by SoDak7


Vin, Chris

Note: Death of an animal, none that were known in the show though.

Feeling the hairs stand up on the back of his neck, he pivoted his horse around to look at the area he'd just come from. Nothing. Not even a dust swirl rising from afar. Horse and rider stood perfectly still for what seemed like five minutes, then, finally, the man gave a shake of his head and the two headed back in the direction they were going.

+ + + + + + +

"What in the hell?" grumbled the obese, greasy-looking Mexican to his partner. "How the hell we s’pose to catch this gringo if'n we keep stoppin' ever so often? Hey?" he yelled at the buckskinned clad Indian that sat on his haunches, chewing absently on a weed, staring off into the distance. "Hey? You hear me? How we s’pose...," he quit talking as the Indian stood up and swung himself onto his Appaloosa horse.

"We go now. He is moving again."

The two Mexicans had to kick their horses into a gallop to keep up with the Indian tracker.

+ + + + + + +

“Buck?” Ezra called, coming through the jailhouse door, interrupting the ladies man and youngest peacekeeper, JD, who were obviously in a deep discussion, both men talking simultaneously and at a high enough decibel level, that people across the street could hear them. Buck’s arms flailed about as he tried to make his point with the non-cooperative young man.

“Listen JD, I’m tellin’ ya, if you just take your hand and run it ever so lightly . . . what? he asked, seeing JD’s eyes flick over his shoulder to the front of the building.

Turning around, Buck nodded slightly. “Ezra. Sorry, didn’t hear you come in. What is it?” he asked, standing up, all playfulness gone, noticing the solemn and determined look on the conman’s face.

“I fear Vin’s life may be in jeopardy.”

“What makes you say that?” the big man asked, facing Ezra, JD right beside him.

“Couple of badly playing poker players were spouting off something about a five hundred dollar bounty that they would be collecting in a short while. I tried to elicit information on whom it was they were speaking about but they remained, to their credit, quite close-mouthed about it.

“You tell Chris?” Buck asked as he and JD headed out the door, Ezra right on their heels.

“I thought it prudent to gather the forces, so to speak, seeing as how there are at least three of them and I don’t believe they are going to give up any information without things getting . . .”

“Ugly?” Buck interrupted, resting his hand on the butt of his holstered gun and flashing the conman a grin. “You know how I hate ugly. JD? Get Josiah and Nathan. I’ll get Chris. We’ll meet at the saloon, see what we can find out. Try and keep ’em there,” he finished with a nod to Ezra.

"You can be assured I will do my utmost."

The men headed their separate directions, a purpose in their steps and a sharpening of their senses in anticipation of a confrontation with the possible bounty hunters.

+ + + + + + +

Damn, he thought, looking through the spyglass at the three men approaching quickly on their horses. "Santana" he whispered aloud, lowering the glass. The man was a legend; a tracking legend. No wonder he hadn't seen them following. He figured they'd probably stopped every so often to let their dust settle and stay out of sight. Smart move. Santana was uncanny, seemingly knowing exactly how a man would react or think in a situation. And he was ruthless. A killer. Vin knew he'd worked for the Army for a while, tracking for them, but even the military couldn't handle the man, seeing for themselves just what a menace he could be. So they'd let him go and he'd begun his own bloody run of bounty hunting. The "dead" part of "wanted dead or alive" was how Santana preferred to bring his bounties in.

Well, if they were coming for him, he'd give them a run for their money. Santana was good, but Vin figured he knew a few tricks of his own.

He picked up his reins and swung his horse in the direction he was headed only to notice more dust plumes coming toward him now from that way.

What the hell? Taking his spyglass out again he looked through it at the new riders. Three more. Mexicans. And they didn't look like they were the peaceable type either.

There was a big enough gap between the two sets of riders that he figured he could ride like hell between them, hoping they wouldn't shoot in fear of crossfiring. But just as soon as that idea entered his head, he watched as both sets spread out, effectively blocking any escape between them. It was like they'd read his mind.

Six men, one bounty. Vin wasn’t so good with numbers, but he knew that just didn’t add up. Five hundred dollars split six ways didn’t leave a whole lot for any man. He didn’t know what was going on, but he wasn’t going to wait around and find out either. Wheeling his rented horse around, he headed in the direction they were pushing him, and he didn’t like it one bit. Straight towards Arroyo Canyon.

