by JIN

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Part 3
The boy didn’t eat for three days. Perkins began to think he’d miscalculated; maybe the kid had considerably more will than he’d given him credit for. It didn’t take much to turn Luke around though, once the older man remembered what meant something to the youth – or rather, who meant something to him. A few well chosen words aimed at the woman who had taken him in, and the kid bent over backwards to do as he was told. He never did have a backbone, unlike his brother.

Perkins thought back to when he’d first found the homeless twins. They were maybe ten or eleven, but world wise and independent, having already been on their own for several years. He knew right off he’d found a good thing in the pair, and with a little manipulation and a whole lot of promises, he convinced them to join forces with him. With their help, he managed to pull off more than his fair share of cons and thefts. Until Josh got smart and figured out the boys were doing all the work, with little of the reward.

The outlaw searched for the boys long after they ran off, but he never had a real chance of finding them. Josh was just too smart. Damn shame that kid was dead, Perkins thought. He was worth two of his brother. But at least Luke was moldable – and could shoot. He looked over at the boy now, knowing he would see pure hatred in his eyes, should he look up at him. He rarely did, though – kept his eyes down, hat pulled low. Didn’t speak, either, not that Perkins cared.

Luke could feel him looking at him again - could feel his cold gray eyes watching him, and the teen slunk lower in the saddle. From under the brim of his hat, he slid his gaze towards the big man’s saddle to where his sawed-off was tied securely. He’d been watching and waiting for the right time to make his move, ever since he’d woken up that first night. The outlaw kept him tied up at night, though, and never left him out of his sight during the day. But one of these days, Perkins would turn his back, and Luke would somehow, some way get his weapon in his hands and he’d blow the man away. It would be so quick, the man wouldn’t even know it happened. One minute he’d be alive, and the next he’d be dead. Just like that.

Just like Vin and Chris.

When Chris’s still body and Vin’s bloody face filled Luke’s head, he just turned it all around. Now it was Perkins lying still and bloody and lifeless. He’d shoot him twice, once for Vin and once for Chris . . . and maybe once for Josh and once for himself. He could picture it – could see himself reaching for the gun, squeezing the trigger over and over, see Perkins fall from the saddle in shock - and it was all that kept him going.

He didn’t stop eating by conscious choice. At first, his head hurt and his stomach hurt, and every time he’d even try to take a bite, he’d see them in his mind – rolling one after the other before landing at the bottom of the hill. Dead. He wanted to be dead, too. It took a few days before that idea sunk in, but once it did, it stuck. Starving himself wasn’t such a bad way to go. He’d been hungry before – more times than he could count. And Perkins couldn’t do a damn thing about it. The man couldn’t force him to do anything, or at least, that was what he thought - until the criminal brought up Mrs. Potter.

She told Luke he could call her "Ma" if he wanted. He never did, though. It was always "Ma’am." It just didn’t seem right, when she had two real kids of her own. Luke figured, if he had a mother, he wouldn’t want just anybody coming to his house and deciding to take his ma for their own. It was enough that she took him in; that she fed him and bought him clothes, and hugged him close sometimes – like he really did belong to her.

Luke couldn’t let anything happened to her, and he was sure Perkins wouldn’t hesitate to carry out his threats. So he decided to cooperate, just until he got his chance to kill the man. After that, well, he didn’t want to make Mrs. Potter sad, but he really couldn’t imagine going back to Four Corners without Vin and Chris. Besides, he’d be a wanted man, so he couldn’t go back.

He realized that he would have to go back to living on the run – only this time he’d be alone - more alone than he’d ever been. The thought left him with a now familiar lump in his throat. It was so much harder this time, now that he knew what he had and what he’d lost. He’d never feel Mrs. Potter’s plump arms wrap around his shoulders again; never see Ezra’s stunned expression when he beat him at a hand of cards; never laugh at Buck and JD’s antics, or puzzle over one of Josiah’s and Nathan’s conversations. Never whittle with Chris or sit beside him on the grassy bank of a trout-filled stream.

Never, ever be with Vin again.

