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The desert was just beginning to come to life as the darkness receded; taking with it the fear that often sent a cold chill through the people living closest to the circle of corruption. No one ever spoke of their fears, but Hank Thompson looked out over the desolate landscape and could not believe they were going deep into the badlands.
"Sheriff, ain't one ta be jumpin' at shadows, but are ya sure this is a good idea?"
"Carl, no one's forcin' you to come with us, but..."
"Ain't backin' out, Sheriff, but are ya sure that young fella knows where we're s'posed ta go?"
"JD may be young, Mr. Tucker, but he's probably seen more in his short life than you have in your..."
"All right, fancy pants, I'll take yer word fer it. Come on then let's get movin'. Ain't getting any younger ya know?" Carl Tucker was a man who'd lived on his own since losing his wife during an attack on his home by a renegade band of Indians. Those years had given him a corrosive manner, but those who knew him knew his heart was worth more than gold.
"You want me to drive?" Dunne asked, tying his own horse to the back of the wagon. The going would be slow, but at least they'd have the supplies needed to help the injured men. The people of Farmington had showed just how giving they could be and had helped load the wagon with the items Jack O'Malley needed. There were three barrels of water, several thick blankets, bandages, smoked meats, bread, flour and any number of food stores that would hold up under the relentless sun. There was also a pack animal that would be going with Ezra and the others. It too, carried water and other supplies that would hold them until the wagon arrived. The dessert was unforgiving and JD was glad they were not taking any chances.
"Might as well...yer the one knows where we're goin'," Tucker said and smiled as the younger man mumbled something under his breath.
"JD, take your time. We have enough supplies to last several days," Standish explained and knew the younger man wanted more than anything to ride along with him, but someone needed to stay with the wagon and that had been decided by a toss of the coin.
"I will, Ezra, get going," Dunne said and watched for several minutes as Standish, O'Malley, and Thompson rode away.
"O'Malley's a good man, Son, he'll make sure yer friends are taken care of."
"Thanks, Mr. Tucker..."
"We're gonna be ridin' together a few days, Kid, might as well call me Carl."
"Ain't a kid."
"No, I don't expect ya are, but yer younger'n me and that means I can call ya kid. Wake me when yer ready ta hand over the reins, Kid," Tucker smiled and lit up a battered pipe as the wagon began to move slowly into the badlands.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah stood watch over the sleeping men as twilight gave way to the darkness of night and the unknowns that still hid just outside the circle of light. He looked toward the area where the Inn had once stood and shivered at the uncertainty he felt. The destruction seemed absolute, but the holy man had seen too many things in his lifetime to underestimate the evil he'd seen within those walls. The fire had burned hot and the ashes still smoldered in spite of the passing of time. He turned away from the ruined structure and again looked at the four men he watched over.
Nathan slept due to exhaustion and yet Josiah knew he would be instantly awake should he be needed. The healer often spoke of his inadequacies, yet none of them saw what he saw. To his fellow peacekeepers and the citizens of Four Corners, Nathan Jackson was a godsend. Someone who gave selflessly and never turned anyone away whether they could pay for his services or not. Nathan Jackson was a man who used his hands and his skills to help his fellow man and that was a gift in itself.
Buck slept, but it was not a deep or healing sleep, for his body was in the throes of a fever and he trembled under the blanket that covered him. Sometimes he whispered, as if in fear, while other times he would cry out and curse anyone who dared hurt his friends. Josiah knelt at his side and placed a hand over Wilmington's chest before speaking softly.
"Easy, brother, they're safe." As if by some unseen force the gentle rogue turned slightly on his side and was quiet.
Josiah stood and looked at the two men who hadn't moved since Jackson had cauterized the Texan's wound. Their chests rose and fell as if the two were breathing as one. There was a bond between these two, one stronger than any he'd ever seen before. On more than one occasion it had saved their lives, but now it felt like it was dragging two good men down. Like brothers of the soul, Chris had felt the heat that seared the wound to Vin's chest and had followed him into the dark depths that seemed to be holding the duo captive. Neither man showed any signs of regaining consciousness and that had Jackson more worried than the wounds themselves.
Taking a deep breath, Sanchez stood and again looked toward the destruction that had caused so much pain and so many deaths. Anahita had shown them through her writings how her family had suffered when they tried to make their home at the Inn. She'd written of things no one should have to face and Josiah knew she'd saved their lives and helped defeat the evil within the domain. So many lives, human and animal had been lost over the years and Josiah felt their souls calling out to him.
"God give you peace," he whispered and turned to see a shadow just outside the circle of light. "Go back to hell where you belong for God has granted us safe passage and he will not allow you to touch his warriors. Go before He calls down his tempest on you for what you've done!"
+ + + + + + +
Columber quickly vanished into the familiar form of a black crow and cawed loudly as it flew high into the air. It no longer had the power to influence the mind of Josiah Sanchez and could no longer feel the souls he sought. Chris Larabee would not be The Dark Sentinel, for the time had come and gone and his brothers, especially the one called Vin Tanner had proven too strong for his dark powers. Satan would return to his dominion and like his wounds, but he would return and when he did seven men would pay for their insolence. Soaring high over the land he looked to the northwest and felt the presence of the two men who made the strength of The Seven whole and knew it was time to retreat and lick his wounds. There were those among his minions who would pay. He sensed their fear and felt the power of his position as he swooped down toward the remnants of the Inn and the narrow tunnel that was still open for him.
James Clark would be the first to feel his fury, then he would take his anger out on Lilith and Galla Shedim. Tonight he would feast on their fears and plan for the day when another dark soul would cross his path. The dark shape hit the solid ground, but it drove through the smoldering ash and plunged toward the fiery depths that some called hell, but he called home. He would be ready when the time was ripe once more.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah turned as an unholy cry echoed through the landscape until it finally died out and left him breathless and temporarily deaf. He reached out and helped the blinking healer to his feet and shook his head as if to clear the deafening crescendo.
"What the hell was that?" Jackson shouted.
"Hell sounds about right," Sanchez answered in the same high pitched voice and was relieved when the screams finally subsided.
"Thank God!" the medic said and turned to check on the sleeping men. Buck's eyes were open, but seemed confused and Jackson knelt beside him.
"Nathan...what was that?"
"Don't rightly know, Buck," Sanchez answered.
"Sounded close...too close," Wilmington whispered.
"Maybe...but something tells me we're not being watched anymore," the holy man told them. Since the scream he'd felt as if the evil surrounding them had lost much of its force and that Satan had finally realized he'd lost this battle and surrendered, at least for now. He knew there would be many more battles before the final war was fought and a victor declared, but for now his attention was focussed on the fight to save these three men.
"It's gone...really gone," the weak man said and turned toward his two unconscious friends . "You hear that, Boys, the devil's gone back to hell and he ain't gonna be toasting to victory."
"No, he's not, Buck. Got somethin' for ya ta drink," the healer said and helped his friend drink the tepid water.
"They been 'wake?" Wilmington asked hopefully.
"No. Ain't moved a bit since..."
"Nathan," the ladies man said and reached out to touch the man's arm. "Ain't another man 'round I'd rather have tendin' them."
"Thanks, Buck, just wish that JD and Ezra would get back," Jackson said.
"Shouldn't be long more, Nathan," Sanchez said and added wood to the fire as a chill wind blew over their makeshift campsite, but it didn't carry the same foreboding as the ones that came before it. The sands had indeed shifted and with it came a whisper of hope. Time...that was what they needed now, time for the others to arrive and time to help their friends heal.
"Josiah, any coffee left?" Jackson asked.
"Might be a cup or two," the ex-preacher said and lifted the battered pot from the coals. Wilmington seemed to be sleeping again as Sanchez poured two cups of the strong black liquid and handed one to the younger man.
