In the basement, the townspeople were cowering in terror, a few trying to help the injured men on the floor, but most simply dazed and unmoving in the light that was flooding now, unheeded, stark and morning-bright into the cellar room. The other Mexican girl, Rita, was coming to in a townswoman's arms and calling out weakly for her friend. There were no soldiers, and no one else to guard them. They had been abandoned.

In the back of the room, Mary was tugging frantically, trying to wrest herself from Gloria's grip.

"Let me go, damn it!" she cried. "He wants me, not that little girl. I can't let him - "

Gloria's grip didn't lessen. Others were turning to face Mary, and she saw the same thing in their eyes as her friend's as Gloria said, "Mary, don't make it worse. He'll kill you, you know he will. He wants you to make sure he can get away, and if he gets away he'll come back."

"But that poor girl - " Mary sobbed, feeling the ground sway under her feet. This couldn't be happening...

Emmie was there, patting Mary's other shoulder and saying, "She'll be all right, Mary, maybe Concho won't hurt her. But he'd hurt you - "

Mary shook her head, what were these people saying? She had to go, she had to -

What were they going to do?

Suddenly another shadow filled the cellar opening, and everyone screamed and cringed away from the door.

The figure took a few steps in, a tall man with broad shoulders and covered with dust. He was panting, as if he'd come there in a hurry, and as soon as he saw the panic on the peoples' faces he crouched down and put his hands out. No gun, Mary saw from her spot in the back. And as soon as he saw the wounded men on the floor, the figure knelt down and spoke.

"Mother of God," he said softly, and Mary thought she heard a bit of an accent. She heard it even more when the man lifted up his head and said, "Don't be afraid, folks. M'name's Darcy Thomas, I'm a friend. Anyone here have some clean handkerchiefs?"

There were murmurs, a few of the townspeople dug in their pockets. Someone spoke up, "How do we know you're a friend? You might be one of Concho's men!"

Darcy winced in irritation. "Oh, for the love of pete, man! I've just ridden like the divvil himself was on me tail to get here, and that's all ye have to say to me?" Someone held out a white square of cloth, and Darcy accepted it. "Ah, thank ye, dear."

Mary shook herself free of Gloria's grip, took a few staggering steps forward as Darcy pressed the handkerchief to Dwight's shoulder. He glanced up at her, and she noticed his kind eyes.

"Please," She said desperately, "You've got to take me out there. Concho has that girl, he really wants me. I'm Mary Travis, the - "

Darcy's eyebrows shot up. "Ye're Mary Travis?"

Mary blinked, taken a little aback. "Yes, and I have to - "

"Don't listen to her!" Gloria called out from the back, and several voices assented. "She'll get killed."

Darcy motioned for Mary to come down to the floor, and she knelt down next to him as he tended to Dwight.

"Here, hold that," Darcy said softly. Confused, Mary complied, and Darcy took a breath and said, "Now, Mary, I'm sure ye're as brave as anything, but there's no need to worry, or put yerself in danger. I've brought someone with me, and he'll make sure the girl comes to no harm."

Mary felt Dwight stir beneath her, but could not take her eyes off this confident stranger. "You've brought someone? What do you mean? Who?"

Darcy looked up at her, and smiled. "A friend. A penitent friend."

+ + + + + + +

Ezra squinted at the church, tried to see around it, but from that vantage point he couldn't see anything. He kept his gun pointed, just in case. There were bodies of dead and wounded soldiers everywhere, and he knew that something very dangerous was likely happening, but he and Buck had only just arrived, and although they had taken shots at the outlaws as they ran from the building to the church, they had no idea what had happened next.

Ezra glanced below him. The outlaws were still trapped, soldiers hemming them in on both sides, but they had seen the uncertain look on Travis' face, and their mood was less subdued, and more expectant. Ezra saw Josiah, behind the outlaws, and acknowledged him with his gun. The preacher returned the salute, but he looked tired.

Buck saw Josiah too, glanced behind him. "Where's Nathan and Vin?"

Ezra peered down the road, shook his head with an unreadable expression on his face. He felt drained, spent. The outlaws were penned up below them, but they didn't look like they were ready to give up yet, and both men knew it. Knew it, and were alert.

Several soldiers had dismounted and were running toward the church, their guns drawn, and at that moment Ezra and Buck saw a dark shape edge its way from around the corner of the church. The shape seemed to have four legs, and when Ezra realized why, he breathed a soft curse.

Buck did the same, and held up his gun.