Tears trickled slowly down the young face, unnoticed and unheeded. Perkins had been right, Luke thought sadly – his past was his downfall. It had robbed him of everything he had and everything he hoped to be. He lived for only one purpose now – Simon Perkins would never hurt anyone he loved again.

+ + + + + + +

Chris heard the soft, pain-filled cry followed by breathless mumbling. Glancing about the dark room, he noticed that they were alone. He didn’t take time to puzzle on that oddity, merely welcoming the opportunity that had been handed him. With slow, unsteady movements, he pulled himself out of the bed. The room spun, but he took a deep breath and waited for his head clear. He’d get to Vin if he had to crawl, but he preferred to do it standing up if at all possible.

Fortunately, the close quarters worked in his favor, and he was soon seated in the chair next to Vin. Even in the dim light, he could make out the ugly wound that arced around his friend’s head. Dark hollows shadowed his pale face, and although the blue eyes were open, the blond knew Vin was someplace far away.

He wasn’t going to stay there, however. "Come on back, Vin. It’s time, Pard."

Vin knew that voice and he turned his head to it, setting off another round of pounding in his head. He groaned and tried to pull away, only to increase the agony.

"Easy, Vin. Don’t move your head," Chris soothed.

Good advice, Vin thought, as his mind slowly began to clear. He should probably listen to Larabee more often. He spoke his name, grateful that he finally had enough sense to remember it, "Chris."

Finally, the tracker’s eyes focused on his, and the gunslinger smiled. "Yeah, you got that right, at least."


"Not yet – but we were pretty damn close, I reckon." At the question in Tanner’s eyes, he responded. "We were shot."

Larabee paused, trying to decide how much information his friend could handle. Trust between them always fast and true – he went on, "Luke is missing, Vin."

The tracker furrowed his brow and looked doubtful. Missing? From where? The last he remembered, he’d been at Nettie’s, and Chris and Luke were . . . fishing.

"I don’t . . . understand," he said.

"I know you don’t. Can’t say that I do, either."

Nathan entered the door then and was startled to see one of his patients up. "What are you doing out of bed? We just got that fever broke! You want to start over?"

Vin flinched at the loud tone and Chris immediately responded, "Keep your voice down, Nathan."

Jackson moved closer to the bed and peered down at the sharpshooter, "You with us, Vin?"

"Sorta," Vin groaned.

"Headache any better?" the healer asked.

"Better than what?" Better than dead, he thought. Maybe – although he was pretty sure dead couldn’t feel this bad.

Reaching for the laudanum, Nathan chuckled lowly. He was beginning to worry that Tanner wouldn’t come out of this. He should have known that Larabee could and would force the issue.

"We gotta . . . find him, Chris," Vin implored as he struggled to pull himself up with a groan.

Chris nodded while gently pushing his friend back down. "I know. Ezra and JD are out looking for him now."

Vin looked doubtful, but his spinning head forced him to accept the information without argument. He would have to trust his friends to bring the boy back.

By the time Nathan had Vin medicated and Chris back in bed, Buck had returned from patrol and offered to take over. Feeling optimistic for the first time in nearly a week, Nathan took him up on the offer and went to share the good news with Josiah.

Wilmington shot a brief glance at the sleeping tracker, before sitting down next to Larabee. "You’re lookin’ a little better," he noted of his friend.

Chris nodded, "Getting there. Any word from Ezra and JD?"

Buck looked down. "They came back last night, Chris. Couldn’t find hide or hair of the boy."


Hating the look of sorrow of he saw in his friend’s eyes, Buck added, "We ain’t givin’ up – just gotta regroup, figure out where t’ go next."

Chris glanced over at his wounded partner. Vin was the best chance they had of tracking the boy, but it would be a long time before he would be up to the task. And keeping Tanner down when he found out the others were unsuccessful would be nearly impossible. If the blond didn’t think the tracker might need him, he’d go himself. With a deep sigh, he repeated softy, "Damn."

