by Winnie


De Rivera Hacienda
Early Evening

“Luis, I brought news,” Javier De Rosa said as he dismounted in front of the De Rivera Hacienda. They’d been staying to help out while Raphael was away and he’d ridden to the nearest town to find a message from Four Corners waiting for him.
“Good news?” Martinez asked as his wife and mother joined them. Evita carried Santos in her arms and the baby was content to be held.
“It says they arrived safely and that Raphael planned to return here as soon as he could,” De Rosa said and handed over the telegram.
“They are safe,” Evita said softly.
“Si, Madre, they are. Javier, you and the others are welcome to make your home with us when Raphael returns. We owe you more than we will ever be able to repay,” Luis said.
“Thank you, Luis, whatever Raphael decides is fine with us. We have been riding together for some time now and I believe it is time to settle down,” De Rosa said and smiled at the pretty mestizo woman who carried a basket of wet laundry. “Excuse me…I believe the young lady needs my help.”
Luis wrapped his arm around his wife as they watched De Rosa take the basket from Rosita. The young woman smiled and seemed to dry her hands on the apron she wore. “It looks like there may be another wedding on the hacienda before long.”
“Si, Rosita told me Javier has been visiting with her Padre,” Juanita told them.
Evita walked away from her son and his wife and hummed softly to the child cradled in her arms. In the short time that had passed since Don Garcia De Rivera died, the hacienda had become a happier place. The people no longer cowered in fear if something went wrong. They no longer worried that they would be sent to the hole if they did something to displease Don Garcia. Life had changed for the better and already she could see the glow of new life in those who now chose to live here.
Evita thought about the beautiful young woman who had given birth to the child in her arms and began to sing as tears of both pain and happiness slipped from her eyes. She knew the pain and heartache that had spoiled the rose that had bloomed for such a short time.
“A Rose tree in full bearing,
Had sweet flowers fair to see,
On Rose beyond comparing,
For beauty attracted me.
Tho’ eager once to win it,
Lovely blooming trees and gay,
I find a canker in it,
And now throw it far away.
How fine this morning early,
All was sunshine clear and bright,
So late I lov’d you dearly,
Tho’ lost now each fond delight.
The clouds seem big with showers,
Sunny beams no more are seen,
Farewell ye happy hours,
Your falsehood has chang’d the scene.”
She sat on the porch swing and looked at her son and his wife and knew they would someday give her grandchildren. She would help them raise those children, but she would never give up the love she had for this child. He would be a part of her, even though they shared no blood, they would share the bond through her son.
“I will love him as his mother would. Have no fear, Dona Maria, your son will grow up strong and proud of his madre,” she vowed as Luis and Juanita joined her and made her feel whole and strong.
Guy Royal’s Ranch
Late Evening
Guy Royal looked at the three ranchers who’d accepted his invitation and handed each man a glass of his finest whiskey. He took his own and sat down on the immaculate sofa a homesteader had graciously donated to him.
“All right, Royal, why are we here?” Stuart James asked.
“Well, I’m sure I’m not the only one those damn gunslingers have messed with,” Royal answered.
“Yeah, well, unless you have a plan there’s not much we can do about Travis’ trained puppies,” Martin Lock spat.
“Well, I just might have a way for us to get rid of the bastards for good,” Royal told them.
“We’ve tried before and all it got us was a bunch of dead cowhands,” David Shelton offered.
“I’m still trying to find men to replace the ones I lost,” James said and lit a cigar.
“Well, it seems the town is planning a welcome home party for Larabee and his men and if we do this right we won’t have to worry about them anymore,” Royal told them.
“Seems I heard you make that boast before, Royal. What makes this time any different?” Lock asked.
“True, but this time we have inside help. Not everyone in town likes having Larabee and his men around.”
“Are you talking about that blowhard Conklin?” James asked.
“I am and he’s going to go to Eagle Bend and send a message that they need help.  That’ll get rid of Sanchez, Wilmington, and Standish and make it easier to get rid of the others,” Royal answered. “If this goes the way I expect it to we could be rid of those bastards for good…interested?”
“I’m listening,” James said.
“I figure we let the festivities get started…let them have their drinks and food and get nice and relaxed. Once that happens we take them down...might have to take out a few of the townsfolk, but they made their choice to stick with the gunslingers.”
“How many men do you think it’ll take?” Shelton asked.
“A dozen at the most,” Royal answered. “We each choose three men and offer them a bonus if they take down the…what was it Jock Steele called them…The Magnificent Seven?”
“They won’t be so magnificent if we can pull this off,” Shelton observed.
“Exactly what I was thinking,” Royal said with a grin. “So, we each take three of our men and meet at the clearing where the road splits. We send a man in and as soon as they’re in their cups we hit them fast and hard.”
“How can you be sure Conklin will do this?” Shelton asked.
“He better…besides I told him he’d end up with a gut full of lead if he messes this up,” Royal explained and refilled their glasses. “Now I propose a toast to the downfall of the not so magnificent seven.”
“Here…here,” the others agreed.
Four Corners

Sleep was something of a rare commodity for Nathan as he stood and walked out onto the landing. God, help him, but he hated feeling this way. Hated feeling sorry for himself when there were so many people worse off than he was. He had a home, a clinic, and people respected him for what he did, yet he could not change what his dreams told him. He could not wake up when the screams of his friends reached a sickening crescendo and he was forced to watch them die. One by one they marched the road in hell while he stood above them surrounded by the fruit of their labors.
The town was quiet now, even the street fires were out and he heard the soft nicker of a horse below him. Everything felt so normal, yet nothing seemed the same for him. There were plenty of people who’d stopped by and welcomed him home, but his heart just wasn’t in it. He needed some time to himself, but he wasn’t sure where he would go.
Nathan made his way down the stairs and entered the livery. Yosemite was bedded down in his room at the back, and the former slave quietly saddled his horse. He took nothing, but the clothes on his back and rode quietly away from his home. He felt tears in his eyes and cursed himself for being a coward.
Chris and Vin sat in chairs outside the saloon and watched as the town came to life. Chris had woken before dawn and made his way outside to find Vin already outside courting the dawn. The Texan was an early riser and it hadn’t been a surprise to find him there. Without a word he’d taken the chair next to his friend and relaxed in the comfort of friendship.
As the sun began her daily journey, Four Corners had shown its first signs of life as Nathan Jackson moved about in his clinic above the livery. Chris glanced at Vin and didn’t miss the concern about the town’s healer. Jackson might think he was hiding his pain, but he wasn’t fooling anyone who knew him.
Nathan had stayed on the landing for nearly an hour, but if he’d seen them, he didn’t acknowledge their presence. Since returning to the town they called home, Jackson seemed to avoid them, and that alone was cause for concern amongst his friends.
Chris could hear Inez inside the saloon and the smell of fresh coffee made his mouth water. He shifted his lean frame, and winced when the residual pain from his injuries reminded him of where he’d spent most of the night. It wasn’t such a good thing and he knew Vin’s back was probably giving him fits as well.
“Senor, would you like breakfast?” Inez asked and smiled at the two men when she handed each of them a cup of strong black coffee.
“Reckon I could eat,” Tanner replied and found a grin for the grunt of exclamation from the man next to him.
“There’s a shock…” Chris grunted of the seemingly never sated appetite of the lean man.
“Senor Chris?”
“Sounds good,” Larabee said and smiled at the woman before turning his attention to the woman who stepped out of her home further down the street. Mary Travis was as beautiful in the early morning sunlight as she was the night before. She had a handful of papers in her hands as she started down the street toward them.
“A woman like that would make a fine wife,” Tanner observed when he noticed the hint of a smile on Larabee’s face.
“You thinking about getting married?” Larabee asked.
“No, just makin’ one of them ob-ser-va-tions,” the Texan answered, stretching out the word.
“You’ve been hanging around Ezra too long,” the blond said as JD and Buck came toward them. The youth still looked pale, but it looked like being home was just what the doctor ordered.
“Does Nathan know you two spent the night out here?” Wilmington asked.
“He knows,” Larabee answered simply and knew the two men had seen the change in Jackson. They needed to do something and Chris knew they weren’t the only ones who saw that.
“Josiah’s gonna ask Nate to take a ride out to the Seminole village with him,” the rogue told them.
“Probably do him good to see Rain and get away for a while,” Larabee offered.
“Might…somethin’s eaten at ‘im,” Tanner said and knew they all understood what was happening with their friend.
“Is that for me?” Wilmington asked when Inez came through the door caring two plates of food.
“Nunca, Senor,” Inez chastised and then smiled when she handed the plates to Larabee and Tanner.
“Come on, Inez, take pity on a starving man,” Wilmington tried.
“Starving, Senor? No I believe you would be wise to watch what you eat,” Inez teased and turned away.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Wilmington asked.
“Exactly what she said, Buck,” Dunne said. “You’re getting a little big around the gut.”
“That’s just muscle,” the ladies’ man said, and made a point of patting his stomach. “I’m as strong as an ox…”
“Smell like one too. When are you gonna take a bath, Buck?” Larabee asked.
“I said the same thing last night,” Dunne stated.
“Ya do smell like a ripe corpse,” Tanner observed. “And since Miss Inez made this for me and Chris I’d rather smell that than you.”
“Are you telling me to leave?” Wilmington asked.
“Hell, yes, and the sooner the better,” Larabee said and smiled as Inez returned with a plate for JD. “What about me?”
“Come back after you visit the bathhouse,” Inez told him and went back inside.
“Well, Buck, it seems you’ve got two choices,” Larabee said. “Bathe and you get to eat or keep stinking up the town and you’ll lose that gut you’re working on.”
“That’s not funny…”
“Wasn’t meant to be,” Larabee said, but couldn’t help laughing when Buck looked down at his stomach.
“I heard Miss Blossom say something about love handles,” Dunne said.
“Love handles!”  Wilmington wagged his brows and grinned. “Well, that’s not too bad…I just love when the ladies hold on.”
“That’s the problem, Bucklin, there’s gonna be too much to hold on to,” Tanner added as Inez returned with a plate for Wilmington. “Ruins the ride.”
“You can take it with you,” Inez told him.
“Thanks, Inez,” Wilmington said and walked away. He knew they weren’t serious, and had already planned to head for the bathhouse.
“You think he’s mad?” Dunne asked.
“Buck doesn’t get mad unless there’s a good reason,” Larabee observed. He could count on one hand how many times he’d seen Buck Wilmington really angry. One of those times was shortly after Chris had drowned himself in a bottle and Buck had cursed him for betraying Sarah and Adam’s memory. They’d parted ways that stormy night and Chris thought they’d traded blows before he left. It had taken Chris countless bottles and waking up in bed with a woman whose name he couldn’t remember before it finally dawned on him that Buck was right.
That was the reason he’d been in Four Corners the day they were hired by the Seminoles. He’d wanted to tell Buck that he understood why he left and that he hoped there were no hard feelings between them. It worked out and now they watched each other’s backs and had found another family, a band of brothers with the same need to do what was right.
“You gonna finish that, Larabee?” Tanner asked of the partially eaten meal.
“I’m getting to it,” the blond said and smiled as the newspaperwoman joined them and handed out the paper. “Good morning, Mary.”
“Good morning, Chris, how do you feel?” the woman asked.
“I’m okay, Mary, a little sore…”
“A little?” Mary said with a grin.
“I’m getting there,” Larabee assured her.
“And what about the rest of you?” Mary asked and looked at Vin and JD.
“’M fine,” Tanner indicated with a serious face.
“Me too,” Dunne told her.
“No wonder Nathan gets frustrated,” the newspaperwoman said and shook her head before leaving to deliver the rest of the papers.
“Yep, a mighty fine catch indeed,” Tanner said as he looked at Larabee who seemed to have eyes only for Mary Travis. He started to hum the wedding march with JD. Larabee glared at the two men until they stopped, but it didn’t prevent their laughter and he couldn’t help joining them.
Guy Royal’s Ranch
Early Morning

