Nathan tossed and turned on the narrow cot in the Saint Sebastian mission's guest room, and tried to sleep. It should have been an easy endeavor - he was exhausted, it was almost midnight, and it was a very comfortable bed, if somewhat small. So sleeping should have been a breeze. But it wasn't.
He'd wanted to leave; as soon as Josiah had emerged from his meeting with Ma Nichols with no useful information, Nathan had suggested that they had to keep looking for JD and Casey, or go back to town to make sure the Nichols boys hadn't made a visit there. It seemed like the logical thing to do. But Josiah had argued against it.
Nathan sighed and sat up, his dark eyes wandering around the small, sparsely furnished room as he thought about Josiah's words. Yes, it was true that if Ma Nichols was there, her sons were bound to show up, sooner or later, so it was a good idea to stay and catch them; and yes, it was true that the Nichols' obsession had always been with them, not the town, so it was most likely safe. And if JD or anyone else was hurt, it was better, as Josiah said, for Nathan to be in one place where he could be found rather than riding around in the country; to this end, the preacher had dispatched a number of mission workers to the other missions, to announce their whereabouts. So, Josiah's arguments made sense. Nathan admitted it.
But it rankled him to be sitting still. He was needed, somewhere, he knew it, and it bothered him to not know where to go. He thought of the threats made against Ezra, and JD's bloodied face that awful afternoon, and shuddered. They probably needed him, worse than ever. And he was stuck there, waiting.
Josiah was sleeping on the floor, and a few moments after Nathan sat up he heard the larger man roll over, and a moment after that a deep, sleepy voice in the evening darkness, "Nathan? Something wrong?"
"Hm," the former slave answered, "Tell me somethin' that ain't wrong."
There was a grunt, the sound of shifting bedclothes, and Nathan saw Josiah pull himself into a sitting position and rub his eyes tiredly. "I know, brother Nate, I know. I don't like waitin' either."
"Then let's stop doin' it," Nathan suggested, a little testily from lack of sleep, "Come on, Josiah, you know that woman ain't gonna be friends with you."
"I don't need her friendship," Josiah said calmly as he watched the dark, "Just her cooperation."
"Well, you most likely ain't gonna get that neither. She hates us, Josiah, almost as bad as her boys do. What makes you think she was telling you the truth?"
"I saw her eyes," Josiah responded, scratching his chin as he spoke, "She's a lost woman, Nathan. She lived for vengeance, and once she had it she realized what it cost her. That was a mother's heart we saw breaking that day; she wouldn't send them out to be slaughtered again."
"Yeah, well, that's assumin' she's sane," Nathan suggested as he pulled the covers off and swung his legs onto the floor. "I ain't so sure she is."
"She's sane enough to insist her sons are innocent," Josiah replied, "And she swore to me that they were coming here to fetch her down to Mexico. Now there is a chance - a small one - that she's right, that her boys aren't involved and something else is going on, and if that's true we'll know soon enough. But I don't think she's right, Nathan. And if what I fear has come to pass, her sons will come here to gloat if nothing else. And I want to be here when they do. And catch them."
Nathan sighed, felt restless, wanted it to be over. Had it really all started just that morning? Impossible. "You let the folks here know what's going on?"
"They know," Josiah said softly, thoughtfully, "But like me they don't think the Nichols boys are bold enough to attack a house of God. There's still just the four of them." There was a pause. "Just the same, there's men of God with guns on the roofs of this place tonight."
Nathan nodded in satisfaction, was about to turn over and try to get some sleep when he heard footsteps approaching, a knock at the door; without waiting for an answer, the person opened the door and looked in; it was one of the nuns.
Josiah blinked at the bright light that was streaming in. "Yes, Sister?"
"Sorry to disturb you," The young woman replied, "But there's a messenger here from St. Anthony's. He's found your friends."
Nathan and Josiah both jumped to their feet immediately.
"Where are they at?" Nathan asked urgently as the nun leaned into the room far enough to place a burning oil lamp on the closest table.
"At the mission, senor," Josef replied as he stood in the doorway, "At St. Anthony's. I was sent here, by Mr. Larabee, to find you. You're to come with me, right away."
"Somebody hurt?" Nathan asked as he pulled his shirt on. His stomach knotted in dreadful anticipation.
Josef nodded rapidly; there would be no miracles today. "Yes, sir, a couple of them in fact. Mr. Larabee said you knew them too. A dark-haired man with a moustache, he got shot through the hand, but Sister Mayven cleaned him up."
"Who else?" Josiah asked tensely as he pulled up his suspenders.
"A young man, " Josef explained as Nathan and Josiah exchanged looks and strapped on their guns, "He's the one my neice Sophia found, and we took him in the wagon. They've been with him all night."
"How was he hurt?" Nathan asked as he yanked his jacket on. "You remember?"
Josef sighed and nodded. "His wrists were torn up, and around his eyes. He was shot too, in the shoulder. He looked like he'd been beaten up pretty badly; Sister Mayven told me he might die."
Nathan and Josiah both stopped. Nathan winced. "That bad?"
Josef nodded solemnly. "He's spitting up blood, senor. Almost always, that means death."
"Shit." Nathan breathed, then hastily looked at the nun and said softly, "Sorry, ma'am."
The nun just smiled a little in understanding and backed out of the room. Josef drew himself out as well, and Josiah and Nathan bolted out of the room at his heels.
"We gotta hurry, Josiah," Nathan muttered, almost running as they went down the hall. He walked swiftly toward the horses, and wasted no more words.
Josiah slowed down only a bit, turned to the nun who was following them and took her shoulders, "Sister, tell the Mother Superior to keep an eye on Mrs. Nichols. Tell her one of our men is badly wounded, and we'll all be at St. Anthony's unless she calls us back here. Will you do that for me?"
