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m7rpg - Part 17

The Story Continues

The trail to Purgatorio was exactly like the road to its namesake ought to be. Rough and cast in shadows, leaving you with the uneasy feeling that there would be no return trip.

Tonight especially, JD couldn't shake the feeling that there were demons on the road to Purgatorio. With no moon to guide his path, JD had to rely on the jagged gaps in the brush and his horse's judgment.

He rode hunched over the saddlehorn, looking for all the world like a tired trailhand catching a few moment's sleep as he slowly picked his way toward the border. But JD was far from the much needed nap his posture implied. He strained to hear even the faintest wisp of motion in the surrounding dark. His eyes roved across the shadowed landscape, searching for lantern light, campfires, or even the telltale red glow of a lit cheroot.

Even in the smothering silence, JD's hand was never long from the butt of his pistol. Each step brought an urgency that pounded in his blood. Find Chris. Help Buck.

Four Corners was behind him, her silence like a grave pallor across the night. He'd been waiting for the first echoing shots to announce his failure to the world. Announce the death of his brother.

Purgatory. . . Purgatorio lay ahead of him, like a rabid dog that had found it's lair and was waiting in the darkness for those who were foolish enough to wander within biting distance.

Death rode the countryside tonight. JD could almost feel the frigid scrape of skeletal fingers catching at him to bring him down. The sudden tremor that raced through him had nothing to do with the bite in the crystal air.

In the unnatural stillness, his heart pounded so loudly JD was sure everyone for miles could hear it. A moment later he realized that the frantic tempo wasn't coming from him. Someone, more than likely at least two someones, were riding toward him.

JD froze for a split second before dismounting and leading his horse away from the trail. A confrontation wouldn't go well for him, he was outnumbered and any shots would just draw attention he couldn't afford. And getting caught was definitely out of the question. Buck was counting on him.

Hiding a horse amid the flats and scab brush was harder than Vin made it look, JD decided crossly as he ground hobbled Milagro. He admonished the bay to be quiet, then drew his gun and waited.

He didn't have long. The two riders were making good time, and thundered past JD's hiding spot in a matter of minutes. JD strained in the dark to make out some sort of detail. Beyond just a general shape, there was nothing. It was too dark and they were traveling too fast.

As the two hit the bottom of the rise a scant fifty feet from where JD had concealed himself, one of them straightened up for a moment and scanned the surrounding area.

JD's heart stopped. If they stopped to look around, they'd find him. Moving as softly as he could, JD leveled his pistol toward the men and willed them to ride on.

Their pace slowed for a moment as the two conferred, then picked up again and carried them over the hill and out of view.

JD holstered his pistol with a shuddering breath. He hadn't wanted to ambush the men, and was grateful to whatever force had caused the men to spur on rather than stop. He freed quickly Milagro. Mindful of the proximity of the riders, he began leading Milagro down the trail to the hell called Purgatorio. Ezra stared blankly at Josiah for a moment, mind flashing through, sorting, discarding. Then he smiled. "Of course, Mr. Sanchez."

Raising his voice, he holstered his derringer and moved towards the door. "We would be delighted to oblige you, gentlemen," he winked at the doctor's incredulous expression as he stepped clearly into the doorway, "it would save us a great deal of trouble in burying him. Could we offer you the loan of loan a shovel?"

The apparent leader of the group motioned the remainder not to shoot. "What do you mean, bury him?"

Ezra waved airily. "This shouting is so bad for one. Perhaps I might come a bit closer?" The guns came back up. At a whisper from Josiah, Ezra continued, "Although it might be better if one of you were to join us here?" There was an audible click as hammers were pulled back. "Gentlemen, gentlemen. I assure you," his eyes glimmered mischieviously to himself as he offered the next phrase, "I am acting in good faith." He could hear Josiah groan. Undeterred, he moved forward, feeling his blood surge, and the desire to gamble more rising in him. Playing cards brought a similar feeling, he was surprised to discover.

"I don't believe it. We were told to kill him ourselves. Now turn him over."

"I offer myself as a hostage, pending your own verification of my words. The man in question is no longer with a manner of speaking, of course." Ezra was delighted with himself. Speaking the ablsolute truth and making it a complete lie was an art in which he excelled, and he enjoyed his work. "You will bury him of course?"

"I dunno," the man conferred with another. Ezra was close enough to catch a few words, including bringing the body. He winced. Time to intervene with that plan.

"Do you truly intend to transport Mr. Fitzgerald?" They looked at him in surprise as he smiled glibly at them. "Well, of course you must have stronger stomachs than do we. Not many men can stand the stench of..." he trailed off, hoping that they were reconsidering, and that Josiah had taken the hint.

It was well past midnight when Chris and vin rode in to Four Corners. Both me were worn out, their horses pushed to their limits. Despite the hour, the pair were greeted by a very tired looking Buck.

"Where's JD?" the mustached man demanded as the pair dismounted.

"What do you mean 'Where's JD?'." Chris demanded. "He was with you and the others."

"He left for Purgatorio to find you two. Mary was returned here and..."

Vin had already turned, leading his mount to the livery.

"Vin?" Buck called out the question.

"I'll go after the kid," he called back over his shoulder. There was no way Vin was going to leave JD searching through Purgatorio alone. The town was bad enough on its own, but there was the added danger of Elaina being there. Vin was not going to let her get her claws in JD once more.

Vin saddled up a fresh horse. Swinging up into the saddle he gave the animal a light kick, and headed back out of town at a full gallop.

"Watch your back Pard," Chris said quietly as he watched the tracker go.

Then he turned, intending to help prepare for whatever trouble may be heading toward town.

*Stench?* Nathan heard Ezra's speech, and turned to Nettie, grasping her arm and dragging her into the kitchen.

What was that about?" the woman asked.

"You got milk and red wine?"

She nodded, retrieving the items he requested, watching incredulously as he poured the liquids into a bowl. The milk began to curdle, forming a chunky reddish slurry. Nathan returned to the front room, grinning mischievously. He poured the mess across Lee's chest and neck.

"What are you doing?" Dr. Burrows asked. "That's disgusting."

"I believe that's the point," Josiah chuckled. "If it looks bad enough from a distance, maybe our visitors will leave without the corpse."

"Only hope he doesn't wake up in the mean time. He ain't gonna like this."

Judge Travis grinned as the doctor grimaced. "What have I gotten into?" Burrows muttered to himself.

"Over there," El Lobo whispered, pointing. But she didn't need the direction. Even though he was seated in the shadows, she could easily make out the young form, the way he held his shoulders, and the crumpled derby hat. She nodded at her man, then approached the table.

The boy was facing the doorway, alert, but had neglected his back. Oh, he had settled as close to the wall as he could get, but she'd seen to it that the tables had been arranged so that one couldn't get too close to the wall. She slithered up behind him and brushed her fingers across the back of his neck, pleased at the shudder that ran through the young man. To his credit, he didn't move otherwise, as she slid into the chair beside his.

"Were you going to invite me to dinner?" she asked

"Really don't think I could stomach the company," JD said flatly. He was tired of playing whatever game Elaina set before him like the tame little sheriff she seemed to take him for. JD didn't wait for her to reply. He wasn't interested in trading words with her. That was Ezra's strong suit, or maybe Josiah's.

The heavy Army Colt 45 was in his hand with a fluid suddenness that he should have been proud of, but it didn't seem important now. All that mattered was finding out about his missing friends and getting the hell out of Purgatorio in one piece.

He kept the gun shuttered from view beneath the rickety table, but made sure Elaina got a long look at it. "What did you do with Chris and Vin?" he demanded in a low, deadly tone. Vin crept up along side the cantina wall, hugging the shadows. He had found JD's horse out back and was determined to find the boy. Silently he slipped inside a back door, making his way toward the catina proper. He emerged next to the bar just in time to hear JD question Elaina.

"I'm right here JD," he said calmly, as he leveled his mare's leg at the woman.

Vin's sudden appearance pushed JD beyond confused. "Vin?" JD realized the question announced to the world that he'd been caught flat-footed, but. . . well. . . he had. The tracker was absolutely the last person JD expected to walk into the shabby cantina.

The realization that Vin was there and obviously not in need of a rescue, was followed almost immediately by the realization of who *wasn't* there. "

Where's Chris?" he asked, trying to keep his attention on Vin and Elaina both.

Vin tried to smile reassuringly at the young Sheriff. He was bone tired from making the trip back and forth to Purgatorio, which just stacked up on the weariness he had been feeling already.

"He's back in Four Corners," Vin said as he moved forward, grabbing Elaina's arm. "Which is exactly where we're going." He began to shove Elaina forward but stopped at the sound of a gun being cocked.

Vin's shoulders slumped, exhaustion allowing him to feel defeat for the first time. His feelings were mirrored in JD's face as the young man looked beyond Vin's shoulder.

Elaina watched silently as the two lawmen were relieved of their weapons. *Why can't a man just accept a simple invitation to a meal?* she thought. *Everything had to be construed as sinister or suspect.*

El Lobo (she chuckled to herself at the name. El Rodent was more appropriate) nodded to her and she spoke briefly with him before returning to her guests.

"How good of you to join us, Mr. Tanner," she breathed, moving very close to the man. "Mr. Dunne and I were just sitting down to supper. Isn't that right, John?"

Vin stepped forward as the gun barrel that was placed at the base of his neck nudged him. Elaina had pulled out a chair across from the one JD had occupied and motioned him into it, then did the same to JD, taking a seat herself between the two men. Another man appeared from behind the counter and tied Vin's hands in front of him, moving to do the same to JD.

"Now gentlemen, how about some supper? I'm starving." Elaina snapped her fingers and the man behind the bar disappeared in to the back room.

"What 'cha got planned for us witch?" Vin's blue eyes held an icey glare.

"Tsk, tsk, now that's not nice. And that's not how you behaved last time we met." Elaina leaned over and captured Vin's hair in her fingers, pressing her lips against his.

JD watched the interaction, confusion clearly visible on his face. He was even more confused when Vin smiled, his eyes warming slightly.

"That's more like it," Vin replied. He tossed a quick look at JD, trying to be reassuring, then leaned across for another kiss. He curled the fingers of one hand, leaving the other fingers free to gently caress Elaina's cheek, then move gently down her throat and beyond as he opened his mouth, deepening the kiss. Her hand suddenly shot up, grabbing his bound ones, before he could reach the small dagger she had hidden in the bodice of her dress.

Breaking the kiss he smiled at her. "Cain't blame a man for tryin'." JD scowled darkly at both Vin and Elaina. He recognized Vin's escape attempt for what it was, but it was also painfully obvious that *something* had happened between the two.

"So what happens now?" he asked with more resignation than curiosity. Elaina breathed deeply, blinking away the spinning in her head. The young trapper didn't realize the effect he had on her. She had thought that there was no more passion for her, that that gift had been taken from her long ago.

A movement at her side caught her attention. She took the bundle that one of her hired men held to her, and turned toward JD.

"What now, Little One?" she asked, rising and slowly drawing the bodice knife that Vin had tried to retrieve. She leaned close to the boy, savoring the look in his eyes as she brought the knife up. Deftly, she cut through the ropes binding him, then picked up the bundle. She held it out to him and pulled the material aside to reveal his pearl handled pistols.

"I believe these are yours," she breathed close to his ear.

Abruptly, she stood and grabbed Tanner by the front of his coat.

"You're free to go," she told the young sheriff, dismissing him with a wave of her hand. She hauled Vin toward the back stairs. "We have unfinished business," she continued.

Lee could feel his senses slowly return. He knew he was aware but that was about it. He felt something wet on his chest. His hearing came back next, there was murmering but he was not able to catch what had been said.

When he moved slightly he heard a farmiliar voice speak softly, “Keep him quiet.”

In response he felt a gently pressure on his shoulder.

Vin had little choice but to follow Elaina toward the stairs. Even if her goon had not leveled a gun at him as she pulled him forward, Vin was afraid that if he fought her, or the goon, JD would pay for his actions. Vin had seen the bartender level a gun over the bar counter.

"It's okay JD, just get outta here!" Vin drug his feet just enough that he saw JD take a few steps out of the door, then allowed the woman to continue pulling him forward and up the stairs.

'What have ya gotten yourself in ta now Tanner?' he thought to himself as Elaina unlocked a door and pulled him through. Her goon took up a spot just outside as she slammed the door closed behind them. As Lee stirred, Nathan placed a hand on his shoulder, whispering urgently, "Stay still." Lee groaned and Josiah coughed. The men holding Ezra at gunpoint advanced slowly into the room and spread out, covering the occupants.

"Who's that?" one of them asked, gesturing to Dr. Burrows. The doctor flinched. He wasn't used to this kind of thing, and longed fervently to be home. The people of Four Corners could find their own damned doctor.

"That is the medico from Eagle Bend," Ezra drawled lazily. "And his skills are wanting, to say the least." The man in question started to protest, but Josiah stopped him. "

He allowed our comrade to expire," the gambler continued. The leader of the outlaws wrinkled his nose as he leaned over to see for himself that the gunslinger Lee was indeed dead. He certainly looked pale enough, and the conman had been right about the stench.

"Jennings, come over here and help me get his carcass outta here. She's gonna want to see for herself."

Nathan stood quickly. "I don't think that's such a good idea," he said.

"Why not?"