Concho grinned in the early morning sunlight, the barrel of his gun pressed firmly against the Mexican girl's throat. At the sight of him, every gun barrel leveled, every sight beaded, but the outlaw stood in the middle of the dusty street and laughed as his henchmen gathered around him.

Orin brought his horse forward, slowly, stopped when he saw Concho press the barrel tighter. He leveled his own shotgun and said in a steady voice, "Let her go."

Concho laughed again, and shook his head. "Sorry, judge, I don't think that's going to happen. I think instead you're going to let my men go, and watch us ride out of here. Or else this pretty maid is only the first to die."

Buck bit his lip. Ezra glanced at him, knew his friend was fighting the urge to whip up his rifle and blow the bastard's head off. But the outlaws were all around them, watching their every move...

Orin cocked his head, eyed Concho as if he were a rattlesnake. "You must think I'm a fool to even consider letting your men go. Some of them are wanted for murder, including you. You've got a couple of dozen rifles aimed at your head right now, son. Make it easy on yourself, and give up."

Concho laughed again, wrenched his arm around Maria's neck. The girl gasped, loud enough for Buck and Ezra to hear it from their vantage point on the roof.

"You are a fool, judge," he taunted. "To think I don't know I have nothing to lose. Go ahead, shoot me. You'll hit her too, and she'll die, I guarantee it. And then my men will start gunning down the good citizens in the basement. But all you have to do is let my men go, and we'll never bother you or your pretty little daughter-in-law again."

The outlaws trapped between the rows of soldiers looked at each other with anxious, but hopeful eyes. Buck's gaze glanced over them, and his shoulders tensed; his eyes met Josiah's, and they were both thinking the same thing: this can't help but end badly...

Orin's gaze was hard as a rock as he stared at Concho and shook his head slowly. "Give up your gun now, or you'll be responsible for a bloodbath."

"Like I care," Concho sneered as he began to back toward the front door of the church, dragging Maria with him. His henchmen walked with him, their guns aimed in every direction to prevent an attack.

Buck shook his head, looked at Ezra doubtfully. Stalemate.

+ + + + + + +

At Nathan's window, JD sighed in frustration as he tried to get a bead on Concho. His ear was smarting, distracting him, but he fought the annoyance and took a deep breath, trying to concentrate. Beside him, Tims crouched at the sill, and cursed himself that he wasn't a better shot.

"Can you get him?" Tims whispered anxiously.

JD took another breath, shook his head in aggravation. One of the outlaws saw him aiming his gun, and JD suddenly drew in his breath and hissed, "Duck!"

+ + + + + + +

Buck gasped as the outlaw to Concho's left jerked up his gun and fired off a shot. Everyone jumped, but Ezra heard the sound of splintering wood and said quickly, "He's all right, Buck."

Buck tried to calm his nerves, shook his head and caught Josiah's steadying gaze from below. Gripping his gun he whispered, "God damn."

Ezra edged closer, watched warily as Concho climbed one step, then the next. His back was now to the door, and he grinned widely as he hit the top of the stairs. His cohorts fanned out, and for a moment everything stopped.

Everything stopped, and grew quiet. No one moved, or spoke. In the quiet, Buck heard a sound to his left and saw two people moving down the street toward them, one supporting the other.

Vin. And Nathan.

He peered closer, saw that Vin's coat was spattered with blood, felt his heart sink. Nathan looked like he was trying to get Vin to sit down, or at least slow down, but of course the tracker was having none of it. His gun was out and ready, but Buck noticed that one hand was touching the wall every few feet, seeking its support. Buck turned his head, slowly so the outlaws wouldn't see his movement, and he looked over at Ezra, saw the surprised dismay in the gambler's eyes at Vin's injury. They both seemed to be thinking the same thing: Vin too? How many more would they lose?

Vin made it to just beyond where Josiah and the soldiers were, stopped opposite Buck and Ezra. He looked up, saw them, managed a tight nod of greeting, then turned his eyes to the church, and the danger there. Nathan saw it too, and froze.

Their approach had made some of the soldiers' horses skittish, and they stamped their hooves and blew their frustration. The outlaws on the church steps saw this, and their guns bristled in every direction, ready to shoot and be shot.

Concho nodded to himself, and jabbed the barrel of his gun into Maria's neck. Jerking his chin at the judge he called out, "Come on, judge, let my men go. It should be obvious - you have no choice."

