by The Buffalo Gals


The pale, wintry sun did little to warm the streets of Four Corners. People hurried about their business in an effort to keep the cutting wind at bay. The sight of a dozen or Mexicans entering their town, acerbated their steps.

The leader of the gang was well dressed, unlike his men, and rode a striking grey horse. He smirked at the reaction he was getting from the local townsfolk.

Walking down the steps from his home, Nathan Jackson saw the man and recognised him.

"Oh hell," he whispered as hurried over to the jailhouse to find Chris and the others. It was going to be a short, but bloody battle and the odds were stacked against the Seven. But when had that ever bothered them? While the healer went in search of Larabee, Calderone and several of his men entered the saloon.

Ezra Standish was at his usual table, playing solitaire. He was expecting Vin to join him at any moment. The tracker was enjoying the card games and Ezra’s company.

The gambler didn’t look up from his game when the batwing doors swung open; didn’t take any notice of the newcomers until he heard an imperious Mexican voice asking Inez if she knew of Vin Tanner.

The lovely looking young woman replied calmly that she knew a number of men without knowing their names. She never once looked at Ezra. Calderone described the tracker to her and offered her money if she would help him.

Ezra wasn’t worried about Inez; he knew she was well capable of taking care of herself, at least until he returned with assistance. But first he had to find Vin and get him to safety. He calmly packed his cards away and left the saloon without a backwards glance.

In a cruel twist of fate, as Ezra turned left and strode across Main Street towards the jail, Vin walked up to the saloon from the right. He noticed several roguish looking Mexicans milling around outside the building but didn’t recognise any of them. He pushed through the doors and came to a sudden, shuddering halt. Standing at the bar, talking to Inez, was his worst nightmare come true.

One of the gang recognised him immediately and called out, "Patron!"

"What is …" Calderone turned angrily. "Well, well … my little pet has come back to me…"

Vin started to back towards the door, his mind swirling in confusion, but he vaguely heard Inez shouting at him to run!

Ezra ran into Chris and Nathan on their way out of the jailhouse. "Mr. Larabee …"

"Already know, Ezra. Thought Vin was meeting you?"

"I came looking for him to forestall …."

"Never mind. Go find the others."

Ezra was forced aside as the two men strode menacingly towards the saloon. Not certain where his companions would be, the gambler ran over to the Clarion office and Mary’s assistance in finding them.

Still discussing the best way to deal with Calderone and his gang, Chris and Nathan were caught by surprise when Vin stumbled through the saloon doors, sprawling in the dirt in his haste to get away.

"Vin!" Chris called out to him, stepping onto the street as the tracker almost ran under a team of horses. The gunslinger ran up to the passing coach, desperate for a glimpse of the younger man to show he was safe. He almost missed the group pushing their way through the saloon doors to watch the tracker’s flight.

"Vin!" Chris called again as the coach passed. Behind him he could hear Nathan’s warning but before he could act, Vin cannoned into him at a run, knocking the gunslinger onto his back. The blow knocked the wind out of him, but he clung to the tracker who was scrambling for freedom.

"Gotta get out off the street!" Nathan yelled, trying to disentangle the two men. "Chris, we gotta get cover!"

Chris heard the panic in the normally unflappable healer’s voice. He pushed Vin to one side and struggled to his knees. Nathan now had hold of Vin who squirmed in his grasp. Chris got to his feet and backed towards the jailhouse, keeping himself between the retreating Nathan and Vin and the men across the street. He recognised Calderone immediately and his mood darkened, he would see this man dead.

"Hey, Senor Larabee!" Calderone called out, sneering at the glare the dark clad man threw at him. The Mexican continued undaunted, "You have something that belongs to me," he paused, letting his words have the required effect. "I want it back." He raised his riding whip and pointed at Vin. The tracker gasped, trying to escape Nathan’s grip. Chris turned and pulled the tracker behind him, shielding him with his own body. As he fought to still the terrified man, Nathan stepped around him, his angry words terrifying the tracker even more.

"He ain’t no-one’s property!" Nathan spat, eventually heeding Chris’s warning to take cover.

The men across the street spread out along the walkway outside the saloon, careful to keep cover between themselves and the men flanking Calderone’s slave. Chris counted fifteen men in all. He knew he had to get off the street, but with Vin cowering at his back, progress was difficult. The gunslinger scanned the buildings, trying to find the other men in his group. He almost missed Calderone’s cutting words.

"That scum took my brother’s life. Now I own his. You will give him back to me."

Chris pushed Vin back against the crates Nathan was hiding behind, his anger fired by the Mexican’s words.

"I’ll see you in hell first!" he spat, drawing his gun on Calderone. The hired guns drew their weapons, all cocked and aimed at Larabee.

"Crazy son of a bitch!" Josiah mumbled, running low along the walkway until he was close enough to cover the two men.

Chris’ aim never wavered, he willed the Mexican to draw on him. Calderone smirked,

"You wish to die today senor?"

"Do you?" Chris asked coldly, his eyes goading Calderone.

