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Disclaimer: The following story is a work of fanfiction and isn't intended to infringe on any copyright or to make a profit. All credit goes to the actual owners of The
Magnificent Seven for coming up with the concept, characters, etc.

Author's Notes: While de Soutier and Carmichael aren't real people, the various people mentioned as being hanged for conspiring to assassinate Lincoln are real and were hanged for that crime. Most other "historical" facts mentioned here are fictional. There are spoilers for the second season episode, "The Trial," in this story.
 
Thanks to Carolyn and Larie for reasons I'm sure they understand.

 
CONSPIRACIES

By Katie & Carolyn

Washington, D.C.
Townhouse
Early spring: Night

"My man says that the plan can be put into effect as soon as we give the word," the tall man reported, holding up the snifter of brandy questioningly.

Murmurs of assent or decline came from the five other men in the room, and the tall man swiftly poured drinks for those who had requested them.

"And we're certain this man can be trusted?" one of the abstainers, a portly man in a gold-trimmed smoking jacket, asked nervously.

The tall man sighed and answered, "For the hundredth time, he's impeccably trustworthy. He's a true son of the South, and he wants the plan to succeed as much as
we do. Don't worry so much, Harvey."

Harvey frowned, unconvinced. "This isn't just a simple business venture we're engaging in. The consequences if we're caught . . . ."

"We won't be caught," the youngest of the group interrupted impatiently. "No one knows of the plan aside from Geoffrey's man and those of us here, and the man
can't name any of us. Am I correct, Geoffrey?"

Geoffrey nodded, smiling reassuringly at the other men who sat around the richly furnished study. "The plan *is* foolproof, gentlemen. Just as we designed it. By this
time next month, Andrew Johnson will be dead, and the South will rise again."

*******

Washington D.C.
Street
Early spring: Night

Harvey Carmichael settled his top hat onto his head and set off down the street at a leisurely pace. Geoffrey de Soutier's townhouse was a mere half mile from his
own home, a distance that hardly made it worth his carriage driver's time to drive him. The early spring weather was crisp and clear, making for a pleasant walk.

His fellow Confederates--for so they considered themselves, even if the War was over, according to the Yanks--were totally dedicated to their plan to assassinate
the President. None of them seemed to doubt their ability to succeed without being caught.

Harvey wished he had half their confidence. To assassinate the President of the United States . . . it was no game they were playing at. If they succeeded, they would
have changed the course of history and struck a blow for the Confederacy that might allow it to rise again.

Harvey contemplated that possibility as he ambled down the nearly deserted, gas-lit streets. True, Lincoln's assassination had created chaos in the Union at a time
when the country needed peace and stability, but the Union--the United States, he should call it, although the name rankled--had survived. Johnson was even making
strides toward piecing the country back together, although he had opposition on all sides from the Radical Republicans, the former Confederates, and virtually
everyone else who had even the slightest say in the government.

Harvey sighed, rubbing his temple tiredly. De Soutier seemed to believe that the Confederacy actually had a chance to come back and defeat the Union, even though
it was two years after the official surrender. As much as Harvey enjoyed the idea, he was a practical man. He knew the Confederacy had breathed its last breath,
barring a miracle even more potent than the assassination of a President. The South didn't have the money, the equipment, the will, or the manpower to go to war
again, and no amount of faith in a lost cause would change those facts.

No, however loyal Harvey's heart might be to the South, his head knew that de Soutier's plan was a foolhardy one. But de Soutier, who'd been one of the primary
instigators in Charleston of Lincoln's assassination, was convinced that this time, the idea would work.

Harvey wasn't as convinced. He'd contributed his fair share of funds to the cause when there seemed some hope that it might be worth something, at the time when
the conspiracy had been focused on kidnapping rather than assassination. But he'd also been present at the trial of the "Conspirators," those poor souls who'd been
caught, and he'd been standing on the wall overlooking the scaffold when Mary Surrat, Lewis Paine, David Herold, and George Atzerodt were hanged. He still had
nightmares where he woke up gasping for air, certain that there was a noose tightening on his throat.

As Harvey climbed the stairs to his home, an idea began to form in the back of his mind. The more he contemplated it, the more sense it made.

The door was opened for him by his manservant. Royal had been one of his house slaves in the days before the War, when Harvey had owned one of the largest
plantations in the south. Royal had chosen to stay with Harvey when most of the other slaves had left. He was a good man, deferential and loyal, and Harvey
reflected frequently that on the good fortune that had caused him to choose Royal out of the field hands as a child to be trained in the duties of a valet.

"Welcome home, sir. Should I get you a drink?" Royal asked, taking his hat and overcoat.

Harvey paused, the idea that had hit him on the walk home hovering inconclusively in his mind.

"No," he answered finally. "No, Royal, what I want you to do is pack our bags. We'll be leaving first thing in the morning."

"Leaving, sir? Where we going?"

"West, Royal. West. Far away from here."

 

*******

Four Corners
Saloon
Fall, Day 1: Noon

The sweltering heat that had plagued Four Corners for months had finally broken in a deluge of rain. It pounded on the roof of the building that housed the saloon
loud enough to be heard inside, even over the steady drone of conversation. Chris Larabee sat back and enjoyed the sound, savoring the breath of cool air that
wafted its way from the batwing doors as much as he savored the whiskey he was sipping.

The town had been fairly calm for more than a week. Chris had decided not to take that as a sign that all hell was going to break loose at any minute. He was
determined to enjoy the peace and quiet . . . such as it was.

"I'm merely saying, Mr. Tanner, that in some cultures, the saving of one's life instigates a debt under which the person who was saved must become the savior's
manservant for the rest of his life. A quaint custom, to be sure, but not without its charms."

Hearing Ezra's drawl, Chris sighed resignedly. So much for peace and quiet. Ezra and Vin had been bickering for the past two days over something both of them
refused to explain, but which Chris was sure must be fascinating if it could actually make Vin blush. Chris had thought about forcing one of them to tell, but he was
feeling too relaxed to want to make the effort. Ezra was too slippery to pin easily, and Vin would just give him that blank stare that made a man wonder if he'd even
understood the question. No, Chris was enjoying the peace, and the best way to keep it was to stay out of whatever those two were jawing about.

"'Round here, a man just says thanks and goes on about his business." Vin stopped at the back table where Chris was sitting and dropped down into a chair,
grabbing Chris's bottle of whiskey and taking a long gulp without bothering to ask if he could.

Ezra sat down more gracefully, giving Chris a nod in greeting before turning back to Vin. "Such a reaction hardly seems to acknowledge the depth of the obligation
owed to the man who gave one a second chance at life."

Vin gave Ezra that blank look. "Damn, Ezra, a man'd think you done swallowed a dictionary, the way you talk."

Ezra raised an eyebrow and gave Vin a wide smile. "And a man might think you didn't understand a word he was saying, if he didn't know better, that is."

Chris had a sudden urge to put them both on night patrol, but stifled it manfully.

"Stage here yet?" he asked, trying to stave off the next round of sparring.

Vin swallowed another gulp of whiskey and shook his head. "Nope."

"Such an occurrence would require that the stage actually arrive when it was scheduled to do so," Ezra said cheerfully. "An event which, as we all know, would
herald the freezing over of Hell itself."

Chris gave the gambler a hard stare, wondering what he was getting such a kick out of. There wasn't anyone around with enough money to make Ezra think he'd be
making a profit any time soon, and that was about the only thing that brought that kind of gleam to Ezra's eyes.

Making a mental note not to gamble with the man any time soon, Chris continued, "Judge Travis is due in town today or tomorrow. His wire said he had a job for
us."

"Better stock up on bullets," Vin said dryly.

"Ah, yes, one wouldn't want to be caught . . . unprepared," Ezra drawled, hesitating over the last word with a slight smirk.

For no reason Chris could see, Vin growled softly, shoved his chair back, and stomped out of the saloon. Chris shot a look at Ezra.

Ezra opened his eyes wide, giving him that innocent stare that Chris trusted less than any other expression the gambler wore.

"Terribly touchy lately, isn't he, Mr. Larabee?"

*******

Eagle Bend
Boarding House
Fall, Day 1: Afternoon

Harvey Carmichael sank into the overstuffed wingback chair and sipped thoughtfully at the tea provided by Mrs. Mulligan, the owner of the boarding house where he
was registered under the name "Benton." Such a thin disguise wouldn't prevent de Soutier's thugs from finding him if they'd tracked him this far, but he still hoped that
his former compatriot would have decided that he wasn't worth the trouble of hunting down. After all, Geoffrey didn't know that he was intending to sell out the
conspiracy, and Geoffrey had far more important things to worry about as the date of the assassination attempt loomed closer.

Harvey's meeting with the territorial judge this morning had gone well, as best he could tell. The judge had promised him adequate protection until the Army could
send a troop to escort him back to Washington. Harvey wasn't too worried about attempts on his life out here in the West, but he'd be grateful for the protection
once he got closer to the capitol.

Harvey would have preferred not to have to relocate before the soldiers arrived, particularly given that Four Corners sounded even more rustic than Eagle Bend had
proven to be. The southerner smiled wryly, shaking his head at the twists and turns of Fate. He'd planned on reaching San Francisco, a city that, while it might not
rival Washington or Charleston in sophistication, at least knew the meaning of the word.

Instead, the long days of solitude with only his manservant as company on the trip westward had given him far too much time to think. Far too much time to realize
that escaping the conspiracy himself wasn't sufficient. He'd abandoned the plan because he knew that, succeed or fail, the attempt to assassinate President Johnson
would only tear apart a nation that could only survive if it stayed whole. Harvey didn't like the Union any more than he had when it had stolen his way of life from him,
but he still believed in the fundamental premises on which the founding fathers had based the country, and he couldn't allow the grand experiment to fail. He had no
choice but to do what he could to stop the conspiracy before it was set into motion.

With a sigh, Harvey leaned back in the chair. He was too old to have become an idealist, and yet, here he was, risking his life to save a nation he had fought against
not so many years ago. Fate was indeed a fickle mistress.

A low knock on the door had him reaching for his pistol before he recognized the pattern and relaxed.

"Come in, Royal."

His manservant stepped through the door, removing his hat and hanging it on a hook before crossing over to stand in front of Harvey.

"I got the information like you wanted, Mister Harvey."

Harvey smiled. "Good. What did you find out about this town that Judge Travis wants to send me too?"

"It's a town a might bigger than this one. Folk around here say it's growing, lot of new business. That judge you met with, he hire a bunch of gunslingers to keep
peace there. Probably the men he want to protect you."

Harvey frowned. "Gunslingers? Common criminals?"

Royal shrugged. "Don't know that they criminals. Not men you want to tangle with, from what I hear."

"One can only hope," Harvey said wryly. He nodded to Royal. "Good work. We leave tomorrow; the judge went ahead today to prepare a place for us. I won't be
needing you until tonight, when we prepare for our journey. You can have the afternoon free."

Royal ducked his head. "Thank you, sir."

*******

Eagle Bend
Street
Fall, Day 1: Afternoon

Royal paused by the opening of an alley, looking around casually before stepping into it. He spotted the men he was meeting almost immediately. Parker and Harris
weren't the normal type of men he would associate with; they were no better than the filthiest field hand back in his slave days. In fact, they'd probably been field
hands before they were set free. And like the field hands, they would have their uses.

"You have the men you need?" he asked by way of greeting.

Parker nodded. "Got 'em. Gonna head out tonight, get the lay of the land. It still Four Corners?"

Royal nodded. "We'll be there tomorrow night, next day at the latest. Find me there, we'll make our final plans."

"Right."

Parker and Harris turned and left. Royal watched them go, frowning slightly. He hadn't told his employer everything. He'd learned more about the gunslingers in Four
Corners than he'd admitted, including the fact that they had run roughshod over Eagle Bend several months before, rescuing a former slave who'd killed a white man.
He particularly hadn't mentioned that the former slave's name was Obediah Jackson, a man who's help he hoped to enlist. Until he was sure of Obediah, though, he'd
have to work with this trash. They were rough men, but he needed them if his plan was going to have a chance of working. And if it did work . . .

"You'll be dead by the end of the week, Master."

*******

Four Corners
Jail
Fall, Day 2: Afternoon

Buck leaned back in the rickety chair outside the jail door, propping his boots on one of the support pillars and grimacing as a clot of mud fell off to splat on the
wooden walkway. The rain was nice, but the mud plumb ruined a man's boots.

Chris had told them all to meet at the jail to hear what Judge Travis had in mind for them. Buck didn't know how he'd wound up being the first to arrive, especially
since he could have been enjoying the charms of Miss Emily over at the saloon. He'd been down at this end of town already, though, and it'd seemed like a waste of
time to get himself all wet going down to the saloon and just have to come right back. The boys would be along soon enough.

In the meantime, the rain had settled down to a nice, steady patter on the overhang, the first cool breeze in months was drifting across his face, and Miss Emily had
kept him busy last night. Buck rested his head and the back of the chair against the wall behind him, tilted his hat down over his eyes, and settled in for a quick nap.

His only warning was the sharp creak of a board on the walkway. The next thing he knew, he was pitching forward in the chair, his feet thudding onto the ground.
Grabbing his hat just before it fell off his head into the muddy street, Buck surged to his feet, looking around wildly for his attacker. A barely muffled laugh gave him
the information he needed.

"JD!" He lunged after the younger man, but his homicidal urges where cut short as a long arm snaked out and caught him.

"Kill him later, Buck," Josiah rumbled, letting Buck go with a pat on the arm. Josiah righted the chair and sat down on it. "It don't look good, having blood stains right
in front of the jail."

"I know ways to kill a man that don't make him bleed at all," Buck answered, glaring at JD ominously.

"What, talk him to death?" JD asked, staying just out of Buck's reach.

"No, strangling him so he can't smart off to his elders."

"Howdy, boys. Judge here yet?"

Vin's voice cut through JD's reply as the tracker stepped up onto the walkway, casually drifting between the two combatants as he went to lean against the wall.
Buck, distracted, gave JD a parting swat with his hat and settled back against the pillar he'd rested his feet on earlier.

"Not yet. Last I heard, Mrs. Travis had him over at her place, trying to make sure he don't starve to death any time soon."

Josiah grinned. "Ain't no danger of that with her cooking."

"You guys got any idea what the judge wants?" JD asked.

Vin shrugged. "He ain't said yet. Whatever it is, it'll be trouble."

"I'm about ready for a little action anyway," Buck said. "Been a might too quiet around here lately."

JD grinned. "Wouldn't know it from the sounds coming out of your room last night."

Buck contemplated going after him again, but gave up the idea as the judge, accompanied by Chris, Ezra, and Nathan, walked out of the saloon and headed up the
street toward them. Something about Judge Travis didn't encourage tomfoolery.

