M7FFA Entry

 

Deadlier of the Species


by Alanna


Prologue



A figure dressed in black sat atop an equally black horse, watching the chaos in the streets before it. The little town's citizens scrambled to get out of the way of the figure's four companions, who rode through the streets, shooting their guns. The town's sheriff, along with a few others who had tried to stop them, lay dead or severely wounded.

One of the riders broke away from the melee and came over. The rider handed the watcher a bag and with a grin said, "More where this came from. Bank's a lot richer than it looks."

The watcher smiled as stunning green eyes took in the bag's contents.

"You got all of it?"

"Yup."

The watcher nodded, gave the bag back and drew a gun. Three shots brought the other three riders to the watcher's side. The black figure then urged the horse to walk until it was in the middle of the street.

The apparent leader reached up and removed the black hat, letting long, fire red hair cascade down the back and around the shoulders.

"Citizens! My name is Tessa Williams! And these," she gestured to the riders behind her, "are my sisters in crime!"

The four riders each removed their hats to reveal attractive, young females, all looking around with smirks and hard eyes.

"Let it be known the we, mere women, are responsible for the death and chaos here today. You are not the first, and you will not be the last! We may live in a man's world, but we are slaves to them no longer! Men may think they rule, but we are the deadlier of the species!"

One of the women rode up next to Tessa, a flaming torch in hand. Tessa looked at her and nodded, and the girl stood in her stirrups and threw the torch threw the window of a nearby building. The others did the same with the building closest to them. As flames began to claim the buildings, the women turned their horses and urged them into runs, heading out of town.




Tessa sat away from the fire that night, gazing up at the stars while the other four chatted amongst themselves. After a short while, one of the girls came over and sat next to her, offering her a piece of the dinner she had not yet eaten.

"What's on you're mind?"

Tessa looked at her, then at the piece of meat. After a moment, she accepted and said, "I'm bored."

"Bored? How can you be bored after today?"

"Did you find that exciting Meg?"

"Well of course. Didn't you?"

Tessa sighed, her gaze returning to the stars.

"No. I used to. But now, somehow, terrorizing nameless little towns way out in the Boone docks..." she trailed off and shook her head.

After a moment, she added, "I want more Meg. I'm sick of riding into towns, raiding them and killing stupid men. I want something truly exciting."

Meg stared hard at her friend for a moment, then said, "Why do I get the feeling you already know what it is?"

A small smile crossed Tessa's lips. "Probably 'cause you know me so well."

When she said nothing more, Meg said, "Well come on, out with it."

"You ever hear of a town called Four Corners?"

Meg's eyes widened. "Four Corners! Are you crazy Tess? That town is protected by seven very dangerous lawmen! Only fools try to start something there!"

"Yes, but I'm not a fool. I know all about Four Corner's seven protectors...the Larabee gang. I also know about the nice little bank they have. Four Corners is just the place to get the ultimate thrill."

Meg stared at her, a bewildered look entering her brown eyes. "You know exactly what you're going to do, don't you?"

Tessa smiled. "When don't I? Four Corners is about a weeks ride from here. Go tell the girls we'll be heading out at dawn, so get some sleep. I'll give out details as we go."

Meg looked at her curiously, then nodded and moved back to the campfire. Tessa's gaze returned to the stars, a malicious smile slowly crossing her lips.




PART 1



Buck Wilmington entered the saloon and looked around. As his eyes adjusted to the sudden change in lighting, he spotted three of this friends, Josiah Sanchez, Nathan Jackson and Vin Tanner, at a table near the back. He didn't have to look around further to confirm Ezra Standish, another member of the group, was at his customary table, skillfully cleaning out early afternoon poker players. As Buck headed toward his three friends, his eyes picked out his oldest friend and the group's leader, Chris Larabee, sitting at a table in the very back staring moodily at the whiskey in front of him.

"Hey all," Buck greeted, sitting down.

He nodded toward Chris and asked, "What's with him?"

Josiah shrugged. "Who knows? That man's moods tend to change with the wind."

Buck shook his head. "Damn. Hate it when he get's like this. Just hope trouble doesn't decide to make an appearance for a while."

"Reckon you ain't gonna get yer wish," Vin said, nodding toward the door.

The other three looked and found the sheriff and youngest member of the group, J.D. Dunne, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. He spotted them, nodded, and started over. But it quickly became apparent that he was headed for Chris.

Buck quickly got up and intercepted him.

"Hey, what are you doing Buck?" he protested as the older man began to lead him to the other table, "I've gotta talk to Chris."

"Chris ain't exactly in the mood for talk, kid. Come tell us about it instead."

J.D., getting a better look at Chris, decided that would be the better way to go and followed Buck to their table instead.

"I just got a wire from Judge Travis," he said once he was seated. "Said to be on the lookout for a rather nasty gang that's been roaming around the territory. They messed up a tiny little town way out in the middle of nowhere about a week ago. Killed the sheriff, his deputy and a few citizens and cleaned the bank out. The town was trying to expand and the bank held quite a bit of money."

"Any descriptions?" Vin asked.

J.D. nodded. "Yeah. Extremely attractive and very hostile."

The four older men looked at him curiously.

"Attractive?" Nathan asked, raising his brows.

"Yeah. You ready for this? The gang is all female."

"Female!" Buck exclaimed. "You're kidding right?"

"No. There's five of them. Leader's name is Tessa Williams."

"I've heard of her," Vin said.

When the others looked at him, he added, "I've traveled to a lot places during my time as a bounty hunter. Heard a lot about her, mainly in Texas. Was even in a few of the towns she hit. Not a pretty sight, girl has some serious problems. Folks called her the Red Witch cause of her hair and a fondness for voodoo potions and stuff. Not the type of girl you want to bring home, 'specially if you want to keep your family in one piece. Back then, it was just her and one other. Both of 'em weren't more than thirteen at the time. Guess she expanded her club."

"They headed this way for sure?" Buck asked, shaking his head in disbelief.

J.D. shrugged. "Don't know. Judge just said to be on the lookout case they head this way."

Buck sighed. "Cryin' shame."

He looked over at Chris and added, "Guess I'd better let Chris know. Bad mood or not."

Standing, he grabbed his beer and sauntered over to Chris's table.

"J.D. just got a wire from the Judge. Said to be on the lookout for a gang that might head this way."

"What else is new?" Chris muttered.

"Well, try this on for size. There's five of 'em, and they're all female."

Chris looked up at that, surprise flashing through his eyes.

"That was my reaction. Leader's name is Tessa Williams. Vin says he knows about her. Pretty nasty temper apparently."

Silence fell and after a moment, Buck asked, "So what should we do?"

"Just like the judge says. Keep an eye out. We'll decide what to do when and if they do actually show up here."

Buck nodded, then got up and returned to the other table, leaving Chris alone with his thoughts.




Meg's eyes carefully roamed about the town as her horse walked causally down the busy street. She had been sent a few days ahead of the others to learn everything she could about the town and it's seven protectors.

Spotting the livery, she turned the horse and headed for it. Once it was stabled, she grabbed her bag and went in search of a hotel.




"Well would you look at that?" Buck said as he spotted an attractive young woman walking across the street from him.

Vin looked at what had got his attention and a small smile crossed his lips.

"Pretty little thing," he commented.

"Pretty! That's the most gorgeous creature I've laid eyes on in months!"

He looked at Vin and grinned. "Someone should go welcome her to town."

Vin chuckled and shook his head as Buck started across the street toward the woman.

"Afternoon Miss," Buck greeted as he got into her path, "Name's Buck Wilmington. You look a little lost, anything I can help you with?"

The young woman looked up, revealing beautiful brown eyes, and smiled.

"Well now, I never expected this town to be so friendly. I'm looking for the hotel."

"Well lets see what we can do about finding it for you."

With a charming smile, Buck took her bag and offered his arm, and the pair started off in the direction of the hotel. When they reached it, the woman turned to him and said, "Thank you kindly for the escort Mr. Wilmington. Perhaps we'll see each other later."

"That would be a Devine pleasure Miss," Buck replied, tipping his hat.

"Name's Meg Foster. Please, call me Meg."

She flashed him another smile, then disappeared inside.




As soon as Meg had gotten her room and had secured rooms for the others, she had a short nap, then left the hotel to see what she could learn. She was thrilled when she found the saloon. A good, stiff drink was exactly what she needed after the long, hard ride.

She was well prepared for the stares of surprise she got when she entered the partly full, smokey room. She was used to it, and did what she always did-stared back hard and coldly. After a few minutes, the patrons returned to their own business and she made her way up to the bar.

The bartender eyed her with some contempt, but asked what she wanted anyway.

"Whiskey. Strongest you've got."

His brows shot up, but he complied nonetheless.

She had just taken her first satisfying gulp when a voice said, "Now this is the last place I expected to run into you again."

She looked up, stopping herself from going for her gun when she saw who it was.

"Mr. Wilmington correct?" she asked with a smile. She indicated the stool next to her and added, "Won't you join me?"

"Don't mind if I do. But please, call me Buck."

He claimed the seat she indicated and motioned to the bartender. A moment later, a mug of beer was in his hand.

"So what's a pretty little thing like you doing way out here all on her own?"

'Keep you're cool Meg,' she thought, bristling at his choice of words.

"Just waiting for some friends," she replied. "I'm a few days ahead of them, so I figured I'd stop and wait for them here. I've heard quite a bit about this place. Tell me, are you one of the seven protectors rumored to guard this town?"

Buck nodded. "Sure am. Though the stories are probably exaggerated."

Meg let an impressed look enter her brown eyes. "It's really exciting meeting a member of the Larabee gang. Could you introduce me to the others? I'd be ever so much obliged."

A smile crossed Buck's features. "Well sure. I'm sure the others would love to meet a gorgeous little lady like yourself."

His gaze traveled the saloon, coming to rest on three men at a table in the very back.

"There's a few of 'em now. Come on, I'll introduce ya."

He took her hand and led her over to the table.

"Boys, I'd like you to meet Meg Foster. Meg, this here is Vin Tanner, Josiah Sanchez and Ezra Standish."

All three men stood and tipped their hats in greeting.

"It is truly an honor to meet a lady with such majestic beauty," Ezra said with a small smile, taking her hand and kissing it gently.

Meg smiled and blushed despite herself. "You're quite the charmer Mr. Standish."

Before he could reply, Vin said, "You look familiar Miss. Have we met before?"

"No, I don't believe we have. Although you're name does sound familiar."

She knew her eyes were revealing something when Vin's eyes narrowed and quickly put a mask of friendliness on. She knew all about Vin Tanner, and planned to reveal it to Tessa, but didn't want to make him suspicious.

Turning her attention to the other two she said, "You have no idea how big of a thrill this is. I was just telling Buck how exciting it is to be meeting members of the Larabee gang. You all have quite the reputation."

"We're just simple men tryin' to keep the peace Miss," Josiah said.

"Well, I'd really like to see the town you're fighting so hard to keep the peace for."

Buck immediately grinned.

"Now that's where I come in. Just call me the local tour guide."

He stood and offered her his arm. "Maybe we'll run into the rest of the boys."

Meg stood and smiled down at the three men. "It was a pleasure meeting you gentlemen."

"Oh no, the pleasure was all ours, I assure you," Ezra said, standing and tipping his hat.

She glanced at Vin and noticed he was still watching her carefully. She flashed him a bright smile, then allowed Buck to lead her out of the saloon, making a mental note to keep an eye on the former Bounty hunter.

They hadn't been touring long when they ran into the fifth member of the seven.

"Meg, I'd like you to meet Nathan Jackson. Nathan here is our local healer."

"Ma'am," Nathan greeted, tipping his hat as he flashed Buck a look that said, "Another one?"

"A pleasure to meet you Mr. Jackson," Meg replied, pretending not to notice the look. "I have to admit, you're the first colored healer I've ever met."

"Learned in the war," Nathan replied, not the least bit fazed by her comment.

"Well, seeing as how you're six friends are still alive and well, I must assume you are rather good at your job."

Nathan smiled. "I try, though it ain't easy with this lot. Don't know if you've met Josiah Sanchez yet. He keeps talkin' about how the birds of darkness are going to get 'im but instead of sitting around waitin' for them to come to him, he insists on chasing after them. I swear, man's gonna be the death of me."

Meg laughed in genuine amusement. "Well, I wish you luck, Mr. Jackson."

Nathan tipped his hat, then moved on his way.

Less then five minutes later, Buck was introducing her to the sixth member.

"And this here is our local sheriff."

Meg looked at the young man before her in surprise as he said, "J.D. Dunne, Miss. Pleasure to meet you."

"Sheriff? How did someone so young manage to get that title?"

"Cause no one else was fool enough to take the job," Buck replied with a teasing smile.

"I'm sure he meant brave," Meg said as J.D. opened his mouth in protest.

He looked at her, smiled and tipped his hat, flashing Buck a triumphant look. Buck just rolled his eyes, which caused him to catch sight of the last member he had yet to introduce.

"Hey Chris," he greeted as the black clad man joined them, "Want ya to meet the new lady in town, Meg Foster. Meg, this is Chris Larabee."

Chris nodded shortly. "Miss."

'Goodness, if I didn't know better, I'd swear he and Tessa were related!' Meg thought as she voiced a greeting.

She listened as he and Buck exchanged a few quiet words, then he left, headed for the saloon. As she watched him leave, she could help but wonder how he and Tessa would react to one another once they met.

'Could very well be an interesting exchange. One I'm going to make sure I'm around to witness.'




PART 2



Meg spent the next few days meeting the others as they filtered in one by one. The first to show up was Crystal Richards. At fifteen she was the youngest member of the group, but was nearly as deadly as Tessa. She had ice blue eyes and hair as dark as the night itself. She was like the rest of them, an outcast whose short life had been hard and unforgiving. To survive, she had done what they all had done; grew hard, and cold-blooded.

The next to arrive was Kayla Whitehorse. Kayla was eighteen, the same age as Meg and Tessa, and rarely spoke. She was of Indian blood, although no one, not even the girls, could ever figure out what tribe she had belonged to and what had led her to become an outcast. The girls didn't even know her true name, Kayla not being a common Indian name.

The last to arrive before Tessa was Selene Russell, a beautiful, seventeen year old black girl, who spoke even less than Kayla. Of all of them, Selene was the most innocent looking, and was often the most important when Tessa set one of her traps.

Finally, Tessa herself arrived. Meg took one look at her and could tell her long time friend had been involved in some trouble somewhere. She had that "I love the taste of blood" look she often got after putting a few miserable souls out of their misery.

Giving her friend a knowing look, she led her to the hotel and to the room she had secured for her, then went to her own room to wait with the others while Tessa rested and then freshened up.




A few hours later, the girls entered the now very crowded, very smokey saloon, and managed to locate a secluded table. The serving girl didn't even bat an eye an the oddity of the situation as she took their orders and then returned with their drinks. Meg had befriended her the night she arrived and, as the other girls had arrived, had introduced them. Now as the girls sat and quietly sipped their drinks, Meg looked carefully around the Saloon, soon spotting who she was looking for.

"All right pay attention now," she said quietly, but loud enough so they could hear, "The table in the very back, the one with the five men, they're the Larabee gang. The one with the big mustache gawking at all the women is Buck Wilmington. Fancies himself a ladies man. The one to the right of him is Nathan Jackson, the local healer. From what I've been able to find out, he's very good with knifes. Next one is Josiah Sanchez. He's an ex-preacher. I'd recommend watching your step around him, I don't think he's a man we could take very easily. Next one is Vin Tanner. He's an ex-bounty hunter who's wanted in Tuscosa. Five hundred dollars in case you're interested. The man in black in Chris Larabee, they're leader and possibly the most dangerous man of the group."

Meg watched Tessa's reaction carefully as her friend took in the group's leader. She was disappointed though. Tessa's face remained unreadable.

"Where are the other two?" Crystal asked, "There's supposed to be seven of them, ain't there?"

Meg nodded to a table near the five where a small group were playing poker.

"The one in the fancy clothes cleaning his opponents out is Ezra Standish. Extremely charming but an obvious con man. I'm quite sure he has a few tricks up his sleeves if you know what I mean."

She looked around some more then said, "I don't see the last one, but he probably won't be long getting here."

True enough, just five minutes later, the last member of the group entered the saloon, looked around and headed for the back table.

"There, him. That's J.D. Dunne, the local sheriff."

Tessa looked at her in genuine surprise. "You're kidding right? That boy's not much older than I am. In fact, I'd say he's twenty, twenty one tops!"

"That was my reaction. Seems he got the job cause everyone else was afraid to take it."

Tessa watched him for a moment, a slow smile crossing her lips.

"Doesn't matter how he got the job, just as long as he's one of them. He's perfect for the plan I have in mind."

She finished her drink, watching him as she did, then got up and headed for the bar at the same time he did. She carefully calculate her speed and his, did some quick maneuvering, and less than a minute later cried, "Oh!" as they ran into each other.

She took a moment to steady herself, then putting a startled look on her face, looked up...and into the nicest pair of brown eyes she had ever seen. She hadn't expected this and it took a moment for her to regain her composure long enough to slip into her act.

"I'm so sorry!" she gasped, "I wasn't watching where I was going. Are you okay?"

"Uh, just fine, Miss. It was actually my fault, I should have been paying more attention."

He quickly took off his hat and added, "My name's J.D. Dunne."

She smiled and brushed a piece of shocking red hair out of her eyes.

"I'm Lynne Stevens. Pleasure to make you're acquittance Mr. Dunne."

"Oh no please, call me J.D. Can I buy you a drink?"

Their eyes met once more and again, she was nearly drawn into their depths. She mentally shook herself and replied, "I'd like that."

J.D. smiled widely, and led her to the bar.




"Good lord all mighty, would you look at what just ran into J.D.!" Buck exclaimed as he watched the encounter.

Josiah let out a low whistle. "Now that is something else," he said softly.

"Must be the last friend Meg was looking for," Buck said, his gaze traveling to the table he had seen Meg claim.

"That is one odd group of girls," Nathan commented as he, too, looked at the table. "I can't for the life of me figure out what such pretty young girls are doing in a place like this. That one with the pitch black hair, she can't be more than sixteen. Wonder what they're all doing out here on their own?"

"Who cares?" Buck replied with a grin, "I just hope they're stayin.'"

His grin grew wider as J.D. returned to the table, a mug of beer in hand.

"Who's your pretty new friend J.D.?"

"Her name's Lynne. We sort of bumped into each other."

"Yeah, I saw that. So when's the wedding?"

J.D. looked at him, startled and Buck burst out laughing.

"You boys notice something about them girls?" Vin spoke up as J.D. glared at Buck.

"Hell I've noticed plenty of things about them little laddies," Buck replied, still chuckling.

"Have you noticed there's five of 'em and Lynne has some pretty shocking red hair?"

Buck stopped laughing, a startled look entering his eyes.

He shook his head and said, "No way. If those little girls are the nasty gang we're supposed to be keeping an eye out for, then I'll give up women permanently!"

"Be careful what you say my friend," Josiah said with a small smile.

"Keep an eye on them," Chris spoke up. "If it looks like it's them, we'll make a move."

The others nodded, then quietly returned to their drinks.




"All right Tess, so what do you have planned for the boy?" Meg asked as she joined the girls in Tessa's room.

Tessa simply smiled slyly at them, then got up and pulled her saddle bags out from under the bed.

She pulled out a box that was very familiar to Meg and opened it.

"This, my dear girls, is the plan," she said, holding up a vial of dark blue liquid.

"What is it?" Crystal asked. Even Meg, who had been with Tessa the longest, didn't know what it was.

"This is a very special little poison. One of Mama's secret recipes."

"I've never seen that before," Meg said, looking at Tessa curiously.

"That's 'cause I've been saving it for a very special occasion. The ingredients for this are amazingly hard to come by and I only have a few vials made from when I have had all the ingredients."

"What's it do?" Selene asked.

"Well, when one digests this little beauty, they tend to go through many fazes. First, they come down with a nasty little fever, followed by hallucinations and violent behavior. The fun thing about this is it tends to effect different people in different ways. I can't wait to see how our young sheriff reacts to it."

"And while he's under the influence of that?" Crystal asked.

Tessa's smile was bone chilling cold.

"We'll be cleaning out the bank, maybe killing one or two of the Larabee gang while they're distracted and be taking a murderer back to Tuscosa where he belongs."




PART 3



Later that day, Tessa was walking down the street when she spotted Chris Larabee, sitting outside the saloon, staring at seemingly nothing in particular. She smiled to herself, then ignored him as she went into the saloon, and got a bottle of whiskey and two glasses and back headed outside.

"Mr. Larabee, I presume?"

He looked up and stared at her for a moment, then turned his attention back to the street.

"That's me."

That was all she needed to know. Between his eyes and his attitude, she knew more about this man then he probably knew about himself.

"Might I join you?"

She noticed his eyes travel from the street to the bottle and glasses and back again. After a moment, he nodded and she took a seat, pouring a glass of Whiskey for him and herself.

He nodded shortly, took the glass, and downed the liquid in one gulp.

"Awfully young to be a gunslinger aren't ya?" he asked quietly.

She knew what he really meant by that but didn't comment.

Instead, she poured him another drink and said, "I'll bet I've had more experience and seen more horrors in my short life than you've seen in your long one."

"Doubtful."

"Not entirely. You and I are a lot alike, Mr. Larabee. For instance, you haven't said more than two complete sentences and I already know more about you than I'll bet even your best friend knows."

He eyed her suspiciously, but she saw the curiosity behind them.

She lowered her voice to a mysterious purr and said, "You've lost someone very close to you. Someone you loved more than life itself. I'd say somewhere in the span of the past five years. Correct?"

She saw the startled look flash through his eyes, but then they were hard again and he said roughly, "None of you're business."

She nodded. "I thought so. Probably your wife and..."

She trailed off, watching him carefully. She saw what she was looking for almost instantly and finished her sentence, "And a child. Was it a boy or a girl?"

Her voice had never left it's low, mysterious purr, and she knew he'd answer her question.

"Boy."

Tessa nodded, not letting her surprise show.

"We really are alike, you and I. I lost my family too. My mother and baby brother, when I was ten. Only difference is, I know who killed them and I avenged them. You, I can see found the murderer, but haven't yet found who was really behind it."

Chris looked at her with a mixture of emotions in his eyes.

Finally, he looked back down at his drink, and muttered, "You talk too much."

"The one femmine trait I haven't been able to break."

She thought she saw a smile of amusement cross his lips, and smiled herself, turning her attention to her drink. She wasn't sure why, but she felt a sort of kinship with this man and almost hated to cause the trouble that would soon be plaguing him. Almost. They lapsed into silence, each quietly drinking and staring out at the street, lost in thought.

Without warning, rage filled screams split the air, startling them both.

"What in the world," Tessa muttered, getting to her feet.

She started down the boardwalk in the direction of the screams, knowing full well that Larabee was right behind her. They hadn't gone far when they came upon the source of the screams. Crystal and Kayla were in the middle of the street, fighting viciously with a pair of men...and winning. Tessa allowed a small smile to cross her lips as she watched the pair bring their wraths down mercilessly on the two men. She spotted three of Larabee's men, Josiah, Ezra and Nathan, appear on the scene and head toward the fight.

It didn't take much to pull the two off the men, who were now cowering on the ground, bleeding and moaning, but once it was done, the pair whirled on the trio, ready to rip them apart. The men drew their guns as Crystal and Kayla both pulled out knifes and then Tessa decided to intervene.

"Crystal! Kayla! Stand down!"

The girls looked at her and wavered a bit, but didn't lower their weapons.

"Stand down! Now!" She repeated sharply, a warning in her tone.

This time, the girls did lower their weapons and slowly put them away.

The three men started toward them, intent on taking the girls in for assault but Chris, recognizing the two men as a couple of ranch hands who had a habit of assaulting women, called, "It's all right boys, let 'em go."

The trio looked at Chris uncertainly, then down at the two men and quickly figured out the reason for Chris's decision. Josiah hauled the pair to their feet and he and Nathan headed toward the jail while Ezra headed back to what he had been doing prior.

Without turning around, Tessa said, "My girls and I aren't here to cause trouble Mr. Larabee. We've all had hard, unforgiving short lives which led us to become what we are, gunslingers and fighters. All we want is a place where we can be reasonably safe. A place where we can maybe settle down and lead normal lives."

"As long as you keep a tight rein on your friends, those two in particular, you should be fine."

"Thank you Mr. Larabee," Tessa said, recognizing both the threat and the welcome in his statement.

"Name's Chris."

"Lynne."

She smiled without looking at him, then walked away. So far so good.




J.D. quickly got the keys for the cells as soon as he saw Josiah and Nathan headed his way with a couple of obviously hurt men.

"What happened?" he asked as Josiah put the men in the cells and Nathan began his work.

"These two decided to try their charm on two of Meg's friends who didn't take kindly to it," Josiah replied.

"Man," J.D. murmured as he watched Nathan patch them up.

Shaking his head, he went back outside and froze. Across the street, walking slowly along the boardwalk, was Lynne.

He felt his heart quicken as he watched her and jumped when Josiah said, "She's something isn't she?"

"You can say that again," J.D. replied softly, his eyes never leaving her.

Josiah chuckled. "Go on and say hi. Maybe show her around a bit. I'll watch the prisoners."

J.D. looked at him, then smiled and started off across the street.

"To be young again," Josiah said softly as he watched his young friend greet the girl. "Enjoy it my friend."

He smiled lightly, then turned and disappeared back inside.




"Hi Lynne," J.D. greeted as he walked up to her.

'Lynne' stopped and smiled when she saw him.

"Good afternoon, J.D. How are you this fine day?"

"Couldn't be better. Um, you haven't seen the town yet have you?"

"To tell you the truth, I haven't been much further than the hotel and the saloon."

"Well then, would you like a tour?"

"I'd love one."

Smiling widely, J.D. offered her his arm and the pair continued down the boardwalk. They had gotten part way through town when they ran into Vin.

"Hey Vin," J.D. greeted, "Have you met Lynne yet?"

"Don't reckon I've had the pleasure," Vin replied, tipping his hat, "Miss."

'Lynne' nodded in return. "Mr. Tanner."

"Oh hey, could you wait right here a sec? There's something I gotta take care of. Won't be a moment."

Lynne nodded and J.D. hurried off.

Tessa turned her attention to Vin, who was looking at her in a way she didn't like.

"Forgive me Miss, but I'm just noticing the same thing about you that I noticed about Miss Meg. You both seem familiar somehow."

"Well, I don't know about Meg, but I'm quite certain we've never met."

"Where are you from, If you don't mind my asking?"

"A little backwater town in Texas. Have you ever been to Texas Mr. Tanner?"

Vin nodded. "Spent a few years traveling there."

Tessa smiled innocently and said, "Oh! Then perhaps you know of the town I'm from. Have you ever heard of Tuscosa?"

He froze for a moment and looked at her carefully. She looked back, letting a small hint of something show in her eyes. Not enough to spook him and ruin her plans, but enough to lure him just a step closer into the trap she had set. She was quite certain he had an idea of who she was, and therefore wanted to get rid of him quickly but in a way that went well with her plan.

After a moment, he slipped back into his laid back manner and said, "Yeah, I've been there. Didn't care for it much."

Tessa smiled. "Neither did I."

At that moment J.D. returned and she smiled at him and said, "Ready to continue?"

He nodded and she took his arm. Looking at Vin she said, "Nice meeting you Mr. Tanner," once again allowing that little something to flash through her eyes.




Vin was, to say the least, disturbed. The encounter with 'Lynne' had left him nervous and more suspicious than he had been at first. He quickly spotted Chris, sitting outside the saloon, drinking and watching the street and hurried over.

"Chris, we need to talk," he said, sitting down.

Chris looked up and started slightly when he saw the look in his friend's eyes.

"What's up?"

"That girl, Lynne."

"What about her?"

Vin quickly related the encounter as he took a few swigs from the half empty bottle.

"Something's right not Chris," he finished, "This 'Lynne' is about the right age as Tessa Williams would be now and she's got a little gang of four. We'd better do something or be mighty careful."

Chris was silent for a moment, then told Vin what 'Lynne' had told him earlier after the incident with her girls.

"I'm not saying I fully believe her, but without proof that she's anything but who she says she is, there ain't much we can do unless she starts something."

Vin nodded, knowing exactly what the older man was telling him.

He stood and started off, stopping when Chris said, "Vin."

When he turned back, Chris said, without looking at him, "Watch your back."

Vin nodded, a small smile playing on his lips. Then he turned, walked down the boardwalk, and out of sight.




From across the street, two pairs of eyes watched the quiet, quick conversation between the pair. When Vin walked off, it was not alone.




J.D. and 'Lynne' had spent pretty much all day together and she had to admit, although rather grudgingly, that she liked the kid. Now, they were at the coral, leaning against the fence and staring up at the stars.

After a while, J.D. said, "You know Lynne, you're not like most of the girls I've met. In fact, you're not like any of them."

"How do you mean?"

"Well for one thing, you're a gunfighter. Not very many women are in that line of work. The way you act, dress and handle yourself, it's almost like you're one of the guys."

Tessa was silent for a moment. Then she said softly, "I hope you don't consider me just one of the guys."

She didn't know why she said it, though later she convinced herself it was just part of her act, or why she chose that moment to turn and look up at him just as he looked down at her.

Their eyes met and this time, she let herself get drawn into their debts. He slowly leaned in toward her and she slowly tipped her head up. Her eyes closed with his and, seconds later, their lips met in a long, tender kiss.




PART 4



A couple of weeks had passed, and Tessa's plan was progressing beautifully. She was gaining more and more of Chris's trust as the days went by. Most of the trust had developed on the occasions when she and her girls had helped Chris and his men in some particularly nasty situations. Vin was walking further and further into her trap and J.D. was falling further and further under her spell.

In Meg's silent opinion, however, Tessa was falling under J.D.'s own spell. She had watched them when they were together and had seen things she had never seen in her friend before.

Meg sighed. 'You can hate men with a passion and kill them in cold blood by the hundreds, but it doesn't mean you'll never fall in love with one.'

She knocked softly on Tessa's door, waited for the word, and then entered.

"Hey Tess," she said as she closed the door, "We need to talk."

"What's up?"

"The girls are getting restless, as well as a little nervous. To tell you the truth, so am I. Something's gotta happen soon, or we're all going to go nuts."

"You all want something to do? Go watch Tanner like a hawk. By my estimate, he should be getting the results of his little trip to the telegraph office any day now. And while you're all doing that, I'll be making the next move with our young sheriff. Trust me Meg, things will be heating up very shortly. Now go so I can prepare myself."

Meg nodded, knowing full well what her friend was up to and quietly left.

Once she was alone, she went over to the alter she had made just before Meg had dropped by and lit the half dozen candles. She then went over to her bed and took the vile filled with the dark blue liquid from the little box. Returning to the alter, she closed her eyes and raised the vial in both hands over her head. For nearly thirty minutes she chanted in an ancient, Latin tongue, occasionally switching to other ancient languages.

Finally, she opened her eyes and brought the vial down so she could look at it. She smiled as she felt the energy emanating from it. She blew the candles out and placed the vial in her pocket.

"Time to start the party," she whispered.




The saloon, as usual, was crowded when she entered, but she had no trouble finding J.D. and the table he had saved for them.

"Evening Lynne," he greeted, standing as she approached.

"Evening Sheriff," Tessa replied teasingly, "Ready to be drunk under the table?"

J.D. grinned as he sat back down. "I'm going to beat you this time."

Tessa's smile grew wider. "We'll see junior, we'll see."

For the past week, the pair had engaged in a nightly contest to see who could out drink the other. So far, Tessa was one up on him, which J.D. didn't really mind since he was having so much fun. The serving girl, upon seeing Tessa, wandered over with a large bottle of whiskey and two glasses. She smiled at them in amusement, then drifted off to serve other patrons.

Tessa looked at her opponent and poured them each a shot.

"Ready Sheriff?"

J.D. nodded, grabbed his glass, and the game began. Throughout the evening, various members of the seven drifted over to say hi and watch the game in amusement. At one point, Buck joined them, but soon lost interest as one of the saloon girls decided she wanted his attention.

Tessa waited until an expected bar brawl began and everyone's attention was focused on the fighters, to quickly take the vial out, and pour the contents into J.D.'s full glass.

Finally, the brawl was broken up and everyone went back to their drinks. J.D. turned back and grinned at her drunkenly.

"Who...who's turn is it?"

"Yours I think."

She smiled as she watched him pick up the glass, stare at it with burry vision, then down it in two quick gulps.

'Enjoy yourself hon,' she thought as he grinned again, 'You're in for one hell of a nasty ride.'




The next morning found Vin hurrying for the telegraph office after a message boy had told him his information he had wired for had arrived.

"Morning Bill," he greeted the clerk as he entered the little office.

Bill looked up and smiled.

"Morning Vin. See you didn't waste any time getting over here."

Vin just smiled in reply.

"Here ya go," Bill said after he dug around for a moment.

"Thanks Bill," Vin said, taking the envelope the older man gave him.

He drifted a few feet away, opened the envelop and removed two pieces of large paper.

'Tessa Williams,' he read silently, A.K.A the Red Witch. Wanted for murder, robbery, arson, blackmail, kidnaping...lord, this list goes on and on.'

His eyes traveled down the list of places she and her gang were wanted in. 'She must be the most wanted woman in the world, and she's only eighteen! Lord girl, what happened to turn you into this?'

He turned to the other page where the picture was located and his heart beat faster. Staring back at him was a sketch, along with a black and white photo, of Tessa Williams as she looked now.

'Lynne.' "I knew it," he muttered out loud.

"Something wrong, Vin?"

Vin looked up, putting the posters back in the envelop and said, "Yeah Bill, something's very wrong."

He tipped his hat, then left the little office to find Chris, not noticing the eyes watching him.

Figuring the saloon would be his best bet, Vin turned and headed in that direction. As he was passing an alley, a low, pain filled moan drifted out and reached his ears. Stopping, he listened carefully, and when he heard it again, stepped cautiously toward the alley.

"Hello?" he called out, "You all right in here?"

"Please," a young girl's voice said from somewhere within, "Please...help me."

Drawing his gun, Vin slowly entered the alley, following the girl's moans till he was nearly in the back.

"Where are you?"

"Here...over here," came the weak reply.

Searching carefully among the boxes and crates, Vin's sharp eyes quickly picked out a body.

"It's all right, just hold on a minute and I'll get you out of there," Vin said, holstering his gun and moving the boxes aside so he could get to the girl.

He removed the last box and looked down to see who the victim was and his eyes widened in recognition and realization. He backed up, starting to draw his gun, but stopped as he felt something jab in his back and heard the loud, resounding click of a gun being cocked.

"Don't move," a cold, female voice whispered in his ear.

Selene got up from the ground and, smiling softly, took his gun and quickly searched him, removing his other weapons. She snatched the envelope from his hand and nodded to her partner. "Got yourself into a real jam this time didn't ya," the cold voice whispered, "Just wait, this is only the beginning of your problems."

Pain suddenly exploded in Vin's skull and stars filled his vision. He staggered a bit, suddenly unsure of what was happening, and fell to the ground. He turned over on his back and looked up just in time to see something flying swiftly at him, and then blackness claimed him.




"J.D. Hey kid wake up."

A familiar, annoyingly amused voice penetrated his fog filled senses, slowly bringing J.D. back to full consciousness. He opened his eyes and immediately regretted it, squeezing them shut and letting out a low moan.

He waited a moment, then opened them slowly. Buck's intensely amused face floated into view above him, which caused J.D. to instantly break into a glare.

"What's so funny?" he grumbled, "Ain't ya ever seen a man hung over before?"

"Yeah and I get a kick every time I see it."

"You'll get a kick all right," he muttered in reply as he slowly sat up. "Hey, where am I?" he asked as he suddenly noticed his surroundings.

"Jail house. Guess you couldn't find your room last night."

J.D. put a hand on his head and groaned. "Oh man, what happened last night anyway?"

Buck grinned. "Same thing that's happened every night this week. You and that little filly of yours got drunker 'n skunks. Last night must've been a wild one if you're this hung over. Though I can't for the life of me figure out why you ended up here instead of your own bed, or hers for that matter."

"Buck!" J.D. looked up and shot him a fierce glare.

Buck burst out laughing. "Just kidding kid. Come on, let's head on over to the saloon and get ya a pot of coffee. Maybe one of the boys can tell ya what happened."

"Don't you mean a cup?" J.D. asked as he got to his feet and finally found his balance.

Buck shook his head. "Nope, I mean a pot. It's going to take a least that much to get ya fixed up again."

With Buck's help, the pair made their way down the street and into the nearly deserted saloon. The only inhabitants of the room at the moment were Chris, Ezra and Josiah.

"Look who I found boys," Buck said, a wide grin splitting his face as he sat down.

"Well, well Mr. Dunne. How are we feeling this fine morning?" Ezra asked, a slight smile of amusement on his lips.

"Like hell, only worse," J.D. replied, resting his head in his arms on the table.

"Kid can't remember what happened last night," Buck said with a chuckle, motioning to the bartender, "Figured one of you could fill him in since I was involved in my own festivities."

"Do you really want to know Mr. Dunne?" Ezra asked.

J.D. looked up, saw the look in Ezra's eyes and put his head back down. "Something tells me I don't think I do," came his muffled response.

Chuckles rose around the table as the bartender wandered over with two pots of coffee and some cups.

"Here kid, have some coffee. It'll help," Chris said, pouring two cups.

As J.D. slowly sipped the hot liquid, Chris asked, "Anyone seen Vin yet?"

The other three shook their heads.

"Haven't seen 'im since last night," Josiah said.

"What's with him lately anyway?" Buck asked, pouring himself a cup of coffee, "He's been acting like a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs!"

"Man's restless," Josiah said, "He has a wandering spirit that doesn't like to stay in one place for long. Happens to me too once in a while."

Chris's attention wandered over to J.D. and his eyes narrowed. His breathing was heavy and ragged and he looked a little confused.

"You all right, kid?"

He looked up, startled. "Wha-what?"

"You all right?" Chris repeated, "You don't look so good."

"Uh, yeah I'm fine. It's just a little hard to breath in here."

He stood and added, "I'm going to go out and get some air."

"I'll join ya," Buck said, standing and following his young friend.

Outside, J.D. leaned against the wall, eyes closed and breathing deeply.

"You all right?" Buck asked, concern replacing his amusement.

"Yeah, I just...feel a little strange is all."

"Boy, I've seen some heavy duty hangovers in my time, had a few of them myself, but I don't think I've ever seen one like this. Maybe you otta have Nathan check ya out, just to be safe."

"I'm fine Buck," J.D. insisted, "I just need to go back to my room and sleep it off for a few hours."

Buck nodded. "All right. You go look after yourself. The boys and I will handle anything that comes up."

J.D. slowly pushed himself away from the wall and started to walk.

Buck turned to go back into the saloon, but stopped when J.D. said, "B...Buck."

He turned just as J.D. clutched his stomach and pitched forward, falling down the three small steps to the street.

"J.D.!" Buck exclaimed and hurried to his friend's side.

He took one look at the young man, and ran back up to the saloon doors.

Pushing them open, he stuck his head inside and shouted, "Someone get Nathan fast!"

The others hurried out to find out what had Buck so upset.

"What happened?" Chris asked, kneeling next to Buck as Ezra hurried to find Nathan.

Buck shook his head. "Said he was going to go back to his room and sleep this off, and then he collapsed. I'm no doctor, Chris, but something tells me this ain't no hangover."

Five minutes later, Ezra returned with Nathan on his heels.

"Man oh man, this isn't good," Nathan muttered softly as he looked the young man over. "Josiah, get him to my rooms would ya?"

Josiah nodded and effortlessly picked his friend up. With Nathan and Buck following, he quickly headed for Nathan's rooms.




PART 5



Morgan Williams sighed in relief as she finished stabling her horse, grabbed her bag, and walked out into the bright, morning sun. For the past several weeks she had been away visiting relatives and it felt incredibly good to finally be back home. She stood outside the livery, debating on whether or not she should collapse in her bed or go to the saloon for a good, stiff drink.

She eventually opted for the saloon, thinking with a smile that she'd find Buck there. He always did know how to make her unwind.

As she was walking down the street, however, a figure caught her eye that made her forget all about Buck and his magic touch. She stopped and stared, startled, at a girl across the street.

'Meg?'

"Meg!" she shouted, hurrying across the street and up to her old friend.

Meg stopped and looked at her, a smile crossing her features. "Morgan!"

"It's good to see you," they said at once as they embraced.

Morgan laughed and asked, "What are you doing here?"

Her eyes turned serious and she looked around carefully before added quietly, "Are Tessa and the others here too?"

Meg nodded. "She's going by Lynne here. She and the others are in her room dealing with a little problem."

Morgan's eyes narrowed. "I don't think I like the sound of that."

Meg shrugged. "Come on, I'll take you to her."




Vin's awarement was slowly coming back to him. He knew something was wrong, but he couldn't quite figure out what. Everything was so foggy and his head was pounding. He tired to move, but found he couldn't, which worried him. Why couldn't he move? Was he paralyzed?

'Don't be stupid,' he chided himself, 'You weren't involved in anything that could do that to you.'

So why couldn't he move? He finally figured out that if he wanted to discover the answer to this mystery, he would have to open his eyes. It took some effort, but he finally managed to accomplish what was otherwise a simple task.

Carefully looking around, he discovered the reason for his immobility. He was tied, rather tightly he quickly discovered, to a chair in a room he was quite certain was a part of the hotel. Suddenly sensing he wasn't alone, he slowly turned his head to the right and met the cold eyes of the girl known as Crystal. Standing next to her, a threatening yet cautious look in her eyes, was the Indian known as Kayla. Still glaring at him, Crystal moved to the door, opened it and said something. She then moved away and Tessa and Selene entered the room.

"Well now, we're finally awake are we?" Tessa said as she closed the door. "'Bout time. I was beginning to wonder if you'd slipped into a comma. Crystal doesn't know her own strength some times."

Vin said nothing, watching her carefully as she pulled out a familiar looking envelope and removed the contents.

"You're too smart for your own good. You know that don't you?" she asked as she looked at the wanted poster.

"What are you doing here Tessa? What's your plan?"

Tessa laughed softly. "If I were a man, all over confident that I had you and you wouldn't be going anywhere to tell anyone of my plans, then I'd most likely answer that question. But I'm a woman. I'm much smarter than that. All I'm going to tell you is that by the time this is over, you'll be on the other end of a rope in, what was that place called again? Oh yes, Tuscosa."

There was a knock at the door and Vin immediately felt a knife pressed to his throat in a silent warning.

"Who is it?"

"Meg," came the muffled response.

Tessa crossed the room and opened the door. Meg didn't come in, however. Vin heard the girl tell Tessa something and heard a surprised reply. She closed the door and turned to the other girls.

"Kayla, stay here and guard our guest, I'll deal with him when I return. Crystal and Selene, come with me."

