by Winnie


South Shore of The Rio Grande

Jackson turned onto his right side and kept his eyes closed until he was certain the others were sleeping. No matter how hard he tried he couldn't rid himself of the feelings of guilt that gnawed at his gut. He knew Chris was right in what he said, but knowing it and believing it were two different things.
Nathan knew he had to keep his emotions in check, but he felt the tears slip from his eyes. His mother had always told him there was no shame in crying, but during his time at the plantation he'd managed to learn how to hide his feelings because Mr. Jackson saw it as weakness. He'd seen others whipped because they'd cried over the sale of one of their loved ones.
Jackson sat up and looked around the small clearing. The horses shifted restlessly, and a soft whiny reached his ears as one of them made its way to the water to drink. He stood up and walked down to the river’s edge, amazed at how beautiful nature could be. A lone bird screeched in a nearby tree as if his passing had disturbed it, while a soft breeze carried the scent of wildflowers to him. He sat on a large rock, and allowed a soft sob to escape while thinking of the people he'd lost through the years.
“Mr. Jackson...Nathan?”
“Sorry, Ezra, didn't mean to wake ya,” Jackson said.
“You didn't. I was awake and saw you come down here,” Ezra was careful to remain a few feet away as not to crowd the troubled soul. “To take advantage of the solitude and privacy, to help perhaps.”
“Help with what?” Jackson asked, forcing the emotional tide back.
“Cards are not the only things I can read. People are sometimes a little harder, but I have learned things through the years. I know how hard your father's passing was and how it brought back the memories from your childhood.”
“What would you know of my childhood, Ezra? You grew up pampered and probably got everything ya asked for!” Jackson snapped. Admittedly, he was too harsh, but he had always found it hard to talk with Ezra, especially since they both seemed to have their own prejudices. God, help him, but he knew Ezra had changed; hell, they all had, but sometimes those old prejudices came back when you least expected them.
“You know nothing about me or what you outwardly perceive to equate wealth of self being,” Ezra shot back and saw Nathan’s reflect.

“I guess yuhr right,” Jackson admitted.
“It was a different life than yours, Nathan. Did I tell you that one of mothah's suitors was a plantation owner near Georgia?”
“No, you didn't,” Jackson said.
“Mothah met Lawrence Gordon in Paris and when he returned home she went with him. I was staying with another one of my uncles in Boston at the time and Mr. Gordon decided he wanted to spend time getting to know me. We took the train that very day...I remember how excited I was to have mothah home. She was so enamored of Mr. Gordon and I asked her if he was going to be my new father. She smiled and told me a proposal could be forthcoming, but I needed to be on my best behavior whenever Mr. Gordon was around.”
“She love him?”
“In her own way I believe she did, but sometimes I think mothah never understood the love,” Standish answered and sighed as he picked up a rock and skimmed it across the water. “You know I never learned how to skim a rock until JD showed me. I did not believe him when he explained how the rock could glide across the water and that it was exciting to count how many times it did just that.”
“A simple child's game can be fun,” Jackson said and picked up a flat stone. He flipped it toward the river and watched as it danced across the surface before disappearing below the water. “So what happened with Mr. Gordon?”
“He was not the man mothah thought he was,” Standish told him. “He was a monster...and what he wanted wasn't a wife.”
“What did he want?” Jackson asked, having heard a slight tremor in the other man's voice.
“Me,” Standish said and threw a large stone with more force than intended. It hit the water with a loud splash. “He came into my room one night while I was sleeping. I woke up and he was standing over me wearing nothing and I...I...he told me not to make a sound. I was seven and I didn't know what to do, but when he pulled back the blanket and I felt his...felt his hand on my leg, I screamed. Mothah came to my room. I thought she would kill him, but he told her he heard me crying and came to see what was wrong. I remember my throat was sore for a week after it happened.”
“Did she believe him?” Jackson asked and sailed another rock toward the river.
“No, thank God, she had been hearing stories amongst the staff and I believe she was ready to leave him. She called him several rather damning names and if she'd had a gun I believe she would have shot him. We left that very minute and never returned. Mothah was actually afraid he would come after us and kept me with her for nearly a year before sending me to stay with my Uncle Henri.”
“Was he good to you?”
“Very much. He schooled me in the art of being a southern gentleman,” Standish answered.
“I'm glad,” Jackson said.
“Thank you, Nathan.”
“For what?”
“I came here to help you, but as always seems to be the case you have helped me. I have never spoken of what happened on Mr. Gordon's plantation and had simply tried to ignore it, but it was always there. I believe speaking of it will help me deal with what happened and that is something I never thought possible,” Standish explained and looked into the sorrow filled brown eyes. “I wish you would trust me to do the same for you.”
“Ain't nothin' I need ta talk about,” Jackson said and saw a hint of sadness cross the other man's face before he stood up. “We should get back. Earlier we get started the better. Heard tell of storms comin' up mighty quick down this way and I don't want at be caught crossin' the river if that happens.”
“I'll get water for coffee,” Standish said and walked beside his friend. From the first time they'd met he'd wondered if he could ever see eye to eye with Jackson, but things had changed with the passing of each day. Not only did he consider Nathan a friend, he trusted the man with his life and his secrets and there were not many people he could say that about. And perhaps, one day, Nathan would find a way to share some of the scarred wounds he carried inside.
Standish drew up short at the softly spoken words and turned to see Jackson facing the water. He was about to tell him he hadn't done anything, but the way the man stood so alone and solemn made him reach out. “You are welcome, My Friend, and if there is ever a time when you need anything don't hesitate to ask.”
South Shore of the Rio Grande
Early Morning

Nathan looked at the men as they got ready to make the trip across the river. The supplies had been distributed evenly and tied down to make sure they didn't shift in the strong current. Ezra would be in charge of getting it across while Josiah helped guide the animals from horseback.  He would drive the second wagon carrying Chris, Vin, and JD, with Buck leading the horses from the front. Raphael would ride alongside,  and help if they needed it.
“Well, Brother, the faster we get moving the faster we're on the other side,” Sanchez said.
“I know,” Jackson said and shook off the feeling that something was wrong. He looked at the injured men and knew they were not strong enough to sit on a horse and ride it across the river. Buck and Raphael had already checked upstream and downstream and this was the safest area to cross. Still, it looked like there'd be places near the center where the wagon wheels would be nearly completely submerged. Josiah and Ezra rode across the river and found the safest places to cross, away from the deeper places.
“Nathan, the sooner we get started the sooner we're on the other side,” Larabee told him.
“I guess,” Jackson said and climbed into the seat. The plan was to let Ezra get the supply wagon across the deepest section before he started across with the second wagon. This would give them a chance to see how the wagons would handle the deepest section.
Ezra watched as Josiah took the lead reins while he took the driver's seat. It would take some time to get across, but they had that and the patience needed for a safe trip.
“Are you ready, Ezra?” Sanchez asked.
“I'm ready,” Standish answered and flicked the reins. The horses started forward, with Josiah keeping them in line. The wheels squeaked as if they needed oiling, but Ezra continued to hold the reins while the horses entered the water. He'd removed his jacket and placed it in his saddlebags; because this was one time he knew he was going to get wet. 
“Keep them moving, Ezra,” Sanchez warned as the horses tried to pull away. He held tight to the lead rope as the cold water rose above his feet. “Yeehaw!”
Standish felt the wheel sink, but managed to keep the horses moving and was soon fighting to keep the animals on track. The water rose to the midway point of both wheels, and he felt the wagon tip slightly to the left, but the water wasn't strong enough to tip it at this point. He knew once they reached the middle of the river it would be even harder to keep the horses moving with the burden of the wagon behind them.
To the men watching from the safety of the shore, time seemed to crawl at a snail's pace. Nathan watched as the wagon seemed to move sideways, but Ezra and Josiah managed to keep it moving in spite of having floated downstream at least two hundred feet. He could hear Sanchez and Standish shouting at the animals and keeping them moving slowly, but steadily across the wide river. 
Buck knew Jackson was worried, not just about making the crossing, but about his own ability to keep the horses moving and get them safely across the river. Josiah and Ezra were drifting downstream, but they'd reached the halfway point and would soon be able to finish the crossing without mishap as long as they kept rein on the horses.
“You're 'bout halfway, Ezra!” Jackson shouted. He knew it would soon be his turn and looked at the trio seated in the wagon behind him. Again, he wished there was another way, but the Rio Grande was a wide river no matter where they crossed.
“You ready, Nate?” Wilmington asked.
“Think so,” Jackson answered.
“I'll keep them pointed in the right direction, you just keep them moving,” the ladies' man ordered. “Don't worry...we'll make it across just like Josiah and Ezra.”
“I sure as hell hope so,” Jackson said and looked across the river to see Ezra and Josiah were two thirds of the way across. “Guess it's time ta get wet.”
“Seems like it,” Wilmington said, nodding at the trio in the back before heading into the river. The horse was sure-footed and easy to manage until he tugged on the reins of the animals pulling the wagon. “Yeehaw!”
Raphael started his horse into the water just behind the wagon, and kept an eye on the men riding inside it. The trio may be on the mend, but he knew Jackson was worried about them and wanted to get them home where he could properly care for them. It was a job Raphael did not envy the man because he'd seen what Larabee, Tanner, and Dunne were like when they were injured.
Chris felt the wagon lurch forward and gritted his teeth when he saw JD turning a little green. “You okay, kid?”
“Think so...be better once we're home,” Dunne answered.
“Think he's missin' Casey,” Tanner teased and shifted until his body rested against the sides of the wagon. 
“That right, JD? Larabee asked.
“I miss her,” the Bostonian answered and closed his eyes. The headache he'd ignored intensified and he fought the nausea churning through his gut as the wagon wheels hit something, lurched over it, and Nathan kept it moving.
The river's current was stronger than Nathan thought, but he'd managed to keep the wagon moving in spite of the rock they'd hit. He could hear the others talking behind him and knew Vin and Chris were trying to keep JD's mind off the trip across the river. Buck was riding close to the skittish animals that seemed unwilling to follow his lead. The wagon slid sideways, the current pushing it further downstream toward what looked like treacherous waters. Nathan concentrated on driving the wagon while Buck was intent on his job.
Chris looked toward the shore in time to see Ezra and Josiah exit the river, but his attention returned to the wagon as the left wheel struck something below the surface. He glanced at the man beside him, but didn't get a chance to shout a warning as the wagon tipped precariously and they were swept into the river. Something struck his right side and pain shot through him while the cold water seemed to drag him under.
Vin had no time to react as Larabee turned toward him and Buck's shout echoed through his skull as he was thrown into the river. He felt something beside him and grabbed at it. He knew it was Larabee and held onto him as the current dragged them both below the surface. He held his breath until the spinning stopped and he surfaced long enough to take a breath before being swept further downstream. He clung tightly to Larabee's body as he heard the panicked cries of the men further upstream.
Raphael had been riding alongside the wagon and realized his mistake when the current slammed the wagon into his horse. He tried to grab onto the reins, but the animal sank beneath the surface and he was thrown from the saddle and carried downstream even as the mare tried to climb to her feet. He was relieved to see her head toward shore, but he had no time to react as his body was slammed painfully into a rock and he surfaced nearly a hundred feet away from the others. He fought the current, but it was stronger than he thought as he grabbed for anything that would stop his journey in the waters of the Rio Grande.
JD had been leaning against the driver's seat and was shocked when the wagon tilted and turned on its side. Something struck his head, sending sparks of shimmering light through his skull and darkness claimed him as his body sank below the water.
Jackson had little time to react as the wagon tipped slightly and finally overturned into the cold, rushing river. He went under, swallowing a mouthful of cold water, and struggled to get to the surface. His head struck the wagon, but he twisted away as something was pushed toward him and again he was dragged below the turbulent river. Instincts born of survival made him reach for the body that was within arms distance and he broke the surface in time to see Chris and Vin disappear downstream.
“Buck!” Jackson shouted above the rushing in his ears and sputtered as a wave broke over the wagon and he swallowed convulsively. He fought to hold onto the dead weight in his arms and realized it was JD.
Buck had heard the ominous sound behind him and glanced over his shoulder in time to see the wagon overturn. He'd seen Chris and Vin go under, but could not act in time to catch them as JD followed them into the river. Buck was torn between going after Chris and Vin or helping the two men closest to him as Jackson surfaced with a body in his arms and called him name. His choice, though hard, was made when he saw the water rush over Nathan and the man surfaced, coughing and struggling to grab onto the overturned wagon.
“Buck, I c...can't hold him m...much longer!” Jackson sputtered and fought to keep from losing his grip on the younger man. The water was sapping his strength even as the cold spread through his extremities.
“I'm coming!” Wilmington said and swallowed the lump that rose in his throat as he ignored the two men who were no longer in sight.
Josiah had already started back to help Jackson and Wilmington, but he knew he would not be in time to help Larabee and Tanner. He sent a silent prayer skyward as he forced his weary animal to move a little faster. Buck had reached Nathan and was already pulling JD onto his horse, but that still left Nathan holding onto a wagon that could be swept away at any moment. The two horses were also in danger of drowning if that happened. Josiah pulled his knife out as he rode toward the dangerous situation; intent on cutting the animals free once the others were safe.
Ezra had seen the wagon go over and immediately began saddling his horse, but he knew there was no way he'd be in time to help. He kept his eyes on Chris and Vin as Josiah urged his horse across the river. He didn't take time to make sure his saddle was properly attached as he jumped on his animal and rode south toward the last place he'd seen Chris and Vin.
Buck managed to get JD lying across the horse in front of him and headed for shore once he knew Jackson could hold on until Josiah reached him. The cold water tugged at his legs and he glanced south in time to see Ezra disappear between a copse of trees. He silently prayed the gambler was as good at riding a horse as he was at cheating at cards. There was no malice in his thoughts, because he knew Ezra didn't cheat when he played with his friends. He used one hand to guide the horse, and held JD in place until he reached shore.
Although he'd been relieved of JD's weight, Nathan struggled to stay above the surface. The wagon shifted as the rushing water continued to beat against it. He knew it was coming loose of whatever had wedged it tight and tried to suck in enough air before going under. The water roared past him, but he couldn't be sure if the sound was real or the fact that he was fighting not to swallow more water. He tried to get free before the wagon was torn apart. He surfaced, coughed as water entered his mouth and felt someone grab his arm.
Nathan looked up and grabbed Josiah's hand as the man pulled the horse to a stop beside him. The water seemed to fight to keep him, but in spite of his soaked clothing, bone deep cold, and fatigue, he climbed onto the horse behind Sanchez. He had enough sense to grab the lead reins as Josiah cut the animals loose and the water finally won the battle. The wagon flipped over once more before being swept downstream.
Josiah had no idea how long it had been since the wagon overturned, but it felt like everything had happened too fast. He reached the shore and felt the man behind him slipping. He grabbed him, relieved when Buck offered a hand and helped lower Jackson to the ground. “Buck, stay with them. I'm going after Ezra...we'll bring Chris and Vin back!”
“Thanks, Josiah,” Wilmington said and turned back to the former slave. “Nate?”
Jackson nodded, and waved his hand even as he coughed and water spewed from his mouth. He struggled to his knees and motioned toward the unconscious Bostonian. “JD?”
“He's breathing,” Wilmington answered and helped the healer over to where the Bostonian lay on the ground. He pressed him down beside the younger man.
“W...wood,” Jackson said and again tried to clear the water from his lungs.
“I’ll get the wood for a fire, you stay put and get your breath back. Check on the kid,” Wilmington said and moved away. His eyes swept the shore to the south in hopes of seeing some sign of the others, but there was nothing, except the lone call of a wolf in the distance. “Please, God, keep them safe.”
Rio Grande, Downstream
Early Morning

