by Winnie


Royal Ranch
Late Evening

“Turn him around and get rid of his shirt!” Royal ordered, anger evident in his tone as Chris Larabee continued to stare at him. The man’s eyes were coldly calculating and filled with anger, but there was no fear in them.
Chris struggled to get free, but it was no use as something struck him in the lower back and he fell to his knees. His arms were pulled to the side and he was forced to stand as rope was wrapped around his wrists.
“All right, Boys, stand back,” Royal said and moved to the bound man. He grabbed a fistful of blond hair and pulled back, exposing the corded muscles of Larabee’s neck. “It’s time you learned that out here, I’m God!”
“Go to Hell!” Larabee snarled and grunted when his head was slammed against the post.
“Well, it looks like someone else thought they should teach you a lesson, but they didn’t teach you well enough. I won’t make that same mistake,” Royal said and snapped the whip.
Chris gritted his teeth as the whip struck his back and fire erupted along the trail it left there. He felt a second strike, followed quickly by a third, but through the haze of pain he heard something that sounded like heaven.
Vin, Buck, and Ezra rode into the yard, firing their guns as they dismounted near Larabee. They’d seen what Royal was doing and knew they had the element of surprise on their side. They took down four of Royal’s men before Royal even realized the danger. 
“Kill the bastards!” Royal snapped.
“Vin, on your left!” Wilmington said as one of Royal’s men drew a bead on him.
“Cut me down!” Larabee ordered.
Buck moved in front of Larabee, as Ezra took out a knife and quickly freed him before handing him a gun and firing at another man. “You all right?”
“I am now.” The blond snapped off two quick shots and heard a distinct cry of pain as he ducked for cover in the barn, with Buck and Ezra right behind him. “Thanks for joining the party even if your timing was a little off!”
“I would venture to say our timing is impeccable,” Standish said as he fired at a man hiding behind the horse trough.
“He’s right,” Wilmington said and grinned. “You’re alive aren’t you?”
“Buck, on your left!” Tanner warned as he raced toward the entrance to the barn. He knew they’d be sitting ducks if they stayed where they were and that Royal could simply burn them out. Would the man do that to his own property?
“Burn the bastards out!” Royal ordered from the front door of his home.
“Out the back!” Tanner ordered and smelled smoke from the loft.
“Can you make it, Pard?” Wilmington asked.
“No choice in the matter,” Larabee said and kept low as he followed Tanner toward what they hoped would mean salvation.
“Don’t let them escape through the back!” Royal ordered.
“Bastard’s sending his men to fight while he cowers in the house!” Wilmington snapped and kept close to Larabee and Tanner. He saw Ezra near the front door and motioned for the man to join them even as Standish took several shots in quick succession. “Ez! Let’s go!”
“I’m right behind you!” Standish snapped and raced after his friends as Tanner got the back door open. There were several shots fired, but the four peacekeepers managed to make it out of the barn and raced toward a wagon that had been turned over sometime in the last few months.
“Mr. Royal, they got out!” Jeb Norton called.
“Sonofabitch! What the hell am I paying you for?” Royal snarled.
“Ya got him a mite riled, Larabee,” Tanner observed and fired at the fool who raised his head near the front of the barn.
“I don’t have Ezra’s knack for tact,” the blond snarled as Wilmington took down another of Royal’s men. 
“How many men does Royal have?” Standish asked as flames shot through the roof of the barn. The dry weather aided the flames as the wood went up like kindling.
“Too many!” Tanner said. “Buck, we need to get the horses and get out of here!”
“We left the horses out front…they probably ran off already!”  Wilmington told him and knew the Texan was right.
“There’s a couple tied up out in front of the house. You boys think you can cover me?” Larabee said and heard Wilmington chuckle.
“Sure, but since we need this done fast how ‘bout we let Tanner get them,” Wilmington said with a grin.
“Was hoping one of you would go,” Larabee said, breathing heavily as he sat down in the dirt with a grunt. “Buck, you and Ezra cover him and make sure he doesn’t get any more holes in that coat. I’m not in the mood to listen to him whine about it being so damn drafty!”
“I ain’t gonna whine!”
“Good…go…be careful,” Larabee ordered and met the Texan’s eyes before the tracker took off across the back of the yard. He closed his eyes and listened as Wilmington and Standish laid down cover fire for their friend. He knew he had to help, but right now he was having a tough time just sitting here and knew if the wind blew any harder he’d be flat on his back. Taking a deep breath, Chris forced his legs beneath him and managed to get to his knees. He fired at several shadows near the barn that was now engulfed in flames and heard Guy Royal say something about not letting the flames spread to the rest of the ranch.
Vin made it to the end of the corral without incident and stayed behind cover as Buck and Ezra fired several shots at Royal’s men. In the flickering light from the barn fire he counted four dead and at least two others injured. He kept to the shadowy darkness and hurried toward the side of the house in time to hear Royal tell his men to keep the flames from spreading. It was kind of ironic considering he was the man who ordered the burning of the barn in the first place. 
Tanner reached the side of the house and took a deep breath before checking the front of the house. He could see Royal talking to one man as several others raced toward the horse trough, but he knew there’d be no saving the barn. If the sparks landed on the roof of the house it was a pretty sure bet the structure would go just as quickly as the barn.
There were several horses tethered to a hitching post on the opposite side of the house and he knew he could go around the house to reach them. They were skittish and reared up on their hind legs as the flames crackled and part of the barn caved in. The nimble tracker raced around the back of the house, listing as several more shots were fired and cursing men like Royal who were bigger fools than anyone knew. He reached the far side and glanced around the corner as Royal cursed and another part of the barn was engulfed in flames.
Tanner quickly crossed the short distance between the house and the tethered horses. He could hear shouts from Royal’s men, but right now he needed to get the horses and get back to his friends. They needed to escape while Royal’s people were busy fighting the fire their boss had ordered them to start.
“Stupid is as stupid does,” he whispered and took the reins of each horse before leading them toward the back of the house. They fought his lead, but he kept away from their rearing hooves and held tight to the reins as he dragged them past the house. He heard several more shouts from the front of the house, but ignored them until he was ready to race across the clearing between the side of the house and the end of the corral.
“Mr. Royal…the house…the roof’s on fire!”
‘Serves ‘im right,’ Tanner thought and continued toward the place where the others waited.
“Vin?” Wilmington called softly.
“Yeah, it’s me. We gotta go while they’ fightin’ the fire,” Tanner said once he joined them. He looked at Larabee and could see the man was in pain, but there was nothing he could do for him now. “You okay ta ride?”
“No, but let’s do it anyway!” Larabee said and swore as he tried to stand.
“He can ride with me,” Wilmington said.
“I can…”
“Only got three horses, Larabee, so someone’s gotta double up, might as well be you and Buck. We ain’t got time fer arguin’ so come on and I’ll help ya up,” Tanner ordered.
“I can do it!” Larabee said and managed to get to his feet, but would have fallen if not for the tracker’s quick reflexes. He sucked in a deep breath of air as Vin and Buck helped him onto the horse and Buck climbed up behind him.
“Buck, you got ‘im?” Tanner asked once Wilmington climbed onto the horse behind him.
“Yeah, come on, Boys, let’s ride,” the rogue said and made sure he could hold onto the injured blond as more shouts rose up behind them.
Seminole Encampment, West of Four Corners