The girls nodded, and followed Tessa out the door.

Kayla removed the knife and went to stand by the door, staring at him in such a way it seemed she was staring right through him. This was the first time he had actually managed to get this good a look at her. She was so rarely seen in the streets and when she was, she tended to disappear very quickly.

She had hair down to her waist, typical of Indian women and black eyes. She was very beautiful, probably one of the most beautiful Native girls he'd ever seen and held herself with an air of defiance and regalness at the same time. She was a half breed, that much he was certain, although he was having trouble figuring out what her other half was. After a long, careful look, he decided Mexican, which explained her incredibly unique looks. Her native side was even harder to decipher. He stared hard at her, carefully picking out features and details and matching them with the tribes he'd been around. Finally, he had his answer. Apache.

'Lord, why did she have to be Apache?' he thought.

The Apache tribes were well known for their viciousness and bloodlust in battle. He'd had some first hand experience in that discovery. More than once, he'd fought against them alongside tribes he'd been staying with and counted himself as quite lucky to still be here. He'd lost a number of good friends to Apaches and, though he didn't like them much, he still had a good deal of respect for them.

He sighed inwardly. 'Might as well talk to her. See if I can find some way out of this mess.'

He lowered his eyes thinking hard as he tried to remember how the language went. It had been a long time, but he was pretty sure it would all come back once he started talking.

He looked back up at her and said quietly, <What's your name?>

Kayla started and looked at him in surprise.

<What...what did you say?>

<I asked what your name was...your true name.>

<How do you know my language?> Kayla replied slowly.

<Spent quite a bit of time among the natives. Encountered your people more than once.>

She just stared at him with an intense, cold distrust.

'I can only imagine what this girl has been through,' Vin thought, then repeated his earlier question, <What's your name?>

She glared at him and remained silent.

Vin sighed. <Look, I can well imagine what you've been through, why you don't trust anyone but them girls and I understand that. But I'm all tied up here. I couldn't hurt you even if I wanted to. I just want to know your real name.>

She stared at him for a long moment, then said, <My mother called me Black Rose>

<Deadly beauty> Vin interpreted.

She nodded. <Very good. My mother knew what I would become and named me appropriately. She's dead now, thanks to your people.>

<Not all whites are bad you know. In fact, many of them respect your people, myself included. I have good deal of respect for the Dine.>

She shot him an odd look

<So, why do you go by Kayla? I would think you'd be more inclined to stay with Black Rose. It...suites you.>

<That is something I choose not to reveal, especially to a white man. I have only been with my new friends a short time and they do not even know the reason I call myself Kayla and they do not ask.>

<All right. Do you mind if I ask how you fell in with Tessa and the others then?>

That question quicky sealed her lips. Or maybe it was the mention of Tessa's name. Whatever the reason, she turned her gaze away from him, playing with the knife she had earlier.

'Guess that's that.' Vin thought.

He sat in silence, his attention turned to trying to loosen his bonds. The rope was secure though.

'Someone's really good with rope,' he thought, annoyance creeping in.

A few moments after he had given up, the door opened and Tessa came back in, followed by Crystal, Meg, Selene, and a surprising new comer.

"Morgan?"

Morgan looked at him, an apologetic look in her blue eyes.

"Hi Vin," she said quietly.

"What are you doing here?"

From the way the other girls were acting, it was clear she was not here against her will.

"Doesn't matter," Tessa said, "Morgan here just wanted to make sure you were all right. Make sure I hadn't killed you yet." She turned to Morgan and said, "See? He's alive and well, for the time being."

"What do you plan to do with him Tess?" Morgan asked, "The others are going to start to wonder and he's not an easy man to keep quiet." She paused, then added, "Or captive."

Tessa smiled. "You've done your homework. Don't worry about the others. I'll take care of them. As for him," the look she shot him sent shivers down his spine, "I've got something to keep him nice, quiet and obedient. In fact, he's been awake long enough that I think its safe to give it to him. Don't want him dying on me. Dragging a dead body through the dessert is not a pleasant experience."

Morgan looked at Tessa and Vin saw understanding in her eyes. She knew exactly what Tessa was going to do. She looked at Vin, a deep sympathy in her eyes that made him nervous.

"I'll see you in the Saloon later I guess."

Tessa nodded and placed a friendly hand on the other girl's shoulder. She squeezed reassuringly and silent communication seemed to pass between them. Finally, with one last glance at Vin, she turned and left.

Tessa looked at Vin and smiled coldly. "And now for you, my dear prize."

She went over to her bed and pulled out her saddle bags. From them, she pulled out two boxes, one black, the other red. She opened the black one and removed a tiny bottle full of yellowish liquid.

"What's that?" he asked warily.

"This is one of my special little potions. I'm sure, you being a former bounty hunter and all, that you know all about my fondness for them. You're lucky, this one isn't as nasty as the one I gave J.D."

Vin's blood ran cold at that comment. "What did you do to J.D.?"

Tessa looked at him for a moment. Then, realization flooded her eyes and she said, "Oh thats right, you don't know about J.D.'s little collapse this morning."

She laughed softly. "Well, let's just say, the others are going to be mighty busy with him for the next little while."

She had now opened the red box and had removed a long, very sharp looking needle. She removed the top off the bottle, stuck the needle inside and filled it.

She put it aside as she carefully put the top back on and put the bottle away. She then looked up at him, and he shivered involuntarily.

She picked the needle back up and approached him. "This is going to hurt a little," she said, "But it's nothing to what you're going to be feeling when this stuff kicks in."

Vin's mind worked a mile a minute, trying to find some way out of this mess. He quickly determined that there was none.

'Well, he thought, 'I'm definitely not going to sit here quietly and let her do this.'

He waited until she was in the right position, then kick upward with all this strength. His boot hit her hand, causing her to cry out and drop the needle. It shattered as it hit the floor.

With a growl of rage, Tessa moved and, seconds later, pain exploded in his thigh. A hand was clamped over his mouth as he screamed and then Tessa was growling in his ear, "Do you know how expensive those needles are and how hard the ingredients for that stuff is to find? You, sir, have just bought yourself a whole world of extra pain."

She twisted the knife in his thigh to emphasized her point, then pulled it out and backhanded him sharply. Ten minutes later, his thigh wasn't the only thing bleeding badly. His head hung limply and he slumped against his bonds as Tessa finally called Crystal off. He raised his head slightly to see-or try to through his red vision-what was happening. Tessa had filled another needle and was now coming back to him. He winced as she jabbed it fiercely into his arm and emptied it's contents. He heard her say something to him, but couldn't make it out. After a few moments, darkness mercifully claimed him.




Buck looked up anxiously as Nathan finally emerged from his room. Chris, Josiah and Ezra also stood, concern in each of their eyes.

Nathan looked at them and shook his head. "Kid's got one hell of a nasty fever, but damned if I can figure out what's causing it. The symptoms don't match up with any known illnesses."

"Can we see him?" Buck asked.

Nathan looked at him for a moment, then said, "It's an enter at your own risk situation right now. I may end up putting him in quarantine."

Buck nodded, and Nathan stepped aside as the other man went inside. He closed the door silently behind him and slowly approached the bed the kid was in. He winced when he saw his young friend. J.D.'s face was a deathly white, and his breathing was coming in heavy and labored. His hair was sticking to him from the sweat that seemed to pour out of him. Buck thought strangely that you could fill a bucket just with what was there. He picked up the cloth that had fallen off the kid's forehead, re-soaked it in the basin and wiped his forehead.

"Hang in there Kid," he said softly, "It's not your time yet."

He started as J.D.'s breathing suddenly turned ragged and gasping.

"Nathan!" he shouted as he tried to hold his now thrashing friend down.

Nathan burst through the door, the others behind him, and ran up to the bed.

"Not again," he muttered as he saw the situation.

"You been through this before?" Buck asked as Nathan hurried over to his dresser and grabbed a bottle and a needle.

"Yeah. 'Bout fifteen minutes ago. Gave him a shot of this and he quieted down. Guess whatever he's got is stronger than the dose I gave him."

He finished filling the needle with the bottle's contents and hurried back over.

"Keep 'im still now," he said as he grabbed J.D.'s bare arm.

He quickly emptied the contents, then helped Buck hold him down until he finally quieted.

Nathan sighed and shook his head.

"Kid's gonna have to be watched constantly for the next little while 'till we figure out what he's got."

It was quickly decided that the six men would take turns watching their young friend and comrade and help him through this mysterious illness.

Chris then left the room, heading back to the saloon for a good, stiff drink. He had just filled his glass when a shadow fell over the table.

Without looking up, he said, "Afternoon Lynne."

'Lynne' smiled and sat down, declining his offer for a drink.

"Got a message from Vin for ya. Said to tell you he's leaving town for a few days to do some thinking or something."

Chris looked at her in surprise.

"When did he leave?"

'Lynne' shrugged. "'Bout and hour or two ago. Said he couldn't find you so he asked me to tell you." She paused then asked with a small smile, "Have you seen J.D. yet? Poor guy probably has a major hangover today."

Chris looked at her again. "You haven't heard."

'Lynne' looked at him in confusion. "Heard what?"

"J.D. collapsed a few hours ago. He's got a bad fever and Nathan can't figure out what's causing it."

'Lynne' stared at him in shock.

"Is he still at Nathan's?" she asked, standing.

Chris nodded, and she took off. Chris watched the doors swinging shut behind her, then went back to his drink.




Tessa made a show of hurrying toward Nathan's, a concerned look on her pretty features. The little voice in her mind that sometimes spoke up told her that part of her concern was real, but she quickly silenced it.. She made it to Nathan's in just a few minutes and knocked softly on the door. It was opened by Josiah, who looked at her for a second, then let her in.

"I just heard about J.D.," she said softly as Nathan joined them, "I want to see him."

"I don't know if you really want to, Miss Lynne," Nathan replied, "He's looks pretty bad."

"I want to see him," Tessa replied, letting stubbornness enter her voice.

Nathan exchanged glances with Josiah, then nodded and stepped aside. Tessa hurried over to J.D. and drew in her breath when she saw him.

'This never fails to surprise me,' she thought, fascination filling her as she looked at him closely.

"Is he unconscious?" she asked.

"Yeah," Nathan replied, "Has been since he collapsed."

He paused then asked, "Miss Lynne, you were with him for most of yesterday, do you remember him doing or eating anything that would have caused this?"

Tessa pretended to think hard, then shook her head.

"No, most of what he did and ate, I did the same and I feel fine."

Nathan nodded, frustration creeping into his eyes.

Tessa looked at him, feeling slightly sympathetic and put a hand on his arm.

"You'll figure it out, I know you will."

She turned back to J.D. and knelt next to him.

"You give Mr. Jackson here a break," she whispered, knowing full well the other two men could hear her, "and get better soon. We still have a tie to break, remember?"

She stood and turned back to them, making a show of trying to hide her emotions.

"I'll come back later."

Then she left.




"You look extremely pleased with yourself," Morgan said as she appeared next to Tessa, seemingly out of nowhere.

Tessa smiled. "You may have heard of Sheriff Dunne's little collapse this morning."

Morgan nodded. "What did you do Tess?"

"Remember my Mamma's special, homemade poison?"

"Which one? There were so many of them."

"The one Mamma used on Papa's killer.

Morgan's eyes widened.

"You didn't! Tess, do you know what that could do to him?"

"Of course. That's why I used it. It'll keep the others occupied while the girls and I conduct our business."

"You're not going to let it kill him are you?"

Tessa shrugged. "I haven't decided yet." She shot her friend a sideways glance. "Even if I do, you and I both know you won't let that happen. I'm pretty sure you've still got most of the antidotes to all those little potions and poisons memorized. You always were good at that."

When Morgan didn't respond, she stopped and turned to face the older girl.

There was a hint of a threat in her eyes as she said quietly, "I love you very much, Morgan. We were very close as children and I like to think we still are. But if you do anything to ruin this, if you give J.D. the antidote or help Tanner or tell the others what's going on before I'm long gone from here, I'll forget our past and see you as the enemy. And you know what I do with the enemy."

She flashed her a smile that was cold and warm at the same time. "Something to think about."

Then, she turned and walked away, leaving Morgan to wonder just how much sanity was left in her childhood friend.




PART 6



Vin was slowly waking up and he didn't want to. The last few times he had it had been to sever pain and he didn't want to experience that anymore.

"Vin," a soft voice said, "Vin, can you hear me?"

He froze, panic starting to set in. He must have done something to tip his captives off that he was awakening.

He heard the door open and a voice he recognized as Meg's said, "What are you doing here Morgan?"

"Trying to fix him up a bit. You all left him in rather rough shape," Morgan responded, a slight hint of anger in her voice.

"I don't think Tessa would like that very much. She told me about you're earlier conversation."

"Oh please!" Morgan scoffed, "I'm assuming Tessa meant I'd be in for it if I helped him escape. I don't intend to do that, but I'm not about to sit back and watch him suffer! Look at that knife wound! It's been hours, why hasn't something more been done about it? I'm surprised infection hasn't set in or he hasn't bled to death! Stay and watch me like a hawk if you want, but I'm going to fix him up. Like Tess said, dragging a dead body around the dessert isn't pleasant and that's just what you're going to end up doing if something isn't done!"

There was a moment of silence and then Meg said, "All right. I'll send Kayla in to help you. She's good and fixing people up."

Silence fell again, broken by the door opening and softly closing.

"Vin?" Morgan asked quietly, "Are you still awake? Open your eyes if you are. I'm not going to hurt you."

Vin hesitated, and then slowly managed to open his eyes. Morgan's concerned face floated murkily into view.

"M...Morgan..."

"Shh, it's all right. Don't talk."

She disappeared from his line of vision for a moment, then returned with a dripping cloth. Vin drew in a sharp breath as she pressed it to his face and began to gently wipe at his wounds.

"You must have pissed her off good to get this. But I've seen worse."

"How...do you know...her?"

Morgan eyed him as she rinsed the cloth in the basin she had brought with her.

"That's something I'd rather keep to myself."

Vin felt pain and intense weakness surge through his body and remembered the yellowish liquid Tessa had injected into him.

"What...did...Tessa do to me?"

"Well, from what I've been told, she gave you a potion to keep you under control. The weakness you're probably feeling is to keep you from thinking of a good way to escape and the pain is to remind you not to try anything even if you could."

"J.D. What did she...do to him? Is he...all right?"

She shook her head.

"No, he's not all right. She gave him something ten times as vicious as what she gave you."

She fell silent and he was about to ask more when there was short knock on the door and Kayla entered. She nodded to Morgan, who nodded back and then turned her attention to the poorly wrapped knife wound in Vin's thigh.

Kayla came over and silently ripped his pants to expose the wound with her ever present knife. Silently, the girls began working on the wound and at some point along the line, Vin passed out. When they finished, Morgan looked at their work and nodded, satisfied that the wound would not become infected.

She gently touched Vin's cheek, then stood, nodded her thanks to Kayla and silently left. Alone, Kayla turned and looked at Vin. She couldn't help but feel a little curious toward this man who seemed to know so much about her people and seemed to respect them.

'Why are the spirits drawing me to you, Hunter? Why do they seem to have an interest in you?'

She shook her head, then went and sat down to wait for Meg to bring up dinner.




J.D. was confused. He wasn't in any pain like he had been outside the saloon, but he couldn't figure out why it was so dark and how he had got there. Or why it was so hot.

"Why is it so damned hot?" he muttered, surprised at the thickness of his voice.

"J.D.?"

He froze, surprised at the other voice. He listened carefully and heard movement, and then something cold was being pressed to his forehead.

"J.D., can you hear me? Open your eyes son."

Curious as to who was speaking to him and where he was, J.D. forced his heavy eyes open and a black man floated into his vision. He blinked. The man looked familiar, but he couldn't place him.

"W...who are...y-you?" he stuttered.

"It's Nathan, J.D. Remember?"

"N...Nathan? What's going on?"

"You've got some kind of fever. You're at my place."

"How did...I get here?"

"You collapsed outside the saloon. Ezra came and got me and then Josiah brought you here. The guys and I have been watching you ever since."

Nathan must have seen the next question in J.D.'s eyes for he said, "You've been unconscious for two days."

His attention was drawn to the door as a soft knock announced the arrival of Buck, who was due to relieve Nathan for dinner. Buck's eyes lit up when he saw his young friend.

"You're awake! You've had us mighty worried son!"

Nathan, knowing exactly what J.D. was going to ask from the look in his eyes, said, "It's Buck, J.D. You remember Buck don't you?"

Recognition flooded J.D.'s eyes and he nodded as Nathan added, "Are you hungry?"

"N-no. Thir...thirsty."

"I'll take care of it," Buck said, "You go get something to eat yourself."

Nathan nodded his thanks. He glanced at J.D., then said, "I like the way he's talking or the way he looks right now. Try and keep him quiet and see if you can get him to go to sleep."

Buck nodded and Nathan left.

Buck got some water and helped J.D. up so he could take a sip.

"There ya are. Sure ya ain't hungry?"

J.D. shook his head and Buck settled himself in the chair next to the bed.

"Try and get some real sleep kid. I'll be right here if ya need me."

J.D. nodded and closed his eyes, drifting off just seconds later into a deep, dreamless sleep.




It wasn't long before the dreamless sleep turned dream filled. He was riding in the desert, on his way to the next town to pick something up. What it was kept slipping his mind thanks to the heat, but he'd remember when he got there. He had just come over a rise when he spotted three horsemen coming toward him. He reined in and watched them for a minute and when they showed signs of slowing down, moved to meet them.

"Howdy," he greeted, tipping his hat, "Hot day ain't it?"

"Seen worse," one of the men responded, tipping his hat in return. "We're looking for someone, maybe you've seen 'im."

J.D. shook his head. "You're the first people I've seen so far, and I've been out for hours."

"Wait a minute," one of the men said, looking at him closely, "You ain't the sheriff of Four Corners are ya?"

J.D. nodded, a small smile on his lips. "Sure am."

"Well now, you're exactly who we've been looking for."

An alarm began ringing in J.D.'s head and his hand casually slipped closer to his gun as he said, "Well, you found me. What can I do for you?"

"You can come along with us nice and quiet like," the first man replied.

"Why?" J.D. asked, "Where we going?"

"That's for us to know and you to find out."

"Okay, just tell me one thing. You gonna shoot me if I don't go with you?"

"Boss said to bring him in basically unharmed," a man in the back spoke up, "Well be in for it if we bring him in all shot up."

J.D. was astonished at how stupid these men were.

He flashed them a smile and said, "Thanks," then spurred his horse and took off.

He heard someone curse and then the sounds of pursuit behind him. His horse was fast and he figured, since they weren't about to shoot him, he'd be able to outrun them or get to a spot where he could hide and take them out. So he was surprised when something smashed into him and knocked him from his horse. He hit the ground hard and gasped in pain, the wind knocked out of him. He groaned and rolled over onto his back. His eyes widened when he saw something speeding toward him, and then nothing.




He awoke with a start to find himself laying in a bed in a dimly lit room.

'What a weird dream, he thought.

He turned his head slightly and noticed a man standing by the window, looking out at something. He stopped himself from making any sound when he discovered it was one of the men from his dream.

'It wasn't a dream,' he thought frantically. 'I've got to get out of here. But how?'

The door to the room opened just then and a black man entered, supporting another man who was obviously injured.

The man turned from the window and asked, "What happened?"

"Brawl in the saloon. Give me hand would ya?"

J.D. quickly closed his eyes, listening to the movement of the men. He waited a moment, then opened his eyes and took a quick look. Their backs were to him and they were busy working on the other man. He waited until he was sure the man had their full attention, then quietly struggled to his feet, got his balance and sipped out the door.

He got down to the street and looked around. He didn't recognize anything or anyone, which added to his worries.

'Okay, I've got to find the stables, get my horse and get out of here. If I can find the next town, I can send a wire to the guys and get some help.'

That decided he hurried down the street, avoiding eye contact with the populace, who kept shooting him strange looks. Finally, he found the livery and slipped inside. Just as he'd hoped he would, he found his horse, unharmed and looking for all the world completely content.

"Sorry girl," he whispered, "But we've got to get out of here."

He quickly located his saddle and had just put it on her back when a heavy hand fell on his shoulder. He gasped and spun around to find a giant of a man standing before him, who he recognized from the dessert

"Now where do you think you're going my young friend?"




Buck watched Nathan finish sewing up the man's wound, then glanced over at J.D. to make sure he was okay. He drew in his breath when he saw the bed was empty.

"What the...where the hell's J.D.?" he exclaimed.

Nathan looked up, startled as the man thanked him and left.

"He must have slipped out when we were busy with Jay. We've gotta find him fast, he's in no condition to be out wandering around!"

Buck hurried to the door and threw it open, only to find Josiah standing there, a fiercely struggling J.D. thrown over his shoulder.

Nathan and Buck looked at him in surprise as the big man entered.

"Found him in the livery saddling his horse. Guess he wanted to go for a ride."

"Let me go you big ox!" J.D. shouted.

Josiah did so, but quickly grabbed him as J.D. made a break for the door.

"J.D. are you nuts?" Buck exclaimed as Josiah held him firmly.

J.D. glared at him as Josiah said, "I don't think the boy is in his right frame of mind right now."

"I don't think you're in your right frame of mind!" J.D. snapped, "Let me go!"

He managed to wiggle of Josiah's grip and stumbled to the other side of the room.

"Who are you?" he demanded, "Why have you brought me here?"

The trio exchanged glances then Nathan said, "J.D. don't you recognize us? We're your friends."

J.D. snorted. "I may be young, but I'm not stupid! I know what my friends look like and you ain't them. You two," he gestured to Josiah and Buck, "Attacked me in the dessert, or have you forgotten?"

"We never attacked you son," Josiah said, "We haven't been out of town in the last little while and neither have you. You've been unconscious for the last two days with some kind of fever."

He took a step forward and J.D. took a step back. "Stay right where you are mister!" he ordered, watching as the man who had been by the window slipped out the door.

He took another step back and bumped into a table. He felt around and grabbed hold of a knife. He kept it hidden, and started making his way around the room, hoping to reach the door.

"J.D. listen to me," Nathan said, "You're not well. You've got to lay down and rest before something happens. I can see that fever's starting to kick into high gear again."

Now that he mentioned it, J.D. was feeling a little strange, but he ignored it and said, "The only thing I'm going to do is get the hell out of here! And if you were smart, you'd let me leave. I've got friends who are going to start looking for me when I don't come back and they're not going to be too happy with you all when they find me!"

Just then, the door opened and Buck entered with Chris and Ezra.

"Kid doesn't know who we are," Nathan said, "I think it's the fever. He's seeing us all as other people.&;quot;

"You must be the leader," J.D. said, glaring at Chris. "All right, so you now you have me, what do you want? Are you another enemy of Chris Larabee's?"

"I am Chris, son. You're not well. Why don't you calm down and let Nathan look after you."

"I would if he were here 'Chris,' J.D. replied sarcastically, moving toward the door again.

"Don't make us do this the hard way J.D.," Chris said, moving his Pancho just enough so that his guns showed.

J.D. made a sudden move, startling them all. Moving faster than any of them had ever seen, he closed the distance between himself and Ezra, wrapped an arm around the other man's throat and held the knife against him.

"Nobody move or it's his throat!"

"Now son, don't do anything stupid now," Nathan began, but J.D., the fever claiming his mind and patients, shouted, "Shut up! I'm leaving and if anyone tries to stop me, it's his blood that will flow!"

Chris made a motion for everyone to move away from the door and J.D. forced Ezra toward it. They made it downstairs and back into the streets, the others following at a distance. Ezra remained silent, quite certain from the way the boy was breathing and shaking, that he probably wouldn't get very much further.

They made it to the livery and J.D. took his gun, then made him get his saddle to saddle his horse.

"You are not looking at all well Mr. Dunne," he observed as he did what the younger man ordered, "Are you sure riding around in the dessert is wise?"

"I'll take my chances," J.D. replied, wiping his brow with his sleeve.

Ezra, seeing what was about to happen, stopped saddling the horse and watched him. The kid seemed to have forgotten he was even there as he looked around in dazed confusion. He was muttering but Ezra couldn't understand what he was saying. He had dropped the gun though and Ezra quietly went over and retrieved it. A groan and a dull thud announced that his young friend was no longer up and around. He went over and knelt next to him, feeling his pulse to make sure he was still alive. He was hot to the touch and Ezra winced in sympathy.

"May God be with you in this ordeal son," he whispered.

He looked up and Nathan's voice called from outside, "Ezra! You all right in there?"

"I'm fine Mr. Jackson. However, our sheriff could use your assistance immediately."

Seconds later, Nathan hurried in, followed by Buck.

"Lord, he's worse than before," Nathan said softly as he looked him over. "Let's get him back upstairs and try to cool him off."

Buck picked the young man up and carried him outside, Nathan and Ezra following. Nathan stopped and looked at Chris with a serious, troubled look.

"It's worse, I can already tell. We'd better prepare ourselves Chris. He may not make it out of this alive."




PART 7



"Dammit! Buck, hold him still!" Nathan said as J.D. knocked the needle from the healer's grasp.

Buck grunted. "I'm trying to, but the kid's stronger than he looks!"

It was few hours later and J.D. had awakened quite suddenly and had gone into a violent fit of panic. Nathan was trying to sedate him while Buck held him down, and neither one was having any luck. Finally, Buck resorted to laying across his friend, effectively pinning him down long enough for Nathan to inject him with the fluid. Slowly, J.D.'s struggles slowed and then stopped as he slipped into a deep sleep.

Buck let his breath out as he got to his feet, muttering, "Damn kid's more trouble than he's worth."

He watched as Nathan checked his young patient's pulse and then wiped his brow down to keep him cool.

"I need a drink. I'll check back later."

He glanced at J.D. then quietly left.

At the saloon, he got himself a bottle of whiskey and sat down at a secluded table to wallow in misery. It wasn't long before someone sat down across from him.

"Time to drown your sorrows in a bottle huh?"

He looked up to find 'Lynne,' a bottle of her own in hand.

"How's J.D. doing?"

Buck shook his head. "He's worse. He woke up a few hours ago and looked like he was getting better, but then he just sort of...lost it."

"You care for him don't you?"

Buck shot her a long look before replying, "Yeah. Can't help it either. Kid's like a little brother. Damned pain in the ass but..."

He trailed off and 'Lynne' nodded in understanding. "Think Nathan will let me see him?"

Buck shrugged. "Depends."

She nodded and stood. "I'll see if I can convince him."




Nathan looked up at the soft knock on the door and got up to answer it.

"Miss Lynne," he greeted when he saw the visitor.

'Lynne' nodded to him. "May I see him?"

"He's in pretty bad shape. I'm not sure you really want to see him."

'Lynne' gave him a defiant look. "I want to see him," she insisted.

Nathan regarded her for a moment, then nodded and stepped aside to allow her to enter. Buck was right, he was worse. She didn't think it would be possible for a man to get any whiter than J.D. was now, but she was quickly proved wrong.

'I wonder if he's coughed up any blood yet,' she thought as she sat in the chair next to him and took his cold, limp hand in hers.

"What's been happening?" she asked.

Nathan gave her a quick rundown of everything that had happened since she had last seen J.D.

'No paranoia yet huh?' she thought with a twinge of disappointment. She smiled to herself. 'Well, we're just going to have to fix that.'

She looked at Nathan and asked, "Have you eaten yet?"

"No Miss. I'm just waitin' for Josiah to come take over watching him."

"Why don't you go on? I'll sit with him till Josiah gets here."

"That's real kind of you Miss. Are you sure?"

Tessa nodded, her gaze returning to J.D. as she said softly, "I haven't had a proper chance to visit with him yet. Even if he is unconscious, I'm sure he can still hear me."

Nathan nodded and went to the door. He opened it, then turned back and said, "J.D.'s real lucky to have a woman like you Miss Lynne. You've been real good for him and I hope he makes it out of this so he can realize that too."

He nodded to her again, then left.

Tessa stared at the door, unsure why that remark was stirring something within her. She shook herself and turned back to J.D., regarding him thoughtfully.

"You know," she said softly, as she pulled out a small vial and a needle from a hidden pouch in the dress she wore, "I almost hate to do this to you. You're such a great drinking partner and one of the few men I've ever met and actually liked." She laughed softly as she filled the needle. "Yeah, I admit it, I like you and I sort of hope this stuff doesn't kill you before Morgan can give you the antidote. This is going to make you feel better for a while, just to keep things interesting. But when the other part of this takes over...well, you'll find out I guess."

She stared at the needle in her hand then looked at J.D.'s pure white face and once again, something stirred deep within her. She almost put the needle down, but then shook herself and allowed the coldness to take over. But, as she took J.D.'s arm and injected the liquid, her heart whispered "I'm sorry."




<Hunter, are you awake?>

Vin's eyes slowly opened and, although he was severely doped up, he immediately noticed something different. He was no longer tied to the chair and he found his new position strangely odd.

<Where am I?>

<Same place as before. Someone convinced Tessa to bring in a cot for you. We're gonna need you to be able to ride a horse and being tied to a chair for endless hours or days isn't going to be much help.> Kayla replied as she appeared over him, holding a bowl of something. <And neither will starving to death. Sit up.>

Vin tried to get control of his body, but the only thing he could get to move was his head.

<Don't think I can>

Kayla regarded him for a moment, then put the bowl aside and reached down for him. A moment later, he was sitting up against the wall, quick forcing down nausea, and then noticed his hands were tied tightly to a hidden source.

<Here,> Kayla said, handing him the bowl, <I believe it's been a few days since you last ate. Better fix that.>

He looked at the contents of the bowl and nearly lost the carefully checked nausea. It wasn't the food itself that made him feel sick, it was just plain white rice. He was pretty sure the sight of food in general would have had the same effect.

He looked up to see Kayla watching him closely.

<Why aren't you eating?>

<I think that whatever's in me has taken control of my appetite.>

She regarded him for another moment, then dug around in the little sack that hung on her hip. She pulled out what looked like a leaf and handed it to him.

<Eat this. It will calm your stomach.>

Vin took it and cautiously put it in his mouth. Ten minutes later, the bowl was empty and Vin was laying back down, riding out the waves of nausea his stomach was producing. When he was able, he turned his head and started when he saw Kayla, filling a needle with a familiar yellow liquid.

<What are you doing?> he asked, fear in the pit of his stomach.

She looked at him then replied, <I was told to feed you and then give you a little bit of this. I am sorry, but I must follow orders.>

The voice in his mind was screaming at him to do something, to think of a way out of this, but apparently the voice was the only thing that hadn't been turned to mush, although not by much.

<Can I...ask you something?> he finally asked, trying to stall.

She looked at him and nodded as she finished filling the needle.

<I asked before, you didn't want to tell me, but I figured I'd give it another shot...how did you fall in with Tessa and the others?>

<To tell you that, I would have to tell you much about my life,> she replied as she put the bottle back in the case.

<I'm not going anywhere.>

The look she gave him as she came over clearly stated she knew what he was doing. So it surprised him when she sat down and began talking.

<My mother was...different from the other women of our tribe. Aside from being the daughter of the chief, my Grandfather, my mother was very... in touch with the spirits. More so than even the wisest village elder. The spirits were quite fond of her and often showed her visions of future events. I myself am in tune with them, though not as intently as she was. She knew what I would become before I was even conceived and, acting on what the spirits showed and told her, trained me in the ways of the warrior herself, starting when I was no older than four. She was one of the few women warriors of our tribe, which was another thing that set her apart from the others.

What my mother taught me was a form of fighting my people did not know. The name your people have for it is martial arts. How my mother learned it, I do not know. It was something she chose to keep secret and I never tried to get it out of her. She continued to teach me everything she knew under the guise of traditional warrior training until I was eight years old.>

Her eyes hardened as she remembered events of the past.

<It was not long after I had turned eight that my mother was killed. She and I had been out riding when we were intercepted by a group of white men.....

Black Rose loved these rides her mother took her on. It meant she had successfully completed the level of training she was being taught, and that meant she was about to be shown a new, special place. A place filled with magic, where the spirits were strongest. Very few people knew of the places her mother took her. In fact, out of the people in their village, only her grandfather knew of these spots. Excitement built within her as she wondered what her eyes were about to see that possibly no one else, outside of her mother and grandfather, had seen in perhaps hundreds of years.

She stiffened suddenly as her trained senses picked up another presence on the road ahead of them. She looked over at her mother and saw that she had straightened and was staring ahead searchingly.

<Mother?>

The held up her hand to silence Black Rose, her features turning cold as she spotted who was ahead of them. Black Rose looked and spotted a single white man on a horse. He looked as though he was waiting for them and, from the look on her mother's face, it seemed that they knew each other.

Her suspicions that the man and her mother knew each other were confirmed a moment later when they reined in and the man said-in their language surprisingly- <So Grey Wolf, we finally meet again. Took me a long time to track you down>

<Don't you mean us?> her mother replied, her cold gaze never leaving his.

The man laughed, then called out in his own language. From the woods, five men emerged, each on horseback. Black Rose tensed. She didn't like this at all.

<What do you want?> her mother asked.

<Making conversation Grey Wolf?> the man responded in amusement. <You know perfectly well what we want. You of course. The bounty on you has grown quite nicely since you escaped me last time and disappeared. Seems some folks really want you brought in despite the fact you haven't been around in, what, eight years now?>

Black Rose suddenly understood who these men were just from what the man had said. Bounty Hunters.

His gaze traveled to her and he added, <I see now why you disappeared so well. She's going to grow into a stunning woman. If she survives childhood."

Black Rose growled softly in her throat at the implied threat.

Grey Wolf sent her a warning glance, then said, <She will survive. The spirits have shown me her future.>

The man grinned. <And have they shown you *your* future, Grey Wolf?>

She nodded. <They have. And it is not working with you or with those who wish me for slavery. Don't look so surprised Cole. Did you really think I did not know that, once you caught me, you would set something up along the trail that would give me the opportunity to join you?> She smirked. <That part of me is no longer available to the general public. In fact, that part of me died with my husband.>

Cole looked at her for a moment, then said, <Well, I'm sorry to hear that. We could have made a great team>

<And perhaps we will, in another life. Just not this one.>

Cole nodded. <All right then. It's your choice. Dead or alive?>

Her eyes still not leaving his, Grey Wolf said, <Black Rose, go back to the village.>

Black Rose looked at her. <But Mother...> she began, but Grey Wolf interrupted her sharply. <Go! This fight is not yours. Go back to the village and do not return!>

Black Rose looked at her, but her mother's gaze refused to leave Cole's. She glanced at the men, then spurred her horse and started back the way they came. However, as soon as she was out of sight, she reined in, got off and hurried into the woods to a spot where she could see and hear everything that happened and not be seen herself.

<Hmm, dead or alive,> her mother was saying, <now that's something I need to think about. Let's see, you take me alive, I end up being sold to slavery by the people you're taking me to. Dead, on the other hand, keeps me free for eternity and makes you're journey back a bit longer and quite unpleasant.>

She smiled. <It's actually your decision Cole. I'm quite certain the bounty will be higher if I'm brought in alive and I'm even more certain you don't want to drag a body around the dessert. My choice is dead, but I know you're going to try to take me alive. The question is, if you succeed, can you keep me alive? You know how close the spirits and I are. If I ask to die, they will take me.>

"She's just trying to save her hide," one of the men said. "All this spirit talk is nothin' but a bunch of bull!"

Grey Wolf ignored him, her attention still on Cole, who had a sour look on his face.

<You've seen the spirits at work before, Cole. You know very well they will take me if I ask. Is this all worth it to you Cole?>

Cole smiled nastily. <Actually darlin', there's someone not far from here who will pay just as much for your dead body as them other folks in Dodge.>

Black Rose's breath caught in her throat as Cole pulled out his gun.

<Oh please,> she heard her mother scoff, <That is so typical. If I am to die, it will be the warrior's way, not the coward's way.>

<You wanna fight huh?> An amused smile spread across Cole's face. <All right. Boys, time for some exercise.>

Grey Wolf raised her brows, then got down off her horse. Black Rose had never seen a fight start so quickly and suddenly. It fascinate and frightened her a the same time. She watched as her mother fought all five men at the same time and seemed to be wining. Barely five minutes into the fight, two of the five were on the ground, out of commission while the other three were trying to fight her despite ugly injuries. A very short time later, all five men were on the ground, groaning or unconscious.

Cole laughed softly. <All right. Exercise for you then.>

Grey Wolf looked at him. <How 'bout it Cole? Want to give me more exercise?>

Cole laughed again, louder this time. <I ain't that stupid darling. I can see that if five strong men can't take you down, I'm gonna have to use the faster way.>

Black Rose's heart jumped to her throat as he pulled out his gun and aimed it at her.

A strange smile crossed Grey Wolf's lips. <Enjoy what's left of your life, Cole. I'll be seeing you in hell very, very shortly. Beware of the Black Rose.>

It was then that Black Rose realized her mother knew she was there. It was then Black Rose knew her mother was going to die and that she was to avenge her when the time was right. As Cole pulled the trigger and as her Mother fell to the ground and remained still, Black Rose felt something enter her soul and harden her heart. She looked at the man named Cole and burned his face into her mind. She said a silent prayer to the spirits for the safety of her mother's soul and then left her hiding place, heading quickly back to her horse. She rode as fast as she could back toward camp. Halfway there, however, a figure in the road stopped her. It was a woman. Her skin was a golden brown and her hair was shoulder length with the same color. Her eyes were almond shaped and possessed a great wisdom. She was dressed in strange, light robes and he whole body seemed to glow with a mystical light.

<Do not be afraid,> the woman's voice echoed through her mind, startling Black Rose.

<Who are you?> she demanded.

<I am a friend. I am here to tell you about your mother's past and what is to happen now. I don't have much time, so listen carefully.>

She looked at Black Rose to make sure the child wasn't going to bolt or anything and when she was certain the girl wasn't, began talking.

<You mother was a very troubled child due to her ability to communicate so well with the spirits. Her own spirit was very restless and she often got herself into trouble. When she was fifteen, she to your grandfather and grandmother and told them she was leaving to find peace with her soul. She was gone for ten years, returning only once before returning for good. Much happened in those long years. She took her warrior training further when she met a man trained in what is called martial arts.

She became an outlaw, but kept her people and family protected by never revealing what tribe she belonged to. Four years before you were born, she returned to her tribe, brining with her a husband. He was a Mexican, a genuine surprise to her people. But she loved him and he loved her with all his heart and so they welcomed him. They didn't stay long because they were being hunted and didn't want to lead them to them.

Four years later, she returned for good, her husband dead and you in her arms. She would not say how he died, but was comforted by the fact that he had gotten to see you before he did. In those ten years your mother was gone, the peace she had to make with her soul had only been completed halfway. The spirits told her why this was and when you were old enough, she began teaching you all that she knew, preparing for the day when she finally would make that peace. Today was that day.

Know this, young one, your mother has finally made her peace, but how she achieved it will set into motion the spirits' plans for you. Know that in the near future, you too will set out to achieve peace. It will not be easy, for you will have to find the path to that goal on you own. But know that when you do find it, you will not only have peace with your soul, but you will have achieved happiness that your mother never truly had.>

The woman's eyes went out of focus for a moment. When they re-focused she said, <My time is up. Remember what I have told you, child. Choose your path carefully. Farewell.>

With that, the woman walked off the path and disappeared into the woods. Black Rose stared after her, startled and puzzled by what they mysterious woman had said. Finally, she spurred her horse and ran the rest of the way back to the village.




Black Rose looked at Vin as she finished the story of her mother's death. Vin saw deep pain in her black eyes as she remembered her mother and that day so long ago.

Vin was about to say something when she began speaking again.

<The years passed. I practiced everyday what my mother taught me. Always in one of the spots she had taken me. Each day that passed, my desire to avenge my mother grew. The man called Cole's face haunted. Finally, when I was twelve years old, I couldn't take it any longer, and left my people to avenge my mother and begin my quest for peace.

I traveled for a few years, meeting people who became good friends, but also dangerous enemies. I was getting closer to my mother's killer, I could feel it. One day, when I was about thirteen, I arrived at the town he was in at the time, but before I could find him, I encountered a strange woman....>

Black Rose rode into the little town around mid afternoon. Her heart raced with anticipation for this was the town her mother's murderer was currently staying in and today would be the day that he payed. She left her horse at the livery and then started for the place she knew he would be. The saloon. She was passing an alley when a soft voice said, <You think this is the day, don't you Black Rose?>

Black Rose stopped and turned, her hand on the knife that hung on her side.

<Who's there?> she demanded sharply.

A Mexican woman dressed in tanned riding clothes stepped out of the alley, a small smile on her lips.

<I am a friend, Black Rose,> she said in the same, soft voice.

<How do you know my name?> Black Rose asked, her eyes full of suspicion.

<I know many things. Your name is one of them. The reason you are here is another. You think you are ready to avenge your mother. You are not. Cole didn't fight your mother because he knew he couldn't win. However, he is a very good fighter and you are not ready. I am here to take up where your mother left off and finish your training.>

Black Rose studied the woman uncertainly. As much as she wanted to ignore her and put to rest that which haunted her, something told her to go with this woman and listen to her.

Finally, after struggling with her emotions for a bit, she nodded and said, <All right.>

The woman nodded and began walking back toward the livery, Black Rose following. They got their horses and the woman led them out of town. They rode for about an hour before arriving on a small ranch with a small house. The woman took Black Rose inside and down a hall to a small room.

<This is where you will sleep. I suggest you rest now. Dinner will be in an hour. Tomorrow, we will begin your training.>

<Wait,> Black Rose said as the woman started back down the hall, <You know my name. But I don't know yours.>

The woman smiled. <I am called Kayla.>




For the next few months, Kayla trained Black Rose much like her mother had. Black Rose studied hard and practiced everyday, her determination fueled by the anticipation of the coming day her mother would be avenged. It was over a year later when Kayla pronounced Black Rose ready to carry out her revenge.

<You have done well, child. I'm very proud of you and I know your mother is as well. Go now, avenge her.>

She smiled as she pulled out a black rose and gave it to the younger girl.

<Give yourself an entrance.>

For the past two weeks, the pair had been sending Cole black roses, giving him a good scare as they brought the past back to haunt him.

Black Rose stepped forward and enveloped the older woman in a warm hug.

<Thank you, Kayla. For everything.>

Then she turned and got on her horse. There was a sadness in the other woman's eyes as she watched her pupil ride away, knowing that when she next saw her, it would be for only a few moments if at all.

"You shouldn't have gotten so attached," a voice floated through her mind.

Kayla turned and looked at the woman who had met Black Rose on the path the day her mother was killed.

"I know," she replied. "But it was so hard not to. She should not have had to go through all this and what she will go through in the future."

She laughed shortly. "She was so innocent once, you can see it. But that innocence was taken from her the day my sister died. I hope one day, some of that innocence will be given back."

Her companion nodded. "If she ever finds the right path, then she will."

