Proof of Innocence

by SLR

Josiah looked up from his work as he recognized the sound of whistling outside, approaching his humble church. The once-disillusioned preacher had undertaken the restoration of the old building—originally little more than three crumbling walls and a rotten floor—as a penance for his reckless life before salvation.

Sanchez had allowed the harshness of his late father, who had been the pastor of his own church, to turn him away from the living Word of God. Unable to reconcile his father’s Sunday exhortations with the treatment he and his younger sister received at home, Josiah had set out to discover the truth and ended up wandering for years in various countries, studying many different religions and cultures, until he returned to the West once more. It was then he learned of his father’s death and the admittance of his beloved sister, Hannah, into a home for the clinically insane. The following years of frustration and anger—at himself, his father, and the Lord—were not unlike those of Larabee after the death of his family. Sanchez attempted to drown himself in the mind-numbing burn of alcohol, drinking until he passed out or flew into a intoxicated rage, fighting men he didn’t know for reasons he couldn’t explain.

Finally, painfully aware that such an existence would only lead to complete destruction, Sanchez sobered up and took to wandering the desert, searching for a sign from God that he would eventually find peace for his troubled soul. It was at this time that he met the compassionate healer, Nathan. Not long after that friendship was formed, both men stumbled onto the lawless, frontier town of Four Corners and discovered a group of people in desperate need of their services. So, Josiah began to rebuild the dilapidated adobe church, and Nathan set up a small clinic down the street from the saloon.

Then one day a large flock of crows descended on his slowly progressing church, an omen that he interpreted as heralding his own death. Instead, less than a week later, six men, including his old friend Jackson, approached him with the offer of virtually nothing for his aid in the defense of a nearby Indian village. Though reluctant at first to leave what he felt was his God-appointed task of reestablishing the small church, the preacher quickly realized that his encounter with those men at that time in that place for that reason had been the Lord’s plan all along.

Since that first adventure with the six men he’d come to call his family, Josiah had added another wall, a roof, and a few handmade pews to his restored church. Those six comrades had also often pitched in to help repair the many defects still plaguing the old structure.

Even as the whistling reached his newly installed front door and ceased, Josiah stood from where he’d been kneeling and sanding a newly crafted bench free of splinters. Stretching his arms high above his head, the fingertips of his large hands just touching the center beam of the slightly peaked roof, Sanchez released a soft groan along with the stiffness of spending too long in one cramped position. He dropped his hands to press against his lower back as he arched his spine, the sound of popping vertebrae filling the enclosed space. Giving himself a vigorous shake to loosen any remaining tightness, Josiah returned his gaze to the door just as Buck stepped inside, a wide grin lifting both ends of his mustache.

“Sound’s like you’re gettin’ old, there, preacher man.” Mischief twinkled in bright blue eyes as Buck winked at the oldest member of the Seven and possibly the largest man in the entire Territory of Arizona. Sanchez stood a good two inches even above Buck—who himself was six foot three barefoot—with the accompanying broad shoulders and heavy muscle. Unlike most men his age, however, none of that muscle had gone to fat. A short, salt-and-pepper beard graced his craggy features, matching the tint of his close-cut hair. Perhaps because of his size, Josiah had trained himself to be slow to anger—when sober, at least—but when people he cared for were threatened, the gentle giant was a force to be reckoned with, regardless of age, as Wilmington well knew.

Josiah returned the broad grin, unperturbed by the ribbing. “‘Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity,’” he rumbled in a voice so deep it could rattle windowpanes and make boulders vibrate.

Buck drew his eyebrows together in mock-consternation. “You sayin’ I’m useless, seein’s how I’m in the prime of life?”

A granite chuckle reverberated around the two men, “Well, Brother Bucklin, I’d say you hit the nail on the head.” His broad smile remained as he continued, “What brings you to the Lord’s house on such a warm afternoon? Seeking sanctuary from another irate husband?”

