WHEN THE SUN COMES BACK

by Winnie

 

North of the Rio Grande

Late Evening

 

Due to the heavy rainfall the river was swollen and would be treacherous to pass, but three men were more than determined to find a way to cross it. They reached the shores just as the sun went down, but that didn’t deter them from their missions. They rode alongside the raging turbulence, searching for a place to cross, but as darkness descended they were forced to make camp for the night.

 

Josiah watched as Wilmington paced along the edge of the riverbank and wished there was something he could do to ease the man’s torment.

 

Shoulders slumped in near defeat, Buck sighed heavily and knew there was nothing any of them could do about the river, but he would not rest until they crossed the Rio Grande and found their friends. It just seemed as if the fates were conspiring against them. For every step they made forward, they were forced to take two steps back and now it seemed as if they were close, but that crossing the river was impossible right now.

 

“Josiah, do you believe the others are alive?” Standish asked softly.

 

“I have to believe that, Ezra. God protects His children no matter how many times we think he’s abandoned us,” Sanchez told him.

 

“That’s easy for you to say, Josiah,” Wilmington said as he returned to the fire. “God isn’t exactly at the top of my list right now. He’s put Chris through hell and now He’s doing it again…Nathan and Vin and now Chris and JD…”

 

“You don’t know that, Buck,” Sanchez said. “Chris and JD could be waiting for us…”

 

“Chris would have found some way to get word to us, Josiah,” the weary rogue snapped. His thoughts ran wild with the images of Chris when they’d found him in Jericho. The blond was beaten and bruised and the guilt had flooded his senses when he thought about his cavalier attitude when Mary Travis asked about Larabee.

 

“Perhaps the wires are down because of the storms,” Standish suggested.

 

“Maybe, but there’s no way of knowing until we get across the damn river,” Wilmington explained and reached for the cup of coffee Sanchez held out to him.

 

“We’ll find a way to cross come morning, even if it means we have to swim,” Standish vowed.

 

“I’ll remind you of that in the morning,” Buck told him, a hint of a smile on his face as he sat down on an old stump they’d dragged over to the fire. He glanced at the raging river as the moon rose above the trees and cast its white glow on the water. He sighed heavily and knew tomorrow would be a long time coming because sleep was going to be a rare commodity until they found and rescued their friends.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning 

 

Nathan checked on the woman who slept like an angel, her dark hair fanned out on the pillow. Her skin was as white as the sheets she lay on, but there was a hint of red in her cheeks that spoke of a developing fever. Jackson worried about the woman and her child, and what would happen to his friends if they were to die while under his care. He needed to keep that from happening, not just because of his friends, but because it was ingrained in him to help others.

 

Nathan had talked to Evita about Dona Maria’s pregnancy and found out that the woman was between seven and eight months pregnant. He hoped for the latter because he did not think Maria De Rivera was long for this world. She was like a flower, wilting under the hot rays of the sun, but in her case it wasn’t the sun contributing to her illness, it was a man. A very cruel and vile man who thought he could take what he wanted and to hell with those who got hurt in the process.

 

“Nathan, is my baby okay?”

 

Jackson couldn’t help but smile at the pretty woman as he used a cloth to wipe away the beads of perspiration. “The baby’s fine, Ma’am…”

 

“Are you sure? Sometimes I think God is punishing me because I don’t feel him moving,” Maria told him sadly as she placed a hand on her stomach.

 

“God will take care of you both, Dona Maria,” Jackson said, smiling as the woman’s eyes lit on him.

 

“Don Garcia…my husband wants a son, Nathan, but what if my baby is a girl…will he still want her…want us?”

 

“A man who doesn’t want his wife and child is a fool, Dona Maria,” the healer told her. “Whether the baby is a boy or a girl God has a reason for giving him or her life and no one has the right to take that away.”

 

“You are a wise man, Nathan Jackson,” Maria said, shifting slightly on the bed as Evita entered carrying a tray of food. She smiled as Jackson helped her sit forward and placed several soft pillows behind her back before moving aside and allowing Evita to place the tray on her lap.

 

Nathan moved away from the bed and allowed the women some privacy as he stepped out on the veranda. The sun was just beginning to shine and bathed the land in golden rays that promised another scorcher. The mestizo people were already at work in the fields and his gaze swept the landscape until he spotted the Texan working alongside an older man. Twice he watched as Vin went down unable to continue and yet forced his legs back up. Guilt and despair washed over him at the thought of his friend working so hard with little to eat, drink and minimal rest while he lived in the lap of luxury.

 

Jackson spotted the blond being dragged from the dungeon and he tried to ignore the ache in his chest at the thought of JD Dunne buried in an unmarked grave not far from where he stood. If they managed to escape from De Rivera’s clutches how would they be able to explain Dunne’s death to Wilmington? The man had taken the Bostonian under his wing, hell they all had, but Buck and JD were closer…brothers chosen on the field of battle.

 

“Lord, give us…give me the strength to see things done, because right now I feel like the world has fallen apart and we’re all sinking into the ground,” Jackson whispered as he watched Don Garcia and Luis Martinez walking below him. It was hard for him to believe De Rivera was Luis’ father because they were nothing alike. Luis was so much like his mother and had a heart of gold compared to the cold-hearted bastard who’d fathered him. Somehow he would find a way to free his friends and make the Don pay for everything he’d put them through. 

 

“Nathan, come eat breakfast,” Evita ordered as a young mestizo woman placed a tray of hot rolls and fruit on the table.

 

Jackson sighed heavily and turned away from the scene taking place below him and reached for the cup of hot coffee she handed him. His thoughts strayed to the people of Four Corners and he wondered if they even knew of the plight of their peacekeepers.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Luis watched as De Rivera stared at the newest slave working in the fields. Hernando Lopez stood nearby, a heavy stick clutched tightly in his hands as he watched Larabee tear at the weeds.

 

“There is something I want you to do today, Luis,” De Rivera said, his voice husky with excitement.

 

“Si, Patron,” Martinez said, stopping beside the elderly man.

 

“I need you to ride to the House of Madera and invite Don Paulo to join me at the Arena de Muerte in two days time,” Don Rivera explained, his gaze never leaving the scene across the fields.

 

“What of the others?” Luis asked.

 

“No, Luis, this is to be a private fight…ask Don Paulo to bring his best fighters. Tell him I have something in mind that could bring us both some satisfaction,” De Rivera said and leaned heavily on the cane. He knew Don Paulo had lost his son recently and perhaps he could find some solace in watching a gringo, perhaps even more than one, battle to the death. Don Paulo’s fighters were well known for their brutality and he knew there wouldn’t be enough left of Chris Larabee to bury.

 

“I will ride to his home this afternoon, Patron,” Martinez told him, glancing up at the veranda in time to see his mother watching him. He disliked his ‘father’s’ treatment of her, but there was nothing he could do to change their station. He would serve Don Garcia as it was meant to be, but if the old man ever hurt his mother he would find out just what kind of temper Luis Martinez had.

 

“See that you do, Luis, and be back here tonight so that we can get the Arena de Muerte ready for the fight. I do not want the Pistolero to know what is to happen until everything is arranged.”

 

“Will he be the only fighter you put in the arena?”

 

“Perhaps not…perhaps it will be more fitting to place Vin Tanner in there as well…”

 

“I thought you wanted Tanner here to keep Jackson in line?”

 

“I do,” De Rivera said with a leering grin. “Perhaps it will do Jackson good to see his friend in the arena…”

 

“What if he dies?”

 

“I will not allow that to happen, but Jackson does not need to know that,” the Haciendada told him and walked slowly toward the field. “Do as I say, Luis, go before I decide to see how well you do in the Arena.”

 

Luis had no doubt that his ‘father’ would indeed put him in the Arena de Muerte if he chose to. He turned away, glanced up to see his mother with her hand held to her mouth and smiled in an effort to ease the torment De Rivera’s words had on her. Someday they would both be free of his influence, but for now he had to walk the path fate had chosen for him.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

North of the Rio Grande

Early Morning

 

Buck had been awake since before dawn when the sounds of the night faded, giving wake to the life that often came with early morning. The crickets were silent, but the birds twittering softly in the nearby trees, and the rush of the water made for a sleepless night.

 

Wilmington stood and walked to the edge of the river, glancing across at the land that seemed to mock him as the sky lightened with the promise of a new day. The heavy rains coupled with the run off high in the mountains made the Rio Grande a turbulent river that could easily pull a man into its murky depths without leaving a sign that he’d ever been there.

 

“Lord, I ain’t always a religious man and I know I’ve done plenty ta tick you off, but there comes a time when a man needs a sign that You’re listenin’. Show us the way across and I’ll tend Josiah’s services for the next month…hell I’ll go for the next year if You’ll just give me a sign that You’re not turning Your back on us,” Wilmington whispered, closing his eyes as a soft breeze tickled his senses, bringing with it the scent of honeysuckle that reminded him of Sarah Larabee. A warmth spread through him and a smile creased his face as he took a deep breath of the morning air. “Thank you…Sarah,” he said, knowing she’d always believed in God and that simple scent was a sign that they were not alone.

 

“Buck, are you all right?” Standish asked from behind him.

 

"I will be," Wilmington noted with a glint of determination in his eyes. "Once we're seven again ridin' home." He then headed for the horses. "We need to find the way across today."

 

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Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Early Morning

 

Mario Cortez knew he was late in returning, but it had taken more time than he’d thought to collect the herbs and other supplies Carmella Covas requested. He hoped the young man they’d rescued was still alive as he pulled his horse to a stop and dismounted before looping the reins over the hitching post and hurrying up to the front door. He lifted his hand to knock, but the door was opened and Javier D’Rosa motioned him inside.

 

“I am sorry it took so long, Amigo…how is the boy?” Cortez asked as he handed over the supplies.

 

“He is feverish and still unconscious,” D’Rosa answered and hurried into the guest room. His cousin was working to cool the young man down, while Raphael slept nearby. It had been a long night for all of them and he’d seen the lines of strain on Cordova’s face as he worked through the night. “Mario brought the supplies you wanted, Carmella.”

 

“Thank God,” the woman said and reached for the package. “Javier, keep wiping him down while I steep the herbs and make a paste for his wound. It will help draw out the infection.”

 

“Carmella,” D’Rosa said, placing his hand on her arm. “Thank you for everything you have done.”

 

“I only do what any of God’s children would do when faced with the hatred in this world,” Carmella told him, hugging her cousin before hurrying from the room.

 

“She is an incredible woman, Amigo,” Raphael said, slowly sitting up and moving to the chair beside Dunne’s bed.

 

“Si, she is,” D’Rosa agreed. “She is like my mother in many ways…an angel of mercy sent to aide those in need.”

 

Raphael nodded and reached for the cloth laid across Dunne’s forehead. He dipped it into the water and gently wiped it across the fever-baked cheeks, surprised to hear a soft moan from the injured Bostonian.

 

“…Chr…iss…”

 

“Easy, Chiquita,” Cordova said softly as Dunne’s eyes fluttered and tried to open.

 

“…shot…Chris…s…shot…”

 

Raphael gently placed his hands on Dunne’s shoulder when the Easterner tried to sit up. “Lie still, JD,” Cordova tried, amazed at the strength the young man possessed.

 

“Raphael, see if you can get him to drink some water…I am steeping some herbs, but they are not ready yet,” Carmella said and passed him a cup of water.

 

“Javier, hold this,” Raphael ordered and moved in behind the injured Bostonian. He gently eased Dunne up until he was able to scoot in behind him and hold him against his chest. He wrapped his arms around the heaving chest and held him in place while Javier tried to get him to take a drink.

 

“Give it to me, Javier, before you make a mess,” Carmella lightly scolded when some of the water spilled on the boy’s chest. She took the water and sat on the edge of the bed, smiling as she gently stroked JD’s cheek.

 

Dunne continued to fight against the arms holding him, his vision blurry as he tried to escape. He struggled in spite of the nauseating pain lancing through his skull. There were voices, but he did not recognize them and hoped someone would help him. “P…please…Chris…where…wh…where…”

 

 “Come now, Niño,” Carmella tried, smiling as the young man’s eyes seemed to look at her, but the glossiness told her he wasn’t really seeing her. She leaned forward and placed the cup to his lips, watching as his lips parted and he sucked greedily at the water until she removed it and placed it on the table.

 

JD tilted his head, gasping when the pain intensified and sent him toward the beckoning darkness. He cried out and leaned back into the strong chest as consciousness left him once more.

 

Raphael could feel JD’s heart beating in his chest and breathed a sigh of relief that the young man was still with them. He eased out from behind him and gently placed him back on the pillow before reaching for the cloth once more.

 

“I will be back shortly…keep him as quiet as you can,” Carmella warned before leaving the room, confident that Raphael would care for the injured man like a brother.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Northeast of the Rio Grande

Mid-Afternoon

 

The three bone weary men searched desperately for a way to cross the raging river. They’d ridden east for a couple of hours before being forced to turn back and make their way west. Now it seemed impassable as the water hit the rocks sending waves rippling violently with white caps further along until it looked like the foam on a glass of beer poured by unskilled hands. Buck rode slightly ahead of the others and fought the urge to take a chance on riding across, but he knew from experience how rough the ride would be. Losing his horse would not do Chris, Vin, Nathan, or JD any damn good no matter how desperate he was becoming.

 

Ezra frowned as he stared at a juncture in the river ahead and rode past the quiet rogue. He reached the area, smiling as he spied what he’d hoped for. The water was still turbulent, but there seemed to be a calm area just past a natural rock formation. He turned to the others and spurred his horse forward as he called over his shoulder. “It appears that Josiah’s prayers were not in jest…”

 

“What?” Wilmington shouted above the sound of rough water.

