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Adopted Sons
Continued...

Part 6

Casey closed her eyes, sweat beading on her forehead. She knew she was
about to die, and she cringed as she heard the hammer click back.

"A moment for your prayers," she heard the emotionless voice intone, as
it had probably done three times before.

As much as she wanted to pray... to say ANYTHING... before being sent
before the face of God as hot lead tore through her skull, all she could
do was listen to the racing of her heart, beating its last few beats
hollowly in her chest. She shook with the exertion of being brave, to
resist the temptation to flee. For, she was certain of one thing if
nothing else: this man would gun her down in the back as she ran...
 

The raid had gone swiftly. Being unarmed, she had expected no trouble,
just a routine supply run. But, it was nothing routine. She had been
tied up, and placed roughly in the back of her own wagon, several of the
orphans cowering nearby. She tried to calm them, with nerves she really
didn't feel. It was a long, hot, hard drive...

After arriving in Purgatory, she and the others had been sequestered in
a renovated stable apparently designed to house a large number of
prisoners. Guards had come by three times, taking two nuns and one child
on these trips. Casey said nothing at the time, but was thankful the
others did not have ears trained to hear certain sounds. She was sure as
rain that she heard three muffled pistol shots in the distance, and
since none of the taken were returned, she surmised that the three were
dead. Her eyes widened when they returned a fourth time, taking her
roughly by the arms, nearly dragging her down the street several blocks
to the local watering hole. Inside were men ranging completely around
the walls. In the center of the floor, where she was hauled, were faint
splotches of dark material... Casey didn't have to look very closely to
know it was the mingled blood of three recent victims. She was placed in
front of a gaunt, wiry man with lifeless gray eyes and barely kempt
blond hair and mustache, and a good five days' growth of whiskers
elsewhere. He held a pistol, still smoking lightly, nonchalantly aimed
toward the ceiling, tapping the side of his head with the barrel, as if
trying to tap a thought into his brain. He was dressed finely, though
too heavily for the climate, but did not appear the least bit warm. She
shivvered easily enough with his words:

"If you be a prayin' woman, I suggest you start, now."

She closed her eyes, not wanting to watch death coming. The *CLICK* of a
gun's hammer made her gasp. She only prayed it would not take too long...

And she nearly leapt out of her skin when a voice sounded near her left
ear: "Stop."

The word was so soft, it belied the authority with which it was said.
Her eyes snapped open. She looked straight at her would-be executioner,
who, in turn was looking at someone behind and to her left. "Sir?" the
man queried.

"I said bring her over to the saloon. I did not say to shoot her. I have
other plans for Mrs. Dunne..."

At her name, her head snapped toward the speaker. A familiar man, tall
and strong-looking, stood gazing at the gunman before her.

Incredibly, she found her voice: "Do I know you?"

The tall man answered, never taking his eyes off her intended
executioner: "Perhaps. Though not my name. I am Carter Erickson,
Madam... you may know me as the man who pays you to run supplies to the
orphanage."

She frowned.

"But, Mr. Dunlevy is the one I been..."

"Yes, yes. Of course. You work for Patrick Dunlevy. However, Dunlevy
works for me. See, I've been paying your employer rather handsomely to
care for the orphans. His salary was not intended to be as high as he
makes it by skimming off profits, mind you, but he has served his
purpose well." He turned to her. "Very well indeed."

Casey nodded slightly. "You went to all the trouble of carin' for those
kids just to snatch them... and me... to lure JD and the others here."

"Very good, Mrs. Dunne! See, Henry," this he remarked to the gunman in
front of her, "I told you she was a bright one."

"You didn't have to kill them." She spat in anger over the tragic deaths
of the nuns and child.

Erickson simply looked at her, appraisingly. The other men were silent,
not even the soft clanking of glass hitting table could be heard. After
a moment, Carter answered.

"I might have convinced your gallant protectors I was a serious threat
to you and the others, without rash action, Madam," he said to her,
drawing near and leaving whatever good humor he felt a moment ago in the
dust. "However, I need them making haste to rescue you. The death of
those three was unfortunate, but quite necessary for my plans."

"And I suppose you'll shoot me next..."

"Ah, well. Henry, given his propensities, would do so if I bid it.
Despite his blandness, he takes great pleasure in his work. Naturally,
he's a bit unhappy with me at the time, for he'd have loved to have
enjoyed the nuns'... ah, company... for a while, but they were
innocents, deserving SOME mercy, however fleeting it was."

Erickson's eyes studied Casey in a way that increased her discomfort.
Her unease only heightened with his next words: "I had thought to make
up his loss with you, but that works against my strategy. I need you
alive, and I need for your husband to know that..."