“Now, Josiah, that was more’n two months ago. How was I supposed t’know Mr. Johanson was gonna come home early?” He sobered abruptly as the purpose of his visit resurfaced in his mind. “No, Chris wanted me t’tell you we’re ridin’ out. You an’ Ez’ll be the only two in town.”

Josiah nodded sagely. “Goin’ after Vin?”

“Yeah.” A dark brown eyebrow arched upward. “How’d you know?”

The preacher shrugged. “Brother Chris was more agitated than usual this morning, and that buffalo coat hasn’t made an appearance all day. Doesn’t take any stretch of the imagination to connect the two.”

“Humph.” Buck shook his head. “We may be overreacting, but Chris don’t want t’take no chances, especially with them bank robbers runnin’ around.” He turned to head back out the door. “See ya when we get back, ‘Siah.”

Sanchez offered a farewell to his retreating back before firing off a quick prayer to the Big Man Upstairs for the safety of their missing friend and those souls going out to retrieve him. Then he returned to his carpentry.


Chris Larabee’s nervous worry had been settled somewhat by taking action, but a certain measure persisted in his tensed shoulders and drawn lips. As he strode swiftly down the boardwalk his thoughts returned to the cause of his unsettled condition, and he wondered once more what had become of the dry, quick-witted tracker this time.

Larabee would be the first to admit that he wasn’t the easiest man to be around, much less get to know. In fact, for a long time, even an attempt at conversation was rejected with angry words at best, a gun at worst. But all that had changed the moment he stepped forward into the dusty main street of Four Corners, speaking through his gaze for the first of many times to a young man with long brown hair and deep blue eyes. Together, the latter with a “borrowed” Winchester rifle and he with his ivory handled Colt, they strode in silence to defend an innocent black healer from the strangling noose of a lynch mob. That task completed, introductions were made and all three headed off for a refreshing drink in the Saloon, where Fate would introduce them to Ezra Standish and two desperate Indians.

That was the day his soul had been resurrected from the ashes of his family’s graves. He grasped with surprising vigor at the hand offered in friendship, allowing it to pull him from the depths of despair into the warmth of life once more. He and six others rode as one formidable force, saving themselves even as they defended others. Larabee’s life had changed for the better, and he was now the leader of The Magnificent Seven, a respected position to be sure, if at times trying on the mind.

Like now, when everything inside him was stretched taut with the knowledge that one of his men needed help. Tanner was a man grown, and there was no one more accustomed to—or more capable of—taking care of himself, but everyone made mistakes, and no one could be hyper alert at all times.

Ignoring the skittish looks that the wary citizens of Four Corners slanted his way, Larabee stalked his way to the livery, moving with the easy grace of a mountain cat, and no less lethal. Once inside the shaded, slightly cooler building, his awareness contracted back into himself, abandoning the vague fears and half-formed possibilities to his subconscious mind. Searching the relatively dim interior, he saw Tiny and JD readying the horses, their movements worn smooth with much repetition. A young, unfamiliar roan stood quietly, tethered beside Buck’s gray, both saddled and waiting. JD’s remount, Chris thought approvingly, noting with a rancher’s eye the clean lines and calm demeanor. He made his way over to his own horse, Pony, the large black whickering in recognition and greeting.

“Hey, boy,” he said softly, running a callused hand down the strong neck. Pony had yet to be saddled, as both Tiny and JD saved him for last in the hopes that Chris would arrive before the other horses were prepared. Larabee’s gelding responded beautifully to his owner, but rarely suffered the attentions of any other, and then with extreme reluctance.

Chris had just tightened Pony’s girth one last time when Buck, Nathan and Ezra walked in, the latter two with a bulging leather satchel and a sour expression, respectively. Larabee led Pony out of the suddenly crowded stable before swinging gracefully into his silver tooled saddle, a gift from his men last Christmas. Jackson secured his medical kit, also a gift from the other members of the Seven, to the back of his horse before joining the gunslinger in the harsh afternoon sun, followed closely by Wilmington and Dunne. Ezra trailed out after the young sheriff, dejection and worry painting his oft-expressionless face as he stepped up onto the boardwalk. Lifting one delicate hand in his familiar two-fingered salute, he wished the search party a successful journey.

