The Past Redeemed

by Sue Bartholomew

Parts 1-4 | Parts 5-8 | Parts 9-13 | Parts 14-17
Parts 18-21 | Parts 22-25 | Parts 26-29 | Parts 30-33 | Parts 34-37

Part 9

Vin rode slowly across the rough desert ground, his keen blue eyes watching for any trouble that might strike while Chris and the others set up camp for the night. It was a beautiful warm evening, and the blue - black sky overhead was studded with the brilliance of countless stars. As Vin gazed around him at the silent landscape, he breathed a quiet, regretful sigh; if only such tranquility could find his soul on this journey.

He glanced behind him at the dancing orange light which marked where their camp was. In that glow, he knew, his friends were going about the business of undoing sleeping rolls and cooking dinner. A warm, emotional sensation rolled over him, so strong that tears started in his eyes; if only he could tell them what it meant to him, to know that there were now men willing to fight by his side to win him his freedom. It was a heady thought for a man used to fighting his battles on his own.

He spurred Sire onward, lost in thought as the horse's hooves crunched over the dry desert grass. He had always worked better alone; buffalo and bounty hunting were not exactly group activities. He'd always assumed it was his fate to be a solitary man, that being bound to others would be an unwelcome hindrance. When the lawkeeping job at Four Corners came along, he wondered if he could tolerate the confines of such a situation. He had anticipated, at best, an uncomfortable alliance.

Vin lifted his head and gazed at the sky, letting the soft moonlight fall upon his face as the warm breeze tugged lightly at his long curls. He had no idea when they had become more than just a group of men hired to watch the town; it must have happened gradually, somewhere in the shared pain and spilled blood. Perhaps it was just some sentimental invention of his secret poet's soul, but Vin knew that at some point, a bond had been formed between them, intangible but as real as the strongest chain. It had seen them through numerous scrapes and battles, had brought them together even when they'd been pulled apart. Now it was bearing them along to an uncertain fate, as Tascosa loomed ever closer.

Vin pressed his lips together, anger welling in him as he guided Sire across a dry creek bed. Just as he had seen this bond formed, he had also seen its near destruction, many times. It had almost died in its cradle, when Buck and Josiah were terribly wounded at the Seminole village. Chris had nearly died in a hellhole prison. There had been too many shootouts to count; the one in which Eli Joe had died was only the latest. But they had all been there, side by side, fighting to protect Vin's best chance at freedom. Vin felt both gratitude and pain rise in him at the memory; it so easily might have ended in more than one death.

He looked at the dark shadows moving against the firelight in the distance; one of them was Chris. Vin's heart twinged; he knew Chris felt guilty for killing Eli Joe, despite Vin's insistence that he knew Chris did it to save his life. Chris had enough burdens to bear, and it pained the tracker to know that he had been the cause of even more grief to Chris's heart. But that, at least, would eventually heal, especially if they could get Yates to admit it Eli Joe's confession. There was another thought which troubled Vin even more.

Vin's eyes looked past the shadow - shrouded rocks to the past; the Seven locked in mortal combat with Yates' gang and Eli Joe. None of them had been hurt, but the fight wasn't over. Coupled with the profound sense of brotherhood Vin shared with these men was the dire fear that one of them would be wounded, or die, on his account. It was one thing to fight side by side against bank robbers or outlaws; but when the blood shed was for his own behalf, the thought filled him with both awe and terror.

How long can it go on? Vin wondered as he rode along, studying the dark moving forms of his friends against the flickering campfire's glow. Yates had to talk, had to help them end this. Because if he didn't, Vin would never be free. But even worse, to his mind, was the fact that his friends would be in danger because of his presence.

Bounty hunters would come around, or real lawmen who were passing through would want to arrest him. Four Corners was growing rapidly, with the railroad coming in. It wouldn't be a sleepy town for much longer; soon there would be hordes of people coming through, and it would be impossible for him to hide. And the others, he knew, would not let him be taken.

He recalled JD, so Goddamned brave, facing down Yates with a loaded shotgun, trying to stop them from taking him away. The kid was lucky Yates didn't shoot him. Would he be so lucky next time? Would Chris be able to avoid getting himself killed the next time a bounty hunter looked to catch himself a five - hundred - dollar prize? Vin could tell them all not to risk themselves that way, but such words would be useless; they would all fight for each other to the death, just as Vin would. But if he had to watch any of them fall for his sake, then the noose which awaited him would almost be welcome...

He shook off the nightmare vision, shivering as a chill ran through him. He dreaded the thought of putting their lives in danger, that he might be the cause of their destruction. But the only way to save them would be for him to leave their company, a fate worse to him than the gallows. Without him, they would still be whole enough to continue the battle they were drawn together to fight. But did he have the strength to ride away from the brotherhood in order to save it, and face his fate alone?

A shout from the campsite attracted his attention; Chris was yelling to him, waving him in. Dinner was ready. Vin took a deep breath and spurred Sire forward towards the warm light and the friends who waited within it. New determination welled within him; one way or another, he was going to see to it that this bounty on his head was lifted.

There was more than one life on the line.


Ezra sighed as he patted his bedroll down over the smoothest patch of ground he could find - which was still studded with small, sharp rocks and prickly patches of dry grass. Why did nature have to be so damned uncomfortable?

"Make yourself at home, my dear," he said to Pony, who was standing close by watching him as he prepared to bed down for the night. "I do hope you don't mind not sleeping with your companions for one evening."

He glanced up and saw her shrug, her expression indifferent in the moonlit darkness.

"Don't bother me none," she muttered, and deftly began undoing the buttons on the rough man's work shirt she wore.

Ezra was on his feet in an instant, one hand gently grabbing hers to stop her action. To her startled stare he offered a quick smile.

"There's no need for disrobing, I assure you," he said in a gentle tone.

She eyed him with a confused frown and pulled out of his loose grip.

"Well, mister, I ain't never done it with my clothes on - that some fancy way you picked up in the city?"

"No, no," Ezra insisted with a sigh - how could he make her understand, whenit was obvious how she'd lived her life? "We won't be engaging in anything of that sort."

Pony took a step back, now clearly bewildered. "Now look - I ain't in for no funny kinds of horseplay," she said, her voice sharp with warning.

"I promise you there will be no horseplay," Ezra said, slightly impatient now as he slowly took her by the hands, his voice becoming softer. "I am a gentleman and have no intention of violating you."

Pony blinked a few times,then snorted before pulling her hands from his loose grasp. "I met plenty of you 'gentlemen' before. You turn into common sewer rats right quick enough."