Buck could see the turmoil in his friend’s eyes, and knew the man was just barely restraining himself from crawling out of bed and going after the kid himself. He tried to reassure him, "We’ll find him. You and Vin just worry about gettin’ better." He paused and took a deep breath before continuing on. "Chris? You ever think that maybe we didn’t know Luke as well as we thought?"

"Ain’t quite sure what you’re getting at?"

"Well now, hear me out, okay? No one knew where you went. Ain’t too likely someone followed you. And if they did, why shoot you and Vin and take the boy? Hell, if they were after you, they’d either have just taken you out, or taken out all three of you. If they were after Vin, they’d of took him. Don’t make much sense, Chris."

"Been pondering that myself, Buck. Keep feeling like I’m missing something."

"Maybe. Chris, you ever hear about wolves being taken in as pups, made to be like a tame dog? Gentle and loyal as the day is long, till one day, out of the blue, they turn on the hand that feeds ‘em. No one knows why."

Chris looked as his friend incredulously. "That’s the biggest bunch of horse shit you’ve managed to spout yet!"

Remembering that Vin was asleep, he lowered his voice and continued, "Luke didn’t shoot us, Buck. He would never do that to us."

"You don’t know that, Chris. No one knows anything right now."

"I do know that, Buck. Luke would never turn . . . oh God." Larabee turned a stricken gaze to his friend.

"What?" Buck asked, confused by the gunman’s abrupt change in tone.

"I can’t believe I didn’t remember this sooner - can’t believe it’s just now coming to me."

"What?" Buck asked again.

"There was a man in town last week. He knew Luke – had the boy scared out of his wits. Made some ridiculous comment about the kid turning on us." His gaze grew hard and his voice followed suit as he added, "He’s got him, Buck. I know it. Why didn’t I think of this sooner?"

"Don’t eat yourself up over it, Chris. You’ve been sick – damn near died on us. Besides, it wouldn’t have made a difference – we still don’t know who he is or where he is or what really happened."

Vin heard bits and pieces of the whispered conversation, and each word sent sharp pains directly to his head and heart. Luke was gone, and Buck believed the boy had been responsible for their injuries. Chris had lowered his voice about then, so Vin wasn’t sure what his best friend’s reply had been. Maybe Larabee agreed with Buck - maybe all the men did.

Vin knew his mind wasn’t working quite right, knew everything was totally mixed up. But if there was one thing he knew too well, it was the weight of being unjustly accused - how it changed your life forever. He had to fix this – had to find the youth and set things right. Luke was family, after all.

+ + + + + + +

His chance came the following night. It wasn’t all that difficult to slip out, although remaining upright proved to be tricky. He underestimated the dizziness factor, he soon realized – but with slow, calculated steps he managed it. Josiah was on watch, otherwise it wouldn’t have worked. But the big man’s snores meant he was dead to the world and it would take an act of God to wake him up. Chris was harder, but he’d been having a lot of pain in that shoulder, so Vin convinced him to take the laudanum Nathan offered, and now the gunman slept soundly, as well.

The blond would be furious that he’d gone off on his own. Probably wasn’t one of his better ideas, especially since everything still kept getting turned around in his head. But Ezra and JD had already tried and failed, Nathan sure wouldn’t let him go – let alone offer to go with him, and Buck . . . well, Buck wasn’t coming along.

With a low groan, he finally made it into the saddle. Getting Peso ready to ride had his head pounding worse than ever, and he had to stop twice to throw up. He hated that. When he’d been shot the last time, it had taken weeks before he could keep anything down. Now here he was getting sick all the time again. He was starting to have trouble remembering what it felt like to feel good.

By the time he reached the campsite, it was dawn. The ride had been barely tolerable in the dark with Peso on his best behavior. He didn’t want to think what daylight would bring. They had gradually begun opening the curtains in the clinic room so that he could adjust to the light, but it didn’t work all that well. His head hurt all the time anyway, so he supposed it didn’t matter much. Still, he was grateful that he’d made it where he needed to go without falling off his horse or being followed.

