by JIN

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

Part Four
It was morning by the time Perkins returned for him. Luke could tell by the lingering smell of stale perfume that the man had spent the night with that woman. The thought of what that meant, coupled with the odor, nearly made the youth gag.

Vin would never do something like that – get himself all liquored up and spend the night with some cheap woman. Luke was pretty sure he and Vin were of the same mind when it came to this whole women thing. He and Vin were most always of the same mind.

But in the next instant, he realized it wasn’t so. He’d been fooling himself all this time - thinking he and Vin were kin, thinking he was like the tracker in any way at all. Vin would have known what to do back at the stream where his friends were shot; Vin wouldn’t have missed that shot last night; Vin wouldn’t have been taken in the first place – would have put a bullet through Perkins right then and there.

No, he wasn’t half the man Vin was, and he never would be.

Perkins yanked the boy up by the arm and took good look in his eyes. As he’d suspected, the defiance was gone, replaced with hopelessness and despair. Good. Now that he’d broken the kid, they could get down to business.

Half-dragging the teen through the muddy streets, he pushed him into the saddle and led him from town. He’d gathered enough information from his dealings the previous evening to know the eastbound stage carried some wealthy passengers. Perkins was wishing he hadn’t had quite so much to drink, however – he had one hell of a headache and they really should have started out sooner. Now he and Luke would have to ride hard to reach the ideal location for an attack.

Luke didn’t bother to question why they were heading back the way they’d come. It didn’t matter. Even if Ezra or one of the others found him, he could never look them in the eye. He’d had his chance to avenge Vin and Chris, and he’d blown it. He didn’t deserve to be Vin’s friend – let alone his family.

+ + + + + + +

The lapses in memory were becoming annoying. Vin couldn’t remember when he’d gotten back on his horse, but the dawning of the sun behind him told him another day had begun. At least he was headed west, away from the agonizing glare. The trail had pretty much washed out in the rain, but he knew he was headed in the right direction. That seemed funny to his fuzzy head. Couldn’t remember what day it was or how long he’d been riding – sometimes couldn’t even remember why he was riding – but he knew for sure he was heading the right way.

He had hit a particularly rough part of the trail, and even though Peso stepped with sure feet, the constant up and down motion soon had Vin’s head and stomach rebelling in tandem. He lowered his head to rest on the horse’s mane, stunned for a minute to realize that he’d removed his hat at some point. Reaching behind his neck to pull the hat back on, he flinched when the leather rubbed across the wound on his head. So that was the reason he’d taken it off. Now that the sun was up, he would have to put up with the irritation. Even with the light behind him, he could feel the pressure building behind his eyes.

Somewhere along the way it must have rained, too – judging by the dampness of his clothes. Well, wet was probably a more accurate description. He must either be in a hurry, or totally out of it to have ridden through a downpour.

With a low groan, he laid his head back down on the horse’s neck. Let them all talk, Peso was good as gold when he needed to be – and now was as need be as ever, for Vin was sure he’d never stay in the saddle if the black got the notion to get the least bit ornery. That thought reminded the tracker of the horse that Luke wanted so badly to claim for his own. It was a black, too, although he had a little more white on him than Peso. Vin had to admit, it was a fine looking animal, and proud, too. No wonder Luke wanted him so badly.

But hell, he really wasn’t up to looking for the boy right now. He was wishing the kid would just come on home

With a shudder, he curled up tighter against his loyal friend’s neck, and closed his eyes.

+ + + + + + +

JD took a deep breath before entering the clinic. The news wasn’t good, but at least they hadn’t found Vin lying on the ground along the way. He’d practiced his speech all the way home – the good news/bad news of it, with special emphasis on the good. Chris wouldn’t kill the messenger, of course, but JD wasn’t especially anxious to give him the word. Buck had told him to ‘down play’ the whole thing in an effort to keep the gunman from following after them. JD had laughed out loud and asked his best friend if he really believed it was possible to pull the wool over Chris Larabee’s eyes.

He guessed he’d know for sure in about three minutes.

With another deep breath, he slowly opened the door a crack and peered inside. Josiah and Chris were talking quietly, but the tension in the air was so thick it nearly choked the courage right out of JD before he’d even gotten in the door.

Chris looked up as Dunne entered, and without a single sound from the youth, instructed Sanchez. "Hand me my boots."

