M7FFA Entry



by Tina

J.D. sighed loudly, and propped his boots on the table. That position lasted approximately two seconds, then he put them back on the floor and leaned over, gathering the cards that were scattered among the whiskey glasses and chips. He looked at a couple, then just as quickly, tossed them back on the table. His eyes eventually wondered back to his older friend, who sat a few tables away.

"How long can he keep this up?" he questioned irritably, directing it at the man across from him.

Vin looked up. "Huh?" he mummered. He'd been almost asleep, with his hat pulled down over his eyes.

Most of the bar had cleared out hours ago, and all that was left were a few of the saloon girls and a drunk passed out at the back table. And then there was their companion, Buck Wilmington. He was setting a few yards away with two ladies hanging on his every word. One was actually in his lap, whispering something into his ear as J.D. watched. Suddenly laughter errupted, and Buck almost fell out of the chair.

J.D. growled under his breath and rolled his eyes.

It'd been a long two days getting to Rock Creek, and after dropping off the prisoner at the sheriff's office, all three of the men had wanted a drink. Anything to wash the taste of dirt out of their mouths, and take their minds off of that prisoner. He'd ended up being one of the most vile men they'd ever known. Sam Barkley had been wanted in Oklahoma for a couple of robbery/murders, and had killed a deputy when he was captured in Kansas. It was the judge who'd asked them to transport him, and all three of them now thought the judge owed them big.

The man had a cold look to him, and when he stared at you you knew he would just as soon slit your throat. And he seemed to know just what to say. Buck had ended up gagging him less than a mile outside of town. And even then it didn't end, every stop for water, or to eat, had been filled with whatever he thought would provoke them. They heard about scalping indians, raping women, and anything else he could get a rise out of them with. Towards the end of the trip they were all fighting about who would ride drag and keep a lookout. Unfortunately for J.D., Buck or Vin usually won.

But now, for the last three hours, Vin and J.D. had been trying to talk Buck into starting home. Vin could have been just as content taking a nap there in the saloon, but J.D. was just as irritating as Buck, if the truth be known. He hadn't sat still all afternoon, and their bickering was grating on the tracker's nerves. He'd realized a few hours back that he wasn't going to get any rest until they rode back into Four Corners.

Vin stood up and stretched a little. "Okay,.. Okay. I'll go get the horses. You can try your luck at getting him out of that chair again."

As he started out of the swinging doors, he heard J.D.'s first attempt. "Buck, we're going! Vin said..." He smiled as he walked out into the warm, electric-filled air. Storm's coming, he thought to himself. Well, it was overdue. It was already May and they had yet to have a good downdrenching.

The town was quiet, and at that hour not a single person was visable on the street. He took his time walking, letting the spring night air whirl around him and enjoying it. It'd take J.D. awhile to get Buck out the door, and he didn't want any part of it.

Vin was riding back, leading the other two horses, when he suddenly sensed something. A cold shiver went up his back. He looked up and down the street, but everything seemed the same as it had been. He continued on, but he kept scanning the area. The street was deserted, no lights on,... still... .

Suddenly up ahead J.D. came stomping out of the saloon. "I'm going! I mean it, Buck!" he yelled back into the building.

Buck's voice drifted out. "Kid, just..."

J.D. ignored the words, and interupted. "No.. I don't wanna hear it, we're leaving right now!" Vin could hear him muttering under his breath as the younger man grabbed the reins of his horse out of his hands.

That was when all hell broke loose. Suddenly gunshots filled the air, and it all happened with lightning speed. Vin felt a searing pain in his side, and it spun him to the left in his saddle. The second shot hit him in the shoulder and knocked him off his horse. He struggled up on his good arm, and looked towards J.D. "Get down, kid!" he tryed to shout. It didn't seem to come out as loud as he'd meant it though, and he knew no one heard him. Everything swam in and out of focus as he tryed to see where the danger was. He clenched his eyes shut tightly for a few seconds, then opened them again. That seemed to help a little. Then he tryed again to block out the pain and concentrate on what direction the bullets were coming from.

J.D. had been about to climb up in the saddle, and had one foot in the stirrup. Instictively, he slipped out and slid under his horse's neck, keeping the animal where it'd be between him and the attackers. He could hear Buck yollering, and knew that he would reach them in a few seconds.

"Vin, grab my hand!" he yelled as he tried to reach him. But everytime he stuck his head out in the open, someone who was a crack shot would almost take it off.

Just as Vin managed to crawl close anough for J.D. to get ahold of his shirt and pull him over, Buck charged in. He angrily pushed the youngest down next to the water trough. "What do you think you're doing? You're going to get yourself killed!" he yelled.

J.D. struggled to get back up, and shoved him back. "Vin is the one hurt!" he replied, as he started shooting in the general direction of the others. That's when Buck first noticed the wounded man.

Vin tryed to smile, but he could barely catch his breath. He motioned for Buck to get closer. "One's up on the church.. roof." he said a little above a whisper. Buck had to listen careful over the gunshots. "The other's are.. t-trying to force us where.. he can pick us off." Buck nodded grimly.

"We can't stay here." he said. Silently he also didn't know how they were going to move Vin very far. He could barely see in the darkness, but he could make out blood covering half of his chest and left side.

Vin seemed to know what he was thinking. "I can make it." he said quietly, with a determined look in his eyes.

Just then more rain clouds moved over the moon, and for a moment it was pitch black around them. "Well, now's the time if we're going to do it." Buck said. He grabbed J.D.'s arm and motioned him over. "We're going for the.. livery stable. It's warm and not to far away." he said.

J.D. shook his head. "Vin'll never make it." he argued.

"Dammit, I don't got time to fight about it! The moon'll be coming out again in a minute. Just don't shoot any more after we start moving, not one shot, understand?" he said angrily.

J.D. nodded, and turned towards Vin. But the tracker had already made it up, and was leaning heavily against the building. The first drops of rain began to splatter around them, and a crack of thunder sounded. Quickly they wrapped his arms around their necks and started down the alley. They could hear men reaching the place they'd just been, and their low voices. J.D. recognized one of them, but it took a second to put a face with it. When he did he almost stumbled. The deputy!

"We can't stay here, Buck. The livery is the first place I'd look, and I'm from the city. I don't think it'll take them long." J.D. said worriedly.

Buck sighed, but he knew he was right. "Are you sure you heard the deputy's voice?" he asked for about the third time.

"Yes, I didn't like the guy to begin with. I know it was him. ... And I can't swear to it, but I think I heard Sam Barkley too." he said the last part softly, still unsure if he should have brought it up. And Buck did what the kid had been waiting for, he exploded.

"What?!, What did you say?!" he almost yelled. J.D. shushed him, and motioned over at Vin. The tracker was sleeping uneasily, and the slightest noise or movement brought him close to waking up. Buck threw him an angry glare. "Don't say that kid. Don't even tease about that." he said, lowering his voice.

J.D. shook his head. "Do you think I'm crazy? I'm not sure it was him, but I'm pretty sure. It's hard to forget a voice like that."

"They're not going to let us out of here alive, then." Buck said. "They won't want us to reach a place we can telegraph for help. If we're not in the way, they've got at least a three or four day lead on anyone coming after them."

The kid nodded. "That's what I thought."

Suddenly Vin moaned, and tryed to pull himself up. The pain almost tore a cry out of him. When he collapsed back, he was breathing raggedly. It took a few seconds for him to seem to remember where he was. J.D. gently pushed him back into the hay. "You're fine, Vin. Just stay still." he said quietly.

Buck walked back over from the door where he'd been looking out. "Is he okay?" he questioned.

"Yeah, just hurts alot I bet, huh?" J.D. said, and smiled a little at Vin, but Vin could see the worried look in his eyes.

" A little." he answered weakly. Then he closed his eyes and clenched his teeth together, as a flash of pain ran down his side. When it ebbed away to a level he could deal with, he opened his eyes again. "What are we going to do now?" His voice was a little above a whisper.

It was silent for a while as Buck and J.D. tryed to think of a solution. Vin closed his eyes, and seemed to drift back off to sleep. Which was probably for the best. They'd only been able to clean the wounds with some rain water and and wrap them with makeshift bandages. The shoulder wound seemed the least of their worries, it had went all the way through and wasn't bleeding bad. But the one in his side was ugly. It'd went through his ribs and was still in there somewhere. And the slightest movement started it bleeding again.

Suddenly J.D. looked up with a hopeful smile on his face. "I know what you can do, Buck!" he said. "See if one of those saloon girls would help us."

Buck had looked over hopefully, until he heard the last part. "Kid, I don't know those ladies. And I'm sure not going to walk up to one of them and ask for help." he groaned.

J.D. looked out a window, and Buck's gaze followed his. "When the rain lets up, they're going to find us. Or when the sun rises, whichever comes first." he said quietly.

Buck was silent for a moment. "Since when did you start thinking so much? I don't usually hear this much out of you in a week." he complained, but he knew J.D. was right. And in the back of his mind he was amazed that the boy had grown up so much in the last few months.

"Will you be okay here with Vin until I get back?" he asked.

