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m7rpg - Part 16

The Story Continues

"Sick is right lady," Vin replied "Never thought I'd say this, but I think I might just enjoy this a bit myself."

And with that Vin went to work, attempting to extract information from Elaina. Ezra stared wildly as the whole situation began collapsing around his ears. Nathan was showing signs of debilitation, and Lee was confessing to...

He fought the urge to sit down and whine. "Nathan, you rest here." He helped him gently into the rooms other cot and poured him water from the dipper.

Turning his attention back to Lee, he asked, "Should we be prepared for some trick on that creature's part? Perhaps she has giving her minions orders to attack here if she could separate us?"

Bright pain danced in her head as Elaina tried to focus on the man standing over her. She shook her head, and for a fleeting instant, she could see Tanner's face clearly. A light sheen of sweat glistened on his skin, despite the cool afternoon air. Elaina pushed herself up, but her head started to swim. The angry visage was replaced by a vivid vision of a watch fob sparking in the light of decades old oil lamps.

A steadying breath cleared her head, and Elaina's resolve resurfaced with a vengeance.

"If you don't let me leave now, I'm afraid what's going to happen to that lady friend of yours is going to make your efforts look like a Sunday School picnic, Mr. Tanner. I know that the men were eager to get started." She spit blood. "Besides, you're really working too hard." She reached up with her bound hands and wiped sweat from the man's forehead before he could flinch away. She smiled, licking her fingers provocatively.

Josiah shifted in the saddle, repositioning the rifle he held. He hadn't liked the idea of leaving the others behind, but Dr. Burrows had insisted that Lee was too ill to make the trip back to town. Nathan had stayed to help, and the obstinate gambler had held that they needed someone 'healthy' to watch over them. Josiah chuckled. Ezra was on the verge of collapse, just like the rest of them, but would never admit it.

Just like the rest of them.

JD was swaying in the saddle on the opposite side of the wagon, alternately gazing at Buck's sleeping form and the trail ahead. Phillipe, who was driving the wagon, had been quiet and reserved since they'd caught up to Elaina, but the preacher appreciated his help anyway.

Across the bed of the wagon, JD caught Josiah's eye. He stared to glance away - he still wasn't sure that the kid was comfortable with him - but something in the boy's look stopped him. JD motioned behind the wagon, and Josiah slowed his horse so that he was riding next to the sheriff.

"I got a bad feeling," the young man said. "Don't know what it is, but something's really wrong."

"I've been feeling the same way," the preacher answered, alarmed that JD's gut reaction was matching his own. He'd been inclined to ignore the gnawing sensation, but now he gave it his full attention.

"Nettie's" he asked.

JD nodded. "What about Buck?"

"I don't know if I fully trust that Frenchman, but dragging that wagon all the way back would slow us up."

"You can go on to town," JD said. "I'll go back and make sure the others are all right." He started to turn his horse, but the older man grabbed the reins.

"No you don't, son," he admonished. "You stay put. I'll go back."

The young man shot him an exasperated look. "Josiah, I..."

The preacher cut him off with a shake of his head.

Elaina's actions caught Vin slightly off guard. The woman was truly insane, there could be no other reason for her actions. Without thinking, Vin grabbed her behind the head and pulled her in, his lips crushing against hers. Two could play this game.

The sudden, primal assault by the tracker startled Elaina, and she tried to turn away, but he persisted. Instinct took over, and she grabbed the front of his shirt and pulled him to her, pursuing his advances, getting lost in the sensations that washed over her. She briefly contemplated striking out with her knee, but opted for lightly biting his lower lip. As soon as Elaina released his lower lip, Vin gave a solid push forward, sending her sprawling on her rear in the dirt. Dust plumed up around her.

"That what cha doin ta JD?"

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Lee whispered quietly. He opened his eyes slowly and looked at the younger gambler and continued, “Looks like I’m going to need my guns.”

Elaina coughed, trying to maintain what was left of her dignity. She glared at the tracker, then back at Larabee, who had watched the exchange in quiet amusement.

"What passed between Mr. Dunne and I was very personal, Mr. Tanner." She smiled demurely. "And a lady doesn't discuss such things."

"Personal my..." Vin cut himself off. Glancing quickly at Chris and picking up on teh virtually imperceptable motion, Vin moved forward and drug Elaina to her feet. Despite the pushes Vin gave her, Elaina moved forward as gracefully as possible.

After pushing the woman up into the saddle of her horse, Vin reached for his knife. Chris caught his hesitation as the knife hovered over Elaina's wrists.


Vin used the knife to slice through the ropes holding the woman's wrists.

Reluctantly he stepped back.

"Only because a Mary," he muttered to himself.

