A hot wind blew off the desert, lifting plumes of dust along the main street of Four Corners that swirled and danced, drifting into every nook and cranny. Mary Travis shielded her eyes and squinted into the setting sun, which hovered just above the horizon like a bright red globe.
"Any sign of them?"
She turned and smiled as reassuringly as she could at Laura Ann Trace. "Oh, I'm sure they're on the way back by now."
Laura nodded, but she didn't look like she believed it. "Maybe one of us should have gone with them."
Mary stopped her automatic response "I was thinking the same thing" and said instead, "What should possibly go wrong with all of them there, watching over the children?"
Laura thought a moment and then nodded. "True, I mean, they are hired guns, after all. What kind of a challenge could seven children be for men like that?"
Mary smiled. "Well, Billy can be a handful sometimes, but they are very capable men."
Laura blushed slightly and dipped her head as she said, "Yes, Amelia Katherine can be a handful as well, but you're right, of course." She glanced down the nearly empty street, almost everyone having gone inside to escape the heat and dust, and added, "But if they aren't back in an hour, I'm riding out there myself."
"If they're not back in another hour, I'll go with you," Mary promised her.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The wagon rolled slowly but steadily toward town, followed by six men on horseback. Excited chatter filled the air, all of it coming from the seven children riding in the back of the wagon, but the men all rode in stony silence.
Nathan Jackson, healer and member of the seven peacekeepers who protected the small community of Four Corners, rode at the rear of the string of riders, wondering how such a simple plan could have gone so terribly wrong. His practiced eye took in the injuries: sprained ankle, puncture wound, concussion, insect sting, animal attack, and a few bad bruises. Who could have imagined it would turn out like this? Especially when it had started out so well
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The morning was cool and bright, and the seven eager expressions that met them when they exited the saloon were nothing short of angelic. Buck immediately took charge, greeting each child by name.
"Well, good mornin', Miss Amelia," he began, pulling off his hat and smiling at the tiny girl who waited in a pale blue calico dress. "And how are you this fine day?"
"I am very well, thank you, Mr. Willington," she replied promptly, then grinned and added, "Are you gonna come with us?"
"I sure am," Buck told her, then winked and turned his attention to the next child in line. "Mornin', Billy."
"Mornin', Buck," the small blond boy replied, but his attention was on someone else. "Chris, are you comin' too?" he asked hopefully.
The gunslinger nodded, the start of a grin tugging up the corners of his mouth. "Wouldn't miss it."
"Edward, Miss Mary," Buck greeted the two Potter children. They would be the oldest of the group, and the ladies' man hoped they might take over the majority of babysitting chores so he could sneak a dip in the swimming hole.
The two children nodded, Mary blushing slightly as she dipped her head and tried to sneak a furtive glance at Vin, who was leaning against the rail near where Josiah worked, double-checking the harnesses on the two mules hitched to the wagon the children would ride in.
Buck looked from Mary to Vin and wondered if the tracker had any idea he had stolen the young girl's heart. He turned to the last three children, who were like three stair steps, each about six inches taller than the last. The expressions on their black faces were all serious, and Buck couldn't help but grin and ask, "Now, what's got you three lookin' like you was sittin' in church on a fine summer's day?"
The eldest of the three, Abraham Trousdale, said, "Mama says we can go along with y'all, but only if the white mamas and pas don't care. So I'm here askin' if'n they do or not."
Buck's grin faded. "Abe, I'm sure Mrs. Travis and Mrs. Potter wouldn't care a bit if you came along with us today, Mrs. Trace neither, ain't that right?" he asked the others, who all nodded except Ezra, who yawned and muttered, "Personally, I would have favored remaining abed, but no one listened to my preferences in this matter."
"That mean we can go or not?" the smallest Trousdale demanded, her hands curled into fists that were planted firmly on her hips.
"That means you're more than welcome to come along, Miss Fanny, you and Abraham and Lincoln," Josiah told her, grinning over the boys' names.
"Yeah, never you mind Ezra there," Nathan told the three black children. "He just ain't used to getting up so early on a Saturday mornin', is all."
"Well, come on," JD told the seven youngsters, "get on up in the wagon and we'll get going!"
Buck shook his head and teased, "Maybe you oughta ride with 'em, JD, seeing as how you're not much older 'n" He got no further, JD grabbing his hat off and hitting the ladies' man with it.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The ride out to the swimming hole was full of laughter and high spirits. Amelia suggested they sing songs along the way, and the other children readily agreed. It took nearly an hour for them to run out of material, and when they did, she asked Buck to teach them a new song.