"Buck, we can't do anything else for him. That one bullet is in there until a doctor can take it out. And you couldn't do anymore than what I'm doing, so I think we'll be okay." he answered.

Buck nodded. "Just keep him quiet. He's getting a fever, and a man can get delirious pretty quick."

And with that he slipped out the side door, and disappeared into the rain.

Buck eased around a water barrel, and reached the back door of the saloon. There was no light coming from underneath, and he quickly opened it and slipped in. It was the storeroom he found himself in, and he moved to the other door. "Dammit!" he thought angrily, it looked deserted inside.

He'd started to turn around, when suddenly one the the girl's walked right into him. With both of them surprised, it was a free-for-all for a few seconds. The girl's hands flew up and she tryed to push him away, even as she was twisting back towards the bar. Miraculously, she didn't scream. And at the same time Buck tryed to grab her. Finally he clamped his hand over her mouth, and dragged her back out to the alley.

"Hush, I'm not going to hurt you.... Dammit girl, quit struggling!" Buck said, as he held her.

She glared at him, but finally relaxed.

"I'm going to let go, okay?" he questioned.

Hesitantly, she nodded.

Buck let go of her mouth, but kept a firm grip on her arm. "Look, we need help. I'm taking a chance, but you girls seemed okay." he said. "What's your name?"

"Ellie" she answered. She looked down at his hand on her arm. "You're hurting me."

He sighed, and finally let go. He relaxed visibly when she didn't make a break for it. In fact, she seemed to ease a bit herself. She stared at him, as she rubbed the place he'd been clutching at her arm.

Finally she smiled a little. "We were wondering what happened when we didn't see you again. After the shootout this place was like a ghosttown."

Buck ran his hand through his hair. "My friend is hurt,.. and we need another place to hide out." he stumbled.

The girl seemed to think for a second, then she smiled again. "I know somewhere." She took a couple of steps toward the door, and Buck quickly grabbed her again. "I have to get my stuff. Joe will think something's wrong if I leave all my things in there." she said. She gently pryed his fingers off her arm.

Buck sighed and gestured back at the bar.

Ellie silently disappeared.

Suddenly a small figure stepped out of the shadows a few feet away. "Come on, we've got to get out of here!" a feminine voice said softly.

"Huh?" Buck questioned. He looked at the saloon back door. Suddenly everything seemed very, very wrong.

As the girl hurried closer, he recognized her as the other girl from the saloon. She grabbed a handful of his coat sleeve and started pulling him towards the alley opening. "There's no time, we've got to go!" she pleaded.

Buck blinked, and jerked his arm away. "I don't..." he started.

The blonde girl moaned. "She wasn't the one you should've talked to." she nodded towards the door. "She went for help."

He suddenly saw everything with clarity, and in the end he grabbed her as he almost ran for the boardwalk.

"Here,.. stop." she said quietly, steering him next to the steps. She crouched down and crawled under the porch. When he hesitated again, she pulled at his leg. "There's anough room, come on."

It was only a few seconds later that they heard footsteps running past them. Five or six men from the sound of it. Then a couple of other people came more slowly and stopped a few feet away.

"He said one of them was hurt. Gus must of gotten that one on the horse." a familiar female voice said.

"You should've found out where the rest were before you lost him." Buck was sure that voice was Sam Barkley.

Ellie sighed. "If you'd hurried faster, it would've worked. I was sure he'd wait." she said.

Their voices started getting fainter as the rain picked up again, and then they were gone. Probably headed back to the bar to get out of the storm. Buck looked down at his knees in the mud, and one of his hands that was submerged up to the wrist in a puddle. That's what he'd be doing if he were them.

He moved closer to the girl. "I need somewhere to go with my friends." he whispered.

"I know... There's a house, third one from the general store at the edge of town. It's boarded up and no one goes there." she said. She saw the questions in his eyes. "It was my mother's house, she's been dead for a few years. It's locked up, but the back door is broken open. I think kids did it, I noticed it a couple of weeks ago."

"Okay, lets go." Buck said quickly, and started to slosh through the mud on his hands and knees. The girl held him back.

"I can't go with you." she said. Buck started to argue, but she silenced him with a shake of her head. "They know you were looking for help. How long do you think it'd take them to notice I was missing, and then remember my mother's house?.. I'll stay where I'm suppose to be, and try to help out when I can."

"What's your name?" he asked.

This time the girl finally smiled. "Claire" she said, "But I thought you'd remember that from this evening, Buck. We were having such a good time."

Buck almost looked embarrassed. He started to struggle with a reply, but Claire gave him another sad smile and waved him away. "You'd best get going... And go down to the cellar, no one will see you there. There's not an outside entrance, only the one under the rug in the kitchen." She waited a few seconds, then pushed him alittle. "Go!"

He smiled himself, and quickly kissed her on the cheek. "I'll be seeing you soon, I know it." he said, and then he was gone.

As Buck drew close to the stable, he narrowed his eyes and made out the form of a man looking in one of the windows. He could feel his heart skip a beat, as he flattened himself against a tree and watched the area. After a few seconds he breathed a sigh of relief; the man seemed to be the only one. He could handle that.

Inside J.D. paced nervously between Vin and the window. He was going over and over everything in his head, and things didn't look good. 'I could make it out on a horse, I know I could. One gun isn't going to make much of a difference if we're caught, but I might could make it out of here.' he thought to himself. He stopped and peered out into the storm, hoping to see Buck returning. But it was too dark, and the only thing he could see were sheets of rain, and lightning flashes. He heard Vin moving around, and turned back.

"Hey, it's good to have you back." he said, as he walked over.

Vin swallowed, and tryed to pull himself up. He managed to make it a few inches, before he stopped.

J.D. looked at him worriedly. "Are you doing okay?" he asked. He touched his forehead, and almost jerked his hand back. He was burning up.

Vin gave him a strange look. "What have you been tossing around, J.D.?" he asked.

J.D. seemed slightly suspicious. "I don't know what.." he started, but Vin shook his head.

"I was watching you... You were talking to yourself." he said. He started coughing suddenly, and then took a couple of breaths until he was in control again.

J.D. wiped Vin's hair back out of his eyes. "Take it easy. I'll tell you, okay?" he said. "I've been thinking about going for help. Riding back to that one town and using the telegraph."

Vin shook his head. "No kid, there's got to be at least 10 men out there.. It's too dangerous." he argued.

Suddenly the door burst open, and rain and wind rushed in. J.D. whirled around and pulled his gun. He trained it on the figure coming through the opening, but when he realized who it was, he sighed loudly as he holstered it. "It's about time, I was starting to think I was going to have to go looking for you." he said.

Buck walked on in, and dumped the man he was dragging on the ground. "I found a visitor outside, I think he was trying to decide if he wanted to come in or not." he said. He threw the kid an angry look. "Dammit, J.D.! If I hadn't been there, he could've gotten the drop on you. You've got to be more.."

"Yeah Buck, I know." he said, waving his words away. "Listen, I have a plan."

Vin tryed to talk, and it errupted into a fit of coughing again. Buck had knotted a rope around the man's hands and dragged him into an empty stall. When he heard Vin, he hurried over and knelt down beside him. It took the tracker longer to get over it this time, and he was pale and shaking. "The kid wants to go on a suicide mission." he said.

J.D. viciously shook his head. "It ain't suicide, it's probably our only chance. I can sneak one of the horses to the edge of town and ride out from there."

Vin had closed his eyes for a second to rest, but when he didn't hear anything from Buck he quickly opened them and looked at him. He could see the uncertain look, and knew Buck was desperate. "You can't be serious..." he said, exasperated. His breathing suddenly became quicker, as he became more upset. He pushed himself up even farther.

Buck pushed him back a little. "Vin listen, it might work. J.D. is one of the best riders, and one of us has to stay with you." he said. He rubbed his chin absently, as his mind was whirling. "J.D., you'd have to move fast. Once you hit the tree line, you'd have to ride like crazy."

J.D. smiled. " I can do that." he said simply. Inside, his stomach was rolling, this was happening a lot faster than he'd thought.

"Buck, just think..." Vin started, but then he saw the look on their faces. And as the adrenaline started leaving his body, he started feeling the pain again. He dropped his head back, and growled with frustration. "Damn!.. I can't do a blasted thing.." he muttered uneasily.

When Buck was sure Vin was okay, he turned back to J.D. "One of the girls told me about a house, third down by the general store I think. It's boarded up, you can't miss it. We'll be there."

"I'll help you with Vin." J.D. said.

Buck shook his head, and clapped the boy on his back. "No, you've got to get out of here. Keep your head down, and your eyes open. And if you hear anyone out there, don't hesitate, use your gun." He wasn't fooling anyone though, Buck was fighting against himself to do this. Sending the boy out was the last thing he wanted to do.

"I'll hurry." he said, and flashed a grin.

A couple of minutes later J.D. led a mare out of one of the stalls, and headed out the back way. Buck couldn't help but notice he looked scared. 'Lord, please let me be doing the right thing.' he thought to himself.

As soon as J.D. left, Buck grabbed the canteen and knelt beside the tracker. "Let's get going." he said.