"Yes." the nun replied, and before Josiah let go took ahold of his arm and looked him in the eye.
"I'm praying for your friend, Mr. Sanchez. We all are."
"Thank you, sister," Josiah said as he whirled to follow his friend into the darkness, "Thank you."
Josiah ran off, and the nun watched him, then turned around and went to tell the Mother Superior what had happened, never for a moment noticing the dark shadow that lurked around the corner from the guest room door, a shadow that came out of hiding with a dull smirk on his face -
- and became Luke Nichols.
The small mission chapel was quiet and dark, the only light coming from the small flickering candles on the altar, and the only movement from the black-clad woman kneeling before their dancing light, her eyes closed as she prayed. The rosary beads in her hand softly rattled as she counted them off methiodically, the carved beads glistening in her trembling fingers.
She was a stout, matronly figure, a seeming picture of maternal piety. her lovely face was full and soft, her fine hair,m graying now, swept up and curled in the proper fashion, covered with a black lace shawl. Those who knew her well would not be surprised to see Ma Nichols praying fervently at the altar of God, nor would they be shocked to hear the same lips which now prayed order the cold-blooded murder of anyone who stood in her family's way. It had been her life for as long as she could recall.
It was all changing now, and she was looking for somewhere to turn. her husband was dead, four of her eight sons were deda, and the revenge which she had long thought would bring her peace brought only more pain. Now as she prayed, her mind flew elsewhere, even though she knew that was a sin.
It couldn't be, what that preacher said; her sons would never disobey her and begin threatening those men again. It was all a mistake, they were prepared to believe the worst of her boys. if she could only make God hear her, He would open their eyes, and the mistake would be seen. Then when they came to take her with them to Mexico, no one would stop them. Then perhaps the peace would come, when they were all safe and together again.
Her eyes flew open as she gasped and turned, the jet beading in her mourning clothes clicking with the motion. She saw the figure standing half-buried in the gloom of the chapel, but she knew it at once, and rose to her feet with a silken rustle.
"Luke!" she said softly, not wanting to arouse the others. "It's about time you came, I've been waitin' for you boys forever. Well," she continued in a brusque, businesslike manner, "I'll get my things and we'll be off. Are the others outside?"
"Ma," Luke said shortly, and she stopped and eyed him sharply when she saw he wasn't moving.
"What is it?" she demanded, her voice still soft but sharp.
"We ain't goin' to Mexico yet, Ma. Peter sent me to tell you."
"Watch your grammar, Luke," she replied, scowling. "And what malarkey is this?"
Her son's eyes gleamed in the dim candlelight as he stared at her, his smooth face tense with hatred. "We're doin' this for you, Ma, and Mark and James and Phillip. You got to know that."
She was looking at him in unspoken anger, her eyes beginning to blaze. She
didn't like what she was hearing. "Done what? What evil have you boys brought on our family?"
"No evil, Ma, you know that," was the calm reply. "Just blood for our blood, like we've always done."
She gazed at him in horror for a moment, her eyes sparkling with shock. Finally she spoke, her voice a low whisper.
"Then it's true, what the preacher said. You boys have disobeyed my wishes, spilled more blood. Didn't Peter tell you I want no more of this?"
"Peter's doin' what's best for us, Ma," Luke insisted.
"By gettin' more of ya killed?" was the agonized reply, tears starting in the older woman's eyes. "God has already punished us for takin' his vengeance into our hands when it was His work alone. Do ye think we haven't borne enough grief?"
But Luke only shook his head and smiled. "No grief this time, Ma. Only joy, when our blood is paid with blood."
She gazed at him for a moment, then took his face in her black-gloved hands, staring into it fondly as the tears slipped down her cheeks.
"Luke, please, please tell Peter not to do this. To disobey me is a sin, and God will punish his sinfulness, and yours. My heart bears five wounds, caused by the death of your father and brothers. It cannot bear even one more without breaking."
He smiled and took her hands, holding them in his own. "Don't worry, Ma, it'll be all right. Peter sent for help, none of us are gonna get killed. We've already brought the odds in our favor, and when Finnian gets here-"
"Finnian?" Ma Nichols gasped, surprised. Luke smiled.
"Yes, ma, and you remember how he always helped us with our work. Their numbers are down already, what with Matt an' I takin' care of that kid, and shootin' one of em in the hand, an' we've even got that fancy-talkin' fella under lock an' key. Peter's got somethin' special planned for him. You'd like it."
She had turned white, but said nothing.
He gripped her hands in encouragement. "They got to pay, you know that, Ma. An' I heard where they are, at St. Anthony's, so all we have to do is go an' get 'em. You have to understand, Ma, we're doing this for you."
"No you're not," she replied, her voice becoming firm again as she squeezed his hands tightly. "It's your own bloodlust, and Peter's, that's taken hold of you, and drowned your sense. I demand that you stop it, Luke. It is against God."
His only response was silence; then he gave her a gentle kiss on the cheek. "We'll get you when it's over, Ma."
He relaeased her hands and began to walk away away.
"Luke?" she called. "You must know I can't let you do this and bring the wrath of God down on us again."
He kept walking.
He went into the shadows, and was gone.
She called again, and heard only the echoes answering her. She stood still for a moment, thinking, and knew what she had to do.
First she would pray.
Then she would try to save what was left of her family.
Ezra was pleasantly drunk. Warm senselessness coiled around his body; somewhere far off a throbbing in his head and a roiling in his belly promised a wretched hangover when he awoke, but in the meantime, Ezra would enjoy the respite.