The others nodded in acknowledgement, Buck’s irrepressible grin flashing brightly under his dark moustache. “We’ll be back before ya know it, with a’ irritable tracker in tow.” His light words brought a few chuckles from the assembled riders, softening the hard edge of tension. Larabee allowed himself a slight smile before turning his mount to face the wilderness beyond Four Corners. Hold on Vin, we’re comin’. Nodding once to Ezra, Chris kneed Pony forward.

“Let’s ride.”


Vin shifted in his saddle. The lack of food, water and rest were beginning to tell on the young man, and the addition of a pounding headache that seemed to worsen with every jarring step his borrowed gelding took made this one of the most uncomfortable rides Tanner had ever endured.

Fortunately, it seemed his two captors felt the need for a break as well, and Vin had to restrain a sigh of relief when Jennings caught his son’s eye and indicated a small stand of trees on the right. The boy nodded once before following his father over to the little grove, leading Vin’s mount with a gentle hand.

The three riders settled a fair distance from the road, hidden from approaching riders and next to a small stream. The thin ribbon of water snaked through a shallow rut carved out of a much larger creek bed, clear evidence that the seasonal rains had been sparse even by the desert’s standards. Meager though it was, it was also clear and refreshing after a day’s ride, welcomed by both the horses and the men they carried.

Jonathan Jennings was hot, tired, sweaty, and more content than he’d ever been. Since the day he was old enough to truly understand what took his father away from home for such long periods of time he’d wanted to go with him. The thought of chasing down an elusive prey, studying past routines and worming his way into his mark’s thoughts to anticipate and counter future moves, was exiting and promised all the adventure a young, vibrant boy could want. The day his mother and father finally allowed him to accompany the older bounty hunter on the trail was a memory John still treasured, believing it to be the day he finally earned the right to consider himself an adult.

That had been about three years ago, and now, having aided in the capture of several convicted criminals, John knew this was a job he did well, and even enjoyed. Most rewarding of all, however, was the time he’d spent with his previously unknown father. John discovered things about Frank Jennings that he’d never known before. Frank had always been kind to his son, if a little gruff and distant, but now as they chased down leads and apprehended criminals together, often spending weeks and even months in each other’s sole company, John had found a friend and confidant in the older man, a closeness that his father shared. The seventeen-year-old boy had come to trust his father’s instincts and advice implicitly, though they still butted heads over various issues as all consecutive generations did.

John had learned and mastered the art of restraining a prisoner during his three years of bounty hunting, knowledge he put to good use as he deftly released Tanner from the saddle horn. He knew his father was on alert, the business end of his pistol carefully trained on the longhaired man as he slid gratefully down the side of his horse to revel in the stationary pleasure of solid ground.

“Y’d better drink up now,” Frank said quietly, reholstering his weapon as John put a cautious distance between himself and Tanner. “The trail veers away from this stream in another half mile ‘r so, an’ there’ll be no more water ‘til sometime t’morrow.” The older man dismounted, hiding his own relief at the opportunity to stretch cramped legs. He reached into his saddlebag and pulled out a handful of jerky and a few hard biscuits, watching as his son did the same.

Vin, ignoring the watchful gazes of both his captors, steadied himself at the side of his mount before turning toward the happily gurgling stream. Making no sudden movements—Frank's hand was never far from the pistol strapped to his thigh—Tanner knelt in the dry creek bed and took an experimental sip. The water was cool and clear, and Vin quickly drank a few handfuls before splashing the refreshing liquid over his dusty face and neck. He knew without turning that Jennings' son was doing the same a few feet to his left while his father stood back a ways, on guard. Satisfied that dehydration was no longer a looming possibility, Vin sat back on his heels and quickly surveyed their resting place.

It was secluded, the gnarled branches of mesquite trees concealing them from anyone traveling on the road. The cold, partially buried remains of a campfire could be seen a few yards downstream, but neither Jennings seemed concerned about the possibility of company. It was obvious that they didn't plan on staying very long, anyway.

