Chapter 1 - 10 | Chapter 11 - 22 | Chapter 23 - 30 | Chapter 31 - 39

Chapter 23
"On your feet!"

So far they'd been playing with him, coming against him one at a time. He'd hit the ground and they'd step back, grinning, waiting for him to get to his feet before attacking again. Yet, despite his bound hands and the bullet wound, he managed to inflict some damage on his opponents. He relished his brief victory when a well-placed kick sent Jake onto hands and knees clutching his groin, face screwed up in agony.

Vin was battered and bruised, but he was fairly sure that so far none of his injuries were too serious, although it was clear that it wouldn't be too long before he was no longer able to obey the constant commands to get up. Exhausted from the long night tied up and weakened by the constant throbbing pain from his wounds, his remaining strength was ebbing away minute by minute.

He'd overheard the conversation about Josh's whereabouts. For the first time since coming face to face with Ella Gaines once more, a flicker of hope had taken hold in his heart. He had seen Josh throwing glances in his direction the night before and hoped that the boy was beginning to realize his mistake. It was possible that Josh had gone for help and, if so, Vin knew he had to stay alive long enough for his friends to find him. There was no way in hell he was going to let Chris find him dead at the hands of Ella Gaines. He knew that Chris would blame himself and that causing the death of another person he cared about would be too much for his friend to bear.

He struggled wearily to his feet again and looked up to see where the next attack was coming from. Until now Ella had stood back, seeming content to enjoy the fight. Every time he caught her eye, her face held an expression of triumph that chilled his soul. Now, she stepped forward. With reflexes dulled by fatigue, he wasn't quick enough to move out away before her booted foot lashed out, connecting solidly with his right knee. Pain exploded through his leg. He collapsed with a cry of agony, gripping the injured knee with his bound hands, fighting back the nausea that threatened to engulf him.

"On your feet." Ella's command rang out once more.

She had to be joking. One look at the set of her mouth and the glint in her eye convinced him that she was deadly serious. He was still struggling to get his left leg under him when Jake stepped forward and kicked him hard in the abdomen. He fell back, fighting for air.

"On your feet."

Vin rolled onto his side and tried to force his fuzzy brain to function. He had to get up and fight; if Ella thought he had given up the end would come more quickly. One part of his mind was hinting that he should embrace the darkness that would free him from the relentless pain; another was fixed on an image of Chris Larabee, riding like a demon, face set in a mask of grim determination. Chris was coming. Vin knew it, and he had to keep fighting.

Ignoring the agony that shot through the injured knee, Vin finally forced himself to his hands and knees. Try as he might, he just couldn't make it to his feet. He heard Ella laugh and say something to Jake. Rough hands grabbed his bound wrists and dragged him upright. He tried to fight back, but his struggles were woefully weak. Jake held him still for a moment, and then pushed him with force into the nearby rock face. He hit hard, taking the impact on his left side, and there was an audible crack as ribs collided with solid rock. Before he could fall, Jake grabbed him again and threw him back into the cliff. This time his left shoulder took the full impact and again, he heard the sound of bone breaking.

The third time his head snapped back, connecting solidly with the hard rock. Pain shot through his skull and his vision blurred. This time they let him drop to the ground and he fell heavily.

The world was fading in and out. He could barely see and thunder pounded in his head, drowning out every other sound around him. Holding on to the vision of Chris, Vin gritted his teeth and tried to drag himself into a sitting position, but every breath he took sent waves of white-hot agony through his body and the unnatural strength that had kept him going for so long finally ran out. His battered body wouldn't respond to his commands to move and he could only lie helplessly where he'd fallen, waiting for Ella to make her next move.

He was vaguely aware that someone was standing over him, but he had no energy to look up and see who it was. Her voice soon gave away her identity.

"How does it feel, Vin?" she taunted. "How does it feel to be helpless, in pain, knowing that death is close?"

When he didn't answer, Ella bent down, grabbing a handful of hair and tugging it painfully, forcing his head around until he had to look at her. "This is what happens when you interfere in other people's lives; this is what is going to happen to all of your friends, one by one."

Vin looked wearily into eyes that were devoid of reason and with the last bit of strength he had, spit in Ella' face. Her face darkened with anger, but she didn't touch him. Instead, she stood slowly, wiping her face on her sleeve.

