by Rhiannon

Summary: After the events in the episode Obsession, Chris and Vin are at odds with each other. Can they set things straight between them before they destroy their friendship forever?

Comments: My thanks to my betas – Pam, who can be blamed for the length of the story, and Yuri, who gave so much time to this story and whose attention to detail is phenomenal!

Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction. I don’t own the rights to the Magnificent Seven and I don’t make any money from this work.

Size: Approx. 150K

Chapter One
The Standish saloon was a popular venue for many of the inhabitants of the town of Four Corners. Even this early in the morning the saloon had several patrons including three of the seven men who together acted as a peacekeeping presence for the town. Two of them, Ezra Standish and Josiah Sanchez, were eating breakfast at a table near the bar, conspicuously distanced from the third, the leader of the Peacekeepers, Chris Larabee.

Chris was well aware that the other two had deliberately given him a wide berth. He could hardly blame them. The glass of whisky he was nursing at such an early hour was clear indication that he wasn’t in the mood for company.

Chris curled his hand around the glass and stared sightlessly into the amber liquid, wondering for the hundredth time in the past few weeks exactly how his life had fallen apart so badly.

It was now three weeks since he had taken a bullet outside the Gaines ranch, three weeks since everything had gone to hell. The anguish of discovering that Ella had not only deceived him but had also been responsible for the deaths of his wife and son was still with him; a burning, gnawing knot in his gut that had nothing to do with his injury. The desire for Ella that had been rekindled during the time spent at the ranch had been replaced by a black hatred that threatened to spiral out of control every time the events replayed in his mind.

The physical wound was healing nicely. He was by no means fully recovered, but the endless gut-wrenching agony had faded to a dull ache or sharp stab of pain if he moved too quickly. Nothing, though, had been able to take away the pain in his soul – nothing except the whisky, and even that for only a few unsatisfactory hours at a time.

Chris drained his glass in one swallow and beckoned to Inez Recillos, the manager of the saloon.


Inez came over to his table eyeing him warily. “Are you sure, Senor? It’s still early to be…”

“Just git me another drink!” Chris growled. He saw Josiah and Ezra glance over at his table, but Inez simply shrugged and re-filled his glass. Larabee took the shot in one and held out his glass again. Inez look across to Josiah and Ezra and whatever their reaction was it had her shrugging again. Instead of pouring the shot she slammed the half full bottle down on his table and stalked off without a word, her opinion of his behavior reflected in every step.

Chapter Two

Despite an exchange of concerned glances as Inez looked over to them, her eyes imploring, neither Josiah nor Ezra moved to intervene; both were reluctant to get embroiled in an altercation with Larabee before they had even finished breakfast.

“It appears that the mood of our esteemed leader has not improved,” Ezra remarked, forking in the last bite of bacon from his plate and dabbing his mouth with his napkin. Chris had been sunk in a dark depression ever since he had returned to Four Corners and Ezra had been on the receiving end of his sharp tongue on too many occasions recently. He knew that the gunfighter was hurting, but he was getting tired of making allowances for the man’s increasingly intolerable behaviour.

Josiah pushed his plate away, most of his breakfast uneaten. “Brother Chris is lost in a whole world of pain, Ezra,” he said quietly. “It’s going to take some time for him to come out the other side.”

“Only an idiot could be unaware of that fact,” Ezra answered irritably. “The question is, how much time? It would seem that the presence of our esteemed tracker would be advantageous right about now. Where is Mr Tanner?”

Josiah shrugged. “In his usual place, I’d imagine.”

“He should be here,” Ezra said soberly, his gaze moving to the batwing doors as if he could will the tracker to walk through them.

Josiah sighed. ”He isn’t coming, Ezra. You know as well as I do that something’s wrong between those two. Seems to me that Chris isn’t the only one trying to find his way through his own personal hell.”

Ezra didn’t need to be reminded of the strained relations between Larabee and the group’s sharpshooter and tracker, Vin Tanner. It troubled him more than he was prepared to admit. Individually, each of the two was a man to be reckoned with, but working together, Larabee and Tanner were a formidable force. Even more than that, Ezra knew full well that the two men were the mortar that held the disparate group of peacekeepers together.

Larabee was the acknowledged, albeit reluctant, leader of the group. A gunfighter with a lightning fast draw, he was a dangerous man who exuded menace and authority in equal measures. It amused Ezra to observe that many of the townspeople were secretly afraid of him, despite feeling more secure knowing he was around.

Vin Tanner was no less dangerous in his own way, but he lacked Larabee’s belligerent exterior. Reserved by nature, the Texan nevertheless had a real way with people. A quiet word or humorous remark from Tanner could diffuse a potentially explosive situation and anchor Larabee’s volatile temper. Vin understood people better than anyone Ezra knew, himself included, and this ability had always perplexed the gambler, given Vin’s somewhat solitary background. In Chris’s absence, Vin would slip easily but unassumingly into the role of leader and the remainder of the seven would follow him without question.

Now it appeared that both men were struggling with their own personal demons. Ezra feared that there was every possibility that the unity of the peacekeepers would crumble around them, for it was unlikely that any of the others would be able to take on leadership of the group even should they have the desire to do so.

Tanner’s absence would have been remarkable less than a month ago. He and Larabee could normally be seen together of a morning, sitting outside the Clarion office drinking coffee or eating breakfast at a table in the saloon. Lately, the two were rarely seen together and indeed, seemed to be barely on speaking terms. Chris was lost in his dark place and Vin was becoming more and more quiet and withdrawn. Ezra was convinced that whatever was weighing so heavily on Vin had something to do with Chris, but felt powerless to do anything but watch and wait and hope, maybe even pray, that the two men would be able to work this out.

