by the Desperado's Daughter


JD Dunne smiled sadly as he watched his friends saddle up. They were laughing and already having a good time. Buck and Chris were talking over some old adventure when they had been tracking some outlaw and JD realized he was probably not even born when they'd been riding together back then.

He *was* just a "wet-behind-the-ears" kid, and now that the guys were going after a real bad character, they made him stay behind with the "womenfolk". Oh, Buck had told him that they were leaving him to watch things because they trusted him. He was responsible for the whole town while they were gone. Well, they'd have left someone else with him if they were expecting any kind of trouble.

No, they just didn't think the kid was ready for a showdown like this, and he couldn't say that he blamed them. Hadn't he passed out when they found that dead body last week? He'd seen dead bodies before--just not with the head cut off. He still shuddered when he thought about it. He and Vin had been out trying to find out where Harry had got off to. (Harry was the telegraph man's brother--who was slow or something. Back in Boston, they called the slow folks "feeble-minded". JD never liked that name.) Harry came to town once a year. JD sorta made friends with him. Everybody liked Harry all right, but they didn't really want to visit with him. JD thought Harry could use a friend and would make a point to do things with him--to play with him. Sometimes Harry would wander off and somebody'd have to go fetch him. Vin had taken JD with him this time to look for him.

JD's throat got tight when he remembered stumbling over Harry's arm. The image of Harry's body lying there . . . without his head . . . well, it made JD nauseated all over again. JD had jumped when Vin squeezed his shoulder, and he had tripped away, about to lose his lunch.

Then when he saw Harry's vacant blue eyes staring at the sky, JD remembered seeing everything start spinning.

"JD!!!" Buck called. "Where'd you go, boy?"

JD squinted up at his friend. "Been right here." Gee, he'd been daydreaming again.

"You're standing there but you're a million miles away."

"Just thinking," JD said.

Buck grinned at him. "Just think about this. You have two whole days to woo the lovely ladies here without them being distracted by the Buck Wilmington charm." Buck leaned over and lowered his voice. "Make good use of it, boy. Won't happen often."

"Don't worry, Buck," JD started to smile. "I'll leave one for you anyway."

Buck laughed his hearty laugh. "See that you do, son. See that you do."


The saloon was so empty. The town was so empty. Her heart was so empty. Inez sat at a table by the window and watched the wind blow down the street. The sky was overcast, but didn't seem to promise much of anything. No storm, no rain, no sun.

Sad somehow. Not just because of the murder and not because Seņor Standish and Seņor Buck had left with their friends. She was . . . homesick, and she couldn't go home. She could never go home again. But did it really matter? She didn't have family anyway. She didn't have a lover in her life. So she sat. Alone. Feeling sad and sorry for herself.


Vin Tanner had been riding ahead of the others. They were tracking the gang easily. Maybe too easily. Vin pulled back, frowning. He didn't say anything to Chris. The leader knew this was going a bit too well.

Vin pulled alongside Buck and spoke the first words he'd said since they'd left. "How was the kid this morning?"

"A little quiet, but he'll be all right."

Didn't seem all right to Vin. JD hadn't been himself since they'd found Harry. And what could they expect? JD hadn't seen many dead bodies in his time, but this . . . even Vin hadn't ever seen anything like this. Vin was having nightmares about it. He could only imagine how it was for the kid.

And JD had been about the only friend Harry had.

"What?" Buck asked Vin.

"I dunno . . . the look on the kid's face when he saw that body . . . " Vin looked up at his friend, unconsciously slowing his horse. "JD ain't been himself since."

Buck frowned. "No, but I keep thinking he'll snap out of it."

"I hope so, Buck. I haven't yet."

Buck reached up and squeezed his friend's shoulder, then the two rode on in thoughtful silence.


"Ma'am?" JD stepped over to where the beautiful woman sat. She didn't look up. "Are you all right, ma'am?"

It was as though she didn't know he was there. He tentatively touched her shoulder and she jumped slightly.

"Are you all right, ma'am?" JD repeated. He noticed her eyes glistening with tears and he knelt beside her.

Hastily, she wiped the back of her hand over her eyes and she laughed nervously. "Yes, I'm fine."

JD didn't buy it. She didn't look fine. He stayed beside her and waited. She looked at him with her pretty eyes, and her tears spilled over. That seemed to make her laugh a little more. He didn't understand that, really. But he listened. "I'm sorry JD. I just . . . feel . . . homesick a little."