Orin ducked his head down, and Buck drew in his breath. He knew what the next order would be, knew that Maria was about to die. It had to be - Orin would never let Concho go, and there was no way to rescue Maria, or any of the townspeople if Concho's men got to the cellar first. They were stuck.


+ + + + + + +

Everyone in the cellar was still, shocked into silence. No one dared to breathe; they had all heard Concho's words, and they all thought they were going to die.

Mary sat by Darcy's side, trying to help but unable to concentrate. For the past few minutes she'd heard footsteps above their heads; they'd all heard it, footsteps in the church. Someone was inside the church, probably Concho or his gang. They could hole themselves up in there for days, maybe weeks. Hold them all hostage. Kill them, one by one...

Everyone was stiff with fear. Everyone, Mary noticed, except for the Irishman Darcy Thomas, who was still working on Dwight's shoulder. He must be a doctor. Mary watched him expertly tend to the wound. Gloria tiptoed up, sat down next to Mary and squeezed her arm reassuringly. Mary felt a little better, until she looked at her friend's face. It was pale with fear.

But Darcy didn't seem to be sensing the fear that was threatening to eat away at Mary's sanity. He looked up, gave her a gentle smile and touched her arm. "Courage."

Mary blinked, looked at him stupefied. The man looked utterly calm. How did he do it?

Astonished, Mary leaned forward and whispered, "Mr. Thomas, you must have heard what Concho Charles said."

"Oh, aye, I did." Darcy nodded, looking down at Dwight's torn shoulder and tending to it carefully. "But he won't get what he wants. Me friend will see to that."

"I don't understand," Mary said in quiet, but unnerved tones. "Whoever your friend is, he's no match for Concho Charles. I hope for his sake he finds a safe place to hide himself."

"Oh, no, ma'am," Darcy said lightly, and there was a twinkle in his eye as he looked up at her. "I think Mr. Larabee's through with hiding. I think - now - that he's ready to fight."

Mary's eyes widened, and she heard Gloria gasp. Another footstep over their heads, heavy and determined. Oh, my God. Her mind went numb with realization.

Oh my God.

+ + + + + + +

Buck hadn't realized he was holding his breath until he began to feel dizzy. He breathed out, slowly, felt the gun getting sweaty in his hands, didn't know what they were going to do. His eyes flicked to Ezra, whose face was tense and knotted in the early morning light; to Josiah below them, and Vin and Nathan, in the shadows of the boardwalk. Their guns were all up, but they couldn't shoot. And JD, what was he doing? Buck cursed that he couldn't see the boy, but prayed that he hadn't gotten shot, and that he'd know enough to keep his head down. God, let this nightmare be over soon. I want my life back, if you don't mind.

Concho seemed to sense that Orin was about to order his execution, squeezed Maria's neck so tight she squealed.

"Don't be an idiot, Travis!" Concho called out, his voice dark and rough-edged. "This girl dies first, then it's your daughter-in-law. Then I'll send my men after that crippled child that used to be sheriff. You want that?"

Ezra's hand shot out, grabbed Buck's arm even as he took an instinctive step toward the edge of the roof. A warning look from those light green eyes: don't.

Orin brought his head back, glanced to the sergeant at his left.

Buck felt a horrible ache between his shoulder blades, a tightness borne of dread. This was going to be tough to live through -

Concho saw Orin's movement, cocked his head, thrust the barrel of the gun into Maria's cheek. The girl sobbed, then started praying out loud, in Spanish.

Orin sighed, and Buck saw his shoulders sag. What could they do?

The soldiers' guns came up.

Concho let out a barking laugh, brought the hammer back on his gun. "How ironic that we're at a church, and there is no salvation! See you all in hell."

Buck sucked in his breath, felt the whole world tilt for a split second -

And suddenly the doors of the church flew open, and Concho Charles was pushed head over heels into the dust below.

Buck started, surprised. He blinked, unsure for a moment what he was looking at. Then - oh, yes - someone had been standing inside the church, and had thrown the doors open. Maria was free, scrambling out of the way. Concho and his men were lying in a tangled heap, struggling to separate themselves, and Concho was reaching for Maria but someone was coming down the - - stairs -

A man dressed in black, his face grim and merciless as death, holding a shining silver gun -

Aimed at Concho's heart. But it - -it couldn't be -

Ezra breathed first, his voice low and amazed. "Good Lord."

Buck heard gasps all around him, mutterings of amazement. Orin was holding his hand out to still his men, his face a mask of surprise. Buck blinked again, looked down at Josiah, saw a slow smile of recognition cross the preacher's features. Nathan's mouth was hanging open; Vin was looking down, but then looked at Nathan as if to say, don't that beat all?

