WHEN THE SUN COMES BACK

by Winnie

 

Field to the North of the Hacienda
Mid-Morning

 
Evita smiled at the woman who’d stolen her son’s heart and picked up the basket off the table. She knew Luis had chosen well and wanted to talk to Juanita alone. In the weeks since the vegetables had ripened she’d been happy to have the younger woman accompany her and it pleased her that Luis had found love with a woman who was beautiful on the inside as well as on the outside.
 
They didn’t speak as they exited the house, but Evita smiled as Luis glanced their way before riding away from the main house. She knew he was going to check on the villagers to the north and arrange to trade some of the crops for staples like flour and material for clothing. Santos would need more clothes if he continued to eat the way he was.
 
“Luis has made a wise choice,” Evita said as they made their way toward the north field.
 
“I am the luckiest woman in the world, Evita. I have loved Luis since I first saw him, but he was Don Garcia’s son and I knew I could not be with him as long as Don Garcia was alive.”
 
“Perhaps, but I believe Luis would have spoken to his padre about you. Luis is strong and his love for you could not be stopped because his padre was blinded by his own prejudice. I asked him to buy me some of the finest material in the village. It is time we thought about your wedding dress. We will sew it together if you will let me help you,” Evita told her.
 
“You are so good to me…I would be honored to have you help me with my wedding dress,” Juanita said, dropping her basket and hugging the older woman with tears in her eyes. “Thank you, Evita.”
 
“You are welcome,” Evita said as they continued toward the field.
 
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Pablo Gonzales hated the bugs that surrounded him while he waited for Juanita Perez and Evita Martinez to make their way to the field in order to collect vegetables for the afternoon meal. According to Gores the two women often did this chore on their own instead of taking one of the field workers from his daily routine. He looked across the clearing and knew Alfonzo Gutierrez was watching from his vantage point and would signal to him when he spotted the two women.
 
Pablo wasn’t happy with what they were about to do and knew Luis Martinez was not a man to mess with. He may not be as hard or cold as his padre, but when it came to his family, he could be lethal. Gores had promised them they’d be rewarded for taking Juanita Perez and Evita Martinez, but he wasn’t sure any reward would be enough. A leering grin formed when he thought about Juanita Perez and an idea formed as heat flared in his groin. Just maybe he would get his own reward with the pretty puta before Luis found out what they’d done.
 
Pablo was shaken from his thoughts when a soft whistle reached his ears and he turned his attention to the field. He’d seen the women before when he'd visited the hacienda and done several jobs for Don Garcia De Rivera, and recognized the duo carrying the empty baskets. He took his knife from the scabbard at his side and nodded that he was ready as Gutierrez mirrored his actions. It would be a simple task to grab them, but Pablo knew anything could happen.
 
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Evita breathed in the scent of wildflowers as she walked beside her future daughter-in-law and considered herself blessed in more ways than she’d thought possible. She stepped onto the narrow path that led to the field where they would pick the vegetables needed for today’s meals. She stopped and listened, frowning when she noticed the absence of sound.
 
“Evita, is something wrong?” Juanita asked when the older woman stopped.
 
“We must go back,” Evita said, but realized her mistake when a man grabbed Juanita around the waist and placed a knife against her throat.
 
“Scream and I cut her throat,” Gutierrez warned.
 
“Let her go!” Evita ordered and searched the field behind her for help, but there was no way anyone could see what was happening because of the dense brush along the north field.
 
“I do not think so,” Pablo said from behind her. “Now if you cooperate you will not get hurt. If you try to escape or do anything foolish, Luis will find what is left of your bodies, after we carve you like those birds that are served across the river."
 
“What do you want?” Evita asked, keeping her voice calm in spite of the anger coursing through her veins as Juanita struggled against the man holding her.
 
“Be still, Puta, or I will cut your breast…Luis won’t think you are so pretty then will he?” Gutierrez snarled and ran his tongue along the side of her neck.
 
“Now, Evita, we are going to go for a little ride and you and Juanita are going to do everything I say if you want to see Luis again,” Pablo ordered.
 
“Why are you do…doing this?” Juanita stammered, crying out as her captor increased the pressure around her waist.
 
“Stop!” Evita ordered.
 
“Put your arms behind your back, Evita, or Alonzo will cut her,” Pablo warned, pleased with the control he had over the two women.
 
Evita knew she had no choice but to do as he said and soon felt her arms bound roughly behind her back and a soiled cloth pressed into her mouth. She watched helplessly as the second man did the same to Juanita and moved deeper into the brush where two horses waited. They were thrown onto the horses and held in place as the two men mounted behind them and urged the horses away from the field. She had no idea who these men were, and she hoped Luis would find them before Alonzo did anything more than touch Juanita Perez.
 
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De Rivera Hacienda
Mid-Morning

 
Josiah looked up from the dog-eared Bible he so often sought comfort in. The words held meaning for him again now and his faith in the Lord was renewed. Part of it was due to finding his own penance, but if he was truthful with himself, the six men he called ‘brothers’ had been instrumental in him finding his way once again.
 
Chris Larabee was and always would be a natural born leader and he recognized that distinction the first time they’d met. There were not many men who could take such a diverse bunch and make them work together without giving them direct orders. It just seemed that they’d all looked to Larabee whenever something needed to be done. Even young JD who’d been given the distinction of town sheriff had gone to Chris when he needed advice.
 
Josiah thought about the man who had once been described as not saying ‘more’n three words in a day’ and wondered at that statement uttered by Vin Tanner. While it was true Chris didn’t mince words, he could be downright talkative when the situation warranted it. He’d been there for Billy Travis when the boy needed it and helped him deal with witnessing his father’s death. He’d also given Nathan advice when the healer wasn’t sure about his feelings for Rain. Larabee had simply asked him ‘cause you lost ‘em, are you sorry you ever had them?’ Nathan had told him about it and Josiah had used that line several times during his Sunday sermons.
 
“The Lord takes care of His own, Chris, and I know He’s watching over you, Vin, and JD,” Sanchez said and made the Sign of the Cross on Larabee’s forehead, relieved that the fever, although still there, wasn’t as bad as it had been the day before. He knew Chris still had a long road ahead of him, but it was one he would not walk alone.
 
“How’s he doing, Josiah?” Nathan asked upon entering the room. He’d slept longer than he’d wanted, but it wasn’t a restful sleep. It was fraught with images that tormented his soul, yet he would not speak of the hell that invaded his mind.
 
“His fever’s still down, but he’s restless,” Sanchez answered, aware of the lines of strain on his friend’s face. Somehow, when all this was over they’d have to find a way to get through to Nathan. They needed to show him that what he’d been forced to do was just as hard on him as the physical wounds were on his friends.
 
“That’s good news, but I ain’t gonna say he’s outta the woods yet,” Jackson said as Sanchez moved back to allow him access to the injured man. He took his time checking the wounds and listening to Chris’ soft cries as he fought whatever demons invaded his dreams. “You’re okay, Chris, ain’t no one gonna hurt you now.”
 
“ ...JD…sor…sorry…ka...ka...kid”

“JD’s fine, Chris,” Jackson said, but he knew his words were not getting through to the injured blond.
 
“How is JD?” Sanchez asked.
 
“He’s in and out…ain’t certain he’s himself either. That head wound’s got me worried…just wish he’d wake up so’s we could let Chris see im,” the former slave said.
 
“I know you’re worried about how Chris will react when he sees JD, but wouldn’t it be good for him…for them both?”
 
“Maybe, but Chris already lived through his death once, Josiah…I ain’t ‘bout ta put ‘im through it again,” Jackson answered and touched the wound in Larabee’s side. “I need to drain this.”
 
“Tell me what you need,” Sanchez said and quickly brought what the healer asked for. He saw the sadness in the brown eyes just before Jackson closed them and placed a hand on his shoulder as a soft shudder left him drained. “Why don’t you tell me what to do, Brother?”
 
Nathan knew Josiah was offering more than assistance with Chris Larabee. As grateful as he was for those strong hands and all that went with it, he shook his head. “Thanks, Josiah, but I’m okay. He pressed the edges of the wound, hardening himself as the first weak cry escaped from the semiconscious gunslinger.
 
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Luis Martinez smiled at the group of workers who listened to what he wanted them to do. He knew his padre had been a hard man and had them working from dawn to dusk, but he’d shortened the hours and knew he’d still get the same yield because they were well rested.
 
Luis had seen his madre and Juanita walking toward the north field and wanted to join them, but for now he had to see to these people. He quickly told them what he wanted them to do today and turned to find Ezra Standish watching him as he dismissed the workers.
 
“You are a natural leader, Senor Martinez,” Standish said.
 
“Gracious,” Luis said and took a deep breath. “How are your friends this morning?”
 
“Nothing has changed, but I have confidence in Nathan’s healing abilities,” the gambler answered.
 
“I watched him…you put your faith in a good man,” Martinez told him. “How is the arm?”

“I believe Nathan is correct in his diagnosis and I shall have the same dexterity as I always had when it comes to dealing and shuffling a deck of cards,” Standish said and looked out over the fields.

Luis did not know the man very well and his first impression had been that Ezra Standish was a rich bore, but he’d quickly changed that assessment. The man had proven that these men were his friends and he would do anything he could to help them. “A man can usually count his true friends on one hand, but I believe you are the exception. I have watched you and your compadres and believe you are more than friends. Mi madre has always said the number seven is special and I believe it is in your number that you will find the strength to help them heal.”
 
“Josiah is a spiritual man and he has spoken of the divinity of the number seven on several occasions. Religion is something I knew very little about until I met Josiah Sanchez and listened to him speak.”
 
“Is Josiah a priest?”

“He was." His voice tinged with sadness, Ezra continued. "He has delivered several rather touching sermons that would undoubtedly impress anyone who believes himself a religious zealot,” Standish said and realized he’d said more than was necessary as Martinez looked toward the north.

“I have yet to speak with Padre Santiago, but if he is not available would Josiah marry Juanita and me?”
 
“The lovely Senorita Perez will make a beautiful bride. Would you like me to speak with Josiah for you?”
 
“Let me speak with Padre Santiago first.”
 
“Certainly…”
 
“Senor Martinez, there is a problem in the south field. Pedro said for you to come right away,” Pero called frantically.
 
“Excuse me, Senor Standish.”
 
“Of course,” the gambler said and watched the man hurry away before walking back into the house.
 
He knew Buck was with JD and that Nathan and Josiah were checking Chris’ wounds which left him to keep an eye on Vin. He hurried up the stairs and entered Tanner’s room to find the Texan sleeping, his untouched tray on the table between the two beds. Frowning, Ezra eyed the platter of sliced fruit, sweet sticky buns and juice. He wondered if Vin even realized the food was there. Unless their tracker began to eat more, he wouldn't have the strength to combat his injuries. He laid a gentle hand on the slumbering man's shoulder.
"Vin?" He paused, watching for signs of life to emerge. The tanned face twitched and a scowl formed. "Vin, you need to wake up now and eat."

Vin had been lost in the netherworld between deep sleep and wakefulness. His dreams ran the gamut of emotional turmoil that ended with the words that cut him to the core. Chris…a quitter…fought hard…life depended on…dead. The last word seared through his tortured brain, creating a mantra from hell. He was forced to admit to himself that he’d lost the first man he’d ever considered a brother.

“Come on, Vin, Evita sent up some fresh fruit and sweet rolls. I know Inez and Mrs. Wells make wonderful sweets, but I can confirm that these are just as delicious to the palette,” Standish tried and watched as the tracker’s eyes moved beneath the closed lids. “Vin, I know you are awake and you must be ravished by now.” He saw a single blue slit appear and observe him, then disappear. “I saw that!" He accused, shaking Vin's shoulder again. "I'll help you sit up."

“Ain’t hungry,” Tanner said and turned away before the man could see the pain of loss in his eyes.
 
“Vin…”

“Go 'way, Ez," the Texan snapped and found it difficult to draw air into his lungs as he thought about going back to Tascosa to clear his name without Chris Larabee at his side. “Sho…udda...took...care o'it...b'fore…” he mumbled aloud.

“Taken care of what, Vin?” Standish asked worriedly. There was something wrong here, something that had not been a part of Tanner's demeanor, but the savvy conman couldn't place exactly what was different. His handsome face creased in annoyance at the observation skills he usually used with ease.
 
“Nothin’, look, Ez, I’m ti…tired,” Tanner said and hoped the gambler would leave him to his thoughts and dreams, no matter how morbid they might be. "Jest leave me be..."

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Arena De Muerte
Early Afternoon 

 
Fernando Gores watched as two horses approached the arena and couldn’t help, but smile as he recognized the riders and their captives. He felt Miguel Delgado beside him as Pablo Gonzales and Alonzo Gutierrez dismounted and roughly pulled the women off the animals.
 
“Did you have any trouble?” Gores asked, eyeing the very ripe Juanita Perez hungrily.
 
“No, it was just like you said, Fernando. These two came walking along the path as if they owned it. Me and Alonzo waited until they were out of sight of the hacienda and took them without a fight,” Gonzales answered.
 
“Did you leave any tracks for them to follow?” Delgado asked.
 
“We took the back trail and then stayed in the creek following it south for fifteen minutes before doubling back and heading north. It will confuse them for a while until you are ready for Luis to find them,” Gonzales answered and smiled at the anger blazing in the women’s eyes. 
 
“You know if we hurt either of them, Luis will kill us,” Delgado said, beginning to doubt the wisdom of this move.
 
“Not if we do not give him the chance,” Gores said and reached out to cup Juanita’s chin with his right hand. “We send him a message to come alone and make him watch while we enjoy showing his women what a real man can do.”
 
“I want a piece of that one too,” Gutierrez said with a leering grin as he eyed her ripe breasts.
 
“There’ll be time for everyone to enjoy them once Luis arrives…for now I am hungry and Evita has always been a great cook,” Gores said.
 
“Are you going to untie them?” Delgado asked.
 
“Just their hands…bring me some rope,” Gores ordered and took the hemp Gonzales offered. “Now, Ladies, I’m going to tie Evita’s left ankle to Juanita’s right ankle with maybe a foot of rope in between. If either of you tries anything the other one will be taken into the arena itself and each man will be given half an hour to enjoy themselves with her body. Nod your head if you understand.”
 
