by JIN

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

Part Five
The glow of the campfire cast an eerie light on the guarded features of Buck Wilmington. Ezra peered at the ladies man from where he tended Vin – or attempted to tend him – just a few feet from where Wilmington looked after the wounded teen. Buck was taking this hard, his big heart no doubt bursting with anguish at the sight of the bloody and bruised boy who had risked his life for him. The rogue had insisted on caring for Luke, leaving the delirious tracker in Ezra’s less than capable hands.

The two men had decided to stay where they were for the night, neither one liking the idea of riding the rough trail in the dark with two injured friends. They’d dragged off Perkin’s body – not wanting his lifeless presence to upset Luke, but had not taken time to bury the miserable human being.

Ezra couldn’t help but feel let down, and had to work to hold his emotions at bay. They had met their goal - found their friends, and it seemed that all should be well. So why was he consumed with feelings of regret and remorse, tempered with a healthy dose of fear?

"Wish Nathan was here," Buck whispered, interrupting the gambler’s thoughts.

Standish nodded as he agreed, "I heartily concur with that sentiment." Reaching down to brush his palm along Vin’s cheek, he added, "Mr. Tanner seems to have caught Mr. Larabee’s previous malady – he has developed quite a high temperature, I’m afraid."

"Yeah, Luke’s is climbing up there, too." Buck looked at Ezra incredulously as he questioned, "Can you believe how the kid just stood there? It was like he didn’t even know he’d been shot. Damn bullet broke the bone going through – how could he not feel it?"

"The mind is a wondrous thing, my friend. I am only grateful that the bullet hit where it did. Considering that the child was only feet from the gunman, it’s nothing short of a miracle that his arm took the impact."

Buck shook his head as he stared down at the young face. "Still can’t believe he did that."

"It seems he has inherited our tracker’s tendency for selfless acts."

With a sad smile, Buck said, "Can’t argue with you there. Neither one of them got any idea how much they mean – what they’re . . . worth."

Ezra thought that was an odd choice of words, but he didn’t question it. "Do we need to discuss again how none of this is your fault?" he asked the lanky man with a lift of his brow.

"Do we need to discuss again how it ain’t yours, either?" Buck shot back.

The gambler sighed, "Self-recrimination is pointless, though I doubt that will stop either of us from engaging in it. In the meantime, I am concerned at the state of Mr. Tanner."

Vin’s soft, sparse moans sliced through the quiet stillness of the night with discouraging regularity. It was apparent that the pounding in his skull kept the tracker from achieving any kind of deep, healing sleep. As his temperature climbed, he became more restless and agitated – not recognizing the correlation between his frenzied movements and the agony that assaulted his head.

The two men had tried to clean up the mess that was once a neatly stitched laceration arcing across their friend’s skull. When it seemed their administrations only caused the wound to seep and bleed more, not to mention causing the injured man more discomfort, they gave up, wrapped a clean cloth around it, and hoped for the best.

"Keep giving him water," Buck suggested with a weary sigh. He was pretty sure that was what Nathan would say. He’d been pouring the precious liquid down his own patient, even though the boy hadn’t opened his eyes since he’d collapsed in the lanky man’s arms. They’d patched up the arm as best they could and tried to keep the bone aligned, but had felt woefully inadequate the entire time. Luke had groaned pitifully during the ordeal, but now he seemed to have settled into the deep slumber that eluded the tracker.

Ezra knew to give Vin water, and he felt especially grateful that so far Tanner had managed to keep the liquid where it belonged – in his stomach. Standish wasn’t necessarily a squeamish man, but the sight of another in the act of retching tended to turn his own stomach. He certainly didn’t want to embarrass himself by succumbing to such a weakness in front of Buck.

Luke started to stir, and Ezra watched as Buck soothed the boy with a soft voice. He saw the relief in Wilmington’s eyes when the kid slid back asleep, but he knew the kind-hearted man would not rest himself. Vin groaned then, and as Ezra ran a cool cloth over the sharpshooter’s forehead and chest, he realized that he wouldn’t be getting much rest, either.

