Tragic Mistake
by doc

RATING: PG-13 violence.

SUMMARY: An attack in town leads to tragic repercussions for the peacekeepers.

DISCLAIMER: Hard to believe but I have absolutely no rights to the characters of the Mag 7. While those belong to the writers and producers of the series, you can rest assured that if they were mine they would be put to good use!

A Special THANK YOU to Carol M. for the wonderful graphic!


Four Corners could barely be described as a town. Located in an area of the western portion of the new United States, the land had, until recently, been inhabited by Indians and buffalo. The infringement of the white man had driven the wild creatures away and led to the placement of rough wooden buildings on a hard packed dirt path that alternated, depending on the weather, between treacherous mud and flying dirt that could blind anyone unfortunate enough to be around when a wagon or horseman passed. No, Four Corners wasn't a place to attract the higher echelons of society but it was home to those who had landed there.

Until recently, these mostly unwilling pioneers in the wild west lived in fear of the cattleman and drovers who used the town, rough as it was, to celebrate the end of their drives, and the outlaws who weren't too choosy about what they stole, just so long as it was worth something and it belonged to somebody else. Some of the fear had been alleviated by the formation of a seemingly unlikely band of peace keepers. Most were unsure of what bond had pulled these men together; the gunslinger, the tracker, the healer, the ladies’ man, the preacher, the gambler, and a kid from back east. Some feared them, some gave grudging respect and many didn't trust them as much as they would trust a rattlesnake. But almost all deferred to their power and unity.

That is, until late one cold fall night when a woman's terrified scream shattered the quiet....

Part 1

The last piercing notes of the horrifying scream were still drifting away on the cold night breeze when the first of many townspeople entered the streets. They were a rag-tag lot, most having thrown whatever was at hand on over their nightclothes to keep out the chill. All, given the very nature of the scream and its shattering intrusion into their peaceful sleep, were scared of what they would find. But no one could remain inside. Like lemmings they were led to the alley behind the wood building that housed the Newspaper Office, for it was from here that the terrible sound had emanated.

Seemingly, the first to arrive was Chris Larabee. The quiet unchallenged leader of the peacekeepers was a man who few would cross. Following the horrible deaths of his wife and young son, the gunslinger developed a hard, brutal edge and was determined that never again would he care for anyone. Never chance that soul-shattering pain again. But somehow this town had broken through the steel surrounding his heart and his very being. With just a look, he'd formed an instant bond with the scruffy former buffalo hunter and amazing tracker, Vin Tanner. He found camaraderie in the company of Nathan Jackson and Josiah Sanchez, and reconnected with Buck Wilmington, an old friend who he'd severed ties with after his family was murdered because he was unable to bear the ladies man's boundless good humor. Suddenly he found that his friend's frivolous nature amused rather than irritated him.

Larabee had instantly recognized the scream as the voice, if voice you could call it, of Mary Travis, the editor of the town's newspaper. Though unwilling to admit, even to himself, Larabee was developing a fondness for the beautiful, strong-willed woman. He recognized the stirring of emotions he thought long-since burnt to a black ash. But now, hearing the terror and pain combined in that horrible scream, icy fingers clutched his fragile soul.

The cold night sky was cloudless and the new moon shone brightly, softening the darkness. As Larabee rounded the corner of the building, he quickly scanned the shadows, searching for Mary, unwittingly praying to a God he'd thought he no longer believed in for her safety.

Making out movement in the distance, the gunslinger raced onward. A man not easily shocked he was horrified to see Mary Travis lying unmoving on the ground, a darkness spreading over her white nightdress. Crouched over her was a man Chris new all too well, the knife in his hand glinting in the moonlight.

A blind rage took over Chris Larabee as he raced forward. Somewhere outside of the white fury that possessed his mind, he heard the sounds of the townspeople, but his brain drove him forward, screaming in anguish. Trust was shattered.

"Damn you! You BASTARD!" the gunslinger roared. Reaching his arms out, locking his hands together, he swung with all the power his rage could provide. The impact of his fury caught the man just turning from Mary's prone form in the side, just below his ribs, throwing him violently to the ground.

Larabee flew at him, pummeling him, not hearing the surprised protest or exclamations of pain and shock. Larabee's rage was fueled by years of hatred and bitterness. Once released, it took on a life of its own. He couldn't have stopped beating this man even if he'd wanted to. And he had no desire to stop. His concern for Mary was but a small portion of his reaction. The betrayal was the greater motivation.

After what felt like an eternity to the townspeople gathering, watching the impact of Chris Larabee's ferocious wrath, the remainder of the seven peacekeepers arrived.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan Jackson went directly to the unconscious Mary Travis. Kneeling at her side, he quickly placed his fingers along her throat and finding her pulse beating strong and regular he released a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. The moonlight didn't offer enough light for him to assess her injuries, he had to get her to his clinic as soon as possible. Thinking quickly, he remembered that Nettie Wells was spending the night at the hotel in town. Looking around, he couldn't see her in the crush of people milling around but he knew that he might need her help. Spotting J.D. Dunne, he quickly intercepted the young man.

"J.D. you find Miss Nettie and send her to my clinic," he commanded as he scooped up the unconscious woman.

A quick glance at J.D. showed him that the boy was hesitating. "G'on now. I need her. FAST!" he insisted.

For his part, J.D. was more interested in getting into the tangle of arms and legs attempting to pull Chris off his defenseless victim, but he knew that his help was needed, so, with a frustrated "Aww, Nate..." he started searching the anxious, milling crowd for the elderly woman.

+ + + + + + +

Most people had little opinion of the gambler, Ezra Standish. His mercenary ways had won him few friends but a lot of enemies. Even he was confused by his bond with these men and his need for their respect and friendship. Contrary to all he had been taught, he found that their cautious acceptance meant a great deal to him. Seeing one of them in so much emotional pain was almost as unsettling as the realization that the man being so severely beaten was also one of their own. Standish knew almost instantly that he would have little effect on the demon Larabee but jumped in anyway. Not having been a party to the earlier events, he had no idea why Chris was acting as he was; he just knew someone had to intervene before his friend met an untimely demise.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah Sanchez lived his life trying to understand the workings of "God". The son of a preacher, he'd strayed from the path of his father's teachings and was now, perhaps unconsciously, attempting to serve penance for his own real and imagined sins. Joining with the men going to protect the Indian village from evil seemed like a step in that direction. His certainty that he would die there, and then his failure to do so, only confused him more. His work at establishing a church in this town of sinners seemed right too. Now, he was faced with the horror of the likely brutal murder of one of God's creatures by a crazed man. He also had arrived too late to see the events leading up to this rage but his heart told him it was wrong. So he too attempted to intervene, but even his great strength had little effect on the obsessed man.

The last of the peacekeepers' to arrive, having given up a warm bed and soft female, was Buck Wilmington. Of all the regulators, he knew Chris Larabee the best. Or had thought he did. But that was before the terrible fire that burnt the soul out of the man. Then Chris Larabee had changed. Become hard. Cold. But again, that was before he came to this town. Faint glimmers of the warmer Chris Larabee of old had begun to show in this most recent incarnation. Suddenly, the realization struck Buck Wilmington that in a heartbeat all the good that this town and these men had wrought on the gunslinger's barren soul had been undone. By one of their own. The Chris he saw now was a brutal killer. Not the distant cold of a gunslinger, but the hot, impassioned determination of a man capable of beating another into hell with his fists alone. And Buck Wilmington felt the same rage at the loss of his friend. Again.

Part 2

J.D. finally spotted Nettie Wells pushing close to the center of the action. With another regretful glance at the struggling men, he grabbed her by the arm. "Miss Nettie, Nathan needs you at the clinic right away."

The older woman turned scared, anguished eyes on the young man. "J.D., you got’a stop this. Chris is gonna kill him."

"I'll do what I can, gonna take a lot when Chris gets like this. I never saw nothin' like it. But now you better get to the clinic. Looks like Mrs. Travis is hurt bad! She's unconscious and there's blood all over her!" the youth exclaimed excitedly.

"Alright son, I'll go," Nettie said as she turned, and with one last horrified glance at the struggling bodies and a moan of dismay, she hurried toward the clinic. Worry was clearly written on her time and work weathered features, dread of what additional horror she might find there tearing at her heart.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan Jackson laid Mary Travis carefully on the cot in his clinic. The blood covering the front of her nightdress was ominous to his experienced eyes. He knew it would be easy to become overwhelmed with concern for the woman he had come to consider a friend. So he stepped back and took a deep breath to clear his head. Of all the people he'd ever treated, he knew this time, with this patient, he needed to maintain his professionalism. He couldn't allow his feelings to cloud his judgment.

Alright, now. Think on your learnin'. The first step is to assess the patient, don't git caught up in all the blood. He looked carefully at Mary in the lamplight. She's breathin, heart's beatin strong, color looks real healthy. That's all good.

He turned at the sound of the door opening and looked with grateful eyes at Nettie Wells. "Thanks fer comin' Miz. Wells. Might need some help here treatin' Miz Travis. Think the boys are all gonna be tied up there fer a while."

"I understand, Nathan. How is she?"

"Well, she's unconscious, but otherwise she looks real good. Strange with all that blood on her..." Nathan began only to be interrupted by Nettie.

"Nathan, I've done my share of doctorin', let me take care of her. You go outside and see if you can help break up that horrible fight..." Seeing the gentle man's hesitation, Nettie captured his arm with her hand and turned pleading eyes to him, "Please Nathan.. I'm scared of what's going to happen.

"If you're sure?" said Nathan, uncertainly, turning toward the door.

"I'm sure," replied Nettie Wells firmly, moving to the unconscious woman's side, praying that her shaky reassurance was based on reality and not false optimism.

+ + + + + + +

Vin Tanner was only barely aware of what had hit him. His shock at Chris's first strike immobilized him, preventing him from striking back in defense or even escaping. However, the physical viciousness of the assault was insignificant compared to the hurt each blow inflicted on his heart. The young tracker had been orphaned as a child and, through necessity, had learned to keep a safe physical and emotional distance from the many people he came in contact with through his travels. The only real trust he'd previously allowed was with the members of the Indian tribes he’d encountered. He accepted that theirs was a world of necessity and survival, much like his own, and that understanding developed into a mutual respect.

Then came that fateful day in Four Corners. He'd stopped in this dirt town to try and catch his breath from the constant roaming made necessary by a price on his head. Vin Tanner thought just maybe he could lay low for a while here, where no one seemed connected and strangers were commonplace.

So, he took a job as a helper in the General Store. The work was steady and unobtrusive; after all, nobody much noticed a floor sweeper.

But of course, his reprieve was short lived.

As he watched a spiteful lynching party drag a struggling negro down the stairs and into a rickety wagon, saw the brave woman stand up to the drunken animals only to be kicked to the ground, he knew with a terrible certainty that he couldn't just stand by and allow this to happen. He knew he was a good shot, hell, without any vanity, knew he was one of the best, but as good a shot as he was, he also knew he couldn't take on all those men and survive.

But he had been, still was, too close to being that man himself to watch the hanging.

The decision made, he took the rifle from Mr. Potter's store. Mr. Potter. The tracker still didn't know if Mr. Potter's admonition that if he took the rifle he'd be fired was as straight forward as it sounded. He suspected that that was the kind man's way of warning him off gettin' involved. Awww... hell, he'd thought, gonna die someday... might as well go out in a blaze a'glory...

Then he had glanced up and caught the eye of the formidable man in black. He was momentarily stunned by the instant connection he felt with the ominous looking man. A sudden melding of their souls. Then a nod and they joined in the street. Never a word was spoken. None was needed. Each knew what the other was thinking and feeling.

And now that man - the only person since his mother he'd ever allowed close, a man who shared his soul - was trying his damnest to kill him. And Vin Tanner didn't know why.

Part 3

Three powerful men were putting all of their combined strength into separating their friend from his murderous intent. Buck Wilmington, Josiah Sanchez and Ezra Standish would each have agreed that they'd never struggled harder. Three voices joined in pleading, ordering and coaxing the man from his single-minded purpose.

"C'mon Chris, you're done, you made yer point," urged Buck

"Chris! Stop this! He's had enough..." Josiah roared

"Mr. Larabee! Please! Unhand him! This ongoing assault is pointless as he is no longer cognizant of the blows you are raining upon him!!" reasoned Ezra.

Finally exhausted, his energy spent, Chris's drive slowed enough for his friends to pull him away from the dazed, bloodied tracker who lay curled in the fetal position he’d assumed to protect himself from the horrific onslaught.

"J.D., get him out’a here 'for this one gets his second wind!" Buck ordered the youngest.

"C'mon Vin, let's get you somewhere safe," urged J.D. Dunne, half carrying the confused, barely conscious man down the alley.

With a final look of disgust at the dazed tracker being helped away, Chris pulled free of the men still clinging to his arms. Glancing down, he saw Mary Travis's shawl where it lay trampled in the dirt. The image of Mary's bloodied nightdress sparked the fire still burning in his breast, urging him to follow after the sharpshooter and finish the job he'd started. Only Josiah's quiet, "Chris, Mary will need you right now," kept him from pursuing the injured man.

Pinning his burning gaze on the preacher, Larabee snarled "Where is she?"

"Calm down now slick, Nate took her to his clinic," soothed Buck Wilmington. "Don't you go chargin' in there in a lather!"

Without a word, the glaring man scooped up the ruined shawl, turned on his heel and stormed toward the healer's small clinic.

Buck. Josiah and Ezra looked at each other uneasily, trying to understand all that had happened. Finally, Josiah shrugged, "Well brothers, we best follow him. No tellin what he'll do."

"Gentlemen, I think it is in our best interests that I continue Mr. Tanner's patrol of our charming hamlet. I shall confirm that everything is secure in this delightful burg and that its citizenry are safe, then I shall resume patrolling the surrounding region." With a two-fingered salute, Ezra Standish strolled off toward the town's main street.

"Okay J'siah, looks like its just us," said the ladies’ man. "Let's get to it!"

+ + + + + + +

J.D. wasn't sure where he should take Vin. The clinic seemed the right place but certainly wasn't the best place! Chris was bound to show up there, probably sooner rather than later. Okay, he thought, Don't think he'll make it up the steps, so the hotel's out, hmmm... livery should be safe. Plenty of straw to lay down on 'til Nate can look to him.

"C'mon Vin, you can make it, we're goin’ to the livery. Just a little further..." J.D. encouraged, dragging the semi-conscious man through the cold night.

Part 4

Nettie Wells had finished examining Mary Travis and was terribly disturbed by her findings. She had just covered the still unconscious widow with a warm blanket, when Nathan came back into the room.

"Chris and the boys are headed this way, saw 'em soon as I started down the steps. We best be ready for 'em. Wha’cha find, Miz Wells?" Questioned the healer, seeing the concern all too evident in her face.

"Well Nathan, she's got a pretty good size lump on her head, looks like she hit the ground pretty hard. Bruise on her cheek like maybe she got hit there," replied the older woman. "She probably has a mild concussion, explains why she's still out cold. I expect she'll be coming around soon.

"That don't explain all that blood..." quizzed the healer, confused at her failure to mention the obvious.

Nathan's question was interrupted by the entrance of a still seething Chris Larabee,

"How is she? How bad did that bastard hurt her?"

"Calm down now, Chris," soothed Nathan, " Just a mild concussion, she's gonna be just fine. She just needs some quiet," he said, the meaning clear in his voice.

"Don't feed me no bullshit, Nathan!" snarled the gunfighter, his tone ominously calm, "You tryin' to protect that sonuvabitch? Don't bother... he's a dead man..." Larabee's eyes were flashing green hatred as he held up the defiled shawl still clutched in his fist, "I saw the blood on her nightdress..."

A soft moan from the blonde woman in the bed interrupted the gunslinger as Nettie Wells and Nathan Jackson rushed to her side. Mary's eyes began to move beneath her lids, indicating a return to consciousness.

"Mary, honey, you're safe now," reassured Nettie, "You just take your time waking up, we'll wait 'til you're ready to join us."

Nathan turned to the men crowding into the room behind Chris Larabee, "Y'all better get out’a here. She's gonna need quiet when she wakes up," he ordered. "You too Chris, she don't need to wake up to that scowling face. I'll get you as soon as she's able to talk. G'on now, I mean it, git!"

The gunfighter looked like he was going to ignore the healer until Josiah took him by the arm, "C'mon Chris, you can't help her if those glitterin' eyes of yours put the fear of God in her."

Larabee turned his glare on the preacher, giving the man a start at the demonic light radiating from the green depths. Shaking his arm free of the big man's grasp, Larabee turned back to the black healer "I expect you to get me the minute she rouses. Do you understand?

"Yea Chris, I understand. You need to calm down now, me'be you misunderstood what you saw..." Nathan began, only to be interrupted by the gunfighter's controlled growl, his voice made all the more threatening by the quiet tone.

"I know exactly what I saw. I should have known that savage wasn't to be trusted. Well, I won't make that mistake again," Chris Larabee's face hardened further as he looked down at the clenched fist wrapped around the dirty fabric. He looked Nathan Jackson in the eyes, causing the healer to flinch from the raw emotion he saw there, "You just make sure you get me as soon as she wakes." With that Larabee flung the crumpled shawl on the foot of the cot as if it had burned his hand. Turning on his heel, he brushed past the men gathered in the doorway and headed down the wooden stairs, directly toward the saloon.

Buck, Josiah, Nathan and Nettie stared in dismay at Mary Travis's favorite shawl where it lay on her feet, the dirt ground into it in awful contrast against the white of the coverlets. After a moment, which seemed like an eternity, Buck Wilmington shook himself free of the terrible spell the shawl had put on them. "Josiah..?" he began questioningly.

With a nod, Josiah Sanchez turned with the ladies’ man to follow their leader. Neither knew what they were going to say or do when they caught up with the angry, suffering man, but both knew they had to be with him, to protect him from himself.

+ + + + + + +

J.D. lay the stuporous tracker in an unused back stall of the livery. Fortunately the stall had been freshly bedded and the soft straw made as comfortable a place as possible for the dazed man. Giving Vin an encouraging pat on the shoulder, J.D. turned to the door of the livery. He was trying to decide how to proceed, his desire to get in on the excitement at war with duty to his injured friend when he spotted Yosemite walking toward the building, probably coming back from all the excitement. "Good," thought the young man, "Yosemite'l look out for Vin while I find Buck and see what's goin' on, then I'll go get Nate."

"Yosemite!" he yelled to the farrier, still some distance away, "Can you look out for Vin?" At the blacksmith's nod, J.D. rushed off to locate the other peacekeepers.

Part 5

The more stalwart men of Four Corners had found their way to the saloon to hash and re-hash the events of the night. Theories on what caused the formidable gunslinger to attack the tracker were widespread. Each had an opinion and those who'd taken exception to the way the seven peacekeepers regulated the town used the events as fodder for destroying the soft-spoken sharpshooter's character. The words 'savage' and 'wild indian' were thrown about angrily. Small men who had allowed the criminal element to take over prior to the arrival of the seven now made themselves feel bigger at the expense of Vin Tanner.

The saloon owner was thrilled to be open for business at the unexpectedly early hour, seeing this as an opportunity to fill his coffers. He poured whiskey and beer freely, encouraging the damaging speculation, knowing that the wilder the theories, the thirstier the men would become.

The sound of the batwing doors slamming open brought an instant quiet to the room. Cautious eyes turned to the black clad gunslinger as he moved without a word to his customary table against the wall. From this vantage point, the dangerous man could watch everyone that entered the saloon. Almost by magic, a whiskey bottle and glass appeared in front of him. In one fluid motion, and ignoring the shot glass, he pulled the cork and upended the bottle into his mouth. He drank a substantial amount before setting the bottle on the table with a decided thump. The sound of the bottle hitting the table acted as a catalyst to the townspeople in the saloon. They began talking in hushed, insistent whispers, eyes darting warily toward the ominous man.

Buck and Josiah entered the saloon and pulled chairs up to the table where Larabee sat. Buck nodded to the barkeep who brought a beer for each of the men. J.D. arrived and joined the table almost immediately. Buck lifted his head to J.D. in an unspoken question, Vin? the kid read his look and nodded Taken care of. then both turned their attention to the suffering gunfighter.

"Yo slick. You might wanna go easy on that!" exclaimed the ladies’ man as another unhealthy portion of whiskey disappeared from the gunman's bottle.

"Didn't you learn from the last time I told you to mind your own business, Buck? You might want to think on that," came as a low growl from the man in black. Buck Wilmington gulped at the memory of the cold blade of a knife against his throat after he had told the newspaper woman about Chris's past. He knew what the gunslinger was capable of and he hesitated.

"Uh Chris, I think Buck's just saying' you don't want'a be drunk when Mrs. Travis wakes up," soothed the youngest of the group.

"'You think', do ya kid? You don't know anything about this so you best just stay out of it," said the gunman, turning smoldering green eyes on the dark haired youth. Larabee was satisfied when he saw the young man's eyes drop and, with a sneer touching his lips, he raised the bottle for another long drink.

With uneasy glances at each other, the three men settled in for what promised to be a long, ugly night.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan Jackson and Nettie Wells continued their vigil at Mary's bedside. The unconscious woman continued to moan and, in her delirious state, sporadically cried out. Each time, the elderly woman soothed her with calming words and bathed her face with cool water.

The black healer's concern increased as the blonde woman remained unresponsive. He knew how dangerous a head injury could be and was going through the medical information catalogued in his mind, trying to anticipate every eventuality when a memory suddenly surfaced. "Nettie!" He exclaimed "I forgot all about it, what with you gettin' her cleaned up and Chris stormin' in and all. You never told me where all that blood was comin' from?"

"Oh Nathan..." Nettie turned wide, frightened eyes on the black healer, "It wasn't her blood..."

Part 6

Aubrey Savitch's widowed pa died when Aubrey was 14, which left him to raise his little brother Albert. Alby, as his older brother called him, was 10 and an impetuous young'un, always trying to keep up with Aubrey and prove he was a man. Aubrey spent 10 years bailing Alby out of one scrape after another; seemed the more he tried to protect his brother, the greater Alby's resentment grew and the worse his behavior became. It was troubling enough while they were young and living on the small homestead their pa had settled, but when Alby got older he started going into town. That's when the real trouble started.


Alby was obsessed with them, not just watching them but touching too. And he was mean. Seemed he liked nothin' more than to hire a woman and then beat her near senseless. Aubrey'd been able to pay off the working girls so far but each incident became a little bigger and meaner than the last.

Until that fateful day in Gibbstown.

Alby'd hired a working girl and followed her into her tent where his animal passions had taken over. In most of these bordello towns, the patrons were there to mind their own business and the girls' screams were ignored or received with knowing grins. But this girl hadn't just screamed from the pain - she'd screamed in terror, begging for help. Aubrey arrived as the man in black pulled his struggling, cursing brother from the tent and threatened to beat him "within an inch of his life". Looked like he would do it too. Aubrey drew on the angry man who was dragging his brother by his collar, just intended to get Alby free and move on but the gunslinger saw the draw and responded in kind.

Everyone lucky enough to witness the man's lightning-fast movement would talk about it for years. Awe growing with each telling. Aubrey'd dropped where he stood, his colt clutched in his hand, dead eyes staring in shock at his brother. Alby swore revenge but nobody had taken him seriously. They all went about their business, excitedly discussing the remarkable gun draw they'd just seen, knowing they would enjoy the telling for years to come. And they left Alby to cart his dead brother's body away.

Albert Savitch had meant his vow to avenge his brother's death. Shooting the black-clad gunslinger would be too easy. He wanted him to suffer. Like Alby had suffered the loss of his brother. And he spent two years planning his revenge, learning as much as he could about his prey.

He learned the man's name was Chris Larabee, that he'd let no one close to him since the deaths of his wife and son. That he'd traveled from place-to-place, apparently without a goal or purpose. Until he'd arrived in Four Corners.

That's when things had changed and Alby Savitch began to form a plan.

+ + + + + + +

Vin Tanner woke with a start. At first his confused brain refused to function and he couldn't remember where he was.

He moved around slightly, testing his limbs, his head throbbing. Trying to stand, he was nearly overwhelmed by dizziness and nausea, and sank back into the straw with a gasp. Straw...? He was in the livery, J.D.'d brought him here.. Why? Where's J.D.? He knew by instinct that he was alone, that he'd been left here.... alone...

Then the memories began flooding back... ...out on patrol, ...somethin' wrong in the alley backa' the newspaper... rushin' back to find Mary Travis strugglin' with a stranger... Couldn't pull his hog's leg, man was too close to Mary, he might hit her... anxiety and fear returned as he relived the desperate struggle to save Mary Travis, each scene flashing vividly in his mind ...throwing himself at the man as the stranger turned, his arm arcing out... feeling a burning pain below his ribs and hearing Mary utter a gawd-awful scream... falling to his knees, stunned, gasping for breath, then throwing himself at the attacker again only to be pushed forcefully into Mary, knocking her to the ground as the attacker disappeared into the shadows, dropping the knife as he ran.

Vin remembered picking up the knife and crouching over the lovely widow's unmoving form, remembered shouts throughout the town and footsteps running up behind him, relief flooding through him with the knowledge that his friends were on their way. The young tracker remembered half-turning to tell the approaching men the direction the attacker had run, re-lived the shock of the first blow connecting... the blinding pain as he was hit and confusion over why it should hurt so much. He felt again blow after blow connecting with his face and body as his mind worked in slow motion. Chris is hitting me... What's wrong Chris? What'd I do...? Please Chris..." After that, his mind shut down, refusing to accept what was happening. Certain that if Chris Larabee was beating him, he must have done something terrible to deserve it... Had he let Mary Travis die?

Part 7

"WHAT?!" exclaimed Nathan Jackson, the healer's eyes widening in shock. "Not her blood? But she was the onl..." he broke off in mid-word, his eyes widening in horror as he looked deep into Nettie Wells' sad, frightened face. "Oh my lord! 'Cept Vin... It's Vin's blood? But he was attackin' Mrs. Travis... Chris saw him... Mrs. Nettie, somethin ain't right here." He stopped in confusion, then suddenly, comprehension snatched his breath away. "Oh no! Chris was wrong. An' that boy's out there someplace, hurt bad by the looks of it. The healer's attention was abruptly drawn to the older woman as she swayed on her feet.

"Now, Mrs. Nettie, you sit down, you look likely to faint. We'll find him," Nathan assured her.

As Nathan had put into words the fears the older woman had been harboring, she could feel the blood drain from her face. She did indeed feel like she wouldn't be able to keep her feet. "Lord Nate," she breathed "that poor boy... what must he be thinkin'?" Nettie Wells drew herself up and with a nod of her head she affirmed "You best go find him and bring him back here for me to tend to. "

"Now Nettie, I don't think that's such a good idea," Nathan began, thinking of the menacing man in black, "When Chris comes back here..."

"Nathan!" the wizened older woman interrupted, "that one's already got my dander up, I'll handle him! You just go find my young'un and bring him here for me to care for."

Faced with Nettie's grim determination, Nathan decided it was in his best interest to obey. He had little doubt that the formidable little woman could handle Chris Larabee! "Awright, Ma'am, I'm goin'. You just keep an eye on Miz. Travis for me," Nathan said as he headed out the clinic door. At the foot of the steps the black healer came to an abrupt halt - he had no idea where to look for the injured tracker.

+ + + + + + +

Buck, Josiah and J.D. watched in increasing dismay as Chris Larabee finished the bottle of whiskey and signaled the bartender for another. They all knew that there would be no talking reason to the man in black and that his already dark mood would only get fouler.

No one had spoken since they sat down at the table with the seething gunfighter. They were playing a waiting game with three of the four men fervently praying that word would come from Nathan that Mary Travis had woken before Chris was too lost to the bottle and his dark thoughts. Each excruciating minute that passed deepened the fear in the hearts of the Four Corners' peacekeepers.

Finally, J.D. slid closer to Buck "How's Mrs. Travis?" he whispered to his best friend as he kept a watchful eye on the increasingly sullen gunslinger.

"No word yet, kid. I just hope Nate comes to get us soon. This waitin' ain't gettin' any easier," replied the ladies’ man, his voice hushed. "What'd you do with Vin?" he asked, careful that the vengeful blonde across the table didn't hear him.

"Left him in the livery, Yosemite's lookin' after him. He's got lots'a bruises, didn't seem like nothin' was broke... figured he just needed to lay low for a while."

"Damn right about that, kid. He's safer stayin' out’a this one's way," muttered Buck, with a nod in the direction of the man in black, "leastways 'til we figure out what went on in that alley.

+ + + + + + +

Albert Savitch knew he'd had a close call. Aubrey would’a called me stupit for tryin' to grab that newspaper woman. But hell, Aubrey was dead and the blonde woman had looked so nice... He could have accomplished his scheme and had her too if it hadn't been for that damn do-goodin' tracker. He hoped he'd cut him good, wished he'd had more time to slice him up, but no, blondie had to go screamin' and wake the whole damn town.

At least he'd got away. Managed to walk into the saloon bold as ya please with all the other townsfolk. Hell, nobody even knew he was involved. All they kept talking about was what the damn tracker tried to do to the woman. Ha! These high and mighty people! He's a lawman but they're all right quick to believe he done wrong. thought Alby Well, that's fine, if they think it'as him, they won't be lookin' fer me!

He still might get a chance at that blonde woman but for now he was gonna have himself another beer and think on his plan. A plan to which he had added revenge on the mangy tracker that had temporarily cost him his prize...

Part 8

Chris Larabee knew his friends were watching him, knew they were worried and appreciated their concern but right now he needed to drown the sound pounding in his brain - the sound of his fists striking his best friend's unresisting body.

When he'd entered that alley and recognized Mary's form lying unmoving on the ground, a terrible, blinding rage had overtaken him. His judgment distorted by fear - the horror of losing yet another who, against his will, he'd come to care for. In his rage, the identity of the recipient of his fury didn't register, didn't even matter; animal instinct had taken over and he'd attacked. Even when he'd finally realized that it was the tracker he was pummeling, his rage had been so great that it transferred to the man he had so recently befriended but still knew so little about. All reason was vanquished and Chris Larabee had felt his soul burn with an overwhelming thirst for retaliation. He was compelled beyond the desire to exact punishment for Mary's injury; this terrible fury had been bottled up, unvented since the deaths of Sarah and Adam.

But now that he'd had time to think things through, something deep in his soul was telling him that he may have been terribly wrong. Something's not right... Chris Larabee's conscience now screamed, unknowingly echoing the words Nathan had spoken to Nettie Wells.

Taking another hearty swig from the bottle, Larabee beat down the voice in his brain. He wanted to maintain his anger, protect his emotions from concern for Mary; concern for Vin.... To let go and listen to that voice was more than he could endure.

+ + + + + + +

The more Albert Savitch drank, the more pissed-off he became. That goddamn tracker'd not only ruined his evening's fun but he'd destroyed Alby's careful plan of revenge. He'd put a lot of time into planning his vengeance, made it a point to find out that Larabee was interested in the blonde woman, or so everyone had said, so he'd planned on getting at him there... but now, thanks to that goddamn tracker, she was locked up nice and tight in the black man's clinic. So, Alby found himself in need of new bait.

Alby stood at the saloon bar, sipping his beer and listening to the speculation on the night's events. He'd been very interested to hear that his prey was tight with that damn tracker. From the whispers, folks'd thought they was some kinda partners until the events of this night. Alby silently thanked the gossiping townspeople; he would put this information to good use. Me’be he wouldn't have such a hard time findin' bait after all... Long-haired bait...?

As he leaned on the bar sippin' his beer and noticed the kid indicate to the mustachioed man where the buck-skinned tracker was, a slow, evil smile touched his lips. like takin' candy from a baby... he thought, a shiver of evil anticipation running through his body, gonna be fun to teach you a lesson tracker... and jus' me'be put a few burs under Larabee's saddle in the process!

Albert Savitch finished off the last of his beer and wiped the foam from his mouth with the sleeve of his dirty coat. He threw a coin on the bar and turned, allowing his malevolent gaze to rest momentarily on the man in black. A sneer touched his lips as he walked out the batwing doors into the cold Four Corners' night.

+ + + + + + +

Vin Tanner was nearly overwhelmed with horror as vivid images of Mary Travis's bloodied body lay before him. Nooo.... I let Mary die, I failed Chris... 's supposed to protect the town... protect Mary... Instead, 's failed them all, everybody who'd trusted me. The quiet tracker valued the trust these people placed in him, held it to his heart, allowed it to give him a sense of belonging that he hadn't felt since he was a small child. But more than the people of Four Corners, Vin valued the trust of one man, a man who didn't give his trust easily. And now he'd violated that trust. I'm sorry Chris, his heart cried, You're right to hate me...

Vin knew it was cowardly but he just couldn't face the man he had been proud to call "Pard". Couldn't face the townspeople as they buried the beautiful blonde woman who had always treated him with kindness and respect... ...have to get away... With his soul engulfed in a terrible despair and his body wracked with pain, the tracker began to drag himself toward Peso's stall, his right arm clutched to his throbbing, bloody side.

Part 9

Nathan's uncertainty about where to look for the injured tracker was decided for him by a woman's cry from the clinic. Turning, he quickly re-ascended the steps and entered to find Nettie trying to soothe the distraught Mary Travis. The older woman continued gently stroking her brow while the vivid blue eyes of the blonde woman opened wide in terror. "VIN! NO!" She cried out again in fear.

"Calm down now dear, Nettie's here, you're safe..." Nettie grasped desperately at the terrified woman's flailing arms.

"No! NO! SOMEBODY... Please.. HELP! Let go! " Mary's frantic cries caused Nettie's soft heart to ache.

"Mary! Mary honey, don't fight me, it's Nettie, you're safe here in Nathan's clinic. Calm down now dear..." soothed the older woman.

"Nettie?" gasped the terror stricken woman on a sobbing breath, "Oh, Nettie, thank God... Is he gone? Why did he attack me? I don't understand... He had a knife... He tried to.... " Mary Travis hesitated, her eyes widening as memory returned, "Vin...! " Mary paused, her face a mask of confusion, "I was struggling... Oh my head, I feel ill..." The young widow clutched both hands to her head as a blinding pain slashed through her skull, with a moan she again lost consciousness.

"Nathan!" cried Nettie Wells in fear. The black healer quickly stepped up to check Mary's pulse, relieved when he found it beating strong and regular. "I think she just passed out, Miz. Nettie. The agitation of rememberin' was probably just too much for her."