Vin caught his breath and held it, as Buck helped him get to his feet. He was fading fast, and they both knew it.

"Just hold on, it won't take long to get to the house." he said to him. Vin nodded a little, but he didn't trust himself to speak. Blood was already starting to seep through the bandages.

Buck draped his arm over his shoulder, and they started out into the rain. The cold water took Vin's breath away, and in minutes he was drenched again. Buck wasn't faring much better, he was still wet from before and his clothes felt like they weighed a ton.

As they reached the house, Buck was opening the back door when suddenly shots rang out from across town. Vin whipped around and lost his balance, and it was all Buck could do to hold onto him. "He's fine, he's fine." Buck whispered angrily.

Vin struggled to help pull himself up. And for an instant, he could see guilt in Buck's eyes. "I know." he said.

It had been close, too damn close.

J.D. had made it to the edge of town without incident, and had been about to mount the horse, when it happened. It might have even seemed comical, if the circumstances hadn't been known. Seconds before his foot hit the stirrup, an animal streaked out of the darkness and sank its teeth into his calf. It wasn't much of an animal really, a small raggedy dog, but it was strong anough to attach itself to his leg and not let go. J.D. let out a startled cry before he could stop himself, and tried to swing around to kick the dog off. The manuever was cut short though when the toe of his boot caught in the stirrup, and he fell flat on his face. He came up sputtering, with mud covering him from head to foot.

"Dammit dog, let go!" he growled. The dog wasn't listening though; it had it's own agenda in mind. It chewed down harder, as it got a better purchase into the flesh of his leg. J.D. cried out again, but he managed to keep it quieter. He struggled back to his feet, and hit the animal again and again...nothing. It just closed it's eyes, and ground it's teeth down tighter. He could hear a low, throaty growl come from the animal, and it shook it's head with alot more strength that it looked like it had. "Let go! Let go!..Let go!" he almost yelled, as he hammered on it.

Suddenly he remembered his gun. 'It's a good thing Buck isn't here watching this,' he thought, as he pulled it from his holster, 'I'd never live this down.' He hit it over the head twice and finally it yelped in pain, and let go. Then J.D. gave it a good, hard kick. He resisted the urge to run after it and kick it again, as the dog scurried away.

As he was pulling himself up in the saddle, a new noise caught his attention; breaking branches. And he knew it wasn't the dog this time. "Whiskey! Did you find one of them, boy?" a voice called out. He spurred the horse and took off at a full run, cutting straight through 3 or 4 men, running in his direction. They weren't expecting it, he could tell. He crouched down low over the horse's neck and drove her on. He was just starting to think they weren't going to get off a shot, when he heard the first distinct crack. And a moment later, a burning flash of pain hit his left thigh. He didn't flinch though; and as the other shots sounded behind him, he pushed on....

Now, over two hours later, he was still low in the saddle and forcing the horse on. He was pushing her, he knew it. And he knew she couldn't do it for too much longer. She'd already stumbled twice, and visibility was next to nothing. He pushed strands of long, wet hair out of his way and squinted to see through the rain.

He turned a little in the saddle to look behind him, and clenched his teeth from the pain. He hadn't even stopped for that, and it hurt like hell. Another light-headed feeling swept over him, and he leaned forward some more and closed his eyes for a second. It went away. They were coming faster now too. He supposed that was another reason why he hadn't risked stopping. He was starting to worry that he wouldn't be able to get back on, if he dismounted. 'I can't let them down, ...I just can't.' he kept telling himself. 'It can't be very much farther now, surely not another hour. She's not going to make it much longer than that, or me either, for that matter.'

The cellar door was like Claire had said, almost hidden in the kitchen floor. It took Buck a few minutes to find it. He pulled it open, and awkwardly tryed to help Vin down the steps. It was a simple, straight down ladder and that's when he ran into a problem. Buck couldn't let him go down first, for fear of him collapsing; and he wasn't in a good position to hold onto him, going first himself. They made it halfway before Vin's legs gave out, and they both fell the rest of the way. The impact jarred Buck's teeth together, and he bit his tongue. Mercifully, Vin had passed out. Buck leaned over and quickly looked at him, it didn't seem like he was any worse from the fall.

He pulled himself up and looked around, silently wincing at the pain from where Vin's elbow had caught him in the ribs. He assessed the place as best he could in the dark; all in all not to bad. None of the rain had seeped in, and it wasn't as damp as other cellars he'd seen. He spit blood off in a corner, and grimaced alittle.

He gently dragged Vin over to a nearby wall, and propped him up. The tracker was breathing easier than before, but he was still pale, and it was amazing that the wound wasn't bleeding more than it was. He took a few seconds to pack some rags he'd found over the bandages. Buck felt unease about leaving him, but it couldn't be helped. Finally he went back to the trap door, and started up again.

Within 10 minutes he'd found what he was looking for in a upstairs bedroom, four large quilts, and some sheets. No men's clothes though. They'd have to make do with taking their shirts off and letting them dry that way.

Back down in the cellar, he made a pallet out of two of the quilts, and used the others to cover Vin up with. Then he used the sheets for bandages and redressed the wounds. The one in his side had finally stopped bleeding.

Exhaused, Buck collapsed back against the wall. He sat near Vin, in case he needed him; but the man was so tired he could barely stay awake. He leaned his head back. 'I'll just close my eyes for a second....,' was the last thought in his head before he fell asleep.


It'd been light for nearly an hour when J.D. rode into town. The rain had finally stopped, and fog hung near the ground. They were both a sorry sight. Froth was caked on both sides of the horse's mouth and it was limping badly. J.D. was leaning over it's neck, nearly unconscious. His blood ran down the horses's side and flank.

He shook his head a couple of times, trying to clear it, as he rode down the main street. When he saw several men step out of the sheriff's office, he reined the horse in that direction and stopped in front of them.

"Son, are you okay?" the sheriff asked, as he hurried and grabbed the bridle. He was an old man, complete with salt and pepper hair and a beard.

"I need to send a telegraph, sheriff. A prisoner we were taking in escaped, and I need to get help." J.D. said, settling on a slightly altered version that would require less explanation.

The sheriff shook his head. "We'll take care of that, boy. I think we'd better get you to Doc Anderson's." he said softly, as he reached to help him down.

J.D. suddenly drew his gun, and aimed it unsteadily at the man. "Don't take this personally, sheriff; but I've trusted the wrong lawman before and I ain't aimin' to do it again." he said. "Just walk me over to the telegraph office."

The sheriff considered this, and sighed. "I will,...with the condition that after we've sent the telegraph, we talk."

J.D. smiled a little. "Fair anough, ....lead on." he said.

The sheriff shook his head at the other two men across from him, "I can handle this, why don't you head on home? Tell Molly I'll stop by for dinner next week." he said. He saw the uncertain look in their eyes, and he smiled. "Paul, I'm not getting to old to handle a boy no more older than my grandson.." They smiled back, and finally started across the street.

The sheriff kept a hold of the bridle and walked slowly down the street. He seemed at ease, even under the circumstances. "This must be a mightly important telegraph, for you to be risking your life for. That's alot of blood you've lost." he said quietly, as he walked.

J.D. shifted a little, and felt slightly sick to his stomach. He was deathly pale. He balanced the gun on his other hand so he wasn't holding it in the air anymore, as he studied the man. "It is. They're the only people I trust right now." he answered. The man nodded as if he understood.

When they'd reached the office, the sheriff gave J.D. a worried look. "Son, something's got to give here. You're not getting off that horse without help, and I don't know how you're going to hold onto the gun." he said.

The teenager ran his fingers through his hair, sweeping it back out of his eyes. "I know,...I know." he agreed. He raised his eyebrows a little. "You know how important this is, I'm pretty sure...." he said, hoping he wasn't making a mistake. "I'll tell you what,..I'll let you help me, if I've got your word you won't try to take the gun away." J.D. finally decided. In the last 10 minutes, he'd started to think he had a feel for the sheriff. The man carried a calm, confident air about him; something that made you want to trust him right from the start. Still, J.D. was leary.

The sheriff nodded, and moved to his side. J.D. shook his head. "First, drop your gunbelt on the porch." he said. The man sighed, and did as he was instructed.

J.D. swung very unsteadily down from the horse, and leaned on the sheriff. He kept his gun tucked by his chest, pointed at the man. But surprisingly, the sheriff didn't try anything. He took all of the boy's weight he could, and helped him up the steps and in the door.

A few minutes later, J.D. finished giving the man in the telegraph office the message, and he turned back to the sheriff. "Let's go out on the porch, I feel better with the breeze blowing on me." he said weakly.

The sheriff shook his head, and this time a angry look flashed in his eyes."No! I've done what you wanted, and now you're going to get that leg looked at, and then tell me what's really going on."

J.D. narrowed his eyes. "I want the answer first.... , I'll tell you what's going on out on the porch, okay?" he said.

"That's the last order you give, and I'm going to take, boy. Don't try again." he answered. J.D. could tell he'd used up his welcome with the man.

They walked outside, and J.D. took a deep breath. The air seemed to clear his head some. He took a quick glance at the man next to him, and felt a little twinge of guilt. The man looked like he could barely lift a sack of flour, let alone shoulder all his weight. But somehow J.D. knew he had a quiet strength to him.