Ezra scanned Josiah’s face, trying to gauge the ex-preacher’s own thoughts, but the craggy features were inscrutable.

“And if they are unable to find a way to throw off the demons that assail them?” Ezra asked finally.

Josiah wiped his mouth on his bandanna and looked back soberly at the gambler. “Then I fear, brother Ezra, that this town will go to hell with them.”

Chapter Three

Vin Tanner sat slouched on the bench outside the office of the Clarion newspaper nursing a mug of steaming coffee.

Until recently, early morning had been one of his favorite times of the day. He enjoyed the quiet and the clean, fresh air before the town awoke and the main street filled with dust and bustle. Most of all, he enjoyed the company of Chris Larabee. Sometimes they would talk about the coming day and the chores it held for the town’s peacekeepers. Often they just sat in companionable silence and, if anything, it was these times that Vin valued the most.

Since the affair with Ella Gaines everything had changed. Chris no longer sought out his company and Vin couldn’t blame him. He knew that he had lost Chris’s trust and over the past few weeks he’d discovered that this hurt more than any physical pain.

Chris’s faith in him was precious to Vin and something that he never took for granted. Chris had trusted him from the time they first met and it had taken him some while to accept that Larabee, a strong and respected leader of men, genuinely relied on him above all the others, and not only to watch his back. Chris also respected his judgment enough that he usually turned to Vin first for his opinion on ‘most everything. Never before had anyone trusted him so absolutely.

Vin had been a loner for so long that relying on someone else and having them rely on him in return didn’t come naturally to him. But he’d found that Chris Larabee was the one person he could be himself with, knowing that Chris would accept him for who he was, taking the good with the bad. He trusted Chris absolutely with his life and, more importantly, with his heart. Their friendship had been proved again and again over the past two years, so much so that he had begun to consider it the foundation on which his life in Four Corners was based. From this point of security, he had begun to reach out and form friendships with the other peacekeepers and had even recently started to think of Four Corners as home.

Now, that relationship, the one he had felt was built on an immovable foundation, was slowly crumbling away.

He had been angry and deeply hurt when Chris had come close to calling him a liar, choosing to trust Ella’s word over his. Yet the way in which he himself had let Chris down seemed the worst kind of betrayal Vin could imagine and he knew that Chris had even more justification to be angry with him.

Whichever way he looked at it, nothing could change the fact that he’d run out on Chris when his friend needed him most. Hurt and angry at Chris’s reaction, he had ridden out without a thought for the consequences. He should have stayed, tried to find a way to convince Chris of the truth, but he’d thought only of his own hurt feelings. His actions could have lost him not only Chris but all of his friends. If he’d left just a few hours earlier he would never have heard the shots, wouldn’t have come back just in time to make a difference in the ensuing gun battle. Being one man down might have made all the difference between life and death for the six remaining men.

He had failed Chris again when he’d taken a shot at Ella Gaines and missed. He’d subsequently failed in his attempt to track her down. He had left it too long for there to be any tracks for him to follow, so he had taken Josiah and JD and ridden into every town between Red Fork and Four Corners. They had found no sign of her – she had vanished without a trace. When Josiah had finally forced him to agree to return home he had reluctantly turned back, his heart heavy with the knowledge that Chris’s faith in him had been misplaced; he had failed his friend.

When he had confessed his failure to Chris, the gunfighter’s face was set in a hard, almost expressionless mask, but his disappointment had shown in his eyes and in the thinning of his lips. Disappointment in Vin.

Despite his own hurt feelings, Vin had wanted to say more, to tell his friend how sorry he was, how he’d go to the ends of the earth and back to find Ella, but had found himself unable to get the words out. They had held each other’s eyes for a few moments until Vin had no longer been able to stomach the lack of trust he thought he saw reflected in Chris’s. He’d lowered his eyes and walked away without a word.

It was at that moment that Vin had realized how much he’d come to value the bond of trust and friendship that existed between himself and Chris. Now, he’d destroyed that bond – Chris’s eyes had clearly confirmed that.

Vin wanted - no, needed - to try to set things straight between them, but being sorry couldn’t change what had happened. It hurt him to witness Larabee’s pain and grieved him to see his friend once more turning to the bottle to drown his sorrows. Once, Vin would not have hesitated to confront Chris while others kept their distance. He’d always been able to cajole Chris out of his black moods but now, with this distance between them and his actions weighing him down like stones in his heart, he felt it was no longer his place. He kept his distance, avoiding Larabee as Larabee was avoiding him, and all the time the knowledge that their friendship was all but gone was slowly tearing him apart.

Chapter Four

Buck Wilmington sauntered along the boardwalk towards the saloon, pausing in his stride as he spotted Vin sitting outside the Clarion office. Vin’s hat was pulled down low over his face and he was slouched in the chair, feet up on the hitching rail, in a seemingly relaxed posture. Buck knew that appearances could be deceptive. Vin was ever vigilant and was undoubtedly totally aware of everything that was going on around him. Still, there was something almost dejected about his appearance that caused Buck to stop.

“Mornin’, Vin. Join you?”

Vin nodded in the direction of the other chair and Buck took it, settling down and observing his friend furtively to gauge his mood. With Vin almost as touchy as Chris these days, it was getting so a man had to be careful every time he opened his mouth.

Vin raised his eyes from his coffee cup and looked over at Buck.

“I’m really sorry about Miss Hilda, Buck,” he said softly. “I only jus’ found out that you and she were… well, that you had feelin’s for her, or I’d’ve said somethin’ sooner.”

