Well, the kid
don’t need to be worryin’ none ‘bout me..”

Buck started only to have Chris interrupt. “I agree. What he ‘needed’ was for you to be here.”
The black-clad man knew he sounded like an overprotective parent, but sometimes, especially
the last few days, that is exactly the feelings J.D. brought out in him.

“Why? Did something happen?” Worry was easily read in Buck’s eyes.

Chris gave the other man a hard look. “So now you’re concerned?” Larabee knew that was a low
blow, that his oldest friend loved J.D. like a brother, but he wasn’t above throwing him a sucker
punch, especially when he was being such a bastard.

Buck glared at the gunslinger. “I leave town for a couple of days and you try to lay some guilt
trip on me?” Wilmington stepped closer. “’Least I didn’t up and move way out in the woods so I
wouldn’t have to be around anyone.” Buck wasn’t above a cheap shot himself. “Well, at least
until I needed some supplies brought to me or somethin’.”

Luckily, Chris was use to keeping a relatively, tight reign on his temper, especially around the
other man’s, sometimes short, fuse.

“This aint about me, Buck. This is about you running from the problem at hand.”

“Problem?” Wilmington waved a hand in the air. “I don’t see no problem.”

Chris sighed in frustration at the other man’s attempt at playing dumb. Buck was many things,
but he wasn’t blind. Especially when it came to their youngest partner. “J.D.’s problem.”

Larabee watched as his friend tried to hide the flash of grief and fear that flashed behind his dark
eyes. “The kid’s fine. He’s just been a little poorly since recovering from, well, you know.”
Buck waved his hand in the air again, as if to brush away the thoughts Chris had just conjured
up.  He hadn’t mentioned Ayden Cross or Magdeline Saint since their demise. Nor had he talked
about what had happened to the Seven. To J.D.

“Casseopaya said it would take time for him to get back to his old self.”

“I’m not talking about his physical condition.”  Chris let his voice lower, although they basically
had the saloon to themselves. “I’m talking about the nightmares, the cold sweats, the lack of
sleep, that’s slowly eating away at him. The kid’s dead on his feet half the time.”

Wilmington winced at his partner’s choice of words and reached for the shot glass on the bar.
“He’s got a right to have some bad dreams. That poison was hell on him, he thought you were
dead, and ..” Buck paused, “And he won’t even talk about what happened ‘before’ we found
him.”

“I’m not saying he doesn’t have a right to still have some lingering ghosts,” Larabee sighed. God
knew he had more than a few of his own. “But it’s been over a month and he’s not doing any
better.”

Wilmington slammed his drink back on the counter, showering it’s contents onto the bar top.
“What the hell do you want from me? I’ve tried getting him to talk about it. He just shrugs and
gives me that look that says I’m smothering him. I even had Vin try but he didn’t do any better.
Hell, I even camped out on the floor beside his bed, he still had the damn dreams.” Buck run a
hand through his dark, wavy hair. “What else do you expect me to do?”

“Well, I don’t expect you to add to his troubles by running off chasing some skirt.”

“Her name is Lydia,” Buck supplied, hotly. “And you didn’t like her from the get go.

“I could care less about Miss Savant,” Larabee replied. “What I ‘didn’t’ like was how distracted
you became after she showed up. You always let a pretty face turn your head, no matter who it
hurts.”

Buck stepped toe to toe with his old friend. “I wouldn’t dare hurt J.D. You know that.”

“I thought I did.” Matching the other’s intense stare, Chris didn’t give an inch.

“You’re really beginning to piss me off, Chris,” Wilmington seethed.

“Now you know how I feel.”

“I doubt that,” Buck growled. “After all, us lowly mortal men are incapable of understanding
what the unshakable Chris Larabee might feel.”

“F**k you, Buck!”

“No, Chris. F**k you.”

Larabee reached out and grabbed the other man by the shirt collar, but a surprised voice stopped
him from doing anything worse.

“What’s going on?” J.D. Dunne had heard the loud voices before he even entered the saloon, but
wasn’t expecting to find the sight before him.

Both Larabee and Wilmington turned to find the teen, Vin Tanner and Judge Travis standing just
inside the batwing doors.

“Buck?” J.D. took a tentative step toward the older men.

“Hey, kid.” Buck forced a shadow of his usual charm filled grin, as Larabee released his rough
hold on him. “ Chris and I were just having a little discussion.”

“Sounded like a fight to me.” The teen let his gaze go from Wilmington to the black-clad man
who was yet to speak.

Buck easily read the worry behind the hazel eyes, instantly feeling a pang of guilt for his part in
putting it there. “Fight? Me and Chris? Never.”

J.D. didn’t look convinced. In fact, neither did Vin, who was quietly watching the face of his
bestfriend for any of the silent signs they communicated so easily. Larabee hadn’t missed the
scrutiny and gave the tracker a half grin.

“Old Buck’s just a little trail weary,” Chris explained, slapping Wilmington roughly on the back.
“Makes him a little grumpy.”

The man in question glared at the gunslinger. “Yeah, kid. Nothing a good nights sleep won’t
mend.”

“I’m sorry, Buck.” Judge Travis spoke up, casting a suspicious glance at the two old friends.
“But that isn’t exactly in the plans for tonight. I have a little assignment for the Seven.”

“Assignment?” Chris stepped away from Wilmington, shooting Tanner a questioning gaze.

“Seems that Arden is suffering from an outbreak of Scarlet Fever.” The tracker leaned against
the wall beside the door. “The judge needs us to deliver the medicine .”

“What about the train? Wouldn’t it be faster?” Buck grumbled, joining the others. He didn’t like
the idea of having to make another long trip.

“Yes, it would.” Travis gave the man a sympathetic look. “But it seems that a rock slide took out
a good section of track just outside of Veils. The railroad won’t have it fixed for a few days.
Those are days the people of Arden can’t afford.”

“The sheriff from Veils asked if we could meet his deputy half way to pick up the medicine.”
J.D. explained. “Then take it and Nathan on to Arden.”

“Why Nathan?” Chris spoke up. “Doesn’t the town have a doctor.”

“It seems he was one of the first to perish.” The Judge shook his head. “I fear the townsfolk are
just a bit panicked by the whole ordeal. And we don’t want another repeat of what happened in
Shilock last month.”

“A sickness like that scares people.” Larabee didn’t miss the faraway quality in the bounty
hunter’s words. “Nothing more dangerous than a bunch of scared folks with guns.”

“Very true, Mr. Tanner.” Travis paced a few feet in front of his men. “Another reason I would
like the Seven to go. I know the law there, what there is to speak of, and I have no doubt that
Carson will need some back up if things get out of hand.”

“I thought Nathan said that Scarlet Fever struck mostly children?” As terrible as that was, Buck
thought it less frightening than some other ailments that could take out a whole town in a matter
of weeks.

“Usually, it is.” Orin rubbed at his tired eyes. “But it can also take younger adults or those on in
their years.”

“So what is it that you want us to do, exactly?” Chris asked.

“I thought that a few of you could go to meet the man from Veils and retrieve the antidote, while
the others start on to Arden.”

“We could meet up near Raven’s Crossing,” Vin spoke up.

“The place we camped that time?” Larabee remembered the trip he and the younger man had
taken a few months before.

Tanner nodded. “It’s only a good day’s ride from here, and if Buck and I head out for Veils this
afternoon we should be able to meet up with you all by tomorrow night.”

“I’m coming too,” J.D. spoke up. He wasn’t willing to let Wilmington out of his sight again so
soon, of course he wouldn’t admit that to anyone. “Buck’s got to give me all the details of his
trip with Miss Lydia.”

The older man reached out and ruffled the teen’s hair. “Sorry, kid. A gentleman never kisses and
tells.”

J.D. swatted the older man’s hand away. “Yeah, but this is ‘you’ we’re talking about, Buck.”

“Cute.” Wilmington smirked. “For that, you get to help me get the supplies together.” Buck
nodded to the Judge and then turned to Vin, his gaze purposefully avoiding Larabee. “We’ll
saddle Bounty for you and meet you out front of the livery.”

The tracker nodded and Buck tossed an arm around J.D.’s shoulder, whispering some private
joke to him as they walked out the door.

Chris watched them go, listening to the laughter he had missed over the last few weeks. He was
so focused that he almost missed the question Travis asked him. Almost.

“Are you all going to be alright with this assignment, Chris?”

Larabee knew who the ‘you all’ the judge was referring to was. “It’s nothing we can’t handle,”
he replied flatly. “The people of Arden need help. That’s what we do.” **

Chris rubbed at his weary eyes, the last words he had spoken to Judge Travis ringing in his mind.
He couldn’t help but to wish that the Seven had the chance to do what they really needed to do.
Rest. And heal.

“You alright, brother?” Josiah Sanchez’s deep voice finished lifting the dense fog that had
flanked Larabee’s consciousness.

The gunslinger looked up at the big preacher staring at him from across the flames. “Yeah,” he
sighed. “I was just wondering when the others might arrive.”

“It’s nearly dark. I look for them to be here soon.” Josiah kept his eyes on Chris as he placed a
log on the fire. “That is if they didn’t decide to make a stop at the local saloon.”

“I wouldn’t put it past, Buck,” Larabee said flippantly, his gaze returning to the growing flames
in front of him.

Sanchez nodded. “He has been a bit high strung these past few weeks.” The preacher placed the
coffee pot over the fire to heat. “I’d imagine it’s his way of dealing with all that we went
through.”

“Or not dealing with it.” Chris let his frosty eyes meet the holy mans’.

Josiah hadn’t missed the change in Buck and Larabee’s relationship. None of them had. “Sounds
like you’re a might angry with him?”

“Angry isn’t the word,” the gunslinger replied wearily. He wasn’t really up to a heart to heart
with the preacher.

“You and Buck have been friends a lot of years. It’s normal to encounter some friction now and
then.”

“It’s happened before.” Chris admitted, fingering a long blade of grass he’d picked.

Josiah leaned forward, elbows propped on his knees, his eyes shining in the glow of the firelight.
“And how’d you handle it then?”

Chris shrugged. “I went to Mexico. Buck went to bed. “ Blue eyes raised to meet Josiah’s again.
“But not before we beat the shit out of one another.”

“Bonding experience?” The preacher let a smile split his features.

