by SoDak7

Vin, Seven, OMC, OFC

Note: The idea for this story comes from one of my favorite old westerns: The Big Valley. Some things are similar, but most are mine. However, the credit goes to the writers of that particular episode of The Big Valley for the idea.

Faster. Need to go faster. It's taking too long. He turned slightly in his seat and glanced at the injured man laying in the back of the buckboard, his head lolling back and forth with the movement of the wagon. Damn. Slow down, just slow down Tanner, take a deep breath and slow down. Don't want to cause any more damage.

He took a deep breath and loosened his death grip on the reins letting the leather slide through his hands as he willed himself to relax some and concentrate on keeping the wagon on the smoothest path as possible and yet make good time to town and to Nathan.

Slowing down though made his mind wander and, of course, all he could think about was what had happened and what he could have done different, done better, done faster, done something, anything, so that they wouldn't be in this spot now. Turning again to check on his friend in the back, he could see his slowing the horses down had helped keep the man more stable. Turning his eyes to the road again his thoughts went back to what had happened earlier . . .

+ + + + + + +

"What do you think Vin? One more before we call it quits?"

Taking a quick look around at the work the two men had done and then with a glance to the late afternoon sky, the Texan gave a nod of his head to his friend thinking they'd have time to cut one more tree before loading the wagon with the logs they had downed already.

"Let's take this one then, if we can't get it all cut today, we can come back tomorrow morning and finish. Sound alright with you?"

"Sounds good," Vin agreed as he looked up at the massive tree. Chances are, they wouldn't get half way through the thing. But with this one tree, and the others they'd done today, he figured his friend should be close to having enough wood for the upcoming winter.

Knowing this was the last tree to be cut today gave the two weary men an added burst of strength as they worked the saw back and for between them. Vin heard an ominous cracking, called for a halt and paused a moment to look up at the tree.

"What's wrong Vin?"

"Ain't sure. Thought I heard somethin', like a crack maybe." He shrugged. "Big ol' tree might be part dead, don't want it comin' down on us 'fore we're ready."

"Maybe we should just leave it then, come back to it in the morning. What do you think?"

Vin pushed against the tree a couple of times just to see if it moved any or if he heard the noise he'd heard before, but nothing happened.

The two men eyed each other and shrugged.

"Reckon we can go jest a bit more, then we'd best quit or finish cuttin' it all," Vin told his partner.

"Alright, little more then, less we'll have to do tomorrow."

Once again they started sawing, but only went a little farther into the trunk before calling an end to it and then began working the saw blade back out. Vin gave the tree a couple more pushes just to be sure it was still stable. Since it didn't budge the friends set to work getting ready to load up the timber lengths they'd already cut. Tanner went to get the horses to hitch them up so they could move the wagon closer to where the logs lay scattered around.

He never really knew what possessed him to turn when he did and yell a warning to his friend. He did know he'd never forget seeing that massive tree break loose and fall, half pinning his scrambling companion in amongst the cut links.

And he'd never forget the terror that rose up in his chest either.

+ + + + + + +

Pulling the horses to a skidding stop, Vin was yelling for Nathan as he hopped from the wagon seat into the back. He cursed himself for the time it took to get into town. Everything seemed to take forever. He'd had to use the team to pull the log off his friend, then he had to harness them up to the wagon and all the way to town he fought with himself on how fast to go. It just didn't seem to be enough, never enough. His mind still raced.

Nathan jogged down the steps two at a time and Josiah came running from the church. Jumping into the wagon bed Nathan heard Vin tell him what happened.

"Tree fell on him, pinned him down against another log. Says he can't feel his legs," and their eyes met briefly.

Vin was scared, Nathan could see that. "We'll get him upstairs, have a look. I'll know more after I examine him.

Buck and JD had left to go and get a coffin lid the moment Vin had said the man couldn't move his legs. They had known the healer would want to keep him as straight and solid as possible. They returned in a few minutes with the lid in tow.

After getting the now semi-conscious man upstairs and into the bed, Nathan had chased all the peacekeepers out but Josiah and Vin.

More agonizing minutes went by before Nathan informed them that the back was not broken but severely bruised and more than likely was what was causing the paralysis. He didn't have any answers, didn't know when the bruising and swelling went down if everything would be alright. He just couldn't give any of them that kind of hope as of yet.

Vin came close as his friend whispered him over.

