WHEN THE SUN COMES BACK

by Winnie

 

Doherty Homestead

East of the Wilson Farm

Dawn

 

Vin kept his eyes peeled for any sign of danger when they topped a ridge and looked down at what was left of the Dohertys' dreams. The buildings had been burned out and the remains of a wagon stood at the center of a cleared field. He felt his heart ache for the couple who’d lost their lives to a gang of cutthroats who cared about nothing or no one.

 

“Bastards…” Tanner whispered, wincing when the air made contact with his damaged tooth.

 

“Did you say something, Vin?” Jackson asked, watching the younger man closely. In the light of early dawn Tanner’s features were drawn and weary, lending an air of age to the customary youthful visage.

 

“Was jest thinkin’ out loud,” the Texan answered.

 

“Damn shame ta see so little remaining of a person’s life,” Jackson said and followed the solemn tracker down the ridge and into the front yard. He dismounted and waited for Vin to do the same. When he did, Nathan got his first good look at the younger man’s face. The swelling was unmistakable and he winced sympathetically. “It ain’t gonna go away on its own, Vin.”

 

“What ain’t?” Tanner asked and turned away.

 

“How long’s that tooth been bothering ya?” Jackson watched the shoulders slump and knew it had been a while.

 

“’Bout a week or so,” the Texan answered.

 

“Why didn’t ya say somethin’ before?” the healer asked, worried about the infection happening inside the younger man’s mouth.

 

“Was goin’ ta and then this happened. Figured it’d keep ‘til we caught the bandits,” Tanner answered.

 

“Ain’t much I can do for ya out here, but when we reach Purgatorio I’m gonna see to it,” Jackson vowed.

 

“Ain’t gonna argue with ya,” the sharpshooter said and moved around the yard. There were signs of a struggle in places and the unmistakable stain of blood on the one remaining wall. Flowers had been flattened and broken near the water trough. Vin moved to the area and found a piece of fabric snagged on a nail near the bottom of the steps. Again his eyes raked over the area and picked up the signs of a struggle and spotted dried blood at the bottom of the trough.

 

“Anything?” Jackson asked, amazed at the ease with which the Texan could read the signs most people, himself included, missed.

 

“Think this mighta belonged ta Mrs. Doherty,” Tanner said, showing his companion the piece of flowery material.

 

“Such a waste,” the former slave said. “Them bastards need ta be caught!”

 

“We’ll get ‘em, Nathan…jest hope it’s b’fore anyone else gets hurt,” the Texan said and moved past the healer. It didn’t take long to find the graves of the two people who’d eked out a meager living in the perils of the west. Both men said a silent prayer that they rest in peace before Vin turned his attention to the task of finding a trail they could follow.

 

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Wilson Farm

Southwest of Four Corners

Early Morning

 

Chris opened his eyes and frowned when he looked around the unfamiliar room. It took a couple of minutes before the sleepy fog left his mind and he remembered stopping at the Wilson farm. He sat up and reached for his shirt that was neatly folded across the back of a chair and knew Martha had been busy through the night.

 

“Good mornin’, Sunshine,” Wilmington said with a grin. He’d woken at dawn, but had left the injured blond to sleep.

 

“What time is it?” Larabee asked.

 

“Well…the sun’s been up for a couple of hours…”

 

“Sonofabitch, Buck, why didn’t you wake me?”

 

“Well now given a choice between your anger or Martha’s, I’d say I made the right decision in letting you sleep. JD’s got the horses ready and we can leave as soon’s you eat…”

 

“Not hungry…”

 

“How about you tell Martha that?” Wilmington wore a devilish grin. He knew the woman could handle Chris Larabee and loved to watch her when she folded her arms across her body and stared at the blond. They may not have been related, but Martha Wilson and Sarah Connelly were about the only two women who could handle the gunman.

 

“I should’ve let Lars have you,” Larabee told the rogue and finished pulling on his shirt.

 

“Now you know you wouldn’t do nothing of the sort…you’d miss me too much,” the ladies’ man said with a grin. “Come on, Pard, Martha’s waiting to take a look at you and I believe she said somethin’ about putting some meat on your scrawny ass.”

 

“I never said scrawny…I said skinny,” Martha said from the doorway.

 

“Morning, Martha,” Larabee greeted the woman with a smile.

 

“Good morning, Chris. How do you feel?” the woman asked, shifting slightly to let Wilmington get through the door.

 

“Much better…thanks for letting us spend the night.” Chris pulled on his boots and stood up.

 

“Anytime,” Martha said and took his arm. She led him out of the bedroom and steered him toward the kitchen where a fresh plate of biscuits, bacon, and eggs waited for him.

 

“Martha, you didn’t have to go through all this trouble.”

 

“It wasn’t any trouble, Chris…you know how Martha loves to cook especially when we have company,” Tom Wilson said, pouring a cup of coffee and handing it to the blond.

 

“Thanks, Tom,” Larabee said. He sipped the coffee, enjoying the rich flavor and soon found his stomach grumbling expectantly.

 

“Think you’d better feed that beast,” Martha told him and took the seat next to her husband. “I’ve packed some sandwiches for you to take.”

 

“Martha, I don’t know how to thank you…”

 

“By staying alive…all of you. I know what you’re up against and I will pray for your safe return, Chris. You boys are doing the Lord’s work and I hope you know He will be watching over you.”

 

“I know,” Larabee said. He finished the breakfast, allowed the motherly woman to check his wound, and knew it was time to leave. He stood next to Pony and hugged Martha Wilson before mounting up.

 

“You boys be careful,” Tom Wilson ordered.

 

“We will,” Larabee assured him.

 

“Godspeed,” Martha said and stood watching the trio ride away from the farm.

 

“They’ll be okay, Martha,” Tom told her and pulled her close. He knew his wife well enough to know there would be tears for days to come.

 

“I hope so, Tom, I pray they find those animals and put the fear of God into them,” Martha said and let the tears fall.

 

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Purgatorio

Early Afternoon

 

Hernando Lopez reached for the bottle of Tequila and lifted it to his lips, spilling most of it when the red haired whore landed in his lap. Her ripe breasts were bared and he grabbed the nipple, twisting until she cried out before pushing her away. She landed on the floor, but stood up quickly and moved across the smoke filled saloon.

 

“She does not like your rough hands, Amigo,” Rodrigo Marquiz said and smiled when a small, dark haired woman kissed his mouth. She tasted of stale whiskey and sweat, but he allowed her to manipulate his body, while he eyed his friend across the table.

 

“We shall see,” Lopez said, watching the woman move from one man to another. He enjoyed female company, but most women steered away from him when they realized he preferred to be rough with them.

 

“Si,” Marquiz said when the woman whispered something in his ear. “Well, Amigo, I have found a little entertainment.”

 

“Enjoy,” Lopez said and turned his attention to the two men who entered the saloon. One was dark skinned while the other reminded him of a hunter with intense eyes that could read those around him. He wondered who the two men were because they seemed out of place in Purgatorio. Perhaps it was time he visited Maria and asked the pretty whore about the newcomers. He stood and moved toward the back door, unaware that at least one man’s eyes followed his movements.

 

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Vin Tanner moved inconspicuously toward the bar, yet those who knew him could tell he was watching everyone and everything around him. The tracker saw the man move toward the back door, and filed the man’s face away in case he ran into him again.

 

“Vin, did you see…”

 

“I saw him,” Tanner answered.

 

“What’ll it be?” the gruff, heavily whiskered bartender asked.

 

“Whiskey,” Jackson told him.

 

“Leave the bottle,” the tracker said, hoping the alcohol would numb the throbbing pain in his mouth. He placed a coin on the counter, grabbed the bottle and two glasses before heading toward the table the Mexican had vacated.

 

“Vin, I need ta take a look at that tooth,” Jackson said. He’d finally gotten a good look at the Texan and noted the tiny beads of sweat and the slight hint of red that spoke of a mounting fever.

 

“I know…but if’n yer gonna do that I’d rather not feel anythin’,” Tanner said, his tongue touching against the swollen area on the left side of his mouth flinching.

 

“Yeah, well drink up ‘cause it’s prob’ly gonna need ta be pulled,” Jackson said and took the offered glass of whiskey. He watched the other patrons in the saloon and wondered what it was about Purgatorio that seemed to draw the worst kind of riffraff.

 

“This place gets worse every day,” the Texan observed, ducking when an empty bottle was thrown in his direction.

 

“Faster we get out of here the better,” the former slave agreed.

 

“We leave as soon’s Chris and the others get ‘ere…”

 

“Then I guess it’s time I took a look at that tooth,” Jackson said. “Wonder if there’s a room…”

 

“Chris’ told me ta see Maria if’n I ever needed help,” Tanner told him.

 

“Where do we find her?”

 

“She’s got a room near the edge of town,” the Texan said and reached for the bottle. The whiskey was cheap and burned his throat, but it had also deadened the pain somewhat. He stood and turned, but did not get a chance to steady himself when something slammed into the left side of his jaw and sent him flying across the floor.

 

Pain exploded inside his mouth and Vin spit out a wad of foul tasting bloodied pus. He barely caught himself before he collided with the edge of a broken piano and tried to stand, but his vision blurred and his strength left him. He heard several men cursing and briefly wondered who the hell had struck him, but there was no time to find out as the shouting match intensified and an all out fight ensued.

 

Jackson reacted instinctively and used his chair to stop the attacker, but an all out fistfight was starting. He saw the blood running from Tanner’s mouth and reached down to pull the dazed man to his feet. The back door was to his right and he quickly maneuvered the Texan outside, ducking as a chair followed them out.

 

Nathan clung to the Texan, wrapping his arm around the lithe man’s waist while taking Tanner’s left arm over his shoulder. He managed to keep them both on their feet and looked around. They’d come out the back way, which was fine by him because it meant staying away from watchful eyes. He heard a soft moan from the sharpshooter and knew the younger man was not quite with him.

 

Vin spit the foul tasting blood from his mouth and blinked rapidly. He struggled against the arms holding him until he recognized the man’s gruff manner.

 

“Just hang on, Vin…ya said Maria’s place was at the end of town…”

 

“East…east end,” Tanner mumbled and again spit out a mixture of blood and pus.

 

“Just hold on to me,” Jackson ordered and prayed they’d find Maria’s room without being discovered. The very fact that Tanner had been hit told him the tracker was not at the top of his game and that meant they were both vulnerable in a town full of potential enemies.

 

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Maria knew the man who stood outside her door and cowered in the corner of her bed. She could not face being beaten again and her hand touched the area where her face had borne the marks left by his fists.

 

“Open the damn door, Amora…I know you’re in there!”

 

She shook her head, her body tense; her mind filled with fear and she tried to hold back the sobs that threatened to escape. She’d been beaten before, but never with such cruelty. This man had no qualms about beating women and Maria knew if she let him in now he would kill her.

 

“Hey, Hernando, leave the bitch alone…there’s plenty more whores around!” Pedro Gonzales offered from across the street.

 

“Si, Pedro, there is, but Amora and I have unfinished business,” Hernandez said and pounded on the door. “Amora, I can wait, but I promise you will not like my attentions if you keep this up…”

 

“Leave the woman alone!”

 

Hernando turned to see two men standing behind him. He recognized the newcomers from the bar and glanced around for his men. Gonzales had disappeared and there were none of the others around. “Go find your own whore…”

 

“Ya need ta learn some manners,” Tanner vowed.

 

“And who will teach them to me…surely not you or the darkie!” Lopez spat and landed flat on his back when a fist impacted with his jaw and he found himself looking down the business end of a sawed off shotgun.

 

“I’m not gonna say it again…”

 

“Go ahead and have the bitch…there are plenty more around,” Lopez said, standing and wiping the blood from his mouth before walking away from the two men.

 

Nathan was about to speak, but the door opened a fraction of an inch and he smiled at the terrified woman hiding there. “Maria…we’re not goin’ ta hurt ya. My name is Nathan Jackson and this here’s Vin Tanner…we’re friends of Chris…”

 

“Chris Larabee?” the woman asked hopefully.

 

“Yes,” Tanner answered and glanced around when the door opened fully.

 

“Please…come inside,” Maria told them and closed the door as soon as they were inside. “Is Chris with you?”

 

“No, but he should be here later today,” Jackson explained.

 

“I need to warn him about Hernando Lopez,” Maria told them and poured water from a pitcher into the basin on the table.

 

“What does Lopez want with Chris?” the healer asked, motioning for the Texan to sit down. He’d brought the supplies he needed with him and hoped he could help the Sharpshooter.

 

“I do not know, but Lopez was asking about a blond gunslinger and he beat me and I…I…told him about Chris. I did not mean to, but…”

 

“It’s okay, Maria,” Tanner said and wished he could do more to ease the woman’s mind.

 

“No it’s not,” Maria said and wiped the blood from the young man’s mouth and chin. She saw the swelling and discoloration and moved aside so the other man could take over. She quickly lit another lamp and brought it closer to the two men.

 

“All right, Vin, let me take a look,” Jackson ordered. He thanked Maria for the added light and looked into Tanner’s mouth. He could see the inflamed area and knew it was abscessed, but the blow to Tanner’s jaw had ruptured it. The tooth itself would have to come out before the infection became worse. “Vin…”

 

“I know…jest do it!” Tanner ordered.

 

“Are you a doctor?” Maria asked.

 

“No, Ma’am, ain’t no darkie doctors, but I know some things from when I helped a doctor durin’ the war,” Jackson said.

 

"Don’t let ‘im fool ya, Maria, he’s the best damn doctor in these parts…" Vin hissed, his body tensing in pain. "He's plucked bullets outta more folks, sewn up knife wounds, tended fevers and delivered babies…makes ‘im a doctor in m’book.”

