Big Lie, Small World

by JIN

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Part Two: Vin

I hear his voice, but I can’t seem to turn my head around and face him. I can’t seem to take my eyes off the trail ahead.

"Vin?" Buck says again.

I take a quick swig from my canteen and finally turn towards him. "Yeah?"

He sighs. Seems like he’s been doin’ that a lot lately. Seems like ‘bout everyone does that when they come near me lately. I suppose it must be me, then. Somethin’ I’m doin’ – or more likely somethin’ I’m not doin’.

He hesitates, so I turn my head back around and watch as Chris and JD head into Tascosa, their figures growing smaller and smaller as they get farther away.

Farther away from me and Buck – but closer to Tascosa. Chris wouldn’t let me come . . . said he was just gonna ride in and get the lay of things. He left Buck here to keep an eye on me.

Hell, just what’s he think I’m gonna do anyway?

I may be desperate, but I’m not stupid.

I am a mite worried, though. Ain’t rightly sure what kind of reception he and JD will get if they go throwin’ my name around.

I ain’t rightly sure of a lot of things anymore.

Except that I’m damn tired.

Of everything. All of it. I just want it to be settled, once and fer all . . . with Chris and Buck and JD in one piece when it’s all said ‘n done.

"Vin," Buck says, with a little more behind it this time, and he grabs my arm, too – so I know he wants me to listen up.

"He’ll be fine. JD, too. And so will I. But you won’t be, if you don’t quit worryin’ and get some rest. You’re wastin’ away t’ nothin’ here, Pard – and it don’t take a genius t’ see you’re not sleepin’ much. Hell, Vin – keep it up, and there won’t be nothin’ left of you t’save."

Now it’s my turn t’ sigh. I’ve heard this argument before. They just don’t understand. I’m not eatin’ and not sleepin’ because I can’t take a bite or close my eyes without seein’ it all again. Seein’ Nathan and Ezra and Casey . . .

I can’t live like this anymore, and I guess I don’t care all that much what happens t’ me, just so long as nobody else I care about ends up bleedin’.

Aw hell, that’s not true, either. I don’t have no death wish. I ain’t gonna go and help ‘em build the gallows t’ hang me on. But I’m not gonna run again, either . . . no matter how this plays out.

I’ve gotta admit, though, I sure hate the thought of dyin’ as a killer. So I say t’ Buck, "There’s always my name."

He nods and says, "Yeah, I got that. But it’d be nice if you were around t’ join in the celebration when we get it all squared away."

I must be more tired than I thought, ‘cause that seems like some kinda fairy tale; the idea of celebratin’ anything right now. I just can’t see it happenin’ . . . can’t see me comin’ out of this like they all want. I figure even if the judge lets me off, someone will put a bullet in my back – the Kincaid name bein’ what it is.

I look Buck in the eye and I tell him what’s been on my mind since we started out. "Tell me y’ won’t keep on with it, Buck. If I get killed here, promise me you’ll take Chris and go on home. Put it behind you."

He shakes his head real slow and he says, "I can’t lie t’ you, Vin. And I sure can’t control Larabee. If you die here, there’s no way in hell we’ll put it behind us."

He grips my shoulders then and kinda startles me as he goes on, "There’s no way in hell Chris could ever put it behind him . . . and you know it. So I suggest you figure out a way t’ come out of this with your scrawny Tanner hide in one piece."

I pull away from him and turn back. Damn Wilmington anyway for sayin’ stuff like that.

He’s wrong. No matter what happens, Chris will go on. If losin’ his family didn’t break him, losin’ the troublesome tracker he rides with won’t either.

+ + + + + + +

The ride to Tascosa was as long and hard as Chris imagined it would be, and though the Texas town was their goal – he sucked in a breath when they actually came near it.

It would help if they had a better plan. Somehow, throwing Vin at the mercy of the judge didn’t seem like quite enough. The only concrete thing they had was a nice letter of recommendation from Judge Travis, along with some words of advice. Basically, the older man suggested they wax long and hard on Vin’s character and recent contributions – and end up with a good bit of groveling. Chris was pretty sure none of his counterparts were well-versed in the fine art of groveling, but he’d get down on his knees – and drag Buck and JD along with him – if it would get Vin off.

But what if it didn’t? What if the judge decided to go ahead with the hanging anyway? That was where and when it got tricky. And that was where and when he and Vin had a distinct difference of opinion.

Vin seemed to pretty much think that would be the end of it . . . had to be the end of it. If the outcome of this journey was a rope around his neck, so be it. He was determined no one would ever be in the way of bounty hunters gunning for him again. Chris figured the single-minded tracker would probably help build the gallows, if he had to.

Of course, that was not going to happen. Larabee didn’t much care if he ended up a wanted man himself. He’d spent the last few years running – in one form or another. If he had to break Vin out and be a fugitive for the rest of his life, well, at least he’d have someone to run with. And not just any someone . . . a man he respected and cared about like a brother.

The only flaw in that plan was Buck and JD. They didn’t need to be anywhere near if that all came about. Vin would have enough problem with Chris getting involved – he really might go crazy if Buck and JD got caught up in it, too.

But maybe he was being pessimistic here – Josiah’s somber prophesy about the dismal chance of success if the seven weren’t "whole" for this particular mission, ringing in his ears. Maybe they could work it out with nothing more than a meeting with a judge. Vin could walk away – or limp away – and finally get some peace.

The blond was mildly surprised that Vin didn’t put up more of a fuss when he instructed him to stay at the camp several miles outside of town. Vin was so fired up to get this done, Chris thought he might have to stake the stubborn sharpshooter to a tree just to keep him from marching himself into town and locking himself in a cell . . . leading himself to the slaughter. He was grateful that Buck was along to keep the younger man in line while he did some checking into things.