"We best keep her still and just go on bathin' her face. That's real calmin' to her. I'll get some herbs together and try and brew up some soothing tea." With that, the healer went quietly out the clinic door leaving Nettie Wells alone with her fears.

+ + + + + + +

Vin Tanner managed to drag himself to Peso's stall, stopping several times to wipe away blood seeping from the laceration over his eyes that threatened to further impair his already blurred vision. The big horse snorted and stomped at the intrusion into his space and Vin mumbled calming words to the uneasy animal as he used the wooden slats of the stall to pull himself upright. By the time he was standing, his breath was coming in ragged gasps. His chest was on fire and one eye had finally swollen shut. The former bounty hunter knew saddling the troublesome horse would be impossible and silently thanked God for his time with the tribes where he'd ridden the saddleless indian ponies.

Dragging the bridle from its hook, he managed to slip the bit into the gelding's mouth, and pull the leather past his ears. Leaning heavily on Peso, the tracker grabbed a handful of mane and, by bracing his feet against the wall of the stall, pulled himself up across the broad back. Taking a deep, painful breath, Vin threw his right leg over the horse's rump, finally centering himself across the animal. The exertion almost cost the tracker his hard fought position as the world faded to black. Clutching the reigns and a handful of mane in a death grip, he leaned over the horse's neck and gave the gelding a gentle pressure with his knees.

Peso, confused by his master's strange actions but thrilled to be out of his stall without the confining tightness of the saddle, obeyed the command and trotted out of the livery into the dawning day.

As the sun began to peek down the vacant main street of the quiet town, most of the citizens of Four Corners were just beginning to stir from their beds. A few dedicated souls who'd been unwilling to give up the previous night's excitement, were finishing the last of their drinks in the saloon. As the new day dawned, a solitary man was on the boardwalk to observe the injured tracker's escape from the quiet town. One man watched the long haired former bounty hunter desperately clinging to consciousness and the back of the big black gelding with a white blaze on its face... a newcomer to town, a man with a malevolent smile on his face.

Part 10

Nathan Jackson had just returned with water and placed the pot on the iron stove when he heard Mary stirring. Glancing quickly to see that Nettie had heard her too, he moved over to the side of the cot. The blonde woman's head was turning from side to side as she muttered unintelligibly. Both Nettie and Nathan began to speak comfortingly to her, hoping that she would drift into consciousness and be able to offer more information about the attack.

Unfortunately, Mary was once again gripped by the terror of the assault and began to cry out "NO! VIN! NO! STOP! SOMEBODY PLEASE HELP!", her screams reverberating around the small room.

The echoes of her cries were still ringing in Nettie and Nathan's ears when the clinic door slammed violently open.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee had had enough. Enough whiskey and enough of his own disturbing thoughts. The only person he could trust to tell him what had happened in the alley was Mary Travis and he wasn't going to wait any longer for word from Nathan. Slamming his chair back against the wall, the formidable black clad man stood and, without a word to any of the startled regulators watching him, stalked out of the saloon.

Had the situation not been so serious, the confused rush of Buck, Josiah and J.D. trying to get to their feet to follow their leader might have been funny. For a brief moment, it appeared to the highly entertained patrons of the saloon that Buck and Josiah would get stuck in the doorway, but Josiah stepped back and with a wave of his hand, the big man indicated to Buck that he should go first.

Larabee's long, purposeful strides took him quickly to the base of the stairs leading up to Nathan's clinic. He had just placed his foot on the bottom step when he heard Mary's strangled cry. Chris Larabee took the steps three at a time and slammed through the door into the clinic.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan turned to meet the intruder, not really surprised to discover it was the gunfighter, and in a full rage by the looks of him. After the last outburst, the blond woman was drifting off into a fitful sleep, Nathan knew she desperately needed the rest to heal and he turned angrily to the irate gunman.

"Shhh, Chris! She's upset enough without you slammin' in here," reprimanded the black man. "You just be quiet now."

"I want to know how she is NOW!" demanded the forbidding man, swaying slightly from the whiskey he'd consumed.

"Now Chris, she woke up a while ago but she's still confused and a little out of her head. That's all to be expected. She's sleeping quiet now. She's got a pretty good size lump on her head; probably a concussion but I don't think anything worse. I expect she'll be wakin' up right soon now," the healer soothed the furious man in black.

Nettie Wells' soft voice interrupted Larabee before he could frame the next question, "Chris, all that blood on her night dress... that wasn't hers."

A sudden clattering on the stairs heralded the arrival of Buck, Josiah and J.D. Realizing how disturbing their noise was, the three had slowed when they reached the landing and they'd quietly entered the clinic just in time to hear Nettie's words.

Chris Larabee turned confused eyes on her frightened face as she continued, "I think it was Vin's..."

"Vin's?!" chorused the shocked men.

A sharp glance from the startled gunfighter quelled any further questions, "How could it be Vin's? It was just him and Mary in the alley," he demanded. "And didn't you just hear her cryin' out for Vin to stop attackin her? Explain that!" Chris insisted, his anger rising again at the memory of the injured woman's hysterical cries. Resentment growing at the self-doubt he'd been suffering. He'd been right all along! Vin was the attacker!

"Mary's confused right now, she don't rightly know what she's sayin'," Nathan explained, his voice patient and gentle. He knew Vin Tanner would never have hurt Mary, was certain that, in his heart, Chris knew it too. Now he needed Chris to accept that he'd been hasty in jumping to the horrible conclusion that Vin had attacked Mary.

"The fact is she don't have any injuries that would cause her to bleed. That ain't her blood," the healer repeated firmly.

"Don't you see Chris?" pleaded Nettie Wells, "Someone else had to be in the alley - Vin wasn't tryin' to hurt Mary, he was tryin' to save her!"

Part 11

Vin Tanner had survived for his twenty-some-odd years alone by being constantly on guard and totally aware of his surroundings, but the injured man was now so occupied with the nearly overwhelming guilt he carried and the task of staying on Peso's back that he didn't notice the stranger following him out of Four Corners. Not that he would have been able to do anything about it anyway, he was just barely conscious and, with minimal direction from himself, depending on Peso to take him to the high ground where he could take refuge.

As he clung desperately to Peso's mane, his clouded mind kept replaying the events in the alley. Why wasn't I faster? Why Mary? Oh God... Questions flew through his muddled brain, accentuated by each step of Peso's hooves, pounding him with self-recrimination and shame. Failed the only folk 'd ever give me a chance... he berated himself, All those other's was right, ain't no good to nobody... better off gone... The self-sufficient tracker, who had endured in spite of all odds, was fast losing the greatest battle of all; the basic instinct to sustain life at any cost was drifting away.

+ + + + + + +

Alby Savitch had no way of knowing about the tracker's internal struggle, certainly wouldn't have cared if he had, he was just enjoying following the injured man and biding his time.

Didn't know how much fun a body could have just watchin', the cruel man thought to himself, Near as much fun as doin' the hurtin... , Heard 'bout the "magnificent seven", he snorted to himself, this'n ain't no big deal, bleeds like anybody else. Guess they's the "magnificent six" now!" The outlaw nearly laughed out loud at his own joke, catching himself just in time, Hell, he don't need ta hear me yet, just a li’l bit longer, he cain't ride much further.

Albert Savitch settled himself more comfortably in his saddle and continued to follow his prey at a leisurely pace, calmly awaiting his chance to strike. This is awright, he thought, I'll just ride 'long here 'til the sonu’bitch falls off his damn horse. Llooks of him, that ain't gonna be long. The vicious man's lips twisted again in a spiteful sneer. Yer gonna pay good, tracker. he vowed. Nobody interferes with Alby Savitch and lives to tell 'bout it!

+ + + + + + +

Vin peeled on eye open to try and orient himself to his surroundings. Bless ya, Peso, yer right on track, I owe ya a nice big apple fer this. Even with his often ill-tempered ways, the tracker knew that when it counted, he could depend on the sometimes troublesome gelding. Horse 's always there for me when he 'as needed, he thought, Like I shoulda been there for Mary and the folks in Four Corners...

"Aww hell, why cain't I get it out'a my mind?" The words burst from the despondent tracker against his will, "G'me some peace, cain't take the pain no more!" Dropping his throbbing head, the injured man gave a heart wrenching choking sob, "I'm so sorry!" he cried out, the remnants of his heart shredding in his chest.

With intense effort, the former bounty hunter dug into his memory for the indian teachings he used so often to just survive. He beat down his thoughts and feelings, locked them away with his soul, Got’a keep goin', put distance 'tween me and the town, git up in the rocks, git my head straight... and clinging to the reigns and Peso's mane, concentrated on his destination.

Only when he'd reached the barren rock outcropping would he give thought to his future, if I got one... The only certainty in his life now being that he would not return to the town where he'd thought he had found a home. Couldn't face the disappointment and disgust he was sure to see on the faces of the men who had depended on him. Couldn't see his failure to protect Mary reflected in their disappointed eyes. No, Vin Tanner knew he would never go back there.

Peso continued to move steadily across the cold, rocky wasteland. Somehow, his rider had managed to convey to the big horse that he was expected to travel deep into the desolate tract, an otherwise forsaken area. The exhausted tracker tugged gently on the gelding's reigns, bringing the animal to a stop and slid quietly from the strangely subdued creature's back to lie unconscious on the ground.

Part 12

When Mary next opened her eyes, it was to recognize the concerned faces surrounding her.

"Hi Honey, how do you feel?" asked Nettie gently.

"My head hurts... am I... in Nathan's clinic?" Mary recognized the room from her visits to the seven men after their many injuries. "Why am I here?"

"Do you remember anything Mrs. Travis?" Inquired Nathan hoping they would finally have an answer to the unsettling events of the night.

"No, I remember going to bed... did something happen to me? Have I been ill?" inquired the confused woman.

"No dear, you were injured outside the newspaper. Don't you remember?" Nettie replied, "There was a struggle... think dear," she urged the young woman to remember, fear settling on her heart.

"Mary!" Chris's firm tone was tempered by the softness of his voice, "Mary, stay awake, you have to tell me what happened in the alley...," he urged.

"I don't know... my head hurts so.. . I can't... " Mary's voiced faded as she closed her eyes again, drifting off to sleep.

Chris Larabee turned and stormed out onto the landing, slamming his fist into a verandah roof support post. "Damn!" he exclaimed in frustration.

"Nate, you go on out and see if you can reason with him, I'll stay with Mary," said Nettie, still hoping the young widow would awaken and be more lucid. Nettie's fears for Vin were growing by leaps and bounds. She could only hope that, since she and Nathan hadn't been called on to fix him up, his injuries were not as bad as she'd originally feared. But Nettie also knew that the physical injury would be of small importance compared to the rumors she was certain had already spread through town like wildfire. It was hard enough for someone like Vin to gain acceptance in a town like this without having the label "woman attacker" hanging over his head.

With a quiet "Thank you Nettie." Nathan scooted out the door to calm the irate gunfighter. He found the man pacing angrily back and forth across the small verandah. His mouth set in an uncompromising line.

"Look Chris, I know you ain't happy she can't tell us anything. But at least we know she's alright," said Nathan, his obvious disappointment in Mary's inability to answer their questions clearly written on his face.

"Is she all right Nathan? Can you assure me that she will be fine?" demanded the man in black. Buck, Josiah and J.D. drew close to hear the black man's response.

"Yea, Chris, I think I can. Like I said, She's probably got a concussion. Given rest, I expect she'll be just fine," reassured the healer.

Realizing that it would be a while before Mary could answer questions and that his already waning patience would not hold out any longer, Chris made a decision. "Alright, I'll check back with you later. Now, I'm gonna have a little talk with Tanner," said the man in black, the deadly calm of his voice unnerving to the men who had gathered around him.

+ + + + + + +

J.D. Dunne's eyes widened when he suddenly received the full force of the notorious Larabee glare. The kid stepped back in confusion, searching his brain for what he may have done to anger the ominous man. J.D.'s eyes darted to Buck and Josiah in a silent plea for help. Buck adopted an amused grin and shrugged his shoulders while Josiah just looked sympathetic. No help there, he thought. Finally, in desperation he squeaked out "What? "

"Where is he?" the gunslinger quietly demanded.

"Who?" replied J.D. trying to buy time to clear his head.

Chris Larabee had no patience for what appeared to be the kid's obvious delaying tactic and expressed his displeasure with a single word, "Tanner," he snarled.

"Oh, sorry," stuttered J.D., his eyes still darting from Buck to Josiah and back in the vain hope that they would step in so he didn't have to reveal the tracker's whereabouts to the enraged gunman. "Ummm... he's... uh..."

"J.D..." threatened the gunslinger.

"C'mon Chris..." began Buck, finally taking pity on the youth.

Larabee directed a quelling glance at the ladies’ man, then turned his green-eyed stare back to J.D. "I'm not asking you again," he growled.

With one final desperate glance at the other two peacekeepers, and seeing no more help forthcoming, J.D. muttered "Yosemite's lookin' after him down in the livery." The kid felt terribly guilty, like he had betrayed his friend.

Chris Larabee turned without another word and stalked down the stairs with the others in close pursuit. His long strides carried him quickly to the Livery. "Tanner! Where are you?" he demanded as he entered the dark building. Not hearing an answer he headed for the tack room where he slammed the door open.

Yosemite jumped back from the bridle he had just hung on a hook "Jesus! Ya 'bout scared me t’death!" the big blacksmith exclaimed, "Can I do somethin' for ya?"

"Where's Tanner?" Larabee asked again, his tone brooking no argument.

"Ain't seen 'im. Been watching fer him since the boy asked me to 'while ago. But I ain't seen 'im," replied the smithy, heading out to the bellows he was using to stoke the coals for his day's work.

The eyes of the three peacekeepers turned on J.D., Buck and Josiah looked at him in dismay but Chris felt his impatience increasing at what he took to be the boy's stalling.

"J.D.," he growled, his voice quiet and deadly, fire shooting from his green eyes, "I'm gonna give you one last chance, Where the hell is he?"

J.D. didn't know how he'd managed to make himself the target of the lethal man's ire, but he knew he didn't like it. "I swear Chris! I left him here, in a stall, asked Yosemite to look out for him! Don't you remember, Yosemite?" the young man pleaded of the blacksmith.

"J.D., you tol' me to keep a lookeyout fer Vin, never said nuttin' 'bout him bein' in a stall!" retorted the big man, "Now leave me be, I'm busy!" Yosemite dismissed the men and turned back to the bellows and the shoe he was shaping.

"C'mon Chris, I'll show you!" urged J.D., turning and rushing toward the farthest stall. The young man came to an abrupt halt when he realized that the stall was now empty, "I don't understand... He was right here..." he muttered, throwing handfuls of straw around as if searching for the missing man.

"J.D.! He ain't hidin' buried in the straw, quit makin' a mess!" exclaimed Buck as he looked around the building for a sign of where the man might be concealed.

"Well brothers, he may not be here now but he was here not too long ago," said Josiah. "Bleedin' bad, too, by the looks of it." The preacher pointed to the bloodstained straw still clutched in J.D.'s hand.

"Eeyuck," exclaimed the young easterner, dropping the straw. "Look! There's smears here too... Looks like he drug himself along the wall."

The three men followed the trail of blood where it led to Peso's stall. "Sonuvabitch took off," muttered Chris disgustedly.

The man in black stalked to the next stall and began saddling his gelding.

"Now, what're you gonna do Chris?" asked Buck, a hint of pleading in his voice.

"Goin huntin'," was the deadly response

Part 13

Nathan Jackson watched sadly as Chris Larabee's long strides carried him into the livery, Buck, Josiah and J.D. close on his heels. With a shake of his head, he turned back to the clinic door. The man who had dedicated himself to healing could only stand by helplessly as his friends suffered.

The black man entered the clinic to find Nettie Wells staring at him with undisguised fear written clearly on her face.

"Oh Nate, he's going after Vin, isn't he?" exclaimed Nettie, shaking herself free of the shock, "Why doesn't he understand? Vin would never hurt Mary!"

"Nettie, I think Chris doesn't want to accept that. That man was hurt bad when his wife and boy died. Probably froze his heart up good. Somehow, Vin forced his way past that wall Chris built up and I think Chris is scared. Scared he'll be hurt again. So, he's usin' anger as a shield," Nathan explained, trying to make sense of their leader's seemingly irrational behavior.

"You may be right, and if you are, my Vin is the best thing to happen to Chris Larabee since he lost his family. I just hope someone breaks through that rage before he does something he'll pay on for the rest of his life," said Nettie, apprehension evident in her voice.

"It'd help us if Mary would wake and tell us exactly what happened in that alley..." replied the black healer, turning again to the blonde woman. Nathan was surprised to see her eyes open.

"Mary, can ya talk to me?" Nathan asked the young woman.

Mary Travis blinked her eyes, trying to focus on the anxious faces in front of her. Slowly, her mind began to sort out where she was, "Nate, Nettie," she acknowledged her friends. "What happened?" she asked, the pounding headache telling her that she had somehow been injured.

"That's what you need to tell us, dear," encouraged Nettie, "What do you remember?"

"I... I was in bed and I heard someone trying to open the alley door. I went to look... there was a man... Who was he?" asked Mary, her voice beginning to tremble as memory returned.

"We don't know who it was, didn't even know there was someone else," explained Nathan, "everybody thinks Vin attacked you..."

"WHAT!?" interrupted the now fully alert woman, "Vin?! Vin would never hurt me! I'm surprised that you two, of all people could think that! Shame on you!" Mary chastised them, her anger rising.

Seeing that the determined woman was trying to sit up, Nathan placed a calming hand on her shoulder, "Now Mary, you lay back there, you're too weak to get out of bed. You take your time, ya' hear?"

"No, Nathan! It appears to me that at soon as I close my eyes, you all lose your common sense! Vin attack me! Indeed!" exclaimed the incensed woman "I never heard of anything so ridiculous! A man, a stranger, attacked me and Vin must have been on patrol and heard my cry for help because he came running into the alley to save me!"

The door to the clinic opened, as her words fell on the ears of the two stunned listeners. All eyes turned to the man who entered.

+ + + + + + +

Vin Tanner was swimming on a sea of blackness and misery. As consciousness returned, his limbs screamed in pain, he felt as if his body was being torn apart. Slowly, painfully the darkness began to fade and the injured man began to realize that the agony threatening to overwhelm him was actually emanating from several locations. Taking shallow breaths, the former bounty hunter tried to take stock of himself; the first thing he noticed was a burning pain in his right side, just below his rib cage, he also realized several of his ribs were damaged making breathing difficult, his vision was blurred, probably from the blows to his face, and he felt the cold of the fall night seeping into the very marrow of his bones. The tracker shook his head slightly, trying to clear his muddled senses. He was rewarded by a lightning bolt of agony through his skull and the sound of a pistol cocking.

"Gonna wake up and join me, half-breed?" snarled a voice that the tracker couldn't identify. "Won't be no fun if yer out cold," snarled a voice Vin didn't recognize.

After what seemed an eternity, Vin's effort was rewarded when he managed to open one blue eye a slit. What he saw before him didn't improve his outlook on the world.

Sitting on a rock in front of him was an evil looking man, a colt cocked and pointed directly at his face.

"Don't know me, do ya?" said the stranger.

Laying on his side in the dirt, Vin tested his arms and realized his hands were tightly bound behind his back. With superhuman effort he managed to pull himself upright until he was sitting back against a large boulder. The effort used up most of his waning strength and he was left gasping from exertion and pain.

After several minutes, as the stranger just sat and smiled wickedly at him, Vin managed to gasp out "Who are ya? What do ya want with me?"

The sinister man just chuckled... "Thinkin' I'm yer angel of death..." as he slowly let the hammer down.

Part 14

Chris Larabee had saddled Pony and was mounting up as the other peacekeepers rushed to follow. His grim determination precluded any questions or comments from the wary men.

They were headed out of Four Corners before Buck finally spoke, "Whoa, stud. Where ya headed? You think you know where to find him?" he asked, trying to get the fuming man to stop and think about the actions he was about to take.

"Know how he thinks. Headed for high ground. I'll find him," replied the gunman with deadly calm.

"Think about what you just said, Chris, you do know how he thinks. So you know he would never hurt Mary," reasoned Josiah, "Your anger has been rulin' your heart 'n yer head. Please, brother, think before you do something you'll regret. Fences can still be mended..."

Larabee's mouth hardened in a white line and he turned a deadly green glare on the preacher. "Mind yer own business preacher man. You don't agree with me, ya don't need to come along," he snarled, spurring Pony onward toward the barren dirt and rock hills where he knew in his heart, Vin Tanner would go to nurse his wounds.

Truth be told, Josiah's words had struck too close for the gunfighter's comfort. Chris Larabee didn't want to think. Thinking was too painful. He wanted to act. Action would dispel the agony in his heart.

But the beating of that same organ was pounding the doubt into his brain. Was he wrong? Could it all have been a terrible, tragic mistake? Chris's mind recoiled at the thought. He'd fought an internal battle to prevent the long-haired young man from forcing his way into his life. Knew the pain such feelings could cause. But Vin Tanner was not to be denied and somehow had slipped past the gunslinger's defenses.

It had seemed so easy to grab the doubt when he'd seen Vin crouched over Mary's body. It'd been like a lifeline that he could use to pull himself away from the feelings he'd begun to experience; caring for another human being. It was easy to convert those feelings to anger, a shield to protect his still brittle emotions. Now he was being asked to pick the healing scabs away from his raw, aching soul and admit not only that he may have been wrong, that he may have attacked a man unjustly, but that he had allowed this man into that most protected place, the very essence of his being. And in admitting Vin Tanner into his soul, he would have to admit that he still had emotions and that he was willing to accept the pain and joy that came with them.

NO! he would not betray the deaths of Sarah and Adam! Chris Larabee had embraced the numbness when his emotions died with them and knew that he had no right to move on while his beautiful Sarah and precious son were cold in their graves. That's how it should be! And one scruffy tracker could not change that!

+ + + + + + +

"What?" queried Ezra as he entered the clinic and found six sets of eyes trained on him. He gently pulled the door closed behind him, "Have I missed something?" he enquired.

"Yes!" exclaimed Mary, before Nathan or Nettie could reply, "Everyone has lost their minds! These two think Vin attacked me! How absurd," Mary declared exasperatedly.

"My dear lady, please do not condemn them too harshly, the evidence was quite compelling," explained Ezra reasonably. "Upon Mr. Larabee’s arrival in the alley, Mr. Tanner was crouched over your unconscious form, what else was he to think?"

"Mr. Larabee? Chris?? CHRIS thinks Vin would attack me? I can't believe that!" protested the young woman, dismay creeping into her voice. "Where is he? I want to talk to him!" She demanded.

"Ah, a good question," said the gambler, "Where indeed is our noble leader?"

"He went after Vin," Nettie Wells replied softly.

Part 15

"'Angel a'death,' huh," replied the bruised tracker, "don't look like no angel I ever pictured. Look more like a dusty ol' mudsill," said Vin, shifting his weight to try and relieve some of the pressure from his shoulders.

"Yer in poor damn shape ta be callin' me a mudsill!" raged Albert Savitch as he flew at the bound man and slapped him sharply across the face, "You best respect me boy! I got yer life in my hands!" he threatened.

"Got no life to speak of, so I ain't worried," the former bounty hunter said sadly, fighting off dizziness, nausea and despair.

"Y'll have less if ya keep mouthin' off ta me!" menaced the outlaw. "I have need of ya fer a while, then I'd jus' as soon kill ya... best treat me real nice like and I might let ya live... 'er at least let ya die quick-like!"

The man's harsh words caught Vin's ebbing attention, "Need me fer what?" he asked sharply

The sadist responded with a harsh, unnerving cackle, "Got me a little retal'ation to dole out!"

"'gainst who?" gasped Vin, battling the shadows that threatened to engulf him. The tracker wiped a trickle of blood on his shoulder from where his lip had been split by the outlaw's blow.

"Now that's fer me to know! You jus' shut yer mouth! Yer distractin' me, startin' to make me wish I'd finished ya off in town!" snarled Alby, backhanding the tortured man. "Git up 'n start walkin!" The criminal reached out and grabbed the tracker by his collar, dragging the barely conscious man to his feet.

Vin's head swam and he fell into the rock to maintain his balance. In town? the tracker struggled to make sense of what the man was saying, in town... aww hell.. this's the bastard that attacked Mary. His stomach lurched at the thought of the woman lying in the cold alley and he turned all of his concentration to preventing an unwelcome return of his last meal. Last meal? When was that? Vin's muddled mind wandered back to the previous night, to the time before his world had ended. Been nearly 24 hours since I ate last... guess I don't need to worry 'bout pukin' nothin' up... With an effort that nearly cost him his tenuous hold on consciousness, Vin gave a mental shrug, dragging his thoughts back to the present, the brutal man before him and his determination to fight the man at any cost

Snatching a handful of the former bounty hunter’s hide coat, Alby jerked Vin forward and shoved his colt cruelly into the tracker's back.

"Move!" he demanded again, cocking the gun, "'kin use ya alive but I'll kill ya if I have to. No never mind ta me," he snarled, pushing the barrel further into Vin's flesh.

"Where to?" gasped the tracker, trying desperately to sort out his muddled thoughts. A warm wetness at his hip told him that the wound below his ribs had been broken open and was bleeding. Unable to lift his feet, he was putting every ounce of energy in his body into shuffling along in front of the vicious man.

"You an' me 're gonna do some huntin'" the spiteful man retorted, "Keep walkin'!"

After what seemed an eternity to the wounded man, the pair neared the edge of the outcropping of boulders. Vin recognized it as just above where he'd entered the barren wasteland. The tracker's confused brain had just enough time to form the thought that they were moving to an ideal position to observe anyone entering the rocky range, a sanctuary where he'd thought he could isolate himself and rethink his future, when the attacker turned on him.

"Si'down," ordered the fugitive, striking Vin with the butt of the weapon. The impact threw the already battered body violently to the rocky ground, forcing the air out of his straining lungs. The young tracker could no longer maintain his weak grip on consciousness and slid quietly into the dark oblivion that gladly seized him in its unyielding grasp.

Albert Savitch took up watch of the trail below, certain that Larabee would soon appear.

+ + + + + + +

It was a silent group of four men riding out of Four Corners. Each lost in his own dark thoughts and each man was, for the first time since banding together in the dirt town, uncertain of what the future would hold.

Chris Larabee rode steadily onward. He wasn't allowing himself to think about the forthright blue gaze that kept intruding into his mind's eye. He was focused on trying to read the tracks, blocking out thoughts of the man who could read tracks better than Larabee could read a paper, the man he'd met just a short time ago but felt like he'd known all his life. Using his iron will, the gunfighter directed his total attention to the trail, looking for anything that would direct him to his prey.

Larabee knew Vin would seek the high rocky ground north of town, knew he was physically hurt and would hide out to recover, knew this because of the deep bond he shared with the tracker. And now that bond was tearing his heart to pieces. No, I have to stay focused, remember Mary, and how it felt when I saw her unconscious on the ground. He did that to her... don't think about the way he fought beside me in the Indian Village... about the way he knows what I'm thinkin' sometimes before I do... he admonished himself He's not the man I thought he was! Focus! But still the battle in his soul raged.

Buck rode quietly beside his longtime friend, worry etched in his handsome face. He knew Chris was ripping himself up inside. Sheer stubbornness alone couldn't account for his actions. Had to be more to it than that... But the ladies’ man was too absorbed in keeping up with the determined man to give it too much thought right now.

Josiah couldn't read signs to track but he sure could read human nature. He thought he understood why Chris was acting like he was. The man had let the scruffy tracker get to him. Now he was scared, scared of the feelings he was experiencing. Josiah could appreciate that. He felt the same way about God. Afraid to let him in 'cause of the hurt his father had caused but knew he couldn't live without Him in his life. Helluva choice. It'll be interesting to see how Chris works it out, the answer just might help me... In the meantime, he'd just ride along and watch and try to prevent any worse injury to Vin... or to Chris.

J.D. didn't understand anything that had been happening in the last 12 hours! How could Chris turn on Vin? Shoot! How could Vin attack Mary?! Just didn't make any sense... He felt there were undercurrents between the older men that he couldn't comprehend and slightly resented the fact that no one had clued him in, but he would ride with them and would take things as they came.

Part 16

"After Vin?" Mary exclaimed in horror on hearing that Chris Larabee had ridden out after the tracker, "Oh my God, NO! You have to stop him! Nathan? Ezra? GO AFTER HIM!" demanded the young widow, nearly hysterical at the thought of an enraged Larabee pursuing Vin. "How could anyone think that Vin would - could hurt me?"

Three voices responded at once, reassuring and denying, attempting to calm the agitated woman.

"Now Mary, that's about enough from you. You ain't helping Vin by upsettin' yerself. Nathan and Ezra'll go after him. Everything's gonna be fine," Nettie tried to comfort the young woman.

"Mary, you calm down now. Don't be gettin' yerself all worked up. Vin'll be just fine, we'll go find him and set Chris straight," reassured Nathan

"Really, Mrs. Travis!" exclaimed Ezra, "Rest assured that I had no part in this obvious misapprehension! I have been patrolling our lovely burg for miscreants! I certainly would have helped prevent Mr. Larabee's rash actions... wait... Did I hear correctly that you intend for me to go with Mr. Jackson and track down our impulsive leader? Need I remind you that I have been out all night patrolling and am in need of rest and sustenance? Surely Mr. Jackson can handle this dubious mission without me..." the conman protested in vain.

"You'll go with him and there's no more to be said!" stated Nettie firmly. "Now, young lady, you lay back down there and rest, everything is gonna be just fine."

+ + + + + + +

Cold. Vin Tanner woke abruptly realizing that he was very cold. Sun must be movin'. he thought bemusedly as he forced his eyes open. Indeed, he was now in the shadows and the sun, which had dawned as he rode out of town and provided the only warmth of the cold day, was not touching him. Best get my bedroll together, gonna be a cold night. his muddled brain tried to reason, What the hell? Why'm I tied up? Memories suddenly flooded back, Mary dead... My fault... failed Chris... gettin' away.... the stranger... killer...

"Oh God," he groaned, feeling the wave of hopelessness that his memories had stirred wash over him.

The sound caused Alby Savitch to turn in his direction. Crouching down in front of the dazed man, he slapped the tracker's face to get his attention. He was rewarded when the glare of two venomous blue slits was turned on him.

"So! Ya decided to live fer a bit longer, eh? Good. Thought fer a while there I's gonna haf’ta cart yer dead ass 'round. Still need ya, y'know." Reaching out, the outlaw grabbed a fistful of Vin's long hair and jerked his head violently back, "Let's git a look at ya. Boy, yer ‘friend’ shur did work ya over, didn' he? With friend's like that, ya shur don't need me!" he cackled wickedly.

Vin Tanner glared at his tormenter, the silent threat in the blue eyes loud and clear for the outlaw to read.

Giving Vin's head a shove, Alby released his hair. "Ya shur want a piece a'me, don't ya boy? Well, when I git done with yer friend, if yer still breathin', m'be I'll take ya on. Play with ya a little be'fer I kill ya. Might be kinda fun." Again, Alby Savitch erupted in evil laughter. "Yes'sir, might be fun..." He continued as he turned again to his lookout spot, high above the only trail leading into Vin's rocky refuge.

Part 17

"Are you in possession of the least idea as to exactly where we should begin our, what is most assuredly, ill-fated journey?" Ezra Standish enquired patiently of Nathan Jackson.

"Vin likes to be high up so I figure he'll be heading for high ground... Chris'll go that way too. North'a town should be a good place to start," Nathan replied, as he continued with the task of tightening his saddle cinch.

"Truly, I do not understand why I must accompany you on this undoubtedly doomed expedition. Mr. Larabee certainly will not listen to my opinion on the subject of his relationship with Mr. Tanner," protested Ezra, "I am in dire need of a bath and my bed - not gadding about all over this God-forsaken dirty brown terrain!" the gambler grumbled.

"Quit yer bitchin'!" ordered Nathan, fed up with the other man's griping. "Figure we'll prob'ly be needin' all the help we can git, the mood Chris's in!" said Nathan as he loaded medical supplies in his saddlebags. He feared this particular mission would end very badly.

Any protest Ezra may have considered making was eliminated by Nathan's harsh "Mount up, We're goin'!" as the black man turned his mount toward the north end of town and the forbidding landscape beyond.

With a couple of disdainful slaps at the dust covering his jacket, a still muttering Ezra mounted Chester and road out after the healer.

+ + + + + + +

The four lawmen had been riding hard for several miles and were approaching a small creek when Buck rode up beside the forbidding leader, "C'mon Chris, Let's walk som'a these cramps out and give the horses a drink," he urged, "He ain't traveling fast. We'll catch up to him soon enough."

The man in black didn't even hear his long-time friend, so lost was he in the misery of his thoughts. In spite of himself, he was vainly trying to rationalize the Vin Tanner he knew with the type of animal who would attack a woman. I just can't make it add up... he worried, There must be something I missed...

"Chris?" repeated Buck, trying to break through the air of isolated determination surrounding his friend. "CHRIS!" exclaimed Buck in exasperation.

"What?" demanded Larabee, turning his green-eyed glare on the ladies’ man. "Nevermind," he said harshly, before Buck could speak.

Pulling Pony to a stop, for the first time since they rode out of Four Corners. Chris turned his attention on all of the men, "Let's take a 5 minute rest. There's a creek just ahead, horses need water."

"Hmpf," snorted Buck, "Wish I'd thought a'that!" He mumbled sarcastically as he dismounted and pulled out his canteen.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan and Ezra rode along silently. Each nursing their own troubled thoughts.

Nathan's concerns were for Vin. His experience during the war told him that a man losing as much blood as the tracker had lost would be getting awful weak. Add to that the beating Chris had given him and he'd be a hurtin' man. He expected the former bounty hunter probably had some cracked ribs, maybe a concussion, who knew what else. Yep. He's hurtin' alright.

The healer knew Vin Tanner well enough to be certain that his injuries would be the least of the young man's concerns. He'd keep goin' 'til he collapsed. Or ’someone’ collapsed him...

That brought the black man's thoughts to the enigmatic leader of the seven. He might be fine physically but Nathan doubted his spirit was undamaged. Had to be plagued with self-doubt. But once Chris Larabee set his mind on something, all the fires of Hell couldn't sway him.

Nathan half smiled to himself remembering Top Hat Bob Spikes. Like J.D. had pointed out when Spikes came looking to settle an old score with Larabee, the leader of the seven could avoid facing the vicious murderer by just not acknowledging he remembered him. But Chris wouldn't play that game. He accepted the challenge and no matter how distasteful, jumped in with both feet, actually with both fists... Just as he faced every obstacle.

