Disclaimer: the following work of fan fiction is not intended to infringe on any copyright, nor was it written for profit.

Deadlier of the Species

By Alanna


 

Prologue

A figure dressed in black sat atop an equally black horse, watching the chaos in the streets before it. The little townís citizens scrambled to get out of the way of the figureís four companions, who rode through the streets, shooting their guns. The townís sheriff, along with a few others who had tried to stop them, lay dead or severely wounded.

One of the riders broke away from the melee and came over. The rider handed the watcher a bag and with a grin said, "More where this came from. Bankís a lot richer than it looks."

The watcher smiled as stunning green eyes took in the bagís contents.

"You got all of it?"

"Yup."

The watcher nodded, gave the bag back and drew a gun. Three shots brought the other three riders to the watcherís side. The black figure then urged the horse to walk until it was in the middle of the street.

The apparent leader reached up and removed the black hat, letting long, fire red hair cascade down the back and around the shoulders.

"Citizens! My name is Tessa Williams! And these," she gestured to the riders behind her, "are my sisters in crime!"

The four riders each removed their hats to reveal attractive, young females, all looking around with smirks and hard eyes.

"Let it be known the we, mere women, are responsible for the death and chaos here today. You are not the first, and you will not be the last! We may live in a manís world, but we are slaves to them no longer! Men may think they rule, but we are the deadlier of the species!"

One of the women rode up next to Tessa, a flaming torch in hand. Tessa looked at her and nodded, and the girl stood in her stirrups and threw the torch threw the window of a nearby building. The others did the same with the building closest to them. As flames began to claim the buildings, the women turned their horses and urged them into runs, heading out of town.

***

Tessa sat away from the fire that night, gazing up at the stars while the other four chatted amongst themselves. After a short while, one of the girls came over and sat next to her, offering her a piece of the dinner she had not yet eaten.

"Whatís on youíre mind?"

Tessa looked at her, then at the piece of meat. After a moment, she accepted and said, "Iím bored."

"Bored? How can you be bored after today?"

"Did you find that exciting Meg?"

"Well of course. Didnít you?"

Tessa sighed, her gaze returning to the stars.

"No. I used to. But now, somehow, terrorizing nameless little towns way out in the Boone docks..." she trailed off and shook her head.

After a moment, she added, "I want more Meg. Iím sick of riding into towns, raiding them and killing stupid men. I want something truly exciting."

Meg stared hard at her friend for a moment, then said, "Why do I get the feeling you already know what it is?"

A small smile crossed Tessaís lips. "Probably Ďcause you know me so well."

When she said nothing more, Meg said, "Well come on, out with it."

"You ever hear of a town called Four Corners?"

Megís eyes widened. "Four Corners! Are you crazy Tess? That town is protected by seven very dangerous lawmen! Only fools try to start something there!"

"Yes, but Iím not a fool. I know all about Four Cornerís seven protectors...the Larabee gang. I also know about the nice little bank they have. Four Corners is just the place to get the ultimate thrill."

Meg stared at her, a bewildered look entering her brown eyes. "You know exactly what youíre going to do, donít you?"

Tessa smiled. "When donít I? Four Corners is about a weeks ride from here. Go tell the girls weíll be heading out at dawn, so get some sleep. Iíll give out details as we go."

Meg looked at her curiously, then nodded and moved back to the campfire. Tessaís gaze returned to the stars, a malicious smile slowly crossing her lips.

PART 1

Buck Wilmington entered the saloon and looked around. As his eyes adjusted to the sudden change in lighting, he spotted three of this friends, Josiah Sanchez, Nathan Jackson and Vin Tanner, at a table near the back. He didnít have to look around further to confirm Ezra Standish, another member of the group, was at his customary table, skillfully cleaning out early afternoon poker players. As Buck headed toward his three friends, his eyes picked out his oldest friend and the groupís leader, Chris Larabee, sitting at a table in the very back staring moodily at the whiskey in front of him.

"Hey all," Buck greeted, sitting down.

He nodded toward Chris and asked, "Whatís with him?"

Josiah shrugged. "Who knows? That manís moods tend to change with the wind."

Buck shook his head. "Damn. Hate it when he getís like this. Just hope trouble doesnít decide to make an appearance for a while."

"Reckon you ainít gonna get yer wish," Vin said, nodding toward the door.

The other three looked and found the sheriff and youngest member of the group, J.D. Dunne, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. He spotted them, nodded, and started over. But it quickly became apparent that he was headed for Chris.

Buck quickly got up and intercepted him.

"Hey, what are you doing Buck?" he protested as the older man began to lead him to the other table, "Iíve gotta talk to Chris."

"Chris ainít exactly in the mood for talk, kid. Come tell us about it instead."

J.D., getting a better look at Chris, decided that would be the better way to go and followed Buck to their table instead.

"I just got a wire from Judge Travis," he said once he was seated. "Said to be on the lookout for a rather nasty gang thatís been roaming around the territory. They messed up a tiny little town way out in the middle of nowhere about a week ago. Killed the sheriff, his deputy and a few citizens and cleaned the bank out. The town was trying to expand and the bank held quite a bit of money."

"Any descriptions?" Vin asked.

J.D. nodded. "Yeah. Extremely attractive and very hostile."

The four older men looked at him curiously.

"Attractive?" Nathan asked, raising his brows.

"Yeah. You ready for this? The gang is all female."

"Female!" Buck exclaimed. "Youíre kidding right?"

"No. Thereís five of them. Leaderís name is Tessa Williams."

"Iíve heard of her," Vin said.

When the others looked at him, he added, "Iíve traveled to a lot places during my time as a bounty hunter. Heard a lot about her, mainly in Texas. Was even in a few of the towns she hit. Not a pretty sight, girl has some serious problems. Folks called her the Red Witch cause of her hair and a fondness for voodoo potions and stuff. Not the type of girl you want to bring home, Ďspecially if you want to keep your family in one piece. Back then, it was just her and one other. Both of Ďem werenít more than thirteen at the time. Guess she expanded her club."

"They headed this way for sure?" Buck asked, shaking his head in disbelief.

J.D. shrugged. "Donít know. Judge just said to be on the lookout case they head this way."

Buck sighed. "Cryiní shame."

He looked over at Chris and added, "Guess Iíd better let Chris know. Bad mood or not."

Standing, he grabbed his beer and sauntered over to Chrisís table.

"J.D. just got a wire from the Judge. Said to be on the lookout for a gang that might head this way."

"What else is new?" Chris muttered.

"Well, try this on for size. Thereís five of Ďem, and theyíre all female."

Chris looked up at that, surprise flashing through his eyes.

"That was my reaction. Leaderís name is Tessa Williams. Vin says he knows about her. Pretty nasty temper apparently."

Silence fell and after a moment, Buck asked, "So what should we do?"

"Just like the judge says. Keep an eye out. Weíll decide what to do when and if they do actually show up here."

Buck nodded, then got up and returned to the other table, leaving Chris alone with his thoughts.

***

Megís eyes carefully roamed about the town as her horse walked causally down the busy street. She had been sent a few days ahead of the others to learn everything she could about the town and itís seven protectors.

Spotting the livery, she turned the horse and headed for it. Once it was stabled, she grabbed her bag and went in search of a hotel.

***

"Well would you look at that?" Buck said as he spotted an attractive young woman walking across the street from him.

Vin looked at what had got his attention and a small smile crossed his lips.

"Pretty little thing," he commented.

"Pretty! Thatís the most gorgeous creature Iíve laid eyes on in months!"

He looked at Vin and grinned. "Someone should go welcome her to town."

Vin chuckled and shook his head as Buck started across the street toward the woman.

"Afternoon Miss," Buck greeted as he got into her path, "Nameís Buck Wilmington. You look a little lost, anything I can help you with?"

The young woman looked up, revealing beautiful brown eyes, and smiled.

"Well now, I never expected this town to be so friendly. Iím looking for the hotel."

"Well lets see what we can do about finding it for you."

With a charming smile, Buck took her bag and offered his arm, and the pair started off in the direction of the hotel. When they reached it, the woman turned to him and said, "Thank you kindly for the escort Mr. Wilmington. Perhaps weíll see each other later."

"That would be a Devine pleasure Miss," Buck replied, tipping his hat.

"Nameís Meg Foster. Please, call me Meg."

She flashed him another smile, then disappeared inside.

***

As soon as Meg had gotten her room and had secured rooms for the others, she had a short nap, then left the hotel to see what she could learn. She was thrilled when she found the saloon. A good, stiff drink was exactly what she needed after the long, hard ride.

She was well prepared for the stares of surprise she got when she entered the partly full, smokey room. She was used to it, and did what she always did-stared back hard and coldly. After a few minutes, the patrons returned to their own business and she made her way up to the bar.

The bartender eyed her with some contempt, but asked what she wanted anyway.

"Whiskey. Strongest youíve got."

His brows shot up, but he complied nonetheless.

She had just taken her first satisfying gulp when a voice said, "Now this is the last place I expected to run into you again."

She looked up, stopping herself from going for her gun when she saw who it was.

"Mr. Wilmington correct?" she asked with a smile. She indicated the stool next to her and added, "Wonít you join me?"

"Donít mind if I do. But please, call me Buck."

He claimed the seat she indicated and motioned to the bartender. A moment later, a mug of beer was in his hand.

"So whatís a pretty little thing like you doing way out here all on her own?"

ĎKeep youíre cool Meg,í she thought, bristling at his choice of words.

"Just waiting for some friends," she replied. "Iím a few days ahead of them, so I figured Iíd stop and wait for them here. Iíve heard quite a bit about this place. Tell me, are you one of the seven protectors rumored to guard this town?"

Buck nodded. "Sure am. Though the stories are probably exaggerated."

Meg let an impressed look enter her brown eyes. "Itís really exciting meeting a member of the Larabee gang. Could you introduce me to the others? Iíd be ever so much obliged."

A smile crossed Buckís features. "Well sure. Iím sure the others would love to meet a gorgeous little lady like yourself."

His gaze traveled the saloon, coming to rest on three men at a table in the very back.

"Thereís a few of Ďem now. Come on, Iíll introduce ya."

He took her hand and led her over to the table.

"Boys, Iíd like you to meet Meg Foster. Meg, this here is Vin Tanner, Josiah Sanchez and Ezra Standish."

All three men stood and tipped their hats in greeting.

"It is truly an honor to meet a lady with such majestic beauty," Ezra said with a small smile, taking her hand and kissing it gently.

Meg smiled and blushed despite herself. "Youíre quite the charmer Mr. Standish."

Before he could reply, Vin said, "You look familiar Miss. Have we met before?"

"No, I donít believe we have. Although youíre name does sound familiar."

She knew her eyes were revealing something when Vinís eyes narrowed and quickly put a mask of friendliness on. She knew all about Vin Tanner, and planned to reveal it to Tessa, but didnít want to make him suspicious.

Turning her attention to the other two she said, "You have no idea how big of a thrill this is. I was just telling Buck how exciting it is to be meeting members of the Larabee gang. You all have quite the reputation."

"Weíre just simple men tryiní to keep the peace Miss," Josiah said.

"Well, Iíd really like to see the town youíre fighting so hard to keep the peace for."

Buck immediately grinned.

"Now thatís where I come in. Just call me the local tour guide."

He stood and offered her his arm. "Maybe weíll run into the rest of the boys."

Meg stood and smiled down at the three men. "It was a pleasure meeting you gentlemen."

"Oh no, the pleasure was all ours, I assure you," Ezra said, standing and tipping his hat.

She glanced at Vin and noticed he was still watching her carefully. She flashed him a bright smile, then allowed Buck to lead her out of the saloon, making a mental note to keep an eye on the former Bounty hunter.

They hadnít been touring long when they ran into the fifth member of the seven.

"Meg, Iíd like you to meet Nathan Jackson. Nathan here is our local healer."

"Maíam," Nathan greeted, tipping his hat as he flashed Buck a look that said, "Another one?"

"A pleasure to meet you Mr. Jackson," Meg replied, pretending not to notice the look. "I have to admit, youíre the first colored healer Iíve ever met."

"Learned in the war," Nathan replied, not the least bit fazed by her comment.

"Well, seeing as how youíre six friends are still alive and well, I must assume you are rather good at your job."

Nathan smiled. "I try, though it ainít easy with this lot. Donít know if youíve met Josiah Sanchez yet. He keeps talkiní about how the birds of darkness are going to get Ďim but instead of sitting around waitiní for them to come to him, he insists on chasing after them. I swear, manís gonna be the death of me."

Meg laughed in genuine amusement. "Well, I wish you luck, Mr. Jackson."

Nathan tipped his hat, then moved on his way.

Less then five minutes later, Buck was introducing her to the sixth member.

"And this here is our local sheriff."

Meg looked at the young man before her in surprise as he said, "J.D. Dunne, Miss. Pleasure to meet you."