As he and JD finally entered the dusty, bustling town, Chris by-passed the local saloons - ignoring his dry throat and the temptation to take the edge off his jangled nerves. He shook his head to think that another man’s problems would keep him from a good drink when he needed one. The change that had come over him since he’d taken up with the others was probably miraculous – if he believed in miracles. Since he didn’t, he preferred to think of it as amazing, overwhelming, and at times, infuriating.

And right at this moment, it was frightening . . . frightening how badly he wanted to find a way out of this for Vin.

"JD," he spoke softly as the pair tied off their horses, "go on and look around. If you see anyone you recognize, don’t confront them. Just come and get me. You understand?"

JD swallowed and nodded. "You really think any of those men that rode with Yates would come back here?"

Chris shrugged. "This is where it all started. I’ll see you back at the camp in a few hours."

He watched for a moment as JD sauntered towards the tavern, trying his best to look casual, and then made his way over to the jail. He hoped Travis had been right about involving the local sheriff in this – he’d much rather have sought out the judge on his own.

As Chris entered the small, stone building, he noted a fairly young man reading the local paper at the desk, his feet propped up on an open side drawer. The man bent a corner of the paper down and took a quick look at the blond, but didn’t sit up or otherwise change his position.

"Help you?" he asked, without even attempting to feign interest.

Chris resisted the urge to grab the paper from the man’s hands and demand his full attention. Instead, he got right to the point.

"The name Vin Tanner mean anything to you?"

That did it. Suddenly very interested, the man sat straight up, dropping the discarded paper in a heap on the floor. He stood then and pushed back a strand of wavy blond hair. He was tall and thin, like Buck – and probably as handsome – if a person cared about things like that, which Chris decidedly did not. All he cared about was the badge on the man’s chest and his answer to the question.

"Whoa . . ," the sheriff stammered. "Yeah, I’d say that name means a whole hell of a lot."

Larabee shifted his weight and leaned in closer to the desk. "What can you tell me about Tanner?" he asked, hoping the sudden pounding in his chest wasn’t obvious to the man across the desk.

"Seems more like I should be asking you that," the lawman countered.

Chris really hated it when the tables were turned on him. He was hoping for someone young and stupid and preferably clueless - someone who had never heard of Vin. Get the judge, plead the case, get out of town. Simple.

Since simple rarely seemed to be an option, he considered his next move. "Name’s Larabee. I’m a friend of Tanner’s, and I’ve come to get him cleared of that murder charge hanging over his head – seeing how he’s innocent."

The sheriff laughed. "Sure he is. I’m Sheriff Williams, and if you know where Tanner is, I suggest you bring him in. You might as well cash in on the bounty, because I guarantee you, if he’s anywhere in this state, it’s just a matter of time before someone else does."

Chris replied coldly, "I’m thinking you didn’t hear me. I said he’s innocent – and he’s my friend. Now he’s willing to talk with the judge – in a nice, safe place. Can you arrange that?"

To Larabee’s disdain, the man laughed again. "Safe place? I guess Tanner forgot to mention how well-liked Jess Kincaid was. Might’ve forgotten to mention he was related to half the damn town, too. And in light of recent events, I’d suggest Tanner hop a boat and cross the ocean if he wants to be safe."

"What recent events?" Chris asked, puzzled.

Shaking his head, the tall blond answered cryptically, "Let’s just say Tanner ain’t real popular around here right now."

Chris was becoming more frustrated as the conversation progressed. He just wanted some straight answers, and it seemed the more that was said, the more confused he became. It was all one big, bad idea. He should just hog-tie Tanner and drag him home before they got in any deeper. Too bad it wouldn’t work. Sooner or later, he’d have to let Vin loose and they’d be right back where they started.

Keeping his temper in check, the gunman tried again, "Look Williams, I don’t know what’s been said or by who – but the fact is that a man named Eli Joe is responsible for Kincaid’s death, and I’m betting there are men in this town who know that. Tanner was set up."

"I haven’t heard of any men in this town who know any such thing – but I have heard Tanner’s version of this story before," Williams said. "So have you got any idea what happened to Eli Joe?"

"He’s dead."

"Well that’s . . . convenient," the sheriff said sarcastically.

"He came after Vin with a whole group of men – and every one of them heard Eli Joe confess to the killing."

"And where are they?"

Chris swallowed. "Some are dead. The others were . . . let go." He remembered how furious he was when he’d found out, after the fact, that the men who’d ridden with Eli Joe and Yates weren’t held.

Williams smiled. "Well, that’s equally convenient, isn’t it? Of course, they would have to let them go, considering Tanner is wanted. Certainly wasn’t a crime to go after a wanted man, whatever the reason behind it."

"I’m thinking one or more of them may be here – may have come from here," Chris explained.

"That would be lucky for Tanner – if they were willing to speak up. But it seems like luck and Tanner don’t go hand in hand – from what you’ve told me."

Truer words were never spoken.

Rapidly losing patience with the entirely too genial lawman, Chris demanded, "Will you arrange to get the judge, or do I go around you? Because make no mistake, it will happen, with or without your help."

Sheriff Williams grinned broadly this time. "Good friend, then? Willing to walk right over me and all of Tascosa to get him off? Well, as much as that thought intrigues me – it’s not necessary. It just may be Tanner’s lucky day after all – the judge is due in the day after tomorrow. But in the meantime, you might want to think on this, Mr. Larabee - what do you plan to do about the eye witness?"

Cold fear gripped Chris’s heart. Eye witness? Vin had never mentioned a witness. Why not? What else had he forgotten to mention?

The sheriff saw the stunned surprise on the gunslinger’s face and couldn’t resist gloating. "Maybe not such a good friend then. And maybe not so innocent."

Angry now – although he wasn’t sure at that moment who he was angrier with – Larabee snapped, "Shut up, Williams. Who is the witness?"

With barely concealed amusement, the tall blond answered, "Mrs. Rachel Kincaid. She saw it all."

+ + + + + + +

He was furious with me.

I could tell something was eatin’ at him the second he hit camp. And it was aimed straight at me.