 

“I think he means our prayers have been answered,” Sanchez said, joining the gambler at the edge of the river.

 

“Thank you, Lord,” Wilmington said and move the horse closer to the calmer waters.

 

“Be careful, Buck, we don’t know how deep it goes or…”

 

“I hear ya, Josiah,” the rogue said and began to pick his way across the river. The horse slipped several times and he had to fight to keep it under control as the ground beneath them seemed to bottom out. Buck held tight to the reins as they floated away from the rock formation, cursing as the animal’s head dipped below the water. He could hear Ezra and Josiah calling out instructions, but did not take the time to acknowledge them as he reached the midway point.

 

Josiah kept up a silent litany of prayers as man and animal fought to cross the Rio Grande. It felt like hours since Buck had spurred his animal forward, and Sanchez didn’t realize he’d been holding his breath the entire time. He heard several sharply spat expletives from the rider as the horse slowly made its way across the swollen river. He exhaled sharply as the weary animal seemed to regain its footing and reached the opposite shore.

 

“It’s deep, but passable!” Wilmington shouted.

 

“After you, Ezra,” Sanchez offered with a wide smile and watched as the gambler began to cross the river. Again he held his breath as horse and rider reached the deepest part of the river and the current seemed to carry them downstream. “Keep his head above the water!”

 

Ezra could hear the ex-preacher, but he concentrated on making the final leg of the journey across the Rio Grande. Several times his horse stumbled on loose rocks beneath the surface, but Standish managed to make it across and stood next to Wilmington.

 

“Your turn, Josiah!” Wilmington called and watched as the big man coaxed his horse into the river. For such a large man, Sanchez seemed at perfect symmetry with the animal he rode. The two seemed as if they were joined instead of two separate living creatures as they reached the midway point and the ground dropped away beneath them. He could hear the older man talking to the horse, making the animal do what was needed as they were carried down river. It felt like an eternity before Josiah and his Chestnut Bay exited the water and stood beside them. Without a word the trio turned their horses southwest and began the search for their missing friends in a land where they were the trespassers and the law was no longer on their side.

 

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late Afternoon

 

Don Garcia De Rivera watched the two gringos at work in the fields and knew he would have to do something to keep them alive. He glanced up at the terrace to see Nathan Jackson watching the workers and knew his gaze seldom strayed from Vin Tanner. The Texan seemed to be growing weaker and De Rivera realized it wouldn’t be much of a fight if the gringo could not stand on his own two feet.

 

De Rivera’s gaze shifted and came to rest on the second man, the blond who had taken his flesh and blood son from him. Chris Larabee was also wilting under the heat of the sun and would need his wounds tended if he was to provide them with some sporting entertainment in the Arena de Muerte. Reluctantly he glanced up at the dark skinned medico and knew Jackson would need to use his skills on the two men.

 

The elderly man glanced around his property, savoring the wealth and power he’d built around himself. His young wife would not live past the baby’s birth, but there were plenty of women who could become a wet nurse for his son. It did not matter if it was at the cost of her child as long as his son was healthy and strong.

 

His son would grow up and rule the Hacienda with an iron fist just like his father was doing. He would not allow anyone to interfere in the running of his property or the punishment his workers needed in order to make them work the fields. His son would make him proud; he would have the strength of the De Rivera blood running through his veins and would grow to understand what that meant. His arrogant smile held no warmth as Don Garcia walked into his home tapping his cane against his hands as he passed through the door.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Late Evening

 

Cristóbal Covas watched his wife as she cared for the injured young man. Javier had finally convinced Raphael Cordova De Martinez that she could and would take care of JD Dunne. Raphael was sleeping on his bedroll near the window, while Javier and the others pitched in with chores around the homestead. He was grateful for the help and the repairs being done to the small corral and the barn because it was becoming too much for him to handle alone.

 

Cristóbal walked into the room and handed his wife a cup of hot tea with a hint of lemon. It was her favorite and always seemed to give her a little lift at the end of a long day.

 

“Thank you, Cristóbal,” Carmella said, sipping at the hot liquid before placing it on the small table. 

 

“How is he?”

 

“There is still no change,” Carmella answered and leaned into her husband when he stood behind her.

 

Cristóbal gently placed his hands on her shoulders and gently massaged the tension from her body. He felt her place her right hand on his and she leaned her cheek against him. Tears slipped unbidden from her eyes as she looked up at him and the love that was born years before intensified as the fire of his presence gave her the strength she needed. That this beautiful creature loved him made his heart beat faster and gave him a sense of peace as they watched over the injured young man.

 

“He is so young,” Carmella whispered, her heart aching that someone so young had faced such evil as Don Garcia De Rivera.

 

“Perhaps that is on his side, My Love, he is young and strong and he has friends who will stand by him,” Cristóbal told her. “You need to rest…”

 

“I am fine, Cristóbal…”

 

“Yes, you are, finer than the silken strands used to make the finest gowns, but you are only human and you need sleep if you are to care for him.”

 

“Cristóbal is right, Cousin,” Javier told her from the open doorway. “Go and rest…I will come get you if he needs anything,” D’Rosa assured her. He smiled when Cristóbal lifted her to her feet and wrapped her in his protective embrace, amazed at the love shining in both their eyes. It was a rare gift, especially when one considered that their marriage had been prearranged, a gift that lived on in their golden years and would defy time and the trials thrown at them. Javier hoped someday he would be so lucky. He watched the couple leave, and didn’t miss the way Cristóbal clung protectively to his wife.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening

 

Nathan reluctantly turned away from the fields and walked back inside. Evita was placing a cool cloth across Maria De Rivera’s forehead and he could see the caring concern on the woman’s face. He’d known this woman only a short time, but his respect grew every time he saw how easily she gave of herself. He closed his eyes and silently prayed for the strength he needed to keep on while his friends were forced to slave under the hot sun. Images crossed behind his closed lids, the face of a young man, the sound of his laughter and the sorrow written on his face when he’d killed Annie Nechaus. They’d almost lost JD that time, but at least the young man would have been alive, not buried in some shallow, unmarked grave far from the place he called home and the friends who’d become his family.

 

"Nathan,” Martinez asked worriedly. "What is wrong?"

 

“What’s wrong?” Jackson spat, the two words cutting through him like a knife through soft butter. “Vin and Chris are out there…hurting…but at least they’re alive. JD…God, the kid should have listened to Chris…”

 

“What are you talking about, Nathan?” Evita asked worriedly.

 

"I heard you and Luis…heard what he said about JD." He swallowed hard barely able to digest the bitter words. "I know he’s dead, Evita…"

 

“Oh, Nathan, I am so sorry,” the woman said and reached for the younger man’s hands. She could see the sorrow in the soulful brown eyes and wished she could say or do something that would ease the guilt she saw in them. “There is nothing you can do for him now, but God will protect him and watch over you…”

 

“I have to find a way to get Chris and Vin out of here,” Jackson 's voice held an impassable degree of resolve.

 

“Don Garcia will not hesitate to kill Vin Tanner, Nathan, he is a cold hearted…”

 

“Bastard,” the former slave snarled. He could feel the anger boiling inside him, turning his hatred into a need for revenge that would see the old man suffer for everything he’d done. “Sorry, Evita…”

 

“No need to apologize for speaking the truth, Nathan, but please be careful because Don Garcia will punish you if he hears you,” Martinez told him.

 

“I will,” Jackson said and made his way out on the veranda. He watched as the workers left the fields and silently prayed that God would show them a way out of this hell. "Keep 'em safe, Lord," he paused, "please."

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Southeast of the Rio Grande

Late Evening

 

Buck used a long stick to poke at the fire and sighed tiredly. They’d rode steadily southwest since crossing the Rio Grande, but it felt as if they were no closer to finding the missing men. Josiah was sitting across from him, reading from the dog-eared Bible and Buck wondered why people thought the older man had lost faith. From what he saw, Sanchez had more faith in his little finger than most people had in their whole bodies.

 

Ezra was sitting against a tree, shuffling a deck of cards with the precision and fine tuning of years of practice. He knew the gambler was as worried as he was, and wished he could find something to keep his mind occupied, but as the moon rose high overhead, his mind wandered to the others, and whether they were safe.

 

Buck thought about Chris, and the long time friendship they shared. There’d been more ups and downs than he wanted to think about, but that had all changed when he saw Chris in Four Corners. It had taken some time, but they’d managed to talk and Buck had never been so glad to renew an old acquaintance.

 

‘We’re coming,’ Wilmington thought as the sounds of the night kept him company on his lonely vigil.   "Just hold on a little longer."

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

East of the De Rivera Hacienda

Midnight

 

Luis Martinez rode slightly ahead of his men as they neared the hacienda. He knew Don Garcia would be happy with the news he brought and wished there was some way he could stop the fight that would take place in the Arena de Muerte. Don Paulo had smiled at the thought of a fight, and confirmed that he would arrive at the arena in two days.

 

Martinez looked around in the darkness, aware that the bright, full-bodied moon surrounded by a vast blanket of twinkling stars cast a soft glow on the fields. The workers had long since retired to their quarters and would not be roused until dawn when they would begin their work anew. Luis dismounted in front of the house, not at all surprised when Don Garcia spoke from his position on the porch swing.

 

“Did Don Paulo accept my invitation?”

 

“Si, Patron, he will be there at dawn in two days time,” Martinez explained and although he could not see the elderly man’s face he knew the man was smiling at the thought of a fight to the death between Don Paulo’s champions and the two gringos. “It will not be much of a fight if the gringos…”

 

“Do not think to interfere, Luis, I will not warn you again.”

 

“I am sorry, Patron, I was just thinking it would be more entertaining if…”

 

“I will speak with Jackson in the morning…see that Larabee and Tanner are placed in Benito’s old quarters and allow no one to see them until they meet Don Paulo’s fighters in the Arena.”  Tell Hernando I wish to see him at first light.”

 

“Si, Patron,” Martinez said. He knew Benito’s quarters had been left untouched since the elderly man had died nearly a year ago. There were no windows and only a single, heavy wooden door that would make it easy to keep the two men from escaping.

 

“Tell Hernando I wish to see him at first light,” De Rivera ordered and turned away without waiting for an answer. 

 

Luis walked with his men toward the stables. He knew his mother was watching him from the upper floor, but did not turn back because he knew he would feel the sorrow and pain she suffered each time he did as his father ordered. She did not blame him, but there was always that hint of despair that flowed through her mind.

 

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Four Corners

Early Morning

 

Mary Travis looked at the paper she’d just printed, and wished she had better news to impart to the townspeople. Most of them knew and understood why the seven peacekeepers had left the town in search of the banditos. Her father-in-law had hired them to protect the citizens of Four Corners, including the homesteaders and cattle ranchers who used the town as a place to buy supplies. Unfortunately there were also men like Conklin and Royal who didn’t care about anyone or anything, but themselves.

 

“Mary, has there been any news?” Gloria Potter asked from the open doorway.

 

“Not since they left.”

 

“It’s been five days.”

 

“I know, Gloria, but if the wires are still down there’d be no way for them to send word,” Mary explained. Gloria came to see her every morning with the same question and the newspaper woman wished she had some good news, but she was as much in the dark as everyone else.

 

“Inez said Maria is talking about going east once Mr. Larabee and the others return,” the store owner told her.

 

“Maria has been through a lot and I think the change would do her good,” the newspaperwoman explained.

 

“Mr. Conklin was trying to get the townspeople riled up last night.”

 

“I know…he’s the reason I want to get this edition out early. I’m hoping if the people read some positive stories about our peacekeepers perhaps it will shut Conklin and the others down.”

 

“I hope so, Mary, I’d hate to think what this town would be like if it wasn’t for Mr. Larabee and the others. If it wasn’t for them, people like Lucas James would get away with murder and I’d have had to leave this town a long time ago. This is home for me and I’m proud of our town and the people…well most of the people who live here.”

 

“I agree, Gloria…I want Billy to come home, but I want him to know there’s nothing to be afraid of anymore,” Mary said and took the bundle of papers in her hands before exiting the newspaper office.

 

“I’d better get back to the store before people complain I’m sleeping late again,” Gloria said with a slight smile before hurrying toward the mercantile.

 

Mary took a deep breath and began distributing the newspapers to her regulars. She knew she’d catch some flack from people like Conklin and Royal, but right now she didn’t really give a damn what they thought of her. She greeted several people including the Wilson family before making her way toward the saloon to join Inez and Maria for breakfast and to talk about the missing peacekeepers.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

 

Hernando Lopez paced in front of the main door of the house, his fingers digging into the brim of his hat. Luis had told him Don Garcia wanted to see him at first light, but so far the elderly man had not allowed him through the door. He hated being pulled away from tormenting the blond gringo, but until the patron released him he would have to remain here and wait.

 

“Hernando, Don Garcia is waiting for you in his office,” Juanita Perez said, and held the door for the man to step inside. “Wipe your feet.”

 

Lopez did as she told him and hurried toward the closed office door. He knocked gently and opened the door when the familiar voice told him to enter. “You wanted to see me, Patron?”

 

“Yes, Hernando, I have something I want you to do,” De Rivera told him. “I want you to take your men and ride north toward Purgatorio. You will check the villages between here and that filthy town and make sure they know I will not allow anyone to interfere in my business.”

 

“Si, Patron,” Lopez said, frowning when the elderly man made a gesture of dismissal. “What of the Gringo?”

 

“The gringo is no longer your concern, Hernando, do not think to question me again.”