"Thanks," the former slave told him and the two men lapsed into silence and watched over their friends, both praying that time was something they had.
+ + + + + + +
It was mid afternoon of the following day when Josiah noticed movement to the northwest and breathed a sigh of relief. He watched for several long moments until he was sure and turned to see Jackson tending the three men. Even Buck had lapsed into a semi daze and seemed to be deteriorating as the lack of water and food made itself known. Now it looked as if help had arrived and he prayed it was not too late.
"Nathan, riders coming in."
"Ezra and JD?"
"Appears to be three or four...can't tell for certain. Still too far away, but I can't see anyone else riding out here if they had a choice," Sanchez answered.
Nathan stood and looked in the direction Sanchez indicated and finally spotted the upturned dust that signalled there were indeed riders headed in their direction. He knew Sanchez was right about riders not coming this deep into the badlands, but he didn't want to get his hopes up until they were closer. Neither man spoke during the time it took for the riders to get close enough for them to make out the face of Ezra Standish.
"Thank God," Jackson said.
"I believe I just did," Sanchez agreed as the four horses pulled to a stop near the barn.
"How fares our comrades?" Standish asked, dismounting and looping the reins over a piece of deadwood.
"They're still with us," Jackson answered.
"Nathan Jackson, this is Jack O'Malley," Standish said by way of introduction.
"Dr. Jackson, I've heard you do good work."
"Just Nathan...ain't no darkie doctors," the healer said tiredly.
"Maybe not on paper, but you damn well deserve the title. I hear we have three patients who need attention?"
"Jack, where do you want this stuff?" Thompson asked.
"Put it near the patients. Come on, Nathan, let's see what we can do for your friends," O'Malley ordered. "What have we got?"
"Buck's leg was torn up some and I've been trying to keep it clean, but we ran out of bandages yesterday and water this morning," Jackson explained as they knelt beside the injured rogue.
"Well, we brought plenty of both and JD is bringing a wagon...should be here sometime tomorrow," the physician explained.
"Thank God you got here when you did," Jackson said and reached for one of the canteens of water. "Josiah, get some water boiling."
"Just pour a little of it on here," O'Malley said and gently eased back on the bandage once it was soaked in water. He winced at the raw wounds and knew they'd need to be lanced.
"I've been draining it, but with nothing to clean it..."
"A man can't do everything if he doesn't have the equipment he needs. You've done well in keeping gangrene from setting in, now let's see about cleaning this out and putting a poultice on it. Thank you, Hank," O'Malley said when the lawman handed him his bag of instruments and medicines. "All right, Nathan, let's get this done."
Between the two healers they drained the wounds and washed them in a water and carbolic mixture before covering it with a poultice and clean bandages. They managed to wake him enough to get him to swallow half a cup of willow bark tea before settling him back on his blanket. Sanchez and Thompson helped move him away from the other two patients so Jackson and O'Malley had room to work.
O'Malley moved to the injured Texan and eased back the blanket that covered the still body. He knew Tanner's back had been injured, but that was not the injury that had him worried now. "What happened to him, Nathan?"
"Knife wound to the chest. He lost a lot of blood and I had to cauterize it. He's been out since I done it. He's got a fever, but we've managed to get a little water in him. Ain't near enough..."
"Don't go feeling guilty about that, Nathan. If you left it alone and he continued to bleed he'd have been dead by now. Help me get this bandage off and we'll see what else we can do for him," O'Malley said and was glad to see some of the pain leave Jackson's eyes. Again the two men worked together, cleaning the reddened area and making sure the wound was not infected. During their ministrations Tanner made no sound at all and this worried everyone who watched.
"Josiah, we need to check Chris, but I'd like you to try and get some of that tea in him," Jackson said. He'd shown the others how to get small amounts of liquid into an unconscious man by rubbing at the throat and dripped small amounts of water into the mouth. It wasn't nearly enough, but it usually kept the patient from becoming dehydrated too quickly.
"All right, Nathan, let's see what's going on with Chris," O'Malley said and looked into the soulful eyes of the healer. "Nathan, what is it?"
"Chris, he's got some shallow marks on his chest. They...they were marks made by a...a madman. He's also got a deep wound...torn up somethin' fierce, but I had to get it out. Didn't have a choice."
"All right," O'Malley said and knew the healer was close to exhaustion. Whether the man had any sleep during the last week was something he didn't know, but even if he did it was nowhere near enough. Add to that the worry and fear of caring for three injured men and the man was probably close to complete collapse. He'd have to do something to see that Nathan Jackson got the rest he needed, but first they had to finish caring for the final patient. "Nathan..."
"Sorry, Doc, He's got a fever and we've been trying to get him to drink...he's took in even less than Vin, but it's not enough."
"Nathan, if it wasn't enough he wouldn't still be breathing. Come on and help me do what you do best! We can worry about the rest of it later!" the physician ordered and saw the younger man take a deep breath and nod once.
Jackson reached for the canteen and soaked the bandages in water. He helped ease the soiled cloth from the wounds and grimaced at the putrid smell emanating from the wound. Between them they cut away the dead flesh near the edge of the wound and Jackson's head came up when he heard a hoarse cry from the injured blond.
"Chris, can you hear me?" the healer asked hopefully as O'Malley continued to press against the ravaged wound. Larabee bucked and twisted and tried to get away from the physician's attentions and Jackson turned to the others. "Josiah, you and Ezra, get over here and help hold him down!"
Standish and Sanchez didn't hesitate as Larabee showed a fierce determination to get away from the healer's attentions.
"Hold him down!" O'Malley snapped, his hands glistening with blood and gore as he finally finished draining the infection from the wound.
"Chris, be still now...just need to finish cleaning this," Jackson said.
"Hank, bring me some of that tea," O'Malley ordered. He knew it would not do anything for the pain, but with Larabee somewhat awake he wanted to get some liquid into him. "Nathan, see if you can get that into him!"
Nathan nodded and accepted the cup from the lawman. He reached for the sweat soaked blond head and gently tapped the pale cheek. The eyes were open, but Jackson didn't think Larabee saw him or knew where he was. Speaking softly he placed the cup at the slack mouth and spoke softly. "Chris, got something here for you to drink."
O'Malley watched as the healer tended to the injured blond. Larabee didn't seem to see him, but he reacted to the voice and drank several mouthfuls of the Willow Bark tea before his body went rigid and he lost consciousness once more. "How much did he drink?"
"Got 'bout half of it in him," Jackson answered and put the cup down before returning to help O'Malley. They finished cleaning the wounds and a poultice was placed over the site where the splinter had caused so much damage. Fresh blankets soon covered the sleeping men and Nathan sat near the fire, sipping at a cup of coffee and eating a sandwich.
O'Malley sat next to him and knew it wouldn't take long for the sleeping draught to take affect. It amazed him that Jackson was still on his feet, but he smiled when a tired yawn escaped from his colleague.
"Sorry," Jackson said.
"Don't be. Why don't you grab some shuteye? I'll keep an eye on our patients."
"Am kind of tired all of a sudden," Jackson said, frowning as he looked across the fire at the ex-preacher. Something told him he'd been hoodwinked as the cup slipped from his fingers. "Damn, horse piss..."
"About time," Sanchez said and helped the others move the healer away from the fire. They covered the sleeping man and returned to the fire. A savory stew simmered in a pot over the coals and Josiah's stomach rumbled in anticipation.
+ + + + + + +
JD drove the wagon deeper into the badlands, silently cursing the rough terrain that seemed to fight their progress. Carl Tucker had taken his turn at the reins, but Dunne hadn't been able to sleep. Darkness had forced them to make camp for the night, but when he'd managed to fall asleep his dreams were invaded by howling demons with taloned claws and blood stained teeth set in ruined mouths. Several times he'd woke to find his companion watching him, but instead of offering an explanation, the Easterner had simply turned on his side and drifted back into his nightmares.