Royal watched as his men tended the horses and made sure everything was ready to meet with the others. If Conklin failed to provide a reason for the peacekeepers to leave town, then a lot of people would not live to see the sun come up the next day. Things would be so much better once they were rid of Larabee and his bunch of do-gooders. Ranchers like himself and James would regain the respect they demanded and people would, again, give them gifts. Maybe not from the heart, but that didn’t matter, what mattered was he would have the power to take what he wanted.
“Mr. Royal, that new colt is acting up again,” Jeb Norton told him.
“Ground tie the damn colt so he can’t bite the others and make sure the guns are cleaned. We got a job to do later and I don’t want nothing fucking up my plans,” Royal ordered.
“Yes, Sir, I’m checking the guns myself. Can I be part of whatever ya got planned? I could sure use some of that bonus money you’re offering.”
“Let me tell you what I’ll do, Jeb. If you do a good job of cleaning the guns and make sure that colt don’t go biting the other horses I’ll make sure you ride with us,” Royal said and saw the young man’s face light up. Norton had been with him since he was sixteen and in the ten years that followed, he’d proved himself invaluable on several occasions. He was simple-minded and took orders from Royal that others would have balked at.
“I’ll see to it…yes, Sir, Mr. Royal, you just wait and see and I’ll do just that. I’ll make sure that colt behaves himself and I’ll help you with them peacekeepers.”
“I know you will, Jeb,” Royal said and looked toward the corral as Norton hurried to do as he said. Guy knew they had several hours to kill before they joined the others at the meeting place, but he wasn’t sure he could wait that long. With long strides he crossed the yard and began barking orders to his men.
Four Corners
Josiah walked up the stairs to the landing and found Nathan Jackson sitting by himself, reading from The Clarion Newspaper. He hoped what he had planned would help clear the man’s head and Rain was just the woman to do that. It would also give him a chance to visit with Tastanagi and the man could also talk to Nathan.
“Morning, Josiah,” Jackson said and looked up from the paper.
“It is a glorious morning, Brother, so why do you look like you walked under a dark cloud and it’s hanging over you?”
“Just tired,” the healer lied.
Josiah knew he could call the other man on that single statement, but he refrained from telling Nathan what he saw. The emotional pain the man was trying to hide, and doing a poor job of it, at least where the rest of the seven were concerned. There was no mistaking the lack of sleep, and loss of appetite that spoke volumes to him. It was time to put his plan in action. “Damn, I was hoping I could convince you to go for a ride with me.”
“Out to the Seminole village, I have a couple of things for Tastanagi,” the ex-preacher explained.
“I don’t think I should leave. Chris, JD, and Vin ain’t as healed as they let on,” Jackson said.
“Ezra and Buck can watch out for them and I saw the Wilsons ride in. You know Martha will ride herd on them,” Sanchez said.
“Martha’s in town?”
“She sure is. Nettie and Casey are here too,” the older man assured him. “Come with me, Nathan; let’s take care of you for a change. It’ll do you good.”
“Rain,” that single name was filled with longing.
“I bet she missed you. She’s got a smile that would light up any heart,” Sanchez observed and knew he’d set the hook and it was time to reel the man in. “I’m sure she’d like to see you too. Absence makes the heart grow fonder doesn’t always work. A warm body is much more apt to make a man yearn for more.”
“I should check Chris and JD…”
“They’re sitting outside the saloon with Ezra and Vin. They’re fine, Nathan, so go get whatever you need and let’s get out of here for a spell.”
“Give me half an hour. I’ll talk to Martha and Mrs. Wells and see how long they’ll be in town.”
“I’ll talk to them and you can be sure Mary will watch out for Chris,” Sanchez said with a hint of a smile.
“I saw them last night. Someone should have a long talk with Chris about Mary,” Jackson said and wondered if the same could be said about him where Rain was concerned. He walked back into the clinic and began putting things together. The thought of seeing the beautiful Seminole woman brought a smile to his face and drove back some of the darkness he’d been dealing with.
Martha Wilson had lived near Four Corners most of her life and had seen many people come and go for different reasons. They’d had more than a dozen peacekeepers over the years, but none had stayed very long, most were buried in the graveyard outside of town. Victims of bandits, bank robbers and any number of men and women who thought they owned the world. 
The seven men Judge Travis had hired not only stayed, but had made a difference in Four Corners. She had never looked forward to coming in for supplies, but now she felt safe and wasn’t afraid that a stray bullet might hit one of her loved ones.
They owed that to men like the one walking toward her and smiled at Nathan Jackson. He looked as if he should be in bed, and if he didn’t listen to her then maybe she could dose him like he’d done to the others. The plans for the celebration were in full swing and by this evening the town of Four Corners would show these men just what they meant to the people who lived in the area. She knew he was seeing Rain and Yosemite had ridden out to the Seminole village to invite her to attend the festivities. She was supposed to arrive this afternoon, and Martha hoped she could put the smile back on his face and the life back in his eyes.
So far they’d been able to keep the party a secret, and she hoped they could keep it that way a little longer. Once people started to arrive and set up the tables, they wouldn’t be able to do that and the cat would be out of the bag anyway.
“Martha, could I have a word with ya?”
“Of course, Nathan, what can I do for you?”
“Josiah and me were gonna go visit Tastanagi…”
“Are you sure it’s Tastanagi you’re visiting? I thought it was that pretty Rain that had your eye,” Martha said with a smile. She didn’t want to refuse him, but she knew if he left town today it would put a damper on the reason for the party. People from the outlying towns would start arriving this afternoon and they wanted to show their support of the seven men. Rain and her father were also coming in and it wouldn’t do any good if he wasn’t here when she arrived.
“You’re a smart woman, Martha,” Jackson said. “Will you keep an eye on Chris and JD? They ain’t as healed as they make out and I’d feel better ‘bout leavin’ if I knew someone was watchin’ out for ‘em.”
“Oh, Nathan, I wish I could, but Tom and me gotta head back to the farm this afternoon. We left in a rush and there’s no one there looking after the animals.”
“That’s okay, Martha. I’ll check with Mrs. Potter and Mary. Maybe they can keep an eye on them two,” Jackson said.
“I’m heading over to the Mercantile so why don’t you check with Mary and I’ll ask Gloria for you?”
“Thanks, Martha,” Jackson said and smiled as she walked away. Martha Wilson was a wonderful lady and he knew she had good reason to say no, but it didn’t make the disappointment any easier to take.
Martha knew Mary, Nettie, Gloria, Casey, Inez, and several other women were meeting in the saloon. They were trying to figure out how to keep the seven men from finding out about the celebration in their honor. It would not be complete if any member of the seven was missing. She pushed through the doors and hurried over to the table.
“Martha, what’s wrong?” Nettie asked.
“Nathan and Josiah are making plans to go out to the Seminole village and visit Rain…”
“But Rain’s coming here for the party,” Casey said.
“That’s why we have to keep them from leaving,” Martha told her. “Nathan is worried about Chris and JD and he asked me to keep an eye on them. I told him Tom and I had to go back to the farm and tend the animals, so he’s going to ask one of you.”
“We need a plan,” Mary said conspiratorially. 
“David was complaining of an upset stomach this morning…I could bring him to the clinic,” Gloria Potter offered.”
“Good idea…maybe we could keep Nathan here by sending him some patients to keep him occupied,” Mary said.
“Could be there’s a stomach ache being passed around. I’m starting to feel poorly myself,” Nettie said.
“Aunt Nettie, are you okay?” Casey asked worriedly.
“I’m find, Child,” the elderly woman said and smiled as Casey’s eyes studied her. “Now, you just make sure you act this worried for Nathan.”
“I feel bad making Nathan work so hard,” Martha said.
“It’ll just be for a few hours. Then Rain will be here and the celebration will make it all worthwhile,” Mary offered as they worked out the plans that would soon be set in motion.
Eagle Bend

Conklin swallowed nervously as each step the horse took brought him closer to Eagle Bend. He knew what he had to do, but how was he going to convince the telegraph operator to send the message to Four Corners. He heard a sound behind him and turned to see a heavily bearded man riding toward him. His hands shook and he glanced around for an avenue of escape, but the man finally spoke to him.
“Royal sent me to make sure you didn’t chicken out on him.”
“Royal sent you?”
“Ain’t that what I just said? He figured ya ain’t ta smart up here and would mess this up so he sent me ta see that ya get it done right.”
“How are we going to do this?”
“Well, I used ta work the telegraph in a stage depot down by the border…got a mite dangerous so I lit out and came ta work for Royal.”
“That still doesn’t answer my question.”
“Well, we’re going to go into the telegraph office and you’re going to distract the operator long enough for me to send the message. Think ya can manage that?”
“What do I tell him?”
“Ask him for directions…while he’s showing ya where ta go I’ll use the telegraph.”
“What if…”
“Just get him out of there and let me do the rest…or you can face Royal on your own.”
“No…no, I can do it,” Conklin said and eased the horse forward again. He tried to swallow, but his mouth was too dry as they started down the street toward the telegraph office. He’d been here on several occasions and knew where to go.
Johnny Carter watched the nervous man riding beside him and wondered what made a man like him tick. If he had to do something on his own he would fail miserably, yet let others do the dirty work and Conklin seemed to think he’d done a fine job. 
Conklin pulled to a stop in front of the telegraph and dismounted as Royal’s man rode further down the dusty street and disappeared behind the building. He looped the horse’s reins over the hitching post, adjusted his spectacles and took a deep breath before going into the building.
“Can I help you?” Daniel Murphy asked of the skittish man who entered the telegraph office.
“I’m not sure, but perhaps you could show me where to find Sheriff Stains?”
“Sorry, but the sheriff had business up near Vista City and won’t be back for a few days. Anything else I can help you with?”
“Is there anywhere I can get something to eat?”
“Well, I was just going to close up and go for lunch so you might as well come with me,” the man said. He wouldn’t be gone long and always brought his lunch back with him so the office was usually only closed for 15 minutes or so. If there was an emergency, most folks knew where to find him.
“Thank you,” Conklin said and followed the man to a small restaurant across the street. He sat at a table in front of the window and ordered two of the daily specials as the telegraph operator ordered a roast beef sandwich and coffee to go.
Conklin watched the alley where Royal’s man disappeared, relieved when he came back leading his horse. Conklin waved through the window and knew the man saw him as he led the animal to the restaurant and tied it to the hitching post.
The man came inside and took the seat opposite him, removing his hat and dusting it off on his leg before placing it on the empty chair beside him.
“Did you do it?” Conklin asked softly, nervously glancing around as if someone might overhear him.
“It’s done,” Carter answered.
“Tell me you didn’t use my name?”
“Course not. Ya live in Four Corners…wouldn’t make sense ta say it from you. Got an old friend lives near Eagle Bend…used his name.”
“I took the liberty of ordering you the daily special,” Conklin answered nervously.
“Mighty nice of ya ta buy me lunch…”
“I didn’t say I would pay for it.”
“Come now, Mr. Conklin. I just got you out of a bind…the least you can do is pay for my food,” Carter said and smiled as a pretty redhead brought their food and placed it on the table.
“Anything else I can get you?” the woman asked.
“Coffee, and a big slice of that apple pie,” Carter said and smiled at her before digging into the plate of food she’d put in front of him.
Four Corners
Early Afternoon

