The Weight of Guilt

by Phyllis

The seven men were angry. They had been taken off guard on their way back to town. Four of the peacekeepers had spent two days at Nettie Wells' small homestead, building her a new barn, after the original had been struck by lightening. Nettie and her niece, Cassie, had managed to get the animals out, but they had lost much of their tack, a wagon, and all the winter feed stored inside. JD, Buck, Vin, and Josiah had gone out to clear the area and start framing the new barn.

Between the four of them, the structure had taken shape quickly, so that by the time the remaining three men had appeared, the work was completed in no time at all. They had enjoyed a well-earned meal and relaxed for a couple of hours before heading back to town, weary, but satisfied. They were a couple of miles out of town when they found themselves surrounded by twenty armed men. There was no way they could survive a shootout and the seven grudging tossed down their weapons. Their hands were tied in the front so they could ride, but guns remained trained on them.

"What the hell do ya'll want with us?" the undeclared leader of the seven growled.

One of the men, Ryan one of the others had called him, responded over his shoulder, "Just need you boys out of way for a while. Don't plan on hurting anyone." The man turned his attention back to the trail.

They had been riding for about an hour when Vin edged closer to Larabee and caught his eye. "They're heading to that line shack at the edge of Charlie's property."

Chris nodded as he kept his eye on the men around them. Ten men remained, keeping guard over the seven. Some of the men had ridden off a few minutes after their capture, taking JD's hat with them. The rest of the group rode on in silence for a while longer.

One of the kidnappers rode up next to Buck and the big man turned a cold glare on him. "You got a problem, pard?"

"I know you?"

Wilmington eyed the man. "I don't think so." Buck looked forward to see JD looking over his shoulder worriedly and he tossed the kid a grin and a wink. But his attention was drawn back to man beside him as he said, "Yeah, I know you. Saw ya in Moccasin Creek a few years back."

Buck frowned as the outlaw called out. "RED! Come up here."

The peacekeepers each glanced around at the yell. Chris pulled his mount up bit to drop back, moving closer to his old friend. He wasn't sure what he would be able to do in case of trouble; he'd worry about that if, and when, he had to. Right now, he was only concerned with being close in a show of support.

A horse from the rear of the line trotted up and joined them. "What are ya hollering about, Jack?"

"Look at this guy, Red. Ain't he the one that was hitting on your girl in Moccasin Creek?"

"My girl? Which girl?"

"Lucy, ya damn fool."

Red frowned for a moment before it came back to him. his eyes widened for a moment then he pointed a grubby finger at Buck's chest. "Yeah. You hit on my girl."

"If she was your girl, why did she come to me?"

"She wouldn't do that."

Buck smirked at the outlaw.

Red backhanded the big man. Chris caught movement out of the corner of his eye and turned to see JD moving his horse toward the three men. He kneed Pony, causing him to dance around, blocking the young easterner. The blond hissed at the boy to stay out of it. Their eyes met momentarily and JD gave a quick nod of acknowledgment, a frown on his face.

Buck glared at the redhead as he wiped away the trickle of blood at the corner of his mouth. "That lovely woman wouldn't ever have anything to do with you. She's smarter than that."

Red drew his hand back again, but lowered it as another horse approached.

"What the hell is going on back here?"

"Nothing, boss. We was just… ah…"

"Well, get back to the tail, Red."

After a moment's hesitation, the man wheeled his mount around and returned to the back of the line. The man named Jack looked away as he moved back to his post even as Ryan turned his attention to Buck. He was a tall, slender man with thinning brown hair atop an angular face.

"I don't want any trouble, Wilmington. Once we get that army payroll tomorrow, we're gone. You can all go home safe and sound. As long as you don't make trouble. You make trouble, and you won't like the result. Do you understand? No trouble."

Buck pursed his lips and then nodded slowly. The man moved his animal next to Chris and exchanged glares. As Ryan moved toward the front of the line, Chris looked back at Buck. The two old friends exchanged knowing looks. The army payroll the man referred to was supposedly a secret. Judge Travis had personally arrived in town to let them know about its arrival.

"I just want you boys to look after it for one day. Army's sending a troop out to fetch it the next day, so you don't have to worry, won't be in town long enough for anyone to find out."