Buck stared, still didn't believe it, but it was true.

It was Chris.

+ + + + + + +

JD gripped the window, unaware that he was suddenly breathing very fast. Tims had come over and was kneeling next to him, but JD didn't look. He didn't think he could move at all. He felt Tims' hand on his arm, heard him ask, "Hey, you okay?"

JD blinked, shook the hair out of his eyes. He stared at Chris as if hypnotized, a million images and feelings rushing through him at once -

-darkness, pain, hitting and kicking -

JD gasped, and cringed back from the windowsill. He ran his unbound hand over his eyes, closed them for a moment...

- slamming, brilliant bursts of agony, over and over -

Opened them again, felt faint, tried to shake it off. Cringed a little further.

Tims hurried over to the water basin, dipped a cloth into the cool liquid and brought it back. "Guess you've had a lot of excitement for one day, huh."

JD accepted the cloth, felt foolish but couldn't fight the surging memories -

It's me, Chris. It's me -

"I'll...I'll be all right," JD said softly, and putting the cloth against his forehead, closed his eyes again and sighed.

"Okay." Tims responded hopefully, patting JD on the back and looking out the window again. Curiosity got the better of him and he asked, "You know who that man in black is?"

JD nodded, suddenly found it very hard to breathe, and finally gasped, "That's Chris. He..."

JD faltered, paused, stopped. He knew Tims was waiting for more, but it was so hard to speak. How could he explain to this stranger that he didn't know what to say about Chris? Finally JD thought, that's Chris, he used to lead us...

...he's the best...

...he was my hero...

JD bent forward, closed his eyes for the briefest moments, felt tears coming and cursed them. Taking a deep, painful breath that racked his entire body, he said, "That's Chris. He's the one who did this to me."

+ + + + + + +

Chris stood as still as stone in the dusty street, his mind and soul and every part of him humming with urgency as his world narrowed around him.

He was back - home - and he could feel the shock in the air around him, almost hear the words, is that Chris Larabee? Good Lord - is that Chris?

But he couldn't think about that. He had to focus, concentrate, and never mind the hate that was being sent his way, the crushing guilt he felt at knowing that he, through one drunken night's tragic mistake, was responsible for everything that had happened since.

No. Chris tightened his grip on his gun, and looked down its barrel at the outlaws at his feet, and tunneled himself to be aware of only that moment.

He was back. And he had a job to do.

Concho snarled, swore as he heaved himself away from his henchmen and struggled to his feet. He got about halfway up before Chris growled, "Drop the gun."

Concho stayed in the crouch, momentarily stunned. Then he looked at Chris and grinned, wincing as the wound in his side pained him.

"Larabee!" he spat derisively. His men were getting to their feet, eyeing Chris warily. Two of them ran, then another.

"Drop the gun," Chris repeated, his voice strong as steel.

Concho straightened up, his smile thick and sneering. The men that still stood by Concho glared at Chris, fingered their guns. Only one of them remained on the ground, a blond-haired kid who was eyeing Chris with open terror. After a second the kid said, "Christ, boss, it's - "

"Shuttup, Billings,"Concho barked, not even looking at the youth. He shook his head at Chris and said, "You son of a bitch. I can't believe you actually came back."

Chris took another step closer, his blue eyes blazing. He leveled the gun at Concho's head. "I mean it, mister."

"Oh, I'll just bet you do," Concho said evenly as his henchmen closed in around him. Billings scrambled backwards a few inches, seemed to be waiting for an opportune time to bolt.

Glancing at Billings in irritation, Concho turned wondering eyes back to Chris and cocked his head. "Why did you come back, Larabee? The town's a wreck, your men hate you. You crippled that boy for life. You want to shoot me? Go ahead. It won't make you any less of a drunken thug than you are."

Chris cocked the hammer of his gun, shook his head as the light early morning breeze tousled his blond hair. Concho went a little pale, his eyes flicked to the right, and with a quick lunge swept his arm down and caught Billings by the neck. The youth gurgled in surprise as Concho hauled him halfway up and jabbed the barrel of his gun into his yellow hair. Billings flailed in panic, but Concho smacked him with the gun and the boy tried to cringe away, kept in place only by the iron grip around his throat.

"Now," Concho said in a calm, smooth voice, "you're going to lower your gun and let me go, or I'll scatter this kid's brains from here to Kansas."