"Gentlemen." Travis nodded to all of them as he stepped up onto the walkway. "Good to see you looking so fit. How about we move inside so we can talk
privately?"

Inside the jail, the judge waited until all of the men had settled into a spot, then continued, "As I told Chris in the telegram I sent him, I've got a job for all of you. I
have a federal witness coming through Four Corners tomorrow. He's due to be met by a detachment of U.S. Cavalry within a week to escort him back east, but in
the meantime, he needs to be kept under careful guard."

"Who's the witness?" Chris asked.

Travis shook his head. "It's better if you don't know much about him. As far as I know, the people he's testifying against don't have any idea that he's planning on
betraying them. The best way to keep them in the dark is to make sure that his name doesn't come up for any reason. We'll just call him 'Mr. Smith' for now." He
looked around as if waiting for further comments, but aside from a slight frown on Chris's face, there was no reaction. "Mr. Smith and his valet will be given a room at
the boarding house. He'll stay inside at all times, and at least one of you will keep guard on him at all times. His valet should be able to handle any errands he needs to
have run, getting his meals, and so on without compromising his position. You all will primarily be responsible for making sure he stays alive until the Cavalry arrives."

"Be nice if we knew what to watch for," Vin commented. He was leaning against the bars of one of the cells, idly working a strip of leather between his hands.

The judge sighed. "The men who would want to stop our witness from testifying are all back east, so most likely, if there is a threat, it will be in the form of hired
guns."

"And such individuals would, of course, stick out like the proverbial sore thumb in our civilized town," Ezra remarked dryly.

Travis sent him a reproving glare. "As long as you don't let 'such individuals' get near my witness, we won't have a problem." He sighed again. "I don't like keeping
you in the dark, boys. Just trust me when I say it's necessary, and that keeping this witness alive is absolutely vital."

"I don't think that'll be a problem," Chris drawled. "You said he'll be here tomorrow?"

"Yes, on the noon stage."

"Then it looks like we've got some work to do."

*******

Four Corners
Nathan's quarters
Fall, Day three: Evening

Nathan cupped his hand around the wick of the lamp before bringing the match close to light it, trying to protect it from the breeze that drifted in through his open
window. The sun was on its way down, making it too dark to read without a light. With a soft sigh of contentment, he settled back in his chair and propped his feet
up. Finding his place in the medical book he'd been reading, he started skimming down the paragraphs, looking for that interesting part on treating the croup.

He'd read the chapter before, read the entire book before, if the truth were told, since it was one of his most prized possessions, so he didn't have to concentrate
much. His mind started to wander, thinking back over the judge's words the day before. He couldn't help but wonder what this witness was supposed to be testifying
to. The man had arrived in town on the noon stage as he was supposed to, but Nathan hadn't been around when he arrived and headed straight to his room at the
boarding house. Nathan figured he'd be seeing more than enough of the man over the next week, though, as he took his turns at guard duty, so he wasn't that worried
about missing him today.

For now, Buck and Vin had the night shifts, and Nathan finally had a chance to get back to the chapter he'd been reading two days ago. He'd just managed to finish
the chapter when a low knock sounded at his door. Sighing, he set the book aside and went to answer it.

The man who stood at the door looked vaguely familiar. Probably close to the judge's age, he was shorter than Nathan and well dressed for a Negro. Nathan knew
he didn't live anywhere nearby, which most likely meant he wasn't there for medical help. Casually, Nathan flexed his shoulders, feeling the reassuring weight of his
knives against his neck.

"Can I help you?"

The man looked him over, just a hint of disdain curling the corners of his mouth as he replied, "I'm looking for Obediah Jackson. I heard he lived here?"

A sharp feeling of grief stabbed Nathan's heart, but he hid it with practiced ease. He hadn't gotten used to his daddy's death yet, but he wasn't going to show his pain
to a stranger.

"He ain't here no more. Passed away more'n four months ago."

"That's too bad," the stranger said, not sounding all that sad. He looked Nathan over more carefully. "You favor him. You his boy?"

Nathan nodded cautiously.

"Then I got something to tell you you're gonna want to hear." The stranger held out his hand. "I'm Royal. Don't know if you remember me, you was just a boy when I
saw you last. We was both slaves at LeFleur Plantation before your mama died and your family got sold off."

Nathan stiffened. "What do you want?"

"Why don't you let me in, and I'll tell you," Royal suggested.

*******

Four Corners
Saloon
Fall, Day 3: Evening

If Chris had been a betting man, he wouldn't have put money on Ezra's chances to surviving the night. At least, not if Vin's thunderous expression was any way to
judge. Neither man had admitted to whatever had Vin so riled, but it was obvious Ezra was enjoying it as much as he would a full house on a big pot. The two men
were facing off across the back table in the saloon that Chris usually claimed as his own. Chris and Josiah were watching their sparring with interest, waiting to see if
Vin would break down and respond before Ezra got tired of his needling.

"I always considered you a man who fulfilled his obligations, Mr. Tanner." Ezra gave Vin a mournful look over the cards he was shuffling. "I'm quite disappointed."

Vin took a long drink of his whiskey and glared.

"Why, a man might even start to think you weren't grateful for the risks he took in saving your life."

Chris was almost sure he could hear Vin's teeth grind together.

"And under such perilous circumstances, too." Ezra's expression wasn't quite a smirk, but it was close enough to goad Vin into a reply.

"Seems like a man'd rather be dead than listen to all that yammering you're doing."

Ezra's smirk grew to a full-grown grin. "You didn't seem to be of that opinion earlier, Mr. Tanner." With a languid sigh, he gathered up his cards and stood. "Now, if
you gentlemen will excuse me, I have a card game to attend."

Chris waited till he was out of earshot before asking, "This something I should know about?"

A faint flush rose on Vin's cheeks. "Nope."

Josiah grunted. "Ezra don't seem to share that opinion."

Vin sighed, took a long drink, and finally answered, "Man keeps saying he saved my life. Only thing is, it didn't need saving. Now he keeps jawing about how I'm
supposed to be his personal servant or some such foolishness."

"Huh." Josiah took a slow sip of his whiskey, contemplating the amber liquid for a long moment. "Maybe you just ought to give him what he wants, then."

"What?"

Chris took a quick drink to hide his grin at Vin's outraged expression.

"He says he wants you to wait on him hand and foot, right?" Josiah looked at Vin under his eyebrows. "Maybe you should let him see just what that feels like."

Slowly, Vin's shock turned to a smile. "Maybe I should, at that."

*******

Four Corners
Nathan's Quarters
Fall, Day 3: Evening

"You're telling me," Nathan said slowly, his hands gripping the sill of the window behind him, "you're telling me the man that owned my family is here in this town?"

"He is. Got himself some fancy gunslingers as guards, says he's some sort of government witness."

Nathan laughed, a sound that rang hollow even in his own ears. "He's the witness?"

Royal raised his eyebrows. "You know about that?"

"I'm one of the gunslingers."

Royal chuckled. "Well, if that don't beat all. Guarding the man that treated your mama and daddy like property, sold your brothers off like cattle. Funny how things
work out."

Nathan turned away to stare out the window into the darkening night. "That's over now. I put it behind me, went on to live a new life."

"You still carry the scars of the old one, don't you, boy?"

Nathan whirled around, anger making his throat almost too tight to speak. "What I carry is my business. Now why don't you tell me what the hell you came here for
or get out?"

Royal stood slowly. "Now I know your daddy taught you better than to sass your elders. He wouldn't be any too proud of you forgetting where you come from and
what was done to your family, neither."

Nathan's hands curled into fists. "What do you know about my daddy? You ain't seen him in years."

"I know he was a strong, proud man. I know he didn't let no one get away with hurting what was his, not when he had a chance to do something about it."

With a sigh, Nathan turned away again, resting his head on the cool pane of glass in the window. "Why are you here, Royal? What do you want from me?"

"Revenge." Royal walked over to stand next to Nathan, putting a hand on his shoulder. "I want you to help me kill the man who made our lives a living hell."

*******

Four Corners
Mrs. Potter's Store
Fall, Day 4: Morning

JD stood by the glass display case in Potter's Store, gazing longingly at the current object of his affection. Absolutely beautiful. There was no other way to describe it.
Sleek black leather, a neat red stitching job creating the design on the front . . . it was a better looking holster than even Chris had. Just a few more weeks, and he'd
have saved up enough to buy it.

"Still looking at that holster, JD?" Mrs. Potter asked in a friendly voice. "Don't you worry, I'm not planning on selling it to anyone else until you've had a chance to buy
it."

JD looked up at her and grinned. "Thanks, ma'am. I appreciate it."

Before she could answer, Vin and Ezra walked in, Vin almost tripping the gambler in an attempt to get to the door first, only to hold it open for Ezra to walk through.
Ezra gave Vin a look that was somewhere between smug and doubtful, but thanked him dutifully.

"Least I could do for the man that saved my life," Vin replied. "Here, let me get that bar of soap for you."

"Thank you, Mr. Tanner. I think I can manage."

"All right," Vin said agreeably. "Hey, kid."

"Hey, Vin," JD answered slowly, wondering why Vin was being so nice to Ezra when he'd been ready to shoot him yesterday.

"You need any hankies? What about some bullets? You need bullets?" Vin asked Ezra, trailing behind him.

"I believe I have a sufficient amount of those items, thank you." Ezra's voice was getting a slight edge to it.

"You sure? Here, let me do that." Vin reached over and snatched the money Ezra was about to hand Mrs. Potter out of his hand, counted out a few coins, and
handed them to the storekeeper.

JD watched in fascination as Ezra's face turned a strange shade of purple. The gambler turned abruptly and stalked out of the store.

"Hey, let me get that door," Vin called and followed after him.

JD looked at Mrs. Potter, who was staring after the two men with a bemused expression on her face. She looked over at him questioningly, and he shrugged. He'd
never understand those two.

*******

Four Corners
Nathan's Quarters
Fall, Day 4: Morning

Nathan leaned against the rail surrounding the walkway outside his front door, idly sipping from the coffee cup in his hands as he watched the town stir to life. JD, and
a few minutes later, Vin and Ezra, went into Mrs. Potter's store, and then Ezra came out looking like a wild cat was on his tail, Vin trailing after him, calling out
something that Nathan couldn't quite hear.

Nathan shook his head, momentarily distracted from the thoughts that had kept him up all night. For two such different men, they sure seemed to be spending a lot of
time together lately.

Even that mystery couldn't keep his thoughts off his problem for long, though. Royal's words from the night before kept ringing in his ears. "I want you to help me
kill the man who made our lives a living hell." What had kept Nathan up all night wasn't the fact that Royal wanted to kill Harvey Carmichael, currently known as
'Mr. Smith.' No, what had kept him awake was the fact that there was a part of Nathan that actually wanted to say yes.

It wasn't a part of himself he liked much, a part he thought he'd put behind him a long time ago. He'd seen enough of what hate could do to a man during the War,
and he'd figured out that the only way he could really be free of the men who thought they could own him was by giving up his own anger. As long as he hated them,
they still owned a piece of him, and he intended to live his life as a free man.

But Royal was right about one thing: once Nathan's daddy had the chance to get revenge for the wrongs done his family, he hadn't hesitated. Could Nathan do any
less?

No closer to an answer than he'd been all night, Nathan finally gave in to the urge he'd had since he'd found out who 'Mr. Smith' was. After dumping the almost cold
coffee out over the railing, he walked down the stairs and up the street toward the boarding house.

Chris had had the watch during the early morning hours. Nathan paused to pick up the breakfast that Mrs. Clemens, the boarding house owner, had made for her
guests, and went upstairs. The gunslinger was inside the room Judge Travis had rented for 'Mr. Smith.' He admitted Nathan cautiously, gun in hand.

"I thought you might be ready for a break," Nathan said in the most casual tone he could manage. "I'll keep watch while you go stretch your legs, if you want."

Chris nodded gratefully, grabbed a biscuit off the tray Nathan was carrying, and left.

Before Nathan had time to prepare himself, he was face to face with Harvey Carmichael. The man had aged from Nathan's dim memory of him and grown softer and
fatter, but his skin had a sag to it as if he'd lost weight recently. His reddish hair had thinned on top, but his eyes were still the sharp blue that Nathan could recall
being frightened of when he was very young.

Harvey looked at Nathan with no recognition at all. "Is that breakfast? Just put it over on the desk."

Nathan did as he was told, not trusting himself to speak. His emotions were in such a roil that he wasn't sure what he was feeling. This was the man who had stood
back and let his mother be raped, who had allowed and even ordered the whippings, brandings, and worse humiliations and tortures of people Nathan had cared
about, who had sold Nathan's family away. Nathan knew he had every right to hate him, and yet, Nathan didn't want to hate him. Not for Harvey's sake, but for his
own. He didn't want that kind of poison inside him.

Harvey looked down at the food with a grimace. "Well, it's not haute cuisine, but it'll do."

His tone rubbed at Nathan's raw nerves. "Mrs. Clemens is one of the best cooks in these parts."

Harvey raised an eyebrow as he looked back at Nathan. "'These parts' aren't exactly what I'm used to, boy."

"No, I bet you're used to some fancy plantation house with a whole house full of slaves waiting on you hand and foot," Nathan snapped, and immediately regretted it.
He hadn't meant to make his feelings that obvious.

Harvey stiffened. "And I imagine you were one of those slaves? No, a big, strong boy like you, you'd be working out in the fields, wouldn't you?" He looked Nathan
up and down like he was sizing him up for sale. "I'm not one of those weak-kneed turncoats who think they have to apologize to every nigger they run into. I bought
every slave I owned fair and square, and I fed them and clothed them and treated them better than they'd ever have been treated if they hadn't had someone looking
out for them. If you're looking for me to bow down and kiss your feet because you were somebody's property, you're going to have to wait a long time."

Nathan's hands were clenched into fists before he realized he'd even closed them, and he took a step toward Harvey. Harvey flinched back, his eyes suddenly wide
with fear.

Before either one could go any further, the door opened again, and Chris stepped back through. He looked from one man to the other, frowning.

"Nathan? There a problem here?"

Nathan took a deep breath and shook his head.

"No problem."

Without another word, he left.

He wasn't really sure where he was going, he just needed to walk until his anger had a chance to cool. He almost turned and went the other way when he realized he
was walking past the church, and Josiah was sitting on the steps, drinking his morning cup of coffee. The preacher was far too perceptive when Nathan least wanted
him to be.

"Morning, Nathan," Josiah called.

"Morning," Nathan answered. He considered walking on, but there wasn't much of anywhere to go after he passed the church. Sighing, he went over and sat on the
steps with Josiah.

"You're not looking too happy this morning," Josiah observed quietly.

"I ain't feeling too happy either," Nathan answered. He sat silently for a moment, but the longer he sat, the more talking to Josiah seemed like a good idea. "Josiah,
you ever had a decision to make where either way you go, you'll be doing something wrong and something right?"