As she stood perfectly still, forcing herself to breath, he walked
slowly around her, hands clasped behind his back, so close he was almost
inappropriate. His eyes seemed to burn into her, and he continued his
horrible discourse: "If I had given you to Henry, I have no doubt you
would have wished yourself dead, no matter your desire to see your
husband again. I don't know you well enough to be certain, but I have
reason to believe you might act on that wish and end your life, given
any chance." Erickson stopped walking.

Unnecessarily, he added, "Henry can be... most unpleasant... when he is
of the mind to be. And considering that I have denied his appitites for
some time now, he would doubtless be... very... unpleasant with you.
So, no. I need you alive."

He grabbed a chair from a nearby table, turning it with its back to her,
and he sat down straddling it in front of her. "Nonetheless, I have no
wish for Mr. Dunne to become TOO comfortable with your safety. Thus,
while I have no intention for your demise, I must give him pause, and
make his friends hesitant, despite their haste." He rested his chin on
his arms, which were now crossed on the back of the chair. "I need them
uncertain, but unable to wait and plan."

Finally, he stated, "I shall send something to them... something
personal... of yours. Something that will make them fear for your
welfare."

Casey's hand went to her chest, covering the locket JD had given her.
His eyes followed her movement, and she said: "I ain't got anything but
this. You can't take it from me, it's all I got of JD..."

Erickson smiled a smile that made Casey's blood run cold.

"The trinket is a nice idea, but not quite what I had in mind."

Erickson stood and walked to a room behind the bar. He came back with a
box, and laid it at her feet. Then, he sat back down, facing her.

"Keep the locket. I'll take the rest."

Casey stood still, puzzlement etching her face.

"I done told you. I got nothing else."

Erickson's smile only grew brighter, "But of course you do. You have
plenty. Just put it in the box."

Understanding dawned on her, and she blushed.

"I can't give you m-mah clothes," she stammered.

Erickson sighed, "I must send a message to your beloved. All things
considering, this is the best message I can think of on short notice.
So, given or not, I mean to have them, Mrs. Dunne.

"The choice of how I get them is up to you. You may relinquish them of
your own will, or Henry will assist you in their removal."

The humor remained in his eyes, but it was a dark one, and Casey began
shaking again.

Swallowing, she asked, "Just how much of 'em do you need to make your
point?"

"All of them."

She wallowed again, trying not to look at the leering men around the
room.

"At least let me do this in a private room..."

Erickson grinned broadly, "Oh, you'll have a private room shortly. I'd
not subject you to the further humiliation of returning to the others in
such a delicate... ah... condition. But, to insure you won't try to
escape, I must insist you divest yourself of your garments right here."

She had one last bit of defiance left in her. "It's indecent, Mr.
Erickson, to make a woman undress in front of a group of men like
this."

Erickson's smile softened, but his purpose did not, "I think we can
honestly say, Mrs. Dunne, that I am leagues beyond indecent..."

She hesititated but a minute longer. She saw that life had come back to
Henry's eyes at the prospect of "assisting" her, and she knew she didn't
want his hands on her, at all. So, closing her eyes and trying to
pretend that she was alone by the creek instead of in a room filled
with eyes riveted on her, she began to loosen buttons...


The old man tossed and turned in his fitful sleep, and despite the chill
of the air from an oncoming thunderstorm, he sweat profusely. His breath
was ragged, and his hands clutched at empty air at his sides... air in
the space once occupied by a pair of 1877 Colt Lightnings. His body was
in bed, suffering from a mild case of pneumonia, but his mind... the
old Preacher Man might have said his SPIRIT... was elsewhere.

In his spirit walk, he was a young man again. He felt the heat of the
explosion that propelled him out of the stable and into the main street
of Purgatorio... and onto a distant hill in Normandy, a place he had
never visited before... although he knew the terrain like the back of
his hands. It was a juxtaposed world he abode in within his vision,
hellish with the horror of two worlds separated by the gossamer veil of
time and space. But, his Colts were gone, and without them, he felt as
helpless and naked as a newborn.

"But not as naked as I felt," a soft, familiar voice laughed behind
him. He turned, and his eyes teared at the love he still felt for Casey,
even after the years she had been... he couldn't, even now, bring himself to
think the word.

"Casey!" was all he could think to say. He ran over to her, throwing
his arms around her neck, pulling her close. "Casey!"

"My Love..." she whispered, "It's been a long time."

"God! I've missed you... I missed you so much," he choked.

"I've missed you too," she whispered. She looked radiant in the
afternoon sun, quiet beauty incongruent with the violent memories of
this place. She wore nothing but a blanket, as she did for days in her
own personal hell, but, here in his spirit walk, she wore it like a
royal robe. There was no shame in her eyes, only love for her man. No
tears or fear on her face, only joy.