It ain’t like we never had our differences before. We’ve both done some foolish things. I reckon you’d have t’ put two names at the top of that list – Ella and Charlotte.

And I don’t normally care much if a man has a bone t’ pick with me. It’s different with Chris, though. I don’t mind admittin’ that it bothers me some if we’re at odds. Makes me feel unsettled . . . unbalanced, Kojay would say.

He told me what the sheriff said, and I could see he was hopin’ I didn’t know about Mrs. Kincaid. Said he thought maybe I’d run out of town before I had a chance t’ find out they had a witness.

It wasn’t that way, though. He knew it the minute the words left his mouth and he saw my eyes. I wasn’t gonna lie about it anyway.

I tried t’ tell him that the poor thing was just confused . . . anyone could mistake me fer Eli Joe in the dark, from a distance.

And I’d heard she left town just after it happened. I didn’t think it would matter all that much. Guess I wasn’t thinkin’ too clear – now that I really think on it.

I said as much t’ him, and then I asked him, "Does it make a difference?"

"Hell yes, it makes a difference!" he’d shouted. "What the hell else have you forgotten to tell us about, Vin?"

I might’ve left out the part about half the damn state bein’ kin t’ Jess, but I figured he’d already found that out, too.

I really only wanted t’ find out one thing – so I asked him again. "No, I mean . . . t’ you? Does it make a difference . . . t’ you."

And that was when it happened. He hesitated. I saw it plain and clear. It was only a minute – probably only seconds, really . . . but it was long enough.

If Chris lost his faith in me, then it really was hopeless.

JD came ridin’ in about that time, announcin’ that no one had followed him and he hadn’t seen any of Yates’ men in town. Chris made a comment about maybe that sheriff was stupid after all, since he hadn’t bothered t’ follow them. I figured the lawman was just bidin’ his time. No reason t’ come after me, since I was plannin’ on turnin’ myself in, anyway.

I’m gonna take them out t’ the Kincaid farm in the mornin’. Chris thinks maybe he can talk to Mrs. Kincaid . . . get her t’ admit she was wrong. I reckon if anyone can – he can.

He’s talkin’ real soft with Buck right now . . . probably about how I led them all out here and didn’t even tell them the truth. Well, it wasn’t exactly that I lied, I just sorta left some things out . . . and it wasn’t that I did it on purpose. I just can’t seem t’ get my head on straight lately. Can’t seem t’ focus.

The stars are bigger and brighter than ever tonight. I’m tryin’ t’ take them all in and hold them close . . . might not have many more nights like this left. I look over at my friends, their serious faces lit up by the glow from the camp fire, and I try t’ take them all in, too. Try t’ hold them in my heart . . . just in case.

I’ve got t’ set things right with Chris, though. I just can’t go out like this . . . unbalanced. I’m about t’ get up and go t’ him, but he heads in my direction first, so I stay sittin’ on the ground where I am.

He crouches down next to me and looks me straight in the eye. "It doesn’t make a difference to me, Vin. I’ve always believed in you, and I always will."

I can’t speak all of a sudden, and I’ll be damned if there isn’t somethin’ in my eye. I reach out and grip his forearm and we share a nod.

Reckon that’s all we need t’ say; reckon him bein’ here with me says it all.

+ + + + + + +

Vin led the way to the Kincaid farm that next morning, flanked on each side by Chris and Buck.

JD nervously followed behind, his deep brown eyes constantly scanning the horizon.

He was sure shots would be ringing out at any second, and he feared not just for Vin – but for Chris and Buck, too. It seemed pretty stupid to him, coming out there the way they were. The sheriff had to know that’s where they’d be heading, and from what Chris had said, the man wasn’t exactly trustworthy.

But he’d kept quiet, leaving the decisions to his older, more capable friends. He’d kept quiet the entire trip, in fact, sticking close to Buck and avoiding Vin. He truly wasn’t angry with the sharpshooter anymore, but he didn’t quite know what to say, either. He felt like there was some big thing between them – something nameless and faceless and just way too big to get over.

And he wanted it to go away . . . wanted nothing more than to sort things out with Vin - because God help him, he wasn’t all that sure the tracker would live through this, either.

When they came within sight of the Kincaid homestead, Chris pulled back on the reins and instructed his partners. "Vin, JD, you stay here. Buck and I will go talk with the woman."

Shaking his head, Vin responded, "Let me talk t’ her. Maybe if she sees me, she’ll know it wasn’t me."

The hope in his eyes was almost painful to behold.

Buck spoke up, "Not a good idea, Vin. You probably ain’t on her list of favorite people right now. And we sure don’t need everyone in town knowing you’re in the area just yet. Be best if you just lay low a while longer."

"Why’d you boys even bring me along, if you ain’t gonna let me speak fer myself?" Vin challenged indignantly.

Chris huffed as he pulled his black next to Vin’s. "We’re trying to keep you alive long enough for you to get the chance to speak, Tanner."

Larabee pulled away then, but Buck stayed back. "Vin?"

The sharpshooter had his eyes focused only on the man in black, and when he didn’t acknowledge the rogue, Buck spoke up again. "Vin? You’ve got to watch your back here, Pard. I don’t like this. Get your head where it needs t’ be."

Finally Vin turned to him, weariness evident in his posture as well as his expression. With a slow nod, he turned back to watch as Larabee continued on towards the small clapboard house in the distance.

Buck sighed and turned to JD, but he didn’t even have to say the words.

"I know, Buck. I’ll find us some cover. I’ll keep an eye out for trouble."

Wilmington nodded gratefully. He hadn’t failed to notice how reserved his young friend had been this entire trip. He hadn’t failed to notice how rock solid, he’d been either. The kid sure was something, and with a little time and luck, he’d be the best of them all.

When Buck caught up with Chris, he said, "I don’t like this, Chris. You throwin’ Vin’s name around in town like that – the word has to be out by now that he’s nearby. And that sheriff seemed awful anxious to let you know about Mrs. Kincaid. Could be a set-up."