The other man’s solemn expression softened some. “Something like that.”

“I hope neither of those are paths you’re thinking about now, brother?”

Chris was silent for a moment before answering. “There are others to consider now.”

“Like J.D.?” The holy man knew what his friend was talking about. It wouldn’t be easy for any
of them to desert the kinship they had forged.

The gunslinger nodded. “He needs us both.”

“No one should have to lose more than one family in a lifetime,” Josiah agreed.

“But that doesn’t mean I’m above knocking some sense into Buck’s thick head, though.”

Sanchez took the coffee pot from the flames and filled his cup. “You think that’s going to make
things better?”

Chris sighed and stood up, stretching his stiff muscles. “Don’t know.” The black-clad man
turned and started for the cover of the woods, deciding some time to himself was in need. “It’d
probably make me feel a whole hell of a lot better.”

Sanchez watched the other man go, hoping things weren’t going to get that bad, when another
voice startled him. “What’s eatin’, Chris?” Nathan Jackson asked, coming to join Josiah by the
fire.

“Yes, do tell. Our compatriot has been even less verbose than customary.” Ezra Standish had
also finished bedding down his steed and come to warm himself.

“I fear he and Brother Wilmington are headed for an impasse in their relationship. I just hope it
isn’t like the one Cane and Able had to face.”

“Buck running off with that lady last week sure didn’t help matters none either.” Nathan
observed.

“I dare say that Mr. Larabee should be quite aquainted with Cupid’s arrow, and the permanent
bullseye that Mr. Wilmington displays as a shield across his heart.”

The healer looked at Ezra. “I just think he expected Buck to stick closer to home with J.D. still
worrying over the Cross thing.” Nathan clasped his hands together and rested his chin atop them.
“It ain’t like him to go wandering off. That’s more like Vin.”

“Gentlemen, I would be the first to point out the obvious flaws in our own personal ‘Robin Hood
of Hearts’, but when it comes to his loyalty to young, J.D.,  I can fault him very few,” Ezra
lamented, pouring himself a cup of coffee and slipping his decanter of brandy out of his coat
pocket.  “In fact, he, quite frankly, puts ‘my’ mother to shame,” Standish added, pouring a dash
of the liquor to his drink and then offering it to Sanchez.

“Perhaps that’s part of the problem.” Josiah took the flask from the gambler with a nod. “He
may be too close to the situation to acknowledge it.”

“Missing the forest for the trees.” Nathan agreed. Sometimes a person could get distracted by
smaller problems and miss the bigger source.

“And being blinded by love, or should I say, lust, doesn’t help matters either.” Josiah sighed and
handed Ezra his decanter.

“Well, I just hope that they can put there differences aside ‘til this trip is over.” Nathan eyed the
other two men. “The terrain to Arden isn’t easy and it looks like Mother Nature ain’t up to
helping us out any.”

“Vin was afraid that there was a storm forming.” Josiah frowned and took a slow drink of his
coffee. “I don’t know if we should be more worried about it or the tempest brewing between
Buck and Chris.”

Before the others had much time to ponder that thought, horses could be heard in the distance

“Our missing companions, I assume.” Ezra cast a questioning glance towards his friends.

“I hope they didn’t have any trouble getting the supply of medicine we needed.” Nathan stood
and cast an anxious glance to the woods around them.

“Did you ever doubt us, Nate?” Buck Wilmington asked, stepping out of the shadows. He
grinned and patted the two saddle bags he had thrown over his shoulder. “Doc Paxton said that
this should be enough to see the folks in Arden over the worst of it. He also wrote you some kind
of note about symptoms and stuff.”

“Now if we can just get it there before the outbreak worsens.” The healer took the pouches from
his friend. “Did the deputy from Veils say how things were there?”

“He said that they’d had ten die from the fever.” Vin Tanner entered the campsite in time to hear
Jackson’s question. “Six were children but it also took the school teacher and the barkeep.” The
tracker rubbed at his throbbing temples, wishing he could relieve the headache that had set in a
few hours earlier.

“You alright, Vin?” Jackson cast a worried glance over his friend. “You look a little peaked.”

“I’m fine,” the tracker answered a little too quickly. “Where’s Chris?”

“He grew weary of our company, I’m afraid,” Ezra drawled.  “Went to converse with some more
interesting woodland beasts, perhaps.”

“He shouldn’t be out wandering in the dark,” Vin said, scanning the tree lines. “Raven’s
Crossing ain’t too far from here. There’s a lot of shear drop -offs around.”

“Hell, as long as he landed on his head, he’d be alright.” Buck made his way to the fire and bent
to pour himself a cup of coffee.

“I think I should go look for him.” Tanner ignored Wilmington’s comment and started to cross
the campsite clearing.

“Who you looking for, Cowboy?” Chris Larabee emerged from the trees, not too far from where
Buck was.

The tracker’s relief spread across his face in the form of a slow grin. “Nobody, now.”

Larabee swept a quick glance over the other men. “Where’s J.D.?”

Before Vin had a chance to tell Chris that J.D. was bedding down the horses, Wilmington stood
and glared at the gunslinger. “What? You think I lost him on the way here, Chris?”

Larabee didn’t blink an eye. “That depends. Were there any women on the trail?”

“Boys.” Josiah remained sitting , but readied himself in case he needed to intervene. “I think....”

“I think you better back off, Chris,” Buck interrupted the preacher. “We already had this
discussion and I’m sick and tired of you questioning my judgment when it comes to the kid.”

“Start thinking above your waist and I’ll start trustin’ your judgment.”

Buck slung what was left of his coffee onto the ground and made a move towards Larabee.

“What’s going on?” J.D.’s voice caused both men to turn towards the newest addition to the
group. The youngest of the Seven dropped his saddle and bedroll but continued staring at the two
figures in the center ring. “And don’t try that ‘discussion’ thin again.”

When Chris and Buck didn’t answer, Vin stepped forward and put a hand on the teen’s shoulder.
“They’re just blowing off some steam, kid.”

“They’ve been doing that a lot lately.”

“What can I say, Chris has a lot of hot air to go around,” Buck spoke up. "Which he insists on
using to spout advice on matters he ain’t got no business messing with.”  Wilmington wasn’t
willing to let this one go.”

“Drop it, Buck.” Chris growled, seeing the expression on J.D.’s face. “Save this for another
time.”

“Why? Afraid the kid might see his hero in a different light?”

“Buck,” Tanner warned, as the others looked on, not quite sure how to handle the situation.

Wilmington was hard to rile, but once he was, he was even harder to reason with. Vin’s attempt
to diffuse the situation was lost on him. “Hell, maybe even your best pal, Vin, may see the bastard
I had to put up with for so long.”

“Damnit, Buck. You just can’t leave well enough alone, can you?” Chris jerked around to
Wilmington shoving him to add to his point.

“Back off, Chris. I’ve had about all if you I can take.” The gunslinger steadied himself from the
unexpected push and faced off against Larabee.

“Easy, boys. This ain’t the time or the place.” Josiah stood, attempting to maneuver himself
between the two.

“Stay out of this, Josiah.  It don’t concern you. “ The black-clad man never took his eyes off his
quarry.

“Afraid that’s where you’re wrong, brother. You said it yourself. This concerns all of us.”
Sanchez was able to place himself in the middle of them.

“What’s the matter, preacher. Can’t you hear good. He said back off.”  Buck’s eyes gleamed
with fury.

“Come on, Buck. Everybody’s been through a lot lately. shake it off and leave it be.” Vin had
watched the scene and the face of J.D. with increasing worry. It was the fear he saw enter the
kid’s eyes that caused him to join the fray.

“Well, I guess you’d know more about that than me. Hell, you’ve just recovered from losing your
mind.” Wilmington’s clipped tone caused the tracker to visibly flinch and Chris to tremble with
rage.

“Shut the hell up or I’ll shut you up.” Larabee took a threatening step closer, ignoring the big
form of the preacher.

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t have ole Buck around to remind you of your screw ups,
huh, pard?” The gunslinger was past caring what he said and prepared for the impending fight.

“STOP IT!” The shout brought all eyes to the center of the campsite. J.D. was standing there
with a look of controlled anger etched on his young features. “I can’t take you two fighting
anymore. If you’re gonna tear each other apart, do it somewhere else.” The teen let his gaze
pass from one man to another before turning to flee the camp.

Vin cast a worried glance to Chris as he too turned and followed the boy.

“What’s wrong with the kid now?” Wilmington lost some of his glower as he saw the concern
reflected on the faces around him.

“I don’t know. Maybe he’s stressed from the lack of sleep and putting up with you and your
attitude.”

“What the hell’s that suppose to mean? I’ve been nothing but supportive for J.D.”

“Oh really, I guess those nights I stayed with him while you were warming the bed of your lady
friend, was being supportive.”

“Damn you, Chris.” Buck launched himself at Larabee but was intercepted by Sanchez.

“Stop this, Buck. It ain’t helping J.D. and right now he matters more than either one of your
egos.”

Wilmington tore his glare from the black-clad man and looked at the preacher, seeing a mixture
of sympathy and contempt.

“You’re right, Josiah.” The gunslinger untangled himself from the big man’s grasp and ran a
trembling hand through his hair. “I’ll go if the kid’s alright.” Buck turned to follow the recent
path but a hand on his arm stopped him.

“That would not be a prudent idea at this time, Mr. Wilmington.” Ezra tightened his grip as he
saw the resistance entering the taller man’s eyes.

“Who the f**k asked you, Ezra?” Buck’s fury surfaced once more and chose the gambler as its
next victim.

“I just assumed that since you and our great leader have lost touch with your faculties, that
perhaps a voice of reason was needed.”

“And what good ‘reason’ would I have for not going after the kid?”

“Maybe, cause he don’t want to see you right now.” Nathan stepped forward from his quiet vigil.
“He’s confused and angry, especially about you two. Let Vin talk to him and you all settle
down.”

The gunslinger didn’t like anyone telling him how to handle his relationship with J.D., so with a
renewed effort he started after the teen.

“BUCK!” Chris’s voice stopped the man in his tracks. “They’re right. We’re the last people the
kid needs to see. Don’t let your pride get in the way of what’s best for him.”