Ezra gave her a stern look, his green eyes glittering in the moonlight. "Young lady, I can only give you my word that no such metamorphosis on my part will occur. However, if you insist on continuing with your current suspicions, you are free to rejoin your comrades. I - " he began to pull off his coat - "am going to bed."

She watched him, unsure, as he carefully folded up the jacket and sat down to remove his boots. After a few moments, she glanced behind her at the rest of the group, who were also preparing for sleep among much foul language and coarse laughter. She turned back to Ezra.

"You really mean it? You ain't gonna touch me?"

"Indeed not," Ezra replied without looking at her as he knocked some sand out of one of his boots. "My only concern was to keep you out of the charming hands of our new associate."

Pony studied him with confusion, then rolled out her blanket and slowly sat down a few feet from Ezra. "You don't got to worry yourself about me," she said softly, although puzzlement was still in her voice. "I can protect myself just fine."

"I've no doubt," was Ezra's response as he slid into his bedroll and arranged the blanket over himself. "But it occurred to me that you might enjoy having one night when you didn't have to. Pleasant dreams."

With that, he turned over and settled in, weary from the ride. After a few minutes he opened one eye carefully to see her still sitting, obviously trying to understand that nothing was expected of her except that she be safe. When next he looked several minutes later, she had apparently accepted the situation, for she was stretched out on her blanket, sound asleep.

Ezra smiled a bit to himself as he tried to get comfortable. He really couldn't blame her for being suspicious; he'd trusted others, and been badly hurt as a result. Why was he encouraging this child to trust at the same time he was trying to break himself of that dangerous habit? Wouldn't she be better off to be hard and uncaring, her heart protected by an impenetrable wall as his once was?

He laughed silently at himself; it was far too late, and he was far too weary, for such puzzles. He really didn't know why he was unable to simply mind his own business as he had always done before. Or, if he did know, he didn't want to acknowledge the reason, because he had to convince himself that that part of his life was over now.

Ezra resolutely put the conundrum from his mind, and following Pony's example, soon fell sound asleep.

Part 10

Gray glowered over his beer as he sat alone in the corner of the saloon, watching the drunken revelers swirling around him. As usual, the late -night carnival was at its height as the Regulator clock on the wall struck eleven. But as the scrawny, slouched figure eyed the bright, noisy crowd, he felt no compulsion to join in their giddiness. One member of its throng commanded all of his bitter attention.

Buck Wilmington had been in the saloon at least as long as Gray had, enjoying the evening and pestering that Mexican gal whenever he got the chance. Gray had known he wouldn't like that Buck Wilmington, simply because he was a lawman, and Gray hated the law no matter who wore the badge. If the man had simply been a sheriff, that would have been enough.

But, Gray thought sourly as he kept his angry eyes on the laughing young man sitting at a nearby table full of half - drunk poker players, fate had not stopped at simply making Wilmington a lawman. He was also young and handsome, obviously a killer with the ladies - everything that Gray was once, or thought himself to be, and was no longer. The envy was consuming him alive.

"You're an old man, Gray." Hanley's voice rang in his beer-sodden mind, and Gray's frown deepened as if Hanley himself were present to receive the enraged glare. Dammit, he knew that as well as anyone, but that didn't mean he couldn't shoot a gun, or cover his comrade's backs. The War had taken what was left of his youth, but there was plenty of fight in him still, if they would only let him prove it. He longed to be there at Dutchman Pass when they jumped Wilmington's friends; Hanley had told him of the planned ambush's location before he left, and Gray knew just where it was. But he didn't dare disobey Hanley and leave town, so all he could do was sit and stew in frustrated misery.

He rubbed his loose, stubbled face and stared at the oblivious Wilmington, his anger mounting. He had been that young once, and that handsome too, certainly. It hardly seemed fair that his long years would be repaid like this - watching some fresh-faced youngster have all the fun while he sat, ragged and alone, all but cast out. As Gray studied his enemy, a slow-burning rage boiled through him. His opponent was more than the lawman of Four Corners; it was Age. And the young and handsome Wilmington was the embodiment of all that Gray believed he was fighting against.

The sound of the saloon doors opening distracted him, and he willingly pulled his eyes from the hated form of his adversary to see who was coming in. It was a young woman, black-haired and pretty, clad in the obvious garb of a working girl. She glanced around the room once, taking it in with cool, experienced eyes, then entered the saloon with a firm stride.

Gray instantly perked up, recognizing the woman he'd seen getting off the stagecoach his first day here. He hadn't had a woman for weeks; Pony had been too busy with the other men to pay him much mind. Besides, she was just a girl, and despite her experience had learned little beyond the basics. No, he thought with a smile, here was just what he needed, and thanks to a little thieving of the group's funds, he had the money to fulfill that desire.

He finished off his beer and was standing up when he noticed some movement out of the corner of his eye. To his horror, he saw that Wilmington had also noticed the girl, and was standing up in preparation to approach her as well. He narrowed his eyes and adjusted his fraying gray jacket.

Over my dead body, lawman, he thought, and strode forward.

Buck felt his heart soar with relief as his eyes fell on the dark - haired working girl coming through the saloon doors. Finally, he thought as he hurriedly folded his hand and stood.

He quickly studied her as he struggled to make his way through the crowd to where she stood at the end of the bar. She looked healthy, not like many working girls he'd known; she must be new to the business. His heart twinged with sadness, as it always did at such a thought; he had a great deal of respect and sympathy for women who lived such a life, but it was not the sort of ordeal he would ever wish on anyone. His own mother had survived the experience with her humanity intact, but Buck had known far too many women who had not been as fortunate. He couldn't relieve her situation, but perhaps he could make it a little more bearable, and let her know that she was not alone.

"Hey there, darlin'," he said in a friendly tone as he sat beside her. She turned large blue eyes to him, and he saw how much weariness already burned in their sapphire depths. He pretended not to notice, and tipped his hat. "Can ol' Buck buy you a drink?"

A small smile played on her painted lips. "If ol' Buck's got the cash he's welcome to do what he likes. I'll have a beer."

"Comin' up," Buck announced, signaling to the barkeep. He turned back to her, a friendly smile shining beneath his mustache. "If we're gonna be toastin' your loveliness, I'm afraid I'll have t'ask your name."

"It's Molly," she replied with a sideways glance. "Molly Havers. An' I guess you're ol' Buck."

"Buck Wilmington, ma'am," he said.