Evita glanced at Juanita and nodded her head at the same time as the younger woman. By now someone at the hacienda would have noticed they hadn’t returned and hopefully the twists and turns would not be too hard for her son to find. There was no doubt that these men would hurt her and Juanita, but for now they needed to bide their time and watch for an opening to escape. Perhaps they would all get drunk, but she didn’t think they would be so lucky as Fernando Gores tied the rope between her and Juanita’s legs. Then he reached for the ropes around her wrists and quickly released her as Delgado did the same with the younger woman.
 
“All right, Ladies, get started and make sure it tastes good or I’ll have to sample your bodies instead,” Gores warned and smiled as he shoved them toward the open fire.
 
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Four Corners
Early Afternoon

 
Mary Travis was tired of men like Conklin who didn’t care about anyone, but themselves and she silently cursed when she spotted him heading toward her. She desperately wanted to avoid a confrontation, but he’d already seen her.
 
“Mrs. Travis, is it true the judge will be on the stage?”
 
“As a matter of fact he is,” the newspaperwoman answered.
 
“It’s about time…perhaps he will see the mistake he made in hiring those gunslingers to protect this town. They have been gone far too long and there is no point in throwing good money after bad,” Conklin spat.
 
“Is that really what you think, Mr. Conklin? Perhaps it’s time you opened your eyes and saw what those men have done for Four Corners. Have you noticed there is no need for the children to be afraid of playing outside or for people to lock their doors at night? Have there been any bank robberies or shootings since those men began patrolling the area?”
 
“That is not the point, Mrs. Travis…”
 
“Isn’t it? Orin hired Chris and the others to make this town a place we could be proud of. A place people would be proud to call home and I know I’ve seen new people moving here and more coming each day. I told Chris it was progress and that was something we never had when the streets ran red with the blood of anyone who got in the way of the ‘bad element’…”
 
“You yourself called Chris Larabee the bad element, Mrs. Travis…or do you deny that?”
 
“No, but I was wrong and I thank God for showing me that not all ‘bad elements’ are on the wrong side of the law. Now I know you have nothing better to do than bad mouth other people, but I have a stage to meet so excuse me,” Mary said, lifting her skirts and stepping around the man. She passed Potter’s store and smiled at her friend when she passed.
 
“Well said, Mary. That man should learn to keep his mouth shut,” Gloria explained.
 
“I know, but he’ll never learn…even if Chris or Buck or any of those men were to save his life he’d find a way to blame whatever happened on them. He’s a fool and always will be.”
 
“Has there been any news from Josiah?” Gloria asked.
 
“Nothing new, but if they have to travel to send a telegram we may not hear anything for a few days,” Mary answered.
 
“Please let me know as soon as you hear anything.”
 
“I will,” Mary said and hurried toward her home to await Orin Travis’ arrival.
 
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De Rivera Hacienda
Late Afternoon

 
JD opened his eyes, forcing himself to keep them open as he tried to make sense of where he was and what had happened to make his head feel like it was going to explode. It was warmer than he thought possible as he slowly looked around the unfamiliar room. The walls seemed wrong; the furniture strange, while colorful tapestries hung from decorative hooks. He frowned, setting off the fireworks in his skull as he tried to focus on something just out of his grasp.
 
“Wh…where…” he whispered, and fought the nausea that churned through his gut and felt a hand on his forehead. He opened his eyes and stared at the man who now stood over him, and tried to make sense of his surroundings.
 
“Welcome back, Son,” Jackson said and gripped the younger man’s shoulders when he tried to sit up. “Be still, JD, you’re not goin’ anywhere for a spell.”
 
“What…what happened?” Dunne asked, frowning at how strange his voice sounded.
 
“JD!” Wilmington hollered without realizing how loud the single word was for the concussed younger man.
 
JD moaned, cringing as he closed his eyes and desperately sought relief from the pain running rampant through his skull. “Tryin’…to k…kill me, Buck…”
 
Buck noticed the obvious pain and sank down on the chair, his eyes filled with sorrow as he watched the young man who’d come to mean so much to him. “Jesus, Kid, I’m sorry,” he whispered.
 
Dunne reached up to touch the bandage covering his head, but his hands were caught and lowered back to the bed.
 
“Don’t go touchin’ that, JD,” Jackson warned.
 
“Hap…happened?” Dunne repeated
 
“What do you remember, JD?” the healer asked, keeping his voice low in regard to the young man’s injury. He watched JD’s face and knew the young man was trying to remember what had happened, and knew it was something they should not push.
 
“I don’t…I can’t remember.”
 
“That’s okay, Son, it’ll come to you, but right now you need to rest,” Jackson said and filled a glass with the sweet juice Evita had mixed and handed it to Wilmington.
 
 “Here, Kid, got something for you to drink.”
 
JD sipped the juice and sighed tiredly, closing his eyes as he turned away from the offering. He fought to make sense of the images that flashed through his mind, but nothing seemed real. Last thing he remembered was riding with Chris, but the harder he tried to grasp those memories the more his head hurt and his stomach churned nauseously.
 
“Come on, Kid, don’t tell me it’s not sweet enough,” Wilmington tried to coax the younger man to drink some more.
 
Dunne closed his eyes as the images formed and dissolved so quickly they made him dizzy. He slumped back against the pillows as darkness reached out for him once more and he surrendered to it before getting the answer he wanted.
 
“Nathan, I think it’s time we told Chris that JD’s ok,” Wilmington said.
 
“I know,” Jackson said tiredly.
 
“When are you planning on puttin Chris back in with Vin?”
 
“Not for another day or two. I want ta make sure he’s got that fever beat,” Jackson said and turned away as a wave of guilt washed over him. Every time he looked at Vin, JD, and Chris he was reminded of De Rivera’s cruelty and yet, here he stood, untouched by the man’s heavy hand while his friends fought for their lives.
 
 “Nate…”
 
“I’m okay, Buck,” Jackson said and walked out of the room.
 
“No, Nathan, I don’t think you are,” Wilmington said and sighed as he sat down and ran his fingers through his hair. Chris, JD, and Vin might be the one’s physically injured, but there was no doubt in his mind that Nathan Jackson ‘bled’ right alongside them. Somehow they needed to find a way to bring all four men back into the fold and heal the damage done by Don Garcia De Rivera.
 
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Arena De Muerte
Late Afternoon

 
Evita Martinez watched as Fernando Gores and the men he was with drank heavily from the bottles of whiskey they’d brought with them. She felt the men watching her and Juanita Perez and knew it wouldn’t be long before they lost interest in the whiskey and turned their attention elsewhere. After cleaning up from the meal Gores had ordered his men to tie her and Juanita back to back in the middle of the Arena and she knew their only chance was to wait until they passed out. Unfortunately Gores and Delgado had stopped drinking and were watching them closely.
 
“Evita, we need to get out of here before they run out of whiskey,” Juanita whispered.
 
“The ropes are tight, but I believe I can get free if there is enough time,” the older woman said and continued to watch the men as she worked to free her hands. She stopped as Fernando Gores stood and staggered toward them. “Be still, Juanita, the animal is coming this way.”
 
“So, Evita, what do you think Luis would say if I sent his puta back to him as a soiled woman?” Gores asked, lust evident in his slurred words.
 
“Touch her and I will castrate you, Fernando!” Evita warned.
 
“Why? Would it make you jealous, Evita? Would you rather I attend to your needs since it must be many years since Don Garcia placed his hands on your breast like this?” Gores said and roughly squeezed her right breast. “Do you like it rough, Evita? Perhaps I should give you to the men. Would you be able to satisfy them with that pretty mouth of yours?”
 
“No!” Juanita cried, unable to listen to the hated man’s vulgarity any longer.
 
“Do not worry, Juanita, you and I will get to know each other very well, but for now I will leave you both alone. My men will soon deliver a message to Luis and we’ll see if he has the balls to come alone,” Gores told her and moved to kneel in front of the younger woman. He grabbed her head and forcefully pressed his mouth against hers.
 
“Luis will kill you!” Juanita managed and pulled away from the man.
 
“Luis will not get the chance, Puta…perhaps when I am done with you I will turn you over to my men. You and Evita will not be so pretty when they get through with you, but there are whore houses that will take anything so long as they are not diseased,” Gores said and chuckled softly as he ripped a piece from her dress. “This should convince Don Rivera’s bastardo son that I have you.”
 
“He is disgusting,” Juanita grimaced in distaste as tears filled her eyes when the former overseer walked away. She heard him tell one of his men to ride to the De Rivera Hacienda and deliver the news to Luis Martinez.
 
“Luis will make him pay,” Evita said and returned her attention to loosening the ropes.
 
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De Rivera Hacienda
Late Afternoon 

 
Luis Martinez pumped water from the well into a basin and washed the dirt from his face and hands. Pedro was not used to being allowed to make decisions on his own, but that was something he hoped to change. The older man understood the workings of the hacienda and someday he hoped to reward all the field workers who helped make it a success. Someday he would have to turn everything over to Santos, and by that time Luis hoped to have a family of his own with fine sons and beautiful daughters. It was a dream, one that now seemed possible as he thought about Juanita Perez.
 
She really was beautiful and the fact that she loved him was still something that took his breath away. He finished washing and went in search of the woman who would soon be his bride. He strode through the main doors and frowned when he heard Santos’ cries from the upper floor. He hurried toward the stairs and took them two at a time before rushing into the nursery and finding Santos held in the arms of the wet nurse.
 
“Madre De Dios, Senor, I have tried everything to calm him,” the woman said and wiped the sweat from her face as Luis took the baby from her arms.
 
“Where is mi madre?” Luis asked.
 
“I do not know. She was not here when I arrived to feed him.”
 
“How long ago was that, Senora?”
 
“More than an hour. Senora Martinez was not here when I arrived and when I asked no one had seen her,” the woman explained.
 
“Mi madre would not leave him alone for long,” Luis said as Santos closed his eyes and stuffed his thumb into his mouth. He gently placed the baby in the cradle and rocked him as a frown marred his face. “Can you stay with him a little longer?”
 
“Si,” the woman said and began gently rocking the cradle.
 
“Gracious,” Luis said and hurried from the room as Nathan Jackson came to the top of the stairs. “Nathan, have you seen Mi Madre?”
 
“Not since she and Juanita went to the field for vegetables,” Jackson answered. “Come to think of it I haven’t seen either of them.”
 
“Mi Madre would not leave Santos for so long…something is wrong,” Martinez said.
 
“Let me check on Vin and I’ll help ya look for her,” Jackson said. 
 
“Thank you, Nathan,” Luis said and hurried toward the kitchen, silently praying that his mother and Juanita were there. “Consuela, have you seen mi madre or Juanita?”
 
“No, Senor, not since they went to the north field this morning,” the older woman answered. “Is something wrong?”
 
“I am not sure. Ask the others if they have seen mi madre or Juanita since this morning,” Martinez ordered and exited the kitchen. He checked with the other servants before going outside to speak with the field workers only to get the same answer as Consuela gave him.
 
“Luis, what is wrong?” Leon Velasquez asked upon seeing his friend searching for something. He listened as Martinez explained about the missing women and realized he had not seen them either. “I will gather the men and we will search the fields.”
 
“Thank you, Leon,” Luis said as Nathan Jackson and Josiah Sanchez hurried out of the house.
 
“Did you find them?” Sanchez asked.
 
“No, we need to search the fields and nearby trails,” Luis ordered and soon had several search parties organized. The hacienda was a large area and he knew they would need many people to cover every inch of it, but there were many volunteers and he couldn’t help but feel the pride well up inside him.
 
“Can we help?” Raphael asked and was soon assigned an area to the west of the hacienda.
 
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Buck Wilmington was torn in four directions at once, and silently cursed Don Garcia De Rivera for his cruelty. He wanted to stay with JD, but knew that Carmella Covas would make sure the young man was well cared for. He wanted to check on Vin, yet he knew he was in good hands as Ezra would watch over him. He wanted to help in the search for the two women who had helped his friends, but right now he needed to be right where he was.
 
Buck turned back to the bed that held Chris Larabee and wished he could erase the lines of pain that marred the pale features even in sleep. Ever since they first met Chris had suffered from nightmares that had grown worse since Sarah and Adam were murdered. Now things were even worse with him believing he was responsible for JD’s ‘death’. Buck moved to the bed and sat down with a bone weary sigh as he dropped his hat on the floor next to the chair.
 
“Come on, Chris, stop beating yourself up over the things that ain’t your fault,” Wilmington said and touched Larabee’s forehead. The fever was still there, but it was nowhere near what it had been and for that he was grateful. It tore him apart to see the damage Don Garcia had inflicted on the four men and he hoped the man burned in hell.
 
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Vin felt the dream slipping away and winced as he moved on the bed, but didn’t open his eyes. He could hear someone in the room and didn’t feel like talking, not while he felt like the other half of his soul had been torn away. Chris had suffered so much in his life and did not deserve to be called ‘the bad element’. He’d helped so many people, and yet some of those ‘good’ people would turn and cross the street if they saw him coming. People like Conklin were a dime a dozen and couldn’t hold a candle to Chris Larabee.
 
Vin tried to stifle a yawn, but could not quite hold it as his eyes popped open and he gazed at the window. The shadows seemed to dance across the floor, but with an unreal quality to them that made him frown. His gaze shifted to the empty bed and he swallowed the lump that formed in his throat. There was a stillness to the room and a chill swept over him in spite of the warmth provided by the sun streaming in through the window.
 
Vin forced his eyes away from the bed and closed his eyes, snapping them open again when it finally registered that someone was standing at the foot of his bed. The shadowy figure came into focus and he gasped when he realized it was Chris Larabee. He tried to speak, but there was something wrong with what he was seeing. The green eyes were filled with remorse, but Vin sensed the depth of their friendship sent through that single locked gaze. He waited for his friend to speak, but Chris did nothing but stare at him.
 
Vin frowned when something seemed out of focus and suddenly realized what was off about Chris Larabee. He could see right through the shadowy figure even as Chris turned and walked away dissolving as if there was nothing there.
 
He gasped for breath and tried to stand, but the weakness and pain left him unable to rise. His heart trip-hammered against his ribs with such force he thought it would burst from his chest. His eyes darted around the room as a cold sweat coursed through his body. He slid his legs over the bed despite the fact that the room was moving, and tried to follow his heart.
 
