Buck wasn't a happy man. With all that had been going on lately, he was starting to feel real annoyed with the whole thing, once again wondering if it was really worth all the trouble they got into all of the time. Nursing a glass of whiskey, he stared at the amber liquid with a solemnness rare for him, while Josiah sat across from him, his expression more thoughtful than usual.

 

Ezra was once again playing poker with a man who should have been no match for him, but his preoccupation interfered with his ability to outwit his opponents, and when he lost the third game in a row, he quit and went over to join his companions for a quiet, contemplative drink. He had barely raised the first glass to his lips before J.D. came barging in, nearly taking the doors off their hinges in the process.

"Buck," the boy spurted out, a little out of breath. "I overheard ‘em talkin'."

Buck looked up at him and frowned a little. "So? I can't remember tellin' 'em not to," he replied, interrupting J.D. before he could continue.

"It ain't that, Buck," J.D. said, having regained his breath. "One of 'em was talkin' about others that were gonna starve. Sounded to me like they got more people on their farm."

Buck turned his attention to Josiah, who looked rather interested. "You reckon they could've?" he asked.

"Only one way to find out," Josiah said with a shrug and rose.

"You stay in town, J.D. Someone's gotta look after our interests here," Buck said, rising too.

"Aw, damn," J.D. said, all disappointed. "I ain't no little kid, Buck. I can look after myself."

Buck made a face. "I ain't getting into that discussion with you again, kid. You're stayin' and that's final," he growled.

"You are the sheriff, after all," Ezra intoned. "Someone has to bield the town." J.D. gave him a strange look and Ezra sighed dramatically. "Protect. Someone has to protect the town. Is that not what you were hired for, sheriff?"

That did the trick. J.D. nodded, all business. "Of course," he said.

Ezra glanced at Buck and Josiah, who both gave him grateful glances. J.D. could be a handful when he didn't want to be left behind. But, Ezra was right. He was the sheriff and should stay in town. "Shall we, gentlemen?" Ezra asked.

"Might as well," Buck agreed and the three of them walked out, leaving J.D. behind.

***

The Stanford farm

At a cursory glance, the farm had little to offer. There was the barn, a rickety construction, which looked about ready to tumble over at the slightest gust of wind, and the main house, which was big enough to have housed a big family with grandparents attached. The windows on the first floor were boarded shut, though, and it gave the whole building the look of having been unused for years.

The yard was cluttered, the grass growing high, only leaving narrow paths from the house to the barn and to the path leading out of the forest toward the road to the South.

Beavis had been skittish before, but now the horse was downright scared. Buck reined him in as tightly as he dared without hurting the big grey and murmured quietly to him, trying to calm him down. "Easy, boy. Easy."

Chester was steadier, a calmer horse altogether, but even he scraped the ground continuously with one hoof, nodding his head nervously, while Ezra watched the sorrel with a frown. "He has never shown such obvious distaste for any area before," he said and glanced around. "Not that I blame him, mind you. This is, by far, the most repugnant farm house I have ever had the displeasure of settin' my eyes on."

Josiah dismounted first, giving Quincy a surprised look when the sorrel horse neighed and gave a brief tuck at the reins. Running a big hand over his nose, Josiah stared into the horse's eyes. "There's something out here that spooks 'em," he said, stating the obvious.

With a growl and a silent curse, Buck dismounted as well, and led Beavis over to the far end of the yard to tie him up to the branch of a tree. "No reason to spook 'em more than necessary," he said, patting the grey's neck. "You just stay here, you hear?" he told the horse, who whinnied in reply. "Let's take a look around," he added to his companions and strode over toward the farm house.

"You have to be jokin'," Ezra said with distaste in his voice. "I assure you, I am not goin' anywhere near that foul concentration of putrefyin' wood."

Buck stopped with one foot on the first step leading up to the porch and glanced back at him. "Get over here, Ezra. I ain't sayin' it twice," he threatened.

