by Beth Green

Part of the Magnificent Little Britches series

Author's Notes: Thanks to Marnie for the quick response to my request for a beta. Any remaining mistakes belong to me. Now, let's ride!

Chris, Buck, Vin, and JD were gathered around a table at Miz Percy's, finishing up the remains of a man-sized breakfast. Chris gave a satisfied belch as he pushed his empty plate away.

When the older man did not say 'Excuse me,' JD said it for him. "'Scuse me."

At Chris' puzzled expression, Buck explained, "Thank you, JD, for mindin' our manners for us. Sometimes me an' Chris forget what's expected when we're in polite company."

Chris silently cursed the slight blush he felt rising on his face as he responded, "Yeah, thank you, JD, and excuse me." Anxious to escape any further embarrassment, Chris stated, "Now that I've finished breakfast, I'm gonna head down to the barber's for a shave. I'll see you all later."

Vin watched the older man leave, staring at the spot where he'd last seen him until Buck felt it necessary to address the boy.

"Vin, you look like you're thinkin' mighty long and deep. What's on your mind?"

Startled out of his reverie, Vin responded, "I jus' didn't know he owned anything that wasn't black."

Buck smiled at Vin's words. He'd noticed there was something different about his friend this morning, a definite lightening of his formerly somber mood. Buck hadn't consciously realized that Chris' improved outlook on life had extended to his choice of clothing in the form of today's blue shirt and brown pants. He nodded in response to Vin's observation.

"Yeah, used to be ol' Chris had as many different shirts as there were colors in a rainbow. I haven't seen him wear anything but black since . . ." Buck stopped himself before he completed his thought out loud. He'd been about to say, "Since Sarah and Adam died," but he swallowed back the words. Buck made it a point never to mention Chris' old family in front of the boys. Vin and JD were still uncertain enough of their place in Chris' life that Buck did not want to offer them any reminders of the fact that Chris had another family before theirs, one that had been taken from him by a tragic and deadly fire. Nevertheless, Buck suspected that Vin knew what he'd been about to say.

Buck continued, "If you want to know what it means, I'll tell you what I think: I think that Chris is happy. Mostly, he's happy that you boys are in his life, and he's happy to be your friend and a protector to you when you need one." Buck stood up and walked around the table. He crouched down and positioned himself between Vin and JD. He reached out long arms, wrapping them around both boys and pulling them to his chest as he declared, "'Cause he's just about as happy as I am that you're here, and we're never, ever gonna let you go."

Vin smiled and murmured, "Thanks."

JD laughed and stated, "Thanks. Now c'n you please quit squeezin' me?"

Buck countered, "As soon as you quit squeezin' me back!" He stood up, balancing a boy on each hip. The move was not as graceful as he would have liked due to the unequal weight of the boys.

Still smiling, Vin scolded, "You almos' dropped me!"

Buck ignored the boy's complaint, asking, "Didn't anyone ever tell you that 'almost' only counts in horseshoes?"

Buck received two quick 'No's' in response.

"Well then, I guess I got a lot to teach you two, don't I? You boys up for a little game of horseshoes?"

Both boys answered, "Yes."

Buck bent his knees and placed Vin and JD back onto the ground, secretly relieved to have an excuse to put them down. Although he would never admit it, his arms were starting to feel the strain of bearing their combined weights. He stood up and headed toward the door. "Let's get a move on! Time's a-wasting!"

They headed down the street toward the livery to obtain the supplies needed for their game. As they walked, they couldn't help but see the gallows being constructed near the jail.

A convicted horse thief, John Blackfox, was scheduled to be hanged in two days' time. The entire town was buzzing with excitement regarding the coming event.

Vin was confused regarding the festive atmosphere surrounding what to him ought to be a serious occasion. He decided to ask Buck about it.

"I got a question."

Buck quickly answered back, "I hope I got an answer. Ask away."

"Uncle Ezra was talkin' about the hangin' t'other day."

Vin recalled the conversation.

Ezra had been speaking to Buck regarding the money-making opportunities that no one except him seemed to have thought of. "It's a necktie party. People are coming from miles around for the grand event. If someone were to produce appropriate souvenirs, perhaps miniature gallows, I would be more than happy to act as sales intermediary."

Buck responded, "Sorry, Ezra, I expect you'd need more than a couple of days to make something like that, even if you could find someone who was willing to do it." Buck continued, "Mind you, I know more than a few folks 'd probably buy 'em if the price was right."

Ezra sighed at the loss of imaginary income. He caviled, "At the very least, we should be charging a fee for admission to the propitious event."

Vin had been thinking about the conversation ever since. "Mr. Buck, why are they havin' a party for a hangin'?"

Buck stalled, "I wouldn't exactly call it a party."

Vin shrugged, "Whatever you wanna call it, no one seems to be upset about somebody gettin' killed."

JD had been listening intently to the conversation. He added a question of his own. "That man, Mister Blackfox, is gettin' hanged for stealing?"

By the tone of the boy's voice, Buck could tell that JD did not believe that the punishment fit the crime. He explained, "Blackfox didn't just steal. Well, he did, but the thing is, he stole a man's horse. And, it wasn't the first time he'd done it. As long as he's alive, he's the kind of man who'll just keep stealing again and again and again.

"When you steal a man's horse, you're not just stealing an animal. You're taking away a man's ability to get himself out of the desert if he doesn't have any food or water. You're taking away his means of farming his land if it's the only way he's got to pull his plow. You're taking away any chance he has of riding to get help if him or somebody he loves is hurt or sick.

"John Blackfox is responsible for killing a lot of men." Buck looked at each boy in turn, impressing upon them the seriousness of his words. "He killed 'em in the worst possible way, leaving 'em to die slow and painfully."

Buck allowed his anger to show as he declared, "Hanging's too good for a man like him. He ought to be left out in the middle of the desert, to die the same way as those he killed." Buck would've gone on, but he recalled himself to reality and the fact that he was speaking with two small boys. He concluded, "So, no one's gonna miss Blackfox, and we'll all be a lot safer once he's dead."

He asked, "Do you understand now why folks might feel a little bit like celebrating the news that he's gonna hang?"

Buck received two solemn nods in response. He tried to shake off his serious mood but was only partially successful.

He abruptly changed the subject. "I believe we were gonna go play horseshoes."

Man and boys continued on toward the livery, not stepping quite as lively as they had been before their conversation.

Buck and the boys had been playing for a while when Miss Blossom strolled up and began observing their game. It wasn't long before Buck lost interest in the game. He walked away for a bit of private conversation, returning a few minutes later to announce, "Boys, I've got to go to a meeting with Miss Blossom. If you need anything, you can come a'knocking." He hastened to add, "That is, if you can't find Chris, or Josiah, or Nathan, or Ezra."

The boys stayed near the livery. The blacksmith did not mind their presence, and even allowed them to help out with simple chores.

Ezra had resigned himself to the necessity of resuming his daily routine once Buck had pointed out that any ideas he had to profit from the impending demise of John Blackfox were impractical, if not impossible.

Of the many services required of him as one of Four Corner's peacekeepers, the one Ezra minded the least was jail duty. He got to spend his time in nonphysical labor, sheltered from the elements. Not that Ezra shared that fact with his fellow lawmen. Standish made the expected noises of complaint when he left the saloon to assume today's duty, but in truth it was an easy task.

The jail currently housed only one prisoner, Mr. Blackfox. The man was a convicted horse thief. Judge Travis had considered the fact that the man was a repeat offender, and his final judgment had been rendered accordingly. Blackfox had been sentenced to death. It was no more than the man deserved.

