WHEN THE SUN COMES BACK

by Winnie

 


De Rivera Hacienda

Late Night

 

With a heavy heart, Nathan made the trip to the cell housing his two friends, but he wasn’t sure he had the strength he needed to care for Larabee and Tanner. The loss of a life was always something that tore at his soul, even when there was nothing he could have done to change things.

 

The worn healer stopped in the deserted kitchen and grabbed some fresh fruit and juice from the table before heading for the basement. It wasn’t much and he briefly wondered if he could help his friends escape, but movement in the hallway alerted him to the fact that he was not alone. There were guards stationed throughout the house, the grounds, and even the surrounding area, making it impossible for them to escape. The condition of the two men also made it hard to consider escaping because neither man seemed to have the strength.

 

Nathan made his way down the stairs, forgetting that the door was locked and had to return to the main floor in search of the keys. His frustration grew when he didn’t find them, but spotted Luis Martinez standing near an open window. “Luis…”

 

“Nathan…did Dona Maria give birth?”

 

“Yes, you have a brother,” Jackson said as the lamp showed a hint of a smile on the other man’s face.

 

“What of Dona Maria?”

 

“She saw her son’s face before the Lord called her home.”

 

"I am sorry to hear that, she was a good woman."  Luis observed sadly.  “A boy should not grow up without the love of his mother.”

 

“Your mother will help raise him, Luis, and if he’s half the man you are then he should be able to stand proud.”

 

“I have nothing to be proud of, Nathan, I am my father’s son.”

 

“You are also your mother’s son and someday you’ll realize your proper place in this world. It is something we have to find for ourselves.”

 

“Si, that it is…why are you down here?”

 

“Don Garcia told me to check on the prisoners,” Jackson said, hoping he kept his emotions from showing.

 

“I have the keys,” Luis said and motioned for Jackson to follow him. They made their way down the stairs and Martinez quickly unlocked the door to allow the former slave to enter. He handed him the lamp and looked at the two men in the room. Both seemed to be sleeping; yet Luis knew appearances could be deceiving. The set of their shoulders told him neither man ever really let down their guard.

 

Luis heard movement in the kitchen and the soft sound of a baby crying. He knew it was his half-brother and thought about the life that lay ahead of him. The child would want for nothing…except a mother’s loving hands to guide him. His mother’s voice reached his ears as he heard her softly singing to the babe and he felt tears in his eyes. Somehow he would make sure the baby knew what it meant to be loved, no matter what it took.

 

“Nathan, I will be in the kitchen when you are finished.”

 

“Thanks, Luis,” Jackson said and sighed as he rubbed tiredly at his eyes.

 

“Ya look like shit, Nate,” Tanner observed softly.

 

“Looked in a mirror lately, Vin?” the former slave asked.

 

“Cain’t say I ‘ave,” the Texan said with a hint of a smile on his pale face.

 

“How do you feel?”

 

“Pro’bly’s bad as I look,” Tanner offered.

 

“Ya eat or drink anything?”

 

“Ate some…drank some.”

 

“Vin,” Jackson started, his breath catching in his throat as he looked at the two men who’d saved his life on a dusty street before they’d even known his name. “Ain’t nothin’ I can do about tomorrow, but if you and Chris get a chance ta run…”

 

“Ain’t ‘bout ta run out and leave ya here,” Tanner vowed.

 

“Christ, Vin, from what I hear you and Chris don’t stand much chance.”

 

“We beat the odds b’fore, Nate, ain’t one ta back down in a fight…’sides I got Chris ta watch muh back.”

 

“Ya both need to eat and drink…I’ll come back before they take ya to the arena. God help me, but I wish there was somethin’ more I could do.”

 

“Yer doin’ it, Nate,” Tanner said and offered his hand in more than friendship. “See ya on the other side.”

 

“You’d better,” Jackson said before leaving the room.

 

Chris had lain awake and listened to the two men talk, but his mind was on the young man lying in a shallow grave. During the long hours since JD’s death, Chris had thought of the many ways he could make De Rivera suffer for what he’d done, but nothing really satisfied his need for vengeance.

 

“Stop thinkin’ so damn hard. Yer makin’ muh hair hurt,” Tanner drawled.

 

“Thought you were sleeping.”

 

“Sleep? With yer damn silence hoverin’?” the Texan asked and turned on his side so he could see the other man bathed in the light of the lamp Jackson had left. “He’ll pay, Chris, ya got muh word on that.”

With a nod of his head, Larabee closed his eyes and let the sound of his friend’s breathing ease him into a troubled sleep.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

North of the De Rivera Hacienda

Dawn

 

Luis Martinez rode as if the devil was on his heels and there were times when he swore he could feel the creature’s talons digging into his legs. He’d never been one to set much store in the tales of devils and fairy creatures the mestizo people in the village spoke of, yet his own father could easily have been the legend such things were made of.

 

Martinez had stayed long enough to see his half-brother and help find a wet nurse for him, but then the urge for flight had caught him and he’d saddled his horse. Now with the wind whipping the hat from his head and the warm breeze sending his hair flying in all directions he felt free, but understood it was a false sense of freedom. He would never be free as long as Don Garcia De Rivera had any influence over his life.

 

Luis spurred his horse forward at breakneck speed, hoping and praying he could put a safe distance between himself and the hacienda. He knew it was only a temporary reprieve, because there were people he cared about who were still under Don Garcia’s rule of thumb, his mother and Juanita were first and foremost on his mind. He’d ride with the wind, but at some point he would turn the horse around and go back to his home.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Early Morning

 

There was no mistaking the sound of a rooster crowing in the distance and Buck reluctantly opened his eyes, frowning as he realized he’d spent the night in a chair. A soft sound from somewhere in the room had him searching for the source and a weary brow shot up as memory returned with the light of day.

 

“Easy, Kid, I’m here,” he whispered. He reached out and placed his hand on Dunne’s shoulder and sighed, as JD seemed to settle with his touch. The sun was peeking through the partially opened curtains that seemed to dance on the morning’s breeze, yet Buck felt none of the warmth he usually associated with this promise of reawakening.

 

The weary rogue leaned back in the chair and hoped the headache he felt coming on would not become more irritating than it already was. He knew sleep was the only cure, but real sleep was something of a rare commodity, sort of like one of Ezra’s expensive drinks of choice.

 

“God, Kid,” Wilmington said, wondering when he’d ever felt so tired, so alone. His mind wandered back to the dark days that followed the deaths of Sarah and Adam Larabee and Buck knew this was just a step above that. He knew in his heart that JD would make it, yet somewhere deep inside he knew Chris Larabee was dead. The darkness having left him, but the evil had still ensnared him in its trap.

 

“Are you all right, Buck?”

 

Wilmington turned to find Ezra watching him and it was a testament to the younger man’s feelings that he didn’t try to hide behind the five dollar words he was so damned proud of. “Yes…no…Hell, I don’t know, Ezra. Are any of us all right?”

 

Ezra moved into the room and stared down at the pale-faced young man and took a deep breath before speaking softly as if the sound of his voice might cause JD Dunne more pain. “No, I do not believe we are…not at this precise moment, but we will find the others and everything will be all right.”

 

“I hope so, Ez, because I’m too damn young to have a head full of gray hair,” Wilmington said seriously.

 

“I’ll stay with Master Dunne if you want to partake of breakfast with the others,” Standish offered and watched as the blue eyes came up to meet his.

 

“I guess I oughta eat somethin'," Buck decided, his eyes flitting to the pale body in the bed.

 

Standish read the hesitation and moved closer, resting a hand on Wilmington's shoulder. "If he as much as flutters an eyelash, I will summon you post haste."


"You readin' minds now?" Buck teased, seeing clearly how much Standish was concerned .He stood and sighed hard, giving the conman a grateful nod. "Thanks, Pard."

 

Ezra waited until Buck left and then stared at the pale face, the nearly undetectable rise and fall of the chest, and reached out to touch Dunne’s arm in an effort to reassure himself that he was still counted amongst the living.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

South of the Covas Home

Early Morning

 

Augusta Medina knew he was taking a chance, but continued south on the trail that would intercept with the main one leading to the De Rivera Hacienda. He knew if he was caught by anyone, but Luis Martinez, his life would be forfeit. That was the way of his chosen life, and it was too late to change it now. He rode with Raphael Cordova De Martinez by choice, not by force and that’s what bred loyalty.

 

Medina had led a hard life, one ripe with punishment and fear. Then one day, as if the fates had ordained it he’d met Raphael and was soon riding alongside him. He left nothing behind, his family having died long ago, leaving an orphan to fend for himself. He’d stolen food, just enough to keep him alive, but it hadn’t mattered to the Don he’d taken the biscuits from, because he’d been forced to work for him.

 

Augusta had often wondered what his life would have been like if the fates hadn’t intervened and shown him he could have ‘brothers-in-arms’. That a man’s true worth was measured by the real friends he had and not by the amount of money in his coffers. He owed Cordova more than just loyalty; he owed him his life. Medina would ride to hell and back if Raphael ordered him to and he wondered what it was about the man that seemed to instill a sense of loyalty in those who chose to follow him.

 

Medina thought about the injured boy at the Covas home and remembered the stories Raphael had told them all. Stories of heroism and loyalty in a band of brothers that was even more misconceived of than the one he belonged to. Every man had a place in this world, a reason for living, and Augusta knew it was his lot to follow and aid those who helped the innocent. Raphael deserved that much, and more, and he would give his life if that’s what was needed.

 

With those thoughts running through his mind, Augusta Medina rode toward the lion’s den in hopes of meeting one who would not sharpen his claws on his body.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

 

The sun had barely risen when a lone man made his way toward the small chapel. It had been a long night with very little sleep as nightmares intruded every time he closed his eyes. The death of Dona Maria De Rivera weighed heavily on his mind, filling Nathan’s heart with a sadness he hadn’t felt since his mother’s death.

 

Nathan pushed open the door, relieved to find the chapel deserted at this hour and moved to light a candle on the altar. He made the sign of the cross and knelt at the front as his eyes filled with unshed moisture.

 

“Lord, I ain’t got Josiah’s voice and I ain’t much fer preachin’, but it seems I’m always askin’ fer things lately. It ain’t for myself…not direc’ly anyways,” Jackson began and took a deep breath as he thought about the baby. Evita had told him the child’s name would be Santos, a special name given by his mother and was said to be given in order to invoke the protection of the Saints. Santos Garcia De Rivera, the name sounded strong and Nathan hoped the child would grow up with his mother’s qualities in spite of his father’s influence. “I know the birth of a baby is a blessed event and I’m prayin’ you’ll be watchin’ o’er him. The boy is gonna need ta be strong if he’s to survive, and I know Evita will look after him, but his father is a cruel man, Lord, and he’ll try ta meld the boy in his own image. I’m beggin’ ya not ta let that happen.”

 

Nathan sighed tiredly at the thought of the two men in the cell and what the fates had in store for them. Again he made the sign of the cross and closed his eyes in prayer. “Lord, Chris and Vin…they’s got a fight ahead of ‘em and I’m hopin’ ya’ll have their back ‘cause neither one of ‘em’s strong ‘nough fer what’s ahead. Give ‘em the strength they need and I’ll try and keep the faith that yer not gonna forsake us…Amen.”

 

Nathan heard sounds outside the door and stood up. He knew he’d said his peace and hoped it was enough, but for now it was all he could do. He needed to get his things ready if he planned to be of any help to Chris and Vin.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Luis Martinez returned to the Hacienda as the early morning sun brought with it the promise of a new day. In deference to Dona Maria’s death, the fields were quiet and would remain so until after she was laid to rest. He drew his horse to a stop near the stables and dismounted as a soft breeze blew across his face.

 

Dona Maria’s fight was over, but there were two men who would face death today and he knew there was nothing he could do to change those circumstances. He had a half-brother to worry about now, and his mother was still under Don Garcia’s rule of thumb and that placed a heavy burden on his shoulders.

 

Luis turned and drew his gun at the sound of approaching footsteps, surprised when a man stepped from the shadows holding up a piece of white cloth. It took him a few seconds to recognize the newcomer, but his instincts would not allow him to let down his guard so quickly.

 

“Nice to see you have not lost your touch, Amigo,” Medina said softly.

 

“I have never seen us as amigos, Augusta, but we are not enemies either…at least not yet,” Martinez offered.

 

“I hope I never give you reason to see me as an enemy, Luis,” Medina explained.

 

“Why did you come?” Martinez asked.

 

“I ride with Raphael Cordova De Martinez…”

 

“I heard that. He is a good man,” Luis said.

 

“Si, he is,” Medina agreed and took a deep breath. “There is trouble, Luis…trouble only you can help with.”

 

“What kind of trouble?”

 

“Don Garcia is becoming more dangerous and he is hurting people north of the border. His bandits have raided several homesteads and the laws north of the Rio Grande are different than ours. There are several men who protect a town called Four Corners…”

 

“I have heard of them.”

 

“Then you know they are dangerous.”

 

“Si, but what does that have to do with Don Garcia?”

 

“He has prisoners and if I am correct they are the men from Four Corners…”

 

“Watch yourself, Augusta. What you speak of is not your business.”