Standish spotted something in the river, but wasn't sure who or what it was. He raced forward, keeping the horse headed toward the river while riding fast enough to get ahead of the moving object. He saw a flash of white and then dark as whatever he was watching turned in the water before resurfacing closer to the shore.
Ezra caught a glimpse of a tuft of hair and knew it was a man, but didn't have time to wonder who it was as an arm latched onto a thin branch and seemed to be desperately clinging to it. He drove his horse into the water, racing toward the struggling man and reached him just before the water tore him from his precarious hold.
Standish kept one hand on the reins as he reached down to grab Raphael's collar. The branch broke with a crack that was too much like the sound a bone breaking and Ezra held on for dear life as the other man tried to get a solid hold on the saddle. The horse fought his attempts at control and turned for shore. He didn't have the energy to speak and knew Raphael had to keep his mind on the task of keeping the precarious hold he had.
Raphael hadn't heard anything as the rushing water surged downstream with nothing to buffer him from the debris collected by the water. He'd spotted the overhanging tree and grabbed at the lifeline, surprised when his hands had actually snagged it. He'd spotted a dark blur enter the water, and latched onto the saddle just as the branch snapped and floated away from him. He clung to the horse, his head dipping below the surface even as the animal made for the safety of the shore. The struggle for survival had been a hard one, but he managed to hold on until they reached shallow water. Once there, he released his grip before crawling the rest of the way to the riverbank.
Ezra dismounted and moved to check Raphael, relieved to find the man looked like a drowned rat, but at least he was breathing. “It is essential that I continue the search for Chris and Vin...will you be all right until the others arrive?”
Raphael nodded as he fought to breathe, and waved his hand in dismissal.
Standish patted the man's shoulder before remounting and continuing his journey south, away from the others. His gaze, with hawk-like precision, swept over the angry water in front of him, looking for any sign of his missing friends.   But there didn't seem to be anything the missing men could use to stop their unwanted trip. The sun glistened off the churning water, an ominous light amidst the darkness that could become a watery grave. Ezra shook off those thoughts and continued to scan the river, but there was no sign of the missing men.
Vin lost track of how many times he'd sunk below the murky water only to surface further downstream. Larabee's added weight was wearing on what little strength he had left, but he fought to keep his grip on the unconscious man as he surfaced once more and sucked in a mixture of air and water before going under.
The Texan knew he could not last much longer and heard the thunderous roar of the water as he surfaced closer to shore. He spotted a tangled mixture of down trees and other debris south of his location and kicked for it with everything he had left. The water continued to exert its influence, but whatever guardian angels were watching over them seemed to realize the danger they were in.
Tanner held tight to Larabee, who seemed to be coming around and managed to keep them both above water. His arm felt like lead weights, but he resisted the pull of the water as a weak cry escaped from his friend.
“Wha' the h...hell!” Larabee managed and coughed as water entered his lungs.
“Chris...kick fer sh...shore!” Tanner ordered, relieved that the other man seemed to understand what he wanted. He continued to hold the blond as they worked together to fight the current. He could feel Larabee struggling to keep his head above water, and realized he was fighting the same battle. They inched closer to the nature made island, but it seemed like it would be just out of reach. It seemed like Larabee had come to the same conclusion and kicked vigorously sideways against the rushing water.
Neither man took the time to speak as the battle against the dangerous wonders of nature was fought with every ounce of strength they could find. They used their arms and legs to propel themselves toward what they hoped would be safety, but couldn't even be sure of that.
Chris was closer to the island and stretched with his right arm, grabbing for a piece of driftwood as the water circled around him. He felt the pull of the current, and  silently cursed when he felt Vin's arms slip from his grasp. Fearing the worst, he turned his head, relieved to find the Texan had purposefully released him so that he could grab what appeared to be the uprooted, gnarled remains of a tree. Chris tried to pull himself up on the island, ignoring the fiery pain in his side as Vin did the same from beside him.
Tanner hadn't missed the grimace as Larabee levered himself onto the island, but he didn't say anything as he did the same thing. It seemed to take forever, but they were soon lying down in the middle of the river that seemed to have a voracious appetite for them and still tugged at their feet.
“...need ta git ta shore,” Tanner managed, but closed his eyes.
“...rest...ne...need to rest,” Larabee said. “Thanks...”
“...any...time, cow...boy...”
“...call me cow...boy...” the blond said before resting in the arms of Morpheus.
Ezra rode further south; his heart heavy in his chest as despair claimed his mind. There was no sign of the two men, and fat droplets of rain had begun to fall. He knew storms in this part could come on with such force that a man stranded near the river could be caught unaware by the floods. He turned at the sound of a horse and spotted the animal in the nearby brush. It's reins were entangled and had been enough of a deterrent to keep the horse from running off. He turned and rode toward it, talking softly to the skittish animal in the same way he'd heard Larabee and Tanner do countless times in the last few years.
“Easy, boy, I won't hurt you,” Standish said as he dismounted and looped his animal's reins over a protruding branch of a tree. The other horse, a large black that he recognized as belonging to Raphael, lifted his head as if to scent the air before returning his attention to the sweet grass growing around him.
Ezra reached for the reins, and turned when he heard a horse approaching. He recognized the rider, and the man riding behind him immediately and motioned toward the horse. “I saw him while searching for...for Chris and Vin.”
“Gracious,” Raphael said, dismounting and reaching for the animal's reins.
“Any sign of them?” Josiah asked.
“Nothing, I'm afraid the river has carried them further downstream,” Standish answered. He swallowed the lump that formed in his throat as he looked at the river.
“We keep searching,” Sanchez answered the unspoken question and started south again with the two men following close behind.
Buck kept glancing south along the river for any sign of the others, but since starting the fire and bringing the supplies from the wagon, there'd been no sign of anyone. Nathan was resting with his back against a saddlebag as JD slept beside him. The Bostonian had come to long enough for them to find his brains were not as scrambled as they could have been.
Wilmington placed a couple of dry chunks of wood onto the fire and reached for the pot of coffee he'd made. He glanced at Jackson, but the healer seemed to be sleeping. He worried about the water the man had swallowed and hoped the coughing was a sign that he'd gotten it all out of his lungs. The man had been through enough lately and who knew what shape Chris and Vin would be in when Josiah and Ezra found them. God, they had to find them, because thinking of them in a watery grave was like cutting his own heart out. It couldn't happen.
Buck moved to check the horses and made sure they were close enough to the water to drink and that there was plenty of grass around them. He thought about Larabee and the years of friendship they had between them. It was something he didn't want to lose. Not now, not when things seemed to have returned to what they were before Chris was devastated by the loss of his wife and son.
Wilmington wasn't a fool, he knew Chris still grieved for Sarah and Adam, truth was, he did too. The difference was that time was a buffer that had finally worked its magic and shown Larabee that his life still meant something. During the last few years Chris had saved a lot of lives, including his, but he still held onto his memories. He'd once told Buck he was afraid he was forgetting Sarah and Adam. Buck told him maybe it was time, yet deep down, they both knew neither of them would ever forget.
Buck turned to look at the sleeping men and frowned when he noted the dark clouds to the northeast. The wind had picked up and he silently cursed the possibility of a storm. Normally, when the land was dry they prayed for it, but not today, not when it seemed like things were already stacked against them.
“Not now...please, God, not now,” Buck whispered and turned to see Nathan climbing unsteadily to his feet.
“What's wrong?”
“Looks like a storm comin',” Wilmington answered.
“Hell,” Jackson snapped and looked toward the gathering clouds as the first clap of thunder echoed in the distance.
“We need to find shelter,” the rogue said. “You stay with JD. I'll ride south...see if I can find a place to hold up until it passes.”
“All right...I'll put things in the wagon,” Jackson said as his friend readied his horse.
Josiah, Ezra, and Raphael continued south until they reached an area of the river that looked like someone had dropped a mountain of rocks and other debris. White water churned between vicious looking crevices that glinted in the sun like sparkling white canines waiting for the next meal.
“Josiah,” Standish shouted above the roaring water. “Could they...could they survive going through that?”
“They might...God willing,” Sanchez said and made the sign of the cross. The thought of the two men being forced through the rapids weighed heavy on his mind as he turned to the north in time to see lightening streak across the sky. “This day just keeps getting better.”
“We should keep going,” Standish said.
“We need to go back and help Buck get Nathan and JD to shelter.”
“But...Chris and Vin...what if...”
“Right now we can't worry about 'what ifs' when there are two men in need of our help. Chris and Vin are in God's hands now and if He's willing they'll find a safe haven from the storm,” Sanchez observed and wished he could find a way to ease the torment he saw in Ezra's eyes. He reached out to touch the younger man's shoulder as he spoke. “They're survivors, Son, they'll hold on until we find 'em.”
“I hope so,” Standish whispered and reluctantly followed Josiah back the way they'd come as rain began to fall in heavy droplets.
Vin heard the thunder just as rain fell from the heavy black clouds that seemed to have settled above them. He knew they needed to get out of the water before the lightening that streaked across the sky hit their little island. He pushed himself up, shivering, as the wind seemed to chill him to the bone.
“Chris...c'mon, we gotta get ta land...storm's almost on top of us,” the Texan said and shook his friend.
“Later,” Tanner commanded and looked toward shore in time to see three black shapes headed north. He tried to find the strength to call to them, but his voice was hoarse and the howling wind sprayed water in his face as another streak of lightning was followed by the deafening crescendo of thunder.
“V...Vin,” Larabee said and lifted his upper body.
“Yeah, can't st...stay here...too dangerous,” the Texan said. “Gonna need ta swim fer it! Think ya kin make it?”
“Not m...much choice,” Larabee said and wondered just how far the shore was. It looked like an insurmountable distance, but it was something they had to do to survive.
“Let's git 'er done,” Tanner said with a little levity as he eased his body into the water and waited for Chris to do the same. The wind was blowing across the river and for a change it seemed like nature was with them as Chris slid into the water beside Vin. Without a word they started for shore, fighting the strong current as it kept them moving downstream while the wind helped push them toward shore.
Chris struggled to stay on course and ignored the fiery burning in his lungs as water sprayed his face and entered his mouth. Each time he stretched his arms water rose above his head and he coughed and sputtered before the fight started anew. He lost track of the Texan who'd been fighting the current beside him, and silently prayed they'd both make it to the riverbank before nature decided to show them just how vengeful she could be.
Vin ducked beneath the waves and found the strength he needed to force his body through the water. He glanced to his left as his head came up above the turbulent waves and spotted a dark object several feet away. He silently prayed that it was Larabee and that the man was still fighting to make it to shore. Another loud clap of thunder resonated through the surroundings even as a streak of lightning hit a tree several yards from the river. Sparks flew as the branch broke away from the trunk and gravity won out.
Tanner had no idea how long he'd been swimming, but each time he surfaced it seemed as if he was closer to shore. Something struck his left arm, but he couldn't take the time to see what it was as his feet touched something solid, only to have his legs fly out from under him and he tumbled through the raging waters until he managed to right himself. He realized he could reach down and touch solid ground with his hands and pushed forward with his feet until he could drag himself from the water.
Larabee rolled just below the surface, swallowing a mouthful of water before his head broke the waves. Pain registered in his left leg even before he saw the large limb that floated away from him. He struggled to keep moving, but what little strength he had left was quickly waning as the wind howled and thunder echoed through the surrounding hills. He went under again, choking as water rushed into his mouth, but felt someone snag his arm and help him to safety. He collapsed onto solid ground and sucked air into his lungs as he looked at the man lying beside him.
“Not done yet,” Tanner said and helped the other man sit up as rain pelted them like stinging nettles.
“Sure 'bout that?” Larabee ground out as he swiped at the water running into his eyes.
“We need ta find shelter,” the Texan instructed. His left arm was throbbing as he reached for the blond and helped him to his feet
“Son...ofabitch!” the blond snarled and tried to keep the weight off his leg. He knew Tanner was right about finding shelter, but the storm-darkened sky was hell-bent on drowning them with the wind driven rain that slanted sideways.
“M...make fer them rocks,” Tanner shouted and pointed to the large boulders at the edge of the clearing. He could tell Larabee was favoring his left leg and moved to take the man's weight as they limped toward the area they hoped would provide shelter from the storm.
A band of trees spanned across the boulders and made a bridge that seemed to keep the area beneath it semi-dry. Tanner and Larabee collapsed beneath the makeshift shelter and tried to catch their breaths as the storm buffeted the area around them with a roar that was almost deafening. They were chilled to the bone, hurting, and totally helpless as they were overcome by darkness.
North Shore of the Rio Grande
Late Afternoon

