The Conflict
(Old West)

by Lilly

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction and not intended to infringe upon the copyright of Mirisch Corp., MGM, Trilogy Entertainment, or CBS. This piece was written for the entertainment of the author and readers only. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely unintentional.
Author's Note: This story makes brief references to events in Nemesis. Thanks given to Mo for her very helpful and encouraging beta-read.

~ 1 ~

J.D. picked up the bucket of food out of the cell and chided, "Turner, you got to eat" as he looked at the barely touched food. He shook his head as he walked out of the cell and relocked the door.

"What for? So, I can hang a little heavier on the hangmanís noose?" Although the words were meant to be sarcastic, they came out tired and defeated. The prisoner sat on the bench dejectedly in the bleak cell. He was a young, medium built man, no more than the age of twenty. His features were weathered from working outdoors, but his face looked especially young with the scared look of a man who knows his end is near.

The prisoner looked up pleadingly, "I know that thereís not much hope for me to avoid the noose, now, but I got to have at least one man knowing my innocence. Youíll remember that wonít you, J.D.?"

Although J.D. himself was not much older than the prisoner, he took his responsibilities as sheriff very seriously. He had been guarding Turner the past several weeks and had spoken at length with the man. J.D. knew he should not have allowed himself to become so familiar with the prisoner, it was making it hard as the execution came nearer.

Now, he shifted uncomfortably in his stance and avoided the prisonerís eyes as he replied, "Turner, weíve been through that. You were legally tried and convicted for the murder of Laura Davis; there is nothing I can do about that. If you had proof, well that would be another thing, but I have no reason to believe you." As J.D. spoke, he felt the heat of the small jail begin to stifle him, and he turned and left the building. He knew that Turner was still gazing at him afterwards with that reproachful look.

As he walked down the street in the early morning, J.D. felt a sick feeling in his gut. If he didnít know better, heíd think he was coming down with something, but he knew it was the uncomfortable feeling of guilt. When he signed on for the job of sheriff, he thought he was prepared for the gunfights, risking his life, and even taking anotherís in the line of duty. But that was when he thought it would be in the blaze of a battle either in self-defense or in the defense of others. He hadnít thought about being the watchman on a death sentence, and it didnít sit none too well, either, especially with this prisoner. J.D. wasnít sure exactly what it was about this prisoner that bothered him so, but if he allowed himself to admit it, he realized that Turner reminded him of himself.

J.D. walked towards the saloon to see if others were there, having breakfast. He was hoping to take his mind off Turner and the execution that was to take place in three days. That was the other thing, "Whyíd they have to drag it out so?" but J.D. knew that the kinfolk of Laura Davis had requested that the execution be delayed so that it could occur on what would have been Lauraís sixteenth birthday. Her parents wanted it as a present to her, and the Judge had agreed to their request. He had even set it at sundown so that townspeople from Sweetwater could travel to witness the hanging. A lot of emotion was riding on this case.

"Morning, J.D." called out Buck in a greeting as J.D. entered the saloon and joined the group having breakfast at the table. As part of their friendship, the fun loving, older man loved to tease J.D. Buck began to engage him in their usual banter, but a look at the dark circles under J.D. eyes and the withdrawn face, stopped him in concern as he asked, "Whatís up? -- you donít look like you slept at all"

"Nothing Buck, Iím fine. Just leave me be," sighed J.D. as he picked at the food that was in the center of the table and then gave up, clearly not intending to eat.

Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were the other company at the table. They glanced at each other; like Buck, they knew that something was troubling the young man. Chris observed dryly, "When a man doesnít eat, it usually means somethingís up."

The men at the table were quite disparate. Chris Larabee usually was their tacit leader. A tall, lean man, it was his custom to dress all in black. It was a quiet acknowledgement of his grief from losing his family in a fire that was deliberately set. Chris didnít speak much, but when he did talk, others took notice, and he was a hard man to defeat. Vin Tanner, on the other hand, was an easygoing, soft-spoken man who dressed in leathers in the style of his previous occupation as buffalo and bounty hunter. As a sharpshooter and a tracker, there were few things that he could not find, but one was the man who had set him up. Vin Tanner was a wanted man for a murder that he did not commit.

Of the seven men who had agreed to protect the town, Buck tended to be the loudest. Boisterous and charming, he was a known ladies man as he easily attracted women. Despite his jovial manner, however, he could be deadly serious. He had also made himself informally the protector over J.D., who was the youngest and most inexperienced of the group. Ever since Buck had taken a wound for J.D. in their first battle together, they had developed a close friendship although J.D. often chafed at the older manís advice. J.D. strove to prove his mettle to the others and sought their approval, with the exception of his hat. His favorite was a bowler hat that aggravated Buck to no end. It was a frequent source of their friendly jests with each other.

The group waited quietly for J.D. to make up his mind. He looked around at them and spoke guardedly, "Youí re just gonna tell me "I told you so"."

Buckís brow furrowed in annoyance, "Is it about this Turner fella?" as J.D. had been more quiet since taking charge of the prisoner.

Chris watched the other men tense up. He made a brief halting motion with his hand as he interceded, "Now hold on Buck, let J.D. have his say."

J.D. glanced appreciatively at Chris, but felt agitated as he said defensively, "Yeah, itís about Turner. Iím not so sure that he did the murder."

At this statement, Buck grimaced and slapped his hand on the table. His face beginning to redden and his eyes narrowing, Buck spoke angrily, "Now donít you let other people hear you say that. He was tried fairly. Heís nothing but a cold-blooded murdering son of a bitch. Donít listen to what he has to say. Not one prisoner ever says "I did it." Donít you know they are all innocent? Innocent as new born calves" he added sarcastically.

Frustrated at Buckís tone, J.D. shot back, "Well, we know at least one man whose been accused of being guilty and we know is innocent." He nodded his head towards Vin as he continued, "It ainít as farfetched as you think"

"Vinís another story. Donít you begin to compare him to Turner!" demanded Buck.

Vin leaned back in his chair and looked at them both as he tried to break up the argument by asking, "J.D. what makes you think that Turner is innocent? We all heard the evidence at the trial. It seemed pretty clear he done it. He was known to have liked the girl and was found over her. There was even blood on his shirt and a knife right next to the body."

J.D. broke off his glare at Buck and turned to the soft-spoken tracker whose opinion they all respected. J.D. looked miserable, chewing on his lip, as he tried to explain, "I donít know. I just have a feeling. He says that he didnít do it -- he found the girl. The blood was his own from a nosebleed. In fact, he said that it was the nosebleed that caused him to return to the bunkhouse to change his clothes when he heard her screams and found her. He says that it wasnít his knife."

As J.D. spoke, it was clear the prisonerís story was weighing heavily on him.

Like the others, Chris had followed the trial. He calmly pointed out, "J.D., he told that story at the trial. The jury didnít buy it. There was no witnesses to any of it -- not even the nosebleed, and no one else was found."

J.D. shook his head, "Thatís just it, Chris, thereís no eyewitness that can prove he done it either. Itís all happenstance. I feel that if he is innocent, then Iím gonna be the one guilty for handing him over to the hangman. I just donít know that I can live with that."

Chris tried to ease the younger manís conscience, "J.D. you swore to uphold the law. You are just doing your duty."

Buck had been watching the conversation between Chris and J.D., working hard to hold his own tongue. He knew that if anyone was going to get through to J.D., it would be Chris. The kid almost worshiped Chris and valued his opinion highly. Still, as Buck listened, he could tell that Chris's words were not having much effect. He started then to add his own opinion -- "J.D., now don't you be --"

However, J.D. interrupted him abruptly, "Buck, I don't need a lecture" and got up from the table and strode angrily out the door.

The three remaining men looked around at each other, troubled by the argument. Chris took another swig of his drink, pursed his lips. He'd done his best. It wasn't his job to worry about the kid.

Buck sat quietly staring at the door through which J.D. had recently left. Vin saw the hurt on Buck's face and turned towards him as he admonished, "Buck, he didn't mean any harm. He's just got to work this out on his own. Its hard to be responsible for another's man life."

Buck heard Vin's words, but he still felt a tight feeling in his gut that J.D. wasn't going to let things be. He replied concernedly, "I just hope he doesn't go expressing his doubts around town. You know feelings are running pretty high over this case. They had to move it from Sweetwater to here, but still folks got their dander up."

Even though locals had not known the young lady who was murdered in Sweetwater, the trial and execution had been the point of attention for the past few weeks. Some had wanted to lynch the prisoner before the trial and now the delay in execution was adding fuel to the fire. The seven of them as protectors of the law had been concerned that the high feelings would spark off a public mob. Still, they were going to do their duty and guard the prisoner.

Chris acknowledged Buck's words with a frown, "I know. But the execution still going be at Thursday sundown."

Outside the saloon, J.D. slowed down from his brisk stride to a more typical pace. He knew that he had been unfair to the others, especially Buck, and that they were only trying to help him, but he couldn't shake the feeling that he was doing something wrong about Turner. J.D. found himself in front of the church and wondered if Josiah was awake. Although Josiah was adept with a gun, it was his quiet, spiritual nature that drew the others to him. He was also handy with fixing up things and had made the church his main task when he wasn't helping the others protect the town. Now that he and Nathan had fixed most of the roof, Josiah often slept at the church.