 

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Hernando Lopez smiled when he heard the exchange between the three people in the room. The fact that the darkie did not consider himself a doctor didn’t matter, because the other man seemed to believe he could walk on water. The man named Tanner kept calling the other one Nathan or Nate, but the title that stood out was doc.

 

Lopez knew he had to get his banditos together and take Tanner and Jackson. He really only wanted the doctor, but he understood he would need the other one to keep Nathan Jackson in line. He hurried back to the saloon and up the stairs, rapping on the doors until he found the man he was looking for.

 

“Get your pants on, Rodrigo, we got work to do!”

 

“Go away, Hernando, can’t ya see I’m…”

 

“Now, Rodrigo, before it’s too late!”

 

“What the fuck’s the matter with you, Amigo?”

 

“You remember that message we got from the patron?”

 

“Think so…somethin’ about findin’ a doctor?”

 

“Exactly…and one just dropped into our lap, but we need to act fast before he leaves,” Lopez explained and threw Marquiz his pants and shirt. “Get your clothes on and meet me at that little place at the east end of town. Tell the others we move out as soon as we capture Tanner and Jackson. Be warned that we need them both alive, Amigo!”

 

“I’ll be there as soon as I’m…”

 

“Dressed…comprendez?”

 

“I hear you!” Marquiz spat and uttered a string of curses that made his friend smile.

 

Hernando Lopez hurried back down the stairs, motioning to the two men at the bar that they should follow him. He needed a plan to get the two men out of town without being seen and although Purgatorio was a place where most people turned a blind eye, he didn’t want to do anything that would bring De Rivera’s wrath down on his head.

 

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Nathan heard the words spoken by the tracker and felt an overwhelming sense of pride in what he’d accomplished with God’s help. Numerous times since the group of seven had come together, the others had told him he was a natural healer, but he still felt something was lacking. He didn’t have a paper on the wall, didn’t have the means to prove he could practice medicine, yet the town of Four Corners saw him as their doctor.

 

Shaking off the sense that someday he would make a mistake and undo all the good he’d done, Jackson returned to the patient sitting on the edge of the bed. He reached into the kit he’d brought with him and withdrew the bottle of laudanum. Measuring a dose into the cup Maria passed him he held it in front of the ailing man.

 

“Vin, take this,” Jackson ordered.

 

Vin knew what was in the cup and took it without protest before handing the cup to the pretty woman. He knew the medicine would help him relax, that coupled with the lack of sleep would probably knock him on his ass.

 

“Maria, is there anywhere we could get a room for the night?” Jackson asked, spreading the items he would need out on the small table.

 

“You can stay here…”

 

“We couldn’t do that,” Jackson tried.

 

“Senor Chris is a good man and he has showed me that not all men are animals. I am only returning the kindness he showed me,” Maria explained. “Please, you stay and I will bring you something to eat.”

 

“I…thank you, Ma’am,” Jackson said and watched her leave.

 

“Makes ya wonder what her life was like ta make her turn ta this,” Tanner said tiredly and leaned back against the wall.

 

“Life can be cruel,” the healer stated simply. “All right, Vin, lie back now and relax.”

 

“Ain’t ‘bout ta relax when yer gonna be diggin’ in my mouth,” the Texan told him, but did as the healer ordered.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Maria opened the door and watched the street; glad there was no sign of the Mexican bandito. She hurried across the street toward the only restaurant in town, but as she passed the mouth of the alley someone grabbed her and pulled her inside. An arm wrapped around her waist while something foul smelling was shoved into her mouth. She struggled and kicked, but her attacker was not alone and soon had her hands tied behind her back. Her ankles were also bound and she found herself on the ground trussed up like a Christmas turkey.

 

“We meet again, Chiquita,” Lopez said, running his hand along her chin and leering hungrily at her partially bared breast. “Bring her Pedro.”

 

“Si, Hernando,” the big Mexican said and threw the woman over his shoulder. He knew his way around Purgatorio and had stashed their horses at the back of Maria’s room while Lopez gathered the rest of the banditos. The plan was to move fast and take the two men before they had a chance to realize what was happening.

 

Hernando Lopez led four of his men through the alley and along the back of the buildings until they reached the horses. Maria would be held there until they had Jackson and Tanner under wraps. With a couple of coins, the liveryman had pointed out the horses the two men had ridden in on. It should have been a simple matter of taking the horses and leading them out the back, but there’d been a fight to get the one animal to move. Several times it managed to nip at the handlers, but they finally managed to get it under control.

 

“Pedro, you and Carlo stay with the bitch. Rodrigo, Jose, watch the windows and make sure no one tries to stop us. Ernesto and Raul come with me. Just make damn sure nothing happens to the medico!”

 

“What about the other one?” Jose Mendoza asked and saw the familiar grin come over Lopez’s face.

 

“Don’t kill him…it will be easier to handle the medico if we bring him along!” Lopez ordered and motioned for the others to move out.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Nathan waited until he thought the Texan was nearly asleep before going to work. He knew the laudanum would keep some of the pain at bay, but pulling an infected tooth was going to cause pain no matter what he did. He managed to convince Tanner to open his mouth and reached for the instrument he’d need.

 

Vin held tight to the blanket beneath him when Nathan touched the infected tooth. He held his breath, his body tensing as he tried to remain still. The pain was like nothing he’d ever felt before and he fought to control his tumultuous stomach. The pressure and agony twisted through his gut and he tasted blood, but remained still as Jackson pulled with every ounce of strength he had. He felt the tooth pull free and turned on his side as nausea churned in his gut and bitter bile came up in his throat.

 

“It’s out, Vin,” Jackson said, standing and reaching for his gun when the door slammed open.

 

“Now, Doctor, that would not be wise considering there is a man at each window with a gun pointed at your friend,” Lopez warned and stepped into the room.

 

“Who the hell are you?” the healer asked.

 

“Does not matter who I am…what matters is that we have need of your services,” the bandit answered and pointed his gun at the buckskin clad man. “Don’t try anything or my compadres will be forced to shoot the whore.”

 

“Ma…Mar…” Tanner tried to voice the name, but all that came out was a mixture of bloodied pus.

 

“My men are holding her and they will shoot her if you don’t come along quietly,” Lopez ordered.

 

“Vin stay here,” Jackson told the sick man.

 

“No, I’m afraid he is to come along,” the Mexican said with a grin.

 

“Thought you wanted a doctor?” the healer asked.

 

“Exactly and how better to keep a medico in line than to make sure his patient needs him,” Lopez said striding across the floor and striking the unsuspecting tracker in the face. He stepped back when Jackson snarled at him, but could not help chuckling at the man’s obvious concern.

 

“You bastard!” the former slave cursed and tried to steady the injured Texan.

 

“Such language…you will get him on his feet and climb out the back window or I will kill him now!” Lopez snapped knowing at least two of his men were waiting there for him. “Ernesto, get their guns and the doc’s medical bag and we’ll be on our way.”

 

“Vin, hold on,” Jackson said when the Texan tried to stand on his own.

 

“Move, Doc, or I’ll finish the bastardo now!” Lopez said, moving to the side and watching the two men closely. He knew Jackson would not do anything to jeopardize the other man’s life, but something about the buckskin-clad man sent a shiver down his spine. He toyed with the idea of simply putting a bullet between his eyes, but knew that would just antagonize the Negro medico.

 

“Vin…”

 

The Texan lifted his head and met the soulful brown eyes of his friend, but could not say the words to ease his mind. Nausea and pain combined with the laudanum made it hard to concentrate, but he shifted his gaze and glared at the man holding the gun trained on them.

 

“All right, Vin,” Lopez used the name Jackson had and smiled when he shoved the Texan toward the open window. “You go first and if you try anything I’ll put a bullet in the medico here…won’t kill him, but he’ll be hobbling all the way to Mexico. Comprendez?”

 

Vin nodded, ignoring the fireworks the simple gesture set off and stumbled to the window. He cried out when something struck him between the shoulders and he dropped to his hands and knees.

 

“You sonofabitch!” Jackson growled and tried to get to his friend, but found two sets of strong arms holding him back. His eyes met Tanner’s blue ones and he saw the pain in the deep blue orbs, but there was nothing he could do that would not cause the sharpshooter more pain. He tore away from the two men and reached down to help the younger man to his feet. He supported the tracker until they reached the window and he pulled back the soiled curtain in time to see two more bandits looking in his direction.

 

 “Oh, just a minute,” Lopez ordered and grabbed the edge of a sheet. He motioned for Pedro and Ernesto to get Jackson out of the way and smiled when the buckskin clad man leaned heavily against the wall. He quickly tore a strip and bound Tanner’s wrists before shoving him through the open window.

 

“You fucking animal!” Jackson spat when he heard the cry of pain from his friend and hurried out the window. He knelt beside Tanner and wondered how people could be so cruel. The Texan was hurting and sick and the new abuse was not making it any easier.

 

“Watch yourself, Medico, you keep it up and your friend there pays the price. Now get him on his feet and start walking.” Lopez kept his distance and hid his own fear when the long haired man lifted his head and stared at him. There was something cold and calculating in the stormy blue orbs, and Hernando Lopez would be lying if he said he wasn’t afraid.

 

Nathan helped Vin stand on shaky legs and supported him, staggering toward the other bandits.

 

Vin fought to keep just how badly he was feeling from the others. His stomach was queasy and each stumbling step he took threatened to be his undoing, but with Nathan’s help, he managed to stay on his feet until they reached the area where the other banditos waited. There were too many for him and Jackson to take out, especially with Maria being held by a man with a knife to her throat.

 

“Let her go!” Jackson ordered and received a fist to the gut.

 

“I don’t think so…I think we should hold on to the pretty whore until something better comes along,” Pedro said, licking the woman’s neck while running the knife along her chin.

 

“Hey, Pedro, why bring her when this one got such fine silky hair?” Ernesto stated and grabbed a handful of the tracker’s hair, pushing the sick man away in disgust, when the Texan spit out a wad of blood and pus.

 

“Let her go, Pedro, we have enough to deal with and I know Don Garcia is waiting for us to bring him a real medico,” Lopez said and moved toward the other man when he refused to release the woman. “You want me to gut you and leave your body for the vultures, Amigo?”

 

“No, Hernando,” Pedro said and shoved the woman to the ground.

 

“Tie Jackson up and get him on his horse,” Lopez ordered.

 

“What about him?” Ernesto asked.

 

“I got somethin’ special in mind for this one,” Lopez said with a grin, watching as Marquiz secured Jackson in his saddle. He knew the man would make damn sure the healer could not escape and turned his attention to the buckskin clad man. “Carlo, Jose, throw this bastardo over his horse and tie him face down.”

 

“You can’t!” Jackson struggled against his bonds, but couldn’t do anything to stop what was happening. He cursed the Mexican bandits when they roughly grabbed the Texan and placed him belly down on the saddle. They’d cut through the material binding his hands behind his back and were using the rough rope to secure Tanner’s hands and feet beneath Peso’s ample girth.

 

“Now to make sure he can’t call for help!” Lopez said and shoved a dirty rag into the tracker’s mouth. He laughed at the stricken look on Jackson’s face before mounting up. “Now, Doc, if you want him to live you will do everything I say…comprendez?”

 

“I hear you,” Jackson said, his eyes filled with anger at the cruelty of the Mexican bandito.

 

Vin fought the nausea churning through his gut and closed his eyes. His hands were going numb and his head was spinning as the banditos started forward. He knew Larabee and the others would search for them and prayed JD had been a good listener and understood how to search for their trail.

 

Maria watched them leave and tried to remove the ropes binding her hands, but the more she struggled the tighter they became. Tears of frustration filled her eyes and she let her head fall to the ground. Somehow she had to find a way to get a message to Chris Larabee, but that would not happen if she stayed where she was.

 

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Four Corners

Saloon

Mid-Afternoon

 

Josiah watched as Ezra dealt the cards to the three men who’d rode into town that morning. The trio worked for the railroad and had stopped to check on the town’s bank and hotel. There would be businessmen through the town several times a month and it meant money for Four Corners.

 

The sound of a wagon pulling up outside caught his attention and Josiah stood and walked to the batwing doors. He recognized the couple and stepped outside, shaking Tom Wilson’s hand before helping Martha down.

 

“Afternoon, Tom, Martha, where are the boys?” Sanchez asked.

 

“They’re playing with Gloria’s children down by the church,” Martha explained. They’d picked the boys up at the Jacobson’s farm on the way into town and dropped them off at the church when the Potter children waved them down.

 

“Any news on the bandits, Josiah?” Tom asked.

 

“We got a message form Sheriff Stains in Eagle Bend that a couple of farms south of there were attacked,” Sanchez answered when Standish joined them.

 

“Good afternoon, Tom…Mrs. Wilson,” the conman greeted.

 

“Hello, Ezra,” Martha said. “Was anyone hurt during the attacks?”

 

“The Robinson family was in town at the time, but the house was burned to the ground and the livestock killed,” Sanchez answered. “Unfortunately the Callahans were not so lucky…the only survivor was their nine month old baby who slept through it all and God must have been with him because he was not harmed in any way.”

 

“My Lord, what is this world coming to when hardworking folks aren’t safe in their own homes?” Martha said, wiping the tears from her eyes.

 

“Hopefully Chris and the others will be able to track the bas…them down,” the ex-preacher told them.

 

“Chris, Buck and JD were at our home last night. They were meeting Vin and Nathan in Purgatorio today,” Tom explained.