He reached down and eased himself into a chair outside the telegraph office, and motioned to another one a few feet away. Silently the sheriff took it, and waited patiently for him to start talking.

J.D. sighed. "You know Sam Barkley?" he asked.

He squinted as he thought about it, and finally nodded. "Is he the prisoner you were talking about? He was caught up in Kansas, wasn't he?" he asked.

"Yeah. We brought him from Four Corners to stand trial in Rock Creek. Before we started back though, we got attacked." he answered. "The deputy helped him."

"I know the sheriff over there, I can't believe he had anything to do with it." the sheriff said. "I've rode with him to many times to count."

"I don't know...., I never saw him after we left the jail." J.D. replied. He grimaced, and looked down at his leg. Blood saturated his pants from the thigh down; and since he wasn't pushing himself anymore, he was really starting to feel the pain.

Suddenly the telegraph man hurried out, holding a paper. "Here's your answer, sir." he said nervously.

J.D. looked up. "Read it to me." he said. He rested the gun in his lap, not really even threatening with it anymore. The dizzy feeling was getting stronger, and in the last few minutes a darkness had started slipping in along the outside of his vision.

"Telegraph from...." he started, but J.D. shook his head.

"No,.... skip to the main part." he said.

"Chris Larabee and men are not in Four Corners - Stop - Received news that....." the man had started again, but J.D. didn't let him finish.

He struggled to pull himself out of the chair, as he reached for him. "No! That can't be right!.... Read it...." he almost cried out.

Suddenly the blackness rushed up to meet him. And he passed out.

Claire slipped in the back door, and made her way from memory to the kitchen. She had a burlap sack with her, and she was trying hard not to let it drag the ground as she walked. She could feel her heart drop a little as she saw the shadows and recognized a few objects. She'd been in here once a few months ago, and cried when she saw the condition everything was in. She hadn't came back until now.

She knelt down, and knocked softly on the door. She waited a few moments, then raised the door up a fraction and said quietly, "It's me, Claire."

Buck suddenly pushed it open all the way. "What are you doing here, girl?! Just couldn't resist my charm, could you?" he teased, as he moved to allow her way down. "I thought you didn't want to chance it, though." he added. He had a tired smile on his face.

Claire jumped the last few feet, and waited for him. "I heard them say one of you was hurt, and I knew you'd be hungry. Everyone is out searching, so I shouldn't be missed. But I can't stay long." she explained, looking around. When she saw Vin, she picked up the sack and walked over to him. " I thought you said there was three of you?" she questioned.

"Well, the kid thought it'd be better if he went for help. I hope he just keeps his head down,.. I heard shots after he left." Buck said. He trailed off, looking a little worried.

Claire nodded. "That's probably for the best. I don't think you can outlast these men, they're like wolves with a fresh kill - they won't let go until they're done." She rummaged around in the sack for a second, and then brought out some chicken wrapped in a cloth. She tossed it to Buck.

She crouched down beside Vin then, and felt his forehead. The man was feverish, and tossing back and forth. But even as she moved nearer, he tryed to get the pain under control.

"Buck said we had an angel looking over us, but I didn't..." he started; suddenly he cryed out and rocked towards his bad side. He clenched his eyes shut, and gritted his teeth together as the pain washed over him. Claire tryed to pull him back towards her, but he was too strong and she couldn't get him to budge. She finally settled for taking a wet cloth and wiping his forehead with it. Buck moved closer, and put a hand on his shoulder. After a few minutes he seemed to ease a little, and his eyes opened. He had a tortured look in them.

Claire looked over at Buck. "I've got some laudanum in the sack too." she said hesitantly. Buck almost dived for it, but Claire still had a nervous look. "Buck, I don't know how much to give, or even if it's good or not." she said.

Buck uncorked it, and looked inside. "I don't know alot either, but at this point I'm willing to try anything. I've seen Nathan give it out more than once. Where did you get it at?"

Claire avoided his eyes. "The men who stay with me sometimes leave things behind." She suddenly very much wanted to change the subject. "What's his name?" she asked.

Buck moved closer to the head of the pallet. "Vin Tanner" he answered. He eased Vin's head up a little, and was relieved when he opened his eyes again."Drink some of this, pard." he said.

Vin focused his eyes on the bottle. "What is it?" he questioned.Buck looked over at Claire. "That lady I told you about brought it. It's laudanum... Now drink it, Vin." he coaxed.

Vin took a couple of weak swallows before Buck finally pulled it away. "You should be able to at least sleep now. Why don't you try to rest? I'll let you know if anything happens." he said.

The tracker nodded, and closed his eyes. Buck could see his whole body trembling, and he was drenched with sweat. Somehow he had managed to stay conscious though, even with a fever raging for the last few hours. He'd woken up to Vin's thrashing around in his sleep earlier, and he'd shook him gently, afraid that the movement would open the wounds again. Vin hadn't been able to fall back to sleep since then. Maybe the laudanum would help save some of his strength.

Claire watched them for a few seconds, then she finally touched his shoulder and motioned away from Vin. They rose and walked a few feet. "I've got to get going in a minute, Buck." she said. "There's a blanket in that sack and some bandages. I could only find one canteen though, so there's not much water." She seemed a little uneasy about something, and she hesitated.

Buck sensed it. "What's wrong?" he asked.

The girl looked up into his eyes. "The sheriff is dead, I heard them talking. I think it sounded like he was on his way to the saloon to tell you and your friends something...." she said nervously. "This whole town is wicked, Buck. You'll never get out. Sam Barkley and Matt Pierce own everyone,.... including me. I'm surprised you've got this far."

Buck tensed while he listened to her. "Nobody owns anyone, Claire." he argued.

She gave him a bitter smile. "Spoken like a true man." Then she frowned, and shook her head. "I'm sorry. I guess it all ends up being what you're dealt, doesn't it? I bet you never had any problem finding something to eat, or a place to sleep."

Buck drew her down to set on some crates. "You're talking in riddles, Claire." he said, frowning. He never could let something like this lie. "Why are you here?" he asked.

She got that far off look in her eyes again. "Here, in this cellar? Or here in this town? I think they're two totally different answers." she said, trying to avoid him. Suddenly she started to stand up. "I've got to get back."

"Whoa, not yet. I don't think they'll miss you a few more minutes." he said, and pulled her back. "Here, this town."

"Not alot to tell. My father ran off a long time ago, I never knew him. And when my mother died a few years ago, I was only 13. I tried to find work, but the town was already dieing. Good people moving out, bad moving in." she recited. It was like she was reading it from a card, she was so detatched. "Two years ago it got so bad; I was sick, no doctor in town, I finally went to Matt, the deputy. Before I knew what was happening I had a contract with him and the saloon owner, Joe. I couldn't pay the doctor. He fed me, I couldn't pay that either."

Buck closed his eyes, and slowly shook his head. When he looked up, he had a fire burning in them. "You'll come with us when we leave, Claire. I can.." he said, moving to touch her arm.

She shrugged him off. "Don't... Don't say things like that." she almost hissed. He was surprised by the fury in her voice. "Let me answer the other one. I'm in this cellar because I don't want to be like them. Every night, we cheat customers. We steer them places where they get robbed or maybe killed. I sleep with strangers. Do you think that's something to be proud of, or to live with? I hate myself every night when I go to sleep."

She jumped up and made it halfway to the ladder before he caught her. "Claire, you just thinking this stuff shows that you're not like them. You don't have anything to prove." he said, drawing her close to his chest. "Just to myself." she whispered softly. She held herself still for a second and closed her eyes. Then she gave him a quick hug and pulled away. "I've got to go, Buck. Thanks... for listening." she said.

He held on to her arm. "Are you going to be okay?" he asked, worriedly.

"Yes, I always am." she said. She stopped halfway up the ladder. "I'll be seeing you soon, I know it." she said suddenly, and smiled that sad smile of hers. Buck grinned as he remembered those had been his exact words to her just last night. He waved her on. But he had a bad feeling in his stomach as he watched the trap door come down and heard her footsteps fade off.

Sam Barkley walked into the saloon and up to the bar. He didn't look happy; in fact, he looked as if he was ready to kill somebody, anybody. He slammed his fist down on the countertop. "What's with all of you?! Can't a man get a shot of whiskey without having to go behind the bar himself?" he shouted. His eyes darted around wildly.

Joe, the barkeep, hurried over. He knew an excuse would only set the man off; so he stayed quiet as he wiped a glass out, and poured the liquor. When he started to walk away, Sam grabbed his arm. "Leave the bottle." he said.

Ellie moved up behind him and wrapped her arms around his waist. "When are we leavin', Sam? You ain't going to find them, they're probably long gone by now." she said. She ignored the threatening glare in his eyes, as he turned to her.

"Why do you say that?" he questioned.

Ellie shrugged her shoulders. "Just because we haven't heard a peep out of any of them all day. Just that one last night, and between the dog and bullets, I doubt if he made it too far." she said. He kept his eyes on her a little longer than she was comfortable with, and she finally whirled around and pulled at his arm. "Let's go upstairs, I'm so bored down here." she pleaded.

