Disclaimer: This story is a work of fan fiction based on CBS's The Magnificent Seven. It is not intended to infringe on the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy, or any other PTB. The characters, setting, and concept are not mine, but the story is. I would prefer not to have it turn up anywhere I didn't put it.

Rated PG

For Shellie. Happy (really, really late) birthday!

by Katie

JD was tired.  Tired in the way that made his muscles ache and kept him from dragging himself out of his bed to open the window even though his room was stifling.  He'd thrown off his covers, but without any breeze coming into the room, it didn't help much.  

Neither did the pounding in the hall.  Someone was determined to knock down one of the doors.  Probably an angry husband looking for Buck, he thought uncharitably.  Whoever it was, he wished they'd go away.  His head throbbed with every blow, and worse, it was keeping him awake.  Groaning, he pressed his face against his pillow, but the noise didn't diminish at all.  It rolled like thunder, crack and boom, and he longed for rain.  The cool water soothing his hot skin, bringing a breath of air into the room.

He sighed, and maybe slept a bit, because the noise was suddenly gone.  He felt no more rested than he had before, but at least it was quiet.  Hopefully the husband hadn't shot Buck.  At least not anywhere important.  As soon as he got some rest, he'd go check.

Charles Denham had arrived in Four Corners on the stage and immediately set out to find a guide to Coulter's Ford.  He'd lived his entire life in Philadelphia, never even dreaming of setting foot on the frontier until he had received a letter telling him of the death of his uncle in a backwater western town so small it couldn't be found on any map.  Charles was a practical man; while he had no doubt of his ability survive and prosper in any eastern city he might visit, the west was very nearly another country.  He needed a native to show him the way.

He was originally uncertain about the young man in eastern dress who offered to escort him to Coulter's Ford.  The lad seemed honest enough, but Charles would have preferred someone with more experience.  The black-clad man who had to be one of those western gunslingers the dime store novelists were so keen on, for example, or the younger man who dressed like an Indian.  Either one of those men seemed as if they'd make a more appropriate guide, but neither appeared willing to be hired.  From what he gathered, listening to bits and pieces of their conversations, they were waiting for something, some sort of trouble that made him glad he was intending to leave town.  Neither, apparently, had reservations about the youngest man guiding him.  The black-clad man simply said, "We'll be needing you back within the week," and the one in buckskin commented that the river route was shorter by nearly a day.

Charles' concerns were alleviated somewhat when the young man--"JD Dunne, at your service," the boy had said with a friendly grin--set up camp that evening with a confident ease that spoke of much practice.  It turned out that JD was not as inexperienced as his appearance suggested; he'd left the east almost four years ago, he said, and had been working as a member of the town's law enforcement ever since.  

"I suppose the stories one hears are exaggerated," Charles said, sipping his coffee as he gazed into the crackling campfire.  

JD looked up from where he was cleaning his gun.  "What stories?"

"Of bank robberies and Indian raids.  Outlaw gangs attacking towns.  Showdowns in the street at high noon."

JD's grin, shadowed by the fire, seemed vastly older than the one he'd given upon introducing himself.  "Nope, you can't believe everything you read."

Charles nodded and sipped his coffee once more.  He'd suspected as much.

JD might have been able to sleep if only whoever was in his room would leave.  He could hear them breathing, a quick, wet sound like crying, and it irritated him.  Couldn't they see he was tired?  If they were determined to sniffle, they could just do it somewhere else.  

Or if they had to be in his room, why didn't they go fetch a pitcher of water?  He couldn't remember every being so thirsty.  He'd have to get up himself, he supposed, and go find a pump.  Maybe duck his head under it and cool off.  It would be cold, trickling down his spine.  

So cold, he shivered at the thought of it.  And couldn't stop shivering.  Cold.  He ached with it, wishing he hadn't thrown off his blankets.  Wishing the person making all that noise would help him.  Couldn't they see he was cold?