Nathan knew the instant Rain fell asleep in his arms and stared into the face that defined beauty. The bright moonlight bathed her features in the purest light and he felt his heart swell with love. It didn’t matter what others thought, he wanted this woman at his side. He wanted his children to be born of her womb and he wanted them to grow up in a world where they could be at peace with who they were.
Jackson turned on his side and heard a soft moan escape her supple lips and wished he could lose himself in this moment forever, but the sound of approaching footsteps brought reality crashing down on him.
“Nathan, we found Chris…he needs you,” Wilmington didn’t take time to acknowledge the tender moment he’d interrupted, but hoped Jackson would understand.
“What? How bad?” Jackson said worriedly.
“Is something wrong, Nathan?” Rain asked and blinked the sleep from her eyes.
“Chris’ hurt. I gotta go,” Jackson answered.
“I will gather the herbs we brought and bring them to you,” Rain offered and kissed him before hurrying away.
“Where is he?” Jackson asked.
“In the clinic,” the rogue answered. “Royal had him…he’s beat up some and he’s been whipped.”
“Again,” Jackson snapped and hurried back to the town. He took the steps up to the clinic two at a time and entered to find Chris putting up a token fight with Mary Travis and Martha Wilson.
“I don’t need my pants off!” Larabee spat.
“Mary, you and Martha see if’n ya can get me some bandages for this ornery cuss,” Jackson ordered, relieved the two women didn’t argue as Josiah filled a cup with whiskey and brought it to Larabee who gratefully drained it.
“Chris, what did the bastards do to you?” Jackson asked, angered by the new bruises and whip marks on Larabee’s body.
“Tell me, Chris, all of it,” the healer ordered, his voice leaving no room for refusal.
“Beat up a bit and he took a whip to my back,” Larabee answered skirting the issues slightly, yet he knew he had to be truthful to this man and took a slow, steady breath. “Hit me in the lower back with something.”
“So we need to watch for blood,” Jackson said and nodded when Josiah added carbolic to the water. “Okay, let’s get them whip marks looked after then I’ll take a look at the rest of ya.”
Chris nodded and wished he had another glass of whiskey, but he knew that would not happen. He looked at Nathan as the man measured out a dose of laudanum and offered it to him. He wanted to argue, but something in the soulful brown eyes made him take it without putting up even a token protest.
“Where do you want this, Nathan,” Dunne asked when he picked up the basin of carbolic and water.
“Bring it here, JD. Buck pull over a chair,” Jackson ordered. “Chris, it’ll be easier to take care of your back if you sit on the chair.”
“Okay,” Larabee agreed and sat backward so he could rest his arms on the chair. He swallowed several times as Nathan’s hands gently cleaned each wound.
“Sorry, Chris, but it ain’t too bad,” Jackson said. “You’re gonna be a mite sore for a few days, but as longs as we keep these clean you’ll be fine.”
“Thanks, Nathan,” Larabee said as Jackson finished cleaning the wounds. He felt him touching his lower back in several places and knew he was checking the area where Royal’s men had struck him.
“All right, Chris, where else did he hit you?”
“Took a couple of kicks to the ribs,” Larabee answer tiredly.
“All right, I’ll have a look at them once we get you settled in bed,” Jackson told him.
“I can go back to my room,” the blond said.
“I don’t think so. Not tonight anyway. Josiah is staying put…supposed to be resting, so that bed’s yours for tonight.”
“What about you?” Larabee asked.
“Nathan will stay with me,” Rain said from the open doorway. She’d gathered the herbs they’d brought with them and heard the last of the conversation in the clinic.
“Thanks, Rain,” Jackson said.
“You are welcome…I will wait for you outside,” Rain said and smiled before leaving the seven men alone.
“Nathan,” Wilmington said once they had the gunslinger lying down on the bed.
“What is it, Buck?” the healer asked.
“Ya might want to take a look at, Vin. Seems he neglected to tell you he caught one,” Wilmington told him and received a Texas sized glare from Tanner.
“Where to, Vin,” Jackson asked.
“You could probably find it if you inspect his jacket,” Standish offered.
“Here,” Tanner said and removed his jacket. He knew there was no point in arguing and removed his shirt too. “Took a chunk outta my side too.”
“I can see that,” Jackson said and waited for Wilmington to get clean water. He glanced at Larabee who seemed half asleep and knew the laudanum would soon put him out. “All right, Vin, let’s clean this up.”
Tanner sat in the chair Larabee had vacated and fought down a groan as Jackson cleaned the graze on his arm. He knew that wasn’t too bad, but the burning in his right side told him that was the one that would give him fits. He felt the healer wrap a bandage around his arm and knew he was right that it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
“All right, now let’s see that side,” Jackson said and motioned for Vin to move to the cot Josiah had been using earlier. “Lie down. JD, pour me some of that laudanum.”
“I don’t need it right now,” Tanner said.
“You will once I start putting stitches in you. The bullet did take a good chunk of your hide with it, but like Chris we just need to keep it clean. The laudanum will let you sleep too and God knows we all need that.”
“Here you go, Nate,” Dunne said.
“Thanks, Kid,” Tanner said and took the medicine. He closed his eyes as Jackson stitched the wound closed and heard Buck ask about Conklin.
“He’s in jail. The Judge said he might go easy on him if he agrees to testify against Stuart James and Guy Royal. Maybe we should ride on out there and arrest them,” Dunne observed.
“Something tells me Guy Royal has his hands full right now,” Wilmington said.
“What do you mean?” Sanchez asked.
“Mr. Royal decided to burn us out when we took refuge in his barn. The last time we saw him he was fighting to save his home, but nothing short of a downburst would extinguish those flames,” Standish offered.
“Good, maybe the town can rest easy,” Jackson observed.
“Tom and Yosemite are making sure there’s someone on watch at all times,” Sanchez explained.
“Good, then the rest of you should get some sleep,” Larabee whispered.
“I thought you were sleeping, Pard,” Wilmington said.
“I am,” the blond said with a grin.
“Okay, Buck, you stay here with Chris and Vin. Josiah, are you okay to sleep in your own bed?” Jackson asked.
“I’m fine as long as JD can help me to the church,” the ex-preacher told them.
“Good, Ezra you get some sleep too and JD, after you get Josiah home check the prisoners and get some sleep,” the healer ordered and looked at Vin. “Stay put and take advantage of the quiet while ya got it.”
“Thanks, Nate, I think ya got someone waitin’ fer ya…now if’n yer not gonna go with her I can keep her warm,” Tanner teased.
“I don’t think so, Vin, and if I hear tell of you going anywhere near her I’ll take those stitches out and find a dull needle to put in some more,” Jackson warned and looked around the room. JD, Josiah, and Ezra had already left and he smiled at the woman on the landing before leaving Buck to look out for the injured men.
Four Corners
Early Morning

Chris listened to the two men talking and slowly opened his eyes as Orin Travis came into Jackson’s clinic. Buck and Vin stopped their conversation and looked at the judge as he pulled a chair closer to Larabee.
“Good Morning, Chris, how do you feel?”
“Stiff,” the blond answered and eased his legs over the edge of the bed as Wilmington brought him a cup of coffee. “How’s the town?”
“Quiet,” Tanner answered.
“We need to…”
“You need to rest until Nathan says otherwise,” Travis warned. “Chris, you and the others saved this town…again, but you didn’t do it without injury. Most of you are up and about, but Josiah, you, and Vin are hurt and need to rest.”
“We need to get James and Royal,” Larabee dictated.
“Yes, we do, but they can wait until you boys are in shape to take them down. Conklin is already talking and hoping I’ll go easy on him…”
“That little weasel needs to be taught a lesson. Tell me you’re not gonna let him get away with what he did?” Wilmington asked.
“He’s a coward, Buck,” Larabee said and rubbed his lower back. “If he can help us get Royal and James maybe we can just run him out of town.”
“We could send him to visit Sheriff Stains in Eagle Bend,” Wilmington said.
“Now that would be justice,” Tanner said with a grin as Nathan and Ezra came with trays of food and hot coffee.
“Morning, Judge,” Jackson said as Travis looked at his pocket watch.
“It is still morning…how did you manage to get Ezra out of bed?”
“I told him it was either help with breakfast or changing bedding this afternoon…”
“I informed Mr. Jackson that I simply abhor manual labor and chose the lesser of two evils,” Standish proclaimed as Josiah and JD joined them.
“Looks like you’re all here,” Travis observed.
“What do you want to do about Royal and James?” Larabee asked, unhappy with the fact that the two men were still free.
“How many of you can sit a horse without falling off?” Travis asked.
“I can ride,” Dunne vowed.
“There is nothing to keep me from riding after those two nefarious delinquents,” the conman observed.
“I can ride,” Tanner told them.
“Like hell you can,” Jackson interrupted with a shake of his head. “Chris, Vin, and Josiah are out, Judge, but I can ride.”
“Us?” Dunne’s voice pitched to an unnatural high.  “Are you riding along, Judge?”
“I thought it would make things easier if Royal and James’ men knew I was part of the posse taking their bosses in,” Travis said.
“But you’re kinda …”
“Are you implying I am too ancient and decrepit to partake in a mission such as this?”
“Well… I mean a man of your years shouldn’t…”  Dunne rambled, blushing a shade of red that would make Vin proud.
“Somebody take the shovel from the boy,” Sanchez advised dryly.
“Yup,” Vin chuckled, “The kid’s done dug a deep enough hole already.”
“Oh, sorry, that’s not what I meant. I meant you should wait here until we get back,” Dunne said.
“Because, at my age, I might slow you down,” Travis observed.
“Yeah…no…I mean…”  JD halted his precarious statement when he saw most of his friends shaking their heads in a negative fashion and Buck pull his hand across his throat in a ‘shut up now’ message. “Uh…I’d be proud to ride with you.”