JD could see that Larabee was already fully dressed, with the exception of the aforementioned footwear. He stammered, "Uh, Chris . . . we didn’t find . . . I mean he wasn’t . . . Buck said . . ." What was it Buck said? What was it he was supposed to say?

"Which way?" the blond asked as he once again struggled to put on his boots with one arm bound up in a sling.

Josiah finally gave in with a shrug and stooped to lend the injured man a hand.

"West – the upper trail, near that waterfall. It’s a pretty rough route in places, Chris – especially with that rain storm we had last night. Might be good to let Buck and Ezra take care of it." There, that was what he was supposed to say.

Larabee finally looked him in the eye then and said, "A lot of things might be good, JD – don’t mean they’re gonna happen that way." He turned a penetrating gaze to the preacher and asked, "You mind helping me get my horse ready, Josiah?"

"Long as you don’t mind me riding right beside you."

"Hoped you would," Chris responded with a tight smile.

"I’m comin’, too," JD put in.

"And you sure ain’t riding without me." Nathan spoke up as he came through the door, knowing there was no point in arguing with the man in black. He was grateful they’d been able to postpone this little excursion for a day, at least. He took a long look at their leader, not liking the shadows under his eyes or the grimace on his face as Josiah helped him stand. Larabee should be in bed for another week, with his best friend on the cot next to him. But it wasn’t going to happen. Neither would rest until their young friend was accounted for.

And like Buck, Nathan hoped and prayed the boy was all right – and worth the risk.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra’s steed plowed along the rocky slope with his head held high, obviously enjoying the early morning breeze more than his owner. Standish rubbed a hand across his tired eyes, and peered at the stony hills ahead of them. The rain had washed away Vin’s tracks, and any other evidence of his passing, but now that they were on the high trail, the options were fairly limited. Vin had to be continuing westward, although how he’d managed to stay ahead of them when he was so ill was puzzling.

The men had stopped for the night, but none of them had slept much. The storm that raged outside the damp cave only heightened the tension that existed inside the crowded space. No matter how Ezra looked at it, Buck was just plain wrong – and his apology didn’t erase the doubt the gambler saw in the rogue’s eyes.

Stealing a glance at his partner, Ezra noted that Buck appeared as weary and unsettled as he himself felt. He knew Wilmington was blaming himself for Vin’s evasion, and frankly, his words certainly added fuel to the fire. But sooner or later, Tanner would have struck off to find the boy anyway. Besides that, Ezra wasn’t without his own feelings of regret. He couldn’t understand how he and JD had missed the obvious signs that pointed in this direction. If he and young Dunne had just been more observant, they may have found the boy a week ago, and none of this would have been necessary.

With a sigh, he turned to Buck and spoke at last. "You have been inordinately quiet, my friend."

Buck shrugged. "Got nothin’ t’ say."

"This unfortunate situation is truly not your doing, Buck. Although I must say that I relate to your feelings of remorse."

"What? Why? You ain’t done nothin’."

"Crudely, but aptly put."

Buck pulled back on the reins. "Just what are you gettin’ at, Ezra?"

"I have done absolutely nothing to rectify the current dilemma. I cannot help but consider that had JD and I been more astute a week ago, this entire journey would have been unnecessary. Our wounded comrades would be recovering in their beds - or at least, Mr. Larabee would be. Mr. Tanner would more than likely be taking up residence in that dilapidated structure on wheels on that he calls home. And young Luke would be in the loving care of his adoptive mother."

"Hell, Ezra. You can’t think like that. You and JD did the best y’ could. None of us can track like Vin."

"True. And in spite of our difference of opinion regarding the missing teen’s character, none of us doubt that your actions and words were motivated purely out of concern for our mutual friends."

Buck nodded. "I’m concerned, all right. Just can’t figure out why we haven’t caught up to Vin yet. I sure hope he didn’t ride all night through that storm."

Ezra thoughts echoed Buck’s. As confused as Vin had been, he could very well have rode through a hurricane, and not been aware of it.

"Let us just hope that we find our sharpshooter in one piece – and long before Mr. Larabee finds us."

Nodding in agreement, Buck spurred his horse forward. He felt better after the conversation with Ezra. He didn’t like to be at odds with the man – with any of the men. Conflict didn’t sit well with him, even though it had reared its ugly head between him and Chris on more than one occasion.