Suddenly, without warning, he backhanded her. She stumbled back a few feet into one of the barstools, and put her hand up to her cheek. A red welt slowly appeared on her face, but she knew better than to cry. She stared at him with a surprised expression on her face.

"Go up to your room, and don't bother me anymore." he barked at her. "I'm going to find them! Nobody brings Sam Barkley in and turns him over to a sheriff, nobody!" Ellie slid past him and hurried up the stairs. She didn't breath a sigh of relief until she was in her room with the door closed.

A few minutes later, Claire walked in and started for the stairs. Sam put the shot glass down. He didn't turn around, but when she was right behind him, he asked "Where have you been?" He sounded on edge, and Claire picked up on it immediately.

She forced a smile on her face, and turned to him. "I walked over to the general store, I needed some more perfume." she said, without hesitation.

He turned to her finally, and sized her up. "Where is it?" he asked.

She sighed. "They didn't have what I wanted. That young fella in there told me last week he'd order it too." she answered. "You can't get anything in this town anymore." She tried to pout.

Sam frowned. "Perfume,... here?" he questioned, as he swept his hands around the room.

She smiled. "If I want to smell good, why can't I?"

She held his gaze, and after a few seconds he smiled too. "Okay,...okay. I think I'm just too jumpy right now." he said. She turned to go, but then his next words stopped her cold. "Because you're to smart to be helping them cowboys, aren't you?"

Claire turned back. 'He's fishin', he's fishin' ' she kept repeating to herself as she looked him in the eye. "Sam, why would I do that? I'm not stupid. You and Matt can give me anything I want.."

"Yeah Sam, leave her alone." A young man said, as he walked through the saloon doors. "We've got some things we need to talk over." He poured himself a shot as he sat down next to him. He had a deputy's badge pinned to his shirt.

Sam narrowed his eyes. "Aren't you suppose to be out hunting for them.." he started.

But Matt wasn't in a listening mood. "We can't keep looking, Sam. If that kid got away, he's going to be back with help." he interrupted. He pushed his hat back, and looked over at Claire. "Get on out of here, darlin'. This doesn't concern you." he said.

Claire was all to happy to oblige. As she hurried up the same stairs Ellie had just a few minutes ago, she heard some of their conversation.

"Sam, some of the men are thinking of leaving. They're getting scared we've been here to long." Matt said, "And I can't say I blame them..."

As she closed her door, she could hear Sam's rantings begin to fill the bar.

The first thing that entered J.D.'s mind when he started to come around, was that he could hear voices. The funny thing was, one sounded like Chris and another Nathan. 'Do you know you're delirious, when you're delirious?' he questioned himself groggily.

"The wound looks pretty good actually. If he rode in like the sheriff said, it's a miracle." one of them said. The other one was across the room, and his voice faded in and out so much J.D. couldn't really hear his reply. After a few seconds he finally found the strength to open his eyes, and he looked around. He smiled weakly as he recognized them.

"He's awake! Chris, he's coming around!" Nathan shouted, as he knelt beside the bed. He checked his forehead for fever again, but the boy was cool to the touch.

Chris hurried over. "You're going to be fine, J.D. The doctor patched you up pretty good." he said. His eyes had a worried, nervous look to them. "You've got to tell us what's going on. Where are the others?" he questioned.

"That town, ...it was almost like we rode into Purgatorio. Except it's mostly dead, just the saloon, a store or two, and the jail." he started. He could see the impatient look Chris tried to hide, and he forced himself to hurry on. "They let Sam go, after we turned him over. And then Vin got shot, he's pretty bad off. Buck's hole up in a house, trying to keep both of them hidden until we get back.... How did you know to come?" He closed his eyes for a second or two, as he breathed deeply.

Chris looked up at Nathan, and then Ezra and Josiah walked in. "The sheriff sent a telegram the night before last. He said that something wasn't right, and that he didn't trust his deputy. He said he was going over to get you guys after he was done." he answered. "He must've never made it."

J.D. pulled himself up, and flinched at the pain. Nathan started to make him settle back, then thought better of it. He could see the look in the boy's eyes. "We've got to get back. Vin looked bad the last I saw him."

"Where was he shot at?" Nathan asked.

"The shoulder and in the side. The bullet went straight through his shoulder, but we couldn't do anything about the other one. Just stop the bleeding." J.D. answered.

Chris sighed, and turned his hollow gaze out the window. "How many, J.D.?" he questioned. All of them could hear the pent up anger in his voice.

"I don't know, I heard Vin say 10 or 12 once though. That could've been about right." he said, after he thought about it.

Nathan studied J.D. silently for a few seconds as the others talked. Finally when it grew quiet, he said. "It's not going to do any good to tell you to stay here, is it?"

J.D. looked around at all of them. "I've got to be there to finish it. I have to go."

"Do you think that is wise? You need time to recooperate..." Ezra started to question. But J.D. swung his good leg off the side of the bed, and carefully moved the other one. He grimaced, but he made sure he didn't cry out. When Ezra saw he was being completely ignored, he trailed off.

"What are you doing? You can't be up and about!" a stranger suddenly said angrily, as he walked into the room.

"You don't know our young companion, sir; I assure you." Ezra said, gathering J.D.'s gunbelt and boots. He carefully tossed the boots on the bed beside the teenager.

"J.D., this is Doc Anderson. He's the one who took the bullet out of your leg." Nathan said.

The man just stood there, staring at all of them. "He can't walk on that leg yet. He shouldn't even be out of bed!" he argued.

As the boy finally pulled the boot on his injured leg, he looked up. "Thanks for fixin' me up, doc. But I'm leavin'." he said simply.

Josiah and Nathan grabbed his arms and helped him up. Then they started towards the door. "We'll keep an eye on him." Nathan said over his shoulder.

"And as many times as he's been hurt, I'd say the good Lord is keeping an eye on him too. He's in good hands." Josiah added.

"Just watch the leg, guys, just watch the leg." J.D. grumbled, as they started out the door.

Chris was the last to leave. He turned back to the doctor. "Tell the sheriff, we'll handle it from here. There's going to be hell to pay, and it's best he not get involved." he said.

As he reached the others; they already had the kid on a horse, and were mounting up themselves. He glanced worriedly at J.D. He was pale, but he smiled. "Believe me, Chris. I feel better than I have in two days."

"Okay then, let's ride." he finally said.

Suddenly Buck jerked awake. His heart was racing a mile a minute, and it took a few seconds for it to slow down. He took a couple of quick breaths and his eyes darted around the room, until he was sure everything was normal. Or as normal as it could be. He sighed with relief.

It was that damn dream again, and it was the second time he'd had it..... It was dark, and he didn't know where he was. And there was something chasing him,... or tracking him. He knew J.D. figured into it somewhere too, but when he tryed to focus in on that part, it grew hazy. There wasn't much he could remember, and that bothered him almost as much as the dream itself. That helpless feeling stayed with him though, and he knew it had something to do with the situation they were in. He shook off the last of it, and wiped the sweat from his face. ' I need to be fighting..., not stuck in here, hiding like a coward.' he thought as he stood up. He suddenly exploded and slammed his fist into a support beam next to him, and flinched from the sudden pain. He shook his hand a couple of times, and then sucked on his knuckles. When the pain died away, he took a couple of deep breaths and tryed to push everything back down inside again. He immediately regretted his thoughts, as he looked over at Vin. There just wasn't any other choice, they were no match for Sam's gang.

The man was awake as he walked over; and watching him. Vin pulled himself up a little. "I was wondering when you'd... wake up." he said. His eyes seemed clearer than before, and he managed a smile. But he had a worried look in them as he glanced at Buck.

Buck felt his forehead; he was still pretty hot, but not like earlier. "How are you feeling?" he asked, ignoring the look.

"Hurt's like hell, but I feel like I'm more 'here' now." he answered. He was still trembling though, and Buck noticed it. He pulled the quilt down some more, and uncovered the bandages over the gunshot wound in his side. He could see a couple of fresh patches of blood seeping through, but not any more than he expected. The laudanum must have let him sleep enough to recoup some of his strength. He looked up, and Vin's eyes were still fixed on him. He had that way of looking at you, that made you feel like he already knew some of the the answer.

"I'm okay,...okay? I just needed to let off a little steam." he said suddenly, growing uncomfortable. "I'm not going to flip out on ya, I promise."

Vin nodded, understandingly.

Buck changed the subject, "Just don't move around a lot, I don't want that opening anymore than it is." he replied.

His friend closed his eyes for a second, and let his head rest against the wall. " I don't think you've got to worry about that." he said quietly. Buck watched as he clenched his fist shut tightly for a second, then let it go.

"Do you need some more laudanum?" he asked, as he reached for the bag a few feet away. When he heard Vin hesitate, it gave him an idea how much he must be hurting. It wasn't easy for the ex-bounty hunter to depend on someone else. He uncorked the bottle and held it up to his friend's mouth. Vin gulped down a good swallow, and suddenly reached up to grab it away from Buck. "Whoa, that's anough!" he said quickly, as he caught Vin's hand and forced it back down.