Josiah watched the parade of people coming and going from the clinic and realized there was no way they’d be leaving until Nathan was sure everyone was all right. He stood at the bottom of the stairs and frowned when he saw Mary and Nettie talking outside the newspaper office. If he didn’t know better, he’d swear they were up to something as Gloria Potter ushered her son past him.
“Is Doctor Jackson in?” Gloria asked as she started up the stairs.
“Yes, he is,” Sanchez said and spotted Tom Wilson stepping out of the hotel. 
“Josiah, you notice anything strange going on?” Wilmington asked as he joined the older man.
“There does seem to be something happening,” Sanchez observed. “It started happening when I asked Nathan to go see Rain.”
“You think they’re trying to keep us here?” the rogue asked.
“Could be, but I have a feeling there’s a reason behind it…”
“Mr. Wilmington…Mr. Sanchez, I got a telegram from Lawrence Rayburn over in Eagle Bend. It says there’s a gang of outlaws shooting up the town and they’re asking for help,” Karl Johansson told him.
“Rayburn? I thought he died from the fever a couple of months ago,” Wilmington offered.
“He did,” Sanchez said and reached for the telegram. “Are you sure you got the name right?”
“I did…that’s the right name,” Johansson said. “Should I send them back an answer?”
“Give me a few minutes to talk to the others and I’ll come see you,” Sanchez told him.
“Sure, Mr. Sanchez,” Johansson said and limped away.  
“You know, Josiah, this just don’t sit right,” Wilmington said.
“I hear you, Buck. Rayburn’s dead and he didn’t have any family,” Sanchez said as they headed toward the saloon where Chris, Vin, JD and Ezra were seated on the boardwalk outside.
“It ain’t like Stains would send for us…the man would rather see the town fall apart than ask us for help,” the rogue said as they reached the saloon.
“What about Stains?” Larabee asked and shifted his leg off the chair.
“Got a message saying Eagle Bend is being shot up by a gang of outlaws. They’re asking for our help,” Sanchez answered.
“Why would Sheriff Stains request our assistance?” Standish asked.
“The message isn’t from Stains. It’s from Lawrence Rayburn,” Wilmington answered.
“Ain’t possible…I buried him next ta his wife and boy,” Tanner said with a frown.
“I know, and that’s what got me thinking something’s not right with this,” Sanchez told them. “I was going to send back a message for Stains, but…”
“Whoever sent it probably paid Murphy extra to do it,” Larabee said of the little man who ran the telegraph office in Eagle Bend.
“Why not send back a message saying we know Rayburn is dead?” Dunne asked.
“That might not be a bad idea and just might put a scare into Murphy,” Wilmington said.
“I’ll go send the message,” Sanchez told them and headed toward the office.
“Why would Murphy send a message like that?” Dunne asked.
“Someone probably tossed him a couple of coins,” Larabee answered.
“What if there really is trouble?” Dunne asked.
“If there is, then we’d probably get there too late to do anything about it,” the blond answered.
“Chris is right, Kid, and you’re in no shape to go riding out to a gunfight,” Wilmington offered and looked pointedly at Larabee who was rubbing at his injured leg.  “Chris ain’t up for a ride right now either so it’d be me, Josiah and Ezra riding out.”
“What about Nathan?” Dunne asked.
“In case you ain’t noticed Nate’s got his hands full,” Tanner said and pointed to the livery.
“Seems like a lot of folks are ailing,” Standish observed.
“Wonder what’s wrong with ‘em,” Dunne asked.
“No idea, but perhaps Mr. Wilmington should endeavor to find out,” Standish said.
“Is there something wrong with your legs, Ezra?” the rogue asked.
“No, however, since you are already erect it just seems practical,” the gambler said.
“Go, Buck, before he gives me a headache,” Larabee said as the judge walked toward them.
“Good morning, Gentlemen, I hope none of you are feeling sick,” Travis said. He knew what the ladies of the town had cooked up and decided to help them by playing along.
“I’m good,” Tanner said and the others readily agreed.
“Glad to hear it. Where’s Josiah?” Travis asked.
“He went to answer a telegram from Eagle Bend,” Wilmington answered and quickly explained what was going on.
“Eagle Bend, I saw Conklin riding that way early this morning. He passed the Carter place and stopped to water his horse,” Tom Wilson said as he joined the group. He’d gone out to help William Carter with some fence posts after promising Martha he’d be back in plenty of time for the festivities.
“Something tells me we have discovered the culprit who sent the missive,” Standish said.
“Why would Conklin send a message from Eagle Bend when he could have told us before he left?” Dunne asked. “Unless he wants us out of town for some reason.”
“If I were a betting man…”
“You are a betting man, Ezra,” Wilmington said.
“Semantics…what I was going to say was perhaps Mr. Conklin has been keeping company with the ranchers,” Standish told them.
“What gives you that idea?” Larabee asked.
“I had the pleasure of dealing cards with one of Stuart James’ hands last night and he mentioned something about his employer meeting with Guy Royal and that Mr. Conklin was supposed to be on a mission for the ranchers,” Standish explained.
“If that’s the case we need to talk to this hand,” Larabee said.
“I’m afraid he left early this morning,” Standish said as Sanchez rejoined them.
“It appears Murphy wasn’t the one who sent the message,” Josiah told them.
“Somethin’ tells me it was Conklin,” Tanner offered.
“Mr. Wilmington, I believe it would be prudent if you and I embarked on a patrol toward the Royal ranch,” Standish said.
“Just be careful,” Larabee warned as the two men stood and walked toward the livery. God, why the hell couldn’t men like Royal and James leave things alone? How many people had they hurt because they thought they owned the land and didn’t give a damn about anyone but themselves?
Clearing North of Four Corners

Guy Royal rode into the clearing with three of his men, loaded with weapons and ready to collect the bonus promise for anyone who killed one or more of the peacekeepers. Jeb Norton was one of the men riding with him, and although the man wasn’t very good with a gun, he was as loyal as a trained dog. He probably wouldn’t even ask for the bonus if he did get off a lucky shot.
“We were beginning to think you’d gone yellow on us, Royal,” David Shelton observed.
“We’ll have words about that later, Shelton,” Royal warned as he dismounted and handed the reins to Norton.
“How do we know Conklin got the word out?” Martin Lock asked.
“Johnny rode in about an hour ago. He sent the message himself,” Royal answered and walked over to Stuart James. This was the man he trusted, well, trusted more than the other two anyway and he accepted a cigar before sitting on a rock and looking at the men. Most seemed eager to get going, but he wanted to make sure things were as they should be.
“Shelton’s a loud mouth,” James said.
“I know,” Royal said. “I sent Johnny into town to make sure things are going as planned. He should be back in about an hour unless he runs into trouble.”
“What about Conklin? Think he might cause problems?” James asked.
“He might,” Royal said with a grin. “He could easily be a casualty of today’s war.”
“It’d make sense. I don’t trust him anymore than I trust Shelton or…”
“You and me are cut from the same cloth, Royal. We know we need each other to keep the little spreads from taking what don’t belong to them,” James said.
“Weed out the little ones and we can make our own prices with the army and railroad,” Royal told him.
“You got that right,” James readily agreed. “What time do we make our move?”
“Well, I figure when Johnny gets back we have an update on the little shindig and we should hit them at sundown,” Royal answered.
“Here’s to the Magnificent Seven’s not so magnificent downfall,” James said and reached for a canteen of water.
Four Corners

Mary Travis knew there was something going on, but right now she was having a hard time keeping her son in check. Billy wanted to talk about the upcoming festivities, but she didn’t want any of the seven to know about the surprise party planned in their honor.
“But, Ma, David and Jane got to pretend they’s sick.”
“I know they did, Billy, and that’s why I need you to stay here. We don’t want Chris and Vin and the others to know what’s going on, but if I let you go play with David and Jane they’ll become suspicious. I really need your help with this…you do want to surprise Chris don’t you?”
“Yes, Ma,” Billy said as his grandfather joined them.
“Are you giving your ma a hard time, Billy?”
“No, Grandpa, I just…it’s like when you told me I got ants in my pants.”
“So you’re excited about the party?”
“Sure am,” Billy answered, bouncing up and down as he took the dishes from his mother. He headed for the back of the house and knew he had to bring the plates to the area being set up. It was strange that they weren’t doing it in the town, but outside. He had a long talk with David and Jane Potter and all they could do was shake their heads at the lengths grownups would go to so they could keep a party a secret.
The tables were being set up on the outskirts of town, just out of sight of Josiah’s church, because they didn’t want the peacekeepers to see what was happening. It was quite an outlandish idea, but so far it seemed to be working and the seven peacekeepers had no idea what was happening in their honor.
“I don’t know if I can keep him from telling Chris and the others what we have planned, Orin,” Mary said as she wiped her hands on her apron.
“He’s kept it to himself this long. I think he’ll be able to keep his secret a few more hours,” Travis said and glanced out the window. “It looks like everyone’s still keeping Nathan busy.”
“Yes, well, we had to keep him from going to visit Rain. They will be here shortly and will stay with the tables until we bring Chris and the others out there.”
“How do you plan to do that?”
“Billy can get Chris and Vin to follow him. Gloria’s taking care of Josiah. Inez will work on Ezra and Buck, while Casey gets JD to follow her. I figure it’s up to me to get Nathan out there.”
“Nathan might not have the energy if people keep going up to his clinic,” Orin said and took the basket of linen his daughter-in-law handed him.
“We’ll get him there,” Mary assured the older man before he left to make the delivery. Nettie, Casey, Martha, and several other ladies were making sure everything would be perfect for the celebration. Most of the dishes, linen, and chairs had been brought out to the clearing and even the children were busy making decorations.
William Carter had killed one of his cows while another farmer was brining ham and another was making sure there were plenty of fresh vegetables. The meal promised to be a veritable cornucopia with so many varieties of food, not to mention the cakes and pies. Mary hurried to check the peach cobblers she had in the oven, relieved to find they were perfectly baked and quickly placed them on the table to cool.
“Ma, Mrs. Wells said to tell you we need more forks,” Billy told her.
“I sent what we have already. Do you think you can go around and ask to borrow some?”
“Sure, Ma, can I have some cobbler?”
“Later, right now I need you to do this for Mrs. Wells, besides the cobbler is too hot and you might burn your mouth,” Mary told him.
“Okay,” Billy said with a hint of disappointment.
“Don’t worry, Billy, I’ll make sure I save you a piece.”
“Thanks, Ma, and one for Chris too, ya know how much he loves your cobbler,” Billy said and raced out of the house like a human whirlwind.
Mary thought about Steven, and how different he was from Chris Larabee, yet they both fought for what they believed was right. Her first instincts where Chris was concerned could not be further from the truth and she knew in her heart, Steven would approve of him. They might even have been friends if they’d been given the chance to meet. Fate had a way of making that impossible and although she had regrets, she also had wonderful memories that would keep Steven alive in her heart. It would also give her hope that what was happening between her and Chris would lead to something good.
Trail North of Four Corners