Billings clawed at Concho's arm, gasped, "Jesus, boss, what are you doing?!"

"Shuttup!" Concho snarled, and clubbed Billings again.

Chris' arm never wavered, and he stared at Concho with open loathing. "Let him go."

Concho laughed. "Don't give me that look, Larabee, you crippled one of your own men, remember? Don't think you're any better than me."

+ + + + + + +

Buck watched the scene from the rooftop, his breath in his throat. Had time stopped? The daylight was a little brighter, but it felt like it had been the same minute for hours, days. He thought maybe Chris would get Concho, but now the outlaw had that kid by the neck, and it was a stalemate again. If only he didn't have those other men around him, Buck thought in frustration, I could get a clear shot...


They aren't looking at us anymore. They're all looking at Chris.

Buck lifted his shotgun, very steadily and slow so as not to attract the outlaws' attention. Ezra's head turned, just a little, and as if he was reading Buck's mind the gambler brought his gun up too, very deliberately, until he was aimed at the outlaw that was covering Concho's right. None of the outlaws had noticed.

In the street, Josiah was watching Chris and Concho in amazement, stunned into disbelief that Chris had not only returned, but was facing down the town's worst enemy. None of the soldiers had moved, Orin hadn't moved, so when Josiah saw a small motion to his upper right his eye followed, and he saw what Buck and Ezra were doing.

And slowly lifted his gun as well.

Vin had slumped against the wall of the building, pressing a cloth to his bleeding scalp and was staring at Chris and Concho with an almost dazed look on his face. Nathan had one hand on him, which Vin was ignoring, and when he noticed Josiah's movement the healer reached into his holster and withdrew his gun, very slowly.

Vin gave him a quizzical look, then started to raise his gun too. Smiling a little, he whispered, "They ain't seen us yet."

Nathan frowned at the shakiness of Vin's gun hand, said in a low voice, "Put that thing down. You're gonna blow Josiah's head off."

Vin glanced at Nathan, and there was steely determination in those eyes as he replied quietly, "I got the one on the left."

And suddenly, as if by magic, his hand lifted out straight and true, and steady as a rock.

+ + + + + + +

JD took deep breaths, willed his nerves back to steadiness as he stared at the floor. You big baby, that's all over now, Chris isn't going to hurt you again. Even if he tried -

Another deep breath, easy now... - Even if he tried, the others would stop him. It's over, over, they need you now, grow up for heaven's sake and get back to that window.

But it was so close, no matter how he tried, he still felt Chris' fists breaking his ribs, still heard that drunken laugh as he was punched, and kicked, and thrown, again and again, until he couldn't think, or remember, or walk -

- and by Chris. By Chris...

JD blinked, felt the cool cloth on his neck and looked at Tims, who was peering out the window. "What's going on?"

Tims shook his head. "It's bad. Concho's got some kid by the neck, one of his gang."

JD's jaw dropped. He lifted himself back to the window, saw Concho standing in the middle of a protective circle of men, his gun barrel to the head of - JD couldn't see who, but whoever it was they were kicking and fighting, but not breaking free. Chris stood two feet away, his gun leveled but not firing, his black duster fanning faintly in the morning breeze. JD fought his lightheadedness, tried not to relive that nightmare night, but it was so hard. So hard...

"Oh, shit," JD breathed.

Tims nodded fearfully. "You said it."

Through the mass of men, JD saw Concho's hostage kick again, and in an instant Concho raised his hand and slammed his gunbutt against the side of the boy's head.

And JD felt it, felt it again, hard brick against his temple, and suddenly he was slipping into that night again, that horrible endless night, and Chris wasn't moving, wasn't saving the boy, just like he didn't save me, didn't help me, didn't stop, just kept hitting and kicking and laughing, laughing , laughing -

JD hissed, and grabbed the windowsill in shock. "That bastard. That bastard."

Tims nodded in agreement, turned his eyes to the knot of outlaws below them. "Yeah, he's..." He glanced back at JD, and stopped.

The youth's eyes were hazel fire, and his gun was gripped in one white-knuckled hand as he brought it up to the windowsill and aimed it swiftly. He made a small, inarticulate snarling noise, and at that moment Tim's budding experience let him see that JD's gun wasn't aimed at Concho Charles.

It was aimed at Chris.

+ + + + + + +

Concho took a step backward, ignoring Billings' pained whimpers as he sneered, "Give up the lawman act, Larabee. Kill me and ten more will take my place, and it'll just be you in this pathetic pile, alone and drunk. You'll be dead inside of a month."