Wilmington remained silent for a moment, but finally nodded. “But don’t think this is over.” He
threw a withering glare over his shoulder at his old friend.

Chris returned the gaze with an icy look of his own. “Count on it.”

The two kept the stare for a few seconds, but finally stalked off to separate ends of the camp.

“Well, gentlemen,” Ezra sighed., giving Nathan and Josiah an amused look. “I do think that went
as about as well as we expected.”

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

“J.D.?” Vin called, straining to see the form ahead of him in the darkness. “Wait up.”

“Go back to camp, Vin. I’m fine,” the younger man called over his shoulder but stopped just the
same.

“It’s not safe to be out here. I can’t leave you alone.” Tanner stopped about ten yards from his
friend, but thanks to the partial amount of moonlight above, was still able to make out the
miserable look on the teen’s face.

“What? You don’t think I can take care of myself either?” J.D. turned on the tracker.

“You know that’s not how I feel.” Vin stepped closer to the youth and let his blue eyes hold the
younger man’s gaze.  “And Chris and Buck don’t think that way either.”

“The hell they don’t .” J.D. threw his hands up in the air. “I’m not stupid. I know that argument
had something to do with me.”

“It did.” Tanner wouldn’t lie. “But I think there’s a lot more to it than that. Their worry for you
has just been the match that’s lit all the old kinlin’ that’s piled up over the years.”

“But they don’t need to worry about me, Vin.” J.D. sighed. “I’m not a baby.”

“Nobody said you were, kid. Just because they are concerned, doesn’t mean they consider you
any less of a man.” Tanner paused, wanting to make sure his words were understood. “It just
means they care about you. A lot.”

Some of the tension seemed to fade from the teen’s form but his hazel eyes still held traces of
fear.  “I appreciate that they care about me. I just wish they felt that way ‘bout each other. It’s
like they hate one another.”

A sad smile passed over the tracker’s lips and he put a hand on his friends shoulder. “They don’t
hate each other J.D. Just the opposite. That’s what’s making this situation so hard on them.”

J.D. shook his head. “I don’t understand. Sometimes they’re harder to figure out than Casey.”

“Families fight, kid.” Vin sighed, letting go of J.D. “I never had one before, but I know that
much. “ The tracker took off his hat and run a hand through his hair. “Especially brothers.”

“I wouldn’t know,” J.D. shrugged. “I was an only child. Well, until a couple of years ago,
anyway.” A hint of his usual mischievous smile returned to J.D.’s face.

The tracker returned the sentiment with a slow grin. “That makes two of us.”

“Do we have to go back to camp right now?” J.D.’s gaze held just enough residual desperation to
give the bounty hunter an idea.

“I guess not.” Vin looked up into the partly cloudy sky and the glistening moon that had decided
to fully show itself for the first time that night. “There is something I could show you.”

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

“Wow! What is this place?” J.D. started to take another step forward but a hand on his arm
stopped him.

“Easy there. Don’t get too close.” Vin’s voice held a slight touch of fear. “The ground around the
ledge is not very steady.”

“Don’t worry, “ J.D. gulped, looking down at the huge gaping crevice before them. “I really hate
heights.”

The tracker laughed and nodded towards the highest peak of the mountain, barely visible to them
in the darkness. “Then you’re really going to hate going up there.”

The teen’s hazel eyes followed his friend’s line of sight, to a point where the divided twin
mountain peaks seem to stretch to the heavens, in an attempt to reconnect with one another. "Up
there!?” J.D. looked back to the bounty hunter. “Why would we be going up there?”

“Because that’s the only place to cross the Great Divide, “ Tanner stated simply, before making
himself comfortable on the the ground. “There’s a wooden bridge.”

“Bridge?” J.D. asked incredulously, taking a seat by the tracker.

Vin nodded. “The Indians call it Raven’s Crossing. Legend says it was built by a young brave
determined to reach the other side.”

“Couldn’t he have just found a place in the river to cross?”

Tanner was quiet for a moment, listening to the rushing waters below them. “Maybe. But if a
person wanted to chance a river crossing, then it’s at least a twenty mile ride to find a suitable
spot. Not to mention , that during this time of the year, with all the melting snow runoff, you’re
risking your life at even the more shallow spots.” Vin smiled and slapped the kid on the back. “
Besides, that would have made for a very dull story.”

J.D. returned the grin, “So why ‘did’ this Raven want to cross so badly?”

Vin laughed. “His name wasn’t Raven, it was Brave Eagle and he wanted to reach the other side
to find his younger brother.”

“But how did his brother get there if there was no way to cross?”

Tanner’s smile widened as he remembered asking that same question of his friend Silver
Feather.  “A crow took him there.”

“A crow?” J.D. arched his eyebrow. “Is this going to be like Buck’s werewolf story?”

“Not exactly,” the tracker replied. “It’s a legend, like I said, one that a man I respected very
much, told me.”

“Like the legend of Navarro?” J.D. didn’t miss the discomfort the mention of that particular
myth caused his friend.

“Sort of.” Tanner took a quick glance at the woods around them. The story of the beast, who
often accompanied Death on his journey into the world of the living, always brought back
painful memories for Vin. “But I always like this one a lot better. Besides, the bridge stands as a
testament to it’s truth.”

J.D. strained to see the wooden structure that his friend was talking about, but the distance and
darkness made it impossible. “So why did the raven take Brave Eagle’s brother?”

“Brave Eagle and his brother Walking Bear were the only sons of Chief Two Moons, a very
powerful leader of the Comanche people.” Vin paused a moment, trying to recall every detail,
as Silver Eagle had recounted it to him.

“There wasn’t much difference in their ages, but those who knew them said that they were as
different as night and day.”

“Like Chris and Buck?” J.D. interjected.

“Yeah,” Vin smiled. “A lot like them. Walking Bear didn’t care much for Brave Eagle always
telling him what to do and when to do it. So, they tended to fight. Often.”

“Brave Eagle wanted his younger brother to be a great warrior, the kind of brave suitable to be
second in line for chiefdom.”

“But Walking Bear had other plans?” The teen asked, readily enjoying the distraction the story
was providing.

Vin nodded. “The youngest of Two Moon’s sons was more interested in medicine and learning
the ways of the Shaman.”

“I guess Brave Eagle didn’t understand that.” J.D.’s eyes saddened some.

“No, he didn’t.” Tanner cleared his throat, not willing to let his friend be drawn back to the
problems back in camp. “When Brave Eagle reached the age of manhood, he decided that it was
time for Walking Bear to discard his hopes of becoming a medicine man, and become the
warrior that his blood destined him to be.”

“How did he plan on that happening?”

“Well, against the warnings of the village Shaman, he planned a great hunt for Walking Bear’s
fourteenth birthday. His younger brother didn’t want to go, but knew that arguing with a stone
wall would get him nowhere.”

J.D.’s hazel eyes met Vins’. “Something bad happened on the hunt, huh?” The teen pulled his
knees into his chest and propped his chin atop them.

“Walking Bear disappeared,” Vin continued, pointing to the invisible ledge up above them.
“Some believe he walked right over and fell to his death, in the darkness.”

“But that’s not what Brave Eagle believed?” The teen couldn’t hide the shiver that run through
him at the thought of such a fate.

Tanner let a worried gaze roam over his friend. “Are you cold? We can go back now, if you
want.” For him, the cool air felt good on his hot skin, he’d been uncomfortably warm since
earlier in the day, but the kid was probably freezing in the mid-winter chill.

“No way.” J.D. shook his head. “I’m fine. Finish the story.”

The tracker looked a little wary, but continued just the same. “Brave Eagle blamed himself
because he couldn’t see through his own stubbornness. He had refused to let the hunt end until
Walking Bear made a great kill, so the braves were forced to carry into the night, when the
woods weren’t safe.”

J.D. frowned. “I still don’t get it , Vin. Why did Brave Eagle think his brother was on the ‘other’
side.”

Tanner looked past his friend, to stare at the huge width span that separated them from the other
land mass. “Grief effects people different ways, kid. Makes a person want to believe the
unbelievable.” Knowing blue eyes came to rest on the teen once more. “Brave Eagle saw
a crow that night and legend says that he believed it was laughing at his foolishness. He
convinced himself that the Gods had spirited his brother away to teach him a lesson; and instead
of taking him to the next world where only the dead could go, they used the wings of death
to carry him to a place Brave Eagle could not reach.”

“Just like he couldn’t reach a common ground with Walking Bear.”

The tracker laughed lightly, surprised at just how wise the youngest of their group could be
sometimes.. “That’s what Brave Eagle thought. He also figured that if he were to show the Gods
that he could create a way to cross to such a distance, then perhaps they would give him
another chance to bridge the gap between him and Walking Bear.”

“Makes sense, I guess.” J.D. said thoughtfully. The teen would easily have done the same if one
of his ‘brothers’ had been lost.

“Well, Chief Two Moons didn’t think so,” Vin continued. “He ordered his son to stop his
foolishness and return to his position in the tribe. But this only drove Brave Eagle harder and he
continued his task against his father’s wishes, more determined than ever to reach his brother.”

“I guess he finally understood how Walking Bear felt.”

Vin nodded. “I guess in that way , he did find his brother in the end.”

“But did he ever actually ‘find’, Walking Bear?”

“Some people think so.” The tracker smiled at his friend. “He was never seen again after the
bridge was finished. The Indians believed that for his effort, the God’s rewarded him by sending
a Raven to take him to Walking Bear.”

“Didn’t any of his people look for him?”

The bounty hunter sighed. “Chief Two Moons allowed none of his village to cross the bridge his
son had constructed. He believed it led to an evil place, ‘the land of sorrows’, because it had
managed to take both his children from him.” Vin paused and looked up as a black bird flew
over them. “That’s why the Indians named this place the ‘The Great Divide’. Because it
separated a family and put a void in their chief’s heart.”

Several more crows dotted the moon lit sky and J.D. found himself shivering, yet again, in the
night air. “You don’t think this thing between Buck and Chris is going to be our great divide, do
you, Vin?”

Tanner let his gaze meet his friends’, his brothers’, and he had to swallow back the sudden lump
that sprung to his throat, before he could speak. “Not if we can help it, J.D. Not if we can help
it.”