It didn’t take long to find the trail, either. Long days of hot, dry weather had left the area pretty much unchanged, the signs undisturbed in spite of the passage of time. Vin muttered crossly under his breath - obviously JD hadn’t learned what he’d taught him. Hell, he’d have thought even Ezra could have picked up the clues. It occurred to him that he was feeling considerably short-tempered and less than generous with his friends, but he had too much time to make up for to worry about it.

The sun came out in full as the tracker climbed wearily back into the saddle. For a moment, the knife in his skull twisted cruelly, and he bit his lip to hold back a cry. He’d have to get used to it – that was all there was to it. Pulling his hat lower over his eyes, he moved off.

+ + + + + + +

After a good night’s sleep and a fine breakfast, Nathan felt better than he had all week. The missing boy still weighed heavy on his heart, but at least Chris and Vin were out of trouble and on the mend.

He opened the door softly and peered inside, not surprised to hear Josiah’s strong snore, and a slightly softer version coming from the gunman. The preacher had rolled his back into the rickety, old chair and propped his feet up on the end of Chris’s bed. Nathan never could understand how the big man could sleep so soundly in seemingly any position.

Peering into the dark corner, Jackson noted the rumpled covers where Vin slept. The slight tracker had taken to tucking himself up tight in the corner with the blankets pulled over his head, so that it was hard to see if he was even there.

Normally the man moved at the slightest sound, though. The recent head injury only added to Vin’s heightened sensitivity to his environment. With a frown, Nathan approached the small cot. As his eyes gradually adjusted to the darkness from the drawn drapes, a sudden feeling of dread gripped him.

Vin wasn’t there.

He knew it deep down, even as he turned up the bedside lamp to verify the fact.

"Damn it, Vin!" he exclaimed.

The expletive coming from the normally soft-spoken healer brought Chris out of his deep slumber. He sat up with a jolt, absently kicking the long legs that took up residence at the foot of his bed.

"Wha . . . what?" Josiah asked sleepily as he pulled himself into an upright position.

Nathan moved to throw open the curtains then – some ridiculous thought coming to him that maybe if they had more light, they could see their missing friend

With a huff, he turned towards Josiah.

"How the hell did you let him get out?"

Josiah pondered that question, confusion obvious on his rugged features, until he followed Chris’s line of sight towards Vin’s bed.

"Damn it, Vin!" It was Larabee’s turn this time to express his frustration.

Josiah stood and swiftly went to the cot, tossing aside the blankets in some apparent hope that Tanner had merely managed to make himself smaller than usual. With a shake of his head, he turned towards the other men. "I’m sorry. I didn’t hear a sound."

"Course not. You sleep like a log, Josiah, and Vin never makes a sound. Ain’t your fault anyway – Vin should know better." Nathan muttered.

"I’ll get the others," the preacher offered.

By the time the remaining regulators arrived, Larabee was partly dressed. Nathan gave Buck a distressed glare, clearly hoping Wilmington could talk some sense into their still healing leader. But being the gunman’s oldest friend, Buck had an idea how far that would get him. Telling Chris how to go about something never worked. It was better – and safer - to let him face the facts on his own.

"We’ll go after him, Chris, don’t you worry now."

Barely suppressing a groan, the gunman didn’t answer as he reached for his gun belt.

"Couldn’t have gone far," Nathan spoke of Vin. "He just wasn’t up to it – got sick every time he sat up."

Chris scoffed. "This is Vin we’re talkin’ about. You ever know him to quit once he’s got his mind made up?"

"He won’t have a choice – fall off his damn horse before he gets out of town," Jackson mumbled.

"Then he should be extraordinarily easy to find," Ezra offered dryly.

"I don’t understand – why would Vin take off now? By himself?" JD questioned.

"He’s going after Luke," Chris explained, while grunting with the effort of pulling on his boots one-handed. He wondered idly why none of the others offered to help. Hell, any other time he’d be pushing them away.

"But why would he do that? He knows we’ll help him," Dunne added.

"Maybe he doesn’t," Chris said with a pointed glare at Buck. "Maybe he overhead what you were saying the other day, Buck. Probably thinks we don’t trust Luke anymore."