JD smiled . . . relieved. Maybe he could help with this. If it had been a "woman's" thing, he'd have been sunk. "Oh, Miss Inez, I know about being homesick. Sometimes I miss Boston so much it hurts." He paused. He told himself not to say too much. But then again, maybe he could help her. Gently, he took her hand. "When I feel that way, I hang on to something my mother told me . . . "

Why did JD's throat feel so tight suddenly? He bit his lip to keep from letting his emotion show. But he knew it did anyway. "Mama said that friends are the family you choose . . . so choose them well." JD smiled through his tears. "I think my homesick feelings are more about . . . about missing her . . . than missing Boston. Everything I remember about Boston is . . . filled with her." His voice felt husky. "Sometimes . . . I feel like she helped me . . . choose these friends." A chuckle erupted from his throat. "They almost didn't choose me. Chris Larabee wasn't about to take a greenhorn kid."

JD's chin dropped to his chest. The fear came back. Maybe Chris really didn't want him along. Maybe that's why he didn't take him on this trip. JD felt a tender hand on his face.

"They *are* your friends, JD," she said. "They are all worried about you . . . like family worries." Could she read minds?

Inez smiled and patted his hand. "You've chosen a good family." She stood and he jumped to his feet.

"So have you, Miss Inez." JD smiled back and followed her toward the kitchen.

She spun on her heel and fussed at him good-naturedly. "You haven't been eating well these past days, Seņor JD."

"Ain't been hungry," he said.

"And you wonder why Seņor Chris didn't take you on this trip. You haven't been sleeping."

"Says who?" JD bristled, but why? He knew she was right.

"Buck hears you cry out in your sleep. He has ever since Harry was killed."

JD folded his arms tightly in front of himself. "Yeah, well, he talks too much."

"He worries." Inez walked back to the kitchen and JD followed reluctantly.

"He doesn't have to worry. I ain't no kid."

Inez turned back around to him, this time wielding a spatula. "You know, JD, everytime you say, 'I ain't no kid', you sound like a whining baby. These are tough men and you would never ride with them if they did not consider you a man. But they have paid dues that you have not yet paid, and if Chris Larabee thinks you should stay in town for once, you owe him the respect not to question it." Her eyes blazed and JD withered under her stare.

"I do respect him," JD muttered.

"Then respect yourself, and give yourself time to recover from this . . . horrible thing." Inez's anger disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. "And let me fix you some breakfast."

With a swish of her skirts, she was gone.


"HOLY SHIT!!!!!!!" Buck cried out as Vin instinctively grabbed him and hauled him out of the saddle onto the ground. The sudden hail of gunfire was deafening. Vin had to have eyes in the back of his head to have seen that coming. They scrambled toward cover. It took them a few seconds to realize that the gunfire wasn't aimed at them.

Buck made a quick survey and saw Chris's hand raised, commanding them to hold their fire. He and Josiah had taken cover behind a low ledge on the other side of the road. They'd gotten their horses out of the way, too. Vin had quickly grasped the reins of both his own and Buck's mounts.

Nathan and Ezra were nowhere to be seen.

What the hell was going on?! The gunfire was apparently up ahead around the bend--probably not more than a few feet away. A couple of bullets ricocheted off a rock too close to Buck's ear. He took better cover, then watched as Chris took off up the ridge. Vin maneuvered behind Buck toward the sound of the gunfire. He was bound and determined to cover Chris no matter what. Buck grasped Vin's wrist. Chris wouldn't move into the open without letting them lay cover for him. Their leader then crawled on his belly to an overhang so he could get a better look.

As abruptly as it had started, the gunfight ended.

And Buck waited . . . they all waited.


Inez felt like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. This boy had such a good heart. Maybe he brought out something kind in the men he rode with. They were all good men, but they were also tough and hardened by seeing too much death and evil in the world.

She cracked three eggs into the black iron skillet that still had leftover bacon grease in it from the first round of breakfast she'd made.

Somehow this young man had brought a little of their own boyhood back to the peacekeepers of Four Corners. He probably reminded them of their dreams and loves and the thrill they had once carried with them everytime they rode out. And yet, he was more than that. He was inherently innocent. He was genuinely kind.

And he saw each of those men as a hero--men who would never consider themselves heroes.

JD required each man to be his best self.

One day maybe those thick-headed gun-toting lawmen would realize that.


"Well, Mr. Jackson, we may get back to Four Corners in time for supper and a round of Poker."

Buck saw Chris smiling broadly and holstering his weapon at about the same time as Ezra and Nathan appeared leading two captives around the corner. One was clutching his arm and the other was cussing at him for getting shot.

"We need some rope down here," Nathan hollered. Buck and Vin got to them first, and to everyone's surprise, Vin grabbed the cussing one by the collar. He grabbed an oversized bandanna off of the man's gunbelt and held it in front of his face. The man drew a fist back but Nathan grabbed it before he could do any damage.