Josiah, Ezra, and Raphael rode north toward the area where they'd left Buck, JD, and Nathan as the storm raged around them. They knew there'd been no choice, but to abandon the search for Chris and Vin, but that didn't make it any easier on them. The waters of the Rio Grande looked like some Biblical monster that had swallowed their friends whole.
No one spoke when they spotted the wagon pulled close to a natural rock formation, away from the turbulent waters of the Rio Grande. They crossed the short distance and dismounted in time to see a spark of light under the small clearing that was covered by a domed shape and offered some shelter from the raging storm.
“I'll take care of the horses,” Sanchez offered and took the reins. He could tell Raphael was worn out from his struggles in the river and hoped that was all it was, as he made sure the animals were tied to a thick branch protruding above the rocks. He removed the saddles and nodded his thanks as Buck joined him.
“Ezra said there was no sign of them,” Wilmington said.
“Nothing, but don't give up hope, Buck. It could be they got washed ashore downstream. Chris and Vin are strong and smart and they know what to do,” Sanchez observed.
“I know, but they weren't exactly at full strength.”
“Maybe not, but I'm still betting on them surviving,” Sanchez said and motioned toward the shelter. “What about Nathan and JD?”
“Nathan's a bit bruised, but he seems okay...worried about JD,” Wilmington answered.
“How is JD?”
“He came to for a few minutes when we moved here, but he's out now. Nathan says he's just tired and cold. He's keeping an eye on him, but there's not much we can do except keep him dry and warm him up,” Wilmington told him as he gently patted the horse's rump before motioning Josiah inside.
Sanchez was surprised to find their shelter was actually a natural cave formation that was larger than it appeared from outside. He could see Dunne sleeping near the fire while Jackson seemed to be cooking something. Even in the dim light cast by the fire he could see lines of worry and strain in the healer's face. He made his way across the short distance, and wished there was something he could say or do to ease the man's mind.
“Ezra said ya couldn't find 'em,” Jackson said when Sanchez placed a hand on his right shoulder.
“No, but don't go givin' up hope, Nathan. Have faith in the Lord to keep them safe.”
“Faith ain't somethin' I have right now, Josiah...not in Him...not after everything that's happened. I can't close my eyes without seein' 'em sufferin' and the Lord ain't showed no mercy yet. If anythin' He's made it worse,” Jackson spat.
“You told me once that even though I don't have faith in myself, He has faith in me. When Chris and Vin are back with us you'll thank God for bringing them home and curse Him for giving you the two most stubborn patients ever to stay in your clinic.”
“I hope you're right...but right now I'm tired. Think I'll get some sleep. Call me if JD wakes up and needs anythin'.”
“I will,” Sanchez said and watched as his friend turned and walked dejectedly away from him. He wished there was something he could do, but until Nathan came to grips with what happened he'd blame himself and there was nothing anyone could do to change that.
“He carries a heavy burden, but it is a weight that does not belong to him,” Raphael observed and handed Sanchez a cup of hot coffee.
“Yes, he does,” Josiah agreed.
“I have seldom seen a man so gifted with his hands who also showed the emotions that went with the helplessness they sometimes feel,” Raphael said.
“Right now Nathan is troubled of the body and mind. He thinks he should have done more,” Sanchez offered.
“From what I saw and heard he did more than most men would in his position. He kept them alive until help arrived.”
“You know that and I know that, but it's going to take a lot more for Nathan to see it that way. We just have to give him time and help him see things the way we do,” Sanchez answered as he turned to look at JD huddled beneath a blanket near the fire, and sent a silent prayer that they would find Chris and Vin before it was too late.
Four Corners
Late Evening

The sun was slowly going down as Mary Travis watched her son playing with the Potter children. Supper would soon be ready and Billy would have to come in for the night, but for now she was content to see him enjoying himself. She knew he missed Chris and the others, but they would be home in a couple of days and things would be back to normal.
“You're it, Billy,” Jane called and ran in the opposite direction as Billy chased her brother.
Mary knew over the next two days the people of the town would continue to make plans for the welcome home festival. She'd made the announcement in the paper and sent word to the nearby homesteads that everyone was welcome. The Wilsons would be arriving sometime tomorrow, as would Nettie and Casey Wells.
Orin had left to attend to business in Eagle Bend, but he'd promised to return before the festivities began. Conklin was also missing, and Mary hoped the man would stay away until...well, he could just stay away as far as she was concerned. She heard Gloria call her children and knew it was time for supper.
“Billy, it's time to wash up for supper,” Mary called.
“Ah, Ma, washin' up's fer girls!” the boy said, but hurried toward her.
“See ya tomorrow, Billy,” David and Jane said before they disappeared into their home.
“I'm clean...don't need ta wash up,” Billy said and spit on his hands before wiping them on his pants. “See, Ma.”
Mary placed her hands on her hips as she looked at the boy's dirty face, but found it hard not to smile when she thought of the man who was so much a part of her life now. “That's not how we clean our hands, Billy...”
“But, Ma, what if it don't rain? What if there's a water shortage and we can't get washed up...we need to make sure there's water to drink and...”
“There's no shortage of water, Billy, so maybe I should just draw you a bath,” Mary said and shooed her son inside.
“Ah, Ma, Chris don't never take a bath!”
“Is that right?” Mary said, her body tingling at the very thought of Chris Larabee submerged in a tub of water while she scrubbed the dirt from his finely honed body.
“Ma, you said it's not polite ta daydream,” Billy said with a frown as his mother seemed to be lost in thought.
“Sorry, come on...get washed up and we'll have supper,” Mary said.
“And dessert? I smell apple pie,” the boy said.
“If you do a good job and wash behind your ears I'll make sure you get a nice piece of pie,” Mary told him and smiled when he hurried away. She'd made the pie on impulse while she'd been thinking of Chris and the others, and hoped their journey would be a safe one.
North Shore of the Rio Grande
Early Morning

The storm raged outside with no sign of letting up. Lightning flashed across the sky, brightening the landscape for a few seconds before darkness descended once more. Vin knew they would have to stay put and wait it out, but he wasn't sure they'd have the strength to go anywhere if they waited too long.
Larabee was curled onto his right side and had yet to wake up, making Vin painfully aware of just how bleak their situation was. When this storm ended, they would need to get moving and find the others, but would Chris be able to move. The truth was, he couldn't be sure he'd be able to move when the time came.
Vin shifted, and winced when the movement reminded him that Chris wasn't the only one roughed up by their unexpected swim in the river. His ribs felt like he'd gone three rounds with the boxer he'd once seen fighting in Eagle Bend. The man's arms were like tree trunks and he'd battered his opponent to the brink of death before moving away and being declared the winner.
A soft moan escaped as he shifted his weight and tried to get comfortable, but it was impossible in the small shelter they'd found. He was lucky it had been big enough for the two of them to squeeze inside, but there was no room to stretch out and ease the ache that felt bone deep.
“Vin...you okay?”
“I'm good, Chris, just need ta get comf'table,” Tanner said.
“Good luck with that,” Larabee said, his voice weak and scratchy.
Vin heard the man moving and grimaced in sympathy when he heard him curse. They were in rough shape, but as long as the gunslinger could swear, then he still had fight left in him and that meant they weren't done yet...not by a long shot.
“How long was I out?” Larabee asked once he was sitting up and leaning against the side of the shelter.
“Don't rightly know. Ain't been 'wake long myself,” Tanner answered. “How do you feel?”
“Remember that calf we found caught in the brambles?” the blond asked.
“Think so...wasn't much we could do ta help him,” the Texan said, remembering the look on Dunne's face when he realized they'd have to shoot it to put it out of its misery.
“Shoot me?”
“Sorry, Cowboy,” Vin grunted, “I ain’t packin’.”
“Thanks. You saved my life.”