She took a drink from the frothy mug set before her and gave him a knowing grin. "Oh, YOU'RE Buck Wilmington, huh?"

His smile drooped a bit, but he remained optimistic. "Yes, ma'am. Sounds like a few tongues been waggin' with my name on 'em."

She laughed; it was a deep, throaty sound. "Yeah, some of the gals, they been tellin' me about you."

Buck shifted a bit and chuckled. "It's all damn lies, Miss Molly. 'Cept the good stuff, of course."

Molly still smiled, but the smile turned somewhat sad as she studied him seriously. "Actually, it was all good. Too good t'be true, I thought."

He knew that look, too well - a tentative glimmer of hope hidden by thick walls of pain and hardship. Many of the other working girls he'd visited had the same jaded, unbelieving expression - a dull disbelief that there could still be men who would not beat them, or abuse them, or treat them like dirt. She had that look already, and she couldn't be more than eighteen.

Buck straightened, his face softening, his voice becoming gentle. "Molly, darlin', I know you prob'ly been through a lot, but you can believe - "

"Hey, mister, you gonna talk this gal to death?"

Buck started, surprised to see that old guy from the boarding house, what was his name, Adams, standing behind Molly. She turned and gave him a glance before going back to her beer.

"Just a little conversation, friend," Buck replied with as much civility as he could muster. "You go on 'bout your business."

"Be glad to," the other man smirked. "What you chargin', Missy?"

Buck stood, his blue eyes snapping. "Now hold on there - "

To his astonishment, Molly placed a gently restraining hand on Buck's chest.

"Buck, wait."

He gazed into her eyes, his own wide. "Molly, you don't got to crawl to every dog that barks for you."

"I resent that, mister," the other man said with a glare.

Buck ignored him, turning his eyes to Molly as she began to speak, her voice low.

"Buck, I - really, I have t'work, I ain't got no money. It's all right, it's what I'm used to."

"That's what I'm countin' on, gal," Adams said with a chuckle. "C'mon."

Molly gave him a resigned smile, small and sad. "Sorry, Buck. Listen, I'll see y'around, okay? Y'can buy me another beer."

"Wait!" Buck said as they began to walk away. He wasn't going to let her go that easily. He plunged one hand into his pocket, pulling out a small wad of bills.

Molly sighed. "Now Buck, you know you I'd never charge you nothin'."

"I know, darlin', but this here's a special case," Buck said with determination as he began thumbing through the bills.

Adams let out a hearty, contemptuous laugh. "Look, sonny, unless you c'n beat twenty bucks, you're wastin' your time." He pulled a couple of ten -dollar notes from his pocket and held them up triumphantly, a wide grin on his face.

Buck stopped counting and looked up, a sinking feeling gripping his heart; He knew he had no more than seven or eight dollars.

"Look, darlin'," he said finally, "you know you don't got to go with him. You got a choice."

She sighed as she gathered her worn shawl around her shoulders. "I know that, Buck, but - well, us gals, we have t'take the best offer." She leaned close and whispered with a melancholy smile, "I'll see you later, all right, Buck? An' - I'm sorry."

She walked away. Adams allowed himself a victorious chuckle at Buck's expense as he turned to lead Molly out of the saloon.

Buck watched her go, bewildered and disappointed. For a brief moment he considered calling Adams out, but quickly pushed that thought aside; such an action would accomplish nothing, and only cause more grief for Molly. Then his eyes narrowed as he pondered the situation; where could someone so obviously down on his luck get twenty dollars, anyhow? The man hadn't bought new clothes in ages, it looked like, yet was waving around ten - spot notes like they were flags. And Adams lived at the same boarding house he did, just across the hall...

Buck quickly finished his beer, paid his tab, and squared his hat on his head.

"Hey, Buck," one of his poker buddies called, "you comin' back?"

The gunslinger shot a quick look back at the poker table, then returned his gaze to the path Molly and Adams had taken. "Naw, Charlie, go on without me. I suddenly feel like turnin' in."

Part 11

Ezra was deep in the arms of a dreamless sleep when his repose was rudely interrupted by an uncomfortable nudging in his ribs. Consciousness, though unwelcome, quickly returned, and within a few seconds he was fully alert. With practiced skill he quickly grabbed his Remington, sat up straight and had the weapon pointed at the intruder of his repose.

"Jesus, Ezra, put that damn thing down! It's just me!"

He blinked and recognized Pony's slender form standing over him, barely discernible in the gray-pink gloom of very early dawn. As he pulled back his weapon and disarmed it, he looked around; although the sun was just starting to come up, everyone in Hanley's camp were already up and moving.

"My apologies, my dear," he said smoothly as he reholstered the weapon. "Is something amiss?"

Pony shook her head. "Naw, we're just gettin' ready t'head out."

Inside, Ezra groaned; and he thought his working hours under Larabee were bad. "At this ungodly time of day?"

"Earlier we get started, the earlier this is all over with," was the terse reply as Pony shook out her bedroll.

"The sooner what is over with?" Ezra inquired as he pulled on his boots.

He saw her gaze steadily at him as she tied up her bedding. "You'll find out."

The morning had barely progressed much farther by the time Ezra availed himself of the coffee pot boiling over the campfire. As he hastily sipped at the bitter black liquid and wished he'd thought to bring some molasses to sweeten it with, Ezra caught glimpses of his fellow travelers. Most of them, including Pony, were in deep discussion with Hanley.

What could this be about, he wondered as he gnawed one of the day-old biscuits that had been provided as breakfast. His mind began to work; there had to be some way he could extricate himself from these people without getting shot at.

"Better enjoy them biscuits, that's all I got time for today."

Ezra swallowed and looked over to where Pony was stoking the campfire.

"Quite adequate, I assure you," he said, taking another drink of the coffee. "Is your morning téte-a-téte over so soon?"

Pony shot him a look of amused bewilderment. "That sure is some tongue you got in that head of yours. Don't it speak English?"

He chuckled as he seated himself on a large rock. "My apologies. I was simply wondering what our dear Mr. Hanley had to say to you this fine morning."

"Oh, he'll let y'know soon enough," Pony assured him as she rose and slapped her palms together to beat the dirt off of them. Then she turned to face him, her expression serious.

"Hey, Ezra, you really weren't kiddin' last night, were you?"

Ezra looked at her in confusion and tossed the rest of the coffee away into the dry grass. "Last night?"

"Yeah. I mean, you didn't try nothin'."

The meaning dawned on him. "Ah. No, young lady, I did not."

