She looked around the room and then back at him and continued on. "You must be getting tired of this boring little room. Must want to get out in the open air huh? Well, donít worry. Youíll be happy to know weíll be moving out real soon. Get some rest sugar, Tuscosa is a long way away and weíll want to get you there in one peace." She smiled again and lightly patted his cheek.
She stood and looked at Morgan. "Iíll send Selene up with breakfast. Make sure he eats if you plan on staying."
Morgan nodded silently and Tessa left.
"Can...can I ask you something?" Vin asked, finally finding his voice.
Morgan looked at him and he asked, "How...did she get so cold, so twisted?"
Morgan hesitated, then said, "She never used to be like this. Her mother...her mother was a trained assassin, as was her Father. They trained her in the art but you have to understand, they never brought her up to be like this. They raised her good. It was certain events that turned her into...that."
She paused then, knowing the question he was about to ask, said, "I was very...close to Tess and her family, thatís how I know all this. Anyway, when she was six years old, she lost her father to murder. That, I believe, is when she first started to change. She got cold and calculating, more than she had been before. She even helped her mother track down her fatherís killer and...deal with him. After that...." she trailed off, pain entering her eyes as she remembered the past.
"When she was ten, something happened that changed her even more drastically. Her mother and baby brother were killed, also by murder. It sent her over the edge. She went after the killers, found them and made them suffer quite a long time before they finally died. She declined coming to stay with me and my folks and set out on her own. Sheíd come back from time to time to visit, and each time, she was just a little more like she is now."
She stopped talking as the door opened and Selene entered the room, a tray of food in hand. The young African eyed Vin with contempt as she silently handed Morgan the tray. She then moved to a corner of the room and sat, watching them as she had been told. Morgan managed to get most of the food into Vin before he passed out, and then sat, watching him praying to God that he would make it out of this alive.
"How do you know if youíre in love?"
Buck turned his gaze from the street and looked at J.D. in surprise.
"Well, I guess you just know. Why?"
"Well.." J.D. hesitated a moment, then said, "I think Iím in love with Lynne."
"Canít say Iím surprised at that," Buck replied with a small smile. "Sheís one hell of a girl."
"So...what do I do?"
"Canít rightly say, J.D. Love is something you gotta handle on your own. I will tell you this though, make your decisions wisely. Love can be a great thing, but it can also be real painful."
He looked up at the sound of footsteps and saw Chris approaching.
"Hey Chris, whatís up?"
"Going to the Livery to get my horse. Going to go out and look for Vin, make sure everythingís all right."
Chris was about to decline when a voice said, "Mr. Larabee?"
The trio looked behind them and found Meg walking up the steps to join them.
"I was hoping Iíd run into you. I just came in from a ride. I ran into your tracker friend. He said to tell you heíd be staying out there a few more days. Somethingís got his attention pretty good."
Chris looked at her for a moment, then nodded. Meg nodded back then left the trio, heading for the saloon. Chris stared after her thoughtfully.
"Morning Mr. Howard!" J.D. suddenly called out, interrupting Chrisís thoughts.
He looked up to see Bill Howard, the man who ran the telegraph office, passing by.
The man stopped and offered up a smile. "Morning Gentlemen. How are you this fine day?"
"Just fine, thanks," J.D. replied.
"Say, did Mr. Tanner get his problem looked after? I havenít seen him in a few days."
"Problem?" Chris asked.
Bill nodded. "Yeah, few days ago he got something in an envelop. Upset him real good. Took off pretty quick."
"Do you know what it was?" Buck asked.
"Wanted posters I think. Didnít see who it was for though."
Chris stared into space for a moment, then said, "How long ago was this?"
Bill thought for a moment. "Well, letís see. I believe it was the same day sheriff Dunne here got that nasty illness. Well gentlemen, I really must be going. Got business to take care of and all."
J.D. and Buck both said goodbye, then turned their attention on Chris.
"Somethingís not right," Chris said. He looked at them. "Iím gonna go out and check on him, just to be safe."
Without another word, he turned and continued on toward the livery, while an eavesdropper slipped from itís hiding place and hurried off in the direction of the hotel.
"Tess, we could have a big problem."
Tessa looked up as Meg entered her room and gave her a curious look.
"Larabee is suspicious. Heís just about to ride out and look for the tracker."
"Well, we canít have that now can we?" Tessa replied standing.
"I ran into Crystal on the way here and sheís going to stall him."
Tessa nodded in approval as she got one of her potions out as well as a tiny dart.
"Good. Go find Kayla and tell her to saddle up. She and I are going for a ride. And send Selene in here. She should still be in her room."
Meg nodded and left.
"What are you going to do, Tess?" Morgan, who had not left since the previous night, asked.
"Iím going to distract him. Donít worry, Iím not giving him anything thatíll kill him," she added before Morgan could voice the thought. She held up the bottle she had picked and said, "This stuffíll just force him to stay put for a while. Course, I canít tell what the side effects will be like, but hey, thatís life."
She looked up as the door opened and Selene entered. Tessa dart into the potion and carefully handed it to her.
"Remember that sheriff in Tucson?"
Selene nodded and Tessa smiled. "Do your thing."
Selene nodded again and left. Tessa looked back at Morgan, then over at Vin, who lay unconscious in the bed.
"I trust youíll watch him?"
Morgan nodded, and Tessa followed Selene out.
Chris was finally on his way back to the Livery to get his horse and go look for Vin. He had been diverted by Crystal earlier to take care of a problem and had finally managed to clear it up. He had just about reached the door of the Livery when a young girl coming toward him tripped and fell.
He quickly reached out and caught her before she fell, feeling an odd prick as he steadied her. He dismissed it and, looking down, he found it was one of ĎLynneís girls, Selene, that he was holding.
"You all right, Miss?" he asked, releasing her.
She nodded. "Thank you," she said softly.
He tipped his hat and then moved into the Livery. He got his horse saddled up and quickly rode out of town.
He had gone about a mile when he spotted two forms coming toward him from his left. He watched them for a minute before recognizing ĎLynneí and Kayla and reined in as they approached him.
"Morning Chris. Out for a ride?" ĎLynneí greeted with a smile.
Chris tipped his hat in greeting and replied, "Just going to check on Vin. Make sure everythingís all right."
"Mind if we tag along?"
Chris shrugged. "If you want."
The trio spurred their horses into light trots and headed off in the direction Chris figured Vin would be. Thirty minutes had passed when Chris began to feel strange. His vision went in and out of focus and he began to feel a little dizzy.
"You all right Chris?" ĎLynneí finally asked after observing him for a while.
Chris shook his head to clear some of the fuzziness and said, "Yeah, Iím fine. Must be coming down with something."
"Perhaps we should turn back. Whatever it is youíre coming down with, you donít want it getting worse."
"Iíll be fine," Chris replied, though he wasnít completely sure of that.
ĎLynneí shrugged and the trio rode on in silence. Another twenty minutes went by, with Chris looking worse by the minute. ĎLynneí looked at Kayla and held up her hand, slowly counting down. When she reached one, Chris moaned softly and slid from his saddle.
"Chris!" ĎLynneí exclaimed, casting Kayla an amused look.
She slipped off her saddle and hurried over to his side.
"Chris. Chris can you hear me?"
No response. She looked up at Kayla and gestured for her to come get him. The young Indian girl dismounted, came over, picked Chris up and slumped him over his horse. She then took the reins, got back on her own horse and the pair started the journey back in silence.
Buckís heart leapt to his throat at the sight coming into town. ĎLynneí and Kayla had just arrived, and were leading a horse with a body sprawled across the saddle. Chrisís horse. Chrisís body.
"Donít worry," ĎLynneí said as he rushed up to them, "He ainít dead, just unconscious."
"What happened?" Buck asked as he gently lifted Chris off the animal.
Before she could explain, Nathan ran up, the same question escaping his lips as he examined Chris. ĎLynneí quickly told them what had happened.
"Man, I hope he ainít got what J.D. had," Nathan said as he stood and motioned for Buck to bring Chris.
He nodded to the girls and then he and Buck hurried for his rooms.
ĎLynneí looked at Meg as she joined them and said, "Problem solved."
J.D. was starting to get worried. Ever since he had parted from Buckís company earlier that morning, just after Chris had left, he had been feeling strangely lightheaded and a little ill. He told himself it was all in his head, that Bill Howardís mention of the mysterious illness he had fallen under had stirred up the fear that it was going to happen again. But, deep down, he knew something was wrong. That this was, perhaps, just the eye of what was going to be a very big, very nasty storm.
ĎMaybe I should go see Nathan,í he thought, remembering the healerís warning to come see him the second he started to feel ill.
Deciding that seeing Nathan would be the best course of action, J.D. got up from his chair, took a few steps, and fell to the floor as a stunning wave of dizziness overtook him. He groaned as he fought back a wave of nausea and tried to ride out the dizziness. Finally, they subsided enough that he was able to stand and walk unsteadily out into the street. His vision blurred and he shook his head to clear it.
ĎGotta get to Nathanís,í he thought, ĎNow, if I could just remember where it is...í
He chose a direction and started walking, dazed and blurry eyed.
"Are you all right J.D.?" a voice from far away asked.
J.D. stopped and looked up at the figure towering above him. The man looked familiar, but for some reason, he couldnít put a name to the face. The man said something, but J.D. couldnít understand the words. He mumbled something, then turned and started walking again. He couldnít even remember where he was going anymore. A hand fell on his shoulder, stopping him from walking. He turned around and darkness claimed him.
Nathan had just decided that Chris was going to be fine when there was a short knock on the door. He and Buck looked up as the door opened and Josiah entered, an unconscious J.D. in his arms.
"Oh lord! What happened?" Nathan exclaimed, hurrying over and taking in J.D.ís frighteningly pale face.
Josiah quickly explained what had happened as he carefully laid his young friend on the other bed. "Damn it, I knew heíd recovered too fast," Nathan muttered as he started examining the boy. He shook his head. "Heís entering fever again." He looked up and added, "I can already tell this is going to be worse then last time."
Buck muttered an oath and ran a hand through his short hair. His attention was drawn to Chris as his oldest friend muttered something and his eyes slowly opened.
"Chris? How are you feeling pard?"
Chris just stared at him, an uncertain look in his eyes. Nathan, unable to do much for J.D. at the moment, focused his attention on Chris.
"Chris? Do you know who you are and who we are?"
Chris turned his eyes on Nathan and seemed to think about the question for a moment. Finally, he nodded and said softly, "Nathan."
His gaze traveled to Buck and Josiah and he added, "Buck, Josiah."
He looked back at Nathan, his eyes asking if he was right. Nathan nodded. "Do you remember what happened?"
Chris thought for a moment, then shook his head. Nathan quickly explained what had happened.
"Vin?" Chris asked, trying to match a face to the name.
"I donít know what happened to you pard, but I think rest is an order. Lots of it."
Nathan glanced back at J.D. as the kid began moving restlessly. He looked back at Chris and added, "It might be better if you got it in your own room though. Gotta feeling itís gonna be a long night."
Buck stepped forward and helped Chris sit up. "Come on pard, Iíll help you back to your room."
He looked at Nathan and said, "Iíll be back in a bit."
He then turned and helped Chris stand, carefully leading him from the room. Nathan watched Chris worriedly. He sincerely hoped that Chris would be all right and that rest was really all he needed.
Buck watched worriedly as Chris slowly drifted off to sleep. All the way to his room, Chris had muttered incoherent nonsense and when he was coherent, he was confused and upset.
"I really hope youíre gonna be all right, pard," he said softly. "Last thing we need is you falling under some unknown illness too."
He watched Chris for another moment, then turned and silently left. As he was making his way back to Nathanís rooms, he encountered Ezra.
The gambler had a small look of concern in his eyes as he said, "I have just heard of the way Mr. Larabee returned from his outing. How is he?"
"Confused, but Nathan thinks heís gonna be all right."
"From your expression, it would appear you think otherwise."
Buck sighed. "Donít know what I think right now. J.D.ís just had another relapse. A bad one."
"I am deeply sorry to hear that. The boy doesnít deserve this."
He nodded to Buck, then continued on his way. Buck watched him leave, then hurried the rest of the way to Nathanís.
His heart nearly stopped when he entered the room and saw Josiah sitting next to J.D., head bowed as he softly said the last rights.
"Oh no, please no," Buck whispered, his eyes on Nathan as the black man slowly came over, a deep sadness in his eyes.
"Iím sorry Buck, heís gone."
Buck stared at Nathan in shock, his face turning pale.
"No," he whispered, pushing past Nathan and hurrying to the side of the bed.
J.D. lay still, not one sign of life in his young body. His face, which before had been pain filled and tortured, was now peaceful if not frighteningly white. Tears ran down his cheeks unchecked as he reached out and gently touched the kidís young face...
With a startled cry, Buck jerked awake and looked wildly around the dimly lit room.
"Buck, you all right?" Nathan asked, quickly coming over.
Buck looked at him, then at J.D., relieved to see the shallow rise and fall of his chest.
"Yeah, Iím fine. Just a bad dream is all. What...what time is it?"
"Little after nine. Youíve been asleep Ďbout two hours now."
"Howís the kid doing?"