Buck was touched. He was still feeling the loss of Hilda, Ella’s niece who had been killed that fateful morning at the Gaines ranch.

“Reckon you’ve had other things on your mind, pard.” Buck paused, unsure whether to go on, but the compassion in Vin’s eyes encouraged him. “It wasn’t like I was properly in love with her – I’d only just met her.” He cleared his throat around the lump that seemed to appear every time he spoke of her. “But there was somethin’ about her, Vin, somethin’ special. I reckon we could have had something together.”

Vin nodded, his eyes holding Buck’s in silent sympathy.

Buck went on, “All my life I’ve loved women, loved bein’ with them, but I reckon I’ve always bin pretty shallow, only ever goin’ after the real pretty ones. I almost didn’t see Miss Hilda’s worth til it was too late.”

“Don’t matter much what ya look like on the outside, Bucklin. It’s what’s inside that counts, and when someone has a beautiful soul you kin see it kinda shinin’ outa their eyes.”

Buck looked back into Vin’s own expressive eyes, wondering if the man had any idea that he himself personified the truth he had so poetically expressed. Sometimes, Vin staggered him with his insight. Buck remembered his surprise when he read in the Clarion a poem Vin had written – beautiful, profound words that had moved him greatly. Casual observers would never guess that this scruffy, uneducated man had such a passionate and sensitive soul.

Buck felt a tear prick the corner of his eye and tried to blink it away. “That’s it, Vin, that’s exactly it. That’s just how it was with Miss Hilda. Her beautiful soul was shining out for everyone to see, and I almost missed it.”

“Ya got ta tell her at the end, an’ that’s somethin’ real precious she got ta take with her, Buck.”

“Yeah, I guess it is, and that’s what’s keeping me going, Vin, that and promising myself that I won’t ever miss that kind of beauty in a person again.”

Vin nodded silently and turned his attention back to his coffee, allowing Buck the time he needed to compose himself. That was typically Vin, Buck mused. The tracker understood when people needed space and when they needed words. He used his words sparingly but when he did speak, it was something worth saying.

Buck settled back in his chair, feeling better for having had the opportunity to talk about Hilda, and began to watch the town awaken.

Chapter Five

Chris was on his fourth shot but for once the whisky wasn’t dulling his mind, as he wanted it to, needed it to. Maybe the pain was too great. It wasn’t only his anguish over Ella that was troubling him - on top of that he knew he was losing the best friend he’d ever had and found himself helpless to prevent it.

He had still been reeling from the shock of receiving that letter from Ella when Vin had returned to tell him that they had been unable to track her down. He’d looked up into Vin’s eyes and for once found himself unsure how to interpret the emotion he saw there. Vin would never have admitted it, but it was obvious that the man was physically exhausted; there were dark circles under his eyes and he was slouching more than usual, his whole posture betraying his weariness. Chris knew Vin and was grateful for the concern and loyalty that would have kept his friend on the trail until he was ready to drop. Yet when Vin had been speaking, his tone of voice had slowly led Chris to believe that the emotions he was seeing were disappointment and betrayal, and Chris understood why.

Vin had been the one to find out about Ella’s deception and had confronted Chris with the facts at that fateful party. Chris had heard his words “She lied to you... up and down the line. The woman's no good, Chris” and deep down a part of him had immediately recognized the truth. But he wasn’t ready to hear it, was too caught up in Ella’s dream future and the prospect of having once more the kind of life he’d thought lost to him forever. He had refused to listen, had all but accused Vin of lying, and that was the worst kind of insult you could throw at a man in the West – particularly a man you called a friend and trusted with your life. The look of hurt and betrayal in Vin’s eyes still haunted Chris’s dreams. He’d half expected the tracker to deck him when he’d seen the blue eyes darken and the pain turn to anger. But Vin had backed down and left the room.

Chris knew that he had further betrayed Vin’s trust when he had failed to bring down Ella as she fled on horseback. The look of mad devotion as she’d looked back at him had frozen his finger on the trigger. Vin had been there, had seen what happened, and had finally taken a shot at Ella himself, but Chris knew at that point his friend was already on his knees trying to stem the bleeding from the gunshot wound in Chris’s side and it would have been a miracle if the shot had taken her down.

Chris was honest enough with himself to admit that he’d missed Vin desperately during that week when he’d been away tracking Ella - Chris Larabee, the man who needed no one! Well, he had needed Vin; needed his quiet assurance, his subtle humour, the way he was able to impart a sense of peace by the simple fact of his presence. Chris had needed that to help him find his way through the pain. It wasn’t that he wanted to talk about Ella – he wasn’t ready for that – but he had known that Vin would have instinctively understood his needs and would have simply been there for him.

Vin’s reaction had changed everything. Chris had been ready to tell him about the letter, but held back, feeling that he no longer had the right to ask anything of this man whose trust he’d betrayed. He had said nothing and Vin had held his gaze for a moment, then walked off without another word.

Since that day Vin had gone out of his way to avoid Chris. The tracker had become more and more reserved and quiet and, so help him, Chris could no longer feel the connection between them - could no longer sense what Vin was thinking and feeling as he had become accustomed to doing. He missed his friend so badly it was like an ache inside him. He knew that he was projecting his anger with himself onto those around him and Vin in particular, but he was unable to stop himself. His feelings were bottled up inside with no way of release and at times he felt as if he might explode.

Chris rubbed a hand wearily over tired eyes. He’d made such a mess of things, made a fool of himself, destroyed the bond of trust between himself and Vin – even his fledgling relationship with Mary had suffered a setback from which he felt it would never recover. He could feel himself spiraling further and further into the darkness without a single idea on how to put things right.