He couldn’t help the thought that tumbled across his mind once more; this kid had better be worth it.

+ + + + + + +

Perkins pushed his horse, and his unwilling companion, until the sun started to sink in the pink-tinged sky. Trekking along the high ridge once again, he pulled up at a seemingly random spot and dismounted hurriedly. They had just barely managed to overtake the stage, and he knew time was of the essence if he was going to pull this off.

Peering through his eyeglass to the trail below, he paused only a moment to study the quickest route down. Once the shot had been made, he’d need to ride like the wind to finish the deed before the travelers had a chance to regroup. It was a little messier than he liked – a little more risky, too. He liked it better when he was closer and ready to move in, but there was little cover on the lower trail, and the element of surprise would work in their favor. No one would suspect a shot from up here, because practically no one could make it.

But Luke could.

Pulling the teen from the saddle, he shoved him to the spot he’d chosen. He knew the kid wouldn’t need the eyeglass, knew from the rabbit he’d shot that his eyesight was dead on.

"Soon as that stage comes into view, you’re gonna take out the driver," Perkins commanded.

Luke looked at the man incredulously. Perkins had just instructed him to kill someone, as if it were no more consequential than telling him to turn left or right. Luke felt a cold chill sweep over him again. He wasn’t a killer – he couldn’t even kill the man he hated with every fiber of his being. But somehow he knew if he did this now – everything would change. The first time would be hard, and the time after that, but sooner or later, it wouldn’t matter anymore. And he would be a killer.

"No." He spoke softly, but his mouth was set in a firm, tight line. He said again as he looked directly in his tormentor’s eyes, "No."

Perkin’s hand connected with his face in a flash, and Luke struggled to keep his balance. But he returned his gaze to the man once more. He was tired of this game, tired of his life, tired of himself – and if it all ended right here, so be it.

The outlaw knew instantly that something had changed in the boy. He pushed his gun against the youth’s temple and tossed him roughly to the ground as he growled in his ear. "You will do this or you will die."

Luke almost laughed, thinking how unoriginal Perkins had become - predictable, too.

"And after I’m finished with you, I’m going after that woman," the outlaw threatened.

The image of Mrs. Potter humming as she worked in her kitchen appeared to Luke clearly. He could see her face and hear her voice as she took him by the hand one day and told him what a fine boy he was. She had spent nearly an hour telling him how smart he was, and good- hearted and strong. He could be anything he wanted to be when he grew up.

And he wanted to be Chris Larabee.

The whole time she talked with him that day, Larabee was all he thought of. Now, with a sudden lurch, he wondered if he’d hurt Vin by feeling that way. Luke wondered why he’d chosen to deny his true nature and try to be something he wasn’t. Chris and Vin were equally good men – the best men he’d ever known and ever would know. But he was more like Vin, and there was nothing to be ashamed of in that. Hell, he should have held his head up and been proud. He should have clung to every single word the tracker shared with him – should never have wasted time arguing and bickering with him. He should have held onto every moment, because he’d never get the chance again.

Vin wouldn’t want him to do this, and neither would Mrs. Potter.

He turned to Perkins again and said, "Do what you have to. I ain’t killin’ nobody fer you."

In a rage, the Perkins threw his weapon to the ground and began to pummel the teen with his fists. Luke tried to fight back, but he was no match for the larger man. He attempted to use his agility to slip away, but a well-place hit to his head had him seeing stars. It was just a matter of time before Perkins beat him to death. He hoped with all his might that Josiah had been right about an afterlife – that maybe Vin and Chris would be there to see him across the great divide. A half smile graced Luke’s lips at that thought, and it infuriated his attacker even more, causing him to swing his fists harder at the youth.

+ + + + + + +

Vin felt the bile rise up and knew he was going to be sick again, but he’d never get back up on Peso once he got down. There was nothing to come up, and so dry heaves wracked his already sore stomach muscles as he remained mounted - his head thrown loosely over the side of the horse’s neck. The pounding in his brain exploded furiously, and he groaned as he gagged. He couldn’t feel more miserable, he decided. It just wasn’t possible. And the worst of it was - he had no idea where he was or why he was doing this.

When the retching finally stopped, Vin picked his head up just enough to take in his surroundings. The landscape tilted as his vision blurred, and he felt the urge to be sick again. With another long groan, he closed his eyes and tried to hold still. Maybe he could get a sound thought if he just didn’t move.

