~~ The South Wind ~~

by TJ

Twenty men rode fast towards Four Corners. They were hell bent on killing a few of those ‘magnificos’ they’d heard about from Pico Chavez. As they had crossed the Mexican border, their leader decided it would be good to blow the bank while they were in town. At least this way they would have something to show for their efforts.

Six of The Seven made final preparations for the assault they had been warned about. The townsfolk had been made aware of the approaching danger and many of the men were helping to arrange boxes and wagons to help protect their defenders. Through all the excitement, Athena stood quietly in the middle of the street. The wolf was gone but the woman still had not changed her stance.

Out at this shack, Larabee was saddling his horse in preparation for a nice quiet ride back to town. He’d spent a restful night in his own bed and now felt ready to head back with a better attitude. He hoped he could give the woman more latitude this time.

A wind gust whipped past his ears and the gunslinger slowly became aware of being watched. He spun around quickly, drawing his weapon at the same time.

The entity that stared back at the blond made his blood run cold… over by his shack stood an arctic wolf.

The wind whipped past his ear again and Chris remembered the words Vin had spoken several days ago. Just keep ya eyes open for another wolf! …The tracker’s warning flashed through his mind and the gunslinger recognized the animal as the fourth creature Tanner had foretold. Reckon we’re safe ‘til the North Wind joins ‘em. Chris holstered his colt quickly and sudden wave of panic hit him. Something was going to happen… soon!

The guardian watched as Chris mounted his horse and rode off at his best speed.

The twenty riders had breached the town at full gallop. They rode past the buildings shooting bullets in the air and at the windows. Glass shattered and people screamed as the riders turned around for another run.

Josiah and Nathan covered the south end of town from the livery and exchange. Ezra was positioned outside the post office, while JD and Buck fired from cover outside the saloon. To no one’s surprise, Tanner had chosen to fight from atop the bathhouse. The ledge there provided him good cover and his view of the street was excellent.

As the bandits made a second run through town, three of their number bailed from their horses with powder barrels in hand. They ran for the bank on foot, firing their weapons all the way. Standish managed to shot one of them but couldn’t get a line on the others.

"They’re goin’ for the bank," JD yelled at the ladies’ man. "I’m going down tah back up Ezra."

"No!" Buck yelled back as he glanced across to Tanner’s position. "You stay put. Vin can’t see the bank from where he’s at. He’ll need tah move and he’ll need ya tah lay down cover when he does. I’ll go help Ezra."

The kid knew Wilmington was always trying to protect him and he tried to argue but the rogue was already on his way. Dunne laid down cover fire as the last of the bandits moved on past.

It seemed only a matter of seconds before they made another run through town. The six peacekeepers had managed to knock off a few but there were still too many to count.

Down the street the gambler watched in vain as the stampeding robbers launched a volley of barrels to their waiting counterparts at the bank. He’d moved to a position across from their target and was firing on the two men. He still couldn’t get a clear shot though. They were taking advantage of the boxes that were laid out in the street.

Wilmington slid in beside the southerner, out of breath. "You get a clean shot at ‘em?" he asked anxiously.

Standish shook his head as the bandits raced by them again. For several seconds all they could do was fire and reload… Fire and reload.

Neither of the peacekeepers had noticed Athena slip out from the hotel and join in the fight. She was attempting to free up the two men at the South end of town.

Nathan and the preacher had taken advantage of the cowboys when they slowed to turn around. They had managed to knock off six the first couple of times but they were now under heavy fire. "What you wanna do?" Jackson yelled to the preacher over the gunfire.

"Pray!" Josiah called back as he let another round go. In the same quick motion, he spotted the woman as she attempted to help them. He indicated her presence to the healer and smiled. "Vin did say she was here to help!" he announced squeezing off another round.

At the other end of town, Tanner too, had managed to pick off a few of them as they turned around for their next run. He wasn’t as easy to pinpoint as Nathan and Josiah. He’d seen Wilmington head down the street and figured the bank must be the target. He couldn’t see it from where he was. He needed to move and he tried to signal John Dunne of that fact.

The kid had been watching and could see the sharpshooter’s gesture. He reloaded his weapons in readiness then signaled back.

Vin hopped over to the next rooftop as JD laid down cover fire.

Wilmington caught on to what was happening and fired some more rounds at the men as they rode past. He couldn’t see the kid but Tanner was advancing on the bank. Buck tried to move back towards Dunne’s position but was pinned down by the men at the bank. Damn you, Larabee! Where the hell are ya?