He couldn't remember the last time he'd been so pleasantly drunk. Actually, he couldn't really remember getting drunk this time, either. Hopefully, he thought, he hadn't drunk the remnants of an unsuccessful night at the tables. Hopefully, he thought again, this time with a touch of unease, he would be able to shake off the inebriation if he was needed.
Needed? By whom? He faced many challenges in his life, but a responsibility to others was not one of them. Still, he couldn't shake the growing feeling that perhaps he shouldn't have drunk as much as he obviously had.
He tried to sigh, but it turned into a cottony-dry hack. He needed a drink of water. The gambler began to push himself off his bed, but a pain like the shattering of too-cold glass tore up his arm when he levered his hand against the bed. He fell back, stunned, nearly passing out as a malicious collection of aches and pains flared throughout his body. Good Lord, he must have got a whupping from his Uncle Martin again. That was why he was drunk. The bastard was always coming after him whenever his cousins stole a bit of money to buy their forbidden dime novels. Uncle Martin never believed his sons would steal, but the son of that good-for-nothing Maude, on the other hand.... Ezra didn't know what angered him more, that his cousins got away with it, or that Uncle Martin had the gall to accuse him of stealing. Even at such a young age, the idea of stealing appalled Ezra. Certainly his mother stole - she couldn't abide coming away from a con empty-handed, and if that meant pilfering some poor sap's pocket watch or cuff links, so be it. But Ezra would never steal.
A guilty voice squirmed its way forward from the recesses of his mind, reminding him that the liquor he used to numb the pain and anger from the beating belonged to Uncle Martin. All right, he stole it, but who would notice? It didn't take much of his Uncle Martin's precious brandy to overcome the slender twelve-year-old. Surely he wouldn't notice. Oh hell, yes he would. He would see that the liquor was slowly disappearing, blame it on Ezra, and this time he would be right. Ezra tried for bitterness -after all, it was his mother's fault he was this way - but it didn't take. Sleepy despair seeped into his aching body. He felt awful, so tired and worthless. Mr. Larabee would never trust him, now.
The gambler's eyes flew open; he couldn't breath, accosted all at once by the chill darkness of the cellar. The sound of footsteps on the wooden floor above him hammered away any delusions of drunkenness; the moldering dampness of his prison broke through the confusion in his mind like an ominous epiphany. He lay gasping for breath, licking his dry lips with his even drier tongue, cobbling together memories....
Larabee; the saloon, JD. Hotel, Vin Buck Nathan. The black coach (the what?). Josiah, Maude. No, not Maude.
The demonic face of Peter Nichols, threatening infinite pain if Ezra didn't tell him where Larabee lived. Yes.
Ezra had lied...and Nichols had known. The gambler anxiously, vainly searched his foggy memory. How had he known? More importantly, had he broken Ezra? All the gambler could remember was pain. Brutal hands holding him down while fire gouged a hole in his leg. The first threads of sunrise flashing on the length of chain as it cut the air and seared his flesh. Why had they stopped? God Almighty, he wasn't that strong, he would have told - his stomach lurched in revulsion as he considered that he might, in fact, have told. That could be why they stopped. His body pulsed with agony from the beating as he lay in the dark, horrified. How could he atone for such a betrayal?
Another memory, a judgment: Peter Nichols promising to cut off the gambler's 'sinning hands' -
- Ezra wrapped his arms around his chest, ignoring the hurt in his ribs and the fire in his shoulderblades; he tucked his hands between his chest and arms to hide them. He couldn't let them cut off his hands. He would surely tell then, if he hadn't already. He would beg and plead and confess his every secret. A weak moan drifted through his quiet prison; it came from him, his guilt and fear becoming momentarily tangible -
- Peter Nichols promising to cut out his 'lying tongue'. The gambler's moan dissolved into tiny, strangled laugh. It appeared he would indeed atone for his betrayal. Appropriately, too.
Had he told? God help him, he couldn't remember.
Then another memory, a salvation: Casey. Miss Wells had been here, the gambler realized. She had escaped. She would tell Larabee and the others if Peter had broken him, warn them to retreat, and, with Casey safe, they would. Ezra shivered, then relaxed, with the realization, ceasing the frantic pursuit of memories. His pain began to fade, weighted by relief, dragged down by the muddy-warm undertow of resignation. The others would survive. Peter Nichols would cut off Ezra's hands and cut out his tongue. After that it didn't matter whether he lived or died.
In the meantime, he decided groggily as conciousness danced away, he would imagine himself pleasantly drunk.
Vin tilted his head up slightly to take another look at the night sky through the gently waving leaves of the trees; just a hint of blue now, he thought. It would be morning soon, and still no sign of Casey or Ezra. He sighed and lowered his eyes back to the ground; keep looking.
There was some relief, at least, that everyone had gotten to the mission safely; hopefully Nathan and Josiah would get there soon as well. He remembered watching them from the rocks overhead, and feeling a bit like a guardian angel as he covered them from every possible angle of attack. Who knew where the Nichols were, or how many men they had. he smiled tightly to himself; only time in his life he'd ever feel like an angel, probably. But even now in his everyday state of sinfulness, he could be thankful that for now, they were safe.
Now to find the rest of his family...
The sky brightened, soft pinks and gray-purples tempting the eastern sky. Vin kept going through the tree-covered hills, certain that she had come this way. He should be exhausted, he supposed, but determination fueled his efforts, and every nerve snapped with energy. He had to find them soon, every minute with those murdering zealots drew Ezra and Casey closer to an uncertain fate, one the thoughts of which caused his hands to curl around his reins in fury. Ezra they'd probably kill, and Vin was quite aware of the sorts of gruesome fates such demented minds as the Nichols brothers could dream up.