"Where'd you get this?" Vin hissed.

"Off'n a dead man," the man answered.

"How'd he get dead?" Vin was right in the man's face now.

The one with the gunshot wound piped up. "I didn't have no part of it," he said breathlessly.

"Shut the f*** up," the cussing man cussed.

"We was just messing with him. Weren't no harm in it. He was feeble-minded and we was having fun."

Buck towered over the injured one. "Killing a man for fun? Cutting his head off . . . for fun?"

This seemed to terrify the man and he clutched his wounded arm closer. "Oh, no, mister. There weren't no call for that. That was Cletus' doing."

By this time, all six of the peacekeepers surrounded the two criminals. Chris pointed a disinterested finger to the cussing man. "Is this Cletus?"

"NO!" the cussing man said quickly. "Cletus went back to town."

Buck and Chris exchanged alarmed looks and Chris nodded for Buck to go on. "Vin, you and Ezra go with him."

"I ain't finished with this one yet," Vin said evenly, his eyes never leaving the cussing man.

"You can finish with him later," Chris said, and finally Vin looked at him.

Then he headed back with the others.


She never saw it coming. She never saw the man before the hand clamped over her mouth. Never heard the other two that came in behind him. Her heart pounded and she looked for any weapon she could find. Frantically, she grabbed the frying pan from the stove and hurled it over behind her head into her assailant's forehead.

"G**D*** IT" a voice bellowed and Inez started to run but rough hands caught her, and the man who had been hit with the pan backhanded her as hard as he could.


JD burst through the kitchen door and Inez fell into him. He caught her awkwardly and got off one shot, killing the man who'd hit her.

But then he found himself staring down the barrels of two shotguns.

Held by two very angry men.


Buck rode back to Four Corners like a bat out of hell, Vin and Ezra close behind. God, what were they thinking? JD was a sitting duck. The whole town was, for that matter. But then again, why would anyone stay close to the scene of such a heinous crime.

Somewhere in the midst of the thundering hooves, Buck heard his name. He grimaced. He didn't have time for this. But he slowed his mount and let Vin catch up with him, still maintaining a fast pace.

"You're gonna run him into the ground, Buck," Vin said sharply.

"That bastard probably waited for us to leave so he could . . . "

"We'll get him, but killing your horse ain't gonna get you there."

Buck snarled and pulled out ahead of the tracker.

But he did slow it down a bit.


"Leave him alone!!" Inez screamed, but to no avail.

After one of the men had slammed the butt of his gun into JD's jaw, the other man had started kicking the kid.

"Stop it -- you're killing him!!"

JD lay on his side, writhing in pain, trying to catch a breath, and still the man drove his boot into the boy's ribs. Inez kept trying to pull herself up, but her head was swimming. She could hardly stand to watch this. JD coughed slightly and she could see the blood in his mouth.

The man who'd hit JD with the butt of the rifle reached down and jerked Inez up to her feet. "You come with me," he said, his mouth too close to her, his foul breath smelling strongly of tobacco.

Somehow JD found enough strength to call after him. "Keep your . . . hands . . . off of her."

And over her shoulder, Inez saw JD's assailant kick him . . .

In the face.


About four hours after leaving Four Corners that morning, Buck Wilmington approached the town again. It looked like a ghost town . . .

And something was very wrong.

He didn't ride directly into town. Instead, he circled around behind it, directing Vin and Ezra to circle to the other side. Vin would check the livery first for any unfamiliar horses, while Ezra got started discreetly looking around.

Buck tied his horse up behind the bathhouse and began his search by checking it out.


Nathan treated the gunshot wound in the criminal's arm, while Chris and Josiah questioned the cussing man. They now had his arms tied behind him.

"So tell me how you murdered him," Chris said pointedly.

"Are you f***ing deaf? I said I didn't have nothing to do with it."

Chris' fist connected solidly with the man's stomach. "Are you f***ing stupid?" Chris shot back, and he heard Josiah chuckle under his breath. Chris went on in a voice that was deliberately casual, and, he had found, much more menacing. "We can dance around this all day, but you *are* gonna tell me."

The cussing man was hunching over. "I'm telling you. I didn't kill him."

"But you watched while somebody else did."

"What's the crime in that?"

Chris was surprised when Josiah's meaty arm reached for the man and grabbed a fistful of shirt. In one frighteningly mad moment, Josiah lifted the criminal off his feet like a rag doll. "You didn't stop it," the big preacher said and he threw the man back to the ground. Both Chris and Nathan watched their friend's actions closely. Josiah had been known to go into a blind rage and when he did, he was uncontrollable. Best to nip it before he got too wound up.