The Southerner gave him a disgusted look, but did dismount Chester and, after straightening his jacket, walked across the yard to where Buck was waiting. "This was not what I had in mind when I woke up this mornin'," he confessed.

"Ain't what I had in mind, neither," Buck countered. "Don't mean we can weasel our way outta this now," he added, a hint of a threat in his voice.

Ezra rolled his eyes at that, settling for straightening his cuffs instead of replying to such an obvious insult.

Apprehensive about what they would find, the three men climbed the two steps to the porch and opened the door to the farm house. The first thing that met them was a foul stench of stuffy air, dirt and an underlying odor none of them could readily identify. Ezra pulled a handkerchief from one pocket to cover his mouth and nose before following Buck and Josiah inside.

"The good Lord has not endowed these brothers with much wisdom," Josiah said quietly as they glanced around what seemed like the main room of the house. It was big, dark and disgustingly dirty. There were old plates sitting on chairs, tables and the likes, with mold growing on whatever edible remains had been left on them. An old couch, probably quite valuable in its glory days, was crawling with maggots, a fact that almost caused Ezra to lose his composure and rush back outside. Rather than embarrass himself, he quickly turned his back on the vile sight.

"Ain't that the truth," Buck agreed, looking nearly as disgusted as Ezra. "Let's take a look around and then get outta here," he added, making a sweeping gesture toward the room.

Most of all, Ezra just wanted to return to the relatively fresh air outside, but he figured Buck would do something nasty to him if he didn't stick around. Nothing short of throwing up all over the place would mellow the man, and Ezra wasn't about to do that just to get out of the house faster. But the smell certainly was overpowering, even through the lightly perfumed handkerchief he had acquired from a lady of rather questionable reputation. Not that he was too concerned about such matters when it came down to it. He was a man, after all.

Disgust aside, he couldn't help finding this house of horrors slightly interesting. There were remnants of valuable paintings still hanging on the walls, combined with golden vases and the likes on the floor and on whatever piece of furniture the brothers hadn't used for firewood yet, all too tarnished to catch the eye of anyone short of an expert. And he certainly did consider himself to be that. Yet he still proceeded with apprehension, uncertain of what he was really supposed to be looking for. At least until he opened a door and was virtually knocked back a step by the stench of rotting flesh, which wafted up from the basement below. "Oh, dear lord," he gasped. Despite the semidarkness of the room at the foot of the rickety-looking stairs, he didn't need more light to see the source of the stench.

Buck and Josiah could not have missed his outburst of pure disgust if they had tried and hurried over to see what he had found. Josiah settled for making a face while Buck clapped both hands in front of his mouth and nose to block out the smell.

With a serious expression, the ex-preacher stared down at the rotting remains of what looked like at least six bodies at the foot of the stairs, all of them lying in a heap. "The lord is my shepherd, I shall not want," he said quietly, folding his hands. "He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; thou anointest my head with oil,

my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the ord for ever." Making the sign of the cross, he bowed his head. "Amen."

"Amen, brother," Buck intoned.

Ezra remained silent, staring down at the bodies for a moment longer, then he reached out and quietly closed the door. "I do believe that there is nothin' further we can do for these poor souls, gentlemen," he said darkly.

The two other men nodded solemnly and they headed back outside, where Ezra finally lowered the handkerchief from his face and sighed. "Dear lord, I do not believe my olfactory sense has ever been beleaguered by a more abject effluvium," he said and shook his head sadly. "Nor have I ever perceived higher pathos than this."

Buck gave him a strange look. "I do swear, half the time I ain't got a clue what he's sayin'," he said and readjusted his hat.

Josiah merely raised an eyebrow with slight bemusement and patted Buck's shoulder. "I do believe that this should be enough proof to hang the whole bunch of 'em. I suggest we do nothin' until the judge arrives. He will want to see this," he said.