Buck glanced at the man riding beside him and held up his hand to signal they should stop. They’d ridden past Royal’s ranch and hadn’t seen Royal. There were several men working some horses in the corral, but somehow it felt wrong. They rode back along a different trail that led slightly southeast and, until now, hadn’t seen or heard anything.
Ezra didn’t say anything, but signaled that he’d heard the voices too and signaled for Buck to follow him. They rode back down the trail for several hundred yards, dismounted and looped the reins over a thick branch.
“It could be anyone,” Wilmington said.
“Really? What do you think the odds are that we’ve found Royal and his men?”
“I don’t know, but we’re gonna find out,” Wilmington answered and motioned for the other man to stay low and follow him. He knew his way around this area and had spent a little time showing Blossom a man and woman didn’t need a bed to have fun.
“We need to tread carefully. It would not bode well if Royal and his men are there,” Standish observed.
“I know. There’s a place up ahead…ain’t very big, but I think I can get close enough to see how many there are and maybe get lucky enough to find out what that miserable bastard’s got planned,” Wilmington said.
“Just be careful. I would hate to have to explain why I am returning home with your body so soon after surviving Don Garcia De Rivera’s bandits,” Standish whispered.
“Wait here,” Wilmington said and disappeared through the brush.
Ezra was amazed that such a big man could be so quiet when the need arose. He had no idea what Buck was walking into, but he’d damn well be ready for anything. It had taken him many years of loneliness to find this strange band of brothers and he’d be damned if he was going to let Royal and James take that away from him. 
Buck moved silently through the underbrush until he reached a crevice made of several large boulders pressed up against the base of a rock wall. He used the natural formation to stay out of line of sight of the men in the clearing. He recognized Royal’s nasally voice and James hearty laughter and listened for anything that would tell him what they were doing here.
“Them bastards won’t know what the hell hit them,” James said.
“It’s about damn time they found out just who is in charge,” Royal observed.
“You sure you trust this Johnny?”
“He’ll be here,” Royal assured him.
“Rider’s coming in, Mr. Royal.”
Buck didn’t recognize the voice, but he heard the horse enter the clearing and took a chance. He leaned forward; just far enough to see what was happening and spotted the newcomer as he dismounted near James and Royal. He counted at least a dozen armed men in the clearing and tried to hear what the newcomer had to stay.
“I only saw Larabee and Tanner. It seems like the whole damn town’s come down with something and Jackson’s seein’ ‘em in his clinic. Wilmington and Standish ain’t in town,” the newcomer explained.
“What about Sanchez and Dunne?” Royal asked.
“I never saw ‘em, but I think Sanchez was working on his damn church, and Dunne was probably sitting in the jail,” the man answered.
“Did you find out where they’re setting up this big party?” James asked.
“No, Sir, ain’t no sign of it in town. Looks like maybe they’re waiting until everyone’s feelin’ better.”
“Well, maybe we’ll just hit them fast and hard while they’re down,” Royal said. “We leave in an hour.”
It took every ounce of restraint he had to keep from taking out his gun and shooting the bastard where he stood, but Buck knew he needed to get Ezra and head back to town. If what he heard was right, then the message from Eagle Bend was a ruse to get them out of town. He quickly made his way back to where he’d left Ezra and knew they had to get the town ready For Royal’s attack.
“Did you find them?” Standish asked.
“Yeah, the whole lot of ‘em…Royal and James and a couple of other ranchers. Maybe a dozen or so men and they’re making plans to attack the town. We need to get back and warn them…got maybe an hour to get them ready,” Wilmington advised and hurried to his horse.
“I believe it is time to deliver an important message to Royal and James,” Standish said as they rode toward Four Corners.
Four Corners
Late Afternoon

Nathan knew he was far beyond tired as Gloria Potter took her daughter and left the clinic. He had no idea what was causing everyone to be so sick, but their symptoms seemed the same. Most of the complaints were bellyaches and he briefly wondered if they’d all eaten something that didn’t agree with them.
Jackson walked to the table and dropped onto the chair with a weary sigh. He rubbed at his lower back and looked longingly at his bed, but he knew no matter how hard he tried, he’d just lie there and stare at the ceiling. He had no idea how long it had been since he’d slept more than two hours at a time. More often than not he’d wake in a cold sweat, his mind and body tense with the memories that plagued him.
Don Garcia De Rivera was as much a monster as Nathan’s former master. Both men had money and power and thought they owned everything and everyone around them. Death was too good a punishment for them, but at least, in death, they could never hurt the people he cared about again.
Nathan stood up and groaned as his back cracked and moved out onto the landing. Chris and Vin were seated outside the saloon talking with Judge Travis, and he felt the guilt of what they’d endured wash over him again. He knew no one blamed him for what happened, but that didn’t make it any easier. He was supposed to be a healer, yet he’d stood by and watched an ailing Tanner work in the fields while he lived in the lap of luxury. It never occurred to him that he’d suffered in his own way, and still was.
Jackson watched as a wagon rolled down the street and wondered what had brought the young couple to town. Did they need supplies, or were they just in need of some time away from their day-to-day lives? Was that what he needed? Would that make it any easier to face the memories clouding his mind? Could he distance himself by leaving town or would the guilt and pain follow him? Would the sun ever come back in his life or was he destined to face the darkness surrounding his soul?
Nathan’s mind wandered back to the Hacienda and he closed his eyes while pictures flashed across his mind. How could he face Vin and Chris and not see the horror of De Rivera? Why did the man enjoy tormenting those he thought were beneath him? There seemed to be so much evil surrounding the man and yet Evita, Luis, and Dona Maria had stayed with him. How could the man be so cruel when there was so much love surrounding him? God, he wanted to tear something apart, but he’d never been a violent man.
Nathan leaned forward and placed his arms on the table and rested his head on them. His eyes closed of their own volition and sleep beckoned to his bone-weary body and mind. He resisted, but was soon drifting on a tide of horror filled dreams that he could not escape from.
Nathan watched in horror as Vin was dragged toward the gaping hole in the ground. Tanner’s eyes were wide as he looked into the maw of death and Nathan could see there wasn’t an inch of his body that wasn’t bleeding and bruised. The skin on his back was raw and pockmarked with marks made by Don Garcia’s cane and Nathan fought desperately to free himself, but it seemed as if his feet were mired in mud.
“No!” Jackson screamed as Chris Larabee and JD Dunne were forced to stand before him, their eyes filled with raw pain as they were forced to kneel with the Texan. Like their friend, Chris and JD were covered in a vivid array of bruises and cuts, some so deep he couldn’t understand why their insides were still intact. He swallowed the bitter bile rising in his throat as the hated man’s face loomed above his.
“You are to blame for this, Nathan Jackson…you slept in a warm bed while they slept in a hole in the ground. You stayed dry while they were forced to sleep in the rains. Your belly was full while theirs remained empty. Your thirst was quenched while they were forced to drink dirty water. You are to blame for all of this, and now you are to blame for their deaths…”
“No, please, let them go…I’ll do what you want…anything you want…”
“Too late, Nathan Jackson, you reap what you sow and they are the price of your greed. You should have given them your water…” The face seemed to grow in size, obliterating everything around them save for the three men standing on the brink of a horrific death.
“I did…”
“You should have given them your food…”
“I did…”
“You should have helped them…” The face was larger than the harvest moon that sometimes loomed over the world, but there was none of the peaceful beauty that scene brought him.
“I tried…I couldn’t…I…”
“You should be the one to pay, but this is penance for all of your sins!” Don Garcia De Rivera turned away, raised a machete above his head and brought it down toward JD’s head.
A dog barked in the distance and brought him out of the nightmare that plagued him. He rubbed his eyes and wished he could kill Don Garcia De Rivera for what was done to his friends, but the old bastard was worm food now.
Nathan spotted two riders on horseback racing toward the town. Even at this distance he recognized both the horses and the riders and hurried down the stairs as dust and dirt billowed up from the hooves before they came to a stop below the landing.
“Nathan, where are the others!” Wilmington snapped as he dismounted and looped the reins over the hitching post.
“What in damnation got ya all fired up, Buck?” Jackson asked.
“Buck, I’ll get the others and meet you in front of the saloon,” Standish said.
“We ain’t got much time, Nathan, but Royal and James are planning to attack the town. I don’t got time to explain it right now because they’re not far behind us. We need to round up every able-bodied man we can and set up road blocks at both ends of town,” Wilmington said and spotted Conklin across the street. Something about the man made his skin crawl and he couldn’t help but feel he had something to do with the pending attack.
“How do you know Royal’s planning an attack?”
“Me and Ezra found them just north of town. Come on, Nathan, we need to get moving and set things up before they get here!” Wilmington said.
“I’ll get people to help with the blockades,” Jackson said.
“Tell the woman to get as many weapons as they can and get the children inside,” Wilmington said as Vin and Chris hurried toward them.
“Ezra said you saw Royal and James,” Larabee said as Jackson hurried to the opposite side of the street.
“They’re plannin’ an attack, Chris. Ain’t sure how many men they got with them, but me and Ez weren’t far ahead of ‘em,” Wilmington advised.
“Chris, I’m gonna get up top…might be a good idea ta get someone up on the Clarion,” Tanner said, surprised to see Travis and several townsmen hurrying toward them.
“Ezra said there’s trouble,” Travis observed.
“Royal and James are planning to attack the town,” Wilmington advised.
“I’ll let’cha know if’n I spot ‘em,” Tanner said and hurried up to the landing.
“Be careful,” Larabee ordered and knew Tanner would take to the highest point in order to get the best lookout. “Buck, gather the men and…”
“Chris, we need to let the women know,” Travis interrupted.
“We will…”
“You don’t understand…they’re in the clearing. I’ll explain later, but for now I’ll go bring them back,” Travis said.
“Might be best if they stayed out of town,” Jackson said.
“There’s a cave near the clearing. Mary, Nettie, and Martha know how to use guns. Have them take cover there and stay put until this is over,” Larabee ordered. Royal and James wanted to take the town by force and wouldn’t give a damn who they hurt in the process, but Chris wasn’t about to let anything happen to the people he cared about.
“I think Conklin’s up to something,” Wilmington said of the man watching them from across the street. “The sonofabitch looks smug!”
“We’ll deal with him later. Right now we need to get things moving,” Larabee said as Ezra, JD, and Josiah joined them with several other men in tow.
“Where do you want us, Chris?” Tom Wilson asked.
“Tom, Vin’s up top already, but we need someone at the other end of town,” Larabee said, ignoring the ache in his side as he twisted around and barked orders to the others. “Josiah, you and JD get the wagons set up at the north end. Take Yosemite and Heidegger with you!”
“Come on, Son, let’s get this done,” Sanchez said.
“Ezra, you, Nathan, and Buck set up a barricade on the south side. Make sure you get enough men to help you,” Larabee ordered and raced across the street as Watson came out of his hardware store.
“What’s going on, Chris?” Watson asked.
“We got trouble coming, Virgil. We’re going to need ammunition and weapons and we’re going to need everyone who can shoot,” Larabee told him.
“I’ll get whatever you need,” Watson said and went back inside.
“Senor, what is happening?” Inez asked from the door of the saloon.
“We’re expecting an attack, Inez. Do you know where the clearing is?”
“Good, Judge Travis has gone there to tell Mary and the others to take cover in the cave…”
“I can help load the guns here, Senor,” Inez vowed.
“Yes, you can,” Larabee readily agreed of the feisty Mexican woman. “Check with Virgil and see what he needs done,” Larabee said and sprinted toward the north end of town. He shouted orders, taking charge as seemed was his destiny since meeting six men in a godforsaken town on the verge of dying. Instead of death he’d found life, something worth fighting for in the wake of tragedy.
“Chris, we need to pull Vin’s wagon over here,” Sanchez said.
“Let’s do it!” Larabee said and hurried to help the men move the wagon into position. He ignored the pain that seemed to reawaken with this new abuse, and continued to get the town ready. “JD, make sure you have enough people to keep Royal’s men out!”
“We got enough, Chris, but we’re gonna be short on people if they come at us from all directions,” Dunne told him.
“Do what you can, but don’t spread yourself too thin,” Larabee said and spotted Conklin moving between the two buildings across the street. He looked toward the south, but hurried after the man as Wilmington shouted orders at the south end.
Larabee hurried past The Clarion and entered the alley just as Conklin disappeared around the corner. The sonofabitch was either a coward who was leaving like a rat on a sinking ship, or he was going to warn Royal that they were getting ready for him. Either way, the bastard needed to be stopped.
Larabee could hear the others behind him and made his way to the end of the building in time to see Conklin disappear through the brush. He knew he had to catch up to him, and stop him from ruining what little plans the town had set in motion. He sprinted across the clearing and followed the man into the brush and found the man trying to untie the reins of his horse.
“Going somewhere, Conklin?” the blond asked.
“Why are you following me?” Conklin asked and puffed out his chest.
“Just making sure you’re taking the coward’s way out and not trying to warn Royal and James,” Larabee said.
“I am not a coward…”
“I guess that means you were going to warn Royal,” Larabee said.
“I wasn’t…”
“Then why are you out here with a horse? Where were you going?”
“I was going to get help.”
“You can help by coming back to town and helping keep the bastards out of town!” Larabee told him and placed his hand on his gun. “Let’s go…”
“Now see here!” Conklin said and saw something behind Larabee as a smile formed on his face.
Chris realized too late his mistake and turned to face whoever Conklin had seen. He pulled his gun from the holster, but wasn’t in time as something slammed against the side of his head and he went to his knees. A second blow to his lower back and a third to the side of his head sent him into the waiting abyss.
“What are you doing here?” Conklin asked.
“Mr. Royal sent me to make sure you didn’t warn Larabee’s gang. What the hell are you doing out here?” Johnny Carter asked.
“Those bastards know. I was riding out to warn Mr. Royal.”
“Guess it’s too late for that, but at least we got one of ‘em down. You got some rope in your saddlebag?”
“Think so,” Conklin said and moved to his horse. He pulled out two pieces and passed them to Carter. “Maybe you should just kill him now.”
“You want to shoot him, Conklin? I’ve got a feeling Mr. Royal would enjoy having a little talk with Larabee if things go bad in town,” Carter said and smiled as he turned the unconscious blond onto his back and quickly tied his hands and feet.
“What are you going to do with him?” Conklin asked.
“We’re going to make damn sure he stays out of this fight and you’re just the person to watch him,” Carter said.
“I don’t…I can’t…”
“You either do it or I shoot you right now. Your choice, Conklin,” Carter said and showed him Larabee’s gun. “I’m sure Mr. Larabee would think it was poetic justice if I shot you with his gun.”
“I’ll watch him,” Conklin said and accepted the weapon. “We can’t stay here…what if his friends miss him?”
“They’ll have enough on their minds. I believe that sound ain’t thunder…it’s Royal and James,” Carter said and dragged Larabee toward Conklin’s horse. “I’m going to tie him face down and you’re going to ride toward Mr. Royal’s place. Don’t mess this up or you might just find out what bein’ gut shot feels like.”
Cave West of Four Corners
Late Afternoon