Pony shifted awkwardly. "Well - guess I oughta 'pologize t'you, then. I thought for sure you was bullshittin' me about all that 'gentleman' crap."

Ezra stood, his face smooth and gentle with sincerity. "My dear child, I promise you, that is one subject I do not take lightly. I would never take advantage of your helplessness and add to the heavy burden you are already carrying."

She gave him an uncertain look and stepped back a bit. "I ain't helpless. If I wanted to, I could drill every damn one of them guys dead an' take off whenever I wanted."

Ezra studied her. "Your skill with a firearm must be prodigious," he observed.

She nodded. "Damn right it is. I ain't killed nobody yet, but that don't mean I can't. I ain't one of them silly-ass city gals. I can do whatever the hell I want."

With a quick movement she crouched before the fire and poked at it, sending bright sparks drifting into the cool morning air. She was clearly agitated, and didn't look at Ezra as he knelt beside her, his green eyes dancing in the fire's glow.

"Then why not free yourself of this life?" he asked quietly. "This is no place for someone of your tender years."

She turned bitter eyes to him, the sharp shadows of the fire carving deep lines in her hard expression. "You got a better place for me to go? I seen what's out there, Ezra, an' it ain't no different than what I got here. Least here I can count on some fun an' maybe a little money."

"Yes, you must be simply delirious with all the 'fun' you're having," was Ezra's barbed reply.

She laughed and looked away, still prodding the fire. "Beats starvin' in the streets. I grew up thinkin' there was good folks in the world. Had a real nice Ma and' Pa, an' a baby brother who I thought was just like a little angel. Then when I was seven my ma an' brother died from the typhoid an' my pa became a drunk an' hung hisself in our barn when I was ten."

Ezra shuddered. "My sympathies."

"Save 'em," she spat, giving the fire a hard jab. "I weren't sorry he died, he'd got mean and was always beatin' me. But when I saw him hangin' there, I just left 'im in the barn an' walked out. Been walkin' ever since, an' finally I realized that I was lookin' for somethin' I wasn't never gonna find. An' givin' up on that made my life a whole lot simpler."

The gambler eyed her sadly, thinking how much older she looked now, with the anger in her eyes. "And what were you looking for?"

She glanced at him quickly, then stood and tossed the stick away. "Hell, I dunno. Maybe just proof that there was still decent folks somewhere, like Ma. But if there was, I sure didn't find 'em. It's like - nobody cares no more, or fight for what's right. That's just the way it is."

 A sad memory flickered across Ezra's eyes as he rose as well. "I had some comrades who may have given you cause to doubt that statement, my dear."

She looked at him curiously. "What happened to 'em?"

He winced; it was still too painful to talk about. "Let's just say we had a parting of the ways."

"Y'see?" she griped, pushing a finger at him. "That's folks for ya. Ain't got no more regard for your feelin's than they have for a dead rattler."

She walked away, leaving Ezra to contemplate her biting words. He wanted to tell her she was wrong, tell her that he had seen Larabee and Tanner and the others prove time and again that there were still a few men willing to risk all for the benefit of others. She needed to know that.

But warring with his desire to give her that assurance was the still -fresh pain of Ezra's wounded pride. Could he sing the praises of men who had so blithely turned their backs on him? It seemed an absurd thought. How could he honestly tell her that such decent men did exist, when he had been a victim of their thoughtless cruelty? It was a puzzling situation.

"Standish! Get over here!"

Ezra looked up; Hanley was waving at him impatiently. Sorting this conundrum out would have to wait, it appeared, and with relief Ezra put aside his musings and joined the others gathered around their burly leader. There would be plenty of time for such thoughts later.

"All right," Hanley said, as Ezra sat down at the edge of the group," Now, we're in luck. Dark Sun says our boys have been sighted at a camp not too far from here."

"Finally, a little fun," Trent, the dandy, said with a smile.

"Hold your damn horses, fancy boy," Hanley said with contempt, glaring at Trent. "No gunplay until I say so. We still don't know how many weapons they got, or if they hired any extra men themselves. That's the information I need this morning. So, Trent, Pony, an' Standish, you're going to go take a look at their camp."

"Whatever you say," Pony said casually as she leaned against a rock, arms folded.

"Aw hell, Hanley," Trent griped, "why not just attack 'em now? They won't know what hit 'em."

"Because, Trent, you idiot," Hanley said in a cold tone as he crossed over to where Trent was lounging on the ground, "we don't know what we're up against yet. You'll get your fight, don't worry. Dark Sun'll show you where to go. Just get a close look and come back. And no horsing around. Got it?"

Trent stood with a bored sigh. "Yeah, yeah. Sheesh."

The group broke up. Ezra's mind was back to thinking of how he could get himself out of this mess, and he barely noticed when Dark Sun rode up on his black horse and reined in close to where Trent, Pony and Ezra were standing together.

"Follow me," was all the long-haired youth said, in a quiet voice which offered no emotion. Then he was off, and Trent and Pony immediately began walking in his wake. Ezra followed them wordlessly, still mulling over his problem and hoping that the forthcoming assignment might offer some solution.

Chris rubbed his face as he tried to get the morning campfire going. It was barely past dawn, but they were still a long way from Tascosa, and it would be a hard ride now that they were in the wilderness with nothing around them but miles of emptiness. Best to get started as soon as possible.

The dry timber crackled hopefully to life, and Chris stirred it slowly, encouraging the struggling flames. A headache threatened him behind his eyes; he'd slept badly, haunted by the nightmare vision of Vin dangling at the end of a rope, his lifeless eyes accusing Chris of destroying his only chance at escaping this fate. Chris shuddered and gave the fire a furious poke, as if such an action would sear away the painful vision.

In the desert stillness he could hear Yates still snoring. Damn bastard, he thought sourly; that figures, that he can sleep. Worst that can happen to him is prison, and he'll go there gladly if he can see Vin hang first. You won't be resting easy for long, Chris resolved, and tossed the stick into the now - healthy fire, watching it blaze with satisfaction and thinking of Eli Joe, hopefully roasting somewhere in a similar condition.

"Coffee ready?"

Chris looked up. Vin was walking towards him, running one hand through his long curls and scratching the night dryness out of his scalp. His worn leather jacket and hat were grasped in one hand, and he plopped them lightly on the ground as he sat down next to Chris.

"Just started the fire," Chris replied. "Josiah'll be up soon, we'll let him do the coffee."

Vin coughed. "Bit early for Josiah's coffee, ain't it?" he said with a smile as he put on his hat.