John stood back now, keeping watch on their prisoner as his father drank his fill. As Frank rose from the edge of the river, his thirst quenched, he glanced at Tanner, who had settled onto his haunches as he looked over the area. Tanner's gaze had landed on John, a quickly hidden flash of hunger running through his gaze as he watched the boy chew on a strip of jerky. Jennings suddenly realized that Tanner hadn't eaten anything all day, and likely hadn't had much the night before, either. Neither bounty hunter had found evidence of a skinned animal anywhere around Vin's campsite.

Frank may have been a hard man, but he wasn't cruel, and he scolded himself silently as he walked back to his mount. He noted with slight amusement that Tanner's piercing blue eyes had attached themselves to him now, watching as he reached once more into the leather saddlebag. Withdrawing a few more pieces of jerky and another biscuit, Frank handed the food to Tanner, who was now standing, one hip cocked up in a posture of easy relaxation. He said nothing, but the sudden twinkle in the blue gaze expressed his thanks. Frank nodded once in acknowledgement, catching the glimmer of a smile before turning back to his horse.

The three men mounted up again as soon as the horses were rested, and Vin submitted quietly to the resecuring of his wrists to the saddle horn. As soon as John settled into the familiar contours of his saddle, the company rode out, back to the main road, with the younger Jennings on point. Vin shook his long hair back from his face, then turned to catch Frank’s eye.

“I’m not guilty, you know.” His voice was soft, almost gentle.

Frank looked at him, his expression unreadable. “Well, the court in Tascosa says otherwise. You’ll have to take it up with them.” He waited, expecting to see something in that blue gaze; fear, anger, frustration, something. But there was nothing save that quiet acceptance, as if he knew Jennings wouldn’t have believed him but needed to say the words anyway. A slight shrug accented Tanner’s surprising serenity and the younger man turned away, looking instead to the horizon. But instead of focusing on the noose waiting for him beyond that distant line, Vin’s thoughts were directed behind, to the collective presence of his six brothers. He could almost feel their swift approach.


“Looks like they stopped here for a while.” J.D. had tracked his friend and the two bounty hunters from Vin’s campsite onto the main road, and from there to a small stand of mesquites. Now he crouched carefully to the side of three sets of prints, evidence that their quarry had knelt and drunk from the small stream. “There’s no sign of any kind of fight or anything, they just rested a while and moved on.” He scratched the back of his head in what would have been a comic gesture had the circumstances not been so grim. J.D. looked up. “You think he knows them?”

The six men had been both dismayed and relieved when they reached the place Vin had spent the night. Dismayed because, judging by the presence of Vin’s bedroll, saddlebags, and beloved slouch hat, the tracker had not abandoned his camp willingly. Relieved at the lack of blood or other sign of injury. Assuming the two bounty hunters had gotten the drop on Tanner—which was surprising in and of itself—they had immediately set out on a manhunt of their own, with J.D. in the lead.

So far they’d traveled at a brisk pace as the trail was clear and relatively fresh. The two bounty hunters had seemingly made no effort to conceal their tracks, a fact that puzzled them almost as much as how they managed to surprise Vin. Whatever the reason behind that apparent lack of concern for the possibility of pursuers, it had allowed the six riders to rapidly close the distance between them and their missing member. Which was all to the good as Larabee’s temper had blossomed with the discovery of Tanner’s capture, going from anger to icy concentration on retrieving one of his men. That intensity had transmitted itself to those riding with him, and even though Tanner’s apparent healthiness had eased a great deal of tension, all were worried for his well being. Especially considering what awaited him at the end of the journey.

Chris shook his head, a lock of golden hair falling across troubled eyes. “No,” he said, brushing it back absently, “he knows we’re comin’. Probably figures on waitin’ ‘til we join the party.”