The Mexican beat the whip against his hand, carefully stepping between two of his hired thugs. "Look around you Larabee." The evil man smiled, "Ask yourself if that piece of filth is worth your life."

Chris bristled at the man’s words, he badly wanted to gun him down and would have if Vin were safely hidden. ‘Vin!’ Chris suddenly thought, he twisted enough to grip the cowering man’s collar. He pushed Vin towards Nathan, letting the tracker go once Nathan had hold of him.

"Kill them!" Calderone snapped, backing towards the saloon. Before the men could comply Buck began shooting from the rooftop, distracting the bandits enough to allow Chris to take cover if he were sensible enough to do so. The gunslinger snarled at Calderone and took aim.

"Chris!" Josiah called out, willing him to hear. He fired from his position, again drawing the gunfire.

Unable to stop himself Chris fired at the torturer, nicking the man’s arm before diving for cover. ‘Damn!’ He cursed, keeping low as shots peppered the boarding behind him. He stole a look at Nathan and Vin. The healer was struggling to keep hold of the terrified man.

"Stay down!" Chris yelled to Vin, pushing his head lower as Vin tried to scramble up.

Across the street, JD had drawn the bandits fire. He was trying to back off as Buck took out the men from above. Just seven men were now left . Calderone had disappeared inside the saloon. Josiah scanned the street for Ezra, where was the man? He fired steadily into the bandits cover, knowing Chris was ready. As the men tried to make for a safer place Chris picked them off.

Ezra, positioned below Buck’s vantage point, had seen Calderone slide between the saloon doors from the street below Buck’s vantage point. He waved up to the ladies man, motioning to him that he was going round the back of the saloon. Buck nodded quickly then turned his attention to covering JD’s back. The gambler moved through the back of the tavern, keeping low to avoid collecting any stray bullets. The interior was dark, Ezra blinked, trying to adjust to the poor light in the saloon. As he rushed forward, eager to assure himself that Inez was safe he almost fell over the rapidly retreating form of Calderone. The Mexican had the upper hand, he fired off a shot as Ezra leapt for cover and caught the southerner in the upper arm. Ezra stifled his pain and twisted, firing into the corridor, scrambling to his feet as Calderone ran back towards the front of the saloon. Ezra prayed Inez had the sense to hide, then with a grunt of pain he grasped his injured right arm and chased after the man. Calderone ignored the saloon’s clientele, pushing them aside as he ran for the doors. He crouched just inside the frame, shooting back towards Ezra before shouting in Spanish to the men outside. He heard enough to reassure him and with a smile joined his thugs outside. Ezra slumped to the floor with a groan, his gun banging heavily against the wooden boards. His wound was bleeding well and he lamented the loss of another good jacket. He jerked as someone touched his arm and turned to see Inez kneeling by his side.

"Keep still senor," she said, quickly tying off the arm.

Chris was confident they had the remaining men cornered. He fired steadily, unleashing the pain and anger he’d buried deep since he’d found Vin. Josiah knew the look in Chris’s eyes, tasted the hatred on his own lips. He glanced over at Nathan but the healer had his hands full trying to keep Vin steady. Josiah’s heart went out to the tracker. In a matter of minutes, they’d undone weeks of care. Vin cried out in terror as gunshots pierced the air around him, covering his ears as he twisted and jerked away from Nathan. Josiah turned back to his work, careful to cover JD who had retreated enough to draw the remaining men onto the street as they tried in vain to reach the horses. ‘Almost too easy’, the preacher thought. At that moment Calderone burst through the saloon doors, shooting from the hip as he ran for cover.

Vin panicked as Calderone appeared. All he could see was violence on the man’s face as he fired towards their position. The tracker hit out at Nathan, breaking free of his grasp. His only thought was to flee. He didn’t hear Nathan shout a warning to Chris, and ran behind the gunslinger, straying into the street after shying around Josiah.

Chris stared in horror at his friend running blindly into the gunfire.

"Buck," Chris roared at his long time friend, "Cover me!" He broke from the crates and ran after the tracker.

"Vin! Get down!" He pounded down the street in the smaller man’s wake.

Vin stumbled, allowing Chris to gain on him. Crying out in desperation the tracker scrambled back to his feet and ran on.

Calderone watched the tracker’s flight with glee. Licking his lips, he raised himself to his feet, taking careful aim at his slave.

"Chris!" Josiah yelled after him, seeing the Mexican preparing to shoot.

Chris threw himself at the tracker, hitting the younger man hard in the middle of the back. They went down heavy in the dirt and Chris felt the thud of a bullet as it entered his body.

"Damn!" he gasped, rolling behind the cover of a water barrel. Another bullet bit into the street, showering the two men with dirt.

Calderone laughed harshly as he watched the two men take cover. Determined to reach them he stepped over the bodies of his fallen comrades and ran into the street. He gave JD a clear shot: the boy fired a single bullet straight between the Mexican’s eyes. Calderone never knew what had hit him, he collapsed in a boneless heap and left JD, Buck and Josiah to cover the remaining gunmen who immediately surrendered.