“Weren’t a long line of volunteers,” Vin shot back, wincing and hissing when his ribs protested.
“Nothing finer a man can do for another,” Larabee said and sighed heavily. “What about the others? Think they made it?”
“I don't know...I hope so, but until this storm passes we'll have to hold on to that hope,” Tanner said and felt the blond head against his shoulder as Larabee seemed to give in to exhaustion. At least that's what he hoped it was, because right now he had nothing with him to help his friend. It wasn't long before his head dipped toward his chest and he slept.
Wilmington looked out over the storm-ravaged landscape and silently prayed Chris and Vin had made it to shore and found shelter. Anything else just wasn't an option. He'd been awake since the final crash of thunder shook the ground, followed by a brief flash of lightning that illuminated the interior of their shelter. It heralded the end of Nature's fury and the dawn of a new day.
Buck knew there was nothing they could do to search for Chris and Vin until the storm was finished, but he'd made his way outside so he wouldn't wake the others. Nathan had finally fallen into an exhausted sleep, but there was no doubt he was plagued by nightmares. JD had woken long enough to take some water and a little of the stew Josiah had put together from their supplies. Josiah had kept the fire going and said a soft prayer before sleep overtook him. Ezra and Raphael were talking in hushed tones so as not to wake any of the others.
Wilmington walked toward the water's edge, aware that the torrential downpour had made the Rio Grande overflow its banks. The water had nearly reached their shelter, but would soon recede now that the rain had stopped. There were small pools of water already forming as the river lost its fight for supremacy. Buck walked along the edge, surprised to see several fish of varying sizes had washed ashore in a few of the indentations, trapped once the river was forced back.
Buck returned to the wagon and grabbed a small basin before returning to the shallow pools and reaching for the fish. He knew he should thank God for providing for them, but the anger he was feeling would not allow him to do so, not right now when he was still reeling from the events of the last 18 hours.
“What did you find?” Sanchez asked as Buck returned to the shelter.
“Breakfast,” Wilmington answered and showed him the bounty.
“How'd you manage that?”
“The river coughed 'em up,” the rogue answered simply. “I'm gonna clean 'em...you want to cook 'em?”
“Sounds like a plan, Brother,” Sanchez said and made the sign of the cross before adding wood to the fire. It wouldn't take long to cook the fish and then they'd renew their search for Larabee and Tanner.  “They could have washed ashore on the other side.”
“I was thinking the same thing. Maybe Ezra and Raphael could cross the river once the water level goes down,” Wilmington said.
“Should be able to cross after lunch,” Sanchez observed as Dunne shifted and sat up.
Buck placed the basin on the ground and knelt beside the younger man. “Hey, Son, how do ya feel?”
“Tired...” Dunne yawned, trying to understand how mud seemed to have gotten inside his head. “What happened?”
“The wagon turned over in the river,” Wilmington answered and motioned to Jackson whose back was turned toward them. “Nathan saved your life.”
“Owe him. Everyone okay?” Dunne said and looked around before settling his gaze on the older man again. There was something in the familiar blue orbs that sent a shiver of dread through him. “Buck?”
“Chris and Vin...they were washed away by the river,” Wilmington answered.
“We need to go find them.”
“You're not going anywhere unless Nathan says so. Me, Josiah, Ezra, and Raphael will go looking for them.”
“Damn it, Buck, I'm...”
“Hurt, so just quit arguing with me so I can get the horses ready,” Wilmington said and placed a hand on the younger man's shoulder. “We'll find them...you got my word on that.”
JD took a deep breath and nodded before trying to get to his feet.
“Where do you think you're going?”
“If you must know, I need to take care of some pressing business,” Dunne answered, relieved when Wilmington conceded the issue and helped him stand.
“Take it easy, Kid,” Wilmington said.
“I ain't a kid, Buck,” the Bostonian snapped and moved past the bigger man. His head ached, but he needed to do this on his own and wanted to prove that he could take care of himself. He could feel Buck watching him as he walked toward the river and blinked his eyes as the sun broke through the clouds above them.
JD nodded to Josiah as he passed and tried to keep from showing the effort it was taking to stay on his feet. He reached out and used a downed tree to balance himself. He took a deep breath, and waited for the dizziness to pass. Once it did he looked around and made sure he had privacy before taking care of his business. Once done he leaned against the tree for a minute, spotting something dark wedged against the debris strewn riverbank.
Dunne moved away from the tree, dreading what he might see, but needing to see it anyway. He swallowed the bitter bile that rose up in his throat and placed his hand against his mouth when he saw the long hair entangled amidst the brush. He reached out to touch the body, but a strong gust of wind dislodged it before he could reach it. 
“No,” he whispered, standing and staring at the body as the water carried it further downstream. A hand on his shoulder made him gasp and he turned to see Buck's worried face watching him.
“You all right, JD?” No reply came but the shock that was painted on the youth’s pale face was one he’d seen before. It was the reason a horrible feeling was now stoking his gut with icy fingers.
“What is it, JD?” Wilmington asked, shaking the youth by the shoulder.
“Vin,” Dunne whispered, shivering badly as the reality of seeing a close friend’s dead body took hold. 
“What? Where?” the rogue demanded, increasing the intensity of his grip
“The water...he was in the river...there!” The younger man pointed to the dark object down river and tried to follow Wilmington, but his legs refused to carry him as he dropped to his knees in the mud.
“Where's Buck going, JD?” Sanchez asked. He'd seen Wilmington running along the edge of the river at the same time JD drop to the ground.
“Josiah...” Dunne began, but didn't finish as Buck turned to look at him.
“It ain't him, JD!” Wilmington called as he dragged the body from the river and placed him on the ground.
“Who is it?” Dunne asked.
“Don’t know,” Wilmington replied as he said a silent prayer for the battered body he'd rescued. The sightless eyes were open and he closed them before joining Josiah and JD. The kid was whiter than he'd ever seen before and he placed his hands on his shoulders until Dunne looked him in the eyes. 
“It's really not him?” Dunne asked, his voice quivering as he looked beyond Wilmington.
“No, JD, it's not. Now why don't we get you back to Nathan and I'll make sure he gets a decent burial,” Wilmington offered.
“I can help,” Dunne said.
“Yes, you can, by resting,” the rogue ordered gently. “Josiah, take him back.”
“Come on, Son,” Sanchez said. “Buck, I'll send Ezra to help you.”
“Thanks, Josiah,” Wilmington said and sat on the log Dunne had leaned on. His heart had skipped a beat when he saw the bloated body, but he'd known it wasn't the Texan and breathed a sigh of relief. It felt wrong to be glad the body wasn't Vin, but he understood it was normal. He looked up as Ezra strode toward him with two shovels and was glad to see Raphael was also with him.
North Shore of the Rio Grande
Late Afternoon

Birds chirping in the nearby trees drew Vin from the warmth of the dream he'd been lost in. A dream so real he could still feel the body lying next to him. He forced his eyes open and realized the dream was all too real and the body next to him was Chris Larabee. He had no idea how long he'd been out, but there was a pressing matter that he needed to tend to.
Tanner shifted away from Larabee and tried to get to his feet, but pain shot through the right side of his chest. It took several minutes before he could move and even then his body was quick to remind him of the new abuse heaped upon it. He swallowed several times before crawling outside and using the rock to lean on and climb to his feet. He relieved himself quickly and looked at the river before returning to check on Larabee. 
Chris was curled on his left side, his right arm pressed tightly against his side and Vin knew the man was in pain even before he spoke. “How bad?” Tanner asked and gritted his teeth as he knelt beside his friend.
“Don't know...hurts like a sonofabitch,” the blond said and allowed the Texan to help him.
“Let me take a look,” Tanner told him, and eased Larabee's arm away from his right side. He lifted what was left of the man's dark shirt and winced sympathetically at the mottled collection of bruises surrounding several deep scratches. “Ain't too serious, but I sure wish Nate was here.”
“How long have we been out here?”
“Figure it's been a day or more...the sun's more'n halfway across the sky,” Tanner answered and looked into Larabee's eyes.
“We need to find them,” Larabee said and shifted until he was sitting up.
“Not 'til I git a look at yer leg,” the Texan told him.
“Fine...yeah, I hear ya, but I'd like ta make sure Nate ain't gonna skin me alive fer not makin sure ya ain't gonna git blood poison'.”
“Look, Larabee, jest shut the hell up and let's git 'er done. Case ya ain't noticed I ain't 'sactly right as rain,” Tanner said and held his arm tight against his side as pain flared through damaged ribs.
“Make a fine pair,” Larabee said as he looked into the Texan's blue eyes. He nodded and watched as Vin looked at the torn pants and knew the material was stuck to the wound beneath it.
“Hell,” Tanner cursed softly. “I'm gonna need ta soak this ta get it off.”
“In case you didn't notice we don't have anything to soak it in except the damn river,” Larabee said and pushed Tanner's hands away when he tried to help him stand.
“Lean on me...”
“…there’s a pretty picture...me landin’ on top of you…” Larabee mumbled and managed to get to his feet. “See if there's something I can use as a crutch.”
“All right, but you stay put. It ain't bleedin' yet, but ya mess around and it will,” Tanner ordered and stepped out into the bright sunshine. He shielded his eyes and blinked several times until he was able to see without the stabbing effects of the bright rays. He glanced around until he spotted a stick that looked like it would serve his purpose. Holding his arm tight against his side, the wounded warrior reached for the stick and tested it, relieve that it seemed to be sturdy enough. He went back to the shelter and found Larabee on his feet and leaning against the rock wall. “I told ya ta stay put!”
“I'm still here,” Larabee snapped and grabbed the stick. He used it to lean on and looked outside before making the first shuffling step toward the entrance. He felt Tanner beside him, but kept his eyes on the ground in front of him. It took longer than he thought to reach the river and he sat down on the trunk of a fallen tree before stretching out his injured leg.
“This might sting a bit,” Tanner said and began soaking the pant leg with water from the river. “Might be easier if'n ya sat on the ground and stuck yer leg in the water.”
Chris slid off the log and grunted as he hit the ground. He used his hands to cup water and drank until his thirst was sated. With a heavy sigh he slid his left leg into the cold water and grumbled beneath his breath as Vin worked to ease the material from the wound. It seemed like forever before the determined tracker was satisfied and helped him sit back on the log. “How Bad?”
“Bad 'nuff,” Tanner said and ripped his shirt. “I'm gonna need ta wrap it good and tight 'til we catch up with the others. Nate will pro'bly sew ya up.”
“I was afraid you'd say that,” Larabee said, clenching his fists as the Texan tightened the material around the wound.
“Done,” Tanner said and looked north. “Think we'd best get movin'.”
“Gonna be rough,” the blond observed.
“Ain't never stopped us before,” the Texan said and handed Larabee the crutch. “Ya tell me when ya need ta stop.”
“Goes both ways,” Larabee said and started walking along the edge of the river. “How far do you think the river carried us?”
“Ain't sure, but it's a fair bet it'll take us a lot longer ta git back ta where we started,” Tanner told him.
“You could go for help,” the blond suggested.
“No!” Issued hard and fast, it left no room for argument.
“You’d make better time without me.” Chris realized he was wasting his breath, if there was a more stubborn soul; he’d yet to meet him. The eyes that met his were solid and true and full of determination.
Vin paused to swipe his brow and glared at his best friend. “Now shut the hell up and git movin'!” He waited until he saw what he needed looked back at him. Then they began their trek, each leaning heavily on the strength of the bond between them. The silence between them grew, but it wasn't an uncomfortable one it was simply the way things were between them.
North Side of the Rio Grande
Late Evening

