Proof of Innocence

by SLR

Vin watched the father and son as they went about making a hot supper and settling down for the night. The horses, already taken care of, were unsaddled and picketed nearby. Vin had been secured to a fallen tree branch and then left alone for the most part, giving him the opportunity to examine his position.

Having recognized the campsite as one he’d made use of in the past, Vin was not surprised to find himself surrounded on three sides by the gnarled trunks of mesquite trees. The only obvious way into the small area was directly across from the prone tracker, on the other side of the campfire. Beyond the break in the circle of trees Vin could hear the soft sounds of the horses, but his night vision was impaired by the brightness of the fire as it cheerfully threw up sparks and a thin stream of hazy smoke. Jennings, on Vin’s left and about five feet away, carefully hung an iron kettle over the flames, heating water for coffee beside a small pot of boiling beans. His son busied himself with laying out the bedrolls close to the warmth of the fire, and Vin sighed as he contemplated a cold night on hard ground. That town livin’ ‘s gone an’ made me soft.

The sounds of approaching riders put all three men on alert, and distracted Vin from his mental grumbling. After giving Tanner’s restraints a quick once over, Frank drew his weapon and directed it toward the noise. John withdrew to the other side of the camp, providing a wider range of fire should the visitors prove unfriendly. Tanner tensed, nervous for the first time that evening, and wished desperately for the comforting weight of his sawed off shotgun as he struggled quietly with the ropes.

The tension in both Jennings eased but didn’t dissipate completely when a loud voice called out from the darkness, startling the crickets and nearby birds into silence. “H’lo the camp!”

Vin’s heart leaped in recognition even as he schooled his features to a mask of indifference. J.D.!

Moments later the young Bostonian walked into view, leading an unfamiliar roan with one hand and holding the other up in the air, well away from his matched pistols. An easy grin adorned his young-looking face, but his eyes were narrowed ever-so-slightly in wariness that Vin recognized after years of mutual defense. The quiescent tracker betrayed nothing in face or body language that would alert either bounty hunter, and the sheriff very carefully avoided making eye contact for fear of the same.

J.D. made a quick sweep of the camp, noting the watchful postures of the two bounty hunters and Vin’s position between them, on the other side of the small fire. Flickering flames cast an uncertain and fitful light across each face, but there was no mistaking the confident manner in which each hunter held their weapon. The unnatural silence cast an eerie feeling over the moment. J.D. maintained what he hoped was an open expression on his face, counting on his youthful features to lower their guard some, especially when he knew Larabee’s forbidding presence would soon follow him into the camp.

He met and held the older man’s gaze, waved his free hand a little in the air. “Mind if we share your camp for the night?” He kept his tone light and slightly hesitant.

For a moment the crackling of the fire was the only sound, augmented when the nocturnal sounds of the desert resumed their customary levels. Both Frank and John examined J.D.’s posture and expression, puzzled by the contradiction between his naïve appearance and the comfortable way his rig hung around his waist. Frank returned his eyes to J.D.’s. “We?”

The bowler bobbed in what seemed like rueful acknowledgment, and J.D. turned, directing their attention behind and to his right. Larabee’s dark form seemed to detach itself from the encompassing night, a shadow given shape and depth by the light of the fire. Neither he nor his horse made a sound loud enough to carry over the crickets and cicadas, lending credence to the notion that they were no more than an apparition, and whatever headway J.D. had made with the Jennings evaporated into the dry desert air. Frank’s six-shooter, whose muzzle had drifted downward, lifted once more in an instinctive response to the danger that cloaked Larabee as tangibly as his black duster.

Firelight reflected piecemeal from the silver conchos of Chris’s leather gunbelt as he raised a hand slowly in greeting, the intensity of his gaze shrouded by his flat brimmed hat. The infamous gunslinger had used the little time J.D. spent talking to study the Jennings’ prisoner, and while he was as eager as ever to free Tanner from the bounty hunters, much of his equally infamous temper had been dampened by the sight of Vin’s uninjured and ostensibly unconcerned visage. Now he concealed his relief—and the remnants of anger—beneath an expression rather similar to that of Tanner and focused his attention on the elder bounty hunter.