J.D. let himself into the quiet church and barely noticed where the light glowed a pretty pale rose color from the sole pane of stain glass. Josiah was up and about in the makeshift area that was serving as temporary living quarters. He looked up to see J.D. walk in so he gestured for him to sit at the table where he eating a cold meal.

Joining him at the table, J.D. declined the offer of the crue biscuit. After greeting Josiah, he took off his bowler hat and laid it down on the table, but then began to fiddle nervously with it.

Josiah frowned and looked over at J.D, who appeared tense and pale. He greeted him softly, "Good morning, J.D., is something ailing you? Maybe you need to see Nathan?"

J.D. shook his head negatively and then asked intensely, "Josiah, what do you do about guilt?'

Josiah sat back, clearly surprised at the question. To him, J.D. seemed to have such a clear and simple way of living that he wouldn't have considered that he struggled with spiritual matters. The question now made Josiah think of his past when he was trying to preach the Lord's message to others. So many times had his parishioners come seeking answers to their pain. At first he had felt strong in his message and his faith, but as so much pain came to be brought before him, he had felt as inadequate in his answers to them as he felt now when he looked at J.D.

As Josiah pulled himself from his mused wanderings, he could see J.D. waiting expectantly. Josiah took another moment to consider his answer. He knew that he had not come to terms with guilt himself, but he still wished to help his friend unload his burden, so he asked quietly, "Why? Are you looking for atonement?"

J.D. sighed. "I'm not sure what I'm looking for. I just don't feel right about this prisoner, Turner.' He looked at Josiah fervently, "Everyone tells me that I'm just doing my duty and that my job is to deliver the prisoner. But what if he is innocent, Josiah? How do I reconcile my duty with that? Isn't it true that its better for a dozen guilty men to go free than to hang an innocent man?"

Josiah laughed ruefully, "Well, I don't know about that J.D. Depends on if your one of the ones that later run into the dozen guilty men that are free" . He knew though that this answer was not addressing what J.D. was really asking. Josiah took another bite of his biscuit as he contemplated the conflict that J.D. was going through.

After chewing the biscuit slowly, Josiah spoke thoughtfully, "J.D., guilt comes when a man believes that he isn't acting by his own code of conduct. We each have our own. Sometimes, we just go by the "right and wrong" that our mamas tell us, sometimes we go by the Good Book, and sometimes we get together and decide what that code is going to be and we call it a "law." But there comes a time when a man has to put all that together and decide for himself what is his own code. The best way to deal with guilt is to know that you are following your own code."

J.D. listened intensely, "But what if your code is in conflict? I mean I want to do my duty, but I also don't want to be a part of hanging an innocent man."

Josiah rubbed his hand across his face distractedly. "J.D., sometimes that is what you got to figure out -- where does your duty lie?" He then became silent as he contemplated his own words. Duty echoed to him as faith.

J.D. sat perplexed. He was more confused than ever. If he just knew the truth about the murder, then it would be so much clearer. He questioned himself about worrying about Turner's innocence. Turner had been legally tried and represented. It wasn't his responsibility that Turner was found guilty. Even so, these thoughts did little to sway his own guilt, and J.D. realized then that his code was following the truth.

As he mulled over Josiah's words, J.D. thought about duty. He felt his duty to his job and his duty to the others, but he considered that perhaps his greatest duty was to the truth. With this thought, J.D. came to a decision. At last, his gut was beginning to ease. He got up quickly and spoke profusely, "Thanks, Josiah, your words have helped me a lot." Then he quickly left the church, leaving Josiah to wonder about the sudden change.

J.D. strode back down the street searching for one of the others. He was happy to see Chris Larabee sitting alone, sharpening his knife, in front of the newspaper office. He didn't want to have to run into Buck and explain what he was planning on doing. It was going to be bad enough to justify it to Chris, but he felt a new resolve with his plan.

Chris looked up to see J.D. coming towards him. He felt glad that J.D. looked brighter than he had earlier.

J.D. approached him excitedly, "Chris, I've been thinking about what I want to do about Turner." Although J.D. was anxious to tell his plan to Chris, he kept his voice low so as to not attract attention from passer-byes.

"What do you mean, J.D.? All you need to do is turn him over on Thursday. You wouldn't be thinking of letting him go, would you?" Chris asked warningly. He knew J.D. was troubled about the situation, but he couldn't believe that J.D. wouldn't follow the law.

J.D. pulled Chris over to the side where they would not be overheard, "No, no, of course not. But, I got to do something, and what I need to know is the truth. I got three days. If I go to Sweetwater, I might find out something that will help me know one way or the other" Although J.D. clearly wanted his approval, Chris could detect something in the younger man's voice that let him know that his mind was already made up.

Nonetheless, Chris tried to persuade J.D. against the plan, "J.D., that's going to be a six hour ride for nothing. What makes you think that you are going to learn anything different? They brought all the witnesses and such from Sweetwater for the trial."

J.D. understood Chris, but he knew that this was the only answer for his conflicting duties. With respect for Chris, J.D. spoke firmly, "I got to do this. What I need from you is to take responsibility for Turner while I'm gone. Will you?" Chris looked at J.D., then shook his head, "Hell, I know I'm going to regret this, but yeah I'll watch over Turner" and with that he looked adamantly at J.D., "But don't you start something over there!"

With an appreciative nod, J.D. broke into the first smile for the day as he replied, "Thanks, Chris. Don't worry, I'm just gonna have a look around there for myself" and then hurried back towards the livery stable where he went to collect his horse and belongings.

After watching J.D. for a moment, Chris turned up the street towards the jail. He hoped that J.D. wasn't going to get into trouble, but he understood the need to do something. Chris recognized all too well the frustration of having to sit around and not being able to find out the truth. As always his thoughts returned back to his dead wife and child. Even finding out that Fowler had been the one hired to set the fire that killed them had done little to ease his own torment. The truth was still elusive, and Chris didn't think J.D. had any better chance of finding it out for himself either.

~ 2 ~

When Chris entered the jail, he looked briefly at the prisoner who was lying on the bunk with his eyes closed. Chris wasnít worried about the prisoner causing any problems; he could tell when a man was resigned to his fate. No, it was more the need to keep everyone calm until the day of execution. Chris sat down into the hard wooden chair behind the desk and began to look around in the desk drawers for a bottle of whiskey to help ease the boredom. Finding the desk empty, he thought wearily, "Yeah, itís going to be one long day."

Buck hurried towards the jail. He had been thinking about the argument with J.D. all morning, and he didnít like having any negative feelings between them. Reconsidering what had happened in the saloon, heíd decided that maybe heíd been a little harsh with J.D.. Maybe the kid just needed to talk about it and then have a little distraction. Buck figured, "After all, itís no fun watching over a man who is waiting for a noose." With this understanding, Buck had decided that he would fetch J.D. and take him over to one of the saloons for a bit of "distraction."

As Buck walked into the jail, he felt surprised when he saw Chris rather than J.D. behind the desk. "Hello, Chris," he asked gamely, "Whereís J.D.?"

Chris looked up from his whittling. He had been dreading that Buck would look for J.D.. Knowing that Buck tended to be protective over J.D. and would not take to the idea of J.D. wandering over to Sweetwater none too kindly, Chris replied evenly, "Buck, heís not here. Heís gone to Sweetwater."

Shocked by the answer, Buck exclaimed, "Sweetwater! What on earth is the boy doing there?" His words alerted the prisoner who began to sit up and listen.

"Now, Buck. J.D. felt that he had to go to see for himself the facts about this Turner case," Chris spoke placatingly.

"And you let him go?" Buck asked incredulously. "I canít believe that you are going to let J.D. get killed over some cowardly dog that kills women." With that, he looked contemptuously over at the prisoner, who shrank back from the open hostility in Buckís gaze. Although Buck had sworn his duty, he too had been tempted to be a part of mob justice when he had first heard about the murder and circumstances. Nothing was lower than a man hurting or killing a woman. He couldnít imagine such an act.

Although Chris had expected Buckís reaction, he began to feel irritable under the other manís accusations. He spoke testily, "Buck, despite what you think, J.D. is not a boy. It wasnít my decision 'to let him go'. It was his. You have to respect a manís decision." and glared back at Buck.

"The hell you do! Not when itís a matter of suicide. That fool kidís just going to get himself killed. You know how high feelings are running in Sweetwater!"

As Buck carried on, he paced around the small jail, occasionally looking at the prisoner as if daring the young man to say something. Turner kept quiet though as he watched the confrontation between the two men.

Buck continued, "Well, then youíll have to respect my decision. Ií m going after him"; he spoke defiantly. Buck then started to walk out the door, but at the last minute, he turned and spoke more quietly to Chris, "I know J.D. isnít as green as when he first started, but I still think he needs some looking after. If he is right and Turner isnít guilty, then you gotta figure thereís at least one murderer walking around Sweetwater."

Chris recognized the truth of Buckís words and advised him, "Youíd better take Vin along then. Youíll find him down by Nettie Wells ranch. Heís helping her out today. J.D. left about an hour ago"

Buck simply acknowledged the words with a nod and then walked out the door.