Nathan ran down the walkway towards Chris and Vin. He’d seen Chris go down hard and suspected he’d been hit. He found Chris pinning the shivering tracker to the ground.

"Chris!" Nathan called down to him, crouching by his side. "You hurt?"

Chris sat up stiffly and winced, quickly shifting his weight, "Yeah, ain’t bad though." He rubbed his hand over Vin’s upper arm, "Could you help me with Vin."

"Sure," Nathan said, helping Chris to get the tracker sitting up.

Chris pushed Vin’s hair away from his face so he could study the younger man. Vin avoided his eyes, trembling fitfully as the two men watched him.

"You all right?" Chris asked gently, his anger spent.

Vin nodded, worrying his lower lip with his teeth as he fought with his emotions, "Just… Just give me… A minute," he whispered, his teeth chattering.

Chris sighed and looked up at Nathan,

"We’ll be fine," he said, "You want to check on the others?"

Nathan nodded in agreement and got stiffly to his feet. He saw Josiah waving to him,

"Over here!" the priest called. Ezra had stumbled out of the saloon, gun still in hand, with a courageous Inez helping him to stand. As soon as the shooting had stopped he’d fallen to the ground.

Josiah knelt by Ezra’s side and loosened his collar. The southerner’s colour wasn’t good and he was gasping for breath in the warm air.

"Take it easy son," the priest soothed, accepting the damp cloth Inez offered and dabbing the gambler’s brow.

Nathan ran to their side and dropped to his knees,

"What happened here?" he asked, quickly untying the bandage on Ezra’s arm and easing the limb from the jacket. Ezra groaned as the jacket fell away. He heard Inez telling Nathan about his confrontation with Calderone. He looked down as Nathan tore the shirt sleeve from wrist to shoulder, protesting at the destruction of the fine garment. Nathan ignored him; he studied the swollen arm and the bullet holes.

"Yeah you’ll do. Bullet’s gone right through. Best get you to my room before ya lose all that precious blood." He eyed the gambler; Ezra was in no mood for his teasing. With a nod to Josiah the two men got Standish to his feet and started the painful walk to Nathan’s place. Before they moved off Nathan called back to Chris,

"Chris, Ezra here’s hurt. I’m going to fix him up. I’ll see ya over there."

Chris acknowledged Nathan then turned back to Vin. The tracker was leaning heavily against a pillar; his body still trembling as the adrenaline left his system. "It’s over, pard. He ain’t never gonna hurt you again."

"Yeah, but it don’t matter. He might as well have killed me." The hopelessness in Vin’s voice matched the look on his eyes. He could see disgust in Chris’ face; who could blame the gunfighter? He’d been shot protecting a coward!

"I’m sorry," Vin choked out before turning and running down the street, unable to look into accusatory eyes any longer.

Chris lurched after the retreating tracker, but had to give up after a few faltering steps. "Damn!" he cursed his wound.

"Chris, let me help ya to Nathan’s."

"No. Don’t have time …" Chris pushed Wilmington’s helping hand away, " Vin’s in more need of help than me."

"I’ll go look fer him .." Buck frowned at the gunslinger’s stance. "Which leg ya got hit in?"

"Weren’t my leg." Larabee glared at his oldest friend, daring him to make a smug remark.

"Oh, I see." Buck raised an eyebrow, yet somehow managed to remain silent as he helped Chris up the stairs to the clinic. But as he opened the door to the room, he bellowed, "Serious wound here, Doc. Chris’ been shot in the butt!"

"What!" Nathan, Josiah and a groggy Ezra all asked at the same time.

"Yep, a butt shot. Got yer work cut out with this one Nathan."

"Chris, go lie down on the bed," Nathan ordered the blond, "Where’s Vin?" He expected Chris’ shadow to be at his side.

"He’s run off. Ain’t sure where. Thinks he ain’t worthy of us."

"Dumb fool!"

"My sentiments, exactly, Nathan," Chris said as he carefully lowered himself onto the bed, "Josiah, go see if you can find him. He might listen to you."

"I’ll give it my best shot," the preacher replied as he exited the clinic.

"Buck, go help JD. Poor kid’s been left with the prisoners and a pile of bodies."

"On my way pard. Take care of him Nathan. Don’t let him give a no cheek."

Buck just avoided being hit by a flying jug that crashed into the door.

Nathan scowled at Chris. "Could’ve been an expensive piece of china."

"Don’t start Nate. Just get me fixed up so I can go talk some sense into that thick headed tracker."

"Wait yer turn. Ezra lost some blood. Your hide’s thick enough to cope with an itty, bitty bullet fer a while longer."

Chris grumbled to himself as he turned onto his stomach. Weren’t no good pissing Nathan off; it would only make him worse.

+ + + + + + +

Not wanting to be found, Vin made his way up the back stairs of the hotel and climbed out onto the roof. Sitting near the edge, he watched the events taking place on the street below. JD had taken control of cleaning up the bodies and organising the prisoners trip to the jail.