 

“Did they find anything?” Standish asked.

 

“Not that they said. Chris’s wound was bleeding and I convinced him to spend the night,” Martha answered.

 

“You know, Tom, it might be a good idea for you guys to stay in town for a few days…until all this…”

 

“No, Josiah, we’re not about to let no two bit bandits scare us off what we’ve worked so hard for. Martha and I have taught the boys how to shoot and they can handle themselves. They know what to do if something happens.”

 

“That’s good to hear, Tom, but if these bandits step up their raids…”

 

“Then we’ll take you up on your hospitality,” Martha assured him. “We just came in to stock up on supplies and are heading back in the morning.”

 

“Just be careful,” Sanchez advised.

 

“We always are,” the woman said and made her way toward the general store.

 

“You are a fortunate man, Tom,” Standish said of the formidable woman walking away from them.

 

“You don’t know the half of it, Ezra. If those bandits do show up they just might be the ones in need of your pity,” Wilson answered.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

North of Purgatorio

Late Evening

 

Buck watched the quiet man closely as they neared their destination. He knew Larabee was pissed at having to make several stops along the way, but there was nothing they could do about it. The homesteaders needed to be warned and although it took them longer to reach Purgatorio it might just have saved several lives.

 

Chris had always been a man who kept his emotions in check, but there were times when the blond could not keep it contained. With each passing minute, Larabee had become increasingly impatient and that could easily cause mistakes. In their line of work, mistakes usually meant lives were lost and Buck was not ready to let that happen.

 

The moon was peeking over the horizon, but to Buck it wasn’t the full white-bodied orb that usually brought a sense of peace with it. Right now there seemed to be a slight hint of a secondary ring that hinted at the color of blood and Wilmington silently prayed it was not a harbinger of danger.

 

“Buck, is Chris all right?” Dunne asked when Larabee rode slightly ahead of them.

 

“He’s fine, JD, just gets kind of quiet when he’s thinking,” the rogue explained.

 

“He’s always quiet, Buck…you think he’s worried about Vin and Nathan?”

 

“Aren’t you?” Wilmington asked. “I’ve been to Purgatorio…hell I’ve even been dead there, but Vin’s well known from his days as a bounty hunter and if someone recognizes him he’s deader’n a beaver hat.”

 

“Vin knows what he’s doing,” Dunne said.

 

Wilmington heard the sense of pride in the younger man’s voice and knew Dunne looked up to them all. Since that first day when they learned he could shoot, ‘fly’, and swim, the others had taken him under their wings and tried to protect him. JD had other ideas on that and had quickly shown them he could protect himself and fit in well with their unique group.

 

“Yeah, he does, but sometimes that’s not enough. Sometimes things happen that we can’t stop…we just have to learn to live with it,” Wilmington said and hoped the younger man understood what he was saying. He’d seen so much hardship in his own life that it sometimes made him cynical, but this was his family now and cynicism did not have a place here. He watched Larabee turn his horse and ride back toward them before pulling up alongside him.

 

“Buck, when we get to town I want you and JD to keep an eye out for Vin and Nathan while I see Maria,” Larabee explained.

 

“Do you think she knows anything about the bandits?” Dunne asked.

 

“Maybe…Maria knows how to keep her eyes and ears open,” Larabee said and spotted the town fires in the distance. “There are a couple of saloons in Purgatorio…just be careful.”

 

“You too,” Wilmington advised. The closer he got to the town, the more his gut clenched with anger. The last time he’d been in Purgatorio he’d nearly died, but Chris’ quick thinking had saved his life. It hadn’t quite saved him from experiencing what a dead man went through in the outlaw town.

 

“I’ll ride in first and meet you at the saloon near the edge of town after I talk to Maria,” Larabee told them.

 

“Watch your back, Pard,” Wilmington ordered and saw the slight nod of the man’s head before Larabee rode away.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Purgatorio

Late Evening

 

Maria knew she was lucky to be alive and rubbed the salve into her wrists. It smelled foul, but she knew it was safe to use on her injuries and was glad one of the other whores had found her and cut through the ropes. She’d made her way to her room and hoped she could find a way to get a message to Chris Larabee or one of the men that followed his lead. A sound outside made her whimper, but she fought back her fears and moved to the window.

 

Maria pulled back the curtain and waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness outside, smiling as a rush of heat flooded her body when she realized who was standing there. “Chris,” she whispered and opened the door next to the window.

 

“Maria…I’m looking…what the hell happened to you?” Larabee softly cursed of the bruises that marred her face, forearms, and bare shoulders.

 

“Banditos…but they are gone now,” Maria explained, relief at having him so close brought tears to her eyes and she felt his arms around her as he led her to her bed and sat down with her. “Hernando is rough and he wanted…wanted to know about you, Chris…”

 

“What did he want to know?” Larabee asked, holding her while she sobbed against his chest.

 

“Just who you were and when you would be back,” Maria told him and knew it was time to tell him about his friends. “Hernando took them…”

 

“Who?” Larabee asked. He tensed as he realized there were only two people in Purgatorio, other than this woman that he cared about and somehow they’d been caught up in something other than the raids.

 

“Nathan and Vin,” Maria told him. “Vin was sick, his face was swollen.  I think he had a fever from a bad tooth.  Nathan took it out.”

 

“Sonofabitch!” Larabee cursed and realized he was the cause of the two men being in danger. “Did this Hernando tell you where he was taking them?”

 

“No, but I overhear him say Don Garcia needs them to bring a medico…They tied Vin face down on his horse…he did not look too good,” Maria explained sadly and reached out to touch his hand. “I wish I could have done something to help, but they left me tied up in the dirt and I could not…could not…”

 

“It’s okay, Maria, it’s not your fault,” Larabee told her, using his fingers to lift her chin so he could see her face. “Thank you for being brave enough to tell me this.”

 

“Chris, I may know who this Don Garcia is and if he is the same one then you cannot help Vin and Nathan,” Maria told him.

 

“I don’t have a choice…I won’t let them die,” Larabee said and stood up to leave, fighting the rage that continued to build inside him.

 

“But Don Garcia will kill you because you killed his son…”

 

“I killed a lot of men, Maria,” Larabee told her and knew he had to find Buck and JD. Dunne had been out several times with Tanner and was beginning to be an asset where tracking was concerned. Chris hoped the younger man would be able to find the trail that would lead them to Don Garcia’s men and maybe they’d find Tanner and Jackson before they reached the Don’s Hacienda. God knows they were long overdue for some good luck.

 

Maria reached for his arm. “Don Garcia De Rivera owns one of the largest haciendas in all of Mexico and he…”

 

“De Rivera,” the blond repeated and frowned as a face suddenly flashed across his mind. The face of a man who’d used his fists on the pretty woman before him and had lost his life when he tried to take Chris on. “As in Alonzo De Rivera?

 

“Si, it is well known that he searches for the man who killed his only son, Chris, and Hernando knows it was you. They will kill you on sight.”

 

“Then I guess I’d better not let them see me,” Larabee told her and turned so that he was looking into her moisture-laden eyes. “Maria, you can’t stay here any longer…it’s too dangerous.”

 

“Where would I go, Chris? This is the only life I have ever known.”

 

“Four Corners…I’m sending Buck back there and he’ll take you with him.”

 

“I don’t know, Chris, would they accept me for what I am?”

 

“Not what, Maria, who you are,” Larabee corrected. “There’s a woman there named Inez and she’s from a poor Mexican town south of here. She made a new start for herself and I know she’d be willing to help you.”

 

“It sounds wonderful…but…”

 

“No buts, Maria, get your things together…I’ll send Buck to get you as soon’s he’s ready to leave,” Larabee told her, hugging her before leaving as quickly as he’d come, leaving a blurry eyed Maria to silently pray for his safety.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

North of the Rio Grande

Midnight

 

The moon was high in the sky and bathed the dark landscape in an aura of white light that did little to ease the darkness that surrounded his heart. With each mile Nathan’s anger and helplessness increased, but the bandits seemed hell bent on crossing the Rio Grande and making good their escape. No one had spoken or taken the time to check on their prisoners as they rode swiftly south toward the river. Nathan had shown his anger and cursed their captors, but that had simply gotten him gagged as well as bound to his horse.

 

Nathan turned sideways and caught sight of the Texan and again felt the helpless rage course through his mind. Vin had shown no signs of coming too even as his head rocked back and forth with the motion of the horse. Tanner’s gag was still in place and he wished he’d been given the chance to check his mouth before the dirty rag had been stuffed between his lips. Who knew what kind of dirt had made contact with the raw area where the abscessed tooth had been. Nathan heard the sound of a fast approaching horse and turned his head to see one of the men ride past and pull up beside the lead rider.

 

“Hernando, the horses need to rest before we cross the river,” Mendoza said.

 

“We can rest once we’re on the other side,” Lopez snapped.

 

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Amigo, we’ve been riding hard for a long time and they cannot keep up this pace,” Mendoza warned.

 

“There could be people following us, Jose,” Lopez told his friend.

 

“Then it’s important we rest the horses and ride downstream before crossing. All I’m saying is we need to take a couple of hours and rest the horses and maybe grab something to eat,” Mendoza said and knew he’d finally gotten through when Hernando pulled his horse to a stop and held up his hand for the others to follow suit.

 

“We stop here for two hours!” Lopez ordered.

 

“What about the prisoners?” Mendoza asked.

 

“Give them some water, but don’t untie them,” Lopez ordered and dismounted. He walked back to Jackson’s horse and looked at the dark skinned man. “You want him to live?”

 

Nathan nodded his head and gasped for breath when the dirty rag was pulled from his mouth. “I need to check him…he’s sick,” Jackson tried and slid from his horse once they untied his hands from the saddle horn.

 

“Just remember he pays if you try anything stupid…comprendez?”

 

“I hear ya,” Jackson said, grabbing for the Texan when they slit the ropes and the semi-coherent man slipped toward the ground. Nathan barely managed to stay on his feet and his anger intensified when he heard the sickening laughter behind him. Nathan ignored the men and dragged Vin away from the horses, returning to grab his supplies and canteen he sat down and went to work with only the bright orb of the full bodied moon to help him. He glanced up and realized there was a thin circle surrounding the moon, one that reminded him of a crimson tide that spoke of danger.

 

Nathan reached down and pulled the rag from Vin’s mouth, holding him as he turned his head to the side and vomited the contents of his stomach along with a mouthful of bloodied saliva. Jackson gently rubbed circles in the man’s back without realizing he was doing so and breathed a sigh of relief when the Texan turned and stared up at him through confused, hooded eyes. He held the canteen in front of the slack lips and spoke softly in an effort not to draw attention from the others.

 

“Na…”

 

“I gotcha, Vin, just take a sip of water and rinse your mouth,” Jackson said and was relieved when the sick man did as he ordered. Nathan helped him rinse his mouth several times before Vin managed to swallow a full mouthful.

 

“Thanks…you…okay?”

 

“I’m fine…” Nathan Jackson turned and stared back over the ground they’d so recently traveled and felt more alone than he’d ever been in his life. His thoughts turned to the others and he wondered how long it would be before they found out about his and Vin’s abduction. How much further were they going to travel and would anyone be able to follow their trail once they crossed the Rio Grande? God, he hoped and prayed Chris, Buck, and JD wouldn’t run into trouble in Purgatorio. With a heavy sigh, Nathan turned his attention back to the injured man, but he didn’t miss the taunting smile on one mean looking bandito’s face, one that did not bode well for either of them. He held the Texan as tremor after tremor racked his body and knew he had to stay strong for both of their sakes.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Purgatorio

Dawn

 

Chris knew Buck was not happy about splitting up, but there was little choice in the matter now. They needed Josiah and Ezra, hell they’d need an army if De Rivera was behind Jackson and Tanner’s disappearance. “Look, Buck, this is the only way. JD should be able to track their movements and we’ll leave signs for the rest of you to follow.”

 

“I thought you said De Rivera had them?”

 

“That’s what Maria told me. You need to take Maria with you and ask Inez to help her until we get back.”

 

“You know I will, Chris, but damn it you and JD are not enough to go after De Rivera. I’ve heard stories about how cruel he’s become since his son was killed…and if he knows you’re behind it…”

 

“We’re not going to try anything unless we’re sure we can get them out. We’ll wait for you and the others to arrive,” Larabee assured his friend.

 

“You better, Chris,” Wilmington warned and knew the blond understood what he was saying. They’d been friends a lot of years, and had stood beside each other more times than he cared to remember, but there were times when Larabee leapt before he thought things through. It had saved them more often than not, but it usually ended with one or both of them being in need of a doctor. They both turned as JD and Maria walked toward them. “Well, I guess this is it then…watch your backs.”

 

“We will, Buck,” Larabee assure him and helped the pretty woman onto her horse.

 

“Be careful, Senor, De Rivera is a cruel man,” Maria told him.

 

“I will, Maria,” the blond said and turned to Wilmington who had already mounted up. “Buck, be careful. We don’t know if the bandits are still raiding the homesteads north of the border.”

 

“You know I will, Chris,” the rogue assured him and tipped his hat to both men before he and Maria rode away from Purgatorio.

 

“All right, Kid, let’s see just how close you were listening to Vin,” Larabee said, motioning toward the two horses tied to the hitching post. It wasn’t long before the two peacekeepers were riding south, away from Purgatorio and into the hell that awaited them in unknown territory.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

 

Evita Martinez loved this time of day when the sun was just rising, spreading a golden cloak across the land with the promise of another beautiful day. She stood on the terrace watching the workers in the fields and knew their lives were hard, but they took pride in bringing in a good harvest. The sun in all her splendor could be both an enemy and a friend to the crops and she hoped this year would bring a bountiful harvest. If it didn’t, De Rivera would blame it on the workers and they would suffer for the loss.