He shuddered, feeling his blood begin to boil. Don't think on that, he chided himself, concentrate on the goal at hand. There would be plenty of time to use his anger later, in the fight which was sure to come.
The sun peeked over the mountains, and Vin rode on.
Buck heard voices first, low and soft as they mingled with the balmy darkness of his sleep. His mind lolled toward the voices as he gathered the strength to open his eyes, wondering drowsily who they were and why they were in his bedroom and why, come to think of it, he was sitting in a chair instead of in his bed...
Then Buck remembered, and his eyes were open in an instant.
Morning. It was morning, how did that happen? Buck blinked a little, saw through his awakening eyes the blurry form of Nathan bending over the bed next to him, and breathed a little easier. Great, Nathan was finally there, he could help JD. Buck noticed that the youth was curled away from him, and Nathan had taken the bandages Sister Mayven had so carefully wound around JD's injured eyes and was examining his face intently. Buck winced at the smoldering anger he saw in Nathan's eyes, but it would be all right now; JD was being looked after, and they would finish this. For good this time.
Buck's eyes went to the door of the little room, and he saw Josiah and Chris standing there, talking in low tones, Chris with his arms crossed and the preacher with one large hand on his friend's arm, trying to convince him of something. Chris sure looks upset, Buck thought, and realized Vin must not be back yet. He remembered JD's vision, Sister Sophia's words, but could not bring himself to believe that his young friend had actually been given some kind of divine...whatever...to know that Vin was in trouble. It had to be something else, the fever or just nerves. That had to be it.
But Vin wasn't there. And Chris sure did look worried...
No one had yet noticed that Buck was awake, but when he moved his injured hand the pain shot up his arm so fast Buck yelped, and all eyes turned.
Nathan spoke first, his voice barely above a whisper. "Buck?"
"That's me." The gunslinger winced with a half-smile, wrapping his good hand around his bandaged other one as he grimaced at it. Nathan straightened up, but Buck shook his head. "Just a scratch. You got to see to JD first."
Nathan sighed, reached behind himself to wring a clean cloth out in a nearby basin. As he applied it to JD's neck Buck asked, "How's he doin'?"
"He's sleepin'," Nathan answered as he walked slowly around the bed to where Buck sat, "I gave him somethin' for the pain, but it probably won't put him out for long. Now let's take a look at that hand."
There was something odd about the way Nathan was talking, Buck noticed as he offered his hand to the healer, like he was trying hard to change the subject. Nathan was usually pretty direct, so his attempt at caginess was failing miserably in Buck's opinion, and he was swift to jerk the subject square back to where he thought it belonged. "Chris tell you what they did to that boy? How they hurt him?"
"Yeah, he told me." Nathan replied without looking at Buck, concentrating on the winding bandage.
"I tell you, Nathan," Buck seethed, feeling himself waking more with each passing second, "when I get my hands on those sonabitches they're gonna rue the day they messed with us. I ain't a man to hold grudges, but for them I might just change my mind."
"You do that." Nathan said in a half-interested way as the last of the bandages came off. He peered at the wound carefully, nodded. "Looks pretty clean."
"It is, I told you it was just a scratch." Buck looked to where Josiah and Chris had come into the room a little. "Anybody seen Vin?"
Josiah glanced at Chris, who shook his head a little, and Buck's heart sank. It was bad enough those bastards hurt JD, and got Ezra. If they got Vin too, it was war. It was just plain war.
But first things first. As Nathan leaned back to get a clean bandage out of the tidy stack that was lying on a nearby table, Buck stood up and streched his legs, looking once again at JD sleeping on the bed. The youth still looked pale and sweaty, and his sleep didn't look natural to Buck; his face was pinched and looked exhausted. At least the cuts around his eyes didn't look like they would become infected, but their jagged red marks still infuriated Buck, made him want to break something. Like Peter Nichols' neck.
"Give me that hand, Buck." Nathan said quietly, not waiting for his friend to offer his arm but taking it as he came close, and wrapping Buck's hand as they both looked at JD.
"You musta given him something awful strong," Buck noted as he studied JD's slumbering face, "He looks like he's been hit with a hammer."
Nathan nodded somberly as he tucked the cloth around Buck's wound. "He was hurtin' awful bad, an' he was agitated too, kept askin' about Miss Wells. He's half out of his mind about her."
Buck shook his head. Poor kid. "Well, we'll just have to find a way to make it up to those two lovebirds once this is all over. What do you say?"
It was sort of a joke, sort of; it comforted Buck to think of an 'all over', of a time when the Nichols were all dead and Ezra, Vin, and Casey were all safe and JD was over all this. It felt good to think that by this time next week, they'd all be sitting in the saloon and teasing JD about his awkward attempts to win Casey's affection. Sure, he'd still have fading scars around those hazel eyes, and the deep gashes in his wrists wouldn't have healed completely, not yet. But he wouldn't be thinking about them anymore, and it would all seem like a bad dream, to all of them. Just a bad dream...
It was sort of a joke, so why wasn't anyone smiling?
"We saw Ma Nichols," Josiah said quietly, taking a step toward Buck. "She claimed she didn't know anything about what her sons are doing, but if they're up to their usual tricks they're likely to figure out where we are. And come calling."
"Let 'em." Buck said quickly, his face set in a dark scowl. "I only hope when they come JD's up to helpin' us finish 'em off. He deserves that much."
Nathan tugged at the bandage, made it secure, didn't meet his friend's eyes. Josiah said softly, "Buck - "
"I know," Buck brought his injured hand up, flexed it against his other one. "I know, that's vengeance and it ain't right, but look at him, Josiah. JD didn't lift a finger against those men, and they just about killed him. Now JD's got enough pride to be three men, and I reckon right now the only thing he wants is to get his girl back and take some of his pride back through Peter Nichols' ass. I'm just hopin' he gets the chance."