Buck nodded in agreement, “He knows we’d never fergive ‘im for draggin’ us all th’way out here an’ then start the fun without us.” Nathan snorted softly at that, eyeing with a mixture of amusement and trepidation the anticipatory gleam in Wilmington’s blue eyes.

J.D. shrugged before remounting his borrowed roan, gesturing toward the darkening sky. “It’ll be night soon, and since these guys aren’t in a hurry I figure we’ve got a good chance of overtaking them when they stop for the night.” He wrinkled his brow as they rode back to the main trail. “Hell, we might even be able to walk right up to their fire if we approach them right. I don’t think they know Vin had anyone that’d come after him.”

Nathan nodded in agreement. “Makes sense. If they’re not familiar with this territory they probably wouldn’t know. And Vin bein’ camped out alone didn’t hurt, either.”

“Well, we’ll just have to teach them to be more careful of who they decide to hunt, won’t we, boys?” Buck’s wide grin split his mustached face. The knowledge that Vin was uninjured and within reach had revived his incorrigible humor.

Chris nodded as well, a distant look in his otherwise relieved gaze. They hardened once more at the thought of overtaking those with the audacity to snatch one of his men. “C’mon. I think I know where they’re plannin’ on spending the night.” One side of his mouth lifted in a flinty smile, “Vin showed it to me.”


Jennings turned to glance at his prisoner once more, only to find the clear blue eyes already directed his way. He made and held eye contact with the younger man, but felt unease rather than satisfaction when the other dropped his gaze first in favor of the approaching sunset. Puzzled anew at Tanner’s odd behavior, Frank shook his head before reorienting himself. He knew of a small grove a mile or two away from their current position, where they had planned on spending the night. Catching his son’s attention, he tilted his head toward the campsite, signaling him to ride on ahead. The boy acknowledged the order but flicked his eyes to Vin, worry for his father shining clearly in his blue gaze. A slight tugging at the corner of Frank’s mouth showed he appreciated the concern, but a firm nod sent John on his way.

Vin smiled again, having correctly interpreted the silent conversation. The father and son had often conversed in that manner as they rode, offering Vin a taste of what his five friends endured when he and Chris did the same. Tanner had come to grips with his situation a few hours earlier, confident that the remaining peacekeepers of Four Corners would, one way or another, save him the ignoble death of hanging from the gallows. With that resolved, his irrepressible and somewhat twisted sense of humor returned.

After insuring his son was out of hearing distance, Frank shifted in his saddle enough to face Tanner. He was startled to find a genuine smile lifting the corners of the man’s mouth.

Vin turned his head, losing his bemusement as he noticed the suspicion in Jennings’s narrowed eyes. In his experience, irritated bounty hunters did not make for the best of company. Even as that thought formed, however, the irritation seemed to fade away, replaced by a steady determination. Vin wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or more worried.

The uncertainty that had stirred Frank’s light gray eyes into storm clouds was gone, chased away with the directness of a man who’d chosen his course. The caution, however, remained, as did the curiosity, though only the former was evident in his low voice as he said, “Well, son, I ain’t never been known fer m’social attributes, an’ you sure ain’t been one fer talk, but you best git to it now.” Jennings cocked his head a little to the right, his curiosity now evident in the slant of his hat, the slightly elevated bushy gray eyebrow.

Vin sighed, knowing what the man was asking but at a loss as to how he should respond. A ghost of a smile lingered at the corner of his mouth as his tired mind touched on a memory of Ezra, the glib Southerner notorious for his ability to spin a line of horse manure to rival any politician’s campaigning remarks. Then his lips pressed together into a line that bespoke frustration and slight uncertainty.

The young tracker had willingly told the story of his innocence only once before, to Chris Larabee as the sun set in all her glory. They had been standing watch, waiting for Colonel Anderson to arrive with his merry band of ex-Confederate nutcases. As he watched streaks of vibrant purple, orange and red range across the desert sky once more, Vin compared the all-encompassing trust that he’d felt high on that ridge over a year ago to the tentative yet insistent urge to confide in this man as well. The fact that telling his story might prevent a hanging—his own—was also a powerful incentive. Vin was not a man to beg for his life, but he wasn’t willing to go quietly to an unjustified death, either. A soft, resigned sigh escaped as he began organizing his thoughts.