"Sheriff? How did someone so young manage to get that title?"

"Cause no one else was fool enough to take the job," Buck replied with a teasing smile.

"Iím sure he meant brave," Meg said as J.D. opened his mouth in protest.

He looked at her, smiled and tipped his hat, flashing Buck a triumphant look. Buck just rolled his eyes, which caused him to catch sight of the last member he had yet to introduce.

"Hey Chris," he greeted as the black clad man joined them, "Want ya to meet the new lady in town, Meg Foster. Meg, this is Chris Larabee."

Chris nodded shortly. "Miss."

ĎGoodness, if I didnít know better, Iíd swear he and Tessa were related!í Meg thought as she voiced a greeting.

She listened as he and Buck exchanged a few quiet words, then he left, headed for the saloon. As she watched him leave, she could help but wonder how he and Tessa would react to one another once they met.

ĎCould very well be an interesting exchange. One Iím going to make sure Iím around to witness.í

PART 2

Meg spent the next few days meeting the others as they filtered in one by one. The first to show up was Crystal Richards. At fifteen she was the youngest member of the group, but was nearly as deadly as Tessa. She had ice blue eyes and hair as dark as the night itself. She was like the rest of them, an outcast whose short life had been hard and unforgiving. To survive, she had done what they all had done; grew hard, and cold-blooded.

The next to arrive was Kayla Whitehorse. Kayla was eighteen, the same age as Meg and Tessa, and rarely spoke. She was of Indian blood, although no one, not even the girls, could ever figure out what tribe she had belonged to and what had led her to become an outcast. The girls didnít even know her true name, Kayla not being a common Indian name.

The last to arrive before Tessa was Selene Russell, a beautiful, seventeen year old black girl, who spoke even less than Kayla. Of all of them, Selene was the most innocent looking, and was often the most important when Tessa set one of her traps.

Finally, Tessa herself arrived. Meg took one look at her and could tell her long time friend had been involved in some trouble somewhere. She had that "I love the taste of blood" look she often got after putting a few miserable souls out of their misery.

Giving her friend a knowing look, she led her to the hotel and to the room she had secured for her, then went to her own room to wait with the others while Tessa rested and then freshened up.

***

A few hours later, the girls entered the now very crowded, very smokey saloon, and managed to locate a secluded table. The serving girl didnít even bat an eye an the oddity of the situation as she took their orders and then returned with their drinks. Meg had befriended her the night she arrived and, as the other girls had arrived, had introduced them. Now as the girls sat and quietly sipped their drinks, Meg looked carefully around the Saloon, soon spotting who she was looking for.

"All right pay attention now," she said quietly, but loud enough so they could hear, "The table in the very back, the one with the five men, theyíre the Larabee gang. The one with the big mustache gawking at all the women is Buck Wilmington. Fancies himself a ladies man. The one to the right of him is Nathan Jackson, the local healer. From what Iíve been able to find out, heís very good with knifes. Next one is Josiah Sanchez. Heís an ex-preacher. Iíd recommend watching your step around him, I donít think heís a man we could take very easily. Next one is Vin Tanner. Heís an ex-bounty hunter whoís wanted in Tuscosa. Five hundred dollars in case youíre interested. The man in black in Chris Larabee, theyíre leader and possibly the most dangerous man of the group."

Meg watched Tessaís reaction carefully as her friend took in the groupís leader. She was disappointed though. Tessaís face remained unreadable.

"Where are the other two?" Crystal asked, "Thereís supposed to be seven of them, ainít there?"

Meg nodded to a table near the five where a small group were playing poker.

"The one in the fancy clothes cleaning his opponents out is Ezra Standish. Extremely charming but an obvious con man. Iím quite sure he has a few tricks up his sleeves if you know what I mean."

She looked around some more then said, "I donít see the last one, but he probably wonít be long getting here."

True enough, just five minutes later, the last member of the group entered the saloon, looked around and headed for the back table.

"There, him. Thatís J.D. Dunne, the local sheriff."

Tessa looked at her in genuine surprise. "Youíre kidding right? That boyís not much older than I am. In fact, Iíd say heís twenty, twenty one tops!"

"That was my reaction. Seems he got the job cause everyone else was afraid to take it."

Tessa watched him for a moment, a slow smile crossing her lips.

"Doesnít matter how he got the job, just as long as heís one of them. Heís perfect for the plan I have in mind."

She finished her drink, watching him as she did, then got up and headed for the bar at the same time he did. She carefully calculate her speed and his, did some quick maneuvering, and less than a minute later cried, "Oh!" as they ran into each other.

She took a moment to steady herself, then putting a startled look on her face, looked up...and into the nicest pair of brown eyes she had ever seen. She hadnít expected this and it took a moment for her to regain her composure long enough to slip into her act.

"Iím so sorry!" she gasped, "I wasnít watching where I was going. Are you okay?"

"Uh, just fine, Miss. It was actually my fault, I should have been paying more attention."

He quickly took off his hat and added, "My nameís J.D. Dunne."

She smiled and brushed a piece of shocking red hair out of her eyes.

"Iím Lynne Stevens. Pleasure to make youíre acquittance Mr. Dunne."

"Oh no please, call me J.D. Can I buy you a drink?"

Their eyes met once more and again, she was nearly drawn into their depths. She mentally shook herself and replied, "Iíd like that."

J.D. smiled widely, and led her to the bar.

***

"Good lord all mighty, would you look at what just ran into J.D.!" Buck exclaimed as he watched the encounter.

Josiah let out a low whistle. "Now that is something else," he said softly.

"Must be the last friend Meg was looking for," Buck said, his gaze traveling to the table he had seen Meg claim.

"That is one odd group of girls," Nathan commented as he, too, looked at the table. "I canít for the life of me figure out what such pretty young girls are doing in a place like this. That one with the pitch black hair, she canít be more than sixteen. Wonder what theyíre all doing out here on their own?"

"Who cares?" Buck replied with a grin, "I just hope theyíre stayin.í"

His grin grew wider as J.D. returned to the table, a mug of beer in hand.

"Whoís your pretty new friend J.D.?"

"Her nameís Lynne. We sort of bumped into each other."

"Yeah, I saw that. So whenís the wedding?"

J.D. looked at him, startled and Buck burst out laughing.

"You boys notice something about them girls?" Vin spoke up as J.D. glared at Buck.

"Hell Iíve noticed plenty of things about them little laddies," Buck replied, still chuckling.

"Have you noticed thereís five of Ďem and Lynne has some pretty shocking red hair?"

Buck stopped laughing, a startled look entering his eyes.

He shook his head and said, "No way. If those little girls are the nasty gang weíre supposed to be keeping an eye out for, then Iíll give up women permanently!"

"Be careful what you say my friend," Josiah said with a small smile.

"Keep an eye on them," Chris spoke up. "If it looks like itís them, weíll make a move."

The others nodded, then quietly returned to their drinks.

***

"All right Tess, so what do you have planned for the boy?" Meg asked as she joined the girls in Tessaís room.

Tessa simply smiled slyly at them, then got up and pulled her saddle bags out from under the bed.

She pulled out a box that was very familiar to Meg and opened it.

"This, my dear girls, is the plan," she said, holding up a vial of dark blue liquid.

"What is it?" Crystal asked. Even Meg, who had been with Tessa the longest, didnít know what it was.

"This is a very special little poison. One of Mamaís secret recipes."

"Iíve never seen that before," Meg said, looking at Tessa curiously.

"Thatís Ďcause Iíve been saving it for a very special occasion. The ingredients for this are amazingly hard to come by and I only have a few vials made from when I have had all the ingredients."

"Whatís it do?" Selene asked.

"Well, when one digests this little beauty, they tend to go through many fazes. First, they come down with a nasty little fever, followed by hallucinations and violent behavior. The fun thing about this is it tends to effect different people in different ways. I canít wait to see how our young sheriff reacts to it."

"And while heís under the influence of that?" Crystal asked.

Tessaís smile was bone chilling cold.

"Weíll be cleaning out the bank, maybe killing one or two of the Larabee gang while theyíre distracted and be taking a murderer back to Tuscosa where he belongs."

PART 3

Later that day, Tessa was walking down the street when she spotted Chris Larabee, sitting outside the saloon, staring at seemingly nothing in particular. She smiled to herself, then ignored him as she went into the saloon, and got a bottle of whiskey and two glasses and back headed outside.

"Mr. Larabee, I presume?"

He looked up and stared at her for a moment, then turned his attention back to the street.

"Thatís me."

That was all she needed to know. Between his eyes and his attitude, she knew more about this man then he probably knew about himself.

"Might I join you?"

She noticed his eyes travel from the street to the bottle and glasses and back again. After a moment, he nodded and she took a seat, pouring a glass of Whiskey for him and herself.

He nodded shortly, took the glass, and downed the liquid in one gulp.

"Awfully young to be a gunslinger arenít ya?" he asked quietly.

She knew what he really meant by that but didnít comment.

Instead, she poured him another drink and said, "Iíll bet Iíve had more experience and seen more horrors in my short life than youíve seen in your long one."

"Doubtful."

"Not entirely. You and I are a lot alike, Mr. Larabee. For instance, you havenít said more than two complete sentences and I already know more about you than Iíll bet even your best friend knows."

He eyed her suspiciously, but she saw the curiosity behind them.

She lowered her voice to a mysterious purr and said, "Youíve lost someone very close to you. Someone you loved more than life itself. Iíd say somewhere in the span of the past five years. Correct?"

She saw the startled look flash through his eyes, but then they were hard again and he said roughly, "None of youíre business."

She nodded. "I thought so. Probably your wife and..."

She trailed off, watching him carefully. She saw what she was looking for almost instantly and finished her sentence, "And a child. Was it a boy or a girl?"

Her voice had never left itís low, mysterious purr, and she knew heíd answer her question.

"Boy."

Tessa nodded, not letting her surprise show.

"We really are alike, you and I. I lost my family too. My mother and baby brother, when I was ten. Only difference is, I know who killed them and I avenged them. You, I can see found the murderer, but havenít yet found who was really behind it."

Chris looked at her with a mixture of emotions in his eyes.

Finally, he looked back down at his drink, and muttered, "You talk too much."

"The one femmine trait I havenít been able to break."

She thought she saw a smile of amusement cross his lips, and smiled herself, turning her attention to her drink. She wasnít sure why, but she felt a sort of kinship with this man and almost hated to cause the trouble that would soon be plaguing him. Almost. They lapsed into silence, each quietly drinking and staring out at the street, lost in thought.

Without warning, rage filled screams split the air, startling them both.

"What in the world," Tessa muttered, getting to her feet.

She started down the boardwalk in the direction of the screams, knowing full well that Larabee was right behind her. They hadnít gone far when they came upon the source of the screams. Crystal and Kayla were in the middle of the street, fighting viciously with a pair of men...and winning. Tessa allowed a small smile to cross her lips as she watched the pair bring their wraths down mercilessly on the two men. She spotted three of Larabeeís men, Josiah, Ezra and Nathan, appear on the scene and head toward the fight.

It didnít take much to pull the two off the men, who were now cowering on the ground, bleeding and moaning, but once it was done, the pair whirled on the trio, ready to rip them apart. The men drew their guns as Crystal and Kayla both pulled out knifes and then Tessa decided to intervene.

"Crystal! Kayla! Stand down!"

The girls looked at her and wavered a bit, but didnít lower their weapons.

"Stand down! Now!" She repeated sharply, a warning in her tone.

This time, the girls did lower their weapons and slowly put them away.

The three men started toward them, intent on taking the girls in for assault but Chris, recognizing the two men as a couple of ranch hands who had a habit of assaulting women, called, "Itís all right boys, let Ďem go."

The trio looked at Chris uncertainly, then down at the two men and quickly figured out the reason for Chrisís decision. Josiah hauled the pair to their feet and he and Nathan headed toward the jail while Ezra headed back to what he had been doing prior.

Without turning around, Tessa said, "My girls and I arenít here to cause trouble Mr. Larabee. Weíve all had hard, unforgiving short lives which led us to become what we are, gunslingers and fighters. All we want is a place where we can be reasonably safe. A place where we can maybe settle down and lead normal lives."

"As long as you keep a tight rein on your friends, those two in particular, you should be fine."

"Thank you Mr. Larabee," Tessa said, recognizing both the threat and the welcome in his statement.

"Nameís Chris."

"Lynne."

She smiled without looking at him, then walked away. So far so good.

***

J.D. quickly got the keys for the cells as soon as he saw Josiah and Nathan headed his way with a couple of obviously hurt men.

"What happened?" he asked as Josiah put the men in the cells and Nathan began his work.

"These two decided to try their charm on two of Megís friends who didnít take kindly to it," Josiah replied.

"Man," J.D. murmured as he watched Nathan patch them up.