"Ya can't win, Ella," he said, the words coming out in a painful gasp. "You can kill me, you can kill all of us, but it won't change the way Chris feels about ya. He hates you as much as he loved Sarah."

Ella's face contorted with rage. "You're a liar! He never loved Sarah, not really. His heart has always been mine."

"Believe what you like. You'll know the truth soon enough."

"I know the truth, Mr. Tanner. I'm afraid you are the one who's deluded. But it doesn't matter any more, because we're done here. You've lived long enough. Jake, I think it's time to remove my thorn once and for all."

Vin bit back a scream as hands pulled him roughly onto his knees. Kale held him in place while Jack took hold of the rope still looped around his neck, and began to tighten it slowly.

No! He needed more time; surely he could fight for a little longer. A range of emotions coursed through him as he realized that he was too late. He felt sorrow that he would never now know what it would like to hold Inez in his arms and helplessness that he couldn't warn his friends of the fate Ella had planned for them. Mostly, he burned with a desperate anguish that he had failed to hold on, that Chris would arrive and discover his lifeless body. As the rough rope tightened against his throat he looked up, holding Ella's eyes, determined not to give her the satisfaction of seeing him cringe in the face of death. Then, as his breath was cut off and his vision began to blur, he heard a shout and a shot rang out. The rope loosened and he felt himself falling at last into velvety darkness.

Chapter 24

Inez Recillos turned over the final chair in the Standish saloon and stood back, wiping her brow. It was only an hour past dawn, but already it was too hot. By noon, the sun's rays would be fierce. She had risen early to get the saloon ready for opening, preferring to work while it was a little cooler. She took a broom and walked out of the batwing doors. There were a few townsfolk out and about, mostly shop owners getting ready for another day's trading.

Her eyes drifted to the familiar covered wagon, biting back her disappointment in knowing that Vin wouldn't be in for his usual early cup of coffee. She shook herself mentally; how pathetic had she become, that she seemed to be living for the few moments of time she was able to spend with this man each day? She began to sweep briskly, angry with herself that she had fallen into the trap of allowing her heart to rule her head. She was behaving like a love-struck girl and it would have to stop. It was obvious that if Vin had feelings towards her, he would have acted on them by now, whatever Mary thought.

Inez considered herself to be a resourceful, independent, and practical woman. Yet, since she had been a young girl, she had dreamed that she would marry for love. Seeing both her sisters marry men for the convenience of a comfortable roof over their heads had only served to underline this resolution. Her experience with Don Carlos had confirmed for her that she would rather live as a spinster for the rest of her life than marry a man she did not love. She had always believed that she would one day meet the right man for her. It had never occurred to her that when this happened, the man in question would not share her feelings.

It was obvious that Vin wasn't going to ask her to that stupid dance. After all, he had had every opportunity. If she had any sense left at all, she would accept someone else before it was too late. Joseph Best had asked her and so had Frank Willard – at least four times. Frank worked at the bank. He was as nice a man as any and moderately good looking. Even as she told herself these things, she knew she would not act on them. Frank Willard was a good man, but he did not have deep blue eyes that could look into her soul, or a smile that rendered her weak at the knees, or a voice that sent shivers down her spine.

On the positive side, Vin had not asked anyone else. She was well aware that there was no shortage of women in town who would love to go with him and who had not been shy in making their desires known. Perhaps Mary was right after all. He had said that he wanted to ask her something – maybe he really did intend to ask her to the dance? She stopped sweeping, leaning on her broom as she imagined what it would be like to feel his arms around her holding her close, to hear him whisper her name in that soft, raspy voice.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Mary Travis slam shut the front door of her house and hurry across to Potter's store, an obviously reluctant Billy in tow. There was a sense of urgency about her friend that broke into Inez's daydream and had her frowning in concern. Mary exchanged a few words with Gloria Potter, crouched down to kiss Billy, and then marched briskly to the telegraph office.

She hammered persistently on the door until Mr. Carson appeared, looking disheveled, as if he had just that moment pulled on his clothes. Inez watched curiously as Mary talked animatedly for a few moments and handed him a note. He nodded vigorously and disappeared inside. Inez was wondering what had happened to get her friend in such an agitated state when Mary looked up, caught her eye and hurried across the street.

"Mary? Is something wrong?" she asked as her friend stopped beside her.