"No telling what kinda poisons he's got in his blood. Ain't that right, Doc?" Doctor Burrows nodded numbly, totally confounded. The criminal stared silently around the room for several moments, then shook his head.

"Bury 'im."

"What?" Nathan hadn't expected this.

"I said bury 'im. If his blood's that dangerous, it's the best thing. right? "Side's, he's startin to smell up this nice lady's house." He nodded toward Nettie. "I'll just take a token to give Miss Noonan, so's she knows he's dead."

Nathan flinched, and Josiah took a step forward. Behind him, Nathan heard Lee take a breath, that was again covered by a loud cough from the preacher. "

What was that?" the outlaw asked. Innocent looks met him. He finally shrugged, then reached forward, and, grimacing, drew the fob from Lee's vest. A gold watch dangled from the chain.

"Well, gents," he muttered, "we got us some last rites to perform."

Elaina shoved Vin into the small room, standing to face the door for several heartbeats before turning to the tracker. He was watching her silently, a small smile on his lips.

Those lips...Elaina's head was spinning. She had had many men, many lovers, in her life. But the act of making love had been nothing more than that. An act. She had actually begun to believe that she wasn't capable of emotion beyond hate and rage. She didn't think she needed more. But the young man standing before her had stirred a flurry of feelings, confusion paramount among them.

And love...Love was just a vague memory. A place of warmth and safety. Something she knew without doubt that she would never have again. But maybe...

Crossing the room, she grasped the front of Vin's coat and pulled him to her. She closed her lips around his, twining her fingers in his hair, drinking him in, drowning.

She had to know...

Ezra dared not curse aloud at the order to bury their erstwhile comrade, but he itched to plant a swift kick in the man's...he shook off the useless wish and thought hard.

Whereupon he sat down. "HEY! Gedup!" the outlaw hooked a hand around

Ezra's neck and squeezed.

"Surely you don't expect me to help? Our deal was that YOU would be the ones burying him." And hope Lee doesn't think I mean that...

The hand tightened and a gun dug into his wounded side. "Oh very well. I will offer my services. I'll even procur a suitable container for...the earthly remains of our departed fellow." He thought for a moment and suggested, "There was a rather large box in the barn. We could deposit the corpse in that...of course, he'd have to be moved..."

The man laughed. "Ain't that just sweet? A fuuuneralll."

Ezra stepped forward to join Nathan and Josiah at Lee's side. They started to lift the sheet under the still silent man, but Ezra shook his head slightly, and tugged futily on a corner. At his silent pretense of lifting, both of the others grasped his intent. After a few moments, the outlaw joined them, holding his nose.

"As you can see, your assault has left us rather under strength. If you indeed wish to see him buried, we are going to require some able bodies to move him--and dig. We can fill it in." Ezra concluded magnanimously.

The man stared, stepping back further and further from the smell. He thought for a moment, and nodded, then called a few men in. Ezra winced as they roughly pulled at the sheet, Lee's arms and legs flopping wildly. Then he feigned a stumble in his attempt to help, and hurriedly followed the retreating leader, as he smiled inwardly. Just a few more nudges... Twenty minutes later, the rocky soil had progressed little, and the outlaws were quite exhausted. "Never mind. You can finish digging your own damn self!" the man cursed at the leader as he threw the shovel towards where he stood. He motioned towards the shovel and Ezra picked it up before anyone could move. He didn't intend to dig, however.

He grasped the shovel firmly and began a lazy action that looked like work and accomplished nothing. It began to look like there might be some shooting involved, but as the time crawled by, one by one the hireling began to grumble, until finally a group disentangled and headed towards their horses. The leader called them back, but they just shouted something about damn fools who couldn't tell a dead man when they saw one and rode off.

Ezra mused that they must have been paid in advance as he sighted the remainder carefully. If it came to that, it was more even. He was betting that they wouldn't hold out much longer, however.

Vin returned the kiss, his mind racing the whole time, trying to figure out a way to get out of this situation before it went too far. Hell! It had already gone too far. At most he could hope that JD had gotten safely away.

Hopefully the kid would head back to Four Corners and get Chris...heck, after this did he want Chris to find him? help him? He had started all this, he had no one to blame but himself. But he also was not sure he could face his friends if this went the way Elaina obviously intended.

Even as he was trying to devise a plan Elaina was moving him backwards toward the bed. Her fingers unbutton his coat, pushing it down over his shoulders, trapping his arms since his hands were still tied in front of him. He felt his legs hit the bed and he was tumbling backwards on to it, Elaina following him, crawling over him to continue the kiss.

Vin managed to get his hands out from under her, then pulled away from the kiss.

"This would be a whole lot easier and a lot more fun if I was untied." he said, his eyebrows arching in a questioning way.

Elaina smiled.

Lee realized it would be in his best interest if he ‘played dead’ not only that but he would stay alive longer if he did so. He trusted the others to keep him alive while he was out of it. When the outlaws piched him up he offered no resistance. He almost laughed out loud, but since he had controled his body for so long he showed no signs of life. The hard part was covering up the pain the jostling created. He remembered when the outlaw took his watch, he had had it for a long time but he could always get another one.

He waited while he heard the argument between the outlaws. Good thing Ezra was there. He enjoyed watching and lately hearing him work...

Although most of the outlaws had gone their way, a few diehards had remained behind. Josiah figured that they were afraid enough of Her not to renege on their part of whatever bargain they had made. He had watched Ezra run the men in circles, confounding them at every chance. It was certainly entertaining, and sometimes even he felt confused by the litany of long, meaningless words that the man spewed.

But things began to turn serious as the men grew impatient, finally finishing a shallow hole. "Put 'im in," the leader snarled, wiping a thin sheen of sweat. Josiah cast a quick glance at his companions, an unspoken agreement passing between them. Their effort to lift the wooden box was half-hearted at best, and they made no progress. The goon shifted impatiently.

"Do it now, or we're gonna need another hole," he growled, cocking his pistol and pointing it at Judge Travis. Josiah winced. Their options were gone. But at least Travis was proof that this silly scheme could work. With a great deal of effort they managed to lift the box, suddenly falling back as the bottom fell out, depositing Lee into the dirt, several feet short of the hole. Ezra stifled a laugh and Josiah glared at him, covering his own smirk with a cough.

"Son of a...Wrap him in that tarp and throw him in," the goon ordered, waving his pistol. "And be quick about it."

They moved to comply, hesitating when it came to actually shoveling dirt onto their comrade. In the crate, he would have had sufficient air, but now...

"Oh, for Pete's sake," the criminal mumbled, turning to his companions. "Just do this and get it over with." The other bandits holstered their weapons and started to cover the still form. "Wanna say some words, preacher?"

"God help his immortal soul," Josiah muttered.

Lee’s eyes grew wide when he felt the weight of the dirt settle down on him. He muttered, “They better know what they’re doing.” He was about to say something more when he realized he would need the air to breath. He tried to slow down his breathing, but the sense of claustrophobia did not permit it. He was about to give up to this fate when he noticed a small hole near his right shoulder. He could see dirt but better yet cool air was coming through the opening. He realized if he could survive the weight of the dirt he would make it.

Buried alive, he thought somberly. The weight of the dirt brought to home how long he had survived as a gunslinger. He thought of the religious symbolism of being buried then raised again. Maybe this could be the start of a new life for me. The thought broke off when he heard shooting.

After what seemed like ages, he had no idea how long he laid in his dark tomb, the weight started to lessen.

He heard someone speak, Josiah? “Hurry up and get that dirt off of him. Nathan? Nathan! Nathan we might need your help here.”

He figured all the dirt had been removed because he was being lifted again. He heard the tarp ripped open and for a moment he reveled in the sensation of clean air.

“Lee? Lee, can you hear me?” he heard Nathan ask. The dark healer started slapping his face in his own attempt to wake him up.

When he became tired of the slapping his right hand shot up and grabbed the healers wrist, “It took you long enough,” he growled out.

"It took you long enough," he growled.

"Tsk tsk," Ezra said as he disengaged Lee's fingers from Nathan, "you know patience is a virtue."

"It's a virtue you can practice forever if you're dead, Ezra," Lee spoke sarcastically, but there was an undertone to his voice that caused Ezra to raise an eyebrow. Maybe there was more going on since Lee's temporary investiture in the land of the deceased.

In an undertone he said, "True, but I find it is one better perfected over a game of skill." At the return look, Ezra merely smiled. He felt a kinship for the other man, and had a good idea of what Lee had been feeling when he was buried--something similar to what he had been feeling as he prepared to abandon his companions, so long ago at the reservation. A second chance, one not to be thrown away.

JD stepped over the body of his 'escort' back to Four Corners, grimly. Stray shots were of little interest in Purgatorio, but he shouldn't push his luck by lingering over a newly made corpse. Particularly not when he had so many other things to push his luck on.

He tucked his signature bowler into his belt. The abused fabric was beyond redemption, but JD hated to leave anything of his behind in this place for Her. That included friends.

Before he left the dark stable, JD opened each of the stall doors. Quietly, he led the horses one by one through the rear door and out into the street. They milled aimlessly, confused by their midnight excursion.

Milagro and Peso he kept away from the group, loosely tying their reins to the corral out front. When the time came, he didn't want to search for a ride home.

Once the place was empty, he grabbed the lantern that hung just inside the door and dashed it against the wall. The oil reservoir spilled, coating the dry, weather-beaten wood. Eager tongues of flame raced along the edges of the spill, igniting the hay on the floor as well.

Once he was certain that the fire would take, he sprinted to where the stablehand sat propped against the wall. JD shook his head in disgust at the man's obviously drunken stupor.

He grabbed the man by the shoulder and hollered at him. "Fire."

Alcohol glazed eyes blinked owlishly at him, but showed no flicker of understanding.

"Fire," JD shouted again, pointing to the growing blaze at the far end of the structure. "Fi. . . " he paused, searching what little Spanish he knew. "Fuego."

That got a response. The drunk man was on his feet, staggering through the open doorway. JD followed him, breaking off amid the chaos of panicked horses. The stablehand went lurching down the street, his cries of 'fuego' drawing people from the various ramshackle buildings that made up Purgatorio.

JD collected the two horses he'd set aside, calming them with soft words as he led them away from the stable toward the building Elaina was still holding Vin in.

He watched the saloon carefully for any sign of Elaina or her man. To his disappointment, but not surprise, neither one of them showed up on the street. Fire was a tactic that Elaina herself had used. JD hadn't expected her to fall for it, but the diversion had accomplished what he hoped for--there were only a handful of people left between him, Vin, and freedom.

From the direction of the livery he could hear angry orders being shouted both in Spanish and English as men scrambled to contain the blaze he'd started. Someone, frustrated with the reigning anarchy, fired two rounds into the sky, trying to gain some measure of control over the scene.

It was the straw that broke the. . . well, horses back. Already frightened by the terror-heavy scent of woodsmoke and the jerky, panicky movements of the gathering crowd; the crisp retort of gunfire snapped what was left of frazzled nerves. The make-shift horde stampeded.

Beyond making sure he wasn't about to be trampled, JD ignored them. He led Peso and Milagro off the main track, behind the saloon to the narrow airshaft that separated it from the building next door.

It wasn't wide enough to be called an alley, only room enough for one man to walk freely down it at a time. Buck had shown him how to climb this very shaft when they'd retrieved Chris from Purgatorio several months ago.

The scoundrel had hinted that it occasionally came in handy for clandestine social visits. The memory made JD grin, even as he realized that he didn't know what was happening to his friend. Four Corners hadn't been the safest place when he'd left, and even with Chris there now. . .

JD shook off the worry he didn't have time for. Buck would be fine. There simply wasn't another option JD was willing to consider. This would be over soon, and as soon as he got back to town, he would give Buck a Nathan-grade lecture on roaming the town when he ought to be resting.

Pressing his back against the saloon, JD braced his feet against the facing wall and began the slow ascent.

It was harder than he remembered. Of course the last time he'd done this, he hadn't been so sore. JD grit his teeth, pointedly ignoring the way his legs trembled, and the dull thudding pain in his sides. At long last, he reached the overhang that sheltered the boardwalk from rain--or more often, the sun.

All he had to do now was find Vin and get the two of them out of there. Hopefully before the fire burned out and the horses were rounded up.

One hand dropped to the grip of his recovered pistol as he paused to catch his breath. The cool ivory was smooth under his finger-tips, a lethal kind of beauty. Not unlike Elaina.

Elaina who called him John. . .

. . . who whispered half-secrets about a long gone son. . .

. . . who could read him in a glance. . .

. . . who had returned his guns to him with her own two hands. . .

. . . who had finally made a mistake.

Shaking off the unbidden and unwanted thoughts, JD drew the Lightning and crept to the first window on silent feet.

Elaina stood, contemplating the man in front of her. He held his bound hands forward, a smile dancing on his lips. But his eyes...They were vacant, devoid of any emotion. That wasn't quite true. There was loathing in the sea blue orbs.

*How could she have been so stupid?* She knew better than to have any hope that maybe, somehow redemption could be hers. And to think that it could come from a crude buffalo hunter who was at least ten years her junior. She laughed, a mirthless laugh, and reached forward, pulling the man to his feet by his shirt. She opened the door of the room and thrust Vin at the man standing guard there.

"Take him to the cellar," she ordered. The man nodded, pushing Vin down the hall. Elaina closed the door, leaning against it for a moment before sliding to the floor. She hugged her legs to her chest, rested her head on her knees and started to cry.