Charles had thought Four Corners to be incredibly rustic, but it was a mecca in comparison to Coulter's Ford.  The entire town seemed to consist of one street, lined with about twelve businesses and houses.  Sun and rain had weathered the buildings to a uniform gray.  Though the town was probably no dirtier than many areas of Philadelphia, but there was a rough quality that made it clear civilization remained far to the east.

A pair of horses were tied to a rail outside a ramshackle saloon.  Their tails flicked lazily at flies, and one stomped her hoof as JD dismounted next to her and wrapped his reins around the rail.

"It astounds me," Charles said as he joined JD on the walkway, "that my Uncle Harold would choose such a place to live.  My memories of him were of a man who loved his creature comforts."

"People change."  JD shrugged.  "I reckon we should start at the saloon.  A town this small may not have any law, but the bartender usually knows everything."

Charles tipped his hat to a woman who was staring at them from across the street.  She had paused in her sweeping to watch them, and she brushed loose strands of blonde hair from her face before giving him a short nod of acknowledgement.  For all the courtesy of the gesture, there was no welcome in her face.  He could hear the scratch of her broom brushing harshly against the wood as he followed JD into the saloon.

The crying wouldn't stop.  It was drilling a hole in his skull.  His eyes were almost too heavy to open.  After a struggle, he managed to pry his eyelids up.  

She sat in the chair by the window, the sun glinting off her blonde hair, her face buried in her hands.  Her body shook with sobs.  Perhaps his movement disturbed her; she raised her head to look at him.


Four days in Coulter's Ford left Charles in much the same situation he had found himself upon arrival.  In possession of a letter informing him of his uncle's demise and his own status as heir to his uncle's estate, but with no idea where to locate his uncle's estate, or for that matter, his uncle's grave.  If the citizens of Coulter's Ford were to be believed, Harold Denham had never set foot in their town.

The only problem was, Charles didn't believe them.  He couldn't put his finger on the exact reason, but his businessman's instincts told him he was being lied to.  JD agreed with him.  Something wasn't as it seemed in Coulter's Ford, but Charles was no further toward discovering what that might be than he had been the first day.  He would soon have to face the choice of remaining on his own or giving up; though JD had never gone into detail, he had told Charles from the start that he had to be back in Four Corners by the end of the week.  

"There's a shipment coming in," he said.  "Me and the boys are supposed to take over guarding it."

Charles had respected the young man's reticence and forbear from pressing him on what kind of shipment or what it needed to be guarded from.  For all of JD's friendliness, there was a core of caution that Charles understood.  One played one's cards, as the saying went, close to one's vest if one wanted to survive.

On the fifth day, he found an envelope pushed under the door to the room he had taken above the saloon when he retired after dinner.  Calling JD in from across the hall, Charles sat down on the bed and opened the letter.  

"Who's it from?" JD asked, dropping into the shabbily upholstered chair by the bureau.

Charles scanned the letter--really, not much more than a note, with a map drawn neatly beneath it.  "There's no signature.  Just a message that says, 'Meet me here tomorrow at noon,' and then there's an X on the map to show the location."

JD snorted.  "Sounds like a trap."

"Are you saying we shouldn't go?"

JD held out his hand for the paper and studied it for a moment before answering.  "We must've ridden right past this place coming into town."  He frowned, shrugging.  "It's the only lead we've got.  I say go, but keep our eyes open."

Charles nodded.  "Then we'll leave in the morning."

The sun blazed through his window, leaving his head aching and his whole body feeling like it was on fire.  He needed to get up and pull the curtains.  Only he didn't want to walk over to the window because she was still there.  Still crying even though he'd asked her and asked her to stop.  

He couldn't even roll over to where he couldn't see her because he'd slept on his leg wrong and it had fallen asleep, and now it shot pain up his back every time he tried to move it.  All he could do was close his eyes and hope she'd finally run out of tears.

"I'm sorry," he said over and over, trying to make it better.  She didn't pay him any mind.  He would have gotten angry, but it was his fault she was crying.  "I'm sorry."