 

“Mama, you look tired,” Luis Martinez observed as he moved onto the terrace and joined her.

 

“Si, Luis, I am, but you are not to worry about me. I have been tired before and will be again,” she told him, hugging her son closely before releasing him and motioning toward the food on the table. “Sit down and eat.”

 

“I will be leaving soon to take the false medico back to the village. Don Rivera has marked him and he will not fool anyone else,” Luis told her. He knew he did not have to tell his mother the kind of mark Miguel Delgado received, she knew of his cruelty.

 

“I can’t say that I feel sorry for Delgado…he has been deceiving people for a long time,” Evita told him and sat next to her son, pleased to see him enjoying the morning meal. “Has there been any word from Lopez?”

 

“Nothing, but you know Hernando…he is a survivor and he will return with a medico or Don Rivera will have him punished.”

 

“Lopez and his men…they kill for no reason.”

 

“I know, Mama, but there is nothing we can do about it. How is Dona Maria?

 

“She grows weaker each day, but the child inside her is strong for he continues to live and make his mama smile when he moves inside her. I believe he is the reason Dona Maria fights so,” Evita said.

 

“She has your spirit, Mama, and with you caring for her she will survive,” Luis told her and kissed her cheek before standing. “I must leave now, Mama, but I wanted to see if there is anything I could bring you from the village?”

 

“Perhaps some of that fine material you brought me the last time. I would like to make some clothing for the baby when he comes,” Evita said and saw the smile on her son’s face.

 

“You are wonderful, Mama,” Luis said, hugging her again before leaving.

 

Evita watched her son until he reached the group of men who waited for him. They were good men, all of them hand-picked by her son to ride at his side. They had done bad things, but she knew deep down they were following orders given by De Rivera. She turned and walked into the outer chamber of Dona Maria’s bedroom and hurried to check on the young woman.

 

“Evita, is there any juice?”

 

“Si, Maria, there is orange juice,” Evita told her and propped her up on several soft pillows before placing a glass of juice in her hands. Fresh fruit was something Maria needed to grow strong, and Don Garcia made sure she had everything she needed, except, love. The man was incapable of such feelings since the loss of his son. Why could he not see the beauty that was right before his eyes?

 

“Why do you look so sad, Evita?”

 

“I…”

 

“Is it because of me and my little one?” Maria asked, rubbing had hand on her tummy as a smile brightened her too pale face.

 

“Si, Maria, it is, but you mustn’t worry about me. I will worry for both of us while you concentrate on growing strong for your little one,” Evita told her. “Would you like something to eat?”

 

“Do you have any of those special sweet breads you make?”

 

“Si, we do,” Evita said and moved to check the tray Rosa had brought up while she was speaking with her son. She brought the tray over and placed it on Maria’s lap and watched the feeble woman reach for the sweet bread on the plate. By the time she’d finished the first one, Evita could tell her strength had been used up and removed the tray.

 

“I feel so tired all the time, Evita,” Maria whispered.

 

“I know you do, but you will grow strong again and hold your little one,” Evita said.

 

“Sing for me, Evita…your voice reminds me of a nightingale,” Maria sighed heavily as the several pillows were removed and the blanket pulled up to her waist.

 

Evita looked at the frail woman and remembered a song her mama sang to her when she was a child and began to sing. Her voice soft and lilting as a small smile formed on Maria’s face.

 

“Beams of heaven, as I go, / Through this wilderness below / Guide my feet in peaceful ways / Turn my midnights into days / When in the darkness I would grope / Faith always sees a star of hope / And soon from all life's grief and danger / I shall be free some day

 

I don't know how long 'twill be / Nor for what the future olds for me / But this I know, if Jesus leads me / I shall get a home some day

 

Often times my sky is clear / Joy abounds without a tear / Though a day so bright begun /Clouds may hide tomorrow's sun / There'll be a day that's always bright / A day that never yields to night / And in its light the streets of glory / I shall behold some day

 

Harder yet may be the fight / Right may often yield to might / Wickedness awhile may reign / Satan's cause may seem to gain / There is a God that rules above / With hand of power and heart of love / If I am right, He'll fight my battle / I shall have peace some day

 

Burdens now may crush me down / Disappointments all around / Troubles speak in mournful sigh / Sorrow through a tear stained eye / There is a world where pleasure reigns / No mourning soul shall roam its plains / And to that land of peace and glory / I want to go some day,” as the final word left her mouth and the tears streamed down her face, Evita knew she’d brought some hope with her song and touched the sleeping woman’s cheek before standing and turning to find De Rivera watching her.

 

“Do you really think they allow your kind in heaven, Evita?”

 

“Heaven is a place where all are welcome, Don Garcia,” Evita told him and returned to caring for her charge.

 

“You keep thinking that way as long as it keeps Maria happy,” De Rivera said before leaving the room once more.

 

Evita knew she was lucky her son did not seem to have the patron’s angry traits and hoped he would never be half as cruel as Don Garcia De Rivera. She slowly began to hum as the sun cloaked the day in golden glory.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

South of the Rio Grande

Mid-Morning

 

The sun had risen and with it came the heat that made a man uncomfortable and made water a necessity. They’d ridden through the night and continued south leaving the splendor of the Rio Grande behind them. For Nathan Jackson the ride was hell as Hernando Lopez refused to let him help his friend. Instead, Tanner was thrown over the horse and tied belly down in the saddle. The disgusting rag had been shoved between the Texan’s lips and tied in place making it impossible for Vin to push it out.

 

Nathan’s own hands were tied to the saddle horn while Lopez held tightly to the lead reins. He could feel blood on his wrists from his struggles with the ropes, but had given up trying to loosen them when Mendoza threatened to shoot Tanner and leave his hide to bake in the sun like so much rotting meat. These men were vile and cruel and Nathan knew they would kill Vin if he didn’t do as they told him to.

 

Nathan knew the others would have discovered they were missing by now and hoped they were hot on their trail, yet another part of him hoped Larabee, Wilmington, and Dunne did not do anything as stupid as coming after them without reinforcements. He prayed they’d send word to Sanchez and Standish, but a small part of him held out for rescue before they were too deep in Mexican territory.

 

The rich soils of the Rio Grande had seen a wonderful array of trees, plant life, wildflowers, and animals, but Nathan had noticed the change the further south they rode. The land was beautiful, with a sprinkling of color that would have floored him had it not been for the circumstances they found themselves in.

 

“What are you thinking about, Medico? You think by looking behind us you’ll see someone coming to your rescue? Is that it?” Pedro Gonzales asked upon riding alongside the bound man. 

 

“He’s been lookin’ over his shoulder since we left Purgatorio,” Raul said with a grin. “Maybe he misses that little puta too. Is that it…you miss her…”

 

“Animals,” Jackson whispered, but knew he’d been heard when Raul kicked out at the semi-conscious Texan. His boot connected with Tanner’s leg and a muffled cry could be heard. “Leave him alone!”

 

“What are you gonna do about it, Gringo?” Raul asked.

 

“Raul, stop,” Lopez warned. He didn’t give a damn what his men did to Tanner, but Jackson was his one way of getting back in De Rivera’s good graces…that and the fact that he knew who killed Alonzo De Rivera and knew the man would return to Purgatorio. That alone should make Don Garcia a happy man.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Four Corners

Mid-Afternoon

 

Josiah sat on the roof of the church and wiped the sweat from his brow as he looked up at the scorching sun that baked the streets and sapped the water from a man’s body. Perhaps Ezra had the right idea when he retired to his bed just after dawn and awoke just as the bright orb was dipping behind the tree line.

 

His gaze wandered down the street, not at all surprised to find several homesteaders had taken refuge in the safety of Four Corners until the marauders were caught. Tom Wilson and his wife had ridden in the day before, but they planned on heading home as soon as they had the supplies they needed. This time he’d brought the whole family, because the thought of leaving his loved ones alone would never cross his mind. Although Martha Wilson would probably be able to take care of several of the banditos on her own. He waved to the couple as they went into Gloria Potter’s store and returned his attention to the task at hand.

 

“Josiah, has there been any news?” Mary Travis asked of the missing peacekeepers.

 

“Nothing since Tom and Martha got here last night,” Sanchez answered. He knew Mary was worried about the men, especially Chris Larabee. He’d seen the two together on several occasions and knew things were beginning to heat up for the couple. He hoped they’d have the chance to find happiness together. “The wires are down between here and Purgatorio so we may not hear anything unless someone happens to meet up with them or the wires are fixed.”

 

“There are several families staying in town until the banditos are stopped,” Mary told him.

 

“I know and I think the town owes you a debt of gratitude for the way you’re handling things,” Sanchez said, amazed at how well the townspeople and homesteaders were banding together during the rough times. Tiny and several other men had offered to help Josiah and Ezra patrol the southern area around town. Josiah made sure the men rode in pairs and understood that if there was trouble they should ride back and get help and not try to be heroes. So far there’d been no sign of the bandits, but that could change at any time.

 

“I think the whole town has banded together over this…even Mr. Conklin has stopped complaining and has offered to help out,” Mary told him.

 

“The town’s come a long way since the ‘bad element’ was run out,” Sanchez offered.

 

“Yes, it has and to think I once put Chris Larabee in that category,” Mary said sadly.

 

“You didn’t know him, Mary, and if I remember correctly he did tell you he was the bad element.”

 

“Yes, he did,” she said with a touch of a smile. “We both know how wrong that statement is. I’m going to see if Inez needs some help…will you…”

 

“I’ll let you know if there’s any word,” Sanchez vowed. He watched the pretty woman make her way toward the saloon and turned his head toward the south as a lone crow flew high overhead. His father had always believed that a lone crow was a harbinger of sorrow, but Josiah was not about to let one bird turn the tide on an otherwise beautiful day. He made the sign of the cross and whispered a prayer that the Lord guide and protect the missing peacekeepers.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Late Evening

North Side of the Rio Grande

 

Chris watched as JD dismounted and began searching the ground for any sign of the missing men. They’d been moving steadily south toward the Rio Grande since leaving Purgatorio, but so far the kid had been unable to find any real evidence they were on the right trail. He was hot and irritable and his side burned as sweat soaked through his clothing making it adhere to his skin. He glanced at the sky, softly cursing the bright orb that beat down on them with a fierceness that could rival the heated glare he’d turned on others.

 

JD could feel the blond watching him as he checked the hoof prints in the mud along the banks of the Rio Grande. Chris had been impatient, more so than ever now that the sun had burned through his hat and set his mind on fire. JD wasn’t afraid of Chris Larabee, but he wanted the man’s approval and this was a way for him to prove his metal once and for all, but so far it was rough going. He stood near a bunch of reeds and found several had recently been broken, but there was no way of telling how many riders had come through here.

 

“Find anything, JD?”

 

“There’s evidence of riders crossing here, but I can’t tell if it was them.”

 

“How many riders?” Larabee asked.

 

“I’d guess half a dozen or more,” Dunne answered. “It looks like they crossed here.”

 

“Looks like we’re going to do the same,” Larabee said, gazing across the river and silently praying they’d find Nathan and Vin before the banditos reached their destination. It was going to be hard enough to get them back up against six or more men, but at least they’d have a fighting chance. If the De Rivera plantation was as big as he suspected then there’d be a hell of a lot more men to take out and that would mean waiting for reinforcements.

 

“Chris, it’s gonna be dark soon…I ain’t gonna be able to track them…”

 

“I know, Kid,” the gunslinger told him as he guided Pony into the river. The horse was sure footed, but crossing a river was always dangerous, especially when it flowed fast and furious as they went deeper. He heard JD enter behind him and smiled when the kid cursed at finding the water colder than he thought it would be. They made it to the opposite side without incident and Chris watched as the young easterner, who no longer resembled the greenhorn who’d exited the stage that fateful day, and knew JD had earned the right to be part of the Magnificent Seven. It made him smile whenever he thought of the name Jock Steele had given to the band of unlikely peacekeepers, because their stories were now down on paper. Maybe, some day, another greenhorn kid would be reading about JD Dunne and wishing he was just like him. 

 

“There’s no sign of ‘em here,” Dunne said, searching the banks of the river before turning back to the blond.

 

“They probably walked the horses further down before coming ashore,” Larabee told him and headed Pony in that direction.

 

“Chris, do you think Nathan and Vin are okay?” the Bostonian asked, mounting his horse and riding alongside his mentor.

 

“I don’t know, JD, but it doesn’t sound like Vin was in good shape when he got to Maria’s,” Larabee answered. They rode along in silence, searching for anything that might show them what direction the banditos had taken. As the sun dipped below the horizon and the temperature dropped as twilight overtook the land, Chris reluctantly called a halt. “We best make camp for the night and get an early start.”

 

JD dismounted and looked at the magnificent sunset along the horizon and prayed the crimson tide was not a harbinger of spilled blood. He shivered as if a cold breeze crossed his path and turned to see Larabee watching him closely.

 

“They’re not dead, Kid,” Larabee said and ground tied Pony near the river’s edge. He knew the younger man was worried about Vin and Nathan, truth was he wasn’t alone, but Chris was not ready to think the worse. They quickly set up camp and had a small fire going and the smell of rabbit soon wafted up on the soft breeze. Chris had surprised JD by shooting one that had appeared out of nowhere and Dunne had shown his skill with a knife by skinning and spitting the animal before placing it over the fire.