Shaking his head, he went back outside and froze. Across the street, walking slowly along the boardwalk, was Lynne.

He felt his heart quicken as he watched her and jumped when Josiah said, "Sheís something isnít she?"

"You can say that again," J.D. replied softly, his eyes never leaving her.

Josiah chuckled. "Go on and say hi. Maybe show her around a bit. Iíll watch the prisoners."

J.D. looked at him, then smiled and started off across the street.

"To be young again," Josiah said softly as he watched his young friend greet the girl. "Enjoy it my friend."

He smiled lightly, then turned and disappeared back inside.

***

"Hi Lynne," J.D. greeted as he walked up to her.

ĎLynneí stopped and smiled when she saw him.

"Good afternoon, J.D. How are you this fine day?"

"Couldnít be better. Um, you havenít seen the town yet have you?"

"To tell you the truth, I havenít been much further than the hotel and the saloon."

"Well then, would you like a tour?"

"Iíd love one."

Smiling widely, J.D. offered her his arm and the pair continued down the boardwalk. They had gotten part way through town when they ran into Vin.

"Hey Vin," J.D. greeted, "Have you met Lynne yet?"

"Donít reckon Iíve had the pleasure," Vin replied, tipping his hat, "Miss."

ĎLynneí nodded in return. "Mr. Tanner."

"Oh hey, could you wait right here a sec? Thereís something I gotta take care of. Wonít be a moment."

Lynne nodded and J.D. hurried off.

Tessa turned her attention to Vin, who was looking at her in a way she didnít like.

"Forgive me Miss, but Iím just noticing the same thing about you that I noticed about Miss Meg. You both seem familiar somehow."

"Well, I donít know about Meg, but Iím quite certain weíve never met."

"Where are you from, If you donít mind my asking?"

"A little backwater town in Texas. Have you ever been to Texas Mr. Tanner?"

Vin nodded. "Spent a few years traveling there."

Tessa smiled innocently and said, "Oh! Then perhaps you know of the town Iím from. Have you ever heard of Tuscosa?"

He froze for a moment and looked at her carefully. She looked back, letting a small hint of something show in her eyes. Not enough to spook him and ruin her plans, but enough to lure him just a step closer into the trap she had set. She was quite certain he had an idea of who she was, and therefore wanted to get rid of him quickly but in a way that went well with her plan.

After a moment, he slipped back into his laid back manner and said, "Yeah, Iíve been there. Didnít care for it much."

Tessa smiled. "Neither did I."

At that moment J.D. returned and she smiled at him and said, "Ready to continue?"

He nodded and she took his arm. Looking at Vin she said, "Nice meeting you Mr. Tanner," once again allowing that little something to flash through her eyes.

***

Vin was, to say the least, disturbed. The encounter with ĎLynneí had left him nervous and more suspicious than he had been at first. He quickly spotted Chris, sitting outside the saloon, drinking and watching the street and hurried over.

"Chris, we need to talk," he said, sitting down.

Chris looked up and started slightly when he saw the look in his friendís eyes.

"Whatís up?"

"That girl, Lynne."

"What about her?"

Vin quickly related the encounter as he took a few swigs from the half empty bottle.

"Somethingís right not Chris," he finished, "This ĎLynneí is about the right age as Tessa Williams would be now and sheís got a little gang of four. Weíd better do something or be mighty careful."

Chris was silent for a moment, then told Vin what ĎLynneí had told him earlier after the incident with her girls.

"Iím not saying I fully believe her, but without proof that sheís anything but who she says she is, there ainít much we can do unless she starts something."

Vin nodded, knowing exactly what the older man was telling him.

He stood and started off, stopping when Chris said, "Vin."

When he turned back, Chris said, without looking at him, "Watch your back."

Vin nodded, a small smile playing on his lips. Then he turned, walked down the boardwalk, and out of sight.

***

From across the street, two pairs of eyes watched the quiet, quick conversation between the pair. When Vin walked off, it was not alone.

***

J.D. and ĎLynneí had spent pretty much all day together and she had to admit, although rather grudgingly, that she liked the kid. Now, they were at the coral, leaning against the fence and staring up at the stars.

After a while, J.D. said, "You know Lynne, youíre not like most of the girls Iíve met. In fact, youíre not like any of them."

"How do you mean?"

"Well for one thing, youíre a gunfighter. Not very many women are in that line of work. The way you act, dress and handle yourself, itís almost like youíre one of the guys."

Tessa was silent for a moment. Then she said softly, "I hope you donít consider me just one of the guys."

She didnít know why she said it, though later she convinced herself it was just part of her act, or why she chose that moment to turn and look up at him just as he looked down at her.

Their eyes met and this time, she let herself get drawn into their debts. He slowly leaned in toward her and she slowly tipped her head up. Her eyes closed with his and, seconds later, their lips met in a long, tender kiss.

PART 4

A couple of weeks had passed, and Tessaís plan was progressing beautifully. She was gaining more and more of Chrisís trust as the days went by. Most of the trust had developed on the occasions when she and her girls had helped Chris and his men in some particularly nasty situations. Vin was walking further and further into her trap and J.D. was falling further and further under her spell.

In Megís silent opinion, however, Tessa was falling under J.D.ís own spell. She had watched them when they were together and had seen things she had never seen in her friend before.

Meg sighed. ĎYou can hate men with a passion and kill them in cold blood by the hundreds, but it doesnít mean youíll never fall in love with one.í

She knocked softly on Tessaís door, waited for the word, and then entered.

"Hey Tess," she said as she closed the door, "We need to talk."

"Whatís up?"

"The girls are getting restless, as well as a little nervous. To tell you the truth, so am I. Somethingís gotta happen soon, or weíre all going to go nuts."

"You all want something to do? Go watch Tanner like a hawk. By my estimate, he should be getting the results of his little trip to the telegraph office any day now. And while youíre all doing that, Iíll be making the next move with our young sheriff. Trust me Meg, things will be heating up very shortly. Now go so I can prepare myself."

Meg nodded, knowing full well what her friend was up to and quietly left.

Once she was alone, she went over to the alter she had made just before Meg had dropped by and lit the half dozen candles. She then went over to her bed and took the vile filled with the dark blue liquid from the little box. Returning to the alter, she closed her eyes and raised the vial in both hands over her head. For nearly thirty minutes she chanted in an ancient, Latin tongue, occasionally switching to other ancient languages.

Finally, she opened her eyes and brought the vial down so she could look at it. She smiled as she felt the energy emanating from it. She blew the candles out and placed the vial in her pocket.

"Time to start the party," she whispered.

***

The saloon, as usual, was crowded when she entered, but she had no trouble finding J.D. and the table he had saved for them.

"Evening Lynne," he greeted, standing as she approached.

"Evening Sheriff," Tessa replied teasingly, "Ready to be drunk under the table?"

J.D. grinned as he sat back down. "Iím going to beat you this time."

Tessaís smile grew wider. "Weíll see junior, weíll see."

For the past week, the pair had engaged in a nightly contest to see who could out drink the other. So far, Tessa was one up on him, which J.D. didnít really mind since he was having so much fun. The serving girl, upon seeing Tessa, wandered over with a large bottle of whiskey and two glasses. She smiled at them in amusement, then drifted off to serve other patrons.

Tessa looked at her opponent and poured them each a shot.

"Ready Sheriff?"

J.D. nodded, grabbed his glass, and the game began. Throughout the evening, various members of the seven drifted over to say hi and watch the game in amusement. At one point, Buck joined them, but soon lost interest as one of the saloon girls decided she wanted his attention.

Tessa waited until an expected bar brawl began and everyoneís attention was focused on the fighters, to quickly take the vial out, and pour the contents into J.D.ís full glass.

Finally, the brawl was broken up and everyone went back to their drinks. J.D. turned back and grinned at her drunkenly.

"Who...whoís turn is it?"

"Yours I think."

She smiled as she watched him pick up the glass, stare at it with burry vision, then down it in two quick gulps.

ĎEnjoy yourself hon,í she thought as he grinned again, ĎYouíre in for one hell of a nasty ride.í

***

The next morning found Vin hurrying for the telegraph office after a message boy had told him his information he had wired for had arrived.

"Morning Bill," he greeted the clerk as he entered the little office.

Bill looked up and smiled.

"Morning Vin. See you didnít waste any time getting over here."

Vin just smiled in reply.

"Here ya go," Bill said after he dug around for a moment.

"Thanks Bill," Vin said, taking the envelope the older man gave him.

He drifted a few feet away, opened the envelop and removed two pieces of large paper.

ĎTessa Williams,í he read silently, A.K.A the Red Witch. Wanted for murder, robbery, arson, blackmail, kidnaping...lord, this list goes on and on.í

His eyes traveled down the list of places she and her gang were wanted in. ĎShe must be the most wanted woman in the world, and sheís only eighteen! Lord girl, what happened to turn you into this?í

He turned to the other page where the picture was located and his heart beat faster. Staring back at him was a sketch, along with a black and white photo, of Tessa Williams as she looked now.

ĎLynne.í "I knew it," he muttered out loud.

"Something wrong, Vin?"

Vin looked up, putting the posters back in the envelop and said, "Yeah Bill, somethingís very wrong."

He tipped his hat, then left the little office to find Chris, not noticing the eyes watching him.

Figuring the saloon would be his best bet, Vin turned and headed in that direction. As he was passing an alley, a low, pain filled moan drifted out and reached his ears. Stopping, he listened carefully, and when he heard it again, stepped cautiously toward the alley.

"Hello?" he called out, "You all right in here?"

"Please," a young girlís voice said from somewhere within, "Please...help me."

Drawing his gun, Vin slowly entered the alley, following the girlís moans till he was nearly in the back.

"Where are you?"

"Here...over here," came the weak reply.

Searching carefully among the boxes and crates, Vinís sharp eyes quickly picked out a body.

"Itís all right, just hold on a minute and Iíll get you out of there," Vin said, holstering his gun and moving the boxes aside so he could get to the girl.

He removed the last box and looked down to see who the victim was and his eyes widened in recognition and realization. He backed up, starting to draw his gun, but stopped as he felt something jab in his back and heard the loud, resounding click of a gun being cocked.

"Donít move," a cold, female voice whispered in his ear.

Selene got up from the ground and, smiling softly, took his gun and quickly searched him, removing his other weapons. She snatched the envelope from his hand and nodded to her partner. "Got yourself into a real jam this time didnít ya," the cold voice whispered, "Just wait, this is only the beginning of your problems."

Pain suddenly exploded in Vinís skull and stars filled his vision. He staggered a bit, suddenly unsure of what was happening, and fell to the ground. He turned over on his back and looked up just in time to see something flying swiftly at him, and then blackness claimed him.

***

"J.D. Hey kid wake up."

A familiar, annoyingly amused voice penetrated his fog filled senses, slowly bringing J.D. back to full consciousness. He opened his eyes and immediately regretted it, squeezing them shut and letting out a low moan.

He waited a moment, then opened them slowly. Buckís intensely amused face floated into view above him, which caused J.D. to instantly break into a glare.

"Whatís so funny?" he grumbled, "Ainít ya ever seen a man hung over before?"

"Yeah and I get a kick every time I see it."

"Youíll get a kick all right," he muttered in reply as he slowly sat up. "Hey, where am I?" he asked as he suddenly noticed his surroundings.

"Jail house. Guess you couldnít find your room last night."

J.D. put a hand on his head and groaned. "Oh man, what happened last night anyway?"

Buck grinned. "Same thing thatís happened every night this week. You and that little filly of yours got drunker Ďn skunks. Last night mustíve been a wild one if youíre this hung over. Though I canít for the life of me figure out why you ended up here instead of your own bed, or hers for that matter."

"Buck!" J.D. looked up and shot him a fierce glare.

Buck burst out laughing. "Just kidding kid. Come on, letís head on over to the saloon and get ya a pot of coffee. Maybe one of the boys can tell ya what happened."

"Donít you mean a cup?" J.D. asked as he got to his feet and finally found his balance.

Buck shook his head. "Nope, I mean a pot. Itís going to take a least that much to get ya fixed up again."

With Buckís help, the pair made their way down the street and into the nearly deserted saloon. The only inhabitants of the room at the moment were Chris, Ezra and Josiah.

"Look who I found boys," Buck said, a wide grin splitting his face as he sat down.

"Well, well Mr. Dunne. How are we feeling this fine morning?" Ezra asked, a slight smile of amusement on his lips.

"Like hell, only worse," J.D. replied, resting his head in his arms on the table.

"Kid canít remember what happened last night," Buck said with a chuckle, motioning to the bartender, "Figured one of you could fill him in since I was involved in my own festivities."

"Do you really want to know Mr. Dunne?" Ezra asked.

J.D. looked up, saw the look in Ezraís eyes and put his head back down. "Something tells me I donít think I do," came his muffled response.