Locking eyes with Frank, he said quietly, “We’re not looking for trouble. Just a place to rest.” As Frank digested his unexpected appearance and matter of fact statement, Larabee allowed his eyes to drift lazily around the camp and over the almost forgotten man lying bound behind the fire. “Friend of mine told me about this little grove, said it was a good place to stop for the night.” Finishing his visual sweep and certain now of his awareness of each potential obstacle should the air fill with lead in the near future, he continued, “But if you’d rather, we’ll move on.” The gunslinger deliberately held his hands away from his sides and aimed for a non-threatening posture. Each of his men recognized his attempt for what it was and barely restrained a snort of incredulity. The man had no concept of the automatic responses that the mere suggestion of his presence engendered.

Frank narrowed his eyes as he considered the two men before him. For the second time that day his instincts were telling him one thing as his mind shouted another, and—though his wariness remained and his gun never wavered far from the shadow that was Chris Larabee—for the second time that day he decided to forego the latter.


Buck Wilmington crouched silently just outside of the campfire’s light. The boy blocked his view of Chris and J.D., but from this angle the former U.S. Marshall had a clear line of sight to both bounty hunters should any problems arise. Glancing quickly around in a manner not unlike that of his old partner, Buck noted Vin’s position to his left and measured the distance as little over ten feet.

White teeth gleamed in the faint moonlight as the familiar rush of adrenaline coursed through his veins, heightening his senses and increasing his already exceptional perception. He listened carefully as Vin’s captors introduced themselves as Frank and John, with no mention of a surname—those were discarded quickly enough in the untamed desert territories. Chris and J.D. responded in kind as they settled down near the fire, directly opposite of the restrained tracker. Buck shifted, carefully balancing his weight in a way that would allow him to charge in on a moment’s notice and yet prevent his muscles from cramping as he waited for Larabee’s signal.

A flicker of movement on the other side of the camp caught his attention, and he brought his weapon up to bear immediately only to lower it almost as quickly when he met Nathan’s dark eyes. Nodding once, and flashing a quick grin, Buck returned his attention to the men occupying the camp, none of whom appeared to have noticed the brief exchange.


Larabee watched through hooded eyes as Frank slowly returned to his seat by the campfire, suspicion yet coloring his movements. The boy was no more at ease—if anything, he was less—though he followed his father’s lead without complaint. Frank spoke again after a moment of awkward silence, his voice carefully even and controlled. “Either a’ ya’ll want a plate? We’ve only got a kettle of beans an’ coffee, but there’s plenty t’ go around.”

Chris eyed the bubbling pan—now removed from the fire—and said, “We could eat.”

J.D. nodded, and as he leaned forward to take the proffered plate, asked, “Who’s he?” Indicating Vin with a brief jerk of his chin, J.D. was careful to keep his tone casual and inquisitive.

Despite his efforts, Frank looked sharply at the young sheriff, and J.D. had to struggle to maintain his assumed innocence. After a moment the bounty hunter relaxed again, responding with a flippant, “No one you need concern yerselves with. We’re takin’ ‘im home fer an overdue appointment.” Frank’s brow creased as the conversation, such as it was, rekindled the internal debate he’d been waging since hearing Vin’s story, and he turned back to the fire in contemplation.

Given a brief respite from the too perceptive gaze of the older man, Chris checked quickly to confirm the younger was engrossed in his dinner before finally making eye contact with Vin. Words flew between them as quietly as ever, yet as tangibly as the bright sparks emitted by the flames between them.

You alright?

Blue eyes twinkled in reply, Exceptin’ my pride, yeah. What took ya so long?

An inaudible snort, then Larabee glanced around again before flicking his eyes to either side of the camp. We got ‘em flanked, waitin’ on the best time.

Vin acknowledged, one corner of his mouth drifting up in amusement before he regained control of his features.

A golden brow arched ever so slightly in question.

The almost imperceptible grin returned, shadowed by a slowly deepening dimple. Feels like one a J.D.’s spy books.

Barely restraining another snort, Chris rolled his eyes at the Texan’s odd sense of humor, concealing his own feelings of absurdity by looking over at Frank. An immediate wave of consternation triggered a flood of adrenaline as he realized the older bounty hunter had observed at least the last bit of that silent conversation, and Larabee braced himself, waiting for Frank to make the first move.