+ + + + + + +

A few minutes after Wilmington located Larabee and told him what Ezra had heard, they were headed to the saloon. Chris’ long black duster flapped out behind him, making him look like the avenging angel. His face must have showed the direct opposite of an angel though, because people moved out of his way and cast questioning looks at one another. They knew something was about to happen, and chances were, they were going to be "ugly."

Entering the saloon, Chris stopped just inside the doors, taking a quick glance around to see where his men were. As his eyes settled on Ezra, who was at the top of the platform stairs, he narrowed them, silently asking a question.

The conman looked toward a certain table and gave an almost imperceptible lift of his chin to answer Larabee's question.

Chris moved silently over to the table, where five men sat playing cards. Immediately as Larabee stepped up to the table, two men folded, picked up their cash and left. The three remaining players talked amongst themselves, ignoring what had just happened, as well the man dressed in black who stood before them.

Watching as one man pulled the winnings toward himself, Chris figured him the leader and spoke directly to him.

“Excuse me. I hear you’re gonna be collecting a five hundred dollar bounty on someone. Mind tellin’ me who that is?”

No answer came and the three men proceeded to started a new game of cards.

“Are you deaf and dumb, or would that be just dumb?” came the next question, Larabee narrowing his eyes at the leader and drawing back his duster to show off the ivory-handled colt.

The saloon patrons had quieted down enough that even the creaking of the wooden chairs sounded preposterously loud in the pregnant silence that followed as Larabee and his men waited for a reaction.

The man that Chris deemed as leader stopped what he was doing and ran his eyes up and down Larabee’s body, then looked him in the eyes. “Who the hell are you?” he asked, turning his head slightly, keeping his eyes on Chris and spitting a brown stream of tobacco juice onto the floor, some of which caught in the whiskered chin.

“The law.”

The man snorted and grinned at his two partners. “Seems as though we might be doin’ you a favor then.”

“Who is it that you are after?” Chris asked one more time, his patience running thin.

“We ain’t sharin’ . . .,” was all the man got out before the table was knocked over, sending all three men to the floor. Two of them had four guns trained on them before they even hit the ground. The leader found himself on his back, one black-clad knee pinning him to the floor and the ivory-handled gun pointed right between his eyes.

“What is his name?” the question asked in a low hiss.

“Go ta hel . . .,” was the growled half-answer before Larabee’s gun was jammed in his mouth, his eyes opening wide, hearing the hammer cock.

“Okay, okay,” he choked out around the barrel, gagging on the taste of gun metal and oil.

“The name?” Chris asked for the last time, taking the gun out of the man’s mouth.

“Vin Tanner . . . the man’s a murderer," he added when he saw the gunslinger’s eyes narrow and the jaw clench.

“You're goin’ ta jail,” Chris told him as he grabbed the man by his coat and hauled him to his feet.

“Fer what?” came the incredulous question.

“Ever heard of threatening a law officer?” JD said loud enough for all to hear, pushing one of the bounty hunters out the batwing doors.

Chris flicked a look to Standish and gave him an appreciative nod. The southerner had kept a lookout from the platform stairs, covering the peacekeepers backs, not knowing for sure if there were only the three men involved.

Now as the six men herded the three bounty hunters off to jail, they learned that there were another five, maybe six men, led by a renegade Indian tracker named Santana, out hunting their friend.

“Nine men after Tanner for the bounty don’t make no sense, Chris,” Buck whispered to the gunman, after securing the bounty hunters behind bars.

“They wouldn’t be doin’ it for the money, that’s for sure,” put in Josiah, coming to stand with the two.

“Has to be something else going on,” Nathan reasoned, joining them.

“Perhaps this has something to do with Vin’s rifling abilities," Ezra put in, trying to think if he'd read of any dignitaries visiting their area.

"Maybe we should just ask," JD said, coming over to the men, jail key ring dangling from his fingertips.

Buck grinned under his moustache, Ezra fake-coughed and all eyes looked at Larabee.

"That's not a bad idea, JD," Chris said as he cut through his men and headed to the cell.

"What?" JD exclaimed, seeing Buck give him a wink and Ezra smiling so that the golden tooth showed. Shrugging, he turned and followed the rest of the men over to the cell.

"Besides the bounty, there any other reason you're after Tanner?" Chris asked matter-of-factly, looking directly at the leader.

When no answer came forth, Chris held his hand out. "JD. Keys."