***

The Landon Homestead

Chris figured he had suffered a slight setback in his recovery, but learned the hard way that the setback was more than slight. He was dizzy to the extreme and found it very hard to keep his eyes open most of the time. Light bothered him beyond reason and the thought of food made him queasy. All in all, he actually felt worse than before. Jessie Landon showed no mercy, though. She was indifferent to his suffering, or so he thought, and bossed him around like only his mother would have dared to. There wasn't a man left alive in the world who had ever spoken to him the way she did. Whether he was simply feeling too lousy to do anything about it or there was another reason, he couldn't tell. It didn't really matter, though.

"Would you please let me get some sleep?" he snapped at her when she came in for the umpteenth time, waking him up to get him to drink something. "I ain't thirsty and I ain't hungry."

Jessie regarded him thoughtfully for a moment, then sat down on the edge of the bed and pressed her palm against his brow for a second. "You got a fever," she told him. "On top o' everythin' else. You couldn't just couldn't leave well enough alone, could you?" With a sigh, she shook her head. "Men! You're all alike. I ain't never met one who didn't behave like a baby most o' the time."

It was with an outstanding amount of patience that he refrained from removing her bodily from the room. The last thing he needed was a lecture. Especially from a sprout like her. She couldn't be a day over twenty-five, he figured, and that made her a kid in his opinion. Gifted healer or not, she was a pest. Groaning, he pressed both hands against his face and murmured a curse, which would have made Buck pale.

Jessie wasn't impressed, though. "You got a concussion. If it's bad enough, it can kill you. This ain't no jokin' matter, Mr. Larabee. This is dead serious."

Letting his hands drop away from his face, he gave her a grave stare. "Am I laughin'?" he asked tersely. "All I wanna do is sleep, alright?"

Realizing that maybe she was handling him wrong, Jessie glanced down at her hands lying limply in her lap. "I'm sorry for disturbin' you, but I gotta make sure you ain't dyin' on me," she said and looked up again.

Her tone of voice alone made him feel lousy about snapping at her. She had, after all, opened up her home to all of them. She had helped them when they needed help and here he was, making her life miserable by behaving like an idiot. With another groan, he draped an arm over his face. He wasn't much for apologizing, but he figured he owed her that much. Before he could pull himself together, though, she had risen and left the room again. "Great," he muttered. On top of everything else, his conscience was bugging him now.

With an effort, he hauled himself off the bed and had to use the furniture to steady himself against, so he didn't fall flat on his face. Embarrassment aside, he didn't relish the feeling of not being able to do things for himself. He had been hurt worse than this, had been wounded and beaten to within an inch of his life. And yet he couldn't seem to find his feet again after this disaster of a rescue mission he had gone on.

When he reached the door, he stopped for a moment, eyes closed, head down, to regain his composure. He felt nauseous enough to make him reconsider his actions and it only took him a moment to make up his mind about the futility of this trip. He needed to lie down and he needed to do it right now. Turning, he blinked rapidly to clear his wavering vision, but found that his eyes did not want to focus. Fortunately, he had a pretty good sense of direction, and managed to get back to the bed without falling. Stretching out on the mattress once more, he closed his eyes again to rest his aching head. His rolling stomach slowly settled down and he eventually sighed with relief when the nausea also passed. He figured Jessie would look in on him again a bit later and that would be soon enough for an apology.

***

Jessie returned to the common room and settled down on her favorite chair to do some thinking. This was quite a change from being all alone most of the time to being overrun by seven men all of a sudden. The morning that Chris and Vin had turned up on her doorstep had signaled a sudden change in her otherwise rather static existence in more ways than one. Usually she didn't find men terribly attractive, mainly because most of them were big babies and seemingly couldn't exist without having to prove themselves to everything and everybody all the time. She had seen that in her father, a typical, white buffalo hunter, who had succumbed to his own ideals much too early in his life, leaving her mother to fend for herself and her three children. Her mother had not wanted to return to her tribe, which had let her down, she claimed. She had married a white man and she would remain his wife for the rest of her life. At the tender age of thirty-five, Jessie's mother had died of consumption and had left Jessie's older brother, then sixteen, in charge of the household.

