by Winnie


De Rivera Hacienda
Early Morning 

Evita Martinez sat in the rocking chair with Santos snuggled in her arms. The baby had satisfied himself with the wet nurse, but wouldn't settle down until she cradled him against her own body. Her son was a grown man now, with a wife who loved him and would give him many strong children.
“You will grow up to be a man your madre would have been proud of. Luis, Juanita, and I will see that you will always be loved and that you will know your madre and your heritage. We will speak of your father, but you will not know of his cruelty. Instead you will grow to be like your brother with a heart of gold and the love of your people. They will do as you ask out of love, not out of fear...that is a promise I will make to Dona Maria,” Evita vowed and looked up to see Nathan standing in the doorway.
“He is lucky to have you, Evita,” Jackson admired.
“Thank you, Nathan,” Evita replied and saw the sadness in his dark eyes. She cursed Don Garcia for what he had done to this man, for filling his soul with guilt that did not belong there. “How are your friends?”
“JD's sleeping. He'll be doing that a lot, but he don't seem as confused as he was a few days ago,” Jackson answered.
“That is good news. What of Vin and Chris?”
“Vin's chompin' at the bit ta be up and movin' around, but he needs ta take it easy.” He managed a fleeting smile. “He’s a stubborn cuss. Chris' is weak and his breathin's a mess...lungs sound like they's fillin' up.”
“Perhaps I can help,” she offered, needing to do something to ease the unwelcomed burden this kind man carried. “There are herbs I have used before that might help.”
“Can I see whatcha got...was thinkin' of settin' up a tent. Make him breathe in some vapors,” Jackson explained.
“I have seen this done and will get you what you need. Juanita knows herbs well, but she is not yet awake. I will show you where we keep them.” Evita gently placed Santos back in his bed. She draped the netting over the crib, made sure he was sleeping and motioned for Nathan to follow her out.
Carmella looked at her husband and smiled as she gently eased his arm into the sling Jackson had fashioned. He'd slept well, but she'd been unable to sleep because she kept seeing him when the bullet struck him. Tears filled her eyes at the thought of what she'd nearly lost and she knew this man would always be her rock as he pulled her close.
“I am fine, Mi Amor,” Cristóbal said and kissed her lips.
“I know, but when I saw you were shot I thought I was going to lose you. I could not bear to live without you by my side,” Carmella told him.
“You are my life, Carmella...even when you cannot see me I will watch over you,” Cristóbal vowed and lifted her face so that he could see her eyes. “Come, I know you wish to see JD.”
“You should rest,” Carmella suggested.
“I am fine. Nathan said it was a simple wound and it does not hurt so much now,” Cristóbal said and wrapped his good arm around her as they stood up. It was a short trip to the room where JD Dunne was sleeping under the watchful eyes of Ezra Standish.
“Buenos días,” Standish said and smiled at the couple standing in the doorway.
“Buenos días, Senor Standish, how is he?” Carmella asked and moved to touch Dunne's pale face, smiling when a soft sigh escaped his throat.
“He is better this morning and had a restful night,” Standish answered and wondered at the concern he saw on her face. What was it about this couple that made him realize just how much he'd missed growing up?
“That is good news,” Carmella observed, and looked at the well-dressed man, who had certainly stayed all night in the chair and wondered at the fancy clothing he wore. It spoke of a haughtiness that seemed out of place and she wondered what his life was like. “I will stay with him if you wish to go for breakfast.”
“Are you sure?” Standish asked.
“Si, Cristóbal would you go with Senor Standish and ask for a tray to be sent up for JD and I?”
“Perhaps after you and your husband have eaten,” Standish said.
“I am not hungry, but you must be after spending the night in that chair,” Carmella said.
“Come with me, Senor Standish. There is no point in arguing when mi esposa has made up her mind,” Cristóbal said and led Standish from the room.
“You are a lucky man, Senor,” Standish observed.
“Yes, I am very fortunate,” Cristóbal said. “I have always wondered why I was blessed with her love.”
“She saw you for the man you are,” the gambler said as they made their way down the stairs. Although it was still early the smell of baking bread and coffee mingled with the aromas that had been present the day before. There were several people seated at the table, but neither man recognized them as a young woman poured coffee into cups and motioned for them to sit down.