 

The silence of the night was interrupted by the call of a native bird that was answered several times over. Crickets chirruped in the tall grass, while a mountain cat screeched in the distance. Chris relaxed and lit a cheroot as JD handed him a cup of strong, black coffee. Without a word, Larabee pulled out his flask and added a liberal amount to both their cups, smiling inwardly at the surprised look on Dunne’s face.

 

“Chris, how did you and Buck meet?” Dunne asked curiously. He’d asked Wilmington about it, but had never heard Larabee speak about their first meeting and wondered what had made them become friends. They seemed so different to him, like oil and vinegar, something that didn’t mix well.

 

“Buck saved my life, Kid,” Larabee answered.

 

“That’s not what he said…he said you saved his. He said you took a bullet meant for him,” Dunne said.

 

“I may have taken the bullet, JD, but if Buck hadn’t been there I’d have died. We were miles from camp and belonged to different outfits. I didn’t even know he was there and I doubt he saw me, but we were both cut off from our camps. Buck,” Larabee smiled as he remembered his first meeting with the rogue who even then considered himself a ‘ladies’ man’. “Buck didn’t see the bastard sneaking in behind him…never did like the idea of shooting a man in the back so I figured I’d stop him. Was a bit of a greenhorn myself then and thought there was no way in hell he’d get a shot off before I got him. I was wrong…took a bullet in the leg before Buck managed to kill the sonofabitch.”

 

“So you did save Buck’s life,” Dunne was in awe of the man lying across the fire from him.

 

“No…I took a bullet meant for him, but Buck saved my life. We were cut off…no supplies…the enemy all around us, and Buck wouldn’t let me quit. He tore up his shirt and tied it around my leg and wouldn’t let me stop. Sonofabitch kept talking the whole time we struggled to get ahead of the soldiers. It took damn near two days to reach Buck’s outfit and he told me it was okay to let go if I wanted to,” Larabee explained.

 

“Did you…let go I mean?”

 

“I passed out and he carried me into camp…don’t remember much after that, but Buck was transferred to my outfit and we’ve been friends ever since. He’s a good man, Kid…one I’m glad I met,” the blond said, reaching for his knife and cutting off a chunk of meat and handing it to JD.

 

“Thanks, Chris,” Dunne said and grew quiet. The rest of the meal was eaten in silence and the two men settle down for what was going to be a long night.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

North of the De Rivera Hacienda

Dawn

 

Hernando Lopez was filled with a mixture of hope and fear as he topped the rise and spotted the Hacienda far below. He knew Don Garcia would be pleased that he’d brought a medico, but he would have felt better had he also brought along the gunslinger. The Negro called Nathan would put him in the Haciendada’s good graces, but if he’d brought Chris Larabee with him it would have secured him of the spot as Don Garcia’s right hand man. Perhaps he could still find the gunman and bring him here, but first he’d make sure the medico was in place and perhaps the other gringo would be put to work in the fields.

 

They’d ridden through the night, stopping at two small villages for fresh horses before riding deeper into the mountains. The second prisoner was face down on his horse and Ernesto and Raul had made a game of taunting him much to the healer’s chagrin. He’d put a stop to it when Jackson had grown angry enough to throw himself off his horse and tried to protect his semi-conscious friend. As the sun rose above the horizon, Hernando heard the telltale signs that the people of the Hacienda were awake and ready to start a new day.

 

It took 30 minutes to reach the Hacienda and when they did Don Garcia De Rivera and Luis Martinez met them. Hernando disliked Luis and hoped someday he would be able to prove to Don Garcia that his trust in his bastard son was ill placed. He pulled his horse to a stop and dismounted in front of the two men.

 

“Don Garcia, I have brought a medico as you wished,” Lopez said, giving the man a half bow before pointing to the dark skinned man whose hands were still tied to the horse’s saddle.

 

“Where did you find him?” Luis asked.

 

“We found him and his friend in Purgatorio,” Lopez answered irritated that Martinez seemed to be speaking for the Haciendada.

 

“How do you know he is a medico?” Luis asked.

 

“He was tending his friend…”

 

“His skin is not the right color for a medico,” Don Garcia observed.

 

“I told him I ain’t no doctor,” Jackson told the man before him. There was something cruel in the way the man held the cane, and Nathan knew the man had probably used it on more than one back.

 

“Hernando, is this some kind of joke?” Don Garcia asked angrily raising the cane to strike the other man.

 

“No, Don Garcia, I saw him tending his friend and he knew what he was doing,” Lopez snapped and pulled Jackson from the horse.

 

“Is this true? Do you know anything about medicine?” Luis asked.

 

“I know some things…picked up some stuff when I was a stretcher bearer during the war. Been takin’ care of some folks in a town north of the border,” Jackson answered and turned to the horse carrying Vin Tanner. “Please, my friend needs water…he’s been sick…”

 

“Your friend is no longer your concern,” De Rivera warned. “What do you know of childbirth?”

 

“I’ve helped deliver a few babies…why?” Jackson asked, cursing as Raul cut through the ropes holding the Texan and letting his body drop heavily to the ground. He tried to go to him, but two men grabbed his arms and held him in place as Don Garcia made his way to the fallen man and struck him with the cane before using it as a stick and poking Tanner’s ribs.

 

“This animal is your friend?” De Rivera asked.

 

“He’s not an animal…he’s a man…a good man!” Jackson said as the Haciendada strode toward him, blocking his view of the Texan. “Please, let me help him.”

 

“My wife is with child and she is ill…you tend to her and maybe I will let you see to your friend,” De Rivera told him.

 

“But…”

 

“Si, if you insist…Hernando, give him water!” De Rivera said softly, but there was a hint of cruelty on his face.

 

“Ernesto, Raul…hold the bastardo while I get him some water,” Lopez ordered and hurried to the well, returning with the bucket of water as Ernesto and Raul forced the Texan to his knees.

 

Vin struggled against the strong arms holding him, but had already been weakened from the illness and being bound face down on the horse. He lifted his head and glared at Hernando Lopez, but the man just laughed as he signaled for another man to step forward.

 

“Pedro, hold the puta’s head so he can take a nice long drink!”

 

Nathan realized instantly what they were about to do and tried to get past the big Mexican standing beside De Rivera. “No…damn it let him go!”

 

“They are only giving him the water as requested,” De Rivera told him, motioning for his men to continue.

 

“Get his mouth open!” Lopez ordered, smiling as Pedro pulled on the long hair and pinched the prisoner’s nose until he was forced to breathe through his mouth. He took pleasure in running his hand down the corded muscles of Tanner’s throat before lifting the bucket and pouring into the Texan’s mouth.

 

Vin knew he was drowning and fought the hands that held him in place, but it felt as if the floodgates had opened up and his body was drowning in the liquid necessary to stay alive.

 

“Vin!” Jackson called and for a second he caught sight of two blue beacons of fear before De Rivera turned to him.

 

“I am not a cruel man and your friend has had his fill of water. You will tend Dona Maria and perhaps I will allow you to see to him when I am satisfied you have done all you can for my esposa.” De Rivera said and glanced at Martinez.  “Luis, take him to Evita and tell her he is to help care for Dona Maria!”

 

“Si, Patron,” Luis agreed and took Jackson’s arm and softly said. “You cannot help him now…come don’t make it worse than it already is.”

 

“I’ll need my things,” Jackson said, knowing the man was right and that if he protested further Vin would be the one who paid for it. He watched as one of the banditos grabbed his saddlebags and tossed them to Luis, before Martinez took his arm and led him to the house.

 

“What do you want me to do with the gringo dog, Patron?” Lopez asked of the half drowned Texan. The two men holding him had released their grip and Tanner was on his hands and knees as again and again his body shook and the water they’d forced on him was vomited onto the ground.

 

“Bring him to Fernando and tell him to put him to work in the fields,” De Rivera ordered.

 

“Si, Ernesto, Raul, get him up!” Lopez told his men.

 

“What of the other matter, Hernando? Did you find the bastard who killed Alonzo?”

 

“No, Don Garcia, but we will leave here as soon as we deliver the gringo to Fernando,” Lopez vowed.

 

“See that you do not return without him or I will have no choice, but to make an example of you,” De Rivera said and walked back into the hacienda.

 

“Come on, Bastardo, it’s time to earn your keep,” Lopez laughed, slapping Tanner’s face as he was held between the two men eliciting a sharp cry of pain from the semi-conscious man.

 

Vin’s face exploded in pain as someone slapped him repeatedly. Water dripped down his face and he blinked rapidly in an effort to focus on the man standing in front of him. There was no mistaking the stench of the man’s breath, and Vin remembered the rough treatment at the Mexican’s hands and understood things had not gotten any better. He looked around, hoping to see Nathan, but the man was nowhere in sight.

 

“The gringo medico has been taken to the main house, Bastardo, but you…we have a much better place for you. Fernando Gores will be very pleased to have the extra help in the fields and if you fuck with Fernando the medico will pay dearly…comprendez?”

 

“I h…hear ya,” Tanner managed, staring into the man’s cold eyes, until Lopez’s left hand shot out and struck him in the stomach, doubling him over in spite of the men holding him up.

 

“You’d best learn your place right now, Tanner, or you’ll find yourself at the mercy of Don Garcia’s cane,” Lopez spat. “Bring him along!”

 

Vin could barely breathe, but he found the strength to pull away from the two men and walked like a man who carried the weight of the world on his shoulders, or in this case the life of Nathan Jackson.

 

M7M7MM7M7M7M7 

 

South of Four Corners

Late Afternoon

 

Buck glanced sideways at the woman riding next to him and wondered about her story. What had brought her to a life as a prostitute in Purgatorio? Was there an abusive father or husband looking for her? Did she have family who might be worried about her? Had she found solace in the life she’d chosen simply because she’d found others with the same troubles that plagued her? He remembered his mother and the other women talking about their lives and why they’d chosen a certain path and knew underneath it all, some women just didn’t have a choice. They were born into the wrong family or simply married the wrong man and the law never too the abuse seriously. It was wrong, but it was the way of things in this day and age and Buck hoped that someday things would change for the better.

 

“How long…I mean when did you…aw hell,” Wilmington stammered and turned away.

 

“How did I meet Chris or how did I end up in Purgatorio?” Maria asked.

 

“Both…I guess. If it’s too private I’ll understand…I just, well my mama was forced into it and I grew up around ladies like…”

 

“I haven’t been called a lady in a long time…except by Senor Chris. He has always treated me with dignity. He came here looking for something I couldn’t give. That night you and JD came to get him was our first night together and he was filled with sadness. He asked me if I could bring his family back and I wish there was some way to do that, but when death comes calling there is no escape…no turning back the clock.”

 

“You sound like you’re speaking from experience…did you lose someone special?”

 

“Si…it was so long ago, yet it still feels as if it was yesterday. I married a boy from the village and we made our home south of the Rio Grande, but fate sometimes has a way of killing a dream. He was killed because he would not turn our land over to the rich man who thought it was his right to take what he wanted. His men…they staked him out in the hot sun and made me watch as they teased him with water, but would not give him any. They cut him and let him bleed and he lasted for three days…and,” Maria could not finish as tears filled her eyes and streamed down her face.

 

“Animals,” Wilmington whispered and wished he could sooth away her pain, but nothing could take away the agony of watching a loved one die. He could only imagine what they did to her while waiting for her husband to die and Buck felt angry at how some men…men like Guy Royal and Stuart James existed in every country…in every town. Men who did not believe in hard work to get what they wanted; instead they stole from the homesteaders or merchants and built an empire of greed.

 

“I buried him…and there was nothing left for me there…not after…after they bragged of what they’d done to me. I found myself as an outcast and made my way north until I reached Purgatorio. It was there that I found a woman’s body could come in handy and accepted a few coins for what those bastardos took for free.  Some people would say I chose the easy way out,” Maria told him.

 

“My mama always told me never to judge someone unless you’ve been in his or her shoes,” Wilmington told her. “I met lots of ladies and I’ve heard a lot of stories, and I doubt if anyone can truly say you chose the easy way out. It may have been the only road open to you at the time, and God knows my mama did everything she could to bring me up right and teach me to respect and protect women. There are times when I mess up, but I will never look down on any woman who’s got the guts to do what they have to do.”

 

“Thank you, Senor Buck,” Maria said as they topped the rise and looked down at the town in the distance. “I wish others felt as you do.”

 

“They do, Maria, but they just don’t know how to show it,” Wilmington said. “When we get to Four Corners I’ll introduce you to Inez Recillos. She’s had some hard times in her life too, but she found a way to overcome them and is an asset to the town. She’ll help you settle in until Chris gets back and you can decide what you want to do.”

 

“Senor Chris is a good man,” Maria told him and grew silent as they continued toward the buildings. It took another twenty minutes to reach the town and Maria took a deep breath to calm her nerves. There was no way anyone in this place could know her unless they’d frequented Purgatorio, but she was still nervous about meeting the good citizens of Four Corners.

 

“You’ll be fine, Maria,” Wilmington told her as they drew to a stop in front of the saloon. He spotted Josiah and Ezra walking toward them and dismounted, looping the reins over the hitching post before helping her off the horse.

 

“Where are the others?” Sanchez asked of the missing men.

 

“Long story…let me take care of Maria and I’ll tell you about it,” Wilmington offered and pushed through the batwing doors. He spotted Inez behind the bar cleaning the glasses and smiled at the pretty woman. “Inez, I’d like you to meet a friend of mine. Her name is Maria and she needs our help.”

 

“Hello, Maria, welcome to Four Corners,” Inez said, coming around the counter as Wilmington placed her bag on the bar. She studied the face, noting the eyes in particular, and the lines that spoke of a life of hardship. She knew Buck and the others had gone south to check on the marauders and wondered what the woman’s story was and if it was close to her own? It really didn’t matter because she felt a kindred spirit and knew she had to do what she could to help.