Buck shook his head sadly, and returned his old friend’s gaze. "I’m sorry if I stirred things up, Chris – you know I sure didn’t mean to rile Vin. We’ll go get him – bring him back. The way he’s hurtin’, shouldn’t take us long to catch up to him."

Finally pulling on the last boot, Larabee made a move to stand up, but he would have fallen back on the bed had Josiah not reached out an arm to grab a hold of him. None of the men said a word, knowing the gunslinger wouldn’t take kindly to them pointing out the obvious.

Wilmington barely glanced at the blond as he added, "Course, by the time we get you up and saddled – and stop a few times a long the way t’ let you rest – well, Vin might have a good lead on us."

Larabee glared at his lanky friend, but Buck ignored him and went on. "We can probably have him back here by nightfall, Chris. And if we don’t find him, I’ll send JD back t’ tell you which way we’re headin’. That way, you and Nathan can join us in a day or so."

Chris didn’t like it. Vin still wasn’t thinking clearly, and he was difficult to keep in line on a good day. It was hard to say what kind of trouble the tracker would get into, what kind of foolish risks the man would take.

But the truth was that he would slow them down – as much as it irritated him to admit it. He’d worn himself out just getting dressed – no thanks to his friends. Chris groaned once more in frustration. "All right," he agreed at last. "You go on ahead. But if you aren’t back in a day, two at the most, I’ll be right behind you." He said sternly, challenging the others to disagree.

No one did – grateful that the gunman had seen reason, if only temporarily.

+ + + + + + +

It had taken them nearly a week to reach the bustling town, but Luke knew they were really only a few days from Four Corners. Perkins had taken his time, sometimes spending two nights at the same campsite. The big man would peer for hours through his spy glass from their perch on the mountain top, keeping track of the various stagecoaches that passed by below them.

Luke knew this old game. Perkins had used him and Josh to steal from the coaches before. He and his brother were carefully positioned in the middle of the trail so the driver would have to stop. After all, who would suspect two young boys of trying anything? Besides that, everyone got such a kick from how much they looked alike – that novelty alone was enough to get them to pull up on the reins.

But surely the outlaw didn’t think that would work anymore. Surely he knew that Luke wasn’t a cute little kid anymore. Hell, he was even getting whiskers. He was going to let them grow out some, too – like Vin. But he was thinking of cutting his hair shorter – like Chris. Oh God, would the pain ever stop tearing through his gut every time he thought of the two men?

Luke was glad that Perkins had bided his time. He somehow hoped that maybe the others would come looking for him – in spite of the lies the outlaw tried to fill his head with. He thought Ezra might, or maybe JD. Nathan and Josiah were nice enough to him, but he didn’t spend a lot of time with them. Buck neither – he always seemed to have girls on his mind, and Luke didn’t understand that at all.

Of course, it would take the men awhile to find out he was gone – to find Chris and Vin. He swallowed and choked back the tears that threatened once more. It was time for him to grow up and act like a man. He had a job to do – and nothing and no one could keep him from doing it.

Luke’s captor watched the boy from the corner of his eye as they approached the town. It would be harder to keep a firm eye on him here, but he was pretty sure he had the youth under his control by now. He still wasn’t ready to hand him a gun yet, though – being a little uneasy that Luke would turn it in his direction if given the opportunity. He’d spent the past week filling the boy’s head with his version of reality. He reminded the teen that he’d been born a thief – he never really belonged with upstanding members of society. It was just a matter of time before the others figured out that he was no good, before he reverted back to his true nature. No one had even bothered to come looking for him – and if they did, it would just be to kill him. After all, two members of their group were dead because of the boy.

In actuality, Perkins believed what he said. It just didn’t seem possible that this stupid kid could rise above what he was – could find acceptance in the solid citizens of the little town. With his two protectors dead, it was doubtful anyone even cared enough to come searching for him. The possible exception might be the woman who had taken Luke in – but she had children of her own to worry about. She was probably relieved to be rid of the burden, now that he thought on it.

The sky opened up and let loose torrents of rain as the man and boy hit the local livery. The summer storm had been building over the past hours, a welcome relief to the hot, humid air that weighed heavily on the riders. Perkins dismounted and grabbed Luke by the cuff of his shirt.