"No change. Feverís still god awful, but at least it hasnít gotten worse. Lynne was here earlier. Girl was right upset to see him like this."
"Imagine what sheíd be like if the kid got a chance to tell her how he feels," Buck said softly, looking down at J.D.
Nathan looked at him curiously and Buck quickly told his friend about the conversation the pair had that morning.
Nathan put a reassuring hand on Buckís shoulder and said, "Heíll make it out of this to tell her. Iím gonna go get something to eat. You want anything?"
Buck shook his head and Nathan quietly left.
Buck stared at J.D. for a long moment. When his young friend began to move restlessly, Buck grabbed the wet cloth from out of the basin and gently dabbed his face.
"Hang in there kid," he said softly. "Hang in there."
Nathan was nearing the restaurant when a someone shouting his name caused him to stop and turn.
"Nathan!" ĎLynneí exclaimed as she rushed up to him, "I think youíd better come fast. Somethingís happening with Chris."
"Chris?" Nathan asked in surprise.
"Yeah, come on, heís in the saloon."
"What the hell is he doing there?" Nathan asked as he followed ĎLynne.í
"Drinking, what else?"
Nathan sighed and fell silent. However, the silence was quickly replace by an oath as he entered the Saloon to find it in shambles and Chris Larabee being restrained by Josiah in one of his famous bear hugs.
"Lord all mighty! What the hell happened?" he exclaimed.
"Careful brother," Josiah warned as Chris lashed out and struggled fiercely, "He isnít in his right frame of mind right now."
Nathan looked into Chrisís raged filled eyes and suppressed a shudder. He then looked at the rest of the other man and saw the blood seeping through in several places where his shirt and pants had been torn.
"Heís hurt. What happened?"
Josiah motioned with his head to a small group of men who lay on the floor, being checked by Ezra and Meg to make sure they werenít dead.
"Those fellas decided to pick a fight and were unlucky enough to have chosen Chris. That fella Ezra is looking at right now managed to get in quite a few hits with a nasty knife."
Nathan looked back at Chris, who was slowly starting to settle down thanks to Josiahís iron grip.
"How long has he been here?"
"Since supper time," ĎLynneí answered, a small smile on her lips as she looked at the men on the floor.
"Three hours? Damn it Chris you were supposed to be getting rest, not drinking aní fighting!"
Chris just stared at him, sending a shiver up and down Nathanís spine.
He shook himself and said, "Josiahís gonna let you go now so I can fix you up, then youíre going right back to your room to get some proper rest. And if I have to, Iíll have Josiah stand outside your room to make sure you stay there."
He nodded and Josiah released Chris, catching him when he swayed and leading him over to a chair. Nathan bent to examine the wounds and drew in a breath when he saw how severe some of them were.
"You sure know how to pick Ďem," he muttered. He stood and added, "I gotta go get my bag. Iíll be right back."
He returned quickly and set to work. Tessa, standing nearby with a bottle of whiskey, was disappointed that there didnít seem to be any side effects and was quickly growing bored.
Nathan glanced back at her and asked, "Could I borrow that a second?"
She shrugged and handed the bottle over. Nathan looked at Josiah, who positioned himself behind Chris and then Nathan poured some of the liquid onto a wound in Chrisís leg. Chris jumped and hissed and Josiah quickly prevented him from leaving his seat.
Tessa was just deciding to go find something better to do when she noticed the strange, glazed look in Chrisís eyes. It was a look she recognized, and she knew right then that things were about to get very interesting.
"All right Chris," Nathan said as he put his things back in his bag, " Iíll help you to your room now."
"No, not now," Chris mumbled, resisting Nathanís attempt to help him up. "Gotta go back to the ranch."
Nathan exchanged a glance with Josiah and Ezra. "Ranch?"
Chris nodded. "Gotta get back to Sarah and Adam. Shouldnít have been gone this long." He started to stand, but fell back again, wincing as pain shot through him.
"Chris, you ainít where you think you are," Nathan said, "Youíre in Four Corners."
Chris, however, didnít seem to hear Nathan. He kept trying to stand and insisted on going back to the ranch.
"I think someone should go get Buck," Nathan said as Chris once more tried to stand and Josiah gently pushed him back down.
Tessa looked at Meg, who nodded and quickly left. Tessa saw it before anyone else could. Just after Meg left, an almost possessed look entered Chrisís eyes.
ĎHere we go,í she thought, taking a step back as Chris suddenly flew out of his chair.
"I said Iím leaving!" he shouted, drawing his gun.
Startled, all three men jumped back, their hands flying to their own guns instinctively.
Nathan, the first to recover, put his hands up and said, "Whoa, whoa Chris. Calm down now."
"Why are you trying to keep me from getting back to my wife and son?" Chris growled, his gun moving to cover all three of them.
"We arenít trying to keep you from getting back to them Chris," Josiah said calmly, "Why donít you put the gun down and weíll talk about this."
Nathan swore softly as his eyes picked up blood slowly oozing from Chrisís side.
"Donít have time to talk!" Chris snapped. "Now get out of the way, Iím leaving!"
"Chris, you tore the stitches in your side. I gotta redo it."
Chris shook his head and started to move slowly for the door.
Chris looked up and found Buck standing there.
"Chris, what are doing?"
"Theyíre trying to stop me from going back, Buck."
"Going back where, pard?"
"The Ranch. I gotta go back, Buck. Iíve left Sarah and Adam alone too long."
Pain flashed through Buckís eyes.
"Chris," he said softly, walking closer to his friend, his hands raised in a peaceful gesture. "Sarah and Adam...theyíre gone Chris, remember?"
Chris shook his head. "No, no theyíre waiting for me. I gotta get back to them. Shouldnít have left them alone this long."
Buck nodded. "All right, Chris. Weíll leave, but we gotta wait till morning, okay? Youíve been hurt. You canít ride like that."
He moved around Buck and out the door without answering. Buck looked at the others and then quickly followed. Outside, Chris was standing in the street, staring out at the night, his gun on the ground beside him. What could be seen of his eyes were haunted and anguished. From where Tessa stood, she could clearly see he had moved further into the past.
"Not again," Buck whispered.
"You been through this before?" Josiah asked.
Buck nodded. "Yeah, several times. But this is the first time in a long while itís happened. I thought it had stopped."
He took a deep breath and then moved to his friendís side.
"My boy Buck. Where...whereís my boy?"
"Chris," Buck said softly, putting his hand on the other manís shoulder. "Chris, Adamís gone. Along with Sarah. You gotta remember that and come back to the present. Come out of the past, Chris."
Chris shook his head. "No. Help me find him Buck. Please....help me find him."
Buckís heart ached at Chrisís words and he struggled with his own emotions before saying, "Please Chris, come back from the past. Theyíre gone, come back."
Chris finally looked at Buck, his eyes even more anguished than before. Buck looked back at him, trying to bring his oldest friend back to the present as he had so many other times before. They stared at each other for a long time, until Chrisís knees suddenly buckled and Buck caught him and gently lowered him to the ground.
Nathan hurried over as Chris once again mumbled pleas for help in finding his son.
"This wound is bleeding faster than I thought," Nathan said as he looked at it. "Heís lost a lot of blood in just a few minutes. Weíd better get him upstairs fast so I can re-close it."
Buck nodded and gripped one of Chrisís arms while Nathan got the other.
"Come on, Pard," he said softly to a now barely conscious Chris, "Letís get you fixed up and put to bed. This will all have been just a bad dream in the morning."
They started to walk, but Chrisís legs quickly gave out as consciousness deserted him. The two men stumbled under the sudden dead weight. Josiah came over and scooped Chrisís limp form up in his arms and continued on to Nathanís rooms, Nathan and Buck following.
Tessa watched for a minute, bursting with pleasure on the inside at having witnessed such an interesting event.
ĎHow I do love those side effects,í she thought with a smile.
Turning, she found Ezraís gaze on her and nodded to him. He nodded back and she turned in the direction of the hotel, feeling his eyes on her every step of the way.
Tessa laughed the moment she was in the door, startling Kayla and Selene, who were both keeping watch over Vin.
"Iíve just witnessed one of the best side effects from that little knockout potion Iíve ever seen," she explained, a smile lighting her face. "Nothing could possibly top it."
She quickly explained to the girls the events that had taken place. "The last thing I expected was for it to trigger something like that."
There was a knock on the door and Meg and Crystal entered. Tessa looked at Meg.
"Howís J.D. doing? Havenít seen him since this afternoon."
Meg smiled slightly. "Feverís pretty bad. Worse than the last one. He was muttering stuff, but I couldnít understand him. Although he did mention youíre alter ego once or twice."
Tessa saw Meg watch her carefully as she said this, and quickly hid the reaction that brought.
She was relieved when Crystal spoke up impatiently, "Tess, weíve been here nearly a month! When are we gonna take the bank, kill a few people and get the hell out of here? Iím starting to feel claustrophobic!"
Tessa smiled. "Donít worry, youíll get your fun. What weíre doing takes careful planning and a bit of time though. However, I do know how you feel. So, Iíll tell you what. Youíre all very good at night riding. If the rest of you are feeling like youíre going to burst any second now, you can leave this very moment and go to the next town to have some fun. The only rule is, donít get caught and donít let them see your faces."
The girls exchanged glances and then nodded. They turned to leave, Crystal glancing back and asking, "You coming Kayla?"
Kayla shook her head. "No, I wish to stay."
Tessa raised her brows as Crystal shot Kayla a surprised look. She then shrugged and followed Meg and Selene out.
"Are you not feeling well?" Tessa asked, laying down on her bed. "Youíve never turned down a chance to raid, plunder and kill before."
Kayla shrugged. "Lately, I have felt many things. Unwell has been among them."
Tessa regarded her for a long moment then said, "This town must be affecting you. Weíd better wrap things up and get out of here before you actually develop a conscience."
ĎOr before I do,í she added silently to herself.
Buck awoke the early the next morning to rambling chatter. Looking down, he found J.D. staring up at the ceiling and talking to it.
J.D. stopped talking and froze, as though afraid of getting caught where he shouldnít be.
This time, J.D. turned his head and looked at Buck. The older man was startled by the fevered light in his yong friendís eyes and had a feeling things were going to get far worse than they thought.
"Buck?" J.D. asked uncertainly.
Buck nodded. "Yeah kid, itís me."
"How...how did I get here? Where are those men?"
ĎUh oh,í Buck thought, ĎPlease God, donít let it be this again.í
Out loud, he replied, "Donít worry about them J.D., youíre safe."
J.D. shook his head and grabbed Buckís arm, his grip tight as he said, "No Buck, they ainít gonna give up till they get me."
He let go and looked around, his eyes narrowed as he muttered, "Donít know why they want me so bad. Iíve never seen any of them before."
He looked back at Buck and added, "They tried to convince me they were my friends. That they were you guys." He laughed. "Must have thought I was pretty stupid, that I would believe them."
His eyes traveled the room, finally coming to rest on the bed next to him and he started in surprise.
"Whatís Chris doing here? Did they get him too?"
"No, no. Donít worry, Chris just had a little incident last night. Heíll be fine," Buck quickly reassured him.
J.D. stared at Chris for a long moment before saying, "Their leader tried to tell me he was Chris. They were tryiní to mess with my mind. Telliní me I wasnít well and all."
"Well donít worry about it now, son," Buck said softly, "Youíre safe now."
"You sure?" J.D. asked, his gaze returning to Buck, "They went to all that trouble to keep me there, messing with my mind and everything. How do you know they wonít try again?"
Buck didnít answer, his gaze moving to the door as it opened and Josiah and Nathan entered. The sharp intake of breath quickly brought his gaze back to J.D., who was staring at the two men with fright in his eyes.
"Itís two of em!" he exclaimed, trying to scramble out of bed.
Buck quickly restrained him, saying, "J.D. calm down! Itís just Nathan and Josiah!"
"Donít let them get me!" J.D. said fearfully, not hearing Buckís words.
"J.D.! J.D.!" Buck shook his friend, trying to bring the boyís senses back to him.
Finally, Buck slapped him, stopping the boyís fierce struggles. J.D. looked up at him, shock in his fevered eyes. He then looked at Josiah and Nathan and recognition flooded them.
"Please donít let them get me," he whispered.
"Donít worry son, weíre not going to let anyone get you," Nathan said, exchanging glances with Buck and Josiah.
He looked over at Chris as the man mumbled, "Canít a man get any sleep around here?"
"How do you feel, Chris?" he asked, going over and standing next to him.
"Terrible. What happened?" He tried to sit up and winced when pain shot through him.
"Easy now," Nathan said, helping him to sit up, "You decided to go against my advice on gettiní rest and got into a nasty fight in the saloon last night. Got yourself cut up pretty bad. Now I suggest you take it easy for the next few days and get some proper rest. I got enough problems with J.D. without having to worry about keeping you sewn up."
Chris looked over at J.D., who had slipped into a restless sleep and asked, "How is he?"
"Not good. Heís hallucinating again."
Chris closed his eyes and rested his head on the headboard. "Damn it," he muttered.
Buck stepped over and said, "Come on, Pard. Iíll help you to your room so you can follow Nathanís advice."