Buck sat between the two beds and watched over his friends. The feisty Texan had slept through the night, except for those times when Larabee would cry out or thrash on the bed in the throes of fever induced delirium. When that happened Vin would rise from his own sick bed and move to the chair. Once there he would talk softly to Larabee until the blond settled, and Tanner could return to the rest he needed.
Chris sounded terrible, his breathing labored, even after a fit of coughing that sounded like his lungs were being torn from his chest.
Nathan and Evita had stopped on their way downstairs to let him know what the plans were. He knew what the tent would do and hoped Nathan would find the herbs he'd need to help Chris. For the first time in his life, Buck felt every bit of his age and knew what the meaning of bone deep weariness was. If given the chance he would lie down on a bed of nails and not feel a damn thing. He yawned tiredly, scrubbing at the dark stubble on his jaw and wondered how long it had been since he shaved. Time seemed a rare commodity since the banditos had started raiding the farms north of the Rio Grande.
Wilmington stood and went to the window, his gaze sweeping over the fields in the distance and wondered what was happening at home. He needed to send another telegram and let them know how the injured men were doing, but he wanted to wait until he was able to give them a rough estimate about when they would be heading for home. 
Buck was glad Luis and Juanita had been married and with Gores' death at least they could live without that threat. It was too bad Don Rivera hadn't been dealt with before he'd gotten his hands on Chris, Vin, Nathan, and JD. How could one man do so much damage in such a short time? People like Don Rivera deserved to burn in hell and Buck was glad Santos would grow up free of the bastard's influence.
Wilmington heard soft footsteps and turned to see Jackson enter the room with a thin blanket in his arms. He moved to help him drape it over the headboard and hoped Larabee remained asleep while they got everything ready. He glanced at Tanner who sat up and watched them set up the croup tent. It was something they'd all seen the healer use, and he hoped the steam and herbs would help Larabee's breathing.
“Evita will send up the herbs as soon as they're ready,” Jackson explained as he draped the blanket over the board at the foot of the bed.
“He rode the bed awful hard last night,” Tanner rasped, cautious eyes on the activity being done to save his best friend. “That’ll help.”
“I'll sit with him,” Wilmington vowed.
“It's gonna be stiflin' under there,” Jackson advised.
“I know...been there a few times over the years,” Wilmington told them.
“All right...it's important ya keep it from tippin' out on 'im,” Jackson explained and saw the dark head nod. “I want to check on JD, but I'll be back in time to help with setting things up.”
“All right, Nathan,” the rogue said and watched Jackson leave the room. He'd already checked on the kid and knew Carmella Covas was sitting with him. The woman was amazing and she seemed to have taken JD under her wing. The Bostonian seemed to respond to her when she was in the room with him. 
Vin stood up and gingerly stretched, ignoring the way the movement pulled at not just the wounds, but the muscles that had been inactive for some time. He ran his fingers through his hair and wondered just how far the creek was from the hacienda.
“What are you thinking about, Vin?” Wilmington asked.
“Need a bath,” was all the Texan said.
“Yeah, you do, big place like this probably got a room for it.”
“Rather know where the creek is,” Tanner answered, worried when Larabee coughed and held his arm tight across his chest. The man's breathing was getting worse and he hoped what Nathan had in mind would help. 
“I bet you would, but do you really think Nate will agree to you getting on a horse?”
“Prob'ly not, but what he don't know ain't gonna hurt 'im,” Tanner grinned impishly and wagged his brows at the taller man who laughed. 
“Maybe not, but I don't think you'll get past him. Look, Vin, just ask Evita about bathing here for now. Once you’re stronger, I’ll show you where the creek is,” Wilmington offered, relieved when the Texan nodded his agreement. “As soon as Nate gets back I'll go ask Evita about it.”
“Ask Evita about what?” Jackson asked.
“A bath,” Vin replied.
“Ya sure you're up to it, Vin?”
“Might be smart before I start drawin’ flies,” the itchy tracker noted and drew a laugh from both his friends.
“There's a room downstairs near the kitchen...got a big tub in it. Why don't ya go on down and get some food while they heat up the water?” Jackson suggested.
“Easier if'n I went ta the creek.”
“Maybe, but ya ain't up ta the ride just yet,” Jackson told him. “Give it a few more days, Vin, then ya can have a day under the sky, I know ya prefer the outdoors.” 
“Alright,” Tanner reluctantly agreed and glanced at the injured blond. “How long b'fore we can head home?”
“Don't know...depends on you, Chris, and JD,” the healer answered, relieved when there was no argument from the tracker. “Go on, now, I need to clear this room and ya need t’eat and have a long soak.” He watched as Vin paused by Larabee’s bed a moment, then nodded once and departed.
“I'll be back,” Tanner said and left the room.
“He ain't nearly as healed as he lets on,” Jackson said.
“I know,” Wilmington said as Evita came into the room with a basin and a kettle of hot water. She put them on the table between the beds and looked at the three men.
“Buck, I want you to get in behind Chris and sit him up a little. Let him lean back against ya while I put the basin at the end of the bed.
“Nathan, we can use the breakfast tray Luis had made for Dona Maria. It is in her room and it will keep the water steady if we place it correctly,” Evita explained.
“That'd be great, Evita,” Jackson said and moved to help sit Larabee forward so Buck could get into position. The heavy wheeze was a cause for concern and Nathan hoped this treatment would help, because there was no way in hell Larabee could survive a full blown case of pneumonia in his weakened condition. 
“You're doing everything you can, Nathan,” Wilmington said when he noted the slight tremble in Jackson's hands.
“What if it's not enough, Buck? What if...what if he had a real doctor? Would that make a difference?”
“He does have a real doctor, Nathan Jackson,” Buck declared angrily. He didn’t like that self-doubt and especially from one of the strongest men he’d ever met. Nathan was better than some doctors he’d suffered through, and there was something in his tone that was disturbing. “You cut that out right now! I’ve seen good doctors and bad doctors, that sheepskin hangin’ on a wall don’t mean spit. You’re not only somebody I’m proud to call friend, but you’re a damn fine man of medicine.”
Nathan swallowed the lump that formed in his throat at the words his friend used. The way they were said and the look in Wilmington's eyes spoke volumes and he found it hard to speak. That this man...these men held him in such high regard was not lost on him and he nodded simply as he got his emotions under control.
“Nathan, trust in yourself and you'll see what the rest of us do,” Wilmington said as Larabee groaned, but settled against him as Evita returned with the tray. He nodded as Jackson finished setting everything up and listened to the heavy wheeze that spoke of a sickness in the lungs. God help him, but he wasn't ready to say goodbye and he'd be damned if the grim reaper would take Larabee, not while he had a say in the matter.
“All right, Buck, just keep him still and make sure ya talk ta him,” Jackson said.
“We're good, Nate, why don't you go get something to eat?” Wilmington suggested.
“I'm not hungry,” Jackson said.
“Come, Nathan, I believe there are fresh rolls and biscuits, and I know I'm hungry. With Luis and Juanita taking their breakfast in their room I would enjoy the company,” Evita told him.
“All right, Buck, if you need anything just ring the bell and I'll come back,” Jackson said and tucked the ends of the blanket around the bed in an effort to form a tent.
Buck heard them leave and held tightly to the blond whose fever had risen during the night. Nathan had told them they had to treat both symptoms, but right now they needed to ease the wheezing and try to clear up his lungs. Wilmington shifted slightly and heard Larabee moan  and could only hold him as he coughed several times, a harsh sound that did little to ease his troubled mind.
“Come on, Stud, don't you go thinking about quitting on me,” Wilmington said and held the man, praying he didn't cause more damage than had already been done. He had no idea how long he sat with his friend, but he knew instinctively when Larabee woke up. “Easy, Chris, I got you.”
“Yeah, how are you feeling?”
“Feel better if you weren’t fishin’ for something that isn’t there,” Larabee griped of a motion he knew his handsome friend used on every female he’d bedded.
“Well, hell, I was just trying to let you know I was here.” The gregarious man paused,  “I think my feelings are hurt.”
“You could have told me...I'm not a passenger on one of your hot rides.”
“All right, but the ladies say I've got magic fingers,” Wilmington bragged. “Among other parts.”
“Save the magic for them th...then,” Larabee snapped and heard a familiar chuckle. “What’s so damn funny?”
 “You were, that mornin’ in New Orleans when you woke up with that French bitch's husband pointing a saber at your nuts.”
“That wasn’t funny!” Larabee wheezed, coughed and was grateful for the instant resolution of his best friend’s death-grip. Among their travels had been a stop in New Orleans and they’d been coerced by a beautiful woman and ended up drunk in her bed. She took their money and her husband damn near took a lot more. “And as I recall you were the one that ended up on crutches.”
“Not my finer moment,” Buck agreed of the leap he’d made off a balcony, naked; a feat that broke his leg and the law. “But damn we had some good times, Chris.” His voice dipped then, lingering in a wistful state
“You’re getting soft…”
“Soft? I'll give you soft,” Wilmington said, but grew serious when the blond began to cough. Buck sat him up a little more so that he could breathe in the dwindling vapors, but there didn't seem to be any relief. He heard footsteps, and wasn't surprised when Jackson pulled back the blanket and removed the basin and breakfast tray.
“Lift him up a little more, Buck,” Jackson ordered and helped lean the blond across his arm before thumping several times on his back.
Chris had no idea how long he endured the misery, but was grateful when they finally eased him back on the pillows. He heard the others talking, but didn't have the strength needed to open his eyes as he fought to take in enough air to keep his lungs satisfied.
Tanner languished in the tub, allowing the water to soak away not just the sweat and dirt, but the aches and pains caused by his injuries and being laid up for so long. It wasn't often a man could afford such luxuries as a simple bath in his line of work, but when that time came he took full advantage of it.
Vin shifted slightly and knew it was time to get out, but ducked his head beneath the water one last time before standing and stepping out of the tub. Evita had left several soft towels for him and from somewhere she'd produced britches and a shirt in his size. The woman was amazing and he knew his mother would have liked her. They were both strong women, but there was an underlying softness that gave them the added strength to face the hardships life set before them.
The Texan dried his body off and heard his stomach rumble. He knew he needed to eat, but he also wanted to see how Chris was doing. If anything had gone wrong with the treatment they'd have sent for him, but he still wanted to see for himself. He grabbed the pair of soft skinned moccasins and slipped them on his feet, relishing in the feel against his skin as he stood and walked to the door.
Vin pushed it open and smiled when he caught the scent of fresh baked pies, apple to be exact and looked longingly toward the kitchen. He made his way to the stairs, but Evita's voice stopped him in his tracks.
“Come, Vin, Chris is well cared for and you need to eat. There are roast beef sandwiches and warm apple pie.”
“Sounds good ta me,” the Texan said and followed her through the kitchen and out onto a small area with a cover, but was open on three sides to allow the soft breeze to touch his skin and ruffle his still wet hair. The sun shone bright, but he relaxed in the shade as birds twittered in the nearby trees. Everything seemed so peaceful, it was hard to believe the horror of the last few weeks; yet Chris, JD, Nathan, and him had all been shown the worst side of hell on Earth. 
Vin sighed as he leaned back and poured a glass of juice. It was sweet, but he couldn't quite place the taste as Evita brought him a plate with slices of roast beef between thick slices of warm bread. He smiled and said thanks before taking the first one and biting into it. The first taste awakened the monster in his stomach and he knew he'd made the right decision to come out here.
“You clean up very well,” Evita said with a smile. 
“Thanks,” Vin said and reached for a second sandwich. “A man could get used ta a place like this.”
“You are welcome to stay as long as you wish.”
“You have to follow your heart and your family,” Evita observed and saw the truth in the sky blue eyes. She refilled his glass with juice and poured one of her own as she studied his face and saw so much more than she should in someone so young. Whatever hardships he'd faced, he'd learned to make them who he was and he wore the mantle of a hero whether he knew it or not.  It seemed the same could be said of the seven men who were guests in her home. They were heroes who didn't seek the title, but had earned it and maybe someday their stories would be told to children who would sit in awe of their exploits. 
“Thanks, Evita, for everything ya've done fer us,” Tanner said softly, the truth of his words easily seen in his eyes as he stared at the woman seated across from him.
“There is no need for thanks for doing what is right, Vin Tanner. I believe you reap what you sow and by now you should be wearing a mantle of the finest silk.”
“I ain't one fer finery...”
“No, but you are a fine man, and I count myself lucky for being granted the time to get to know you and your friends,” Evita told him. “I am proud of my son and see him in all of you.”
“That's a mighty fine honor ya give us...Luis is a good man.”
“Thank you, he is like my father in many ways.”
“He got it from you too,” Tanner said. Evita Martinez was a wonderful woman and he wondered what his life would have been like if his ma had lived. How different would he be if he'd had her hand guiding him along the path of life? Would he still be the man he was today? The answer was whispered as if on the soft breeze, and Vin knew deep down that his ma still watched over him. That she was proud of who he was and what he'd done with his life. He finished the sandwiches with relish before standing and smiling at the woman before him.
“You go see Chris and I'll bring you some pie and fresh cream,” Evita advised as she picked up the empty plate.
Vin nodded in thanks and hurried inside. He quickly made his way to the stairs, ignoring the pain that reminded him he wasn't as healed as he led the others to believe. By the time he reached the second floor, he knew he'd overdone things and leaned wearily against the wall as he tried to keep from losing the meal he'd just eaten with such gusto. A hand touched his arm and he looked into Ezra's green eyes before the man supported him and maneuvered them toward the room he shared with Chris Larabee.
“Easy, Vin, just sit down and I'll get Nathan,” Standish said of the missing healer.
“No...I'm fine. Jest need ta lay down a spell,” Tanner said and turned to see the man in the other bed. The tent had been removed and although Larabee seemed to be sleeping, Vin could hear the heavy wheeze that spoke of sickness. The eyelids were closed, and there was a flush to his cheeks that spoke of the fever that he still fought.
“He's fighting, Vin. Buck stayed with him during the treatment and Nathan says his breathing sounds a little better,” Standish offered and waited for the Texan to close his eyes before moving to the seat near the single window. It was open to allow the soft breeze to bring the scent of wildflowers into the room. He listened for any problems, but both men seemed to be sleeping now and he'd make sure there was nothing to disturb them.
Nathan walked along the path that led away from the hacienda and felt the weight of the world on his shoulders. God, help him, but how could he have stood by while Don Garcia De Rivera treated his friends as if they were beneath him. The man was dead, but he'd left behind a heritage of pain, both physical and mental that would take years to erase.
Dona Maria died during childbirth, and although he knew and understood that babies and their mamas often died in childbirth, it was still a hard lesson to learn. He'd lost a couple of babies and mamas in the years since discovering he could help people, but none had been so hard as watching the light go out of Dona Maria's eyes. The baby survived and that was part of the hardship for him, because the baby would not have a mother's tender touch to counteract his father's coldness.
That had all changed with the death of Don Garcia De Rivera. Luis would look after his half-brother and teach him that human life was not to be taken for granted or taken advantage of. Santos had a chance for a good life now with two people, three if he included Juanita, looking out for his interests. They would see to it that he understood that people worked better when they had full bellies and weren't punished if they didn't reach the goals set out for them. A thin smile formed when he thought about the changes he'd already seen since the death of the Haciendada. It was as if new life had been breathed into the dismal lives of the mestizo people.
Nathan continued to walk and swallowed the bitter pill that nearly choked him when he thought about sleeping in a feather bed while Vin had been forced to sleep in a hole in the ground. Sick and alone he'd managed to survive until help arrived, but not without consequences. He'd been beaten, forced to fight for his life, and shot before Don Rivera was killed. Even then what had he done? What had he done to help his friends? Nothing...not a damn thing and yet the others did not hold that against him.
Nathan felt tears slip down his cheeks and a soft sob escaped as his legs trembled and threatened to give out. He dropped to his knees and pressed his knuckles against the side of his head as a cry of anguish escaped his constricting throat. How could he face them knowing that he was as bad as the people who lived on the plantations The ones who turned a blind eye to the suffering of others while they languished in the luxury of a home built by the blood, sweat, and tears of workers who knew nothing of the freedom they had.
Nathan knew in his heart he had no choice, but to do as Don Garcia ordered, but that didn't mean he could live with that knowledge. There was no doubt in his mind Vin would have been killed or subjected to even worse tortures if he'd tried anything. Still, that didn't do anything to ease the torment raging within him. He stayed where he was, letting the tears fall until his body stopped trembling and he knew it was time to go back to the house and check on the injured men.
Seminole Village
Late Morning

Rain looked at the blanket she was scrubbing in the stream while her sisters did the same not far from her. There was very little news from the town, but what she did know was that the seven men were alive. Nathan was with them and uninjured, but sometimes wounds were hard to see if they were not of the flesh. She had sensed his pain, knew how deep it ran and wished she could hold him and soothe away the doubts and fears she knew were always present.
Rain knew her heart belonged to the man who had a healer’s touch and wished she could be near him now. She wanted to hold him and soothe away the fear and pain she sensed now more than ever. Her father had once spoken of a soul mate and how there was one person in the world who would always be a part of her. Their heart and soul belonged together and when she met him, she would know who he was. Those words were with her now, even though he was miles away. She felt the sorrow and pain as if it was her own and vowed to show him that he was worthy of the love they shared.
“Be strong, Nathan, for I am with you and always will be,” she whispered and turned her attention back to the task at hand.
De Rivera Hacienda
Early Afternoon