The other man shrugged as he leaned forward, keeping his eyes on the fire. Vin sighed and positioned himself in a similar manner, his lithe hands folded loosely together.

Silence fell between them for a long period as each man watched the dancing flames, consumed by their own thoughts.



Vin gently cleared his throat. "I been, uh, thinkin' on what might happen. With Yates."

A somewhat sadistic smile twitched Chris's lips. "I been ponderin' that myself."

The younger man pulled some dead grass from the dry ground and began picking absently at it as he talked, keeping his eyes glued to the brown blades. "I was thinkin' on what might happen if he don't talk."

"He'll talk," Chris declared in a deadly serious tone, not moving.

Vin gave a short sigh full of concern. "Lord knows we'll do our best on 'im, Chris, but that man's stubborn as a Texas mule. An' you oughta know what I aim t'do if he stays that way."

Chris sat up and frowned, studying his friend closely. "You givin' up?"

"Hell, no!" Vin exclaimed, his whole body snapping with tension as he straightened. "I aim t'fight for my life to the end, you know that."

"Then what's this bull I'm hearin'?" Chris demanded in a quiet but anxious tone. "You ain't never talked like this before."

The tracker sighed, frustrated. "I ain't never been in a spot like this before. If Yates don't clear my name, sooner or later someone's gonna come gunnin' for that bounty. An'...I ain't aimin' t'have nobody get hurt because of it."

A sick feeling twisted Chris's gut as he unwillingly guessed what Vin was saying. He shook his head.

"You know damn well we ain't gonna let you just disappear, Vin."

Vin eyed him for a moment, then slowly smiled, his blue eyes sparkling in the orange firelight.

"I know, an' don't think I ain't grateful for that. You an' the others, you done risked your lives for me, an' I'll never forget it. But I can't let you an' the folks back in town keep doin' it. It ain't right, an' it's eatin' at me somethin' awful."

Chris glanced at him, his eyes huge and somber. Then he looked away, back at the fire, which was growing more dim in the light of the rising sun.

Vin was right, dammit, Chris thought as he watched the morning light spread over the waking desert. If his name wasn't cleared now, the chances would only get better that sooner or later, someone would come gunning for him. And if someone innocent got hurt, the tracker would never forgive himself. Chris had no right to ask his friend to stay and risk having to carry such an unbearable burden. And as the town's peacekeepers, they could not put the town in such danger.

There had to be peace - but the price seemed too steep. Chris didn't like the thought of walking into a gunfight without Vin's cool - headed skills at his side. The tracker's silent companionship had steadied Chris through many difficult times; he seemed to understand the deep pain which still flared occasionally in Chris's soul, probably because it also lurked in his own.

So, he could talk Vin into staying, and risk the unthinkable, or allow him to go, and lose the closest thing to a brother he'd ever had.

He grunted and said aloud, "Hell of a choice, Vin."

Vin gave a short, humorless laugh and shook his head as he tossed the few remaining blades of grass into the fire. "Ain't it?"

Chris glanced over to where Yates was still snoring loudly.

"We just got t'see that you don't ever have t'make it."

Part 12

"Can you see 'em?"

Trent hissed the question across the tall, dry grass as he, Ezra and Pony slowly crept towards the smoke of a distant campfire. Behind them, Dark Sun sat on his horse watching them, rifle at the ready in case of trouble.

"Not as yet," Ezra whispered back as he tried to stay low to the ground, palming his Remington nervously. What an idiot he'd been for agreeing to do this - he was feeling more anxious by the minute. Here he was, skulking like a common cutthroat through the desert grass, preparing to spy on an unsuspecting group of - whatever they were, just so Hanley could plot their demise. It was not only illegal, it was uncivilized.

"Let's split up," Pony suggested. "Meet back here after a while. An' you mind Hanley, Trent - no messin' around!"

The only reply Trent made was a mischievous grin which promised nothing and worried Ezra. Then they parted, Trent and Pony advancing to opposite ends of the area, leaving Ezra to move on ahead alone.

Ezra tried not to disturb the rustling grass too much as he inched along, his green eyes darting furiously as he hunted for an avenue of escape. Perhaps he could pretend to be captured by these men...only if that happened Hanley would probably simply make sure he died along with the rest of them. They were far from help, in the middle of nowhere. Even if Ezra managed to slip away there were few places for him to go. He could warn these men, give them a fighting chance, but Hanley would probably attack anyway. And he would have difficulty making sure the child Pony wasn't hurt or killed in the melee which would surely result. Damn...

The nickering of horses reached his ears, and Ezra bent lower to the ground; judging from the sound - and the smell - he was near the area where the horses were tethered. He could hear the metallic clatter of tools -someone was working with them. He clutched his gun a little more carefully and moved closer, determined to make a single quick observation and then go back.

In a few moments he was close enough to make out forms through the tall grass. He squinted; several horses, a figure moving among them, a wagon of some sort sitting nearby. Another few feet and he'd be close enough to see if anyone else was there...

"Hold still, fella, I'm just gonna check your shoe."

Ezra froze.

It can't be, he told himself when the power of coherent thought returned to him. He began to shake with surprise, his heart now hammering in his ears while ice - cold blood pounded through his body. It can't be, but -

  - that sounded just like JD.

No, Ezra insisted silently, that can't be, they were on their way to Tascosa, and why would Hanley want to ambush them anyway? It's a mistake, I simply heard wrong. It can't be Chris and the others that we're preparing to slaughter.

"Dang it all, Hero, hold still. You're jumpy as a horn toad."

Ezra's heart sank in his chest as his mouth went painfully dry. Oh Lord, he thought. Oh Lord.

He inched forward on trembling legs now, a cold sweat on his brow. Through the thin tall blades of grass he could make out a slender form in shirtsleeves, bent over his work as he closely examined one of the horse's hooves. It was JD, there was no doubt; he recognized the young man, all the horses, even though they were almost thirty feet away. A roaring wave of confusion washed over him; what should he do now?

His first thought was to go to JD, warn him of what was happening. For a moment all thoughts of betrayal and anger were forgotten; an instinct born of six months of comradeship was telling him that JD and the others had to be protected.

But how would he explain his presence here, when he was supposed to be in St. Louis? This thought gave him pause, and his mind swirled in bewilderment. He had to do something. The question was, what?

"Brought y'some coffee, John Dunne."

Josiah. Ezra ducked down, unaccountably frightened by the preacher's arrival. Why was he afraid of them now? he wondered, dazed.

Because two minutes ago you were helping someone else plan their murders, was the accusing reply. They likely would not approve of that.