There were voices ahead. And the distinct sounds of a scuffle – maybe a fight. He should check it out, though why he’d want to involve himself in someone else’s problems when he hadn’t gotten a handle on his own was a mystery. Sometimes he wished he wasn’t such a ‘Robin Hood’, as Ezra liked to call him. Sometimes he wished he could look the other way and save himself the trouble.

Wasn’t his way, though, and so he kneed Peso to gallop towards where he heard the commotion, choking back the sob that threatened when his head rocked with every step.

Approaching the area cautiously, Vin decided he might be better to go on foot. Climbing down unsteadily, he nearly landed on his knees before managing to hang onto the stirrups and right himself. He was seeing two of everything, and wondered just how much help he could really be if needed.

The rocky slopes made it easy to crouch behind a boulder and get the lay of things. There was definitely a fight going on, though it appeared to be pretty one-sided. It appeared the bigger of the two was doing a number on the smaller one - didn’t hardly seem fair.

Then, for just a moment, Vin’s vision cleared enough for him to realized what he was seeing – who he was seeing, and though the whys and the wherefores of the situation remained cloudy, his mission became crystal clear. With a roar he raised himself up and shot his mare’s leg into the air.

Perkins jumped back when the shot was fired, but had the presence of mind to reach for his weapon. With a gasp, he noted the man who had risen up from behind the boulder – who had seemingly risen up from the grave.

Luke heard the shot and twisted his body up off the ground with a groan. Shaking his head in an attempt to clear it, he turned to see who had come upon them at just the right moment. Impeccable timing, Ezra would say – and his heart swelled for a moment with the hope that maybe the gambler had come for him.

Luke couldn’t breathe - couldn’t feel anything except the wild pounding in his heart. It wasn’t possible. Vin was dead. He couldn’t be real. Maybe he was dead already and Vin had come for him? Rubbing a hand across his eyes, the boy shook his head once more and looked again. It seemed to take forever for the message of what his eyes saw to reach his muddled brain. His friend stood on wobbly legs, pale as the ghost that Luke had thought he was, but he was definitely here and definitely alive.

With a barely stifled sob, Luke stood, his arm held tightly against his sore ribs and stomach. "Vin!" he managed to choke out, as he unashamedly allowed the tears to stream down his face.

Vin’s blinked back a tear himself at the boy’s reaction to seeing him. Everything was so damn confusing, but he’d better pull himself together now and handle this, or it wouldn’t matter that he’d found Luke. His body was fast approaching its limits, however, and it was all he could do stay on his feet and hold onto his weapon.

Perkins was the only one in decent shape and he smiled at the gift that had been handed him. The tracker would ensure the boy’s cooperation. It was apparent the man was injured, hardly able to stand, and it wouldn’t take much to bring him down.

Luke had managed to stagger a few feet towards Tanner, when the outlaw pulled him back by the arm and once again held the gun against his head.

"Put your gun down, or the boy dies." Perkins growled with sick amusement.

Vin took a breath and tried to steady his shaking limbs. He should have taken the man out by now, but he couldn’t seem to get his hands and his eyes and his brain to coordinate. He was seeing double again, and no matter how he tried, he couldn’t get a clear picture of where to aim his weapon. He could kill Luke if he took the shot now.

Luke saw the struggle that took place within Vin - saw how hurt he was and how hard it was for him to just stay standing. Perkins could finish his friend off before Vin even knew what was coming. He looked into the outlaw’s face and pleaded, "Please don’t hurt him – I’ll do whatever you want."

Perkins laughed as he moved closer to where Vin leaned heavily against the boulder. He repeated, "Drop your weapon."

Angry at his traitorous body and the confusion that seemed to have taken up permanent residence in his mind, Vin regretfully did as he was told. He had no idea what this man wanted with Luke, but he couldn’t risk making the situation worse with an errant shot. He and Luke would have to figure this out together. And if they couldn’t, well then, Chris and the boys were right behind him – that was the one thing he knew for sure.

The minute Vin’s gun hit the dirt, Perkins shoved Luke to the ground once more and picked up the weapon with his free hand. With lightening quick speed, the outlaw swung the mare leg’s against the side of the tracker’s head.