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

The others had been asleep when Vin and J.D. had finally made it back to camp. Or, at least,
they had pretended to be. The teen hadn’t been sure of which, but he was grateful just the same.
He wasn’t really up to talking to any of them. Not even, Buck.

A slight twinge of guilt tugged at his heart as he noticed that his bed roll had already been laid
out close to the fire. With a slight smile he eased himself down and wondered which of his
friends had donated the extra blanket.  *Probably Buck.*  The kid’s smile widened at that
thought and with a big yawn he buried himself in the warmth and was asleep almost as soon as
his head touched the ground.

The youth hadn’t had a good night’s rest in over a week, two if the truth be known, and he was
beyond exhausted. Still, it seemed he’d just drifted off , when he awoke with a start, his body
coming to full alert.

J.D. tried to control his runaway heart as he listened intently. He was sure he had heard
something. Something that sounded very much like the howl of a wolf.  So, with a caution born
of experience, he eased himself up to a sitting position, his hand instantly going to the
revolver at his side.

He held his breath and strained to pick up any further sounds in the darkness. Nothing could be
heard except the crackling of the fire and the steady breathing of the men around him.

The kid let his gaze sweep the campsite. Vin and Chris were to his right, Larabee was turned
away from him but Tanner was facing the youth, each protecting the other’s back, even in sleep.
J.D. couldn’t help to smile at that thought.

A smile that quickly disappeared when his eyes noticed the empty bedroll nearest him. *Buck.*

The kid shakily made it to his feet and scanned the others. Ezra was to his left and Josiah and
Nathan finished the circle at his feet. But no sign of his bestfriend.

J.D. tried to calm his increased breathing , telling himself that the older man had probably just
gone to relieve himself.

The tactic was working , somewhat, until another mournful howl erupted somewhere behind
him. J.D. spun around. It had come from the Great Divide.

“Buck!” J.D. whispered harshly, taking a step towards the edge of the woods.

He thought about waking Vin or Chris, but was afraid that if Wilmington had only wandered off,
it could cause another argument. That was something J.D. wasn’t willing to risk.

Yet, the teen wasn’t willing to let his bestfriend remain out in the woods by himself , either. The
terrible thought of what had happened to Walking Bear was much too vivid for that.

So, as quietly as possible , J.D. slipped past Vin and made his way into the forest. He was sure he
had learned enough from the tracker  to find his way back to where the two of them had been
earlier that night. Maybe, Wilmington, would be there.

“Buck!” J.D. called into the night, far enough away now to not fear waking his other friends.
“Damn it. Where are you?”

Nothing answered him, except the rumble of the wind that had picked up and a faint whisper
from the tree limbs shaking in its wake.

The teen wrapped his arms tighter around himself and trudged on, a growing heaviness weighing
on his chest.

He had been walking for what seemed like hours, when he suddenly found himself in a clearing.
It wasn’t where he and the bounty hunter had been before, but at the peak, in front of a narrow,
swinging bridge.

“Raven’s Crossing,” J.D. whispered, watching as clouds of fog rose from the rushing river
below, to swirl around the wooden structure.

Without moving, the teen found himself perched in the middle of the bridge.

“What the ..” J.D. started, but his words faded when he noticed the other man on the structure
with him.

The figure was tall and dressed in a dark coat but the wall of thick mist between them prevented
the kid form seeing the other occupant’s face.

“Buck?” J.D. took a careful step forward. “What the heck are you doing out here?”

“Why, I was waiting on you, Brat.”

The teen stumbled backwards at the reply. It wasn’t the voice he was hoping for , but one he
knew just the same.

“Oh God.” J.D.’s heart slammed into his throat as the ghastly apparition of Ayden Cross stepped
into the streams of moonlight.

“Sorry, kid, you’d been closer to the truth if you’d called me the Devil.”

Dunne turned to flee but caught sight of the incredible drop below him and was overcome by a
paralyzing fear. He couldn’t move a muscle.

“Don’t look down, J.D.” Ayden laughed, letting one of his fleshy hands latch onto the youth’s
shoulder. “We wouldn’t want you to fall, now would we?”

“Don’t touch me!” J.D. fought against the man’s grip, but found his strength failing.

“Haven’t you missed me, young one?” Cross jerked the boy around and pulled him closer.

The kid tried not to look at the hideously disfigured face of the older man, but found it
impossible to avoid the familiar dark gaze. “What’s wrong? Don’t you find your handiwork an
improvement.”

J.D. nearly choked at the smell of charred flesh as Cross run a hand over his hair.

“I’m sure a vicious fall to those rocks below could give you a similar look. I mean it wouldn't be
as purifying as fire, but I assume it would reveal a new you just the same.” Ayden pushed the
youth closer to the edge of the bridge. “What do you think?”

“No!” J.D. shouted, finally managing to pull away from the grotesque man. “You’re dead! I
watched you die.”

Cross smiled and licked at what was left of his lips. “You saw your hero die, too, didn’t you,
Brat. Watched someone you ‘love’ perish right along with the man you hate most in the world.”

Ayden jumped, causing the swinging structure they were on to sway. “Didn’t that preacher of
yours tell you that its a sin to hate, boy?”

J.D. clung to the rope railing on either side of him, fighting to regain some of his composure.
“My friends will be here any minute now.”

Cross laughed, bitterly. “You are so amusing , J.D. I think you said that same thing to me back at
the cabin.” The old er man scratched at his tattered hair. “Perhaps it was during one of our
special discussions.”

J.D. flinched as unwanted memories rushed to the surface, stealing his breath, like a punch to the
gut. “Shut-up!”

This only encouraged Ayden to continue. “Your ‘friends’ are no where around, I’m afraid.” The
other man jumped again racking the bridge with further motion. “But I’ve brought one of my
own.”

The kid heard the menacing growl behind him, even before Ayden finished his sentence. With a
fearful dread the youth slowly turned to find another familiar foe.

Navarro bared his teeth, his golden eyes glowing like embers, and inched nearer to the boy. "This
can’t be happening.” J.D. heard the desperation in his own voice, but was powerless to prevent
the feeling of complete helplessness that was quickly encompassing him.

He turned away from the large, black wolf and let his eyes meet Ayden’s pleased gaze. “He has a
fondness for the dead, but the living make him quite nervous.”

“That’s how you found your way back here,” J.D. choked. “He led you.”

“Now, now, young one.” Ayden was again touching him, this time J.D. did not resist. “That is
merely a myth. Didn’t your older brother tell you that?”

The teen stepped back at the mention of his bestfriend. “Buck?” he whispered, hoping the name
would be like a secret weapon capable of breaking the horrific spell holding him. He hadn’t even
realized he was crying until he tasted the saltiness of a tear as it passed over his parched lips.

Cross’s destroyed face twisted in an attempt at fake regret. “I do hate to be the one to tell you
this. But Mr. Wilmington ‘was’ here earlier.” The older man let a drawn and withered hand
reach out and trace the path the lone tear had taken down J.D.’s  young face. “Unfortunately, I
accidentally let him fall.”

“You're lying!” Dunne stepped back, out of the man’s reach, only to feel the Navarro’s hot
breath brush against him.

“Am I?” Out of nowhere, the insane man produced an all too familiar cowboy hat. “I believe he
would want you to have this.” Ayden held the artifact out to the kid. “He never did like that one
of yours, now did he?”

“NO!” J.D. quickly looked over the side of the bridge, ignoring his fear to search the waters for
his fallen friend. “BUCK!”

Cross’s laughter seemed to drown out the echo of J.D.’s shout. “He cant’ hear you , Brat. Just as
he couldn’t hear your screams at the cabin.”

“No.” J.D. squeezed his eyes shut, but opened then again when he felt Ayden’s icy touch.

“Don’t worry though,” Cross gave the boy a vicious shove. “I’m sending you to join him.”

In one horrific moment, the teen felt himself flip over the railing and saw the foaming white
waters below, rushing towards him. Then, he felt nothing but emptiness as he plummeted the
depths of the Great Divide.

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

‘Whenever I prepare for a journey I prepare as though for death. Should I never return, all is in
order. That is what life has taught me.’- Katherine Mansfield.

*****************************************************
 
“NO!” J.D.’s horror-filled shout tore through the quiet camp with a terrifying clarity. The
desperation and helplessness that resounded in it, tore the other six sleeping men from their
slumbering states instantly. Each one instinctively reached for their weapons and stumbled to
their feet to attack whatever intruder had dared assault one of the Seven.

“Buck!” The stricken shout brought everyone’s attention to the thrashing form near the fire. It
only took a moment for the worried figures to realize that no intruder had entered their camp, but
that they were facing the same phantom menace that had been haunting them for weeks now.

“Shit!” Chris cursed under his breath, quickly stumbling to the teen’s side to prevent him from
geting close to the dying flames. “J.D.” Larabee tried, wrapping his arms around the struggling
youth. “Wake up, son.”

“No!” The kid screamed again and fought harder against the man holding him. “Cross!”

“Kid.” Buck had dropped to his knees by the teen and Chris. “Come on, J.D. Snap out of it.”

“Vin, grab his feet.” Larabee ordered and the tracker tried to avoid being kicked as he
manuevered a hold on J.D.’s thrashing legs.

J.D.’s breathing was coming much too hard and fast and the youth seemed oblivious to the others
around him.

“Nathan!” Buck’s shout was wasted because Jackson had already retrieved his medical bag and
was deftly rummaging through its contents.

“J.D.” Chris was still trying to reach their youngest partner, a look of pure concentration on his
face. It was obvious he had performed this ritual before. “Wake up, kid. You’re alright.”

The teen’s eyes remained closed, unable to pull himself from the terror holding him on the other
side. “Oh God. Cross. ...Navarro,” he panted breathlessly.

Larabee held him tighter. “Easy, J.D. You’re safe.”

Ezra and Josiah stood side by side, protectively watching the scene. “Dear Lord, when did they
become this severe?”The gambler’s voice held none of it’s usual melody.

Sanchez sighed. “They’ve been getting worse the last week or so. Chris had to get Nathan a
couple of times.”

“Is he going to be alright?” Buck turned anxious eyes to his oldest friend. “Why hasn’t he woke
up yet?”

“Come on kid.” Chris ignored Wilmington and continued coaxing the boy he now rocked in his
arms. “Let it go, J.D. Open your eyes.”