Chris sat back into his chair and swore under his breath. It was getting so complicated now. Not for the first time, he questioned himself about holding to obligations to others. The price of failure could be more than he could pay.

Turner spoke hesitantly, "Do I understand right? Is J.D. looking in Sweetwater to help me out?í

Chris looked at the prisoner icily, "You heard. Youíd better be worth all this trouble." He then turned away from the prisoner and sat morosely with his own thoughts.

In Sweetwater, J.D. had finished stabling his horse at the livery. He had made good time -- just at six hours. He hadnít wanted to tire his horse, but had been eager to get out of Four Corners and feel like he was doing something. However, now that he was in the town, he felt a little at a loss on how to begin his search for information. Although definitely not a large place, Sweetwater was more established than Four Corners.

As he stood in the street, he felt his stomach growl, which helped him to decide, "First things first, Iíd better get a room and some food." He looked down the street and noticed the "Edwards Hotel" which looked as good as any for a place to stay.

When he checked in the hotel, the clerk asked, "What brings you to town, eh, Mr. Dunn?" as he eyed J.D.ís signature.

"Oh, nothing much. Just figured that I might take a break from the trail. Where could a fellow find some fine whiskey around here?," replied J.D. nonchalantly.

The clerk looked over J.D. who was dressed in a suit and didnít appear to have been on the trail for that long and then mentally shrugged, "A manís business is his own," as he advised, "Mr. Dunn we have some excellent food here, but the Golden Lady is well known for its whiskey and entertainment. Youíll find it about three blocks down on your left."

J.D. nodded his thanks and took his belongings up to his room. It was actually rather nice, he considered as he looked around. In addition to the bed, there was a small table and two chairs. J.D. splashed his face with some of the warm water in the basin and dusted off his clothes. He felt pleased about how things were working out. First, a bite to eat at the hotel and then a trip on down to the saloon.

An hour later, J.D. found himself at the Golden Lady. It was near seven oíclock and the saloon was just beginning to fill up. He took a spot at the bar and ordered a whiskey. Looking around the room, he wondered just how to get some information. He smiled to himself as he considered how Chris had gotten the information in Eagle Bend about Fowler. Buck had given him a blow by blow account about how he and the others had gotten the bartender to talk and how powerful Chris had been. J.D. knew that he wasnít Chris, but decided that maybe the direct approach might just work.

After taking a stiff drink of the whiskey and adjusting his bowler hat so that it sat squarely on his head, J.D. gestured to the bartender to get his attention. He casually asked him, "I understand thereís been some excitement here recently, a murder case. Did you know anyone involved?"

The saloon keeper was a big burly man, easily half a foot taller than J.D. and was at least forty pounds heavier. His shirt was soiled and a towel draped over his shoulder. The man looked as if he had no problems dealing with anyone who caused trouble. He spoke gruffly and warningly, "We donít like to talk about that none. Whatís it to you?"

J.D. backed off cautiously and spoke nervously, "Nothing. Heard lot of talk on the road about a young lady getting killed. I heard it happened in these parts. Just curious"

"Well, you keep that curiosity to yourself. Our business ainít for strangers to talk about. I think you had best just finish up and go someplace else. Iím here to serve liquor, not to feed out stories about our hurts to some wet-nosed boy" jeered the bartender.

J.D. flushed bright red under the rebuke, causing the other patrons to snigger at him. He realized that the normal bustling noise of the saloon had fallen quiet and that all had turned their attention towards him and the conversation with the bartender, "So much for keeping a low profile like I promised Chris," he thought sheepishly.

Although embarrassed, J.D. held up his hands appeasingly, "Didnít mean no harm. Iíll leave in a moment" and then took another drink of his whiskey.

"No, I think youíll leave now" growled the barkeep as he pulled his rifle from under the bar and pointed towards the door.

J.D. looked around again at the bar. Some were avoiding his eyes, but most had a look that they would be right glad to have a reason to shoot him. He pulled himself up and threw a coin on the bar as he conceded, "Reckon, Iíll be leaving now."

As he backed away out the door, J.D. was careful to keep his hands visible so that they would not think he was trying to go for his gun. He felt ashamed retreating in the face of the bartenderís threat, but he thought reassuringly, "What is it that Buck is always trying to tell me, sometimes its better to lie low than to get your head shot off. Well, heíd be pleased with this," and he left the saloon.

J.D. stood outside the saloon doors, squinting in the fading sunlight, uncertain as to what had just happened. Thoughts of Buck saddened him as he recalled their argument. He suddenly felt urgently that he should have talked to Buck before leaving. Buck would be hurt by his not saying anything to him.

Vin and Buck exited the Edwards Hotel. Like J.D., they had found the hotel as the nearest one on this side of town and had checked in. The clerk had been real helpful when he told them about giving JD directions to the Golden Lady. Buck mulled over what he was going to tell J.D., "Damn fool kid, always searching for truth and justice in the wild west, like some dime novel sheriff." He shook his head; he had been relieved to have found J.D. so quickly, and from the sound of it, nothing had happened to him yet. They had ridden hard to try to make up some of the time that J.D. had ahead of them.

"Well, letís head on down to the Golden Lady" urged Buck as he walked impatiently with Vin up the street. After a block and a half, they saw J.D. standing in front of the saloon. Buck started to call out a greeting when he suddenly saw the glint of metal shining out from the alley way behind J.D..

"J.D., Behind you!" warned Buck as a shot rang out followed by a high pitched scream.

J.D. instinctively dove to his right. He looked up across the street and saw a young blonde woman screaming with her hand held to her face. Initially, he thought that maybe she had gotten shot, but a second look indicated that there was no blood and she was looking down the street. J.D. followed her gaze and his heart fell, "Oh no, not again!" as he saw that Buck had been taken down by the bullet that had been meant for him.

He rushed to Buckís side where Vin was already trying to turn Buck over to check on him. J.D. asked anxiously, "How bad is it?" as he tried to help Vin.

The tracker looked grim as he answered, "It donít look good. Heís losing a lot of blood and heís unconscious. We got to get him to the doctor. Letís carry him back to the hotel room."

While Vin maneuvered Buckís body, he looked up and down the street for any more signs of the shooter. Others were beginning to form a crowd and stare at them, but no one had made a move to approach them. Vin asked J.D., "Did you see the shooter?" He had to ask a second time while J.D. continued to stare down at Buck.

Finally, Vinís question registered and J.D. looked over and shook his head negatively as he replied, "I didnít see a thing. It was Buckís shout that saved me." J.D.ís face was stricken with worry for his friend as he grabbed Buckís legs. Together he and Vin took Buck back to their hotel room.

Once they placed Buck on the bed, Vin started to take off Buckís shirt and jacket. With the movement, Buck began to come around a little. He asked groggily, "What happened? Is J.D. all right?"

J.D. quickly reassured him, "Iím okay. You just been winged a little. Iím going to head out and get the doctor."

With these words, Buck seemed to ease and fell unconscious again. J.D. glanced at Vin who nodded, and then J.D. left to find some medical help. He ran into the hotel clerk who had seen them bring in Buck. The mousy clerk mopped his brow and spoke nervously, "I donít want any trouble here."

Angrily, J.D. flared "Well, youíve got trouble. Where can I find a doctor in town?"

The clerk shook his head, "Our town doctor left a month ago. We donít have anyone here. Closest I know is some black fella over in Four Corners who does some healing."

As he listened to the clerk, J.D. felt his mood sink even lower. They were going to have to get Nathan which meant that help was at least six hours away. Nathan was one of the fellow protectors of Four Corners, but as an ex-slave in the Union army, he had learned the arts of healing. They all marveled at Nathanís skills with a knife, both for hurting and for healing others. Although J.D. had great faith in Nathanís abilities, he wasnít sure that Buck was going to make it in his condition.

J.D. stared hard at the hotel clerk. He knew that he was not usually intimidating, but he barked furiously at the clerk as he ordered, "Iím going to get some help for my friends. When I get back, I want clean bandages and hot water. No one is to bother me or my friends. Is that clear?" The cold intensity of J.D.ís rage kept the clerk from replying. He simply nodded as J.D. left to find the telegraph office.

Shortly later, J.D. rushed back into the hotel room. Vin startled and drew his gun at his approach, but then relaxed as he recognized J.D. He looked up hopefully and asked, "Is the doctor coming?"

J.D. shook his head, "There ainít a town doctor, but I telegraphed Nathan. I know heíll be here as soon as he can" As he spoke there was a knock on the door, J.D. opened it cautiously to find the clerk with a tray of water and bandages. J.D. took the tray and thanked him. Then he helped Vin to continue to clean out and bandage the wound as best they could until Nathan got here.

Vin sighed as he examined the ugly wound. He thought about how Buck was quoted for saying he "hated ugly," This wound was certainly that. Vin looked at it carefully. It was high so it appeared to have missed major organs, but it was still deep in Buck. It was going to require careful skill to get it out. Although Vin as a buffalo and bounty hunter had seen more than his share of gunshot wounds, he knew that the skill for this one was beyond his reach. The best that he and J.D. could do was to keep pressure on the wound to slow the bleeding and keep Buck cool.