Nathan glanced at Buck, looked like he was going to say something, then seemed to change his mind and looked at the floor instead. Buck's eyes were on JD, and he didn't notice.
Sister Mayven had just finished cleaning the floor in the hallway outside the sanctuary when she heard the door open with a loud *thunk* and looked up. Sister Sophia was standing in the doorway, her hand to her throat.
"Sister, you must be more quiet," Sister Mayven admonished as she stood to collect her pail of soapy water, "People are meditating - "
"My apologies, Sister," Sophia said in a very tight voice, as if she was struggling to control herself, "Where are the gentlemen we brought in last night?"
Sister Mayven thought a moment. "They're probably still in the young one's room, at least they were the last time I - "
But Sophia was already down the hall before Sister Mayven could finish, and halfway out of sight.
"I think I'll take a ride around the grounds," Josiah said in his low rumble, casting a concerned eye toward JD's bed, "Make sure our friends haven't come callin' yet."
Chris nodded. "Stay close. Be careful."
Josiah gave a nod in response and turned, but before he could step toward the door there was a small noise from where JD lay, and they all stopped and looked at him.
"JD?" Buck said softly, kneeling by the youth's bedside. JD was still lying on his side, moaning as he engaged in some unconscious struggle that made Buck look up at Nathan in worry. "He's wakin' up."
"He shouldn't be," Nathan replied, clearly confused, "I gave him enough sedative to put him out for a week."
"Vin - " JD gasped, and reached out one hand as he fought to open his eyes. His fingers caught the lapel of Buck's jacket, and gripped it.
Concerned, Buck put one hand on JD's shoulder, careful not to touch the bandage there. "Hey, JD? Take it easy, son, Vin ain't back yet. He will be, though, you - "
"No," JD whispered, and with a mighty effort opened his eyes and looked at Buck with a fearful, plaintive expression, "No, they'll get him. He don't know they're there."
Buck felt a chill go down his spine. "Who?"
JD closed his eyes and shuddered, and Buck saw a tear slip from beneath those long black lashes and trail down his battered cheek. It took him a moment to draw enough breath to speak.
"She got away." He murmured, and Buck saw that his lip was trembling, "she got away..."
"Who did, JD?" Buck was frantic; his friend wasn't making sense. "Casey?"
A small nod. "But - they've still got Ezra. He's hurt, but...they're not all bad, Buck. He helped her."
He's dreaming, or hallucinating, Buck thought, and smoothed JD's hair in an effort to calm him down. "Just take it easy, JD, it'll be all right. Nathan'll give you some-"
"No!" JD cried, and opened his eyes wide to look at Buck, wild, frightened eyes, and the grip on Buck's jacket tightened, "Vin - he's almost there, they'll kill him. Please - "
Buck glanced up at his friends helplessly; Nathan and Josiah looked confused and worried, but Chris...
JD shivered and closed his eyes again, ducking his head toward his chest as his grip on Buck's jacket loosened. He curled up a little tighter and brought his other hand toward his midsection.
"Oh," He whimpered quietly, as if all his strength had left him. "Oh..."
Buck seemed to sense that JD was about to be sick again, and hurriedly pulled a clean cloth from the bedstead as he said, "Nathan, I thought you took care of this."
"I can't, Buck." Nathan said in a low, defeated voice as he knelt next to Buck, but his words were lost on the gunslinger because at that moment, two things happened at once:
JD began to retch quietly into the cloth Buck was holding against his young friend's mouth;
And Sister Sophia appeared at the door, with the most alarmed look Chris had ever seen on a person's face.
"Your friend's in trouble," She said to Chris, not even blinking as she spoke, "He's riding toward the fork in the river that runs by our mission, about a half-mile from here going north. Where the large boulders are."
Chris started, looked to where JD was lying, then back at the mysterious nun. "How do you know?"
Sophia cast about for a moment, then said, "I have visions. God sent this one to me. He told me you have to hurry."
The slightest pause, a glance toward Josiah and a whisper. "What do you think?"
"Asking the expert?" Josiah said with a shadow of a smile. Then his face sombered as his eyes went to where Buck and Nathan were helping JD and he said, "Things are happening here we don't understand, Chris. Considering where we are, I think it's best to go along with them."
Chris pursed his lips, then reached back and pulled his hat onto his head. He turned blazing blue eyes to Nathan and Buck. Buck wasn't even looking at him, had set himself so he could lever JD against one shoulder while the boy gasped and retched into the cloth. But Nathan was looking at Chris, and when the black-clad gunslinger spoke, the healer's eyes said he knew who the words were for.
"Take care of him." Chris said, in a voice that was shot through with anger and helpless concern.
And then he was out the door, and running for his horse.
Casey beat angrily at the brush that tore at her face and clutched at her dusty, ragged clothes, and cursed her luck for the hundredth time, wishing she knew some coarser language. She really felt like letting loose, and nobody would hear her in this mountain forest; but all she could do was try to keep her path clear and keep walking.
If only the horse hadn't gone lame, she moaned to herself as she tried to pick her way through the easiest path in the woods. She'd probably driven it too fast, and she felt she'd covered a pretty good patch-there were houses up ahead, she remembered, but it seemed like it was taking forever on foot, and her shoes were not made for heavy walking. She gritted her teeth as she stumbled over a sharp stone, and kicked it away in frustration.
"Dang it all to hell!" she cried, and felt better.
She trudged on, her lips pressed together in determination. It wasn't a Christian thought, she knew, but damn them Nichols, anyway. Well, except John maybe, she still wasn't sure about him. But...She fought down the hot feeling swelling in her chest, regretting the fact that walking gave her so much time to think about what might have happened to JD.
