WHEN THE SUN COMES BACK

by Winnie

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

 

Nathan had slept very little during the night, his mind playing over and over the circumstances that had brought them here. He’d checked on his patient several times, not at all surprised to find Evita Martinez sleeping on a bed that had been moved into the woman’s bedroom. She’d opened her eyes and watched him, nodding her head in approval at the way he cared for Dona Maria De Rivera.

 

Nathan sipped at the strong coffee and placed the cup on the table, turning when he heard voices inside. He sighed heavily and with a final glance toward the mestizos’ quarters, Jackson made his way into the bedroom to find the elderly Patron standing next to his young wife’s bed.

 

“She does not seem to be getting better,” De Rivera snapped.

 

“She has been drinking juice and has managed to eat a little,” Evita explained. “It has only been two days, Don Garcia…give Nathan time and you will see a change in her.”

 

“I had better,” the elderly man said, pointedly turning toward Jackson. “I am not a man you should cross…or your friend will pay dearly.”

 

“I’m doing everything I can, Don Garcia,” Jackson said, forcing the words out and praying he’d been successful in hiding his distaste.

 

“See that you do that and more,” De Rivera said and turned back to Evita. “You will make sure he does not harm Maria.”

 

“I wouldn’t hurt her,” Jackson snapped, and stood his ground when De Rivera whirled on him, showing more strength than most men half his age as he lifted the cane and brought it down on Nathan’s left shoulder. Nathan bit back a gasp as he lifted his right arm to protect himself from a second blow.

 

“Do not think yourself worthy of speaking to me unless I direct you to do so!” De Rivera warned.

 

“Please, Don Garcia, he is of no use if you injure him,” Evita said and placed herself between the two men. “Dona Maria needs him.”

 

“Evita, you overstep your bonds, but I will forgive you this time because Dona Maria needs you, but if it happens again I will strip the skin from your back!”

 

Nathan watched the elderly man leave and rubbed at his shoulder. There was no break, but he knew it would leave one hell of a bruise, as he tried to rotate the arm.

 

“I am sorry, Nathan.”

 

“It’s not your fault, Evita,” Jackson told her and moved to the bed as the ailing woman seemed on the verge of waking up. “Evita, is there any way…”

 

“Any way what, Nathan?”

 

“I was wondering if you could find out how Vin is doing. He was pretty sick and fevered when they brought us here and I know they’ve been putting him in a damn cage at night.”

 

“I will speak with Luis and see if he can check on your friend,” Evita told him.

 

“Thank you…Vin’s a good man.” Nathan smiled as his patient opened her eyes and stared at him. “Good morning, Dona Maria, how do you feel?”

 

“Tired…but I always feel that way,” she answered as her hand strayed to her swollen belly and made small circles there. “The baby is moving…I feel him growing stronger.”

 

Nathan placed his hand on her stomach and smiled when he felt the baby move under his fingers. “The little one is active this morning…maybe he’s hungry. Would you like something to eat, Dona Maria?”

 

“Maybe one of Evita’s muffins,” the young woman answered.

 

“I will have them brought up,” Evita told her, glad to see a little color in the face that had been too pale for too long.

 

“Nathan, I heard you asking Evita about your friend…please be careful…Don Garcia can be very cruel,” Maria De Rivera told him and watched as her caregiver made his way to the window.

 

“I wish there was something I could do for him,” Jackson said.

 

“The best thing you can do is forget he’s here or Don Garcia will set you against each other. He will not hesitate to carry out his threats, Nathan.”

 

“I know,” Jackson said as Evita returned and sat beside the bed. He made his way out on the verandah and watched as the mestizos made their way into the field.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

North of the De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

 

Hernando Lopez had not slept very well and as dawn raised her glorious head, he’d woken the others and told them they had half an hour to eat and get the horses ready to ride out. He’d listened to his men grumble about the early hour, but it didn’t mean anything to him, not when he had a mission, one that would put him back in Don Garcia’s good graces. They’d quickly eaten cold biscuits and beans before mounting up and following Hernando north toward the Rio Grande.

 

Lopez rode slightly ahead of the others and was the first to realize there were riders coming toward them. He called a halt and motioned for the others to take up positions on either side of the gap that led into the pass. If the riders were friendly, he would let them pass unaware that they were being watched, but if the newcomers were gringos they’d soon find out what a mistake it was to be south of the Rio Grande.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

 

The unbearable sun beat down on the fields, drying up whatever moisture had been left from the heavy rainfall. The soft breeze that had cooled his heated flesh during the early morning had died down and not a breath of air filtered through the surrounding trees. Vin lifted his throbbing head and rubbed at his lower back, wishing he had some of Nathan’s salve as his jaw ached miserably. The little water he’d managed to take in had come back up as quickly as it went down, leaving him wondering how his body still managed to produce the sweat that ran into his eyes.

 

“Work…he comes,” Pedro managed in broken English while pointing at the back of the fields.

 

Vin didn’t need to know who Pedro was talking about and bent back to the work at hand. The weeds were encroaching on the fertile land where cocoa beans grew in abundance. It was grueling work, made doubly hard with the heat, humidity, and insects that plagued the workers. He’d removed his shirt, but soon felt the blistering heat of the sun burning his skin and was forced to put it back on before bending to the task of ridding the field of the insurmountable number of weeds.

 

“Work faster, Tanner, or there’ll be no supper for you!” Gores said, punctuating his words by shoving the Texan with his boot.

 

Vin turned and unleashed a deadly glare at the hated overseer, but a hand on his arm reminded him that others would pay if he messed with De Rivera’s men.

 

“Pedro, keep your dog in check or I’ll take the cane to both your backs!” Fernando Gores warned, whistling as he walked past the two men.

 

“Thanks, Amigo,” Tanner said, fighting to keep the mind numbing pain in his jaw at bay. He reached for a thick weed and tugged viciously, picturing Gores’ dark head of hair in place of the green shrubs. It made the backbreaking work easier, but his eyes strayed to the main hacienda and he prayed the others were looking for them.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Southwest of the Rio Grande

Early Afternoon

 

JD glanced over his shoulder as the sun cast a warm glow on the worried blond. The slump of Chris’ shoulders and the dark rims around his eyes spoke of the lack of sleep. He remembered thinking Larabee looked terrible when he woke up and found him already drinking coffee.

 

Chris was tired, hungry, and impatient with the way things were going. He knew JD was doing the best he could, but they seemed to be getting nowhere…fast. With the sun beating down from high overhead and the insects buzzing around them, Chris’ patience was quickly running out. They’d reached a narrow crevice and he knew it was dangerous to pass, but to backtrack now would mean the loss of half a day.

 

“JD, be careful,” Larabee warned when the younger man maneuvered his horse into the narrow pass. He gazed upward and listened, but there was nothing to tell him of any real danger as he followed Dunne into the crevice. There was only room for one horse at a time and at first Pony shied away, but Chris managed to keep him moving forward.

 

“Chris, it opens up a little about twenty feet in,” Dunne called over his shoulder.

 

Larabee didn’t answer as they made their way deeper and the high cliff walls blocked out the sun. His eyes quickly adjusted and he scanned the ledge above them, but nothing moved. Instinct told him not to let down his guard as they neared the opening and his hand strayed to the colt strapped to his hip.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

North of the De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

 

“Quiet,” Lopez warned and put his arm up as the riders entered the north entrance to the narrow canyon. His men were ready, and his orders were clear…let them come into view before taking action. If they could be taken without gunfire then so be it, if not, he wanted it over with as quickly as possible.

 

Pedro Gonzales motioned for those on the right side of the pass to be quiet and watched the entrance as the sound of horses reached his ears. He knew there were just the two riders and Ernesto had confirmed they were gringos once he’d returned from scaling the cliff and looking north toward the opposite end.

 

Raul Espinoza hid close to the entrance, but several feet above ground. He knew he had to time it right, or the plan Hernando had devised would not work. He heard Lopez’s softly spoken warning and readied himself.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

 

Nathan took a deep breath before stepping out into the bright afternoon sunshine. He’d been cooped up in Dona Maria’s room since their arrival and had asked Evita for permission to stretch his legs. She’d given him the okay, but warned him against heading for the fields because Gores would report his presence to Don Garcia. He fought the urge to go to the Texan, knowing instinctively that Vin would pay dearly if De Rivera should find him there.

 

“Mama says you know what you are doing…that is good.”

 

Nathan turned to see the young man standing behind him and searched his memory for a name to go with the face. “You’re Evita’s son.”

 

“Si, my name is Luis,” Martinez explained. “Mama asked me to check on your friend…”

 

"Vin!" Nathan's pulse picked up. "…is he…is he okay?"

"He is not well. The work, it is very hard, but he learns fast. Pedro has taken him under his wing,” Luis said with a slight smile.

“Pedro?”

 

“Si, he is a good man and has been here since I was a boy. He does not speak very well, but he does like to protect the people Gores takes a dislike to,” Luis explained.

 

“Vin can handle himself…most times, but he’s already hurtin’,” Jackson said, watching the face for any sign that he shouldn’t be disclosing anything, but there was an honesty about Luis Martinez, something he was sure he got from his mother.

 

“If Don Garcia or Fernando Gores senses any kind of weakness he will use it against you and your friend. Try not to show any emotion when they are around.”

 

“Thanks for the warning,” Jackson said.

 

“I will keep an eye on your friend, but there is only so much I can do. If you believe in God then you should pray that your friend keeps his mouth shut and does the work when he’s told,” Martinez said and hurried away.

 

Nathan took a deep breath and thought on Vin's temper. He turned back toward the house, hoping and praying that Vin Tanner held onto his patience and waited for the others to rescue them.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Southwest of the Rio Grande

Early Afternoon

 

JD sighed in relief as he exited the narrow pass, but he was unprepared when something landed on the ground in front of him. He recognized it the instant it poised to strike, but could not react fast enough as the terrified animal he rode reacted to the danger before it.

 

Chris watched as JD exited the pass and hurried Pony forward just as Dunne’s horse reared up on its hind legs sending the younger man flying backward. The gunslinger reacted instinctively, drawing his gun and shooting the snake as he dismounted. He moved to help the younger man, but a bullet kicked up the dirt at his feet.

 

“Don’t do it, Gringo, or the boy will get the next bullet!” Lopez warned, staring at the man dressed totally in black. “Now drop your guns and put your hands in the air.”

 

“Who the hell are you?” Larabee asked angrily, helping the stunned Bostonian to his feet as his eyes swept the area, counting and calculated what the odds were. There were four men, each with a weapon drawn and pointed toward him and JD.

 

“Well, normally I might have answered that, but since you’re in my country I believe you should be the one to tell me your name…”

 

“Chris…who are they?” Dunne asked when his vision finally cleared.

 

“Hernando,” Pedro Gonzales called, his voice filled with awe as he recognized the man from a description he’d heard in Purgatorio.

 

“What is it, Pedro?” Lopez asked, impatient to get moving.

 

“Didn’t you say Larabee dresses in black?” Gonzales asked.

 

“Si…why?” Lopez said and stared at the angry man before him. “Chris…the kid called you Chris as in Chris Larabee. Madre De Dios, could we be that fucking lucky? You are Larabee aren’t you?”

 

Chris didn’t answer as his eyes narrowed suspiciously and he stared hard at the leader of the bandits.

 

“Drop your guns on the ground and kick them over here,” Lopez ordered.

 

“Chris we can’t…”

 

“Shut up, Chico, or I’ll kill you right here!” Lopez snapped.

 

“Others have tried…”

 

“Easy, JD,” Larabee warned, realizing they had no chance with so many guns pointed in their direction.

 

“But…”

 

“Raul, shoot the boy if Larabee tries anything,” Lopez ordered.

 

“Chris…we can…”

 

“No, JD, not this time,” the gunslinger warned. He could see the disappointment on the younger man’s face, but unlike the battle with Anderson’s ghosts, the odds were stacked against them. There were at least a four men and each one had their weapons pointed at either JD or him and they’d need to bide their time until the odds were better.

 

“Very smart, Larabee,” Lopez said and motioned toward the younger man once the weapons were discarded and Gonzales picked them up. “Now, Gringo, move away from Larabee and get down on your knees and place your hands behind your head.”

 

“Let him go…it’s me you want,” Larabee tried.

 

“Not a chance, Gringo, I believe this boy is going be the one to keep you from starting trouble,” Lopez said with a grin. “Move, Kid, or Larabee gets a bullet in the leg.”

 

“Do as he says, JD,” Chris ordered, glaring at the Mexican bandit.

 

“Very good, Muchacho,” Lopez said, watching Larabee closely as Pedro placed his gun at Dunne’s temple. “Now, Larabee, I believe there is someone who is going to reward me greatly for bringing him such a present as yourself. Jose, Raul, tie Larabee’s hands behind his back and make sure he cannot get loose.”

 

“Si, Hernando,” Mendoza said and climbed down from the rocks he’d used for cover.

 

Chris could do nothing, but glare at their captors and could see the anger in JD’s eyes as his arms were pulled roughly behind his back. He felt the rough rope wrapped around his elbow and tightened until his shoulders felt strained. A second rope was fastened around his wrists and he was forced to his knees as the bandits repeated the process with Dunne.

 

“Bring their horses,” Lopez ordered.

 

Rodrigo Marquiz had caught the kid’s horse and now held both sets of reins. He brought the animals forward and waited for Lopez to give the order.

 

“Raul, help the kid mount up,” Lopez ordered.

 

“What about, Larabee?” Jose asked.

 

“I have something more fitting in mind for him,” the head bandito answered. “Tie him face down on his horse and make sure he doesn’t fall off!”

 

Chris wanted to fight, but he knew JD was dead if he started anything. Two men dragged him to Pony and threw him face down over the saddle. With no way to hold on, Chris knew he was going to land in the dirt and tried to roll in order to soften the blow. Unfortunately, his shoulder hit hard and the muffled curse was barely heard as a dirty rag was shoved into his mouth.