Chris remembered telling the old man that there would no trouble. His eyes locked on the man he had known for over twelve years.

"Stay cool, Buck." The words were for the outlaws benefit, the look was for Wilmington. The two men had been friends for years, each knew how the other thought and a non-verbal plan was agreed upon.

Wilmington dipped his head as Chris moved back next to Tanner. Four of the peacekeepers read the signs and understood, going on alert, knowing that something was about to happen.

Buck took a deep breath and said loudly, "Yeah, Red. That little lady remembered you. Talked about ya all the time. Woman was always telling me how you followed her around like a puppy."

Josiah rode with his head down, his hat covering his face. He slowly looked over his shoulder, watching as the redheaded outlaw fumed behind him. The ex-preacher glanced at the southerner that rode close on his left. Ezra glanced at the big man, a slight nod visible.

"Buck, you trying to get killed?" JD hissed.

"Hell, from what I understand, the man is all talk, no action," Buck laughed, ignoring the shaky voice of the easterner. "Yeah, she sure was a pretty thing. She wasn't much impressed with you, though."

The man charged forward, his gun in his hand. "You shut UP!"

Buck blue eyes flashed as the pistol was waved around in his face. From the corner of his eye, the peacekeeper noticed Jack moving closer, his attention on the action rather than the prisoners.

"What's the matter? You can't handle the truth?" Buck goaded. "Maybe I should give you a few pointers."

Before the man could react to the goading from Wilmington, Ryan charged back, his horse sliding to a stop next to his man, his hand coming up to slap the revolver down and then reversed to backhand the red-headed outlaw. "I told you, I call the shots. He's just trying to distract you and doing a damn good job of it. You were told to guard, not talk. Now get back to your places."

The two henchmen moved away and the angular faced Ryan turned back to Wilmington. "I told you that I didn't want any trouble." Without a moment's hesitation, Ryan pulled his gun and fired.

The shot echoed across the prairie as the horses screamed and reared at the sudden explosion. The body tumbled off his horse as it reared and the unrestrained animal bolted even as the armed leader yelled.

"NO. MORE. TALKING." He looked from one peacekeeper to the next. "One word, One, and I shoot again. Not the one that talks. One of the others. You want to kill a friend? Say one word. That's all it'll take. Is that understood?"

The statement was met with deadly silence, the six men glaring at Ryan. Taking that silence for agreement, he moved to the front of the column and started them moving again. The peacekeepers remained silent-in grief and in anger. Larabee looked back over his shoulder, knowing that his decision led to the execution of one of his men and that knowledge weighed heavily on his shoulders.

He felt eyes boring into him and he turned to see Tanner's blue eyes watching him. Those same eyes held understanding and not blame. Larabee nodded briefly before glancing back once again to see Josiah and Ezra flanking the stunned member of the peacemakers. No one spoke as they left the body lying in the road for fear of someone else being shot. Each man wanted to protest, to at least request to bury their friend, but the six rode on in silence. Chris stole one more look at the crumbled form before turning to glare at the man in front, vowing that he would kill him for what he had done.

+ + + + + + +

The group of riders arrived at the shack just as the sun sank beneath the horizon. Tanner had hoped they would reach the lonely building after dark, thinking they might be able to overcome the ten remaining outlaws in the shadows of the moonless night. He knew by Larabee's face that the man was thinking the same thing. None of the men from Four Corners had spoken since the incident two hours prior, but three were paying special attention to their leader and would react swiftly of a move was made.

Signaling a halt, Ryan had the six men dismount and then herded into the small shack to which the one window had been boarded over and the only door guarded as Ryan had informed them before slamming the wooden exit closed as he left. The six men set about removing the ropes that bound their hands. Once that was accomplished, five of them milled around, checking for any weakness in the makeshift prison. The sixth man had moved to a corner and sunk down, his face averted from the others.

Larabee moved over to the huddled form and squatted down. "It's not your fault."

Blue eyes flicked around, but did not make contact with Chris' green ones. The pain of loss and guilt were evident on the stricken man's face and the blond reached out in support. "Buck…"

But the big man folded in on his self tighter and turned his face the wall, effectively closing himself off from the others. Larabee sat with his head down for several moments before taking a deep breath and standing. He joined the four men who had been watching the scene play out.