Nathan only hoped Chris would survive this challenge with heart and soul intact. This time was very different - he had talked himself into believing the irrational, that his best friend could attack a woman. Not just any woman - Mary Travis!! Nathan had known in his heart that there had to be some explanation for Vin's actions. He found himself praying that Chris would listen to reason before disaster struck.

Ezra Standish chose to focus on his fatigue rather than on the upheaval facing the seven men.

Somehow the shrewd gambler felt closer to the unassuming tracker than to any of the other men. Like Vin, Ezra had lived a solitary life. He too had learned the hard way that most people were narcissistic. In his vast experience he'd found that mortals were only affable when they thought it would be to their own benefit. So he'd chosen to adopt that same attitude.

Until he paused in this backwater village.

Somehow he'd been admitted into this rag-tag band of men. It had taken some introspection on his part and some re-thinking of his priorities but in the end he had earned a place with them. And the gambler treasured that acceptance above all the money in the world. Heaven forbid Maude should find that out!

Now, this mismatched circle he valued so highly was being torn asunder and he had yet to conceive of a scheme to save them.

So, he would instead concentrate on his physical aches, because allowing contemplation of the mental anguish would be his undoing.

"Ezra!" Nathan's harsh voice cut into the conman's pondering, causing his head to jerk up.

"Sir! Must you caterwaul?" enquired the dapper man sarcastically, "I am exhausted but not deaf!"

"Cain't you move any faster? Way you're sloggin along, we'll never catch up to 'em," complained Nathan.

"I believe that I have previously elucidated the details of my extreme fatigue for you. Be that as it may, I am only able to travel as quickly as this noble steed I am astride, and it appears that he is also verging on collapse," explained Ezra reasonably. "Your constant verbal assault on our senses will not aid in our recovery!"

With a last glare at the cardsharp, Nathan kneed his mount into a canter, determined to catch up to Chris Larabee before he reached the injured tracker, even if it meant leaving Ezra behind.

Part 18

"Mount up!" Chris Larabee ordered. Not waiting to see if the other men would follow, he was in the saddle and headed up the trail before the grumbling men could clamber onto their horses.

"Aww Chris! Slow up a minute," protested Buck, "We're comin' with you, just give us a chance to get movin'!"

J.D. rode up beside Buck, shaking his head, "I never saw Chris like this," he said, "you don't think he's really planning on killin' Vin, do you?" asked the worried young man. "I mean, I thought they were best friends and all..."

"Kid, I don't know what he'll do," replied the ladies’ man, "It's like some demon's possessin' him. Can't get him to listen to reason. All we can do is stick close and try to rein him in when the time comes."

"Buck's right J.D.," said Josiah, as he rode up to join the two concerned men, "Devil's got a grip on that man's heart. He ain't thinkin' like he should. Don't think he's really reactin' to Mary bein' attacked. Seems to me he's convinced himself that Vin betrayed him. That's what's got him all fired up. If he was thinkin' clear, he'd know that no matter how things looked, Vin Tanner could never attack a woman, least of all Mrs. Travis. Unless, we've all misjudged him... Could be us joinin' up 'n fightin' has clouded our judgment. After all, we don't none of us know each other too well..." with a final sad glance, the big preacher slowed his horse to trail behind the two startled men.

J.D. turned confused eyes on his friend, "Josiah's just talkin' out his hat ain't he?" the young man's tone begged for reassurance from his best friend, "We all know each other pretty good, don't we? I mean, well enough! Don't you think so, Buck?"

"Sure kid," Buck replied, only wishing someone would reassure him.

+ + + + + + +

Alby Savitch could see riders in the far distance and an evil self-satisfied smile crossed his lips.

Turning from his look-out position, he grabbed the helpless tracker by the arm and yanked him to his feet.

"Let's go, injun-lover!" he chortled maliciously, "Show's 'bout to begin an' I don't want you missin' none of it! Don'ya want ta watch me kill th' bastard that murdered m'brother? Figure ye’ll enjoy it seein' the same son’bitch beat yer ass all ta hell!"

Vin was wrenched from the hazy half-world where he'd drifted and hurled into agonized awareness of the cold fall night. While the excruciating pain had somehow intensified, by some quirk, his mind had cleared and he could remember the past 18 hours in vivid, terrifying detail.

As the events replayed themselves before his mind's eye, he'd realized that the man before him was hunting Chris and, to that end, was the man who had attacked Mary. With this realization came a horrible fear. Chris don't know about the killer... thinks he's trackin' me.... bastard's gonna ambush 'im...

Vin Tanner knew he could not allow the outlaw to succeed in his mission. The injured man desperately clung to consciousness as he was thrust further along the rough path and slammed into a large rock formation. Vin's mind registered more pain as he felt his ribs crack and his vision began to swim.

The criminal used his own body to wedge the tracker standing upright behind a large boulder facing the trail below. From this vantage point, the four approaching, unsuspecting riders were clearly visible and unprotected. Even through the fog of pain that blurred his vision, Vin's experienced eyes identified Buck, Josiah, J.D. Dunne and the leader, Chris Larabee. Vin realized that he, and the outlaw behind him, were not easily distinguishable from the rock landscape. Perfect place fer an ambush. the words echoed through his mind over and over. With each recitation, his spirits sank deeper into the abyss of despair, Mary's dead... my fault... didn't save her... now Chris an' th' boys... got’a stop this...

Vin felt movement by his right leg and his diminishing consciousness tried to make sense of it. He heard the outlaw snicker, just as he remembered his hog's leg and realized that it had just been pulled from its holster. The wounded sharpshooter's chin dropped to his chest, despair written on his strained features.

"Fergot 'bout this little toy, didn' ya? Gonna enjoy shootin' a fine piece like this. " Alby held up the sawed-off Winchester admiringly, "I's a pretty fair shot, ya know, but with this baby, I should be pretty dead on."

Pounding his hip back into the helpless tracker, forcing a groan from the abused man, Alby began to cackle maliciously, "'Dead on...' git it? Made a joke! How come ya ain't laughin' tracker?" the outlaw again slammed Vin against the rock, pleased at the cry of pain his assault elicited. "Jes stay upright, I still got need a' ya," ordered the cruel man, "Yer my pro-tec-shun!" he cackled.

Even through the haze of pain and clutching fingers of darkness crowding his senses, Vin knew that the would-be murderer had picked the perfect trap and that he was the only thing that stood between the assassin and his friends. And Vin Tanner feared that his rapidly weakening body would betray him when he needed his strength the most.

Part 19

Nathan Jackson's anxiety had steadily grown with each step of Weasel's hooves. He was worried that they'd left the town too late to catch up to the single-minded gunslinger, too late to prevent him from exacting undeserved revenge on the injured tracker, too late to help Vin if his injuries were as bad as the healer feared. Nathan pushed Weasel as hard as he could, all the time fighting the lagging gambler. He really should have left the exasperating man in the dust, would have if he hadn't thought his fast-talking might come in handy. Although, he might kill the infuriating gambler if he didn't get his ass in gear!

"Looks like four riders ahead." Nathan turned to the scarlet coated man riding behind him, "Me’ be we got to 'em in time," the healer sighed in relief. "Ya think that nag'll make it a little further?"

"SIR! I'll have you know that this remarkable creature is showing amazing stamina! If the wretched brute is half as fatigued as I, he should be retired to a luxuriant meadow as reward for his efforts on behalf of Mr. Larabee, who will be no doubt unappreciative! I only trust that, when we have concluded this dubious mission in which you have seen fit to include me, my noble steed and I will be left in peace to recuperate!

"Yea, sure, Ez, whatever ya' say... Let's git movin' before they git away from us!" pressured Nathan, ignoring the gambler's words as his attention fixed on the soon to be achieved goal. Once I catch him, how'm I gonna git him to listen to reason? he mused, knowing how determined the man in black could be. Shoot 'im if I have to, I guess...

Turning again to the gambler, Nathan Jackson vented some of his pent-up fear and frustration, "Will ya git your damn ass movin?!" he bellowed, "I'm gonna shoot you and yer lazy damn horse!" he roared, spurring his gelding forward.

"Well creature, I regret to inform you that we had best push ourselves ever harder. It appears that we shall have no respite until these barbaric men have been dealt with." Ezra kneed his tired mount to follow the anxious man.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee, leading his three friends, slowed the gelding so he could, in the fading light, determine the best way to access the high rocks where he intuitively knew Vin would isolate himself. As his sharp eyes scrutinized the outcropping he heard a shout behind him. Instinct made him throw himself from his saddle just as he heard the unmistakable report of a sawed-off Winchester.

Slapping Pony on his rump to drive him away from the gunfire, Larabee rolled behind a rock and took stock of the men with him.

"Buck?" he called out, unable to see the ladies’ man.

"Right here, slick, to yer left and back, J.D. and Josiah 'r with me," came the reply, "Nobody's hit, how 'bout you?"

"I'm fine," snarled the gunslinger, "Still think the sonuvabitch's innocent? Can't tell me ya didn't recognize his goddamn hog leg!" he cursed, "Where the hell's he at?"

"Caught a little glint of metal up to yer right, 'bout half-way up the outcroppin', behind a big tall rock, looks like a potato," replied the mustachioed man, his keen eye scanning the rocky ridge. "Can't see nothin' now," he mumbled in frustration.

"Lay in some fire," Buck turned to the two men crouched low beside him, "I wanna git up with Chris."

Receiving a nod from each, as Josiah and J.D. began firing at the general area where Buck had reported seeing metal glint in the fast fading light, Buck hunkered down, prepared to break for Chris's location,.

Crouched low, the big man sprinted across the open ground and threw himself behind the rock protection beside his old friend.

"He's got himself a pretty good vantage on us," snarled Chris, without looking at the ladies’ man. "He can pick us off like rabbits if we try and move up on him. You know what kinda shot he is from up there."

"Got’a git behind him, Chris. It's the only way," replied Buck, " J.D. and Josiah can fire cover. Maybe it'll be enough to keep his head down."

Larabee nodded, "We'll both go right. See if we can flank him," he said firmly, a deadly calm infusing his voice. "Between us, we should be able to take the bastard down."

Part 20

The sound of gunfire and rapid movements of their friends spurred Nathan and Ezra into action. Kneeing their horses into a gallop, they drew their weapons and rode down on the crouching men.

A quick assessment told Ezra that the situation had turned ugly. He was easily able to recognize that the shots emanating from the rocky outcropping were coming from a sawed-off Winchester. While he expected better accuracy, he assumed that Vin was not really trying to kill his friends. Maybe he just wanted to warn them off.

Nathan had a different interpretation of why they had all been unscathed by the deadly-accurate sharpshooter. He worried that the man was dyin' up there and couldn't hit them. After all, Vin was only human and there was only so much his body could take. Doing a mental checklist, Nathan ran down the tracker's last 24 hours; probably goin’ on two days without sleep or food, bleedin' bad from a knife wound, and beat all to hell by Larabee. Shaking his head sadly, the healer knew that for Vin to survive, he'd need medical treatment right away.

Keeping low and hugging his saddle bag full of medical supplies close, Nathan made his way as near to Buck and Chris as he thought safe.

"Chris!" he hissed, trying to get the man in black's attention. "It’s me, Nate. Chris, we got’a get to him. He cain't go on much longer without carin' for... Let me call out to him and see if'n he'll let me see to 'im," he implored.

"No!" snarled the angry leader, "Ain't gonna take a chance on him killin' you. Just keep low." he ordered.

"But Chris..." began the healer,

"I said NO!" growled Chris, his tone brooking no argument. "You lay cover fire with the others. Buck and I are gonna try'n flank him. You can look to him after... if he still needs ya," said Larabee ominously.

+ + + + + + +

Vin Tanner was in hell. Nearly overwhelmed by pain, his head a throbbing agony, he was barely able to focus on the men below him. His friends. Men he trusted and who had trusted him. Now he was watching helplessly as they were about to be picked off by the ruthless man pinning his battered body against a rock.

The tracker watched in mute horror as the first shots rang out. A strangled cry caught in his throat as he saw the man in black fly from his horse. He didn't breathe again until he saw the crouching man scramble for cover behind a rock.

Just when he thought it couldn't get any worse, the return fire began. Damn, he struggled to think clearly, didn't know they were such good shots. The bullets were hitting dangerously close, ricocheting metal throwing painful, cutting chips of rock into his already bruised face. Blood flowed freely from the numerous cuts and the laceration previously inflicted by Chris. Musta broke it open with all this slammin' 'round I'se gettin'. his thoughts becoming more confused; he began to lose touch with the situation surrounding him.

The distinctive sound of Chris's colt snapped him back to reality. Got’a help 'em, they need me... his thoughts focused as he fought against the tight bonds securing his hands, his struggles only succeeded in tearing the flesh from his wrists.

Alby Savitch was thoroughly enjoying himself. The sawed-off Winchester was every bit as accurate as he'd hoped it would be and he relished the power he had over the scrambling men. But his entertainment was interrupted by the sudden movements of the bound man he was using as a shield against the returned gunfire from the men below.

"DAMNIT!" he exclaimed, "Settle, ya son’bitch!" the vicious man slammed the butt of the Winchester into the tracker's side, eliciting an agonized cry of pain. "Yer interferin' with m'shootin'!"

Vin's world erupted in a flash of light and he saw stars as the pain blasted through his body. The sharpshooter grasped desperately at consciousness. Gasping for air, Vin forced the black cloud of oblivion away from his brain. Got’a help 'em... God, pleez help me... he prayed, his total attention focused on the danger facing the peacekeepers below. I cain't hold out much longer... got’a act now.

As the gunfire exploded around him, Vin prayed that his failing body would obey. He knew he would have only one chance...

Part 21

Mary Travis was quickly recovering from the late night assault. Contrary to Nathan's concerns, it did not appear that she had a concussion, and although she'd slept for a short time after he and Ezra rode out, she'd already thrown back the covers and insisted on getting out of bed. Nettie Wells watched her carefully for any recurring symptoms, and was only slightly surprised when Mary's only complaint was a headache.

"How ya feelin' now, honey?" she asked the anxious young woman for the umpteenth time.

"I'm fine, Nettie," Mary sighed, as she paced about the small clinic, "but I'm worried sick." Stopping, she turned to look at the troubled face of the pioneer woman. "What do you think is happening?"

"I don't know, Mary," Nettie replied, she knew that the younger woman was asking her for reassurance that all of the men who had left town so abruptly that day would return safely. Reassurance that their wounds, internal and external, would heal. Nettie wished she could offer comfort to the young widow, but she couldn't even persuade herself that all would be well. "I just don't know."

"Nettie, I don't think I can stand this waiting," the impatient woman said, "I have to do something!"

"Now Mary, there ain't nothin' we can do..," replied Nettie, "and you really should be restin'." The older woman understood Mary's consternation and was failing miserably in her own battle to distract her worried thoughts from her fear for the young tracker she had come to think of as a son.

"Oh Nettie, I feel fine and I couldn't possibly rest!" Mary exclaimed purposefully, "Do you think other people in town believe Vin attacked me?" her eyes grew wide with horror, "Oh my God they do! I need to go home, get dressed, and put out my paper, it's the only thing I can do and may be the only way the foolish people of this town will know the truth about what happened!"

"Mary, you cain't be walkin' through the streets in yer nightdress, I'll go 'n get yer clothes for ya," said the older woman as she headed for the door. "You just stay right here," she insisted, concern over the young widows injury still lingering in her mind. "I'll be right back."

Mary Travis continued to pace the small clinic, worry and frustration etched in her fine features.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee checked his colt, confirming that the chambers were full. Then gave a quick nod to his friend, who had done the same with his own weapons, "Ready?" he asked the ladies’ man.

"As I'll ever be," replied Buck Wilmington.

"Let's do it," said the grim faced gunslinger.

With the remaining peacekeepers providing cover fire, Chris and Buck slipped away from the boulder they were using as protection from the onslaught of fire from above them.

Crouching low, the two gunmen moved rapidly around the mountainous rock formation, searching for access to the attacker shielded by the rocks above.

Realizing too late that the others still didn't know that Mary was awake and that she'd told them about a second man in the alley, Nathan was nearly frantic with worry for the tracker. These men were all good shots, and with the amount of bullets flying, someone was sure to get hurt.

"Josiah! J.D! Ya'll got’a listen to me!" he hollered, trying to be heard above the gunfire, "Vin didn't attack Mary! Do ya here? Mary's awake; she told us ther'as another man in the alley!"

"I knew it!" cried J.D. relaxing his grip on his pistol, "I knew Vin would never attack Mary!"

"Gentlemen, we must stop this before someone is wounded!" urged Ezra, "Mr.’s Larabee and Wilmington are unaware of this enlightening information!"

"Well, brother," said the big preacher, noting the continuing gunfire aimed in their direction from above "Somebody best let Vin know, too. Seems he's still tryin' to kill us."

"That's just it Josiah! I figure Vin's prob'ly 'bout done in. Cain't be him keeping a position like that." Nathan's concern was growing by leaps and bounds.

"Then why's he still shootin' at us?" exclaimed J.D., ducking his head to avoid a ricocheting bullet.

"J.D! I don't think that's Vin shootin'," replied the frustrated healer, "I think whoever attacked Mary followed him out a'town."

"Well gentlemen, I sincerely hope that Mr. Larabee realizes his mistake before he gets to the unfortunate tracker," said Ezra, a sad finality in his tone.

Part 22

Nettie Wells hurried through the cold, afternoon air of Four Corners toward Mary's rooms above the Newspaper. The older woman was anxious to get clothes back to the widow before Mary did something foolish. Wouldn't put it past her to march right down the street in her nightdress! she thought, still concerned for the young woman's health. Gonna be tough keepin' her still...

Nettie's musings were suddenly interrupted when she walked head long into a man coming out of the hotel. To her dismay she realized that he was going to stop her to talk.

"S'cuse me Mr. Conklin, didn't see you there, I'm in a bit of a hurry..." she began, hoping to get past the loathsome man who'd treated her boys bad since they came to this town.

"Ahhh Mrs. Wells," Conklin said, a fake look of concern pasted on his face, "How is dear Mrs. Travis? Did that animal hurt her badly?"

Nettie bristled at his reference to Vin and she heartily regretted not having her Spencer carbine with her, blast that look right of your smug face...

"She's fine," she responded, attempting to step around the infuriating man, "I'm in a bit of a rush to git back to her, if you'll excuse me..."

"Certainly! I do understand. I hope you did not leave the poor woman alone and unprotected. No telling if that heathen will come back. She might not be safe..." he said maliciously, "Oh, listen to me, of course he won't be back. I'm quite certain Mr. Larabee will ensure that the only way that savage-lover returns to our good town is across the back of a horse!"

"Mr. Conklin!" exclaimed the furious woman, "For you information, Vin Tanner did not attack Mary Travis! There was a stranger in the alley. Vin likely saved her life!"

"Dear Mrs. Wells, it is easy to see that you are overwrought by the events of the day and I didn't mean to upset you further," Conklin said condescendingly, "I know you have a fondness for Tanner, however misguided. I just hope you won't be too badly troubled when this is all said and done. Now if you'll excuse me..." Conklin touched his hat lightly and made a slight bow before turning and walking down the boardwalk, leaving the infuriated woman staring after him, hatred burning in her eyes.

"Well I never!" she finally exclaimed, and with a mental shake, continued on her errand only to be stopped many more times by concerned townspeople asking after Mary Travis.

When Nettie finally made it to the newspaper office, the weathered woman leaned on the inside of the door, her hands shaking and fear clutching her heart.

To a person, everyone who had expressed concern for Mary Travis had also declared hatred of - and the desire for vengeance against - Vin Tanner.

+ + + + + + +

The three men stared at the gambler in dismay, heedless of the bullets ricocheting around them.

J.D. was the first to break the tense silence,

"Ezra's right," he said, looking intently at the other men "we got’a stop Chris."

The young sheriff moved as if to follow after the gunslinger when Josiah slapped a large hand on his shoulder, pulling him back.

"Hold on boy, you can't go running out there after Chris and Buck, they're likely to blow your head off," he told the impulsive young man. "We got’a think this through..."

"We don't have time to think it through Josiah!" exclaimed the easterner, "Chris could be drawin' down on Vin right now!"

"I regret to confess that I am inclined to agree with our young sheriff," said Ezra, "discussion, no matter how well intended, will not prevent Mr. Larabee from aerating poor Mr. Tanner..."

"Listen!" J.D. exclaimed suddenly, catching the attention of the other three men. As they hastily stopped talking, an eerie quiet descended over them.

Finally, the healer gave voice to the horrible realization,

"The shootin's stopped..."

Part 23

Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington climbed through the rocky terrain in grim silence. Larabee refused to respond to Buck's many whispered attempts to rationalize Vin's actions. Preferring to keep his dark thoughts to himself, the black clad man moved determinedly forward, his anger growing with each step.

For his part, Buck was very concerned about his friend. The ladies’ man had seen a tremendous change in the gunfighter since they joined up again in Four Corners. A glimpse of the Chris Larabee of old, the man who had lived life with gusto before his wife and son were murdered, was beginning to break through the hard protective shield the gunslinger had built around himself.

As much as Buck would like to believe he had a hand in the return of his old friend, honesty forced him to admit that a young, scruffy tracker was the real catalyst of the change. Chris had recognized something in Vin Tanner that he was missing, something that made him complete, and the two had developed an instant bond. A bond so strong that it sometimes appeared almost tangible to those observing them. Vin's strong character, easy going nature and quirky sense of humor had broken through that otherwise impenetrable shield, allowing the mourning, angry man to once again see and enjoy what life had to offer.

Now it looked like all that progress was rapidly unraveling and the mustachioed man didn't know what to say or do to prevent the destruction of his friend... so he followed the obstinate man who was so bent on revenge that he nearly wasn't seeing straight. And prayed that he'd be able to prevent the almost inevitable self-destruction.

Buck was so lost in thought that he nearly ran into the black-clad man when Chris stopped suddenly.

"What?" he hissed, trying to determine what had brought his friend up short.

"Shhh," said the gunslinger, "Listen."

Buck cocked his head to the side and listened intently, "Don't hear nothin'" he replied, "You gettin' somethin'?"

"That's the point Buck, I don't hear anything,'" snarled Larabee, "The gunfire's stopped."

"Think he gave up... or got shot?" asked Buck, trepidation in his voice.

"Let's go find out," ordered the gunslinger, drawing his colt and moving toward the area where they had last heard the gunshots.

+ + + + + + +

Alby Savitch was pressing hard into the injured tracker, crushing him painfully against the large rock as he used his captive's body as a shield from the gunfire below.

Realizing the vicious man was distracted by the return fire, Vin recognized this was probably his last chance and with every ounce of strength left in his tortured body, snaked his right foot back and around his captor's leg. He pulled sharply against the brutal man's ankle and, at the same time, threw his body weight back into the outlaw.

Vin felt himself falling backward as the criminal pulled him down and he landed hard on the unyielding rock. The impact stunned him and forced the little remaining air from his lungs. As he lay gasping, he heard the attacker getting to his feet, cursing.

"SONUVABITCH! 'm gonna kill ya, ya long-haired bastard!" Alby exclaimed, searching for the rifle. "You dun screwed with me fer the last damn time! Where the hell's that goddamn gun?!"

Vin rolled to his side and curled into a ball, instinct forcing him to protect his damaged ribs. cain't just lay here 'n die... he thought, boys need me... the injured man forced his agonized body to move.

Drawing on years of ingrained determination and using a rock for balance, he propelled himself to his knees and then to his feet. Watching the kidnapper's movements carefully, he timed his attack until the man's attention was drawn to retrieving the dropped weapon then launched himself head first at the outlaw's midsection.

Savitch spotted the Winchester, scooping up the fallen rifle with a cry of delight, "HA! Gonna take care a'ya now! Ya been nothin' but trouble to me an' I don't need ya no more..." he turned, raising the shotgun, "gonna shoot ya with yer own damn gu..." his murderous intent was interrupted as the injured man drove into his body.

The force of Vin's attack propelled the outlaw back into the rocky formation. As he fell, Alby drove his fist into the exhausted tracker's ribs. Vin's body continued its downward momentum spinning Albert Savitch and propelling the criminal's head violently into a rock, knocking him senseless. In one final vicious, unknowing act Alby's finger tightened reflexively on the trigger of the sawed-off Winchester.

Vin Tanner had felt pain explode through his body as Savitch's fist impacted with his already torn and bruised flesh, driving the air from his lungs. a tortured groan escaped as Vin again curled his body, trying desperately to contain the pain searing through his ribs and side. The edges of his vision began to cloud and he felt darkness grasping at him when he heard the unmistakable report of his hog's leg. The devastating agony that followed was so overwhelming, even for the tenacious tracker, that his mind finally succumbed to the blackness beckoning him and his unconscious form pitched face down on the unyielding ground.

Part 24

The now appropriately dressed Mary Travis left Nathan's clinic for the more familiar newspaper office where she was working at type-setting the day's edition of the Clarion. Nettie Wells hovered anxiously about her, keeping a watchful eye on the young woman.

"The paper is really late getting out today... And of all days, today is the most important! People have to be told that Vin wasn't the attacker," said Mary determinedly, hoping that preparing the newspaper for distribution and reporting the events of the night before would provide a distraction from her disturbing thoughts and the pounding headache that had taken up residence behind her eyes. The blonde woman was grasping at anything that would keep her mind occupied, to stifle the heartbreaking preoccupation with the seven regulators.

"Well, somebody's got to set them straight!" declared the older woman, "The way they're all so quick to believe the worst of Vin! Makes me sick, after all he's done fer this town!"

"Oh Nettie, " Mary said with a sigh, leaning against the printing press, "How are we ever going to refute what they think? You know how opinionated and stubborn some people can be. I just hope they will read the article I'm putting in the Clarion and realize what a terrible mistake has been made."

"I hope it works too dear, the people of this town can be thick headed as mules. And you know that some never have accepted the fine things those boys do. They only see their rough outsides."

"Well, if I have my way, they're going to listen!" avowed the determined young blonde. "We've made too much progress to go back now! And accusing an innocent man is definitely going backward!"

Turning back to the press, Mary began to set the blocks for the headline: LOCAL WOMAN ATTACKED BY DRIFTER. But before she could run the first sheet, Thaddeus Weston rushed in the door.

Both women's heads flew up at the sudden entrance of the wire operator, they knew instantly that he would only come in person if he had an important message.

"Miz Travis! Got a wire here for ya from the Judge! Say's Billy had a fall..." Mary Travis snatched the telegram from the excited man, her heart skipping a beat as she heard his words.

"OH NO! Billy's hurt?" she exclaimed, swiftly scanning the document, "Orrin says he had a fall from his pony and they think his arm may be broken... Oh dear... I'll have to go to him right away!"

Turning pleading eyes to the older woman, "Nettie, will you help me pack? If I hurry, I can get on the evening stage. I'll be with my son by day after tomorrow."

"Of course dear, you lock up and we'll go up and pack yer satchel," the older woman said reassuringly, "We have at least an hour 'fore the stage is due. Thank you fer bringing over the wire Mr. Weston, we appreciate your concern but I can handle it from here."

Clearly dismissed and realizing that there was no more excitement to be had, the telegraph operator tipped his hat and headed back to his duties while Mary Travis and Nettie Wells went about the task of preparing the young widow for her journey. Their worry's for the seven lawmen abruptly driven from their minds by the concern for the young child.

+ + + + + + +

An eerie silence blanketed the deeply shadowed rocks as the two men made their way up the rocky incline. The sudden report of Vin's Winchester shattered the quiet, causing the men to dodge for cover behind the rocks. They waited expectantly for further sound that would give them a direction to aim. But their patience was rewarded only by a return of the oppressive shroud of silence.

With a glance and a nod, Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington moved to resume their ascension of the moonlit rocky precipice when the unexpected sound of movement behind them had both spinning around, guns cocked and aimed.

The four men rushing up behind them came to an abrupt halt at the sound of the pistols cocking. Throwing their hands in the air they each identified themselves in a quiet rush of words.

"Whoa Brother! Don't Shoot!" hissed the preacher, confident in the men facing him, knowing they wouldn't shoot without being certain of their target.

"I say gentlemen; please don't be hasty in distributing your bullets. I am quite innocent you know." reasoned Ezra Standish quietly.

J.D.'s voice rose an octave and was tinged with fear when he saw the two amazing gunmen draw down on him, "Buck! Don't shoot! It's me!" his whispered exclamation directed to the man he viewed as a big brother.

"Easy now, it's just us. No need to go off..." Nathan said, his frustration evident in his soft tone. The healer desperately wanted to inform Larabee that Vin didn't attack Mary but he feared, given the gunslinger's current sentiment, that his words would fall on deaf ears. He just prayed that when the truth finally hit the gunslinger, it wouldn't be too late...

Buck just shrugged as Larabee let the hammer down on his colt and turned from the men without a word. Determination evident in every movement of his lean body.

With a collective sigh, the five men fell in behind their leader, eyes keenly alert for any signs of movement. Stealing silently through the rocky terrain, the six men finally reached the place where the ambush had been launched.

Chris Larabee was the first to enter the small hollow, leading with his colt, searching for the man who had lain in wait to slaughter him and his friends.

Murky shadows had long ago settled around the determined men, but fortunately a cloudless sky and the lowering sun provided sufficient patches of light to distinguish objects. Larabee's attention was immediately caught by the body of a man laying against the rocks, blood already matting his hair.

Without a second's delay, Nate knelt by the man's side and placed two fingers along his neck. "Think the pulse is there, but it's real weak...," he said, tearing the injured man's shirt open to lay a hand on the unmoving chest, dismay seizing his heart.

Part 25

Mary Travis paced the boardwalk, waiting impatiently to board the stage. The natural anxiety of a mother whose child is injured growing every minute.

"Why doesn't the stage come, it must be late by now!" she exclaimed to Nettie Wells who was her companion during the wait.

"You need to calm yerself Mary. Wasn't too long ago you were attacked and knocked unconscious," replied the older woman, concern for the young widow evident in her weathered features.

"I'm fine," Mary said firmly, "Just a little headache. It's Billy I'm worried about! I need to be with him!" stepping to the edge of the boardwalk, Mary glared up the street, willing the stage to appear. "Where is that blasted stage?!" she demanded.

As if the driver knew continued delay would be met with bodily harm, the stage appeared at the edge of town, traveling swiftly to the designated stop. The driver hauled back the reigns bringing the horses to an abrupt halt and announced to the passengers "Short stop, Four Corners. Hurry up now, I only got 10 minutes to unload and get on the road again.

"Finally," sighed Mary, turning to give Nettie a quick hug. "Thank you for all your help, Nettie. Now don't worry about me, I'll be fine," she reassured the older woman.

"I know dear, you just let me know how Billy is as soon as you can."

Mary Travis climbed aboard the stage, the telegram from Judge Travis clutched tightly in her hand and all thought of exonerating Vin swept from her mind.

Part 26

"Who the hell is he?" demanded the blonde gunslinger, giving the stranger's body a kick to assure himself that the man posed no threat.

"That's what I been tryin' to tell ya!" exclaimed Nathan Jackson in frustration, turning from the man he'd been assessing, "THIS is who attacked Mary! Weren't Vin at all..." Nathan finally allowed the anger building inside him to break loose as he prepared to dress down the exasperating man, "But yer so damn stubborn... ya wouldn' listen ta reason! Now with this'un probably dyin', we got no help findin' out what really happened!"

"NATHAN!" J.D.'s frantic shout interrupted the healer's diatribe, snapping all their heads around as they sought the reason for the boy's cry.

Calling again for Nathan as he moved, J.D. rushed to the side of the bloodied body of the tracker he'd discovered laying in the shadows.

"Don't move him!" yelled the healer, as he followed on the boy's heels. Dropping to his knees beside Vin, Nathan gasped at the sight that met his eyes.

The younger man was laying on his stomach, his face all but obscured by bloody curls, his hands tightly bound behind his back. Nathan was dismayed by the dark stains of blood on the tracker's clothes and hair. Gently, the healer lay his fingers along the bloodied throat and expelled the breath he'd been unconsciously holding when he found the pulse. Weak, needs ta be stronger, he thought to himself, but least it's there.

Nathan did a quick check of Vin's breathing, and while shallow, he felt it was sufficient to sustain the tracker's tenuous hold on life. He spoke softly to the injured man, hoping he would somehow know they were there, "It's alright now Vin, yer friends 'r here, ain't nobody gonna hurt ya no more."

Without turning to the anxious faces crowding around him, the healer set about doing what he could for the badly injured man.

"J. D, give me ma' bag and git me some water," he barked, knowing his orders would be followed.

The young easterner jumped into action, grabbing the healer's leather satchel from where the black man had dropped it, and shoving it toward the engrossed healer.

As he turned to retrieve a canteen of water, J.D. glanced at Chris Larabee, curious about how the man was taking the unexpected turn of events. The gunman's appearance stopped the young sheriff in his tracks.

"Buck... you better look to Chris!" he called out to his friend, snapping the ladies’ man from his stupor.

"Whoa, stud!" Buck exclaimed, as he grabbed the swaying man's shoulder and guided the unresisting gunslinger to the ground. "You best sit before ya fall!"

Chris Larabee was thankful for Buck's helping hand. He'd felt like his life's blood had drained from his soul when he saw the battered and bloody body of the tracker, all thoughts of the stranger washed from his mind. Oh my God, he thought, self-loathing sweeping over him, How could I have let this happen? I thought he betrayed us... should have believed in him... Should have trusted him... I did this to him!

As he sat in dazed shock on the hard rock watching Nathan tend anxiously to his gravely injured friend, scenes from the times he'd spent with the younger man flashed behind his eyes in lightning bolts of anguish. In vivid detail, as each beat of his heart pounded in his brain, he relived the times they had ridden together, fought side-by-side, and often just sat in silence. The unspoken, indescribable bond telling each everything they needed to know about what the other was thinking.

Now as he watched in mute horror, Nathan Jackson's frenzied struggle to save the tracker's life, realization struck the cold-hard gunfighter with the force of a physical blow.

Realization of what he'd had and what he'd so thoughtlessly and cruelly destroyed

Part 27

Pulling a knife from its sheath, Nathan carefully attempted to remove the rough rope securely binding Vin Tanner's arms. Struggling with the stiff fibers that dug deeply into the sharpshooter's swollen wrists, the healer prayed silently that his efforts would not result in his causing further injury to the already damaged flesh.