As the young man handed them to Larabee, one of the jailed men blurted out that they didn't know anything and that was the truth. Just that they were after Tanner.

"Where you meetin’ these other men?”

The two standing bounty hunters looked down at their boss who sat sullenly on the cot, head down, not looking at anyone. But hearing the key turn in the lock, the man looked up, meeting the stares of five determined men, the sixth, reaching for that damned ivory handled gun again, a look of smug cockiness on his face.

Pushing open the cell door, Larabee stepped inside. "We gonna do this again?"

"Look, all I know is we're suppose ta meet up with Santana and his men tonight at Arroyo Canyon and that's it," he spit out, glaring at the man dressed in black.

The already tension-filled air in the jail house just ratcheted up a notch after that statement. A whispered "Dammit" came from the ladies man and both Josiah and Nathan headed to the gun rack to make ready the rifles.

"Anything distinctive about these other miscreants you'd like to tell us?"

All three jailed men looked at the fancy-dressed gambler with blank looks on their faces.

"What do you know about the other men, besides Santana?" Larabee asked, rephrasing the question.

"Nothin'. Mexican's maybe...names like Jose, and Juan or somethin' like that. Look, we ain’t done nothin’ wrong,” the man yelled, coming up off the cot, as Chris slammed the jail door closed. “Tanner’s a wanted man, he’s fair game. You got no . . . argggg,”

“What I got,” Chris hissed as he grabbed the man’s shirt and pulled his face ruthlessly into the iron bars, “is no problem killin’ you.”

Giving the jailed man a shove that left him stumbling backwards, Chris and his men grabbed their rifles and left the jailhouse.

Outside, Larabee gave directions to his men. JD and Buck were to find Virgil and some other men who would take turns watching the prisoners. Ezra was sent to talk to Mary Travis to find out if she had heard or read anything of anyone coming into the territory that might be deemed a political, financial, or . . . whatever, threat to the area. Nathan headed directly to his clinic to get what he needed.

"Josiah, you and I'll get the horses ready," Chris told him as the big man looked to him for his instructions.

The ex-preacher gave a nod and the two men headed to the livery.

"So what's so bad about this Arroyo Canyon?" JD asked Buck as they were headed to Virgil's store.

"Nothin'." came the clipped answer. "'Cept it's a box canyon."

"Box canyon?" JD asked, coming to an abrupt halt as Buck rounded on him.

"Yeah. One way in . . . one way out. If Vin's in there," he said with a solemn nod, "he's in trouble."

+ + + + + + +

Vin was riding for his life. Sporadic shots had been fired just to let him know they were on his tail and pushing him to a place where they would have him trapped.

A quarter of a mile before entering the canyon, Vin saw his saving grace. It was a small dish-like place where he could lay partially hidden and counter his attack. It wouldn’t be easy and the chances were stacked against him of making it out alive, but damned if he was going to be cornered and trapped in that canyon like an animal. He figured as long as he had room, then he had a fighting chance.

Coming upon the dish, he quickly dismounted, bowie knife in hand and with two swift cuts, his saddle came loose and with one more deft cut, his horse gave it’s life in order to be the buffer between himself and Santana’s men.

Keeping the saddle and blanket near him, he quickly pushed his canteen between the horse's rear legs to keep it safe. He had no idea what they had in mind, or how long he’d be in this spot, but keeping his canteen hole free might make the difference between life and death.

Setting up his rifle he squeezed off a shot as soon as the men came into range. He got little satisfaction seeing one man tumble from his horse, the odds still stacked heavily against him. Sighting in on Santana, he pulled the trigger, frowning, as he watched the Indian, apparently already anticipating the move, wrestled his mount to the ground, his bullet whistling harmlessly overhead.

Damn, Vin thought again. The man had read his thoughts, again. He’d hoped that if he’d been able to take Santana out, the others might decide he wasn’t worth losing their lives for and hightail it. Now, things had come to a standstill. They had moved back, waiting, just out of rifle range. He was surprised they hadn’t rushed him, after all, the poster on him said ‘Dead or Alive’.

Only a few silent minutes ticked by before he found out what they wanted. Figures, he thought when hearing what they wanted with him. Said they needed a man with his skill . He knew what that meant. If people didn’t want him for the bounty money, then they wanted him for his sharpshooting skills . . . usually to kill someone . . . and that’s what this was all about. They’d let him live if he joined them. “Yeah, right,” he muttered to himself, and then sent his answer to them via a bullet. It fell short, of course, but at least they knew what he thought of their terms.