 

“I am sorry, Patron, I did not mean…”

 

“Leave me before I throw you into the Arena!” De Rivera warned, a hint of a smile forming when the other man bowed before hurrying away. He’d built this Hacienda on fear and enjoyed the power it gave him over the people he thought were beneath him. Drinking the last of his coffee, Don Garcia stood and walked out through the French doors that opened onto the back of his property and enjoyed the feel of the sun on his weathered features.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Vin shifted his aching body and tried to stretch out in the narrow confines of the cage, but there was no way to work the kinks out. He’d woken to the sounds of the mestizos heading for the fields, but Gores had passed him by with just an angry glance in his direction. Something had changed, but for the life of him he couldn’t figure out what it was. A sound to his left caught his attention and he frowned as two men, strangers to him stepped up to his cage.

 

“Come, Gringo,” Luis Martinez ordered when his companion opened the door of the cage. One look at the American told him he wouldn’t last long in the Arena de Muerte even with Nathan Jackson’s help. The Texan was paler than any living man and reminded Luis of a ghost like those in the books his mother used to read him. The lips were flaking, showing how deeply dehydrated the man was, while a hint of red flushed through both cheeks.

 

“What the fuck do ya want?”

 

“Don Garcia wants you to be taken care of,” Martinez told him.

 

“Don’t give a fuck wh…what that bastard wants,” Tanner snarled.

 

“He will make your friend suffer if you do not do as he wishes,” Luis said sadly, and saw how his warning nearly devastated the ill man. “Help him, Lucas.”

 

“Come, Gringo, at least you will not have to sleep in this cage,” Aguilar explained and helped the trembling man from the cage.

 

Vin soon found himself sandwiched between De Rivera’s men, but didn’t have the strength to fight them as they dragged him toward the house. He lifted his head and tried to get a glimpse of Nathan Jackson on the veranda, but there was no sign of his friend. His head dropped to his chest as they entered the house, but he kept his eyes open and tried to keep track of where they were taking him. A heavy door was opened and they were joined by a young, dark haired woman holding a lamp that flooded the darkness with light. A set of steep stairs led down to another door and Vin struggled to stay on his feet once they reached the bottom. The woman produced a heavy metal ring with a single key that she placed in the lock and twisted several times before the old mechanism gave way.

 

Luis held the injured man while Lucas pushed the heavy door open and Juanita stepped inside with the lamp. She placed it on the single table and hurried from the room, leaving the trio alone.

 

“Why?” Tanner asked when he was lowered onto one of two single cots set against the far wall.

 

“The Patron wants you ready to fight in two days,” Luis explained.

 

“Fight?”

 

“Si, rest…you will be given food and water and anything else that will help you regain your strength,” Martinez told him. He reached for the shackles and attached one to each of the man’s ankles before locking them into a loop set in the stone wall.

 

“Why are ya doin’ this?” Tanner asked, sensing that this man disliked what he was doing.

 

“Don Garcia is mi padre,” Luis answered honestly before leaving the room.

 

Vin lay back against the soft pillow and let his eyes close as his body tried to adjust to the fact that it was no longer cooped up in a cage that was too small. He stretched out along the mattress, instinctively testing the shackles to see if he could escape, but the heavy metal cut into his skin. He glanced at the second bed and wondered whether someone else would be joining him in his new prison. God, he hoped not, because the Arena de Muerte did not sound like something he’d want to share with his friends.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Chris lifted his head and stared at the two men who entered the dungeon. He recognized the one who came to stand in front of him, but could not remember his name. He licked at dry lips and waited to find out what the newcomers wanted. Something about the men spoke of pity, but Chris had never been one to accept that emotion. “What the fuck do you want?” he snarled.

 

“Lucas is going to release you, but if you try anything I will not hesitate to shoot you…perhaps in the leg,” Luis warned. This man was dangerous and he knew if given the chance the gringo would take them apart with his bare hands if necessary. He held his gun on the blond as Lucas unlocked the manacles from the hook in the wall and secured them once more to the prisoner’s wrists.

 

Chris wondered what had happened to his usual tormentor, but he wasn’t about to ask as Luis motioned him toward the door. His legs barely held him as he struggled to place one foot in front of the other. Once outside he turned toward the field where Vin had worked, worried when there was no sign of the Texan amongst the mestizo people. Moving toward the area where he had been put to work, Chris was startled when a hand rested on his shoulder.

 

“Not today, Gringo,” Luis said and pointed toward the main house. “The Patron wants you to rest and grow strong.”

 

“Why?” Larabee asked suspiciously.

 

“He has plans for you and the other gringo,” Lucas answered.

 

“The other gringo?” Larabee asked, afraid he already knew the answer. Vin Tanner hadn’t been in the fields when they’d made their way toward the house and Chris instinctively understood he was indeed the other ‘gringo’. He stood back as Lucas opened the door leading into the back of the house and ushered him through. There were several people working in what looked like a kitchen/storage area, but none of them looked at him as he was led to a heavy door.

 

“Juanita,” Luis called and the pretty young woman hurried toward him carrying a heavy metal key ring. He saw the sympathy in her eyes and wished he could take away the pain that seemed so prevalent lately. This young woman worked hard and someday he hoped Don Garcia would allow him to take her as his wife, but for now he could only watch her and hide his feelings.

 

Chris watched as the pretty woman opened the door and led them down a flight of stairs. She used the key to open a second door and moved aside to allow them to enter. Larabee barely suppressed his anger when he saw Vin Tanner lying on a cot, his eyes closed. The gunslinger turned to glare at Luis Martinez before Lucas shoved him toward the second cot. Neither man spoke as Larabee was secured in much the same way as the Texan, but the silence spoke volumes for the two men until their captors left and the door was locked behind them.

 

“Ya look like shit, Cowboy,” Tanner said, eyes opening to half-mast, his voice raspy with pain and thirst.

 

“Looked in a mirror lately?” Larabee asked seriously as he leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. He couldn’t rid himself of the images of JD Dunne and sighed tiredly as he felt Tanner watching him closely.

 

“Where are the others?” the Texan asked.

 

“Don’t know,” Larabee lied.

 

“Chris…”

 

“We split up and Buck rode back to get the others…JD…” Larabee stopped, swallowing convulsively around the lump in his throat as the door opened and the dark haired young woman entered carrying a heavily laden tray and a pitcher of liquid.

 

“You must eat and drink…grow strong,” Juanita told them, hurrying from the room as Luis followed her out without a word.

 

Vin watched Chris closely and recognized the pain in the green eyes as Larabee poured a cup of the sweet smelling nectar and passed it to him. “Chris, what happened?”

 

“We got caught,” Larabee answered simply, staring into the juice as if transfixed.

 

“We?”

 

“Me and JD,” the blond told him.

 

"Where’s the kid?" The words came out on their own and Vin knew the answer. Larabee's grim features reeked of it.

 

“Dead…”

 

The Texan could feel the changes in the other man as if it was part of his own emotions. The gunslinger could not meet his eyes and if he did, Vin knew what he would see there. The raw pain flowed from Larabee’s body as he lifted the cloth off the tray of food and handed a plate to him. There was no mistaking the guilt that seemed to be tearing Larabee’s guts apart and Tanner wondered what had happened to Dunne that would lay such blame at his friend’s feet.

 

“Killed him because of me,” Larabee said, his appetite nonexistent as he finally managed to meet the Texan’s eyes. “I…I buried him, Vin.”

 

Those four words said it all and Tanner knew nothing would ever ease the torment he saw on the pale face. Larabee had lived with the guilt of his family’s death, but it had nearly killed him. Vin knew burying JD Dunne had brought that same guilt back with a vengeance and he wished there was some way to ease the pain and sorrow reflected in Larabee’s eyes.

 

“Chris…it’s…”

 

“Don’t tell me it wasn’t my fault, Vin!” Larabee snapped, taking a deep breath as his heart hammered a staccato beat against his ribs.

 

Tanner grew quiet, watching the blond closely as he reached for his plate. The two ate in silence, grieving the loss of the Easterner who earned the right to be part of their band of brothers. “He’ll pay, Chris.”

 

Larabee nodded and ate without tasting the food. He had no idea why they were being treated like royal prisoners, but he would take advantage of it if it meant they’d have a chance to kill Don Garcia De Rivera. “Any idea why they put us here?”

 

“Fatten the calf before the slaughter,” Tanner answered.

 

“What?”

 

“We’re supposed to fight in the Arena de Muerte,” the Texan answered.

 

"Yeah," Chris agreed, "Anyway you look at it, we're going to hell together."

 

“Maybe not, but least we’ll go down fightin’,” the tracker said with a cocky grin. The two men grew silent once more, forcing themselves to eat and drink as if this was their last meal.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

East of a Village Near the Covas Home

Mid-Morning

 

The trio had made their way steadily southwest since leaving the Rio Grande behind them, but they had no idea how much further they’d have to travel to find De Rivera’s hacienda. Buck was the first to spot smoke in the distance and quickly pointed it out to the others. “Looks like there might be a homestead up ahead,” Wilmington observed.

 

“Could be a village, Buck,” Sanchez said, pointing out several distinct bands of smoke. 

 

“Perhaps it would be prudent if one of us rode ahead and scouted the area,” Standish suggested.

 

“Are you volunteering, Ezra?” Sanchez teased lightly, arching a gray brow and a sly grin as he turned to the Southerner

 

“Well, if I remember correctly you boys are not known for subtlety,” the gambler observed.

 

“And you are?” Wilmington asked with a hint of a smile as he remembered Jericho’s deputy falling off his chair after Ezra ‘drank’ him under the table.

 

“Indeed…at least it got us the answers we were searching for,” Standish told him.

 

“He’s right, Buck,” Sanchez offered. “We let Ezra check out the village while you and I stay out of sight in case the villagers are nervous about ‘gringos’. We’ll set up camp here and wait for you to get back.”

 

“All right, Ez, go check it out, but don’t go getting involved in any card games,” Wilmington reluctantly agreed. 

 

“I would never think of doing such a thing…”

 

“Got ya!” The rogue grinned as the other man turned and rode away; glad he’d provided just a hint of levity to ease the tension.

 

“We should set up camp while we wait,” Sanchez said, dismounting and leading his horse to the small creek that ran to the right of the trail.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

 

Evita Martinez looked at the man who’d made such a difference in Dona Maria’s condition with sympathy-laden eyes. Don Garcia had told her to send the healer to him, and she hated the thought of the elderly man’s brutality. She knew he would not hurt Nathan Jackson, but he could and would easily hurt Vin Tanner. She had no idea why he chose this moment to send for Jackson, but something told her it had to do with her son’s trip to the House of Madera.

 

“Nathan,” she called and waited for the man to turn her way.

 

“Is something wrong, Evita?” Jackson asked, frowning at the look on the woman’s face.

 

“Don Garcia wants to see you.”

 

“Wants to see me?” the healer asked, surprised that the man would pull him away from the ailing woman.

 

“Si, he insists you join him in his office. Juanita will take you to him while I stay with Dona Maria,” Martinez explained.

 

Nathan walked toward the door and smiled at the pretty woman standing there. He’d seen her a few times, but had not known her name or spoken to her. He followed her down the staircase and through the main foyer until they stopped before a heavy door rich with floral etchings and gold emblems. Nathan wondered if the symbols represented the De Rivera heritage, but didn’t have a chance to ask as the woman opened the door and ushered him inside.

 

Nathan stood inside the door and studied the elderly man seated behind the heavy desk. It was made of dark wood and polished until it reflected back the other furnishings in the room. Several tapestries were hung on each wall, richly embroidered with emblems Jackson didn’t recognize. A single painting hung behind the desk and showed a dark haired man standing on the deck of a ship with a stern look on his face. Nathan knew it was a very young Don Garcia De Rivera, and knew the artist had captured the coldness of the man’s eyes.

 

“You sent for me?” Nathan said.

 

“You were not told to speak!” De Rivera snapped, dropping the feather pen on the paper he’d been writing on.

 

“Sorry,” Jackson apologized easily. He’d learned at an early age to keep his anger in check and that a quick apology, either real or not, kept him from being whipped.

 

“Mind your place the next time,” De Rivera warned and leaned back in the heavy chair. “Your friend is to fight in the Arena de Muerte in two days time…”

 

“Vin can’t…he’s hurt…sick!” Jackson spat.

 

“Hold your tongue, Senor Jackson, or I will see that he receives no care before the fight,” the elderly man warned.

 

“Care?”

 

“Yes, I have decided to let you care for your friend. He is to be given food, drink, and proper medical care until he steps into the ring.”

 

“Where is he?”

 

“He is in the house…in the quarters that once belonged to a loyal servant named Benito. Juanita will show you the way and give you the supplies you need.”

 

"He’s weak…two days won't be long enough to...." the irate healer's concern was aborted.

 

“Two days is all you have or would you prefer not to treat him at all?” De Rivera challenged, hands clasped in front of him as an amused grin formed on his face.

 

“No, I’ll do it,” the healer told him.

 

“Very well…there is another man with him, you are to treat his injuries as well,” the elderly man ordered and returned his attention to the papers in front of him. 

 

Nathan bit his bottom lip in an effort to keep from saying anything that might make De Rivera change his mind. The fact that he would be able to see Vin and treat his injuries gave him hope. Jackson turned and walked out the door where Juanita was waiting for him with a basket filled with the supplies he would need to treat his friend. He reached for the basket and smiled at the pretty young woman who motioned him forward.

 

“Please, follow me,” Juanita told him in slightly broken English.