He drained his glass and hesitated in pouring another. Much as he needed the whisky, he couldn’t afford to have his reactions dulled today. A few days ago word had come that a gang of outlaws was moving north from the Mexican border, leaving a path of death and destruction in their wake. In the last town they had ‘visited’ they had left four men dead and the saloon a burned-out shell. Four Corners was in their path. If they hit town today he would need to have a clear head to face them. Whatever his own personal problems, he was still the leader of the only law this town knew. He had responsibilities and six men who were looking to him to lead them.

Reluctantly, he pushed the bottle away, motioned for Ezra and Josiah to follow and strode purposefully out of the saloon doors.

Chapter Six

Buck sat back, stretching his long legs out before him, enjoying the unaccustomed silence as he watched life begin to stir in the town. Over the past couple of years Four Corners had grown from a violent, declining frontier town into a thriving community. Despite this, it still saw its share of violence, ranging from attempted robberies to cowboys bent on tearing the town apart with their high spirits. Tensions between the cattle barons and the farmer settlers had been escalating lately and all of this added up provided more than enough work to enable the town’s peacekeepers to earn their wages.

Buck glanced across at Vin. He couldn’t see the tracker’s face too well in the shadows, but he was pretty sure that it would once again be wearing the closed, guarded expression it had held ever since he’d returned from tracking Ella Gaines.

Josiah had told Buck that Vin had been coiled tight as a rattler while they’d been on the search, his temper uncharacteristically close to the surface. He’d nearly killed a man in Eagle Bend for being too slow to come up with some information. He had barely slept, driven himself and his companions to the point of exhaustion, behaving, as Josiah put it, like a man possessed. Josiah felt that Vin had taken too personally their failure to find any sign of the missing woman and it was only with the utmost difficulty that the former preacher had been able to persuade the single-minded tracker to give up the hunt and return home.

It was obvious to everyone that there was something seriously wrong between Chris and Vin: Buck was pretty sure it had something to do with the words they had exchanged during the party at Ella’s place. Buck had seen Vin come in and talk to Chris, only to leave abruptly. He knew now that Vin had come in to tell Chris about his discovery of Ella’s deception and although neither had spoken of it, whatever had been said must have cut deep both ways.

Buck was worried to death about Chris. Ella’s obsessive love for him had caused her to kill his family and, although it was not Chris’s fault, Buck knew his friend well enough to know that he’d take the full responsibility on his shoulders. He could see Chris sinking back into the same deep depression that had overcome him after Sarah and Adam were killed.

Back then Buck had tried to help him, had stuck with him as long as he could, but Larabee had pushed him away once too often. Buck had finally left to go his own way, hurt but understanding that in some way he was too close, that when Chris looked at him he saw his lost family. Their paths had crossed a few times in the intervening three years and it had pained Buck to witness the callous and hardened image his friend was projecting. It seemed as if all that was good and honorable in Chris had been torn out, leaving behind a shell of the man he had once been.

Everything had changed the day Chris had ridden into Four Corners and met a scruffily dressed, sharp-eyed, deadly ex-bounty hunter by the name of Vin Tanner. When Buck had first met Vin he had assumed from the easy way that Vin and Chris related to each other and the obvious mutual trust between them that the two had been riding together for some time. He had been astounded to discover that they had just met. Chris Larabee had never been a man to give his trust easily, was by nature cautious and reticent; but Buck had watched him with Vin; seen how from the start they could communicate almost without the need for words; and observed how slowly, over the following months, the old Chris had begun to emerge from his shell.

Buck knew that Vin was the only one of Chris’s friends who could help the gunfighter through his current nightmare, was the only one who could penetrate the darkness and bring Chris back into the light. It frustrated him to see how the current simmering animosity between the two men was serving to push Chris further into the abyss.

It was clear that neither man was prepared to make a move towards reconciliation. Interfering in another man’s affairs went against the code of the West, but perhaps in this case it was time for friends to take a helping hand. He wasn’t sure what to say. Ezra would probably have been able to come up with some fancy words, but he wasn’t Ezra, and coming directly at a subject was the only way he knew. He took a deep breath and launched straight in.

“Reckon it’s time you and Chris sorted out this bad feelin’ between you, Vin.”

Vin didn’t move, but Buck saw his jaw tighten. “Ain’t none of your business, Buck.”

Buck wouldn’t be deterred that easily. “He’s hurtin’ bad, Vin. He needs you. Can’t you see that?”

Vin sighed, swung his legs back onto the ground and leaned forward with his arms resting on his knees. Looking down at his hands, he muttered, “He don’t need me, Buck. He’s got his bottle to keep him company.”

Buck leaned forward too, his face earnest. “That’s what I mean. He hit the bottom and kept goin’ after Sarah and Adam died. I reckon it wouldn’t take much to push him back into that place the way he’s goin’ now.

Vin shook his head slowly. “Ain’t nothin’ I c’n do, Buck.”

“That ain’t true, Vin.”

“He’s your friend, too. Why don’t you talk to him?”

“Aw, hell, Vin, I know he’s my friend and if I thought I could say anything that’d make a difference, don’t you think I would? I’ve gotten him out of a few scrapes in my time, but I don’t reckon there’s anything I can do to help him with this. You know as well as I do that there’s somethin’ between you two, almost like you’re kin. You’re the only one he pays heed to ‘round here when he’s got his ornery mind stuck on somethin’.”

Vin didn’t respond, so Buck went on, “Vin, there’s somethin’ between you needs settlin’; we’ve all seen it.”

Vin shook his head again, but the glance he shot at Buck revealed pain he was trying hard to conceal.