 

“Perhaps not, but I tend to make it my business when I see men like Don Garcia get away with murder through his men. I know you well enough to know you would question your ‘padre’s’ orders, Luis,” Medina said and continued when the other man remained silent. “Did you know he killed a boy, only the boy was not as dead as he thought?”

 

“You speak in riddles…I have no time for them.”

 

“The boy I speak of is one of those men from Four Corners. He is alive. We found him when we were on the north trail.”

 

“The boy is alive?”

 

“Si, he is, but he was hurt badly and has been unconscious since we brought him to Javier’s cousin’s home.”

 

“What does this have to do with me?”

 

“Maybe nothing, but with your ‘padre’ plenty,” Medina answered. “We know he is planning a fight at the Arena De Muerte…”

 

“There is always a fight at the arena,” Martinez explained.

 

“Si, but this one is of interest because the fighters are gringos. Do you owe Don Garcia your loyalty, Luis?”

 

“He is my padre.”

 

“Just because a man is your ‘padre’ does not mean he has earned your loyalty. What of your Madre…does she approve of what is happening?”

 

“Mi Madre has never approved of Don Garcia,” Martinez answered. “What do you want me to do?”

 

“Raphael would like your help to stop Don Garcia and save those men.”

 

“It may be too late…they are to fight in the arena this afternoon.”

 

“This afternoon…there is no way we can stop that, but perhaps you could keep them alive until we can rescue them?”

 

“I will see what I can do, but Don Garcia…”

 

“Is thirsty for blood? Si, we know this, but there comes a time in a man’s life when he must make a stand for what he knows is right.”

 

“Even if it costs him his family?”

 

“Si, when the family is a man like De Rivera.”

 

“You should go before someone sees you, Augusta,” Martinez said and made his way toward the main house without a backward glance. He knew whatever decision he made it would mean the life or death of more than the men, it would mean his own life as well, but at least Juanita would have a reason to be proud of him.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Arena De Muerte

East of the De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Morning

 

The Arena De Muerte was so named because of the fights set up by the Dons of neighboring haciendas. Weapons were used on special occasions such as the fight that would take place today. A ritual marking of the fighters would also be implemented, a cut made to the right forearm that was meant as a tribute to those who’d fought before. Only when blood dripped onto the soil would the combatants be allowed to attack and a loud cheer would echo through the surrounding hills and mountains.

 

Most fights ended in death for one or more of the combatants with the victorious Don celebrating with a large amount of coins, new slaves, or a promise of a share of the crops. Although rich beyond most men’s dreams, the Dons loved the sport involved in a death struggle and would often raise the stakes once the first blood was spilled.

 

There were several spectators from each faction already present because word had spread that Don Garcia De Rivera and Don Paulo De Madera had arranged for a fight that would end in blood. These two Haciendadas were notorious for the rivalry that had grown between them, but it was also well known that the duo would fight beside each other against anyone who stood in their way.

 

The arena itself had been carved out of a stone outcropping. Nature’s hand could sometimes work in wondrous ways, but it was man’s hand that turned it into something dark and dangerous. The blood of many men had been spilled for the enjoyment of people born to the higher circle, but even amongst the upper echelon, there were those who were sickened by the whole affair.

 

It seemed as if even the hardiest of plants would not intrude on the Arena De Muerte, leaving the soil dark and dried by the sun’s rays. The bright orb had barely risen over the natural arena, yet it clearly shone on the section where the spectators would sit and watch the combatants. Those seats were empty now, but would soon be filled with people who’d heard about the battle and were bloodthirsty for the horror that went with it.

 

There were some who thought they could hear the cries of the dead, but did not speak of it to others for fear of being ridiculed. A small rodent scurried across the ground, unaware of the spilled blood that had soaked into the soil. Birds flew high overhead with no regard to the fight that would soon take place.

 

Don Paulo rode slightly ahead of the others, his head held high, and his shoulders straight; a true testament to the man’s regal bearing. His white hair showed beneath the hat, his mustache speckled with black, while his face was pockmarked with lines that spoke of age. He kept his eyes forward as he rode through the narrow opening and finally dismounted. This was a day of reckoning and would end in the deaths of at least two of the men responsible for his son’s death.

 

“Miguel, see that everything is in order,” Don Paulo ordered.

 

“Si, Don Paulo,” Miguel Gutierrez agreed and turned to the rest of their party. There were eight men who rode with him as protection for the House of Madera. There were four fighters on horseback, men who looked like they’d fought more than their share of battles, but Gutierrez knew they were the best Don Paulo had to offer. It was strange that Don Garcia was only supplying two men, while Don Paulo was supplying four and Miguel couldn’t help, but smile. Death would come to the Arena De Muerte, but the dead would not come from the House of Madera.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning 

 

Don Garcia De Rivera stood on the verandah overlooking his property. The fertile lands and the people who worked them now had an heir and he would rule them the same way his father did. The boy now had a wet nurse and would be cared for by Evita Martinez and would grow strong with each passing day.

 

De Rivera watched as the casket housing his wife’s body was carried along the path toward the family cemetery at the north end of the property. He knew the mestizo people would speak some words and say some prayers over her, but there was no reason for him to be there. She had simply been a vessel to carry the child who slept in the nursery on the second floor.

 

De Rivera turned away as Evita made her way toward the small entourage and knew she would care for his son while he was away from the Hacienda. His heart beat rapidly in his chest as he thought of the ‘festivities’ that lay ahead. The birth of his son was a cause for celebration, but that would have to wait until after the fight in the Arena De Muerte.

 

Don Garcia looked toward the fields; empty this morning because of the mestizos’ need to show their respect for the dead. Luis was walking toward him and he knew his bastard son would be getting things ready for the trip to the arena. He wanted Larabee and Tanner dragged from the house and motioned for Luis to join him.

 

“I am sorry for your loss,” Martinez said, but knew his sympathy held no power for this man.

 

“She gave me an heir…that is all I asked of her,” De Rivera said and turned away from the solemn parade of mourners. “Make sure the gringo bastardos are ready to leave in fifteen minutes. We must not keep Don Paulo waiting.”

 

“I will see to it,” Martinez said and brushed past his father. His distaste for the man who’d sired him had grown with the man’s seeming dismissal of the death of his wife.

 

“Make sure my steed is readied for me,” De Rivera said and stepped off the porch in time to see the parade of mourners disappear into the trees. “Today the bastardos will pay for murdering you, Alonzo,” he vowed.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Mid-Morning

 

Buck could not remember ever being so exhausted. Even during the dark days after the loss of Sarah and Adam Larabee, he’d managed to get some rest while Chris slept off another drinking binge that left him mindless and near comatose. He could not sleep, not while JD fought to keep the Angel of Death at bay.

 

“God, Kid, we need you to wake up,” he whispered, running his fingers through his hair before rubbing his lower back. “You need to tell us about Chris, Vin, and Nathan…are they…are they alive?”

 

JD Dunne could hear a voice, a rich warm one that soothed his shattered heart, but he could not find the strength to reach for it. His head hurt, agony twisting like a knife through his skull when he tried to open his eyes. Who was it? Why couldn’t they just leave him alone? Why did they want him to suffer?

“Come on, JD," Buck whispered, his voice taut with fear, "Just give me a sign that you know we’re here…that I’m here,” Wilmington begged, but there was still no sign of life except for the shallow rise and fall of the bare chest. Then a faint whisper brushed his ears.

“Hur…hurts…”

 

Buck wasn’t sure he’d heard anything, but he watched the pale face closely for several agonizing minutes before noticing the eye movement. “That’s it, JD, you open them eyes and I swear I’ll never tease you about that damn sissy hat again…hell, I’ll even wear one just like it if that’s what it takes.”

 

“I will hold you to that,” Standish said from the open doorway.

 

“You won’t have to if it brings him back,” Wilmington vowed.

 

“Mr. Dunne…JD,” Standish said softly as he reached the bed. “Please don’t deny the world that chance.”

 

“It’s time, Kid, come on…”

 

“He…head hurts…”

 

“JD?” Wilmington said, shocked to hear the whisper soft words as Josiah Sanchez joined them at the bedside. “Come on, Kid, open your eyes.”

 

Dunne fought through the thick layers of fog that seemed to enshroud his mind, but he didn’t want this. He didn’t want to face the pain that would slam through his head if he answered the desperate call. There were more voices now, each one filled with worry and fear, making it harder for him to ignore their softly spoken pleas. He knew those voices, and one in particular would not be denied. JD felt a hand on his shoulder and forced his eyes open, crying out as the bright sunlight sent dagger like pain through his tender skull.

 

“Easy, easy,” Buck soothed, rubbing the stricken youth's shoulder. "Josiah, close the damn curtains,” he ordered softly once he realized what was causing the grimace on the younger man’s face. “Come on, JD, you’re okay…open your eyes…”

 

“Si…sick,” Dunne said and was surprised to find himself wrapped in strong arms and lifted forward. His stomach churned and his gut clenched as bile rose in his throat. He trembled uncontrollably as pain and nausea assaulted his exhausted body, but there was something he needed to tell the others. Something they had to know, but it was too hard to make sense of anything with the hammer pounding inside his head.

 

“Here, JD, drink this,” Sanchez ordered as Wilmington continued to support the injured Bostonian.

 

Carmella stood in the doorway watching as the trio tended to the younger man. She’d made a herbal tea that would help with the nausea and pain, but somehow she knew it was these men that would be the medicine JD Dunne needed. There was no doubt in her mind that they would stand by him and she felt a strong arm around her waist.

 

“They are good for him, My Love,” Cristóbal whispered against her back.

 

“Yes, they are,” Carmella agreed and turned away from the tender scene as her husband took her hand and led her from the room.

 

“That’s it, Kid,” Wilmington coaxed, relieved when the younger man drank most of the warm liquid before surrendering to the sandman once more.

 

“Thank God,” Sanchez said as he watched the steady rise and fall of the Bostonian’s chest.

 

“I just did,” Wilmington whispered and lifted the blanket up over Dunne’s chest. He knew the younger man still had a hard fight ahead of him, but it was a good sign that he’d woken and even managed to drink the tea Carmella supplied.

 

“Rider coming in,” Standish said from the partially open window. “I believe it is Senor Cordova’s compatriot.”

 

“Good, maybe we can finally get some answers,” the worried rogue told him.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Morning

 

Luis Martinez hated what he was doing, but for now he was in no position to help the prisoners. Don Garcia was already mounted and waiting for him to bring Larabee and Tanner outside and he sighed tiredly as Juanita unlocked the door. He felt the cold metal shackles in his hands and the use of such devices grated on his nerves.

 

“Oh, Luis, is there nothing we can do to help them?” Juanita asked sadly.

 

“I wish there was, Juanita, but Don Garcia is a cruel man and he has a dark soul that craves vengeance.”

 

“Vengeance will only make his soul darker,” the pretty woman said before opening the door and moving back. 

 

Luis took a deep breath and stepped into the small cell. He knew Jackson had been down to check on them earlier and that the medico would be accompanying them to the arena at Don Garcia’s command. He would be forced to watch as his fellow countrymen were forced to fight to the death as many others had done over the years.

 

Luis looked at the two men sitting on their cots and took a deep breath. There was something strange, something he could not explain happening between the two gringos. If he believed in some of the stories he’d heard as a child, he’d say there was a strength between them, a strength born of brothers who stood shoulder to shoulder.

 

“It is time to go,” Luis told the two men, watching as the duo’s eyes met before they both stood erect before him. “I wish things could be different, but Don Garcia wishes for you to be chained. If you fight this he will have Nathan Jackson punished.”

 

“Ain’t yer fault,” Tanner rasped.

 

“Put these around your wrists,” Martinez ordered and passed the manacles to the prisoners. One set is for your wrists, the other is for your ankles.”

 

“What’s your boss afraid of?” Larabee asked softly, his eyes dark with rage as he watched the Texan do as he was told. He stared into Martinez’s dark eyes and read the sadness there.

 

“I wish…” Martinez grew quiet as he thought about the message from Raphael. He wanted to tell Larabee that the boy was alive, but something told him the gringo needed the rage at the boy’s death to see him through the fight ahead.

 

Chris snapped the cuffs around his ankles and wrists and stood shoulder to shoulder with Vin Tanner.

 

“See ya in hell, Cowboy,” the Texan vowed, offering a nod of the head and a grim smile.

"Cocky bastard, aren't you?" Larabee returned the grin and caught those sky blue eyes sending his fierce loyalty with a solid stare and slight dip of his greasy blond head. Then he remained by his friend as they began the slow walk toward what would probably be their final hours. Chris knew he was going to hell, but he would not be going alone because somehow Don Garcia De Rivera would pave the way with his own blood.

‘I won’t forget, Kid,’ he thought.

 

Luis Martinez knew his men were watching as he led Larabee and Tanner out of the hacienda and over to the wagon they’d be riding in. Don Garcia did not want them on horseback, and ordered both men shackled and locked to the metal loops attached to the floorboards.

Chris lifted his head and stared at the arrogant man sitting on a beautiful steed near the wagon. Don Garcia De Rivera would regret ever having laid eyes on JD Dunne, Chris made that his final vow. He didn’t say a word, but he could tell De Rivera was troubled by his gaze and Chris couldn’t help but smile, one that did nothing to ease the other man’s tension.