Buck looked at the grave they'd dug for the unknown man and listened as Josiah said a prayer for his soul to rest in peace. He'd ridden out with Raphael while Ezra and Josiah stayed with JD and Nathan, but they'd found no sign of Chris and Vin.  He'd wanted to continue, but the banks of the river were treacherous after the storm and he knew Raphael was right when he said they should go back and update the others.
He sighed heavily before following Josiah back to the wagon and knew they would have to get JD and Nathan home soon. Dunne was still reeling from the dunk in the river, not to mention the residual effects of being shot. He looked like death warmed over, and if anything, Nathan looked even worse than he did.
There was no mistaking the worry, fear, and emotional turmoil the man tried so hard to hide. Now it was twofold with Chris and Vin missing, possibly buried in a watery grave to be found by some unsuspecting passer-by. God help him, he didn't want to find them like that, but at least if he did, he'd have answers.
Wilmington looked across the water and wondered if, even now, his missing friends might be searching for them over there. He knew it was a long shot, but it was something he needed to check before they left the area.
“Buck, we need to get JD and Nathan home,” Sanchez said.
“I know!” Buck snapped a bit too harsh. “But what if they’re out there…lyin’ hurt…”
“Did you ever think they might have washed ashore on the other side?” the ex-preacher asked.
“You a mind reader now too?” Wilmington asked and shook his head before meeting the other man's eyes. “I was just thinking we should check along the shore before we give up....give up on them.”
“We're not giving up on them, Buck, we're simply taking care of the ones that need us...the ones that are right before our eyes. God help me, but I wish I could tell you we'll find them, but I can't...no more than I could tell you how Lazarus rose from the dead.”
“Maybe He could send Moses to part the river and show us whether we're searching in vain,” Wilmington said and started moving toward the camp as a cool wind blew across the river. It felt like a harbinger of things to come, and Buck silently prayed it was not a bad omen.
Josiah knew there was no way he could ease the other man's torment. The truth was, he felt the same way and it made him curse at a God who allowed such things to happen to good men. His own life had seen upheavals that had stripped him of his faith long ago, but he was slowly finding his way back into God's Holy Grace. It was at times like this when he wasn't sure whether he should embrace it or bury it in the sand.
“Ever wonder what God wants of us, Josiah?”
“Every damn day...especially at times like this,” Sanchez admitted. “My mother always told me God never gives us more than we can handle...problem with that is he seems to place a heavier burden on men like Chris.”
“I was sure I lost him after Sarah and Adam died, but seeing him that day in Four Corners...he actually smiled and I thought it was the old Chris I knew come back to haunt me...haunt me ain't the right words, but you get what I mean. It was so damn good to see him again.”
“Sometimes we have to face our own past before we can see the future,” Sanchez observed and watched as Nathan checked on the sleeping Bostonian.
“I just hope Chris and Vin get the chance to face the future,” Wilmington whispered.
“That's something we all want,” Sanchez said and poured two cups of coffee before handing one to the ladies' man. “We'll find them, Buck, but first we need to get JD and Nathan home.”
“Come sunup you and Ezra take Nathan and JD and head for Four Corners. Me and Raphael can search the other side of the river. If' we don't find anything by noon we'll head back across and catch up with you.”
“All right,” Sanchez said and knew just how hard this plan was on the other man as Buck walked toward the river.
Chris knew he could not keep up the pace much longer and silently cursed when his leg gave out. He would have landed on the ground had it not been for Vin's quick reflexes, but the move cost them both as twin cries escaped tightly clenched lips.
“Sonofabitch,” Larabee sputtered once they were seated on the ground. “You okay?”
“Think so,” Tanner said and breathed slowly in an effort to relieve the pressure on damaged ribs. “You?”
“Damn leg gave out,” Larabee answered simply.
“We need to rest.”
“We need to find the others.”
“It'll be dark soon...might rain again,” Tanner observed of the dark clouds on the horizon.
“Any good news?” the blond griped.
“We didn't drown,” Tanner said with a slight grin.
“How far do you think we've come?”
“Not far, but I don't think I can go any further...damn ribs are killing me,” the Texan observed.
Chris knew the other man was a lot stronger than he was letting on, and was grateful to his friend for giving him an easy out. Right now he just wanted to lie down and sleep, but the throbbing wound in his leg wasn't going to make it any easier. He looked around, and silently hoped Vin was wrong about more rain because there wasn't much they could use for shelter.
“Chris, stay 'ere while I see if'n there's...”
“I can...”
“Just sit yer ass down and admit yer hurtin'. I ain't so spry either and just want ta git some sleep.”
“Bossy sonofabitch aren't you?”
“Takes one ta know one,” Tanner said and patted his friend's shoulder. “I won't go far.”
Chris nodded and closed his eyes as the Texan moved away. He rubbed his leg and grimaced as he was reminded of the damage to his side, but right now there was nothing they could do about that. Vin was right, they needed to find shelter and rest. Tomorrow would be soon enough to find the others. He didn't mean to sleep, but was startled when a hand touched against his arm.
“Come on, Cowboy, got a bed waiting fer ya.”
“You're not my type, Tanner.”
“Amen ta that,” the Texan said and held his breath as he helped his friend stand. “There's a cave back in the trees...don't look like anythin' lives there.”
Larabee didn't bother acknowledging as they leaned on each other and made their way toward the trees. It didn't take long to reach the cave, and both men sat gratefully on the ground as what little strength they had gave out. Sleep was something they needed, but it was a long time coming as they struggled with thoughts of the men who formed their brotherhood.
Four Corners
Early Morning

Plans for the homecoming celebration were well on their way, but there was no way of knowing when the peacekeepers would return. It would take several days, but with injured men who could not ride a horse and needed frequent stops, it could easily take a week or longer. The people of Four Corners and the surrounding farms and ranches stopped by to inquire if there'd been any word, but so far Mary was as in-the-dark as they were.
They'd held a meeting at the hotel the day before and decided that the festivities would take place two days after the seven men arrived. That would give everyone who wanted to be there a chance to come into town and help prepare the food and tables they would need. A hint of a smile formed as Mary looked out over the town that was just coming to life and felt at ease with the choice she'd made to stay in Four Corners, even after Steven's death. It was a place she could now be proud of and hopefully, one day, Billy would marry and raise a family of his own here. 
Mary knew she should get to work, but she didn't feel like writing anything, yet reporting seemed to be in her blood so she went back inside. She let her instincts kick in and did her job, producing something from nothing and reporting, not just on the fate of the summer crops, or the cattle, but of the men who were yet to return home.
“Ma, can I go fishing after I do my chores?”
“Sure, but you make sure you do all your chores, Billy, and don't go alone,” Mary warned.
“I won't, Ma,” the boy said. “David is gonna ask his ma if he can go too.”
“Good, but don't be gone too long. I want you back in time for supper.”
“When will Chris be home?”
“I'm not sure, Billy, they have to go slow because Chris, JD, and Vin are hurt.”
“Ah, Ma, Chris ain't gonna let on he's hurtin' even if he is,” Billy said, shaking his head at the idea that the gunslinger would ever admit he was hurting.
“He may not show it, Billy, but Chris does get hurt and no matter how much he denies it he needs to admit he's human. Now go get washed up for breakfast.”
“Ah, Ma, washin's for girls and dandies,” the boy whined, but hurried to do as she said.
Guy Royal's Ranch

Conklin dismounted in front of the ranch house and glanced nervously at the men who watched his approach. Every man had a weapon, whether it was a rifle held in his arms or a gun in a holster, and he briefly wondered if this was such a good idea after all. It had taken two days for him to get up the guts to ride out here, but he'd found the courage to do so because of the planned celebration.
“What the hell are you doing on my land, Conklin?” Royal exited the house with a whore on his arm and leaned against the doorframe. 
“I believe we can be of assistance to one-another, Mr. Royal,” Conklin said, his voice quivering as the hired guns watched his every move.
“I'm going to tell you how it is, Conklin. I believe in the three "G's"-- God, guns and... get the hell off my property....unless you want another 'G'...gut full of lead.”
“No, please, just give me a minute. I know you hate those seven men as much as I do and I want to ask for your help in getting rid of them.”
“Where were you the last time we tried that?”
“I couldn't do anything, but I'm sick and tired of them and that Travis woman. She's writing about them like they were heroes, but all they are...is glorified hired guns,” Conklin spat.
“What about Judge Travis?”
“He's a fool for hiring them! All they've done is cause problems!”
“For who?” Royal asked.
“Anyone who knows what they really are. I want you and James to...”
“To what, Conklin? Do your dirty work for you? Is that why you came out here?”
“No, I just want things to go back the way they were before Travis hired them. They have no right to tell us how to live our lives! I refuse to let them dictate the way we live.”
“Is that what they're doing?” Royal asked.
“It is and it's just not right. Things were better when you and James and the other ranchers ran things. At least then we knew what we were getting. With Larabee it's like we hired a bunch of clods who think they know what's best for the town.”
“I thought the judge was paying them a dollar a day?”
“He is, but they're never around when the town needs protecting. If someone decided to attack Four Corners they'd find it an easy victory because none of the seven are there.”
“None of Larabee's men are in town?” Royal asked, his interest suddenly piqued at the news.
“They haven't been in town for a while,” Conklin answered and saw something change in the other man. “Does that mean you'll help me deal with Larabee's bunch?”
“Give me a couple of days to meet with the other ranchers,” Royal told him and turned to go back inside the house.
“You'll help?” Conklin asked.
“Maybe...like I said...give me a couple of days.”
Conklin heard the woman laugh as Royal escorted her inside and wondered if the man would help him out. Guy Royal and the other ranchers were the only chance he had against Chris Larabee and his men. He felt the hired guns watching him and quickly mounted his horse before riding away from Royal's ranch.
South Side of the Rio Grande
Early Afternoon
Buck had never felt so frustrated in his life as he pulled his horse to a stop. Since making sure Josiah and Ezra could handle the wagon and the injured men, he and Raphael had been searching the south side of the river. They'd found nothing to suggest that Chris or Vin had washed ashore on this side of the Rio Grande.
“Buck, if they were still a...”
“Don't say it, Raphael! They're alive...we're just looking in the wrong place. Chris and Vin are survivors and I ain't gonna give up on finding 'em,” Wilmington snapped and continued to ride south along the river's edge. There were signs of animal life all around, but no sign of human footprints that would signal someone had stopped for water. 
“You have known Chris a long time,” Raphael observed.
“More years than I can count on two hands...we've been through a lot together,” Wilmington said. “I was there when he married Sarah and when Adam was born...saw him fall apart the day they died. That fire burned a big hole in his heart and I didn't think he'd ever be the Chris I knew again. He started coming back the day he and Vin saved Nathan's life in Four Corners. I couldn't believe it when I saw him there.”
“It sounds like he needed to find himself again,” Raphael told him.
“He did. Time may not make us forget, but it can help us heal...especially when there's family to lean on,” Wilmington said and sighed heavily. His shoulders slumped as he looked across the river and realized how far south they'd come. It was time to head back, time to help with the living, but that decision didn't come easy for him.
“Family is important, especially our chosen ones,” Raphael said and thought about the men he rode with. He knew they would be waiting for him to return and would ride at his side without question. Most people who saw them thought they were 'the bad element', but that opinion changed quickly when his men helped the farmers. He'd seen Javier and the others dig in the dirt or mend a fence whenever someone needed help.
“A man's wealth should be measured in the friends he keeps, not by the money in his pocket,” Wilmington said.
“That is true, but there are very few who would agree with you,” Raphael observed sadly and watched the other man closely. 
“I know we should go back, Raphael, but that would mean we're giving up on them and I'm not sure I'm ready to do that,” the rogue said.
“No one ever wants to give up, Buck, but sometimes giving up is the only way to move forward,” Raphael told him and watched as Wilmington swung his horse toward the river. He knew how hard this decision was on the other man, but they'd searched the area and found no sign of the missing men.
“We'll search the other side until we reach...until we get back to where we camped last night,” Wilmington told him as they started across the river, his heart heavy in his chest with the feeling of loss that flooded his mind.
Cave Near the Banks of the Rio Grande
Late Afternoon