Please be all right, JD, she prayed as she walked, thinking of the last time the Nichols had gotten their hands on him, the bruises, the blood. If they'd hurt him worse this time, she was going to grab a gun and fight them herself.
Aunt Nettie wouldn't approve-well, maybe she might, come to think of it. But even if she frowned on it, Casey didn't care. She wasn't one to let her loved ones get hurt. JD might be terribly bad off, but she could still fight.
She shivered as Peter Nichols' cold eyes danced before her; how she hated him now, and she was once so dazzled by him. She could kick herself silly for being so turned around by his city ways; it had been exciting for a city boy to pay attention to her, but now she knew what lay beneath those fine clothes and slick words. He could talk himself blue to her now and not make her half as happy as she'd be if she could find JD and hear him say one word to her.
Please be alive, JD.
She sighed, dragging one hand across her wet forehead; the sun had been up for almost an hour, she guessed, and the coolness of early morning still hung in the air, but she was hot and tired, not to mention hungry. If only she'd thought to grab some food-surely the Nichols would have given her some, with Ezra holding that gun to John's head...
Ezra. Casey's steps grew a bit faster; she didn't know Ezra all that well, and Aunt Nettie had sure had a few things to say about his general uselessness as a ranch hand, but Casey couldn't deny that he had risked a lot to help her escape, and she had to get him help. They were beating on him something awful, but he sure was brave about it, telling Casey to go without a thought to himself, and she knew he had to be scared. He seemed more sad than anything, as if he felt his situation was hopeless. But it wasn't going to be hopeless if she could find the other men. She had to keep going.
A sound reached her ears; a running stream. She sighed with relief; she was so thirsty, and it would feel so good to put her aching feet in the cold water for just a minute. She came out into the edge of the woods, where the land leveled off and became rocky and less densely forested; a small river bisected the rocks, and beyond this lay a road leading off through the rocks. She paused a minute, looking around, wary that anyone might have been sent after her. There was no one.
She wearily walked to the edge of the stream, glancing left and right as she knelt by the jumping waters glistening in the morning sunlight. Cupping her hand, she scooped some water up and slurped at it, relishing how refreshing it was. After a few drinks she straightened and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, looking down the road. Maybe some traveler would give her a lift. Pulling her battered shoes and stockings off and laying them aside, she lifted her ragged skirt and swung her aching feet into the cool stream, wincing a little at its sharp sting; she must have developed a few blisters. Dang it.
After a few minutes she pulled her feet out of the water, ready to resume her journey. She reached behind her for her shoes and stockings.
They were gone.
"Looking for these?"
Casey gasped and wrenched her head around, her heart thumping painfully in her chest. On a rock not ten feet away sat Luke Nichols, with Casey's shoes and stockings on the ground at his feet, and his gun pointed at her head.
Her eyes grew wide as she staggered to her feet, fighting the urge to scream or run. She gritted her teeth; this bastard wouldn't see her afraid.
"How fortunate to run into you on my way back to the camp," he said casually, tossing the articles back at her. "You can put these back on now. Though you really won't need them. We'll be going back on my horse."
"Like hell we will," Casey hissed, backing away, not feeling the stones cutting into her bare feet.
Luke sighed in lazy exasperation as he slid off the rock, shaking his head. "Such blasphemy, as Ma would say. That's what hangin' around sinners gets you."
She tossed her head, her eyes burning. "I'd rather hang around sinners like them than saints like you."
Luke laughed, still keeping his gun on her. "That's only cause you're blinded by their evil ways. You should let us lift the veil from your eyes."
"My eyes see just fine," she spat, still backing away. Suddenly she stopped; a cropping of rocks blocked her way. DANG it.
Luke came closer, his smooth face lined with a sly smile.
"Now don't go bein' stubborn, gal. You won't like what I do to gals who don't do what they're told."
She pressed herself into the cropping, her hands searching for a weapon...
"I can do things too, mister," she snarled, her breath coming in gasps.
Her fingers touched something rough and loose behind her. A loose rock.
"Oh, I'm sure you can," Luke smiled, his voice low. "I look forward to learning more about your talents, once we clean out your gunslinging friends. I know just where to find them now, too."
She stared at him, trying to grip the rock without him seeing it. "They're just up the road, at St. Anthony's," he continued, walking closer; he was almost right in front of her. "Trying to save their souls, I guess, or maybe just that worthless boy we strung up. But don't worry-you'll forget him soon enough."
He was so close she could feel his breath, and the lascivious light in his eyes made Casey's stomach twist in disgust. Her fingers gripped the rock tightly, and in one quick move she whipped it out from behind her and smashed it across Luke Nichols' temple.
He fell sideways with a surprised cry, the gun firing harmlessly into the rocks. Casey swiftly kicked him in the groin and went for the gun, furious at his smirking admittance of hurting JD. Now she was mad.
They wrestled for a moment, Casey clawing at his face as she tried to pry the weapon from his grasp. She almost had it when Luke shoved her away with all of his might, his bleeding face distorted in fury. She rolled to her feet, stumbling a bit, and had almost recovered her legs when Luke raised the gun and fired.
Casey fell back to the ground with a cry, one hand going to the bleeding wound on her arm where the bullet had deeply grazed her. Before she could react he was over her, the gun pointed straight at her face.
"Next time it won't be just a scratch, girl," he growled, his eyes searing her. "Now on your feet, or else I'll send you to join that whimpering pup friend of yours."
She glared at him, not moving, and didn't flinch when he cocked the weapon. Suddenly there was another, ratcheting click, and a quiet voice pierced the morning air, undeniable strength behind its softness.
