A New and Dangerous Game

by Angie

+ + + + + + +

Ella never saw the rider trailing her as she rode back to the homestead. Her head was filled with images of tiny little outfits for her baby. The smile never left her face as she drove.

+ + + + + + +

It was ridiculously easy to follow the wagon tracks back to the large homestead.

The tracker, a soldier by the name of Bo Williams, approached the huge house warily. He watched as the Mexican housekeeper hung out the wash on the clothesline. Sneaking up on the bunkhouse, he heard someone shuffling cards. Peeking into the window, he saw only the one man at the table. Stealthily, he opened the door and stepped up behind the man.

“Put your hands on the table and I won’t have to shoot you.”

Kevin Hagan rested both palms on the table without resistance.

“How many others are here?” Williams asked as he removed the guns from their holsters.

“Just me and the housekeeper right now. The lady of the house went into town for some things.”

Kevin lowered his eyes to the knife tucked into his belt. He heard the man behind him shift slightly and decided to make his move. Grabbing the knife, he whirled on the young soldier, stabbing him low in the gut. The man dropped to the floor, an expression of surprise on his face as he gasped in agony.

Withdrawing the knife and wiping it on the soldier’s shirt, Kevin picked up his guns and left the bunkhouse, headed for the basement. He thought he would be safest if he had the assurance of hostages. Running across the field, he searched the horizon for other soldiers.

+ + + + + + +

After securing the prisoners, the four soldiers quickly rode out after the woman on the surrey. They were careful not to be seen and followed at a very discrete distance.

+ + + + + + +

Chris heard Kevin run into the house and call for Rosalita. From the fear in his voice, Larabee began to hope that rescue was coming. He sat up and began to pick the lock on the manacle around his ankle. Ella hadn’t noticed that he’d lifted a fork from the table the other night and he had been using it to work on the lock. His heart pounded in his ears as he struggled with the tine that he had carefully bent to turn the lock.

Kevin couldn’t find Rosalita, so he headed for the basement. He would kill the lawmen if he had to if it kept him alive. So great was his hurry that he didn’t see the surrey as it pulled into the barn. He lifted the heavy piece of wood keeping the basement door closed and hurried down the stairs.

+ + + + + + +

Bo rolled to his side in the empty bunkhouse and groaned weakly. He had no idea how long he had been unconscious. Pulling his kerchief from his neck, he stuffed it into the stab wound and struggled to his feet. He had been riding with the others for several months and had gotten to know them. There was no way he was going to let them walk into a trap. Dizzy from the blood loss, he staggered toward the door. He had to get to his horse to warn the others.

+ + + + + + +

Ella unhitched the horse and guided him into a stall. She would send Kevin down to take care of the animal and bring up the rest of her packages. Taking up the clothes she had gotten for Chris, she left the barn and started across the yard. The door to the bunkhouse opened and a man in a uniform stumbled out. Her blood ran cold as she hurried for the house.

+ + + + + + +

Kevin ran down the stairs and looked around at the prisoners he held. In spite of the beatings and mistreatment, none of them looked like they would be easy to handle as a human shield. He had wanted the woman for that purpose. He pointed the gun at the men and spoke softly.

“If you make a sound, I will kill you. Just sit back down and be quiet!”

+ + + + + + +

The five soldiers rode up behind the bunkhouse, using it to block them from the view of the house. When the sergeant saw Bo stagger over to a tree and collapse, he jumped from his horse. Gathering the wounded man into his arms, he dragged him back to the shelter of the bunkhouse.

“Spread out and be careful. Remember, they have seven hostages at least.”

+ + + + + + +

Chris heard the front door open and close again quickly. He chewed on his lip as he turned the fork slowly inside of the lock. He was rewarded with a soft clicking sound and the manacle opened. Shoving the offensive piece of metal away, he bolted to his feet and crossed the room. Grabbing up his boots, he struggled into them as he tried to stay out of sight.

The housekeeper was preparing to start supper when Ella ran into the kitchen. The woman’s eyes were wide and wild looking as they darted around, looking for danger in every corner.

“We have to hide! The soldiers are coming!”

Four soldiers slipped around the house and then crept inside. They moved carefully into the rooms, looking for the woman from the surrey or any of her guards. The house was huge and laid out like a maze, making it difficult for the four of them to gain the upper hand.

Slipping into the hallway, Chris looked over the railing into the huge reception room at the front of the house. He saw one of the soldiers creeping along the wall and froze. The last thing he wanted was to get shot by the rescuers.

+ + + + + + +

Buck moved slowly to a position where he could knock Vin to the floor and shelter him if the need arose. He looked across the room and saw Ezra doing the same thing. They were still willing to give their lives to protect the youngest of the team.

+ + + + + + +

The woman ran right out in front of him and the young soldier grabbed her. She began to shriek and pummel him with her fists until he slammed her into a wall and pinned her hands to her side.

“You better take your hands off of me! My husband is upstairs and he will kill you if he sees you touching me! He’s fiercely jealous.”

The soldier carefully tied the woman’s hands together as one of his friends arrived to help. He then escorted her out of the house after warning the other soldier to be on the look out for a man upstairs. The sergeant was on the porch when Ella was pushed thru the door. The sergeant took custody of the woman and directed the other man back into the house.

+ + + + + + +

Two of the soldiers found the door to the basement and snuck down quietly. Kevin pressed himself against the wall and waited to ambush them the moment they came into sight.

“Ezra, you can’t let him shoot them like that!” JD whispered breathlessly into the gambler’s ear. He got a hard green-eyed glare for his words.

From his angle, Vin saw the soldier coming down the stairs. His mind snapped back to another time and he launched himself off the cot screaming.

“No! No! Don’t let them take me! Don’t let them take me away!” The tracker’s voice was laced with terror as he huddled, shaking beneath the bunk.

Kevin turned on Buck and leveled the pistol. “Shut him up or I’ll kill him!”

He never saw the soldier that slammed the gun across the back of his head before he slumped into the darkness. The gun skipped across the floor and came to rest against the bars. The soldiers eased into the room, pointing their guns at the men in the cells as Vin continued to scream in terror.