Elaina looked down at the tracker, ignoring the glare from the other man. "A wise decision, Sir," she purred, "although I was a bit intrigued to see where your 'torture' might have taken us." She turned the horse south. "You'll find that I'm woman of honor. Mrs. Travis will remain unharmed. I only hope you didn't tarry too long."

She kicked the black thoroughbred lightly, nodding once to Tanner before disappearing into the trees.

Vin stared after the woman as she rode off, his mind whirling in a confusing blend of emotions. The kiss had shook him more than he cared to admit, especially coming from such a she devil.

He moved over to a downed log and sat. He had no doubt that he would be able to track the woman, they just needed to let her get ahead of them to give her a degree of confidence in her escape.

Chris moved over and joined him, lighting a cheroot as he sat. This waiting must be hard on him. Vin wasn't exactly sure where Chris and Mary stood, but he was sure there were feelings there. He just wasn't sure if either of them realized it or not.

The two sat in silence for over an hour before, without a word spoken, they both stood and mounted their horses. Vin lead the way, easily following the path they had seen her ride off on before eventually having to actually track the woman.

He refused to admit how much he was looking forward to locating the woman once more. *The wildcat* he corrected himself, trying to hide the slight smile at the thought of their next meeting. For this was no woman he was after. And that thought was not entirely unpleasant.

Cursing softly to herself, Elaina rode the big black gelding into the small piece of Hell know as Purgitorio. She hated the place, but it suited her purposes. The collection of bandits and murders who inhabited the town knew the seven peacekeepers from Four Corners, and were pushovers when it came to a pretty face. She was well versed in working her charms to get what she wanted, and for little more than a pittance, she had bought the aid of the town.

These men were no match for Crawford and his bunch, but in the end that had turned out to be a waste of money. Maybe if she hadn't underestimated her adversaries, they may have worked out better. But while the men of Purgitorio were not intellectual giants by any stretch of the imagination, they were crude, ruthless and fearless. If any of the lawmen tried to even come into the town, it would mean certain death.

Elaina smiled sadly to herself. Several of the men she'd encountered had a particular grudge against one Vin Tanner. It would be a shame to lose him before they could finish what he'd started.

A grizzled man who called himself El Lobo took the reins of her horse as she dismounted. He knew well enough not to touch the volatile woman.

"There will be two of them. And there's an extra two hundred if Tanner is alive." The man smiled his toothless grin.

"Si, Senorita," he answered. "Although I cannot promise that the men will not harm him."

"I need him healthy," she replied, slowly tracing her fingers down the man's cheek. "I'll reward you well."

El Lobo chuckled. "I'm sure you will," he sneered, reaching for her. She stopped him with a look, and he stepped back. "The others have gone to find Fitzgerald. I sent fifteen. They should have no trouble."

"You've done well," she said, kissing him lightly before turning toward the hotel. She knew what it took to control men, and although she hated it, it had become such a part of her life that she had learned to ignore it. She was dead anyway. She didn't plan on surviving this. She had nothing left to live for except revenge. It was the only thing that could give her pleasure anymore.

Except maybe Tanner. Vin studied the track, knowing he still had Elaina's trail. Moving forward a bit he looked out over the desert, studying the landscape and the horizon.

"Damn!" he muttered and he began to pace. "Damn, damn, damn!"

"Something wrong, Pard?" Chris said calmly.

"Yeah. She's headin' straight ta Purgatory."

It was surreal, just how big the woods were in the wake of Josiah's departure. JD found himself over-reacting to easily identifiable noises. His hand drifted to the grip of his borrowed pistol with an almost magnetic attraction.

The pace was slow. Painfully slow. Each lazy hoof-fall echoed through the empty trees to either side of the road they followed--announcing to anyone who cared, that they were there. . . and vulnerable.

JD did as much out-riding as he could, checking far ahead for ambush--then dropping back to see if they were being followed. In between he checked on Buck.

At first, he just ignored Philippe. He still didn't know how or why the Frenchman had ended up helping them, and JD didn't want to be too grateful too soon. But eventually the strained silence was too much for JD. "Why are you here?" he asked softly, trying not to disturb Buck.

Philippe seemed startled by the question. He drove on, mulling it over, for so long that JD nearly gave up on receiving an answer. When he finally did speak, it was in slow, carefully measured words. "This was to be a 'land of opportunity.' Where sins would be forgiven in the. . . promise of a new life. My homeland held nothing for me anymore, so I fled the decay and poverty that slowly crushed my countrymen. Only to find it again, here in America."