"What are you doing?"
 
“No…Vin fought off the arms that forced him back. “…he’s jest here…I need ta…go.”
 
“Who?” Standish asked.

“Chris,” Tanner whispered and closed his eyes as the pain of his loss washed over him. He felt a flush of embarrassment when he realized he'd not seen Chris at all, it was a dream. He slumped back exhausted as if his bones melted.

“It was a dream, Vin,” the gambler said and placed a comforting hand on the man’s shoulder.

"...fuckin' nightmare..." Vin rasped, swallowing hard. No matter what he did, the pain remained inside; a horrible throbbing ache that wouldn't leave him. His eyes shifted to the empty bed again. "...he's gone..."

"Gone?" Ezra repeated. Puzzled by the tracker's noticeable grief and the odd words, Ezra felt a pain himself as he looked into the sorrowful eyes that were now trained on the empty bed. Then the realization of the words coupled with the deep sorrow hit him like bullets. He wasn't sure how or why Vin made the assumption, but felt awful that he'd been grieving unnecessarily. He knew why his friend was consumed with anguish. He reached out and took the slumped shoulders, turning him so that he could help him lie back and forcing the Texan to look into his eyes.
 
“Vin, he’s not dead. Is that what you thought?”

"Don't lie t'me..." Vin snarled, turning away.

“I would never jest about something so serious, My Friend,” Standish vowed and waited for the other man to look at him again. The matted head rose slowly and the tortured eyes were burning with an odd fire. He rested his hand on Vin's shoulder and tried to restore hope to those stormy orbs. “Mister Larabee's fever had morphed into an ominous degree of delirium and Nathan feared he might be seized with convulsions. He was transported to the cavern below and bathed in a cistern that had been used for vinification...”

“Jesus, Ezra, I can barely keep up with yer prattle when I ain't fevered and hurt. Don't be spittin' a fuckin' dictionary at me!"
 
“He's alive, we moved him to the cellar," Josiah translated, coming in to the room with a tray of food. "We put him in an old wine tub, killed the fever.”

Vin heard nothing after Josiah’s proclamation of ‘he’s alive’. He felt a huge weight lift from his fatigued frame. He could barely contain his breathing. Chris was alive! He felt his soul shudder and reclaim it's wholeness. His stomach muscles clenched tightly at the thought of the dream and now the reality that it hadn’t happened. He laid back against the pillow, eyes closed, as he tried to ride out the waves of mixed emotions running rampant through him. His hands began to shake and he reached down to pull the blanket up over his body in an effort to hide it.

Ezra easily read the turmoil in the injured man and reached out to grab the shaking hand by the wrist. “Don’t hide that, My Friend, cherish it.” Ezra said softly and watched as the Texan swallowed convulsively.

Josiah poured the juice from the pitcher into a glass and held it out to the younger man who took it with shaking hands. “Sorry, Brother...didn't realize you'd jump to that conclusion.”

“I heard ya...in the hall...talkin' about it,” Vin said and sipped at the sweet nectar before continuing. “Thought he was dead…heard ya say he fought ta the end.”
 
“You were out of it, Vin, drugged up and only heard bits and pieces,” Sanchez observed and watched as the Texan finished the juice. He knew the man was trying to come to terms with everything he’d been told and took the opportunity to refill the glass and place the tray on his lap.
 
Vin swallowed several times as a thin smile formed on his pale face. “He beat the devil again.”

“That he did, Brother,” the ex-preacher answered with a toothy grin. He knew the three injured men had a long road ahead of them, but there was no doubt in his mind that the number seven was still a Biblical number and leant strength to all of them.
 
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Arena De Muerte
Early Evening

 
Evita knew the time to act was now as she looked at the drunken men slumped in different areas around the arena. She’d managed to pull her hands free of the ropes and untied Juanita without garnering any attention from the one man who remained vigilant. She’d seen Miguel Delgado drinking, but the man still watched them with lust in his dark eyes.

“Juanita, we must go,” Evita said once Delgado turned away and seemed to lose himself in the whiskey bottle.

“My legs are numb,” Juanita told her.

“Mine also, but we cannot let that stop us. We make for the trees and hide until dark,” Evita explained. “They have been drinking all day and we may not have another chance. Come, follow me and stay low.”

“Si, Evita,” the younger woman said and stood on shaky legs. She bent low and moved swiftly toward the trees, silently praying their escape would go undetected until they were safely hidden. They reached the edge of the nearby brush and felt the branches scrape their legs.
 
Evita knew they could not outrun the horses, but the animals had been tied on the opposite side of the arena. It would have been a mistake to try and get to them with Delgado still awake. She knew at any time they could hear the man raise the alarm, and wanted to get as much distance as she could between them.
 
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De Rivera Hacienda
Early Evening
 

Alonzo Gutierrez pulled his horse to a stop as he watched several men searching the grounds near the hacienda. He looked for Luis Martinez, but the man was not amongst the group. He turned the horse and rode south toward the trail leading up to the main house and smiled at the thought of the pretty puta back at the arena. He couldn’t wait to sample her supple breasts, but that wouldn’t happen until he delivered his message to Luis. It never dawned on him that he might not live long enough to fulfill his dark thoughts as he spotted the entrance to the main grounds of the hacienda.
 
Alonzo pulled out the piece of material and pressed it to his nose in an effort to remember her intoxicating scent. He still had it pressed against his face when a man stepped out of the underbrush and looked at him in disgust.

“What are you doing here, Alonzo?” Leon Velasquez asked and reached for his gun, pointing it at the man as he spoke.

“None of your business, Velasquez,” Gutierrez snarled. “I am here to see Luis.”

“Luis is busy and does not have time…”

“Give him this,” Gutierrez spat and threw the piece of Juanita’s dress at the man. “Tell him I will be waiting for him near the east trail and he is to come alone if he wants to see his madre and puta again!”
 
“Where are they?” Leon asked, his voice edged with anger.

“I will tell you nothing!" His lip curled up in arrogance. "You are just a messenger…a bad one at that,” Gutierrez said and turned his horse away with a high-pitched laugh.
 
Leon knew there was no point in going after the bastardo and hurried to find Luis. He silently cursed Alonzo Gutierrez and whomever he was working for. The man was not smart enough to do this on his own, and Luis would know what to do. He hurried back toward the house and hoped they could rescue Evita Martinez and Juanita Perez before it was too late.
 
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Luis Martinez knew they were doing everything they could in the search for his mother and the woman he loved, but so far nothing had turned up. They’d found the empty basket in the field, but had been unable to find either woman. He knew it would be getting dark soon and they’d be unable to search as he moved back toward the house. He spotted several figures near the door, but it was the man hurrying toward him that made his heart beat a little faster.

“Tell me you found them!” Luis said.

“No, but I have news. Is this Juanita’s?”

“It looks like part of the dress she was wearing this morning. Where did you find it?”

“Alonzo Gutierrez brought it to me. He said for you to meet him at the east trail…he said for you to come alone, Amigo, but this does not sound like a good idea.”

“I do not have a choice, Leon.”

“Si, you do. I will have my horse saddled and follow you from a distance,” Leon told him.

“If he sees you he will kill them,” Martinez said.

“Then I will make sure he does not see me…you cannot do this by yourself, Luis,” Velasquez told him as the others joined them.

“Only you, Leon. No one else is to follow,” Luis ordered.

“They will do as you ask, Amigo,” Leon vowed and hurried to the horses that had already been saddled.
 
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West of the Arena De Muerte
Early Evening

 
Evita knew they had to rest, but there was nowhere they could hide that would keep them safe from Delgado and Gores. She knew Juanita was just as weary as she was, and searched the area for a safe haven when she heard the sound she’d dreaded since their escape.

“Fernando, the women are gone!”
  
“Evita, they’ll be after us!” Juanita whispered sternly.
        
“Si, but we will not let them catch us,” Evita said. “We must keep ahead of them and stay in the forest until it is dark.”

Juanita knew the older woman was right and continued to run in spite of the ache that had spread through her legs. She could hear Evita’s harsh breathing as they raced for their lives, for there was no doubt in her mind that Gores would kill them if he caught them.
 
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Trail East of the De Rivera Hacienda
Early Evening

 
Luis Martinez rode into the small clearing near the east trail and spotted Gutierrez leaning against a tree with a cheroot in his mouth. He wanted to shoot the man where he stood, but that would do nothing to help him find his madre and Juanita. He slowed his horse down and stopped in front of the smirking bandito.
 
“Where are they, Gutierrez?”

“They are safe…maybe, it would depend on how well they treat mi compadres,” Gutierrez said and licked his lips before taking another draw of the cheroot.
 
“If you hurt them…make no mistake because I will kill you.”

“I don’t think you’ll get the chance, Luis, but perhaps Fernando will let you watch the party. Your madre and that pretty little puta will make for some fine entertainment.”

“I will kill anyone who touches them!”

“I’m sure you will try, but I do not think you will get the chance,” Gutierrez said and climbed into the saddle. “Fernando is not a patient man. Oh, give me your weapons…and please do not make the mistake of thinking I do not know about the knife you hide in your boot!”
 
Luis did as he was told and quickly handed his guns and the hidden knife to Gutierrez who placed them in his saddlebag. The man smiled, a taunting grin that Luis vowed to wipe from the bastard’s face before this was over.
 
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De Rivera Hacienda
Early Evening

 
Buck lay on his left side and watched the man sleeping on the other bed. Chris had yet to wake up enough to understand what was happening around him, but at least the fever was gone. He knew Jackson had made the right call in leaving Larabee in the wine cellar, but hoped they could move him back upstairs soon.
 
It was hard being down here while Vin and JD were upstairs, because he wanted...no, he needed to know how they were doing. God it felt like he was being torn in so many directions he might just leave pieces of himself all over Mexico. He sighed heavily and sat up, reaching for the pitcher of water on the table and poured himself a glass. The good thing about being down here was that the liquid stayed cooler longer. He downed the water and looked at Larabee, worried about how still and pale the man remained.

Buck put the glass back on the table and reached across the short distance so he could place his hand on Larabee’s chest and assure himself that the blond still breathed.
 
“God, help me, Chris, but between you, Vin, and JD I’ve got more gray hairs than Ol’ Lady Henderson,” Wilmington said of the elderly woman who’d lived in the homestead near Chris and Sarah’s home. It was rumored that she was closing in on 100, but somehow she still managed to flirt with him whenever he visited them.

“You’re scarin’ me, Pard, and ol’ Buck don’t take kindly to being scared…except by the ladies,” the weary rogue said and sighed heavily before sitting back on the cot. “Come on, Chris, show me that fightin’ spirit that got us both through more tangles than most men see in a lifetime.”

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Trail West of the Arena De Muerte
Late Evening

 
Evita listened to the sounds of the night surrounding them and prayed that Gores and Delgado would not find them. Several times they’d heard shouts, but no one had come close to their position and for that she gave thanks. Juanita huddled beside her, taking advantage of the small recess near the entrance to the arena. They’d gotten turned around in their bid for freedom and by the time they realized they were back where they started it was too late.
 
“Evita, what if they find us?” Juanita asked softly.

“If we remain quiet they will not find us. God will watch over us until Luis arrives.”

“Fernando will kill him.”

“Do not think that, Juanita, have faith in the man whose heart you hold,” the older woman whispered and signaled for silence as voices reached their ears.

“They cannot have gotten far! Check the trail…”

“We already checked the trails!”

“Then check them again!”
    
“They are getting closer,” Juanita whispered.

“They will not find us,” Evita repeated her earlier thoughts, relieved when the voices seemed to be moving away. She huddled closer to Juanita and silently prayed that her son would find them before Gores or Delgado.
 
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Trail West of the Arena De Muerte
Late Evening

 
Leon Velasquez had managed to get three others to follow Gutierrez and knew he could have found many more if they’d had the time, but for now he rode with Raphael Cordova de Martinez and understood this man could be trusted. It didn’t take long to realize where they were going and it was a simple matter of taking an overgrown side trail that would get them to the arena before Luis and Gutierrez. Once there they would split up and wait for the opportunity to rescue Evita Martinez and Juanita Perez.
 
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De Rivera Hacienda
Late Evening

 
Nathan Jackson checked on each of the injured men before making his way to the nursery. He’d found himself drawn to the baby who slept blissfully unaware of the dangers he would face during his life. Santos had already lost his mother, and now was in danger of losing Evita Martinez. Nathan knew what that kind of loss felt like and thanked God that the boy was too young to understand.

“How is he?” Jackson asked the wet nurse.

“He has been very upset. I believe he misses Senorita Martinez,” the woman answered.
 
“I’m sure your own children miss you so why don’t you go be with them and I’ll stay with Santos.”

“What if he wakes and is hungry?”

“I’ll send someone for you. Go home and rest,” Jackson ordered and smiled when she picked up the basket of material she’d brought with her and left the room. Nathan moved to the small crib and looked down into the face of innocence, and prayed Santos would never know the horror his father had caused to so many.
     
“God watches over the fools and the innocent,” he whispered as he reached down and gently touched the soft cheek. It had been so long since he’d helped bring a life into the world, especially one who could mean so much to so many people. If Evita could bring Santos up with the same love and values she’d instilled in Luis, then the De Rivera hacienda would flourish. He knew he should let the baby sleep, but he needed to feel the life against him as he lifted Santos in his arms and cradled him against his chest. He walked to the rocking chair and sat down, unaware of the tears that slipped down his cheeks.
 
“You grow strong like your brother, Santos, and treat people like Evita does and you’ll find your world is a far better place. Don’t let the evil inside and always let the sun brighten your horizons,” Nathan whispered and smiled when he noticed the baby’s eyes open and watching him. The small left hand had managed to escape from the blanket and latch onto his fingers.

“Often times my sky is clear, joy abounds without a tear. Though a day so bright begun, clouds may hide tomorrow's sun. There'll be a day that's always bright, a day that never yields to night; and in its light the streets of glory, I shall behold some day.” Nathan sang softly, his voice laden with sorrow so deep it threatened to drown him, but he swallowed several times as he listened to the soft breathing of the babe held against his chest.
 
“God bless the child,” he whispered and felt his heart breaking once more as he thought of the three men De Rivera had nearly killed.
 