 

“Thank you,” Maria said, unsure what she should say or do as Inez took her hand.

 

“Will you be staying in Four Corners?” Recillos asked. She’d come to Four Corners as a stranger and stayed because there were people here who helped her without question and that kindness was something she would offer another wayward soul.

 

“For a little while…at least until Senor Chris returns,” Maria explained and allowed the other woman to lead her to a table.

 

“All right, Buck, what’s going on? Who’s the lady?” Sanchez asked.

 

“Her name is Maria…she’s a friend of Chris,” Wilmington offered and reached for the bottle of whiskey on the bar. “We split up just south of here. Vin and Nathan went to the Doherty place while me, Chris, and JD checked the homesteads. We stopped in at the Wilson place and Martha took one look at Chris and saw he was bleeding and that was it….”

 

“Martha told us she tended Chris’ wound,” Sanchez told him.

 

“Are they still in town?” Wilmington asked of the friendly couple.

 

“No, they headed back yesterday afternoon,” the ex-preacher answered.

 

“Tom knows how to handle himself,” Wilmington said and went on with his story. “We spent the night there and headed for Purgatorio the next morning. Chris was moody…”

 

“I believe Mr. Larabee is always moody,” Standish observed and saw a hint of a smile on Wilmington’s face.

 

“Might have a point there, but let’s say he was moodier than normal,” Wilmington said. “We hit Purgatorio later than we were supposed to and Chris went to see Maria…” Buck continued the story, filling the two men in on everything that had happened in Purgatorio and the reason he’d returned to Four Corners with Maria in tow.

 

“Do we have any idea how far south of the Rio Grande De Rivera’s Hacienda is?” Standish asked.

 

“Not sure, but it’s supposed to be a big spread and that should make it easy to find it,” Wilmington answered. “I figure we should get started.”

 

“All right, but we need to make sure the town’s ready for anything,” Sanchez agreed. “Ezra, send a wire to the judge and let him know what’s happening. Buck, get something to eat and grab a couple of hours sleep. I’ll talk to Yosemite and make sure he knows what to do if there’s trouble.”

 

“Tell him to lock Conklin up and throw away the key if he gives him any trouble,” Wilmington said.

 

“Yosemite knows how to handle Conklin and he’ll have most of the town backing him,” Sanchez said heading for the door. “I figure we should be able to head out at first light.”

 

“Guess you’re right…I just hope we have that much time, Josiah, because Nathan and Vin are in trouble and Chris and JD are about to ride right into a hornet’s nest,” the rogue said and downed a glass of whiskey.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7    

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Late Afternoon

 

Nathan sighed heavily as he felt the older woman watching him. Evita Martinez had watched over him as he examined the woman in the bed. She was as intimidating as De Rivera, but Nathan understood it was because she cared about the lady who seemed so weak, a delicate flower wilting in spite of the promise of the new life growing within. Nathan knew Maria De Rivera was not a strong woman and there was only so much they could do, but he had never given up on anyone and was not about to start now. Not when three lives, Maria, the unborn child, and Vin Tanner’s depended on him staying true to his own calling.

 

Maria slept through his ministrations and he gently lifted the blankets up over her waist. Her dark hair starkly contrasted the paleness of her skin and only the slight rise and fall of her chest signaled that she was still with them He turned to see the older woman watching him closely.

 

“She is weak,” Evita said.

 

“Yes, she is,” Jackson agreed. “Has she always been…delicate?”

 

“Yes, she was never meant for this hard life with a man like Don Garcia. He can be cruel,” Evita told him, reading the kindness in the soft brown eyes. She sat on the edge of the bed and gently brushed back the hair from Maria’s face. “She hardly eats enough to keep her alive.”

 

“We’ll have to make sure she’s getting the foods she and the baby need,” Jackson said. “Fresh fruits are a must…vegetables…anything soft that she can eat will be good…”

 

“Fruits and vegetables are easy to come by. Don Garcia makes sure the Hacienda is well supplied with the things needed to support his child. He can be very cruel and I am taking a chance in telling you this, but you have soft eyes and I sense I can trust you, Nathan,” Evita told him.

 

“Senora…”

 

“Please, we will be together for a long time and Senora is a formal title for ladies like Senora Maria…I am Evita…”

 

“You are a lady, Senora…Evita,” Jackson said, sensing the trust the woman was placing in him. “What I’d like for you to do is make sure there is always a fresh supply of juice and have the people working in the kitchen keep a supply of vegetables ready. They should be well cooked and easy for Senora De Rivera to take. I have some herbs with me, but not enough for a long stay…”

 

“There are special herbs grown here or Don Garcia will have whatever you need brought in,” Evita told him, returning her attention to the woman on the bed when she shifted and her eyes opened.

 

“Evita…”

 

“I’m right here, Maria,” Martinez assured her, smiling as she touched the woman’s cheek. “There is someone I want you to meet, Maria. He is a medico…”

 

“Like the other one?”

 

“No, not like that animal, Maria…”

 

“You trust…trust him?”

 

“Yes, I do…he has nice eyes,” Evita said softly. “Nathan, come here.”

 

Nathan moved closer so that the woman could see him and smiled as he looked into her eyes and felt the wayward soul searching for answers. “Senora, I’m not a real medico…”

 

“Don’t let him fool you, Maria, Nathan has a healing touch…a strong one,” Evita told her.

 

“Did you ch…choose to come or did my husband force you to come here?”

 

“I had no choice, but I will not turn away from anyone who needs my help, Senora,” Jackson told her.

 

“You will help keep me strong for my b…baby?”

 

“God willing I’ll do everything I can,” Nathan vowed.

 

“God is always willing as long as we believe in Him,” Evita told them.

 

“I am sorry…sorry my husband forced you to come here,” Maria whispered. “Perhaps someday he will understand what it means to be forced to do something you d…don’t want to.”

 

“Honestly, Senora, I didn’t want to come, but now that I’m here I’ll do everything I can for you,” Jackson told her and looked wistfully toward the window as a thunderous sound shook the house and rain pelted off the windows. His thoughts turned to Vin Tanner and without a word he made his way toward the verandah and looked out over the fields where mestizo people, young and old, still worked in spite of the heavy rainfall. He tried to find Vin, but the distance was too great and he prayed the Texan was okay, but the underlying fear kept niggling at his senses.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Evening

 

Once he’d been introduced to Fernando Gores and been given first-hand knowledge of what was expected of him, Vin had been put to work in the fields. A tall, heavily scarred mestizo named Pedro had been told to show him what to do and had taken him under his wing. The man’s dark skin glistened in the sun while his nearly white hair was plastered to his head with sweat. The man had hardly said three words, but he’d shown Vin more kindness in the last hour than anyone else on the hacienda. With hand signals and guttural responses Vin knew what was expected of him and even with the ache in his jaw and the throbbing of his lower back he’d bent to his work.

 

Several times he’d glance toward the hacienda and hoped Nathan was all right. He’d followed much of the conversation and understood the reason Jackson had been needed. Don Garcia’s wife was with child, but she wasn’t very strong and there was a fear amongst the people that if she died, they would all be made to pay. Vin winced and rubbed at his jaw, but a sharp command and the crack of a whip had him bending to the work of pulling the weeds from the garden.

 

It felt as if he’d been working for hours in the sun, and his skin felt dried out as a cloud obliterated the sun and a soft wind picked up, cooling his heated flesh and sending goose bumps along his arms.

 

“Tempestad…” Pedro managed the English word to the man working beside him. He’d been watching him closely and was impressed by the hardiness he sensed in the strong jaw line and blue eyes.

 

Vin had no idea what the word meant, but he looked up at the sky and noticed the white clouds had given way to swirling ominous clouds that spoke of a storm brewing, one that usually tore the landscape apart with its fury. He looked up as several mestizos made the sign of the cross and hurried to find shelter. There were several shouts from De Rivera’s hands and Pedro grabbed his arm and pointed toward the row of building that housed the workers.

 

“Venir…”

 

Tanner did not need to be told twice and followed the bigger man toward the relative safety of the building, but a hand latched onto his arm before he could enter.

 

“Don Garcia has a special place for you, Gringo,” Gores yelled above the gusting winds howling through the surrounding trees.

 

Tanner glared at the man, barely able to stand on his own two feet as two men latched onto his arms. He would have pulled away, but it would have been a waste of time and energy…something that he had to save until he was stronger. The two men dragged him toward a wooden cage hanging from the thick branch of a tree. The door was already open and Vin pulled away from his captors and with as much dignity as he could muster, stepped into the cage where he was forced to stand.

 

“Put your hand through the bars, Gringo!” Gores said and took special care in snapping the cuffs around each wrist. “Sleep while you can…we will have much to do when this storm is over.

 

Vin watched the bastards leave and tried to get comfortable, but the cage was not wide enough for him to lie down. He sat down and pulled his legs up to rest his head on them as he tried to ease the pain in his back and jaw. The rain was a welcome respite from the heat of the day, but it did little to ease the fever raging inside.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

South of the Rio Grande

Early Evening

 

JD knew Chris was worried, hell, truth was so was he, but it was getting harder and harder to find their way through the high winds and now the heavens had opened up and rain fell so heavily it was like stinging barbs against exposed skin. His hair was soaked and his hat and clothing were drenched and stuck to his body. The area they rode through was dangerous and he looked up at the muddy landscape high above them and glanced sideways at his companion before he was forced to hang back and allow Larabee to take the lead.

 

“Chris!” Dunne shouted as they exited the narrow pass and a strange, unearthly noise sounded from above them. He barely had time to kick his horse into a frenzied gallop when a mudslide, rained down behind him, bringing with it huge boulders, trees, brush, and anything else that was in its path. The sound echoed and re-echoed as if hundreds of landslides were happening all around them. He spotted Larabee up ahead and raced after him, exiting another narrow opening just as it caved in behind them. His heart beat wildly in his chest as fear gripped him and he clung to the saddle horn in a white knuckled grip. There’d been storms in Boston, but he couldn’t remember one with such ferocity.

Chris knew how dangerous this type of sudden, deadly storm could be and realized it was futile to go on and chance dying because of nature’s fury. He glanced over his shoulder and was relieved to see JD’s horse following close behind Pony. A bolt of lightning hit a nearby tree while a flash of light illuminated the younger man’s face and Chris saw the raw fear that spoke of how young JD Dunne really was. The young man had come a long way, but there were still things he had yet to experience, and Chris Larabee suddenly felt very protective of the ‘kid’ from Boston. He was forced to turn back and began searching for a place where they could hold up until Mother Nature finished unleashing her fury on the land. He could barely see ten feet in front of him and was shocked when Pony veered away from an obstruction and tried to continue along the path.

 

JD spotted Chris and Pony and managed to pull his horse to a stop before it followed Pony’s path. God, his mouth was drier than a desert in high summer and his hands shook as he held tightly to the reins. It felt as if his heart would burst from his chest with the force of each beat. He blinked several times and was able to make out the partially destroyed building that had cause Pony to turn so sharply. He saw Chris moving back toward him and moved his horse through the missing wall and under what remained of a roof.

 

“We’ll wait out the storm here, Kid,” Larabee told him as he dismounted. The noise was almost unnatural as the rain hit the roof and a deafening roar of thunder blasted through the area while lightning flashed continuously sending bolts of electricity toward the ground. Chris looked up at the hole in the roof as lightning illuminated a cross that marked this spot as holy ground and without realizing he’d done so he sent a silent prayer that Nathan and Vin were okay.

 

“We had storms in Boston, but I don’t remember one ever coming on so fast. How long do you think it’ll last?” Dunne asked.

 

“Don’t’ know…could be hours,” Larabee said tiredly. They’d ridden throughout the day, seeing only a handful of people who generally shied away from them. There had been several houses and a generous couple who’d offered them a hot meal and a bed for the night. Chris and JD had eaten the meal with them, helped the farmer remove a stump after eating the afternoon meal and then rode away with the sun beating down from overhead. Now he wondered if they’d made the wrong decision as the storm seemed a harbinger of disaster, but he was not about to let that stop him from finding the missing men.

 

“Looks like there might be a dry spot back there,” Dunne told him and moved to the back of the structure. The church had been built flush against the mountain and some smart preacher had utilized the cave as a place of refuge. There was a torch on the wall and Dunne pulled it down and lit it, shining it ahead of him, surprised to find out just how big the cave was. “It looks like we’re not the first ones to take refuge here.”

 

“Josiah would say it’s Divine Intervention,” Larabee told him, removing the saddle from his horse and placing it inside the cave. He did the same to Dunne’s horse and made sure both animals were sheltered from the storm before gathering as much dry kindling as he could and moving into the cave. Chris smiled inwardly when he noticed that Dunne had already started a fire and the smoke wafted up through some kind of natural chimney formation.

 

“I’ll take care of the horses…”

 

“Already done” the blond told him and pointed to Dunne’s saddle. The two men stripped off their wet clothing and hung it over several broken pieces of furniture placed near the fire. They dressed in the extra clothing packed in their saddlebags before setting up their camp and making coffee. Their meal was leftover bread and ham given to them by the couple whose kindness would some day be repaid. Unlike the night before there was little conversation, simply because neither man wanted to voice the very real fear that they might already be too late.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

Four Corners

Dawn

 

Buck Wilmington hadn’t slept well and stood in the open doorway looking out at the rain-drenched street. The storm had hit at midnight with such ferocity that the rain made it impossible to see across the street. As dawn neared, the sky remained dark with tumultuous clouds that roiled into each other sending streaks of lightning across the sky. A tree near Josiah’s church had been struck and fallen on a corner of the church, damaging some of the repairs done by the ex-preacher.