 

“Jose, try not to be so clumsy this time,” Lopez said with a cackling laugh.

 

“Si, Hernando, sorry about that, Gringo,” Jose said as they lifted the gunslinger and again threw him over the back of his horse. This time they held him in place and used ropes to secure him in place.

 

Dunne watched helplessly as the bandits used ropes to tie Chris down. There was nothing he could do as the others mounted up and they rode south, away from the pass.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening

 

Vin had never felt so exhausted in his life and he dropped heavily onto the floor of his cage when Gores shoved him inside. Every muscle screamed in protest when he shifted and tried to straighten his legs out. He heard Gores and the others laughing as something was pushed into his cage and he forced his eyes open as they walked away.

 

Tanner looked at the bowl of gruel with utter distaste, but he knew it would be the only thing he’d have to eat and his stomach grumbled at the thought of food. He looked at the cup of water and reached for it, drinking greedily before remembering there would be no refill. He placed the cup on the cage floor and reached for the bowl. The smell made his stomach churn, but he’d eaten worse and survived.

 

Vin used his fingers and scooped a small amount into his mouth, grimacing in disgust as he forced the gruel down his throat. It hit his stomach and he trembled as the taste flooded his mouth. His jaw ached, but he forced himself to eat what he’d been given and angrily threw the bowl out of the cage. He reached for the cup of water and took several small sips, closing his eyes when he felt the unappetizing meal coming up in his throat.

 

Vin knew he was going to be sick, and leaned his head against the bars. It wasn’t long before the nasty tasting food came back up in a noxious stream that landed just outside his cage. He kept his eyes closed long after the dry heaves ended and knew his body was slowly weakening as he fought to sit up. It was a losing battle and he finally gave up, curling into a ball as he lay on the floor and drifted toward sleep.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

North of the De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening

 

Hernando Lopez wanted to reach the Hacienda and hand his gift over to Don Garcia De Rivera, but the clouds were quickly obliterating the moon and stars. It would soon be so dark he would have trouble seeing his hands on the reins and he knew the next part of the trip was through dangerous territory. Rocky crevices, and narrow ledges were abundant this far south of the Rio Grande and he did not like the idea of taking a fall into a ravine.

 

“Hernando, it is too dark to go on,” Gonzales called.

 

“Si, Pedro, we will make camp for the night,” Lopez said and pointed to a small clearing ahead. He continued to hold the reins of Larabee’s horse and couldn’t help the malicious smile that formed on his face.

 

“What do we do with Larabee and the boy?” Marquiz asked.

 

“Take the boy and tie him with his back to that tree. Make sure the rope is tight,” Lopez warned, dismounting and walking back to Larabee’s horse. “So, Gringo, did you enjoy the ride?”

 

Chris didn’t bother to answer as he tried to ignore the hated man standing beside him. He cried out when Lopez grabbed a fistful of his hair and tugged sharply, revealing the corded muscles of his neck. A knife appeared and was placed at his Adam’s apple and he fought the urge to curse his nemesis. He felt the tip of the blade bite into his skin, but refused to cry out as he glared at his tormentor. He heard a cry from JD and strained to see him, but Lopez blocked his view.

 

“Are you worried about your little puta, Gringo? Do you get off on young boys or perhaps they are the only ones who will let you bed them? Perhaps he can entertain us…can he dance?” Lopez asked and finally released Larabee’s head when his taunts didn’t get the rise he wanted from the stone faced gunslinger.

 

Chris was unprepared when Lopez cut the ropes binding him to the horse and held his breath when he slid off and hit the ground hard. He heard JD cursing and shook his head, hoping the young man would not do anything that would get himself hurt. Larabee was dragged to his feet, and held in place by two of Lopez’s men.

 

JD was dragged toward a tree and his arms were pulled behind him and secured with the rope. He could only watch as Larabee, whose ankles were still tied was dragged toward a second tree about two feet from his own. Dunne waited for the men to finish with Larabee and leave them alone before speaking. “Chris, are you okay?”

 

“I’m fine, Kid,” Larabee said and closed his eyes as nausea churned through his gut. He could feel something warm on his left side and knew from the burning sensation that the wound was bleeding again. He drew a deep breath to clear his head and tried to loosen the ropes, but Lopez’s men knew what they were doing and the knots tightened instead. “JD, if you get a chance to escape…do it…”

 

“I can’t leave you with…”

 

“Yes, you can, Kid,” Larabee ground out softly. “You ride north and find Buck and the others…”

 

“You got something to say, Larabee?” Lopez snapped from the fire that now blazed in the center of the clearing. He picked up a piece of burning wood, stood, and walked toward the prisoners. He swung the weapon toward Larabee’s face, missing by inches and laughing when Larabee shifted his head to avoid being burned. “I asked if you had anything to say, Larabee?” he repeated, turning toward the younger man and swinging the weapon in the same way.

 

“Bastard!” Dunne snarled angrily as he barely avoided being hit.

 

"You are not tired, Puta? Perhaps than you can you dance for us?" Lopez asked, laughing as he walked back to the fire and took a flask from his saddlebag.  "Or maybe provide other kinds of entertainment?"

 

“Chris…”

 

“Get some sleep, Kid,” Larabee warned and closed his eyes. He knew Lopez would not think twice about acting on his threat and didn’t want to see the younger man hurt. He listened to the laughter and heated jibes coming from Lopez and the others, but drowned them out in an effort to take his own advice.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Four Corners

Early Morning

 

Buck woke to a soft tapping at the window and opened his eyes, shocked when he realized he’d slept longer than he’d meant to. He turned toward the sound and saw a black crow, bigger than any he’d ever seen before and heard Josiah’s warnings about crows. He hurried to the window, opened it and was glad to see the bird fly off.

 

Buck looked out at the empty street and thought about his dreams and the missing men. He knew Vin and Nathan were already captives, but something told him Chris and JD were also in danger now. He wanted to get Ezra and Josiah and leave immediately, but there were several things they needed to do before they could leave. He turned away from the window, but a sharp cry from across the street caught his attention.

 

“Help…the bank’s being robbed!”

 

Wilmington recognized Conklin’s voice and grabbed his pants, pulling them on and slipping his feet into his boots. He reached for his gun belt as shots were fired and hurried out of the boarding house. He spotted Josiah making his way toward the alley that lead to the back of the bank and nodded as he raced toward a trough and fired two quick shots toward the bank. Buck turned his head as he heard the sound of footsteps and quickly grabbed the Potter children and used his body to protect them as he shoved them toward Vin’s wagon and made them lie down in the dirt. “Stay put!”

 

“I’m scared,” the girl’s voice trembled as she clung to her brother.

 

“I know, Jane, but you and David will be fine if you just stay down,” Wilmington warned and spotted Ezra moving along the building next to the bank. “I need to help Josiah and Ezra…okay?”

 

“Okay,” David Potter told him.

 

Buck lifted his head and pointed toward the alley when they heard gunshots from the back of the bank. He ducked and ran to the alley, watching the front entrance as Ezra glanced through one of the windows. He heard more shots fired from the back of the bank and hurried toward the opposite end of the alley as heated voices rose from inside the building.

 

“Ya try ta come through that door and I’ll put a fuckin’ bullet through yer banker’s head!”

 

“Put the guns down and you might live to see another day!” Sanchez called.

 

Buck spotted the ex-preacher using an old battered wagon as cover and nodded when Sanchez spotted him. “How many?” he asked.

 

“At least three and Jake Connors is in there,” Sanchez answered. “Where’s Ezra?”

 

“He’s around front,” Wilmington answered, ducking back as a bullet hit the ground in front of him.

 

“Stay back, Buck, they’re firing wild!” Sanchez ordered.

 

“They gotta run out of bullets soon,” the angry rogue snapped, firing off two shots at the bank window before taking the time to reload. They heard several shouts from the main street and could hear Ezra telling the townspeople to stay back. “Put down the guns and come out!”

 

“No fuckin’ way…ya best move back or the banker is dead!”

 

“Looks like it’s gonna be a long day!” Sanchez said, and knew Wilmington understood how important it was to take care of the town, but it didn’t stop either of them from worrying about their missing friends.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

 

The sun beat down, sapping the moisture from the men and women who slaved in the fields. There was no respite from the heat and Vin leaned back as he tried to work the kinks from his back. He spotted Gores nearby, but the man seemed intent on staying in the shade and drinking the water one of the slaves had brought from the creek. Vin returned to the task of pulling the stubborn weeds from around the plants, and noticed his hands were bleeding.

 

Flies buzzed around his head and he flicked them away, but they returned and pitched on his exposed skin. His stomach heaved, but there was nothing inside him to make a return journey and he swayed unsteadily. A strong, gnarled hand reached out to steady him and he looked at Pedro gratefully. “Gracias,” Tanner mumbled the word he’d learned meant thank you.

 

“Estas enfermo,” Pedro whispered, noting the sickness in the man’s eyes and face.

 

“Don’t know what yer sayin’,” the Texan said tiredly, wiping his forehead before glancing at the sun again. “Hotter’n hell,” he whispered, struggling to stay on his feet.

 

“Gores,” Pedro whispered and nodded toward the overseer walking toward them.

 

“What is the matter, Gringo?” Gores asked, snapping the stick down across Vin’s shoulders. “You think Pedro should do your work too? Is that it?”

 

“Fuck you!” Tanner managed through gritted teeth.

 

“No way, Chico,” Gores said with an evil glint in his eyes. He swung the stick once more and smiled when the Gringo cried out as a red welt quickly formed on his back. “Now, get back to work or you will miss supper tonight.”

 

“Bastard,” the Texan ground out, but returned his attention to the task at hand. The stubborn weed was replaced by Gores’ face and he gripped it between his bloody fingers before ripping it from the ground. He did not see Pedro’s face or the admiration in his eyes as the older man bent to the backbreaking work under the grueling orb that had risen high in the azure blue sky.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Four Corners

Early Afternoon

 

Buck silently cursed as the sun climbed higher in the sky and yet they were at a standoff with the bank robbers who were still holed up inside the building. The curtains were closed and left no chance of getting a good shot without hitting Jake Connors. The town was quiet as people stayed off the streets in case the gunfire started again.

 

Wilmington could see Josiah and wondered where the man got his patience because every time Buck went to make a move the older man simply shook his head. “They should be getting thirsty by now,” Wilmington said, knowing his own throat felt dryer than the desert at high noon.

 

“Just be ready in case they try something,” Sanchez warned.

 

“Hey…we need water in here!”

 

“Right on time,” Buck said with a grin.

 

“The Lord has provided us with plenty of water out here…all you need to do is put down your guns and come out with your hands raised,” Sanchez called.

 

“Not a chance,” the voice answered. “You give us the water or the banker’s a dead man.”

 

“You kill him and you won’t live to stand trial,” Wilmington advised. They stayed where they were, hoping and praying the men would heed Sanchez’s warning and come out, but the seconds turned to minutes and he knew the day was going to drag on.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

North of the De Rivera Hacienda

Late Afternoon

 

JD Dunne wished he could wipe the sweat from his face, but his hands were tied tightly to the saddle horn. He glanced sideways and knew his own discomfort was nothing compared to the blond’s. Chris was tied face down over Pony’s back and Lopez had found great pleasure in gagging the gunslinger while his men made sure Larabee could not escape.

 

The Bostonian returned his attention to the horse in front of him and saw the rotted teeth in the man’s face as he rode back toward him. He didn’t know what Espinoza wanted until the man reached out and grabbed his hat.

 

“I think this looks better on me…what do you think, Jose?” Espinoza said replacing his own hat with the new one.

 

“Si, Raul, much better than it looks on the boy,” Mendoza said gleefully.

 

“You are not old enough to wear a man’s hat, Boy,” Espinoza said, taunting the young American.

 

JD refused to be baited and took a deep breath as he stared straight ahead.

 

“What’s the matter, Gringo, got no balls?” Mendoza snapped when the captive ignored his friend’s jibes.

 

Dunne continued to ignore the two men as the sun beat down on his dark head. He knew there was no point in saying anything and glanced over to see Chris looking back at him from his precarious position. He felt the gunslinger’s pride and sat straighter in the saddle as the two men finally lost interest in him.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Evening

 

Luis Martinez watched his mother and wished there was something he could do to take away the pain in her eyes. He knew she was staying with Don Garcia’s wife and helping Nathan care for her, but there were times when she looked aged beyond her years. He could still see the beauty that must have turned the heads of many suitors, but the years had left deep lines sculpted in her face.

 

“Mama, you should rest,” Luis said and found her hand against his cheek.

 

“I will, Luis, but Dona Maria needs me.”

 

“You will be of no use to her if you do not sleep, Mama.”

 

“She is weak…we do what we can, but it seems she is not long for this world,” Evita told him.

 

“The baby?”

 

“The baby is okay for now…Nathan is good to Dona Maria. He knows how to treat her illness and he does not talk down to her like that butcher did,” Evita spat.

 

“Mama, please be careful…do not get too close to Nathan Jackson…Don Garcia will blame him if something happens to the baby and I do not want anything to happen to you,” Luis told her. He believed in God and knew that a mother was the most precious gift He bestowed on His children. Luis would do anything to protect her from harm, including give up his own life.

 

“Nothing will happen, Mi Hijo,” the woman said and gently touched her son’s cheek. “I am so proud of the man you have become…please do not change…do not be like your papa.”

 

“Never, Mama, this I promise you,” Luis said and turned to leave. “I must take a patrol out tonight…”

 

“Be careful, Luis, you are all I have in this world,” Evita said, tears brimming in her eyes as she watched him leave. She turned and hurried back inside and made her way back to Dona Maria’s room.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Four Corners

Early Evening

 

The street was quiet, nothing moved except debris carried along by the breeze that did little to cool the heat of the sun. The people had moved inside when they realized the danger from inside the bank. They left it to the peacekeepers to protect them, but watched from behind closed doors and windows as the combatants seemed to be at a standstill. Every now and then a shot was fired, but so far nobody had been hit.