+ + + + + + +

Chris came down the stairs with his hands on his head. When he reached the bottom, he found himself face to face with a soldier pointing a gun at him.

“My name is Chris Larabee and I’m one of the hostages.” He kept his voice even and low as he spoke.

“We’ll see about that. For now, turn around and put your hands behind your back.” The soldier tied his hands and escorted him out to the porch with the housekeeper and the other woman they had captured.

+ + + + + + +

Buck tried to calm Vin after he pulled him from under the cot. The tracker was hysterical and would not be calmed. He continued to cringe and plead for them not to take him. Wilmington finally settled for blocking Tanner’s view of the soldiers with his big chest and holding him tightly.

“Excuse me, son, but could you try to get us out of here? We might be able to help him.” Josiah’s voice was tight with emotion from watching the gut-wrenching scene in the other cell.

“We’ll have to find the key. I’ll see if he has it.” He nodded toward the unconscious form on the floor.

“Excuse me, gentlemen. If you could just find me a piece of metal, a coat hanger or a stiff piece of wire, I believe I can affect our release in a short time.”

Rifling thru the pockets of the man on the floor, the soldier came up with the key to the cells. He quickly opened the doors. All four of the other men rushed into the cell with the hysterical man. Each one spoke soft, reassuring words and tried to reach out to touch him in some way. The two young soldiers were embarrassed by the outward display of emotion and quietly slipped out of the basement, taking the prisoner with them as they left.

Seeing that they were not able to calm Vin, Nathan suggested that they move him outside. Buck would accept no help as he lifted his friend and carried him up the stairs. Josiah turned to offer a hand to Ezra, but JD was already there, pulling the gambler’s arm over his shoulder and helping him up the stairs.

Once on the main floor, the six were confronted with the rest of the rescue party. Five soldiers stood in the great room at the front of the house with the two women and one man they had captured. JD was the first to react to seeing their leader’s hands bound behind his back. He slid away from Ezra and ran to Chris’s side.

“What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know he’s one of us? Are you all right, Chris? They didn’t hurt you, did they?” He worked the knots in the rope as he talked.

Buck walked past Chris without a word as he hurried to get Vin outside under the sky. Nathan nodded to Larabee before hurrying after Wilmington.

“What happened to Vin?” Chris’s voice shook with fear as he stared hungrily after his two best friends.

“The sight of the soldiers set him off. He’s back in the war and they’re coming to get him. Nathan thought that getting him outside might do him some good. Might bring him back to us.” Josiah explained as JD finished with the rope.

They knew that Vin had served briefly in the war and had been captured. The camps where the prisoners were housed were an unspeakable horror. Starvation, lice, dysentery and gangrene ran rampant, decimating the populations until only the strongest survived. The young Texan had occasionally alluded to his time in the camps but never really told any of them what had happened to him. The terror on his face in the cell was enough to discourage them from ever asking.

Chris couldn’t move fast enough to get outside. Buck and Nathan had put Vin on the ground in the shade of a tree and were tapping his face and talking to him, trying to bring him back to himself. Chris fell to his knees and gathered the trapper into his arms. His voice was tight as he spoke.

“Come back to me, cowboy. I need you! Please. I won’t let anyone hurt you ever again! Come on, Vin. Find your way back to us. Please?”

The only response from Vin was that he went completely limp in Chris’s arms. A look of terror spread across Larabee’s face as he looked up to Nathan.

“He’s just passed out. We need to get him back to the clinic, to familiar surroundings.”

“Will he be all right? In his mind, I mean.”

“I hope so, Chris. I can’t make you any promises, though. He’s been thru an awful lot these past couple of weeks. With rest and support, he may come out okay. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Inside the house, Josiah and Ezra were filling the sergeant in on what had been happening to them over the past two weeks. They were saddened to hear that one of the soldiers had died in the rescue attempt. For that crime, Kevin Hagan would surely hang.

Ella had fallen silent when she saw everything she had worked for disintegrate. Chris would return to Four Corners and she knew that she would most likely go to jail. She chuckled to herself as she thought about the child she was carrying. He would have to come see her if he wanted to see his son and she comforted herself with that thought.

Using a larger wagon from the barn and Ella and Buck’s horses, they were able to return everyone to town together. The soldiers had moved a mattress from one of the beds into the wagon to make it more comfortable for the injured men.

JD and Josiah had searched until they recovered all of the weapons that had been taken from them. The kid immediately buckled his guns around his waist. He had felt totally helpless without their familiar weight. He returned Nathan and Ezra’s guns and other belongings while Josiah took the rest.

It was agreed that the soldiers would ride in front of the wagon, well out of Vin’s line of sight. Josiah drove the wagon with JD sitting at his side so that the others could stay close to Vin. One of the other soldiers had hitched his horse to the surrey and was bringing Ella and Kevin Hagan back. The housekeeper was left to tend to the house until someone could bring her back.

There was a crowd waiting for them when they arrived in town. It seemed like everyone in the territory was there to welcome them back. JD jumped from the wagon as soon as he saw Casey Wells. He swept her into his arms and spun her around.

The soldiers were careful to stay away from the wagon, choosing, instead, to go straight to the jail with the woman. Judge Travis didn’t understand why they weren’t helping the other, obviously injured, men.

“Sergeant! Why aren’t your men helping over there?”

“Sir, our presence disturbs Tanner and the others have asked us to stay away.”

As the tailgate of the wagon was lowered, the men were helped down by the townspeople. Chris stepped down and was immediately enveloped by Mary Travis. He crushed her to his chest and buried his face in her shoulder for a long time before his lips found hers for a long, passionate kiss. Embarrassed chuckles came from the crowd.

As Nathan stepped down, Rain slammed into him and he caught her by reflex.

“Rain? What are you doing here? How did you know?”

Her lips stopped his words as she wrapped her arms around his neck and drew herself up to him. He finally wrapped his arms around her and returned the heartfelt kiss.

Ezra eased his aching body off of the wagon and was startled by a light touch on his arm. Looking up, he saw Miranda looking at him with tears in her eyes. He felt something loosen in his chest as he drew her into his arms and clung to her like a child to its mother.