“Nice comeback, son,” Travis kept a straight face. “Round up those men, Buck, and let’s get moving.”
“My pleasure,” Wilmington winked at Dunne and left the clinic.
“Judge, be careful. James and Royal are dangerous and they think they’re above the law,” Larabee warned. He hated the idea of staying in the clinic while his friends and the people of this town rode against two of the biggest ranchers in the territory. He just hoped they’d made a dent in their hired hands and that Buck, Nathan, Ezra, and JD knew not to go after them unless the odds were in their favor. He didn’t want to lose anyone else he cared about.
“You boys stay put…we’ll manage,” Travis said.
“Josiah, ride herd on them two if ya have to. I don’t want to see none of ya followin’ us,” Jackson warned.
“Don’t worry about us, Brother, go with God and keep Him at your side. He’ll protect all of you or face my wrath,” Sanchez vowed as Jackson followed the judge out of the clinic.
Josiah watched Larabee and Tanner and understood what they were feeling, but right now they would be a liability if they rode with the posse. A single clap of thunder followed the sound of rain on the roof of the clinic.  He silently prayed it would not become a full-blown storm. “Well, Boys, since we’re in the waiting game why don’t we do justice to the food because I’d prefer not to face Inez’s wrath if it’s wasted.”
Guy Royal’s Ranch
Late Morning

“Hold up, Boys,” Wilmington ordered and held up his hand for the others to stop. The heavy downpour of rain had stopped not long after they left the town and they’d all breathed a sigh of relief that they wouldn’t have to delay the arrest of the two ranchers. Smoke was visible above the horizon and there was no mistaking the smell of burning wood. The last time he’d been here he’d seen flames billowing up from the barn and Royal yelling at his men to keep the house from catching fire.
“What’s wrong, Buck?” Dunne asked softly. They had rounded up most of the townsmen and rode out within an hour of the judge ordering the posse. They had a dozen men riding with them including Yosemite, Watson, and Tom Wilson. 
“We need to be careful, Kid. Royal’s place is just over the next rise. Best if we split up. Ezra, take Tom, Yosemite, and Virgil and ride in from the east,” Wilmington said.
“Give us approximately ten minutes to get into position,” Standish told him.
“Be careful,” Travis warned as Standish and the others split off and Buck rode slightly ahead.
“Where are you going?” Dunne asked.
“I’ll be right back, Kid, just stay put and wait for my signal,” Wilmington ordered and rode away from the others. He topped the rise and kept to the tree line as he looked down at Royal’s ranch. There were horses in the corral, the barn, house and surroundings burned to the ground, but still smoldered in places. There was no sign of Royal, and the bodies of the men who’d been killed were still lying on the ground. He turned and quickly signaled for JD to join him.
“Buck, it’s been five minutes,” Dunne said from beside the ladies’ man.
“I know, tell the others it’s time,” Wilmington said and waited for the Bostonian to get the posse and bring them to him.
“It looks deserted,” Travis observed.
“I know, but we still need to be careful,” Wilmington said and led the others toward Royal’s home. There was still no movement except for the horses in the corral as Buck spotted Ezra and the others riding in from the other side. They drew their guns, ready for any sign of trouble, but aside from the wind rustling the leaves, and the occasional spark from the smoldering ruins all remained silent.
“It appears Mr. Royal has fled the scene with his tail between his legs like the cowardly weasel he is,” Standish said when they met in front of the burned out house.
“Figured he’d highlight it out of here,” the rogue told them.
“Where would he go?” Dunne asked.
“Maybe he’s hiding out with James,” Wilson said.
“Guess we’d best find out, but first we need to make sure this place is deserted,” Wilmington told them. He dismounted and checked the bodies, but they were dead and would need to be taken care of once they finished with Royal and James. He made the sign of the cross and turned to find Standish watching him.
“Sometimes you surprise me, Mr. Wilmington.”
“It pays to have friends in high places,” the rogue said with a slight grin as they finished searching the ranch, but found no sign of the rancher or his men.
“They’re gone,” Dunne observed.
“We’ll come back and bury the dead, but right now we need to move before James has a chance to hightail it out of here,” Wilmington said and reached for his horse’s reins. He knew it would take them about an hour to reach Stuart James ranch and hoped Royal was there with him. It was time the two men learned they could not take the law into their own hands, nor could they re-write the law to suit their own needs.
Four Corners
Early Afternoon

Josiah watched over the town, but his main concern was the two men seated beside him. Neither man had spoken since they’d come outside to wait for word on the men who rode out to Royal’s place. Mary, Nettie, Inez, and Martha had brought coffee and cake as well as sandwiches and fruit, but most of it was still on the table inside the clinic.
“Since sitting here is about as exciting as watching the grass grow I’m going to go check on Conklin,” Sanchez said and headed for the stairs.
“At least he’s stopped yelling,” Larabee observed. The man had been constantly shouting to be released right up to the time Chris had taken his gun, fired a shot at the jail and told him to shut the hell up or they’d put a muzzle on him like a mad dog deserved.
“I’ll go check on him and then see what Inez has for lunch,” Sanchez told them and left the two men alone.
Chris leaned back in the chair, wincing when his abused skin rubbed against the surface. He heard Vin wince in sympathy and couldn’t help, but smile at the other man. He watched as Vin stood up and went into the clinic, chuckling softly when Tanner returned with Ezra’s flask. “How the hell did you get that?”
“Ezra gave it to me before they left. He said you’d appreciate it more than the laudanum Nate left,” the Texan said and handed the blond the silver flask.
“Remind me I owe Ezra a drink,” Larabee said and took a drink of the whiskey, surprised to find it wasn’t the stuff Ezra usually drank, and much more to his liking.
“You and me both,” Tanner said and reached for the flask.
Chris watched as Mary Travis exited her home and began to deliver her newspaper. God, the woman was beautiful, and maybe it was time he seriously thought about setting down roots again. Billy was a wonderful boy and he loved spending time with him, and it wasn’t like he was trying to replace Sarah and Adam. God only knew how much he still loved them, but somehow he knew Sarah would not want him to spend the rest of his life alone.
Larabee leaned forward as the stage came into town and a man exited it and looked toward the newspaperwoman. He strode purposefully toward her and Chris felt a pang of jealousy when he saw Mary smile at the newcomer.
“Ain’t right, Chris.”
“What ain’t right?” Larabee asked, but didn’t take his eyes off the people across the street.
“Woman like that…ain’t gonna be long ‘fore she catches a man’s eye.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” Larabee told him and stood up.
“Where ya goin’?”
“What?” Larabee asked, but didn’t take his eyes off Mary Travis and the man who came in on the stage.
“Thought ya was goin’ somewhere. He’s a right good lookin’ fella ain’t he…jest the type ta turn a woman’s head,” the Texan teased.
“I want to read the paper,” Larabee said. He grabbed his shirt, but heard the other man chuckle as he headed for the stairs.
“She’s comin’ this way, Cowboy.”
“Huh? What?” Larabee asked and heard footsteps on the stairs.
“Afternoon, Mary.”
“Good afternoon, Vin, how are you feeling?” Mary asked.
“I’m good…Larabee’s as grouchy as a bear with a burr on his…behind,” Tanner said with a grin.
“Chris, did you take some of the laudanum Nathan left for you?” Mary asked and spotted the flask beside Vin’s chair. “Don’t tell me you’ve been drinking?” 
“Just had a sip, Mary, to ease the pain,” Larabee told her and glared at Tanner when the man snorted softly.
“Nathan says whisky just makes a wound bleed more, so maybe I’ll just take this until Ezra returns for it,” Mary said and smiled as she slipped it into the pocket of her apron.
“Where’s Billy?” Larabee asked.
“He’s playing with David and Jane,” Mary told him.
“Who’s the newcomer?” Tanner asked.
“Some salesman who thinks we all need to see his catalog,” Mary said.
“I take it you don’t like him?” Larabee asked and heard Vin mutter something under his breath.
“He’s pushy and obnoxious,” Mary said.
“If he causes problems jest send him to Chris. He’ll send him and his catalog packin’,” Tanner told her.
“I doubt he’ll be here that long. Have you two eaten yet?” Mary asked.
“Josiah’s checking on Conklin and then he’ll see what Inez made for lunch,” Larabee told her.
“I made chicken stew and apple cobbler,” Mary offered.
“Wouldn’t want to put you to any trouble, Mary,” Larabee said.
“It’s no trouble. I’ll tell Josiah I’m bringing you dinner,” Mary said.
“I’d like some too if’n it ain’t too much trouble,” Tanner told her.
“I think there’s enough for two,” the newspaperwoman said and smiled as she looked at Larabee. “I’ll bring it as soon as I finish with the papers…unless you’re hungry now.”
“We can wait,” Larabee said.
“Maybe you can, Lar’bee, but I’m wastin away ta nothin’.”
“Oh, Vin…”
“He’s teasing, Mary, we can wait,” the blond said and watched her leave.
“Yep, a man would have ta be a fool not ta make a move,” Tanner said.
“I’m no fool,” Larabee said.
“No, you’re not,” the Texan agreed as they settled back to watch over the town.
Stuart James Ranch