Kayla looked to her right and saw approaching horsemen. She looked back at her companion, but, not surprisingly, she was gone. Kayla sighed, then looked back at the approaching men. She stood, watching them and praying for Black Rose to find the right path and make peace with her troubled soul.




It was after nightfall when Black Rose returned. Kayla had been right. Cole had been a very good fighter. He had been knocked off balance just a bit thanks to the black roses that had been sent to him. It had given him a good case of paranoia, much to her amusement.

The fight had been long, but she had enjoyed it nonetheless. She had a few injuries, but nothing serious and was looking forward to tell Kayla all about the fight.

But as she got closer to the little house, a bad feeling overcame her. Something wasn't right. She spurred her horse into a run, fear entering her heart.

<Kayla? Kayla! Where are you?> she shouted as she reined in and dismounted.

She started for the door, but stopped when she heard a soft moan around the corner.

<Kayla?>

She pulled out her knife and cautiously made her way to where the moan had come from. Her eyes widened and she cried out when she turned the corner. Laying a few feet away was the motionless body of Kayla.

<Kayla!>

She feel to her knees next to Kayla's bloody body, desperately searching for signs of life. Kayla moaned softly and her eyes slowly fluttered open as Black Rose's calls.

<Kayla! Hang on, all right? I'm going to get you inside, then go for help.>

Kayla shook her head weakly.

<No, child. My... time has come as I knew... it would. You have...avenged your mother, my sister. It is time...for you to find your peace.>

<What do you mean your sister?> Black Rose asked, tears spilling down her cheeks.

<I...am your aunt. Your...father was my brother and so...your mother was my sister. I did not tell you earlier...for reasons I cannot say. Promise me...you will find the...right path and make the peace...your mother did not make until...she died.>

Black Rose nodded, barely able to see through her tears.

Kayla smiled softly. <Don't cry child...this is how things...were meant to be. I...want you to know that...I love you very much...and so does your mother and your...father.>

Kayla's eyes closed and her last breath escaped her lips. Black Rose stayed by the body's side for most of the night, sobbing quietly. When dawn came, she had made a burial mound and had buried her aunt's body. She said goodbye, mounted her horse, and rode away from the little Ranch, not once looking back.




<I took my aunt's name as a way to keep her alive inside me and keep her memory strong in my heart,> Black Rose said softly.

She started a bit and looked at him.

<It seems I've just answered one of your other questions.>

<I'm not complaining,> Vin replied. <I'm...real sorry about your mamma and your aunt.>

Black Rose looked at him for a long moment. She then nodded and continued.

<It was two years later when I met Tessa and the others. In fact, they saved my life. I had gotten myself into some trouble a year before and now had a price on my head. I was being chased by three bounty hunters and was rather badly hurt...

Black Rose urged her horse faster, glancing back at the three bounty hunters behind her. She had been shot twice so far but was determined not to let herself be caught, especially by three white men. Shots rang out, missing her as she rounded a bend and she took her own gun out and fired back. She turned back, looking for a place to hide or loose her hunters. Another shot rang out and she pitched forward, pain shooting through her. This time, she lost her grip and fell from the saddle, hitting the ground hard and rolling.

She rolled onto her back, shaking her head and trying to clear her clouded, pain filled vision. A shadow fell over her and she focused up on one of the three men who stood over her, a gun pointed at her.

"It's all over darlin'," he said, "Give it up and we'll get you fixed up."

"So you can hand me over to those who wish me harm?" she snarled in reply, "Why don't you just do what they are going to do now and then kill me?"

"We don't violate women," one of the others said, "No matter what they've done."

"But you stand back and let others? Typical."

"Yes," a new voice said, "That's very typical."

They all looked to the right where four girls on sat on horseback, watching them.

"Move along girls," the first man said, "We're just apprehending a wanted woman."

The girl who had spoken smiled at him. "I'll bet she's really dangerous huh?"

The man nodded. "Yes, she is."

"Too dangerous for three strong men like you to catch her without shooting her all up?"

"Just move along miss," the third man said, "This ain't any of your business."

The girl smiled again, and through Black Rose's blurred vision, she saw the other three slowly moving their hands down to their hips.

"Oh, but it is my business mister. You have no idea who we are."

As Black Rose faded from consciousness, she heard gunshots and yells, and then silence.




"She's coming around," a voice said as Black Rose slowly floated up toward consciousness.

She heard sounds and then another voice said, "Girl? Can you hear me? Open your eyes."

Black Rose struggled for a moment, and then complied.

The face of the girl who had been talking to the bounty hunter floated into view, followed by the faces of the other three.

<Where am I?> she murmured in her language.

<At our hideout,> the girl replied, <Can you speak English? My friend's don't know your language very well and I'm really not up to translating>

Black Rose nodded. "What...happened?"

"You were about to be dragged off by some bounty hunters. We stopped them...permanently."

"We brought you back here and fixed you up," another girl said, "You've been out cold for a week now."

"I'm Tessa," the first girl said, "These are my girls, Meg, Selene and Crystal."

Black Rose nodded. "My name is...Kayla. I owe you my life. Thank you."

Tessa shrugged. "You looked like you would make a good edition to my little gang here. You have all the right qualifications from what we could see."

Black Rose looked at her questioningly.

Tessa just smiled and said, "Get some rest. We'll talk later. I get the feeling we're going to become very good friends."




<I spent the next few weeks recovering in their care and getting to know them better. Tessa talked often about what they did and how I would make a good edition to her gang. The more she talked about it, the more interested I became. Finally, when I was well again, I did join them.>

<Don't mean no disrespect, but it seems to me like you ain't on the right path to finding your peace.>

Kayla looked at him, sadness in her eyes.

"Well, well," a new voice said, "Ain't this a cozy little scene?"

They looked over at the door to find Crystal standing there, watching Vin with suspicion in her eyes.

She looked at Kayla and said, "Tessa sent me here to take over. Go eat and get some rest."

Kayla held up the needle. "Gotta inject him first."

"Hurry up then."

Kayla turned back and proceeded to reveal the skin on his arm to inject the liquid in.

As she was doing so, she whispered in a voice just loud enough for him to hear, <You will be glad when this takes effect, believe me.>

She finished the injection and put the needle aside. She looked at him with an unreadable expression, then turned, nodded to Crystal and left. Crystal looked at Vin and smiled in such a way, icy chills ran up and down his spine.

It wasn't until after the pain exploded in his chest that he realized she had moved, so fast was she. Through the pain filled haze he heard her snarl, "I know what you're up to tracker. You ain't taking Kayla away from us, you hear? You ain't!"

A knife appeared in her hand and more pain seared through him as she straddled him and slashed his chest open.

"Oh dear!" she exclaimed in a mockingly worried voice, "You're hurt! Let me make it all better, we don't want it getting infected after all."

He opened his eyes in time to see her pour alcohol onto the large wound and then his eyes flew shut and a cry escaped hi lips. By now, the pain of her tortures and the pain of Tessa's poison were mixing together and as he finally sank into the darkness that was quickly becoming his sanctuary, he found himself hoping that he could stay there and never come out.




PART 8



"I don't believe it," Nathan said, shaking his head as he checked his patient over, "You seem to be as healthy as the rest of us."

J.D. sighted impatiently. "That's what I've been telling you all morning Nathan! Now come on, let me out of here. I wanna go see Lynne."

Earlier that morning, J.D. had awakened, looking perfectly normal and full of energy, with no memory of what had happened the previous day, much to Buck and Nathan's surprise.

Nathan shook his head again. "All right. But if you start to feel even the slightest bit sick again, get your butt back here right away."

J.D. nodded, grabbed his guns and was out the door in seconds. Buck and Nathan looked at each other.

"I'll watch him," Buck said, then left.

Outside, J.D. hurried down the street, anxiously searching for signs that Lynne was some place other than the saloon. No such luck.

'Man, she worse than Chris,' he thought, mostly in amusement as he headed for her favorite place.

He pushed through the doors and before his eyes had adjusted to the light, a voice called, "J.D.!"

He looked in the direction the voice had come from and a smile lit his face when he spotted 'Lynne' rising from her table and hurrying over to him.

"J.D., I was so worried!" she exclaimed as she enveloped him in a warm hug.

She looked up at him and grinned. "I was afraid I was going to loose my favorite drinking partner."

J.D. grinned back and said, "Hey, I ain't going anywhere 'till we settle our score."

'Lynne's' smile grew. "Now that's what I like to hear. Come on, let's go for a ride, then I'll buy you a drink."

J.D. nodded and followed her out the door and over to the livery. They saddled their horses and walked to the outskirts of town. 'Lynne' suddenly let out a yell and spurred her horse forward into a run. J.D. yelled after her, then urged his horse into a run, laughing as he raced with her. For several minutes the pair raced, sometimes neck in neck and sometimes one a little ahead of the other. Finally, they began to slow down and were soon walking in peaceful silence.

J.D. glanced back the way they had come and was slightly surprised to find that they couldn't even see the town anymore.

"Wow," he said, "We're pretty far out."

"I don't know about you, but I needed to get out of town. It's no fun being cooped up all the time."

They rode in silence for a little more. "I wonder if Vin is around here somewhere," J.D. said after a short while. "He's been gone a pretty long time."

"He's probably just got a bad case of cabin fever or something," 'Lynne' replied. "If I read him right, he's the type who has a rather hard time staying in one place very long."

"That's Vin all right. Hell, that's pretty much everybody. I'm surprised they've managed to stick around for as long as they have."

They rode on for about an hour, talking about an assortment of things and just enjoying one another's company. When they finally arrived back in town, it was nearing sunset. They stabled their horses, then walked out in time to see the beginning of the sun's departure.

J.D. took 'Lynne's' hand and said, "Come on. I wanna show you something."

He led her over to the church and inside. They went up a flight of stairs and carefully stepped out onto the steep roof.

"This is the best place to watch a sunset," he said as they carefully sat down, "You can see it over the entire town."

'Lynne' got herself settled, then looked up and her eyes widened at the sight before her. Deep reds and oranges mixed together, taking over the blue of the sky. She had seen sunsets before, but for some reason, this one seemed more spectacular from this vantage point, with the town underneath. The pair sat in silence, watching the colors dance across the darkening sky.

"It's so beautiful," she finally whispered.

"It's not the only thing here that's beautiful," J.D. replied in a soft, shy voice.

'Lynne' looked at him and their eyes met, locking together as though magnetized. J.D. put his hand on hers and slowly leaned toward her. She leaned toward him as well, her eyes slowly closing as their lips came closer and finally touched in a long, tender kiss that slowly deepened until nothing in the world existed except them.




Down on the ground, a figure watched the pair with a smile.

"What are we looking at?"

The watcher looked at the man who had appeared next to him and then pointed up at the church roof.

"Check that out."

Josiah looked up and a smile played on his own lips when he spotted the young couple.

"Seems oddly fitting," he said.

Buck chuckled. "I can see why he seemed to make such a fast recovery. Girl like that would make a man rise from the dead to be with her again."

Josiah put a massive hand on Buck's shoulder. "Come on brother. I'll buy you a drink."

Buck tossed one last look up at the couple, then turned and followed Josiah to the saloon.

"Hey boys," Buck greeted Nathan and Chris as he joined them while Josiah got them drinks.

"You been keeping an eye on J.D.?" Nathan asked.

Buck nodded, a big grin splitting his face. "Yeah, but I didn't have to. Lynne's been with him all day. In fact, they're up on the church roof right now enjoying the sunset so to speak."

Nathan shook his head. "I still can't believe how fast he recovered. Just yesterday he was practically on his death bed and this morning...well, something just doesn't seem right."

"Perhaps we have a case of divine intervention," Josiah said as he sat down, handing Buck his drink.

"Maybe," Nathan replied, then fell into silence.

"So, what's on your mind Chris?" Buck asked, looking over at his friend.

"I'm concerned about Vin, he's been gone a long time. It's not like him to stay away for so long and not send word of some kind."

Buck made a dismissive gesture. "Aw, you know him. He's probably just lost in a conversation with nature or something. He'll probably come trotting back any time now."

Chris just nodded, but resolved to wait until afternoon the next day and then go looking for his friend, just to be sure everything was all right.




"Vin. Vin can you hear me? Please, open your eyes."

Vin heard the familiar voice, but didn't want to comply with the request. Opening his eyes meant leaving the place he had come to think of as his sanctuary, and he didn't want to. He didn't want to go back to that pain filled world he had been living in the past few days. The darkness was so much better.

"Vin, please, it's Morgan. I'm alone. It's safe to open your eyes. Please."

Almost as if they had a mind of their own, his eyes fluttered open and Morgan's worried face floated into view above him. She let out a relived breath when she saw him awaken.

"Thank God. I was afraid I might have been too late."

She took a wet cloth out of the basin next to her and gently pressed it to his forehead. "You've been unconscious since last night. I was afraid Crystal might have gone too far."

Vin's hand went to his chest and he felt bandages around the areas Crystal had taken her anger out on.

"Kayla told me Crystal was alone with you and that you'd probably need patching up by the time I got here," Morgan added as she re-wet the cloth and started to press it to his face again.

He caught her hand weakly and said in a voice that was even weaker, "Why...?"

He tried to finish his question, but his voice wouldn't go beyond that.

She seemed to understand though and replied, "Because I can't betray her. I won't betray her. I love her too much."

Before she could go on or he could try to say anything else, the door opened and Tessa entered.

"You been here all night?" She asked when she saw Morgan.

"Someone had to. Crystal nearly killed him. Honestly Tess, if you want to keep hostages alive, you're going to have to teach her some self control. Girl's a walking time bomb."

"That's what makes her so useful," Tessa replied. She looked at Vin and said, "And how are we feeling this fine morning?"

Still unable to find his voice, Vin just looked at her, his eyes speaking for him.

"Not happy huh? Well, it's your own fault. You're the one who had to be too smart for his own good."

She sat on the edge of the bed and gently stroked Vin's cheek. "And now, you're paying for it."

She looked around the room and then back at him and continued on. "You must be getting tired of this boring little room. Must want to get out in the open air huh? Well, don't worry. You'll be happy to know we'll be moving out real soon. Get some rest sugar, Tuscosa is a long way away and we'll want to get you there in one peace." She smiled again and lightly patted his cheek.

She stood and looked at Morgan. "I'll send Selene up with breakfast. Make sure he eats if you plan on staying."

Morgan nodded silently and Tessa left.

"Can...can I ask you something?" Vin asked, finally finding his voice.

Morgan looked at him and he asked, "How...did she get so cold, so twisted?"

Morgan hesitated, then said, "She never used to be like this. Her mother...her mother was a trained assassin, as was her Father. They trained her in the art but you have to understand, they never brought her up to be like this. They raised her good. It was certain events that turned her into...that."

She paused then, knowing the question he was about to ask, said, "I was very...close to Tess and her family, that's how I know all this. Anyway, when she was six years old, she lost her father to murder. That, I believe, is when she first started to change. She got cold and calculating, more than she had been before. She even helped her mother track down her father's killer and...deal with him. After that...." she trailed off, pain entering her eyes as she remembered the past.

"When she was ten, something happened that changed her even more drastically. Her mother and baby brother were killed, also by murder. It sent her over the edge. She went after the killers, found them and made them suffer quite a long time before they finally died. She declined coming to stay with me and my folks and set out on her own. She'd come back from time to time to visit, and each time, she was just a little more like she is now."

She stopped talking as the door opened and Selene entered the room, a tray of food in hand. The young African eyed Vin with contempt as she silently handed Morgan the tray. She then moved to a corner of the room and sat, watching them as she had been told. Morgan managed to get most of the food into Vin before he passed out, and then sat, watching him praying to God that he would make it out of this alive.




PART 9



"Buck?"

"Ya kid?"

"How do you know if you're in love?"

Buck turned his gaze from the street and looked at J.D. in surprise.

"Well, I guess you just know. Why?"

"Well.." J.D. hesitated a moment, then said, "I think I'm in love with Lynne."

"Can't say I'm surprised at that," Buck replied with a small smile. "She's one hell of a girl."

"So...what do I do?"

"Can't rightly say, J.D. Love is something you gotta handle on your own. I will tell you this though, make your decisions wisely. Love can be a great thing, but it can also be real painful."

He looked up at the sound of footsteps and saw Chris approaching.

"Hey Chris, what's up?"

"Going to the Livery to get my horse. Going to go out and look for Vin, make sure everything's all right."

"Want company?"

Chris was about to decline when a voice said, "Mr. Larabee?"

The trio looked behind them and found Meg walking up the steps to join them.

"I was hoping I'd run into you. I just came in from a ride. I ran into your tracker friend. He said to tell you he'd be staying out there a few more days. Something's got his attention pretty good."

Chris looked at her for a moment, then nodded. Meg nodded back then left the trio, heading for the saloon. Chris stared after her thoughtfully.

"Morning Mr. Howard!" J.D. suddenly called out, interrupting Chris's thoughts.

He looked up to see Bill Howard, the man who ran the telegraph office, passing by.

The man stopped and offered up a smile. "Morning Gentlemen. How are you this fine day?"

"Just fine, thanks," J.D. replied.

"Say, did Mr. Tanner get his problem looked after? I haven't seen him in a few days."

"Problem?" Chris asked.

Bill nodded. "Yeah, few days ago he got something in an envelop. Upset him real good. Took off pretty quick."

"Do you know what it was?" Buck asked.

"Wanted posters I think. Didn't see who it was for though."

Chris stared into space for a moment, then said, "How long ago was this?"

Bill thought for a moment. "Well, let's see. I believe it was the same day sheriff Dunne here got that nasty illness. Well gentlemen, I really must be going. Got business to take care of and all."

J.D. and Buck both said goodbye, then turned their attention on Chris.

"Something's not right," Chris said. He looked at them. "I'm gonna go out and check on him, just to be safe."

Without another word, he turned and continued on toward the livery, while an eavesdropper slipped from it's hiding place and hurried off in the direction of the hotel.




"Tess, we could have a big problem."

Tessa looked up as Meg entered her room and gave her a curious look.

"Larabee is suspicious. He's just about to ride out and look for the tracker."

"Well, we can't have that now can we?" Tessa replied standing.

"I ran into Crystal on the way here and she's going to stall him."

Tessa nodded in approval as she got one of her potions out as well as a tiny dart.

"Good. Go find Kayla and tell her to saddle up. She and I are going for a ride. And send Selene in here. She should still be in her room."

Meg nodded and left.

"What are you going to do, Tess?" Morgan, who had not left since the previous night, asked.

"I'm going to distract him. Don't worry, I'm not giving him anything that'll kill him," she added before Morgan could voice the thought. She held up the bottle she had picked and said, "This stuff'll just force him to stay put for a while. Course, I can't tell what the side effects will be like, but hey, that's life."

She looked up as the door opened and Selene entered. Tessa dart into the potion and carefully handed it to her.

"Remember that sheriff in Tucson?"

Selene nodded and Tessa smiled. "Do your thing."

Selene nodded again and left. Tessa looked back at Morgan, then over at Vin, who lay unconscious in the bed.

"I trust you'll watch him?"

Morgan nodded, and Tessa followed Selene out.




Chris was finally on his way back to the Livery to get his horse and go look for Vin. He had been diverted by Crystal earlier to take care of a problem and had finally managed to clear it up. He had just about reached the door of the Livery when a young girl coming toward him tripped and fell.

He quickly reached out and caught her before she fell, feeling an odd prick as he steadied her. He dismissed it and, looking down, he found it was one of 'Lynne's girls, Selene, that he was holding.

"You all right, Miss?" he asked, releasing her.

She nodded. "Thank you," she said softly.

He tipped his hat and then moved into the Livery. He got his horse saddled up and quickly rode out of town.

He had gone about a mile when he spotted two forms coming toward him from his left. He watched them for a minute before recognizing 'Lynne' and Kayla and reined in as they approached him.

"Morning Chris. Out for a ride?" 'Lynne' greeted with a smile.

Chris tipped his hat in greeting and replied, "Just going to check on Vin. Make sure everything's all right."

"Mind if we tag along?"

Chris shrugged. "If you want."

The trio spurred their horses into light trots and headed off in the direction Chris figured Vin would be. Thirty minutes had passed when Chris began to feel strange. His vision went in and out of focus and he began to feel a little dizzy.

"You all right Chris?" 'Lynne' finally asked after observing him for a while.

Chris shook his head to clear some of the fuzziness and said, "Yeah, I'm fine. Must be coming down with something."

"Perhaps we should turn back. Whatever it is you're coming down with, you don't want it getting worse."

"I'll be fine," Chris replied, though he wasn't completely sure of that.

'Lynne' shrugged and the trio rode on in silence. Another twenty minutes went by, with Chris looking worse by the minute. 'Lynne' looked at Kayla and held up her hand, slowly counting down. When she reached one, Chris moaned softly and slid from his saddle.

"Chris!" 'Lynne' exclaimed, casting Kayla an amused look.

She slipped off her saddle and hurried over to his side.

"Chris. Chris can you hear me?"

No response. She looked up at Kayla and gestured for her to come get him. The young Indian girl dismounted, came over, picked Chris up and slumped him over his horse. She then took the reins, got back on her own horse and the pair started the journey back in silence.




Buck's heart leapt to his throat at the sight coming into town. 'Lynne' and Kayla had just arrived, and were leading a horse with a body sprawled across the saddle. Chris's horse. Chris's body.

"Don't worry," 'Lynne' said as he rushed up to them, "He ain't dead, just unconscious."

"What happened?" Buck asked as he gently lifted Chris off the animal.

Before she could explain, Nathan ran up, the same question escaping his lips as he examined Chris. 'Lynne' quickly told them what had happened.

"Man, I hope he ain't got what J.D. had," Nathan said as he stood and motioned for Buck to bring Chris.

He nodded to the girls and then he and Buck hurried for his rooms.

'Lynne' looked at Meg as she joined them and said, "Problem solved."




J.D. was starting to get worried. Ever since he had parted from Buck's company earlier that morning, just after Chris had left, he had been feeling strangely lightheaded and a little ill. He told himself it was all in his head, that Bill Howard's mention of the mysterious illness he had fallen under had stirred up the fear that it was going to happen again. But, deep down, he knew something was wrong. That this was, perhaps, just the eye of what was going to be a very big, very nasty storm.

'Maybe I should go see Nathan,' he thought, remembering the healer's warning to come see him the second he started to feel ill.

Deciding that seeing Nathan would be the best course of action, J.D. got up from his chair, took a few steps, and fell to the floor as a stunning wave of dizziness overtook him. He groaned as he fought back a wave of nausea and tried to ride out the dizziness. Finally, they subsided enough that he was able to stand and walk unsteadily out into the street. His vision blurred and he shook his head to clear it.

'Gotta get to Nathan's,' he thought, 'Now, if I could just remember where it is...'

He chose a direction and started walking, dazed and blurry eyed.

"Are you all right J.D.?" a voice from far away asked.

J.D. stopped and looked up at the figure towering above him. The man looked familiar, but for some reason, he couldn't put a name to the face. The man said something, but J.D. couldn't understand the words. He mumbled something, then turned and started walking again. He couldn't even remember where he was going anymore. A hand fell on his shoulder, stopping him from walking. He turned around and darkness claimed him.




Nathan had just decided that Chris was going to be fine when there was a short knock on the door. He and Buck looked up as the door opened and Josiah entered, an unconscious J.D. in his arms.

"Oh lord! What happened?" Nathan exclaimed, hurrying over and taking in J.D.'s frighteningly pale face.

Josiah quickly explained what had happened as he carefully laid his young friend on the other bed. "Damn it, I knew he'd recovered too fast," Nathan muttered as he started examining the boy. He shook his head. "He's entering fever again." He looked up and added, "I can already tell this is going to be worse then last time."

Buck muttered an oath and ran a hand through his short hair. His attention was drawn to Chris as his oldest friend muttered something and his eyes slowly opened.

"Chris? How are you feeling pard?"

Chris just stared at him, an uncertain look in his eyes. Nathan, unable to do much for J.D. at the moment, focused his attention on Chris.

"Chris? Do you know who you are and who we are?"

Chris turned his eyes on Nathan and seemed to think about the question for a moment. Finally, he nodded and said softly, "Nathan."

His gaze traveled to Buck and Josiah and he added, "Buck, Josiah."

He looked back at Nathan, his eyes asking if he was right. Nathan nodded. "Do you remember what happened?"

Chris thought for a moment, then shook his head. Nathan quickly explained what had happened.

"Vin?" Chris asked, trying to match a face to the name.

"I don't know what happened to you pard, but I think rest is an order. Lots of it."

Nathan glanced back at J.D. as the kid began moving restlessly. He looked back at Chris and added, "It might be better if you got it in your own room though. Gotta feeling it's gonna be a long night."

Buck stepped forward and helped Chris sit up. "Come on pard, I'll help you back to your room."

He looked at Nathan and said, "I'll be back in a bit."

He then turned and helped Chris stand, carefully leading him from the room. Nathan watched Chris worriedly. He sincerely hoped that Chris would be all right and that rest was really all he needed.




PART 10



Buck watched worriedly as Chris slowly drifted off to sleep. All the way to his room, Chris had muttered incoherent nonsense and when he was coherent, he was confused and upset.

"I really hope you're gonna be all right, pard," he said softly. "Last thing we need is you falling under some unknown illness too."

He watched Chris for another moment, then turned and silently left. As he was making his way back to Nathan's rooms, he encountered Ezra.

The gambler had a small look of concern in his eyes as he said, "I have just heard of the way Mr. Larabee returned from his outing. How is he?"

"Confused, but Nathan thinks he's gonna be all right."

"From your expression, it would appear you think otherwise."

Buck sighed. "Don't know what I think right now. J.D.'s just had another relapse. A bad one."

"I am deeply sorry to hear that. The boy doesn't deserve this."

He nodded to Buck, then continued on his way. Buck watched him leave, then hurried the rest of the way to Nathan's.

His heart nearly stopped when he entered the room and saw Josiah sitting next to J.D., head bowed as he softly said the last rights.

"Oh no, please no," Buck whispered, his eyes on Nathan as the black man slowly came over, a deep sadness in his eyes.

"I'm sorry Buck, he's gone."

Buck stared at Nathan in shock, his face turning pale.

"No," he whispered, pushing past Nathan and hurrying to the side of the bed.

J.D. lay still, not one sign of life in his young body. His face, which before had been pain filled and tortured, was now peaceful if not frighteningly white. Tears ran down his cheeks unchecked as he reached out and gently touched the kid's young face...

With a startled cry, Buck jerked awake and looked wildly around the dimly lit room.

"Buck, you all right?" Nathan asked, quickly coming over.

Buck looked at him, then at J.D., relieved to see the shallow rise and fall of his chest.

"Yeah, I'm fine. Just a bad dream is all. What...what time is it?"

"Little after nine. You've been asleep 'bout two hours now."

"How's the kid doing?"

"No change. Fever's still god awful, but at least it hasn't gotten worse. Lynne was here earlier. Girl was right upset to see him like this."

"Imagine what she'd be like if the kid got a chance to tell her how he feels," Buck said softly, looking down at J.D.

Nathan looked at him curiously and Buck quickly told his friend about the conversation the pair had that morning.

Nathan put a reassuring hand on Buck's shoulder and said, "He'll make it out of this to tell her. I'm gonna go get something to eat. You want anything?"

Buck shook his head and Nathan quietly left.

Buck stared at J.D. for a long moment. When his young friend began to move restlessly, Buck grabbed the wet cloth from out of the basin and gently dabbed his face.

"Hang in there kid," he said softly. "Hang in there."




Nathan was nearing the restaurant when a someone shouting his name caused him to stop and turn.

"Nathan!" 'Lynne' exclaimed as she rushed up to him, "I think you'd better come fast. Something's happening with Chris."

"Chris?" Nathan asked in surprise.

"Yeah, come on, he's in the saloon."

"What the hell is he doing there?" Nathan asked as he followed 'Lynne.'

"Drinking, what else?"

Nathan sighed and fell silent. However, the silence was quickly replace by an oath as he entered the Saloon to find it in shambles and Chris Larabee being restrained by Josiah in one of his famous bear hugs.

"Lord all mighty! What the hell happened?" he exclaimed.

"Careful brother," Josiah warned as Chris lashed out and struggled fiercely, "He isn't in his right frame of mind right now."

Nathan looked into Chris's raged filled eyes and suppressed a shudder. He then looked at the rest of the other man and saw the blood seeping through in several places where his shirt and pants had been torn.

"He's hurt. What happened?"

Josiah motioned with his head to a small group of men who lay on the floor, being checked by Ezra and Meg to make sure they weren't dead.

"Those fellas decided to pick a fight and were unlucky enough to have chosen Chris. That fella Ezra is looking at right now managed to get in quite a few hits with a nasty knife."

Nathan looked back at Chris, who was slowly starting to settle down thanks to Josiah's iron grip.

"How long has he been here?"

"Since supper time," 'Lynne' answered, a small smile on her lips as she looked at the men on the floor.

"Three hours? Damn it Chris you were supposed to be getting rest, not drinking an' fighting!"

Chris just stared at him, sending a shiver up and down Nathan's spine.

He shook himself and said, "Josiah's gonna let you go now so I can fix you up, then you're going right back to your room to get some proper rest. And if I have to, I'll have Josiah stand outside your room to make sure you stay there."

He nodded and Josiah released Chris, catching him when he swayed and leading him over to a chair. Nathan bent to examine the wounds and drew in a breath when he saw how severe some of them were.

"You sure know how to pick 'em," he muttered. He stood and added, "I gotta go get my bag. I'll be right back."

He returned quickly and set to work. Tessa, standing nearby with a bottle of whiskey, was disappointed that there didn't seem to be any side effects and was quickly growing bored.

Nathan glanced back at her and asked, "Could I borrow that a second?"

She shrugged and handed the bottle over. Nathan looked at Josiah, who positioned himself behind Chris and then Nathan poured some of the liquid onto a wound in Chris's leg. Chris jumped and hissed and Josiah quickly prevented him from leaving his seat.

Tessa was just deciding to go find something better to do when she noticed the strange, glazed look in Chris's eyes. It was a look she recognized, and she knew right then that things were about to get very interesting.

"All right Chris," Nathan said as he put his things back in his bag, " I'll help you to your room now."

"No, not now," Chris mumbled, resisting Nathan's attempt to help him up. "Gotta go back to the ranch."

Nathan exchanged a glance with Josiah and Ezra. "Ranch?"

Chris nodded. "Gotta get back to Sarah and Adam. Shouldn't have been gone this long." He started to stand, but fell back again, wincing as pain shot through him.

"Chris, you ain't where you think you are," Nathan said, "You're in Four Corners."

Chris, however, didn't seem to hear Nathan. He kept trying to stand and insisted on going back to the ranch.

"I think someone should go get Buck," Nathan said as Chris once more tried to stand and Josiah gently pushed him back down.

Tessa looked at Meg, who nodded and quickly left. Tessa saw it before anyone else could. Just after Meg left, an almost possessed look entered Chris's eyes.

'Here we go,' she thought, taking a step back as Chris suddenly flew out of his chair.

"I said I'm leaving!" he shouted, drawing his gun.

Startled, all three men jumped back, their hands flying to their own guns instinctively.

Nathan, the first to recover, put his hands up and said, "Whoa, whoa Chris. Calm down now."

"Why are you trying to keep me from getting back to my wife and son?" Chris growled, his gun moving to cover all three of them.

"We aren't trying to keep you from getting back to them Chris," Josiah said calmly, "Why don't you put the gun down and we'll talk about this."

Nathan swore softly as his eyes picked up blood slowly oozing from Chris's side.

"Don't have time to talk!" Chris snapped. "Now get out of the way, I'm leaving!"

"Chris, you tore the stitches in your side. I gotta redo it."

Chris shook his head and started to move slowly for the door.

"Chris."

Chris looked up and found Buck standing there.

"Chris, what are doing?"

"They're trying to stop me from going back, Buck."

"Going back where, pard?"

"The Ranch. I gotta go back, Buck. I've left Sarah and Adam alone too long."

Pain flashed through Buck's eyes.

"Chris," he said softly, walking closer to his friend, his hands raised in a peaceful gesture. "Sarah and Adam...they're gone Chris, remember?"

Chris shook his head. "No, no they're waiting for me. I gotta get back to them. Shouldn't have left them alone this long."

Buck nodded. "All right, Chris. We'll leave, but we gotta wait till morning, okay? You've been hurt. You can't ride like that."

He moved around Buck and out the door without answering. Buck looked at the others and then quickly followed. Outside, Chris was standing in the street, staring out at the night, his gun on the ground beside him. What could be seen of his eyes were haunted and anguished. From where Tessa stood, she could clearly see he had moved further into the past.

"Not again," Buck whispered.

"You been through this before?" Josiah asked.

Buck nodded. "Yeah, several times. But this is the first time in a long while it's happened. I thought it had stopped."

He took a deep breath and then moved to his friend's side.

"My boy Buck. Where...where's my boy?"

"Chris," Buck said softly, putting his hand on the other man's shoulder. "Chris, Adam's gone. Along with Sarah. You gotta remember that and come back to the present. Come out of the past, Chris."

Chris shook his head. "No. Help me find him Buck. Please....help me find him."

Buck's heart ached at Chris's words and he struggled with his own emotions before saying, "Please Chris, come back from the past. They're gone, come back."

Chris finally looked at Buck, his eyes even more anguished than before. Buck looked back at him, trying to bring his oldest friend back to the present as he had so many other times before. They stared at each other for a long time, until Chris's knees suddenly buckled and Buck caught him and gently lowered him to the ground.

Nathan hurried over as Chris once again mumbled pleas for help in finding his son.

"This wound is bleeding faster than I thought," Nathan said as he looked at it. "He's lost a lot of blood in just a few minutes. We'd better get him upstairs fast so I can re-close it."

Buck nodded and gripped one of Chris's arms while Nathan got the other.

"Come on, Pard," he said softly to a now barely conscious Chris, "Let's get you fixed up and put to bed. This will all have been just a bad dream in the morning."

They started to walk, but Chris's legs quickly gave out as consciousness deserted him. The two men stumbled under the sudden dead weight. Josiah came over and scooped Chris's limp form up in his arms and continued on to Nathan's rooms, Nathan and Buck following.

Tessa watched for a minute, bursting with pleasure on the inside at having witnessed such an interesting event.

'How I do love those side effects,' she thought with a smile.

Turning, she found Ezra's gaze on her and nodded to him. He nodded back and she turned in the direction of the hotel, feeling his eyes on her every step of the way.




PART 11



Tessa laughed the moment she was in the door, startling Kayla and Selene, who were both keeping watch over Vin.

"I've just witnessed one of the best side effects from that little knockout potion I've ever seen," she explained, a smile lighting her face. "Nothing could possibly top it."

She quickly explained to the girls the events that had taken place. "The last thing I expected was for it to trigger something like that."

There was a knock on the door and Meg and Crystal entered. Tessa looked at Meg.

"How's J.D. doing? Haven't seen him since this afternoon."

Meg smiled slightly. "Fever's pretty bad. Worse than the last one. He was muttering stuff, but I couldn't understand him. Although he did mention you're alter ego once or twice."

Tessa saw Meg watch her carefully as she said this, and quickly hid the reaction that brought.

She was relieved when Crystal spoke up impatiently, "Tess, we've been here nearly a month! When are we gonna take the bank, kill a few people and get the hell out of here? I'm starting to feel claustrophobic!"

Tessa smiled. "Don't worry, you'll get your fun. What we're doing takes careful planning and a bit of time though. However, I do know how you feel. So, I'll tell you what. You're all very good at night riding. If the rest of you are feeling like you're going to burst any second now, you can leave this very moment and go to the next town to have some fun. The only rule is, don't get caught and don't let them see your faces."

The girls exchanged glances and then nodded. They turned to leave, Crystal glancing back and asking, "You coming Kayla?"

Kayla shook her head. "No, I wish to stay."

Tessa raised her brows as Crystal shot Kayla a surprised look. She then shrugged and followed Meg and Selene out.

"Are you not feeling well?" Tessa asked, laying down on her bed. "You've never turned down a chance to raid, plunder and kill before."

Kayla shrugged. "Lately, I have felt many things. Unwell has been among them."

Tessa regarded her for a long moment then said, "This town must be affecting you. We'd better wrap things up and get out of here before you actually develop a conscience."

'Or before I do,' she added silently to herself.




Buck awoke the early the next morning to rambling chatter. Looking down, he found J.D. staring up at the ceiling and talking to it.

"J.D.?"

J.D. stopped talking and froze, as though afraid of getting caught where he shouldn't be.

"J.D.?"

This time, J.D. turned his head and looked at Buck. The older man was startled by the fevered light in his yong friend's eyes and had a feeling things were going to get far worse than they thought.

"Buck?" J.D. asked uncertainly.

Buck nodded. "Yeah kid, it's me."

"How...how did I get here? Where are those men?"

'Uh oh,' Buck thought, 'Please God, don't let it be this again.'

Out loud, he replied, "Don't worry about them J.D., you're safe."

J.D. shook his head and grabbed Buck's arm, his grip tight as he said, "No Buck, they ain't gonna give up till they get me."

He let go and looked around, his eyes narrowed as he muttered, "Don't know why they want me so bad. I've never seen any of them before."

He looked back at Buck and added, "They tried to convince me they were my friends. That they were you guys." He laughed. "Must have thought I was pretty stupid, that I would believe them."

His eyes traveled the room, finally coming to rest on the bed next to him and he started in surprise.

"What's Chris doing here? Did they get him too?"

"No, no. Don't worry, Chris just had a little incident last night. He'll be fine," Buck quickly reassured him.

J.D. stared at Chris for a long moment before saying, "Their leader tried to tell me he was Chris. They were tryin' to mess with my mind. Tellin' me I wasn't well and all."

"Well don't worry about it now, son," Buck said softly, "You're safe now."

"You sure?" J.D. asked, his gaze returning to Buck, "They went to all that trouble to keep me there, messing with my mind and everything. How do you know they won't try again?"

Buck didn't answer, his gaze moving to the door as it opened and Josiah and Nathan entered. The sharp intake of breath quickly brought his gaze back to J.D., who was staring at the two men with fright in his eyes.

"It's two of em!" he exclaimed, trying to scramble out of bed.

Buck quickly restrained him, saying, "J.D. calm down! It's just Nathan and Josiah!"

"Don't let them get me!" J.D. said fearfully, not hearing Buck's words.

"J.D.! J.D.!" Buck shook his friend, trying to bring the boy's senses back to him.

Finally, Buck slapped him, stopping the boy's fierce struggles. J.D. looked up at him, shock in his fevered eyes. He then looked at Josiah and Nathan and recognition flooded them.

"Please don't let them get me," he whispered.

"Don't worry son, we're not going to let anyone get you," Nathan said, exchanging glances with Buck and Josiah.

He looked over at Chris as the man mumbled, "Can't a man get any sleep around here?"

"How do you feel, Chris?" he asked, going over and standing next to him.

"Terrible. What happened?" He tried to sit up and winced when pain shot through him.

"Easy now," Nathan said, helping him to sit up, "You decided to go against my advice on gettin' rest and got into a nasty fight in the saloon last night. Got yourself cut up pretty bad. Now I suggest you take it easy for the next few days and get some proper rest. I got enough problems with J.D. without having to worry about keeping you sewn up."

Chris looked over at J.D., who had slipped into a restless sleep and asked, "How is he?"

"Not good. He's hallucinating again."

Chris closed his eyes and rested his head on the headboard. "Damn it," he muttered.

Buck stepped over and said, "Come on, Pard. I'll help you to your room so you can follow Nathan's advice."

Chris allowed Buck to help him up and carefully lead him from the room. Nathan looked down and J.D. and, seeing the sweat that now covered his face, quickly got the wet cloth out of the basin and wiped it away.




Kayla watched Vin as he slowly started to come around. She wasn't surprised by the small, fevered light in his eyes as he looked at her, but she was surprised at how alert he still seemed to be.

<You are very strong, hunter,> she said, <or are you just stubborn?>

<How...how long have I been...out?>

<Little over a day. Your friend, Larabee, he's been wondering about your whereabouts. Tessa has...distracted him.>

<Did...did she hurt him?>

<No. She just gave him something to take his mind off making sure you were all right.>

Vin closed his eyes as pain and fever ran through him. Kayla watched him carefully.

'He's not going to survive this,' she thought, feeling strangely saddened by the thought.

<Then help him,> a voice whispered through her mind.

Kayla looked up and around, startled. Her eyes widened just a bit when she saw the source of the voice. <Mother?>

The shimmering form of Grey Wolf smiled. <Hello, Black Rose.>

<
How is it you are here?>

<I was given time for a little visit. I thought you could use a little advice.>

The ghostly vision of her mother crossed the room and stood, looking at Kayla. She smiled as she reached out and touched Kayla's cheek.

<You have grown into such a beautiful woman. You are so much like me when I was your age.>

A sadness crossed her eyes. <I never wanted that for you. But, unfortunately, that was not my decision. I couldn't stop what you were to become, but I can help you change what you are. To become something better.>

<
How?> Kayla whispered, <I've already done so much. How can I change now?>

Grey Wolf smiled. <You have already started, my Black Rose.>

She gestured to Vin. <You are starting to care about what happens to him, therefore, you are starting to change. If you truly wish to change, as I know you do, then helping him will start you on the right path to peace. I had not realized that when I was your age. I had plenty of opportunities to get off the path I was on and take the right one. If I had done so, then perhaps I would have found peace a much different way.>

Grey Wolf took a step back, her form slowly beginning to vanish. <Think about that, my daughter. Don't make the same mistakes I made. Get off this path and on the right one. And remember, I love you.>

With that, the ghostly vision of her mother vanished. Kayla stood, staring at the spot her long dead mother had been, tears slowly making their way down her cheeks as the woman's words echoed in her mind.




PART 12



"J.D. J.D. wake up honey."

A soft, startlingly familiar voice penetrated J.D.'s mind, bringing him out of his unconscious state. Blinking his eyes open, he looked to the foot of the bed and drew in a breath. Standing at the foot of the bed, watching him with a soft smile, was a beautiful, middle-aged woman with shoulder length, jet black hair and kind eyes.

"Mamma?" he whispered.

"Yes J.D., it's me."

"But how? You're...you're dead."

"Yes. But that doesn't mean I can't still visit you."

She came around and sat down on the edge, reaching out and brushing aside some of the hair that had fallen into his eyes.

"I've missed you son."

She looked at him for a long moment before continuing. "J.D., I want you to know that I'm not angry at you for coming out here. In fact, I'm very, very proud of the man you've become, of the things you've learned out here. Those friends of yours have taught you well. They care for you very much, especially that one who's so fond of the ladies."

J.D. smiled. "Buck."

She nodded. "Yes, Buck. He's really something else. They all are and I'm very glad you found them."

J.D. stared at her for a long moment before saying, "Mamma? You aren't going to leave me again, are you?"

"No, son. Truth is, I've never left you. I've always been here, you just haven't seen me until now."