 

Nathan followed her to the back of the house and entered the kitchen. There were several mestizo women working diligently, but Jackson felt them watching him as Juanita led him to a doorway near the back of the kitchen. He followed her down a set of stairs and waited until she opened another door.

 

“I will come back with water,” Juanita told him before moving aside and allowing him to enter the room.

 

Nathan held his surprise in check until the door closed behind him. He knew Vin would be there and wasn’t surprised to see him lying on a cot with his eyes closed, what did surprise him was the second man seated on the opposite bed. “Chris,” he gasped, shock evident in his concerned features

 

“Nathan,” Larabee managed, a hint of surprise in his voice. He heard Tanner stirring and watched as the Texan forced heavy eyelids open before managing to sit up on the edge of the bed.

 

"Nate..." Vin's raspy voice echoed the genuine relief that was coursing through him.

 

“I don’t got much time,” Jackson said, ignoring the need to relish the fact that his friends were alive. “I’m here to help you. How bad, Chris?”

 

“I’ll live,” Larabee answered and nodded to the sharpshooter. “Vin needs help.”

 

“Vin, where are ya hurt?” Jackson asked, hoping the injured man would be honest even as Juanita and a young male carried clean water and rags into the room.

 

“Nathan, the patron said you have one hour,” Juanita told him sadly before leaving the trio alone.

 

“God, it’ll take me an hour just to see what’s wrong with ya,” Jackson growled under his breath. He glanced at Larabee, wishing there was something he could do about the haunted look in the green eyes, but right now he could only treat the physical injuries. “Vin, how’s your jaw?”

 

“Still sore…broke somethin’…lotta shit came out,” Tanner said as Jackson reached out and touched his forehead. He eased out of the remnants of his shirt and winced as the movement pulled at his aching muscles.

 

“Yer runnin’ a fever,” Jackson said, hoping Juanita’s people had Willow Bark Tea or something equivalent to it. “Let me see that tooth, Vin.”

 

Tanner opened his mouth and tried to hold still as Jackson checked the swollen gums. He closed his eyes as a wave of dizziness washed over him, and gagged in reflex as he tried to ignore the nausea churning through his gut.

 

“When’s the last time this broke?” Jackson asked.

 

“Last night…’fore I slept,” the Texan answered.

 

"All right…jest gotta keep an eye on it."  Nathan handed Vin a mug of water.  "Try and drink as much as ya can, Vin, it'll help; rinse that crap out when it builds up, especially before ya sleep. I don't want ya swallowin' none, it's makin' ya sick.” Once Tanner drank his fill, Nathan gave his shoulder a gentle tug of support. "Go on, Vin, lie down," he ordered, worried that Larabee hadn’t said a word. He knew the man had to be haunted by the death of JD Dunne, but right now they had to concentrate on the living.

 

Tanner did as Jackson told him and soon felt the man’s hands prodding his ribs, paying particular attention to the dark bruise that covered his right side. Vin held his breath and bit his lip as Jackson hit a particularly sore spot, shaking his head when the other man apologized. He turned onto his left side when the healer told him to and heard Larabee’s sharp expletive.

 

“Vin, you been pissin’ blood?” Jackson asked, fingers dancing lightly over the bruised area.

 

“No…not that I noticed…back hurts…but no…no blood,” Tanner answered.

 

“Good, but that’s going to be sore for a while,” Jackson said and looked into the basket of supplies. He found several jars and opened two before finding one that looked and smelled like the one he used. “Vin, I’m going to rub this into your back and see if I can get Juanita to make you something for that fever.”

 

Chris watched as the healer stuck his fingers into the salve and gently massaged it into the Texan’s back. Nathan took care as his fingers rubbed until the salve disappeared and Chris couldn’t help but smile as Tanner sighed tiredly. He could see the lean body relax as if Jackson’s ministrations worked wonders, and the blond realized that’s exactly what the former slave was doing. His mind wandered to the kid whose easy going smile and strange sense of humor had made them all cringe. Yet the Bostonian had proven his mettle each and every day since that first time when he’d shown that he could ride, shoot, and fly.

 

“Chris, I don’t got much time left, but I need to take a look at you,” Jackson said and realized how much Dunne’s death had affected the gunslinger when Larabee peeled off his shirt, revealing the damage done by De Rivera and his men. “Sonofabitch!”

 

The sound of that angry curse caused Tanner's head to pop back up. "Tanner, get that mangy head down!" Chris barked and turned to Nathan. "It’s okay, Nate…not as bad as it looks," he lied 

 

“Like hell it isn’t,” Jackson snarled. “Did they even clean these up?”

 

“No,” the blond answered simply. He watched as Jackson added something to the clean water and winced when the healer pressed a soaked cloth to the wounds on his chest. It took a lot for him to remain silent as his friend cleaned the wounds, but Chris remained stoic as Jackson eased the cloth over the crusted marks.

 

“There ain’t much here ta put on this, but if we keep them clean it should be okay,” Jackson said and turned his attention to the old wound Larabee had received in what felt like a lifetime ago. The stitches were still in place, but the wound itself was swollen as if something putrid rested just below the surface. He pressed against the wound until a putrid fluid oozed from the edges and dabbed at it with the cloth.

 

Chris remained silent until Jackson pressed against the wound and he gripped the edges of the thin mattress as Tanner turned to look at him. Green eyes met blue and a silent vow was issued and accepted. No matter what it took, JD Dunne’s death would be avenged and the old bastard would die a thousand times over for robbing the world of a kid who’d only just begun to live.

 

Nathan finished cleaning the wound, but he still needed to make sure Larabee and Tanner had no injuries he couldn’t see. Unfortunately his time was up when the door opened and Juanita told him his time was up. He wanted to stay, but to do so would probably set De Rivera on edge and he would take it out on Chris and Vin.

 

"We’re okay, Nathan," Larabee told him, reaching for the pitcher and pouring the water into a cup.  He drank it slow, wishing he could ease Jackson’s mind, but nothing he could say or do would rid the man of the torment mirrored in the soulful brown eyes.

 

Nathan left the room, wincing when he heard the sound of the lock being engaged as he slowly made his way up the steep stairs. He swallowed several times, fighting the bitter taste of anger as he thought of the two men locked in the room below ground.

 

“The patron said you can check them again later this evening, but for now you are to stay with Dona Maria,” Juanita explained.

 

Nathan nodded and left the kitchen, and walked along the narrow hallway that led to the staircase. His anger intensified with each step until he could no longer control it. He lifted his right arm and drove his fist into the wall, ignoring the pain that ran the length of his arm. He grabbed a vase of flowers from the small table near the alcove and vehemently threw it at the wall. Nathan had no idea how long he stood there, breathing hard as bitter bile rose in his throat, but he didn’t regret his show of anger.

 

Breathing through his nose he turned to find Juanita watching him closely. He realized his anger had made more work for her, but could not find the words to apologize.

 

“Go…I will clean this up,” Juanita voiced in a very sympathetic tone.

 

Nathan simply nodded before quickly making his way up the stairs and stepping into the room to find Evita watching him with deep seeded sadness in her eyes.

 

“How is your friend?”

 

“Hurting,” Jackson said, glancing around as he lowered his voice. “Chris is there too…God, Evita, they’re in no shape to fight.”

 

“Are you so sure, Nathan? Did you not tell me how strong your friends are?”

 

“Being strong won’t help ‘em if they’re already hurt and sick. Vin’s got a fever,” the healer answered.

 

“Then we must pray, Nathan,” Evita told him, wishing there was more she could say or do to put the man’s mind at ease. Alas, the cruelty that had surrounded her since Don Garcia De Rivera had chosen her now reached out to touch the innocent lives of others.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Village Near the Covas home

Early Afternoon 

 

Mateo Ramirez looked down at his aged fingers as he worked the needle through the edge of his well-worn moccasins. If asked his age he would simply smile and say he was older than dirt and the lines on his face gave credence to those words. He spent his waking hours seated on the stump outside his granddaughter’s small house. Mateo helped her in the only way possible. He made repairs to her children’s clothing and moccasins and when his hands were up to it he showed them tricks he’d learned through the years.

 

Ramirez had lived in the village all his life and seldom traveled far from his home, but he made it his business to watch the strangers who entered his domain. His eyes were not as good as they once were, but his sight was better than most people half his age. The newcomer in the red coat rode his horse as if born to the saddle, yet Mateo could tell the man came from breeding. He sensed the man meant no harm, but that did not mean he wouldn’t cause trouble. Mateo sighed heavily and went back to his work while watching the newcomer suspiciously.

 

Ezra rode into town with an easy gait he hoped would put the villagers at ease. He felt them watching him suspiciously, and had already spotted several people staring in his direction. He’s been a stranger in many towns during his life and understood why people were suspicious. More often than not strangers meant danger and the simple people of villages like this one tended to shy away from newcomers.

 

Standish stopped his horse in front of a structure that looked like it might be a restaurant and dismounted. He turned and glanced around the street while pretending to check his saddle. There was an elderly man sitting on a stump outside a small structure who seemed to be watching him with interest and Ezra slowly walked toward him.

 

“Hola… hablar ingles,” Standish tried and hoped he’d said enough for the old man to understand.

 

“Si…yes,” the man said in a raspy voice that spoke of years of tobacco use.

 

“Thank God…”

 

“If you must,” the man said simply, his aged eyes raking over the newcomer. “You’re a gringo?”

 

"Yes, I have recently arrived in your beautiful country and was looking for some friends of mine who I believe may have come this way."

 

“You are the only gringo I’ve seen…”

 

“Perhaps someone else has seen them?” Standish asked.

 

“I am always here…if gringos had been here I would have seen them,” the man answered and stared toward the end of town as several familiar riders entered and rode as if they owned everything in sight. "You should leave now, senor, they do not like gringos."

 

“Who are they?” the gambler asked as six riders pulled to a stop near a cantina.

 

“Don Garcia’s men…they will kill you if they find you here.”

 

“Don Garcia De Rivera?”

 

“Si, he is a cruel man and his men are just as bad.”

 

“Can you tell me where the De Rivera home is?”

 

“It is southwest of here, but you will be killed if you go there.”

 

“I have no choice…several of my friends are there.”

 

“Then you should forget them and leave while you can…”

 

"I am afraid that is not an option, Sir."

 

“Then I will say a prayer for you and your friends.”

 

“Gracias,” Standish said and hurried to his horse as De Rivera’s men entered the cantina. He hurriedly mounted the animal and rode out of town, a hint of a smile on his face as he thought about confronting De Rivera’s men and finding out where his friends were being held.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Early Evening

 

Raphael wished there was some way to contact the men of Four Corners, but he wasn’t even sure they were still in the town. JD had yet to regain consciousness, but even in his delirium he spoke of Larabee and Wilmington and Raphael began to wonder if the two men were somewhere on the De Rivera land. He prayed that was not the case as the elderly patron did not like gringos. 

 

“Raphael, my cousin made a spicy stew and would be insulted if you did not try it,” D’Rosa said and handed his friend the bowl of flavorful stew.

 

“It’s good,” Cordova told him.

 

“Carmella has always enjoyed cooking,” D’Rosa observed and watched his friend closely. Raphael looked drawn and pale as if he hadn’t slept for days and Javier knew he would not sleep much until JD Dunne opened his eyes and told them what had happened. “He is a fighter…”

 

“Yes, he is,” Raphael said with a smile.

 

“What are you thinking about, Amigo?”

 

“I think he is like a pit viper when angry. If you had seen him when he thought I was a threat to his amigos you would have seen the warrior he truly is. He was ready to take me on if it meant saving his friends,” Cordova explained. He placed the bowl of stew on the table and quickly dipped a cloth in the cool water before placing it across Dunne’s forehead. The Bostonian’s dark hair was soaked with sweat, and Raphael worried that the fever continued to rise.

 

JD was lost in a nightmare world, one wrought with danger and pain. His head felt ready to explode, but he was forced to watch as the elderly stranger pulled a gun and aimed it at Chris Larabee. Dunne fought to help, but was held in place by two men intent on breaking his arms. He felt tears in his eyes, but refused to let them fall as the force of the bullet’s impact sent his mentor flying backward into a shallow grave. His head moved back and forth as the force of his grief sent daggers through his heart.

 

“No…please…no, Chris…watch out…”

 

“Easy, Chiquita,” Raphael soothed when Dunne showed signs of coming around. He pressed the shoulders back to the bed and watched the kid’s face closely, but JD’s open eyes showed no sign of recognition as his body went slack once more. He knew Dunne was seeing something very real and began to wonder if Chris Larabee was closer than he realized.

 

“Why would he be this far south?” D’Rosa asked curiously.

 

“I wish I knew, but until he wakes up the secret stays locked in his head,” Cordova explained.

 

“Do you think his friends are looking for him?”

 

“I hope so…or they could be De Rivera’s prisoners,” Raphael told him.

 

“God help them,” D’Rosa said and silently said a prayer as he watched Raphael care for the young man.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Camp, East of the Village

Early Evening

 

Buck strode across the clearing, wearing a trail through the grass with each step he took. He knew Ezra hadn’t been gone that long, but he’d never been a patient man and wanted, needed to tear something apart as time passed and still no word on his friends. He heard Josiah reading from his Bible and turned to look at the man who asked salvation from a God who sometimes seemed cruel beyond words.

 

“Buck, why don’t you make some coffee?” Sanchez suggested, hoping to take his friend’s mind off his worries.

 

“Ezra should have been back by now!”

 

“Perhaps he’s being subtle in how he gathers the information we need.”

 

“Yeah right…I remember the last time Ezra used subtlety to get information. It took forever and a bottle of whiskey!”