Hunkering back down, he was hit with an onslaught of bullets as they closed in on him. Well, Tanner, you got yourself into a hell of a mess this time, he thought as he heard a whisper soft whoosh and watched as two arrows landed precariously close to him.

"The next ones will pierce you Tanner. Give up. You stand no chance."

Vin had no doubt about Santana's words. Trouble was, it wasn't in his nature to give up. And definitely not without a fight.

Poking his head up again he quickly fired off another few shots and was rewarded with a scream of pain. "Odds are gettin' better," he said to himself with a smug grin.

Bullets pelted the dead horse again. He pulled his blanket and saddle bags up against himself and used the saddle as protection for his head and chest as more arrows came raining down on him. He hissed in pain as one pierced his boot burying itself in the instep of his foot.

He heard hollers of whoops and horses thundering towards him. Two riders he figured. The arrows suddenly stopped and two things happened at once: One rider spun around the front of the dead horse's head, taking a shot at him. He noted vaguely the heat and burn sensation that whipped across his cheek as the mare's leg bucked in his hand, sending his assailant to hell. The second man had taken to the air, jumping his horse over his hiding spot, turning and firing at him as he was taking out the first outlaw. Hearing a “zing” Vin knew the first bullet ricocheted off some metal part of the saddle that was protecting him, but the second shot found it's mark and embedded itself in his thigh before the boom of his gun sounded twice more and laid the second Mexican along side the first.

Then a deathly silence.

+ + + + + + +

Six anxious men rested and watered their mounts alongside a clear, fast-running creek. Common sense had prevailed in knowing they needed to rest their horses after the flat out way they'd been running them. Time was of the essence and no man felt that more strongly than the gunslinger dressed in black.

Standing by himself, Larabee kept Pony in check by holding fast to one rein while the animal drank and rested. He was lost in thought, looking in the direction they were headed when he heard footsteps come up behind him. Buck.

"You know, if there's one man livin' that can beat the odds, it's Vin," Buck said softly, coming to stand next to his old friend, looking off to the same place Chris was.

"We'll find him, Chris," he added with a clap to the black-clad shoulder, "and he'll be alright. I got a feelin'."

Larabee cut his eyes to his friend, nodded and pulled his horse away from the stream and mounted. "Let's ride," he called, then waited for his men to mount up. He had a feeling too. A feeling of death for a man named Santana and his men if Tanner wasn't "alright".

+ + + + + + +

Breaking the deadly silence, Santana and his remaining man jumped slightly as they heard the loud boom of a gun go off.

"Reckon he's so bad off, he kilt himself?"

"Better to die by his own hand then by mine," Santana gave by way of an answer.

Glancing at the Indian from the corner of his eye, the slim Mexican stood up. "I will check him. Damn shame," he said with a shake of his head. "Would have been useful in our cause. The others won't be happy on how this turned out."

"They are of no help to us now."

Not knowing exactly what Santana meant by that remark, he frowned and went and got his horse.

"You stayin' here?"

He got a nod for an answer and headed off to check on the man known to him only as the sharpshooter named Tanner. When the others met up tonight, they wouldn't be happy at the outcome. But what do you do with a man who refuses to cooperate? A sharpshooter like Tanner would have made things so much easier. They'd just have to come up with another plan, is all.

Santana stayed behind mainly because he knew what the other man didn't. The buffalo/bounty hunter Vin Tanner was a trickster and not an easy man to kill. Damn shame was right, but he had his doubts. He would wait and watch.

+ + + + + + +

Vin laid quiet, hoping that the shot would convince the remaining outlaws that he'd done himself in. It had been the last bullet in his gun and it was a huge gamble, but he couldn't wait around for whenever they would attack next. One bullet from his mare's leg wouldn't do him much good with them way out there, and it definitely wouldn't do him any good if he bled to death waiting for their next move. Swearing under his breath from the pain in his leg and foot, he finally heard what he was hoping for. Horses . . . one horse, actually. He'd bet a month's wages it wasn't Santana either. Laying on his right side, back against the dead horse, the saddle still hid part of his torso. Underneath that saddle and in his right hand, he gripped his bowie knife hard and prepared himself to do battle.