As the rain dripped down the back of his neck, Charles thought ruefully of the carriage he'd left behind back in Philadelphia.  While not a fancy one by any means, it at least had a roof to keep out the elements.  Charles would have preferred to stay out of them himself, but JD hadn't seemed to think anything of riding out into the downpour, and so he had no choice but to follow.  

"Might give us an advantage," JD said over breakfast.  "At least it'll make us harder to see when we're riding up to the place on the map."

Perhaps the rain did help; at the very least, there was no reaction when they drew near to the cabin marked on the map.  They paused at a small grove of trees near the corner of the split-rail fence that surrounded the yard to "get the lay of the land," as JD put it.  Charles studied the cabin, looking for signs of a threat.  It was a sturdily built structure that showed signs of recent neglect.  Weeds grew up in the small vegetable garden by the side door, and a shutter banged twice against the wall as the wind caught it.  A rocking chair lay overturned on the small porch next to the partially opened front door.  The windows appeared dark.  Charles couldn't help but think of whom might be watching from inside; his shudder wasn't entirely due to the chill of the rain.

"I'll go first," JD said as he finished his own assessment of the place.  "Let's leave the horses here so we're not as much of a target as we get close.  If anyone starts shooting, turn around and high-tail it out of here.  Get your horse and head for that spot where we camped on the way here."

Surprised by the sudden wish that he'd chosen to wear a gun, Charles could only nod.  Every inch of his skin tingled as they approached the cabin.  He half-expected to be greeted by a hail of bullets, but they reached the porch without incident.  JD eased his gun out of its holster before leading the way up the steps to knock on the front door.

He looked as surprised as Charles felt when a woman's voice called clearly, "Come in, gentlemen."

The inside of the cabin was gloomy but not as dark as it had appeared from the outside.  It was one large room, the kitchen on the end furthest from the front door and the living area separated from the sleeping area by a large quilt that was dangling haphazardly from its rope.  What little furniture there was had been strewn about the room; an overturned table lay propped against a wooden chair with one broken leg, while another upholstered chair had been pushed onto its back and the fabric ripped to shreds.  A scattering of tin plates, iron pots, cooking utensils, and tools Charles wasn't familiar with covered the floor.

In the midst of the chaos stood a tall, plainly dressed blonde woman.  After a moment's puzzlement, Charles recognized her as the woman he'd seen sweeping on their first day in town.  He couldn't recall seeing her since.

"Good morning, ma'am," he said, tipping his hat and trying to ignore the water that dripped down into his face.  "Might I assume that you are the person who requested our presence here today?"

She studied him, her lips drawn in a tight line.  Finally, she nodded.  "I am.  My name is Emily Donovan.  I was a friend of your uncle."

Something in her tone suggested that her relationship with his uncle might have gone deeper than friendship, but Charles was too much of a gentleman to suggest such a thing.  "It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance, ma'am.  I assume you know that I am Charles Denham, and this is my associate, JD Dunne."

She gave JD a cool glance and a nod, but her attention stayed on Charles.  If her gaze had been a little warmer, he would have been flattered; as it was, he was somewhat relieved to see that JD had not holstered his pistol.

"I must say, you're the first person who has admitted to even hearing of my uncle," Charles said.  "No one in town seems to have heard of him."

Emily gave a short laugh.  "They've heard of him, all right.  They killed him."

"I'm sorry."  

She hadn't moved, hadn't stopped sobbing.  The pounding had started again as well.  Maybe the person beating on the door could hear her.  Maybe they could make her stop, because JD couldn't even though his throat ached from begging her forgiveness.

"I'm sorry," he whispered again.  "Please stop."

"Stop what?"

Coolness settled lightly on his forehead.  With an effort, he dragged his eyes open.  Why was Buck in his room?  Why wouldn't he help her?

"Make her stop," JD pleaded, his voice sounding rough even to his own ears.  "Buck, please."

"Who?  Make who stop?"  Buck was frowning at him.

JD could feel tears burning behind his eyes and was ashamed that he couldn't stop them.  "Please.  Make her stop.  Tell her I'm sorry, Buck.  Please."