Josiah frowned. "Not sure I follow you, my friend."

Nathan sighed. "Me either."

He ran a hand over his face, trying to get his thoughts in order. He couldn't tell Josiah everything, not until he was sure what he was going to do. If Josiah knew what
Royal was planning, he'd feel obligated to stop him. It was the peacekeepers' job to protect Harvey Carmichael, after all. Nathan wasn't so sure that protecting
Carmichael was the right thing to do, though. Whatever information he had, someone else probably could testify to. Hell, Carmichael would have had to tell the judge
or someone in order for the judge to decide he was important enough to protect, wouldn't he?

Carmichael was going back east by the end of the week. Most likely, this would be Nathan's only chance to get close to his former owner, his only chance to get
justice for the harm the man had done Nathan's family. Obediah would have done it without a second thought, he'd already done it without any regrets to the
overseer that had raped Nathan's mama, and he would have wanted Nathan to take his place if he couldn't.

One way, Nathan betrayed his friends. The other, he betrayed his family. What kind of choice was that?

Josiah rested a hand on his shoulder. "Something I can help with?"

"Not unless you can speak to the dead," Nathan answered wryly. He sighed. He knew his answer already, didn't he? He didn't have to talk to his daddy to know
what Obediah would want. "Thanks, Josiah, but I think I got it covered."

He could feel Josiah's eyes on him as he rose and walked back up the street.

*******

Four Corners
Street
Fall, Day 4: Afternoon

Royal watched as Nathan walked up to him, reading his answer in the younger man's tight jaw and troubled eyes. He hid a smile of triumph. His plan would work
better with one of the gunslingers' own working for him, but he didn't want to jinx it by scaring Nathan off before the boy committed himself.

Nathan stopped in front of him, acting as if he was just pausing to look in the window of the store Royal stood near.

Without looking at Royal, Nathan said the words the older man wanted to hear.

"I'll help you."

 ********

Four Corners
Boarding House
Fall, Day 5: Just after midnight

JD shifted in his chair. When that didn't make him any more comfortable, he stood up, stretched, and sat back down. And shifted again. And again.

He hated night guard. At least during the day, there was usually someone awake who'd sit with you and talk or play cards or checkers or something. By this time of
night, though, the only people up were him and maybe whoever he was guarding against, and it got awfully boring after awhile.

What was worse, his station was out in the hall of the boarding house, leaving Mr. Smith his privacy, and Old Lady Clemens, the owner, had made all of the
peacekeepers swear they'd keep the noise and light down so her boarders wouldn't be bothered. Since JD was one of her boarders, he didn't want to do anything to
irritate her. He liked getting clean sheets on his bed and his shirts back from washing the same size as when they'd left.

Sighing, he stood up again, wandering--quietly--down the hall a few steps to the window to peer out at the nearly dark street. The watchfires had died down to a soft
glow, barely illuminating the paths of the few stragglers from the saloons. JD watched for a few moments, but when he didn't see anything suspicious, he sighed again
and turned around . . .

. . . hearing the creak of the floorboard at the same time that he saw the dark figure lunge toward him . . .

. . . feeling the sudden, sharp explosion of pain in his skull . . .

. . . hitting the ground hard enough to knock the air from his lungs . . .

. . . hearing a horribly familiar voice say, "Damn it, I told you I'd take care of him. There ain't going to be no killing." . . .

and closing his eyes as he surrendered to the pain.

Four Corners
Boarding House
Fall, Day 5: Just after midnight

"Damn it, I told you I'd take care of him. There ain't going to be no killing."

This couldn't be right. How could a voice he knew--a voice of someone he trusted--say that?

Oh, his head hurt--so badly. He tried to pull himself up.

Bad move. He tried to open his eyes, but that wasn't going to happen either.  He listened. Listening wouldn't hurt.

Muffled voices. He heard Carmichael struggling and then . . . oh, God . . .  they were taking the man he was supposed to protect.

// NO! Don't . . . Chris is counting on me. The guys are counting on me.//  He groaned and tried to pull himself up again. Squinting in the murky hall,
he saw two men carrying a third.

"I gotta be sure the boy is all right."

"He'll be fine. I didn't hit him that hard. Come on."

//Wait!//

Why couldn't he talk? Why couldn't he stop them? He'd have to figure it out later. Right now, he'd sleep . . . just for a minute or two. Sleep . . .

Four Corners
Boarding House
Fall, Day 5: sometime around dawn

Ezra yawned and walked almost clumsily up the stairs. Why hadn't he taken  the shift from midnight to six am? He wasn't cut out for six a.m. It went
against his nature to get up this early. The only time he ever saw six a.m. was when he hadn't gone to sleep the night before.

He would have felt better, he decided, if he'd not gone to bed at 3:30. But  he'd had a little more wine than he'd intended--pity poor consolation for the
silly game of penny-ante poker he'd played last night. Why hadn't he just bowed out when it had become evident that there was nothing to win?

His thoughts were abruptly interrupted when he reached the landing. The hesitant sun of daybreak glowed through the window enough to illuminate JD
lying on the floor. Ezra swore under his breath and drew his weapon. He slowly, cautiously pushed the door open to the witness' quarters. As he had
suspected, it was empty. Wasting no more time, he knelt in front of their youngest and slipped his fingers under the boy's jaw.

"JD . . . " Ezra's voice was gentle. He felt the strong pulse at the young man's throat and breathed a heavy sigh of relief. He patted the boy's
shoulder. "Come on, son."

JD jerked awake, startled, and grabbed the gambler's wrist. "NO!" A split second later, he squeezed his eyes closed and groaned, leaning his head
forward, pressing the heels of his hands against his forehead.

"Easy . . . " Ezra soothed.

"Oh, God, Ezra--we gotta . . . find him . . ."

"We will . . ." Ezra said, trying to find the injury. "But first we need to . . ."

"OW!" JD exclaimed when Ezra's fingers found the knot on the back of his head. Ezra quickly pulled his hand away, feeling the sticky, tacky
consistency of blood on his fingers.

Vin's voice wafted up from the stairwell. "Ezra, why didn't you wake me up? I would have. . ." He stopped when he arrived at the landing. "What
happened?"

Ezra started to answer. "Well, it would appear . . . "

"I screwed up!" JD blurted. His hands slid into his hair and he clutched at it. "I let them take him."

"Who, JD?" Vin asked.

"I don't know." JD struggled to put the images together. "I never really saw 'em."

"You know how many?" Vin continued, but Ezra interjected.

"Later. Right now we need to get some help."

Vin nodded. "I'll get Nathan."

"NO!" JD said quickly. Too quickly, Ezra thought. "No, I'm fine. Just help me up."

Ezra nodded to Vin to go on. JD again tried to get up, and again a wave of pain came over him. He slid back to the ground.

"Just rest easy, son," Ezra said. "We'll figure this all out later."

A Few Miles South of Four Corners
An abandoned barn
Fall, Day 5: Early morning

Harvey Carmichael was terrified--more than he'd ever been in his life. He sat trussed and blindfolded on a dirt floor. He was bound, not like a lawman
would tie a man up, and not like military personnel would. No, he was trussed like a slave who had been disobedient--a slave awaiting punishment.
He should know. He'd shackled men like this before.

This couldn't be de Sautier's work. No one knew what Carmichael's plans were. No one even knew his name, except that judge--Travis. The hired guns
didn't even know. Damn lot of good they did. If they hadn't put a kid on his door, he might not be in this mess. What were they thinking anyway,
hiring a greenhorn like that?

His only hope was Royal. Royal would find him. Thank God, he'd been good to his man. He'd kept him fed, put nice clothes on his back, taught him to read
and now was paying him a respectable wage. No freeman was paid what Royal was. Royal would find him, if not out of loyalty, then because Royal needed
him. Royal couldn't make it out there without him. That fact offered a sort of perverse comfort to the former slave owner.

Harvey shifted from one hip to the other. His backside was falling asleep and his head was starting to ache. He was going to have to visit the privvy
soon. At least he wasn't hungry yet.

The humiliation of this situation would overwhelm him if it weren't for the fear that was gnawing at him. He tried to envision different scenarios.
Maybe a group of his slaves had been tracking him. Maybe some psycho bastard had caught up with him finally. Maybe he was going to wind up at the end of
a rope--some vigilante lynch mob exacting vengeance.

//Oh God . . . come on, Royal. //

Four Corners
Boarding House
Fall, Day 5: Early morning

Thank God, JD was unconscious. Nathan squeezed his eyes closed, trying to  shake that thought. How horrible, wishing the boy would stay asleep so
Nathan wouldn't have to face him.

"Let's get him to my room," Nathan said.

"Is it safe to move him?" Vin asked.

"No," Nathan snapped. "That's why I suggested it." Nathan immediately regretted his sarcasm.

"I'm sorry," Vin said. "Stupid question."

"No, it ain't." Nathan touched Vin's arm. "I'm sorry. You're right to ask. You gotta be really careful with a head injury." Nathan scooted around and
eased his arms under JD's. "You get his feet." Vin nodded and together he and Nathan lifted the boy.

"I'll get the others," Ezra said, as he led the way down the stairs. He held the front door for them, then took off.

***********

Ezra hated having to wake up Chris Larabee to tell him what was going on. Chris wasn't a joy to be around in the morning when he woke up of his own
accord. But he was absolutely intolerable when awakened from a sound sleep. This morning was no different.

"Mr. Larabee . . ." The gambler spoke, but stayed an arm's distance away from the gunfighter.

Chris was lying on his stomach. He turned his head slightly to the side. "Ezra?" he mumbled, squinting up.

"We have a problem."

"What the hell happened?"

Ezra explained what he knew. Chris pulled himself out of bed, cursing colorfully. He stepped into the jeans that he'd stepped out of just a few
hours before.

"Get Buck and Josiah," he commanded. "We gotta get on the trail before it gets cold."

Four Corners
Saloon
Fall, Day 5: Morning

Buck Wilmington was not in his room--and this was no surprise to Ezra. However, Ezra *was* surprised to find the gunslinger asleep in the gambler's
own drinking establishment. Buck's head lay on a table in a dark corner. One long arm was sprawled across the tabletop, while the other was hanging
off the side. Inez was making coffee behind the bar, and she practically spat her displeasure at the gambler.

"Too drunk to find his way from one bed back to his own. He thinks the table is his pillow and I am the wife who lives only to serve him--even when he
comes home after another woman has satisfied his . . . needs."

Ezra grinned. "Why Inez, if I didn't know better, I would think you were jealous."

"Jealous? Why would I be jealous of a drunken, womanizing, gun-wielding gringo with a . . ."

"Easy, darlin,'" Buck said, slowly lifting his head. "I'm afraid my head won't take that kind of yelling."

"Yelling?!" Inez yelled. "I haven't started yelling." As she launched into a Spanish tirade, Ezra sat down beside Buck and put his hand on the
gunslinger's shoulder.

"We have trouble, Mr. Wilmington."

Buck rubbed his temples and commented, "I have a big problem right between my ears."

Now *there* was a perfect opportunity Ezra would have to pass up. But there was business to attend to and he'd resist making the obvious jest.

"Our federal prisoner has been abducted."

"What?"

"Yes. Someone knocked JD out and . . ."

"Is he all right?"

"He will be, I think. We're to meet at Nathan's and you can see for yourself."

Buck's look sobered and he stood up slowly. "Damn . . ." he muttered, then he took a deep breath. "Damn," he said more loudly this time, and strode out
the door. Ezra went over to the bar and nodded at Inez. She had given up her ranting and handed Ezra two cups of hot coffee.

"Thank you, my dear," Ezra said. He took the steaming cups and followed Buck.
 
Four Corners
Nathan's clinic
Fall, Day 5: Morning

He knew.

JD knew and it made Nathan sick. The healer worked on the kid's injury, wondering what the hell he'd done, putting JD in a situation like that. JD
sat silently, staring at the wall.

Nathan cleaned the wound, then stitched the gash closed. JD never made a noise--never winced. His head had to ache, considering the lump on the base
of his skull. It was as though the boy wouldn't give Nathan the satisfaction of knowing he hurt. If anything, that made it harder for Nathan. If JD
would just yell at him--confront him--he'd know how to respond. But this silence . . . it was deafening.

"JD!" Chris Larabee's hard voice carried up the stairwell. Nathan felt a panic rise in his chest. This was it. This was the end of everything.

Three miles north of Four Corners
On the roadside
Fall, Day Five: Morning

Royal heard the approach of riders. //Well, it's about time.// He hoped it was them. Slowly, he stood up from his resting place under the ancient tree.
He stepped further back into the woods, finding a place where he could see but not be seen. Palmer and Harris should have been here an hour ago, damn
them. Well, if this wasn't them, he'd just keep all the money. He and that Jackson boy could certainly handle Carmichael.

Squinting, he watched the top of the hill, waiting for the riders to appear. He wished his eyes were as keen as they used to be.

Ah, there they were. One rider. . . two . . . and as they drew closer, he recognized Harris' appaloosa. He edged out of his retreat and waved them
down. They urged their mounts into a lope and pulled up beside Royal.

Jack Palmer didn't dismount. Instead he eyed Royal from under his low-brimmed hat--a posture that made Royal feel very uncomfortable. Harris,
on the other hand, paid no mind to Royal, dismounting and heading into the woods to relieve himself.

"You get him?" Palmer asked.

"Yeah, and I'll move him today to that cabin. You sure it's all right?"

Palmer sniffed. "Don't second-guess me. I said it's ready."

"'Down the ridge to the pond, then down the path that starts by the bench'," Royal repeated the instructions Palmer and Harris had given him.

Harris came back, still adjusting himself. Royal frowned. He really hated these men.

"Just be there tonight," Harris said. "We'll have help." He put his foot in the stirrup and swung back in the saddle. "What about the old man?"

"He's dead," Royal answered. "His son is working with me."

Palmer looked at him like he had worms crawling out of his ears. "Not the gunman . . ."

"Yeah," Royal said, proud of himself. "That's why this was so easy. Carmichael made his life a living hell . . ."

"Are you f***** crazy?" Palmer cried.

"He'll keep them gunmen away from us." Royal tried to defend his actions. This attack blindsided him.

"Don't count on it."

"Look, I'm paying good money . . ."

Palmer raised his hand to silence him. "OK, we'll be there tonight . . . ten o'clock. But if that bastard turns on us, we're gonna kill him. And if we
see any of them Four Corners' peacekeepers, we're leaving."

"You can't . . ."

Palmer pulled out his pistol and directed it at Royal. "That's the deal. Take it or leave it." He glanced over at Harris and grinned. "Oh, and the
price has gone up. Add two thousand dollars to our fee."

"I don't have . . ."