"Madre de Dios," the bandito said in awe as he surveyed what was in front of him. Dead horse riddled with bullets and arrows, even Tanner's saddle, bags and blanket had arrows sticking out of them. The place looked like a death trap. He had to hand it to the sharpshooter though . . . he'd covered himself pretty good. One arrow had found it's mark in Tanner's foot, there was a lot of blood on one pant leg, and looking closer, he could see blood on the face. "Damn shame," the man repeated again as he bent to pull the saddle away and immediately gasped in surprise and grunted in shock, his eyes bulging as he looked down and saw Tanner's bowie knife buried to the hilt in his heart. He blinked once, eyes going back to the man who'd just taken his life and read his lips . . .

"Ain't it though."

Pulling his knife out and pushing the dead body away from him, Vin took a quick look to see where Santana was. He didn't see him anywhere. Grunting in pain, he tied his bandana tight around his bleeding thigh and broke off the arrow shaft that stuck out of his boot. Luck would have it that each wound was on an opposite side. With the outlaw's pistol jammed in his gun belt, he gingerly pushed himself to stand. Limping over to the dead man's horse, he grabbed the reins and hauled himself into the saddle, fighting the blackness that tried to overcome him.

He'd no sooner kicked the horse into a run when he heard a bloodcurdling scream and felt himself falling sideways as Santana ran his horse broadside into his. Both men went down in a heap, the renegade Indian’s head coming into contact with Vin’s nose right between the eyes causing intense pain and instant tearing.

Then all went silent and dark.

+ + + + + + +

Vin figured he must have blacked out for a second or two. The combination of the back of his head hitting the ground and Santana’s face colliding with his, had left him slightly disorientated. His brain felt fuzzy, almost making him sick. He’d opened his eyes and the Indian tracker was nowhere around him. Groaning as he sat up he noticed he still had a death grip on his knife. It was bloodied yet, but he didn’t know if that was still from the Mexican or if Santana had fallen on it when they hit the ground. He hoped that was the case, but if it was, where was the man now? And if the man was alive, how come he didn’t kill him off while he was blacked out?

Vin felt his forehead and found a good lump right above his nose on his forehead and it was sore as hell. Already he could feel his nose swelling and it wouldn’t be long before his eyes did the same. He knew he had to get to some shelter. Someplace where his back was protected and he only had to worry about being attacked from the front.

Looking though his blurry eyes, he used the back of one hand to try and wipe the wetness away that kept filling them, and knew he’d have to head to the canyon. It wasn’t far away, but then he wasn’t in the best shape for walking anywhere. It had to be done. He had to get away from being in the open.

Pushing himself up again, he staggered a few steps before getting his balance. His thigh was bleeding badly and the instep of his foot was pure torture to put weight on it.

Licking his lips, he squinted over to where he knew his canteen still laid and contemplated on whether or not to go over there and get it. Common sense won out over pain, however. Taking a quick sip before heading out, he thought of how Chris had come to get him away from Yates and Eli Joe and saved him from hanging. How he wished that right now his best friend was lurking out there somewhere ready to save his hide again. I need ya now, Chris, he thought as he stood swaying, looking off in the direction of Four Corners. He knew if he hung on long enough, they’d all come looking. The seven of them had formed quite a friendship, these men of different beliefs, morals, ideals, backgrounds, but when one was in trouble, there was hell to pay for the aggressors. All he had to do was hang on . . .

+ + + + + + +

“Chris! CHRIS!” Buck yelled as he grabbed hold of Pony’s bridle, pulling the gelding to a choppy halt.

“Chris, we need ta slow it down. Look at the horses,” he added when he received a deathly glare from the man in black.

Chris didn’t have to look at the horses. He knew they were lathered, his own horse’s nostrils flaring and sucking wind, knew they needed a breather. But they were so close.

Larabee looked back at his men. By the determined looks on their faces, he knew they were just as anxious to keep moving as he was, but they had to take care of their mounts too.

“Five minutes,” he barked out, watching them dismount, grab their canteens and take a much needed breather.


“Don’t want ta hear it, Buck.”

“Look, all I’m sayin’ is we might need a plan when we get close to the canyon. We just can’t go ridin’ in there hell bent before knowin’ what’s goin’ on.”

“You fellas think Vin’ll be alright?” JD asked, watching as Buck went one on one with Larabee.

“Six men is a mighty lot to go against for one man,” Josiah answered absently.

"I have considerable faith in Mr. Tanner’s abilities, and if this were a high stakes poker game . . . my money would be on our highly capable comrade.”