"Come on, Kid. I need a drink."

Luke followed along with grim determination. His chance was coming – he just knew it. He could feel it. And one of the most important things Vin had taught him was to go with his gut.

He wouldn’t let Vin down this time – Chris, either. He took off his hat and let the rain wash through his hair as he followed Perkins to the saloon. A feeling of freedom enveloped him as he vowed he’d soon be rid of his tormentor. But it was quickly replaced with overwhelming sadness, for he would never be free of the aching memories that plagued him.

+ + + + + + +

Storm clouds were building, and Vin cursed in despair. He’d had an easy time of following the trail so far – apart from the blinding headache and constant dizziness. Obviously whoever took Luke, didn’t feel the need to cover his tracks. Vin had come upon their first campsite within hours, so apparently the man wasn’t in any hurry, either. That gave him hope. Maybe they weren’t so far ahead after all. But the approaching storm would likely wash away much of the sign he needed to continue on.

At least the clouds blocked the glaring sun that pierced right through his shattered head. He stopped a moment, peering about him for a possible shelter should the weather get rough, and took a swig of lukewarm water from his canteen. As soon as it hit his stomach, he knew it was a mistake, the liquid making an abrupt reappearance within minutes. He hadn’t been able to keep any water down yet, but the dryness in his throat coerced him into repeating the effort. He figured at the very least, he was leaving a trail for the guys to follow, and he smiled tightly at that. Served them right, having to follow his signs of sickness, since they obviously hadn’t tried hard enough to find Luke on their own. His anger at all of them didn’t seem unreasonable – although he had to admit it was unusual, so maybe that head wound had messed him up more than he thought.

His feelings didn’t apply to Chris, though. He knew the blond would be at his side if he were able. God, he hoped Chris didn’t try to come after him. That thought made him pull up short, Peso undoubtedly wondering what they were stopping for now. Vin sure didn’t want Larabee to get sick again on his account. The gunman was hurt worse than he was – needed at least another week in bed, according to Nathan. Hopefully Buck talked some sense into him. As if that were possible.


He would probably kill himself going after Luke, and Chris would probably kill himself going after him.

It was no wonder his head hurt.

+ + + + + + +

For the second time in a week, Ezra and JD were back at the scenic campsite where their comrades were injured. JD decided he would gladly let Vin keep this particular hideaway for his own – the idyllic spot had lost it’s luster after their first visit. He knew this was the place to start, although he doubted they’d find anything, since they hadn’t the last time.

Buck wandered about impatiently, trying to think like Vin – knowing that was about as likely as JD being able to think like Josiah. How the tracker had managed to get even this far was still a mystery to him. The man had looked positively green the last time Buck had helped him to the privy. He remembered how Vin grumbled, insisting he was perfectly able to make the trip on his own, in spite of leaning heavily on Buck’s arm the entire way. He was a tough, stubborn cuss, though – and Wilmington liked him for just that reason. "Damn it, Vin," he muttered under his breath as he searched the area in vain. If he didn’t bring the tracker back, Larabee would never forgive him – and he’d never forgive himself.

Ezra decided it was time to think deductively. Obviously, neither Vin nor the culprit who had taken Luke had headed east – else they would have crossed paths with them on their way from town. He knew from his and JD’s previous attempts that the northern hills were difficult to traverse, and hence it was unlikely the kidnapper had gone that way. Peering again at the foot of the rocky slope where his friends had been found, he then drifted his eyes in the opposite direction – the direction the shots must have come from.

He’d traveled only feet from the top of the small waterfall, when he noted the obvious signs of horses’ hooves. He and JD had gone this way before, but he didn’t recall seeing the prints then. Moving ahead several yards, he came across what could only be the disgusting evidence of an unruly stomach. With a long, low whistle, he summoned his partners.

"It is apparent our wayward tracker continues to have difficulty with his digestive system," the gambler informed the two men as they approached.

Buck grinned. "Never thought Vin’s queasy stomach would be a good thing."