“Get them in the wagon, Luis!”

 

“Si, Don Garcia,” Martinez said and motioned for two of his men to help the Americans.

 

“Don’t need yer help!” Tanner growled and managed to haul himself into the wagon. He turned to see Larabee staring at the elderly man and cried out a warning just before a blow to the lower back sent the gunman to his knees.

 

“Not the time, Chris,” Jackson said as he moved to help his friend.

 

Chris knew the healer was right and was grateful for his help as he climbed to his feet and moved closer to the wagon. One look at Jackson told him the man was being eaten alive with guilt and he vowed to get even with De Rivera for forcing Jackson into this situation. He waited for the pain to ease before leaning back against the wagon as chains were attached to the manacles encircling his and Tanner’s wrists. It wasn’t long before they moved out of the hacienda’s yard with Nathan Jackson riding alongside the wagon.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Late Morning

 

Buck knew JD would understand, but it still didn’t sit well with him. Medina’s return had brought with it the welcome news that Tanner and Larabee were alive, but they were going to fight in something called the Arena De Muerte which roughly translated to something like the arena of death. The two men were being forced to fight for their lives against several men from Don Paulo’s hacienda.

 

It would take them several hours to reach the Arena De Muerte, hours that Chris and Vin could not afford; yet it was all they could do. The horses were saddled and ready to go, but Buck could not leave without checking JD one more time.

 

“I will care for him until you return,” Carmella Covas vowed.

 

“Thank you…the Lord was smiling the day you were born,” Wilmington said and kissed her hand. “Tell him we’ll be back…and we’ll be bringing Chris, Vin, and Nathan with us.”

 

“Si, I will make sure he knows,” the pretty woman told him.

 

Buck took a deep breath before turning away and walking out of the house. The others were already mounted and he reluctantly joined them. With a last glance at the house he saw Carmella Covas framed in the open doorway and realized he was leaving JD in the best possible hands.

 

“She’ll take care of him, Buck,” Sanchez said and waited for Raphael to take the lead. There was a chill wind that felt out of place, yet Josiah understood it had more to do with the fight ahead than anything Mother Nature designed.

 

"Let's ride!" Buck growled, determined to get justice.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Arena De Muerte

East of the De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

 

Don Garcia knew they were running late, but the wheel had broken on the wagon and needed to be repaired before they could finish the trip. The rocky formation was growing closer and his heart beat faster in his chest at the thought of the days’ festivities. He sat erect in the saddle as they covered the distance and entered through the opening as jeers and cheers echoed through the surroundings.

 

Nathan took a deep breath and glanced around, but there was nothing he could see that would help Chris or Vin. There was no way he could stop what was about to happen and he shifted uncomfortably in the saddle as the sun beat down on them from high above. He glanced at the hated man riding nearby and wondered how he could be so cruel. His wife, the mother of his son, had been laid to rest, but Don Garcia didn’t even have the decency to pay his respects.

 

Vin could hear the gathered crowd even before the wagon entered through the natural opening in the rocky arena. There was no doubt as to what they expected and the Texan had a feeling they would not be disappointed. He lifted his head and stared at the man seated beside him, his fellow combatant, and brother-at-arms; he knew there was no one else he would rather have fighting at his side.

 

Chris could feel Vin watching him and glanced at the younger man. It felt good that Vin would be the one fighting at his side and he trusted the Texan with his life. Larabee knew they would probably die before the day was through, but he vowed to take as many of the bastards with him as he could. A slight nod of the head told him Vin was in tune with his thoughts as they entered the outer circle of the Arena de Muerte.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

 

Evita Martinez looked at the beautiful baby in her arms and felt an emotional tide wash over her. The baby had cried as if he knew his mother was no longer a part of this world. She’d managed to settle him down with the help of one of the young mothers whose body was blessed with plenty of milk. The child had nursed for a short time before falling asleep in Evita’s arms.

 

Evita sat in the wooden rocking chair her son had built many years ago and she wished he would take the time to use his gifted hands for woodwork instead of using a gun. The baby seemed restless and she held him close as she began to sing softly to him.

 

“There’s an angel up in Heaven,

And she is watching o’er you.

There’s an angel up in Heaven,

And she grows strong through you.

If tomorrow brings you sorrow,

If there’s no way to make you smile.

There’s an angel up in heaven,

And she’ll walk that lonely mile.

She’ll protect and watch o’er you,

Through every trial you face.

She’s a mother and she’s walking,

In God’s holy Grace…”

 

Tears filled her eyes as she thought of the beautiful woman who’d given birth to the child she held close to her heart. Santos Garcia De Rivera had a full life ahead of him and she prayed he would be strong like Luis. The thought of her own son, growing up in his father’s home without the title that went with such a high station, yet she knew she did not want that life for Luis. He had grown to be his own man and he was strong and did not bend to his father’s wishes.

 

“You will be like Luis, Santos, and you will be fair with the people who live on the lands. You will not hurt them as your father has and you will rule them with your mother’s gentle soul. I pray that someday the Arena De Muerte will no longer hear the cries of those who died there. I pray that the fights will end for those who are forced to battle because men like Don Garcia and Don Paulo think it is sporting,” she whispered as a small hand grasped her finger and the child seemed to stare up at her. She kissed his forehead and took this as a sign that he would grow up with his mother’s strength of soul. Evita felt a tear slip from her eyes as she cradled him gently in her arms.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Arena De Muerte

East of the De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Afternoon

 

Don Garcia looked at the men Don Paulo had chosen and smiled as he tipped his glass and drank the sweet tasting wine. There was no way Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner would live through this day and once he knew his son would not face any problems, Nathan Jackson would also be put to death. He knew the man would be an invaluable asset to the Hacienda, but there was no way he would continue to be under his rule of thumb without Tanner.

 

“How long do you think Larabee and Tanner will last against my champions?” Don Paulo asked as four men were paraded in front of the seated guests.

 

Alejo was the first and strongest of the four men he’d chosen. The man was well over six feet tall with arms and legs like tree trunks. His dark hair was cut short except for a long thin braid that hung down his back. The right side of his face was scarred from under his chin to above his eye, while the left side was unmarred. His hands were huge and it was plain that he’d used them for fighting for many years. Once he defeated Larabee and Tanner he would be well rewarded for his victory.

 

Chico was shorter by six inches, but he was well built and had the scars that proved he was a champion in his own right. His hair was dark and hung low across his forehead, concealing the patch he wore over his right eye. The man was deaf and unable to speak, but that did nothing to curb his enthusiasm for a fight. His body was also scarred, knife wounds that were puckered and healed badly, yet he refused to hide the hideous wounds and thought of them as his personal trophies to be displayed.

 

Iago was thin and just under six feet tall, his skin bronzed by the sun and his hair the color of coal. His father was a white man who’d taken a Mexican woman to his bed, leaving her with a child growing inside her womb. The mother had died in childbirth and the boy had grown up as a slave until Don Paulo discovered how well he could fight. He’d purchased him from his previous owner and now Iago proved he was worth the purchase price.

 

Pino was the final man he’d chosen and Don Paulo knew the man was lethal with not only weapons, but with his bare hands as well. He had trained for many years and knew some strange and deadly fighting techniques. He’d once torn apart a man with his bare hands until he was no longer recognizable and some said that he had once partaken of the flesh of a man he’d killed.

 

The four men would fight together in the Arena De Muerte and when the sun sank below the horizon Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner would be dead. There would be no wagers on today’s battle, because the death of the two men would be enough cause for celebration.

 

“I believe you have chosen well, but I am hopeful they allow the American bastardos to suffer for many hours,” Don Garcia finally answered, reaching for the bottle of liquor and refilling both glasses.

 

“I have told them to see that the gringos last all day,” Don Paulo said and lifted his glass. “To their deaths…may they burn in hell!”

 

“They will,” Don Garcia said. “Alonzo’s death will finally be avenged.”

 

“Si, and my son’s murderers will be brought to justice.”

 

“To our brand of justice,” Don Garcia said.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

North of the Arena De Muerte

Mid-Afternoon

 

Josiah glanced sideways at the man riding next to him. He’d never seen the man so quiet or withdrawn and knew Buck’s mind was working overtime. There was no doubt in his mind that Wilmington would kill Don Garcia if given the chance. Hell, he’d be lying if he said he didn’t think the man deserved to be flayed alive.

 

“We’ll find them, Buck,” Sanchez offered.

 

“I know, but will we be in time?” Wilmington asked. They’d slowed the horses when the terrain had become treacherous, but each step set his nerves on edge.

 

“We have to believe we’ll get there, Buck…for JD…and for Chris and Vin,” Sanchez vowed.

 

“I wish I had your faith, Josiah, but right now I don’t.”

 

“Then I guess I’ll have to have enough faith for both of us,” the ex-preacher said and looked toward the sun. The miracle of life was a wonderful thing to behold, but there were times when miracles seemed few and far between. He just hoped today would be blessed and God would give them the strength they needed to see this through and find their missing friends.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Arena De Muerte

East of the De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Afternoon

 

Chris and Vin remained in the wagon bed, chained in place as Don Paulo’s champions were allowed to walk amongst the spectators. Chris shifted, wincing as he looked at the Texan seated next to him. Vin looked paler than he’d ever seen before and he hoped the tracker would find the strength he’d need to get through this day.

 

“Vin, do anything you can to take these guys down,” Jackson said.

 

Tanner looked at the man standing on his own near the opening to the arena and wished he could wipe the guilt away. Nathan’s face was dark with sorrow and pain and Vin knew if he and Chris did not survive this day, Jackson would carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. ‘Have faith, Nathan,’ he thought.

"I learned from the best," Tanner replied of the training he'd undertaken during his time with the Kiowas and Comanches.

“It is time, Bastardos,” De Rivera spat as he motioned for Luis Martinez to release the two men.

 

“You can’t do this!” Jackson snarled and quickly moved toward the two men as a lump formed in his throat. He felt helpless and an inner rage made his blood run cold. How could this be happening? How could he stand by and let Chris and Vin face death while he sat with the bastards who'd arranged this? How could he help them when he couldn’t even help Dona Maria?

 

Chris glanced at Vin and knew he could see the same emotional turmoil in their friend’s body language. The slumped shoulders spoke of defeat, the moisture-laden eyes spoke of deep sorrow, the constant movement of his Adam’s apple screamed regret and shame, and the sheer panic on his face spoke of a helplessness they’d never seen before.

 

Without a word they moved as one until they stood in front of the man who’d proven he didn’t need ink on a paper to prove he was a doctor. Chris lifted his right hand and soon found it covered with Vin’s. They waited for Nathan’s head to come up, reading the anguish in the soulful brown eyes.

 

Nathan saw the gesture and found the strength he needed to place his right hand on top of Vin’s. Chris’ left hand covered his right while Vin placed his left over Chris’ and Nathan finished the offering with his left hand. He swallowed and allowed his face to show just how much their gesture meant to him. The fact that these two men were facing death did not stop them from showing him a strength of faith few people would ever know.

 

Don Garcia De Rivera’s face screwed up in rage as he saw the shared faith of the trio and he knew he needed to break the hold they had on each other. He turned to the man standing nearby and spoke sharply. “Luis, see that Jackson has the seat next to mine so that he will be able to watch his friend’s death.”

 

“Si, Don Garcia,” Martinez said and hoped Raphael and his men would arrive in time to stop the fight.

 

“Why are you doing this?” Jackson spat.

 

“It’s okay, Nathan,” Tanner said and took a deep breath as he forced a smile to his face at the anger emanating from De Rivera. “Me and Chris’ll be okay…it’s them bastards that’ll need yer help.”

 

Nathan felt someone grab his arms and drag him away from the wagon, but he fought against their hold to no avail. He glanced over his shoulder as Chris and Vin were led toward the opening to the arena. Once there, the gringos were stripped of their shirts, leaving them standing in only the pants that signaled what they were, slaves whose lot in life was to fight to the death for their owners. He closed his eyes and silently prayed the two men would not die today, not when it would be a senseless, meaningless death at the mercy of a heartless bastard. His captors forced him to sit on the cold stone between two cushioned chairs.

 

“Say a prayer for your friends, they will not survive this fight,” Don Paulo said.

 

Jackson glared silently at the man and helplessly watched as Larabee and Tanner entered the arena.

 

Alejo stood beside Pino and watched as the chained men were led into the arena and smiled at the thought of beating the American swine to death. He watched both men, sizing up their bodies and studying their eyes as they stopped in front of him. Both men oozed danger, but he’d faced dangerous men before and came out victorious. He bared his teeth and stared at the man whose long hair was blowing in the soft breeze. The man had an air of coldness to him that would freeze a normal man in his tracks, but Alejo was not a normal man and he would take this man down no matter what it took.

 

“The breed is mine,” he whispered to Pino as the chains were removed from Larabee and Tanner.

 

“Si, I will take the blond gringo,” Pino said as Don Garcia’s men left the arena.

 

Chris and Vin stood shoulder to shoulder as Don Garcia’s men left them to face Don Paulo’s men. They had no misgivings about this being a fair fight, it was a battle to the death and a dark shadow seemed to darken the sky above their heads.