When William had figured that Jessie would be old enough to take care of their baby sister, Lea, he had taken off to be whatever he could be with the limited education he had received. He had surprised not only Jessie and Lea, but also himself with his abilities, and was now working as a lawyer in Kansas somewhere.

Lea had left once she was old enough to fend for herself, and Jessie had never worried about her progress. She heard from her regularly and knew that her baby sister was having a great time in Culver City. She was a man-eater, as William put it. No man was safe when Lea was around.

With a smile on her lips, Jessie reminisced about her siblings, about her past, and while she did that, she remembered more about her grandfather, too. A proud man, he had taught her what he knew before he had died. His offer to reintroduce her to her tribe had gone unnoticed, though, and since Jessie couldn't remember the tribe's name nor actually wanted to be an Indian squaw, she had let it slide, and once the old man had died, it had been too late.

"Mrs. Landon."

Nathan's voice interrupted her and she looked up at him, still smiling. "Yes, Mr. Jackson?" She liked Nathan. He had a calmness about him that she so sorely missed in other people. It was as if he had faced his destiny and was content with what he had seen. She marveled at the fact that he was able to feel this way about the world despite all he had seen and all that had happened to him. She knew without question that he had once been a slave, and there was nothing in the world that pained her more than thinking of the suffering he must have gone through. And, despite that, and the obvious prejudice he would be subjected to, he was still a benevolent man with a heart of gold.

"I just checked in on Chris. He's asleep," he said and sat down across from her. "Vin's fever has broken. I changed the bandages on his foot. It looks better. What'd you do?"

"Just a little shaman secret," she said and shook her head with a smile. "Just kiddin'. Nah, it ain't nothin' special. Just more o' that paste. It works. Why not use it?"

Nathan couldn't help smiling. She was very considerate and seemed to have a lot of skills he lacked. "I reckon you got enough to do with this farm, huh?" he wanted to know. "Otherwise I'd be tempted to ask for your help."

Arching an eyebrow, Jessie leaned forward a little. "My help?" she asked.

"Four Corners ain't too far away from here, and if you wouldn't mind, there's a lot of folks who could need some tendin' to, who'd rather have a woman do it than a man," Nathan explained. "Especially the ladies."

"Actually, I've been wantin' to do something other than just sit around here all day," she confessed. "There ain't no crops on this land no more. I ain't much of a farmer, so there ain't much for me to do here anyway."

For a moment, he allowed himself to hope that she would indeed go for the offer. But he feared she wouldn't bother once he told her there was no money involved. "Well, I ain't got much in ways o' money, ma'am. I wouldn't be able to pay you nothin'," he said, already dismissing the idea as silly.

That made Jessie chuckle lightly. "I ain't interested in the money, Mr. Jackson. I got plenty to last me a lifetime," she said. "No, I'd be wantin' to do it to help."

Smiling at her selflessness, he couldn't help thinking about the other women in town, and how little they'd be willing to do for others. There were a few, like Mrs. Travis, who were helpful enough, but the majority of those women would never lend him a helping hand. Although they accepted his presence, and were willing to let him help when they were sick, they wouldn't do him any favors. Prejudice there was plenty of, and it warmed his heart to find an open mind like hers out here in the middle of nowhere. "I'd be much obliged for any help you could give me," he finally said.

"Certainly, Mr. Jackson. There ain't nothin' I'd rather do," she replied and settled back on her chair again.

"It's rare," he confessed, "findin' someone like you out here."

Jessie pursed her lips in thoughtful contemplation at his words. "Don't forget, Mr. Jackson. I ain't as white as them women in town, neither. I may have had a white daddy, but my mamma was pure Indian and looked it every bit, too. I figure I'd be the last to say somethin' about anyone."

"Still," Nathan insisted. "It ain't every day I come across a woman who'd be willin' to help others for nothin'."