 

Josiah hadn’t moved from his spot, and was grateful that Inez had delivered several canteens to Buck who handed them off to him and Ezra before returning to his spot. Sweat burned his eyes and rolled down his cheeks, while his clothes stuck to his body, making it even more uncomfortable. The big man knew it must be unbearably hot inside the bank, but there was no sign of the men giving up. They’d pleaded for water, but to no avail because it would have made the standoff last even longer. Movement to his right caught his attention and he turned to see Wilmington closing the distance between them.

 

“Josiah, I’m going to see if I can get close enough to get a shot through that window,” the weary rogue explained.

 

“All right…just don’t do anything stupid…right now it’s a standoff, but if bullets start flying someone’s gonna get hurt,” Sanchez warned.

 

“Them bastards deserve what they get so unless you think we’re gonna get some Divine intervention we gotta do what we gotta do!”

 

“I agree, but don’t give up on Him just yet,” Sanchez said and as if on cue a familiar voice sounded from inside the bank.

 

“Josiah, they want to give up,” Jake Connors called.

 

“Tell them to throw out their guns and come out with their hands above their heads,” Wilmington shouted and turned to see a smile on Sanchez’s face.

 

“Told you not to give up on Him,” the ex-preacher said simply.

 

“Never doubted Him for a minute,” Wilmington said with a hint of a smile as the would-be bank robbers exited the building through the back door. “Jake, are you okay?”

 

“Aside from feeling like a roasted chicken I’m fine,” Connors said and wiped the sweat from his face with the sleeve of his shirt as Ezra joined them.

 

“I bet,” Sanchez said, keeping an eye on the trio of sweating men who looked like they were going to fall over. “Ezra, let’s get these boys locked up…Buck, get their guns.”

 

“On it, Josiah,” Wilmington said and moved to pick up the discarded weapons as the wind picked up and fat droplets of rain began to fall. Thunder echoed in the distance and Buck stopped to stare up at the dark clouds that began to fill the sky. “Lord, if this is some kind of joke I’m beginning to hate Your sense of humor!”

 

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening

 

Vin tried to get comfortable in the cage, but no matter what he did he shivered as the fever burned through him. The meal had been plain rice and water and he’d manage to get it down, but was having a hell of a time making it stay put. He relished the slight breeze on his sweat soaked skin and looked up at the clear sky and the bright moon surrounded by a thick blanket of twinkling stars. The rest of the Hacienda was sleeping, but one light burned in the main house. Tanner knew what room it was; at least he thought he did because on several occasions he’d seen Nathan watching as they worked in the fields closest to the house.

 

The Texan heard a familiar sound and knew there were riders coming in from the north. He turned toward the sound and counted the horses as they took the trail that would lead them to the main building. His vision blurred, but he frowned as there was something familiar about one of the riders, but they were too far away for him to be certain.

 

Feeling as if he hadn’t slept in a week, Vin closed his eyes, snapping them open again as the riders pulled to a stop in front of the house. Something bothered him about the newcomers, but he couldn’t put his finger on what it was. The bright full-bodied moon leant enough light to discern shadows and the structures nearby, but he couldn’t see who the people were. The voices reached his ears, but he had trouble listening because of the fever and he released a weak breath as his eyes closed and sleep beckoned to him.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Nathan rubbed at his eyes as he looked toward the mestizos’ quarters and prayed Vin was okay. He wanted to check on the younger man, but Evita and Luis had both warned him that Tanner would be the one to pay if he disobeyed De Rivera. Jackson didn’t doubt this was true, but it didn’t stop the guilt from clouding his mind. He looked around him at the luxurious surroundings, wondering how he could enjoy something so beautiful when his friend was living like an animal.

 

Nathan had managed to catch sight of Vin on several occasions during their captivity, and what he saw scared the hell out of the former stretcher bearer. The sun beat down on the workers, sapping the moisture from their bodies, but while the mestizos were given water, he’d seldom seen Vin given anything. He knew the Texan was sleeping in a cramped cage at night and each time Nathan looked at the soft bed provided for him, the pain swept through him as forceful as any rogue wave on the ocean.

 

Jackson’s attention was taken from the smaller buildings as the sound of approaching riders reached his ears.

 

“Nathan, would you like some coffee?”

 

“No, thank you, Evita…is Dona Maria still sleeping?”

 

“Yes, she seems to be resting comfortably, Nathan, and I am forever grateful for your help,” the woman told him as she joined him at the railing. “Looks like Lopez brought more workers.”

 

Nathan returned his attention to the scene below and gasped as he recognized the young man seated on the closest horse. “JD,” he whispered.

 

“Do you know him?”

 

“Yes…we work together in a town called Four Corners…he’s just a kid…oh, God…”

 

“What is it, Nathan?” Evita asked when she heard the pain in her friend’s voice.

 

“The one tied to the horse…that’s Chris…I gotta help them,” Jackson said and made his way toward the door leading back inside.

 

“No, Nathan, you mustn’t do or say anything,” Martinez told him. “Do not give Don Garcia the satisfaction of knowing he has more of your friends. You must keep silent and help Maria…if there is any way I can help I will, but for now your friends are better off not knowing you are here.”

 

“I can’t just leave them…”

 

“You have to…for everyone’s sake,” Evita said and watched the younger man’s face as the eyes darkened with unshed moisture. She’d known him for only a short time, but Nathan Jackson was a man of many emotions and she knew his heart was in his throat as she heard Lopez give orders to his men. It surprised her when she heard Don Garcia’s name mentioned and she frowned as a sharp knock sounded on the lower doors. “Nathan, please, just stay here…I promise I will find out what I can about your friends and why they are here.”

 

“Probably came looking for me and Vin,” the healer told her. “Wonder where the others are?”

 

“I will find out,” Evita said as she left the somber Jackson alone.

 

“Please, God, help us find a way out of this,” the former slave whispered and bent his head in silent prayer before returning his attention to the scene taking place below the verandah.

 

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JD silently cursed as the ropes binding Chris to the horse were cut and the gunslinger hit the ground hard. The muffled grunt told him the blond was hurting, but there was nothing he could do as he was pulled from his horse’s back and forced to his knees beside Larabee.

 

Hernando Lopez stared at the two prisoners as Ernesto hurried up to the main door and knocked several times. He smiled when Larabee and Dunne were forced to their knees and held there. The leader of the banditos was very pleased with the gift he had for Don Garcia De Rivera and he grabbed Larabee by the chin, forcing his head up so that their eyes met. There was something deadly about the gunslinger, even though the man should be shaking in his boots because there was no way he could escape now that they’d reached the hacienda.

 

“Hernando, what is the meaning of this?”

 

There was no mistaking the voice of authority and Lopez released Larabee as he turned to face the newcomer who stood dressed as elegantly as he did during the day. “Don Garcia, I have brought you a g…gift,” he stammered, smiling in spite of the fear this man caused.

 

“What gift…I sent you north,” De Rivera snapped.

 

“Si, and we rode north, but we did not get far when we ran into two gringos heading south,” Lopez said and pointed to Larabee and Dunne.

 

“I do not have time to inspect new workers, Hernando…”

 

“These are not workers, Don Garcia…this man wearing black is Chris Larabee,” the bandito said with a grin.

 

“Chris Larabee,” De Rivera whispered, but there was such venom in his voice that Lopez and his men took a step backward. The elderly Haciendada stepped forward and stood looking down at the man who had killed his only son…his heir. “You will pay for what you cost me. Did you think you could kill my son and live?”

 

Chris stared at the man angrily, but there was no way he could speak with the gag shoved in his mouth. He felt De Rivera’s gnarled hands in his hair and then fingers played at his Adam’s apple before squeezing so tightly he could not breathe. The fingers twisted in his hair, the muscles in his neck cording as he fought for air.

 

“You’re killing him!” Dunne shouted, fighting the hands that held him in place.

 

“We all die…eventually,” De Rivera said, but released the death grip he had on the gunslinger’s throat. He turned his attention to the young man kneeling next to the gunslinger and smiled. “Who are you, Boy?”

 

“JD Dunne and…”

 

“And nothing, Boy, you travel with Larabee because you are related…”

 

“We’re friends…”

 

“Friends…then you are my enemy,” De Rivera said, eyes dark with pent up rage as he turned back to the gunslinger. “You have a hard reputation, Larabee, but it will end here. I will break you before I kill you and feed you to the animals. I will make sure you know what it feels like to lose something you love…”

 

Chris heard the insinuation as De Rivera turned to JD and struck him open handed across the face. Dunne hit the ground hard, but didn’t make a sound as two men pulled him roughly back to his knees. Larabee bit down hard on the gag as he saw blood dripping from the Bostonian’s split lip. Anger raged inside, but there was nothing he could do as a gun was placed against the younger man’s head.

 

“Not yet, Lopez,” De Rivera warned.

 

“What do you want me to do with them?” Lopez asked.

 

“Strip the boy down to his drawers and put him in the hole,” the elderly man ordered and turned back to the gunslinger. “Bring this bastardo to the calabozo…there are some things I wish to show him before sunrise. You have done well, Hernando, and will be rewarded for bringing my son’s killer to justice.”

 

“Gracias, Don Garcia,” Lopez said and reached for the gunslinger. They dragged him toward a small structure located to the east of the house and unlocked the door with a large iron key.

 

Chris felt his gut clench as several torches were lit and he was pulled inside. He could feel De Rivera’s breath on his neck and shoved back with his right elbow, pleased when he heard the sharp gasp from the elderly man. It was short lived as Lopez slammed a rifle butt into his lower back and Chris cried out against the gag.

 

“Where do you want him?” Lopez asked once De Rivera regained his stature and stood over Larabee.

 

“Secure his arms to the hooks in the overhead beams,” the Haciendada ordered, smiling as the blond was pulled to his feet and his arms were released long enough to do as he told them. Next Larabee’s ankles were encircled with rusted manacles and locked to the floor so that he stretched awkwardly and could just touch the floor with the tips of his boots. De Rivera smiled and reached up to take the gag from the prisoner’s mouth and ran his fingers down the man’s neck, relishing in the thought of choking the life from the hated body. It was too soon for that, Larabee had to suffer before he died. “Keep guards posted and make sure he does not escape or I will stake you out in the desert for the vultures.”

 

“I’ll see you in hell,” Larabee managed, wishing he’d left Dunne behind with the others and praying their friends would arrive in time to save the others, because Chris had little doubt that De Rivera would carry out his threats before long.

 

“Hell has come for you, Chris Larabee, and I am the demonio who will send your hide to Diablo,” the elderly man said, turning and walking away from the prisoner as his heart beat heavily against his chest. Revenge would be sweet, and even sweeter would be how he took the life of the kid, JD Dunne. Larabee had shown he cared about the younger man and his death would seal the gunslinger’s fate.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Nathan had watched with dawning horror as JD was stripped of his clothing and taken toward an area near the mestizos’ quarters. Evita had told him it was a place where De Rivera sent men for punishment. It was called ‘el orificio’ which loosely translated to ‘the hole’. Jackson knew ‘the hole’ was just that, a small cell dug in the ground, the top was made of heavy bars that took two men to remove, while the sides were mismatched pieces of wood that could shred a man’s back if he made the mistake of leaning against it.

 

“Nathan,” Evita whispered as she rejoined him on the verandah.

 

“Please, Evita, we have to help them,” Jackson pleaded anxiously.

 

“There is nothing we can do for them, Nathan. Don Garcia can be very cruel and he will not hesitate to make you or your friend Vin suffer if he thinks you know the prisoners. I do not wish to see you hurt and I am sure you do not want Vin hurt because you tried to help someone who is beyond your help,” the older woman observed, taking Nathan by the arm and pulling him away from the edge.

 

“I can’t just stay here and do nothing,” Jackson snapped.

 

“Yes, you can. I know you value life, Nathan…I have seen it in how you care for Dona Maria and the worry you have for your friends, but if you interfere in Don Garcia’s plans you will not only lose these two, but Vin as well. Are you strong enough to do what you have to in order to save one life?”

 

“Strong…I don’t know, Evita…I honestly don’t know,” Jackson told her and stared up at the sky. “Lord, I ain’t sure why Yer lettin’ this happen, but if it’s some kind of test then it’s tryin’ my patience…I don’t know what ta do…”

 

“Nathan, God will look out for His children…He will not turn His back on you or your friends,” Evita told him.

 

“He sure got a funny way of showin’ it,” Jackson said and knew sleep would be a long time coming as Lopez and his men dragged Chris Larabee away.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Four Corners

Late Night

 

Josiah knew Buck was losing patience, but there was nothing more they could do once the skies opened up and dropped a deluge that would have made Noah stand up and take notice. They’d locked the prisoners in the cell and headed for the saloon as a streak of chain lightning sculpted the cloud in blue-white light, followed by a clap of thunder that shook the rafters. 

 

“Buck, wearing a hole in the floor just makes more work for the weary,” Sanchez told him.

 

“You think this is some kind of joke, Preacher?” Wilmington snarled, striking the table with his fist. 

 

“No…no joke, Buck,” Sanchez said, and stared into the dark blue eyes that were filled with anger. “There’s nothing funny about anything that’s happened…”

 

“You’re damned right there’s not!” the worried rogue agreed and sank tiredly on the chair. “Jesus, what a fucking mess!”

 

“That, Mr. Wilmington, is an understatement,” Standish said, watching as the rain beat against the windows. The fires were out, but he knew without looking that there was a river running down the middle of the town’s main street. Inez had made burritos, but they remained untouched in the center of the table because neither man had an appetite to do the spicy food justice.