The leader of The Seven could hear massive amounts of gunfire coming from the direction in which he rode. He cussed under his breath as he realized he was still ten or twelve minutes out of town. He galloped ahead as fast as his horse would take him.

Athena slid in next to Wilmington and Standish. Both men noted her demeanor had changed. She was no longer the shy, quiet woman they had become accustomed to over the last eleven days. She fired her colts with deadly accuracy and breathed anger with every breath.

"You shouldn’t be here, my dear," Ezra said quietly.

Athena hunched down and took aim at one of the bandits across the street. Time stood still as she followed him with her pistol and slowly squeezed the trigger. The man fell silently across the barrack he had been hiding behind.

Totally taken aback by her display, Standish and Wilmington looked at each other and then back at Athena.

The ladies’ man quickly dove for cover as he saw the lone survivor at the bank fire at them. The bullet barely missed his head. "Ain’t safe out here, ‘thena… You should go back inside."

The woman looked at her green eyed gentleman and smiled. She glanced quickly at the cowboy but said nothing as she left them and made her way down the street towards the saloon. The peacekeepers did their best to cover her.

"Damn fool woman’s gonna get herself shot," the rogue observed.

"It’s a wonder she hasn’t already," Standish added as he watched her go. "Must be the fire Mr. Tanner was speaking of." He smiled as he let off some more rounds at the man in the bank. He had witnessed her determination first hand. He understood that there were no words, which would distract her from her task.

Athena had managed to give Nathan and Josiah enough cover so they could make their way to the boot maker’s shop. This position gave them more cover but was still too far away from the bank to be much help to Buck and Ezra.

Jackson hunkered down low. "You reckon we can get any closer?"

The preacher shook his head in reply. "I do believe the girl has helped us as much as she can. She must have others to see to."

Both men fired more shots as the bandits rode past again.

Tanner had spotted Athena as she made her way to JD’s position. He had also noticed her body gesture change as she slid in beside the kid. Something was wrong! He could sense her worry. He looked over to Ezra and Buck but couldn’t signal them from where he sat. He tried to move again but the bandits had him pinned down.

Wilmington could see the tracker was in trouble and moved to get a better position. He quickly realized his timing was all wrong as a bullet sliced its way through his leg. Slumping back behind the boxes, he fired some more rounds in retaliation. None of them hit their mark.

"Save your bullets," instructed the gambler, mindful of their dwindling ammunition. Ezra had seen the projectile embed itself in Buck’s leg but was more interested in what was going on across the street. The robber looked as though he was preparing to ignite the gunpowder. Standish fired again at the man inside the bank.

Vin was doing his best to return fire between the bandit’s shots. He had counted five left at his end of town and they were having fun alternating pot shots between him and Athena. He hadn’t seen the kid fire his weapons and he didn’t like the way the absence felt. What’s wrong? The sharpshooter didn’t want to think about the answer.

Nathan had seen the rogue take the first bullet all right but was concerned for his friend when the second ripped through his shoulder. Wilmington had been knocked off his feet. All the healer could think about was getting to the ladies’ man to see what he could do to stop the bleeding. "Can you cover me if I try tah get across the street?" he questioned the preacher.

Josiah cocked his head. "Wouldn’t recommend it, son."

Four bandits at the church were taking pot shots at them and those men could see clearly all the way down the street.

Jackson bit his lip. Damn! If only Chris was here, tah help out.

Larabee calculated he was about four minutes out of town. The gunshots had become less frequent now but there were still a lot of them. He was worried for his men and the townsfolk. Would he be too late to help?

It looked like there were three bandits across the street and they had the tracker pinned down completely. A final quick glance towards the saloon told him there were at least two men closing in on Athena and JD but he could do little to help right now.

The woman was busy trying to free him up and Vin was afraid she hadn’t noticed the approaching men. Yelling a warning would do no good. It wouldn’t be heard over the gunfire. Tanner closed his eyes and tried to warn her with the only weapon left to him. Behind You! …Behind You!

Athena had managed to wing one of the three who had the tracker pinned down but the other two men were relentless. For every shot she fired at them, they fired twice as many… two at her and two at the sharpshooter. JD was in bad shape and she needed to get him some help. The two bullets he had taken had released a lot of blood before she got to him. He was barely conscious enough to hold on to his weapons. He needed medical attention.

Standish was worried about the ladies’ man. Buck had managed to get his belt around his leg but the shoulder was still bleeding. Ezra’s attention suddenly diverted to the man inside the bank as he moved out into the street and spied a loose horse he could grab hold of. The gambler watched for the man to make his move toward the horse. It only seemed logical that he would blow the powder as he made that move.