Tanner slowly opened his eyes and shifted slightly, painfully aware of how much abuse his body had been through in the last few weeks. He stretched and nearly cried out at the pain in his lower back, but he didn't want to wake the man lying beside him.
Vin knew they couldn't stay here, and that they needed to find the others if they were going to make it home. The problem was, right now he wasn't sure he had the strength to move let alone help Chris. The man's leg needed to be taken care of properly, but he didn't have the supplies for that. He didn't even have anything he could use to hunt for food and that was something they both needed.
Tanner eased himself up on his knees and ignored the pain in his back as he struggled to stand. He breathed through tightly clenched teeth as he made his way out of the cave and glanced up at the sky. The position of the sun told him it was late afternoon and he wondered how long he'd actually been out.
The sound of birds chirping in the nearby trees told him his presence had gone unnoticed by them, but he didn't dwell on their movements.  He needed to figure out a way to get himself and Larabee back home. He glanced to the north, relieved to see that the dark clouds had disappeared and the threat of more rain was gone.
“Vin, are you all right?”
Tanner turned to find Larabee leaning heavily on the crutch they'd fashioned and didn't miss the tiny beads of sweat that spoke of fever. “I'm good...was jest tryin' ta figure out how ta git us home.”
“You could...”
“Ya already said that and ya know my answer...”
“Mule headed...”
“Cantankerous...heard that already,” Tanner said with a grin as he eased the gunman down on a fallen log. “Stay put and I'll see if there's any kind of berries...”
“Rather have a steak,” Larabee grumbled.
“You an' me both...I'll let'cha buy me one when we git home,” the Texan said.
“You get us home and I'll buy you two,” the blond vowed and ran his fingers through his sweat soaked hair.
“You got a deal,” Tanner told him.
Chris didn't miss the way Vin was walking and that he favored his back. He knew he was adding to Tanner's problems. The young man had always had trouble with his back, and now there was the added problem of injured ribs. There was no way in hell he was going to add to the Texan's discomfort. He closed his eyes and rode out the wave of nauseating pain that threatened to floor him before using his crutch to help him stand. Tanner wasn't the only stubborn SOB around, that thought brought a hint of a smile to his face as he followed the other man to the river.
“Thought I told ya ta stay put?”
“And let you have all the fun?” Larabee grumbled and reluctantly allowed his friend to support him. His leg was throbbing and he was pretty sure the wetness he felt was his blood as he sat on a flat rock near the water. He rubbed the top of his leg, but his eyes were on the Texan as he shifted and straightened up. He reminded Larabee of a cat scenting the air, his shoulders straight and his body upright as he stretched his neck to see who or what was coming toward them. “Friend or foe?”
Vin knew what Larabee was asking and silently prayed it was the former. He spotted two riders and relief flooded his face as he smiled.
“Who is it?” Larabee asked and managed to stand, mirroring the other man's grin as Tanner answered.
“Looks like Buck and Raphael,” Tanner answered, his voice filled with relief as he called out to the two men. “Bucklin!”
“Sonofabitch!” Wilmington whooped as he slid from his horse and hurried toward the Texan. “I knew you were too damn ornery to let some river get the best of you...Chris...”
“Right here, Buck,” Larabee said and found himself embraced in a Wilmington style bear hug.
“Careful, Buck, he's got 'nuff problems without addin' broken ribs ta the list,” Tanner observed and nodded to Martinez when the man joined them.
“You had me scared, Pard,” Wilmington said.
“Sorry, thanks for coming back for us,” Larabee said.
“No way I could have left you...Sarah'd come back and haunt me,” the rogue said and stood back to look at the disheveled men. “Guess we need to get you home.”
“Buck...where are the others?” Larabee asked.
“Josiah and Ezra are taking Nathan and JD home...ain't nothing serious, but they took a couple of hits in the water,” Wilmington answered. “Looks like me and Raphael got some walking to do, but first we need to take a look at you and Vin.”
“Check his leg...it's bleedin' again,” Tanner ordered and would have fallen had it not been for Raphael's quick reflexes. He gasped when the man eased him to the ground and held his arm tight against his side.
“Ribs?” Raphael asked.
“Yeah...” Was all he could manage, the pain was flaring badly. He turned his concern to his friend and glanced at Larabee who was now seated beside him.
“You gonna be able to sit on a horse?” Wilmington asked.
“Better'n walkin',” the Texan answered.
“Could build one of them travois,” the rogue offered.
 Vin denied that with a definitive shake of his ratty head but gave his big hearted friend a warm smile. “Thanks fer that, Buck.”
“Chris,” Wilmington said and winced when he removed the bandages from Larabee's leg. “Nate's gonna have a field day sewin' ya up.”
“Better check his side too,” Tanner said.
“Jesus, Chris, you're a mess,” the rogue said, his eyes filled with emotion as he looked at his long-time friend.
Larabee smiled in an effort to relieve the man's worries, but the truth was he probably felt as bad as he looked. The relief at finding out his friends were alive had left him bone weary and dog tired. He would be happy to just lie down and sleep, but he knew they needed to get moving. It wasn't long before Buck and Raphael were helping them on the horses and they headed north, away from the river.
North of the Rio Grande
Late Evening

Josiah looked up at the sky above him and fingered the cross around his neck. It was a gift from Chris Larabee and one he would cherish for the rest of his life because the man had made it with his bare hands. There were things that still surprised him about the men he rode with, but none so much as the gunslinger whose past was filled with the tragic loss of his wife and child. He'd had his own share of tragedy and for a while his faith had surely been tested, but it was men like Larabee, Jackson, and Tanner that showed him what true faith was. God was back in his life, but he really wasn't sure He'd ever left it; the wooden cross was a reminder of that unconditional love the Lord had for His children.
“Josiah, supper is ready,” Standish said.
“Thanks, Son, is Nathan back?”
“Not yet, I am afraid Mr. Jackson has a heavy burden to carry.”
“Yes, he does, but he doesn't have to carry it alone,” Sanchez said, glancing at the young man sleeping near the fire. Dunne was one of the reasons they'd stopped early. Nathan had been driving the wagon when JD had leaned over the side and gotten sick.
“No, he doesn't,” Standish agreed as Jackson came back. His hands were stuffed into the pockets of his pants, and Ezra knew he'd never seen so much sorrow before and hoped to never see it again.
“How is he, Josiah?” Jackson asked.
“He's sleeping, Brother, and when you've eaten you're going to do the same,” Sanchez vowed. He knew his friend wasn't sleeping properly and wished there was an easy fix, but the emotional turmoil of the last two months had taken their toll. God it was hard to believe that much time had passed since the judge had asked them to look into the bandito raids.
Nathan took a deep breath before taking the plate of food from Standish and moving to sit in the wagon. It smelled good, but the thought of eating made his stomach churn. He wanted to tell the others he wasn't hungry, but to do so would only make them question him and he wasn't in the mood to think up an answer that would satisfy them.
Josiah knew there was no point in saying anything, because Nathan would just brush him off. He would just have to wait until his friend was ready to talk of his ordeal. It was an ordeal, and maybe not as physically trying as it was on Chris, Vin, and JD, but a man's emotions could be just as dangerous, especially when he kept it inside.
“Sounds like a couple of riders,” Sanchez said and looked at Jackson when he joined them.
“Could be Buck and Raphael,” the healer observed, but he made sure his knives were easily accessible. His heart trip-hammered in his chest when the horses came close enough that he could see the riders were slumped over and were being led by two familiar figures.
“Preacher!” Wilmington boomed and grinned at the older man, “We found a couple of wayward souls in need of some TLC.”
“Thank the Lord...the lambs have come home to the flock,” Sanchez said with a relieved grin as he fingered the cross at his neck.
“Where'd ya find 'em?” Jackson asked and looked at Larabee and Tanner as they were helped down off the horses.
“More like they found us,” Raphael said as he helped support Tanner to the fire while Sanchez and Wilmington did the same with Larabee.
“I do believe they are in need of your care, Brother,” Sanchez said and went to the wagon to retrieve the supplies Jackson kept there. He knew finding Larabee and Tanner would help the healer, but he needed more...he needed time to heal and an idea began to form as he watched Jackson check Larabee's leg. Perhaps Ezra was right, and Rain would be just what the former slave needed to help him heal.
Chris gritted his teeth as Jackson peeled away the bandage from his leg. He knew what the man was going to say, and accepted the flask Ezra passed him.  He had no idea where the conman got it from, but he always seemed to have the good stuff when it was needed. “Thanks.”
“You’re most welcome, Mr. Larabee, please use it to help facilitate the detachment you require while Dr. Jackson tends to your wounds,” Standish said.
“Nate, ya might wanna look at his right side,” Tanner said tiredly. God, now that they were back with the others he felt as if his body was weighted down. The events of the last few days were catching up to him, but he fought to keep his eyes open until he knew Chris was all right.
“Where’s JD?” Larabee asked worried about the younger man.
“He’s sleeping,” Jackson answered. “He got sick…it’s why we’re here. We needed to stop so’s he could rest.”
“He gonna be okay?” Tanner asked.
“He will be once we get home,” the healer offered and winced sympathetically when Buck helped remove Larabee’s shirt. “What did ya tangle with?”
“A tree…I think,” Larabee said as he lay back. Someone had used blankets to fashion a pillow of sorts and he reached for Ezra’s flask when Jackson told him the wounds would need to be doused and stitched, but not until he drained the oozing discharge from them.
“Josiah, get some water boiling,” Jackson ordered.
“Done,” Sanchez told him.
“I’m pretty sure there’s some of them herbs Evita gave me in the saddlebags. Bring them here and make sure Vin takes some too. I’ll take a look at him soon’s I’m done with Chris,” Jackson instructed.
“I believe our stalwart tracker has succumbed to the events of the last few days,” Standish observed.
“Good, let him sleep,” the former slave said and looked into Larabee’s eyes as Josiah handed him the herbs. “Chris, this stuff is like laudanum, but it’ll also help with fever. You’re just a little warm right now, but with the infection it’s bound ta get worse.”
“Whiskey tastes better,” the blond grumbled.
“I’m sure it does, but with this stuff you won’t wake up like a bear with a burr up his ass,” Jackson told him, using one of Tanner’s infamous Vinisms. He waited for Larabee to take the herbs and made sure he had everything he’d need to clean the crud from the wounds in his leg and side. Between the whiskey and the herbs it wasn’t long before the sea green eyes closed and the blond’s breathing evened out.
“Is there anything we can do to help, Mr. Jackson?” Standish asked.
“Get a clean cloth and start cleaning his side. Josiah, see if we got the fixin’s for a stew.”
“I’m sure I can scrape up what we need,” Sanchez said.
Ezra reached for the cloth he’d placed in the basin of warm water and began to clean the scratches on Larabee’s right side. Some were deep and those were the ones that seemed to be filled with a putrid smelling fluid. His hands were smeared with his friend’s blood and still, he didn’t shy away from the task at hand. He could hear his mother berating him for using his hands for anything, but his God given talent. He wondered if she would ever accept the fact that he had changed and wanted to belong with these men.
Ezra watched as Nathan tenderly cleaned the laceration and wrinkled his nose when the healer pressed against the edges of the jagged gash and produced a bloodied discharge. It would take some time to purge the wound, but he understood that Nathan Jackson was thorough when it came to treating his patients. He could see the blood staining the dark fingers, but there was no disgust in the man’s face as he cared for their injured leader.
Standish prided himself on the fact that he could read others, especially those he cared about. It didn’t matter that he didn’t have a deck of cards in his hands, or that he wasn’t working a con. His hands were not his only God given talent, because he’d learned long ago that he had a gift for reading those around him. Nathan Jackson was no exception and since that first initial meeting he’d been studying the former slave. What really scared him was that he saw a lot of himself in the man, but not because of their color. Again, mother would be appalled, but he was proud to see a parallel between himself and Nathan. There wasn’t a better man alive, and he’d damn well defend him, not because he had to, but because he wanted to.
Nathan worked to clean the wound, changing the water several times until he was sure there was nothing more he could do. He quickly stitched the gash, making sure he put in enough stitches before covering it with clean bandage. Next he switched places with Ezra and stitched the deepest wounds closed, repeating the process of covering the wound.
“How is he, Nathan?” Wilmington asked worriedly.
“He’s running a fever, but I think I got all the crud out so that should help. We need to get him to drink some of that tea Evita sent with us. Josiah, how’s that stew coming along?” Jackson asked, unaware of how much time had passed since he started taking care of the injured blond.
“I shot a brace of rabbits…threw in some of them vegetables Evita gave us…should be ready in about an hour,” Sanchez answered.
“Good,” Jackson said and nodded as Ezra covered the sleeping blond with a blanket. He moved to Tanner and knelt beside the Texan, not at all surprised when two bruised eyes glanced toward Larabee before settling on him.
“Ya get ‘im fixed up?” Tanner asked.
“Cleaned him up…he’s gonna be stiff and sore when he wakes up. Got a feelin’ yer stove up pretty good too,” Jackson observed. “How’s the back?”
“Ain’t good,” the tracker answered honestly.
“Not bad as long’s I don’t move ‘round,” Tanner told him.
“Anything need stitchin’?”
“Don’t think so…ain’t nothin’ bleedin’.”
“That’s good. I got some salve I can rub inta yer back and ribs. Josiah’s cookin’ up a stew,” Jackson said as Standish helped him get what remained of the Texan’s tattered shirt off. He winced at the collection of bruises and liberally rubbed the salve into the area before having Vin turn on his left side. He repeated the process with the salve and helped Vin sit up so he could lean against the saddle.  He turned to walk away, but stopped when a hand grabbed his arm.
“Thanks, Nate,” was all Tanner said, but there was no mistaking the emotions in the sky blue eyes.
“Get yer head down and rest…I’ll wake ya when the stew’s ready,” Jackson said and moved away from the group as Wilmington sat between Tanner and Larabee.
“Man’s carryin’ a shitload of guilt that don’t belong to him,” the ladies’ man observed and handed the younger man a cup of water.
“Thanks, Buck,” Tanner said and watched Jackson. There was no mistaking the pain and fatigue that covered their friend’s face as he sat on the end of the wagon. “De Rivera died too easy…”
“Yeah, well, I expect Hades will take care of that…eternity is a long time,” Wilmington stated. “We need to get you boys home.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Tanner said and closed his eyes. The salve was working, and the pain was slowly easing as he dropped into exhausted sleep.
Four Corners
Early Evening