"Thanks, Josiah," he heard JD say in something of a mumble. He inched ahead a little, trying not to make any noise, desperate to see them.

JD was sitting on a rock, half-heartedly sipping at a steaming tin cup of coffee. Josiah stood next to him, coatless as well and without his hat, a similar cup in his own hand. To Ezra's frustration, he could only make out parts of their conversation. Josiah was saying something in a concerned tone to JD, who replied with a shrug.

"I guess I'm just black an' blue from kickin' myself," he heard JD say.

Josiah nodded. "That can be a wearin' exercise on a man. Anythin' I can help with?"

JD shrugged, still staring at his barely - touched coffee. "Don't think so, preacher. I just been feelin' bad about what happened with Ezra."

Ezra almost fell over with surprise.

Josiah nodded and said something in a regretful tone as he gazed over the prairie; most of the statement was muffled by the coffee cup he had brought up to his mouth.

"It's been eatin' at my gut since we left town," JD confessed, and Ezra saw him look up at Josiah as if he were seeking guidance. "I think - he's really mad at me. An' I ain't never had a friend mad at me before, Josiah. Not like this. What should I do?"

Josiah leaned against the rock next to him, folding one arm over and holding up his cup with the other. "What do y'want to do?"

Ezra heard JD heave a sigh. "Hell, I dunno. Just go an' ask him if he's mad at me, I guess. But every time I think of doin' that, I get all nervous."

"That's a normal thing, son," Josiah assured him. "Nobody likes to face the devils that lurk in us all, an' the hurt they can sometimes cause. If it helps. I been thinkin' on Brother Ezra myself."

JD looked up. "Really? Well, uh, what'd you come up with?"

Ezra strained to hear.

"Oh, just that he's probably been feelin' poorly," Josiah said thoughtfully. "Hurts a man's pride t'be beat out like that. Wouldn't surprise me if that trip to St. Louis was just his idea of gettin' out of our way for a while."

"Hm," JD muttered. "Well - but, he's comin' back, right? Ezra wouldn't just leave."

A hot stab of shame burned Ezra's heart; he tried to ignore it and listened.

"Sure hope so, son," Josiah said, after another drink of coffee. "Got a few things I want t'say to 'im myself."

JD looked at him, then back down at his hands. "I asked Nathan about it, but he didn't seem all that worried. He said Ezra was just bein' stubborn."

Ezra felt the familiar anger rekindle itself. Nathan's opinion of him, apparently, hadn't changed.

"Is that right?" Josiah replied, before drinking the last of his coffee.

"Yep," JD asserted. "But - he sure wasn't too keen t'talk about it."

They were silent for a few minutes.

"But," JD said suddenly, "if Ezra was feelin' that bad, he'd tell us, wouldn't he?"

Josiah stood. "Wouldn't bet on that, JD. Some pain's just too deep for words."

JD straightened as well, glancing ruefully at his still-full cup. "He should've let us know what was goin' on, Josiah. It almost feels - like he didn't trust us enough t'tell us."

Josiah's hand patted JD heavily on the shoulder, his words soft and reassuring as well as unintelligible. Then Ezra heard him say, "Now we better get movin', or Ezra's gonna beat us back t'town."

JD nodded. "Yeah," he said quietly, and Josiah gave him another reassuring pat before heading back towards the campfire. JD resumed his work with the horses, a thoughtful expression still on his face.

Ezra sat still for a moment, too stunned to move. A tumult of emotions churned through his mind, far too confusing to sort out. Should he let JD know he was there? An explanation would be extremely difficult, especially now. But they had to be warned -


It was a sharp whisper, and Ezra felt someone jab him in the leg. Turning, he saw Pony crouched low behind him, waving her hand at him to follow her. Trying to hide his bewildered state, Ezra silently obeyed.

They moved back about twenty feet and crouched together in the grass, their heads close together.

"Looks like there's still just the five of 'em an' Yates," Pony hissed.

Trent nodded, wiping at his lip. "Didn't see any new guns. Guess they figured they're safe enough."

Ezra figured he should say something. "I was only able to eavesdrop on that young man back there and the older gentleman."

"Yeah?" Pony eyed him. "Hear anythin' interestin'?"

The gambler glanced at her sharply, then shook his head. "Rather boring, I'm afraid."

Pony grunted. "C'mon - we'd best get back to the horses an' tell Hanley what we found before they spot us."

They began to crawl off.

"Wait," said Trent.

Pony and Ezra glanced back to see Trent gazing at the lone figure of JD tending to the horses. After a moment's thought he reached into his boot and withdrew a long, sharp-looking knife.

Ezra's heart leapt into his throat.

"What you thinkin' on, Trent?" Pony whispered angrily.

"Just gonna even the odds up a bit, darlin'," Trent smiled, still staring at JD.

Blood thudded in Ezra's ears; he swallowed and whispered as casually as he could, "I believe our esteemed leader forbade any gunplay."

Trent threw him an annoyed look and held the knife up for his inspection. "Does this look like a gun to you?"

"Don't be an idiot, Trent, they're gonna find us!" Pony breathed angrily, clearly losing patience with her comrade's actions.

"No, they won't," was the contemptuous reply. "He won't know what hit 'im, an' then we'll only have four guns to worry about. Go ahead, I'll catch up."

Pony eyed him and sighed. "If you get in trouble we won't back you up."

"Not a worry," Trent assured her, and clamped the knife in his teeth before crawling off in the grass towards JD.

Pony began moving off towards the horses. Ezra hesitated, uncertain.

"Are we going to let him murder that young man?" he whispered to Pony as they shuffled quickly towards where their horses were hidden.

"Ain't our business if he wants t'get shot," Pony hissed back. "An' that guy's one of the men we're after, so who cares if he dies."

A cold feeling overtook Ezra, and he glanced back. Trent was about twenty feet from JD now, and the young man had no idea of what was happening.

His hand struck something sharp, and he bit back a cry. Looking down, he could see that the ground was strewn with small, jagged protruding rocks. Pony was carefully picking her way through them, gun still in hand.

An idea quickly formed in his mind.

He rose into a half-crouch, silently cocking his gun, then looked for a likely group of particularly rough-looking boulders. A set soon appeared in his path and he took the chance to trip over it, quickly losing his balance and falling heavily to the ground, squeezing the trigger of his gun as he fell. His gun discharged into the air with a loud BANG! as he hit the ground.

Pony whirled, her brown eyes wide, her gun held tight in one hand.

"Deucedly clumsy of me," Ezra said as he picked himself up.