Buck stepped off the wagon and was immediately set upon by Millie, from the saloon. She leapt at him and shinnied up him like a tree until she found his lips. His hands automatically found her small waist and held her tightly against his body.

Nettie Wells tipped her head back and looked up at the tall preacher. A wise and gentle smile covered her face as she reached out to put her arms around him.

“I’m not planning on kissin’ you or anything, but it sure is good to have you back, Josiah.”

Inez stood on the boardwalk watching with tears in her eyes as Vin was carried from the wagon. She had wanted to rush forward with the others but didn’t quite feel she had the right. What was blooming between herself and the gentle Texan was still too new to be demonstrated openly.

As the townspeople returned to their routines; Nathan and the others waited and worried about Vin. They had settled him in the clinic and anxiously waited for him to waken and return from whatever journey his mind was taking.

Chris refused to leave the clinic, so Buck and Josiah had gone to fill the judge in on what had happened to them. JD had gone with Casey to the livery to check on the team’s horses. Ezra walked off with the seamstress and the others weren’t sure where they ended up.

Inez opened the door and peeked into the clinic. She carried a tray of food as an excuse to be there but she was really there to see Vin. Chris eased off of the bed and moved to look out the window to give the woman a little privacy. Setting the tray on the table, she approached the bed and sat lightly on the edge picking up his hand. She could see that they had undressed and bathed him but his face still held the week’s growth of beard and she reached out to tenderly touch his cheek.

After appraising the judge on what had happened, Josiah and Buck headed to the bathhouse. JD also headed there after a little quiet time with the horses and Casey. Nathan had already cleaned up in his room, knowing that Chris was sitting with Vin.

It was quiet in the seamstress shop. Miranda had led Ezra to her personal quarters in the back. When she had tried to pull away from him in the street, he had tightened his grip and whispered to her quietly.


She had nodded against his shoulder and asked him if he wanted to use the tub in her quarters. Leading him like a child, she heated water and put him into the tub.

It was a long afternoon. People came and went but Chris stayed. Nothing they said or did had any effect. Vin remained unconscious. They would almost have preferred the staring and rocking to this near-dead persona they sat with. At least when he was staring and rocking, they knew he was alive.

Miranda had given Ezra the new jacket when he got out of the bath. He had been so pleased with it that he wept onto her shoulder. It fit him perfectly.

“I don’t know why I can’t seem to control my emotions, but I am truly grateful to you for being so understanding about it.”

“There isn’t anything to be ashamed of, Ezra. You’ve been thru a lot these past few weeks. I’m here for you whenever you want to talk, or anything else.”

It was her offer of ‘anything else’ that had brought him back to her later that night after he had spent time with Vin. After his timid knock on the door, she had drawn him into her home and into her arms. He told her all of it that night, every, horrible, awful detail about their incarceration. She led him to her bed and cuddled up to him that night, offering him the comfort of her presence.

Over the course of the next two days, there was no change in Vin’s condition. They had tried everything they could think of to waken him. As battered as they were, those who were able resumed their patrols. It was as much for themselves as the town. They needed to keep busy to keep their minds off of the lack of improvement in the tracker.

Orin wanted to have the trial as soon as possible but knowing that Chris wouldn’t leave the clinic, he decided to wait. He had gone for himself to see the homestead where the men had been held prisoner. It amazed him that the woman could be so calculating as to have had all this built just for her little game. The bloodstains on the floor made him shake with rage before he returned to town.

In the jail, the three men and one woman waited patiently for their fate to be decided. The men had been eager to spill their guts to the judge about what the woman had paid them to do. For Glick and Willy, it was an attempt to convince the judge to spare their lives. Both men knew that there was no hope for Kevin, as he had killed that soldier.

It was Rain who finally made the suggestion. Chris had nearly gone mad when she said it but Nathan and the others agreed with her. It might be the only way to get Vin back. If they could find the Comanche tribe he had lived with, they would leave him with them in the hope that they could find and return his wandering spirit.

They sent out wires to the surrounding reservations.

After two days, they got a positive response. Some members of a tribe on a reservation to the North remembered Vin and were willing to help. It was decided that Chris and Josiah would take him to the reservation. Chris, because he wouldn’t let anyone else do it and Josiah because he had spent time among the tribes and understood the customs.

The night before they were to leave, all six men stayed with Vin all night. They wanted to spend as much time as possible with him before he left. No one was sure if he would come back or not. It was a somber night as they sat up for several hours, talking about the good times and the not so good times. JD brought up every amusing thing he could remember about their time together. Eventually, they were all laughing and telling funny stories. Finally, they drifted off to sleep.

It seemed somehow appropriate to use Vin’s wagon to transport him. Josiah had packed food and clothing for the trip. After settling Vin in the back, they tied Peso to the tailgate and set out. Inez stood on the boardwalk, weeping unashamedly as she watched the covered wagon turn the corner and disappear.

The judge left four of the soldiers to watch the prisoners in the jail. He didn’t want to subject his men to the stress of having to be in the same room with Ella Gains on a daily basis. Making his rounds of the territory, he kept in constant contact with his daughter in law. As there was no question of the guilt of Kevin Hagan, the judge ordered him transferred to the territory prison to be hanged.

+ + + + + + +

Looking at his reflection in the mirror, Ezra decided that he wanted another new shirt. He chuckled softly at his reflection, he didn’t really need it, he just wanted an excuse to spend time with Miranda. After a moment he shook his head at his reflection.

“You don’t need an excuse to see her.” He reminded his counterpart in the glass. He had already spent several companionable hours with her since they had been rescued. He found himself looking forward to seeing her in the mornings when he made his rounds.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan craned his head to watch Rain as she moved behind him in the hut. He had ridden out the same morning that Vin had left. After the past couple of weeks, he needed something to help him get centered again. So far, the time he had spent there had been idyllic. He could see himself living like this.

+ + + + + + +

“You got a bite, JD.” Casey’s voice intruded on his reverie.

“Thanks, Casey.” He pulled in the fish and removed the hook.

The kid had been in the dump since Vin left. Nathan had gone to stay with Rain for a few days and Ezra was spending most of his free time with the seamstress. Buck was drowning his sorrows in the saloon. He needed to talk to someone about what he was feeling. The family that he had come to depend upon was being torn asunder. He felt so empty and alone. Not even Casey could lift his sagging spirits.