For a fleeting moment, jealousy spiked Vin’s heart. The young sheriff was so capable and unafraid. He’d been composed in the heat of battle, while the tracker had panicked so badly he’d nearly caused Chris’ death.

Bile rose in the Texan’s throat as he replayed the shoot-out in his head. "Stupid … stupid," he rasped, slamming his fist onto the roof.

Continuing to watch the clear up operation, Vin’s eyes widened when he saw the undertaker and Buck load Calderone’s body onto the wagon. The bodies were being transferred to the old barn and Vin watched transfixed as his ‘Master’ … No! Not master … was moved into the building. Brushing the tears from his eyes, Vin carefully made his way back down to the street and over to the makeshift mortuary. Unaware that Sanchez had seen him.

Josiah slid inside the barn doors and squinted into its dusky depths. It had become home to the dead Mexicans, all neatly laid out on the dirt floor. He wrinkled his nose against the rusty tang of blood and moved through the line of corpses, his eyes searching for Vin’s torturer. The faintest of movements alerted him to the younger man’s presence in the shadows and Josiah turned, knowing by the sharp intake of breath that he’d found his lost sheep. Allowing Vin time to gather himself Josiah looked down at the corpse by the tracker’s feet and into the death mask of Calderone. Someone had taken the time to close the Mexican’s eyes, thus saving Vin the further terror of imagining life still burned behind his pale features. Josiah leaned closer, careful to breathe through his mouth as he neared the body. JD’s bullet had pierced his skull high in his forehead without even ruffling the man’s hair. It gave the impression that Calderone was sleeping but Josiah knew that most of the man’s head was missing. There was little blood, most of that lay in the street where the Mexican had fallen. All that spewed onto the ground and the fancy clothing was a viscose fluid, and it stank.

Josiah looked away from the grizzly sight and stepped around the coffin to stand by the smaller man, willing him to turn aside from the source of his torment. Vin didn’t stir, his attention was fixed on the body like he was waiting to hear the man’s voice. Josiah watched as he shivered, hyperventilating in the cold air. Caught by the dead man’s ethereal grip he was going under. Fearing for his friend’s sanity Josiah touched Vin’s arm, his fingers warm against the tracker’s cold flesh. Vin gasped and pulled back, shying away from the contact. Josiah moistened his lips with his tongue, his heart reaching out to his friend.

"Come away Vin," his gentle voice urged, "He can’t hurt you any more."

Vin flinched at the reference to his tormentor and glanced fearfully into the coffin. His trembling intensified and he wrapped his arms around his frail body, trying to hold the emotions inside.

"Vin," Josiah whispered, hoping to regain the tracker’s attention.

For a moment, Vin was lost. He looked back towards Josiah but was unable to meet his eyes. His face creased with frustrated tears and he bit back a sob.

"Son," Josiah lamented, "Don’t do this." He searched Vin’s face as the first tears wet his cheeks, his heart reaching out to the younger man.

Vin saw the sympathy and stole himself against it. He scrubbed at his tears and stifled his weeping, he didn’t want to debase himself any further in front of his friends. Friends. he thought miserably, I have no right to call them friends. He shivered as he remembered the bullet thudding into Chris’ body. Ain’t the man I was, can’t ride beside my brothers into battle. He glanced fearfully at the body, Calderone’s face blurring before him, You took that away from me.

"Come on," Josiah prompted him, sensing the mood by the emotions playing across Vin’s face. He motioned him towards the door.

Battered and broken by his thoughts, Vin moaned softly, a desperate cry he could not suppress. His hands balled into fists by his side as he fought the need to scream out his frustration. He stared into Josiah’s widening eyes and wondered if the roaring in his ears was due to the vocalisation of his need. His energy deserted him, leaving him trembling and whimpering in the half light.

Josiah, still stunned by the tracker’s vicious outpouring was again taken aback when Vin took three tiny steps forward and laid his head against the preacher’s shoulder. Gathering his wits, Josiah slipped his arms around the trembling form and held him close.

Vin felt Josiah’s hesitation and read it as rejection. Wave after wave of desolation ripped through his weakened body and he cried bitter tears he hadn’t the strength to withhold. Eventually he could bear it no longer and pulled away from Josiah’s comfort and fled the barn, his only conscious thought to put as much distance as possible between himself and the people he used to know.

"Vin!" Josiah called at his back, spurring the tracker’s flight.

The preacher ran from the barn and searched the street, his eyes smarting in the bright light. He cursed softly to himself before remembering his manners then asked his God for a sign. Almost immediately, the sun glinted off the church windows as the door was slammed. Josiah offered up a silent prayer and without hesitation lumbered off towards his home.

Vin had fled into the street, choking back the rising emotions as he dashed through the townsfolk to the relative safety of the church. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he half ran half stumbled across the street. He wasn’t thinking rationally, didn’t realise that with each step he was bringing himself closer to Josiah. All he could think was to find a hiding place, somewhere he could take stock and recover.

He faltered on the old, worn steps leading to the heavy doors and clutched at his chest as misery rose like bile, choking him, bringing yet more tears to his eyes. A voice close by drove him on, stumbling up the steps he scrambled through the doors and into the dark and solemn interior.