Jennings had recognized the conversation taking place over the campfire, and although he was unsure of the specifics the content was clear enough. These two men knew each other. With the weight of a bullet striking flesh Frank recalled Tanner’s hesitation earlier that evening, cursing himself for seven kinds of a fool. They’re his partners! Then Larabee’s green eyes were drilling into his and Frank knew the man had noticed his sudden scrutiny. The gunslinger’s hand was inching unconsciously closer to his hip as Frank desperately tried to remember exactly where he’d lain his rifle, unwilling to break eye contact with the dark form who had suddenly regained his initial dangerous aspect.

J.D., taking note of the sudden stiffness in the black-clad shoulders, carefully lowered his plate to the ground, freeing both hands should the need for action arise. Over to his left he saw John doing the same, and briefly the odd realization that he shared his Christian name with a man he might be required to kill in the next half hour flitted across his mind. Shaking such distracting and irrelevant thoughts away, the young sheriff focused on his leader’s expression as the level of tension in the camp ratcheted higher.

Hoping to defuse the situation before it exploded in all their faces, Chris stilled his hand and reversed its direction, bringing it up instead in the universal request for peace. Just a minute, the simple gesture said, and was echoed in his wary but controlled gaze. Even as he noted the infinitely slight lessening of the tightness in Frank’s features and was about to signal for Buck and Nathan to charge in, a loud, raucous voice rang out into the night, snapping the tension that had sustained the unnatural tableau and bringing all but Vin to their feet.

“Well, ain’t it jist th’ party goin’ on here!”


Nathan swore under his breath as the unknown arrivals popped out of the brush around the campsite, surrounding the four men by the fire and shoving Buck—sans pistol—out into the clearing as well. The big man stumbled to a halt between John and J.D., cursing a blue streak and bleeding from a cut behind his left ear. There were six strangers visible within the circle of light provided by the fire, and Nathan could hear at least three other distinct voices out where the horses were picketed.

They must ‘a seen the fire from a distance and snuck up on us, the dark healer thought angrily. Thumped Buck pretty good by th’ looks ‘a things. Wilmington, however, though a thin trickle of blood traced the side of his neck, seemed none the worse for wear, his blue eyes snapping in fury and self-recrimination and his whole body trembling with suppressed violence. Only pure luck had allowed Nathan to remain undiscovered, and he breathed deeply to settle the instinctive urge to leap out of cover as he watched the outlaws search the others for weapons. Once he’d regained some measure of his self-control, Nathan noticed that of all the men in the clearing Larabee appeared the most at ease, standing with his arms to his sides, one booted foot forward and green eyes veiled by the brim of his hat. Wondering what was going on behind that hidden gaze, seemingly undisturbed by the absence of his pistol. Nathan readied himself to charge for Vin, bringing out one of his many knives to balance the weight of his gun.


Chris fumed inside as he submitted to the removal of his peacekeeper, belt and all, and watched as his men did the same. Looking around, he studied the six interlopers, now being joined by the three sent to secure the horses. Worn Levis and faded shirts were topped by dusty old bandanas, and with curse Larabee recognized the markings seared into the canvas bags tossed over their shoulders. They’d been ambushed by the bank robbers from Eagle Bend.

The man who’d spoken first seemed to be in charge, holding a rusty old wheel gun in one hand and a bottle of Red Eye in the other. As the four members of the Seven and the younger bounty hunter stood still, Frank hurled an angry question at the dark-haired invader, fingers twitching with the desire to lunge for his rifle. “Who in hell ‘r ya’ll an’ where d’ya get off takin’ over my camp?”

The man in question slowly swung his eyes toward Frank, and they glinted in the light of the fire. “In case you hadn’t noticed, old man, we’ve got ya fair outnumbered an’ none a ya’ll ’ve got any guns. So mebbe you oughta shut yer trap a’fore I put a bullet through th’ back a yer throat.” He swept his black gaze around the camp, adding, “An’ don’t any a you fellers get any bright ideas. No one kin out-draw a gun what’s already drawn, ‘specially when they don’t got one.” He cackled, pleased with his own wit, and took another pull at the whiskey.