 

“I don’t care how long this damn storm last…I’m riding out come morning,” Wilmington told them.

 

“We’ll ride out together, Brother,” Sanchez vowed, staring at the rain that pelted against the window.

 

“Senor, are you going to look for the others?” Inez Recillos asked, she’d heard stories around town and knew Nathan Jackson and Vin Tanner had been taken by the banditos and were somewhere south of the Rio Grande.

 

“First light,” Wilmington assured her.

 

“Please be careful…when I was with Don Paulo I heard stories of a cruel Hacienda. If it is the same man who took Senor Jackson and Senor Tanner then it could be very dangerous. He is said to be a madman since his son died,” Recillos warned.

 

“We know how to deal with madmen, Inez…with the Lord’s help we’ll bring them home,” Sanchez assured her.

 

“I will pray that this is true, Senor,” Recillos said and made the sign of the cross before moving back to the bar. She watched the trio and knew they were worried about their missing friends and prayed she had heard wrong about Don Garcia De Rivera. The man was cruel, some even described him as a monster and if the stories were true he tortured people for little or no reason at all. ‘Keep them safe, Dios, and bring them home,’ she thought as the men bid her goodnight and left the saloon. 

 

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De Rivera Hacienda

Dawn

 

JD had finally given up on moving the heavy metal grate that covered the hole. He’d tried several times without success and all he had to show for it were blisters on his palms and shredded fingernails from trying to pull the wooden planks that lined his prison. It was cold during the night, especially once they’d taken his clothing and dropped him into the hole. It wasn’t very big, maybe four feet high, three feet wide and five feet in length, leaving him unable to find a comfortable position.

 

JD sank down on the ground and stared up at what little he could see of the sky. The stars were losing some of their luminosity as dawn began to spread across the land. The young Bostonian had often spent hours just watching the stars while his mother worked in the hotel. He’d loved trying to find shapes in the twinkling lights and saw the wondrous beauty of what his mother called ‘God’s Hands at work’.

 

The land around him was unfamiliar and he listened to the different calls of the birds and other wild animals as his eyes closed. He leaned back, crying out when it felt as if the wood dug sharply and deeply into his skin. JD felt as if his body was wearing down and sighed heavily as he curled onto his side and tried to get comfortable. Sleep was something he craved, but it was hard to get comfortable with no clothing to cover his shaking body.

 

Something tickled JD’s back and he reached behind, striking something unfamiliar and knocking it away from him. He shuddered as he looked at the long, skinny creature that crawled away on more legs than he cared to count. “Dammit!” he cursed as something crawled on his legs. He’d never been afraid of bugs, but under the circumstances he realized no one would blame him for how he felt.

 

Dunne drew his legs up and wrapped his arms around his knees, praying that Buck, Ezra, and Josiah would find them before it was too late. A part of him wished they’d stay away, because something told him De Rivera would not take kindly to anyone interfering in his business. JD leaned his head down on his knees and closed his eyes as he rocked back and forth in an effort to ward off the chill seeping through his bones.

 

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Small Village

South of De Rivera Hacienda 

 

Raphael Cordova de Martinez looked at the small band of six men he rode with and thought about the two men he’d met and befriended in Four Corners. The cocky, young Bostonian had made quite the impression on him during the short time he’d known him and Raphael wondered whether Dunne had ever bought a new hat. Raphael smiled at the thought that he and Chris Larabee had put bullet holes in the younger man’s hat to show how fast they were.

 

“What are you thinking about, Raphael?”  Hector Ramirez asked. He knew about the price on his friend’s head, one place there by Don Paulo’s angry father upon hearing of his son’s death.

 

“Just thinking about some compadres,” De Martinez explained.

 

“What compadres?”

 

“The Magnificos!”

 

“Ah…the gringos?”

 

“Si, the Chiquita had quite the bark for such a young pupa, but he is someone I would ride with,” Raphael said with a smile.

 

“This gunslinger…Chris Larabee was he as fast as his reputación makes him out to be?”

 

“Faster…we did not have a chance to see who was fastest, but I think he could have taken me.”

 

“I have seen you outdraw many men, Raphael…I doubt there is anyone faster,” Ramirez said.

 

“Perhaps, but I do not intend to find out…I told him perhaps someday I would find six compadres of my own and someday we will meet again.”

 

“We should head north before someone sends word to Madera that you have returned.”

 

“You worry too much, Hector, but perhaps you are right. We will ride north and cross the Rio Grande before Madera knows I have returned,” Raphael told him and finished the last of the tequila before standing and moving to his horse. He had chosen his friends well as six men followed quickly, watching his back and protecting him as he would have gladly done for them.

 

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

 

Chris shifted his weight, but there was no relief from the strain on his shoulders. There were tacky trails of blood down both arms, evidence of how hard he’d tried to pull his arms from the manacles. The flesh around both wrists was torn, almost shredded because of the weight on his limbs.

 

Larabee could hear the guards talking outside the door, but neither one had come close to him when they’d checked to make sure he hadn’t escaped. Chris wondered about JD, was the kid all right or had De Rivera punished the young Bostonian for even knowing him. His thoughts turned to Nathan and Vin and he wondered where they were being held. If Maria was right, then they were both prisoners somewhere on the Hacienda. What kind of shape were the two men in…would they be able to escape and go for help?

 

Chris lifted his head at the change in the voices outside and took a deep breath when the door opened and bright sunlight spilled into the cell. He blinked several times until De Rivera came into focus and stood before him.

 

“I do hope you slept well, Bastardo,” De Rivera said and spit in his captive’s face. “You will pay for what you did to my son…”

 

“Your son deserved what he got…”

 

“My son was with a puta…”

 

"No," he corrected, his eyes flashing. “She was a woman."

 

“She was well paid like any puta...I am sure it was not the first time someone got a little rough with her!”

 

"Broken bones!" Larabee snarled, his head snapping back when De Rivera’s anger made him lash out at him. "She damn near died."

 

“So what! There would have been another to take her place!” De Rivera said and turned to Hernando Lopez. “Put him in irons and bring him!”

 

“Si, Don Garcia,” Lopez said and signaled for his men to enter.

 

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Four Corners

Early Morning

 

Buck stood his ground as the townspeople gathered around them. He spotted Conklin near the back of the group and wished the man had not found his way out of bed at such an early hour. Unfortunately they were not so lucky, because the sonofabitch was there and looked like he was ready to start trouble. Yosemite and Virgil Watson lead the group of men and he nodded when the liveryman handed him an extra canteen. “Thanks,” Wilmington told him.

 

“You’re welcome…be careful,” Yosemite said as Sanchez and Standish mounted their horses and prepared to ride out.

 

“You too, Yosemite…I don’t think the banditos will come this far north, but make sure you travel in pairs when you patrol the outlying farms,” Wilmington warned.

 

“You gunmen are paid to watch this town!” Conklin called from the back.

 

“Be quiet, Mr. Conklin!” Watson snapped. Since the day he’d seen Tanner and Larabee walk shoulder to shoulder down the main street, he knew Four Corners was fortunate to have them as their peacekeepers. Conklin and men like him were cowards like the former sheriff and deputy who’d ridden out the day Nathan Jackson had nearly been hung by several drunken cowhands.

 

“Now see here…”

 

“I believe Mr. Watson asked you to remain silent. Now in case you are uneducated and do not understand the meaning of such a simple command I will rephrase it in terms a Neanderthal such as yourself might understand…Shut up!” Standish said and smiled as Sanchez clapped him on the back.

 

“Damn fine sermon, Ezra,” the preacher said as the trio rode slowly out of the town.

 

Buck spotted Mary Travis and knew the woman was concerned about all of them, but she had a soft spot for Chris Larabee and he hoped someday her and Chris might find the happiness they both deserved.

 

“Bring them home, Buck,” Mary said.

 

“We will, Mary,” Wilmington said and tipped his hat as they continued on their journey south. He knew without turning that most of the townspeople were still watching them and it felt as if he finally had a home to come back to.

 

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning 

 

Vin squinted up at the bright orb as it shone down on the fields, soaking up the dew and causing sweat to bead on his fevered brow. He hadn’t slept much, the fever-induced headaches coupled with the pain in his back and jaw were part of the cause. The dreams were what kept him from resting comfortably, or as comfortable as possible considering he was locked in a cage at night.

 

Tanner felt a hand on his arm and turned to find Pedro pointing toward one of the overseer’s men. Vin appreciated the elderly man’s keen eyes, which always seemed to know when they were being watched. Vin had no idea how long he’d been here, but it felt like an eternity since he and Nathan were abducted from Purgatorio. He turned his attention back to the task at hand, tugging at the stubborn weeds and gasping when pain shot through his lower back.

 

“It is not time for a siesta, Gringo Dog,” Ignacio Figuera spat, smiling as he lifted the stick to strike again. “Do you think you are special…that you can resto while everyone else works?”

 

“Por favor…enfermo,” Pedro tried, but the cruel man just smiled as he used the stick to lift the American’s head and stared into the glazed blue eyes.

 

“Enfermo or not he has work to do…he does not get special treatment just because he is a gringo dog,” Figuera snapped, but realized too late his mistake as the man he believed to be beaten launched himself at him, the momentum carrying them both backward. He struck out twice with the stick, but Tanner wasn’t as weak and sick as he thought.

 

“Fuckin’ bastard!” the Texan snarled and struck the man several times before something slammed into the back of his head and everything blurred as he was dragged off Figuera.

 

“I warned you about him did I not, Ignacio?”

 

“Si, Fernando, I am sorry…I will not make the same mistake again!” Figuera spat.

 

“Get some water and wake him up…there is much to do,” Gores told him, smiling when the other man grabbed a nearby bucket that held drinking water and threw it over the unconscious man’s face.

 

The reaction was instantaneous as Tanner sputtered and wiped the water from his eyes as he shook his head and tried to stand. His head felt like it was going to explode as pain slammed through his skull and his eyes watered. He glared up at the two men and fought the urge to tackle them both as Pedro reached out and helped him to his feet. He clenched his eyes tightly and swayed on his feet, but Pedro was stronger than he looked and easily kept him from falling flat on his face.

 

“You will be punished for attacking Ignacio, but for now you will get back to work,” Gores ordered and pointed to a large area that was overgrown with tough weeds. “You and Pedro will clear that area before you are fed…”

 

“Pedro didn’t do nothin’!” the Texan spat.

 

“Silencio, Gringo Dog!” Gores’ snarled, his mouth curled up in a sinister smile as he drew back the stick and drove it into Tanner’s gut. He stood over him as the prisoner dropped to his knees and fought for air.

 

Pedro didn’t quite understand what was being said, but he did know Gores was angry at them. He turned his friend toward the new job and smiled, showing yellowed teeth and wisdom beyond his years. Vin fought the nausea churning through his gut and managed to stand on shaky legs, his vision blurring as he took the first weed and tugged it as if it was Gores’ neck instead of a piece of nature, albeit an unwanted one.

 

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De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

 

Chris tried to pull away from the two men who were escorting him along a path toward an overgrown area outside the Hacienda grounds. Heavy manacles encircled his ankles, a thick chain linking them together and forcing him to take short, shuffling steps. His wrists were also set in metal cuffs, a second chain linking those to the ones around his ankles. He flicked at an insect that landed on his bare chest and nearly fell when Hector Lopez shoved him from behind.

 

“Come on, Gringo Dog…Don Garcia is waiting for you!” Lopez snarled, cackling loudly when Larabee nearly fell.

 

Chris turned slightly and glared at the Mexican, and saw a hint of uncertainty in the other man’s eyes. He held the gaze until Lopez lowered his eyes and struck him across the shoulders. Chris held his breath and managed to stay on his feet as they ventured onto a well beaten path.

 

Chris’ thoughts turned to JD and he wondered if the kid was okay. He hadn’t seen him since they’d taken him to the ‘hole’ the night before and the lean gunslinger shuddered as he thought of his own experience in the ‘hole’ at Jericho. It had rained heavily during his time there, and it had taken weeks for him to finally feel warm again.

 

“Move faster, Gringo…I am getting thirsty and there’s a pretty puta waiting in my bed,” Lopez said and grabbed at his crotch lewdly.

 

Chris turned away and followed Jose Mendoza deeper into the wooded area until they reached a small clearing. His gaze swept across the area and he spotted four gunmen standing at ten-foot intervals as Don Garcia De Rivera lifted his cane and slapped it against his left hand.

 

“It is time to put you to work, Pistolero,” De Rivera said and pointed to a shovel that was sunk into the ground at the center of the clearing. “You will dig…”

 

“Fuck you!” Larabee snarled softly, yet his voice was strong and held such defiance that Lopez took a step back before realizing he was showing weakness in front of his employer.

 

Hernando moved forward and shoved Larabee toward the shovel, satisfied when the blond stumbled and went to his knees. He moved to stand in front of Larabee and again grabbed his own crotch suggestively. “You will do as Don Garcia says or I will give your friend to my men…it has been a long time since they have had such a gringo puta!”

 

Chris had seen men like Hernando Lopez many times and he knew the man would not hesitate to carry out his threat. Forcing his legs to carry his weight, Chris stood and reached for the shovel. He pulled it from the ground and without a word began digging into the soft earth. He could hear De Rivera’s men talking and laughing, but each time he lifted his head from the task, his eyes locked with those of De Rivera, and he saw only the promise of death…his death.

 

It didn’t take long for Chris to realize he was digging a grave, and that if Ezra was here the gambler would lay odds that the grave was his own. Don Garcia continued to watch, but now his cane slapped against his leg every time Chris drove the shovel into the ground. The sun had risen above the trees and bathed the area in its hot rays while soaking the sweat from his body. Chris wiped at his forehead and realized the dirt was caked on his hands as he continued to dig the hole. It was approximately six feet in length, three feet wide, and Chris guessed it had to be close to two feet deep, yet De Rivera did not call a halt as the day wore on.