With a deceptively indifferent shrug, the gunslinger answered, "Guess we’ll find out in a few minutes."

Not particularly liking that answer, Buck added, "And hell, Vin’s head is screwed on sideways right now. Someone could take him and JD out before he even knew what hit ‘em."

"Not Vin," Chris responded shortly.

"In case you haven’t noticed, Chris – Vin ain’t been actin’ like Vin for some time now."

Larabee pulled up short at that, but kept his head down. The brim of his hat hid his eyes, but Wilmington knew he’d hit the mark with his last statement. They needed to keep a close eye on the tracker, because it was a sure bet he wasn’t watching out for himself.

After a long moment, Chris raised his head and met his old friend’s eyes. "You got a better idea?"

Buck looked anywhere but at the man who had asked the question. Hell, no – he had no ideas at all, to be honest. So he responded with a slow shake of his head, "Let’s go talk to the widow Kincaid."

As they approached the area, Chris noted with some surprise that the homestead was in good repair. Obviously the young widow had help, and he was reminded again that the Kincaids were part of a close-knit community. He didn’t have much time to think on it, though, as shots suddenly rang out, forcing him and Buck to dive for cover.

At first, they believed the sheriff did lay in wait for them, and they both instinctively turned back to where they’d left Vin and JD. But then a female voice called out, "Who are you and what do you want?"

Exchanging a glance, Buck spoke up first, "Just want to talk with you, Ma’am."

The door opened an inch further, and a small, delicate face peered through the crack. "Talk about what?" she asked.

Chris answered, "About your husband . . . and the man you think killed him."

The silence last for several minutes, but finally the door opened a foot wider. "Leave your guns and come on."

Buck locked gazes with Chris again. Leave their guns? Was that such a great idea? Chris shrugged, but stood up from behind the well where they’d sought refuge, and threw off his gun belt.

Buck did the same, scowling fiercely as he followed his old friend’s lead. Not a good idea . . . none of this was a good idea.

Cautiously approaching the entrance to the freshly painted white home, both men waited as the young woman looked them over, before opening the door to let them inside.

She was beautiful . . . small and slender with jade eyes and flaming red hair that framed a nearly perfect face. Chris sighed; Buck would be useless in this interrogation.

"Well, go on," she demanded, her rifle still cradled in her arms.

Sure enough, Buck plastered on his widest grin as he spoke to the woman, "I’m Buck Wilmington, and this here is my friend Chris. Y’ see now, we hear you saw your husband get killed . . . and we’re awful sorry about that, Ma’am, but we were wonderin’ if you would mind telling us just exactly what happened that night?"

"You’re friends of Mr. Tanner’s, aren’t you?" she asked bluntly.

Buck looked at Chris and started to answer, but the blond spoke up. "Yes, we’re friends of Vin Tanner’s." Apparently word had gotten to the young woman that they were in town.

"You choose to be friends with a murderer, I have to wonder what that makes the two of you," she said, her green eyes hard as stone.

"He’s innocent. He was set up by a man named Eli Joe," Chris replied with equal firmness, never taking his eyes off her face. She was as smart as she was strong – he could see it. Hell, under different circumstances, he’d be tempted by her himself.

"I know who Vin Tanner is, Mr. Larabee. I’d seen him around before, and believe me – he is not an easy man to forget. I know who and what I saw that night."

"Now Ma’am," Buck responded with all the charm he could muster, "we all know things ain’t always what they seem."

With a decidedly cool tone, the woman responded, "In this case, Mr. Wilmington, things are exactly as they seem. Your friend killed my husband in cold blood right here in front of my home. It’s not something I could easily forget . . . or confuse."

Chris felt the color drain from his face. She was beautiful and well-spoken . . . and so very sure. Vin didn’t have a chance if she took the stand.

"Thank you for your time, Ma’am," the gunman said as he turned to leave.

Buck looked at him questioningly, wondering why they were letting it go. But he could see by the glint in Larabee’s eyes that this wasn’t the time to argue. He was almost out the door when he spotted a photograph on the small ledge near the entrance. It was Rachel Kincaid, surrounded by three tall, and very familiar, men.

"Is one of these men your husband, Ma’am?" he asked, still trying to salvage something out of the conversation.

"No," she replied as she met the rogue’s eyes. "They are . . . were . . . my brothers."

A cold chill crept up Buck’s spine, and he moved out the door without a further word. When he and Chris had gotten out of ear shot, he shared his discovery with the man in black.

"Dear God, Chris, we’ve got more trouble than we thought."

"I know," Larabee answered tersely.

Buck sidled next to him and grabbed his arm. "No - you don’t. Chris, those five men that came after Vin? Those five men we killed? They weren’t bounty hunters at all."

"What are you talking about, Buck?"

"Three of ‘em were her brothers, and it’s a damn sight sure that the other two were kin, too. Hell Chris, they got even more reason t’ see that Vin doesn’t leave this town alive."

Chris felt his gut twist up in knots. This is what the sheriff had meant when he said "in light of recent events." Things were going from bad to worse . . . how much more would they find themselves up against before this was all over? And how would Vin take this latest development?

"Let’s not share this with Vin just yet," he instructed Wilmington.

Buck turned a puzzled frown his way. "Why not? He deserves t’ know the truth."

"Think about it, Buck. Vin ain’t the only one folks around here are likely to be unhappy with."

"You think they’ll be comin’ after us, too?"

Chris nodded. "It’s possible – and it won’t take Vin two seconds to jump to that conclusion. He’s not sleeping or eating now because he’s so on edge – what do you reckon this new information will do?"

"Damn, you’re right, Chris. He sure doesn’t need any more pressure than he’s already got."

"We’ll let it be for now. Just . . . watch your back . . . and JD’s, too."

Buck grinned at that – as if he needed to be reminded to keep an eye on JD.

As Chris continued on, his mind spun in a hundred directions – but always came back to the same conclusion: there was no way to get Vin out of this . . . he had to run . . . again.