It would be another long night.

+ + + + + + +

The stars were taunting him again, and Chris sighed quietly at the thought of the long night ahead. Most of his memories from the days after he and Vin were shot remained unclear, but the emotions from that time still rang true. He remembered feeling helpless and hopeless and afraid, though not for himself so much as for his friends. At least he had Vin with him then – could see that the man was living and breathing. With Vin nearly as lost as Luke, his anxiety had doubled.

He understood Vin’s need to take off and find the youth, foolish as it was. Chris had to admit, if given the opportunity, he may have taken it himself. He even considered getting up right now and moving on, while Josiah and Nathan slept peacefully beside him. He doubted JD would try to stop him

Stealing a glance at the young man where he perched on a rock keeping watch, Chris felt his heart fill with uncommon emotion. JD had to be exhausted, having ridden first with Ezra, and then with the gambler and Buck. But Dunne had offered to take first watch, knowing the older men were weary, as well.

He was a good kid – a damn good kid, and Chris smiled when he thought how JD would bulk at the familiar nickname.

Dunne looked over at him then, his long, black bangs nearly covering his dark eyes. "You okay, Chris?" he asked quietly.

Larabee nodded. "Just thinking."

JD scooted off the rock and moved closer to the gunman, crouching low to the ground so he wouldn’t have to raise his voice and disturb the others.

"You need anything?"

"No, JD. I’m just thinking about how lucky we are that you decided to join us." Chris didn’t like to admit there was a soft side to him. He chalked up this uncommon display to his worry and maybe the injury. Nothing like losing someone – and nearly losing your own life - to remind you what mattered.

With a puzzled frown, JD asked, "You sure you’re all right?"

Chris laughed lightly. "I’m trying to tell you, JD, that I appreciate all you’re doing for us – for Vin and Luke, especially. You’re a good . . . man."

JD’s smile lit up the night brighter than any of the stars that floated above them. He whispered, "Thanks," before turning and making his way back to the rock. Carefully avoiding the blond’s eyes, he blinked away a tear. It wouldn’t do for Chris to see him getting all emotional now.

Now that Chris finally saw him as the man he was.

JD would gladly hand the "kid" moniker over to Luke. He liked the boy, even if he was a nuisance sometimes. He understood exactly how much the teen yearned to be like the seven. JD himself had moments when he thought he’d never measure up to the other six . . . lots and lots of moments.

Not tonight, though. Tonight, they needed him – Chris had as much as said so. And as long as the night promised to be, he’d be ready to ride tomorrow. With a satisfied sigh, he looked over at the gunman. Chris was still wide awake, but with a faraway look that convinced JD to leave the man to himself.

Chris wasn’t so far away as JD thought. He was merely wondering how many more sleepless nights he might suffer through because of this unfathomable attachment he had to two blue-eyed, sharp-shooting, foul-mouthed orphans. It didn’t really matter, he decided – because they were worth every gut-wrenching, hell-raising, aggravating moment they’d put him through.

"You boys had better be all right," he whispered into the chilly night air, before finally giving in to his body’s call for rest.

+ + + + + + +

The small shaft of morning light just glanced across Luke’s brow, but it was enough to bring him to awareness. Forgetting where he was and what had happened, he moved to get up. A sharp pain burned down his left arm and he gasped as he grabbed onto the throbbing extremity with his right hand. A puzzled frown creased his face – what had happened?

Before he could give it another thought, the aching in his ribs reasserted itself, and with a groan, the teen lowered his back to the ground. His head hurt, too, and if there was anything in his stomach, he was pretty sure it wouldn’t stay put. Moving gingerly this time, he tilted his head up just enough to take in his surroundings. Several yards away, Buck and Ezra were preparing the horses. He noted that they had tied his and Vin’s behind their own, and he wondered on that briefly before the events of the previous evening came back to him.