At the lack of a response, however, his eyes narrowed, squinting at the regulators from Four Corners before blinking in astonished recognition. Hate curled his lip, revealing cracked yellow teeth and covering his initial surprise. His words were slurred as he said, “Well, well, well, ain’t this a surprise. Loosin’ yer tetch, Lar’bee?” The watery eyes challenged icy green, but the former dropped away first, hiding the sudden flood of fear under an outburst of shouted orders to his gang.

Careful not to betray his boiling temper, Chris remained silent and studied the gang, noting the bleary eyes and slightly unsteady steps that indicated alcohol, and lots of it. As they stumbled around the fire, three “standing guard” and swigging whiskey while the others pawed through their bags, Chris glanced at Buck and J.D., noting with approval their primed stances. Vin, practically vibrating with frustration at his inability to even stand, was otherwise calm, straining at his bonds continuously yet unobtrusively. Nathan was still hidden off to his right; a flash of moonlight on metal revealed his position, though fortunately the bank robbers were too inebriated to notice.

Frank and his son, on the other hand, seemed unsure of their position, of whether they could trust these men who were at least well known to this band of outlaws. Larabee sought the older man’s gaze, finding a hint of fear that was then completely smothered by an overwhelming determination to protect his son at all costs. A slight but solemn nod from the black-clad gunslinger clinched the issue; Frank would move on his signal.

Meanwhile, the apparent leader of the gang of merry outlaws was getting tired of holding his gun while the others fought over the remains of Jennings’s kettle of beans.

“Hey, Ollie! Save me summa that stew, why doncha!” He glared at the skinny man who had grabbed for the whole pan.

“Shet yer hole, Bradley.” Ollie, bearing an obvious—and unfortunate—familial resemblance to Bradley, never looked up from his plate. “They’s plen’y here, and more in th’ saddlebags.”

Brad visibly restrained himself from bestowing upon his younger brother a third eye and turned instead to the man laying bound to the tree branch.

“Now what’s this here?” A malicious smile pulled at his thin face, again producing that crooked line of rotten teeth. “Another one ‘a Larabee’s dogs?” He glanced at the gunslinger, a sadistic gleam in his eyes. “This one finally turn on ya? That’s what ya git when ya take in wolves, Cowboy, an’ we all know what happens t’ wild animals in civilized parts.” Drawing back his gaze and lowering his gun to point at the immobile Tanner, Brad missed the fury that blossomed anew behind green eyes as his words and intent showered sparks on dry kindling. His bullet never left the chamber as a dark blur suddenly launched itself across the fire.

The others, having anticipated Larabee’s reaction, sprang to with alacrity. Even as Brad slammed into the ground, his old pistol spinning away into the darkness, Buck cut loose with a roar that echoed across the desert, lunging toward a trio of outlaws squatting next to the fire. Before they could do more than reach for their weapons Buck was among them, a sweeping roundhouse dropping the first while the other two jumped unsteadily to their feet and scrambled backwards. Wilmington, releasing another shout in the exultation of battle, charged the one nearest him, grinning savagely as he caught a flash of J.D. barrelling into the other.

Frank wasted no time, throwing himself toward the pile of weaponry on his left an instant after Larabee tackled the leader. Relief and adrenaline spiked through his veins as he wrapped his gnarled hands around the cold steel of Tanner’s sawed off, loading the chamber and swinging the barrel up in one smooth motion. A spray of gunpowder stung his face as the booming report eclipsed Wilmington’s roar, and Jennings rolled quickly to one side as the lifeless body of the guard dropped to the ground. Ignoring the misty redness dampening his face and shirt, Frank jumped to his feet and snagged another rig—Larabee’s—tossing it to J.D. with a shout of warning.