“This ain’t no game, Ezra,” Nathan nearly hissed as him.

“I didn’t mean to insinuate it was. I'm merely stating that I have a great deal of confidence in Vin's innate ability to survive,” the conman said in his defense.

“But against six men?”

“Six men can reap a lot of damage on a man,” Nathan put in, not wanting to, but questioning just as JD was.

Buck came riding over to them. “Time ta go, boys.”

“We got a plan?” JD asked as they all mounted up.

“Same as always,” Buck answered with an curt nod and turned his horse.

“Let me guess . . . alleviate the deviants,” Ezra said, pulling his hat down tight, and nudging his horse forward.

“Buck? JD called as the men and their mounts went past him, his question unanswered. “Alleviate the deviants?” he asked himself softly, his features screwed up in thinking.

“Get rid of the bad guys,” Josiah yelled to him as he galloped on by.

“Right. I knew that,” he said aloud, then spurred his horse on to catch up with the rest.

+ + + + + + +

Finally making it to the canyon, Vin decided that was about the longest quarter of a mile he'd ever walked . . . or hobbled. The pain in his thigh was a dull ache but the one in his foot was excruciating. He knew it was a bloody mess by the way his foot slipped around in the boot. There was enough of the arrow shaft sticking out so that all he had to do was pull the thing out, but just thinking about that almost made him sick. Between the bullet in his thigh, the arrow in his foot, the burn crease on his cheek, the knots in the front and back of his head and the swelling of his nose and eyes, he felt relatively good, but then he also knew that feeling was because he was running on nervous energy . . . adrenaline, Nathan had called it. Once that left him, he knew he'd be in trouble. So he needed a spot to rest and take care of himself.

Looking to the rocks that lay strewn here and there along the canyon wall, Vin saw a place he thought would work well. Giving himself a satisfied nod, he started to take a step, when he felt something behind him. Hearing a "whoop" as he turned around quickly, the yell and vision was gone in a flash almost making him think it'd all been in his mind, but when a dull pain erupted from his left forearm and he felt the tear and slight cut he realized Santana had materialized out of nowhere and sliced him. His hide jacket had protected him somewhat . . . this time. The wound was a small one.

He hand went to his mare's leg, confusion coming for a second wondering where his gun was before remembering that the Mexican he'd knifed had tossed the weapon who knew where. He did have the man's six-shooter, but he wanted to save the bullets for any four footed predators that smelled blood and might want a piece of him come nightfall. He also knew he'd need gunpowder to cauterize his wound if necessary. So much to do, but first he needed safety and rest.

Keeping a watchful eye, he limped to his chosen place to hide out. Leave it to Santana to strike and run he thought. The Indian would play with his mind that way, not letting him rest, never knowing when the attack would come again or how. No, he amended, he knew the attack would be hand to hand, knew Santana would want to watch the life drain out of him, wanting him to know who the better man was. It was why he'd been fairly certain that his walk to the canyon wouldn't be ended by a far off rifle shot . . . it wasn't the way Santana would fight him. Face to face it'd have to be. It was the way of the Indian to fight another . . . or one they considered an equal. It was like a gunfighter’s ‘code of the west’ thing. Larabee. What he wouldn’t give to have that man at his back right now.

Settling down into his "safe" place, he had the canyon wall to his back, a huge rock-like shelf overhead, and large stones, one on his left side and one in front of him. The only way Santana could reach him was coming from the right side and he'd have to come in a little ways to get him as Vin pushed himself as close to the stone on his left as he could. The cracks between the rocks were enough to give him light to see.

He was so tired he wanted nothing to do but lay his head back and rest, but knew that couldn't happen if he wanted to stay alive. Keeping a tight grip on his bowie knife, he figured he’d better tend to his injuries.

+ + + + + + +

Taking only a slight pause to make sure neither of the two dead bodies were their friend, the six men headed their mounts in the direction of where they could see dozens of arrows sticking up in the air.

Drawing their weapons, the peacekeepers rode upon a sight they figured would be burned in their memories forever: a dead horse ripped apart by bullets and arrows, three dead men and Tanner's tack riddled with arrows . . . and no Vin.

"This is a good sign, right?" JD asked of no one in particular, seeing that Vin was no where in sight. "It must mean he's alive somewhere," he added, dropping down from his horse and looking around for clues.

"I wonder where," Josiah mumbled as he and Nathan dismounted to check the bodies to make sure they were dead.