 

“Hell…”

 

“And then some,” Larabee finished as he studied their opponents. He could hear the people gathered shouting obscenities, but ignored their impatience as Vin nudged him and reached for his arm. They clasped each other’s wrists before turning to meet the four mean looking bastards who looked like they could eat them alive.

 

Nathan watched as two of Don Paulo’s men lunged at Larabee and Tanner. The sheer difference in their sizes would have been enough to send some men running, but Chris and Vin stood their ground and let the bastards come to them. The behemoth on the right reached for the Texan, but Vin used his smaller stature to duck under his arms and strike a blow to the man’s groin.

 

Nathan’s eyes were drawn to Larabee as another man reached out to grab him, but Chris managed to twist out of his grip and kick out with his left leg, catching his attacker in the right knee. “That’s it, Chris…stay out of his reach!”

 

Vin sensed the man on his right poising to move, and drove backward with his left leg. He heard a muffled grunt, but his first attacker had his undivided attention as they circled each other. The Texan knew the man would kill him if he managed to get close, but Vin didn’t plan to give him that chance. He back away, sidestepping as his opponent swung a beefy fist at his face, but didn’t quite move fast enough as his head was rocked back with the force of the blow. He felt blood dripping down his cheek, and quickly wiped it away as his second attacker moved in.

 

Chris sensed the movement behind him and dove to the right as the bigger of his two foes kicked out at him. He came up quickly, driving his fist into an exposed gut even as a fist was driven into his lower back. He fought back the nauseating dizziness and turned to deliver a quick jab to the scarred face of the man standing in front of him.

 

Chico had no doubt that the ‘breed’ would kill him if given the chance and allowed Alejo to take the fight to their enemy. He’d seen people fight like the wiry gringo, watched them destroy their enemies without a backward glance and knew the man’s hands were as lethal as any weapon he’d ever fought against. Alejo went down under a devastating kick to the groin area and Chico lashed out with his right fist, catching the blue-eyed gringo in the lower back. He smiled, showing a mouthful of broken teeth as his nemesis dropped to his knees holding his back, but the man recovered quickly and was back on his feet as if he’d been swatted by a child. Chico felt a small amount of respect for the man, but he squashed it before it blinded him to the reason this place was called the Arena De Muerte.

 

Iago watched as Pino kept lashing out, connecting with the blond gringo and spilling fresh blood from several cuts to his face, yet the bastardo stayed on his feet. Iago circled behind their opponent as Pino reached for him, driving his foot into the back of the blond’s left knee. He heard the man cry out, but was surprised when he stayed on his feet. Iago moved to the left as Pino moved to the right, yet the blond seemed to be watching them both, his body poised and ready for action. They moved together, but not fast enough to take the man by surprise, but they managed to connect with his ribs and move back before he could retaliate.

 

Don Garcia could not help, but feel a certain degree of respect for the two American gringos. They were doing far better than he expected against the bigger and stronger challengers supplied by Don Paulo. He grudgingly admitted to himself that he would have liked to see the two men fight more often, but his need to see Chris Larabee dead won out as Pino and Iago moved in. They connected solidly with the lean body and he knew there would be bruises and broken bones once the fight was finished.

 

De Rivera watched the second gringo as he dodged several fast blows that would have crippled him had they connected solidly. Tanner was a smart fighter, but he was also using things Don Garcia had seen a few times when they’d captured several Indians from north of the Rio Grande. Something told him Vin Tanner would make one hell of a fighter given the proper training, but that was something that would never happen.

 

Don Garcia glanced sideways at the man seated beside him and smiled at the way his hands were fisted at his sides. The medico’s skin glistened with sweat, his face filled with horror, and his eyes locked on the six men fighting for their lives. Time seemed to slow down as again and again the combatants struck with deadly fists or booted feet, marking each other’s bodies with bruises, cuts, and broken bones.

 

“You have to stop this!” Nathan said as Tanner went down under three successive blows that struck his lower back.

 

“This is only the beginning,” Don Garcia said as Iago and Pino slipped past Larabee’s defenses and reined several blows down on his body before the blond gringo managed to move out of their reach. He had no idea how much time had passed since the six men were placed in the arena, but he couldn’t remember ever enjoying a fight as much as this.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Afternoon

 

Evita looked at the freshly dug grave that was covered in fragrant wildflowers and felt the sorrow deep in her heart. Dona Maria had been like those flowers and had wilted before her time, but her beauty would live on through the heart of her child. The baby slept now, sated by the breast milk of the wet nurse and she had come here to pray for guidance.

 

“Lord, I know I seem to be asking a lot of you, but there are men…good men who need your help. Don Garcia is a cruel man who makes others suffer and he does not see past the hatred that has blackened his soul. Santos is a wonderful boy with his mother’s heart and soul and I pray his father does not corrupt him the way he does everything else in his life. My son…my Luis is the one good thing to come from that man and Santos would do well to look up to his big brother.”

 

Evita felt tears in her eyes as she picked up a blood red flower and held it to her heart as the whisper soft breeze ruffled the petals and brushed against her face. “Lord, Don Garcia has hurt many people in his need for vengeance and there are three good men facing death because Don Garcia believes himself to be a ‘god’. Please do not let this happen…not again when so many have already suffered because of Don Garcia’s hunger for power.”

 

Evita made the sign of the cross and looked toward the sky as several large crows flew high overhead. Her father had once told her that crows were a harbinger of death and she prayed that was not the case this time as the sun was suddenly hidden by a dark cloud that sent a chill down her spine. She placed the flower back on the grave and hurried back to the Hacienda with tears sparkling in her eyes.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Luis Martinez had never been a man who liked violence of this manner. If he was honest he’d have to admit to disliking violence of any kind and had often dreamed of owning his own place where he could raise a family and live off the land the way his mother’s family had done before being forced to give up the life they were used to and work for men like Don Garcia De Rivera.

 

Luis watched his father with growing distaste as the fight continued in the Arena De Muerte. There was blood on each of the combatants, but Larabee and Tanner seemed to have found the strength needed to fight Don Paulo’s fighters. Iago had gone down under a powerful fist driven into his face and hadn’t moved since.

 

Martinez turned his attention to the trio who seemed to be locked in a primitive dance that would only end when there was only one man standing. The Texan’s hair was matted to his head with sweat and blood, but the eyes seemed to be wild with blue fire as he drove an elbow into Chico’s face and ducked beneath a fist from Alejo. Tanner was a fighter and he knew how to handle himself as he drove his foot into Chico’s groin that dropped the man to his knees as he grabbed his balls and cried out. Alejo’s attack was quick, but again the gringo managed to twist away before the boot caught him.

 

Vin knew he was weakening, but he could not afford to show just how hurt he was as his two opponents continued to attack him. Sweat dripped from his matted hair stinging his eyes and sliding down his cheeks as he tried to ignore the fatigue and pain ravaging his slick body. Chico still hadn’t recovered from his kick, but Alejo pressed forward, backing him up until he tripped over the downed man. Vin had no illusions that he could win, but he was not going down without a fight. As soon as he hit the ground he struck out with his feet and caught Chico as he turned toward him. He heard the distinct sound of bones breaking, but didn’t have time to check the man as Alejo was on him. The big man’s hands reached for his throat, but Vin managed to get his own arms up and grunted as his foe tried to bring his knee up into his groin.

 

“No…not so to…tough, Breed…”

 

Vin didn’t bother wasting his breath and simply smiled as he shifted slightly and used his left hand to keep the man’s hands from his throat. At the same time he let the fingers of his right hand form a claw and snapped them forward. He knew he’d caught the man unaware when his eyes grew wide with fright and blood streamed from his ruined throat. He shoved the bigger man off and fought for air as Alejo brought his hands up to stop the steady pulsating blood from escaping his body at an alarming rate. Vin knew the man would be dead in a matter of seconds, but he didn’t regret his actions as he turned to find Larabee.

 

Larabee had seen Tanner go down, but Pino was pressing and there was nothing he could do to help the Texan. As his attacker lashed out with a foot, Chris sidestepped and drove an elbow into the man’s exposed back. Chris could feel his reflexes slowing down and relied on instinct to keep him on his feet as Pino turned and began to circle him. Sweat and blood dripped into his eyes, but he kept an image in his mind as he fought to stay alive long enough to kill the bastard who’d robbed the world of a young man who’d only just begun to live.

 

JD Dunne’s face as he fell backward into the grave sent shivers of pain through his mind, but it also gave him the strength and resolve to keep fighting. Death was coming for him, riding a dark black horse, but he would not allow the specter to reach him, not until Don Garcia De Rivera paid for his sins. Chris lifted his left arm to block a blow to his face and quickly drove his right fist into the man’s face, driving him backward, but Pino managed to stay on his feet.

 

Vin called on everything he had left to get to his feet as he spotted movement to Larabee’s right. He knew Chris had not seen him and there was no way he could allow this man to take advantage of the blond while his attention was focused completely on his foe. The Texan managed to get to his feet, and thought he heard someone cheer, but he knew that was not possible, not when those present were friends or workers of the Mexican devil who thought he was god.

 

Iago managed to get to his feet and moved to rejoin the fight with Chris Larabee, but something attacked him from the right and drove him backward into the natural barrier that made up this side of the arena. He tried to untangle himself from his attacker, but felt several blows strike him before he could roll away from the other man. Iago turned to face the longhaired breed and grinned showing broken teeth and bleeding gums as he struck out and sent the other man sprawling in the dirt.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

North of the Arena De Muerte

Mid-Afternoon

 

The sun was high overhead as the riders continued their trek toward the Arena De Muerte. No one spoke of the men who fought there, but each one prayed that they’d get there in time to stop De Rivera from killing the missing men. There was a sense of urgency in the way they rode, the wind bristling through their hair as they rode along the hard trail.

 

Buck rode slightly ahead of Josiah and Ezra, but he could sense their determination to reach the Arena De Muerte. He glanced sideways at the man riding next to him and knew Raphael Cordova De Martinez was a man he could call amigo. The man had ridden into Four Corners with Don Paulo and would have taken Inez Recillos by force, but there’d been an innate goodness in him that made him back away. He’d fired one of the bullets into Don Paulo when the man tried to kill Buck, thus having a bounty on his head from Don Paulo’s father.

 

“The arena is not far ahead. We need to be careful so we do not alert De Rivera to our presence,” Cordova said.

 

“All right,” Wilmington answered and slowed his horse so that the others could catch up to them. The plan was for him, Raphael and a couple of Cordova’s men to ride in through the main passage, while Ezra and Josiah took four men and came in through the eastern entrance. It would take Sanchez and Standish longer to reach their destination and that meant Buck and his group would have to wait until they heard the call sign from Raphael’s men.

 

“Buck, be careful,” Sanchez said.

 

"You know that's my middle name, preacher," Wilmington said and found a grim smile as Sanchez, Standish, and four men split from the main group and bypassed the main trail to the Arena De Muerte.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Arena De Muerte

Mid-Afternoon

 

Luis knew Don Garcia was angry, angrier than he’d ever seen the man before, and it felt good to see defeat in his ‘father’s’ eyes as he watched the fight taking place in the arena. Larabee and Tanner now stood back to back and faced their remaining opponents with a ferocity he’d never witnessed before. Pino and Iago would not last much longer and one look at Don Paulo told him the man was angered by the loss of his most skilled fighters.

 

“Luis, kill them!” De Rivera ordered as Pino fell under a vicious kick to the knee. He watched as Larabee raised his hands above his head and brought them down on the man’s shoulder with enough force to crack bones.

 

“No,” Martinez said softly and turned to see the anger in his father’s eyes.

 

“Luis, you will do as I say!”

 

“There has been enough killing and they have earned their freedom!” the younger man snapped as Tanner kicked Iago in the side before striking him in the face and sending bone fragments into his brain. Luis knew the man was dead even before his body hit the ground.

 

“No, they must die!” Don Paulo spat and grabbed a gun from the man next to him. He raised it and pointed it toward the two remaining combatants.

 

“Chris…No!” Tanner cried and shifted his body to protect his friend. He felt something rip through his side and felt Larabee ease him to the ground.

 

“Godammit, Tanner,” the blond managed as he protected the injured man with his body.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

“We need to get down there!”  Wilmington spat. He knew there was no point in waiting now as several more shots were fired in quick succession. Whatever had happened it did not bode well for his three friends and Buck was not going to waste any more time trying to move quietly. It was time to show De Rivera that he’d fucked with the wrong men.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

Nathan reacted on instinct as the first shot was fired. He grabbed Don Paulo’s arm and wrestled the gun from his hand as gunshots were fired around him. He heard the old man shouting in Spanish and felt a blow to the lower back, but he would not relinquish his hold on the gun. He had heard De Rivera and wanted to kill the bastard, but his attention was focused on the man who’d shot Vin Tanner.

 

Jackson struggled with the elderly man and pulled the gun from his hand just as several riders entered the outer area of the arena. Gunshots continued around him as he shoved Don Paulo away from him and turned to look for De Rivera, but the elderly Spaniard was nowhere to be found.

 

“You cowardly bastard!” Jackson spat when he saw the old man disappear through a narrow passage not far from the entrance to the Arena De Muerte. He wanted to go after him, but one look into the arena told him there were two men who needed him more than he needed revenge.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Josiah and Ezra felt the same sense of urgency as several shots were fired from inside the Arena De Muerte. There was no point in hiding their presence any longer and Josiah motioned for the others to follow him as all hell broke loose and a volley of gunshots echoed through the rocky arena.