JD watched as the two men made their way back to where he and Vin had positioned themselves in a clump of old trees and scrub brush. The barren landscape didn’t afford much opportunity for cover, but he’d done the best he could. Vin had followed along almost indifferently, and JD wondered if exhaustion had finally taken it’s toll on Tanner.

As soon as the older men drew near, JD knew it hadn’t gone well. The expressions on their faces left little doubt of that. He stole a glance at Vin, but the tracker’s eyes remained veiled as he sat impassively on a small rock. JD had really hoped he and Vin would have an opportunity to talk, but once again, he couldn’t seem to find the words.

The young man moved from cover as the two men approached, questions in his eyes, but no one spoke until Vin slowly limped his way over to join them.

"It . . . didn’t go well," Chris said, his eyes locked with Vin’s.

Vin said nothing as he merely turned away and fought back the sharp pain in his chest that suddenly threatened to double him over. It was really going to happen then, they were going to hang him – and there was nothing he could do.

"What happened? I mean, just because this woman says she saw Vin doesn’t make it true. We can still talk to the judge, right?" JD asked, his eyes darting from man to man.

Chris sighed. "She’s pretty convincing, JD. She believes it was Vin."

"Oh shit, Chris. Don’t tell me you bought that? The woman is lying through her teeth," Buck spoke up vehemently.

Chris looked at the ladies’ man in surprise. "You didn’t believe her?"

Vin’s eyes opened wide in shock and Chris quickly backpedaled. "I mean that she believes what she said. Of course, I still believe you’re innocent, Vin, but Mrs. Kincaid believes it was you she saw – and nothing we say or do will change that."

"You’re wrong, Chris. Dead wrong," Buck spoke up. "She’s covering up for that snake Eli Joe, and we have t’ find out why."

Larabee looked at his friend incredulously. Had they just talked with the same woman? He’d have sworn by Buck’s behavior that his friend was taken by the young woman.

"Listen up, Pard – if there’s one thing I know – it’s women. That’s probably the only thing I’m smarter than you about. She’s lyin’, flat out," Wilmington emphasized.

Vin wearily rubbed a hand across his eyes and rasped, "Ain’t gonna matter much, if yer the only one that knows that, Bucklin."

Chris looked down at the dirt, scuffing his toe in the sandy soil. There was no way out, and with their new information about the men who’d come gunning for Tanner - the stakes had changed. Sooner or later, Vin would have to be told and he would have to make a choice. In spite of what Chris had just told Buck, he knew he couldn’t keep this from Vin.

Sighing deeply, the blond turned his head towards the tracker, and was not in the least bit surprised to see Tanner staring at him curiously.

"There more?" Vin asked.

Chris nodded, and Buck raised a brow as the gunslinger answered. "Yeah, Vin – there is. Seems those men who came after you a few weeks back weren’t bounty hunters after all."

It was JD who spoke up, "What? Then who the hell were they?"

"They were kinfolk of the Kincaid’s," Chris answered shortly, his gaze never leaving Vin’s face.

He heard Vin stifle a groan as the implications hit the tracker. They were after justice, not blood money, and five more families suffered for it. Tascosa had even more reason to see him hang. And there was even more reason to fear for his friends, since they had been a part of the gunfight.

Vin groaned again as the earth suddenly seemed to tilt beneath his feet.

"Damn it, Tanner! You’re going to get some rest if I knock you out cold to do it," Chris muttered crossly as he moved to steady his weaving friend.

He didn’t fool any of them, though. JD met Buck’s eye, and they exchanged a knowing smile. Chris really had no idea how easily he laid his heart wide open, especially where the tracker was concerned.

Right at that moment, Chris couldn’t have cared less who noticed his emotions or what they thought of them. Vin was in way too deep here, and they needed to end this before it went any further. Maybe later they could figure out a way to get him a pardon. Maybe later they could find one of those men who rode with Eli Joe and the gunman could ‘gently’ coerce him to cooperate. Maybe later, they could come back.

If the blond had his way, they would have lit out for Four Corners at that very moment.

But he didn’t have his way; because Vin made his choice, and he had the winning argument . . . it was his life.

+ + + + + + +

It’s my life.

I’m still my own man and I’ve still gotta do what’s right fer me. Chris respects that, even if he doesn’t agree with me. He can’t see a way out, and he figures livin’ life on the run is better than not livin’ at all.

There’s a time I’d have agreed with that. A time when keepin’ myself alive was all that mattered.

Not any more. I can’t live that way anymore . . . lookin’ over my shoulder . . . wonderin’ who might be in the way of a bullet meant fer me.

After Chris and Buck talked with Mrs. Kincaid, Chris went on back t’ town t’ make some arrangements with the sheriff. Buck and JD and me came back here t’ the camp.

I’m not talkin’ much . . . don’t feel up to it. I know that’s not exactly new, but . . .

I tried t’ move off by myself a ways, but it’s hard t’ hide in this damn flat country. Guess I didn’t realize how much I didn’t miss it.

There’s a whole of things I would miss, though, if this turns out t’ be my last night . . . whole lot of people. And that’s a strange thing fer a man like me – a man who spent most of his life without things or people.

The judge is comin’ tomorrow. From what Chris said, I reckon there won’t be much I can do t’ clear my name. I reckon the widow will nail me good. Can’t quite figure that, even though I told Chris I thought she was just confused. I’m thinkin’ Buck is right about her lyin’, but I’m not smart enough t’ know how t’ prove it. Sure, I told Chris I knew ways t’ get a man t’ talk . . . but hell, I don’t think I could do that to a woman.

Even t’ save my name.

Even t’ save my life.

A rider’s comin’ in, and both Buck and JD are up with their guns ready. Makes my heart speed up just t’ see it. They’ve both put their lives on the line fer me, especially now that we know where those five men came from.

‘Bout makes me sick just thinkin’ on that. It was a little easier when I thought those men were after blood money, but hell, they were just farmers like Jess. Old Eli got us good, didn’t he? The killin’ just keeps on, and all because of one big lie.