They were really here. It wasn’t a dream. They had come for him. And Perkins was dead.

Best of all, Vin was alive! Or at least, he had been. With a sudden start, Luke swiveled his head in all directions, looking for his fallen friend. Vin lay only three or four feet to the right of him, and Luke let out a sigh of relief. The tracker looked terrible, though – his eyes were sunken in with dark shadows underneath – like he’d looked after Luke had shot him and he’d almost died.

But he didn’t die then, the teen reminded himself, and he wouldn’t die now.

Feeling an overwhelming need to be sure Vin was real and not some apparition, as Ezra would say, the youth carefully edged closer to his friend. Annoyed at his weakness, he took a breath to steady his shaking hand, and reached up to brush his fingertips across Vin’s cheek. The tracker felt hot, and as bad a sign as that was – Luke knew it was considerably better than being cold and lifeless.

Vin felt the feather-light touch and tried mightily to rouse himself from his stupor. On top of the headache and nausea, he felt hot – burning hot – and he knew he could add a fever to his list of ailments. He pushed that concern aside, though, and moved his head weakly to seek out the source of the gentle caress.

"Luke?" he rasped through dry lips, as his bleary vision made out the boy lying on the stony ground beside him.

The teen smiled. "Yeah, I’m here." Seemed like there should be so much more to say, but Luke could do nothing more than savor the sight and the sound and the feel of the man next to him.

"You . . . all right?" Vin asked with a gasp as his eyes latched onto the youth’s.

Luke nodded. "Yeah, I’m fine."

A tiny smile curled the tracker’s lips. "Sure . . .y’are." His eyes clouded up then and he took another deep breath as he continued, "Don’t be . . . worryin’ on that . . . horse, now. You just . . . go on home."

Luke frowned sadly at his friend’s obvious confusion. Scooting once more along the rough dirt, he curled himself along side the tracker’s body. "I will, Vin," he spoke softly. Resting his head gently on the tracker’s shoulder, he took Vin’s hand in his own. "I’ll do whatever you say."

Ezra swallowed the lump in his throat when he caught sight of Luke snuggled tight against Vin.

Seeing the wistful look on the gambler’s face, Buck finishing securing Peso’s lead to his own mare’s, and turned to see what had captured the man’s attention. His breath caught in his chest seeing the teen’s hand wrapped tightly around Vin’s. A deep shame seared into his soul – how could he ever have believed this boy would hurt Vin?

"None of us are immune from an error in judgment, my friend," Ezra offered sympathetically, as he read Buck’s mind.

"Yeah, but some of us seem to make a habit of it," Buck spoke dejectedly.

"Yes well, very few are blessed with both good looks and intelligence, Buck. As they say, you can’t have it all. Although there are some notable exceptions," Ezra concluded with a sly grin.

Buck laughed in spite of himself. "I suppose that would be you?"

"And Vin, of course."

Reminded again of how much he liked the glib gambler, Buck shook his head and smiled. "Speaking of Vin, the sooner we get him to Nathan, the better. You reckon you can manage Luke if I take Vin?"

Wondering for the hundredth time how a word like "reckon" ever wormed its way into the English language, Ezra nodded and stole another glance at his wounded friends. The journey would be hard on them, neither one in shape for the rough ride. He and Buck were tired and holding onto a weak companion would be difficult.

But he reckoned they were worth it.

+ + + + + + +

The hours were interminable, but weary and uncomfortable as he was, Ezra knew Buck had the harder part of the deal. Vin slipped in and out of unconsciousness; restless when he was awake, dead-weight when he wasn’t. In addition, now that the man was moving again, his rebellious stomach kicked in every time Buck tried to ply him with water. Ezra felt secretly glad that Vin saved his heaving for Buck’s tour of duty – and secretly guilty for feeling that way.

Luke leaned heavily against the gambler’s chest, although Ezra sensed he tried not to. The kid was just plain worn out, and though he never complained, Standish figured he was hurting pretty badly, too.