Ezra had no inclination to show the man any kindness. He idly shuffled his deck of cards from hand to hand as both men listened to the ongoing gallows construction.

Blackfox spoke, repeating a request he'd uttered previously. "Please, you gotta let me speak to the Judge. I got information about a murder. I'm willing to trade it for a chance to save my life."

Ezra stopped his shuffling to reply, "You yourself are responsible for the death of more than one man. I should think that the Judge is well satisfied with your sentence, or he would not have bestowed it upon you."

The prisoner grasped the bars of his cells, twisting his hands around them in his agitation. "I never meant for nobody to die. Not like . . ." Blackfox stopped, unwilling to go on. "Please, you gotta let me talk to the Judge."

Ezra frowned when he realized that he was actually considering honoring the man's request. Really, it would not do. Perhaps he could persuade the prisoner to share his information. Ezra could pass it on to the Judge, and the hanging could proceed as scheduled. "I would be more than happy to relay any information that you possess to the Judge on your behalf."

Blackfox shook his head. "You can't do anything about my sentence. He can."

Ezra put his cards away as Blackfox continued to beg and plead. The man's entreaties were starting to wear on his nerves. The peacekeeper finally decided that it would do no harm to have the Judge listen to whatever tale Blackfox wanted to tell. Judge Travis was a fair and honest judge, and Blackfox was not an accomplished liar. As he had at the man's trial, the Judge would more than likely listen to anything the prisoner had to say with an open and discerning mind, and be able to tell the difference between fact and fabrication.

He interrupted Blackfox mid-request.

"Please . . ."

Ezra stood up abruptly and approached the prisoner with a warning: "Judge Travis has as little tolerance for liars as he does for horse thieves. I would advise you to keep that in mind." He turned away from the prisoner's hopeful gaze and stepped out the door of the jail, hoping to share Blackfox's request with one of his fellow peacekeepers.

Fortunately, after having completed his 'meeting' with Miss Blossom, Buck was across the street and headed in the general direction of the jail. Ezra waved to attract his attention. "Mr. Wilmington, do you happen to know the whereabouts of Judge Travis?"

Buck nodded. "I saw him heading over to the saloon a little bit ago. What's up?"

Ezra replied, "Mr. Blackfox is requestin' that the Judge pay him a visit. Would you mind seein' if he'd care to speak with the condemned?"

Buck shrugged. "Sure. Don't see as it'd do any harm."

Buck would have reason to rue his words once he'd heard what Blackfox had to say.

Ezra filled Buck in on his conversation with the condemned man, after which Buck set out in search of the Judge.

Wilmington easily located the Judge in the saloon. He was seated at a table enjoying a drink. Buck slid into a chair on the other side of the table.

"Howdy, Judge. Sorry to interrupt, but John Blackfox over at the jail is askin' for you."

The Judge raised a brow in polite inquiry. "And what, pray tell, does Mr. Blackfox require?"

Buck shrugged. "About what you'd expect. Says he's got some information on a murder that he wants to trade in return for you sparing his life."

The Judge sighed. "In my experience, a condemned man will say and do just about anything to escape his fate."

Buck waited patiently while the Judge considered the matter.

"However, who am I to deny the man his last request? I suppose it will do no harm to listen to what he has to say." The Judge made no move to get up from his seat. "I believe that I'll finish my drink before I go on what will no doubt turn out to be a fool's errand."

Buck decided to join the Judge and placed an order of his own. After both men had finished their drinks, Buck verbalized his desire to accompany the Judge. "If you don't mind, I'd like to tag along. I'm kinda curious to hear what sort of fancy story Blackfox 's got to tell."

"Certainly. You did most of the legwork in tracking down Mr. Blackfox. I see no reason why you can't listen in."

Both Buck and Ezra did their best to fade unobtrusively into the background as Judge Travis addressed the prisoner, not wishing their presence to hinder Blackfox's tongue. They needn't have worried. Blackfox did not hesitate to speak.

"I want to trade, Judge."

Puzzled, the Judge repeated, "Trade?"

Blackfox enthusiastically nodded his agreement. "Yeah. I got information - about a murder. I tell you, you call off the hanging. I figure I gotta do some jail time, but I don't deserve to die."

The Judge shook his head. "The sentence you received was fair."

"Judge, no man ever died direct by my hand. What I'm talking about is a murder that took place three years ago, east of here out past Eagle Bend. I was there."

"That's makes you an accessory."

"Judge, I swear, I don't know what they was gonna do. When I found out, I left. There was two murders, a woman and a boy."

Buck's attention had been sharply drawn when Blackfox mentioned Eagle Bend. Chris' old spread was out that way. Some three years ago, Buck knew the area well. He stepped closer to the cell as Blackfox continued. The mustached man positioned himself shoulder to shoulder with the Judge when the prisoner mentioned the murders of a woman and a boy. Buck thought, It was impossible. It couldn't be. Chris' wife and son . . .

Buck had barely formed the thought when Blackfox stated, "They burned; in a fire. Their name was Larabee."

Buck felt an overwhelming desire to strangle the man. He reached through the bars of the cell and grabbed Blackfox. He was able to get hold of the prisoner's shirt before he could duck out of the way. Buck had the strength of his anger behind his grasp and easily pulled at his captive until his body slammed up against the bars of the cell.

Buck yelled, "That's a lie!"

Blackfox futilely tried to remove himself from Wilmington's stranglehold as he shouted back, "You weren't there! I was!"

Buck abruptly shoved Blackfox away, wiping his hands on his pants as he futilely tried to remove the filth that had less to do with reality and more to do with how he felt after his brief contact with the prisoner.

Buck shook his head. "If you were there, then you can tell me what it looked like!"

Not sure what Buck was asking, Blackfox queried, "What? You mean the ranch?"

Buck resisted the urge to grab the prisoner again, especially in view of the fact that the Judge seemed to have positioned himself so as to avoid a repeat performance of the peacekeeper's aggression.

He shouted, "Of course I mean the ranch!"

Blackfox seemed to be trying to remember. He hesitated before he spoke. "The house was kind of on the small side, with a corral off to the side."

Buck snorted. "The same could be said about 'most every ranch around Eagle Bend. What else?"

Blackfox struggled to remember before he declared, "There was a windmill!"

"Was it near the house?"

"No, it was maybe fifty yards in front of the corral."

Buck let loose a steady stream of curses. He turned away from the cell, unwilling to face the specter from his past.

The Judge asked, "You believe him?"

Buck shook his head. "Damn it!" Buck gestured toward the street. "Judge, you and me need to talk."

The Judge nodded and the two men made their way toward the door. Buck stopped to advise Ezra, "Not a word of this to Chris! You hear me?"

Ezra replied, "I hear you." Ezra disagreed with Buck's order. If anything, he thought that Mr. Larabee should be immediately informed. However, Mr. Wilmington was in no fit state to have that particular discussion so Ezra held his tongue, content with the knowledge that he had not after all agreed to comply with the request. He had merely given an affirmative response to Buck's final question.

Less than five minutes after Buck and the Judge departed, Josiah arrived to relieve Ezra from guard duty.

After informing Josiah of Blackfox's remarkable statement, Ezra headed off to find Chris.

Buck and the Judge returned to the saloon. The younger man ordered a bottle of whiskey and proceeded to pour glasses for both himself and the Judge. Buck downed his first glass in one gulp and was halfway done with his second glass when the Judge broke the tense silence.