+ + + + + + +

Buck was filled with guilt. He hadn’t been able to protect Vin. Ever since Chris had left with Vin, he had been spinning into a black hole of despair. Not even Millie’s considerable charm could lift him out of the pit he was digging for himself. He sought solace and forgetfulness in the burning embrace of a whiskey bottle.

+ + + + + + +

On the morning of the third day of their journey, Vin’s eyes opened. There was no recognition in their blue depths but there was no fear either. Josiah coaxed food and water into the tracker every chance he could get. They wanted to build up his body for the coming ordeal. They rolled back the canvas on the wagon to let him get some sun.

“Do you think he’s coming back to us?” Chris asked as Josiah joined him on the bench of the wagon.

“I don’t know, Chris. It could be that his mind is healing, I just don’t know.”

The next morning, they put Vin on Peso and led him around the wagon a few times. His legs had automatically gripped the animal and he rode easily. Josiah put him on the bench beside him for a while during the day. Occasionally, it seemed that his eyes would focus on something, but then they would glaze over again.

+ + + + + + +

JD stood in the door of the saloon looking at Buck. The ladies man was already into his second bottle and it was barely noon. Millie had been taking him to her room at night, more to keep tabs on him that anything else. Dunne stormed over to the table and glared at the older man.

“Are you planning to make your patrol today?”

“Is there any point? There isn’t anything going on out there that I won’t hear about in here.”

“Buck, you’ve been sitting here drinking for two days. Vin will be back. You need to pull yourself together. We have a job to do in this town and you need to do your part. Ezra and I can’t do it all by ourselves. Please Buck! We need you! I need you!”

Wilmington came to his feet. “I don’t need you telling me how to live my life! It’s my fault that he’s that way! I should have been able to protect him! Ezra didn’t let you get hurt, did he? I failed him! I failed him and now he’s that way!”

Buck’s words were like knives shredding JD’s soul. He felt guilty enough about the injuries that Ezra had gotten because of him. Just knowing that the gambler had been willing to sacrifice his life to protect him was still bothering him. He couldn’t understand what Buck was feeling.

+ + + + + + +

By the evening of the fourth day, the wagon reached the edge of the reservation. Chris wanted one last night with Vin before they turned him over to the tribe. He seemed to be doing better that afternoon. He had actually walked around the wagon on his own to get to Peso. He had eaten the food they handed him without prompting.

+ + + + + + +

Chaucer snorted and tossed his head as Ezra finished brushing him. Yosemite had done his best while they were gone, but no one took care of the horse like his master. The sight of the empty stall where Peso should have been troubled him. It had been almost a week and they hadn’t heard anything from Chris and Josiah.

+ + + + + + +

Checking the cinch on his saddle once more, Nathan heard the soft footsteps approach.

“Why are you going back? I thought you were happy here. There isn’t anything for you there.”

Turning to face the beautiful young woman, he took her hand.

“You’re wrong about that, Miss Rain. I have a family there. It may not look like it but, those men are like brothers to me and I have to be there for them. At least until things with Vin are settled. They need me.”

+ + + + + + +

Mary had taken over the responsibility for feeding and tending to Ella while she was in the jail. It was difficult for her to face the woman everyday. Listening to her insane ramblings about carrying Chris Larabee’s baby was upsetting. She secretly prayed that they would find out that she wasn’t pregnant before the trial started. She didn’t know if the judge would be able to hang the woman if she was pregnant.

+ + + + + + +

Wiping the bar one last time, Inez crossed the room and stopped at the table. She took away the empty bottle and the glass that Buck had turned over when he passed out. He had been there all day, drinking.

“Senor Buck? It’s time to close up. You have to go now. Senor Buck? Please.”

The dark head rose and the soft, blue eyes struggled to focus. He pushed back from the table and blinked up at her. The pain in his eyes was so intense that Inez reached out to cup his face in her hand. He looked so lost without Vin and Chris.

Buck climbed unsteadily to his feet and reached for Inez. She stepped out of his reach and he continued to advance on her. The floor canted strangely under his feet and he reached for Inez again.

“No, Senor Buck! You must go to your room! Senor Buck?”

JD heard Inez cry out and he raced into the saloon. He watched as Buck took a couple of wobbly steps toward the barmaid. JD moved to intercept the older man.

“Leave her alone, Buck! Go to your room and sleep it off! Go on now!”

“Get out of the way, kid.” Buck’s voice was slurred and his eyes unfocused as he turned on JD. The kid stood in his way again and it made him angry. He closed his hand and swung on his young friend. In his drunken state, he missed and stumbled again, falling into JD’s arms.

JD went down under the weight of the bigger man. Suddenly, he realized that Buck was sobbing. He clung to the kid and buried his face in JD’s chest. He didn’t know how to respond to this side of his friend. Working around until he could sit up with Buck, he waited for the sobs to end.

He didn’t want to hurt JD! Buck scrubbed at his face with his palms as he leaned against the kid. He just wanted the pain in his spirit to stop. The guilt he felt was overwhelming. Drinking brought a brief respite from the pain.

“I’m sorry, JD. I just feel so bad about Vin. I keep thinking that if I had protected him better that he wouldn’t be like that. What did I do wrong?”

“You didn’t do that to him, Buck. That insane creature in the jail did that to him. She put him in a box! She kept him in that cell after she knew he was afraid of it! You tried to protect him! You did your best.”

It took him a while, but JD finally got Buck into his room at the boarding house and into his bed. He pulled the spread off of the bed and settled on the floor beside the bed just to be near.

+ + + + + + +

As soon as he opened his pale, blue eyes that morning, he knew something was different. The soft cry of an eagle calling to its mate floated sweetly on the breeze. The sharp, pungent scent of the trees and the sweet smell of the grass caressed his nose. The breeze shifted slightly and he smelled coffee. From some other direction, he heard Peso snort and blow. A contented feeling eased over Vin as he inhaled deeply.