 

There were shouts from below and a bullet ricocheted off the rocks to Ezra’s left and he felt it slice through his arm, but he did not take the time to acknowledge the wound as he pulled his gun and jumped from his horse. He found a small recess and ducked inside, firing toward several of De Rivera’s men as Sanchez dismounted and found a place to return fire.

 

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De Rivera’s retreat had not gone unnoticed by the two men in the arena and Vin turned steady blue eyes on the shaky blond as he spoke. "...git after that bastard...gettin' away...go...after..."

 

“I won’t…you got my word on that!” Larabee managed and felt as if he was watching the life leave his friend before easing out from under him and forcing himself to stand. He glanced toward the spectators, ignoring the shots that were fired all around him and saw Nathan glance in his direction as De Rivera slipped through a narrow opening on the right.

 

Chris staggered toward the opening and stopped when Nathan stood in front of him. “Get out of my way, Nathan!”

 

“Chris, sit down before you fall down!” Jackson ordered.

 

"I'm not lettin' that yellow bastard ride away!"

 

“You’re in no shape to go after him!” the healer said as gunshots echoed around them.

 

“Watch me!” Larabee said and pushed past the former slave. “See to Vin…he’s…he might be…might be…”

 

Chris couldn’t finish the words and ignored the fighting around him as he stumbled toward the opening De Rivera had used. He could hear horses as he forced his body through the narrow fissure. He made it through in time to see the elderly man ride away from the tethered animals and was glad there was no sentry watching over them. His body ached and he knew before long there’d be more than just the minor ache plaguing him, but he was a man with a mission and nothing would stop him from getting to the bastard that killed JD Dunne.

 

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Wilmington and Cordova entered the Arena De Muerte in time to see an elderly man take aim at Nathan Jackson who knelt beside an injured man. Buck fired his gun and heard a cry of pain as the man dropped his gun and turned in his direction. He dismounted and fired at a man aiming at Cordova and realized they were outgunned, but with Sanchez and Standish adding their weapons to the fight things looked better.

 

Buck knew there were several men who would be on their side, but until he knew who they were he could take no chances with Jackson’s life and made sure to offer covering fire for him as he dragged the injured man closer to the south wall of the arena. “Nathan! Stay down!”

 

“Buck!” Jackson called in surprise.

 

“Yeah! Just stay put…”

 

“Vin’s bleeding bad…I need…”

 

“Hold on…I’m coming,” Wilmington said, worried about the injured Texan as he grabbed the saddlebags from his horse, ducked low and raced through the opening. He tossed the bags to Jackson and fired at a man who tried to aim his gun in their direction. He spotted Josiah moving down through the heavy brush at the east side of the arena.

 

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West of the Arena De Muerte

Mid-Afternoon

 

Don Garcia De Rivera could hear the echoing sounds of gunfire behind him as he raced his trusty steed toward the hacienda. His bastard son had betrayed him and his mother would pay for that betrayal with her life. No one turned their backs on him and got away with it. He’d had people put to death for less and his anger spurred him forward, unaware of the danger riding behind him.

 

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The green fire in his eyes provided more than enough fuel to compensate for the blood and extensive damage to his body, as he raced along the unfamiliar terrain. Chris knew where De Rivera was headed and remembered the trail that led toward the hacienda. His hatred flowed through his veins, feeding the adrenalin that kept him from falling flat on his face. The sun beat down on his bare skin, but he didn’t give a damn as he let the bitter hatred fester and drive him forward.

 

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          Arena De Muerte
          Mid-Afternoon 
 
          Nathan did not take the time to greet the others as he worked to save Vin Tanner’s life. His hands were covered in blood, hovering
          ghoulsihly above the bandages and other items placed on the ground beside him. His eyes were misted with unshed tears as his heart
          felt like it would burst from his chest.
 
         ‘Please, God, give me the strength to save him,’ Jackson thought.
 
         “Tell me what you need, Brother,” Sanchez said and saw the surprise and relief in his friend’s eyes. 

"I need to stop the bleeding…I need to see that bastard dead," Jackson finished in a voice that left no doubt that he meant exactly what he said. The shoulders slumped in heavy defeat as he bowed his head. "I did this to him…to Chris…"

Vin did not have the strength to speak, but his eyes were like windows as he looked up at the man whose heart was laid bare. He wanted to ease the healer’s mind, to wipe away the horror he’d seen, but his body refused his mind’s commands. He silently cursed the weakness that left him unable to help his friend and closed his eyes, snapping them open when he heard something akin to a soft sob escape the other man’s throat.

Vin tried to find the energy he needed to do the simple act of moving his hand, but even that seemed to be an insurmountable task until Nathan’s hand touched against his side, close enough that Vin could almost feel the heat of his body. He tried again to speak, but what came out was a rasping moan and Nate’s eyes once more filled with more pain than he could ever imagine one man bearing.

“…no…not…fau…”

“Vin, what’s wrong?” Jackson asked when the raspy voice hit him as something brushed against his thigh. He looked down at Tanner’s hand and flinched when he saw the damage wrought by his fight in the Arena De Muerte. A fight that should never have happened, and yet it had, because men like De Rivera and Don Paulo thought they owned the world.

“…can’t…fu…fu…”

The rasping whisper was filled with pain and sorrow and Nathan knew he had to bury his own soul if he was going to help Vin. He reached for the Texan’s hand and gently cradled it before speaking.

“Okay, Vin, I hear ya,” Jackson managed to smile, and hoped it was enough to convince the Texan. He released the younger man’s hand and took a deep breath in an effort to control his warring emotions. No matter how he felt, Vin needed him to be strong, but how could he find that hidden strength others said they saw in him.

Vin knew he needed to say something more and concentrated on moving his right arm. It came up, a fraction at a time until he was finally able to cover the healer’s hand with his own. Again he tried to speak, but it sounded more like a cry of pain as he looked at Jackson.

“What?” Jackson asked softly.

Vin knew he had to rid the former slave of the pain he saw in the moisture laden brown eyes, but it was getting harder and harder to simply perform the task of breathing let alone speaking. He thought of the newborn babe and a hint of a smile formed as he finally managed to find his voice.

"b...ba...ba...by...'live...ba...by..."

Nathan could not believe the words spoken so softly, but stronger than the mightiest shout. They invaded his battered soul and took hold. He gripped Tanner’s trembling hand in his own. His eyes locked onto the Texan’s and a soft sob escaped his throat as he nodded. “Thank you, Vin Tanner.”

Vin nodded and allowed his eyes to close as the darkness reached out for him and he surrendered to it.

Nathan swallowed hard and held tight to Vin’s hand for several seconds and reached out to touch the Texan’s chest. He felt the man’s heart and breathed a sigh of relief before saying a silent prayer that his hands would not fail him now.

Josiah felt humbled to have been present at such an emotional scene between these two men. He knew if he lived to be a hundred he would never see such raw pain or forgiveness and silently thanked God he’d been present for this one.

“Nate, how is he?” Wilmington asked softly upon reaching his friends.

“Burnin’ up…hurtin’…Josiah, hold this fer me,” Jackson said and removed his hands so that Sanchez could put pressure on the   bleeding wound.

“Buck, what about the prisoners?” Sanchez asked.

          "Raphael and his men took charge of the prisoners, but I can’t find Chris," Wilmington said.
 
          "You won’t…he went after the bastard who did all this," Jackson explained. 
 
          "So he’s okay?" Sanchez asked hopefully.
 
          "Far from it," the healer answered. "He rode off…"
 
          "And you let him!" Wilmington spat.
 
          "Easy, Brother, Nathan had his hands full," Sanchez offered.
 
          "Shit! I didn’t mean…damn, where’d he go?"
 
          "De Rivera’s probably gone back to his hacienda," Jackson offered.
 
          "Where’s the hacienda?" Wilmington asked, turning as Raphael, Ezra, and another man joined them. 
 
          "I will take you," Augusta Medina offered. 
 
          "Be careful, Augusta, there are still more of De Rivera’s men at his home and if he reaches there, he will be ready for trouble," Raphael warned. 
 
          "That bastard's mine!" Wilmington vowed and sealed the deal by spitting into the dirt. Buck’s blue eyes were clouded with a dangerous light
           that did not bode well for the man who was to blame for his friend’s condition.
 
          "As will I," Ezra stated.
 
          "Ezra, sit down ‘til I get a chance ta look at that arm," Jackson warned.
 
          "Mistah Jackson, I assure you…"
  
          "Assure me of nothin’ and sit yer ass down. I ain’t got time ta be arguin’ right now," Jackson snapped and returned his attention to the unconscious
           Texan. He briefly wondered if he should tell the others about JD, but wasn’t sure how to broach the subject without setting Buck off.
 
          "Josiah, I need ta see if it went through."
 
          "It went through, Sanchez said as he lifted the injured man slightly.

"Place this against it ‘til I…Sweet Jesus, we need ta get him off the ground and I need water and more bandages and God help me we need…"

 "Easy, Brother, tell me what you need and I’ll make sure you get it," Sanchez vowed.

"The wagon…make a bed in the back of that wagon and we’ll get him back to the hacienda. There’ll be water and clean bandages and Evita…she’ll help me," Jackson said, swallowing the anger and fear he felt as he looked at the unconscious man. He’d never been all that confident in what he knew, but never so much as he was now in the wake of Vin’s injuries, not to mention Chris who was probably in much the same shape as Vin.

"Ezra, stay here," Sanchez said and turned to see Wilmington and Medina speaking with two of Raphael’s men.

"Josiah," Jackson spoke the name in a hushed whisper and waited until the older man turned to face him.

"What is it, Nathan?"

"JD…the bastard had him killed…" Jackson's voice wavered and it was hard to control the unshed tears burning in his eyes. Everything around him seemed to be fading away and the unwelcome vision of Dunne's corpse loomed instead, giving him a shiver.

"JD’s alive, Nathan…"

"Made Chris watch and bury him,” his throat constricted as he forced the damning words out and let the tears slip from his soul through his pained brown eyes.

"No, Nathan…"

"Chris’ in so much…so much pain…blames hisself.” Jackson’s eyes seemed vacant and Josiah knew he had to do something to get through to his lost friend.

"LISTEN TO ME!" Sanchez growled, grabbing the disoriented healer hard by both shoulders and using the preacher's fire in his eyes as they tried to burn into the hollow brown ones.

"JD IS ALIVE!"

"Si, it is true, me and my compadres found him!" Raphael insisted.

"JD’s…"

"Alive," Standish finished as Jackson slumped against Sanchez. The man’s broad shoulders shook with the force of exhausted, relieved sobs and Ezra watched as Josiah Sanchez held the emotionally traumatized healer and allowed him this release. How much had the healer seen since De Rivera captured him and Vin and did he have the strength he needed to see this through? Ezra had never been a praying man, but found himself praying that Nathan would find the strength he needed to see him through.

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East of the De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Afternoon

Buck leaned forward on his horse as if he could force the animal to go faster even as the wind whipped at his clothing and tried to stop him from reaching his destination. Augusta Medina and several others rode with him and even though he didn’t know their names, something told him they could be trusted. The sound of hoofs hitting hard packed earth echoed and re-echoed through the surrounding valleys and hills.

Death came to the area riding a dark horse and the moniker Buck Wilmington.

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Luis Martinez knew he should have told the others where he was going, but once he’d noted his padre’s absence he’d known where the elderly man was going. He’d defied the man and went against his orders and that did not bode well for his mother. There was no doubt in his mind where De Rivera was headed and he knew he had to stop him before he reached the woman who’d always had a kind and gentle heart for all living things.

 

He’d ridden away from the arena with one thing in mind and nothing else mattered except saving his mother even if it meant killing the bastard who’d sired him.

 

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De Rivera Hacienda

Late-Afternoon

 

Evita looked down at the babe who slept solidly, tucked into her arms and wrapped in a soft blanket made by one of the ladies who worked in the field. She’d said more prayers lately than most people said in a lifetime and hoped God had listened to her, but as she looked out over the fields her eyes wandered to the area used for the De Rivera burial ground and thought of the woman who’d been laid to rest. She hoped Maria De Rivera was at peace and vowed to make sure her son was sheltered from his father’s cruel ways.

 

Evita felt tears in her eyes as she looked toward the sky and thought about the three men De Rivera had brought to the arena that morning. She felt sorry for all three, but it was the dark skinned man who’d helped bring this baby into the world that made her weep with sorrow.

 

Nathan Jackson, whose heart was that of a healer, had been forced to watch as his friend was forced to work in the fields in spite of his obvious injuries and illness. Nathan, who’d been given a room in the house and plenty of food and comfort, could only watch as the young man slowly weakened in the sun. How much pain had she seen in the healer’s eyes every time he took a bite of food or drank from a glass filled with fresh juice? If they survived, would Nathan be eaten up by the guilt and pain that had wrapped itself around his soul? Could he live with what he’d seen?

 

She looked toward the entrance to the hacienda as De Rivera rode his horse as if the hounds of hell were after him. She carried the baby into the nursery and gently placed him in his bed before arranging the netting over the hand crafter crib. She looked up as Juanita entered and smiled at the young woman whose heart belonged to Luis and wished she could offer her hope for the future.