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Arena De Muerte
Late Evening

 
Luis Martinez pretended to be docile as he was lead toward the arena. Gutierrez had been watching him closely at first, but the closer they got to the arena the more the man seemed complacent. Luis knew his friend was out there and hoped he remained hidden until they had a chance to take stock in what was happening.
 
Luis heard the faint caw of a bird and knew it was Leon’s way of telling him he wasn’t alone and a hint of a smile formed as they rode along the dark trail. He listened for any sign of life and heard several angry voices up ahead and understood they were searching for something.
 
Voices, raised in anger, reached his ears and he listened to what was being said as they moved closer to the arena. He felt the tension as Gutierrez glanced in his direction and knew he also understood what was happening.
 
“Don’t try anything stupid, Martinez!” Gutierrez ordered and motioned the man ahead of him.
 
Luis continued toward the arena, waiting for the right time to make his move and hoping Leon had heard Gores and Delgado.
 
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Raphael motioned for Javier D’Rosa to follow him around the north edge of the arena. So far they’d been able to stay away from the group of men who were searching for Evita Martinez and Juanita Perez. He hoped the women had managed to escape and silently prayed these men would not find them.
 
“Perhaps the angels are smiling down on us,” D’Rosa said and pointed toward two figures huddled against several small boulders.
 
“We must be careful, Javier. If we startle them they might try to leave,” Raphael said softly.
 
“That would not be good,” D’Rosa agreed. “How do you want to do this?”
 
“You watch for Gores and his men while I try to get close enough to tell them they’re safe,” Cordova told him and eased away from the other man. He knew Javier would signal him if there was trouble and hoped they could get the women away before Luis’ arrival.
 
Raphael knew Evita had seen him, but would she be able to recognize him in the darkness or would she panic when he called to her. He knew he had to do something because the men searching for them would soon realize they needed to check the arena. Once he was close enough, Raphael called the woman’s name.
 
“Evita, do not be afraid. My name is Raphael. Luis sent me.” No answer came and Raphael knew the women could bolt if he didn’t convince them he was a friend. “Luis is on his way, but we need to go before Gores decides to search for you here.”   
 
“Gores will kill Luis,” Evita whispered.
 
“Luis is smart and he knows you have escaped. We must get you to safety,” Raphael explained, relieved that the women recognized him. “Stay low and follow me.”
 
Evita nodded to Juanita and followed their rescuer deeper into the trees that surrounded the arena. She prayed her son would be safe and knew her prayers would be answered.
 
M7M7M7M7M7M7M7       
 
Leon Velasquez watched from his perch on a twisted branch that had grown out over the trail as Gutierrez rode toward him and knew they would soon reach the arena. There was no doubt now that the women had escaped and no point in allowing Luis to be captured by the bastardos.
 
Leon waited until the man was directly below him and dropped onto the horse, driving them both off the horse and landing hard on the ground. He rolled out of the way as the horse galloped off down the trail. He struck Gutierrez in the face several times until the man went still.
 
“Leon, what the hell are you doing?”
 
“Juanita and your madre escaped. Gores and Delgado are leading the search parties to the west. Raphael and Javier are near the east side of the arena,” Velasquez explained.
 
“We must find them,” Luis said and grabbed his gun from the ground where Gutierrez had dropped it. He listened as several birdcalls were exchanged and thanked his lucky stars that Leon had not come alone.
 
“We need to find Raphael and join forces in case Gores or Delgado come back,” Leon said and moved into the trees where Mario Cortez waited with his horse.
 
“Someone’s coming,” Luis said and motioned for silence as the familiar birdcall sounded nearby. “Raphael?”
 
“Si, Luis,” Cordova said and joined the four men in the clearing. He stood back as Evita and Juanita hurried toward Luis and smiled at the joyous reunion. “We must leave before they return.”
 
“Juanita, you will ride with me. Madre, you can ride with Leon,” Luis said.
 
“Javier and Mario will stay with me and make sure you are not followed,” Cordova told them.
 
“I owe you, Amigo. Stay safe and I will return with men to help take care of those bastardos,” Luis said and climbed onto the horse before reaching down and lifting Juanita so that she was behind him. He waited until she wrapped her arms around his waist and knew his mother had done the same thing with Leon before riding away from the arena.
 
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De Rivera Hacienda
Dawn

 
The darkness had given wake to the twilight of a new dawn when Nathan heard horses below. He’d spent a restless night sitting outside on the verandah and caring for Santos when the baby woke up. He watched the newcomers until they were close enough to make out the figures and a smile was born when Evita Martinez dismounted and looked up as if she sensed him there.
 
“Thank you,” he whispered, his eyes looking up as he fought back the tears that had formed in his eyes. God had seen fit to bring the two women home and for that he was grateful, now it was time to heal the wounded and he silently prayed for the strength to go on. The guilt gnawed at his gut every time he looked toward the fields. Far too many days Vin had been forced to labor under the hot sun while fighting a fever that burned through him.
 
Nathan made his way inside and heard a sound from the crib. He hurried over and picked up the child as Evita entered the room. He smiled and passed the boy to her. “I think he sensed you were back.”
 
“Thank you for taking care of him, Nathan.”
 
“I didn’t do much,” Jackson told her.
 
“Yes, you did,” Evita told him. “How are your friends?”
 
“Better than they were, but they’ve still got a fight ahead of ‘em. Chris’ fever finally broke, but he’s weaker’n a newborn calf,” Jackson answered.
 
“What about JD? How is he?” Evita asked and rocked the baby gently.
 
“He’s been awake…still confused and he ain’t eaten’ much, but head injuries will do that to a man,” Jackson explained.
 
“He is strong…like you, Nathan Jackson.”
 
“I ain’t strong, Evita,” Jackson said. ‘Or I would’ve found a way to stop Don Garcia,’ he thought as he left the room.
 
“You are stronger than you think, Nathan, and I hope your friends are able to make you see that,” she whispered and moved to the rocking chair. She smiled at the baby and watched as his eyes closed and kissed his head as tears slipped from her eyes.
 
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Arena De Muerte
Early Morning

 
Raphael watched as the sun peeked its golden rays above the horizon and listened for any movement from the Arena De Muerte. Javier and Mario were scouting along the edges for the returning men and listened when voices reached him from the west.
 
“Fernando is loco…I am not going after Martinez.”
 
“Si, it is foolish of him to go to the hacienda when Martinez has so many of his compadres surrounding him.”
 
“Perhaps the women are hiding in the arena.”
 
“If they are I would not mind having some fun with that pretty little puta.”
 
“Si, she has curves in all the right places.”
 
Once Raphael knew there were only two men riding toward him, he waited until they were closer before drawing his weapon. He pointed it at them as they rode past his hiding place. “Do not try anything foolish,” he said when the two men realized they were no longer alone. It didn’t surprise him when they turned their horses and drew their guns. He fired quickly, his aim true as Gores’ men fell to the ground and the frightened animals rode off along the trail.   
 
It would not take long for others to reach his position and he moved back into the thick underbrush before making his way toward the spot where he’d tied his horse. He tugged the reins free of the branch and climbed into the saddle before riding away from the dead men.
 
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Miguel Delgado cursed as he returned to the Arena De Muerte and found it empty. Gores had ridden west toward the hacienda, but his madre had not given birth to a fool. It would be better to ride away and fight another time when Luis Martinez was not around to protect his madre.
 
Delgado reined in the animal and dismounted near the remains of the fire and reached for the empty coffee pot. It dropped from his fingers when he heard gunshots nearby and he hurried toward the exit in search of a place to hide. There was movement near the entrance and he aimed his gun in that direction just as a horse and rider came through. He fired once and knew he’d made a mistake when the man fell from the horse and it turned and raced away.
 
Delgado moved toward the man he’d shot and realized he’d killed one of the men Gores had hired. He turned and looked around the arena, but nothing moved and he knew he could blame the man’s death on someone else. He looked for his horse, but it had run off when he’d fired the gun.
 
Delgado listened for any sound, but there was nothing except the breeze whistling through the trees. Even the birds had stopped singing and he swore he could hear his own heart beating in his chest. He jumped when the silence was interrupted by the sound of a gun being cocked.
 
“Do not do anything stupid…just drop the gun and put your hands above your head,” Mario Cortez ordered.
 
“I…”
 
“Do as I say or I will put a bullet in your leg,” Cortez warned.
 
“Who are you?” Delgado asked.
 
“No friend of yours,” Cortez snapped and took the gun from Delgado’s hand.
 
“What have you got here, Mario?” Javier De Rosa asked upon joining his friend in the arena.
 
“Not sure, but he’s not one of Luis’ men,” Cortez answered. “Stupid bastard did do us a favor by killing that one.”
 
“One less to worry about,” Javier agreed, whirling when he heard footsteps behind him. “Madre de Dios, Amigo, that is a good way to get shot.”
 
“Your eyes are not that bad yet, Javier,” Raphael said and stared at the man whose hands were raised above his head. “Who are you?”     
 
“I am a doctor. I was on my way to visit a patient when this man tried to kill me. I shot him in self defense,” Delgado explained.     
 
“I do not believe that, but it is easy to find out who you are,” Cordova said with a smile. “We will bring him with us.”
 
“Are we heading back?” Cortez asked.
 
“Si,” Cordova answered and tied Delgado’s hands together. “I am sure someone at the Hacienda will know if he is who he says he is.”
 
“I have to check on my patient…”
 
“Your patient will keep,” Cortez said, not believing the man’s story. 
 
“Mount up…it is time to go,” Cordova ordered and smiled at the look of fear on the captive’s face.
 
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De Rivera Hacienda
Early Morning

 
Buck stood and stretched the kinks from his back and moved back so that Nathan could take a look at the injured blond. He’d seen the exhaustion on the healer’s face and knew they would have to do something about that soon. He knew the best man to talk to Nathan was Josiah and hoped the ex-preacher would be able to get through to their friend.
 
“Has he been awake at all, Buck?” Jackson asked once he’d finished examining the blond.
 
“Not really, but I managed to get him to drink a little water,” Wilmington answered.
 
“Least that’s something. Evita and Juanita are back. Luis is gonna take some men and go looking for Delgado and Gores. Hope he kills the bastard,” Jackson cursed at the thought of the man who’d enjoyed torturing the Texan. He’d seen the man’s heavy hand with the others who worked in the fields and had heard stories of men, women, and children who’d been close to death because of Fernando Gores.
 
“When are we gonna bring Chris upstairs? Wilmington asked and frowned when there was no answer from the quiet healer, and knew this man had some healing of his own to do. “Did you hear me, Nathan?”
 
“Sorry, Buck, I was thinkin’ on something. What did you say?”
 
“I asked when we’re gonna bring Chris back upstairs,” Wilmington answered.
 
“His fever’s gone…I’ll get Josiah and a couple of others to help carry him up and put him in the room with Vin.”
 
“Sounds like a plan. How are Vin and JD?”
 
“Vin’s bein’ cooperative…ain’t sure why, but I sure as hell ain’t arguin about it. JD’s been in and out…”
 
“De…dead…”
 
“Chris, you awake?” Wilmington asked hopefully.
 
“Chris, can you hear me?” Jackson asked and watched as the lids lifted and revealed green eyes that seemed to have lost much of the fire he was used to seeing. “How do you feel, Chris?”
 
“I’m…tired,” Larabee answered and found it hard to look at the man looking over Jackson’s shoulder. “S…sorry, Buck, God, I’m so sorry.”  
 
“You got nothing to be sorry for, Chris,” Wilmington said, frowning at the deep-rooted sadness he heard in Larabee’s voice.
Chris gave his oldest friend's face a hard gaze. His brows furrowed in confusion. How could Buck ask him that? He had to know by now that Dunne was dead. Wilmington loved the kid like a brother. He wasn't even upset.
 
"JD's dead," he whispered in a voice that sounded like sandpaper and felt just as odd. He gripped the blanket in anger, fisting the cloth in a chokehold. "...and it's my fault."
 
“Chris, listen to me,” Wilmington said and sat on the chair Jackson vacated. “JD’s alive.”
 
“Don’t you lie to me, Buck,” Larabee snarled weakly.
 
“I’d do that?” Wilmington snapped back in anger, his dark blue eyes flashing.
 
“I saw him die! I buried him after that bas…bastard shot h…him!”
 
“That may be, but JD’s alive, Pard. Raphael found him and the grave was shallow. That’s what saved the kid’s life, Chris. He’s in a room upstairs and when you’re strong enough you can see him.”
 
Alive!
 
Chris laid his head back and his eyes closed in relief. One word, but one that was almost too much for the injured man to bear. Chris didn't know where he was, how he got here or how long he'd been here. He didn't know how the others were, or what had happened. His throbbing head was trying to absorb all that at once, and now had to make room for the unthinkable. He'd seen the grave. He'd left him there. How was that possible? He sighed hard and blinked, gazing at a spot beyond where the others couldn't see.
 
“He’s alive, Chris, I swear we’re not lying about this. He’s weak and he’s gonna have some real bad headaches for a while, but like you and Vin he’s gonna be okay if he lets the rest of us take care of him,” Jackson offered and saw something change in the green eyes set in the still too pale face.
 
“I buried him alive,” Larabee whispered, his eyes burning with unshed tears.
 
“Now you listen to me, Chris Larabee,” Wilmington said. “There’s more’n enough guilt going around and it’s time you realized it don’t belong on your shoulders. Don Garcia was a miserable sonofabitch and he took pleasure in hurting those around him. Hell, if he wasn’t dead I’d put a bullet between his eyes myself. You, Vin, JD, and Nate did nothing to that old bastard and yet he hurt you all and let’s not talk about what he’s done to Evita and his son. I hope he’s in hell where he belongs.”
 
“Chris, I’m going to get Josiah and a couple of others so we can get you back upstairs,” Jackson said and hurried from the room before either man could see how hard things were for him.
 
“The kid’s still with us,” Larabee rasped as his eyes closed.
 
“Wait, Chris, you need to drink this,” Wilmington ordered and helped the blond sit up a little as he placed a cup against the slack lips.
 
Chris opened his eyes, took a couple of sips, coughed and held his arm tight against his ribs before succumbing to the sleep his body demanded. 
 
