WHEN THE SUN COMES BACK

by Winnie

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening

 

Evita watched with pride as her son talked with the field workers and could see the difference in the way they looked at him. Don Garcia had been a hard taskmaster and many of the peons bore the marks left by his cane or whip. His cruelty had seen many people crippled or in the grave, and now there seemed to be a sigh of relief amongst those gathered at the front of the house.

 

Luis was a strong man whose appearance differed from his father and for that she was grateful. He reminded her more and more of her own father and she knew he would have been proud of his grandson. She turned to find Juanita Perez watching her and smiled at the young woman who had captured Luis’ heart. At least now she would have the chance to see them happy and hopefully she'd have grandchildren of her own.

 

“He is strong, Evita.”

 

“Si, he is and he will make sure Santos has the same inner strength he has. Santos will grow up without his padre’s shadow and will have Luis’ heart to help guide him. You are good for him,” the older woman said with a smile that was filled with a peace she’d felt only once before on the day her son was born and placed in her arms.

 

“Thank you, Evita, I love Luis very much.”

 

“I know you do and now you can show him how you feel without worrying about Don Garcia’s anger,” Evita told her.

 

“Your blessing means so much to me, Evita. I have always looked to you for guidance,” Juanita said as Luis moved to join them.

 

“I have always known how you and Luis felt, Juanita, and prayed that God would make it possible for you to be together,” Evita said and hugged her son. “You chose wisely, Luis.”

 

Luis hugged both woman and knew things were far from settled, but at least now these people had a chance at a life so different from the one they’d known. He knew Don Garcia had treated them badly and regretted being unable to help them, but for now the Hacienda was his to run until Santos was old enough to take over. He would be there to help guide his brother and give him advice and would also tell him about his father.

 

“Luis, it is time for you to eat and rest,” Evita told her son.

 

“Si, Madre, but first I will check on Nathan and his compadres,” Luis said and hurried into the house. He made his way up the stairs and into the room where his father’s victims remained unconscious and under the watchful eyes of their friends.

 

“Come in, Luis,” Sanchez said of the handsome young man standing in the doorway.

 

“Thank you, Senor, how are they?”

 

“Not good, but Nathan is doing everything he can,” the ex-preacher answered.

 

“There are many of my people who are praying for them. Mi madre has seen that there is plenty of food and I am sure she is making something for Senor Tanner and Senor Larabee.”

 

“Thank you, Luis; I don’t know how close you were to Don Garcia…”

 

“He was mi padre…”

 

“Then I’m sorry for your loss,” Sanchez said and made a sign of the cross.

 

“Do not be,” Luis told him. “Mi Padre was a cruel man and does not deserve our sorrow or forgiveness.”

 

“Still, he was your padre, and yet I sense no cruelty in you,” the older man said.

 

“You do not know me, Senor,” Martinez whispered.

 

“Perhaps not, but my instincts tell me you are a far better man than your padre,” Sanchez vowed.

 

“Where is Nathan?” Luis asked.

 

“He is on the veranda,” Wilmington answered from his position near Larabee’s bed.

 

“Nathan is a good man and did not deserve what mi padre did,” Martinez said.

 

“What did he do to Nathan?” Wilmington asked and watched as Ezra shifted his position on the floor next to Tanner’s bed.

 

“Nothing, Buck,” Jackson answered and re-entered the room. His eyes were heavy lidded and his shoulders slumped as he moved to check on the injured men. He swallowed convulsively as he moved to Vin and noted the pale skin that glistened with perspiration. There was no way of telling whether the fight in the arena or from the damaged tooth caused the swelling on his face. He checked the bandage covering the bullet wound and shook his head when he lifted it away and revealed the ravaged wound.

 

“How does it look, Nathan?” Sanchez asked.

 

“How do you think it looks, Josiah? He’s been beaten, shot, mistreated, half starved, and forced to work in a fucking field while I…while I…” Nathan gripped the basin of water and threw it against the opposite wall, watching as the contents slowly slid down the wall.

 

“Easy, Brother,” the ex-preacher said and placed a gentle, callused hand on Jackson’s shoulder.

 

Nathan threw off the reassuring hand and turned on the older man. “Don’t touch me, Preacher!”

 

“Nathan, you are exhausted…perhaps you should take advantage of our assistance and rest,” Standish offered.

 

“I need…”

 

“Nathan, Ezra’s right,” Sanchez interrupted. “Luis, is there somewhere Nathan can get some sleep once he’s eaten?”

 

“I will see that there is a room ready for him,” Martinez assured them and left the room.

 

“I should stay with…”

 

“No, Brother, you need to let us take care of them for a while!” Josiah said, but there was no mistaking the tone the man used. Nathan turned away from the ex-preacher, but Sanchez was not to be denied. “Nathan…”

 

“Leave me the hell alone, Josiah!”

 

“I don’t think so! I’ll carry you out if I have to, Brother, and you know I can do it too,” Sanchez said softly, but left little doubt that he would remove the man bodily if he didn’t listen to reason.

 

“Nathan, you’ve shown us what to do and it’s time you let us take over! It ain’t gonna do any good if you fall on your face and we can’t wake you when they really need you!” Wilmington snapped and knew Ezra was ready to take up the gauntlet even with his arm in a sling.

 

“I...” Jackson felt the anger drain from his weary body and felt the exhaustion wash over him like waves on a stormy sea. He knew these men were right, but it did not make this any easier. “You’ll wake me if they need me?”

 

“You know I will,” Sanchez said. “Go get something to eat and take advantage of a bed for a few hours.”

 

“What about JD?” Jackson asked, holding his ground.

 

“It’s too late to go get him tonight, Nathan,” Wilmington said with a heavy sigh as he ran his fingers through his hair.

 

“He’ll be fine until we can bring him here, Nathan,” Sanchez tried to sound reassuring, but it fell short because of his own fears where the youngest peacekeeper was concerned. He watched Jackson closely and knew the man needed to rest, but as always, their healer would not leave until he was sure the injured were as comfortable as possible. He shared a look with Wilmington and understood the other man would help him carry Jackson out if that’s what it took. For now they would allow him to finish caring for Vin and Chris, but if he did not leave they would make good on his earlier threat.

 

Nathan knew there was nothing he could do about JD and returned his attention to the task at hand, hiding the anger that still seethed inside him. He cleaned the wound and had Josiah hold the unconscious Texan while he wrapped new bandages around his waist. “Keep wiping him down with cool water…gotta get the fever down.”

 

“We will, Nate,” Wilmington vowed and moved aside so Jackson could care for the blond.

 

Nathan took a deep breath and sat down in the chair. Where Vin was pale, Chris’ skin had that washed out caste that reminded him of a corpse and he forced himself to concentrate on what he was doing. He checked the bandage covering the shoulder and decided to leave it alone as there seemed to be very little blood showing through. The bullet wound to his side also appeared to be okay, but several marks made by De Rivera were showing signs of infection and Nathan suddenly felt the weight of the world on his shoulders as he turned to the others.

 

“What’s wrong, Nathan?” Sanchez asked.

 

“I’m gonna need to clean these.”

 

“What do you need me to do?” Wilmington asked.

 

“Need you to hold him down for me. Evita gave me some things her people use and I ain’t sure how much they’ll hurt him…could be like carbolic,” Jackson warned and moved to check the items Evita gave him. He found the ones she’d told him were used to clean open wounds and returned to the bed. He mixed it with the clean water Josiah poured into the basin and placed on the table beside him.

 

“Tell us when you’re ready, Nathan,” Sanchez said as he took Larabee’s feet while Wilmington placed his hands on the blond’s bare shoulders.

 

“I’m ready,” Jackson said, and took a hitching breath before gently pressing against the first wound. The putrid smell hit them at once even as Larabee moaned and struggled to get away from whatever was causing him pain.

 

“Easy, Chris, Nathan’s just gonna fix you up,” Wilmington said and held tight to the shoulders as he watched Sanchez struggle to hold the long legs.

 

Nathan repeated the process with the second wound, working methodically as he fought the bone deep exhaustion as he called on what little energy he had left. He heard Ezra say something to Vin and hoped the gambler could keep the Texan down. It took several long minutes to clean the infection from the wounds and by the time he was done he was drenched in sweat and nausea churned through his gut as Larabee slumped against the pillows, eyes closed and his breathing ragged. He’d never really regained consciousness, but he’d given Buck and Josiah a fight worthy of a prizefighter he’d once seen.

 

Josiah and Buck exchanged a look over the healer’s tense back and both men knew Nathan looked as if he’d been beaten down. There was no doubt in their minds that he was working on remote and sooner or later he would collapse if they didn’t make him rest.

 

“Nathan, we can take it from here,” Sanchez said and saw the dark head nod once, concerned when the younger man did not even look at him.

 

Nathan stood and left the room without a backward glance because to do so would reveal just how hard this was for him. He made his way downstairs and smiled thinly when Evita handed him a plate of food. The smell was enough to make his stomach rumble, but he found he had no desire to eat. He took the plate and sat down, picking at the spicy food, not really tasting it before he finally pushed it away.

 

“Nathan, I have a room ready for you,” Evita told him.

 

“Thank you, Evita,” Jackson said and followed her up the stairs. Once in the room he closed the door and dropped to his knees as his body shook with the accumulated effects of the last few weeks. His shoulders slumped as his hands fisted in anger at the atrocities he’d witnessed and been unable to stop. He’d seen so much on the plantation and now it felt like his life had come full circle and he’d been forced to watch as his friends were beaten. He struggled to his feet, staggered across the short distance to the bed and dropped heavily onto the mattress.

 

Nathan curled onto his side, but what little he’d eaten churned through his stomach. He reached for the basin on the table and wretched several times until his body shook with the sounds of dry heaves. When they finally stopped, Nathan wanted to get rid of the sour smelling vomit, but his body refused to move and he placed the basin on the floor and fell back against the pillow. His eyes closed and silent tears made a trail down his cheeks as exhaustion won out and he dropped heavily into a nightmare world of suffering he’d long since thought was buried deep in his subconscious.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

Covas Home

South of the Rio Bravo

Early Morning

 

Carmella reached for the cloth and placed it on the young man’s forehead. During the night he’d been feverish and crying out and it had taken a toll on his body. There were times when he looked too young to have been through so much, and she wondered what his life had been like to lead him to this position.

 

“No…too close…can see their eyes…Buck, help…”

 

“It’s okay, JD, you’re safe,” Carmella soothed when the dark head tossed from side to side and sweat glistened on his bare chest and face. She reached for a second cloth and ran it over his chest even as he struggled in the throes of whatever nightmares held him in his grip.

 

“Carmella, Love, you are tired,” Cristóbal said and massaged her shoulders as a soft cry escaped her throat.

 

“Oh, Cristóbal, he is so young.”

 

“Si, he is, but he is very strong and he has friends. They will help him,” Cristóbal told her.

 

“If they are alive. I expected them to return, but…what if…what if something happened to them. You know Don Garcia is a cruel man and if he…”

 

“Sh, Love, they will return for him. God will see them safe for they do His work,” Cristóbal offered.

 

“Chris dead…no, Buck…where are…mama…cold…” Dunne’s eyes shot open, but it was obvious to the couple that he was not seeing them, but something that plagued his nightmares.

 

“JD, you’re safe,” Carmella explained softly.

 

“Ma…ma?” Dunne’s voice was filled with sorrow and hope as his eyes fixed on the woman whose hand caressed his brow. A warmth spread through him at her touch and his fevered brain latched onto a vision from his childhood. “Mama…so tired.”

 

“I’m here, JD, go ahead and sleep,” Carmella said and watched the eyes close, even as he reached for her touch.

 

“He will sleep now, Love,” Cristóbal said and helped her stand. “Now you must do the same.

 

“I don’t want to leave him alone.”

 

“I will stay with him. Go to our bed or I will be forced to watch over you and leave the boy alone,” Cristóbal warned and knew he’d said the right thing.

 

“Wake me if he needs me.”

 

“I will…you said just what he needed to hear, Carmella,” Cristóbal told his wife and gently wiped the tears from her face. “His mama must have been a beautiful woman if he is mistaking you for her.

 

“You are a romantic old fool, Mi Amore,” Carmella said and kissed her husband before leaving the room.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

 

The dawn of a new day came with the sun peeking her golden crown above the horizon while soft white clouds made their silent journey as if nothing mattered but the advancement of time. Colorful native birds twittered in the nearby trees while animals scurried on the trails in search of food. 

 

Nathan stepped out onto the veranda and sighed tiredly. He moved to the edge and stared out over the land whose beauty should have filled him with wonder, instead he felt nothing but an icy chill running through his veins. How could he see beauty in a land whose owner was filled with cruelty and had nearly claimed the lives of his friends?

 

Nathan could see the field workers moving through the abundant crops and shook himself as a vision of Vin Tanner, bare-chested and feverish flashed across his eyes. He knew the Texan was safe from De Rivera and Gores, but he still had a fight ahead of him before he could reclaim his life back in Four Corners.

 

Nathan thought about his own life and knew the experiences on the Hacienda had changed him as tears formed in his eyes. He blinked several times and wiped away the moisture as he fought to keep his emotions in check. He was so lost in his thoughts that he didn’t hear anything, but his own ragged breathing, and jumped when a hand landed on his right shoulder. He whirled on the man and raised his fist, but found his hand engulfed by strong fingers.

 

“Easy, Brother,” Sanchez said.

 

“Jesus, Josiah, I’m sorry.”

 

“It’s okay, Nathan, I should have said something earlier,” Sanchez said. “You look like hell…did you get any sleep at all?”

 

“Slept some,” the former slave answered.

 

“Not nearly enough,” Sanchez observed of the deep-set eyes that were clouded with sorrow and pain.

 

“I’m fine…” Jackson dismissed and frowned when the older man chuckled softly. “What’s so funny?”

 

“You’ve been hanging around the rest of us too long, My Friend. Fine indeed,” the ex-preacher said with a grin.

 

“Hell,” Jackson whispered and sat down wearily. “How are they?”