"Head west, Gentlemen," Ezra instructed, taking the lead. For the first time since this had all began, he felt hopeful. Vin was on to something – and they were on to Vin.

+ + + + + + +

The saloon was dark, crowded, and noisy. Heavy smoke clouded the air, and Luke coughed as he tried to catch a breath. He’d rather stand in the rain than this hell-hole. Perkins went immediately to the bar to order a drink, and the youth looked around uncertainly. Could it be this easy? He could slip out unnoticed and be long gone in seconds. But no, not with unfinished business hanging over his head. His short, miserable life had to be worth something – and he couldn’t think of a nobler cause than avenging the deaths of Chris and Vin.

One of those women approached him – the kind Chris told him he didn’t need to know about. Vin had merely raised an eyebrow when he asked what the gunfighter meant by that, while Ezra laughed. Buck took him aside then and said he should come to him when he was ready to learn about the ways of women – he’d set him straight. Luke had no interest at all in the ways of women, but it appeared that this woman was interested in him.

She gripped his chin, turned his face towards her, and said, "My, my – aren’t you a pretty one! You’ll be a really lady-killer someday, son." He tried to pull away as he gagged on her perfume, determined that he was leaving no matter the wind and rain that were whipping up a frenzy outside.

Perkins stepped in just then and spoke in the woman’s ear, "He ain’t ready for you – but I could be persuaded."

And it was right there. The man’s big belly stuck out so that when he leaned close to the woman, his gun belt shifted just enough to point the handle of the weapon within Luke’s reach.

The boy seized the pistol in one quick movement, and moved back a few feet. The woman caught the action from the corner of her eye, and jumped back in alarm. Whatever this good-looking kid had in mind, she wanted no part of it.

Perkins looked stunned for a moment, but a small smile graced his lips. The kid wouldn’t do it – not here, not like this, and probably not ever.

Luke didn’t notice how the saloon suddenly grew quiet. He was aware of nothing except the man in front of him. His hands shook as he pointed the gun and pulled back its trigger. He’d done this before.

Oh God, why did it come back to him now? So clearly – like it was happening this very moment. He saw Vin’s sad, blue eyes – saw the pain in them that reflected his own – saw the bullet leave his gun and hit the man he’d grown to love. The force had thrown Vin half way across the saloon, and blood had spurted out of him and on him and around him. Everywhere.

He hadn’t wanted to do it – he never wanted to kill a man. Mrs. Potter told him he wasn’t a killer – that he didn’t have it inside him - but maybe she was wrong. He had pulled the trigger then, and it all came back to him at this moment. Those terrible dark days would be with him forever, for he could never undo what he’d done to Vin.

Tears filled his eyes, blurring his vision, and he blinked in an effort to focus on Perkins. This was his chance, Luke reminded himself, and he fought to control the trembling of his hands as he made the shot.

The moment’s hesitation was enough for the outlaw to regain control of the situation. With a cruel laugh, he grasped the kid’s wrist and turned the weapon towards the ceiling - the shot going off and ricocheting harmlessly. The patrons quickly lost interest in the little drama and resumed their activities.

"You really are a worthless little shit," Perkins laughed as he pulled the boy up the stairs to their rented room. With a hearty shove, he pushed Luke onto the bed and tied him to the iron rail of the headboard.

"Might just let you go, after all," he told the teen. "Ain’t got much use for a stupid coward, now that I think on it. Guess your brother got it all," he said, with a shake of his head.

Left alone in the quiet of the room, Luke thought on those words. He was stupid. He was a coward. Everything Perkins said was true. All of it.

He was worthless, and no one would look for him.

There was only one thing Perkins had wrong – his past wasn’t his downfall, Luke thought. His whole life was a downfall – just one long, tunnel that spiraled down into nothing. And the only two men who could save him from himself were dead.

With that thought, the boy buried his face in the pillow and wept.

+ + + + + + +

Vin tried hard to ride through the wind and rain, figuring he couldn’t possibly feel worse than he already did. Fortunately, the man he followed seemed to be taking a pretty direct route west – sticking with the higher trails, which suited Vin fine. But when the wind whipped his hat off for the third time and his field of vision lessened to a few feet in front of him, he decided to take a break.