After three attempts that ended abruptly when the ladies' man remembered exactly where the lyrics were heading, he desperately looked to the others for help.
Josiah was able to provide a couple of Sunday school songs for the children, and JD remembered one his mother used to sing to him when he was a boy, but their favorite by far was the one Chris remembered.
The usually solemn gunslinger glowered at the other peacekeepers, daring them to comment, and none had the courage to tease him, although Vin did comment that he'd never heard anything like it but that it, "Sure does sound real pretty, Chris."
The gunslinger blushed and glowered at the tracker for at least a mile or two.
Upon arriving at the shaded, foothills oasis, the children scrambled out of the wagon and scattered in all directions.
Immediately taking charge, Chris ordered, "Vin, you keep an eye on Mary Potter. Buck, I'll leave Amelia to you. Ezra, you take Fanny Trousdale. JD, Edward Potter. Josiah, you and Nathan look after Abraham and Lincoln, and I'll see to Billy."
Their assignments made, the seven peacekeepers headed off to find and protect their young charges.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Buck strolled off in the direction he had seen Amelia taking. With luck he'd find her alone, and then he'd be able to see if he could find out how her mother was feeling about him. For the life of him, he just couldn't understand why he always ended up acting like a complete fool in front of the woman.
Hell, half the time he wasn't even sure he liked Laura Ann Trace, but the other times he couldn't stop thinking about her, or the way the sunlight danced in her golden-red hair, or the way her green eyes flashed whenever he tried to help her load her supplies at the Potter's, or the way she moved, so sure and yet as if she were dancing to some music only she could hear.
He sighed to himself, picturing her in one of her calico dresses, walking down the boardwalk on her way to teach in the new school they had all helped built. But he could also recall clearly how she looked in men's trousers and a work shirt, like when he'd first found her fixing up the old Bryan place. She was a woman of contradictions, and maybe that was what kept him off guard around her. She just never did exactly what he expected her to do.
"Amelia?" he called when he still hadn't found the girl a few minutes later.
"Oh no," Buck heard the child mutter softly.
He stepped around a large pile of boulders and found the seven-year-old sitting on a flat rock, a book lying open on her lap. She looked up at him and begged, "Please, you won't tell my mama, will you?"
"Tell her what, princess?"
"That I brought a book along and I was reading again."
"Why wouldn't I tell her that?" Buck asked, honestly confused.
Amelia dipped her head and sighed heavily. "She thinks I read too much, but I like to read." She looked up, meeting Buck's eyes. "Is that odd?"
Buck smiled as he leaned against the boulder and said, "Of course not. Why, Chris likes to read, too. Did you know that?"
She shook her head and confessed, "Mama wants to me have fun and be like the other children, but I like to read."
"Well then, you just sit right there and read, princess," Buck told her as he took a seat on the ground. He pulled his hat down to shade his eyes and crossed his ankles, wondering if he dared to take a nap.
"Mommy likes you," Amelia announced a few minutes later.
Buck titled his hat back up and grinned. "She does, does she? Did she tell you that?"
"No, but I know she does."
Buck's grin widened. "Well now, that's real nice to hear, princess."
"Do you like her, too?"
"Yes," he said. "Yes, I surely do."
"Even after she punched you?"
Buck grimaced, remembering all too well his "formal introduction" to Mrs. Trace, and how she had ended up slapping him. "Well now, I guess you'd have to say that was an unfortunate misunderstanding."
"Misunderstandings must hurt an awful lot," Amelia commented sagely.
Buck grinned. "Some times." He glanced around, feeling an uneasy prickling along the back of his neck. Then he saw it: a snake, a rattlesnake, moving across the desert, probably headed for the shade under the rocks where they sat.
He stood and quickly glanced around. Spotting what he needed, he leaned over and grabbed an old piece of tree branch. "Why don't you read me something from your book, princess?" he suggested, grateful Amelia seemed oblivious to the potential danger.
As soon as she started reading, Buck casually ambled over and used the branch to lift the snake off the ground, and with it dangling over the branch, he walked carefully over to another clump of rocks and climbed over them so he could set the snake down on the far side.
"Buck, are you listening?" Amelia called to him.