Neither interfered yet.

"Get them curtains!" growled the man who was holding Inez. The man who had beaten the hell out of JD Dunne dragged the boy into the saloon and dropped him in a heap on the floor.

"You are heartless," Inez said, her heart aching. JD looked . . . dead.

"You will not be able to hide," she said, wishing she sounded more authoritative than she did. "His friends will tear you apart."

"You talk too damn much," laughed the man holding her. "I'm sure you can come up with something more interesting to do than talk."

Oh God . . . Inez could feel her captor's desire as he sat down in a chair and pulled her roughly into his lap. "Get your filthy hands off of me," she spat, but her anger only fueled his passion.

"I like 'em feisty."

He was holding her from behind, his arms effectively pinning hers to her side. He addressed his partner. "Go outside and keep your eyes open for the others. Warn me if you run into any trouble."

His partner nodded, but did not seem too happy about being relegated to lookout.

The man wrapped heavy rope around her wrists. How the man got the rope in his hand while he was holding her, she'd have to find out later. Now, she had to think about how to get free . . .

And how to help JD . . .

If he were still alive.


Was this what dying felt like? He'd been shot before, but he hadn't felt like he was dying then. Oh, he knew then that he was hurt bad, but it never occurred to him that he could actually be dying. This time was different. He was hurting inside--a fierce, unrelenting hurt.

And he was having more and more trouble breathing.

So where did the energy come from when he hauled himself up, ever so slowly, to crouch behind the bar?

He knew he was feeling utter rage, and that bastard's words and Inez's fearful reactions simply fueled it.

Please God, just let me hang on long enough to help . . .

He hurt so badly. He tried to breathe as lightly as he could. Anything . . . a cough, a sneeze . . . would tip the guy off.

He listened to the sick words the man spoke.

And he heard Inez's quivering voice. She was trying so hard to be strong. "Get your hands off of me," she said. And then . . . "Please, Seņor, do not do this . . ." She sounded more and more terrified. Finally, when JD was as close as he was going to get, he hoisted himself up and peered over the bar.

The bastard was on top of her. Her hands were tied over her head and the rope was tied around a post in the middle of the big room. The man's hands were everywhere. Suddenly, he tore her blouse and when she opened her mouth to scream, he slapped her hard. Then, just as suddenly, he pressed his mouth to hers and kissed her.

That was JD's cue.

Summoning the last of his waning strength, JD launched himself over the bar and dove heavily into Inez's attacker. With a grunt, JD rolled him off of his friend.

And paid dearly for it. The man quickly overtook the youth and, pinning JD to the ground with a knee in his belly, the man started hitting JD in the face relentlessly. As the pummeling continued, JD could hear Inez yelling. Even though he knew she was just a few feet next to him, she sounded farther and farther away. He thought he felt something in his face crush.

Did he hear the cocking of a shotgun?

"Get offa him."



Vin stepped out of the livery and looked a couple of doors down to see where Ezra was. Finally he saw the gambler emerge from the back of the Clarion and he trotted to him.

"There's three horses I cain't account for," Vin said quietly. "You got anything?"

Ezra frowned and shook his head. "It seems there is a stranger keeping watch in front of the saloon. All of the shades are drawn. That can't be good."

Vin watched as Ezra's eyebrows knit together in thought. Vin knew that look--it meant the wheels were turning and Ezra was coming up with a plan.

"Wait here," Ezra spoke quickly, and before Vin could stop him, the gambler ambled out into the street.


Josiah towered over the cowering man.

"I mean it, man," the captive said. "That was all Cletus. He was f***ing crazy, man."

Chris approached, making no effort to protect the cussing man from a very angry Josiah Sanchez. "And this *Cletus* is back in Four Corners?"

The man nodded.

"How many are there?" Chris asked, but the man didn't reply.

Josiah's eyes flashed and he pressed his big boot into the man's chest. "Answer the man."

Clearly the man couldn't bear the humiliation of being at the mercy of these . . . lawmen. But he couldn't do anything about that now. "Cletus . . . has two with him."

There was a gasp from the injured man Nathan was supervising.

"Shut up," Josiah's man warned. Chris spun on his heel and took long deliberate strides to the injured man. "What else do you know?"

"Don't . . ." Josiah's man wouldn't shut up. Josiah reached into his pocket, pulled out a handkerchief and stuffed it in his captive's mouth.

Nathan leaned over the injured man. "Answer the man."

After a quick scared look at his bound and gagged partner, the man spoke. "We were gonna draw you away from town, then Cletus and his guys were gonna meet up with his brother and his brother's men."