"Is it...is it because I'm sick? Am I gonna die mamma?"

"Oh honey, don't you worry about that. You'll be just fine so long as you let your friends care for you."

They both looked toward the door as it opened and Nathan came in.

"Hey Nathan," J.D. greeted with a ghostly smile. He gestured to his mother and said, "Nathan, meet my mamma. Mamma, this is Nathan."

Nathan looked at him worriedly as he came over and put a hand to J.D.'s forehead, quickly removing it at the intense heat he felt.

"You shouldn't be sitting up J.D. Come on, lay back down. You've been out cold for two days now and you don't want to strain yourself."

"But I want you to meet my mamma, Nathan," J.D. insisted as Nathan helped him to lay back down.

His mother smiled. "Only you can see and hear me, son."

Nathan looked at him intently. "J.D., are you really seeing your mamma?"

J.D. nodded, which caused Nathan's worry to grow and a little fear to enter his eyes.

"What...what's she saying J.D.?"

J.D. shrugged. "She just said that she came to visit me. She wanted to tell me that she wasn't angry that I came out here and was proud of all that I've learned."

"Is she still here?"

J.D. nodded, smiling at a spot near Nathan. Nathan looked over and froze as a strange feeling overtook him. He felt something. Almost like another presence, and it unnerved him deeply.

"J.D.," his mother said, "I have to leave for just a little bit. But don't worry, I'll be back. You get some rest and then we'll have a nice long talk, okay?"

J.D. nodded and she vanished.

"Mamma had to leave for a bit," he told Nathan, "But she'll be back in a bit."

Nathan nodded silently and gently dabbed J.D.'s face with the wet cloth. "Chris is up and around again," he said, trying to get rid of the shivers that were making his way up and down his spine.

"That's good. Has he been watching for those men?"

Nathan nodded. "Yeah J.D., we all have. They haven't shown up yet."

"That's cause they're waitin' for you all to let your guard down," J.D. replied, his eyes searching the room suspiciously.

"Don't worry J.D. We ain't gonna let our guard down. You hungry?"

J.D.'s eyes stopped roaming the room and settled back on Nathan. He thought for a moment, then nodded.

Nathan stood and said, "All right. I'll be right back."

Nathan left the room and went over to the restaurant. He ordered a plate, then went over to the saloon. The others were all at a table together, sharing silence and drinks.

"How's the kid doing?" Buck asked as Nathan sat down heavily. Nathan sighed and took a long drink from the bottle Josiah offered him before replying.

"He's awake, and hungry. But that's the only good thing. He's still paranoid as hell and..." he trailed off, staring down at the table.

"What Nathan?" Buck asked. "What else is going on?"

Nathan looked back up at them, his eyes haunted as he said, "The boy's seein' and talkin' to his mamma. I left for a minute and when I came back in, he was sittin' up in bed, talkin' with her. Even introduced me."

"Could it be the boy is experiencing yet another hallucination?" Ezra asked.

Nathan hesitated, then replied, "I don't think so. He pointed out the spot he said she was standing in at the time and I...I actually felt a presence. I couldn't see anyone, but I could sure as hell feel someone."

He fell silent for a moment, then looked at Josiah.

"Josiah, is this what I think it might be?"

Josiah nodded. "It's a very strong possibility."

"You boys want to let us in on what you're talking about?" Buck asked. "What's a strong possibility?"

Nathan and Josiah exchanged glances and then Josiah said gravely, "Sometimes, when folks are dying, or close to it, they'll receive...visitations, from loved ones who have gone on before them. Usually, these loved ones are there to calm the one who is dying or to help them cross over when the time comes."

Shocked silence descended over the table. Buck suddenly slammed his fist down and said with severe venom, "No way! I've worked my ass off teaching that kid how not to get shot! I'll be damned if I'm gonna let that son of a bitch get him through some goddam unfair illness!"

He slammed his fist on the table again, got up and stormed out. A moment later, they heard the sound of hoofs thundering away.

Nathan sighed. "I was afraid he'd take it like that."

He took another drink, then stood. "I'd better get's J.D.'s food and get back to him. Don't want to leave him alone too long." He nodded to the men, then left.




Buck rode until the town was just a little dot. He slowed to a walk, eventually dismounting and ground tying his horse near a cluster of rocks and trees. He jumped up on one of the rocks and then proceeded to climb the tree right next to it, settling in one of the branches and staring off at the horizon.

His fists clenched and unclenched as Josiah's words haunted his mind.

"You ain't gonna get him you son of a bitch," he muttered and then shouted, "You ain't gonna get him! He's too young for you ya hear? He's too young!"

He laid his head back and closed his eyes, breathing deeply as he tried to calm down. An unknown amount of time later, he opened his eyes and spotted three riders heading toward Four Corners. He peered closely at them and quickly identified them as three of 'Lynne's' girls.

'Wonder where those three are coming back from,' he thought as he watched them.

One of the girls spotted his horse and straightened up a bit. She motioned to the others and they began to slow up. They reached his horse and reined in, looking around.

"Afternoon, ladies," Buck called, never being able to resist the lure of the opposite sex no matter what his mood was.

The trio looked up and Meg called, "Why Buck, whatever are doing up there?"

"Nothin' special," Buck replied as he jumped down. "Where're you girls coming back from?"

"Just an early morning ride," Meg replied, looking at Buck carefully. "Are you all right? You seem...down"

"Nah, I'm fine," Buck replied with a smile that didn't reach his eyes.

Meg noticed this and said, "You say you're fine, but you're eyes tell a different story." She thought for a moment, then added, "Is it J.D. by any chance?"

Buck's resolve melted and he sat down on the rock with a short nod.

"Damn kid's dyin' and there ain't a thing I can do about it."

Meg exchanged glances with Selene and Crystal, a mischievous gleam in her eyes. She got down off her horse and went over to him. She took his hands and said, "You know, I've been through this more times than a girl my age should. And you know what I always do?"

Buck looked from her to the other two and back again. "What?"

Meg smiled and pulled him to his feet. "You'll see."




PART 13



Josiah entered the saloon and his eyes sought out Chris. He found him quickly and made his way over to the black clad man.

"Just got a wire from the next town over. Three young females arrived late last night and terrorized the place till this morning. The sheriff, one of his two deputies, the clerk at the bank, and a few bar patrons...all dead."

"Descriptions?"

Josiah shook his head. "No, but the deputy who survived thinks they may be from Tessa William's gang. You know, the one we were supposed to watch out for last month? They must have been laying low and those three decided to get some...recreation."

"Does this mean we are on alert again?" Ezra asked as he sat down, having heard the conversation.

Chris nodded. "Any sign of Buck yet?"

Josiah shook his head. "Don't think he's come back from wherever it was he took off earlier."

"Perhaps he's with my girls."

The two men looked up to find 'Lynne' standing next to them, looking just a little more than drunk, but still incredibly lucid. "Three of my girls went out for a ride this morning and aren't back yet. Maybe they met up with each other. If that's so, then my girls are probably trying to take his mind off J.D. They probably won't be back for a while."

Her eyes traveled toward the street and a strange light entered them. "Excuse me, gentlemen. I myself need a bit of a distraction. And I think I know just where to get it."

She flashed them a smile, then left the saloon.

"Poor child is taking this just as bad as Buck," Josiah said as he watched her disappear into the night.

"I wouldn't be so certain of that," Ezra muttered.

"What was that Ezra?" Josiah asked, raising his brows at the other man's comment.

"I have been watching Lynne and her female compatriots quite closely as of late and have found some rather questioning characteristics," Ezra replied.

"Such as?" Josiah asked.

"Such as the perverse pleasure she seems to get-that they all seem to get- from senseless violence for instance. Something I would find strange for a group of unfortunate girls trying to settle down and lead normal, safe lives. I've also been thinking of the observations Mr. Tanner made when they first arrived. That being there is five of them and Miss. Lynne has some rather astonishing red hair. Has it not struck you gentlemen as odd that as soon as these ladies appeared, the Williams gang, which was supposedly headed for our fine little town, dropped out of sight until today? Which brings me to another observation. Only three of Tessa Williams' gang did that little number on our unfortunate neighbor and three of Lynne's friends have been out of town and are now with Buck."

Ezra was silent for a moment, then added, "Mr. Tanner was conduction an investigation of sorts into Miss Lynne and her friends was he not?"

Chris nodded.

"Isn't it awfully convenient that he decided to just up and leave town?"

"Not necessarily," Josiah said.

"Needed to do some thinking," Chris added.

"And did Mr. Tanner inform you of this decision?"

Chris shook his head. "No, Lynne told me. Said she ran into him day J.D. collapsed and he told her to tell me he was leaving for a few days."

Ezra raised his brows. "Ah, the plot thickens. Doesn't it strike you as odd that he'd give a message to someone he didn't trust?"

Chris and Josiah were silent for a moment, taking in Ezra's words.

"Man's got some good points," Josiah said.

"When Buck gets back, tell him I wanna see him," Chris said. "Ezra, since you seem to be so good at detecting, keep a close eye on Lynne and her girls. You find anything solid, tell the rest of us right away. I'm gonna go search for Vin in the morning."

He stood, a little stiffly the other two men noticed, and walked out of the saloon, blending into the night the moment he was out the door.




Tessa entered her room, closed the door and leaned against it, staring at Vin, who lay deathly still in the bed. She turned her gaze to Kayla, who was watching her carefully.

"He dead?"

She shook her head. "No, but he's got a bad fever."

Tessa crossed over and sat on the edge of the bed. She put her hand to Vin's forehead and quickly pulled away at the heat.

"Almost as bad as J.D."

She looked at Kayla and nodded toward the door. "Go get some sleep. I'm pretty much here for the night now."

Kayla nodded, stood and left. But not without one last look at Vin, Tessa noticed.

Once she was gone, Tessa turned her gaze back to Vin.

"Tracker. Tracker, I know you're in there. Open your eyes."

She lightly ran her finger down his cheek, prompting him to stir at the touch. She smiled, called to him again, and then slapped him hard.

Vin cried out and his eyes opened at the sudden, sharp blow. She smiled.

"Welcome back. We're you dreaming?"

He looked at her without responding.

"Not in the mood for chit chat tonight?" she asked as she once again ran her finger lightly down the side of his cheek.

She smiled in amusement as he jerked away. "Shy are we? You don't seem like the type of man to turn down female companionship."

"I prefer females who won't eat their mates when they're finished with em," Vin snarled in a whisper.

Tessa raised her brows. "My, such hostility. And after I was so kind to allow a bed to be brought in for you."

"Much obliged," Vin replied sarcastically.

Tessa chuckled softly, a knife suddenly appearing in her hand. She traced his cheek with it, moving down his throat and around his bandaged chest. She moved it down to his side and suddenly plunged it in, covering his mouth tightly to muffle his scream.

She pulled it out, leaned in close and whispered, "I can see you're one of those men who need to be taught how to talk respectfully to a lady."

Through labored breathing, Vin whispered, "You ain't no lady. You're a demon."

Tessa smiled chillingly. "You have no idea what I am, tracker. And you don't want to find out."

She watched as the loss of blood and the fever finally claimed him and took him from consciousness. She watched the blood seep out and onto the sheet for a bit, starting when there was a soft knock on the door.

"Who is it?" she called.

"Meg," came the muffled reply.

"It's open."

She looked at Meg as the girl came in and spotted Morgan right behind her.

"You're just in time Morgan. The Tracker here got himself another knife in him."

Morgan rushed over and took in the wound.

"Damn it Tess!" she exclaimed as she hurried to get the medical supplies from the closet, "You keep this up and he's gonna be dead before you get a mile outside of town!"

Tessa just smiled as she moved out of the way and turned her attention to Meg.

"Where've you been? You should have been back this afternoon."

Meg smiled and replied, "We ran into Buck. He was pretty down so the girls and I took him to Purgatory and got him drunk and shot at."

Tessa raised her brows. "Anyone hurt?"

"Crystal got grazed but nothing serious. Can't say the same for some the inhabitants of that so called town. I'm surprised Buck is still among the living. I gotta give him credit for his ability to handle a gun utterly drunk. I thought about shooting him myself, but a man like that...well, there's just no fun in it."

She paused, looking around as she added, "So what happened around here? Besides the obvious I mean."

Tessa smiled slightly. "I"ve determined that it may be a good idea to keep an eye on Kayla."

"Why's that?"

"I think our native friend is getting sweet on our tracker here."

Meg raised her brows. "Well now, that could be a problem couldn't it?"

Tessa nodded. "Which is why we're going to be getting out of here very shortly. Last thing I want is for one of my girls to fall back under the control of the enemy."

"There," Morgan said as she finished sewing up the wound. She looked at them and added, "He's lost so much blood, I'm amazed he still regains consciousness at all. And this fever..."

"He's a strong one," Tessa said, coming over and looking down at him. "Those are my favorites, they're always fun to kill."

"I thought you were going to let Tuscosa deal with him," Morgan said quietly.

"Oh I am. He'll make it to Tuscosa alive, I'll see to that, but that doesn't mean I can't have half of him. Or a little more."

Morgan could not meet Tessa's eyes, for she was afraid of what she would see there. Instead, she stared down at Vin and began to do what she had been doing a lot of lately. She began to pray silently.




PART 14



Buck had sobered up considerably since arriving back in town and meeting with Chris. He was disturbed by what his friend had told him about Ezra's suspicions and sincerely hoped the gambler was wrong.

'It would kill J.D. if Lynne turned out to be Tessa Williams,' Buck thought. He chuckled without humor at the irony that thought brought. 'Course, he might not be around long enough to find out.'

A noise behind him reached his ears and he spun around, gun drawn.

"Who's there?" he demanded, his eyes searching the darkness.

A form moved out of the shadows, and Buck lowered his gun as a woman moved into the light.

"I'm sorry if I startled you Mr. Wilmington," she said softly.

"Think nothing of it ma'am," Buck said with a smile as he holstered his gun. "You shouldn't be out wandering the streets this late at night, ma'am. Ain't exactly safe."

He looked at her closely and found her to be middle aged and very attractive, with shoulder length, black hair. He didn't recognize her, yet there was something oddly familiar about her.

"Uh, excuse me ma'am, but do I know you?"

She shook her head. "No, Mr. Wilmington, you don't. But I know you. J.D. has told me a lot about you."

"J.D.?"

The woman nodded. "You're a very good friend to J.D. Mr. Wilmington. I can see that you care for him a lot. J.D. never had many friends when he was younger. Warms my heart to see the ones he's made here."

"Uh, are you a relative ma'am? I didn't know J.D. had any left."

The woman ignored the question and said, "J.D.'s illness isn't natural, Mr. Wilmington. Look for a friend among the enemy."

Buck looked at her, startled. Noise in the street behind him caught his attention and he glanced behind him. Finding nothing, he turned his attention back to the woman, only to find her gone.

"What the hell is going on around here?" he muttered as he searched the darkness in vain for the mysterious woman.

"Something wrong, Buck?"

Buck turned and found Josiah standing behind him.

"Yeah, I'm losing my mind," Buck replied.

He took one last look in the shadows then, shaking his head, added, "I'm going to get some sleep. Who's watching the kid?"

"Ezra. I'm on my way to relieve him now."

Buck nodded. "All right. I'll come spell you in a few hours."

He nodded to the big man, then turned and continued on to the boarding house and his room.




J.D. waited anxiously in his hiding place for his captor to return. The early morning sun filtered in through the window, giving a friendly look to the room he was being held captive in. He wiped his sweat slicked brow with the back of his sleeve and forced down the dizziness that kept trying to claim him. He didn't know what had been done to him, but he had to get back to Four Corners or the nearest town, and get help.

How had they managed to get past the others and get him out of there? That was the question that had plagued him since waking up and it had also frightened him. What if something had happened to the others? What if they had been hurt, or worse? He shook himself and resolved that if something bad had happened to the others, that he would come back and avenge them once he was well.

He froze as footsteps reached his ears. He listened and when it became apparent that they were headed for him, got ready. He clutched his gun, still unable to believe they had actually kept them with him. The door opened and a black man entered. J.D. watched as he walked toward the bed, stopped, then quickly turned the covers back to find the pillows J.D. had stuffed under there in his place. The man cursed softly and J.D. made his move. As the man turned to leave, J.D. stepped from his hiding place and cocked his gun.

"Don't move," he warned as the man froze at the sound.

"J.D., don't do something you're gonna regret later," the man said as he raised his hands.

"If you don't shut up, it'll be you who'll be regretting what I do," J.D. snapped, moving forward and removing Nathan's guns.

"Now, tell me where I am and where the next town is so I can wire my friends."

"J.D. you're in Four Corners. I am your friend son."

"Why do you all keep thinking messing with my mind is going to work? I ain't stupid! Now where am I?"

"J.D. please, you ain't well. Let me help you."

"Mister, you must have wax in your ears. Answer my question!"

The man remained silent, however, and J.D., fearing someone may walk in at any moment and spoil his chance for escape, snarled, "Fine! I'll find my own way then. I best take care of you first though."

He prepared to shoot the man, but stopped as he remembered what Chris and Buck and the others had all taught him. 'You don't shoot a man in the back.' 'It ain't honorable to shoot an unarmed man.'

Those words running through his mind, he un-cocked the gun, gripped the barrel, and hit the man hard in the side of head. He went down with a dull thud and remained still.

J.D. hurried to the door, peeked outside, saw it was clear and hurried out. He managed to make it to the livery, saddle his horse and get to the outskirts of town unchallenged. Once he hit the outskirts, he spurred his horse from a calm trot to an all out canter, making a break for freedom.




Tessa smiled as she watched J.D. rush out of town. She glanced at Meg as her friend joined her and said, "Tell the girls to prepare themselves. Things are about to start heating up again and we may be leaving within the next twenty four hours."

Meg nodded and left to carry out the instructions. Tessa watched the dust from J.D.'s departure settle, then turned and headed for the saloon.




Buck made his way up the stairs to Nathan's, hoping J.D. would be a little better this morning, even though he knew the kid wouldn't. All through Buck's watch the previous night, J.D. had been restless and troubled, settling down only when he claimed his mamma was there. Buck shivered as he recalled the few times J.D. had said his mamma was there and Buck had actually felt a presence as Nathan had. It had been severely unnerving, but at least the kid had settled down after those incidents.

Buck's thoughts deserted him when he reached the top of the stairs and Nathan's door came into view. It was slightly ajar, which was strange considering Nathan never left the door open when he had a patient inside.

Drawing his gun, Buck moved forward cautiously, calling out, "Nathan?" as he did so.

When he received no answer, he called out again, carefully pushing the door open and peering inside. He cursed and rushed inside when he saw Nathan laying unmoving on the floor.

"Nathan! Nathan can you hear me?" Buck called as he knelt next to his friend.

He quickly glanced up to check on J.D. and found the kid gone. He cursed again, then hurried outside, scanning the streets.

He spotted Josiah and shouted, "Josiah! Get up here fast!"

The big man veered off his path and hurried over to the stairs, taking them two at the time and hurried into Nathan's room.

"What happened?" he asked as he knelt next to the now stirring man.

"Kid cold-cocked me an' took off," Nathan mumbled as he opened his eyes.

"Easy brother," Josiah said as Nathan tried unsuccessfully to sit up, "Just lay still a moment."

"I'm gonna go get Chris and Ezra," Buck said, standing and rushing out again.

He found both men in the saloon, Chris drinking coffee before heading out to look for Vin and Ezra quietly playing with his card deck.

"We gotta big problem," Buck said as he came up to their table. "J.D. knocked Nathan cold and took off."

"Aw hell," Chris muttered, as he and Ezra both stood and followed Buck back to Nathan's.

Nathan was now sitting in a chair, holding a wet cloth to his head.

"You all right, Nathan?" Chris asked.

Nathan nodded. "I will be. You guys have gotta find J.D. Kid ain't in no condition to be wandering around out there."

"Will you be all right here alone?" Chris asked as he nodded.

"I'll make sure he's all right," A voice from the door said.

They turned around and found Morgan Williams standing there.

"I saw you all running up here and thought something was wrong. I know quite a bit about nursing, I can take care of him."

Chris thought for a moment, then nodded. "All right, let get saddled up and start searching then."

"Be careful," Nathan warned before they left. "That boy is right back to thinking we're not his friends. He's confused and scared and if he sees you following him, he'll probably get hostile."

Chris nodded and the men hurried to fetch their horses.




PART 15



Chris was getting irritated. They had been searching for the kid all morning and were now entering early afternoon. Tracking him wasn't very hard, though every so often they would loose him, only to pick him up again a short time later.

Buck was out of his skin with worry and the bit of blood staining a rock where J.D. had apparently rested a moment didn't help matters any.

It had been nearly half an hour since finding the blood on the rocks and they had just managed to pick up their young friend's trail again when Ezra suddenly let out a laugh.

"What's so funny?" Buck asked, his voice showing even more evidence of just how worried he was.

"I have come to a realization. Our young comrade didn't have that much of a head start. We should have found him hours ago and yet, here we are, wandering around the desert in the hot sun, following him as he leads us to where he wants us."

"What are you talking about?" Buck asked impatiently.

Ezra sighed. "Don't you see it gentlemen? The boy is using everything we've ever taught him about how to stay alive out here. At the moment, while we are tracking him, he is using what Mr. Tanner has taught him and is tracking us while luring us to a spot where he could, shall I say, take us out?" He paused, then added as he gestured ahead, "Most likely he's planning to carry out his plan up ahead in that pass. There are many boulders and thus, many places to hide and not get himself killed."

Buck looked where Ezra had indicated, slightly startled. "Well, glad to know the kid's been paying attention," he muttered.

"So, what do we do?" Josiah asked.

Chris thought for a moment, then said, "We'll have to outsmart him."

"How are we gonna do that?" Buck asked. "If he's there, he can probably see us."

"There's another way into that pass," Josiah said, "We could head east from here, make it look like we're gonna go look for him elsewhere and then circle around and turn into the other entrance. He sees us going away, he'll most likely stay where he is and rest. Bet he's in pretty bad shape right now being out in the sun all day."

Chris was silent, then nodded. "Sounds like a plan. Risky, but it's the only thing we've got right now. All right, let's go."

He turned his horse east and urged him into a trot, the others following.




J.D. watched through hazy vision as the men who had been tracking him stopped their progress and talked for a moment. One of them gestured to the pass he was hiding in while another gestured east. After a moment, the leader nodded and the men turned their horses and started off eastward.

Amazement and relief flooded him as he watched them disappear and he sank down to the ground, his back resting against a large boulder.

'I should keep going,' he thought, 'They're going in the opposite direction. I should take advantage and get the hell out of here. But I feel so tired.' His eyes began to close. 'Maybe I can rest for just a bit and then go on. Just a bit...'




Buck silently crept among the boulders, carefully searching for J.D. They had found his horse, so they knew he was still there. Chris had them split up so they would have a better chance of finding him, but so far, nobody had signaled that they'd had any luck.

He sighed, hoping the kid, in his fevered state, hadn't wandered off without his horse.

'If that's the case, the fever might not be the one to get 'em,' he thought, carefully rounding a corner.

He stopped, his breath catching as he nearly tripped over a body, leaning slumped against the big boulder he was going around. Fearfully, but silently, he bent down to check and see if the kid was still breathing. He sighed inwardly in relieve when he found he was. Now to signal the others and get out of here.

He jumped up onto a larger boulder a few feet away and quickly spotted movement.

'Good thing the kid wasn't watching for us up here,' he thought, 'He actually picked a good spot.'

He put his finger between his lips and whistled shrilly, waving his hat as the movement below stopped. Once certain they knew where to find him, he turned to go back to J.D., and found himself staring down the barrels of J.D.'s colts.

"I knew I should have kept going," J.D. said, his voice shaky and weak.

Buck slowly raised his hands and then his eyes and drew in a sharp breath. J.D. looked ten times worse than he had before. His face, where it should have been at least tanned from being out in the sun all day, was deathly white and sweat slicked. Even his lips were a strange white. But what scared Buck the most were his eyes. They were wild and burned bright with a now raging, out of control fever.

"You're buddies are probably around here somewhere too huh? Probably on their way here?"

A strange, frightening smile crossed J.D.'s lips. "Let's wait for 'em then. You can see each other one last time before I..." J.D. trailed off and he took step back, shaking his head as if to clear his vision. He lowered his guns a bit, and Buck took a small step toward him.

J.D. saw the movement, however, and quickly raised the guns back on him. "Oh no you don't. Don't even think of moving. Now, take your guns out nice and slow and toss them this way."

Buck did as he was told, keeping a careful eye on J.D. all the time.

"Buck?" came Chris' voice from just below and behind Buck.

J.D. made a gesture and Buck called, "Up here."

Josiah was the first to appear. He straightened up slowly when he saw the guns pointed at him and raised his hands as J.D. gestured for him to move aside. Chris came next and then Ezra. The gambler froze in surprise when he appeared, then relaxed and sighed as he raised his hands.

"Wonderful," he muttered.

Once their guns had been removed, J.D. said, "All right, now tell me what you did with my

friends. If you've hurt any of them so help me "

Buck exchanged glances with the others, then said, "Son, we are "

"Don't start that!" J.D. shouted, "Why are you doing this? What is it that you want so damn bad?"

"Just you back with us, J.D.," Buck replied quietly.

His gaze met J.D.'s and he held it, trying to communicate silently with him. To get the kid to see through the fever and see who they were.

J.D.'s guns wavered as they stared at one another and confusion entered his eyes.

"J.D.," Buck said softly, taking a step forward. "Do you recognize me?"

"B Buck?"

Buck nodded and took another step forward. "Yeah son. It's me."

Fear suddenly entered J.D.'s eyes and he took a quick step back, raising the guns he had been lowering. "Stay back!" he warned. "You you ain't Buck."

"Yeah, I am son," Buck replied calmly.

He thought for a moment, then said, "Remember the time you saved my life? At that Seminole village when the Indian attacked me? He probably would have killed me if you hadn't stepped in."

"You you were real mad at me for using the butt of my gun," J.D. replied with a small, ghostly smile.

Buck smiled back and took another step forward. "Remember when I took ya to Wick's town? How excited you were around all them lovely ladies? And that little filly that caught your eye?"

J.D. smiled more at the memory and Buck took another step forward. Just about there

Buck's heart sank as J.D.'s eyes suddenly flared and anger entered them.

"Anybody could have gotten that information," he snarled. "You could have found out from Buck himself before you killed him. Did you kill him?" He looked at the other and shouted, "Did you kill my friends before taking me back again?"

"J.D. please," Buck began, but J.D. shouted, "Shut up! I'm not going to give you another chance to get me!"

He took quick aim at Buck and would have fired had a familiar voice exclaimed, "J.D.!"

J.D. started and looked to his right. "Mamma?" he whispered.

"J.D., listen to me. These men are your friends despite what you are seeing."

J.D. shook his head. "No, no they're trying to get me. They aren't my friends. They did something to my head. They they killed the others."

"No, J.D., they didn't. They are your friends. You are very ill son. It is the fever that is confusing your mind. You must push through what the fever is showing you and see what is truly there."

J.D. looked at the men, who were looking at him in calm or nervous confusion. He gritted his teeth as he stared at them, pain rushing through his fever filled eyes. He clutched his head and screamed, sinking to his knees. Buck started forward but J.D. quickly pointed the gun at him.

"Stay back!" he shouted, then squeezed his eyes shut.

"Mamma, please help me," he whimpered.

"I can not J.D.," her voice whispered from beside him. "Only these men can. Look at them son. Look them."

J.D. did as he was told and looked up the men.

" See how worried and afraid they are for you? If they didn't care for you, if they wanted to harm you, they would have done so by now. Fight the fever J.D. Let them help you."

J.D. struggled with the fever that was trying to control his mind, trying to keep his mother's words from reaching him. His mother put her hand on his, gently lowering it. J.D. jumped at the touch and looked at her, tears streaming down his cheeks. He put the gun on the ground, still staring at his mother as she held his hand in hers.

"I love you son," she whispered. "Remember, I'm always here if you need me."

She started to fade out and J.D. cried, "Mamma don't go! Please, I need you!"

"You need these men, J.D.," her voice whispered, "I cannot help you as they can. Don't worry, I'm in your heart." She leaned forward and he felt a soft breeze as her lips kissed his burning forehead. Then she was gone.

J.D. stared at the spot she had been kneeling in, not aware of anything else but the light, familiar fragrance she left behind.

"J.D.?"

He jumped and looked up to find Buck kneeling in front of him, the others standing behind him. All had disturbed looks in their eyes, although Josiah had a look of understanding.

"Buck?"

Buck nodded silently, his heart aching at how young and frightened and sick the kid's voice sounded.

"I...I want to go home Buck. I'm so...so tired."

"That's just what we're doing kid. Come on now, we're burning daylight."

He gently helped J.D. to his feet, supporting the younger man as he swayed unsteadily. Ezra moved to J.D.'s other side and together the two men helped their young friend make his way down to where they had left the horses.

Josiah stayed for a moment after the others had disappeared down the path to the horses, having sensed the strong presence that surrounded the area. He stood in silence, knowing that what had just happened, what had stopped J.D. from killing them or getting himself killed, had been more than fevered hallucination.

"Josiah!" Chris called from below.

"Thank you Mrs. Dunne," Josiah said softly, then headed down the twisting path to join the others.




J.D.'s returned sanity did not last long. The boy was struggling with the illusions the fever was creating and would occasionally mutter stuff, fall silent as he pushed the illusions back, only to start up again a short time later. This grew steadily worse until a few miles outside of town, as early evening settled in, when he snapped. Chris, who had seen something surge through J.D.'s eyes, was ready when the boy's horse suddenly reared, startling the others, and took off in the opposite direction. Chris spurred his own horse and took off at a gallop, quickly catching up to J.D. He threw himself onto the other horse, knocking J.D. off and falling to the ground with him.

J.D., in his sudden panic, struggled fiercely, landing a hard punch to Chris' stomach and scrambling to his feet. He began running, but didn't get very far.

Josiah ran his horse in front of him, blocking the way while Buck ran up to grab him. J.D. fought violently, until Josiah managed to get him in his bear hold, quickly immobilizing him.

Chris and Ezra joined them and J.D. stared at Chris with fiery defiance. Chris stared back at him, containing his anger, but not by much. He glanced back at the distant town. They'd never make it with J.D. is this condition. Chris would most likely kill him.

"Josiah," he said, indicating what he wanted done just in the tone he used.

Josiah nodded and applied a little pressure. "Sorry son," he said softly just before J.D. went limp.

"Let's get him in a saddle and back to town," Chris said, turning and heading for his horse.

Josiah scooped J.D. up in his arms and followed. Josiah put J.D. in front of Buck so the older man could hold the boy up, then retrieved the kid's horse so he could lead it back to town. When they were ready they started off, hoping to finish the ride without further incident.




PART 16



They arrived back in town about an hour later. Nathan and Morgan both hurried out to meet them, worry written all over Nathan's face.

Chris handed his horse off to a stable boy, then looked at Nathan as Buck handed J.D. down to him.

"Get him upstairs and tie him down," he ordered, "He runs off again I'll hunt him down and shoot him! And goddamn it, somebody find Vin! I want him back here by sundown!"

That said, he turned and stalked off toward the saloon.

Ezra had already left the scene and, despite his worry, Buck looked at Josiah and said, "Doesn't leave us a lot of time. Better find him before Chris really blows his stack."

Josiah nodded. "Better get fresh horses first."

Once they had changed horses, the pair road out of town, heading for the most likely place Vin would be.




Nathan didn't like tying the kid to the bed, but he had believed Chris when the black clad man had said if the boy took off again, he'd hunt him down and shoot him, so he'd done as instructed. Morgan was still with him, proving to be an excellent nurse and help. Together, they had cleaned him up and stitched up a few wounds he had received from the rocks in the pass. He was still unconscious, though Nathan wasn't sure if it was from the fever or from Josiah. He figured it was a little of both.

There was a soft knock on the door and Morgan moved to answer it. 'Lynne' stood in the doorway, a worried look in her green eyes.

She looked at Morgan, then at Nathan and said, "I heard they brought him back. Can I see him?"

Nathan nodded. "Just for a bit."

'Lynne' nodded and sat in the chair he offered her. He busied himself with cleaning up while 'Lynne' talked softly to J.D. He glanced at Morgan and noted with curiosity that she was watching 'Lynne' with what looked like a nervous expression. He watched as 'Lynne' looked over at Morgan and smiled slightly, but her eyes seemed to be communicating with the other girl. After a moment, Morgan turned away, also to clean up.

He didn't have time to ponder this, however, because J.D. suddenly started coughing violently and 'Lynne' cried out, "Nathan!"

Nathan hurried over and his heart jumped to his throat when he saw blood trickling out of both corners of J.D.'s mouth. Nathan had tied him in such a way that they could sit him up or turn him over if they needed to and that's just what he did. He quickly turned the kid on his side and watched as he coughed out blood into the dish Morgan held under his head.

Morgan looked up at 'Lynne,' who had moved out of the way and was watching in what looked like fascination. 'Lynne' saw Morgan looking at her and flashed her a chilly smile. Morgan quickly looked away, concentrating on J.D.

When the fit had passed, Nathan gently turned J.D. back over, dabbing his mouth with a cloth to clean the blood away.

"I'll come back later, Nathan," 'Lynne' said softly, putting a hand on his shoulder and gazing at J.D. sadly.

"I'll let him know you were here," he replied, gently squeezing her hand.

She nodded to both him and Morgan, then turned and silently left.




Buck and Josiah returned shortly after sunset, both wearing worried frowns. They had found no trace of Vin in any of his usual spots and were quite certain he wouldn't have gone anywhere else. "Chris ain't gonna like this," Buck said as they stabled their horses.

"Nope," Josiah agreed.

Buck sighed. "Guess we'd better get over there."

"I'll join you in a moment, my friend. There is something I must see to."

Buck nodded and left the Livery. He entered the saloon and quickly spotted Chris, sitting in a corner, nursing a bottle.

"Find him?" he asked without looking up as Buck sat down.

Buck shook his. "No. He wasn't in any of his usual spots. Something ain't right, pard. Vin wouldn't wander off someplace we couldn't easily find him."

"Unless he didn't wander off at all," Chris said thoughtfully.

Buck looked at him. "You don't suppose he ran into trouble do you?"

"I think that's exactly what happened."

The pair looked up as Josiah appeared from out of nowhere. He tossed a very roughed up hat on the table as he sat down and took a drink from the bottle.

Buck peered closely at the hat, then asked, "Isn't that Vin's?"

Josiah nodded. "Yup. Found it sitting on one of the pews in the church. What has me concerned, besides the fact that it's not with Vin, is the condition it's in. Looks like it's been through quite a harsh time. Not only that," he leaned forward and turned the hat over, exposing the inside. He pointed to a spot that had been stained red. "This here looks an awful lot like blood."

He leaned back and looked at them. "I believe, gentlemen, that we have another, serious problem."

"Damn it. As if we don't have enough already," Chris growled. He glanced outside and added, "It's too dark to do anything about it right now. We'll have to wait till first light."

They sat in silence for a moment, then Buck said, "I'm gonna go check on the kid. I'll let Nathan know what's going on."

He nodded to them, got up and left. He started for Nathan's everything that had been happening rushing through his mind at once and colliding. He was thrown against the wall and felt the pain searing through his arm before he heard the crack of the gun shot. He cried out, clutching his shoulder as he slid to the ground. Another shot whizzed by his head, the bullet embedding itself in the wall next to him, prompting him to seek cover.

"Buck!" he heard Chris shout and then more gunfire ensued until all was suddenly silent.

He sat still, listening and clutching his throbbing shoulder. Running footsteps reached his ears, followed by his name and then Chris was suddenly next to him.

"Buck, you all right?"

"My shoulder," Buck replied through gritted teeth as Josiah and Ezra joined them.

"Come on, brother," Josiah said as he helped Buck to stand, "Let's get you over to Nathan's."




"You'll be all right," Nathan announced a half hour later as he finished sewing up Buck's shoulder. "You're lucky. The bullet went clean through, missing everything important."

Buck nodded his thanks and the pair looked up as Chris, Josiah and Ezra entered the room.

"Any luck?" Nathan asked.

Chris shook his head and Josiah said, "Whoever it was, they had darkness on their side. No one saw him come, no one saw him go."

"Somebody's nervous," Chris said. "They must know that we know something's not right, which means we're being watched."

Buck stiffened at Chris' words, a thought suddenly coming over him.

"Somethin' wrong Buck?" Nathan asked, noticing the other man's reaction.

Buck was silent for a moment, the replied slowly, "Last night, when I was on my way to my room to get some sleep before taking over for Josiah, I ran into this woman. I'd never seen or met her before but she claimed she knew me. Said J.D. had told her all about me and the rest of you. I asked her if she was a relative, but she didn't answer. Instead, she told me that J.D.'s sickness wasn't natural. Said to...to look for a friend among the enemy. Have to wonder if whoever this enemy is has Vin."

"Come first light," Chris said, "We're gonna find out."




PART 17



Tessa nodded to the girls as she entered her room, Morgan right behind her, glad that they were all there.

"All right girls, listen up. We're leaving and here's the plan. Crystal, remember that cave we found last week a couple miles out?"

Crystal nodded. "I want you and Selene to take the tracker out there as soon as we're finished here. The darkness will provide enough cover that you can sneak him out of here unnoticed. The rest of us will spend the night here. In the morning, Meg, you and Kayla will take a trip to the bank and use your charm to withdraw all the money we've seen go in there. Keep it very quiet. No gunplay and no witnesses that can run out and tell their big strong protectors what's happened. After that, you two will join Crystal and Selene at the Cave."

"What are you going to be doing Tess?" Crystal asked.

"I'm going to be tying up a few loose ends so to speak. Now, if I'm not at that cave by say mid afternoon, one of two things has happened. I'm either dead, or in jail."

She paused and thought about that for a moment. "Or it actually could be both, but never mind. Whatever's happened, dear, loyal Morgan here will ride out and tell you. If I'm dead, then I want you to return Mr. Tanner to his friends...in bits and pieces. I intend to get the last laugh if that's the case. However, if I am just in prison, then I want the same thing to happen, but I want him kept alive. I'll end up rejoining you sooner or later and I'm going to want to finish him. Crystal, you're the expert in that department, so I'll leave you in charge of that task. Any questions?"

She smiled when she was met with silence. "Good. Now, Crystal, Selene, come back in a hour to collect your baggage. The rest of you go get some sleep. We may be headed for a wild time and you're all gonna want to be rested."

The girls nodded and started to leave. "Oh and Crystal dear?" Tessa called, "Leave the tracker be tonight all right? I really don't want to have to undo one of your temper tantrums."




Chris Larabee was angry. Well, Livid was a more accurate description of the black clad gunman as he walked down the street early the next morning, clutching a piece of paper in his hand. Some one was messing with him and his men and he didn't like it. J.D. was down with some kind of illness, Vin was missing and Buck had been shot, though thankfully it wasn't serious.

He walked into the saloon, looked at Josiah, Ezra and Buck and said, "Nathan's," then walked out.

They arrived at Nathan's a minute after he did and when the door was closed, Buck asked, "So where do we start searching for Vin?"

Chris looked at them and replied, "Right here, in town."

"How do you know he's here?" Nathan asked.

Chris handed him the paper he had been carrying and said, "This gave me a clue. Found a knife pinning it to my door when I woke up. A very skillful person was in my room last night."

Nathan looked at the paper, then up at Chris, startled. He handed it to Buck so the other three could have a look. It was a wanted poster with Vin featured in the picture.

Written in blood red letters across the top was "He's still here."

Buck looked up at Chris, just as surprised as Nathan. "Okay. So how do we find him?"

"We're gonna do a room by room, building by building search," Chris replied.

"Chris, you know how long that's gonna take?" Nathan asked.

Chris nodded. "Yeah, but it'll probably draw whoever's holding him out or force them to make a mistake."

He looked over at J.D., who was awake but didn't appear to be aware of what was going on around him. He was staring absently at the far wall, muttering softly to himself and occasionally smiling.

"Nathan, you stay here and keep watch on J.D. The rest of us will handle the search."

Nathan nodded and Chris moved from the room. Josiah and Ezra followed but Buck stayed behind.

"How long has he been like this?"

"Started a few hours ago. His mamma keeps coming going and from the look on his face, I'd guess that she's here now."

Buck shook his head, a deep sadness in his eyes. Nathan put his hand on the other man's shoulder, squeezing gently. Buck looked at Nathan, nodded, then turned to catch up with the others.




Chris led the other three to the middle of street, looking at the people hurrying about on early morning business. He drew his gun, looked at the others, then fired three shots into the air.

"Could I have your attention?" he shouted as everyone stopped and ducked down.

He looked at the faces peering at them from their hiding places and from inside buildings and continued, "One of my men, Vin Tanner, is missing! We have reason to believe he is still here in town, being held against his will. The four of us are going to search every room of every building until we find him. Anybody who stands in the way will be arrested for interfering in an investigation! For those of you who are innocent and know nothing of what is going on, I apologize in advance. But as for the guilty party..." A malicious smile crossed his lips, clearly finishing the threat.

He looked at the others as he holstered his gun and nodded. The foursome split up and began their search.




Ezra was now in the hotel, beginning his search of the second building in his section. The last one had taken half an hour and he groaned inwardly at how long this one would most likely take. The third door he knocked on was opened by a curious Lynne Stevens.

She smiled at him and asked, "Hello Mr. Standish. Is it true about Mr. Tanner?"

Ezra nodded. "Forgive me Miss Lynne, but I must search your quarters."

She nodded and opened the door further. "Of course, come on in."

Ezra entered the room and immediately felt uncomfortable. Being in his profession had taught him how to pick up on dangerous situations, and this felt very dangerous. He kept his face impassive, however, and proceeded to search the room, feeling 'Lynne's' eyes on him the whole time. He was just about to thank her and leave when something on the floor near the bed caught his eye.

"Uh, Miss Lynne, may I trouble you for a glass of water?" he asked, pretending he had noticed nothing.

'Lynne' smiled and nodded. She turned to get the pitcher of water that was on her dresser and Ezra quickly bent down and retrieved the object, slipping it into his pocket as 'Lynne' turned back and handed him the glass.

Ezra took it and nodded his thanks, quickly downing the liquid and giving her the glass back.

"Much obliged. Thank you for your patience, I'll take my leave of you know."

'Lynne' nodded and as he opened the door said, "I hope you find Mr. Tanner, Mr. Standish. It would be a shame if anything happened to him."

Ezra nodded. "It would indeed, my dear. Have a nice day."

He breathed a sigh of relief when the door closed, then quickly left the hall, waiting until he got outside before taking the object out of his pocket and examining it. It was a harmonica, stained in red in blood. Ezra turned it over and his heart beat even faster when he saw the initials engraved into it. V.T.

He glanced up and down the street then began walking, hurrying for the section he knew Chris would be.

He hadn't gone far when someone shouted "Ezra!"