When he looked down at his friend, Vin felt a twinge of guilt. He was always so careful to pay attention to his surroundings, but he hadnít even noticed the shooter. After the shot, he had looked, but he hadnít been able to see anything and had been so focused on Buck. Now the chances of finding who had done it were probably pretty slim. As he and J.D. worked on Buck, Vin glanced over at J.D. who appeared pale and taut. He asked him quietly, "Any idea who or why someone tried to take a shot at you?"

J.D. shook his head and filled him on his brief encounter in the saloon. He absent mindedly pounded his fist into his hand as he spoke, "It must have been someone in the saloon who heard me asking questions and wanted me to be sure to leaveóone way or the other. Only it wasnít me they got," he added bitterly, "I canít believe what has happened. Buckís injured again all on account of me. Itís all my fault."

Vin tried to argue, "It ainít your fault J.D.. You werenít the one that pulled the trigger so youíve got no account to hold yourself responsible."

J.D. chewed on his lip and insisted, "I know you two came here after me. If I had listened to you all, it wouldnít have happened." While he spoke, he continued to wipe the sweat off of Buckís brow.

Vin finished tying off the makeshift bandage. It would have to do for now. He looked over at J.D. and spoke softly, "Well, nobody made us come. You just keep that in mind. Besides, if all this came about because of a few simple questions, then it seems to me that there is more to this than a murder. We got to find out who shot Buck."

He then looked down at his friend and said disgustedly, "It takes a real coward to shoot at someone from behind their back. It seems like it would be the same type of coward that kills a girl."

J.D. frowned as he considered, "You think then that whoever shot Buck is also the one that stabbed Laura Davis?"

"I wouldnít be surprised none" Vin finished washing his hands in the basin to rinse off Buckís blood. He then picked up the bowl and instructed, "Iím going to get some fresh water and Iíll keep an eye out for Nathan. Weíll need to switch off. I want Nathan to find us as quick as he can."

J.D. nodded and then asked hesitantly, "Do you think Buckíll make it?"

Vin smiled slightly and replied, "I know that heíll try. Buckís a fighter." With that, they both looked down at Buck. He looked pale as he continued to lay unconscious, his face covered with clammy sweat and his breathing labored.

Chris Larabee was in the Four Corners saloon at the bar trying to unwind from the events of the day. Josiah was taking his spell at watching the prisoner. Ezra played poker with some of the locals who were winning for a change. Of the seven protectors, Ezra as a gambler and a con man had been the most unlikely to sign on as a defender of the town and justice. His alliance with the others had been sorely tested when he left them in their first battle together to fend for themselves. He redeemed himself when he risked his life to come back to rescue them, but his motives were not clear to the others and were even less clear to himself. His style and charm however made him an enjoyable companion and many sought to play and lose to his considerable skill. Tonight, though, like Chris, Ezra found himself distracted by wondering what was going on in Sweetwater, and as the evening drew on, tension seemed to increase rather than dissipate, despite the hard liquor.

Suddenly, Nathan rushed in through the saloon door. He held a piece a paper in his hand. From the look on his face, Chris knew that the word that they had been waiting for was not good. Ezra also noticed his entrance and got up from the table to join them at the bar.

Nathan gasped, short of breath, "I just got this telegraph from Sweetwater. Itís from J.D. Buckís been shot and it doesnít look good. They need me to come right away."

At this news, Chris swore, "Damn. What did they get themselves into?" He looked over at Nathan and commanded, "Youíd better hurry and ride hard. Thereís a ranch about half-way to Sweetwater, right off of Dry Gulch Road. Owner is a man named James McClure. Heís helped me out before. Tell him that you work with me, and heíll switch out your horse. Ezra and me will follow with the extra horses. Iíll let Josiah know that he needs to stay with the prisoner."

Nathan nodded in agreement and prepared to get his supplies and leave town. As he left the saloon, he spoke his farewell, "Iíll see you both then at the Edwards Hotel."

Chris turned grimly towards the gambler. "Well Ezra, lets ride." He finished his last shot of whiskey and started out the saloon without waiting to hear Ezraís reply.

Ezra walked over to the poker table. He tipped his hat to the others around the table as he addressed them, "Excuse me gentlemen, but duty calls me away from this delightful game. We must re-initiate our shared amusement at a later appointment." His words left the others in confusion as Ezra gathered his money and belongings quickly and followed Chris.

~ 3 ~

Vin sat in front of the hotel, slightly dozing as it was three oíclock in the morning. No real sleep would come to him tonight as his mind replayed the gunshot over and over. He just hadnít seen anything and was surprised that Buck had seen enough to call out warning. J.D. continued to stay at Buckís side. Last time heíd check half an hour ago, Buck seemed to be worsening, and all they could do was to hope that he lasted until Nathan arrived. Vin realized that they had all come to rely on Nathanís skills so that it seemed that as long as Nathan could doctor them, they would be okay. He knew that there might come a time when Nathan could not help, but he wouldnít let himself think that it could be this time. Vin quickly came to an alert state as he heard hooves pounding up the street. In the bright moonlight of the night, he could make out a rider and as the horse neared, he recognized Nathan. Vin jumped up in relief and signaled to him.

Nathan reigned in his horse and leaped quickly down. His face was tired and haggard by the long ride. It was a new record for himself -- a little over five hours with a switch for a fresh horse. Nathan asked Vin, who moved to take the horseís reins, "Howís he doing?"

Vin grabbed the reins and shook his head, "Not good. Heís in J.D.ís room. We did what we could, but we couldnít get the bullet out. Go into the hotel, up the stairs, second door on your left."

Without another word, Nathan took his supplies and ran into the hotel while Vin tended to the horse.

Two hours later, Chris and Ezra rode into Sweetwater. The town was not yet awake as dawn had just started to break. They had ridden through the night, fortunately the bright moonlight had helped to show the way, but it had still been a hard ride fraught with tension. Neither man said much throughout the long ride. Chris was preoccupied with his own dark thoughts, especially of his long relationship with Buck. He and Buck hadnít been as close as previous, but Buck had saved his life more than once. Chris knew that despite Buckís seeming foolishness, he could always count on him, and he felt his mood darken further at the prospect of Buckís death. Ezra had been quiet sensing Chrisí mood and not wanting the mercurial man to turn his frustration on him.

They approached the Edwards Hotel and saw J.D. out front waiting for them. As they halted their horses, Chris looked down at the younger man. J.D. looked terrible, He didnít appear to be injured, but it was clear that he hadnít slept. More noticeable was the stricken look on his face. For a moment, Chris feared that it was too late -- that they had missed seeing Buck.

"J.D.," Chris acknowledged warily, "Whatís the news?"

Like Vin before him, J.D. helped with their horses so that they could go ahead and enter the hotel. He shook his head negatively, "Donít know. Nathan got here two hours ago. Heís been working steadily on Buck and hasnít let us know. We got two rooms in the hotel. Up the stairs, the second and third doors on the left." With that, he began to take their horses to the stable.

Soon Chris and Ezra were in the second room with Vin . They had peeked in at Nathan who was working so intently they had not wanted to bother him. Vin filled them in regarding the happenings earlier in the day.

J.D. had just joined them when Nathan came into the room. Nathan looked exhausted, his own brow wet with perspiration from the effort that he had been exerting, trying to get out the bullet. The group looked at him, their unspoken question hanging in the air.

Nathan shook his head tiredly and told them, "I donít know. I got the bullet out and heís sewed up real good. But heís lost a lot of blood and heís started to have a fever. Iíd say its going to be a real touch and go over the next day or two before we are gonna know if heís going to make it." He then sat down on the bed and said wearily, "I need a little rest before I go back to tending him. J.D., make sure to keep him as cool as you can." With that, Nathan laid down and was instantly asleep.

The others got up and went into the other room to tend to Buck. Buck began to thrash from fever-soaked dreams. Vin held him down gently while J.D. continued to use the cloth to help cool down Buckís face.

Looking down at Buck, Chrisí face became impassive and resolute as he declared, "Looks like we got some business to finish."

Vin glanced over from where he was standing over Buck, "But how? Look how being direct went. Iím donít think it will work like it did in Eagle Bend"

Chris nodded in agreement, "Yeah, youíre right. No, what we need here is a plan" he emphasized as he looked at Ezra.

Ezra had been listening to the others while drumming his fingers on the bedpost to relieve his tension. At Chrisí words, his face puzzled and he asked, "What do you have in mind, Mr. Larabee?"

Chris turned to Vin, "No one else in this town knows about us, right? I mean, they know that you and J.D. are with Buck, but no one knows about Ezra and me. We need information. Iíll sign on at the Davis ranch as a ranch hand. We know they are at least one man short."

He then turned to Ezra, "It seems to me that the saloon keeper was mighty quick to draw on J.D.. We need someone in the saloon to get information and who better to blend in at a saloon than a gambler?"

Ezra smiled and nodded, "Who better indeed!"

Chris looked at the other men and established, "Its settled then. We get a few hours of shut-eye, then we try to get some information. Weíll meet here in the hotel late at night, near midnight. J.D. and Vin, you two stay with Nathan to take care of Buck. And keep on the lookout. Whoever is behind all of this may try to make a move and finish things off."