"What?" he asked, and then quickly added when he saw her frown, "Of course, princess. Did your mother ever tell you what a beautiful voice you have?"
The girl made a face and shook her head. "Mama says it's a sin to tell a lie."
Buck blushed and cleared his throat. "Well, your mother's right o' course, but there are times " He started to climb back over the rocks to join her. "But this ain't one of them," he told her when he saw the flash of hurt on her face. "You do have a very nice Ahh!"
"Buck?" Amelia cried, watching with horror as he toppled over. "Are you playing?"
The ladies' man rolled on the ground, his hands clutching his ankle, which throbbed like red-hot pokers were searing through it.
"Buck?" Amelia cried again, this time climbing off her rock and hurrying over to him. "My goodness!" she gasped, sounding very much like her mother. "Are you hurt?"
"I'll be fine," Buck assured her, although it came out as a hissed whisper and he couldn't force his fingers to uncurl.
"I'll get help," Amelia promised and immediately turned and headed off at a dead run.
"No! Wait!" Buck gasped out, but it was already too late, she was gone. "Great," he groaned, knowing none of the others would ever let him live this down.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Ezra trailed behind Fanny Trousdale, who kept up a constant litany of the gambler's faults. He wasn't sure how the child had come up with the impressive list, but it was more than a little bit disconcerting.
"And why ever have you troubled yourself to catalog my failings with such enthusiasm?" he asked the child.
Fanny stopped at the edge of the swimming hole and met the gambler's eyes. "'Cause I figure you must be full of the Devil if you done all them things bad."
Ezra's eyes rounded in surprise. "Well, perhaps" He noticed how close the girl was to the water's edge and asked, "You do know how to swim, don't you?"
"Nope, never learned. Mama's scared o' the water. Mama says I'm full of the Devil, too," she continued without a breath, "says I'm too headstrong for my own good. What do that mean, anyway? Headstrong. My head ain't no stronger 'n Abe's or Lincoln's, is it? Do the Devil make your head stronger when he's in ya?"
Ezra had to carefully keep from grinning as he said, "Well now, that might take some careful consideration, so, why don't you come away from the water and"
"Tadpoles!" Fanny squealed delightedly, squatting down and leaning forward to try and scoop one of the creatures up in her hand.
"Miss Trousdale, I do not believe that is such a good idea," the gambler scolded, inching closer to the girl, while still being careful not to step in any mud that might blemish his polished boots.
"Now there's a big'un! Do ya see it?" she cried, leaning out over the water farther.
"Fanny!" Ezra called, seeing her begin to lose her balance. He lunged forward, his boots sinking into the mud at the edge of the water with a sick squishing sound.
Scooping her up, he swung her around and set her down safely away from the water's edge.
Her eyes were round with surprise. "Ya made me miss that whopper! Did ya do that on purpose?"
Ezra looked down at his boots. "You were about to fall into that pond, Missy. I saved you from getting soaked to the skin. Not that I expect the proper gratitude from one such as yourself."
"What's that mean?" she asked, her eyes narrowing with fury.
"Just that you, my dear, are a child, and therefore are unable to appreciate the situation as I can."
"I wasn't gonna fall in," she retorted, thrusting out her chin.
"Yes, you were," the gambler argued as he stepped out of the mud and, lifting one foot, shook his boot, trying dislodge the clinging muck. When that didn't work, he headed for a piece of rock with a sharp edge to scrape it off, but as soon as he put his weight on the coated sole, his foot slipped and he was falling.
He landed with an only half-swallowed yelp, followed by a colorful curse.
"Gracious!" Fanny cried, her eyes rounding. "You fell down just like a Saturday drunk on a Sunday mornin'!"
Ezra met the girl's eyes, his mind torn between her colorful description and the sudden pain registering in his backside. A second later the pain won out and he screeched, "What in the world!" as he bolted up off the ground and quickly tried to surreptitiously run his hand over his posterior while keeping the injury from the child.
"What're ya doin'?" she asked, taking a couple of steps closer to the gambler.
"No!" Ezra said, holding out his other hand to, hopefully, stop her from coming any closer while he continued to feel gingerly for whatever lance had been thrust into his body.
"Somethin' wrong with your backside?"
"No!" Ezra said. "I just, uh, I just need you to, uh, go, uh find Mr. Jackson. Yes. I need you to go find Mr. Jackson so we can show him that unusually large tadpole. I'm sure he'd very much like to see that."