Josiah had been watching the gambler between bullets. He could sense the man’s anxiety and knew he was getting ready to do something. Between Nathan and himself, they had only managed to kill one of the men at the church. Three still remained and were causing them grief but if Ezra made a move for the bank, they would provide him cover as best they could.

Athena could sense a disturbance but couldn’t place the cause. She fired down the street again at the men who pinned down the tracker. The third man must have succumbed to the bullet she had put in. He no longer fired his weapon.

Vin was mad at himself for being pinned down like this. If he’d stayed put at the bathhouse, he would have had an escape route. Now he sat blind and helpless. Every time he raised his head a bullet or two whipped past it. Damn you, Tanner!

The events that transpired next all happened in the blink of an eye to their participants. The actions were almost simultaneous and there was just no way any one could have changed their outcome.

The man at the bank moved quickly for his horse and Ezra left his cover to pursue him.

Josiah and Nathan took the gambler’s lead and moved into the street at the same time. Their bullets flew towards the men at the church.

Athena spun around quickly and fired off six rounds from her peacemakers. All six bullets found their mark but not before she took a round in her shoulder. She watched the three men fall before she faltered and landed beside the kid.

Larabee rode his horse into town and took fire from the remaining men at the north end of town. The gunslinger used the element of surprise and quickly dispatched the bandits to finally free up the tracker from his perch.

Tanner made his way in to the street as Chris continued through town.

The southerner took quick note of the advancing gunslinger but he was too focused on the bank robber to stop his approach. The man turned to fire at the gunpowder as Ezra fired at him.

Larabee could see that the situation appeared to be in hand and continued past to aid in the firefight at the end of the street. The blond couldn’t see that the bandit had not fallen but he heard Standish fire again.

The southerner looked deep into the eyes of the man he had just shot twice. He saw only evil determination and he was unnerved by it. He raised his weapon as the horse sidestepped towards him.

Wilmington raised his head slightly and could see the battle of wills going on in the middle of the street. Sometimes he just didn’t understand what drove Standish to do the things he was capable of.

As Ezra stared at the man on horseback, he saw the bandit smile and raise his weapon. The would-be bank robber still intended to fire at the gunpowder and the gambler could not allow that to happen. He was forced to fire up as the horse again sidestepped toward him.

The gambler’s bullet hit the man square between the eyes and took off the back of his head. The bandit’s trigger finger jerked in reflex and a bullet embedded itself into the brain of his horse. The animal was dead instantly and immediately collapsed, taking the southerner and his rider along with it.

Wilmington cried out as Standish disappeared from view.

It hadn’t taken long for the remaining men at the church to be laid out by the gunslinger, the healer and the preacher. Larabee got down from his horse and checked on Sanchez and Jackson. Together, they heard Buck’s blood curdling scream and turned in time to see the horse fall on the gambler. The three men rushed headlong towards to scene of the accident and were met by a wounded Wilmington as he struggled forward on his injured leg.

Tanner had seen the woman move but was distracted by the horrified cry from down the street.

Athena gained her feet and immediately sensed something was terribly wrong with her southern gentleman. She followed close behind the tracker as he made his way to the gambler.

Four unharmed men struggled to remove the dead horse from their friend’s body. Athena stood ready to pull Ezra free when she could. Buck sat in the middle of the street watching as it happened. There was little he could do other than stand guard.

After several exhausting tries, the southerner was pulled free from the carcass and Nathan knelt to see to him. The healer noted that the upper left side of the gambler’s body had taken most of the horse’s weight. His ribs, shoulder and arm were partially crushed. He silently thanked the lord for rendering the man unconscious.

Athena could see that her gentleman was in good hands and made her way back up the street to where John Dunne lay.

Wilmington watched the woman leave, wondering where the heck she was going to in such a hurry. Suddenly his eyes widened and he looked around anxiously. He shook his head to clear it then took count on his friends again. He abruptly became aware of the absence of their youngest member. "Where JD?" he asked fearfully.

Vin realized he hadn’t seen the kid either and called to the healer to follow him up the street. Larabee followed as they made their way to the saloon.

The rogue tried to regain his feet but Josiah held him back. "Easy, son… easy. Nathan will take care of him." He prayed it would be that simple.

Athena stood over the kid as Tanner and Jackson cleared debris to get to him. JD hadn’t moved and Nathan quickly knelt to examine him. The healer shook his head and looked at the tracker.