"Fine." Palmer started to rein his horse back to the road. "Forget it. You want to trust that . . . lawman [he said it like it was a cuss word], go
right ahead."

"NO, WAIT . . ." Royal called after him. He felt rage, but it wouldn't do him any good. "OK, you son of a bitch. But you don't back out, no matter
what."

Palmer chuckled, "Why is it that you think you can tell me what to do? We'll do whatever we g**d*** well please. We'll take out Carmichael, and the
gunman, if we have to." Palmer walked his horse over until he towered over Royal. He spoke in a low, menacing voice. "And if you cross us, we'll take
you out, too." With that, Palmer tipped his hat--mocking Royal, and the two of them rode on.

Royal's hands clenched in tight fists, and he shook his head. This should never have been this difficult. And where would he get two thousand dollars?

Then it dawned on him.

Carmichael was carrying thousands and Royal was the only other living soul who knew where it was hidden. Royal would pay for Carmichael's murder with
Carmichael's own money. Oh, this would be good.

And with that, Royal felt the rage die down and he felt . . . relieved, almost. This would be the ultimate humiliation. Carmichael would watch
Royal pay the killers, and he would know Royal was responsible.

Revenge would be sweet.

Four Corners
Nathan's clinic
Fall, Day 5: Morning

Chris stood in the doorway and studied the picture in front of him. JD sat on the bed, and Nathan dabbed a pink-soaked cloth at the back of the boy's
head.

"What the hell happened?"

For a moment, nobody answered. Chris noticed that JD was averting his eyes. The boy stared at the floor. "How bad did they hurt you, son?" Chris
realized his voice wasn't as gentle as it should have been. Still the boy didn't answer.

"JD?" Chris stepped closer. JD looked up, and his expression could only be described as . . . defiant.

"I lost him."

"You lost him." Chris almost mocked him. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Means I lost him."

"JD, this ain't the way to handle this."

"Best I can do."

"Well, your best ain't good enough." Chris felt his anger rise. These flip answers were so unlilke the kid. He was usually so conscientious.

"Sorry," JD mumbled.

"Who hit you?"

"I didn't see anybody."

"What time did it happen?"

"I don't know."

"Damn it, JD!!" Chris yelled.

Nathan's soft voice started to interject, but Chris turned on him. "You stay out of this!" Chris turned back to JD. "This is a federal witness, JD. Do
you understand that? This ain't like losing a petty thief." Chris moved to within inches of the boy's face. "You're gonna tell me everything that
happened from the time you came on watch until this minute."

It was Vin who interrupted Chris' interrogation. "He was unconscious when Ezra found him."

"Where've you been?" Chris asked harshly.

"To the john. What business is that of yours, cowboy?" Vin's voice remained calm, but Chris could sense the tracker's irritation.

Chris sighed and his eyes met Vin's.

Chris stepped away from JD. "What time did you come on?"

"Midnight." Beads of sweat pearled on JD's lip.

"When's the last time you looked in on . . . "

"I don't remember." JD interrupted, abruptly.

"You didn't check on him when . . ."

"Look, I screwed up," JD yelled. "The man is gone. I let my guard down and got clobbered for it. That's all I can tell you!"

"Well, it ain't enough!"

***********

From half a block away, Buck could hear JD and Chris yelling at each other. He grinned. If JD was yelling, he must not be hurt too badly. Buck loped up
the stairs leading to Nathan's place, and paused when he reached the doorway.

Chris was leaning against the wall, his arms crossed in front of him. He was listening, stone-faced as JD evaded his questions. By the time JD was
finished, Chris' expression had turned to disgust. Chris walked over and leaned into the boy.

"That's bullshit, JD. Now, I don't know why you're lying, but I aim to find out. And when I do, we'll talk again. You just may find yourself out of a
job."

Buck shook his head in disbelief. "Chris, you can't mean to fire him." Chris didn't answer him, but rather, he raised his hand to silence him.

"Now understand this, JD," Chris continued. "This ain't about you not being able to stop this kidnapping. Sometimes those things can't be helped. It's t
he lying I can't abide, and if I can't trust you, you're no good to us. Are we clear about this?"

JD nodded, and Buck stepped all the way into the room. "What the hell is this?" Buck asked. "You two are talking crazy."

Chris nodded to Vin to follow him. Chris never turned back around to face JD, but he stopped and his words became a threat. "I'll be back, son."

Buck watched the two leave. "Nathan?" he asked. "What's got him so all fired mad?"

Nathan didn't answer. He unrolled bandages and started wrapping them around JD's head.

"JD?" Buck asked. He went over to stand in front of his young friend. "Hey . . . " JD didn't look at him. He kept his eyes on the floor. Buck reached
up to lift the kid's chin, but JD jerked away.

Buck backed off immediately. He frowned. "What's going on, son?"

JD shrugged.

"Talk to me. Maybe I can help you."

JD chuckled awkwardly. "You can't." For the first time since Buck had listened to the boy's argument, Buck could detect a painful catch in JD's
voice.

"But this don't make sense, JD," Buck protested.

"It doesn't have to."

The door opened again. "Greetings!" Ezra said. "I come bearing coffee. Hot, steaming, French roast . . . the only kind I serve at . . . "

"Pipe down, Ezra," Buck snapped. Yet he took the cup from the gambler, anyway. "Thanks."

Ezra walked over to JD. "How are you, son?"

"OK . . ."

Ezra looked at Nathan, apparently not buying the boy's answer. "How is he?"

"He'll be fine." Nathan strode around the table. "Why don't you boys take him back to his room? He'll be wanting to sleep some now."

"No." JD stood up--too quickly it seemed. Buck reached out and caught the kid's arm as JD started weaving. "Oh God . . . " JD murmured.

"Easy, son," Nathan said. He helped Buck ease the boy back to the pillow. "You don't need to be moving around just yet."

Ezra stepped up behind Buck. "You were out cold, Mr. Dunne. I think it will take a couple of days for you to recover sufficiently to return to your job."

JD's eyes were closed tightly. "I don't have time."

"Don't have time for what? Hell, boy, you don't have a choice!" Buck yelled.

The boy's eyes flew open. "The hell I don't."

"Watch it, son," Buck said. "I'm just trying to help you here. We all are."

"Well, don't." JD cut him off quickly.

"Somebody has to, JD, 'cause you sure ain't helping yourself."

"How many times do I have to apologize for getting conked on the head, Buck? Why can't you just leave me the hell alone?"

Buck could have hit him himself. Damn, the kid was exasperating. It was amazing that Chris Larabee hadn't decked him already. Well, Buck didn't have
to put up with this. He frowned and left the little clinic.

Four Corners
The Clarion
Fall, Day Five: Mid-morning

Mary knew something was up. And she knew it was something the men didn't want the townspeople to know. In the last two years, she had shifted from
the opinion that the public's "right to know" was paramount to any other considerations. Clearly the well- being of the town was the most critical
issue.

JD was hurt. Chris was furious. Buck was wound up. All this she knew from looking out the window. She would venture out to interview the men when
everything settled down a little. This had to be related to the story to which the judge alluded. He had told her only that there was a national
story that would unfold right under her nose. She shouldn't write about anything until he gave her the "go-ahead", but once he did, she would scoop
every other paper from coast to coast. At first, she had been excited, but now . . . well, she could tell that the situation was dangerous for the seven
peacekeepers.

And she began to feel very uneasy.

Four Corners
Saloon
Fall, Day Five: mid-morning

"Where the hell have you been?!" Chris barked at Josiah. Josiah studied the room for a long moment before answering. Buck, his eyes flashing in anger,
wasn't two feet away from Chris. Vin and Nathan were sitting at a table together. Ezra was sitting alone playing cards . . . solitaire. Where was
JD?

"Hey, Preacher," Chris took a step closer. "I asked you a question."

Josiah raised an eyebrow. "Did something happen? Is JD still on watch?"

Chris answered tensely. "Witness is gone. Somebody hit JD and took the witness."

Buck piped up. "Chris is pissed because JD isn't cooperating."

"He's hiding something," Chris said heatedly.

"He's got a g**d***ed head injury!" Buck cried.

Josiah watched as the two went at it. He walked stiffly over to Nathan and Vin and took a chair. He wouldn't tell them he'd fallen asleep on a church
pew that was shorter than he was.

"He hurt bad?" Josiah asked the healer.

"He'll be all right." Nathan didn't look at him. Josiah looked over at Vin, who merely shrugged.

"Where is he?" Again, Josiah addressed Nathan.

"He's in my room--sleeping, I hope."

Vin grinned. "According to Ezra, he was none too happy about having to stay put."

"Sounds like him," Josiah commented. He glanced around. "Where's the coffee?"

"I got the end of it," Vin answered, picking up his cup. "Cold as a witch's teat."

"What are we going to do?" Josiah asked, and Vin looked up at Buck and Chris. "Chris can't simmer down long enough to decide." The preacher frowned.
He'd give it a few minutes, then propose a plan himself.

Chris was pacing angrily. Buck might have stayed out of his way, but clearly he was as angry as Chris. As it was, the old friends were sparring--arguing
about everything from when to leave to where to look. The arguing escalated as Chris started making accusations about JD, and Buck tried to deflect them.
Only, Buck didn't seem to have any reliable defense. Apparently, he was just as confounded by the boy's actions as Chris was.

Vin was still nursing his cup of coffee. He never offered his opinion about JD. Maybe he didn't have one. Josiah and Nathan were sitting on either side
of the sharpshooter. Josiah finally caught the healer's eye. Something was still up with Nathan, but Josiah couldn't quite put his finger on it. He had
known Nathan for a few years now. He'd seen him on his best days and on his worst. Why was today unique? Why was Nathan's expression so enigmatic?
Time would tell, no doubt.

At another table, Ezra remained cool and collected, still playing contentedly. He would look up from time to time, then go back to his game.

"How far could they have gone?" Buck was yelling.

"They could have him right under our nose!" Chris yelled back.

"Why would someone kidnap Mr. Smith, then keep him here?" Ezra cut in.

Vin's gentle voice responded. "'Cause we wouldn't be expecting to find him here."

Chris planted himself and lowered his voice to a sinister growl. "Maybe we should ask JD."

Buck exploded. "Damn it, Chris, what makes you think JD would betray us? He never did before."

"Maybe he never had reason to." Chris looked at his feet for a moment, then back at his friend. "He's hiding something. You could see that, Buck."

Ezra folded the deck and stood up, sighing. "Well, it would seem that we should do something, one way or the other. Why don't we let Mr. Tanner try
to determine whether or not there are fresh tracks leaving the boarding house?"

"Not from there," Vin said. "I already looked. But I haven't checked everywhere else." The tracker stood up. "Josiah, you take the south and
east, I'll go north and west. Meet back here when you're done."

Chris looked at Vin and Ezra, eyes flashing. Vin walked up to him and rested a hand on his shoulder. "We gotta do something," he said.

Nathan looked at Josiah. "I'll go. I know these parts better than you." Josiah's eyebrow raised slightly as he considered. He nodded, wordlessly,
and Nathan stood up, following Vin through the bat-wing doors.

Chris frowned. "Ok, Ezra, you and Josiah and I will look around town. Be discreet. We don't want to get the town up in arms." Chris nodded to Buck,
and spoke in a gentler tone. "Go sit with the kid. See if you can get him to talk to you."

Buck nodded, and the men set out.

Outskirts of Four Corners
Behind the bath house
Fall, Day Five: a few moments later

Nathan felt his heart pounding in his chest. That was too close. He couldn't believe this. He was destroying evidence so his friends couldn't
find it. How did he ever let it go this far? And if that wasn't enough, he was letting JD take the heat for him. Damn.

He picked up Carmichael's button off the ground and slipped it in his pocket, then he ran his hand over the dusty ground, covering up the footprints and
hoofprints. He was still good at this--covering his tracks. It got him along the underground railroad and out of the south--away from slaveowners
and overseers and whippings. Ironic that a former slaveowner was the reason he was using those same skills once again.

Where the hell was Royal? Why hadn't Royal let him handle JD? All Nathan had to do was get JD to trade watch times with him and the kid would have
gladly gone on to bed. No one would have had to know Carmichael was gone until the end of the next guy's watch--noon today. Nathan had it all worked
out. When Ezra came in to take over (or Vin, seeing as how Vin was doing all of the more distasteful jobs which had been assigned to Ezra), Nathan would
tell him that he'd just looked in on "Smith." He would report that their witness was still sleeping off a major drunk from the night before. That
way, when someone discovered he was missing, they would see the pillows in the bed which made the bed look occupied, then they could speculate about
when "Smith" might have gotten away.

"G**d***it, Royal," Nathan muttered. The old man was jeopardizing everything. He'd worn a bandanna to cover his face and a hat pulled down low
over his eyes. Carmichael had literally never known what hit him.

Unfortunately, JD did--or he thought he did. //Oh, kid, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.//

Four Corners
Outside Nathan's room
Fall, Day Five: same time

//Calm down. He's just a kid. He's probably scared. He screwed up--big time. And he knows he did.//

Buck opened the door slowly. "Ok kid, let's just . . . "

Where the hell was he? Buck looked all over the room, but there was no sign of him. Damn kid could hardly stand up. How the hell could he leave? Buck
lifted the sheets. There might be a clue somewhere.

Nothing. His eyes trailed up to the pillow, which bore a bit of red. God, he'd bled through his bandage.

Buck felt panic. Stupid kid. Where did he think he could go? Buck closed his eyes tightly, and the thought dawned on him. //Oh, sweet Jesus . . .
what if the kidnapper came back for him?// "No," Buck said under his breath, then he bolted out and down the street.
 
A Few Miles South of Four Corners
An abandoned barn
Fall, Day Five: Same time

Royal closed his eyes. He was really gonna have to make this believable. This was getting better all the time. He'd go in and "rescue" his master.
He'd take Carmichael to another location, farther from Four Corners, a "safe house." He'd make sure Carmichael knew that the peacekeepers were not to be
trusted. Oh yes, and he'd be sure that Palmer killed him slowly and he'd make Carmichael know who was responsible and why. That would be the best
part. Royal focused on that for a moment, enjoying the fantasy.

He opened his eyes and looked at the barn. He reviewed the plan, although he'd been over it so many times that reviewing it now was merely for
pleasure. Royal would bring Nathan out there. Granted, it would have been easier if he were working with Obediah Jackson. Word was that he'd already
killed a man. It would have been easy to make folks believe he'd kill another. But Nathan Jackson had only killed criminals. Even so, Jackson was
in a unique position to divert the other gunmen. Who would have dreamed that Royal would have an inside man? Oh, this was rich. De Sautier would pay him
well, Royal would get his revenge, and Jackson would take the blame. Royal would just have to be sure that Jackson died right next to Carmichael. He
grinned. Travis was a sharp guy. He'd figure out that Jackson had been on the plantation with the deceased.