He could no longer hold back his emotions. Wrapping his arms around his body he staggered towards the alter, the stillness punctuated by his heartbreaking sobs. Before him he could see Calderone laughing, leading him by the heavy chain to his next audience for Vin’s humiliating torture. He moaned low in his throat, as imagined gunshots sounded close by. Calderone laughed again and tugged on the chain. Trembling legs gave way and Vin collapsed at the foot of a stand of candles, with a fearful yelp. He curled into a ball, his hands wrapped around his head.

"No!" he whimpered, trembling fitfully as he anticipated the first blow.

Josiah was out of breath by the time he reached the partially open door. Taking a deep breath, he slipped inside, shutting out the street behind him. He heard Vin’s plaintive cry and rushed into the aisle, searching for his friend. For a moment, he didn’t see him, though the sounds of his distress rent the air, filling the preacher’s heart with dread. He dropped his gaze as the slightest of movements caught his eye.

"Oh no," he breathed sadly, dropping to his knees by Vin’s side. Unable to speak past the lump forming in his throat Josiah sat heavily on the floor and pulled Vin’s trembling body into his arms.

"Vin," he moaned softly, his hands working to still the tracker as he tried to pull free. Vin’s resistance dissolved into shivers. He clawed his way up Josiah’s shirt and wound his arms around the preacher’s neck, laying his forehead against the preacher’s throat. Josiah hugged him close, feeling the emotions tearing through his thin frame. Vin wept. He cried for himself, for the torture, the helplessness, and the loss of his self-esteem. He cried for Chris, that he should be injured for saving his worthless hide. He cried out a lifetime of suppressed anger, the death of his mother, for prejudice, lost brothers, for the price on his head. In the end, he cried because he didn’t belong any more, for losing his place beside Chris. The effort almost killed him.

"Easy son, I got ya," Josiah soothed him, rocking him gently; tears coursing down his own cheeks as he witnessed Vin’s pain. He cradled the tracker until the last of his anger was spent and he lay whimpering and trembling in his arms.

Josiah held onto Vin until the tremors eased into occasional shivers and the tension had run out of the fingers clawed into his shirt. Stroking the back of Vin’s head, Josiah shifted him so that he could see his face. Vin scrubbed at his eyes, unshed tears dampening his fingers. Josiah could see that much of his anger was spent. The younger man wouldn’t meet his gaze and Josiah surmised that he’d probably never found himself in this position before.

Squeezing Vin’s shoulder gently Josiah shifted his cramped limbs and struggled to his feet. The tracker watched him, uncertainty keeping his focus away from the preacher’s face. What did Vin expect to see in his friend’s eyes? Josiah offered a hand to him and smarted as Vin shied away from the movement. He waited patiently until Vin realised no punishment would follow, letting out a pent up breath as Vin slowly placed his cold fingers in Josiah’s hand. Gripping Vin’s hand lightly in his own Josiah helped the younger man to shaky legs. Stepping up to the tracker Josiah wrapped him in his arms and led him to his room at the back of the church.

Vin offered no resistance, allowing Josiah to sit him on the edge of the bunk. He stared over Josiah’s shoulder as the preacher got to one knee and eased off his boots.

"Thirsty?" Josiah asked, his voice gruff with emotion.

Vin nodded slowly, keeping his eyes firmly fixed on his feet. He took the canteen Josiah pushed into his fingers and drank it dry.

The vessel was gently pulled from his grasp and Josiah sat behind him, pulling him back into his arms. Vin swung his legs onto the bunk and scooted back so he could lay his head against Josiah’s chest. The preacher’s arms wound around him, offering solaces. Vin closed his eyes and sighed, he couldn't help himself. He felt the fear leaching from his skin, leaving him feeling heavy and with Josiah holding him, safe.

Josiah reached up to stroke the top of Vin’s head, heartened by the change in him. Could it be that he’d made a connection with the wounded man? A fit of shivers reminded Josiah that his friend was still very much in shock.

"Something troubling ya Vin?" he asked gently, his fingers teasing stray locks behind the younger man’s ears.

"Can’t… walk beside him… any more…" Vin whispered through the tremors.

Josiah understood only too well the meaning of Vin’s words. He remembered Vin’s reaction to Chris after he’d bolted from the jailhouse on the first day. He could see the tracker doubted himself, saw himself as unworthy of Chris’s companionship.

"Don’t judge him Vin." He pulled a blanket around Vin’s trembling body. "Chris won’t let this come between you." He lifted the fresh tears from the young man’s face with his fingers, "None of us will."

For the first time, Vin lifted his gaze to the preacher’s. Bruised eyes searched Josiah’s face for sincerity. He blinked rapidly as Josiah’s words penetrated his barriers. There was still doubt.

"He don’t need me… None of ya do…" He slumped back down against Josiah’s chest in defeat but allowed the preacher to continue comforting him with his touch.

"No man is an island, entire of itself," Josiah whispered persuasively, "Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…" He let his words drift away and looked down to see Vin staring wide eyed at him. Josiah smiled gently, knowing Vin was smart enough to understand the meaning of his words, but he reinforced them anyway.