"So . . . Is it possible that Blackfox may be speaking the truth?"

Buck closed his eyes as scenes from the past replayed themselves in his mind. His confusion was reflected in his words. "Yes . . . No . . . I don't know." He took another sip from his glass then continued, "God, I hope not. The thing is . . . You gotta understand . . . When me and Chris rode up on the ranch, after the fire . . ." He stopped and shuddered at the memories as they overwhelmed him with the accompanying pain of loss. It took a long minute for Buck to push his feelings aside before he could continue. "By the time we got to Chris' place, there was nothing left. There was no way to tell what really happened; no way to know if the fire had been set accidentally or on purpose. In the end, it really didn't matter. Sarah and Adam, Chris' wife and son, were dead, and nothing could change that. Chris did his best to join 'em, afterward."

Buck finished his drink and poured another. "What happened damn near killed Chris. I'm still not sure why it didn't."

The Judge offered, "You may have had something to do with that."

Buck shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not. It's just, he barely survived the first time around. I don't think he could live through it again." Buck leaned across the table to plead with the Judge, his voice low and intense. "Please, Judge, let me handle this. I'll talk to Blackfox, figure out whether or not he's tellin' the truth. There's no need to involve Chris."

The Judge slowly nodded his agreement, neither man realizing that their attempt at deception was unnecessary.

Ezra found Chris over at the barbershop. The barber was just putting the finishing touches on his handiwork.

"Mr. Larabee. Something has developed over at the jail which I think you should be made aware of."

Chris wiped away the remains of shaving cream from his face as he stood up. "What kind of 'something?'"

"Although Buck seems to doubt the veracity of the statement, Mr. Blackfox claims to have information regarding the murder of your wife and son."

Chris moved before Ezra had a chance to react. He shoved the gambler against the wall, holding him there with his body as he leaned his forearm across Ezra's neck in a near-stranglehold. His voice quiet and deadly, he echoed, "Murder?"

Ezra hastened to explain. "So he claims. He spoke of a fire, and offered to trade information regarding the crime in exchange for the Judge's leniency regarding his execution."

Chris leaned more firmly into Ezra as he asked, "What did the Judge say?"

Ezra's voice was a near-squeak as he replied, "Buck took him off for a private discussion. Nothing has been decided as yet."

Ezra took in a relieved deep breath of air when Chris let him go as suddenly as he'd apprehended him.

Wishing to earn favor in Chris' estimation, Ezra made sure to inform the lawman that it had been entirely his idea to share Blackfox's statement. "When he departed, Buck requested that I not share the information with you." Ezra paused, trying to tell Chris' reaction to the news by reading his body language. Unable to decipher the enigma that was Chris Larabee, Ezra continued, "I disagreed."

Ezra's eyes widened as he observed Chris' response to his statement. In retrospect, the gambler should have anticipated the man's reaction, but the fact remained that he did not. Chris briefly turned away as if he were going to leave without saying a word, then spun around to face Ezra. He pulled his right arm up and back as his hand curled into a fist.

Ezra closed his eyes in anticipation of a blow that never came.

Chris' voice was low, his words forced out from a throat tight with emotion as he declared, "Buck was right."

Ezra made no attempt to follow, considering himself fortunate to have escaped the encounter free from injury.

Vin and JD had left the livery to return to the town center. They decided to join some of the other residents as they observed the construction of the gallows.

Some of the spectators were strangers who'd arrived to witness the hanging. One of them, a man by the name of Jock Steele, seemed especially out of place. His clothes clearly marked him as a visitor from somewhere back East. Rather than observing the construction, he spent most of his time talking to the residents of the town.

"It's not every day that a man is hanged. I understand that the prisoner was brought to justice by Chris Larabee."

JD offered his contribution to the conversation. "My Buck helped, too."

Steele turned his attention to the small child. "Would that be Buck Wilmington?"

JD proudly nodded his agreement.

Not to be outdone in the pride department, Vin stated, "Mr. Buck and Mr. Chris brought in Blackfox together. They's a team."

Steele's, "Is that a fact?" prompted Vin to add, "Me and JD ride with Mr. Chris an' Mr. Buck, so I reckon we know the right 'a things."

Steele proceeded to pump the boys for information regarding their guardians as well as the other peacekeepers. The boys were more than happy to brag about their accomplishments.

They'd been conversing amicably when their attention was drawn to the sudden appearance of Chris Larabee. The man was walking at a fast march, his concentration focused solely on the jail. He walked past the two small boys as if they were not there.

The peacekeeper's entire body radiated a barely contained anger. Anyone watching could not fail to pick up on Chris' rage.

JD reached out a hand in a sudden desire to find some source of security. Vin held out his hand in return. He smiled despite the seriousness of the situation. It gave him a warm feeling inside to know that the younger boy turned to him for comfort, a comfort that he was more than happy to give. And if Vin received a similar feeling in return, it was his secret to guard.

Both boys watched and worried as they saw Chris walk into the jail. Less than a minute passed before Josiah walked out.

The atmosphere on the street was tense while all who'd seen him enter waited for Chris to emerge. They did not have to wait long before Chris exited the jail, shoving Blackfox ahead of him.

Chris had restrained the prisoner's hands in front of his body so that the man was helpless to do anything but follow where he was led. Larabee pushed Blackfox toward the nearest water trough.

His voice reflected his anger as he informed the prisoner, "Sarah Larabee was my wife. The boy's name was Adam, my son."

Heedless of any observers, Chris shoved Blackfox forward and forced his head down until it was completely beneath the water. He had a strong desire to hold the man beneath the water until he was dead. However, he needed more information.

Regretfully, Chris allowed the man to rise from beneath the water long enough to take a breath.

Blackfox sputtered in fear and declared, "I-I didn't kill them, Mister."

Chris tried to shake the answer out of the prisoner as he asked, "Who did?"

"I don't know!"

No longer lawman but an instrument of vengeance, Chris forced Blackfox's head beneath the water a second time.

Vin held his own breath as he watched, trying to figure out when the prisoner was going to run out of air. Vin gasped for air and still Blackfox was not released from the water trough. Just when Vin decided that the man had been killed, Chris pulled him up and out of the water.

Blackfox's chest heaved as his tortured lungs took in precious air. He gasped, "I can help figure it out! I was . . . I was there!"

Chris demanded, "Tell me!"

Desperate to save his life, Blackfox babbled, "I was hired. Me and two other cowboys. One night in a saloon. We was all pretty much drunk. A man comes in, offers us $50 apiece. Said it was to scare some folks off their land."

"Go on!"

Blackfox confessed, "We rode out . . . the four of us. By the time we got to the spread I was sobering up and I didn't like it. So I told the others I'd stand guard and watch the horses. When I seen the flames I-I got scared and I took off."

Chris stated, "You're lying!" and shoved the prisoner's head back into the water trough.

When Chris allowed him up for air again, Blackfox was nearly whimpering as he swore, "No, I'm not!"

Chris shared the reason for his disbelief. "Everybody around here knew about that fire. You're telling me nothing but jailhouse lies to save your miserable skin. You're going back to jail, and then you're gonna hang!"

Blackfox pled his case. "No, I'm telling the truth. I seen it happen. Like I told that other fella, I remember the house and the porch with the windmill beside it."

Chris shook his prisoner hard enough to rattle the man's teeth. "What else do you remember?"

Blackfox raised his bound hands as if in prayer. "I don't know! It's hard to remember. It was three years ago." He continued, "I could tell you more if I was standing there."