Chuckles rose around the table as the bartender wandered over with two pots of coffee and some cups.

"Here kid, have some coffee. Itíll help," Chris said, pouring two cups.

As J.D. slowly sipped the hot liquid, Chris asked, "Anyone seen Vin yet?"

The other three shook their heads.

"Havenít seen Ďim since last night," Josiah said.

"Whatís with him lately anyway?" Buck asked, pouring himself a cup of coffee, "Heís been acting like a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs!"

"Manís restless," Josiah said, "He has a wandering spirit that doesnít like to stay in one place for long. Happens to me too once in a while."

Chrisís attention wandered over to J.D. and his eyes narrowed. His breathing was heavy and ragged and he looked a little confused.

"You all right, kid?"

He looked up, startled. "Wha-what?"

"You all right?" Chris repeated, "You donít look so good."

"Uh, yeah Iím fine. Itís just a little hard to breath in here."

He stood and added, "Iím going to go out and get some air."

"Iíll join ya," Buck said, standing and following his young friend.

Outside, J.D. leaned against the wall, eyes closed and breathing deeply.

"You all right?" Buck asked, concern replacing his amusement.

"Yeah, I just...feel a little strange is all."

"Boy, Iíve seen some heavy duty hangovers in my time, had a few of them myself, but I donít think Iíve ever seen one like this. Maybe you otta have Nathan check ya out, just to be safe."

"Iím fine Buck," J.D. insisted, "I just need to go back to my room and sleep it off for a few hours."

Buck nodded. "All right. You go look after yourself. The boys and I will handle anything that comes up."

J.D. slowly pushed himself away from the wall and started to walk.

Buck turned to go back into the saloon, but stopped when J.D. said, "B...Buck."

He turned just as J.D. clutched his stomach and pitched forward, falling down the three small steps to the street.

"J.D.!" Buck exclaimed and hurried to his friendís side.

He took one look at the young man, and ran back up to the saloon doors.

Pushing them open, he stuck his head inside and shouted, "Someone get Nathan fast!"

The others hurried out to find out what had Buck so upset.

"What happened?" Chris asked, kneeling next to Buck as Ezra hurried to find Nathan.

Buck shook his head. "Said he was going to go back to his room and sleep this off, and then he collapsed. Iím no doctor, Chris, but something tells me this ainít no hangover."

Five minutes later, Ezra returned with Nathan on his heels.

"Man oh man, this isnít good," Nathan muttered softly as he looked the young man over. "Josiah, get him to my rooms would ya?"

Josiah nodded and effortlessly picked his friend up. With Nathan and Buck following, he quickly headed for Nathanís rooms.

PART 5

Morgan Williams sighed in relief as she finished stabling her horse, grabbed her bag, and walked out into the bright, morning sun. For the past several weeks she had been away visiting relatives and it felt incredibly good to finally be back home. She stood outside the livery, debating on whether or not she should collapse in her bed or go to the saloon for a good, stiff drink.

She eventually opted for the saloon, thinking with a smile that sheíd find Buck there. He always did know how to make her unwind.

As she was walking down the street, however, a figure caught her eye that made her forget all about Buck and his magic touch. She stopped and stared, startled, at a girl across the street.

ĎMeg?í

"Meg!" she shouted, hurrying across the street and up to her old friend.

Meg stopped and looked at her, a smile crossing her features. "Morgan!"

"Itís good to see you," they said at once as they embraced.

Morgan laughed and asked, "What are you doing here?"

Her eyes turned serious and she looked around carefully before added quietly, "Are Tessa and the others here too?"

Meg nodded. "Sheís going by Lynne here. She and the others are in her room dealing with a little problem."

Morganís eyes narrowed. "I donít think I like the sound of that."

Meg shrugged. "Come on, Iíll take you to her."

***

Vinís awarement was slowly coming back to him. He knew something was wrong, but he couldnít quite figure out what. Everything was so foggy and his head was pounding. He tired to move, but found he couldnít, which worried him. Why couldnít he move? Was he paralyzed?

ĎDonít be stupid,í he chided himself, ĎYou werenít involved in anything that could do that to you.í

So why couldnít he move? He finally figured out that if he wanted to discover the answer to this mystery, he would have to open his eyes. It took some effort, but he finally managed to accomplish what was otherwise a simple task.

Carefully looking around, he discovered the reason for his immobility. He was tied, rather tightly he quickly discovered, to a chair in a room he was quite certain was a part of the hotel. Suddenly sensing he wasnít alone, he slowly turned his head to the right and met the cold eyes of the girl known as Crystal. Standing next to her, a threatening yet cautious look in her eyes, was the Indian known as Kayla. Still glaring at him, Crystal moved to the door, opened it and said something. She then moved away and Tessa and Selene entered the room.

"Well now, weíre finally awake are we?" Tessa said as she closed the door. "ĎBout time. I was beginning to wonder if youíd slipped into a comma. Crystal doesnít know her own strength some times."

Vin said nothing, watching her carefully as she pulled out a familiar looking envelope and removed the contents.

"Youíre too smart for your own good. You know that donít you?" she asked as she looked at the wanted poster.

"What are you doing here Tessa? Whatís your plan?"

Tessa laughed softly. "If I were a man, all over confident that I had you and you wouldnít be going anywhere to tell anyone of my plans, then Iíd most likely answer that question. But Iím a woman. Iím much smarter than that. All Iím going to tell you is that by the time this is over, youíll be on the other end of a rope in, what was that place called again? Oh yes, Tuscosa."

There was a knock at the door and Vin immediately felt a knife pressed to his throat in a silent warning.

"Who is it?"

"Meg," came the muffled response.

Tessa crossed the room and opened the door. Meg didnít come in, however. Vin heard the girl tell Tessa something and heard a surprised reply. She closed the door and turned to the other girls.

"Kayla, stay here and guard our guest, Iíll deal with him when I return. Crystal and Selene, come with me."

The girls nodded, and followed Tessa out the door.

Kayla removed the knife and went to stand by the door, staring at him in such a way it seemed she was staring right through him. This was the first time he had actually managed to get this good a look at her. She was so rarely seen in the streets and when she was, she tended to disappear very quickly.

She had hair down to her waist, typical of Indian women and black eyes. She was very beautiful, probably one of the most beautiful Native girls heíd ever seen and held herself with an air of defiance and regalness at the same time. She was a half breed, that much he was certain, although he was having trouble figuring out what her other half was. After a long, careful look, he decided Mexican, which explained her incredibly unique looks. Her native side was even harder to decipher. He stared hard at her, carefully picking out features and details and matching them with the tribes heíd been around. Finally, he had his answer. Apache.

ĎLord, why did she have to be Apache?í he thought.

The Apache tribes were well known for their viciousness and bloodlust in battle. Heíd had some first hand experience in that discovery. More than once, heíd fought against them alongside tribes heíd been staying with and counted himself as quite lucky to still be here. Heíd lost a number of good friends to Apaches and, though he didnít like them much, he still had a good deal of respect for them.

He sighed inwardly. ĎMight as well talk to her. See if I can find some way out of this mess.í

He lowered his eyes thinking hard as he tried to remember how the language went. It had been a long time, but he was pretty sure it would all come back once he started talking.

He looked back up at her and said quietly, <Whatís your name?>

Kayla started and looked at him in surprise.

<What...what did you say?>

<I asked what your name was...your true name.>

<How do you know my language?> Kayla replied slowly.

<Spent quite a bit of time among the natives. Encountered your people more than once.>

She just stared at him with an intense, cold distrust.

ĎI can only imagine what this girl has been through,í Vin thought, then repeated his earlier question, <Whatís your name?>

She glared at him and remained silent.

Vin sighed. <Look, I can well imagine what youíve been through, why you donít trust anyone but them girls and I understand that. But Iím all tied up here. I couldnít hurt you even if I wanted to. I just want to know your real name.>

She stared at him for a long moment, then said, <My mother called me Black Rose>

<Deadly beauty> Vin interpreted.

She nodded. <Very good. My mother knew what I would become and named me appropriately. Sheís dead now, thanks to your people.>

<Not all whites are bad you know. In fact, many of them respect your people, myself included. I have good deal of respect for the Dine.>

She shot him an odd look

<So, why do you go by Kayla? I would think youíd be more inclined to stay with Black Rose. It...suites you.>

<That is something I choose not to reveal, especially to a white man. I have only been with my new friends a short time and they do not even know the reason I call myself Kayla and they do not ask.>

<All right. Do you mind if I ask how you fell in with Tessa and the others then?>

That question quicky sealed her lips. Or maybe it was the mention of Tessaís name. Whatever the reason, she turned her gaze away from him, playing with the knife she had earlier.

ĎGuess thatís that.í Vin thought.

He sat in silence, his attention turned to trying to loosen his bonds. The rope was secure though.

ĎSomeoneís really good with rope,í he thought, annoyance creeping in.

A few moments after he had given up, the door opened and Tessa came back in, followed by Crystal, Meg, Selene, and a surprising new comer.

"Morgan?"

Morgan looked at him, an apologetic look in her blue eyes.

"Hi Vin," she said quietly.

"What are you doing here?"

From the way the other girls were acting, it was clear she was not here against her will.

"Doesnít matter," Tessa said, "Morgan here just wanted to make sure you were all right. Make sure I hadnít killed you yet." She turned to Morgan and said, "See? Heís alive and well, for the time being."

"What do you plan to do with him Tess?" Morgan asked, "The others are going to start to wonder and heís not an easy man to keep quiet." She paused, then added, "Or captive."

Tessa smiled. "Youíve done your homework. Donít worry about the others. Iíll take care of them. As for him," the look she shot him sent shivers down his spine, "Iíve got something to keep him nice, quiet and obedient. In fact, heís been awake long enough that I think its safe to give it to him. Donít want him dying on me. Dragging a dead body through the dessert is not a pleasant experience."

Morgan looked at Tessa and Vin saw understanding in her eyes. She knew exactly what Tessa was going to do. She looked at Vin, a deep sympathy in her eyes that made him nervous.

"Iíll see you in the Saloon later I guess."

Tessa nodded and placed a friendly hand on the other girlís shoulder. She squeezed reassuringly and silent communication seemed to pass between them. Finally, with one last glance at Vin, she turned and left.

Tessa looked at Vin and smiled coldly. "And now for you, my dear prize."

She went over to her bed and pulled out her saddle bags. From them, she pulled out two boxes, one black, the other red. She opened the black one and removed a tiny bottle full of yellowish liquid.

"Whatís that?" he asked warily.

"This is one of my special little potions. Iím sure, you being a former bounty hunter and all, that you know all about my fondness for them. Youíre lucky, this one isnít as nasty as the one I gave J.D."

Vinís blood ran cold at that comment. "What did you do to J.D.?"

Tessa looked at him for a moment. Then, realization flooded her eyes and she said, "Oh thats right, you donít know about J.D.ís little collapse this morning."

She laughed softly. "Well, letís just say, the others are going to be mighty busy with him for the next little while."

She had now opened the red box and had removed a long, very sharp looking needle. She removed the top off the bottle, stuck the needle inside and filled it.

She put it aside as she carefully put the top back on and put the bottle away. She then looked up at him, and he shivered involuntarily.

She picked the needle back up and approached him. "This is going to hurt a little," she said, "But itís nothing to what youíre going to be feeling when this stuff kicks in."

Vinís mind worked a mile a minute, trying to find some way out of this mess. He quickly determined that there was none.

ĎWell, he thought, ĎIím definitely not going to sit here quietly and let her do this.í

He waited until she was in the right position, then kick upward with all this strength. His boot hit her hand, causing her to cry out and drop the needle. It shattered as it hit the floor.

With a growl of rage, Tessa moved and, seconds later, pain exploded in his thigh. A hand was clamped over his mouth as he screamed and then Tessa was growling in his ear, "Do you know how expensive those needles are and how hard the ingredients for that stuff is to find? You, sir, have just bought yourself a whole world of extra pain."

She twisted the knife in his thigh to emphasized her point, then pulled it out and backhanded him sharply. Ten minutes later, his thigh wasnít the only thing bleeding badly. His head hung limply and he slumped against his bonds as Tessa finally called Crystal off. He raised his head slightly to see-or try to through his red vision-what was happening. Tessa had filled another needle and was now coming back to him. He winced as she jabbed it fiercely into his arm and emptied itís contents. He heard her say something to him, but couldnít make it out. After a few moments, darkness mercifully claimed him.

***

Buck looked up anxiously as Nathan finally emerged from his room. Chris, Josiah and Ezra also stood, concern in each of their eyes.

Nathan looked at them and shook his head. "Kidís got one hell of a nasty fever, but damned if I can figure out whatís causing it. The symptoms donít match up with any known illnesses."

"Can we see him?" Buck asked.