Wilmington watched as Ezra, Tom, Virgil, and Yosemite rode toward the north side of the James ranch and looked at his pocket watch. A fleeting memory of Terry Greer and her daughter Olivia made him smile and he hoped they were doing okay in San Francisco. He’d heard from her a year after they met and she’d told him she’d met a man who had asked her to marry him. They were wed not long after and according to a letter he’d received a month ago they were happy and she was expecting their first child.
Buck had sent two men ahead and hoped they’d been able to find a good vantage point so they could keep James’ men pinned down. Vin was the best in such a position, but Danny and Richard Perkins were pretty good with a rifle. As long as they went undetected, the young men would be fine.
“Buck, are you all right?” Dunne asked.
“I’m all right…just thinking about Terry and Olivia Greer,” Wilmington answered.
“Ever wonder what would have happened if they’d stayed in town?”
“A time or two,” Wilmington said and put the watch away as he signaled the others. “Be careful and keep your eyes open. If Royal’s here then his men are too. Judge, maybe you…”
“I can handle a gun,” the older man said and motioned for him to lead the way. They rode into the yard, surprised when there was little movement until James stepped out of his house and stood on the top step.
“What do you want, Wilmington?” Stuart James snapped.
“We’re here to take you in to stand trial, James,” Wilmington said.
“This is my land and you have no authority here!”
“He might not, but I do,” Travis said and rode up beside Wilmington. “You and your men are under arrest for attempted murder and at least a dozen other charges I can think of.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Judge, I’ve been on a business trip and only got back this morning,” James told him.
“Really? What kind…”
“Judge, you’re not buying into this?” Wilmington asked in disgust.
“A man is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, Buck, so hold on a minute. Now, Mr. James, what kind of business trip was it?”
“I don’t see how that’s any of your business,” the rancher snapped.
“It is if it’s a defense to a very serious charge. Now, what kind of business trip was it?” Travis asked and could feel the mounting tension in the men he rode with.
“Cattle buying,” James answered.
“How many head of cattle did you buy and who did you buy them from?”
“A fella over in the next county,” James answered and would make damn sure he sent a message to the man that he better back up his story or he’d find himself on the wrong end of a gun.
“How long were you gone and how many head of cattle did you buy?” Travis asked.
“Come on, Judge, don’t let him do this!” Wilmington snarled as Ezra joined him and leaned in close enough so that only Buck could hear what he had to say.
“Patience, Mr. Wilmington, I believe Judge Travis is giving James enough rope to fashion his own noose.” Ezra sat back and smiled as Travis baited the hook and allowed Stuart James to hang himself.
“A couple of hundred head…he told me he wanted to get out of the business and I agreed to purchase them at an incredible price,” James answered.
“Charles Smith?” Travis tightened the noose slyly.

“Yeah…that’s’ him.” James agreed readily.
“I’m sure you did considering he lost most of his herd to Texas fever a month ago. Mr. Smith killed himself shortly after killing his herd,” Travis said.
“Smith is dead?” Wilmington asked. He didn’t know the man, but had heard of him and knew he had a substantial ranch in the next county.
“Yes, he is. His wife took their children back east and asked me to oversee the sale of the ranch,” Travis said as James began backing up. “Buck, would you place Mr. James under arrest. I am adding perjury to the charges already in place.”
“My pleasure, Judge,” Wilmington dismounted as James reached for his gun, but a bullet placed next to his head made him reconsider and raise his hands. “Ezra, you and JD help round up the rest of his men. Yosemite, you and Tom check the house.”
“As you said…it would be my pleasure,” Standish said.
“Is Guy Royal here?” Travis asked.
“Why would he be here?” James asked angrily.
“Because he’s a coward like you,” Wilmington said and secured the man’s arms behind his back. “If he ain’t here then he’s left you to take the blame for all of this. You sure know how to pick your friends.” 
“Buck, ain’t no one inside,” Yosemite said when he and Tom finished checking the house. 
“Like I said…he left you to face the court alone and with the witnesses we have there won’t be much of a trial,” Wilmington said. He watched as JD and Ezra used a couple of James’ men to hook up a wagon and nodded when JD climbed into the front and brought it closer.
“Mr. Dunne and I figured it would be simpler if we were to put them all in the wagon,” Standish said.
“Smart move,” Wilmington said as he looked at the prisoners. He knew most of them were simply following orders, and probably would be set free, especially if they testified against Stuart James. “All right, Boys, let’s get this vermin back to town and locked up.”
Four Corners
Early Evening

Chris Larabee glanced at the man seated next to him on the landing of Jackson’s clinic. He knew Tanner was as worried as he was about their friends. It seemed like an eternity had passed since the posse had ridden out and the men should have been back, but truth was it could still be hours before they returned if they ran into trouble.
Josiah had gone to the saloon to get supper and would make sure something was sent to the clinic for him and Vin, but his appetite was non-existent at the moment.
Guy Royal and Stuart James were not likely to give up easily and felt they were the privileged few that didn’t need to adhere to the laws like everyone else. It was about damn time that the two ranchers were made to pay for what they did. He just hoped the cost wasn’t the lives of his friends. 
“They’ll be okay, Chris,” Tanner said softly.
“I know…just don’t like not…”
“Bein’ with ‘em,” the Texan said and saw Larabee nod slightly. “Trust ‘em.”
“I do,” Larabee said and stood up at the sound of approaching horses. A smile formed, but quickly dissipated when he saw just two riders…JD and Tom Wilson. He had to force himself to breathe as they reached the landing and Dunne bounded up the stairs. “Where are the others, Kid?”
“Royal high-tailed it…”
“Not Royal,” Larabee stated as Wilson joined them. “Buck, Ezra….the judge?”
“They’re coming in with Stuart James,” Dunne said and frowned when he heard a huff of air from Larabee. “What’s wrong?”
“Ya gotta learn ta tell us the important stuff first, Kid,” Tanner said and watched Sanchez limping toward the clinic.
“I thought I did,” Dunne said with a shake of his head as Wilson began to speak.
“Guy Royal’s place is burnt out. We thought he might have gone to James’ ranch, but he wasn’t there either. Buck and Ezra are riding in with James and his men and should be here in an hour or so.  The judge sent us ahead to make sure Royal never came back here.”
“Ain’t seen hide or hair of the coward,” Tanner said.
“Tom, was anyone hurt?” Larabee asked.
“No, Chris, everyone’s fine,” Wilson said as Sanchez reached them and knew by the look on the man’s face he’d heard the last part of the conversation.
“JD, would you let Mary know Judge Travis and the others are all right?” Larabee asked.
“Sure, Chris,” Dunne said and hurried down the stairs.
Chris smiled when he heard Casey shouting Dunne’s name and the kid’s vehement answer that he was a grown man and didn’t have time for any foolishness. When would JD realize the reason Casey stopped him and asked about the others wasn’t just concern, but relief that he was back and unharmed?
“Looks like Conklin’s gonna have lot of comp’ny,” Tanner observed.
“I couldn’t ask for a better punishment for either man. The Lord does seem to have a wicked sense of humor at times like this. If we gave them both a gun maybe they’d just shoot each other and save the judge the trouble of a trial,” Sanchez told them.
“I wish,” Larabee offered and knew life was never that simple. “Tom, you sure Royal wasn’t hiding out at James’ place?”
“We searched the spread, Chris. Even talked to some of the hands who weren’t involved in the shootings and they said they hadn’t seen Royal since last month,” Wilson explained.
“The bastard ain’t gonna let this go, Chris,” Tanner said.
“I know, but he’s going to be licking his wounds for a while,” Larabee said and looked from Tanner to Sanchez. “He’s lost everything and I doubt he’ll be able to mount an attack for a while. We’ll just have to wait until the town’s dealt with this last attack and keep an eye out for Royal. I’ll talk to the judge about putting a bounty out on him.”
“That’s a good idea,” Wilson said. “Keep him running with a price on his head. It couldn’t happen to a more deserving man.”
“Well, Boys, I was in the middle of supper when I heard JD and Tom ride in,” Sanchez said and slapped his hands on his legs with a grin. “So, I’m gonna go finish a couple of burritos…”
“I thought ya was bringin’ me and Chris supper,” Tanner griped.
“I guess I could bring you the couldins’,” Sanchez said.
“Couldins?” Larabee asked.
“Sure….what you couldin’ eat yesterday you eat today,” the ex-preacher said with a toothy grin.
“If it’s Inez’s couldins’ I’ll take seconds,” Tanner told him and heard Wilson laugh.
“Well, Boys, I’d best go see Martha or she’ll make me eat couldins’ for a month,” the homesteader said and hurried down the stairs, leaving the two men alone on the landing.
“Ain’t no point worryin’ ‘bout Royal, Chris,” Tanner said of the brooding Larabee.
“I know, but the bastard worries me, Vin.  He’s not going to take losing his ranch lightly and he’s already angry with this town. It might take him a while to get more men, but when he does he’ll be back.”
“Then we just make sure we’re ready fer ‘im…ain’t nothin’ more we can do,” Tanner told him and lapsed into silence as they waited for the others to return.
Trail, West of Four Corners
Late Evening