At the sound of the deep, indrawn breath, Chris turned quickly. He caught a glimpse of the sky blue eyes before they closed again. The relaxed expression on Vin’s face was like a balm to his battered spirit. He looked across the fire to Josiah and saw a slight nod. He poured another cup of coffee and stared at the column of smoke on the horizon.

+ + + + + + +

Someone had beaten him over the head with a board, Buck was sure of it. He knew that when he opened his eyes, he would be in the clinic. Opening one bloodshot blue eye, he was surprised to see the familiar contours of his room at the boarding house. Just then, he became aware of the sound. It was soft and he couldn’t see the source but it was definitely in the room with him. Rolling painfully to his side, Buck peeked at the figure curled up in the blanket on the floor, JD.

Suddenly, it all came back to him. The drinking and the harsh words he had flung at the boy. Shame burned in his face as he stared down at the innocent face of his young friend. He knew that the kid was suffering the loss of Vin’s presence as badly if not worse than he himself. A promise was made to the sleeping form. Buck Wilmington would not touch another drop of whiskey until Vin came back.

+ + + + + + +

Chaucer huffed when Ezra pulled him up in front of the seamstress shop, he wanted to go to the livery and his stall. The gambler waited until Miranda stepped out and smiled before he allowed the horse to have his way. It was a routine they had developed, he would stop on his way in from patrol and she would start breakfast. By the time he had tended to Chaucer and cleaned up, she would have their meal ready. He would spend a short time with her before going to his room to sleep for a few hours.

+ + + + + + +

Vin rolled to his side and stared at the men by the fire. Just the sight of the darkly clothed blonde man made his stomach tighten and he was tempted to retreat into his valley. The sight of the other man bespoke of calm. A deeply pitched voice that spoke soothing lyrical phrases eased his mind. He was safe here, for the moment. The blonde man brought him a plate of food and a cup of the strong, black coffee. Sitting up in his pallet, he nodded slightly at the man.

+ + + + + + +

Feeling that he was being watched, JD opened his eyes. He found Buck staring down at him. Pain was clearly, deeply etched in his face and bloodshot eyes.

“How you feeling?”

“Like a heard of long horned cattle trampled me in my sleep. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, Buck.”

“It’s good to hear that. I’m sorry for the things I said to you last night. That was the whiskey talking. I promise that it won’t happen again.”

A slight smile lifted the corners of JD’s lips.

“Then tell the whiskey that the next time you act like that I will lock both of you in the jail. There are laws against public drunkenness, you know?”

The stern look on the kid’s face caused Buck to chuckle and then groan at the hangover that slammed into his head. Buck fell back on his pillows and pulled one over his face. JD dropped the spread back on the bed and bumped the mattress with his knee. The groan that emanated from under the pillow made him laugh.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah was sitting in the saloon with Inez when JD arrived a short time later.

“Morning, John Dunne! Who has patrol this morning?”

“Morning Josiah, Miss Inez, I guess I’ll take it. Buck is sick.”

The older man’s eyebrows rose slowly over the blue eyes. “Sick?”

“Well, more like hung over but we worked it out and he’ll be okay.”

Inez had informed Josiah about the way JD had handled his drunken friend the night before. A smile lit the preacher’s face and he pushed out a chair beside him. When the kid sat down, he squeezed his shoulder firmly and looked into his eyes.

“You’re a good friend, John Dunne. I hope Buck realizes what you did for him.”

JD looked embarrassed as he turned away, “Thanks Josiah.”

“Can I bring you some breakfast, JD?”

“Thanks, Miss Inez, I’d like that.” He rewarded her with a warm, grateful smile.

+ + + + + + +

Mary had persuaded the soldiers guarding the jail to let her take Ella to the bathhouse. As much as she disliked the woman, she couldn’t bring herself to treat her badly. Such was the curse of a Christian conscience. The soldiers surrounded the building to make sure that she wouldn’t escape. The room was thoroughly searched to make sure that she wouldn’t find anything to use as a weapon against them.

After her bath, Ella was in a good mood and rambled constantly to Mary about the baby. Finally, the blonde woman had heard all she could stand. While Ella stood in her cell brushing her dark hair, Mary’s grip on her tongue slipped.

“How can you profess to love him after what you did to him? He loved Sarah and Adam! He almost died of grief! Do you have any idea how many times he almost got himself killed because of the rage he feels? How can you think you can force a man to love you? Love can’t be forced! You hurt his friends, you took his family from him and still you expect him to come back and announce his undying love for you?”

The pleasant look slipped from Ella’s face and she glared at Mary. A scream of pure rage poured from her mouth and she reached thru the bars, swiping at the blonde woman with her outstretched fingers.

“I’ll kill you, too! Just watch! You think he loves you? You’re wrong! He loves me! He made love to me! I’m going to have his baby and he will forget all about you and your little town! I’ll kill you!”

Mary’s eyes stung with tears as she backed away from the screaming harridan in the cell. Pressing the back of her hand to her mouth, she ran from the jail. As soon as she reached the boardwalk, she ran into Nathan, who had returned only the day before.

“Is something wrong? Mary? What is it?” The gentle timbre of his voice caused her to bury her face in her hands and shudder. He took her by the elbow and drew her along the boardwalk toward the Clarion office for some privacy. Once inside, she pulled herself together.

“It’s that woman! She’s beginning to get to me! Nathan, I’ve tried feeling sorry for her but she just keeps on with the ramblings about the baby and I, … I just can’t take it anymore. I just want her out of our town and gone. I can’t take her anymore.”

Nathan nodded in sympathy. “Would you like for me to take over for a couple of days?”

Grateful blue eyes locked on his and she nodded as she fished for her handkerchief.

+ + + + + + +

Saddling the horses, they rode onto the reservation. The soldiers questioned them briefly before giving them directions to the man they were seeking. As they navigated between the dwellings, Chris and Josiah watched Vin. He seemed to pick up as they approached the small gathering of huts set apart from the others. Peso picked up on his master’s agitation and quickened his pace.

They stopped in front of one of the huts and an older man came out and stared up at the three men on horses. Vin’s posture changed almost immediately and he slid from the saddle. Three quick strides put him in the other man’s embrace. Chris and Josiah exchanged a look before sliding out of their saddles. Chris could pick up softly murmured words in a language he couldn’t begin to understand.