 

“Stay with Santos, Juanita.”

 

“Si, Evita,” Juanita said, her voice filled with fear as she heard Don Garcia’s angry voice from below.

 

“Evita! Come down here now!”

 

Evita moved toward the door and smiled when Juanita’s hand touched her arm.

 

“Please…he is angry.”

 

“It will be all right, Juanita. You just see to Santos and do not come downstairs for any reason,” Evita warned and closed the door as she exited the room and heard the great door slam open as De Rivera’s voice echoed through the house.

 

“EVITA!”

 

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Don Garcia De Rivera started up the staircase and spotted Evita Martinez watching him without a trace of fear on her face. He did not speak, but the sound of his cane hitting each step echoed through the silent house.

 

Don Garcia had nearly reached the second floor. The sound of the door opening behind him did not register until he heard heavy footsteps from below. He turned and spotted a dark figure shrouded in white light shining through the window and knew this man was the harbinger of death…his death. 

 

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Evita knew Don Garcia meant to kill her, but there was no fear in her as she watched the man slowly advance up the steps. Years of being beaten down had left scars on her mind and body, but she’d never allowed them to make her bitter.

 

De Rivera’s eyes were as dark as his soul and the sound his cane made on each step was like a clock ticking away the final seconds of her life. She thought of her son and prayed he would have the strength to help his half-brother become a man, one that could stand up to his father and have a heart of gold like his mother.

 

Evita heard Santos’ cries and Juanita’s soft singing and hoped the young woman would keep the boy in his room, safe from the horror his father was bringing with him. She began to pray and heard the sound of the door opening as De Rivera slowly made his way toward her. What she saw was an angel framed by golden light. An angel born of darkness, yet bathed in God’s grace as he gestured for her to leave.

 

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Every step he took had been a lesson in pain, but Chris would not give up, not when the object of his anger was so close. He felt the warmth of the sun shining through the window and glanced up toward the second floor.

 

Chris watched Evita leave and fixed his eyes on the man standing near the top of the stairs and slowly walked across the floor that reflected the sunbeams as if it was showing him the light.

 

“Tonight you die, Bastardo!” Don Garcia warned and shook his cane at the battered blond.

 

Chris didn’t say anything, he didn’t need to, not when his intentions were already clear and no amount of words could convey what his eyes did. He lifted his foot onto the first step and a smile, deadly in its intensity, formed on his face as his right foot found the second step.

 

Larabee’s unholy smile came easy as sweat stung one of the numerous cuts that marred his face and mingled with blood as it trickled down his face. He didn’t think about what he must look like as he slowly advanced on the man he planned to send to hell.

 

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Don Garcia De Rivera had never been afraid of anything, yet there was something terrifying in the sound of the gringo’s footsteps on the stairs. Each one echoed across the empty interior and sounded like a blacksmith’s hammer striking an anvil. He knew to stay would mean certain death, but he had not lived this long by being foolish. He turned and hurried toward his room even as Larabee advanced toward him. He heard Santos crying and the soft sound of Evita’s angelic voice as she sang softly to his son. She would die, but first he would take care of the bastardo who’d taken his first-born son from him. 

 

He made his way toward his room and hurried to the cabinet where he kept a collection of guns handed down from his family. Some were over 100 years old, but the one he wanted was a new acquisition from his dead wife’s father. He reached inside and grabbed the silver weapon and quickly made sure it was loaded before turning toward the door. His heart was beating too fast and he felt slightly light headed, but he would not let that stop him.

 

Death would come to his home today, but it would not come for him, it would come to claim Chris Larabee’s black heart. Don Garcia De Rivera listened to the sound of footsteps echoing through his home and waited for the bastardo to arrive.

 

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Arena De Muerte

East of the De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Afternoon

 

Josiah looked around at the people who had yet to leave the arena and wondered if they realized that the day’s entertainment was over. Raphael had left soon after Buck, but he’d left several men behind to make sure there was no trouble. He glanced at his friend, exhausted, both emotionally and physically and wished there was time for him to rest. Unfortunately Nathan would not take the time to rest until he had done everything he could for the injured at the Arena De Muerte. Right now his biggest task was keeping Vin Tanner alive, and to most people that was an undertaking that was destined for failure, but these people did not know the quiet man with the healer’s heart.

 

“Josiah, I need to…” Jackson started, but his bottom lip trembled and the words would not come.

 

“Take your time, Brother,” Sanchez said and smiled as Ezra handed him the silver flask. He handed it to Jackson who took a quick drink before kneeling beside the Texan. “Tell me what you need.”

 

“I need a doctor…a real one,” the healer answered softly.

 

“You are a doctor, my friend, and I will wager everything in my boot that you could stand taller than most physicians at Johns Hopkins,” Standish vowed. Josiah had wrapped the wound on his arm until Nathan had a chance to look at it, but there was still so much to do for Vin Tanner.

 

“Thanks, Ezra,” Jackson said and took a deep breath before looking around. “Josiah, can you rig up some blankets in the back of that wagon?”

 

“I can…what else?” Sanchez asked.

 

“Anyone in need of help should follow us to the hacienda. Everyone else should just go home. Don Paulo’s people should be told that he is dead,” Jackson said and gently cleaned the minor cuts that covered Vin’s face and arms. “I want to take him back to the hacienda…Jesus, what if…what if Don Garcia is still in control?”

 

“If he is, Buck will send someone to tell us,” Sanchez assured him.

 

“Ezra, I should see to your arm,” Jackson said.

 

“Mr. Sanchez does not have your soothing touch, but he quite capably cleaned the wound,” Standish told him and placed a hand on Jackson’s shoulder. “It will keep until you are rested, Nathan.”

 

“Thanks, Ez,” Jackson said and swallowed past the lump that threatened to choke him as he looked at the man who, along with Chris Larabee, had saved his life.

 

“Nathan, the wagon is ready,” Sanchez said.

 

“Bring it closer. It’s gonna be hell movin’ ‘im and I ain’t ‘bout ta make ‘im suffer any more’n I have to,” Jackson vowed. He waited until the wagon was pulled up alongside the injured man and turned to find two men who rode with Raphael watching him. “Josiah, we’re gonna need help liftin’ im.”

 

“I can help,” the gambler said and was relieved when the former slave nodded his acceptance. He moved to Tanner’s right leg and was not all that surprised when several others moved to help without being asked.

 

“All right, we’re gonna move ‘im, but I want ‘im kept as straight as possible. He took quite a beating and I ain’t sure if there’s anything busted up inside so we do this slow and careful,” Jackson ordered. He moved to take the Texan’s head, noting the way the long hair was soaked in sweat and matted to his forehead. Shaking himself, Jackson nodded that he was ready and hardened his heart when the move awakened the injured man.

 

Vin knew the instant he entered hell and screamed deep in his throat as hands were placed on his body and lifted him. There were voices, but the words were unintelligible in the wake of the horrific pain that seemed to spread through every part of his body. Tears slipped from eyes that opened wide in sheer panic, but there seemed to be no relief in sight. Someone seemed to be making weak sounds nearby, and he suddenly realized those cries were coming from his own throat.

 

“God, Vin, I’m sorry,” Jackson said and could no longer fight the emotional waves that threatened to drown him. He knew they had to keep going, but that didn’t make it any easier as Josiah and another man reached for the injured Texan and guided him into the wagon.

 

Vin gasped as his body was settled onto several blankets, but there was no relief from the rampant pain that flooded his body. He clenched his eyes and felt the moisture on his cheeks just before darkness won out and he descended into an oblivion that kept the misery at bay for now.

 

“Nathan, why don’t you sit with Vin while I drive the wagon,” Sanchez offered.

 

“God, Josiah, how am I gonna help them when it feels like I’m the cause of it all,” Jackson said tiredly.

 

“You’re not to blame, and someday you will realize that, My Friend. For now, rest, because you may not have faith in yourself, but we…your friends…do,” Sanchez vowed, squeezing the healer’s right shoulder before moving aside so Standish could climb in beside the former slave.

 

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Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Mid-Afternoon

 

Carmella Covas looked up as a sound reached her ears and watched as the young man’s head moved from side to side. She reached out and touched her hand against his cheek as the eyelids slowly parted and the eyes latched onto her own.

 

“…where…Buck…”

 

“Your friends are fine, JD, they’re safe, but they’re worried about you. How do you feel?”

 

“…head hur…”

 

“Yes, I’m sure it does, but it will get better. I have something I’d like you to drink,” Carmella said as her husband came into the room with a cup of warm broth.

 

JD frowned when he looked at the newcomer and tried to make sense of where he was and why he felt weaker than a day old calf. He thought Buck had been there…and Chris…no, Chris was…Chris was…God, he couldn’t think clearly.

 

“Here, JD,” Carmella said as her husband lifted the young man’s head and she helped him drink from the cup. He didn’t drink as much as she would have liked, but he soon drifted back to sleep, one she hoped would help heal his wounds, physical as well as emotional.

 

“Carmella, Love, you need to rest,” Cristóbal said and helped her stand.

 

“What if he wakes and needs something?”

 

“Then we will tend to his needs, for now you need a siesta,” Cristóbal told her and led her to the room they shared. “Do not worry, Carmella, you will hear him if he awakens. Your heart has always been in tune to those in need and it has yet to let anyone down.”

 

“Oh, Cristóbal, you always know what I need.”

 

“Yes, I do,” he said and lay down beside her, loving the feel of this woman, a gift given by God, and entrusted to his love and devotion. He listened for the soft sigh that usually escaped just before she slept and smiled before allowing his own mind to drift off.

 

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De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Afternoon

 

Chris Larabee was a man on a mission and nothing was going to stop him. He reached the top of the stairs and slowly walked along the corridor. There was only one man who would recognize the battered man and that was Buck Wilmington, who’d seen Chris through the wildness after the murder of his wife and son.

Chris staggered forward, using the upper railing as a crutch as he checked each room he passed. There was nothing left of the man who’d emerged once he’d become part of the seven men protecting the town of Four Corners. The man, whose body wore warrior's tattoos in bruises, cuts, and blood was intent on sending De Rivera to hell to burn in the fires of damnation where he belonged.

Chris was prepared to die, but not until he made Don Garcia pay for killing JD Dunne. He could almost hear Dunne’s voice, pleading for his acceptance, and a thin smile, unholy in its lack of humor, formed on his face as he stopped in front of an open door.

 

“Die, Bastardo, die!” De Rivera screamed and brought the weapon up.

 

Chris reacted on impulse, his body moving even before he realized what his nemesis held. Instinct sent him lunging toward the Don, barreling into him like a human battering ram even as he felt a searing pain through his left side.

 

Don Garcia felt the air driven from his lungs as his son’s killer hit him and the gun flew from his hands. A table shattered under the weight of the two men who were hell bent on killing each other no matter what the cost.

 

Chris felt his body slam into the wall, and something connected with the right side of his head as he slid to the floor, dazed and angered by his weakness. He felt blood in his right eye and shook his head in an effort to clear the fog that had suddenly engulfed his mind. He turned to see Garcia climbing unsteadily to his feet and knew the other man was far from finished.

 

Chris managed to get to his knees, shaking his head in an effort to rid himself of the dizziness and blood that ran down the right side of his face. He sank to the floor and lay there until an image of JD’s head snapping back with the force of a bullet striking him renewed his need for revenge.

 

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Buck rode as if the hounds of hell were hot on his trail and anyone who knew him would have recognized a man on a mission. Buck knew Medina and Cordova rode with him, but it didn’t matter because Buck was alone with his thoughts and could not drive the demons from his soul. Chris Larabee was more than a friend, he was a brother, a kindred spirit, and no one could hurt him and get away with it, not as long as there was breath in his body.

Images flashed across his mind, pictures that flowed showing the years of friendship he had with Chris. The few short years of love he’d had as a married man and shorter still as a father. The glow that radiated from an awestruck first time father as he gently stroked the silken cheek of his new son and then kissed the woman who held his heart. Then came the long days and nights after Sarah and Adam’s murder, dealing with the man’s anger at God, at everyone around him, at the world, and especially at himself.

Buck knew he would never reach the hacienda in time and silently cursed Don Garcia. His head was filled with the events of the last few weeks and he thought about the young man at the Covas home and prayed he was still with them. God help De Rivera if JD, Vin, or Chris died because of him, because Buck would unleash his own demons if that happened. He turned onto De Rivera land and headed his horse toward the front of the large house.

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Don Garcia looked around for anything he could use to finish the gringo off, but there was nothing within reach as Larabee climbed to his feet. He understood now that Larabee was possessed by demons that would not relinquish their hold on him until vengeance had been served.

 

There was nowhere for him to go now, but he slowly backed up until he felt the warmth of the sun on his back and exited onto the upper verandah. He glanced around, again searching for something, anything that would save his life as Larabee followed him out into the bright afternoon sunlight. There was no mistaking the smile Larabee wore. It was a sign of insanity, a sign of death, his death and De Rivera looked for some means of escape.

 

Chris felt nothing, but a primal rage as he stepped through the open glass doors and spotted De Rivera near the railing. The sneer he wore gave little doubt of his intent as the sunlight shone down on a body riddled with damage, yet untouched by the pain that would have floored a normal man. Right now, Chris Larabee was anything but normal as he continued to force one foot in front of the other.