Chris gave a snort of disbelief. "Yeah. I bet you could."

Nevertheless, he began to make plans to accompany Blackfox to the site of the wreckage of his previous life.

Josiah agreed to ride along, stating, "I'll see if Nathan's available to give us an extra gun."

Jock Steele walked up and interrupted their conversation. "Chris Larabee, right? Jock Steele, Steele Publishing from New York. Mister Larabee, I'm going to make you a very famous man by coming along. I am going to chronicle your search for justice. I'll call it, 'Larabee's Bloody Revenge'." He lifted the bags at his side so that they were in plain view as he continued, "See, I'm all packed; even brought the camera and the developer."

Chris gruffly declared, "You're not coming with us."

Steele was not ready to take 'No' for an answer. "But I have to. I'll miss the story."

"Won't stop you from writing it," was Chris' cynical reply.

As Steele continued to try and plead his case, he gained nothing other than an increase in Chris' anger. Before Chris decided to share some of his anger with the little man, Josiah intervened. "Mr. Steele? It may have escaped your attention, but Larabee almost killed a man just now."

Steele nodded enthusiastically. "I saw every bit of it. It will make a great story, I can see it now."

Josiah interrupted to warn the man, "If you don't want to meet the same fate as Mr. Blackfox, I suggest that you take Chris' refusal very seriously." Josiah turned away to continue conversing with Chris, leaving Steele to contemplate his words.

Josiah concluded his conversation with his friend by suggesting, "Why don't you go change into some dry clothes? While you're doing that, I'll go find Nathan."

Chris nodded before heading off to his room to change. He never once looked over at those he was leaving behind. His mind was too mired in the past to spare a moment to consider the present.

Vin followed Chris with his eyes only. He wanted to run after the man, to beg and plead with him to stay. However, he was scared by and for the man he'd just seen, the father of little Adam. He wondered if this vengeance-seeking stranger could possibly have room for another boy in his life.

JD was confused by what he'd just seen. He turned to his companion and asked, "Where's Mr. Chris goin'? What's gonna happen?"

Vin sighed. "I dunno." He shrugged, resigned to the fact that in the matter of Chris Larabee, he had no control over his fate. "Guess we'll just haf'ta wait 'n see."

Vin was not surprised to see Chris reappear a few minutes later dressed in black from head to toe. He was relieved that Chris at least acknowledged his presence. His guardian explained, "I've got some old business I've got to take care of. I'm sorry."

Vin bit his lower lip to stop it from trembling when Chris offered his apology. He tried not to read too much into the words, but he feared that Chris was apologizing in advance in case he never came back. It was too much for Vin to bear. He turned and ran, knowing that he would embarrass himself and start crying like a baby if he stayed another minute.

He heard Chris' voice calling after him, "Vin!" and prayed that his guardian would come running after him, that he would not ride away. Vin kept running until he heard the sounds of horses and riders starting to leave. He turned to watch them go, wiping at the tears that ran down his face. He could not quell the fearful thought that Chris would not be coming back.

JD slowly walked up and stood at his side, watching as the riders increased the distance between them. Both boys stood staring at the horizon long after the riders could no longer be seen.

Buck blinked at the bright sunlight as he exited the saloon. It took a minute for his eyes to adjust. While he waited for his vision to become accustomed to the change from the dim interior of the saloon to the daylight, a small boy came running up, shouting, "Buck, Buck, you gotta go get Mr. Chris!"

Buck placed a hand on JD's head, slowing the boy's frantic movement. "Whoa, there, li'l bit, why don't you tell me what's goin' on?"

JD's words tripped over each other as he gave a confused retelling of events from his perspective. "Mr. Chris went and got the man from jail and tried to drown him in the water trough and he was talkin' about Sarah and Adam and him and the man and Josiah and Nathan all rode out!"

Buck's startled "What?" was answered by Ezra, who'd come walking up in response to JD's urgent hail.

"Mr. Wilmington, it appears that you were correct in your assumption that Mr. Larabee would not respond well to the information offered by Mr. Blackfox.

"Although I was not present, from my understanding of the events that transpired, it seems that Chris gave Blackfox a choice between drowning or telling what he knows. Blackfox alleged that he needed to revisit the scene of the crime to assist with his memory."

Buck cursed. "Dammit! That damn fool is gonna go off and get himself killed!"

Had Buck stopped to consider the fact that a silent Vin had accompanied JD, he might have thought a minute before he spoke. Instead, he watched Vin's eyes go wide at his pronouncement. It was too late to unsay the words, so he did his best to minimize their impact.

"Aw, hell, Vin, I don't really think that. I'm just upset that Chris didn't wait to let me know where he was going. Tell you what: you stay here with Ezra, and I'll go catch up with Chris and make sure that he takes care of his damn fool self."

Once again, the boys watched a rider fade into the distance. They were distracted from their sad thoughts by the appearance of Jock Steele. He asked the boys, "Do you know anyone around here who can follow Mr. Larabee and his friends? It's very important that I catch up with them."

Vin knew exactly why Mr. Steele wanted to catch up with the peacekeepers. The man wrote the dime novels that Ezra had been teasing Buck about. While Buck read them enthusiastically, Chris dismissed them as 'trash.' Vin had overheard Mr. Steele telling Chris that he wanted to write a story about him. Vin was well aware of the answer given that made it clear that Chris did not want Steele anywhere nearby.

What Vin knew and what Vin thought were two different things. What he thought was that Chris' life was in danger. He did not know if Buck would be able to find him wherever he had gone. He feared that even if he did manage to find him, Buck would arrive too late to do any good. Above all, Vin thought that he should be with his makeshift family, to help keep them safe.

His thoughts swirling in his brain, Vin found himself saying, "Mebbe I know how to track better 'n anyone in town."

At Steele's incredulous look, JD nodded. "It's true. Ain't no one better than Vin."

Steele contemplated the two small boys in front of him. "I know that Mr. Larabee wanted you to stay here out of an understandable concern for your safety. If I promise to keep you safe, do you think that you could take me to him?"

Vin nodded. His voice solemn, he declared, "Yes, Sir."

Vin knew that he could track Chris. The only thing that might stop him would be Ezra. Therefore, he had no intention of letting Ezra know that he was leaving. He also considered the matter of his small companion. If JD stayed behind, sooner or later he would tell Ezra where Vin had gone. If Vin wanted to make a clean getaway, JD would have to ride along. Decision made, Vin hiked a thumb over his shoulder toward his friend, stating, "JD goes with us."

Feeling that his goal was within reach, Steele did not hesitate to agree. "Yes, of course."

Steele made use of Vin's knowledge to outfit themselves for the trip. He rented a covered wagon and a team of horses, and stocked the wagon with provisions.

Vin knew that Ezra would be angry with him for taking off without saying anything, but his need to find Chris was more important than anything or anyone else. The small search party set out, and Vin began to read the signs that would lead them to the Four Corners peacekeepers.

It did not take long for Buck to catch up with Chris.

Chris offered token resistance to his presence. "I thought you were keeping an eye on the boys."

Unaware that the boys were making arrangements that would put lie to his words, Buck replied, "Ezra can handle 'em. This is more important."

Chris countered, "This is not your business."

Buck shook his head. "The hell it ain't!" He continued, "I'm the man that talked you into staying down in Mexico that night. And I keep thinking, if we'd have just rode back . . ." His voice trailed off as he thought about what might have been.

Chris' voice interrupted Buck's regrets. "I could have come back alone." He sighed, admitting, "You didn't keep me there. Let it go."