Chris allowed Buck to help him up and carefully lead him from the room. Nathan looked down and J.D. and, seeing the sweat that now covered his face, quickly got the wet cloth out of the basin and wiped it away.
Kayla watched Vin as he slowly started to come around. She wasnít surprised by the small, fevered light in his eyes as he looked at her, but she was surprised at how alert he still seemed to be.
<You are very strong, hunter,> she said, <or are you just stubborn?>
<How...how long have I been...out?>
<Little over a day. Your friend, Larabee, heís been wondering about your whereabouts. Tessa has...distracted him.>
<Did...did she hurt him?>
<No. She just gave him something to take his mind off making sure you were all right.>
Vin closed his eyes as pain and fever ran through him. Kayla watched him carefully.
ĎHeís not going to survive this,í she thought, feeling strangely saddened by the thought.
<Then help him,> a voice whispered through her mind.
Kayla looked up and around, startled. Her eyes widened just a bit when she saw the source of the voice. <Mother?>
The shimmering form of Grey Wolf smiled. <Hello, Black Rose.>
<How is it you are here?>
<I was given time for a little visit. I thought you could use a little advice.>
The ghostly vision of her mother crossed the room and stood, looking at Kayla. She smiled as she reached out and touched Kaylaís cheek.
<You have grown into such a beautiful woman. You are so much like me when I was your age.>
A sadness crossed her eyes. <I never wanted that for you. But, unfortunately, that was not my decision. I couldnít stop what you were to become, but I can help you change what you are. To become something better.>
<How?> Kayla whispered, <Iíve already done so much. How can I change now?>
Grey Wolf smiled. <You have already started, my Black Rose.>
She gestured to Vin. <You are starting to care about what happens to him, therefore, you are starting to change. If you truly wish to change, as I know you do, then helping him will start you on the right path to peace. I had not realized that when I was your age. I had plenty of opportunities to get off the path I was on and take the right one. If I had done so, then perhaps I would have found peace a much different way.>
Grey Wolf took a step back, her form slowly beginning to vanish. <Think about that, my daughter. Donít make the same mistakes I made. Get off this path and on the right one. And remember, I love you.>
With that, the ghostly vision of her mother vanished. Kayla stood, staring at the spot her long dead mother had been, tears slowly making their way down her cheeks as the womanís words echoed in her mind.
"J.D. J.D. wake up honey."
A soft, startlingly familiar voice penetrated J.D.ís mind, bringing him out of his unconscious state. Blinking his eyes open, he looked to the foot of the bed and drew in a breath. Standing at the foot of the bed, watching him with a soft smile, was a beautiful, middle-aged woman with shoulder length, jet black hair and kind eyes.
"Mamma?" he whispered.
"Yes J.D., itís me."
"But how? Youíre...youíre dead."
"Yes. But that doesnít mean I canít still visit you."
She came around and sat down on the edge, reaching out and brushing aside some of the hair that had fallen into his eyes.
"Iíve missed you son."
She looked at him for a long moment before continuing. "J.D., I want you to know that Iím not angry at you for coming out here. In fact, Iím very, very proud of the man youíve become, of the things youíve learned out here. Those friends of yours have taught you well. They care for you very much, especially that one whoís so fond of the ladies."
J.D. smiled. "Buck."
She nodded. "Yes, Buck. Heís really something else. They all are and Iím very glad you found them."
J.D. stared at her for a long moment before saying, "Mamma? You arenít going to leave me again, are you?"
"No, son. Truth is, Iíve never left you. Iíve always been here, you just havenít seen me until now."
"Is it...is it because Iím sick? Am I gonna die mamma?"
"Oh honey, donít you worry about that. Youíll be just fine so long as you let your friends care for you."
They both looked toward the door as it opened and Nathan came in.
"Hey Nathan," J.D. greeted with a ghostly smile. He gestured to his mother and said, "Nathan, meet my mamma. Mamma, this is Nathan."
Nathan looked at him worriedly as he came over and put a hand to J.D.ís forehead, quickly removing it at the intense heat he felt.
"You shouldnít be sitting up J.D. Come on, lay back down. Youíve been out cold for two days now and you donít want to strain yourself."
"But I want you to meet my mamma, Nathan," J.D. insisted as Nathan helped him to lay back down.
His mother smiled. "Only you can see and hear me, son."
Nathan looked at him intently. "J.D., are you really seeing your mamma?"
J.D. nodded, which caused Nathanís worry to grow and a little fear to enter his eyes.
"What...whatís she saying J.D.?"
J.D. shrugged. "She just said that she came to visit me. She wanted to tell me that she wasnít angry that I came out here and was proud of all that Iíve learned."
"Is she still here?"
J.D. nodded, smiling at a spot near Nathan. Nathan looked over and froze as a strange feeling overtook him. He felt something. Almost like another presence, and it unnerved him deeply.
"J.D.," his mother said, "I have to leave for just a little bit. But donít worry, Iíll be back. You get some rest and then weíll have a nice long talk, okay?"
J.D. nodded and she vanished.
"Mamma had to leave for a bit," he told Nathan, "But sheíll be back in a bit."
Nathan nodded silently and gently dabbed J.D.ís face with the wet cloth. "Chris is up and around again," he said, trying to get rid of the shivers that were making his way up and down his spine.
"Thatís good. Has he been watching for those men?"
Nathan nodded. "Yeah J.D., we all have. They havenít shown up yet."
"Thatís cause theyíre waitiní for you all to let your guard down," J.D. replied, his eyes searching the room suspiciously.
"Donít worry J.D. We ainít gonna let our guard down. You hungry?"
J.D.ís eyes stopped roaming the room and settled back on Nathan. He thought for a moment, then nodded.
Nathan stood and said, "All right. Iíll be right back."
Nathan left the room and went over to the restaurant. He ordered a plate, then went over to the saloon. The others were all at a table together, sharing silence and drinks.
"Howís the kid doing?" Buck asked as Nathan sat down heavily. Nathan sighed and took a long drink from the bottle Josiah offered him before replying.
"Heís awake, and hungry. But thatís the only good thing. Heís still paranoid as hell and..." he trailed off, staring down at the table.
"What Nathan?" Buck asked. "What else is going on?"
Nathan looked back up at them, his eyes haunted as he said, "The boyís seeiní and talkiní to his mamma. I left for a minute and when I came back in, he was sittiní up in bed, talkiní with her. Even introduced me."
"Could it be the boy is experiencing yet another hallucination?" Ezra asked.
Nathan hesitated, then replied, "I donít think so. He pointed out the spot he said she was standing in at the time and I...I actually felt a presence. I couldnít see anyone, but I could sure as hell feel someone."
He fell silent for a moment, then looked at Josiah.
"Josiah, is this what I think it might be?"
Josiah nodded. "Itís a very strong possibility."
"You boys want to let us in on what youíre talking about?" Buck asked. "Whatís a strong possibility?"
Nathan and Josiah exchanged glances and then Josiah said gravely, "Sometimes, when folks are dying, or close to it, theyíll receive...visitations, from loved ones who have gone on before them. Usually, these loved ones are there to calm the one who is dying or to help them cross over when the time comes."
Shocked silence descended over the table. Buck suddenly slammed his fist down and said with severe venom, "No way! Iíve worked my ass off teaching that kid how not to get shot! Iíll be damned if Iím gonna let that son of a bitch get him through some goddam unfair illness!"
He slammed his fist on the table again, got up and stormed out. A moment later, they heard the sound of hoofs thundering away.
Nathan sighed. "I was afraid heíd take it like that."
He took another drink, then stood. "Iíd better getís J.D.ís food and get back to him. Donít want to leave him alone too long." He nodded to the men, then left.
Buck rode until the town was just a little dot. He slowed to a walk, eventually dismounting and ground tying his horse near a cluster of rocks and trees. He jumped up on one of the rocks and then proceeded to climb the tree right next to it, settling in one of the branches and staring off at the horizon.
His fists clenched and unclenched as Josiahís words haunted his mind.
"You ainít gonna get him you son of a bitch," he muttered and then shouted, "You ainít gonna get him! Heís too young for you ya hear? Heís too young!"
He laid his head back and closed his eyes, breathing deeply as he tried to calm down. An unknown amount of time later, he opened his eyes and spotted three riders heading toward Four Corners. He peered closely at them and quickly identified them as three of ĎLynneísí girls.
ĎWonder where those three are coming back from,í he thought as he watched them.
One of the girls spotted his horse and straightened up a bit. She motioned to the others and they began to slow up. They reached his horse and reined in, looking around.
"Afternoon, ladies," Buck called, never being able to resist the lure of the opposite sex no matter what his mood was.
The trio looked up and Meg called, "Why Buck, whatever are doing up there?"
"Nothiní special," Buck replied as he jumped down. "Whereíre you girls coming back from?"
"Just an early morning ride," Meg replied, looking at Buck carefully. "Are you all right? You seem...down"
"Nah, Iím fine," Buck replied with a smile that didnít reach his eyes.
Meg noticed this and said, "You say youíre fine, but youíre eyes tell a different story." She thought for a moment, then added, "Is it J.D. by any chance?"
Buckís resolve melted and he sat down on the rock with a short nod.
"Damn kidís dyiní and there ainít a thing I can do about it."
Meg exchanged glances with Selene and Crystal, a mischievous gleam in her eyes. She got down off her horse and went over to him. She took his hands and said, "You know, Iíve been through this more times than a girl my age should. And you know what I always do?"
Buck looked from her to the other two and back again. "What?"
Meg smiled and pulled him to his feet. "Youíll see."
Josiah entered the saloon and his eyes sought out Chris. He found him quickly and made his way over to the black clad man.
"Just got a wire from the next town over. Three young females arrived late last night and terrorized the place till this morning. The sheriff, one of his two deputies, the clerk at the bank, and a few bar patrons...all dead."
Josiah shook his head. "No, but the deputy who survived thinks they may be from Tessa Williamís gang. You know, the one we were supposed to watch out for last month? They must have been laying low and those three decided to get some...recreation."
"Does this mean we are on alert again?" Ezra asked as he sat down, having heard the conversation.
Chris nodded. "Any sign of Buck yet?"
Josiah shook his head. "Donít think heís come back from wherever it was he took off earlier."
"Perhaps heís with my girls."
The two men looked up to find ĎLynneí standing next to them, looking just a little more than drunk, but still incredibly lucid. "Three of my girls went out for a ride this morning and arenít back yet. Maybe they met up with each other. If thatís so, then my girls are probably trying to take his mind off J.D. They probably wonít be back for a while."
Her eyes traveled toward the street and a strange light entered them. "Excuse me, gentlemen. I myself need a bit of a distraction. And I think I know just where to get it."
She flashed them a smile, then left the saloon.
"Poor child is taking this just as bad as Buck," Josiah said as he watched her disappear into the night.
"I wouldnít be so certain of that," Ezra muttered.
"What was that Ezra?" Josiah asked, raising his brows at the other manís comment.
"I have been watching Lynne and her female compatriots quite closely as of late and have found some rather questioning characteristics," Ezra replied.
"Such as?" Josiah asked.
"Such as the perverse pleasure she seems to get-that they all seem to get- from senseless violence for instance. Something I would find strange for a group of unfortunate girls trying to settle down and lead normal, safe lives. Iíve also been thinking of the observations Mr. Tanner made when they first arrived. That being there is five of them and Miss. Lynne has some rather astonishing red hair. Has it not struck you gentlemen as odd that as soon as these ladies appeared, the Williams gang, which was supposedly headed for our fine little town, dropped out of sight until today? Which brings me to another observation. Only three of Tessa Williamsí gang did that little number on our unfortunate neighbor and three of Lynneís friends have been out of town and are now with Buck."
Ezra was silent for a moment, then added, "Mr. Tanner was conduction an investigation of sorts into Miss Lynne and her friends was he not?"
"Isnít it awfully convenient that he decided to just up and leave town?"
"Not necessarily," Josiah said.
"Needed to do some thinking," Chris added.
"And did Mr. Tanner inform you of this decision?"
Chris shook his head. "No, Lynne told me. Said she ran into him day J.D. collapsed and he told her to tell me he was leaving for a few days."
Ezra raised his brows. "Ah, the plot thickens. Doesnít it strike you as odd that heíd give a message to someone he didnít trust?"
Chris and Josiah were silent for a moment, taking in Ezraís words.
"Manís got some good points," Josiah said.
"When Buck gets back, tell him I wanna see him," Chris said. "Ezra, since you seem to be so good at detecting, keep a close eye on Lynne and her girls. You find anything solid, tell the rest of us right away. Iím gonna go search for Vin in the morning."
He stood, a little stiffly the other two men noticed, and walked out of the saloon, blending into the night the moment he was out the door.
Tessa entered her room, closed the door and leaned against it, staring at Vin, who lay deathly still in the bed. She turned her gaze to Kayla, who was watching her carefully.
She shook her head. "No, but heís got a bad fever."
Tessa crossed over and sat on the edge of the bed. She put her hand to Vinís forehead and quickly pulled away at the heat.
"Almost as bad as J.D."
She looked at Kayla and nodded toward the door. "Go get some sleep. Iím pretty much here for the night now."
Kayla nodded, stood and left. But not without one last look at Vin, Tessa noticed.