Chris calls out, and even in the shadows of the evenin’ sun, I can see JD grin with relief.

The kid thinks there’s still somethin’ between us. If I could get my mouth workin’ right, I’d tell him he’s wrong. Him comin’ out here with me . . . well, I just can’t tell him how much that means t’ me. But since I can’t find the words, I’ll have t’ find another way.

Larabee’s amblin’ on over my way. Probably gonna try n’ talk me out of this again. I’m stretched out about as straight as this bum hip and my crooked back will let me be, and I almost groan out loud when I pull myself up t’ sit. Damn ribs ain’t helpin’ matters any . . . it’s hard enough hidin’ how bad I feel from Larabee. He don’t need t’ be worryin’ on me anymore than he already is.

I say it before he can ask, "I’m fine."

He nods as he sits down beside me. I don’t ever tell him when I’m hurtin’ . . . I just say I’m fine, and he believes it – most the time. I have t’ say that, because for a tough, fearsome gunfighter, he goes on the worry real easy.

He’s definitely on the worry now.

"You don’t have to do this, Vin."

I shake my head. I’m too damn tired for this.

"Please, Vin. There’s no way out. We’ll come back later, when the others can be with us."

He looks at me like . . . like I’ve never seen him look at me before.

"I can’t, Chris."

And I can’t. I just can’t do this again.

He drops his eyes.

Now it’s my turn to plead. "Whatever happens . . . just let it go. Don’t get in t’ trouble on my account. Please, Chris. It ain’t worth it. I ain’t worth it."

He stares at me hard now and practically hisses at me, "Don’t you ever say that again. Don’t you even think that again."

And before I can even think how to respond to that, he says a little softer, but still with that rock hard glint in his eye, "It’s my life, too – and I’ll do as I damn well please."

Then he stretches out on the ground next t’ me, but I don’t think either one of us will be sleepin’ tonight.

+ + + + + + +

Per their arrangement, Sheriff Williams met the four men just outside of town at dawn that morning. Chris still had trouble trusting the man, but Williams had assured him that Tanner would make it to see the judge unharmed, and in the end – he had little choice.

He had little choice about anything, it seemed, and to a man used to calling the shots – it was frustrating as hell.

Williams had said if they got Vin in early, there’d be less chance of trouble. The judge was due in around noon, so the plan was to lock Vin up until then – with the sheriff and Tanner’s three friends standing guard. No one liked it, least of all Chris – but this was what they came there for . . . this was Vin’s chance, and hopefully they could keep him safe long enough to plead his case.

Chris could see that Williams was as shocked as he was when they finally made the ride into the seedy little town. Townsfolk lined the boardwalk, and Chris had the uncomfortable feeling that they’d dressed up for the occasion . . . as if it was a holiday.

He took a look at Tanner, noting the thinly veiled panic that gripped his friend as the crowds edged closer onto the street. But there was nothing he could do or say to make it more comfortable for Vin; nothing except keep his hand on his gun and his eyes on the crowd.

Several of the local men carried their weapons, their hands also poised and ready – but no one made a move. Chris glanced over at Williams, and could see that though the man was initially surprised by the gathering, he had quickly regained control of his composure. His discerning eye roved the rowdy group, from man to man, reminding them who was in charge – and Chris’s respect for the man grudgingly moved up a notch.

They hated Vin. Chris knew immediately that his earlier concern for Buck and JD was unfounded. They blamed only Vin for the deaths of the men who came after him, as much as for the death of Jess Kincaid. In Josiah’s words, he was their "sacrificial lamb." Scanning the townsfolk, the blond noted several distraught women and children, and he wondered if they were the families of the men who had died in that fierce battle weeks before. He tried to drum up sympathy for their plight, but he could only remember that he’d nearly lost four of his own in that same fight.

A fight this town had initiated, only to seek vengeance against the wrong man.

It was all so stupid and needless. Jess Kincaid dead and five others like him . . . farmers or ranchers probably – not gunmen or bounty hunters or even lawmen. They were men who merely tried to live their lives in peace with their families – and misguidedly sought revenge when that peace was destroyed.

Then there was Nathan and Ezra and Casey – all still recovering from wounds they received in a battle that wasn’t theirs.

And Vin . . . a man who would gladly give his life for another and who asked for only one thing in return – the honor of his name.

Eli Joe had set them all up good. All of Tascosa suffered for his crimes, and even from the grave, he wreaked havoc.

It was quiet at first, until the sound of a woman’s soft sobs broke the stillness and unleashed a litany of foul-mouthed cursing and threats. The sheriff shot his gun into the air a few times, but it didn’t stop the hurtful words aimed at the young tracker who rode between his friends and the lawman.

It seemed to be an eternity before they reached the small jail house that sat smack in the middle of town. All of the men dismounted at once, forming a protective circle around Vin as the crowd pushed against them.

Buck was uncomfortably reminded of when Vin had brought Chanu to town. The young Indian had been hustled to the jail amidst a tide of angry, vengeful townsfolk by Vin himself. Seeing Vin on the other side – the sheriff latching onto Tanner’s still healing right arm and roughly pushing him through the jeering crowd, nearly made Wilmington sick to his stomach.

Chanu had been innocent, too, though it had taken the rogue far too long to believe it. Prejudice, anger, fear, sorrow, and ignorance make a deadly combination that no amount of talking, pleading, or reasoning can change. Chris was right – they shouldn’t have even tried. Vin didn’t stand a chance . . . unless he could get to that woman. Buck followed along behind the others, but kept his eyes peeled for the petite redhead. With a little luck, she and he would have a discussion before the judge arrived.

But that discussion never happened. The men were kept busy holding the surging crowd at bay. To his credit, Sheriff Williams did his best, but he was clearly outnumbered in his efforts to see that Vin got the fair hearing he came for. Fortunately, the judge hit town a few hours later, and quickly garnered control of the situation.