“Reckon it’s gone past settlin’, Buck. Chris don’t trust me no more and there ain’t no fixin’ that.”

Buck narrowed his eyes; he had suspected something like this. “What makes you think he don’t trust you, Vin? He said that?”

“Ain’t come right out and said it, but I know anyways. Kin tell from the way he looks at me.”

Buck searched his friend’s face. “You gonna tell me just what was said between you two at that damned party?”


Neither man had noticed Chris Larabee as he approached, Josiah and Ezra at his heels, but as he stopped beside Buck the big man looked over at Vin and said in a warning tone, “Vin…”

Vin was looking out across the street and Buck wasn’t the only one to hear his next remark.

“Reckon I’m gonna be moving on soon, anyways. Bin in this town too long, bin putting off goin’ back to Texas to clear ma name. Reckon mebbe the time’s come ta do that.”

Chris took a step forward and Vin looked up as he felt a shadow loom over him. Chris’ face was a mask of anger, his lips thinned, eyes blazing. Buck saw Vin’s expression register shock as he stood up slowly, the blue of his eyes deepening with emotion as they locked on Larabee’s intense greens.

“Just when were you thinkin’ of tellin’ me?” Larabee spat. “Or were you just gonna run out on me?”

Vin flinched visibly and Buck saw his face drain of color, a variety of emotions playing there. For a moment, the Texan’s expression hardened into anger and his body stiffened. The flash of emotion in his eyes had Buck tensing in anticipation of a physical confrontation.

Then, all at once, the anger was replaced with something that Buck had rarely seen in Vin’s eyes - a mixture of despair and defeat and the tracker seemed to slump, as though he’d finally accepted something inevitable.

Before either Vin or Chris could speak again, all five men were distracted by the sight of a black horse being ridden hard into town.

Spotting his fellow peacekeepers, JD Dunne galloped up to them, reined in his horse, and dismounted in one fluid motion.

“Riders!” he said breathlessly. “Eight of them, coming fast – I think it’s Murdoch’s gang!”

Chapter Seven

If JD noticed the strained atmosphere, he was wise enough to keep his mouth shut. Chris took a step back, a silent acknowledgement that personal issues were going to have to take a back seat to the coming confrontation.

“Buck!” he ordered, “Go get Nathan.” As Buck sped off, Chris turned to Ezra and Josiah. “Get everyone off the street, and I mean everyone. Then take your positions.” The two men acknowledged him with short nods and moved off. Chris looked at Vin then, and held his gaze for a long moment.

“I’ll go high,” the sharpshooter drawled, his rifle already in his hand, and was gone before Chris even had time to agree. The seven men had worked together so long now that a situation like this needed no planning – each man knew his position.

Chris took his stand, leaning in a deliberately nonchalant posture against the railing outside the jail. He was still seething inside. Vin’s talk of moving on had hit him hard and he’d reacted as only he could – by striking out in anger. He took a few deep breaths, forcing his body to relax, needing to push his feelings aside and concentrate on the job at hand. Lack of concentration could get someone killed.

Moments later, the thunder of hoof beats and a cloud of dust heralded the arrival of the outlaw gang. Chris’s eyes flicked round quickly in one final check to ensure that there were no civilians on the street. He saw no one, although his sharp eyes picked up several faces peering cautiously out of windows. His glance took in Nathan on the corner by the hotel and Josiah at the entrance to the alley by the saloon. JD and Ezra were inside buildings either side of the street, their guns poking out of open windows. Buck had taken up his position lying flat on a low roof overlooking the jail. Chris looked up high then, shading his eyes against the already harsh light of the sun, and spotted a wide brimmed hat and the barrel of a rifle high on the roof of Watson’s hardware store.

Chris’s mouth was suddenly dry. It scared the life out of him every time he saw Vin settle into one of his high perches, though the man was as sure footed as a mountain lion and Chris had never known him to lose his footing.

Murdoch’s gang rode boldly up the main street, one man reining in his horse a few feet in front of Chris’s position, the others fanning out at his back.

Chris took a slow step forwards, his right hand hovering over his holster.

“Guess you’d be Frank Murdoch?”

The leader was a big man with long, curly black hair and a drooping black moustache. He roared with laughter and looked over his shoulder at his men, who all wore grins. “Looks like my reputation’s preceded me, boys!”

Murdoch turned back to Chris and smiled.

“Who’s asking?”

“The name’s Larabee. Chris Larabee. I’m the law around here.”

“Well now, Mr. Larabee, we don’t want no trouble with the law. Do we boys?” Murdoch looked around again with another guffaw. He was beginning to get on Chris’s nerves.

“So I’ll make you a deal,” Murdoch said. “You keep outta our way, we’ll take what we want and be moving on. No need for anyone to get hurt. How’s that sound to you?”

Chris deliberately narrowed his eyes into what he had once heard someone call ‘slits of pure granite’. The description suited his current feelings. How many times had this same scenario played itself out on the main street of Four Corners? A gang like this would ride into town, confident of their notoriety and full of misplaced bravado. He had no qualms about killing these men if that’s what it took – they were starting the fight and their deaths would undoubtedly save other lives.

Larabee was a gunfighter with a deserved reputation but he didn’t enjoy killing for the sake of it and would usually attempt to end such a confrontation without violence. But Chris could tell from experience that Murdoch wasn’t going to back down and that this incident would end in gunfire and with men wounded or dead. With the mood he was in, he was looking forward to the fight. He felt the adrenalin surging through him and his lips curled into a mirthless smile as his hands hovered close to the twin holsters at his hips.

“That’s one way we could play it,” he said softly. “But if it’s all the same to you, I think I’d prefer it if you all just give up your guns, real peaceable like, and turn yourselves in.”