He paused, struggling with memories and words that wanted to tumble free faster than he could translate them. "The man who paid my voyage, he treated me as little more than esclave. . . pardon, a slave. I served him the full terms of our agreement, but on the day I sought my freedom from our contract. . . he. . . he told me that I had incurred expenses and would have to remain until I had repaid him for his. . . generosity." Philippe nearly spit the last word, his mouth twisted around the bitter memory.

"He couldn't do that, could he?" JD asked, knowing full-well that the contract holder could do exactly what Philippe described. And worse. He'd seen what became of other indentured servants growing up. His mother had been one herself, but far luckier than most. Her service had not been as difficult as it might have been, nor had she been cheated by an unscrupulous contract.

"He did." Philippe's voice carried a hard edge to it. "And then, when money ran short. . . he sold me. Or, at least my debt. I have two years service left to Madame Noonan. Not that I will serve them now. Debtor's prison is all that awaits me. But at least, by helping you and your compatriots, I will go to prison a free man. Perhaps free for the first time ever."

JD didn't know how to respond to Philippe's confession, but the Frenchman's thoughts had turned inward. JD rode awkwardly alongside the wagon for a moment more, then covered his uncertainty by spurring his horse forward to check the trail. The rest of the ride into Four Corner's passed in uneventful, and much needed, silence.

That ended as they reached the outskirts of town. Four Corners gave the distinct air of a town on edge. And JD wonder just how much of a push would send it toppling over. Mr. Conklin the store owner was uncharacteristically carrying a rifle with him as he made his morning deliveries. Byron Waylins from the telegraph office had a sidearm strapped to his side that looked older than he was. And with Byron, that was saying a lot. Here and there, scattered across town, JD caught glimpses of weapons that normally rest over fireplace or doorway.

JD wasn't certain who recognized him first, but as they did, people would turn and point him out to their neighbors. The wagon's progress was soon hampered by the throng that gathered, almost ghost-like around them. "Give us some room, would ya?" JD snapped, his patience already long gone.

His words opened a floodgate.

"Where's Larabee?" Conklin demanded, sounding more tired than angry.

"Are you all that's left?" A woman's voice asked, hushed and half trembling.

"They said they'd be back. Why didn't you bring Larabee?" Walter Copeland added his own questions to the growing cacophony.

"Or Tanner." Someone from the back row tossed out.

The questions flew fast and furious, leaving JD's head with the dizzy feeling that he had just spent three days ridding himself of. Over and over again, the townspeople demanded to know where Chris was, why JD hadn't come back with help, what did he mean to do about this and that.

He tried several times to calm them, to provide the answers they sought. But no one seemed interested in actually listening to anything he had to say. Or explaining anything, for that matter. He just sat there astride Milagro, listening as every single one of them told him in a round-about sort of way that he couldn't handle their problems.

JD finally snapped. He was tired. He hurt. His friends, with the exception of Buck, who looked like death at the tale end of a three day drunk, were still out there doing God knows what, being shot at by God knows who. And these. . . sheep, thought he cared about some damned bullet holes left behind by some rowdy trail-hands.

Fine. He would care. *After* he got Buck settled. *After* he knew everyone was okay. *After* he got some sleep. And damnit, *after* they shut-up.

It took two shots to completely silence the rag-tag mob facing him.

Seeing that he had their attention, JD lowered his gun--hoping desperately that they couldn't see the trembling in his arm. He seriously doubted he could hit the sky a third time if his life depended on it.

"Everybody, just be quiet for a minute," he ordered them crossly, not even bothering to mimic one of Chris' glares. This one was all his own. "That's better. Now, I've got a wounded man to take care of. Let me get him settled, and then I'll tend to your complaints. When I get back out here, I want the full story. Told one at a time and in some sort of an order. As far as your problems go, bring the major ones first. I'm only one man, but I'll do what I can."

With that, he nodded to Philippe who urged the team of horses forward toward the boarding house. Stunned townspeople moved mutely out of the way, watching in shocked silence as they passed. JD supposed it would be too much to pray that the effect lasted.

Inez left the saloon, crossing quickly to the wagon as it came to a stop before their destination. JD didn't miss the fact that she too wore a brace of guns. "Senor Dunne, what happened?"

"Not yet, ma'am. Will you help us get Buck taken care of first?" JD asked as he lowered himself heavily from his saddle.

Inez noticed the wagon's cargo for the first time. "Madre Dios," she murmured. "What happened to you?"

"He's gonna be fine," JD assured her. Then he set about the difficult task of trying to wake Buck. He didn't want to, Buck needed to get as much sleep as circumstances would allow for. But JD seriously doubted that even with the three of them lifting on a good day, they would get Buck very far. And this was far from a good day.

"Come on, Buck. Need you to wake up for me," JD said softly, trying to be as gentle as he could. "Just gotta get up one flight of stairs. Then you'll be in your nice, soft bed. Think of how jealous Ezra will be." He propped the larger man up, being careful of his injured shoulder.