Orin Travis made sure Mary, Nettie, and Martha had everything they needed to keep everyone safe should things go bad in town. He’d argued with the ladies when they wanted to go to town and help defend it, but he’d convinced them they needed to keep the children safe. He had no idea how long the gunfight would last and made sure they brought food and water with them. The tables had been laden with food, and streamers were flapping in the breeze, a gentle reminder of what had been planned for the afternoon.
“Orin, where are you going?” Mary asked when her father-in-law turned to walk away from the cave entrance.
“I’m going to help protect your home, Mary,” Travis told her.
“Grandpa, I can shoot and spit and I can help…”
“You can help by staying here with your ma and doing what she says,” the judge ordered.
“But Chris said I was good at shootin’,” Billy said, disgruntled at being unable to help his mentor.
“Billy, I need you and the other boys to stay here and help protect the younger ones. Okay?”
“But Ma and…”
“No buts, Son, I need you to do this,” Travis told his grandson and was taken aback by how much Billy reminded him of Steven at this age. Both were full of spit and vinegar and ready to take on the world. “I need your word as a man, Billy…can you do that for me?”
“Yes, Grandpa,” Billy said, and fought to keep the tears from escaping. He straightened his shoulders and looked into his grandfather’s eyes before joining David and Jane Potter near the other kids.
“Mary, I need to go, but I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“All right, Orin, but be careful,” Mary said and hugged him before she was forced to watch him move away from the cave and head back to town.
Trail North of Four Corners
Late Afternoon

Guy Royal rode at the front as he led his men toward the town of Four Corners. Martin Lock and his men rode with him while Stuart James and David Shelton would attack from the south.  He took a deep breath and held up his hand for the others to stay put. They would give James five minutes to get into position and then attack from both ends. David Shelton would give the signal in the form of a wolf call. Once that happened, the people of this damn town would find out who they really owed their loyalty to.
“Now we wait,” Royal said, and knew his men were ready for this. There was no love lost between his men and Larabee’s gang, and once The Magnificent Seven were taken care of they would tear the place apart. His first stop would be The Clarion and Mary Travis would not be such a beauty to look on once he was through with her. The bitch had written too many damning articles about him and the other ranchers and it was time to make her eat those words.
Four Corners
Late Afternoon

To anyone first seeing Four Corners they would have seen it as a ghost town. Nothing moved except the curtains blowing inside an open window of the restaurant. The people who inhabited the town were ready for the upcoming attack and listened for a signal from Tanner or one of the other men who had taken to the rooftops.
The tension was palpable, but there was no doubt that these people would not go down without a fight. Vin watched the trail north of town, and knew the others were waiting for his signal. He’d spotted several animals along the trail, but there was still no sign of Royal or James. He’d seen Josiah and JD at the north barricade, and Buck hurried past his vantage point to let him know that Nathan and Ezra were ready for anything. That left him to wonder about Chris Larabee.
Where was the gunslinger and why hadn’t he heard from him? Vin hoped it was because he’d found his own vantage point. He looked north along the trail and spotted movement through the eye of his Mare’s leg. It took less than a second for him to make out the horses as the riders nudged them forward.
Tanner lifted his hand to signal the others as the sound of a wolf’s call reached his ears. He knew it was made by a man, and hoped Buck and the others were ready for an attack from their end. As the first rider came into view, Vin wasn’t surprised that the newcomer had his gun drawn.
A gunshot from the south signaled the start of the fight and Vin fired on the man in the lead. He moved his position slightly and fired again as the first man toppled from his horse and was dragged several yards before his foot came free of the stirrup. His second shot missed its mark, but several other shots echoed through the buildings as the people of Four Corners defended their homes.
Buck fired on the men riding toward them and heard a sharp retort from Watson’s shotgun as he too returned fire on James’ men. He fired a second shot; this one hitting the man riding to the rancher’s left and felt no sympathy when the man’s body was thrown backward and into the path of the other horses.
“Inez, stay down!” Wilmington shouted when the woman tossed a loaded weapon to Tom Wilson. “Tom, don’t let them get through!”
“I hear ya” Wilson replied and fired at the man closing in on the barricade. The horse stumbled, and the rider flew forward, landing hard in the dirt. He got up quickly, but clutched his chest and toppled back as a bullet tore through his upper body.
Nathan hated killing, but there came a time when there was really no choice in the matter as people like Royal and James seemed to think they could take what they wanted. He saw a man moving toward Inez and flipped a knife end over end, not surprised when it was buried in the attacker’s neck.
“On your right, Nate!” Wilmington shouted and fired as a man pointed his gun at Jackson.
“Thanks,” Jackson said and returned fire as Stuart James dismounted and ran for cover.  He fired, but knew he’d missed the target as a bullet whizzed past his left ear. He ducked, reloaded and came up firing as the second wave of attackers approached. He heard shots to the north and silently prayed there’d be no injuries to the people of Four Corners. God only knew how hard he prayed not to have to deal with more than was already on his shoulders.
Cave West of Four Corners
Late Afternoon