"Where?" Chris asked.

"At that saloon there."

Nathan jumped in. "Then you were supposed to meet up somewhere . . . tomorrow or the next day?"

"Yeah, we were gonna meet just outside of Eagle Bend at Devil's Pass."

"When?" Chris asked.

"Tomorrow night."

"Looks like you're gonna meet up earlier."


"Get offa him . . . " Buck said, keeping his voice as steady as he could. The scene before him made his heart pound mercilessly. Inez lay on the floor, her blouse torn, her arms bound over her head, and her mouth bleeding.

Buck couldn't see JD well, but he knew the man straddling him was beating him to death. JD's assailant looked up, and then smiled strangely. Buck didn't realize why until he heard a weapon click behind him.

"Drop it," a voice commanded, and Buck felt the cold metal pressed behind his ear.

Buck weighed the situation. If he took a bullet, he couldn't help JD or Inez. No, if they held him captive with them, at least he might be able to do some good.

Slowly, Buck dropped his weapon. His captor moved the weapon to the middle of Buck's back and walked him into the room. Buck could hear more men coming into the saloon behind them.

"Get up, Cletus," the criminal spoke to the one who was working over JD.

"What are you crazy?" JD's attacker stood slowly. "You used my name!" It was then that Buck got the first real look at his friend.

"Aw, kid," Buck said gently, barely aware that he was being tied up. His attention was riveted on the boy whose face was bruised and bleeding. The boy was groaning slightly. He slowly rolled to his side, then tried to draw his knees up, but he couldn't. He couldn't move that far. The best he could do, it seemed, was to cover his stomach with a weak hand.

Buck wanted so badly to lay into the man who'd hurt JD. But there may be nothing to keep them from killing the boy and Buck knew better than to jeopardize their situation. A moment later, Buck glanced over at Inez and felt a different rage.

Inez, whose face bore an angry red mark where she'd been hit hard, looked over at the boy herself and cursed the man who'd hurt him. Tears rolled freely down her face. She turned slightly and her eyes met Buck's. The beautiful strong woman was not broken. And she grieved, not for herself, but for the boy who was hurt because he had obviously tried to defend her.

Buck waited. His captor seemed to be level-headed, and he seemed not to appreciate this unnecessary abuse.

"What the hell is this?" the leader asked JD's assailant.

"Had a little time." The idiot grinned. "And she is a beauty."

The leader shook his head, then with lightning fast reflexes, backhanded his underling.


"We talked about this."

"Well, nothing happened. The stupid kid jumped me before I could . . . you know."

Buck's heart hurt even more. "Sit," his captor told Buck. He sounded almost kind.

Carefully, Buck took a chance. "Please let me help the kid. He's hurt bad."

With a simple nod of the head, the leader gave Buck permission. Buck started to move, but the leader caught his arm. Buck's hands were tied behind him. The leader pulled out a knife and undid the work he'd just done. He pulled out more rope and tied Buck's hands in front of him . . . so he could help his friend. Buck nodded his thanks.

He dropped to his knees beside the kid. "JD, it's me. It's Buck. You're gonna be all right now." The boy didn't respond, didn't open his eyes. He seemed to be aware only of pain. Buck didn't even know where to start--how to help. Maybe all he could offer was comfort.

In a voice that sounded nothing short of disgusted, the leader nodded toward Inez. "Untie her." The other man did as he was told, and Inez moved quickly to help Buck.

"You all right?" Buck asked softly, drawing his eyes away from JD only for a moment.

Inez turned glistening eyes to Buck. "JD . . . stopped him." She reached up and stroked the boy's hair.

"How do we help him?" Buck's voice wasn't as steady as it had been.

"He needs a doctor," Inez answered, deliberately loud enough for their captors to hear. She looked at Buck, then back at JD. "Let's check his ribs. He kept kicking him . . . and kicking him." She started to unbotton JD's shirt, but a weak hand waved her away.

"No," the young man moaned.

"Let us look at you, son," Buck said, taking the weak hand and holding it in his strong ones.

JD squeezed his eyes tightly as if that would somehow hold the pain back. But it didn't even hold the tears back.

Inez had his shirt undone by now, and both she and Buck could see the horrible marks all over the boy's torso. She ran her hands along the boy's ribs, then frowned. As she reached the middle of his right side, JD cried out and pulled his hand out of Buck's and clutched his side.

"Don't touch it, JD," Inez said gently. "You'll hurt yourself." Her words didn't seem to register with him. He just trembled all over. Gently, Inez took Buck's hands, still bound though they were, and eased his fingers over JD's broken ribs. Buck nodded his understanding and started to withdraw his hand, but Inez guided them further to the boy's side just below his ribs. She helped him press very lightly, and he recognized the signs. JD was bleeding on the inside.