*Damn* Vin silently cursed as his arm was held in a vice grip and he was drug down the hallway. That had turned sour suddenly. And worse yet, Vin had seen movement outside the window as he was thrust through the doorway. A certain bowler type hat...

He had to do something before Elaina saw JD outside the window. He also had to alert JD.

"Wait!" Vin dug his heals in and tried not to be pushed along. "Elaina! Don't do this ta us! Elaina, I love ya!" The words made bile rise in the back of Vin's throat, but it had the deired effect. The door opened and Elaina appeared. Her face had tear streaks running down it. She stopped Vin's forced departure, motioning her man to bring him back inside.

As soon as Vin entered the room, he once more saw JD's hat bounce slightly in to view through the window. Gently taking Elain's face between his bound hands he kissed her, using one foot to push the door closed behind him. Breaking the kiss, he turned quickly to the door, turning teh lock. His eyes closed briefly while he fought for control.

When he turned back, Vin had a poker face on that Ezra would have been proud of.

"I don't want anymore interuptions..." he murmured deeply, trying to put as much sensuality in those few words as he could then capturing Elaina's face once more even as he saw JD's face appear in the window, watching him. This time it was Elaina that fell back upon the bed and Vin that held her in place using the guise of passion.

He just hoped JD had time to do something because he wasn't sure how long he could play this game. How long would it be before Elaina caught on once more. Before Vin slipped and let his hatred show. He closed his eyes, his mouth ravaging hers, trying for distraction.

Josiah and Nathan moved to either side of Lee. With their combined strength they got the older man back on his feet. Lee had been paying attention to Nathan and Ezra so he did not catch the face of the Judge, though he seemed extremely familiar. The journey back to the homestead was slow and laborious. He saw the bodies of what apparently were Noonan’s hired guns laying on the ground in the shadows. He thought about asking if that is who they were but then decided it would take too much strength.

Once inside they moved him back into the “sick room” and was resettled on the bed. The doctor came back in with a towel. He shook his head at the mess Nathan had spread liberally on the older man’s chest. Lee furrowed his brow then looked down. “Who did this?” he asked, his voice dangerously calm.

“Don’t look at me,” the doctor commented.

“We needed some way to trick Noonan’s hired guns. That’s why we ended up...” Josiah started.

Lee shook his head slowly, he was angry he had to admit, but the extenuating circumstances kept him from staying that way.

The doctor leaned over examining the wound. “I’m gonna have to clean it out. I need my bag,” he gave the general order.

Ezra moved into the larger room then reappeared with the medical bag. Dr. Burrows started rummaging through it. He pulled out a bottle then placed the bag on a table close by. He took a clean rag and liberally doused the rag with the liquid from the bottle. “It’s carbolic acid,” he answered the unspoken question.

Burrows looked back to Lee and commented, “This might sting a little.”

Lee nodded, *It couldn’t be any worse than getting shot,* he thought to himself.

The doctor placed the damp cloth on his wound. Pain shot through his lower abdomen. It was more of a shock than anything else. He grit his teeth an attempted to ride out the pain. His hands wrapped around the quilt. With his eyes closed he felt someone pry one of his hands open and took it. He was about to say something when he felt darkness overtake him again.

JD had a plan. It was a good plan. A nice, simple, do-it-yourself-and-save-the-day kind of plan. He knew the pieces were all there. Just waiting for him to burst through the window like a damned dime-novel hero.

Only JD wasn't bursting through any windows. He was crouched on the sliver-filled, sloped roof of the porch. Frozen in stunned place by the sight of Vin kissing. . . no, kissing wasn't the right word. . . JD wasn't sure what the right word was, he wasn't even sure Ezra could come up with it.

"Vin?" His voice sounded high--even in his own ears, as shock tore the questioning sound from his throat.

The weather beaten shingle under JD's foot chose that moment to give into the rot that had slowly consumed it. The short, rusted nail that pinned it to the supports below, held its ground doggedly while the wood separated around it. Suddenly free to do as it liked, the shingle slid brazenly across its roofmates, carrying JD's equilibrium with it. A dull, yet resounding thud accompanied the pain that flared up in JD's knee.

Through the window, he could see Elaina break away from Vin's kiss. She pushed the tracker back, looking directly to where JD was trying to hide in plain view. The stray noise at the window enough to attract her attention, even through the distraction Vin was creating.

JD could see her draw breath to call the guard. He swore under his breath, bringing up the Colt.

They were done for. One way or the other. He had a shot, but the noise would mean neither he nor Vin would outlive Elaina by more than a few minutes. But if he didn't take it. . . Either way he cut it, his life expectancy was dismal at best.

Before JD could decide one way or t'other, Vin took matters into his own hands--or rather, lips. A searing kiss smothered Elaina's cry and galvanized JD to action.

As far as entrances went, it was a particularly graceless one. A brief moment of suspended glass-shards and then he was in the room. Half tumbling away from the window, JD shook the silver glass from his clothing without taking his eyes or pistol barrel from Elaina's direction. Breaking away from the passionate kiss, Elaina glanced up at the young man confronting her. She noticed the slight tremor in his hand, but also the determined look of defiance. She pushed away from Vin and slowly stood.

"You've come to join us, Mr. Dunne?" She took a step forward. "Hmm, intriguing idea. You don't mind sharing, do you, Mr. Tanner?"

Vin watched as Elaina approached JD, his finger absentmindedly rubbing his lower lip. Jerking back to reality, he knew it was a matter of moments before Elaina's goon managed to break his way through the door. He could already hear the big man's shoulder hitting the solid wood barrier. Reaching out quickly, he grabbed Elaina's arm, spinning her around to face him. Then he punched her in the jaw, successfully cold cocking her.

"Ain't never hit a lady before," he muttered as he scooped her up and tossed her over his shoulder and turned toward the broken window. "Let's get outta here JD, 'fore we have more company than this little party can handle."

Buck sat in the jailhouse his rifle resting across his knees. Too tired and hurting to be really alert, but too wary of their adversaries to allow himself to relax. He remained on post as Chris patrolled the town on foot, carefully hidden in the shadows, trying to gain them the upper hand in the latest battle of wills. Both men had been alive too long and seen too much not to know that something was going on. But no matter how much danger they were possibly in, it was inconceivable to him that JD was in greater danger.

Whatever had possessed the fool kid to go running off to purgatorio of all places to find help. He shook his head ruefully. He knew exactly what it was that had possessed him. The exact same thing that powered the will of each of the seven. The desire to have their family together, safe and well again. That and the fact that it hadnt really been the kids choice, he had sent him there himself. Admittedly he hadnt thought that he would get all the way to the evil town, his real intention was just to get him away from the Danger that was prickling the hair on the back of his neck.

Bucks thoughts were pulled back to the present as he heard a board creak on the boardwalk. Lifting his rifle against his shoulder he levelled it at the door, cocking it almost soundlessly. His finger tightened around the trigger, squeezing it smoothly, pausing almost imperceptibly to verify his guest. Almost as quickly as his mind was registering friend or foe his finger relaxed on the trigger.

Find anything he spoke as he stood

Nope Chris spoke around his burning cheroot But something is goin down he sighed

Youll have to handle things on your own Buck spoke nodding at his friends summation

Where the hell are you goin? Chris growled his eyes narrowing

Ive gotta go find him Chris Buck shrugged his face sheepish

What about this? Chris spoke nodding his head towards the deputies bodies they had moved into one of the cells

Itll still be here when we get back Buck nodded in understanding I sent him there Chris, they should be back by now

Be careful Chris spoke clasping Bucks outstretched hand resigned to his friends personal mission

Always he grinned as he slipped out of the door of the jailhouse, making his way in the shadows to the livery where he quickly saddled a horse and led it through the shadows to the edge of town before mounting up and riding off in search of JD and Vin.

She was being carried, cradled in strong arms. Her head was swimming, and she couldn't see well. It was too dark. Elaina stirred and tried to push away, but she was held firmly.

"C'mon, Papa," she murmured drowsily. "'m not tired. Don't wanna go ta bed yet."

"Not 'xactly what I had in mind neither," Vin mutter as he carried Elaina to the horses. He had sent JD to locate his horse and the young man had returned just seconds before with both horses in tow. It had been quite an ordeal getting the unconcious woman out of the room before the big brute on the other side of the door got through. The memory allowed Vin the first smile he had had in a long while.


"Oww! Hey! Watch it up there," JD hissed. The reprimand in his voice severely undermined by the necessity for quiet.

"Sorry," Vin whispered back without sounding particularly apologetic as he lowered Elaina to JD.

JD staggered as he accepted Elaina's deadweight, slowing her decsent to the ground. "Don't see why we're draging her along."

Vin dropped noiselessly to the ground next to him. "You really want to track her down again?"

"Good point."


Vin chuckled to himself again as he saw in his memory JD struggle under the deadweight of the unconscious woman. Hell, he must be getting punchy if he found any part of this situation humorous, especially since it wasn't.

He heard the door above give way and the big man was now leaning out the window searching for them. Vin moved through the shadows handing Elaina to JD once more as he mounted his horse. JD passed the woman to Vin, who settled her in front of him, then kicked his horse into motion. JD mounted up and quickly followed.

Ezra reined in next to the wagon for the fifth time. Nathan raised weary eyes and said, "We're doing fine."

Josiah turned back from the front of the wagon to watch the exchange.

It was funny to watch Ezra of all people being so, so mother henish. He grinned to himself.

Ezra saw it and flushed, the returned to his outrider position. Raising his voice so Josiah could hear it, he said, "I assure I have no personal concern--it is merely that I know I will be held accountable, and I have no desire to raise Mr. Larabee's wrath."

Josiah couldn't recall ever having enjoyed the sight of the small town as much as he did now. Although there were no street fires burning, and there was the aura of seige around the area, the random lights twinkling in various windows warmed his soul. Nathan had managed to sit up, and was looking over the preacher's shoulder. He sighed audibaly.

"'Bout time," the healer muttered. Josiah nodded agreement, while beside him, Nettie chuckled. Lee was sleeping in the back of the wagon, and Dr. Burrows glanced up from his patient.

A rider approached, and the group around the wagon tensed, until they recognized that it was Buck. "Where ya headed?" Josiah asked.

"Goin' to collect the kid," the lady's man explained. "You all still holdin' on?"

Josiah nodded. "We're doin' all right. I expect things'll look better in the light of day."

Buck nodded, then smiled. "Good ta see ya." The feeling was shared by the group collected. They were home again. Buck spurred his horse out of town, and Josiah steered the wagon toward Nathan's clinic.

"I'm going to see to Mary," the judge said, splitting off from the group. "I'll see if I can find Chris and let him know we're back." He tipped his hat and rode away from the group. Carefully, Josiah climbed down fron the wagon, turning to help Nettie, but the fiesty woman was already at his side, reaching a hand up to Nathan.

"Once you boys are settled, I'll see if can find some food and coffee," she said. Josiah smiled.

"Sound's good, ma'am."

"Food, coffee, a warm bed," Nathan mumbled. "What more could a man ask for?"

Lee opened his eyes slowly. The dim room was illumiated by a single candle. His eyes swept the room. There were shadows all around him. For a minute he wondered where he was, it definatly was not Nettie’s house. He looked into the darkest corner of the room, there was what looked like someone slumped in a chair. Before he could say anything the door opened...

Casey peeked into the darkened room and saw a set of eyes from the bed directed at her, reflecting the candlelight. Lee shifted in the bed a little and Casey recognized him. She cleared her throat a little.

"It's just me, Casey. Have you seen Nettie around?"

There was a small pause as Lee squinted to the corner and then shook his head.

"Thanks..." Casey paused. "Do you need water or anything?"

Lee paused a minute considering what the young girl asked. He thought a good stiff shot of whisky would do fine, but both Nate and the visiting doctor would think otherwise. He opened his mouth to say something but it came out more as a croak. He cleared his throat and tried again, “I could use some water.”

Her jaw was aching, but Elaina wasn't sure why. She reached up to finger the sore area, but her hands were bound, restricting her movements. Fear stabbed through her. She wasn't sure where she was, or why she was bound. Whatever it was couldn't be good. Cautiously, she opened her eyes, blinking, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dim light of the moon. The soft sounds of speaking behind her caught her attention, and the panic flared again. She rolled over, already starting to push away from the perceived threat. But the sight that met her eyes stopped any thought of escape.

A small fire flickered merrily, illuminating the...Elaina blinked. Her eyes darted upward, towards the sky, then back to earth. It was a full moon...

Elaina began to laugh hysterically.

Josiah straightened in the chair that he was slumped in, working the kinks out of his back. The small beds in the clinic were occupied by Lee and Nathan. Dr. Burrows had seen to it that they had been settled and had given both men concoctions to help them sleep, before seeking the more comfortable accommodations of the Hotel. Josiah had refused the vile liquid in favor of whisky, then had settled into the chair to keep watch. Within minutes, he had fallen asleep.

Soft speaking awakened him, and he now found himself looking at Casey Wells. She was pouring water from a pitcher that rested on a small table. Josiah rose, careful not to startle the girl, and went to check on Nathan. The healer was sleeping, and a quick check assured Josiah that he did not have a fever. He then turned his attention to Lee, surprised to see the gunslinger watching him.

"Lee," Josiah spoke, "how ya feelin'?"