"Who?"  Buck's voice was sharp with impatience, but it gentled almost immediately.  "Son, there's no one here but you and me."

The first bullet shattered the window and lodged in Emily Donovan's back.  She was thrown forward, already crumpling to the ground as Charles and JD grabbed for her.  They eased her down together, Charles supporting her head as he knelt.  Even with no medical knowledge to speak of, he could see that her injury was severe.  Blood bubbled at her mouth with each harsh breath, and her eyes--her eyes held a knowledge Charles didn't want to face.

Beside them, JD crouched with his gun ready, dividing his attention between Emily and the front door and window.  His face was nearly as white as Emily's.  Charles was vaguely reassured to see that his hand was steady, however, and he appeared calm.  

"We need a doctor," Charles whispered.

JD glanced at Emily again, swallowing hard as he nodded.  "I'll go out the back--"

"No."  Emily's gasp was faint, almost drowned by the rain.  

"Miss Donovan, you need to rest.  Don't strain yourself--"

She fixed her eyes on him, her expression tight with pain and urgency.  "Kilmartin."

"What?"  Charles shook his head, not understanding.

"Thomas . . . Kilmartin."

With that, she was gone, her body going limp as the last breath left her.

"Miss Donovan?"  Knowing it was foolish, Charles patted her cheek anyway, hoping against hope for a response.  "Miss Donovan."

"It's no use," JD said, his voice almost harsh.  "And we need to move.  Whoever--"

A second bullet interrupted him, then a third.  Both crashed through the glass and into the wall across the room, leaving shards of glass in their wake.

"Get down," JD snapped, pressing a hand against Charles' back to move him closer to the floor.  "Head for the wall.  Keep your head low."

Charles paused for a moment, some strange sense of propriety prompting him to slide off his jacket and lay it gently over Emily's still form.  Then he scrambled forward on his hands and knees, trying unsuccessfully to avoid the glass that littered the floor.  

The sharp report of a gun at close range shocked him into stillness for a moment before he realized that it was JD returning fire.  Crawling faster, Charles let out a sigh of relief as he reached the wall and slumped against it.  He was only just in time; more shots flew over his head from outside, showering him in the remains of the glass.  Charles ducked, covering his head with his hands, and didn't look up until JD dropped down beside him with a grunt.  Lowering his hands, Charles looked at the young man, frowning for a moment until he realized what was wrong.

"Dear lord," he said, "you've been shot."

"Try to drink some of this.  Just a little, now.  Don't want you getting sick."

The voice was calm, soothing.  It was a voice JD trusted, so when it said, "You're going to be okay, kid," he believed it.  But every part of his body ached.  Even breathing hurt, and opening his eyes was a torture he couldn't force himself to undergo.  When gentle hands slid under his shoulders and raised him into a sitting position, he couldn't stop a moan.  

Then a cup was pressed to his lips, and the water it held made everything worthwhile.  The coolness eased his parched throat.  He swallowed greedily until the cup was taken away and he was lowered back to the bed.  Frowning in protest, he forced his eyes open, the bright light making him wince.

"Don't," he pleaded, trying to reach for the cup again.  For some reason, his arm didn't want to obey him.

"You can have some more in a minute, when we see how that sets."

Moving his head set it to pounding again, but JD made himself follow the voice to its owner.

"Buck?"  He frowned, not understanding why Buck was sitting on his bed, or for that matter, why the older man looked so tired.  Maybe Buck was coming down with something.  "You--"

A movement across the room distracted him.  Annie was watching him now, rocking slowly, her expression somber.  He shivered, and then he couldn't stop.

"Why . . . "  It was hard to think with the chill settling in his bones, with Annie's eyes fixed so steadily on him.  "It's cold."

"You're sick, JD.  Got a bullet hole in your leg and one hell of a fever.  You'll feel better once you've rested."

JD couldn't really remember what better felt like, but Buck had said it, so he believed it.  And rest sounded wonderful.

"Just--"  He closed his eyes, settling back on the pillow.  "Get Annie a blanket.  She's cold."