"Lot of strange things happen out here," Tucker's voice broke through his thoughts and JD simply nodded. "Big circle of black soil, but it ain't fertile."
"What?" Dunne asked, frowning as he wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead.
"Said there's a big circle of black shit out there. Saw it when I was 'bout yer age and it scared the hell outta me."
"You saw it?"
"That I did, Lad, saw what that stuff did to a mountain lion and came damn close to bein' sucked in myself. Lucky I had me a smart horse. Smart or stubborn either way he saved my life. That mountain lion screamed like a banshee, but it didn't last long. Earth just sucked it right in and spit out the bones. Might have taken all of a minute, maybe two, but those bones looked like they'd been sucked clean. That where we're headed, Son?"
"I don't know about a circle, just know there was a Inn there, but we burned it down."
"Did you see a crow?"
"How the hell do you know what we saw?" Dunne asked.
"Told ya I've been out this way...long time ago, but it still gives me the willies just thinkin' 'bout gettin' close to it again. I ain't been out this way since then, but I can see it as if it was yesterday. Ain't ever gonna let ya go, Kid, but ya learn to deal with it and get on with your life or else it'll jest eat at ya. Don't want ta see that happen to you or your friends. The badlands are just that and sometimes there's evil out here that ain't ever gonna be explained no matter how much thinkin' you do. Take my word for it, JD and just let it go...forget about it once you leave here."
JD continued to stare straight ahead as Tucker pulled out a beat up harmonica and began to play it softly. The tune was one he'd heard many times before and the haunting melody soothed his jagged nerves. They would make it to the others sometime late this evening or early nightfall, and JD wanted nothing more than to be in the company of his friends rather than this strange man who traveled with him.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah, Ezra, and Jack watched over the unconscious trio as darkness took over the land and the temperatures dropped dramatically. The only man to show any real sign that there was still life within him was Buck Wilmington. He sat propped up against his saddle and ate the serving of stew O'Malley handed him. His gaze often strayed to the two men who remained oblivious to everything around them.
"Would you like more coffee?" Standish asked and filled the cup when Wilmington nodded once.
"Nate okay?" the ladies' man asked when he noticed the sleeping man on the opposite side of the fire.
"Mr. Jackson is in good health," the gambler said with a grin as he nodded to the man talking to Sanchez. "Dr. O'Malley used one of our friend's own tricks to get him to rest."
"A taste of his own medicine," Wilmington whispered, wincing as a small move caused major pain to his injured leg. "Damn!"
"Yes, I'm sure an expletive is warranted. Should I tell Dr. O'Malley?"
"No, it's not too bad yet. Just burns if I move it," Wilmington explained, rubbing his thigh as he waited for the pain to recede. "What about Chris and Vin...either of 'em woke up yet?"
"No, and I believe that has them worried...they need to get them drinking. Considering the amount of blood they've lost I would say it's imperative."
"Damn, there's got to be something we can do," the gentle rogue said and again tried to move closer to the two men. The movement sent tremors through his leg and his cry brought Sanchez and O'Malley at a run.
"What happened?" O'Malley asked worriedly.
"Damn leg...just moved it," Wilmington told him.
"Well don't be doing that! Look, that leg was torn up pretty bad and it's going to give you problems for some time...you go putting any pressure on it and you might just end up with a limp for the rest of your life," the physician warned.
"Wasn't p...putting pressure on i...it. J...just moved it."
"Here," O'Malley said and gave the injured man a cup.
"What is it?" Wilmington asked.
"Something to help with the pain and that fever...it's not gone yet, Buck, and you need to be resting," the doctor lightly scolded.
"Chris and Vin?"
"I have plenty for all of you. Right now neither one of them seems to be in pain, so that leaves you. Drink it!" he waited until his patient did as he was told and then helped ease him into a semi sitting position before checking the leg wounds. The poultice seemed to be doing its job and the raw redness had dulled to a more pinkish color that spoke of healing.
"Doc?" the gentle rogue whispered as sleep tugged at his senses.
"Yes, Buck?" O'Malley asked.
"Tell me they're gonna be okay?"
"I can't, Buck, not yet, but I can promise Nathan and I will do everything in our power to help them. Now, what I need you to do is rest...conserve your strength because when they do start to heal I'm gonna need everyone's help to keep them two from overdoing things," the physician said and watched as the blue eyes finally closed.
"Doc, is he okay?"
"Not really, but he will be," O'Malley answered honestly and turned his attention to the two unconscious men. They were managing to get small amounts of water into both patients, but nowhere near what a body needed. The heat of the desert was something else to worry about and he stood up once more, stretching in an effort to ease the kinks in his back. He saw Hank Thompson placing more wood on the fire and nodded his gratitude.
"Is there anything more we can do?" Sanchez asked.
"Not unless you have some influence with the man upstairs," the physician said and walked over to join the lawman tending the fire.
"I believe we have had more influence than Dr. O'Malley realizes," Standish told the ex-preacher.
"I pray you're right, Ezra, because it looks like we're in need of His help if we are to remain seven." Sanchez moved to sit beside the fire and reached for the pot of coffee as Ezra Standish stood watch over the injured men.
+ + + + + + +
Vin Tanner heard rumblings at first, but nothing seemed to penetrate the fog enshrouding his mind. There was no pain here, but there was loneliness...cold and stark and he craved the warmth that came from contact with others. He knew he had to fight to find that touch again, but so far the fight had been to much for him and he'd sink deeper into the darkness instead of following the path that led to the pain he knew waited just at the edge of consciousness. There were so many reasons he could stay here, safe, pain free...but he would always be alone here. There had to be a way out of the darkness and Vin Tanner fought to open his eyes as a crow, large and black with a wingspan that threatened to obliterate the landscape swooped toward him.
'N...No! I won't letcha have him...fuckin' crow!'
+ + + + + + +
Josiah stood watch as the sun peeked her golden head above the horizon, bringing with it the hope of a new day and the warm promise that evil would not raise its ugly head. He reached for the dog-eared bible and found strength in the words inside as he quoted Phillipians 4:13.
"I can do everything through him who gives me strength," he whispered the words and looked at the men he called friends. This was his family and so long as God granted him the strength he would do anything to keep them safe. A sound reached his ears and he placed the bible back where it belonged.
"Vin, can you hear me?" Sanchez asked softly, watching the younger man's face as he struggled with whatever nightmare held him in its grip. This was the first sign that the Texan had shown that gave them hope. He looked up as Jackson knelt beside him. The healer looked well rested after sleeping through most of the night, and one look told Sanchez there would come a time when payback would indeed become a bitch.
"...fuckin'...crow...w...won't letcha h...have 'im..."
"Come on, Vin, look at me," Jackson ordered as the tracker struggled weakly against them. "What's he sayin'?"
"Somethin' about a crow," Sanchez answered and again held tight to the Texan's flailing arms. 'For someone at death's door he's got some fight in him!"
+ + + + + + +
'Won't letcha take 'im!' Vin struggled against the arms that held him down, but could not seem to pull free. Glowing red eyes seemed to float in the air above him and he renewed his efforts to get free as a scream reached his ears. Something held him in place as the crimson colored eyes grew in size and threatened to smother him.
+ + + + + + +
"Chris...help...Chris!" Tanner shouted eyes wide and unseeing as Sanchez and Jackson fought to keep him from coming off the pallets he slept on.