"You . . . you'll go out to the place and . . .?"

"I'll take care of it, you jest rest. I'll be back as soon as I can." Giving his friend's arm a squeeze, the tracker nodded to Nathan and headed out the door.

Head down, shoulders slumped and with a heavy step, the tracker crossed the landing and prepared to head down the steps.

"Want some company?" a voice asked quietly.

Vin stopped in mid stride, standing still, not looking back. Chris. His eyes closed and he took a deep breath and let it out. Tears threatened. He wasn't sure if they were wanting to come because of what had happened or because of what he now had to do or because of the relief he felt when he heard that calm steady voice of his good friend. Maybe some of all three he rationalized. Pushing his emotions back, he heard the spurs drag along the wooded surface stopping when they came up beside him.

"Boys filled me in." Soft voice, concerned. "Thought maybe you might want some company out to the Robins' place." Encouraging, never pushy. "Figured I could ride Peso back in for ya if nothin' else." A voice of reasoning.

If he looked at Chris, he'd break, so keeping his head down he thought about it.

Chris waited patiently for Vin to think about it. That fact Vin didn't look at him was a testament he knew to how much the man was fighting his emotions more than likely blaming himself for the accident. But knowing his friend had the uneasy task of going out to tell Mrs. Robins what happened and bring her back to town, he thought he'd stick around and find out if Tanner wanted some company. He'd abide by what Vin wished.

Finally getting an affirmative head nod from the tracker, the men made their way down the clinic steps and got into the waiting buckboard and left town.

It was a quiet ride out, each man caught within his own thoughts, but yet taking comfort in each other's company.

Julia Robins came out to meet them, already going on the worry knowing that her husband and Vin should have been back hours ago. She quickly gathered a few things and let Vin help her into the wagon and they headed back to town, Chris following behind on Peso.

+ + + + + + +

A few days later Clay Robins was allowed to go home. Vin had helped Julia prepare for his homecoming by moving the furniture around in order to accommodate the wheelchair that Clay would be using until he could walk again.

As the days dragged on, Vin made himself available to the Robins’ almost every one of those days. Clay and Julia had moved onto the old Sparten residence a few months earlier and to say the place needed some work was an understatement. Vin had told Clay when they’d first moved out there that he’d come out and help him whenever he could, so it wasn’t so much out of the ordinary. At least that’s what he told himself. Told himself it wasn’t just because he felt so guilty.

But he did feel guilty. And everybody knew it. And everybody told him it wasn’t his fault, including Clay. But all he could think of was if it’d only been Clay that had gone to get the team instead of him . . . but that was how the mind worked. Just kept running it over and over again. As long as his friend remained in that wheelchair, he would be reminded of that fateful day.

+ + + + + + +

Watching as the buckboard made it's way down Main Street stopping in front of Gloria Potter's mercantile, the two men sat and watched as the man dressed in a buckskin jacket helped a pretty young lady down, gave her a big smile and saw her to the door of the store.

“That makes what, third time this week he’s brought her in?”

Not a word came from his black dressed companion.

“People around town are startin’ to take notice.”

“Notice of what?”

“Well, hell Chris,” the ladies man said as he forced himself to sit up in his chair. “The way he brings her in all the time, the way he smiles at her, he . . . he even brought her into the dance a few nights ago. You don’t think that’s a little peculiar?”

“He said Robins told him to bring her in.”

“Yeah, but . . .”

“Let it alone Buck,” came a whispered hiss as Larabee stood to meet Tanner coming across the street towards them.

“Boys,” Vin greeted, looking straight at Chris, then giving a nod to Buck.

A short conversation followed, discussing the Robins’ and how things were going.

“You eat yet?” Chris asked.

“Sure did,” Vin smiled and patted his stomach. “Julia is one hell of a cook, but I could use some coffee," he said as he stepped up on the boardwalk.

Buck felt and recognized the meaning of the light brush of contact Chris gave him as the man in black passed in front of him to follow the tracker into the saloon; a slight warning to keep his thoughts to himself.

Vin nodded to Nathan, Josiah and JD, then took a seat, Larabee following him and Buck headed to the bar watching as Inez breezed past him taking coffee to the two newcomers.

"How's Mr. Robins this mornin'," Nathan asked after taking a drink of coffee to wash down his mouthful of food.

"'Bout the same. Don't seem ta be any improvement."