He could hear Buck saying his name, but he was too tired to answer.

"He was injured.  He said he couldn't ride, so he was going to cover me while I went for the horses, and then I attempted to draw our attackers away from the cabin."  Charles rubbed the back of his neck tiredly.  "As far as I could tell, it appeared to work."

It was the second time he'd told the story.  The first had been early that morning, when he'd run into Wilmington on the trail.  He hadn't remembered the man's name at first, his usually keen recall of names disrupted by the urgency of his mission, but he did remember Wilmington's face from among the men who were acting as law in Four Corners.  Wilmington had listened to Charles' explanation with a cold, distracted expression, then sent him on to Four Corners while Wilmington headed for the cabin.  

And so, by late afternoon, he found himself once more in the saloon in Four Corners, telling his story for a second time to a group of hard-faced men who looked as if they'd happily shoot him if they had any suspicion he was lying.  He didn't intend to stop until they believed him, however.  His pursuers had stopped chasing him sometime during the night, and he had been haunted ever since by the thought that they might return to the cabin and finish the job they'd started.

"They followed you, then?" the black-clad man--Larabee--asked, his question eerily echoing Charles' thoughts.  

"Until after dark.  I was able to lose them eventually."

Larabee shared a glance with the one dressed in buckskin.  Tanner, Charles thought; he seemed to be Larabee's second-in-command.  At any rate, Larabee waited for his nod before saying, "I'll send word to the stage office to delay that shipment.  We'll start at first light.  Denham, I'll be expecting you to ride with us and show us where this cabin is."

Charles nodded, sighing with relief.  He could only pray that they would arrive in time.


It was dark, which should have been a relief after the way the light had hurt his eyes, but he didn't like not being able to see.  He could hear the steady creak of Annie's rocker and the low sound of Buck breathing nearby, but who knew what else could be waiting in the darkness?




"Mmph.  Wha--"


"What's wrong?"  

There were scratching sounds, followed by a flair of light that JD had to close his eyes against.

"JD?  What's the matter?"


The light grew softer.  He opened his eyes again to see Buck leaning over him, blinking tiredly.

"I'm right here, kid.  What do you need?"

"Something's wrong."

"You feeling worse?"  Buck pressed his hand to JD's forehead.  "Damn, this fever has to break soon."

"No."  JD leaned into the cool touch, trying to remember what he needed to tell his friend.  "They're out there."

Buck sighed.  "Who is?"

"They were shooting."  He knew it was true, but he couldn't think when.  "Before."

"They're gone now.  Don't worry about it, okay?  Just get some rest."

His eyes wouldn't stay open any longer.  "Gotta stay down."

"I'll do that, kid.  Go on back to sleep now, all right?"

There was more, but he was asleep before he could remember what it was.

Charles was more than a little grateful when they paused to rest the horses.  His muscles were protesting the unaccustomed activity, but even if he hadn't understood the need to cover ground quickly, he doubted his five companions would allow any unnecessary delays.  They rode with grim determination, their communication with one another a matter of a few simple words here and there regarding the horses and supplies.

It wasn't until they stopped to rest that Jackson brought up the situation in Coulter's Ford.  

"You reckon Buck's got there yet?" he asked, taking a drink from his canteen.

"Most likely," Tanner replied.  "Might even meet him and JD coming home."

Charles looked up hopefully, but none of the men, even Tanner, seemed to think much of the possibility.

Sanchez turned to Charles.  "Any idea how many men we'll be facing?"

Charles sighed.  "There were five men chasing me.  However, Miss Donovan spoke as if a majority of the town were in on my uncle's murder, and those who weren't directly involved were too cowed by the others to offer us any assistance."

"It's hard to believe that many people would so forgiving of murder," Jackson said.

Standish smirked.  "Rumors of gold do strange things to a man's mind."

"Makes them crazy enough that it seems worthwhile to kill a man."  Sanchez took a drink from his own canteen before adding, "Or a woman, it sounds like."