The cry for help penetrated Larabee's senses and he struggled to open eyes that seemed to be sealed shut. He could hear the others talking and wanted desperately to speak, but his throat was dry and the pain all too real. His tongue managed to escape through slightly parted lips and he thought he made a sound, but could not be sure as Tanner's cries of rage continued to reach him. Images swarmed over him as he languished in a semi conscious daze, unable to shake the fear that held him in its grip. He heard the Texan cry out as a knife flashed in front of his eyes and slashed downward at the unprotected chest and the horror filled face of Vin Tanner stared up at him accusingly. Something heavy seemed to tighten around his chest and he gave into the welcoming darkness as guilt and sorrow clouded his mind.
"Vin, come on, Son, open your eyes!" Sanchez said sharply in an effort to cut through whatever nightmare held him in its grip.
"...Chris..." Tanner said, his eyes popping open as he finally fought his way up through the sludge that had kept him locked in darkness for so long. His breath caught in his throat as pain and misery washed over him and threatened to drag him under once more.
"Hold on, Vin," Jackson ordered and accepted the cup of water O'Malley handed him. "Lift him up a little, Josiah!"
"I got him," Sanchez said and lifted the younger man forward enough for the healer to feed him the water. The Texan sputtered and then drank as if realizing where he was and who these men were, but there was nothing but confusion as the sharpshooter finally found his voice.
"C...Chris? W...what h...happened? W...where?" the tracker managed through tightly clenched teeth.
"Easy, Vin, we'll answer all your questions, but first I want you to drink this," O'Malley ordered.
"D...doc?" Tanner frowned and tried to remember where he was and why this man was here. His eyes began to close, but opened again as the cup was placed at his lips. He grimaced at the taste, but drank greedily before it was taken away.
"That's good, Vin, now you go ahead and sleep," Jackson advised.
"F...feel like s...shit," the tracker whispered, sighing heavily as he sank into the darkness once more. Again his sleep was invaded by demon crows with glowing red eyes and devilish laughter as his best friend lifted a knife high above his chest. "No...no, Chris...no..." but his words were so soft no one heard them as they moved away.
+ + + + + + +
Tucker had played the harmonica off and on during the long hot afternoon until the sun began to dip below the horizon. The haunting melody had finally stopped, but for JD the feelings it stirred up sent a chill deep into his soul. He knew they'd soon be at the ruined Inn and he tried to stop the trembling in his hands as he tightened his grip on the reins. He turned to see Tucker studying him and wondered how this man could know so much and yet live with the horror of the badlands.
"It's a matter of knowin' what's important, Son."
"What are you talking about?" Dunne asked.
"God...life...friends...family. Those are the things that give a man a purpose. There's evil in this world and it's always watchin' fer the innocent folk. The ones who don't know about places like the Inn or that circle of soil I's tellin' you about. That Inn ya destroyed is probably some kind of gateway..."
"How the hell do you know all this?" the Bostonian asked, frowning at the man's soft laughter.
"A man knows what's happening 'round him. I've lived near these badlands most of my life and I've seen some folks come out of here and end up dyin' 'cause they couldn't deal with what happened. Don't want ta see that happen ta you or them friends of yours."
"How'd they die?"
"Killed themselves...a couple of 'em went mad...crazy mad like they didn't know who they were anymore."
"How did you survive it?" Dunne asked. He watched Tucker's face and saw the raw pain in the man's eyes and wondered if Tucker was as mad as the people he'd just been talking about.
"Told ya before. Ya forget about it."
"Doesn't sound like you forgot about it. Sounds like you remember more than you want to."
"Ya got that right, Son, but that's only 'cause we're gettin' close to that damned place again. It's easy ta forget about it if the evil can't touch ya and the more time yer away from this place the easier it is not to remember." Tucker looked out over the darkening landscape, his gaze instinctively seeking the circle of corruption. There was no sign of the dark, dead soil, yet he knew it was there waiting for its next victim and he prayed they'd be able to escape before the evil detected their presence.
"I hope you're right," Dunne said as darkness quickly took over the landscape.
"There's a fire up ahead."
"We're almost there," the Bostonian said and watched Tucker sit up further and look around. "Are you okay?"
"No...not really. I hate bein' this far in...feels like I'm a little too close to hell."
"Closer than you might think," Dunne said and lapsed into silence as he drove the horses toward their destination.
+ + + + + + +
"Someone's coming," Standish said, standing and walking to the edge of the light cast by the fire. Josiah joined him and they waited for the newcomers to top the small mound of sand, breathing a sigh of relief when the wagon came into view.
"It's JD and Carl," Sanchez told the others.
"Thank God," Jackson said and realized he'd been doing a lot of that since finding the missing men. He turned to look at the sleeping trio and hoped they'd soon be able to get them away from this place. He knew the Inn was destroyed, but the evil, although weakened, was still around them. There were times during the darkest hours of the night when he felt someone or something watching them, biding their time in hope of catching them unaware. "Won't happen."
"What was that, Brother?" Sanchez asked.
"Sorry, just thinking aloud," the healer said as the wagon finally entered the campground.
Dunne drew the horses to a stop and handed the reins to the gambler before turning to look at the three injured peacekeepers. His gaze quickly took in the pale faces, the slow, but steady rise and fall of their chests, and he staggered under the weight of relief. Relief that the three men were still with them.
"Easy, Son," Sanchez said, placing a steadying hand on Dunne's shoulder.
"I'm okay, Josiah. I just..."
"You don't need to explain, JD," the older man said and released his hold on the easterner and watched as he moved closer to the trio.
"I didn't know if they were still...I wasn't sure if they..."
"It's okay, JD, we know what you mean," Jackson said.
"Hey, kid...see ya finally made it. Thought maybe you found a couple of ladies and forgot about us." Wilmington smiled in an effort to ease the worry he saw on the Bostonian's face.
"Buck!" the youthful sheriff boomed, smiling as he saw the deep blue eyes open and look up at him. "You look like shit!"
"You know that's just not possible, Son," Wilmington said, shifting slightly as he tried to sit up further.
"Here, Buck," Jackson said as soon as the man was settled against the wall of the barn.
Wilmington didn't argue with the former slave, accepting the cup of water and greedily draining it before handing it back. "How are they?"
"Vin was awake for a spell...managed to get him to drink a little, but it ain't enough," the former slave answered.
"Damn...Chris?" the gentle rogue asked.
"Nothin'. Not a damn thing," Jackson cursed softly.
"Nathan, you're doing everything you can," Sanchez said.
"It's this place," Dunne said and turned to find Carl Tucker standing behind him. The older man nodded and the Bostonian turned back to his friends.
"What are you talking about, JD?" Standish asked.
"This place...the Inn and everything around it." Dunne shivered imperceptively as he looked around the camp. Three of his fellow peacekeepers...his friends were down. Injured by creatures that were beyond his imagination and yet he'd seen them. Were they all destined to go mad like Tucker's friends or would they be able to forget it before it destroyed them all. Shuddering, he turned back to Wilmington as the older man asked.
"What about it?" Wilmington asked.
"It's evil," Dunne said and was glad when no one disagreed with him. "We need to get them away from it." He paused and thought a moment, before his hazel eyes lit up. "Take them home..."
"JD, they're in no shape to travel," Jackson said.
"I know, Nathan, but what if this place is still affecting them? What if they can't wake up?" the easterner asked.
"Vin was awake," Standish said.
"But for how long and did he know where he was?" Wilmington asked and continued before the other man had a chance to answer. "Nathan, you said yourself he didn't drink enough to make a difference. What if JD's right and this place is still affecting us."
"There may be something to what they're saying, Brother," Sanchez said. "We may never be able to explain what The Inn is...was, but the fact that we're all still feeling the influence of the evil is enough to make me think JD could be right. What if it's still affecting Chris and Vin?"
"The trip alone could kill them," Jackson said.
"If we stay here and they don't wake up then they'll both die anyway," Wilmington said tiredly.
"Doc, what do you think?" the healer asked, turning to find the man standing with Carl Tucker and Hank Thompson.