Pony was staring past him to where Trent had been stalking JD.

"Shit," was all she muttered before running off towards her horse. Ezra glanced back as well, but they were too far away to see what was going on through the tall grass.

Ezra could only hope that JD heard his warning shot, and ran after Pony to the horses.

Part 13

JD knew he was supposed to be checking the horses' shoes for the trip, but his mind insisted on straying elsewhere. If only he could've talked to Ezra before he left -


The young man's head shot up, his eyes wide. That had been a gunshot, close too, and Vin was patrolling on the other side of camp. He swiftly drew his Colt, peering through the tall grass.

"Hey!" he yelled, running forward. "Who's out there? Hey!"

There was a movement in the weeds, and JD could make out a dark form.

"Come out of there!" JD cried, both Colts out now, his equine chores forgotten. The figure hesitated, then stood and opened fire.

JD ducked the bullet and fired back, ignoring the horses as they reared and whinnied in agitation. Footsteps approached behind JD; he half-turned to see Chris and Nathan running up, firing as well at the intruder.

"What is it?" Nathan yelled, as a bullet whizzed close to his ear. There was a dry rustling sound, and the figure could be seen running away through the grass. In the distance, two more shapes were waiting, mere specks against the vast desert landscape.

"I swear he came outta nowhere," JD yelled. "An' there's two more of 'em back in the hills! Looks like they're runnin' off. "

"They must be after Yates," Chris said in a grim tone. "Mount up an' let's flush this guy out."

Trent was barely able to breathe by the time he got to the horses. Pony and Ezra were waiting.

"What the hell happened?" he wheezed as he jumped on his mount. "Oh, never mind - let's get out of here!"

They spurred their mounts on, tearing out of the rocky outcropping which hid them from the view of their pursuers. All three of them looked back as they dashed to where Dark Sun was waiting for them; Ezra saw a few dark shapes on horseback in the distance riding out of the camp, one of them moving towards them. They were coming, and he had a wild, unwelcome vision of being shot by one of his oblivious former associates. But at least JD had heard his warning...

"Ride on," was the golden-haired young man's quiet command. "I'll stop them."

"No need t'say it twice," Trent said, and was gone in a puff of dust. Pony glanced back at their pursuer, then rode after her errant lover. Ezra paused for a moment, glanced at the rider - he couldn't see who it was - then cast a worried look at Dark Sun, who was regarding the approaching rider with perfect calm. The madness in the young man's eyes, however, bode ill for whoever it was riding towards them.

"Don't worry," he assured Ezra in even tones, "they won't be troubling us after this. Go."

Ezra's green eyes widened at this statement, and he could only stare at the blonde warrior with dread at the thought of what he might be planning.

Dark Sun glared at him and jammed his gun in his direction. "GO!"

"Come on!" he heard Pony cry; they were all watching him, and would doubtless gun him down if he made any move to help his former comrades. He looked back quickly at Dark Sun, and the expression on his scarred face told Ezra that he was an instant away from being shot to death.

Ezra blinked and spurred his mount forward, unwilling to die just yet but deeply regretting that he could do nothing to stop what was about to happen. His heart sat heavy in his chest as he rode back to where Hanley was waiting; far from being solved, his situation - and those of his former associates -had just become far more complicated.

Vin pounded his horse over the plain as his comrades scattered in other directions, looking to see who might be waiting to attack their small party. The shots had come from this direction, and Vin felt confident he could track whoever was out there. He was not about to let any of his friends - his brothers - suffer on his account.

Horse and rider soared over the rock-strewn desert ground. Vin's blue eyes were scanning the treacherous area, looking for any signs of the intruders. High rocky mesas towered around him, flanked by rough fields of tall grass; too many places to hide. But Vin felt ready to search them all.

Quickly he made out small forms moving against the distant rocks; four shapes in tight formation. Then three of them rode away, leaving only one which also disappeared. Vin hunched over Sire's flowing mane, his lips pursed tightly as the drive of the hunt consumed him. It was an old and well-accustomed sensation, the deadly thrill of the prey's pursuit, and Vin was overcome with the determination that this quarry not escape his grasp.

He had almost reached the top of a small rise when the thunder of a gunshot rent the hot morning air. The bullet clipped his side, drawing blood; Vin instantly reined in and dismounted, his Winchester in his hand as he sought his assailant. Another shot tore the air; Vin threw himself to the ground and returned fire, ignoring the new wound where the latest missile had deeply grazed his shoulder.

Silence fell; Vin lay still, trying to ease his breathing as he looked around. There was no sound or movement, not even to indicate that the attacker was in retreat. One minute passed...then two...slowly Vin gripped his rifle and began to stand, every hunter's instinct in his body ablaze. The air was alive with tension; his prey was near.

Instinct shouted to him, and he whirled. Ten feet away, coiled to strike, was a young man with long blonde hair and a scarred face, clad in buckskins similar to his own. In one hand flashed a long knife. Vin raised his rifle, and in the same instant the young man sprang with a cry which chilled Vin's blood in his veins.

Searing pain shrilled through Vin's body as the knife was buried in his arm. With his other hand the young man pushed the rifle away just as Vin pulled the trigger, the bullet barely missing the attacker's side. Both men fell to the ground in a death grip, Vin's hold on the rifle becoming difficult as blood poured from his wound. They wrestled, the young man slashing with the knife as Vin struggled to hold him off and retain his grasp of his weapon. He threw his assailant off with a mighty push; the blood-soaked Winchester slid from his grip as well, and the young man quickly kicked it away as he stumbled to his feet.

Panting, Vin leapt up as well. "If that's the way y'want it," he said with a small smile, and withdrew a large knife from his belt, a weapon similar in size and deadliness to the one the blonde man was wielding. He crouched down, ignoring the blood, the pain, everything but his opponent. The other man looked at the knife, then at Vin, and there was an eerie calmness in his blue eyes. A smile twitched his lips; then he struck.

As his adversary lunged forward, Vin jumped back and slashed at him, ripping open a surface wound across his arm. Vin grabbed the wounded arm and threw the man to the ground. The blonde man landed with a heavy thud, but managed to kick up one leg, catching Vin in the small of his back. As Vin fell to one knee, dazed by the pain, his enemy lunged for him; Vin grabbed his arm and pulled him forward, driving his knife into the blonde man's leg.