 

Buck had laid awake listening to the storm and cursing the timing because, although the rain was needed, they could have done without the violent upheaval that saw the floodgates open up. His thoughts had turned to the damage that would be left in the tempest’s wake and his gut churned as he thought of the missing men. How long would this delay them from going after the others? They’d have to make sure the people of the town were okay and maybe check on the few outlying farms, but did Nathan and Vin have that kind of time? From what he heard and saw for himself, the banditos were cruel and that did not bode well for his friends. Josiah had commented that he’d seen such a storm only once before and that it had lasted for two days. By the time it ended the landscape had taken on a whole new look, one that spoke of the tempest that had blown through the area.

 

Now as the promise of a new day loomed on the horizon, Buck’s thoughts turned to the missing men once more. Chris and JD were hot on their trail, and God help them both if they ran into the marauders without anyone to watch their backs. Oh, Chris could handle himself, there was no doubt of that, but JD was still a kid, wet behind the ears in spite of his time in the west. It took years of living to understand how harsh life could be out here and Dunne had already experienced the devastation of killing an innocent person.

 

Buck thought about the days following Annie’s death and how he’d finally sat down with the Kid and watched him play with the food on his plate. He hadn’t said one word as JD’s head came up until their eyes met. Dunne’s softly spoken “I didn’t mean it, Buck, but I can’t take it back” had nearly broken his heart, but he’d managed to talk the younger man out of the dark turmoil hidden inside him. They’d talked about Annie and how Achilles and his gang were the real cause of her death and when all was said and done, they toasted to her life and to her death and prayed her husband would find solace in her memories.

 

A knock at the door brought him out of his thoughts and he moved to open it, not at all surprised to see Josiah and Ezra standing there. Both men were soaked to the skin as if they’d been standing under a waterfall. “Damn it, Josiah, couldn’t you put in a good word with Him?”

 

“Sometimes a man’s word isn’t enough, Brother,” Sanchez offered. “We need to get some of the men to help board up the windows in the Potter place.”

 

“Damn,” Wilmington spat; reaching for the slicker he’d hung over the back of the chair.

 

“The beast is doing its best to tear the town apart,” Standish answered and sighed heavily. “Thank God the children were in their beds, but they are frightened.”

 

“All right…let’s get this done!” Wilmington said, hurrying after the two men. They reached the door leading outside and had to press against it with everything they had in order to get it open. The wind nearly blew them off their feet as the rain beat against their faces and felt as if it was cutting the skin off their cheeks.

 

It was impossible to hear anything above the howling winds and the pelting rain, but these men knew what had to be done and hurried toward the Potter place. They worked together, cursing when the boards and nails slipped from their hands or a hammer struck a tender thumb. There were shouts from down the street, and the sound of breaking glass told them there’d be more windows in need of repair.

 

Lightning flashed, illuminating the dark specters of the nearby buildings and a scream echoed through the night. Buck looked toward the hotel and motioned to the others that he’d check it out. Wilmington hurried down the street, zigzagging in an effort to steer clear of the debris being thrown around by the high winds. He reached the hotel and threw open the doors to find a man whose identity was unknown to him standing over a woman.

 

“What the hell!” Wilmington spat and grabbed the man by the shirt. “What happened?

 

“She fainted…she’s my wife,” the man stammered.

 

“Thanks for coming, Buck,” Hans Heidegger, the hotel owner said upon returning from the back with a wet cloth. “Mrs. Stone fainted when the window broke…that’s her husband.”

 

“My wife is not a strong woman and frightens easily,” the man explained

 

Wilmington nodded and looked toward the broken window. “You got anything I can put up to the window?”

 

“I got some broken boards in the back from the last storm. I’ll be right back,” Heidegger said, handing the cloth to Stone and hurrying away.

 

“She okay?” Wilmington asked.

 

“She will be. As I said my wife is ‘delicate’…”

 

“Then bringing her west was the wrong move!”

 

“Actually we were headed east, but this storm has delayed our departure,” Wilfred Stone explained helping his wife sit up when she moaned softly. “You’re okay, Emma…you’re safe.”

 

“I thought…the storm…is it over?”

 

“No, Dear, not yet, but we’re safe inside the hotel. Mr. Heidegger and Mr.…”

 

“Wilmington…Buck Wilmington.”

 

“Mr. Wilmington is going to board up the window. Why don’t we return to our room and perhaps we could have breakfast brought to us,” Stone suggested and helped his wife to her feet.

 

Wilmington looked up as Heidegger returned with the boards, nails, and a hammer. Between them they managed to get the window closed enough to keep the rain and wind out.

 

“Thank you for the help,” Heidegger said and watched the man leave. He’d changed his opinion of the seven during the last few months and understood how lucky the town was to have them.

 

Buck pulled open the door and took a deep breath as he looked out on the town. Debris had been pushed along the street and lay against the front of several buildings until the wind swept it up and deposited it elsewhere. He blinked the rain from his eyes and looked up at the dark sky.

 

“Give me a break here would you?” Wilmington snapped and raced across the street and into the saloon. Inez was already pouring hot coffee for Ezra, Josiah, and several other men who’d been helping with repairs. She looked at him, tossed him a dry towel and poured him a coffee. “Thanks, Inez.”

 

“You are welcome,” Recillos told him, smiling when the mustached man spotted the woman working behind her. “Maria is helping me make breakfast.”

 

Buck nodded and walked over to the table where Ezra and Josiah were seated and sat down. His gaze swept the saloon and finally came to rest on the table where Chris and Vin usually sat. Once more he was reminded of the missing men and turned to look out the window at the tempest that continued with enough violence to break windows and throw debris around the streets.

 

“We’ll leave as soon as the storm ends, Brother,” Sanchez assured him.

 

“I just wish we knew how long that would be,” Wilmington said and knew Standish and Sanchez were filled with the same fear that plagued him. The problem was right now there was nothing any of them could do about their missing friends…except pray.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

South of the Rio Grande

Mid-Morning

 

Chris Larabee stood underneath the remainder of the roof that had once been a church steeple. He lit a cheroot and let the strong smoke ease some of the tension that had kept him from sleeping. He turned to look inside the cave and a quick smile formed when he heard the soft snores that told him Dunne was sleeping soundly. Chris returned his attention to the rain that continued to pelt the ground, turning the dirt into oozing mud near the entrance. The two horses were quietly eating the grass that had broken through the floorboards.

 

Larabee inhaled deeply of the smoke and let his thoughts wonder back through the years. What little sleep he’d managed to grab had been peppered with flashes of dreams. There were a lot of things about his past he regretted, but killing Alonzo De Rivera was not one of them. The man was cruel and what he’d done to Maria was something no man had a right to do to any woman. The problem was Nathan and Vin were in De Rivera’s hands and if he found out who they were there was no doubt he would make them suffer for his son’s death.

 

Again Chris inhaled deeply, blowing the smoke in circles above his head and watching as they were quickly dispersed by the wind that blew through the opening in the wall. Lightning flashed in the distance and Chris noticed the sky was beginning to lighten, a sign that the storm was weakening. He wanted to move out as soon as the rain stopped, but he knew the unknown terrain would probably be dangerous for them, yet in his heart he knew they had to move quickly.

 

Chris threw the half smoked cheroot on the ground and stamped it out in the mud. The rain would have made the Rio Grande impossible to cross and that meant Buck, Ezra, and Josiah would be delayed in joining them. That meant it was up to him and JD to find De Rivera’s hacienda and figure out the best way to rescue their friends. He heard movement behind him and turned to see JD easing up off the ground.

 

“The storm seems to be letting up,” Dunne observed as he joined Larabee. “Want some breakfast?”

 

“Yeah,” Larabee answered simply and noticed the frown on Dunne’s face. “Something bothering you, Kid?”

 

“I was just thinking Buck and the others are gonna have a hard time crossing the river. It’s probably flooded the banks and is running hard.”

 

“Probably,” the blond said, watching as Dunne moved back inside and added several pieces of dry wood to the fire. “We’ll head out as soon as the rain stops.”

 

JD nodded and watched the dark clad gunslinger for several seconds. There was no doubt that Larabee was worried about the missing men, hell, so was he, but Chris and Vin had a special friendship. One that Dunne envied at times, and wondered if he’d ever find that kind of special connection that spoke of a tie that seemed stronger than blood. Turning away he began preparing breakfast from the food left from last night’s meal.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Late Morning

 

Nathan stood on the verandah looking out over the wind swept grounds. The rain had finally begun to ease up, but the damage from the storm was readily apparent. There were several trees down to the right of the fields, and Jackson was sure there was more he couldn’t see.  It was what he couldn’t see that had the healer worried. Since their arrival the day before he’d seen nothing of the Texan and that scared the hell out of him.

 

The tooth had been infected, badly, and although he’d removed it there was no telling if the infection was still present. That coupled with the fact that Vin had been put to work in the fields before he’d been given the chance to clean the gaping hole in his mouth properly. Nathan leaned against the railing and let the rain run down his face, but did not take his eyes from the structure where the mestizo people lived. He silently prayed Vin was safely tucked in one of the beds, warm and dry and away from the perils of nature’s wrath.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Late Morning

 

Vin had not seen a soul during his imprisonment in the cage. Sleep had been fleeting, leaving him incredibly exhausted while the pain in his lower back kept him from finding a comfortable position. Even the rain, which was something he’d always welcomed had become a torment to his aching body. The simple clothing he’d been given was soaked and stuck to his skin, chafing in places as he moved to get comfortable.

 

Vin moved his hand to his jaw and felt the swollen area, slipping his tongue into the hole left by the extraction of the tooth. He tasted blood used his fingers to probe the outside of his mouth until he felt the tender lump and pressed hard. Blood and pus spilled from the abscess and he spit it through the bars of his cage as tears formed in his eyes. The pain was as excruciating as anything he’d ever experienced, but he continued to press the area, spitting the poison onto the ground until there was nothing left.

 

Vin looked up at the sky and opened his mouth, letting the rain fill the inside and swishing it around. It took a while to rid himself of the foul taste and then came the tremors that rocked his body. He’d always had trouble with the cold and right now he felt as if he’d never be warm again. He sat back against the bars, closed his eyes and tried to ignore the way his teeth chattered, sending pain along jagged nerve endings. Sleep finally came as the dark clouds parted slightly and the first rays of the sun broke through.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

North of the De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

 

Hernando Lopez rode slightly ahead of his men and thought about his life. Don Garcia De Rivera was a hard man when you were on his bad side and rotated his shoulders where the scars from his own caning remained. By bringing Nathan Jackson to the Hacienda he’d managed to erase some of the older man’s anger, but it wasn’t enough for all to be forgiven. He knew what he had to do to get back in De Rivera’s good graces and riding back to Purgatorio was a small part of his plans.

 

Lopez knew the name of the gunslinger who had killed Alonzo De Rivera and had a good description of the man. He had enough men with him to take the man by force and bring him back to Don Garcia…alive if possible, but Hernando was not a man to take chances. That was the reason behind him taking so many men with him. Oh, he wasn’t a coward, but he was smart enough to know that a man with Larabee’s reputation was a force to be reckoned with.

 

Lopez planned on finding out the man’s whereabouts by visiting some of the small spreads north of Purgatorio. Perhaps they could find another pretty puta to kill some time with. He knew Don Garcia would punish him if he brought trouble to his doorstep, but Hernando enjoyed using his hands on a woman…and leaving his mark on her.

 

“Hernando, are you sure going after Larabee is a good idea?” Pedro Gonzales asked.

 

“Larabee has to pay…Don Garcia will pay us for bringing him to the Hacienda,” Lopez explained.

 

“What good is that if we are dead, Compadres? The stories I heard in Purgatorio say that he has six compadres of his own and that they are very good with their guns.”

 

“Are you afraid, Pedro?”

 

“Perhaps, it would be foolish not to be. It is said Larabee is faster than lightning and has killed over fifty men.”

 

“A reputation is just that and perhaps Larabee hides behind his friends because he is not so good with a gun,” Lopez said and rode ahead. He did not care for Gonzales’ reminder of how deadly their foe was. ‘How good are you, Larabee? I bet I could take you down!’ he thought and rode along in silence as the clouds began to dissipate.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

 

Vin slowly became aware of the insects buzzing around him and flicked his hand at them, but they returned again and again. His jaw ached and he used his tongue to touch the spot where Nathan had pulled the abscessed tooth, wincing when he felt the lump there. He pressed his finger against the outside of his cheek and spat out the foul tasting fluid that erupted onto his tongue. He shivered in spite of the heat from the sun that shone through the bars and continued to spit the bloodied pus from his mouth until he collapsed against the bars in a huddle. He drifted toward sleep, listening to the incessant buzzing, but jolted awake when a hand reached through the bars and pulled his head back sharply.

 

“Hello, Puta,” Fernando Gores said and jabbed the prisoner’s ribs with the foot long stick he held.

 

“Fuck off!” Tanner snarled and pushed the stick away, receiving a jab to the groin for his efforts.

 

“Did you think you could sleep all day when there is work to be done, Puta? Your kind does not eat or drink until the work is finished,” Gores warned and motioned for two men as he unlocked the cuffs and opened the cage.

 

“Trouble, Fernando?”

 

“Si, Juan, this gringo puta thinks he can sleep while the others work for their beds. You and Jorge get him on his feet and drag him to the fields,” Gores ordered.