Anguish coated the sharpshooter’s questions. "Nathan?"

Larabee stood by Vin’s side but somehow didn’t feel a part of what was going on.

"He’s still with us. Barely… we’ll have to move fast."

The healer was too anxious. It worried them all.

Chris moved to pick up the kid but the tracker warned him off with a stare that was worthy of the gunslinger himself.

Nathan too, looked at Larabee coldly before he picked up the boy and headed quickly to his clinic.

The blond watched as the men moved off down the street. Tanner stopped to assist the wounded ladies’ man while Josiah carefully lifted Ezra and followed. Larabee felt helpless and unwanted. He simply stood and stared as his friends limped their way to the clinic. For the second time in three short years, the gunslinger felt more alone than he had ever done in his whole life.

Athena backed her way up the street… She had stood quietly behind The Seven men and watched as they gathered themselves up. She had seen all of the pain, disappointment, blame and anguish. She understood in her heart that their journey’s had begun. This was her reason for being here. If things remained as they were, History would not know The Seven.

Chris had been waiting on the porch outside Nathan’s clinic for some time. He could see the townsfolk beginning to pick up the pieces of their community. The gunslinger wondered if it would be that easy to pick up the pieces of his broken world. Hell! …Why should I try!

At first, he’d heard his men moving about inside the clinic and then the soft moans of the injured. Now he heard nothing. He was worried… but he dared not enter. The blond remembered the way Tanner and Jackson had looked at him and he felt that he wouldn’t be welcome inside. The thought made him even angrier. He was mad at everybody… and everything. Mostly though, he was angry with himself… or so he thought. Why can’t I ever just hold my tongue? Why do I let everything get to me so much? If I hadn’t let that woman get under my skin… this would never have happened. I wouldn’t have been pissed off and I wouldn’t have left! …Damn it! …This is all her fault!

Inside the clinic, Nathan had been hard at work. John Dunne lay across the healer’s worktable as he retrieved the last bullet from the kid’s chest. He worked frantically to stem the bleeding and bandage the wounds.

The preacher prayed to the lord silently as he assisted Jackson in his task.

Behind them, Ezra lay motionless on the bed. He had not moved since Sanchez laid him down. Nathan had quickly instructed the tracker to cover the gambler in a thick layer of blankets but not to touch him. Jackson knew that Standish needed attention but he would have to wait.

Vin was holding a compress to Wilmington’s shoulder and trying to keep him sitting down. He cussed at the ladies’ man every time he tried to move. He knew the rogue was worried about the kid but Nathan needed time and room. Having the big man in his way would just cause more problems. Besides... Buck’s about ready tah pass out himself!

Without a doubt, Wilmington was indeed anxious about JD and he gave no thought to his own injuries. He blamed himself for being stupid enough to leave Dunne alone. He blamed the sharpshooter for not watching the kid’s back but most of all… he blamed Larabee. His ‘so-called-friend’ was off seeing to his own self when his ‘so-called-men’ needed him the most. Heaven forbid it, but if JD died, it would be Larabee’s fault and Buck didn’t think he could ever forgive that.

Nathan finished up with Dunne and Josiah carried him gently over to the cot and covered him up good. As the healer moved over to the ladies’ man, he could see the questions in his friend’s eyes. "I don’t know…" he looked at Wilmington and Tanner as he wiped his hands. "He’s lost a lot ‘a blood… I just don’t know." God… how many times have I said that, in the past two years?

"You’ve done what you could, Nathan," Josiah reassured the healer as he laid a hand on his shoulder. "No man could do more… I’ll keep praying, brother," he added as he closed his eyes.

Jackson nodded. He thought about the big man beside him. Where would he be without the preacher’s help? He shook his head. Hopefully, he’d never have to find out! "Now let’s see to you, Buck." He moved to Wilmington and removed the compress from his shoulder.

"I’m alright," the tall rogue objected. "See to Ezra, he done saved half the town with that stunt of his. If that powder had gone off…"

Nathan knelt down and looked into Wilmington’s eyes. "I’ll see the Ezra when I’m done with your fool ass. Standish ain’t bleeding himself dry."

Tanner helped Nathan pull the ladies’ man to his feet but Buck’s legs buckled under him. Josiah was there quickly to help get Wilmington to the table.

Wilmington cussed under his breath as they laid him down to remove the bullets. He hurt like hell already, now Nathan was gonna dig around in his wounds. Damn! He took the whiskey bottle Josiah offered and drank heavily trying to chase away the churning in his gut.