"I can hardly believe there was any gold," Charles said.  "Uncle Harold was not a man to skimp on the finer things in life.  His cabin was well made but hardly fancy.  Surely if he'd found a rich vein, he would have chosen a better place to live."

"Unless he was hoping people would think what you're thinking," Larabee remarked.  "Either way, gold's not our concern."

"You thinking about looking into the murders?" Sanchez asked.

Larabee shrugged.  "I reckon we'll make sure JD's in one piece.  And I reckon he might have something to say to the men who shot him."

"Likely he won't mind company," Tanner said with a grin.

"You believe he'll be all right, then?" Charles asked, finally voicing the question that had been plaguing him.

Larabee stood, his expression suddenly cold.  "He's made it through some tight spots.  He'll be fine."  He started toward his horse.

The other men moved toward their own mounts, and Charles hurried to follow.  Yet he still heard Tanner's response.

"If he ain't, then I reckon we'll have something to say for him."

Annie rocked slowly, her eyes on JD, tears still sliding down her cheeks.  As much as he wanted to look away, he couldn't.  It would have been disrespectful, and he owed her so much more than that.  

"I'm sorry," he murmured.

"JD?  You all right?"

Buck settled on the bed beside him.  He looked strange, wavery, but JD was too tired to figure it out.  The older man pressed something cool to JD's cheek and slid it down his neck and under his shirt.  Whatever it was, it felt wonderful, but JD didn't look away from the woman across the room.

"I told her I was sorry," he said wearily to Buck.  "I don't know what else to say."

Buck frowned at him.  "Told who?"

"Annie.  I didn't mean to shoot her, Buck.  I'm sorry."

Sighing, Buck squeezed his shoulder.  "Son, wherever she is, I bet--."

JD did look at him then, searching his face to see if he was serious.  "She's right over there.  By the window.  She keeps crying, and I tell her I'm sorry but it doesn't make any difference."

For a moment, Buck closed his eyes.  His hand tightened again on JD's shoulder as he sighed.  When he looked at JD again, his eyes were gentle.  "Annie's been dead for more than two years, JD.  All you're hearing is the wind and the birds.  No one's crying."

JD didn't know why Buck was so confused.  He'd been there, hadn't he?  Right after JD had shot Annie.  "It was just--"  But everything in his mind had blurred until he didn't know how long it had been.  "Just yesterday?"

"Annie died two years ago.  The woman that was killed here a couple of days ago . . . that Eastern fellow told me she was shot by the same men who shot you.  You didn't kill her."

Buck was wrong.  Why couldn't he see that?  "I shot her, Buck.  I just want her to know I'm sorry."

Buck sighed again.  "She knows.  I'm sure she knows."

JD wanted to believe Buck, but when he looked back at Annie, she was still crying.  

"Please stop," he asked her.  "I'm sorry."

"JD . . . "  Buck took a deep breath.  "Just try to sleep, all right?  It'll make more sense when you're feeling better."

"I wish it'd been me instead of you."

Annie stood, the movement leaving the chair rocking slowly behind her as she walked toward him.  JD wasn't quite afraid, but he couldn't stop the tension that tightened his body and made it difficult to breathe.

"JD?  Take it easy, son."

Buck didn't even look up as Annie stopped behind him.  Her cheeks were still wet with tears.

"I'm sorry," JD told her, and she smiled slightly as she leaned down and pressed a cool kiss to his forehead.  The coolness spread, bringing darkness with it.

Charles felt a chill run down his spine at the sight of the rough cross sitting at the head of the freshly dug grave.  He knew for a fact that the grave hadn't been in the cabin's yard the last time he'd been there.  Surely it was for Emily Donovan, and yet he couldn't help but be concerned.  The tense looks the other men exchanged at the sight told him he wasn't alone in the feeling.

They approached the cabin cautiously.  Tanner's rifle lay across his legs, and the other men seemed just as ready to draw their weapons if the need arose.  Charles was once again wishing that he'd chosen to carry a gun when the front door opened.

Wilmington emerged, a rifle resting loosely on one arm.  He walked forward to lean against one of the posts, his expression drawn and tired as he nodded a greeting to them all.