Nathan walked back to the hacienda just as the people who worked the fields stopped for the noon repast. He spoke to several of them, even broke bread with Pero before making his way back to the house. He spotted Josiah speaking with Luis and Juanita near the main door and wasn't surprised when the big man excused himself and walked toward him.
“Where have you been, Brother?” Sanchez asked.
 “Just felt like getting away for a bit,” Nathan deflected. 
“Lord knows if anybody needs that, it’s you.” He saw Nathan’s eyes move to the house and knew what he was thinking. “Vin and Chris are stable, maybe it’s time you took some time for yourself. You just had me worried. I know how hard this has been on you,” the ex-preacher said. 
“On me? I ain't the one that bastard hurt, Josiah.”
“Aren't you? You forget how long we've known each other, Nathan. It's easy to read what's right in front of my eyes,” Sanchez observed.
“I need to check on...”
“You need to get something to eat and get some rest,” Josiah said.
“Now, or do I have to remind you that you're as human as the rest of us?”
“You don't...”
“Good, come on. Evita made sandwiches and apple pie,” Sanchez said and motioned for the man to precede him through the main door. He wasn't kidding when he said he saw the pain in the other man's eyes. The truth was the raw pain was abundantly clear and the healer's heart was near the breaking point. It would take time for that to heal, but even more than time would be the recovery of the three men who'd borne the brunt of Don Garcia's physical torment.
Buck and Ezra moved out of the way as Nathan stepped into the room. They'd both heard the healer and Josiah coming up the stairs and knew Jackson wanted to check on the three patients. Josiah stood just outside the door and waited for the two men to join him.
“Mr. Jackson appears to be suffering from some form of malady,” Standish observed.
“He's not sleeping,” Sanchez told them.
“He feels guilty,” Wilmington advised.
“He looks exhausted,” Buck reflected on the weariness that he saw embodying the healer.
“Guilt takes an awful toll on a man,” the wise preacher thought aloud.
“Perhaps,” Standish noted, as a keen observer most of his life, he looked a little closer at Nathan.
“Nathan was forced to watch Vin work in the fields while he was living in the house. Then he had to watched Chris and Vin fight in the arena. Then JD being hurt and well, hell, there's just so much a man can take before his burden becomes too much for him to bear,” Wilmington observed.
“How do we correct this misappropriation of guilt?” Standish asked.
“We be there when it becomes too much,” Sanchez answered.
“We catch him when he falls,” Wilmington agreed and watched as the man who'd saved their lives more often than he wanted to think about worked his special magic again. If the old saying about a man wearing his heart on his sleeve was true, then Buck was a witness to it, right here, right now.
“Easy, Chris, I'm not going to hurt you. I just need to make sure you're all right,” Jackson soothed when the blond moaned softly and tried to move away from his touch.
“No....kid....God...I should have...should have stopped him...not his fault....accident...didn't mean to s...shoot Annie... “
“No one's perfect, Chris...least of all me,” Jackson whispered and continued to talk to the fevered man who seemed so lost in nightmares, both past and present. He had his own demons to fight, but right now he was needed to help his friends and forced those demons into the darkness where they belonged. He had work to do, and would not allow his own feelings to get in the way.
JD looked at the man and woman seated beside his bed. He couldn't help, but smile when the woman reached out and touched her fingertips against his cheek.
“Your fever is nearly gone, JD,” Carmella said with a motherly smile, her eyes filled with the care of a woman who did not like seeing anyone hurt.
“How do you feel?” Cristóbal asked.
“Hungry,” Dunne answered and smiled sheepishly when his stomach rumbled at the thought of food.
“I will go see if there is any of the stew left,” Cristóbal told his wife.
“Bring some juice too...and maybe some of the apple sauce Evita made,” Carmella ordered and turned back to the patient. “You need to get your strength back, but you must not overdo things. You can have foods in small amounts until we are sure you will not be sick again.”
“My ma always said that when I was sick.”
“Your madre was a smart woman.”
“You remind me of her. She took care of me when I was sick and she used to touch her fingers against my cheek to test for fever like you did,” Dunne told her and looked toward the door in time to see Buck standing there.
“How are you doing, Kid?” Wilmington asked.
“I ain't a kid...”
“I am not a kid,” Carmella lightly scolded.
“Just like ma,” Dunne said and smiled weakly as Buck helped him sit up. “How are Chris and Vin?”
“Vin's doing better...not great, but better,” Wilmington answered.
“He's still fightin' a damn fever,” Wilmington knew there was no point in trying to hide the truth from the younger man. JD was too smart for his own britches at time.
“He's a fighter, Buck, don't go giving up on him,” Dunne ordered.
“I'm not, but I wish I could do more.”
“You're doing everything you can, and he knows that. Just have faith,” Dunne told him as Cristóbal returned with a tray of food. He placed it across JD's lap and smiled when the young man lifted the spoon and tasted the savory beef stew.
“Buck, Carmella and I are going to take a walk. Will you stay with him?”
“Of course I will,” Wilmington said and smiled as the couple clasped hands and left the room. “JD, I do believe you've got yourself adopted.”
“Them two have been taking care of you since Raphael found you.”
“How did he find me, Buck?”
“What do you remember?” Wilmington listened as the younger man told him what he remembered and filled in any blanks he found. He knew Dunne might never remember everything, and maybe that was a blessing. Being shot and buried in a shallow grave was not something a man needed to live with, not if his own memory didn't want to face it.
“I can't...I remember Chris being there and that damn Don saying something about digging a grave,” Dunne said, but the memories stayed just out of reach.
“Don't try so hard, JD, some things we're better off not knowing,” Wilmington advised, watching as JD ate most of the stew before pushing it away and closing his eyes. It wasn't long before the young man was sleeping and Buck took the tray away, eased the pillow from behind the kid's back and covered him with the blanket. JD still looked like hell, but at least he was awake and eating and that alone was a major victory when it came to the serious head wound he'd received.
Four Corners
Early Morning 

Mary looked up from the printing press as her father-in-law entered the newspaper office. She spotted the piece of paper he held and wiped her hands on her apron before joining him. “Orin, what's wrong?”
“It's from Buck. They're still at the De Rivera Hacienda and they're not sure when they'll be coming home.”
“Chris isn't well enough to travel. He's fighting a fever and Nathan's worried about pneumonia setting in.”
“Oh, God,” Mary said and breathed deeply as she tried to make sense of what was happening. How could De Rivera be so cruel? For the first time in her life, Mary could have danced on Don Garcia De Rivera's grave and not feel the least bit guilty for it.
“Here, Mary, drink this,” Travis said and handed her a glass of water.
“Thank you, Orin.”
“You're welcome. You need to have faith, Mary, faith in Chris and faith in God that he is watching over them,” the judge explained. 
“I know and I'm trying, Orin. God, help me, but I need to...I want them to come home. I want Chris to come home.”
“Do you love him?”
“I don't know...I think so, but he can be so exasperating,” the newspaperwoman said.
“Yes, stubborn and loving and...I need him to come home, Orin. I need the chance to see if we can have a life together.”
“You'll get that chance, Mary,” Orin said and hugged her. “Why don't you put an article in the paper so the town knows how things are with Chris and the others?”
“I will, Orin, thanks,” Mary said smiling when her son passed by the door with the Potter children chasing him. Billy loved Chris being around and if she was honest she enjoyed his attention.
“He needs someone like Chris to teach him what a woman can't,” Orin told her.
“I know, Billy's so much like Steven,” Mary whispered.
“Yes, he is, and Steven would be proud of both of you. He would want to see you happy, Mary. He wouldn't want you to be alone for the rest of your life,” the judge observed. “Evie and I wouldn't want you to do that either.”
“Thank you, Orin, did you reply?”
“I did. I told them to let us know if they needed anything for the trip home,” Travis said.
“Ma, me and David...”
“David and I...”
“David and you?” Billy frowned.
“Never mind,” Mary said with a smile. “What did you and David want?”
“We want to go fishing. Yosemite said he'd take us. Can we go?”
“He did, did he? What about your chores? Have you done them yet?”
“I can do 'em when I get back and if we catch fish you don't have to make no stew,” Billy said, grimacing in distaste.
“Who has to cook the fish and clean up afterward?” Orin asked.
“Last time Chris cooked the fish on a stick over the fire and it sure tasted good,” Billy recalled, eyeing his mother. “’member that Ma?”
“Yes, Billy,” she replied warmly, thinking on the impromptu picnic when she rode out to find the pair when they didn’t return on time. She'd stolen a few moments and watched the patience the blond man took in quietly explaining to the boy the right way to clean the fish. One of the many small things a father did that her son was missing.  

“When’s he comin’ back?” Billy asked, and when his mother continued to stare over his head, he tugged on her sleeve. “Ma, when’s Chris comin’ back?”
“Soon,” she answered, ruffling his fair locks. 
“Ma cooks the best fish. Even Chris says so. When is he comin' home, Ma?” the boy asked.
“Soon, Billy,” Orin said as Mary turned away.
“Good, 'cause he knows the bestest fishing holes.”
“The best fishing holes, Billy,” Mary corrected her son.
“That's what I said,” the boy said, frowning as he shook his head. “Grown-ups,” he thought aloud.
“All right, Billy, you can go fishing, but you'll be cleaning up after supper and you won't argue about getting a bath.”
“Ah, Ma!”
“You heard your mother, Billy, so get moving before she changes her mind,” Orin said and watched the child hurry off in search of his friends. “You're doing a great job with him, Mary.”
“Thank you, Orin,” Mary said and hoped Chris and the others returned home soon. She started printing the papers again and wasn't surprised when her father-in-law moved to help her.
De Rivera Hacienda

Raphael leaned against the column holding up a part of the veranda and watched as Josiah helped several mestizos working to build a shed that would be used for storage. He remembered how good the ex-preacher was with his hands and admired that trait. There'd been many times he wished he'd used his hands in the same way instead of honing his skills with a gun.
“How long will we stay here, Amigo?” Javier De Rosa asked.
“It is beautiful here.”
“That it is, but is it where you wish to stay?”
“I don't know. There comes a time in a man's life when he wants to settle down and have a family.”
“I thought we agreed we are the only family we need.”
“I know, but a man needs to leave a legacy...one not written in blood,” Raphael told him.
“Sometimes blood is needed to bring peace before settling down.”
“Yes, it is, and I feel we have spilled enough blood, Javier. I am thinking of asking Luis if he needs men to help him. Are you willing to give up running for a chance at a life here?”
“More than willing,” De Rosa answered. “What about your enemies?”
“Don Paulo is dead and has no family left for me to fear. I would like to ask Luis if we can come back once we help bring these men back home,” Raphael told him.
“If not, Cristóbal and Carmella would welcome us into their home,” De Rosa assured his friend.
“They are good people.”
“Yes, they are. It is why I had us take the kid to their home. I knew they would not turn us away,” Javier said and smiled as Josiah walked toward them.
“You boys look like you were doing some heavy thinking,” Sanchez said.
“We were talking about settling down,” Raphael said.
“Ah, there comes a time in a man's life when he needs to think of his future. I know there are times when I wonder if there is a woman who would take me in spite of my past,” Sanchez told them reflectively.
“Were you ever in love, Josiah?” De Rosa asked.
“I was.”
“What happened?” Raphael asked.
“Let's just say our paths departed and when they rejoined there was no way to rekindle what we once had.”
“Was she beautiful?”
“She was, but the years changed her, both inside and outside and she became someone I didn't recognize. I keep her picture with me as a reminder that love doesn't always win, but at least I have the memories of our walks along the Embarcadero.”
“I'm sorry it didn't work out for you,” Raphael said.
“I'm not, because she was not the Emma Dubonnet I remembered. Sometimes the past should remain there,” Sanchez said.
“Very true,” De Rosa observed. “Your friends...how are they today?”
“Vin's chomping at the bit to get home. JD's still having headaches, and Chris, well, he's making Nathan use everything he learned and then some.”
“Is he still running a fever?” Raphael asked.
“Yeah, but it's come down a little. Problem is he's not movin' around much and he's got a lot of shit on his lungs,” Sanchez explained.
“Seen that before...hard to breathe and feels like you're drowning,” De Rosa offered.
“I know, but he's so damn weak he's worn out just standing to use the chamber pot,” the ex-preacher told them.
“Chris will not quit, Josiah. Even De Rivera could not make him back down,” Raphael said.
“I know and that's what makes him strong. I need to go help Nathan.” Sanchez nodded to the two men and headed into the house; silently hoping they would soon be crossing the Rio Grande and headed for home.
Nathan lay on the bed in the room next to the one Chris and Vin shared and felt the weight of the world weighing him down. He knew he should get some rest, but every time he closed his eyes he saw his past, his failures, the people he could not help.
Sometimes it was the war torn lands of the south, bodies strewn across bloodied battlefields. He walked amongst them, ignoring the stench of rotting flesh as he searched for any sign of life. He'd had this nightmare many times in the past, but never had it been this vivid. He'd walk along a narrow path, seeking out life, but when he found it there was nothing he could do for the poor soul who was bleeding out through a belly wound. Nathan knew there was no hope, but he knelt beside the young man, only to find it wasn't a young man, it was a boy. A child who should have been swimming or fishing with others his age, instead of carrying a weapon and killing those who professed to know right from wrong. He tore up the remnants of his shirt and pressed it to the wound, tears forming in his eyes as the boy cried out, his body rigid as the life drained from his body and the spark of light in his eyes was extinguished.
Nathan shuddered as the scene changed and he was back on the plantation, the only home he'd known until he'd escaped and joined a contingent of soldiers fighting for their right to freedom. Mr. Jackson had been hard on his slaves and Nathan remembered being forced to treat those who went against their master. It had seemed a natural thing for him to help the injured, and he did so with his heart and soul because without his help they would die. Sometimes they cursed him for not allowing them the freedom that only death could bring and he'd shed more than a few tears on the graves of those he couldn't save, even more over the pallets of those he did.
Jackson turned on his side and felt his mind slipping toward sleep, filling him with a sense of loss as he replayed the death of Dona Maria De Rivera. He could not help her, he could not save her from the labor of childbirth, and he hoped she'd found peace with God, because sometimes he wanted to curse Him as much as praise Him.
“I'm sorry...God, help me, I'm so sorry,” he whispered as the dark nightmares played behind closed lids.
Josiah had heard the whispered words from the room and looked inside to see Nathan sleeping on his side. To anyone who walked past it would seem like the man had finally given in to the need for sleep and was resting peacefully, but he knew his friend. He saw the lines of strain, the haggard features, the slight tremble of the lips and the trail left by silent tears.
Nathan had always been a natural healer, a gift given by God, yet sometimes he felt it as a curse when those abilities failed to save the people he cared about. He was his own worst enemy at those times, harder on himself than anyone else. Josiah knew these last trials were the hardest Nathan had ever faced, because he'd been forced to watch his friends suffer and unable to do anything about it.
Sanchez sighed heavily, unsure whether he should wake Nathan, or allow him to sleep. He needed the latter, but there was no doubt he was having nightmares that prevented him from actually resting.
“He is a troubled man.”
Josiah turned to see Evita Martinez standing beside him. The woman held Santos in her arms, and the child seemed content as she cuddled him the way a mother would. This woman had been through a lot and now she had chosen to help raise the baby and he knew the child was lucky to have her and his half-brother.
“Yes, he is. Nathan's always had a healer's soul, but when he can't help someone he only sees failure,” Sanchez said.
“Then we must make him see that he is not a failure. That he has a gift that he uses to help people,” Evita said.
“Sometimes he sees it as a curse,” the ex-preacher told her.
“Because he cannot save everyone?” the woman asked and saw the slight nod of the man's head. “It is not our place to question God's mercy, but that does not mean it does not affect us. Be strong for him and be there when he needs someone to lean on until he finds his way again.”
“I will, Evita,” Sanchez vowed. He turned to see Buck and Vin watching him and knew Nathan would not be alone in his journey back from the hell De Rivera had caused. 
De Rivera Hacienda
Late Afternoon