Luke cried out as he saw Vin go down like lead, the wound on the side of his head opening up to trickle a steady stream of bright red blood. Forgetting his sore body, he threw himself at Perkins in a fury that, for once, frightened the man just a bit. The older man still held the mare’s leg, though, and all it took was for him to point it at the tracker’s head for the boy to back away.

The sun was well and truly setting now, the shadows long on the face of the stony cliffs. The timing was perfect, Perkins thought. By the time he completed the robbery and the stage left for the station ahead, it would be dark. He’d have a good day’s head start from any posse that might come after him.

He kept his weapon trained on the fallen tracker as he moved to untie Luke’s rifle from the saddle. Tossing it at the boy, he instructed him, "That stage will be coming any minute now. Make the shot."

Catching the familiar weapon in his arms, Luke considered for a moment turning it on Perkins. Could he get the shot off before the big man could pull the trigger? He gulped and looked again at Vin’s still body. Deciding it was too risky; he moved to position himself on the boulder overlooking the trail below. He shut his mind off to what he was about to do, telling himself that he would do anything for Vin – give up his life, if it came down to it. Of course, it wasn’t his own life he was taking – it was some innocent man who had nothing to do with anything. He was trading Vin’s life for another.

Luke swallowed and looked at Vin again. His friend, his family, was worth it. And so as the stagecoach came into view, he wiped a tear from his eye, took a deep breath, and made the shot.

+ + + + + + +

The sound was somewhere between a growl and a groan, and JD cringed when he heard it. He’d been cringing most of the day, every time he heard Chris make one of those "g" sounds – gasp, groan, grumble, growl, and grimace. Okay, so grimace wasn’t a sound, but it was something Chris was doing a lot of. About the only "g" word he wasn’t doing was grinning. No, there was definitely no smiling going on, and not much talking, either. JD had purposely ridden well ahead of the others, just so he wouldn’t be tempted to open his mouth.

It had been slow going, what with having to stop every few hours to let Chris rest. That was when most of the growling came up. The others never said much. When Larabee would start to slump over the saddle, Nathan would just nod at Josiah, and the preacher would slip the gunman off his horse real easy like. JD wasn’t sure how he felt about that. He didn’t want Chris to get sick again, but hell, a man had a right to ride hurt if he wanted to - especially a man like Chris Larabee. And he understood what drove the gunslinger. If Buck were out there hurt, nothing could keep him from going after his friend.

Chris narrowed his eyes at the slowly sinking sun before turning to glare at Josiah. "There’s still an hour of light left," he noted pointedly.

Brushing away the loose rocky, soil in an attempt to make the surface a bit smoother, Josiah spread out the gunman’s bedroll and didn’t look up as he responded. "Maybe half that."

Chris was moving like a drunken sailor, and Nathan kept a firm grip on his good arm. Jackson had held his tongue all day with the stubborn gunslinger, but as he and Sanchez gently lowered the weakened man to the ground, he finally spoke up. "You done enough for one day, Chris - more than you should’ve done."

Turning his gaze to the healer, Larabee looked at the dark-skinned man as though he and Jackson were speaking in different languages. "Enough? It won’t be enough until Vin and Luke are back safe and sound."

Josiah pulled the blanket up over the blond, noting that in spite of his quiet objections, the man wasn’t even strong enough to put up a real fuss. He laid a hand on Larabee’s shoulder as he reminded him, "Buck and Ezra are way ahead of us. Have a little faith in them, Chris."

Chris winced at that. Faith in Buck? Wilmington may be his oldest friend, and it was true he generally came through in the end – but the rogue’s feelings about Luke were muddied, at best. He and Vin seemed to get on all right, but he couldn’t imagine Buck having a real sense of urgency about finding the tracker.

Then there was Ezra. Faith in Ezra was slow in coming – something he still wrestled with on occasion. He couldn’t see the gambler having the proper sense of urgency, either, since there was no financial gain involved.

He guessed, when it came right down to it, he didn’t have a whole lot of faith in the two men in this particular situation. With a groan, Chris lowered his head back onto the bedroll. The stony ground was hard beneath his back, but it felt considerably better than the saddle. Nathan was messing with his shoulder, and he had to work to hold back another groan. Though the world around him seemed to be growing dimmer by the moment, the faces of his two missing friends loomed clearly before him.

"He needs me," the gunman spoke softly – almost unaware he’d spoken aloud. He sighed and added, "they both need me."