He stopped and turned toward the voice and his chest exploded in pain as a bullet ripped through him. Seconds later, another one tore into his shoulder and a third entered his side as the force spun him around. He heard screams as he fell to the ground and darkness claimed him.




Nathan ran to the window and carefully looked out as the sound of gunshots reached his ears. His heart jumped to his throat as he saw Ezra fall to the ground and lay still. He threw a quick glance at J.D., grabbed his bag and raced outside. Buck was already at Ezra's side when Nathan arrived, calling to him and ripping Ezra's shirt open to expose the wounds.

Nathan cursed softly when he saw Ezra's condition and quickly set to helping Buck remove the clothing.

"What happened?" Chris asked as he and Josiah ran up, guns drawn.

"Ezra's been shot up bad," Nathan replied as he worked.

Ezra stirred then and his eyes fluttered open. He looked at Nathan and whispered, "C...Chris."

"I'm here, Ezra," Chris said, kneeling down on the other side of Buck.

Ezra reached up and took Chris' hand, pressing something into it.

"Found it...in room," he whispered as Chris looked at the harmonica.

"Who's room Ezra?" Chris asked.

"Tessa....Williams."

Ezra saw the confused looks that passed between the men and forced himself to focus on what he was saying. He swallowed hard and said, "Lynne."

He saw understanding dawn and sighed, slipping back into oblivion.

"Damn," Nathan said softly. He looked up at Chris and said, "He can't be moved. I'm gonna have to take the bullets out here."

Chris nodded and stood. "Josiah, stay with Nathan. Buck, come with me."

Chris ran down the street toward the hotel, gun drawn and Buck on his heels. They reached 'Lynne's room and Chris kicked open the door, only to find the room empty. Chris spat out a curse, then crossed the room as something caught his eye. On the bed was a piece of paper with a single word written on it. "Saloon."

Chris looked at Buck, crumpling the paper up. "Let's go."

The pair raced out of the Hotel and down the street to the saloon. Chris spotted their quarry right away and growled, "Everybody out."

The few patrons who were there took one look at the two men and scurried out.

'Lynne' looked up and smiled as they approached. "Come to have goodbye drink with me before I leave?"

"Only place you're going is to the jailhouse Tessa," Chris growled.

Tessa's smile widened. "So, you finally figured it out huh?"

Chris aimed his gun at her and said, "Where's Vin?"

"Fishing," Tessa replied casually, taking a sip of her drink. "Easy sugar," she said as Chris made a move toward her, "You don't want your tracker thrown in as bait for the sharks now do you?"

She ran a hand through her hair and added, "Let me explain something to you. I still have a contact in this town. If anything happens to me, this contact will let my girls know and you'll get Tanner back in a very nasty way."

A tiny vial appeared in her hand and she tossed it to Chris. Chris caught it and looked at the red liquid without expression.

"Guess what that is," Tessa said with a small grin. "Give up? That, my dear man, is a little sample of Vin's blood. The first thing my girls will be sending you will be the rest of it. After that, little bits and pieces of the rest of him will follow. Have you ever seen human body parts drained of blood and not properly preserved? Not a pretty sight, believe me. Of course, that's only if I'm killed. If I'm put in jail, then my girls will just send certain parts, keeping him alive and suffering until I'm released and rejoin them."

"You are one sick, twisted little girl," Buck said in a low growl.

Tessa smiled coldly at him. "You only think that, my dear Buck, because I'm not one of those poor girls trapped in the slavery of men. I've broken free of your kind's dominance and because of that, men like you and Chris and the others, have persecuted me. Targeting me for 'justice' when the ones who should really be targeted are the ones who make the rules and then break them. The ones who prey on my sisters and then walk free."

She stood, her eyes flashing and her voice a low hiss. "Men think they are so perfect, so righteous. What you do not realize, as you are dominating and destroying, is that the real danger is us. Women. We are the deadlier of the species. We have been since the beginning of time and will continue to be until the end. Call me what you want. In the end, it's just unconscious knowledge and fear that sometime in the near future or in the far future, women will rise up from the ashes and take control of what men lost because they were too self righteous to know how to keep it."

She put her hat on and nodded to them. "Now, I'm leaving to meet my girls. If you follow, I'll know, and Vin will suffer a very, very painful death. I'm certain you don't want that to happen now do you?"

When they didn't answer, she smiled and said, "It was nice playing with you gentlemen. Give my regards to J.D. if he makes it out of that terrible little sickness of his alive. And Ezra too, though I'm quite certain he won't make it."

She nodded to them and walked past, feeling how hard they were fighting to restrain themselves. At the door, she turned back, winked and then disappeared into the street.




PART 18



It was several hours before Nathan was able to move Ezra upstairs and a few more hours after that before he emerged from his room, a grave look on his face.

"Well?" Buck asked.

Nathan shook his head. "I don't think he's gonna make it through the night. Even if he does, it's doubtful he'll last very long. Josiah..." he trailed off, unable to say what was on his mind.

Josiah, however, nodded in understanding and slipped into the room.

Nathan looked at Chris and Buck and asked, "So Lynne was Tessa Williams?"

Buck nodded, anger flashing through his eyes.

"This is gonna break J.D.'s heart," Nathan said, "Kid really liked her."

"Kid was in love with her," Buck growled. "Now she and those other hellions have not only made off with Vin, but also all the money in the bank."

Nathan looked from Buck to Chris and back again. "The bank?"

Chris nodded. "Yeah. Killed the teller and guard and took the money sometime this morning."

"So what do we do?" Nathan asked.

Chris shook his head. "I don't know. I'm sure we could track them, but I don't want to risk Vin's life. Not until we have a better idea of what the situation is and some kind of plan."

"I'm wondering where this friend among the enemy is," Buck muttered. "Now would be a wonderful time for them to show up."

"I'm gonna go back in and check on things," Nathan said.

Buck looked at Chris and asked, "Now what?"

"I don't know about you, but I need a drink," Chris replied, then walked away.

Buck looked from Chris to Nathan's door and back again and finally decided to go in. He'd join Chris later.




Tessa smiled as she rode into the little camp Crystal and Selene had set up at the cave the previous night. The smile faded when Crystal hurried out of the cave, worry filling her usually cold eyes.

"What's wrong?" Tessa asked as she quickly dismounted.

"It's Meg. She got hurt in the bank this morning."

Tessa quickly followed Crystal into the cave and was taken to the very back where the others were tending to Meg. Selene was giving the girl water from the a little stream that ran in through a hidden source while Kayla was carefully stitching up a deep wound in Meg's leg.

"What happened?" Tessa demanded, noting as she knelt in Meg's other side the bandage on the girl's right shoulder and the sickly look on her face.

"The bank guard," Kayla replied. "We made the mistake of underestimating him. He had a knife that he was very good with. I emphasize the word was."

"Meg? How do you feel?"

Meg looked at Tessa and replied, "How do I look?"

"Like death."

Meg smiled tightly. "I feel worse, though not by much."

"She's lost a lot of blood," Kayla said as she finished her work. She looked up and added, "I wouldn't advise moving on until at least morning."

"Damn. Well, I don't think Larabee will come after us this soon. Not until he can figure out a good plan. We should be safe till morning."

She looked around and spotted Vin, slumping against a wall, his hands tied to something above him. She smiled when she saw him watching her and moved over to him.

"Finally awake huh? I told you you'd be getting out of that boring little room soon. Did you enjoy your trip here?"

Vin's answer was soft and incoherent, which caused her to smile.

"Getting a nasty fever sugar? Well, let's see if this gets through to you. Your friends finally figured me out. A little on the late side but hey, that's typical of men isn't it? Your friend, Standish, found something of interest in my room. Not sure what it was, but it must

have been yours. He didn't think I'd noticed that he'd found something, but I did. He left to find Larabee and tell him what he'd found and the connection he had made. I didn't really mind. It was time for them to know anyway. But, just to make things interesting, I caught up to Standish and called out to him. Guess what happened next?"

She smiled and lowered her voice to a soft, sensuous purr. "He turned and I shot him in the chest. Then I shot him in the arm. And then, for good luck, I shot him in the side. They were still working on him when I left. But I saw the healer's face. It was like he was standing there talking to me. Your friend isn't going to make it. In fact, I'm willing to bet that if he isn't dead yet, he's very close."

She watched with a smile as Vin's eyes filled with emotion, pushing the fevered haze back.

"Ah, there you are," she said, her voice never leaving it's purr, "I thought that would bring you back."

Vin struggled to speak, but the words wouldn't come out.

"Shhh," Tessa whispered, putting a finger to his lips, "I know just what you want to say. You want to call me a sick, twisted demon don't you? A heartless witch?" She smiled. "I'm just being what men taught me to be, Mr. Tanner. I'm just living up to their expectations."

She patted his cheek, then stood and went outside, leaving Vin to struggle with the emotions her words awakened within him.




Morgan knocked softly on Nathan's door and entered at the soft call. Nathan was looked up from where he was sitting, in between J.D. and Ezra, a tired look in his eyes.

"I I just wanted to know how Mr. Standish was doing," Morgan said softly.

Nathan sighed. "Not good. He's slipping further and further away. I don't expect him to make it through the night."

"Was was Josiah ?"

Nathan nodded. "Yeah, he was."

Morgan closed her eyes, silently cursing Tessa for what she had done and also herself for staying silent when she could help. She opened her eyes and looked at J.D. She could see how close he was to being sucked into oblivion by Tessa's poison. How could she help him help both of

them, without revealing who she was?

'You can't,' she thought, 'You either help them and reveal yourself, or you stay silent and let two good men die. Well, wouldn't be the first time '

"Morgan?"

She looked up to find Nathan watching her carefully. "You all right?"

She looked at J.D., then Ezra and nodded quickly. "Yeah, I'm fine. I I have to go."

She turned and left quickly, leaving Nathan curious and suspicious. She ran down to the streets and all the way to the Livery, where she saddled her horse, then left town at breakneck speed, heading for where Tessa was supposed to be and hoping she was still there.




She arrived at the cave a while later, and was relieved to see they were still there.

"Morgan!" Tessa exclaimed with a smile. "To what do we owe this pleasant surprise?"

"I just came to see if you were all right," Morgan replied. "Why haven't you left yet?"

"Meg had a little incident at the bank," Tessa replied, glancing back into the cave, "She should be all right, but she won't be able to travel until at least morning."

She looked back at Morgan, a small smile on her lips. "What's the word on the gambler? He still alive?"

Morgan nodded. "Nathan doesn't expect him to make it through the night though. Josiah even read the last rights," she said quietly.

Tessa's smile grew. She put her arm around Morgan and said, "Come on, have some lunch. We have plenty."

"Tess?" Morgan began hesitantly. "Was...was it really necessary to kill those men in the bank?"

Tessa laughed. "Of course if was, Morgan. I couldn't have them running out and telling Larabee what happened before I was completely ready, could I? Really Morg, you've gone terribly soft. You should ride with us again. Just to get that little edge of yours back."

Morgan didn't reply. She nodded to the girls, who were lounging in various areas of the cave, eating sandwiches and fruit. Meg lay sleeping in her bedroll with Kayla keeping an eye on her. Her eyes traveled further back and filled with sorrow when she saw Vin, staring at the ground, his breathing shallow and sometimes harsh.

"I hope you've given him water," she said, her gaze moving to Tessa.

Tessa shrugged and looked at the others. "Anybody give him water?"

"When we arrived last night," Selene spoke up.

Morgan shot them all a look that clearly stated what was on her mind and quickly moved over to the little stream, filling the cup that lay next to it and moving over to Vin.

"Vin," she whispered, gently tilting his head up and putting the cup to his lips, "Drink."

She managed to get a little of it into him before he refused to continue and she reluctantly set it aside.

"Is...Ezra...?"

"No," Morgan whispered. "Not yet."

Vin turned his eyes on her and her heart nearly broke when she saw the look in them. "Please...don't let...her continue. Those men...had families. Please...."

He trailed off, squeezing his eyes shut as a sudden wave of pain ran through him. When he opened them again, it was clear the awareness that had been with him a moment before was gone. She put her hand to his head, wincing at the heat. She looked back into his eyes, and was disturbed by the vacantness she saw.

She glanced back and found the others, except for Meg, who was still sleeping and Kayla, who was watching over Meg, had gone outside. Kayla's eyes were on her, watching her intently. The young native girl stood and came over, kneeling next to her and looking at Vin with a strangely soft expression.

"You know what you must do," she whispered, "As I know what I must do."

"Wha...what?"

Kayla looked at her with the same expression. "It isn't betrayal if it's done in the name of love. She is destroying herself and must be brought back from the brink. Go. Do what you must and I will do what I must."

Morgan stared at the other girl uncertainly. A strange, silent communication passed between them and Morgan finally nodded. She got up and went outside.

"Tessa!" she called, going over to the red head. "Thanks for lunch Tess. It's getting late and I've gotta run."

"Are you sure you won't ride with us Morgan?" Tessa asked as the girls hugged.

Morgan nodded. "Yes. I can't go back to that Tess. You know that. Where...where are you headed?"

"Tuscosa. We'll be heading out in the morning. Hopefully, Meg will be up and around by then."

"Well, I wish you a safe journey. Wire me every so often to let me know you're all right, okay?"

Tessa nodded and the pair hugged again, then Morgan mounted her horse. "Say goodbye to Meg for me," she said, then spurred her horse forward.

She glanced back as she rode away. Pain filled her heart when she saw Tessa watching her and she whispered, "I'm sorry Tess."

She turned her eyes back to the rode and didn't look back again.




Buck sat behind J.D.'s desk in the jail house, staring absently at the empty cells. It was nearing sundown and with every passing minute, he grew more and more apprehensive. So much was happening all at once. Vin was missing, having been taken by a gang of girls lead by a maniac, Ezra was at death's doorstep and J.D. was getting closer to joining the gambler. None of the men knew what to do, though Buck suspected Chris would be giving the word to mount up in the morning.

He looked up as the door opened and Morgan Williams entered, hesitation written all over her face.

"Buck?"

"Hey Morgan," he greeted unenthusiastically, "Something I can help you with?"

"No. But...there's something I can help you with."

"Oh? What's that?"

"I...I know what the illness J.D. has is. I...know how to cure it."

Buck sat up straighter, his eyes narrowing as he asked, "How do you know what it is and how to cure it?"

"It's caused by a special poison. It can be digested or injected and the cure can be given the same way."

Buck stood up and came over to her. He put his hands on her shoulders and asked again, "How do you know this?"

"All the Williams women know it. It's a skill passed down from mother do daughter, aunt to niece, grandmother to granddaughter. We're taught about them from the time we understand what's going on. We're taught how to mix the ingredients, which poison does what and so on."

Buck was almost afraid to ask. "We?"

Morgan nodded. "Tessa is the only family I have left and I am the only family she has left. Tessa's father was my father's brother. Tessa...is my first cousin."




PART 19



Buck stared at Morgan in stunned silence. After a moment, his eyes flashed and he grabbed her arm.

"Come on," he growled, pulling her outside and down the street.

Nathan jumped up, startled, as Buck burst through the door.

He pushed Morgan into a chair, looked at Nathan and said shortly, "Watch her," and then disappeared out the door.

He returned several minutes later with Chris and Josiah in tow.

"All right. Now tell them what you told me," Buck said, his eyes still flashing.

Morgan took a steadying breath, then repeated everything she had told Buck.

"Why the hell didn't you tell us this sooner?!" Chris exploded when she was finished.

"Because Tessa is practically my sister!" Morgan replied, just as angrily, "I couldn't betray her. She's all the family I have left and I'm all the family she has left! Wouldn't you do the same thing?"

"In case you didn't realize it," Buck said, "You just betrayed her now."

Morgan lowered her head. "I know," she said softly.

Nathan put a hand on her shoulder and asked gently, "Why did you decide to tell us?"

"Because Tessa is on the edge. And if she goes over, then she will never come back," Morgan whispered. She looked up, tears in her eyes as she added, "I love her too much to see her kill herself like that."

She paused for a moment, then continued, "There's another reason too. By helping you, I'm hoping I can start to...atone for my past."

Josiah stepped forward. "What is it you wish to repent for?"

Morgan was silent, her mind clearly in the past as she remembered. Finally, she began talking and told them all she had told Vin.

"Like Tessa, I lost both my parents to murder. It was quite a while after her last visit when it happened. I was thirteen at the time and I witnessed it. When Tessa came for one of her hiding from the law visits, she found me frightened and messed up....

Twelve year old Tessa Williams smiled as she spotted her aunt and uncle's house. It would be good to see them again. And Morgan too. God, how she had missed her dearest friend. She looked forward to spending time with her cousin while the heat died down, doing things young girls were supposed to do.

But as she neared the house, her defenses went on alert. It was too quiet. Normally, all sorts of activity was happening, but today, there was nothing. Something was wrong. Her eyes carefully scanned the area, searching for signs of an enemy as her hand slipped to her gun. It soon became apparent that there wasn't any. The place was virtually deserted.

"Aunt Carla? Uncle Roger? Morgan? Anyone here?" she shouted, dismounting her black horse and moving carefully to the front door.

She pushed the door and it swung open easily. Drawing her gun, she stepped inside.

"Hello? Auntie? Uncle? Morgan?"

A small noise reached her ears and she froze, listening intently. When it came again, she quickly pinpointed it and headed forward. In the hall that led away from the living room, she heard the sound again, and knew it was coming from the secret space behind the wall. She found the trigger and a section of the wall slid open, revealing a small room. She stepped into the lantern lit room and her eyes traveled to a corner as she followed a frightened gasp.

"Morgan?"

Tessa holstered her gun and hurried over to her cousin.

"Morgan. Morgan it's me, Tessa," Tessa said as the girl tried to scramble away.

Morgan looked at Tessa fearfully and whispered, "Tessa?"

Tessa nodded. "Yes. Morgan what happened? Where's aunt Carla and Uncle Roger?"

"They're...they're dead Tessa. Both of them. I...I saw it happen."

"What?" Tessa breathed, unable to believe what the other girl had just said. "How?"

"Murdered. By four men in the corral. I'm...pretty sure they were bounty hunters. They took the bodies with them when they left."

"When?"

"About a week ago."

"You've been hiding in here for a week?"

Morgan nodded. "They came inside looking for me. I was afraid they might come back when they couldn't find me so I stayed in here."

"Did you get a good look at them?"

At Morgan's nod, Tessa took her hand and led her from the room to the living room. She sat her down, then went and retrieved paper and a pencil.

"Here. Time to put your art skills to work."

Morgan looked at her, then took the paper and pencil and began drawing. Sometime later, the girls were staring at the portraits of the four men who had taken Morgan's parents.

"This one here," Morgan pointed to the first drawing she had made, "He was the leader. He killed them."

"Ugly cuss isn't he?" Tessa commented as she looked at the drawing.

She looked at the other drawings, then out the window and said, "It's going to be dark soon. We'll eat and get some sleep, then head out in the morning. We'll find these bastards, and we'll pay them back."




It was three days later when the girls finally found their prey. Acting on information they had gathered, they ended up in a small mining town and headed straight for the saloon, where they would most likely find some help.

The whole room stopped and stared at them as they entered. Tessa stared back threateningly, allowing her guns to show and, after a moment, the patrons went back to their business.

The barkeep looked at them with raised brows as they approached the bar and said, "Little young to be in here ain't ya girls?"

Tessa smiled coldly and replied softly, "We're old enough to spill you're guts all over your pretty floor, Mister. I'd say we're old enough to be in a stupid little men's club."

The Barkeep raised his brows again, then laughed.

"Tessa, good to see ya darling."

Tessa smiled. "You too Sim."

"What can I do for you and your friend here?"

"You can give us some information."

Tessa pulled out Morgan's drawings and gave them to barkeep. "We're looking for these men. We were told they may be around here somewhere. You know them?"

The man studied the drawings for a moment, then nodded.

"Yeah, they come in here pretty often when they're in town."

"Are they in town now?"

Sim nodded. "Yeah. They should be around pretty soon. Grab a table and I'll send something right over."

Tessa nodded and she and Morgan went to a table in the back.

"How do you know him?" Morgan asked.

"He was a friend of my father's," Tessa replied. "I met him several years ago and he promised me I could always come to him if I had a problem or something."

Sim brought them over some drinks and something to eat and the girls settled down to wait. An hour later, their wait ended. Morgan tensed up fearfully as the four men they had been looking for entered the saloon and moved to the bar.

"Easy Morgan," Tessa murmured, "Remember what I told you. You have to let yourself go cold now. Things are about to get bloody and I'm going to need you watching my back."

Morgan looked at Tessa, closed her eyes and nodded.

"Are you ready?"

Morgan opened her eyes, coldness in them as she nodded again.

Tessa looked at the men and called, "Excuse me gentlemen. You won't happen to be the bounty hunters who killed and took in the Williams couple a little over a week ago would you?"

The leader looked at her for a long moment before replying, "Yeah that us. What's it to you girly?"

"Well, I just wanted to let you know that you missed two of the family and they aren't too happy with you?"

The leader laughed. "There's only two of the witch family left and they're just a couple of little girls. What are they gonna do?"

Tessa smiled. "My, my. You are a stupid one aren't you?"

Moving fast, Morgan and Tessa both drew their guns and shot the leader's partners. The man cursed as his friends went down and started for his gun, but Tessa, shot both his knees and he collapsed with a howl of pain.

"Recognize us yet?" Tessa asked casually as she and Morgan went over to him.

The man only moaned in response. Tessa shot his arm, provoking another scream.

"Tell me," Tessa asked as she knelt next to him, "Did it feel good to take my cousin's parents right in front of her? Was it worth your own death?"

Fear flashed through his eyes and she smiled. "Never fails with you people. You're all high and mighty when you're taking the lives of others. But, when it comes down to your own death, you turn cowardly."

She stood and looked at Morgan, who was covering the rest of the room.

"Morg, the honor is all yours. Make it quick cause the law probably isn't far away."

Morgan stared down at the man, who stared back at her fearfully.

"Please kid...don't," he gasped out around the pain.

Morgan's eyes flashed as she remembered how her mother had pleaded with this same man, using those same words. Her expression hardened and she aimed her gun at him.

"That's what my mother said before you killed her," she whispered, then pulled the trigger.

She stared at the body for what seemed an eternity before Tessa put a hand on her shoulder and said, "Come on. We've gotta split."

Tessa took her hand and led her from the saloon, calling back to Sim, "Thanks sugar! Sorry about the mess!"

They never heard Sim's reply over the shouts of the three lawmen rushing toward them. They jumped up on their horses and spurred them into a canter, disappearing into the wilderness before the lawmen could even get their horses.




Two years passed, during which time, Tessa and Morgan ran amuck throughout the territory. It was just as they were entering their third year of terrorizing that things began to change. They met a girl Tessa's age named Meg Foster, who was surprisingly similar to Tessa. She too, had lost her family at a young age, and had been on her own for a long time, doing what she had to in order to survive. The girls bonded right away and Meg joined the pair in their destructive journeys.

Morgan, however, was beginning to change. She was beginning to question the life she was leading. Wondering if it truly was for her. As the months passed, the need to leave her way of life grew. It was just after they met Selene Russell, yet another young girl trying to survive on her own, that Morgan decided to leave and find her real place in life. It was a hard decision, but Tessa had understood and, though tearful, wished her luck.

Morgan traveled on her own, settling in small towns but never for very long. No matter what happened, no matter how much she liked the town she was in, something would happen that would cause her to revert to her past ways and force her to move on. She encountered Tessa and the girls once, meeting their newest member, Crystal Richards, a girl almost as frightening as Tessa. Morgan had been about to revert due to incidents in the town she was staying, and so had helped the girls in the robbery and destruction of the town before moving on. But as she grew older, she learned how to handle herself better without reverting and finally settled in Four Corners....

"I want so much to make up for all the evil I've done," she said as the tears flowed freely down her cheeks.

She looked up at them. "I don't care what happens to me. I just want to make peace with my soul and by helping you," she nodded toward J.D. and Ezra, "By helping them, I can start doing that."

The four men exchanged glances and then Chris said, "Where is Tessa headed with Vin?"

"Tuscosa."

"Damn," Buck muttered.

"Is he all right?" Chris added.

Morgan shook her head. "No. He's alive but in very bad shape. Tessa has given him some of her potions and he's been beat on quite a bit."

"Where are they?"

"In a cave a few miles out. They're not leaving till morning cause Meg's been hurt and needs to rest. But I wouldn't advise going out there. Crystal has amazing night vision. It's like she isn't even human. She'd spot you in an instant."

"Then how do we get to them?" Chris asked. "We go after them in the daylight, Tessa's likely to spot us and make good on her threat."

"I know Tessa like I know myself. I know what route she'll take and what and how she'll do it. I can tell you what to do. And I think...I think you might have someone else helping you too."

"Who?" Nathan asked.

Morgan thought back to the cave and Kayla's words. The way she had looked at Vin...

She looked back at them and said quietly, "Kayla."

"Kayla?" Nathan asked, "You mean the Native?"

Morgan nodded.

"Why would she help us?" Buck asked.

Again, the way Kayla had looked at Vin floated through her mind. "I...I think she's in love with him. Or at least cares very deeply for him. I'm not sure which. Whatever it is, she's going to be doing what she can to help both you and Vin."

She looked over at J.D. and said, "The poison in J.D. has nearly run it's course. If I don't get the antidote into him soon, then he'll certainly die."

She looked back at them hesitantly. "Will...will you trust me and let me help him?"

After a moment of silence, Chris nodded. "Word of caution girl," he said, "If this is some kind of trick..."

"I understand. I have to go to my room and get my things. I'll be right back."

She got up and quickly left the room. Buck glanced at J.D., then followed.




PART 20



It took an hour for Morgan to determine exactly what was used on J.D. and another hour and a half to mix the right ingredients for the antidote. She gave him an injection, then looked at Nathan and Buck.

"He's going to need an injection every hour on the hour because of how much he was given and how much time has passed."

She looked at Ezra. The only indication he was still alive was the shallow rise and fall of his chest. She rummaged around her box of ingredients, her mind quickly working to remember something that helped in situations such as this. She finally found what she was looking for and began mixing things together.

"What is that?" Nathan asked as she injected the gambler with the liquid.

"Call it medicine. It won't keep death from knocking, but it'll certainly keep him outside for a while. Might even make him loose interest and leave. It has before."

They looked over as J.D. suddenly started thrashing about violently, blood trickling out his nose and the corners of his mouth.

"What's happening?" Buck exclaimed, rushing over in alarm.

"Don't worry, this is a normal reaction. Just help him ride it out and make sure he doesn't choke on the blood," Morgan said as she joined him and moved J.D. onto his side.

"If this is normal, I'd hate to see a reaction that isn't," Nathan said as he added his help.

Morgan silently helped J.D. ride out the fit and gently rolled him back when it finally passed. She put a hand to his head, then got a cloth out of the basin and gently dabbed his face.

"Nathan, when the time comes, you're gonna need to go with them," she said without looking up.

"You mean you're not going?" Nathan asked, "But you gotta guide them."

She shook her head. "No. I can't face her. I can tell you how to follow her without begin spotted and what to look for so you won't need me. But you're going to be needed. Vin...Vin will probably need attention right away. I know enough about nursing that I can care for these two."

She finally looked up at them and said, "Both of you need to go get some sleep. You'll have to be up at dawn so I can explain to you all what to do. You're probably going to be gone a few days at least, so make sure you get some good sleep."

When the two men didn't move, she got up, took their arms and pulled them to the door.

"Go," she said, opening the door and pushing them out, "You're gonna need your rest, believe me."

She flashed them a smile, then closed the door, listening until their footsteps faded, indicating they had gone. She looked up as Ezra moaned and started moving about restlessly and sighed. This wasn't going to be easy.

`Then again,' she thought, `who said atonement was easy?'




Tessa watched as the sky began to lighten with the coming of morning. She narrowed her eyes at the touch of red that was beginning to mix with the blue.

"Red sky in morn, sailors be warned," She whispered. `Guess the same thing can be said for land dwellers too,' she thought.

She turned and went into the cave where the other girls were just starting to awaken.

"Can Meg travel?" she asked Kayla.

"I'm fine," Meg replied before Kayla could.

She sat up, wincing as she did, and put a hand to her head as dizziness washed over her.

"Are you sure?"

Meg nodded as the dizziness passed and got to her feet with Kayla's help. "I'll be fine when we get going."

Tessa nodded. "All right then. Let's get our gear together and mount up. I want to put some distance between us and the town before we eat anything."

The girls silently complied, gathering up their necessities and quickly getting ready to leave. When they were ready, Kayla brought a semi conscious Vin out, got him mounted and tied him to the saddle so he wouldn't fall off. Just to be certain though, when she mounted her own horse, she moved next to Vin so that she could keep a close watch on him.

"All right, let's ride!" Tessa called and urged her mount into a slow trot.

Kayla was close enough that she could talk to Vin without being overheard. She wanted to keep him conscious for as long as possible, for every time he lost consciousness and then regained it, he was gone just a little more.

It worked for a while. He talked as much as he could though the fever kept interrupting from time to time. But, by the time Tessa decided to stop for breakfast, he was once again deeply under. Kayla worried silently to herself that should his friends get him back alive, he wouldn't stay that way for long.

Tessa came over as Kayla propped Vin up against a tree and asked, "How's he doing?"

"Not good. He may not regain consciousness after what he's been through these last several hours."

Tessa smiled as she pulled out a needle and a bottle of liquid.

"That's what this is for," she said, filling the needle. She injected him, then looked at him for a moment.

"He should awaken in a bit. Come on and have some breakfast. We need to get moving again soon."

Kayla nodded and followed Tessa over to where Selene was already serving up some quickly heated oatmeal. Vin regained consciousness a short time later, just as they were getting ready to leave, clearly in pain.

As Kayla helped him up to get him on his horse, he whispered,

<Please .don't let this go on. Kill me.>

<You're not going to die,> Kayla whispered back, <You're friends are coming. Keep fighting. If not for yourself, then for them.>

Vin stopped moving and looked at her then. She communicated with him through her eyes, letting him know she would be helping him to escape when the time came. She looked away before she revealed anything else and set to helping him up on the horse. She tied him to the saddle, then mounted her own animal and the group started off once more.




Chris and the others had found the cave Morgan had told them about and, though it was hard, waited a few hours before going on. They followed the route Morgan had told them to and found small, barely noticeable markers along the way, proof that they were, in fact, receiving help from the inside.

A Few hours before sunset, they reached the mountains. They had traveled about an hour into them, when Nathan, who was scouting ahead, came back and said, "We need to stop for the night. There's a spot up ahead that has stop written out in rocks."

Chris nodded. "All right. We'll make camp here."

The five men dismounted and quickly set up camp, then had supper. A few hours after dark, Buck, who had been moving about restlessly, finally said, "Dammit! Why are we just sitting here? We should find their camp and at least check the situation out."

"You heard what Morgan said," Nathan replied quickly, "That Crystal girl has some good night vison. It wouldn't be a good idea to go tramping around out there."

"The healer is right," a soft voice said from the darkness, "Searching for our camp would be foolish and would most likely get you killed."

All five men jumped up and drew their guns, searching the darkness for the source of the voice.

"Come out of there," Chris said sharply, his senses on full alert.

"The darkness is my friend, and so I shall stay in it's protective embrace," the girl said, this time from a different spot, causing them to turn and aim in different directions.

It was impossible to determine exactly where she was though, for everytime she spoke, her voice came from a different position, indicating she was moving around the camp.

"Put down your weapons and listen carefully. You must continue to follow us as you have been for at least a few more days before you can make a move."

"A few days!" Buck exclaimed, "Are you crazy girl? Vin may not have a few days!"

"He will live. Tessa will not let him die. But you must let a few days pass so that Tessa can be assured that no one is following. Pay careful attention to the markers I leave for some will indicate another path you must take to avoid one of us scouting back as we often do to make sure we aren't being followed. I will let you know when it is safe to make your move."

"Tessa is the type who acts quickly in surprises," Chris said, "How do we move in without her killing Vin?"

He jumped when her reply came from seemingly right next to him, "When the time is right, I will take the hunter to a safe place and then let you know where to find him. I must go now. If I am gone much longer, suspicions will arise and Tessa is already watching me carefully."

Silence fell, and they knew she was gone.

"Highly trained," Josiah murmured, "I can see how she survived so long in the life she has led."

"So what do we do?" Buck asked impatiently.

"The only thing we can," Chris replied, "Follow her instructions and hope to hell it's not a trap."




Morgan held Ezra's hand, murmuring soothing words to him as he called out in his restless, fevered sleep. The cunning gambler was slipping further and further away, despite the potion she kept injecting into him to buy him more time. She could practically hear death ramming against the down the door and knew it was only a matter of time before he broke it down and claimed the card shark.

"Well, I'm not going to make that door easy to break down," she said softly. "I've gotta get you something stronger and I think I know just the thing."

She left his side and, after giving J.D. another injection, started mixing things together until she created a bubbling, purple liquid.

"This isn't going to be pleasant," she said as she came over and prepared to inject some of the liquid into him, "But it sure beats the alternative."

Twenty minutes later, she was fighting to keep the ropes that bound him tight and secure as he thrashed about while the potion fought the raging fever. She sighed in relief and collapsed into the chair when he finally settled down and fell back into a deep sleep.

She looked at him and said, "It's up to you now, you hear? I can't buy you any more time. You've got to fight him yourself now."

Her attention was drawn to the next bed as J.D. suddenly stirred and his eyes flickered open.

"Hey there," she said softly, moving over to him, "How do you feel?"

She put a hand to his head and was glad to feel the fever had subsided quite a bit.

"I'm getting awfully tired of waking up here," J.D. replied in a horse voice.

Morgan smiled. "Don't complain. At least you're waking up."

"Where's Nathan?"

"Out with the others. Taking care of something. I'll tell you about it later. You should go back to sleep, you need a lot of rest."

J.D.'s gaze traveled to the other bed and his eyes widened when he saw Ezra.

"What happened to Ezra will also be explained after you get some proper rest," Morgan quickly said, pushing him down as he started to sit up.

She cursed silently when she saw the distressed look enter his eyes and hurried to fill a needle with a sedative.

"I'm sorry," she replied to his protests as she injected him, "But you have to rest and this is obviously the only way that's gonna be accomplished right now."

She sighed when, moments later, he drifted off to sleep and she sat heavily down in the chair as exhaustion began to claim her. She got as comfortable as she could, closed her eyes and slipped into a much needed sleep.




When J.D. awoke again the next morning, he was looking even better than he had the previous night. But Morgan knew better. Without lots of rest and those continuous injections, he would easily fall back into a relapse.

At his instance, she quietly told him what had happened to Ezra and then, her heart breaking with every word, she told him about Tessa. Shock and disbelieve entered his eyes.

"But that's impossible," he protested, "Lynne can't be Tessa Williams."

"It's true, J.D. Tessa is my cousin. She was playing with you all from the day she first arrived. Right now, she has Vin and is headed for Tuscosa with him. Chris and the others are following."

J.D. was silent for a moment, then started to sit up. "I gotta go after them," he said insistently, "I have to see her."

"No, J.D.," Morgan replied firmly, pushing him back down and holding him there, "You're still very sick. It's going to be at least a month before that potion is out of your system."

She gestured to the bottle of liquid on the night stand and said, "If you don't get a shot of that every hour on the hour, then you could have a relapse that you might not come out of. You need to rest and by going out after the others, you'll be over exerting yourself, which could also cause a relapse. I'll tie you down until the others return if that's what it takes to keep you in bed. Now, I'm going to get you something to eat. I want you to promise me you'll stay here."

When J.D. didn't respond, she shook him slightly and said forcefully, "Promise me!"

"All right, all right. I promise you I'll stay put."

Morgan looked at him carefully, then nodded. "All right. I'll be right back then."

She made a quick check on Ezra, then silently left the room. J.D. stared at the door, then turned his gaze to Ezra. His friend was laying so still, he was almost afraid he was dead until he saw the shallow rise and fall of his chest. His thoughts turned to Lynne, or Tessa or whatever her name was and his heart ached as her beautiful green eyes entered his mind. He thought of all the fun they'd had together and the magical moments they'd shared. Moments he would never forget .

He got up and got dressed as fast as he could. Remembering Morgan's words about the potion, he grabbed the bottle and a needle and wrapped them up so they'd be safe. He then peeked out the door, saw the way was clear and snuck down to the street and over to the livery. He saddled his horse quickly, resting a moment when dizziness washed over him. When it passed, he mounted the horse and left the town at a run, determined to find his friends stop them and the woman he loved from killing each other.




Morgan returned a short time later, a tray of food in her hand. She froze when she saw J.D.'s bed empty and his clothes and guns missing. She sighed. She hadn't really expected him to keep his promise and a part of her chided herself for not tying him down while another argue that this was something he had to do.

`At least he took the antidote with him,' she thought as she noticed the bottle and a needle missing.

She went to the widow and stared down at the street. "Good luck," she whispered, "And God protect you."




PART 21



Two days had passed. The four men carefully followed Kayla's markers, veering off the path where she indicated and stopping when she told them to. She often visited their camp, sometimes in the day time, but hidden in the rocks or up a tree so they couldn't see or get to her, but mostly at night, telling them what was going on and giving them instructions. She tried to keep any surprises from sneaking up on them, although they'd had some close calls when Tessa did something Kayla hadn't expected. All in all, things were going well.

Tessa was beginning to settle down as the belief that they weren't being followed slowly claimed her. Kayla estimated another day or so, and then the men would be able to make their move.

Night was falling, brining the third day out to a close and the men were setting up camp and preparing dinner when Buck, who was on watch, spotted a rider some distance behind them, coming their way. He mentioned it to the others, and Chris told him to keep an eye on the rider. Buck did and let out an exclamation of utter surprise when he was able to pick out features of the lone rider. Features that were all too familiar.

"Buck, what is it?" Chris asked as his friend jumped down from his vantage point and started running to where the rider was about to enter camp.

"It's J.D.!" Buck called behind his shoulder.

The others looked at each other in surprise, then hurried after Buck.

J.D. smiled when he saw them, clearly relived to have finally found them. He got down off his horse and Buck pulled him into a hug before pushing him back and yelling, "What in God's name are you doing here boy? You look awful! I can't believe Morgan let you go after us!"

"She didn't," J.D. replied, quickly getting his balance, "I snuck out."

"And you can sneak back in again," Chris said, "You shouldn't be here. It isn't safe for a man in your condition."

J.D. shook his head. "I had to come Chris. Please, don't make me go back. I have to face her please."

"I don't think it's a good idea, Chris," Nathan said, "But we can't send him back on his own."

Chris stared thoughtfully at J.D., who stared back pleadingly. Finally, he nodded.

"All right. But stay out of the way and take it easy. The last thing we need is for you to drop dead at a crucial moment."

J.D. nodded and followed the men back to camp.

"What time is it?" he asked as he sat across from the fire.

"`Bout ten," Buck replied.

J.D. nodded and quickly pulled the bottle and needle out.

"That Morgan's medicine or whatever she wants to call it?" Buck asked as he watched J.D. fill the needle.

J.D. nodded and stared at the liquid in the needle. "I've been sticking this stuff in me all day." He looked up at Buck and added, "I'm really starting to hate needles."

Buck chuckled, glad to see life coming back to his young friend. He looked up as Josiah wandered over, a plate of supper for each of them.

"Thanks pard," he said as he took the plate.

"Thanks," J.D. said, taking the other plate once he was finished putting the needle and bottle away.

When he was finished eating, Nathan, who had been watching him closely, came over and began checking him over.

"That fever seems under control, but we'd better get your bedroll out and you in it."

J.D. didn't protest, knowing the healer was right. He had traveled hard to catch up with them, something he was sure he'd end up paying for later. His bedroll was laid out and he crawled into it, falling asleep almost immediately.

Nathan watched him for a moment, then turned to the others and said,

"Whoever's on watch will have to make sure he gets a shot every hour."

The others nodded and Nathan picked up some of the canteens and said, "There's a stream a couple yards back. I'm gonna go fill these before what's left of this light goes out."

He left the camp and made his way back to the small mountain stream they had passed before they stopped and started filling the canteens. As he was filling the third one, the feeling that he was not alone suddenly overcame him and he stiffened. He slowly lowered the canteen into the stream, then jumped up and spun around, drawing his gun.

"Who's there?" he called out to the darkness.

"Relax healer," a soft, familiar voice said, "It's just me."

Nathan relaxed a bit as Kayla emerged from behind a tree and slowly approached.

"Damn girl!" he said, as he put his gun away, "You're sneaking up on a man like that is likely to get you killed!"

"It hasn't so far. In fact, that skill is something that has helped keep me alive." She paused, then added, "I saw your sheriff come into your camp. It would appear Morgan gave him the antidote."

Nathan nodded. "Yeah. Only he's not supposed to be here. He's supposed to be back home resting and getting that stuff Tessa gave him filtered out through Morgan's antidote. He snuck out and caught up with us. I'm just glad he had the sense to bring the potion with him."

He suddenly realized something and said, "Hey wait a second. How come you're out in the open talking with me? Usually, you're hidden so that we can't find you."

"Perhaps it is because you have helped my friends and I on more than one occasion when we have been hurt in battle. I feel that I can trust you not to harm me as you only harm when provoked."

Nathan nodded in understanding. "Can Can I ask you a question?"

She nodded hesitantly, he noticed.

"Why are you risking your life to help us? It's going against everything your gang seems to stand for."

"Because I have realized that I am not on the path I should be on and am trying to cross over to the right one."

"But, you don't have to help us," Nathan argued, sure that there was a deeper motive involved, "You could have just left."

She was silent for a moment, before finally saying, "It it is the honorable thing to do."

Nathan knew he was taking a gamble when he said softly, "Is it honor or love?"

She was silent, obviously startled by his words. She moved passed him and knelt next to the water, staring at it as though seeing something he couldn't.

After a moment, she said softly, "The spirits have chosen my future have written my destiny. I have never been drawn to a man in such a way as I have been drawn to the hunter."

She looked up at him. "He is in my future he is in my destiny. He has claimed my heart and he has claimed my soul."

Nathan stared down at her, knowing what her words meant and deeply moved by them.

He was about to say something when Buck's voice called, "Hey Nathan! You fall in and drown down there or something?"

Nathan glanced back and saw Buck carefully making his way down toward him. He looked back at Kayla, but she was gone.

"What's taking so long?" Buck asked as he joined the healer, "The boys and I were starting to get worried."

"Had a visitor," Nathan replied as he bent down to retrieve the canteen from the water and fill the others.

"Kayla?"

"Yeah. I expect she'll be making an appearance at camp pretty soon"

Buck, sensing Nathan wasn't going to reveal anything about Kayla's `visit' said, "Well then, let's get back so we don't miss anything."

Nathan nodded and followed his friend back up the little hill, Kayla's words running through his mind all the way.




Tessa looked up as Kayla came into camp from her scouting ride.

"Find anyone?"

Kayla shook her head.