 

Don Garcia De Rivera watched as his son’s murderer continued to dig the grave. The plan had been to kill him, but that had changed when he’d lain awake in his bed and thought about the best way to seek revenge. The young American boy who rode with Chris Larabee had seemed to look up to the gunslinger and if he’d read them right, the gunslinger would reek of guilt should JD Dunne die in his place. The grave was still shallow, but the Haciendada grew impatient as the morning slipped toward afternoon. Larabee’s back was red and it would cause him great discomfort when they threw him in the same hole where his friend had been held. Yes, revenge could be a cold bedfellow, but it also held a warmth that spread through the elderly man’s mind and body. “Hernando, bring the boy,” De Rivera ordered softly, making sure Larabee did not hear him.

 

“Si, Patron,” Lopez said and hurried away. He’d seen the smile on Don Garcia’s face and knew it did not bode well for the two gringos. 

 

Chris continued to dig the hole and sighed tiredly as he rolled his shoulders and felt the pull of burned skin. Sweat and dirt ran into his eyes and his tongue felt too thick for his mouth as the heat sapped the moisture from his body.

 

“I did not tell you to stop, Pistolero,” De Rivera said and brought his cane down across the reddened back, grinning maliciously when Larabee dropped to his knees.

 

Chris turned and made a grab for the cane, but the sound of guns being cocked reminded him that he was unarmed and out-manned.

 

“They will cut you down,” De Rivera snapped, but moved back cautiously. There was no doubt in his mind that Chris Larabee would snap his neck if given the opportunity, but he was not about to give him such a chance. Revenge for his son’s murder was first and foremost on his mind.

 

Chris didn’t bother answering as he turned and continued to dig what he knew was to be his grave. Death had been something he courted during the year after Sarah and Adam’s deaths, but life had changed for him that fateful day when a raggedy assed Texan stood beside him, shoulder to shoulder, in an effort to save Nathan Jackson’s life.

 

“I believe that is deep enough, Pistolero,” De Rivera said, motioning for Larabee to climb out of the hole.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

JD allowed Lopez to help him from the hole and tried to rub the feeling back into his legs and arms. Pain shot through him as circulation returned to his extremities, but he refused to show his enemy weakness of any sort. He forced his mind to ignore the shock and finally straightened to his full height. He glared at the two men standing on either side of him, but there was no way he could fight them both right now. He hadn’t seen or heard anything about Chris Larabee since being thrown in the hole the night before. He brushed at the dried dirt and debris covering his body, wincing as he realized he was covered in insect bites.

 

“Okay, Puta, it’s time to join your friend,” Lopez said and prodded the younger man with his gun.

 

“Where’s Chris?”

 

“You will see soon enough,” the Mexican answered, laughing when the young man stumbled and went to his knees.

 

Dunne ignored the man as he managed to get his feet under him and stand up. He hated the chains that had been bound to the manacles around his ankles, forcing him to take short steps and causing him to overbalance. He glanced up at the sun, blinking his eyes as the bright light stabbed at his skull. He had no idea how long he stumbled along the path, but he heard voices just before entering a clearing and spotting Chris Larabee standing near a shallow grave. “Chris!” Dunne called and fought as his escorts latched onto his arm and held him in place.

 

“Are you all right, JD?” Larabee asked of the dirt-encrusted youth.

 

“Think so,” Dunne answered.

 

“Enough!” De Rivera snapped. He stared at Larabee, whose eyes were the darkest green he’d ever seen and knew his decision was the right one. He stood toe to toe with JD Dunne and ran his fingers along the strong jaw line before speaking. “Do you feel like dying today, Boy?”

 

“Let him go!” Larabee snarled.

 

“I do not think so, Pistolero,” De Rivera spat, his eyes dark with insane rage as he pointed to the blond. “Bring him here!”

 

Chris was dragged toward the Haciendada and forced to his knees, facing the grave he’d just dug. He fought the two men holding him, but their hands dug into his shoulders, causing pain to flare in the sunburned skin.

 

“What of the boy?” Lopez asked.

 

“Bring him here!” Don Garcia ordered and stood beside the grave. He made sure they positioned the young man at the foot of the grave and turned to see the horror dawn on Chris Larabee’s face.

 

Chris now understood why JD had been brought here and he swallowed convulsively as De Rivera stared at him. It felt as if ice water hit his stomach, causing his innards to cramp. His gut felt as if it had given birth to a snake and the blood pooled in his extremities. His mind felt numb and his senses reeled as JD turned misty eyes in his direction and Larabee knew what real fear was.

 

“You murdered my son and it is only fitting that I take something you care about,” the elderly man said and nodded to Lopez who drew his weapon and aimed it at the young man whose face seemed impervious to what was about to happen.

 

“Chris…it ain’t your fault,” Dunne said, staring at the man who’d become more than just a mentor. He could see the raw emotion on Larabee’s face and wished there was some way he could rid him of the guilt that would gnaw at the blond’s ravaged soul over his death. JD thought about the others and of what his murder would do to Buck Wilmington in particular. Death was something he didn’t fear, but he had never courted it either.

 

Standing tall, JD squared his shoulders and turned toward Don Garcia De Rivera. He drew in a deep breath and spoke in a voice devoid of fear. “See you in hell!”

 

“Now, Hernando,” De Rivera ordered, his gaze shifting from the boy to the man being held in place. He could see something in Larabee’s face, something he wanted to kill. A look that spoke of pride…somehow he hadn’t expected this from the cold-hearted bastard who’d killed his son.

 

“NO!” Larabee screamed, as everything seemed to happen in slow motion. The sound of the shot echoed and re-echoed through his skull as he watched the younger man’s head snap back with the force of the bullet tearing through his skull. Dunne’s body toppled backward and landed in the grave Chris had dug, taking with it the promise of a life yet unfulfilled.

 

“Should we cover him?” Lopez asked of the unmoving body.

 

"No…let his friend do it," De Rivera ordered of the trembling gunman whose eyes had yet to leave the grotesque image he’d witnessed. "The boy looked up to him, and now he sees how badly he failed to protect him.” He grabbed the shovel and moved to where the blond was held in place by two of Lopez’s banditos. "If you wish to give him a proper burial you will do so now or he will be left for the sun and wild animals."

 

Chris heard the hated man’s voice as if through a thick layer of fog, but he reached for the shovel, holding it in a white knuckled grip as a cold knife of hatred lanced through what had once been his reawakened heart. Chris locked eyes with De Rivera, sending a silent promise that Dunne’s death would not be in vain. Some how, some way he would get free long enough to tear out the bastard’s dead heart. He took a deep breath and slowly started to dig up the loose dirt, closing his eyes as he felt the moisture slip past dirt encrusted lids.

 

JD Dunne was dead, there was nothing he could do about him now, but at least he could protect him from the ravages of the hot sun and the animals that roamed the area. He didn’t say a word as he lifted the first shovel full of dirt and threw it into the grave. With each stroke of the spade, Chris cursed Don Garcia De Rivera a thousand deaths in a thousand torturous ways. Tears slipped unnoticed from his eyes, making a clear trail down his cheeks as images of JD’s short life flashed across his mind. ‘I’ll make him pay, Kid, I’ll tear out his heart and feed it to the dogs,’ he vowed as he hardened his heart and forced himself to think about living long enough to seek revenge against the man who’d stolen something so precious as a young man’s life.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

South of the De Rivera Hacienda

Late Morning

 

The sun was high overhead and the heat of the day soaked their skin with sweat and caused their clothing to stick to their bodies. Raphael led his men away from the De Rivera Hacienda and would pick up the trail once they were a safe distance away. He’d never really had an opportunity to meet the elderly man and had only seen him on several occasions when the house of Madera hosted guests to watch the brutal fights between the Don’s chosen slaves.

 

Raphael had seen many men brutally beaten and put to death because they hadn’t been strong enough to beat their opponent. It didn’t matter that their foe was twice the size and often had the upper hand with a weapon of some kind. Cordova had once been placed in the circle of stones east of De Rivera’s Hacienda and had been forced to kill a man or be killed. It was part of the life when one was an indentured servant.

 

“What are you thinking about, My Friend?” Hector Ramirez asked. He knew very little of Cordova’s life before meeting him shortly after Don Paulo’s father had put the price on his head, but did not pry out of respect for their friendship.

 

“How long have we ridden together, Hector?”

 

“Close to a year,” Ramirez answered.

 

“Have you ever seen a man forced to fight for his life with his hands because men like Madera and De Rivera thought it was good sport?”

 

“No, but I have heard of such things,” Ramirez answered.

 

“Me too…I fought once…it was a choice of my life or his. I never even knew his name or how he came to be in the Arena de Muerte,” Cordova explained.

 

“I was told it is brutal.”

 

“It is…I fought once, but I have seen many such fights and helped bury the bodies…unmarked graves as the only sign they had ever been alive,” Raphael said sadly.

 

“At least they were buried and not left to rot in the sun or for some buitre to feed upon,” Ramirez said as the trail narrowed and they could hear voices from the nearby hacienda. He had ridden with Raphael long enough to know the man was fast with his gun, but he hadn’t known he was also good with his fists. The fights in the arena were something most people who lived in this area knew about, but it was only the wealthy who were allowed to attend. They rode in silence as they circumvented the Hacienda, but he had seen the change in Cordova and knew the man was thinking hard about his past and possible future.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

 

Chris lifted the shovel a final time and tossed the last of the dirt over the grave. He had no idea how much time had passed since the deadly shot had taken the life from JD’s eyes, but his mind had replayed the scene a hundred times leaving him exhausted in both mind and body. He knew Lopez and De Rivera were watching him, so he kept a tight rein on his emotions as the kid’s death seemed to take whatever life he had left.

 

“Hernando, see that he is put to work in the fields,” De Rivera ordered.

 

“Si, Patron, should I let Gores…”

 

“No, you are responsible for this one…if he escapes you will forfeit your life.”

 

“I thought you wanted him dead?”

 

“I do, but he has not suffered enough for murdering Alonzo,” the Haciendada said and walked closer to Larabee.

 

Chris ignored the men around him and lifted his head as the angry words spilled from his arid throat. “He was a kid...you never gave him a chance to have a life...”

 

De Rivera’s anger grew as he watched his son’s killer and he knew he had to take back control.

 

Chris heard movement behind him and turned, eyes dark and dangerous as he stared at the man who’d taken Dunne’s life. “I’ll be the one to take you down, old man,” he vowed softly and turned back to the grave.

 

De Rivera heard the softly spoken words and felt a chill run down his spine. He lifted his cane and brought it down across Larabee’s lower back, smiling when a sharp cry spilled from the man’s lips as he dropped heavily to the ground. The elderly man walked around and stared into Larabee’s face, taking pleasure in the pain he saw there. He unconsciously stepped back when the sea green eyes opened to mere slits and sent the promise of retribution through the intense glare. “Hernando…you have your orders!”

 

“Si, Patron, come on Gringo Dog,” Hernando ordered and motioned for Mendoza to help him pull the captive to his feet. The sun had burned the man’s skin, but neither man cared as they dragged him toward the hacienda in the distance.

 

De Rivera took the lead and smiled inwardly at the thought of finally reaping the bitter harvest that had grown around his heart since the discovery of his son’s body. ‘The Pistolero will pay with his life, Alonzo, but first I will see that he pays for his crime,’ the old patron vowed.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Wilson Homestead

South of Four Corners

Early Afternoon

 

Tom Wilson looked up at the sound of approaching horses, only slightly surprised when he recognized three of the peacekeepers from Four Corners. He lifted the axe and buried it deep in the chunk of wood he’d been splitting and moved toward the riders as they entered his fenced yard. “Howdy, Boys, tell me you got good news about them Bandits?”

 

“Hello, Tom, the bandits seemed to have stopped for now, but you need to keep an eye out for trouble,” Sanchez said and dismounted as Martha Wilson exited the farmhouse.

 

“We’re headed south toward Purgatorio, but wanted to check on you and several other homesteads,” Wilmington told them.

 

“You boys got time to join us for a bite to eat?” Martha asked.

 

“No…wish we did, Martha, but we need to find Chris and JD,” Sanchez answered. “We wouldn’t mind filling the canteens before we leave.”

 

“You go right ahead and I’ll fix you up some sandwiches to take along with you…”

 

“Thank you, Mrs. Wilson,” Standish said of the couple’s generosity.

 

“Nonsense…it’s the least we can do after everything you boys have done for us,” the woman said and hurried inside.

 

“So, you boys gonna tell me why ya look like you’ve lost your wife to your best friend?” Tom asked as the peacekeepers moved to fill up their canteens.

 

“Vin and Nathan were taken from Purgatorio…Chris and JD went after ‘em,” Wilmington explained.

 

“So you’re going after them?” Wilson asked.

 

“Yeah, they’re probably south of the Rio Grande by now,” Sanchez answered. “We’re headed to Purgatorio and then south toward the Rio Grande.”

 

“The river is probably swollen over her banks with all those storms we’ve had lately,” the homesteader observed.

 

“We’ll find a way to cross it,” Wilmington vowed. Since leaving Four Corners he’d had the feeling that they needed to find Larabee, Dunne, Jackson, and Tanner before something happened. His worry intensified as imaginary flashes burst against closed lids. He knew Larabee, Tanner, and Jackson could look after themselves, but Dunne was still a bit of a greenhorn in spite of the lessons he’d learned the hard way.

 

“Buck, you boys need anything…just let me know,” the homesteader told them.

 

“Thanks, Tom…you’ve done plenty for all of us,” the worried rogue told him.

 

“Ain’t never gonna be able to repay what you boys did for us. We’re forever in your debt…”

 

“Now you boys make sure you eat them sandwiches and I’ve thrown in some warm biscuits too,” Martha said as she exited the house and handed the wrapped bundle to Josiah.