Chris was tired of being stuck in the damn bed and wanted to go home. He knew there was no point in arguing with Nathan until the man said he was strong enough for the trip. It would take longer than normal because according to Nathan he wasn't the only one not ready to ride a horse. JD and Vin were both in rough shape and would need to ride in a wagon. 
Larabee turned to see Tanner sitting on the edge of his bed and staring out the window. There was just enough light in the room for him to see just how young the Texan was, but Chris knew, in this case, that looks were deceiving. Vin might look young, but he'd been through more in his short life than most men saw in their lifetime. The younger man had told him about his life before he'd found himself in Four Corners. No one, especially not a child should have to go through what Vin had endured. Yet, Tanner told him he also had the love of his mother and his adopted people once she was gone.
Chris studied the other man's profile for several minutes, and felt the warmth of brotherhood deep down in his soul. He'd been told how strong he was to have survived after losing Sarah and Adam, but like Vin he didn't see his own inner strength until someone else pointed it out to him. More often than not it came from Buck, because he'd been there when Chris was at his lowest and they still stood beside each other.
“Ya interested in more than lookin, it’s gonna cost ya,” Tanner teased softly as he continued to stare out the window.
“In your dreams, Tanner.” The grin came out on its own, a natural reaction to the Texan’s wry humor.  
“More like my nightmares,” the Texan said and turned to his friend. “Ya look like somethin' the cat dragged in.”
“I must be getting better...last time I looked like a day old corpse,” the blond chased back.
Vin eyed his best friend and arched a brow of appraisement, “Freshly dead…things is lookin’ up.”  
“Nathan say anything about heading home?”
“No, jest says we ain't strong 'nough yet,” Tanner answered. “Buck sent a telegram yesterday...told them we's alive, but still not ready fer a long trip.” 
“How's JD?”
“He's better'n he was, but Nate says them headaches could hit him anytime,” the Texan said and saw a flicker of guilt in Larabee's eyes. “Chris, what happened ain't yer fault.”
“Maybe not, but I buried him, Vin.”
“Ya thought he was dead. Ain't nothin' ya could've done dif'rent. We been through this...De Rivera is the bastard ta blame...not you...not me...and not JD,” Tanner said and looked up as Sanchez came into the room carrying a tray.
“He's right, Chris, don't go blaming yourself for something that was beyond your control,” Sanchez said and placed the tray on Vin's bed before helping Larabee sit up and placed extra pillows behind him. “Lord knows there's enough guilt being shouldered by people who have nothing to feel guilty about.”
“Nathan,” Larabee said simply and knew he was right when Sanchez didn't answer. He closed his eyes and silently cursed men like Don Garcia De Rivera. “We need to go home.”
“He won't go anywhere until he's sure you, Vin, and JD are all right,” Sanchez observed.
“Then we convince him we're fine,” Larabee said.
“That's easier said than done,” the ex-preacher said and placed the tray across Larabee's lap. “The sooner you start eating the sooner you'll get your strength back and we can head for home.”
Larabee nodded and took a taste of the beef stew, relieved that it actually had some kick to it. He listened to Vin and Josiah talking, but kept reliving the instant JD was shot and De Rivera's warning that he either bury the body or they would leave it for the animals. He couldn't shake the feelings of guilt, especially when that little voice kept repeating that he'd buried JD alive.
De Rivera Hacienda
Late Afternoon

Carmella knew her husband was right, and sighed heavily as she looked at the boy...the young man who had quickly taken a piece of her heart. If she'd been blessed with a child, a son, she would have liked him to be like JD Dunne. He reminded her of Cristóbal when they'd first met and fallen in love.
“Carmella, I know how hard it will be to say goodbye, but it will be easier now while he continues to grow strong,” Cristóbal told her.
“I know that, Mi Amor, but he is still weak,” Carmella said.
“Do you trust Nathan Jackson and the others?”
“Of course...Nathan is gifted,” the woman said as her husband came to stand behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. “I just worry that he does not take care of himself.”
“JD has plenty of people...”
“Not JD...Nathan. He tries to hide his pain, but it is in his eyes. You know how hard Don Garcia was on those around him and how cruel he was to his family? From what Evita told me he was forced to stay in this house while his friends were abused in the fields. It is something no one should have to witness.”
“I know, but it is over now and with Nathan's help they are healing.”
“Si, they are, but who will help heal the healer whose soul has been torn apart?”
“His friends,” Cristóbal answered simply. 
“They are like brothers,” Carmella said.
“Yes, they are.”
“What time do we leave tomorrow?”
“I was hoping to leave as soon as we help with breakfast. We have been away from our home for too long,” Cristóbal said and held her close as he felt a slight tremble run through her body. “Perhaps, when the time is right we will travel north of the Rio Grande and check on JD and his brothers. Would you like that?”
“Si, I would like that,” Carmella said and placed her right hand over her husband's. This man's love was everything she needed and she would never stop thanking God for blessing her this way.
“Come, Mi Amor, we should spend some time with JD and tell him of our plans,” Cristóbal said and took her hand as they walked toward the door leading to the veranda.
Chris knew if he wanted to go home, he needed to do what Nathan told him, but he was damn tired of this bed and the four walls. Vin had gone outside for some air, which left him alone. A gentle breeze blew through the window and Chris could hear children playing in the nearby fields. He had a feeling that was something new to the hacienda and hoped it was the beginning of the healing process these people needed after suffering under the brutality of Don Garcia.
“Hey, Pard, what's got you thinking so hard?” Wilmington asked from where he leaned against the doorframe.
“The sound of those kids laughing again,” Larabee answered and found a soft smile. “…just like Adam…”
“It's a good sound,” the big-hearted man agreed.  “Are you hungry?”
“A little,” Larabee answered.
“Well, Nathan said if you're feeling up to it you can join the rest of us on the veranda,” Wilmington said and saw the hope in his friend's eyes.
“Hell, yeah,” Larabee growled but then paused, frowned and glared at his oldest friend.
“What's wrong?”
“Last time you said that was when I was shot and Sarah had me stuck in that bed for a week. She 'bout tore me a new hide when she saw me up. Did Nathan really say that?”
“I look like a fool to you?” Buck grinned when a single sandy brow arched back in reply. “Okay, bad choice of words. Let me help you get dressed. It might just mean we'll have the morning meal instead of the evening one though,” Wilmington teased the injured man.
“Shut up and hand me my pants!” Larabee ordered with a hint of a smile. He gingerly bent down to put them on and grimaced when the move reminded him he wasn't as healed as he wanted the others to believe.
“Easy, Pard, just go slow and let me help you,” Wilmington offered, worried when Larabee gave in and accepted his help. Chris wasn't a man who liked to admit he was hurting, and right now the fact that he was willing to accept his help told Buck just how bad things were. “I could tell Nathan you were sleeping.”
“No, I'm okay, Buck, just need to go slow,” Larabee said, relieved when Wilmington nodded and helped him into his clothes. He reached out and laid a hand on his friend's shoulder and smiled. “God, Buck, how many times have we done this?”
“Too many,” Wilmington answered truthfully. “But as long as it means we're alive then I guess it's a good thing.”
“You're full of shit,” Larabee said with a grin.
“Ain't the first time you said that either. You ready?”
“Not really, but let's do it anyway,” the blond said and waited for Wilmington to help him stand. Once on his feet he swayed dangerously and was glad when Wilmington kept him steady.
“Easy, Pard, just get your bearings...there's no hurry,” the rogue told him.
“Feel like I got two speeds...slow and stop,” Larabee told him.
“More like stop and stop,” Wilmington teased as they began the slow process of joining the others outside. It took nearly ten minutes and a whole lot of curse words before they reached the veranda and Buck nodded in thanks when Josiah came to lend a hand.
“Set him down over here,” Jackson ordered and motioned to the chair in the shade. “Chris, we can get ya back ta bed...”
“Hell, Nate, I just got here,” Larabee ground out.
“I know, but...”
“I'll let you know if I need to go back,” Larabee said and stared into the soulful brown eyes.
“All right...feel like eating something?”
“As long as it's something I can sink my teeth into,” the blond said.
“Evita sent up some roast beef sandwiches and there's plenty of fruit,” Jackson said.
“Perhaps this would meet with your approval, Mr. Larabee,” Standish said and put a plate with a sandwich and several pieces of fruit on the table beside the injured man.
“Thanks,” Larabee said and sat back as Nathan moved back to his seat. Chris took the time to look at his friends. Of the seven of them, only Buck, Josiah, and Ezra looked like they wouldn't be blown down by a gust of wind. He didn't want to look at himself, because he knew damn well if he looked anything like he felt then he still had a lot of healing to do. Vin looked pale, but he moved and that was a whole lot better than he could say for himself. JD's face still bore the signs of the bruise caused by the bullet that had nearly claimed his life, and it was easy to tell the kid was trying to hide his pain.
Larabee's gaze finally came to rest on Nathan. And what he saw was a pain from the kind of wounds he knew went far beyond physical. The emotional turmoil of the last few weeks were carved into his features and reflected in the haunted, hollow brown eyes. Chris knew that the injuries he, JD and Vin suffered would heal in time, but what Nathan endured went far beyond that. Those wounds would only heal when he came to terms with what happened, and realized that he was not at fault for what De Rivera made him do.
“Chris, ya best eat,” Tanner said and looked into Larabee's eyes. He knew the blond had seen the same thing the rest of them had and wondered if there was some way they could make Nathan see the truth before it tore his soul apart.
“I'm getting to it,” Larabee grumbled, and heard soft laughter from the Texan.
“The rest of us'll be bedded down b'fore ya git through that,” Tanner told him.
“Least I won't choke on it,” the blond observed. He could see the others watching them and felt as if the world was righting itself. One look at Nathan, standing alone in the far corner, told him there was still something out of balance. He knew Nathan well enough to understand what he was feeling; God knows he'd held onto guilt long enough that it had nearly cost him Buck's friendship. The bottle and his gun had become the only weapons he had against the feelings gnawing at his gut. Then, one day, he woke up with an empty gun in one hand, a shattered bottle of rotgut in the other, and smelling like he'd never been inside a bathhouse.
Sarah's voice had shattered the drunken wall he'd built up around him and within a week he was dried out, cleaned up, and feeling almost human again. He'd been surprised to find Pony was still with him and not stolen during one of his drunken bouts. A smile had formed when the animal's head came up and seemed to sniff the air. Chris had given him a good brush down and headed for the last place he'd heard anything pertaining to Buck Wilmington. It hadn't taken long for him to find the rogue, but instead of asking him to ride at his side again, they'd settled down and now called Four Corners home.
“Nate's gonna think ya ain't ready fer this if'n ya keep lookin' like yer gonna toss yer cookies,” Tanner said.
“Nice,” Larabee said and took another bite of the sandwich. “JD looks like he's going to fall over.”
“Guess ya ain't looked at yerself,” the Texan observed.
“You're one to talk,” Larabee told him.
“Guess we're all a mess...”
“Speak for yourself, Vin, the ladies are saying I'm lookin' mighty fine,” Wilmington said with a grin.
“You tell 'em 'bout your condition?” Tanner asked seriously.
“What condition would that be?” the rogue asked.
“Animal maggots in ‘im,” Vin supplied, shaking his shaggy head. “Don’t reckon Nate’s got anythin’ fer that.”