Chris felt a flutter of hope when the large, imposing man with silver hair arrived and made two immediate decisions. The first was to hold the hearing in the security of the jail, with a limited audience and no jury – since it was apparent an impartial selection would be impossible under the circumstances. The second was to dismiss any talk of the shootings in Four Corners, as that event had occurred out of his jurisdiction and had no real bearing on what had happened in Tascosa years before.

When the hearing finally began, Chris could hardly believe it. It just didn’t seem real that they were sitting in front of a judge in Tascosa. He couldn’t believe that Vin’s whole life came down to this . . . to what ended up being less than hour of time spent in a dirty, run-down, god-forsaken hell-hole of a prison in a dirty, run-down, god-forsaken hell-hole of a town.

They’d allowed several members of Jess Kincaid’s family into the small space; his two brothers, an uncle and several cousins, as well as his young widow. Chris, Buck, and JD stood near the back, by the cell where Vin waited silently, his lean body uncharacteristically rigid.

The cramped quarters made everyone even more on edge. In addition, numerous men and women from the town continued to press against the door and the windows, eager to hear the results of the long-awaited hearing – although the outcome seemed predetermined to them all. There would be a hanging soon, and finally justice for their own.

After several long minutes, the judge asked for Vin to be released and brought forward. Chris watched his shy friend take a seat to the right of where the judge sat behind the sheriff’s desk . . . watched Vin’s already pale face go a shade whiter as he struggled to keep his hands from shaking. Tanner rubbed a hand over his eyes, and seemed to pull into himself, keeping his sore right arm tucked tightly against his chest.

He looked awful, and the judge noticed. "Are you all right, Mr. Tanner?"

Vin turned to look at the man, startled that he had asked, stunned that he cared. "I . . . yes, Sir . . . Your Honor, Sir," he stuttered as he turned panicked eyes to Chris. He couldn’t do this.

But he could – he had to. There was no turning back now, and Chris’s slight nod reminded him that he wasn’t alone.

The judge turned kind gray eyes towards the tracker and spoke gently, "Tell me what you know, Mr. Tanner . . . and take your time."

So that’s what Vin did, his eyes drifting to his friend’s repeatedly as he stumbled through his recollection of the night so long ago that tormented him still. It was quiet then; all ears tuned to the quiet, soft-spoken man with the Texas drawl. Chris wondered if it didn’t occur to the spectators that Vin was one of their own, as well.

He looked so damn bad and sounded so damn earnest – that Buck and JD and Chris thought surely no one could doubt the man. They thought something else, too – that Josiah had been right all along . . . that this moment was pivotal, and they all needed to be there. Vin needed every single ounce of strength he could garner from his friends. Somehow, the three of them was not enough by half.

If Vin did make any gains, they were quickly undone when Vin moved to the side and Rachel Kincaid took the chair. As she was with the gunmen, she was straight-forward and detailed . . . and sure. The tension in the room nearly ignited as she pointed her slender finger at Vin and stated, "It was Vin Tanner, that man killed my husband." A jumble of curses and shouts erupted as the Kincaid family and the people pressed outside the thin walls of the jailhouse reacted to her words.

It didn’t seem possible, but Vin had gone even a shade paler, and Buck was sure the man was going to pass out right then and there. He quickly moved to offer the tracker a drink of water, which Vin accepted and drank without any real awareness of having done so.

It took the sheriff and the judge nearly ten minutes to regain order, but finally silence resumed as the judge shifted in his chair and read the letter from Judge Travis. With a heavy sigh, he sought out Chris. "Mr. Larabee, I understand you’d like to say a few words?"

Chris suddenly had an inkling of how Vin must have felt. Could his friend’s life depend on what he said here? He was the last person who should be doing this. For what seemed like hours, he stood frozen, until finally Buck’s strong voice registered in his panicked brain, "Go on, Chris – tell ‘im . . . tell ‘im about Vin."

Clearing his throat, the blond finally turned to the judge as he spoke, "Your Honor, I wasn’t there the night Mr. Kincaid was killed, and I can’t add anything to what you’ve heard. I can only tell you that I know Vin Tanner. I met him when he went up against a mob of violent men aiming to hang an innocent man. Since that time, he has continually gone out of his way to help others, mindless of his own safety."

"So I’ve heard, Mr. Larabee – Judge Travis’ letter spells that out quite clearly. Unfortunately, a man still has to pay for the sins of his past, regardless of how many good acts he does in an attempt to nullify them."

Chris met Vin’s eyes and swallowed. He wasn’t good enough for this. Why had he thought he was? Why had he left Josiah and Ezra behind when he needed them most?

But he went on, "Yes, Sir – but Vin didn’t commit this particular sin. I know as sure as I’m standing here that he is incapable of killing a man in cold blood. Eli Joe, on the other hand was not. He is dead because he was inches away from doing just that to the man on trial here. I killed him, Your Honor, because he was trying to kill Tanner. And because of that, we have no way to prove Vin’s innocence . . . I have no way to prove his innocence."

Once more, Chris shared a glance with Vin, before turning to face the judge. "Vin Tanner is a good man, one of the best I’ve ever known . . . and I’m a better man for knowing him. Please, Your Honor . . . please . . . just . . . consider what we have to say."

Vin felt his eyes fill with tears at Chris’s heartfelt plea. His heart was pounding and his throat was so dry, he couldn’t have spoken if his life depended on it – especially when he realized that Chris’s reaction mirrored his own.

The judge allowed his eyes to roam the room. He took in the victim’s family, as well as the alleged killer and his friends. And within minutes, he declared his judgment.

In the end, an hour was all it took. An hour for Vin to say his peace; for one tiny woman with the face of a porcelain doll to damn Vin Tanner to hell . . . and for Chris to grovel for his best friend’s salvation.

It should take a lifetime, Chris thought – and even then, he couldn’t possibly relate all that Vin was. No saint for sure, but a flesh and blood man whose biggest fault was in caring too much.