"Years ago I treated another man who journeyed too deeply into the badlands," O'Malley answered and turned to Carl Tucker. "He nearly died because of this place and would have if Carl hadn't brought him out of here. I've never seen any evidence of the evil he said surrounds this place, but the stories I've heard are too many to ignore."
"Do you think they can survive a trip like this?" Jackson asked.
"Can't say for sure, but I do know they can't survive much longer if they don't wake up and start drinking," O'Malley told them.
"We'd need some way to transport them and no, Buck, you won't be riding a horse," Jackson stated before the ladies' man had a chance to speak.
"We could arrange several blankets as a cover for the wagon and cover the floor with the remaining ones. There'd be room for them inside and they'd be spared the worst of the sun," Standish suggested.
"It'd still be a rough trip," Jackson said, not quite ready to give in to his own fears of this area of the badlands. He looked at the three injured peacekeepers and knew no matter when they left it would be a rough trip. Getting them home would be an asset in more ways than one. They'd have real beds to sleep in; there would be no fear of running out of water.
"Nathan, I don't know them as well as you boys do, but I truly believe it's time to get them away from here," O'Malley said.
"I agree...but where do we take them?" the healer asked.
"It's about the same distance to Four Corners as it is to Farmington," Sanchez said.
"If I get a vote in this I say we go home. Sleep better in our own beds," Wilmington said.
"Don't you mean Blossom's bed?" Dunne asked, but there was no sarcasm in his tone. It had been a long running joke between him and the ladies' man and sometimes the words just slipped out without even thinking about it. "Sorry, Buck, I didn't mean anything by it."
"I know you didn't, JD, but hey, Blossom's bed is as good as any," the rogue said, smiling mischievously in an effort to relieve the younger man's worries.
"Josiah, think you can find something to make the sides of the wagon higher? I want to be able to sit in there without having to worry about taking the blankets down," Jackson said.
"I think we can arrange something," Sanchez said. "Ezra, how would you feel about doing a little menial labor?" He saw the younger man blanch and smiled toothily as he rapped him on the back. "Thought you'd see it my way."
"Maybe I can lend a hand," Tucker offered. "We need ta empty the wagon before we do anythin' else. Come on, Hank, quit jawin' and get yer ass in movin'."
"I'm not the one jawin', Carl," Thompson said and moved to help the others.
"JD," Jackson called the youngest member of the team and waited for him to look his way.
"What do you want me to do, Nathan?" Dunne asked.
"I want you to grab your bedroll and get some sleep," Jackson said.
"I'm okay, Nate..."
"JD, Son, you look like you've been rode hard and put away wet," Wilmington said.
"I am a little tired," the younger man whispered.
"There's stew on the fire. Get some, eat and then sleep, JD," the former slave ordered as Tucker and Thompson carried a barrel of water over to them.
"Nathan, we need to change those bandages and see if we can't make them comfortable for the night," O'Malley said.
"All right, Jack," the healer said and reached for the pot they'd used to heat the water. He watched as a weary JD helped himself to a plate of stew before moving to sit near the three injured men.
"Might as well start with you, Buck," O'Malley said and knew the man was in more pain than he let on. He reached for the bottle of laudanum and measured out a healthy dose before handing it to his patient. The fact that Buck did not argue told him he was right and he nodded for Jackson to remove the bandages from his left leg.
"D...damn," Wilmington cursed when the cloth was removed and pain raced along raw nerve endings.
"Hold on, Buck," Jackson said and began cleaning the wound. He'd mixed some of the carbolic in the water and hoped they could keep the jagged tears from festering. There was still some infection in the deeper wounds and between the two healers they cleaned it out before applying a new poultice and wrapping it in clean bandages.
Buck gritted his teeth and clenched his hands into fists until they finished with his leg. He opened his eyes, but could not find the strength to speak. He saw the sympathy in Jackson's eyes, nodded once and embraced the darkness that reached for him.
"Nathan, is he gonna be all right?" Dunne asked.
"As long as he don't do anythin' stupid he should be okay, JD. He's got a fever and there's still some infection in his leg, but it's gettin' better," the former stretcher-bearer answered.
Dunne's relief that Wilmington seemed to be getting better was overshadowed by the fearful possibility that they could lose the two men who he thought were the heart and soul of their group. There was something about Larabee and Tanner that seemed to hold them as if they were the glue that was used to bind the seven peacekeepers. He watched as Jackson and O'Malley tended their wounds, hoping and praying for some sign that they knew they were not in this fight alone.
"JD, get some rest," Jackson ordered when they finished. He saw the slight nod of the dark head as Dunne moved his bedroll closer to the trio and stretched out beside them. There was something about the Easterner that spoke of a strength that God had given them all and he knew they would have to grasp that strength during the hard days to come.
+ + + + + + +
JD awoke to the sounds of early morning and slowly opened his eyes. The others were awake, but he didn't move as a heaviness seeped into his heart. His dreams had been filled with things that should only happen in nightmares, and yet he'd lived through them, they all had. Closing his eyes he relived the horror of seeing Chris in the black robe, eyes glowing red as he raised the knife above Vin's heart and plunged it toward the dazed tracker. The difference between what had really happened and what happened in his nightmares was that they'd been to late. The knife had followed through and the Texan's heart had been pulled still beating from his chest and held high above Chris' hand as the crow perched on Larabee's shoulder.
"Don't think on it too much, JD."
Dunne opened his eyes and looked at the man lying next to him. Buck looked terrible, and JD prayed that the ladies' man was strong enough for the trip they were about to undertake. He sought the moisture needed to form words, but his mouth was drier than the badlands themselves.
"S...sorry, just need a drink," Dunne said and stood up. He moved to the coffee pot and poured a cup before returning to his bedroll. "Can I get you something, Buck?"
"No, but you can do what I asked."
"What was that?"
"Don't think on it so much," Wilmington repeated.
"Easier said than done, Buck...wish this was stronger," Dunne said softly.
"It won't do any good ya know?"
"Drinkin'. Ask Chris...he's an expert on drinking so much that ya hit rock bottom. It ain't pretty, Kid," Wilmington said and shifted his leg, grimacing as the pain awakened with the slightest movement.
Dunne caught himself before giving a scalding retort as he heard his friend's sharp intake of air. He reached out and placed a hand on the older man's shoulder and wished there was more he could do.
"Believe me, Kid, I've been there myself a time or two. This...what we've been through is enough to make a man crazy, but it ain't gonna do that because we're together the seven of us are strong." Buck could see the haunted look in the younger man's eyes and wondered if he would ever be the same boisterous youth he'd come to know and respect. "Do you want to talk about it?"
"I...I...how do we live with what we saw, Buck? What was wrong with Chris?"
"You saw Columber, JD, you saw what he was doing even after we got Vin out of there. He had control of Chris..."
"Chris stabbed Vin, Buck. There's no way out of it...I thought...I thought they...they were..."
"JD, sometimes our heroes can seem like they are invincible, but they're not. Chris, Vin, me, you, hell the whole lot of us are heroes to some people and yet we don't see it...not about ourselves anyway. We tend to put our heroes on a pedestal and idolize them, but they make mistakes, Kid...it's part of being human..."
"What, Kid?" Wilmington asked softly as the silence became deafening.
"What if Chris did it again? What if Columber is still in control? What if he tries to stab you or Ezra or..."
"That's a lot of what ifs," the injured man whispered and tried to get comfortable. "Do you blame Chris for what happened in there?"
"No, that was...that was Columber and his demons...God, I can't believe I'm saying that. Demons...hell...all that stuff is not supposed to be real, Buck. How can it be real?"
"I guess it's like most legends, JD, there's always some truth in the stories we're told. The trick is not to let it take over our lives." Wilmington explained. "What if Chris was being controlled by Columber when he woke up? Would you blame him for his actions then?"