Ezra Standish didn't like the man sitting on the porch in front of the saloon. The man looked arrogant, sitting there with his feet propped up on the rail. You don't just go to somebody else's town and prop your feet up on a rail that doesn't belong to you. Ezra realized, with a touch of amusement, that he was more upset because that was Buck's chair and Buck's rail . . . unless Vin were sitting there, or Chris.

Hell, it was their rail, and this imposter didn't have any business with his feet propped up there.

Ezra approached the man with the glide of a gambler. He walked with a grace. He knew he did. And he knew that should impress the man.

Ezra hated reducing himself to trying to impress a man who would prop his feet where they weren't wanted. But there was justice to think about.

And JD.

"Hello Sir," Ezra began.

"Saloon's closed," the stranger said.

"Ah, so it is." Ezra squinted and pulled out a deck of cards. "Bettin' man?" Ezra drawled.

"Bettin' you're dead if you don't get the hell out of here."

Ezra raised an eyebrow and nodded, his hands raised. "Do you know where one might find a decent game around here?"

"You're not from around here?"

Ezra leaned in conspiratorily. "Do I sound like I'm from around here?"

The stranger looked perplexed, then he asked, "South Carolina?"

"Ezra S. Pinckney," the gambler gambled. "And you . . . ?"

"Suggest you return to Charleston. Good day, sir."


"He killed Wayne!" The man who had assaulted JD was trying to defend himself in front of his leader.

"Well, Wayne probably deserved it. You're probably just lucky that Wayne acted stupid before you did or you be lying dead back there yourself."

JD had lost consciousness a few moments after Inez had discovered that he was bleeding inside. The horrible realization that there was nothing they could do to help JD hit Inez and she lifted the boy's hand and kissed it.

"He was defending me," she told Buck softly. "First in the kitchen." Again, she reached up to stroke JD's hair. "And I don't know how . . . he pulled that man off of me . . . " She looked up at Buck. "He'd already been hurt so badly." As she spoke, she studied Buck's strong features. "You are very much alike. You are willing to . . . to give your life to a cause or an ideal."

"Or a beautiful woman," Buck added, a flicker of his mischievous grin playing about his mouth. But the grin turned sweet-sad as Buck looked back down at the boy--the boy who emulated his six friends. The boy wanted to be like his heroes.

Well, he was a hero today.


Chris Larabee rode up to the edge of town, careful not to announce his arrival. He pulled up behind the livery and found Ezra waiting for him. A minute or two later, Josiah and Nathan arrived, each with a trussed prisoner riding in front of him.

While Nathan and Josiah secured the prisoners in an abandoned shed several yards away from the livery, Ezra explained the situation to Chris -- at least with the limited information he and Vin had been able to put together.

Buck had to be inside and every indication suggested that JD was inside, too, and probably Inez. Buck had not met them at their appointed time, so the only possibility was that he was being held against his will.

Ezra continued to explain that Vin had taken a position on the top of the building directly opposite the saloon. Lastly, the gambler described his encounter with the talkative sentry posted in front of the saloon--the man with his feet propped up on the rail.

There were no new horses in the livery--which may not mean anything. Could be that no one else had arrived yet or that they had and had decided to put their horses somewhere else--somewhere less conspicuous.

"So how do you want to do this?" Ezra asked Chris. The leader frowned and squinted at the road, as though there were answers there.

"We don't know what we're up against, really. We don't know how many there are. We don't know if JD or Buck can help us out. If we make a bad move, they're dead."

"Why don't we just take them out when they go to the privvy?" Josiah offered.

Chris tilted his head to the side.

"They'll all have to come out sooner or later," Nathan said. "And if we get one, another will come out to see why he's missing . . . "

"Then maybe we'll have a window of time to come in from the front," Chris said, nodding.

"Vin can 'neutralize' the situation in front," Ezra said, thinking about how nice it would be to see the sentry's feet fly out from under him.

"It's the best plan we got," Chris said, and he proceeded to dispatch orders. Once everyone knew what to do, he sent Ezra out. "Go tell Vin what's happening. Tell him to be ready to cover the front on my signal."

Ezra nodded, and started off, but Chris' voice halted him. "Be careful on this one, boys. Remember that one of them killed Harry. These guys could be real sick bastards."

No one said anything, but they nodded soberly and went off to set the trap.


They were losing him.