No one spoke for a moment, then Murdoch’s guffaw broke into the silence and he was still laughing when he raised his gun.

Chris flung himself sideways, getting off a shot even as he rolled to avoid Murdoch’s first bullet, hissing as the action reawakened the pain in his side. Immediately the rest of the gang scattered and began firing. The peacekeepers returned fire and within moments everyone was diving for cover as a hail of bullets turned the main street into a battleground.

Chris tipped over a bench and sheltered behind it, eyes searching frantically for Murdoch who had disappeared from sight. Out of the corner of his eye he saw two of Murdoch’s men go down, courtesy of the accurate aim of the sharpshooter on the roof.

A moment later he heard Vin’s voice shouting his name and out of sheer reflex threw himself sideways. He felt a bullet ping past his left ear and heard a softer squelch as the bullet from Vin’s rifle found its target. He spun round to see Murdoch drop to the ground only a few feet behind him. A quick glance at the fixed, sightless stare and the hole in his forehead confirmed that the outlaw would pose no further threat and Chris’s eyes were drawn back to the roof. To his horror he realized that Vin had stood up to take that shot and was now standing exposed, providing a perfect target for even the greenest novice. Even as he opened his mouth to shout to Vin to get down, he saw the sharpshooter stagger backwards and lose his balance, falling heavily onto the lower roof of the general store. The roof gave way with a groan and Vin disappeared in a cloud of dust and timber.

“V i-i-i-i-i-i-n!” His own scream of fear echoed around Chris’s head, drowning out the staccato sounds of gunfire, but there was nothing he could do as his attention was drawn back to the battle and he had to concentrate on providing covering fire as Josiah made a run for a more strategic position.

With the death of Murdoch, the fight had gone out of the rest of the gang and a few moments later the remaining bandits gave themselves up. Four of the gang were dead, another two slightly injured. Chris stood up slowly, wincing against the pain in his side.

Nathan was already examining the two injured men while Josiah and JD covered the two men who had surrendered. Nathan called across to Chris.

“Go check on Vin, Chris. We can handle things here. I’ll be right over soon’s I’ve checked these mongrels over.”

Chris nodded his thanks and sprinted over to the general store. His heart was pounding and he was dreading the scene that might greet him.

Pushing open the door, Chris strode into the store and looked around quickly. Nothing. He heard a noise from the back and moved forward to open the door into the back room Virgil Watson used to store excess supplies.

The sight of Vin picking himself up off the floor sent him almost light headed and relief spread through him like a flood of warm water. The sharpshooter was covered from head to toe in straw and grain: under other circumstances Chris would have laughed at the sight. Right now, though, he didn’t feel like laughing.

Vin looked up as he heard Chris come in and for a moment their eyes locked. Vin’s eyes were darker than usual, reflecting a degree of pain and, after a moment, an emotion that could have been surprise or confusion.

“You all right?” Chris asked softly.

“Hell, yeah,” Vin replied, lowering his gaze, his face a picture of disgust. “Landed on a coupla sacks of grain. A bit winded, is all.”

Chris raked his eyes quickly down the sharpshooter’s body, searching for injuries. The left arm of his jacket was stained with blood, but the vigorous way he was brushing grain off his clothes reassured Chris that he wasn’t seriously hurt.

Vin looked up again. “Did we win?”

Chris had a flashback to the sight of Vin on the roof, standing tall and in full view, and he closed his eyes momentarily against the memory. Relief turned to anger at his friend’s nonchalant dismissal of a fall that could have killed him.

“What the hell did you think you were doing up there?” he demanded sharply, the words coming out more aggressively than he’d intended. “It was totally irresponsible. You could have been killed, standing up in full view like that!”

Vin reacted with an unaccustomed fury that matched Chris’s own and his dark blue eyes spat fire.

“What did you think I was doin’?” he snarled. “I was watchin’ yer back, Larabee, though I guess ya don’t think that’s my place no more. Well, I’m real sorry ta disappoint ya!”

Chris’ retort died on his lips as he registered Vin’s words. What the hell did Vin mean by that? His thoughts were interrupted as Nathan burst through the door and stopped dead, obviously feeling the tension that was fairly crackling in the room.

Chris ignored the healer and held Vin’s furious gaze for a moment longer until he realized he couldn’t do this any more - couldn’t face Vin’s anger while he was still reeling from the fact that he’d almost lost him, couldn’t handle the question in Nathan’s eyes. He turned abruptly and walked out of the store.

Chapter Eight

Nathan watched Chris leave, wondering exactly what he’d walked into. Then he turned back to Vin to see that the sharpshooter’s anger seemed to have defused. Nathan approached him cautiously.

“Vin? Don’t try to tell me you’re all right. You fell right through a roof: you might’a cracked some ribs. Did you hit your head?”

Vin sighed. “Ain’t cracked no ribs, Nathan, and I didn’ hit my head. I had a soft landing.” He gestured towards the burst-open bags of grain with a small grin. “Reckon I jus’ got a few bruises an’ that bullet nicked me, it ain’t nothin’.

Nathan wasn’t convinced. He’d dealt with Vin’s version of ‘nothin’’ too many times before. “Well, jus’ to be sure, you come along with me to the clinic and we’ll get you cleaned up. Bullet mighta just grazed ya, but it’s bleedin’ some and I don’t want it to get infected.”

To his mild surprise Vin simply acquiesced with little more than a token protest. There was no trace of the fury Nathan had witnessed when he’d entered the store. The sharpshooter simply looked tired and defeated. The healer didn’t know what had just happened between the two men, but he figured it was hurting Vin far more than the bruises he’d picked up in the fall.