When he heard a slight moan, the gambler pulled his mount to a halt. Tipping his canteen towards the boy’s lips, he spoke softly in his ear, "Do you need to rest, young man?"

Luke shook his head as he swallowed the clear water gratefully. "Vin needs Nathan."

"We’ll get him there. Actually, we will most likely meet Nathan along the way, since I’m sure he was ineffectual in keeping Mr. Larabee from pursuing us."

The teen nearly toppled off the saddle as he turned around to see the gambler’s face. Luke’s eyes were wide and he seemed to have trouble finding his voice. "Chris . . .is alive?"

Ezra saw the desperate hope in the clear blue orbs, and mentally chastised himself for his thoughtlessness. Of course the lad would assume that Chris had been killed. He should have taken care of that inaccuracy the moment the boy opened his eyes.

"He is, and I deeply regret not informing you sooner."

Tears filled the teen’s eyes before he regained his composure and looked away.

"You really think . . . he’s comin’ fer me?" Luke whispered hoarsely.

"I would bank on it."

"And Nathan, too?"


"Vin came fer me. And Buck and you. And now yer sayin’ Chris and Nathan?"

"Yes, Luke. JD and I looked for you for several days, but we followed the wrong trail. I’m sure he and Josiah are with the others, as well."

"You all came fer me?" Luke questioned wondrously.


"And Chris is really alive?" the boy asked breathlessly as he turned to face the gambler once again.

Ezra noted the rising cloud of dust on the trail ahead and grinned widely. "See for yourself."

+ + + + + + +

The day could not have been longer or more miserable, Chris decided. At every bend, on every slope, he thought surely they would come upon their missing friends. Vin could not have gotten this far, he told himself. But obviously he had, and that could only mean that he was on Luke’s trail.

When at last they saw the small parade of horses approaching in the distance, Chris rubbed his eyes in disbelief. Spurred on by the knowledge that finally questions would be answered and hopefully fears laid to rest, the weary gunslinger pushed his black, ignoring Nathan’s concerned glare.

The first thing he took in was the sight of a pale, limp Vin being held securely against Buck’s strong chest. The lanky man’s arms must be half broken by now, but he clung to the tracker with dogged determination – and Chris felt bad for ever doubting his oldest friend’s loyalty.

A deep flush of gratitude swept over the gunman as he noted that Nathan and Josiah had already dismounted and moved to take Vin from Buck’s arms. Sweeping his gaze to Ezra, he held his breath at the battered young boy who stared in wide-eyed awe back at him.

Luke’s eyes were incredibly wide and round, as if seeing the gunman for the first time, and Chris knew at that moment that the boy had believed he was dead. All of this time, all these days, the teen had grieved for him, and probably for Vin, too. And what more had he suffered through?

It could wait. All of the gory details that would undoubtedly get his blood to boiling could wait. Larabee slipped from his saddle, never taking his eyes off Luke’s, and not even realizing that JD had a hold of his arm the entire time.

Ezra was taking similar care in assisting Luke, but stepped back as the teen took halting steps towards the gunslinger.

He was in his arms then, or at least, in one arm. Luke wrapped his uninjured limb tightly around the blond’s waist, while Chris pulled the boy close against his right side. Luke was small for his age and his head just barely reached Larabee’s shoulder. Turning into the embrace, Luke buried his head in that strong shoulder as he tried to stifle the emotions that raced through him.

Chris felt the teen shudder, knew he was holding back, and slowly moved them to sit at the base of a nearby tree. Luke never let go, merely curling up on the ground next to the gunman, and turned his face into Chris’s chest again. The sobs came hard, but silent, the young boy’s frame shaking in fear and gratitude and relief. The lean gunman said nothing as he stroked the teen’s hair and waited for the moment to pass.

When it did, Luke suddenly pulled back, wiped the tears from his eyes, and with a deep breath, stated matter-of-factly, "I’m fine."