Buck shook his head. The pain of loss reflected in his words, he stated, "Sarah was my friend, too, Chris, and I think you know how I felt about that boy of yours. So, if it's all the same, I think I'll ride this one out with you."

Chris' "Suit yourself" was cold and unfeeling. Chris had no room to spare for more tender feelings. He was too focused on the prospect of revenge. If he did not want to be overwhelmed by the grief that had once nearly destroyed him, he had to remain intent upon his goal. It was easy enough to do. All he had to do was remember Sarah and Adam as he'd last seen them, dead and buried.

His control began to slip when they arrived at the ruin of his ranch.

Buck could see that his friend needed a moment to collect himself, so he left Chris standing alone at his family's gravesite while he, Nathan, and Josiah stood nearby.

Chris' shoulders heaved with a silent sob as he stared at the grave markers and the names 'Sarah Larabee' and 'Adam Larabee' where they'd been lovingly engraved by Buck. Three years later, Chris imagined he could still smell the unforgettable odor of their burned flesh. He'd always suspected that there was more to the death of his wife and son than mere accident. The thought that they had been deliberately murdered, that there was someone who could be made to pay for their deaths, helped him to push aside his grief and replace it with anger.

He roughly swiped at his face to remove any trace of tears, then turned and walked over to confront Blackfox.

He demanded, "Tell me about the two men you rode with that night."

Blackfox was less than helpful. "Not much to tell. Never seen 'em before, ain't seen 'em since."

Chris tried to prod the man's memory. "Were they big? Little? Fair? Dark?"

"We rode at night and I didn't pay 'em much mind."

Chris grabbed Blackfox's shirtfront and tried to shake the answers out of the man.

"Well, think!"

With Chris' prompting, Blackfox finally offered a crumb of useful information.

"Only thing I remember is one of 'em had a single silver spur in his boot. Leastwise, he said it was silver. Claimed it was his good luck charm."

"What about the man who hired you?"

Blackfox shuddered slightly at the memory. "Hard man; not the kind you want to stare at." After another minute of contemplation, he offered additional information. "I remember his horse though; maybe 16 hands high. One of the cowboys said it looked a lot like Robert E. Lee's horse, whatever the hell that means."

Chris continued to interrogate Blackfox while Buck stood guard.

Nathan and Josiah headed over to the river the refill their canteens. There, they made a gruesome discovery and hurried back to inform the others.

Nathan's longer strides brought him to Chris' side before Josiah. "Chris! We found something! Down by the river."

Josiah arrived to continue the story. "We found two bodies. Looks like somebody buried 'em, but with the rains and the river flooding, most of the dirt's been washed away."

Nathan confirmed what Chris suspected. "One of the men had a single silver spur. Seems like we found them two fellas Blackfox was talkin' about."

He continued, "About the only thing I can tell you is that they were shot from behind, execution-like, with somethin' big bore, probably a .44. And, there's one other thing: from where they was shot, the fella that shot 'em is most likely left-handed."

Chris supposed that he should feel some relief that the murdering arsonists who'd killed his family were dead. However, he still had no idea who had hired them. "At least we know a little more about the man who set this up. He's a left-hander who rides a big gray."

He headed toward the horses. "Now we go to Eagle Bend and see if anyone can tell us where to find the bastard."

Back in Four Corners, far too many hours passed before Ezra realized that he had no idea of the whereabouts of either Vin or JD. A survey of the town's residents revealed that the boys had last been seen in the presence of Jock Steele. Furthermore, Mr. Steele had left town after having hired a covered wagon. Ezra had a pretty good idea of what was hidden beneath the wagon's covers: Vin and JD.

Ezra suspected that the boys had willingly accompanied Mr. Steele. However, there was a small part of himself that mistrusted the motives of strange men in regards to small boys. It was that portion of his soul that set him on the road to Eagle Bend at a breakneck pace.

He managed to work his horse nearly to the point of exhaustion before he finally caught sight of a covered wagon in the distance. Ezra reined the horse to a sedate canter, not in consideration of the animal's plight, but moreso in deference to any possible peril that the boys might be in. If Mr. Steele had indeed kidnapped the boys, Ezra wished to give the man cause to doubt that Ezra suspected him of pederasty.

The peacekeeper's fear eased somewhat when he drew close enough to observe that both boys seemed calm and were sharing the front seat with Mr. Steele.

Vin's attention was focused on the ground in front of the wagon. His eyes scanned the trampled earth as he looked for any sign of tracks that could indicate that Chris had departed from the road that they were following.

Thus it was JD who was the first to notice the approaching rider. "Uh-oh." Vin and Jock Steele looked around at JD's comment, quickly discerning the reason for it.

Mr. Steele stopped the wagon, allowing Ezra to catch up. As soon as their visitor joined them, Steele attempted to persuade Ezra to view their journey in a positive light. "Well, Mr. Standish! I'm glad that you decided to join us!"

Ezra was in no mood to be friendly toward the man. He drew his pistol and aimed it at Mr. Steele. "I have not joined you as a matter of choice. When you decided to kidnap two children who were under my care, you made yourself a marked man."

Steele's stuttering proclamation of innocence began to settle Ezra's raised hackles. Ezra enjoyed the show as the man lifted his hands up in a plea for mercy. "M-M-Mr. Standish, Sir, there's been a terrible mistake! I didn't kidnap anyone!"

The boys hurried to Steele's defense.

JD declared, "We wasn't kidnapped!"

Vin hurriedly confessed, "It was my idea!"

Ezra replaced his gun in its holster, commenting, "Why am I not surprised? Mr. Tanner, perhaps you would care to tell me what reason you could possibly have to leave the safety of the town and more importantly, myself behind?"

Vin's frustration was obvious as he rationalized his actions. "We wasn't doin' nobody no good jus' sittin' around town. What if Mr. Chris needs our help?" Vin crossed his arms defensively as he continued, "Mr. Steele was goin' to go lookin' for him whether I helped or not. Leastways with me along, Mr. Steele won't get hisself lost - or worse."

Ezra shrugged. "I would argue with you further, if not for one thing: I happen to agree with you. Abandoning Mr. Steele would be the same as leaving a calf to be slaughtered by wolves. Furthermore, I think that Mr. Larabee could benefit from my presence. I cannot go riding off and leave you and JD alone. Therefore, I believe that I shall join you."

Now that the boys were safe, Ezra could spare some time to be considerate of his horse. He tied the exhausted animal to the back of the wagon and allowed the horse to travel along behind them, relieved of the burden of carrying a rider.

On the subject of horses, Ezra quickly discovered that Mr. Steele was an atrocious horseman. Therefore, he suggested that Mr. Steele turn over the reins to him. The writer eagerly complied. The team of horses appreciated that they were now being directed by a competent driver, and the wagon made swift progress toward their goal as Vin continued to point out the trail that led inexorably toward Eagle Bend.

Chris, Buck, Nathan, Josiah and their prisoner rode into Eagle Bend. Buck noted that the town had not improved with age. Eagle Bend seemed to be attracting more of what Mary Travis would have referred to as the 'bad element.' Buck supposed that the fellows who'd been scared out of Four Corners by him and Chris and their friends now conducted their business in Eagle Bend.

Sooner or later, most visitors to town ended up in the saloon. Following that logic, the peacekeepers began their search at the local saloon. Chris had been short of patience when their journey had begun. He had none left by the time he and his companions headed for the bar.

He slammed his hand against the bar and demanded information from the bartender. "You see a man around here, rides a big gray? Probably a lefty? He hired some men out of here maybe three years back."