Vin’s next words, thrown over his shoulder as he limped slowly out of the store, took Nathan by surprise. “Reckon you’d best take a look at Chris, though. He was favoring his side when he burst in here. Mighta busted some of them stitches in the fight.”

Nathan nodded. “Yeah, I was plannin’ on lookin’ him over next. But we’d best get you fixed up first.”

He followed Vin out of the store, shaking his head slowly. A moment ago Vin and Chris had been facing off as if they were about to punch each other’s lights out. Now here was Vin, worrying that Chris was hurt.

Nathan had often marveled at the closeness of the relationship that had developed between these two men. Now, he wished desperately that they would face and deal with whatever it was that stood between them, because if they didn’t he was afraid that blood would be shed before too long.

Back at the clinic, Vin took off his coat and shirt at Nathan’s instruction and sat down on the edge of the bed.

Nathan found himself frowning. Without his shirt and the bulk of his ever-present buckskin coat, the healer could see that Vin had lost weight – weight he could ill afford to lose, as he was already little more than bone and muscle. There were dark bruises under his eyes and his complexion was paler than usual. Nathan had already observed that Vin, usually a hearty eater, had been picking at his food lately, which could explain the weight loss.

Nathan sighed, put his concerns aside for the moment, and concentrated on the wound. A cursory examination showed that the bullet had plowed a shallow furrow along Vin’s upper arm, deep enough to be painful but not enough to cause any real concern.

“It ain’t serious, Vin, but I need to clean it and stitch it up, make sure it don’t get infected,” Nathan explained as he began to clean the wound. He tried to be as gentle as possible and the occasional sharp intake of breath or tensing of muscle was the only indication from Vin that he was in any pain. When he’d finished, he wrapped a bandage firmly round the arm. “Now, don’t you go taking that off until I say so, you hear?”

Vin nodded meekly and that in itself worried Nathan. Vin was generally sensible enough to seek help when he was hurt - which was too often in Nathan’s estimation - but he could never be described as a compliant patient and Nathan found it ironic that he was currently concerned at the lack of complaints and annoyed commentary that generally punctuated his ministrations.

“I’m gonna take a look at the rest of you now, so jus’ sit still for me a little longer.”

Vin obediently sat still as Nathan slowly worked his way round his torso, checking the ribs for breaks, noting the way Vin jumped whenever the healer’s hands touched a particularly painful bruise. Eventually, he announced himself satisfied that there was no serious damage done.

“You gonna be hurtin’ for a while, though, some of them bruises are real ugly. I’ll put some salve on them for ya now, and I want you to come back here this evening and in the morning so I can put some more on, all right? It’ll loosen the muscles up, help with the pain.”

“Yes, ma,” Vin retorted. Nathan welcomed the attempt at levity, but Tanner sounded tired and his tone of voice held none of its usual undertone of amusement.

Nathan folded his arms and studied his friend for a moment as Vin painfully began to pull his shirt back on.

“Vin, apart from the fall, how you feelin’? You don’t look so good.”

“I’m fine, Nathan. Jus’ a mite tired. I ain’t been sleepin’ so good.”

Nathan frowned, concerned. “You want to tell me about it?”

“Nothin’ ta tell. Bin havin’ bad dreams again, is all.”

“Same ones as usual?” Nathan asked cautiously. Vin had mentioned once before that he sometimes had nightmares about Tascosa, dreaming about being hanged – hardly surprising for a man with a bounty on his head.

Vin shrugged. “Others, too.”

“Want to tell me about them? Sometimes helps to talk about it,” Nathan suggested, keeping his voice casual.

He watched as Vin hesitated, not wanting to push, but sure that if his friend didn’t start talking about what was bothering him, it would eventually tear him apart. He witnessed an array of emotions flit across Vin’s face before he began to speak haltingly.

“Bin dreamin’ ‘bout that mornin’ at the Gaines ranch, when Handsome Jack an’ his men ambushed us, when Chris got shot. Only, in my dream you’re all dead – you and the rest o’ the boys. Chris is dead too an’ I’m holdin’ his dead body and takin’ that shot at Ella.” He rubbed his hands over his eyes. “I miss, Nathan. Every time, I miss. Jus’ like the way it happened. Chris is laying there dead, and I cain’t even make the shot, and then he opens his eyes, and the look in them – he’s dead, and he knows I’ve let him down.”

Nathan studied Vin’s face carefully, trying to work out the concerns that were causing this dream. “Vin, you didn’t let Chris down, you tried your best. Way I hear it, you were trying to stop Chris bleeding to death when you took that shot. It wasn’t your fault.”

“He shoulda never even bin lyin’ there, Nathan.”

“That wasn’t your fault either, Vin. Ella set that gang on us, wasn’t nothing you or anyone else could have done to stop it.”

“You sure ‘bout that?”

Nathan considered this carefully. “Wasn’t no way anyone could have seen what Ella was up to,” he said finally. “Reckon Chris may be lookin’ back and wonderin’ if he should have picked up the signs sooner, but they say love is blind, and I reckon it was for him too.”

Vin looked at him strangely for a moment, then shrugged. “Yeah, well.” He stood up and began pulling his jacket on. “Cain’t go back and change nothin’ now. It’s too late fer that…”

He picked his hat up from the chair. “I’m obliged to ya, Nathan.”

Before Nathan could say anything else, Vin was gone.