Chris laughed. "Sure y’are." If this kid wasn’t related to Tanner, his name wasn’t Chris Larabee.

Luke finally broke the long gaze he shared with the gunman and turned to where Josiah had gently laid Vin on the ground. Turning back to face Chris, he said, "Vin’s real sick."

"He’ll be all right," Chris spoke confidently, hiding his own concern at the sorry state of his best friend.

Nathan moved to where the pair sat, his dark eyes assessing his wounded friends in an instant. "I’ll need to take a look at that arm, Luke."

The teen shook his head, "See t’ Vin first."

"Josiah can take care of Vin for now. Buck’s real worried about that arm, and I need to check it out."

Luke frowned. "Ain’t nothin’. Buck took good care of me."

Chris raised his brows. "Better let Nathan make sure," he said, as he affectionately squeezed the boy’s shoulder. Moving stiffly, he stood and made his way over to where Buck and Ezra leaned wearily against their mounts.

Clearing his throat, he looked from one to the other. "You boys did well. Thank you for bringing them back."

Buck shrugged. "Least we could do."

"It is unfortunate that we could not deliver them in better condition," Ezra added apologetically.

"They’re alive, that’s what counts. I’ll be wanting to hear what went on later," Chris stated as he turned away and went to Vin’s side.


The preacher looked up from where he once again attempted to clean the wound on Vin’s head. "He’s fevered, dehydrated. Nathan said the wound is probably infected by now. But he’ll make it. No one here’s gonna give him another choice," Josiah ended with a small smile.

Chris squatted down and squeezed the unconscious tracker’s arm, relishing the flesh and bone beneath his fingertips.

As if reading his mind, Josiah spoke up. "The lost sheep have been returned to the fold."

With a snort and a toss of his head, Chris responded, "And they damn well better stay put – ‘cause the shepherd’s getting old and tired."

+ + + + + + +

It was different this time – this starry night. A cool breeze blew across his face and lifted his hair from off his forehead, and Chris sighed in contentment. Sleep was still a hard fought battle, but every day got a bit easier and every night a bit shorter.

It was their third night there. Nathan had insisted they make camp where they’d met up, not wanting to move Vin another step. It didn’t much matter where they settled, anyway – the land hard and rocky for miles. Chris didn’t mind. He’d sleep on a bed of nails if that’s what it took to get Vin well.

His best friend had improved. Now that he was able to lie still, his stomach had cooperated, and he’d even managed to keep down some broth. His fever had lessened, too, although he remained confused and restless. Nathan kept saying not to worry, that time would take care of it, but Chris wasn’t so sure. He’d seen lesser injuries change men permanently. The thought of Vin being anything less than what he was, turned his stomach.

That kind of thinking got him nowhere, though – other than to keep him wide awake and staring at the stars, again. Sitting up, he scooted up to rest his back against the trunk of an old pine. Josiah was sleeping peacefully and protectively next to Luke, while Nathan had stretched out along side Vin.

Ezra, Buck and JD had left for home the day before. Chris recalled with a smile their good-natured bickering over who would have the privilege of telling Mrs. Potter about Luke. He figured they’d let Buck do the honors in the end, maybe easing the burden of guilt off the tall man’s shoulders. Chris had had a long talk with his old friend and tried to ease his mind, reminding him that he’d really done nothing wrong – and he’d come through in the end. Every man had to find peace for himself, though, and fortunately Buck wasn’t one to dwell on anything for too long.

He’d sat up maybe five minutes when he heard a soft rasp. "Can’t sleep, Cowboy?"

His lips turned up at the corners as the gunslinger moved to sit close to his best friend. "Been having some trouble with that. Y’see, I got this friend who can’t seem to keep himself out of trouble."

Vin smiled, and Chris could see that his eyes were clear at last. "Hell, he sure ain’t worth losin’ sleep over."

"I reckon there are a few people who’d argue that." Chris held the tracker’s warm gaze for a long moment before continuing, "Good to have you back, Pard."