Buck eased him back down and placed the cup on the table. He ran his fingers through his sweat soaked hair and massaged the back of his neck to ease the ache burning there. It wasn’t long before Nathan returned with Josiah and two other men. They worked to get Larabee onto the flat board and began the slow, awkward trip out of the wine cellar.
 
M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 
 
Vin watched through hooded eyes as Ezra tried to shuffle the deck with his injured arm and was amazed at how the man felt at home with the cards. He knew it would be some time before his friend regained the dexterity in that arm, but there was no doubt in his mind that he would succeed.
 
“Mr. Tanner, I do believe in your attempt to convince me that you are in a deep slumber you have merely succeeded in convincing…”
 
“Shut the hell up, Ez, and deal the fuckin’ cards already,” Tanner ordered, but frowned when he heard movement outside the room. He shifted on the bed and watched as Juanita came into the room and drew back the covers on the other bed. His heart beat a little faster when Buck and Josiah helped ease Larabee’s makeshift stretcher through the doorway.   
 
“It appears your roommate is returning,” Standish observed and moved out of the way as Larabee was brought inside and gently placed on the second bed.
 
“Nathan, is he okay?” Tanner asked of the pale blond.
 
“He’s better, Vin, but like you he’s gonna need to give himself a chance to heal,” Jackson answered and moved to make sure the short trip hadn’t done any damage to the blond’s wounds.
 
“He looks like hell,” the Texan said worriedly.
 
“And you don’t?” Sanchez asked with a hint of a smile.

"Ez thinks I'm purty, ain't that right?" Tanner peered at the gambler who bared his gold tooth.

"Mister Tanner, as usual your timing is impeccable!" he lauded and chuckled, his jade eyes glinting in mirth.
 
“Let them rest,” Jackson told the others.
 
“I’m gonna go check on JD,” Wilmington said and walked out of the room. He made his way into the other bedroom and smiled at the couple who seemed to have unofficially claimed the young man as their own. “How is he?”
 
“He has been awake a few times, but he is still confused,” Carmella Covas answered.
 
“Nate says that’s normal,” the rogue answered and moved closer. “Head wounds are bad, but JD’s a feisty kid and he’ll come out of it.”
 
“You and he are close?” Cristóbal observed.
 
“He’s the kid brother I never had,” Wilmington answered softly and gently touched his fingers against the pale face that was still marred by heavy bruising.
 
“Tell me about him,” Carmella said.
 
“JD lost his ma a couple of years ago and decided to come west because he read these dime store novels that make it sound like an exciting place to be. Chris tried to tell him to go home, but JD wasn’t having anything to do with that.”
 
“Perhaps he decided he had found a new home…a new family,” the woman offered.
 
“Maybe, I know he’s as ornery as they come and we all thought he was a greenhorn,” Wilmington said and smiled as he sat on the edge of the bed. “First time he tried to join us he showed us just how well he could ride, shoot, and fly.”
 
“Fly?” Cristóbal asked with a frown.
 
“Yep, he shot his gun, the horse reared up and he flew right off the back into the horse trough. Funniest thing I ever saw…except for that sissy hat he wears…wonder where that went,” Wilmington said and knew he’d have to find out if it was around anywhere. “JD’s proven he’s one of us many times since that day. He ain’t perfect…then again Chris once said ‘if he was perfect, he wouldn’t be one of us’. JD’s been shot, stabbed, and beaten, but he’s never been defeated. He’s as stubborn as they come and maybe that’s why he fits in so well with the rest of us. He took the sheriff’s job when nobody else wanted it…”
 
“JD is a sheriff?” Carmella asked, awed by the story she was hearing.
 
“Sure is, but he ain’t alone. We sort of keep an eye out for him…guess you could say we’re his deputies,” Wilmington said with a grin.
 
“It sounds like he has had a hard life,” the woman said and watched as Wilmington’s eyes misted over.
 
“Yes, he has, but he’s a fighter, Ma’am, and he’s not gonna let something like this beat him,” the rogue said. “Think I’ll sit with him a spell. Why don’t you two get some rest…I’ll watch over him.”
 
“Come, Love, let’s give him some time with his ‘brother’,” Cristóbal said and took her arm before leading her from the room.
 
“Come on, Kid, don’t make a liar out of me,” Wilmington ordered and vowed to make sure the younger man knew he was not alone.
 
M7M7M7M7M7M7M7
 
West of the De Rivera Hacienda
Early Morning

 
Fernando Gores stayed well back of the trail as the riders approached. He’d seen Delgado on one of the horses and knew the man was a prisoner. Somehow the women had escaped and were back at the hacienda, but he would have his revenge. He knew how to approach the house and knew where he could hide out until the time presented itself and he could kill Luis Martinez. That was his driving force right now because Don Garcia’s bastard son had overstepped his bounds. He would die by Fernando’s gun when the time was right.
 
Fernando moved back into the brush as the horses moved past his position. He would be patient and watch for just the right time to kill his enemy and maybe he could have the pretty puta for himself.
 
M7M7M7M7M7M7M7
 
De Rivera Hacienda
Early Morning

 
Luis Martinez had spent the morning with his mother and future bride. He didn’t want to let either woman out of his sight, but he knew he had other work to do. He’d sent several men to the Arena De Muerte in an effort to find Delgado and Gores, but it could be hours before they heard anything.
 
Luis hugged his mother and Juanita before making his way outside. He’d placed several of his men in the house with orders to watch over them and knew they would lay down their lives for him and his family. He exited the house and heard the sound of approaching horses. He leaned against the post at the edge of the front porch and waited for them to draw closer. He stood up when he recognized the man seated in the saddle of the horse being led by Raphael.
 
Luis reacted instinctively and pulled the man from the saddle. He struck him several times, ignoring the man’s pleading voice until blood ran from his nose.
 
“Please…I beg you…have mercy.”
 
“Did you show mercy when you took Juanita and mi madre?” Luis spat and hit the man again.
 
“It was not me, Senor, I swear it was not me!” Delgado cried.
 
“I do not believe you,” Martinez said and shook the man viciously.
 
“Please, it was Gores…he made me do it! I would never…”
 
“You are a liar, Senor,” Evita said from the verandah above them. She’d been with Santos and had heard the commotion and now she knew why her son’s voice had been filled with anger.
 
“I do not lie!” Delgado said, but cringed when Luis Martinez gripped his shirt and threatened to choke him. “Gores made me do it!”
 
“I do not believe you! You will hang for what you have done!”
 
“You have no right!”
 
“I have every right. You are on my land…”
 
“It is not your land! You are nothing but the bastard son…”
 
“The blood of Don Garcia runs through my veins and I am claiming this hacienda as my birthright until Santos is old enough to claim it as his own,” Martinez said and shoved the man hard enough to send him spiraling backward. He reached for his gun, but felt a hand on his arm.
 
“He is not worth it, Mi Hijo,” Evita said. “He will pay for his choices and his lies.”
 
Miguel Delgado watched as the hated woman held tightly to her bastard son’s arm and fury burned through his gut as a man reached down to pull him to his feet. He reacted on instinct and grabbed for the gun so close to his bound hands. “I will kill you!”
 
Luis drew his gun and fired as several other shots rang out. He watched as Delgado toppled backward, blood spilling from several bullet holes in his chest. “Get that piece of garbage out of here!”
 
“We will take care of it, Amigo,” Javier De Rosa vowed and watched as mother and son walked back into the house.
 
M7M7M7M7M7M7M7
 
Four Corners
Early Morning

 
Judge Orin Travis watched the man striding toward him, not bothering to hide his utter disdain for the man. Steven had written several articles about Conklin, none of them flattering and Orin trusted his son's judgement. The man struck him as a sniveling coward who wanted everything done his way, but unwilling to help make sure the town was safe for those who lived there or in the surrounding area.
 
“Judge Travis, I want a word with you!” Conklin called and hurried across the street.
 
Orin knew there was no way he could ignore the man and looked into his empty coffee cup. “What can I do for you today, Mr. Conklin?”
 
“You can fire them near-do-wells you hired to protect this town.”
 
“Now why would I do that?”
 
“Isn't it obvious? They are nowhere to be found and have not been protecting the good people of Four Corners. They left us defenseless and at the mercy of...”
 
“Of what, Mr. Conklin? I have spoken with several townspeople including Mr. Heidegger and my own daughter-in-law as well as several ranchers and homesteaders and yours is the only complaint. It seems that Yosemite and several other able-bodied men are making patrols and keeping the bad element away from Four Corners.”
 
“That is the problem, Judge Travis. We are not paying...”
 
“We, Mr. Conklin, since when have you offered to pay anything to the town's peacekeepers?”
 
“I would if they were doing their job!”
 
“They were...as a matter of fact they were doing something that I asked them to do. The people of this town are not the only ones I hired Chris Larabee and the others to protect. The people who have homesteads and ranches are also under their protection and I sent them to check those ranchers and homesteaders. If you want to be angry at anyone then it should be me!”
 
“Look, Judge...”
 
"You'd be advised to watch your tone of voice." He paused, directing a stern gaze. "If you think you can do a better job than the men I hired then you can pin on that badge and I'll see that you get a dollar a day plus room and board."
 
"Now see here..."
 
"I believe I made myself clear. Either take the badge or keep your opinions to yourself. Because if I find out you're undermining my authority, then you'll find yourself on the wrong side of my desk. I won't hesitate to make you sorry you ever laid eyes on the seven men who protect you in spite of your constant bellyaching." The Judge nodded to Mary who had exited her home and stood behind him. "Now, since my daughter-in-law has made lunch I suggest you leave before you ruin my appetite with those sniveling complaints that no one gives a damn about!"
 
Mary smiled as Conklin turned and strode away like a dog with its tail between its legs. She disliked Conklin and was glad Orin had told him off, yet she knew he would be back because the man was like a rabid dog where Chris Larabee and his friends were concerned.
 
“I wish he would keep his discontent to himself,” Mary said.
 
“Men like Conklin are full of themselves and if they think someone is listening they'll keep talking.”
 
“I'm glad most of the people in this town believe you did the right thing in hiring Chris and the others. They've done so much for the families in the area and new people arrive each month and some decide to stay because they can see a future here.”
 
“I'm sure if it was up to Conklin the town would go back to what it was and men like Royal and James would have final say on who made their homes here.”
 
“I shudder to even think about the people they'd choose,” Mary said and handed her father-in-law a plate with a roast beef sandwich on it.
 
“I'm just glad we don't have to worry about that,” the judge told her and took a sip of the strong coffee. “Has there been anything new from Buck?”
 
“Nothing since the message that they'd found Chris, Vin, and JD,” the newspaperwoman answered softly, surprised when she felt a hand squeeze her own.
 
“Mary, they'll be back...he'll be back,” Orin vowed and easily read the look on her face. He knew she had feelings for Chris Larabee and wondered if the duo would give themselves the chance to love again. He settled back to watch the town and hoped word would come before the day ended.
 
M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 
 
De Rivera Hacienda
Early Afternoon
 
Buck watched as a frown marred the younger man's face and silently cursed the evidence of De Rivera's sick cruelty. The bruises had finally begun to fade, but the sickly yellow and green hues that still covered much of JD's face were enough to make him cringe. He reached out and placed a gentle hand on Dunne's shoulder and watched as the eyelids slowly opened, revealing confused orbs that took several seconds to lock onto his own. He smiled in relief when he placed a glass of cool water against JD's lips and he took a tentative sip, followed by even more. 
 
“M...more,” Dunne managed when the glass was taken away.
 
“Easy, Kid, you can have more, but not too fast,” Wilmington warned and again placed the glass to the injured man's mouth
 
“How's he doing, Buck?” Jackson asked upon entering the room with a tray of supplies he'd need to check JD's wound.
 
“He's awake...and thirsty,” Wilmington answered and moved back to allow Jackson access to the concussed Bostonian.
 
“JD, how do you feel?” Jackson asked once Dunne was looking at him.
 
“Like Casey hogtied me and threw me off a cliff,” Dunne answered honestly.
 
“That sounds 'bout right,” Jackson said and eased the bandage from the wound. It looked raw, but there was no sign of infection and Nathan gently cleaned the area before placing a new bandage over the ravaged flesh. “JD, do you feel up to takin' a little broth?”
 
“Water,” Dunne said and drank a small amount before the glass was removed once more, but this time it was replaced by a mug that held something that smelled heavenly. He drank slowly, savoring the taste of the sweet juice on his parched tongue until he'd finished the last drop. He looked over Nathan's shoulder at the man standing there and wondered why Buck looked so worried. “I'm o...okay, Buck.”
 
“Sure you are, Kid, that's why you look like five miles of bad road,” Wilmington said with a hint of a smile, but frowned when Dunne tried to look around him. “What's wrong, Kid?”
 
“Wh...where are we? Where's Chris?” Dunne asked, reaching for his head, but finding his movement stopped by Nathan Jackson.
 
“Don't touch that, JD,” Jackson warned. “You've got a nasty wound and it's gonna hurt for some time, but you're gonna be fine if you do as I say. I don't want ya tryin' ta get up on your own.”
 
“Chris?” Dunne managed and frowned as several images flashed through his mind. He saw Chris beaten and whipped and thrown over a horse and heard his cry of rage and pain. He sat forward, trying to rise, but was held down by Nathan and Buck.
 
“Don't, JD,” Jackson ordered and heard a cry of pain from the younger man as he lay back against the pillows and breathed through tightly clenched teeth.
 
“Chris is okay, Kid, he's in another room...he's hurt, but like you he's gonna be all right if you do what Nate says,” Wilmington said.
 
“Chris...bastards beat him...made him...made him,” Dunne frowned and tried to make sense of the images that kept flashing through his mind, but he couldn't quite grasp them as pain throbbed through his skull and the darkness drew him down.
 
“He's sleeping, Buck,” Jackson assured the worried man.
 
“He is gonna be all right isn't he?”
 
“I think so, Buck. The fact that he's drinking now and seemed to be more alert this time is a good sign, but ya need to remember head injuries are tricky. We need to make sure he's drinking and if he keeps it down then we get some real food in him,” the former slave explained.
 
“I know, Nate,” Wilmington said and looked into Jackson's eyes. He was used to seeing worry in the brown eyes, but there was something else there, something that tore at his heart and he knew Jackson was hiding something, but he wasn't doing a very good job of it. He reached out and touched the man's arm. “Nathan....”
 