Nathan looked at him for a moment, then said, "Itís an enter at your own risk situation right now. I may end up putting him in quarantine."

Buck nodded, and Nathan stepped aside as the other man went inside. He closed the door silently behind him and slowly approached the bed the kid was in. He winced when he saw his young friend. J.D.ís face was a deathly white, and his breathing was coming in heavy and labored. His hair was sticking to him from the sweat that seemed to pour out of him. Buck thought strangely that you could fill a bucket just with what was there. He picked up the cloth that had fallen off the kidís forehead, re-soaked it in the basin and wiped his forehead.

"Hang in there Kid," he said softly, "Itís not your time yet."

He started as J.D.ís breathing suddenly turned ragged and gasping.

"Nathan!" he shouted as he tried to hold his now thrashing friend down.

Nathan burst through the door, the others behind him, and ran up to the bed.

"Not again," he muttered as he saw the situation.

"You been through this before?" Buck asked as Nathan hurried over to his dresser and grabbed a bottle and a needle.

"Yeah. ĎBout fifteen minutes ago. Gave him a shot of this and he quieted down. Guess whatever heís got is stronger than the dose I gave him."

He finished filling the needle with the bottleís contents and hurried back over.

"Keep Ďim still now," he said as he grabbed J.D.ís bare arm.

He quickly emptied the contents, then helped Buck hold him down until he finally quieted.

Nathan sighed and shook his head.

"Kidís gonna have to be watched constantly for the next little while Ďtill we figure out what heís got."

It was quickly decided that the six men would take turns watching their young friend and comrade and help him through this mysterious illness.

Chris then left the room, heading back to the saloon for a good, stiff drink. He had just filled his glass when a shadow fell over the table.

Without looking up, he said, "Afternoon Lynne."

ĎLynneí smiled and sat down, declining his offer for a drink.

"Got a message from Vin for ya. Said to tell you heís leaving town for a few days to do some thinking or something."

Chris looked at her in surprise.

"When did he leave?"

ĎLynneí shrugged. "ĎBout and hour or two ago. Said he couldnít find you so he asked me to tell you." She paused then asked with a small smile, "Have you seen J.D. yet? Poor guy probably has a major hangover today."

Chris looked at her again. "You havenít heard."

ĎLynneí looked at him in confusion. "Heard what?"

"J.D. collapsed a few hours ago. Heís got a bad fever and Nathan canít figure out whatís causing it."

ĎLynneí stared at him in shock.

"Is he still at Nathanís?" she asked, standing.

Chris nodded, and she took off. Chris watched the doors swinging shut behind her, then went back to his drink.

***

Tessa made a show of hurrying toward Nathanís, a concerned look on her pretty features. The little voice in her mind that sometimes spoke up told her that part of her concern was real, but she quickly silenced it.. She made it to Nathanís in just a few minutes and knocked softly on the door. It was opened by Josiah, who looked at her for a second, then let her in.

"I just heard about J.D.," she said softly as Nathan joined them, "I want to see him."

"I donít know if you really want to, Miss Lynne," Nathan replied, "Heís looks pretty bad."

"I want to see him," Tessa replied, letting stubbornness enter her voice.

Nathan exchanged glances with Josiah, then nodded and stepped aside. Tessa hurried over to J.D. and drew in her breath when she saw him.

ĎThis never fails to surprise me,í she thought, fascination filling her as she looked at him closely.

"Is he unconscious?" she asked.

"Yeah," Nathan replied, "Has been since he collapsed."

He paused then asked, "Miss Lynne, you were with him for most of yesterday, do you remember him doing or eating anything that would have caused this?"

Tessa pretended to think hard, then shook her head.

"No, most of what he did and ate, I did the same and I feel fine."

Nathan nodded, frustration creeping into his eyes.

Tessa looked at him, feeling slightly sympathetic and put a hand on his arm.

"Youíll figure it out, I know you will."

She turned back to J.D. and knelt next to him.

"You give Mr. Jackson here a break," she whispered, knowing full well the other two men could hear her, "and get better soon. We still have a tie to break, remember?"

She stood and turned back to them, making a show of trying to hide her emotions.

"Iíll come back later."

Then she left.

***

"You look extremely pleased with yourself," Morgan said as she appeared next to Tessa, seemingly out of nowhere.

Tessa smiled. "You may have heard of Sheriff Dunneís little collapse this morning."

Morgan nodded. "What did you do Tess?"

"Remember my Mammaís special, homemade poison?"

"Which one? There were so many of them."

"The one Mamma used on Papaís killer.

Morganís eyes widened.

"You didnít! Tess, do you know what that could do to him?"

"Of course. Thatís why I used it. Itíll keep the others occupied while the girls and I conduct our business."

"Youíre not going to let it kill him are you?"

Tessa shrugged. "I havenít decided yet." She shot her friend a sideways glance. "Even if I do, you and I both know you wonít let that happen. Iím pretty sure youíve still got most of the antidotes to all those little potions and poisons memorized. You always were good at that."

When Morgan didnít respond, she stopped and turned to face the older girl.

There was a hint of a threat in her eyes as she said quietly, "I love you very much, Morgan. We were very close as children and I like to think we still are. But if you do anything to ruin this, if you give J.D. the antidote or help Tanner or tell the others whatís going on before Iím long gone from here, Iíll forget our past and see you as the enemy. And you know what I do with the enemy."

She flashed her a smile that was cold and warm at the same time. "Something to think about."

Then, she turned and walked away, leaving Morgan to wonder just how much sanity was left in her childhood friend.

PART 6

Vin was slowly waking up and he didnít want to. The last few times he had it had been to sever pain and he didnít want to experience that anymore.

"Vin," a soft voice said, "Vin, can you hear me?"

He froze, panic starting to set in. He must have done something to tip his captives off that he was awakening.

He heard the door open and a voice he recognized as Megís said, "What are you doing here Morgan?"

"Trying to fix him up a bit. You all left him in rather rough shape," Morgan responded, a slight hint of anger in her voice.

"I donít think Tessa would like that very much. She told me about youíre earlier conversation."

"Oh please!" Morgan scoffed, "Iím assuming Tessa meant Iíd be in for it if I helped him escape. I donít intend to do that, but Iím not about to sit back and watch him suffer! Look at that knife wound! Itís been hours, why hasnít something more been done about it? Iím surprised infection hasnít set in or he hasnít bled to death! Stay and watch me like a hawk if you want, but Iím going to fix him up. Like Tess said, dragging a dead body around the dessert isnít pleasant and thatís just what youíre going to end up doing if something isnít done!"

There was a moment of silence and then Meg said, "All right. Iíll send Kayla in to help you. Sheís good and fixing people up."

Silence fell again, broken by the door opening and softly closing.

"Vin?" Morgan asked quietly, "Are you still awake? Open your eyes if you are. Iím not going to hurt you."

Vin hesitated, and then slowly managed to open his eyes. Morganís concerned face floated murkily into view.

"M...Morgan..."

"Shh, itís all right. Donít talk."

She disappeared from his line of vision for a moment, then returned with a dripping cloth. Vin drew in a sharp breath as she pressed it to his face and began to gently wipe at his wounds.

"You must have pissed her off good to get this. But Iíve seen worse."

"How...do you know...her?"

Morgan eyed him as she rinsed the cloth in the basin she had brought with her.

"Thatís something Iíd rather keep to myself."

Vin felt pain and intense weakness surge through his body and remembered the yellowish liquid Tessa had injected into him.

"What...did...Tessa do to me?"

"Well, from what Iíve been told, she gave you a potion to keep you under control. The weakness youíre probably feeling is to keep you from thinking of a good way to escape and the pain is to remind you not to try anything even if you could."

"J.D. What did she...do to him? Is he...all right?"

She shook her head.

"No, heís not all right. She gave him something ten times as vicious as what she gave you."

She fell silent and he was about to ask more when there was short knock on the door and Kayla entered. She nodded to Morgan, who nodded back and then turned her attention to the poorly wrapped knife wound in Vinís thigh.

Kayla came over and silently ripped his pants to expose the wound with her ever present knife. Silently, the girls began working on the wound and at some point along the line, Vin passed out. When they finished, Morgan looked at their work and nodded, satisfied that the wound would not become infected.

She gently touched Vinís cheek, then stood, nodded her thanks to Kayla and silently left. Alone, Kayla turned and looked at Vin. She couldnít help but feel a little curious toward this man who seemed to know so much about her people and seemed to respect them.

ĎWhy are the spirits drawing me to you, Hunter? Why do they seem to have an interest in you?í

She shook her head, then went and sat down to wait for Meg to bring up dinner.

***

J.D. was confused. He wasnít in any pain like he had been outside the saloon, but he couldnít figure out why it was so dark and how he had got there. Or why it was so hot.

"Why is it so damned hot?" he muttered, surprised at the thickness of his voice.

"J.D.?"

He froze, surprised at the other voice. He listened carefully and heard movement, and then something cold was being pressed to his forehead.

"J.D., can you hear me? Open your eyes son."

Curious as to who was speaking to him and where he was, J.D. forced his heavy eyes open and a black man floated into his vision. He blinked. The man looked familiar, but he couldnít place him.

"W...who are...y-you?" he stuttered.

"Itís Nathan, J.D. Remember?"

"N...Nathan? Whatís going on?"

"Youíve got some kind of fever. Youíre at my place."

"How did...I get here?"

"You collapsed outside the saloon. Ezra came and got me and then Josiah brought you here. The guys and I have been watching you ever since."

Nathan must have seen the next question in J.D.ís eyes for he said, "Youíve been unconscious for two days."

His attention was drawn to the door as a soft knock announced the arrival of Buck, who was due to relieve Nathan for dinner. Buckís eyes lit up when he saw his young friend.

"Youíre awake! Youíve had us mighty worried son!"

Nathan, knowing exactly what J.D. was going to ask from the look in his eyes, said, "Itís Buck, J.D. You remember Buck donít you?"

Recognition flooded J.D.ís eyes and he nodded as Nathan added, "Are you hungry?"

"N-no. Thir...thirsty."

"Iíll take care of it," Buck said, "You go get something to eat yourself."

Nathan nodded his thanks. He glanced at J.D., then said, "I like the way heís talking or the way he looks right now. Try and keep him quiet and see if you can get him to go to sleep."

Buck nodded and Nathan left.

Buck got some water and helped J.D. up so he could take a sip.

"There ya are. Sure ya ainít hungry?"

J.D. shook his head and Buck settled himself in the chair next to the bed.

"Try and get some real sleep kid. Iíll be right here if ya need me."

J.D. nodded and closed his eyes, drifting off just seconds later into a deep, dreamless sleep.

***

It wasnít long before the dreamless sleep turned dream filled. He was riding in the desert, on his way to the next town to pick something up. What it was kept slipping his mind thanks to the heat, but heíd remember when he got there. He had just come over a rise when he spotted three horsemen coming toward him. He reined in and watched them for a minute and when they showed signs of slowing down, moved to meet them.

"Howdy," he greeted, tipping his hat, "Hot day ainít it?"

"Seen worse," one of the men responded, tipping his hat in return. "Weíre looking for someone, maybe youíve seen Ďim."

J.D. shook his head. "Youíre the first people Iíve seen so far, and Iíve been out for hours."

"Wait a minute," one of the men said, looking at him closely, "You ainít the sheriff of Four Corners are ya?"

J.D. nodded, a small smile on his lips. "Sure am."

"Well now, youíre exactly who weíve been looking for."

An alarm began ringing in J.D.ís head and his hand casually slipped closer to his gun as he said, "Well, you found me. What can I do for you?"

"You can come along with us nice and quiet like," the first man replied.

"Why?" J.D. asked, "Where we going?"

"Thatís for us to know and you to find out."

"Okay, just tell me one thing. You gonna shoot me if I donít go with you?"

"Boss said to bring him in basically unharmed," a man in the back spoke up, "Well be in for it if we bring him in all shot up."

J.D. was astonished at how stupid these men were.

He flashed them a smile and said, "Thanks," then spurred his horse and took off.

He heard someone curse and then the sounds of pursuit behind him. His horse was fast and he figured, since they werenít about to shoot him, heíd be able to outrun them or get to a spot where he could hide and take them out. So he was surprised when something smashed into him and knocked him from his horse. He hit the ground hard and gasped in pain, the wind knocked out of him. He groaned and rolled over onto his back. His eyes widened when he saw something speeding toward him, and then nothing.

***

He awoke with a start to find himself laying in a bed in a dimly lit room.

ĎWhat a weird dream, he thought.

He turned his head slightly and noticed a man standing by the window, looking out at something. He stopped himself from making any sound when he discovered it was one of the men from his dream.

ĎIt wasnít a dream,í he thought frantically. ĎIíve got to get out of here. But how?í

The door to the room opened just then and a black man entered, supporting another man who was obviously injured.