Josiah smiled at the tenderly spoken words. "No one’s gonna argue that fact, Chris. But Buck and Ezra can handle it." In an effort to give his words extra weight, he added, "Ezra’s real fond of the boy, you know."

"Yeah, and Buck likes Vin." JD finally threw in his two cents, although judging by the looks on the other men’s faces, he wasn’t sure if it counted much.

"Fact is, Chris – they need us. We all need each other," Josiah concluded quietly.

"And you need to sleep," Nathan added – unable to help himself.

JD felt his heart well up at the preacher’s words as another "g" word came to mind – gratitude.

+ + + + + + +

Two sets of eyes watched with bated breath as the bullet crossed the distance to the valley below. Luke’s heart plummeted to his stomach as he saw the driver lurch forward suddenly. In that instant, Perkins chuckled while he grabbed the rifle from the teen’s hands, and prepared to move in.

Except the driver didn’t stop.

Luke’s initial relief that apparently he hadn’t injured the man badly enough to force him to halt, gave way to fear as he turned in a panic to Vin’s still form. Forgetting for a moment the beating he’d just taken, he jumped up to rush to the tracker’s side. He stumbled and bit his lip at the jarring of his sore ribs, but continued on to stand guard in front of his fallen friend. Perkins would be furious, but he’d have to go through Luke to take out his anger on Vin.

Perkins hesitated, stunned for a moment that his plan hadn’t quite worked out. He’d seen the driver get hit, but apparently not bad enough to force him to stop. The outlaw considered chasing after the stage, but with the station only miles away, he’d be cutting it close.

Damn! His head was pounding and his stomach was all twisted up in knots. Turning in a fury to where the boy stood like a sentinel over the wounded tracker, Perkins cocked his weapon and prepared to rid himself of the albatross he’d been carrying around for the past week. Stupid kid couldn’t get anything right, and why had he bothered with him in the first place?

When the outlaw turned his weapon on the youth, Luke knew with certainty that this time, the battle would end in death. He closed his eyes briefly and took a breath, ready to face whatever lay ahead for him.

But then he heard it. Vin stirred and moaned, soft and low, and Luke’s heart leapt. His friend was alive and that was all that counted. There was a time, only moments ago, that he might have surrendered – but not now.

Once again, he plowed into the man, and once again, Perkins marveled at the kid’s stupidity. It seemed that every time he turned a loaded gun on the boy, Luke got the notion to fight back. His poorly timed acts of bravery were going to cost the teen his life. He managed to get off a shot as the youth careened towards him, but he was unsure of the outcome, for he soon found himself flat on his back with Luke squarely on top of him.

This time, Luke was going for the gun. This time, he’d turn it on the outlaw without blinking an eyelash. As long as there was a chance to save Vin, he’d fight until he breathed his last breath –or better yet, until Perkins did.

+ + + + + + +

Buck and Ezra rode hard and fast - or as fast as they could safely manage on the rugged trail. As the sun began to set, both knew instinctively that they were catching up to their friend. That certainty was accompanied by renewed feelings of foreboding, however, so with a glance and a nod between them, it was decided to keep on riding.

The sound of a shot echoing towards the canyon below caused both men to pull up hard on the reins. Once more a look, but no words, were exchanged, and the two men moved forward with determined resolve. There was no way they were turning back without Vin and Luke in tow. No way were they facing Chris empty-handed.

Another shot sounded, this time high up on the trail. The two men dismounted, tying off their horses and approaching the area cautiously. Ezra’s eyes went wide when he spotted Peso tied several yards away. Taking Buck’s arm, he pointed out the black soundlessly.

Wilmington’s eyes turned hard as he nodded in acknowledgement. He’d heard two shots too many – especially since neither of them came from their tracker’s familiar mare’s leg.

When the men topped the slope, they were able to see into the small clearing below. Both gasped as they took in the situation that greeted them. Vin lay still, and even in the darkening shadows, his pallor was evident. Mere yards from where he lay; a fierce struggle was taking place.

"Dear God," Ezra whispered in dismay.

Buck thought quickly. "See if you can get closer and get off a shot," he instructed the con man. "I’m going around to the other side."

Standish nodded as he moved several yards ahead, never taking his eyes off the battle nearby. He wished it were Vin with him right now, knowing the tracker could take out the big man without the risk of hurting the boy. But Ezra wasn’t so sure he could do the same. Still, he readied his weapon and aimed, prepared to make the shot when necessary.