Guy Royal knew he would return to Four Corners, but for now he needed to put some distance between himself and the bastards Judge Travis had hired. The seven names were burned into his mind and someday he would send all of them to hell and make sure the devil had the welcome sign out for them. Until then he would need to regroup, and call on several acquaintances who owed him favors.
“Mr. Royal, where’re we gonna go?” Jeb Norton asked. He rode on Guy Royal’s left side while Johnny Carter rode on his right. They’d remained silent since leaving the ranch early this morning, long before dawn spread her arms and greeted the new day. Jeb and Carter were the only two men to survive; several were killed fighting the flames after Larabee had escaped.
“I got a sister in Frisco and she owes me. It’ll take some time to get there, but we’ll make it and then we’ll figure out a way to take Larabee’s gang down for good,” Royal snapped.
“We could go back and kill them now,” Carter spat.
“If you want to get yourself killed then be my guest, but I’ve learned a thing or two about men like Larabee and Tanner and the rest of them. They’re like a disease that no medicine can cure and they’ll keep biting at you until you’re either dead or not a threat anymore. I’d like nothing more than to go back and burn that damn town down just like they burned my home…but I’d rather do it on my terms. Give them time to lick their wounds and make them think they’re safe.”
“Then we attack?” Norton asked.
“Exactly…might be a year or two down the road, but I’ll take back what’s rightfully mine. I’ll kill those bastards and let the buzzards feed off their rotting carcasses. Mark my words on that,” Royal said and continued to ride away from his past and into an uncertain future.
Four Corners
Late Evening
It was dark when the wagon carrying Stuart James and several of his hired hands pulled into the town of Four Corners. The street fires popped and sizzled as a light rain began to fall. Yosemite had taken over the reins and controlled the wagon as they made their way toward the jail
“Buck, I’m gonna check on Chris and Vin,” Jackson said. He’d seen the light in his clinic and knew the men were awake and would probably come down the stairs if he didn’t go up to tell them what was happening. He knew JD had probably filled them in on what had happened at Royal and James’ ranches.
Wilmington spotted JD standing outside the jail and dismounted as the men in the back of the wagon began to grumble. They’d ridden without stopping and they’d complained about being hungry and thirsty, but he’d ignored them. It was only when they started shouting that he pulled his gun and pointed it at the men that they’d grown quiet.
“Buck, I’m going to let Mary know we’re back,” Travis said and turned his horse toward his daughter-in-law’s home.
“Did they give you any trouble, Buck?” Dunne asked.
“Nothing we couldn’t handle, Kid. How’s Conklin?”
“Quiet, but I expect he’ll start up again when he sees who’s gonna be sharing the jail with him,” Dunne said with a grin. There were two cells available now, thanks to the renovations they’d made to the jail several months ago.
“Good riddance,” Wilmington said and motioned for Yosemite and the others to get the prisoners inside as JD went in and unlocked the cell next to the one Conklin was sleeping in. The man opened his eyes and sat up, rubbing the sleep from them before he looked at the newcomers.
“Ya got company, Conklin,” Dunne told him with a grin.
“Who?” Conklin asked, eyes wide as he looked at the men being ushered inside. “No, you can’t leave me in here with them!”
“Why not?” Wilmington asked.
“They’re criminals! They shot up the town! They tried to kill all of you!” Conklin shouted.
“Yes, they did, but not without your help!” the rogue snapped as Stuart James was pushed inside. “I’m sure you and James have plenty to talk about. Perhaps you could share that cell while we put the others in that one.”
“No, no please, he’ll kill me…”
“That’s exactly what I’ll do you little weasel!” James vowed.  
“You can’t leave me in here with them!” Conklin snapped.
“We can and we will,” Dunne said. “You should have thought about this before you decided to…”
“Lie down with dogs-you’ll wake up with fleas,” Wilmington finished for him.
“Nice, Buck,” Dunne said.
“Thanks, kid, it was something I heard my ma say and she was always right,” the rogue said as the last of James’ men were locked in the cell next to Conklin.
“You can’t leave me here!” Conklin’s voice held a squeaky quality as Stuart James made his way to the bars.
“What’s the matter, Weasel? You think you’re any better than we are? You’re just as guilty as Royal and maybe I can make my own deal with the judge,” James said and turned to the man who’d locked him in. “What do you think, Wilmington? Would the judge like to hear about Conklin’s involvement in the attack on the town?”
“I didn’t do anything!”
“Really? What were you doing out at Royal’s place? I’m pretty certain it was you who told us where Larabee’s men were and how beat up they were. If it wasn’t for Conklin we never would have attacked the town, Wilmington,” James told them.
“Figured as much,” Buck said and glared at the man in the other cell. “If I had my way he’d hang with the rest of you.”
“Hang? What for?” A man huddled at the back of the cell asked fearfully.
“You attacked the town, shot up the establishments, and tried to kill everyone. That’s just for starters,” Standish said upon joining the others. “Yosemite is taking care of the horses and Inez said to tell you she’s got leftovers if you’re hungry.”
“Thanks, Ez,” Wilmington said, relieved that these men were locked in the jail. He knew Royal was still out there, but for now they had enough to worry about.  “JD, you okay to watch them tonight”
“Sure, Buck, I already ate and was gonna sleep on the cot in the corner. Go get something to eat and get some sleep,” Dunne told him.
“Thanks, Kid, I’m gonna check on Chris and Vin first and then I’m gonna take advantage of my bed…”
“Your bed, Buck…I hear Blossoms been waiting for you to get back. Course you’re probably too dang old and tired to keep her happy tonight,” Dunne teased.
“Well now, Kid, the day I’m too tired for Miss Blossom is the day you can put me in the ground,” Wilmington vowed and left the jail with a smile on his face.
Nathan felt every bit his age and then some as he climbed the steps to the clinic. He could hear voices and knew Chris and Vin were sitting on the landing. God, he hoped they hadn’t had any problems while he was helping the judge bring James’ bunch in. Right now, he didn’t think he’d have the strength to take care of them. He reached the top and sighed heavily as Larabee held a cup out to him.
“Give me a minute, Chris, and I’ll refill it for you,” Jackson said.
“It’s already full, Nate, and supper is inside for you,” Larabee told him. “You okay?”
“No, I’m dog tired and fighting to stay awake. Are you boys all right?” the healer asked hopefully.
“We’re fine, Nate,” Tanner said.
“Go eat and get some rest, Nathan,” Larabee told him.
“You and Vin should be sleeping,” Jackson said.
“Well, that’s exactly where we’re headed, but we wanted to make sure you boys were all right,” Larabee said.
“Sounds good…you need any laudanum before you go?”
“No, I’m good,” Larabee assured him.
“Me too,” the Texan said and stretched the kinks from his back. “Go eat before it gets cold.”
“I will…make sure you go right to your rooms or I’ll ask Nettie if she’ll help me dose you both,” Jackson vowed and watched as the two men gingerly made their way down the stairs.
Nathan waited until they made it to the bottom and listened as Buck joined them before he made his way into his clinic. His bed was made up and whatever was in the bowl smelled delicious, but the thought of food nauseated him. They’d been lucky today because no one had been hurt and that was a blessing. The problem was, it was not the norm for them.
How many times, over the last few years, had he ended up having to treat his friends for a gunshot or knife wound or beating? He’d been lucky not to kill them with his lack of knowledge, but how much longer could his luck hold out? He knew they trusted him, but would that trust continue if he was unable to save one of them?
God, help him, but he really needed to do more than look at a book if he was going to continue helping people. The problem was there didn’t seem to be anything else he could do. He would never be able to go to school and get a paper that told people he really wasn’t a charlatan.
Nathan moved to his bed and sat down, rubbing at tired eyes as he lay back. A soft sound escaped his throat as he fought to keep his emotions in check. Why did it always seem darkest before the dawn, and when would that darkness leave this world and allow everyone…man, woman, and child, to be proud of who they were?
Jackson felt sleep beckoning to him and heard the familiar voice that haunted his dreams. Don Garcia De Rivera, Jonah Catchings, Emmett Riley Anderson, Wickes, Don Paulo De Madera, Rupert Browner, Cyrus Poplar…and dozens of others, past and present, taunted him with threats to those he cared about.
“God, no…please…” Nathan’s voice was low and went unheard as he trembled and fought back the nightmares that held him enthralled.
Seminole Camp
Near Four Corners