After finally succeeding in severing the coarse threads, the healer slowly positioned the injured man's arms at his sides and gently turned his buckskin-clad friend on his back, wincing at the pain he knew this movement would cause and thankful that Vin was unconscious.

Next, Nathan turned his attention to the tracker's face. Tenderly brushing the long, bloodied curls away, the battle-experienced healer was nearly sickened by the amount of damage he found; the handsome face was a mass of red and purple bruises, the blue eyes were swollen shut, a large gash above his right eye was bleeding freely and numerous smaller cuts were adding to the gore.

"Here Nate," said J.D., the young man having rushed to the horses to grab canteens of water from each. He now stood over the black healer, thankful that he could do something to help his injured friend, but frightened by the appearance of the man closest in age to himself.

Glancing over his shoulder, Nathan was surprised that J.D. had gotten the water so quickly, "Thanks J. D." he said, distractedly.

Grabbing a canteen strap and quickly uncorking the precious liquid, Nathan dampened a clean scrap of boiled cotton from his kit and wiped blood from the unconscious man's face, trying to determine the extent of his injuries.

"Got’a good gash on his forehead," mumbled Nathan, more to himself than to the men anxiously listening, "Lump on the side of his head too. Account fer his bein' out cold..."

Continuing his survey, the gentle man ran his hands across the injured man's shoulders. He sucked in a breath when he felt the torn buckskin and the warm blood on his fingers. "Damn!" He exclaimed in dismay, "I think he's shot!"

Chris Larabee's head flew up as he heard those awful words 'I think he's shot...'

Oh God, despaired the man in black, Did I shoot him? Even if I didn’t, I’m still responsible...

Pulling his knife, Nathan cut away the torn shirt and examined the large bleeding wound just below Vin's right collarbone. With a silent prayer, Nate anxiously checked Vin's back. The healer breathed a sigh of relief when he found a smaller corresponding injury. "Went clean through, thank God fer that," he mumbled, "Least I don't have to go diggin' around in 'im."

Glancing up, Nathan caught sight of the pain in the gunfighter's eyes and knew with a flash of understanding what was going on in the complex man's mind.

"Ain't yer bullet Chris! Don't even be thinkin' it!" he demanded, realizing that he had to make the suffering man understand quickly, "He'as shot from up close. Big bullet and it went straight through. Ya'll was too far away, yer bullet would’a stayed in, made a smaller hole." With another quick glance at Chris to see if his words had sunk in, realizing the man couldn't handle any additional details about his best friend's condition - specifically that he’d been shot in the back - Nathan turned back to trying to save Vin Tanner's life.

With both hands applying pressure to the wounds, Nathan turned to Josiah for help.

"Josiah, git in my bag and give me bandages and carbolic." Nathan's voice was edged with fear as he took in the enormity of the damage the young man had suffered, knowing he had yet to find all of the injuries. Desperation clutched at his heart as he worried that his skills and experience might not be enough.

"Ezra, you got that flask on ya?" he demanded.

"Yes Nathan, but I deeply regret that it is empty." replied the gambler sadly.

"Damn! I got’a git this bleedin' stopped... got nothin' to clean it out with... no time fer boilin' water.." he muttered to Josiah as the preacher supported the pale, motionless body. Hoping that the inevitable infection would hold off until they got Vin back to town, Nathan quickly poured water from the canteen into the gaping wounds, washing them out as best he could and then liberally sprinkled carbolic in. Pressing a pad of clean cloth in place, he glanced up at the anxious face of the big man helping him, "You best start prayin' J'siah..." Nathan said quietly.

"Already am, brother" came the firm reply. The preacher had seen lots of injured men in his time and he knew just by looking that the still, colorless tracker was in a bad way.

Between them, Nathan and Josiah managed to get the unconscious man's shoulder tightly bandaged. Only then did Nathan feel he could move on, searching for the other injuries he knew he would find.

The compassionate man ran his hands over Vin's ribs, wincing at the four broken bones his sensitive fingers encountered.

Next his gentle hands encountered the large gash just below the tracker's right ribs. The experienced healer could tell quickly that the laceration was older than the other injuries, the edges had already begun to redden and swell, taking on the angry look of an untreated injury. This must be from last night in the alley... he thought, realizing that his earlier assumptions had been correct. Lost a hell of a lot of blood jus' from this alone...

As the healer began to clean the dried blood from the inflamed injury, his initial rush of adrenaline began to fade and his spirits sank. How'm I ever gonna take care a'all this? Out here, with nuthin'... he worried dejectedly, his anxiety increasing as the tracker remained totally unresponsive to the intense pain he was causing.

Part 28

Chris Larabee was floundering in a bottomless pool of despair. Self-doubt warring with self-loathing. The former gunfighter had always considered himself a fair man. Sure, he'd made mistakes, big ones, but since Sarah and Adam were murdered, he'd guarded his soul carefully, putting up an impenetrable fortress, effectively keeping everyone at a safe distance where he could view them dispassionately and assess them accordingly.

Until Vin Tanner. Now it seemed they were both going to pay dearly for Chris's mistake. For letting Vin into his life had to be a mistake. What else could hurt this badly?

As the horrified man watched Nathan's desperate efforts to save his best friend, Larabee felt as if his own heart was being torn from his chest, so intense was the pain. I did this to him... Bullet didn't need to come from my gun... his conscience screamed. I should have trusted him!

Unable to sit any longer, the man in black flew to his feet, and turning from the tragic scene before him, headed for Pony and escape from the torment.

"Chris! CHRIS!" exclaimed Buck, chasing after the fast moving man, "Where th' hell ya think yer goin?"

"Somewhere I can't hurt him no more." growled the distraught gunfighter, his steps never wavering.

Catching up to his old friend, Buck Wilmington reached out his hand and grabbed the man's arm. He spun his friend back around to face him and planted his feet squarely in front of the snarling man.

"Chris, you can knock me down if ya want and git up on yer horse and ride out'a here but that ain't gonna help Vin." asserted the ladies’ man, "I know yer hurtin', feelin' guilty, Hell, we all are! But right now Vin needs us all to stand by him, so when he wakes he'll know we realized we were wrong!"

"If he wakes up Buck!" snarled Chris, "You saw him good as me. You saw what I did to him! And you know well as I do that he got shot 'cause he was tryin' to save our sorry asses!" Turning back toward Pony, Chris added disgustedly, "For what? So his friends could chase him down and finish him off..." The gunfighter stopped beside his horse and leaned his head into the warm shoulder, "God Buck, what am I gonna do if he dies..." Torment evident in the softly spoken words.

"Aww Chris, don't talk like that, Vin's tough. He's survived worse. We just got’a stand by him." Buck silently prayed that his words were not spoken in vain.

Pulling himself to his full height, the gunslinger turned quickly on Wilmington, self-loathing again slamming into him. "And if he does live? What then Buck?" he spat out," Vin don't give his trust easy and I think we all 'bout destroyed any hope of him stayin' on with us!"

Chris was too angry and upset to realize the import of the words he had spoken but the meaning was clear to his old friend. Vin's friendship had made a world of difference in Larabee and if Vin lived only to ride out, Buck didn't think the blonde would survive the loss.

Part 29

"Done all I can..." Nathan Jackson pronounced dejectedly, having tended to Vin's many injuries. The former slave was no doctor but, because of his war experience and studying everything he could get his hands on, he knew more about healing than most. And while he knew that his friends’ appreciated his skill and dedication, they also understood and accepted his limitations. This knowledge didn't offer any comfort to the compassionate man. Vin was his friend and he'd done all he could and the words were bitter in his mouth as he expressed what he was sure was his failure to the anxious men standing by him.

Having made Vin as comfortable as possible, the black man stood, stretching his cramped back, and glanced at his friends, dreading the time when he would have to tell them what he was certain was an admission of defeat. He simply couldn't do any more for the tracker and they were so far out of Four Corners...

"Me’be if I had 'im in the clinic..." he mumbled to no one in particular, "me’be then he'd have a chance... but not out here... lost too much blood, beat up too bad..."

"Then we'll get him back to town, brother." asserted the firm, deep voice of Josiah Sanchez.

Suddenly realizing that he had spoken his thoughts aloud, Nathan turned to the other men, seeing his fear reflected in their faces.

"Not sure he'll make it, Josiah. Hell, I cain't even stitch 'im up 'til I git them wounds cleaned out good. Brought my kit with me but I wasn't 'spectin nothin' this bad."

"He'll make it." replied the preacher firmly. "How do ya want to move him?"

Looking hard in the big man's face, Nathan felt hope unfounded by fact rising in his chest. "Aw'right! If there's any way to get him back, we're sure gonna try!"

"Tell me what to do, Nate!" exclaimed J.D. The youngest member of the seven was anxious to help, to take action, to do something!

The healer turned startled eyes on the youth who he'd forgotten was there. "Get me all the bedrolls ya can find, we got’a keep him from gettin' any more chilled than he is." he replied, his fire returning with the reminder that he was not facing this alone. "We're gonna haf’ta ride him back with one of us. Nothin' here to make a travois out of and 'sides, he couldn't take all that bouncin' 'n rockin' over the hard ground, it'd jus' open up them wounds I jes' wrapped up."

With a quick nod, J.D. rushed off to the horses again, grabbing up all of the ever-present bedrolls while Nathan tried in vain to get a few drops of water into the unresponsive tracker. His efforts went unrewarded as the precious, life-saving liquid dribbled out of the slack lips. Fearing that Vin would choke, Nathan was forced to surrender to his friend's unresponsiveness.

The healer took advantage of J.D.'s absence to quietly express his concerns to the preacher, "J'siah, he should’a woke some by now, this don't look good at all."

"I know brother; all we can do is keep trying. Vin's got a strong will, has to to've survived as long as he has on his own. He'll pull through." Josiah understood better than he would admit how bad the situation was and he wasn't certain if he was trying to reassure the black man or himself, he just figured if they didn't acknowledge the near hopelessness of Vin's condition, somehow it wouldn't be true.

J.D.'s return brought the conversation to a halt and the men swiftly wrapped the motionless body in several bedrolls.

Scooping the blanket wrapped tracker in his strong arms, Josiah gazed directly into Nathan's eyes, his message of hope loud and clear, "You lead the way, I'll get him back to Four Corners." avowed the big preacher, and turning, he followed slowly behind his friends, walking carefully down the rocky hillside toward the waiting horses.

+ + + + + + +

Chris and Buck were wrenched from their uncomfortable silence by the arrival of Nathan and J.D.

"Where the hell is Vin?" demanded Larabee as both men turned sharply toward the small clearing where they had last seen the unconscious man.

Nathan stepped out to block their forward progress, "Hold on now!" he ordered, "Josiah's bringing him down, we got’a git him back to town fast as we can."

"How?" asked Buck, hoping that if the tracker was well enough to travel he wasn't hurt as bad as they'd thought.

"Josiah's gonna ride with him on his saddle." replied the healer, slightly irritated by the questions intruding on his thoughts as he tried to anticipate the affect the movements would have on his injured friend.

"He'll ride with me." stated Chris Larabee firmly, preparing to mount his horse.

"No Chris, he won't." replied the healer, just as uncompromisingly. "I know you want to help but Josiah's got the size 'n strength to keep him in place. I ain't taken a chance on him gettin' knocked 'round. Gettin' him back to town alive is gonna be iffy as it is."

Unused to being challenged, Larabee's first inclination was to insist - but Buck's hand on his arm halted him. Looking into this old friend's face, Chris saw concern etched in the handsome features, "Do it Nate's way Chris. He's the best chance Vin'll have."

Chris looked hard at the healer, searching his face for confirmation of his fears. Nathan Jackson returned the intense look and saw the gunslinger's eyes shutter as the realization of the severity of the situation was brought home to him.

With a nod, Chris Larabee turned toward the approach of Josiah Sanchez and his precious burden.

“What about the other guy?” asked J.D.

“He can rot up there.” replied the cold as ice voice of the deadly gunslinger.

Part 30

Vin Tanner was lost in a thick, black fog, broken only by excruciating lances of agony. The young man forced his way to the edge of the mist, his muddled mind searching for something - anything - familiar. Drifting on the edge of consciousness, he fought the darkness pulling at him and with groans of pain and dismay, grasped vainly at the awareness floating just beyond his reach. Somewhere in his soul, Vin knew that he had left something unfinished and that if he surrendered to the cloying shadows enveloping him, he would fail his responsibility.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah Sanchez rode slowly, his strong arms gently secure around the younger man, his prayers soaring non-stop to his God. The preacher, an ardent student of human nature, was constantly amazed at how each man affected those around them without even realizing it, but even he was awed by the profound affect this quiet, unassuming, scruffy, former bounty hunter had had on so many. Josiah understood all too well the consequences if the tracker should die and he was dismayed by the loss of souls the death of this one young man would cause.

A moan from the injured man pulled Josiah from his reverie.

"Nathan!" he called, bringing the quiet entourage to a halt, as the tracker moaned again.

The healer, who had been riding close to the injured man, pulled up closer still.

"What?" Chris Larabee's demanded over the dread clutching his heart, before Nathan could speak.

"He's moanin'... me’be wakin' up?" replied Josiah, directing his question at the healer.

"Yea, could be, 'bout time too," relief washed over the black man as he thanked God for the sign that Vin was showing improvement, however slight. "We best keep movin', we're just a few miles out’a town, I don't wanna risk hurtin' him more by takin' him down an' puttin' him back up."

Receiving a nod of agreement from the stricken gunslinger, and with a reassuring glance at the anxious faces watching their injured friend, Josiah gently kneed his mount forward and the procession of silent men resumed their careful journey home.

+ + + + + + +

Vin slowly became aware of a voice seeping into the thinning black mist. Clutching at the sound like a life-line, the tortured man fought to identify the talker, as slowly a mental image of Josiah Sanchez formed in his confused mind. Josiah? Before he could sort out a question another voice intruded, this one easier to recognize. Chris. he thought, a torrent of regret washing over him. Unable to piece together his disjointed thoughts and understand the cause of the profound despair, the tracker struggled against the black isolation clutching at him.

Focusing all of his dwindling energy on reaching the distant dawn of consciousness, Vin groaned again as wave after wave of agony assaulted him. Through almost super-human effort, he had nearly reached the summit when the powerful oppressive blackness once again snatched him back into the dark oblivion.

Part 31

Chris Larabee rode in silence, his face set in harsh lines as he reviewed over and over how things had gotten to this pass. With each rehash, the sick feeling in his gut strengthened until he began to feel like he would jump from Pony and vomit out his soul on the side of the trail.

The gunslinger was oblivious to the men riding beside him as he replayed the events of the early morning hours, Dear God, was it just over 18 hours ago when he was feeling better about life than he had in years? he groaned, stunned at how quickly everything had changed. As he relived the horrible scream which had snatched him from his bed, his rage-blind dash into the alley and the sight of the tracker kneeling over the unconscious Mary, he realized how wrong he'd been in his assumptions and how easy it had been to surrender to the cold cynicism he always kept in reserve. Cynicism born from the horrible atrocities he'd seen men commit and belief that it was irrational to put trust in anyone, including Vin Tanner - a man his very soul told him was solid and forthright.

The gunslinger had been hurt too many times in the past to accept easily, too many times to put his faith anywhere, not in Josiah's God, not even in his old friend Buck. Funny, Vin and I are so much alike in that respect... he mused, as he thought of the wary 'too old' eyes of the younger man, eyes that had met his with instant comprehension and acceptance.

Vin... That self-protecting wall of skepticism had shifted slightly when their eyes locked across the rough, dirt track that was the main thoroughfare of Four Corners. An instant understanding and unwavering trust. Maybe it existed because of the hard lives they had led and the losses suffered. Whatever the reason, their trust in each other had seemed unbreakable.

Until just over 18 hours ago.

In frustration, Larabee realized that his thoughts had just led him in a circle. He was right back where he started, able to understand but unable to accept how he could have believed his best friend, brother even, would attack a woman in the dead of night.

Knowing he was no closer to the answer than when he'd begun this exercise in frustration, the gunman pulled up on Pony's reigns and moved closer to Josiah and his fragile burden.

"Any change?" he asked, worry causing the question to be conveyed with unintended harshness.

"Moans every now an' agin". Nothin' other than that." replied the Preacher, glancing carefully at his friend. Josiah could see how ravaged Chris Larabee was by the events of the day. Silently, he continued his prayer for direction in how to reach the suffering man.

"Keep me posted." replied the man in black, kneeing his mount up ahead to where Ezra, Buck and J.D. were riding in strained silence.

"Ezra, J.D., you best ride ahead to town and get things set up at Nathan's." the natural leader directed the men, "Nathan, tell 'em what you need done." With that, Chris rode on ahead, alone.

Grateful for something to do, the two men turned anxiously for Nathan's instructions then rushed off to prepare the clinic for their friend's arrival.

Part 32

Josiah Sanchez kept up a steady stream of soft words to the friend he was gently supporting. Like Nathan, he hoped that in some way Vin would know that he was once again among friends. The big preacher was concerned not only for the tracker's physical state but also for his peace of mind.

Vin had to know that when they were tracking him down it was not as friends but as lawmen. The younger man was certainly experienced enough in human nature to know when people were out to do him harm and there could be little doubt that harm was exactly what was intended, primarily by Chris Larabee.

And this knowledge probably intensified the pain Vin was suffering from their lack of trust ten-fold. And knowing Vin, that wasn't the only thing on the quiet man's mind.

"I know the guilt's weighin' heavy on you, " he said softly, "but don't you be beatin' yourself up about things that can't be undone, you need to be thinkin' on gettin yerself better. We can deal with the rest later."

+ + + + + + +

Vin was once again drifting in a sea of agony. But this time was different, now there was definite movement; he could tell by the constant, excruciating jolts of pain attacking his body in indiscriminate locations and at random intervals, preventing him from mentally preparing for the onslaught.

And it was different because of the comforting sound, his only lifeline to reality. His muddled mind clutched at the deep soothing tone, using it to distract from the torture his body was enduring. Using techniques he had learned from his time with the Kiowa, he forced the pain from his consciousness, gradually allowing the sound to take on form and texture.

As he relaxed more into the trance of the quiet rhythm, recognition began to seep in. Josiah. he thought again as confusion began to swirl around him, What am I doin' with J'siah?

Struggling to create word from the sound, Vin finally began to make sense of what the preacher was saying, sorting out the words into something resembling information ... things that can't be undone. ...we can deal with the rest later...

The young man's confused mind tried to comprehend the meaning of what he'd heard, What can't be undone? he struggled to understand, using the process to further distance himself from the physical pain. Suddenly a devastating sadness flooded through him, causing his breath to catch in his throat in a heart-wrenching groan, Mary. Flashes of memory began to intrude, something... Mary... blood... oh God... my fault...

A sudden jostling of his agonized body drove all thoughts from his mind as the motion caused him to gasp in pain. His bruised and broken ribs violently protested the sudden movement and in defense of his sanity, his consciousness once again surrendered to the dark cushion of oblivion.

Part 33

The rough town of Four Corners had been maliciously abuzz all day, the events of the early morning hours being excitedly relished and embellished. While these settlers of the new west were accustomed to a certain amount of uproar, the notion that one of the most respected members of their community had been attacked by one of those high-and-mighty seven was too much gossip fodder to let pass.

So the day was wasted, chores left undone as the citizenry rushed to and fro in a frenetic attempt to discuss and dissect the event, mindless of whether they were amassing fact or fiction.

Mary Travis's abrupt departure only added fuel to the fire; rationalizations that she'd left because of a family emergency were quickly discounted. The masses preferred to speculate that the real reason for her swift disappearance was because of fear, or better yet, shame and revulsion from what the long-haired tracker had tried to do - or maybe had "done" to her! Although exactly ’what’ he had ’done’ was anybody - and everybody's - guess.

Everybody except Nettie Wells. The older woman was liked by nearly everyone in town even though most of the regular townspeople just didn't understand her obvious maternal affection for the rough-edged tracker. But even as she stood up to the community and tried to stop the rumblings, she was rapidly dismissed by the bored people bent on further elaborating on the already grossly distorted tale.

By the time the indifferent sun had set and the scant warmth of the day had quickly dissipated into the biting chill of the fall night, the collective opinion of the population who had migrated indoors had turned sharply and venomously against the seven regulators in general.

And Vin Tanner in particular.

As they rode into town, J.D. and Ezra barely noticed the deserted streets. Had they been at all interested, they would have assumed that most folks had retired to their warm dwellings and were going about their usual routines. Given the worry they carried with them, they were not at all interested in the comings and goings of the people of Four Corners.

The two men rode directly to the Livery and, after securing their mounts, strode purposefully toward the clinic above. Thinking almost as one, the New England boy and Southern gambler were united in a single objective; to prepare the clinic for the arrival of their seriously injured brother.

So it was that they were totally oblivious to the growing animosity hidden behind the town's closed doors.

+ + + + + + +

The four tired, troubled men unconsciously sighed in relief when they finally arrived in Four Corners. Somehow they had managed against the odds to get their friend home alive. They all understood that the future was still uncertain and that tragedy could strike at any moment but for now he was alive and he was home and that was all that mattered.

They pulled their weary mounts to a stop in front of the Livery, noting that Ezra and J.D.'s horses were already tethered there, indicating that the clinic at least would be prepared for their arrival.

Nathan dismounted quickly and, brushing past Chris, strode determinedly to Josiah's side to gently lift down Vin's mummy wrapped body.

"I got him Chris, go'on ahead and get the door open." he said, knowing without looking that the blonde man was right behind him. Adjusting his hold on the injured man he turned toward the stairs.

Chris wanted nothing more than to take Vin in his arms, to confirm to himself that his partner's heart still beat, but he knew that it would be better for Vin to allow the healer to care for the injured man. With a quick nod, the gunman stepped back as Nathan had requested, entrusting his best friend to the man's capable handling.

So it was that the men moved quietly up the stairs to the clinic, heartened that Vin had survived the trip and that Nathan could now treat him effectively in the familiar, comfortable surroundings. Hoping against hope that being home would be the magic tonic the man so desperately needed, and totally unaware that they were returning to a very different town than the one they had left such a few short hours before.

Part 34

An obsessed, vindictive man rode slowly toward Four Corners, a smoldering lust for revenge consuming his being and driving him onward.

"Left me fer dead. Them sum’bitches!" he raged, as he determinedly spurred his mount into a wild gallop, the pounding agony in his head like torrents of kerosene fueling the firestorm of hatred ranting in his soul.

"I'm gonna make ya regret ya was ever born, ya bastards. I owe ya double now. Fer Aubrey and fer what ya done ta me!" Albert Savitch shook his fist at the sky as if calling down the very wrath of God on the men who had left him unconscious and injured.

When he'd first awoken, alone in the dark, confusion had reigned in his muddled mind, his splitting headache testament to the crashing fall he'd taken onto an unyielding rock. As memory returned, so too did a nearly overwhelming fury.

He didn't know exactly what'd hit him but he certainly remembered who!

"Yer a dead man!" Alby screamed to the barren land, an image of the tracker splicing through his splitting head. "I might not have much book learnin, maybe not really even much smarts, but I know fer sure ahm gonna punish ya fer ruinin' my plans fer Larabee and leaving me ta die!"

His own responsibility in the affair was easily ignored; after all, he'd just been avenging his brother's murder.

"Goddamn bastards! My fight was with Larabee, y'all wanna git in it, y'all can die too! Hell, ya deserve ta die... yer stupid 'nough ta not make certain I's dead... and even left m'horse! Well, yer gonna pay fer all them mistakes!" the unbalanced man swore to the cold night sky.

As he rode on through the darkness, the malignant man didn't know how far behind the peacekeepers he was, he didn't even know if he'd managed to kill that damn tracker... all he knew was that he would find those men and he would have his pound of flesh. That was the only way to extinguish the horrific inferno now burning from the very core of his being, threatening to consume him in its destructive power.

Part 35

Nathan placed Vin carefully on the cot and gently unwrapped the bedrolls from around the unresponsive man. The tracker's ragged breathing was both disturbing and comforting - the painful sound of each indrawn breath nearly broke the healer's heart but it also confirmed that Vin was still clinging to life. Nathan prayed that he could keep this friend alive long enough to ease the struggling respiration...

Nathan wouldn't have believed it was possible but, under the lamp light, Vin looked even worse than he had on the trail. Blood coated every part of him and the color of what skin was visible was deathly pale.

Taking a deep breath, Nathan began to assess Vin's many injuries and focused on deciding what needed attention first.

While his breathing was labored, probably because of the young man's damaged ribs, it was sufficient. The bleeding however was a big problem.

The shoulder wound was the most obvious injury and had to be dealt with quickly, but Nathan was also concerned about the older, deep laceration Vin had been carrying since the fight in the alley when he'd come to Mary's rescue. In the light of the clinic, Nathan could see that the gash was slowly but steadily seeping blood and that infection was threatening to set in with a vengeance.

With Josiah's help, Nathan cleaned and stitched the bullet wound in Vin's shoulder. While the shot had been at close range, the entrance wound on the back had been relatively clean. Stitching the exit wound had given the skilled healer a little more trouble, as he cleaned and sutured the torn skin. When he was satisfied that the wound was safely closed, Nathan turned his attention to the jagged laceration just below Vin's ribs. Fortunately the tracker had taken a glancing blow, so the wound didn't do as much damage as it could have, but it was serious none-the-less.

Nathan was glad his friend was still unconscious as he cleaned the raw edges of the injury and then tightly bandaged the tracker's broken and bruised ribs. Throughout the ordeal, Nathan was pleased that Vin's breathing, although still labored, had remained steady, indicating that he was holding his own against the agony the healer knew he was causing.

Finally, Nathan turned his attention to his friend's bruised and lacerated face. Josiah had done a good job cleaning away the last of the blood and dirt and after careful consideration; Nathan decided that only the gash over Vin's eye needed stitching.

With a final sigh, Nathan stood from his completed task; satisfied that he'd done all he could and pulled a blanket up to cover Vin securely.

"Well, now it's up ta him." he said, washing his hands in the cooling water basin. " The cold might’a done some good - slowed down the bleedin', I'm hopin' keepin' him warm and quiet and lettin' him sleep will be enough for him to heal himself and pull him through. Nothin' else I can do 'til he start's to wake up some. Then I'll need to get some fluid in him."

"I'll sit with him now so why don't y'all go git some rest? Might have a rough few days ahead of us." Looking around at his unmoving friends he spoke again in exasperation, "Go on now! Git! We both need quiet!"

"C'mon kid, guess the man wants us to leave now." hissed Buck, grabbing J.D. by the arm and pulling him from the room.

"Aww Buck! Le'go, I can walk out without you holdin' on ta me!" squeaked J.D., smacking his friend's hand away. "You'll let us know if anything happens, won't you Nate?"

"Yea kid, but I expect him to be quiet for a few hours now."

"I'll be at the church, brother, if you need me." With a quick final prayer, Josiah turned from the still man on the bed and followed Buck and J.D. from the room, with Ezra following close behind.

+ + + + + + +

After the tired peacekeepers had slowly drifted from the small, rough clinic, Nathan turned to face the remaining stone-faced man, his unblinking gaze locked on the unconscious form in the bed.

The changing sounds around him had gradually filtered into Chris Larabee's paralyzed brain. He slowly realized the room had changed - something had changed. What? fear gripped him as he drug his numb senses back to reality. Giving himself a mental shake, the gunslinger fought the rising alarm and looked around the room, dreading returning his gaze to the bed, not wanting to face the horror his actions had wrought on Vin. Room’s empty... Where is everyone?

Nathan had seen Chris falter and had almost offered his assistance. But then he'd realized in a flash that he could not fix what ailed the dangerous gunfighter. And so he'd left him alone.

But now it was time to act.

"Chris? I sent the other's off for some sleep. You need to go git some rest now, too." Nathan said softly, "I'll take care of him."

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity but was really only seconds, Chris again focused anxious eyes on the cot, searching out his friend's face, seeking assurance that the young man still clung to life.

Tearing his gaze away from his pale, motionless friend, Chris turned agonized green eyes to Nathan's face.

Nathan's heart lurched at the depth of raw emotion he saw reflected in the stricken green pools. And knowing with absolute certainty what had brought that look on didn't help him any at all. Moaning to himself, he searched his mental files for anything that he might have learned or experienced that he could use to comfort the tortured man. Finding nothing, the healer cursed himself again for failing a friend. In a strange way, he'd been more comfortable dealing with Vin's physical injuries than with the torment he saw in those lost emerald eyes. Healing the flesh is one thing but how c'n I heal a soul? That's J'siah's area!

"Chris, please. I got’a 'nough ta do lookin' after Vin. I can't watch over you too! Go get some rest. We'll all be in better condition ta figure all this out in the mornin'."

"You got an extra chair? 'Cause I'm not leavin'." came the decisive reply. That said, Chris Larabee pulled the straight backed wooden chair closer to Vin's side and settled himself for a long, lonely vigil.

Part 36

Morning broke on a bright clear, crisp fall day. With the dawn came the first stirring of the residents of Four Corners. Those with jobs and responsibilities set about their morning chores and prepared for the day ahead. The others wandered out to find like-minds to take up discussion of the previous day's events where they had left off the night before.

Word traveled quickly that the peacekeepers were back and that one of them was injured. Gradually a crowd gathered outside the Livery. Angry faces turned toward the clinic above.

+ + + + + + +

A shaft of sunlight slanting through the window spread across Nathan Jackson's face, penetrating his sleep-closed eyes. The intrusion of brightness pressed into the exhausted man's consciousness, dragging him from his much-needed rest. With a start, Nathan sat upright in his chair, eyes flying to the motionless form on the bed. He quickly reached out two hesitant fingers to touch the pale throat, seeking the warmth and throb of life. His action was rewarded by the feel of a too faint, regular pulse and skin that was too warm for the healer's comfort.

"Damn, a fever. Expected as much." he muttered in dismay and was instantly startled by the sound of a chair scraping harshly across the wooden floor. Aw hell, fergot Chris was here... he thought, resigning himself to a difficult interview from the black-clad man.

"Well?" snapped the gunmen, his question clipped with concern.

"Well... he's still alive, that's good, still unconscious, that's not s' good and got a fever and that's just plain bad. Other than that, I don't know any more 'n you do." Nathan looked levelly into Chris Larabee's pain-filled eyes, trying to convey the need for calm to the potentially volatile man.

"I'm gonna try and wake him. Got’a get some fluids in, 'specially with the fever catchin' hold of him."

Nathan retrieved a cloth from the tepid water by the comatose man's bedside and bathed the ashen face, noting the fever-flush of color high on Vin's cheeks.

Tapping the warm cheeks gently, Nathan called out to his friend, "Vin? Vin! C'mon now, time fer ya to be wakin' up! Lemme see those baby blues all the gals is fawnin' over..." Taking the cool cloth, Nathan again bathed the bruised, swollen face, "C'mon Vin, you need to drink some water fer me, an' I got some a'that horse-piss tea yer always so fond of."

Nathan's efforts were rewarded by a moan from the injured man, followed by a slight movement of the eyes under the closed eyelids.

"That's right.. C'mon now, you can do it. Jus' fight a little harder." he encouraged.

Hoping that the continued response from Vin indicated a return to some level of consciousness, Nathan glanced at Chris who was standing frozen in place, his eyes riveted on the younger man.

"Chris, get me a cup of fresh water." the healer hoped to pull the man from his misery with the simple request.

With a start, Larabee turned his gaze on Nathan, anguish clouding the green eyes that could strike fear in the most ruthless heart.

"Chris, I need the water fer Vin." Nathan repeated, entreating the gunfighter to abandon the despair he was lost in.

With a visible motion, Chris shook off the shroud of regret and fear that had cloaked his entire being and moved to fulfill Nathan's request.

"Thanks." Nathan accepted the cup and turned again to the man who was finally stirring from the void where he had been existing. Nathan just prayed that the reaction he was seeing indicated a return to life and that his young friend would have the will to face the uphill battle his damaged body would demand of him.

Part 37

Nettie Wells had only intended to be in Four Corners for one day and so had allowed her niece, Casey, to stay alone at the small cabin they shared. After all, the young girl had the Spencer and an old revolver and she knew how to use both.

But given the events of the day and the unsettled atmosphere of the town, Nettie had gone out to the cabin to collect her niece and bring her back to town to await the return of the seven.

If Nettie was concerned when she left Four Corners, she was appalled on her return in the early morning to find how completely and fiercely sentiment had turned against the young men she held in such high esteem.

"Casey, I'm gonna go to Nathan's clinic and see if the boys're back yet. You go on over and get us a room at the Hotel and stay there, you need to try'n get some sleep... "

The young girl instantly bristled at the suggestion and looking in the determined face, Nettie knew there was no way Casey would agree to staying in her room, so she headed off the protest before it could begin.

"... nevermind. You best just come with me. And stay close." she said, as she turned toward the livery and the throng of angry unruly people gathering there.

+ + + + + + +

The more militant inhabitants of Four Corners were not happy the tracker had been brought back to their town. The fact that he was barely alive was immaterial. Mob rule had decided they didn't want 'his kind' in their midst and they were going to make sure the other regulators were fully aware of their opinion.

Jealous, petty men who resented the way the seven peacekeepers had so quickly assumed authority over the town propelled the rabble onward. Their insidious whispers and disparaging comments fueling the fires of the weak, who thought they could obtain power not by personality or ability but through the force of numbers.

As the struggling farmers and dollar-a-week cowhands thronged together, each new body served to increase the boldness of the individuals until, as was to be expected, the crowd finally attained imposing proportions.

Bent on impressing their friends with their bravery, shouts began to echo above the crowd.

"Send 'im out here!"

"We know what ta do wi' his kind!"

"Cain't attack a woman in this town and git away wi'it!"

It was through this unruly group that Nettie Wells led Casey, her hand holding tightly to the young girl.

As the older woman pushed her way to the front of the throng, she turned on them, anger sparking from her wizened eyes.

"How dare you?! You should be ashamed of yourselves! After all that boy's done fer this town." Looking out at the sea of stubborn faces, Nettie knew her words were in vain. She'd had too much experience with mobs in the past to believe that she'd get through to them. Her dismay mounted as she saw the hostility in their set faces. Lord, if they git out'a hand they'll lynch that boy... she thought, the feeling of foreboding growing, Where're the rest of the boys?