Chris glared at him. Didn't move.

Concho cocked his head, gave Chris a knowing smile. "Hey, why not join my gang? You've got nothing left here. We can use a mean bastard like you."

Chris' eyes narrowed. "I'd never run with scum like you."

Concho threw his head back and laughed. "Scum like me? Larabee, you crippled one of your own men! You are scum like me." His face grew serious. "You've been gone, Larabee, you don't know how this town's turned against you. Stay here, and you'll rot in jail, or get lynched. Run with me, and I can promise you the time of your life. Or - " He jammed the gun harder against Billings' temple, and the boy yelped. "You can try to stop me, and watch this kid's head splatter all over this nice clean street. Your choice."

JD felt himself falling, careening into a void of pure, raw hatred and anger. There was no thought there, just feeling, an overwhelming surge of relentless rage, and it felt good to just go with it, to not reason that after all, this man was your hero, and more than likely he was sorry, and maybe he can do something to make up for bashing you into a wall and crippling you and leaving you to die -

JD veered downward with his fury, let it sweep over him as he stared with vengeful eyes at the man in black below him. That son of a bitch, he made me lame. It's all his fault, he's got to pay, he's got to pay, damn him, I trusted him, I looked up to him, he was my hero, and he hurt me - JD's soul roared its wounded agony, and through a haze of unreasoning hostility he took steady aim at the horrible, inhuman creature in black who had stolen his life and nearly killed him, and didn't see Chris Larabee standing there at all...

+ + + + + + +

Tims sat frozen, unsure what to do. JD's eyes were glazed, almost unseeing, and he seemed to be lost in another world. Still the gun sat aimed in his trembling hand, and as JD stared wide-eyed at Chris, Tims became aware that he was speaking, in a voice so small and low the businessman could hardly hear him.

"How could he do that," JD was whispering, his head shaking slowly in stunned shock. "How could he do that to me - that son of a bitch. That son of a... " JD's voice trailed off, so quiet it wasn't even a whisper anymore.

Tims became alarmed, leaned close to JD but hesitated to do anything else. Clearing his throat uncertainly, he said, "Uh...uh, JD? I don't think you want to do this..."

But JD was shaking his head, his eyes seeing some pain-filled hell Tims didn't even want to know about. "You don't understand," he said in a voice that was edged with unshed tears. "He hurt me. He tried to kill me. I asked him to stop, begged him, and he - he - just -"

"But - but I'm sure he's sorry." Tims knew that sounded really stupid, but he didn't want to grab for the gun, and couldn't think of anything else to say. "And - and he came back, that's something, isn't it? I'm sure he's sorry about what happened."

JD's eyes narrowed, the grip around the gun tightened. Oh crap, Tims thought in sudden fright. Now what do I do?

+ + + + + + +

Buck held his breath, waited for some kind of signal he knew he wasn't going to get. They all had to fire at the same time for this to work - including Chris. If any of Concho's gang was still standing after the bullets flew, Chris would be dead, the blond kid would be dead, and probably the townspeople in the basement would get hurt too. This had to be timed perfectly to work -

-and there was no way to do it.

+ + + + + + +

Chris stood motionless, his eyes burning as he held his gun straight out and aimed at Concho's head. Billings stared at him, his eyes bulging as Concho further tightened his stranglehold. The boy looked to Chris for salvation, but Chris kept his gaze on Concho, his cool eyes not betraying the turmoil in his heart as he thought, that kid, he's JD's age, there's blood in his hair and Concho would kill him to get free, would kill one of his own men and not feel it - - like me?

Chris caught Billings' desperate, pleading eyes, looked away as they burned his memory. He's JD's age. I can't let him die. Oh Christ. Drill the bastard - but I can't get his men too, and the kid'll probably die anyway, and the people in the cellar, and Mary - this has to stop.

Concho noticed Chris' stillness, tilted his head in invitation. "Come on, Larabee, let's blow this hick town. You tried the straight-and-true, but you're a two-bit worthless drunk and you know it. So stop fighting it, and yourself. Your men hate you, the town wants you hanged. What choice have you got, when you think about it?"

Chris eyed him, let the words echo in his head, mix with images, feelings, uncalled-for memories of a drunken night, the wonderful feeling of release, fists bashing into yielding flesh, over and over...and racking guilt, awful pain, the lowest he'd ever felt.

It has to stop. It has to stop.