"Leave 'er be."
And Luke Nichols lifted his startled gaze to look straight into the eyes of Vin Tanner, standing twenty feet in front of him, with his Winchester aimed at his heart.
Vin stood stock-still, staring down the barrel of his Winchester at the defiant face of Luke, who made no move to step away from Casey.
"I know you," the young man snarled, as his finger nervously danced on the trigger. "You're one of those hired guns."
"That's right," Vin replied quietly, "and this hired gun is aimed right at your head. Now move off from the lady."
Luke stared at him intensely, not budging. "I've got a better idea. Why don't you drop your gun, so I don't shoot her dead right here."
Casey stifled a gasp and twisted her head to look at Vin, her eyes wide as she grasped her bleeding arm.
The tracker's eyes never moved as he took a step closer. "You lookin' to be a martyr, son?"
The two men fell quiet, the still morning air broken only by Casey's nervous breathing.
"Vin, please," she said finally, in a quiet voice, her hands clutching the dirt as she crawled to her feet, "it ain't worth it. I'll go back with him, I don't want no more of you gettin' hurt."
Vin's eyebrows knit for a moment; then he saw the light in her eyes, and lowered his rifle.
"All right," he said, kneeling and placing the weapon on the ground. "Just don't hurt 'er."
Luke smiled. "Oh, don't worry, she'll be safe for now." He pulled Casey to one side and held her tightly by the arm. "OK, back away from the gun."
Vin took a few steps back, his eyes watching Luke sharply.
A few more. Casey licked her lips.
Luke lifted his gun, took aim at Vin's heart, pulled back the hammer, and quietly said, "Dust to dust."
With angry accuracy Casey flung her hand up, throwing the handful of dirt and tiny rocks she'd grabbed full into Luke's face. He staggered backwards and cried out in fury as one hand grabbed for his searing eyes, cursing as his streaming tears mixed with the bleeding cuts.
Casey scurried away as Vin dropped to the ground and rolled for his gun, scooping it up with ease and priming it in one swift move.
"Run, Casey!" he hollered as he got up on one knee and aimed at Luke, who was wiping his eyes of the caustic dust. The first shot caught Luke's gun arm, and he dropped the weapon as he clutched at the bleeding wound.
Casey obliged, darting away as fast as her torn feet would take her, to a rock behind Vin. Luke scrabbled for his gun, palming it in his other hand as he furiously wiped his eyes, and stumbling to his feet began to retreat towards his horse.
"Hold it!" Vin cried, running forward; he didn't want to kill this boy, the Nichols were mad enough at them, but he couldn't let him get away.
Suddenly more gunfire erupted; Vin stopped as one bullet ripped across his hat, another creased his pants and drew blood. Looking up he saw two riders on the rocks above them. One of them turned and rode away, while the other continued to fire, covering Luke's escape.
"Shit!" Vin cried, priming his gun and firing again as he backed up. "Casey, get to the horse, we got company comin'!"
Luke was almost to his horse; Vin was taking one last aim at him when another shot from the rider above tore across his forehead, so close he could feel the heat of the slug as it passed. He fired anyway, then turned and sprinted for Sire.
"You know who that might be?" Vin gasped as he climbed quickly behind Casey and spurred Sire on down the road. Casey shook her head as she bent low.
"Ain't got a clue, must be friends of theirs."
"Damn," Vin breathed softly as Sire broke into a swift gallop. They've got help now.
Luke looked up in surprise as a man he didn't know burst through the bush and tore after Vin and Casey, his gun out and ready. Luke watched him go, confused, then turned to see another, more familiar gunman break into view. His red eyes widened.
"Fin?" he cried in disbelief. The other man grinned.
"Aye, Luke. Did that bastard hurt ye bad?"
Luke shook his head, still trying to get all of the dirt out of his eyes. "Got my gun arm, hurts like hell. I can still shoot though. Who was that other guy?"
"Oh, just an associate of mine," Fin replied as he dismounted. "He'll get that fiend, don't worry."
Vin tried to cover Casey as they rode, looking back as they traveled.
Casey turned her head, trying to make herself heard over the thundering hooves. "Is JD all right?"
The tracker pursed his lips. "He's still alive."
"But is he hurt bad?"
Vin said nothing for a moment.
"Dangit, Vin," she cried, her eyes snapping, "after all this I think you know I can handle bad news!"
Her companion sighed. "Yeah, it's bad, but he's bein' looked after at St. Anthony's Mis-"
A bullet spun past his head; he cursed and turned, returning fire.
"You got another gun, Vin?" Casey yelled.
"Just guide Sire!" Vin replied as he fired again at their pursuer. "Let me do the shootin'!"
Casey grumbled something and bent low over the horse's neck, her hands working the reins.
The road funneled into a shallow rocky canyon, bordered by large boulders and scrubby trees. Vin looked behind them; the second horseman was gaining fast. Another shot clipped his sleeve; he whirled and fired, heard the gunman curse and saw him jerk back a bit in the saddle. But he kept on riding.
"If I get hit, keep ridin' on to the mission," Vin yelled as he kept firing. "It's just up ahead."
"JD'd kill me if I left you, Vin!" was the stubborn reply.
"An' your Aunt'd kill me if I let you get hurt," Vin answered, wincing as a bullet sliced across his left sleeve. Getting shot apparently hadn't slowed this guy down much. "She might not be so happy with you, neither."
"I ain't leaving you, Vin!" she cried. "Just gimme a gun! You know I can shoot!"
He turned ahead to survey the path in front of them, putting the argument aside for a moment. The pass narrowed ahead, and Vin saw something move in their way, a dark shape on a dark horse. For a moment he felt himself go cold; they were trapped.
Then he saw who it was.