Turning on her heel, and with Casey still in tow, Nettie rushed up the steps to the clinic, praying desperately that she would find Vin alive and his friends standing by to protect him.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan's attempt to distract Larabee had worked. Giving the gunman an active role in caring for his injured friend had served to draw that green-eyed terror out of his self-imposed hell. Now Nathan could turn his total attention to caring for Vin without fretting about Chris..

For his part, Chris was putting is entire heart and soul into bathing Vin's too-warm face and trying to get small amounts of water into the younger man.

Gradually, Chris became aware of a growing rumble outside. It crept into his consciousness like the roll of distant thunder which seemed to advance close and threatening.

Turning questioning eyes to the windows, he was momentarily confused to see bright sunshine reflecting off the glass.

"What the hell is that?" He said, rising from where he'd been sitting as close to the cot where Vin lay as possible and approaching the door. With a quick backward glance at the still unconscious man on the bed, Larabee stepped out onto the verandah and was startled to see the disorderly crowd milling about below.

It was clear from their disheveled appearance that Nettie Wells and Casey had just managed to push their way through the chaotic mass, determination evident in their faces as they ascended the stairs.

"You all right?" he asked the older woman, holding open the clinic door. "Nathan's inside... with Vin."

"We're fine. You best do something 'bout them though." she indicated the street below with a jerk of her head. She'd noticed the slight hesitation in the man's voice and her heart began to pound even harder as she entered the dark room. She nearly missed his next firm words as her eyes adjusted to the change in light.

"I will."

Scanning the streets, Chris saw Buck, Ezra, Josiah and J.D. walking hurriedly toward the clinic. It was obvious to the gunslinger that the men had just risen from their beds and were not happy with what they'd found taking place in the street.

Catching the eye of each man in turn, Chris indicated that the lawmen should fan out around the mob and rein them in.

The sound of guns clearing leather and being cocked brought a sudden hush to the throng.

"There a problem here?" demanded Chris Larabee, the rising sunlight glinting from his scowling green glare, his already formidable image appearing even more threatening as he stood over the mob of people gathered below the clinic balcony.

Ambrose Conklin stepped forward from the crowd, assuming what he felt to be his natural place as spokesman for the town. A position he felt he'd naturally held - until the arrival of the seven gunmen. His accumulating resentment added passion to his voice as he challenged the man in black.

"We DEMAND that you hand that contemptible savage over to us for incarceration and an appropriate trial and punishment!" the snakelike man demanded, his ego building with the shouts of agreement he was receiving from the rowdy mob. "It is unacceptable that he remain free after what he did! Even you must understand that." Conklin gave a mocking sneer, enjoying himself as he believed he was pointing out his superiority over the rough gunmen.

"What'd he do, Conklin?" Chris asked, his voice deadly calm.

"Really, Mr. Larabee, I certainly thought you would show some propriety when it comes to discussing the repulsive events of yesterday! After all, we certainly don't want to openly discuss the vile attack on Mrs. Travis..." Conklin's voice trailed off as he looked around at the nodding heads of the townspeople surrounding him.

"He's right!" Shouted a man Chris recognized as a small-time rancher, "Poor Miz Travis, what happ'nd ta her shouldn' never happen to no decent woman."

"Yea!" "He's right!" Others joined in, working themselves into a renewed frenzy of hostility.

"Vin didn't assault Mary Travis." Larabee announced firmly, his tone ensuring everyone's attention. "There was another man in the alley; Vin was tryin' to protect her."

"Come now. You can't expect us to believe that!" retorted Conklin. "We all saw you attack him to try and save her from that savage's assault. Now we want him locked up in jail!"

"Well, that just ain't gonna happen, you pompous overstuffed little pigeon." assured the amused voice of Buck Wilmington. The ladies’ man had propped himself up against a post on the boardwalk and was carefully watching the growing crowd. "Even if he was well enough ta be moved, we sure as hell ain't gonna turn him over to a plumped up struttin' pea hen like you! So why don't ya just gather your little brood in and go on about your business?"

"The man's right brother, you best move on." Heads spun to right as Josiah Sanchez spoke, the big man's posture quietly threatening.

"Yea, sounds like a good idea to me." said J.D. Dunne from his position behind the gathered hot-heads.

"Well, gentlemen, I do believe my comrades have made their point and it would serve your best interests to disburse your little assembly at this time. Most assuredly, no good can come to you if you continue with your preposterous demands."

Heads spun again, this time to Ezra's position, and the clear realization that the lethal peacekeepers had effectively surrounded the crowd.

Soon quiet mutterings could be heard as the so recently outspoken crowd understood that any further action on their part would be met by deadly force. Wrathful faces now turned to Conklin, their angry demeanor demanding that he guide them from the peril he had led them into.

Deciding to bluff his way out, Conklin put forth his most indignant expression and turned back to Chris Larabee where he still stood looking down at the crowd with deceptive calm.

"This is not over! You cannot protect an attacker and possibly rapist from the law!" exclaimed the arrogant man, "Justice will be served!" he proclaimed dramatically, then turned on his heel to march off with as much dignity as he could muster.

With continued dark mutterings the mob quickly disbanded as Buck, Josiah, Ezra and J.D. watched carefully for any continued trouble.

Chris directed one final glare at the scattering men and turned back into the clinic, his full attention returning to his painful vigil.

Part 38

Nettie paused inside the door, allowing her eyes to adjust to the darker room as she sought out the young man she'd come to care for as if he were her own child.

Looking up, Nathan rose from his desk where he'd been searching through his medical journals for information about how to treat blood-loss and shock. While he'd treated many in the past, Vin's continued lack of response had him very worried.

"Nettie, I'm glad yer here. I sure can use your opinion. I did all I could but he ain't waken up like he should." said the healer as he turned back to the unconscious man on the bed. "He started movin' around a while ago, thought he might be comin' 'round. But now there's nothin'. It's like he ain't fighten' back…"

"Casey, you go sit over there." Nettie said. Never taking her eyes from the face of the pale young man in the bed, as she gently pushed her niece toward the chair Nathan had just vacated.

Then the older woman moved swiftly to the side of the bed and placed a gentle work-worn hand on Vin's forehead.

"He's got a fever Nathan, but it ain't high."

"Yea, I had Chris bathin' him with cool water, seemed to be helpin'. I cleaned out his wounds best I could and treated 'em with carbolic. One I'm real worried 'bout is the knife wound in his side... that one went untreated for quite a while…" Nathan's soft brown eyes met Nettie's across the bed as he realized she didn't know anything about what had transpired after the six men had left Four Corners in pursuit of their friend. "You were right Nettie, there was someone else attackin' Mary. Vin was cut bad tryin' to help her."

Nettie turned sad eyes on the unconscious man, her breath catching in her throat as she saw how young and defenseless he appeared. "I knew you could never do what they think." she said softly, reaching out to stroke the damp curls from his forehead. "What about Chris? Were they able to work things out? Before...?" she asked, looking searchingly at Nathan.

"No, Vin was unconscious when we found him..." Nathan began to explain the events Nettie had missed but was interrupted by the opening of the clinic door.

The intense appearance of Chris Larabee precluded any further discussion of the events of the day.

+ + + + + + +

Blackness. All-encompassing, interminable blackness... This thick fog's kinda comfortable, in a strange way, Vin thought, as he began to accept the tranquil void as his sanctuary for eternal rest.

Until an annoying drone began intruding.

The unwelcome distraction served to pull him toward the distant edge of the shroud and the renewed stabs of pain waiting him there. With a guttural growl, Vin fought the sounds pulling at him, drawing him out of the peaceful nothingness into what he instinctively knew would be a world of hurt.

The distress of his struggle was not lost on the anxious people waiting at his bedside. An instant chorus of encouragement and pleading began as Nathan and Nettie tried to coax him back to consciousness.

The entreating voices served to drag the injured man further from the cushioning oblivion into the excruciating fire of awareness, forcing another pain-filled groan from the dry throat.

"C'mon Vin, we need ya ta join us now." urged Nathan, hope rising as his friend finally began to show some sign of life. "We got’a get some fluids in ya."

"Vin, honey, I know you're in pain, but ya need to fight it and let me know you're alright." implored Nettie Wells, "I cain't take this worry'n son."

Nettie's plea was rewarded by a slight flickering of the tracker's eyelids. As her kindly remembered voice penetrated his consciousness, Vin's muddled mind fought to make sense of what Nettie wanted of him. He recognized her tone, if not the actual words, and reacted instinctively to the distress she was communicating.

Such was his need to relieve the suffering of the woman who reminded him so strongly of his mother, that he turned from the restful darkness cloaking him and fought to reach out to the older woman. Vin allowed the jagged stabs of pain to pull him further into consciousness, using the sharp edges to cling to and drag his mind to awareness.

With a tremendous effort he managed to force his focus on communicating to Nettie that he was there for her.

"Nnn..etti...?" the sound was a quiet, hoarse groan, as he struggled to make sense of where the older woman was and what was causing the heartrending anguish in her voice.

"I'm right here son." Nettie replied softly. Needing to communicate with him, she reached out and began softly stroking his hand and arm.

With another groan, Vin turned his head toward the sound of her voice and, finally managing to force his eyes open enough to see shadows and light, sought out her face. "Netti..., ya aw..righ..?" Concern for the older woman overrode his desire to retreat back into the darkness, to escape from the torture that came with consciousness.

"Oh son, I'm fine." replied Nettie, her heart breaking as she understood the agony he had put himself through out of concern for her. "It's you we're worried about, you got’a try'n get some fluids in. Can you try and drink a little for me?" she asked, holding out her hand for the cup she knew Nathan would have ready for her.

"C'mon son, Nathan's gonna lift yer back up a little so you can sip some of the herbal tea he made for you, think you can do that?"

A husky "Yea…" was all the reply Vin could manage as he was nearly overwhelmed by shooting arrows of pain pulsating through his chest and shoulder.

Nettie held the cup to his lips and the young man managed to take a few swallows of the healing tea.

From the other side of the bed, Chris Larabee watched his friend carefully, uncharacteristically unsure of what to say or do. How can I begin to make things right after what I did to you? he thought. Vin's voice penetrated his melancholy mood and brought his attention back to his friend.

"Awful..." hissed Vin when Nathan had seen he'd had all he could take and indicated to Nettie he'd had enough to drink for now.

"I know ya feel awful. Just rest now." said the healer as he gently rested Vin's head back on the pillow.

"No.." moaned Vin, "horse pis..." he began but stopped suddenly when he remembered Nettie was close beside him.

Relief flooded through Chris as the glimmer of his friend's off-beat sense of humor appeared and a soft chuckle escaped the gunman's lips.

Vin Tanner tensed when he heard the sound. Even barely-conscious he was immediately able to identify the brief chuckle as coming from Chris. He hadn't realized Larabee was there, Shoulda known... he thought as a wave of grief and despair flooded over him. Oh God... Mary... What did I do to you Pard...?

Nettie Wells watched, shocked, as Vin's eyes dropped and he withdrew back into himself. "Vin, what's wrong?" she exclaimed in fear.

"Vin?" Chris said anxiously, concern for his friend forcing the words from him in a harsh whisper.

Incredibly to those watching, the injured man's color seemed to fade even further and he recoiled as if he'd been struck, turning his head further away from the sound of Chris's voice.

"VIN TANNER! Don't you look like that!" Nettie exclaimed, seeing all too clearly the guilt written on his damaged features. "Look at me son." she insisted, trying to shake him from his self-imposed penance.

Obediently, Vin raised his half-closed eyes to her face and the pain Nettie saw there was only partially physical. A shattered soul was reflected in the blue depths, a hurt beyond anything Nettie Wells had seen in all her years. As she struggled to find words to comfort him, Vin gave a slight movement of his head,

"Please..." he pleaded softly, closing his eyes again, unable to endure the pain he felt as the realization of what his failure had cost his friend slammed into him. With a heart-breaking groan, he sought out the soothing darkness and allowed it to claim him once again.

Part 39

By unspoken accord, Buck, Josiah, Ezra and J.D. met in the Sheriff's Office.

J.D. flopped down in the desk chair as the other men arrayed themselves about the room. Silence lay heavy on the peacekeepers, none wanting to be the first to voice the obvious concerns they shared.

Finally, Ezra, who was never known to keep his own peace, spoke out, "Well gentlemen, it appears we have a serious problem here. While we have no doubt that Mr. Tanner is innocent of the allegations being made, the townspeople are not in agreement with our conviction. We may have obtained a momentary reprieve, but it is obvious that we are not going to be able to subdue the upright people of this town for long." He said, directing his comments to all of the men but locking his gaze on Buck Wilmington.

"Now, Ez, let's not be too hasty, I think folks'll come 'round..." replied the ladies’ man, slightly unnerved as he realized the gambler was looking to him to assume the role of leader of the remaining regulators in Chris's absence. A capacity usually reserved for Vin Tanner.

"Really Mr. Wilmington! We barely managed to extricate ourselves from that mob without bloodshed! And I for one do not relish the idea of taking on this entire town! We will hardly have the option of shooting our way to supremacy!" retorted the gambler, glancing at Josiah and J.D. in an attempt to read their opinions on the matter.

"Unfortunately, in this instance, I got’a agree with Ezra." said Josiah, "We've accepted the responsibility of protecting the good people of Four Corners and, given the events of the day, they believe their fears are justified, no matter how wrong they might be. Until tempers 'r soothed, I'm afraid Vin is guilty in their eyes and our protecting him flies in the face of everything we've tried to do here."

"What?! Vin didn't do anything!" exclaimed J.D. as the youth flew up from his chair, "And he's our friend, we got’a stand by him!" The young sheriff's hands gripped the butts of his guns. "They'll lynch him if we turn him over for a trial!"

"Hold on now son, ain't nobody talking about turning Vin over to nobody." Buck soothed, "We're just afraid somebody's gonna do somethin' stupid." Buck glanced at Ezra and Josiah and saw agreement in their faces. "Folks may calm down after they've gotten some rest. But I agree, just in case, we need to think on an alternative to keepin' folks away from Vin. Like maybe gettin' Vin away from folks..? Take 'im somewhere a little safer than Nate's place right in the middle of town..?"

"Like where?" demanded J.D. relaxing his grip on his guns slightly.

"How 'bout Miz Nettie's?" suggested Josiah, "I'm sure it'd be fine with her.."

"Now, that's a good idea" replied Buck consideringly, "but it's awful far out, not certain he can take that long travel... We can check with Nate..."

"Gentlemen, would you consider Mr. Larabee's shack as a suitable location for Mr. Tanner's recuperation? While painfully rustic, it is out of the elements, close enough and, most importantly, secluded." Ezra looked at each man in turn and each nodded agreement, "Fine then, that is settled."

"Well, alright then, at least now, if things don't calm down we have a plan. If need be, soon as Nate say's we can move him, we'll take Vin out to Chris's. Now, since everybody's quiet, I'm goin' back to my warm bed." With a wink and a slight salute, Buck strode out the door in the direction of the Hotel.

"Wonderful," said Ezra turning to follow the ladies’ man. "Now all we have to do is keep the lid on this charming village until we can substantiate Mr. Tanner's vindication."

"Let's go son," Josiah said to J.D. as the two followed their friends out into the brisk fall air, "We best get some food and rest too, no telling what's gonna happen in the next day or so."

+ + + + + + +

Alby Savitch was not happy that the crowd had scattered so quickly when faced with the threat of Larabee's glare. He'd really been counting on fireworks going off, a distraction so he could finish off that damn tracker. Only then would he be free to fully enjoy his real goal - slow, painful revenge on Larabee.

Keeping out of site in the shadows of the Livery, the irrational man had watched as the four peacekeepers gravitated to the jail and Larabee disappeared from sight in the second floor clinic.

Jist a temp'rary delay. He thought as he sunk back further into the alley. If nothing else, Albert Savitch was patient and more than willing to bide his time until opportunity presented itself, as he knew it would.

Part 40

An uneasy calm settled over the town as the tense mob disbursed. Mumbling and grumbling was mostly unchecked as the ring leaders continued to spout their venom to anyone who would listen, and while the outright display of animosity had been diffused, resentment was still running rampant.

In the second floor clinic, Vin Tanner remained unconscious, much to the apprehension of the three people who would not leave his side.

After intense questioning by the surly gunfighter, Nathan had managed to convince Chris that Mary was in fact unhurt, barring a mild concussion, and had been summoned out of town to be with her injured son. Chris had then settled once again into a brooding silence at Vin's side, with Nettie Wells positioning herself protectively on the opposite side of the bed.

Nathan Jackson had retrieved his medical books and, after exhaustive reading and re-reading, he'd finally given up his search for an answer to the fear he was trying to keep at bay. He knew in his mind that he would find no magic cure in the books, but his heart balked at giving up the search. To make matters worse, everything he read just confirmed what he already knew - there was no good medical reason Vin wasn't responding and no medical reason Vin had withdrawn so noticeably from the sound of Chris Larabee's voice.

After a long period of strained silence, Casey began to stir in her seat. Appalled by the tracker's condition and the torment all too evident in her aunt, Nathan, and Chris, she’d been trying to stay out of the way and as quiet as possible. But after at least an hour of near immobility, in spite of her best efforts the young girl became antsy. So she shifted the chair to lay her tired head on Nathan's desk. With Nettie in town last night, she hadn't gotten much sleep alone at the farm.

The unexpected sound of the chair moving on the wooden floor drew Nettie's attention to her niece, "Lord child, I forgot you were here." She said, looking at the tired, worried young face guiltily. "You best go over to the Hotel and get yourself a room, I can't have you gettin' sick too."

Casey was too tired to argue with her aunt and, frankly, she was glad to have the excuse to leave the oppressive sadness of the Clinic.

"Okay, Aunt Nettie. Will you come get me if anything changes?"

"Yes child, go on now." replied the older woman.

"Might not be safe for her to go out there alone," said Nathan cautiously, "Given the mood of folks..."

Chris Larabee rose to his feet, the fluidity of his motion belying the past hour's inactivity.

"I'll see her over there. I need to check on things anyway," fear and self-reproach making his quiet tone hard and cold. "No point in me sitting here." With a final tormented glance at the motionless man on the bed, he turned toward the door.

+ + + + + + +

Vin had been endlessly floating in the nothingness. He knew there was something out there somewhere. Somewhere beyond the limits of his awareness. But he just didn't care. No, that ain’t right, he thought, More like I don't belong... Don't deserve ta be with 'em...

Who? Don't deserve to be with who?


But Chris called him ‘Pard’... so why’d he been trackin’ him… tryin’ to kill him..?

None of it was making any sense.

With the return of thought came a lessening of the black shroud surrounding him and sounds began to intrude again. Fear that his return to reality would mean a renewal of the agonizing pain, Vin fought to ignore the noises. But some part of his mind wanted to grasp at the strength he instinctively knew those voices offered, so he turned his focus to concentrating on the sounds, finding he relished their soothing melody.

Gradually, the fog cleared and he was able to distinguish the voices - Nettie and Nathan. A warm contentment spread over him as he savored the sounds beckoning him. As he reached the edge of consciousness, another, colder voice intruded, No point in me sitting here...

An anguished groan was torn from his soul as memory crashed over him.

Again he saw Mary Travis’s crumpled form lying in the dark alley, a man crouched over her, the glint of moonlight on the knife... I failed ya cowboy.... You were right t’try 'n kill me... Don't deserve ta die for killin' Jesse Kinkaid... but fer lettin' Mary die...

Another heart-wrenching groan issued forth as he tried to release the despair threatening to crush him.

Nettie's flew forward from her seat at the sound. She wrung out the cool, wet cloth she had been using to bathe the battered face.

"Vin? Son, please answer me." she pleaded, willing him to respond. The woman shared Nathan's concern about Vin's failure to respond. The fact that he'd briefly awoken earlier, recognized her and understood where he was and responded to Nathan's tea, indicated that he didn't have a serious head injury. But this knowledge only made his current state more distressing. It was as if he were choosing not to return...

"Oh sweet Lord..." Nettie moaned, drawing a startled breath.

"What?" from Nathan, as his head snapped up and his brown eyes flew to Vin's face.

"He don't want to come back to us.." she said, "He ain't fighten' like he should. He's lettin' himself drift away up."

"No Nettie, Vin's not like that, he'd never just give up." replied the black healer, laying a reassuring hand on the old woman's shoulder.

Tear-filled eyes turned up to his face, "He would if he thought he had nothin' left to live for." she replied, sadly.

Part 41

Buck Wilmington strode out of the Hotel stretching his stiff back. The quick nap he'd aimed at hadn't really happened. Worry over Vin, and Chris had been gnawing at the ladies’ man, preventing him from relaxing into the fatigue dragging at him. Turning toward the Clinic, the tall gunman intended to allay some of his fears by confirming that Vin was improving and resting comfortably.

As his long legs carried him across the street he heard his name called and saw J.D. headed in the same direction from the jail.

"Hey, Buck, I been waiting for you to come out, I didn't want to bother Nathan..." began the young easterner.

"Oh, but botherin' me is awright?" retorted Wilmington, unable to prevent himself from teasing the boy, no matter how worried he was.

"Naw, you know that wasn't what I meant." defended J. D., "I just thought we'd go up together..."

"I know son, I'm worried too." Buck laid his arm across J.D.'s shoulders. "Let's go put our minds ta rest."

With a nod, J.D. fell in step beside his best friend and they began to ascend the steps to the Clinic. The emphatic opening of the door on the second floor halted them in their tracks as they stepped onto the verandah.

"Hey there Casey, Chris, how's Vin?" Buck looked hard at his old friend, concerned by the worry and anguish deeply etched into the fine features.

"Same." Chris's answer was curt and obviously not open to further questions as the slender man swept past Buck and J.D., his hand on the young girl's shoulder preventing her from stopping to talk. Larabee was not in the mood for a chat with anyone. The gunman was more disturbed than he wanted to admit by the events of the day. He needed to sort out in his mind, again, how things had gotten to where they now stood. And further conversations would not help.

Buck and J.D. stood in stunned silence as they watched the retreating figure of the man in black disappear with Casey through the Hotel doors.

"Buck...?" J.D. began, only to be interrupted by his friend.

"Let 'im go kid. Man's carryin' a heavy burden." He clapped his hand on the younger man's back, "Let's go see how Vin is for ourselves."

+ + + + + + +

"Oh Miss Nettie, that cain't be right!" Nathan protested. "Vin knows he's got all a'us standin' by him..."

"Does he Nathan?" the older woman fired back harshly, "You think he ain't aware enough to remember Chris was tryin' to kill him in the alley? Think he don't know Chris, all of you, was chasin' him down?"

Denial and pain warred in Nathan's kind brown eyes as he processed what Nettie was saying to him. Turning to look carefully at the pale man on the cot, he spoke softly.

"But why? I mean what reason does he think Chris had for tryin' to kill him?" Nathan turned his questioning gaze back to Nettie.

"Knowin' how he thinks, he probably reasoned he did somethin' wrong. Prob'ly believes he deserved it." tears welled in the tired eyes, "Lord, what a mess..."

Both heads turned sharply as the door was thrust open and relief washed over them as Buck and J.D. entered. Relief that is wasn't Chris Larabee returning. With the questions galloping through their minds, neither of them wanted to face the man in black anytime soon.

"Hey Miss Nettie, how's Vin?" asked J.D. Dunne in his best imitation of a stage whisper as Buck went directly to the injured man's bedside to observe him closely.

"He's about the same." replied Nathan with a quick glance at Nettie. The healer and the older woman locked eyes momentarily in silent agreement. No need to share their suspicions with the others just yet, probably only complicate things. "Woke a bit ago, seemed aware, but he's in a lot of pain." Nathan explained, "He passed out again before I could get any real fluids in him, 'though he did take a little tea. 'Fraid to give him laudanum 'fore I make sure he ain't got a bad head injury."

Buck laid his hand on Vin's unbandaged shoulder, presumably the action serving to reassure Vin but more for himself, for some reason the ladies’ man needed to touch his friend.

Buck was surprised when Vin turned his head in his direction and one blue eye opened a slit.

"Hey slick! Nice ta see yer gonna join us. Quite a party we got goin' here!" the mustachioed man quipped, pleased to have the tracker respond to him.

"" the groan barely discernible as a word.

"Yea son, I'm here, so's Nettie, Nate and the kid. How're you feelin'?"

"Sssorry... ss..ssorry 'bout Mary..." Vin blinked and a tear formed in the corner of his eye, making its way slowly down his cheek into his sweat-damp hair.

Nettie took Vin's chin in a gentle hand and turned his face to hers, "Vin, you got nothin' to be sorry for... we know you had nothin' to do with what happened to Mary."

"Failed... let her die..." the pain-filled words stunned the four anxious people listening.

"What?! Mary ain't dead!" Nathan exclaimed, sudden realization of the tracker's thoughts hitting him like a physical blow.

Vin's gaze darted around the clinic, desperately searching for the blonde woman, hope rising in him. He knew she'd been hurt so logic told him she should be in Nathan's care… It quickly became obvious to the injured man that Mary was not being cared for in the Clinic. Closing his eyes with a groan of dismay, Vin felt his world crash down again as his glimmer of hope died, Mary'd be here if she ain't dead...

J.D. Dunne had been standing back quietly, trying to understand what was happening when Vin's words startled him out of his reverie, Shoot! He'd forgot about Mary! His brown eyes scanned the clinic, knowing he should see the newswoman in the small room. Unable to prevent himself, J.D. exclaimed "Where is she? Know she was hurt... shouldn't you be takin' care of her Nathan?"

The young man's words and confusion were not lost on the observant tracker, waves of despair surged through him as J.D. confirmed that the woman he'd last seen lying in an alley wasn't there. They're lyin'... Mary ain't bein' cared for by Nathan 'cause she's dead...

"Son, listen to me, Mary's fine. She had to leave town 'cause Billy got hurt." Nettie's voice was edged with desperation as she realized the ramifications of Vin's mindset.

"No..." Groaned Vin as he allowed the tidal wave of despair to carry him back into the black cloud of misery.

A shocked silence, broken only by a distressed moan from Nettie Wells, fell over the room.

Finally, J.D. began to feel like he would explode if somebody didn't say something so he cleared his throat and hesitantly began, "Passed Chris and Casey on their way out..." he said before catching Buck's frown and head shake as the mustachioed man tried to warn him off discussing the gunman. "What?" squeaked J.D. Nettie's harrumph told him that he had again said something wrong but he didn't quite understand what.

"Never mind kid." Buck sighed, "Anything we can do?" He asked Nathan quietly, "Maybe sit with Vin so you can get some rest?"

"No, I want ta keep watch until I'm sure he's stable. Got’a get some fluids in him. But thanks Buck, I'll keep yer offer in mind fer later." Nathan unconsciously glanced out the window. The street was bustling with people and horses going about their regular, daily business. "Ya just need to keep the town from comin' in here after him."

"Well, they're quiet now so maybe that problem's past." said the ladies’ man with a slight smile.

"Hope yer right..." responded Nathan distractedly, without conviction in his tone.

Part 42

As dusk began to fall on Four Corners, men began to gather once again in the saloon. Ezra Standish had long since taken up his seat at the table he routinely frequented. His goal this night was not only to initiate a poker game as was his norm, but to keep an experienced eye on the mood of the denizens of the saloon.

So far, things had been quiet, but then the evening was still young.

Steadily, the tables began to fill and the bar became lined with shop-keepers, dirt farmers, cowboys and less savory types. As the body count increased, so too did the noise. Voices that began as loud talking just to be heard in the crowded room gradually became thunderous and more raucous until the crowd could only be described as rowdy.

A quiet table where a man in black sat with his back to the wall was a notable and ominous exception. Chris Larabee had a whiskey bottle on the table in front of him but had actually been drinking very little. After seeing Casey safely to her room in the Hotel, he'd headed to the saloon with every intention of using the strong spirits to wash away the pain and guilt he felt at having betrayed Vin's friendship. He'd even drunk two shots in quick succession, savoring the burn of the whiskey on his empty stomach; but as he began to pour the third, an image of Vin Tanner's battered face flashed in his mind and his hand had stopped, the bottle poised over the glass.

He sat back abruptly, anger at himself flaring again and searing deep in his soul. Not only had he betrayed his friend, now he was wrapping himself in a comfortable haze of alcohol while his friend suffered. With an abrupt movement, he set the bottle firmly on the tabletop and slumped further back in his chair.

Ezra had been watching Chris carefully out of the corner of his eye and experienced a momentary jolt of discomfort when he saw the unexpected movements. This does not bode well for a quiet evening. thought Ezra as he unconsciously dealt cards around the table to the strangers who had decided to try their luck against the snappy-dressed gambler. It appears that the rabble are priming themselves for a night of uncivilized activity and Mr. Larabee's mood is, at best, uncertain. With a sigh, imperceptible to those around him, Ezra turned his attention and charming smile back to the easy task of emptying the pockets of the men who were in no way challenging his skills.

The bat-wing doors swung open and Josiah Sanchez entered, stopping briefly just inside the doors to scout the room. His eyes were almost immediately drawn to the brooding figure against the wall. With a sigh that mirrored Ezra's, the big preacher walked slowly to the man in black. While Josiah was uncertain of his welcome, he was very certain that somebody had to approach Chris Larabee. Might as well be him.

"Mind if I sit?" Getting no response from the dark-visaged man, Josiah pulled out a chair and settled his big frame on it. Glancing up at the bar, he nodded to the bar keep and a beer appeared in front of him.

"Figured you might be with Vin." More of a question than a statement, Josiah waited patiently for some indication from Larabee of what could possibly have driven him from his injured friend's side.

"Needed to get out, get some air." came the quiet reply.

"Find plenty of fresh air in here brother."

With a tilt of his head, Chris raised his eyes to the preacher's face. Josiah was stunned by the pain emanating from the green depths.

"Chris? Has something happened to Vin?" Josiah leaned forward, both hands on the table in front of him. His stance one of anxiety, as if he would fly up from the table at any moment.

Seeing the concern on the big man's face, Chris sighed heavily and motioned to him to relax.

"No, nothing's happened." Came the bitter reply, "He's been falsely accused of attacking Mary, beat near to death by a man he trusted enough to call 'Pard', tracked, and shot in the back... and now the whole town wants to lynch him. No, he's just fine." The bile rose in Larabee's throat, threatening to choke him and he threw back a shot of whiskey, hoping to wash it away.

"Chris, the Lord knows that boy's been through hell, and it ain't right, but beaten' yourself up like this won't help him." Josiah's quiet, deep voice pushed its way past the gunman's shell of guilt. "He's gonna need you more than ever, to protect him and help him heal. You know he's gonna manage to blame himself for all this. You're the only one can keep that from happening. You're the only one he'll listen to."

Green eyes again met blue as the preacher's words sunk in and reality began to dawn. Vin felt guilty?! Of course he did. That's the way Vin thought... never aimin' to hurt anyone, feelin' their suffering... Why hadn't he seen it?

Larabee wouldn't have believed he could feel worse, now shame compounded on guilt until he felt nauseous.

The former preacher watched as the green eyes clouded and Chris's chin dropped to his chest in defeat. Unexpectedly the floodgates seemed to open and quiet words came rushing out of the despondent man, "God Josiah, you should see him. Cut bad saving Mary, then beat near to hell - by ME, his so called friend - then shot, and now the whole damn town's standin' outside calling him a 'woman attacker'. He's not responding to Nathan and Nettie and he won't even look at me. In the little while he was awake he drew up like a turtle when I spoke to him. I can't help him..."

Realizing that Chris had probably said more than he intended, Josiah lay a big hand on the black-clad shoulder, "Chris, he's hurt and confused, give him time, be with him, he'll come around." Josiah silently prayed he wasn't offering up false hope. "A terrible thing happened today, only way we can undo the injustice is by showin' Vin we know we were wrong and standing by him."

With a squeeze to the man's shoulder, Josiah sat back and settled into a quiet vigil over his tortured friend.

Part 43

Albert Savitch, thankful for the extra clothes he carried in his saddlebag, had managed to get out of his blood-stained garments and clean himself up real good. Blending into the crowded saloon, he carefully kept his distance from his prey. The unstable man derived evil pleasure from knowing he was just a few yards away from Larabee and the legendary gunfighter didn't even know he existed. Y'll know 'bout me soon enough. he thought with a chuckle, glancing casually at the gunman slumped in his chair. Hell, if'n ya had long ta live, y'd never ferget me, but so long as ya know who's killin' ya and why, I'll be happy.

Tapping his glass on the bar, he was rewarded with another beer and then turned his attention to the rough figures around him. He'd been biding his time, waiting patiently for the right moment to begin his onslaught. Spotting a likely candidate, he began to plant the seeds of discord that he hoped would sprout once again into an uproar.

Nodding to the man beside him, he said "Quiet night, ain't it?"

"Yep" replied the dirt farmer, in town for the day he was happy to have someone to talk with, anxious to catch up on the happenings around town.

"Too damn bad 'bout that newspaper woman, ain't it?" continued Alby, a mad gleam lighting his eyes.

"You mean Miz Travis?" replied the farmer, confused, "What 'bout her?"

"Hell, that damn tracker attacked her! Don't know fer sure what he done to her but she left town right quick, so I guess we c'in figger out pretty close. Got away with it too, them peacekeeper friends a'his got him tucked up nice'n safe over the Liv'ry. Guess if'n ya got the right friends ya c'in get away with anythin'."

"Well that ain't right! Miz Travis is a good, decent woman!" the man's voice began to rise, inflamed by the beer he'd been drinking and the vicious fuel Albert Savitch was heaping on. "Ain't nobody gonna do nothin'?"

"Told ya, Nothin' c'in be done, his friends 'r protectin' him." replied Alby, pleased that his plan was working so well.

"Ain't right!" exclaimed the man again, his strident, angry voice cutting through the clamor of the saloon. Warming to his subject and the attention of the crowd, the farmer got louder and more insistent, "Folks just gonna sit back and let a good woman like Miz Travis be treated like one a Wickes’ woman and do nothin' about it? Those peacekeepers work fer the town, I say we go over there and demand they earn their keep and jail the bastard!"

The town's people, denied their vengeance earlier by the lawmen were only too anxious to renew their efforts. "Shouts of "He's right!" and "I'm with ya!" resonated throughout the crowded room, as chairs slid back and men began rushing toward the batwing doors.

Ezra stood and met Josiah's eyes across the crowd. He'd seen the preacher and Chris get to their feet but he knew the mob was too fired up to reason with. Their only hope was to prevent the surging mass from actually getting their hands on the injured tracker.

+ + + + + + +

The atmosphere in Nathan's clinic was somber and worried, even the naturally irrepressible J.D. was restrained. He and Buck had been sitting quietly, unwilling to leave but uncertain what their rolls should be in the heavy silence.