Rain sat cross-legged and watched as the sky began to brighten with the promise of another beautiful day. She knew the others had returned and that there were prisoners in the jail. Men who thought they could kill because they had a gun in their hands and did not care who they hurt in the process. She understood the dangers Nathan and the others faced each day and silently prayed each night that she would be allowed to look into his eyes again.
Rain knew Nathan Jackson was still troubled by what he’d endured at Don Garcia De Rivera’s hands. She vowed that she would be there for him. She had seen other troubled souls and understood the healing would only begin when they faced what happened and embraced the truth before them. There was nothing Nathan could have done to change what happened at the hacienda, but he could celebrate the life he’d brought into this world.
Rain heard movement behind her and knew the camp was coming to life around her. She did not take her eyes from the horizon as the sun began its daily journey. It was something she had often done, and it reminded her that a person’s life was a journey that took many days. Most of those days were cloaked in the warmth of the sun’s rays, but there were days that were overshadowed by darkness. If a man embraced that darkness or dwelled on it too long, his soul could be damaged. She would not allow that to happen to Nathan Jackson, not when he had captured her heart.
Rain knew she should help with the morning meal, but she closed her eyes and silently prayed for the strength she would need to help the man she loved. It would be a struggle, a war of sorts, but she would face it the way her father had taught her. She would stand tall and embrace the love she felt and wrap her arms around Nathan Jackson. She would hold him until he allowed her to help him heal, not just because she loved him, but because he was a good man.
Sacred one,
Teach us love, compassion,
and honor.
That we may heal the earth
And heal each other.’
She could hear her father speaking those words during the hard times, and felt solace in them as she thought of the man who’d captured her heart.
Four Corners