Another shot, and Vin heard the gunman cry out in agony; turning, he saw the man reel in the saddle, almost falling off; he reined in his horse, fired one last shot which came nowhere near its target, then wheeled his horse around and ride away.
"He's gone," Vin gasped, turning back. They sped to where the other figure waited, its gun still smoking. As they drew closer it became clearer and gradually revealed itself to be Chris Larabee.
"Nice timin', pard," Vin said as he pulled up.
"One of my better moments," was the grim answer. "You two all right?"
Casey nodded. "JD-"
"He's still alive," was the quick answer. "An' I expect he's wantin' to see you, so we'd better get you back to the mission before we run into any more surprises."
Vin nodded, his blue eyes serious. "I'm for that, pard, I reckon we're gonna have company soon. Best get ready."
They turned and rode like the wind back to the mission.
Buck hated being scared.
He had been fighting that awful, hollow-gutted feeling for a day and a half now, and knew he was losing. He'd lost some ground during that first awful gunfight with the Nichols, when Ezra had been captured; he'd lost some more when he'd seen JD's terrible injuries, the cuts around his eyes, the deep gashes on his now-bandaged wrists. And when Vin hadn't come back, and JD had some kind of...well, all right, maybe it was a vision, about him being in trouble, Buck felt his fight against the fear that had been living in his gut give a little more, and pushed against it.
But it was a tiring fight, and as he and Nathan knelt by JD's bed in the mission that morning, Buck knew sooner or later either him or the fear was going to give.
Josiah had gone to make sure that the grounds were safe, and Sister Sophia had slipped out too, gone to who knew where. That only left the three of them, struggling together in the sparsely decorated room. Then, finally, the struggle had eased.
JD was passed out, his head still laying against Buck's shoulder where the gunslinger had eased him to help him get rid of what he was throwing up. JD hadn't eaten, so his attack hadn't lasted long, and once it was over the youth had let out a small moan and passed out, his long black hair sticking to the patches of sweat that glistened on his too-pale face, and hanging in his closed eyes which now had dark circles under them from exhaustion and sickness. As soon as Buck felt JD's head fall, he knew the worst was over and took away the cloth that he had been holding against the boy's mouth, to clean it.
There was blood on it, too much and bright red.
And that's when Buck's battle with his own fear was truly lost.
He stared at the blood a moment, looked at Nathan in an almost accusatory way. The healer was standing up from where he'd been kneeling beside Buck, reaching toward the basin behind both of them for a clean cloth.
"Nathan?" Buck asked, a light whisper that Buck knew sounded like the frightened mutter of a terrified child; he didn't care. "Uh, Nathan?"
Nathan wrung a cloth out, stepped back to Buck and began to carefully dab at JD's feverish face. His voice was full of sorrowful resignation as he said, "Yes, Buck."
Buck opened his mouth, closed it again, didn't know how to ask. He gave up, and just gestured with the bloodied cloth.
Nathan shut his eyes for a moment, as if preparing himself. Then he gently placed a hand on Buck's shoulder to guide him away from JD's side; the gunslinger carefully slipped his arm from around JD's shoulder, so tenderly the youth didn't stir, and gently eased him back on the soft pillows. Once Nathan saw Buck was free, he pulled his friend a little ways from JD's side and, with both of them still crouched down on the crude tile of the mission floor, took Buck's shoulder and looked him in the eye.
"Now you got to promise me you ain't gonna do nothing stupid," Nathan intoned, his voice deep and serious. "Last thing JD would want is you gettin' killed lookin' for revenge."
"Nathan," Buck whispered, his voice brittle and his face the color of finest ash. "Will you cut the bullsh*t and tell me what is wrong with him."
Nathan paused, and Buck felt the grip on his shoulder tighten.
"When they beat him, they hurt him inside, deep inside where I can't get to it. He's bleeding, in his gut someplace, and..." A long pause, and then Nathan looked down and shook his head. "And there ain't nothin' I can do."
Buck's mouth hung open for a moment, then he stammered, "But it's -he's hurtin', can't you see that? And look at this, it ain't healin', he's bleedin' right now. How long till it stops?"
It was denial, Buck knew it; he'd seen men gutshot before, he'd been in the War. He knew what it meant when men bled on the inside, and threw up bright red blood. There was only one way it stopped, only one way. And Buck knew what it was.
But it had to be different for JD. It had to be.
There were tears in Nathan's eyes as he patted Buck's shoulder, and left his hand there as he said softly, still looking full in his friend's face, "It won't stop, Buck. If I could make it me in that bed, you know I would. I'm sorry."
"Nathan, you know what it means?" Buck couldn't believe it; he wouldn't believe it. "They'd win, even if we get 'em all, if...they'd win, and they can't win. JD didn't do anything, Nathan, he can't pay for something he didn't do."
"He ain't sufferin', Buck," Nathan whispered roughly, his own voice breaking as he made to rise off the floor, then placed a hand on Buck's arm to help him up. "I made sure he's got enough medicine to sleep - "
Buck shook his friend's hand off, angrily, furiously. He stood, trembling in every fiber of his body, and glared at Nathan like he would take his head off. For a long, horrible, endless moment Nathan looked into his friend's eyes and saw the raging agony of unwilling realization.
Then Buck ducked his head, clutching the bloody cloth to him as if it was a holy relic. Took several deeps breaths.
The fight against his fear was lost. The fight against his rage and despair was just beginning.
"I've got to..." Buck started, then faltered, stopped. Cleared his throat, paused. Finally a forlorn whisper. "I'll be down the hall. Come get me the next time he wakes up."
Down the hall. The sanctuary was down the hall. Nathan nodded.
And Buck hurriedly left the room.