"Why? Why here... of all the places I could've dreamed of seeing you
in, why here?" he finally managed to say.

She took his chin gently, but firmly in her fingers. She made him look
her in the eyes.

"This is important, John..." she began. Everyone called him "John",
now. "JD" was his grandson's nickname, now. But, back then... back when he
knew her like this... he was "John" to her, but only when Casey was
serious about an issue.

"I know you miss me, Johnny. I miss you, too. But, you have to forget
about me for a while. You have to..." she hesitated, pain for her man
evident on her face, "let me go..."

"No..." he whispered, horror creasing his boyish face. "Casey, I
can't... I promised ya... I PROMISED..."

"John."

It was his first name, just one word, spoken softly. But, she told him a
volume in that word. She told him there would be no discussion, no
arguing... no compromise. What she was saying to him now was final, and
he was going to listen, no matter what he wanted.

"On that day back in 1880, you had a tough choice to make, Johnny. You
could've saved me, and lost the day, or you could've let me die. What
did you do, Johnny?"

JD dropped to his knees, willing the dream to end, willing to be
anywhere... ANY TIME... but here and now. He whispered the same thing
over and over, like a mantra: "I love you, Casey... I love you..."

A hand rested on his shoulder, as his body was racked with sobbing. At
the touch, his pain ebbed, and his heavy heart was lifted. He looked up
through tear-glazed eyes. Casey smiled sadly at her man.

"I know you love me, Johnny. And because you do... and because I love
you, I have to make you remember..."

A harsh caw cried out over her left shoulder, jerking JD's disbelieving
eyes toward the source. The black bird sat on the burning edge of the
stable's roof, eyes piercing him with their fiery gaze. There was no
love in those eyes, only destiny.

"What did you do that day, Johnny?" Casey asked again.

"I -- killed you..." JD whispered, eyes never wavering from the bird's.
"It was the only way to save you..."

Casey nodded, the sad smile never leaving her face.

"Now, listen to me, My Love, because, for love's sake, you must kill me
again..."

JD turned to her slowly, arms hanging dead by his side, pain burned
into his face.

"B-but why? Casey... why?"

"Now, as then, you cannot do what must be done if you keep me alive.
You have to be willing to sacrifice everything... everyone... you hold
dear..." She faded from view, and he saw Josiah in the fire yelling at
him, like he yelled that day:

"You have to make a choice, JD... you can't save us all! You...
can't... save... us... ALL!"

The stable exploded again, tossing him out into the street. He shook
his head, trying to get the cobwebs out, trying to find his hat... through
the smoke and screams, Chris Larabee rode a coal black... a death
black... stallion. He rode up to JD's fallen form.

"Get up, son, or you'll die there!"

"Mr. Larabee??"

"You have work to do, JD... Are you ready?"

JD struggled to his feet, taking the reins of the extra horse Chris
brought with him. He mounted uneasily, and wobbled slightly in his
saddle.

"Where to, JD?"

JD was quiet for a moment, tears welling up in his eyes as memory
returned. The black bird roosted on a banister across the street,
staring a hole in him.

"Casey's back that way, Chris... My friend told me she's being held in
a room behind the saloon..."

Chris nodded, "Well, let's go then."

JD shook his head.

"I can't go that way, Chris... it's the wrong way."

It was Chris' turn to burn him with his glare.

"JD, she'll die if we don't get to her. Carter will kill her if we
don't get there first..."

Josiah's voice roared as an echo in his mind: "You can't save us all!"

"I know Chris... I have to believe she's already dead..."

"I don't think so, JD, and while there's hope..."

"I love her, Chris, but I can't go that way..."

The black bird flew, at that moment, the other way, and JD turned his
horse to follow.

"Where are you GOING?" Chris shouted. "Casey and the others are THIS
way!"

JD turned, no tears, no pain on his face... and a commanding presence
in his eyes that startled the older man. "I know Chris, but I can't go
that way... I can't save 'em all, but I can't afford to lose 'em all,
either. I HAVE to go this way..."

Chris stared at him, opened his mouth to say something, closed it, then
opened it again.

"OK, JD. I hope you know what you're doing..."

"I do," JD whispered. "I'm sorry, Casey, but I understand..."

In the flames, in the smoke, Casey wrapped her arms around herself,
cold despite the fire. She cried softly for her man, for love's sake. She
knew what his decision cost him, but knew he had to do it... as he did
that day back in 1880, he killed his love... because that was the only
way he could save it... or anyone. He rode opposite the way his heart cried for him to go...