The man turned from the window and asked, "What happened?"

"Brawl in the saloon. Give me hand would ya?"

J.D. quickly closed his eyes, listening to the movement of the men. He waited a moment, then opened his eyes and took a quick look. Their backs were to him and they were busy working on the other man. He waited until he was sure the man had their full attention, then quietly struggled to his feet, got his balance and sipped out the door.

He got down to the street and looked around. He didnít recognize anything or anyone, which added to his worries.

ĎOkay, Iíve got to find the stables, get my horse and get out of here. If I can find the next town, I can send a wire to the guys and get some help.í

That decided he hurried down the street, avoiding eye contact with the populace, who kept shooting him strange looks. Finally, he found the livery and slipped inside. Just as heíd hoped he would, he found his horse, unharmed and looking for all the world completely content.

"Sorry girl," he whispered, "But weíve got to get out of here."

He quickly located his saddle and had just put it on her back when a heavy hand fell on his shoulder. He gasped and spun around to find a giant of a man standing before him, who he recognized from the dessert

"Now where do you think youíre going my young friend?"

***

Buck watched Nathan finish sewing up the manís wound, then glanced over at J.D. to make sure he was okay. He drew in his breath when he saw the bed was empty.

"What the...where the hellís J.D.?" he exclaimed.

Nathan looked up, startled as the man thanked him and left.

"He must have slipped out when we were busy with Jay. Weíve gotta find him fast, heís in no condition to be out wandering around!"

Buck hurried to the door and threw it open, only to find Josiah standing there, a fiercely struggling J.D. thrown over his shoulder.

Nathan and Buck looked at him in surprise as the big man entered.

"Found him in the livery saddling his horse. Guess he wanted to go for a ride."

"Let me go you big ox!" J.D. shouted.

Josiah did so, but quickly grabbed him as J.D. made a break for the door.

"J.D. are you nuts?" Buck exclaimed as Josiah held him firmly.

J.D. glared at him as Josiah said, "I donít think the boy is in his right frame of mind right now."

"I donít think youíre in your right frame of mind!" J.D. snapped, "Let me go!"

He managed to wiggle of Josiahís grip and stumbled to the other side of the room.

"Who are you?" he demanded, "Why have you brought me here?"

The trio exchanged glances then Nathan said, "J.D. donít you recognize us? Weíre your friends."

J.D. snorted. "I may be young, but Iím not stupid! I know what my friends look like and you ainít them. You two," he gestured to Josiah and Buck, "Attacked me in the dessert, or have you forgotten?"

"We never attacked you son," Josiah said, "We havenít been out of town in the last little while and neither have you. Youíve been unconscious for the last two days with some kind of fever."

He took a step forward and J.D. took a step back. "Stay right where you are mister!" he ordered, watching as the man who had been by the window slipped out the door.

He took another step back and bumped into a table. He felt around and grabbed hold of a knife. He kept it hidden, and started making his way around the room, hoping to reach the door.

"J.D. listen to me," Nathan said, "Youíre not well. Youíve got to lay down and rest before something happens. I can see that feverís starting to kick into high gear again."

Now that he mentioned it, J.D. was feeling a little strange, but he ignored it and said, "The only thing Iím going to do is get the hell out of here! And if you were smart, youíd let me leave. Iíve got friends who are going to start looking for me when I donít come back and theyíre not going to be too happy with you all when they find me!"

Just then, the door opened and Buck entered with Chris and Ezra.

"Kid doesnít know who we are," Nathan said, "I think itís the fever. Heís seeing us all as other people."

"You must be the leader," J.D. said, glaring at Chris. "All right, so you now you have me, what do you want? Are you another enemy of Chris Larabeeís?"

"I am Chris, son. Youíre not well. Why donít you calm down and let Nathan look after you."

"I would if he were here ĎChris,í J.D. replied sarcastically, moving toward the door again.

"Donít make us do this the hard way J.D.," Chris said, moving his Pancho just enough so that his guns showed.

J.D. made a sudden move, startling them all. Moving faster than any of them had ever seen, he closed the distance between himself and Ezra, wrapped an arm around the other manís throat and held the knife against him.

"Nobody move or itís his throat!"

"Now son, donít do anything stupid now," Nathan began, but J.D., the fever claiming his mind and patients, shouted, "Shut up! Iím leaving and if anyone tries to stop me, itís his blood that will flow!"

Chris made a motion for everyone to move away from the door and J.D. forced Ezra toward it. They made it downstairs and back into the streets, the others following at a distance. Ezra remained silent, quite certain from the way the boy was breathing and shaking, that he probably wouldnít get very much further.

They made it to the livery and J.D. took his gun, then made him get his saddle to saddle his horse.

"You are not looking at all well Mr. Dunne," he observed as he did what the younger man ordered, "Are you sure riding around in the dessert is wise?"

"Iíll take my chances," J.D. replied, wiping his brow with his sleeve.

Ezra, seeing what was about to happen, stopped saddling the horse and watched him. The kid seemed to have forgotten he was even there as he looked around in dazed confusion. He was muttering but Ezra couldnít understand what he was saying. He had dropped the gun though and Ezra quietly went over and retrieved it. A groan and a dull thud announced that his young friend was no longer up and around. He went over and knelt next to him, feeling his pulse to make sure he was still alive. He was hot to the touch and Ezra winced in sympathy.

"May God be with you in this ordeal son," he whispered.

He looked up and Nathanís voice called from outside, "Ezra! You all right in there?"

"Iím fine Mr. Jackson. However, our sheriff could use your assistance immediately."

Seconds later, Nathan hurried in, followed by Buck.

"Lord, heís worse than before," Nathan said softly as he looked him over. "Letís get him back upstairs and try to cool him off."

Buck picked the young man up and carried him outside, Nathan and Ezra following. Nathan stopped and looked at Chris with a serious, troubled look.

"Itís worse, I can already tell. Weíd better prepare ourselves Chris. He may not make it out of this alive."

PART 7

"Dammit! Buck, hold him still!" Nathan said as J.D. knocked the needle from the healerís grasp.

Buck grunted. "Iím trying to, but the kidís stronger than he looks!"

It was few hours later and J.D. had awakened quite suddenly and had gone into a violent fit of panic. Nathan was trying to sedate him while Buck held him down, and neither one was having any luck. Finally, Buck resorted to laying across his friend, effectively pinning him down long enough for Nathan to inject him with the fluid. Slowly, J.D.ís struggles slowed and then stopped as he slipped into a deep sleep.

Buck let his breath out as he got to his feet, muttering, "Damn kidís more trouble than heís worth."

He watched as Nathan checked his young patientís pulse and then wiped his brow down to keep him cool.

"I need a drink. Iíll check back later."

He glanced at J.D. then quietly left.

At the saloon, he got himself a bottle of whiskey and sat down at a secluded table to wallow in misery. It wasnít long before someone sat down across from him.

"Time to drown your sorrows in a bottle huh?"

He looked up to find ĎLynne,í a bottle of her own in hand.

"Howís J.D. doing?"

Buck shook his head. "Heís worse. He woke up a few hours ago and looked like he was getting better, but then he just sort of...lost it."

"You care for him donít you?"

Buck shot her a long look before replying, "Yeah. Canít help it either. Kidís like a little brother. Damned pain in the ass but..."

He trailed off and ĎLynneí nodded in understanding. "Think Nathan will let me see him?"

Buck shrugged. "Depends."

She nodded and stood. "Iíll see if I can convince him."

***

Nathan looked up at the soft knock on the door and got up to answer it.

"Miss Lynne," he greeted when he saw the visitor.

ĎLynneí nodded to him. "May I see him?"

"Heís in pretty bad shape. Iím not sure you really want to see him."

ĎLynneí gave him a defiant look. "I want to see him," she insisted.

Nathan regarded her for a moment, then nodded and stepped aside to allow her to enter. Buck was right, he was worse. She didnít think it would be possible for a man to get any whiter than J.D. was now, but she was quickly proved wrong.

ĎI wonder if heís coughed up any blood yet,í she thought as she sat in the chair next to him and took his cold, limp hand in hers.

"Whatís been happening?" she asked.

Nathan gave her a quick rundown of everything that had happened since she had last seen J.D.

ĎNo paranoia yet huh?í she thought with a twinge of disappointment. She smiled to herself. ĎWell, weíre just going to have to fix that.í

She looked at Nathan and asked, "Have you eaten yet?"

"No Miss. Iím just waitiní for Josiah to come take over watching him."

"Why donít you go on? Iíll sit with him till Josiah gets here."

"Thatís real kind of you Miss. Are you sure?"

Tessa nodded, her gaze returning to J.D. as she said softly, "I havenít had a proper chance to visit with him yet. Even if he is unconscious, Iím sure he can still hear me."

Nathan nodded and went to the door. He opened it, then turned back and said, "J.D.ís real lucky to have a woman like you Miss Lynne. Youíve been real good for him and I hope he makes it out of this so he can realize that too."

He nodded to her again, then left.

Tessa stared at the door, unsure why that remark was stirring something within her. She shook herself and turned back to J.D., regarding him thoughtfully.

"You know," she said softly, as she pulled out a small vial and a needle from a hidden pouch in the dress she wore, "I almost hate to do this to you. Youíre such a great drinking partner and one of the few men Iíve ever met and actually liked." She laughed softly as she filled the needle. "Yeah, I admit it, I like you and I sort of hope this stuff doesnít kill you before Morgan can give you the antidote. This is going to make you feel better for a while, just to keep things interesting. But when the other part of this takes over...well, youíll find out I guess."

She stared at the needle in her hand then looked at J.D.ís pure white face and once again, something stirred deep within her. She almost put the needle down, but then shook herself and allowed the coldness to take over. But, as she took J.D.ís arm and injected the liquid, her heart whispered "Iím sorry."

***

<Hunter, are you awake?>

Vinís eyes slowly opened and, although he was severely doped up, he immediately noticed something different. He was no longer tied to the chair and he found his new position strangely odd.

<Where am I?>

<Same place as before. Someone convinced Tessa to bring in a cot for you. Weíre gonna need you to be able to ride a horse and being tied to a chair for endless hours or days isnít going to be much help.> Kayla replied as she appeared over him, holding a bowl of something. <And neither will starving to death. Sit up.>

Vin tried to get control of his body, but the only thing he could get to move was his head.

<Donít think I can>

Kayla regarded him for a moment, then put the bowl aside and reached down for him. A moment later, he was sitting up against the wall, quick forcing down nausea, and then noticed his hands were tied tightly to a hidden source.

<Here,> Kayla said, handing him the bowl, <I believe itís been a few days since you last ate. Better fix that.>

He looked at the contents of the bowl and nearly lost the carefully checked nausea. It wasnít the food itself that made him feel sick, it was just plain white rice. He was pretty sure the sight of food in general would have had the same effect.

He looked up to see Kayla watching him closely.

<Why arenít you eating?>

<I think that whateverís in me has taken control of my appetite.>

She regarded him for another moment, then dug around in the little sack that hung on her hip. She pulled out what looked like a leaf and handed it to him.

<Eat this. It will calm your stomach.>

Vin took it and cautiously put it in his mouth. Ten minutes later, the bowl was empty and Vin was laying back down, riding out the waves of nausea his stomach was producing. When he was able, he turned his head and started when he saw Kayla, filling a needle with a familiar yellow liquid.

<What are you doing?> he asked, fear in the pit of his stomach.

She looked at him then replied, <I was told to feed you and then give you a little bit of this. I am sorry, but I must follow orders.>

The voice in his mind was screaming at him to do something, to think of a way out of this, but apparently the voice was the only thing that hadnít been turned to mush, although not by much.

<Can I...ask you something?> he finally asked, trying to stall.

She looked at him and nodded as she finished filling the needle.

<I asked before, you didnít want to tell me, but I figured Iíd give it another shot...how did you fall in with Tessa and the others?>

<To tell you that, I would have to tell you much about my life,> she replied as she put the bottle back in the case.

<Iím not going anywhere.>

The look she gave him as she came over clearly stated she knew what he was doing. So it surprised him when she sat down and began talking.

<My mother was...different from the other women of our tribe. Aside from being the daughter of the chief, my Grandfather, my mother was very... in touch with the spirits. More so than even the wisest village elder. The spirits were quite fond of her and often showed her visions of future events. I myself am in tune with them, though not as intently as she was. She knew what I would become before I was even conceived and, acting on what the spirits showed and told her, trained me in the ways of the warrior herself, starting when I was no older than four. She was one of the few women warriors of our tribe, which was another thing that set her apart from the others.

What my mother taught me was a form of fighting my people did not know. The name your people have for it is martial arts. How my mother learned it, I do not know. It was something she chose to keep secret and I never tried to get it out of her. She continued to teach me everything she knew under the guise of traditional warrior training until I was eight years old.>

Her eyes hardened as she remembered events of the past.