As Vin backed away he studied the five men in the room and bowed his head. It’s all my fault! He too, felt a sickening feeling way down in the pit of his stomach. The tracker needed time to think. He needed some fresh air and wide-open spaces. He opened the door and winced at the bright sun. He could hear Buck forcing back his yells as he closed the door then turned to face Larabee.

Chris rose to his feet as Tanner came outside.

The two looked deep into one another’s eyes… These men were considered friends like no others. Almost instantly, they had become inseparable. A chance meeting two years earlier had solidified a hole in two hearts. They could communicate on some strange level and their bond was forged on an unquestioned trust… yet, now they stared at each other like strangers. What had happened to them in the last four hours?

They simply stood and gazed at each other.

Chris was still blaming himself for the condition his men were in. How could he have let them down like this? He was selfish. He didn’t deserve their loyalty. He’d allowed them all to get too close. Now he was paying the price. It hurt like hell to have them broken like this. Some of them injured, or maybe dying! How could he have been so stupid? Why did I let them get close? …And Tanner! He was the one who suggested he leave town. Why had he sent Larabee away when he knew something could happen at any time?

The sharpshooter was blaming himself, as well. He knew he’d suggested his leader take a break. He knew the man trusted his judgment but he’d only thought about Chris and not the rest of the group. He’d sent this man off so that he could be of no help when the fighting started. And then he’d got himself pinned down. He was of no use to the rest of the men when they need him most. And, that darn fool kid had covered him when he moved. If‘n I hadn ‘a moved I wouldn ‘a been pinned down and the kid wouldn ‘a got shot!

Neither man could stand to look at each other any longer and neither spoke as Vin moved towards the stairs.

For the first time since they had met, Larabee and Tanner were lost to each other… and the rest of The Seven.

The tracker stood at the bottom of the stairs for a while trying to figure out what to do. He felt as though his world was falling apart. As though, he no longer had a place among these men. He gazed around at the townsfolk as they struggled to gain back some semblance of order. Tanner couldn’t help but envy them. He had no real idea what was normal was anymore. Maybe it was time he tried to find a life of his own…

The sharpshooter turned to go into the livery but spotted Athena making her way across the street. In all the confusion, Vin had forgotten about the woman. He took in the exhausted look in her eyes. She done her job as best she could.

Athena stopped and returned the tracker’s stare. For a long moment, they held each other’s gaze and then the woman’s eyes glazed over.

Tanner’s quick glances caught sight of a bloodstained shirt, beneath her coat and vest. "Oh shit!" he blurted out as she collapsed into his arms.

No one had seen her take a bullet. She hadn’t even said she was hurt. Amongst all the turmoil and confusion, no one had even stopped to ask.

The sharpshooter picked Athena up gently and headed back up the stairs.

Larabee stepped back as the tracker kicked open the door and took the girl inside.

Nathan was just finishing up with Buck’s leg, when he turned to see the look Vin’s face.

The woman’s head hung listlessly over the man’s arm.

They all moved quickly.

Josiah helped the ladies’ man down from the table and finished tying off the bandage while the sharpshooter set Athena down on the table.

Unbuttoning her vest, the healer bared the woman’s shoulder and tried to assess the situation.

Slowly, she began to regain consciousness again.

Jackson could see that the bullet had gone in the soft tissue between the collarbone and shoulder socket but the woman was fighting them as Nathan and Vin tried to remove her coat. "It’s alright, Miss," the healer was trying to calm her down.

She pushed them away and tried to sit.

"I got ‘a get that bullet out tah stop the bleeding," Jackson tried to tell her. He looked at Vin expectantly as they tried to keep her still. "I can give ya something to ease the pain."

The tracker forced Athena to focus on him and looked deep into her eyes. They had to get her calmed down so Nathan could do his work. "Hova’ahane," he said quietly. "Enaa’e."

The woman stopped struggling and seemed to quiet down a little. Vin nodded and smiled, slowly managing to get her coat off. He was careful not to disturb her injury but he could tell she was hurting.

Jackson nodded to her shirt and vest. They would have to come off in order for the healer to get to the bullet.

Athena fought back her need to flee. Through the pain and nausea, she understood the gesture. She knew what needed to happen in order for her to survive. And, if history was to know these seven men, she needed to survive to keep them together. Trust never came easily… but right now, she had very little choice.

Tanner offered his help but the woman flinched away from his movements. She shook her head and looked at the men sternly. All of the men turned their backs while she removed her clothing and then used her shirt to cover her breasts.