Lee looked up at the preacher and commented, “I’ve been better.” He watched as Josiah took the cup from Casey and then helped him sit up to get a few swallows. He could not believe how weak he was. He tried to remember the past couple of days. Most of it was hazy at best until he remembered the one responsible for this whole mess. There was something else just on the verge of remembering, almost like a fleeting image but kept getting swallowed up into nothingness.

By the time Lee was settled down again Casey commented, “Iffn you’re not needin’ me I’m gonna look for Aunt Nettie.”

They both nodded and let the young teen slip out of the room quietly.

“You figuring on sayin’ something?” Josiah asked quietly as he turned back to the bed.

“I don’t know, Josiah,” Lee answered with a sigh. “You know something, I instinctively knew this would be the last time. I’m getting way too old to do this anymore.” He hesitated, “I’ve been trying to retire for a long time, but the kids keep coming, and...”

JD started as Elaina's laughter suddenly broke the pre-dawn quiet. The unexpected noise made him flinch. Vin's shape intake of breath brought JD back to the task at hand. Precisely where he didn't want to be. "Shut up," he growled at her. "Just shut up."

"Could be worse," Vin said between clenched teeth.

"Yeah? How?" JD challenged.

"Could be snake bit--" Vin broke off with a hiss of pain.

JD puzzled that over as he began shredding one of his sleeves to make a bandage. "How would that. . . " his voice trailed off as JD realized how that would be worse. His cheeks were burning as he answered gruffly, "God, Vin, don't even joke about that."

"JD, could ya get on with it 'fore I bleed ta death?" Vin felt a rush of blood head to his face and cheeks. Damn this was embarassing. "I ain't exactly showin my best side here..."

"Speak for yourself."

"I mean it, lady. Shut the hell up!" JD snarled at Elaina. "Sorry," he hastily added to Vin after applying the bandage a shade too roughly.

"Don't worry about it, kid. Just hurry up," Vin ground out.

JD grabbed one of the long strips of what had formerly been a fairly new shirt. At the rate things were going, he wouldn't have any shirts left. "Hold on. Almost done."

Securing the bandage in place presented an entirely new awkwardness into a situation already rife with it. "Umm. . . Vin. . . ?" JD blushed, too flustered to even articulate the problem.

Fortunately, Vin had already arrived at the same conclusion--sparing JD the need to voice this new problem. A few seconds of blue air later and JD was knotting off the length of cloth.

"If you so much as breath any of this to Buck, I swear--" JD started menacingly.

Vin grimaced, gingerly working his breeches back over the injured area. "It ain't 'xactly the kinda story I want retold either."

"What sort of story would that be?" Buck spoke a smile in his voice as he walked his horse into camp

He walked over and sat down beside JD whacking him gently "I coulda been anyone wandering into camp" he accused

"Ain't nothing to tell Buck" JD looked innocently into his best friends face

"Something sure as hell had your attention" he narrowed his eyes, watching the way that Vin lounged uncomfortably against the tree trunk they all sat on.

Something was not right in this picture, Buck mused as he sat there shrewdly watching the embarrassed uncomfortable looks on the faces of his friends and the evil grin on the face of the woman who sat opposite them, her hands bound.

Elaina smiled at the newcomer. "Seems Mr. Tanner took a slug in Your young friend there offered to take a look at it."

Buck's eyes grew wide and an an evil grin spread across his face. "Rear shot?" He turned to the two innocent faces staring at him. "Maybe I oughta take a look for myself."

Elaina enjoyed the panicked look that that the tracker had. "Now, Bucklin," Vin stammered, "ain't nothin' you need to be lookin' at. It's taken care of."

"Maybe, but I think it would be best if I..."

As the older man advanced on the other two, Elaina saw her opportunity. She sprang to her feet and barreled into Buck, sending him into Vin. She grasped the reins of his horse and swung into the big gray's saddle, sinking her heels into it's sides.

Vin landed on his tail. he couldn't keep the howl of pain from coming out, even as he tried to push Buck off of him. He finally got the gangly peacekeeper off enough that he could roll onto his side and take the pressure off his wounded butt. "

Dang it Buck! Ya cain't let her get away!"

JD was already scrambling to saddle a horse, but Buck jumped up and mounted Vin's bareback.

"Watch yer backside Buck. That woman bites like a rattler!" Vin called after Buck. JD quickly followed his friend, leaving Vin in the clearing, with new pain coursing through his posterior.

Josiah gazed at the older man, contemplating his words. "Reckon it's harder to undo a reputation than to build one," he finally said. He knew that it wasn't any help. Maybe on another day, when they weren't fragmented, and battered, and fighting for their very existence, he might actually be of help. But not now. Not this morning. The orange and yellow tints the morning sun coming in the window made the interior of the small clinic look like it was burning in the fires of Hell, and Josiah found it hard to convince himself that they weren't really in Hell.

And maybe they were, anyway. Not the Hell that his father had preached, of fire and brimstone and eternal suffering. This was a Hell created by a demented woman bent on revenge for some perceived wrong, that sucked in not only the sinners, but the innocent as well.

"Lee," he finally murmured, avoiding the gunslinger's gaze, "you need to know..."

His words were cut short by the report of gunfire in the street. He stood so fast he almost spilled the chair he'd been sitting in. He heard Nathan stumble to his feet.

"What's goin' on?" the healer asked.

"Trouble," Josiah answered. "You got any guns around here?"

Nathan shook his head, then muttered an oath. "Got Bessie," he said. At the preacher's questioning look, Nathan reached under the bed and drug out an old muzzel-loading rifle. "Kept it for sentiment more than anything." It was the first firearm he'd ever owned, and it had marked a sort of freedom for the former slave. He deftly loaded the weapon, for all the good the one shot would do.

With a frown, Josiah checked the side arm he'd acquired along the way. Two of the shells were spent, and he had no reloads. In their relief at being back in town, and their haste to treat their wounded comrades, they had made a fatal mistake.

The door to the clinic burst open and Nathan and Josiah leveled their weapons, standing between the door and Lee, not backing down as they recognized Phillippe. The Frenchman held his hands up and softly closed the door.

"The town is under siege," he stated, then reached slowly into his pocket and withdrew a pistol. He held it forward. Josiah took it. It was a British Bulldog, a personal sidearm, not fit for much more than close range protection.

"Thanks," Josiah said, handing the weapon to Lee. "Hope you don't need this."

Lee grinned. "Makes two of us." Lee struggled to sit, and Nathan helped him.

"Got to make some sort of cover." Nathan dragged Lee to the far corned of the room, where Phillipe was now huddled. He and Josiah tipped the beds over and made the best barricade they could. The pounding of footsteps on the stairs alerted them that they'd run out of time. They crouched behind the scant protection with Lee and Phillipe and waited. Elaina couldn't believe her good fortune. Well, maybe she could. After all, it only proved that her cause was just.

After the first few minutes, she slowed the mad dash, contemplating her options. She had the horse, and the rifle secured in the scabbard, a bed roll and saddle bags filled with who knew what. But despite the many possibilities that came to mind, they were all discarded for the first gut feeling she'd had. It was the right thing to do - the only thing to do.

Elaina turned the horse in a wide arc, smiling when the small clearing came into view a few minutes later. Tanner was standing, aiming the sawed-off shotgun at her. She skidded the horse to a halt. The big gray danced under her.

"C'mon!" she shouted, holding out her hand. "Let's go! Now!" Vin hesitated briefly, then carefully clambored up behind Elaina. Even then he had to hold back a gasp of pain as his butt connected with the horse's rump. But as soon as he was settled Elaina gave Buck's horse a kick and they were off running.

After a time Vin was able to get Elaina to slow the horse and turn the reins over to him pointing out that if they were going to avoid Buck and JD they would have to hide their tracks a little better. Moving his arms around her waist, Vin took the reins from her hands and started them moving off. Elaina leaned back in his arms, turning her head for a kiss as they went. In time she even dozed a bit, the rocking gait of the horse lulling her to sleep.

For Vin's part he lead the horse on a meandering route, conscious the whole time of the blood leaking anew from his posterior. There would be time to care for that later.

They rode for hours. Vin hoped that Buck and JD had given up and headed back to town by now. If not they were spending a lot of time trying to catch his trail.

Elaina was asleep when he reached the destination he had in mind. As they entered town from the north end Elaina awoke to the sound of gunshots. Vin's arm tightened around her waist as she realized where they were.

"You son of a bitch!" she spit as she tried to break the hold Vin had on her. Her nails raked at his arms and she even managed to reach behind her, a nail leaving a bleeding furrow down his cheek. "I thought I meant something to you!"

"This ain't personal lady, it's my job." Vin kicked the horse forward, racing into town and down an alley near the jail. Chris turned and leveled his gun at Vin as the tracker burst through the back door, Elaina held with one arm, his mare's leg in the other.

"Jest me Cowboy," he said as he pushed and pulled the still fighting woman to a cell. Chris raised an eyebrow at the words coming from her as she cursed at Vin. Opening the door, he pushed her inside, then slammed the door closed, locking it before turning to help in the gunfight.

Chris turned away from the gunfight and glared at the woman who managed to infuriate him so much with just a few words.

"What the hell are you talking about lady?" he spat

"He'll bleed to death long before you've got time to help him" she smiled at him refusing to be intimidated by his glare

"Vin" Chris spoke turning back to the gun battle that raged outside the jailhouse "What the hell is she talking about?"

Hell's bells Josiah" Buck exclaimed as Josiah barrelled into him "It's just me"

"thank God" Josiah murmured as he returned Buck's bearhug of greeting

"I can't leave you lot alone for two minutes can I" he smiled warily "Who have you boys upset now?" He cast his eye around the small room of the clinic watching his friends trying to settle again.

Vin had tried hard not to limp as he joined Chris at the front of the jail, but it was hard to hide the blood drenched trousers he wore. He knew Chris had noticed.

"Well...I kinda got...shot," Vin said as he took aim and fired his mare's leg.

"Kinda got shot? How do you 'kinda' get shot?" Chris demanded. "Where? How bad?"

" bu..." Vin muttered, staking aim once more.

"Your what?" Chris tried to glance at the tracker, to determine how bad his injuries really were. But the gunfire outside demanded his full attention.

"My..." Vin fired "Butt! Okay? I got shot in the butt!"

Chris paused briefly and started to laugh. "She do it?" he chuckled motioning at Elaina with his head and returning to the fight.

Vin glared at his friend, then turned the glare on the woman laughing behind him.

Elaina laughed despite herself. The look on the tracker's face was just too good.

"Not my handiwork," she said. "There's other pats of his anatomy that interest me far more."

Both Vin and Chris turned their heads to look at the woman. Vin's face quickly colored, almost matching the color of the blood leaking from his wound.

Muttering to himself he turned back to the fight, but faced Chris when he felt the gunslingers eyes still on him.

"Don't even say it, Cowboy."

Four Corners, JD decided as he quickly lined up a shot, never looked more like home. A chaotic, bullet-riddled home, but a home nonetheless. Hell, what with Chris there in the middle of the action--Vin at his side--it was almost like the first time JD'd seen Four Corners. It hadn't even been his stop, but JD had known it was something more.

Destiny was a word he'd heard Josiah use once or twice. He normally didn't pay things like that much mind, it was Josiah's job to see miracles where everyone else saw only the common. But. . . Destiny. JD let the word roll around his tongue, testing it. It left him with a comfortable, secure feeling. Somethings were just meant to be. And the Seven were one of those things.

JD blinked, rubbing a grimy hand across bleary eyes. Christ, but he needed to get some sleep. Putting aside any thoughts of destiny and fate, JD concentrated on the gun battle, suddenly weary and very ready for it to be over.

He'd actually been relieved -- relieved! -- when they'd rode back into town during the middle of a gun fight. *This* he could handle. It wasn't the intricate games Elaina'd been forcing them to play. It wasn't even the desperate ride home, not knowing where everyone was and if they were all right.


Buck's holler broke his train of thought. JD ducked, an action born of instinct and familiarity with Buck's tones. The shot whistled over his bowed head, striking the roughly garbed mercenary approaching his position unnoticed with a dull smack.

JD shook his head, trying to re-focus his thoughts. This was not the time to start wool-gathering. He looked around for Buck to holler his thanks, but the other man had already disappeared back into the din that threatened to smother the small town.

He re-loaded rapidly, his fingers fumbling over familiar motions. The last cartridge fell into place and he snapped the colts shut. Breaking cover for a moment, he fired twice in rapid succession. The second one found its mark.

Spinning, he searched the street for another target. There wasn't one. From other parts of town he could still hear gunshots, but they were thinning. Down near the far end of town, the heavy staccato of hoofbeats announced a scrambling retreat.

The silence after a gunfight is deafening. Each moan and sigh as the buildings resettled on newly aerated supports, danced across JD's already raw nerves. He waited, unconsciously holding his breath for some ambush or trick.

It just didn't seem possible that it was over. Really over. Not just a quick moment to catch their breath. But over, done, finished. . . JD realized absent-mindedly that he was rambling.

With a sigh, he stood and began knocking the dust from his pants and coat--his shirt already sacrificed for the greater good. All he wanted now was a bath to scrub the tang of woodsmoke from his skin, and a bed to clean the past week from his mind. Not necessarily in that order.

A gust of wind brushed across his bare chest where his heavy coat had fallen open, making him shiver. He'd have to find another shirt too. Shaking his head ruefully, he decided that he'd just start packing bandages with him wherever he went. It was bound to be easier on his clothing that way.