Frowning as he nodded his head and stabbed a forkful of scrambled eggs Nathan murmured, "Wish I could be more help."

"You've done what any good doctor would have Nathan," Josiah praised the healer, knowing his friend was spending a lot of extra time reading anything he could get his hands on to find out why the injured man wasn't better by now.

"Julia keeps him doin' what you said ta do, but it's beginnin‘ ta wear on him, I kin see that." A shake of the head followed with a big sigh as the tracker watched Ezra come down the stairs and make eye contact with him.

"Well Mr. Tanner, in town for another shopping venture I see. I'm assuming the lovely Mrs. Robins accompanied you in yet again," the green-eyed gambler said with a grin showing off his golden tooth as he glanced out the batwing doors before coming to their table. "Getting to be quite a habit with you isn't it? Being with Mrs. Robins that is."

"What the hell's that's suppose ta mean?" Vin questioned, eyes narrowing in on the conman, his drink all but forgotten.

Ezra shrugged. "Just a mere observation is all. Nothing to get excited about . . unless, of course, there is a reason for your defensive nature."

Chris shifted in his chair to bring himself closer to the table. Leaning forward on his elbows it was if he was making a point to come between the two men and to make his presence known. It was also a good indication that the present conversation should come to a halt.

"I'll be leavin' now," Vin said slightly agitated, gulping down the last of his hot brew. “Thanks Chris.”

Giving a nod to the man in black, Vin got up and left the table, the bat wing doors slamming noisily, a telltale sign of Vin's apparent anger.

Chris' eyes shifted over to the gambler's and an eyebrow quirked at him along with a definite frown.

Looking around the table at the men all staring at him, Ezra attempted a chuckle. "Why surely gentlemen, you all can see the similarities between this situation and that of what happened a while back on that nefarious trip with the wagon train; Mr. Tanner comes to the rescue of yet another beautiful young married woman." Seeing the shaking of heads and the frowning faces, he added, "I am merely stating the obvious, that's all," he said, his hands waving in the air.

"This isn't the same situation Ezra," Nathan pointed out. "Vin has known Mr. and Mrs. Robins for a long time. He's not in this for any other reason than to help them out until Clay gets back on his feet. Why you always tryin' to make things bigger than they are?" the healer asked with a disgusted shake of his head as he picked up his coffee cup.

"Guilt is a powerful emotion. It's weighing heavy on Vin. If helping out at the ranch makes it easier on the man's conscious, then so be it. I doubt any of us would handle it differently," Josiah said, but with a look to the conman that meant, all but you anyway.

"Fine," Ezra said noncommittally. “We’ll just be here to pick up the pieces again.” He was going to add more but watching Larabee get up from his chair slowly and deliberately he knew he’d better refrain from saying any more. Besides, the look he was getting from the man in black could sear a slab of meat.

“My advice to you is to stay away from Vin. I’d hate to see you get hurt,” Chris said in a low voice and then moved on out of the saloon.

A pregnant silence followed.

JD fingered his milk glass. “I don’t think Vin would take to hurting you Ezra. I think he’d realize you’re just trying to watch out for him,” JD said as he watched Buck saunter over to their table and sit down.

“Don’t think it was Vin he was bein‘ warned about,” Josiah put in as he finished his breakfast and stood up to leave.

“If you're smart, you’ll do as he says too,” Nathan added, wiping his mouth with his napkin and getting up along with the ex-preacher.

Watching the two men leave, Ezra looked to the remaining peacekeepers. “Anyone for a card game?” he asked as he pulled a deck out of his jacket's inner pocket and ran his thumb over the top of the cards snapping them back against one another.

+ + + + + + +

One week later it was midday when Vin finished up the last of his jobs and was ready to leave the Robins' ranch. He was hitching up the wagon as Clay had asked when he heard his friend call to him, motioning him to come into the house.

Robins was waiting just inside the door and secretly handed him a five dollar gold piece.

“Don’t need ta pay me fer anything,” Vin started to say, puzzled, trying to hand the money back over.

“No Vin, that isn’t what this is for. See, the basket social is later this afternoon and I’ve convinced Julia to make some of her special foods for it, including her famous rhubarb pie,” he said, rubbing his hands together and waggling his eyebrows.

Vin smiled at his friend. “What’s that got to do with me?”