<It was not long after I had turned eight that my mother was killed. She and I had been out riding when we were intercepted by a group of white men.....

Black Rose loved these rides her mother took her on. It meant she had successfully completed the level of training she was being taught, and that meant she was about to be shown a new, special place. A place filled with magic, where the spirits were strongest. Very few people knew of the places her mother took her. In fact, out of the people in their village, only her grandfather knew of these spots. Excitement built within her as she wondered what her eyes were about to see that possibly no one else, outside of her mother and grandfather, had seen in perhaps hundreds of years.

She stiffened suddenly as her trained senses picked up another presence on the road ahead of them. She looked over at her mother and saw that she had straightened and was staring ahead searchingly.

<Mother?>

The held up her hand to silence Black Rose, her features turning cold as she spotted who was ahead of them. Black Rose looked and spotted a single white man on a horse. He looked as though he was waiting for them and, from the look on her motherís face, it seemed that they knew each other.

Her suspicions that the man and her mother knew each other were confirmed a moment later when they reined in and the man said-in their language surprisingly- <So Grey Wolf, we finally meet again. Took me a long time to track you down>

<Donít you mean us?> her mother replied, her cold gaze never leaving his.

The man laughed, then called out in his own language. From the woods, five men emerged, each on horseback. Black Rose tensed. She didnít like this at all.

<What do you want?> her mother asked.

<Making conversation Grey Wolf?> the man responded in amusement. <You know perfectly well what we want. You of course. The bounty on you has grown quite nicely since you escaped me last time and disappeared. Seems some folks really want you brought in despite the fact you havenít been around in, what, eight years now?>

Black Rose suddenly understood who these men were just from what the man had said. Bounty Hunters.

His gaze traveled to her and he added, <I see now why you disappeared so well. Sheís going to grow into a stunning woman. If she survives childhood."

Black Rose growled softly in her throat at the implied threat.

Grey Wolf sent her a warning glance, then said, <She will survive. The spirits have shown me her future.>

The man grinned. <And have they shown you *your* future, Grey Wolf?>

She nodded. <They have. And it is not working with you or with those who wish me for slavery. Donít look so surprised Cole. Did you really think I did not know that, once you caught me, you would set something up along the trail that would give me the opportunity to join you?> She smirked. <That part of me is no longer available to the general public. In fact, that part of me died with my husband.>

Cole looked at her for a moment, then said, <Well, Iím sorry to hear that. We could have made a great team>

<And perhaps we will, in another life. Just not this one.>

Cole nodded. <All right then. Itís your choice. Dead or alive?>

Her eyes still not leaving his, Grey Wolf said, <Black Rose, go back to the village.>

Black Rose looked at her. <But Mother...> she began, but Grey Wolf interrupted her sharply. <Go! This fight is not yours. Go back to the village and do not return!>

Black Rose looked at her, but her motherís gaze refused to leave Coleís. She glanced at the men, then spurred her horse and started back the way they came. However, as soon as she was out of sight, she reined in, got off and hurried into the woods to a spot where she could see and hear everything that happened and not be seen herself.

<Hmm, dead or alive,> her mother was saying, <now thatís something I need to think about. Letís see, you take me alive, I end up being sold to slavery by the people youíre taking me to. Dead, on the other hand, keeps me free for eternity and makes youíre journey back a bit longer and quite unpleasant.>

She smiled. <Itís actually your decision Cole. Iím quite certain the bounty will be higher if Iím brought in alive and Iím even more certain you donít want to drag a body around the dessert. My choice is dead, but I know youíre going to try to take me alive. The question is, if you succeed, can you keep me alive? You know how close the spirits and I are. If I ask to die, they will take me.>

"Sheís just trying to save her hide," one of the men said. "All this spirit talk is nothiní but a bunch of bull!"

Grey Wolf ignored him, her attention still on Cole, who had a sour look on his face.

<Youíve seen the spirits at work before, Cole. You know very well they will take me if I ask. Is this all worth it to you Cole?>

Cole smiled nastily. <Actually darliní, thereís someone not far from here who will pay just as much for your dead body as them other folks in Dodge.>

Black Roseís breath caught in her throat as Cole pulled out his gun.

<Oh please,> she heard her mother scoff, <That is so typical. If I am to die, it will be the warriorís way, not the cowardís way.>

<You wanna fight huh?> An amused smile spread across Coleís face. <All right. Boys, time for some exercise.>

Grey Wolf raised her brows, then got down off her horse. Black Rose had never seen a fight start so quickly and suddenly. It fascinate and frightened her a the same time. She watched as her mother fought all five men at the same time and seemed to be wining. Barely five minutes into the fight, two of the five were on the ground, out of commission while the other three were trying to fight her despite ugly injuries. A very short time later, all five men were on the ground, groaning or unconscious.

Cole laughed softly. <All right. Exercise for you then.>

Grey Wolf looked at him. <How Ďbout it Cole? Want to give me more exercise?>

Cole laughed again, louder this time. <I ainít that stupid darling. I can see that if five strong men canít take you down, Iím gonna have to use the faster way.>

Black Roseís heart jumped to her throat as he pulled out his gun and aimed it at her.

A strange smile crossed Grey Wolfís lips. <Enjoy whatís left of your life, Cole. Iíll be seeing you in hell very, very shortly. Beware of the Black Rose.>

It was then that Black Rose realized her mother knew she was there. It was then Black Rose knew her mother was going to die and that she was to avenge her when the time was right. As Cole pulled the trigger and as her Mother fell to the ground and remained still, Black Rose felt something enter her soul and harden her heart. She looked at the man named Cole and burned his face into her mind. She said a silent prayer to the spirits for the safety of her motherís soul and then left her hiding place, heading quickly back to her horse. She rode as fast as she could back toward camp. Halfway there, however, a figure in the road stopped her. It was a woman. Her skin was a golden brown and her hair was shoulder length with the same color. Her eyes were almond shaped and possessed a great wisdom. She was dressed in strange, light robes and he whole body seemed to glow with a mystical light.

<Do not be afraid,> the womanís voice echoed through her mind, startling Black Rose.

<Who are you?> she demanded.

<I am a friend. I am here to tell you about your motherís past and what is to happen now. I donít have much time, so listen carefully.>

She looked at Black Rose to make sure the child wasnít going to bolt or anything and when she was certain the girl wasnít, began talking.

<You mother was a very troubled child due to her ability to communicate so well with the spirits. Her own spirit was very restless and she often got herself into trouble. When she was fifteen, she to your grandfather and grandmother and told them she was leaving to find peace with her soul. She was gone for ten years, returning only once before returning for good. Much happened in those long years. She took her warrior training further when she met a man trained in what is called martial arts.

She became an outlaw, but kept her people and family protected by never revealing what tribe she belonged to. Four years before you were born, she returned to her tribe, brining with her a husband. He was a Mexican, a genuine surprise to her people. But she loved him and he loved her with all his heart and so they welcomed him. They didnít stay long because they were being hunted and didnít want to lead them to them.

Four years later, she returned for good, her husband dead and you in her arms. She would not say how he died, but was comforted by the fact that he had gotten to see you before he did. In those ten years your mother was gone, the peace she had to make with her soul had only been completed halfway. The spirits told her why this was and when you were old enough, she began teaching you all that she knew, preparing for the day when she finally would make that peace. Today was that day.

Know this, young one, your mother has finally made her peace, but how she achieved it will set into motion the spiritsí plans for you. Know that in the near future, you too will set out to achieve peace. It will not be easy, for you will have to find the path to that goal on you own. But know that when you do find it, you will not only have peace with your soul, but you will have achieved happiness that your mother never truly had.>

The womanís eyes went out of focus for a moment. When they re-focused she said, <My time is up. Remember what I have told you, child. Choose your path carefully. Farewell.>

With that, the woman walked off the path and disappeared into the woods. Black Rose stared after her, startled and puzzled by what they mysterious woman had said. Finally, she spurred her horse and ran the rest of the way back to the village.

***

Black Rose looked at Vin as she finished the story of her motherís death. Vin saw deep pain in her black eyes as she remembered her mother and that day so long ago.

Vin was about to say something when she began speaking again.

<The years passed. I practiced everyday what my mother taught me. Always in one of the spots she had taken me. Each day that passed, my desire to avenge my mother grew. The man called Coleís face haunted. Finally, when I was twelve years old, I couldnít take it any longer, and left my people to avenge my mother and begin my quest for peace.

I traveled for a few years, meeting people who became good friends, but also dangerous enemies. I was getting closer to my motherís killer, I could feel it. One day, when I was about thirteen, I arrived at the town he was in at the time, but before I could find him, I encountered a strange woman....>

Black Rose rode into the little town around mid afternoon. Her heart raced with anticipation for this was the town her motherís murderer was currently staying in and today would be the day that he payed. She left her horse at the livery and then started for the place she knew he would be. The saloon. She was passing an alley when a soft voice said, <You think this is the day, donít you Black Rose?>

Black Rose stopped and turned, her hand on the knife that hung on her side.

<Whoís there?> she demanded sharply.

A Mexican woman dressed in tanned riding clothes stepped out of the alley, a small smile on her lips.

<I am a friend, Black Rose,> she said in the same, soft voice.

<How do you know my name?> Black Rose asked, her eyes full of suspicion.

<I know many things. Your name is one of them. The reason you are here is another. You think you are ready to avenge your mother. You are not. Cole didnít fight your mother because he knew he couldnít win. However, he is a very good fighter and you are not ready. I am here to take up where your mother left off and finish your training.>

Black Rose studied the woman uncertainly. As much as she wanted to ignore her and put to rest that which haunted her, something told her to go with this woman and listen to her.

Finally, after struggling with her emotions for a bit, she nodded and said, <All right.>

The woman nodded and began walking back toward the livery, Black Rose following. They got their horses and the woman led them out of town. They rode for about an hour before arriving on a small ranch with a small house. The woman took Black Rose inside and down a hall to a small room.

<This is where you will sleep. I suggest you rest now. Dinner will be in an hour. Tomorrow, we will begin your training.>

<Wait,> Black Rose said as the woman started back down the hall, <You know my name. But I donít know yours.>

The woman smiled. <I am called Kayla.>

***

For the next few months, Kayla trained Black Rose much like her mother had. Black Rose studied hard and practiced everyday, her determination fueled by the anticipation of the coming day her mother would be avenged. It was over a year later when Kayla pronounced Black Rose ready to carry out her revenge.

<You have done well, child. Iím very proud of you and I know your mother is as well. Go now, avenge her.>

She smiled as she pulled out a black rose and gave it to the younger girl.

<Give yourself an entrance.>

For the past two weeks, the pair had been sending Cole black roses, giving him a good scare as they brought the past back to haunt him.

Black Rose stepped forward and enveloped the older woman in a warm hug.

<Thank you, Kayla. For everything.>

Then she turned and got on her horse. There was a sadness in the other womanís eyes as she watched her pupil ride away, knowing that when she next saw her, it would be for only a few moments if at all.

"You shouldnít have gotten so attached," a voice floated through her mind.

Kayla turned and looked at the woman who had met Black Rose on the path the day her mother was killed.

"I know," she replied. "But it was so hard not to. She should not have had to go through all this and what she will go through in the future."

She laughed shortly. "She was so innocent once, you can see it. But that innocence was taken from her the day my sister died. I hope one day, some of that innocence will be given back."

Her companion nodded. "If she ever finds the right path, then she will."

Kayla looked to her right and saw approaching horsemen. She looked back at her companion, but, not surprisingly, she was gone. Kayla sighed, then looked back at the approaching men. She stood, watching them and praying for Black Rose to find the right path and make peace with her troubled soul.

***

It was after nightfall when Black Rose returned. Kayla had been right. Cole had been a very good fighter. He had been knocked off balance just a bit thanks to the black roses that had been sent to him. It had given him a good case of paranoia, much to her amusement.

The fight had been long, but she had enjoyed it nonetheless. She had a few injuries, but nothing serious and was looking forward to tell Kayla all about the fight.

But as she got closer to the little house, a bad feeling overcame her. Something wasnít right. She spurred her horse into a run, fear entering her heart.

<Kayla? Kayla! Where are you?> she shouted as she reined in and dismounted.

She started for the door, but stopped when she heard a soft moan around the corner.

<Kayla?>

She pulled out her knife and cautiously made her way to where the moan had come from. Her eyes widened and she cried out when she turned the corner. Laying a few feet away was the motionless body of Kayla.

<Kayla!>

She feel to her knees next to Kaylaís bloody body, desperately searching for signs of life. Kayla moaned softly and her eyes slowly fluttered open as Black Roseís calls.

<Kayla! Hang on, all right? Iím going to get you inside, then go for help.>

Kayla shook her head weakly.