The bartender was less than helpful. "Things go on in here are private. Now, I want you out of here before you're thrown out."

Chris persisted. "Just tell me if you know the man."

Exasperated, the bartender stated, "You don't hear very well, do you?"

Chris had had enough. If the man would not respond to his words, perhaps he would when confronted with his fists. Chris felt a surge of satisfaction as he struck out at his opponent. The fight was pretty one-sided. Chris easily maintained his dominance as he beat the bartender into submission. Buck, Nathan, and Josiah kept any Good Samaritans well away from the two men.

After a suitable amount of persuasion had been applied, the bartender decided to share what he knew. "The man you're talking about, he comes in here from time to time."

Chris applied a little more physical force and asked, "What's his name?"

"I don't know, I swear!"

"Describe him."

The bartender was more than happy to do so. "He's about your size. He smokes thin, little cheroots. Oh, and he wears them special gloves."

"Special? How?"

"One of 'em's kind of different, like his hand is crippled or something."

"What else can you tell me?"

"I don't know, except he's real neat and clean. Always wipes his glass out before he'll drink."

When it seemed that he'd obtained all the information the bartender had, Chris informed him, "We'll be taking rooms in the boarding house next door. I'd appreciate it if you'd let us know if you see the man."

Knowing that he no longer had a choice in the matter, the bartender replied, "Yeah."

The Four Corners peacekeepers stopped at the local jail to obtain proper housing for their prisoner before they headed off to their rooms.

Chris entered his room and his protective instinct immediate kicked in, warning him that something was amiss. He drew his gun and began a cautious exploration of the room. He noticed a puddle of what looked like blood seeping out from under the door of the closet. Chris opened the door, disgusted at what he found. Someone had left him a welcoming gift: a body.

Chris recognized the bartender who'd spoken to him earlier. The man had been killed and left hanging in the closet. The message was all too clear: anyone else who spoke of their quarry would meet a similar fate. Chris cursed the fact that no one in town would say a damn word to the peacekeepers from here on out. It also meant that the man he was seeking had been in his room. Chris angrily kicked at the closet door. "Dammit!" Their investigation was at a dead end - literally.

The local sheriff arranged for the disposal of the body. It was too late in the evening for the peacekeepers to do anything but retire to their rooms. Chris cursed as he headed toward his new room.

He ranted to his friends, "The bastard's close enough to leave a body in my room, and we still can't find him! There's got to be something we can do."

Buck sighed. "Ain't nothin' we can do in the middle of the night. We'll just have to take another look around town in the morning." It took more than a few more words, but Buck was eventually able to persuade Chris to give up the hunt for the night.

The next morning, Chris was ready to forego breakfast and renew the search for their unknown nemesis as soon as the sun rose.

Nathan cautioned, "Body needs to eat to keep goin'. Best start the day with some food in our bellies, in case we pick up a trail when we leave here."

As things turned out, they did not need to seek their enemy. The man attacked Chris and his friends as soon as they exited the dining hall.

It seems that their unknown foe had repeated his pattern of three years ago, and hired himself some gunmen. The Four Corners peacekeepers were met with gunfire from all sides when they walked out into the street. By some minor miracle, none of the bullets fired at them found their marks as the men dove for cover.

Unfortunately, in addition to being outnumbered, the peacekeepers were taking fire from all sides. Chris and his friends were losing ground when a covered wagon rode up into the middle of the shootout.

Ezra and his companions looked around interestedly as they entered the town of Eagle Bend. They had just crossed the town's outer limits when they were greeted by the sound of gunfire.

Ezra quickly untied his horse from the back of the wagon as he directed the boys to leave the wagon and head for the nearest shelter. Ezra was fairly certain that the men he sought were involved in the shooting. When Steele prepared leave the wagon as well, Ezra stopped the man's forward progress with a firm hand. "Oh no, Mr. Steele. You and I have other business to attend to."

It was a very nervous Jock Steele who held the reins of the wagon as it advanced into the middle of the gunfight. The wagon's arrival provided the distraction that the Four Corners peacekeepers needed to gain more advantageous positions. Once they had done so, Ezra opened fire from the shelter of the covered wagon's bed.

Steele prudently ducked back down and into the wagon's bed. Rather than the terrified whimpering that Ezra expected, Steele exclaimed, "This is great! I'm in the middle of a Wild West shootout with the famous Chris Larabee! A story like this will be a best seller!"

Ezra considered Steele's words. He shared his thoughts, in between gunshots. "I myself -bang! - have been involved in countless gun battles - bang!bang! - as well as a number of colorful escapades. - bang! - For an appropriate fee - bang!bang! - I would be more than happy to share the story of my adventures with you." Ezra ducked as a shot came perilously close to his head. He added, "That is, if we manage to survive our current encounter."

Fortunately for all concerned, the Four Corners peacekeepers quickly gained the upper hand. When it became clear that the ambush was a failure, the surviving hired guns began to run. There was no trace to be found of the man who'd hired them.

Once the gunfire ceased, two all too familiar boys joined Chris and his friends.

Buck exclaimed, "Vin, JD, what the hell are you doin' here?"

JD ran to Buck, who obligingly picked up the boy as he continued to question him.

"Me and Vin came in the wagon with Mr. Ezra and Mr. Steele."

Buck shot an accusing glare in Ezra's direction.

The man in question spoke up. "Let me explain . . . "

Vin cautiously approached Chris. When he got a good look at the man's face, the rage that was no longer hidden caused the boy to keep himself out of arm's reach, fearing that his protector was angry enough to strike out at the nearest target.

Chris didn't give Ezra a chance to explain anything as his temper exploded. He turned to confront the gambler.

"Are you insane? What in hell were you thinking, dragging them two boys into the middle of this?"

Fearing for his safety, Ezra hastily began to plead his case. "Let me assure you, the boys' presence was not my idea. Vin struck a deal with Mr. Steele to act as a scout to aid him in determining your whereabouts. He, Vin and JD left town before I was aware of their actions." He stretched the truth a bit when he added, "By the time I caught up with them, they were nearly to Eagle Bend."

Chris cursed as he replied, "Remind me never to have you look after the boys again."

Vin could not be quiet while Ezra took the blame for something that was his fault. He spoke up.

'Tain't Mr. Ezra's fault. It was all my doin'."

Chris turned on the boy, quick as a snake, pointing a finger as if he wished it were a gun. "Don't you say another word! I've heard enough already."

Chris' pointing finger might as well have been an open-handed slap for the impact it had upon Vin. The boy jumped back, startled and defensive.

Buck was personally glad to have JD nearby where he could keep a wary eye on the boy. Wanting to deflect his anger from Vin, Buck shared his thoughts with Chris.

"I'm thinking that you need to hear just a little bit more. Seems to me that the boys are better off with us, where we can protect them. In case you haven't thought of it, whoever's lookin' to kill you could get it into his head to go after the boys."

Buck's attempt succeeded all too well as Chris turned to face his oldest friend. He shouted, "You think I don't know that what happened to Sarah and Adam could happen to Vin and JD? Do you?"

The silence was heavy as all who were present contemplated Chris' words, including the black-clad gunman himself. He added, "How in the hell am I supposed to live with that?"

Buck's answer was calm, quiet, and deadly serious. "You don't do it alone. We do it together, all of us, as a team."