“I thought you could take her in and bid on her basket . . . for me, that is. It’s why I had you hitch up the wagon. Anyway, I can never get enough of that pie of hers. I even had her put in an extra piece,” he winked at Vin, “that being for you when you win it with the highest bid. The money’s going to a good cause Vin,” he added when he saw that the tracker wasn’t convinced he should be the one doing it. “It’ll make Mrs. Travis happy since the donations are going for a new school house.”

For a second Vin’s face brightened. “How ‘bout you come along in the wagon? I’ll pull it up close so’s you can do the biddin’.”

“Now you know jostling around in a wagon isn’t good for me Vin, besides, you’ll be doing me a favor. Julia enjoys time out with the women folk in town. It gets to be a lot for her out here working with me on my exercises. She needs to get out. It’s been a couple of days now. It’s only for a few hours. Go on . . . it’ll be fine,” he told Vin with a firm nod of his head while checking around to be sure Julia wasn’t hearing any of their secret.

“Alright I’ll do it, but jest remember one of them pieces of pie is mine,” Vin said with a grin to his friend as he pocketed the coin and turned to head out the door.

“Thanks Vin. I’ll tell Julia to hurry along,” he said, watching as the door closed softly.

“I’m all ready,” Julia said as she came out of the kitchen with her basket in one hand and a shawl in the other. “Did I just hear the door?”

“Yeah honey, you did. Vin was just in here and I asked him if he’d mind taking you in. Seems I’m just not feeling too well right now.”

“Oh Clay,” she said, going to him and kneeling down by his side. “I can stay here. Vin can take my basket in for me and whatever is given . . .”

“Now Julia, don’t you worry, I’m sure it’s nothing. You know how that medicine Mr. Jackson gave me sometimes upsets my stomach. That’s all it is. You just go on ahead, it won’t take that long. I’ll rest up and maybe by the time you get back, I’ll be ready for some of that fresh pie you made,” he said as he gave her a smile and a kiss to her forehead. “Go on, I’ll be fine.”

Finally convinced, Julia decided it wouldn’t hurt to go, the length of time she’d be gone about the same amount as the dance Vin brought her to a few weeks ago.

"Alright I'll go, but I'll come back just as soon as my basket is bought," she said, giving her husband a hug and a kiss goodbye, then headed out the door.

Climbing into the wagon with Vin’s help, she put her basket on the floor at her feet, then turned to wave at the window she knew her husband would be watching out of. Facing the front again and settling in, she gave a nod of her head and the wagon pulled out.

Waving to his pretty young wife from inside the front room window, Clay watched as the buckboard moved on out of the yard. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath to calm the anger inside of him. He'd learned to control it after a few weeks of watching his wife and Vin Tanner together. Always together it seemed to him. He'd had to sit along the side and watch them work together, laugh together, eat together, sometimes in crueler moments when he really felt sorry for himself, he wondered what else they did together. He trusted his wife, he really did, but it was Tanner he was having problems with. Ever since he'd found that folded piece of parchment paper in one of his wife's reading books, he'd begun to wonder how well he really knew the man. Vin Tanner. A man wanted for murder . . . and his wife had known about it and never said a word. He figured the man must have some kind of a hold over his wife, conveniently being there when he wasn‘t able. In his mind, he felt his friend was trying to slowly seduce his wife and ultimately win her away from him.

Tanner and Julia had known each other years ago, he'd known that, had even met Vin a few times long ago through her and the men had become fast friends. He'd considered himself quite lucky to come away with the woman as his wife, but she had always told him that Vin Tanner was someone who was going to be a man of the wilderness, someone whom the grass was never going to grow under, an adventurer and Julia wanted a home and a family, someone who would be there for her. Except for the family part, he thought they had done very well for themselves. He himself came from a wealthy family. His father and older brother were successful ranchers. They owned a huge spread back home and as much as Clay loved it there, he wanted a place all to his own. Being the younger brother meant he wasn't the rightful heir to the ranch and so against his father's wishes, he and Julia had left and headed out to find their own place, their own ranch. He was determined to become as his father had; big and successful. When he thought about it, he realized that his wife had wanted them to head in this direction, hell, they even went through Tascosa, Texas, the place where Tanner was wanted for murder. Thinking back on it, he wondered if maybe his wife was following a trail . . . one that headed right back to her childhood friend. It angered him to think that way, but when one had hours and hours to do nothing but sit, the mind went off in all directions. And his mind had been busy.