"'Bout time you got here," he said.

Jackson was already dismounting.  "How's JD?"

Wilmington looked over his shoulder into the cabin.  "He had a real bad fever when I found him.  Only just broke this morning."

"Infection?" Jackson asked, pulling his saddlebags from his horse.

"Maybe.  He was shot in the leg.  Looked like the bullet went clean through.  He might just have got a chill from that rain we had."  Wilmington sighed.  "Try not to wake him up, okay?  He hadn't had more than an hour or two's sleep at a time until now."

Jackson grinned.  "You thinking about taking up doctoring too, Buck?"

"Hell, no.  The only kind of sickness I want to deal with is love sickness."

Jackson shook his head, his expression still amused, as he passed Wilmington and went into the cabin.  Resting his arms on his pommel, Larabee leaned forward.

"Have any trouble?"

"Other than the kid not knowing which way was up, no."  Wilmington nodded at the grave.  "I buried the woman.  I reckon there might be someone in town who'd want to make other arrangements, but I couldn't get away to ask, and no one showed up looking for her."

"We'll ask when we get there," Larabee said.

"You planning on going after the men who shot JD?"  Wilmington asked.  He looked, Charles thought uneasily, quite eager.

"Thought about it," Larabee agreed.  

"Seems like they got plenty to answer for," Sanchez added.  "Not just JD, but the two people they killed."

Charles frowned.  "Is there some authority we can appeal to?  The Army, perhaps?"

"I'm afraid," Standish said somewhat dryly, "that we are the authorities.  Elected by necessity, if you will."

"So we're simply going to ride into Coulter's Ford and arrest the murderers in front of the entire town?" Charles asked, his tone making his incredulity clear.  He knew the West was much less formal a place than the East, but surely there were some procedures to follow.

Larabee grinned.  "That's about right."

And that, to Charles' amazement, was almost exactly what they did.  Leaving Wilmington with JD, the other men set out for Coulter's Ford.  Although Charles could have stayed behind as well, he found himself intrigued by the situation and wanted to see how it was handled.  He also, though he had barely known his uncle or Emily Donovan, found himself with a strong desire to see their murderers brought to justice.  

In telling the story of Harry Denham's murder, Emily had mentioned several names of men she was sure were involved.  Charles could recall most of them; more to the point, he recognized the horses that had chased him.  Two of them, a chestnut with a white blaze on her face and a striking gray with a black mane and tail, were tied to the rail outside the saloon.

"Let's go poke around and see what we can stir up," Larabee suggested when Charles pointed the horses out to him.

Charles followed the five men into the saloon, noting how they spread out without saying a word to one another.  He might not have been an expert in matters of gun fighting, but he was willing to bet that between them, there wasn't an inch of the small saloon that wasn't covered.  Sanchez stood back by the door, slouching against the wall.  Standish moved close to the stairs leading to the rooms on the second floor, while Jackson ambled down to the far end of the bar and leaned against it.  Tanner and Larabee both walked toward the middle of the bar where the bartender stood, but Tanner stopped before Larabee did, turning to where he could easily see both the bar and the majority of the room.

There were only two customers in addition to the bartender.  One was a tall, strong-featured man in a gray business suit who appeared slightly younger than Charles; the other, a shorter, younger man who looked just like him.  

"Here you go, Mr. Kilmartin," the bartender said.

Charles looked at the two men sharply, noting out of the corner of his eye that Larabee had noticed the name as well.  Thomas Kilmartin, along with his son Adam, was one of the men Emily had claimed to have had a hand in Harry's murder.  Thomas had tried several times to buy Uncle Harry's land, hoping to discover the gold deposit he was sure Harry had found there.  More importantly, Thomas Kilmartin was the name Emily had spoken with her last breath.

"I'm looking for information on Harry Denham," Larabee announced to the room at large.

Both of the Kilmartins stiffened.  Turning, Thomas looked Larabee over with a scowl, then scanned the rest of the room.  Charles was sure he started when their eyes met.