Without a word to the others, Vin and the older Indian strode away from the dwelling. The pained expression in Chris’s eyes was plain and he made no move to try to cover it. They stood for several minutes before the blonde took up Peso’s reins and wrapped them around a bush. It wouldn’t hold the fractious animal if he decided to leave but the horse would generally stay where his master left him. With a last look in the direction his friend had gone, Chris mounted and rode away.

+ + + + + + +

After a bath and shave, Buck made a major production of his apology to Inez. He rode out and gathered all the wildflowers he could carry and brought them into the saloon. With his most contrite expression, he made his apology and begged for her forgiveness. The Mexican woman smiled, she knew the reason for his behavior and didn’t hold it against him but she couldn’t let him get away with it. She graciously forgave him and gifted him with a chaste kiss on the cheek to show she bore no hard feelings.

+ + + + + + +

Brushing lint from the emerald green jacket, Ezra left his room after lunch. He left the saloon and stood on the boardwalk for a few minutes taking in the gentle breeze. Just then, the son of the telegraph operator ran up and handed him a wire. He flipped the kid a coin and unfolded the paper.

It was from Chris. ‘Arrived reservation. Will return one week. Larabee.’

The green eyes glazed for a moment as he tried to get a feel for what the message meant. He hadn’t mentioned Mr. Tanner one way or the other. A heaviness descended on him as he considered what the loss of the tracker would do to the family that had formed between them. He was distracted from his thoughts by Buck as he stopped to read over his shoulder.

“That is a most rude habit, Mr. Wilmington. Suppose this wire had been of a personal nature?”

“Sorry, Ezra. You looked so far away that I got worried.”

“Forgive me, I didn’t mean to snap at you. How are you feeling today?”

“Better, thanks to Nathan. Don’t worry, he’ll be back and we’ll be okay.”

With an absentminded nod, Ezra went in search of comfort of the female variety.

+ + + + + + +

For the next two days, Chris watched Vin from a distance. He saw his friend smile and laugh. He watched as Vin joined a hunting party and watched when they returned successful. The cold in his soul spread until even Josiah shied away from him. Chris was in agony as he watched his friend, the other half of his soul moving farther and farther away.

On the morning of the third day, Chris awoke before dawn and broke camp. He tossed his saddle into the wagon and threw his bedroll in carelessly. When Josiah wakened, he was confronted with the cold silence that had taken over the blonde. He quickly packed his things into the wagon as Chris extinguished the fire and checked the area carefully.

“Aren’t you going to say goodbye?” Josiah asked when Chris mounted the bench and took up the reins.

“No. Let’s go.”

But it was tearing his heart out. Leaving Vin was like losing Sarah and Adam all over again. At least Vin would be alive and he could come and visit. Maybe he would eventually return to Four Corners. It was a small hope to cling to but it kept the darkness from overwhelming Chris’s soul.

+ + + + + + +

He sat in the dwelling and inhaled the scent around him. The feeling of safety and warmth that permeated this place was soothing to Vin. He had been able to ride Peso and walk in the fields. He had slept under the stars and shared a blanket with a lovely young woman. His spirit rested easily in this place. As he stared into the fire, something flickered in the corner of his eye. The darkly clothed blonde man flashed before his eyes. A feeling of intense anguish gripped his heart and he felt sadness. Shifting his position on the blanket, he tried to shake off the image. A bowl of stew was placed into his hands and he began to eat. >>>>><<<<

Chris sat staring into the fire long after Josiah had fallen asleep. In his hands he held one of Vin’s handkerchiefs, it was a small comfort to him. Leaving Vin that morning had been the hardest thing he’d had to do since he lowered his wife and son into the ground. Dropping another stick of wood on the fire, he watched the sparks rise in the heat and disappear into the dark sky.

+ + + + + + +

The blankets on his bed felt oppressively heavy and he had been thrashing in them far too long. Ezra tossed them off and moved to stand by the window. The new moon shown dully in the clear sky and he stared up at it as he wondered about his friends.

+ + + + + + +

Sitting on the roof of the boarding house, JD stared at the new moon. Just being in this particular place made him feel closer to Vin. He had been coming up here for the past few nights, needing the comfort he drew from its familiarity.

+ + + + + + +

A sudden flush of heat across his body caused Nathan to bolt upright in his bed. He scrubbed at his chest for a moment as he tried to figure out what had wakened him. An uneasy sensation crept up his spine and exploded into his head as he opened the door and stepped onto the landing. It was quiet in the town and he found himself staring up at the new moon.

+ + + + + + +

The images in his dream swirled and solidified, Josiah bolted up from his pallet as the sound of the wolf call died in the air around him. Looking across the fire, he saw that Chris had finally succumbed to exhaustion and was sleeping with Vin’s handkerchief wrapped around his hand like a bandage. As sparks from the fire floated upward, he stared at the new moon and shivered.

+ + + + + + +

His chin dropped onto his chest and he swayed unsteadily in the saddle. Buck jolted awake just before he lost his balance. Landing hard on the ground, he glared up at the horse as if it was his fault. Picking himself up and dusting off, he pulled Ghost’s bridle.

“You could have warned me.”

The horse only looked at him and then looked away.

He pulled himself back into the saddle and started to turn the gray horse back toward town when he heard it, the soft sound of a wolf call on the wind. The hairs on Buck’s neck stood up as goose flesh traveled over his body. Glancing around him warily, he realized that the horse was calm. If the wolves were close at all, his mount would surely sense it and he would feel it. Looking directly over his head, he stared at the new moon.

+ + + + + + +

Even before the moon had begun to set, Vin was moving restlessly in his bedroll. His chest ached and feelings sprang at him from all corners of the dwelling. Anguish, fear, loneliness, sadness, resolution, all at once he felt a powerful urge to find something he had lost. Vin tossed and turned in his blankets. He had lost something of great value and he had to find it again. His breathing quickened and he whimpered softly in his sleep. The beautiful young woman who had warmed his bed rolled away from him and went on sleeping. The older Indian, the medicine man, watched from the other side of the dwelling with a knowing expression.