Nathan sat down on the edge of the bed. He was encouraged that Vin had opened up a little, reached out a tentative hand and revealed something of what was bothering him. Nathan was an intelligent man and it didn’t take much to figure out that the root cause of Vin’s distress was guilt, pure and simple. There must be more to it than missing the shot at Ella, but it appeared that Vin felt that he’d let Chris down. It was a starting point. Now that Nathan had this part of the puzzle, maybe with a few more pieces he’d be able to put something together and find a way to help his friends through this mess.

Chapter Nine

“Josiah, I need ya to git over to the telegraph office and send a message to Burnt Meadows. Ask 'em what they want us to do with these four – we kin take ‘em back there in the morning if that’s what they want.”

Chris, JD, and Josiah were in the jail where the four remaining bandits were now safely behind bars. JD had checked the wanted poster for the gang and confirmed that it had originated in the border town of Burnt Meadows. The law there had the right to make the call on what was done with them now. As Josiah nodded and departed, Chris sank down wearily into a chair and closed his eyes.

JD eyed Larabee cautiously. These days it took very little to provoke the gunfighter’s temper and lately JD had found himself on the wrong end of Chris’s caustic tongue too often for comfort. But there was something he needed to know, so he squared his shoulders and asked the question he had wanted to ask for the past half hour.

“Chris? I haven’t seen Vin since the gunfight. Was he hurt when he fell through that roof?”

Chris grunted. “Damn fool Texan. He’s gonna get himself killed one day. He’s all right, kid. Bullet didn’t but nick his arm, and he’s gonna have a nice set of bruises, but Nathan says there’s no real damage.”

JD found himself breathing a little easier. He knew as well as anyone that there was something wrong between Chris and Vin, but he was astute enough to realize that Vin getting himself seriously injured wouldn’t improve Chris’s temper any.

JD studied Chris furtively as the gunfighter sat slouched in his chair, eyes still closed. Chris’s face was pale and drawn and there were pain lines evident around his eyes. JD said hesitantly, “Chris, you don’t look too good. Why don’t you go to the boarding house and get some sleep? I’ll let you know when we get an answer from Burnt Meadows.”

“I’m fine, JD,” came the softly spoken answer. “Nathan’s already been prodding me, don’t need another nursemaid. I’ll just sit here for a spell, rest my eyes.”

With that Chris put his feet up on the desk, slouched back in the chair and pulled his hat down low over his face. Within minutes his breathing had deepened in sleep.

JD hesitated for a moment, then pulled out another chair and sat down. It wasn’t really necessary to keep watch on the prisoners, but he felt easier staying so that he could deal with anything that came along while Chris got some sleep.

He flicked idly through the latest batch of wanted posters, checking as always in case there was one with Vin’s face on it, which he would need to pull out and destroy. He tried to take in the images of those he saw, to memorize them in case any of the men showed up in Four Corners, but his mind wasn’t on the job. Rather, it was on a subject that had occupied him more and more frequently over the past few weeks: the noticeable tension between Chris and Vin that was beginning to overflow and affect them all.

JD had come to Four Corners a green Easterner whose sole qualifications for life in the West consisted of the ability to ride and a certain prowess with a gun. His mind had been full of romantic notions of what life would be like and he had thought he had gone to heaven early when he’d found that the legendary gunfighter, Chris Larabee, was in the same town as he was. He still blushed when he remembered how green he’d been back then and how many mistakes he’d had to make before he realized how life really worked out West.

Buck had taken him under his wing and JD would be forever grateful to the older man for his friendship. Even though he often found himself the butt of the big man’s jokes, JD now knew that Buck respected him and viewed him as a friend.

He’d come to appreciate and admire each of the other peacekeepers. They were all so different, but each in his way had taught JD a lot about life and what it took to survive in the West. He’d learned the most from Chris and Vin. At first he’d been disillusioned that Chris didn’t behave in the way he felt a notorious gunfighter should, but he’d quickly come to respect the man for his integrity and strong leadership. He had a natural ability to inspire trust in men and JD tried hard to emulate him.

From Vin, he’d learned the rudiments of tracking and all sorts of tricks of survival in this wild country. But more than physical things, he’d learned a great deal from the tracker about human nature and reading others. JD, a naturally garrulous person with a tendency to barge in head first, greatly admired Vin’s ability to size up a situation and calmly take appropriate action. His quiet, unassuming manner and ability to blend into the background afforded him ample opportunity to watch and observe and it was this that often led him to insights that others might have missed. He also had an almost uncanny ability to accurately read those around him, an ability JD would have given his right arm to have.

Given the nature of their friendship, the current tension between Chris and Vin upset and confused him. He knew it had something to do with the affair at the Gaines ranch, but for the life of him he couldn’t understand what the problem was. When Chris had been hurt Vin had been noticeably upset and had spent hours at Chris’s bedside, refusing to leave to hunt for Ella until Nathan was able to reassure him that Chris would live. Why, then, was he now avoiding Chris? Vin had driven himself to the point of collapse in the search for Ella, so why now was Chris treating him so harshly – when he was talking to him at all? It just didn’t make sense. He had brought the subject up with Buck a week ago and Buck had told him that they had best leave the two of them to work it out themselves. But nothing had changed and the more he thought about it, the more JD was convinced that it was time for the other peacekeepers to intervene.

This sudden, urgent desire to take some action had him jumping to his feet. A glance across at Chris revealed that the blond was still soundly asleep in his chair. A quick check on the prisoners reassured him that they weren’t about to cause trouble. Anyhow, Ezra would be along soon to relieve him shortly and he figured that his errand was important enough to warrant leaving the jail unattended for a few minutes.

JD picked up his bowler and rammed it firmly down on his head. He’d go and talk to Josiah – Josiah was an ex-preacher, he understood people. Surely he’d know what to do?