Vin had stirred several times but when Nathan and Nettie Wells tried to beg him back to consciousness, he'd just groaned and drifted off again. Nathan had finally pronounced that Vin wasn't really waking, just reacting to the pain assailing his body. He didn't actually believe that... but it sounded better to him than the truth - the self-sufficient, bullheaded tracker wasn't fighting to live.

The mood had become so oppressive that J.D. and Buck were strangely glad when they heard the unmistakable sounds of unrest from the street below. Here was something they were equipped to deal with!

Both men were on their feet, guns drawn before the footsteps pounding up the stairs had reached the landing. Buck moved quickly to the door and dashed through it to face an angry rush of indignant townspeople and drunken cowboys, always ready for a diversion, who had been caught up in the out of control mob.

The appearance of the young sheriff and his mentor quickly drove the men on the stairs to retreat so only the peacekeepers stood over the crowd when Nathan and Nettie Wells came out the door. The old woman fully intended to fight anyone who tried to get to "her boy" and her determination was plain in the set features of her weathered face.

Buck, J.D., Nathan and Nettie could see the others trying to make their way through the angry crowd but their progress was slow and Buck doubted that he, Nate and the kid could hold off the mob if they decided to rush the stairs and get to Tanner.

Chris Larabee was becoming more frustrated with each angry step he took, his forward progress blocked by the unruly mass of people. As he manhandled his way through, yelling and a crashing rumble from behind the Hotel drew Larabee's attention from his goal of reaching the stairs and backing up his friends. Being at street level and buried in the crowd, the gunfighter couldn't see clearly what was causing the racket but a terrible realization stopped him in his tracks.

A quick glance at the horror stricken faces of the men and Nettie on the verandah confirmed Chris's worst fear, and drove him forward in a vain attempt to prevent the seemingly inevitable.

Part 44

Vin had been semi-conscious for some time, aware of who was in the room - and who wasn't - but reluctant to surrender the shielding distance he had maintained between himself and the anxious people around him. Now the atmosphere had changed drastically and the tracker's inbred defense mechanisms forced him to total awareness.

Dragging his heavy eyes open, the tracker scanned the room uneasily, quickly noting that everyone had rushed to the verandah in response to a loud, threatening crowd gathered outside. Vin had no doubts about the cause of the uproar and a stab of fear for his friends lanced through him.

Grabbing hand fulls of sheet around his cold limbs, Tanner forced himself from the cot , his focus on the small front window of the clinic. Leaning heavily on the edge of the cot and then on a chair, he pulled his way across the short distance to the wall where his ruined clothes had been discarded on the floor. Pushing the clothes aside, he locked sweat-moist fingers around the stock of his hog's leg.

Breathless and with his chest and side screaming in pain, the injured man propped himself against the wall and turned searching eyes cautiously out the window. Knowing that the angry voices were being raised against him, Vin's only thought was to back-up the others while avoiding being seen from below, knowing instinctively that if the mob saw him, it would only fuel their fire.

Gradually, however; the same rumbling noise that had so stunned the others pushed itself into Vin's consciousness, dragging his gaze away from the throng of malicious people and toward the sound. Shock and horror at the implications of what he saw drove all thoughts of remaining concealed from his mind.

+ + + + + + +

Alby Savitch couldn't have been happier with the uproar he'd caused. He nearly laughed out loud when he saw Chris Larabee futilely pushing his way through the mass of people. Alby had seen mobs in the past and he knew that this rowdy, drunken group was going to be nearly impossible to contain. See Larabee? he thought Ya think yer so damn pow'rfil but I got 'em all fired up 'gainst ya! Try'n save yer damn tracker now!

Part 45

"Jesus..." hissed Buck Wilmington at the sight that met his eyes. He watched in stunned horror as several drunken cowmen hauled Vin Tanner's creaking, canvas draped wagon up the street.

"Buck..? What's goin' on?" J.D.'s voice penetrated the ladies man's stupor and forced his brain to start functioning again.

"Dear Lord Almighty..." was all Nathan Jackson could manage. The former slave had been witness to man's inhumanity many times in the past but he'd become complacent recently and was appalled to see the overwhelming hatred visible in the street of his town.

Stepping out from the crowd, Ambrose Conklin mounted half-way up the clinic steps and hushed the mob into silence. "Brothers! " he shouted authoritatively, " These 'lawmen' have seen fit to protect a criminal! An animal who brutally attacked one of the finest citizens of this town! The poor woman has fled rather than face the humiliation this monster has inflicted on her and all the while this fiend sits safe and warm in our own clinic! This is intolerable and I say that we, the citizens of Four Corners will not stand for it!"

"We must make it clearly known that we will not abide such lawless behavior in our town! We MUST stand together and show them who is in charge! We are paying the wages of these lawmen, they work for us! Let us begin reclaiming our town by eliminating the dwelling of evil from our midst!!"

A roar of approval shot up and with much cheering and encouragement from the mob in the streets, Vin's wagon, the only "home" he allowed himself, was pushed and pulled toward one of the many street fires burning brightly in the night.

"BURN IT!" demanded Conklin raising his fist in the air, and the chant arose and echoed through the darkness.

"BURN IT!" BURN IT!" "BURN IT!" BURN IT!" roared the mob.

+ + + + + + +

In the small clinic, a pair of pain-filled blue eyes watched as spiteful men pushed a tattered wagon toward the open flames. Scanning the mob, hopelessness and defeat engulfed the tracker when he could detect no sign of the one man who could prevent the destruction of his haven, the man that Vin knew would have been the first one there to defend someone he considered a friend.

Part 46

Using brute force, Chris Larabee, with Ezra and Josiah close on his heels, thrust his way through the angry crowd to the steps of the clinic. With a snarl, the gunman grabbed Conklin by the lapels and threw him down the remaining stairs into the street. Pulling his colt, Chris fired three quick rounds over the heads of the men attempting to position Vin's wagon over an open street fire.

Everyone on the street froze at the sharp report of gunfire. While each man had enthusiastically joined in the rally to punish the tracker, the sight of the enraged black clad gunfighter brought instant realization that being one of the throng could not protect them from the deadliness of Chris Larabee's aim should he direct his barely controlled rage toward them.

"Put that goddamn fire out!" roared Larabee. A quick glance at the furious gunman and the equally fierce men surrounding him told the suddenly sober townspeople that they should do as they were told if they wanted to live to see daylight. The wagon was quickly pulled from the licking flames and doused with water from a horse trough.

"I'm telling you for the last damn time that Vin Tanner never hurt Mary Travis!" Chris spat out at the now soundless throng. "Now get out of the street before we begin shooting." The calm, cold tone the gunfighter's voice had taken on sparked more fear than his previous furious roar had. This was a man who wouldn't think twice about opening up on the crowd in the street if they failed to obey him. The words fell like ice water, chilling the anger and alcohol out of everyone within hearing.

With heads bent to avoid showing their fear to those around them, the townspeople and cattlemen began shuffling away, determined to forget this night ever happened.

The six peacekeepers and Nettie Wells watched as the last man disappeared into the darkness before they holstered their weapons and turned to enter the clinic.

Sadly, in the small, deserted room, the devastated tracker had lost his tenuous hold on consciousness just moments before Chris had stepped up to defend him and save his refuge.

+ + + + + + +

Albert Savitch was fuming that Larabee had once again thwarted his plans. His frustration and anger were quickly building to a boiling point and he decided he was going to have to take more direct action against the man whose very existence had become a consuming obsession.

The seething man backed into the darkness of an alley as the crowd disbursed. He wasn't sure what his next move would be but he knew it had to give him some satisfaction. This playing' games with Larabee always winning was pissing him off!

As he turned to retreat and plan his next move, motion at the entrance to the alley caught his eye. The sight of one of the saloon girls lingering curiously on the boardwalk quickly captured the evil man's interest. Hi there girly! Yer jus' what I need ta take the edge off! he sneered. Sliding back into the darkness, he crept through the shadows, quietly stealing close to where she was standing and then, striking like a cat, he silently snatched the young woman into the blackness of the deserted alley.

Part 47

Nathan, intent on confirming that the commotion outside hadn't disturbed his patient, was the first to enter the clinic with the others close on his heels. His brown eyes widened in shock when he saw the empty cot.

Chris Larabee, once again feeling the peculiar connection he and Vin shared, had already discovered his unconscious friend before the healer had a chance to turn and look.

"Vin...?" Larabee's heart sank when he saw the mare's leg still clutched in the tracker's hand. Damn it Tanner… after what I done, you're still watchin' our backs? Chris quickly lifted Vin and placed him gently on the cot. Nathan shouldered past the stricken gunfighter to check over the unconscious man, noting fresh blood on the bandages covering the battered torso.

"Damnit Vin! You broke open half the damn stitches I put in!" His voice edged with frustration and alarm, the healer began cutting off the bandages he had so painstakingly applied such a short time before.

"Josiah, get me some water, I got’a clean these wounds and sew him up - again! Rest a'ya get out’a here. Don't need y'all under my feet!"

While Chris and Nettie made no attempt to leave, Buck, J.D. and Ezra, taken aback at hearing the anger edged with fear in the normally patient healer's voice, quickly removed themselves from the small room.

As Nathan, with Josiah's help, set to work repairing the damage Vin had done to himself, Nettie moved to the far side of the pale man's bed and took the still hand in hers. With a sad sigh, she began stroking the too-warm skin, hoping that the young man would somehow know that he wasn't alone anymore; that his friends were there caring for him.

Chris Larabee re-took the chair against the wall where he had spent so many tormented hours over the past day and returned to staring at the too still form on the bed.

+ + + + + + +

"There, he's stitched up again. Now he best stay that way!" Nathan said firmly as he stood and stretched his aching back. Glancing at the worried faces around him, the healer took a deep breath and slowly let it out before turning to the motionless, man in black, his angst-ridden attention again locked on Vin.

"Chris... Josiah? You should go try'n get some rest, he'll probably be out the rest of the night." the black man said kindly.

"Alright brother, I do believe I could use some sleep... you comin' Chris?"

"No." came the uncompromising reply from the disheartened gunslinger.

Part 48

Awareness returned slowly to the injured tracker. With the growing return of his senses came breathtaking pain and it took him long minutes to get enough control of the agony attacking every part of his body to allow the consciousness pulling at him to drag him from the too comforting blackness. Slowly, he became aware of a work-roughened hand stroking his arm. Nettie. He could feel her reassuring presence as a child knows when their mother is near. For a moment he allowed himself to relax into the soothing aura of protection that the woman brought him, but too soon he was jolted from the peace by fresh waves of horrifying memories.

A low groan brought Nathan and Nettie quickly to alertness and they began to talk softly to the anxious man, trying to calm him with their presence but Vin's increasingly anxious movements made it clear they were having little success.

As the healer and elderly woman coaxed and cajoled the injured man, Larabee remained sitting silently away from the cot, watching Vin with heartache clearly visible in his green eyes.

As the tracker became more distressed and began to fight Nathan's calming hands, Chris stepped forward to speak softly to his friend, "Vin, calm down, you're safe now."

The impact of his words on the injured man was immediate and disconcerting. The sharpshooter turtled into himself, guilt and anguish clear in the very language of his body; forcefully confirming that the badly injured man was suffering from far more than just physical wounds.

+ + + + + + +

Throughout the evening, Vin woke sporadically, and each time his pain-filled blue eyes scanned the clinic stopping only when they came to rest on the solemn man in black. And each time, Vin would become anxious, withdraw back into himself and finally, allow the darkness to reclaim him.

After the latest episode of the injured man repeating the process; searching, locating Chris and becoming distressed and anxious, his movements obviously pain filled, Nathan had had enough.

The healer knew that giving Vin laudanum was dangerous but he was fast realizing that he couldn't risk Vin hurting himself further. Nathan decided he would have to take the chance and although only semi-conscious, Tanner fought at the first indication that something other than water or a healing tea was being poured down his throat. With Nettie's help, Nathan managed to force only a few precious drops down the injured man's throat.

The effects of even the small amount of drug he swallowed, combined with the energy Vin had exerted in fighting Nathan, quickly took a toll on the tracker and he lapsed into a deep but still restless sleep.

"Chris, he can't go through this no more. All this agitation he goin' through is tearin' him up."

"Can he travel?" asked Buck who had wandered quietly back into the clinic in time to hear Nathan's concerned words.

"Why?" asked Nathan, turning searching eyes on the ladies’ man.

"Well, Nate, I don't know what's been goin' on in here, but the air outside ain't nowhere near as calm as I'd like it to be, and ol' Vin's pretty sharp, he don't need to be conscious to feel the bad air. I'm thinkin' maybe he'd be more comfortable where the moods a bit lighter."

"Yea, thinkin' you might be right. He sure ain't restin' here…" Nathan looked at Vin consideringly, "Yea, I think he can be moved, in a wagon, if we pad 'im up good with blankets and ya go slow n'easy, he'd probably do alright." Nathan affirmed thoughtfully. "But where?"

"Boys 'n I talked about this." The ladies' man turned compassionate blue eyes on Larabee as he continued, "Figured we might need to get him out of town, if things got ugly." Buck's irrepressible grin broke through as he glanced at his old friend, "And you know how I hate ugly." Meeting the unblinking Larabee glare, Buck cleared his throat and continued. "We think the safest place'll be your shack..."

"Think that's probably gonna be best, get him away from all the uproar..." agreed the healer, jumping in before Chris could speak. "I'll go with him..." Nathan's voice tapered off as he thought about his next words carefully.

"Chris, I don't think you should go." Nathan said softly, turning sympathetic brown eyes to the misery-filled green ones of the gunman. "I'm sorry... but seein' you just seems to upset him more..."

The gunfighter turned his sad gaze back to the sleeping man. God, he looks so young. Like a boy... A boy that grew up too hard and too fast... and my stupid, vicious actions took away the only place he'd allowed himself to feel a part of. "Fine." Larabee finally replied, his voice harsh with self- loathing. With a short nod, Chris rose to his feet, "First thing in the morning."

And without a backward glance, Chris Larabee walked out of the clinic, closing the door firmly behind him.

Part 49

Morning dawned gray and cold on Four Corners and four peacekeepers - Buck, Josiah, Ezra, and J.D. - were already preparing to move their friend from the unforgiving town.

The night before, after he'd informed the remaining lawmen that they were to move Vin to his shack early the next morning, Chris Larabee had walked out with no indication of where he was going, and the gunman's unpredictable mood had prevented any questions.

When the men arrived at Nathan's clinic at first light to move their friend, they found him sleeping deeply under the effect of a second dose of laudanum Nathan had given him just before the break of dawn. The early hour had been chosen specifically to preclude any run-ins with the locals and it appeared their plan was successful - no one else in the town was stirring - and Chris Larabee was conspicuous in his absence.

Quietly, J. D. and Ezra gathered blankets to cushion a buckboard while Buck and Josiah began the careful task of moving the injured man out of the clinic and bundling him gently in the wagon.

With much regret, Nettie Well's decided to stay in town. She couldn't leave her farm unattended and Casey couldn't be left alone to do all the chores. The concerned woman took comfort in the knowledge that Nathan would take the best care possible of her special young man and she had gotten J.D.'s promise that he would update her immediately should there be any change in Vin's condition.

Nathan climbed carefully in beside the unconscious tracker to cradle him gently during the trip as Josiah took the reins. J.D disappeared briefly into the livery and returned leading Peso. Slowly the precious cargo moved forward, with Buck and J.D. riding silently alongside, Vin’s big black with the white blazed face trailing optimistically behind.

Such was their concentration on their gentle task that none noticed the man in the still-shadowed alley tracking their every move with pain-filled green eyes.

+ + + + + + +

The hunger for blood can be a powerful motivator and Alby Savitch was quickly becoming obsessed by his lust. His unsuccessful attack on Mary Travis and subsequent assault on the tracker had just served to heighten his desire to the boiling point. Then he'd grabbed that barmaid off the street, right under everyone's noses! All the distractions and uproar in town had allowed him plenty of time to really enjoy himself with her and while he'd been briefly sated, the craving was growing more powerful than ever, threatening to consume him.

Albert strolled into the saloon just after noon of the day Vin was taken out of town by his friends. He looked around and smiled to himself, a smile that more closely resembled a sneer as he scanned the room and confirmed to himself that no one was the wiser as to his late night activities. Stepping up to the bar, he asked for a beer and set about enjoying it at his leisure, planning his next move.

The evil man had to force himself to refocus his attention to the purpose that had brought him to this dirty little backwater of a town in the first place - killing that sonuvabitch Larabee. Now, added to that ambition was hunting down that damn interfering tracker and finishing him off!

Unfortunately, neither man seemed to be accessible so he turned his thoughts again to satisfying his lust...

Part 50

Buck, Josiah, Ezra, and J.D. had returned to Four Corners immediately after settling Vin in the healer's care at Chris's shack. While they were decidedly uneasy about leaving the two men alone, each understood that given the unsettled nature of the residents, they were all needed there. Especially since Chris had disappeared.

But life in Four Corners drifted back to normal within a day or so of word getting out that the tracker had left town. With no one left to expend energy and abuse on, the townsfolk had grudgingly returned to their boring routines.

Until the sounds of a man shrieking "MURDER!" shattered the calm and caused a renewed surge of unrest.

Four peacekeepers rushed toward the shouts and pushed their way through the gathering crowd to find the bloodstained body of a young woman stuffed behind a barrel in back of the General Store. From her appearance, she had apparently been dead for quite a while, only the cold keeping her body from being discovered.

"That's Jolene!" exclaimed J.D., recognizing the young woman who had recently arrived in town and taken a barmaid job at the saloon. "Who coulda done this? What should we do with her?"

"Whoa boy, slow down! First let's get her off the street, we'll take her to Nathan's." replied Buck as he and Josiah lifted the dead girl and began to carry her toward the clinic.

Once inside, and having placed the body on a cot, Josiah began to carefully examine the brutalized young woman.

"Shouldn't Nathan be here to do that?" the youngest of the seven asked anxiously.

"The girl's dead, J.D., Nathan can't help her and he's takin' care of Vin and that's most important." replied Buck reasonably, "Besides, looks like Josiah knows what he's doin'."

"Might look like it, brother, but I'm just doin' what I think is right." the preacher replied, his voice thick with sadness. "This is about the worst I've seen. Poor thing, probably burdened with a hard life and now sufferin' a horrible death. Unfortunate soul, hope she's found peace with her maker now."

"Yes Mr. Sanchez, we are all comforted that she is now at peace, but more to the point at hand, can you enlighten us as to how the ill-fated creature was introduced to her maker?" inquired Ezra calmly.

"Well... looks like she was grabbed from behind - bruises on her face and neck look like hand marks - and she was probably assaulted... er.. you know..." the big preacher hesitated to put the ugly details of the assault into words.

"Yea, we know.." snarled the ladies’ man, his voice thick with anger, "Go on..."

"Yes, well, then she was stabbed. Real savage and angry, like whoever did it was enjoyin' carvin' her up. Probably made a mess of himself but had plenty of time to get cleaned up by now."

"So gentlemen, now that we have deduced what happened to the hapless young lady, what do we do about it? Any suggestions as to how to capture the unknown miscreant?" asked Ezra reasonably.

+ + + + + + +

As the townspeople disbursed, excitedly discussing the latest incident to stir up their town and add excitement to their otherwise drab lives, no one noticed the stranger in the well-worn but freshly scrubbed clothes, lingering on the fringe of the crowd.

Alby hadn't thought he could feel more excited than when he was working on a woman, but watching the fool lawmen carry his victim's body right past him without realizing he was the author of this handiwork, gave him a thrill like he'd never known.

Simpletons! he thought, Y'all think yer so damn smart! But poor ole Alby Savitch made ya all look like asses! HAH! I c'n come an' go as I like and yer all none the wiser... got no fear of any a' ya knowin' me, ya was all so damn quick to leave me fer dead. Well, now we'll jus' see how you like findin' all the folks I leave fer dead!

Alby strolled back to the saloon where he could relax and enjoy, and maybe participate in, the many discussions of the "mysterious killer".

Part 51

Nathan had been tending Vin for almost four days and he was not happy with the progress - or lack thereof - the tracker was making.

After a two day battle against the raging fever the young man had developed, Nathan's exhaustive labors were at last rewarded when Vin finally broke into a cooling sweat and his temperature dropped significantly. And while a mild fever lingered, the sick man was now on the road to recovery.

Nathan had anticipated that when his fever broke, Vin would begin the healing process. He couldn't have been more wrong.

The sharpshooter became even more distant and withdrawn than he'd been when he was balancing on the fine line between life and death. Vin had noticeably recoiled into himself and, aside from asking to be left alone, nothing the healer did or said elicited any response.

To make matters worse, several times Nathan had observed his friend with silent tears on his cheeks, lost in an abyss of misery, the depths of which were known only to himself. The compassionate man's heart ached for his friend and Nathan was certain that if the man would just talk to him, Vin would understand that Chris and the boys knew they had made a terrible, tragic mistake in blaming him for the attack on Mary and that they were all truly sorry. But no matter how much he coaxed, begged, or demanded, he couldn't get Vin to listen or open up and share his grief.

So all Nathan could do was continue to treat Vin's physical injuries and pray that his friend would survive his emotional hell.

+ + + + + + +

Much to the peacekeepers' dismay, no headway had been made in identifying Jolene's killer. The girl was laid to rest in the barren cemetery with the costs paid for anonymously.

After the simple service, attended by a few real mourners and many who were driven by morbid curiosity, the four lawmen returned to the saloon for a drink and to ponder the problem.

Buck had ridden out to Chris's shack earlier that day to check on Vin's progress and received the same report all the others had; Vin's ‘physical" condition was slowly improving but he was still unresponsive to any attempt at communication.

Compounding matters, there had been two more attacks on women in the town since poor Jolene was murdered, but fortunately not with the same dreadful results.

To add to the tension, it had been going on seven days since anyone had seen hide nor hair of Larabee and concern for him was niggling in the back of everyone's brains. So it was an unsettled group that gathered in the saloon for a drink nearly a week after the horrible night when their ordeal had started.

"Damn, this is gonna drive me 'bout crazy!" exclaimed Buck, "Who the hell’s attackin' these women and where the hell is Chris?"

"Yea... We're the law... We should be able to catch this guy!" J.D. exclaimed, looking at each of the other men in turn.

"Easier said than accomplished, my friend. In order to catch said criminal, we first must identify him and he has thus far succeeded in leaving very few clues as to his identity."

"Well it's damn frustratin'! Although… the ladies do seem to enjoy my big protective embrace, if ya know what I mean!" Buck's grin lit up his whole face, as he winked suggestively at his friends.

Shaking his head at Buck's irrepressible good humor, Josiah scanned the faces of the occupants of the saloon, "Ezra's right, J.D., I'm afraid until he gets careless or someone witnesses him in the act, our hands are tied."

Part 52

Accepting that the peacekeepers left in town were a worrying bunch, and that they'd visit the shack whenever they could to assure themselves that the healer had everything he needed and that Vin's condition was improving, Nathan became used to their frequent comings and goings, so he wasn't concerned when he heard a horse ride up, although Buck had already been out that morning.

Glancing through the window, the normally unruffled man was stunned to see Chris Larabee tethering Pony to a hitching rail. Nathan was taken aback not only at seeing the man who had been so markedly absent but also at the man's condition.

Even from a distance, Nathan could see the dark circles under the gunman's eyes, the ruffled hair and clothes that looked like they'd been slept in many nights.

Nathan watched as the notorious gunfighter turned toward the cabin and stared at the door as if he were searching for something... A sign of welcome? thought the healer. As he watched, Larabee took a deep breath, and let it out slowly, all the time staring at the cabin as if he'd never seen it before, Hmm.. Or maybe he's just gatherin' his nerve. Nathan figured he'd find out soon enough, as Chris began walking slowly toward the porch

The wait for Larabee to actually enter the cabin seemed interminable to the dark-skinned man, but as much as he wanted to go out and greet his friend, he knew that Chris had to take this step on his own. He could only imagine how difficult it was for Chris Larabee to face Vin Tanner after all that had transpired. Have to give the man credit for confrontin' this head on and not hiding in a bottle. Nathan sighed to himself.

After what seemed like an hour, the door slowly swung open and Chris stepped inside. His appearance close up was even worse. The usually piercing green eyes were dull and sunken, his whole attitude one of uncertainty. This was so unlike the usually self-assured, controlled gunfighter Nathan was used to that it took the healer a few moments to find his voice.

"Hey Chris, we been wondering where you got to. You alright?" inquired Nathan, trying to sound casual.

"Fine." came the terse reply, "How's Vin?" Chris asked more gently, unable to tear his gaze from the sleeping man.

"Gettin' better. Body's healin' pretty good." Nathan turned his brown eyes away from the man in black to quietly study his sleeping friend. "Soul's a different matter."

Larabee's eyes shot toward Nathan, "What the hell does that mean?" he hissed sharply.

"Let's step outside, he don't need to be hearin' this if he wakes up." Taking the black-clad arm, Nathan guided the unresisting gunfighter back out the door.

"Alright we're where he can't hear us! Now tell me what the hell you meant by that?!" Chris demanded, impatiently.

"He's lettin' me tend to his wounds but other than that, he ain't there." Nathan replied quietly. "Don't acknowledge when I talk to him, just lays there, starin' at nothing." The healer shook his head, "I just don't know how to git through to him."

"I can see why he'd be damn mad, but closin' up? Don't sound like Vin." Larabee replied confused.

"Hell Chris, he ain't closed up 'cause he's mad, he's hurtin, scared and eat up with guilt. He's curled up in on himself, tryin' to hide from me. I tried apologizin' to him and tell 'im over and over that we all know there was mistake. I don't think the words even got through to him. Think he's blamin' himself somehow so I even tried tellin' him we forgive him. For what I ain't sure but you know Vin and how he's harder on himself than anyone else could ever be... Nothin' seems to work. He lets me do what I need to, never so much as a moan when I know I'm hurtin' him like hell!" Nathan shook his head, his eyes sad. "I jus' don't know what to do with 'im."

Chris Larabee was stunned by Nathan's words, he'd known Vin wouldn't just ignore what had happened but he never thought the tracker would respond by shutting them out. God... He thought, his heart sinking. What have I done?

"Chris, you 'n Vin're closer than any two men I ever seen. Maybe if you talk to 'im..."

"I just don’t know, Nate." Chris ran his fingers through his disheveled blonde hair.

"Ya got’a try Chris.." insisted the healer, his voice pleading for the gunman to take the chance - the only chance that may help the heart-sick tracker return to them.

With a deep sigh, Larabee turned back to the cabin and slowly entered the dimly lit room. He could see Vin curled on his side, back pressed protectively to the wall, looking for all the world like he was trying to disappear.

Chris quietly placed a chair beside the still form, with the tracker so pulled away, Larabee couldn't even tell if Vin knew he was there or not, so he decided to just take his chances.

"Hey Pard," he said tentatively, unsure of the reaction the best friend he had so betrayed would have to him.

Vin knew someone had entered the cabin but he thought it was Nathan and his mind drifted to the colored healer, Damn Nate, reckon yer jus' tryin' to do what ya think is right, but I wish ye’d jus' let me be... he thought, not for the first time. Tanner didn't understand the healer's need to be forever poking at him, the devastated man just wanted to be left in peace to float in a nether-world where he could ignore the terrible pain in his soul that vastly overshadowed any physical injury.

At the unexpected sound of Larabee's voice, Vin's throat tightened and, in spite of the fever that still lingered, he broke into a cold sweat. His noticeable flinch away from Larabee was not lost on the man in black.

"Vin, we need to talk. We got a lot of air to clear."

No response.

"Damnit Tanner! Will you at least look at me?" Larabee ordered, frustration and regret making his voice harsh.

Pain filled blue eyes, set in a face devoid of color except for the fading bruises and a slight fever flush still showing high on his cheeks, slowly rose to meet the gunman's face.

"God Vin, get that hopelessness out’a your eyes. Everything got screwed up... but we're gonna get past it." sighed Chris.

"Cain't undo what's done." came the uncompromising reply. "Failed at th' most important thing I's ever needed t'do... Ain't no gettin' past that." Vin gave a slight, sad shake of his head, "Can't do this.. Just leave me be." he pleaded as he withdrew back into himself.

Chris stared at his friend, confusion plain on his face. "You failed? Failed at what? What the hell are you talking about?"

"VIN! Answer me! Tell me what you failed at?! I'm not leaving until you tell me!!"

The injured man drew a deep, shuddering breath and turned his devastated gaze back to the blond. "Why you makin' me do this? Ya need me to say it? Ok, I screwed up! I let Mary die!! That make ya happy ta hear? Now leave me be!"

Larabee jerked back in his chair, shock stealing his voice. Can this get any worse? He thinks Mary's dead and it's his fault.. Oh God...

"Hell Vin, Mary's not dead! Where'd you get that idea?"

For a moment hope flashed across the agonized, bruised face before grief appeared, "I..I. saw her... couldn't git to her in time.. he..." a sob choked off Vin's voice, he swallowed hard, "Noo..." he moaned and turned away again.

"Vin, Mary is not dead. She had a minor concussion but she's fine now." Chris demanded that his friend believe him, dismay sweeping over him.

Raising heartbroken eyes to Larabee's flushed face, Vin forced words out as if every syllable was dragging the last of his strength with it, "No.. Yer lyin'... she weren't at Nate's, nobody's talked 'bout her... I ain't that stupid! Y'all's right ta hate me... So just leave me be!!"

"Goddamnit Vin! Listen to me! She's not dead!" Larabee thundered, frustration at not being able to convince Vin quickly pushing him into an exasperated outrage. The raised voice quickly drew Nathan into the room.

"Whoa now! What're ya doin' Chris? I wanted ya to talk to Vin, not scream at 'im!!" Nathan exclaimed, looking from the irate gunfighter to the withdrawn man on the cot.

"Goddamn stubborn bastard!" Larabee turned and stormed out of the shack, determined steps taking him to Pony and escape from the anger, frustration and dismay threatening to explode from him.

The healer caught the black clad arm as Larabee crossed the yard, "What happened?"

"Damn fool thinks Mary's dead and won't listen to me when I tell him she's not! Stubborn bastard!" retorted the enraged man. "I can't make him listen to reason. "Stubborn bastard!"

"Hell, that explains a lot. Boy thinks he failed us and let Mary die. Damn." Nathan shook his head, trying to figure a way to get through to Vin and then remembering the scene he'd just witnessed. "Don't explain yer yellin' at him though! Boy's hurt, don't need you unloading both Larabee barrels on him!"

Any rationalization the gunman may have offered was cut off by the sound of hooves pounding toward the ranch.

+ + + + + + +

Another two days had passed quietly in Four Corners. With no new attacks since an aborted attempt on Becky Jacobs, the townspeople had settled into their normal routines once again. The young woman had been on her way home from a visit to her aunt on the other end of town when someone had grabbed her as she walked past the mouth of an alley. Fortunately, she'd managed to scream and deliver a good kick to her attacker's leg. The combination of him loosening his grip to clutch at his bruised shin, and the raised voices of people who had heard the scream, allowed the terrified young woman to escape.

While the excitement had been a welcome diversion from their otherwise dull lives, no one in town could honestly say that they weren't happy with the return to normalcy and the feeling that they once more had control of their streets.

The arrival of the afternoon stage caused just a small ripple in the town; idle curiosity about who might be on board brought a few members of the community out to watch the passengers exit the well-worn coach.

The ripple of interest quickly grew to a surge when the beautiful blond woman stepped down, her young son's hand clasped tightly in hers. Mary Travis barely noticed the intense interest in her arrival; she was too concerned with keeping Billy from jarring his splinted arm. J.D. Dunne intercepted her as she reached her free hand out for her grip, "Let me get that, Miz. Travis," said the young man helpfully, taking the suitcase from the boot of the coach.

"Thank you, J.D." Mary smiled, leading Billy toward the Clarion Office. "Seems the town’s quieted down some...?"

"Well, I wouldn't say quiet was the right word," replied J.D. "Been a right busy few days."

"Oh dear... I need to get Billy settled, his arm's still pretty sore, why don't you come in and have a cup of tea and tell me what's been happening?"

Secretly pleased to be the one to share the dramatic events of the past week with the newspaper woman, J.D. pulled the Clarion door closed behind him.

Only then did the stunned residents of Four Corners burst into action. Each trying to be the first to tell the other that they'd been wrong - Mary Travis really did leave to take care of her injured son; and that they personally had known all along that Vin Tanner might be innocent!

Part 53

Just after dusk, Buck and J.D., taking opposite sides of the main street, were making a quick patrol of the town when Buck heard strange noises coming from behind the livery. Thinking at first that the not quite human sounds were coming from a cat fight, he decided to investigate more closely. As he entered the dark alley leading to the back of the building, he cursed soundly as he struck his shin on a nail protruding from a wooden crate.

As the big man hopped on one foot, grabbing at the pain in his leg and cursing proficiently, he heard a loud crash and the pounding of boots on the hard packed dirt. Forgetting the throb of the torn skin, he sprinted behind the building in time to see a dark figure disappear into the shadows.

Buck had traveled only a few feet in pursuit when he was brought up short by the sound of a moan from the darkness beside the wall. The ladies’ man lit a match and, seeking out the source of the chilling sound found the semi-conscious form of Reba, the hotel maid. Even in the poor light, it was obvious that the young woman was in bad shape.

Scooping the slight form up in his arms, Buck headed for Nathan's clinic, calling for J.D. as he went.

The easterner caught up with Wilmington as he reached the steps leading up to the clinic and stopped dead in his tracks, a look of horror on his young face. "J.D., go fetch Josiah right away." Buck ordered without slowing his steps.

Without question, J.D. turned on his heel and rushed to the church where he knew the preacher was meditating.

The sudden entrance of the breathless J.D. shattered the quiet of the old building and drew the startled preacher to his feet. Before the older man could speak, J.D. exclaimed, "Josiah! You got’a come quick! Buck found Reba in an alley and she's hurt bad and he needs you in the clinic right away!"

"Calm down son." soothed Josiah, picking up his serape as he guided J.D. back out the door. Before the youngest of the seven realized it, Josiah, talking nonchalantly all the way, had led him back to the clinic and was getting Buck's account of what had occurred.

With Buck’s help, Josiah fought to keep the injured young woman alive, but as dawn broke, the big man finally admitted to himself that Reba needed better care than he was able to give.