Nathan pushed past Buck and waved a small brown bottle of liquid under the kid’s nose.

The youth choked at first and then began coughing.

Wilmington started to stop the healer but Vin’s hand on his shoulder prevented him. “Easy, pard.
He know’s what he’s doing.” Tanner had released J.D.’s still feet now and moved to the other
side of Larabee.

J.D. jerked in Chris’s arms one final time before hazel eyes opened with a start. “No!” the kid
gasped, between ragged gulps of air, but ceased his struggles.

“It’s alright,” Chris soothed, brushing sweat-soaked hair away from his youngest partner’s face.
“You’re safe.”

“Chris?”

“It’s me, kid.”

The teen closed his eyes for a second, relaxing back against the Larabee’s chest,  before letting
them pop open again. “Cross! He’s alive!” J.D. suddenly lurched forward, trying to make it to his
feet, but only ended up falling into Wilmington.

“Easy, kid.” The older man caught the youth and he nearly lost what composure he had left when
the frightened, dazed hazel eyes met his.

“Buck!” J.D.’s voice sounded much too young and racked with misery. “I thought ...” The kid
lathched onto his bestfriend’s arm. “I thought you were dead. Cross...he..killed you.”

“I’m fine, J.D.” Buck forced a weary smile and reached out a hand to grasp the back of the teen’s
neck. “Cross is the one that’s dead, son. That bastard can’t hurt anyone anymore.”

The younger man leaned forward, letting his forehead come to rest on Wilmington’s chest,
exhaustion starting to win out over fear.. “Don’t leave, Buck. Please.”

The older man swallowed hard, meeting Larabee’s cold gaze over the youth’s shoulder. “I ain’t
going nowhere, kid. I promise.”

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

It took a better part of an hour and some help from Vin, but Wilmingtin had finally convinced
J.D. to try and get some more rest. He and Ezra had taken turns telling outlandish stories about
exploits they had endured, and in the end ,one of them had finally bored the kid to
sleep.

Buck ran a hand over his weary eyes, and looked down to watch the steady rise and fall of the
chest of the young man curled next to him. In the glow of the firelight, J.D. looked younger than
usual, and Wilmington couldn’t help but to think of the times when he’d come so close to losing
that young life. He reached out and let his hand come to rest on the boy’s brow, hoping to not
only bestow some sense of security to his friend, but to bring some comfort to himself as well.

Raising his gaze from the kid, Buck wasn’t surprised to find Chris Larabee staring at him from
across the fire. Watching him with an intensity that made it seem as if the gunslinger held him
responsible for the ordeal they had just endured.

“I didn’t know,” Buck tried, his voice low, but loud enough for Chris to hear.

“You would have if you’d been here.”

Vin , who was sitting near Chris, let his eyes travel across the flames to watch the crestfallen
look appear on his other friend’s face. He would have liked to have said something, anything, to
take away the pained look on the older man’s features; but something inside him warned against
intruding on the private argument.

“The dreams weren’t this bad when I left, damn it,” Buck hissed, trying not to lose his temper.

“Exactly my point.” Larabee leaned closer, keeping his voice to a low, harsh whisper to avoid
waking J.D. and the others. “Whatever’s causing these nightmares has something to do with you,
Buck Imagine how hard it was to convince him that you were safe when you were nowhere to be
found. Sometimes it would take hours to get him settled down.”

“So now this is all my fault?” Anger was slowly replacing the guilt Buck had been stricken with.
“If I recall I’m not the one who brought Cross into our lives. I believe that was all thanks to one
of your great plans.” Buck let his dark eyes look from Larabee to Tanner and then back. “And I
sure as hell wasn’t the one to let Cross get his hands on the kid the last time.”

Chris didn’t even need to look Vin’s way to pick up on the tracker’s reaction. It had been a
surprise attack, one he’d never have imagined Wilmington to take. The other gunslinger was
almost as close to Tanner as he was J.D. That made it ten times worse.

“You son of a bitch,” Chris bit out and started to get up, but a hand on his arm stopped him.

“Easy, Chris.” The bounty hunter’s voice was slightly hoarse. “We’re all just tired, especially
Buck. None of us have had much sleep these last few days and the last thing we need is another
fight.”

Wilmington had instantly regretted his statement the moment it left his lips, but seeing the hurt
register in the tracker’s eyes had almost pained him physically. “I didn’t mean that the way it
sounded, Vin.”

“It sounded like you were trying to find any reason not to take responsibility for your screw-up,”
Larabee shot back, before Tanner could.

J.D. stirred and Buck tore his eyes from the two forms across from him, to make sure the kid was
still asleep.

“Go ahead and blame me, Chris.” Wilmington looked up once more, assured the teen was in a
sound state. “It worked with Adam and Sarah, why the hell, should you give up on a good thing.”

This time Vin wasn’t sure if he’d be able to stop the impending fight, but he knew he had to
try.The tracker tightened his hold on Larabee’s arm and wasn’t surprised to feel the quiver of
clenched muscles rippling beneath the black shirt. “Damn it. Your both are acting like two
year-olds.”

Chris had planned on lunging across the campfire and strangling his oldest and dearest friend
with his bare hands, but something about the weariness in his best friend’s voice stopped him. He
tore his eyes from Buck and let his gaze fall on Vin. One look into the serene, albeit tired, eyes of
the bounty hunter and he regained enough of his calm to remain sitting.

Realizing he was making some headway, Tanner continued. “We have a hard day’s ride
tomorrow and the two of you going another round isn’t going to help matters none. It sures as
hell ain’t going to help J.D. He already feels like this thing between you two is his fault.”

“None of this is his fault,” Buck finally sighed, running a hand through his hair, before letting his
gaze meet Vins’. “It’s not yours , either, Pard’. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry.” The tracker gave the other man a half smile. “Like I told the kid, families
fight.”

“That’s true.” Chris’s voice was thick with surpressed anger. “But they should have the good
sense to know when to call a truce.” Larabee raised his head to lock eyes with Buck once more..
“Even if its a temporary one.”

Wilmington nodded. “I could use some rest.”

“Good.” Vin’s gaze played between the two. “’Cause I really don’t have the energy to kick both
your asses.”

Larabee couldn’t surpress a smile as the younger man tossed what was left of his coffee onto the
ground and made his way back to his bedroll.

“I think he meant that.” Buck shook his head and tossed the other gunslinger a priceless look.

“My money would most definitely be on ,Mr. Tanner, gentlemen.” A sleepy, southern voice
sounded from the other side of the camp. “Because if you do not cease the incessant chatter and
try to at least pretend you are in some state of slumber, I have the inclination to join him in the
pummeling of your anatomy.”

Wilmington cast an amused glance over his shoulder. “You feeling ‘that’ lucky , Ezra?”

The gambler rasied up on one elbow and yawned. “Let’s just say the odds are in my favor.”

“In other words, you’re not above cheating,” Chris snorted.

“I dare say I would have no need for such tactics, Mr. Larabee.” Standish reclined to his bedroll
once more. “Considering my two opponents are utterly exhausted and spent beyond their worth.”

“Did that sound like concern in his voice?” Buck looked at Chris. “’Cause, if Ezra’s worried ,
maybe we should get some sleep.”

“That’s probably the smartest thing you’ve said all night.” Larabee watched his friend across the
shimmering flames. “Definitely the safest.”

Wilmington took a deep breath and let it out slowly as the other gunslinger turned his back on
him and made his way to his pallet. Making himself comfortable on his own blanket beside J.D.,
Buck looked up at the night sky and wondered if he and Chris could make it through this trip in
one piece.

It wasn’t the journey to Arden that concerned him, but the path of destruction that their
friendship had seemed destined to take.

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

The next morning the clouds had moved into a heavy blanket across the sky, but somehow
the sun refused to be blocked out. It shone its first rays on the now bustling camp below,
almost in irony to the mood that had settled upon it’s vacating inhabitants.

“How long do you think it’ll take to get to the bridge, Vin?” Chris glanced at the tracker who
was slowly saddling Bounty beside him.

Tanner apparently didn’t hear his friend’s question because he continued his task without
acknowledging that any words had been spoken.

Larabee ceased his motions and watched the younger man with blatant scrutiny. After a few
minutes of observing the unusually sluggish movement , he finally reached out and laid a hand
on the other’s shoulder.

The bounty hunter jumped at the sudden touch and almost dropped the bridle he was holding.

“You alright?” Chris stepped closer to Vin, surpised at the skittishness in his friend’s manner,
and pulled him so they stood face to face.

“Yeah, fine. I was just thinking.” Tanner tried to sound annoyed to cover the trembling in his
voice.

“Sure.” Larabee was definitely not convinced, especially when he saw the weak gleam and
shadows under his partner’s eyes.

“You sure you’re feelin’ okay? You don’t look so good.” Chris sidled nearer the younger man
and raised his left hand to rub across the other’s brow. “You got a fever?”

Vin knew the intended destination of the hand and quickly intercepted it. “I said I was fine.”

A stubborn look passed over the bounty hunter’s face and it was then the gunslinger knew the
conversation was done.

“Fine. Larabee turned back to his mount, to finish preparing it for the day’s travel. “I asked you
how long ‘til we get to the overpass.”

The tracker watched his friend’s back with a slight twinge of guilt. He knew he was tired and the
headache that had returned with a vengence wasn’t helping matters none,  but that was no excuse
for taking it out on the other man.

“Look, Chris. I’m sorry. I am a little tired, but its nothing to worry about.”

The gunslinger paused and swiveled back around, the concern evident in the intense gaze. “You
sure?”

The bounty hunter sighed letting a slow grin cross his face. “You better watch it, cowboy, or
Josiah will be associating you with a momma grizzly.”

Larabee chuckled at the picture conjured in his mind. “Yeah, thats all I need.”

The two men shared the soft laughter that had been missing the past few weeks, but sobered
when the reason for their mission came back full force.

“The crossing shouldn’t be more ‘n two hours from here. Hopefully, unless we run into any
problems from the storm comin’.” As if to punctuate Vin's words, a howl of wind ripped through
the camp, causing both men to shiver from the chill.

“We best hurry, then.” Chris gave his friend a half grin as they turned to resume their packing.
“The people of Arden are counting on us.”