“It’s animal magnetism!” Buck defended, tossing an apple core at the grinning Texan. “You’re just jealous because the ladies are drawn to it.”
“No, I'd say it's more like they want them little gifts ya give 'em,” Tanner said.
“Vin's got a point, Buck,” Larabee observed. “You stop buying them those little trinkets and I'd bet...”
“Did someone mention a bet?” Standish said, interest piqued at the thought of monetary gain. “If so, I would gladly hold the stakes until such time as a victor can be declared.”
“Just tellin' Bucklin if'n he stopped givin' gifts, he'd find out jest what the ladies thought of them maggots he’s go in ‘im,” Tanner said.
Chris placed what was left of the sandwich on the plate and closed his eyes. He knew he should get someone to help him back to his bed, but right now he was enjoying the camaraderie.
“Come on, Brother, let's get you back to bed before you fall on your face,” Sanchez suggested.
“Damn,” Larabee swore when he realized he must have dozed off for several minutes. He looked longingly at the fruit, but he knew he did not have the strength to eat it, let alone keep it down. He accepted Josiah's hand and stood up, a slight tremble in his legs once he was finally upright.
“Need some help, Josiah?” Wilmington asked.
“No, I think we're good,” Sanchez said and walked alongside the injured man.
Larabee could feel the older man's presence and knew the ex-preacher would catch him if his strength gave out. It felt good to be on his own two feet, but when they reached his room and he lay down, Chris realized just how easy he tired. Sanchez covered him with a light blanket before leaving the room.
Chris knew it wouldn't be long before sleep took him away, but he vowed that he would talk to the others about going home. Nathan needed that. Hell, they all needed the familiarity of being back in Four Corners. He thought about Mary Travis and a warmth spread through him at the thought of seeing her again. Maybe it was time to take it one step further.
De Rivera Hacienda
Early Morning

Buck watched as JD hugged the man and woman who helped save his life. He saw tears in Carmella's eyes as she looked into the eyes that were laden with moisture.
“You mind Nathan and do as he says,” Carmella said and climbed into the buggy beside her husband.
“I will,” Dunne said.
“You better, because if she finds out you didn't I will be the one taking her to Four Corners, and listening to her,” Cristóbal said as the others came to say goodbye. The only one missing was Chris Larabee, but they'd stopped in to wish him well and tell him he, and his friends were welcome at the Covas home anytime. 
“Buck, make sure he gets the rest he needs,” Carmella told him.
“I will...we owe you...I owe you. Anytime you need me I'll come running,” Wilmington vowed.
“You owe me nothing. I did...we did what anyone would do,” Carmella said and sighed as she looked at Nathan Jackson whose eyes belied the pain he tried to keep inside him. She placed her hand on her husband's arm as the buggy started forward and briefly wondered if she would ever see these men again. 
“Come on, Kid, let's get you back to your room,” Wilmington said when he noticed Dunne shading his eyes from the bright sunlight.
“I ain't no kid!” Dunne snapped, but refused to move until the buggy was out of sight. Carmella Covas was filled with motherly concern and although she'd never had children, JD wondered how many others, like him, she'd helped. He turned toward the house and moved slowly inside as Wilmington walked beside him. He stopped at the bottom of the stairs and looked up, grimacing when his head throbbed and his legs shook.
“Easy, Kid, why don't we see if there's a place you can lie down on this floor,” Wilmington said.
“I can do it,” Dunne said, grabbing the rail stubbornly. He forced himself to take one step at a time, eyes closed at times until the dizziness passed. He had no idea how long it took, but he breathed a sigh of relief once they reached the top. The hallway didn't seem nearly as daunting as the stairs, but he was grateful when Buck lent him a hand as they made their way to his room.
Chris had opened his eyes when he heard shuffling footsteps in the hallway and slid his legs over the edge of the bed. He sat up and watched as Buck helped JD along the hallway and forced himself to stand. God, he still felt so damn weak, but he wasn't going to let that stop him. He needed to get moving, to get his body back in shape.
Larabee made it to the door, and cursed the fact that he felt like he'd just run from Four Corners to Eagle Bend. God, why was it taking so damn long to get back on his feet? He leaned against the wall and used it as a guide as he walked toward JD's room.
“What are you doing?”
Chris whirled and smiled at the woman standing at the top of the stairs. Evita Martinez carried several articles in her hands, but she placed them on the table before hurrying toward him. “I was just going to check on JD.”
“Do you care about Nathan?”
“Course I do,” Larabee spat, unnerved at the way she scolded him.
“Then why are you making it difficult for him?” Evita asked and hooked her right arm through his left.
“I'm not...”
“Not yet, but when you fall on that pretty face he'll have to listen to you complain about being stuck in that bed,” Evita said, but helped him along the hall to Dunne's room to find Wilmington helping the younger man back to bed. 
“Chris, I thought Nate wanted you resting up,” Wilmington said.
“Just wanted to check on JD,” Larabee said, smiling as Evita released his arm and allowed him to make his way inside.
“Since you are up I will bring food for you and JD,” Evita said, shaking her head at how stubborn these gringos were.
“God smiled in wonder when he sent an angel to earth,” Tanner said from the open door.
“That he did,” Wilmington agreed as the Texan joined them in the room. “Hard to believe she's been through so much in her life...was talking to Pero and Luis. They told me what it was like for her. Luis stayed because of her and had no love for his father. He wanted to take her away, but when Dona Maria got pregnant she wouldn't leave her.”
“Don Garcia was a bastard...treated ever'one like they's somethin' ta scrape offa the bottom of his boots. His graves gonna be as cold as he was,” Tanner said and eased his lanky frame onto the bed as JD looked at Chris Larabee.
“He don't deserve any pity,” the Bostonian whispered.
“Ain't feelin' no pity fer 'im, JD, just sad that life was wasted when God gave him breath,” Tanner said.
“Maybe, but he was Luis father and although he's nothing like Don Garcia the world is a better place because of him,” Wilmington said. Luis Martinez had made a lasting impression on all of them and they knew Santos would have a big brother he could look up to and learn from. 
“Don Garcia didn't see the wonder in front of his eyes,” Larabee told them.
“Most animals don't,” Tanner said.
“Chris, Nathan said to tell you he's glad you're feeling better, but if you want to go home you need to get some rest,” Josiah said and entered the room carrying a tray laden down with food.
“Seems like resting is all I've been doing,” Larabee said and reached for one of the burritos. He knew they were probably not as spicy as she would normally make, but the seasoned meat and beans would help him regain his strength.
Buck handed one to JD and smiled when the younger man took the first tentative bite. Dunne had been eating soups and finally keeping it down and ate half the burrito before sighing contentedly.
“Damn,” Dunne said, and wished he could do the meal justice. He lay back and closed his eyes, smiling as he thought about going home and seeing Casey Wells. She'd been in his thoughts a lot since the confusion had lifted and hoped no one had caught her eye since he'd been gone.
“Chris, come on...I'll help you back to bed,” Sanchez said.
“Not yet. I want to take a walk,” Larabee told him.
“Ya sure yer up ta it, Cowboy?” Tanner asked.
“Keep it up, Tanner, and you might just get shot,” Larabee said and stood up. He glanced at Dunne and realized the younger man was sleeping and bit back the guilt as he heard Don Garcia's damning words in his head before walking out of the room with Sanchez close at his side.
“Nathan ain't the only one with a shitload of guilt ta git rid of,” Tanner said softly.
“Ain't that the truth,” Wilmington agreed. “The problem is it won't happen while we're here. We need to get them home.”
“Ain't arguin' with that, but until Nate says so we ain't goin' nowhere,” the Texan observed.
“You're not exactly spry yourself, Vin,” Wilmington said.
“Ain't arguin' with ya there,” Tanner said and gingerly stood up.
“Where are ya goin'?”
“Was thinking that little creek Luis told us 'bout is callin' my name.”
“Want some company?”
“I do, but since I'm a gentlemen ya'll have ta do. Might even clean some of them...”
“Give it up, Tanner,” Wilmington interrupted as he placed everything back on the tray. “Come on...maybe we can get some soap and get cleaned up good and proper. You're smelling kind of ripe.”
“Look who's talkin',” Tanner said, and motioned to the bed. “Think he'll be okay?”
“He's gonna sleep for a while, but I'll ask Evita to keep an eye on him,” Wilmington said and carried the tray from the room.
Creek, West of the De Rivera Hacienda
Early Afternoon
Vin smiled as he dismounted and ground tied the horse close to the water where the grass was high. Buck and Josiah did the same with their animals before joining him near the water. Chris had wanted to come with them, but had fallen asleep soon after returning to the room they shared. He knew Nathan had been relieved that Larabee had given in to the need for sleep. After checking to make sure Vin's wounds were okay, Jackson had told them to go ahead, but also warned him not to overdo things. 
Tanner began to remove his clothing and felt a tingle of excitement at the thought of lowering himself into the water. He quickly removed his boots and stripped completely, unaware that his friends were watching him closely.
Buck had always thought Vin was shy, but the Texan was anything but as he walked into the water and dove below the surface. He swam halfway across before his head came above the water and he floated on his back with the sun warming his body and wearing a cocky grin.
“Ya'll comin' in?”
“What do you say, Brother? Feel like washing away the layers of dirt?” Sanchez asked and was soon as naked as the younger man while Buck did the same.
Tanner heard them enter the water, but kept his eyes closed as he let the sun warm his skin. The water was colder than he'd expected, but it felt good to soak away the sweat and fatigue while the gentle waves soothed his aching muscles. He thought about the weeks since the judge had asked them to find out who was killing the homesteaders around Four Corners. It hadn't taken them long to find the banditos, or for the banditos to find them, but it felt like a lifetime since he'd been home.
Vin thought about the town of Four Corners and why the seven had decided it was worth settling down there. Even he'd been drawn to the idea of setting down roots. He'd seen the way Chris looked at Mary and knew they had feelings for each other, and hoped they'd act on them before it was too late. Life was short and sometimes you had to grab the bull by the horns. Maybe Mary would do just that when they finally made it home.
The Texan turned over and swam toward the bottom of the creek before surfacing closer to the shore. He could see Josiah, his hair lathered up and soap covering most of his upper body and couldn't help, but be reminded of his grandfather. The man had always told him that cleanliness was next to godliness and said he should always take advantage of a little soap and water.
“Wanna share that,” Tanner said and caught the soap. He quickly lathered it through his hair and down over his body as Wilmington joined them. “This might help with yer condition.”
“You know, Vin, I might just have to prove it's real,” Wilmington said and took the soap.
“How do you propose to do that?” Sanchez teased.
“I'm gonna stop giving gifts...well, except for the gift of my company,” Wilmington answered.
“That'll free 'em up quick like,” Tanner said and dove under the water before Buck had a chance to reply. He stayed under long enough for the soap to wash away and realized it was time to get back. His energy was nearly spent and he reluctantly made his way toward the shore as Buck and Josiah moved to join him.
“This place is like Heaven on Earth,” Sanchez observed once they were dressed and ready to ride back to the hacienda.
“Even more so without Don Garcia,” the Texan said and reached for his horse's reins. His head ached, and the pain in his lower back told him he'd overdone things. Without conscious thought he rubbed his lower back and tried to ignore the wave of dizziness that washed over him. He knew he'd pay for overdoing things, but he didn't regret the swim or the time on horseback.
“You okay, Vin?” Wilmington asked, relieved that he had taken care of saddling Tanner's horse. He hadn't missed the hand straying to the back or the way Vin shaded his eyes from the sun as if his head was bothering him more than he let on.
“We can rest here for a while if you need to, son,” Sanchez offered.
“I'm okay. Let's jest get back,” Tanner said and mounted up.
“Just don't go falling off the horse or Nate will kill me and Josiah,” Wilmington said and allowed Tanner to take the lead so he could keep an eye on him during the ride back.
Four Corners
Late Afternoon