 

Juan and Jorge reached into the cage and dragged the prisoner out, dropping him to the ground and laughing when Gores drew back his foot and kicked the downed man in the right side.

 

“Now, Puta, get on your feet and get moving or that friend of yours will suffer for your insolence!” the overseer warned.

 

Vin ignored the taunting voices and slowly drew his body upward until he stood on shaky legs. His breath caught in his throat as pain flared in his right side, but he remained stone-faced as he turned to face his tormentors. He wanted to deck the man who’d kicked him, but had no doubt Gores would find some way to make Nathan Jackson pay.

 

Gores fought hard not to wilt under the ice blue glare that was turned in his direction and finally shoved the American toward the line of mestizos heading for the fields. It would be hard work after the heavy rains, and normally they would wait for the sun to dry the fields, but Fernando had a cruel streak to him and enjoyed watching others suffer. The gringo was strong, and insolent, but Gores vowed to find a way to make him suffer.

 

“He is a strong one, Fernando,” Jorge said, as the Texan stood tall and walked past him.

 

"Si," Gores agreed, "but the gringo's strength will only make his journey to hell more enjoyable."

 

“Maybe he could warm my bed...would you enjoy that, Puta?” Juan asked and the trio broke out in raucous laughter.

 

Vin heard their comments, but refused to be baited and stepped up beside the man he’d worked with the day before.

 

Pedro nodded and his dark eyes shone with admiration at how well the gringo handled himself with the cruel overseer. The young man reminded him of a friend from long ago. His name eluded him now, a result of too many blows to the head, but he vowed to keep his memory and make it a part of who he was. He did that by showing kindness to those who fell under De Rivera’s harsh ownership. The young man walking beside him had an inner strength that could not be denied and Pedro prayed he would never lose it because here, at the Hacienda, strength was sometimes the only thing that kept you alive.

 

Vin could feel the older man watching him, but his eyes strayed toward the building and his thoughts returned to the former slave. He knew Nathan hated what the Hacienda represented and that it was a reminder of his younger life at the Jackson Plantation. ‘Keep yer chin up, Nathan,’ Tanner thought as they reached the fields and bent to the task of caring for the new cocoa bean plants.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Southwest of the Rio Grande

Late Afternoon

 

The clouds had parted and gave way to an azure blue sky dotted with puffy ones that were carried slowly on the afternoon breeze. The landscape was dotted with bright wildflowers and fruit bearing trees and they’d passed several streams that had overflowed their banks because of the storm. The sun poked out from behind a cloud and sent shadows across their trail, but neither Chris Larabee nor JD Dunne took the time to see the beauty of nature. They rode southwest, hoping and praying they were riding in the right direction. They’d stopped an elderly couple and asked about the De Rivera Hacienda and been told it was at least a two days ride over rough terrain.

 

JD thought about Vin and how much he’d learned from him. Tanner was a natural tracker, and could read sign as easily as most people read the newspaper. The Texan had told him he’d learned from the Comanche and Kiowa and he’d learned early on what to look for. A broken blade of grass could tell the direction a man had taken, while scuffed over stones could tell you whether the prey was in a hurry or riding at a snail’s pace. He glanced left and right along the trail and knew the heavy rains had washed away any evidence that Tanner and Jackson’s kidnappers had ridden in this direction.

 

“Are you all right, Son?” Larabee asked when Dunne suddenly drew his horse to a stop.

 

“I was just thinking about Vin…tracking comes so damn easy to him,” the Bostonian answered.

 

“Vin had no choice, but to learn things the hard way, JD. He’s been alone most of his life and for him it meant natural survival.”

 

“He showed me things I never would have thought of when checking for signs and at first it didn’t make sense, but he’s right and it’s simple things like a broken blade of grass or turned over rocks that can tell you which way a man’s gone,” Dunne said.

 

“Vin told me you were a quick learner, Kid,” Larabee praised and saw the light in the younger man’s eyes.

 

“He did?” Dunne’s voice squeaked as Larabee lit a cheroot and they started along the trail once more. He didn’t need an answer; the simple nod from the blond was answer enough. It was more than enough and made him sit up truer in the saddle.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening

 

Maria smiled at the man seated beside her bed and sipped at the sweet tasting juice he’d placed in her hand. She knew from Evita’s explanation that this man was a healer, a doctor, from somewhere up north. The fact that Evita seemed to have placed her trust in him spoke volumes to the sick woman. He was nothing like Delgado and Maria felt safe in trusting Nathan Jackson. She finished the drink and handed the glass back to him.

 

“Thank you, Dr. Jackson…for coming here to help me and my baby,” Maria said softly, eyes closing as a heavy sigh escaped slack lips.

 

“You’re welcome, Senora, why don’t you try to get some sleep now?” Nathan smiled as he tucked the blankets around the pretty woman and turned to see Evita Martinez watching him.

 

“She seems a little stronger,” Evita said.

 

“She’s weak, Evita, but if we can keep her comfortable and let her rest, eat, and drink she and the baby should be okay, but I’m not a doctor…”

 

“From what I have seen you deserve the title more than most doctors I have met,” Evita told him. “Have you eaten?”

 

“No…”

 

“I brought some enchiladas and hope they are not too spicy for you,” Evita explained and pointed to the table on the veranda.

 

“Inez makes spicy enchiladas and only Vin can eat them,” Jackson said and turned toward the window. He’d heard the songs of the mestizo people as they worked in the fields and silently prayed the Texan was okay.

 

“Your friend will be fine as long as he does as he is told and does not anger Fernando,” Evita told him, taking the seat he vacated.

 

“That’s just it…Vin ain’t one to take orders,” Jackson said and walked out of the room. He stood looking out over the grounds as the sun dipped below the horizon. The songs had stopped, but he could see the people working the fields and felt the hatred flowing heavily through his heart. This was no different from his own life on the Jackson Plantation and knowing Vin Tanner was out there, laboring under the hot sun made his stomach sour. He leaned heavily on the ornate railing and closed his eyes before speaking softly.

 

“Lord, I ain’t a man who asks fer much, but I’m askin’ ya ta watch out fer Vin. He’s a good man and he’s sick and if’n I could change places with him I would. Don’t let the bastards break him, Lord…give him…give us the strength we need to hold on until help get here.” A sharp voice reached him and he could make out the people as they made their way toward the buildings they lived in. He could make out three people who stopped before reaching the huts and cursed when his mind recognized what his eyes did not want to see.

 

“God, Vin, I’ll get ya outta there,” Jackson said as the Texan was placed inside the cage he’d seen earlier in the day. He turned back as a soft voice began to sing and felt the tears slip past his closed lids.

 

“Oh freedom, oh freedom/ Oh Freedom over me/ And before I’ll be a slave/ I’ll be buried in my grave/ And go home to my Lord and be free…”

 

“And go home to my Lord and be free,” Nathan repeated and looked down at the cage that housed his friend. His mind wandered back to the day when Vin had taken up a rifle and walked alongside Chris to save his life. He’d shown more courage than the whole damn town and now he would need to draw on that courage once more if they were to survive. “I swear, Vin, we’ll both be free.”

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening 

 

Vin looked at the food Gores had placed inside the cage and his stomach rumbled at the thought of eating the ‘slops’, but he’d eaten worse and was not about to let Gores see his disgust. He lifted the bowl of gruel and used his fingers to force it into his mouth and swallowed without tasting it. He ate too fast and fought to keep the food inside as he threw the empty bowl to the ground. Vin didn’t know whether the bitter taste in his mouth came from the food or the infection in his gum, but he reached for the water and drank greedily.

 

The water was warm, but it helped moisten the inside of his mouth and he swished it around several times before swallowing. His eyes went to the main house and he hoped Nathan was fairing better than he was and settled his gaze on the light that shone from an upper window. Somehow he knew Jackson was there and he drew on the strength of knowing the healer was watching over him, even if he couldn’t see him.

 

‘I hear ya, Nate,’ he thought as exhaustion dragged him toward sleep. He finished the water and placed the metal cup on the floor of the cage. Closing his eyes, Vin listened to the unfamiliar sounds of the night and trembled in spite of the humid air surrounding him. He craved more water, as he turned and flicked away the insects that pitched on his heated flesh.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Southwest of the Rio Grande

Midnight

 

Chris could hear JD’s soft breathing as he added several chunks of wood to the fire. He used a small stick to light a cheroot and poured himself a cup of coffee before leaning back against his saddle. The horses nickered softly as they rustled around in the tall grass and Chris relaxed as the sounds of the night reached his ears.

 

JD had fallen asleep soon after they’d called a halt and eaten the last of the supplies they carried with them. Tomorrow they would need to stop at one of the outlying farms and hopefully buy what they needed. His hand strayed to his side and he rubbed at the wound there. He knew the stitches would need to come out soon and didn’t really like the idea of the kid doing the job, but if it came down to it, there wasn’t anyone else he’d trust.

 

Larabee glanced up at the sky and thought about the six men he rode with. They’d proven to him that losing one family, although devastating, did not mean the end of the world. He’d tried to push JD away, but the kid had proven resilient and kept popping up like a bad penny until he became an important part of the Seven.

 

He thought about the missing men and how much they meant to him and the others. Nathan had saved their lives on countless occasions and no matter how many times he reminded them he wasn’t a doctor they kept coming back to him. He’d proven time and again that he was indeed a doctor in every sense of the word in spite of not having the paper to prove it.

 

Vin had ridden at his side so often it was almost second nature to turn and see him there and Chris missed that, missed having that feeling that someone was there, watching his back when the chips were down. He took a deep draw of the cheroot, enjoying the taste as he blew smoke in the air and sat forward. He wondered what Vin and Nathan were doing and what Don Garcia De Rivera was doing to them. Were they still alive? They had to be, he was sure of that because somehow he would know if Vin Tanner was dead.

 

Chris threw the finished cheroot into the fire and leaned back once more, watching the sky overhead and hoping they’d find the De Rivera Hacienda before it was too late. Without realizing it his eyes closed and sleep reached out to pull him into its comforting embrace.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Four Corners

Early Morning

 

The high wind and rain had finally stopped and the clouds had parted offering a bright blue sky as a promise that the violent storm had ended. Buck rode back into town, shoulders slumping as a deep seeded weariness took over his mind and body. He’d ridden out to several homesteads and checked on the families to make sure they were safe. Ezra had ridden east, while he’d taken the northwest quadrant and Josiah stayed in town to help repair the damage.

 

There were trees down, the most noticeable one having landed on a corner of the hotel and he could see several men cutting away the branches as he pulled his horse to a stop in front of the livery. He wanted nothing more than to grab a fresh horse and ride toward Purgatorio, but the town and its people had to take precedence right now.

 

“I’ll take care of him, Buck.”

 

“Thanks, Yosemite,” Wilmington said and handed him the reins. “Seen Josiah or Ezra?”

 

“Josiah’s helping Mrs. Travis board up a back window. Ezra’s not back yet,” Yosemite explained. “Inez said to tell you there’s plenty to eat and hot coffee in the saloon.”

 

“Sounds good,” Wilmington said and headed toward the saloon. He nodded to several people before reaching the establishment and stepping through the batwing doors. He spotted the pretty woman serving a young couple at one of the tables and smiled as her beauty threatened to take his breath away. She spotted him immediately and moved back behind the bar, pouring him a cup of strong black coffee and placing it in his hands. “Thanks.”

 

“You are welcome, Buck,” Inez said, deliberately leaving off the senor as she looked into weary blue eyes. “Is everything all right?”

 

“The Robinsons had a tree fall on their barn, but Jacob and his boys said they could handle the repairs,” Wilmington answered. “The Millers and Johanssons were fine except for flooding in the lower fields.”

 

“Thank God,” Inez said and fixed a plate of food for the exhausted man. She placed it in front of him and watched as he picked up the fork and began eating the scrambled eggs and peppers. She moved to the end of the bar and filled a cup with coffee before returning to stand in front of him. “You should get some rest.”

 

“Can’t…we need to ride out,” Wilmington told her.

 

“You will fall off your horse before you reach the end of town,” Recillos observed and smiled at the two men who entered the saloon. She quickly filled two cups and fixed two plates of food as Standish and Sanchez took up seats on either side of Wilmington.

 

“Thank you, Inez,” Standish said.

 

“You are welcome,” Inez said and left the trio alone.

 

“Any problems, Ezra?”

 

“Nothing that couldn’t be repaired with a hammer and a few nails,” Standish explained.

 

“Same here…what time will you two be ready to ride out?” Wilmington asked.

 

“Buck, none of us have slept in the last thirty hours,” Sanchez said and held up his hands when the rogue tried to argue. “Look at you…you’re exhausted and so are we. Now if I thought it would make a difference we’d leave right now, but falling off our horses before we’ve gone a mile is not going to help the others. We know the general direction Chris and JD went in and crossing the Rio Grande is going to be next to impossible after the heavy rains we just had.”

 

“I know you’re right, Josiah…but…”

 

“No buts…we’ve been on our feet for over 20 hours straight and I doubt either one of us could stand in a soft breeze. Eat…go get some sleep and we’ll head out later this afternoon,” Sanchez advised.

 

“Buck, we all want to find them, but Josiah’s right…”

 

“I know he is, Ezra, but it don’t make it any easier,” Wilmington told them and returned his attention to the food. He ate without tasting and downed the last of the coffee before nodding to Inez and heading for the boarding house. Once he stepped inside his room and closed the door he stripped off the dusty clothing and lay back on his bed. In spite of his worry and fear, Buck was asleep almost instantly. His dreams were troubling, and soft pleas escaped his throat as he slipped even deeper into the nightmares.

 



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