And in the end, the verdict and sentencing wasn’t what anyone hoped for or expected. The judge determined that, in light of the fact that Vin was in possession of Mr. Kincaid’s body, in addition to the testimony of Mrs. Kincaid . . . he had no choice but to find Tanner guilty of the crime. However, out of respect for Judge Travis’ recommendation, and the obvious good Tanner had done since the murder, he would be sentenced to life in prison, rather than hanging.

Life in prison.

The words slowly sifted through the roar that filled Vin’s head as he tried to catch his breath. He never heard Buck’s loud objection or Chris’s muted curse. He hardly flinched when the Kincaid men suddenly had a hold of him – arms and hands and fists coming from all directions.

The outraged townsfolk charged forward, filling the tiny room with chaos and confusion. Sheriff Williams fired his weapon fruitlessly into the air, but even he was swept up in the brawl that erupted. It was only after Chris and Buck had fought their way to Vin, grabbing hold of him and literally flinging him into the cell, that the fighting began to subside.

A shaken judge and bruised sheriff finally regained control, dispersing the unruly crowd with threats of jail time or worse, if they didn’t leave the scene.

But no one believed it was over.

"I suggest you get some help in here to guard this prisoner when he leaves for the state prison in the morning, Sheriff," the judge said.

Chris hadn’t seen Williams’ characteristic smile all day, but true to form, he flashed one at the judge now. "Hell, Judge, where you think I’m gonna find help in this town? I suppose Larabee and I will just have to handle it."

The judge merely shook his head sadly. "Hell of a mess."

"That it is, Your Honor, and it’s all because that woman lied," Buck spoke up abruptly.

The judge peered at Wilmington intently as he moved to exit the building. "You may be right, Son – but until you get her to admit it, your friend will be waiting in prison."

That was when Chris knew the truth – the judge hadn’t spared Vin from hanging because of his ‘good deeds’ – it was because he believed him. He moved forward then and reached out to shake the man’s hand.

"Thank you, Your Honor," the gunslinger said sincerely. Thank you for giving us time, he added silently.

After the judge had left, Larabee turned to the sheriff and said, "You know, I really don’t like you much, Williams."

The tall blond man laughed. "Can’t say I’ve lost sleep over that, Larabee."

"I may not like you . . . but you’ve done right by Vin, and I won’t forget that," Chris said solemnly, as he turned to where Vin sat listlessly on the cell floor.

"That’s good," the lawman replied. "Because I got a feeling you and I are in for a long night together."

+ + + + + + +

I wish I could make it easier on him.

And I know he’s wishin’ the same fer me.

Pretty stupid when y’ think on it. Me worryin’ fer him and him worryin’ fer me, and neither one of us able t’ do a damn thing about it.

I wish he’d just go on.

But God, what am I gonna do if he does?

I don’t think I can do this.

I pull myself a little closer t’ the wall, tryin’ t’ find a more comfortable position . . . but it ain’t workin’. I can’t even figure out anymore what hurts and what doesn’t.

They bounced me around a bit when they put me in here – probably broke them ribs again, by the feel of it. I’m tryin’ not t’ let on t’ Chris about that, though. He’s worried enough.

Can’t believe what he said today. I wonder if he meant it. Don’t hardly seem possible. How could a man like me make him a better man?

Sure did sound nice, though, and the way he looked . . . well, he looked like he meant it.

He looks tired right now, though. I should just tell him t’ go on. Nothin’ more he can do.

Can’t stand bein’ locked up.

I won’t make it in prison. Hell, I probably won’t make it to prison.

Chris is up pacin’ now. He keeps lookin’ over at me . . . like he wants t’ say somethin’.

There’s a lot t’ say, if I could just figure out how. Sometimes – times like now – I wish I had Josiah’s or Buck’s, or hell, even Ezra’s way of speakin’. I wish I could just tell him how much he means t’ me, but I reckon we don’t got time fer that. I reckon there might not ever be enough time fer that.

I wish I could tell ‘em all. I miss Nathan and Josiah and even that damn fancy gambler. Took me a while t’ warm up t’ Ezra, but now . . . I wish I could tell him goodbye. Wish I could tell them all goodbye. Shoulda done that before I left, but I was in too big a hurry – wasn’t thinkin’ all that clear.

Josiah said once that a man should contemplate his life every now and then. Contemplate – awful fancy word fer a simple man like me. But I reckon if there was ever a time t’ do some contemplatin’ – this is it.

I just never will figure how the seven of us came t’gether – how all our lives changed because of it. But I guess Josiah’s right that it ain’t somethin’ we’re supposed t’ know or understand . . . just accept it. I guess Josiah was right about us all needin’ t’ be here, too. Somehow, it seems like it all mighta come out different if we were all here t’gether.

Can’t change that now, though. I reckon I should be just be grateful fer the time I’ve had with ‘em. I reckon I could spend the whole night just contemplatin’ that.

I reckon I could just spend the whole night contemplatin’ why Chris and me get on like we do.

I wish I could make it easier on him.

I ain’t never been afraid of dying. Hell, I’m more afraid of the life that’s layin’ out in front of me right now. I won’t make it in prison.

But life and death - well, it all feels different now. In one way, I feel like I’ve done somethin’ good with my life since I took up with Chris and the boys. Like maybe I counted fer somethin’ after all – and that ain’t such a bad notion t’ go out with.

Never would’ve thought . . .

But in another way, it feels a whole lot worse, knowin’ what I’m leavin’ behind.

Knowin’ who I’m leavin’ behind.

I look up at Chris and he stops pacin’ t’ look back. I wonder if the pain in my eyes looks like his. I wonder what I did t’ deserve a friend like him. I wonder what I could have possibly done t’ put that kinda look on that kinda man.

I want t’ open my mouth and tell him that I ain’t worth it – t’ just go on, but he speaks first.

"Vin," he says, and he practically chokes on my name. "I’m not giving up . . ."

No, I never dreamed you would, Chris . . . but before either one of us can say anything more, hell breaks loose again.