"Nah, bet ol' Ez has already conned Nettie into pluckin' them hens of hers. . . an' makin' a feather bed for 'im," Buck said.

JD grinned at him, relieved that the big man had come to on his own.

Slowly Buck managed to sit up, and then with JD's help stood upright. Inez and Philippe were there instantly, both understanding that Buck's reserves were tapped out and he needed their support. Even with all four of them working together, it was a shambling procession up the single flight of stairs to Buck's room.

As Philippe and JD helped Buck get into bed, Inez went to Nathan's for clean bandages and the herbal tea that Nathan favored to fight infection.

"I'm going back to Nettie's," JD told Buck once he was settled. "I think somethin's wrong."

Buck shook his head gravely. "You can't do that, JD. You have a duty here. To these people. The others can take care of themselves. This town needs some sort of protection. I heard what happened out there. They're scared of somethin' and right now they're lookin' to you for help." Buck tried to push himself up and winced as the motion tugged on the stitches in his shoulder.

JD saw the grimace and move quickly to prop Buck up against a pillow.

Buck nodded his thanks, but continued with the lecture. "You wanted to be a hero, JD? Well, bein' a hero ain't about getting shot, or killin' someone. It's doin' what needs to be done, just because it has to be done. Not for the reward, or because it's where you want to be."

"He's right, JD," Inez said from the doorway. "We need you, all seven of you. The raiders have been back twice. They took Senora Travis."

JD nodded, swallowing the argument he'd been scripting. "We know. Chris and Vin are looking for her. What other damage did they do?"

"Crops were burned, and houses raided in the out-lying areas. Here in town, so far only shooting up the buildings and promising more. The people are afraid that next time, someone will die."

JD looked from one face to the next, realizing he was hopelessly outnumbered. "All right," he sighed, "I'll stay. But I'm wiring for reinforcements." He stood, valiantly ignoring the sway that undermined his suddenly authoritative air. "You," he said to Buck, who was watching with an amused kind of proud expression on his face, "listen to Inez and Philippe. Don't give them any trouble. I've got a town to see to."

With as much dignity as he could muster, JD left them to their tending. As he walked slowly down the hallway, he could already hear Buck arguing with Inez. The familiar sound brought a smile to JD's lips. Buck was flirting. Things would be okay.

The smile didn't hold up under the long list of complaints that the townsfolk brought before him as late afternoon gave way to evening. JD listened and took so many notes his hands cramped. Every scrap of information about these raiders helped them in someway. And JD wanted to make sure that when Chris rode in, JD could tell him everything that it was possible to know about this group. Right down to what they ate for breakfast. (Most likely Maybeth Gorgenson's laying hens.)

When he had a fairly clear image of what he was dealing with, JD took his notes to the telegraph office. He sent message upon message. Asking for assistance, identifications, information, and any past reports. He left old Byron with instructions to come find JD as soon as any messages were received.

It was nearly dark by the time he finished. JD walked slowly back to the jail house, nodding acknowledgment to the two-man patrols he'd set-up among the townsmen. He let himself into the jail and sat down at the desk, fully intending to scour the Wanted posters for faces that he recognized from either description or Elaina's compound.

He was asleep before his head hit the desk. Ezra started to reply to Lee in the negative, but something...twinged. Instead, he said, "Yes, I think you are." He looked over at Nathan, expecting some contretemps over that, but the healer just nodded.

Hesitantly, Ezra suggested, "This house--it isn't very defensible. Perhaps a wiser choice would be to assume a less obvious location, from which we could cover our territory more adeptly?" *And still stay together." he thought grimly to himself. *Both of my compatriots look fairly well done in.*

They stared at him, too tired to try and puzzle out what he was trying to imply. He sighed. "Let's hide in the woods, gentlemen. And-- something tells me we had better do it quickly."

As the blonde haired woman stared defiantly at her, Elaina tried to suppress her smile. Mary Travis was a proud woman, and couldn't hide the contempt she was feeling. Not that it mattered. Elaina didn't expect anything else. Women tended to hate her. They envied her beauty and her ability to control men. They hated that she was willing to do whatever it took to get what she wanted, while they were limited by the constraints of their Victorian upbringing. And frankly, she had no use for women. Besides being pawns in her games, they offered her nothing. She didn't have a sister, and had no desire to have a false relationship with someone who would ultimately turn out to be a hanger-on, reaping the benefits of her expertise and charms.

"Mrs. Travis," she said, "you have served your purpose and you may go now. I'm sorry if you were inconvenienced or frightened." She chuckled at the incredulous look the younger woman shot her.