The men nodded at each other in agreement with the plan, and then went to pull out their bedrolls to get a few hours sleep.

In the early afternoon, Chris found himself hired as a ranch hand at the Davis place. He had easily been hired on the spot. Labor was hard to come by these days. The ranch foreman was an older man, with a weathered face and somewhat heavier than Chris. He wore a black arm-band in memory of the young girl. Chris had been able to feign ignorance of the murder easily enough when asking about the arm band. What he had been told fitted with what was well known from the trial so he didnít learn anything new.

After hiring him, the foreman, Jeffries, took Chris to the bunkhouse to deposit his belongings. As they walked in, he indicated to Chris to take the third bunk in the row. Chris moved over to place his saddle bag onto the bunk when he looked down and noticed that the blanket had several large rust-colored spots.

Chris looked over to Jeffries, who was waiting impatiently at the doorway, then gestured towards the bunk and observed dryly, "Looks like someone died in this bunk."

Jeffries glanced over at the bunk and spoke dismissively, "Na, donít worry. Man before you sometimes had nose bleeds. Its been cleaned. Now letís get moving."

Chris pursed his lips thoughtfully at this information, but said no more as he followed the foreman out to begin his work.

J.D. squinted in the afternoon sun as he and Vin walked down the main street in Sweetwater to get supplies and ammunition from the general store. They had decided that after what happened to Buck, it was better for them to go about in pairs to keep on the look out in case any others were waiting to greet them with a bullet. J.D. was proud of his hat, but he had to admit that it didnít work as well as Vinís slouch hat against the glare of the sun. Vin could easily scan the streets under the shade of his brim.

Their first stop earlier had been to the town sheriffís office to discuss what had happened to Buck. That interview had been to no avail. The sheriff was uninterested. According to him, local opinion was that a transient drunk had accidentally shot Buck and had taken off for the hills so there was no need for further investigation. J.D. and Vin left the office with the feeling that the entire town was locked in a conspiracy of silence.

As they approached the main supply store, they passed a young, blonde woman. She was dressed in a pretty blue silk dress and when she went by J.D.., she dropped her handkerchief. J.D. automatically stooped to pick it up, and he then noticed a folded up piece of paper underneath it. He looked up at the young woman, and his eyes widened slightly in recognition that she was the lady who had witnessed Buck getting shot. She gave him a sharp look and shook her head negatively, almost imperceptibly, at his recognition.

J.D. recovered from his surprise and palmed the note while graciously returning her handkerchief, "Maíam, I believe this belongs to you."

"Thank you, kind sir" replied the lady with a nod as she took back her handkerchief and then moved on hurriedly to avoid more attention.

Vin had observed the exchange as well and looked over questioningly at J.D., but they both knew to act as if nothing had happened. They were well aware that they were being observed by others so they continued on their way to the store, knowing that it would look odd if they returned suddenly to the hotel.

It was early evening when Ezra situated himself in the Golden Lady saloon. He looked around the saloon with appreciation and satisfaction. Although the barkeeper was clearly a raw, odious fellow, the actual saloon was nicely furnished. The walls had red French wallpaper and a piano was set in one corner. It was a much finer establishment than he expected given the general nature of Sweetwater. Ezra himself was stylishly attired with his green wool suit and his best frilled shirt.

Ezra had placed himself at one of the poker tables where he could survey the others in the room. Many similar evenings in a variety of saloons had led him to become a keen observer of human nature. He scanned the crowd that was beginning to build up as he looked for the right type for the commodity that he was wanting tonight: Information. He skipped over the rough ranch hands; even if they knew something, they were not the type to spill it to a stranger. No, he knew he would do better with the type of man who needed to feel more important than he actually was in the town. Ezra smiled to himself as he spotted his intended mark. At the saloon bar, sat a youngish man who was smaller in stature than most men. The man wore rimmed glasses and by his soft face and hands, it was clear that he did not work outdoors. Ezra guessed either a shopkeeper or a bank teller.

After moving over to the bar and ordering a glass of whiskey, Ezra nodded and greeted the young man, "Evening, good sir. Allow me to introduce myself, Ezra Sinclair. I am most pleased to meet your acquaintance" .

The young man glanced over at Ezra watching for any signs of being mocked. He was suspicious as most people usually ignored or laughed at him. But he didnít see any ridicule from Ezra, who waited politely for his response, so he returned the greeting warmly, "My name is Miles Brandon" and asked "What brings you to town?"

Ezra gave a wide smile that flashed his gold tooth as he drawled, "Well, Mr. Brandon, like many in this fair country, I am in pursuit of fortune." He then brought out his cards and gestured towards the table, "Would you be interested in partaking in a game of chance?"

Brandon felt doubtful. He wasnít much of a gambler. Maybe that came from working at the bank and seeing how people had to struggle so just to get a few bits of money. Still, he liked the feeling of being taken seriously and did not want to return to the solitude of drinking alone. After another moment of hesitation, he nodded in agreement, "Sure, why not. Maybe fortune will favor me tonight."

Ezra ordered a bottle of whiskey for the game and then followed the young man to a poker table further back from the others. He felt sure that by giving up a few winning hands to Brandon along with a liberal amount of alcohol, he would get the information that he wanted. Ezra sat down, poured the drinks, and began to play the game.

A while later, Ezra drawled, "Well, Mr. Brandon. It does seem indeed that fortune is favoring you tonight. Much to my disappointment, your fortune seems to be decreasing my fortune" as the young man took in another winning hand. Ezra had been careful to keep the game interesting so that Brandon wouldnít suspect anything, but he made sure that Brandon was winning.

"Perhaps, you might know of some other way that a gentleman might pursue his fortune in this delightful town? Ezra continued as he poured the Miles another glass of whiskey.

Miles Brandon felt flushed from his success and the attention. He couldnít believe his luck. Here he was beating the pants off some fancy gambler who was now asking for his advice. If the others in town could only see him now. The big shots like his boss or the mayor. The ones who never paid attention to him and thought that he couldnít put two and two together. Well, he was smarter than they thought. He knew the game that was going on in Sweetwater. He had seen the deeds and the real prices as well as the ones that his boss switched when giving out the loans. Brandon glanced speculatively over at Ezra. Maybe if he told the gambler what he knew, the gambler could help him turn it into a profit for both of them.

Brandon drank another swig of his whiskey. He glanced around surreptitiously and saw that no one was paying attention to them. He then leaned over conspiringly as he spoke softly, "As a matter of fact, Mr. Sinclair, there is another game in town. One that might be a profit for a gentleman such as yourself... If you have a mind for business that is"

Ezra smiled to himself, it was going along just as planned. He played himself coolly as he replied, " Of course, I am sure that something can be arranged..."

Much later in the evening, Ezra helped Brandon back to his own place before the man practically passed out. Ezra didnít want others in the town to suspect that he knew what was going on so he had made sure that Brandon was settled and wasnít going anyplace. Ezra now glanced around the outside of the hotel. The bright moonlight made it difficult to move about stealthily, but he was sure that he had gone unnoticed so that no one would connect him to the others. He let himself in the back door of the hotel and then went up the stairs. After looking in their second room and not finding anyone, Ezra found J.D. continuing his vigil over Buck. Ezraís pleasure over his success that evening quickly diminished when he glanced down at the still unconscious Buck.

Ezra quietly asked J.D., "Any change in Mr. Wilmington?"

J.D. stirred himself from his thoughts and shook his head, "No, and Nathan said that if the fever doesnít break soon, Buckís not going to be able to hold on much longer. He and Vin went out to the countryside to see if they could find some plant that Nathan thought might help. They left in the middle of this afternoon so they should be back shortly. Chris hasnít arrived back yet from the ranch." J.D. fell silent as he continued to contemplate Buck.

Ezra stood there in the uncomfortable silence. He knew that J.D. was grieving so he tried to reassure him, "Well, Mr. Dunn, I have every confidence that Mr. Jacksonís medicinal competence will surpass the challenges of this occasion."

As J.D. looked up, confusedly, Ezra said more simply, "Buck will be okay. I am sure that Nathan will find something for him."

J.D. nodded dully, "I hope so. Itís the second time that Iíve done something foolish and its Buck that pays the price. I donít know what Iím gonna do if he doesnít make it..." as his voice trailed off, he ran his hands threw his hair, and then sat limply. He stared at Buck, but his eyes went unseeing.

Ezra shifted in his stance. He felt uneasy in the silence. It wasnít his role to counsel others, and he himself never revealed his own thoughts or feelings to anyone. Nonetheless, he could feel palpably J.D.ís ache and guilt. Ezra worried about what would happen if Buck did die.

Guilt was an unfamiliar feeling for Ezra. For most of his life, he had been trained that others were gullible and stupid and if they fell for his cons, well, he was giving them a lesson that would serve them in the long run. His first real run-in with guilt had been when he had left the others at the Indian village. He still didnít know really what had prompted him to return and risk his own life to save them. That one action had gone against a lifetime of looking after his own interests first. "And look where it got me," he thought ironically, but Ezra knew deep down that he had gained more than he had risked when he had committed himself to the others. Still, now, he felt at a loss of how to ease J.D.ís conscience.