He pulled the wool coat tightly around his body and straightened up. Buck was just coming off the steps off Nathan's clinic, heading toward the jail where JD'd last seen Chris and Vin.

Wearily, he put off tending to the demands of his exhausted body. Somewhere he found the energy to slowly trot over to the jail. Though it wasn't so much a question of extra energy, as it was a matter of getting there before he just sacked out in the middle of the street. And damned if he wasn't tired enough to sleep there and let the town and traffic move around *him*. Buck strode into the jailhouse a grin on his face. Nodding to Chris, he turned and scowled at Elaina in the cell before turning his attention to Vin.

"How ya doing pard?" he asked and without waiting for a reply he turned back to Chris

"He tell ya he got butt shot?" he asked pushing his hat back

"Yeah" Chris nodded beginning to see more than a little humour in the situation "Should get Nathan to look at it I guess" he replied seeing Vin's face begin to flush

"I don't need noone to look at it pard" Vin began to back away from both of them "It'll be fine"

"Lookey here Vin" Buck spoke pointing at the floor "You're leaving a blood trail" he stepped a little closer and as Vin looked down at the ground he grabbed him, slinging him over his shoulder like he was a sack of flour.

"Chris" Vin almost screeched "Can't you stop him?"

"Nope" Chris answered sagely with a smile in his voice "Its for yer own good pard"

"Please let me walk to Nathan I swear I'll go straight there" Vin almost begged

"No good for your wound pard" Chris replied as he followed Buck out of the jailhouse

Vin hung his head, shamed by his inauspicious entrance into the main street as Buck strode confidently across the street. He recognised the boots of Bucks two companions, Chris strode beside him and JD followed wearily behind them, Searching his memory he vaguely recognised the hem of Mary's skirt behind JD and Casey's scuffed shoes almost running along beside JD. Vin thought his shame was almost complete as they neared the centre of the street, the journey was almost over and he could hide out more than willingly in Nathan's clinic for a couple of days until the townsfolk had forgotten this. That was until Buck opened his mouth.

"Hey Nate" Buck called loudly his deep voice resonating up and down main street "JD tried to plug the hole in Vin's butt, can you check and see what kinda job he did" he paused "He aint never done anything like that before, dang fool kid probably didn't know what he was doin" he paused and spun around to look at JD nearly whacking Vin's head against Chris' hip as he did

"Guess you should look at the kid too after he gets some clothes on that is" he grinned at JD's blush "Damn fool'll catch a chill if he spends any more time near nekkid"

A *what?* *Where?* Nathan shook his head to clear the cobwebs. Just moments ago, the small clinic had been under siege, embroiled in a life and death struggle. Josiah had just hauled out the last of the bodies that held testimony to the determination of the small band of defenders. Lee was settled back into bed, being tended by Phillipe.

So when the ragtag entourage trooped into the room, Nathan was momentarily stunned to silence. At first the sight of Vin slung over Buck's shoulders had sent a stab of fear and despair through him. He still wasn't feeling too good himself, and the thought of another of them being wounded...He shook his head. Then he notice the annoyed look on Vin's face and the bemused grin on Buck's.

The annoyed tracker finally pushed free of Buck's hold, landing on his feet, then almost sinking to the ground before Buck and Chris both caught him under an arm and hoisted him upright.

"Let me take a look," Nathan said, amused at the panic that crossed Vin's face.

"Drop yer pants," Buck ordered, moving to help. Vin batted him away.

"Y'all git," the tracker demanded. "*You* can check it," he continued pointedly to Nathan. "The rest got ta go first."

The healer chuckled. Suddenly things seemed so normal. And it felt good. He glanced around at his companions. They all looked bad, but it was still the sweetest sight he'd seen.


"Where's Ezra?"

Vin wanted to crawl under a big rock until everyone forgot he existed. He couldn't believe that Buck had carried him...CARRIED HIM...through the street yelling at the top of his lungs with Vin's bloody butt on display for all to see.

And then Buck had tried to help remove Vin's trousers!

Maybe hiding under a rock wasn't enough. Revenge would feel right good, and judging from the pink coloring in JD's cheeks, Vin most likely had an partner in crime. But first things first. His rear really did hurt and he could tell by the wobbling of his legs that he had probably lost a bit too much blood.

Even as Nathan asked where Ezra was, Vin felt his legs giving out. His hand went out, grabbing the first thing it reached, to hold himself up. Unfortunately that thing was Buck.

And that was where he lost any control of the situation. Before he knew it, his trousers were dropped around his ankles and he was hoisted up on the exam table and laid out on his stomach, the bloody bandages JD had applied in full view for all in attendance to see. Not to mention a fair amount of pale skin.

Leaving JD to help Nathan, Chris, Buck and Josiah left, laughing, to find Ezra. Vin buried his face in his arms in embarassment. Revenge was going to taste mighty good. Stifling his laughter, Nathan examined the comically located wound, trying his best not to actually touch Vin unless it was absolutely necessary. But it did need to be stitched up. As he turned his back to fetch his needles, Vin tried to ease himself off the table. Nathan knew what he was up to without actually seeing him.

"Y'all slink outta here now, I'm done with ya," he drawled, rummaging through a drawer. "But Doc Burrows is still in town. Reckon he'd be happy to take a look at ya." Vin groaned and put his head back down.

The tracker's backside only required a few stitches, but the work still tired Nathan out. His head started to ache, matching the pain in his shoulder. He finished with the bandages and shuffled to the cabinet. He took down the bottle of laudanum and handed it to Lee, who took a drink. Nathan took a swig, then handed the bottle to Vin before sinking into a chair.

"JD did a right fine job on that," he muttered, leaning his head back and closing his eyes. "Darn good thing ya wasn't snake bit, huh?" he finished before drifting to sleep.

Left alone in the rat infested jail house, Elaina slipped out her bodice knife and set to work on the ancient lock.

"It'd be mighty fine if you would give me the knife" Chris spoke as he stepped through the door of the jailhouse.

Now that Vin was actually being cared for and was going to be alright, he had belatedly remembered the prisoner they had left alone. Good thing he had too or who knows how far she could have gotten.

Lee stiffled a snicker during the whole procedure Vin went through. Needless to say he did not feel a lot of sympathy for the tracker. He could feel the laudanum start to take affect. As his eye lids drooped his memory relaxed.

The fluttering memory that refused to materalize came back in bits and pieces. He still could not quite recall what it was as he slipped into a comfortable sleep. Elaina had been concentrating so much on the lock that the sound of Larabee's voice made her jump. She glared up at him, then slipped the 'pig-sticker' back into her bodice. She stepped to the back of the cell.

"You want it? Come and get it."

Chris unlocked the cell and stepped inside, locking it behind him and throwing the keys out of the cell.

"I aint got no problem with that" he looked at her as he stepped closer

"Though I hear tell you prefer scrawny trackers" he stated as he ripped the front of her dress open and plunged his hand into the bodice of her dress grabbing the small knife his fingers encountered.

JD didn't even have to ask what kind of plans Vin wanted to make. There was only one force that could make a man put off sleep, however briefly. Revenge. "Get some sleep, Vin," he told the tracker, though the advice was a waste of breath.

He let himself out of the clinic quietly, trying not to disturb the sleeping occupants. Though, if they were even half as tired as he was, the entire Union Army could march through the small room without waking them.

Rolling his shoulders gently, trying to work loose the tension he carried there. Slow, shuffled steps carried him toward the boarding house and bed. His brain wrapped around the promise of sleep like a lifeline.

As he reached the wooden boardwalk, he remembered the horses. Frantically he tried to banish the thought, but it was too late. The horses had been through every bit as much as they had. It just wasn't right to leave them in their tack now that he had time to tend them. With a heavy sigh, and forlorn look toward the boarding house stair and what might has been, JD headed to the livery.

He tended Buck's gray first, removing the heavy saddle with some difficulty despite the familiarity of the motions. JD brushed the exhausted gelding down, making sure he had both food and water before repeating the process with Vin's horse.

Milagro he devoted extra time to, making up for the abuse he'd asked the little bay to take. He brushed the soft coat, working the grime out in gentle strokes. Expert fingertips sought out the small scratches and cuts that crisscrossed the powerful form. He sponged them clean, frowning as he came across a particularly deep one.

Yosemite kept a jar of salve in an empty stall that doubled as a supply room and rough surgery. Speaking soothingly to Milagro, he moved to retrieve the salve. He yawned all the way down to his toes. His battered ribs protested the unwelcome expansion violently, leaving JD dizzy with pain.

He only meant to sit down for a moment to recover his equilibrium. But the hay on the floor was fresh and deep, He closed his eyes for just a moment, only to discover that he couldn't open them. His limbs were leaden, and up and down no longer had any meaning. JD was asleep before his head even hit the floor.

Buck sat on the steps in front of the jailhouse waiting for JD to come out of the livery. He had been going to follow Chris into the jailhouse but as he had opened the door, he had seen Chris ripping open the bodice of Elainas dress. Stepping backwards quickly he quietly closed the door and decided that he would try and get some rest and regroup before Elainas goons came a searchin

Turning to make his way to his room at the boarding house he caught sight of JD disappearing into the livery. Dropping heavily to sit on the top step, he prepared to wait for his young companion. He could see from JDs posture alone that the kid was exhausted, but he also knew that his exhaustion would not allow him to neglect their steeds. He only hoped that he wasnt pushing himself too hard.

Buck rested his head against the rail and waited for JDs reappearance. Some time later however, his face creased into a frown. It shouldnt be taking this long. Fear began to fill his mind that he hadnt immediately followed JD, maybe some of the goons from the shootout still lingered in the livery, maybe JD was in danger, in the livery all alone like that. Standing quickly he moved with a renewed purpose towards the livery. His hand resting on the butt of his gun ready for whatever danger his young friend was in.

Creeping into the livery, he moved silently into the building, his footsteps crunching in the fresh hay. When he reached Milagros stall, his eyes widened and a slow grin crossed his face. JD laid in the fresh smelling hay, curled on his side, sleeping like a baby. Pushing his hat back on his head he scratched his temple, pondering his options. In the end it came down to one thing. He didnt have the heart to disturb him. Casting his gaze around the livery he found a saddle blanket and walked into the stall. Leaning forward and placing a light kiss on Milagros nose in greeting and a long scratch behind his ears as he passed him. Settling himself in the hay beside JD, his back resting against the wall behind him, he flicked the blanket out covering JD.

Brushing an errant bang back from JDs face, he leaned back, bone weary and feeling twice his age. Lifting his gun from its holster he laid it in his lap and allowed himself to almost relax. Almost. In his mind at the moment he was the only thing that stood between JD and the bad guys and he wouldnt let him down again. But not even that could keep him awake so he dozed fitfully, one hand on JDs head the other loosely cradling his gun, each noise almost rousing him but still allowing him the rest he so richly needed.

Vin was faced with a dilema as JD left the clinic. The muscles in his posterior had taken enough abuse and the thought of descending the stairs at this moment was not appealing. So, unless he took the extra pain and went down to his wagon, that meant he was sleeping in the clinic. The next question was where. It sounded too painful to lower himself to the floor.

Grabbing a pillow, he did the only practical thing in his mind. He carefully lay back down on the table, sliding himself there on his stomach. Vin placed the mare's leg under the pillow, close at hand. He knew he needed to change his trousers but they were downstairs and he was upstairs. It was just too far...

Before the thought was finished Vin was asleep.

Vin awoke before the others in the room. He carefully slid off the table. While he didn't feel entirely rested he did feel better. That is until he tried to move his leg.

Carefully letting himself out of the clinic Vin made his way down the stairs, leading with his bad side so he didn't have to flex any unecesary muscles there, then hobbled to his wagon. It was still early and very few people were up and moving about. Only two or three spotted him as he rummaged in the back of his wagon for a pair of trousers to replace the blood soaked ones he wore.

Now, where to change. The jail was out. Elaina was there. Vin made a mental note to check on the woman as soon as he changed his clothes. Vin settled on the livery.

Even his horse seemed to get a good laugh at Vin's predicament, nickering loudly as Vin struggled into clean trousers.

"Think this is funny huh?"

"Well if he don't I do," Buck's voice came softly from the next stall. Vin moved over to teh stall wall and looked over to find JD asleep in teh hay and Buck leaning against the wall, still half asleep himself.

"Go back ta sleep Buck. This is all just a bad dream," Vin hobbled out of the stall. "Gotta be a bad dream," he muttered to himself even as Buck's low chuckle followed him out the door.

Vin entered the jail house as quietly as he could. If Elaina was asleep he certainly didn't want to wake her. No sense waking up a rattlesnake. But Vin was startled by the sight that met his eyes. Elaina was curled up asleep on the floor, her head resting in the lap of Chris Larabee.

A grin on his face, Vin bent carefully and retrieved the keys and a wayward knife from the floor. Nearing the cell door he began to jingle the key ring.

"Hey Larabee! Time ta wake up!"

The quiet creaking of the boards slowly penetrated the drug induced fog in his brain. He slowly drug his eyes open. The light coming through both window and door placed both light and shadow in the clinic. Light coming from the door was momentarily blocked then came back. Lee slowly turned to face the person who entered the room, it was Mary, and she had a tray in hand.

As she set the tray down on the examination table she asked, “How are you feeling?”


“Um, there’s someone that’d like to visit.” She felt awkward telling him this.