Pushing the Indian blanket off his lap, he put his booted feet on the wooden flooring and pushed up on the armrests of the wheelchair, forcing himself to stand. Oh yeah, he could stand, could even walk some. He'd been practicing while his wife and Tanner were out laughing and having a good time. As soon as he'd learned he could walk, he'd been formulating a plan.

And it was a good one he thought. With the law on his side, he figured the odds were in his favor.

+ + + + + + +

The basket social went off without a hitch. That's not to say there weren't a few eyebrows raised when a bid of five dollars went up for Julia Robins' basket via one little Billy Travis. Vin had put Billy up to it and the youngster had enjoyed the job of raising his hand in the air every time someone raised the bid, but that didn't last long as his enthusiasm gave way to his yelling out his five dollar bid. Silence had followed as he made his way up to the front table, handed his ma the five dollar gold piece and then pointed out to Julia the person who had won her basket.

Julia smiled at Vin and then gave a triumphant smirk as she opened up her basket and gave Billy a piece of rhubarb pie telling him that since he’d done all the bidding, he deserved Vin’s piece.

The little boy just grinned and waved at his peacekeeper friend as he bit into the pie and walked away, his face and hands a smeary mess of the baked good.

When the pretty woman got back to where her wagon and Vin were waiting, he gave her a look of disbelief.

“Now I know ya got another piece in there and . . .”

“And that’s for Clay,” she said happily as he helped her back into the buckboard. “Honestly Vin, it’s your own fault, having someone else do your work for you,” she added, laughing at the face he made. “And I know my husband. I’m sure he put you up to this, now didn’t he?” she asked, shaking her head when she saw the grin cross her old friend’s face.

“Mrs. Robins?” Nathan called walking up to her side of the wagon. “How is your husband doing? Is he following the instructions I gave him?”

“Oh yes Mr. Jackson, he is. I make sure of that, but . . . well, he just isn’t feeling anything yet and tonight he said his stomach was a little upset. He thought maybe it was the pain medicine he was taking?” she looked at him hopefully.

“Yes ma’am . . . I’m sure that’s it. Would you tell him I’ll be out tomorrow to check on him?”

“That would be wonderful Mr. Jackson. He’ll tell you things that I know he won’t tell me.”

“Alright then, I’ll see you tomorrow.” He tipped his hat to her and nodded to Vin as the tracker clicked his tongue at the horses to get them moving.

Jackson walked back onto the boardwalk and over to where the rest of the peacekeepers sat watching the bidding activity. He was deep in thought as he took his seat.

Noticing the look on the healer’s face Josiah asked, “Something troubling you Nathan?”

Pursing his lips and picking up his beer glass, Nathan told him, “I’m not sure. Mrs. Robbins told me that her husband was complaining of an upset stomach possibly due to the medicine he was taking. Trouble is, I haven’t given him any medicine lately. He never took any last time I was out there and that was three days ago.”

“If I may,” Ezra started to speak, looking around the table at his co-workers, his gaze ending on Larabee, “I would like to toss something into the pot, so to speak.”

Putting his arms on the table, the man in black looked at him and gave a nod to go ahead, but there was a warning in the hazel eyes, one that told the gambler that it better be valid if he was going to say anything about Tanner.

Clearing his throat, Ezra began to explain, “I took the liberty to do some checking on Mr. Robins. I know that he and Mr. Tanner have known each other from before, but as we all know, people do change.”

The southerner continued with his information on Clay Robins informing them of his family's wealth and prosperity as ranchers and how Robins had broken away from all that intending on beginning his own ranch.

"Now be that as it may," Ezra continued, "seeing as how this dream to become a big and wealthy rancher has taken somewhat of a sidetrack as Mr. Robins is forced into a paraplegic lifestyle, perhaps he has conjured up other means of gaining money to begin his climb into prosperity."

Silence reined at the table as the information was mulled over.

"You saying you think Robins might know about the bounty on Vin?" Larabee questioned him.

"That thought has occurred yes, so let's consider the possibility that he indeed does know. The man seemingly is unperturbed by the fact that Mr. Tanner spends, in my opinion, a lot of time with his wife . . . let me finish Mr. Larabee,” he said, holding up his hand seeing the spark of fire start in the gunslinger’s eyes.