"Inconvenience?" Mary stormed. "Inconvenience? I was kidnapped from my bed in the middle of the night! In front of my child!" The woman took a step toward her and Elaina held her ground. She stood placidly as Mary slapped her hard across her cheek. "Of course I was inconvenienced. And frightened." The blue eyes staring angrily at her started to tear up and suddenly the rage dissipated and her shoulders sagged.

Elaina turned her back and addressed the man standing near the door. "Justus, see Mrs. Travis back to town. Take as many men as you think necessary." The large man nodded. "And when you get there, why don't you have yourselves a bit of fun. I don't think those lawmen will bother you."

"Yes, ma'am," he answered, grinning stupidly. He grabbed Mary roughly by the elbow and the blonde woman pulled away.

"Justice!" The man turned toward Elaina. "If any harm comes to that woman at any time, I will deal with you personally."

The color drained from the outlaw's face and he released his hold. He nodded numbly.

"The same goes for her son. Pass the word that Mary Travis is under my protection." Elaina noticed the startled look that Mary shot her and smiled. "It's nothing personal, I assure you, Mrs. Travis. It's merely a promise that I made to a mutual friend." She reached up and ran her fingers across her lips. "A very dear friend."

Chris and Vin sat on a small knoll in the desert. Vin had the spyglass to his eye, watching the Mexican town of Purgatory. They knew that Elaina was there, and probably had Mary there too. They just needed a way into town unobserved, be able to locate Mary unobserved, and get out again unobserved.


Neither man could know that even as they planned Elaina was releasing Mary and having her escorted from the opposite end of town.

With both Ezra and Nathan’s help getting Lee on his feet was a major operation in itself. His legs felt like jelly as they started moving him to the main room. Halfway through that room Lee felt a pulling then something tore. He tried to grit his way through the pain but the loss of blood sent waves of dizziness.

“Stop! Get him to the couch, he’s bleedin’ again,” Nathan spoke quickly.

Lee felt another set of hands move him over to the couch. Through his now double vision he looked up. *That’s not right*, he thought, then the darkness claimed him once again.

“I told you he’s not to be moved for at least another day,” Dr. Burrows said angrily at the two hired lawmen. He then turned back to the table where Judge Travis had been sitting at. “They’re all stubborn, but do the job,” was the bemused Judge’s comment.

Dr. Burrows turned around and quickly opened the bandage. His suspissions were confirmed when he saw the pulled stitches. He muttered, “He’s definatly not goin’ anywhere to soon.” He then started working on removing all the stitches and let the angry red wound drain. “I need some towels,” he ordered no on in particular.

“We have reasons to presume the one amenable for our current dilemma will be sending a group for us,” Ezra spoke for the first time. He had been hoovering around Lee’s head.

Judge Travis rose from the table and moved over to the couch. Before reaching the wounded gunslinger he took the towels Nettie brought from the kitchen and handed them to the doctor. At first he thought the wounded man was one of the men he hired but as he moved closer he realized he was not. He looked at the older man for a minute contemplating the situation when Lee’s eyes opened again. They all could tell he was not with them, the blank gaze was witness enough.

Lee whispered, “Orin, where is she?”

“Judge?” Nathan looked back at the Judge in surprise.

Travis ignored Nathan’s question and focused on Lee, “I’m sorry Lee, she didn’t make it.” He shook his head sadly.

Nathan and Ezra turned to the older gunslinger, a few of the pieces of Lee past had come into place, but there were still too many holes. They felt like they were intruding on a confessional for a minute, but then Lee’s eyes cleared and he had a moment of lucidity, “Has Noonan’s hired guns arrived yet?” He thought he was outside for a minute but then looked around at his position. He had decided to use the name Noonan because that is the only name they knew her by.

Another voice came from the doorway, “Not yet.” Everyone turned around to find Josiah coming through the door.

They turned back to Lee and found his moment of clarity had passed.

The midnight patrol. Those empty hours between the last of the rowdies and the first of the stirring shopkeepers. Nothing to do but watch the town sleep. . . and wait for either the dawn's first gray light, or the world to explode--whichever came first.

JD hated it.

It wasn't that he minded being awake, or even the risk of patrol by himself. It was just. . . well, it was just. . . lonely.

JD liked the daytime. With all it's motion and noise, it kind of reminded him of home. On a much, much smaller scale. During the active hours, there was always something going on, or something new to see. Even on those days that were dead, there was at least someone to talk to.

At night you were on your own.

Well, most nights anyway. . .

JD put aside his musing as two riders approached. In the dim glow of the watchfires, JD recognized Russ Carter and Patrick McCormick--two ranch hands from the Lazy J. They'd escorted Mrs. Jordan and her two daughters into the questionable safety of town earlier that evening and elected to help in the token defense effort JD was trying to put up.