Frank watched quietly as his captive struggled with how to begin. Not an impatient man anyway, he could tell this wasn’t an easy task and was willing to wait until the younger man felt ready to start. He still couldn’t understand this sudden need to hear Tanner’s side of the story, but something about his honest blue eyes had begun nagging at his conscience. Maybe that’s it, he thought, retracing his mental steps. His eyes don’t have that look I’ve come t’expect from criminals. He heard Tanner take another deep breath. Anticipation made his weathered hands tighten on the reins, and he forced them to relax as his face took on an expectant air.

Tanner’s blue eyes were distant, staring beyond the slowly fading sunset as he recalled the turns his life had taken to eventually lead him into this bounty hunter’s custody. When he finally spoke, sandpaper voice roughened further by emotion, that far away gaze seemed to focus sharply on painful memories. “Durin’ the War I served as a scout fer th’army, then later on as a sniper.” The omission of which side he’d fought for was deliberate; he didn’t want any additional prejudices clouding the more immediate issue. “After it ended I bounced around some, ‘n finally landed in bounty hunting.” His gaze receded from the far off past to connect with Frank’s, irony lifting one corner of his mouth. “I’s good at it—made enough to live on an’ then some—an’ it felt good, too.” He frowned again. “Went after a mark once, th’ last, though I didn’t know that at th’ time. Eli Joe.” Though he didn’t show it, Frank was impressed. Eli Joe had a bad reputation even among his peers. Tanner continued, “Un’erestimated ‘im. Son-of-a-bitch fooled me inta thinkin’ I’d found ‘is corpse, but when I brought th’ body back I’s arrested for killin’ an innocent man.” The old feelings of anger and frustrations returned, muted by time but no less intense. His voice, heretofore low and soft, now hardened to match the flint in his gaze. “I’s tried ‘n convicted fer his crime.”

He was silent a moment, reliving the terror the judge’s sentence had invoked years ago. A cloud of locusts buzzed noisily somewhere ahead in the deepening twilight, and Vin’s mount shied to the right in response to her rider’s tension. The unexpected movement jolted Tanner out of his rising anger and he relaxed into the saddle once more, rolling his shoulders to loosen the muscles there. Shaking his head to remove any lingering anger, Vin turned slightly away from the blue-violet sky to face Jennings. Something like shame shone in his gentle gaze. “I ‘scaped b’fore m’neck got stretched, an’ wandered out here ‘bout five years ago, avoidin’ towns an’ hidin’ in th’mountains.” He ended his tale there, seeing no reason to mention his close association with the now famous seven lawmen of Four Corners.

Frank had listened with interest as Vin talked, carefully weighing each word for honesty. Now he compared his instinctive urge to believe the scruffy young man to the feeling he’d gotten as Tanner’s history unfolded. He was surprised to find himself yet willing to believe the story, though he’d heard many such from other criminals more reputable in appearance than this long-haired, unshaven young man in a buffalo hide coat. Frank’s steady regard never faltered as he asked, “You got anyone t’back that story a’yers up?”

Vin hesitated, unsure of how far this man could be trusted. Then he shook his head, saying, “Didn’t have no partner. I’s alone when I went after ‘im, alone when I found th’other body, an’ alone when I escaped.” That was true enough; the other six believed in his innocence unquestionably, but they hadn’t been there themselves. “Only one that c’d clear m’name by witnessin’s Eli Joe ‘imself, an’ he’s dead.” The crashing wave of despair that had accompanied that thought for so long was now little more than a pinprick of sadness as Vin had long ago accepted his life as a wanted man, albeit unwillingly. The Seven’s employer, Circuit Judge Orrin Travis, had begun the long and arduous affair that clearing Vin’s name promised to be, but that was a faint and slightly unrealistic hope, one into which Tanner didn’t put much effort or credence.