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

Buck’s silence during the slow climb to Raven’s Crossing was deafening. He’d been that way
since the group had awoke that morning , and it only added to the growing storm around them.
And to J.D.’s unease.

The younger man. had rode by his friend's side the whole way and was getting tired of the quiet.
It gave him too much time to think about the night before. Although he couldn’t quite remember
the horrible dream that had awoken he and the others, he knew it had something to do with the
crossing they were about to undergo, and if the truth be known, that scared him worse than any
nightmare could have.

“Hey Buck.” The teen waited as the gunslinger slowly turned toward him.

“Yeah kid?” Wilmington’s voice was void of any of its usual emotion.

“You afraid of heights?” The youth’s question caught the other man off guard. Buck stared
quizzically at the boy, thinking how with everything he’d been through, high ground should be
the least of his worries. “Nope. Never had any reason to be.”

J.D.’s attempt to draw the gunslinger out of his slump and into a conversation, maybe a little
banter, failed miserably. He was also secretly hoping that the overprotective Buck he loved so
much would kick in and tell him he was being silly about his fear.But no such luck.

”Oh.” The teen mumbled.  Apparently, something was troubling the older man, so much so, that
it was interfering with his regular duties.

Ezra, who had been riding behind the pair, overheard the discussion and, as one who was use to
reading between the lines, easily picked up on the youngest of the Seven’s unvocalized need.
“Do you suffer from acrophobia, Mr. Dunne?”

The gambler was pleased as he saw the youth turn a confused gaze his way.

“Huh?”

“An aversion to places only birds and angels dare tread,” Standish explained. “A fear of heights.”

“Uh, yeah, a little, Ezra.” The teen paused as he was drawn to years ago. “My ma said I fell
down some stairs once in one of the mansions that she worked at when I was about three. Ever
since then,I hated high places.”

“Well, I assure you, my young friend, if you find your self falling now, you have plenty around
that shall be there to catch you.” The man of chance allowed a rare grin to cross his features, in
hopes to vanquish the younger man’s fears.

“Thanks, Ezra.”J.D. returned the smile.

The southerner tipped his hat and let his horse fall back to the rear position once more.

“He’s right, ya know.”

The teen turned a startled glance to Wilmington. Buck gave the youth an intense gaze and then
continued in a hoarse tone. “No matter what happens, J.D. We’ll never let anything harm you, if
it’s in our power to prevent it.”

The kid nodded and the older man let a mischevious grin light his face. “Now, do you want me to
finish that werewolf story or do you want to explain how you ‘really’ got this ‘acrophooey’ thing
Ezra was rambling about.”

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

The travelers came to a stop exactly two hours later and dismounted in the worsening weather.

The mile high, wooden bridge before them swayed slightly with the increasing wind, causing it to
creak and moan omniously.

J.D. gulped nervously as flashes of his dream from the night before flickered through his head.

“Its okay, J.D. Take it easy.” Buck noticed the color had drained from the youth’s features and he
laid a hand on his shoulder.

After a few excruciating moments, the boy finally got control of his labored breathing and gave
his friend a somewhat  reassuring smile. “I’m fine, Buck.”

The gunslinger gauged the teen’s eyes for confirmation and was happy to see the determination
reflected there.

“Good.” Wilmington patted J.D.’s cheek as he passed him to join the other’s by the crossing.

“So how’s it look?” Nathan cautiously peered over the side , trying to hide the shudder he felt run
through his body.as he peered across the narrow, hanging structure that spanned the 150 yards or
so to the other piece of land.

“Don’t worry, doc. Its stouter than it looks.” Vin grinned at the healer’s apprehension.

“Okay.” Chris had also peeked over the incline swallowing hard at the sight. “It looks like we’ll
have to go across one at a time and lead the horses.”

“I’ll go first.” Tanner turned to retrieve his mount but the grip now on his arm ceased his
movement.

“I think it would be better if I go first.” Larabee saw the impending fight creep into the bounty
hunter’s eyes and prepared to do battle. Thankfully,  the healer came to his rescue.

“I think Chris’s right, Vin. Your looking even worse than you did yesterday.” Jackson’s medical
instincts replaced his earlier fear of the impending journey and was now assessing the tracker’s
physical condition.

“Damnit, Nate. How many times am I gonna have to say it. I’m fine.” Vin was beginning to get a
caged feeling as he glanced at the concerned faces around him.

“I’m afraid your rantings concerning your ‘impeccable’ health have fallen on deaf ears,
Mr.Tanner.” Standish stepped along side the tracker. “ So, I suggest you bow out gracefully
before our great leader resorts to drastic tactics.”

Ezra tried to hide the immense pleasure he was getting from his friend’s discomfort, but the look
adorning the other man’s face told him he was failing miserably.

Knowing the bounty hunter’s tendency to use him as a means of relieving frustration, the
gambler decided a retreat was called for and turned quickly, hoping to avoid the consequences of
the anger he saw flash in the light blue eyes. Unfortunately, he didn’t find the sanctuary he was
hoping for,  but was greeted with the stricken features of J.D.

“Mr. Dunne, a great man once said that, you have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

The teen forced a nervous smile. “I bet he never had to cross something like that.”

Ezra watched the youth struggle with the fear that was gripping him, and was suddenly cast back
to a time when he’d felt as terrified as J.D. looked.

“You are probably correct in your assertation.” Standish slowly approached the youngster and
laid a well kept hand on the other’s shoulder. “But just to prove to you that there is no immediate
peril to expect from the void below,  I will cross first.”

The man of chance gave the youth a wink. “And I know that you appreciate the fact that I am not
one to gamble with my most prized possession.”

The kid broke his gaze from the swinging structure of doom and looked deep into the confident
green orbs of the other man. “Yeah, Ezra. I know how you much you think of yourself. Thanks.”

“No gratitude necessary, Mr. Dunne. The pleasure is all mine.” The gambler slapped the boy
lightly, grasping the reigns of Chance from Josiah’s outstretched hand. He nodded his thanks to
the big preacher and tipped his hat at the baffled expressions of his other partners before walking
towards Raven’s Crossing.

However, before he could take the first step, a voice caught his attention. “I’d watch that first
step iffen’ I was you, Ezra. It can be a doozie.” Vin allowed an evil grin to touch his lips when he
saw the other man shudder.

Ignoring the banter, Standish began his slow walk,whispering calming endearments to Chance
the whole way.

Finally, after what the gambler deemed to be forever, he finally touched solid ground once more
and turned to take a graceful bow for the other’s benefit.

“I’ll go next.” Chris attempted to follow the southerner but was also stopped suddenly by a hand
on his forearm.

“I think that should be me.” Vin watched the emotions play across his friend’s face, waiting for
the argument he knew was coming.

“I don’t...” Larabee’s objection was interrupted when the tracker jerked Bounty forward, making
his way onto the bridge.

“Damnit,” the gunslinger swore softly at being tricked by the retreating form. He started to
follow but the chuckle beside him caused him to stop.

“You say one word about a bear, Josiah, and I swear I’m not responsible for my actions.” Chris’s
growl would have struck fear in a stampeding herd of cattle, but only succeeded in increasing the
preacher’s laughter more.

“I was thinking more along the lines of a hen, Brother Larabee.” Sanchez threw a big hand on the
black clad man’s shoulder. “But I find nothing wrong with a man having a strong nurturing side.”

Larabee moved toward him, but Nathan, hiding a smile of his own, stepped between the two,
hoping to prevent blood shed.

“I think J.D. should go next, Chris. That way he’ll feel safer with Vin in front of him and you and
Buck behind him.”

The gunslinger curbed his murderous gaze long enough to acknowledge the wisdom of the
healer’s words. “Good idea. I’ll go see if he’s up for it.”

The gunslinger sauntered off but not before throwing another deadly glare at Josiah and making a
quick check on his bestfriend’s progress across the bridge.  He breathed a sigh of relief when he
saw that Vin had almost reached the other side, and only hoped that the rest of the procession
would go as smoothly.

“You can do it, kid. It’ll be a piece of cake.” Wilmington’s soft, reasurring voice reached
Larabee’s ears as he neared the two huddled figures,  almost making Chris sorry for being so hard
on the other man. Almost.

“I don’t think I can , Buck. You just don’t understand.” J.D. shook his head and took a step away
from his bestfriend.

“That’s where you’re wrong , J.D.” Chris moved towards the youth. “Fear is something all of us
understand.”

Hazel eyes lifted to meet the gunslinger’s. “You’re not afraid of anything, especially crossing
some stupid bridge.”

“A lot of things scare me, son.” Larabee held the other’s gaze. “I’ve just learned to face most of
them.”

“He’s telling the truth.” Buck’s voice held a hint of humor. “There was a time when Ol’ Chris
wouldn’t go near a woman.”

“Keep it up, Buck, and we’ll let you guage just how far the drop is.” Larabee growled and
Wilmington faked a shudder.

Dunne didn’t  know whether to laugh at his friend’s sparring or cry ,so instead,  he focused his
attention back on the Great Divide. “Well, ‘this’ scares me more than any girl ever has.”

“You can turn back if you want to , J.D.” Chris returned his attention to the teen. “But we need
you, and the people in Arden are depending on the Seven to get that medicine to them.”

Buck started to object to the tactic the other gunslinger was using but held his tounge as he saw
the look that came across J.D.’s features. “You really need me?”

“You’re one of us, aren’t you?”

The kid watched his hero for a moment before finally breaking into a smile. “You bet.”

“Then you’re going to have to hold back your fear long enough to get across that bridge.”

Chris watched as the emotions of fright and determination warred within the younger man. If he
knew J.D. as well as he thought he did, he knew which would be victorious.

“I’ll try,” the kid finally answered.

“Maybe this will help,” Buck spoke up, holding his closed fist out to J.D.

The boy looked puzzled but extended his hand anyhow. Wilmington opened his palm and let a
small silver pendant drop into J.D.’s grasp. “It’s suppose to protect whoever wears it from
danger,” Buck explained.

“Really?” J.D. held the strange looking symbol up to eye level.It looked similar to the Roman
numeral two, with two silver lines running parallel to one another, and a glistening bar at the top
and bottom. “What is it?”

Wilmington chuckled, lightly. “I’m not sure, really. But I had it on the highest authority, that it
held great magic.”