They were losing him and there was nothing they could do about it. Buck and Inez had tried to make him as comfortable as they could. They'd rolled Buck's jacket into a pillow to put under his head and they'd helped him lean against Buck so there would be less pressure from his hurt ribs. But JD was wheezing more now and there was no mistaking the rattle in his chest. On the rare and horribly painful occasions that he coughed, blood would erupt from his mouth. Inez would wipe his chin and mouth afterward and, when he was conscious, he'd nod his thanks.

Buck looked at the circle of men. At least the leader had made it clear that no one was to touch Inez. That was one thing he wouldn't have to worry about. But if JD didn't get help and get it now, he was gonna die. And Buck couldn't abide that. He was about to say something when one of the men who'd come with the leader spoke up.

"How long are we gonna wait for him?"

"It ain't even noon yet. If he hadn't gotten here by then, we'll head out." The leader seemed very level-headed. He seemed to have a purpose for what he was doing and he clearly didn't have time for Cletus' crap. Buck wondered what these boys were hoping to accomplish. Were they gonna hit a string of banks? Trains? Were they planning to spring somebody outa jail? What? And why the hell had they landed in Four Corners?

"Uhn . . ." JD groaned and rolled into the floor.

"Easy .. ." Buck said, hoping his voice would wash over the boy's pain. "You're gonna be all right, son."

"Buck?" JD murmured and the big gunman leaned close so he could hear.


"I'm dying . . ."

"No, JD. You just feel like it."

JD started getting agitated. "I know . . . I am." The boy reached his hand up to touch his friend's face, then he moved his hand to the back of Buck's neck. He pulled him closer and whispered, "You . . . gotta get Inez . . . " He took a wheezing breath. " . . . Outa here."

"It's taken care of, JD," Buck said softly.

"She can . . . tell . . . them . . . she needs . . . " -- even as badly hurt as he was, JD's ears turned red -- "the . . . outhouse."

"Well now that's a good idea, JD. I'll see what I can do."

It really *was* a good idea. But how could they make it work?

Come on, boys. Get us the hell out of here.


The first one to appear at the outhouse was a man the size of a horse -- a man who would dwarf Josiah. Chris' eyes met Ezra's and he shook his head, no. They'd wait for the next one. Besides, the bad guys might be lulled into a false sense of security.


Inez had seen JD trying to talk to Buck.

"Does he need something?" she asked, and she was surprised to see Buck Wilmington's eyes fill.

"More than we can give him right now."

This was killing Buck. As much as Inez had come to respect him for all he had done for her, she maybe admired him even more for the love he showed this boy. He didn't coddle JD. Sometimes he would get furious at him. Other times he and JD would get as rowdy as schoolboys and it would drive their compadres crazy. But there was no mistaking the love Buck had for JD.

And as her own eyes filled with tears, she touched Buck's face gently. "JD has chosen a fine family."

It was clear that JD had shared his mother's words with Buck. A hot tear rolled down the big man's face, and he answered in a choking voice. "So have I, ma'am." He leaned his cheek against JD's black hair. "So have I."


Vin watched the lookout on the front porch start to fidget. And who wouldn't? Four Corners was generally dull, but this last week, it had been dead. There hadn't been ten people on the street all morning, and only one of them, a child, had tried to peek under the batwing doors of the saloon. The sentry had scared the hell out of him and the little boy ran down the street in tears.

Yeah, Vin wanted to make this guy dance.

As he watched, Vin noticed that the lookout was becoming less and less alert. He had paced a few times and then he'd even pulled out a dog-eared book and started reading.

Some lookout.

Finally, he went to the door and said something too softly for Vin to hear, but he went on in.

This was too good. Josiah looked up at Vin and grinned broadly. This might be easier than they thought.


Chris and Ezra would be able to take this one. This was one trip to the outhouse he'd never forget.


Buck noticed it before the bad guys did and he leaned over to Inez and spoke to her as if he were talking about JD. He started opening the kid's shirt.

"Get ready. The boys are here."

Inez nodded her understanding and helped Buck with the shirt, as his hands were still bound. Even though they were alert to anything that would happen, they couldn't help but be stricken again by the severity of the bruising on JD's torso. Buck didn't dare look up at the man who'd done this. The rage he felt at that moment could drive him to strangle him and that could jeopardize everything.

"Hey," a voice called. "He's been gone an awful long time, hasn't he?"

The leader frowned and looked around the room. "Go check on him, Cletus."


The leader didn't say any more, but Cletus left.

The biggest man in the room--a man Buck thought looked twice as big as Josiah--spoke up. "That brother of yor'n is gonna get us all kilt one of these days."

His brother? Well, maybe that explained why the leader hadn't just let him go or killed him already. But it seemed that Cletus had maybe pushed him too far this time.