“I do not mean to down trod Mr. Tanner’s intentions. He is doing what he feels he must to alleviate feelings of guilt, I understand that. But what if Robins is pushing that . . . relationship, for lack of a better word, if he’s pushing it in order for everyone, all of us included,” he added, moving his hand around the table to encompass them all, “to see and be witness to it. We know Mr. Tanner has brought Mrs. Robins into town many times over the past few weeks, even escorting her to a dance, albeit, to Mr. Robins' wishes and now today to this social where Mr. Tanner just happens to bid five dollars . . five dollars,” he repeated for emphasis, “on her basket. He doesn’t have the money to do that kind of thing and we know it. I suggest it’s another ploy to get all of them,” again using the hand, motioning to the crowd of people, “to see just what Robins wants them to see.”

“And that would be?” Nathan asked, his attention riveted on the southerner.

“Why to lead everyone to believe that there is perhaps some amorous activity going on between Mr. Tanner and the lovely Mrs. Robins.”

“And why would he want people to believe that?” was Buck’s question.

“Well,” said Ezra as he absently shuffled through his cards and scrunched up his features, the gold tooth peeking out, “how much would you say is the going price these days for a good bull?”

Five heads snapped to attention and all eyes went to the gambler.

Shrugging, he said, “It’s just a . . .”

“Hey, you know what?” JD interrupted as he pulled a book out of the inside pocket of his jacket and prepared to show the men.

“Put that thing away!” Buck said in a loud whisper as he took his hat off and tried to hide the small booklet with it while pushing the offending object back into the young man’s chest. “You don’t want people to know you read them stupid novels. Put it away,” he whispered louder this time, unsuccessfully keeping the book from making an appearance.

“No! Listen Buck, this is a story about like what might be happening to Vin.”


Hearing the quiet command in Larabee’s voice Buck quit antagonizing JD, put his hat back on his head and rolled his eyes heavenward.

“Go on JD,” the man in black prompted.

“Well, see this story is called “Deception” and it’s about a man who was a friend of a son of a wealthy family. And one day this man who was the friend of the son of this wealthy family came by their ranch and told the son--his friend, that he could break this one wild horse that some ranch hands were trying to ride and so the son of the wealthy family said okay, he would let him try and so the guy that’s the friend of the . . . “

“. . . son of the wealthy family, yeah yeah, we get all that JD, get to the point,” Buck said, drumming his fingers on the table and shooting a frown at Larabee.

“Okay, so this guy tries to break the horse but it bucks him into the fence, the fence breaks and the guy gets hurt and he can’t walk and he ends up blackmailing his friend, the wealthy . . . yeah, because he really can walk but he’s staying in the wheelchair to make his friend feel guilty and pay him money since he can’t work or anything anymore.”

“Is that it?” the ladies man asked, looking at the young man.

“Oh, there is a wife involved too, but she doesn’t have a clue as to what’s going on. I think that’s about it, yeah. Don’t know how it ends though, but the good guy usually wins in these stories.”

JD finished and looked around at his friends. He shrugged. “Well, it seemed like it was about the same type of thing.”

“You know there’s not a judge nor jury that would convict a man for shooting another that was trying to steal his wife,” Josiah said softly.

“Especially if that man is or is claiming to be paralyzed. He’d have everyone’s sympathies. A win win situation I’d say,” Standish agreed quietly.

“And the way Robins has this all set it up, it looks as though Vin is maybe falling right into that trap,” Nathan added.

“A very ingenious plan I might add,” Ezra mumbled, seeing clearly how Robins could have planned it all and what his end gain would be.

“One problem though,” voiced Buck. “How do we prove this? I mean we just can’t go and jerk this guy to his feet and claim he’s crying wolf. Hell, Vin’d probably shoot us all for doing something like that.”

“I have a plan.”

Five pairs of eyes went to their leader and five pairs of eyes lit up as they listened and schemed.

+ + + + + + +

It wasn’t too long after Vin and Julia returned that three peacekeepers came to call. Vin had just finished untacking the horses and putting everything away when he saw Chris, Nathan and Ezra come into the yard.

Nodding to them, his first thoughts were that something had happened in town, but he was told everything was fine.

Nathan told him he’d come to check on Mr. Robins since Julia had said he wasn’t feeling well and Ezra had come to assist him.

Vin nodded to the two men as they headed inside, then he turned to Larabee and his eyes narrowed.

Putting his hands out, Chris shrugged and said, “Just came out to see what all you’ve done. I know what this place looked like before. Looks good Vin,” he said appraisingly, looking around.