 

“Vin’s fever seems to be coming down some, and we managed to get some water into him,” Sanchez answered.

 

“He was sick before they took us. Diseased tooth, but the bastards bustin’ it might’ve helped some. I’m gonna need to keep an eye on it…might have to drain it again if it swells up again.”

 

“He’s tough,” Sanchez complimented.

 

“What about Chris? Have you been able to get him to drink anything?”

 

“No, he hasn’t moved since you left last night,” Sanchez offered.

 

“What about his fever?” Jackson asked and watched Sanchez’s face closely when the man didn’t answer immediately. “Josiah?”

 

“He’s burning up…”

 

“Why the hell didn’t ya wake me up?” Jackson snapped, pushing past the older man in his hurry to check on the injured men. He entered the room to find Buck seated between the two beds. “Where’s Ezra?”

 

“We managed to convince him to get some sleep,” Wilmington answered.

 

“His arm botherin’ him?” Jackson asked, taking the seat the ladies’ man vacated.

 

“Yeah,” Wilmington answered.

 

“I’ll take a look at it when he wakes up,” Jackson said, turning his attention to the unconscious blond. “This fever’s got a tight hold on him.”

 

“I’ve been wiping him down,” Wilmington offered.

 

“Josiah, ask Evita if there’s any ice,” Jackson ordered as he eased back the blankets to check Larabee’s wounds.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

***“Chris…it ain’t your fault,” Dunne said. Standing tall, he squared his shoulders and turned toward Don Garcia De Rivera. He drew in a deep breath and spoke in a voice devoid of fear. “See you in hell!”

 

“Now, Hernando…”

 

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

 

“No…JD…no…go home kid…”

 

“Chris, can you hear me?” Jackson asked. He wasn’t sure what he was hearing or what Larabee was seeing, but whatever he was dreaming about was tearing him apart.

 

“…home kid…go home…don’t…” Chris struggled against the hands that touched his shoulders, His body arched upward with a fierce strength that defied description. He lashed out at the enemy before him, eyes wide and seeing only the nightmarish images that followed him through his nightmares.

 

“Na…”

 

“Stay put, Vin, or so help me I’ll tie you down!” Jackson warned when Tanner’s eyes shot open at Larabee’s cry.

 

“…so…sorry…Buck…couldn’t save…tried…” Larabee’s head tossed weakly from side to side as he fought to get away from the images that plague him. “JD de…ad…God, Kid…I’m sorry…”

 

“JD’s not dead, Chris…you hear me? JD’s not dead!” Wilmington said.

 

“...go home kid…too late…my fault…dirt…so much dirt…”

 

Buck heard the damning words and knew Chris believed JD was dead, and he remembered the days following Sarah and Adam’s deaths. Chris had struggled to live, even though his heart had been ripped from his chest and the sorrow and pain in his voice now was reminiscent of the early days following the loss of his family. There was one major difference between then and now, JD was alive, or he had been the last time Buck had seen him.

 

“Nathan,” Evita said upon entering the room. “I am sorry, but we have no ice. Luis has sent several men to check the nearby haciendas, but I do not know if they will be successful.”

 

“Damn it!” Jackson softly cursed. He needed to bring Larabee’s fever down, but right now there didn’t seem to be any way of doing that except with water.

 

“Are there any streams nearby, Evita?” Sanchez asked.

 

“There is one that runs along the north side of the fields. The workers use it to water the crops there,” the woman answered.

 

“How far is it?” the ex-preacher asked.

 

“Perhaps an hour,” Evita said.

 

“Nathan, what if we took Chris there?” Sanchez asked.

 

“I don’t know, Josiah. He’s weak and a trip like that could be too much for him,” Jackson said and placed a cloth across Larabee’s forehead. He turned to look at the Texan whose eyes were only partially visible now that the swelling from the vicious fight in the arena was more pronounced. He knew how close Tanner and Larabee were and hoped the two men would be sputtering at him before long, yet he knew in his heart that would not be the case until Chris was awake and lucid. He rubbed at his eyes and took a deep breath before moving to check on the younger man. “How do you feel, Vin?”

 

“Like stir fried shit,” the Texan answered and got the hint of a smile he’d been hoping for. “How’s Chris?”

 

“Not good,” Jackson answered honestly, eyes downcast and unable to look at the injured man. “Look, Vin, he’s in bad shape and right now yer not doin’ that great, but you can help me by doing what I tell you. I need you to drink as much as ya can and tell me when somethin’s hurtin’ worse than b’fore.”

 

“Thirsty,” Tanner managed and took several sips from the offered cup before glancing at Larabee and finally letting his eyes close. He listened to the others talking, but did not have the strength to open his eyes as sleep beckoned to him once more.

 

Buck ran his fingers through his hair and sighed heavily as he looked at the injured men and thought about the youngest member of their group. He knew he had to make a decision, but he felt like he was between a rock and a hard place. He wanted to go and bring JD here, but he didn’t want to leave Chris and Vin until he was sure they were going to be all right. He stood up and walked out onto the veranda and soaked in the warm rays of the sun.

 

“Something on your mind, Brother?”

 

“Yeah, Josiah, I was listening to Chris and what he was saying,” Wilmington said.

 

“He’s delirious,” Sanchez offered.

 

“I know, but he thinks JD’s dead and he’s blaming himself. If what Nathan told us is true then he thinks he’s to blame for it and that guilt…hell it could kill him…could make him give up on fighting,” the rogue said and leaned against the railing. “I think we need to get JD here before it’s too late.”

 

“And you’re torn between the two?” Sanchez asked.

 

“Yeah,” Wilmington told him. “I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.”

 

“Do you trust Nathan to know what Chris and Vin need?”

 

“More’n I’d trust any doc with a piece of paper on his wall,” Wilmington vowed.

 

“Then the decision should come from your heart. Do you think Chris needs to know that JD’s alive?”

 

“I tried telling him, but he ain’t hearing me.”

 

“Chris is a man who holds himself accountable for what happens to those around him, Buck. It comes with a heavy price tag on his soul, one that can be hard to bear. You said that fire burned away half his soul and I believe he’s been fighting hard to keep what’s left of it.”

 

“He has, Josiah, he’s fighting damn hard,” Wilmington said.

 

“But he’s not fighting alone, Buck,” Sanchez said.

 

“No, he’s not,” the rogue agreed as he spotted Raphael and another man helping Luis Martinez remove a platform that had been used to punish the peons who worked on the hacienda. “You and Nathan…you’ll make sure he keeps fighting ‘til I get back with JD?”

 

“We’ll do the best we can, Buck,” Sanchez vowed and knew the other man understood the promise that was between them.

 

Buck moved toward Raphael and helped him with the last of the hated platform before standing and wiping the sweat that trailed a path down his cheeks. He accepted a dipper of water from the other man, drank half, and dumped the rest over his head.

 

“The sun is barely up and already it burns the land,” Raphael observed.

 

“Gonna be another scorcher,” Wilmington agreed.

 

“Are you going for the boy?”

 

“I figure it’d be best for him and Chris.”

 

“Si, they will need each other. I will ride with you,” Raphael offered. He’d seen the friendship between Buck, Chris, and JD during his short stay in Four Corners. That friendship had been strong and he’d been envious of not only these three, but also the close brotherhood of the seven men. It was the reason he’d sought out six compadres of his own.

 

“Thanks,” the worried man said and admired the strength and courage of the man beside him, it was a rare combination, but Raphael Cordova de Martinez had it in spades. Buck cleared his throat and glanced around before observing softly. “We’ll need a wagon to bring JD here?”

 

“I’ll speak with Luis and have Augusto bring the wagon. It will probably be best to ride at night.”

 

“Probably….expect JD’ll have a hard ‘nough time with headaches,” Wilmington said as they made their way toward the corral that held the horses. He stood for several minutes, wondering how he could get word back to Four Corners and knew it would take several days even if there was a place nearby where he could send a telegram. “Raphael, would you ask Luis if there’s a telegraph office…”

 

“I will ask, but I am afraid this is a primitive land without the luxuries you Americans have,” Cordova told him, but there was no malice in his voice. “It might be faster to send a rider to your town.”

 

“Probably, but I don’t think any of us want to leave until we know Chris, Vin, and JD are okay,” the rogue stated.

 

“I could send one of my compadres with a message,” Raphael offered.

 

“We owe you, Raphael…ain’t no way we’ll ever be able to repay what you’ve done,” Wilmington said and offered his hand to the man who’d shown them not just friendship, but brotherhood. Raphael’s grip was strong and he finally broke it off in order to get things ready for the trip north.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Late Morning

 

God, it was so damn hot, yet he shook as if a cold breeze swept across his bare chest. A sound reached his ears and he fought to make sense of it, but it seemed just out of his reach. Hands touched against his cheek, rough, but gentle and something cold and wet was pressed against his mouth. He drank greedily, but choked as the liquid hit his parched throat.

 

“Easy now, not too much…”

 

He knew that voice, trusted the man it belonged to and he tried to open eyes that seemed glued shut. He silently cursed when the cup was taken away and lifted his hand, at least that’s what he tried to do, but the strength just wasn’t there. He fought to make the words come out, but again that sound, scratchy and weak, was all he heard.

 

“Just lie still, Vin, you’re okay…”

 

There it was again, that voice that always seemed to be there when he was hurting. Hurting? Why was he hurting? What had happened? Where was…where was…blue eyes shot open and a hand reached out and latched weakly onto the one that held a metal cup.

 

“Easy, Vin…”

 

“…where…” The word was barely recognizable and lacked any strength as glazed sky blues fought to open and a mind bogged down with fevered visions, tried to make sense of the pain running rampant through his body.

 

Nathan reached for the cloth once more and eased it over the Texan’s sweat soaked face. The cracked lips parted, but whatever Tanner was trying to say barely made it past his parched throat. Jackson fought the waves of guilt that racked his body and forced himself to tend to the injured man.

 

Vin knew he could trust the man, but there was something that nagged at him and again he tried to speak, but it came out as a weak moan as he feebly lifted his arm only to have it drop heavily back to the bed. The cloth brushed gently across his baked skin and he squinted in an effort to clear his blurred vision. He blinked several times until his mind made some sense of what he was seeing.

 

Blond hair framed a face that went far beyond pale and panic swept through the confused Texan as a name formed on his lips. “…C…Chr…isss…”

 

“Don’t try to talk, Vin…”

 

“…hap…en…”

 

“You and Chris were hurt in a fight,” Jackson said and watched as Tanner’s eyes filled with anger while his right hand fisted at his side. Nathan could sense the frustration in the tense body even as the Texan lost consciousness. He heard someone enter the room, but didn’t have the energy or willpower to acknowledge them as his shoulders slumped.

 

“Nathan, you should rest,” Ezra Standish said softly and placed his hand on Jackson’s shoulder.

 

“I’m fine,” the former slave said and didn’t miss the soft chuckle from behind him.

 

“You’ve been hanging around the rest of us too long, Brother,” Sanchez said with a hint of a smile that did little to relieve the lines of worry on his face. He placed a tray of food on the small table and moved to check on the injured men. “Evita said you didn’t eat this morning so she said it was my duty to see that you finished this.”

 

“I’ll eat later…”

 

“You’ll eat now,” Sanchez ordered and left little doubt that he meant what he said.

 

With a heavy sigh, Nathan stood and made his way to the table as Ezra sat between the two beds. The food was intoxicating with unknown spices that would normally have him anxious for the first taste. Right now all it did was turn his stomach with churning nausea that made him shake with self-loathing. He reached for the cup of strong coffee and took several sips while listening to the others talking.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Late Afternoon

 

Carmella watched as her husband cared for the young man with a gentleness that would have surprised those who didn’t know him. This was a side of him that had slowly taken shape over the years of their marriage and made him the man she loved today. She knew he would have made a wonderful father, but that was a gift they would never know. God had never given them a child of their own, but there were many children who’d learned the value of a loving aunt and uncle. Those children were now married and living their own lives, and when she received a message or visit from them it was worth far more than gold.

 

Tears had often spilled from her eyes, but Cristóbal had loved her even after it became obvious that theirs would be a childless marriage. She moved into the room and gently massaged her husband’s shoulders, sighing contentedly when his callused hand covered her own.

 

“Did you sleep well?” Cristóbal asked softly.

 

“Si, you should have woken me to fix lunch,” Carmella lightly scolded.

 

“You have not slept well since Javier brought the young man to us. I have seen the worry in your eyes…”

 

“Are you saying I look my age, Husband?”

“Only if you are ageless,” Cristóbal vowed and pulled her down on his lap. “You grow more beautiful each time I feast my eyes on you.”

 

Carmella placed her head on his shoulder and looked at the unconscious young man. Since the others had left he had not regained consciousness, except for the few times when it was obvious he was reliving nightmares that caused him pain. She wished she could do more for him, but he needed his friends to help bring him back from whatever hell he resided in.

 

“He is strong,” Cristóbal offered. 

 

“Si, but is that enough?”

 

“It is when he has you to watch over him,” Cristóbal said softly and watched as his wife gently touched JD’s cheek. The tender hand of a woman, especially one as kind and loving as his wife, would surely help heal the young man, but only if God wasn’t ready to call him home.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Evening

 

Luis Martinez smiled at the young woman who had captured his heart. Juanita had yet to see him and he leaned against the open doorway as he watched her care for his half-brother. There was no doubt in his mind that she would make a wonderful mother, and he hoped they would be married soon.

 

“You look tired, Luis,” Juanita said when she’d placed the sleeping infant back in the cradle. She’d known he was watching her, and had taken the time to study his face. His hair was slightly too long, his eyes were sad, and his face lined with strain, but no other man could hold a candle to him. She loved him so much and her heart went out to him for what he had done and still needed to do.

 

“I am fine, Juanita,” Luis said and wrapped his arms around her trim waist. He nuzzled her neck and drank in the scent of her as a soft breeze lifted the curtains from the window behind him.