"Sorry,.. I wasn't thinking..." he said.

Buck smiled, as he put the bottle back in the bag and shoved it out of the way. "It wouldn't taste anything like whiskey, would it? I'd die for a shot of that right about now." he joked, trying to lighten the mood.

Suddenly a shot echoed from outside; and after a few seconds, two more followed. They could hear shouts that were too muffled to understand, and Buck felt a uneasy feeling gnaw at his stomach. He shivered involuntarily. He looked over at Vin, and saw the same questioning gaze in his eyes that he knew was in his own. He shrugged his shoulders. "I'm going up and see if I can see anything." he said. "Stay here, and relax. I'll let you know what's going on."

Vin swallowed hard, "I can make it up there, Buck. What if you need some help?" he said.

Buck threw him an angry look. "You'd better be right where I'm leaving you when I get back, pard. I don't need to worry about you bleeding to death." he answered.

Vin growled weakly, and hit the ground with his good hand. "I'm tired of being helpless! I'm going to get us all killed." he almost whined. If Buck'd had time he would've tryed to talk to him, but there wasn't any.

He sighed, "Just stay here, Vin. ...You're not going to get us killed." When he saw the other man close his eyes, he started up the ladder.

"Outside, now!" Sam yelled, as he pushed Ellie, then Claire out the door. Ellie sighed loudly, as she stumbled out the door and onto the boardwalk. She looked back at him, more than a little irritated.

"Sam, I was taking a nap!" she said. Then the look on her face changed suddenly. "Are we leaving? Finally...." she said, with a hopeful smile.

The man she was talking to smiled back, but there was nothing hopeful in it. Claire saw the cold stare in his eyes, and suddenly she was scared to death. They walked out into the middle of the road, where he stopped. He pulled his gun and shot up into the air once; then after a couple of seconds, twice more.

Sam waited, as 10 gunmen gathered from all over town. They were becoming a ragged group; they looked tired, and anxious. Matt was with them, and he moved over to the outlaw's side. He'd known the man when they were younger, before they'd split ways and both taken different paths that led to different sides of the law. Sam had always been charismatic, but Matt still didn't know how he'd talked him into releasing him. They'd done things in their younger days, things he probably could've gotten a price on his head for, but he'd left that life behind - somewhat. Until now. But there was no taking it back now. He looked at Sam, and could see the jittery way his eyes were moving. He'd taken a mental count a few moments before, and he only hoped Sam hadn't noticed that at least 2 or 3 of the men were gone.

"We're here, Sam. What is it?" he asked. He was dragging too, and he needed sleep. "Are we ready to go?"

I'm going to shoot the next man who asks me that." he said quietly. He was obsessed, and everyone could see it now. He looked around at the group, and his eyes glowed. "Someone is hiding these cowboys, and I want to know who!" he yelled loud enough to be heard by everyone. "I won't hurt that person, if they come clean now!"

The rain had stopped long ago, but the street was closer to a muddy riverbed than what it was intended for. The girls had their dresses gathered up, and clutched tightly. The wind kept whipping their hair into their faces. Claire watched him closely from behind hers, and it suddenly dawned on her what he was doing. They were out in the middle of the street, where they could be seen by virtually the whole town. He was hoping that the two would hear and see this - whatever he had planned coming up next. And she realized that though everyone was here, he kept looking at her and Ellie the most. She knew something was wrong.

"I'm only going to wait a few more minutes, then I'm going to try a different way!" he shouted. "We're not leaving until I've got them!.. I'm going to win!" He took his gun out again, and reloaded the spent shells. And as if confirming Claire's recent observation, his eyes traveled back to the two of them again.

Suddenly he turned directly to them. "Ellie, Claire, it's one of you, I know it." he said, a shade quieter. He was about to lose it, Claire could tell. His eyes bulged, and his voice was barely containing itself. Claire just shook her head slowly.

Ellie laughed. "What are you saying? I almost caught them for you." she said.

Sam turned his gaze on her. "But you didn't did you?" he replied. "How hard would it have been for you to tell them how to get out, or where to hide, before you went to get us?"

"Sam...?" Ellie questioned, as she looked at him. She was slowly starting to realize how much trouble she was in.

As Buck was crawling over to the window, he noticed several bootprints in the dust that wasn't their's. Prints that went into the living area - the one room he didn't go into when he was hunting for supplies. They must've searched the house when he was sleeping. It unnerved him; that when he was unaware, they'd been less than a few yards from him at times.

He could hear the voices clearer now, and he recognized Sam's. Something about he was 'going to win.' He eased up against the wall, and cautiously looked out. His heart almost froze, when he saw the girls and almost a dozen men out in the middle of the street. He could see that the outlaw was talking directly to the ladies, and they looked scared. "Damn!" he said softly to himself.

Vin waited about 2 or 3 minutes after Buck disappeared before he pulled himself up, and started for the ladder. He was dizzy and swaying before he even made it halfway, but he doggedly moved along the wall, leaning heavily against it. Sweat broke out and ran down his body, he suddenly felt sick to his stomach. 'I need to get up there..' he thought to himself, as he pushed himself on. The laudanum was keeping most of the pain at bay, but his body was physically wiped out. Distantly he realized that he was bleeding again, he could feel the sticky wetness of it spreading down his side and hip. He heard a strange buzzing sound in his head, and it increased as he forced himself the rest of the way.

When he reached the ladder, he leaned his whole weight against it, and draped an arm over one of the rungs. He laid his head down, and closed his eyes.

Buck kept his eyes glued on Claire. They were still talking, but he could tell the situation was explosive. The outlaw's voice kept rising and falling, and he paced back and forth as he talked. Claire never looked in their direction though, she kept herself facing forward as she listened intently to the man.

Buck silently moved back away from the window, and paced himself. He was confused and frustrated, and he changed direction several times as thoughts kept racing through his head. 'What am I going to do...?' he kept asking himself.

As he was going by the trapdoor for the third or fourth time, a sound from underneath caught his attention. He stopped and listened, realizing what it was almost as soon as he reached for the rope to pull it up. As he yanked the door open, Vin was in the process of trying to open it himself.

"I could use.... a hand." he said, a little above a whisper.

"Dammit, Tanner! I've got anough to worry about.." Buck said angrily, as he caught an arm, and helped him the rest of the way. Vin stifled a cry, and barely hung onto consciousness. He quickly half carried, half dragged him over to the window and leaned him against the wall. It was only then that he saw the toll the trip had taken on the wounded man. He breathed in sharply as he saw the blood soaking into the bandages and his pants. "Oh my god...." he breathed. He started to reach for him again, but Vin pushed him away.

"Buck, I'm not going to be helpless... I'd rather die just trying to get up here, than.... die back in that cellar.... understand?!" he said horsely. He immediately closed his eyes, and took several ragged breaths. Buck forced back anything else he was thinking of saying, and put a hand on his shoulder.

"Okay,...okay." he said. He pulled the gun he'd taken off of the man at the livery, and placed it in Vin's hands. "Rest for a second. Nothings happening right now, I'll tell you when I need you."

Vin didn't open his eyes. He managed a nod though, and that was good anough for Buck. He finally turned back to the window.

Even though it wasn't downpouring any more, the mud and downed trees in the way made it slow going. The five men were hell bent on the trial, determined to make it as quickly as they could. J.D. pushed the pain and exhaustion deep down, and rode like his life depended on it, and in a way it did. He couldn't live with himself if anything happened to the other two. He'd made a pact with god, and he only hoped he'd listened the other night. He'd given his all, and lord help if it wasn't enough.

He suddenly realized that Chris was catching up with him, and saw the man reach over to grab his horse's bridle. He manuevered his horse off to the side, trying to avoid him. "Chris, it's just over the next rise." He said wearily. The leader shook his head, and hooked the reins and pulled them both to a stop.

"We have company.," he said, looking a little ahead of them. A man suddenly emerged into their line of sight. When he saw them, he stopped and seemed to study them for a few seconds. Then suddenly he started riding in their direction.

All of them had been in the saddle for almost two days , with barely any sleep. Chris was exhausted, and the fatigue showed on his face. He untied his canteen, and took a quick drink and then offered it to the teenager. He took it appreciatively, and downed some himself. He was wiping his face with his sleeve when the man rode up, and pulled to a stop beside them. He scrutinized the boy. J.D. recognized him instantly, it was the sheriff.

"Somehow, I thought you wouldn't stay down." the sheriff said as he gave J.D. a hard look. Then he smiled slightly. "Doc Anderson owes me five dollars. ... But seriously son, are you okay? You don't look so good."

The others suddenly felt the need to move on. They didn't have time to answer any questions or ask any. Silently, all of them had kept an eye on J.D. He was holding his own and that was all they could ask. "Excuse me sheriff, but we have other matters to attend to." Ezra interrupted. He rode around them, and started forward. "The sooner we get there, the sooner all our comrades will get medical attention." Wordlessly, the others followed, and the sheriff fell in beside them as they pushed the horses into a gallup.

J.D. looked over at him. "Why are you here?" he asked, loud enough to be heard as they rode.