Mary Travis read the message she'd received from Josiah Sanchez and felt her heart skip a beat. It had been a week since the last one and most of the townspeople had asked her if she'd heard anything about when they'd be coming home. She now had the answer and smiled as Orin Travis looked up from the newspaper in his hands.
“Good news, I hope,” Travis said when he saw the paper in her hands.
“Chris is coming home,” Mary said and realized how that must have sounded. “They'll be leaving tomorrow.”
“That is good news,” the judge said and reached for his coffee. “Perhaps the town should plan a celebration.”
“That sounds like a wonderful idea. It would be a perfect way to show them how much we appreciate what they've done for our town,” the newspaperwoman said and sat across from her father-in-law. “I'll ask Yosemite to get word to the Wilsons and Carters. I think Nettie and Casey will be in town today, if not I'll make sure they get the message. We should also invite Rain and her people.”
“That sounds good,” Travis said, shaking his head when he spotted the only man who could put a damper on things.
“Judge Travis, why are we still wasting good money on men who are not even here to perform their duties.”
“Good afternoon to you too, Mr. Conklin,” Travis said and smiled when Mary stood up to face the man.
“Mr. Conklin, since when did you start contributing to their wages?” Mary snapped.
“I was not talking...”
“Why not? Don't I have as much right to speak my mind as you do?”
“But you're a...”
“What? A woman? A productive member of this town? Or do you still believe I should sell the paper and start making little finger sandwiches and sipping from a tea cup with my pinky sticking up in the air?”
“A woman's place...”
“Is whatever she wishes to make it,” Mary spat. “This isn't The Dark Ages, Mr. Conklin, and women are able to ride horses and shoot guns and even have a mind of their own.”
“Are you going to let her...”
“Speak her mind? Absolutely and I never tire of witnessing my daughter-in-law putting you in your place. Now, Mary and I were discussing a celebration and since you would probably disagree with welcoming them home you should find somewhere else to be,” Orin spat.
“Now see here...”
“No, you see here and you listen to what I'm going to say or I'll make sure you are locked up until after the celebration or better still if you don't like what's happening here find some other town where someone is will to listen to a blithering idiot,” Travis said and turned away. “Mary, why don't we let everyone know Chris and the others are coming home.”
Mary linked her right arm through her father-in-law's left with a smile on her face as they headed toward the saloon to give the news to Inez Recillos and several other townspeople who were already there.
Conklin watched them leave, his hands fisted at his sides as his nostrils flared angrily. Orin and Mary Travis were wrong to believe he had no say in what happened to this town and he would not let them get away with this. He knew exactly who he was going to talk to and maybe this little celebration would end a whole lot different than the Travis' believed.
De Rivera Hacienda
Early Morning.