“Hopefully not the Johnson woman.” He shook his head.

“No it’s not.” She looked to Nathan, he was slumped in the chair since yesterday.

Mary nodded and moved towards the door. Minutes after she disappeared another person entered the small room. Lee recognized him almost immediately.

“What are you doing out here, I thought you were still in San Antonio.” He gave a sad smile.

“I haven’t been there in years. I moved up North soon after you left.”

They were disturbed by the healer starting to stir.

JD was suffocating. No matter how hard he tried to draw breath, the thick heat had solidified the air around him--withholding precious oxygen. He tried to call for help, tried to scream at the death that danced all around him, but nothing came out.

Lurching to he feet, he staggered to where the doorway should have been. Pungent smoke filled the room, obscuring his vision behind stinging tears. Blindly he groped for the wall. Something at his ankle drew him up shot.

The chain! How could he forget the chain? Almost sobbing in frustration, JD turned to try and pry the heavy metal links from the mortar they were set in. His probing hands lighted not on the expected iron, but on another pair of hands clamped about his leg.

Nathan stared up at JD from the floor, the emptiness in his eyes at odds with the broken look of despair that shrouded his features. "Levi?" he pleaded.

"Please, Levi. So close. . . jus' stay."

JD dropped to his knees, trying to soothe the healer's cries at the same time he began working the powerful hands from about his ankle. "We have to get out of here, Nathan."

At his voice, Nathan's eyes cleared and refocused into a cutting rage. "You!" he exploded at JD, his hands releasing JD as the force off his cry knocked the younger man backward into a wall. With a speed that should have been impossible, the larger man's hands were at JD's throat.

JD thrashed wildly, trying to break the ironclad hold. A dismissive laugh pulled his attention beyond Nathan's shoulder. Chris stood there, a hard look in his eye. "I told ya, you should have gotten back on that stage. You ain't the type, kid," Chris said, his tone cutting. "All I asked was that you get Nathan to the gate. Now look."

"I tried," JD gasped out. "Chris, you know I tried." His protests fell on deaf ears as Chris turned away with a dismissive shake of his head.

"Hell, kid," a new voice interrupted, "That's the problem. You're always tryin' but when it gets right down to it, you always screw up. An' then Ol' Buck has to ride to the rescue. Damned pain in the ass."

JD felt as though he'd been punched. "No. . . Buck. . ." The sudden tightness in JD's throat had nothing to do with the grip that was slowly killing him. "You don't. . .mean that."

"Ahh, but I believe he does," Ezra drawled in response for Buck. The Southerner stepped forward and placed a hand on Nathan's shoulder. "Your inability to protect Mr. Jackson has created a rift between us all. Why, without your incompetence Mr. Sanchez would not have felt it necessary to resort to extreme measures to protect Mr. Jackson from an imagined threat."

As he turned to walk away, JD could see the gaping wound in his back. "NO!" he shouted with the last of his breath. "I was there. He didn't. . . didn't. . . no."

Josiah stepped next from the smoke. JD had never seen the giant of a man look so small. His head was hung in shame, normally broad shoulders stooped by terrible knowledge. Slowly he raised his eyes to meet JD's. He shook his head sadly and disappeared without a word.

"no. . . . no. . . . not real," he insisted, stubbornly fighting the black molasses that crept into his vision.

"Believe me," a silky voice purred. "It's very real." Elaina crossed the room on Vin's arm, stepping disdainfully over the prone form of Lee's body. In her hands she carried a watch fob that swung hypnotically, mesmerizing JD. He tried to flinch away as the silver medallion dissipated and Elaina reached out to brush a lock of JD's hair out of his face. Then she turned to regard Nathan. "Ironic isn't it? Life, death. . . healer, killer. . . it's all so closely linked."

". . . you. . . did this." JD turned his eyes to Vin, pleading for help silently.

The tracker seemed to understand what he was asking, but rather than help JD, Vin turned to the intoxicating woman next to him. As he kissed her deeply, Vin mumbled against her lips. "Sorry, kid. Maybe you'll understand when you're older."

". . . no. . . " JD repeated as the blackness claimed him. Swirling images assaulted him. Fire. . . smoke. . . the giant Simmons. . . Grady. . . the stable hand in Purgatorio. . . Casey. . . Nettie. . . Chris. . . Buck. . . and. . . Nathan. Rage contorted his friend's features, but the normally warm eyes were unmistakably dead. A look JD had helped put there.

"Nonononononononononono," he sobbed, trying to curl in on himself. "please, no."

JD's jerking, twitching movements had roused Buck from the uneasy slumber he had fallen into. Then pain that JD was obviously feeling weighed heavily on Buck. It was one thing to protect him form the bad guys physically hurting him, but there was no way alive that he could protect the younger man from the emotional torment they had been subjected to. All he could do was try to help him through the aftermath.

Unbuckling his gunbelt, he slid his gun home and pushed his belt to the other side of the stall. No sense for any accidents to happen if they didn't need to. Shaking JD gently he tried to free him form the insidious tentacles of the nightmare he had been drawn into. Turning the younger man towards him, he gently wiped tears from JD's cheeks and knelt by his side, trying to rouse him. He fought ineffectually against the strength of JD's arms as they batted against his hands.

The smaller man's body curled into a ball, his arms flailing wildly, Buck took several violent hits before he changed his tactics. Moving until he kneeled behind JD he deftly caught him in his tight embrace, trapping his arms with his own. Moving backwards on the hay covered ground he leaned against the wall of the livery, JD held tight in his embrace, his back against Buck's chest, JD's head resting on his shoulder. Buck's crooning words of comfort doing little to calm the frantic troubled dreams of his young companion.

It nearly broke Buck's heart to hear JD's plaintive cries, none as much as when he spoke with such heartbreaking devastation in his voice "No. . . Buck. . .You don't. . .mean that.". He felt like he had been sucker punched. The air sucked from his lungs even as his mouth struggled to find the words that would disavow whatever lies JD's mind had concocted to torment his sleep.

Tears welled in Buck's eyes as he fought to speak through the lump that had constricted his throat.

"JD son" he began "I don't know what you are hearing in there" he risked lifting one hand to gently stroke the side of JD's head "But it's all lies boy" he mumbled "I'm here, I'm real feel me" he pulled JD tighter against his chest then shook him "I need you to wake up JD" he spoke a little harshly worried about him more with each passing minute.

"no. . . . no. . . . not real," JD insisted

"I'm real JD" Buck spoke "See" he grabbed JD's hand and held it to his face allowing him to feel his skin, hoping that JD would believe he wasn't some sort of ghostly apparition.

". . . you. . . did this." JD murmured

"Did what JD? I just wanted to keep you safe" Buck frowned his mind desperately seeking the cause of his friends distress

"Nonononononononononono," JD wailed struggling to curl into the smallest shape that he could, desperately trying to curl in upon himself and protect himself from the pain that he was being subjected to.

Buck drew a deep shuddering breath and turned JD in his arms, knowing what he had to do. Swinging his arm back tightly, he slapped JD across the face. The force of the slap snapped JD's head back, but the blow did what it was intended to do. The desolate, lost glaze that had been in JD's vacant gaze had disappeared to be replaced with a hurt, confused frown.

"Welcome Back Kid" Buck spoke with a sigh as he pulled the smaller man into a tight relieved embrace.

The soft click of the jail house door closing reached Elaina's awareness, and she opened her eyes experimentally. She was cold and stiff, but also comfortable. Slowly, she realized that she was laying on the floor, in one of the cells, her head cradled in the soft pillow of a lap. She shifted slightly, groaning at the pain that shot through aching muscles. Her focus settled on the sleeping face of the man in whose lap her head lay.

Larabee? How had he..? Then it came back to her, the challenge, and his brazen response, locking himself in the cell with her.

** The fight had been brief, but intense. When Larabee had ripped her dress, Elaina had responded with a tight-fisted blow across his cheek. It had barely registered on him when he'd responded with a blow of his own, laying new bruises over the ones left by Vin. Then he had her pinned to the wall, her wrists gripped in one hand, over her head, his body pressed against hers, preventing any movement. The cold look of hatred in his eyes had truly frightened her.

"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't kill you right now," he'd growled, the words clipped and deadly. She had tried to meet his gaze, but failed. Instead, she had closed her eyes and allowed herself to sag in his grip.

"I do what I have to," she had whispered. "That's all I've ever known. Survival. No one ever gave me anything that I didn't have to take." His grip had shifted slightly, relaxing imperceptibly.

"That doesn't give you the right to attack my men."

"What gives anyone the right to do anything?" she'd countered. "I was only twelve years old when your 'friend' Fitzgerald broke into my house and murdered my father and brothers. My mother was forced to sell herself so that we could get by." Elaina had felt herself begin to cry, and had tried unsuccessfully to fight the tears. "She was a good, Christian woman, and it killed her. I went into 'the business' when I was thirteen."

The man's eyes had softened slightly as he'd released her, and Elaina had slid to the floor, unable to stand anymore. She'd drawn her knees up, hiding her face behind them.

"Do you have any idea what it's like to lose your family?" She had said the words quietly, more to herself than the gunslinger, but apparently he'd heard, because he had pulled her an awkward embrace. The tears had started in earnest then, releasing years of fears and hurt. When there were no more tears, he'd slumped against the wall, cradling her head in his lap and silently stroking her hair. He had fallen asleep shortly after, but Elaina had remained awake for some time, fighting the images that danced in her head - of things that had been and than should have been or could have been - until sleep had finally claimed her as well. Chris felt Elaina's breathing change in tempo, realising that she had finally woken. He cleared his throat as he prepared to speak to her and offer the olive branch he had spent most of the night formulating.

"You've lost a family, I don't want to lose another one" he paused feeling her stiffen against him he knew she was listening "I think it's time for a truce" he spoke calmly "You never know you might even find a family in us"

Elaina pushed herself into a sitting position, blinking sleep from her eyes. *Had she heard correctly?* She stared into the gunslinger's eyes, searching for some sign of lie or deceit, but saw none. So what was his angle? She'd seen the flash of hurt and anger at the mention of losing family, and known she'd struck a nerve. And now he was just willing to let bygones be bygones? Not likely. Maybe he was trying to make her let her guard down, to trick her into a fatal move. Maybe he really thought she was stupid enough to fall for his tricks. Her only small hope at family had been a son who had been torn from her by the same man who had destroyed her first family, along with her childhood and innocence.

Yet now a friend of that man was offering her a small chance of redemption, a possibility of a small semblance of normalcy that had never been available to her. The very idea was ludicrous.

Even if the hardened gunslinger forgave her, what of the others? The young man JD, whom she had terrorized with the subtle charms of a woman preying on the innocence of youth? The healer, a gentle, pure soul who had suffered nightmares at her hands? Vin, who had looked at her with loathing, hating himself for the way he felt about her as much as he hated her herself? And what about Josiah, the man of God, or gods, who had had his faith stripped bare by her actions? And Buck and Ezra, who had been forced to sit by, helpless as she tried to destroy their family.

And there was Lee Fitzgerald. Could she ever bring herself to forgive him. Her whole life had been dedicated to the one defining moment of standing over his grave, running her fingers over the engraving on his tombstone that announced his godforsaken mortality. Could a chance at redemption be worth abandoning that dream?

Elaina blinked tears. Her whole life was a shambles. There wasn't one thing about it that had been good, or compassionate. She was an utter, miserable failure, without any redeeming qualities.

Still, there might be hope.

"Why?" she whispered, "why would you do this for me?"

"Why?" Chris frowned "Because I know what its like to lose a family, I know what it is like to seek vengeance" he shrugged "To be driven by the desire to see the person who caused the destruction of your life and everything that meant anything to you buried. Their life taken by your hands as they took the lives of your family" he paused caught up in his own memories

Silence stretched between them for a few minutes, both reflecting on their pasts and too ensnared by the pain of their memories to talk past their suffering.

"If you accept it's not up to me" he spoke again "You've hurt my new family badly" he looked deeply into her eyes trying to guage her reaction "You'll have to work hard to alter the pains you have caused them" he stated "If you can at all" he paused, his fingers reaching out to touch the jagged edges of her dress where he had ripped it

"So" he looked up at her with a sly grin "What's your answer?"

Vin couldn't believe what he was hearing. Chris was actually offering a place for that... that witch in Four Corners? Couldn't be. Chris must be playing some elaborate game. That had to be the explanation.

Silently Vin backed out of the jail. Once outside he collapsed up against the outer wall of the building, his knees threatening to give out on him. He was overcome with an unexplained feeling and he wasn't liking it. It was a combination of shock, fear and something else...something Vin didn't want to admit to. He almost felt...jealous.

But of what? And why? Chris holding Elaina? Vin himself had deceived the woman and gotten her to Four Corners and to jail. Maybe it wasn't jealousy at all. Maybe it was concern. Because Chris was holding Elaina? Because Chris had bought into one of her schemes? Yeah, that had to be it. Why would he feel jealousy?

He remained leaning up against the building, trying to work out his feelings before re-entering the jail. After all, he had the keys in his hand.

Vin played over the last few days and weeks in his head. And he kept coming back to one memory over and over.

The woman sure could kiss.