“It begins, my friend,” he whispered as he slipped from his bed and scattered a handful of herbs on the coals of the fire. As the relaxing smoke filled the air, he sat back on his haunches and watched.

+ + + + + + +

At first light of dawn, Chris hitched the horses up, packed up his bedroll and loaded the wagon. Not even bothering with a pot of coffee, he was ready to leave as soon as Josiah was awake. The older man recognized the need to flee the despair that was nearly overwhelming the gunslinger. He asked no questions as he rolled up his bedroll and climbed onto the bench beside Chris.

+ + + + + + +

All four of the regulators sat at the table in the saloon staring at the fly walking on the center of the table without talking. Inez had brought them breakfast and cleared away the dishes without hearing a work spoken between them. They simply sat, silent and unmoving.

Mary and Miranda both appeared in the saloon an hour later, having missed seeing their friends that morning. Inez informed them of what she had observed and the three women settled around the end of the bar to wait and watch.

+ + + + + + +

The dream was of being in a small space. Vin raised his hands and touched the ceiling of the enclosure and a feeling of dread filled him. His heart began to race in his chest as he drew short, shallow breaths. Finally, the cage was opened and an ocean of faces and images washed over him. One by one, he examined and discarded them until he was left with six. One face was a younger man with dark hair who stirred intense feelings of protectiveness. The next was an older man with dark hair and a dark mustache who made him smile. The next was a man with dark skin who made him feel better when he hurt and who invoked a strong feeling of protection. Another young man with dark hair and eyes the color of spring grass stirred feelings of joy and belonging. An older man with graying hair stirred the deep spiritual side of the Texan and he almost cried out at the strength of the emotion. The last face was the one that finally wrenched him from his sleep. The blonde man in the dark clothes was important to him somehow. With an anguished cry, his eyes opened and he stared at the medicine man who now knelt at his side.

“He’s leaving!” Vin whispered, his voice tight with fear.

“He is doing what he thinks is best for you,” the older man replied.

“But I have to go with him!” Vin cried as he rolled over and began to gather his belongings. In five minutes, he was climbing into the saddle and waiving to his friend.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah took the reins when Chris began to sway on the bench. He could tell that the man had not gotten much sleep that night. The horses had been pushed too hard for too long and Josiah eased them back to a more natural pace while Chris dozed.

+ + + + + + +

A sudden breeze rattled the doors of the saloon and the four men looked up expectantly. The three women also looked up, waiting to see what would happen next.

“He’s coming back.” JD’s voice was an awed whisper.

Buck nodded. “Yeah, I feel it too. He’s coming back.”

“He’s trying to catch up with Mr. Larabee and Mr. Sanchez.”

“He’s trailing them!” Nathan’s eyes widened in surprise as he realized that he had been included in whatever spirit communication connected the seven souls.

+ + + + + + +

It hadn’t taken long for Vin to find the wagon tracks. Chris wasn’t even bothering with the meandering road, he was going cross country toward Four Corners. Peso snorted and tossed his head as they came within sight of the wagon. Pulling his field glass from his pocket, he studied the camp carefully before riding in at an all out gallop.

The pounding hooves brought Chris to his feet with gun drawn. The black horse barreled down on him so quickly that he didn’t have time to register who it was that flew out of the saddle until the body collided with his own. Relief so sweet that it brought tears to his eyes coursed thru his veins as he wrapped his arms around Vin. He didn’t know how long they stood like that, clinging to each other, but they parted when Peso sneezed loudly and the other horses huffed at him.

“Were you really gonna leave without me?” Vin asked when he could make the words come.

“I thought you were better off there. You looked happy,” Chris said.

“When I woke up this morning and realized that you had gone, I thought my heart was gonna stop beating right that minute. The six of you hold a part of my spirit; I can never be apart from you for very long. Promise me that you won’t do that again,” Vin pleaded.

+ + + + + + +

For the next three days, the connection that the seven men felt kept smiles on each face. On the fourth day, they knew their brothers were returning that evening. Buck and JD made a banner to hang across the street that read, ‘Welcome Home Vin, Chris and Josiah.’ The women spent the day cooking and preparing for the party they knew would spring up the moment the wagon came into sight. Miranda sent someone to tell Rain that they were coming back. Casey and Nettie Wells were busy with the others in the saloon preparing food.

The judge arrived on the stage that afternoon. Mary had sent a wire to tell him that the guys were on the way back. He caught the first stage out and made arrangements for the trial to begin in three days. After visiting the jail, he was advised by Nathan that Ella was almost certainly pregnant. It made what was coming all the more difficult. It was bad enough to sentence a woman to die; it was doubly difficult if she was with child.

Feeling eyes on her back, Miranda turned to find Ezra standing behind her. She smiled as she hugged him gently.

“It’s good to see you smile again.”

“Our wayward brother is returning to the fold and our unique little family will be together again. Surely that is reason enough to smile but I have you and that is more happiness that one man is entitled to.”

A warm blush crept up her face as she rested her head on his shoulder.

The church bell rang several times, announcing the return of the other regulators. The crowd spilled out of the saloon and other businesses to welcome them back. Vin jumped from the bench and pushed thru the crowd to get to Inez. Drawing her into his arms, he turned with her slowly as he covered her lips with his. Mary stood on the boardwalk and waited for Chris. He swept thru the crowd and caught her in his arms.

“I missed you so much!” He whispered into her ear as his hands roamed up and down her back.

Several people, men and women, warmly greeted Josiah, but he still looked wistfully at his friends who had a special female to return to. He began to think that he ought to put more effort into finding a special someone for himself.

The crowd migrated into the saloon. Vin saw swept away from Inez as other people wanted to welcome him back and tell him that he had been missed. A nearly permanent blush colored his face after several of the saloon girls and other single ladies embraced him.

The piano player pounded out music for those who wanted to dance and the center of the floor was cleared to allow them to do just that. Vin was passed from hand to hand for a couple of hours. Miranda caught the look in Inez’ eyes as she watched yet another single woman pull Vin to the dance floor.

“Go and ask Inez to dance,” she whispered to Ezra as she leaned over his shoulder. He flashed her a quick smile before crossing the saloon to make the invitation.