Fanny stared at him for a moment, then heaved a great sigh as she rolled her eyes and shook her head at the same time. "All right, I'll go gets him, but it ain't for no tadpole. The Devil musta put rocks in your head," she muttered as she walked away, occasionally glancing back over her shoulder and keeping Ezra from his continued explorations.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Josiah explained the basic rules of the game, then he, along with Nathan, Abraham and Lincoln fashioned a crude bat and ball, then picked up what would serve as their bases. Once that was done, they began a game, soon being joined by Chris, Billy, JD and Edward. Vin asked Mary if she wanted to play, but she just shook her head and blushed, so they sat down in the shade to watch and cheer the others on.
And all went well for a short time, but then Lincoln took his turn at bat and the makeshift ball arched up and out of sight, falling into a thick clump of brush.
"I'll get it!" Edward called, running into the brush and disappearing.
The others waited for a minute, and then Nathan called, "Edward?"
When there was no answer, Mary scrambled to her feet, crying, "Ed? Edward Potter, if you're hiding out there! Ed?"
Chris and Vin exchanged only glances, but it communicated all that was necessary.
The tracker stood and gave Mary's shoulder a gentle squeeze as he said, "I'll go fetch him back t' the game."
She smiled and nodded, her eyes full of worry.
The rest watched Vin disappear into the brush before Josiah broke the silence, saying, "Well, what can we use as a ball until Vin and Edward get back?"
"I got one!" Lincoln cried.
Josiah turned to look at the boy and, smiling, said, "Toss it over to her and we'll get back to the game."
Lincoln drew his arm back and let fly with his "ball." The projectile hurtled through the air, but its course was erratic and the former priest raised and lowered his hands as he attempted to predict the erratic path. And then he was lying on the ground, a burst of white stars exploding in front of his eyes against a yellow field that was quickly swallowed by blackness.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin made his way through the brush, looking for Edward. After a few minutes of tracking the boy's shoe prints, he found him kneeling in the shade of a storm-felled tree. It looked like the boy was playing with something in the dirt, and as the sharpshooter drew closer he heard a strange noise he couldn't immediately identify.
"Edward?" he questioned, both curious and a little worried.
The boy turned, glancing over his shoulder and giving Vin his first look at what had captured the boy's attention: javelina. Somehow Edward had found or cornered a juvenile, but despite the wild pig's youth, it was still capable of doing him serious injury.
"Edward, come over here nice an' slow, son," the tracker instructed, his gaze locked on the small pig as it pawed the ground with one front hoof.
"He's kinda cute-lookin', ain't he?" the boy asked as he rose and turned toward Vin.
"Mean as a stomped-on rattler, too," Vin replied, still carefully watching the softly chuffling beast.
And then what Vin was afraid might come to pass, did. The small wild pig burst forward, its head lowered and swinging from side to side as it tried to use its tusks against the boy and Vin.
The tracker bolted forward, grabbing Edward and swinging the boy up into his arms just as the annoyed creature reached him, attacking his legs as the man sprinted away, the child carried safely out of harm's way.
Reaching an outcrop of rocks, Vin deposited the boy on the top and began to scramble up himself, but the young pig, charging in under his feet, tripped the tracker, sending him to the ground. A cloud of dust erupted as he hit, half-blinding the man.
Vin curled into a ball, his arms over his head to protect his face and neck as the javelina rushed him several times, taking out its frustrations on the helpless man's buckskin pants and leather coat.
"Mr. Tanner! Mr. Tanner!" Edward cried.
"Stay there!" Vin yelled at the boy as he reached for the knife he carried, determined to gut the damned pig if he could, but the beast, sensing the human was preparing to fight back, beat a hasty retreat, content with the fact it had drawn first blood.
Vin rolled up onto his knees, knife in hand, but his assailant was gone, only a few quaking leaves left to mark its path. The tracker pushed to his feet as he sheathed the knife.
"Mr. Tanner, you're bleeding!" Edward yelped as he pointed.
Vin glanced down at his legs. His buckskin pants had several rents in them, the edges of a few stained with blood. "Hell, ain't nothin' but a coupl'a scratches," he reassured the boy, but he knew he needed to get the wounds cleaned, or he risked infection, which was far more dangerous than the pig itself. "Come on," he told Edward, "let's get back 'fore they start t' worry."
Edward blushed slightly. "I'm sorry I didn't come right back, but I saw and"
"Just be sure t' tell your sister yer sorry," Vin interrupted him. "Y' had her pretty worried."