J.D., on his feet beside the fire, sledgehammered a fist into Ollie’s midsection, folding him over and breaking his nose on the sheriff’s upraised knee. As the man slid bonelessly to the ground, blood pouring over his mouth, J.D. turned to check on Buck. He only had time for a glimpse of two men locked in a classic wrestling manovuer before Frank shouted. Operating on instinct J.D. spun like a top, snatching the well-worn belt and firing at a threat more felt than seen. The wind and heat of a near-miss buzzed by his left ear as he squeezed the trigger again. As he finally yanked the peacekeeper from its holster, J.D. blinked and belatedly focused on his target. The man had fallen flat on his back, sightless eyes wide in shock and smoke rising from his recently discharged pistol. J.D. gave a brief nod of thanks to Jennings before turning to help Buck.

On the other side of the camp, Vin yelled a warning as the bright flames of the fire revealed Brad’s hunting knife. Larabee had already begun to recoil, and the nine-inch Bowie knife sliced only black cloth, passing harmlessly over his contracted midsection. Larabee’s breath hissed angrily through his clenched teeth, bared in an unconscious snarl as he faced his opponent. Brad, seeing his own death in those glittering eyes rendered nearly black with fury, gripped his blade tighter as a flood of desperation strengthened his wavering limbs.

Tanner watched from his supine position, his frustration mounting as the two men circled warily. Beyond them he could hear the younger Jennings as he struggled with another of the bank-robbers, and occasional flashes of light showed the youth holding his own fairly handily, his relative inexperience notwithstanding. Just as the scales began to shift under the outlaw’s greater strength, however, Wilmington stepped in with a powerful right hook that whirled the man around a full 360 degrees before dropping him in the dirt.

Vin’s view of the fight was suddenly obscured when a feint from Brad drove Larabee closer to the fire and into the tracker’s line of sight. Dodging the downward slash that followed, the former U.S. Marshall swiftly closed the distance seperating himself and his opponent with an unexpected left jab, splitting the latter’s lip and knocking him back a step. Brad recovered quickly, though, whipping his blade back up across the blond’s chest and leaving a spreading red line in its wake. Tanner winced at the sight and renewed his struggles with the rope, disregarding the blood that slicked his hands except to be grateful for the slippery surface it provided.

A sudden movement to his right yanked Vin’s attention from Larabee and he turned just in time to see Nathan slide to a stop behind him. A shower of sparks from the campfire illuminated the black healer briefly, revealing the grim line of his mouth and flashing off his bared and bloody knife. Glancing over the man’s broad shoulder, Vin saw two sprawled forms laying near the treeline, an growing pool of darkness forming under the inert bodies.

Nathan’s deep voice carried sharply over the shouts and curses of combat, “You alright?”

Vin nodded, impatiently straining against the ropes, then grinned as he looked at his friend. “Why? Did ya miss me?” A final tug and the hated bonds were flung away, leaving raw and bloody welts around each wrist.

Nathan snorted in reluctant amusement as he hauled the slim tracker to his feet, amazed as always by the man’s odd temperment. A glance confirmed that Tanner’s wrists, though painful in appearance, did not require immediate attention, and then a shout from the elder Jennings heralded the arrival of Vin’s mare’s leg. The tracker wasted no time in reaquainting himself with the beloved weapon.

A flash of movement on the right caused both men to turn, and Tanner cursed when he realized his shotgun was of no help to Larabee; the two combatants were so close that a spray of lead would cut them both in half. Intervention became a moot point, however, as Larabee suddenly rushed the outlaw, slamming him into the ground with no apparent awareness of the deep wound he received across his left arm. As Brad stared stupidly up into the night sky, struggling to draw breath into suddenly collapsed lungs, Larabee kicked the knife away and flipped the man onto his stomach. Ripping the bandanna from Brad’s neck, Larabee jerked his arms around behind and roughly tied his wrists together before rising to his feet once more.

Chris, still riding high on the adrenaline of battle, swept his gaze around the field and gauged the well-being of his men. Relieved to see little evidence of injury, the blond noted that J.D. and Buck were already securing the four remaining bank robbers as Frank stood over them, rifle at the ready, while John carefully sorted through their confiscated weapons. Larabee, feeling the loss of his gunbelt as some men would the loss of a limb, started over to the boy, clamping one hand over the streaming wound in his upper arm and ignoring the pain that flared up due to bruised and cracked ribs. As reason began to overtake the instinctive responses of combat, Larabee remembered to search for Tanner, finding him standing with Nathan only five feet away.