And a black bird cawed in the distance...


Chapter 7

Purgatorio had seen "better" days. In 1916, while pursuing Dorateo
Arango... better known as Francisco "Pancho" Villa... an enraged
General John J. Pershing, commander of the U.S. Punitive Expedition, reportedly
had the den of thieves and killers torched, shutting down one of
Villa's favorite hide-aways. It was the second... and final... time in 36 years
that the place tasted fire, and this time, the remaining structures,
originally built in the 1820's, crumbled to ash like the others did in
1880. Pershing may have lost Villa, but he crushed the town under his
boots as payment for Villa's daring raid of Columbus, New Mexico in
March of 1916.

Until recently, it was assumed that Pershing learned of the town from
paid informers. However, it was a Secret Service document from 1880
that tilted Pershing in that direction. After all, from the report,
Purgatorio sounded just like the sort of place from which a man like
Pancho Villa might like to base operations.

Almost since its founding in the 1820's, Pugatorio... once known as San
Sabastian... had been a place of desperadoes. However, it was not under
Villa, but a gringo named Carter Erickson that Purgatory reached its
dark heights from 1878-1880. Erickson, like Villa 30-plus years later,
built an army from nothing. However, unlike Villa, he did not plan
irritating sorties across the border to finance a revolution...
Erickson had no desire to rule, but to profit from the chaos he sowed. A new
gold rush was about to commence in California, fed by rail systems being
forged across the American southwest. Erickson tried to place the first
railroad there, but was beaten out by a Senator with powerful
connections. He then turned to ownership of the land the rails had to
go over, but was thwarted by men like Chris Larabee, who refused to sell
to him or his agents. His efforts to control the land on which the gold
rested were foiled by the Secret Service. Every time Erickson made a
move, someone checked him. However, Carter Erickson was not a man
easily denied. He realized early that terror had profitable applications, and
came to apply what he learned with great enthusiasm. A powerful and
charismatic man, he drew all sorts of depraved and vicious people to
his side, people who understood Erickson well enough to know that within
his sinister genius resided another type of goldmine.

He never owned a railroad, but within a year, the Senator who beat him
to the punch was more than willing to share profits with him. He never
owned a single mine, but in short time, many of the mine owners were
happy to pay for "peace of mind". But, there was still the problem of
the land in between. In 1880, a good portion of the land Erickson
wanted to control, if not own, was within the sphere of protection of Four
Corners, and the men whose guns paved peace and prosperity over the
bodies of those who opposed them. With this prosperity and order came
boom times, and people came in droves from the east. This, Erickson
could not abide.

But, challenging the "Magnificos" in Four Corners was a risky
proposition. They knew the land, and they had friends who would help
them at the drop of a hat. Even if they were bested in Four Corners,
they would become martyrs, and an Army fort was established within a
days' ride, thus complicating matters. So, Erickson could not face down
the Seven on their home soil. He had to get them on a battlefield of
his choosing, at a time of his choosing. His agents watched and reported
everything, no matter how insignificant. And, over a few months, a plan
took shape.

Every group, no matter how good they are individually or how well they
mesh, have a weak link. This group had a youth among them, one recently
married to a beautiful young local woman. The others thought of this JD
Dunne as a kid brother, as well as a friend-in-arms. They were
protective of him and his bride. So, take the bride, make them come for
her, and place them on a field of his choosing. Once she started
helping out at a local orphange, the stage was set... The bait was taken, and
wheels were set in motion...

Vin and JD were at the Sheriff's Office when Erickson's "message"
arrived, three hours before Special Agent James West rode into Four
Corners. Vin handed JD the packet that was addressed to him, then went
to see what cargo was delivered. He stiffened at the sight of the
unexpected bodies under the tarp, but came out of his horrified daze at
JD's anguished cry from inside. By the time he ran in, Mary Travis was
there, holding back tears, looking at the opened parcel, and JD had run
to find the man he most considered an older brother: Buck...
 


JD lived the nightmare all over again as he rode, following the black
bird's call. Casey and he had only been married a short time when she
was taken to Purgatory. Erickson made it clear she was alive, and a
handwritten note from Casey seemed to verify it... but the clothes
provided a young husband with unbidden and frightening thoughts as he
wrestled with fear for his wife, and no matter how much he put them out
of his mind, the images tormented him.

Tormented him then, and haunted him now.

John Dunne knew now that Erickson's intention all along was to spur
hesitation and uncertainty in him, and to make normally bold men more
cautious. Men of action aren't accustomed to this... unaccustomed,
uncertain actions might cause such men to make mistakes... often fatal
ones. That was Erickson's hope and plan. And, right up to the night
before the Seven, plus a few others who offered help, advanced on
Purgatory, Erickson's plan went like clockwork.