"The sheriff was a friend." he said. "Besides, I'm not to old to be doing my job, now. When I turn my back on a situation like this, it's time to hang up my guns."

J.D. nodded silently.

The old man glanced ahead at Chris and the others, and raised his voice. "I left after I talked to you men yesterday. There is something wrong in that town. I've been watching from here, and I've got a bad feeling."

Chris didn't look back, but he answered in a clear loud voice. "Bad feeling, hell. It wouldn't matter if the devil himself is waiting for us, we're going in."

The sun had gone behind some clouds, and it'd turned dark quickly. The wind blew a couple of tumbleweeds across the road, and they disappeared behind the store. Claire watched them absently, trying to calm the cries of alarm that were shouting inside her head. She turned back to the towering man standing only a few feet from her, and forced herself to carry on with the charade. ' It's almost over.' she thought to herself, looking at the men scattered around her. She could see the uncertainty in their eyes. ' He'll lose these by tonight.'

"I'm done talkin'." Sam said, his voice little above a whisper. He seemed suddenly so calm and his voice so low, that Claire was still trying to understand the words, when she felt the impact. The shot echoed a split second later, followed by silence. Claire only stood for a moment, and looked down in utter amazement at the wound. There was no pain, and for a second she shook her head in denial. It couldn't be. Then the feeling in her legs disappeared, and she collapsed to the ground.

"Sam, what are you doing! Are you crazy?!" Matt yelled, as he broke from the others and knelt beside the girl. He gathered her limp body in his arms.

Ellie had jumped when the shot went off, and she looked down at them in horror. Blood was already seeping through the material of the dress on Claire's chest, and she could see the patch growing larger even as she watched. They'd been friends at one time, when she'd first arrived in town. But even as sorrow was just starting to emerge, her true character took over - selfishness. It'd suddenly dawned on her what this meant, and she felt a huge wave of relief sweep over her. "How did you know it was her?" she asked, as she looked up.

Sam shook his head, and said lowly "I didn't." His eyes held that stone cold look she'd grown to know too well, and she had a few seconds of realization that Claire never had. Sam pulled the trigger and the bullet pierced her heart a second later. Ellie died instantly.

As Sam turned to say something to the outlaws around him, Claire suddenly moved one of her hands. It fluttered for a moment, and slowly turned into a fist. And just as slowly, she opened her eyes. It was taking everything she had, and everyone could see she was fading even then. Blood trailed a thin line down the side of her mouth. She looked straight up at Sam and smiled "You.....lose." she whispered. It was soft, but because of the silence, it reverberated around the whole area, and not one man didn't hear the triumph and pride in her voice. Then her head rocked back, and she was gone.

"No........No..." Buck whispered, as he backed up a few steps. The gun he was holding loosely in his hand, clattered to the ground as he dropped it, absently. He couldn't believe his eyes. As he saw Claire fall to the ground, his mind went numb. His heart felt like it was about to explode, and he kept repeating in his head ' It's all my fault, all my fault...'. Suddenly the feeling changed to rage, and as it grew and expanded he knew he couldn't control it. He scooped up the gun, and turned towards the door.

Vin had pulled himself up when he heard the shot, and caught a glance of the mayhem out on the street. He knew what his friend was thinking, and he knew what would happen. As quickly as he could, he pulled himself along the wall and positioned himself in front of the door. He was dripping with sweat, and the fever was making him light headed. But he stood swaying, making himself a wall his friend would have to go through.

Buck reached him, and didn't even stop as he started to push him out of the way. Vin sucked in his breath sharply, and shoved him back. "You're not going out there, friend." he said, softly. They struggled for a few seconds, before Vin stifled a cry of pain and fell against the other. Even as he felt the agony wash over him, he grabbed a hold of his shirt and clutched it.

"Get out of my way, Vin. I don't want to hurt you." he pleaded, as he held him up. His heart was racing, and he was trembling badly.

"You're going to have ... to. I'm not going to let you... kill yourself." he answered.

"Kill myself?..... Kill myself?!... Didn't you see out there? I killed her as sure as if I'd pulled the trigger myself!" he shouted. He tried to shove him aside again, but Vin held on. "Don't do this to me, let me go take care of this, .... end it." He begged. Vin almost released him when he saw the look in his eyes, he looked so haunted. But he wouldn't, and both of them knew it. Finally Buck jerked back away from him, and paced wildly. He felt like the whole world was falling apart, and he couldn't do anything about it.

Vin sighed, and collapsed back against the door. He knew it was only a slight reprieve though, Buck wasn't going to back down again. And as soon as the man built himself up into a frenzy, there'd be no stopping him next time. Sweat ran into the tracker's eyes, and he wiped it away with the back of his hand. He didn't know how long he could last either, he was weakening every second.

Suddenly shouts sounded from outside......

"This is it." J.D. said, as he unholstered his gun and checked the ammonition. He looked up, and watched the others readying themselves. Josiah opened his eyes from praying, and smiled at the boy. But he didn't return it. He didn't feel much like smiling. He nodded though, and turned to Chris. "We're on the south end of town, we'll have to ride through over half of it to get to the house Buck was telling me about. And there's no telling where the men will be." he said, authority rang in his voice. He ran his fingers through his hair, which had become a nervous reflex.

Chris checked his own gun, and nodded at the others. "Let's go." he said.

As Matt looked up from Claire's body, he still had a look of astonishment on his face. He slowly stood up, and let her slip to the ground beside him. "Sam, you're mad." he whispered. His face was cast down, but as he reached his partner he looked up into his eyes. "She was coming with me..." he said.

Sam laughed. "She hated you, and you were too blind to see it! Everytime she was with you, she......" he started. But Matt swung and hit him in the jaw, knocking him back a few feet. The outlaw smiled, and spit a stream of blood in the street. "Is that the best you can do, Matt?" he said, coldly.

"No.." Matt answered. He drew his gun.

Suddenly the men around them scattered. There was confusion everywhere, but the men had started to get their barings and dive for cover. It took a minute for Sam to realize there was trouble coming from a different direction, and it was coming fast. He saw a blur of movement coming from up the street, and counted six men. He turned back to Matt, and smiled.

"This ain't over." Matt said, but he looked nervously towards the men on horseback riding their way, guns blazing. Finally, he turned and uncocked his gun. Both of them parted, going for cover.

Buck ran to the window, and looked out. It only took him a second to spot the men riding up, and he turned back to Vin. "The calvary has arrived." he said, with a bitter smile on his face. Vin moved out of the way as Buck passed him, and slumped down against the wall. He closed his eyes.

When Buck hit the street, he went in the direction he knew Sam would be. He had a score to settle, and it was burning a hole in him.

"Buck, Buck!... " J.D. yelled, as he saw his friend barrel out of the house. He didn't seem to hear though, and the kid followed him. A second later, a man rose up from behind some old boxes and drew a bead on him. J.D. stopped and took careful aim, then pulled the trigger. The sound was lost in the noise of the battle; but he smiled, satisfied, as the figure crumbled back out of sight. He hurried on to catch up with Buck.

Vin opened his eyes, and saw Nathan standing over him. He could still hear the shooting going on outside, and he tried to focus on the healer's face. "How did you know to come?...... J.D...." he questioned. He took a sharp breath in, as Nathan pulled the bandages open and looked at the wound.

"He's fine. He had a part in us getting here.... Boy, can't leave you alone for a minute, can I?" he said, jokingly. He looked worried, but Vin could see the relief in his eyes too. He managed a slight grin.

"You have to find Buck. ... He's not in his right mind." Vin said suddenly. He tried to pull himself up, but Nathan pushed him back.

"I'll worry about you. I'm sure he'll have plenty of help out there." Nathan answered. Vin struggled for a moment, but suddenly he cryed out in pain. His body had finally found it's limit, and he blacked out.

The smoke was clearing away as Chris and Josiah walked down the middle of the street. Bodies littered the ground, and one of them had even bet his maker face down in a water trough. Ezra walked around him, and joined the others.

Suddenly Sam walked out from the shadows. Chris whirled around and drew his gun, only seconds from pulling the trigger. "NO!" Buck screamed, as he walked up behind them. He smiled a smile almost as cold as Sam's. "He's mine!" he said.

"Well, come on pretty boy. Show me what you've got." Sam goaded him. The man walked a slow circle, leading Buck away from the others.

Chris shook his head. "We're taking...." he started, but Buck interupted him.

"No Chris, he's not going anywhere." he said softly.

Sam looked at him. "Which one was it? Lovely Ellie, or smart little Claire? I've got my money on Claire..." he said. He suddenly drew his gun, and shot at the other man. Buck drew his at the same instant, and the two sounded as one.

Buck felt a searing pain in his shoulder, but kept his gun drawn and pointed at the outlaw until he saw him fall to the ground. Blood poured from a wound in his neck. Slowly, the wounded man walked over to the body, and he closed his eyes for a second. Nothing had changed, he didn't feel any better even though he reached deep down to find solace. Finally he looked up at the sky and screamed angrily. When Chris and Josiah walked up to him, he shrugged their hands off his shoulders, and stomped off.