Once she was gone, Tessa turned her gaze back to Vin.
"Tracker. Tracker, I know youíre in there. Open your eyes."
She lightly ran her finger down his cheek, prompting him to stir at the touch. She smiled, called to him again, and then slapped him hard.
Vin cried out and his eyes opened at the sudden, sharp blow. She smiled.
"Welcome back. Weíre you dreaming?"
He looked at her without responding.
"Not in the mood for chit chat tonight?" she asked as she once again ran her finger lightly down the side of his cheek.
She smiled in amusement as he jerked away. "Shy are we? You donít seem like the type of man to turn down female companionship."
"I prefer females who wonít eat their mates when theyíre finished with em," Vin snarled in a whisper.
Tessa raised her brows. "My, such hostility. And after I was so kind to allow a bed to be brought in for you."
"Much obliged," Vin replied sarcastically.
Tessa chuckled softly, a knife suddenly appearing in her hand. She traced his cheek with it, moving down his throat and around his bandaged chest. She moved it down to his side and suddenly plunged it in, covering his mouth tightly to muffle his scream.
She pulled it out, leaned in close and whispered, "I can see youíre one of those men who need to be taught how to talk respectfully to a lady."
Through labored breathing, Vin whispered, "You ainít no lady. Youíre a demon."
Tessa smiled chillingly. "You have no idea what I am, tracker. And you donít want to find out."
She watched as the loss of blood and the fever finally claimed him and took him from consciousness. She watched the blood seep out and onto the sheet for a bit, starting when there was a soft knock on the door.
"Who is it?" she called.
"Meg," came the muffled reply.
She looked at Meg as the girl came in and spotted Morgan right behind her.
"Youíre just in time Morgan. The Tracker here got himself another knife in him."
Morgan rushed over and took in the wound.
"Damn it Tess!" she exclaimed as she hurried to get the medical supplies from the closet, "You keep this up and heís gonna be dead before you get a mile outside of town!"
Tessa just smiled as she moved out of the way and turned her attention to Meg.
"Whereíve you been? You should have been back this afternoon."
Meg smiled and replied, "We ran into Buck. He was pretty down so the girls and I took him to Purgatory and got him drunk and shot at."
Tessa raised her brows. "Anyone hurt?"
"Crystal got grazed but nothing serious. Canít say the same for some the inhabitants of that so called town. Iím surprised Buck is still among the living. I gotta give him credit for his ability to handle a gun utterly drunk. I thought about shooting him myself, but a man like that...well, thereís just no fun in it."
She paused, looking around as she added, "So what happened around here? Besides the obvious I mean."
Tessa smiled slightly. "I"ve determined that it may be a good idea to keep an eye on Kayla."
"I think our native friend is getting sweet on our tracker here."
Meg raised her brows. "Well now, that could be a problem couldnít it?"
Tessa nodded. "Which is why weíre going to be getting out of here very shortly. Last thing I want is for one of my girls to fall back under the control of the enemy."
"There," Morgan said as she finished sewing up the wound. She looked at them and added, "Heís lost so much blood, Iím amazed he still regains consciousness at all. And this fever..."
"Heís a strong one," Tessa said, coming over and looking down at him. "Those are my favorites, theyíre always fun to kill."
"I thought you were going to let Tuscosa deal with him," Morgan said quietly.
"Oh I am. Heíll make it to Tuscosa alive, Iíll see to that, but that doesnít mean I canít have half of him. Or a little more."
Morgan could not meet Tessaís eyes, for she was afraid of what she would see there. Instead, she stared down at Vin and began to do what she had been doing a lot of lately. She began to pray silently.
Buck had sobered up considerably since arriving back in town and meeting with Chris. He was disturbed by what his friend had told him about Ezraís suspicions and sincerely hoped the gambler was wrong.
ĎIt would kill J.D. if Lynne turned out to be Tessa Williams,í Buck thought. He chuckled without humor at the irony that thought brought. ĎCourse, he might not be around long enough to find out.í
A noise behind him reached his ears and he spun around, gun drawn.
"Whoís there?" he demanded, his eyes searching the darkness.
A form moved out of the shadows, and Buck lowered his gun as a woman moved into the light.
"Iím sorry if I startled you Mr. Wilmington," she said softly.
"Think nothing of it maíam," Buck said with a smile as he holstered his gun. "You shouldnít be out wandering the streets this late at night, maíam. Ainít exactly safe."
He looked at her closely and found her to be middle aged and very attractive, with shoulder length, black hair. He didnít recognize her, yet there was something oddly familiar about her.
"Uh, excuse me maíam, but do I know you?"
She shook her head. "No, Mr. Wilmington, you donít. But I know you. J.D. has told me a lot about you."
The woman nodded. "Youíre a very good friend to J.D. Mr. Wilmington. I can see that you care for him a lot. J.D. never had many friends when he was younger. Warms my heart to see the ones heís made here."
"Uh, are you a relative maíam? I didnít know J.D. had any left."
The woman ignored the question and said, "J.D.ís illness isnít natural, Mr. Wilmington. Look for a friend among the enemy."
Buck looked at her, startled. Noise in the street behind him caught his attention and he glanced behind him. Finding nothing, he turned his attention back to the woman, only to find her gone.
"What the hell is going on around here?" he muttered as he searched the darkness in vain for the mysterious woman.
"Something wrong, Buck?"
Buck turned and found Josiah standing behind him.
"Yeah, Iím losing my mind," Buck replied.
He took one last look in the shadows then, shaking his head, added, "Iím going to get some sleep. Whoís watching the kid?"
"Ezra. Iím on my way to relieve him now."
Buck nodded. "All right. Iíll come spell you in a few hours."
He nodded to the big man, then turned and continued on to the boarding house and his room.
J.D. waited anxiously in his hiding place for his captor to return. The early morning sun filtered in through the window, giving a friendly look to the room he was being held captive in. He wiped his sweat slicked brow with the back of his sleeve and forced down the dizziness that kept trying to claim him. He didnít know what had been done to him, but he had to get back to Four Corners or the nearest town, and get help.
How had they managed to get past the others and get him out of there? That was the question that had plagued him since waking up and it had also frightened him. What if something had happened to the others? What if they had been hurt, or worse? He shook himself and resolved that if something bad had happened to the others, that he would come back and avenge them once he was well.
He froze as footsteps reached his ears. He listened and when it became apparent that they were headed for him, got ready. He clutched his gun, still unable to believe they had actually kept them with him. The door opened and a black man entered. J.D. watched as he walked toward the bed, stopped, then quickly turned the covers back to find the pillows J.D. had stuffed under there in his place. The man cursed softly and J.D. made his move. As the man turned to leave, J.D. stepped from his hiding place and cocked his gun.
"Donít move," he warned as the man froze at the sound.
"J.D., donít do something youíre gonna regret later," the man said as he raised his hands.
"If you donít shut up, itíll be you whoíll be regretting what I do," J.D. snapped, moving forward and removing Nathanís guns.
"Now, tell me where I am and where the next town is so I can wire my friends."
"J.D. youíre in Four Corners. I am your friend son."
"Why do you all keep thinking messing with my mind is going to work? I ainít stupid! Now where am I?"
"J.D. please, you ainít well. Let me help you."
"Mister, you must have wax in your ears. Answer my question!"
The man remained silent, however, and J.D., fearing someone may walk in at any moment and spoil his chance for escape, snarled, "Fine! Iíll find my own way then. I best take care of you first though."
He prepared to shoot the man, but stopped as he remembered what Chris and Buck and the others had all taught him. ĎYou donít shoot a man in the back.í ĎIt ainít honorable to shoot an unarmed man.í
Those words running through his mind, he un-cocked the gun, gripped the barrel, and hit the man hard in the side of head. He went down with a dull thud and remained still.
J.D. hurried to the door, peeked outside, saw it was clear and hurried out. He managed to make it to the livery, saddle his horse and get to the outskirts of town unchallenged. Once he hit the outskirts, he spurred his horse from a calm trot to an all out canter, making a break for freedom.
Tessa smiled as she watched J.D. rush out of town. She glanced at Meg as her friend joined her and said, "Tell the girls to prepare themselves. Things are about to start heating up again and we may be leaving within the next twenty four hours."
Meg nodded and left to carry out the instructions. Tessa watched the dust from J.D.ís departure settle, then turned and headed for the saloon.
Buck made his way up the stairs to Nathanís, hoping J.D. would be a little better this morning, even though he knew the kid wouldnít. All through Buckís watch the previous night, J.D. had been restless and troubled, settling down only when he claimed his mamma was there. Buck shivered as he recalled the few times J.D. had said his mamma was there and Buck had actually felt a presence as Nathan had. It had been severely unnerving, but at least the kid had settled down after those incidents.
Buckís thoughts deserted him when he reached the top of the stairs and Nathanís door came into view. It was slightly ajar, which was strange considering Nathan never left the door open when he had a patient inside.
Drawing his gun, Buck moved forward cautiously, calling out, "Nathan?" as he did so.
When he received no answer, he called out again, carefully pushing the door open and peering inside. He cursed and rushed inside when he saw Nathan laying unmoving on the floor.
"Nathan! Nathan can you hear me?" Buck called as he knelt next to his friend.
He quickly glanced up to check on J.D. and found the kid gone. He cursed again, then hurried outside, scanning the streets.
He spotted Josiah and shouted, "Josiah! Get up here fast!"
The big man veered off his path and hurried over to the stairs, taking them two at the time and hurried into Nathanís room.
"What happened?" he asked as he knelt next to the now stirring man.
"Kid cold-cocked me aní took off," Nathan mumbled as he opened his eyes.
"Easy brother," Josiah said as Nathan tried unsuccessfully to sit up, "Just lay still a moment."
"Iím gonna go get Chris and Ezra," Buck said, standing and rushing out again.
He found both men in the saloon, Chris drinking coffee before heading out to look for Vin and Ezra quietly playing with his card deck.
"We gotta big problem," Buck said as he came up to their table. "J.D. knocked Nathan cold and took off."
"Aw hell," Chris muttered, as he and Ezra both stood and followed Buck back to Nathanís.
Nathan was now sitting in a chair, holding a wet cloth to his head.
"You all right, Nathan?" Chris asked.
Nathan nodded. "I will be. You guys have gotta find J.D. Kid ainít in no condition to be wandering around out there."
"Will you be all right here alone?" Chris asked as he nodded.
"Iíll make sure heís all right," A voice from the door said.
They turned around and found Morgan Williams standing there.
"I saw you all running up here and thought something was wrong. I know quite a bit about nursing, I can take care of him."
Chris thought for a moment, then nodded. "All right, let get saddled up and start searching then."
"Be careful," Nathan warned before they left. "That boy is right back to thinking weíre not his friends. Heís confused and scared and if he sees you following him, heíll probably get hostile."
Chris nodded and the men hurried to fetch their horses.
Chris was getting irritated. They had been searching for the kid all morning and were now entering early afternoon. Tracking him wasnít very hard, though every so often they would loose him, only to pick him up again a short time later.
Buck was out of his skin with worry and the bit of blood staining a rock where J.D. had apparently rested a moment didnít help matters any.
It had been nearly half an hour since finding the blood on the rocks and they had just managed to pick up their young friendís trail again when Ezra suddenly let out a laugh.
"Whatís so funny?" Buck asked, his voice showing even more evidence of just how worried he was.
"I have come to a realization. Our young comrade didnít have that much of a head start. We should have found him hours ago and yet, here we are, wandering around the desert in the hot sun, following him as he leads us to where he wants us."
"What are you talking about?" Buck asked impatiently.
Ezra sighed. "Donít you see it gentlemen? The boy is using everything weíve ever taught him about how to stay alive out here. At the moment, while we are tracking him, he is using what Mr. Tanner has taught him and is tracking us while luring us to a spot where he could, shall I say, take us out?" He paused, then added as he gestured ahead, "Most likely heís planning to carry out his plan up ahead in that pass. There are many boulders and thus, many places to hide and not get himself killed."
Buck looked where Ezra had indicated, slightly startled. "Well, glad to know the kidís been paying attention," he muttered.
"So, what do we do?" Josiah asked.
Chris thought for a moment, then said, "Weíll have to outsmart him."
"How are we gonna do that?" Buck asked. "If heís there, he can probably see us."
"Thereís another way into that pass," Josiah said, "We could head east from here, make it look like weíre gonna go look for him elsewhere and then circle around and turn into the other entrance. He sees us going away, heíll most likely stay where he is and rest. Bet heís in pretty bad shape right now being out in the sun all day."
Chris was silent, then nodded. "Sounds like a plan. Risky, but itís the only thing weíve got right now. All right, letís go."
He turned his horse east and urged him into a trot, the others following.
J.D. watched through hazy vision as the men who had been tracking him stopped their progress and talked for a moment. One of them gestured to the pass he was hiding in while another gestured east. After a moment, the leader nodded and the men turned their horses and started off eastward.
Amazement and relief flooded him as he watched them disappear and he sank down to the ground, his back resting against a large boulder.