Nonetheless, Ezra tried to comfort, "Mr. Dunn, I have information that I will share with the others tonight that indicates that your quest here has not been in vain."

J.D. acknowledged Ezraís words as he spoke curtly, "So, it going to be Buckís life for Turnerís. Thatís not what I planned for when I came."

Ezra felt taken aback by J.Dís perception of his guilt. After a momentís silence, he tried to assuage J.D by observing, "Mr. Dunn, we can not always anticipate all the possible outcomes of our decisions. The best we can ever do is make our choices based on the information at the time. You thought Turner was innocent and made your choice. Mr. Wilmington thought that you needed help and made his choice."

Just then came the noises of the others arriving. Nathan and Vin entered the room. Holding a bunch of plant stems, Nathan directed Vin to get some hot water so he could make tea from the herbs. He looked excitedly at J.D. and Ezra as he exclaimed, "We were lucky. We found some of this herb that helps take down fever. Letís hope it works."

A while later, J.D , Vin, Chris, and Ezra were seated around the table in the second bedroom. Chris had arrived shortly after Nathan had started to brew the tea. Nathan stayed to tend Buck while the others conferred on what they had learned during the day.

Chris looked grimly at the others while he informed them, "Didnít find out too much. None of the ranch hands were much for talking, but I did find this" as he rolled out the blanket with the stains.

Vin examined it closely, "Whereíd this come from? It looks like a lot of blood"

Chris nodded as he agreed, "It was Turnerís blanket. Apparently he was known for having nose-bleeds. Donít know why no one came forward to let the jury know this."

"Gentlemen, I may able to illuminate the answer to that from the information I acquired this evening," Ezra broke in quietly. The men turned and looked at the gambler, waiting for more.

Ezra continued, "I had a delightful conversation with a Mr. Miles Brandon this evening. Mr. Brandon is the local bank teller. After a few winning hands and more than a few glasses of whiskey, he was very forthcoming. Apparently, the bank owner, the mayor, and the saloon owner, have been joint entrepreneurs in a land deed business. From talking to Mr. Brandon and getting a sense of it, and with my own experience in such matters, I would proffer that the main players in this town are involved in selling fake land deeds to unsuspecting prospects that are recruited from the saloon."

Chris frowned as he considered, "So, how does that tie in with the girl? Is Davis involved in this?"

After taking another drink, Ezra shook his head and responded, "Mr. Brandon indicated that the saloon keeperís son was courting Miss Davis, but there was no mention of Mr. Davisí direct involvement."

Vin observed, "Must be some connection -- it seems like a mighty big coincidence. Maybe she knew something she shouldnít have."

J.D. swore, "We got to let the Judge know this. We have to stop the hanging."

Chris sat back as he considered, "Now hold on. We got an interesting idea, but the Judge isnít going to stop the hanging based on a blanket and some loose talk. We need more proof."

"Well, we may just get that tomorrow" J.D. interjected as he pulled out a piece of paper. He and Vin relayed how they had acquired the note. He showed it to Chris who read it aloud, "Meet me in the livery 9 am tomorrow. Come alone."

Chris glanced questioningly at J.D. "Any idea who she is?"

J.D. shook his head, "No. I just know that she saw Buck get shot."

The men looked at each other as they each thought about what they had learned. It made sense that perhaps Laura Davis had been killed to keep quiet about a deal that was making the local big-wigs rich and that a ranch hand had seemed an easy target to place the blame, but they wondered what the meeting with the young woman was supposed to be about.

Chris sat quietly and then moved forward as he came to his decision, "I donít like this, but J.D. needs to meet with this woman. J.D. youíll enter the livery alone, but Nathan and Ezra will keep point lookout on the outside"

Vin met Chrisí eyes and asked, "And where will we be?"

Chris smiled sardonically, "Well, Iíve heard that a livery is a right comfortable place to spend the night." Vin grinned and nodded in agreement.

~ 4 ~

The plan was now in place so they all went to get some rest before the next day. J.D. was exhausted, but he had been sleeping only fitfully due to worry and remorse about Buck. He checked in with Nathan who said that it was too early to tell if the herb was going to have any effect. When he offered to sit up with Buck, Nathan had initially refused, stating that J.D. needed to get some sleep. However, J.D. convinced him that sleep was going to be elusive so one of them might as well rest. Nathan grudgingly agreed then to take a respite.

J.D. found himself alone as he watched Buck who still seemed to have a high fever; his breathing was so labored that it was frightening. J.D. placed more tea in Buckís mouth and watched him swallow it reflexively. Buck had now remained unconscious for over 24 hours and J.D. felt afraid that he would never get a chance to talk to his friend again. He considered what all the others had tried to tell him about not blaming himself, but he knew that he wasnít just holding himself responsible for the shooting, but also his last words to Buckóthe fight in the saloon.

J.D. tried to convey his feelings as he looked down and spoke softly, "Hey, Buck. You need to get better and come on back to us. Iím sorry I didnít listen to you. I mean, we think Turnerís innocent, but I should have talked to you about it before going off." J.D. watched Buck, but his words appeared to have little effect. He continued more desperately, "Buck, Iíll even wear a new hat. Youíll want to come back and see that donít you?" His pleas had no effect on the unconscious man, and finally, J.D. gave up and rested his head on his arms while he sat next to the bed. Sleep soon overtook him.

"What does it take for a fella to get a glass of water?" rasped a voice weakly. J.D. startled from his slumber and looked around sleepily. He then focused rapidly as he realized that he was looking down at Buckís brown eyes.

"Buck! Youíre awake!" J.D. exclaimed ecstatically.

Buck looked weakly amused, "Thatís right, kid. Iím awake. Now do you think you can get me something to drink?"

J.D. hurried and grabbed the glass of tea, "Of course, here you go. Take it slow. How you feeling?" he went on excitedly.

Buck drank a gulp of the tea and winced sharply at its bitterness. He complained, "What the hell is this? You trying to kill me?"

J.D. brought the glass back as he urged, "Nathan made it for you. You got to drink it for the fever"

Buck weakly took another sip as he asked, "how long... I been out?"

J.D. looked at his watch, it was four in the morning, "About 30 hours. You had us worried." Buck nodded, "Tired" and then drifted back to sleep. J.D. went and shook Nathan awake and told him about Buck. Nathan came back into the room and checked on the sleeping man. He placed his hand on Buckís face; it was definitely cooler.

Nathan grinned at J.D., "The feverís broke. Iíd say, heís going to be okay. Look at how much easier heís breathing now."

J.D. clapped Nathan on the back. J.D. sighed in relief as he allowed himself to release the fear.

It was just at 9 am when J.D. entered the livery. He looked around the stables; he saw their horses, but he didnít see any obvious signs of Vin and Chris. He didnít want to call out in case the woman was near. He heard a noise behind him and turned to see the young woman enter from the rear door of the stable. She was dressed more plainly today. Her eyes darted back and forth around the stable, and she held herself tensely.

J.D. greeted her cautiously, "Morning, Maíam, my name is Ė"

"Mr. J.D. Dunn" she interrupted, "Everyone knows who you are. Weíve known since you came to town. Several people saw you at the trial in Four Corners as the sheriff keeping Turner. Thatís why you got such a "warm welcome" when you got here two days ago and asked questions."

J.D. scowled as he replied, "Well, you have me at a disadvantage then as I donít know you. Who are you and why did you want to meet?"

The woman looked furtively around her and then began to speak, "My name is Rachel Blake. My father is Robert Blake, the saloon owner." Rachel then broke off plaintively, "I shouldnít even be here... I donít know what to do!"

"Well, little sister, why are you here?" a voice spoke gruffly out of the shadows as a young male stepped in behind her through the livery door. The man looked to be a little older than Rachel, but he was very big and brawny, with red hair. He held a gun in his hand directed towards both Rachel and J.D.

J.D. recognized the resemblance to the burly barkeep and realized that this must be the saloon ownerís son. As he looked at the gun, he wondered where Vin and Chris were.

Rachel begged towards her brother, "Ross, I wasnít going to tell him anything. I was just going to warn him and his friends to get out of town before more get hurt."

"Save it, Rachel. Itís too late for that. This here fellow has been snooping around enough. I am going to have to take care of him and his friends. Its too bad I didnít get him the first time. We can finish this easily enough. Where are your friends now?" Ross sneered at J.D., but then heard the click of a gun behind him.

Vin rose up from where he been hiding in a stall and alerted Ross, "Right behind you," but Ross taunted back, "Shoot me and you kill your friend. Is that what you want? You decide if he dies."

The three men waited tensely in the standoff. Rachel rushed closer to her brother to try to convince him to surrender, but he pushed her away. At the same time, Chris fell down from the loft from where heíd been hiding and knocked the big man to the ground. Rossís gun went off and in the scuffle Rachel went down. Chris grabbed Ross and with a hard punch knocked the man out. He then turned to the others and called out, "J.D., Vin? You okay?"

J.D. and Vin gave out their assurances as J.D. moved to help Rachel. Ezra and Nathan had rushed in after hearing the shot. Nathan could see that Rachel was wounded and went to her side and offered, "Maíam, let me see that wound."