Once more level heads prevailed, the Four Corners peacekeepers collected their prisoner and set off to follow the gunmen's trail out of town. Chris seethed silently as they rode, the need for vengeance upon the man who'd targeted his family for death burning within his soul. He rebuffed any attempts at conversation, preferring to keep his anger to himself until he finally caught up with the man.

Steele's enthusiasm never waned. When it became clear where the men were headed, Steele exclaimed, "I've always wanted to go to Purgatory! It's the famous Mexican bandit town."

Exasperated, Buck stated, "We know."

JD spoke up from the interior of the wagon. "I don't!" He poked his head out, asking for more information.

Steele gave a little bounce on the seat of the wagon as he happily complied. "If I've heard right, half of the wanted men in the West are there, and they've all got stories to tell. This is going to be my first visit, and I plan to talk to as many of them as possible."

JD replied, "Me, too!"

Buck was quick to correct the boy. "Oh no you don't. You and Vin are gonna spend your time sittin' in the wagon with one of us standin' guard the whole time."

Vin's grumble of protest could be heard from behind JD, "No one 'd have to stand guard if y'all hadn't 'a locked up my gun." After the battle with the Ghosts of the Confederacy, Vin's rifle had been taken from him and locked up in the Four Corners jail. He couldn't access it without assistance from one of the peacekeepers.

Chris replied, "This is neither the time nor the place for that discussion."

Not wanting to set Chris off on another rant, Vin held his tongue. He was pleased to hear Chris imply that his request to have access to his gun was a matter open for discussion, a discussion he fully intended to have sometime in the near future.

Vin knew enough about Purgatorio to be worried. He'd heard the stories about the place where there was no law except what a man chose to take into his own hands. The town wasn't safe for men or boys.

Vin moved to join JD on the wagon's seat as they entered the town of Purgatorio. From that vantage point, he was able to keep a wary eye on their surroundings. The residents had the look of hard men who wouldn't hesitate to kill. Much to the boys' disappointment, the wagon came to a stop near the livery. Nathan volunteered to stay with the boys while his friends continued the hunt for their enemies. Those left behind would have to wait and hope that their friends would return safe and whole.

Ezra and Steele headed for the more prosperous-looking of the town's two saloons. Although the exterior of the building was in good shape, the interior matched the rough, unkempt state of the occupants.

Ezra and Steele were both pleased at what they found there.

Ezra, because he was able to sit in on the card game that was in progress. He questioned the locals even as he relieved them of their money.

Mr. Steele, because the outlaws were more than happy to share their names, photos, and stories when he explained that he intended to make them famous across the country by publishing the details of their daring crimes.

By the time they were joined by their friends, Ezra had a sizable wad of cash, and Steele an impressive collection of stories as well as a group photograph. Chris examined the photograph, noticing one man who stood out from the rest. The man appeared to be neat and clean, especially when contrasted with the company he kept. Chris looked closer and was able to see that the man wore gloves and was smoking a thin cheroot.

He cursed and waved the photo in Steele's face. "When was this taken?"

Steele stammered, "A-about an hour ago."

Chris walked over to their prisoner and showed Blackfox the photo. He pointed out the man in question. "Look at him. Is that him?"

Blackfox nodded. "Yeah. That's the man who killed your family."

Chris' breath rushed out of his lungs as the words impacted him like a physical blow. He looked around the room, hoping that the man in the photograph was still present. Chris' hands tightened into fists when it became clear that the man was nowhere to be found.

He then proceeded to search for the man who'd been photographed standing next to the killer. Chris spotted the outlaw in question and walked up to him. He held up the photograph and pointed to the killer's face. "You know him?"

Buck stood at Chris' side, anxious to hear the answer.

The outlaw shrugged. "Yeah. I seen him."

Chris' next question was more of a demand: "What. Is. His. Name?"

"Fowler. Cletus Fowler."

Buck frowned. The name and face were both unfamiliar to him. He asked Chris, "That name mean anything to you?"

Chris shook his head, numb with dismay as he replied, "Never heard of him."

Chris' anger slowly gave way to a dark depression. He and his friends made further inquires, but they were no closer to locating Fowler than they had been prior to their arrival in town.

They left Purgatorio and headed for the next town, hoping to find some trace of their quarry. While some folks they met admitted to having seen the man some time in the past, there was no fresh trace of Fowler.

The peacekeepers were tired and frustrated when they gathered in their rented rooms that evening.

Josiah tried to maintain a positive attitude. "We're all tired. We need to sleep and think on things a bit. Things will seem brighter in the light of day." No one much believed his words, not even Josiah himself.

Chris spent a long, anxious night worrying. He'd rented a room big enough that he, Buck, Vin, and JD could all share the same space. He needed to keep them close, needed to guard them and protect them from a killer who now had a face and a name: Cletus Fowler.

The next morning, Josiah cheerfully approached his friends. His smile seemed singularly out of place until he explained the reason for it.

"Brothers, I woke up this morning and found that I had been struck by divine inspiration. I believe that I've come up with a way to bring Fowler out of hiding."

As Josiah shared his idea, the dark mood affecting everyone began to lighten as one by one they agreed that the plan was a good one.

Chris would play-act the role of a man increasingly befuddled by alcohol. It was a role that he could assume all too easily, having once lived the life of a drunk whose only friend was the bottle.

To set the plan in motion, Chris headed for the nearest saloon and purchased a bottle of whiskey. He sat down at a table. He did not intend to leave until Fowler showed up, or until it became obvious that the man was not going to fall for their ruse. Most of the whiskey ended up being poured out onto the floor as they day progressed. To maintain the image of a man on a bender, Chris bought another bottle and shared that with the floor as well. Fortunately the floor was filthy enough that a little spilled whiskey was not noticeable.

Larabee's friends came and went, making sure that their comments about how useless Chris was when he was drinking were overheard.

Finally, Buck approached to set the stage for what would hopefully be the final act in their play. "Chris, we're leaving to go and look for Fowler and his gang. We've searched the whole town, and he ain't here. If you ever decide to sober up, you're welcome to join us. Otherwise, we'll be back in three days. We're just gonna leave Blackfox over at the jail until we come back."

Chris' voice slurred as he responded, "Go on, leave me. Ever'body does, sooner or later."

Buck gazed sadly at his friend before he decided that there was nothing more to be said, and he left.

Hopefully, word would make its way to Fowler's hidey hole that Chris Larabee was alone, drunk, and vulnerable. The news should be enough to draw the man out of hiding. Buck and his friends were counting on it as they doubled back around and returned to back Chris up.

In the short time that he'd been in town, Buck had managed to make friends with the sheriff's daughter, Angela. The lady in question willingly provided a secure place for Jock Steele and the boys to hide while they waited to see if Fowler would walk into the trap that had been set for him. When Buck arrived to drop off Steele and the boys, Angela kissed him tenderly and requested that he "Come back soon." She smiled and winked, adding, "I've got some pie for you."

Buck leaned in for another kiss as he declared, "I love pie."

JD made a face as the two repeated and extended their goodbye kiss. The young boy finally resorted to tugging on Buck's coat to remind him, "Don'cha got someplace you're s'posed to be?"

Buck pulled away with a sigh of regret. "Yeah, I'm afraid I gotta go."

He looked down at JD, stating, "Now you and Vin take good care of the lady while I'm gone, okay?"

Both boys nodded, pleased that Buck trusted them to protect his friend.

Vin was not good at waiting, but he'd incurred enough anger from Chris on this trip that he was not about to do anything else to make him mad. He did as he was told. Jock Steele made the wait a pleasant one as he shared some of his more fanciful stories with the boys. The lady made it even more pleasant when she stuffed the boys with sweets.