The deceased--oh, he liked the sound of that. And Royal would be the devoted, grieving manservant who, right up until the end, stood by the man
who had been so good to him.

Royal took a deep breath then stepped into the barn.

Four Corners
JD Dunne's room
Fall, Day Five: A moment later

The door burst open and JD saw Buck Wilmington framed in the doorway, vibrating with fury.

"What the hell do you think you're doing? You scared the shit out of me!" Buck yelled.

//Oh, Buck. My head hurts too much for this.// "Sorry," JD muttered, leaning his head back against his propped-up pillows. Right then, he didn't
have the strength to fight.

"Sorry?? Hell, kid, I thought the kidnappers got you." Buck paced around the room, waving his arms as he talked. "What the hell's wrong with you?"

JD didn't answer. That only seemed to make Buck madder. "I've had enough of this shit, JD. You're gonna tell me right now. What's going on? Why
aren't you at Nathan's?"

"I walked. I'm fine."

"Well, you weren't fine an hour ago. You couldn't even stand up by yourself. What if the kidnappers come back? How are we supposed to protect you if we
don't know what happened?"

"What do you want, Buck?"

The big man paused and sat down on the bed next to him. "I want to know what's going on with you, kid. This is a big deal. Chris is ready to boot
your ass out of here."

JD closed his eyes. "Let him."

"Damn it, son. I ain't playing now. You've gotta tell me what happened."

"No, I don't."

"G**d***it JD, what's wrong with you?"

To tell the truth, JD wasn't actually sure what was wrong. Why was he going out on a limb here? God, it would be so much easier to tell Buck and get his
advice. But what if this thing blew up in Nathan's face? JD's eyes began to sting and he looked at Buck.

"Do you trust me?" JD asked, knowing his question would disarm his friend.

"What the hell kind of question is that?"

"Well, do you?"

Buck stood up, his mouth gaping. JD turned his head away. "Get the hell out of here, Buck."

"I ain't leaving."

Coolly, JD pulled his Colt out from under the blanket and pointed it at his friend. "Yes," the boy said. "You are."

Buck's eyes narrowed and he talked to JD like he was talking to a wounded animal. "Easy, son. You don't want to do this."

"Don't test me, Buck." JD didn't really try to sound menacing. He figured he didn't have to, with the gun in his hand. "Get out."

Buck stood frozen. "JD . . . "

"NOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

A Few Miles South of Four Corners
An abandoned barn
Fall, Day Five: A few moments later

"Mister Harvey!" Royal whispered. He walked stealthily across the floor of the barn. "Mister Harvey, you here?"

"Royal!!" Carmichael called. "Over here, boy. Oh, thank God."

"What happened??!!" Royal asked, looking around as if trying to determine if there were others in the barn.

"Last night . . . they put a boy--couldn't have been more than fifteen--at my door to 'protect' me. But a bunch of . . . hoodlums . . . came in and
knocked me out."

Royal quickly untied the man. "Did you see 'em?"

"Bandannas over their faces," Carmichael said, his face and neck turning redder as he related the story. "Like some kind of hired shooters or
something."

Royal knelt in front of him, and handed him a flask. Carmichael drank greedily as Royal spoke. "I gotta get you out of here, sir. They could be
coming back."

"Well, don't take me back to that town. Probably was those gunmen the Judge hired. Maybe they want to extort money from me."

Oh, this was better than Royal could have hoped for. "I never thought of that," Royal said--and it was true. He paused to get the most dramatic
effect. "I'll do what I can to protect you, sir. I wish I had been there to help last night."

Rather than seeming touched by Royal's words, Carmichael frowned. "If you'd been there, you and I together could maybe have stopped them." Carmichael
waved him off and stood. "No matter now," he said. "Let's head on out. Did you bring any supplies?"

Royal shrugged. "No, sir. I figured we'd be heading back to town--wouldn't need anything."

"That's your trouble, boy. You don't think." Carmichael studied his long-time manservant. His voice softened. "That's why it's so good for you
that you stayed with me. You couldn't survive 'out there.' You'd have starved within a month." Carmichael patted Royal on the back, and Royal felt
the old rage surge again. The manservant set it aside, though. He wouldn't have to play the role much longer. Just one more day.

North of Four Corners
Just off of the road
Fall, Day Five: same time:

Vin Tanner pressed his lips together tightly. Nothing added up. There wasn't so much as a broken twig anywhere. He thrust his hands in his
pockets, and started to work his way around the west side of the little town. When he saw the hoofprints, he knelt beside them quickly, but he realized
the tracks were a few days old. Next to them, he saw something familiar, and he felt his face grow hot . . .

Shit, he thought, picking up the shiny object and putting it in his hip pocket. Even without anyone there, he felt embarrassed. //Damn you, Ezra!//
Vin didn't want to think about a spooked horse or a laughing gambler or ... well, he just didn't want to think about any of that. Right now he had a
job to do. He was just glad to be the one looking over this area just then. God, if Buck or JD could see this, Vin knew he'd never hear the end of it.

JD . . . man, what was going on with him? Vin scanned the ground as he thought. It wasn't like the kid to act like he had been acting. Maybe his
head got hurt worse than they thought. Nothing about last night made sense. How could someone kidnap a protected witness without anyone in town hearing
anything? Hell, a couple of his friends had been awake when . . .

A piece of cloth . . .

Vin squatted down by the little misshapen shrub that stuck up out of the ground. He saw a ripped bit of heavy wool--heavy brown wool--from a pair of
pants he recognized.

The tracker licked his lips and beads of sweat formed on his forehead. He examined the area very closely. For the pantleg to tear like it did, the man
had to be running from the . . . south . . . Instinctively, Vin looked southward, and saw where someone had covered his tracks--someone good at it.
If he hadn't seen the bit of cloth, he wouldn't have even considered the possiblity that someone would have "crosstracked" in that area. Strange--how
could someone making an effort to cover his tracks miss the cloth. Unless .
. .

. . . he were running back to town "after" having covered the tracks leading to the south.

This was getting very uncomfortable. Vin felt so guilty for what he was thinking, and God knows, he hoped he was wrong. But the message was clear.
Sadly, Vin continued his study of the ground. He didn't want to tell the others.

Not til he knew for sure.

Four Corners
Front steps of the church
Fall, Day Five: Noon

Josiah Sanchez always liked chicken and dumpling day at the cafe. He sat on the church steps, watching the town, wishing that he'd gotten two more
dumplings than he had. Chicken and dumplings wouldn't make him feel better today. He'd been charged with checking each building from the telegraph
office to the Clarion and back to the church. He'd found nothing, and truth be told, he hadn't really expected to. Now he waited for the others to
return so they could plot their next steps.

It was hard for him to picture JD behaving like they said he had. He knew the boy could get angry, but to withhold information--to "not" talk--wasn't
like him. Josiah chewed slowly as he tried to reason this out. JD had barely outgrown his hero worship. To defy Chris Larabee was not a bright
move for any man, but it was downright ridiculous for a greenhorn kid. Chris held all the aces here, and he could send the boy packing in a heartbeat.

Why would JD risk his job, his reputation, the trust of his friends . . .

Josiah stopped chewing altogether. His friends . . .

JD wasn't defying anybody. He was protecting somebody. And if that were true, the boy was having to handle this on his own. JD had already gotten a
whack on the head for his trouble. Next time he might not be so lucky.

The preacher resumed eating. He'd have to give this some thought. And he'd have to talk to JD himself. He let his mind wander back over the past couple
of days. Vin and Ezra were acting strangely, but not suspiciously. Chris and Buck were acting just like they always did. Nathan . . .

Ah, he remember his strange conversation with his friend.

"You're not looking too happy this morning," Josiah observed quietly.

"I ain't feeling too happy either," Nathan answered. Then he asked that enigmatic question. "Josiah, you ever had a decision to make where either way
you go, you'll be doing something wrong and something right?"

"Not sure I follow you, my friend."

Nathan sighed. "Me either."

His friend seemed to be carrying a mighty big burden. Josiah rested a hand on his shoulder. "Something I can help with?"

"Not unless you can speak to the dead," Nathan answered wryly. And again he sighed. "Thanks, Josiah, but I think I got it covered."

Familiar voices drew him out of his reverie.

He looked up and saw Chris Larabee walking toward him determinedly, Buck Wilmington on his heels, chattering like a magpie.

"What'd you find?" Josiah asked, his mouth full of creamed corn.

Chris opened his mouth, but Buck jumped into the conversation first. "JD pulled a f***ing GUN on me."

"Was it loaded?" Josiah asked the question so calmly that it took Buck by surprise.

"What?" Buck looked at Chris incredulously, then back at Josiah. "What do you mean, 'was it loaded?' I sure as hell wasn't gonna stand there and wait
to find out."

Josiah nodded slowly and waited before commenting. He knew that kind of response would get under Buck's skin. "Didn't think of that, did you?"

Chris looked at Buck disgustedly. "'Course he didn't."

Josiah stood up. "I imagine that JD just wanted to make a point, Buck. He'd never aim a loaded gun at you."

"You don't know that!" Buck barked.

"Yes I do," Josiah said. He walked up beside Buck, then put his hand on his friend's chest. "You do, too." The preacher patted Buck, then walked back
to the cafe.

Josiah found Vin sitting at a table, moving his creamed corn around with his fork. Josiah sat down with him, setting his empty plate on the table.
Quickly a young woman walked up.

"More lunch, darling?" she asked Josiah, smiling a smile that, in the evening, she used for an altogether different purpose.

"Got any more dumplings?"

"Sure do, sweetie. I'll get you some." She started to leave, but Josiah's voice halted her.

"And could you make up another plate? I need to feed a young friend."

The woman leaned closer, "For the boy? I heard he was attacked by bank robbers last night."

Vin's head popped up, and an amused grin crossed his face.

Josiah answered seriously. "Oh, yes ma'am. He kept those ne'er-do-wells from cleaning out our little town. We owe him a great debt."

The woman patted his shoulder and nodded conspiratorily. "I'll put a few extra dumplings on his plate, too."

"You do that," Josiah said, and the woman scurried away with his plate to rid the kitchen of dumplings.

Vin raised an eyebrow. "Word travels fast."

"Fiction travels faster," Josiah said. Then he frowned. "What did you find?"

"Nothing." Vin answered. "You?"

"Could be nothing. Could be something. I just don't know."

Vin cut his eyes over to him. "What?"

Josiah sighed. He knew he could trust Vin. But if JD were risking his neck to protect someone, would it be best to bring Josiah's suspicions into the
open? Or should he wait? Maybe he should test the water first.

"What do you think about JD's behavior?"

Vin shrugged. "Not like him."

"He pulled a gun on Buck."

Vin's eyes grew wide. "No . . . he'd never . . ."

"Couldn't have been loaded," Josiah said. "But still. . ."

Vin knit his brows and paused a moment. "Kid's got some kind of death wish. He was playing with fire this morning. It was almost like he was trying to
make Chris mad. And he did a good job of it, too."

"What did he say?"

"He didn't say much. Just that he didn't know anything."

"Couldn't that just be 'cause he was hit on the head?"

"It wasn't like that," Vin explained. "If he'd sounded out of it, I might think so. But he didn't. He sounded . . . normal. He just kept saying he
didn't remember anything about Smith. He remembered coming on watch. But, he didn't remember checking on Smith. He didn't see anybody. He didn't know
what time he got hit. He didn't know . . . anything." Vin shook his head. "When I saw him this morning, he'd been unconscious. He was really hurting.
I just don't know . . ."

Josiah decided to take a chance. "How was Nathan?'

Vin jerked up, looking almost . . . cornered. "What do you mean?"

"Was he acting like himself?"

"Yeah, I reckon." Vin's entire demeanor had changed, and Josiah decided that Vin must know something.

Josiah slid his chair over closer to the tracker and spoke in a more hushed tone. "I think JD is protecting Nathan." He related the strange
conversation he'd had with the healer and observed Vin's reaction. Was it . . . relief?

Vin sighed deeply before beginning. "I found a torn piece of Nathan's pants north of here. I noticed the signs of someone covering tracks--the way
Nathan knows how. I've been with him when he's done it. Not only that, but there was crosstracking, too."

"If he was covering his tracks, how could he miss the cloth?"

"He had to be running back--after he had already cleared the tracks."

Josiah closed his eyes. "This is really bad."

"I know. I felt this . . . weight on my chest when I realized Nathan might be involved. If JD found out about Nathan, this has to be killing him."

"Here you go," the woman came to the table and set one plate in front of Josiah, and another--a covered one--on the table. Josiah took her hand and
kissed it gently.

"Thank you, ma'am." He reached in his vest pocket for his money, but she shook her head. "The boy's lunch is on the house. Not every day we get to
serve a hero."

"Much obliged," Josiah said. Then he felt her lean against him, her hair brushing against his neck. She whispered, "Tonight?"

He turned to touch her face, and he brought his lips to her ear. "Gotta work. How about tomorrow night?"

"I'll make sure it's worth the wait." She patted his shoulder and walked back to the kitchen, a little shake in her hips. He watched appreciatively.

Was Vin talking to him?

"Hey!" the tracker said, loudly.

"Right," Josiah said, turning back to him.

"What do we do?" Vin was asking.

"See if JD will talk."

"What about the others?"

Josiah shook his head. "What would we tell them? We don't really know anything for sure."

"We need to talk to Nathan," Vin suggested.

"If he thinks he's cornered, he could bolt. As bad as things were for him before, can you imagine what it must have been like when he saw JD hurt this
morning?"

"He may be thinking about going after whoever hurt the kid," Vin said.

Josiah thought for a moment. This was just getting worse.

Vin spoke more softly. "We can't keep this from Chris for long. If he thinks we've all been keeping things from him, he'll think he can't trust
us."

Josiah nodded. He knew Vin had been dealing with his own issue of trustworthiness where Chris Larabee was concerned.

And he was right. Chris was responsible for this witness, and if his own men were withholding information from him, he couldn't do his job. They would no
longer be acting like a team. If they couldn't be a team, they might as well disband.

Josiah stood up and rested his hand on Vin's shoulder. "I'll see what I can find out from JD. Then, we'll talk to Chris . . . by himself."

Vin nodded, then he smiled sadly. "I hate this."

"So do I," Josiah answered. He picked up JD's plate. "So do I."
 
Four Corners
Saloon
Fall, Day Five: noon

Neither cards nor whiskey interested Ezra Standish at the moment. He paced quickly. Why did he care about a federal witness? He'd still get paid.
Since when did the reputation of their little group mean anything to him?

Maybe it wasn't the witness or the reputation that concerned him. Maybe it was JD . . .

Damn. He'd seen a lot of men die, but he could never get used to seeing a hurt kid. He remembered seeing hurt and bloodied boys during the war . . .
many of them younger than JD. It had shaken him this morning, seeing the boy lying curled up on the landing. His first thought had been that JD was dead.