"Vin's mare's leg got these two," Nathan reported, "and this one," he said, rolling over the last dead man, "took a knife to the heart."

"Means he was in good enough shape to fight," Buck said from the ground, with a nod and a look to Larabee who was still on his horse.

"Just him and Santana left,” Chris mused, looking to his right, feeling a pull to get to the canyon. If he wasn’t so damned scared for Tanner, he’d probably be awed by what he was seeing. So many signs of a struggle. Later, he thought, later he’d have time to think on all this.

"Lots of blood here on the ground," Nathan pointed out, squatting down, surveying the area by where he thought Vin had probably taken cover. "Don't mean it’s Vin’s though," he added quickly, then picked up the arrow shaft that had been broken off down near the tip and rolled it between his fingertips. "Don't like the look of this though," he said, standing up and showing it to Chris.

"This doesn't bode well either," Ezra said as he showed everyone his find of the tracker's sidearm. "He's without his weaponry."

"He’s got his knife,” Josiah said, knowing that to a man like Vin, it was a deadly weapon in his hands . . . in close combat anyway, but no match for a bullet from afar. He knew they were all thinking the same thing.

"Santana could have him, taken him . . ."

“I got tracks!” JD called, interrupting Nathan's words. “Boot tracks, and they’re headed to the canyon.”

Chris waited for his men to mount and then lead the charge straight to the canyon where he knew his friend would be. He knew it, could feel it. Vin was alive but he needed help. Hold on Vin . . . just hold on.

+ + + + + + +

“Ow!” JD hissed and pulled back, clutching his hand, blood seeping from the shallow wound. “No Buck!” he yelled, grabbing his friend’s arm as Wilmington pulled his colt and prepared to shoot whomever it was that stabbed JD.

“It’s Vin. I just startled him, that’s all. It’s him,” the big, dark eyes pleading with Buck to ease down some.

“Are you sure?” Buck asked, not holstering his gun yet, but pulling his bandana off for JD to use.

“Yeah, I’m sure, I just . . . well, we just sort of scared each other. Chris,” JD whispered as Larabee joined them from where he’d been searching. “He’s right behind there,” he added, pointing. “He’s backed in against the far rock, and he’s hurt.”

“Chris?” Buck warned, glancing at JD’s wound and then to Larabee’s eyes. “He might not know who you are.”

Chris gave a curt nod then proceeded to go to his friend.

“Vin?” he called. “Vin, it’s Chris. It’s just me,” he said, getting down on one knee and coming around the stone that hid Tanner.

“It’s okay, Vin. It’s over. You’re safe,” the words said softly, filled with concern. Chris’ eyes quickly scanned his friend, seeing where he was hurt and bleeding. The wicked bowie knife was held tightly in his friend’s right hand, up and ready to strike.

“It’s okay, Vin. We’re all here. Ain’t nothin’ gonna happen,” he repeated, seeing that his friend wasn’t prepared to lay down his weapon just yet.

“Santana?” the word asked in a raspy whisper.

“We’ll find him, Vin. He can’t hurt you anymore.”

“He’s good,” came the quiet reply.

“We’re better. He won’t get to you. I promise.” Santana would have to go through him first before he’d let him get to Vin again.

Chris watched as Tanner looked away from him, laid his head back against the canyon wall, closed his swollen and tearing eyes and rested his right hand on the ground. Then that same hand pivoted over on it's back, the fingers and palm slowly laid open. The weapon was being given up, a gesture of complete trust from one friend to the other.

Larabee studied his friend’s features. It meant a hell of a lot to him to know that Vin would trust him like this and in acknowledgement of that trust he reached over and slowly closed Vin’s fingers back over the handle of the knife and held them there for a second as if to say he understood. And he did understand.

Vin turned his head after feeling Larabee’s hand on his and squinted at his friend, eyes locking. They understood one another. They had since day one. He blinked his eyes in acknowledgement. Seeing then the quick nod, he heard Chris tell him that he was going to get Nathan.



“How'd you know?”

"Got three more in jail that were ta meet Santana here tonight. Ezra heard 'em talkin' in the saloon."


The corners of Larabee's mouth lifted. "Yeah, Ezra. You're gonna owe him big time for this one." His smile broadened when he heard the whispered "Damn" come from Tanner's mouth along with a groan, which he was pretty sure didn't have to do with the injuries.