 

“You have been working so hard to make sure everything is as it should be. Don Garcia may have been your padre, but there is more of your madre in you than him. I love you, Luis, for not letting your padre darken your soul,” Juanita vowed.

 

“Now may not be the time, Juanita, but I would be honored if you would be my wife.”

 

“Oh, Luis, are you sure this is what you want?” the young woman cried and held tight to the strong man who had captured her heart.

 

“I have never been more sure of anything in my life,” Luis vowed as he looked at the sleeping baby. “Perhaps we will even have strong sons and daughters of our own.”

 

“Yes…many,” Juanita told him and sealed their fate with a kiss that showed the love they shared.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Nathan watched over the two men as they slept, both silent now except for the occasional moan that escaped dry, slack lips. Josiah and Ezra were sleeping in the next room. Buck, Raphael and several others had left to get JD just after the noonday meal and he hoped Dunne was strong enough for the trip. He wanted to go with them, but with Vin and Chris both feverish and, God help him, there was no other way to say it, but they were near death. It was at times like this that he questioned his own skills and his faith in a Divine Power.

 

Nathan rested his face in his hands and fought the emotions that seemed to have taken on a life of their own. How many times had he failed to protect the people he cared about? His mother? His father? Friends? Now the two men who’d saved his life in a town whose people often looked at them as if they were dirt to be trampled underfoot. He knew that was not true of everyone, but lately it seemed like people like Conklin were raising their voices and being heard.

 

Nathan reached out and touched Chris’ forehead, silently cursing the heat emanating from the inert blond. There had to be something he’d missed and he slowly folded the thin blanket down to reveal the discolored chest. He eased back the bandages and reached for the cloth that was soaking in a mixture of herbs gathered by the field workers.

 

Nathan had never thought of Chris Larabee as a man who needed to be on the move, but he’d never seen him so still and silent. Even though Vin had once said Chris never spoke more’n ‘three words a day’, Nathan knew that wasn’t true either. Sure, there were times when Chris’ very presence was all that was needed, but there were also times when he said what he needed to in order to keep the peace. That was the Chris he wanted to see now, not this silent body who reminded him of a barely breathing corpse. 

 

“Come on, Chris,” Jackson pleaded his hands trembling as he worked to clean the raw wounds that seeped bloodied pus. “Don’t let that bastard win!”

 

“Nathan, why don’t you go get some rest. I’ll stay with them,” Josiah Sanchez offered. He’d been watching his friend for several minutes and knew Jackson was both mentally and physically exhausted.

 

“I’m okay, Josiah…”

 

“No, no you’re not, Brother,” Sanchez said and slipped into the room. “You’re going need to rest if you’re going to take care of them. Buck’s bringing JD here sometime tomorrow and you won’t be any use to him if you don’t get some sleep. I’ll come get you if they need you.”

 

“What time is it?”

 

“Going on two,” Sanchez answered and helped the other man to his feet. He held his arm until he was sure Jackson wasn’t going to keel over and maneuvered him toward the door.

 

“Just keep wiping Chris down, Josiah…his fever’s not comin’ down,” Jackson said and glanced at the Texan. “Vin’s doin’ better, but keep a close watch on him…get him to drink if he wakes up.”

 

“I’ve got it…now go,” Sanchez said.

 

Nathan knew there was no arguing with the older man and leaned wearily against the wall outside the door. He heard Josiah speaking softly and recognized it as a scripture from the Old Testament. He took a deep breath and made his way along the empty hallway, stopping in front of the open door that led into the baby’s room. He knew Evita was sleeping on a small bed they’d moved into the room and silently stepped up to the bed.

 

Nathan was surprised to hear the baby’s soft cooing sounds and reached down to pick him up. The child was swaddled in a blanket made by one of the woman who worked in the fields and Nathan was surprised at the softness of the material. He glanced at Evita, relieved to see she hadn’t moved and stepped outside. The moon was high overhead and turned slightly on its belly, casting a white glow across the landscape.

 

Nathan took a deep breath of the warm air and caught scent of the wildflowers that grew in abundance on the outer edge of the field of crops. He carried the baby to a rocking chair that had been placed near the table and sat down. The baby made soft noises and seemed on the verge of crying until Nathan eased the blankets away and tickled the tiny chin before rubbing his fingers across the soft cheeks. He took the tiny hand in his own, amazed at the difference in size and placed a gentle kiss on Santos’ forehead as a single tear escaped his eyes.

 

“You have a wonderful life ahead of you, Santos, one without the influence of your father. I hope and pray you will follow in Luis’ footsteps and take after your mother. Dona Maria was so proud of you and I know she would have loved to see you grow up, but God saw fit to call her home and now she’s smiling at you from heaven. If you get lonely and need to feel her presence then just look up at the sky like we’re doin’ now and find the biggest star there is. That star shines for you because a mama’s love is the brightest beacon we’re given. Follow it and you’ll find that love in your heart. See that one…the one that’s shining brighter than the rest…that’s my Mama. She used to hold me like this when I was scared and she’d wipe my tears away. She always told me a man shouldn’t be afraid of his tears because they were God’s way of cleansing the soul and helping heal the wounds that run deep down. She was a woman who cried a lot, but not when the master was around…he never let us cry…said it wasn’t our right and all, but everyone has the right to cry…to feel pain.”

 

Nathan sighed heavily and let the tears slip from his soft brown eyes. “I’ve seen a lot of cruelty in this world, and I know God is lookin’ out for us, but there’s times when I feel like he’s not there. I seen good men like Chris and Vin and JD beaten down, but they just keep on comin’ back as if God’s standin’ behind ‘em and showin’ ‘em the way. They’s strong…stronger’n I’ll ever be and I’m hopin’ they’ll have the strength to get through this ‘cause God knows my doctorin’ ain’t what its s’posed ta be. That’s not what they believe though…Josiah and Chris…Vin and the others…they put their lives in my hands and sometimes it feels like I ain’t never gonna get the blood off.”

 

Nathan watched as the baby’s eyes closed and felt the warmth of the small body nestled so close to his own. He kissed the boy’s forehead, before returning him to his bed and heading for the room he slept in. He lay down on the bed and closed his eyes as his memories weighed heavily on his battered soul.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

North of the De Rivera Hacienda

Late Afternoon

 

Buck Wilmington wiped the sweat from his forehead and reached for the canteen hanging over his saddle horn. He took a long drink of the warm liquid and glanced up at the sun as it continued the final leg of its daily journey. The heat of the day continued to sap the fluids from his body, but his riding companion seemed unaffected by it.

 

Raphael had made the arrangements with Luis Martinez and a wagon would be following them at a slower pace. They would not reach the Covas home until well after midnight and the wagon would not arrive until sometime after daybreak. Buck was anxious to reach their destination, but there was also a hint of fear fighting to make itself known. What if he was too late and JD had succumbed to his injuries? No, he couldn’t think about that or he’d face losing two men who were as close to brothers as he ever had.

 

Without even realizing he’d done so, Buck spurred his horse forward and fought the images that played across his mind. He’d always considered himself a strong man, who could face anything, but the thought of losing Chris and JD sent a dagger through his heart and he knew the pain wouldn’t ease until he saw for himself that JD Dunne was alive. He felt Raphael riding beside him, but kept his eyes forward as if he was in a race against the devil to save two souls that meant more to him than life itself.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7  

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Late Afternoon

 

Ezra watched over the two men as the soft breeze gently shifted the curtains, making the floral patterns come alive as shadows on the floor. Nathan was doing everything he could for both men, yet it seemed that neither man was getting any better.

 

Vin’s body was bathed in a light sheen of perspiration that spoke of the fever running through his body. Every now and then he would cry out as if fighting demons only he could see. Ezra reached out and placed his hand on his friend’s shoulder, surprised when the trembling seemed to stop as if his touch gave solace to the troubled man’s dreams.

 

Ezra left his hand where it was and turned to the other bed. Chris Larabee remained unconscious and unlike Vin Tanner they’d been unable to get him to drink anything. The fever and the heat were slowly taking their toll and Ezra understood why Nathan was so concerned. Chris’ body was no longer sweating, and if Nathan’s fears were real then they were dangerously close to losing the man to dehydration.

 

“Ezra, how’s the arm?” Sanchez asked softly.

 

“Sore, but I assure you it is nothing to be concerned about,” Standish said.

 

“You need to let Nathan take a look at it when he wakes up,” Sanchez said.

 

“I will,” the gambler told him, sighing heavily as the ex-preacher exchanged the cloth that covered Larabee’s forehead. There was no sign that the injured gunman even felt that as his fever baked body remained unnaturally quiet.

 

“Has he shown any signs of waking up?”

 

“No,” Standish answered with a heavy heart. “I tried to get him to drink something by massaging his throat, but I was unsuccessful.”

 

“What about Vin?”

 

“He took some water and a little broth, but I fear even that isn’t really helping either.”

 

“Every little bit helps, Ezra,” Sanchez answered.

 

“I suppose,” the gambler allowed. “We should get word back home and let them know what’s happening. I know people like Conklin probably don’t give a damn, but Mrs. Travis, and Mrs. Potter and most of the town are probably worried.”

 

“I agree, but there’s no telegraph office nearby. I spoke with Luis and he’s sending a couple of men across the Rio Grande and they’ll send word to Mary.”

 

“I just wish we had better news for them.”

 

“We do…Chris, Vin, and JD are alive and right now that’s reason enough to rejoice,” Sanchez said and smiled as Juanita entered the room carrying a tray of food and a pitcher of juice. “Thank you, Juanita.”

 

“You are welcome,” the young woman said and hurried out of the room.

 

Josiah watched as Ezra nibbled disinterestedly at the sweet bun in his hand and glanced from one bed to the other. He silently prayed that all three of their ‘brothers’ would heal and return to the fold.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Four Corners

Late Evening

 

Mary Travis stood on the front step leading into her home and felt a chill race down her spine. It had been far too long since there’d been any word from the seven men who looked out for the town and most of the people were worried. She’d begun running a small column in her paper telling any news she had of the peacekeepers, no matter how inconsequential it seemed. So far there’d been no real news, except what was brought to them by a family that had stopped on their way west.

 

The Petersons had heard rumors that a fight had taken place somewhere south of the Rio Grande, a fight involving several men in an arena whose reputation seemed to be well known in Purgatorio. Maria had told her stories, tales that sent fear through her heart, yet she continued to hold onto the hope that the seven men would return home.

 

Her thoughts turned to Chris Larabee; a man who’d called himself ‘The Bad Element’ and a small sob escaped as she stared toward the chair outside the saloon. The spot where the so-called ‘Bad Element’ watched over, and protected the people of Four Corners, but it was now conspicuously empty.

 

Mary looked at the small fires in the middle of the street before turning and walking back into her home. Silent tears streaked down her face at the thought of the seven men and her heart beat a little too fast when her mind conjured up an image of Chris Larabee. When had she fallen in love with the strong man? What if he never returned? Could she deal with that kind of loss all over again?

 

“Please, bring him…bring them home safely,” she whispered into the darkness before making her way to her bedroom and lying down as soft sobs escaped her throat. It was a long time before sleep came for her and her dreams were filled with a blond’s strong arms holding her in a warm embrace.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening 

 

Chris Larabee knew there was no escaping the demons that insisted on holding him captive in a nightmare realm that knew no bounds. The ebony shadows surrounding his heart were nothing compared to the darkness that enshrouded his soul. Too many people he cared about had died while he was forced to live on and try to make sense of their loss.

 

Countless faces whose names he no longer remembered flashed across his mind, people he’d known, and even those he hadn’t, were dead because of him. Sarah, Adam, and now JD were dead because of him. How could God keep taking them and leave him alive? Maybe it was how life was meant to be for him. Hell on earth held a new meaning for him as his mind and body twisted in the throes of living nightmares.

 

Sarah and Adam…crying out helplessly as their home burned around them. Their screams were silent now, but he still heard them as if they were standing next to him. How many times had he relived those terrifying moments when he realized his life had been snatched from him, but he had not died? Instead he’d been forced to live with the horrific memory.

 

Chris turned away from those images, but new ones were born as the darkness slowly faded to be replaced by a blood red sunset. He felt himself stand and from somewhere a shovel appeared in his hands. Again and again he dug into the crimson colored soil as a voice taunted him.

 

‘The boy’s death is on your hands, Pistolero!’

 

‘No!’ Chris screamed as the scene played out once more. JD’s head snapping back as droplets of blood shimmered and formed and spilled even as his body toppled backward into the grave Chris had dug. Again the shovel was in his hands and he filled it with dirt and dumped it onto JD’s body. His eyes misted with tears, but his heart beat too fast as he stared into JD’s lifeless eyes.

 

“I’m sorry, Kid, should have made you leave,” Larabee whispered reverently as his heart shattered into a million pieces.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Late Evening

 

Buck saw the lights in the distance and unconsciously slowed his horse. He had no idea what he would find once they reached the Covas home and wasn’t sure he could face it if…if JD had died. The kid could be annoying at times, and that damn sissy hat was an eyesore, but Buck would give anything to see Dunne’s easy smile as he placed it on his head.

 

“Buck, is something wrong?” Raphael asked.

 

“No…I don’t know, Raphael. What if…what if he’s…”

 

“JD is a strong kid…a strong man, Buck. Do not give up on him.”

 

“I’m not, but…he was in bad shape when we left…I shouldn’t have left him.”

 

“If you hadn’t Chris and Vin might have died.”

 

“They still might,” Wilmington said and wiped the sweat from his face. “Jesus, Raphael, everything’s so fucked up!”

 

“They are alive, Buck, just hold on to that and have faith in the strength of your compadres,” Raphael told him as they reached the small house and dismounted. He hooked the reigns over the hitching post and waited for Buck to do the same before making their way to the front door. He knocked lightly, but was not surprised when the door was opened and Cristóbal Covas pointed a gun in their direction.

 

“How’s JD?” Buck asked even as their host lowered his weapon and motioned them inside.

 

“He is the same,” Cristóbal answered as Carmella exited the room. “Carmella is doing everything she can for him.”