ĎI should keep going,í he thought, ĎTheyíre going in the opposite direction. I should take advantage and get the hell out of here. But I feel so tired.í His eyes began to close. ĎMaybe I can rest for just a bit and then go on. Just a bit...í
Buck silently crept among the boulders, carefully searching for J.D. They had found his horse, so they knew he was still there. Chris had them split up so they would have a better chance of finding him, but so far, nobody had signaled that theyíd had any luck.
He sighed, hoping the kid, in his fevered state, hadnít wandered off without his horse.
ĎIf thatís the case, the fever might not be the one to get Ďem,í he thought, carefully rounding a corner.
He stopped, his breath catching as he nearly tripped over a body, leaning slumped against the big boulder he was going around. Fearfully, but silently, he bent down to check and see if the kid was still breathing. He sighed inwardly in relieve when he found he was. Now to signal the others and get out of here.
He jumped up onto a larger boulder a few feet away and quickly spotted movement.
ĎGood thing the kid wasnít watching for us up here,í he thought, ĎHe actually picked a good spot.í
He put his finger between his lips and whistled shrilly, waving his hat as the movement below stopped. Once certain they knew where to find him, he turned to go back to J.D., and found himself staring down the barrels of J.D.ís colts.
"I knew I should have kept going," J.D. said, his voice shaky and weak.
Buck slowly raised his hands and then his eyes and drew in a sharp breath. J.D. looked ten times worse than he had before. His face, where it should have been at least tanned from being out in the sun all day, was deathly white and sweat slicked. Even his lips were a strange white. But what scared Buck the most were his eyes. They were wild and burned bright with a now raging, out of control fever.
"Youíre buddies are probably around here somewhere too huh? Probably on their way here?"
A strange, frightening smile crossed J.D.ís lips. "Letís wait for Ďem then. You can see each other one last time before I..." J.D. trailed off and he took step back, shaking his head as if to clear his vision. He lowered his guns a bit, and Buck took a small step toward him.
J.D. saw the movement, however, and quickly raised the guns back on him. "Oh no you donít. Donít even think of moving. Now, take your guns out nice and slow and toss them this way."
Buck did as he was told, keeping a careful eye on J.D. all the time.
"Buck?" came Chrisí voice from just below and behind Buck.
J.D. made a gesture and Buck called, "Up here."
Josiah was the first to appear. He straightened up slowly when he saw the guns pointed at him and raised his hands as J.D. gestured for him to move aside. Chris came next and then Ezra. The gambler froze in surprise when he appeared, then relaxed and sighed as he raised his hands.
"Wonderful," he muttered.
Once their guns had been removed, J.D. said, "All right, now tell me what you did with my
friends. If youíve hurt any of them so help meľ"
Buck exchanged glances with the others, then said, "Son, we areľ"
"Donít start that!" J.D. shouted, "Why are you doing this? What is it that you want so damn bad?"
"Just you back with us, J.D.," Buck replied quietly.
His gaze met J.D.ís and he held it, trying to communicate silently with him. To get the kid to see through the fever and see who they were.
J.D.ís guns wavered as they stared at one another and confusion entered his eyes.
"J.D.," Buck said softly, taking a step forward. "Do you recognize me?"
Buck nodded and took another step forward. "Yeah son. Itís me."
Fear suddenly entered J.D.ís eyes and he took a quick step back, raising the guns he had been lowering. "Stay back!" he warned. "Youľyou ainít Buck."
"Yeah, I am son," Buck replied calmly.
He thought for a moment, then said, "Remember the time you saved my life? At that Seminole village when the Indian attacked me? He probably would have killed me if you hadnít stepped in."
"Youľyou were real mad at me for using the butt of my gun," J.D. replied with a small, ghostly smile.
Buck smiled back and took another step forward. "Remember when I took ya to Wickís town? How excited you were around all them lovely ladies? And that little filly that caught your eye?"
J.D. smiled more at the memory and Buck took another step forward. Just about thereľ
Buckís heart sank as J.D.ís eyes suddenly flared and anger entered them.
"Anybody could have gotten that information," he snarled. "You could have found out from Buck himself before you killed him. Did you kill him?" He looked at the other and shouted, "Did you kill my friends before taking me back again?"
"J.D. please," Buck began, but J.D. shouted, "Shut up! Iím not going to give you another chance to get me!"
He took quick aim at Buck and would have fired had a familiar voice exclaimed, "J.D.!"
J.D. started and looked to his right. "Mamma?" he whispered.
"J.D., listen to me. These men are your friends despite what you are seeing."
J.D. shook his head. "No, no theyíre trying to get me. They arenít my friends. They did something to my head. Theyľthey killed the others."
"No, J.D., they didnít. They are your friends. You are very ill son. It is the fever that is confusing your mind. You must push through what the fever is showing you and see what is truly there."
J.D. looked at the men, who were looking at him in calm or nervous confusion. He gritted his teeth as he stared at them, pain rushing through his fever filled eyes. He clutched his head and screamed, sinking to his knees. Buck started forward but J.D. quickly pointed the gun at him.
"Stay back!" he shouted, then squeezed his eyes shut.
"Mamma, please help me," he whimpered.
"I can not J.D.," her voice whispered from beside him. "Only these men can. Look at them son. Look them."
J.D. did as he was told and looked up the men.
" See how worried and afraid they are for you? If they didnít care for you, if they wanted to harm you, they would have done so by now. Fight the fever J.D. Let them help you."
J.D. struggled with the fever that was trying to control his mind, trying to keep his motherís words from reaching him. His mother put her hand on his, gently lowering it. J.D. jumped at the touch and looked at her, tears streaming down his cheeks. He put the gun on the ground, still staring at his mother as she held his hand in hers.
"I love you son," she whispered. "Remember, Iím always here if you need me."
She started to fade out and J.D. cried, "Mamma donít go! Please, I need you!"
"You need these men, J.D.," her voice whispered, "I cannot help you as they can. Donít worry, Iím in your heart." She leaned forward and he felt a soft breeze as her lips kissed his burning forehead. Then she was gone.
J.D. stared at the spot she had been kneeling in, not aware of anything else but the light, familiar fragrance she left behind.
He jumped and looked up to find Buck kneeling in front of him, the others standing behind him. All had disturbed looks in their eyes, although Josiah had a look of understanding.
Buck nodded silently, his heart aching at how young and frightened and sick the kidís voice sounded.
"I...I want to go home Buck. Iím so...so tired."
"Thatís just what weíre doing kid. Come on now, weíre burning daylight."
He gently helped J.D. to his feet, supporting the younger man as he swayed unsteadily. Ezra moved to J.D.ís other side and together the two men helped their young friend make his way down to where they had left the horses.
Josiah stayed for a moment after the others had disappeared down the path to the horses, having sensed the strong presence that surrounded the area. He stood in silence, knowing that what had just happened, what had stopped J.D. from killing them or getting himself killed, had been more than fevered hallucination.
"Josiah!" Chris called from below.
"Thank you Mrs. Dunne," Josiah said softly, then headed down the twisting path to join the others.
J.D.ís returned sanity did not last long. The boy was struggling with the illusions the fever was creating and would occasionally mutter stuff, fall silent as he pushed the illusions back, only to start up again a short time later. This grew steadily worse until a few miles outside of town, as early evening settled in, when he snapped. Chris, who had seen something surge through J.D.ís eyes, was ready when the boyís horse suddenly reared, startling the others, and took off in the opposite direction. Chris spurred his own horse and took off at a gallop, quickly catching up to J.D. He threw himself onto the other horse, knocking J.D. off and falling to the ground with him.
J.D., in his sudden panic, struggled fiercely, landing a hard punch to Chrisí stomach and scrambling to his feet. He began running, but didnít get very far.
Josiah ran his horse in front of him, blocking the way while Buck ran up to grab him. J.D. fought violently, until Josiah managed to get him in his bear hold, quickly immobilizing him.
Chris and Ezra joined them and J.D. stared at Chris with fiery defiance. Chris stared back at him, containing his anger, but not by much. He glanced back at the distant town. Theyíd never make it with J.D. is this condition. Chris would most likely kill him.
"Josiah," he said, indicating what he wanted done just in the tone he used.
Josiah nodded and applied a little pressure. "Sorry son," he said softly just before J.D. went limp.
"Letís get him in a saddle and back to town," Chris said, turning and heading for his horse.
Josiah scooped J.D. up in his arms and followed. Josiah put J.D. in front of Buck so the older man could hold the boy up, then retrieved the kidís horse so he could lead it back to town. When they were ready they started off, hoping to finish the ride without further incident.
They arrived back in town about an hour later. Nathan and Morgan both hurried out to meet them, worry written all over Nathanís face.
Chris handed his horse off to a stable boy, then looked at Nathan as Buck handed J.D. down to him.
"Get him upstairs and tie him down," he ordered, "He runs off again Iíll hunt him down and shoot him! And goddamn it, somebody find Vin! I want him back here by sundown!"
That said, he turned and stalked off toward the saloon.
Ezra had already left the scene and, despite his worry, Buck looked at Josiah and said, "Doesnít leave us a lot of time. Better find him before Chris really blows his stack."
Josiah nodded. "Better get fresh horses first."
Once they had changed horses, the pair road out of town, heading for the most likely place Vin would be.
Nathan didnít like tying the kid to the bed, but he had believed Chris when the black clad man had said if the boy took off again, heíd hunt him down and shoot him, so heíd done as instructed. Morgan was still with him, proving to be an excellent nurse and help. Together, they had cleaned him up and stitched up a few wounds he had received from the rocks in the pass. He was still unconscious, though Nathan wasnít sure if it was from the fever or from Josiah. He figured it was a little of both.
There was a soft knock on the door and Morgan moved to answer it. ĎLynneí stood in the doorway, a worried look in her green eyes.
She looked at Morgan, then at Nathan and said, "I heard they brought him back. Can I see him?"
Nathan nodded. "Just for a bit."
ĎLynneí nodded and sat in the chair he offered her. He busied himself with cleaning up while ĎLynneí talked softly to J.D. He glanced at Morgan and noted with curiosity that she was watching ĎLynneí with what looked like a nervous expression. He watched as ĎLynneí looked over at Morgan and smiled slightly, but her eyes seemed to be communicating with the other girl. After a moment, Morgan turned away, also to clean up.
He didnít have time to ponder this, however, because J.D. suddenly started coughing violently and ĎLynneí cried out, "Nathan!"
Nathan hurried over and his heart jumped to his throat when he saw blood trickling out of both corners of J.D.ís mouth. Nathan had tied him in such a way that they could sit him up or turn him over if they needed to and thatís just what he did. He quickly turned the kid on his side and watched as he coughed out blood into the dish Morgan held under his head.
Morgan looked up at ĎLynne,í who had moved out of the way and was watching in what looked like fascination. ĎLynneí saw Morgan looking at her and flashed her a chilly smile. Morgan quickly looked away, concentrating on J.D.
When the fit had passed, Nathan gently turned J.D. back over, dabbing his mouth with a cloth to clean the blood away.
"Iíll come back later, Nathan," ĎLynneí said softly, putting a hand on his shoulder and gazing at J.D. sadly.
"Iíll let him know you were here," he replied, gently squeezing her hand.
She nodded to both him and Morgan, then turned and silently left.
Buck and Josiah returned shortly after sunset, both wearing worried frowns. They had found no trace of Vin in any of his usual spots and were quite certain he wouldnít have gone anywhere else. "Chris ainít gonna like this," Buck said as they stabled their horses.
"Nope," Josiah agreed.
Buck sighed. "Guess weíd better get over there."
"Iíll join you in a moment, my friend. There is something I must see to."
Buck nodded and left the Livery. He entered the saloon and quickly spotted Chris, sitting in a corner, nursing a bottle.
"Find him?" he asked without looking up as Buck sat down.
Buck shook his. "No. He wasnít in any of his usual spots. Something ainít right, pard. Vin wouldnít wander off someplace we couldnít easily find him."
"Unless he didnít wander off at all," Chris said thoughtfully.
Buck looked at him. "You donít suppose he ran into trouble do you?"
"I think thatís exactly what happened."
The pair looked up as Josiah appeared from out of nowhere. He tossed a very roughed up hat on the table as he sat down and took a drink from the bottle.
Buck peered closely at the hat, then asked, "Isnít that Vinís?"
Josiah nodded. "Yup. Found it sitting on one of the pews in the church. What has me concerned, besides the fact that itís not with Vin, is the condition itís in. Looks like itís been through quite a harsh time. Not only that," he leaned forward and turned the hat over, exposing the inside. He pointed to a spot that had been stained red. "This here looks an awful lot like blood."
He leaned back and looked at them. "I believe, gentlemen, that we have another, serious problem."
"Damn it. As if we donít have enough already," Chris growled. He glanced outside and added, "Itís too dark to do anything about it right now. Weíll have to wait till first light."
They sat in silence for a moment, then Buck said, "Iím gonna go check on the kid. Iíll let Nathan know whatís going on."
He nodded to them, got up and left. He started for Nathanís everything that had been happening rushing through his mind at once and colliding. He was thrown against the wall and felt the pain searing through his arm before he heard the crack of the gun shot. He cried out, clutching his shoulder as he slid to the ground. Another shot whizzed by his head, the bullet embedding itself in the wall next to him, prompting him to seek cover.