Something of his residual disorientation must have shown in his face, because both of his men frowned in concern. Nathan, predictably, asked first, “Are you alright?”

Chris shook his head, his automatic “I’m fine,” doing nothing to deter the healer. Nathan had already started towards him, one hand reaching around to unsling the leather satchel strapped across his back. Incredulity and resignation warred in his voice as he responded, “Uh huh. An’ that red stuff drippin’ offa your arm ain’t nothin’ but a trick o’ the firelight.”

Larabee offered a crooked grin before shifting his eyes to Tanner. “You finally decide t’get off your lazy butt and help?” Amusement softening the harsh words.

Blue eyes danced in mischief as Tanner took the jest with the intended spirit. “An’ get ‘tween ya’ll an’ yer prey? Heaven ferbid!”

Chris shook his head at Tanner’s dramatic tone, then hissed and shied abruptly to the right as Nathan began probing the cut on his arm.

The frowning healer followed his movement, saying, “This cut needs stiches, Chris, an’ the one across yer chest s’still bleedin’, so—.” Chris cut him off impatiently.

“It’s been bleedin’ for a while, Nate, so it can dang well wait a little longer. Just tie somethin’ around it for a minute.” As he spoke, Larabee’s green gaze travelled across the campsite, counting his men and then the prisoners. Chris raised his voice over Nathan’s mutterings about stubborn idiots refusing help while they bled to death and called to Buck and J.D., “You two alright?”

Wilmington looked up, still energized by the recent brawl, and his white grin flashed in the moonlight. “Better’n you, by the looks a’it, Old Dog!” Larabee snorted in reply, then marked the two silent bounty hunters where they stood near the campfire, uneasiness showing in every feature. Now that a common enemy no longer united the two with the Seven, the former seemed unsure of their footing, outnumbered as they were.

Mind already working over the new situation, Larabee startled and swallowed a yelp of pain when Nathan knotted a strip of linen around his arm with perhaps more force than strictly necessary. Glaring at the unrepentant man only elicited a silent promise of more thorough treatment in the near future, so Larabee turned and paced carefully around the campfire to where JD stood guarding the four trussed up criminals. Sensing the other’s approach, the sheriff glanced up, then quickly shrugged off the black gunbelt slung across his shoulder, handing it over to Larabee without ever dropping his own pistol from the prisoners. “Thanks for the loan, Chris,” he grinned.

Chris immediately began strapping it across his hips, ignoring the slight ache of bruised ribs. “You’re welcome. And nice shootin’ there,” the gunslinger replied, indicating the body near the pile of weapons with a nod of his head.

J.D.’s grin broadened slightly, then disappeared as he flashed a quick glance over at the bounty hunters. “Buck an’ me weren’t sure if we should tie ‘em up or not, so we figured if they weren’t botherin’ us, we’d leave ‘em be for now,” he said quietly, showing a discretion foreign to the brash young man that jumped off a moving stage into the middle of a gunfight long ago. Larabee, his focus resettled squarely on the Jennings, nodded again, absently slapping the young sheriff on the back as he crossed over to the apprehensive pair.

John looked up as the camp stilled once more, realizing that all conscious eyes were now turned in his direction. His father tensed and took a single step forward, locking gazes in silent contest with the approaching gunslinger even as he shielded John from the confrontation. John, unwilling to cower behind his father, stepped out to Frank’s left hand side just as the man they’d kidnapped walked up to stand at the blond’s right shoulder. The tall black man with the throwing knives stationed himself at the other. John discovered he was holding his breath when a sudden moan from one of the bound bank robbers startled his lungs back into working. Tanner, who stood facing him, released a quiet chuckle that floated in the surrounding tension like a dandelion seed and four incredulous pairs of eyes instantly swung around to stare at the long-haired Texan.

The shaggy head rose to reveal a twinkling blue gaze, “Ya’ll ‘re jest so dang serious,” he explained, grinning. The fire popped cheerfully in the background. “Th’gunfight’s already over. Th’s ‘s only a misunderstandin’.”