"We all need each other Vin."

Vin settled down once more, this time closing his eyes. Josiah felt him relax and was glad.

"I like that," Vin said eventually, his voice sleepy.

"John Donne said it," Josiah told him.

"JD?" Vin asked.

The preacher chuckled low in his throat and felt Vin cuddle against him in response.

"No. Well least not our JD," he said, listening to the tracker’s breathing as it evened out to sleep.

Josiah sighed and closed his eyes. Relief swept through him making him as weary as Vin. Perhaps he could rest a while before going to tell Chris that Vin was safe?


Four Corners was quiet in the aftermath of the battle. Calderone’s body had been returned to his mother; the other, nameless bandits were buried locally.

The seven protectors of the town had been victorious once more. Though two of the men were recovering from gunshot wounds.

Ezra Standish, his right arm wrapped in a sling, was complaining bitterly to Buck Wilmington as the two men strode purposefully down Main Street. their destination, the saloon.

"Ah expect remuneration for lack of earning due to my incapacitation," Ezra said seriously to his friend.

"Who’s goin’ to pay it? The good folk from town? The judge?"

"Surely there must be monies available for such a situation. Ah was injured protecting the citizens of this town. My occupation is suffering because of it."

"Occupation!" Buck bellowed out, "Gamblin’ ain’t work, Ez. It’s a … pastime!"

"In your case, Buck, it’s called a charity."

"Huh! Least I don’t carry a spare deck of cards up my sleeve."

"Ah do not need to cheat! Especially with …" The bickering continued as they entered the saloon.

Inside the smoky establishment, the other members of the magnificent seven were standing at the bar. JD ordered drinks for the newcomers,

"You complainin’ again Ezra?"

"Ah have a qualified protest, though it is doubtful Ah’ll see any compensation for mah inconvenience."

"Take no notice, kid. He’s all wind!" Buck joked as he picked up his glass of beer. "Why we standin’ here when there’s a table free?" Buck’s blue eyes sparkled with mischief as he glanced in Larabee’s direction, "Want me to fetch ya a cushion, Chris?"

A steely look was Larabee’s only response, though the others sniggered into their glasses.

"Whatcha reckon, Vin. Think we oughta have a padded saddle made fer Chris? Unless he’s gonna stand up in the stirrups."

Vin Tanner chuckled, completely unaffected by the Larabee glare.

"Ain’t funny, Buck," Nathan tried to sound serious, without success.

"The bible says we should turn the other cheek," Josiah added, solemnly. Bringing gales of laughter from everyone except the unfortunate gunslinger.

"You can all joke," Chris replied tersely, "Don’t bother me none."

"Hey Chris, a scar on that part of your anatomy could be a talkin’ point with the ladies."

Chris scowled at Buck’s childish remark.

"Heard of stickin’ yer neck out fer someone…"

"Vin Tanner, your ass'll be smartin’ once I’ve kicked it."

"Guess you’ll have ta catch me first." Vin was already scurrying behind Buck’s broad back as he taunted his best friend.

"Hey! I ain’t getting’ between no feud!"

"You started it!" Chris and Vin said in unison.

"That was gentle banter," Buck replied, winking at Chris. Then he spun round so quickly he caught Vin unawares. The tracker was caught in Wilmington’s bear hug.

"Well Chris, do ya kick his ass or tickle him to death?"

Chris moved in and started tickling Vin’s ribs. "You’re right, Buck. This is much more fun!" Larabee was secretly relieved that the attention had turned away from his ‘accident’.

Vin could hardly catch his breath when Chris found his sensitive spots, "Ain’t … fair!" he gasped, "Josiah …" He used his puppy dog expression, hoping to garner some sympathy, " … please .."

"Think I’ll just watch." The preacher folded his arms. It was good to see Vin interacting with his friends once more, especially Wilmington.

"Ain’t … none of … ya goin’ ta ….. help me?"

"Last time someone rescued ya, they got shot in the butt. I ain’t takin’ no more bullets outta skinny white asses!" Nathan’s serious observation brought more laughter to the group. Buck relaxed his hold on Vin for a second allowing the tracker to escape.

Vin hurried over to the healer, knowing he’d be safe with the black man. He rubbed his aching chest, but made no complaint, well aware that Nathan’s disapproval extended to him.

The celebration in the saloon progressed well. The men moved over to their favourite table after Buck cajoled Chris into using a cushion for his chair.

Vin was happy just to sit and listen to the conversation around him. He felt the warmth and concern radiating from his smiling companions. And when Ezra instigated a friendly poker game, Vin joined in.

Buck’s luck didn’t last long and he was soon searching his pockets for the odd coin. It was during the search he found …

"What the? Hey Vin! Almost fergot…" He handed the harmonica back to his friend.

"I .." Vin took hold of the instrument and studied it carefully, remembering its heritage. "It belonged to my Pa , ‘cordin’ to my Ma." A sad smile played across his lips. "Glad to have it back. Thanks Buck." He placed it to his mouth and blew into it.