And it had terrified him.

How was it that there were six experienced gunmen in the town and they couldn't protect one kid? This wasn't even the first time. He remembered
how he'd felt seeing the boy collapse on the floor, having been beaten so badly by the Nichols boys. He remembered seeing the boy with a gunshot wound
from that damn lady bounty-hunter. What were they thinking, letting him ride with them? It wasn't that JD didn't do a good job. It was just that his
youth made him appear vulnerable, and any miscreant that wanted to take advantage of their little group would use him to cripple their mission.

Well, thank God that the boy was going to be all right. From here on, maybe they should not leave the kid alone when they were on a job. Better yet,
maybe the boy should just pick up where he left off and go on to college.

He'd have to suggest that. But right now, he'd do a little investigating instead.

Four Corners
JD Dunne's room
Fall, Day Five: afternoon

Josiah knocked softly on the door.

"Get outa here, Buck! I told you."

The preacher leaned closer to the door. "It's me, JD."

"I don't want to talk, Josiah, " the boy called back.

"That's good. Neither do I. I figured you might be hungry."

There was no answer this time. Josiah smiled and turned the doorknob slowly. "Is it safe to come in?"

"Yeah," JD answered, sounding almost sheepish. Josiah came into the room. JD was trying to pull himself up, but it was a struggle.

"Let me help you," Josiah said, setting the tray on the dresser. When the kid didn't refuse the offer, Josiah could see just how difficult this
situation was for his young friend. The preacher reached under JD's shoulders and lifted him easily until the boy was sitting up in bed. Josiah
started to pull away to go get the tray, but JD held on to his arm for a moment. It was a little thing--that spoke volumes. Wordlessly, Josiah put
his strong arms around him. If either of them had said anything right then, it would have been awkward. As it was, JD released him first and Josiah
stood up to get the boy's lunch.

Tray in hand, the preacher frowned at JD. "I have a confession."

"Aren't you the one who listens to confession?" JD asked, a look of confusion on his face.

"You're supposed to get three dumplings with this meal. In fact, Miss Betsy gave you five." Josiah set the tray on the bed in front of the boy. There
was only one dumpling left. JD grinned.

"It's a sorry sort of man that eats an injured man's dumplings, Josiah."

"That's me," Josiah said, settling down in the funny chair JD had tried to construct. "A sorry sort of man." Oddly enough, the chair was comfortable.
It was actually more pillow than chair. JD had made up for his lack of carpentry skill by padding it with every pillow he could get a hold of.

JD ate in silence--a comfortable silence, Josiah thought. The boy didn't eat much. He didn't eat his dumpling. JD smiled at him again. "You can have
it," JD said, handing the tray to Josiah.

"Yeah?" Josiah took it from him tentatively. JD nodded and started to ease back down into the bed. Josiah reached out to help, but JD shook his head.
"I'm fine. Thanks."

Josiah ate the dumpling slowly. JD lay quietly. For a moment, Josiah thought he was sleeping. Then JD spoke softly.

"Can I ask you something?"

"You can always ask. I may not have an answer."

A long moment passed. "How can you decide between loyalty to a friend and loyalty to . . ." JD seemed to search for the right word. ". . . a cause?"

"That's a tough question. Is the friend in the right?"

"I don't know. If I'm not loyal to the cause, everyone will think that I'm a turncoat. But if I'm not loyal to my friend, I could ruin everything for
him."

"Sounds like a real dilemma." Josiah paused. He needed to tread carefully. "What are you gonna do?"

"I don't know."

It was now or never. "Does this have anything to do with Nathan?"

"What?" JD asked sharply. "No. Why would you ask that?"

"Vin found a bit of cloth from his pantleg when he was looking for tracks."

JD looked anxious--confused. "Could have happened anytime. He does live here, you know." JD's thick brows knit together. "Is Vin gonna ask Nathan
about it?"

"I don't know."

"This is all my fault. I should have been paying attention." JD looked away and laughed . . . but not humorously. "Chris is so mad at me. He's gonna
kick me out, I know it."

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

JD closed his eyes. "I wish you could. I'll just have to check everything out, then I can figure out what to do."

Josiah thought for a minute. "I'm sure you'll make a good decision."

"What if I don't? What if I screw up and get somebody killed?"

"Maybe you should get some help." Josiah stood up and touched the bandage on the boy's head. "This could have killed *you*."

JD waved him off. "This has nothing to do with last night."

Josiah smiled. "Try to get some sleep, son. Let me know if you need me."

"Thanks."

Four Corners
Saloon
Fall, Day Five: a few minutes later

"I didn't see anything. No tracks, no nothing," Nathan said. "It's like he just . . . vanished."

"Nobody just 'vanishes', Nathan," Chris' frustration seemed to be overwhelming him. "What the hell is the problem here? We have one man to
protect. There are seven of us. Why can't we make any headway?"

Nathan spoke very steadily. . . too steadily, Vin thought. "Maybe whoever took him wasn't just a regular hired gun. I mean, if Mr. Smith is a federal
witness, we may be dealing with something much more complex than we thought originally. Most locals would have left tracks at least."

Vin looked over at Josiah. He wondered if listening to Nathan talk was making Josiah as angry as it was making him.

Chris was pacing. "They got to JD, whoever they were. I don't mean just the assault. They've scared him into withholding information."

"What didn't they kill him?" Ezra asked.

"Thank God they didn't!" Buck snapped.

"You miss my meaning, Mr. Wilmington," the gambler continued. "A hired killer would just have killed the boy. Someone prevented that from
happening."

"They could have 'thought' they killed him," Nathan offered.

"If a professional killer wanted Mr. Dunne dead, I daresay, he would be dead."

Buck was fuming. "Would you just shut up about it?"

Josiah walked over to Buck. "It is something to consider. Somebody didn't want JD to die."

Vin glanced at Josiah again and spoke. "Maybe somebody just didn't want blood on his hands."

"For that matter," Ezra said. "If the only object were to keep Mr. Smith from testifying, they would have just killed him where he lay."

"That's a good point," Josiah said.

"Gentlemen, we are facing some sort of conspiracy, I think."

Nathan glared at Ezra. "That's crazy-talk, Ezra."

"Is it? Why else would the witness be gone and JD be alive?"

This time, Chris spoke, "Maybe whoever took Smith wanted to find out what he knew, who he told before killing him."

"So they've taken him somewhere to interrogate him," Buck said.

"Now, if we can just find him," Chris said. Suddenly he slammed his fist down onto the table. "Damn that kid!!"

Vin stood up quickly. "Easy, cowboy. He's just scared is all."

"Well, he could be costing a man his life." Chris ran a hand through his blond hair. "And we ain't got time for this." He was so frustrated. Vin
rested his hand on Chris' shoulder. At first Chris jerked, then slowly, he began to relax.

Nathan stood up. "I'm gonna go check on JD. We really shouldn't leave him alone for too long."

Chris waved him on. Vin slid his hand up to Chris neck and pulled him close so he could whisper to him, "We need to talk."

Chris raised an eyebrow. Vin looked at Josiah. The preacher nodded.

It was time.

Four Corners
JD Dunne's room
Fall, Day Five: same time

JD was glad he was alone. His eyes burned, and he let the tears spill over . . . finally. Everybody had turned against him. Well, everyone except
Josiah. But why had Josiah asked him about Nathan? What did he know? Maybe he was just pretending to be nice to him so he could get information from him.

Chris was so mad at him. He couldn't stand that. He'd let everyone down, especially Chris. All the time he'd spent trying to earn Chris' respect was
for nothing. He'd never be able to recover Chris' trust.

How could things get so bad so fast? Yesterday he was joking around with Buck. Today, Buck couldn't even tell him he trusted him. That was the
hardest part.

Well, no, the hardest part was that Nathan had let somebody hurt him. Nathan had left him there on the landing, and JD knew enough about head injuries to
know that wasn't safe. You don't just leave someone lying there. You're supposed to wake them up regularly to be sure they're all right. But Nathan
didn't take care of him. He didn't even tell anyone that JD had been hurt. He just left him.

//Why am I covering for him?// Somewhere in the back of his mind, JD knew that Nathan was a good man. He was giving him the benefit of the doubt. But
it hurt JD that Nathan was letting him take the heat. Why wasn't Nathan helping him?

JD's head hurt so badly. His heart hurt worse. He pressed his face into his pillow and sobbed.

Efraim's Pond
An abandoned cabin
Fall, Day Five: Dusk

Harvey Carmichael was asleep. A fire roared in the old stone fireplace. Royal had tended Carmichael's wounds, fed him and made a bed for him--for the
last time ever. He had told Harvey that he was going outside to make sure they hadn't been followed, and Harvey had bought it. If Royal didn't hate
Harvey so much, he might have felt a twinge of . . . guilt? . . . when Harvey had patted his face and told him he thought of him like a son.

But Royal couldn't afford guilt, and besides, Harvey had kept him as a slave for g**'s sake. Sure, Harvey was paying him now, but it was little payback
for the years when Harvey had robbed him of his freedom.

Royal retraced their steps toward Four Corners and he used that time to work his anger back up. He was gonna need that anger if he was gonna be
successful. At least he knew now that Carmichael hadn't told that judge what he knew. Royal had to smile. By telling him that he wanted to start
eliminating suspects, he'd gotten Carmichael to tell him everything. Carmichael hadn't told anyone what he knew--except the federal agent who had arranged
for him to testify. If he weren't there to testify, the case would have to be thrown out.

Thank god Royal would only have one loose end to tie up.

Jackson.

They'd meet up on this road, just like they planned.

Four Corners
JD Dunne's room
Fall, Day Five: dusk

JD awoke when he heard a knock on the door.

Damn! He hadn't meant to fall asleep. "Wait a minute." He wiped his eyes, and realized his crying jag had been a while ago. He sat up a bit. "OK . .
."

The doorknob turned and Nathan appeared. "JD?"

//Oh, God. What do I say?//

"Hey," JD answered. He couldn't think of anything else.

Nathan came in and just stood there for a long moment, looking at him. JD realized that Nathan's eyes filled and a tear rolled down the healer's cheek.
Yet, JD still didn't know what to say.

"How are you, son?" Nathan didn't sound like himself. His voice sounded husky, emotional.

"I'm all right," JD lied.

Nathan came over and sat on the side of the bed. He pressed a very gentle hand against JD's face. "Are your eyes all right? Can you see OK?"

"Yeah."

Nathan sighed, and it was almost like there was a sob in it . . . not quite, though. "Can I check your bandage?"

"Yeah."

This was terribly difficult. JD felt awkward. Why was Nathan being so nice to him when he really didn't care about him?

Guilt. That was it. It had to be.

Nathan was as kind and gentle as he'd ever been. He lifted JD toward him and fingered the bandage tenderly.

"It's been bleeding a little," Nathan said. He reached under his coat and pulled out clean bandages. "I need to change them."

"OK," JD answered.

"Does it hurt a lot?" Nathan asked as he started to unwrap the bandage.

"No." Another lie.

"Have you been sleeping a lot?"

"Yeah." Well, at least that was the truth. JD tried not to wince as Nathan pulled the bandage away from the sticky wound. But it really did hurt.

"Sorry . . ." Nathan said, as he worked. Neither one said anything else for a while, and, as awkward as that was, JD figured it was less awkward than
talking about things.

When Nathan had finished, he took the bloodied bandages to the wastebasket. JD hadn't realized he'd been bleeding so much. Suddenly he felt a wave of
nausea, but he fought it. Oh, God . . .

Nathan didn't notice, or he didn't say anything about it. Instead, he said something JD didn't understand. "Take care of yourself, son. You'll be ok."

JD nodded, but he didn't answer. Nathan left, closing the door quietly.

Four Corners
Inside the church
Fall, Day Five: dusk

"Do you realize what you're saying?" Chris said, once the full weight of Josiah and Vin's theory had sunk in.

"Yeah," Vin answered.

Josiah added, "It would certainly explain JD's reluctance to talk."

Chris knew how to handle most situations, but this one was baffling. "We need to know what the kid knows."

"He'll go to his grave to protect a friend," Vin mused.

"He damn near did," Chris snapped. Then he sighed. He didn't need to take this out on Vin. Somehow Vin knew that, and he squeezed Chris' shoulder.
"So what do we do now, Cowboy?"

"Hell if I know," Chris answered. Man, this was a tough one. "I tell you what we're NOT gonna do. We're not gonna tell Buck. Not yet, anyway."

"Good idea," Josiah said.

Chris ran his hand through his hair. He had to figure this out. At least Vin and Josiah had the good sense not to interrupt him while he was thinking.
 
Gradually a plan started to form and he began nodding his head. "All right, you two go together to talk to JD. Tell him everything you told me and get
him to tell you what he knows. Don't leave until you get his story."

"What are you gonna do?" Josiah asked.

"I'll get Ezra and we'll track Nathan."

"You won't have to 'get Ezra.'" The gambler strode into the church. "Gentlemen, I have gotten some very disturbing information . . .
enlightening, yet disturbing."

"Yeah?" Chris prompted.

"I confess to have done some 'snooping' at the Clarion, unbeknownst to Mrs. Travis, I assure you. I discovered a file containing information about our
'Mr. Smith.' Seems the good judge had left some information in her keeping in the event that it became necessary to recover it quickly."

"Damn it, Ezra. That would've been sealed." Why were all of his men acting without his knowledge.

Ezra grinned wickedly. "Oh, it is sealed again. But I was able to ascertain certain . . . facts . . . about our witness--not about the case--but about
his identity. 'Mr. Smith' is actually Mr. Harvey Carmichael of Washington,  D.C. Only we all know his accent would suggest that he had actually spent
most of his life somewhere further south. It turns out that Harvey Carmichael owned a plantation called 'Le Fleur.'"

"Sweet Jesus," Josiah muttered.

It dawned on Chris and he said aloud, "Nathan was born on that plantation." For a moment, Chris thought he would lose his lunch. This was f******
unbelievable.

"What do we do?" Vin asked.

"Go tell JD everything. Once he knows the truth, he'll talk. Ezra, you and I will shadow Nathan. Maybe we can save him from himself."

"What about Buck?" Josiah asked.

"He needs to stay here and watch things. I'll tell him we're on a lead and he needs to watch JD."

They started for the door, then Chris paused and said over his shoulder, "Be careful, boys."

Four Corners
JD Dunne's room
Fall, Day Five: same time

The door closed behind Nathan, and JD felt a shiver go down his spine. Something was very wrong with that visit--something besides the obvious. JD
tried to work it out in his head. What was so strange?

Then it hit him. Nathan sounded like he was going to die or something. Take care of yourself, son. You'll be ok. What the hell did that mean? He was
talking like he wasn't going to see JD again. And that scared him.