"Buck!" he heard Chris shout and then more gunfire ensued until all was suddenly silent.
He sat still, listening and clutching his throbbing shoulder. Running footsteps reached his ears, followed by his name and then Chris was suddenly next to him.
"Buck, you all right?"
"My shoulder," Buck replied through gritted teeth as Josiah and Ezra joined them.
"Come on, brother," Josiah said as he helped Buck to stand, "Letís get you over to Nathanís."
"Youíll be all right," Nathan announced a half hour later as he finished sewing up Buckís shoulder. "Youíre lucky. The bullet went clean through, missing everything important."
Buck nodded his thanks and the pair looked up as Chris, Josiah and Ezra entered the room.
"Any luck?" Nathan asked.
Chris shook his head and Josiah said, "Whoever it was, they had darkness on their side. No one saw him come, no one saw him go."
"Somebodyís nervous," Chris said. "They must know that we know somethingís not right, which means weíre being watched."
Buck stiffened at Chrisí words, a thought suddenly coming over him.
"Somethiní wrong Buck?" Nathan asked, noticing the other manís reaction.
Buck was silent for a moment, the replied slowly, "Last night, when I was on my way to my room to get some sleep before taking over for Josiah, I ran into this woman. Iíd never seen or met her before but she claimed she knew me. Said J.D. had told her all about me and the rest of you. I asked her if she was a relative, but she didnít answer. Instead, she told me that J.D.ís sickness wasnít natural. Said to...to look for a friend among the enemy. Have to wonder if whoever this enemy is has Vin."
"Come first light," Chris said, "Weíre gonna find out."
Tessa nodded to the girls as she entered her room, Morgan right behind her, glad that they were all there.
"All right girls, listen up. Weíre leaving and hereís the plan. Crystal, remember that cave we found last week a couple miles out?"
Crystal nodded. "I want you and Selene to take the tracker out there as soon as weíre finished here. The darkness will provide enough cover that you can sneak him out of here unnoticed. The rest of us will spend the night here. In the morning, Meg, you and Kayla will take a trip to the bank and use your charm to withdraw all the money weíve seen go in there. Keep it very quiet. No gunplay and no witnesses that can run out and tell their big strong protectors whatís happened. After that, you two will join Crystal and Selene at the Cave."
"What are you going to be doing Tess?" Crystal asked.
"Iím going to be tying up a few loose ends so to speak. Now, if Iím not at that cave by say mid afternoon, one of two things has happened. Iím either dead, or in jail."
She paused and thought about that for a moment. "Or it actually could be both, but never mind. Whateverís happened, dear, loyal Morgan here will ride out and tell you. If Iím dead, then I want you to return Mr. Tanner to his friends...in bits and pieces. I intend to get the last laugh if thatís the case. However, if I am just in prison, then I want the same thing to happen, but I want him kept alive. Iíll end up rejoining you sooner or later and Iím going to want to finish him. Crystal, youíre the expert in that department, so Iíll leave you in charge of that task. Any questions?"
She smiled when she was met with silence. "Good. Now, Crystal, Selene, come back in a hour to collect your baggage. The rest of you go get some sleep. We may be headed for a wild time and youíre all gonna want to be rested."
The girls nodded and started to leave. "Oh and Crystal dear?" Tessa called, "Leave the tracker be tonight all right? I really donít want to have to undo one of your temper tantrums."
Chris Larabee was angry. Well, Livid was a more accurate description of the black clad gunman as he walked down the street early the next morning, clutching a piece of paper in his hand. Some one was messing with him and his men and he didnít like it. J.D. was down with some kind of illness, Vin was missing and Buck had been shot, though thankfully it wasnít serious.
He walked into the saloon, looked at Josiah, Ezra and Buck and said, "Nathanís," then walked out.
They arrived at Nathanís a minute after he did and when the door was closed, Buck asked, "So where do we start searching for Vin?"
Chris looked at them and replied, "Right here, in town."
"How do you know heís here?" Nathan asked.
Chris handed him the paper he had been carrying and said, "This gave me a clue. Found a knife pinning it to my door when I woke up. A very skillful person was in my room last night."
Nathan looked at the paper, then up at Chris, startled. He handed it to Buck so the other three could have a look. It was a wanted poster with Vin featured in the picture.
Written in blood red letters across the top was "Heís still here."
Buck looked up at Chris, just as surprised as Nathan. "Okay. So how do we find him?"
"Weíre gonna do a room by room, building by building search," Chris replied.
"Chris, you know how long thatís gonna take?" Nathan asked.
Chris nodded. "Yeah, but itíll probably draw whoeverís holding him out or force them to make a mistake."
He looked over at J.D., who was awake but didnít appear to be aware of what was going on around him. He was staring absently at the far wall, muttering softly to himself and occasionally smiling.
"Nathan, you stay here and keep watch on J.D. The rest of us will handle the search."
Nathan nodded and Chris moved from the room. Josiah and Ezra followed but Buck stayed behind.
"How long has he been like this?"
"Started a few hours ago. His mamma keeps coming going and from the look on his face, Iíd guess that sheís here now."
Buck shook his head, a deep sadness in his eyes. Nathan put his hand on the other manís shoulder, squeezing gently. Buck looked at Nathan, nodded, then turned to catch up with the others.
Chris led the other three to the middle of street, looking at the people hurrying about on early morning business. He drew his gun, looked at the others, then fired three shots into the air.
"Could I have your attention?" he shouted as everyone stopped and ducked down.
He looked at the faces peering at them from their hiding places and from inside buildings and continued, "One of my men, Vin Tanner, is missing! We have reason to believe he is still here in town, being held against his will. The four of us are going to search every room of every building until we find him. Anybody who stands in the way will be arrested for interfering in an investigation! For those of you who are innocent and know nothing of what is going on, I apologize in advance. But as for the guilty party..." A malicious smile crossed his lips, clearly finishing the threat.
He looked at the others as he holstered his gun and nodded. The foursome split up and began their search.
Ezra was now in the hotel, beginning his search of the second building in his section. The last one had taken half an hour and he groaned inwardly at how long this one would most likely take. The third door he knocked on was opened by a curious Lynne Stevens.
She smiled at him and asked, "Hello Mr. Standish. Is it true about Mr. Tanner?"
Ezra nodded. "Forgive me Miss Lynne, but I must search your quarters."
She nodded and opened the door further. "Of course, come on in."
Ezra entered the room and immediately felt uncomfortable. Being in his profession had taught him how to pick up on dangerous situations, and this felt very dangerous. He kept his face impassive, however, and proceeded to search the room, feeling ĎLynneísí eyes on him the whole time. He was just about to thank her and leave when something on the floor near the bed caught his eye.
"Uh, Miss Lynne, may I trouble you for a glass of water?" he asked, pretending he had noticed nothing.
ĎLynneí smiled and nodded. She turned to get the pitcher of water that was on her dresser and Ezra quickly bent down and retrieved the object, slipping it into his pocket as ĎLynneí turned back and handed him the glass.
Ezra took it and nodded his thanks, quickly downing the liquid and giving her the glass back.
"Much obliged. Thank you for your patience, Iíll take my leave of you know."
ĎLynneí nodded and as he opened the door said, "I hope you find Mr. Tanner, Mr. Standish. It would be a shame if anything happened to him."
Ezra nodded. "It would indeed, my dear. Have a nice day."
He breathed a sigh of relief when the door closed, then quickly left the hall, waiting until he got outside before taking the object out of his pocket and examining it. It was a harmonica, stained in red in blood. Ezra turned it over and his heart beat even faster when he saw the initials engraved into it. V.T.
He glanced up and down the street then began walking, hurrying for the section he knew Chris would be.
He hadnít gone far when someone shouted "Ezra!"
He stopped and turned toward the voice and his chest exploded in pain as a bullet ripped through him. Seconds later, another one tore into his shoulder and a third entered his side as the force spun him around. He heard screams as he fell to the ground and darkness claimed him.
Nathan ran to the window and carefully looked out as the sound of gunshots reached his ears. His heart jumped to his throat as he saw Ezra fall to the ground and lay still. He threw a quick glance at J.D., grabbed his bag and raced outside. Buck was already at Ezraís side when Nathan arrived, calling to him and ripping Ezraís shirt open to expose the wounds.
Nathan cursed softly when he saw Ezraís condition and quickly set to helping Buck remove the clothing.
"What happened?" Chris asked as he and Josiah ran up, guns drawn.
"Ezraís been shot up bad," Nathan replied as he worked.
Ezra stirred then and his eyes fluttered open. He looked at Nathan and whispered, "C...Chris."
"Iím here, Ezra," Chris said, kneeling down on the other side of Buck.
Ezra reached up and took Chrisí hand, pressing something into it.
"Found it...in room," he whispered as Chris looked at the harmonica.
"Whoís room Ezra?" Chris asked.
Ezra saw the confused looks that passed between the men and forced himself to focus on what he was saying. He swallowed hard and said, "Lynne."
He saw understanding dawn and sighed, slipping back into oblivion.
"Damn," Nathan said softly. He looked up at Chris and said, "He canít be moved. Iím gonna have to take the bullets out here."
Chris nodded and stood. "Josiah, stay with Nathan. Buck, come with me."
Chris ran down the street toward the hotel, gun drawn and Buck on his heels. They reached ĎLynneís room and Chris kicked open the door, only to find the room empty. Chris spat out a curse, then crossed the room as something caught his eye. On the bed was a piece of paper with a single word written on it. "Saloon."
Chris looked at Buck, crumpling the paper up. "Letís go."
The pair raced out of the Hotel and down the street to the saloon. Chris spotted their quarry right away and growled, "Everybody out."
The few patrons who were there took one look at the two men and scurried out.
ĎLynneí looked up and smiled as they approached. "Come to have goodbye drink with me before I leave?"
"Only place youíre going is to the jailhouse Tessa," Chris growled.
Tessaís smile widened. "So, you finally figured it out huh?"
Chris aimed his gun at her and said, "Whereís Vin?"
"Fishing," Tessa replied casually, taking a sip of her drink. "Easy sugar," she said as Chris made a move toward her, "You donít want your tracker thrown in as bait for the sharks now do you?"
She ran a hand through her hair and added, "Let me explain something to you. I still have a contact in this town. If anything happens to me, this contact will let my girls know and youíll get Tanner back in a very nasty way."
A tiny vial appeared in her hand and she tossed it to Chris. Chris caught it and looked at the red liquid without expression.
"Guess what that is," Tessa said with a small grin. "Give up? That, my dear man, is a little sample of Vinís blood. The first thing my girls will be sending you will be the rest of it. After that, little bits and pieces of the rest of him will follow. Have you ever seen human body parts drained of blood and not properly preserved? Not a pretty sight, believe me. Of course, thatís only if Iím killed. If Iím put in jail, then my girls will just send certain parts, keeping him alive and suffering until Iím released and rejoin them."
"You are one sick, twisted little girl," Buck said in a low growl.
Tessa smiled coldly at him. "You only think that, my dear Buck, because Iím not one of those poor girls trapped in the slavery of men. Iíve broken free of your kindís dominance and because of that, men like you and Chris and the others, have persecuted me. Targeting me for Ďjusticeí when the ones who should really be targeted are the ones who make the rules and then break them. The ones who prey on my sisters and then walk free."
She stood, her eyes flashing and her voice a low hiss. "Men think they are so perfect, so righteous. What you do not realize, as you are dominating and destroying, is that the real danger is us. Women. We are the deadlier of the species. We have been since the beginning of time and will continue to be until the end. Call me what you want. In the end, itís just unconscious knowledge and fear that sometime in the near future or in the far future, women will rise up from the ashes and take control of what men lost because they were too self righteous to know how to keep it."
She put her hat on and nodded to them. "Now, Iím leaving to meet my girls. If you follow, Iíll know, and Vin will suffer a very, very painful death. Iím certain you donít want that to happen now do you?"
When they didnít answer, she smiled and said, "It was nice playing with you gentlemen. Give my regards to J.D. if he makes it out of that terrible little sickness of his alive. And Ezra too, though Iím quite certain he wonít make it."
She nodded to them and walked past, feeling how hard they were fighting to restrain themselves. At the door, she turned back, winked and then disappeared into the street.
It was several hours before Nathan was able to move Ezra upstairs and a few more hours after that before he emerged from his room, a grave look on his face.
"Well?" Buck asked.
Nathan shook his head. "I donít think heís gonna make it through the night. Even if he does, itís doubtful heíll last very long. Josiah..." he trailed off, unable to say what was on his mind.
Josiah, however, nodded in understanding and slipped into the room.
Nathan looked at Chris and Buck and asked, "So Lynne was Tessa Williams?"
Buck nodded, anger flashing through his eyes.
"This is gonna break J.D.ís heart," Nathan said, "Kid really liked her."
"Kid was in love with her," Buck growled. "Now she and those other hellions have not only made off with Vin, but also all the money in the bank."
Nathan looked from Buck to Chris and back again. "The bank?"
Chris nodded. "Yeah. Killed the teller and guard and took the money sometime this morning."
"So what do we do?" Nathan asked.
Chris shook his head. "I donít know. Iím sure we could track them, but I donít want to risk Vinís life. Not until we have a better idea of what the situation is and some kind of plan."