"Buck! How could ya?" JD groaned as Vin continued to play a tuneless ditty.

"Good mind to shoot you," Chris grumbled. His ears were now in more pain than his ass!

"Good Lord, why us?" Was Josiah’s plea to the heavens.

Nathan remained quiet, but gritted his teeth.

"A family heirloom Mr. Tanner? Then Ah suggest you lock it away; for safe keeping."

"Mebbe yer right, Ez. " Vin frowned as he tapped the spittle from the instrument, "Fergot how ta play the darn thing anyways. All that’s comin’ out is a caterwauling," he said disappointedly, not understanding the clapping and cheering that greeted his statement. "Whatcha all grinnin’ at? Ain’t funny losin’ my memory like that." He pocketed the harmonica, "Guess I’ll just have to practice."

Chris leaned forward, perching awkwardly on one ass cheek. "As law in this town, we’ve taken a vote. No more ‘monica playin’ within a three mile radius of Four Corners."

"Ya sayin’ ya don’t like my musical abilities?"

"No Vin, I’m sayin’ you ain’t got none. Never had. Tone deaf is an understatement."

Not in the least bit offended by Chris’ declaration, Vin smiled sweetly at the older man, "When we goin’ up to yer cabin?"

"Soon as I can ride. Why?"

"Good. Guess I’ll just have to wait ‘til we get there ‘fore I start my practicin’. Any requests?"


Chris Larabee wasn’t amused at having his snooze interrupted and glowered at JD when the young man hovered over him. "Move kid, you’re blockin’ the sun."

"Sorry Chris." The youngster stepped to one side obediently. He didn’t want Chris getting riled, he needed him. "Did ya see those six men that rode in earlier?"

"Nope." Larabee leaned back in the chair he was sitting on and stretched his legs over the convenient hitching post. He’d spent the early part of the afternoon in the saloon playing cards with Ezra, Josiah and Vin. Ezra and Vin were still inside, paying for their drinks with the money they’d won off Chris and the preacher, while Josiah had returned to the church.

"What about ‘em?" Chris asked the boy, accepting that JD wouldn’t bother him unless it was truly necessary.

"They keep wanderin’ by the bank, real suspicious like. Might be nothin’." JD shrugged, beginning to doubt his own concerns. Maybe he was making something out of nothing.

Larabee trusted the boy’s instincts. JD had learnt enough over the last year to sniff out trouble when it appeared. "Where’s Buck?"

The boy took off his hat and dragged his fingers through his thick mane of hair. "Saw him and Miss Emily ridin’ out in her buggy earlier. Goin’ fer a picnic!"

Larabee snorted, he could guess what Buck’s idea of dessert was. "Go find Josiah and Nathan. I’ll get Ezra. Meet me at the jail."

"What about Vin?"

Larabee shook his head; "He ain’t ready yet." He settled the chair back on four legs then stood up. "If they’re thinkin’ of robbin’ the bank they’ll probably do it at closin’ time."

JD checked his pocket watch. "We ain’t got much time then, bank closes in fifteen minutes."

"Then whatya waitin’ for!" Chris smiled as he watched the boy scurry away.

Ezra and Vin stood at the bar enjoying the bottle of whisky they’d bought with their winnings.

"To success!" Ezra lifted the glass and knocked the amber liquid back in one go.

"I’ll second that," Vin replied, following Ezra’s example and nearly choking on the drink when it caught in the back of his throat.

"There, there, Mr. Tanner. Allow me to assist you …" The gambler patted Vin hard on the back almost knocking him over the bar.

"Hafta … try … that again.," Vin choked out, filling up both glasses.

"I don’t think so," a quiet voice said behind them.

"Mr. Larabee!" Ezra exclaimed as he turned to face the gunslinger. "Why the sour face? Are you lamenting the loss of your hard earned money?"

"No, but there’ll be plenty of townsfolk who will be lamenting if the bank gets robbed," Chris explained to the southerner, "I’m hopin’ you ain’t drunk too much you can’t shoot straight."

Ezra straightened his jacket and vest, "Ah never get inebriated sir! It’s beneath a man of mah pedigree!"

Larabee raised an eyebrow; he wasn’t so sure, but he needed all the help he could, except,

"Vin, you stay here. Don’t want you getting’ in the line of fire."

Vin Tanner winced at his friend’s words, though he doubted Chris realised their significance. Since the fateful day Chris Larabee had been wounded while protecting the young tracker, Vin had been looking to prove to everyone that he was still a necessary part of the group. Here was his chance, yet before he’d been able to offer assistance Chris had told him to stay out of the way.

Maybe Josiah had been wrong when he’d said Vin was a necessary part of the group, that without him they weren’t whole. If that was true, it was best Vin find out now before someone died because of him.

"Ya need me Chris. Buck ain’t around, so you’ll need someone on the roof."

"No Vin, not yet. You ain’t ready. There’s enough of us to take out these hombres." Chris reached out to pat his companion’s shoulder but was roughly shrugged off.