 

Don Garcia spotted the tray of fruit on the table and smiled with relief when the sun glinted off a shiny blade. He lunged forward and grabbed the handle as Larabee turned in his direction. He raised the knife, aiming to finish this once and for all.

 

Chris’ vision blurred and he blinked several times as the sun stabbed at his eyes, robbing him of sight for several deadly seconds. He heard movement on his right and turned just as the sun shone off a deadly weapon that arced toward his chest. He stepped sideways, and lunged at his foe, crying out when the blade was buried deep in his shoulder and he sank to his knees, but not before seeing Don Garcia De Rivera disappear over the edge of the railing.

 

Chris didn’t have the strength to stand, but he used what little he had left to drag himself across the floor. He reached the railing and heard a commotion from below, but there was no way he could stand and look over. He lay on his side, panting in the sunlight as his left arm stretched out toward the familiar voice from below.

 

“Bu…Buck…” he whispered and closed his eyes.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Luis Martinez dismounted just as the sound of riders erupted behind him and a body fell from the upper level of the house. “Madre de Dios,” he whispered and hurried toward the fallen man. He heard an angry voice behind him, but did not take the time to acknowledge the irate man.

 

Buck hadn’t been far behind the other man and had seen the body fall over the railing. His heart leapt to his throat, cutting off his air as he dismounted and staggered forward. “Chris!” he managed, relieved when he realized the man lying broken on the ground was not who he’d first thought.

 

Buck hurried forward, anger racing like ice water through his veins and shoved the other man aside. He quickly grabbed Don Garcia by the shirt and pulled him up until they were nose to nose. “Where is he?”

 

Don Garcia coughed as blood spilled from his mouth as he stared up at the man. Air wheezed in and out of his lungs with a sound that most people would recognize as a death rattle, yet there was still enough hatred in the man for him to speak the damning words.

 

“He is…de…dead!”

 

“No! You sick sonofabitch!”

 

“Leave him,” Luis Martinez said and tried to pull the man’s hands away, but Wilmington was not so easily moved.

 

Buck’s hands wrapped around Don Garcia’s neck, choking the final breath from his body just as a single red droplet landed on the stone beside him. His fingers loosened their death grip and he slowly turned toward the house. What he saw tore through his heart as he watched the single trail of blood on the stark white stucco wall, its journey diverted every time it struck a deviation in the wall itself.

 

His eyes slowly followed the trail, his heart beating too fast as a roaring began in his ears and he fought to tear his eyes away, but he had to see. He had to know. Slowly, inch by agonizing inch his head came up until he saw something that made his blood run cold. A hand, unmoving seemed to be stretched toward him, and Buck knew he’d found his friend.

 

“He is dead…”

“Noooo!"

Luis recoiled at the depth of the agonized wail that left Buck Wilmington's lips.

Wilmington realized the man was talking about De Rivera and didn’t know about the body above them. “I need to get up there!”

 

Luis stood and looked up and nodded that he had also seen the hand and the blood. He spotted De Rivera’s overseer coming toward him, and knew he would have to handle Fernando Gores as Wilmington raced into the house.

 

Buck entered the house and spotted the staircase at the center of the large room. He raced toward it, not caring that he scared the hell out of the people who worked here and took the stairs two at a time. He saw a woman; eyes filled with moisture and hoped the sadness he saw there was not because of the loss of her Haciendada.

 

“Where…”

 

“Through those doors,” Evita Martinez said and silently prayed this man was a friend.

 

Buck raced through the adjoining rooms and burst out onto the verandah, his heart bursting with pain when he saw the body sprawled on the floor. Terror shot through him when he saw the handle of a knife sticking out of his shoulder. He staggered forward, a feral cry of pain escaping as he felt his soul shatter. ‘No…God, Chris, don’t do this to me,’ he thought as he took in the body so marked with damage as to be unrecognizable except for the matted, sweat soaked, blond hair. He took a deep breath and knelt down, pulling the unmoving body against him as he shook with anger at himself, at Don Garcia, and at God himself.

 

“You stubborn bastard…couldn’t wait…no, had to…to go off and do it all your fucking self,” Buck said and cradled the body against his own, unaware of the hand that moved to touch his arm.

 

“Not a fuc…fucking whore, Buck…”

 

“Huh,” Wilmington managed and pulled back to see a pair of green slits beneath a sea of red, but a relieved smile formed and he choked out. “Jesus…you scared the shit out of me.”

 

“Sor…ry…tri…tried… pro…”

 

Buck held his friend as he tried to speak, but could not understand what he was saying. He felt Larabee tremble just before he lost consciousness and Buck closed his eyes as he felt the slight rise and fall of Larabee’s chest.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Evita knew Santos was safe with Juanita and hurried down the stairs. She’d heard voices raised in anger and recognized her son’s anger as she exited the door and raced toward him. “Luis!”

 

“Madre, you should not be here,” Luis said, but held her close as one of the field workers covered Don Garcia’s body with a rough-hewn blanket.

 

“He is dead?” Evita asked.

 

“Si,” Luis answered and watched his mother make the sign of the cross.

 

“I will not mourn him, Luis,” Evita said, but wiped away the telltale tears that escaped from her eyes. There was a baby to care for, one who would grow up an orphan, but that did not mean he would not know what it is like to be loved. She would care for him, raise him in the same way she’d raised the man before her. She would make Dona Maria De Rivera proud of her son; that was something she would see to herself.

 

“Neither will I, Madre,” Luis said and looked around as Gores began ordering the workers back to the fields. “No, Fernando, leave them alone…”

 

“The plants will not care for themselves, Luis, and since I am the overseer…”

 

“Not any more, Fernando. I will not allow you to beat on the workers while you sit back and grow fat while others work their fingers to the bare bone. You are no longer needed here…”

 

“You cannot fire me!”

 

“Si, I can, Fernando, or do I have to remind you of who you are speaking with?”

 

“Don Garcia never said you were his son!”

 

“Perhaps not, but there are many that know the truth and I am going to make sure my brother grows up knowing what is right and what is wrong. Get your things and leave now, Fernando, or I will have you escorted from my home!” Luis said.

 

Fernando Gores knew there was no help for him from the workers or Luis’ men. Knowing that there would be others Luis had angered, the former overseer turned to leave with a silent vow that Luis Martinez would pay for what he’d done.

 

“Luis…”

 

“Madre, I must see to Don Garcia and make arrangements for his burial.”

 

“Si, Luis, I can help.”

 

“No, Madre, you are needed here. Santos is crying and I believe Nathan Jackson will be here with the injured from the Arena De Muerte.”

 

“Madre De Dios, I had forgotten. I will need help to fix the rooms and make sure everything is in readiness,” Evita said and looked up when she heard movement and silently prayed the man who’d saved her life was still alive.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

Four Corners

Mid-Afternoon

 

Mary knew most of the townspeople were anxious for word on the men who kept the peace in Four Corners and the outlying areas. Yosemite and several others, including neighboring farmers like Tom Wilson were taking patrols and watching for trouble. So far there’d been very little for them to handle, but there were two men locked up in jail for being drunk and disorderly.

 

Mary moved toward the saloon with the day’s newspaper in her hands, but there was very little to report. At least the raids on the homesteads to the south had stopped and Mary silently prayed the seven men would return safely.

 

“Mrs. Travis, is there any news from Mr. Larabee and his friends?” Heidegger called and waited for her to join him in front of the hotel.

 

“No, Mr. Heidegger, I’m afraid there’s nothing new,” the newspaperwoman answered sadly.

 

“They are probably off drinking and whoring in Purgatorio. What are we paying them for?”

 

“Mr. Conklin, we are not the ones paying Mr. Larabee and the others, my father-in-law is taking care of that.”

 

“Your father-in-law is not here to make sure they protect his investment…”

 

“Do not listen to him, Mrs. Travis,” Heidegger said and turned away from the pompous man who never had a good word for anyone.

 

“I bet if I sent a telegram to Judge Travis he would be as angry as I am.”

 

“Don’t count on it, Mr. Conklin,” the blonde woman said. “Orin will be here on the next stage and I’m sure he’d be very interested in hearing your complaints, although I’m sure he’s probably heard the same drivel from the cowards in every town he’s visited.”

 

“How dare you!”

 

“Problems, Mrs. Travis?” Yosemite asked from behind Conklin.

 

“Nothing I can’t handle, Yosemite, Mr. Conklin was just giving his opinion about how Judge Travis should spend his money.” Mary smiled condescendingly at Conklin before handing a newspaper to the others and hurrying toward the saloon. She knew men like Conklin would always blame others for their own shortcomings, but that didn’t mean she had to let them away with it.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

East of the De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Afternoon

 

Nathan had no idea how long it would take to reach the hacienda, and cursed the heat that sapped the moisture from the landscape. Vin Tanner remained unconscious, yet there could be no denying the fact that the injured Texan was fighting for his life. Guilt gnawed at his gut when he took note of the weight the younger man had lost and he hoped Vin had the strength to keep fighting.

 

Nathan’s thoughts turned to another young man, whose injuries he had yet to see, but at least JD was alive. The relief the news brought had nearly floored him, but the relief had ebbed and had been replaced by worry. Josiah had filled him in on what they knew of Dunne’s injuries and he wished he could see how much damage had been done. 

 

Jackson reached out and touched Tanner’s forehead and knew the fever had a strong hold on the injured man. The faster they got to the hacienda, the faster he could mix the herbs and medicines the Texan needed. The wagon lurched to the left, but was quickly righted as Sanchez brought the animals back under control.

 

“Any idea how much further?” Sanchez asked.

 

“No, I wasn’t paying attention when Don Garcia brought us here…sorry,” Jackson apologized, but felt a hand on his arm.

 

“You had other things on your mind, Nathan,” Standish said simply, not bothering to hide behind what Vin had called his five-dollar words. He nodded toward the Texan and hoped the healer understood what he meant as they topped a rise and looked down into a lush valley. In the distance he could see several buildings and from the look on Jackson’s face he knew this was De Rivera’s hacienda.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Afternoon

 

Buck looked up as Raphael and Augusta joined him on the veranda. He clung to Chris as if to release him would mean losing what little life was left in the lean body. The knife needed to be removed, but he remembered Nathan’s warning that it could be the only thing stopping the wound from bleeding freely and God only knew Chris had already lost too much. He knew they had to move the blond inside, and sighed heavily when Raphael knelt beside them.

 

“How is he?” Raphael asked softly.

 

“He’s alive…that’s about all I can say,” Wilmington answered.

 

“Senorita Martinez has a room ready for him,” Augusta advised.

 

“Mario just rode in,” Raphael told the worried rogue. “Nathan should be here soon.”

 

“Thank God,” Wilmington said and realized the blond wasn’t as out of it as he thought. “Chris, we’re going to have to get you inside.”

 

“…do it…” Larabee ground out as he lifted a bloodied hand to touch Wilmington’s chest.

 

“Raphael, you and Augusta take his legs,” Wilmington ordered and slowly made his way to his feet. He felt the lean body tense just before they lifted him off the floor. Buck steeled his heart against the weak sounds that escaped his friend as they carried him through the doors and into the hacienda.

 

“Bring him in here,” Evita ordered once they reached the upper hallway. The house servants had readied the twin beds and turned down the blankets while she’d been busy making sure everything was ready in the kitchen. Juanita would stay with Santos and make sure the baby was cared for while the others helped with the injured.

 

Buck moved into the room and settled Larabee on the bed closest to the window. The sunlight filtered through a set of floral curtains, but Buck felt chilled to the bone when he realized just how much damage had been done to his friend.

 

“Senor, I will have water and bandages brought for you,” Evita offered.

 

“Thank you, Senorita,” Wilmington said. He could hear others around him, but his attention was solely on his injured friend and he silently wished Nathan was there. He looked up as a young man entered carrying a basin of water and bandages and watched as the servant’s eyes wandered to the knife sticking out of Larabee’s shoulder.

 

“Do you need anything else, Senor?” the young man asked and waited for Raphael to repeat his words in English.

 

“No,” Wilmington answered and dipped a cloth into the water. He began cleaning the dirt, revealing more and more bruises in varying shades and several marks that made him curse softly.

 

“Nathan is here, Buck,” Raphael told him.

 

“Tell him to get the hell up here!” Wilmington snapped when he noted that Larabee had lost consciousness again.

 

“He is helping bring Vin…Augusta told him there were two beds in this room,” Raphael said and moved to turn down the blankets on the next bed.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Nathan felt the fear rising in his throat when the wagon was pulled to a stop in front of the hacienda. He had no idea what to expect and suddenly realized he was bringing more hostages to Don Garcia De Rivera. He swallowed convulsively as a familiar figure moved toward him.

 

“Don Garcia is dead…there is nothing for you to fear any longer,” Luis explained.

 

“I’m sorry…not because he’s dead, Luis, but because you have lost your father.”

 

“He never acknowledge me as his son, and I will not allow his death to bring sorrow to the people he walked on,” Martinez said. “There is a room ready…”

 

“What about Chris? Where is he?” Jackson asked.

 

“He is injured, but he is not alone…”

 

“Nathan, you go with him while I get some men to help carry Vin inside,” Sanchez ordered and motioned for three familiar figures to join them.