"NATHAN?!" JD called, but he sounded weak and he knew Nathan couldn't hear him.

He stood up beside his bed, buckling his holster. Suddenly, he swayed. He reached for the corner of the bedside table to steady himself. //God help
me.// He didn't know if he could do this. But he had to try. He was the only one who could help Nathan.

JD slipped his shoes on, but when he leaned over to tie them, a wave of dizziness came over him. He sat back down on the bed. This was awful.
//Pull yourself together, JD.// He didn't have time for this. He squeezed his eyes closed, and then stood up determinedly. He walked over to the
window and saw Nathan walking toward the woods.

There was no time to lose. He had to go after him and he had to ask him what the hell was going on.

Four Corners
The boarding house
Fall, Day Five: about fifteen minutes later

Vin knocked on JD's door, but there was no answer.

"He's probably asleep," Josiah said, and Vin nodded. The tracker turned the doorknob and opened the door.

"Where the hell is he?" Vin asked.

Josiah went into the boy's room first, looking around the bed. "His guns are gone," Josiah reported.

Vin lifted the wastebasket with the used bandages in it and he showed Josiah. "Nathan's been here."

"And JD went after him." Josiah put his hand on the bed. "It's still warm. He must have just left."

"He couldn't have gone too far in his condition," Vin added, and he set the wastebasket back down. "Let's find him."

South of Four Corners
In the woods
Fall, Day Five: Early evening

JD had cut through a narrow rocky pass in the woods, ending up where he knew he'd be ahead of Nathan. His head hurt and he was dizzy, but he had to find
out what was going on. He shivered in the waning night. It got chilly at night in the fall. Why hadn't he worn a coat? Stupid. Well, it was too
late to worry about that now. He sniffled and rubbed his nose with his sleeve. Then he rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands.

Footsteps.

He crouched deeper in the brush and waited, listening. The light crunch of leaves underfoot suggested a traveler who was lithe. JD watched as a long
shadow appeared. He waited.

He stood up slowly when Nathan passed by him. "Hey!" JD called. Nathan spun around, drawing his knife. At the sight of the blade, JD scurried back
a couple of steps. "Nathan, it's me!"

JD's head was suddenly spinning, and instead of feeling a knife slice through him, he felt familiar arms catch him and ease him to the ground. He could
hear Nathan's voice . . cussing at him. Everybody had been cussing at him, and he'd had enough. He raised a weak fist and hit Nathan in the chest,
doing little good, other than making himself feel like he'd at least made his feelings known. Nathan must not have even felt it, because he didn't react
at all.

JD looked up at his friend's face--at least he hoped Nathan was still his friend. After the assault last night, he wasn't sure. There was an
expression on Nathan's face JD hadn't seen. Nathan looked defeated somehow. JD closed his eyes tightly. It would be easier to talk to him if he didn't
have to look him in the eye.

"Nathan, we gotta talk."

A long moment passed, and Nathan pulled JD closer to him. Nathan held him, hugging him, but didn't say anything.

"Nathan . . . " JD said, more softly this time.

Nathan's voice was lower, huskier than usual. "Not here. It ain't safe here."

JD opened his eyes again. "Why? What's going on, Nathan?"

"The less you know, the better."

JD struggled to stand up. Nathan tried to slow him down. JD's head pounded, but he still had to say this. "Look, either you tell me, or I tell Chris I
know you were there last night." JD shivered and he sniffled. "I'm laying everything on the line for you, Nathan. I'm trusting that you have a reason
for all of this. You owe me an explanation."

A new voice cut through the chill. "He don't owe you anything, boy."

Nathan roughly pushed JD behind him and drew his knife again. "Back off, Royal. You don't touch him again."

"Since when did you get so tight with a white boy?" JD couldn't see the man, but he could hear the disgust in the man's voice, and he could hear the click
of a hammer on a gun.

"He don't need to be part of this, " Nathan said.

"Too late . . . " the man said. With that, JD took off through the brush, back toward town. The branches slapped at his ankles. A bullet whistled
over his head, but he ran. //Lord, help me keep my balance.// JD's heart pounded and he hoped Nathan would be ok. Why couldn't he run straight? He
felt the searing pain in his shoulder as the second bullet hit him. He couldn't tell if he collapsed because his lungs were on fire, or because his
head pounded, but, whatever the reason, he lay on the ground in the brush. He knew he should fight to stay conscious, but he really needed to sleep.
Just for a minute.

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

"No . . ." Vin saw JD a split second before Josiah did, and he ran to him, gun drawn, eyes alert. Josiah was right behind him.

JD lay on his side just off the path. He had obviously tried to crawl to cover, but he hadn't gotten far. "JD?!!" Vin whispered anxiously as he
dropped to his knees beside his friend. The boy didn't answer. Vin pulled a glove off and felt for a pulse. Thank God, it was there. Josiah knelt
beside them.

"Can we lift him?" Vin asked.

"Yeah," Josiah looked at the bandage around JD's head. "Is he hurt anywhere other than his head?"

"I can't tell."

Josiah motioned for Vin to get closer. "I'll lift him toward me," Josiah said. "You support his head, okay?"

Vin nodded and reached up to help. Josiah pulled JD up, and Vin saw the gunshot wound.

"Oh, God. Keep him off that arm, Josiah. Looks like he got hit in the shoulder."

Josiah eased him over.

And JD jumped--jerking awake. "Get offa me!" he cried, reaching for his Colt, but grabbing Josiah's arm instead.

"Easy, son," Josiah said.

Vin put his hands on either side of the boy's face. "JD--it's me. It's Vin. Look at me."

JD tried to fight, but Josiah held him more tightly.

"JD!!" Vin said, more loudly. JD squinted and focused.

"Vin? You gotta go. You gotta help Nathan." JD was breathless.

"What about Nathan?" Josiah asked.

"He's in trouble. I tried to help him. I tried."

"What kind of trouble, JD?" Vin asked.

JD tried to pull up, but he cried out when he moved. "Oh, God . . ."

"Easy, son."

JD closed his eyes tightly. He reached for Vin's shirt with his good hand and pressed his head into Vin's chest.

"I tried to get more information, but the guy showed up before Nathan could tell me."

Vin looked up at Josiah, who was easing JD's shirt off.

Josiah talked while he worked. "You can't help Nathan now, JD."

The boy pulled his head up. "What if I got him killed, not telling you the truth?"

Vin scooted next to JD's good side and let him lean against him. Josiah kept talking. "We know Nathan is mixed up in something, and you gotta know he's
made a choice to be. He didn't tell the truth either, did he?"

"No . . ." JD's voice was suddenly much weaker.

Josiah showed Vin JD's blood-soaked shirt and motioned for him to give him his neckerchief. He continued talking to JD. "You need to tell me what you
know, JD."

"Last night . . . I was on watch. Smith . . . was fine. . . I was sitting outside the door. And . . . I went to look . . . out the window . . . I
heard a noise behind me. . . and somebody . . . hit me . . ."

"Did you see them?"

"No . . . but I . . . heard . . . "

Vin felt JD shiver violently, then the boy continued, very softly. "I . . . heard . . . Nathan."

Vin carefully slid his hand behind JD's neck, and JD leaned his head against Vin's chest again. Vin suddenly felt a surge of anger. He'd been able to
give Nathan the benefit of the doubt, what with Carmichael being his former master and all. But he couldn't abide this. How the hell could Nathan let
someone hurt JD? Vin looked over the top of the dark head at Josiah.

Josiah pulled off his own jacket and wrapped it around JD. He spoke to VIn. "We've gotta get him back to town. He's bleeding too much."

"You gotta help Nathan," JD said. "Please, help him." JD was getting so agitated. "Just go!" He tried to push Josiah away.

Josiah's voice sounded very calm. "Chris and Ezra are tracking him."

"You can catch up with him. You two . . . go," JD said. "Come back . . . for me . . . later." He was getting out of breath.

"And whoever shot you could double back and kill you," Josiah said. "That's not gonna happen, son."

"But . . ." JD tried to lift his head, but it fell forward.

Vin grit his teeth. "He's out."

"C'mon," Josiah said, and together they lifted JD. Once they were on their feet, Josiah took the boy in his arms. Vin got the horses and they took the
kid back to town.

Four Corners
Main street
Fall, Day Five: Early evening

"Buck!" Josiah's voice boomed. The gunslinger appeared in the doorway of the cafe. As soon as he saw JD, he ran to meet them.

"Sweet Jesus," Buck cried, reaching them in time to help Josiah lift the young man down from Vin's horse. Vin, who had been sitting behind JD, helped
support his upper body. "What happened?" Buck asked.

"He's been shot," Josiah said.

Vin looked at Josiah, as though for reassurance. Josiah nodded. "Nathan's in trouble," Vin said, as he dismounted. "He's messed up in this kidnapping
somehow."

Buck shook his head. "That can't be." Josiah lifted JD and carried him toward Nathan's clinic. Buck damn near tripped him trying to get close. Vin
grabbed his arm and slowed him down.

Vin continued. "That's why JD didn't want to say anything. He wanted to give Nathan a chance to explain."

Buck halted abruptly. "Nathan was *there* when JD was hurt? He left him there?"

Vin frowned. "Looks like it." He couldn't bear to think about it himself. Buck's eyes flashed and it occurred to Vin that he had never seen his friend
so angry.

"When Ezra found JD, he had been bleeding. He said he found him still lying on the g**d***** floor. Now, if Nathan were there, why in God's name didn't
he tend to him?"

"I don't know. I guess we'll find out when we ask him. Come on."

"Buck!" Josiah called. "The door."

Buck pushed his way ahead and opened the door to the clinic. Josiah followed and laid the boy on the bed for the second time that day. Only this time,
Josiah lay him face down, since he'd been shot from the back.

"Did Chris and Ezra leave already?" Vin asked.

"Yeah," Buck answered, as he knelt beside the bed and took the kid's good hand.

At the touch, JD's eyelashes fluttered and he began to thrash around. "Go--he's gonna kill him."

"Who?" Buck asked.

"Be still," Josiah said firmly. "Chris and Ezra have already gone to help Nathan. They've probably already caught up with them."

"Would somebody tell me what the hell you're talking about?" Buck asked, but JD started fighting him and Josiah both.

"Get his legs, Vin," Josiah ordered. Vin leaned over the foot of the bed and held JD's feet as the others maneuvered keep him from hurting himself.

"Oh God . . ." JD groaned, and he tried to pull up.

"Stop it, JD," Josiah barked, and Buck scooted up on the bed to hold JD in his lap. He held the kid's arms.

"NOOOOOO!!!!!!!" JD was screaming now.

"Come on, JD, settle down, I've got you." Buck said over and over.

"Lemme go . . ." JD cried. "Please . . ."

"Stay there," Josiah said, and he grabbed a rope off of the wall.

"No, Josiah," Buck said.

Vin felt his eyes sting as Josiah tied JD's legs together and then bound them to the bed. Josiah sat back down in the chair beside the bed. Vin stood up
slowly.

"Get me some bandages, Vin, and then go get Mary." Josiah was pulling away the makeshift bandages. "Oh, God. . . " Josiah said as he really studied
the wound for the first time. Vin felt the bile in the back of his throat. "Shotgun," Vin murmured.

"Go on," Josiah commanded. "Hurry."

One mile north of Efraim's pond
Along the road
Fall, Day Five: 9:30 pm

Voices.

Angry voices.

Chris Larabee and Ezra Standish paused and listened to the argument that was happening just over the little hill. Ezra dismounted and drew his shotgun.
He walked stealthily toward the sound, but when he was in the sightline, he took cover. He assessed the situation. Nathan's hands were bound behind
him. And Smith's manservant, whose back was to Ezra, was pointing a gun at him.

"This ain't gonna happen!" Nathan was yelling.

"You can't stop it, boy!"

"The hell I can't!"

"I got the f***** gun!"

"And I've got a gun, too." Ezra said casually, stepping out from behind his cover. Nathan's captor spun around, his gun shaking in his hand.

"So do I," Chris said, cresting the hill on horseback.

Suddenly, Nathan swept his leg under his captor's, knocking the old man heavily to the ground. Ezra ran up and disarmed the gunman.

"Are you all right?" Ezra asked Nathan crisply.

"Yeah, what about JD? Did you find him?"

Chris rode up and dismounted quickly. "Find him?" he asked, as he cut Nathan's bonds.

"Royal shot him!" the healer cried.

"What?!" Chris and Ezra asked together. Ezra tightened his grip on the gunman.

"He shot him," Nathan said, and he pulled Royal from Ezra's grasp. Ezra had never seen the usually gentle healer so furious. Nathan began to pummel the
old man.

"NATHAN!!" Chris shouted. "STOP IT!!"

But Nathan was in a blind rage. It took both Chris and Ezra to pull Nathan off. "HE F****** SHOT HIM." Nathan screamed.

Chris pulled Nathan around and yelled in his face. "If JD's hurt, you've gotta help him. Do you understand me? You've gotta help him."

Nathan quaked with fury. Chris repeated. "You gotta find him and help him!" Chris maintained a strong grip on Nathan's arm. "Ezra," he called over his
shoulder. "You and Nathan go find JD." Chris looked back at Nathan and said venomously, "I'm taking the old man and I'm gonna find my witness."

Ezra nodded and grabbed Nathan's other arm. He steered Nathan away from the scene.

"Chris, he's got some back-up coming," Nathan said.

"And they'll kill you dead!" the old man laughed.

"Shut up," Chris said as he dragged the manservant to his feet.

"Be careful!" Nathan yelled.

"It's a little late for that don't you think?" Chris snapped.

And they all parted company.

Efraim's Pond
An abandoned cabin
Fall, Day Five: 9:50pm

Harvey Carmichael woke with a start. The fire had diminished to glowing embers, and the room was chilly.

"Royal?" he called, as he dragged himself to a sitting position on the side of the bed. "Where are you, boy?"

There was no answer, and this made Harvey very nervous. What if the assassins had gotten Royal? If they had, they'd surely find Harvey next.

He looked around. Where was his gun? Had Royal taken it? //Damn it, boy, you've left me like a sitting duck! //

There was a noise at the door. Quickly, Harvey hid under the bed. //God, don't let them find me.//

Four Corners
Nathan's clinic
Fall, Day Five: 10pm

It had been a hell of a night. Josiah had cleaned the wound. JD had been conscious about half of the time, and when he was, he was in excruciating
pain. Buck had tried to soothe him, and JD would make an effort to keep from crying out.

Until he couldn't stand it anymore.

The fever had started about an hour ago and it was clear that the bullet would have to come out. He'd sent Vin to Eagle Bend for the doctor, but they
wouldn't be able to wait much longer. Mary had gone to sterilize more bandages and Nathan's surgical equipment.