 

“I owe you both for taking care of him,” Wilmington said and hung his hat on a hook near the door.

 

“Nonsense, God brought you to us and it is not for us to turn you away,” Carmella said.

 

“I need to see him,” Wilmington said.

 

“Of course. I will make sandwiches and coffee,” Carmella offered.

 

“Thank you,” the rogue said and took a deep breath before entering the room where JD lay so deathly still. He step-staggered to the empty chair and sat down, silently cringing at the dark bruise that peeked out below the bandage that covered the horrid bullet wound.

 

“Jesus, Kid, you look like hell,” Buck whispered painfully and watched for any sign that the young man heard him. Dunne’s face and exposed chest were washed out pale and Buck couldn’t stop the shudder that ran through his body. It was hard to see the virile young man whose very exuberance could be likened to a twister.

 

“Come on, JD, show me you’re still fighting,” Wilmington said tiredly. He took a deep breath and leaned back in the chair and thought about the young man who’d integrated himself into their lives. He rubbed at tired eyes and soon found a cup of hot coffee pressed into his hands. “Thank you.”

 

“You are welcome,” Carmella said and reached out to gently touch her fingertips against Dunne’s pale cheek. “He is a fighter.”

 

“I know…has been from the first time he set foot in the west,” Wilmington told her. “Chris told him to go home, but JD didn’t listen. Figured he was man enough to take on the world with them two guns of his. Damn fool kid should have listened to Chris.”

 

“A man must choose his way in the world.”

 

“Yes, but sometimes we choose the wrong path.”

 

“If a man chooses to help others it is never the wrong path,” Carmella observed. “You and your friends are protectors and God will always bless those who help others. Senor Cordova tells me you wish to bring him to Don Garcia’s hacienda. Are you sure this is a wise idea?”

 

“I don’t know, but I think it’s what JD and Chris need. Chris thinks JD’s dead. They need each other,” Wilmington said.

 

“I have spoken with Cristóbal and we would like to accompany you,” the woman said.

 

“What about your home?”

 

“We will not stay long, but I would like to help…”

 

“You’ve done so much already, Ma’am, and I’d appreciate having you along to help with JD,” Wilmington told her.

 

“You should rest.”

 

“I will,” the weary rogue assured her and knew sleep was something of a rare commodity for him and would remain that way until Chris, Vin, and JD were awake and cursing Nathan’s horse piss.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

 

Don Garcia De Rivera was buried in the family plot, but very few people mourned his passing. His cruelty was well known and although death was tragic, it sometimes brought with it a sense of peace. The field workers moved to their daily tasks with renewed vigor as the sun slowly worked its way across the morning sky.

 

Luis Martinez moved amongst the peons, listening as they spoke of things that could be improved. At first they were unsure of themselves, as this was something Don Garcia had frowned on. He ruffled a young boy’s hair and felt some of the tension leave him as the child laughed and didn’t bolt away from him. 

 

Luis spoke to the boy’s father before moving toward the hole that had been used as punishment for far too long. He motioned for two men to follow him as he picked up a shovel and took a deep breath. Speaking in their language he quickly explained what he wanted and was the first to shovel dirt into the hole. He watched their faces suddenly light up as they grabbed their own shovels and joined him at the edge of the pit.

 

It took nearly an hour of sweating in the hot sun, but the symbol of despair was soon obliterated and Luis felt the burden lifted from his shoulders until he spotted the structure Don Garcia had used to punish his workers with either his cane or a whip. Without a word he strode toward it, unaware that several field workers fell into step behind him. 

 

Luis was shocked when they motioned for him to stand back and with their bare hands began pulling the beams apart. He knew they should use the tools, but understood this was something they needed to do. It would take a long time and would probably end up with sore backs and bleeding hands, yet somehow he didn’t think they would complain.

 

Luis reached for the shorter board that served as a balance for one of the larger pieces and pulled with everything he had and was only slightly surprised to find a virtual stranger helping him.

 

Josiah had seen Luis and the workers fill the hole and move to the structure. He knew what it was for and hurried to join them in pulling it apart. He grunted as he shifted his weight and added his strength to the mix. He’d known hatred and defeat at the hands of others and knew these men needed an outlet for the years of mistreatment at the hands of Don Garcia De Rivera. It was something a friend had once called therapeutic.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Covas Home

Early Morning

 

Buck stood and stretched the kinks from his back as the sunlight danced across the floor and kissed JD’s face. Wilmington knew he should have slept, but he could not leave the younger man’s side in case JD woke up and needed him. He looked toward the window and the promise of another beautiful day and silently prayed Chris and Vin would be alive to see God’s gifts to the world.

 

“Buck, Augusto is here with the wagon, but perhaps it would be better to wait until the evening when the sun is not so hot,” Raphael explained.

 

Buck nodded and returned his attention to the man on the bed as a soft moan reached his ears. He sat on the chair and gently placed his hand on Dunne’s bare right shoulder. He watched the dark eyelashes flutter and spoke softly. “Come on, Kid, open your eyes. Show me you’re in there.”

 

“I think he hears you, Buck,” Raphael said as Dunne’s head turned slightly toward Wilmington.

 

“JD, you keep this up and ol’ Buck’s gonna have more gray hair than old man Garvey,” the rogue said of the elderly curmudgeon who chewed tobacco and teased the ladies who walked in front of the hotel.

 

JD could hear someone talking; the voice familiar and pleading and he knew there was no point in fighting it. Slowly, his eyelids fluttered and he fought to open them as dark shadows formed and solidified before him. He knew the figure sitting beside him and tried to reach for him, but there seemed to be no way to make his body obey his commands. He tried to speak, but the sound came out as a mere whisper, yet the dark head came up and the blue eyes locked on his own.

 

“Damn, Kid, gonna be the death of me yet,” Wilmington said as relief washed over him. “You look like hell.”

 

“…sick,” Dunne managed and felt Wilmington’s strong hands ease him onto his side. Again and again his body shook in the throes of violent vomiting until there was nothing left but dry heaves.

 

“I gotcha, JD,” Wilmington vowed and gently lowered the younger man back to the pillows.

 

“Head hurts,” Dunne rasped.

 

“I ‘spect it does,” the rogue said. “You got shot, JD, but you’re gonna be all right.”

 

“Mama…here?”

 

“No, Son, your mama’s not here, but there’s another lady who fills your mama’s shoes and she’s been taking good care of you,” Wilmington explained.

 

“…thought…angel…”

 

“An angel of mercy, JD, and she’s the reason you’re still here,” the rogue answered and watched as a slight frown formed on the too pale face. JD was quiet and still for a long time and Buck thought he’d gone back to sleep, but the young man’s eyes shot open and he cried out as he tried to sit up. “Easy, JD, don’t try to move around…”

 

“Chris…ple…please…”

 

“Chris is all right, JD. Nate’s with him and we’re gonna take you to him,” Wilmington explained.

 

“Chris…alive?”

 

“Yes, he is,” Wilmington said and prayed it was the truth as Dunne’s eyes closed in sleep. He ran his fingers through his hair; a gesture that seemed to be part and parcel of him during the last few weeks and silently prayed Larabee and Tanner were alive.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

 

Nathan stood on the veranda overlooking the grounds of the hacienda. It was a spectacular sight with the peons working the fields that were ripe with growth. The crops would soon be ready for harvest, and that would be a time for celebration, but for him there was nothing to celebrate. Three men fought for their lives because of the cruelty of a man who thought himself above others. That was something he remembered from his childhood and he bore the marks on his back from the cruel overseer’s whip. 

 

Nathan knew he needed to sleep, but each time he closed his eyes he was assaulted with visions that belonged only in a man’s worst nightmares, yet he’d lived through them. The truth was he was still living through them. He closed his eyes against the bright sun, snapping them open again when he heard a cry from inside.

 

Nathan rushed into the room to find Ezra and Josiah trying to hold Vin down on the bed. The Texan’s sweat soaked face was filled with fear as his eyes darted round the room in search of something he needed. “Ezra, stay back with that arm!”

 

“I assure you I am…”

 

“I know you are, but right now you need ta let me see ta him,” Jackson ordered and took the gambler’s place as Josiah finally got the raging tiger under control. “What happened?”

 

“Don’t know for sure, but my guess would be a nightmare,” Sanchez answered.

 

“Lord knows he’s had more’n his share,” Jackson said.

 

“He’s not the only one, My Friend,” the ex-preacher offered softly and shook his head when Jackson chose to ignore his comment. The former slave may not be ready to talk about the things he’d seen, but eventually it would catch up with him and when it did he would fall. Fall hard if Josiah was right about the pain that had wrapped itself around his heart and soul. 

 

“Vin, it’s okay…you’re safe,” Jackson soothed and reached for the cup of juice Evita had brought with the lunch tray. “Sit him up a little, Josiah.”

 

Sanchez moved behind the Texan and helped him sit forward as Nathan tipped the mug to the slack lips. He listened as the healer spoke softly but firmly until Vin drank several sips before coughing harshly and wrapping his arms around his midsection.

 

“Easy, Vin, just go slow,” Jackson said once the attack subsided and Tanner’s glazed eyes focused on him. “Let’s try that again, but this time just a little at a time.”

 

Vin nodded slightly, unable to find the strength he needed to form words as he sipped at the juice. This time he managed to drink it without choking and finally leaned back against Sanchez’s strong chest. He closed his eyes and waited for the nausea to ease and opened them when something else was pressed against his lips.

 

“Vin, your fever’s come down some and this will help with the pain,” Jackson explained. “Ya keep this down and we’ll see if Evita can make up some broth…maybe even a few vegetables. You’ve almost got this licked, Vin.”

 

Vin nodded slightly and sipped at the ‘horse piss’ while Josiah held him. He turned his head slightly and spotted Ezra seated by the next bed. He glanced past the gambler and swallowed several times when he took note of the occupant who seemed deathly pale. He tried to speak, but again found it hard to form the words.

 

“Vin, Nathan’s doing everything he can,” Sanchez said. He knew how close Vin and Chris were, brothers by choice if not by blood and hoped he would see the two men ride side by side again.

 

Vin simply nodded and closed his eyes as Sanchez eased him back onto the pillows. He turned his head slightly, sighing heavily as he closed his eyes in exhaustion. Sleep came to him, but his dreams were filled with sorrow as the fingers of his hands encircled the handle of a shovel and he moved to a grave that was set between two crosses. Chris Larabee had finally been reunited with his family, but his absence left a devastating hole in the lives of those he loved.

 

Nathan turned away from the Texan and moved to check on the second man. Fearful of what he would find, the former slave closed his eyes and silently prayed for God’s help with the injured gunman. Chris’ skin was dry and Nathan knew things were becoming desperate. They had to get him drinking on his own, or he’d have to turn to something he’d only seen done once and he wasn’t even sure he could find the tools he’d need.

 

“Josiah, ease Chris up a bit. I’m gonna try somethin’ my mama showed me,” Jackson said.

 

“All right, Brother,” Sanchez said and gently placed a hand on Vin’s head before moving the short distance to the next bed.

 

“What are you going to do, Nathan?” Standish asked.

 

“I’m gonna trickle water down his throat,” the former slave answered.

 

“Won’t he choke?” the gambler observed worriedly.

 

“Not if we take it slow,” Jackson assured him, although there was a slight tremor in his voice. “Ezra, see if Evita has a small jug or bottle with a narrow opening.”

 

“I’ll be right back,” Standish vowed.

 

“What if this doesn’t work?” Sanchez asked.

 

“I saw somethin’ one time, but I ain’t sure I could do it, Josiah. It’d mean putting somethin’ down Chris’ throat and feedin’ ‘im through it. The doc I saw do it was desperate.”

 

“Did it work?”

 

“Not sure…the woman died, but it was a miracle she lived as long as she did,” Jackson answered, guilt gnawing at his gut as he looked from one injured man to the other. God help him, but why had he been spared while Chris and Vin had been put through hell?

 

“Will this do, Nathan?” Standish asked upon returning with a small, clean jug with a narrow lip. He also carried a pitcher of water that he placed on the table between the beds.

 

“That should work,” Jackson said and poured water into the smaller vessel. “All right, Josiah, I need you to tip his head back a little and massage his neck like this while I dribble the water into his mouth.”

 

“Just tell me when you’re ready,” Sanchez said and watched as the healer took a deep breath and nodded slightly. He tipped the blond head back, resting his arm beneath it as Nathan opened the mouth slightly and slowly dribbled the water inside. Josiah gently massaged the throat; silently praying this would work, yet he felt nothing beneath his fingertips. 

 

Ezra could only stand back and watch as Nathan and Josiah did their best to get the unconscious man to drink. Josiah’s fingers worked their magic, but it still seemed like forever until there was the slightest movement and he watched Sanchez closely. It didn’t take a genius to know that what little they got into the blond wasn’t enough, but at least it was something and that in itself was a start.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Covas Home

South of the Rio Grande

Early Evening

 

Carmella Covas gently touched the young man’s cheek and smiled when his eyes opened and he looked at her. She could tell he wasn’t quite focused and spoke softly before reaching for the cloth and bathing his face and chest.

 

“Mama?”

 

“No, JD, I am not your mama, but she would be proud of her son. You must rest while you can for the coming trip will be hard on you, but I believe your friend Buck thinks it is something that must be done,” Carmella explained and watched the frown form as JD Dunne tried to make sense of what was happening. 

 

“Buck…here?”

 

“Si, he is helping Raphael and Cristóbal fix up a pallet for you in the wagon,” the woman answered. “How do you feel?”

 

“Head hurts…thirsty,” the Bostonian told her.

 

“Here, just a little,” Carmella warned as she helped the injured man drink the sweet nectar she’d made from several different fruits. She knew he needed to keep drinking and hoped this would help him regain some strength. She didn’t give him much and would make sure he continued to drink water during the trip to the De Rivera Hacienda.

 

Carmella continued to care for her charge and hummed softly while she waited for her husband and the others to finish getting the wagon ready. The song she hummed was one her mother had often sang to her when she was young and one that she held dearly as it always brought memories of a childhood rife with the love of her parents. 