Chris looked at where their hands were joined appraisingly. He knew that his actions coould be bringing more pain to his little family and that was not what he wanted at all. But if he let her continue the destructive path she was following who knows how much more they would be hurt or worse. "If I let you out of here I want your word that you will follow my wishes to the letter" he paused looking at her "You see the others, when and if they agree to seeing you" he stopped and stood moving away from her "You will be living at my cabin with me and I see you step out of line or even think about stepping out of line I'll shoot you myself"

He watched as she sat silently on the floor of the cell watching his aimless pacing before he paused with his final condition.

"There's just one more thing" he spoke queitly but with enough force for hr to know he wasnt joking "Leave Vin Alone"

"Back?" JD's question was muffled against Buck's shoulder. "Didn't go nowhere."

"Sure you didn't," Buck agreed, a shade too cheerfully. The sobs that had wracked JD's slight frame had given way to light tremors. "C'mon, let's get you up to Nathan's."

JD stiffened, pulling completely away from Buck in more ways than one. "Don't need to see the doc."

"Yes. You do," Buck insisted, standing up and knocking the hay from his clothes. He held out a hand to help JD stand. "You aren't gonna make me help you up there like I had to help Vin, are ya?"

JD wanted to be surly, but Buck's mock-threat was so familiar that he couldn't pull it off. "You wouldn't," he tried to growl, an effect that was lost in the grin that kept trying to break through.

Buck heard the smile lurking behind the grumpy front JD put up and relaxed. If the kid was laughing, he'd be okay. That didn't mean he was about to let JD get out of a visit to Nathan's. He caught the woolen shoulder of JD's jacket in a subtle, but firm grip that let him both unobtrusively steer and support the kid's slightly off-kilter path toward the door. JD seemed willing to play along until they stepped into the bright sunlight.

"C'mon, Buck," JD said, suddenly noticing that he was being shepherded toward the clinic. "Nathan was hurt too. Bad. He doen't need anyone else to look after."

Shaking his head, and more than slightly relieved at the resistance he'd been waiting for, Buck countered the argument good-naturedly. "Then Nathan can watch and *I* check you over."

"You're hurt too," JD grumbled. "Shouldn't even be out of bed yet."

"Well," Buck said as he nodded to one of the saloon girls, "I don't plan on staying out of it too long. Only reason I got up was to save your sorry ass." He'd meant it as a joke, the kind of banter that had defined the kinship between the two of them.

JD couldn't believe he'd heard Buck actually say that. His best friends voice grotesquely echoing the verbal blow from his nightmare. Unconsciously he tightened, muscles coiling to ward off a blow that struck deeper than flesh and blood. "Don't go to no trouble on my account." Even his voice was taunt and wary as JD slipped out of the jacket Buck still held on to aand stalked away from the gunman.

Buck looked quickly at the jacket in his hand and strode after JD down the main street of town

"What the hell brought that on?" Buck cussed as his long legs ate up the distance that JD's furious stride had already travelled

"Nuthin" JD muttered as he shrugged away from Buck's hand on his shoulder

"Then put your jacket back on and stop being so stupid" he spoke as he thrust the jacket into JD's hands

JD stopped in his tracks and turned on his older friend "Do you really think I'm stupid?" he spoke his hazel eyes defiant and blazing with hurt

"Hell no!" Buck exclaimed so instantly that JD knew that he wasn't lyng to him

"Then why are you always telling me I am" he shrugged away from Buck's helping hand as he tried to push his arms back into his jacket.

Buck watched JD's staccato movements and knew that a half hearted joking response wasn't gonna get him out of the hole he'd dug this time. Taking a deep breath he began to speak earnestly "Sometimes Kid" Buck shrugged "You do some really dumb things" he paused "You're brave and selfless and always ready to put yourself on the line for what you think is right" he swallowed hard "But JD you're my friend and I don't want to lose you" he looked into JD's eyes his own filled with brimming tears "You break cover, you fan your guns, you do things without thinking that puts you in more danger than you need to be in. That's stupid JD, not you yourself, just some of the things you do"

JD looked at Buck trying to assess the words that he heard "I'm sorry if my words hurt you kid" Buck spoke earnestly "But I'm a lot like you" he shrugged his shoulders "Cept sometimes I say things without thinking, things that while I mean well still hurt others" he looked into the earnest hazel eyes and extended a hand for shaking "I'm sorry Kid" he stated waiting for JD's response.

Josiah rose and clasped a large hand on Nathan's shoulder. "Maybe later, Brother Nate, when all of this has settled down some. We all have some talking and explaining to do." He stretched and rubbed his temples. "Think I'll head over to the jail, see if Chris needs any help. Get some better weapons than ol' Bessie." He grinned and Nathan nodded back.

"Rifle's saved me more than once."

Josiah stepped out of the clinic. "Reckon I' get someone to fix that door, too."

Nathan allowed himself to laugh. The past week had been nothing short of Hell for the small group, and levity had been at a premium. It was nice to think that maybe things had settled down and were beginning to get back to normal. Though he thought that normal would be long in coming. There was a lot of healing yet to be done, not all of it physical. It would certainly help to have that Noonan woman out of the way, in Levenworth, or better yet, dancing at the end of a rope.

Nathan shook the thought. He'd play executioner himself given the chance, for the torment she'd inflicted on his friends, and that hate a malevolence was so contrary to his nature, that it stunned and frightened him. She had done far more damage than she would ever know.

He sighed and stood, then checked on Ezra, who was sleeping. He noticed Lee silently watching him and poured a cup of coffee that he laced liberally with whisky. He handed the cup to the gunslinger and settled into the chair next to his bed. "You were talking about a girl," he started carefully, not sure if he was treading on forbidden ground.

"Angela, Angilique, something like that. Who is she?"

Elaina released Larabee's hand, then wiped tears and sniffled. She hated that he was seeing her weakness. She hated the compassion he was willing to show. She hated the way he was chipping away at her hate, at her very being.

Still, it was a small thread, a glimmer of light. What other choice did she have?

"There are some things you need to know," she finally said, watching him intently for reaction. "I know about your family." He raised an eyebrow, and she chuckled. "Know your enemy. I even talked to Ella Gains." She smiled wryly. "Now there's one sick woman." The man's glare startled her and she moved away. "I know about Tanner, and Eli Joe. I know about Josiah's sister. And Obediah Jackson, what happened to Nathan's family, his brother, Levi. And Mr. Standish..." She smiled again. "Researching that man is enough to give one a terrible headache." This elicited a small grin from the gunslinger. "Wilmington doesn't have many ghosts, besides the ones you share. And I know that JD's name is John. I lied to him. My son's name was Caleb. What happened to him was mostly my fault. I instilled the hate in him. I raised him to be what he was, and in the end it killed him."

She fell silent, tracing idle patterns in the dust of the jailhouse floor. It was all in the open now. If Larabee was sincere, she'd soon find out. But it was knowledge she desperately needed.

He moved to loop his hand under her chin and turn her face to his. Wiping the last of her tears from her face he watched her closely.

"It will take a lot of work to get the others to trust you" he advised her

"Hell most of them would just as soon see you hanging from a rope" he paused

"But this town gave us all a chance and if you are truly willing to try maybe it will give you a chance too"

Josiah stepped into the small jail, startled at the sight that met his eyes. He bit back a sarcastic comment as he saw Larabee brushing tears away from Elaina's cheeks. Instead, he strode over to the cell and leaned on the bars.

"Not interrupting anything, am I?" he asked. Larabee glanced up.

"Thought you might need some relief," the preacher continued. Josiah didn't know what the gunslinger was up to, but he trusted the man's judgment. He turned to leave. "Guess I thought wrong."

"No" chris spoke "We're doin just fine here"

He waited until the door closed behind Josiah before he dipped his head to capture Elaina's lips with his own. Catching her gasp of surprise aginst his mouth before he deepened the kiss and pulled her tightly into his arms.

" 'm fine, Buck," JD said, brushing off the implied order to go to bed. "Got plenty of sleep, but Chris ain't yet."

"JD, you don't have to go in there, son. You don't have anything to prove."

JD shook his head stubbornly. "Not provin' anything. Jus' have a job to do," he said ,determinedly walking toward the jail as Josiah stepped out. Ezra tensed and lay still. He had woken up just in time to hear Nathan asking Lee about a woman? girl? and suspected that if he reminded them of his presence, he wouldn't get to hear the story. Since he had little else to do, and an ample supply of curiosity, he strained to hear any sound from Lee.

Josiah watched as JD strode toward the jail, trailed by a protesting Buck. He moved to intercept the kid, trying to decide what to say. He wasn't sure how JD would take Chris and Elaina in the cell together, despite the fact that nothing untoward seemed to be going on. But he knew that if he told the kid outright not to go in, he'd probably do it in defiance.

"JD, Buck," he greeted. "JD, son, I think we need to talk. I owe you an explanation. At least."

“Angélica Ramirez y Martinez,” Lee whispered. “Someone I knew a long, long time ago,” he continued louder. Hazel eyes swung in the direction the healer was at. He could tell Nathan was almost uncomfortable.

“You don’t have to say nuthin’ if you don’t wanna.” Nathan spoke as if he thought Lee would clam up, but Lee realized it was time.

Looking back over what had happened Lee realized Johnson, he was thinking of her as Johnson rather than Noonan now, triggered the memories. Well the gunshot wound helped also.

“She was killed by a stray bullet thirty-five years ago.”

Chris broke off his kiss hastily as Vin burst in the door of the dingy jailhouse and Elaina stepped away. The kiss had been completely unexpected - although not at all unenjoyable - and had caught her off guard. Her head was still swirling with the implications when Tanner started pulling guns from the rifle rack. Josiah, Buck and JD stood just inside the door, not quite sure what was going on.

"Your friend there," Vin gestured to Elaina with a nod of his head, "has another group of thugs out there, and they look like they're ready for action."

Chris bent to pick up the keys, then glance at Elaina. "That true?"

She nodded mutely, shying away from his angry eyes. "They...I..."

The gunslinger let himself out of the cell and slammed the door shut.

"Wait!" Elaina called. He stopped, his back to her. "I can stop them. Let me go out and talk to them." Vin laughed and the three lawmen in the doorway shifted uncomfortably. "Please," Elaina continued. "Trust me. You can't hold off another attack. They have dynamite. And a Gattling gun. They'll burn this town to the ground." Vin paused only briefly as he pulled guns from the rack and began loading them. He glanced over at Elaina as he worked then at Chris who was moving over to join him.

"You believe her?" he asked quietly.

Chris looked long and hard at his friends and then back at the woman catching her eye and holding her gaze.

"Yeah I do" he paused "Figure she's dead if she's lying"

He left the unspoken threat lay between them as he moved forward to open the door and grant her either the path to her own salvation or a temporary repreive from a life that would be cut short. The choice was all hers. Vin watched Chris as the gunslinger opened the door for Elaina Noonan. With a barely concealed snort and a shake of his head, he continued loading rifles with the others while waiting to see what the woman would do. Elaina walked slowly from the cell, keeping her eyes on the floor. She was confused, fighting the urge to run - not that she'd make it far with the five lawmen between her and freedom. She'd asked Larabee to trust her, but could she trust him? No matter, really. He'd threatened to shoot her if she crossed him. But God help him and his if he crossed her. The fear and hate was still hovering close to the surface, and a lifetime of vengeance was hard to abandon.

"I'll need my horse," she whispered. "And something to wear." chris watched her carefully then unbuttoned his shirt and threw it to her.

"That the best you'll get on short notice' he stated. as he watched her button it on over her torn dress

"You double cross me and you will pay" he spoke to her firmly as he took her by the arm and led her out of the jailhouse "You stand by me and you never know what you'll find when you get back" he wathced her carefully as she looked at him.

"What does that mean?" she frowned

"You'll see when you get back" he spoke calmly "I have no qualms about killing you Elaina" he nodded to the horizon "If you so much as look like you are doublecrossing me I will shoot you"

he shrugged his shoulders "But then you'll never know" he spoke and turned back to the jail leaving her standing on the boardwalk

All preparations for the upcoming invasion had stopped the moment Elaina stepped from the jail cell. Vin cast a furtive glance from Chris and what was going on between him and Elaina, to JD who had stopped totally, his mouth dropping open slightly and his face turning even paler than it had been.. This wasn't lost on Buck, who took a step closer to the young man.

Vin was having a hard time reading the man, who not so long ago was an open book to him. the two thought so much alike that it seemed as if they could read each others minds. Shoot, maybe they could. But not now.

The only conclusion Vin could come to was that his friend had gone completely insane...

...or that he had some elaborate plan up his sleeve.

Vin was hoping for the latter.

Elaina wrapped Chris' shirt around her shoulders and walked out of the small jail, giving the other peacekeepers as wide a berth as possible. Chris fell into step beside her and the others followed silently. The small procession was watched curiously as it made it's way up the main street to the livery. Despite keeping her gaze down, Elaina couldn't help but notice the hard looks that the simple folk gave her. She could hardly blame them, after all she'd caused to happen the the small community.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Mary Travis staring at them as they passed the Clarion building. The younger woman shook her head and went back inside the office, brushing past her father-in-law. Orrin Travis patted her shoulder, then stalked into the street. He tapped Chris on the shoulder, and for a frightening moment, Elaina was by herself at the front of the entourage, but Josiah quickly moved into the spot that Chris had vacated.