He raised a hand in greeting as they approached. "See anything out there?"

Carter shook his head. "Nah, quieter than a cathouse on Sunday."

McCormick nodded his agreement. "We figured on headin' south of town on the next sweep. Thought we ought to check in with you first."

JD had to stop himself from squaring his shoulders under the comment. These two were veterans of the West, they knew how to survive and win at her games. And here they were, checking with *him.*

If he hadn't been so tired, JD might have let himself have moment of pride. As it was, he nodded thoughtfully. Already turning over possible origins for trouble in that direction. Only one leapt to mind. Purgatorio.

"Be careful out there," he admonished.

JD missed the amused glances they sent to one and other over his head. For them, this was no more dangerous than a night patrol on a cattledrive. Hell, with no cattle to stampede, it might even be safer.

But JD was obviously taking his guardianship of the town extremely seriously. Carter gave the kid another amused grin before saying, in all seriousness, "We will be, Mr. Dunne." With a final tip of his hat, he wheeled his horse back toward the dark night.

McCormick held back for a moment more. "You be careful too, JD. I'd hate to tell Buck I let you get yourself hurt."

"I'll be fine," JD said. He couldn't spare the energy to be irritated that Buck had found a way to mother hen him even when he was laid up in bed.

McCormick gave him a long once over. Finally he gave a short nod. "I reckon you will be." With that he turned to follow Carter, who had already disappeared into the darkness.

JD watched him until he rounded the corner.

Alone again.

No. . . Not alone.

There. In front of the Clarion. A figure was huddled in the doorjamb. A figure that hadn't been there minutes before when JD had done his walking circuit of town.

A tread of cold worked its way around JD's heart. He swallowed several times, trying to work some moisture back into a mouth that had suddenly gone dry. Unaware his hands crept to the grips of the mis-matched revolvers he had borrowed.

JD Dunne was certain that he knew the position of each and every person who belonged in town right now. And none of them should have been in front of the Clarion.

Keeping to the shadows, JD began picking his way toward the intruder. The figure was bundled in a heavy duster and his slouch hat had been pulled low, obscuring any identifying features. JD's mind was spinning, playing through a dozen scenarios at once.

A raider. . . this could be a trap to draw him out. JD cautiously slipped one of the guns from his holster. Scanning the street carefully, he pushed on.

A body. . . some sort of message from Elaina. JD choked on that one. He didn't want to find one of his fr-- Some poor fool who'd gotten caught up in the wrong fight.

Some drifter who'd just wanted a place to rest for the night. JD disregarded that one right away. Things never worked out that nicely.

A few final steps brought him to the boardwalk. JD took a deep breath and stepped onto the wooden planks. His footsteps may as well have been gunshots in the eerie silence. The fact that the man in the doorway didn't react, did nothing to calm JD

Even though he knew it was foolish, not to mention dangerous, JD hesitated. He didn't want to find what he knew he would. "Please, Lord," he half-moaned, half-whispered. "Anything but that."

The pistol in his right hand was remarkably steady as he covered the man in front of him. JD reached out with his left hand to flip the hat away. The man screamed as JD touched him, lashing out with both feet. JD's gun went spinning away, and he went sprawling.

He was back on his feet in a heartbeat, second gun drawn and ready to attack the man. . . woman. . . "Mary?" he choked out.

"JD?" she said. Or at least, that's what he thought she said. A blue bandana had been twisted into a gag, muffling her words.

JD dropped to his knees, setting the gun within easy reach. Quickly he undid the gag, followed by the ropes that bound Mary's wrists and ankles. "Where're Chris and Vin?" he asked.

Mary shook her head as she tried to work some circulation back into her hands. "I haven't seen them. Haven't seen anyone. At least not until last night when some woman--"

"She have red hair?" JD interrupted. The last time he'd seen the other two, they had been taking Elaina to find Mary. But if Mary were here. . . and obviously not under her own power. . . JD didn't like the way things were shaping up.

Mary nodded. "What is this all about?"

JD pressed the other gun to her hands. "I don't know. We need to get out of here." Without waiting for her to reply, he took her hand and led her into the shadowed alleys. As soon as he felt they were relatively safe, he asked, "How did you get here?"

"They just brought me back. Where's Billy?" she traded question for question.

"With Mrs. Potter. Where'd the men who brought you back go?"

"I don't know. I thought maybe you were one of them coming back to--" Mary's voice cracked over the memory of what she'd been certain was about to happen.