More than a few people noticed the conspicuous absence of Chris and Mary shortly after they had eaten. Knowing smiles were the only comment among those who dared to say anything. Nathan and Rain were tucked into a corner with Josiah and Miranda, as the Indian woman was not comfortable with the large crowd.

+ + + + + + +

From the corner room at the boarding house, the only sounds were the rustle of clothing sliding over limbs and the gentle sighs of the couple as they explored one another. If she’d had any doubts about the way Chris felt about her, they were erased by his touch as he enfolded her in his arms.

+ + + + + + +

The second time Ezra took Inez to the dance floor, he stopped Vin and traded partners, to the delight of the barmaid and the consternation of the saloon girl. Eventually, Buck and Josiah got into the act and Inez danced a part of every other dance with Vin.

As the evening wore on, the crowd thinned to just those who actually lived in town and the seven regulators and their ladies. Around midnight, Vin pulled Inez out to the boardwalk to get away from the noise of the party. A flushed and disheveled Chris and Mary joined them as they walked, hand in hand, from the boarding house. JD and Casey returned from the livery, brushing hay from their hair and clothing as they giggled and jostled each other.

Nathan and Rain had left the saloon and were standing on the landing above the livery. They came down when they saw the others standing outside of the saloon. Ezra and Miranda slipped out, intending to go to her quarters to avoid being seen by everyone in the saloon. They had eyes only for each other until they noticed the other couples gathered in the shadows.

With a wink to Josiah, Buck and Millie made a break for the boarding house. They were halted by the traffic jam on the boardwalk as they encountered the rest of the regulators.

Far from the corner of the saloon, Josiah noticed the woman standing alone. He had noticed her several times in the past few hours. She caught him watching her and smiled invitingly. Making his way to his feet, he drifted across the room and took her extended hand.

“Melanie Johnston, I came in on the stage this afternoon. I’m a friend of Judge Travis.”

A handsome older woman, she met his gaze evenly and blushed as he pressed his lips to her hand.

“Josiah Sanchez, pleased to meet you Mrs. Johnston. Is there a Mr. Johnston I should be inquiring of for the pleasure of your time?”

A small smile lit on her lips. “I’ve been widowed for a couple of years.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Would you like to go for a walk outside, it’s awfully loud in here?”

“I’d like that very much.”

As Josiah led her out of the doors and onto the boardwalk, a gust of air blew up the street, raising the hairs on the back of his neck. Stepping outside, he noticed each of the other six men standing at the edge of the boardwalk staring up at the sky as a series of shooting stars crossed the night sky. A lone wolf cried somewhere outside of town and the sound carried perfectly on the breeze.

Each one of the seven men pulled their special lady a little closer as they stood staring up at the spectacle in the night sky. The new moon seemed to smile down on them. Finally, when the last of the shooting stars raced across the horizon, the couples began to slip away, each to their own private place.

The day of the trial came and with it, tempers were on edge. Chris had avoided the hail after hearing that Ella had upset Mary so badly. He didn’t want to have to look at her again. A jury was selected and everyone gathered at the grain exchange. The soldiers escorted the prisoners to the trial and stood in a defensive cluster around the table where they were seated. Ella tried to come to her feet when Chris came in but was forcibly returned to her chair by the soldier standing behind her.

Judge Travis had met with Chris the day after he returned. He wanted to know how the gunslinger felt about the child they feared Ella was carrying.

“I can spare her if you want me to. Or I can delay the sentence until after the child is born if you want the child. You’ll have to tell me what you want me to do, Chris. I’ve agonized over this case long enough. I have read the case law and I have prayed about it. Everything comes down to you. The child, if she is pregnant, is innocent.”

It was like twisting a salted knife in a wound. He wanted her dead. After everything she had put them thru, put Vin thru, he only wanted her dead. But what about an innocent baby? Could he love the child after what she had done to him and his friends?

In the end, it was his feelings for Mary Travis that decided it for him. He could not keep the child and expect her to raise it and love it. He knew he would never be able to forget what Ella had done to his beloved Sarah and Adam. He hoped that God would understand but he told the judge that he wanted her to hang for what she had done.

The trial was mercifully swift for Chris’s sake. There was little doubt in the judge’s mind that she was insane but he sentenced her to hang. Glick and Willy Hagen were also sentenced to hang with her. Buck, JD and Ezra escorted them to the territory prison to await their sentence.

“I want to be there when she hangs,” Chris told Josiah a few days later.

“Now Chris, I don’t think that’s a good idea. You’ve been thru enough. Just let her meet her maker without you,” Josiah urged.

“No, no, I have to be there. Unless I see it for myself, I won’t be able to really believe that she’s dead. Maybe if I see her die, maybe then Sarah and Adam will have some peace!”

“They are in peace, Chris. They are in a place where nothing can ever, ever hurt them again. You have to let them be there,” Josiah said.

All six of the others rode with Chris to the prison the night before the hanging was to take place. Each and every one of them would have done anything to ease the pain that their leader was going thru. Chris sat in a corner of the cantina drinking from a bottle. He actually drew his gun on Buck for trying to take it away. Nathan and Josiah sat with him when his body finally rejected the alcohol and supported him when the dry heaves racked his body.

They hardly slept that night. At the first hint of dawn, Chris rolled out of his bed and pulled on his boots. He felt like he had been trampled by a herd of buffalo. When he reached the boardwalk outside of the cantina, they were all there waiting for him. Vin handed Chris his reins and spotted him as he swung unsteadily into the saddle.

They rode to the prison, surrounding Chris with their supportive presence. They stood seven abreast as Ella was marched from her cell to the gallows. She walked without looking up from her feet as a priest behind her intoned the 23rd Psalm. She ascended the steps and took her place on the trap door.

Josiah shifted ever so slightly toward Chris. His shoulders quivered and his fists opened and closed convulsively as he watched the hangman placing the rope around Ella’s neck. His breathing quickened as she caught sight of him.

“No! No, you can’t do this to me! Chris, don’t let them do this! I LOVE YOU! Chris!” Ella screamed as the trapdoor opened and she fell. Her scream was abruptly cut off as her body twitched once and was still.

Chris blinked his eyes several times before drawing a deep breath, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”