Shaking his head at Tanner’s quirky sense of humor, Larabee nevertheless felt the tension in the air dissipate as he and Frank re-established eye contact. Frank’s expression was still uncertain, but now it held a rueful amusement that Chris was certain reflected in his features as well. “He always in such a mood followin’ a shoot-out?” the gravelly voice questioned.

Chris shrugged as he glanced back at his best friend, “After a fight, on the trail, eatin’ supper . . .” His voice trailed off into the dry desert air before strengthening with conviction as he continued, “He’s an odd one, to be sure, but he’s no murderer, an’ I’d trust him with my life.” Hard green eyes dared Jennings to contradict that statement, but the old man held his ground, looking steadily back despite the effort such an action required.

“The courts in Tascosa say differently,” Jennings replied evenly, though without rancor. A gnarled hand waved in Vin’s direction. “Ya’ll got any proof t’the contrary?”

Larabee straightened as his lips thinned in annoyance. “I’ve got the proof of my own life and the lives of every man you see here.” No need to look, the man in black knew the others were watching, lending silent support and confirmation. He narrowed his eyes. “Including yours and your son’s.” A moment of silence, the two men locked in a stand-off while the fire cackled into the night.

Finally Frank looked away, undermined by his own returning doubts and drawn to the scruffy figure draped in brown buffalo hide. Again those measuring eyes swept along Tanner’s slight form, coming to rest on the steady blue gaze and searching through it, as if for a sign of either guilt or innocence. Larabee’s hand began to drift to his hip, just in case, and he could sense Nathan at his left loosening one of his many throwing knives. John flicked wide eyes from his father to each of the Seven in turn, adrenaline pumping anew through limbs trembling with delayed shock, and time seemed to slow.

Something of Frank’s thoughts must have shown in his face, for just as he made ready to state his decision Vin’s brilliant smile flashed out, startling in its abruptness, burning away the last vestiges of uncertainty and misgiving. A firm handshake sealed the agreement, and time regained its former swiftness.

Nathan relaxed instantly, dropping his shoulders and releasing the smooth hilt of his knife. Turning to Chris with the impatient air of an ignored medic, he began, “Now, Chris, ‘bout yo’ arm . . .” Larabee, however, his tension slower to subside, nodded once to Jennings and glanced over a now confused John before submitting to the healer’s instruction. The deep voice continued its aggrieved monologue as Jackson dug through his satchel for needle and thread. “Don’t know why I put up with ya’ll an’ yo’ stubborn ways . . .”

John stared after them as Jackson led the way back to the fire, then turned to watch Tanner’s receding form as their former prisoner headed over to greet his two dark-haired companions. Some softly spoken comment drew a loud and extended denial from the tall man with the mustache and sent the younger man into convulsions of laughter. His father’s hand on his shoulder shifted John’s focus, and concern flickered through the gray eyes. “You alright, son?”

Nodding rapidly, then more slowly when the world seemed to tilt a little to the right, John swallowed hard. The concern was more evident now, and he felt his father push him down into a sitting position by the fire. “I’m fine,” he said thickly, taking a deep breath to steady his nerves. “I’m fine,” he repeated, as if to remind himself as much as to reassure his father. “Only,” he began, looking around the camp, from the black healer as he stitched up the black-clad man’s arm, to the three men standing over the bank robbers and needling one another, then back to the blessed sturdiness of his father’s eyes. He listened to the sounds of camaradarie and good-natured ribbing, contrasting sharply with the harsh chaos of the preceding gunfight, and bundled all his bewilderment and uncertainty into one fervent question: “Did we do this right?”

Mirth washed away the growing worry in Frank’s features, and a relieved grin wreathed his mouth and eyes with deep wrinkles. “Yeah, John, we did this right.” His gaze followed the same pattern his son’s had just taken, and he added, “Sometimes th’law makes mistakes, Son, an’ th’ West can be a hard place to correct ‘em. A few good friends at yer back tends t’ make it a little easier.” His father’s hand was warm and stable, resting quietly on John’s shoulder, and the young man felt his adrenaline finally ebbing away. A deep voice, louder than before, rumbled quietly near his head, but by then fatigue had ambushed him from behind and tugged him softly down into the darkness of sleep.

~The End~