Shaking his head sadly, the preacher turned his pale blue-eyed gaze on the ladies’ man, "Buck, she's hurt too bad for us to care for. We have to get Nathan back here."

Already knowing in his heart that they had to get the healer if the girl had a chance at surviving, Buck Wilmington nodded his head in agreement. Nathan was going to have to leave the injured sharpshooter and return to Four Corners.

Part 54

Chris Larabee and Nathan Jackson became instantly alert at the sound of hoof beats growing steadily closer to the sparse ranch. The two men turned in the direction of the approaching rider, first with suspicion and then with anxiety as they recognized J.D. pounding into view. The boy's whole demeanor cried out that something was wrong.

"Nathan!" hollered J.D. as he got within sight of the men standing outside the shack. The young man was so dead set on getting the healer that it wasn't until he was almost on top of the men that he realized Chris was also standing there.

"Chris?! What're you doing here?" Before Larabee could form the words to reply, J.D. continued in a rush, "Boy am I glad to see you! We got big trouble in town! There's been a killin' and two more attacks since you left - all women! The first was killed and the second one was just shook up and we thought everything had calmed down but I came to get Nathan 'cause last night, Reba, you know, the maid at the hotel? Dark hair - only been workin' there for a few months? Well anyway, he, the bad guy, got her last night and hurt her pretty bad. Buck found her, she's near dead, and he almost caught the guy but he got away... and he sent me for Josiah and he's been doin' what he can but he really thinks Nathan should come tend to her and so he sent me out here to get Nate and we were hope'n that, because it's been more'n a week since Vin was hurt and, well, Josiah and Buck hoped he'd be ok enough that you'd be able to leave him for a while and come to town and..."

"J.D.!" exclaimed Nathan, "Slow down, I cain't hardly understand you! How bad's Reba hurt?" seeing the boy take a breath and get ready to start again, the healer held up one hand to stop him, "I mean, what are her injuries?"

Before J.D. could respond, Chris stepped forward. The gunman's face was set in uncompromising lines and he drew J.D.'s total attention.

"Who was attacked? Tell me what's been happening and I want the facts. Do you understand?" demanded the man, looking every bit as dangerous as his reputation indicated.

"Uh, yea Chris." said the shaken boy, "'Couple days after we brought Vin out here, that new barmaid, Jolene, was murdered out back of the general store. She was strangled and assaulted and then stabbed. Real messy. Josiah said it was like the murderer enjoyed the killin'. Then, couple nights after that, Miss Becky was grabbed but she got away. She wasn't hurt, just shook up, think somebody scared him away. Then, early this mornin', he got Reba. She ain't dead yet but she's in bad shape and that's why I'm here."

J.D. looked at Chris expectantly, hoping for an indication that he'd satisfied his hero.

"Any idea who's doin' it? " asked Chris, uneasiness tickling the back of his mind.

"Not really... thinkin’ is it's the same man that attacked Mary - 'cept we all thought he was dead..." replied J.D. thoughtfully, then, remembering his mission, the boy turned to Nathan, "Can you come?"

"Yea, but someone'll have to stay with Vin. I can't go off and leave him here alone."

Larabee had turned away, saying "I'll get our mounts." as he disappeared into the stable.

Surprise was written on J.D.'s young face as he glanced quickly after Chris. The man's stone-faced, tightly wound carriage warned him off asking why the gunman wasn't staying with his friend. Normally you couldn't pry the blonde away from the tracker's side...

"J.D., you got’a stay with Vin. Now mind, he ain't up fer much talkin' and he's still in plenty of pain so I just want you to sit with him. Try'n get him to drink somma that tea and broth I left on the pot belly. Understand?"

"Yea Nate, I'll look out for him." replied J.D., his tone leaving little doubt as to his concern for his friend.

Chris reappeared with both horses and he and Nathan mounted up and headed back to Four Corners at a brisk pace.

+ + + + + + +

As soon as Chris and Nathan walked out of the room, Vin pulled himself painfully out of bed and grabbed his still dirty, bloodstained pants off the chair, his shirt was nowhere to be found so he snatched up one of the black shirts the cabin's owner was so partial to and pulled it on over the thick bandages surrounding his body. The tracker had no idea where he was going but he knew he had to leave here and avoid any further contact with Larabee. Seeing the gunman was too painful and the ramifications of his failure to save Mary Travis were crashing over him with a vengeance.

For although Chris wasn't willing to acknowledge it yet, Vin knew the gunmen's future had rested with the beautiful widow, And, Vin thought sadly, was put t' rest with her 'cause of me.

Having struggled into the clothes and then his boots, Vin was near collapse, only his consuming need to escape driving him forward.

Vin stumbled to the door and, opening it slowly, was frustrated to see the two men standing just off the porch, talking intently. As he tried to clear his muddled head, he heard the sound of a horse quickly approaching and ducked back behind the door to avoid being seen by the incoming rider.

The tracker had no trouble identifying J.D.'s loud voice, and bits and pieces of the discussion now taking place filtered into his clouded mind. ... barmaid... murdered... ... assaulted... stabbed... ...the killer enjoyed the killin'... same man… Mary...

Waves of guilt washed over Vin Tanner as the implications of what he'd just heard sunk in. Another woman had died because of his failure…

Part 55

J.D. watched as the two men rode out and continued to stand and stare until they were well out of sight. Unsure of what he would find there, given the sharpshooter's condition the last time he'd seen him, the young man was putting off entering the cabin for as long as possible.

Finally, unable to delay the inevitable any longer and feeling guilty for not taking care of Vin like he promised Nathan, J.D. quickly untacked and stabled his horse and then turned toward the door. With a steadying breath, he began to ascend the three too-short steps to the porch and entered the dark cabin.

As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he was able to see a figure huddled under blankets on the cot. Stepping closer, he could see Vin's bruised features. At first he thought the man was sleeping but as he approached he could see that while Tanner appeared to be resting, he was in fact curled tight like a rattlesnake ready to strike, his back to the wall and his wary eyes watching J.D. closely.

"Hey Vin, How're ya doin'?" said J.D., trying to steady his voice and find some semblance of normalcy

"J.D." Vin replied quietly, his voice strained but otherwise giving nothing away.

"Uh... Chris and Nathan had to go into town for a while, so I'm gonna be stayin' here 'til they get back. Can I get you anything?" J.D. was embarrassed when the words came out in a rush, betraying his nervousness.

Vin continued to study J.D. as the boy's unease grew.

After what seemed an eternity to the young sheriff, Vin finally answered, "No thanks, kid. M'fine." With that, he closed his eyes and withdrew further against the wall.

While J.D. poked around the shack, stirring the coals in the stove and orienting himself to the supplies, Vin's mind raced behind his shuttered eyes. The tracker was desperately trying to form a plan for getting to town and finding the killer only he could recognize, because he knew without a doubt that the man who'd attacked Mary was back in Four Corners and that he was the only one who could end the murderous reign before more innocent women died.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah was doing his best to care for the seriously injured woman. Having gotten sick of falling over the two men, he'd chased Buck and Ezra out of the clinic and assigned them to watch for Nathan's arrival.

So it was that the ladies’ man and the gambler were pacing on the balcony outside the clinic door, scanning the road into town, when Chris and Nathan rode hard into Four Corners and pulled up at the livery.

With a shout, the two anxious men raced down the stairs, bumping and falling into each other. As Nathan leapt from his horse and threw the reins at Larabee, knowing that the man would take care of his mount, Buck and Ezra dashed up to him, spooking the horses and both talking at once.

Ignoring the men, Nathan brushed past and took the stairs two at a time, rushing into the clinic to find a sweating Josiah struggling to tend to the unconscious woman.

Looking up as the door opened, relief washed over the preacher, "Brother, am I glad to see you!" he exclaimed thankfully, "I've done all I know to do, but this is beyond me."

"Tell me what you got," said Nathan as he stepped up to the bed and began assessing the visible injuries.

As the healer worked, Josiah explained how the young barmaid had been found unconscious in an alley. The girl was struggling to breath past the damage strong hands had done to her neck.

Nathan set about the work he'd fought so hard to learn, knowing that it would take all of his skill to save this young life.

+ + + + + + +

A dirt covered, non-descript man watched as Chris Larabee, leaving Ezra to take charge of the two lathered horses, strolled toward the saloon, his head tilted toward Buck as the ladies' man filled him in on the events of the last few days.

The stranger continued to lean casually against the wall of the telegraph office until the two men disappeared through the batwing doors then pushed himself upright and with an evil smile, strolled down the dark alley beside the wooden building.

Part 56

J.D. finally settled uncomfortably into a chair at the rough table in Chris's shack. The youngest member of the seven was normally a chatterer but now he just plain didn't know what to say to the injured tracker. He'd thought about bringing up the events in town, but somehow that just didn't seem right, given the recent conflict within their group. So, there he sat, twiddling with a fork.

Vin watched J.D. from under hooded eyes, willing himself the strength to put his newly devised plan into action.

Finally, deciding he wasn't going to get stronger soon and that time was the enemy, the tracker took a deep breath and spoke, his voice husky with pain, "J.D? 'm feelin' a mite hungry, c'n ya get me somma that broth Nathan left?"

J.D. was startled out of his study of the eating utensils and the fork fell from his fingers with a clatter.

"Uh.. Sure Vin," he said, glancing at the man still bundled in the bed, "I'll heat it up some... If that's ok?"

The boy's uneasiness was not lost on the perceptive tracker and knowing that things could never be the same hurt him to the core. Shaking off the wave of despair, he replied softly, "That's fine J.D. No rush."

As the young easterner turned his back to grab wood from the firebox, Vin crept quickly and silently from the bed and with one swift movement slammed his bent right elbow into the side of the young man's dark head. J.D. dropped without a sound and the tracker instinctively grabbed him before he hit the ground.

With a gasp of pain, Vin gently lowered the unconscious easterner to the floor, "Sorry, kid." he murmured, as he sucked in air and tried to ride out the agony his actions had caused.

+ + + + + + +

Chris and Buck sat at their habitual table in the saloon and sipped at the beer that had appeared in front of them.

" stud, that brings us to where we are today." Buck had given Larabee an unbiased, straightforward report of the recent events in Four Corners and as they sipped their beer he looked questioningly at the quiet leader.

"No idea who the bastard is?" asked Chris, glancing at Buck from under the brim of his black hat.

"None. He's real good at stalkin' the women and coverin' his tracks." replied the ladies’ man, thoughtfully, "We really could use Vin here too..." His voice trailed off as he saw Larabee flinch and he realized what effect his words were having on his old friend.

"Yea." said Chris, sliding his chair back and rising, the long black-clad legs carried him silently from the saloon and out into the growing dusk.

Damn. Buck cursed himself for the thoughtless words. He watched sadly as his old friend was swallowed up in the growing darkness, knowing that he was as close to losing Chris Larabee today as he'd been three years ago.

Part 57

Clutching his nearly useless right arm tightly to his injured side, Vin stumbled from the cabin and toward the barn. The tracker hadn't given much thought to what he would do when he arrived there, hadn't considered how he would tack a horse, much less mount and get the animal to town. Sheer, stubborn determination got him across the beaten dirt and into the darkening building before the reality of what he needed to accomplish to just get to town sank in.

Frustration washed over him when he finally realized that it was going to be damn near impossible for him to saddle a horse... sonuvabitch he growled, impatience at his injured body creating a driving anger. Grim stubbornness took hold and Vin grabbed the halter J.D. had so recently removed from his horse and headed for the tired animal.

Unlike the fight Peso would give, J.D.'s mount quietly accepted the bit. The throat latch was a bigger problem. Vin was forced to raise his right arm to buckle the strap, and as he did so, excruciating pain shot through his shoulder and chest. With a gasp, the tracker leaned heavily against the docile animal as the edges of consciousness faded to black around him. After several moments of clinging tightly to the thick mane, gasping against the agony, Vin was able to pull himself together and think clearly.

The tracker knew a saddle would be out of the question and resigned himself to riding bareback - again.

Leading the mount to stand beside a straw bale, Vin used the bale to mount the broad back. His right arm again clutched tightly to his side. Trying desperately to stem the fire burning through him, Vin balanced himself on the horse and with a gentle pressure from his heals, turned the animal toward town.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee leaned on a post outside the livery, a cheroot clenched tightly between his teeth. The gunfighter was virtually oblivious to what was going on around him as he vividly relived the events of the past few days, desperate to understand how things had gone so bad - so fast.

A mistake, his heart cried, it was all a terrible tragic mistake... I should have trusted Vin, I should have known he wouldn't hurt Mary... Somehow knowing that the current situation was the result of a "mistake" just made the hurt worse. Such a simple thing - jumping to a conclusion without pausing to make sense of things...

Chris had survived as a gunfighter for the past three years by being able to quickly assess a situation and respond accurately. His uncanny ability to instantly take stock of events had prevented many gunfights and brought a quick, deadly end to many more.

But inconceivably, this time, his gut feeling had been all wrong. With horrible consequences.

Chris had only known the former buffalo hunter a short time but Vin was an example of how finely tuned Chris's intuition was - one look into the man's vivid blue eyes had told him all he needed to know - this was a man of integrity, a man who would die for what he believed was right. And Vin's actions had proven this over and over again.

By the same token - Tanner was a cautious man who fiercely guarded his privacy. Nurtured by a devastating past, pieces of which the younger man had only ever hinted at, the tracker rarely lowered his defenses enough for anyone to get close. Chris understood that all too well. Allowing someone close meant offering yourself up for heartache and pain. How ironic that he was the one person Vin had let in, and with the deep understanding of what a privilege he had been offered by the former bounty hunter, Chris knew he was the one person who had the ability to hurt Vin the most - and he had.

And now, Chris had seen Mary Travis, healthy and smiling fondly at Billy as she helped him pick out a licorice stick at Mrs. Potter's store. The young boy had a splint on his arm but was otherwise his same happy self. In fact - everything in town had gone back to being the same as it had been before that awful night...

Even in the brief time Chris had been back in Four Corners, he could see how folks had settled back into their usual lives and while a few still mumbled about the "long haired tracker", a glance into the deadly green eyes of the man in black quickly erased any doubts they might have about the tracker's place in the town.

Yes, everything had gotten back to normal...

Everything except Vin Tanner.

Larabee pitched the cheroot to the dirt and ground it viciously under his heal, trying to unleash the anger and frustration burning in his soul - the soul so recently released from its cold prison. The gunfighter looked out over the barren, dark main street which so matched his mood and, drawing himself up, tried to shake the heavy weight of guilt from his shoulders.

Seeking escape from the town and the thoughts tearing his heart to shreds, Chris strode purposefully down the boardwalk to the cold, vacant jail.

+ + + + + + +

Albert Savitch was thrilled! Not only was his original prey - Larabee - back in town but he'd also seen that blonde woman walking about, bold as you please! He really thought he'd lost her - the way she took off out’a town - but there she was, leadin' her brat around like she didn't have a care in the world. Of course, she was only out during the daylight, and she was keeping to the busy sidewalk and stores... but if Alby decided he wanted her - and he did - then he would have her. Just like he'd had all the others.

And then he would have Larabee.

Part 58

Buck sat staring at his beer for what seemed like an eternity, trying to figure a way out of the mess everything had become. Chris had told him how Vin reacted to the gunman out at his cabin, how Vin had withdrawn into himself, refusing to believe that Mary Travis was alive.

The rogue knew how badly shaken Chris was, maybe knew better than his old friend did himself how the guilt of his actions toward his best friend had devastated the man. Buck understood the fear Chris was experiencing at the thought of losing Vin - he'd felt the same way about Chris after Sarah and Adam died. But he'd been lucky, it may have taken three long years, and then only thanks to a scruffy tracker, but he'd gotten his friend back.

Chris might not be so lucky. According to what he'd heard from Nathan during the healer's infrequent breaks from treating the seriously injured hotel maid, although Vin Tanner's wounds were severe, with time and careful tending, he would recover. But as bad as the physical injuries were, they were only a small part of the problem - there was immeasurable damage done to the young man that 'doctorin' couldn't heal. Chris and Nathan said Vin was convinced that he was responsible for Mary's "death" and he'd withdrawn from them completely, refusing to listen - especially to Chris Larabee. The return of the bond the two men had shared just a few days ago seemed almost hopeless.

Shaking off the thick melancholy descending on him, the ladies’ man downed the last of his beer and rose from the table. Slamming his hat on his head, the tall man headed out the batwing doors into the cold night. Scanning the street, Buck saw Chris standing in front of the livery. Even from a distance, Buck could tell from the man's stance that he was bending under the weight of the worries clearly bearing down on his broad shoulders.

Buck watched as his friend angrily ground out his cheroot and turned forceful steps down the boardwalk and into the jail, slamming the door behind him. With a sad shake of his head, Wilmington turned and headed for the hotel. It was unusual for the big man to go to his room without female companionship, but on this night, he wanted only to be alone with his thoughts.

+ + + + + + +

Darkness had taken a firm hold by the time a tired horse wandered slowly into town. The unfamiliar rider was giving the mount no direction so the animal had just walked quietly down the main road toward the livery where he knew food and comfort could be found.

Vin Tanner had drifted in and out of consciousness during the long ride back to Four Corners. Pain had dominated his existence shortly after he'd crawled onto the back of J.D.'s horse and had kept control of him throughout the excruciating ride. By the time the mount stopped, all the tracker could do was slide slowly from the animal's back to stand grasping desperately at the thick mane, trying to keep from sinking to the ground and, at the same time, regain some control of his traitorous senses.

Gasping against the agony in his ribs and shoulder, Vin took stock of himself. He knew he probably didn't have it in him to finish the task he'd set himself to - eliminating Alby Savitch - but he sure as hell was going to die trying, before some other innocent did.

The ghost of Mary's motionless body drifted through his muddled brain, adding a fierce resolve to the failing sharpshooter. No matter what the cost - Mary Travis would be avenged!

Wrapping his right arm tightly around his now bleeding side, Vin staggered along the wall of the livery, a familiar journey, so like the one he'd made just a short week ago. Only this time, the badly injured man wasn't trying to escape his nightmare - he was intent on tracking it down and destroying it.

Part 59

As the cold blanket of night wrapped firmly around the town, Albert "Alby" Savitch was becoming desperate. His desire for a victim had become overpowering and he was further agitated by the notable lack of game! There wasn't a wench to be had in the whole damn town. Every one of them was hidin' out, travelin' in packs or locked onto a man.

To compound his frustration, the sight of the blonde newspaper woman getting off the stage had caused the smoldering obsession to burst forth into flame, threatening to consume him.

She'd only been in town since early that day, but already Alby was livid that he hadn't found a way to get to her. He'd been watching carefully from the shadows, hoping she'd make a mistake and put herself within his reach, but so far she'd been too cautious for him.

He didn't expect she'd be out walking the boardwalk after dark and he figured she'd be too suspicious of any diversion he created to lure her out of her home - especially with that brat she had attached to her apron.

The heartless man was getting ready to give up on her and look in earnest for other prey to satisfy his obsessive need when he caught movement at the entrance to the livery. The strange gait of the form sliding along the rough building toward a side alley held his attention as he tried to determine what the man was doing. Looks like the town drunk's on the move... he thought, discounting the figure. The killer was about to turn back into the shadows when the flickering of one of the street fires lit up familiar black clothing.

A slow, evil smile spread across Alby's cruel lips as he realized that an even better victim had just fallen into his lap.

+ + + + + + +

Mary Travis sat quietly staring into the warm fire burning in the grate in her small, comfortable sitting room. After a trying day, she'd finally gotten Billy settled on the couch. The boy was still having minor pain and didn't want to be alone, so Mary gave in to his pleading eyes and let him lay down in the sitting room - but just until she went to bed.

Mary's return to Four Corner's had been hectic as she tried to keep Billy calm and get their home back in order. Because her departure had been so hasty, she'd really left things at sixes and sevens! In addition, she was sickened by the vicious rumors and speculation surrounding the attack on her and by how cruelly Vin had been treated.

Guilt weighed heavily on the beautiful woman - if only she'd been able to talk to Chris or finish the special edition about the real assailant she was typesetting for the Clarion before she rushed off to be with Billy... Vin would have been spared the malicious attacks. The false accusations against someone who was not only innocent, but against a man who had risked his life to save her, was appalling to the kind woman and she promised herself - and Vin Tanner- that the truth would be known!

"Mama?" Mary was startled from her thoughts by Billy calling to her from the other side of the room where he was standing looking out the window into the darkness.

"Billy? What are you doing up? I said you could stay with me if you stayed on the settee." said the young mother sternly as she gathered up her son's discarded blanket to wrap warmly around his shoulders.

"I know Mama, but I heard somethin' outside and I got up to look out the window and I saw Chris. Can we ask him to come see my splint?"

"Billy, I'm sure Mr. Larabee is on his way to his bed for the night - which is where you should be. I'm certain you'll see him sometime tomorrow." replied Mary, as she began to hustle the blond-haired child toward his room.

"Oh, ok." said the disappointed child, "It's just 'cause I saw him, and he was walkin' kinda funny, like maybe he was hurt, so I thought you might ask him to come in." Billy looked at his mother with hope in his eyes.

"What do you mean he looked like he was hurt? Billy, are you sure? Where was he?"

"I couldn't see him real good but I know it was him 'cause he was wearin' his black shirt. He was walkin' kinda funny out’a the stable where he keeps Pony."

Mary flew to the window and pressed her face to the cold glass, looking for any sign of the blonde gunman. Chris hurt? How? He may need help... her thoughts whirled around in her head.

"Billy, I'm going to go see if Chris is okay. I want you to stay right here. You promise?" Billy gave his word that he wouldn't leave the room and after tucking his blanket securely around her young son, the flaxen haired woman grabbed up her wrap and her late husband’s revolver and stepped out into the cold night.

Part 60

Like a hunter knows his prey - Vin Tanner knew that the animal he was tracking was nocturnal and fed on the fear and agony he caused his victims.

In spite of the pain and weakness threatening to bring him to his knees, the injured man's senses were heightened as he made his way around the crates stacked in the dark alleyway. Bitter experience had taught the tracker that the monster would feel at home in the murky crevices and shadows, and a gut feeling told him that this was where he and the vicious killer would meet for the final time.

He moved cautiously, straining to find the slightest sign; a boot print, disturbed ground, anything that would help him in his pursuit of the cold-blooded killer. As he searched the darkness, Vin's hand instinctively drifted to the medicine bag, ever present around his neck, in unconscious prayer that his failing body would hold out until he completed his self-appointed mission.

+ + + + + + +

An unnatural elation tingled through every fiber of Alby's body. Finally he was coming face to face with the man who'd murdered his brother. …and tonight, the famous intimidating gunfighter Chris Larabee would die a slow, pain-filled death!

Alby was nearly giddy with anticipation when a break in the clouds allowed enough moonlight to filter through the cold night air to illuminate the man he was trailing. What the hell? his mind jolted with confusion. The man he was stalking had on Larabee's black shirt but… Savitch could see that what he'd mistaken to be the gunman's customary black pants were actually brown - covered with dark stains…blood? And the man's hair wasn't blond… it was long and curly… Tanner! Alby snarled soundlessly, rage building inside him. That goddamn sonuvabitch is in my way agin!! The killer had to force himself not succumb to the desire to fly at the tracker and beat the interfering man to hell. Alby'd learned from their previous encounter that only a fool would attack the former bounty hunter, no matter how disadvantaged the man was, without being prepared for battle.

Albert Savitch hadn't managed to satisfy his depraved needs and escape the law by being either a fool or careless. He'd developed cat-like skills; he could move soundlessly, anticipating obstructions that might interfere with his hunt. And he'd realized that it was important to know his prey. Alby had spent his time in Four Corners wisely, learning all he could about Larabee and the men who rode with him, and while his main interest had been the gunman, he'd been real interested in what folks had to say about Tanner.

The sharpshooter was a major topic of conversation in town and the killer'd heard many stories of the expertise with which the tracker worked; the man's uncanny instincts, skillfulness at reading signs invisible to others, and the affinity the former buffalo hunter had for the Indians he'd lived with. As if to validate all the penny dreadful type stories being told by the bored townspeople, the clearly injured Tanner fought off his pain and weakness to continue in his doomed search of the alley.

Each step Tanner took was deliberate and cautious and had he not had the advantages of the man's weakness and his own ability to sneak up on his victim without warning, Albert questioned if he would have been able to take Tanner down.

Alby was impressed by the younger man's stamina and determination and he was thankful that he'd been cautious in his hunt. As he smiled cruelly to himself, the deranged man delighted in the knowledge that he'd never needed his murderous skills more than he would this night. Maybe he didn't have Larabee - for now - but the long-haired man would be a real challenge and was going to provide more entertainment than Alby'd had in a long time.

Part 61

Ezra had tried to grab some sleep; the conman was exhausted from the events of the past few days. Somehow the routine patrols had defaulted to Standish and he hadn't managed to get much rest. But after lying in his feather bed, staring at the ceiling for what seemed like hours, the gambler gave up on catching a nap and dragged his tired body down to the saloon, hoping to find a little diversion to occupy him until he had to go out on another night patrol.

Scanning the already crowded room, Ezra saw a lone figure sitting forlornly in a back corner. Ignoring the gaming tables that usually monopolized his attention, Standish made his way between the tables and pulled up a chair to sit down with the dejected man.

"Well, Mr. Wilmington, from your appearance, one would think that you have lost your last friend."

"Don't know how close to right you are Ez. Chris's got me worried near sick." replied Buck "Tried goin' to my room to catch some shut eye, but I just couldn't stand just layin' there and thinkin'. I just can't figure out how this thing 'tween Vin and Chris… hell, Vin and all'a us is gonna get put right."

"Buck, both Vin and Chris are reasonably intelligent men. I'm sure they'll realize how important they are to each other and work out their differences. Not to mention that, amazingly enough, Mr. Tanner is not the type of man to harbor ill will. I believe if we approach him properly - he will understand."

"I hope you're right Ezra, 'cause if they don't, and he don't, the rest of us are gonna be hurtin'!" said the ladies’ man.

"Speaking of which… exactly where are 'the rest of us'?" enquired the gambler. "As I am apparently the only one able to patrol this lovely settlement, I am assuming they are all somewhere being industrious? Or perhaps they have managed to get some of the much needed respite that I have been unable to obtain?"

"Don't know that anybody's restin' right now Ez. J.D.'s out at Chris's shack lookin' after Vin and Josiah is up helpin' Nathan take care a'Reba."

"And our currently unapproachable leader? Where is Mr. Larabee?" asked Ezra courteously.

"Last I saw Chris, he was headed toward the jail. Think he wants to be alone…" Buck replied, with a sad shake of his head.

+ + + + + + +

Mary moved cautiously around the back corner of the building to peer into the dark, shadowed alley. Tightly clutching the shawl she had drawn hastily around her shoulders, the blonde woman took a deep breath and stepped further into the ominous pathway.

Flashbacks to the last time she'd stepped out into the darkness froze her in her tracks as she again drew in several deep breaths, trying to steel her nerves.

Shaking off the fear, Mary reminded herself why she had come out into the night. Chris. Billy said he'd seen the gunman moving into the alley and her son had been so sincere when he said the gunman looked hurt. Mary knew that if Chris was injured and need of help - she wouldn’t be able to live with herself if she didn’t help him. She probably could have looked for one of the others to go with her, but she knew they were occupied with the attacks that had occurred in town. Besides, she clutched the gun tighter and told herself firmly that she wasn't going to let a little thing like fear of the dark keep her from helping the man who had come to mean a great deal to her.

Part 62

Vin was exhausted, his pain-racked body threatening to betray him as he forced himself to systematically search the Four Corner's alley where Mary had been attacked. The tracker had no doubt about who he was looking for. He knew it was Savitch, the man who’d taken him hostage. Vin didn't remember much of what happened up in the rocks outside town, didn't know how Savitch got away, didn't really care. He knew the type of animal Savitch was and that he was responsible for the continued attacks in Four Corners. And he knew the man had to be destroyed.

And not just to avenge Mary and the other dead girl, or to protect other women.

The obsession fueling the injured tracker, keeping him on his feet when he should have collapsed long ago, was the knowledge that the killer had come to Four Corners for the unwavering purpose of killing Chris Larabee. And the possibility that the evil, deranged man could succeed terrified Vin.

Fresh determination, born of the horrifyingly real image of Chris being cut down by the killer forced Vin onward in his hunt, despite the almost overwhelming pain and exhaustion. As he moved quietly through the darkness, Vin prayed desperately to find something, anything, that would give him a clue as to where the murderer had come from, and then maybe help him backtrack him to where he is. He knew he couldn't last much longer, and his senses became so focused on his goal, that the normally perceptive man was unaware that he was being stalked.

+ + + + + + +

Buck and Ezra sat in silence, neither even attempting to put words to their feelings. In his own way, each man understood how deeply the rift among their friends would affect their lives.

Much to his surprise, Buck had found himself settling down comfortably in Four Corners, relaxing from the constant search for… what? a family? Buck knew that all many saw in him was a womanizer, but in truth, he was looking for the security he'd been missing since first losing his mother and then having the wonderful home that Chris and Sarah had welcomed him into snatched away. He'd been truly at peace with the young Larabee family, reveling in their love and the contentment of their small ranch. And the energetic Adam, who was like his own son, brought him nothing but joy. When they were murdered, Buck felt like a piece of him had been torn away. And he hadn't been able to replace that piece no matter how many women he found to share a physical relationship.

Strangely though, he'd begun to feel healed just by being with the other six men in this dirty little town.

Ezra on the other hand had never known the security that came of being given unconditional love, so he didn't really know what he was missing - but he knew he was missing something.

The gambler traveled constantly, never willing - or even able - to settle down in one place. Make no doubt, he enjoyed the challenge each new town offered. The battle of wits when he found a worthy opponent and the tests he set for himself when he found only dirt farmers and trail hands to take on. No matter where he found himself, Ezra Standish kept an eye out for the main chance - the one gamble that would finally make him feel that his mother would be proud… Then he'd arrived in Four Corners. What he'd expected to be a brief respite before moving on to bigger prospects had turned into a desire to settle in. He finally felt like he belonged and his mother's opinion didn't matter so much anymore.

All things considered… it was amazing how significantly coming to Four Corners and finding the other men had affected each individual, and tragic how the loss of just one man would impact them all.

Part 63

Chris found himself sitting behind the sheriff's desk in the empty jail. He'd sought out the solitude, hoping he’d be able to clear his head, but being alone with his thoughts just intensified the recriminations pounding through his brain.

After three years of drinking and fighting - courting death, Vin Tanner had crossed his path and changed his life. The former bounty hunter's unruffled constancy forced him toward the healing that was long overdue. Larabee finally understood that the only way to overcome his demons was to face them, head on, and then move forward.

Even with a $500 bounty on his head and a grim determination to clear his name, the younger man maintained a quirky sense of humor and a joy in nature the likes of which Larabee had never seen. Chris had come to realize that if Tanner, who survived a tragic childhood and faced an uncertain future, could find it within himself to see beauty in the world, then maybe he should stop wallowing in grief and contemplate how he wanted to spend the rest of his life.

Frequently now, the gunman was taken aback when hours, sometimes even a day would elapse and the ghosts of his past hadn't dominated his every thought. At first he was overcome with guilt when he realized that he'd allowed Sarah and Adam to drift from his consciousness, but recently, the burden of mourning their deaths had lifted and he found comfort in the memory of their lives. He found himself sharing anecdotes of their time together and even their personalities with the men who had, against his will, begun to feel like family.

Chris smiled to himself as he thought about maybe settling down, maybe creating a real life in Four Corners. Slowly, images of the folks he'd come to care about in this town flashed through his head like flipping pages through a book; Mrs. Potter, Nettie Wells; a small, blond haired boy who loved his whittling…the boy's beautiful, enigmatic mother, the men he depended on…. and who depended on him; Buck, Nathan, Josiah, J.D… even Ezra, men who he trusted to watch his back. A trust that didn't exist such a short time ago. And finally, most importantly, the man he thought of as a brother…

The comfortable musing Larabee had allowed his mind to drift toward was suddenly shattered when his thoughts traveled full circle back to where he'd begun - the destruction of the very bond that had compelled him to look toward the future.

Realizing he'd allowed himself to surrender to fatigue and the fantasy of a brighter tomorrow, Chris ran his fingers savagely through his hair, trying to brush away his thoughts. How can I sit here daydreamin' about my life when everything that hinted at any hope is shot to hell? He berated himself.

Jumping to his feet, Chris was spitefully satisfied by the sound of splintering wood as the chair he'd been sitting in crashed to the floor. Striding angrily across the room, Chris thrust the door open with such force that it slammed into the wall as his determined footsteps carried him toward the batwing doors leading into the saloon. It'll be mighty easy to slide into a bottle right now. he thought, let the burn of the whiskey sear away this pain trying to take hold of me.

The black clad gunman had actually begun to reach for the swinging doors when a strange foreboding swept over him, freezing his arm in midair. He couldn't identify the cause of the discomfort but it was strong enough to turn him around and guide him to stand on the edge of the boardwalk, his intense green eyes scanning the dark street for… What?

As he stepped into the street, Larabee didn't know what had stopped him but he sure as hell knew he was going to find out!

+ + + + + + +

Alby quietly drew his knife and carefully watched the failing tracker.

A sadistic light twinkled in his eyes as he anticipated the blood the interfering injun-lover would shed. Savitch intended to make Tanner suffer for getting in the way, not only of his carefully planned revenge on Larabee but also for breaking up the promising little tussle he'd had with the blonde looker. Yep. That damn tracker deserved everything Alby could dish out to him!

As much as the killer was enjoying the "hunt" and following the unsuspecting, and obviously suffering tracker, he knew he would need to act soon, or his prey would collapse into unconsciousness.

And where would the fun be in that?

Part 64

A sudden commotion at the saloon's back door roused Buck and Ezra from their reverie. Each man glanced at the other to assure himself that his friend was alert, and then both turned their attention to the irate, cursing bundle of easterner rushing toward them.

"Whoa son… calm down there. Somebody piss in yer boot?" Buck propelled the furious young man into a chair and shoved a beer toward him.

J.D. took a healthy swallow and turned a fairly accurate imitation of the famous 'Larabee glare' on his friend. Before he could speak, Ezra leaned forward in his seat, demanding his attention.

"Mr. Dunne, it was my understanding that you could not take the incessant patrol duty because you were to be nursing Mr. Tanner while the highly talented Mr. Jackson cared for that unfortunate saloon courtesan. Do you think it was wise to leave our intrepid tracker alone?"