That was the night that John Dunne had a dream...
 


Part 8

They had taken his wife, and John Dunne was filled with fear and
foreboding. Carter Erickson had been, for three years now, the toughest
enemy the Seven had ever faced. For all practical purposes, the Seven
and Erickson managed little more than a draw in their ongoing war.
Until now however, Erickson had fought with some honor. Apparently, all
that changed. With Casey in his grasp, Erickson planned his killing
blow. That was obvious.

The Seven couldn't afford to wait, but knew they'd be walking into a
trap. However, they wouldn't be going in alone. Several old friends and
collegues decided to join them, including Don Paulo's ex-top gun
Raphael and a strange gunman who had befriended Vin after coming to
kill him a couple of years ago... a man known only as Paladin. James
West reluctantly agreed to join them... not out of fear for his life,
but because it ran contrary to his orders. After all, he was only
supposed to investigate Erickson's operations and report back to the
President. An expeditionary force would have been gathered for dealing
with the man if it proved necessary. West, however, knew that Carter
had at least one Senator by the short hairs, and had reason to suspect
that no military option against Purgatory would have been raised in
time to save the nuns, the children... or Casey Dunne.

The men talked tactics and strategy into the wee hours of the morning
before leaving Four Corners. After heated debate, a plan was settled
upon using inside information that West had secured. Since the men
could in no wise take on Erickson's small army alone, they would use
stealth and deception to draw Carter out long enough for a group to
free Casey and the others. If possible, Erickson would be taken down,
but the primary objective was freeing the prisoners.

After all, with the right timing and the right circumstances, West
still believed a military option was possible, and there was simply no
need to get themselves... and very likely the prisoners... killed
needlessly. Once the tactics were worked out, the men separated for the
night...

Sleep came hard for JD, and once it claimed him, it offered up
frightening visions. It began with Casey standing in front of a burning
stable...
 

 


JD stood in the empty street of Pugatory, in front of the old stable on
the north side of town. From one end of the main street to the other,
bodies littered the ground. Many were of the enemy. But, scattered
among them were the children, the nuns... and his friends. No living
soul appeared to be left to bury the dead but JD. He wept bitterly as
he looked for the face of his beloved Casey among the perished, but
could not find her.

"John"

JD looked around in astonishment at his name. The voice so familiar,
yet so strange, was his wife's. It was familiar because he'd recognize
her whispered voice in a tornado's wild winds; strange, because there
was a hint of ancient wisdom that should not yet encompass it for
years. John Dunne understood this without knowing why, but he knew it
with the sureness of hands flashing to gun handles. And, there she was,
glorious in the morning sun. He willed himself move to her side.

"Casey?" he asked, a smile growing on his disbelieving face. "Casey!"
he yelled joyously as he swept her into his arms. She laughed as he
lifted her and danced, her feet dangling in air. He slowly lowered her
to earth, searching her eyes and showering her with his love.

"If I'm going to dream, I'm glad you're here. God! I miss you,
Darlin'!" he beamed at her.

"I miss you too, Johnny. However, I'm not here for love, but for love's
sake," she replied softly, a sad smile shadowing her gentle face.

JD was quiet for a moment, but made an observation when he at last
found his voice, "Casey, you sound different..." He wrinkled his nose,
as if smelling something not entirely unpleasant, but not what he
expected for dinner. She laughed softly at his expression.

"How so, My Love?" she asked.

"I dunno... different... older... you know, citified!" he ventured.

"Educated," she answered. She held a hand for him to take. That was
when he noticed she wore nothing but a blanket. He took her hand, but
frowned at the images his dream was shaping.

"If you say so... why am I here, Casey?" he asked, anxiety beginning to
return.

She did not answer for a heartbeat... the longest he had experienced
since the day she said "I do", looking so beautiful JD's breath caught
when he saw her coming down the aisle.

But, after a moment, she did speak.

"I am the Casey of possibility, Johnny. Not the one who is, but the one
who might be. I am here to show you a marvel. I am here to show you a
world yet to come."

JD trembled as she stroked his hand gently with her own. "Does this
world begin with the death of my friends?"

She smiled, and answered cryptically: "It begins and ends with death,
Johnny. But, you needn't fear the Reaper. Instead, I ask you to
befriend death. That's the only way for you to save what is lost."

"I-I don't understand..." he stammered.

"You will," she smiled. "Come, I have much to show you."