 

“Carmella, the wagon is ready,” Cristóbal said upon joining his wife and seeing the concern in her eyes. “How is he?”

 

“He is a strong young man, Cristóbal, and I hope that strength will help him through this journey.”

 

“It will and he will have you by his side to make sure he knows he is not alone. Do you not think he is strong enough for this trip, Love?”

 

“He should be with his friends,” Carmella answered softly and wrapped her arms around her husband before laying her head on his shoulder. “If what Buck told us is true then I believe he needs them as much as they need him.”

 

“We’re ready to take JD,” Wilmington said and was floored by the sight of the couple as they held each other. He’d seen this type of love and devotion only once before and the man had been devastated when she was taken from him. Sarah Larabee and Carmella Covas were nothing alike in features, but their inner beauty was equal in how they cared for those around them. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

 

“You did not interrupt, Buck,” Carmella told him and moved from her husband’s arms as she straightened her long skirt. It had been decided to move JD in the sheets he lay on and she moved aside as Raphael and Augusto moved to one end of the bed while Cristóbal and Buck took the other end.

 

The four men easily lifted the semiconscious young man and carried him out to the wagon. The sun would be down shortly, but that would not stop them on their journey. The sky would be as wondrous as it always was with a full bodied moon hanging heavy in the sky, its swollen belly giving off a light of its own while a myriad of stars added their own twinkling warmth to light the way.

 

Carmella climbed into the wagon and moved to sit beside the pallet that now held the young man she’d been caring for. She heard a soft whimper and reached out to touch him in an effort to sooth his pain. She began humming again as Cristóbal climbed into the front of the wagon and the journey began. Buck Wilmington sat opposite her, his face a living sculpture of worry and she knew it would remain that way until his friends were riding at his side once more.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening 

 

Nathan Jackson took a deep breath and walked out of the house. It felt like ages since he’d slept without the nightmares that plagued him, dreams that seemed to run into each other without giving him a chance to differentiate between them. Tonight was no different and he’d finally given up on sleep when one dream merged into another.

 

Nathan slowly walked along the path leading away from the hacienda and listened to the sounds of the night. A soft breeze whispered through the trees, several night birds called to each other while the scent of wildflowers hung heavy on the humid air. He felt tears slide from his eyes and felt a heavy weight on his heart as he thought about the two men who’d saved his life that fateful day in Four Corners. 

 

Why had they done that? What possessed them to stand up against the angry mob of trail hands? Why had they thought his life was worth saving? Why had God deemed him worthy to live when so many other good men had died?

 

Nathan turned and glanced toward the house as a soft voice reached him and tears flowed unstopped from his eyes.

 

“Oh, Jesus, my Savior, on Thee I'll depend

When troubles are near me You'll be my true friend

I'm troubled

I'm troubled

I'm troubled in mind

If Jesus don't help me

I surely will die

When ladened with troubles and burdened with grief

To Jesus in secret I'll go for relief

In dark days of bondage to Jesus I prayed

To help me to bear it, and He gave me His aid”

 

Nathan sank to his knees as Evita’s voice filled the air around him and a plea for help escaped his lips. “Please, Lord, give me the strength to help them. Don’t let them die…don’t take them…not when they’re needed to do Your work here.”

 

Tears streamed down his cheeks as he stared up at the stars and he remembered his mama telling him that the world itself was God’s House and He would always listen if a man opened his mind and spoke from the heart; his shoulder’s shook with the force of the sobs that tore from his body and soul.

 

“Please, Lord, give me your strength to heal them,” Nathan whispered as Evita’s voice subsided and left him with just the sounds of the night as company.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Evita had seen the tormented man walking away from the house and knew his soul was troubled. There was no doubt in her mind that Nathan Jackson was a good man and one the Lord had gifted with a healer’s heart. She hadn’t known him very long, but felt as if there was a lifetime of trust between them. She’d watched him when he cared for Maria and her newborn son, and felt his pain when the young woman died.

 

She’d been reminded of her own troubled youth and the song her mother had sung for her when she thought she’d lost her own way. The words were meant to soothe the soul and help show her the right path and she hoped they would have the same effect on Nathan Jackson.

 

Evita heard the baby’s soft cries and turned away from the healer as she stepped into the room. She moved back the netting and reached inside to take the baby into her arms. She talked softly to him while touching his small hands and placing a kiss on his forehead while she waited for the wet nurse to join her.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

On the Trail

North of the De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

 

Buck had always believed in angels and right now that’s how he viewed the woman who cared for JD Dunne. Carmella Covas spoke softly each time she touched the young man and JD seemed to be drawn toward her. Buck knew what a mother’s love felt like and how her touch could help a troubled soul.

 

“Thank you, Carmella.”

 

“I have done nothing…”

 

“Don’t say that,” Wilmington told her and reached out to take her hand in his. “Your very touch helps him rest more than any of those fancy drugs they use. Your voice cuts through whatever nightmares he has. You have a gift, one God gives to mothers…”

 

“I have no children…”

 

“Children don’t make you a mother…I’ve seen plenty of women who were gifted with children, but I wouldn’t call them mothers. They treat their children as a burden and not a gift of God’s love. I don’t know why God never gave you and Cristóbal children, but I look at you and I know you’ve given your love freely. Look in your heart and you’ll see I’m right,” Wilmington told her and saw the tears in her eyes.

 

“Thank you,” Carmella told him as a soft moan escaped from the injured young man. She reached out and touched her hand against his cheek as his eyes shot open.

 

Buck’s reactions were instantaneous and he turned the young man on his side as his stomach gave up its contents. He rubbed circles in the shoulders and finally eased the younger man back onto the soft pillows when his breathing seemed to return to normal.

 

“You are safe, JD,” Carmella vowed and soon felt a hand in hers. She looked into the eyes that were so filled with pain and wished there was more she could do.

 

JD could barely see the woman who spoke, but he felt safe as he turned his head and closed his eyes. His head felt ready to explode and his gut churned even as he heard the familiar voices talking. He couldn’t quite remember what had happened and briefly wondered where they were going, but the darkness reached for him and he had no choice but to give in to it.

 

“Just hang on, Kid,” Wilmington said.

 

“When you return to your home would you write me and tell me how he is doing?” Carmella asked softly, a hint of sorrow in her voice.

 

“I will,” Buck vowed as the wagon continued along the trail toward the hacienda.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Morning

 

‘The boy’s death is on your hands, Pistolero!’

 

The words tormented his soul and he knew in his heart it was his fault that JD Dunne was dead. No matter how he looked at it…people died when he was around…Sarah…Adam… Jake…Maria…ma…pa…JD…

 

The list went on and on and seemed to be an endless roadmap to his soul. JD’s head snapped back just before his body fell into the grave…the grave that Chris had dug. The grave that Chris had filled, covering the youth’s body with soil as Don Garcia De Rivera watched with hatred in his eyes.

 

‘The boy’s death is on your hands, Pistolero!’

 

“No.”

 

“Chris, come on, Son, open your eyes for me,” Josiah Sanchez tried, but Larabee remained unaware of those around him.

 

‘The boy’s death is on your hands, Pistolero!’

 

Josiah heard movement in the next bed and wasn’t surprised to see Vin Tanner trying to sit up. It would have been funny except that the Texan’s skin was as white as a ghost and his eyes remained unfocused. The ex-preacher moved to help him and placed several pillows behind his back. “Stay put, Vin, or Nathan will have both our hides!”

 

“Chris…”

 

“He’ll be fine, but I need to help him and I can’t do that if you don’t stay where you are!” Sanchez warned.

 

“Go…help him…”

 

“Stay put!” Sanchez ordered and moved back to Larabee’s bed to find the gunman moaning softly. He reached for the glass of water and lifted the blond head, worried about how dry the man’s skin felt. He pressed the glass to Larabee’s lips, but the man had already surrendered to the darkness once more.

 

Vin wanted to help Chris, but right now the truth was he didn’t have the strength to help himself. He could only watch as Josiah tried to get the injured blond to drink, and knew it hadn’t worked when Sanchez placed the untouched glass back on the small table. “Josiah…”

 

“It’s not good, Vin,” Sanchez answered the unasked question. He moved to Tanner’s side and handed him the cup of broth Evita had brought earlier. It was still warm and he watched as the Texan forced it down. “Nathan says you can have something a little more solid this afternoon.”

 

Vin nodded and closed his eyes. He thought about the events that led them to this place and time, and silently hoped the number seven was as lucky as some people seemed to think it was. Josiah had once told them of the Biblical references to the number and Vin prayed the man was right.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Evening

 

Luis Martinez took Juanita Perez by the hand as they walked along the path to the west of the hacienda. The sky was awash with vibrant colors that made up the sunset as the sun dipped below the horizon. Darkness would soon claim the land, but it would not be the cold darkness that had surrounded the hacienda during the time Don Garcia De Rivera ruled the people with a heavy hand.

 

Luis had often prayed during those times and his mother had told him that God would listen, but that he might not see the answer until it became clear. Death had come for his padre, but there was none of the sorrow that should have been there when a life ended. He knew that was because of his padre’s bitter hatred. Since his death the people worked to toil the fields without fearing repercussions should they lose any of the crops. It was as if a peace had fallen over the hacienda.

 

“What are you thinking about, Mi Amore?” Juanita asked softly as she moved her lithe body in front of him and reached up to touch his face.

 

“How things change,” Luis answered, staring into the eyes that were soft and filled with a love he so desperately craved.

 

“For the better, Luis,” Juanita told him. “In two days you have brought such peace to the people and they know you will not harm them like Don Garcia did. They will follow you by choice, Luis, not with the fear that filled their hearts when your padre wielded his cane or his whip.”

 

“People should not be treated as property, Juanita, they should be treated as equals.” He thought about the years past and the way Don Garcia De Rivera had mistreated those around him. A part of him worried that buried somewhere deep inside him a part of his father remained, a part he didn’t want to face. He looked around and finally stopped when he looked into the eyes of the woman he loved. A woman who was his future and he smiled at the thought of having strong sons and daughters who would embrace the love of their parents. He placed a finger beneath her chin and softly vowed: “When we marry I promise to always treat you as my equal no matter what others think.”

 

“As will I, Luis,” Juanita said and felt strong arms encircle her waist and lift her so that their mouths touched and the warmth of the touch sent heated temptation through her body.

 

“We should go back,” Luis said.

 

“I want you so much, Luis,” Juanita whispered as a soft breeze blew across their bodies.

 

“I want you too, but I would not forgive myself if we go further before we are properly married. I will send word to the priest and ask him to come to the hacienda as soon as possible,” Luis said and forced himself to ignore the feelings coursing through his body. “Come, we must return before mi madre grows worried.”

 

Juanita knew he was right and allowed him to take her by the hand and lead her back along the path. The excitement of his words made her tremble with delight. She looked forward to the night when she could lay in his arms and complete the journey her heart had begun on the first day she’d seen this virile man standing next to Don Garcia De Rivera.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Evita stood on the veranda watching as her son and future ‘daughter’ returned along the path. The sky was darkening with the onset of night, but there was no mistaking the love in the way they clung to each other. She knew they belonged together and would see that Luis spoke with the priest as soon as possible. A soft crying sound reached her ears and she returned to the nursery where Santos De Rivera was making his displeasure known.

 

Evita lifted the tiny baby into her arms and smiled when the cries seemed to die down slightly at her touch. She moved to the small table set next to a shelf that was filled with everything she’d need to care for the baby. She changed his diaper and placed him back in the crib before placing the soiled diaper in a basket to be washed.

 

Santos gurgled happily as he sucked on his tiny fists and kicked his feet in the air. She stood watching him, seeing signs of both his mother and father, but also seeing her own son in his features and actions. She laughed softly when he popped a thumb into his mouth, before his eyes closed and he slept once more. 

 

Evita knew someone was watching her and looked up to see a hint of a smile on her son’s face. She moved to him and hugged him before standing back and looking into his eyes. Some of the sadness was gone and she knew she had Juanita to thank for that and vowed to do just that when she saw the young woman later tonight.

 

“You are good for him, Madre, Dona Maria is smiling at last,” Luis told her and moved to the small crib.

 

“He is so much like you when you were a babe, Luis,” Evita said softly. “He will miss his mother’s touch…”

 

“No, he will know a mother’s touch each time his eyes open and he sees your beauty,” Martinez vowed.

 

“I was never a beauty…”

 

“Beauty is not just what a man sees, Madre, it is what he feels and you are more beautiful than the whispered breeze through the wildflowers,” Luis said and turned as Juanita entered the room. “I have come to ask your permission to speak with the padre about marrying Juanita.”

 

“Oh, Luis, you do not need my permission…not when I have seen the love you share. Speak with the padre, and Juanita and I will plan a fiesta.”

 

“Gracias, Madre,” Luis said and hugged her.

 

“I will stay with Santos while you get some sleep, Evita,” Juanita offered.

 

“Gracias, Juanita, he has been changed, but he will need milk soon…I will send Elena to you,” Evita told her. She turned and left the room and knew Santos was in good hands. She reached the room where Nathan Jackson was caring for the injured men and stepped inside. Vin Tanner seemed to be sleeping, yet she could see the lines of pain on his face as Nathan cleaned the wounds caused by De Rivera.

 

Evita turned to look at the second man and wished he would open his eyes so that his friends would know he was all right. She had heard Nathan and Josiah talking and understood how bad things were where this man was concerned. The bruises on his face and chest were a vivid reminder of Don Garcia’s cruelty. She whispered a prayer before reaching for the basin of sullied water on the table. 

 

“I’ll get that, Evita,” Nathan said.

 

“You stay with your friends. Have you eaten anything?”

 

“I had a sandwich,” Jackson said, but didn’t mention that it had been during the early afternoon. His stomach churned at the thought of food and yet, he understood he needed to eat.