Evita Martinez held Santos as her son and daughter-in-law stood beside her. The people, once so downtrodden and sickly, were now smiling and healthy, as if Don Garcia had never existed. The babe sleeping in her arms and her own son were proof that he did and were the two things he could have been proud of had he chosen to. Instead he'd used fear and threats to make the people bend to his will, but that was over. They could all look forward to a life without the threat of a whip.
Evita watched as the supplies were loaded onto the wagon and wondered what the future held for the seven men who'd come into their lives. Would Fate smile upon them and give them the happiness they deserved or would she turn her back on them. She felt a pang of sorrow at the thought of them leaving, yet she knew they had homes, perhaps family waiting for them.
Nathan Jackson was making sure everything was ready for the injured men who would be riding in the buggy. She had heard him arguing with Chris and JD, and was slightly surprised when both men gave in without much of a fight. Vin would be driving the buggy while JD and Chris rode in the back. Evita smiled at how easily Nathan had maneuvered it so the injured would not be riding horseback for any length of time.
Buck, Ezra, and Josiah would take turns driving the supply wagon, while Nathan kept an eye on the trio in the buggy. She took the time to study Nathan and knew the man had a lot of healing to do before he could put the events of the last few months in the past where they belonged. The guilt he wore on his face was also evident in the darker area around his eyes and the gaunt features that spoke of lack of appetite and sleep.
Evita watched as Buck, Ezra, and Josiah escorted Chris, JD, and Vin out of the house. She walked over to Nathan as the others said goodbye to Luis and Juanita and several of the fieldworkers.
“Evita, we owe you a debt we can never repay,” Jackson told her.
“No, Nathan, you brought Santos into this world and made it a better place. We are forever in your debt and there will always be a chair at the table for each of you.”
“Thank you, Evita,” Nathan said and looked at the babe in her arms. “He is lucky to have you and Luis to show him what it means to have family. The love you give him will go a long way toward making him the man Dona Maria would have been proud of. You're his family and that means a lot.”
“Yes, it does, and like Santos you have family that cares about you, Nathan, do not be afraid to lean on them and let them help you heal.”
“I'm okay, Evita.”
Evita Martinez had seen a lot in her life, but she could not remember ever seeing such despair hidden in the brown eyes staring into hers. She reached up and touched his cheek, gently, wishing she could somehow find a way to erase the lines that were now carved in his face. “No, you are not, Nathan, but you are wise beyond your years and you will realize that you did what you had to do to save the lives of those you care about. There will come a day when the sun comes back and the clouds will part so you can find your way home. On that day your heart will not be so heavy and you will lay down your burden and know what I say is true.”
“Maybe, but right now I just...I need to take care of Chris, Vin, and JD. They're the ones that were hurt,” Jackson said and walked over to the buggy.
“They may have borne the brunt of the physical pain, Nathan, but they will heal. A man's soul is harder to heal,” Evita whispered as tears formed in her eyes. She kissed Santos' forehead and silently prayed that Nathan's friends would be strong enough to help him heal when he reached out for them.
Evita felt a hand on her shoulder, looked up at her son, and leaned into his touch as Juanita joined them. Together with the rest of the people they watched as the small entourage rode north. She felt as if a part of her was riding with them and hoped their journey home would be a safe one.
“Nathan will find his way, Mi Madre,” Luis said softly as he watched the tears slip silently from her eyes.
“I know he will, but his burden has always been heavy. His heart is scarred by the loss of those he could not save, and until he looks around him and embraces those he did save his burden will weigh heavy on his shoulders. It is the way of life,” Evita said.
“Raphael has asked if he can make his home here,” Luis told her.
“What did you tell him?” Evita asked as Luis wrapped his right arm around her shoulders and his left arm around Juanita's.
“I told him we would welcome him and his men. They are strong and Javier has already started working with Pero to build a new shelter for Juan and Daniella. They are expecting their third child.”
“Yes, I have already spoken to her and she has asked for my help,” Evita said and sighed as the last of Nathan's people rode out of sight. 'May God shine His light and help you find your way home, Nathan Jackson.”
“Would you like me to take Santos inside, Evita?” Juanita asked.
“Thank you, Juanita,” the older woman said and passed the sleeping babe over. “I will be in the chapel should he need me.”
“I need to check with Pero and make sure everything is ready for the harvest,” Luis said and kissed both women before hurrying toward the fields.
Evita walked to the chapel, relieved to find it empty as she made her way to the front alter. She made the sign of the cross and knelt in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary. Many times in her life she would make her way here and speak freely without fear of retribution from Don Garcia. She'd shed many tears after she found herself with child, and prayed that her son would not be like his father. She had thanked God that Luis was a strong man who was not fooled by the power Don Garcia De Rivera held.
“Lord, I know I have asked for many things in my life, and I am grateful for the gifts You have given me and my son. The men who left here today are doing Your work and they have been through more than most men see in a lifetime. I know, thanks to the gift you placed inside Nathan Jackson, that their physical wounds will heal, but I worry about Nathan. He is strong, but he has seen many bad things in his life. He deserves happiness and I pray that his soul will be healed and his heart will stop hurting. He needs Your strength and Your help to get him through this.”
Evita closed her eyes and made the sign of the cross before leaving the chapel. She felt some of the burden ease, but she knew in her heart it would be a long time before she released the pain of living under Don Garcia's rule of thumb. Freedom had never been a sweeter word and a small smile formed as she made her way toward Santos' room. Time would heal and with God's help, so would Nathan Jackson and when it did the sun would shine brighter than ever before.
Trail, North of the De Rivera Hacienda
Late Morning 
Nathan continued to drive the buggy north along the trail that would lead him home. Home, now there was a word that had very little meaning to him until he set foot in Four Corners. Even the plantation had never really been home for him, but he'd found people accepted him because of his skill. Skill, something else he never associated with himself no matter how many people told him he was a natural healer.
They were traveling steadily north, but at a pace that would not be too hard on the injured men. He glanced over his shoulder to find both Chris and JD sleeping, and hoped they'd stay that way for a while longer. Raphael had told them of a good spot to stop for lunch and maybe stay in the shade for the hottest part of the day. It meant added time to their journey, but for the most part it made sense.
Nathan looked at the man riding beside him and was glad to have Josiah's strength. The ex-preacher could still give one hell of a sermon, but when it came to his friend, his words were strong, and the emotion behind them shone in his eyes.
“Do you need a break, Brother?” Sanchez asked. Driving the wagon with the injured men was hard, every bump or rut making the job even harder. The buggy was more of a supply wagon with room for Larabee and Dunne to stretch out while Tanner sat between them with his hat resting over his eyes.
“I'm all right for now, Josiah. Chris and JD are sleeping,” Jackson answered.
“I could spell ya, Nate,” Tanner said from the back of the buggy.
Josiah smiled, a grin really that did little to hide the humor he found in the Texan's proclamation. “Sunstroke, Son?”
“Well I could...”
“You get your head down and rest before your back starts giving you fits,” Jackson ordered.
“Raphael says the creek is about an hour north of here,” Sanchez offered.
“Good...we'll spend the afternoon there and give us all a chance to rest and stretch our legs,” Jackson said.
“It'll take us a couple of days to reach the Rio Grande,” Sanchez said.
“Maybe that's a good thing. I'm thinking it'd be a good idea for Buck and Ezra to take one of Raphael's men and ride ahead. They could scout out the best place to cross,” Jackson said. The river was deep in places and the current could be strong at times. He'd heard stories of men and horses being washed away because of a careless mistake.
“I spoke to Raphael about that and Javier is probably the best man to send. He knows the area and rode across the river at different points during every kind of weather. Least that's what Raphael said.”
“Sounds good. Tell them they can set out later in the day. It's gonna be too damn hot to ride even when you're not hurtin',” Jackson said.
“I'll talk to them. You let us know if we need to stop.” Sanchez said.
“I will,” Jackson said and continued to drive the horses steadily north.
Creek, North of the De Rivera Hacienda
Early Afternoon
Chris wasn't sure what woke him, and he bit back a muffled cry when he tried to sit up. His head pounded and he cursed himself for having drunk too much the night before. The problem was, he couldn't remember drinking and shaded his eyes from the bright sunlight before shifting his body upward until he leaned against the side of the wagon.
“Pro'bly be better if'n ya waited fer Nate,” Tanner said with a lopsided grin.
“What the hell...where are we?” Larabee managed through tightly clenched teeth.
“Nate's got ever'one settin' up camp. Said ta tell ya he'd skin ya alive if'n ya try ta git outta here,” the Texan answered.
“Jest told ya...camp,” Tanner said.
“Nate's got 'im layin' down in the shade...ya look like ya been rode hard and put away wet,” the Texan observed.
“Feel like it too,” Larabee said as Jackson returned to the buggy.
“All right, Chris, let's get ya outta this sun,” Jackson said and leaned in to brace the man as he shifted his weight toward the edge.
Chris eased his aching body over the edge and held his arm tight against his body as Nathan supported his weight. They made their way toward a small clearing beneath several large trees with a small stream running nearby. He stretched his legs and walked slowly toward the creek as Jackson released him and returned to the wagon to help with supplies.
“Chris, don't go far...I need to take a look at ya,” Jackson said.
“I need to take care of something you can't help with, Nate,” Larabee said and moved into the trees. He could hear the others talking and quickly did what his body demanded before slowly making his way to the bedroll in the shade of the trees.
“You're moving like an old man there, Stud,” Wilmington said with a grin.
“Fuck off, Buck!” Larabee growled and eased himself down on the blanket and leaned back against the saddle someone had placed there.
“Okay...you move like an old man and you sound like...”
“Buck, he's got his gun back,” Sanchez said.
“Yeah, but he wouldn't shoot me,” Wilmington said.
“If I was a betting man...”
“Hell, Ezra, you are a betting man,” the rogue said and moved to help Sanchez with lunch.
“Yes, but I was attempting to point out that Mr. Larabee would not think twice about shooting you,” Standish told him. He watched as Vin slowly crossed the small clearing and sat down near a large rock. He could easily read the pain etched in the man's features as he leaned back and closed his eyes. There was no mistaking Tanner's sigh of relief at being able to stretch out his legs, and Ezra could tell this journey would be hard on the three injured men.
“Ezra, how do you feel about fish?” Wilmington asked.
“I believe that would depend on what you are alluding to,” Standish said as Wilmington took several items from his saddlebags.
“I don't got a clue what alluding means, but I figure we could try to catch some fish. Would be nice to have something for supper,” Wilmington said.
“With the noise you two make it'll be next week's supper. It might be better if you leave the fishing to people who have the patience for it,” Josiah offered.
“Do I perceive a challenge, Mr. Sanchez?” Standish asked.
“I think that's exactly what he's saying,” Wilmington said. “Are you up for such a challenge, Mr. Standish?”
“I have never backed down from such an interesting endeavor,” Standish said.
“Mind if I join you, Josiah?” Raphael asked.
“That hardly seems fair...”
“What's not fair, Buck?” Josiah asked.
“You and Raphael...”
“Against you and Ezra. Two against two...sure seems fair in my book, but if you're worried you can go upstream and have first chance at the fish,” Sanchez offered as Raphael pulled out everything they would need to catch fish, except for the bait, but he knew where they could find that pretty fast.
Chris listened to the four men as they talked about what the winner would get and what the loser had to do. He hoped they did catch some fish although right now he wasn't sure he could eat anything. He glanced sideways to find JD curled on his right side, sleeping soundly and briefly wondered if Nathan had slipped something into the water he'd been given.
“Chris, ya feel up ta eatin'?” Jackson asked.
“Not really,” Larabee answered.
“You need to eat if you're going to get your strength back,” the healer told him.
“I know and I will...just not right now,” the blond said.
“All right,” Jackson said and walked away.
Chris watched the man and wished he could do something to wash away the damage done by Don Garcia. The problem was there was no way he could do that without turning back the hands of time. He closed his eyes and listened to the others as Buck, Ezra, Josiah, and Raphael hashed out the requirement for their bet.
Buck and Ezra watched as Raphael pulled another fish from the creek and tossed it into a bucket they'd taken from the supply wagon. So far Josiah and Raphael had caught six fish, while he and Ezra had nothing, but their wet clothing and wounded pride to show for their troubles. “What the hell are we doing wrong, Ezra?”
“I have no idea, Mr. Wilmington, but I believe Mr. Sanchez and his partner have us at a distinct disadvantage.”
“Ya can say that again,” the rogue snapped as Sanchez landed another good-sized fish.
“Good thing they didn't leave it up ta you two,” Tanner said. He'd given up on trying to sleep and was trying to walk off the pain in his lower back. He'd found a comfortable spot on a fallen tree and spent the last half hour watching Wilmington and Standish. It reminded him of two men he'd seen in a show one time when he was younger. Neither man spoke, but kept hitting each other with anything they could get their hands on.
“Vin, what the hell's wrong with our bait?” Wilmington asked.
“Ain't yer bait,” Tanner said.
“Then do tell us why we have been unable to catch anything worthwhile,” Standish said.
“Yer makin' a ruckus,” the Texan said.
“What is a ruckus?” the gambler asked.
“He means you're too noisy,” Jackson advised. He'd come down to the creek to get water for coffee and found himself drawn to the scene before him. He'd even laughed when Buck and Ezra got tangled up and fell on their asses in the water.
“That's right and yer sendin' the fish downstream...straight ta Josiah and Raphael. Looks like the two of ya git ta gut and clean 'em,” Tanner advised with a grin.
“We still have time, Ezra,” Wilmington said, and cursed when Raphael triumphantly held up a large fish. “Ezra, let's get these lines untangled!”
“Good luck with that,” Tanner said, chuckling softly as the two men tried to untangle their lines, but only made things worse.
“You could help!” Wilmington glared at the grinning tracker.
“…can barely make ya out…” the prankster feigned blinking his eyes and ‘coughing’. “…amazin’ I ain’t passed out yet…”
“What a load of crap!” the rogue said.
“Well, time's nearly up, Boys, so I would say you'd best get on back ta camp and get ready ta eat crow while the rest of us eat fish,” Sanchez said.
“We still have time,” Standish said.
“Well, our bucket is full, and if I remember the terms it was two hours or a full bucket...whatever came first,” Raphael told them.
“Dammit, Ezra...”
“Don't go blaming me for your shortcomings, Mr. Wilmington! At least I managed to catch one,” Standish observed.
“That's not a fish! It's one of them little things you use as bait,” the rogue observed.
“It's still more than you caught,” Standish said. “Since that means you are at the bottom of the Totem Pole, you should clean the fish while I make sure...”
“No way in hell, Ezra, we both clean the fish and then Josiah cooks it,” Wilmington observed and knew no one would argue with Sanchez cooking the fish. The man knew his way around a cook fire and there'd be no arguments with letting him work his magic again.
He never meant to fall asleep, and had no idea how much time had passed. The rumbling of his stomach told Chris that the aroma was the result of a certain bet. He opened his eyes and blinked away the cobwebs as he sat up and looked around. JD and Vin were both sleeping while Josiah was busy at the campfire. The smell of fish and onions made his mouth water and he could tell Vin wasn't really sleeping. Buck, Ezra, and Raphael were talking near the horses, but one man was conspicuously absent.
Chris stood on stiff legs, stretched the kinks from his back and looked around until he spotted Jackson down by the creek. He nodded to Sanchez and walked past him, hoping he could relieve himself and make sure Nathan understood how much he appreciated what he'd done for them. He took care of his physical needs and slowly made his way to the edge of the water.
“You should be resting,” Jackson told him and shifted to the right so the injured gunman could sit beside him on the flat rock.
“I did.”
Nathan knew this man was not used to being so inactive and the disgruntled look on his face only emphasized that. “Ya need it...the three of ya were hurt pretty bad, Chris, and sometimes rest is the only thing ta help a body heal.”
“You might take a dose of your own medicine, Nathan.”
“I'm fine, Chris, or I will be as soon's we get you three home,” Jackson told him and skipped another stone across the water.
'Fine, my ass,' Larabee thought, but understood how Jackson felt and his need to come to terms with what happened on his own. He had a feeling Rain was the one person who could help Nathan, and vowed he would be there when the time came. He stared hard into the soulful brown eyes and let a light shine through his own, the kind of inner light that is painted with deep strokes of boundless gratitude. “I owe you, Nate.”
“I just did what needed to be done, Chris, there ain't no debt owed for that.”
“There is, but it's not something that can be repaid with money. You can't put a price on that. I'm pretty sure I speak for the others when I say thank you for saving my sorry ass, Nathan Jackson.”
Nathan smiled thinly at the other man, but he could not console himself with Larabee's words. He knew he had no reason for feeling guilty, but every time he closed his eyes he saw Vin's battered body, or JD's too still form, or Chris bathed in fever. All the while this was happening, he slept in the lap of luxury with three meals a day and anything else he wanted. God, help him, but he couldn't let go of the image of Vin being tortured by De Rivera and his men.
“Don’t go there,” the blond warned, easily seeing the guilt rising in the hollow eyes. 
“You don’t understand.” How could he?  How could any of them understand? “ I saw what he was doing to Vin and didn't stop him! I saw what he did to you and I watched him put you both in the arena with those other men and I did nothing!”
“What would De Rivera have done if you'd tried to stop him?”
“He would have killed you both!” 
The words came out so fast and with such force, that the speaker had not even felt the ripples of their effect.  Chris knew where Nathan was, hell, he’d lived in that dark place more than once. It was only the brave man that could conquer the darkness and fight his way back. Although you could try to provide some light, it was up to the bearer to forge the path on his own, with his heart and soul as a compass.
“At least in the arena we had a chance to fight for our lives. If he'd thrown you in with us we all could have been killed. Guilt can weigh a man down, Nathan. God knows I've carried enough of it around to know. When Sarah and Adam died I blamed myself, then I blamed Buck and it damn near cost me his friendship. Not many men would have put up with what Buck did and still stand at my side. It's taken me a long time to stop being an ass and allow Sarah and Adam's memories to push back the darkness that almost buried me. Believe me I know guilt and I know you should not be carrying that load...not now...not ever,” Larabee vowed.
“I keep telling myself that, Chris, but every time I close my eyes I see what he did to you, Vin, and JD. The man was a real bastard...”
“Yes, he was and he's dead, but we're alive because of you and what you can do with your hands and your mind. That's something that doesn't come from a book, Nathan; it comes from your heart. Believe me when I tell you we all see it even if you don't,” Larabee told him, and smiled when his stomach rumbled.
“Think maybe we best get back ta camp before that monster decides it can't wait no longer,” Jackson said and stood up. When he offered his strong arm to help the injured man stand, the smile that came back hit him like an invisible force. He felt something when the pale hand met his dark one. Something strong, something good, something that only comes from a friend.
“Give it some thought,” Chris suggested, seeing a flicker of hope for the first time in the lost gaze. “You’re a good friend, Nathan, you stand taller than most.”
“Thanks, Chris,” Nathan complimented, “and I’ll try.”
“You won’t fall, you...lean on me...on us, we'll help you,” Larabee said, hoping that this proud man, who had fought far too many battles alone his life would take that offer.’
“Supper's ready!” Sanchez called and began dishing up the fish. He handed one to Larabee and the other to Jackson before serving the others. “Eat hearty, boys, there's plenty more.”
“No thanks to Buck and Ezra,” Tanner teased.
“Ha,” Wilmington snapped. “What were you doing while Ezra and I were...”
“Making enough noise to wake the dead?” Sanchez asked with a toothy grin.
“They sure woke the fish the hell up,” Tanner added.
“Mr. Wilmington, I do believe we should just bow out gracefully,” Standish said.
“I don't think so,” Larabee said with a smile. “I believe you two are donning aprons and cleaning up.”
“You can't be serious...”
“I believe he is and that was our agreement,” Standish said, and nodded toward Sanchez. “I believe Mr. Sanchez' culinary talents are underrated. This is better than the finest delicacies in Paris.”
“Merci,” Sanchez said.
“Je t'en prie,” Standish said.
“Ah, hell, next thing you know you'll have us wearing napkins and keeping our pinkies up and saying please and thank you and pardon me,” Wilmington grumbled.
“A little class...”
“Is what they have in school; a little class of little children,” Wilmington interrupted.
“You, Mr. Wilmington, are uncouth and barbaric...”
“Thank you,” the rogue said.
“Don't think he meant it as a compliment, Pard,” Larabee said.
“Don't matter none...I'll take it as one,” Wilmington said and scooped up another piece of fish before smiling in Standish's direction and belching loudly.
“Ever the portrait of class,” the gambler said with a shake of his head.
“In Italy that would be a compliment wouldn't it?” Dunne asked.
“Hey, I think the kid's right,” Wilmington said and burped again. “There you go, Josiah, I compliment you on your...what was it Ezra said? Oh, yes, culinary talents. My compliments.”
“Thanks, I think,” Sanchez said as Vin and JD chuckled at the look on the rogue's face.
The rest of the meal was eaten in relative silence until it was time to clean up. The trouble started when Era and Buck picked up the dishes and scraped the bones into the fire. The whole time Ezra grumbled under his breath about his 'sainted mother'.
“What was that, Ez?” Wilmington asked.
“I said my hands were not meant for such trivial things as washing dishes. They were meant for finer things.”
“Yeah,” Vin laughed, his blue eyes crinkled in mirth, “Fer woman’s work.”
“You'll make someone a good wife, Ezra,” Dunne said. “One of them funny cowboys Buck likes.”
“I don't go for those funny cowboys, Kid, so watch what you're sayin'...don't want ol' Buck's reputation ruined by rumors like that,” Wilmington said and piled the plates on Ezra's arms.
“Yeah, kid, it might chase all of them animal maggots out o’im,” Tanner called, and unconsciously rubbed his lower back.
“You bunch think you're funny, but you're not,” the rogue said and started toward the creek.
“Excuse me, Mr. Wilmington, but I believe you should be helping with these,” Standish said and waited for Wilmington to take some of the dishes.
“No, they seem to be nicely balanced,” the ladies' man said as Tanner walked past him.
“Lessen I do this,” the wily Texan said and pulled out the second plate. Tanner smiled as the gambler tried to juggle the rest.
Ezra could not quite do the balancing act as dishes went flying and Wilmington's leg caught in an exposed root. He grabbed for anything to hold him up, and managed to latch onto Ezra's jacket. Standish tried to pull away, overbalancing them both as they sprawled headfirst into the water amidst raucous laughter from the rest of the men.
“You, sir, owe me a new jacket and pants!” Standish grumbled and stood up.
“Uhuh, not me...Vin owes us both,” Wilmington snapped and turned to look at the men seated around the campfire. The laughter seemed to have been the trick and he didn't mind being the cause of it. Chris, Vin, and JD were still with them and that was something he would gladly give thanks for. “Come on, Ez, let's get the dishes cleaned up and get these boys home.”
Standish had seen the same thing Wilmington had and smiled as he began picking up the spilled dishes. It wouldn't take them long to wash them and get everything ready so they could continue their journey home.
De Rivera Hacienda
Late Evening