"Iím wondering where this friend among the enemy is," Buck muttered. "Now would be a wonderful time for them to show up."
"Iím gonna go back in and check on things," Nathan said.
Buck looked at Chris and asked, "Now what?"
"I donít know about you, but I need a drink," Chris replied, then walked away.
Buck looked from Chris to Nathanís door and back again and finally decided to go in. Heíd join Chris later.
Tessa smiled as she rode into the little camp Crystal and Selene had set up at the cave the previous night. The smile faded when Crystal hurried out of the cave, worry filling her usually cold eyes.
"Whatís wrong?" Tessa asked as she quickly dismounted.
"Itís Meg. She got hurt in the bank this morning."
Tessa quickly followed Crystal into the cave and was taken to the very back where the others were tending to Meg. Selene was giving the girl water from the a little stream that ran in through a hidden source while Kayla was carefully stitching up a deep wound in Megís leg.
"What happened?" Tessa demanded, noting as she knelt in Megís other side the bandage on the girlís right shoulder and the sickly look on her face.
"The bank guard," Kayla replied. "We made the mistake of underestimating him. He had a knife that he was very good with. I emphasize the word was."
"Meg? How do you feel?"
Meg looked at Tessa and replied, "Howľdo I look?"
Meg smiled tightly. "I feel worse, though not by much."
"Sheís lost a lot of blood," Kayla said as she finished her work. She looked up and added, "I wouldnít advise moving on until at least morning."
"Damn. Well, I donít think Larabee will come after us this soon. Not until he can figure out a good plan. We should be safe till morning."
She looked around and spotted Vin, slumping against a wall, his hands tied to something above him. She smiled when she saw him watching her and moved over to him.
"Finally awake huh? I told you youíd be getting out of that boring little room soon. Did you enjoy your trip here?"
Vinís answer was soft and incoherent, which caused her to smile.
"Getting a nasty fever sugar? Well, letís see if this gets through to you. Your friends finally figured me out. A little on the late side but hey, thatís typical of men isnít it? Your friend, Standish, found something of interest in my room. Not sure what it was, but it must
have been yours. He didnít think Iíd noticed that heíd found something, but I did. He left to find Larabee and tell him what heíd found and the connection he had made. I didnít really mind. It was time for them to know anyway. But, just to make things interesting, I caught up to
Standish and called out to him. Guess what happened next?"
She smiled and lowered her voice to a soft, sensuous purr. "He turned and I shot him in the chest. Then I shot him in the arm. And then, for good luck, I shot him in the side. They were still working on him when I left. But I saw the healerís face. It was like he was standing there
talking to me. Your friend isnít going to make it. In fact, Iím willing to bet that if he isnít dead yet, heís very close."
She watched with a smile as Vinís eyes filled with emotion, pushing the fevered haze back.
"Ah, there you are," she said, her voice never leaving itís purr, "I thought that would bring you back."
Vin struggled to speak, but the words wouldnít come out.
"Shhh," Tessa whispered, putting a finger to his lips, "I know just what you want to say. You want to call me a sick, twisted demon donít you? A heartless witch?" She smiled. "Iím just being what men taught me to be, Mr. Tanner. Iím just living up to their expectations."
She patted his cheek, then stood and went outside, leaving Vin to struggle with the emotions her words awakened within him.
Morgan knocked softly on Nathanís door and entered at the soft call. Nathan was looked up from where he was sitting, in between J.D. and Ezra, a tired look in his eyes.
"IľI just wanted to know how Mr. Standish was doing," Morgan said
Nathan sighed. "Not good. Heís slipping further and further away. I donít expect him to make it through the night."
Nathan nodded. "Yeah, he was."
Morgan closed her eyes, silently cursing Tessa for what she had done and also herself for staying silent when she could help. She opened her eyes and looked at J.D. She could see how close he was to being sucked into oblivion by Tessaís poison. How could she help himľhelp both of
them, without revealing who she was?
ĎYou canít,í she thought, ĎYou either help them and reveal yourself, or you stay silent and let two good men die. Well, wouldnít be the first timeľí
She looked up to find Nathan watching her carefully. "You all right?"
She looked at J.D., then Ezra and nodded quickly. "Yeah, Iím fine. IľI have to go."
She turned and left quickly, leaving Nathan curious and suspicious. She ran down to the streets and all the way to the Livery, where she saddled her horse, then left town at breakneck speed, heading for where Tessa was supposed to be and hoping she was still there.
She arrived at the cave a while later, and was relieved to see they were still there.
"Morgan!" Tessa exclaimed with a smile. "To what do we owe this pleasant surprise?"
"I just came to see if you were all right," Morgan replied. "Why havenít you left yet?"
"Meg had a little incident at the bank," Tessa replied, glancing back into the cave, "She should be all right, but she wonít be able to travel until at least morning."
She looked back at Morgan, a small smile on her lips. "Whatís the word on the gambler? He still alive?"
Morgan nodded. "Nathan doesnít expect him to make it through the night though. Josiah even read the last rights," she said quietly.
Tessaís smile grew. She put her arm around Morgan and said, "Come on, have some lunch. We have plenty."
"Tess?" Morgan began hesitantly. "Was...was it really necessary to kill those men in the bank?"
Tessa laughed. "Of course if was, Morgan. I couldnít have them running out and telling Larabee what happened before I was completely ready, could I? Really Morg, youíve gone terribly soft. You should ride with us again. Just to get that little edge of yours back."
Morgan didnít reply. She nodded to the girls, who were lounging in various areas of the cave, eating sandwiches and fruit. Meg lay sleeping in her bedroll with Kayla keeping an eye on her. Her eyes traveled further back and filled with sorrow when she saw Vin, staring at the ground, his breathing shallow and sometimes harsh.
"I hope youíve given him water," she said, her gaze moving to Tessa.
Tessa shrugged and looked at the others. "Anybody give him water?"
"When we arrived last night," Selene spoke up.
Morgan shot them all a look that clearly stated what was on her mind and quickly moved over to the little stream, filling the cup that lay next to it and moving over to Vin.
"Vin," she whispered, gently tilting his head up and putting the cup to his lips, "Drink."
She managed to get a little of it into him before he refused to continue and she reluctantly set it aside.
"No," Morgan whispered. "Not yet."
Vin turned his eyes on her and her heart nearly broke when she saw the look in them. "Please...donít let...her continue. Those men...had families. Please...."
He trailed off, squeezing his eyes shut as a sudden wave of pain ran through him. When he opened them again, it was clear the awareness that had been with him a moment before was gone. She put her hand to his head, wincing at the heat. She looked back into his eyes, and was disturbed by the vacantness she saw.
She glanced back and found the others, except for Meg, who was still sleeping and Kayla, who was watching over Meg, had gone outside. Kaylaís eyes were on her, watching her intently. The young native girl stood and came over, kneeling next to her and looking at Vin with a strangely soft expression.
"You know what you must do," she whispered, "As I know what I must do."
Kayla looked at her with the same expression. "It isnít betrayal if itís done in the name of love. She is destroying herself and must be brought back from the brink. Go. Do what you must and I will do what I must."
Morgan stared at the other girl uncertainly. A strange, silent communication passed between them and Morgan finally nodded. She got up and went outside.
"Tessa!" she called, going over to the red head. "Thanks for lunch Tess. Itís getting late and Iíve gotta run."
"Are you sure you wonít ride with us Morgan?" Tessa asked as the girls hugged.
Morgan nodded. "Yes. I canít go back to that Tess. You know that. Where...where are you headed?"
"Tuscosa. Weíll be heading out in the morning. Hopefully, Meg will be up and around by then."
"Well, I wish you a safe journey. Wire me every so often to let me know youíre all right, okay?"
Tessa nodded and the pair hugged again, then Morgan mounted her horse. "Say goodbye to Meg for me," she said, then spurred her horse forward.
She glanced back as she rode away. Pain filled her heart when she saw Tessa watching her and she whispered, "Iím sorry Tess."
She turned her eyes back to the rode and didnít look back again.
Buck sat behind J.D.ís desk in the jail house, staring absently at the empty cells. It was nearing sundown and with every passing minute, he grew more and more apprehensive. So much was happening all at once. Vin was missing, having been taken by a gang of girls lead by a maniac, Ezra was at deathís doorstep and J.D. was getting closer to joining the gambler. None of the men knew what to do, though Buck suspected Chris would be giving the word to mount up in the morning.
He looked up as the door opened and Morgan Williams entered, hesitation written all over her face.
"Hey Morgan," he greeted unenthusiastically, "Something I can help you with?"
"No. But...thereís something I can help you with."
"Oh? Whatís that?"
"I...I know what the illness J.D. has is. I...know how to cure it."
Buck sat up straighter, his eyes narrowing as he asked, "How do you know what it is and how to cure it?"
"Itís caused by a special poison. It can be digested or injected and the cure can be given the same way."
Buck stood up and came over to her. He put his hands on her shoulders and asked again, "How do you know this?"
"All the Williams women know it. Itís a skill passed down from mother do daughter, aunt to niece, grandmother to granddaughter. Weíre taught about them from the time we understand whatís going on. Weíre taught how to mix the ingredients, which poison does what and so on."
Buck was almost afraid to ask. "We?"
Morgan nodded. "Tessa is the only family I have left and I am the only family she has left. Tessaís father was my fatherís brother. Tessa...is my first cousin."
Buck stared at Morgan in stunned silence. After a moment, his eyes flashed and he grabbed her arm.
"Come on," he growled, pulling her outside and down the street.
Nathan jumped up, startled, as Buck burst through the door.
He pushed Morgan into a chair, looked at Nathan and said shortly, "Watch her," and then disappeared out the door.
He returned several minutes later with Chris and Josiah in tow.
"All right. Now tell them what you told me," Buck said, his eyes still flashing.
Morgan took a steadying breath, then repeated everything she had told Buck.
"Why the hell didnít you tell us this sooner?!" Chris exploded when she was finished.
"Because Tessa is practically my sister!" Morgan replied, just as angrily, "I couldnít betray her. Sheís all the family I have left and Iím all the family she has left! Wouldnít you do the same thing?"
"In case you didnít realize it," Buck said, "You just betrayed her now."
Morgan lowered her head. "I know," she said softly.
Nathan put a hand on her shoulder and asked gently, "Why did you decide to tell us?"
"Because Tessa is on the edge. And if she goes over, then she will never come back," Morgan whispered. She looked up, tears in her eyes as she added, "I love her too much to see her kill herself like that."
She paused for a moment, then continued, "Thereís another reason too. By helping you, Iím hoping I can start to...atone for my past."
Josiah stepped forward. "What is it you wish to repent for?"
Morgan was silent, her mind clearly in the past as she remembered. Finally, she began talking and told them all she had told Vin.
"Like Tessa, I lost both my parents to murder. It was quite a while after her last visit when it happened. I was thirteen at the time and I witnessed it. When Tessa came for one of her hiding from the law visits, she found me frightened and messed up....
Twelve year old Tessa Williams smiled as she spotted her aunt and uncleís house. It would be good to see them again. And Morgan too. God, how she had missed her dearest friend. She looked forward to spending time with her cousin while the heat died down, doing things young girls were supposed to do.
But as she neared the house, her defenses went on alert. It was too quiet. Normally, all sorts of activity was happening, but today, there was nothing. Something was wrong. Her eyes carefully scanned the area, searching for signs of an enemy as her hand slipped to her gun. It soon became apparent that there wasnít any. The place was virtually deserted.
"Aunt Carla? Uncle Roger? Morgan? Anyone here?" she shouted, dismounting her black horse and moving carefully to the front door.
She pushed the door and it swung open easily. Drawing her gun, she stepped inside.
"Hello? Auntie? Uncle? Morgan?"
A small noise reached her ears and she froze, listening intently. When it came again, she quickly pinpointed it and headed forward. In the hall that led away from the living room, she heard the sound again, and knew it was coming from the secret space behind the wall. She found the trigger and a section of the wall slid open, revealing a small room. She stepped into the lantern lit room and her eyes traveled to a corner as she followed a frightened gasp.
Tessa holstered her gun and hurried over to her cousin.
"Morgan. Morgan itís me, Tessa," Tessa said as the girl tried to scramble away.
Morgan looked at Tessa fearfully and whispered, "Tessa?"
Tessa nodded. "Yes. Morgan what happened? Whereís aunt Carla and Uncle Roger?"
"Theyíre...theyíre dead Tessa. Both of them. I...I saw it happen."
"What?" Tessa breathed, unable to believe what the other girl had just said. "How?"
"Murdered. By four men in the corral. Iím...pretty sure they were bounty hunters. They took the bodies with them when they left."
"About a week ago."
"Youíve been hiding in here for a week?"
Morgan nodded. "They came inside looking for me. I was afraid they might come back when they couldnít find me so I stayed in here."
"Did you get a good look at them?"
At Morganís nod, Tessa took her hand and led her from the room to the living room. She sat her down, then went and retrieved paper and a pencil.
"Here. Time to put your art skills to work."
Morgan looked at her, then took the paper and pencil and began drawing. Sometime later, the girls were staring at the portraits of the four men who had taken Morganís parents.