"No...I don't know, Buck, God it's all so unreal...like a dream...a nightmare."
"It was...is a nightmare, but it's one we can be proud of 'cause God gave us the strength to beat the devil and he's not gonna forsake us now."
"What about Chris and Vin?"
"They may be down, JD, but I don't think you can count them out. Not by a long shot," Wilmington said as Jackson joined them.
"How are you feeling, Buck, and I don't want to hear how fine ya are," the healer said, smiling in spite of the sharp tone.
"I'm sore, Nate, leg's bein' a bitch, but as long as I keep it still it's okay," the gentle rogue explained.
"Yeah, well you just stay put until we got the wagon ready. We'll get you settled and then bring Chris and Vin," Jackson warned.
"Ya know, Nate..."
"Buck, so help me God if you say one word 'bout ridin' I'm gonna hogtie ya and throw ya over the back of a horse. See how ya enjoy riding upside down," the healer stated and saw the slight grin on the man's face and understood he was trying to ease some of the tension and worry they all faced. "Thanks, Buck."
"How are they," Wilmington asked soberly.
"No change. Ain't much more we can do until them two wake up."
"Maybe once we get them away from here," Buck said softly.
"Maybe, it's too late to do anything else right now. We'll be ready to move you soon, just rest until then. Did you eat anything?" Jackson asked.
"Not yet," the ladies' man answered.
"JD, would you bring him some biscuits and make sure he eats it," the healer asked.
"Sure," Dunne said and hurried to carry out the order.
Jackson watched Wilmington closely and saw the dark head turn in the direction of the two unconscious peacekeepers. He knew the rogue was worried about the two men, but the healer needed to make sure he took care of himself. "Buck, I know you're worried...we all are, but you need to take it easy. I'm gonna need your help when them two do wake up. You know how stubborn they can be."
"They wrote the book on it," Wilmington said, his heart in his throat as he looked at the pale figures lying net to him. "I just hope that stubborn streak is strong enough to see them through it."
"We'll make damn sure it is. You okay?" the former slave asked.
"No...no I'm not, but I will be when we get out of here. Get to it, Nate...I'd like to be sleepin' in my own bed before nightfall," the gentle rogue said as he accepted the bowl plate from the youngest member of their group. He could see the same haunted look in Dunne's eyes as he'd seen in Jackson's and knew they would all be troubled by what they'd witnessed. Sighing heavily he tried to do justice to the food JD had brought him, but his appetite was just not there. He felt the plate being removed from his hands as his eyes closed and he slept, dreaming of crows and demons and blood colored sunsets.
+ + + + + + +
"Buck's sleeping, Nate," Dunne said, joining the others as they finished loading everything onto the packhorse. The floor of the wagon was covered in blankets while several more would be used to cover it in an effort to keep the blaring sun from baking the trio who would ride inside. They'd managed to rig up several posts to the sides that would keep the blankets off the precious cargo that would lie within.
"That's good, JD, Buck's probably gonna sleep most of the time. Right now he's weak and needs to rest when his body demands it," Jackson explained and turned toward the ex-preacher.
Sanchez, O'Malley, and Thompson stood near the blackened remains of the Inn. They'd finished loading everything and were simply waiting for Jackson to tell them he was ready to move the injured into the wagon. The sun shone brightly, searing the ground with the heat that could bake a man's skull if he stayed in it too long.
"Feels cold here," Thompson said, rubbing his hands up and down his arms.
"It is cold. The fires of Hell burn cold and that's what this is...was. It was a gateway to hell," Sanchez whispered.
"A gateway ta hell? That sounds 'bout right," Carl Tucker said, joining the three men at the edge of the blackened pit. "Jest wish we could be sure it was destroyed fer good."
"I don't think we'll ever know for sure, Carl," Sanchez said.
"It don't feel the same as it did last time I was out this way," Tucker explained.
"The evil is weakened," the ex-preacher agreed.
"Yes, but it's still here...always will be," the man said, eyes dark with aged wisdom as he reached down and touched the blackened ashes. "Ya got rid of it fer a while anyway. Might come back when yer gone, but it ain't as strong as it was...take a lot of years fer it to be strong again."
"We'll be long dead by then," Thompson said.
"Maybe, but the fight against evil is never dead," Sanchez said.
"Josiah, we're ready to move them into the wagon," Jackson called.
"Be right there, Nathan," Sanchez said and closed his eyes. "God keep the evil from returning and bless this ground and any who walk upon it."
"Amen," Tucker said and turned to walk back to the others. He had always been a religious man, but there were parts of the world that seemed beyond God's help and this piece of the badlands belonged to Hell's dark acres.
"Who first?" Thompson asked.
"We'll start with Buck," Jackson said and knelt beside the injured rogue. "Buck."
"Nate, what's wrong?" Wilmington asked upon forcing his eyes open.
"Nothing's wrong, Buck, we're just ready to move you boys into the wagon," Jackson answered.
"Okay," the rogue said and tried to stand, groaning when he shifted his leg.
"Easy, Buck, let Josiah and JD help you," O'Malley ordered.
"G...good idea," Wilmington said and soon leaned heavily against the two men. They guided him to the wagon where Thompson waited to help the injured man inside. Buck kept his eyes tightly shut against the pain raging through his leg and was grateful when he was finally lying against a makeshift pillow. He waited until the world stopped spinning and finally opened his eyes once more. The wagon bed was pretty wide and there would be plenty of room for the three men to lie side by side. He watched as Jackson and the others got ready to move Vin into the wagon.
"Okay, Josiah, I want to do this with a little movement as possible. I think it's best if we each take an edge of the blanket and carry him in it," Jackson explained.
"That's probably the best way," O'Malley agreed and waited for the others to position them selves.
"On three," Jackson said and counted before lifting Tanner and carrying him to the wagon. It took longer to settle him next to the rogue, but they finally had him in place and move to the last man. Chris hadn't moved since they'd placed him there and this worried Jackson. At least Vin had come too long enough to drink a small amount of water, but Chris had shown no sign of waking up. The longer he stayed this way, the worse things would be. Without water so many things could go wrong and Jackson did not want to think about it.
"Ready, Nathan?" O'Malley asked.
"Yeah," the healer said as they lifted Larabee and carried him to the wagon. Once there they maneuvered the unconscious blond next to the tracker and Jackson examined the trio before covering them with a blanket and making sure the blankets were in place overhead. He looked at O'Malley as the man handed him the medical supplies they'd readied and saw the confidence in the older man's eyes. O'Malley would ride back to Four Corners with them, but once he examined the injured man he and the others would be returning to Farmington.
"Buck, I'll be driving the wagon...if you need anything just..."
"I'll let you know, Nate," Wilmington said and reached out to touch the healer's arm. "Ya done good, Nate."
Jackson couldn't help the smile that formed at the other man's words, but he prayed they were not without merit. He'd done his best and could only hope it was enough. Nodding to the ladies man, Nathan jumped down from the wagon and closed the blanket around it. Taking a deep breath he looked at the devastation once more and prayed the evil was indeed defeated.
+ + + + + + +
The remnants of The Inn swirled weakly as if testing the air, seeking out the one thing it needed to survive. The gate was closed, but not locked; yet it would be years before the demonic presence could rebuild the rooms and allow the structure to rise once more. The sands shifted, but the once prevalent winds that whipped it into a twisting vortex could only manage to lift a few granules of sand. The evil was weak, but there was still life within the destruction as a small splinter of wood, stained red with blood shifted and buried itself in the heart of The Inn.