"Tain't your fault any more than his, Chris. There was no way to know he'd shoot JD."

Larabee ran his hands up and scrubbed at his face. "Still my responsibility. I signaled Buck, wanted him to aggravate the situation. If we had just followed directions, maybe Ryan would have let us go."

"Chances are that he would not have lived up to his generous claims, Mr. Larabee. It would behoove him to leave no witnesses. Certainly not witness such as ourselves. We would be honor bound to pursue the miscreants and restore our reputations." Ezra stated.

"Ezra's right, Chris, " Nathan confirmed. "What we got to do now is figure a way out before they for sure don't need us alive, no more."

"Why do you suppose they took the boy's hat?" Josiah asked.

"Figure they needed proof that they had us. Tell the town's people that they'd let us loose as soon as they get what they want." Vin offered.

Ezra snorted. "They obviously do not know the distinguished citizenry of our fair community. Many of them would in fact, love to eradicate our influence from their midst."

"Yeah, well, we still need to get out of here. Any ideas, boys?" The blond looked at each man, but no one had any suggestions. Looking around, they went over their opinions, eliminating one after another. "Well, that leaves us with the door. If we could get rid of one of the guards at that side window, we could tear the boards off…"

"Make too much noise, cowboy. The rest would be on us in a minute." Tanner noted.

"Yeah. I know." Chris turned around slowly, checking the room once again. He turned back to the men, a scowl on his face. "Looks like we'll have to work out something for when they come through the door."

Four heads nodded. It was dangerous, but looked to be their only opinion, so plans were discussed. After they finally agreed on the plan most likely to gain their freedom with the least amount of injuries, they all sat back to get some rest for the upcoming fight. Tanner sat down beneath the side window and Chris joined him there.

"What about Buck?" the Texan asked quietly.

Larabee glanced over at his old friend. Wilmington was sitting in the same position as before, ignoring everything going on around him. Chris leaned his head back against the wall, his hat sitting propped on his raised knee. "Buck is going to be the wild card in this fight. He might sit right there and not move. Chances are, Ryan walks in, and Buck'll explode and go after 'im."

Tanner nodded. And the five men rested, saving their energy for the fight.

+ + + + + + +

Something warm on his face was the first thing JD was aware of. Warm and moist, and he went to turn away, but the movement set off an explosion of pain through his head. He rolled onto his side with a moan and gripped his head with both hands. He was aware of a presence close by, but could not concentrate enough to see who or what it was, or even care.

After a few minutes, he managed to open his eyes and he squinted at his surroundings. He could not bring anything into focus, but he finally recognized that his hands were tied together and that fact brought him to a sitting position, ignoring the pain and dizziness. He sat staring at the rope, trying to remember why he was tied, what had happened. A nudge from the back had him spinning around on the seat of his pants, startled. He found himself looking into warm brown eyes.

"Hey, girl," the boy whispered and reached out to stroke the velvety soft nose of his mare. Glancing around and seeing no one else, the boy struggled to his feet, using the bridle to pull himself upright. Once standing, he stood swaying for a few moments. Feeling his world steady a bit, he released the bridle and staggered back toward his saddlebags only to be forced to grip the leather stirrup as another wave of dizziness rolled over him and he clung to the leather anchor in order to remain upright.

The dizziness passed, though his vision remained blurry and his head throbbed with each beat of his heart. Regaining his equilibrium, he reached into his saddlebags and rummaged around. After dropping several items to the ground, he withdrew a small, sheaved knife. His fingers fumbled at the clasp and he groaned in frustration. He finally managed to open the case and pulled the knife out. It was no simple matter to free his hands without cutting his flesh, but he finally accomplished his goal and the ropes dropped to the ground in a heap.

JD reached up and grabbed the saddle horn and fender to steady himself. The mere job of cutting the ropes seemed to have drained the little energy he had and he took deep breaths to ward off the blackness playing at the fringe of his vision. Once he was sure that he could remain on his feet, he reached across the patient animal and retrieved his canteen. The water was warm, but it alleviated the parched dryness in his throat. He tipped the canteen over his head and the water rolled off his hair and down his face, flushing his eyes clear. As he blinked the moisture away, the young man realized that blood had dried and caked on his face and that was part of the cause of his blurred vision.