Josiah and Buck were alone with the boy.

"You ever taken a bullet out, Josiah?" Buck asked.

"Not out of somebody's back." The big preacher reached up for the millionth time to feel for fever.

"It's not . . . morning," JD mumbled. "The horses . . . aren't even up yet."
 
"Just go back to sleep," Buck whispered.

JD's head was resting on a pillow on Buck's knee. "Don't let . . . Joe ride Diabolo."

"I won't," Buck's eyes filled. He looked up at Josiah. "We've gotta do something."

Josiah nodded, and felt his heart pound in his chest. If he messed this up, he could kill the boy.

As if he could read the preacher's mind, Buck grabbed his arm. "The man that put a bullet in his back is responsible if he doesn't make it, not you. You
gotta try."

"I know," Josiah said. "I just . . ."

Buck smiled. "I'm scared, too."

Efraim's Pond
An abandoned cabin
Fall, Day Five: 10pm

Chris pressed the gun in Royal's back.

"Open the door," Chris said.

Royal's hand shook as he reached for the latch. He opened the door.

"Call him," Chris said.

"Mister Harvey?" Royal called, and a moment later, Carmichael scooted out from under the bed.

"Royal, what is this?" Carmichael asked.

Chris spoke. "Your own man was plotting to kill you. He was the one who kidnapped you last night."

Carmichael stammered. "But that can't be. He rescued me from that barn this morning."

"How do you think he found you there?"

Carmichael seemed to be in a daze. "Royal? Tell him. Tell him he's got it all wrong."

His manservant just stood there, and the former plantation owner walked up to him. "Royal?"

"Come on, Mr. Smith," Chris said. "We need to get back to town."

Carmichael's expression changed somehow--a hard, cold look crossed his face.

And he backhanded his valet as hard as he could.

Royal fell heavily into Chris.

"There's no need for that," Chris said.

"The hell there's not!" Carmichael cried, grabbing Royal by the collar.

Chris pointed his gun at the witness he was hired to protect. "Stop it!" he yelled. Carmichael wasn't letting go. Chris fired his weapon into the floor
by Carmichael's feet. The witness stopped cold, and released his valet. Royal crumpled to the floor . . .

Sobbing . . .

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

Jack Palmer heard the shot coming from the cabin, and he and his men turned around and rode away.

Four Corners
Nathan's clinic
Fall, Day Six: Just after midnight

Nathan put the last stitch in JD's chest. Thank God, the bullet hadn't hit a lung or anything. If JD's fever went back down, he should be all right. And
once he knew for sure, Nathan had decided to go down and lock himself in jail.

No one had spoken to him when he got there. He just took over for Josiah, who was just about to dig into the boy's back. Mary had assisted him, as she
had in the past, and, while she wasn't as cold to him as the others had been, she still didn't talk, other than to ask what Nathan needed to treat JD.

Now, as he bandaged JD's back, he thought about what the boy had sacrificed for him--what he'd suffered because of him. He could never repay him. He
could never make this right.

After he finished, he checked the boy's head injury. The bandage looked clean.

All they could do now was wait.

Four Corners
The saloon
Fall, Day Eight: mid-morning

JD would have hated missing the federal agents. Judge Travis had brought them to town to escort Harvey Carmichael back east, and the agents had left
with both Carmichael and his manservant in tow. But JD had been asleep for the better part of two days, and was still out of it.

The doctor from Eagle Bend had praised Nathan's work and pronounced that JD would be all right if the fever went down. He cautioned him to watch the
head injury, but so far, everytime JD woke up, he was lucid.

Chris had found it difficult to get Buck to come down to meet with the others, but finally, Inez had convinced Buck that he needed a bath and that
embarrassed him enough to leave the kid for an hour or two. Besides, JD's fever had broken during the night and he was sleeping comfortably.

So now, Chris sat at the table looking at his men. The judge had agreed to wait to address them until Chris had had a chance to get everything out in
the open. The tension hung heavily in the air and Chris knew once the tempers started to fly, the situation could easily get out of hand. That
wouldn't get them anywhere.

"OK boys, we've gotta talk about this. I think the only way to do it is to say our piece one at a time. Otherwise, we 'll have total chaos." Chris
took a sip of a beer and nodded to Nathan. "You've got a lot to tell us," Chris said.

Buck bristled. "Why is he going first?" he hissed.

"Buck!" Chris cautioned.

Buck said no more. He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms in front of himself.

Chris nodded to Nathan.

"I don't know what to say," Nathan said.

"When did you first come up with your plan?" Chris prompted.

"Royal came to my door, looking for my father. He wanted him to help him . . . kill . . . Harvey Carmichael. Until then, I had no idea 'Mr. Smith' was my
former owner."

Chris noted the reactions on his men's faces. Josiah and Vin seemed almost sympathetic, while Buck and Ezra sat stone-faced.

"When I told him my father was dead, he tried to get me to help him. I wasn't going to, but when I saw Carmichael . . . and I remembered . . .
something just . . . snapped."

"So you decided to take JD out so you could kidnap Carmichael," Buck said.

"Buck!" Chris said. "Enough! You'll get your chance."

"It wasn't like that," Nathan cried. "I was gonna trade watches with JD, but Royal hit him before I could stop him. He hit him . . . so hard."

Ezra spoke. "And you left him lying there."

Chris didn't intervene this time. Nathan looked at the center of the table, his voice very small. "I left him."

"You son of a bitch!!!" Buck cried, and he vaulted across the table. Chris and Josiah grabbed him. Buck was still screaming at Nathan. "He could have
died there. Didn't you think of that? You didn't even try to stop the bleeding. He lay there for six f****** hours."

"Sit down, Buck!" Chris said.

"F*** you, Chris."

"Take him out of here," Chris said to Josiah.

"No," Nathan said. "No, he's right. Let him stay. I didn't think JD was hurt that badly. But that's still no excuse."

Buck sat back down, fuming.

"Go on," Chris said.

Nathan took a deep breath and continued. "We were going to kidnap him, then kill him. But when I saw JD the next morning, I knew I couldn't go through
with it."

This time Chris interrupted Nathan. "You let me stand there and yell at him, knowing all the time he was trying to protect you."

Nathan nodded.

"It was killing him," Josiah said. So much for the "one at a time" rule.

"I know." Nathan squeezed his eyes closed. "I had to figure out what to do."

Chris shook his head. "Why didn't you just tell us?"

"I don't know," Nathan answered, his eyes full.

There was an awkward silence, until Chris stood up slowly, his eyes focused on the bat-wing doors. "Dear God . . ." he said.

Framed in the doorway, leaning heavily on Casey's arm, JD stood unsteadily. Ezra and Buck reached him quickly.

"What are you doing, son?" Ezra asked, as he took the girl's place supporting the boy.

"Thanks, Case," JD said, his voice throaty. Buck got on his other side and together, he and Ezra led JD to the table.

"Having a party and didn't invite me." JD smiled.

"You need to be in bed," Josiah said.

"I need to be here," JD countered. "If you're gonna grill Nathan about me, I need to be here," he repeated.

JD took a seat between Buck and Chris. Chris looked at him. "You sure?"

"Right now I am. Ten minutes from now I might be on the floor, so we better get to it."

Chris smiled. The kid was nothing if not spunky. "What do you want to say?"

JD looked like a spectre--his skin so pale, dark circles under his eyes, but he was there. He was alive. And he wasn't gonna let this conversation
happen without him.

"I should have told you what I knew as soon as I had a chance, but . . ."

"Don't you dare take the blame for this," Buck interrupted.

"Let me finish," JD said. "I didn't do what I should have done as part of this team." He looked at Chris. "I owe you an apology. I could have saved
us a whole lot of trouble if I had just told you what I knew."

Chris didn't dispute him. JD looked down at the table. "And Buck . . . I should have never pulled my gun on you. God," JD looked back up, his eyes
full. "I'd never hurt you," he said, more softly--then, more softly yet, "it wasn't loaded."

Josiah chuckled. JD didn't know why. Buck put a gentle hand on the boy's neck. "It's all right, kid."

"No, it's not." JD's lips quivered as he tried to control his emotions. "Chris, I promise I'll never keep anything from you again. And I'd like a
chance to prove myself again."

Chris let his hand rest on JD's arm. "You don't have to prove yourself. You did what you thought was right, and you learned a lesson."

"I won't ever go behind your back again."

Chris nodded. "I know . . . and that's a good lesson to learn."

JD frowned and then spoke one more time. "And I want you to give Nathan another chance."

There was an undercurrent of discontent. "That's not your call, JD," Chris said.

"I know, but everything worked out."

"You damn near died," Ezra said.

"But I didn't." JD stood up slowly. "There's no way to know how we'd be if we'd grown up like Nathan. You don't know what you'd do. None of us can
know. And if I can forgive him, you all can, too. This situation was . . . a weird coincidence. It's not gonna happen again. Nathan's sorry." JD made
his way around the table, using his friends' shoulders for support. "Aren't you, Nathan?"

Nathan nodded.

Suddenly, JD slapped Nathan, then he fell back into Vin. Tears were streaming down JD's face. "That's for leaving me on the floor," JD said.
Then he put his hand on Nathan's face where he'd hit him. "And I forgive you."

EPILOGUE
FOUR CORNERS
Saloon
Fall, Day Twelve: mid-day

Nathan stood before the others and waited to hear what Judge Travis would say. He felt a hand rest on his back, and saw JD Dunne beside him--not
smiling, but supporting him nonetheless. Nathan nodded to the young man, and watched as he walked slowly over to a chair and sat down. Nathan's eyes
turned back to the judge.

"Mr. Jackson, you know you have have been charged with a federal crime."

"Yes sir," Nathan answered without hesitation or flinching.

"Allegedly, you participated in the kidnapping of a federal witness, and were an accomplice in the assault of one of my men."

The judge nodded to JD, and continued. "Luckily, Mr. Smith is being safely delivered to the hands of the officials as we speak." Travis stood and
walked around from behind the makeshift judge's bench. He crossed his arms in front of himself. "We are faced with a dilemma here, Mr. Jackson. The
fact remains that had you not been involved in this . . . ploy, the witness would be dead. You would be looking at federal prison time or hanging
otherwise. As it is, I have been inclined to consider a sort of probation."

As if in explanation to the six other men listening, the judge went on. "There is no way any of us can know the horrors you faced at the hands of Mr.
Smith and men like him. No man should ever have to endure such treatment.Nevertheless, what you did jeopardized national security. You jeopardized
the lives of your friends and the life of the very man you were hired to protect. This breaches the trust that has been placed in you."

"I understand, sir." Nathan's pained eyes met the judge's.

"May I say something?"

Judge Travis--and everyone else--looked toward the voice. JD Dunne stood up slowly.

"Yes, son, but . . ."

"I made a mistake." JD's voice was shaky.

"JD, don't . . ." Nathan said.

"The night I heard Nathan . . . he was trying to stop the other man."

Judge Travis turned to the boy. He spoke harshly. "Son, do you know what it means to perjure yourself?"

"It means to get yourself in trouble by lying in court."

"Consider this to be court." The judge pressed a finger into the young man's chest.

"Yes, sir."

Chris Larabee's voice cut through the tense moment. "You be sure about what you're saying, son."

"I am." JD continued. "I heard Nathan, but he was trying to stop the other man. I think Nathan was following them to be sure Royal didn't hurt the
witness."

"He should have come to me, or Mr. Larabee. He shouldn't have waited."

JD spoke convincingly. "He had to gain Royal's trust in order to find Mr. Smith and rescue him. If Nathan hadn't stepped in, Royal would have killed
Mr. Smith. You said it yourself."

"JD . . ." Nathan said.

"Nathan got between Royal and me when Royal was shooting at me."

"You still got shot," the judge said.

"Because I ran. I heard Nathan try to stop Royal."

"Son, this is outrageous."

"Why?!" JD raised his voice. He closed his eyes tightly, and his hand went to his head. Nathan took a step toward him, but quickly, Judge Travis took
JD's elbow and sat him down in his own chair. "I'm sorry," JD said softly.

"Are you all right?" the judge asked.

Instead of answering, JD continued what he was saying. "You can't punish Nathan."

"I can't?"

"I don't mean it that way. It's just that he knew he was the only one who could save the day here. And he did."

"But he could have told us," Chris said.

"Would you have believed him?" JD asked, boldly. "Would you have let him do this?"

Chris knit his brows. "I'd have believed him, but no. I wouldn't have let him do what he did."

JD looked steadily at the judge. "Then the witness would be dead now, Your Honor."

The judge looked at the young man for a long time, then slowly turned to Nathan Jackson. "Did you become involved in this ruse to rescue Mr. Smith?"

The healer turned full eyes to JD. Quietly, Josiah spoke, his eye catching the judge's. "JD wouldn't perjure himself, Nathan. That's right, isn't it?"
 
Nathan paused, as though letting the weight of Josiah's words sink in. Judge Travis added his own words. "It is right, Mr. Sanchez. If Mr. Jackson
disputes Mr. Dunne's testimony, Mr. Dunne will be charged with perjury, and possibly with conspiracy."

The judge saw Chris extend an arm across Buck Wilmington, keeping him from trying to intervene. "Mr. Jackson?"

Nathan smiled at JD. "I became involved with Royal to protect our witness."

The judge sniffed. "Very well. Case dismissed. All charges dropped. No penalty ensues."

Nathan went over to where JD sat and extended his hand to his friend. Judge Travis and everyone else watched as JD shook Nathan's hand, then stood up and
embraced the healer. The judge felt something almost restorative in seeing the loyalty of these friends to one another. Nathan would have to rebuild
some trust, but he had already earned so much from his friends, this would surely be a minor set-back.

His seven magnificent peacekeepers sat at the tables and drank a pitcher of beer together.

"Could I get you a napkin?" Vin asked, hovering over Ezra.

"Oh, you're not gonna start that, are you?" Ezra said, tiredly.

"I owe you. You said so yourself."

Ezra stood up abruptly and walked over to the Judge. "Sir, I want you to sentence me to hang." Only the judge saw the gambler wink.

"Ezra Standish, I sentence you to hang by the neck until dead."

Ezra grabbed Vin's arm. "Now, tell him I was with you the whole time and couldn't have done it."

"Done what?" Vin asked.

"Just say it . . . "

"'He was with me the whole time and couldn't have done it.'" Vin parrotted.

The judge smiled. "I revoke your sentence."

"There, Mr. Tanner, you saved my life. Now leave me the hell alone."

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

On December 3 at noon, Geoffrey de Sautier and Royal Freeman were hanged.

Harvey Carmichael was sentenced to life inprisonment for his part in the conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln. Because of his actions and
testimony on behalf of sitting President Johnson, he was spared execution.

On Christmas Day, Carmichael was found stabbed to death in his cell. The killer was never found.

THE END

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