Chris Larabee had been awake since dawn and finished his cup of coffee as Vin Tanner exited his wagon and strode toward him. He knew the Texan had probably been awake since before the sun came up, but didn’t blame him for staying in the wagon. The town would soon be coming to life and he heard a rooster crow in the distance as Buck stuck his head out of Blossom’s window.
“He ain’t ever gonna learn,” Tanner said and reached for the cup, frowning when he saw it was empty.
“Buck’s a carouser…always will be,” Larabee answered.
“Anythin’ happen?”
“JD’s been yelling at Conklin,” Larabee said with a grin. “He said something about a dirty gag and castration.”
“Hell, he better not piss JD off,” Tanner observed.
“Haven’t heard a word from Conklin since JD started whistling,” Larabee told him.
“What about Nate?” the Texan asked.
“I’ve been here since before sunup…he was already burning the midnight oil by then,” Larabee said.
“He’s been totin’ a heavy load…” Tanner observed.
“He’s torn up inside,” Larabee replied, thinking on the ordeal the silent, strong man endured.  “Blaming himself for what he saw you go through.”
“He didn’t have a choice,” Tanner said.
“We know that, but it’s going to take a lot to convince him of that. It probably reminded him of his days as a slave,” Larabee observed and watched as Jackson came out on the landing. The man looked directly at them before he turned and disappeared inside the clinic.
“Maybe Rain can make him see things like we do,” Tanner said of the pretty Seminole woman.
“I hope so, because nothing eats at a man like guilt and sorrow,” Larabee said and thought of his own loss. The year after Sarah and Adam died had passed in a drunken blur and he didn’t remember much. The hardest part had been trying to push Buck out of his life, and realizing he needed to start living and not just existing. Sarah’s voice in his head was the final catalyst he needed to seek out Buck Wilmington and face his future with a new light.
Judge Orin Travis knew there was no point in putting this off any longer. Conklin, James, and the others were criminals, but they deserved a fair trial and the sooner it was taken care of the better. He’d eaten a wonderful breakfast of biscuits, bacon, eggs, and three cups of coffee.
“Orin, would you like some more coffee?”
“No, thank you, Mary…I need to see to James and the others. The jail is small and there are too many to keep them cooped up like that. The faster we have a trial the better for everyone involved.”
“What about Guy Royal?”
“I’ll have wanted posters drawn up for him. Probably post a reward, but if he decides not to be seen there are plenty of places where he can hide out.”
“He’ll need money.”
“Royal is smart. He probably had money stashed away at his house in case something like this happened. He’ll be caught, Mary, but something tells me he’ll hide out until he thinks the people of this town are vulnerable,” the judge told her.
“As long as Chris and the others are here we’ll be stronger than most towns,” Mary observed.
“Yes, you will,” Travis said and used his napkin to wipe his face and hands before standing up. “Well, I better get this over with.”
“When are you going to hold the trial?”
“As soon as the saloon or the hotel can be set up for it,” Travis told her. “I’ll wire for the prison wagon as soon as I’ve set this up.”
“Once the wagon gets here we’ll go ahead with the celebration,” Mary said.
“Good idea…the town needs a reason to celebrate and there are seven men who deserve to be recognized for what they’ve done.” Orin hugged his daughter-in-law as Billy bounded into the room.
“Ma, can I go fishing with David?”
“Billy, don’t you think you should say good morning to your grandfather?” Mary scolded.
“Sure…good morning, Grandpa. Can I go fishing with David?”
“After your chores are done,” Mary told him.
“Ah, Ma, the fish…”
“Will still be there when you finish your chores. Mind your ma and you’ll have time to go fishing with David Potter,” Orin said.
“Yes, Grandpa,” the boy said with no enthusiasm. He began to clear the table as his grandfather left the house.
Orin stepped out into the bright morning sunshine and glanced up and down the street. He spotted Larabee and Tanner seated outside the saloon and nodded to both men as he made his way toward the jail. He’d made it maybe a dozen feet before Wilmington, Standish, and Sanchez showed up. The three men joined him in the middle of the street where Jackson already waited for them. None of the men spoke as they reached the jail to find Dunne leaning against the doorjamb with a piece of straw clutched between his teeth.
“Morning, Judge,” Dunne said and nodded to the others.
“Good morning, JD. Have they given you any trouble?” Travis asked.
“No trouble at all,” Dunne answered with a grin.
“Not since Mr. Dunne promised dire circumstances should Conklin continue to complain,” Standish said, but didn’t explain how he’d known about JD’s threat to Conklin.
“Dire circumstances?” Dunne said with a frown. “I just told him to shut up or I’d shut him up.”
“Not in those words, Kid,” Larabee said and stepped into the jail. Conklin was seated on a cot in one cell while James and his men filled the other one. Even in here you knew who was in charge as James was stretched out on the single cot, but his men were seated on the floor with their backs against the bars or the walls.
“It looks like Royal did a job on you, Larabee,” James observed. The story of Larabee’s capture had been relayed to him by several of his men and he knew the gunman was hurting, yet he stood tall as Judge Travis and the others filed in.
“You and your men are facing some serious charges, Mr. James. If you know where Guy Royal was headed I might be a little lenient on you,” Travis said.
“I don’t have anything to say,” James told him.
“What about the rest of you? Does anyone want to help their own cause by telling us what they know?” Travis asked.
“My men are loyal to me, Judge, so give it up,” the rancher snapped.
“You may find that they were loyal to your money, not you,” Larabee spat and looked at the men in the cell. “If you talk to the judge and tell him what you know I’ll see you get a good meal and move you in with Conklin. You’ll be safe until the trial.”
“If you cooperate you won’t hang,” Travis told them and waited to see if any of James’ men would speak.
“Guess they need to hear the definition of a hanging, Judge,” Sanchez said.
“Four words…short rope-long drop,” Travis said and saw the fear flash across several faces as he stood in front of the cell.
“We don’t know where, Royal is,” one man answered.
“Shut up, O’Brian!” James ordered.
“No, Sir, I won’t hang for something I didn’t do!” O’Brian said and turned to the blond gunslinger he knew by reputation. “I’ll tell you what I know, Mr. Larabee. I wasn’t part of the attack on the town and I ain’t gonna hang for it.”
“JD, get him out of there,” Wilmington said when Stuart James stood up and glared at the shorter man. He drew his weapon and pointed it at the men in the cell. “Anyone tries anything I’ll put a bullet in you. I won’t kill you, but I’ll make damn sure you’re gonna limp for the rest of whatever miserable life you got left.”
“You may not feel the hangman’s noose, O’Brian, but you won’t see the light of day either,” James warned.
“Ain’t fer you ta say, James,” Tanner vowed and stared at the rancher as he turned to look in his direction.
“Mr. O’Brian is now under the protection of the court,” Travis said as the short man stepped from the cell and Dunne locked it again. “JD, put him in with Conklin while I see about getting the saloon ready for a trial.”
“Ain’t gonna be much of a trial,” Tanner observed.
“Perhaps not, but every man deserves his day in a court of law. It will take a couple of hours to get things ready and send for the prison wagon,” Travis said.
“You’ve already tried and convicted me,” James snapped.
“Perhaps that’s true, but unlike you and Mr. Royal, Judge Travis is still willing to give you your day in court,” Standish told him. “You were more than willing to see to our demise without so much as a warning.”
“You men have turned this town into…”
“A place where people can live without fear of being shot because they disagree with you and Royal,” Travis said. “These men are the law and should be respected, but you seem to believe you’re above the law. It’s time men like you learned times are changing and people don’t want to be under your rule of thumb!”
“Have you asked them that?” James asked and latched onto the bars with both hands.
“I don’t have to,” Travis said.
“He’ll never admit to being wrong, Judge,” Larabee said as they walked out of the jail, leaving JD to keep an eye on the prisoners.  “Buck, you and Ezra help the judge get the saloon ready for the trial.”
“Chris, you, Vin, and Josiah need to rest,” Jackson ordered.
“We will once the trial is over.”
“There’ll be two parts to the trial.  We’ll start with the lesser charges against Conklin and O’Brian,” Travis said.
“Lesser charges? Come on, Judge, they were as much a part of all this as James and Royal,” Wilmington spat.
“I know, but with their testimony things will move faster and this town can get past all of this,” Travis said. He detested having to go easy on the two men, but if it got James out of their hair then so be it. “The problem with men like James and Royal is they really believe they have the right to do what they do. It’s time to put James away and get those wanted posters out on Guy Royal.”
Vin didn’t say anything, but his anger and disgust were evident to those who knew him. He knew Travis was right, but the fact was that men like Royal and James seemed to think they could do what they wanted. He could feel Larabee staring at him and knew the blond felt the same way he did.
Chris glanced at Vin and knew the judge was right, but it didn’t make it any easier. Conklin could end up with a slap on the wrist, but the man would still spend time in prison and maybe someone in Yuma would teach him a valuable lesson. Either way, the judge was doing what he thought was right and that was something they couldn’t argue with.
The saloon was packed with men who wanted to hear the fate of Stuart James and his men. Judge Orin Travis was seated at a table that was set up in front of the bar while two other tables were set up facing him. Stuart James and his men were seated behind the table on the right. Conklin and O’Brian were at the other table.
Larabee and his men were standing behind the men with several other men he’d deputized to make sure there wasn’t any trouble. He’d asked Chris and Josiah to choose half a dozen men and amongst those chosen were Tom Wilson and Yosemite. As the owner of The Clarion Newspaper, his daughter-in-law was also present. 
Travis looked at the notes he’d made while waiting for the defendants to be brought in. Stuart James had quickly told him that he would be speaking for himself and his men. A foolish move, but it really didn’t matter because even without Conklin and O’Brian they had James for attacking the town. No one had been killed, but there’d been several injuries and a lot of damage. He cleared his throat and looked at the men seated in front of him.
“Mr. James, you and your men are facing some serious charges. How do you plead?”
“We plead not guilty, but it seems like you’ve already decided on our guilt…”
“That’s because you are guilty…now shut up so the judge can pass sentence and we can quench our thirst!” Carl Murphy ordered and set off a round of laughter.
“Order in the court!” Travis snapped at the elderly curmudgeon who insisted on always being part of the proceedings.
“I’ll have whiskey!” Murphy said and set off another round of laughter. “Hell, you said order so I was just doing what you said.”
“Mr. Murphy, be silent or I’ll have you removed from the court,” Travis said and saw a spark of humor in the man’s eyes. Leave it to Murphy to try to ease the tension with humor. He didn’t know whether to pat the man on the back or throw him in a cell for 24 hours, but preferred the former.
“Being silent, Judge,” Murphy said and sat down. 
“Mr. James, every man in this courtroom, including myself, saw you and your men with Guy Royal and David Shelton. There is no doubt of your guilt and this trial is simply a formality. Every man has a right to a trial, but that does not mean every man deserves one,” Travis said. “Do you want me to call every person in this town or would you prefer to change your plea. I might be inclined to go a little easier on any man who chooses to change his plea.”
“Do what you gotta do, Judge, but the people of this town need to realize your ‘Magnificent Seven’ won’t always be around to protect them. I may spend some time in prison, but there’ll come a day when I get out and when I do I’ll come back here and they’ll rue the day they went against me!”
“I’ll add the charge of threats against officers of the law and the public to the growing list filed against you. Would you care to add any more before we continue?” Travis spat as James looked at the people in the saloon.
“You men mark my words! You go against me and you’ll be looking over your shoulders for the rest of your life. That’s not a threat, Judge, that’s a promise,” James warned. He’d known the people of Four Corners since the town’s incorporation and they’d been afraid of him and Guy Royal and several other ranchers. The problem was they’d grown brave since Orin Travis hired Larabee and his bunch.
“Mr. James, I find you in contempt…”
“Doesn’t matter what you find me or what you sentence me too because sooner or later I will get out and when I do I will find my way back here,” James vowed.
“I would advise you to be silent, Mr. James, or the hole you are digging will be even deeper than you could imagine,” Travis said and looked at the nervous young man seated next to Stuart James. “What’s your name, Son?”
“Brian Tucker, Your honor,” the man answered softly.
“How long have you worked for Stuart James?” Travis asked.
“About four months…I wasn’t part of the attacks on the town. I needed the job so I could bring my wife and our boys here, but now I’m not so sure it was a good idea,” Tucker told him.
“He’s as guilty as the rest of us,” James snarled.
“What was your job at the James Ranch?” Sanchez asked. Something about the young man felt out of place with James and his bunch. Josiah remembered seeing him in town and thought he’d overheard the young man sending a telegram to his wife.
“I cooked for the ranch hands,” Tucker answered. “I didn’t know what Mr. James was up to.”
“We only have your word for that,” Travis observed.
“Judge, I’ve seen him in town a couple of times. He was sending a wire to Boston and if I’m not mistaken he sent for his wife and boys last week,” Sanchez said.
“Is that right, Mr. Tucker?” Travis asked.
“He bought the Taylor place down by the creek…signed the papers just last week,” Donald O’Leary offered. “He’s been putting every penny he can into paying it off.”
“Where did you get that kind of money, Mr. Tucker?”
“Before I came out here I worked in a hotel in Boston. My wife, Elizabeth, worked as a maid and cleaned rooms while her Ma watched the boys. I ain’t never been in trouble with the law before,” Tucker told him.
“You’re as guilty as the rest of us,” James said.
“So, you’re changing your plea to guilty, Mr. James?” Travis asked with a grin.
“Never said that…”
“Actually, you did. You said he’s as guilty as the rest of you,” Travis said and looked toward Sanchez. “Josiah, do you believe Tucker is innocent in this?”
“I do, Judge, I saw the work he’s been putting in at the Taylor place,” Sanchez advised. “I think Vin and JD were helping him with the repairs.”
“We were,” Tanner agreed. “He’s only workin’ fer James until he could bring his fam’ly out. He’s been workin’ near 16 hours a day.”
“Mr. Tucker, I believe you have several people who are willing to vouch for you and since this is about justice I am dropping the charges against you as long as you continue to work hard and make a life for your family.”
“Thank you, Judge,” Tucker said as Wilmington released his shackles.
“Don’t make me regret my decision, Mr. Tucker,” Travis warned.
“No, Sir, I won’t,” Tucker vowed. He glanced at Stuart James before moving away from the table and out through the saloon doors.
“You’re a pushover, Judge Travis!” James snapped.
“No, I don’t think so and it’s men like Brian Tucker that makes me realize just how dangerous men like you are. You think money and wealth can override a man’s sense of right and wrong, but there are those who can see right through you. I’m glad Tucker is getting out before you messed up his life,” Travis warned. “Now, I believe there are several witnesses against you so we’ll hear from them before we hear your side of things.”
Nathan Jackson watched as Stuart James and his men were herded out of the saloon and marched across the street and back into their cells. The trial had lasted throughout the afternoon, but was finally over and he hoped they would soon be rid of the rancher. There were over a dozen witnesses who spoke at the trial and three of James’ own hands had decided they should do what they could to save themselves from the hangman’s noose. 
Jackson took a deep breath as he thought about the sentences Judge Travis had handed down. The man could easily have sentenced them all to hang, but he’d shown leniency, if you could call spending the rest of your life in Yuma prison lenient. He walked out of the saloon and headed for the stairs leading up to his clinic, but a soft voice stopped him before he reached the livery.
“Is the trial over, Nathan?” Rain asked and reached for his hand.
“It’s over…looks like James and his bunch won’t be causing any more problems for the town,” Jackson answered as they walked up the stairs together.
“That is good news is it not?”
“It is,” the healer told her.
“Then why do you look so sad?”
“Because men like Royal and Stuart always bring other men into it and then they pay for the mistakes with their freedom if they are lucky…their lives if they are not. A man shouldn’t spend his life behind bars, not when he could do much more with his life,” Jackson told her.
“The men who work for the ranchers are not loyal to them. They do it for money and that makes them just as bad as the ranchers themselves,” Rain told him.
“Not always,” Jackson said and sank wearily onto the chair near the entrance to his clinic. “Brian Tucker is an innocent in all of this, Rain, and he could have spent the rest of his life in Yuma if Josiah hadn’t spoken up on his behalf. All he wanted was a good life for his family and he had no idea what James was like.”
“Nathan, is that not how it is in life?”
“What do you mean?” the healer asked.
“This man Brian Tucker is a good man is he not?”
“Yes, he is…least according to the others. I never met him before today,” Jackson answered.
“He is good because he is doing what is best for his family.”
“I guess so,” the former slave said with a frown.
“Is that not what you do?”
“I don’t got no family, Rain?”
“Don’t you? What of Chris and the others? Are they not your family…your brothers?”
“I guess,” Jackson agreed as she moved behind him and began massaging his tense shoulders.
“A man with no family will face a lonely road, but your road will have many branches because you have been chosen by others to fill their hearts and their lives. How many lives have you saved because of the gift bestowed on you by The Great Spirit, Nathan Jackson?”
“I don’t know…never really thought about it,” Jackson said and relaxed as her fingers worked their magic against his temples.
“Yet, you know how many have been lost do you not?”
“Hard to forget them,” Jackson admitted.
“That is because you feel you did not have the skill you needed to save them…yet you have proven time and time again that your gift is strong within you. You have saved many people in my village and the farms. You have also saved the lives of the men, women, and children of this town. Does that not make you a gifted healer?”
“I don’t know, Rain. I wish I did, but there are times when my mind is clouded by what I’ve seen…”
“Then we must make the sun come back and embrace the path that leads to freedom. We must follow…”
“The Drinkin' Gourd,” Jackson finished and sighed as he pulled her around in front of him. Her face was as beautiful as the warmest sunrise and his heart felt a little lighter as he stared into hers.
“What is this drinkin’ gourd, Nathan?” Rain asked curiously.
“Ever looked at the night sky and see pictures?”
“I have done so many times. My father loved to tell stories of the stars and why we see many pictures there,” the pretty woman answered.
“The Drinkin’ Gourd was a dipper and some slaves used it as a way to escape. They followed it like they followed their hearts and even though many were caught and sometimes killed we celebrated those that made it to freedom,” Jackson explained.
“Then you should use their story and follow their lead,” Rain said and knelt in front of him. She reached out and took his hands in her own as she smiled and looked deep into his heart. “The slaves never gave up on their freedom and followed their dreams. Tell me of your dreams, Nathan Jackson. When you look at the night sky what do you see in the stars?”
“Beauty…but nothin’ comes close to the beauty I see before me,” Jackson said and kissed her lips before standing and pulling her into his arms. They walked to the edge of the landing and looked down over the town of Four Corners. He watched as several townspeople looked up and waved at them and saw the warmth in their smiles. Chris, Vin, and Josiah were seated in front of the saloon, while Buck, JD, and Ezra were standing outside the town jail.
“You may not know it, Nathan Jackson, but this town and the people who live near it appreciate the gift that comes from your heart and your mind. There are very few men who are natural healers, but you are one of them and as long as you use these hands for good you will never walk alone.”
“As long as you’re beside me I’ll do everything I can to help people, Rain,” Jackson told her and felt her lean against him. He wrapped his arms around her and looked at the town. He knew in his heart that Rain had helped him take that first step that would heal his soul and embraced the love she offered.
“You are home, Nathan,” Rain said.
“Home…thank you, Rain, for knowing what to say and giving me the time to come to terms with what happened. I know I couldn’t have stopped Don Garcia from hurting Vin, Chris, and JD, but it was hard facing my own failures…”
“But they were not failures, Nathan. Chris, Vin, and JD are alive because of you. Judge Travis would have died if not for your steady hands. Nora would not have survived her injuries if you had not been here. My sister would have died in childbirth if you had not been there to help turn her son so that he could be born. The baby Dona Maria gave birth to is alive because of you and his future is much brighter now that he does not have to grow up with that man as his father. There are many in this town who owe their lives to you…we all owe you a debt that can never be paid…”
“That’s not why I did it, Rain.”
“I know,” the pretty woman said and turned her head so she could look him in the eyes. “That is why you are the man I love, Nathan Jackson. You are a man who values human lives no matter their age or color.”
“Josiah says we were all made in the Lord’s image so why should I treat anyone differently just because of the color of their skin.” Jackson could feel her heart beating against his arm and sighed contentedly. This really was his home, and as long as Rain was here he would always choose what was right. He would treat every man, woman, and child with the care and concern they deserved. He had followed the Drinkin’ Gourd and found his way home with the help of the beauty wrapped in his arms.
Four Corners
Christmas Eve