The overhang hardly offered enough shelter for him and Peso to keep out of the wind, but it would have to do. With a weary sigh, he dismounted and took a seat on a small, smooth rock that hugged the wall of the small alcove. His head was pounding, as usual, and his eyes hurt. Maybe he was tired, since he really couldn’t remember when he’d last slept. He couldn’t really remember when he’d started out, or how far he’d come, either. His head fell back against the stone wall, seemingly of its own accord, and his mind drifted for a moment. What was he trying to do again? What the hell had been so important to bring him out in the middle of nowhere in a storm?

Luke’s young face appeared to him, his brow furrowed and a slight frown turning down the corners of his lips. Darn kid must be out trying to break that horse again, Vin thought. He’d find him and drag his sorry butt back to Mrs. Potter – or maybe he’d let Chris do it this time. That sounded even better. He’d just rest a spell, and let Chris take care of it.

But wait, Chris was hurt – wasn’t he? With a lurch, Vin sat up suddenly. Chris was hurt – and something had happened to Luke.

"Damn it, Vin – think!" he berated himself as he lowered his aching head into his hands. He winced when he carelessly grazed the gash that ran along the left side of his head. When had that happened?

Maybe if he laid his head back and closed his eyes for a few minutes, it would all make sense, even though something was pushing him to keep going. In the end, he didn’t have a choice. The ground came up to meet him as he rolled off the little rock and hit the dirt, his already sore head taking the brunt of the slight fall.

+ + + + + + +

The summer storm moved quickly eastward and soon swept over the other three men in its path. Ezra reluctantly called a halt to their journey, and led Buck and JD to a nearby cave.

JD noted the gambler’s obvious disappointment at the hold up, and was reminded again how much Standish truly cared. He’d pushed JD unmercifully on their previous unsuccessful quest – to the point where it was young Dunne who was requesting to stop a little while – to sleep a little longer. They actually had taken the lower part of the western trail for several miles, before giving up and heading back to Four Corners. JD could see then how upset Standish was. He’d thought at the time it was because Ezra just didn’t like to lose, but he quickly realized he had sold the gambler short. Ezra truly cared for the kid, and it had broken his heart to give up the search. But now that they were on the right track, Standish pushed ahead with renewed vigor, determined to bring both Vin and Luke back in one piece.

He glanced over at Buck, who was crouched low to the ground, deep in thought. His friend had been strangely quiet the entire day, and JD wondered if he was busy blaming himself. It wasn’t his fault, of course, but Buck’s big heart might not see it that way. JD remembered that it had taken Buck the longest time to forgive Luke when he shot Vin – but that was only because he cared about Tanner so much. Nothing wrong with that, now was there?

Of course, Buck had all but promised Chris he’d bring Vin back tonight, but none of them expected the tracker to make it this far. But then, Vin normally did things that JD didn’t expect – left him with his jaw hanging wide open on more than one occasion. No one could predict what Vin Tanner do, and Chris knew that better than anybody. But Buck would still be blaming himself, JD was sure of it.

The silence and tension were starting to suffocate the youth, so he spoke up. "Storm should pass pretty quick, don’t y’ think?" Said to either man, in the hopes that at least one would respond.

For a long while, neither did, until Buck finally looked up at him with a sigh, "Be too late, JD. By the time this clears, it will be dark. We’ll have to wait for dawn." He wouldn’t be bringing Vin back to Chris by nightfall, that was sure. And in the morning, he’d have to send JD back to town to fill the gunfighter in on where they were headed. Chris would be up on his horse and on his way within the hour of JD’s arrival, no matter how bad he felt. And all because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

Any other time it might almost be comical. Vin chasing Luke, him and Ezra chasing Vin, and Chris chasing them. But no one was sure what lay at the end of the line, and Chris and Vin were in no shape for long journeys or surprises.

That boy had better be all right, Buck thought – and he’d better be worth all this trouble.


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