+ + + + + + +
Chris' dreams kept him locked in a world apart from those he cared about. The barren wasteland of heated sand burned with a fierceness that threatened to sear his lungs. Nothing lived...nothing moved...nothing survived and yet here he was...walking the path...neither alive nor dead...existing in a world that held its own barriers. Sometimes voices broke through, but no matter how hard he tried he could not break free of the nightmare that held him enthralled. He walked forward, confused by the sharp blade in his hand and the crimson fluid that coated it and his arm. Had he hurt someone? If so...who?
+ + + + + + +
Buck shifted his leg, wincing when the skin pulled at the raw wounds. He knew Nathan was worried about the infection still evident in it and wished he could ease his friend's mind, but truth was it was beginning to burn from within. He turned to look at the two silent men who had yet to regain consciousness and wished there was something he could do.
'Lord, I'm not much at praying, but my ma always told me you'd listen when I was ready. Well, I ready now, but I ain't praying for me...well, not just for me. See, Chris and Vin, well they're special, Lord. They've done a lot of good and can still do a whole lot more, but not until they wake up. That Inn back there was evil, I know that and well, you gave us all the strength we needed to see it was destroyed, but it's not much of a victory if you take Chris and Vin from us. So, Lord, I guess what I'm asking is for you to help them get better...'cause I sure ain't ready to lose them,' Wilmington thought and opened his eyes once more.
The two men remained oblivious to everything around them and with a heavy heart, Buck sighed and shifted in the wagon bed once more. The Bisti Badlands were living up to the name and Buck winced as the wagon rolled over a particularly deep rut in the trail. The heat was oppressive and he reached up to wipe the sweat from his forehead and cried out when the wagon bounced over the cracked ground and his leg came up against the side. The wagon pulled to a stop and Jackson pulled back the blanket to check on his patients.
"Buck, everything okay?" Jackson asked.
"Thought I heard you call out. How's the leg?"
"It's not bad yet, just banged it around a bit."
"Well, I think we're calling a halt for a while..."
"Why? Thought we wanted to get as far away from that hell as we could before we stopped."
"Buck, we've been traveling for hours and the horses need a break," Jackson explained as Standish and Dunne lifted the blankets from the back of the wagon.
"Feels like we only just left," Wilmington said.
"That's because you been asleep most of the time," Dunne said, letting his gaze wander over the three injured men. Chris and Vin still showed no sign that they were aware of anything around them and JD's shoulders slumped disappointedly.
"They're still with us, Kid," Wilmington assured the younger man as Jackson joined them at the back of the wagon.
"Buck, we're gonna take a look at your leg, but there's not much room back here," the healer explained.
"I can get out, Nate. Need to stretch anyway," the gentle rogue assured him. "That'll give you and the doc a chance to check Chris and Vin."
"All right, but I don't want you tryin' to walk around. JD, Ezra, help him down while I get some things together," Jackson ordered.
Buck was helped from the wagon and was shocked to see a fire already started and a camp being set up. Thompson and Tucker seemed to have taken it on themselves to make sure everything was ready for the two healers when they needed it. Sanchez was spreading a blanket close to the fire and that's where the two men steered him. He sat down and stretched his leg out and unconsciously rubbed his thigh and looked up into the easterner's worried eyes.
"I'm okay, Kid," the ladies' man said.
"You're full of shit, Buck," Dunne said with a slight grin on his face. The exchange was one they'd often had in the short time they'd known each other, but it always gave them a sense that things really would be all right.
"Damn, JD, you look worn out," Wilmington said.
The younger man looked as if he hadn't been sleeping well. Buck knew it was a combination of the happenings at the Inn and worry over the two men in the wagon. He studied the Bostonian's eyes and read the uneasiness there and understood that his own eyes were probably filled with the same emotions. What they'd experienced had changed them, but it had also brought them closer. The evil was out there and always would be, but Buck was also sure there would always be someone who would take up he mantle and battle the demons who tried to wreak havoc on the lives of the innocent.
"I'm okay, Buck...least I will be once we get far enough away from that place," Dunne explained and looked back the way they'd come. His breath caught in his throat and he prayed his eyes were deceiving him. The horizon seemed to have been swallowed up by a twisting vortex of sand and other debris, blotting out the sun as a large black bird soared higher and higher.
"JD, what's wrong?"
"What?" Wilmington asked worriedly.
"Nothing," the younger man answered as the apparition disappeared and the sky was as blue as the deepest ocean. The bright orb of the sun shone down on them, yet JD felt none of its heat. "Guess I'm just tired."
"Sure, Kid, we all are," the ladies' man said and closed his eyes. No matter what else happened during their lives this was something that would always be with them. Buck had no idea how much time passed when a hand touched his shoulder and he looked into the soulful brown eyes of a man who'd saved his life more than once.
"Buck, I'm just gonna take a look at your leg and then I want you to try to eat something," Jackson said.
"How are they?" Wilmington asked.
"The same...Doc's gonna check them over, but until they wake up there's not much more we can do," the healer explained.
"Nathan, what do you think? Are they gonna be okay?" Wilmington asked, hoping the other man would at least give him some hope, but Nathan had always been truthful with them and the look on his face told Buck all he needed to know.
"I don't know, Buck," Jackson said as he peeled back the bandages and looked at the raw wounds. He silently cursed at the tell tale signs of infection.
"How's it look?" he asked.
"We're gonna need to drain it again, Buck," the healer said softly.
"Figured as much...it's been burnin' some," Wilmington told him.
"Why didn't you say something earlier?" Jackson asked.
"Wanted to get as far away from the Inn as we could. It's not bad yet, Nate..."
"No, it's not, but it could've been a whole lot worse if we hadn't stopped when we did. Look, Buck, I need to know right away if there's any change...especially if it feels like things are getting' worse."
"All right, Nathan," the ladies' man agreed and tried to get comfortable. He felt Jackson's ministrations and took the laudanum without argument as the pain raced along raw nerve endings.
"Almost done, Buck," Jackson said.
O'Malley knew he needed several things done before he could take care of the injured men in the wagon. He looked at his colleague who was busy with Wilmington and called Thompson to help him. He looked at Tanner and Larabee and did not see any sign that they were waking up.
+ + + + + + +
Chris walked the land in search of some sign that things were returning to normal, but the blistering heat baked the sands and even the air he breathed was a raging furnace that burned his lungs. The soil around him was black, shifting and changing even as his foot struck the ground. Death lingered near and the acrid smell of decay told him it was a fresh kill, but he continued past, his heart trip hammering in his chest with each step he took. Again, he topped a rise, and this time he knew what he would see, but he could not face what waited for him and fought the steel touch that dragged him across a barren landscape bereft of life.
"No...I can't...don't want to see..."
The words were whispered as the body began to tremble slightly as if touched by a chill wind in a land of torrid heat and raging fires. His fingers moved as if seeking comfort from the one man who could always get through to him, but that man was gone now. He'd killed him and damned himself to hell. Darkness continued around him as his body began to shake violently in the cramped quarters. His arms flailed away from his body and he felt his elbow connect with something soft, but could not see who or what it was as nightmarish images invaded his mind, sending his body even further into hell.
Vin felt something strike his cheek, but there was little pain. Something was wrong, but he could not put his finger on what it was until a second elbow caught him in the chest and he groaned softly as the heated flesh burst with raw pain. He tried to move closer to the convulsing blond and briefly wondered where everyone was. His right hand touched Larabee's arm, but the body continued to shake uncontrollably. Vin could hear voices, but he could not lift his head to see where they were. His eyes moved and he caught sight of Chris' body and knew something was wrong, but there was little he could do on his own.
"Chris..." Vin's voice was barely more than a whisper and he took several painful and shallow breaths in order to muster up all the reserve strength he had. Larabee's limbs continued to thrash and jar his injured body. This prompted him to use all had left to call out for assistance. "H...e...l...p..."
"Nathan, did you..." Wilmington wasn't sure if he'd imagined the voice and strained to listen, but the sound was not repeated, or if it was Buck could not hear it. He'd all but given up on it when something caught his attention and he sat forward, ignoring the sharp pain in his leg.