"I did find the ball," Edward offered, fishing it out of his pocket.
Vin grimaced as he limped along, wondering what in the world had prompted grown men to come up with such a game whacking a ball with a stick so they could run around in a circle? and what the others would say when they saw him looking like he did. He probably wouldn't hear the end of it for weeks.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The baseball game was over, and Nathan was busy checking Josiah for any permanent damage, Billy helping as he could. Abraham and Lincoln lost interest after Josiah was revived and were off pretending to be knights while Chris watched them. JD walked over to join Mary Potter, who stood under a tree, staring off in the direction Edward and Vin had disappeared earlier.
"Miss Potter," he greeted her.
"Where do you think they are?" she asked him, still staring and wringing her hands.
"I'm sure they're both just fine, Miss Mary," JD replied. "Vin's a great tracker. He'll find Edward, and"
Mary squealed and backed away, frantically extending her arms and waving her hands in front of his face.
"What?" JD asked her, his shoulders dipping and bobbing as he tried to settle on what had upset the girl. "Mary, what's wrong?"
"Bee!" she shrieked loudly, then screamed even louder.
"What?" JD yelped, looking up and around, sure the bee must be of some huge, unnatural size to have upset the girl so much.
"Down there!" Mary's feet danced faster than a telegraph key as she pointed to the ground.
JD's gazed followed the line of her finger and spotted a small scorpion crawling along the ground. "Now don't you worry, Miss Mary, I'll get rid of that," he assured the young woman.
Taking a step forward, JD kicked the offending creature away. He looked over at Mary and smiled, but the look of terror was still on her face. He frowned, unable to understand why she was still afraid. And then he felt it.
"Ow! Damn it!" he howled, his hand coming up to slap at the back of his neck.
"I hate bees!" Mary cried, hurrying away.
"JD?" Nathan called from where he was still working on Josiah's head. "What's goin' on?"
"Ah, hell, Nathan, I just got stung by a bee!"
"Come over here," Nathan called to him. "I'll take a look as soon as I'm done with Josiah here."
A moment later, Emily burst into the clearing at a run, yelling loudly, "Mr. Jackson! Mr. Jackson, come quick! Buck's hurt!"
That was followed by Ezra hobbling in, Fanny dancing around him, trying to get a look at the gambler's backside. "I have immediate need of Mr. Jackson's talents myself."
"He done got poked by a thorn in his backside," the little girl announced loudly.
"He can wait!" Buck hollered, limping up behind Emily.
Then Mary squealed shrilly and pointed to her brother and Vin as they walked into the clearing. "He's bleeding!"
Nathan looked from JD to Buck to Ezra to Vin and shook his head. "I've still gotta finish wrappin' up Josiah's head, then I'll get to the rest of ya!"
"Ahhhhh!" Chris bellowed at the far side of the clearing, and the others turned to see what had happened to him.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris grinned, watching the two boys as they sparred with sticks they insisted were really swords. Lincoln, a little overpowered by his older brother, scampered around the gunslinger, hoping to slow Abraham down at least long enough for him to get in one good blow.
Neither of the boys paid any attention to Mary's squeal, but it caught Chris's attention and he watched as she and JD danced around under the tree, frowning. What could have possessed the pair?
Ignoring the two boys as they continued to exchange blows around him, Chris watched JD kick or stomp on something on the ground, then start slapping at his neck. It was time to find out what was going on, he decided.
He took one step, then stopped, spotting Emily as she burst into the clearing, yelling something about Buck, who was limping along behind her.
Ezra and Fanny appeared next, the gambler acting stranger than usual, twisting and ducking and tucking his butt in some odd dance with the child. Chris shook his head, his attention shifting to Edward and Vin as they appeared, the tracker limping, although not as badly as Buck was.
Chris's eyes narrowed when he realized Vin had wounds on his legs that were actually bleeding. He couldn't hear what everyone was saying, but from Nathan's tone, it was clear the healer wasn't happy about whatever it was he was seeing and hearing.
Definitely time to see what was going on, he decided, taking a step forward.
Pain exploded in his shins, making globes of yellow-white light appear in front of the gunslinger's eyes. "Ahhhh!" he cried, doubling over and falling to the ground.
"Abraham!" Lincoln yelled at his brother. "Ya weren't supposed t' hit Mr. Larabee!"