 

“Thank you, Martha,” Sanchez said. He tied the bundle to the back of his saddle and mounted up. The others did the same and he nodded to the couple before turning the animal around and heading away from the homestead.

 

“God go with you,” Martha called as her husband wrapped his arms around her. “Something tells me they’re going to have their hands full once they cross the Rio Grande.”

 

“They’ll be fine, Martha, God takes care of his children, especially those who help others,” Tom said, kissing his wife as they watched the three peacekeepers disappear over the next rise. “So, did you happen to make any extra sandwiches?”

 

“Don’t tell me you’re hungry already?”

 

“I’m a mite hungry, but since the boys are at the Tucker place I was thinking we could work on a baby sister for them,” Tom teased as he placed a hand on her breast.

 

“Hmm, I might just take you up on that offer,” Martha said and took her husband’s hand before leading him into the house. With a last look toward the horizon she felt him squeeze her fingers and gave herself over to his loving touch.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Just North of the De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon 

 

Darkness surrounded him, bringing with it an earthy smell and the sense of urgency as he tried to move, to breathe, but there was no air. He fought to pull his arms free as dirt entered his mouth and he struggled against the rising tide of panic that encircled his mouth. He held his breath, the pain in his skull intensifying as blind panic, born of anger lent strength that he didn’t know he possessed. He cried out as his arms broke through his earthy tomb and he pulled at the dirt that covered his face.

 

JD could not remember being this terrified in his life, but desperation gave him the added incentive to push the dirt from his face and lift his head enough to draw air into his tortured lungs. He gasped and clawed at his throat, choking the dirt out and as he turned his head slightly and spit the noxious taste from his mouth.

 

The world around him faded in and out of focus as he tried desperately to escape his tomb, but the pain and horror combined to take his breath away. Darkness reached out for him, but he fought against its pull in a frantic attempt to stay sane in a world that seemed anything but normal. With as much power as he could muster, JD kicked his legs free, but the emotional shock of being shot won out and he lost consciousness as vomit spewed from his mouth onto his would be grave.

 

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De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Afternoon

 

Evita Martinez watched as Don Garcia returned from whatever evil he’d performed in the clearing north of the hacienda.  She’d heard stories of what went on there, but had never witnessed the atrocities that occurred there. She spotted Lopez and Mendoza dragging the man she now knew as Chris Larabee and made a sign of the cross on her chest.

 

“Chris,” the word was whispered, yet it was filled with horror as Jackson joined her on the veranda.

 

“You cannot help him, Nathan…please do not interfere,” Evita pled as she reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder.

 

“I can’t stand here and do nothin’,” Jackson commented.

 

“Yes, you can and you will because to do anything else would be certain death for him…for you…for Vin Tanner…and for Dona Maria and her unborn child. God sent you here for a reason and He will help protect all of you if it is His will,” the woman said, wishing she could ease the torment in the man’s soulful brown eyes. She heard a soft voice from inside and hurried inside to check on her charge.

 

Nathan stood near the edge of the veranda, leaning heavily on the wooden fence that surrounded the enclosure. His eyes remained fixed on the man hanging between Don Garcia’s two henchmen and he fought the urge to call to him. He knew Evita Martinez was right and it would mean death to Larabee if De Rivera knew of their friendship. Closing his eyes he silently prayed for the guidance and strength he needed to get through the insanity that now surrounded him.

 

“Lord, give me the strength to do what I have to do and the ability to live with the choices I’ve made,” Jackson said softly before turning away and moving inside.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

North of the De Rivera Hacienda

Late Afternoon

 

Raphael knew they’d passed northwest of the De Rivera Hacienda and hoped the trail ahead was clear. They’d heard a single shot that reverberated through the low lying hills, but nothing since and hoped it had been a hunter foraging for food. He knew De Rivera’s men would recognize him on sight and did not want to chance running into them this far south of the Rio Grande.

 

“Raphael, there is something moving over there,” Hector Ramirez said, pointing to a mound of freshly turned earth.

 

“It is probably an animal,” Raphael told him, but his eyes swept the clearing before coming to rest on the dirt-covered ground. There was something about it, something that called to him and he dismounted, looping the reins on a low lying branch before walking toward what looked like a grave.

 

“Raphael…” Ramirez called, but received no answer from his friend who knelt down and began digging in the dirt.

 

“Hector, get over here!” De Martinez called as he wiped the dirt from the familiar face. “Madre De Dios…”

 

“What is it, Raphael?”

 

“Not what…who…ah Chiquita, what are you doing this far south?” Raphael asked, not really expecting an answer from the young peacekeeper whose face was washed out pale except for a deep groove along the left side of his forehead. The area surrounding the grotesque wound was a colorful array of purple and black that spoke of the dangerousness of the injury.

 

“Do you know him, Raphael?” Ramirez asked as the rest of the men joined them.

 

“Si, he is JD Dunne,” Raphael said and watched the chest for several long seconds until he was sure his mind was not playing tricks on him. “He is alive…help me get him out of this!”

 

The men dug with their hands, removing the dirt in reverence to the miracle they witnessed. They had come upon half buried bodies before, but usually it was too late for the victim…but this time God’s infinite mercy had given them the chance to save a young man’s life.

 

“That wound needs to be cleaned,” Javier D’Rosa offered.

 

“Not here…it is too dangerous for all of us,” Ramirez told him and saw the truth of his words in Raphael’s eyes.

 

“We need to get him out of the sun,” Raphael told them once they’d freed Dunne. He lifted the young man into his arms, feeling the weight as he stood up, but refusing to allow anyone to help him as he walked toward his horse.

 

“Raphael, let me take him…”

 

“I got him, Hector,” Raphael said and then realized he could not climb into the saddle while holding the injured sheriff. He nodded to Ramirez before allowing him to take Dunne and climbed onto his horse. He reached down for the Bostonian and soon had him settled in front of him with his arms wrapped around the dead weight.

 

“Raphael, we better ride as far as we can because if De Rivera had him shot then he is gonna be pissed if he comes back and finds the grave empty,” D’Rosa explained.

 

“Any idea where we can take him?” Raphael asked.

 

“I have a cousin…”

 

“Another one?” Mario Cortez teased of D’Rosa’s seemingly unending supply of cousins and other family members.

 

“Si, this one…she is old, but still beautiful and is always willing to put me up for the night,” D’Rosa said.

 

“How far, Javier?” Raphael asked.

 

“Maybe half a day’s ride north. It is close to the Rio Grande,” D’Rosa answered.

 

“I don’t know if this Chiquita can last that long,” Cordova told them.

 

“What choice do we have, Amigo?” Ramirez asked.

 

“None…are you sure she will let us stay?” Raphael asked.

 

“Si, she will not mind the company,” D’Rosa answered. It didn’t take long for the others to mount up and the group of brothers rode north, away from the De Rivera hacienda.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Evening

 

Vin wiped the sweat and dirt from his face and shivered as the soft breeze blew across his aching body. The sun was on its final legs, yet the day’s torrid heat made his ravaged clothing stick to his body like a second skin. There’d been no break, except a few minutes, hours ago, long enough to drink a little water and then back to the arduous task of pulling the weeds from around the flourishing plants.

 

The Texan blinked sweat from his eyes and stared up at the sky, rubbing at his lower back as a bird flew high overhead. The loud screeching sound brought a smile to his pale face…wishing he had the freedom to do as he pleased. He glanced toward the hacienda, but dropped his gaze as he thought about the overseer’s threat that his friend would pay if he didn’t do his work.

 

Vin hadn’t seen Nathan since that first day, but he knew he was there…on the veranda, watching over him. He knew Nathan was as much a prisoner as he was, and did not begrudge the former slave his place in De Rivera’s home. Jackson was a healer, a damn good one with natural instincts, and Vin was glad he hadn’t been forced to use his hands in the fields.

 

Taking a deep breath, Vin struggled to remain on his feet, but his legs refused to cooperate and his knees buckled. He hit the ground with a bone jarring impact even as Pedro reached for him. Vin lifted his head, shielding his eyes with his right hand as the last vestiges of the sun threatened to blind him. Strong, gnarled fingers helped him stand and Tanner found the strength to smile at the elderly mestizo who’d become his protector, his salvation in a world that had gone to hell.

 

“Enfermo,” Pedro said, shaking his head at the sickly man who tried to stand on his own two feet. He glanced over his shoulder, relieved that Gores seemed to be busy with a bottle and unaware they’d stopped working. It was growing late and Pedro looked forward to eating and climbing into his bed, but he knew this was not the case for the young Gringo at his side. The sickness and pain in his body was getting worse, but Pedro could do nothing to help him.

"Thanks, Pedro," Vin whispered and was relieved when he heard the clanging of the bell that announced the day’s labor was over. He had no idea how he would make it back to the cage. He saw Pedro's lips moving and although he couldn't understand what the old man was saying, the intent was fairly clear. He rolled to his knees and held onto the offered arm. He stumbled upright, his legs wobbly; he was leaning heavily on his benefactor. They set their own pace, nodding in greeting as the others passed them, and were soon standing in front of the overseer who wore a smug look on his face.

“You are still not doing enough work, Gringo Dog,” Gores spat as he motioned for two of his men to grab the Texan. “Perhaps a night without food would teach you that you should do your share instead of relying on others.”

 

“He grows weak, Fernando…Don Rivera will not be happy if he dies,” Juan observed, cringing when Gores turned to stare at him. Normally Gores had full control of the fields and the workers, but all would feel Don Garcia’s wrath if the gringo died before Dona Maria gave birth to their child.

 

“Perhaps you are right, Juan,” the overseer finally acquiesced and motioned for one of the women to bring a bowl of beans to the cage as Juan and Jorge pushed the sick man inside. “Bring him some bread and water and see that he is comfortable,” Gores said sarcastically.

 

Vin looked into the dark brown eyes of the young woman who brought him the food and water and nodded gratefully as he sat back against the side of the cage. “Gracias,” he said and saw just a hint of a smile before she turned away and walked back to the building. He ignored the three men who watched him, eating the food as if it was the last meal he would have, and savoring the water by taking small sips at a time. All too soon the food and water was gone and he pushed the dishes through the bars of the cage, cursing when Gores brought a stick down across his knuckles.

 

“Sleep well, Gringo Dog, tomorrow promises to be just as backbreaking as today,” the overseer said, laughing when the captive pulled his left hand back, but something about the lean prisoner sent a chill down his spine and he was suddenly glad the man was locked in his cage.

 

Vin watched them leave and finally looked at his throbbing fingers. Blood appeared at the knuckles and he wiped it against his clothing, hoping the bastard hadn’t broken his fingers. The sun had dipped below the horizon as he heard a commotion in the fields and he strained to see the men in the dwindling daylight they had left. He could see some poor bastard being dragged across the field and frowned as his gut clenched tightly. There was something familiar about the newcomer, but his vision blurred and he could not make out any features.

 

Vin watched until they disappeared from view and cradled his hand against his chest as his eyes closed. He drifted toward sleep, but was awakened a short time later when something wet struck his forehead. It took him several minutes to realize it was raining and instincts kicked in. He looked at the dishes he’d pushed through the bars of the cage and reached out with his right hand. It took several tries, but he finally managed to pull the cup back inside and he held it so that he could catch the rainwater. It wasn’t falling heavily, but anything he caught would help, and hopefully the moisture would cool the fever raging within.

 

The rain continued to fall and Vin raised his hand to push back the hair that had fallen across his face. It felt good and he realized the water was washing away the dirt and grime that was encrusted on his body and clothing. It felt so good just to sit there and allow one of God’s gifts ease his discomfort and he whispered a silent prayer of thanks as he gripped the cup and drained the water that had collected there. He replaced the cup and closed his eyes as exhaustion finally won out and he slipped into a dreamless sleep.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Purgatorio

Midnight

 

Buck rode slightly ahead of Ezra and Josiah as they entered the outlaw infested town of Purgatorio. He remembered being a ‘corpse’ here at one point and hoped never to experience that feeling again. He had wanted to cross the Rio Grande tonight, but darkness was already upon them making it dangerous to make the trek south. He rode straight down the center of the street and drew his horse to a stop in front of Maria’s room.

 

There was no light from inside and Buck hoped that meant that no one had claimed Maria’s home. They had made enemies in Purgatorio and it would not do to let their guard down. He returned his attention to the door and pushed it open, relieved to find it as empty as they’d left it. Once inside he motioned for Josiah and Ezra to join him and quickly lit the lamp on the small table. “We can spend the night here,” Wilmington told them.

 

“What if one of Maria’s clients decides to make a nocturnal visit?” Standish asked.

 

“Shoot the bastard and ask questions later,” the rogue answered. “I’m going to see if I can scare us up some food…”

 

“In this town I would be pleasantly surprised if you found anything to tempt the palette,” Standish said, hoping to bring a little levity to the situation. He was as worried as the others, but had been taught at an early age not to show his emotions. The longer he stayed with these men, the harder that became.

 

“Hell, Ezra, right now beans and biscuits would taste great,” Sanchez observed. They originally intended to ride straight to the Rio Grande, but there were several homesteaders they wanted to check on. That had meant making several detours and was the reason they were taking refuge in this hellhole of a town.

 

“I’ll take the horses to the livery and be back as soon as I can,” Wilmington told them and left the two men alone in Maria’s room. He took the three horses and made his way across the rowdy street, ignoring the men and women who watched him as if he wore a suit of gold. He entered the livery and found an elderly man standing there, shoveling out the stalls.

 

“Can I help ya Mister?”

 

“The horses need to be fed and given a rubdown,” Wilmington said and tossed him a couple of coins. “See that they get plenty.”

 

“Yes, Sir,” the liveryman said, smiling and revealing tobacco stained, broken teeth.

 

“Know anyplace I can grab something to eat?”

 

“There’s a little cantina at the other end of town…near the saloon. It’s open until three or four dependin’ on how busy they get,” the older man answered. “Ask Juanita if she has any burritos…they are very good.”