Evita Martinez held the baby in her arms as she rocked on the veranda overlooking her home. Santos slept, oblivious to the wonderful painting created by God's majestic hand. The colors of the sunset were as breathtaking as anything she could ever imagine and she hoped the sunset was a harbinger of wonderful things to come.
Luis and Juanita had gone for a ride and would return soon, but she enjoyed this time alone with her son's half-brother. Holding him like this reminded her of the days after Luis' birth and the love she'd felt just feeling his breath against her breast when she fed him. Santos had the same thick black hair as Luis and when he smiled it lit up his face. She hoped he would have Dona Maria's personality so that he could guide the Hacienda with a loving heart instead of an iron fist.
Her thoughts wandered to the seven men who had been thrust into their lives because of Don Garcia's cruelty. God willing they would be home in a few days, and she would probably never see them again, but they had touched her heart. She was grateful for having met them and been given the chance to see how seven men, not related by blood, could band together and be stronger than brothers.
Evita felt tears in her eyes as she looked at the baby and thought about the man who'd helped bring him into this world. Nathan Jackson had suffered so much at Don Garcia's hands. He may not bear the physical wounds of the others, but the emotional pain had been evident even after he knew his friends would survive. She knew how he felt, she'd lived it every day since Luis was born, but she would never change the man he'd become. He was someone she could be proud of and had a strength born of love. If she read the others right, Nathan would find he had that same strength and hoped he would harness it.
“Be strong, Nathan, and when the sun comes back into your life embrace the brothers God gave you for they are your strength and you are theirs in return. There is no other gift as strong as the family we have beside us,” she whispered and began to sing softly as the bay squirmed in her arms. He quickly calmed at her voice and she knew Dona Maria was watching over him and always would.
Rio Grande
Late Afternoon
Buck glanced sideways at the man riding with him and understood just who he was. Raphael Cordova De Martinez may have served the House of Madera, but he never belonged there. Raphael now rode with six men he called brothers, and Buck was glad he'd found them.
“What are you thinking about?” Raphael asked. He'd felt the other man scrutinizing him on several occasions and had been doing the same thing during the ride. They'd left the others on the trail and ridden north in search of the easiest way to cross the river.
“Just thinking how lucky we are.”
“Yeah, see me and Chris have known each other a lot of years, but there were times when I wanted to kick his ass and knock some sense into it. I know he felt the same way about me and maybe that's why we stayed friends so long, but after Sarah and Adam died I thought I'd lost him for good.”
“Hard on a man to lose family, especially like that. Hard on his friend too,” Raphael observed.
“Yeah, it was. Sarah was like a sister to me; and Adam, well, he was such a little tyke and just like his papa. Before Chris and Sarah met me and Chris had a bad rep, even in Purgatorio, and that place is bad in itself. We drank and caroused and just had ourselves a good time no matter what it took. Then one day Chris saw Sarah and I ain't never seen such a lovesick fool like him. Old Hank shot his ass full of buckshot one night, but he just kept after her until they decided they loved each other. Sarah's ma gave her blessing and they got married while ol' Hank was off on one of his trips. Chris and Sarah got that little piece of land and started their dream. I thought that was the end and was ready to ride off, but Sarah would have none of it. She said their door was always open and my bed would always be there for me. I just wasn't allowed to bring home any strays if you catch my drift?”
“I hear you,” Raphael said with a lewd grin.
“Then Adam came along and the night that boy was born there was a light come into Chris' eyes. It was like he just took life more serious, but don't get me wrong. He still laughed and joked, but he was a new father and he wanted to provide for his wife and son. Everything was good until that bitch decided she wanted what never belonged to her.”
“Did he ever find Ella Gaines?”
“No, she's still out there, but the day will come when her luck runs out and when it does Chris will be able to let go of the darkness clouding his soul. I plan on being at his side when he's finally free of her forever,” Wilmington vowed and knew, no matter what happened, he would fulfill that vow.
South Shore of the Rio Grande
Late Evening

It had taken nearly three days of travel to reach the Rio Grande, with frequent stops to allow the injured men a chance to rest. While they all wanted to be on the other side they knew it would be best if they waited until morning. The horses were unhooked from the wagons and ground tied in thick green grass near the river. Josiah had shot several rabbits and made a stew out of the vegetables Evita had sent with them. Nathan had mixed up the ingredients for biscuits and cooked them in a pan while the stew bubbled at the edge of the pit.
The men were settled beneath a sky dotted with twinkling stars surrounding a full-bodied moon. A soft breeze carried the scent of wildflowers across the clearing as Vin took out the harmonica Buck had found tucked inside his saddlebags. He had no idea where or when he'd lost it, but it was a gift he'd been given by his mother and had belonged to her father.
A lone wolf howled in the distance, while several night birds seemed to add their voices to the symphony Vin Tanner played. It surprised them all when Josiah Sanchez began to sing Amazing Grace as the men settled down for the night.
Nathan watched as JD closed his eyes and was soon asleep next to Buck. The kid had complained of a headache once they had supper, and Nathan had given him a tea that would help with the pain and nausea and hopefully let him sleep without losing what little he'd eaten. The young Bostonian would suffer headaches for some time because of the bullet wound, but at least at home they'd have others to help. His gaze wandered to Larabee who had nestled down next to Vin. The man seemed to be fighting sleep, but Nathan knew it wouldn't be long before it overtook him. God knew they needed it. Vin still looked pale, and the healer in him knew the Texan was not as healed as he let on. He finished playing the tune at the same time Josiah's final note reached his ears.
“Vin, why don't you get some sleep, tomorrow's going to be a rough one and we'll need everyone to get the wagons across the river,” Jackson suggested.
“Sounds like a plan,” Tanner readily agreed and hunkered down beside the sleeping blond.
Nathan sighed wearily and felt the others watching him, but he didn't feel like talking. Sleep wasn't something he wanted to do either, but staying awake would mean talk. He lay back on his bedroll and closed his eyes before turning away from the warmth of the fire and the men who made up his makeshift family.
Four Corners
Early Morning

The town was beginning to come to life with the Potter children and Billy Travis talking excitedly about the big party their mothers were helping plan. Billy told the boys about his fishing trips with Chris while they sat outside his home. David and Jane Potter hung on every word he uttered about the fierce gunslinger.
“Chris knows the best place to catch fish, but he says ya gotta be as quiet as a church mouse so they don't know you're there,” Billy said.
“He don't talk much,” David observed.
“Ma says he had a little boy and he died,” Jane told them.
“He did...that mean woman killed him and his ma,” Billy told them, shaking his head at the thought of Ella Gaines. His ma had told him about her and he knew the woman had hurt Chris. Maybe someday he'd be the one to put her in jail so Chris could smile again.
“Is she in jail?” David asked.
“No, but someday I'm gonna go after her. I'm gonna be a law dog.”
“Can I be your deputy?” David asked conspiratorially.
“Me too! I wanna be a law dog and catch bad people.”
“You can't be a law dog, Jane, you're a girl. You gotta get married and have children!” David told his sister and shook his head as if what he said should have been obvious.
“Sure I can. I can be like them two ladies who helped...”
“Them two weren't ladies. They were killers...they shotted JD,” Billy said.
“I want to be a law dog and shoot a gun just like you and you can't stop me so there!” Jane said and folded her arms across her chest as she lifted her head and turned away from them.
“Okay, you can be a law dog too, but why don't we talk about the party?” Billy asked and smiled at the girl when she turned back toward him. Maybe someday he'd marry her, but shivered at the very idea of getting hitched.
“Ma says we're gonna make some pies and cookies,” Jane told them.
“My ma is cooking a roast and making potatoes with onions,” Billy said and smiled. “Do you think your ma would let us try the cookies?”
“I'll ask her,” Jane said.
“Me and Billy are gonna help set up the tables,” David said. “We're gonna use a hammer and nails and saw...”
“I wanna help,” Jane told them.
“You can't help. You're a girl and you gotta do girls work!” David said and shook his head at the thought of his sister holding a hammer. “You'd hit your thumb and have to go see Nathan Jackson and he'd have to give you that medicine.”
“Chris and Vin calls it skunk juice and horse piss,” Billy whispered.
“You said a bad word, but I won't tell!” Jane said, and giggled as she looked at the boys. “I don't say bad words, but I guess I'll have to if I'm gonna be a law dog.”
“Dang it, Jane, how many times I gots to tell ya girls can't be law dogs?” David snapped.
“They can to and you'll let me be one or I'll tell ma you said a bad word!” the girl said and raised her head haughtily.
“Billy, you're so lucky ya don't gots a kid sister.”
“Reckon we better let her be a law dog, David,” Billy said.
“Guess she could be our deputy,” the other boy agreed.
“Billy, breakfast is ready.”
“Comin', Ma,” Billy called and agreed to meet the Potter children after their chores were done.


PART 1 / PART 2 / PART 3 / PART 4 / PART 5 / PART 6 / PART 7 / PART 9 / PART 10 / PART 11


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