Mary held her shotgun at the ready as gunfire erupted from the vicinity of Four Corners. She silently prayed that her father-in-law had made it back before Royal and James attacked. A day that had started with such promise had suddenly turned deadly as the men of the town were forced to fight for what was right.
“They’ll be all right, Mary,” Martha Wilson offered.
“I hope so, Martha,” the newspaperwoman said and kept her eyes peeled for anything that said they’d been discovered.
“Have faith that the Lord will watch over and protect them. He’s made sure our men folk know how to fight and protect us,” Martha said and held tight to her own shotgun as Nettie joined them.
“I know He’s also blessed the womenfolk with a good eye and ear,” Nettie said and smiled as she asked. “So, Mary, how are things between you and Chris Larabee?” 
“There’s nothing between Chris and I…”
“I think the lady does protest too much,” Nettie observed.
“I assure you Chris and I are just friends,” Mary said and knew the two women didn’t believe a word she said.
“Take my advice, Mary, go after that man before another woman decides to stake a claim,” Martha told her and smiled as she leaned against the cave wall. She knew Chris and Mary were trying to keep their relationship secret, but the truth was the harder they tried, the more obvious it became. She hoped the two would stop dancing around and make the commitment to be together for the rest of their lives. They both shared tragic pasts, but they could find happiness again if they embraced it.
“I need to check on Billy,” Mary said and brushed past the older women. She knew they were just offering some friendly advice, but right now all she could think of was that she might not have the opportunity to tell Chris how she felt. God, help her, but she didn’t want to lose him. She swiped at the tears that stung her eyes and wished she could do more than just hide in this cave.
Four Corners, North Barricade
Late Afternoon

JD fired on a man riding toward him and was rewarded when the attacker toppled backward and landed on the ground. He turned, his eyes growing wide when he saw Josiah’s back was to another of Royal’s men and shouted a warning.
“Josiah, behind you!” Dunne yelled and shot the man as Sanchez turned and gave a quick nod of thanks before returning his attention to the battle for Four Corners.
Sanchez barely had time to acknowledge Dunne’s warning when another attacker appeared behind the Easterner. Josiah fired twice, the first shot missing, while the second buried itself in the man’s shoulder. He spotted Ezra moving toward a side alley and heard the gambler’s weapon discharge at the same time Tanner fired twice from his vantage point on a nearby roof.
Ezra ducked behind a water barrel and fired at the man who decided to use the blind spot between the buildings. He ducked low and fired two quick shots, before ducking behind cover once more.
“Ezra, ya got two of ‘em comin’ down the left side,” Tanner shouted from high above them. He sighted down on the first one and fired when the man made the mistake of showing just a little more than he should have. Blood quickly pooled beneath him as Vin turned his attention back to the trio trying to get through the small barricade set up by several townsmen between the Clarion and the building next to it. He took the first one out, and knew he had to move if he wanted to get the others.
Vin crept along the edge, ducking as a bullet took out a chunk of wood from the ledge of the roof. A second shot sliced through his right arm between his elbow and shoulder, but he didn’t take the time to acknowledge it as a third shot came close to him. He lay flat and lifted his head just enough to look down at the alley. Two more shots rang out and he fired at the man just below him. The sharp gasp and subsequent thud told him all he needed to know and he thought he heard Ezra’s trick shooter and a curse from below.
South Barricade
Late Afternoon

Stuart James knew things had gone wrong the minute they’d ridden toward town and spotted the barricade. He didn’t give a damn how many of his men died, because there were plenty more out there looking for jobs. He’d seen Shelton go down before they’d made it within a hundred feet of the town. Two more quickly followed and James made sure he kept to the back as the men continued to try and get through the barrier.
James turned his horse away as a hail of bullets flew back and forth, taking down two more of Shelton’s men as three of his own dismounted and raced for cover. He wondered if Royal had found the same defenses in place at the north end and heard several distinctive shots from that direction.
Stuart cursed Royal for getting him involved in this and not making sure it was as simple as he made it out to be. Conklin had screwed this up, and now it looked like they were going to lose some of their best men. Maybe, it was time to retreat and let Royal and his people take the blame for this. He wasn’t a coward, but he was smart enough to take an out when he saw it.
James watched as another of Shelton’s men went down and stayed down before turning his horse and heading northwest, away from the firefight that looked like it would end in disaster. If Royal was smart, he too would realize the mistake they’d made in trusting Conklin. It was time to cut their losses and regroup back at Royal’s ranch.
North Barricade
Late Afternoon

Buck spotted Ezra gazing up at the rooftop of Jackson’s clinic and glanced upward as several bullets tore into the wood near where he’d last seen the scrappy Texan.
“That boy better not get any more holes in that damn coat, he gets ornerier than a bear with a toothache when that coat picks up lead,” Wilmington observed, relieved when he saw Tanner aim and fire before disappearing once more.
“Mr. Tanner will bury us all,” Standish offered and fired at a man who was foolish enough to come out from behind his meager cover.
"I ain’t so sure, that boy seems to find trouble way too easy,” Wilmington said and ducked as two shots rang out close to his position.
"Care to wager a bet?" Standish asked, grinning, as there was more gunfire above their heads.
“Depends on the wager?” Wilmington said and fired again.
“Two bits on Mr. Tanner walking away without a scratch,” Standish said.
“Oh, you’re on…and I’ll take the money now if you don’t mind. After all who knows if you’ll be able to make good on the bet,” Wilmington said with a grin.
“I shall gladly remind you of said wager when I come to collect after this foray is over,” Standish said and hurried away when he spotted something further down the street.
“Foray, he says,” Wilmington grumbled of the understatement and returned fire as more of Royals’ men dismounted and sought cover.
Trail North of Four Corners
Early Evening

Conklin rode away from the town; his eyes filled with fear as he glanced at the unconscious gunslinger tied face down on the horse behind him. Chris Larabee was dangerous, and if he woke up, Conklin didn’t know if he could remain calm enough to reach Royal’s ranch.
Conklin could hear gunshots to the south, had heard them echo off the surrounding hillside as he made his way toward Royal’s home.  His left hand held the reins of both horses, while his right hand held tight to the gun Carter had given him. Would he be able to shoot Larabee if he had too? His hand shook as he pulled his horse to a stop and grabbed a fistful of blond hair.
Conklin was shocked to see twin beacons of green fire staring back at him and quickly released his hold. His hands shook, his body trembled, but he wasn’t sure who he was more afraid of. Chris Larabee was a threat, but at least he was restrained. Guy Royal would kill him if he found out Larabee escaped before they could take down the rest of his men. He was glad Carter had bound and gagged the gunslinger and pressed the horses forward, silently praying he would never have to face Larabee’s wrath.
Larabee shifted his head and tried to pull his hands free, but whoever had tied the knots binding his hands had done a damn good job on them. He smiled inwardly at the way Conklin had reacted to seeing him awake and knew the cowardly bastard would stay as far away from him as possible. Chris knew he had to get free before they reached their destination, and continued to tug at the ropes until he felt blood on his chafed wrists. 
Rooftop, Four Corners
Early Evening

Vin had no idea how many times he’d fired at Royal’s men, but the bastards were dwindling in numbers. He’d seen Josiah grab his leg at one point, but didn’t have time to check on him as several bullets struck the roof close to him. He’d felt the burn of a bullet across his right side, but couldn’t take the time to check as he scooted along the edge of the roof and fired on a man trying to get past the town’s defenses.
“JD, are you hit?”
“Just a graze, Josiah!” Dunne shouted above the gunfire.
Tanner saw Dunne line up a shot and another of Royal’s men went down. There seemed to be a lot less of them now and he started searching the tree line for any sign of the ranchers. He spotted a man trying to climb a tree near the barricade and sighted down the barrel of his mare’s leg. The man never made it to the next branch.
“Josiah, cover me!” Standish said and raced across the street, dodging several shots fired from the west side of town. He knew exactly where to go and ducked behind the cover of the horse trough before returning fire. Dust kicked up nearby and he crawled on his elbows until he reached the safety of the hotel. He hurried through the door and made his way to the back window in time to see two men trying to gain access through the back. “Gentlemen, my advice would be to put down your weapons or…well, I did warn you!”
Standish’s first shot took one man in the shoulder and sent him backward into his accomplice. “Last chance!”
Ezra smiled as they both dropped their guns and grabbed the ties that were used to hold back the curtains. “Gentlemen, if you would be so kind as to put your hands through the railing we can finish this before dinner.”
“Mr. Royal ain’t gonna take kindly to this!” one man snapped as Ezra tied their hands together around the solid wood rail.
“Mr. Royal will have too much on his plate to worry about you two. Now be quiet or I will be forced to gag you both!”  Standish grinned before checking the back and was slightly surprised when he realized the gunfire had stopped. He smiled at the two miscreants before heading for the front door.
Trail North of Four Corners
Early Evening

Guy Royal knew when to cut his losses and headed toward his ranch with Johnny Carter and Jeb Norton riding slightly behind him. The rest of the men they’d brought with them were dead and he wondered if Stuart James had fared any better. He cursed Conklin for not warning them that Larabee and his men were on to their plans and vowed to make the sniveling weasel pay.
“Mr. Royal…I might have some good news fer ya.”
“What is it, Carter?”
“I ran in to Conklin on my way here.”
“Tell me you shot the coward between the eyes.”
“No, Sir, but he wasn’t the only one I ran in to.”
“Spit it out!” Royal said as Carter rode close beside him.
“Tell me you shot him.”
“No, Sir…”
“Thought you said you had good news?”
“I do…Conklin’s probably already at yer ranch and he’s got Larabee with him,” Carter answered and saw the surprise in the other man’s eyes. “I thought ya might wanna have a talk with him.”
“Talk? No, I got other plans for Larabee,” Royal said and spurred his horse forward.
Cave West of Four Corners
Early Afternoon

“Do you hear that?” Martha Wilson asked.
“I don’t hear anything,” Gloria Potter answered.
“That’s my point. It’s quiet…the shooting’s stopped,” Martha supplied.
“I know,” Mary told her and glanced at the others who seemed intent on her every word. Why were they looking at her as if she had answers?
“Maybe we should…”
“No, Gloria, we wait here until Orin sends someone to tell us it’s clear,” Mary said. God, she wanted to know what was happening, but there were children here who needed to be protected. It was up to her and the other women to see to their safe being.
“Mary, here,” Nettie Wells said and handed the woman a cup.
“Thank you, Nettie,” the blonde said and took a sip of the strong coffee.
“Chris will send someone as soon as he knows it’s safe,” Martha told her.
“I know, but not knowing what’s happening is hard,” Mary said.
“It’s hard on everyone,” Nettie agreed as she looked at her niece. Casey was helping keep the children occupied, yet she kept glancing toward them with worry filled eyes.  There was nothing more they could do until someone from town came to give them the all clear. It was the way of life in the west, and their lot as women of a frontier town surrounded by ‘The Bad Element’.
Four Corners
Early Evening