“Stay with him, Buck,” Jackson said, pulling away. “I'll be back to check on him.”
 
“All right, Nate,” Wilmington said, silently vowing to make sure Jackson was all right.
 
M7M7M7M7M7M7M7
 
De Rivera Hacienda
Late Afternoon

 
The soft breeze circulated the air in the room, but it did little to cool off the occupants. Josiah had left to go get some food, leaving Vin alone in the room with Chris Larabee. Vin glanced sideways at the man sleeping in the other bed and shifted slightly in an effort to find a more comfortable spot. He was alone with Larabee for the first time while Josiah went down to the kitchen to get something to eat. Vin eased his aching body to a sitting position and slid his legs over the edge of the bed.
 
A wave of dizziness threatened to send him to the floor, but he managed to stay upright as he wiped the sweat from his forehead. Larabee had slept since being brought up from the basement, not even stirring when Jackson changed his bandages. He was used to the man being quiet, but this unnatural stillness grated on his nerves.
 
“Chris, ya awake?” he asked when a soft sound reached his ears. The sound was repeated and he thought he saw movement behind the closed lids. “Come on, Larabee, show me that glare.”
 
The blond head moved on the pillow and turned slightly toward him, but the eyelids remained closed. The lean chest heaved as if it was an effort to breathe and Vin heard the rasping hiss of breath a few seconds later as green eyes fought to open.
 
“Welcome back, Cowboy,” Tanner said, sending every bit of pent up emotion through his words as Larabee finally focused on him.
 
“Th...thanks,” Larabee wheezed and held his arm tightly to his chest as a series of wet coughs escaped his throat. He felt strong arms ease him onto his side and silently cursed as pain shot through his chest. He heard familiar voices speaking to him and was soon lying back on the pillows with a mug of sweet smelling liquid held in front of his mouth. He drank a little before it was taken away and he looked into concerned brown eyes.
 
“Take it easy, Chris, but don't fight that cough. Ya need ta do it ta keep your lungs clear. Ain't good if you go gettin' pneumonia on top of everything else,” Jackson grumbled tiredly. He'd walked into the room just as the injured blond started to cough and shot a glare at the Texan who'd been trying to stand on his own. 
 
“I'm o...okay,” Larabee managed a thin smile as he looked at the two men standing behind Jackson. There were two men missing and he needed to know they were all right as he returned his attention to the healer. “JD and Buck?”
 
“Buck's with JD, Chris,” Jackson said, fighting to keep his emotions in check.
 
“JD okay?” the blond asked, not bothering to keep the worry and guilt from his voice.
 
“Not yet, but he will be. He's got some memory loss and he's confused, but that's bound ta happen with head injuries,” Jackson explained.
 
“None of this is yer fault, Chris,” Tanner said when he saw the look come over his friend's face.
 
“You weren't there, Vin...I buried him alive,” Larabee said and fought to keep his rebellious stomach in check.
 
“Ya thought he was dead, Chris,” Tanner said.
 
“I should have checked...”
 
“You're no doctor, Chris...anybody would have thought JD was dead when that bullet hit him. Don Garcia was a mean bastard and he knew it would hurt ya if he killed JD. He prob'ly saw what it would do to you if he forced ya to bury him, Chris. Ain't no point in ya dwellin' on it, 'cause I know JD ain't gonna blame ya for what happened,” Jackson explained.
 
“Nate's right, Chris. Don Garcia is ta blame fer what happened ta JD and ta you. He was real mean ta the field hands,” Tanner offered.
 
“He treated his wife even worse. Dona Maria gave him what he wanted, but he treated her like she was dirt under his feet. He didn't even see her laid ta rest,” Jackson said bitterly as he thought about the beautiful young woman whose life had ended too soon. “I hope the bastard is burnin' in hell.”
 
“Easy, Brother,” Sanchez said and placed a hand on Jackson's trembling left shoulder. He'd returned from the kitchen with a tray of juice and fruit, but no one had noticed his arrival until now.
 
“She died because I didn't know enough, Josiah.”
 
“No, Nathan Jackson, she died because she was not strong enough for childbirth,” Evita Martinez offered from the open doorway. She'd heard their voices and could not help, but listen to them talking and wished she could help them heal. “Dona Maria knew she would not live through childbirth, but you gave her enough time to see her son before He called her home. Do not think that you are at fault for her death, because that would be untrue. You gave her a gift that all mothers wish for and she went to her grave knowing she gave birth to a strong boy who now has the chance to grow up with the love of a brother to guide him.”
 
“Luis will be good for him and so will you, Evita,” Jackson said softly before returning his attention to Larabee. “Chris, you gotta cough up that crud and spit it out. I know it hurts, but it'll get a whole lot worse if ya get pneumonia on top of everything else.”
 
“Try,” Larabee said and gave in to the exhaustion that sapped his strength.
 
“Vin, how do you feel?”
 
“I'm okay, Nate, not great, but okay.”
 
“Do you feel like movin' around a little? Maybe sit out on the veranda in the sun for a spell?”
 
"Lead the way!" Vin enthused weakly, eager to be outdoors. The walls seemed to be getting closer to him every day.
 
“All right, but give me enough time ta get things set up for you,” Jackson said and knew Sanchez would help him make things comfortable for the injured man.
 
M7M7M7M7M7M7M7
 
The noonday sun shone down on the lone man seated on the veranda. A soft breeze blew down from the mountains and ruffled the Texan's hair. Vin could smell the earth, could sense the water trickling in the nearby stream and longed to swim and let it ease the ache that crept through his bones. He heard footsteps behind him, but didn't need to turn to know who was there.
 
“I brought you some lunch, Son,” Sanchez said and placed the tray on the table next to the younger man.
 
“Thanks, Josiah,” Tanner said and reached for the soft corn tortilla folded around something that smelled wonderful. He took a tentative bite of the spicy smelling meat and smiled as the taste re-awakened his senses. 
 
“Want some company?” Sanchez asked and reached for the plate before taking the seat next to the younger man. Josiah had ridden to the nearby town with several of Luis' men in order to get supplies and update Mary Travis on what was happening.
 
“Nathan give ya any idea when we can go home?” Tanner asked.
 
“Never asked him...I expect it'll be when you, Chris, and JD are strong enough to make the trip,” Sanchez told him.
 
“Chris and JD are in bad shape...”
 
“And you're not?” Sanchez said with a grin.
 
“I'm up.”
 
“That you are, but I'm willing to bet that short trip out here took all your strength,” the ex-preacher said.  The resignation on the handsome man’s face and the sigh of annoyance told him he’d won that bet.
 
 “I’m tougher than I look,” Tanner conceded, reaching for the glass of juice. It was a mixture of fruits that was sweet and tart and he enjoyed the way it tickled his taste buds.
 
“Wish we could take this home,” Sanchez said.
 
“Readin' my mind, Josiah?” Tanner asked and reached for another piece of the tortilla wrap as Sanchez filled both their glasses from a jug. He could feel his strength returning, but he knew it would be some time before he was up to the trip home.
 
M7M7M7M7M7M7M7
 
Buck reached out and touched JD's forehead, relieved to find none of the heat that had ravaged the younger man's strength. He knew Dunne wasn't out of the woods yet, but he seemed to be getting better. Buck would wager a year's pay that the kid had what his mother used to call 'gumption'.
 
“Mama would have called you a little spitfire, Kid,” Wilmington whispered.
 
“Ain't a kid.”
 
The words were soft and barely reached his ears, yet they brought a smile to Buck's face as he waited for Dunne to open his eyes. “Welcome back.”
 
“…here…where?” Dunne managed and frowned as he tried to make sense of his surroundings.
 
 “Slow down, I know it’s confusing.”
 
“Where...are we?”
 
“We're in Mexico,” Wilmington answered, keeping it simple, reading nothing but confusion on the puzzle creased features of the injured youth.
 
“Mexico?” Dunne said the word softly, but couldn't quite make sense of why they were here. 
 
“Yeah, you and Chris got into a bit o’trouble down here,” the rogue said and watched as the doe-like hazel eyes closed once more, silently cursing himself for not getting Dunne to drink anything.
 
JD tried to make sense of the images he was seeing. Chris digging in the ground...a gunshot...sharp pain...falling...Chris falling...dirt...the smell...more pain...Chris crying out...dead...he's dead...no. Chris!  His eyes shot open and he tried to come off the bed, but strong hands held him down.
 
“Buck...Chris...where's Chris?”
 
“Chris is sleeping in the next room.”
 
“Is he...Don...Don Garcia...shot Chris...buried him?”
 
“No, Kid, Chris is okay. He just needs to rest. Here, I got something for you to drink,” Wilmington said and helped the young man sit up before placing the extra pillows behind him. He held the cup of juice to Dunne's mouth and watched him drink it slowly, relieved when JD took all of it before closing his eyes and falling asleep. Buck eased the pillows out from behind the Bostonian and sat back to watch over him.
 
M7M7M7M7M7M7M7
 
Four Corners
Early Morning

 
The pretty woman smiled as her son hurried toward her with a piece of paper in his hand.
 
“Ma, he said I should give this to you right away,” Billy said and passed her the telegram. He had no idea what it said, but Mr. Watson had told him it was important that he go straight home and give it to his mother or grandfather.
 
“What is it, Mary?” Orin asked from the open doorway of the Clarion.
 
“It's from Josiah. He says Chris, Vin, and JD are getting better, but Nathan doesn't want to chance coming home until they're stronger,” the newspaperwoman answered.
 
“That is good news,” the judge told her.
 
“I know, but I wish...I wish there was something we could do,” Mary told him. “I'll send a message and ask if there's anything we can do to help in the trip back.”
 
Travis watched as the people of the town went about their daily business, and felt a hint of pride when most of them stopped to ask after the seven men who protected the town.
 
“Ma, when Chris gets back will he take me fishing?” Billy asked hopefully.
 
“He will, Billy, maybe not right away, but I'm sure he'll take you,” Mary answered.
 
“Maybe you could show me where he takes you and we could catch some fish for supper,” Orin suggested and wondered at the way his grandson shook his head.
 
“I can't take you to mine and Chris' secret spot. He says other people ain't quiet enough and scare the fish away,” the boy said.
 
“Well, what if we find our own spot?” Orin asked.
 
“I guess that'd be okay,” Billy said. “Ma, can I take Grandpa fishin'?”
 
“Sure, Billy, but not until you finish your chores.”
 
“Ah, Ma!”
 
“Listen to your mother, Billy, the fish aren't going anywhere,” Orin said and tousled his grandson's hair, smiling when the boy tried to pull away. “Come on, if I help you we'll be finished before lunch.”
 
“Thanks, Grandpa,” Billy said and took the man's hand to lead him into the house.
 
Mary watched them go and re-read the missive, silently praying the seven men would get home safely. She thought about Chris Larabee and knew in her heart she didn't want to lose him. Putting the paper in her pocket she picked up the newspapers and hurried to deliver them.
 
M7M7M7M7M7M7M7
 
North of the De Rivera Hacienda
Late Afternoon

 
Fernando Gores continued to watch for an opportunity to take his revenge against Luis and Evita Martinez. Two days had passed since Miguel Delgado was killed and there'd been no way he could get to either of the women. He wanted Juanita Perez, but it seemed that Luis Martinez was keeping his women close to the hacienda.
 
Gores had made camp less than a mile from the house, and kept out of sight when riders passed close to the cave he was using. He cursed Martinez for making him sleep in the damp cave with little food and none of the comforts he was used to. He leaned against the wall of the cave, silently seething as he sipped from the nearly empty whiskey bottle.
 
Gores closed his eyes and thought about Juanita Perez and how long he'd wanted her, but Don Garcia would not let him take the pretty puta because Luis had eyes for her. He doubted Luis even knew Don Garcia had seen him and the woman together, but it didn't matter because Don Garcia was dead. Fernando Gores was very much alive and would soon make Juanita bow down to him.
 
Fernando closed his eyes, rubbed at his beard and allowed himself to dream of the things he would do to her. Once he was through with her no other man would ever want her.
 
M7M7M7M7M7M7M7
 
De Rivera Hacienda
Late Evening

 
Luis stood on the veranda overlooking the fields that were now silent and covered in a cloak of darkness. He had his arms wrapped around Juanita Perez and drank in the scent of her as the rain fell softly from the sky. It soothed his nerves, much the same way as being with this woman soothed his mind and body. He loved her and wanted to spend his life loving her.
 
Padre Santiago had agreed to marry them and would be there the next evening. His madre had finished altering the dress his bride would wear, but he had not seen it and had no idea what it looked like. The rain would cleanse the land. He was a true believer in the power of prayer and hoped the rain would also cleanse the evil that had spread so much blood and sweat over the land. He knew that by mid-afternoon the sun would be shining on them as if God was giving them his blessing.
 
 His only worry was that Fernando Gores was still out there, he could feel him close by, yet there was nothing more he could do. Raphael and his men were helping in the search for the man, but so far they'd come up empty.
 
“What has you so worried, Luis?”
 
“What makes you think I am worried?”
 
“We have known each other for many years, and I have always known when something worries you,” Juanita told him and turned her head to look into his eyes. “Is it Fernando Gores? Is he what has you so tense?”
 
“Si, I wish my men would find him,” Martinez answered honestly and held her tight against his body.
 
“You are doing everything to make sure he does not hurt anyone.”
 
“Is it enough? Perhaps it would be best if you and mi madre visited...”
 
“I will not run like an animal with its tail between its legs,” Juanita warned.
 
“That's not what you would be doing. Gores is a dangerous man, Juanita, and I know he has wanted you for many years. I could not live with myself if he took you from me.”
 
“Would you still love me if he did?”
 
“I will always love you no matter what,” Luis vowed.
 
“Then together we will be happy no matter what Gores tries to do to us,” Juanita told him.
 
“Juanita, it is unlucky for a man to see his bride before the wedding,” Evita Martinez said upon finding her son and future daughter-in-law on the veranda. 
 
“Si, Evita, but I could not resist the call of the rain and Luis was already here,” Juanita said and kissed her future husband before walking back into the house.
 
“You are a lucky man, Luis,” Evita said.
 
“Si, Madre, I am,” Luis said and hugged his mother before turning to watch the lightning as it lit up the sky to the north. He stayed where he was for a long time, hoping and praying that God smiled down on them the next day.
 