"See Tess?" Meg spoke up from her seat near the fire, "We're free and clear. Relax and enjoy the trip."

Tessa looked at Meg sharply. "You know as well as I do that thinking like that will get you killed. Spending all that time in that town and then getting yourself stabbed must have screwed up your head."

She looked over to where Vin lay, slumped against a log and added, "I got to know Larabee rather well. He won't sit back there and do nothing while a good friend goes to his death. No. He and his boys are either somewhere behind us or somewhere ahead of us."

"What happened to the tracker?" Kayla asked, suddenly noticing the blood trickling down the side of his head.

"Fell off his horse just after you left us," Tessa replied. "Looked like that last shot I gave him boosted his energy up enough for him to loosen his ropes. Unfortunately, his plans for escape were ruined by all that energy that went into untying himself." She chuckled. "Passed right out."

"He did pick a pretty good spot to pass out in though, I'll give him credit for that," Crystal said as she handed Kayla a canteen.

"We left him for you to fix up since you seem to have grown so fond of him," Tessa added, watching her closely.

Kayla took the canteen and took a long drink. She then looked at the girls and said, "The only that I am fond of is his warrior spirit. I cannot help but admire one with a spirit such as his."

She looked over at him and sighed. "Why am I always the babysitter?" she muttered as she collected the first aid things and went over to him.

The girls all chuckled and she breathed and inward sigh of relief. She didn't need something going wrong like being found out. She knelt down next to Vin and began to clean the wound. He stirred at the touch and muttered something she assumed was caused by the fever, but didn't awaken. She put on an uncaring mask for her audience, but underneath, she was worried, and a little scared. Time was running out. If they were going to make their move, it would have to be tomorrow, or he would be lost.




"Who's there?" Chris demanded, moving his rifle up and aiming into the darkness.

"Me," came the soft reply.

Chris slowly lowered the gun and watched as Kayla cautiously entered the camp, her eyes never leaving him and yet watching the entire camp as the other men sat up, awakened by Chris' demand.

"Kayla?" Nathan asked, moving toward her slowly so as not to agitate her, "Everything all right?"

He wasn't quite sure what to think of the fact that she had actually come into the camp and shown herself, other than something was wrong.

She shook her head. "No. Things are getting bad. Tessa knows that you won't let your friend go to his death and suspects you are either behind us or ahead of us, so the element of surprise is now lessened, but not destroyed. The hunter has gotten worse. He has suffered another head wound, which has me deeply concerned. Time is rapidly running out. Your move and my move must be made tomorrow."

"All right," Josiah said, "So what do we do?"

"Tomorrow, we will be leaving the mountains and entering open land where there are very few places to hide. That cannot happen. Before daybreak, slip around us and wait near the end. There is a path just up ahead that will allow you to do so. Before we leave the pass we will be traveling on, open fire to create a diversion. This will enable me to slip away with the hunter and hide him. When you see that I am gone, do as you will."

She began to back away, signaling that she was leaving.

"How will we find Vin when it's all over?" Chris asked quickly.

"Worry about that when the time comes," she replied.

Her gaze flickered to Nathan, then she melted back into the darkness and vanished.




Kayla silently moved about the rocks, carefully making her way back to camp. She hadn't gone far, which was why she was surprised when she came across Selene, sitting on a boulder, apparently waiting for her.

"Selene," she greeted. "What are you doing so far from camp?"

Selene shrugged. "Enjoying the night air, watching the stars. We were in that town for so long, I never realized just how much I missed the wild until we got back in it."

She looked up at the star filled sky and sighed contentedly.

After several moments of gazing up at the sky in silence, Kayla said, "We should probably get back. Don't want the others to worry."

Selene nodded, got off her perch, and the pair started back.

Not far from the camp, Selene asked quietly, "Find anything back there?"

"No. Just what we passed. No signs of a pursuit so far."

"Oh," Selene replied, then fell silent.

Kayla began to get an uncomfortable feeling as she felt the nervous tension in her friend. But nothing was said.

As the camp came into view, Selene began speaking again, her voice quiet but with an edge to it, "Why are you betraying us Kayla?"

Kayla shot her a startled look and she tensed up.

"What do you mean?"

"I followed you Kayla. I saw you enter their camp and talk with them. I couldn't hear what was said, but I know you were planning something with them."

Kayla cursed silently. She was certain she hadn't been followed, but then again, Selene was very good at trailing people silently. She was just as good as Kayla herself.

`I'd better find some way out of this, or everything will be ruined.'

She stopped walking and turned to face the other girl, intending to convince her that she was actually setting a trap for the six men following them, but before she had turned around fully, pain exploded in the side of her head, and she fell to the ground, darkness swimming around her vision. As she tried to sit up, it closed in on her and all sensations ceased.




PART 22



Tessa looked up and surprise flashed through her eyes as Selene entered the camp, an unconscious Kayla slung over her shoulders.

"Selene! What happened?" Crystal exclaimed, hurrying over and helping to lower Kayla to the ground.

"I knocked her out so she wouldn't run," Selene replied quietly.

"What do you mean?" Tessa asked, coming over, "What happened out there?"

"I've noticed that Kayla's been acting a little strange lately, so when she left to scout back, I followed her. She...she entered a camp a little ways back. *Their* camp."

She glanced down at Kayla, then looked back up at Tessa, different emotions mixing in her dark eyes. "She's betrayed us, Tessa. I couldn't hear what was being said, but I could tell she was planning something with them. And judging from the way they reacted toward her, I'm willing to bet she's been doing this since we left Four Corners. Maybe even sooner."

Tessa couldn't hide her surprise or shock. She'd never expected one of her own girls to betray her and after the surprise passed, her shock turned to anger.

Before anything could happen, Meg spoke up, "Hold on a minute here. You know Kayla is as loyal as the rest of us. She's proven it a hundred times over. Why don't we wake her up and get the real story before you decide to cut her up?"

Tessa thought of Meg's words for a moment, then nodded, reining in her anger.

"All right, let's wake her up."

She grabbed a nearby canteen, opened it up, and splashed the contents onto Kayla's face. Kayla coughed and sputtered, then opened her eyes.

"Welcome back," Tessa said with a smile, having put a tight lid on her anger. "Seems you have some explaining to do."

Kayla looked at them in confusion, then remembrance flooded her eyes. She looked at Selene and rubbed her head. "Why did you hit me?"

"To keep you from running or turning on me."

"Selene saw you enter Larabee's camp Kayla. She saw you planning something with them. Care to enlighten us?" Tessa said.

Kayla was silent for a moment. She silently asked the spirits for help, then sighed and replied, "All right. I have been meeting with them, but not for the reasons you believe. Tessa, you have saved my life numerous times and have been a good friend to me and I will never forget that. But I have recently realized that the path I am on is not the right one. It is time for me to move on and find the correct path. But I wanted to do something that would signify our friendship would remain strong despite the fact that I could no longer ride with you. That first night when I scouted back after we made camp, I came across them and decided they would be the perfect gift. I convinced them that I wished to help them and have been giving them instructions that have been leading them into a trap."

Tessa looked at her carefully, unsure about the explanation.

"When, exactly, were you planning on telling us this?" she asked.

"Soon. I wanted to be sure they were too far in to escape before I revealed anything."

She looked at them all with pure sincerity. "I would never betray you."

Tessa stared hard at her for a moment before asking, "And are they?"

Kayla smiled slightly. "Yes. I have sent them on a route that will take them ahead of us, where they will wait in what they think is the place they will ambush us. In reality, we will circle around and come up behind them, taking them down easily."

She met and held Tessa's gaze, praying the spirits would intervene and Tessa would believe her story. They did.

After a long moment, Tessa reached over and put her hand on Kayla's shoulder, squeezing affectionately.

"That is a very touching gesture, Kayla. Are you sure you must leave?"

Kayla nodded, hiding her relief. "Yes. I must find the right path for me. This one, unfortunately, is not the one."

"Will you at least be finishing the trip to Tuscosa with us after Larabee's gang is taken care of?"

"Yes. I do not wish to miss this one."

Tessa smiled. "Good. We can throw you a big going away party after business is taken care of."

Selene put her hand on Kayla's arm and said, "I'm so sorry Kayla. I should have let you explain before I did that."

Kayla put her hand over Selene's and smiled. "Don't apologize my friend. I would have done the exact same thing."

Selene smiled shyly, then moved away to get some of the dinner that had been prepared.

Kayla silently thanked the spirits watching over her, then also moved to get some supper.




As Kayla had instructed, an hour before daybreak, the five men were up and moving down the trail she had indicated, silently circling around the female gang. A few hours after sunrise, they reached the end of the mountain pass and, after hiding their horses, quickly took positions high up in the rocks and waited.

J.D.'s heart was pounding and he was sweating nervously as time wore on. Though he wasn't entirely sure if the sweaty nervousness was from the small fever that had crept up or from the knowledge that he was about to confront Tessa. Maybe it was both. He closed his eyes as they blurred and laid his gun aside, sinking down the rest of the way to the ground and fighting back a wave of nausea.

"J.D." Buck hissed from nearby, causing J.D. to open his eyes and look over at the older man.

"You all right?"

He nodded silently and fished around in his pockets, pulling out the needle and bottle. He felt a little better once the potion was coursing through his veins, and got back into position, aware of Buck's worried gaze on him.

Finally, after a few more hours, the signal that the gang was approaching reached his ears. He pulled himself to full alertness and focused on the trial below him, preparing himself for the battle to come.




"Finally," Tessa heard Crystal mutter as the end of the mountains came in sight, "I thought we'd never get out of here."

`There's still the chance we won't,' she thought, an uneasy feeling coming over her.

She glanced back to where Kayla rode, leading Vin's horse and looking completely normal. Too normal. Tessa had been thinking about the previous night's events all morning, and was liking it less and less. Something did not feel right, and as they approached the end of the mountains, that feeling increased drastically, and her defenses went on high alert. She slowly took out her gun and laid it across the saddle, the fact it was in her hand giving her some comfort. Not long after she had made the move, it happened. A gunshot split the air, followed by the sound of a bullet ricocheting off a nearby rock.

As Tessa managed to get control of her horse, she looked around and spotted Kayla taking off down a separate path, Vin's horse right behind her.

"Traitor!" she screamed, taking aim and firing. She saw the young Native lurch forward but remained on the horse as she and their prisoner rode out of sight.

She forgot about them for the moment as more gunshots disturbed the quiet and shouted to the others, "Scramble! If we loose each other, you know where to meet up!"

The girls did as instructed and rushed off in separate directions as Tessa fired at the rocks where the men lay hidden. She grunted as a bullet graze her arm and then quickly spurred her frightened horse down a nearby path.




Josiah's horse was going as fast as it could down the path one of the girls had taken. He followed her easily and soon stopped when he came upon a dead end. Her horse looked up and regarded him cautiously, letting out a nervous snort.

"Easy boy," he murmured as he got off his own horse and approached.

He gently stroked the animal's muzzle, his eyes carefully searching the rocks.

"Come on out child!" he called, "It's over."

He watched as, a moment later, Selene emerged, her gun pointed at him.

"Just because I've come out, doesn't mean it's over," she said softly.

Josiah watched her with an unwavering gaze. "Put the gun down and give yourself up. I promise no harm will come to you."

She sneered at him. "Do not make false promises preacher! I have heard promises such as that many times before from men like you. Men claiming to be disciples of God when they are really disciples of the devil! Tell me, would a disciple of God make a promise to care for you, to protect you and then turn around and savagely beat you and rape you? Would he?" she screamed the last part, and Josiah could see she was dangerously close to pulling the trigger.

"No," he answered calmly, "But not all men are like that Selene. There are many who make promises and keep them. Those are the true followers of God."

"And I suppose you're one of `em right?"

"Well, I can't claim to be a perfect follower, but I don't go back on my word. I know you're frightened Selene, but please, don't let this end in bloodshed. There's been too much of it already."

He raised his hand and took a step forward. She took a step back, her finger tightening on the trigger.

"Men may rule the world," she began to recite, "But we are the deadlier of the species. We are slaves no longer."

She repeated the phrase, her eyes going out of focus, and Josiah quickly saw that nothing he said would be able to reach her.

`Tessa trained her well,' he thought, his other hand preparing to pull his gun, `she's losing her sanity right here and now.'

He watched as her eyes suddenly refocused and she stopped repeating the lines. She stared at him, then suddenly screamed, "We are slaves no longer!" and as she pulled the trigger, Josiah moved and pulled his own gun, squeezing the trigger as he did.

He watched as her eyes widened in shock and she dropped the gun. She looked down at the red rapidly spreading in her side, then back up at Josiah. Josiah met her gaze with sad, apologetic eyes, then moved forward as she collapsed.

She looked up at him as he knelt next to her and through labored breathing said, "We...are slaves...no... longer."

Josiah nodded as he took her hand in his and as her breathing slowed and stopped, he whispered, "No child, you're not. You're free now and I hope you're spirit finds peace."

He reached out and gently closed her eyes, then lowered his head and said a silent prayer. He then gathered her up and took her to her horse. He slung her over the saddle, then got up on his own horse and began the ride back to where Chris had told them to meet.




PART 23



Kayla tensed inside as the small group grew closer to the end of the mountains, but kept her expression calm. She knew Tessa was getting uneasy and just hoped she wouldn't do something unexpected and mess up the plans. She felt a sudden surge of grief and guilt as she thought about what she was doing and how her friends would most likely end up wounded or dead. Yet, she realized as she looked around at the girls, that none of them expected to live long lives. They all knew that they would die young and none of them seemed afraid. Just determined to make it difficult for their executioners to take that which they sought.

`Such is the price of this life,' she thought sadly.

She drew herself out of her thoughts as the group came upon the spot she expected the men to be hiding. She glanced back at Vin, who was slouched in his saddle, semi conscious. He had suffered from a rough night, the head injury increasing his fever and causing him to hallucinate. She could hear his labored breathing and wondered if help was arriving too late.

Her gaze wandered away and came upon the path she planned to escape on. Her grip on Vin's horse's reins tightened and she quickly prepared herself. A moment later, gunshots began splitting the air and Kayla took her cue. She got control quickly and spurred her horse down the path, Vin's following.

"Traitor!" she heard Tessa scream followed by a few shots.

She lurched forward and pain seared through her as one of the shots found it's mark, but she managed to stay on the horse. They disappeared around a corner and she urged the horse to move as fast as it could up the trail. Finally, they came upon an area dotted with caves, and Kayla quickly reined in. She dismounted, hurried over, untied Vin and pulled him from down from his horse. Ignoring the agonizing pain in her shoulder, she dragged his now limp form into one of the caves, then rushed back out and hid the horses. Fighting back waves of dizziness, she scanned the area and listened carefully to make sure she wasn't being observed, then slipped into the cave to check on Vin.

She fell next to him as her legs suddenly gave out, but fought the darkness closing in on her until she had made sure he hadn't been hit. When her examination revealed no new wounds, the darkness surged and she could no longer keep it from consuming her.




Vin's eyes fluttered open and took in his dark surroundings. He wondered if he had finally let the hell he'd been in for the past few weeks and had entered the real hell he was sure he was destined for. Then he realized it was too quiet, too peaceful to be hell. That meant he was still alive. But where was he and what had happened?

He moved his head to the right and discovered he was in a cave. Moving his gaze to the left, he found the still form of Kayla next to him.

<B...Black Rose,> he whispered, hoping she was just sleeping.

He reached over and gently pushed her shoulder, again saying her name. He looked at his hand as he felt a wetness and found it coated in blood. Her blood. Fear surged through him, giving him the strength to get to his knees and see if she was still alive. He breathed a sigh of relief when he found she was. He spent a few moments trying to rouse her, but to no avail. Through his fog filled mind, he remembered his friends were somewhere in the area. He if he could just find them...

He climbed shakily to his feet and stumbled out of the cave. He looked around for a moment, then picked a direction and began his search, one thought running through his mind, `Nathan can help her.'




Buck wandered through the little area one of the girls had headed for, his eyes carefully searching the rocks for signs of his quarry. He caught sight of Nathan a short distance away and watched as the healer disappeared behind some boulders, then returned his attention to his search.

"Come on out!" he called, "It's all over!"

"It's not over till one of us is dead!" came the response from somewhere close by.

There was a moment of silence and then, "Guess which one," was snarled from behind him.

He spun around and received a sharp, viscous kick to the stomach. He dropped his gun and fell to his knees, gasping. A kick to the side of his head knocked him onto his back, stars exploding in front of his eyes. He shook his head to clear his vision and saw Crystal standing above him, her gun aimed right between his eyes. She flashed him and ugly smile, then moved to pull the trigger.

Buck, ignoring the pain, quickly kicked up, knocking the gun from her hand and then quickly swept her feet out from under her.

She started to get up, but Buck tackled her back down and the pair struggled violently. Buck was surprised at how strong she was, but didn't chose to think

about that later. A strange sound reached his ears as they struggled and he had only enough time to think that it sounded strangely like the sound Ezra's derringer made when he released it before agonizing pain exploded in his side.

He screamed and rolled off of her, clutching his bloody side. He noticed her rise to a crouch and saw the very sharp looking knife in her hand. She brought the blade up and then down, aiming for his chest. Buck quickly moved out of the way, but was not fast enough and the blade pierced his arm, drawing another cry of pain from him. Crystal snarled and pounced, managing to get on top of him so she could plunge the knife down without missing. Buck grabbed her wrist and struggled to keep the knife from reaching it's mark, but with his injured arm, she had an advantage and was using it for all she was worth.

The knife was just inches away from his throat when she suddenly jerked and cried out. Buck seized the opportunity and did the one thing he never thought he would do to a woman. He hit her. The blow was enough to knock her off him and onto her stomach, where she lay still. He saw the knife protruding from her lower shoulder and looked up as Nathan suddenly appeared at his side.

"You all right Buck?" the healer asked anxiously.

"What took you so long?" Buck asked through gritted teeth as his friend began examining the wounds.

"Sorry. Was checking something out further up when I heard your shouts. Took a me a few minutes to get back down," Nathan replied. "The shoulder wound isn't that bad, but this side wound is pretty deep. Gonna have to get you stitched up pretty quick before you loose too much blood."

"I hope you suffer and die painfully just like your tracker friend."

The pair looked up at the softly growled words and found Crystal looking up at them, blood trickling out of the side of her mouth from Buck's blow.

She smiled chillingly at the reactions that brought. "If he's not dead yet, he will be when Tessa finds him. Along with the traitor!"

"Better tie her up first Nathan," Buck advised. "Last thing we need is for her to be running around loose."

"You're just afraid...I'll take more of your...blood," Crystal replied, her breathing growing labored from the knife still in her back.

Buck didn't like the smile that crossed her lips and knew what was coming when she made a movement that he had seen Ezra do a hundred times. As the derringer flew out, he swept up the gun that lay next to him, aimed and fired. He stared at her still body and the rapidly spreading pool of blood beneath her with sadness and didn't notice when Nathan gently took the gun from his hand put it back in Buck's holster.

"Come on Buck," he said, moving so he could help the other man up, "Let's get back to camp so I can fix you up. Keep pressure on that side wound for me until we get to the horses would ya? I got something to wrap it with in my bag."

Nathan glanced at Crystal's still form and decided he would come back for her body as soon as he had taken care of Buck.




Chris had encountered Meg just a few short minutes ago, and the pair had just stood there, staring at one another, neither one moving or saying a thing.

Finally, Chris said, "So you gonna come quietly?"

"Well, that all depends," Meg replied casually as she started to approach him.

"On what?"

Meg stopped just a few feet from him and smiled. "On how well you fight," she replied, then lashed out with a kick.

Chris quickly jumped back, avoiding the would be painful blow and the fight was on. Meg attacked him with all the dangerous skill of a seasoned street fighter and did his best to keep her from doing any serious damage.

"What's the matter?" she growled as he blocked yet another blow but did not return with one of his own, "You going easy on me or are you one of those so called `gentlemen' who don't hit ladies? Well, I got news for you, I ain't no lady."

Chris saw her gaze flicker to something behind him and realized too late that she had been doing two things at once. While trying to beat him at something he was good at, she was also herding him backwards. He returned her kick and glanced behind him to find he was dangerously close to the edge of a cliff.

Meg flashed him another smile. "Surprise," she said sweetly, then lashed out with a kick that would push him over the edge.

He caught her foot, and tried to get his balance and her eyes widened as he began to fall back, taking her with him. She quickly pulled a knife from her belt and plunged it into his arm, causing him to cry out and let go. She fell to the ground as he disappeared over the edge and lay there for a moment, before getting to her knees and looking over. It wasn't a long drop and she could see his still figure clearly.

"That was too easy," she mumbled, getting to her feet and hurrying over to where she could easily climb down.

She reached the bottom quickly and carefully approached his body. She was surprised to find, despite all the blood, that he was still very much alive.

"Well, not for long," she said out loud, drawing her gun and taking careful aim.

She jumped in surprise when Chris's leg suddenly kicked up, knocking the gun from her hand. She suddenly found herself on the ground with a large rock coming straight for her head.

As her unconscious form fell next to him, Chris lay back, squeezing his eyes shut against the pain coursing through him and struggling for his breath. When he was able, he climbed to his feet and began making his way unsteadily to where he had left his horse. He brought it back, along with her own horse and managed to get her slung across the saddle, then mounted his own animal and started back for camp.




Kayla's eyes slowly opened and the first thing she noticed was that Vin was gone. She sat up and looked around quickly, calling out softly,

<Hunter? Where are you?>

A noise outside the cave got her attention and she carefully stood and made her way to the entrance.

<Hunter?>

The blow came from out of nowhere and took her by surprise. She hit the ground hard, pain shooting through her as she landed on her injured shoulder. Her breath shot of her as a foot connected with her ribs and it was a few moments before she was able to open her eyes and find Tessa standing above her.

"Traitor!" the red head snarled and kicked her again. "How could you do it? After all I've done for you! How could you fall back under their power? Under his power?"

"I...I haven't fallen under anyone's power Tessa," Kayla managed after a moment. "I am under my own power, making my own decisions. You always said we should do what was best for us and that's what I did."

"You thought it best to betray me?"

"I could not...let you take this one, Tessa. I stood by you as you took others, but I couldn't...stand by and let you take this one."

Tessa's eyes darkened even more.

"You'll pay for this treachery. And then I'll find you're precious tracker and finish what I started."

She started to move for the injured girl, but stopped when a voice said, "Tessa!"

She turned and her eyes widened slightly in surprise. She quickly regained her composure and said, "Well, I see Morgan didn't waste any time."

"Where's Vin?" J.D. asked quietly, his eyes flickering from Tessa to Kayla and back again.

Tessa shrugged. "Beats me. But when I find him I'm gonna slit his throat very slowly."

Behind her, Kayla began moving and Tessa spun around, knocked the girl out with a kick to the head and snarled, "I'll deal with you in a bit."

She looked back at J.D. and noticed he hadn't drawn his guns.

"So, how do you want to do this? Beg me to come quietly or just stand here and shoot each other?"

"Neither. I'm...I'm going to let you go."

Tessa raised her brows. "Excuse me?"

"I...I love you and I...I don't want to play a part in something that's most likely going to lead to your death."

Tessa's eyes narrowed, confusion entering them. "You...love me? After all I've done to you...to your tracker friend you love me?"

J.D. shook his head. "No, I love Lynne. That part of you trapped somewhere in all that hate and bloodlust. That part of you that I know will one day reemerge and come back to me."

Their eyes met and for the briefest moment, he saw Lynne. Pain flashed through his eyes and he tore his gaze away and turned to leave.

"That'll never happen if the end of a rope finds your neck," he said as he did, "So...so go. I'll tell the others you got away."

He started walking, but stopped when she began talking and put his hand on his gun, somehow knowing what was about to happen.

"You're a fool. Lynne is gone and never coming back. It's just me, the predator...the killer...the Red Witch. The poison should have finished you, but I'm glad it didn't. Now I can have that honor."

Time seemed to go in slow motion as J.D. spun around and a single shot filled the air, seeming to echo on and on until finally, all was silent and time returned to normal.




PART 24



"Buck, would you stop that pacing and try to relax for a bit?" Nathan said in irritation as he watched the other man.

Buck stopped his restless pacing and looked at the healer. "How can I relax when Chris and J.D. are still out there with a couple of loose cannons? And what about Vin? I'm damn sure I saw Kayla move like she'd been hit by one of those bullets Tessa was spraying after her. If something happens to her, how are we gonna find Vin? She could have taken him anywhere."

"Well tiring yourself out ain't gonna help them any," Nathan argued. "Now sit down and be still for a while before I tie you down!"

Buck stared at him for a moment, then stalked over to the little fire they had built and sat down on a log. He shot up again moments later when Chris wandered into camp, Meg slung over the horse he was leading.

"Chris!" he exclaimed, relived.

His smile faded when he suddenly saw Chris' condition.

"Damn Chris. What the hell'd you do, fall of a cliff?"

"Yes," Chris replied, glancing back at Meg's still unconscious form. "Somebody get her tied up before she comes to."

As Josiah moved to comply, Chris slid off his horse and Buck quickly caught him as his old friend continued on toward the ground when his legs refused to support him.

"Whoa there Pard," Buck murmured, wincing at the sudden weight on his shoulder.

Nathan hurried over and took most of Chris' weight and the two men quickly got their leader over to the fire and to the spot Nathan had worked on Buck.

"J.D. back?" Chris asked.

Buck shook his head and answered Chris' next question. "Kayla hasn't shown up either."

Chris looked at Buck and asked, "You think one or two of Tessa's bullets found her?"

"I don't know Pard, but I'm getting mighty worried. If she did get shot bad, how the hell are we going to find Vin?"

A gunshot split the air just then, interrupting Chris' reply. Buck cast a worried look in the direction it had come from and said, "I think we should get over there. J.D. probably just found himself a world of trouble."

Chris moved to get up and Nathan quickly put a restraining hand on him. "No way Chris. You're staying right here."

Chris shook his head. "Not till I know both Vin and J.D. aren't dead."

Nathan held him down firmly and said, "In case you haven't noticed, you're bleeding badly in several places and that head wound don't look like a cake walk. You go running around out there now, and you'll most likely kill yourself. Josiah and Buck will go track `em down. You're staying right here."

"Listen to the man Chris," Buck said, "We'll find J.D. and Vin."

Nathan looked up at Buck and said, "You be careful Buck. I got enough bodies here without needing yours too."

Buck nodded and he and Josiah got their horses and hurried off.




Buck's nervous gaze wandered the rocks as he and Josiah made their way up the path. He was worried about what they would find at the end as well as a little frightened. Images of J.D. laying dead, shot through the head or heart, eyes frozen in an expression of shocked surprise drifted through his mind's eye, sending cold shivers up and down his spine. He shook himself and forced his mind to concentrate on just finding the boy.

"Buck," Josiah said, getting his attention and motioning up ahead.

Buck looked in the direction Josiah had indicated and saw a horse, ground tied and watching them as they approached.

"That's J.D.'s," Buck said as the horse snorted in greeting. "Kid must be around here

somewhere."

The pair dismounted and continued forward on foot. It wasn't long before they came upon some caves and, to their relief, J.D. Their young friend was sitting on his knees just outside the cave, doing what they couldn't tell.

"J.D."? Buck called as they cautiously approached.

As they got closer, they picked out a body laying just a few feet away from the kid, and behind it, another one.

"Tessa and Kayla," Josiah said as he stepped past J.D. and knelt to examine them.

Buck knelt next to J.D. and was startled by the look on his young face. The kid was staring sightlessly at Tessa, his gun hanging loose in his hand, tears slowly making their way down his cheeks.

Buck put his hand on J.D.'s shoulder and said softly, "J.D.?"

J.D. finally turned his grief stricken gaze on the older man. "I I didn't want to do it Buck. She she gave me no choice. I didn't want to do it."

"I know kid," Buck replied as J.D. softly repeated the words, his gaze moving back to Tessa.

Josiah looked up from next to Kayla and said, "She's unconscious and has been shot. Vin's not here so we'd better get her back to camp so Nathan can try to revive her or we may never find him."

Buck nodded. "Come on kid," he said quietly, gently pulling the younger man to his feet, "Let's get you back to camp."

J.D. took a few steps, then his legs folded and he started sinking to the ground. Buck quickly caught him, but the pain the movement brought prevented him from supporting the kid, so he carefully lowered him to the ground instead.

"J.D.?" Buck asked, startled by how limp the boy had suddenly gone.

He quickly moved so he could see the his friend and discovered he had lost consciousness. He put a hand to J.D.'s forehead and silently cursed at the heat he felt.

"Josiah, he's gone under again," he called back to the other man who was carefully putting

Kayla's still form on the horse he had found.

"Then we'd best hurry," was the older man's reply.

He put Tessa's body on what he assumed was her horse, then got Vin's and led all three of them over to Buck.

As he handed the reins to his friend and scooped J.D. up, he gestured with his head to Tessa and said quietly, "She's still alive."

Buck shot him a surprised look. He looked back at Tessa, then shook his head and the pair started back for camp.




A couple of tense, worry filled hours passed. Nathan had removed the bullet and stitched up the wound in Kayla's shoulder and, to his admitted surprise, announced that she would be all right.

"I'm surprised she hasn't bled to death or been claimed by fever," had been his answer to why he was surprised.

Meg had regained consciousness and was staring with grief filled anger at the covered bodies of her friends, which were laying in an out of the way spot near the horses. She refused any food and water that was offered her, often sneering and trying to lash out despite her bonds.

"You're all going to pay dearly for their deaths," was her most preferred response to anything said to her.

J.D. however, was unresponsive to anything and everything, not even noticing when Nathan injected him with Morgan's potion. Not even Buck could get anything out of the boy. After regaining consciousness, he had just sat in the same spot, staring vacantly at the deeply unconscious Tessa, who lay near Kayla, her hands tied despite her condition. The other men had finally decided to let him be, but were keeping a very close eye on him.

Nathan looked up from where he was taking a quick inventory as a soft moan reached his ears. He looked behind him and jumped up when he saw Kayla slowly waking up.

"She's coming around," he called as he hurried to her side. "Kayla? Kayla can you hear me? Open your eyes honey."

Kayla's eyes fluttered open after a moment of struggle and focused on Nathan. Fear entered her eyes, followed by slow recognition.

"What happened? How did I get here?" she asked, her gaze moving past him to take in her surroundings.

Buck quickly filled her in on what he knew, and when he was finished, Chris asked, "Where's Vin?"

"I don't know. I got him to the cave and then passed out. When I came to, he was gone and Tessa had found me."

"Damn it," Chris muttered, "That means he's wandering around out there somewhere."

He straightened up and began walking toward his horse.

"Chris! What are you doing?" Nathan asked, quickly rising and hurrying after him.

"I'm gonna go find him," was the short reply.

"Chris, look at yourself! You shouldn't even be up and about right now let alone wandering around the mountains. Let Josiah and Buck do it."

Chris shook his head, stopping as he reached his horse and turning to look at Nathan. "It'll take longer with just the two of them. Besides, if I'd checked up on him earlier like I should have, then maybe we wouldn't be in this mess right now."

Nathan put a hand on Chris' arm, stopping him from mounting the horse. "Chris, you can't blame yourself. Tessa manipulated us, keeping all of us from figuring out what was going on. It ain't your fault."

Chris stared back at him for a long moment, then turned and mounted the horse. His gaze found Buck and Josiah and he told them to mount up as well, then he spurred his horse out of camp.

"Don't worry Nathan," Buck said as he and Josiah followed, "We'll keep an eye on him."




Vin's eyes opened and he cursed as soon as it registered that he had passed out again. He had just stopped to rest for a moment and now he had lost an undetermined amount of time. He struggled to his feet and looked around. Where the hell was he? If he couldn't figure that out, how was he going to find the others? He looked up and spotted an outcropping a short distance above him. If he could get up there, it would provide him with a good view of the area.

`Might help me find the others.'

Once he was sure he was in control, he found a spot and began climbing. It took a while, but he finally made it to the top and collapsed on the ground, breathing heavily and fighting back the darkness that threatened to reclaim him. After a moment, he forced himself to his feet and looked around. It did indeed provide him with an excellent view of the area. He froze when he saw the light smoke from a campfire in the distance.

`That's gotta be them,' he thought.

His gaze traveled around more and his breath caught in his throat when he saw familiar figures wandering about not far from the camp. He quickly fished around in his pockets and was glad when he found his spyglass. He trained it on the figures and was relived when he saw that is was, in fact, his friends. Chris, all bandaged up, curiously enough, was leading Buck and Josiah as the trio searched the terrain around them carefully.

"Chris!" he tried shouting, but it came out as a horse whisper.

Frustrated that he had nothing with which to attract their attention, he put the spyglass away and carefully started to climb back down, hoping he could find a way to them.

He finally reached the ground and picked the trail he thought lead in the right direction and moved as fast as he could along it.

He groaned as the dizziness that had been lingering in the back of his head suddenly surged forward, causing him to fall to his knees. Pain rushed through him as he fell against a sharp rock, knocking the air from his lungs. For a frightful moment, he was unable to breath and then, all at once, his breath returned, leaving him gasping and fighting the darkness at the same time. A low laugh caused him to look up, and his eyes widened slightly.

"Having problems Tracker?" Tessa asked from where she leaned against a boulder, a lazy smile on her lips. "You're never going to get to your friends you know," she added, "You're too hurt and they're so far."

She looked up at the darkening sky. "Not to mention that darkness is coming quickly. They'll have to give up soon and then what will happen? They can't find you, you can't find them."

Vin struggled to his feet and looked at her carefully. Something wasn't quite right. He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. When he opened his eyes, Tessa was gone. A hallucination. He struggled to his feet and continued on, trying to ignore the pain of his injuries.

"Vin!"

He stopped walking as a familiar voice shouted his name. Turning, he found Buck standing behind him.

"Buck..." Vin said weakly, reaching out for his friend.

"Damn Vin. You're a mess," Buck said, making no move to help Vin.

He laughed and added, "Bet a bottle of whiskey will help. Come on."

He turned and disappeared down another path. Vin followed in confusion. Several moments later, he spotted Josiah and called out to him, but the ex-preacher paid him no mind and kept walking. Tessa's laugh echoed in his mind as Chris appeared and simply stared at the tracker, vanishing a moment later.

Vin fell to his knees again, trying to clear his mind and sort through his confusion.

"You'll never find them," Tessa whispered from next to him, "You're too messed up. Give it up and face reality. You're gonna die all alone, and they may not even find your body. Accept it and let go."

"No," Vin muttered and pushed himself to his feet.

He wasn't about to let her win. Not after all the misery she put him, and probably many others through.

"Vin!"

He stopped and turned around. There was Chris, dismounting from his horse. Vin shook his head, refusing to believe another hallucination and continued on along the rocky path.

"Vin!"

He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to block out the voice of the illusion.

"Vin!"

He gasped slightly as a hand suddenly gripped his arm and spun him around. He looked into Chris' worry filled eyes and tried to make his mind stop playing with him.

`This isn't Chris,' he thought and squeezed his eyes shut again.

But when he opened them, Chris was still there.

"Chris?" he whispered, a small amount of hope rising in him.

Chris nodded. "Yeah pard, it's me."

"Chris!"

Vin's gaze moved to a spot behind his friend and he saw Buck and Josiah rein in next to Chris' horse and jump off, hurrying toward them. Chris said something, but Vin didn't hear. He'd found his friends and could no longer hold back the raging furry of blackness that had been trying to consume him. With a soft moan, he sagged forward and let go.




PART 25



Nathan sighed as he finished wrapping and dressing Vin's wounds, then moved over to join the other men who had gathered in an out of the way spot by the fire, anxiously waiting news. Even J.D. had finally come back from his inward retreat, though he was quiet and a little withdrawn.

"Well?" Chris asked as Nathan joined them.

Nathan looked at him and said, "I got bad news and worse news."

Chris closed his eyes. "That bad?" He sighed. "All right. What's the bad news?"

"The bad news is that he's a complete wreak. Few busted ribs, multiple head injuries, nasty fever. Even found some old stab wounds in his leg and side and it looks like someone cut his chest up pretty badly."

"Tessa and Crystal," Kayla said quietly. "The first day he became our captive, he broke a needle filled with one of Tessa's potions when she was trying to inject him. She got very angry and stabbed his leg for it and Crystal beat him. The side wound also came from Tessa. Crystal is responsible for the chest. She got angry one night when she was guarding him and that was the result."

"Damn," Buck muttered, "How the hell could he possibly get worse without being dead?"

Nathan took a breath. "That's just it. He's dying and doing it fast. I don't have the proper resources here to help him. He needs a real doctor which means we need to get him back to Four Corners as fast as possible and get the doctor from the next town in right fast."

Low laughter reached their ears and they looked up.

"You poor fools," Meg said. "We're four days away from that stupid town. He ain't gonna last two days let alone four! You see, the only thing that's been keeping him alive during this little trip has been Tessa's potion. Without it, his body is going to go through a very ugly, shall we say shutdown process? He's going to suffer horribly and die painfully. You may as well put a bullet through his head and get it over with."

She laughed again. "I wish Tessa were awake to see this. She'd have a ball."

Chris was next to her in an instant. "I've never beat on a woman before, never thought it was right," he hissed, "But you're about to become my first if you don't tell us how to keep him alive long enough to get him back to Four Corners."

Meg met his gaze in defiance. "Go ahead," she growled, "The only thing you'll get out of me is how to kill him."

"I may be able to help some," Kayla said, earing a icy glare from Meg.

"How?" Chris demanded.

Kayla looked at Nathan and said, "I'll need my saddlebags."

Nathan nodded and as he went to retrieve them, Buck said, "One of us should ride ahead so we can have the doctor there when the rest of us arrive."

Chris nodded. "Good idea."

"I'll go," Buck responded.

"Hell no," Nathan protested as he returned with the saddlebags, "I want all injured in one place where I can keep an eye on `em."

"I'll go," Josiah spoke up.

Chris nodded. "All right. You'll leave at first light."

Josiah shook his head. "No, I'll leave now."

Chris raised his brows. "You sure?"

Josiah nodded. "Sooner I leave, sooner I can get there and have everything ready. Also give me a chance to find out if Ezra is still alive."

At Chris' consent, Josiah collected everything he would need and prepared to mount up.

"Safe journey," Chris said, grasping the older man's arm. "Wire the Judge when you get there too."

The others put in their words, then Josiah mounted up and left the camp. When he was gone from sight, the others turned their attention to Kayla, who was kneeling above Vin, rubbing something on his chest and chanting softly. They watched as, still chanting, she picked up a bowl and began mixing things in it. This went on for about an hour, Kayla never pausing in her chanting and Nathan assisting her where he saw fit. Kayla picked up the bowl, which was now filled with a foggy liquid and gestured for Nathan to sit Vin up. He did so carefully and she slowly poured some the liquid down his throat, her chanting rising to nearly a shout. Then, abruptly, she stopped. The others watched as she put her hand on Vin's forehead and closed her eyes, her lips moving as she said something silently. She ceased all movement for several moments, then her eyes opened and she looked at them.

"The spirits have agreed to watch over him and keep him from leaving this world until we reach our destination."

She closed her eyes and put a hand to her head, swaying slightly.

"You all right?" Nathan asked instantly, concern filling his eyes.

"Yes. I'm just tired."

"Come on then. You need to rest," Nathan said, helping her to her feet and leading her to her bedroll.

After she had settled down, Nathan took her hand in his and said softly, "Thanks."

She hesitated, then squeezed gently and closed her eyes, drifting off into a deep sleep.




Vin had the frightening feeling he had forgotten something as he floated lazily around in the sea of darkness. He struggled to remember what had happened, how he had gotten to this dark place. He jumped, startled, as a light suddenly appeared in front of him. He stared at it for a moment, then reached out and touched it and was flooded with memories. He sank to his knees, pain rushing through him at the intensity of the memories.

Fear suddenly stabbed at him. Was he still a captive? No wait, Kayla-Black Rose- had helped him. Black Rose! He jerked as he suddenly remembered that she had been hurt and he had gone in search of his friends that were somewhere in the area. Chris. He had found Chris. Or rather, Chris had found him. He had been so relived at finding his friend, he had forgotten what he had been doing and had given in to the darkness that had been trying so hard to claim him. He had to get out of this darkness and tell them. But how?

`Go through the light,' a voice whispered in his mind, startling him.

"Who said that?" he asked, looking around warily.

`A friend. If you wish to leave here, go through the light.'

Vin looked back at the light, the climbed to his feet and approached. He reached out and touched it again, and again pain surged through him. He jumped back, gasping.

`Go through the light,' the voice repeated.

"It hurts," Vin replied, squeezing his eyes shut and riding out the pain.

`Pain is a part of life,' the voice replied, `You must learn to work with it if you are to achieve peace. Go through the light.'

Vin stared at the light for a long moment and suddenly heard his name being called somewhere within it. It sounded like Nathan. He took a deep breath to brace himself, then stepped back up to the light and stepped through into a world of agony. His eyes squeezed shut and groaned as he tried to make his way through the painful light. Finally, the pain subsided to a dull, thudding roar and he felt chilly air swirling around him.

"Vin? Vin, open your eyes."

Vin slowly forced his eyes open and Nathan's face swam into view above him. A few seconds later, Chris appeared. Vin looked at Chris and an urgency filled his eyes.

"Chris. Black Rose, gotta help her. She's been shot," he said in a voice just as urgent.

Nathan and Chris exchanged glances that clearly said they didn't understand him.

"What's wrong with you?" he tried again, "She's in a cave bleeding to death. You gotta help her."

He started attempting to sit up, and Nathan quickly reached out and held him down.

"Easy Vin," he said, "Don't be moving around now."

Vin struggled against the healer's grip, desperation and panic overtaking him.

"No! Let me go. Gotta...gotta find her."

"Vin," Chris said, "Settle down and listen to me. We don't understand what you're saying. You're not speaking English. You gotta speak English so we can understand what the problem is and help you."

Vin stopped struggling and looked at him. Speak English. That's what he had been speaking. Wasn't it? Confusion flooded his senses, leaving him frustrated and more than a little upset.

"It's all right, Vin," Chris said, "Just settle down and get your mind focused on what you're trying to tell us."

Vin closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to calm down enough so he could figure out what language he was speaking.

After a moment, he said, "B...Black Rose. She's been...shot. Gotta find and...and help...her."

"Black Rose?" Nathan asked.

He thought for a moment, then said, "You mean Kayla right?"

Vin nodded and Nathan smiled gently.

"It's all right. She's here and she's safe. Little banged up but safe."

Vin nearly passed out as sheer relief crashed through him. He had come to care deeply for the young Native girl and had no desire to see her hurt or killed. The others though...

He opened his eyes and asked, "What...what happened to...Tessa... and the others?"

"Crystal and Selene are dead and Tessa is badly wounded. J.D. had...an encounter with her. She hasn't regained consciousness yet and I'm not sure if she's going to or not. Meg is the only one without any serious injuries. She's over there," Nathan said, gesturing to a spot Vin couldn't see.