"What a sorry state people are in, eh?" she asked with a smile. "I reckon it's about time I got some supper ready. I got a feelin' that Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Wilmington will be turnin' up before long."

"Don't forget J.D. and Ezra. Mr. Standish, I believe, has never turned down a free meal," Nathan said and rose with her. "Can I help?"

"Why, certainly. Thank you kindly."

***

Four Corners

Buck growled in dissatisfaction. He was hungry, but not for the type of food served in town. Not in the places he could afford, that was. He figured there was only one place he could go where the food tasted like it should. Although he hadn't known Jessie Landon long enough to have sampled all of her cooking, he was certain that this copper-skinned beauty could do no wrong when it came to the culinary skills. And after having been lucky enough to have tasted her cooking twice already, he found himself longing for more.

"What's the matter, my friend?" Josiah asked, glancing at him over the edge of the book he was reading.

Before Buck could answer that question, Ezra came into the saloon and steered right towards them. "Gentlemen, I do believe it would be advisable to check up on our friends away from home," he said.

Buck glanced up at him, then sent Josiah a look. "Might be a good idea, eh?" he asked. "I mean, it ain't like there's much happenin' in town."

Josiah regarded him solemnly for a moment. "Are you suggesting we leave J.D. behind to watch over the Stanford brothers?" he wanted to know.

Buck deflated almost instantly and slumped back in his chair. "I reckon not," he grumbled and sighed heavily.

For a moment, the ex-preacher watched him squirm, then he smiled a benevolent smile. "Why don't I relieve brother Dunne? You three can ride out and check up on our wounded friends," he suggested, well aware what drew Buck out there. And he figured it wasn't so much Chris and Vin as it was the lady of the house and her culinary abilities.

Immediately, Buck brightened. "You serious?" he asked, halfway out of the chair already. "I mean... you ain't hungry or nothin'?"

"Nope," Josiah said and rose, too. "I need to catch up on some readin' anyway."

***

The Landon Homestead

For the first time in what seemed like forever, Vin woke up without feeling that he had been crushed beneath a ton of boulders. Lying on his side as he was, his breathing was a lot easier than it had been in a while and, although he was still pretty sore, he had felt worse.

Opening his eyes was an effort, but he did notice that he could open both of them without too much trouble, and that he could see with both. Recent events were a little unclear to him at this point. He could remember a woman, but couldn't place her. He only remembered that Chris had called her their guardian angel.

The memories of how he had come to this point washed over him, and he gritted his teeth in anguish. He'd had run-ins with people like the Stanfords before, but never to the point where they had beaten him to a pulp just for the heck of it. Most of them settled for taking a shot at him. Bullet wounds he could deal with. They were painful, yes, but the impact it had on him was usually over very quickly, and although he had to spend time healing, he didn't suffer from side effects for too long. This, however, was different. He had been in pain before, but never like this. The relentless beatings had worn him down very quickly, draining what little strength he had left after getting his foot foolishly stuck in that trap.

Raising his head a little, he glanced down at his foot, still propped up on a big pillow to keep it elevated. While in the less than gentle care of the Stanford brothers, he had wanted so badly to put it up, to lessen the pressure on the wound, but the brothers hadn't allowed him enough time to regain his composure so he could free himself. And then, when he had realized that they had gotten Chris as well, he had almost lost it. It was one thing that he suffered for whatever injustice the brothers believed he had done them. He could deal with that. But that one of his friends had to suffer too, that really tore into him.

Well, Chris had gotten him out, hadn't he? At great expense to himself too. Vin didn't remember anything too clearly of the past many days, but he did remember how battered Chris had looked. Closing his eyes again, he tried to rid himself of the guilt welling up in him like stagnant water from an old well, but no matter how he tried, he couldn't lose the feeling. "Damn," he rasped, his voice barely a whisper.

"What's the matter? You hurtin'?"