Once he had cleaned his face using a spare shirt he found he had tossed to the ground, he looked around to get his bearings.

"Well, girl. Home is that way. Question is, why are we out here?" He patted the strong neck as he spoke, his head moving slowly as he once more surveyed the landscape. He decided that he should head back to town and found the others. The thought of the six men he rode with caused him to stop, an anxious feeling springing up in the pit of his stomach. He reached up and touched the furrow on the side of his head. An image of Buck and a tall stranger sprang to mind and he suddenly remembered everything that had happened.

Panicked, the young man looked around the landscape more closely. He noticed the churned up ground and moved to examine the prints of several horses. Reading tracks was not his best attribute, but he had no trouble seeing the direction the animals took. Grabbing the reins, he climbed onto the horse's back and started after the others, praying that they were still alive.

+ + + + + + +

It was close to midnight when the glow of campfires alerted JD to the outlaws' location. At least, he hoped it was them. The ride had sapped his energy as he fought to not only see the tracks in the moonless night, but stay in the saddle at the same time. By the time he noticed the fires, he had almost rode right into the camp.

He pulled his horse off the trail to a cluster of trees, berating himself for almost getting caught again. Blood loss and stress combined to force him to rest before approaching the camp to learn the fate of his friends. Afraid to close his eyes, he sat quietly, stroking the broad head of his mount.

He rested only long enough to allow his head to stop spinning. Feeling capable of moving quietly, he stood and ground reined the horse and then crept slowly toward the camp. When he got close enough to hear two men talking, he lay in the tall prairie grass and crawled closer.

"Ryan says the payroll is due in early tomorrow. Toby and the others will pretend to be those lawmen and take the money."

"How'd Ryan find out about this shipment anyway?"

"Some cousin or something; works at the telegram office in Eagle Bend. He sent word to Ryan."

"What's he going to do with them fellars, now?"

"Well, he can't let them live. Not after shooting the kid. Maybe we should just burn that shack with them in it."

Having heard enough, JD slowly moved back. Feeling he was out of sight, he rose up on one knee and looked around, finally spotting the shack a couple of hundred yards south of the camp. He stood and moved toward it.

The first outlaw that he came upon, he literally ran into as the man was relieving himself against a tree. JD slammed the man head first into the tree he was using as a toilet. The outlaw went down quickly and quietly. The young sheriff gathered the man's pistol and rifle after tying him to a small sapling with his own braces and stuffing his kerchief in his mouth.

Closing in on the shack, he spotted a second man leaning against the side, smoking a hand rolled cigarette. Concealed behind a bush, JD tossed a small rock off to his left. The man went on alert and started forward, searching the bushes as he moved away from the shack. Waiting until the kidnapper had moved past, he snuck in behind him and used the rifle butt to knock the man out. Once again, he used the man's own clothes to bind him with.

He gathered up the weapons and moved to the shack, but had to pause as another dizzy spell caused him to stagger, almost dropping the weapons he had gathered. As he approached the sidewall, he stumbled and slammed into the wall, bruising his shoulder. A voice called from inside and JD smiled at the southern drawl. The window was too high for JD to peer into, but since he knew his friends were inside, he began to push the weapons through a small opening left around the boards.

A soft grunt of pain and a muffled sound of the gun belt falling on someone had him whispering, "Sorry."

After dropping the two belts, with the pistols tied in their holsters, and the two rifles, JD moved to the back of the shack to check for any more outlaws. But in the dark, he failed to see the dip in the ground and stepped down into the depression. He staggered for a step or two and then crashed to the ground, his head impacting on the hard packed dirt before he could get his hands out to catch himself. The pain shot through his head; that combined with the earlier trauma, drove him once again into the beckoning darkness.

+ + + + + + +

Vin rubbed his shoulder were the first gun belt dropped. The impact was unexpected and he jumped over, knocking into Larabee.

"What the hell?" Larabee growled. He grabbed Tanner by the arm to steady him as the second belt plopped to the dirt floor.