Rachel stood up and looked at her arm where the bullet had grazed her. She nodded to the healer and spoke, "Iím okay. Howís my brother?"

Nathan nonetheless examined her arm carefully and tied his bandana to help stop the bleeding. He then went to the unconscious man and felt for his pulse. He looked up at the others and proclaimed, "Heíll be okay. Heíll just have a bit of a headache when he comes to."

The five men stood around Rachel who simply hugged herself and stared at her brother on the floor. It was Vin that broke the silence by asking, "Maíam would you tell us what this was all about?"

Rachel shook herself abruptly and started to cry, "I canít. Heíll hang. I canít do that to my brother. I just want all the killing to stop."

J.D. glanced at the others and then gently took her good arm as he appealed to her, "Maíam, you have to tell the truth. Otherwise the killing is going to continue. An innocent man, Turner, is about to hang. If you donít say anything, youíll be as guilty as your brother."

Rachel then started to sob even more. Her words came out haltingly as her breathing quickened from the intensity of her tears, "I know... but I just canít bear it."

The men looked helplessly at each other, not knowing what to do next.

Chris then approached her gently, "Miss Blake, we need your help. Your brother is going to jail for trying to kill our friend. He told that much to all of us here. Youíve got to tell us the rest." He looked straight in her eyes as he continued softly, "I know it's hard, but the only way to live with yourself is to live with the truth."

Rachel looked back at him, nodded and began to wipe at her eyes. She avoided looking at them as she began to speak softly, "Thereís not that much to tell. Ross, Laura Davis, and me were school chums. Laura was my best friend in the whole world, " she added wistfully.

The other men waited patiently as Rachel composed herself further and began to tell her story, "We had finished a picnic out at Lauraís ranch. I went into the main house to freshen up. When I came back outside, I could hear Ross and Laura arguing loudly. That was unusual Ďcause they were sweethearts and planned to marry when Laura was old enough. Anyway, Laura was shouting something like, "I canít believe that you are a part of this. You are going to ruin my father. I am going to tell him about the land deeds." She then screamed. I turned the corner and saw..."

Rachel gasped, unable to go further for a moment, and then continued in a whisper, "Ross had killed Laura. Ross saw me, dropped the knife and took off. Shortly after, the ranch hand Turner showed up. I started to scream and the others came running. They pinned it on Turner and I just never told them what Iíd seen. Iíve been miserable ever since. When I saw your friend get gunned down, I knew there would be no end to the killings. Thatís why I tried to talk to you today and warn you, but Ross must have followed me." Fresh tears began to roll down her face, and she began to sob again more heavily.

Nathan looked over at Chris and cautioned, "Sheís not going to be able to take much more of this."

Chris nodded in acknowledgement, but argued, "She going to have to. Weíve got seven hours to get to Four Corners and stop a hanging. All this will be for nothing if we donít get to the Judge and save Turner. We have to have her tell him directlyí."

The men made their plans. They agreed that Chris and Vin would guard Ross so they would head out first and ride hard. J.D. and Ezra would follow with Rachel as fast as possible. Nathan would stay behind to ward Buck. They began to prepare to leave. Ezra placed his arm around Rachelís shoulder and supported her as he took her out from the stables. Vin began to tie Ross to one of the horses and the big, burly man was just beginning to come around to find his hands tied to the saddle.

In Four Corners, a crowd had gathered in rowdy expectation of the hanging. Most of the audience was from the town, but many had also traveled from Sweetwater to witness the hanging. Laura Davis had been a popular young woman, and the Davis ranch was one of the more wealthy in the area. Her parents, the mayor of Sweetwater, and the saloon owner were some of the more prominent attendees from the town.

Inside the jail, Josiah was preparing the prisoner. After two days with him, Josiah could understand why J.D. had believed so strongly in Turner. Josiah felt in his own heart that the young ranch hand was innocent and admired how he governed himself with quiet dignity. During the past two days, Turner had been talking with Josiah about God, faith, and the hereafter. They both had been waiting to hear from Sweetwater, but as the execution time drew nearer, this unspoken hope had diminished, and the prisoner had withdrawn into praying quietly to himself. He had even refused a "last meal."

Josiah approached the cell and unlocked the door as he informed the prisoner, "Its time, son." Josiah was more than tempted to let the man go himself, but he knew that wasnít a real option with the town outside. He thought back to his own words to J.D. about duty and faith. He had to have faith that justice would prevail. If not on this earth, then in the next world.

Turnerís eyes widened, his face paled, and he swallowed hard. Then he simply nodded silently and left the cell.

Outside the crowd had been very ugly, chanting and catcalling to the prisoner and Josiah all afternoon, but when they emerged from the jail, the crowd began to quiet down. There was something in the surety of how Turner handled himself that awed them. For some, a seed of doubt was cast, "Surely a guilty man would not look so calm," but for others, like the Davis parents, they looked at Turner and only saw Lauraís face.

In the gathering dusk, Turner climbed the long walk up the stairs to the gallowsí rope. After Turnerís neck was placed in the noose, the judge read aloud the sentence to the crowd proclaiming the crime and the sentence of death. The judge then approached the prisoner asking for any last words. Turner smiled faintly and spoke so that only the judge could hear, "I am sorry, Judge but I have nothing to declare but my innocence." The conviction in the prisonerís eyes took Judge Travis aback, but the judge uneasily dismissed his doubt by his own belief in justice.

Although the crowd demanded to know what Turner had said, Judge Travis ignored their cries. He stared back into Turnerís eyes and after a slight pause, the judge pronounced, "So be it" and began to signal the executioner to release the drop.

At this moment, a group of fast riders came galloping down the street towards the crowd who quickly dispersed to get out of their way.

Chris Larabee pulled up his horse as he yelled, "Stop the hanging, Judge!" The townsfolk recognized Larabee and Tanner, but were unfamiliar with the man who accompanied them tied to his horse.

"Stop the hanging" Chris shouted again.

"Mr. Larabee, what is the meaning of this disruption?" scolded Judge Travis

Chris addressed both the Judge and the crowd as he explained, "We just got back from Sweetwater. This man, Ross Blake, is the man that killed Laura Davis"

After this news, the crowd began to murmur and voices rose in dismay. They looked at Ross who glared back at everyone. He squirmed and then yelled to the crowd, "Itís a lie. These men kidnapped me. Everyone knows that I was sweet on Laura. I wouldnít of hurt her."

The burly saloon owner stepped out from the crowd. He shouted at Larabee, "Thatís right. My boy is innocent. Let him go. You men are in cahoots with that wet-nosed sheriff to let Turner go!"

He then turned to the Judge and the crowd and demanded, "Hang Turner now!"

The crowd who had been eyeing the Blakes and Larabee uneasily, began to nod and shout, "Itís a trick! Hang Turner!"

Chris yelled angrily, "Hear me out! Laura Davis found out that Ross Blake and his father were cheating people with fake land deeds -- he killed her to keep her quiet."

"Liar," yelled the saloon owner as he pulled his gun, ready to shoot Chris.

Vin shot his rifle in the air warningly

The Judge broke in as well and raised his hands as he ordered, "Hold it everyone" and then turned to Larabee as he asked, "Mr. Larabee, I assume you have some proof of this accusation?"

Chris watched the Blakes closely as he answered, "Yes, sir, Judge. We have a witness that was following right behind us and should be here soon."

Robert Blake argued, "That proves theyíre lying. There was no witnesses to the murder. Anyone they bring will be another stooge liar," but Ross Blake paled and said no more.

"Riders coming" shouted a man from the crowd, and everyone looked to see the powerful horses run down the street. Along with the sheriff and the gambler, a young woman looked pale and terrified. She sat stiffly on her horse as if any second she was about to flee. As they pulled up though, Rachel saw her father standing there with his gun still pointed at Larabee.

Her father stood stunned as he watched her ride in. He whispered, "No... not you."

Rachel got down from her horse and stood in front of Larabee and her brother as she pleaded with her father, "The killings have got to stop!"

Judge Travis stepped in, "Young lady, who are you? What do you know about this murder?"

Rachel couldnít look at either her father or brother as she confessed to the judge, "I didnít want to have to tell, but I canít take it anymore!"

She began to cry again as she sobbed, "Iím his sister... It was Rossí knife. It was the one I gave him for Christmas." Rachel continued wrenchingly, the tears falling as she continued helplessly and confessed, "I saw him over her with the knife."

Everyone stood in silent shock after her admission, but Laura Davis parents were particularly revolted. They could not believe that those they had trusted had destroyed their lives by killing their daughter. Jacob Davis turned and looked sickened at both the father and the son as he accused them, "How could you? I had you over in my house. We ate dinner together. I was going to have you be a part of our family!"

Robert Blake still continued to wave his gun at the crowd, and he moved away further. He jeered at Davis, "You were a fool. You always were. It was easy. Always so focused on making some money, youíd didnít even bother to ask the details. Unfortunately, your daughter was brighter than you." He then spit at the ground as he turned viciously to his daughter, "And I donít have a daughter no more either. Anyone that turned in their kin is no daughter of mine."