By the time Buck reached his position opposite Ezra, it was apparent the youth was weakening. The gun remained firmly in the hands of his attacker, dangerously close to the boy’s head. Knowing they were out of time, Wilmington rose up from where he’d taken cover and growled, "Get away from the boy."

Perkins was stunned by the voice just long enough for Luke to get to his feet and stare in shock at Buck. Buck had come for him? He would have thought the ladies’ man would be the last of them to come looking. There was no time to think on that, though, as he saw Perkins raise his weapon towards the rogue.

As soon as the boy was clear, Buck aimed and took the shot. A second later, he heard Ezra fire from the other side.

But not before Perkins managed to fire his own gun. Luke, seeing the big man aiming at Wilmington, yelled "NO!" as he moved in front of him. He could not see another of his friends gunned down by this man.

As the three shots went off almost simultaneously, Vin thought the loud noises just might be his head exploding clean off his shoulders. The small part of his brain that was still capable of coherent thought knew otherwise, however, and forced him to rise up and take stock of what was really happening. He saw the big man get hit – impossibly from the front and the back, before noting Luke’s thin frame lying on the ground at the man’s feet.

With a gasp, Vin rolled onto hands and knees, anxious to reach his young friend – refusing to believe he could be dead. He was stopped short by a hand on his back, the gentle pressure guiding him back onto the ground. Putting up as much of a fight as his weak body could muster, he attempted to push himself up again as he grunted, "No. Let me get . . . t’ him."

Ezra effortlessly persuaded the injured body back down as he spoke softly in the tracker’s ear, "It’s all right, Vin. Buck and I will take care of our young friend."

His head spinning wildly, Vin rolled once more to his back and turned a confused gaze to the gambler. "Ezra?" he questioned breathlessly. With a moan, he added, "Please . . ." before closing his eyes tight in an obvious effort to shut out the pain.

Ezra reassured the injured man once more, "It’s all right, Vin. We’ll take care of him." He then turned his gaze towards the wounded boy, hoping he hadn’t lied – that Luke was still alive and in need of being taken care of.

Wilmington had leapt down the slight incline to the bodies littering the ground. By the time he reached the teen, Luke had staggered to his feet. Blood ran freely down his left arm, but the boy seemed oblivious to it. Buck realized the youth was more than likely in shock - his eyes wide and his face pale in the twilight. He couldn’t believe the kid had jumped in front of the gun for him.

Kneeling in the ground near the shaken youth, he put his hand on the boy’s uninjured arm and peered into his face. "Luke? You with me now, son?" he asked gently.

Still not seeing the man in front of him – only the man lying in the dirt at his feet, Luke reached for the gun on the ground and pulled back the trigger.

Buck tried again to reach the boy. "It’s all right now, Luke. He’s dead."

Luke turned tear-filled eyes to Buck at last and mumbled, "Ain’t enough. There’s gotta be one for Vin and one . . . for Chris . . . and one for Josh and one for . . ."

The boy didn’t finish the sentence as he noted the look of understanding on Buck’s face.

Wilmington nodded as he stepped back. "You go ahead then."

The teen’s hand shook and his head seemed dangerously light all of the sudden. But he took aim and pulled the trigger, anyway, emptying four bullets into the ground next to the dead man’s head.

As the weapon dropped to the ground, he turned his gaze to Buck once more. "I ain’t a killer," he rasped softly, but with conviction.

Buck crouched to the ground again. "I know that," he stated solemnly as he peered deeply into the youth’s blue eyes. "But what I don’t know is why you put yourself in front of that bullet for me. Why would you do that?"

It was odd. Luke remembered clearly those being the first words spoken to him, by Buck, when he had shot Vin all those months ago. The tall man had grabbed him by his shoulders and shaken him as he hollered, "Why? Why would you do that?"

It was different this time. Buck seemed more sad than angry – maybe even confused. And that puzzled Luke. Didn’t Buck know? Didn’t he understand?

With a slight tilt of his head, the boy responded wearily, "Cause yer worth it."

Buck felt like he’d been punched in the gut, and he shut his eyes against the moisture that suddenly gathered there. With sudden emotion, he pulled Luke close to him and held him tightly in his arms. He heard the teen sigh deeply, before feeling him go limp in his arms.


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