"Ya don’t trust me, I can see that in yer eyes."

"Vin, you know that ain’t true, I do trust ya, we all do." Chris shook his head. "I ain’t got time fer this now. Stay here ….’We’ll talk later."

Ezra followed Larabee out of the saloon, glancing guiltily at Vin Tanner as he passed him.

Vin turned back to the bar and poured himself another drink.

Things hadn’t quite gone to plan for the bank robbers and they found themselves in a gunfight with five of the town’s regulators. Two of the robbers were already dead; one was lying in the middle of the street, wounded. The other three were pinned down near Gloria Potter’s store.

"We gotta get to the horses!" Rafe Elliot, the leader of the gang yelled at his two companions.

Rufus Elliot snorted derisively, "How the hell we gonna do that?" The animals were tethered outside the bank and without cover, it was impossible for the men to reach them.

Rafe glared at his younger brother then turned to look at the building behind them. "We need us some hostages."

Understanding his brother’s look, Rufus and the other man hurled themselves through the shop’s front door while Rafe covered them, then the two men reciprocated as he sought safety within the building.

"Rufus, go see if there’s anyone hidin’ in here."

The younger man disappeared into the back of the building, returning shortly with Gloria Potter and a young, female customer. They’d taken refuge in the pantry when the shooting had started.

"Look what I got here!" Rufus said smugly.

"If ya want that to live you’d best do as you’re told," Rafe warned both women.

"Please, don’t hurt me. I’ll do whatever you ask!" the girl cried.

Rufus chuckled. "Once we get outta town darlin’ I got plenty you can do fer me."

"First things first." Rafe turned back to the door and yelled, "We’re comin’ out. If’n ya want these folk to survive, you’d best let us go!" He then grabbed the girl and held her against his chest. "You ready bro’?"

"Sure am. Sorry about this Bert, but ya ain’t got no one to shield ya."

Before the third bandit could register Rufus’ words, the young man shot him dead.

The women screamed at the brutality and knew that neither of then would survive the ordeal. Their only chance was Larabee or one of the others getting a lucky shot at the robbers.

Larabee watched in horror as the two females were brought out and used as shields by the gunmen. He couldn’t risk a shot, only a marksman would have the confidence to do that. Shouting to his friends, he told them to hold their fire.

"Chris, I can take ‘em," JD whispered to the gunslinger.

"No kid, the risk’s too great. You could hit the hostages. Our best chance will be when they ride out of town."

Josiah wasn’t so sure, but their hands were tied. "Dear Lord, we could with a miracle … if ya got one to spare." He closed his eyes and prayed. His prayers were answered immediately.

The two gunshots took everyone by surprise. They’d come from an elevated position. The robbers lay sprawled on the ground, dead. Shocked by the events that had happened, Gloria and the girl stood in the middle of the street shaking with fear.

Chris walked carefully over to them and gathered them into his arms.

"It’s all over ladies, you are safe."

"Who … who shot them?"

Chris glanced upwards and smiled. "Welcome back Vin," he whispered as he relinquished the women over to Nathan and Josiah.

Smiling weakly back down at him, from his position on the hotel roof, Vin Tanner held the mare’s leg loosely in his hands. He was shaking violently and he felt sick. If the shots had been out an inch, he’d have killed the hostages. He also realised that once the robbers were safe out of town their hostages would die. There’d been no choice.

"Stayin’ up there permanently?" Larabee shouted to the younger man.

"Nice’n quiet," Vin replied, not wanting to reveal his unsteadiness to his friends.

"I can’t have a celebration drink without my partner by my side."

"You buyin’?" Vin asked as his smile broadened. Chris had called him ‘partner’.

Larabee chuckled, "I recall someone takin’ all my money off me earlier."

"Know what they say cowboy. A fool’n his money are soon parted."

"Yeah! There’s a smartass Texan gonna be parted from his breath if he don’t get down here soon."

"Since ya ask so nicely like, guess it’s only fittin’ I oblige." Vin swung his legs over the edge of the building and hopped down to the balcony then dropped lightly onto the walkway by Chris’ side.

He felt the gunslinger’s arm snake around his neck as they walked towards the saloon and allowed himself to be drawn to Chris’ side.

"You did good, pard," Larabee told him, his voice warm with pride.

Vin allowed himself a smile. There were still many unanswered questions but right now, the most important one was being addressed.

"Didn’t think ya wanted me with ya," he teased, feeling he had to persuade the gunslinger further to get the reassurance he craved.

"Didn’t want to push you …" Chris replied evenly. " … but I’ve sure been missin’ you at my side."

"Weren’t sure if I’d ever stand there again …. " Vin smiled, his eyes sparkling with mischief, " … then I remembered yer shootin’ ain’t that straight."

Chris growled low in his throat, his arm sneaking around the younger man’s neck once more. "You’ll pay for that Tanner!" he said, pushing through the saloon doors.

They strode over to the bar and Chris ordered two beers, informing Inez that Vin was buying. No more words were spoken; none necessary. Both men felt complete once more; it was a good feeling …….


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