Nathan was the first to notice the silence and turned to the man next to him. Buck had blood running down the left side of his face, probably from splinters where a bullet had taken a piece out of the wagon. He glanced at the man next to him and wondered when Judge Travis had joined them.
“Nathan, are you boys all right?” Virgil Watson said as he hurried toward them with more bullets.
“Mostly,” Jackson answered. He looked around and knew his day was not over as Josiah limped toward them. “You okay?”
“I will be…it looks like Royal and James took off with their tails between their legs,” Sanchez observed.
“Maybe, we need to check the dead and injured,” Travis told them as several other townsmen joined them.
“I saw James ride south,” Tom Wilson told them.
“Nathan, Mr. Heidegger needs help. He’s got a bullet in his side…don’t think it’s too deep, but he’s bleeding pretty bad,” Wilmington said as Yosemite moved to help the judge and Virgil Watson check the downed gunmen who’d attacked the town.
Wilmington looked up in time to see Tanner hurrying toward them. “Dammit!” he muttered when he saw the gambler wearing a shit-eater’s grin and holding out his right hand.
“Mr. Wilmington, I believe you owe me two bits,” Standish said and smiled when the Texan looked confused and quickly explained the terms of the bet as Buck dug out the coins.
“Ya bet on me? What the fuck kinda friends are ya?” Tanner asked, clearly annoyed.
“The best kind…the wealthy kind,” Standish answered and smiled as he tried to defuse the anger in the other man’s eyes. "Besides, I know a sure bet when I see one and never doubted your ability to elude the grim reaper for a moment, my nimble tracker.”
“Buck, ya seen Chris?” Tanner asked. Now that the firefight seemed to be over, Vin realized there was one man he hadn’t seen.
“Not since before this mess started,” Wilmington answered and spotted Ezra exiting the hotel. “Hey, Ez, is Chris with you?”
“I have not seen Mr. Larabee since before this atrocious attack began,” Standish told them. “I do have two prisoners in need of our jail.”
“Josiah, sit down. Buck can you help Ezra round up the live ones and put them in jail until I take care of the injured,” Jackson asked, hiding the fact that his hands were shaking as he looked around the town.
“I’m going to look for Chris,” Tanner told them.
“I thought I saw him near Mary’s place just before everything went to hell,” Tom Wilson told him.
“Thanks,” the Texan said and hurried toward the building that housed both the Clarion and Mary’s home.
“I sent Yosemite out to the caves to get Mary and the others,” Travis told them. “Where’s Chris?”
“Vin’s gone lookin’ for him,” Jackson answered. “I need ta git ta the clinic. Josiah, come with me! JD, I’ll need ta look at that arm, but right now I want ya ta git the injured and make sure those who need my help come up ta the clinic.”
“Nathan, what has happened?”
Jackson turned at the familiar voice and felt his heart skip a beat. How had she gotten here and why now, why in the midst of a gunfight that could easily have gotten her killed? God, he couldn’t live with himself if something happened to her.
“Nathan, did you hear me?”
Jackson couldn’t help but smile at the beautiful woman who stood in the last vestiges of sunshine. Even though his emotions were on high alert, her presence was like a soothing bomb on the physical and emotional wounds he felt. “Rain, how did you get here?”
“We came to celebrate your return, but it does not look like a celebration,” the Seminole woman said as several others from her village joined them.
“Long story, but, God, Rain, it is good to see you,” Jackson said and hugged her close.
“We can help, Nathan. Lomasi knows about herbs and medicines. She can help you…we all can,” Rain told him.
“Thanks, Rain, right now I can use all the help I can get,” Jackson said and released her. God, it felt so good to hold her, even under these circumstances and he knew he would find a way to spend some time just holding onto the life that now surrounded him.
“Nathan, I’m going to the cave to get Mary and the others,” Orin Travis said upon entering the clinic. He knew Jackson had plenty of people to help him with the injured and wanted to check on the others.
“All right, Orin, just be careful and watch out for more of Royal and James’ men,” Jackson observed.
“I will, Yosemite is rounding up the wounded, but he’ll put them in jail until you have time to check them over,” Travis said before leaving the clinic.
Guy Royal’s Ranch
Early Evening

Conklin pulled the horses to a stop in front of the ranch and nervously looked around. There were a couple of Royal’s hands working in the corral and he started toward it, painfully aware of the dangerous man tied to the horse he led.
“Mr. Royal’s not here,” one of the men snapped.
“Cater told me to bring Larabee here,” Conklin said, his voice squeaky to his own ears as he looked at the two men.
“Larabee? Chris Larabee?” the larger of the hands asked and jumped the fence to see who the captive was. “Sonofabitch, it is Larabee. Mr. Royal’s gonna be right pleased when he gets back.”
“Then you will take care of him until he gets back?” Conklin asked.
“You’re kiddin’, right? That man’s more dangerous than a Mojave Rattler and I ain’t gonna be bit by him,” the big man snapped as the other one joined them.
“I need to get back to town before they realize I’m missing,” Conklin said.
Despite the pounding headache, Chris listened to the three men as they talked about what to do with him. During the ride to the ranch he’d been working to free his hands, but only succeeded in soaking them in his own sweat and blood. Whoever tied them had done a damn good job of making sure he didn’t escape.
“Where can I put him?” Conklin asked.
“Could throw him in the root cellar or maybe the old well,” the larger man offered.
“The old well’s probably the best place. It’s dry and he ain’t gonna be able to climb out of there trussed up like that,” the other man offered.
“Where’s the well?” Conklin asked.
“The old well won’t work…it collapsed a couple of weeks ago,” the big one said.
“Where’s the root cellar?” Conklin asked, frustrated with the two men.
“In the house,” the smaller one answered. “Ain’t sure Mr. Royal would want him in there though.”
“Then where should we put him?” Conklin snapped.
“We shouldn’t put him anywhere…he’s your prisoner and that means you get to watch him,” the big man stated. “I’m sure Mr. Royal will be beholdin’ to ya if ya guard him real good.”
Chris heard Conklin curse as he dismounted, but kept hold of both sets of reins. He felt the man’s fingers in his hair and glared at the trio who stood close to him. Conklin was a coward, but he seemed more scared of Royal than he was of him, and the two men would be of no use to him either. Maybe the root cellar was his best bet of escape, but he didn’t relish being thrown into a dark pit. If they left him face down on the horse, he just might be able to work his hands free, but the longer he waited, the harder it would be.
“Help me get him off the horse,” Conklin ordered.
“Ain’t sure that’s a smart idea,” the big one said.
“Just tie the horse to the hitchin’ post and leave him there,” the other man offered.
Conklin released his hold on Larabee’s head and walked toward the hitching post. He lopped both reins over them and moved to sit on the steps leading to the front door. God, help him, but he prayed Royal and the others were successful, because otherwise, he could be facing Orin Travis from the wrong side of the court.
Cave West of Four Corners
Early Evening

Mary, Nettie, and Casey huddle close to the cave entrance and anxiously waited for word from town. There’d been silence for nearly an hour now, and they hoped that meant good news. No one wanted to think of the possibility that Royal, James, and the other ranchers had killed the seven peacekeepers.
“There’s a rider coming,” Casey Wells said and grew quiet as they watched the trail leading to their hiding place.
“It’s Orin,” Mary said, relief evident in her voice as she hurried out to meet her father-in-law. “Is everything all right, Orin?”
“They’re gone, Mary. Nathan’s taking care of the injured, but he’s going to need more help,” the judge answered. “Is everyone all right here?”
“Everyone’s fine. The children have been really good,” Nettie assured him. “Mary, why don’t you go on back to town?  Martha and I will get the children ready.”
“Thank you, Nettie,” Mary said and turned to find her son watching her. “Billy, will you help with the other children?”
“I…sure Ma,” the boy said and reluctantly went back inside the cave.
“Was anyone hurt?” Mary asked as she walked beside the older man.
“Nothing too serious,” Travis answered.
“Orin, what’s wrong?”
“Chris is missing, but don’t go jumping to conclusions, Mary. He could have gone after Royal and…”
“Been caught,” the woman observed. “Tell me Vin and the others are looking for him?”
“Vin’s gone after him, but Nathan’s needed in town. Josiah and JD were injured and Ezra’s helping round up the prisoners and lock them up,” Travis said and saw the worry in her eyes. “Chris is strong, Mary.”
“I know, but he’s only just started to heal,” the blonde told him.
“Vin will find him,” the judge vowed, and wished he could believe that himself, as they climbed onto his horse and headed for town.
Guy Royal’s Ranch
Late Evening

Chris knew time was running out and any chance of escape was rapidly dwindling as daylight gave way to the dim light of dusk. So far he’d only seen Conklin and the two men working the horses in the corral, but if Vin and the others were able to turn back Royal and James, then they’d be here any time. He renewed his efforts to get free, but so far the ropes held fast and the horse he was tied to pawed at the ground.
“Riders coming in,” the big man observed and exited the corral as several horses entered through the gate. He reached for the rifle leaning against the fence, but relaxed when he recognized his boss.
Larabee knew things had just gone from bad to worse as he struggled to see how many men were with Royal. From the sounds of the horses he guessed there were at least half a dozen riders and Royal’s angry voice made him think things had not gone the way he planned. A hint of a smile formed as he thought about the people of Four Corners beating this man’s professionals.
“Get the bastard off that fucking horse!” Royal snarled and looked at Conklin. “What did you tell them?”
“I said nothing.  I was trying to warn you when he caught up to me,” Conklin said, his voice quivering as he backed away from the irate man.
Chris felt the ropes cut and his body tumbled from the horse, landing hard on the ground as the air escaped from his lungs in a sharp hiss. He tried to protect his lower body, but several well-placed kicks connected and again he fought to breathe. He knew Royal was his attacker and tried to escape the vicious blows, but there was no place to go except under the horse’s hooves.
“Bring him over to the fence!” Royal snapped.
Larabee managed to get his breathing under control in spite of the gag in his mouth. He fought the two men who dragged him to the corral fence, but it was no use as they released his arms just long enough to tie him to the fence post. He lifted his head and glared at the man who thought he was above the law.
“Well, if it isn’t the guest of honor,” Royal sneered, cocking his head arrogantly as he eyed the battered and bound captive, “Couldn’t be more fitting to have the only surviving member of the damned Magnificent Seven in our very midst.”
The words made his chest heave; yet Chris knew there was no way Royal’s men had taken down his men. If they had taken the town, then there’d be more of a gloating note to his voice, instead of anger. He couldn’t speak around the gag, but he managed to smile in spite of it.
“Get the gag out of his mouth!” Royal snapped and smiled as Jeb Norton did as he ordered. The man was proving to be far better than most of his men, and he was going to reward him for his loyalty. He walked over to Larabee and stood before him, before grabbing a fistful of blond hair. “You’re the last of your kind, Larabee! The last man standing and you’re only doing that because of my good nature! Before the night is over you’re going to wish you were dead! I’ll make you beg!”
“Go to hell!” Larabee rasped and kept his breathing even as he stared into the cold eyes of his nemesis.
“You’ll wish you were in hell before I’m through with you! Jeb, bring me a bottle of whiskey and my whip!”
“Yes, Sir, Mr. Royal, Sir,” Norton said and hurried into the house.
“Mr. Royal, I need to go back to town,” Conklin said and backed away as the man released his hold on Larabee.
“You should stay here and watch what you set in motion,” Royal spat.
“But I…”
“But you’re a coward! Go on and crawl back to your town. There’s not much left there anyway,” Royal ordered and watched the man hurry toward his horse. He knew he couldn’t trust the man and he would send Carter after him once the man thought he was safe, but for now he was going to enjoy taking his anger out on the leader of the town’s peacekeepers.
Four Corners
Late Evening