 

“But he got the information we needed,” the ex-preacher told him. “Give him time, Buck…”

 

“How much time…”

 

“Less than a minute if he’s the one riding that horse,” Sanchez said as the sound of hoof beats reached his ears just before Ezra rode into the small clearing.

"What the hell took you so long?" Wilmington growled as the gambler dismounted and joined them at the fire.

"Your concern is touching," Ezra knew the rogue was worried and held those fiery blue eyes a moment, nodding his head slightly. "I believe there’s a way to find out exactly where the others are being held, but it will take more than subtlety to get the information," Standish said and took a drink from his canteen.

“You found something in the village?” Sanchez asked.

 

“More like I found someone…or more apt several people who could answer our questions. They work for Don Garcia,” the conman explained.

 

“How do you know that?” Wilmington asked.

 

“I was speaking with an elderly man who supplied the information. There were six men who rode in and he told me who they were. I believe we will be able to ascertain the location of De Rivera’s Hacienda and perhaps we could also find out how many men he has there.”

 

“Now that sounds like a plan,” Wilmington said, anxious to get moving.

 

“Buck, we need to think about this…”

 

“What’s to think about, Josiah…we go in there and make them talk!” the rogue snapped.

 

“There are innocent villagers who could get hurt,” Standish told him. “We need to make sure they are in no danger before we take action.”

 

“Ezra’s right, Buck,” Sanchez observed. “We need to come up with a plan that doesn’t involve anyone else getting hurt.”

 

“What about Chris and the others? How do you think they’re being treated while we make plans?” Wilmington snarled. 

 

“I don’t know, Buck, but I do know they wouldn’t want anyone else getting hurt if we can stop it from happening,” the older man explained and watched as Wilmington’s shoulders slumped in defeat..

 

“I hate it when you’re right, Josiah,” the rogue said. “So any idea how we should go after De Rivera’s men?”

 

“We should lay in wait for them outside the village and take them before they realize anything is wrong,” Standish suggested.

 

“How do we know which way they’ll go?” Wilmington asked.

 

“We don’t, but the village is fairly small and we could probably keep watch from either end of the main street. When I left De Rivera’s men were in the cantina and if I’m correct they’ll be drinking themselves into oblivion,” Standish told them.

 

“So they should be pretty drunk by the time we set things up,” Sanchez offered.

 

“It’ll make them easier to handle,” the rogue agreed.

 

“Perhaps, or it could make them more dangerous,” Standish told them.

 

“We’ll handle them when the time comes,” Sanchez said and placed his Bible inside his saddlebag before helping break camp.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening

 

Nathan sat on the comfortable armchair and rubbed at tired eyes. He’d been allowed to check on his friends twice during the long day, and wished there was some way to help the two men escape. He knew there was nothing he could do and looked at the pale woman who slept with an air of innocence he associated with children.

 

Dona Maria was a beautiful lady who was as delicate as the flowers taken by the first heavy frost of winter. She was as pale as the wind driven snow, yet she fought with the strength only a mother to be held. Nathan admired the woman and hoped she survived the birth of her child, but he knew childbirth would sap even more energy from her.

 

“Nathan?”

 

“I am here, Dona Maria,” Jackson said and moved closer to the bed.

 

“My baby…he will soon be ready to face the world,” Maria whispered.

 

“It will be a few weeks yet,” the healer told her.

 

“No, I do not think so. There is pain…sometimes very bad. They grow worse and get closer,” the pretty woman told him sadly as she placed her hand on her swollen belly. “It is too soon, but he will be strong and he will grow into a man I will be proud of. You and Evita will take care of him when I am gone.”

 

“You’ll be here…”

 

“I wish I could believe that, Nathan, but I am tired and do not have the strength needed to see my son grow…promise me you will not allow my husband to hurt him.”

 

“I will do what I can, Dona Maria,” Jackson vowed.

 

“That is all I ask,” Maria said. Her face became twisted in a tight grimace of pain and she soon felt Nathan’s hand in her own. She squeezed tightly, waiting for the pain to diminish before settling back against the pillows and allowing the tears to escape from her eyes as she studied the man before her. She knew he was worried about his friends, but there was nothing she could do or say to wipe that away. She closed her eyes and thought about the baby waiting to be born and hoped that, unlike his father, he would have a good heart.

 

Nathan continued to watch over his charge, but his mind returned to the two men in the cell and the memory that JD Dunne was dead because of Don Garcia. How would Larabee be able to live with the fact that he’d been forced to dig the young man’s grave and cover him with dirt? “Lord, give us all the strength we need to see things set right,” he whispered and returned to the chair as dark shadows formed across the land, mirroring the darkness he felt engulfing his heart.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

Village Near the Covas Home

Late Evening

 

Buck listened for any sign that the six men were leaving the village. He’d found a place to hide so that he could keep an eye on the north and south entrances at the same time. Ezra and Josiah were waiting nearby with the horses and at his signal they would set in motion the ambush that would bring down De Rivera’s bandits. They’d picked out a spot to the north and the south for the ambush and would meet there before the killers left the village.

 

Wilmington had thought long and hard about the bandits and wondered if these men were part of the marauders who’d caused so much death and destruction north of the Rio Grande. If they were they would pay dearly for those transgressions. Innocent women and children had been murdered and that was something he would not let go unpunished. Buck wondered how many people De Rivera’s men had killed and whether they would ever know the full extent of their evil.

 

Movement at the Cantina doors caught his attention and he watched as six men stumbled through the door and made their way toward the saddled horses tied to the nearest hitching post. They sang some bawdy song in a guttural display of drunkenness that made his stomach churn. Buck waited until they mounted up before signaling to his friends that they were headed toward the trail leading north out of the village. He quickly mounted his horse and galloped toward the rendezvous point and was relieved when he spotted Ezra and Josiah hidden near the entrance to the pass. The idea was that they’d corral the six men and disarm them before they realized what was happening.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Hernando Lopez knew they’d incur Don Garcia’s wrath if he found out about their transgressions so close to home. The village was small and he made sure the people would not betray them by terrorizing them to the point where they were frozen with fear whenever he rode into their domain.

 

Lopez was angry with De Rivera for sending him away from the hacienda and his entertainment with the gunslinger. Abusing the blond gringo had brought him pleasure and now he had to ride north when there was going to be a fight to the death in the Arena De Muerte. He’d found out about it just before leaving the hacienda and that was the reason he’d decided he deserved to take a break and have a few drinks before heading north.

 

“Perhaps that pretty puta will be waiting for your arrival, Hernando,” Gonzales said with a leering grin.

 

“Si, and this time there will be no one to stop me from taking what I want!” Lopez said as they rode toward the edge of town. He knew exactly what he would do with Maria when he found her. She’d pay for ever thinking he was not worthy of her and yet she’d bedded down with Chris Larabee. He rode slightly ahead of the others, his eyes not quite able to focus because of the effect of too much whiskey in too short a time.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

East of the Covas Home

Late Evening

 

Raphael hated leaving JD Dunne’s side, but he knew he’d left the young man in excellent hands. Carmella Covas had promised him she would care for the Bostonian as if he was her own son. They needed supplies and he knew how dangerous it was traveling alone with De Rivera’s bandits still out there. If he was caught he would be brought back to face Don Paulo and that was something he could not allow until he was sure Dunne was taken care of.

 

They would ride through the night until they reached the Rio Grande and camp until morning before heading north toward Four Corners. It hadn’t been an easy decision on his part, but if they could get Nathan Jackson to ride with them then perhaps the Easterner would live to see his next birthday.

 

He’d left Javier D’Rosa behind in case there was trouble, but something told him the Covas’ could take care of themselves. They’d been riding for nearly an hour when they spotted the village ahead. He’d always been a cautious man and although he knew most of the villagers he knew there was also a danger from the Haciendadas in the area. He rode slightly to the left of Augusta Medina and knew the others were also watching for signs of trouble.

 

“Is that Lopez?” Augusta asked as he spotted several men riding away from them.

 

“Si, that is the bastard and if he and his men are riding north we should follow them and see that they do not harm any more innocents,” Cordova explained.

 

“Perhaps we should just kill them and have done with their poison?” Ramirez suggested. They all knew of the raids against the homesteads and against the people who lived in remote areas and wanted to put an end to the senseless killings, but so far they’d been two steps behind the marauders.

 

“That would make us like them,” Ricardo Alverez observed as they entered the small village and continued along the street until they reached the trail heading north.

 

“Ricardo is right, but that does not mean we can not stop them if they attack another homestead. Until then we stay behind them and follow until we reach the Rio Grande. Once we cross I will ride to Four Corners for help and meet all of you back at the Covas home,” Raphael explained.

 

“It is dangerous for you to ride alone, Amigo,” Augusta said.

 

“I will be careful…besides Don Paulo thinks I rode as far north as the trails allow,” Cordova said just as a shot was fired ahead. “Sounds like Lopez ran into some trouble!”

 

“Perhaps we should stay back until whoever it is takes care of the problem for us?” Augusta Medina suggested.

 

“Are you a coward, Augusta?” Eduardo teased.

 

“No, just being smart. The cost of bullets is heavy on my pockets,” Medina told them. “Do we ride, Raphael?”

 

“We ride,” Cordova said and led the others toward the gunfire.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening

 

Chris Larabee lay on his left side and watched as Vin Tanner tossed in the throes of a fever that sapped his strength and gave his skin a pallor that reminded the blond of death’s shadow. He’d seen it too many times in his life and silently prayed to whatever God was listening that death would not come calling for the scruffy Texan. Nathan had been allowed to treat them twice during the day and they’d been given food and juice and water, but Tanner had barely eaten anything as he fought to keep the pain to himself.

 

Chris sat up and reached for the jug of water, pouring a small amount into a cup and drinking it before returning his attention to his friend, surprised to see the sky blue eyes at half-mast.

 

“Ain’t dead yet, Cowboy.”

 

“Could have fooled me…I’ve seen week old corpses with better color,” Larabee said filling the Texan’s cup with the sweet juice and waiting for him to sit up. It took several long minutes and Tanner’s entire repertoire of colorful words in several languages before Tanner was sitting up with his back against the wall.

 

“Yer not lookin’ so good yerself, Larabee,” the Texan said, sipping the juice and relishing the sweet taste as it trickled down his throat.

 

“Feel like eating something?”

 

“What’cha got?”

 

“Some kind of fruit, nuts, some sweet bread,” Larabee explained and watched as his friend looked on disinterestedly. 

 

“Sweet bread sounds just…”

 

“Like what gave you that tooth ache in the first place,” the blond said, handing a piece of the soft, sweet bread Juanita had brought earlier. “Nathan said to tell you to eat and drink.”

 

“Nate was here?”

 

“Twice…last time you were out of it,” Larabee answered.

 

"Feel like shit…"

 

"...you look it too…want some more juice?"

 

"'kay," Tanner told him, sighing tiredly as he tried to get comfortable.

 

Chris handed the glass over and lay back on his bed. He hated how weak he felt as his eyes closed and realized neither he nor Vin were in any shape for a fight to the death, and yet death would come calling in less than two days. The problem with that was he wasn’t ready to die and he damn sure wasn’t going to let Vin Tanner die. He’d let one young man die in this hellhole, and that was enough to tear his heart out.

 

Vin watched the gunslinger as his eyes closed and he drifted toward sleep, but there was no easing of the tension that marred Larabee’s face. He knew his friend was having nightmares of JD’s death and wished there was some way he could put his mind at ease, but that would not happen until Don Garcia De Rivera was brought to justice, Larabee style. He finished the juice and lay back, closing his eyes and thinking about the loss of a friend, a brother in arms and wondered if God had finally abandoned them all. His mother’s voice came back to him and followed him toward sleep as a smile formed on his face.

 

‘God will never abandon you, Vin, not if you have faith in Him and in yourself.’

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Village Near the Covas Home

Late Evening

 

The element of surprise had been on their side, but Lopez and his men had not been as drunk as the three men thought. Wilmington ducked behind a rock as a bullet chipped off sharp pieces and sent them toward his face. He could hear Josiah and Ezra returning fire, but the six bandits had taken cover and hidden from view.

 

Ezra lay on his side behind a copse of brush and returned fire as the six men dismounted and dove for cover. He heard a sharp expletive from his left and hoped Josiah was okay, smiling slightly when the big man fired several shots toward their nemesis. A cry of pain told him the ex-preacher had hit someone and he thought about the odds against them now. ‘A little better,’ he thought as he tried to find a mark, but the bandits seemed to have found cover.

 

Josiah looked at the wound and realized the bullet had taken a fair chunk of flesh when it ploughed through his upper right arm. He ignored the pain and fired off several quick shots before reloading his gun. He frowned when he heard the sound of approaching riders and wondered if Ezra had miscounted. He lifted his head and gazed around the boulder, firing when he spotted a dark shape leaning against a nearby tree. He fired and watched as the man dropped to his knees before tumbling the rest of the way to the ground. He fired two more shots in quick succession and thought he heard them echoed from further away.

 

“We got company!” Wilmington snapped off a shot at a point where he’d seen a dark shape blended to the background, but knew he’d missed when the other man returned fire. He heard someone cry out and frowned when a vaguely familiar voice reached his ears.

 

“You die now, Gringo!” Pedro Gonzales warned from the right.

 

Buck knew he was caught, but he would not give up this easily. There was always a way out of any box and his chances were better if he could just turn the tables on the bandit who’d managed to get the drop on him.