"No one by that name around here," Thomas said.  "I know everyone for miles around, and there hadn't been a Denham in all the time I've lived here."

"That's not what Emily Donovan said."

"What's Emily Donovan got to do with this?"

"Nothing, now that she's dead."

Adam stiffened, shooting his father a worried glance.  The bartender looked up sharply, and Thomas shook his head.

"Emily Donovan isn't dead."

Larabee pulled something from his pocket and let it dangle--a cameo locket that Charles recalled Emily wearing.  It was obvious that the bartender and the Kilmartins had the same recollection.

"Where'd you get that?" the bartender demanded.

"A friend of mine was talking to Miss Donovan three days ago when someone started shooting at them.  Whoever it was killed Miss Donovan and shot my friend in the leg.  You'll find her body buried out at the cabin north of town."

Adam shook his head, his eyes wide.  "No.  Why would she be out there?  She wouldn't have been out there, would she, Pa?"

"Shut up, Adam," Thomas growled.

"I was there," Charles surprised himself by saying.  "We were inside the cabin, and someone just started shooting at us.  She was shot through the back and was gone before we could get help."

He watched Adam closely as he spoke.  The young man's face had gone pale, and his hand shook as he took a sip of his beer.

"More'n likely you killed her," Thomas said.  "If she's dead at all."

"She's not dead," Adam said, his voice rising anxiously.  "Pa, she can't be dead."

"Adam, shut up."

"I can't have killed a woman, Pa.  It was bad enough shooting old Harry, but I can't have killed a woman."

Cursing, Thomas grabbed for his gun.  In an instant, five guns were pointed at him, the sound of them being cocked echoing in the air.  Charles found himself holding his breath, waiting for the violence that hung in the air to erupt.

"I wouldn't," Larabee said quietly.

Charles let out his breath in relief as Thomas lowered his gun.  For a moment, he'd thought he was going to see a gun battle even more first-hand than the one he'd experienced in the cabin.

"I'm sorry, Pa," Adam said, then looked at Charles.  "I'm sorry about Miss Donovan, too.  I never meant to hurt her."

For a moment, remembering the feeling of her body going slack in his arms, Charles was tempted to point out that Adam's apology did Emily no good now.  Taking a deep breath, he said instead, "Then perhaps you can make your amends by helping us find the others who were involved."

Adam hung his head.  "I'll tell you whatever you want to know."

As Tanner and Standish stepped forward to collect the Kilmartins' guns and bind their hands behind them with rope, Charles sat down in a nearby chair with a sigh.  Now Harry and Emily Donovan would get the justice they deserved.  He watched Larabee, Sanchez, and Jackson stand guard as Tanner and Standish finished tying the Kilmartins to the chairs they were seated in--brave gunslingers mopping up after their showdown--and couldn't help but laugh.

"Can't believe everything you read at all," he murmured, and shook his head.

The crack of a shutter hitting the side of the cabin jerked JD from sleep.  Blinking in the bright afternoon light, he looked around the room.  The cabin seemed neater than he remembered; the table had been turned upright and the wooden chair, its leg mended, sat beside it.  On the table lay a pile of kitchen utensils and a familiar pair of saddlebags.  The floor had been swept clean of glass, although there was still a dark stain where Emily Donovan had fallen.  The upholstered chair had been covered by a quilt and brought close to the bed.

Soft snores pulled his attention to the floor next to the bed.  JD grinned.  Buck sprawled on his bedroll, his hat over his face and his boots crossed, sleeping as comfortably as if it were the middle of the night.  Sighing, JD settled back on the pillow.  At least that part hadn't been a dream.

The thought pulled his eyes over to the window across from the bed.  That section of the cabin was empty.  No rocking chair sat in the patch of sunlight that shown through the glass.  In fact, there was no sign of any chair other than the two he'd seen earlier.

JD sighed again, his eyes growing heavy.  Buck had the right idea, he thought as he yawned.  He fell asleep to the sound of steady breathing and the creak of wood rocking against wood.