"Back from where? You all right? Luke?"

"We’re fine."

"Neither one of ya looked fine, last I recall."

"Your memory ain’t what it used to be. We’re fine," Chris repeated. He shook his head as he continued, "Damn fool thing you did, though."

Vin nodded. "I reckon it was." Pausing, he narrowed his eyes as he peered at the blond and asked, "What was it I did again?"

Not sure if Vin was pulling his leg, or if he really had forgotten, the gunman just chuckled. "Don’t worry about it. Just go on back to sleep."

"I ain’t the one that needs it," Tanner said with a yawn. But he was out in seconds, never noticing the tough gunslinger gently straightening the blanket that covered him.

Another soft voice cut through the stillness then. "Chris? Is Vin okay?"

This time Chris lowered his body next to the teen. "Yeah. He’s better, I think."

"Good. I was scared," Luke admitted quietly.

"I know. Me, too. Been scared a lot the past few weeks."

Luke looked at the gunman in surprise. "You get scared?"

"Sure I do. Mostly when I’m thinking I might lose someone I care about."

The teen’s eyes shone with warmth and he smiled, honored to be one of the someones that Chris Larabee had been scared of losing.

"Been worryin’ about that downfall thing, too," Luke went on.

"I don’t quite follow you," Chris responded with a furrowed brow.

"Perkins said my past was my downfall. But I was thinking I was you and Vin’s downfall." Luke looked up at the gunslinger then, wondering if he’d made his point.

Chris shook his head. "You could never be that to us, Luke. What happened back at that creak wasn’t your fault. You’re a good kid, and you’ll never be anyone’s ‘downfall’. Except . . ." Chris added with a wicked grin, "for maybe that Perkins fellow."

Luke grinned widely back at the gunman. "I reckon I could live with that. I reckon he’s real sorry now that he found me."

"I reckon he’s real sorry about a lot of things."

"And I’m real sorry about ending this discussion, but some of us do sleep at night, Chris. And one of us has got to quit worrying on everyone else and get some real rest or he’s gonna be spending more time than he likes in my clinic."

"Don’t mind him," Chris whispered in Luke’s ear, "Nathan likes to fuss, so we try to give him reasons to - makes him feel needed."

Luke smiled as Chris lay down beside him. To his surprise, Chris actually drifted off to sleep before he did. Nathan went for the gunman’s blanket, and as he draped it over the now still form, he winked at Luke.

"Stubborn gunslinger," he said in mock indignation.

Luke giggled softly before whispering to the healer, "Sorry I caused so much trouble, Nathan."

Nathan frowned at the youth before whispering back, "Ain’t your fault and you ain’t been no trouble, don’t you worry about that."

"Chris and Vin wouldn’t have gotten hurt if it weren’t fer me."

"That’s enough of that kind of talk. No one blames you for what happened."

Luke yawned as he said drowsily, "You all came fer me . . . just can’t figure it."

"Reckon we figured you were worth it," Nathan said softly as he tucked the now sleeping teen under his covers. "And I reckon we figured right," he mumbled lowly with a small smile.

+ + + + + + +

"I can’t believe he did it," JD said incredulously.

"I can," Buck stated with a low chuckle.

"I would have wagered money on it," Ezra chimed in.

"He’s only had that arm out of the sling for a week, what the devil is he thinking?" Nathan muttered crossly.

"He’s thinking he’s in heaven right now," Josiah answered with wide grin.

Vin and Chris exchanged broad smiles. "Let’s go catch him," Chris said as he swung himself into the saddle.

Vin was right behind him, still beaming at the sight of Luke astride the now docile black. He wasn’t surprised, except for the fact that Mrs. Potter had finally let the kid out of her sight.