With a cry of enraged pain the other man fell on Vin, his weight carrying both combatants to the rocky desert floor. They grappled furiously, and Vin noticed that the calm demeanor of his opponent had been replaced by a savage animal fury. The blonde man was growling and slashing madly, practically foaming at the mouth in his beast-like rage. The stranger's eyes were wide and blinded with wrath, and in his struggling Vin had the sense that the young man was not seeing him at all, but another, even more hated enemy.

The knife was sharp, its blade ice-cold as Vin felt it slice repeatedly and deeply into his chest and arms. Each new wound brought burning pain; the tracker ignored it, ignored everything but the defense of himself and his friends. Vin deflected as many of his assailant's blows as he could, and managed to inflict many of his own before the man pulled loose and drove his elbow into Vin's chest. Vin gasped and released his hold, but recovered quickly, and as his opponent came on again curled his fingers around the hilt of his knife and struck him firmly across the jaw.

The young man grunted and took a step back; Vin palmed his knife and moved in, but was swiftly stopped by a replying blow to his temple. The world spun for a moment; as Vin's balance returned he saw the other man was down on one knee, covered with dust and blood, eying him in a purely feral manner as he panted for breath. He pushed back the pain and prepared to return to the fight.

The report of a gunshot echoed across the rocks; both men looked up to see a figure on horseback riding towards them. Nathan, Vin realized; then he turned back to his opponent.

The blonde young man was gone.

Stunned, Vin climbed to his feet as quickly as he could. Sharp pain and weakness from the blood loss crashed over him, almost sending him to his knees again, but he fought it and took a few steps forward. He must have run over the hill, was probably riding away - Vin was sure he could catch him -

Suddenly the ground rushed up to him, and Vin had just enough time to curse his rotten luck before falling into the dark, gaping hole of oblivion.

Buck yawned as he sat on the boardwalk in front of the saloon, a still, exhausted figure surrounded by the bustle of early morning. He composed himself and scowled as he lifted his black cup of coffee to his lips and thought, What a lousy day.

He couldn't remember ever having such a restless night. He couldn't sleep a wink knowing that Molly was across the hall with that Adams fellow, and he just knew that guy was bad news. He'd seen what sort of depraved things men did to working girls, and his heart ached with concern for the young woman.

He knew she hadn't left last night, so he was here watching the boarding house, waiting for her to appear. Adams had already gotten up; he'd even flashed Buck a very annoying grin as he went to the hotel for breakfast. Buck had replied with his nastiest scowl, and a sincere wish that he could indulge in some choice, shouted obscenities at Adams' expense. But there were ladies present.

Finally the slender, dark-haired figure of Molly came through the boarding-house doors, wrapping her thin shawl around her shoulders as she prepared to cross the street. Buck felt his heart lift with relief; she looked all right. He waved to her; she saw him, broke into a smile, and soon joined him on the porch.

"Mornin', Miss Molly," Buck said brightly, standing and taking off his hat.

Molly laughed. "Hell, Buck, don't go all fancy on me. I won't know you."

"You deserve it, darlin'," Buck replied. "You all right?"

"Oh, yeah," she sighed, seating herself next to Buck with an air of weariness. "That ol' man didn't have more'n half an' hour in 'im. Spent most of the night listenin' to 'im mumble in my ear."

Buck frowned. "Sorry t'hear that, Molly. You must be plumb exhausted."

"Sure am," she sighed. Then a small smile lit up her face. "But he did give me that twenty dollars. Maybe this place'll be just as good as Wickestown after all."

Buck started at the mention of that place, a brothel-town which he and the other men had helped close down some time before. "Wickestown?"

She peered at him. "Yeah - you heard of it?"

He cleared his throat. "Y'might say that."

She pulled her shawl closer and gazed up the street. "Guess it was kinda talked about. I came out here from Kansas City t'join up with that place, had a right good offer too, an' when I got here found out it was gone." She laughed. "Guess that's just my luck."

"Now you listen to ol' Buck, darlin'," Buck said seriously, sitting up and looking straight into her dark blue eyes, "you ought t'be right glad you didn't wind up there. That man Wickes was a varmint too low for even the snakes t'crawl over."

She eyed him curiously, idly fingering the tattered fringes of her shawl. "Oh, I heard that, Buck. But hell, I didn't get to doin' this so's I'd be treated like a queen. It ain't the easiest life. But then," she gazed at him, knowledge shining in her eyes, "I heard you know all about that."

He nodded slowly. "Yes, ma'am, I do. But you ought t'know that just cause you're a workin gal, that don't mean you got t'expect bein' treated that way."

She smiled with genuine gratitude. "That's so sweet of ya, Buck," she said, reaching up to gently touch his face. "I'll sure keep that in mind."

"You do that," he said with a nod. "An' if that Adams feller starts hasslin' you, just let me know an' I'll have him hog-tied in no time."

She chuckled and shifted in her seat, trying to get comfortable on the hard wooden bench. "I can handle 'im. Tell y'what, though, I think there is someone he's gunnin' for - some guy named Larabee."

Buck's eyes snapped wide open for a second. "Larabee? Chris Larabee?"

She looked at him, surprised, and shrugged. "I dunno - I guess so. He spent half the night mumblin' somethin' about how he was gonna - what did he say? - gonna 'get Yates an' that damned Larabee'. An' another name, Elijah, that came up too. Hey - you know them guys, huh?"

Buck was staring off into the street, unseeing, his mind working furiously. From the sound of things, this guy was after Chris and Yates, and probably the others as well. Elijah - probably translated to Eli Joe. Even dead, that guy was nothing but bad news. His gut clenched painfully at the thought of his friends riding into trouble - if only he knew what kind of trouble. But they had left days ago - if he wanted to get Chris and Yates, why was he still here? He had to find out more.

"Well, I'm off t'get some sleep," Molly announced casually, beginning to stand up. "That Adams fella wants me back t'his place this afternoon."

Buck looked up at her, an idea quickly forming behind his eyes. "He does, huh?"

"Yup," she said with a nod. "Sorry, darlin'."

"Don't you go apologizin', now," Buck advised her, his eyes narrowed in contemplation. "Matter of fact, this could turn out t'be a right good thing."

She looked at him, a puzzled expression on her pretty face.

"Sounds like he's pretty loose-tounged when he's tuckered," Buck co ntinued, stroking his chin in thought. "So happens Chris is a good friend of mine, an' I'd like t'know what he's got planned for 'im. Best way t'do that might be t'get him talkin' again."

She laughed a little. "Hell, I can do that, Buck, I know a few things about pillow talkin'. What'll you do, listen at the keyhole?"

Buck considered this. "Naw, the closet should work just fine."