Sounds of movement caught the pair's attention and words were softly exchanged.

"Got someone here who wants to speak with ya," Nathan said, turning back. "Take it easy okay? You're a long way from being out of the woods."

He and Chris moved away and Kayla appeared in their place.

Chris watched as the pair talked quietly, Kayla doing most of the talking to help him save his strength.

"Looks like Vin's taken a fancy to her," Buck said as he joined his friend.

Chris nodded in silent agreement.

Buck put his hand on Chris' arm and asked, "You worried `bout what's going to happen when we get back to town and he survives?"

Chris nodded again. "Yeah. Nathan told me earlier that she's in love with him, which is the main reason why she helped us. From the fuss he put up and the way he looked at her just now, I'd say he feels pretty damn close to the same way. She's wanted in a lot of places right now and I doubt the Judge can pardon her just because she helped us out. If Vin survives this, I'm worried about what he's gonna do."

Buck gave Chris' shoulder a squeeze and replied, "He'll do the right thing, I'm sure of it."

Chris didn't reply as he watched Nathan move in and break the conversation up, claiming that both of them needed rest.

Instead, he asked, "Who's got first watch?"

"Nathan, then J.D."

Chris looked at Buck questioningly. "Don't worry. He seems to be coming back a bit. Think he realized how much he's needed right now, although I plan on staying up with him. He ain't free

and clear yet either."

"All right." Chris sighed as he looked back at Vin, who seemed to have fallen asleep or lost consciousness, he wasn't sure.

The ride back was going to be painfully long and slow.




Chris called a halt mid afternoon so the group could rest and eat before going on. He dismounted and went over to one of the pulleys that Vin occupied and knelt down next to him. The younger man had not awakened since the previous night and Chris could clearly see his friend slipping

further and further away. His fist clenched and unclenched as he got up and sought out Kayla.

The Young Native watched him warily as he approached, Nathan still being the only one she trusted not to turn on her.

"Are you sure he's going to make it back to town?"

She nodded. "The spirits gave their word. He will survive the trip, but after that " she trailed off and Chris saw her hide the deep sadness and pain in her eyes. She quickly moved away from him and picked a spot close to Vin to eat.

A half hour later, the group was on the move again. An hour passed and Buck returned from scouting ahead, reporting,

"There's a big rock slide up ahead blocking the whole path. We're gonna have to find a way around."

Chris muttered a curse and looked at Kayla. "You sure those spirits of yours are helping us?"

Kayla glared at him, but didn't respond. Chris turned to the rest of them and said, "Buck, you and I will scout around for another route. The rest of you stay here."

The pair spent the next couple of hours scouring the area and finally found a path that was safe and took them around the rock slide. The went and retrieved the group, Chris saying that once they made it around the slide, they would stop for the night. It took them a few hours, but they finally made it to the spot Chris and Buck had picked out for a camp. They had a quick supper, then began bedding down for the night.

J.D. quietly sought out a spot where he would be reasonably comfortable, laid out his bed roll, then prepared to give himself another injection.

"J.D."

He looked up at the voice that quietly spoke his name and found Meg watching him from where she had been placed. He started a bit, not realizing he had chosen a spot so close to her.

"Can we talk?" she asked.

"Bout what?" he asked warily.

Her eyes moved to something behind him and he followed her gaze to find the pulley Tessa was laying on. He quickly looked away, his gaze focusing on his bedroll.

"I know you love her," Meg said softly, "And I know for a fact that she feels the same way."

J.D. looked at her and asked, "Then why did she try to kill me?"

Meg shrugged. "She's wild, like the rest of us. She was trying to protect herself. It's been such a long time since anyone loved her. She was so young when her parents were killed that she lost the feeling of what it's like to love and be loved. I love her like a sister, but that isn't what she needs. She needs someone like you. I saw the way she reacted when she was with you. I saw the love that is still in her somewhere emerging. In all the years I've known her, I've never seen her like that. I think the only one who has is Morgan."

Meg paused for a moment, her eyes straying back to Tessa's still form. "I don't want her to die. In fact, I want her to leave this life we've been leading. I want her to settle down somewhere, maybe get married and have a few kids. But in order for that to happen, she's got to know that there is someone who truly loves her and wants to provide that for her."

She looked back at him, her eyes almost pleading. "You're that one, I'm sure of it. J.D., if you help me, we can take Tessa and get out of here. I know a place not that far from here where we could hide and nurse her back to health. After that, the three of us could leave the country and settle down on some nice, isolated piece of land and you two could be together. I know that if we can get her away from civilization, we can get the demons that control her out of her mind and spirit and give her a chance for a normal life."

J.D. shook his head. "I...I can't do that. I can't run out on my friends. Not like that."

"J.D., do you love her?"

"Yeah, I do but..."

"If she get's put into the custody of the law, she'll hang. Do you want that?"

"No, but..."

"Then at least think about it. I promise none of your friends will get hurt. We'll just slip away while they're all sleeping. I can even give you something that will wipe that suff out faster than what Morgan gave you. Please J.D., think about it."

J.D. looked into her eyes and felt trapped, confused and frightened. Frightened because he hadn't said no right away like he should have. He nodded silently, growing more frightened that he had actually agreed to think about it and that he was actually thinking of accepting. Dizziness washed over him and he quickly turned his attention to injecting the potion into his veins. Perhaps it was the slight fever that still remained that was making him think like this.

`I'll be better in the morning,' he thought as he lay down, `There's no way I'd run out on the guys, especially like that.'

But as he drifted off to sleep, something in his mind whispered, `Would I?'




PART 26



"Healer, might I have a word with you?"

Nathan looked up at Kayla and nodded. "Yeah, I'll be with you in a second."

He finished changing the bandages around Chris' head, pleased that the wounds were healing nicely and no complications were arising. He patted Chris' shoulder, then stood and moved over to where Kayla was waiting.

"What's up?"

"Your friend, the one who claims the position of sheriff."

"J.D."

She nodded. "There is something you should know. Meg was talking to him just a short while ago. She is preying on his condition and trying to lure him away."

Nathan chuckled softly. "You don't have to worry. J.D. would never run out on us, he's as loyal as they come."

"Are you certain of that? I saw his face. He wore an expression I have seen many times on men being lured into Meg's traps. She is nearly as bad as Tessa in that way. I would keep a very close eye on him or else you all might wake up in a day or two and find the three of them gone."

She nodded to him, then walked over to the spot she had claimed and lay down to sleep.

Nathan stood there a moment, his disturbed gaze wandering over to J.D., who seemed to be sleeping peacefully. Would J.D. really do something like that? Normally no, but Nathan had to admit that with all that had happened and with Tessa's potion still running around in his blood, it was an actual possibility. He looked over at Chris and, seeing the other man was still awake, went over and knelt down next to him, gesturing for Buck to join them.

"We might have a problem."

Chris sighed. "Now what?"

"Not what, who."

He quickly told them what Kayla had told him.

"So what's the problem?" Buck asked, "J.D. would never do something like that."

"Normally, no he wouldn't. But he's still pretty sick. There's still a good chunk of Tessa's potion in his blood, which means his mind his still pretty messed up as well. Even more with his having to shoot her like that. It would be really easy to manipulate him right now.

Especially if it gets him believing that he can have some sort of life with Tessa."

Chris and Buck were silent as they thought about Nathan's words.

"All right," Chris finally said, "Keep an extra close eye on him. If he insists on taking a watch, one of us takes it with him. And keep him away from both Meg and Tessa. Last thing we need is to be slowed up even more than we are now."

Nathan and Buck nodded, then Nathan moved off to his bed roll and Buck settled in for his watch. His gaze traveled to J.D. and he watched the boy sleep with a heavy heart. His gaze moved to Meg and he found her watching J.D. in a way he didn't like. Getting up, he moved to a spot where he could watch both her and J.D. and hear any conversation that might take place.




Chris was awakened from a troubled sleep some time later. He stopped himself from crying out and found J.D. kneeling above him.

"Chris, Vin's awake. He's asking for you."

Chris nodded and sat up. He looked at J.D. and said, "Go on back to bed. You look terrible."

J.D. seemed about to protest, but changed his mind and did as he was told. Chris got up and hurried over to where Nathan knelt next to Vin, talking softly to him. Seeing Chris approach, Nathan got up and veered Chris off to the side for a moment.

"Just warning you, he ain't good. Down right disturbing in fact so prepare yourself."

Chris nodded. "Go get some sleep. I'll take my watch now."

"You sure? It's still a long way till morning."

"Yeah, I'm sure."

Nathan hesitated, then nodded. "Okay. Wake me if you need me."

He cast one last glance at Vin, then returned to his bedroll.

Chris turned and knelt down next to Vin, his heart breaking at the condition the younger man was now in. His hair was wet from the sweat pouring off him and small tremors raced through his body every few minutes. His breathing was ragged and his eyes were wide and pain filled. Chris was amazed and shocked by this sudden change in his appearance and condition. While his condition hadn't been good the previous night and earlier that day, it was certainly better than it was now.

"C...Chris?" Vin's voice was just above a whisper, and showed more of the pain that had taken up residence in his body.

Chris put his hand on his friend's arm and said softly, "Yeah Pard, I'm here."

"It...hurts so...much Chris."

"I know Pard. But you're strong. You'll make it through this."

Vin shook his head and drew a ragged breath.

"No. I'm...not going to...make this...one Chris. I can...feel myself d...dying."

"That's the fever talking Vin." He removed his hand from the other man's arm and gripped his friend's hand firmly. "You're going to pull through." He was silent for a moment, then said softly, "I'm sorry Vin."

"What...for?"

"For this. If I had just checked up on you when I thought something was going on, then maybe we could have avoided all this."

"No. Not your...fault. My own. Was stupid and...fell into that...trap. Was careless...of me."

Chris wasn't convinced and his eyes said so.

"Chris...you're the best....friend I ever had. I know that....if you felt anything...was wrong...you would...have acted. Tessa....kept your attention...on other things. Kept you from...figuring things out. Please...don't blame yourself."

Vin closed his eyes and struggled for his breath. Larger tremors ran through his body and Chris was just about to rouse Nathan when he opened his eyes and looked at him again.

"Do...something for me?"

"What?"

"You...remember when we...were in that....Seminole Village? That night you and I...were on watch and...I told you bout the...bounty on my head and...how if I were...killed to take...my body back to...that town? I'm...telling you...again. When I...die, take my...body and get the cash. Do...something good with...it."

A small smile crossed his lips as he added, "Just don't...play poker...with Ezra."

Chris shook his head. "I ain't gonna do that cause you ain't gonna die. If anyone's gonna go meet the maker, its gonna be me. I gotta few bones to pick with him. You've still got things you gotta take care of. Like that mess in Tuscosa. You ain't going anywhere till you take care of that, you hear?"

The little smile reappeared on Vin's lips as he asked, "That...an order?"

This time, Chris allowed a tiny smile to cross his own lips. "Yeah Tanner. That's an order. One you'd better follow."

Vin's eyes suddenly snapped shut and he arched a little as more pain arrived to join in the torture. Chris murmured comforting words to help his friend ride the pain out and when Vin finally relaxed, it was easy to see consciousness had deserted him. Chris gently squeezed Vin's hand.

"You ain't gonna die, Vin," he said softly, "I won't let you."




Meg watched J.D. as they moved along the mountain pass, occasionally catching his eye and trying to draw him further into her trap. If she could just get him to believe what she had told him, she and Tessa would have their tickets out of there. She meant it when she told J.D. about a place not far from there where they could hide and nurse Tessa back to health. Of course, just about everything else was an all out lie. Once they got Tessa to the hiding place, Meg would leave on the pretense of getting supplies and someone she knew who could help, and would return to the men and kill them all. She would then return with their supplies, saying she couldn't find her friend.

They would then start the nursing process and then Meg would let Tessa decide what to do with J.D. when she was well again. She hadn't lied when she told him that Tessa did, in fact, love him. She had seen it long ago, but didn't say anything because of the knowledge that Tessa would just deny it.

`Well, whatever she decides, I'll stand behind her, as I have always done.'

She put a pleading question in her eyes as she managed to catch and hold J.D.'s gaze again. Her gaze flickered to Tessa and his eyes filled with pain as he followed the movement.

"J.D."

J.D.'s attention was taken away as Buck suddenly appeared next to him.

"You and I are gonna scout ahead. Make sure there's no problems. You start on, I'll join you in a second."

J.D. nodded and spurred his horse onward, moving around the group and disappearing behind a corner. Buck looked at Meg, his eyes filled with an icy threat.

"You keep yourself and your scheming little mind away from him," he growled softly, "Or we'll keep you knocked out for the rest of this little trip."

Without waiting for a reply, he spurred his horse and hurried after J.D.

`Damn it! How did they figure me out?'

Her gaze moved to Kayla and her eyes filled with cold hatred.

`Should have known the little traitor would keep on betraying.'

She sighed. `Now what? I might still be able to succeed with J.D., but it's gonna be a lot harder now that the mother hen is wise to me. Hmm. I'm gonna have to get away on my own and come back for Tessa later. Could be our only chance.'

Her decision made, her mind went to work on forming an escape plan.




Buck rode next to J.D., his eyes scouring the rocky landscape but his mind not really paying attention to what they saw. His mind was more focused on the problem with J.D. He hadn't missed the silent exchanges between the kid and Meg that had been occurring since that morning and was worried about what was going on in J.D.'s mind. Was the kid really falling for Meg's act? He sighed inwardly. Only one way to find out.

"You don't believe what she's telling you, do you?" he asked quietly.

J.D. started and looked at him. "What?"

"Meg. You don't believe whatever it is she's feeding you, do you?"

J.D. looked away, his eyes on his horse's neck.

"I don't know what you mean."

"Don't lie to me J.D. Kayla told us what Meg was up to last night. I've been watching and I've seen it. Whatever she's telling you is a lie, J.D. I hope you know that and aren't believing what she's saying."

J.D. was silent for a long moment before he quietly replied, "I don't know what to believe anymore. My mind is...it's..." he trailed off as he thought about his words, then looked back at Buck, a strange glimmer in his eyes. "I'm so confused Buck! Meg told me that Lynne...Tessa... really did care for me, but is just messed up from doing what's she been doing for so long. She said that if I helped her get Tessa away, that we could nurse her back to health and then take her a spot she knows in another country somewhere. That the three of us could settle down and Tessa and I could be togther."

"It's a lie Kid. Those girls are like black widows. Soon as their finished with ya, they'll kill ya."

"How do you know that? Kayla was one of them and she changed. She helped us get Vin back. How do you know Meg and Tessa aren't trying to change too?"

"I can't be certain, but I think Kayla had influence that kept her from the edge. Those two have been killing since before they were even teenagers. You can't do something like that for so many years and then turn around and suddenly change, J.D. Deep down, you know that, you just don't want to believe it. You want to believe that you can have a life with Tessa when, in reality, if she kept you alive you would just be a slave. You've already had a taste of that Kid, I really don't think you want the entire course. Better off with sticking around people who actually care for you and have your best interests in mind."

J.D. turned his gaze back to his horse's neck and said softly, "I don't know what to do."

Buck reached over and put his hand on J.D.'s shoulder.

"You do what your heart tells ya kid. Just remember, me and the boys, we're your friends and we don't want to see you hurt. In the meantime, do me and yourself a favor and stay away from Meg all right? You end up doing what she wants, you'll become and outlaw yourself and believe me, you'd rather be a lawman then an outlaw. Lot less chance of getting hanged that way."

J.D. was silent, but Buck saw him nod. It didn't calm his unease though, and he decided to keep watching the boy carefully until they got back to Four Corners and Meg and Tessa were safely locked away.




Nervous relief was filling Chris. The journey home had been rough and full of tension, but it would soon be ending. They were now less than a full day from Four Corners from where they were camped, and it was all he could do to keep from breaking camp and pushing on right then and there. Vin had gotten rapidly worse. When he wasn't deeply unconscious, his eyes were wide and staring and he talked nonsense as the raging fever sent in delirium to join the constant torture that had Vin crying out pleads to die. It had been hard on the four men to see their friend in this state and more than once, Chris had found his gaze on Tessa and his mind considering finishing her off.

"I hope Morgan has something for him," Buck said softly as he joined Chris. "I don't think a doctor will be able to get him out of that."

"If she doesn't and he dies," Chris growled softly, "I'll see to it she's charged as an accomplice to murder."

Buck hesitated, then asked, "What's going to happen to her if he does survive? I mean, she did help us a lot. J.D. probably wouldn't be here right now if she hadn't come forward and Ezra, hell if he ain't dead, she probably saved his life too."

Buck had, indeed, been upset with the girl for not coming forward way sooner, but he still like the attractive brunette a lot and didn't want to see her locked up or hung or something.

Chris shook his head. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

Silence fell, Buck watching while J.D. put more wood on the fire and Chris listening to Vin as he talked away to someone only he could see. A short scream broke the silence and the men jumped up, reaching for their guns instinctively. They hurried over and found Nathan kneeling next to Kayla, who was clutching a badly bleeding arm.

Nathan looked up and said, "Meg got loose and went after her."

"She was sneaking up behind me with a knife. I heard her and turned and she got my arm instead of my back," Kayla said, wincing as Nathan removed her hand to look at the wound.

"Damn it! How'd she get loose and how the hell did she get a knife?" Chris asked angrily.

"She always was very good at getting out of ropes," Kayla replied. "As for the knife, she probably got it off of Crystal or Selene. They both had them hidden all over."

"Why would she wait till now to escape?" Nathan asked.

Kayla shrugged. "She probably did not want to leave Tessa behind. She will probably bide her time and then rescue Tessa later on."

Buck looked at Chris and asked, "Should we go after her?"

Chris shook his head. "No, too dangerous. We have enough casualties, we don't need any more. We'll keep going with the two on watch but now we need to be on full alert in case she decides to come back."

"She won't," Kayla said, "She will want revenge, yes, but she will not jeopardize her plan to retrieve Tessa, so she will wait."

Chris nodded. "Just the same, until we're back in Four Corners, I'll feel more comfortable on full alert. I'm not going to let anyone else get hurt at the hands of those hellions."




PART 27



Josiah watched the distance anxiously for signs of his friends, ready to go meet them when they finally did arrive. He had secured the doctor, a middle aged man with thinning greyish brown hair and kind blue eyes. Josiah had gotten no trouble convincing the man to come with him. After hearing Josiah's story, the man had been horrified and had agreed to go with him immediately.

His attention was diverted as Morgan made her way up onto the platform, a plate in hand.

"Brought you some supper," she said with a small smile.

"Much obliged," Josiah replied, taking the plate and nodding to her. "How's Ezra doing?"

"Better. That doctor you brought back is wonderful." She looked out in the distance, then asked, "Any sign yet?"

Josiah shook his head. "If they haven't run into any major problems, they should be arriving soon though."

Silence fell and after a moment, Morgan asked quietly, "Josiah? What's gonna happen to Tessa?"

Josiah looked at Morgan thoughtfully for a long moment, then said, "Well, assuming she survives, when she's well enough, she'll be transferred over into the custody of the state and taken back to Texas to stand trial for her crimes."

The second thing Josiah had done after securing the doctor had been contacting the proper authorities and letting them know they had Tessa Williams and what was left of her gang. He had received a response instantly, saying that soldiers would be there within the week.

Morgan lowered her eyes, but not before Josiah saw the sad pain flashing through them. He set the plate aside and put a hand on her shoulder.

"Morgan, what you did was hard, but right. Tessa took a lot of lives and ruined many others. By helping us, you have saved the lives of many she had not yet encountered."

"I know," Morgan replied softly, "But it's still so hard. She's the only family I have left and I'm the only family she has left. By betraying her, I've lost her for good."

"Morgan, whether you realize it or not, you lost her a long time ago. Tessa is not the girl you once knew when you were children, before you both lost your parents. If you betrayed her at all, it was back then, when you allowed her to do the things she did and later on helped her commit her crimes instead of helping her to heal and settle down to live a normal life."

Morgan was silent as she thought about Josiah's words.

He could easily see she didn't really believe his words, but before he could comment further, she said quietly, "I'm going to go look in on Ezra."

She nodded to him, then turned and started making her way back down to the ground. Josiah didn't try to stop her, knowing she had to sort this out for herself. He turned his attention back to the horizon and his supper. Twenty minutes passed when movement suddenly caught his attention. He picked up the spyglass he had borrowed and trained it on the horizon and his heart began pounding as he picked out the familiar group.

He hurried down to the ground and over to Nathan's, where he told the doctor to get ready, then went to the livery and got his horse. The group was still a good hour away, so he tried not to push the animal too hard, but he was anxious to meet up with them. After what seemed like an eternity, he reined his horse in next to Chris, and gripped his leader's arm in greeting. He winced when he saw Vin, then answered Chris' question.

"Doctor's in town, ready and waiting."

"How's Ezra?" Nathan asked.

"You'll be happy to know Ezra is alive and doing well," Josiah replied, noticing some of the tension in the men loosen. "He probably won't be up and around for quite some time, but at least he's still breathing."

He looked around at the group and immediately noticed something.

"You seem to be two girls short."

"Meg escaped last night and Kayla disappeared on us a few hours ago," Chris replied tiredly.

Josiah nodded, not surprised. He hadn't expected Kayla to stick around. He had seen it in her eyes that she clearly had other plans. He looked back at Vin as the younger man began talking and looked at Chris inquisitively.

Chris sighed and shook his head as he looked back at his friend. Josiah put his hand on Chris' arm in a silent gesture, then dismounted and went over to the other man. Vin looked at him in such a way, chills ran up and down his spine. He forced back his unease and, taking Vin's hand in his own, murmured a prayer. He then remounted his horse and the group started off once more. They hadn't gone far when Buck suddenly called a halt.

Chris looked back at him in irritation and asked, "What is it?"

"It's J.D.," Buck replied, his attention focused on his young friend, "Something's wrong."

Nathan turned his horse and moved over to where the pair were. He started at the sickly, fevered look on the kid's face and quickly reached out to feel his head.

"How long ago did you have your last shot?" he asked, growing more alarmed at the heat he found there.

"Few hours," was J.D.'s mumbled response.

"A few hours! J.D. you're supposed to have one every hour!"

"Ran out."

"Why didn't you tell us?"

They couldn't hear the quiet response and both men quickly reached out to prevent J.D. from falling off his horse as the boy slowly went limp.

"Damn! We gotta get him back to town fast!" Nathan said.

Buck quickly maneuvered around until he was sitting behind J.D., one strong arm around the kid's chest to keep him in place.

"See you boys back in town," he said, then took off.

Nathan grabbed the reins of Buck's horse and followed as they continued on.

When they finally reached town, it was to startled, curious stares, which Chris met with a cold, warning stare of his own. It was enough to drive gawkers away, and they made it to Nathan's without needing to fend off bothersome questions. They were met at Nathan's by a middle aged man Josiah introduced as Doctor Reid, who took one look at Vin and ordered him upstairs immediately. Once they had gotten Vin in the room, everyone was kicked out except for Nathan and Morgan, so they could work in peace.

Chris stood, staring at the closed door until Buck finally put a hand on his arm and said softly, "Come on Pard, let's go wait in the saloon."




Hours passed with no word. Buck looked worried from Chris, to the general direction of Nathan's and back again. He wasn't sure who worried him more, the injured men being treated at Nathan's, or the now drunk and depressed man in the corner. Buck thought about trying to get Chris to eat or rest or something, but then figured he's probably end up joining the injured at Nathan's, so he had left his friend alone. He'd wait until Chris passed out, then take the older man to his room. It was safer that way. He looked up and his breath caught in his throat as Josiah entered and headed for his table.

"Anything?" he asked anxiously.

Josiah sighed heavily and gestured to Chris' table. Chris looked up slightly as the two men joined him and Josiah said, "J.D. is going to be all right. Morgan managed to get something in him on time. Tessa came to and made fuss, but she's under control now."

He fell silent, hesitating and Buck knew he wasn't going to like what the big man said next.

"Vin isn't going to make it. The head wounds mixed with Tessa's potions Morgan injected him with something to try and fight it, but..." he trailed off and shook his head.

"Damn," Buck said softly.

Silence fell and then Chris suddenly slammed his fist on the table, stood, grabbed his bottle and stalked out. He took a moment to let his eyes adjust to the darkness, then started for Nathan's staggering slightly in his drunken state. He managed to climb the stairs that led to the healer's room and was just about to go in when the door opened and Nathan came out.

"Chris."

Nathan eyed the other man a little warily, then said, "I was just coming to get you. Vin's a little more lucid now. He's asking for you."

Chris wordlessly moved passed Nathan and into the dimly lit room. Morgan and Doctor Reid weren't there at the moment and Chris guessed they had gone for some rest. The little room was crowded with patients. Ezra in a corner, sleeping peacefully with J.D. next to him and Vin next to J.D. Tessa was in another corner, tied to the bed and apparently unconscious. Chris stared hard at her before turning his attention to Vin, who's quick, ragged breathing was the only sound in the room. Chris crossed over to the little bed, sat in the chair next to it, and watched his friend. After a moment, Vin's eyes opened, and the two men stared at one another, silent communication going strong.

"Damn it Vin!" Chris finally growled softly, "Didn't you hear a single thing I told you? You can't die. You still got too much to do."

I'm...sorry Chris," Vin said weakly, "I'm...trying to hang on...but they're...pulling me."

"Who's pulling you?"

"Them. They're...beckoning me...pulling me to them. They're...showing me things. Wonderful things Chris. Beautiful and warm..." His gaze traveled to a spot in the room and he smiled as he watched something only he could see.

Afraid, Chris reached out and took Vin's hand. "Vin please, don't go. I need you, Pard. Don't go."

Vin looked back at Chris and said, "Don't...be afraid Chris. People... leave this world...and the people they love all the time."

His gaze went back to that spot and his breathing grew harsh. When he looked back at Chris, the black clad gunman could clearly see Vin was leaving.

"I'm...sorry Chris. Their pull is...too great."

Chris shook his head and tightened his grip on Vin's hand. "No, no you can't go Vin. You gotta fight them, you can't go!"

"Don't be afraid," Vin repeated, "It's...only for a...little while. You've...been a good...friend to me...Chris. We'll...see each other again...real soon."

Vin smiled and squeezed Chris' hand. Then, his eyes closed, the sound of his harsh breathing suddenly stopped and his hand went limp in Chris'.

"Vin? Vin?" Fear and grief surged through Chris as he frantically tried to awaken his friend.

"No," he whispered. "NO!"




PART 28



The door burst open at Chris' anguished shout and Nathan, Buck and Josiah rushed over.

"Chris!"

Nathan stopped when he saw Vin and quickly searched for vital signs. He looked up and shook his head.

"No, no, no, no," Chris repeated softly, staring down at Vin with tear filled eyes.

Josiah moved around and stood, his head bowed as he began reciting a prayer.

"Come on Chris," Buck said quietly, pulling his friend to his feet. "Can't do anything more here."

"No!" Chris shouted and began struggling, "No!"

"Chris!"

Nathan came over and helped Buck try to get Chris out of the room while Josiah finished the prayer and moved the blanket up to completely cover the body. Chris continued to struggle and shout.

"Chris! Chris!"

Somebody was shaking him and calling his name. Josiah came over and shouted, "Chris!" and somewhere among the panic, fear, guilt and grief, something registered that Josiah's voice sounded oddly like Nathan's.

"Chris!" Josiah shouted again and this time, slapped him.

Chris closed his eyes and shook his head. He was shaken again and this time, he could clearly hear Nathan calling him.

"Chris! Chris wake up!"

Chris opened his eyes and found himself staring up at Nathan as the other man knelt before him, his hands on Chris' shoulders, shaking him and calling to him. Breathing heavily, he looked around and found he was sitting against the wall outside Nathan's, two empty whisky bottles next to him.

"Chris?" Nathan asked cautiously.

Chris looked back at him in confusion, then his eyes suddenly widened and he gripped the other man's arm fervently, his eyes wide with fright.

"Vin!" he exclaimed hoarsely, "He's not dead, is he?"

Nathan shook his head. "No, he's still alive. He's not doing too well, but there's still a chance he'll survive."

"Jo...Josiah came into the saloon. Said he wasn't gonna make it."

"You were dreaming Chris. Remember? You went to the saloon, then came right back here with a couple friends."

Nathan picked up one of the bottles and added, "Though from the sound of it, I'd say they're trying to tell you something."

He looked back at the gunslinger meaningfully, but his friend didn't seem to be listening. All that had registered was that Vin was still alive and he had just had a nightmare. Nathan could almost see the other man's heart hammering a couple hundred miles a minute.

`Must have been a pretty vivid dream,' he thought, `Better let `im see Vin, get `im calmed down and then get `im to bed.'

He gripped the man's arm and started pulling him to his feet. "Come on. I'll let you see 'im for a few minutes."

Chris swayed and Nathan quickly caught him. When the other man had regained some balance, Nathan released him and led him inside. Chris shuddered as he looked around the dimly lit room. The set-up of the injured was exactly as it had been in his 'dream.' Ezra sleeping peacefully in the corner, J.D. next to him, Vin next to J.D., and Tessa in another corner, tied securely to the bed. Chris approached fearfully, some of the fear leaving him when he saw Vin was, indeed, still alive. Chris couldn't help but think with sick humor that his friend looked something like a mummy, half his body being bandaged. In areas where there were no bandages, ugly, angry bruises had made appearances.

"I'm not sure if he got those wandering around the mountains or from Tessa and her girls,"Nathan said. "I think it might be a little of both."

Chris stared down at Vin, anger rising in him as he listened to his friend's ragged, wheezy breathing. His gaze moved to Tessa and he slowly wandered over and looked down at her. The girl also wore bandages, but just around the area where J.D. had shot her. She looked peaceful and innocent laying there and to look at her, no one would suspect she was a hardened, blood thirsty killer. A killer who had almost gotten one of his best friends and who still might.

"She gonna live?" he asked tightly.

He knew Nathan was hesitating when the answer didn't come right away. There was a hint of apprehension in the healer's voice when he finally did answer. "Yeah."

Chris was silent for a moment, then growled, "Get her out of here. I want her kept at the jailhouse till the men get here."

"But Chris, she can't be properly looked after there."

Chris whirled around and snarled, "You think I care? After what she did to Vin? What she did to J.D. and Ezra? She managed to take out nearly half of us and I never suspected a thing. J.D. and Ezra will make it out of this, but Vin might not," his voice rose to a shout, "And I never suspected!"

Nathan stared at the other man in surprise for a moment, then said, "Chris, we've been through this. It ain't your fault. Even Vin told you that. She had the wool pulled down over *all* our eyes, not just yours. You gotta stop blaming yourself. It ain't healthy."

It was clear from Chris' expression that Nathan's words had gone in one ear and out the other. Guilt filled rage burned in Chris' eyes as he looked at Nathan and said, "I should have seen it. Vin himself warned me about her and I didn't even think twice when Tessa told me he had taken off for a while. It never occurred to me that he might be in trouble or that it was strange for him to give a message to someone he didn't trust, as Ezra pointed out."

Nathan shook his head. "You were distracted by other things Chris. You can't expect to know everything and be everywhere at once. You're only human, you gotta realize that."

For a moment, Nathan thought he might have gotten through to Chris, but with so many emotions running through the man's eyes, it was hard to tell.

Finally, Chris said in a soft, threatening tone, "I'll be back in an hour. If she hasn't been moved to the jailhouse by then, I'll finish what J.D. started. Is that clear?"

Nathan stared at him for a moment, then nodded, figuring it would be safer to just do what Chris asked. Chris cast a look in Vin's direction, then turned and stalked out.




A few days passed. Chris had returned to Nathan's room and hadn't left Vin's side for anything, much to the annoyance of Doctor Reid. However, the man bit his tongue and left Chris alone since the gunslinger allowed him to do his work in peace. Vin was like a yo-yo. He kept improving, then slipping back to his previous state and then improving again. It was hard to watch.

Ezra was recovering well, though he lost energy rapidly and so slept a lot. J.D. was recovering at a much slower pace, relapses sneaking in to claim him every little bit but, thanks to Morgan's careful eye and potions, they were becoming less frequent. She continually gave Vin stronger potions, trying to combat what was still left in his system and was pleased with the results she was getting.

Chris watched silently from the spot he moved to when Vin was being tended to as she gave the other man yet another injection, then felt his forehead. Her full attention was suddenly taken and she quickly looked up and called to Nathan and Doctor Reid. Chris watched anxiously as the two men went over and the trio conferred for a few moments. Doctor Reid examined Vin, looked up and nodded. Nathan came over to Chris, a big smile on his face.

"Fever's broken. He's gonna be all right."

Chris stared at Nathan, relief and shock teaming up and beating down on him. His knees buckled as the exhaustion he had been holding back surged forward and Nathan quickly reached out to keep him on his feet.

"Easy now," he said, helping Chris into a nearby chair. He looked at him for a moment. "See?" he admonished, "I told you something like this would happen."

Doctor Reid grabbed his bag, a small smile on his lips.

"If you gentlemen will excuse me, I need to check on the girl. I'll be back in a bit."

He looked at Chris and sternness entered his eyes. "You best get some rest Mr. Larabee. I have no wish for another patient right now."

He smiled at Nathan, then quietly left.

"Just so you know," Morgan said quietly, "It's gonna be a while before he can be up and about. He's kinda in J.D.'s position only a little worse."

"Better than being six feet under," Nathan said.

Chris looked up at Morgan and met her eyes. "Thanks," he said softly.

Morgan nodded in reply, a small smile on her lips.

"Come on Chris," Nathan said, "Let me help you to your room so you can get some proper sleep."

He moved to help the other man up, but Chris shook his head. "No, I'm staying here."

Nathan looked at him in exasperation. "Chris, you are the most stubborn man I've ever met! Vin is going to be fine. You can't sit here killing yourself emotionally and physically anymore."

Chris was about to argue when the door opened and a tense Josiah entered.

"We have a big problem," he said. "Meg just made a reappearance. She's barricaded up inside the jailhouse, holding Buck and Doctor Reid hostage. She's demanding to talk to you Chris."

Chris swore violently and stood up, swaying just a bit.

"Chris," Nathan began a warning in his tone. He was starting to fear for his friend and was worried that if Chris didn't rest soon, his body would just shut down and then they'd have more trouble.

Chris shot him a look that said everything, then turned to Morgan and said, "Stay here and keep watch over them."

Without waiting for a response, he turned and stalked out. Nathan and Josiah exchanged glances, then hurried after him.




PART 29



Buck sat behind J.D.'s desk in the sheriff's office, absently playing a game of solitaire. Every once in a while, he would glance into the cell holding Tessa Williams, just to make sure she wasn't up to anything despite her condition. She had been awake for some time, staring absently at the opposite wall or the roof, calm and silent. For some reason, it unnerved Buck. He knew that, until she was in the custody of the federal lawmen and a long way from Four Corners, he wasn't going to have a moment of relaxation. He looked up as the door opened and Doctor Reid entered, his bag in hand.

"Afternoon Doc," he greeted, putting the cards down.

Doctor Reid nodded. "Afternoon Mr. Wilmington. You'll be happy to know that Mr. Tanner's fever has broken and it looks like he's going to be fine."

A wide smile split Buck's face. "That's the best news I've heard all month Doc."

He stood and grabbed the key for the cell to let the older man in. He watched as the other man went over to Tessa and examined her, ready to act if he needed to. Tessa didn't make a sound or a movement, however, and a several moments later, he was re-locking the cell and putting the key back in it's place. While the Doctor was putting his bag in order, the door opened and a young girl wearing a black veil that hid her face entered.

"Excuse me," she said softly, "I wonder if you could help me?"

Buck smiled. "Sure thing Miss. What's the problem."

"Well, I have a friend who's hurt real bad and being held by some men. I need help to rescue her."

Buck's smile faded. "Do you know where your friend's being held, Miss?"

The girl nodded and came till she was standing just a few inches away from Buck.

"Yes, I do," she said softly.

Alarms began going off in his mind at the same time he felt something press into his chest.

"Right here," the girl added in a hard voice.

She reached up and removed the veil, revealing her identity.

"Meg," Buck growled.

Meg smiled. "Why Buck," she purred, "Aren't you happy to see me?"

"I'd be happier seeing a live rat being eaten by a snake."

Meg's smile widened. "Now that paints a pretty picture. Be a good boy

and a remove your gunbelt, nice and easy."

Buck glared at her and complied only when she pushed the barrel of her gun jabbed the gun further into his chest.

Meg grabbed his shoulder and spun him around, quickly replacing the barrel of the gun in his back and made him go over to one of the empty cells. She grabbed the key on the way, opened the cell and pushed Buck in. She then turned her attention to Doctor Reid, who was staring at her in shock.

"Well now, you must be the good doctor Josiah hurried to fetch. Do as you're told and you might live through this."

She gestured to Tessa with her head and asked, "How is she?"

"Uh, well, she's gonna be fine, but it's going to take some time. The bullet did a lot of damage and she lost a lot of blood."

Meg smiled and motioned him to the other side of the room. "Have a seat over there Doc. I'll let you know when I need you."

Her attention was driven to the door as three short knocks, followed by a pause and then two more, echoed in the room. She crossed over and opened it, admitting two girls, each with long blonde hair, one who appeared to be in her early thirties, while the other looked to be in her late twenties They exchanged some words, then Meg led the older one over to Tessa's cell, opened it and entered with her.

"Tessa," Meg said softly, kneeling down by the girl's head. "Tessa, it's Meg."

Tessa slowly turned her attention to her friend and looked at her for a long moment before asking, "What...took you so long?"

Meg smiled. "There's this thing called a plan. I had to figure out how to get you out of here before I made a reappearance."

"Where are the...others?"

Meg's smile faded. "Crystal and Selene are dead. I don't know what happened to the traitor."

Tessa's face filled with grief and she closed her eyes for a long moment.

"Hey," Meg said, trying to keep Tessa from falling into something she might not come out of, "Guess who I found?"

She waited until Tessa had opened her eyes again, then moved aside and allowed the blonde woman to take her place. Surprise and uncertainty flashed through Tessa's eyes.

"Carla?"

Carla smiled and put her hand on Tessa's cheek.

"Hey kid. Heard you went and got yourself shot. Well don't worry, the girls and I are gonna get you out of here and get you well again."

"The others are here too?"

Carla nodded. "Yup, the whole family is here. Lena is right behind me, but she'll say hi later. She's busy on watch."

"What...what are you doing in...this territory?"

Carla laughed softly. "Would you believe we've settled? Well, sort of. It's a long story that we'll tell you later. First, we're gonna get you out of here."

"How?"

Without answering, Meg left the cell and went to the widow. She smiled, then pulled her gun and smashed the window. She fired a few shots, then shouted, "Hey preacher! Remember me? I want Larabee's ass over here so we can have a little chat! I've got Wilmington and the good doctor in here and really feel like shooting someone, so if he don't hurry, there's gonna be an addition to the body count you all started! Am I clear?"

She listened to a response, then turned back to them, a small grin on her lips.

"With any luck, we'll be out of here within the hour."

"You really think Chris is gonna let you all out of this town alive?" Buck asked.

"He will if he ever wants to see you in one piece again," Meg replied. "And I do mean that literally."

Carla turned her full attention on Buck for the first time since her arrival.

"Well now," she said with a smile, "who's this tall, handsome specimen?"

"This is Buck Wilmington, the resident ladies man I told you about," Meg replied with a smirk.

Carla's smile widened. "So this is Buck Wilmington."

Buck didn't like the hungry look in her eyes as they roamed up and down his form. Normally, he loved it when a woman got that look in her eyes, but this one seemed...well, he couldn't describe it and he definitely didn't like it.

"Meg!" came a shout from outside.

Meg looked toward the widow. "Well, that was fast," she said, going over and carefully positioning herself.

"Nice seeing ya again Chris!" she called out.

"Cut the small talk Meg! What do you want?"

"I want Tessa and safe passage out!"

"Not gonna happen!"

"Oh I think it will. I got Wilmington in here and if I don't get what I want within the next hour, I'm gonna send out a little piece of him. Then, for every half hour that Tessa and I are stuck in here, more and more parts are gonna be sent out until eventually there will be nothing left but a pool of blood and a pile of skin and bones. If that *still* doesn't work, I have the good Doctor here too and, well, I don't think you'll let either of them die, will you? You have one hour to decide, Larabee. Make this decision a good one."

She backed away from the window and turned to face them. A bright smile crossed her face. "Cards anyone?"




Morgan paced the room nervously. Something wasn't right. She knew Meg. The girl would not take such a high risk in coming back unless she had some kind of plan. She glanced at the three sleeping men, then quietly opened the door and went out onto the deck. She breathed in the cool air, hoping it would calm her unease, and looked down at the street below her. Her gaze fell upon a young woman dressed in clothes she knew signified she was a gunslinger, walking slowly down the boardwalk across the street, obviously checking the layout of the town. It was something she herself had done thousands of times, so she knew more trouble was on the way. She watched as the woman met up with another one just a few years older than she and talked to her.

Morgan's eyes narrowed as the looked at the new one. There was something very familiar about her. She stared hard at her for a long moment, then drew in a sharp breath. `No way,' she thought, `It can't be. Yes, it is. Lacy Holland, the third eldest in the Holland family gang. The first one must have be one of her sisters. Oh no. If she's here, Carla and the others must be too. I gotta tell Chris and the others.'

She hurried down the stairs and rushed in the direction of the jailhouse. She could see Chris listening to Meg as she shouted out what she wanted and decided it would be better not to show herself to Meg right now. Instead, she hurried over to where Nathan and Josiah were standing tensely, watching the scene carefully.

"Nathan! Josiah!" she gasped out.

"Morgan!" Nathan exclaimed, "You're supposed to be watching the other guys. What are you doing here?"

"I have to tell you something. There's trouble. Deep, serious trouble."

She quickly told them about seeing two of the Hollands.

"I know of them," Josiah said, "Bad news."

"Worse than you think. I have to talk to you all right away."

"Okay, okay," Nathan said, "Just calm down and go wait for us back in my room. We'll be right there."

Morgan nodded, cast a worried look in the direction of the jailhouse, then turned and quickly left. Nathan and Josiah exchanged looks, then Josiah carefully moved over to Chris.

"Chris, we have another problem. We need to talk right now."

Chris looked at Josiah, heard the urgency and nodded. Meg's `talk' with him was over, so he turned and the trio started back for Nathan's.




PART 30



All right, what's this new problem?" Chris asked in irritation once they were back at Nathan's. "The Holland gang is here," Morgan replied. "I have no idea what they're doing way over in this neck of the woods, but they're here and Meg must have found them."

"Holland gang?" Chris thought for a moment, then asked, "They who I think they are?"

"If you're thinking gang associated with the devil, then ya," Morgan replied.

"You know them well Morgan?" Nathan asked.