The journey home was hard on the injured men, but as the sun set on the second day since the lost lambs had been found the town came into view. A collective sigh could be heard from the three men on horseback as they topped the rise. It had been a hard two days with Chris running a fever and being his stubborn self while Vin’s back gave him fits. JD was silent, and often kept his eyes closed because the sun made his head ache constantly. 
Nathan was at the reins and even he felt as if a heavy burden was being lifted from his shoulders as they neared the collection of sun-damaged buildings. God, he wanted to put the past behind him, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d let his friends down. While the others talked in low voices, he stayed on his own, fighting the demons that clouded his soul.
The closer they got to the town, the more his body tensed and when he was close enough to read the sign he’d placed above the livery, he felt the weight settle on his shoulders once more. How the hell could he fool himself anymore? Why didn’t they see him for the charlatan he was?  It was time Four Corners had a real doctor, one who knew how to treat people properly.
“Well, Brother, I was going to ride on ahead, but it looks like they know we’re home,” Sanchez said. He’d seen Yosemite come out of the livery and heard him call to the others before hurrying toward them.
Nathan watched, amazed as more and more people joined the liveryman and hurried toward them. He swallowed the lump that formed in his throat when he recognized many of the homesteaders from the outlying farms. He briefly wondered how long they’d been in town, but Martha Wilson was amongst the first to reach them.
“Lord have mercy, what have you boys been up to?” the woman said, shaking her head when she saw the three men in the back of the wagon. “Y’all look like somethin’ the cat dragged in.”
“Hello, Martha,” Larabee said and shifted toward the edge of the wagon once Nathan pulled to a stop near the livery.
“Well, Nathan, I can see you’ve had your hands full with them three so why don’t you go on over to the saloon and get somethin’ ta eat. Tom, ya get the others ta help get Chris, Vin, and JD upstairs…”
“I don’t…” Larabee started.
“I’m okay…” came from Dunne.
“Ain’t got a need ta…” Tanner began.
“Hush now…the lot of ya ain’t got ‘nough strength ta swat a fly,” Martha said as Mary, Casey, and Nettie joined her.
“Where do you want them, Nathan?” Mary asked.
“Think they can all sleep in their own beds tonight, but first they should eat,” Jackson said and came around the side of the wagon. “Looks like I ain’t gotta ride herd on ‘em anymore.”
“No, but you look like someone needs to ride herd on you. How long since you had a good night’s sleep?” Nettie asked softly.
“Don’t rightly remember,” the healer’s defeated voice mirrored his eyes.
“Well, since yer all home I’d say we need to do this in two steps…eat and sleep,” Martha Wilson said.
Chris heard the others making plans, but he couldn’t help staring into the eyes he missed so much. Mary looked like she hadn’t slept well and he felt guilty because he knew he was the cause of her lack of sleep. He wanted to pull her close, to feel her body next to his, to smell the scent that was uniquely hers, but for now he simply smiled as he heard a child’s excited voice.
“Chris! I misseded you!”
“Hello, Billy,” he returned warmly, “I missed you too.  Have you been listening to your ma?” Larabee asked as Buck lifted the boy so he could sit beside him.
“Mostly,” the child answered, but didn’t quite meet Larabee’s eyes.  “Me and David…”
“David and I,” Mary corrected.
“That’s what I said,” the boy told her.
Larabee chuckled softly, but tried to keep a straight face when Mary placed her hands on her hips.
“David and I went fishin’ but we didn’t catch nothin’,” Billy told him.
“We didn’t catch anything,” Mary said.
“That’s what I said…grownups is always tryin’ to mess kids up,” Billy said as his grandfather joined them.
“It’s good to have you boys home,” Orin told them.
“Home…” Chris answered, his eyes scanning the busy little hamlet that had grown on him. He thought how close they’d come to never returning here. “Never looked better, Orin.” 
Nettie and Casey took JD by the arms and lead him toward the restaurant. Chris wasn’t surprised when Vin joined them as most of the townspeople were making their way back to their homes once they were sure the seven were back, safe and sound. 
“Chris, would you like to join us for supper?” Mary asked.
“You sure?”
“There’s plenty,” Mary assured him.
“Chris, you’re gonna need help…don’t need ta be walkin’ on that leg,” Jackson ordered.
“Come on, Pard, I’ll help you over to Mary’s house…maybe she’s got enough for me too,” Wilmington said.
“There’s plenty,” Mary told him, but there was a hint of disappointment in her voice.
“Actually, Buck, I’d like a meeting with you, Josiah, Ezra, and Nathan in the saloon. Perhaps, Miss Recillos would be kind enough to provide us with supper,” Travis told him.
“Billy, why don’t you come have supper with us, David and Jane would love it if you did,” Gloria Potter suggested. She’d known for a while that there were feelings between Chris and Mary and hoped the two would come to their senses. She could see the gratitude in Mary’s eyes as Billy readily agreed, but not before asking Chris if it was okay that he not be at supper.
Chris smiled at the pretty woman as she brought him a cup of coffee and set it on the small table in front of the sofa. Dinner had been roast beef, potatoes, carrots and gravy with lots of onions. He ate more than he thought possible and even enjoyed a fair size piece of apple pie.
“Would you like more pie?” Mary asked.
“No, thank you, Mary, why don’t you come sit for a spell?” Chris patted the seat beside him and waited for him to join her. He wrapped his arm around her and felt a light tremble as he looked into her eyes.
“I thought I’d lost you,” Mary whispered. She fought the tears that threatened to spill and pressed her body against him. God, help her, but she needed to feel him, to know he was real and swallowed convulsively before meeting his eyes again.
“It was close, but I’m back,” Larabee said and kissed her. God, this woman meant so much to him and he was pretty sure he could make her happy, but there was always a dark cloud on the horizon. Until he found Ella Gaines there was no way he could act on his feelings, because the woman had already shown her colors.
“I’m glad you’re back,” the newspaperwoman whispered and leaned against him.
“Me too,” Larabee said.
“What about the banditos?”
“They won’t be back. We found out they were working for a mean sonofa…let’s just say the new man on the Hacienda, is nothing like the bastard who sired him,” Larabee updated.
“Do you want to talk about what happened?” Mary asked, and felt the change in the lean body. He didn’t say anything for several minutes, but she didn’t want to force the issue. She reached for the coffee and handed one to him and again waited for him to speak.
Larabee took a deep breath, feeling as if she was letting him decide what he should share. He knew whatever he told her would stay between them and for that he was grateful. He nodded slightly before speaking. “De Rivera found out I killed his son,”
“Did you?”
“Yeah, he was a mean bastard, Mary, and didn’t give a damn who he hurt. De Rivera found out who I was and he took it out on JD,” the blond answered.
“What did he do?” Mary asked and again the silence lasted longer than normal.
“He took us out to a field and had me dig a hole. I knew what it was and thought he was going to kill me. I don’t court death anymore, Mary, but I’m not afraid of it and I guess De Rivera knew that. He made JD stand at one end of the hole and he shot him…he shot JD and I saw his head snap back and the blood…there seemed to be too much,” Larabee said and rubbed at the top of his injured leg. He smiled when Mary got up and pulled the table closer so she could lift his leg and rest it on a small cushion. “Thanks, Mary.”
“Why didn’t you say something,” Mary asked and saw the devastating smile that she could easily get lost in. God, this man was everything she wanted, but until he was ready she would have to be patient. “So, what happened after JD was shot?”
“He fell back…it was like something out of a nightmare and seemed to happen in slow motion. He hit the ground and I swear I could see the dirt shift beneath him,” Larabee swallowed convulsively and fought to keep his tone even as he continued. “De Rivera told me I either buried him or he’d let the animals have him. I couldn’t just leave his body there like that, Mary…A part of me died every time I lifted that shovel, but I really thought he was dead.”
“You couldn’t have known, Chris.”
“I should have checked.”
“And if you found out he was still alive…what then?”
“What do you mean?”
“What would De Rivera have done if JD was still alive?”
“He’d have…he’d have shot him again.”
“Then you did the right thing.”
“Maybe, or I just got lucky. Raphael found JD…good thing the grave wasn’t very deep or the kid would have suffocated. As it is he’s got a serious concussion and still gets bad headaches,” Larabee explained and felt as if his heart was being ripped from his chest as flashes of memory assaulted him. “I tried not to think about what I was doing, but it was JD…a kid still. I know he’s grown up a lot since coming out here, but sometimes when I look at him I see...” Chris thought about the youngest member of the seven and how his eyes had been so wide and filled with hope the first time he’d asked to join them on their quest. He’d told him to go home, but JD was not to be turned away so easily and he’d proven his mettle time and time again.
“See what?” Mary asked when the silence reined for several seconds.
“Someone a father could be proud of…I’d like to think Adam would have been like him,” Larabee answered. “I just wish I could have spared him…”
“It was his choice, Chris. You told him to go home and that’s more than most people would have done. I know you blame yourself for what happened, but you’re not to blame…De Rivera and his banditos are. I lost a good friend to them and that’s something I’ll never forget, but I was also given back the people I care about. Don’t you see…we all make mistakes, but we need to learn to live with them. I thank God every day for the gift of the people in my life and that includes you and the others,” Mary whispered and pressed her face against his chest.
“Thanks, Sweet Lady,” Larabee said and sighed tiredly. The events of the day were catching up to him and he felt Mary ease him down so that his head rested in her lap. He lifted his legs onto the couch and closed his eyes.
Mary gently massaged his forehead and felt him relax as her fingers eased away the pain and tension. God, why were men like Chris and the others so few and far between. They stood up to people like De Rivera and protected those who needed them. She’d seen them go up against Guy Royal and Stewart James and knew they would give up their lives if it was called for. She was still sitting on the sofa when Orin returned with Billy in his arms.
“I’ll put him to bed, Mary,” the older man said and walked across the room.
Mary knew she should get up and clean the kitchen, but she didn’t want to disturb the sleeping man. His features had relaxed and the soft snores spoke of deep sleep. She ran her fingers through his hair and wondered what it would be like to live the rest of her life with this man.
“Mary, would you like some coffee?” Orin asked softly.
“No, thank you, Orin, I just…he was so tired and I don’t want to wake him. Thank you for putting Billy to bed,” the newspaperwoman answered.
“You’re welcome,” Orin said and picked up the two cups. He was used to helping at home and had done more than his share of dishes.
“I’ll do that,” Mary told him.
“Evie has me well trained, Mary,” the judge teased with a smile as Larabee shifted slightly, but didn’t wake. “Why don’t you see if you can ease out from under him and we’ll get him settled for the night?”
“People will talk,” Mary said.
“Let them…I’m here and besides it’s none of their business,” Orin told her. “People talk all the time, but we don’t have to listen to them.”
“Thank you, Orin,” Mary told him and eased out as Orin placed a small pillow beneath his head. He stood back and watched as his daughter-in-law covered the sleeping man with a blanket Evie had made for her and Steven. A hint of sadness washed over him at the thought of his dead son, but he knew Steven would understand why he wanted Mary to move on with her life. Chris was a good man and had already proven how much he cared about Mary and Billy. That’s all that really mattered right now and he hoped these two would see that before long.
Vin stood outside the boarding house staring up at the sky and letting the fact that he was home ease some of the aches he felt. The stars twinkled like billions of tiny fireflies trying to bring light to an otherwise dark void. The moon was already on its downward journey and he knew he should be sleeping, but could not quite wrap his head around the fact that they had finally made it home.
It was hard to believe that more than three months had passed since Judge Travis had asked them to look into the raids. The Dohertys were buried now, and he wondered how many more victims were out there. The banditos were dead, maybe not all of them, but at least with Luis Martinez overseeing the hacienda, there would be no more raids.
The Texan hoped Santos would look up to his brother and take his guidance for what it was. Luis Martinez and his mother were good people and they would see that the child had everything he needed in life. More importantly they would give him the love that could only come from family. He remembered his own ma and how much she meant to him, even now, years after her death, he could still sense her touch.
Vin felt a twinge of pain in his lower back and unconsciously rubbed the area. Nathan had given him a tin of salve to rub into it and he walked slowly toward his wagon. The inside was covered in animal skins that had been cleaned and tanned to perfection and he climbed inside. He could go to his room in the boarding house, but right now he wanted the familiarity of the wagon and the soft breeze that pushed back the heat of the day.
Vin looked up toward the clinic above the livery and wasn’t surprised to see light spill through a gap in the curtains. He knew Nathan was awake, and vowed to make sure word was sent to Rain. If anyone could help Nathan see past the horror of what he’d been forced to do, it was the pretty Seminole woman. The problem was, Nathan needed to realize he’d done nothing wrong and been stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Tanner climbed into the wagon and rubbed the salve into his back and ribs before lying back on the pile of pillows Buck and Inez had placed there. They hadn’t said anything, but he’d seen them while he was eating at the restaurant with Nettie, JD, and Casey. The more time he spent in this town, the more he began to believe it was meant to be his home.
Nathan stood in the window, watching as a dark shadow made his way toward the wagon. He knew who it was and made sure the Texan was settled in his wagon before he went back to the table and opened the battered Bible Josiah had given him during the early days of their friendship. He read it from cover to cover on more than one occasion, but was finding it hard to concentrate on what he was reading.
His thoughts kept straying to the endless days of watching his friend toil in the fields while in the throes of a fever. Why had God allowed this to happen? How could he have let De Rivera live while a beautiful flower wilted and died after giving birth to her child?  He refused to think of Santos in the same breath as the old bastard and felt guilty for being glad de Rivera was dead. He was supposed to save lives, not celebrate a man’s death.
Nathan placed the Bible on the table and stared into the cold coffee in the cup, and felt his life closing in around him. Why was it when things were going well, something always came along to put a damper on it? How many times had he thought the past was where it was meant to be, but more often than not it came back to bite you. There was a hollow place inside of him; an emptiness that would not go away and left him exhausted.
The loss of his father so soon after finding him in Eagle Bend was a reminder of his childhood and the difference between him and the others. Oh, it was never brought up, but there were times when he felt as if he didn’t belong. Maybe it really was time that he left and let the town get a real doctor. Hell, it wasn’t like he was getting paid for what he did. That wasn’t why he did what he did, but it would have been nice to not have to worry about where his next meal would come from. Even that wasn’t a problem anymore, not since Travis had hired them to take care of the town and get rid of ‘The Bad Element’.
Nathan pushed the cup aside and made his way to his bed. He didn’t bother removing his clothing, but stretched out on top of the blankets and finally drifted off to sleep. It was anything but restful as his subconscious replayed everything that had happened at the hacienda. Several horrific memories of life on the Jackson plantation made him cry out, but there was no one around to hear him or wake him from the hell of the past.
Buck knew Chris was sleeping at Mary’s home with the judge in attendance to stop the gossipers and make sure they had nothing to talk about. Buck knew there’d still be those who would talk, but as far as he was concerned they could damn well go to hell.  He looked at the young man sleeping in the bed and wondered what he would have done if he’d been in Chris’ place.
He didn’t blame Larabee, but there were times when he wondered how much easier life would be without having to look over his shoulder. JD was shot and buried alive because Chris had shot De Rivera’s son. Buck knew and understood why Chris had killed him, but was it worth seeing JD hurt like this. He’d seen the lines of pain when the youngest member of the seven had finally given in and crawled into bed. He didn’t even have the strength to get undressed, so Buck had done it for him, and covered him with a blanket. That had been shortly after supper and now with the first streaks of dawn brightening the morning sky the kid was still out cold.
Was it really worth it? Putting their lives on the line for people they didn’t know? He wanted to say no, desperately wanted to make a case for turning the other way, but that wasn’t who he was. That wasn’t who any of them were and that’s why they had come together. Orin Travis may have hired them, but it was the friendship they shared that kept them in Four Corners.
Buck toed off his boots and placed his bare feet on the edge of the bed, surprised when JD moaned and shifted away.
“What the hell is that?” Dunne asked, wrinkling his nose in disgust.
“What’s wrong, JD, are you gonna be sick?” Wilmington asked worried about how pale the young man looked.
“If you don’t open the dang window I’m gonna gag,” the Bostonian told him, and moved further back on the bed.
“What the hell’s gotten into you, Kid?”
“That smell…like dead polecat’s ass,” Dunne answered.
“Oh, that’s real funny, JD. I get you into bed and undress you…make damn sure you’re covered up and you complain about stinky socks,” Wilmington said.
“I ain’t the only one that’s gonna complain…she gets a look at that she’ll charge ya for it.”
“A look at what?”
“The wallpaper’s peeling off the walls…wasn’t like that before you took off your dang boots,” Dunne said.
“My feet were burning…”
“It’s your socks that need burning,” the Bostonian said. “Have a heart, Buck, put your boots back on and go see Chang.”
“I don’t think he’s open yet,” Wilmington said of the bathhouse at the end of the street.
“Well, maybe you could ask Mrs. Murphy if she has any of her muffins with the apple bits in them.”
“JD, it’s only goin’ on five…even Vin’s still sleeping,” Wilmington observed.
“I’m hungry.”
“All right, Kid, just stay put and I’ll see if anyone’s awake.”
“Check in with Chang first…I can wait until you wash your socks and feet…because I don’t want to be trying to eat while your feet smell like…”
“A dead polecat’s ass…heard you the first time,” Wilmington said, relieved to see some of the humor returning to the young man now that they were home. He made his way outside and breathed deeply of the morning air. God, it felt good to be home, and even better knowing they were whole again. He’d make damn sure they stayed that way or die trying. “Rest easy, Kid, I’ll be back.”
“Thanks, Buck,” Dunne said and nestled down under the covers.
Guy Royal’s Ranch
Early Morning