He held his gun out, slightly shook his head. Concho's eyes narrowed, and he cocked the gun against Billings' temple.

It has to stop...

+ + + + + + +

Tims licked his lips, his eyes wavering from where Chris was holding Concho at bay, to the shivering boy at his side, whose white face and pale eyes hadn't moved in nearly a minute, the grip on his Colt becoming so tight Tims saw his knuckles turning white and trembling. But he didn't shoot.

Okay, I can do something, I'm sure I can. Geez, Tims, this is just about all your fault, if you hadn't gone along when Durning said let's break into the safe, this whole mess probably wouldn't have happened...

JD made a small sound, and Tims glanced out of the window to see Chris' arm move, a little. Smiling a little, Tims turned to JD and said, "See? Mr. Larabee's going to save that kid, it's going to be okay."

+ + + + + + +

JD blinked at Tim's words, saw, but then he shook his head. No, it wasn't going to be okay, because in his mind the attack was still happening, would maybe happen forever. Tims didn't understand, Buck didn't understand, maybe nobody did, but they didn't live with it every time they closed their eyes, the pain and the fear and the knowledge that you were never going to get better, and now his attacker was back, Chris was back, and all JD could see when he looked at the man was a curtain of red, soul-searing red and midnight black, and all he could feel was the pain of the rest of his life, and it had to stop, dammit - - it had to stop - JD let out a hitching breath, looked down the barrel of his gun. A demon was in his sights, the cause of all his pain and the town's and Mary Travis', and now it would stop - - now it -

JD blinked, took another breath, steadied his aim. He heard Tims next to him, but it was as if he was speaking in a dream, and JD ignored him. His finger tightened on the trigger. - but -

Chris hadn't moved, was still as a statue, the black-clad bastard that hurt me, JD thought in ragged fury, his finger tightening a little more...

- BUT -

Then Concho moved, took a few steps to Chris' left. Chris turned a little to follow him with his gun, and now JD had a clear shot, a very clear shot - - at Chris Larabee's back.

+ + + + + + +

Tims saw JD freeze, blink in sudden indecision. The boy's lips turned white, and his head jerked up as if he'd suddenly remembered something, or a lot of things. He slowly began to shake, all over.

Tims glanced out the window, saw only that Chris' back was to them, leaned a little closer to JD. "Hey, kid? Can you hear me?"

+ + + + + + +

JD's breathing became swift and shallow, and his hazel eyes filling with tears. He stared at Chris for a moment, trembling as if he would fly apart - - you want to die young? Stay - - why don't you go easy on the whiskey, son - - you don't shoot nobody in the back -

Suddenly, with an anguished cry, JD lurched halfway out of the chair, lifted up his pistol and fired a shot into the clear blue sky.

+ + + + + + +

Concho took in a sharp breath, his hand jerked -

- Chris' eyes blazed, brief blue fire - - a gunshot - - five more, all at once -

And Concho and his men fell down in the street, dead.

+ + + + + + +

For a long, calm, still moment, no one moved. No one spoke. There was the rustle of early morning wind in the trees, and somewhere the birds were singing . All else was silence.

Chris stared, stared, couldn't stop staring at the dead men at his feet, at the smoking gun still clutched in his hand. There was a horrible, loud rushing in his ears, like the world was crashing down on him, and mixed with that sound was the echo of another sound Chris had heard, just before Concho had pulled the trigger; a cry, a short wail of pain and despair that Chris recognized instantly, as if it had come from his own soul. It hung in the air still, as loud as thunder, rolling endlessly on, all of the misery and anguish and torment that Chris had felt, was still feeling, wrapped up in that one sob of torn hopes and shattered dreams.

JD's voice. JD's cry. Stabbing Chris like a nail to a cross, and paralyzing him.

Billings struggled to detach himself from the slain outlaw, finally flailed himself free and skittered away to be scooped up by a couple of soldiers that had dismounted to catch him. Billings let out a little whimper as they snagged his thin arms, but didn't say a word.


I'm home. Chris felt numb, detached, staring at Concho but not seeing him. There was a weight on his shoulders, a weight that had been there since that awful night nearly a week before but until now had only been mildly pressing on him. Now it felt like the world was on him, pushing him, suffocating him with its heaviness, and Chris thought again, I'm home. I'm back...

His eyes came up a little, distant and unfocused, and he saw the church. The early morning sun was just touching the rough bell tower, and Chris thought he'd never seen anything more beautiful. The memories started coming back, a dark night, rain and wind, the last time he'd been there, and the weight became greater on Chris' shoulders, and this time he accepted it. Let it come. I'm where I should be. I'm home.