 

“Drop the gun…”

 

“Not a chance,” Wilmington said and suddenly realized the newcomer wasn’t talking to him when a man stumbled through the brush beside him. He turned to see another man step through, his weapon raised but pointed at the injured bandit. “Raphael.”

 

“Wilmington!” Cordova said, but his attention was on the bandit and his shot killed the man as he lifted his weapon.

 

“I owe you,” the rogue said as more gunfire sounded around them. Raphael moved in beside him and the two men quickly joined in the fight until silence echoed through the surrounding hills and mountains. They remained where they were for several minutes, listening for any sign of movement and looked at each other when the silence stretched for several minutes.

 

“How many were there?” Cordova asked.

 

“Six,” Wilmington said.

 

“Raphael, we got them!” Cortez called from a short distance away.

 

“Are you sure, Mario?”

 

“Si, there are five dead and we have a couple of prisoners…one appears to need a Medico,” Cortez explained.

 

Raphael and Buck stood up as Hector Ramirez and another man led their prisoners into the clearing. Buck chuckled when he saw the prisoners and heard Raphael beside him.

 

“Is that…”

 

“Ezra and Josiah,” Wilmington supplied.

 

“Hector, you can let them go…they are amigos,” Raphael explained.

 

“Amigos…are you sure…the fancy red coat here tried to shoot my leg off!”

 

“I assure you it was not your leg I was aiming for,” Standish said.

 

“Well, Senor, there is nothing you could damage below Hector’s waist,” Mario Cortez offered and put away his weapon as his friends chuckled softly.

 

“You are too funny, Mario,” Ramirez said and looked toward Raphael. “So who are these gringos?”

 

“These are three of the gringos I told you about,” Cordova explained.

 

“The ones from Four Corners?” Ramirez asked incredulously.

 

“Si,” Raphael said and turned his gaze on Buck Wilmington. “Is Nathan Jackson with you?”

 

“No, but we think we know where he is,” the rogue snapped. “Him and Vin were taken by De Rivera’s men about ten days ago.”

 

“De Rivera…damn, I had heard his wife was ill and he was looking for a medico,” Cordova offered. “Where’s Larabee?”

 

“They came down here huntin’ for Vin and Nate…”

 

“They?” Cortez asked.

 

“Chris and JD…we split up,” Wilmington answered and saw the change in Raphael. “Raphael, tell me you know where they are?”

 

“JD was hurt, Buck…”

 

“How bad?” Wilmington interrupted worriedly.

 

“Took a shot to the head…”

 

Buck’s face blanched as he heard the words that rocked him to his soul. His legs trembled and he wasn’t sure he could stay on his feet, but a strong, supporting hand was placed on his shoulder as Raphael continued.

 

“We found him buried in a shallow grave and took him to Javier’s cousin. She is caring for him now, but he needs your friend,” Cordova told them.

 

“Where?” Standish asked, the word laced with concern as Sanchez continued to support Wilmington.

“I will take you,” Raphael vowed and turned to his friend. “Mario, you and Hector ride to the next village and get whatever supplies you can. We will be at the Covas home…” He studied Buck Wilmington's ashen face. "Are you okay, Amigo?"

"No..." Buck answered, but then the shock began to wear off and his eyes turned deadly. "But that son-of-a-bitch De Rivera is gonna wish that he was never born!"

 

“Do not go against De Rivera until we get back, Amigo,” Cortez warned and went to gather the horses.

 

“How far?” Sanchez asked, wrapping a piece of cloth around the wound to his right arm, relieved when Ezra took over and tied the material tightly. “Thanks, Ez.”

 

Standish nodded and moved to get their horses. Before long they were mounted up and riding back toward the Covas home, fearful of what they might find on arrival.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Midnight

 

Nathan knew he should be sleeping, but made his way out on the verandah and looked out over the silent fields. The moon was high overhead, her swollen belly hanging low as the stars surrounding it twinkled with the light of hope. How many times as a child had he stood alongside his father and prayed that someday he would be free to live his own life. The years as a slave had left scars on his body and mind, but he’d overcome both and found a family in the most unlikely place.

 

Now it seemed as if he’d gone back in time and once more was slave to a sadistic man who thought he could take whatever he wanted. He felt sorry for Maria and her unborn child and wished he could do something to help them both be free, but there was no way he could do anything with Chris and Vin’s life at stake. He’d been allowed to check on them every few hours and yet his anger had intensified because he knew now he was helping them so they could face near certain death in the Arena de Muerte.

 

“Lord, no matter what tests you give me I’ll do my best to pass ‘em, but sometimes a man’s gotta have a little help…a little hope that there’s somethin’ besides death waitin’ fer ‘im. My mama always told me ta be strong and have faith, but sometimes a man’s faith can only go so far. I ain’t never given up hope, Lord, but there are times when there don’t seem to be any left,” Jackson sighed tiredly and listened to the soft voice inside the room. The words were hauntingly familiar and brought tears to his eyes as he watched Evita Martinez place a gentle hand on Dona Maria’s forehead.

 

“Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come

‘Tis Grace hath brought me safe thus far, and Grace will lead me home…”

 

Nathan let the tears slip from his eyes as he listened to Evita’s strong voice and felt a little hope flair in his heart. There was no way he could quit, not now, not when his friends depended on him. He listened to the soft words and drew strength from them as he walked back into the room. Dona Maria’s face was bathed in sweat and he knew it wouldn’t be long before the baby was born, he just hoped she was further along than they’d first thought.

 

“Nathan, you should get some rest.”

 

“I could say the same thing to you, Evita.”

 

“I can not rest when her time is so close,” Evita told him. There was a sadness in her voice as she gently placed a hand on Maria’s swollen belly and felt the baby’s movement beneath her touch. “God help her and give her the strength to survive.”

 

“The baby is coming, Evita.”

 

“I know…he will be born early, but he will be strong like my Luis,” Evita told him.

 

“Don Garcia will…”

 

“Raise him as he sees fit and without Dona Maria’s influence I am afraid he will raise him in his own likeness.”

 

“No one can be that cold,” Jackson observed, but the thought of the baby being raised by Don Garcia sent a shiver down his spine. He looked at the pale, beautiful flower and knew she would not survive the baby’s birth. “God help us,” she whispered and moved to the cot set against the opposite wall. He closed his eyes as Evita cared for the ailing woman.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Early Morning

 

Buck rode along the trail beside Raphael, his heart beating so loudly he was sure the others could hear it. ‘Took a shot to the head…took a shot to the head…took a shot to the head…’ Cordova’s cryptic words echoed and re-echoed through his mind and he fought the urge to spur his horse ahead.

 

Buck took a deep breath as the moon illuminated the dwelling ahead and glanced at Raphael. “Is that where JD is?”

 

“Si, Amigo, but if you ride in there you will get a face full of buckshot. Let me ride ahead and warn Carmella you are here,” Cordova told him.

 

Buck nodded his head and reluctantly stayed back as Raphael and his compadres rode toward the house. There was light from a single window and Wilmington knew that was where he would find JD. He silently prayed the ‘kid’ would survive the wound, but something told him it would be a hard fight. Without realizing he’d done so Buck spurred the horse forward as Raphael entered the house.

 

“Buck, hold on a minute,” Sanchez warned.

 

“I need to see him,” Wilmington said simply.

 

“I know you do, but give Raphael a chance to talk to them,” the ex-preacher ordered. They pulled up at the hitching post near the corral and waited for Cordova’s return.

 

When Raphael did Buck slid from the saddle, dropped his reins and hurried forward. “Is he…”

 

“He is alive, Buck, but he is still unconscious,” Cordova explained.

 

“Damn,” Wilmington said and followed the Mexican into the house. He nodded to the man sitting at the table and made his way into the bedroom. His breath caught in his throat and he swore his heart skipped a beat when he spotted the Bostonian. JD’s dark hair was matted with a mixture of blood and sweat and stuck to his head. His skin was washed out pale except for a vivid bruise that totally covered the side of his face. “Jesus, Kid, should’ve made you stay in town.”

 

“Buck, Josiah, Ezra, this is Carmella and Cristóbal Covas. They have been taking care of JD since we brought him here,” Cordova explained.

 

“Thank you, Senora,” Sanchez said as Wilmington sat on the edge of the bed and gently touched the younger man’s arm.

 

“You are welcome, Senor, but I did very little. Raphael has been the one to spend his time caring for your young friend. He would have died had my cousin not brought him here,” Carmella explained.

 

“We owe you all a debt of gratitude for what you have done,” Standish said.

 

“No, Javier told me he trusts Raphael and Raphael seems to trust you…that is enough for me,” the woman told them and reached for the basin of water. “I will get more water and warm up the stew we had for supper.”

 

“We don’t want to put you out, Senora,” Sanchez said.

 

“Nonsense, there is plenty,” Carmella said and hurried from the room.

 

“She is not one to take no for an answer,” Cristóbal told them.

 

Buck could hear the others talking, but he did not feel like joining in as he watched the slow rise and fall of the Bostonian’s chest. “Hell, Kid, can’t leave you alone for a minute.”

 

“Buck, he’s a fighter,” Standish said and saw the rogue’s head nod simply. He knew Wilmington had taken the Easterner under his wing, they all had, but for Buck it was like he’d found the younger brother he’d always longed for. Ezra silently prayed JD would make a full recovery, because if he didn’t Wilmington would never forgive himself. “If I was inclined to make a wager I would bet everything I have on JD Dunne…”

 

“Hear that, Kid, Ezra’s sidin’ with the sure bet,” Wilmington said with a slight smile. Buck watched as Josiah placed a hand on JD’s forehead, carefully avoiding the bandage that covered the wound.

 

“Lord, please keep him safe and protect him during his journey back to us,” Sanchez said and made the sign of the cross on his chest before nodding to Wilmington and moving back.

 

“Hear that, Kid, you got a lot of folks countin’ on ya,” the rogue said as Carmella returned with a clean basin of cool water. Without a word he took the cloth and gently bathed the feverish Bostonian’s face while the others looked on. “Josiah, we need ta go after Chris, Vin, and Nathan.”

 

“I know…”

 

“My compadres and I will gladly help,” Cordova told them.

 

“Good, ‘cause it sounds like we’ll need all the help we can get,” Wilmington vowed.

 

“Senor, why don’t you and the others eat and make plans while I sit with JD?” Carmella offered.

 

Buck stared into her eyes and knew this woman would do everything he would to care for the younger man. He took her hand and placed a gentle kiss on it before speaking softly. “God shone His light when you were born.”

 

Carmella smiled and understood his meaning as she took the seat he vacated. There was something about the three men she trusted and she watched as her husband moved to join them. Alone with her charge she hummed a soft tune while placing a cool cloth across his forehead.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Four Corners

Early Morning

 

Mary Travis watched as the town came to life, but there was something missing. The people may not realize it, but they’d come to rely on the seven peacekeepers hired by her father-in-law. The men of the town were working together to keep ‘the bad element’ out, but they didn’t have the same reputation as Larabee and the others. So far they’d kept the unsavory characters out, but Mary knew it was only a matter of time before someone like Guy Royal or Stuart James decided to try something. She took a deep breath and turned to see Inez Recillos filling a cup with coffee.

 

“Mary, are you okay?” the Mexican woman asked and offered the drink.

 

“I’m fine, Inez,” the newspaperwoman answered, accepting the cup of coffee and watching the other customers seated around the saloon. She knew the other woman was worried about a certain rogue, and wished she could put her mind at ease, but so far there’d been no word. Nothing since Buck, Josiah, and Ezra had ridden out in search of the missing men.

 

“Have there been any more raids?” Recillos asked.

 

“No, thank God,” Mary answered.

 

“Si, I thank Him every day and pray the others are safe. There are a lot of people in Senor Sanchez’s church even though he is not around.”

 

“People need to have faith and the church is a safe haven for anyone who believes,” Mary told her as Gloria Potter joined them. It seemed like the saloon had become the meeting spot to share information and it no longer surprised her when she entered to find men and women seated at the tables drinking coffee and eating their meals. “It amazes me how many people have shown their support for Chris and the others. Everyone is pitching in to keep the town safe.”

 

“Yosemite has done a good job of organizing the men, but I worry that Royal will try something,” Potter told her.

 

“I hope not…this town has enough to worry about,” Mary said.

 

“Mary, have faith,” Gloria said softly as Inez moved to serve the couple who entered and asked if there’d been any word from the peacekeepers. “Lord have mercy…here comes one of the troublemakers.”

 

Mary turned to see who Gloria spoke of and wished the man would just go away, but his next words were directed at her.

 

“Mrs. Travis, this is unacceptable. I demand you contact Judge Travis immediately!” Conklin snapped.

 

“Why is that, Mr. Conklin?” Mary asked.

 

“Those men are supposed to be here to protect the town not off on some…”

 

“Those men you’re talking about are doing what Orrin asked them to do. Those bandits have been killing and terrorizing people and Orrin asked Chris to look into it…”

 

“I’m sure he didn’t mean for them all to go…what about the people of this town?”

 

“What about them?” the newspaperwoman snapped. “It seems to me Yosemite and the other...men of this town are doing a wonderful job.”

 

“They are not the ones being paid…”

 

“No, they aren’t, they do it because they know what Chris is doing is right, unlike those who have never given them a chance. Quit being part of the problem, Mr. Conklin, and start being part of the solution!” Travis spat.

 

“What do you mean…”

 

“She means go away and leave the protection of this town to the people who really care about it and the people!” Gloria interrupted.

 

“Now see here…”

 

“I believe it is time you left, Senor,” Inez said upon joining the group.