 

“I will, thank you,” Wilmington said and left the man to tend the horses. He walked down the street, keeping to the shadows and watching for anything suspicious, relieved when he reached the cantina without mishap. He pushed open the door, somewhat surprised to find several tables in use even at this late hour.

 

“Come in…sit down anywhere,” a robust woman with dark hair speckled with grey told him.

 

“Thank you, Ma’am, but I’m kinda tired and was wondering if I could take it with me?” Wilmington said.

 

“Well there’s only a couple of burritos left and some bread, but you are welcome to it, Senor,” Juanita told him.

 

“Any coffee?’

 

“I think there might be a cup or two left,” she answered, clearing one of the tables before rushing back behind the small counter and pouring a cup of the strong black coffee.

 

“Thanks,” Wilmington said.

 

“You are welcome, Senor,” the woman told him and began preparing the food for him.

 

Buck sipped the strong coffee and a small smile formed as he thought about how strong Tanner liked his coffee. The Texan could probably stand a spoon in it especially once he added an ample supply of sugar. Wilmington sighed tiredly, wishing the younger man was there because he’d buy him the strongest, sweetest coffee he could imagine. His thoughts turned to Nathan Jackson and he wondered how the healer was doing. Were they De Rivera’s prisoners and if so were they being treated okay? Had Chris and JD caught up with them or were they also prisoners. A tremor shook his body and he was reminded of something he’d once heard in the brothel where his mother worked. It really did feel as if someone had walked over his grave, a feeling so intensely strong that his knees threatened to buckle.

 

“Senor, are you all right?”

 

“Yeah…think so,” Wilmington couldn’t help but smile at the sympathetic woman as he paid for the food and left the cantina. He made his way back to Maria’s room and found Ezra watching from inside the darkened room. He entered and placed the food on the table; suddenly not as hungry as he’d felt when they first arrived. He heard the sound of shots and an angry curse, but in this town that was the norm and he sat down heavily as Sanchez locked the door. ‘We’re coming, Boys…just hold on a little longer,’ he thought and ate without tasting the meal. 

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Dawn

 

Chris Larabee woke to the feel of a stick striking his lower back and forced his eyes open as he stood on legs that threatened to give out. His arms ached, a dull throbbing pain as he shifted his feet and took some of the weight from his shoulders. He glared at the elderly man who suddenly appeared in front of him and knew the lower back pain was caused by De Rivera’s use of his cane.

 

“Do you think you can sleep all day, Pistolero? There is much work to be done and the sun will be rising soon…”

 

“Fuck you!” Larabee spat, his grief manifesting in anger as he thought about the grave he’d not only dug, but also been forced to fill. He closed his eyes and an image of JD’s face appeared and drove the knife deeper into his heart. How could he live with his part in the younger man’s death? How would he face Buck knowing how close he was to JD?

 

“I am talking to you, Pistolero…I expect you to listen!” De Rivera said, striking the captive across his right thigh. “You will eat and drink what they give you and perhaps tonight you will find a way to sleep with the knowledge that the boy is dead because of you.”

 

Chris did not acknowledge what the other man was saying because to do so would mean facing the guilt that already gnawed at his gut. For now he would eat, work, and sleep while planning for the time when he would keep his vow to JD Dunne. He heard De Rivera speaking to Lopez and dropped to the floor when his arms were released from the metal circle above his head.

 

Larabee managed to get to his knees, but a hand latched onto his hair and pulled back, revealing corded muscles in his neck as someone place a knife against his throat. De Rivera stood before him, a malicious grin on his aged face as he stepped closer to the prisoner.

 

“I had planned on killing you for murdering Alonzo, but it will be most entertaining to keep you alive, Pistolero. You will have to live with the knowledge that the boy is dead because of you,” De Rivera spat, his face mere inches from the gunslinger’s.

 

“Your son was…a co…coward,” Larabee ground out and felt the knife pulled away from his throat. Whoever was behind him no longer thought of him as a threat and Chris made him pay for it. He drove his head backward, smiling inwardly when he heard the man curse, but his attention was solely on the old Spaniard before him. Without thinking he dove forward, driving his shoulder into the older man’s chest. The force took them both to the ground and Chris took pleasure in striking out with his bound hands. He heard De Rivera’s muffled cursing and saw blood flow from the man’s split lip, but something struck him across the back and a second blow struck his head just before the darkness claimed him.

 

Hernando Lopez hurried to De Rivera’s side and helped him to his feet. He knew the elderly man was angry and hoped he could deflect that anger away from himself, but the Haciendada seemed to only have eyes for the unconscious blond.

 

“Bring him outside and prepare him!” De Rivera ordered and knew Lopez would understand and obey his command. It was time he showed the Pistolero his place. It would be a lesson Chris Larabee would not forget. He would send word to the other haciendas and invite them to the Arena de Muerte. 

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

 

Nathan Jackson smiled as Maria closed her eyes and returned to the oblivion of sleep. The young woman seemed to be stronger, but he wished she would take more food. The baby inside her was sapping her strength, yet she held on for the child and he prayed she and the baby would be okay. She’d eaten nearly half a bowl of the fruity, sweet mush Evita had brought to her and drank some of the herbed tea Nathan had ordered.

 

Nathan reached out and touched her forehead, pleased to find it cooler than it had been during the night. He knew the woman was weak, and hoped what he was doing would help, but only time would tell. Nathan turned away, walked toward the veranda and stood looking out over the fields. The sun had been up for nearly an hour and promised another day of torrid heat. He spotted two men working side by side and knew instinctively that one was Vin Tanner. From this distance he couldn’t be sure, but instincts told him he was right.

 

Jackson shifted on his feet when he heard Evita’s voice from below, but he didn’t speak when he heard a second voice and realized it was Luis Martinez. Evita’s son seemed to understand how he felt and something told Nathan that he might even trust the young man if it was only his life at stake. A familiar name, spoken by Luis had him gripping the railing in a white knuckled hold that spoke of his fears and sorrows.

 

“I wish I had better news, Mama, but the boy is dead. Don Garcia had him brought to the clearing and had him killed…”

 

“Are you sure…did you see him?”

 

“I heard the shot, but it was too late for me to do anything when I arrived. I saw the Pistolero…”

 

“His name is Chris Larabee,” Evita offered sadly. “The boy’s name was JD Dunne.”

 

“Don Garcia made the Pistolero dig a grave and bury him.”

 

“Oh, God,” Jackson whispered, eyes filled with unshed moisture as he dropped to his knees and felt as if a knife had been driven into his heart. JD was dead…Chris had buried him…no…God no, it couldn’t be. Jackson stayed where he was, fighting against the horror he’d just heard, yet unable to draw air into his lungs as he listened to the voices from below.

 

“He is a cruel man, Mama…I do not want to be like him.”

 

“You are not, Luis…there is none of his cruelty inside you…I am proud of you.”

 

“Will you tell Nathan Jackson?”

 

“I do not know…he will ask if there is word, but I do not know if he will be strong enough to keep silent, but he must…for all our sakes and especially for Vin Tanner. Somehow we will help them get free, but we must protect Dona Maria and her unborn child…to do otherwise would mean the boy died for nothing…”

 

Nathan knew the woman was right, but he did not know if he had the strength to keep up the ruse…JD Dunne had only just begun to live and now he was buried on foreign soil, away from the home and family he’d found in Four Corners. ‘I’ll find a way to get the others out, JD, and when I do I’ll kill the bastard who did this to you,’ Nathan silently vowed.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Purgatorio

Early Morning

 

Buck was impatient to get moving, but he also knew the others were right in replenishing their supplies before heading into unknown territory. There were too many variables once they crossed the Rio Grande, the least of which was the banditos and they would need to have ammunition if they came upon them. He watched as the liveryman saddled the three horses while Ezra and Josiah visited the lone hardware store and bought the items they would need. 

 

“Buck…”

 

“In here, Ezra,” Wilmington answered and turned to see Standish carrying several items that would need to be packed in their saddlebags. “Where’s Josiah?”

 

“I believe he said he needed to speak with a higher power before we head south,” Standish told him. “He found a little church at the end of town.”

 

“Leave it to Josiah to find the only source of salvation in Purgatorio,” Wilmington said. Between them they divided the supplies between the three sets of saddlebags and made sure they checked the animals before leading them from the livery. Ezra took the reins of Sanchez’s horse and led the way down the street, stopping in front of a small house with a cross on the door. Sanchez stepped out a few minutes later and shook hands with the man standing in the doorway.

 

“Not much of a church,” Wilmington observed.

 

“Maybe not, but in this hell hole it’s bigger than the cathedrals of Boston,” Sanchez said. “The Padre will keep the prayer line open indefinitely. Mount up, Boys; it’s time to bring them home.”

 

Buck sighed in relief as they mounted up and rode away from Purgatorio. There were too many bad memories in the town, including his being ‘dead’. Larabee had saved his life by ‘shooting’ him and making Coltrane believe that he was no longer a threat. They’d returned there several times and now it was with the knowledge that his friends had been taken from the outlaw town and were somewhere on a Hacienda south of the Rio Grande.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Early Morning

 

Carmella D’Rosa Covas used the silver comb, a gift from her husband on their wedding night, to straighten her hair. The years had been good to her and even now at 58 it was jet black with a few scattered white hairs. Cristóbal Covas was the love of her life in spite of their marriage having been arranged by their parents at an early age. He was still a handsome man at 60 and loved to work with his hands. She heard him whistling as he came into their bedroom and she felt his arms wrap around her.

 

“You are more beautiful than you were on our wedding night, Carmella,” Cristóbal told her.

 

“And you, husband, are full of what makes the flowers grow,” she said and turned to kiss him. “Are you hungry?”

 

“For you…always…”

 

She smiled, but it turned to a frown when she heard riders enter their yard. “We have guests.”

 

“I’ll get rid of them,” Covas told her, but he knew his wife would never turn anyone away if they were in need.

 

Carmella made her way to the window and frowned when she saw the men, the frown changed to a smile when she recognized her cousin. She dropped the comb and hurried outside as the men dismounted. “Javier, it has been far too long since your last visit,” she scolded as she wrapped her arms around him.

 

“Si, it has, Carmella, and I wish this visit was just for you, but we need your help.”

 

Carmella’s eyes locked on the man seated astride a black horse and gasped at the sight of the young man held tight in his grasp. She hurriedly released her cousin and moved to the newcomers. “Who is this?”

 

“His name is JD Dunne,” D’Rosa explained as he lifted the young man down and cradled him in his strong arms.

 

Carmella studied the handsome man who remained in the saddle. He was an imposing figure, one whose dark eyes held a hint of sadness. She had always been able to read others and this man was no exception…his face and his bearing told her he was trustworthy and she nodded before turning toward her cousin. “Bring him inside and put him in the guest room. The rest of you may bunk in the barn.”

 

“This way, Gentlemen,” Cristóbal ordered, smiling as his wife took charge.

 

“How was he hurt?” Carmella asked upon reaching the guest room, not surprised to find the unknown stranger standing behind her.

 

“We found him in a shallow grave,” Javier explained. “Carmella, it was near De Rivera’s Hacienda…”

 

“Javier, he would kill you if he finds out you took…”

 

“I know, Carmella, but De Rivera thinks he is a God. I could not leave the boy there…you should have seen him when we found him. I think he woke up and just had enough strength to claw his way free of the dirt. If he had not done this he would be dead now. He is a miracle and God saw fit that he should live. Who are we to question His wishes,” D’Rosa asked and saw the soft lines that spoke of a wisdom and faith far beyond his own.

 

“Strip him of his clothes,” Carmella ordered and turned to the other man who stepped past her and went to the bed.

 

“Let him, Carmella, he is a friend. I will get your supplies.”

 

“Who is he?” Carmella asked, amazed at how gentle the big man was.

 

“He is my amigo…Raphael Cordova de Martinez. You can trust him, Carmella,” D’Rosa answered before leaving the room.

 

Carmella watched as the stranger tended to the wounded young man and felt a sense of awe at the way his hands gently removed the clothing. She stepped closer to the bed and smiled at the worried man. “Let me help…you hold him while I remove his shirt,” she offered.

 

“Gracias, Senora,” Cordova said and eased JD into a sitting position. The young man hadn’t moved, hadn’t uttered a sound since they found him and Raphael was worried. The last time he’d seen Dunne he was so full of life and reminded him of a young bronco, untamed, but ready to learn. It had been plain to see that he looked up to and admired Chris Larabee, and Raphael began to wonder where the others were. “Why are you so far away from your home, Chiquita?”

 

“Did you say something, Senor?”

 

“I was…I wondered why he is so far from his home,” Cordova answered. 

 

“He is not from here?”

 

“No,” Cordova told her as he gently laid the young man back on the bed. He helped her remove the dark pants, socks, and shoes before speaking again. “He is a sheriff…”

 

“One so young should not have such a dangerous job,” Carmella observed.

 

“No, he should not, but he has six compadres who watch his back,” Raphael explained as Javier returned with another man.

 

“Raphael, this is Carmella’s husband, Cristóbal,” D’Rosa said and placed the basin of water on the small table Covas placed beside the bed.

 

The two men nodded to each other in greeting and stood back as Carmella began cleaning the dirt from the young man’s face. She shook her head as she uncovered the deep groove on the right side of his forehead. It disappeared into his hairline and she worked slowly to wipe the dried blood from his hair. “He needs a medico,” she said worriedly.

 

“I know, Carmella, but if we take him to one of the villages word will get back to De Rivera and he would be returned. I do not think he would live if that happened,” Javier told her.

 

“Si, Don Garcia is a cruel man,” Cristóbal agreed, having been on the receiving end of the old Spaniard’s anger.