Knowing in his gut there was more to this, the ex-bounty hunter was going to say more, but was stopped as Mrs. Robins came out to greet the gunslinger.

“As soon as Mr. Jackson is finished with Clay, you are both welcome to come in for some pie and coffee, if you have the time. I just put a fresh pot on the stove.”

“I’d be a fool to turn that down, thank you Mrs. Robins,” Chris said, giving her his best smile and then proceeded to ask her questions about what they had in store for the place.

Vin took a quick look to the house. He knew something was up. He just knew it.

+ + + + + + +

Inside the house, Nathan had taken Robins by surprise with his visit, but told the man that he thought he’d better come out and check on him since his wife had said he wasn’t feeling quite right. Everything was true and on the up and up. The two men remaining quite relaxed and friendly, not wanting to tip their hand on why they were really there.

When Julia went outside to invite her guests in for coffee and pie, Nathan told Clay that he’d like to quickly run him through his tests just to see how things were going. He wouldn’t take no for an answer no matter how much Robins kept telling him that it really wasn’t necessary--that Julia was helping him every day.

Clay felt trapped but knew he’d have to go along. He’d done fine three days ago when the healer had come out and ran that scraper along the bottom of his foot. Concentrating extremely hard not to move, he’d fooled everyone into believing there was no feeling there. He hoped he could do that again. His whole plan hinged on the fact that he was an invalid . . . at least in everyone’s eyes. He wasn’t ready to give up on the ruse, not yet anyway.

Ezra looked out the front window and smiled seeing that Larabee was doing his job in keeping Mrs. Robins distracted. He did see Vin throw a quick glance to the house and he quickly stepped back from the window. He wondered if Vin knew something was amiss. Hard to get anything by that man.

Seeing that Nathan was going to do the scraper thing to Robins’ foot he stepped into the kitchen and got what he needed. It only took a minute, then he was back out in the living room heading toward the two men, ready to act out his part.

+ + + + + + +

“Well, there doesn’t seem to be any improvement at all, just don’t understand it,” Nathan said, shaking his head and putting the scraper back into his medical bag. “Let’s do a couple of the exercises and I’ll see if there’s any change in the way the muscles react,” he added still squatting down in front and slightly to the right side of the wheelchair-bound man.

Concentrating hard on what Jackson had been doing, Clay missed seeing the conman go into the kitchen but did see him come back out and head directly for him.

What happened next did so in the blink of an eye, but it was all instinct, he couldn’t help himself. One minute he was sitting in his wheelchair and the next he was scrambling up and out, falling over the contraption trying to get out of the way as Standish stumbled coming toward him with the steaming hot coffee pot in his towel draped hand.

As the pot and liquid came toward him, his first instinct was to get out of the way and that’s just what he did. Jackson had quickly and easily moved out of the way and Standish? He had seemingly caught himself just in time.

The gambler and the healer looked at him as he stood there almost backed into the corner. His eyes widened as he watched Ezra pick up the coffee pot and pour what little liquid there was out over his own hand.

“My, my. It appears that the water has cooled off immensely. Imagine that.”

Robins looked down at himself and noticed there were a few splashes of wetness on his clothes and he also took note, to his horror, that he wasn’t burned anywhere.

It had been a trick! These men had tricked him into believing he was going to be burned with scalding hot coffee and . . . it had worked. He’d fallen right into their trap.

Seeing the accusing and angry looks coming his way he was about to say something when the front door banged open and Julia flew in.

“We heard noises . . .,” she began breathlessly, looking around and then seeing her husband standing, she gave a cry and ran to him, hugging him tight as her tears soaked his shirt.

Right behind her was Vin and behind him, Chris.

Ezra and Nathan quietly and efficiently picked up the area and cleaned up the mess, no one wanting Mrs. Robins to know what had happened. She was not to blame in any of this and if she was to be told the truth, the men were going to leave that up to her husband to do it.

Vin stared hard at Clay, the men locking eyes over the back of Julia. The blue eyes were like ice chips compared to the pleading eyes of the guilty man.

Knowing that now was not the time or place Vin turned around and began to leave when he heard Julia’s voice call to him.

Chris shuddered at what he saw. His partner did a complete turnabout in the blink of an eye. One second there was a deathly angered look to him and in the next, there was compassion. To have such complete control over emotions that fast and that convincing, well, he was just glad that he and Tanner were on the same side. In all honesty it shook him somewhat and not many things could do that. It sure as hell was something he made note of.