M7M7M7M7M7M7M7
 
North of the De Rivera Hacienda
Early Afternoon

 
Fernando Gores watched from his vantage point high in a tree just north of the fields and knew something special was being planned. The peculiar glass he'd found amongst Tanner's possessions brought everything up close and he could make out the faces of the fieldworkers who seemed to be ignoring their work. That alone told him the preparations he was witnessing were for a happy occasion; one that brought with it the bitter taste of betrayal.
 
Luis Martinez had taken everything from him and now he was flaunting the woman who should have been his. Juanita Perez was no better than the putas who worked in the bordellos he'd visited in the towns to the west. She had no right to deny him, yet she had, and now she thought she could make a life with De Rivera's bastardo son.
 
“You will not live long enough to have her as your wife,” Gores vowed. He panned the special glass around the house and stopped when he saw the man seated on the veranda as if he belonged there. The breed had also garnered his hatred and if he had the chance he would put him in his grave too.  He had managed to steal some food and bullets from the supply shed at the edge of the property, not enough to be noticed, but enough to keep him from starving and perhaps kill two men who thought they could raise themselves above the level they'd been born to.
 
Fernando spotted someone moving along the trail toward the hacienda and focused on the driver. He recognized the padre from the nearby village and understood why the field workers were excitedly making preparations for a wedding. There was no way in hell he would allow that to happen, but he needed to wait for the right moment, and make the pretty puta a widow before she had a chance to consummate a union with Luis Martinez.
 
Fernando stayed where he was, his anger intensifying each time he looked through the glass. He should have been the one to take Juanita Perez to the marriage bed, not Luis. It was his right, his position as head of the field workers, yet with De Rivera dead Martinez had control...at least for now.
 
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De Rivera Hacienda
Early Afternoon

 
Nathan sat on the chair next to Larabee's bed and gently touched his hand against the man's forehead. The fever was all but gone; yet, he knew he had to be vigilant in his care of Larabee's wounds. The man was pale and weak evidenced by his gaunt features, and had lost more weight than he could afford. His breathing was slightly off as he fought to rid himself of the mucus on his lungs.
 
Nathan didn't think it was pneumonia, but if he let it fester it could very well become that, and if that happened then it would become a fight that he wasn't sure they could win. The wounds to his body were vivid with the bruises having spread to encompass much of his chest and face, yet they were fading and he knew given time the blond would heal.
 
“Nathan, can we bring him in now?” Wilmington asked.
 
“Hold on, Buck...”
 
“Is he all right?”
 
“He's sleeping,” Jackson said, but was surprised when Larabee's eyes opened to half-mast. “Well, he was sleeping. How are you feeling, Chris?”
 
“Like someone's sitting on my ch...chest,” Larabee answered.
 
“I bet...look, you've got some congestion there and you need to cough to clear it up.”
 
“I'm trying,” Larabee groused.
 
“I know...do you feel like some company?” Jackson asked.
 
“Where's Vin?”
 
“He's on the veranda,” Jackson answered and helped the man sit forward before placing an extra pillow behind his back. “JD's...”
 
“Is he...where...” Larabee's voice was filled with emotion as Buck carried JD Dunne into the room and placed him on the chair Jackson vacated. He tried to speak, but couldn't find the words as his eyes met Dunne's and knew Wilmington would not leave the younger man's side.
 
“I'm sorry, Chris,” Dunne managed.
 
“For what?”  Larabee whispered and managed to raise his arm and weakly tap his own chest. “…should never have buried you…m’sorry…”
 
“He would have killed me if he'd known I was alive,” Dunne said and hoped someday the guilt he saw in the green eyes would disappear. God, his head hurt, but he'd live and maybe someday he would remember everything that happened, but right now he was just glad they were all alive and the seven would soon be whole again. He tried to hide just how much pain he was in, but Jackson's keen eyes watched his every move.
 
“All right, JD, it's time you got back ta bed,” Jackson said.
 
“I just got here,” Dunne protested, but noticed the leader needed sleep as well. “I'll be back, Chris.”
 
“I know,” Larabee said with a hint of a smile. He sighed contentedly and allowed the relief to wash over him as JD leaned on Buck and walked out of the room. It wasn't a long visit, but it did wonders for him to see Dunne with his own two eyes. It validated what the others had told him and gave him hope. He sat forward and slid his legs over the edge of the bed.
 
“Going somewhere, Chris?” Jackson asked.
 
“Have to take care of some business,” Larabee answered.
 
“Stay where you are and I'll get the commode,” Jackson ordered.
 
“Come on, Nathan, I need to...”
 
“You need to let the rest of us do things for you until you're strong enough to do them yourself. You still got a touch of a fever and you break open them wounds and we'll never get home.”
 
“When?” Larabee asked.
 
“When what?”
 
“When can we go home?”
 
“Not until you, Vin, and JD are a whole lot stronger than you are right now,” Jackson said tiredly. “Look, Chris, you're far from out of the woods and JD's still ailing and we put him on a horse he's gonna fall and break his face. Then we'll have Casey blaming us for not taking care of her beau.”
 
Larabee wanted to protest, but he knew the former stretcher-bearer was right. If he wanted to ride home, he'd need to take the time to heal. He closed his eyes, thinking about JD and the fact that the kid was a lot stronger than any of them realized. He opened his eyes when Nathan placed a hand on his shoulder.
 
“Sorry, Chris, I thought you might need this before you go to sleep,” Jackson said. He helped the injured man take care of his more pressing needs before easing him back on the bed.
 
“Thanks,” Larabee said, shocked at how little it took to wear him out.
 
“Chris, I want you to drink this,” the healer said and helped the man sit up long enough to drink the Willow Bark tea. He worried that Larabee's breathing could be compromised by lying down so long and knew he'd have to get him up and moving around. The problem was moving around was not going to help Chris' wounds heal. He felt like he was between a rock and a hard place.
 
“Nate, you look worn out,” Larabee observed.
 
“I'm okay, Chris.”
 
“Sure you are,” the blond said and realized Nathan had the hardest job of them all, himself included He'd been through as much hell as JD and Vin, maybe not physical wounds, but the emotional ones were just as telling. “Get some sleep, Nathan.”
 
“I will...as soon's I check on Vin,” Jackson said.
 
“You said Vin was outside...he wouldn't be if you didn't think he was strong enough. Take your own advice, Nathan, and get some rest,” Larabee said and realized he was out of breath. He closed his eyes and drifted toward sleep, hoping the former slave would take his advice.
 
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Evita looked at her son, so full of love that she could not speak as he reached out and hugged her. Today was as special for her as it was for him and his future bride. Luis was dressed in black pants and a white shirt with a black bola tie that accented his dark hair perfectly. Today was the proudest day of her life, the day her son took his bride and faced a future that was full of promise. 
 
“Madre, you have been at my side all my life and Juanita and I want you here to help raise our children as you have raised so many on this hacienda.”
 
“You two will raise many children, Mi Hijo, and you will show them the love a parent has for their children. Your bride is as beautiful as the sunset,” Evita told her son and kissed his cheek. “I am proud of who you are, Mi Hijo.”
 
Luis hugged his mother and smiled as his friend entered the room. Leon Velasquez was as close to a brother as any man of blood could be and would stand at Luis' side as he pledged to love and protect Juanita Perez for the rest of their lives. He reached for his mother and hugged her, letting his love flow through his touch. 
 
“Padre Santiago is here,” Pero said, honored that he had been asked to help with the marriage ceremony. It was something he had never expected, but there were many changes since Don Garcia's death and his people were grateful to Luis and Evita Martinez.
 
“Thank you, Pero, tell Consuela to make sure everything is ready,” Evita told the older man, pleased that he seemed to have thrived since Don Garcia's death. Many of the workers on the hacienda seemed to have a glow about them, as if they'd suddenly been given a new life. In truth, she supposed, that was exactly what had happened.
 
“Si,” Pero said, bowing as he left the room.
 
“I must go see to your bride, Mi Hijo. Leon, see that he is not late.”
 
“I will,” Velasquez vowed. “You heard your madre, Amigo, let's not keep your beautiful bride thinking you will leave her at the altar. Then again, if you do perhaps I would...”
 
“Leon, you are my friend, my brother, but if I find you flirting with my wife I will cut off your balls and feed them to the pigs,” Luis warned with a smile.
 
“You wound me, Amigo, I would never...”
 
“Good, let's go talk with Padre Santiago,” Martinez said and frowned.
 
“Is something wrong?” Velasquez asked.
 
“Did you put extra men on look out?”
 
“They are watching for Gores. If he shows his ugly face we will shoot it off,” Velasquez vowed as they walked out of the house.
 
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Vin stretched his legs out and tipped his hat so that it blocked the sun. He'd seen the lone man arrive in a buggy and watched as several people spoke to him and knew the man must be the padre. Josiah had spoken to the man before nodding toward Vin and moved to help Ezra and the field workers set up chairs and tables for the celebration.
 
Vin unconsciously rubbed at the bullet wound, cursing the itch that had started there. He knew it was a sign that it was healing, but it felt like a bunch of fire ants were chewing at his innards.
 
“Vin, don't be touching that,” Jackson said as he placed a tray of food on the table beside the Texan.
 
“It's itchin',” Tanner told him.
 
“That means it's healin',” Jackson said. “Brought ya some stew...Evita said ta tell ya she'll make ya somethin' spicy tomorrow.”
 
“She's somethin' ain't she?”
 
“Yes, she is,” the healer said as Tanner picked up a piece of bread and dipped it into the rich gravy.
 
“How's Chris and JD?”
 
“JD's sleepin...Buck's with him.”
 
“Chris?”
 
“He's sleepin'.”
 
“What's wrong, Nate?”
 
“He's still got a fever, Vin. It's come down some, but if it gets any worse I'm gonna need ta see if I can find out what's causin' it,” Jackson told him.
 
“He's strong.”
 
“I know he is...stubborn too. The whole lot of ya are,” Jackson said and sighed tiredly as he rubbed his hands over his face.
 
“Ya should get some sleep,” Tanner suggested, not missing the healer’s face painted in shades of fatigue far too deep.
 
“I will, but I want to...I need to be down there. I need to see something good come of all this,” Jackson told him, his voice soft, but filled with emotional turmoil as he looked at the people mulling around near the front of the hacienda.
 
Tanner had seen Nathan Jackson through some hard times, but even his father's death had not cause the guilt he saw in his friend's dark eyes. There was no doubt in his mind that the healer needed to talk to someone before it ate up everything that made Nathan Jackson the man he was. Normally he'd talk to Chris about this, but with him down maybe he could get some help from Josiah.
 
“You eat all that, Vin, and I'll come back ta check on ya,” Jackson said and left the Texan alone with his thoughts.
 
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North of the De Rivera Hacienda
Mid-Afternoon

 
Fernando Gores was a man with a mission, one that could only end with the death of Luis and Evita Martinez. He knew he would have to get closer to do what needed to be done, and had quickly realized everyone's attention would be on the bride and groom. Once the ceremony was over, and before the fiesta could begin, he would make sure Juanita Perez was a widow.
 
Gores cursed as he bit into the stale bread and threw it at the ground before picking up the special glass and panning it around the hacienda grounds. The veranda was empty, and he cursed the fact that he would not have a clear shot at the breed. He searched the people who were now taking their seats as Luis and his mother appeared, and stood before the padre.
 
Fernando knew Luis' friends were probably watching for trouble, but he was smart, and he'd make sure they were busy elsewhere when the time came. It would not take much, just a simple fire in one of the huts where the peons lived. That would keep everyone out of his way. The time was close and he knew it was time to set his plans in motion.
 
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De Rivera Hacienda
Mid Afternoon
 
Luis Martinez smiled as his mother began to sing while the rest of the people took their places. His stomach was doing flip-flops as he waited for his beautiful bride and he wasn't disappointed when she appeared and started walking toward him. The dress she wore accentuated every curve of her body while her face was covered in a sheer white lace as she came toward him carrying a beautiful spray of wildflowers.
 
“You're a lucky man, Amigo.”
 
“That I am, Leon,” Martinez said as his intended bride reached him. The padre began the ceremony and asked that everyone bow their heads while he blessed the happy couple.
 
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Cristóbal Covas looked at his wife and smiled at the woman whose beauty outshone any woman who'd ever been born. He'd fallen for her a long time ago, and yet his love for her now was even stronger with the passing of the years. He wrapped his arm around her and listened as the padre talked of love and God's will and knew he would always cherish the moments spent with this woman.
 
“He is a lucky man,” Carmella whispered.
 
“Not nearly as lucky as I am,” Cristóbal said and saw the smile form on his wife's face before returning his attention to the ceremony.
 
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Vin loved the warmth of the sun on his face, but he knew if he stayed where he'd been since noon he'd wind up burned to a crisp. The Texan didn't want to add to all the other problems Nathan was dealing with. He stayed in the shadows cast by the trees near the house and settled in to watch the celebrations below.
 
Tanner's gut was telling him something was wrong, but there was nothing out of the ordinary. Luis and Raphael had men covering the house and grounds, but Vin knew Gores was not so easily derailed. In the brief time Vin had been under his 'particular' brand of punishment. His body still ached from the brutality, and the reminder of Fernando Gores was enough to chill him to the bone.
 
“Vin, you all right?” Wilmington asked from where he leaned against the doorframe.
 
“I'm fine...how's Chris and JD?”
 
“Sleeping,” the rogue answered, and recognized the tension in the way Tanner sat. Anyone who didn't know the man would think he was relaxed, but Buck had known him long enough to recognize the signs. “What's got you so worked up?”
 
Vin didn't answer right away, his gaze steady as he felt instincts born of years living on his own as a bounty hunter continue to make him uneasy. “Fuckin’ animal is out there…”
 
Wilmington knew whatever was bothering Tanner was tying him up in knots. He placed a hand on the man's shoulder and nodded that he understood as he asked. “Who?”
 
“Gores.”
 
“The bastard who worked you over?”
 
“Me and a few others. He's not done yet and I got a feelin' he's watchin' and waitin',” Tanner answered.
 
“There's nothing we can do until he shows himself,” Wilmington told him.
 
“Might be too late then,” the Texan observed and watched as the ceremony began with the bride's appearance.
 