JD knew he was where he belonged, and sighed as he sat down inside the empty church. Josiah’s service had been perfect and the carvings done by Chris were a gift that would last many years. Vin crafted the manger, but Chris’ steady hands had carved the baby inside it. The wooden statue of the Virgin Mary was bathed in light from the candle he’d lit and a reminder of another beautiful woman.
JD thought about the woman who’d saved his life and the nurturing care she’d given without question. Carmella Covas was as beautiful and pure as the woman who’d given birth to Baby Jesus. There was no doubt in his mind that Carmella would have been a beautiful mother who would have sacrificed everything for her child.
“Why the long face, Chiquita?”
Dunne's eyes widened a bit as he turned and looked at the man leaning against the entrance to the small church. Despite the heaviness of his heart, he managed a smile. “Hey, Raphael, when did you get here?”
“I came in on Santa’s sleigh with news.”
“I don’t believe in Santa, Raphael.”
“I think that is the problem with adults…we stop believing and we grow old. Perhaps if we believed then the gift we wished for in our hearts would arrive.”
“Wishes are for fools,” Dunne said and bowed his head.
“I am no fool, Niño,” Carmella Covas said and smiled when the young man’s eyes opened wide in disbelief. She had worked hard to learn to speak and understand English and now she could use it to show JD Dunne just how much his gift meant to her.
“Carmella…” was all he could manage when his throat constricted and his eyes filled.
“Come, Niño, let’s sit and give thanks and I will explain as best I can,” Carmella's strong arms engulfed him as her husband entered the church. “Your gift touched my heart and I asked Javier to bring us here. Raphael and Javier brought us.”
JD felt as if his heart was in his throat and smiled when the woman produced the locket that had once belonged to his mother. He remembered her giving it to him on her deathbed and making him promise that the woman he chose to give it to had a heart of gold. Casey had understood the reason he’d chosen to give it to Carmella Covas and had even gift-wrapped it for him. The heart shaped locket rested against her skin and JD watched as tears filled her eyes.
“I was not sure I could accept such a gift, Niño, but I can see now it is from your heart.”
“It is…My mother told me to give it to a woman who opened her heart to me and you did that. I owe you my life and this is a small token,” Dunne said and knew she understood as she reached for his hands.
“It is not small, Niño, for it comes from a…how you say…big heart,” she whispered. “Now what was this about not believing in Santa?”
“Santa is a legend…a story, but you are a gift from God and I will always believe in Him and be thankful for the beauty that graces the world in the form of a woman,” Dunne told her.
“Your mother smiles upon you, Cariño, and I thank her for allowing me to be a part of who you are. It is Christmas and many years ago I learned a song at my Madre’s knees. I believe it is one you know as well,” Carmella said and turned to see the church had filled up with the other members of “The Magnificent Seven’.
JD and the others joined in, singing the words in English as the familiar carol was sung in her native language and all felt right with the world as a single bell tolled and Christmas day was at hand.
Hark! the herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!"
Joyful, all ye nations rise;
Join the triumph of the skies;
With angelic host proclaim
"Christ is born in Bethlehem!"
Hark! the herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"
Christ, by highest heaven adored;
Christ the everlasting Lord;
Late in time behold Him come,
Offspring of the favored one.
Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see;
hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King"
Hail! the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail! the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
risen with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by,
born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth,
born to give them second birth
Hark! the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King."

The End!


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