 

“You have no right to speak to me…”

 

“She does,” Mary said and stood up, not surprised to find there were several others, both men and women who stood and backed her up.

 

“You haven’t heard the last of this!”

 

“Yes, I have,” Mary said and turned her back on the town’s resident troublemaker. She sat down and nodded her thanks to everyone before saying a silent prayer for the safe return of the town’s protectors.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

 

Nathan made his way down the stairs, his heart aching with every step he took. He knew time was getting short and that there was less than 24 hours before De Rivera forced Chris and Vin into the Arena de Muerte. Both men were fighting fevers and in spite of the food, water, and juices they were not strong enough to fight Don Paulo’s men.

 

Juanita unlocked the door for him and he entered to find both men sleeping, or so it appeared, but he wasn’t all that surprised when two sets of eyes opened and looked up at him. He took note of the empty pitcher and half eaten food as Juanita lifted the tray and left him alone with the two men. His heart rose in his throat at the thought of the abuse they suffered while he was practically living in the lap of luxury.

 

“Ain’t yet fault, Nate,” Tanner offered with no need for an explanation.

 

“Maybe not, but it don’t make it any easier,” the healer said. “How are you feeling?”

 

“Better’n I did,” the Texan assured him, but the sheen of sweat covering his face and chest belied the words.

 

“Chris…”

 

“I’m fine, Nathan…”

 

“I wish that ya were,” Jackson said and sat down heavily. “Look, I ain’t got much time so let me take a look atcha both.”

 

“Yer a cranky cuss this mornin’,” the Texan lightly teased. He lay back and allowed the former slave to check out the multiple bruises before easing onto his side.

 

“Ya passin’ any blood?” Jackson asked.

 

“Not since yesterday,” Tanner answered. “Back’s still givin’ me fits.”

 

“I ‘spect it is,” the healer said and reached for the tin of salve. “I’m gonna rub some more of this in.”

 

“Make sure yer hands ain’t cold…”

 

“I ain’t the only cranky cuss…”

 

Chris sat on the edge of the bed and listened to the two men talking. He knew Tanner wasn’t feeling half as good as he let on. During the long hours he’d lain awake he’d heard the muted guttural cries that escaped whenever Tanner tried to move. Tanner’s back had always given him problems and the blows he’d received made it even worse. He rubbed at his head, wishing the headache would ease, but it wouldn’t until he could get a good night’s sleep. Yet he knew that would not happen as long as the nightmare images of JD Dunne’s final moments replayed every time he closed his eyes.

 

“All right, Chris, let’s take a look atcha,” Jackson said, his heart aching when he looked into the sad, bloodshot eyes. He hated seeing the defeat in the sea-green depths, but he understood exactly where the emotions came from. He gently rubbed salve on the angry marks left by the whip and wished there was an easy fix for what ailed them all, but Don Garcia De Rivera had no sympathy for them. The man was a bastard, one who would pay dearly on judgement day, and Nathan hoped that would come for him before any more of his friends were made to suffer.

 

“Nathan, you must come right away,” Juanita said as she placed the tray on the table between the beds.

 

“What’s wrong?” Jackson asked.

 

“It is Dona Maria…she is having pain…much pain,” Juanita explained.

 

“Go, Nate,” Larabee ordered.

 

Nathan hated leaving the two men, but there was nothing more he could do for them, whereas Dona Maria was probably in full labor and he would need to help care for her. With a quick nod to both men he hurried out of the cell and raced up the stairs. No matter how much he disliked Don Garcia, Nathan would not allow that hatred to influence how he cared for Dona Maria and her baby. He entered the room to find Evita bathing the sweat soaked face.

 

“Where have you been?” Don Garcia’s angry voice came from the deeper shadows of the room.

 

Nathan glanced at him and shuddered when he was reminded of a ghoul from the old stories, for that was exactly what the haggard face reminded him of. “I was taking care of your prisoners!” Jackson snapped and moved to the bed. “How is she, Evita?”

 

“Nathan,” Dona Maria whispered tiredly and reached for his hand, grasping it weakly as her eyes searched his. “My baby…he is ready to see the world. Help him be strong…help me see his face before I…before I…”

 

“Sh, Dona Maria,” Evita soothed and wished she could make the elderly man leave, but Don Garcia seemed determined to stay where he was. 

 

“Evita, will you care for m…my son as you h…have Luis?”

 

“I will, but you must rest now and save your strength,” Evita told her.

 

Nathan felt the woman’s fingers wrap tightly around his own as she suffered through another contraction. He hoped and prayed both the woman and child would have the strength to survive childbirth. He glanced toward De Rivera and wished the man would leave, but returned his attention to the pregnant woman as she gasped in pain. Nathan knew it was going to be a long day and began telling Evita what he needed.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Mid-Morning

 

Buck leaned back in the chair and knew he’d need to get some rest before making any concrete decisions on how best to proceed. He wanted nothing more than to charge into the De Rivera hacienda and rescue the three men being held there, but Raphael had quickly explained what a foolhardy plan that would be. They’d been talking for so long his throat felt as if it was on fire.

 

“There may be someone in De Rivera’s employ we can rely on,” Augusta Medina explained and looked at Cordova.

 

“Luis?” Cordova said.

 

“Who’s Luis?” Sanchez asked.

 

“Luis Martinez. His mother has worked on the hacienda since De Rivera married his first wife. It is said that Luis is Don Garcia’s bastard son,” Cordova explained.

 

“If he’s De Rivera’s son why would he help us?” Standish asked.

 

“Si, Rivera does not acknowledge him, but Luis has been loyal since his birth,” Cordova said and looked at Medina. “Why would you think Luis would help us?”

 

“I have spoken with him and I know he does not like how his ‘papa’ treats his mother,” Medina explained. “It seems Luis and his men have been doing what they can to help the villagers when the bandits attack.”

 

“I thought the bandits worked for De Rivera?” Cristóbal observed.

 

“They do, but as I said Luis does not agree with De Rivera’s actions,” Medina told them.

 

“Can we afford to trust him?” Standish asked.

 

“A better question would be…can we afford not to trust him?” Cordova said and studied Medina closely. “Do you think you could get word to Luis?”

 

“I know of several places he visits and can leave word that I wish to speak with him, but it could take a few days,” Medina told them.

 

“Chris, Vin, and Nathan might not have a few days,” Wilmington offered.

 

“We don’t have much choice, Buck. We go in there all piss and vinegar and we’re just going to get them killed. At least if we have inside help we have a chance to come out of this alive…all of us,” Sanchez said.

 

“Damn it…we can’t just sit here and do nothing,” the worried rogue snapped.

 

“We won’t be,” Cordova said laying a hand on the tense mustached man's shoulder. “We know enough about De Rivera’s hacienda to start coming up with a plan to get the others out. Augusta, if Martinez doesn’t side with us will he be a problem?”

 

“I do not think so, compadres,” Medina supplied. “Luis is a good man in spite of who sired him.”

 

“I hope you’re right,” Wilmington said, standing and stretching the kinks from his back. “I’m gonna go sit with JD a spell…you boys come up with anything just let me know.”

 

“All right, Buck,” Sanchez answered and watched the weary man make his way toward the bedroom. He knew how hard this was on all of them, but for Buck it was like watching over a kid brother and not liking where it seemed to be headed. ‘Lord, don’t take this personal, but I’m growing tired of the trials You've been sending our way.’

 

Buck knew the others were right, but that didn’t make the decision any easier for him. They’d talked through the night and most of the morning and plans had been made to rescue Chris, Vin, and Nathan. The problem was they needed more men if they had any chance of doing that.

 

Buck stood in the doorway of the room where JD slept, oblivious to the upcoming dangers. Carmella Covas had stayed with the Bostonian through the night, but Dunne had yet to regain consciousness. The kid’s features were slack, his skin paler than ever, and Buck couldn’t rid himself of the thought that he was looking at a corpse. A shiver of dread shook him to the core, but he moved into the room and ran his fingers through his sweat soaked hair.

 

“He is a fighter, Senor,” Carmella said. She’d known who it was the instant he’d stopped in the doorway, and wished she could rid him of his fears, but that would not happen until the boy regained consciousness.

 

“Yes, he is,” Wilmington agreed, smiling as the woman touched her hand against JD’s cheek.

 

“He is so young,” she whispered.

 

“Too young to have seen the things he has, Ma’am,” the rogue told her. He moved to sit on the edge of the bed and wished JD would give them some sign that he was okay. Nathan had told them how serious head injuries could be, but somehow this brought it all home. The kid was usually so full of life, but right now he was so still it scared the hell out of Buck. He reached out and placed a hand on JD’s chest, relieved to feel the rise and fall of the chest that told him the kid was alive.

 

“Buck, I’m going to make some lunch…come get me if he…if you need anything,” Carmella said.

 

“I will,” Wilmington said and felt his gut clench at the thought of the possibility of losing the kid who’d wormed his way into his heart. “Come on, Kid, don’t make me come in there…wherever you are and tear you a new hide…come on, JD, I never thought of you as a quitter so you’d best not be thinking of making me a liar.”

 

Buck looked up at the sound of footsteps and wasn’t surprised to find Ezra and Josiah watching him. “He’s too damn quiet…ain’t never known the kid to be this still even when he’s sleeping.”

 

“Master Dunne gives new meaning to the words a hen on a hot rock,” Standish said.

 

“You’ve been hanging around Vin…” Wilmington observed, with a ghost of a smile thinking on the drawling Texan, "...too long..."

 

“Has he given any sign that he knows you’re here, Buck?” Sanchez asked.

 

“Not a damn thing,” the worried rogue answered. He cupped his hands to his face and wondered if he’d ever be able to tease the Easterner about his hat or about the ladies. A large hand, gentle in spite of the size touched his shoulder and he heard Sanchez whisper a soft prayer and prayed the young man would hear their plea.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Late Afternoon

 

Nathan could see how much this was taking out of the woman as another contraction rocked her body and stole her breath away.  The baby fought to be born just as hard as his mother fought to draw another breath into her body. Evita continued to wash Dona Maria’s face with a cool cloth, but the glistening beads of sweat continued to appear on her forehead and cheeks.

 

Nathan cast a sideways glance at Don Garcia De Rivera who was seated at the table with a bottle of wine and a cigar clutched in his gnarled fingers. The Haciendada had yet to move since Dona Maria went into labor. The man’s eyes were cold, calculating, with none of the love and worry a man should have for a wife in obvious pain and distress. There was more cruelty to this man than he’d imagined and he hoped the unborn child would be like his mother. The world already had enough cruelty in it without adding another child to the mix.

 

Jackson turned back to the bed as Dona Maria cried out weakly and her body shook with the force of a contraction. He moved to check her progress and knew it wouldn’t be much longer. Dona Maria’s water had broken and the baby was ready to make its entrance, but it was doubtful whether his mother would live long enough to see him.

 

“Nathan, she grows weaker with each contraction,” Evita said softly as Dona Maria reached for her hand.

 

“My baby…pl…please, Evita, take c…care of m…my baby f...or me…”

 

“I will, Dona Maria, but only until you are strong enough to care for him yourself,” Evita vowed, leaning forward and gently brushing back the stray locks of sweat soaked dark hair that fell across the younger woman’s face.

 

“A boy needs a good mo…mother…”

 

“And he has one…one who will love him forever,” Evita told her.

 

Nathan watched Dona Maria’s face and again was reminded of a wilting flower whose beauty shone through in spite of what life had thrown at her. There was also something angelic in her features and a deep sadness surrounded him as he realized he was looking death in the face and that Dona Maria De Rivera would not survive childbirth. He silently prayed she would at least get to hold her child and look into his face before God called her home.

 

“Nathan, my baby…he’s re…ready,” Dona Maria gasped and clutched the sheets as another, stronger contraction brought beads of sweat to her forehead.

 

Nathan glanced at Don Rivera and again felt as if the man held no warmth for this woman. He took a deep breath and checked the baby’s position as Evita tried to calm the young woman. He’d delivered a lot of babies since finding a home in Four Corners, some had been hard births while others had been a simple matter of the mother pushing a little harder. Never in his life had he seen such a hard father who showed little or no concern about his wife. Dona Maria De Rivera was just a vessel that could give him what he wanted. 

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

Luis Martinez knew his mother was helping with the birth of Don Rivera’s child. A child who would be his half-brother, yet his ‘papa’ would never admit to their being brothers. Luis knew Don Garcia wanted to mold the child into his own image and prayed the boy would be spared that kind of life.

 

“Luis, where are you?”

 

“I am here, Juanita,” Luis called from his hiding place behind the storage sheds. He loved this woman far more than life itself, yet Don Garcia would not allow them to be together. The elderly man felt that Juanita Perez was below them, yet he would not admit to being Luis father. He turned to see the vision of beauty walking toward him, the simple white dress did nothing to hide her curvaceous body and he reached to pull her against him.

 

“I have missed you so much, Luis,” the trembling woman told him.

 

“I have missed you too, Juanita,” Luis told her and waited for her to look into his eyes. “I love you…more than life itself.”

 

“Oh, Luis, why…why can we not be together? Why can I not share your bed like a husband and wife should?”

 

“I would like nothing more than to take you as my wife, Juanita, but Don Garcia has forbidden it.”

 

“We could leave here…”

 

“Si, we could, but we would always be on the run and that is not the life I wish for us…for you. I want to shout my love for you to the world, but if I do Don Garcia will sell you to another Haciendada and even these stolen moments will be lost to us,” Martinez told her.

 

“Dona Maria will give birth to her son today.”

 

“I know...”