By the time the rifles fell through, Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra were crowded around. Chris and Josiah took the pistols and Vin and Ezra took the rifles. Nathan stood and looked through the window, but could not see anything. "Don't see no body."

He turned back as they began to revise their plans. As they worked on a new plan, each of them, at one time or another, glanced over at Wilmington as he continued to remain huddled in the corner. Plans complete, they began to implement them.

Ezra glanced out the front window while Nathan double-checked the side window. Getting the all clear, Josiah handed the pistol to Jackson and gripped the first board. There were boards nailed on the inside, three of them, while the other three were outside the frame. The wood creaked as the big chested ex-preacher exerted pressure on the board. The nails gave way and released their hold, with a shriek. The next two came out as easily but not as quietly. All the men cringed and froze as each board came loose.

The five men stood silent, waiting for a reaction from the men outside. When none came, they relaxed a bit. Josiah used the boards he had removed to drive the exterior ones out. Once the window was clear, Josiah hoisted Vin up where the tracker poised on the window frame. Determining that no one was aware of their escape attempt, he dropped to the ground and moved to the front of the shack. Slipping around the corner, he made quick work of releasing the latch. Vin moved back around to the corner and kept an eye on two sides of the shack.

Ezra stepped out and took a position at the other corner. Josiah came out next, followed by Nathan. Vin glanced back, waiting for Chris to come through the door. He did a double take when Wilmington came through the door first; gripping the pistol Chris had been carrying. Larabee was right behind him. The blond saw Tanner watching and gave him a quick nod.

The six men headed toward the glow of the campfire. They split up with Nathan and Ezra heading to the line of horses tethered to the downwind side of the camp. Buck and Josiah moved to the other side with Chris and Vin going straight in.

Of the ten men that had brought them to the shack, they quickly located seven of them. Five of the men lay around the campfire, asleep. Two more made a break for the horses, only to be intercepted by Jackson and Standish.

After securing the would be robbers, Larabee learned from them that Ryan had left to see to the operation in town. They didn't expect him back until after the payroll had been taken. He also got it out of the outlaws that two men were missing. Chris responded by sending Vin and Nathan in search of the missing outlaws.

For the first time since the shot had been fired earlier that afternoon, Wilmington spoke. "We need to get back to town, Chris." His voice was soft and whispery, his face still marred by the guilt and grief, but there was a fire within him that demanded quenching. Larabee knew that fire and he planned on helping his friend extinguish it. Not only had he vowed vengeance for the murder of Dunne, he had made a promise to Travis to protect the army payroll.

"Ezra, Josiah, wait for Vin and Nathan. Bring these boys into town. Don't take any chances, but try to get there as soon as you can. Buck and I are going ahead."

The two men nodded and Larabee turned to see the mustached man heading for the horses. They threw saddles on their mounts and headed to Four Corners.

+ + + + + + +

Moving slowly, Jackson and Tanner retraced their steps to the shack. They discovered the first man quickly. Confused in the darkness, he called out in a mumbled yell of 'help'. Vin and Nathan followed the sounds right to him. The outlaw's eyes grew wide when he recognized them and then he flopped back on the ground in resignation. Nathan just chuckled.

"Don't know who it is that's helping us, but they sure can tie a knot," he commented as he tried to pull the man up only to discover the man was tied to a small tree by his braces. The healer released the man and jerked him to his feet. He retied the hands and shoved him forward, to follow in the wake of the tracker.

Vin scouted the area and indicated for Nathan to move to some weeds growing out to the side of the shack as he moved around to the back. Tanner saw Nathan grab the collar of the their prisoner and drag him along as the he headed off.

The tracker moved to the front of the shack and began to move around the perimeter. He rounded the corner and edged down the side, past the window they had escaped through. He was just reaching the back corner when Jackson called out.

"Vin, found the other one."

Tanner chuckled as he heard, 'you can just carry him. That's how,' obviously in answer to an unheard question. The longhaired Texan started to turn back, when something caught his eye. He glanced toward the tall black man, making sure he was able to handle the two and moved forward for a better look. He could see the dark form, but could not make out anything details, so he approached cautiously.