His eyes followed her hand, as it traced a path along the street. When
her hand stopped, so did his heart. Casey stood by him, smiling sadly
and softly, but she also lay among the dead. She wore the same blanket
upon the cold, bitter ground that she wore by his side, but the wind
had opened the fabric, exposing her soft flesh just a bit. Light
glinted painfully off something hidden there, and JD realized he was
seeing her locket... the one he had given her on their wedding day.

He turned away, to look only at the Casey standing before him.

"Which is real? You, or..." he could not finish his thought.

"Both. Neither. We are possibility, Johnny. Each of us. Both of us. You
must decide which comes to pass." She smiled sadly again.

"Oh, that's an easy one. I choose you, here and now, alive and
smiling... alive and so beautiful!" he exclaimed as held her shoulders
in a grip just short of painful.

She laughed deeply then, and ran her finger tips over his lips and
across his face, tracing his cheekbones. Looking into his eyes, she
smiled lovingly, "That's part of why I love you so, Johnny. In your own
way, you are more charming than even Buck, for your words are straight
from your heart, not practiced and proven."

"Well, it's settled then. Now all I have to do is find out how to make
it all happen, how to get you out alive," he sighed.

"Then, allow me to show you what it takes..." she said. Turning him,
she waved her hand once more, and new images passed before his eyes. He
was transfixed, unable to avert his gaze, staring with burning horror
at what he watched. He saw death as he had never seen it before, bodies
stretching everywhere. He saw Purgatory, the trap that was set, the
plan gone awry, and Erickson triumphant. He saw his friends fall one by
one, until only he and Casey stood, shivering in the corner of a
building in which they were pinned, hopeless. Henry LaGuardia, dark
humor dancing in his eyes, held them at gunpoint. JD held his pistols
weakly, having already spent his last round fruitlessly, as he watched
Buck riddled in a hail of lead from which he was powerless to stop. His
friend, his adopted brother, gave his life so that JD and Casey could
get away, but Henry was waiting on them in the only path of escape.
Carter Erickson grinned over LaGuardia's shoulder.

"I think I win!" he laughed. He danced a little jig as JD stood,
keeping himself between the men and his wife.

Henry laughed as well. "What do you think, boss... shall I entertain
myself with his missus while he watches? I hain't done that'un in a
while. Hell, betwix her and them nuns what's left, the boys and I could
have some serious..."

Carter covered his mouth before he could finish.

"No, no, Henry. I am in a magnaminious mood today, now that I have
finally won. I think I shall allow these two to leave, provided they
leave now and never look back."

"You'll let us go?" JD asked incredulously. "What about the others?"

"Well, now... that's a different story, see. Any of your friends still
breathing shall cease to do so shortly. The children will draw a
wonderful price on the Araby slave markets, and the nuns... well, for
my men who are less religious or discriminating, they will provide some
reward, for as long as they survive, anyway."

Carter looked at Henry, who made no move, but had disappointment on his
face.

"Ah, there, there, my good man. Do not fret. We shall deal with Four
Corners now that these troublesome gunfighters are no more. I am sure
that, between the Hispanic barkeep and that newspaper publisher, you
should find plenty of sport to keep you happy. Indeed, since these
seven men made the surrounding area safer, the place is a regular boom
town. Why, you should have no shortage of victims for the foreseeable
future."

Henry was still unhappy, but his mood lightened slightly at the thought
of all those women in Four Corners. Yes, things were beginning to look
up...

JD just had to know, "Why would you let us go?"

Carter laughed long and hard, then answered the young man in good
spirits, "Why Mr. Dunne, don't trust me? It is well you don't. However,
this is MY reward. You are my legacy, John Dunne, you and your wife.
You will keep the secret terror of what you saw here in your hearts
always. You are a beaten man, and as such will never pose a threat to
me again. I will do as I am want with no interferance from you. My
friends will sing my praises as I enrich them, my hangers-on might even
write a glowing biography about me. But you, the  enemy, badly
beaten... ah, you will tell more interesting stories!"

Carter laughed again, richly, darkly, as JD paled. In the street, just
in the edge of his vision, he saw the victorious henchmen taking what
little unbloodied clothing and other items his fallen comrades still
possesed. The rest was piled in the center of town, and the bodies
placed on top of it. Kerosene was doused on their mortal remains and
the makeshift pyre ignited.

JD turned to Casey, "Isn't there a way to stop this?"

She gazed into his eyes for a moment, as if searching for a hidden
treasure.

She spoke softly, as Carter and the very real hell of Carter's victory
faded to shadow: "There is, and I shall show you, Johnny, in due time.
But to reinforce the necessity of what you must do, you must see one
more thing..."

He stared back at her in mute horror, "Is it worse than this, Casey?
I'm not sure I can stand much more of this..."