That voice came out of nowhere and startled him. Turning his head, he glanced over his shoulder to find Nathan sitting on a chair on the other side of the bed. The healer had obviously been watching over him. "Nothin' I can't handle," he replied and let his head drop back down on the pillow again. He felt weak like a baby, a feeling he didn't like one bit.

Nathan came around to the other side of the bed to get a better look at the younger man. What he saw made him smile. "You gotta be feelin' better," he said. "Ain't seen that look for a bit."

Vin made a face and shifted a little, careful not to move too much out of fear that it would renew the debilitating pain he had suffered the past few days. "Ain't felt much like givin' it, neither," he replied and smiled back at Nathan.

"I know someone who's gonna be real happy to see you back among the livin'," Nathan said. "You hungry?"

Vin tried to assess whether he was or not, and finally nodded. "Starvin'. Ain't you been feedin' me?" he wanted to know, shifting again. The movement was a little too fast, a little too much, and he gritted his teeth, groaning.

Nathan grabbed his shoulder, all concerned again. "You alright?" he asked.

Vin nodded. "Yeah, just moved too fast," he replied, his tone of voice a little strained.

A little concerned about that comment, Nathan straightened. In his opinion, the young tracker had hardly moved at all. "Well, I'll see if I can't get our gracious hostess to fix you somethin' to eat. She's real good at cookin'," he finally said, pushing his concerns aside for now. It might just be that Vin wasn't up to speed at all and needed time to regain his composure.

"Sounds good to me," Vin replied, giving Nathan a shadow of his trademark grin. The healer left him alone and Vin was grateful for it. That meant he could give vent to the pain. Turning his head, he pressed his face into the pillow and managed little more than a grunt. His shifting had brought his injured foot in contact with the pillow and that had hurt a little too much. He felt much like clawing his fingers into the wound to make it stop hurting so badly, but knew that it wouldn't do him a bit of good.

Before he could consider any other silly notions like that, a cool hand settled on his calf, making him raise his head promptly to stare at their benefactor. Without a word, she pulled the pillow up a bit, removing the pressure from the wound and thereby granting him immediate relief. "You probably shouldn't move too much," she said and gave him a smile.

Vin stared at her, caught somewhere between wanting to remain mum because he had no idea what to say to her, and thanking her profusely. She was just about the prettiest woman he had ever laid eyes on and, as usual when he was in the presence of such stunning beauty, his throat closed up and he simply couldn't say a word even if his life depended on it. He hated the helpless heat rising in his cheeks and hoped desperately that she would mistake it for a feverish blush rather than what it truly was.

Jessie eyed him for a second, then pressed the back of one hand against his brow. He wasn't feverish any more. Nathan had told her that, and she placed great faith in his abilities, but she also knew embarrassment when she saw it. And finding young men in want of words in her presence wasn't anything new to her. She had learned to deal with it in any given situation. "You're a little hot, still," she said. That wasn't a lie. His skin was hot, but not feverish. "Mr. Jackson suggested you might be hungry. What would you like?"

With every word she said, he got more and more embarrassed by the fact that he couldn't find his voice. It was a curse that it had to be such a struggle every time. A woman like Mary Travis he could talk to. Charlotte Richmond had also been easy to talk to. So, why was this one any different? Well, he knew the answer to that question, didn't he? She was beautiful and kind and, if he wasn't entirely mistaken, also single.

Jessie smiled, fully aware of his predicament. "Well, I'll just fix you somethin' light. No need to overdo it on the first day, eh?" she asked and straightened again. Assuring herself that he was as comfortable as his present situation could make him, she turned around and left the room again.

For a second, Vin remained motionless. Then he pressed his face back into the pillow and groaned deeply. What was it about single women he couldn't get past? Was it the fact that they were single and hence would prove to be a responsibility he would have to take on if things got serious? He didn't believe that was the case since he'd been more than willing to take on Charlotte Richmond. But, then again, he had also known somehow that she wouldn't leave her husband when it came down to it.

***