“You’re full of it, Buck.” The kid smiled but slipped the silver amulet around his neck just the
same.

Wilmington smiled and shot Chris a look. “I’ve had worse said about me.”

J.D. hadn’t missed the exchange. “You two will be right behind me, right?”

“We’ll be here if you need us.” Larabee was the one to answer.”And Ezra and Vin are waiting for
you on the other side.”

Dunne sighed, fighting the overwhelming feeling of doom threatening to steal his breath. “Then
let’s get it over with.”

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

“Just keep your eyes straight ahead,” Nathan Jackson offered, patting J.D. on the shoulder as he
passed by.

“Nate’s right,” Chris kept a hand on the younger man’s arm as they neared the crossing. “Focus
on Vin and Ezra. Don’t look back.”

“Or down,” Buck added, with an encouraging smile. J.D. started to reach for his horse’s reigns
but Wilmington caught his hand. “I’ll lead Seven across with me. You just concentrate on
making it over.”

“Are you sure?” J.D. looked nervously at his best friend.

“Positive.” The older man let his grip tighten on the younger man, before reluctantly letting go.
“Now get going before that wind picks up anymore.”

J.D. nodded and carefully stepped out onto the bridge. It creaked and he took a deep breath and
latched onto the rope railing before continuing.

Slowly, his tentative steps brought him to the middle of the swaying bridge and he was beginning
to feel a little foolish at the big deal he’d made of the whole thing, when a sudden brush of air
fiercely shook the structure.

The wind roared again and J.D.'s  head began to swim, memories from his nightmare starting to
swirl around him. The rumble of the winter's gale suddenly sounded just like the low growl of
Navarro, and it stopped him dead center of the overpass.

The teen stood stone cold for several agonizing minutes, his heartbeat the only sound penetrating
his brain.

“J.D.?” Buck’s worried voice called and the boy squeezed his eyes shut.

*Take it easy. Everythings fine.* J.D. let the words roll over and over in his mind and just to
reassure himself, the youth opened his eyes, hoping to take in the sight of Vin and Ezra, who he
knew where waiting for him on the other side.

Unfortunately, as the light began entering his vision, instead of the comforting faces of his
friends’, he was blasted with the disfigured form of Ayden Cross. *Oh God.*

“Don’t look down, Brat.” The whispered taunt wrapped itself around J.D. like a suffocating
blanket.

The teen began to back away from the vision, but the hot breath of Navarro assaulted him from
behind.

J.D.jumped, nearly tripping over his own feet. “BUCK!” The kid half cried, half screamed.”Help
me!”

Wilmington had noticed the standstill of the younger man and was beginning to worry, but the
sudden yell , not to mention the stumble, intensified the emotion to full blown terror.

“Its okay, J.D.” The gunslinger tried to make his voice calm, even though his heart was
threatening to pound its way out of his chest. “Just try and relax. Don’t move, son.”

The only admission of the man’s words being heard was the urgent shaking of the kid’s head 'no'
and another faulty step backwards.

“Damn!” Wilmington started to step onto the bridge, but Larabee quickly halted his
advancement.

“No, Buck.”

“Damnit Chris, the kid needs me.” The taller man attempted to wrench out of the grasp but was
unsuccessful. “If he panics out there, he might fall.”

“Calm down, Buck. Any movement on that thing right now, could spook the kid even more.”
Larabee watched the helplessness play across his friend’s pale face and waited for rational
thought to take hold once more. “You know I’m right.”

Wilmington rubbed a shaking hand over his mouth. “Then what the hell are we gonna’ do?”

Larabee looked out across the divide, past J.D., to where their other two partners had picked up
on the danger. “We let Vin go get him. Alright?” The gunslinger sighed as Buck nodded
his agreement.

“Yeah. He'll trust Vin.”

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

Vin had known they were in trouble as soon as J.D. had stopped moving. The look in the
frightend hazel eyes was the same one the kid got after one of his nightmares. Only this time,
J.D. was awake. And in a very dangerous situation. If he fell, they’d no one there to wake him
before he hit bottom.

“J.D.?” The voice calling across the divide caused all eyes to turn in its direction.

Amazingly enough, the kid slowly focused his gaze in front of him once more and thanked God
when he was greeted with the figure of Vin Tanner instead of Ayden Cross. "Vin?"

“Take it easy, kid. It's me. I’m gonna come out and get you.”

The tracker eased forward at the youth’s slight nod. J.D. felt the sway of the bridge increase at
the added weight and whimpered softly.

“Its okay, kid. I’m almost there. Just hang on.” Tanner could feel the fear radiating from the
younger man even though he was still a couple of feet from him. “You still with me, J.D.?”

The teen’s eyes were glued to the tracker but he still made no movement to answer the other.

“You're doing good, kid. I’m almost there.” As Vin stepped within arm’s length of the frightened
youth, he heard it.

A loud snap, mixed with the jerk of the rope under his right hand. *Damn.*

He wrenched his head up to lock eyes with the men on the other side.

“What the..?” He heard Chris mutter over the roaring wind and saw Josiah point to the fracturing
side of the bridge.

“No!” He heard Buck shout and watched as it took Nathan and the big preacher to keep him from
stepping out onto the crumbling structure, to come to his and J.D.’s aid.

More popping brought his attention back to J.D. who still seemed trapped in a world of his own.
As if in slow motion, he watched the bound string begin unraveling from its origin near where
the others were standing, helpless to prevent what was about to happen.

Tanner knew there wasn’t much time and it was completely up to him to do what he could to
keep them alive.

“J.D. listen to me real careful.” The bounty hunter waited until he once again had the boy’s full
attention. “I want you to wrap your right arm around the rope of the bridge as many times, and as
tight as you can. Can you do that for me, kid?”

J.D. nodded wordlessly, going on instinct alone,  and proceeded to do as he was told.

“Good. Now I want you to reach out and grab my left hand.” As the tracker talked, he wrapped
his left leg around the bottom rung of the rope, feeling the bridge giving underneath them. “And
no matter what happens, J.D. Don’t. Let. Go.”

Glancing up once more to meet eyes with Chris , who looked as scared as Vin had ever seen him,
he reached out for J.D.

No sooner had their two hands touched, when a loud crack erupted beneath their feet, and they
were suddenly plunged towards the void below.

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

For some reason the saying popped into Chris Larabee’s head, it was one his mother had said, often,  and for once, its meaning
was not lost on him.

‘Life is merely a fleeting breath and a  blink of an eye.’

It was in that instance, that Chris realized he had made the same mistake that he vowed he would never make again. His life had
become so entwined with another, six others, that a part of himself was no longer his own.

It was a piece of a collective. An intricate part of a living, breathing collage. And in a crystal, clear moment he realized that it
was a portion not stolen, or secured by force or necessity, but one he had given freely. In fact, it was painfully obvious that
nothing had been taken from him at all;  but rather, the masterpiece, that a fragment of his soul helped create, had been ‘given’
to him as a most precious gift.

An endowment he was about to lose.

“J.D.!! VIN!!”

Buck’s shout echoed both far and wide across the great divide, until it died off with the running water below.

But it, and the distraught gunslinger’s struggles to free himself from Nathan and Josiah, were enough to pull Chris from his
paralyzing moment of realization.

He caught his breath and refocused his attention just in time to watch two of the most important facets of his family fall towards
the watery grave below.

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

Ezra Standish dropped to his knees in anguish, as Vin Tanner and J.D. Dunne fell from sight.

“Dear Lord,” he breathed, hating himself for being the type of man he was. For even as he watched in heartbreaking agony, he
was weighing the fated men’s chances of survival.

Defining the odds was something he was familiar with, something he was damn good at. However, as he stetched out on his
stomach to see over the side, he prayed that for once, his innate talent would betray him and that it might be obscured by the
mercy any god, that deemed it neccesary to dabble in the business of miracles.

The gambler’s breath caught in his throat, as he let his vision adjust to take in the still bouncing section of the bridge, that had not

fallen into the river. It struck the rock facing with viscious force only to rebound and pound the stone again, delivering a
thorough bashing to the two forms hanging precariously from it’s surviviving structure.

Ezra could do nothing, but wait with bated breath and pray that the final assault did not finish what the sheer plummet had
begun.

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

Buck Wilmington had felt the instant his heart stopped beating and was overcome by a wash of emotions. It was hard to breath
and his mind ceased to function. A strong instinct, like one he had never known, took over, blocking any rational thought,  and
urged him to do something, anything , to stop the scene playing out before him.

He would have let his heart, and his feet, carry him head first into the abyss where he watched the swinging bridge and two of
the closest people to him in the world fall into the Great Divide, had it not been for the quick thinking of Josiah and Nathan

He fought against their holds meant to preventing his self-scarifice and would have probably overpowered them, but luckily, the
sight of J.D.and Vin hanging on half of the bridge against the other side, curbed his suicidal tenacity.

“Thank you, God,” Josiah Sanchez whispered, releasing Wilmington, who slowly sank to the earth beneath him.

Nathan, who still maintained his grasp, went to the ground with his friend, but kept his eyes glued to the the figures across the
canyon. “Amen,” he added to Sanchez’s invocation.

Chris Larabee, who remained frozen in his station as involuntary sentry, had felt many things in his life, but the emotion now
engulfing him was by far the worse.

He had not been present when his wife and son were killed ,and for that he had felt useless as the person deemed to protect
them;  but as he watched the youngest two of the seven repeatedly bounce against the jutting rocks before finally coming to a
halt, he experienced a gut-wrenching feeling of helplessness.

J.D. was suspended beneath Tanner, his right arm twisted in the rope railing with his left hand still entwined with Vin’s. From
what Larabee could make out, he wasn’t moving, probably stunned by the repeated impacts, and the tracker was dangling
upside down by one leg and trying his damnedest to hold on to him.

Chris knew he had to do something before two more people he loved was lost to him forever.

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

"Ezra!” The gambler jerked his eyes to their leader, across from him. “Get a rope and tie it off with the horses.”

Chris’s voice held a quiver of fear no one ever expected from the usually unemotional, calm tone, but it spurred Standish into
action, just the same.

Ezra gave him a quick nod before running to Chance’s saddle and retrieving the rigging he hoped would be his friends’ saving
grace. “Come on my dear fellow. Your services are greatly needed.”