She held a finger to his lips. "You can and will endure worse than
this, Beloved, because you have no choice. If you are to save anyone at
all, you will endure much, much worse." She kissed him gently, then
added, "Come..."

She led him away from Purgatory and up a nearby hill. At its crest, she
stopped and pointed. There, on the edge of a great water, he saw images
he could not comprehend. Here he saw death on a level he could not even
imagine. He saw heroes fall, and a diabolical evil, ten... a hundred...
a THOUSAND times greater than Erickson, reign heavily and mercilessly
over an entire continent for decades before other heroes could arise
and vanquish it. He saw Auschwitz, Dachau... and a hundred other hell
forges rise across the continent, burning away all the evil chose to
destroy, until entire groups and races of people ceased to exist in
Europe. He saw entire families marched into the furnaces bent and
beaten, scorched in the hatred of all that was different from what the
victors saw in their mirrors.

JD fell to his knees, as Casey transformed into a black bird with
piercing eyes, that hopped upon his shoulder. With a voice that was
hers and yet was not, the bird intoned, "You are the strong tree that
can arise from the ashes. You must not fall, for you bear the seedlings
of a better world in your heart. You know great love, but without
vision, all that you love will be lost. You are given to choose the
paths of your heart, but to save one is to lose all."

"I don't understand!" JD moaned, crushed beneath the terrible burden of
what he saw.

"In order to live, you must die. In order to save that which you love,
you must kill it. In order to preserve the living, you must embrace
death as a dear friend. It is the only way any will be saved."

"But, I don't know what to do!" he cried out.

"When the time comes, you will do what you must. Watch for the sign,
and then move quickly... When the sons are gathered, the fathers will
come..."

The vision began to fade as JD began to awaken from his fitful sleep,
but he wailed: "I don't understand!"

He heard one last echoing reply before waking completely: "Watch and be
ready..."

 


Chapter 9

Colonel Herman Reikert stared over the rim of is glasses at the paper
handed him by his radioman. The gaunt, balding man with a perpetual
frown queried: "You are certain this is accurate."

"Yes sir."

"Has the General seen this yet?" the older man asked. He adjusted his
bifocals, and his face drew into a deeper scowl.

"No sir. Under the circumstances... well, I did not wish to disturb the
General if this were a hoax. I felt you'd know better than I about such
things..." The younger man let his thought fade.

"A prudent course of action. Certainly, you have done well. The General
IS a busy man, and you are right... he would not wish to be disturbed
over a mere rumor." Reikert swiveled his chair toward the other. "We
know that the enemy has begun an invasion, with confirmed landings at
Normandy and probable landings in Italy. An airborne assault to our
rear echelon would not be out of the question, if the enemy intended to
cut off defenders and attack our unprotected flank... I will advise the
General of this new development, and I will put in a commendation for
your diligence..."
 
 

The other soldiers remained quiet as Captain Larabee finished his
spiel. He repeated the message, then he signed off. As he set the
headpiece aside, the others exhaled.

"Cap'n... do you think Jerry bought it?" Will asked.

"I hope so," the older man replied grimly, "'cause we won't get a
second chance to fool them." Captain Hank Larabee stroked his chin,
scratching the stubbly growth there. "Question is, how will we get the
local SS boys to bite?"

Dunne spoke up, "Sir, I have an idea... but..."

Larabee looked around at the Corporal expectantly, but Jeff hesistated.
The Captain smiled, "Might as well spell it out. You got our interest
up, now."

Jeff squirmed under the intense scrutiny from the other men. He
scratched his head and admitted, "Well, it's a bit crazy, sir..."

Larabee shrugged, "In crazy times, crazy ideas might be just what we
need."

Dunne coughed, then slowly unfolded his strategy. The other men looked
at each other, then to the Captain. If Larabee had any misgivings about
what he heard, he did not show it. In fact, after Jeff wrapped up his
idea, Hank smiled slightly. "You know, Dunne, that IS pretty crazy...
but maybe crazy enough to work."

The youth grinned nervously.

"I can get right on it, sir..." he began, but the Captain placed a kind
but firm hand on his shoulder.

"You better let me field this one, son. I think I might be more
convincing." Larabee looked at the others. "I'm going to need you boys
to do something, though."

Wilmington sighed, "I bet we ain't going to like it, either."

Larabee laughed softly, "I imagine not..."
 
 
 

Sgt. Wolfgang Hellman was finishing his rounds when he heard and felt
the explosion nearby. A fireball loomed into view above a roof to his
left, angry and billowing, followed by a hellish column of thick, black
smoke. He and several others ran, weapons drawn, to see what
transpired, and found three Americans prone, near a blazing truck. The
three men appeared to be badly burned, but only one was alive. Hellman
approached cautiously, but the man simply groaned as he lay, smoke
drifting up from his scorched uniform. One of the privates drew a
pistol, intent on shooting this helpless man, but the seargent would
have none of it.