 

“I will bring you something,” Evita told him and paused in the doorway. She watched Nathan caring for his friends and sensed the deep pain he tried so hard to hide. She sensed that something was broken inside him and hoped the others would see it and help him heal. ‘Your friends will help you if you allow them to see your pain, Nathan,’ she thought before leaving the room.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Small Village West of the De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening

 

Fernando Gores nursed the bottle of strong liquor as rage made his knuckles white with the pressure he placed on his fingers. He stared at his own reflection in the mirror behind the bar and cursed Luis Martinez with every breath he took. One way or another Don Garcia’s bastard son would pay for pushing him aside.

 

“Do you not work for Don Garcia?”

 

Fernando looked at the man standing beside him and growled deep in his throat before answering. “Don Garcia is dead.”

 

“Then who is…do not tell me it is that woman…”

 

“His bastardo son is running things. He told me I was no longer welcome, but why does this concern you?”

 

“I was caring for Dona Maria and her unborn child until that bitch told him I was an animal medico,” Miguel Delgado cursed and sat down. “Perhaps you and I could do something about Luis and Evita Martinez.”

 

“Tell me what you got in mind,” Gores said, a hint of a smile forming on his face as he poured Delgado a drink.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

On the Trail North of the De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

 

The trip was taking its toll on JD, but for the most part the young man remained blissfully unaware of the trip made in the darkness. The heat sapped their moisture and Buck knew it would have been twice as bad if they’d traveled by the light of day. During their last stop he’d tied his horse to the wagon and climbed in beside the young man who’d come to mean so much to him.

 

Buck took a deep breath as he reached out and gently touched Dunne’s chest, relieved when he felt the rise and fall that signaled the Bostonian was still with them. JD was strong, but head wounds were tricky and he’d often heard Nathan say it was the worst kind of wound because a man could survive, but could easily end up not knowing who he was or who his friends were.

 

Buck reached for the canteen and took a long drink as he stared up at the sky that was just showing the first telltale signs of dawn. He silently prayed that the promise of a new day came with the promise of new life being breathed into the injured men. He looked up to see Raphael watching him and nodded that he was okay.

 

“We are nearing the hacienda,” Cordova told him.

 

“How much longer ya think it’ll be?” Wilmington asked softly.

 

“It is just over the next rise then down into the valley,” the Mexican answered. “How is the boy?”

 

“He’s still got a fever, but he’s fightin’.”

 

“He is spirited…like the horses that run free on the mesa,” Cordova said. He thought back to the confrontation in the saloon and how JD Dunne had not backed down in spite of his own reputation. “He has a fire inside, no?”

 

“Yes, and a good thing he does,” the worried rogue offered.

 

“I will ride ahead and make sure everything is ready for you,” Cordova said and spurred his horse forward. 

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

 

Josiah watched his friend closely and knew the man was thinking about the injured men. The sun was just starting to show above the horizon and with it came not only the splendor of God’s gifts, but the oppressive heat that added to Larabee and Tanner’s fevers.

 

“Josiah, Chris can’t take much more of this…his fever’s bakin’ him inside,” Jackson said as he watched the field workers moving around below.

 

“What do you want to do?” Sanchez asked.

 

“Ain’t got much choice but ta take him ta that creek,” the healer explained. “It’s gonna be hard on ‘im, but we gotta get that fever down.”

 

“I’ll speak with Luis about getting a wagon,” Sanchez told him. “What about Vin?”

 

“His fever’s comin’ down and he’s eaten. Not much ‘cause his mouth’s still sore from that infection, but at least he’s able ta drink.”

 

“He’ll be worried about Chris.”

 

“I know…that’s why I wanna give ‘im somethin’ ta knock ‘im out ‘til we get back,” Jackson explained.

 

“Brother Vin won’t like that,” Sanchez observed.

 

“I’ll deal with that when the time comes. It’ll tear ‘im up inside if he knows what’s happenin’ and he’s already hurtin’ enough as it is,” the healer said.

 

“I know, but we’ll all deal with Vin…you’re not alone in this, Nathan,” Sanchez offered and saw the sorrow in the other man’s eyes. He reached out and squeezed Jackson’s shoulder, felt the slight tremble course through his body, and wished he could spare the man this. “When do you want to get started?”

 

“No sense puttin’ it off…Chris’ll jest get worse,” Jackson said and moved toward the room where Chris and Vin slept. He’d already asked Evita to steep some of the herbs Pedro had brought to him and hoped they were strong enough to make the man sleep. He moved to check the wound in Tanner’s side and smiled slightly when the man’s eyes opened and looked at him before straying toward the other bed.

 

“Nathan, I’ll be back in a few minutes,” Sanchez told him.

 

“All right,” Jackson said and waited for the Texan to look at him. “He’s the same, Vin.”

 

“Do some…thin’,” Tanner ordered.

 

“I’m doin’ ever’thin’ I can, Vin, but his fever’s not comin’ down.”

 

“…fuckin’ bas…tard dead?”

 

“De Rivera is dead, Vin,” the healer offered and wished he could give the man good news where Chris Larabee was concerned.

 

“Nathan, I brought you and Vin some breakfast,” Evita said upon entering the room with a tray laden down with food, coffee, and juice.

 

“Thank you, Evita,” Jackson said and helped the Texan sit forward, ignoring the sharp gasp of pain the move elicited from the injured man as Evita placed several pillows behind him so that he could eat his meal.

 

Vin’s face was covered in sweat and his eyes were tightly clenched while his hands fisted at his side. It took several agonizing minutes for the nauseating pain to recede and he took several deep breaths through his nose. He forced his eyes open and looked into Nathan’s soft brown orbs and tried to smile, but knew he wasn’t fooling Jackson.

 

“Just concentrate on breathing, Vin,” the healer said, relieved when the younger man finally focused on him.

 

“H…hell…”

 

“I know,” Jackson said and pressed a cup into his hand. “Drink all of it and then you can have some…”

 

“Looks like m…mush,” Tanner said with distaste.

 

“I do not know what mush is, but Juanita made this and it is very good. If you would rather have this mush I will see if we can…”

 

“No,” Tanner whispered, finding a weak grin at the misunderstanding. He shook his head vehemently as he placed the empty cup on the tray and reached for the spoon. He took a small spoonful and was pleasantly surprised at the sweet fruity taste. “It’s good.”

 

“I will tell Juanita,” Evita said and smiled at Jackson before leaving the room.

 

Nathan turned away from the Texan and moved to check on his other patient. Larabee’s breathing was so shallow that at first it was hard to detect. The skin of his face seemed to be stretched taut over the cheekbones while the bruises stood out in stark contrast to the white sheets and pillows he lay on.

 

“Come on, Chris, don’t go givin’ up on me now,” Jackson said softly and turned when he heard the sound of the spoon hitting the floor.

 

“Da…damn…ti…tired…”

 

“Go ahead and sleep, Vin,” the healer said and made a mental note to find out whatever it was Pedro had given him that worked so fast on the Texan. He made a quick grab for the tray and was pleased to see the injured man had managed to eat the fruity paste Juanita had made.

 

“If I am not mistaken, Mr. Tanner is down for the count,” Standish said, leaning against the doorframe while rubbing at his injured arm.

 

“Thank God,” Jackson said.

 

“I had a conversation with Mr. Sanchez.”

 

“Then you know what we gotta do,” Jackson said and saw the gambler’s façade drop before the younger man was able to bring his emotions under control. 

 

“How can I help?”

 

“Stay here with Vin and make sure he don’t do nothin’ stupid if he wakes up before we get back,” Jackson answered.

 

“I thought you would need my help with Mr.…with Chris?”

 

“Me and Josiah are takin’ ‘im and I’m sure Luis can spare a couple of people to help us,” the healer told him and knew the gambler would sit on the Texan if he needed to. “Ezra, let me take a look at that arm?”

 

“My arm is fine, but I shall consent to your examination,” Standish said and eased out of his jacket and shirt. He sat in the chair and held his breath as Jackson removed the bandage and checked the wound.

 

“This looks good, Ezra, but I don’t want you doing anything more strenuous than shuffling a deck of cards,” Jackson warned as Sanchez returned.

 

“The wagon is ready. Luis saw that we have a mattress and anything else you need to take care of Chris,” the ex-preacher explained.

 

Nathan looked at Vin and was glad to see the younger man’s face relaxed in sleep. He turned to the second bed and wished there was some other way to do this, but Chris’ fever wasn’t coming down. “Where’s that board ya used t’bring Vin in.”

 

“I think it’s outside,” Sanchez assured him.

 

“Bring it in…we’ll need to move Chris. Easiest way is to lift him using the sheet he’s on,” Jackson explained and eased back the single sheet that covered Larabee.

 

“Nathan, we’re ready to move him,” Sanchez said softly.

 

“I know, but we need ta be careful,” Jackson ordered relieved to see Luis and another man standing with Sanchez. “Josiah, you and Luis take that end.”

 

“Carlo, you help Nathan,” Luis ordered as they positioned themselves around Larabee’s bed.

 

Jackson took a deep breath as they each took an end and lifted Larabee’s inert body and carried it the short distance to the board he’d be carried on. The blond head lolled to one side, but that was the only sign that there was life still in the body. There were several men waiting outside the room and they quickly moved to help with the injured man.

 

The trip down the stairs was a hard one, but they managed it without incident and carried Larabee out into the bright morning sunshine. The wagon had been pulled up close to the main door and Jackson and Sanchez climbed into the back and helped shift the injured man from the board onto the mattress.

 

Nathan knew Larabee was unaware of anything around him, but he gently covered him with the sheet and did everything he could to make sure the man was as comfortable as possible given the extent of his injuries. ‘Don’t you go givin’ up on us, Chris,’ he thought and settled down beside Larabee as Sanchez moved to the front of the wagon with Luis.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Four Corners

Early Morning

 

Mary Travis walked slowly along the street and handed out the morning edition of The Clarion News. Life went on for most of the townspeople, but for a select few, herself included, there was something missing. The seven men had become like family to her, but it was Chris Larabee that had her heart aching.

 

“Mrs. Travis…Mrs. Travis!”

 

Mary turned at the excited sound of the woman’s voice and smiled as the lady who ran the telegraph office and diner came running toward her. “Good morning, Mrs. Miller.”

 

“Good morning, Mrs. Travis,” the woman said and tried to catch her breath. “I have a telegram for you…it’s about Mr. Larabee and the others.”

 

Mary took a deep breath as the newspapers dropped to the ground and she reached for the small piece of paper clutched in the other woman’s hand. She swallowed several times before looking at the hastily scrawled words and reached for the hitching post as she read the missive.

 

“They’re alive, Mary, the Lord is watching out for them and for us,” the older woman said, purposefully using Mary’s first name as she touched her arm.

 

“I know,” Mary whispered shakily. Chris, Vin, and JD were injured, but they were all alive, that was the extent of the message and she silently prayed the seven men would return home soon. She saw Gloria Potter exit the store and hurry toward them and wished she had better news to tell her.

 

“Mary, are you all right?”

 

“I’m fine, Gloria,” the newspaperwoman said and bent to pick up the papers. “Mrs. Miller just brought me news about Chris and the others.”

 

“Are they…”

 

“They’re alive, but Chris, Vin, and JD were hurt. The raids by the banditos should be over,” Mary told her. 

 

“Thank God,” Gloria said and helped Mary with the papers. “When are they coming home?”

 

“It doesn’t say,” Mary answered worriedly, eyes misting with tears she refused to allow. She took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders as a man strode purposefully toward them.

 

“Mrs. Travis, I want to lodge a complaint with Judge Travis!”

 

“That is your right, Mr. Conklin, but I refuse to be your messenger any longer. If you wish to speak with Judge Travis then you can spend your own money to find him!” Mary snapped and walked away from the irate man.

 

“Who does she think she is?” Conklin spat and suddenly realized he was talking to himself in the middle of an empty street.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Morning

 

The wagon made slow, steady progress through the long night and continued the journey through the morning hours. Buck stayed with JD as they topped the rise and looked down on the picturesque hacienda where men and woman worked in the fields. It was hard to believe that such a peaceful setting had belonged to a vicious SOB who thought people belonged to him.

 

Buck breathed deeply of the warm air as they started the final leg of their journey and watched as several people stopped what they were doing and looked in their direction. It was another ten minutes before they pulled the wagon to a halt in front of the house and Buck hopped down from the back of the wagon. He looked at Dunne and then at the house before meeting Carmella Covas’ eyes.

 

“Go, I will stay with him until you check on your friends,” the woman ordered and felt her hands engulfed in his large, callused ones.

 

“You are an angel, Carmella Covas,” Wilmington said and hurried into the house. He took the stairs two at a time and entered the room where he’d last seen Chris and Vin. His breath caught in his throat and he nearly choked as he stared at the empty bed. His legs shook and he dropped to his knees as grief made it impossible to think of anything except the man who had been part of his life for over a decade.

 

“God…no…”

 

Ezra turned to see the man kneeling in the doorway and at first didn’t understand the grief he saw on Wilmington’s face. His own heart beat faster as he realized the implication of the empty bed.

 

“Mr. Wilmington,” Standish began and softened his voice. “Buck…”

 

“I should have stayed,” Wilmington said, swallowing convulsively as he lifted his head and stared at the man whose hand rested on his shoulder.

“Whatever do you..." Standish's words halted when he realized what the grief-stricken eyes were misreading. It dawned and he could feel the tremble coursing through the other man’s body. “He's alive, my friend."

“Chris…he…he’s not,” Wilmington tried to find the right words as hope soared through him with Standish’s words.

 

“No, he’s not dead,” the gambler reiterated.

 

“Where is he?” the worried rogue asked and stared at the man who seemed on the verge of waking. “What happened?”

 

“Nathan and Josiah took him to the nearby creek. His fever is very high and Nathan is hoping that immersing him in the water will help bring it down. How is JD?”

 

“He’s still out of it…woke up a couple of times, but he don’t seem to know where he is or what’s happened to him. Mostly remembers bits and pieces.”

 

“That is to be expected with head wounds. Nathan will know more when he gets back.”