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

“Damn, Chris. What the hell are we going to do?” Buck had made it shakily to his feet and now stood shoulder to shoulder with
Larabee.

“There’s nothing ‘we’ can do, Buck.” Larabee turned to look at his oldest friend. “Accept that.”

“Do you think Ezra will be able to get them up himself?” Nathan’s voice held it’s own amount of unnease.

Chris turned his eyes back to what was left of Raven’s crossing. “He has no other choice.”

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

The man of chance tied one end to the saddle horn and swiftly adjusted the other to a slip knot. He led the horse as close to the
edge as he dared before dropping the line over the side.

He only hoped that his aim would be true.

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

“J.D., you alright?” Vin Tanner’s pain-filled question was returned by an errie silence.

The tracker tried twisting to a better position to see the teen’s face, but most of his concentration was needed just to keep a
grasp on the youth, and to get past the dizzying effect he was getting from all the blood rushing to his head.

“Damn it, kid. Answer me. “

Finally he heard it.  An almost incomprehendable, chant. “Oh God, Oh God, Oh God.” The teen’s voice was weak, raspy, and
on the verge of hysterical, but it was music to Tanner’s ears.

“J.D.” Vin jerked on the arm he still grasped and was happy when the familiar hazel gaze finally focused on him. The kid was
covered with numerous cuts and scratches and a large bruise was already forming on his face, but he was breathing.

“Are we dead?” The whispered inquiry caused a slight chuckle to escape the bounty hunter.

“No, kid. We ain’t dead.” Vin closed his eyes, and fought back the searing pain threatening to pull him into oblivion. “ In one
hell of a mess, but not dead.”

“Oh God.” The youth took a breath as realization of what had just happened sunk in, and gasped at the sudden pain the simple
act caused, his grip on Vin weakening, ever so slightly.

The bounty hunter reflexively tightened his hold, although his shoulder felt as if it were about to wripped from it’s socket. “You
okay, J.D.?” Vin thought how rediculous that question was, even as it slipped past his lips.

“NO.” Came the sharp response.

“Me neither,” the tracker replied, as he felt the sickening sensation he recognized as blood oozing down from the leg, that he
had wrapped in the ropes of the bridge.

“Are you hurt bad?” Concern now replaced the terror that had clouded J.D.’s hazel eyes, and Vin couldn’t help but to marvel
at the kid’s empathy or resilience.

“Not too bad,” Tanner stretched the truth some. Hewas pretty sure that his leg was either broken or busted up pretty good, but
felt no need to worry his friend any further. “How ‘bout you?”

“My side hurts,” the boy replied. “Think I might have cracked some ribs.”

The slight break in his friend’s voice didn’t escape Vin. “I’m sure Nate can patch us both up, in no time.”

J.D. moved to turn his head to look back across the divide, to where the healer and their other partners were, but a sudden give
in the structure they were suspended from, nearly caused him to lose his grip on Vin completely.

“Buck!” The name was out of the teen’s mouth , without a moment’s thought, as he and Tanner dropped another couple of feet
towards the ravine.

“Hold on, kid.” Vin bit out, not willing to believe that their life line was about to go. “Just hold, on, damn it.”

 “J.D.”  A loud, and much welcomed voice called from the other side. “You’re doing good, kid. We’ll have you and Vin out of
there in no time.”

The tracker could tell Buck was anything but calm, but he had done a good enough job of faking it for the teen’s sake. He was
sure Chris had, undoubtedly, had a hand in that.

The boy strained to look up at Tanner, “How do you think there planning on pulling that off?”

Saving Vin the trouble of trying to come up with some sort of feasible explanation, a rope  dropped beside them.

“Nice timing, Ezra,” the bounty hunter mumbled softly, as he tried to figure a way to grasp the rope , while still keeping a grip on
J.D.

“Don’t let go, Vin.” The kid must have realized what he was thinking. “Please, don’t let go.”

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

“Ezra got ‘em.” Buck watched, helplessly, as the lifeline bounced near their partner's position. “Come on, kid, take the rope,”
Wilmington whispered urgently.

“Why don’t they grab it?” Jackson rubbed his hands together in frustration, as neither Vin nor J.D. made a move to grasp the
cord.

“They’re probably still stunned from the impact with the rock wall,brother.” Josiah put his hand on the healer’s arm and
squeezed gently. “We just have to wait.” *And pray.* He added silently.

Chris had no need for words, as his eyes took in every movement of the two men in perril. It was like he believed that if he
concentrated hard enough, he could project himself across the void, if  only in spirit. To somehow come to their aid, or to at
least be at their side, no matter what may befall them.

After all, he and Vin experienced similar feats each day. Nothing he had encountered had been able to sever their connection
before, so why should the Great Divide be any different.

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

“J.D., I’m not going to let you go until you’re ready.”

The teen swallowed hard. “That won’t be anytime real soon.”

“It’s going to have to be, kid.” Vin chanced a look up to the top of the side they were suspended from. “This thing isn’t going to
hold much longer.”

J.D. had always appreciated  that Vin Tanner never lied to him. No matter what the situation, the tracker never protected him
from the truth, or felt the need to shelter him from the facts. It was one of the things that J.D. loved about his friend, respected
about him.
 
Unfortunately, right now, Buck’s tap dancing around harsh details would have made him feel much better than Vin’s brutal
honesty.

“What are we going to do?”

“You,” Vin looked back down at the pale youth, “are going to untwist your arm from the railing and reach out for the rope.”

“But..”

“No buts, kid.  I’ll have you and you know I won’t let go.”

J.D. was silent for a moment and Tanner noticed that he had squeezed his eyes shut. The tracker didn’t want to push his friend,
but the bridge wasn’t their only worry. Vin was about to his limit. The pain in his leg had grown considerably worse and he was
afraid his grip was faultering.

“Kid?”

The teen didn’t answer, but he opened his eyes once more and with one deep breath, started to manuever his arm out of the
confines of the twine railing.

“You’re doing good, J.D. Just move slow.”

Once his arm was free, the boy took hold of the cord and tightened his hand around it.

“Now see if you can get some leverage with your feet.” Vin instructed, from his still upturned position.

Dunne did as he was told and soon found a small crack between two rocks to plant the front half of his boot.

Tanner couldn’t help but to sigh with relief when he was relieved of most of J.D.’s weight. “Now, when I let go, kid. Wrap both
your hands around that rope and I’ll signal Ezra to pull you up.”

“I can climb,” The teen offered, without his usual confidence.

“No!” Vin told him, a little harsher than he meant to. “We don’t want to take a chance with those ribs of yours. Just hold on
and  leave the rest for Ezra to do.” The tracker forced a smile. “God knows he could use some hard work for a change.”

J.D. actually smiled, but then frowned again. “What about you? I don’t like leavin’ you here.”

“I’ll be right behind you. I promise.”

The teen’s frown deepened as unwanted memories surfaced at the familiar words. “I’ve heard that before.”

Tanner winced as he realized what he’d said and some bad recollections of his own returned. “Sorry, J.D. But you’re going to
have to trust me here.” Vin slowly relinquished his grip around his friend’s wrist. “I’m lettin’ go, now.”

The kid didn’t have time to decline the offer before he found himself supporting his full weight and quickly latched his free hand
above his other one.

“Good job, kid.” Vin praised, as he twisted himself around enough to get a hold of the rope his leg was bound in. Using it, he
carefully pulled himself upright and grimaced when he was  finally able to see the blood-soaked pant leg. Ignoring his injury,
he used the rungs of the bridge like a ladder, raising his upper body enough to free his foot. Once he was finally upright, he
fought the feeling of vertigo and reached a hand out to yank the rope J.D. was clinging to.

Ezra must have recognized the sign because J.D. started his ascent almost immediately. The teen gave the tracker an unsure
smile as he passed him. “It’s okay, kid. I’ll be up in a minute.”

Dunne didn’t looked convinced, but held on as Vin’s figure grew smaller and smaller as he was lifted up out of the gorge.

“J.D.!” Standish’s voice sounded shakier than the teen had ever heard it, but his face sure was a welcome sight. “Let me give
you some assistance.”

The gambler released Chance’s bridle and rushed to the side of the canyon, where J.D. was trying to pull himself over. “Are
you alright, young man?”

The teen gave the gambler an incredulous look, and started to reply when he heard it. The sickenly familiar sound of the
snapping of a rope.

“Dear Lord, not again,” Ezra breathed, quickly grabbing the rope from J.D. and doing the only thing he could think of . He
tossed it back into the Great Divide.

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

“Vin!” Larabee was surprised when the voice that pierced the air sounded a lot like his. He had thought himself incapable of any
words as he watched the remaining half of Raven’s Crossing slip from it’s mooring and collapse towards the rumbling waters c
rsing through the Divide.

He was sure he was falling right along with it when he saw Vin, entangled it’s it’s skeletal remains, drop also. But as quick as the

tracker’s decent started, it haulted, as he was able to get a last minute hold on the life line that the gambler had just dropped to
him.
 
* Nice timing, Ezra.* Chris winced and held his breath, as he watched the younger man slide down several feet before finding a
toe hold on the mountain side. There was a painstaking moment, in which Vin didn’t move, but as soon as Ezra started Chance
pulling him up, the tracker began using his one good leg to hurry along his rescue.

“Looks like both of our birds are going to make it back to the nest," Josiah sighed, the weariness in his words still showing.

“I just wish they were ‘here’, “ Buck said softly, “instead of over there.”

“At least they’re safe, “ Nathan was quick to point out. “Right , Chris?”

Larabee heard the healer, but he was still concentrating on the form scaling the other side of the gorge.

His head told him that the doctor’s words resounded with truth, that J.D. and Vin and Ezra were out of harm’s way; but
something in his heart screamed it’s objection. For as one battle is ending, another is just beginning. And a fight was the last
thing the Seven needed.

Especially now; when they weren’t whole.

Another saying found it’s way into the gunslinger’s conscious, as he watched Ezra and J.D. help Vin over the side of the Divide.
This time it was one his father use to say, one he’d heard in the army many times, one he fully , and completely, understood
now.

‘Together we stand, divided we shall fall.’

*******************************************************
 
Coming Soon:

West of the Divide                                                                                                                               East of the Divide