"Hell Ezra, I didn't leave Vin - he left me! "J.D. exclaimed in frustration.

"What're ya talkin' about J.D.? How the hell could Vin leave you?" Buck stared at his friend incredulously.

"Really Mr. Dunne! That is a bit difficult to believe. Mr. Tanner was certainly in no condition to embark on a journey of any kind. Apparently, you are overwrought and are not imparting the information appropriately. Let us try this again… Surely you should be at Mr. Larabee's humble abode caring for Mr. Tanner… can you please adequately explain why you chose to abandon our ill-fated comrade?"

"DAMMIT! Will ya quit caterwaulin' and let me tell you?" shrieked the younger man, "I didn't leave Vin - Vin left me!

"Yes J.D., you have already relayed that implausible information. Could you perhaps enlighten us a smidgen further?" Standish was using his "overly patient" voice and J.D. just became angrier.

"Just shut up, Ez, and listen to me! After Chris and Nate left, I went in the cabin to look out for Vin. He was just layin' there, all bundled up, it was real creepy… the way he just watched me and didn't move… Anyway, I remember him askin' for some soup Nate made and left on the stove and I remember reaching for some wood to stoke up the fire… then I woke up on the floor and Vin was gone!"

"Hell J.D., maybe he wandered off, delirious. Did you go look for him?

"Yea Buck, I looked for him! I'm not an idiot!! I'm tellin' ya, Vin cracked me on the head and took off." J.D. looked at each man in turn, anger again flashing in his eyes. "Not only did he knock me out and run off… he stole my damn horse! I had to ride that mean, spiteful bastard of a mule of his. Sonuvabitch tried to eat me alive while I was saddlin' him then tried to brush me off against every damn tree we passed to get here! And he likes me!"

"J.D." Buck's urgent tone interrupted the rush of words, "How do you know it was Vin hit ya? You sure nobody took him?"

"Yea… I'm pretty sure it was Vin…" replied J.D. thoughtfully, "Can't imagine anyone else being able to sneak up on me like that…you know how Vin can move like a ghost. Besides, my horse is in the livery."

Buck and Ezra looked at each other sharply, easily communicating the sudden unease which had swept over them.

"Well, Ez, guess we'd best go down to the jailhouse and disturb Chris with this little bit of news."

"Unfortunately, I agree Mr. Wilmington. And just when I thought matters were settling down…"

Part 65

Vin knew he was quickly reaching the end of his endurance and slumped against a crate. He was struggling to gather his last ounce of strength to continue the search, but stubborn determination alone wasn't going to keep him going; his resources were exhausted. And to further frustrate him, he hadn't found one clue that would help him find the killer.

The tracker found himself drifting and would have collapsed completely had not the loud crash of wood on wood penetrated the haze taking over his consciousness. Vin's head jerked up and his right hand, slick with the blood running down his arm from his shoulder, grabbed the hilt of his belt knife as he slid deeper into the shadows, his back against a wall.

Before he could identify the sound that had alerted him, movement to his left, the area that would have been behind him had he not instinctively protected his back, captured his attention.

Vin's blue eyes widened in shock as he saw Alby Savitch, the very monster he'd been searching for, crouched in front of him, knife in hand. The cruel man's features were twisted in a malevolent, fanatical mask, madness clearly overcoming any reason he may have had left.

"So tracker... we meet agin! I knew ya wouldn't git away from me!" growled the vicious killer, "you and me got bizness ta tend to 'fore I can finish what I come here for."

"Ahhh… ya still think you're gonna take Larabee? Ya think I'll let you? Ya caused enough pain and misery in this town…" carried on a burst of adrenalin, fresh energy suffused Vin's body as his eyes darted around looking for an advantage over the crazed man. "Ya might’a got a few licks in before 'cause ya caught me off guard, but not this time. Way I see it; you ain't got it in ya to take on nobody other than a helpless woman, then only if ya can take 'em by surprise."

"Ya rotten sonuvabitch!" snarled Alby, rage spewing forth, "Yer near 'nough dead as makes no never mind and yer thinkin' yer gonna get out’a this alley alive? I'm gonna show you how I c'n handle a no account injun-lover and by time I'm done, yer gonna be beggin' me to end yer miserable, no-account existence. Won't have ta worry 'bout nobody carin' when yer gone neither! From what I seen, nobody in this town'll give a tinker's damn if yer alive 'er dead! Hell, they’ll prob’ly thank me fer save'n 'em the trouble a lynchin' ya!"

Vin knew that the killer was trying to goad him into acting foolishly but he couldn't ignore the anguish the man's words caused. Tanner choked back the grief that suddenly rose in his throat and focused on defeating the cold-blooded monster before him. "Just shows I got nothin' to lose by takin' you on." He replied coldly, his resolve strengthened by the need to finish what he should have done the night Mary was killed.

As if the thought had conjured up a phantom, Vin heard Mary's voice tentatively call his name…

+ + + + + + +

Mary was unnerved by the sudden sound of angry voices emanating from the darkness and was turning to retreat back to her rooms when a brief flash of moonlight glinted off of metal down the alley. Straining to understand the angry words, she moved cautiously further into the darkness. The beautiful widow followed the sound and was taken aback when she finally made out Vin Tanner crouched in a fighting position, a knife in his hand.

Confused at seeing the man she'd thought safely ensconced at Chris' shack, she took another step forward and quietly called his name.


Tanner's head flew up, his total attention on the voice he thought stilled on a horrible, cold night more than a week ago. Mary? Confusion reigned as the tracker tried to get his mind around what his senses were telling him…

Unfortunately, Vin didn't have time to sort out his thoughts as Albert Savitch used the tracker's distraction as an opportunity to attack. Driving himself forward, the killer barreled his shoulder into Tanner’s already damaged ribs and slammed the injured man into the wall with enough force to snatch Vin's breath from his body.

Then Mary Travis began to scream.

Part 66

Walking slowly down the boardwalk, Larabee's eyes searched the darkness for anything out of place, anything that would identify the source of the turmoil churning up his gut. The gunman was about ready to give up and head back to the saloon to drown the disturbing sensations when he heard a woman's terrified cry and took off at a dead run toward the alley beside the livery, his colt in his hand.

Chris wasn't sure what he expected to find, but the sight of Mary Travis standing alone in the darkness, momentarily halted him in his tracks. Recovering quickly, Larabee grabbed the blonde woman by the shoulder as she continued to cry out in dismay, and spun her around to face him.

Helpless to stop the deadly attack occurring in the dark alley, Mary gasped as she felt a hand seize her and then quickly exclaimed in relief as her eyes fell on the black clad gunman.

"Chris! Thank God! You have to stop him! He'll kill him!"" she gasped out, grabbing Chris's arm and pointing down the alley.

"Who?" demanded the gunman, pushing the shaking woman behind him as he cautiously sidestepped forward. The unmistakable sounds of a violent struggle greeted him and he began to advance more swiftly.

"Vin, he's trying to kill Vin..."

Mary's words just barely entered his consciousness before he snatched the gun from her hand and began running forward, all caution forgotten.

+ + + + + + +

Gasping for air, Vin tried to shake off the sudden wave of nausea and confusion that further muddled his thoughts. Instincts born of a hard life took over and Vin drew from the very bottom of his resources to fight back against the brutal man. The need to stop the vicious murderer far outweighed any thought of self-preservation the injured tracker may have harbored.

Tanner's knife had flown from his blood-slicked grasp at the first attack so his only option was to fight using the skills he'd learned throughout his years of existing in an unforgiving world. Knowing he had little hope of surviving against the healthy, driven killer, the sharpshooter shoved himself off of the wall, throwing his body into the man, allowing his momentum to take them both to the ground.

Alby was the first to recover as a peculiar rush of pleasure swept over him. Damn, bastard has some fight left in him after all! he thought as he fisted his hand and drove it into the tracker's bloodstained shoulder.

Vin bit back a cry of agony as his world shifted and tear's filled his eyes, further blurring his vision. Sucking in huge draughts of air, Tanner tried to shake off the darkness pulling at him. As the killer couched over him, preparing to strike again, Vin drew his leg up and thrust his foot violently into Savitch's chest.

The tracker's movement caught the madman by surprise and Alby fell back. Taking a moment to regain his balance, he realized that Tanner was getting his feet under him and beginning to rise. Springing forward, Alby wrapped his arms around Vin's body, squeezing as he again took the injured man to the ground.

Vin's vision swam and his chest exploded in fire, the pressure of the killer's arms tight around him combined with the weight of the man pushing him into the ground draining the last of the sharpshooter's strength. Total exhaustion began pulling Vin down into darkness.

As Vin felt his last shred of consciousness slipping away he heard the sound of pounding feet and the unmistakable jingle of spurs. Chris… he thought as oblivion enveloped him.

Alby Savitch, smiling evilly as he attempted to squeeze the very life out of the tracker, also became aware of the sound of someone running toward him. Glancing up, he quickly realized that he'd allowed himself to be cornered with the damn tracker!

Quickly scanning the area around the unconscious man, he caught the glint of moonlight on metal and grabbed Tanner's belt knife from where it was laying within easy reach.

In one fluid motion, the brutal murderer grabbed a handful of the tracker's hair and pulled the unresponsive man's body in front of him, creating a very effective shield, and placed the razor-sharp blade of the knife against Vin's throat.

Part 67

Mary stood frozen in horror as she watched the black clad gunman sprint down the alley toward Vin Tanner and the man attacking the quiet tracker.

The momentary relief that she'd felt by the presence of Chris Larabee by her side evaporated as she saw the stranger wrap his fingers around a wicked looking knife.

A crushing panic enveloped her and she began to pray silently. Oh God… Please … don't let this happen…

Mary knew she should be doing something to help the men, but still she stood, petrified, unable to move for fear of somehow disturbing the delicate balance that controlled Vin's life.

+ + + + + + +

Chris came to a sudden stop as his eyes took in the sight of a wild-eyed stranger clutching a very bloody, unconscious Vin Tanner, a knife at his friend's throat.

"Let him go." growled Larabee, his colt unwavering in his hand.

"Well now! If I ain't finally comin' face ta face with the great gunslinger!" snarled Savitch, a sneer spreading across his face. "Been waitin' a long time ta meet up with ya again."

"I said, let him go." repeated Chris, his words quiet, ice cold and deadly.

"Hell, sure… I'll let 'im go. He's 'bout done anyway, got no more fun left in 'im." Alby drew the knife up tighter and Chris saw small drops of fresh blood collect on the blade. "But only if you take his place… seein' as yer the one I's after all'long."

Chris' total focus was on the blood collecting on the edge of the knife at Vin's throat so it took a moment for the killer's words to register. Larabee's startled eyes flew to Alby's face, "What?" confusion evident in his voice "I don't know you. Why the hell are you looking for me?"

"Ya sonuvabitch!" roared the crazed killer, "Don't stand there an' tell me ya don't 'member who I am! Ya know damn good 'n well why I come here fer you! If this goddamn tracker hadn't got in my way," the man's grip on Vin tightened, eliciting an unconscious groan from the injured man, "I'da took ya down by now… paid ya back fer killn' m' brother!"

"I don't know what the hell you're talking about, but I guarantee if you hurt him anymore, your 'brother' won't be the only one dead!"

"This botherin' ya? Hell, you already damn near beat the life out’a him, cain't see why my few little extra touches is a problem…" Alby smiled maliciously, tightening his hand in the auburn curls and drawing Vin's head further back, exposing more of his throat. "Me’ be ye’d best throw that there gun down. Then we c'n talk 'bout lettin' pretty boy here live a bit longer."

Chris swallowed hard, trying to get rein in the rage burning through him. Tanner's skin was so pale that it had taken on an eerie glow in the moonlight and Larabee could just barely make out the rise and fall of his friend's chest. While that slight movement gave him some comfort that the tracker was still alive, Chris knew Vin couldn't survive much more abuse.

The blonde gunfighter forced himself to relax, studying the killer closely. The crazed look in the man's eyes told Larabee that trying to reason with the madman would be a waste of valuable time. Time Vin didn't have.

Trying a different tact, Larabee visibly loosened up. The man had said "throw that gun..." Sounded like the madman didn't realize Chris had his own colt, covered by his duster. Relaxing his tight stance to appear less threatening, the gunman slowly tossed the revolver he'd been clutching in his right hand on the ground in front of the killer. "Awright. I'm here now. So why don't we just get to it?" he drawled disdainfully, holding his hands out from his sides.

Alby smiled in triumph, slowly rising, pulling Vin Tanner with him, still using the unconscious tracker as a shield.

Part 68


Consciousness began to shred the comforting cushion of darkness surrounding him and Vin Tanner quickly became aware of an agony which seemed to be tearing through his entire body. The tracker fought to gain control of the torture by taking a mental inventory. The throbbing in his shoulder, abdomen and chest were familiar, he remembered those injuries. But now his neck hurt… What the hell?

Fighting the urge to relax once more into oblivion, Vin cracked his eyes open and tried to take stock of his surroundings. dark… wood crates… he was in an alley…? How the hell did he get here?

Slowly memory returned and with it the sinking feeling that he'd probably lost precious time in his hunt for Savitch.

Without further thought, Vin began to move, only realizing that he was being restrained when something sharp pressed against his throat. An all too familiar fear began to grip him, choking off his air. As he began to struggle against the confinement, a longed-for, comforting voice filtered into his brain.

"Vin, don't move!"


+ + + + + + +

Unable to tear herself away from the standoff in the alley, Mary Travis listened in dismay as the madman declared his intention of killing Chris Larabee. She knew that no matter what had happened between them, with Vin's life in the balance, Chris would sacrifice himself without a second thought. And Chris wouldn't even hesitate long enough to realize that the killer would execute Vin anyway!

Shaking herself free of the hold the deadly events transpiring in the dark had created, Mary turned and ran through the darkness in search of the remaining peacekeepers. The newspaper woman knew that time was quickly running out for both men and their only hope may lie in their friends. With a heartbroken sob, she prayed that she would find the men in time and that they would be able to prevent the seemingly inevitable deaths of two men she had come to care for deeply.

Part 69

Chris watched in horror as Vin began to struggle against his captor, dreading the gush of blood that would indicate the deadly knife had severed an artery.

"Vin, don't move!" He cried out to his friend, hoping against hope that Tanner would trust him one more time. Relief and amazement swept over him as the tracker's struggle ceased immediately. But for how long? Larabee knew of Vin's fear of being restrained and he couldn't count on the tracker being alert enough to realize that movement would cause him further harm.

"Let him go!" Chris turned his deadly glare on Alby. "You said it's me you want. I'm here, so you don't need him. Just let him go." The last said almost pleadingly as his eyes swept over the bloodied young man.

"Sure I will. "Savitch shifted and freed his hand from where it was tangled in Vin's long hair. Bending slightly, still holding the semi-conscious man as a shield, Alby wrapped his fingers around the handle of the revolver Larabee had thrown at his feet. "I'll let 'im go. Soon as y've paid fer killin' my brother, the tracker’ll be gone too."

The killer smiled evilly as he slid his forearm further around Vin's throat, pulling the injured man more tightly against him. While the sharp cut of the knife was now gone; for the tracker there was a new hell as the pressure of Alby's arm threatened to suffocate the injured man.

+ + + + + + +

When they arrived at the jail, Buck, Ezra and J.D. knew almost immediately that the building was empty. The open door and smashed chair left a powerful message regarding the mood of the man who had been there.

"Well, looks like Chris's on the rampage." Buck shifted his hat back on his head, thoughtfully. "Would’a expected he'd head for the saloon, but since we just come from there and didn't pass no black storm on the way, I ain't sure where we should look for him."

"Perhaps Mr. Larabee has climbed up to Nathan's humble quarters to check on the fate of the unlucky young woman?"

"Guess we can go check Nate's, but I don't think we're gonna find him there." Buck lifted the broken chair back, looking at it consideringly. "Just don't think checking on the sick and injured was on his mind."

"Well… we can't just stand here." Ezra was becoming exasperated, fatigue and worry quickly draining his patience. "Perchance you have a better suggestion?"

"Nope. Guess I don't." Buck dropped the broken wood and grabbed J.D. by the back of the neck, propelling the slightly confused younger man toward the door. "C'mon son. Let's see if we can find the man 'fore some fool gets in his way."

Part 70

Alby Savitch was so delighted at finally having his prey within reach that he wasn't quite sure what to do next. He wanted the bastard who killed his brother to suffer but he knew he wouldn't have a lot of time. The newspaper woman had disappeared and he was pretty sure she was headed out to get the rest of the peacekeepers. He cursed himself silently; he shoulda taken care of her too.

Alby was nothing if not adaptable. There wasn't anything he could do about her now so he'd just make his fun with what he had.

Tightening his grip on the tracker, the killer waived the gun at Larabee, indicating that the gunman should step to his left, allowing Alby a clear view of the mouth of the alley.

"Shame I won't have time to really enjoy watchin' you die." He said, turning a hateful stare on the man he had hunted for more than two years. "Ya lucked out - yer gonna get to die quick."

As he spoke, he cocked the hammer back and raised the revolver, aiming it point blank at the gunman.

+ + + + + + +

Vin focused on the memory of Chris's voice, trying to overcome the panic the arm tight around his throat was triggering. He wasn't alert enough to completely understand what was being said but he had heard the concern in his friend's voice and he allowed a warm feeling to spread over him. Somewhere deep inside, he knew somehow his world had been righted and Larabee was watching his back.

The reassurance Chris's presence brought allowed the tracker to gather his thoughts and regain some control of his senses. Forcing himself to focus on the danger Larabee was facing, Vin was distracted from the torment the choking restraint was causing. Tanner knew his strength and endurance were depleted and he wouldn't be able to maintain his tenuous hold on consciousness too much longer. He also knew that Alby would kill Chris if he didn't do something to prevent it.

Gasping for air, Vin tried to look around for a weapon, an inspiration, any clue as to how he could take down the bastard holding him. His pain filled blue eyes searched the darkness, but his muddled brain just didn't seem to be able to process anything beyond Chris was here and Alby Savitch was going to kill him.

Before he could work out a plan to overcome the man holding the crushing arm to his neck, Vin heard the unmistakable sound of a pistol cocking and the killer's chilling words …yer gonna get to die quick.

+ + + + + + +

Flying from the alley, Mary Travis ran down the boardwalk toward the saloon, sobs tearing from her throat as she ran. The darkness, now broken only by the scattered street fires did nothing to reassure her as she rushed as fast as her long, heavy skirts would allow.

Determination and fear drove her forward, her total focus on getting to the saloon where she prayed the peacekeepers would be gathered. Her forward momentum was halted suddenly as she ran into a solid body. With a terrified gasp, the blonde woman began to struggle violently as hands closed around her.

Part 71

"Mrs. Travis! My dear lady, please calm yourself! I have no intention of harming you." Ezra's unruffled voice quickly reassured the terrified woman and she relaxed against him with a sob. In actuality, Ezra was anything but unruffled - he had been quite unnerved as the figure suddenly appeared out of the darkness and hurtled directly into him. Only instinct allowed his hands to close around the apparition to keep them both from falling.

Mary's emotions had been in turmoil since seeing Vin fighting the stranger in the alley and now she was drained, almost too overcome to speak. As the conman retained his comforting grip, she found herself unwillingly surrendering to the tears that had been threatening for so long, her mind refusing to provide the words she so desperately needed to say.

"Mary - What're you doin' out alone at night?" demanded Buck, his tone brusque with concern. "You know it's not safe to be out alone as long as that killer's on the loose."

"Buck…!" she finally managed to force out of her emotion choked throat, "You have to hurry! Vin and Chris… HURRY!" The distressed woman began pulling at Ezra's coat lapels, trying to convey the need for urgency to the bewildered man.

"Mary!" demanded Buck, taking hold of her arm and pulling her around to face him. "What are you talking about? Chris and Vin are together? Are they fighting? What's happening??"

"Buck, there's no time! Please, you have to hurry before it's too late." Mary began pulling at the ladies man's arm in desperation, trying to drag him to the alley.

"Ya need to calm down, yer getting' yerself all overwrought - I can't understand what yer sayin'" Buck spoke calmly, as he would to a hysterical child. "Just tell me what's happening."

The blond newspaper woman stopped and stared at the big man in shock, she couldn't believe he wasn't moving. She thought she had made the life and death nature of the situation very clear! Apparently the three men were not going to react appropriately until she gave them explicit details.

"Okay Buck, in plain words…." She said quickly, sarcasm dripping from her voice, "Vin is barely alive and he's being held hostage by the man responsible for the attacks in town, including the attack on me. Chris is trying to intervene but apparently the reason the man came to town in the first place was to kill Chris. Is that calm enough for you?"

Mary's words had barely drifted away in the cold night air when the sound of a single gunshot traveled through the three men like a lightning bolt, jolting them into action. "Oh my God… CHRIS!" Buck cried out as the peacekeepers began to run down the boardwalk.

+ + + + + + +

Even in the shadowed alley, Chris saw the hammer cock, heard the slight click that sounded like a cannon. Instinctively, he began to shift to his left, turning his side to present a smaller target as his hand instinctively drew the colt from under his duster.

Before the pistol cleared the leather holster he saw the muzzle flash and felt a solid, staggering blow…

Part 72

NOOOO… Vin didn't even realize that the ragged howl he heard was coming from his own mouth as he saw Alby's grip tighten on the colt. The tracker forced his tormented body back and to the right, shoving Savitch's gun arm against a wooden crate just as the bullet discharged. As Vin turned into Alby, the madman's arm, still holding the deadly knife, slid across the tracker's throat, the blade slicing through flesh as it moved. Tanner didn't notice. From somewhere on the edge of his vision, Vin saw Larabee jerk and he knew his friend had been hit.

Animal rage enabled him to keep moving, taking the killer to the ground. Vin landed on top of the furious gunman and wrapped his left hand around the butt of the gun still clutched in Alby's right hand. Unaware of the further damage done to his already battered body, Tanner fought wave after wave of dizziness as he struggled with the killer, only the leverage of his weight on the madman's arm giving him the edge he needed to hold on.

Alby couldn't believe that he'd finally had Larabee dead to rights and the goddamned tracker had interfered again! He knew the bullet had struck his brother's killer but because of the bastard still holding onto him, he didn't have the satisfaction of watching the man die!

The weight of Tanner's body was effectively keeping Alby pinned as his frustration and fury grew. Groping around with his left hand, his fingers again encountered the hilt of the knife. A rush of vindictive satisfaction swept over him as he raised the knife over Vin's unprotected back.

"Goddamn you! Yer finally gonna pay fer getting' in my way, ya bastard!" he exclaimed as the knife began to arc downward.

+ + + + + + +

The sound of a gunshot splitting the night jolted Nathan and Josiah awake. Both men had just drifted off, exhausted by their efforts to save the young woman who had been so near death.

After many hours of bathing Reba with cool water to fight the fever and forcing water into the sometimes semi-conscious girl, Nathan had finally declared that their efforts had been rewarded and he thought the hotel maid would live.

Now both men blinked the remnants of sleep from their eyes as they tried to decipher what had startled them from the first chance at rest they'd had in days.

"Sounded like a gunshot." said Nathan, rising and quickly checking on Reba. To his satisfaction, the girl continued to sleep peacefully.

"That it did brother." Josiah was already buckling his holster and heading for the door.

"She'll be awright, I best come with you ta see what's goin' on now…" Nathan closed the clinic door quietly behind him and followed Josiah down the long flight of steps. "Any luck, somebody shot the sonuvabitch that's been terrorizin' th' town."

Part 73

Larabee's gut reaction to the click of the hammer cocking had been to draw his weapon, only supreme self-control preventing the gunman from squeezing the trigger. And then everything seemed to happen in a heartbeat; all thoughts of self-defense fled as Chris heard Vin's cry and saw the tracker suddenly spring to life and twist into Savitch. As if by design, the clouds broke long enough for the moon to illuminate Vin's tumble to the ground on top of the killer and the sickening sight of fresh blood darkening the tracker's pale skin.

Chris didn't even hear the revolver discharge and the bewildering impact of the bullet into his shoulder staggered him. Recovering quickly, Larabee stepped toward where Vin lay, his friend's fingers wrapped in a death grip around the colt still clenched in the madman's hand.

Oh God.. Vin… The words came forth involuntarily as Chris realized that his friend may just have sacrificed his own life to save him.

Dismay engulfed the gunman as his world crashed around him. So lost was he, it wasn't until the same moonlight caught the knife as it arced down toward the tracker's back that he realized that the animal who had attacked Mary and killed at least one innocent girl; the bastard who had now murdered his best friend, was still alive.

Without further thought Larabee raised the colt and began firing at the exposed face of the killer. Chris's finger continued to twitch on the trigger long after he'd emptied all the rounds from the cylinder, long after the vicious murderer's head had exploded into a million pieces.

The deafening silence, broken only by the gunfighter's harsh breathing, settled on the alley. Chris stood and stared, not really seeing the carnage he had wrought.

+ + + + + + +

Pounding feet met Nathan and Josiah as they reached the foot of the stairs and they quickly recognized Buck, J.D. and Ezra running toward them. Neither man was surprised that the three lawmen were reacting to the sound of a gunshot. What did bewilder them was Mary Travis being pulled along by J.D. Dunne, her white shawl floating behind her looking for all the world like a specter disturbed from its rest.

"Any idea who's shootin'…?" began Josiah as the men sprinted past. The big man and Nathan shared a questioning look as their friends continued on without hesitating or even acknowledging their presence.

"What the hell's goin' on now?" Nathan asked the question, weariness clear in his voice. The black healer knew that Josiah didn't know any more than he did, so he didn't really expect a response - which was okay, because he really dreaded the answer and the implications of gunfire late at night when decent folks should be sleeping.

Glancing once again at each other, Nathan and Josiah turned reluctantly to follow their friends.

"Nate… was Chris with the boys?"

The sudden, ominous realization that Chris Larabee was not with the peacekeepers coincided with the sound of rapid gunfire, obviously from a single weapon. A ripple of fear electrified the two stunned men and they leapt into action, charging toward the sound that was already drifting away into the cold darkness.

Part 74

Chris had no idea how long he stood, the colt dangling from his fingers, his soul too devastated to exist, when he was torn from his daze by a soft, strained growl…

"Ya jes' gonna stand there all night? C'd use some help here…"

Larabee's eyes widened as he heard Vin's weak, raspy voice.

Chris hurdled forward to catch his friend as the tracker slowly rolled over onto his back, his face turned away from the gruesome sight of the dead man.

Cradling his friend in his arms, Larabee allowed the tears pricking at his eyes to fall unchecked. "Thought you were a dead man." He said his voice choked with emotion.

"Yea, thought the same." Vin gasped out, reaching his hand up to touch the blonde's bloodstained shoulder.

Chris chuckled in relief, not quite sure how to take Vin's words. Did the stubborn, annoyingly self-sacrificing tracker mean he thought he himself was dead or he thought Chris was dead? Larabee knew the latter was probably what concerned his friend the most and was humbled by it.

"Hell, that's just a scratch. I've done worse to myself shaving." Chris quickly checked Vin's neck where he'd been so sure his friend's throat was slit and found a fairly good sized gash across Tanner's shoulder, at the base of his throat. The gunman pulled a bandanna from his pocket and gently pressed it under the bloodstained collar of his previously black shirt.

"Taken to stealing clothes now?" he asked drolly, trying to gain control of the relief and happiness flooding over him, threatening to make him behave in a manner not at all in keeping with his usual intimidating demeanor.

"Hell, least ya owe me is one a yer damn depressin' shirts." Vin retorted, the force of his words belied by a groan as his tortured body reminded him of all it'd been through.

Vin knew he couldn't hold the darkness at bay too much longer but there was something he needed to know before he could surrender to the longed-for relief. The tracker looked searchingly at Chris and seeing the depth of emotion on his best friend's face, Vin's question was answered; everything was right again. With a slight nod and a satisfied sigh, the exhausted, pain-racked younger man finally allowed himself to succumb to the comforting oblivion beckoning him.

"You're welcome to the shirt and anything else I got, Pard." The gunfighter said softly, his voice husky with emotion as he clung tightly to Vin's unconscious body, determined to shield the younger man from any further pain.

A moment later, five men and a winded Mary Travis charged into the alley and came to a crashing halt at the sight of Chris Larabee cradling a very bloody, unconscious Vin Tanner in his arms, a contented smile on the gunman's tear stained face.


Nathan Jackson stood on the veranda of his clinic watching the still weak but steadily healing tracker. The young man was wrapped in blankets, relaxing in a chair outside the saloon.

The healer thought back over the past two weeks with wonder. Still amazed at the path life had taken.

The other men and Mary Travis were standing stock-still by the time he and Josiah arrived in the dark alley. Pushing through the frozen figures, Nathan's experienced eyes swept over the sight before him. A body, obviously dead, lay crumpled on the ground. Chris was crouched just in front of the grisly corpse holding Vin protectively. The unconscious tracker looked like he'd been painted head to toe in blood and dirt, but somehow Nathan's initial dismay at the man's appearance faded as he observed the relaxed smile touching Larabee's lips. Inexplicably, a feeling of peace swept over him. A peace he hadn't felt in what seemed like a very long time.

Most of the town had been roused by the gunfire and quickly gathered in the darkness, much like they had more than a week before. The difference being this time they realized the truth about what had been happening in Four Corners. Many quickly offered help and fortunately, Reba was stable enough that the healer felt comfortable moving her to Mrs. Potter's rooms when the storekeeper insisted on stepping in.

The trip back to the clinic had been tense, Nathan's desire to get the sharpshooter to where he could treat him warring with the need to move his friend slowly and avoid causing further injury. After he'd gotten the tracker's many injuries cleaned and restitched, all the healer could do was fight the inevitable fever and pray. It had been touch and go for several days, Vin's condition was grave and Nathan was convinced that the blood loss alone would kill the already debilitated young man.

But this time Vin fought back with a vengeance. After three agonizing days and nights, the young man's fever broke and the tracker finally drifted into a healing sleep.

As much as he would like to have taken credit for Vin's survival, Nathan wasn't foolish enough to think that the sharpshooter's tenacious hold on life could be attributed to his medical skills. He knew without a doubt that the physical contact of the man who never let go of the tracker's hand throughout the interminable, exhausting hours that turned into days was what made the difference between life and death.

The one bright spot for the exhausted healer was that because Chris had planted himself at Vin's bedside and threatened to grow roots before he moved, it meant the gunman was resting too. While the man's shoulder wound had fortunately been minor, when you added that to the emotional strain their leader had been under, rest was the best thing for him.

Four days after the more-dead-than-alive tracker had been carried into his clinic, Nathan felt warranted in announcing not only would the stubborn young man live but that his recovery was just short of miraculous!

Thereafter, Nathan's biggest problems became keeping the tracker in bed and working around all the extra bodies cluttering up his clinic. As expected, the remainder of the seven were constantly under foot, all with the best of intentions - which reminded Nathan of the old adage 'The road to Hell is paved with good intentions'. In addition to contending with their unremitting, exasperating presence, the normally unruffled man was subjected to people from all over town stopping by, bringing food and offering help and support! And of course not one soul seemed to remember behaving badly toward the young man! All things considered, Nathan began to feel like 'The road to Hell' ended in his clinic!

At first, Nathan insisted the peacekeepers remain quiet while they were in the sick room and allow Vin to rest peacefully and regain his strength. While they grudgingly complied, the healer knew that some of the men wouldn't relax until they were able to talk to the tracker - actually not so much 'talk to' as appeal for his forgiveness! As Vin became able to stay awake longer, each man approached him individually, hat in hand, to make peace with the quiet man. Each was amazed by how the young man accepted their tentative overtures with no hint of anger or recrimination. Tanner had even gone so far as to apologize to J.D. for knocking him unconscious! In fact, if they had compared notes, the often intimidating gunmen would have had to admit to feeling nearly giddy with relief at seeing only friendship shining in the candid blue eyes.

The harmony that settled over the peacekeepers marked another turning point in Vin's recovery. Tanner apparently decided that he was now 'fine" and should be allowed his freedom. After several days of fighting tooth and nail to keep the pigheaded sharpshooter in the clinic, Nathan had thrown his hands in the air and told the man "…go ahead and leave if ya want to! Ya stubborn sonuvabitch - I shoulda figured out by now that ya can't kill you with a stick. Don't know why I waste my time and energy tryin' to take care of yer ungrateful ass!"

What Nathan wouldn't say was how thankful he, hell all of 'em, were to have Vin back - even in his most obstinate, contrary form.

And not only did they get Vin back, Chris had returned from his private hell too. A Chris with a new light in his eyes, a glimmer of hope that hadn't quite been there even before Alby Savitch came to Four Corners.

Yep all told, the peacekeepers were a pretty satisfied bunch.

+ + + + + + +

Leaning back, with his long legs outstretched in front of him, Tanner was blowing random notes on his ever-present mouth organ when Chris Larabee stepped up on the boardwalk beside him.

"Think you should be out here in the cold, Pard?" Larabee knew that cold was never an issue for the former bounty hunter if it came with being out in the open air. "Nathan know you're gone again?"

"Yep. Nate said me getting' some fresh air's jes' fine with him." Vin said innocently, turning his attention back to his harmonica.

"Humph, said it was 'fine', did he? Doubt that." Chris knew Vin too well to belief that blatant misrepresentation and felt a smile tug at his lips when he imagined what the healer's actual reaction had been.

Tanner chuckled softly at his friend's words, Ya got’a lot'a nerve, Larabee. he thought, noting the gunman still refused to wear the sling Nathan had forced on him.

Vin stopped playing and turned his curious blue gaze on the gunman. "Heard some talk 'bout you goin' missin' while I's laid-up... er… before….. gonna tell me where ya was?"

Serious green eyes turned to the tracker as the gunslinger considered his answer - or if he even wanted to respond. Realizing that his best friend deserved to know the truth as much as he needed to accept the reality of what he'd been through, Larabee's reply was short and uncompromising as he turned back to study the activity on the dirty road, "Lost."

Tanner lifted a questioning eyebrow and studied his best friend closely, waiting for the man in black to elaborate.

Larabee settled his black hat on his blond head. After a moment, he turned and locked gazes with the sharpshooter, and reached out his right arm. Vin automatically did the same and they clasped forearms in their own unique bond. "I'm found now." Chris said softly, then he turned and strode off the porch.

Vin Tanner watched Chris walk toward the Clarion Office, a gentle smile touching his lips as he gave an almost imperceptible nod, Me too Cowboy. he whispered and returned his attention to the mouth organ in his hand.

The End

Flamers will just be thought of badly.