 

“I hope so,” Wilmington said and turned to see Raphael standing in the open doorway.

 

“Senora Martinez had the room next door ready for JD,” Cordova told him.

 

“I’ll be right there,” the rogue said. He made his way to the bed and cast a warm eye on the Texan. “How’s Vin?”

 

“He managed to eat a little and keep it down. Nathan gave him a sleeping draught and it should keep him out for a few hours,” Standish explained.

 

“Are you okay?”

“This is but a minor affliction,” Standish said of his wound and quickly resettled himself in the chair beside Tanner’s bed. “Go tend to our fearless young sheriff; I'll keep the vigil with our noble Texan."

Buck knew Ezra was worried and that his use of the formal title was his own way of distancing himself so that people could not get a read on him. The man was a fraud, one that Buck and the other five men were proud to have riding with them. Once he made sure JD was settled, Buck planned on riding to the creek and checking for himself that Chris was all right.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Creek, West of the De Rivera Hacienda

Mid-Morning

 

The ride from the hacienda had taken longer than expected with a tree having fallen across the path. It had taken nearly an hour to return to the hacienda and get several workers to help remove the obstruction. The sun beat down on the wagon as it pulled to a stop near the creek and Josiah jumped down from the seat to join Jackson in the back.

 

“How is he?” Sanchez asked.

 

“Same as he was. He’s burning up, Josiah,” Jackson said softly.

 

“Then we’re doing the right thing,” the ex-preacher assured him as two men moved to help lift Larabee from the back. “Tell me what you need me to do.”

 

“I’ll need your help to carry him, but you need to be careful of his wounds. I got me a feelin’ that once we’re in the water Chris’ll come ‘round and he ain’t gonna like it. Luis said the water’s fed from the mountains and it’s bound ta be cold,” Jackson observed and stared at the creek as Luis rode up to him.

 

“The creek is shallow near the shore, but it is very deep in the middle,” the man explained. “I will show you.”

 

“Thank you, Luis,” Jackson said as they stripped down to their drawers and moved to lift Larabee from the wagon. “Josiah, once we’re in the creek I want you to hold Chris against you so I can tend his wounds. The water should help clear out some of the infection he’s got too.”

 

Josiah nodded as they eased Larabee from the wagon and carried him the short distance to the creek.

 

“Stay near the pile of rocks on your left, Josiah,” Luis ordered as they did their best to stay on their feet.

 

“Josiah, keep his head up,” Jackson ordered as Sanchez moved to sit in the cold water. Chris had remained still until they began to lower him beneath the surface. The shock of having the frigid water touch against his heated flesh caused the lost man's eyes to shoot open and his body bucked. His lips parted and a sharp inhalation of shocked air emitted. “Easy, Chris, we got you.”

 

Sanchez sat in the shallow pool and pulled Larabee down with him until only his head was above the surface.

 

“Josiah, I need to get a few things. Can you hold him?”

 

“I got him,” Sanchez assured the younger man. He felt Larabee trembling in his arms and silently prayed they were doing the right thing. He heard a fast approaching horse and looked up in time to see Buck dismount and stride purposefully into the water until he could touch the injured blond.

 

“How is he?” Wilmington asked of the too quiet man nestled against Sanchez’s chest.

 

“He’s still with us and that’s something to be thankful for,” Sanchez offered as Jackson joined them.

 

“Buck, how’s JD?” Jackson asked as he eased the water soaked bandages from Larabee’s shoulder.

 

“He’s still out of it, Nathan,” Wilmington answered. “Evita set up the room next to Chris and Vin’s and there’s a cot there for me.”

 

“That’s good. He needs to know he’s not alone,” Jackson explained and continued to care for the unresponsive blond who’d returned to whatever nightmare plagued him.

 

“Neither are you, Nate,” Wilmington said and placed a hand on the man’s shoulder in an effort to ease the torment he saw in the soulful brown eyes.

 

“Thanks, Buck,” Jackson managed and pressed against the shoulder wound until the blood ran clear without the putrid poison that had been present.

 

“Tell me what you need me to do,” Wilmington said.

 

“I need to look at his side next so you’ll need to help Josiah keep him still for me,” the healer ordered and saw the dark head nod once. It took nearly half an hour to clean the wounds and Jackson was satisfied they’d done all they could for the injured blond. They lifted him from the water and wrapped him in the clean sheets Evita had sent with them. Larabee’s teeth chattered and his body trembled with the cold, but Nathan knew the fever could easily come back as they rode toward the hacienda.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Afternoon

 

Vin tried hard to moisten his lips, but it felt like there was nothing left inside his arid mouth. He felt his head lifted and a cup placed against his mouth and gratefully drank the cold water. He opened his eyes when the offering was removed and looked at the man seated beside him before turning his attention to the other bed.

 

“They’re not back yet,” Standish answered the unspoken question.

 

“...time’s it?” Tanner managed in a voice he hardly recognized as his own. 

 

“Early afternoon…nearly one,” the conman told him. “I know you are worried, My Friend, but trust in Nathan’s abilities to ensure Chris makes a complete recovery.”

 

“None better,” the Texan vowed.

 

“Yes, I believe we all agree with that statement,” Standish said and heard voices from downstairs. “Stay where you are and I will see if they have returned.”

 

Vin lay still and listened to the voices from below, recognizing Nathan’s as he gave orders to those around him. He shifted on the bed, gasping as he levered himself up and tried unsuccessfully to maneuver the pillows behind his back.

 

“Bring him in,” Jackson said and fixed Tanner’s pillows while Josiah and Buck carried Larabee inside and placed him on the empty bed.

“Nathan?"

Jackson read the expressive blue eyes easily and knew what question was unspoken. “His fever’s come down for now, Vin, but he ain’t outta the woods yet." He touched his hand against the Texan’s forehead. “How do you feel?”

“Ain't my best day," Tanner answered honestly.

“You hungry?”

 

“A little,” the tracker said, but continued to watch as Sanchez and Wilmington worked to make Larabee comfortable.

 

“I’ll see if Evita will send something. How’s the jaw?”

 

“Better’n it was.”

 

“That’s good,” Jackson said. “Look, I’m gonna check on JD, but if ya need anythin’…”

 

“M’fine, Nate,” Tanner assured him and watched as the healer stood and left the room. There was pain in the man, so much pain that it could scar his soul if he didn’t let some of it go. Vin leaned back against the pillows and turned his head so that he could watch Chris Larabee and hoped the man fought his way back to them.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Late Afternoon

 

Nathan pulled the blanket up over the young man and sighed tiredly as he rubbed his lower back. The swollen area around the bullet wound was a mottled collection of black, green, and yellow and he knew JD would suffer from major headaches for some time. He breathed a sigh of relief and whispered a silent prayer of thanks that Dunne was alive. The problem was that Chris Larabee thought he was dead and if Nathan was right the blond needed to see JD in order to let the healing really begin.

 

“Nathan, he’s going to be all right isn’t he?” Wilmington asked. He’d changed into dry clothing provided by several of the field workers and looked at home in them with his dark coloring.

 

“I don’t know, Buck, I’ll do my best, but head wounds are tricky and until he’s awake and able to tell us what he remembers then it’ll be up to him and God,” Jackson answered tiredly ringing his hands as he took a deep breath.

 

“You look as bad as he does, Nathan,” Wilmington observed. “Why don’t you get some rest and leave these boys to me, Josiah, and Ezra. We’ll come get you if they need you.”

 

“I’m too damn tired ta argue with ya, Buck,” Jackson said. He stood, stretched the kinks from his back and left the room unaware of the worried look Buck cast his way.

 

Buck moved to the bed and sat on the edge before gently flicking back the stray strands of damp hair from the younger man’s face. “All right, Kid, I know you’re as stubborn as a Missouri bull so you’re not gonna let something like this keep you down. I need you to wake up, JD…Chris needs to know you’re alive or he’s going to give up. I don’t know if I’m ready to lose him like that, Kid…don’t know if I’m ready to lose any of you.”

 

Buck stood up and walked to the window. He looked out at the sun brightened fields as the workers seemed to be lost in the task of making sure the crops continued to grow. God help him, but he wished life could be that simple…that by just giving his friends the food and water a body needed that they’d survive the ordeal that faced them. Instead, Buck felt as if he was caught up in some nightmarish twister and couldn’t quite find his way out of it.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

Darkness surrounded him and with it the cold that clamped down on his heart and threatened to send him to the depths of hell. How could God take those he cared about and leave him to bury them? Each time he lifted the shovel and dropped the dirt into the open grave a part of his soul went with it.

 

It had to be a dream, a nightmare, and one that would end as again and again JD Dunne’s body dropped into the grave and a voice whispered in his ear.

 

‘You murdered my son and it is only fitting that I take something you care about…should we cover him…no, let his friend do it…if you wish to give him a proper burial you will do so now or he will be left for the sun and wild animals…You murdered my son and it is only fitting that I take something you care about…should we cover him…no, let his friend do it…if you wish to give him a proper burial you will do so now or he will be left for the sun and wild animals…’

 

The words continued to echo through his fevered mind even as dark images played one after another. JD’s head snapping back with the force of the bullet…JD’s words telling him it wasn’t his fault…the life disappearing from the young man’s eyes as Dunne’s body dropped into the grave dug by his hands…the sound of the body hitting the dirt…the feel of the cold shovel in his hand as he lifted the soil and slowly covered the body of a friend…one whose life was lost because he’d dared to accept the hand of friendship from Chris Larabee.

 

“No…please…sorry, Kid…didn’t mean…”

 

“Easy, Pard,” Wilmington tried to cut through the pain and despair in his friend’s voice.

 

“He awake, Buck?” Tanner asked and shifted his upper body so he could look across the short distance. His own fever was nearly gone, but there was no mistaking the weakness that confounded any attempt he made to sit up on the edge of the bed.

 

“If you want to call it that,” Wilmington answered. “He’s dreaming…but I don’t think they’re good dreams.”

 

“Can’t say’s I blame ‘im fer havin’ bad dreams,” the Texan said. “What’s Nate say ‘bout bringin’ JD in?”

 

“The kid’s still out of it,” Wilmington said. “Nate don’t want to move him around too much. He’s not sure JD’s gonna make it.”

 

“Chris needs ta know he’s alive.”

 

“Nate knows, but Chris already seen him die once…don’t think he could take seeing it happen again,” the worried rogue offered and reached for the cloth, soaking it in the cool water before placing it across Larabee’s forehead once more.

 

Vin watched as Buck spoke softly to the injured blond, worried when Larabee showed no indication that he knew anyone was with him. He’d seen the friendship between Larabee and Wilmington and understood where the emotions he saw on Buck’s face came from. They had years behind them, years that had seen Chris lose his heart and soul and Buck had been the one to stand by him and help him through the worst part of his life. Sometimes he envied Buck that closeness…not because of the friendship, but because Buck had seen Chris before the darkness had claimed three years of his life.

 

Vin lay back and closed his eyes, listening to the labored breathing that told him Chris was alive and hoping Buck’s voice could get through to him.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Arena De Muerte

East of the De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening

 

Fernando Gores looked at the men seated around the fire that blazed in the center of what had been used for the fights hosted by the Haciendadas in the area. Many men had lost their lives here, their lifeblood seeping into the soil even as the spectators sipped at the liquor and toasted the victor. Don Garcia had rarely allowed him to see a fight, but the ones he had seen had thrilled him with their brutality.

 

Gores had never liked Luis Martinez and now that dislike had turned to hatred. He’d enjoyed his position at the hacienda, using the whip or cane as a means of keeping the field workers in line. He’d admired the heavy handed Don Garcia De Rivera and he’d felt the man’s wrath himself, but not as much as the peons Don Garcia owned. Luis Martinez was nothing like his father and in Gores’ eyes he was a weakling and not worth the air he breathed.

 

Gores looked around and knew they needed more men if they were going to go up against Luis Martinez and his men. He’d sent Pablo Gonzales to the hacienda earlier in the day and the big man returned with the news that Martinez had more men than just those who rode with him. Gonzales had recognized Raphael Cordova De Martinez, a man well known because he’d worked for Don Paulo before betraying him by killing his son. There was a price on Cordova’s head and Gores thought he just might be the one to collect it.

 

“Fernando, if Pablo is right about the men at the hacienda then we need to find more guns,” Miguel Delgado said.

 

“Men are easy to find, but we must have the coin to pay them,” Gores said with a hint of a grin. “Perhaps it would be better to find another way to get to Luis and his madre.” 

 

“What do you have in mind?”

 

“Juanita Perez.”

 

“Who is she?”

 

“A pretty young puta who works in the main house,” Gores explained in a voice heavy with lust.

 

“Will she help us?”

 

“No, not willingly, but she just might get Luis away from the house.”

 

“What of his madre? I want that bitch to pay!” Delgado cursed.

 

“If we watch closely I am sure we can get them both and force Luis to come to us,” Gores said. “It will mean watching the house and waiting for the right time.”

 

“Do we have enough men for that?”

 

“To take two women?” Gores said with a grin and reached for the bottle Gonzales offered. “We have more than enough. To killing Don Garcia’s puta and their bastardo son.”

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Late Evening

 

Evita Martinez sat in the wooden rocking chair, humming softly to the babe held protectively in her arms. Santos had awoken just before midnight and she’d taken over from the wet nurse once he’d been fed. Now she simply sat holding him to her, his small fingers wrapped tightly around her pinkie.

 

She felt tears in her eyes as she looked at the boy who reminded her so much of Luis when he was first born. She knew it was not possible to know what changes the future would bring, but she silently prayed the boy would be like his mother and half-brother. Santos had a future ahead of him and she prayed he would find someone to look up to in Luis. Between them they could make something of the hacienda.

 

“You would do well to follow in Luis’ footsteps,” Evita said and looked up to see Nathan Jackson standing in the doorway. She could see the weariness in his eyes and knew the man was not sleeping very well. Nathan was a man who had the heart and soul of a healer and she wondered how deep the scars were on his soul since being forced to watch what had happened to his friends.

 

“How is he doin’?” the former slave asked softly.