The big man kept talking. "I mean, look what he did to that boy. And killing that retard. . . ."

"He's become a liability," another man spoke quietly, but the leader wasn't about to be told what to do.

"I'll take care of Cletus. You just do what I tell you to."

"Yessir," both answered, and neither said anything else.

The door opened in the back.

"What the hell kept you?" the leader asked, but instead of an answer, Chris Larabee appeared in the doorway, gun drawn. Ezra Standish came in behind him and tipped his hat at the man who'd kept his feet propped up on the rail. The leader and his men couldn't draw their weapons in time. Josiah appeared in the front door, flanked by Vin and Nathan.

"It's the end of the road, boys," Chris said, and he made all of the criminals ditch their weapons. Inez quickly untied Buck's hands and Buck called for Nathan.

"Aw God," Vin whispered, seeing JD lying next to Buck. And the whole room sobered.

"He's hurt bad," Buck said, as Nathan slid to the floor beside them. Nathan's practiced hands studied the kid's injuries, and Buck could tell that their healer was alarmed. Buck didn't notice his friends rounding up the enemy. He didn't hear Chris cussing out the big guy. But he did look up when Inez slapped the hell out of Cletus.

And he was glad the Josiah was there to catch Cletus' fist before he could hit her back.

Buck pointed at Cletus as Josiah led him out. "I ain't finished with you, Mister."

Inez' voice quivered as she announced, "He's the one that hurt JD."

Chris walked up to the man and got right in his face. "Then I reckon none of us are finished with you."

Once the room was clear of the enemy gang, Buck looked up at Nathan fearfully. "Is he gonna be all right?"

Nathan shook his head. "He needs a real doctor--one who can repair the damage on the inside."

"Surgery," Chris said.

"Nearest doctor is in Eagle Bend," Vin said. "I can get there in . . . "

He was interrupted when the doors swung open and Judge Travis stepped into the saloon. He stopped short when he saw JD.

"What the hell happened here?" he asked.

"We need a doctor," Nathan explained, then he shook his head sadly.

"You just come in on the stage?" Chris asked.

Travis nodded and sighed. "That boy must have a guardian angel." He glanced out at the street. "I just rode across two states with one of the best doctors in the country. Practices out of San Francisco. He's on his way to see his daughter. He's here for a couple of days. I'll get him."

"Thank God," Buck said, and he leaned over to JD. "You hear that, boy? You got a guardian angel. Everything's gonna be all right. You're gonna be fine."

JD looked up at Buck. "Thank you," he mouthed.

"You're welcome, son."

Weakly JD squeezed Buck's hand. "Is Inez . . . all right?"

Inez knelt beside the boy. "You saved me, JD," she said. "You are my hero."

The flicker of a smile crossed JD's face. "I . . . never been . . . anybody's hero."

"You are now." Buck looked up to see Chris Larabee standing over them. "I'm proud of you, son." Chris knelt down beside them. "And I'm proud to have you ride with us."

Tears rolled down JD's bruised and bloodied face. "It's . . . an . . . honor, . . . Mr. Larabee." Then he lost consciousness.

FIVE WEEKS LATER JD sat at the table by the window. It was his first day out since the surgery, and Miss Inez had invited him to the saloon for breakfast--a special breakfast. Just for him. She had wanted to celebrate his recovery and she wanted to thank him for coming to her rescue. But more than that, she explained that they needed to have sweeter memories of the place--sweeter memories of breakfast--and ultimately, sweeter memories of each other.

Buck had helped him tie his tie and shave. JD was glad that he actually needed to shave, since he'd had five weeks of growth that even yet wasn't a full beard.

Oh well, it didn't matter. His face had healed some, but he still bore scars. Buck had been very careful not to hurt him while he shaved him. JD had dressed in his best suit and had even washed his hair--well, Buck had helped him wash it.

Now he waited by the window. He could smell the wonderful breakfast Inez was making, but he didn't see *her* anywhere.

Truth be told, he felt a little nervous. He was still a bit awkward around girls--and Inez was a full grown woman.

But she had invited him, so she must want his company.

"Seņor Dunne, welcome!" Inez came into the room with a swish of skirts and she sat down at the table across from him. She took his hands.

"Thank you for coming," Inez said.

"Thank you for inviting me." Don't screw this up, JD.

"You look very handsome," she said.

He was about to say "thank you" when he said something completely different than he meant to. "I don't feel very handsome." Why did he say that? You're blowing it, JD. "I'm sorry, ma'am. It's just . . . "

Inez reached up and touched his healing cheekbone. "JD, right now, you have the most beautiful face I have ever seen."


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