 

“Josiah, it’s gonna be hell movin’ him. Luis, do you have something we can use to keep him as straight as possible?” Jackson asked.

 

“Si, I can do that,” Luis said and gave several commands to the fieldworkers before turning back to the healer. “It is being done.”

 

“Thank you,” Jackson said, glancing at the unconscious Texan before turning his attention to Standish. “Ez, you’re not gonna be able to help so you might as well come with me.”

 

“I assure…”

 

“Assure me of nothin’…come on Ezra or I’ll have someone give you some menial labor to do,” Jackson said and hurried into the hacienda. He hurried up the stairs, but stopped at an open doorway as Evita Martinez wrapped her arms around him.

 

“It is good to see you, Nathan.”

 

“Thank you, Evita. Where’s Chris?” Jackson asked.

 

“He is in the room next to the nursery. Juanita is staying with Santos,” Evita explained and led the way toward the bedroom. “How is your friend?”

 

“He’s in bad shape. Luis is helping bring him up here,” Jackson said and took a deep breath as he entered the room. He quickly took in the damage inflicted on Chris Larabee and moved to the bed as Wilmington stood back.

 

“I didn’t want to remove the knife until you took a look at it,” the worried man explained.

 

“Yuh thought right, he could have bled t'death,” Jackson said.

 

“He was shot too, Nate…went through, I’ve been trying to clean him up…keep hearing you telling us how dangerous infections can be,” Wilmington said.

 

“I’m gonna need more water and…Evita, do you have any carbolic?”

 

“I am sorry, Nathan, what is carbolic?” Evita asked and listened as Nathan explained what he needed. “I do not know if it is the same thing, but there are herbs and liquids used by the fieldworkers. I will speak to Pedro and have him bring whatever they have.”

 

“Thank you, Evita,” Jackson said and took a deep breath as he motioned for Buck to continue the task of cleaning the dirt from Larabee’s body. “Ezra, sit down.”

 

“Nathan, I can help,” Standish said.

 

“Yes, you can, by sitting down. I know that wound ain’t as bad as it could’ve been, but it’s bad enough and it’s gonna need time ta heal,” Jackson warned as he began examining the area around the knife wound. “Buck, I’m gonna need ya ta hold him still while I get this out.”

 

“I got him,” Wilmington said, relieved that the bed was not pushed up tight against the wall. He did his best to hold the injured blond down as Nathan pulled the knife from the wound. The pain filled cry was weak, but it echoed through the house and a second one joined it as Vin was carried into the room.

 

“Sweet Jesus,” Sanchez said, but held tight to his burden as Tanner tried to come off the board he was carried on.

 

“Ezra, stay put!” Wilmington said as Jackson pressed a piece of cloth against the hole in Larabee’s shoulder.

 

“Easy,” Sanchez soothed Vin, after Larabee grew quiet beneath the healer’s touch.

 

“Chris…”

 

“Nathan’s with him. Just hold on while we get you in bed and you’ll see for yourself.”

 

“Hurt…hurting…”

 

“Him or you?” Sanchez asked as he helped move the injured Texan.

 

“Josiah, make sure he stays put!” Jackson ordered.

 

“He’s not going anywhere,” Sanchez vowed and placed his hands on the heaving chest. “You can’t help him right now, Vin.”

 

Vin knew Josiah was right and lay back against the pillow with a soft moan. He turned his head until he spotted the shadowy shapes across the short distance, but his vision refused to focus. His stomach churned as pain flooded his senses and threatened to send him back into the dark void he’d been in. He gagged and clenched his eyes tightly as strong hands eased him onto his side as dry heaves racked his body.

 

“Easy, Vin, I got you,” Sanchez said and gently held the man until the tremors stopped. He placed him back on the pillows and noted that someone had added another one so that the injured man could sit up without putting pressure on his injuries. He noted the beads of sweat on the Texan’s face and chest and looked up when a basin of water was placed on the floor beside him.

 

“Keep wiping him down, Josiah,” Jackson ordered, relieved to find Evita was taking care of the essential needs.

 

“Nathan, Pedro will bring the herbs and salves.”

 

“Thank you, Evita…for everything,” the healer said and took a deep breath as several servants entered the room carrying buckets of water and extra towels and bandages.

 

“Tell me what you need,” Evita said.

 

“A doctor…”

 

“The Lord has gifted you with the heart and soul of a healer, Nathan Jackson…I have seen you work and feel honored to be in your presence,” the woman said and placed a hand on his shoulder before speaking softly. “Now tell me what you need?”

 

“Gonna need hot water…maybe some broth fer Chris and Vin.”

 

“Done,” Evita said and looked at the newcomers. “I will see that there is food for everyone.”

 

“Thank you,” Jackson said and returned his full attention to the injured blond. He looked at the man opposite him and swallowed convulsively as Wilmington’s blue eyes locked on his and gave a slight nod of his dark head. There was no need for words; everything that needed to be said was evident in that single motion.

 

Buck watched as Nathan worked to clean the ravaged flesh around the knife wound and turned his attention to the blond’s left side. He’d grabbed one of the clean towels and pressed it against the entrance wound and another against the larger exit wound. He’d seen the marks that crisscrossed Larabee’s chest and back and cursed Don Garcia for his cruelty.

 

“Buck, I need you to clean him up for me while I check this head wound,” Jackson ordered, his voice stronger than he thought possible. A table with herbs, salves, and a basin of water was placed beside him and he knew they all owed Evita Martinez a debt of gratitude. He reached for a clean cloth and gently began removing the mixture of dirt and blood on Larabee’s face and knew the gash on his forehead would need stitches.

 

The area around the cut was already darkening with a livid bruise that matched the ones that covered Larabee’s body. He glanced at the table, surprised to find what he needed to sew the wounds closed. Taking a deep breath, Nathan tuned out everything around him except the job at hand.

 

Buck watched the change in the man and knew Nathan did not see himself the same way those around him did. Jackson was a man whose emotions were easy to read and Buck knew there was no one else he’d rather have taking care of Chris, Vin, and Ezra. He knew once the trio was taken care of they’d have a decision to make regarding JD Dunne. He trusted Cristóbal and Carmella Covas, but JD needed Nathan…he needed Nathan to tell him the youngest member of the peacekeepers would be all right.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Late Afternoon

 

JD could hear a soft voice nearby, and smiled as a warmth spread through him. The words were unintelligible, but the angel standing beside his bed was beautiful. Her dark hair hung over her right shoulder in a long braid that touched her hips as her hands worked at something he couldn’t quite make out.

 

“Ma,” he whispered, but there was no sign that the woman heard him as she continued to sing softly. He wanted to move, but nothing seemed to work as he struggled against the nauseating dizziness that threatened to send him back into the dark abyss he’d been drowning in. 

 

Carmella continued to darn her husband’s sock while singing a song her mother had taught her at an early age. It had often soothed her during the times when she was ill and she hoped it would do the same for the injured young man. She’d been sitting with him since waking to find Cristóbal working in the field. She stood in the doorway, watching him and falling in love all over again before picking up the basket and sitting beside the bed.

 

“Ma?”

 

Carmella’s head came up and she stopped singing as the young man’s voice reached her ears and she smiled before placing the sock and needle back in the basket. She hoped she could get through to him, and placed a gentle hand on his cheek as she tried to convey a sense of safety as she spoke.

 

“JD, you are safe. No one will hurt you here,” Carmella explained and smiled as she reached for the herbal tea she’d placed on the nearby table. She helped him lift his head, but eased him back down as a muffled cry escaped tightly clenched teeth.

 

“…ick…” Dunne managed and was grateful when she’d turned him on his side. He regretted the fact that he’d made a mess on the floor, but the woman’s voice was a soothing balm on his conscience.

 

“Would you like to try that again?”

 

“Ma…made…mess…”

 

“It can be cleaned,” Carmella said and held the cup to his lips and allowed him to take a few sips before taking it away. “You can have more, but let that settle first. How do you feel?”

 

“Head…hurts…”

 

“I know,” Carmella said sympathetically. “Why don’t you close your eyes and sleep?”

 

“…kay…” Dunne said, but frowned as an image of an irate blond formed, but disappeared as darkness won out and he lost consciousness.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Evening

 

Luis Martinez knew he should say something over his father’s grave, but there seemed to be nothing he could say to erase the cruelty of Don Garcia De Rivera. The fieldworkers and many of the house servants were present as the body was lowered into the ground and he heard several mumbled prayers as his mother took his hand in hers. 

 

“Luis, he may not have said it, but Don Garcia was proud of the man you became.”

 

“Was he? No, Madre, I believe he would have been proud only if I did as he asked. I could not bring myself to hurt anyone else in his name,” Luis explained sadly. It had been his choice to bury Don Garcia quickly instead of waiting for word to spread and people to give their condolences.

 

“Luis, you are a good man…one I am proud of and I know you will help raise Santos to be as kind and forgiving as his mother was,” Evita said as two of the workers began shoveling the dirt into the grave. Don Garcia had ordered a specially made casket, one that had cost more than most people earned in a lifetime in the fields. It had been stored in a small room that had once been used for De Rivera’s honored guests and kept clean by the servants.

 

“It will be hard for Santos…growing up as an orphan.”

 

“Perhaps it will not be as hard as you think, Luis. Santos has you and he will look up to you. I believe in my heart that Dona Maria will watch over her son and help guide him with the knowledge of what is right and what is wrong.”

 

“I know I should say something, Madre, but I find my heart is not in it. I can not speak the words of forgiveness…”

 

“It is not for us to forgive, Luis, it is God who will decide whether Don Garcia deserves forgiveness for his sins,” Evita said.

 

“God have mercy on his soul,” Luis managed past the lump in his throat. He watched as several of the fieldworkers made the sign of the cross and placed flowers on the new grave. He knew he should feel grief at the loss of life, especially of the man who was his father, but all he felt was an emptiness that swallowed him up.

 

“Come, Luis, there are many things you must see to,” Evita said and hoped her son would understand his new role as Haciendada until Santos De River was old enough to make decisions of his own.

 

“How are Nathan’s friends?” Luis asked as they walked past Dona Maria’s grave.

 

“They are hurting, but I believe God has given Nathan a gift that flows through his hands. He does not know how much his friends trust him and yet he would do anything for them. He has an old soul…a healer’s soul,” Evita explained as they walked back toward the house.

 

“I wish I could have stopped what he did to Nathan…to his friends,” Luis said.

 

“I wish I had the strength to leave when you were born, Luis, but there was nowhere for us to go,” Evita told him. “You must be careful.”

 

“Why?”

 

“You have made an enemy of Fernando Gores and he will not forget what you did here today,” Evita warned.

 

“Gores is a coward.”

 

“Si, he is, but even cowards grow strong when they have others to hide behind,” Evita said and hugged her son. She silently prayed he would draw on the inner strength that emanated from him, a strength that was solidified by the men who chose to ride with him.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Buck watched as Nathan checked both men before dropping heavily onto the chair that had been placed between the two beds. He could see the lines of strain on the healer’s face and wondered what this man had been through since they’d last seen each other north of the Rio Grande.

 

There were no injuries, at least none that were visible to the naked eye, but Buck knew in his heart that Nathan had been put through emotional hell. The man would not leave Chris or Vin’s side, and right now that was where he was needed, but at some point in time Nathan would need to talk through what had happened.

 

Buck looked at Josiah who was standing near the open doorway and saw the truth of his own thoughts mirrored on the older man’s face. Ezra had been convinced to take advantage of the bed in the next room once Nathan had cleaned and stitched his wound. There was still one man missing, and Buck was worried and wanted him under Jackson’s care…and under his own watchful eyes.

 

“Buck, how bad is JD?” Nathan’s voice was soft as he replaced the cloth on Larabee’s forehead.

 

Wilmington ran his fingers through his hair and leaned back in the chair before answering. “He was awake for a bit, but didn’t seem to know what was going on. He’s got a bad head wound, Nathan…”

 

“Why’d you leave ‘im alone?” the former slave snapped.

 

“We didn’t, Brother,” Sanchez said. “When we left him he was in good hands.”

 

“Is he…can someone get him and bring him here?” Jackson asked.

 

“He’s in rough shape, Nathan. Maybe if we used a wagon, but it’d be hard on him,” Wilmington supplied.

 

“Damn it!” Jackson snapped and looked at the two unconscious men. “I need…”

 

“You can’t be in two places at once,” Sanchez said and placed a hand on the weary man’s shoulder. “I’ll see if we can borrow the wagon…maybe set up a mattress in the back and get some blankets to keep the sun off of him.”

 

Jackson nodded simply and turned to walk out onto the veranda.

 

“He’s taking this hard,” Wilmington said, not missing the slumped shoulders or downcast eyes that spoke of inner turmoil.

 

“Nathan’s always carried a heavy load, but something tells me there’s more to the story than we know,” Sanchez offered. He glanced from Larabee to Tanner and knew both men had a hard fight ahead of them. No matter how hard it was for them, it would be doubly hard for Nathan, but somehow they would help the healer through the hell De Rivera had created. Josiah knew that at some point in time he would have to get his friend to open up or whatever he’d seen would fester until it wore a hole in his heart.

 



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