"Look, imbecile, before you act," he scolded as he reached down and
grabbed the American's collar. He displayed the double bars than
signified the man was ranked "Captain" in his Army. "You were about to
kill information with the man."

"Sir?" the private asked, startled by the reproach of his superior.

The seargent sighed heavily, "This American is obviously behind our
lines, but the invasion is still being held up at the beach. Don't you
think that knowing his purpose here might be of some value?"

The younger man merely answered, "Oh..."

"Ja. Oh. If you live long enough, Private, you might learn something of
value. Now, you..." he pointed to another black-garbed man, "and you,
carry him to the office, and be quick about it. The major will wish to
question him before he dies on us."

The two designated soldiers shouldered their Mausers, then hoisted the
American by his ankles and under his arms. He moaned painfully as they
moved him, but his captors appeared unconcerned about casuing him
further discomfort. The seargent picked up a couple of objects that
fell from the wounded man's hands. He stared at them for a moment, then
smiled, turning to join the others.

In nearby brush, Dunne, Wilmington and Doc watched carefully.
Wilmington was worried sick about his friend, but knew better than to
interfere.

"I'm glad they didn't look more closely at the patches on those poor
bastards," Lester noted. "It seemed right indecent to use the dead that
way."

Doc nodded, but added, "I don't think those men would have minded, if
they knew they were still in the fight. Certainly," he swallowed hard,
"there's no shortage of dead to find."

"What now?" Wilmington asked, to no one in particular.

"I guess we have to wait and see if they take the bait," Doc replied.

Lester Wilmington and Jeff Dunne went back, quietly, to get the others.
Doc remained to watch...
 
 

"Quite clever, these progeny," Ezra remarked, "though, it's likely to
get your grandson killed in the process."

Chris nodded, but said, "Yeah. It might. That's a price a man has to be
willing to pay, sometime... No one knows more about that than you do."

"Don't remind me, Mr. Larabee. My mother would have been appalled by my
actions that day. 'Selflessness will get a body killed' she'd
admonish," Ezra rolled his eyes, and leaned against a tree, arms
crossed in an old posture.

"I reckon she was right," laughed Josiah.

"On that one occasion she was undeniably correct," Ezra agreed. "I did
not enjoy it, as I am allergic to bullets."

"Well, I'd say we got a healthy dose of 'em that day," Buck chimed in.

"Or an unhealthy dose," corrected Nathan.

"Let me simply say that I was the recipient of an obscene dosage and
leave it at that. I did not count them, being preoccupied with
exsanguination at the time," the gambler quipped.

"What?" Buck frowned.

"Bleeding to death," translated Josiah. "I'm sad to say I didn't get to
try that experience. I didn't even have time to pray..."
 

 


The stable was on fire, and JD pulled on Josiah's arm, trying to free
the big man, but he was thoroughly pinned by a fallen beam. Flames were
getting uncomfortably close to the black powder kegs set behind a few
bales of hay.

"I... can't budge you..." JD strained. He shifted to the beam, trying
to lift it, with no success. Josiah coughed, then whispered fiercely,
"Get out of here, JD. You have work to do."

Tears filled the younger man's eyes. If Buck were like an older
brother, then Josiah was like the father he always wished he had.

"I can't leave you like this," JD moaned, as he attempted to move the
beam again.

"No time," the Preacher whispered, "Go on son, go help those you can.
Don't worry about those you can't."

JD's eyes held horror at the thought. "But..." he began, but stopped as
Josiah shook his head violently.

"You can't save us all, son. Save those you can," Sanchez hissed
through pain-clinched teeth. "Now git!"

JD hesistated but a moment longer, until Josiah, with his last ounce of
strength, pierced him with eyes blazing hotter than the flames around
them. Josiah said to him, with words even and hard as steel, "If you
honor me, then remember who I was. Let that gird you in your hard time
ahead. I die with no regrets, JD, as long as you don't die with me. You
can't save us all, and you shouldn't even try. This is my fate! Yours,"
he pointed, strength fading fast, "is out there. Now, go."

JD stood firm one moment more, tears flowing freely now. He turned,
screamed like a madman, drew his guns and ran for the door. Josiah
closed his eyes, and began to recite, "Our Father, Who art in
heaven..."

He felt the pressure wave a mere instant before it swept him from the
living, but never heard the explosion behind it. JD saw the light flare
behind him, right before the wave carried him through the door, into
the street and destiny, head over heels.

Chapter 10

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