Blake turned warningly to the crowd, "Anyone that tries to stop me will get a bullet"

He then tried to back away to escape, but Josiah had recognized their vulnerability in how they were all placed. During the young womanís confession, he had circled quietly without being noticed around the crowd to hide behind the gallows. Without warning, he was able to step out from where he was hidden, and he knocked Blake over the head; he fell unconscious to the ground.

Ezra then called out to two men who were sneaking away from the crowd on the other side, "Gentlemen, surely you are not leaving us so soon. I would be most interested in your opinion on the status of land value in Sweetwater." He had recognized them as the possible mayor and bank owner that Brandon had described as also being in on the land deals. Ezra and J.D. quickly covered them with their guns as Ezra explained to the Judge, "I have it on good accord that these two men are also part of the land fraud."

The Judge looked briefly overwhelmed at the turn of events, but then quickly took hold of the situation as he briskly commanded, "Gentleman, arrest these men. They will stand trial for murder and fraud."

Vin, Ezra, and Josiah began to prod their charges towards the jail. Mary Travis went over to the young lady who stood dazedly as she watched her family being taken away. Mrs. Travis put her arm around Rachel and tried to comfort her as she walked her back to the newspaper office. Mr. and Mrs. Davis continued to grieve as they watched their daughterís real killers get locked up. The rest of the crowd sighed with relief and murmured among themselves at the change in events as they wandered back to their own places.

~ 5 ~

Judge Travis personally went to free Turner. Releasing Turner from the noose, he felt alarmed at how close he had come to hanging an innocent man. The judge felt inadequate in how to make amends for what Turner had been through, but he tried to apologize by saying, "Iím sorry. When justice fails, it fails us all."

Turner nodded, but he was still in shock from his near escape from death.

The judge helped him down the stairs as Turner was still weak from relief. As J.D. and Chris approached them, however, Turner became more alert and focused. He grabbed J.D.ís hand and proclaimed profusely, "J.D., you saved my life! I canít thank you enough!"

J.D. looked at the other men as he shifted embarrassed, "Well, I didnít do it alone" and as he spoke, he thought poignantly about Buck recovering in Sweetwater. He added even more firmly, "Not by a long shot. If it werenít for the others, especially Buck, I wouldnít be here."

Chris watched J.D.ís fluster. He knew what it had taken for J.D. to take his own stance so he simply pointed out, "It was your call. We were just back up."

J.D. understood that Chris was giving him his approval and respect. Pride swelled within him as he admired Chris and the others, and he realized that they were beginning to recognize him as his own man.

He accepted Chrisís words as he humbly replied, "Well, I felt like I didnít had much choice. It came down to a matter of truth."

Judge Travis interjected, "Well, the truth is what justice is about, and without your intervention, justice would have been subverted. For that gentlemen, I and this town are in your debt, once more." He again shivered inwardly as he thought at how close they had all come to a travesty of justice.

Turner who had been listening elatedly, began to sway a bit, and the others turned to him concernedly. He shrugged off their worries as he realized with a smile that he was weak from hunger. He turned to J.D. with a wink and declared, "I think Iím a little hungry!"

J.D. laughed as he remembered how his quest had begun with the bucket of uneaten food.

The Judge not quite understanding the humor between J.D, and Turner, nonetheless responded, "I concur. Food does seem to be in order. We have all been through quite an ordeal. Shall we go over to the hotel? Supper shall be my treat"

Turner joked as he agreed, "I think Iím ready for my last meal now!"

The four men laughed, and the tension of the previous few days began to be released as they headed across the street for a bite to eat.

A few days later found J.D. sitting impatiently in front of the jail. The bench there made for a good view of the main street of Four Corners. Still, he kept jumping up and down from his seat in order to walk a few paces. He was checking whether any of the specks of dust in the distance was the wagon with Nathan and Buck. He had received a telegraph from Nathan that Buck was ready to be moved, but couldnít yet ride a horse. Jacob Davis had offered to lend a wagon so that Buck could return to Four Corners, and they had left today. J.D. had been expecting them for over an hour, but he reminded himself that travel with an injured man could be very slow. He was anxious to see Buck but felt apprehensive about how Buck would feel towards him after the shooting and everything that had happened.

Finally, one of the specks maintained a steady growth, and J.D. soon saw the outlines of a wagon with Nathan driving it. Buck was sitting up in the back of the wagon bed. J.D. ran on down the street to meet them. He greeted them enthusiastically, "Nathan! Buck!, Howíd the trip go? How you holding up, Buck?"

As he got near where Nathan had halted the horses, J.D. could see that Buck was still pale and looked much thinner, but otherwise seemed okay. Nathan jumped down from the wagon and clapped J.D. on the back as he returned the greeting, "Just fine. Sounds like I missed all the fun and excitement over here. Townsfolk told us what happened with saving Turner"

"Thatís right," Buck joined in as he quipped, "I think I need to make up for missing all the fun. Letís start over at the saloon. I think there might be a few women there who would be willing to tend to my hurts... all of them."

Nathan shook his head and scolded, "Buck, you canít even stand up, let alone go chasing women. The only place youíre going to is your room."

J.D. laughed. It was good to see his friends.

Buck seemed just like his old self as he began to tease J.D. and Nathan, "I donít have to be able to stand to be with the ladies... my animal magnetism draws them to me"

Nonetheless, Buck easily allowed Nathan and J.D. to help him out of the wagon and to his room. Nathan filled J.D. in on recent happenings in Sweetwater, including how Laura Davisí parents were going to take in Rachel seeing as she was now without family and had come forward about the truth.

After they had gotten all of Buckís belongings into his room, Nathan left for his own room to get cleaned up from the ride, leaving J.D. to help Buck get settled.

J.D. wanted to let Buck know how he felt about Buckís saving his life and he began to stammer awkwardly, "Buck... about what happened before... you know, in the saloon and then afterwards... well, I just wanted to let you know... Iím sorry." J.D. began to blush as he watched for Buckís reaction.

While Buck had healed, he had a lot of time to think about his relationship with J.D. He couldnít understand himself sometimes why he felt so protective over him. Maybe it was because J.D. reminded him of his own youth, when he still felt like he could believe in the fairness of the world. It was J.D.ís honesty and enthusiasm that drew him, and as he had thought about it, he had understood how J.D. had been compelled to check out Turnerís story. It was a fundamental part of that honesty.

Buck spoke candidly as he replied, "I was wrong J.D., I shouldíve listened to you in the saloon, but I wish youíd told me before running off to Sweetwater."

J.D. nodded as he too acknowledged, "I know I shouldíve. I just knew that you wouldnít have agreed"

Buck laughed at that, "You got that right kid, but Iíd've understood... eventually." The two looked at each other and it was all right between them once again.

Buck continued to smile as he asked, "J.D. would youíd fetch that box over there by my saddle bag?"

J.D. retrieved the plain box. Puzzled, he passed it over to Buck who looked very satisfied with himself.

Buck explained, "Well, J.D. in honor of your saving Turner and being right and all, I had Nathan pick up something for you in Sweetwater. Here it is" as he handed over the box.

J.D. began to feel a sense of foreboding as he started to unwrap the box. He looked in and felt disappointment as he saw a new hat. It wasnít like a bowler hat that he was so fond of, it had a wide brim similar to Buckís hat.

J.D. shook his head and began to argue, "Buck, when are you going to give it up? I ainít gonna change my hat. I like this hat. Like I told you... Bat even has a hat like mine."

"Now whatís the matter with this hat? It has style. Something that black thing on your head donít have," admonished Buck.

He added teasingly, "Besides, I remember somebody promising to wear a new hat"

J.D. froze. Buck knew what he had said during the fever dreams. With this realization, J.D. thought reluctantly, "A bargain is a bargain," and began to pick up the new hat.

Buck watched J.D.ís discomfort with a grin. Nathan had told him how hard J.D. had taken his injury, and Buck had guessed that maybe J.D. had referred to his hat since it was such a joke between them. He knew that he was right as he watched J.D. unwillingly switch hats.

Buck started to roar with laughter, but quickly grimaced from the pain as it hurt to laugh that hard. He had to admit, the new hat just looked comical sitting on J.D.ís head. He realized that the bowler hat really did suit J.D.ís style.

J.D. began to feel annoyed, "What so funny? I am wearing the hat, ainít I?"

Buck finally got himself under control as he shook his head, "J.D., it ought to be a crime to do that to such a fine looking hat. Give me it. I donít think Iím gonna do that to the poor hat... here see if there is anything else in that box."

J.D. grabbed the hat off his head and thrust it back at Buck. He was more that a bit peeved as he looked again in the box. He hadnít noticed, but underneath the hat was something wrapped in paper. J.D. took the paper out of the box and unwrapped it to find a silver badge. It was more beautiful than his own tin badge, and it was boldly engraved with the word SHERIFF.

J.D. was dumbfounded as he looked at Buck and asked, "Where...?"

Buck nodded smugly, "Donít look so surprised, I told you I was a law man once." He chuckled as he added, "I just never got around to returning it... Never knew when I might need it "

Buck continued more seriously as he further explained, "I was going to give it to you in Sweetwater... I thought you needed a real badge there cause after all, it was our sheriff who went to find out the truth in Sweetwater."

J.D. smiled broadly at his friend as he pinned on the badge.


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