Ignoring the automatic urge to ask how Eli Joe ended up six feet under, Frank sat in silence, considering. His gut instinct was still to take Tanner at face value and accept his words as truth, though that pause before denying the existence of any witnesses stirred a momentary disquiet. Frank wasn’t a materialistic person, so the five hundred dollar reward wasn’t enough motivation—in his eyes—to hang an innocent man, but the fact that it had been issued in the first place wasn’t so easily set aside. If Jennings had learned nothing else in all his years as a bounty hunter he’d learned this: desperate men became exceptional liars. He’d been taken in by a sob story and a pair of pleading eyes before, and that mistake had almost prevented the existence of his son. Whatever else he was, Jennings was a quick learner and didn’t forget valuable lessons. But he’d also learned to trust his instincts.

Shaking his head to settle his whirling and contradicting thoughts, Frank backed away from the issue a little, knowing an immediate resolution to his dilemma was not forthcoming. He also had to consider his son’s safety, because if he chose to believe Tanner only to learn later that he had been lying, not only would Frank suffer the consequences, but so would John. And that was unacceptable.

As if to support his last thought, a bright campfire suddenly sprang to life in the near distance. Both men were surprised to find themselves to close to the intended resting spot, but the yellowish orange glow was nevertheless a welcome sight as it grew from a tiny spark of light into a merry fire that seemed to wink as John passed between it and them.

“That yer boy?” Vin asked suddenly, nodding toward the campsite.

“Yep.” Frank studied the approaching light for a moment, then glanced at him, the warning written clearly in his gray eyes.

A faint smile and another nod answered, and then the two men rode onward in silence, allowing the sounds of desert wildlife dominance.


Chris narrowed his eyes against the blaze of the setting sun, absently patting the sweaty neck of his tired horse. The gunslinger shook his head, dispelling the brilliant after-image and the lingering memory of a past evening. Glancing around, he recognized the signs of fatigue in the horses’ plodding steps and the rounded shoulders of his men. They would have to stop and make camp soon.

Even as he shoved away the upwelling of frustration and anger that thought provoked, however, a flicker of light caught his attention. J.D., in the lead as he scanned the ground for signs of recent passage, had apparently seen it as well and signaled a halt. The four men quickly reined in, knowing instinctively that flame marked their missing comrade.

J.D., filled with youthful excitement and his belief in their collective invincibility, asked, “Why don’t we just charge right in? They don’t know we’re here; we could take ‘em by surprise.”

Buck, though just as eager, tempered his impatience with hard-earned experience. “They may not be expecting us, but they’re no greenhorns, either. Goin’ through that brush would make a heck of a lotta noise. And if we walked in . . .” He tugged on the ends of his mustache. “They’d be suspicious of four men comin’ in after dark to share a campsite.” He slid a glance toward Chris, “One ‘r two, on the other hand,” his voice trailed off as a mischievous gleam flickered in his blue eyes.

Larabee nodded, his own thoughts having traveled in the same direction. “J.D., you’ll go in with me; Nathan, Buck, circle around into flanking positions.” They nodded in acknowledgment. A sudden thought made his stomach clench, but his voice remained even as he said, “Nate, if Vin is injured, you be ready to run in, grab him, and get outta there on my signal.” He saw the worry kindle in the healer’s dark gaze and, despite his own apprehension, added, “He’s probably fine, but just in case.”

Nathan, recognizing the need, responded, “You jist keep them bounty hunters busy, Chris, I’ll git ‘im out.”

The blond continued after a sharp nod. “We’ll see if we can’t take care of them quietly, just knock ’em out and split with no shots fired. They’ll probably show up again later, but our main priority right now is to get Vin out. Give me an’ J.D. a chance to get under their guard, but be ready to cover us if they don’t buy our story. Got it?” Three dark heads bobbed in answer.

Chris looked at the flickering light in the distance before glancing across his men. All three returned his gaze steadily, and he recognized the determination to return Vin to the fold, knowing they were reflecting the same emotion from his own. “Well, then, let’s ride.”