Nathan had never been so exhausted in his life as he finished stitching up the last of the injured prisoners. Mary and Nettie were helping with the wounded in his clinic while Inez and Casey fed the townspeople. Rain was with him, and God help him it was the first time his head had been clear of Don Garcia De Rivera.
The women and children had returned and were full of questions, but Rain’s people were gladly helping Gloria Potter with them. He looked up to see JD, a white bandage covering the wound to his arm, relieved that the youngest member of the team was showing no signs of the persistent headache he’d suffered from.
Buck, Ezra, and Tom Wilson had ridden out after Vin Tanner, and he hoped they would find Chris safe and sound. The man had been through enough hell lately, and if Royal had him, well, Nathan really didn’t want to go there.
“Nathan, you must rest now,” Rain ordered.
“I need to check on the wounded,” Jackson said.
“Mrs. Travis and Mrs. Wells are taking care of the wounded. I will take you to Inez and fill your belly before you sleep,” Rain vowed.
“Rain, I got too much to do…”
“What if you make a mistake because you are too weary to do what comes naturally to you? As a healer you must know the limits of your body. Sleep and food are something you cannot do without. Come with me…trust that your friends can do their jobs and watch out for each other.”
“JD, they won’t need anything so keep them locked up,” Jackson ordered.
“They ain’t goin’ anywhere, Nate,” Dunne vowed as he took the seat behind the desk and looked at the prisoners, anger evident in his eyes as he thought about the injuries to his friends. 
Rain hooked her right arm through Nathan’s left and led him away from the jail. Instead of heading for the saloon she took him to the area where her people had set up camp for the night. She knew they could have rooms in the hotel, but they were more comfortable under the stars. It would also give her the freedom to be with Nathan without prying eyes watching their every move.  She wanted to hold him and soothe away the hard edge of pain she saw etched in his face.
Trail to Royal’s Ranch
Late Evening

Vin knew Nathan would give him hell once he returned to town, but the only thing on his mind right now was finding Chris Larabee. He’d checked the area the blond had last been seen and found signs of a scuffle in the brush. There were at least three sets of hoof prints heading out of town.
He’d been forced to stop long enough to take care of the wounds in his side and arm, and hoped they’d hold up until he found Larabee. He knew where the horses were headed and understood that Royal was ahead of him. If he got his hands on Chris, there was no mistaking what he would do to him.
The tracker continued to ride as the dull light of dusk gave way to darkness and drew his horse to a stop when he heard riders behind him. His hand went to his Mare’s Leg, but he relaxed when a soft voice reached his ears.
“Vin, it’s us,” Wilmington said as they joined the Texan.
“Good way to get shot, Bucklin!” Tanner told him and nodded in greeting to Tom Wilson and Ezra Standish.
“We thought you might be in need of some help should you discover Mr. Larabee’s whereabouts,” Standish told him.
“Vin, are you all right?” Tom Wilson asked.
“Just got grazed,” Tanner answered.
“Sonofabitch! I knew it,” Wilmington said and turned to Standish. “You owe me and I’m aiming to collect now in case you get yourself shot.”
“Did you find his trail?” Wilson asked as Standish handed over several coins to a smug looking Wilmington.
“Yeah, two horses headed toward Royal’s place,” Tanner answered and shushed them as he turned toward the trail and signaled for them to take cover. It wasn’t long before a rider came in to view and the Texan cursed when he recognized Conklin. He waited until the man was closer and took careful aim.
Had they not been so worried about their missing leader, the sight of Conklin’s hat flying off with a hole in the center of it would have been humorous.
“What are you doing?”  Conklin asked indignantly.
“Could ask you the same thing,” Wilmington advised.
“That’s none of your business!” the upset rider snapped, and then eyed the cocky Texan. “And you could have killed me.”

“Could have?” Ezra grinned, baring his gold tooth.  “Not likely. Mistah Tanner placed the bullet exactly where it was intended.  And you haven’t answered the question.”

“I don’t have to say a damn thing” Conklin replied, eyeing the trio nervously.
“You do when there’s been an attack on the town, Mr. Conklin,” Standish told him.
“I had nothing to do with an attack. Mr. Royal doesn’t fill me in on his plans…”
“How’d ya know it was Royal?” Tanner asked, his voice deceptively calm.
“I…well, you’re headed toward his place and I guessed…”
“Why don’t I believe our friend Mr. Conklin?” Standish asked.
“I need to check his shoes,” Tanner observed and dismounted.
“Why do you need to check my shoes?” Conklin snapped.
“Not your shoes…the horse’s shoes,” Tanner said.
“What for?” Conklin asked, nervously shifting in his saddle.
“The shoes leave marks in the dirt. Whoever Chris was with rides a horse who picked up a stone,” Tanner answered. “I noticed your horse is limping.”
“He’s just tired…”
“And you’re gonna be permanently tired if you had anything to do with that attack in town and Chris being missing!” the rogue roared, not hiding his fury. “And I got a nice widow maker just the size of your puny neck.”
“You can’t do that!” Conklin spat.
“Wanna bet?” Tanner said as Wilson took the reins from Conklin’s hands.
“I’m just going to make sure you hold still while Vin checks the horse,” Wilson said with a grin.
“Conklin, if you want to save your sorry hide, you’d best tell us what you know now,” Wilmington warned.
“You can’t do this!”
“I assure you we can and we will if Mr. Tanner discovers evidence of your involvement with miscreants such as Guy Royal and Stuart James,” Standish told him as the Texan examined the horse’s rear hoof.
“It’s him,” Tanner spat and roughly pulled the grumbling man from his saddle. Hauling the nervous man to his knees, Vin pulled out his knife and held it to the man’s throat. “Does Royal have Chris?”
“How should I know?”
“Wrong answer!” Vin snapped, pressing the tip so a bead of blood appeared.
“Tom, you got any rope in your saddlebag?” Wilmington asked angrily.
“I sure do…plenty for the hangman,” Wilson said.
“No, you can’t do this!” Conklin began to sweat profusely as fear crept through his quivering body.
“Bucklin? Did this yella-bellied snake tell me what I can’t do?” Tanner snarled.

“He loathes that,” Standish added.

“Just riles him up!” Wilmington supplied as Wilson handed the rope to the tall man.
“Mr. Conklin, I know these men very well and although I am usually appalled at such behavior I am in agreement with them,” Standish said when the man turned to him for help. “Perhaps if you are willing to help us find Mr. Larabee I might be able to save your life.”
“He’ll kill me…”
“No, he won’t,” Wilmington said and began fashioning a noose. “Because you’ll be dead for hours by then.” He dangled the noose for effect.
“Will you protect me?” Conklin begged, sweat running freely.
“Pretty sad when you come to us to help save you from something you started,” Wilmington said.
“If you cooperate we might put in a good word with Judge Travis,” Standish told him.
“Royal has him,” Conklin said.
“Sonofabitch!” Wilmington cursed and struck the man with enough force to send him sprawling in the dirt.
“Tom, take Conklin back to town and get some men together. We’ll ride out to Royal’s place and see if we can get Chris out,” Wilmington told the homesteader.
“Be careful, Boys…Royal’s not a man to take things lying down,” Wilson said as Tanner ordered Conklin to get back on his horse before he trussed him up like a Christmas turkey.
Seminole Encampment, West of Four Corners
Late Evening

Rain smiled at the man lying next to her and gently massaged the tension and tightness from his upper body.  She’d taken him to her bedroll and made him sit while she gathered everything she would need to help him get the rest his body and mind craved. She looked up as her sister, Summer Breeze, brought two bowls and placed them on the ground beside her.
“Thank you,” Rain whispered and knew no one would bother them unless she asked for something. Nathan Jackson had helped her people heal after the attack by Anderson and his ghosts. Since that time he’d been to her village many times and she had helped him when he treated her ‘family’.
“Rain, I should…”
“Sh, Nathan, you should rest,” Rain said and placed a finger over his mouth. “First you need something in your belly.”
“I’m not hungry,” Jackson said, but there was no mistaking the loud rumble his stomach made.
“I would believe you if there wasn’t a monster eating away at your insides. Perhaps if you feed it we will both get some sleep,” the pretty woman told him and reached for the bowl.
“It does smell good,” the healer said and reached for the bowl, but it was moved away from his hands.
“Let me help you,” Rain said and dipped the spoon into the thick beef stew. She held it in front of his mouth and smiled when he accepted the offering. Before she gave him the second spoonful, she gently kissed his lips and hoped she could help him heal.
Nathan swallowed the food, enjoying the way she cared for him and relishing in, not just the taste of the stew, but also the sweet nectar of her kiss after each bite. This was a woman he could happily spend the rest of his life with, but would she accept him, even with his shortcomings. How could he ask her to live with him as his wife, when she thrived in the freedom of her people?
“Nathan, would you like some coffee or something stronger?”
“Coffee is good, Rain,” he told her and sat up as she moved toward the fire at the center of the camp. These people were her home and she loved them, but she loved him too. Could they have both worlds or was that asking too much? God, he wanted her to hold him, needed to feel her body pressed against his, but could he ask that of her while her people were so close?
The Seminole people were good and honest and they lived together in peace without the harsh constraints of the white people. Could they be happy together without everyone judging them? How could he ask her to live with him, when she thrived in the village? No matter how badly he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her, it always came down to the harsh reality of prejudice.
He’d seen it and lived with it every day of his life and their time in the De Rivera Hacienda had proven just how widespread the disease was. For that’s exactly how he saw prejudice, as a disease that didn’t seem to have a cure and one that needed it just as badly as malaria and cholera. The problem was, those diseases would be cured someday, but so many people seemed to be locked in the dark ages and would never see the light of day. The color of a person’s skin should not be used to judge them, God had created them all and they should not judge lest they too wanted to be judged.
“Are you sleeping, Nathan?”
“I’m awake, Rain,” Jackson said and opened his eyes as the moonlight shone down on them. “God, Woman, you are more beautiful than a summer day.”
“Oh, Nathan, I am not…”
“Sh, lie down beside me, Rain, let me hold you for a little while,” the healer said.
“Why not forever, Nathan Jackson?”
“Forever is a long time.”
“Then that is what I want…forever in your arms to love…”
“If that’s what you want.”
“Is it not what you want?”
“More than anything else in the world, but I don’t deserve you, Rain.” Jackson said and swallowed the lump that formed in his throat as he looked into her eyes.
“Yes, you do,” Rain said and stretched out beside him with her head resting on his shoulder. “Sleep, Nathan, I will take care of you.”
Nathan smiled and knew she would protect him as he would her. Tonight they would be together, but who knew what tomorrow would bring. He thought about something Chris had once said to him and knew the answer as surely as he knew his own name.
‘Cause you lost ‘em, are you sorry you ever had them?’
“No, no I’m not,” Jackson whispered.
“Did you say something, Nathan?”
“No,” the healer said and pulled her closer as a lone bird twittered in the nearby trees. Why couldn’t they just spend the rest of their lives right here, wrapped in each other’s arms without a care in the world? 

PART 1 / PART 2 / PART 3 / PART 4 / PART 5 / PART 6 / PART 7 / PART 8 / PART 9 / PART 11


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