Vin acted perfectly as well did Nathan and Ezra, pretending surprise and elation at the fact that Clay could all of a sudden walk. None seem to really give Julia an answer as to how it had happened, just that it seemed to be a miracle of sorts.

Julia was much too enthralled with the fact that her husband was back to ’normal’ that she was never suspicious of anything, but then, she just wasn’t the kind of woman that would suspect her husband of underhandedness, especially against a good friend like Vin. It never occurred to her that there might have been an ulterior motive behind his seeming paralysis.

The men decided that it was best to leave, knowing the two would want to be together, leaving Clay to tell her as much or as little as he wanted. Only if she asked, would any of them tell what they knew.

Mounting up, the four peacekeepers started to ride out, but Vin held back as Julia came out to him.

Asking him to stay for supper, he politely declined.

“You will be back out to visit won’t you?” she asked. “Clay won’t be able to do much for awhile yet.”

“Done jest about all I can fer now so I reckon if ya need any more help, you can send your husband in ta talk ta me.”

If she noted the slight in Vin not calling Clay by his name she didn’t show it, just nodded her head. She knew her good friend had spent more time out here than most folks ever would. She was grateful and thanked him for it.

He tipped his hat to her and rode off catching up with Larabee who stayed back to wait for him while sending the other two back to town.

“This your doin’?” came the question after the men rode a little ways in silence.

“Some, not all.”

Reining his horse in front of Larabee’s to stop him, he took a hard look at his friend.

“Ya took quite a chance.”

“Had to. Needed to.”

“He could have harmed Julia.”

“Had it covered.”

“That why the other three were hidin’ out of sight?”

Chris gave a quick nod, but couldn’t help the quirk of his lips as he looked down at his hands. Damn, but it was hard to get anything by Tanner. He waited as his friend seemed to ponder on things.


He looked up at the serious face.

“You see the word “stupid” written on my forehead?”

Larabee shifted his eyes upward, then moved them back down to meet the blue eyes.

“Nope,” he said with a shake of his head.

“Should be,” he heard Vin mumble as the tracker moved his horse out of the way so they could continue on.

“Everything you did was out of concern for a friend Vin. Ain’t nothin’ you did wrong. Robins took what you gave and made somethin’ ugly out of it. His fault, he’s got ta live with it.”

“He used Julia too.”

“Yeah, he did. And if he’s man enough, he’ll tell her about it.” After a moment he added, “We only came in after thinking he may have known about the bounty and was lookin’ to collect.”

“Figured as much.”

More silence.

“Reckon I owe you boys a big one. Could have gotten myself killed for bein’ a wanted man AND a wife stealer. Would have been a cut and dried case.”

“Sorry Vin.”

“Ain’t yer fault cowboy. Got ta learn ta keep my nose outta things. Should have never settled I reckon. Seems I aim ta get into more trouble bein’ ‘round regular folk than anything else.”

“You know Vin,” Chris said as he pulled his horse to a stop and waited for Tanner to do the same. When he had the tracker’s full attention he told him, “If Sarah and Adam were still alive and something would have happened to me, alive or dead, I’d a been damn glad you were around. I trust you,” he ended, those last three words said softly.

Feeling a warmth spread throughout him at what he‘d just heard, Vin locked eyes with his good friend and after a moment, both had smiles in them.

Then came the knowing smirk. “Hell, if I’d a done anything you’d a come back from Hell itself just ta hunt me down.”

“That’s right I would have,” the man in black gave an devilish grin and lifted his eyebrows. “You did tell me the bounty was mine you know.”

“Think I’m beginnin’ ta regret that,” came the retort with a big grin and a roll of the eyes.

“Let’s get to town so I can have that beer you owe me,” Larabee said with a laugh as both men put their spurs to their horses and headed for home.


One week later Clay and Julia came through town with their Canastota wagon loaded down. They were headed back to Clay’s father’s ranch to help carry on there. Julia couldn’t leave without saying goodbye to Vin which she did and Vin guessed that she never knew what had transpired.

On the other hand, Vin never knew what had transpired either as recently one evening Mr. Robins had gotten a visiting call from a man who had in no uncertain terms threatened him with something worse than death if all of a sudden a certain ex-bounty hunter turned up dead.