Elaina stood placidly as her horse was saddled. She was a bit surprised when Josiah helped her to mount. She really wasn't sure that any of the men wanted anything to do with her. Cautiously, she nudged the black forward, flanked by Chris and Vin. The sharpshooter kept his rifle slung pointedly across his lap, free of the scabbard. Elaina knew of his skill, and had no doubt that he would shoot her if he felt the need. She wondered morosely what it would feel like to have a bullet burn through her brain, taking all conscious thought from her. The thought was somehow comforting.

At the top of the ridge, her escorts pulled up and she rode forward alone.

Josiah watched the woman ride into the small valley. There were close to twenty men gathered below, and he shuddered at the thought of the damage that they could do to the ragged peacekeeping group. He watched Chris curiously, wondering what the man was playing at. Josiah knew all too well that people could change, for the better as well as the worse. From the small bit he'd gathered, he knew that Elaina's early life had been close to a living Hell. Maybe given the right conditions, she could change. That wouldn't make up for what she'd done. She'd have to answer for that. But he trusted Chris' judgment, and would stand by his decision.

Elaina rode into the cluster of men without challenge. She pulled up the big horse, and started talking with a scraggly man on a gaunt palomino. After a few moments, they seemed to be arguing, then she drew something from her pocket and threw it at the man.

"Key," Vin muttered quietly. He was watching the exchange intently through his scope.

Chris nodded silently.

Elaina turned her horse back toward the ridge, but the man caught the bridle of her horse and pulled it's head around, then backhanded the woman. She tumbled from the saddle and into the dirt. The watching lawmen drew their weapons in anticipation, but the group of outlaws spun their mounts and spurred away from the town. Elaina rose slowly to her feet and gathered her horse's reins, wiping blood from the corner of her mouth, then started to walk slowly back toward the ridge, limping slightly.

Chris watched her sturggling to keep up her end of the bargain and return, breaking away from his freinds he rode down the hill. stopping his horse beside hers he never said a word just nodded his head and extended a hand to her. She looked at his hand for a moment then pushed hers into it. Swinging her up he lifted her across his lap, pulling her tight against him and taking the reains of her horse from her hand.

"Now you wanna tell me what just happened?" he spoke as he started to walk his horse back up the hill

Nathan dropped a small handful of herbs into the kettle of boiling water, waiting for Lee to continue with his story. He felt bad about asking about the girl, but Lee seemed to be willing to talk to him. A commotion outside caught his attention, and he stepped out onto the small porch. He saw nothing amiss, and called to Judge Travis, who bounded up the steps to the clinic.

"What's going on?" Nathan asked.

Travis sighed, looking past him toward Lee. "Larabee's letting that woman go to talk to her men, to try to stop them from attacking the town."

"He what?" the healer asked, not sure he heard right.

"I don't agree with it, but if it can keep the town safe..."

Nathan shook his head. "He's got no idea what that woman's capable of. Stupid, foolish..." Nathan stalked onto the porch. The memories that he'd been trying to suppress forced their way out, and he squeezed his eyes shut. He knew that something had happened between him and JD because of Noonan's treatment of them. He couldn't recall everything, but he knew it was something terrible. He'd been shot and tormented on her orders. Old, painful memories had resurfaced because of her. And there was the hate he was fighting because of Noonan's twisted sense of vengeance.

Nathan sank heavily onto the bench in front of the clinic. He prayed that Larabee knew what he was doing. The idea of that hellcat running free was chilling. He knew in his heart that the small peacekeeping force would not survive another assault from her.

Guns and force, they knew. They could take on armed outlaws, and their chances of coming out victorious were good. But the subtle mind games that the woman played...Those were harder to fight, and recovery was longer, if they ever did recover completely from the damage done.

Nathan leaned his head back, eyes closed. He wished fervently that they could go back, that she had never come around. That Lee had never led her here.


"They were a bit disappointed," Elaina explained. "They were looking forward to looting the town. I gave them the key to my safe, promised them that they could have the rest of my money." She laughed bitterly. "I don't suppose they're going to be very happy when they find out there's nothing in it. But it will at least give you some time to recover." She rubbed her aching jaw again. She had been caught completely off guard by the violence of the blow she'd received, but figured it was a small hurt compared to...

She shook the thought and closed her eyes, leaning back against Chris' strong chest. It felt so good, to be held and protected, maybe even...loved.

She laughed at that. She'd learned *that* particular lesson with Tanner. She shifted forward, away from the man, sitting upright. Feeling her stiffen against him and then sit straighter, he sighed deeply then spoke

"I'mnot gonna lie to you" he started "things aren't gonna be easy" he looked to his friends "Not one of them will trust you, hell most of them want to string you up" he laughed to himself "Hell I don't even know if I can trust you"

Vin watched the interaction between Chris and the she wolf. For some reason, his blood felt like it was on fire as he watched Elaina lean back into Chris' arms them lean forward again.

What game was she playing? And what harm would it bring to Chris? And the others? JD and Nathan had already fallen victim to her. Vin himself had managed to avoid it, but even he had been tempted by her feminine wiles. Did Chris know that she was playing a game? She had to be. Snakes didn't loose their rattlers.

But something else was bothering him. He had felt it when he found them in the cell together. He couldn't be jealous. He didn't care about the woman. Concern. That must be what it was. Concern for what she might be up to.

Vin pulled up on the reins of his horse, no longer able to watch the demon in the arms of his best friend.

"I'm gonna go check our back trail," he managed to say, then kicked his horse into a trot, the memory of her kiss flickering in his mind...and on his lips. Elaina didn't reply to Chris. She really didn't know what to say. Besides, her face was aching, and she'd twisted her knee when she'd fallen. And she was so tired. She just wanted to curl up and sleep for a week. She sank back against Larabee's chest again, letting her eyes slip shut. Images danced in her mind, of strong arms and soft lips, murmured promises. Flowing blonde curls and musky buckskin...

Elaina's eyes flew open and she let out a startled gasp. Chris felt her relax against him, glad that she was at least pretending to be willing to get along with them at least for a little while. He began to relax, content to treat her just for a short time as the bewildered, woman who had had to fight against the world her entire life and offer her a little comfort and even friendship if she would accept it.

But the word he heard her gasp as she began to relax, changed all his thoughts. He narrowed his eyes as she stiffened against him. His eyes immediately flew to the man who's name she had breathed in shock and what seemed to be startled realisation. Confusion clouded green eyes as he saw the rapidly retreating back of his best friend.

Chris tried to put into some sort of order the thoughts that were flying through his mind. Was something going on between the woman and Vin? Had he caused irrepariable damaage to a fledgling realationship with his actions or was it all just a ploy on Elaina's part to get her own way? Or was the game being played by the sharpshooter. And why the hell when he thought of Elaina and Vin together was he gripped by unaccountable jealousy? Buck watched his oldest friend through narrowed eyes and then cast his gaze over the rest of their family, his rarely raised temper sparking to life as he saw the expression on their faces. Vin's disgust had him already on the trail back to town. Knowing that he was probably the only one who could get away with it he took one last look at JD's horrified face and spurred his horse into movement. Riding slowly towards their approaching leader, he straightened.

"Can I have a word?" he asked Chris as he wheeled the horse around to ride up the hill beside him

"Nope" Chris spoke calmly "I know what you're gonna say and I don't want to hear it" Chris answered

"That's too bad aint it" Buck stated "Cos ya gonna hear it anyway pard"

At Chris's continuing silence and icy glare he continued to speak "You're always telling me not to think with my pants" he paused "Now I'm telling you" he began to wave his hands in frustration" Hell Chris she's nearly destroyed us, who knows what she has done to JD and Nathan, Vin can't even look at her and you want her to just blithely accept her cos you want to get in her britches" he shook his head "It ain't gonna happen Chris" Buck looked at his friend closely and seeing no response he spurred his horse into faster motion and rode away from the man he had called friend for most of his life and the woman who turned his stomach.

Lee watched Nathan move out of the clinic. He could hear the healer call to Orin just outside on the landing. Seeing slight movement out of the corner of his eyes he turned to the other bed. "You can stop pretending Ezra, I know you're awake."

The gambler turned over to face the older man. "What are your plans?" His mouth opened as if he wanted to say something more.

"I honestly dont know."

There was a slight rumble in his midsection and he realized surprisingly enough he was slightly hungry. He wondered how long he had been out of it. Lee raised his voice slightly, "Hey Nathan."

The healer came back in quickly when he heard Lee calling him. Nathan leaned over and placed his hand on Lee's forehead.

"Anyway I can get something to eat around here?"

Nathan crossed the room and felt Lee's forehead. The gunslinger did not have a fever. That was a good sign. "Sure, Lee, no problem. I'll have Inez fix something." He glanced at the other man sleeping in the clinic and smiled. "Reckon I can wrestle up some gruel for Ezra when he wakes up."

He walked slowly down the stairs and toward the saloon. An uneasy hush hung over the small town. People went about their business still, but there wasn't nearly the traffic one would expect. The folks he did see were uncustomarily armed, and appeared wary.

The sounds of shouts and jeers caught his attention, and he turned to see a group of riders coming up the street. He recognized Josiah, then his attention focused on Chris and the woman in his arms. Unconsciously, Nathan stepped back into the shadows of the boardwalk, fighting the emotions and confusion. He felt like he was going to pass out and caught the wall for support. Shaking his head to clear it, he pushed into the saloon.

Except for a very few of the usual drunks, the room was deserted. He walked to the bar, leaning heavily on the wood surface.

"Senor Jackson," Inez smiled. She watched him a moment, then frowned. "Are you all right? You look...pale."

Nathan smiled, then shook his head. "Don't rightly know anymore, Inez." He needed to get away, to sleep for a week, to forget. "Would you send some food up to the clinic for Ezra and Lee?"

Inez nodded, not trying to hide her concern. "What about you, Senor Jackson."

He managed a weak smile. "I'm fine." He turned and left before she could ask anymore questions and walked straight to the livery, where he set about saddling his horse. He wasn't sure how the creature had gotten back from his ill-fated ride, but he was grateful to whoever had cared for the animal.

A small pang of guilt ran through him at the thought that he was abandoning his patients, but he justified his actions by convincing himself that they were recovering, and there wasn't anything he could do for them that they couldn't figure out for themselves. He climbed painfully into the saddle and headed out of town.

Vin backtracked and followed Elaina's men for most of the morning. Finally convinced they were indeed leaving the area, for now anyway, he decided to head back to Four Corners. They would have to watch for their return but for now the town would be safe.

Vin took his time, even though he knew Chris and teh others would be waiting for his report. But he was in no hurry to return. He might see...them...together, and for some reason he refused to admit to, the idea bothered him alot.

The kiss had meant nothing. Right? He had just meant to throw her off guard. She wasn't his type at all. And even if she was, how could he have such thoughts about her after all she had done to his friends. No. She meant nothing to him. And Chris, well, he was certain that Chris was playing a game with her, using her. He was wasn't he?

Deciding he had drug his feet long enough he kicked his horse into a lope and headed back to town.

It was after lunch when he arrived and he stopped his horse in front of the saloon. He knew Chris would be there. Probably with her. And he also knew that JD and Buck would not be there. Not if she was.

Pausing before he entered, he finally pushed his way through the batwing doors. Sure enough, Chris was at a table with her. He approached reluctantly.

"They're gone fer now. Back tracked em for miles." and he turned to leave.

Ezra enjoyed the comfortable silence he shared with Lee, but as thehealer didn't return and didn't return, he began to grow suspicious.

"Mr. Fiztgerald, do you have an unaccountable wariness rising?I am feeling most--"

"It's Lee. And yeah, I wonder where Nathan is."

When Inez stepped through the door, Ezra knew his suspicions werecorrect.

"Well, Lee, it appears that there is indeed no rest for the wicked.I shall return anon." Ezra dragged his tired body out of bed, andhoping that Lee would be too busy with his breakfast to notice, he helped himself to the powdered willow bark. He took enough with himfor a few days, he hoped. He thought that Nathan was on a quest--one caused by Ms. Noonan andthe altercation with JD. Not that Nathan remembered, but Ezra had more than an educated guess, and doubted anyone would have told him.

Well, secrets could be hazardous to one's health, and Ezra had nointention of allowing this to get as out of hand as the last one had.Lee was too busy trying to sit up to notice Ezra preparing to leave the clinic. He caught the gambler's movements behind Inez. "Ezra, you're in no condition to go out looking for Nathan, at least have one of the others go, they're stronger."

Exhaustion coursed through his veins again, just sitting up used what little strength he had. He was almost too tired to eat the simple soup Inez had brought from the saloon.Nathan had ridden away from the small town at a fast pace, anxious to leave behind the crushing oppression he felt. He had initially started toward the Seminole village, and Rain - solace and comfort. Half way there, he stopped.

What was he supposed to tell her? There was no way that he could just pretend everything was all right. But could he burden her with the horrible memories that had been dredged up? Or the new memories that now dominated his waking and sleeping dreams? Worse yet, could he face her while he still was overwhelmed with burning hate? He tried to hold the gentle woman's picture in his mind, sure that it would help banish the brooding mood. But as soon as he focused on her face, it was blotted out by flaming red hair and cold green eyes, and all that he could think of was choking the life out of his tormentor with his bare hands, and of how good it would be to watch the life drain from those eyes.

Nathan shuddered. No, he couldn't go to Rain. Not like this. She would think he was a monster. He turned off the path, letting his horse pick the path, providing only cursory guidance. Somehow, he wasn't startled when he found himself overlooking the charred ruins of the mansion and grounds.

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