"I've got a feeling there's more here than we know.." Josiah said quietly, as he looked at Chris. They both watched the man walk over to the bodies of the women, and keel down by one of them........

J.D. walked towards them, leading Matt, the last of the outlaws. He had the man's gun belt thrown over his shoulder, as he limped determinedly down the road.

When Vin came around again, at least half a day had past. The sun was low in the sky, and the room was dark except for the light of a lantern a few feet away. He focused on the object, and slowly noticed it was tilted close to the edge of the box it'd been placed on. He blinked a few times, and realized the others were in the room with him.

They hadn't noticed he was conscious yet, and he studied them -looking mainly for Buck and J.D. Josiah was setting against the north wall, cleaning his rifle. He looked fine, not a scratch. Vin smiled a little, it was just like the preacher man - it seemed he always had someone looking out for him. The others seemed to make their own luck, though Vin had a feeling that the big man upstairs had a eye on all of them. Too many scrapes, too many battles, not to have someone watching over them.

A man he didn't know was eating what looked like a bowl of beans. He seemed to be a friend though, and he passed over him without a second thought.

Ezra had a deck of cards sprawled out on the floor, and was involved in a quiet game of solitaire. He was restless however, and Vin could tell the game was going badly.

Nathan and Chris were talking quietly in the doorway. They seemed weary and worried about something.

Suddenly a sharp pain ran down his side, and he flinched and closed his eyes. He couldn't seem to catch his breath either. He didn't let a sound escape though, better not to start a ruckus. It was quiet now, the good kind of quiet. He didn't have to worry about any of them at the moment, and he let that sink in. He could see J.D. laying on a pallet a few yards away. He was sleeping soundly, and he looked in good shape. Except for the mud that was; lord, he looked like he'd been rolling in it.

The only one was Buck,....... and yes,..... there he was. The last one was looking out the window with his head resting against the pane of glass. It looked like he hadn't moved in awhile. He just stared vacantly out into the distance.

Another wave hit, and this time he moaned before he could stop himself. He suddenly realized he was trembling. 'Wrong time of year to be this cold.' he thought distantly.

Nathan hurried over, followed by Chris. Vin tried to pull himself up, but even if Nathan hadn't put a hand on his shoulder to stop him, he wouldn't have made it far. The strength just wasn't there anymore. "You've decided to join us finally?.." Nathan asked, as he uncovered his chest and checked the bandages.

Vin started to say something, but it turned into a fit of coughing, which caused more agony. He fell back, gasping for air. Nathan took the laudanum out, and carefully gave him some.

Chris nervously knelt down beside them. His eyes darted around the room before finally settling on the tracker, and he could see the uncertainty in them. "What's wrong?..... I'm not doing that well,....... am I?" he questioned weakly. When there wasn't a answer, he looked over at Nathan.

Nathan laughed uneasily. "You're going to be fine. It's just this fever..... it's got to break soon." he said. He wrung out a cloth, and put it on the man's forehead.

Chris nodded in agreement. "Just rest, and you'll be up and around in no time." he added. He hesitantly rested his hand on his friend's arm, and found a more comfortable position.

"Chris, I didn't..... even get off one shot." Vin suddenly said. His friend motioned for him to be quiet, but he pushed on. "I couldn't do a damn thing..."

"Quit, Vin..... just quit." he answered, trying to calm him down. "With these injuries, you're lucky to be alive. Don't beat yourself up about what you can't change."

Finally Vin seemed to relax a bit, and he quieted down.

He stayed conscious for a few more minutes, but finally exhaustion took over and he passed out again. He tossed restlessly on the quilts every once in awhile. Caught in reliving the recent nightmare, unable to help his friends.

Chris walked back to the doorway with Nathan, after they were sure Vin was settled down. "He's got pneumonia, Chris. I can hear a rattling sound when he breathes." Nathan said quietly.

"What does that mean?" Chris asked, not wanting to know the answer.

"It's not good. I have some medicine that'll help, but he's pretty bad. Being soaked in that rain storm, shot up, and no attention for two days........." he trailed off.

Chris cursed under his breath. He looked over at Vin, then his eyes traveled to Buck, still standing at the window. "Somehow that Sam Barkley seems like he's still here, spreading his evil around." he whispered.

Three days later, the fever finally broke. Vin was still weak, but he improved slowly, and with it his mood grew better too. He finally seemed to find peace with it all, or at least to be able to let it pass.

Buck hadn't ventured over since it'd all happened though, and it was starting to bother him. He watched as the man either disappeared all day, or at night he stood near the window focusing on something no one else saw. He didn't talk to anyone, not even J.D. And although Vin knew it wasn't him, he felt a tinge of guilt.

Finally one day he glanced at Nathan, and motioned him over. "Nathan, tell Buck I want to see him." he said. When he saw the look in his eyes, he shook his head. " I don't care what he says, you tell him I'll get up if he doesn't come here, and I'll walk all the way over there."

Nathan finally shrugged his shoulders, and turned to go. "You guys never make it easy on me, do you?..." he complained, as he headed over to Buck.

Vin watched as Buck seemed not to hear, then Nathan added some more, and Buck looked over at him. Slowly, he turned towards him and walked over.

"What is it, Vin?" he asked quietly. He knelt down, and eased his back against the wall. His shoulder was still aching, but he wouldn't admit it to anyone. His eyes were red and empty looking.

" I just wanted to say thanks for keeping an eye on me all that time. I wouldn't have made it without you guys." he said, hesitantly. It was always hard to talk about his feelings, but he felt it needed to be said. He couldn't believe his eyes though, when Buck just nodded and started to stand up. "Where are you going?" he questioned, suddenly angry.

"You're welcome.... Now if you're done, I'm going to go back over there." he answered.

Vin reached out and grabbed him with his good hand. "Buck, set back down! If I'm going to say it, you're going to listen !" he said, barely controlling himself. The older man turned towards him with rage in his eyes, but it slowly drained away when he looked at him.

"It's not you, Vin. ... I just need time to think about this." he suddenly said.

Vin shook his head. "You don't need more time to keep blaming yourself, partner. You did all you could. I was there, I saw what happened. I also saw that that girl didn't do anything she didn't want too. I think it was almost like an atonement for her, ya know? Making up for something...."

"It's not right though, Vin. She seemed special......." he started, but Vin cut him off.

"She was special. I saw what she did, and she chose to do it." he argued.

Buck sighed and stood up. " I know what you're saying, I really do..... I just need some time to think..." he said. As he started to walk off, he suddenly turned back. "And Vin, you are welcome."

Two weeks later they started back for home. The sheriff had rode back to his town after the gunfight; he was in a hurry to wire the circuit judge, and he took the prisoner with him. J.D. wasn't worried in the slightest that he'd manage just fine. In fact, he was looking forward to stopping and saying thank you again to the man. The sheriff had carried his own weight in the fight, and J.D.'s admiration had grown.

His mind wandered back to Buck though, as they rode along the trail. After the talk with Vin, he'd became a little more social, but not much. Vin had told them some of what'd happened, and he winced when he thought about his friend having to watch Sam shoot that girl. Buck always fancied himself a knight in shining armor, always there for a lady in distress. He couldn't imagine the man standing there, watching as she was shot. It went against every bone in his body.

He suddenly realized he felt different himself somehow. He felt older, and it dawned on him he didn't want that responsibility anymore. All this time he'd been killing himself to prove something, and when the moment had came it'd happened naturally. He promised himself, when things returned to normal, he'd relax from now on. Everybody was born with the ability to do the right thing, and when the moment of truth comes, it's your gut reaction you have to go with.

"Hey,... hold up! We're camping here for the night." Nathan suddenly shouted from behind him. He looked back, and slowly turned his horse around to join the others.

Vin shook his head. "I've got the feeling you're saying that because of me. I can make it a few more miles." He said irritably. He gave the healer an angry glare.

"This is why I'm wondering about being a doctor," Nathan grumbled. "Underappreciated and underpaid. And nobody's ever in a good mood when they're recovering."

"Well, if you'd just let us get home, I'd be appreciative." Vin countered. He slowly dismounted, and led his horse over to a tree and wrapped the reins around a branch. He tried not to show it, but he was exhausted. He lowered himself against a boulder, and almost fell asleep instantly.

J.D. dismounted beside Buck, and grabbed both of their canteens. "Let's go fill these up, what'a ya say?" he said, raising his eyebrows.

Buck sighed, and then noticed the kid hadn't tied his horse. He blinked a couple of times, and he suddenly felt that old feeling well up inside him.

"J.D.! How many times have I told you to tie that animal to something! Dammit, kid..... just let it walk off, or have someone steal it, why don't ya?" he suddenly yelled.

Vin jerked awake, and looked over at everyone. He could see the other five were just as surprised, as they traded glances. It'd been almost a month since anyone had heard that familiar sound. A smile crept up on J.D.'s face, and he stifled a giggle. Buck suddenly looked around at everyone, and then he snatched the canteens out of the teenager's hand. "Hell, give me these! I guess I've got to walk you through everything. Come on!" he roared, as he stomped off towards the stream to the left.

Vin closed his eyes again, and smiled. Maybe it was going to be okay after all.

The End

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