 

“I wish I could bear your child…our son or daughter,” Juanita whispered, tears slipping from her eyes as he held her close and spoke of the forbidden love they shared. Someday, God willing, they would be able to hold each other and not be in fear of their lives. For now, they would have to be content to hold each other and hope someday the fates would align their paths and they could live and love without fear of the consequences.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Chris watched the Texan and knew his friend was sleeping and wished he could do the same, but his dreams were no longer a safe haven. Now they were nightmares filled with images of a young man’s death and his own guilt plagued him every time he thought about JD Dunne.

 

‘Go home, Kid.’ He had spoken those words a lifetime ago and yet the kid had stayed with them and was…had been an integral part of the makeshift family. Now the Bostonian would never tell another lame joke and for that Chris was filled with sorrow. A weighted sigh escaped as he stood up and moved around the small cell. He’d tested the manacles over and over, but there was no escaping their hold.

 

‘He’ll pay, Kid, I’ll make sure of that,’ Larabee vowed and returned to his cot. He lay down and closed his eyes, allowing a single tear to slip from his eyes.

 

In the next bed, Vin did not miss the pain emanating from his friend. He knew no matter what happened, Chris would harbor the guilt of JD’s death even though it was beyond his control. Sleep was hard to come by with the pain and weakness waging war in his body. He turned slightly and caught sight of something he never expected to see as the candlelight revealed a single trail of moisture down Chris Larabee’s face. ‘Lord, ain’t much fer prayin’, but I’m askin’ Ya ta give Chris…ta give us the strength ta get through this’ he thought before sleep finally reached for him and he fell into it willingly.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Early Evening

 

For JD the world had suddenly become measured in pain and darkness. If he felt or heard movement around him the pain would grow to encompass his mind and nausea would churn through his gut. He tried to understand what had happened to cause him such pain, but the harder he tried the worse it got until he was sure his head had exploded in a white hot fire. He heard a voice, one that had always given him strength and fought his way through the thick layer of fog that enshrouded his mind.

 

“Come on, Kid, you can do it,” Wilmington coaxed. He’d seen the way Dunne’s eyes moved beneath the closed lids, and prayed the young man would wake up. Carmella Covas was also present while the others were finalizing the plans to raid De Rivera’s hacienda. His shoulders slumped, and his eyes misted when the Easterner remained quiet.

 

“Keep talking to him, Buck, I believe he’s listening,” Carmella told him.

 

“JD, you keep this up and I just might take pot shots at that stupid hat you wear. It’s got a bunch of holes already so it’d probably be an improvement,” Wilmington said.

 

The voice was back, imploring in its teasing words and JD knew he could not refuse the man’s pleading tone. He slowly fought through the last vestiges of fear and opened his eyes to half-mast. It took a few minutes to focus on the man seated beside his bed and he wondered why Buck’s eyes were closed.

 

“Buck…”

 

“Hey, Kid, ‘bout time you woke up,” Wilmington said.

“What...where..." Dunne's voice was weak and raspy.

“We're in Mexico. You went and got yourself shot, Kid…”

“...Shot..." JD's brows furrowed, he didn't remember getting shot.

“Don't fret on that now." Buck reassured him, rubbing his shoulder. "God, you had us worried,”

“Ti…tired…”

 

“I know you are, Kid…”

 

“See if you can get him to drink this before letting him sleep,” Carmella ordered.

 

“JD, got something here for you to drink,” Wilmington said and lifted him, wincing when the Bostonian cried out sharply. “Easy, Son, I got you.”

 

Carmella held the cup of sweet juice to the slack lips and waited for the young man to drink his fill. She made sure he took several breaks, relieved when he drank most of the offering before Wilmington eased him back on the pillows.

 

JD felt cold inside as brief images overlaid his brief stint into consciousness. Flashes of memories, some jumbled, some clear as day; each one bringing with it the horrors he knew shouldn’t be real. Chris…held tightly between two men…an old man, hunched and wrinkled holding a cane in his hand…a gun…a loud noise…pain so bad it threatened to tear him apart…Chris crying out…Chris falling…dead…could that be real…God his head hurt.

 

“Chris… de…dead?” Dunne muttered before losing consciousness. He didn’t see the devastation caused by his broken sentence as the rogue’s face took on a washed out cast that nearly matched his own.

 

“No…Chris can’t…can’t be dead.”

 

“Buck, what’s wrong? Did JD wake up?” Sanchez asked. He’d come into the house with Ezra Standish and heard voices from JD’s room.

 

“He…just for a minute, but…he said Chris…Josiah, he said Chris is dead,” Wilmington stammered over the words as he looked from the unconscious young man to the two people who’d joined him beside the bed.

 

“Perhaps you are mistaken in what you heard,” Standish offered.

 

“No…I’m not…Senora Covas heard him too,” the distraught man told them.

 

“Si, I heard him,” Carmella agreed and wished she hadn’t heard the damning words.

 

“I’ll kill him, Josiah, I swear on my mother’s grave,” Wilmington vowed and slammed his fist into the wall next to the bed.

“Easy, Brother,” Sanchez warned. “JD's head's a mess right now; it's possible he's confused. Until we see a body, don't bury him yet."

Buck held the smoky eyes for a moment but his anger still simmered, then they watched as the younger man strode out of the room, stopping Ezra from following him by placing a hand on his arm.

“I just want to…

“Let 'im go, Ezra, he needs to cool down." Josiah reached into his pocket and produced the dog-eared Bible. He opened it to a passage he often read and whispered a prayer for the dead before turning his attention to the living.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Evening

 

The hacienda was quiet, nothing moved, not even a breeze ruffled the flowers or trees. The mestizos worked the field, but they knew something was happening in the big house that dominated the lush green lawn. Word had spread quickly amongst the household servants and then to the fieldworkers that Don Maria De Rivera was in labor and that the baby would soon arrive.

 

Many of those who worked under the grueling sun prayed that the beautiful woman would live through the birth of her first child, but Dona Maria was a wilting flower whose husband was like the vilest weed strangling her before she’d had a chance to bloom. They knew the child would grow up under his father’s influence, but if his mother lived her hand would also be there to show the boy what was right and what was wrong.

 

A single, beautiful voice could be heard as it rose above the hush that filled the land and brought with it a hope that filled their hearts and caused others to join in.

 

"Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,

That saved a wretch like me....

I once was lost but now am found,

Was blind, but now, I see…”

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Don Garcia De Rivera watched as Evita gently bathed his wife’s sweat soaked face as the song filtered through the partially open window. He wanted to tell them to be quiet, but he did not want to leave when his son was about to be born. Hours had passed, and still Maria did not push the baby from her body. He knew she was weak, had known it from the first night they’d lain together in their marital bed, but he didn’t care as long as she gave him an heir.

 

De Rivera grew impatient, reaching for his cane and striding toward the bed, but there was nothing he could do until his child was born. His distaste for the sight of his ailing wife was evident on his face as he strode back to the chair he’d occupied since finding out Maria would soon give birth. A sharp cry from his wife told him she was having another contraction and he watched as Evita and Nathan Jackson spoke softly, encouragingly to her.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Don Paulo’s Hacienda

Late Evening

 

Don Paulo stood framed in the dying light from the candle that flickered its last breath and went out in a spiral of black smoke. Tomorrow he would travel to the Arena De Muerte and there he would witness the death of two men he blamed for the murder of his son. Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were only two of the eight men he wanted dead, but he would settle for these two for now.

 

The sky was filled with a blanket of twinkling lights surrounding a full-bodied moon that illuminated the grounds and buildings that made up his home; a home that now stood without an heir because of a young woman who refused to give herself to his son. Inez Recillos would pay someday, he would see to that, but for now he felt the warm breath of vengeance breathing down his neck.

 

Don Paulo didn’t consider himself a cold man, but when it came to his family, he would exact revenge from those who thought they could challenge him. Don Garcia was not a close friend, but his missive had been like a binding contract, one that gave him the means to an end. 

 

Don Paulo had chosen several men to face Larabee and Tanner in the Arena De Muerte. There was no doubt in his mind that his champions would easily lay waste to the two peacekeepers, but he’d told them he wanted the murderers to suffer before they died. He turned back toward his home and stepped inside, anxious for the night to be over and the start of a day of reckoning.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Late Night

 

Maria De Rivera knew she was weakening as the strength of the labor pains increased. Her child waited to be born and she pushed as Evita held her hand. The pillows and sheets beneath her were soaked with sweat as her body reacted to the pain, hope, and promise of the baby’s birth.

 

“I see the head,” Nathan said and heard the woman’s soft sobs as she bore down and pushed with what little strength she had left. He could see tears in Evita’s eyes and chanced a glance in Don Rivera’s direction. The old man remained where he’d been since he’d been informed that the baby’s birth was imminent, yet Nathan knew it was for selfish reasons and not for concern for his wife.

 

“Please…so tired,” Dona Maria whispered as the contraction eased and she lay back on the bed. Her rest was short lived as another contraction hit on the heels of the one before and Evita helped her sit forward.

 

“Push, Dona Maria, that’s it, you’re almost there,” Nathan said as the head crowned.

 

“I can’t…”

 

“It’s okay, Dona Maria,” Evita said and eased her back against the pillows before reaching for the wet cloth and washing her face.

 

“Evita, please, watch out for my baby…don’t let him…” She didn’t finish as another contraction hit and she pushed with everything she could.

 

Nathan reached between her legs as the baby was pushed through the opening and quickly cut the umbilical cord. He could hear Evita speaking to the baby’s mother, but he continued to clear the newborn’s mouth and nose. It worried him that the child had yet to make a sound.

 

“Let me see my son!” Don Garcia ordered.

 

“Just a minute!” Jackson snapped.

 

“Do not speak to me…”

 

“The baby’s not breathing!” Nathan told him and ignored the irate Haciendada as he cared for the child.

 

“Bring him to me,” Dona Maria whispered and Nathan did as she asked, fear and worry evident on his face as he placed the babe in his mother’s arms.

 

“You will live to be strong like your grand…father,” she said and kissed his forehead. The instant her lips touched the child, the baby let out a cry and Maria took one final breath before her eyes closed and the Angel of Death came for her.

 

Evita looked at him, her eyes filled with tears as he shook his head. The woman’s fight was over, but at least she’d had the chance to hold her baby and that was something Nathan was grateful for. He watched as Evita lifted the wailing child and wrapped him in a blanket made of the softest wool.

 

Evita turned to the man who’d sired the child and wished she could refuse to show him his son, but that was not her place in this world. She felt the baby relax in her arms and knew he was asleep; exhausted by the fight he’d made to make his appearance in this world.

 

“He will grow to be a strong man,” Don Garcia said.

 

“Yes, he will,” Evita agreed.

 

“You will find a wet nurse for him,” the Haciendada ordered and turned to Nathan Jackson. “You will see to the two men and have them readied for the Arena!”

 

“And if I refuse?” Jackson snarled.

 

“Then Tanner will die by my hand and Larabee will face the challengers on his own. I believe they may have a chance together, but alone Larabee will certainly die. It is your choice, Senor Jackson!”

 

“You’re a cruel bastard, Don Garcia!”

 

“Watch your mouth…or I’ll have you whipped!”

 

“Please, Don Garcia, Nathan is tired…he does not mean what he says,” Evita offered, hoping she could keep the man from harm.

 

“Very well…if he apologizes he can tend to his friends,” Don Garcia offered.

 

“Please, Nathan, do as he asks,” the woman told him.

 

“I’m sorry,” Jackson said easily, his head held high as he said the words without emotion.

 

“Very well…I will arrange to have Dona Maria buried in the family plot,” De Rivera said and walked from the room.

 

“How can a man be so cruel?” Jackson asked.

 

“He has always been that way,” Evita answered. “He will not even be there when she is laid to rest.”

 

“The old bastard is the devil’s spawn,” Jackson whispered.

 

“Yes, he is,” Evita agreed. “I am sorry, Nathan, but I must find a wet nurse for him.” 

 

“I need to go check on Chris and Vin anyway,” the former slave told her and turned to look at the woman who’d lived for such a short time, yet had left a beautiful mark on this world. “God has brought another Angel home,” he whispered before covering her face and hurrying from the room.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Late Night

 

Josiah slumped against the porch railing and stared up as a blanket of stars dotted the sky, surrounding a full-bodied moon that seemed bigger than usual. The others were sleeping, except for Buck who was seated in a chair watching over the unconscious JD Dunne. The young man remained unaware of his surroundings even when they managed to force water down his throat.

 

Josiah was worried, more so than he let on as he thought about the missing men. Nathan, Chris, and Vin were in the lion’s den, and he silently prayed they would live through the experience, much as Daniel had done when he’d been tossed into the lion’s den. He heard movement behind him and turned to find Raphael standing in the open doorway.

 

“Thought you were sleeping,” Sanchez observed.

 

“Too damn hot,” Cordova answered.

 

“It is warm,” the ex-preacher agreed and nodded toward the doorway. “Is Buck still sitting with JD?”

 

“I do not think wild horses could drag him away,” Raphael said. “He is worried.”

 

“We all are, but Buck took JD under his wing a long time ago." The large man paused and found a soft smile. "When JD's wounded, Buck's the one who bleeds."

 

“He is strong…”

 

“Who…JD or Buck?”

 

“Both…all of you. You are a band of brothers in a war against people like Don Garcia and Don Paulo.”

 

“As long as there are people like them we’ll never find peace,” Sanchez told him.

 

“Peace is not all it is cracked up to be,” Cordova said, lighting a cheroot as he leaned against the wall and stared out into the darkness. The two men remained silent as they listened to the night birds in the surrounding trees.

 



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