 

“Here, I can help,” Cordova told her and took the cloth from her hand. He continued to work at cleaning the pale face, angered by the livid bruising that had spread to cover much of the right side of his face. “Ah, Chiquita, you will be all right…”

 

“Javier, stay with your friends and I will fix you something to eat. Perhaps you could send one of your friends to the village for supplies. We will need some special herbs if we are to help the young man,” Carmella explained.

 

“I will send Mario…his horse is very fast,” D’Rosa said and saw Raphael nod in agreement. He left the room, knowing that Cordova would do the same for any of them because they rode together and had built a strong loyalty during their short friendship.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

 

Pedro looked at his new friend with worry in his aged eyes. He knew the gringo’s name was Vin, and his instincts told him he was a good man. The problem was that Vin was sick…feverish and weary, but there was nothing he could do to help him. He’d given the younger man his own water that morning and saw the gratitude in the sky blue eyes. Now Vin was bent over, gasping for breath as he tugged at a stubborn root, sweat beading on his forehead and dripping from the dirty locks of hair.

 

Pedro looked over his shoulder, relieved to see Gores speaking with one of his men. He leaned close and added his gnarled fingers to his friend’s and tugged with everything he had. The root tore loose, spraying them both with dirt and heard a soft chuckle from the ill man beside him. He smiled as they turned their attention to the next weed and pulled it free.

 

“Gracias,” Tanner managed; using the word he now recognized as thanks and smiled at his new found savior.

 

They worked side by side, but Pedro grew more worried as his friend seemed ready to collapse. The elderly mestizo looked up as a commotion sounded nearby and spotted a familiar, hated figure dragging some poor soul toward the area used for punishment. Don Rivera strode ahead of him, tapping his cane against his palm as he glanced toward the house. “Madre de Dios,” he whispered.

 

“What’s wrong?” Tanner asked, and realized his friend did not understand him. He turned to look at what had grabbed Pedro’s attention and saw some poor sap being dragged toward an area he knew was used for punishing the workers. His eyes narrowed as he tried to focus his eyes, but dizziness washed over him and he sank to his knees with a groan. He felt Pedro’s hand on his arm, but wanted to stay where he was, yet one look at the aged face told him he could not allow someone else to suffer because he could not pull his weight. ‘Boy, you're a Tanner. Don't you ever forget that’ he heard those words as if she’d just spoken them and found the strength to stand up.

 

Pedro looked at his friend and was relieved to see a spark of life in the eyes once more and returned his attention to the task at hand. His gaze swept across the fields and came to rest on the man who’d been secured to the posts. He shook his head at the abuse Don Rivera enjoyed dealing out to those he thought were beneath him and remembered a time when his back bore the brunt of the Haciendada’s anger.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Chris had no idea how much time had passed since he attacked De Rivera, but his mouth felt dryer than the desert. He licked at dry lips, but found his tongue had very little moisture as he tried to focus on his surroundings. His head felt ready to split open, his stomach churned with nauseating bile, and his skin felt as if the sun had burnt him to a crisp. His arms were cuffed to a large piece of wood above his head and his ankles were locked to hooks at the base of the wooden contraption.

 

Chris' heated gaze burned a hole in the hated man standing before him. His refusal to avert his eyes as Lopez struck his right leg was born from the fact he loathed these brutal tyrants and all they stood for. He’d never been one to back down and Don Garcia De Rivera did not deserve that kind of show of respect.

 

De Rivera could feel the fire searing him as if it was an open bloody wound. He hid the fear caused by the intense sea green eyes that stared out from beneath hooded lids. Hernando Lopez stood behind the gringo, and he could tell the man was uncomfortable, even with Larabee being unable to move. He lifted his cane and struck out, hitting the bare chest and causing a red welt from mid chest to right shoulder.

 

“You will pay for murdering my son, Pistolero,” De Rivera vowed and repeated the blow, leaving a red 'X' across the well-honed chest.

 

Chris kept his head high, refusing to lower his gaze as again and again De Rivera struck out. The arrogant beast walked slowly around him, taking great pleasure in striking him with enough force to send tremors of pain dancing along ravaged nerve endings. Chris had no idea how long it lasted, but De Rivera was suddenly standing in front of him and Larabee found the strength he needed to smile, one that held little mirth, but showed a hint of insanity and a promise of retribution. Chris didn’t say a word as Lopez released him from the rack and he dropped to his knees. Again, the sea green eyes refused to show any weakness and his head came up until he found the dark eyes set in an aged face and burned the image into his mind. “You’re a dead man!” he vowed as Lopez and another man hauled him to his feet.

 

“Put him to work in the fields!” De Rivera snarled angrily. In spite of their roles he’d allowed the Gringo the upper hand and had garnered no satisfaction from the intense beating he’d just given him. He turned and strode away, but could feel his nemesis’ eyes staring at him and forced himself to walk at a steady pace.

 

“You heard him, Bastardo! Get up!” Lopez ordered angrily. He knew De Rivera wanted him to watch over the blond Gringo and hated the idea of roasting in the hot sun. He shoved Larabee toward the field and was surprised when a deadly glare was turned in his direction.

 

“Touch me again and I’ll cut your balls off!” Larabee growled. He saw the fear in Lopez’s eyes, but it was quickly hidden as the bandito moved away and allowed the other man to drag him toward the fields. They forced him to his knees amidst a crop of cocoa beans and stood back. Chris latched onto a plant, pulled it free of the dirt, throwing it in Lopez’s direction and letting a hint of a smile form as Lopez cursed rapidly in Spanish.

 

“Are you stupid, Gringo Dog?”

 

"Do I look like you?" he sneered.

 

“Pull the weeds and leave the plants alone!” Lopez snarled and kicked at Larabee’s leg as a mestizo turned toward them. He glared at the man who was working beside the long-haired gringo he’d brought to the hacienda with the medico. The elderly man turned away once he realized Hernando was watching him.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

The sun beat down on his body, causing beads of sweat to form on his flushed face as his jaw throbbed with a life of its own. Vin had lost track of time as he worked to pull the weeds from the fields and wiped the sweat from his eyes as a commotion nearby caught his attention. Two words were spoken in English, the anger obvious, the voice familiar and Tanner glanced sideways in time to catch a glimpse of dirty blond hair. His breath caught in his throat and in spite of his fever and fatigue, Vin knew the other captive was Chris Larabee. He wanted nothing more than to reach out to him, but to do so would just get them both killed.

 

If Chris was here where were the others? Were Buck, JD, Ezra, and Josiah also prisoners or were they searching for them? His mind could not quite make sense of his thoughts and he felt a hand on his arm. Vin nodded and bent back to the backbreaking work, praying that the others were not prisoners and were out there already planning a rescue attempt. He heard laughter and turned his head in time to see a man deliver a vicious blow to Larabee’s ribs. His temper flared and his hands drew into fists; he vowed to make the sonofabitch pay for hurting his friend.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Mid-Afternoon

 

Carmella stood in the doorway watching as Raphael Cordova De Martinez tended to the injured young man. During the time he’d been here Raphael had refused to leave the boy’s side and had carefully bathed the dirt from Dunne’s body. She was surprised and awed by his simple gestures and hoped the young man pulled through so she could see the lines of strain leave the other man’s face. She saw the head come up and turn toward her and smiled as she brought in the tray and placed it on the table. “You must be hungry,” Carmella said and lifted the cloth from the tray, revealing a plate of roast beef, potatoes, and beans.

 

“Gracias,” Raphael said and ran his fingers through his hair.

 

“Has he shown any signs of waking up?” Carmella asked, concerned about how shallow the young man’s breathing was. She’d seen and cared for many sick and injured people and this was often a sign that someone was close to death.

 

“Nothing…he has been quiet,” Raphael told her.

 

“He has a fever,” Carmella observed and brushed her hand across his forehead.

 

“I know,” Raphael said and began eating the meal she’d brought to him. “He has friends…good ones and I wonder why he is alone here. They would not have allowed him to come this far south on his own.”

 

“I take it they are protective of him?”

 

“Si, very protective, but I believe it is the same with him or any of the others.”

 

“How did you meet him?” Carmella asked, sitting on the side of the bed and using the cloth to wipe the fevered forehead.

 

“I served the House of Madera and Don Paulo wished to bring this Señorita back to his home because she had escaped him. He would not take no for an answer and attacked her…this is why she took a horse and escaped, but not before cutting him. We found her in Four Corners, but she had made friends there and one man, Buck Wilmington, stepped forward and there was a challenge laid down and accepted. Senorita Recillos tried to make Don Paulo leave, but he refused and told her he would kill Wilmington and then take her away.”

 

“I detest people like Don Paulo who try to force a woman to do things they do not wish to do. How did the duel end and is the Senorita okay?”

 

“She is fine and is still living in Four Corners. Buck defeated Don Paulo, and now I have a price on my head, but it was worth it. There are seven men…it was not just Buck Wilmington who helped Senorita Recillos. Vin Tanner protected her when Don Paulo had his men following her. Chris Larabee and the others watched out for Wilmington and when Don Paulo ordered the others to fire on Wilmington they stepped in…Chris and I…it was a strange meeting, but it showed me that I did not have to take orders from men like Don Paulo.”

 

“Is Don Paulo dead?”

 

“Si,” Raphael told her and sighed tiredly.

 

“You should get some rest…I will sit with him,” Carmella offered.

 

“I do not wish to leave him,” Raphael told her.

 

“You do not have to. There are extra blankets and pillows in the trunk…sleep by the window and you will hear him when he awakes,” the woman told him.

 

Raphael finished the meal and reached for the strong cup of coffee on the tray and nodded his approval. “Gracias, Senora, for everything you have done.”

 

“Bienvenida, sleep…I will watch over the boy,” she vowed. She studied the pale, bruised face and wished she could will him to open his eyes, but the best she could do was wash his face with the cloth.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening

 

The sun was beginning to drop below the horizon, a soft breeze making the leaves dance on the trees, while the work day on the Hacienda wound down. Mestizos began to leave the field in hopes of filling their bellies and finding their beds for a good night’s sleep. Pedro had been ordered to another section of the field, leaving Vin Tanner alone in the field. His fingernails were filled with dirt, his knuckles bleeding, his hands blistered from the arduous task set before him.

 

Vin tried to focus his mind, but the fever continued to build, sapping what remained of his strength and he dropped to his knees, shuddering in spite of the heat. He’d removed the rough shirt at some point and could feel the burned skin of his shoulder blades as he tried to climb to his feet again. There just didn’t seem to be enough energy left in his body and he slumped to the ground, breathing heavily as his chest ached.

 

Vin knew as soon as Gores spotted him he would be angry, but right now Tanner didn’t give a damn if the man beat him senseless as long as he allowed him to curl into a ball and stay where he was. He heard someone nearby and felt a hand on his shoulder and a familiar voice brought him back to the present.

 

Chris continued to work in the fields as the sun beat down on him with a fierceness that left a fiery burn on his bare shoulders. He glanced sideways as a single hoarse gasp reached his ears. His mind made the connection before his eyes registered the disheveled figure now curled into a ball on the ground. His heart beat against his ribs as he moved toward his friend.

 

“Jesus, Vin,” Larabee managed, his heart in his throat at the sight of the man he’d been searching for. The Texan was dressed in the rough-hewn clothing of the mestizo people, but he’d removed his shirt at some point and his skin showed signs of sunburn. His face and upper body were encrusted with dirt, but it was the sky blue eyes and the bruises that made Chris livid with anger. He saw recognition in Tanner’s eyes and listened to the raspy voice as Vin tries to speak.

 

"Don’t…Chris…they’ll punish ya…Nathan'll pay the price…don’t let ‘em find out we…"

 

“What the hell are you doing, Bastardo?” Gores snarled, shoving Larabee away from Tanner. He raised the stick and struck Tanner viciously across the shoulders.

 

One look at Vin’s face lent credence to his warning and Larabee didn’t bother to answer, instead sending a promise through his eyes, a look that had sent people scurrying for cover. Gores wilted under the intense glare as Hernando Lopez joined them.

 

“Hernando, who is this man?” Gores asked.

 

“This man is a Pistolero…a murderer and Don Garcia wants him to work the fields,” Hernando explained and spat on Larabee before hauling him to his feet and dragging him back to the area he’d been working.

 

Vin Vin managed to get to his feet, but the world around him seemed to fade in and out, making it hard to move his feet. Nausea churned through his gut while pain throbbed in his lower back and jaw. Sweat beaded on his forehead and he unconsciously swiped it away as they reached his cage. He was roughly shoved inside and reached for the cup of water, downing the contents of the cup before sighing heavily and staring at the glob of mushy, congealed food in his bowl. Vin knew he should eat it, but the thought of putting the cold substance into his mouth made him sick and he closed his eyes, hoping and praying they’d find some way to escape this hellhole.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Chris found himself locked inside the ‘dungeon’, his cuffed arms fastened to hooks above his head. He’d been given a meager amount of water and some kind of mushy gruel before being returned to his prison. His thoughts returned to the Texan and he knew Vin was right. If De Rivera found out he knew the Texan or Jackson they’d both be in the ground next to JD Dunne, and that was something he would not allow. He closed his eyes and prayed Buck, Josiah, and Ezra were close by, and that they had some plan to rescue Tanner and Jackson. Sleep was a long time coming, and when it did, Chris was plagued with grisly images of the young man who was buried not far from the Hacienda.
 

could hardly believe his eyes and followed Larabee without turning his head. He knew De Rivera would think nothing of using him against Chris, and that was something he could not allow. It was bad enough knowing that Nathan was in danger because of him; he couldn’t live with himself if anything happened to either man. Somehow they would escape and make their way back across the Rio Grande.

 

“Come on, Gringo, it is time to feed the animals like you,” Gores spat and pulled the bone weary man to his feet. He laughed as the captive staggered and fell to his knees. Lifting his right foot he drove it into Tanner’s lower back and was pleased with the cry of pain that followed his rough treatment.

 

 



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