"Damn." JD wanted to pace, but he didn't want the motion to attract any attention. Chewing at his lip for a moment, he arrived at the tentative beginnings of a plan. "Do you know which room Buck rents in the boarding house?" He waited for her to nod. "Okay. Buck's over there with Inez and Philippe Montrose," he spoke slowly, seeing traces of shock still in Mary's eyes. I want you to go over there and stay with them. Don't let Buck leave the room. He's hurt. Take the gun with you and stay out of sight."

Mary clutched the gun tightly and braced herself for the sprint to the boarding house. Creeping to the edge of the shadows, she turned to look back at JD for a moment. "What are you going to do?" she whispered.

JD managed to flash her a reassuring smile. "Don't worry about me, ma'am. I learned from Chris Larabee. I'll make it up as I go. Now go on, it's not safe to stay here."

JD stayed where he was until he saw Mary slip safely up the backstairs of the boarding house. Then he was off. Running wasn't an option, but he did keep to the shadows and move as fast as he dared. Putting distance between himself and the boarding house. He didn't want to lead the outlaws to Buck and the others if he were captured.

His injured ribs forced him to take several breaks, his breathing harsh and unnaturally loud against the oppressive dark. JD figured he should consider himself lucky that there was no moon to give away his resting place, but he would have given anything for the comfort of light.

He'd heard several people moving around on his frantic tour, but he hadn't seen anyone. That suddenly bothered him. He hadn't seen *anyone.* What happened to the men patrolling the town with him. Other than Carter and McCormick, who were riding beyond the outskirts of town, JD hadn't seen the other patrol in a couple hours.

JD's heart was suddenly pounding to match his ragged breathing. Jamie Sorneson and Clint Elliott were supposed to be on patrol right now. How long had the outlaws been in town? Why hadn't JD noticed people were missing?

JD noticed he was hyperventilating, but he couldn't force himself to calm down. Good men. Farmers, not gunmen. They'd been counting on him. Trusting *him.* And he'd. . . he'd. . .

With a ragged half-sob, JD started moving again. He didn't know anything yet. Panic was a luxury he couldn't afford. Later, when he knew for certain what had happened and someone else was in charge. Then he could fall apart. Providing of course, a grim part of his mind pointed out, he was still alive when that time arose.

He needed to get to the jail. The shotgun was there, and JD knew he'd something bigger than one borrowed six-shooter. "Yeah, how 'bout the damned Union army," he whispered wryly.

JD had a plan now. Albeit not a very good plan, or a well thought out plan--but a plan nonetheless. It gave him something to wrap his mind around, to focus on. The way to the jail was miraculously clear of obstacles, human or otherwise.

JD's rising spirits plummeted as he slipped through the front door. The door of the gun case was swinging brokenly from one hinge. The racks and shelves were empty. Disbelieving, he stepped forward.

His foot landed on something soft that shifted under him. JD's ankle twisted and he went down hard, his head cracking against the wooden floorboards like canon fire in the night.

He held his breath, waiting for discovery. Nothing. No raised voices. No running footsteps. No flying bullets. Relief flooded JD. His luck was holding.

Slowly he pushed himself to his knees. His hand made contact with the object he'd stepped on. JD squinted hard, trying to figure out what a boot was doing in the middle of the jailhouse floor.

JD snatched his hand back as he realized there was a foot in that boot. He shook the leg lightly, trying vainly to wake the owner.

As his eyes slowly became adjusted to the dim light that filtered in from the watch fires in the street, JD could make out the shape of two men. The silver-blond hair of the man propped up against the desk marked him as Jamie Sorneson. He'd found his missing patrol.

JD started toward Sorneson to check on the other man, but stopped short when his mind registered the dark stain that spread downward from his throat. Nauseated, JD scrambled backward--unconcerned with any noise he was making.

Reaching the door, he flung it open and dove through. He ran head long into someone standing on just the other side

He caught the warm body that careened into him in his arms and held onto him tight, feeling the fear and the pain and uncertainty that he knew was firmly gripping his young friend.

Where the hell are you gonna in such a rush JD? Buck spoke softly

Buck! JD exclaimed in a harsh whisper What are you doing out of bed?

Kid Im not an invalid he murmured Sure I dont feel 100% but do any of us? he questioned You worrying yourself into the grave sure aint gonna make me feel any better

And you think it will make me feel any better when you get your fool self killed trying to protect me when you should be in bed

Shut up JD and tell me whats going on he muttered Or do I have to go and find out for myself

I wish I knew Buck JD ran his trembling fingers through his hair Cmon its not safe here he pushed Buck forward and they crept through the shadows to the lane beside the jailhouse Buck followed noiselessly and waited until JD turned toward him in the shadows of the laneway.