“Chris?” Nathan called to him from his back, urgency in his voice.

“Gotta go, Vin. Nathan wants in,” he said, beginning to back out of the small space.

“Larabee,” Vin said, trying to move, grunting in pain. “Santana.”

“We’ll watch Vin, don’t worry. If he comes around, he’ll be taken care of,” and with a nod of his head, he was gone, replaced by a concerned Nathan.

“Good ta see ya, Nathan.”

“Same here, ‘Vin, same here. Now let’s see what we got here. . . “

As soon as Chris stood back up, there were four sets of questioning eyes on him. He told them of what injuries he could see, but assured them that he thought Vin would be okay. Looking around, he also told them to be on the lookout for Santana, that Vin seemed worried that the man may try and attack them.

“I hope the son of a bitch does try it,” said Buck, the palm of his hand rubbing on the butt of his gun, looking around as if to dare Santana to show himself.

“Perhaps I should head to Jed Neilson’s place and procure a wagon. I should return before nightfall if I get started right away,” Ezra said, wanting to help in some way.

Chris gave him a nod. “Alright. JD go with him,” he said to the young man. “Think it’s best we stay doubled up for now.”

As JD walked past, Chris stopped him with a hand to his arm. “You aright?” he asked softly, pointing his chin to JD’s injury.

“Yeah,” JD said, holding up his bandaged hand. “Just a scratch.” Then he added in defense of his friend, “He didn’t know it was me and I should have called out or something. Buck’s already been riding me about it,” he said with a shoulder shrug, and headed to his horse.

“Keep your eyes open out there,” Chris told both men as they rode out.

Buck and Josiah busied themselves with finding materials to build a fire, Nathan needing hot water to tend to Vin’s injuries.

Chris kept a lookout by Vin’s hiding place and helped Nathan when needed, the healer letting them know that Tanner would be fine in a week or two. Ezra and JD made it back safely and camp was made for the night. Vin was loaded up and taken to town the next morning. Not a trace of Santana could be found.

+ + + + + + +

Taking a sip of the hot coffee, Chris lowered his cup seeing Nathan and Vin emerge from the clinic. The tracker had been kept in the clinic the last five days, bedridden, and it looked like now he was allowed to finally flee the confines.

He watched as his friend gingerly made it down the steps, Nathan hovering close in case he was needed, but when coming out of the alleyway, the healer headed one way and Vin headed over to where he was sitting.

Chris took note that the rest of the peacekeepers showed themselves in some area of the town seeing that Vin was now sprung, keeping alert for any signs of the man who had gone after their friend in the first place. Vin only knew Santana's interest in him was to kill someone, but had no clue as to who that might be. The three jailed men couldn’t offer any more information on what was going on before they were carted off to prison for planning the murder of a lawman, something Travis had come up with to be sure they were incarcerated for a very long time. Whether Vin knew it or not, he had been watched over every step of his recovery and still yet, but Chris had a feeling Vin was aware of that fact already. It was tough to hide anything from him.

Watching as his friend finally made it to the chair next to him, he winced in sympathy as Vin let out a big sigh when he sat down.

“Coffee?” Chris asked, holding out his cup.

“Thanks,” came the answer as he took the offered cup from Larabee’s hand and tasted the brew. “Tastes mighty good,” he commented and then relaxed back into the chair more. “Thought for a time I’d never get ta do this again,” he said, watching as the town went about it’s busy day.

The man in black glanced at his friend from the corner of his eye. Tanner had the Calvary hat pulled down low, hiding the two blackened and sore eyes and his clothing covered an array of bruises, stitches and bandages. He was still amazed that Vin had come out alive after the attack . . . they all were.

Larabee looked out across the way, pursed his lips and gave his head a small disbelieving shake. “Hell of a stand you made.”

A long silence followed as Vin looked down, running his finger tips around the lip of the coffee cup and absently gave a nod of his head.

“Any word on Santana?” he asked, looking back up and across the street.

Putting his booted feet up on the railing, and crossing the black clad legs, Chris looked down, tucking his thumbs in behind his gun belt.

“No. Not a damn thing,” the voice answered, laced with disgust. “Like to have had a chance ta meet up with him,” he added, in a tone of voice Vin knew meant that Santana would have never gotten away.

Vin cut his eyes to his friend, and repeated the same words Chris had said to him as a promise many months before, “Next time,” he rasped out as Larabee’s eyes met his and a knowing look passed between them.