Vin was within two feet before he could make out the form and he froze, not quite believing what he was seeing. The pause only lasted a moment and Vin squatted next to the prone figure, reaching out his hand to grip the wool jacket and pull the body over. Placing his hand on the slack face, he relaxed he felt the warmth of a breath on the palm of his hand. He saw the bloody crease in the easterner's head as well as a bruise on the other side of Dunne's forehead.

"NATHAN!" Vin yelled over his shoulder, never taking his eyes off of JD.

The healer directed the outlaw toward Tanner, where the tracker squatted on the balls of his feet, the rifle held close to his chest. Jackson told the man to sit down and then waited as the kidnapper dropped his partner and fell to the ground next to the unconscious man. Nathan then turned his attention to the tracker. As he approached, he took his first look at what was holding the Texan's interest. And he froze for a moment, dumbstruck at the sight.


Vin's eyes flicked up, momentarily. "He's alive, but he's hurt."

The healer shook out of his stupor and dropped down to check the young easterner. During the examination, the boy began to show signs of coming to. Nathan patted the center of the young chest as he prompted, "JD? Can you hear me?"

Dunne frowned and rolled his head slowly from side to side, but did not open his eyes.

"Come on, boy. Open your eyes for me."

A hand came up, reaching for the knot that marred the side of his forehead. But Nathan swatted the hand away. "Don't touch that. Can you open your eyes for me?"

"What? Nat…Nathan?"

"That's right. Open them eyes for me."

Vin and Nathan waited patiently as the easterner struggled to pull his eyelids open. Squinting one eye closed, he finally managed to peek out the other.

"Hey, Vin."

"Kid," the Texan drawled.

"How ya feel, JD?"

"Huh?" The young sheriff asked as he tried to sit up. Tanner reached out and placed a hand on the boy's chest.

"Hold up, JD."

The boy brushed at the hand. "I'm okay." Hazel eyes, finally both open, gazed up at the two men. "Really. I'm fine. Just help me up."

Once again, he tried to raise up and Vin's hand stopped him. JD looked at Nathan and the ex-slave shook his head, as he rolled his eyes. "Might as well let 'im up, Vin. Can’t do much here. We'll go down to the campfire and I'll clean 'im up."

Vin nodded and standing, reached down and pulled the young man up, slowly. The tracker placed steadying hands on the sheriff's shoulders when he swayed and staggered a couple of steps. JD nodded in appreciation, but said nothing.

Nathan herded the two outlaws down to the campfire where Ezra and Josiah were waiting as Vin slowly walked an unsteady JD in that direction. Jackson escorted the outlaw and Ezra stood, directing the man where to go. Josiah moved to pile of tack, looking for Nathan’s saddlebags and the supplies within them as Nathan checked the unconscious man. The man was already coming around and the healer found no gaping wound, so he left him in the company of his friends and moved back to the fire to have a better look at the young sheriff. He and Vin had reached the campfire and were sitting on a log near the warmth of the fire.

Ezra was busy securing the first man and checking the rest of the prisoners, making sure they were secure. Once he was satisfied that none of the ropes were loose, he stepped away and moved back to the fire to see Vin seated and Nathan squatted next to him talking to a third person, but a view of that person was blocked by the healer’s broad back. Ezra moved forward and finally got a look at who Nathan was examining.

He stood gape-mouthed for a moment before a wide smile split his features and he trotted forward. Standish squatted next to Nathan and placed his hand on JD’s knee. The hazel eyes had been closed, but the touch had them opening. The dark haired youth smiled at the expression on the gambler’s face.

"Hey, Ezra," he said softly.

Any response from Standish was delayed as Josiah returned with Nathan’s saddlebags. "JD" he whispered as he saw the four men across the flames. He rushed over and handed the bags to Jackson and then sat down next to the boy, opposite Tanner. His hand reached out and pushed the black hair up in order to get a look at the boy’s face. "Damn, son. We thought we had lost you, for sure." In response, JD smiled and shook his head slowly.

Ezra composed his face into as bland an expression as he was capable of as the two spoke and then stated, "My friend, you are truly possessed of the infamous good fortune of your ancestors."

JD frowned and Josiah translated. "You have the luck of the Irish, lad."

JD reached up to his head as he disagreed. "I don’t feel lucky."