Morgan nodded. "Back when Tessa and I were riding together, we ran into them several times. Tessa had met them when she was out on her own and had rode with them off and on for a while. When I first met them, there were three. Carla, Lena, and Lacy. Each time we met up with them, there was one more in the group. Seems whenever they felt one of their siblings was old enough to be of use, they went and retrieved them. Their mother and father were pretty poor so they didn't object to having less mouths around to feed. Last time I saw them, they were up to five. I've kept track of them over the years and they've expanded."

"How many?" Chris asked.

"Eight. Six girls two guys. They guys are twins, the babies of the family." She sighed. "Things are gonna get very, very nasty."

"Something we don't need right now," Chris replied.

He blinked, put a hand to his head and swayed as dizziness rushed in.

"I'm fine," he said as Nathan reached out to steady him.

"No you're not. Damn it Chris, if you don't get some decent sleep soon, you're body's gonna shut down and then you'll be in real trouble!"

Chris shook his head. "I ain't resting till we get Buck out of there and both them little hellions are a long way from here."

"You're not going to have a choice," Nathan replied, beginning to get angry.

Chris stared at Nathan. "That a threat?"

"No, It's a fact. You can only stay in control for so long Chris. Sooner or later, your body is going to override you and shut down. That head wound doesn't help matters either. How you gonna help Buck if you're unconscious or dead?"

"Nathan's right Chris," Josiah said softly, "You need to rest."

"How can I rest now?" Chris argued. "I rest and they walk out of here. Am I supposed to let that happen?"

"Yes," came a soft reply from the door.

The trio spun around, startled, their hands going for their guns.

"Kayla!" Nathan exclaimed. He wondered how long she had been there. None of them had even heard the door open.

"Let them leave," she said. "I know where their hideout is. The element of surprise will be ours."

"How do you know?" Chris asked, his eyes narrowed suspiciously.

"The day I left you, it was under the influence of the spirits. They told me something was wrong and led me to the Holland's hideout. It's very well hidden. I've been observing them the past few days, so I know their routine and the layout of the spread rather well. Let them leave. They will probably take the doctor and Buck with them, but I am certain they will not kill them. They need the doctor to help Tessa and they need Buck for insurance."

'Among other things,' she added silently.

Chris looked far from convinced. Nathan sighed.

"Chris, she's been right the past few times hasn't she? I say we trust her and let them leave."

He glanced at Vin, J.D., and Ezra. "The longer they stay here, the greater the risk someone's gonna get it into their head to bring those three along too. That's something I don't think either of them could handle, especially Vin."

Chris looked over at Vin and mixed emotions flooded his eyes. After a long moment, he nodded.

"All right," he said tiredly.

He turned and started for the door, pushing back the dizziness that kept trying to pay him a visit, and Nathan and Josiah followed. When the men had left, Kayla looked at Morgan for the first time and nodded a greeting.

"How are you doing?" she asked quietly.

Morgan sighed. "Terrible."

Kayla nodded. "It had to be done."

She went over and stood next to Vin, gazing down at him with an unreadable expression.

"How is he?"

Morgan smiled. "He's gonna live. Fever broke just a little while ago. It's very rare for a man to survive those potions. He's a strong one."

A small, soft smile crossed Kayla's lips. "Yes, he is."

"While I am delighted that Mr. Tanner is going to be making a full recovery," a sleepy voice murmured, "I would appreciate it if you ladies would tone down the chatter just a bit."

"Ezra," Morgan said with a smile, moving to his side as Kayla immediately stepped into the shadows. "How do you feel?"

"Aside from a splitting headache, I feel much better than the last time I was awake."

"I'll see if I can find something for it."

Ezra watched as she rummaged around, then his gaze went to J.D. and he asked, "How is the boy doing?"

"He's getting better," Morgan replied over her shoulder. She came back over with a glass full of strangely colored liquid. He looked at it and raised a brow as she helped him sit up.

"Just drink it," she said before he could say anything.

When he had finished, she helped him lay back down again, then moved to check on J.D.

"He's still in a pretty deep sleep from the last relapse, but that's probably a good thing. With the situation Buck is in, I don't think I'd be able to keep J.D. here."

"Situation?"

"Oh that's right, you don't know."

She quickly filled him in on the latest turn of events. Ezra raised a brow. "My, my. I leave them alone for a short while and look what happens. We're being overrun by female miscreants."

"Are you hungry?"

"Now that you mention it, I do feel the need for nourishment."

Morgan nodded. "Okay. I'll be right back."

Once Morgan had left, Ezra's gaze traveled to Kayla's form in the shadows and he smiled slightly. He'd been told about her part in the rescue of Vin and didn't want her to think he held hostility towards her.

"There is no need to hide, my dear," he said, "I don't plan on attacking you if that is your fear."

"It's not," came her soft, matter of fact reply, "I prefer the shadows."

Ezra nodded, his gaze going to Vin.

"I wish to thank you for your help in the retrieval of Mr. Tanner here. That was very brave of you."

"It was a matter of honor, and doing what was right to get me back on the path I should have been on."

Ezra couldn't see her expression, but he saw her form relax at the mention of Vin and knew that it was more than just honor and doing what was right that had caused her to help them. His soft smile turned to a grimace as he shifted and pain coursed through him. He tried moving back into his former position, but it only caused more pain to surge forward and he groaned.

Kayla hesitated, then slowly moved out of the shadows and to his side. She silently took hold of him and carefully moved him back into a painless position.

"Thank you, my dear," Ezra gasped breathlessly.

Kayla nodded. She was about to do something more, when Morgan returned. She retreated back into the shadows and watched as Morgan helped a nearly exhausted Ezra to eat some of the food she brought, silently hopping that this would all be over soon and she could get out of this territory.




Nathan kept a close eye on Chris as he and Josiah followed the black clad man to the jailhouse. "If he don't rest willingly when this is over," he murmured to Josiah, "I'm gonna have to sedate him."

Josiah nodded. "He won't be to thrilled when he wakes up, but at least he'll be rested."

He was silent for a moment, then added, "We seem to have suddenly gotten quite a few more young women around here."

Nathan glanced around and quickly singled out several young women, spread out and watching them from different positions on the way to the jailhouse. He noticed one or two of them following and more tension entered his already tense body.

"I just hope this doesn't end up in a bloodbath," he said quietly. "We've got enough injured and dead already."

"Amen brother," Josiah murmured back.

The pair fell silent and hung back as Chris stopped a short distance away from the jailhouse and called out to Meg.

"So what's it gonna be Chris?" came Meg's immediate response, "Do we walk or do I get to start taking Buck apart?"

"You let them go, and you can walk."

Meg laughed. "Oh Chris, that head wound must have effected your mind. You know very well that ain't gonna happen. We're taking Buck and the good doctor with us. When we get to our destination, then we'll send them back. That's the deal. Take it or leave it."

Chris was silent for a moment and Nathan and Josiah eyed the women watching them warily. From Chris' movements, they knew that he, too, was aware of their presence.

Finally, he called, "All right."

Immediately, the women who had been watching them disappeared as Meg called back, "Wise choice."

The trio back away a bit as the women returned with their horses along with a wagon driven by two young men who were obviously the twin brothers.

"All right," Meg called, "We're coming out now so you three keep your distance and your hands where we can see them."

The trio did as they were told, but Nathan and Josiah had to constantly murmur calming words to Chris to keep him from losing it as they watched Meg emerge with two more women, Tessa, Buck and Doctor Reid. Buck met Chris' eyes and the Chris sent a silent promise to his oldest friend. He barely contained his rage as Buck and Doctor Reid were forced onto some horses and Tessa was placed in the wagon. Meg mounted her own horse and smiled at the men.

"Been a pure pleasure Gentlemen," she said in a falsely sweet voice. "Perhaps we'll see each other again some day."

She spurred her horse and started after the Hollands. However, she hadn't gone far when she stopped the horse, turned and shouted, "Oh, one more thing!"

"Chris!"

Nathan's shout was drowned out by the familiar crack of the gun that had appeared in her hand.




PART 31



"Chris!"

Chris was on the move even as Nathan shouted and the gun went off. He dived to one side and hit the ground hard, white hot pain searing through his side as he did so. He lay there a moment, listening to the sound of hooves fading away and then voices calling to him. He opened his eyes and Nathan and Josiah's worried faces floated into view above him. He swore violently and started to sit up, but Nathan quickly pushed him down again.

"Let me see how bad it is first, Chris."

Chris hissed sharply as Nathan pulled his shirt back to inspect the wound.

"You're lucky," he said after a moment, "It's just a nasty graze."

"Yeah," Chris growled through gritted teeth, "I must be the luckiest man on Earth."

"Josiah, help me get him up would ya?" Nathan asked, ignoring Chris' sarcasm.

The two men carefully helped Chris to his feet, and then lowered him back to the ground as the other man suddenly became dead weight. Josiah shifted positions, scooped Chris up in his arms, and followed Nathan back to his room. They were met by a very worried looking Morgan.

"Nathan! I heard a shot."

She looked behind the black man and her eyes widened when she saw Josiah.

"Oh god! How bad is he?"

"It's just a graze," Nathan reassured her. "He's unconscious 'cause he couldn't keep the exhaustion back any more."

Josiah carefully put Chris down on the cot Tessa had occupied and Nathan quickly went to work on the wound. Once he was finished, he looked around the room and sighed deeply. How could one girl cause so much trouble? His gaze moved to Kayla, who was standing in the shadows, watching Vin sleep with an unreadable expression.

"So what's the plan?" he asked, moving over to her.

"We wait until your leader awakens, and then we go after the Hollands."

"There's no telling how long it will be till Chris wakes up. Could be a couple days, could be more You sure that's such a good idea to wait?"

"Buck and Doctor Reid might be dead in a few days," Josiah added from where he had been listening.

Kayla shook her head. "It will take time for Tessa to recover. They will need the doctor alive for quite a while. Buck...well the Holland women are very fond of men such as him. They will keep alive for as long as he keeps them...entertained."

"Whoa there Kayla," Nathan said, "While I'm sure Buck wouldn't mind having a bunch of women crawling over him, something tells me he's not going to want to stick around with these ones. Waiting for Chris to wake up might be a bad idea."

Kayla was silent for a moment, then said, "I am sorry, but the spirits tell me we must wait at least two days. If your leader has not awakened by then, we will go."

Nathan looked at Josiah, who shrugged and replied, "She's the only one who knows how to get there."

Nathan sighed and nodded. "I'm going to get something to eat. Anyone else want anything?"

Morgan and Kayla both asked for something, then Nathan and Josiah left.

When they were alone, Morgan looked at Kayla for a long moment before asking, "What's going on Kayla? I know you're not moving for a reason. What do you know that you aren't telling anybody?"

Kayla shrugged. "Just what the spirits have told me."

Morgan waited and when it became clear the other girl wasn't going to elaborate, sighed and busied herself with giving J.D. another shot and changing bandages.




Buck gritted his teeth as he tried unsuccessfully to loosen the ropes binding his hands to the bed he lay on. He tired to ignore the stinging in his wrists and the blood leaking out and trailing down his arm, but it wasn't easy. However, he had to do something to keep his mind off the fact that Chris might be dead. He had heard Meg fire her gun and had seen Chris go down and prayed to God that his oldest friend was all right. Course, if Chris was all right, what would this latest turn of events do his all ready brutally tortured mind? Chris already blamed himself for Vin....

Buck growled and strained harder against the ropes.

"You know," a soft voice said, "All that's going to accomplish for you is bleeding to death."

Buck stopped and turning his head toward the door, found one of the women in that gang Meg had come back with. She was a pretty brunette that he guessed to be in her early twenties. She was small, he figured below five feet, but looked like she could hold her own in a fight.

He watched as she approached, her eyes roaming up and down his form in a hungry way. She sat on the edge of the bed, staring silently down at him. She reached out and gently touched his cheek, her fingers trailing slowly down his neck and to his chest where they lingered for a moment before moving on. She stopped just above his pants line and grabbed hold of his shirt, slowly pulling it out and then moving her hand up to feel his skin. She looked back at him and smiled in a predatory way. She leaned down and covered his mouth with hers, holding him still with her free hand when he tried to jerk away and beginning a new exploration with her other hand.

Before she could get too far though, a sharp voice said, "Kelly!"

Kelly jerked up and they both looked toward the door. The woman named Carla stood there, watching in a mixture of scorn and amusement.

She stepped away from the door and gestured outside with her head. "Go help the boys."

Kelly nodded, looked back at Buck one last time, then got up and left the room. Carla closed and locked the door, then turned and looked at him.

"Please," she said with a small smile as she approached, "Excuse my sister. Hormones."

Her eyes traveled to the ropes and she frowned and shook her head.

"Well, you've certainly made a mess, haven't you? I'll be right back."

She turned and left the room, returning a few moments later with a bowl of water and a cloth. She set them on the night stand, then sat on the edge of the bed and looked at him.

"I'm going to untie you now. Just so you know, I have weapons hidden all over me, so don't be getting any ideas, okay?"

As if to show him, she flicked her right wrist and a knife shot out. She smiled, then used it to cut his bonds. She took the cloth from the bowl, then took one of his wrists and began to gently clean the blood away.

Buck watched her in confusion. This was not typical behavior a captor usually displayed toward a captive. But, then again, captors usually weren't women. She noticed his expression and smiled.

"Did you expect to be severely beaten by now?"

"Something like that," Buck replied uncertainly.

She laughed. "We Hollands don't beat our guests unless they step out of line."

"Guest?" Buck snorted. "Lady, I wouldn't call this being a guest."

"Really? Well, what do you call it?"

"I call it a felony offence. Where's Doctor Reid?"

"Tending to Tessa. Don't worry, he's safe and sound and being well treated."

"As far as I'm concerned, he ain't safe till we're a long way from here and he ain't treating that little spawn of the devil!"

"Why Buck, such harsh words. Tessa is just like my sisters and I. A woman making sure she survives in a man's world."

"There are plenty of ways for a woman to survive in this world," Buck growled, "killing and torturing innocent people is the coward's way."

Carla grabbed Buck's chin and squeezed painfully.

"I'd watch what you say darling. After all, you don't want me to take my anger out on the good doctor do you? Poor dear has a wife and children. Wouldn't want them growing up without a father."

"What's the difference? You're just going to kill us both anyway."

Another smile crossed her lips. "We don't always kill our guests. There have been a few times when one of my sisters or brothers have been hurt and the doctor did such a wonderful job in helping them and he made such a good impression on us that we let him return to his family unharmed and with our gratitude. Same situation with guests like you. We grew to like and respect them so much, we gave them a choice to stay or leave unharmed. Perhaps you and the doctor will be lucky enough to be included in one of those few times."

She lowered her voice seductively and added, "Of course, you're going to have to do what the others did and `earn' your chance to leave."

Buck glared at her. "I ain't earning nothing!" he snarled, "You may as well let the doc and I go now, cause we *will* be leaving."

She laughed softly. "Let me guess. Your friends will be coming right? Little flaw in that speculation sweety."

She began tracing her knife along his cheek and around his neck. "You see, this place is very well hidden and very well protected. Anybody who doesn't know how to avoid our little security traps are going to end up very dead very fast. There are only two ways out of here. One is if we let you leave and two is if our dear friend the grim reaper comes to call. I'll bet you can guess how many times he's payed us a visit."

She leaned down and whispered in his ear. "Accept it. You're here, you're staying and if our dear friend does come to claim you, Meg has told me all about what fine specimens some of your friends are. I'm sure they'd love to take your place."

She stood and moved to leave. She paused at the door and turned to look at him.

"You're going to love it here, trust me." Then she turned and left.

Buck stared at the door and growled softly, "Don't count on it."




Buck lay on the bed, staring thoughtfully at the wall opposite him a few hours later. Carla had given him a complete tour of the place and Buck had to admit, it was one hell of an impressive spread. He had seen several other `guests,' some of which seemed just as anxious as he was to get out of the place while others looked happy and content. He had seen quite a few women as well who, according to Carla, had been rescued from harsh lives with brutal men. Buck believed her, several of the women still bearing evidence of that claim. While it was a nice, charitable thing for the Holland's to do, Buck still didn't plan on sticking around to `earn his freedom.'

He had been waiting the last few hours for the activity to settle down before he made his move. Certain that now would be as good a time as any, Buck shook himself from this thoughts, got up and approached the door. He opened it and cautiously peered out into the hall. Finding no one, he slipped out and made his way carefully and quietly down the hall.

The voice in his head told him this was stupid, reminding him of Carla's earlier warning of the place being well hidden and protected, but he ignored it. He had taken careful note of everything and had seen the room Doctor Reid was staying in. He quickly made his way there, stopping and listening at the door to make sure no one was in there with him. He opened the door and slipped inside, putting a finger to his lips to warn the doctor against saying anything.

"Just wanted to let you know that I'm getting out of here, Doc," he whispered when he had closed the door and had gotten close enough to the older man.

Doctor Reid's eyes widened. "Are you sure that's a good idea, Mr. Wilmington? You could be badly hurt or killed."

"I sure as hell ain't staying here. I gotta get back to the others. You best stay here though. From the looks of things, you're safe. I'll be back with the others as soon as I can."

Doctor Reid put a firm hand on Buck's arm. "You be careful," he said, "The last thing I want to see is you ending up dead. I'm sure your friends wouldn't take too kindly to that either."

Buck smiled slightly. "Maybe not, but at least it would give them something to do in the revenge department."

He clasped Doctor Reid's hand, nodded to him, then quickly but carefully left the room. He moved cautiously down the halls, narrowly avoiding detection several times.

He was close to the back door when his luck suddenly changed. One of the Holland girls, Rita rounded the corner in front of him, and jumped when she saw him. He froze and the pair looked at each other for a moment, then her startled expression slowly turned to a predatory smile.

"Going somewhere?" Rita purred.

Buck put on one of his most charming smiles and moved closer to her. "Just going for a little walk darlin'. Figured I may as well get a feel for the place if I'm gonna be here for a while." He offered her his arm and added, "Would you care to join me?"

Something in Rita's eyes flashed and she accepted his offered arm. "Reckon I would," she replied with a slight hint of suspicion.

As she took his arm, the jacket she was wearing shifted and Buck spied her gun. He hated what he was about to do but, under the circumstances, he was sure he'd get over it. Moving quickly, Buck grabbed her neck with his other hand, pulling her back and into the wall, where he snatched her gun from it's holster and then brought her back hard into the other wall. While she slumped to the floor, Buck took off at a run. He rounded a corner and was relived to find the back door deserted. A shout from inside followed him out into the warm night and he ducked instinctively as shots rang out.

`Now where the hell's the barn?' he thought, peering around his hiding place and trying to determine where he was. He froze as the familiar sound of a hammer being drawn back reached his ears.

"This is as far as you go buddy," a rough voice said. "Stand up and turn around slowly." Buck did as he was told, keeping the gun hidden and faced a man not much older than he was, glaring at him while he aimed his peacemaker at Buck's heart.

"Running away from these nice girls ain't a good idea," he said.

"Neither is trying to stop me," Buck growled in reply. He jumped to the side and fired his gun. He watched as the man went down, dead before he hit the ground, a surprised look in his vacant eyes. Buck turned to resume his search for the barn and was met with a stunning kick to the stomach. He fell to the ground, gasping, the gun falling from his grasp as his attention went to trying to breathe.

"Going somewhere Buck?"

Buck looked up and his eyes hardened when he saw Meg. She lashed out with another kick that caught him in the ribs and laughed at the pain filled gasp that escaped his lips. She moved to kick him again, but Buck moved and grabbed her foot. He pulled hard and she fell to the ground with a surprised yell. She jumped to her feet seconds later, however and Buck had to scramble to his own so he could meet her blows. He growled as he received another blow to the chest and retaliated with a swift backhand across her face. She fell to the ground with a cry and it was all Buck could do to keep himself from going to her and helping and comforting her. He quickly scanned the ground for the gun, saw it and started to pick it up when something rammed into him from behind. He fell painfully to the ground, struggling against the heavy force on top of him. He screamed at the sudden, intense pain in his leg, then stopped his struggles as a cold, wet blade was pressed to his throat.

"Give up now, or your leg won't be the only thing bleeding," a soft voice whispered.

The blade was moved and he was hauled roughly to his feet, the blade coming back once he was standing. He tried to ignore the pain in his leg and clear his blurry vision without moving his head to much. His arms were pinned painfully to his side by a man he couldn't see, but could tell was at least as big and strong as Josiah. Meg was the one holding the knife to his throat, a nasty smile on her lips as she let the blade bite into his skin a little. His attention was taken as Carla suddenly appeared, a mixture of amusement and anger in her eyes. Lena and the two boys followed, one of them supporting a hostile looking Rita.

Carla looked at him and shook her head. "Oh Buck, that wasn't a very nice thing you did now was it? After all the hospitality we've shown you, this is how you act? Beating up on one of your hostesses and killing a poor man." She sighed. "Whatever am I going to do with you?" She glanced back at her siblings, then Buck was doubled over in pain as her fist suddenly connected with is stomach, the knife slicing a small part of his throat open in the process.

She grabbed his hair and pulled his head back roughly and said in a deadly calm voice, "Disobedience must be punished."

She released him and ordered, "Take him to the work out room. I'll be along shortly."

As Buck was dragged off, she looked back at the dead man, then over at Lena. "Have someone burry poor Dave here. Is Father John still around?"

Lena nodded.

"Good. Have him do a short service or something. Dave deserves that much anyway."

Lena nodded and moved off to preform her task. Carla then turned her attention to Rita. "Get yourself fixed up and then come to the work out room. You can get your share of dishing out the punishment."

Rita smiled her brothers helped her away. Carla knelt down next to Dave and closed his eyes. "Goodbye my friend. May you find peace."




J.D.'s eyes slowly opened for the first time since passing out on the trail home. He recognized Nathan's room almost immediately and wondered how long he had been asleep. He moved his head and his eyes fell on Ezra, half sitting up, playing with his deck of cards.

"Ezra!" he exclaimed, then winced as pain rushed through his head. He rode it out, then said more softly, "You're alive!"

Ezra looked at him and smiled. "So it would appear. Although there have been several times just today when that observation could have been very well debated."

J.D. turned his head and caught sight of Vin. He looked back at Ezra and asked, "How's Vin?"

Ezra looked at the former Bounty hunter. "He too, will be fine. At least that's what we've been told and his lovely guardian angel over there seems to agree."

J.D. watched the gambler's gaze move to another point in the room and looked in the general direction. He started slightly when he saw Kayla standing motionless in the shadows of one corner.

`I thought she took off,' he thought and was about to say something when the door opened and Nathan came in.

The black healer smiled when he saw J.D. looking at him. "Welcome back J.D. How you feeling?" he asked, going over and sitting on the edge of the cot.

"Well, I'd say I was feeling fine, but then I'd be lying through my teeth," J.D. said with a pained smile.

Nathan chuckled, got up and returned with a needle. "This should help," he said, injecting the liquid into his patient.

J.D. winced, then asked, "How long have I been asleep?"

"Few days. You were lucky. Morgan managed to get some of her potion into you in time to fight off the remaining poison that was attacking. You really should have told us you were out."

J.D. looked away, his gaze coming to rest on Chris. "What happened to Chris?" he asked, glad for a chance to change the subject.

Nathan glanced back at Chris then said, "Exhaustion. He'll be all right."

"Say, where's Buck? You'd think he'd be up here waiting to give me hell or something."

"Never you mind about Buck. He's...busy right now. You just get some proper rest."

J.D. look at Nathan suspiciously. Something wasn't right. "Nathan, what is it? What's happened?"

"Nothing's happened. But it will if you don't get some proper rest."

J.D. shook his head. "If you don't tell me what's going on, I'm gonna go find someone who will."

To make good on his threat, he began moving to get up. Nathan glanced over at Ezra, then quickly put a restraining hand on J.D.'s chest.

"Stay put. It won't do you any good to be up and about right now." He sighed, then quickly told him the events that had occurred earlier that day.

J.D.'s face went even paler as he listened, fear entering his eyes.

"Now don't you worry none. Kayla here knows the way to the Holland's hideout. As soon as the time is right, we're gonna go get Buck and Doctor Reid back. In the meantime, get some rest. I'll have some food brought up shortly, okay?"

J.D. nodded and as Nathan left, closed his eyes and slipped into an uneasy sleep.




He awoke some time later to odd noises. Opening his eyes, he watched Vin tossing his head restlessly, crying out softly in distress. He watched as Kayla suddenly materialized out of the shadows and sat on the edge of Vin's bed, taking his hand and whispering softly in her language. He watched in amazement as Vin slowly began to quiet, marveling at how soft and young her expression was compared to the normally cold, suspicious one she wore.

He watched her a moment, then said quietly, "You really do care for him don't you?"

Kayla looked up, startled at the voice. She looked at him for a moment, then nodded. "Yes. I've come to care for him a great deal."

"Is he really gonna be all right?"

"Physically, yes. Mentally and spiritually will take time however." She studied him for several moments, then said, "Everyone has two possible destines. At this point in time, yours and Tessa's do not meet. There is a chance that they will one day and you two will be together."

J.D. frowned. "What do you mean?"

"The choices you make decide which of the two possible destinies that were written before you were born come into play. In one destiny, you and Tessa come together, in the other, you never see each other again. It is the choices that each of you make that will decide if you are to be together or apart."

J.D.'s frown deepened. "How can we be together? Look at everything she's done. She's a cold blooded killer."

"So am I. But something changed that. My dark side was pushed back and my good side is regaining control. Tessa's dark side is very strong, keeping her good side from gaining control. Once in a while, a small part manages to come through, but not for long. However, if enough of that good can get through and hold the darkness at bay long enough for a chance to fight, then there is a chance she will become what she can be. Again, that all depends on the choices made." Her attention was taken as Vin called out softly again and she murmured calmly back to him.

J.D. watched for a few minutes, troubled by her words. Finally, his eyes closed and he slipped back into a restless, dreamless sleep.

It was a day and a half later when Chris finally awoke and it was all Nathan could do to keep the black clad man resting in bed. He finally had to resort to sedation, fully aware of how angry Chris would likely be when he woke up again.

"We will be leaving in the morning," Kayla said as she joined Nathan by Chris' bedside. "Let him go if he so desires."

"I don't know if that's a good idea. He's gonna need a lot of rest before he's fully recovered."

"The spirits say to let him go. He will be all right."

Nathan looked at her carefully, then sighed and nodded. "All right, if you say so."

"How do you know Buck's even gonna be alive when you find him?" J.D. asked quietly.

Nathan looked at him, not having realized the boy was awake.

"He'll be alive," Kayla replied and Nathan noticed with an uneasy feeling that `all right' didn't accompany that statement.




The group of four departed a few hours after first light the next morning. Chris seemed to be all right, but Nathan kept a close eye on him anyway, not wanting to take any chances. He glanced over at Josiah and then at Kayla and wondered how just the four of them were going to pull this off. A few hours passed and Nathan suddenly noticed Kayla seemed to be watching for something or someone. Her gaze was fixed ahead, her eye searching.

"Kayla? You expecting someone?" he finally asked.

Kayla didn't answer as her eyes narrowed and she sat up a little straighter. After a moment, she reined in, the others doing the same. Her pointed ahead and answered Nathan's question, "Them."

The others looked and spotted a group of fifteen riders rapidly headed their way, pulling a wagon along with them. As the riders grew closer, the three men were able to see uniforms signaling that they were about to encounter soldiers. Kayla dropped back a bit as the soldiers reined in, wanting to be as inconspicuous as possible despite being the only woman of the group.

"I'm Captain Hewitt," one of the men said.

Chris nodded to him. "Chris Larabee."

"Are you three part of the law in Four Corners that captured Tessa Williams?"

Chris nodded and Hewitt smiled. "We're the ones who were sent to pick her up. Would have been here sooner but we ran into a few problems."

"Well, you've just run into more," Chris replied and quickly told the Captain what had happened.

"Aw hell! Definitely not what we wanted to hear right now. That Holland gang is even more trouble than Tessa's gang." He gave them a curious look. "Where are you all headed?"

Chris gestured to Kayla. "Indian back there knows where their hideout. She's taking us."

Hewitt's eyes narrowed as he looked at Kayla. "How does she know?"

"She looks mighty familiar," another soldier said, looking carefully at Kayla.

"Her name's Black Rose," Nathan quickly said. "She knows this area better than any of us and knows where the Hollands are. When she saw they had Buck and Doc Reid, she came and told us and agreed to take us to the place."

Hewitt looked carefully studied Kayla, then nodded. "Right kind of ya."

He then turned his attention back to Chris and said, "Ain't there supposed to be seven of you? Where are the rest of your men?"

"Three of `em are back home laid up thanks to Tessa and the other one, as we've said, is being held by the Hollands," Chris replied.

"Well then, it's a good thing we came along. You're going to need all the help you can get against those pains in the asses."

Chris smiled coldly. "Yeah. Good thing all right."

Hewitt gave Chris an odd look. "Well, let's get this show on the road," he said, signaling his men to turn and move out.

As they followed, Kayla said softly, "Thank you healer. That was kind of you."

Nathan smiled slightly. "It's the least I could do for you helping us. Let's just hope those soldiers believe it and leave it alone."




Several hours later, the group of eighteen men watched from their concealed positions among the high, rocky pass as Kayla silently took out another sentry guarding the route to the Holland hideout. She then gestured for the men to take a certain path, then disappeared, reappearing occasionally to direct them to a new path. The sun was just starting its course to close the day when she met up with them on the trail again.

She glanced behind her, then spoke quietly, but loud enough for all to hear. "The Holland place is just up ahead. There are about twenty prisoners or guests as the Hollands call them. There are six armed men plus Meg and the Hollands all over the area. I warn you, however, some of the prisoners will do anything to earn their freedom and therefore, will probably attack you. Consider everyone a threat."

"Did you see Buck or Doctor Reid anywhere?" Chris asked.

She shook her head. "They are probably in the main house. I will get in and locate them while the enemy is distracted."

She glanced behind her again, then said, "I have taken care of the guards up ahead, but it will probably not be long before the are missed, especially since there is still light so be quick in your attack while the advantage of surprise is still yours."

She nodded to them then disappeared again.

Hewitt look around, then said, "All right men, let's do it."




"Mr. Wilmington? Mr. Wilmington, can you hear me?"

Buck forced his eyes open and Doctor Reid's concerned face floated into view above him. The first thing Buck managed to figure out through his haze was that he was no longer chained to the wall. He was laying in a bed in what looked to be the room Carla had given him.

He cried out as he moved and pain seared through him.

"Best if you stay still Mr. Wilmington, you're badly hurt."

Buck waited until the pain had subsided, then asked, "What's...the damage?"

"Well, they cut you up rather badly, broke two of your ribs and cracked a few others. Among other things, you lost a good deal of blood on top of that. I'm rather surprised you're still alive to tell you the truth."

"Don't think...those hellions...wanted to kill me...right away. That'll...probably come...later."

He squeezed his eyes shut and gritted his teeth as more pain shot through him.

"Here," Reid said, pouring something into a cup, "Drink this."

He helped Buck sit up just enough for him to drink the liquid, then gently lowered him back down.

"Doctor Reid."

Both men looked toward the door and found Carla.

"Go tend to Tessa," she ordered.

Reid looked from her to Buck and back again, then nodded, knowing he'd be allowed back later. He got up and silently left, avoiding eye contact with the eldest Holland.

Carla closed the door and approached Buck, smiling coldly. "So nice to see you awake again. I certainly hope you learned your lesson."

"Only thing I learned... was to chose a later time to... get out of here," Buck growled in reply.

Carla laughed. "I love you strong, stubborn types. You're always so fun to break. Or if you turn out to be unbreakable, fun to kill. Either way is enjoyable."

She looked up as faint gunshots penetrated the room. She frowned. "What the hell...?"

She got up and moved to the door just as Lena was rushing through. "Lena! What the hell is going on?"

"We're being attacked by half the bloody army!" Lena exclaimed.

Carla cursed then said, "Stay here with him. Shoot anyone who tries to come for him."

Lena nodded and Carla rushed out.

A small smile crossed Buck's lips. `Looks like helps finally arrived.'




Kayla carefully made her way down the hall, hoping that everyone was outside fighting. She was beginning to wonder if, after checking several rooms and finding no one, the prisoners were being held elsewhere when she came upon a room with muffled voices. Listening carefully, she picked out Tessa's voice, Doctor Reid's voice and an unfamiliar male's voice. She removed her knife, waited until she was sure the male was close enough, then burst through the door. The man turned in surprise, raising his gun to fire, but Kayla grabbed it, pushed it aside and plunged the knife into the man's heart.

As he fell dead at her feet, she picked up the gun and gave it to the surprised Doctor Reid. "You know how to shoot?"

He nodded.

"Good. Go out the back. About twenty feet to your right is a cellar. Hide in there until the fighting is over and shoot anyone who forces you to."

"What about Mr. Wilmington? He's been hurt badly."

"Don't worry about him. Go."

He glanced at Tessa, nodded and quickly left.

"So traitor, you're still alive," Tessa said coldly as Kayla shut the door. "Are you going to finish your betrayal and kill me now?"

Kayla shook her head. "I'm not going to kill you Tessa. I never was. I'm sorry I betrayed you, but it was necessary. It has to stop. Believe it or not, but one day, you too will realize that and finally make peace with your spirit."

She turned to leave, but stopped when Tessa said, "Kayla."

She turned back and Tessa said in a voice filled with ice, "I want you to know that you will pay for this someday. I'm going to hunt you down, and I'm going to kill you."

Kayla nodded. "You can try," she said softly, then left, closing the door softly behind her.




Carla watched from her cover as her men were taken down by the soldiers and Larabee's men. She fired off a few shots, hitting one of the soldiers before spying one of Larabee's men. She watched as he took out another one of her hers, then she took aim and fired at him. He jerked as her bullet struck his arm and quickly found shelter before she could strike again.

"Carla!"

She looked up as Lacy dropped down beside her.

"What's wrong?" she asked, seeing her sister's grief filled eyes.

"Kirsten's dead," Lacy said in a hard voice.

Carla stared at Lacy, her eyes growing cold with rage. "Get Wilmington out here," she growled.

As Lacy moved to run for the house, Carla added, "Lena's with him so be careful going in."

Cursing violently, Carla turned and continued firing.




Chris watched as Josiah took a bullet to the arm and quickly scatter for cover. He fired a few shots, broke cover and quickly made his way to where the ex-preacher sat, recovering from the initial shock.

"You all right?" he asked as he ducked down beside the larger man.

Josiah nodded. "Yeah. Think it went clean through. I'll be all right."

Chris nodded and quickly helped his friend tie a piece of cloth around the wound.

Chris glanced around, then said, "I'm gonna try and get to the house. Think you can lay out some cover fire for me?"

Josiah nodded and Chris prepared himself to run.

The crack of a powerful shotgun thundered over the roar of the guns and in the startled, confused silence that followed, a voice shouted, "Enough!"

Chris looked toward the house and saw Carla, holding a large shotgun. He froze when he saw two of her sisters behind her, tightly holding a very beat up looking Buck.

Carla took a step back, aimed the shotgun at Buck's head, and shouted, "I believe this is who you are looking for! Larabee! Where are you?"

Chris stood and shouted, "Right here!"

She looked at him and shouted, "Throw down your weapon! This is my home and I won't have bloodshed unless its me who's doing the shedding!"

When Chris made no move to do so, she struck Buck in one of his ribs, making him cry out.

"Do it!" she shouted.

Chris silently tossed his gun away and she smiled coldly.

"One of my sisters is dead Larabee! Dead! She was still a child! Blood is going to flow for her death!"

She looked at Buck and re-aimed at his head. "And I think I'll start with him!"

"No!" Chris shouted as a gunshot rang out and Carla jerked.

It was a moment before Chris realized that Buck hadn't been shot and it wasn't Carla's gun that had fired. He watched as the woman slowly dropped the gun and stood, her eyes full of shock. She looked down and touched a spot on her chest, then looked at her hand. She laughed, then began to sink to the ground.

"Carla!" Lena shouted, both she and Lacy pushing Buck away and hurrying to catch their older sister.

They lowered her to the ground and words could be heard being exchanged. Suddenly, the pair stood up and began firing shots. Chris ducked down and the gunplay began again.




Kayla stood on top of the rocky cliff watching the battle below. She put her rifle back in it's scabbard on her horse, then silently asked the sprits to protect the hunter's friends. The spirits had told her not to go after Buck and to leave after she had freed the Doctor. She didn't quite understand why, but had followed what they had told her anyway. However, when she had found her horse, she couldn't resist going back to see what was happening.

She had been in time to see Carla and hear her speech and had taken action when she had seen what the eldest Holland was about to do. Thankfully, no one had figured out where the shot had come from and had seen her. She watched the renewed battle a moment longer, then silently turned her horse and walked away.




It was over. What remained of the enemy were either prisoners or dead, except for the remaining Hollands, who had escaped sometime during the renewed fight. Among the injured were six of Hewitt's men, and Josiah. Among the dead were half of the Holland's armed men, Carla and Kirsten Holland and Meg, who had been killed by Nathan when she had tried to take out a young soldier.

Tessa had been found and brought out of the house and loaded into the wagon the soldiers had brought. Half of them would be taking her and moving on that night, while the rest would tie up loose ends and follow in the morning. Buck, who had been floating in and out of consciousness, was taken inside where Doctor Reid announced he would be all right in time. Chris decided they would stay the night, then leave first thing in the morning. It was Nathan who noticed Kayla was missing.

He mentioned it to Chris, who thought about it for a moment, then said, "She probably took off. I doubt we'll be seeing her again."

Nathan nodded and moved off to help Doctor Reid. Chris sat next to Buck, thinking back on the close call earlier. He thought about the shot that had ended Carla's life and saved Buck's. After thinking about it closely for a long time, a slow smile crossed his lips.

"Thanks," he said softly, "Wherever you go, I wish you luck."




They'd been back in town a few days and Buck was recovering slowly but steadily. Ezra had been declared strong enough to be moved to his own room, much to his delight and Buck now claimed his abandoned bed. It was early evening and Buck had been sleeping peacefully when something woke him. Looking around, he discovered a familiar woman in the room, sitting on the edge of J.D.'s cot, watching him while she gently stroked J.D.'s hair.

"Hey," Buck said softly, "You're that woman who told me `bout J.D.'s sickness."

She smiled. "You and your friends did well, Mr. Wilmington, you should be proud."

Buck stared hard at her, trying almost desperately to figure out who she was and hit suddenly hit him. He looked from her to J.D. and back again, his eyes widening.

"You're his....his..."

She laughed softly. "I know I asked you this before, but I need assurance before I go. Would you watch out for him and guide him? He's still so young. As much as I want to be with him again, I am willing to wait until the time is right. Even if that time is a long one from now."

Buck was silent for a long moment, too startled by the realization of who she was to speak. Finally, he got hold of his senses and nodded.

"You're a good man, Mr. Wilmington. J.D. is lucky to have you for a friend. Thank you."

She looked back at J.D. and leaned down and kissed his cheek gently. "I love you son," she whispered. She began to sit up and as she did, slowly began to vanish until he was alone with his sleeping friends.

"Rest in peace Mrs. Dunne. I'll make sure he don't join you before his time."




It was the middle of the night when Vin was awakened by soft noises. Looking around, his attention was driven to the window, which was being slowly opened. He watched in confusion as a shadowy figure slipped in and slowly made it's way toward him.

//Black Rose// he whispered when he saw who it was.

She smiled as she sat on the edge of the bed and took his hand.

//I came to tell you that I am leaving. I'm going to find my people so that I might finally begin to make peace with my spirit.//

Vin nodded in sad understanding.

//Will I...ever see you again?//

//We will meet again hunter, that I promise.//

She pressed something into his hand and added, //This is a symbol. As long as you continue to receive these, know that I am all right that my promise is as strong as ever. Should you stop receiving these, it means I am dead, for death is the only thing that could keep me from returning to you.//

She leaned down and their lips met in a soft kiss. When it ended, she got up and moved back to the window. She stopped and turned back to look at him.

//I love you,// she whispered and then she was gone.

Vin stared at the window for a long moment, then looked down at what she had given him and smiled. It was a black rose.

He looked back up at the window and whispered, "I love you too."




EPILOGUE

A little over a month had passed and things were finally beginning to go back to normal. Ezra was up and about without resistance and back to business as usual in the saloon. Vin, J.D. and Buck were also up and about but couldn't do much at one time without getting tired. So they, too, spent most of their time in the saloon, watching Ezra. All seven men were in the saloon having a drink and enjoying the quiet when a soldier entered. He looked around, then approached the table and nodded to them.

He looked at Chris and asked, "Are you Chris Larabee?"

Chris nodded.

"I was just passing through on my way back to my unit and thought I'd stop in and let you all know the news. About a week ago, the escort taking Tessa Williams over to a maximum security prison disappeared. They were found days ago, the men slaughtered and Tessa gone. There was one survivor and when questioned he claimed it was the Holland gang who attacked them, along with several men. No one's heard from any of them since."

The men were silent for a moment, then Chris nodded.

"Thank you for the information. Appreciate it."

The solider nodded, then turned and left. A moment later, J.D. got up and hurried out and Buck followed.

J.D. leaned against the wall and stared at the street not really seeing anything.

"Is it wrong that I'm kind of glad she got away?" he asked quietly when Buck joined him.

"Can't answer that son. Man in love thinks and does some pretty crazy things. Some are right, some are wrong and some are neither."

J.D. was silent for a moment, then asked, "Think I'll ever see her again?"

"Maybe. Fate is one strange lady. There may be a reason for the two of you meeting and there might not have been. Only she knows who sees who again."

They stopped talking and watched as the stage came in. The driver began calling names and handing out mail and packages.

Finally, he picked up a little box and called out, "Anyone here named `Hunter?'"

Receiving now answer, he looked over at J.D. and Buck and called, "You two know someone named Hunter?"

Buck shook his head, then poked his head inside the saloon and asked, "Any of you boys know someone named Hunter?"

There was a moment of silence and then Vin stood. "Reckon that could be me," he said, walking slowly out of the saloon and over to the stage.

The man gave him the box and then moved the stage for the livery. Vin opened the box and smiled when he saw the contents. J.D. and Buck came over to see what the package was and looked at each other in confusion.

"Who on earth would be giving you a black rose Vin?" J.D. asked.

"Just someone letting me know they're all right and that a promise they made is still going strong," Vin replied.

He turned and began walking back to the saloon. Nathan, watching from the doorway, smiled knowingly at him and Vin nodded in response.

J.D. looked at Buck and asked, "What the hell was that about?"

Buck shook his head. "Who knows." He put his arm around J.D.'s shoulder and said, "Come on Kid, I'll buy ya a drink."





  Please post a comment on this story or send feedback to whitekat@hotmail.com.


The M7FFA is an archive for fan fiction. Each story or other work available on this archive was created for the enjoyment of the fans with no intention to infringe on any copyright. No profit has been gained from this archive. The specific content of each work is © the original author/creator and should not be posted or reproduced elsewhere without the creator's express permission.