 

“He is restless,” Evita answered.

 

“Your voice soothes him,” Jackson observed as the baby cooed softly. “He needs you.”

 

“I promised his madre I would be there for him.”

 

“There’s no one better to take her place, Evita,” the healer vowed.

 

“Thank you, Nathan. I will see that he knows who his madre was and what he meant to her.”

 

“As long as he has you he will know a mother’s love,” Jackson offered.

 

“He will also have his brother’s hand to show him the way,” Evita said while playing with the baby’s fingers.

 

“Good…Santos will need someone to look up to and I doubt he’d find a better man than your son,” Nathan said softly.

 

“Are you all right, Nathan?” Evita asked, eyeing the man closely.

 

“I’m fine, Evita,” the former slave whispered and sighed heavily. “I need to check on Chris, Vin, and JD.”

 

“Your friends are well cared for, Nathan…perhaps it is time for the healer to allow someone to heal his wounds.”

 

“I ain’t got no wounds,” Jackson snapped before hurrying from the room.

 

‘Not the kind that you can see, Nathan, but your heart is bleeding deeply,’ Evita thought and looked at the sleeping baby as tears slipped from her eyes.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Nathan had to hurry from the room before his emotions got the better of him. He had the feeling that Evita had seen right through him, but he wasn’t ready to talk about him, not when his friends had real injuries that needed his attention. He stopped in front of the partially open door and listened to Carmella Covas’ soft voice and prayed JD was awake. He pushed the door open and was disappointed when it became obvious that the young man was still unconscious.

 

“Dr. Jackson…”

 

“I ain’t no doctor, Ma’am,” Jackson snapped and immediately regretted his tone. “I’m sorry…ain’t got no reason to snap at you…”

 

“I understand, Senor…”

 

“Please, just call me, Nathan,” the healer said and moved to touched his fingers against Dunne’s forehead. “His fever’s come down some.”

 

“He is dreaming and sometimes calls for his madre, but his voice is filled with such pain,” Carmella explained.

 

“His ma’s dead…we’re ‘bout the only family he’s got left and I want to thank you for taking care of him.”

 

“He is one of God’s children and I would never turn him away,” the woman assured him.

 

“God don’t seem ta be around lately,” Jackson said.

 

“God is always around, Nathan; just open your heart and you will find him there.”

 

“Ain’t sure that’s a good idea right now…”

 

“Nathan!”

 

Jackson turned at the concerned shout from down the hallway and hurried out of the room to find Buck looking for him. “What’s wrong?”

 

“Chris…something’s wrong!” Wilmington snapped and jumped to the side as Jackson rushed by him.

 

Nathan hurried into the room to find Josiah manhandling a convulsing Larabee back on the bed. He’d been expecting something like this because of the fever raging through Larabee, but had hoped that immersing him in the water would have prevented it from happening. He glanced at the sleeping Texan, relieved that he’d given the younger man a heavy dose of laudanum and hoped it would keep him from waking up.

 

“When did this start?” Jackson asked.

 

“Not long, but he’s strong as a bull when he’s like this!” Sanchez said.

 

“What do you need us to do?” Wilmington asked.

 

“Go down to the kitchen and see if there’s any ice. Evita’s in with Santos…”

 

“I’m right here, Nathan,” Evita said from the open doorway. “What do you need?”

 

“Do you have something we can put him in…maybe a tub and we’ll need water and ice if you got any,” Jackson answered and turned when Evita did not answer right away.

 

“Nathan, there is an old tub in a room that once served as a place for the wine maker to rest. Don Garcia called it a wine cellar, but I believe it is also called a root cellar and is below ground and much cooler than these rooms.”

 

“Where is it?” Jackson asked.

 

“The entrance is through the kitchen at the back of the pantry. I will see that the tub is cleaned and cold water can be pumped through the underground spring,” Evita explained.

 

“Nathan, should we be moving him?” Wilmington asked skeptically.

 

“We need to get him cooled down, Buck. Them convulsions he’s havin’ ain’t doin’ ‘im any good,” Jackson answered worriedly and was glad to see Tanner remained blissfully unaware of what was happening around him.

 

“I will see to having the room readied for you,” Evita said and hurried away.

 

“Josiah, be careful,” Jackson said as the big ex-preacher continued to hold Larabee down. “Buck, talk to him…see if you can calm him down.”

 

Buck nodded and moved closer as Ezra Standish stepped into the room and moved to help Josiah and Nathan. He heard the gambler cry out, but his attention was on the sweat soaked face of his long-time friend. “Hey, Pard, ya want to tell me what’s got you so riled up? Nate’s gonna be ticked at you if you break them stitches he put in you. We both know how he gets when someone wrecks his handiwork…”

 

“No…Kid…didn’t mean…shouldn’t…should have…go home, Kid…”

 

“Chris, listen to me. JD’s fine and you are too, but you gotta stop this,” Wilmington ordered and was shocked when Larabee suddenly went still. “Nathan?”

 

Jackson reached out and pressed his fingers against Chris’ throat and was relieved to find the too fast pulse there. “He’s still with us, but his pulse is racing.”

 

Wilmington sighed tiredly and ran his fingers through disheveled hair as he looked from Larabee to Tanner and his mind wandered to the young man in the other room. He knew Jackson was worried and wished there was something he could do to ease the healer’s mind, but that would not happen until Larabee, Tanner, and Dunne were back on their feet.

 

“Ezra, I’ll need ta take a look at your arm in a minute,” Jackson said tiredly.

 

“My arm…”

 

“Ya want ta be able ta shuffle them cards ya’d best do as I say,” Jackson ordered and moved to help Sanchez and Wilmington with the trembling gunslinger.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 

 

Buck knew they were doing what needed to be done, but it didn’t make it any easier. They’d carried Larabee down the main stairs, past several workers who seemed to be watching with a mixture of curiosity and fear. The room Evita had told them they could use was down a narrow set of stairs, but they managed to get down them without mishap. He felt the difference in the temperature almost immediately and hoped it was enough to help keep his oldest friend from suffering any more convulsions.

 

“Nathan, the pump is working,” Evita said as they carried Larabee inside and moved toward the freshly made bed. A cot had also been set up near the door.

 

“Thank you, Evita,” Jackson said and tested the water in the large tub in the corner. “Buck, you and Josiah bring him over here.”

 

“He’s gonna fight,” Sanchez offered.

 

“I know, but we gotta do this,” Jackson said as Evita left the room. “The water’s cold so be ready.”

 

Buck nodded as he and Josiah lifted Larabee over the side and immersed him in the cold water.

 

His body felt like it was being consumed by fire and Chris knew he was in hell. The flames would consume him the same as they’d consumed his heart and soul that fateful night that seem an eternity ago. He could hear voices, but he could not make sense of what was being said until something changed and he felt the heat surrounding him change as if a chill wind blew across his skin. Larabee reacted immediately as his eyes shot open and he cried out, his voice hoarse, but the pain unmistakable as he fought the two men holding him down.

 

“It’s okay, Chris,” Wilmington soothed, but didn’t relinquish his hold on the struggling man.

"...fuck...off..." he snarled, glaring at the blurry mustached enemy, "...cold..."

“I know it’s cold, Chris, but we need ta get your fever down and then we’ll get you into bed and let you rest,” Jackson explained, but understood Larabee wasn’t hearing him as the green eyes remained open, but unfocused.

 

Buck tried to duck as Larabee lashed out and connected with his right cheek. It scared him that his friend didn’t seem to have the strength of a newborn calf, and he reached out to place a hand on Chris’ shoulder as Nathan used a cloth to bathe the fevered face. Time seemed to crawl as Larabee fought weakly against those who were trying to help him. He could hear soft pleas from the injured man, and wished there was another way to do this.

 

“How much longer, Nathan?” Sanchez asked.

 

“His fever’s come down some, but he’s still hot,” Jackson said tiredly, fighting the urge to order the two men to lift Larabee out of the tub.

 

“He can’t take much more,” Wilmington said and stopped short of adding ‘neither can I’. It seemed like forever before Jackson ordered them to take Larabee out of the tub and quickly dried the blond and laid him on the bed. He checked the wounds, not surprised to find the blond had slipped back into unconsciousness.

 

“Nathan, you need to get some rest,” Sanchez ordered when Nathan eased a thin sheet over Larabee’s body.

 

“I need to stay with him…”

 

“I’ll stay with him, Nate,” Wilmington said, torn between staying with Larabee and checking on Dunne.

 

“You both look like hell,” Sanchez observed. “Nathan, go to bed. Buck, go stay with JD and I’ll come get you if anything changes.”

 

“Are you sure…you ain’t slept much either,” Jackson said.

 

“I’m going to take advantage of that cot,” Sanchez vowed.

 

“All right, but if he needs…”

 

“I will,” the ex-preacher said before the healer could finish the sentence. He watched the two men leave before turning to Larabee and placed a hand on his forehead before saying a soft prayer that their number would be whole soon.

"Seven's my lucky number," he noted and shifted his heavenward-trained eyes to the stilled body. "His too..."

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

Buck made his way to the room where JD remained blissfully unaware of what was happening around him. He smiled at the woman seated next to the bed and reached out to take her hands in his own. “You, Lady, are God’s gift to man… your husband is a lucky man…”

 

“My husband is also a jealous man, but I thank you for making me feel young…”

 

“You are young where it counts in both beauty and mind,” Wilmington said and kissed her hand. “I’m going to stay with JD and I’m sure your husband would like some time with you.”

 

“That he would,” Cristóbal said from the doorway. He’d seen the exchange and felt no jealousy at the man’s words, simply because what he said was true and Cristóbal Covas considered himself the luckiest man in the world.

 

Buck watched as Cristóbal took his wife’s hand and led her from the room. There was no doubt the couple shared a love he’d only seen once before when Chris had married Sarah. God, how he wished he hadn’t convinced Larabee to stay that one extra night. Could they have stopped what happened or would they have also burned in the fire. Probably the latter, because if there’d been any chance of saving Sarah and Adam he would have joined Chris in bursting into the inferno.

 

Buck shook away the morbid thoughts and moved to sit in the chair Carmella Covas had vacated. He took a deep breath and ran his fingers through his hair. God, he was tired, more tired than he’d ever been before and he knew he wouldn’t get any real rest until he was sure Chris, JD, and Vin were going to be all right. He closed his eyes and the soft, even breathing of the youth lulled him to sleep. The next thing he was aware of was a warm voice nearby. He blinked, sat up, coughed and noticed Raphael watching him.

 

“How is he?”

 

“About the same.”

 

“This Chiquita…he is strong,” Cordova offered with open admiration for a young man who’d proven his worth again and again.

 

“Yeah, he is…I just wish he’d wake up enough so we could let Chris see him,” Wilmington said.

 

“Why does Nathan want to wait?” Cordova asked.

 

“Chris already saw JD die once, Raphael, and he don’t want him to have to relive it if…if…”

 

“He is a fighter…he reminds me of a pit viper and I do not believe he is ready to quit.”

 

“I hope so, Raphael, I don’t think…” Wilmington couldn’t finish as Cordova leaned against the wall and joined him in a silent vigil over the injured man.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

De Rivera Hacienda

Early Morning

 

The sun streamed through the partially open window and danced across the floor as a soft breeze gently lifted the floral curtains. The scent of nearby flowers teased the lone occupant into opening his sleep-drenched eyes, but it took nearly a minute before Vin remembered where he was. His body ached and his mouth felt dryer than the desert at high noon. His tongue flicked out, but stuck to his lips as he shifted and turned away from the window.

 

Vin looked at the bed opposite the one he lay on and frowned as he tried to figure out what was wrong with the picture. There was something missing, not just the sheets and blankets and he tried to figure out exactly what he wasn’t seeing. He closed his eyes and felt the weakness invading his body and mind and shifted on the bed until he had a clear picture of the one across from him. Panic set in and he gritted his teeth and tried to sit up, but found he lacked the strength to do so.

 

“Chris,” he whispered, his heart breaking at the thought of losing the man who had become an instant brother. He tried to call out, but froze when he heard familiar voices speaking in hushed tones outside the room.

 

“…put up…fight…”

 

“…never thought…end like that…”

 

“Chris…a quitter…fought hard…life depended on…dead…”

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

“Chris Larabee is not a quitter and he fought hard as if it was not only his life that depended on it. He is not dead because of Nathan’s wondrous gift,” Standish said and leaned tiredly against the wall outside the room where Tanner slept, glad that the Texan had been spared listening to Larabee’s cries when they’d immersed him in the tub.

 

“Si, he is a good man,” Luis Martinez agreed, relieved that the injured man was still alive. He did not know these men well, but his instincts told him they were good men.

 

“In case no one has thought to say anything I wanted to say thank you for everything you’ve done for Chris, Vin, and JD. Their lives would otherwise have been sacrificed because of Don Garcia’s cruelty,” Standish said and shook the man’s hand.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

“…lives…sacrificed…”

 

Vin tried to listen to the voices, tried to make sense of what they were saying, but his mind had latched onto several words that tore at his heart. End and dead…those two words told him everything he needed to know and he sank back into the void where nightmares were now real and he once more walked alone in the darkness.

 

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

 

The darkness that surrounded him was filled with images that spoke of a life of torment, yet Chris knew it wasn’t real…couldn’t be real. How could God have taken so much from him? Why did fire surround him? Why did it feel like he was burning alive and ice cold at the same time?

 

Too many people had died because of him, some by his own hand, some who deserved it, but there were some who might still be alive if he’d just made them listen. Young men like JD Dunne…he hadn’t pulled the trigger, but he’d been the one responsible all the same. Now JD’s body was buried in a shallow unmarked grave, but Chris vowed that somehow he would get word to Buck before he died and make sure the kid had a decent burial. It wouldn’t atone for what he’d done in his life, but it was the least he could do for JD.

 

He struggled against the lead weight on his chest, but the pain of loss was a heavier burden than any he’d ever suffered and a silent plea was born as he sank deeper into the darkness surrounding him.

 



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