Nathan was wrapping a bandage around the sheriff’s head as he set the young man straight. "You was damn lucky, son. A inch to the left and that slug would have split your skull and you’d ‘a been dead."

"Oh" was the only thing Dunne could think to say.

Nathan secured the bandage and sat back on his heels. "Well, that’s the best I can do out here. Mainly, he just needs to rest. That’s best thing for ‘im."

Vin had sat quietly, but nodded at Jackson’s words. "We should see if there’s a wagon around here somewhere. If not, I’ll rig up a travois."

"I can ride."

"No" three voices said at the same time. JD just rolled his eyes. As Josiah and Ezra stood, the easterner glanced around, frowning.

"Where’s Chris? And Buck?" Panic had his voice rising in both volume and pitch. Before anyone could react, he jumped to his feet and stepped around Jackson as the healer fell back in the dirt at the sudden movement.

Tanner reacted first and stepped in front of JD as he moved away, toward the horses. "They’re fine, JD. They went on to town."

"Where’s that fella that shot me?" He saw the four men exchange glances. "Buck’s gone after ‘im, hasn’t he? Buck's gone to town to kill that man, because of me?"

He pulled away from Vin and headed to where he had left his mount.

"Where do ya think you’re going?" Jackson shouted as he jumped to his feet.

"I’m gonna get my horse and I’m headed into town," JD stated as he moved off.

Tanner shook his head as he started after the impetuous young man. He quickly caught up and took Dunne by the arm.

"Just hold up a minute, kid."

JD spun around to say something, but a wave of dizziness had him falling against Tanner's chest, instead. Vin wrapped his arms around the shorter Dunne and held him upright, until the sensation passed. It took a few moments, but finally JD pushed the tracker and was quickly released. Hazel eyes peered up out of the pale face and ashamedly glanced away. Vin heard a quiet 'thanks' and he reached out and gripped the boy's arm, leading him back to the others. Vin nodded as Ezra indicated he would go retrieve JD's mount.

The boy sat near the fire, his head hung low. Tanner, Sanchez, and Jackson stood off a bit, watching and thinking about their next move.

"We need to let Chris and Buck know. One of us needs to head to town," Vin said.

"I'm going." And Dunne stood up slowly.

Three heads shook in disagreement, but JD stood firm. "I'm going," he said softly.

"Son, you can barely stand. How do you plan to stay on a horse?" Josiah stood next to the boy, his hand resting lightly on the slender shoulder.

Behind them, Ezra came back into camp, leading the small bay horse. He stopped as he saw the confrontational gathering in front of the fire, listening. The mare nickered and rubbed her head against the gambler's back causing the southerner to raise one eyebrow and flare his nostrils as he lowered his chin and endured the abuse of his jacket, but his eyes never leaving the scene playing out in front of him.

"JD, ya ain't going to ride into town. You could fall and hurt yourself worse."

"I have to go. Buck needs to know I'm not dead."

"I'll tell 'im that you're okay." Tanner started to turn, but stopped as JD once again insisted.

"I'm going and you can't stop me."

Tanner took a step toward the youth. JD took a step back. "Okay, you can stop me. But you won't."

Vin cocked his head to one side, his thumbs hooked in his belt as he asked, "And why won't I?"

JD swallowed and glanced tentatively at the others. "Cause Buck won't believe ya. I have to go."

The tracker flexed his jaw muscles, as he looked first at the healer and then the preacher. He turned and found Ezra standing at his shoulder.

"Mr. Dunne is correct. Mr. Wilmington will not take your word on this matter. He observed the 'death' of his young friend and he will not easily forget that image."

"Josiah asked before and ya didn't answer him, JD. How do you think you can ride into town when ya can't hardly even stand?"

"Cause I have to. 'Sides, I figure if I can ride with a bullet in my gut, I can ride with a dent in my head." He grinned slightly, aware that he would probably fall off his horse before they ever reached town. But he had to try; he owed Wilmington.

Jackson shrugged at Tanner's raised eyebrow. Josiah broke the silence.

"Ezra and I will escort the prisoners to town. Nathan should go with you two. They may need his assistance in town."

Tanner nodded and the three mounted up and headed to town to stop the robbery and a possible murder. Not to save the intended victim, but the killer.