<No, child. My... time has come as I knew... it would. You have...avenged your mother, my sister. It is time...for you to find your peace.>

<What do you mean your sister?> Black Rose asked, tears spilling down her cheeks.

<I...am your aunt. Your...father was my brother and so...your mother was my sister. I did not tell you earlier...for reasons I cannot say. Promise me...you will find the...right path and make the peace...your mother did not make until...she died.>

Black Rose nodded, barely able to see through her tears.

Kayla smiled softly. <Donít cry child...this is how things...were meant to be. I...want you to know that...I love you very much...and so does your mother and your...father.>

Kaylaís eyes closed and her last breath escaped her lips. Black Rose stayed by the bodyís side for most of the night, sobbing quietly. When dawn came, she had made a burial mound and had buried her auntís body. She said goodbye, mounted her horse, and rode away from the little Ranch, not once looking back.

***

<I took my auntís name as a way to keep her alive inside me and keep her memory strong in my heart,> Black Rose said softly.

She started a bit and looked at him.

<It seems Iíve just answered one of your other questions.>

<Iím not complaining,> Vin replied. <Iím...real sorry about your mamma and your aunt.>

Black Rose looked at him for a long moment. She then nodded and continued.

<It was two years later when I met Tessa and the others. In fact, they saved my life. I had gotten myself into some trouble a year before and now had a price on my head. I was being chased by three bounty hunters and was rather badly hurt...

Black Rose urged her horse faster, glancing back at the three bounty hunters behind her. She had been shot twice so far but was determined not to let herself be caught, especially by three white men. Shots rang out, missing her as she rounded a bend and she took her own gun out and fired back. She turned back, looking for a place to hide or loose her hunters. Another shot rang out and she pitched forward, pain shooting through her. This time, she lost her grip and fell from the saddle, hitting the ground hard and rolling.

She rolled onto her back, shaking her head and trying to clear her clouded, pain filled vision. A shadow fell over her and she focused up on one of the three men who stood over her, a gun pointed at her.

"Itís all over darliní," he said, "Give it up and weíll get you fixed up."

"So you can hand me over to those who wish me harm?" she snarled in reply, "Why donít you just do what they are going to do now and then kill me?"

"We donít violate women," one of the others said, "No matter what theyíve done."

"But you stand back and let others? Typical."

"Yes," a new voice said, "Thatís very typical."

They all looked to the right where four girls on sat on horseback, watching them.

"Move along girls," the first man said, "Weíre just apprehending a wanted woman."

The girl who had spoken smiled at him. "Iíll bet sheís really dangerous huh?"

The man nodded. "Yes, she is."

"Too dangerous for three strong men like you to catch her without shooting her all up?"

"Just move along miss," the third man said, "This ainít any of your business."

The girl smiled again, and through Black Roseís blurred vision, she saw the other three slowly moving their hands down to their hips.

"Oh, but it is my business mister. You have no idea who we are."

As Black Rose faded from consciousness, she heard gunshots and yells, and then silence.

***

"Sheís coming around," a voice said as Black Rose slowly floated up toward consciousness.

She heard sounds and then another voice said, "Girl? Can you hear me? Open your eyes."

Black Rose struggled for a moment, and then complied.

The face of the girl who had been talking to the bounty hunter floated into view, followed by the faces of the other three.

<Where am I?> she murmured in her language.

<At our hideout,> the girl replied, <Can you speak English? My friendís donít know your language very well and Iím really not up to translating>

Black Rose nodded. "What...happened?"

"You were about to be dragged off by some bounty hunters. We stopped them...permanently."

"We brought you back here and fixed you up," another girl said, "Youíve been out cold for a week now."

"Iím Tessa," the first girl said, "These are my girls, Meg, Selene and Crystal."

Black Rose nodded. "My name is...Kayla. I owe you my life. Thank you."

Tessa shrugged. "You looked like you would make a good edition to my little gang here. You have all the right qualifications from what we could see."

Black Rose looked at her questioningly.

Tessa just smiled and said, "Get some rest. Weíll talk later. I get the feeling weíre going to become very good friends."

***

<I spent the next few weeks recovering in their care and getting to know them better. Tessa talked often about what they did and how I would make a good edition to her gang. The more she talked about it, the more interested I became. Finally, when I was well again, I did join them.>

<Donít mean no disrespect, but it seems to me like you ainít on the right path to finding your peace.>

Kayla looked at him, sadness in her eyes.

"Well, well," a new voice said, "Ainít this a cozy little scene?"

They looked over at the door to find Crystal standing there, watching Vin with suspicion in her eyes.

She looked at Kayla and said, "Tessa sent me here to take over. Go eat and get some rest."

Kayla held up the needle. "Gotta inject him first."

"Hurry up then."

Kayla turned back and proceeded to reveal the skin on his arm to inject the liquid in.

As she was doing so, she whispered in a voice just loud enough for him to hear, <You will be glad when this takes effect, believe me.>

She finished the injection and put the needle aside. She looked at him with an unreadable expression, then turned, nodded to Crystal and left. Crystal looked at Vin and smiled in such a way, icy chills ran up and down his spine.

It wasnít until after the pain exploded in his chest that he realized she had moved, so fast was she. Through the pain filled haze he heard her snarl, "I know what youíre up to tracker. You ainít taking Kayla away from us, you hear? You ainít!"

A knife appeared in her hand and more pain seared through him as she straddled him and slashed his chest open.

"Oh dear!" she exclaimed in a mockingly worried voice, "Youíre hurt! Let me make it all better, we donít want it getting infected after all."

He opened his eyes in time to see her pour alcohol onto the large wound and then his eyes flew shut and a cry escaped hi lips. By now, the pain of her tortures and the pain of Tessaís poison were mixing together and as he finally sank into the darkness that was quickly becoming his sanctuary, he found himself hoping that he could stay there and never come out.

 

PART 8

"I donít believe it," Nathan said, shaking his head as he checked his patient over, "You seem to be as healthy as the rest of us."

J.D. sighted impatiently. "Thatís what Iíve been telling you all morning Nathan! Now come on, let me out of here. I wanna go see Lynne."

Earlier that morning, J.D. had awakened, looking perfectly normal and full of energy, with no memory of what had happened the previous day, much to Buck and Nathanís surprise.

Nathan shook his head again. "All right. But if you start to feel even the slightest bit sick again, get your butt back here right away."

J.D. nodded, grabbed his guns and was out the door in seconds. Buck and Nathan looked at each other.

"Iíll watch him," Buck said, then left.

Outside, J.D. hurried down the street, anxiously searching for signs that Lynne was some place other than the saloon. No such luck.

ĎMan, she worse than Chris,í he thought, mostly in amusement as he headed for her favorite place.

He pushed through the doors and before his eyes had adjusted to the light, a voice called, "J.D.!"

He looked in the direction the voice had come from and a smile lit his face when he spotted ĎLynneí rising from her table and hurrying over to him.

"J.D., I was so worried!" she exclaimed as she enveloped him in a warm hug.

She looked up at him and grinned. "I was afraid I was going to loose my favorite drinking partner."

J.D. grinned back and said, "Hey, I ainít going anywhere Ďtill we settle our score."

ĎLynneísí smile grew. "Now thatís what I like to hear. Come on, letís go for a ride, then Iíll buy you a drink."

J.D. nodded and followed her out the door and over to the livery. They saddled their horses and walked to the outskirts of town. ĎLynneí suddenly let out a yell and spurred her horse forward into a run. J.D. yelled after her, then urged his horse into a run, laughing as he raced with her. For several minutes the pair raced, sometimes neck in neck and sometimes one a little ahead of the other. Finally, they began to slow down and were soon walking in peaceful silence.

J.D. glanced back the way they had come and was slightly surprised to find that they couldnít even see the town anymore.

"Wow," he said, "Weíre pretty far out."

"I donít know about you, but I needed to get out of town. Itís no fun being cooped up all the time."

They rode in silence for a little more. "I wonder if Vin is around here somewhere," J.D. said after a short while. "Heís been gone a pretty long time."

"Heís probably just got a bad case of cabin fever or something," ĎLynneí replied. "If I read him right, heís the type who has a rather hard time staying in one place very long."

"Thatís Vin all right. Hell, thatís pretty much everybody. Iím surprised theyíve managed to stick around for as long as they have."

They rode on for about an hour, talking about an assortment of things and just enjoying one anotherís company. When they finally arrived back in town, it was nearing sunset. They stabled their horses, then walked out in time to see the beginning of the sunís departure.

J.D. took ĎLynneísí hand and said, "Come on. I wanna show you something."

He led her over to the church and inside. They went up a flight of stairs and carefully stepped out onto the steep roof.

"This is the best place to watch a sunset," he said as they carefully sat down, "You can see it over the entire town."

ĎLynneí got herself settled, then looked up and her eyes widened at the sight before her. Deep reds and oranges mixed together, taking over the blue of the sky. She had seen sunsets before, but for some reason, this one seemed more spectacular from this vantage point, with the town underneath. The pair sat in silence, watching the colors dance across the darkening sky.

"Itís so beautiful," she finally whispered.

"Itís not the only thing here thatís beautiful," J.D. replied in a soft, shy voice.

ĎLynneí looked at him and their eyes met, locking together as though magnetized. J.D. put his hand on hers and slowly leaned toward her. She leaned toward him as well, her eyes slowly closing as their lips came closer and finally touched in a long, tender kiss that slowly deepened until nothing in the world existed except them.

***

Down on the ground, a figure watched the pair with a smile.

"What are we looking at?"

The watcher looked at the man who had appeared next to him and then pointed up at the church roof.

"Check that out."

Josiah looked up and a smile played on his own lips when he spotted the young couple.

"Seems oddly fitting," he said.

Buck chuckled. "I can see why he seemed to make such a fast recovery. Girl like that would make a man rise from the dead to be with her again."

Josiah put a massive hand on Buckís shoulder. "Come on brother. Iíll buy you a drink."

Buck tossed one last look up at the couple, then turned and followed Josiah to the saloon.

"Hey boys," Buck greeted Nathan and Chris as he joined them while Josiah got them drinks.

"You been keeping an eye on J.D.?" Nathan asked.

Buck nodded, a big grin splitting his face. "Yeah, but I didnít have to. Lynneís been with him all day. In fact, theyíre up on the church roof right now enjoying the sunset so to speak."

Nathan shook his head. "I still canít believe how fast he recovered. Just yesterday he was practically on his death bed and this morning...well, something just doesnít seem right."

"Perhaps we have a case of divine intervention," Josiah said as he sat down, handing Buck his drink.

"Maybe," Nathan replied, then fell into silence.

"So, whatís on your mind Chris?" Buck asked, looking over at his friend.

"Iím concerned about Vin, heís been gone a long time. Itís not like him to stay away for so long and not send word of some kind."

Buck made a dismissive gesture. "Aw, you know him. Heís probably just lost in a conversation with nature or something. Heíll probably come trotting back any time now."

Chris just nodded, but resolved to wait until afternoon the next day and then go looking for his friend, just to be sure everything was all right.

***

"Vin. Vin can you hear me? Please, open your eyes."

Vin heard the familiar voice, but didnít want to comply with the request. Opening his eyes meant leaving the place he had come to think of as his sanctuary, and he didnít want to. He didnít want to go back to that pain filled world he had been living in the past few days. The darkness was so much better.

"Vin, please, itís Morgan. Iím alone. Itís safe to open your eyes. Please."

Almost as if they had a mind of their own, his eyes fluttered open and Morganís worried face floated into view above him. She let out a relived breath when she saw him awaken.

"Thank God. I was afraid I might have been too late."

She took a wet cloth out of the basin next to her and gently pressed it to his forehead. "Youíve been unconscious since last night. I was afraid Crystal might have gone too far."

Vinís hand went to his chest and he felt bandages around the areas Crystal had taken her anger out on.

"Kayla told me Crystal was alone with you and that youíd probably need patching up by the time I got here," Morgan added as she re-wet the cloth and started to press it to his face again.

He caught her hand weakly and said in a voice that was even weaker, "Why...?"

He tried to finish his question, but his voice wouldnít go beyond that.

She seemed to understand though and replied, "Because I canít betray her. I wonít betray her. I love her too much."

Before she could go on or he could try to say anything else, the door opened and Tessa entered.

"You been here all night?" She asked when she saw Morgan.

"Someone had to. Crystal nearly killed him. Honestly Tess, if you want to keep hostages alive, youíre going to have to teach her some self control. Girlís a walking time bomb."

"Thatís what makes her so useful," Tessa replied. She looked at Vin and said, "And how are we feeling this fine morning?"

Still unable to find his voice, Vin just looked at her, his eyes speaking for him.

"Not happy huh? Well, itís your own fault. Youíre the one who had to be too smart for his own good."

She sat on the edge of the bed and gently stroked Vinís cheek. "And now, youíre paying for it."