"Easy, Buck, I'm almost done," Jackson said.
"Help..." Buck's head jerked when the weak voice carried through the air. He was sure he'd heard the raspy drawl that could only belong to one man. "Jesus! That's Vin!"
"Go, Nathan! I heard him...sweet Jesus...Chris!" the ladies' man snapped when he saw what could only be the blond's body arching off the wagon bed.
"JD, make sure you cover the wound. Ezra, help JD!" Jackson said and hurried back to the wagon. He knew the others wanted answers, but right now he had none to give. He jumped into the back of the wagon as O'Malley moved to join him. Vin lay still, yet his eyes were open and full of worry; his trembling hand was loosely holding his best friend's arm. Chris seemed to be in the throes of a convulsion of some kind. His body arched up off the wagon bed, arms rigid and straight, corded muscles standing out in his throat, and teeth clenched tightly.
"Vin, we got him," Jackson said, patting the sharpshooter's shoulder.
"Help me with him, Nathan!" O'Malley ordered. He knew there was nothing they could do until the attack ended, but they needed to keep Larabee from injuring himself further...and from doing any more damage to Vin Tanner who lay so close to him.
The others could only stand by and watch as the two healers worked together to keep Larabee's body from striking against the side of the wagon. When the attack finally ceased, the blond laid still, his body bathed in perspiration, and his chest heaving with the effort it took to draw air into the ravaged lungs.
"He's burning up," O'Malley said.
"He can't take much more of this," Jackson added.
"There's not much we can do until we get him into town and cooled down," the physician said and turned his attention to the second patient. He reached for a clean, wet cloth and gently wiped the blood from the slack mouth. He knew Larabee must have connected with one or more blows and was glad to see the bleeding had already stopped. "Vin, can you hear me?"
"...hear ya..." the Texan rasped and soon felt his head lifted and a cup of tepid water placed at his lips. He drank greedily, as if this was the last of the water left in the world.
"Not too fast, Son," O'Malley said and removed the cup. He looked at the group of men who now stood close to the wagon. Even Buck Wilmington stood nearby, leaning heavily on Josiah Sanchez.
"Ch...Chris?" Tanner managed as his strength left him and the air seemed to weigh down on his chest.
"Nathan, Chris' place is closer and there's a stream running close by," Sanchez supplied when it seemed as if the Texan had lost consciousness once more
"He's right, Nate," Wilmington agreed.
"How much closer?" O'Malley asked, worried about the two men in the wagon. So far he'd only done a cursory exam of Larabee and Tanner, but what he saw worried him. Both men sported fevers that continued to sap what little strength they had. It wouldn't be long before they were so dehydrated there would be little chance of bringing them back.
"If we kept riding through the night we'd be there before sun up!" Dunne answered.
"Chris has a lot of the supplies we'd need there," Standish told them and looked at the former slave for confirmation.
"Yes, he does," Jackson agreed. One of the things he made sure of was that each man carried supplies that could and would be used if one or more of them were injured. Chris' home was a small place he'd built outside of town, a place where he could go and get away from the progress going on in Four Corners. Nathan remembered the day he'd shown up at the shack and handed Larabee the package wrapped in brown paper. Larabee had smiled when he opened it and shaken his hand. The gift had been just about everything a man alone could need should he get into trouble.
"All right, so we change direction slightly, but first we need to make these two," he looked at Wilmington and corrected himself. "Three as comfortable as possible," O'Malley explained. There was nothing they could do to bring down the fevers, but they cleaned the wounds and covered them with new bandages before breaking camp and heading out once more.
+ + + + + + +
JD sighed tiredly when he spotted the small cabin they'd come to call Larabee's 'little piece of heaven'. Somehow those words seemed even more fitting as the small caravan entered the clearing. They'd stopped twice during the trip, but only long enough to tend to the three injured peacekeepers. He dismounted and flipped the reins over the fence before hurrying to the back of the wagon. There wasn't much he could do until they had the three men inside, but at least he could tend to the horses and keep from thinking about how pale and dangerously ill they were. Even Buck had grown quiet and sported a fever and JD kept repeating a silent prayer that the three men would heal now that they were home.
"JD, why don't you help your friends? Me and Carl can handle the horses," Thompson offered.
"Pony and Peso are kind of skittish. They don't take to strangers much," Dunne said and reached for both animals.
Carl Tucker watched the young man and knew JD Dunne would be haunted by the events of the last few weeks, but there was no doubt in his mind that he would be stronger from it. They all would, if they survived. He reached for the other animal and followed the younger man to the small corral and helped Hank Thompson remove the saddles.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra opened the door and entered the small, well-kept house; he moved to the single door that closed on the one bedroom. He pushed it open and hurried to fold back the blankets on the two single beds. He'd never understood Larabee's reason for wanting two beds, but he'd been grateful for that bed on more than one occasion. There were times when each man needed some time away from town and having an extra bed had been a blessing. He quickly searched the room for extra blankets to make a pallet on the floor.
"Ezra, you ready in here?" Jackson called.
"Ready!" Standish called and realized there was no room to make another bed in the room. He walked into the main room of the cabin and watched Josiah and Nathan ease Buck onto a chair at the table. He quickly grabbed a second chair and positioned it so the healer could place Wilmington's injured leg on it.
"Buck, we're going to get Chris and Vin inside and then we're going to make up a bed out here for you. Think you can stay put for a few minutes?" Jackson asked.
"I'm okay, Nathan," Wilmington said and turned to the gambler. "Ez, would you get me some water?"
"Certainly," the conman answered and hurried to do as he'd been asked.
Nathan looked at the ladies' man and nodded before moving outside with Sanchez again. He'd spoken with O'Malley and they agreed it was best to carry the two men inside on the blankets they were lying on. He knew they would need more help and turned to see Dunne looking at him.
"JD, Hank, could you give us a hand to get Chris and Vin inside?" Jackson asked.
"Sure, Nate," Dunne said and left the horses in Tucker's care. "What do you want me to do?"
"We're going to lift them, blankets and all...starting with Vin. I want to keep him as still as possible," Jackson explained and motioned to the wagon. Larabee and Tanner showed no sign of coming to as Jackson grabbed hold of one corner of the blanket and began to pull. Working carefully the four men eased the injured Texan out of the wagon and made sure they had a good grip on the blanket before making their way into the small house. It took some doing, but the made it through the door and across the floor into the bedroom. They placed the still unconscious man on the bed beneath the window and watched as O'Malley checked the patient.
"He's okay. Let's bring Chris in," O'Malley said.
"Ezra, is something wrong with your leg?" Jackson asked upon seeing the pronounced limp.
" I assure you Mister Jackson, it's not serious," Standish supplied. He'd forgotten about the injury incurred back at the Inn, but the pain had been growing steadily worse.
"Sit down, Ezra!" the former slave ordered, silently cursing himself for not noticing the limp earlier. He nodded to the chair across from Wilmington before following the others outside.
"Jesus, Ezra, I forgot all about your ankle. Why didn't you say something?" the gentle rogue asked.
"Honestly, it hasn't been bothering me until now," the gambler answered and lifted the leg of his pants. They could both see the slight swelling around the top of the boot and Ezra could just imagine the lecture he would get from Jackson. He knew he'd probably done more harm than good by walking on it, but the truth was he'd wanted...needed to help his friends. Ezra suddenly realized that he really had changed since meeting the six men he rode with. If this had happened prior to their meeting he would have milked it for all it was worth, now he'd simply forgotten about it in the wake of the danger to the three men.
Buck just smiled and nodded in understanding. They'd all changed since becoming a part of the Seven and none more than the man sitting across from him. What would Maude think of her southern boy now?