"This one here," Morgan pointed to the first drawing she had made, "He was the leader. He killed them."
"Ugly cuss isnít he?" Tessa commented as she looked at the drawing.
She looked at the other drawings, then out the window and said, "Itís going to be dark soon. Weíll eat and get some sleep, then head out in the morning. Weíll find these bastards, and weíll pay them back."
It was three days later when the girls finally found their prey. Acting on information they had gathered, they ended up in a small mining town and headed straight for the saloon, where they would most likely find some help.
The whole room stopped and stared at them as they entered. Tessa stared back threateningly, allowing her guns to show and, after a moment, the patrons went back to their business.
The barkeep looked at them with raised brows as they approached the bar and said, "Little young to be in here ainít ya girls?"
Tessa smiled coldly and replied softly, "Weíre old enough to spill youíre guts all over your pretty floor, Mister. Iíd say weíre old enough to be in a stupid little menís club."
The Barkeep raised his brows again, then laughed.
"Tessa, good to see ya darling."
Tessa smiled. "You too Sim."
"What can I do for you and your friend here?"
"You can give us some information."
Tessa pulled out Morganís drawings and gave them to barkeep. "Weíre looking for these men. We were told they may be around here somewhere. You know them?"
The man studied the drawings for a moment, then nodded.
"Yeah, they come in here pretty often when theyíre in town."
"Are they in town now?"
Sim nodded. "Yeah. They should be around pretty soon. Grab a table and Iíll send something right over."
Tessa nodded and she and Morgan went to a table in the back.
"How do you know him?" Morgan asked.
"He was a friend of my fatherís," Tessa replied. "I met him several years ago and he promised me I could always come to him if I had a problem or something."
Sim brought them over some drinks and something to eat and the girls settled down to wait. An hour later, their wait ended. Morgan tensed up fearfully as the four men they had been looking for entered the saloon and moved to the bar.
"Easy Morgan," Tessa murmured, "Remember what I told you. You have to let yourself go cold now. Things are about to get bloody and Iím going to need you watching my back."
Morgan looked at Tessa, closed her eyes and nodded.
"Are you ready?"
Morgan opened her eyes, coldness in them as she nodded again.
Tessa looked at the men and called, "Excuse me gentlemen. You wonít happen to be the bounty hunters who killed and took in the Williams couple a little over a week ago would you?"
The leader looked at her for a long moment before replying, "Yeah that us. Whatís it to you girly?"
"Well, I just wanted to let you know that you missed two of the family and they arenít too happy with you?"
The leader laughed. "Thereís only two of the witch family left and theyíre just a couple of little girls. What are they gonna do?"
Tessa smiled. "My, my. You are a stupid one arenít you?"
Moving fast, Morgan and Tessa both drew their guns and shot the leaderís partners. The man cursed as his friends went down and started for his gun, but Tessa, shot both his knees and he collapsed with a howl of pain.
"Recognize us yet?" Tessa asked casually as she and Morgan went over to him.
The man only moaned in response. Tessa shot his arm, provoking another scream.
"Tell me," Tessa asked as she knelt next to him, "Did it feel good to take my cousinís parents right in front of her? Was it worth your own death?"
Fear flashed through his eyes and she smiled. "Never fails with you people. Youíre all high and mighty when youíre taking the lives of others. But, when it comes down to your own death, you turn cowardly."
She stood and looked at Morgan, who was covering the rest of the room.
"Morg, the honor is all yours. Make it quick cause the law probably isnít far away."
Morgan stared down at the man, who stared back at her fearfully.
"Please kid...donít," he gasped out around the pain.
Morganís eyes flashed as she remembered how her mother had pleaded with this same man, using those same words. Her expression hardened and she aimed her gun at him.
"Thatís what my mother said before you killed her," she whispered, then pulled the trigger.
She stared at the body for what seemed an eternity before Tessa put a hand on her shoulder and said, "Come on. Weíve gotta split."
Tessa took her hand and led her from the saloon, calling back to Sim, "Thanks sugar! Sorry about the mess!"
They never heard Simís reply over the shouts of the three lawmen rushing toward them. They jumped up on their horses and spurred them into a canter, disappearing into the wilderness before the lawmen could even get their horses.
Two years passed, during which time, Tessa and Morgan ran amuck throughout the territory. It was just as they were entering their third year of terrorizing that things began to change. They met a girl Tessaís age named Meg Foster, who was surprisingly similar to Tessa. She too, had lost her family at a young age, and had been on her own for a long time, doing what she had to in order to survive. The girls bonded right away and Meg joined the pair in their destructive journeys.
Morgan, however, was beginning to change. She was beginning to question the life she was leading. Wondering if it truly was for her. As the months passed, the need to leave her way of life grew. It was just after they met Selene Russell, yet another young girl trying to survive on her own, that Morgan decided to leave and find her real place in life. It was a hard decision, but Tessa had understood and, though tearful, wished her luck.
Morgan traveled on her own, settling in small towns but never for very long. No matter what happened, no matter how much she liked the town she was in, something would happen that would cause her to revert to her past ways and force her to move on. She encountered Tessa and the girls once, meeting their newest member, Crystal Richards, a girl almost as frightening as Tessa. Morgan had been about to revert due to incidents in the town she was staying, and so had helped the girls in the robbery and destruction of the town before moving on. But as she grew older, she learned how to handle herself better without reverting and finally settled in Four Corners....
"I want so much to make up for all the evil Iíve done," she said as the tears flowed freely down her cheeks.
She looked up at them. "I donít care what happens to me. I just want to make peace with my soul and by helping you," she nodded toward J.D. and Ezra, "By helping them, I can start doing that."
The four men exchanged glances and then Chris said, "Where is Tessa headed with Vin?"
"Damn," Buck muttered.
"Is he all right?" Chris added.
Morgan shook her head. "No. Heís alive but in very bad shape. Tessa has given him some of her potions and heís been beat on quite a bit."
"Where are they?"
"In a cave a few miles out. Theyíre not leaving till morning cause Megís been hurt and needs to rest. But I wouldnít advise going out there. Crystal has amazing night vision. Itís like she isnít even human. Sheíd spot you in an instant."
"Then how do we get to them?" Chris asked. "We go after them in the daylight, Tessaís likely to spot us and make good on her threat."
"I know Tessa like I know myself. I know what route sheíll take and what and how sheíll do it. I can tell you what to do. And I think...I think you might have someone else helping you too."
"Who?" Nathan asked.
Morgan thought back to the cave and Kaylaís words. The way she had looked at Vin...
She looked back at them and said quietly, "Kayla."
"Kayla?" Nathan asked, "You mean the Native?"
"Why would she help us?" Buck asked.
Again, the way Kayla had looked at Vin floated through her mind. "I...I think sheís in love with him. Or at least cares very deeply for him. Iím not sure which. Whatever it is, sheís going to be doing what she can to help both you and Vin."
She looked over at J.D. and said, "The poison in J.D. has nearly run itís course. If I donít get the antidote into him soon, then heíll certainly die."
She looked back at them hesitantly. "Will...will you trust me and let me help him?"
After a moment of silence, Chris nodded. "Word of caution girl," he said, "If this is some kind of trick..."
"I understand. I have to go to my room and get my things. Iíll be right back."
She got up and quickly left the room. Buck glanced at J.D., then followed.
It took an hour for Morgan to determine exactly what was used on J.D. and another hour and a half to mix the right ingredients for the antidote. She gave him an injection, then looked at Nathan and Buck.
"Heís going to need an injection every hour on the hour because of how much he was given and how much time has passed."
She looked at Ezra. The only indication he was still alive was the shallow rise and fall of his chest. She rummaged around her box of ingredients, her mind quickly working to remember something that helped in situations such as this. She finally found what she was looking for and began mixing things together.
"What is that?" Nathan asked as she injected the gambler with the liquid.
"Call it medicine. It wonít keep death from knocking, but itíll certainly keep him outside for a while. Might even make him loose interest and leave. It has before."
They looked over as J.D. suddenly started thrashing about violently, blood trickling out his nose and the corners of his mouth.
"Whatís happening?" Buck exclaimed, rushing over in alarm.
"Donít worry, this is a normal reaction. Just help him ride it out and make sure he doesnít choke on the blood," Morgan said as she joined him and moved J.D. onto his side.
"If this is normal, Iíd hate to see a reaction that isnít," Nathan said as he added his help.
Morgan silently helped J.D. ride out the fit and gently rolled him back when it finally passed. She put a hand to his head, then got a cloth out of the basin and gently dabbed his face.
"Nathan, when the time comes, youíre gonna need to go with them," she said without looking up.
"You mean youíre not going?" Nathan asked, "But you gotta guide them."
She shook her head. "No. I canít face her. I can tell you how to follow her without begin spotted and what to look for so you wonít need me. But youíre going to be needed. Vin...Vin will probably need attention right away. I know enough about nursing that I can care for these two."
She finally looked up at them and said, "Both of you need to go get some sleep. Youíll have to be up at dawn so I can explain to you all what to do. Youíre probably going to be gone a few days at least, so make sure you get some good sleep."
When the two men didnít move, she got up, took their arms and pulled them to the door.
"Go," she said, opening the door and pushing them out, "Youíre gonna need your rest, believe me."
She flashed them a smile, then closed the door, listening until their footsteps faded, indicating they had gone. She looked up as Ezra moaned and started moving about restlessly and sighed. This wasnít going to be easy.
ĎThen again,í she thought, Ďwho said atonement was easy?í
Tessa watched as the sky began to lighten with the coming of morning. She narrowed her eyes at the touch of red that was beginning to mix with the blue.
"Red sky in morn, sailors be warned," She whispered. ĎGuess the same thing can be said for land dwellers too,í she thought.
She turned and went into the cave where the other girls were just starting to awaken.
"Can Meg travel?" she asked Kayla.
"Iím fine," Meg replied before Kayla could.
She sat up, wincing as she did, and put a hand to her head as dizziness washed over her.
"Are you sure?"
Meg nodded as the dizziness passed and got to her feet with Kaylaís help. "Iíll be fine when we get going."
Tessa nodded. "All right then. Letís get our gear together and mount up. I want to put some distance between us and the town before we eat anything."
The girls silently complied, gathering up their necessities and quickly getting ready to leave. When they were ready, Kayla brought a semi conscious Vin out, got him mounted and tied him to the saddle so he wouldnít fall off. Just to be certain though, when she mounted her own horse, she moved next to Vin so that she could keep a close watch on him.
"All right, letís ride!" Tessa called and urged her mount into a slow trot.
Kayla was close enough that she could talk to Vin without being overheard. She wanted to keep him conscious for as long as possible, for every time he lost consciousness and then regained it, he was gone just a little more.
It worked for a while. He talked as much as he could though the fever kept interrupting from time to time. But, by the time Tessa decided to stop for breakfast, he was once again deeply under. Kayla worried silently to herself that should his friends get him back alive, he wouldnít stay that way for long.
Tessa came over as Kayla propped Vin up against a tree and asked, "Howís he doing?"
"Not good. He may not regain consciousness after what heís been through these last several hours."
Tessa smiled as she pulled out a needle and a bottle of liquid.
"Thatís what this is for," she said, filling the needle. She injected him, then looked at him for a moment.
"He should awaken in a bit. Come on and have some breakfast. We need to get moving again soon."
Kayla nodded and followed Tessa over to where Selene was already serving up some quickly heated oatmeal. Vin regained consciousness a short time later, just as they were getting
ready to leave, clearly in pain.
As Kayla helped him up to get him on his horse, he whispered,
<Pleaseľ.donít letľthis go on. Kill me.>
<Youíre not going to die,> Kayla whispered back, <Youíre friends are coming. Keep fighting. If not for yourself, then for them.>
Vin stopped moving and looked at her then. She communicated with him through her eyes, letting him know she would be helping him to escape when the time came. She looked away before she revealed anything else and set to helping him up on the horse. She tied him to the saddle, then mounted her own animal and the group started off once more.
Chris and the others had found the cave Morgan had told them about and, though it was hard, waited a few hours before going on. They followed the route Morgan had told them to and found small, barely noticeable markers along the way, proof that they were, in fact, receiving help from the inside.
A Few hours before sunset, they reached the mountains. They had traveled about an hour into them, when Nathan, who was scouting ahead, came back and said, "We need to stop for the night. Thereís a spot up ahead that has stop written out in rocks."
Chris nodded. "All right. Weíll make camp here."
The five men dismounted and quickly set up camp, then had supper. A few hours after dark, Buck, who had been moving about restlessly, finally said, "Dammit! Why are we just sitting here? We should find their camp and at least check the situation out."
"You heard what Morgan said," Nathan replied quickly, "That Crystal girl has some good night vison. It wouldnít be a good idea to go tramping around out there."
"The healer is right," a soft voice said from the darkness, "Searching for our camp would be foolish and would most likely get you killed."
All five men jumped up and drew their guns, searching the darkness for the source of the voice.
"Come out of there," Chris said sharply, his senses on full alert.
"The darkness is my friend, and so I shall stay in itís protective embrace," the girl said, this time from a different spot, causing them to turn and aim in different directions.
It was impossible to determine exactly where she was though, for everytime she spoke, her voice came from a different position, indicating she was moving around the camp.