Why the hell isnt the jail safe? he spoke Were the law in this town

The two men that should be on patrol are dead JDs voice caught on his last words On the floor of the jailhouse and theyve stolen the guns he spoke I dont know whats happening Buck but something is not right Chris and Vin took Elaina and went after Mary but shes back and Chris and Vin arent

Slow down JDhe shushed him gently Let your brain catch up with your mouth son

how the hell are we gonna protect the town Buck JD frowned at him angry that there was no ready solution

I cant keep sending the town men out to die when I dont know whos killing them JD spoke wearily

Buck watched his young protg carefully JD I want you to listen to me carefully he spoke turning away from him to watch the street, trying to probe the shadows looking for any movement that was out of place

What Buck? JD sighed, reluctant and relieved all at once to give up the pressures that had weighed heavily on his shoulders, even if only briefly

I want you to saddle your horse and ride out to find Chris and Vin

Im not leaving you alone Buck he protested Youre hurt

Dammit JD he growled Dont argue with me he sighed and turned back to his best friend I dont want to send you out there alone especially where youre going, but you are the only one who can do this

Send Phillipe JD spat angrily Im not leaving you

Can you trust him to come back Buck stated patiently Can you even trust him to find Chris and Vin?

Dont ask me to leave you here alone JD spoke his voice quavering I dont want to find you like Sorenson he finished

Buck had no idea what had happened to Sorenson but from the ghostly caste to JDs face he could only guess that it wasnt a positive result. He pulled JD in a fierce bearhug Aint noone gonna hurt ole Buck Kid he set him apart from himself Quicker you go the quicker you can get back he smiled

Buck JD spoke softly be careful

Im sending you to Purgatorio and youre telling me to be careful Buck smiled Get out of here kid and be careful dammit

Chris and Vin made their way slowly through the side streets and alleys of Purgatorio. It wasn't the safest of towns for two lawmen, even though they were unofficial ones at that. Add to the danger the fact that Vin was a wanted man, and a former bounty hunter, and it made for a sticky situation.

Still, they needded to get into teh town and locate mary. And unfortunately, in order to find her they were going to have to ask a few discrete questions. And in order to ask those questions they were going to need to break cover. But they were going to do so as carefully as possible, making sure their hoses were easy at hand in case a fast escape were needed.

They neared a saloon. Securing their horses, the pair entered the cantina. Maria recoginized the black clad man who had just pushed his way past the bead curtain that served as a door to the small cantina. As she set aside the dirty glasses from her tray, she wondered if she should go to him or turn and run while she still could.

Chris nodded briefly to Maria as he settled against the bar next to Vin.

Something wasn't right, he couldn't put his finger on it. He knocked back the drink that Maria had set in front of him then turned to his companion.

"I think we should head back to town" Chris spoke

"How come?" Vin spoke watching him closely

"Soemthing is not right" he stated "We need to get back to town regroup and find out what the hell is going on"

"How you plan on doing that?" Vin asked "We can't even find Mary"

"I'm willing to bet she's in Four Corners already" Chris nodded sagely "This was a ploy to throw us off track and it's worked"

Vin drank the dirnk that had been placed in front of him.

Chris dropped a coin onto the bar and walked out, his spurs jangling with a new purpose.

Josiah stood quietly, allowing the occupants of the house to recognize him and relax. He had walked into the barrels of Nettie's carbine and Ezra's derringer. He hadn't expected less. As the weapons were lowered, a sense of relief flooded the room.

"What brings you back to this little piece of Heaven, Mr. Sanchez?" Ezra asked. Josiah grinned.

"Just a feelin' that somethin' wasn't quite right."

"A master of understatement," the conman grumbled under his breath. Josiah laughed at this.

"Well, the good Lord gave me a premonition, and with any luck, he'll follow up with divine inspiration." The others in the room gave him a curious look, and he continued. "I saw several unsavory types on the trail a ways back. I'm sure their goal is this little homestead. They have us quite outgunned."

Nathan grimaced. "We were expectin' somethin'. We were going to head for the woods when Lee collapsed."

"How long do you figure we have, Mr.' Sanchez?" Nettie asked. Her question was answered by gunshots outside. Everyone dropped to the floor.

"Inside!" came a loud shout. "Send out Fitzgerald and the rest of you can live!"

"Anyone have any ideas?" Judge Travis asked. There was silence for a few moments, then a large grin spread across Josiah's face.

"Too bad ol' Lee is dead," he said with a wink. "They won't want to be haulin' his carcass across the countryside."

"We're gonna have to work fast," Nathan said. It was a small chance, but it was the only one they had. He only preyed the gunman stayed unconscious long enough to pull off the ploy.

"Dr. Burrows, make him look as dead as you can," Josiah ordered.

"Nettie, look sad. And Ezra, I think we're gonna need your silver tongue to pull this off."

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