Guy Royal sat on the front porch of his home, enjoying a cup of strong coffee as his men worked hard to break three horses they’d bought from several savages in the area. He knew the animals would be worth a good price if he decided to sell them, but right now he was thinking he might keep the dark one.
Guy heard the sound of a horse approaching and leaned forward as a familiar figure rode into his yard. “I thought I told you I’d contact you after I spoke to the other ranchers.”
“You did, but I thought you should know Larabee and his men are back. They rode in yesterday like they owned the town,” Conklin said and dismounted.
“Stuart James and a couple of other ranchers are coming here to discuss what we’re going to do…”
“You should strike now while they are hurt.”
“Who’s hurt?”
“Larabee, Tanner, and Dunne were injured.”
“That still leaves Wilmington, Sanchez, Standish, and Jackson,” Royal observed. He stood and placed the empty coffee cup on the porch railing before leaning against the frame.
“Don’t tell me you’re afraid of them?”
“I wouldn’t say afraid, but I do respect their abilities…anyone who doesn’t is asking for trouble,” Royal said.  “Now, what are you going to do to help get rid of this menace?”
“I thought I would bring you news as I have been doing,” Conklin said.
“That’s not going to be enough. If you want me and my fellow ranchers to take care of Larabee and the others then you need to do more than just mouth off.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“There are rumors that the town is planning some kind of celebration for them.”
“Yes, that is true.”
“When are the festivities to begin?”
“Tomorrow afternoon,” Conklin answered.
“Very well…as I said you’re going to have to help.”
“How can I help?” Conklin asked and watched the other man as he poured another cup of coffee. God, he could use one himself, but didn’t think Royal would give it to him.
“We need some kind of distraction. You said Larabee, Tanner and Dunne were injured?”
“Yes, and from what I saw they are still weak. It would be best if you took them while they are…”
“You are easy to tell me what we should do, Conklin, but you need to realize those men are far more dangerous than a cornered rattler.”
“But you have more men.”
“And I don’t want to get them killed. I still think the best way to go is get the others out of the way. Tell them there’s trouble…maybe get someone to send a telegram from Eagle Bend that they need help. You could ride there and send it.”
“But I have to be at the celebration or they’ll know.”
“It won’t matter if they’re all dead,” Royal said with a grin.
“I don’t know if I can do that.”
“If you want our help you’ll do it. I’m not a fool, Conklin and I’m not going to take chances just to make you happy. You best come up with some kind of excuse or when we show up at this party you could end up with a gut full of lead,” Royal warned.
“You could send one of your men to Eagle Bend?”
“I could, but I’m not going to. If you expect us to take care of them then we expect you to do your part. Go on now and get off my property,” Royal said and made a show of placing his hand on the weapon on his right hip. He knew Stuart James and Martin Lock wanted to be rid of the seven peacekeepers as much as he did, but they didn’t want to lose their best men in the process. If Conklin didn’t find a way to get rid of as many guns as possible, then they’d have to find another way.
Four Corners
Early Morning

Chris sat on the chair outside Mary’s home with his leg elevated and breakfast on a small table beside him. Orin sat across from him enjoying a cup of coffee and reading the newspaper Mary was delivering. He shifted his leg, wincing when the move pulled on the stitches Nathan used to close up the wound.
Raphael had stopped by to see them before heading back toward the Rio Grande. He wanted to take advantage of the daylight and hoped to be back at the Hacienda by the end of the next day. Chris had thanked him for his help and told him that if he or his men or the Martinez family ever needed them they just had to send word.
“Chris, this town owes you boys a debt of gratitude,” the judge stated. “There’s no telling how many more people would have been killed if you had not stopped those banditos.”
“The problem is, Orin, there always seems to be more to take their place,” Larabee observed.
“I know, but as long as there are heroes like you boys…”
“I doubt any of us think of ourselves as heroes. You pay us to do the job,” the blond said.
“A dollar a day plus room and board isn’t much when you and the others put your lives on the line. A man’s life is worth a lot more than that,” Travis told him. “You’re doing a good job of keeping the bad element away from Four Corners…even men like Royal have a certain respect for you now.”
“Guy Royal has no respect for anyone, but himself,” Larabee offered and lit a cheroot. “Have the ranchers been any trouble while we’ve been gone?”
“Not really, but they’ve been busy with getting the cattle ready for market,” Travis answered. He saw Larabee’s head turn and followed his gaze until he spotted Nathan Jackson. Something about the man was different; he hadn’t even gazed in Larabee’s direction. That was not like him, if someone, especially one of his friends, was sick or injured; Jackson made it a point to check on them no matter what. Right now he just had that haunted look that spoke of an inner pain that hurt worse than any physical injury ever could.
“Too bad they can’t do that all year,” Larabee said as Nathan walked across the street toward the saloon. He knew there was still a lot troubling the healer, because the man didn’t even glance in his direction. Normally, Nathan would have headed straight for him, but there was no sign that he’d even seen him.
“Chris, what happened to Nathan?”
“I don’t know the whole story, but Nate’s carrying more guilt than he should be,” Larabee said and told the judge what he knew. It was enough to make him realize just what his own feelings meant and he knew what happened to JD wasn’t his fault. What they needed now was to make Nathan Jackson see he was not to blame either.  He did what he had to do to keep them all alive.
“Nathan’s a good man,” Travis said.
“Yes, he is, and this town’s lucky to have him. Maybe it’s time someone told him that,” Larabee said.
“I believe that’s what they have planned, and that’s all I can say on the matter,” Travis told him.
Larabee rubbed the top of his injured leg and watched as the town continued to come alive around them. Buck walked toward them with JD in tow, but the young man moved slowly, a sign that he still wasn’t fully recovered from his ordeal.
“JD, stay here with Chris and the judge while I check those two cowpokes Yosemite threw in there last night,” Wilmington ordered.
“I can help, Buck,” Dunne said, but took a seat on the steps.
“I know you can, Kid, but stay here and keep an eye on Chris…you know how cantankerous he can get when he’s hurting,” Wilmington ordered. “Morning, Judge.”
“Morning, Buck, if those two have sobered up just send them on their way,” Travis ordered.
“I will, Judge. Yosemite said they paid for the damages to the saloon, so if they’re dried out this morning I’ll send them off with a warning,” Wilmington said and tipped his hat to the two ladies who walked past them and smiled when they covered their mouths and giggled.
“How does he do it?” Dunne asked when Wilmington disappeared into the jail.
“Buck’s a natural charmer, Kid…he comes by it honestly,” Larabee answered and smiled at the look on the young man’s face. He spotted Vin climbing out of the back of his wagon and didn’t miss the way he favored his back. It was probably the reason he’d slept so late. The Texan spotted him at the same time Josiah and Ezra came out of the restaurant and walked toward them.
“Chris, I sent a telegram to Evita and Luis telling them we made it back safely,” Standish said once they reached the group.
“Did you tell her how grateful we are for their help?” Larabee asked.
“I did,” Standish answered as Mary walked toward them.
“I’ll make a fresh pot of coffee?” the newspaperwoman said, smiling at Chris as she walked past him.
“You know, Chris, she does seem enamored of you,” Standish teased lightly.
“She’s not the only enamored one,” Sanchez observed of the smile on Larabee’s face.
“You boys better stop minding my business,” the blond said, but there was no anger in his voice as they watched Nathan exit the saloon speaking with a woman and her son. It looked like a normal day for the healer, but Chris understood the man was holding himself together by a string that could snap at any time.

PART 1 / PART 2 / PART 3 / PART 4 / PART 5 / PART 6 / PART 7 / PART 8 / PART 10 / PART 11


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