“Maybe you should go back inside and get some rest,” the rogue suggested when Tanner shifted uncomfortably and stood up.
 
“I ain't goin' nowhere,” Tanner said and moved toward the edge of the veranda. He gazed across the grounds toward the trees in the distance and listened as the padre spoke to Luis Martinez and Juanita Perez. A bird twittered in a nearby tree while the soft breeze brought the scent of wildflowers. He spotted a couple of men patrolling the area, and hoped they were enough of a deterrent to keep Gores away.
 
“Not much you can do if he is out there, Vin.”
 
“Ya'd be su'prised,” the Texan whispered, relieved that he'd brought his weapon with him. The sawed off shotgun had been found with De Rivera's guns and returned to him by Luis Martinez early that morning.
 
“No, somehow I don't think I would be,” Wilmington said with a grin.
 
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Gores moved through the trees, staying back far enough so he wouldn't be seen by the people who were celebrating the life and soon to be death of a groom. It would take time for him to reach the peons homes, but when he did he would set fire to several and make sure the commotion brought the others running. He knew Martinez would lead the way, and Fernando would be waiting for him.
 
Gores heard laughter from the gathered people and felt his blood boiling at what was taking place. It should have been him standing next to the pretty puta. It should have been his right to take her to his bed tonight. Luis Martinez did not deserve her; he was just the bastardo son with no right to the property or the peons. He should have been the one to guide Santos De Rivera through his childhood and teach him the things that would have made his father proud. Instead, Luis Martinez and his puta madre would raise the boy.
 
Fernando stopped and took the spyglass from his jacket and panned it around the grounds, cursing when he saw Luis lift the veil and kiss Juanita. The anger raged to a boiling point at the thought of another man touching her, taking her innocence, and making her think she was an equal. It would all change soon, because he would take her the way she deserved for betraying him.
 
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Vin watched the happy couple kiss, but his head jerked toward the trees near the mestizos’ homes and waited for whatever had caught his attention to come again. The sun glinted off an object hidden back in the trees, but he knew what it was, and he knew who had it. He stood up and looked around before signaling to Raphael Cordova De Martinez who stood with Josiah and Buck. 
 
Vin pointed to the trees, as music began to play and the guests watched as bride and groom began their life together with their first dance. Raphael gestured toward him as Buck and Josiah turned away from the dancers. Again, Tanner motioned toward the trees and this time all three men looked in that direction as the sun reflected off the lens of the spyglass.
 
The Texan picked up the Mare's Leg and moved to the edge of the veranda. It wasn't an impossible shot, but it wasn't an easy one either. If Gores was the man hiding in the trees, then he'd soon find out they were ready for him. He searched the area and spotted the man as he stepped from the trees and moved toward the nearest hut.
 
Vin had learned long ago to watch and wait and now was no exception. He knew Buck and Raphael's men would investigate even if they hadn't seen Gores, but if the man made a move that looked hostile, then he'd take him down. He hated the idea of killing a man while a man and woman were celebrating life, but he would not hesitate if it meant saving their lives.
 
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Buck had no idea what Vin had seen, but he trusted the Texan and knew damn well something was happening. He nodded to Raphael when the man signaled to his men that they should follow him. Josiah pointed toward the mestizos’ homes and raced toward them, keeping low as he moved while Buck did the same on his right.
 
Wilmington still didn't see anything, but instinct told him that whatever Vin had seen posed a threat to the happy occasion. He just hoped they could stop it before anything happened to darken the ceremony. He turned to see Josiah pointing to the last of the huts, and Buck nodded before veering off and heading toward that one while Josiah went to the next. Raphael and his men were searching the nearby trees.
 
M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 
 
Gores cursed when he saw the men coming toward the huts and knew he'd been spotted. Not that it mattered, because it simply meant he needed to forget making a commotion. He'd simply go past the row of huts and stay within the trees until he reached the closest point to the main house. All he needed was a clear shot of Martinez, and that would happen, especially if the men he'd seen continued to search the huts. Maybe that was all the distraction he needed.
 
M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 
 
Luis Martinez had seen Sanchez, Wilmington, Raphael and several of his men as they moved away from the festive celebration, but did not want to alarm his new bride or his mother. Leon would warn him if something was happening and he nodded when his friend signaled that he would go after Wilmington.
 
“Are you happy, Mi Marido?”
 
“Si, Mi Amor,” Luis said and smiled as he stared into her eyes. “I am the luckiest man in the world.”
 
“Will you feel this way when I am old and wrinkled?”
 
“I will always feel this way,” Luis said and lifted her off the ground amidst the laughter and cheers of the onlookers. “Perhaps we should see what mi madre has done to our marriage bed.”
 
“We have yet to cut the cake.”
 
“Si, but I would rather enjoy the sweetness of your lips,” Luis whispered.
 
“The music has stopped, Amigo...”
 
“Not for me, Leon,” Luis said and smiled when his wife blushed.
 
“Juanita, I do believe this is my dance,” Leon told her and pulled her out of her husband's arms before dancing into the center of the circle.
 
M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 
 
Vin’s hawk-like gaze continued to scour the tree line while Buck and the others checked the mestizos' homes. His gut told him Gores was close by and he needed to stay alert if he was to be of any use. The tension he felt didn't show, but he could feel it in every bone in his body, a constant reminder of the abuse he'd suffered since De Rivera's men had kidnapped him and Nathan. At least with the old man's death, there was one less bastard in the world.
 
Tanner breathed in the scent of wildflowers mixed with gun oil as he spotted movement south of the huts. He lifted the mare leg and aimed it toward the area as a dark shadow appeared amidst the sea of green. The sun glinted off the barrel of a gun and Vin knew it was time to take his shot as Gores stepped out in the open and called out to Luis Martinez.
 
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Luis recognized the man's voice and turned as Juanita screamed and the sound of a gunshot echoed through the surrounding trees and hillsides. He heard several shots fired at once and a cry of pain from his left, but did not look to see who had been shot as Fernando Gores fired again. He cursed the fact that he wasn't wearing his gun and looked up toward the veranda as a single shot was fired. He could not see the shooter, but he turned back in time to see Gores fall backward as Wilmington raced toward him.
 
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Chris was jolted from his fevered dreams by the one sound that cut him to the core. He sat bolt upright, crying out as the movement pulled on healing wounds and ignored the pain that awakened with a vengeance. He cursed as a second and a third shot were fired and slid his legs over the edge of the bed. He searched for his gun, angry when he didn't see it, but he would not stay here when his friends could be dying outside. 
 
Larabee grabbed the pair of pants he found on the end of his bed and struggled to get them on. He staggered toward the door, but didn't quite make it that far as his vision blurred and he would have fallen if he hadn't managed to grab the edge of the door. He leaned against the doorframe for several minutes, but the sound of another gunshot made him ignore the pain and move. He used his hands to guide his way along the wall, yet he was literally blind because he had no idea of the layout of the house.
 
Chris could hear shouts from somewhere and nearly fell when he reached an open doorway and almost fell through. He heard movement in front of him and a familiar drawl reached his ears.
 
“Where the hell ya going?”
 
“Vin?” Larabee managed, his knees threatening to give out.
 
“Yeah.”   Tanner reached for him and tried to keep them both on their feet. “What the hell d’ya think yer doin’?”
 
“Heard gun...shots...what hap...pened?” Larabee asked as the Texan eased him onto a chair.
 
“Gores...bastard tried ta kill Luis,” Tanner explained. “Nate's gonna give ya hell fer bein' outta bed.”
 
“Gores dead?” the blond asked and held his arm tight against his side as he tried to quell the mounting nausea.
 
“Think so,” the worn warrior answered. “Ya ready ta get back ta bed?”
 
“Hell no. Just got out of it,” Larabee said and seemed to wilt as what little strength he had left him shaking.
 
“Fine by me,” the younger man imparted with an arched brow. “Course Nate’s gonna git his ruff up when he sees yer empty bed.”

“Dammit Tanner,” the injured man hissed and finally managed to focus on his friend. “You okay?”
 
“I ain't the one that looks like stir fried shit,” Tanner chuckled.
 
“You haven't looked in a mirror lately,” Larabee said and heard a commotion from somewhere behind him, not surprised when he heard Jackson's irritated voice.
 
“What the hell are ya doin' outta bed?” Jackson snarled.
 
“He was comin' ta the rescue,” Tanner said.
 
“Ain't gonna happen...Buck, get Chris back ta bed. Vin, ya best go lie down b'fore ya fall down!” Jackson ordered as Leon Vasquez and Luis Martinez supported an injured man up the stairs.
 
“Who?” Tanner asked.
 
“Cristóbal,” Jackson answered as Carmella walked past them with tears in her eyes. “Ain't serious, but I need ta clean 'im up and put in a couple of stitches. Ya think ya can get him back ta his room?”
 
“Go on, we’ll be fine,” Tanner affirmed as Cristóbal was helped into a room further down the hall. “Come on, Cowboy, let’s get ya back ta bed.”
 
“I got it Vin,” Josiah announced, as he and Buck reached the landing. His long legs quickly took him to the struggling tracker’s side and he relieved the younger man of his burden. Sanchez took control of Larabee. “Lean on me, Brother.”
 
“Don't seem to have much ch...choice,” Larabee told him.
 
 “Buck, check on JD...make sure he ain't up like this fool.” Jackson decided.
 
Chris allowed the older man to help him back to the room and gratefully sat down as he trembled uncontrollably. He coughed, his arms wrapping around his chest as he tried to stave off the sharp pain of damaged ribs.
 
“Here, Chris,” Sanchez said and helped the man drink the cool water from the cup Vin had filled from the pitcher on the table.
 
Larabee swallowed gratefully, but there seemed to be no relief as he tried to breathe through the tightness in his chest. He leaned forward, trying to catch his breath as someone rubbed circles on his back. He had no idea how long the attack lasted, but when he was finally able to breathe through tightly clenched teeth he vaguely made out two worried faces. Chris did not have the energy to acknowledge the concern he saw in their eyes as Sanchez eased him back on a mound of pillows and lifted his legs. He closed his eyes and let the darkness claim him, well aware of the people who would watch his back while he healed.
 
M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 
 
Raphael and Javier took care of Fernando Gores and returned to the hacienda once they left him in an unmarked grave west of the hacienda. The panic had quickly subsided once Tanner had taken the shot from the veranda that killed Gores.
 
Raphael had been surprised at the accuracy of the shot, and knew of only a couple of men who could have made it. One was standing next to him; the other had been his brother. Raul was dead now, a victim of a bloody range war that he should never have been involved with, but that was the way of life for them all.
 
They reached the hacienda and found most of the people were still in shock and made sure they understood that there'd only been one gunman and he was dead. It was hard for the mestizos to comprehend that the danger was over and that they could once again celebrate the future that lay ahead of them. Raphael nodded toward the couple that exited the house; relieved to see Luis and Juanita were fine and would make sure the people of the hacienda would be all right.
 
“Cristóbal will be fine,” Luis said and smiled as his people gathered around them. “Nathan Jackson has taken care of his wound and it is not serious.”
 
Juanita smiled at the men and women and walked amongst them as her husband spoke to Raphael. She had lived with them all her life and they trusted her just as they trusted Luis and his mother.
 
“Raphael, thank you for taking his body away. We owe you for what you have done and hope that you will consider making this your home.”
 
“Gracious, Amigo, but who knows what tomorrow will bring,” Cordova told him.
 
“We share the same last name, Raphael.”
 
“Si, we do and perhaps we are blood, but that is something we will never know. I will stay until Larabee and the others are ready to travel, then I will help see them safely home. Perhaps once that is done I may return if me and my amigos are still welcome.”
 
“You will always be welcome,” Luis told him and shook his hand before helping his new bride with the people.
 
M7M7M7M7M7M7M7 
 
Four Corners
Early Evening

 
Mary Travis stood outside The Clarion's office and watched as people went on with their daily lives as if nothing had happened. She knew she was being hard on them, and that most of the people made it a habit of asking after the seven men. It was just so hard not knowing how they were and just how badly they were hurt. She wanted them home, she wanted him home, she needed to tell him how she felt or it would tear her apart.
 
“Mary, I know you are worried, but they would have sent a telegram if anything had happened,” Orin told her.
 
“I know,” Mary said as Billy and his friends played a game of tag near Nathan's clinic. God, it looked so empty and she wished they were all home.
 
“Why don't you come inside and eat. Evie has taught me a few things in the kitchen and I made sandwiches,” the judge told her.
 
“I'm not really hungry.”
 
“What is it you tell Billy?”
 
“That he needs to eat,” Mary said with a hint of a smile as her father-in-law hugged her.
 
“Judge Travis, when are you going to put an end to these men taking money from the town they were sworn to protect?”
 
Mary whirled on the man who'd spoken, fire in her eyes as fury raged through her mind. “I doubt you could understand this, Mr. Conklin, but those men are here to protect everyone...not just you! I wouldn’t expect someone like you to understand the kind of courage those men have!”
 
“Now see here...”
 
“Mr. Conklin, I would advise you to shut up and leave now.” Orin warned.
 
“I have the right to state my opinion!”
 
“Not when the men you are talking about are not here to defend themselves,” Orin told him and stepped between the man and Mary. “I hired Chris Larabee and the others to protect the people of this town...”
 
“Exactly...”
 
“And the people who live nearby. When those bandits started killing the homesteaders who help keep this town alive, I asked them to find out where they were hiding and they have done that, or have you chosen to ignore the fact that there have been no further attacks! Go home and keep your mouth shut unless you wish to apologize to myself or Mary or the rest of this town for being the coward you are!”
 
“I am not a coward!”
 
“Really, then where have you been when the men of this town banded together to help protect it while Chris and the others were away?” Mary snapped.
 
“I was not hired...”
 
“No, you sure weren’t!” Mary said in disgust and turned away from the man before she slapped his face.
 
“Judge Travis...”
 
“Go away, Mr. Conklin, and be warned if you continue to speak with such disregard for others I will find a way to charge you with something and have Yosemite lock you up for a very long time,” Travis warned and wasn't surprised when Conklin, coward that he was when confronted with stronger wills, turned and walked away.
 
“God, that man is so infuriating,” Mary snapped.
 
“Yes, he is, but you handled him wonderfully. Chris would have been proud,” Orin said and led her into the house.
 



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