The boy's eyes rounded with shock and fear. "I didn't mean to do it, Mr. Larabee! Honest!"
Chris lay on the ground, waiting for the pain to subside enough for him to see and speak again. But before that happened, Vin and Nathan lifted him up. He tested his weight on the leg that throbbed the worst and held his breath to see if it would hold his weight. It did, but it also sent a bolt of liquid agony shooting up his legs and he bit back a groan. He hadn't hurt that bad since he'd been beaten in that damned prison yard, and there he'd been fighting to hold onto his dignity, here he was just babysitting.
" you hear me?" Nathan was asking.
Chris nodded, his vision beginning to clear.
" down and I'll get to ya soon as I can," the healer continued.
Larabee nodded again, allowing Nathan and Vin to lower him to the ground between Josiah and Buck. JD sat next to the ladies' man, and Nathan pointed to Vin to sit next to the preacher. The tracker did as instructed.
Nathan turned to Ezra, but the gambler held up his hand, saying, "If it's all the same to you, Mr. Jackson, I'll remain standing until you decide to attend to my injury. Although I sincerely hope it will not be too long, I am in considerable discomfort."
"That means it hurts like hellfire," Fanny translated for the healer.
"Missy, you ain't supposed to use words like that," Nathan scolded her. He quickly determined what was needed in each case and dispatched the children to fetch water, plants and other necessary items for his treatments. They hurried off, eager to do their part.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"I believe you actually enjoyed that," Ezra accused Nathan when the healer handed him the offending thorn.
Nathan grinned. "Should heal up in a day or two so long as no infection sets in."
"Heaven forbid," Ezra replied, then glanced at his horse, wondering how he was going to sit in the saddle for the ride back to Four Corners where Nathan promised them he would check their injuries again and complete any necessary additional treatments.
"All right now," Nathan said to the others. "Get on your horses and let's get back to town before it gets dark. Kids, you all get into the wagon. Edward, you and Abraham take turns driving so Josiah can rest."
"Yes, sir, Mr. Jackson," Edward and Abraham chorused.
"I can drive the wagon," Josiah grumbled, still cradling his head in one hand.
"You just lay there and rest," Nathan told the preacher sternly. Then he looked at the rest of the seven, deciding that they were all able to ride. He nodded. "All right, let's go."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"There they are," Mary Travis said, pointing.
Mrs. Trace smiled when she heard the children's voices and the two women started across the street when the wagon and horses stopped outside the livery.
The kids climbed down, Abraham, Lincoln and Fanny running off down the street. Emily and Billy hurried over to their mothers, and Mary and Edward headed down the boardwalk toward the general store.
"Ma, we had fun!" Billy cried. "But Chris broke his legs."
"Buck as well," Emily added with a sigh.
The two women exchanged surprised, worried glances and hurried over to the wagon, watching as the six men slowly made their way up the stairs to Nathan's clinic. Josiah's head was wrapped, Ezra had a thick bandage on his backside, Vin had several bandages wrapped around his legs and Chris and Buck were both hobbling. JD was the last up the stairs, a bandage wrapped around his neck.
"What on earth happened out there?" Mary asked, wondering if they had been attacked by Indians, bandits, or both.
"Oh, ain't as bad as it looks, Miz Travis," Nathan assured the woman.
"But they look like they just got back from the war," Mrs. Trace said. "Are the children all fine?"
"Oh, yes, ma'am," Nathan replied. "They're all just dandy." He grinned. "Just a little more of a challenge than we're used to is all."
Reality dawned on the two women, and they both smiled.
"What happened?" Mary asked the healer.
Nathan grinned. "I'll tell ya all about it, just as soon as I make sure all their hurts are tended to. Should be an enjoyable story," he added with a knowing grin.
"I can't wait," Laura Ann said softly, exchanging knowing glances with Mary. They would have the story long before the healer finished.
"Come along, children," Mary said, leaning over and wrapping her arms around Billy's and Emily's shoulders.
Nathan watched them go, then turned to climb the stairs, knowing he had a lot of work to do. He chuckled to himself, wondering if anyone would ever believe the seven peacekeepers had finally been bested by seven children.
Author's Note: This story first appeared in the multi-media zine, Ouch! #14, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of the multi-media zines that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Michelle Fortado is the primary author of this story, she had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Erica Michaels, and Lorin and Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 9-19-2005. Art by Shiloh (firstname.lastname@example.org).