She’d met them at the edge of town that day when they came back. Her plump arms had surrounded the boy’s thin frame, and Luke’s eyes had nearly popped out of his head as he fought for a breath. She’d clucked worriedly over the injured arm and numerous bruises that marred him, then hugged him once more while the tears flowed. Vin was still feeling poorly at the time, but a man would have to be blind not to see the effect it had on the boy. Luke had turned his head towards Vin, his gaze bewildered, and the tracker knew he was asking if the woman truly cried for him? With a nod and a smile, Vin had swallowed the lump in his own throat.

Riding hard, he and Chris finally caught up to the boy, returning the flash of teeth that spoke of the teen’s joy.

"Told you I’d break this damn horse," Luke said gleefully.

"Yep, you did. Might want t’ call him somethin’ other than ‘damn horse’ – now that he’s yers," Vin suggested.

"I’ll think on it. Guess I’m a might stubborn, just like you, Vin."

"Nope. Yer confusin’ me with Larabee here," Tanner answered.

Chris turned away to hide his smile.

"Mrs. Potter, I mean my ma, she says I’m just like you. I’m glad of it, too, Vin," Luke said with a meaningful glance at the tracker.

Vin shifted uncomfortably in the saddle and blushed. "Ain’t no call to be like me. Or Larabee either, for that matter."

Now Chris turned to peer at Vin with interest, wondering where his friend was heading with this conversation.

"Well, hell!" Luke exclaimed. "I sure don’t wanna be like Buck, all he thinks about is girls!"

Both men laughed before Vin continued, "What I’m tryin’ t’ say is – yer doin’ just fine bein’ yerself. Now go on and take that boy fer a ride."

Luke grinned at the two men and took off with whoop.

Chris cleared his throat, deciding now was the time to bring up something that had been gnawing at him. "I was thinking, Vin – maybe when we head to Texas and clear your name, we should look into a few things. Find out if anyone knows anything about your family."

Vin looked at his best friend with wary eyes before shrugging. "Don’t matter. Best t’ let it lie."

"It matters to Luke. Wouldn’t you like to know?"

"I ain’t got no kin. Made my peace with that a long time ago," Vin spoke firmly – clearly closing the subject.

But Chris was tenacious – and curious. "Could be that you do. Could be that Luke really is your kin. Why wouldn’t you want to know that?"

"A lot of things ‘could be’, Chris. But I ain’t one to waste my time chasin’ after ‘em. ‘Sides, it’s a whole lot easier believin’ I ain’t got no one than thinkin’ . . . aw hell, just ferget it," Vin said as he galloped ahead.

Than thinking what? Than thinking no one wanted me. Chris pulled up short as he realized what Vin was afraid of. Maybe the tracker was more sensitive than he’d thought – maybe the poetry was just the tip of the iceberg.

Chris raced his black to catch up to his friend. As he came up beside Vin, he ignored the rolled eyes and the shaking of the shaggy brown head, and went on. "Here’s a few ‘could be’s for you, Vin. Could be your kin didn’t know about you. Could be they came to find you, and you were already gone. Could be there’s someone out there who’s yearning for a family just as much as you are . . . could be his name is Luke."

Vin shook his head again as he fondly stroked Peso’s mane. Looking up with a glint in his eye, he said, "Could be yer a real pain in the ass, Larabee."

Chris laughed as he responded, "I’m pretty sure that ain’t a ‘could be’, Tanner. I reckon most folks would say that’s a definite."

"Yeah, well, when I finally do make that ride t’ Texas, I’ll be damn grateful t’ have one hard-headed, pain-in-the-ass ridin’ with me."

Chris was still grinning when he spoke up again, "You know, Vin – Luke gets that foul mouth of his from you."

Vin nodded, "I reckon. The stubbornness is all yers, though."

With another broad smile, Chris took off after the boy, letting go a whoop of his own.

Luke looked back from atop his hard-won mount, and noted both Chris and Vin in hot pursuit. With a gentle nudge of his knees, the black moved even faster. He was far and away the luckiest kid in the world.

And with seven men looking out for him, he didn’t have to worry about downfalls ever again. From here on out, life was moving straight up.


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