Just then he saw a small movement at the corner of the church, saw a few people anxiously tiptoeing around the corner, then a few more. Then a small crowd, all hushed and frightened and so quiet that he could hear the soft movement of their shoes in the dirt road, the gentle swish of the womens' taffeta skirts. And right at the front of the crowd was Mary Travis.

Chris swallowed hard, found himself unable at first to look directly at her. The gun in his hand felt like it weighed a hundred pounds, his whole body felt suddenly light and strange. Darcy was next to her, supporting a large man with dark hair and an injured shoulder, and Chris' eyes went to him first, the one face he knew would be familiar, friendly. Darcy smiled at him, that small understanding smile, and as his mind went white with fear Chris took a deep breath, and forced himself to look into Mary's eyes.

Amazement. Horror. Joy. The widest blue eyes Chris had ever seen, staring at him out of a face made pale by almost a week of tension and worry. Chris saw the fading bruises on her neck. She looks like she's been hurt. His stomach lurched. This is all my fault. He heard Mary gasp when he looked at her, saw her take a step forward before Darcy made a soft sound, and stopped her. Darcy knows. Chris felt the weight press deeper. Not yet. Mary hesitated, stayed still, but her eyes reached out to him, all pain and confusion and some kind of powerful, overwhelming fear. But not hate, Chris realized with a start. My God. She doesn't hate me...

Chris stared back at her, unable now to tear himself away from her gaze, but he knew he had to. The silence continued, and he felt eyes on his neck, and he knew what he would face when he turned around, to the people behind him. He glanced at the dead outlaws at his feet, knew that only six people could have accomplished what had happened.

They were behind him. He felt it, knew it as if by instinct. They were there.

And the time had come to face them.

Slowly, very slowly, Chris Larabee turned around, and looked at the men he'd betrayed.

He saw Buck first, standing some distance away on top of the roof of the jail, his shotgun grasped low on his hips, his body and face radiating tension and uncertainly. Next to him was Ezra, his rifle leaning against his waist, but with the same blank, doubting expression on his face. Chris' eyes traveled downward, saw Josiah sitting in the line of soldiers, saw too that he was close enough to look into the preacher's eyes, but found himself too frightened to linger on them; beyond them, on the wooden boardwalk, Chris saw two shadows, knew by their form he was looking at Nathan and Vin. Vin was leaning against the wall, his hand to his forehead, looked injured, and Chris felt a jab in his gut and he thought, shit. Shit. I can't bear this.

But I have to. I have make things right.

There was one face that Chris didn't see, couldn't bring himself to look for. He guessed where it was, heard the shout come from his right as he faced Concho down. JD was in Nathan's room, of course he would be, he was...he'd been badly...Chris shuddered, looked at the dust swirling at his feet, tried to will himself to face that window, look into those wounded hazel eyes and beg for the boy's forgiveness. Do it, dammit, he ordered himself, it's the only way...

But no. Chris felt as if something were breaking inside him, knew that if he saw those eyes, the hate he knew was there, he would die right there in the street, and he didn't want to die. At that moment, Chris wanted to live, live and repair the damage he'd done. No, it wasn't time. He hadn't paid yet.

But he intended to.

Chris lifted his head slowly, rested his eyes on the man standing next to his horse, in front of the trapped outlaws. Judge Orin Travis.

Orin stared back, evenly and without a trace of recognition in his eyes. Steady and unmoving, like the Rock of Gilbraltar, and Chris stared back, gradually straightened his sloping shoulders and brought his head back. He moved then, quietly but resolutely, his steps crunching in the dirt and gravel and broken glass of the street. In the soft pink silence of the wakening dawn, Chris slowly approached Orin's horse, his gun hanging low, his head up and back straight, his eyes full of the greatest sorrow and determination anyone present had ever seen. Buck stared at him. Ezra stared at him. Josiah, Nathan, and Vin, all stared as Chris silently walked up to Orin and, without saying a word, turned, walked to the jailhouse door, opened it and stepped inside.

Orin paused; then he turned in his saddle and looked at Josiah significantly, before dismounting and handing his reins to the nearest soldier. Josiah knew what he saw in the old man's eyes, knew what had to happen now, and without a word he gave a small nod and slowly dismounted his horse, and looked soberly at Vin and Nathan. They nodded acknowledgement; they knew.

The battle with Concho was over.

Another battle was just beginning.


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