As the day dragged on into evening, Chris channeled his anger and frustration into his performance as a mean drunk. His surly behavior eventually persuaded the other patrons to vacate the bar. It was just as well. If Fowler did show up, no innocents would be caught in the crossfire.

Chris staggered up from the table and drew his gun. He called out, "Fowler!" He fired his gun harmlessly into the air and repeated, "Fowler! Where are you?" The gun fired several more times to punctuate his yells. Chris lost his balance and tried to catch himself on the table. All he succeeded in doing was sweeping his glass and whiskey bottle onto the ground as he fell. His gun dropped from his hand as he went down. He made no effort to get up and allowed his eyes to close.

Fortunately there had been a witness to his performance. Fowler and his remaining hired guns walked into the bar.

Fowler kicked at Chris' inert form, ordering him to "Get up!" When Chris did not immediately comply, Fowler repeated his demand, adding, "You found me, you miserable drunk."

Chris displayed a profound weakness and a lack of coordination as he complied with Fowler's order. He allowed the pain he felt to enter his voice as he shouted out, "You killed my wife and son! Why?"

He resisted the urge to scream when Fowler flippantly replied, "It seemed like a good idea at the time. At least the money was right."

The trembling of his body was not from play-acting on Chris' part as he asked, "Who hired you?" His body shook, not from the effects of alcohol, but from the force of his barely controlled anger. He could not give in to his urge to kill Fowler until the man answered that one final question.

Fowler spoke dispassionately as he answered, "Son, I'm a professional. I guarantee the anonymity of my clients. What I can tell is I was hired to go after you. Your little family was just unlucky. I do apologize for killing them; but, I have to admit I enjoyed it. I'd have enjoyed killing you, too, but you ran off."

Chris spit out his reply, "You ran off! You killed the men you'd hired, and you ran off! Just one question: Why didn't you kill Blackfox?"

Fowler sighed. "That was a mistake on my part, one which I've since remedied. I eviscerated him in his cell."

He continued, "Speaking of mistakes, your relationship with the bottle is one. It makes you sloppy, and easy to kill."

Chris continued to make a show of his weakness. While Fowler spoke, he staggered back to the table and collapsed into a chair.

As Fowler announced his readiness to kill, Chris grabbed the gun he'd previously hidden beneath the table. At the same time, his friends appeared from where they'd hidden themselves around the bar and began shooting at Fowler and his men.

Chris shouted out, "Don't kill Fowler! He's mine!" There was no time to explain that he intended to beat the name of the man who'd hired him from Fowler before he could get the satisfaction of killing the man with his bare hands.

As he had three years ago, Fowler ran off. This time, Chris was right behind him. He trusted his friends to take care of Fowler's hired guns without him, and he caught up with Fowler just inside the door of the livery. A deadly sober Chris Larabee tackled the man and let out some of his anger with his fists. In his efforts to escape Chris' fury, Fowler knocked over an oil lamp. In minutes the dry hay and timber were burning around them.

The smell of burning wood brought the memories of another fire three years earlier to the forefront of Chris' mind, and he loosened his hold on Fowler.

Like the slippery snake that he was, Fowler slithered out of Chris' grasp. It only took a minute for Chris to catch him just outside the livery doors.

His fisted hands connected time and time again with the downed man as he demanded, "Who hired you to kill me? Tell me! Tell me!"

He pulled Fowler to his feet, "Get up, you miserable excuse for a human being!" Once Fowler was upright in front of him, Chris stated, "I'm gonna ask you one more time: Who hired you?"

Fowler paused as if he were considering the request. He finally answered, "I will. It was . . . " Chris spared a passing thought regarding the man's appearance as Fowler hesitated. Backlit by the burning livery, he looked like the devil himself as he continued, "It was . . . His name was . . ." He paused to smile, an action that was frighteningly inappropriate under the circumstances. "No. On second thought, go to hell." Fowler pushed away from Chris with that comment, and threw himself into the inferno.

Chris screamed out his anger and frustration: "No!"

He had no idea how long he'd been standing staring at the fire before Buck showed up. His friend tugged at his arm. "Chris, come away from there. Let the devil burn in hell, where he belongs."

Listening to Buck's words, Chris realized that he wasn't the only one who'd noticed Fowler's resemblance to a certain Satanic figure.

As Buck pulled at his arm, Chris was surprised to find himself in a near-faint. Only Buck's strong arms kept him upright. His friend scolded, "Chris, while you were in the bar drinking all day, how much did you have to eat?"

Chris looked blankly at him, for some reason finding it difficult to figure out what Buck had asked.

Buck nodded to himself. "Uh-huh. That's what I thought. Come with me. I know where we can get some pie."

Whether or not it was actually pie that Angela had invited Buck to share, she was more than happy to provide for the two lawmen. "Lucky for you boys, Vin, JD, and Mr. Steele here didn't touch my apple pie."

Steele proceeded to question Buck regarding the shootout with Fowler and his gang, leaving Chris to eat his pie in peace. JD listened attentively while Steele took notes.

Vin cared more about how Chris was doing than about a blow-by-blow retelling of the night's events. Knowing that Chris would never tell him in words, Vin sat and stared at his guardian while Chris ate.

Once Chris was feeling reasonably human again, he realized that he was being observed. He looked up to see Vin, solemn and staring. Chris felt the tension leave his body as he returned the stare. He couldn't help but realize how incredibly glad he was that the boy was here, living, breathing, alive, and with a whole lifetime ahead of him.

He asked Vin, "Something wrong?"

Vin shook his head. "I don't think so. Leastways, not any more. Am I right?"

Chris smiled in response to the boy's words. Seemed like Vin could read Chris better than anyone he knew. There's no way the boy couldn't have picked up on his anger and pain the past week, ever since he'd found out about Blackfox and the murder of his wife and son.

Although the anger and pain were still present, Chris realized that the emotions had been pushed aside, allowing the feelings he felt for Vin to take priority. Chris nodded. "Yeah, I think you are."


Months later, when Steele's story of the famous Chris Larabee was published, he considerately posted a copy to Ezra. Ezra shared it with Josiah, who decided to share it with his friends.

Chris, Buck, Vin, JD, Nathan, and Ezra gathered around as Josiah read the story out loud in his best Sunday preacher's voice. They laughed at the gross exaggerations - called 'white lies' by Buck and 'damn lies' by Chris - contained in the fanciful tale.

Josiah concluded, "The flames rose up to incinerate the demon from out of the past. In an ironic twist of fate, while fire had destroyed Chris Larabee's first family, it drew him closer to his new family of friends: Josiah, who placed his faith in God and guns; Nathan, both healer and destroyer; Buck, killer and gunman, good friend and tender father to little JD;"

JD could not let that comment go. He objected, "I ain't little!"

Vin hissed, "Shush! He's almost finished!"

Josiah edited the story slightly as he continued, "Not-so-little JD; Ezra, the gambler who would wager that his friendship with Chris was strong enough to last a lifetime; and last but certainly not least, young Vin, the child of his heart who would help Chris to raise a new home from the ashes of the past."

Josiah looked up after he read the final words. Chris had drawn Vin closer to him as the story concluded. The love shared between the two of them would've been obvious to a blind man. The relationship had been obvious to Jock Steele despite its newness and fragility so many months ago when the writer had first seen the two of them together.

It had taken the seven men and boys present a while to reach the place that they were at this day, and many stories could be written of the days in between; but those are tales for another day, to be shared by other writers.

Next: The Collector