As she tried to lie back on the table, Vin moved to assist and gently guided her to the surface. Nathan reached for the whiskey bottle that Wilmington had sucked back on.

"Hova’ahane," she said simply when the healer offered her the bottle

Jackson looked at the tracker and understood the No! "All right then… here we go," he muttered. Grabbing his scalpel, the healer leaned in to work.

An exhausted sharpshooter moved into the saloon in the late afternoon light. The town was slowly getting back to normal and things were quiet at the clinic. He had been out riding for some time and had finally returned.

The wide-open spaces had allowed him to make a decision.

Tanner walked to the counter and took the whiskey that Inez offered him. His look told her he wished no company, so she left the bottle and moved to the other end of the bar. The man poured a shot and swallowed it as a dark figure moved in beside him. Pouring another, Vin set the bottle down.

The solemn blond retrieved the whiskey and filled his glass.

Both men swallowed hard.

Hours had passed since the gun battle had been fought and Larabee had steadily withdrawn into the cold lonely world that he had known before these men. His mind raced with bitter thoughts… Yet, for all the dark feelings roaming anew in his heart... he still had to know that everyone was all right. "How… how is everyone?" The gunslinger stuttered out the words. He didn’t think he had the right to care anymore but still, he had to know.

Vin considered the question for a long moment. Deciding that this might the only question he could answer, he did just that. "Buck’s gonna be all right," he said dryly. "Nathan ain’t sure ‘bout JD yet. He lost a lot ‘a blood." The sharpshooter poured himself another drink, swallowed it and took a deep breath. "Ezra’s a mess. Got some cracked ribs and his shoulder all the way down to the hand is all busted up… Nathan thinks he’ll heal… says it’s gonna be a spell though … He still ain’t sure why the damn fool ain’t come to yet." Licking his lips, he filled his glass and emptied it again.

Another long moment of silence passed.

"The girl?"

The tracker started to look at Chris but changed his mind. He poured yet another whiskey and swallowed it down hard. Damn! If he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes, he would never have believed it. Jackson had needed to go deep for the bullet in her shoulder. Real deep! The woman never made a sound during the twenty minutes it took Nathan to find the piece of metal and get it out. She’d tilted her head away from the pain and simply stared at Ezra. Vin rubbed one hand over the other. They still hurt from where she’d squeezed them. It was the only indication she had given of the agony she was in. Forcing back another drink, Tanner turned away from the bar. "She’ll live..." he started to reply, but the sight in front of him made him stop...

Nathan awoke to the sound of shuffling feet and then a deep groan. He could see Wilmington reaching for the door as he turned up the light.

Josiah stirred and sat up.

The healer shook his head. "Just where do ya think your goin’, Buck Wilmington?"

Buck limped another step closer to the door.

"I’m gettin’ out ‘a here so you can tend the others, Nathan," he suggested.

It wasn’t a bad idea but Jackson had his doubts. "You could use some more rest, Buck. You lost a lot ‘a blood, ya know. It’s only been eight hours."

Wilmington licked his lips as he averted his eyes from Standish. He couldn’t sit in this room and look at the gambler, knowing that the man saved the whole damn town and may not survive to tell about it. Glancing at the kid, the rogue shook his head. God, how he hated seeing him like this, yet again… It turned his stomach when he thought about JD dying.

The healer could see the hurt, pain, and determination in his face. He had little doubt of what was going through the man’s mind. "You sure?" he rested a hand on Buck’s shoulder.

They exchanged a silent understanding, as Wilmington looked at his fallen friends again. He could hardly see JD from all the blankets Josiah had piled on him. His gaze moved to Standish who bundled under a similar stack of blankets. Damn fool! He’d resigned himself to the fact that he may never understand the gambler at all. Looking at the big chair in the corner, the rogue frowned. "Where’s Athena?"

Nathan followed Buck’s gaze and cussed. She’d been there when he laid his head down on the table. Damn! Where’d she get off to?

A large hand settled on Jackson and Wilmington’s shoulders. "Might I suggest you let her be," the preacher suggested quietly. "She has work to do that no one else can take care of." He lowered his head. "I believe I understand the journey she must take and you couldn’t stop her if you tried." Sanchez had been watching and listening over the past ten days. He’d seen the frustration and anger that Larabee and Tanner were burdened with now. The ladies’ man too, was angrier than the preacher had ever seen him. Josiah had had his doubts that the woman could soothe this many souls but after the brief conversation he’d shared with her, he now believed he understood what she must do… The preacher didn’t envy her the task, not one little bit…


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