Mary's eyes sparkled with worry. "Yes, I'm afraid there is. It's…it's Vin. Chris thinks he might be in danger."

Inez felt a mixture of alarm and confusion. "What do you mean? What kind of danger?"

"Last night, Mr. Standish came upon a photograph of Ella Gaines with Josh Kelly. He and Chris were both concerned that Josh might not be what he seems and may have led Vin into a trap."

"Ella Gaines? But it's Chris she's… what would she want with Vin?" Inez asked, fear welling up inside her. She didn't know the full story of the events that had taken place at the Gaines ranch, but she was well aware that the incident had almost destroyed both Chris and Vin. She certainly knew enough to be in no doubt that Ella was a dangerous woman.

"Inez, I think Chris is afraid that Ella wants revenge on Vin. He was the one who found out the truth about her and told Chris that he'd been deceived."

"And Josh knows her, he came here because of her?" Inez couldn't believe that a nice young man like Josh Kelly could possibly be mixed up in any kind of deception.

"It seems that way. Chris and the others, as soon as they found out, they rode out to look for Vin."

"Last night?" Inez remembered hearing riders shortly after closing up, but had thought nothing of it. In a town like Four Corners there was always someone on the move.

Mary put a hand on her arm. "Inez, I haven't told anybody else – I don't want to get the whole town gossiping until we're sure of what's happening. But I know how you feel about Vin; I thought you'd want to know."

Inez nodded absently, barely hearing Mary's words. She felt suddenly weak and sank down onto a bench.

"I saw you at the telegraph office…"

Mary nodded. "Chris asked me to telegraph the judge to let him know what's happening."

"Do you think she wants to… to kill him?"

Mary sat down beside her. "I don't know, Inez. It may all be a big mistake – we mustn't assume the worst."

Mary spoke in a reassuring voice, but one glance at her friend's face convinced Inez that Mary didn't believe her own words. With sudden clarity, Inez realized something else. If Ella had taken Vin, it might be simply a ruse to lure Chris into a trap – a trap he might even now be caught in. One look at Mary's face confirmed that her friend had the same fear.

"What can we do?"

"Nothing." Mary's frustration was evident in her voice. "All we can do is wait."

Chapter 25

"Drop your weapons!"

Without waiting to see if his command was obeyed, Chris spurred his horse forward. The tall, black-haired man dropped the rope around Vin's neck and reached for his gun.

Chris's first bullet took him in the shoulder.

He went down, rolled, and came up firing. Chris heard the rush of air as the bullet passed close to his left ear and fired again, this bullet taking the man square in the chest. He dropped and lay still.

Even as he was taking the man out, Chris was aware of more firing around him. Now, he looked around to see the remaining two men standing with their hands in the air. Ezra and JD were cautiously advancing on them, guns ready. Nathan was on his knees beside a too-still Vin, and Ella… Ella was standing stock still a few feet away from the fallen sharpshooter, her hands raised above her head. Unbelievably, she had a smile on her face and her eyes were focused on Chris.

He dismounted slowly, walking towards her.

"Chris!" Ella greeted him as he approached, her voice husky with emotion.

"Step away from him. Now!"

The smile faltered and she obeyed, carefully retreating a few feet.

Chris glanced at Josiah, standing just behind him.

"We have this under control, Chris. You go and check on Vin."

Chris nodded and, without sparing Ella another glance, turned away and dropped to his knees beside Vin.


Nathan looked up. "He's alive, Chris. Hard to tell how bad he's hurt through all this dirt and blood."

Chris allowed his eyes to travel along Vin's body, taking in the bruised face, bound hands, and rope around his neck.

"Let's start by gettin' these ropes off him," Nathan said briskly.

Chris took out his knife and carefully cut the noose from Vin's neck, wincing at the raw, bleeding welt underneath. Then he cut the rope binding Vin's hands, noting with mounting anger the deep cuts that had been gouged into his wrists. He'd seen the tree with the rope still hanging from it when he had ridden into the meadow. Chris bit his lip as he tried to imagine what his friend had gone through during that long night, alone with his pain, knowing that the dawn would bring death.

He watched anxiously as Nathan began running his hands slowly down Vin's body, muttering angrily every time he came across an injury. When he ran a hand gently over Vin's left shoulder the tracker groaned and his eyes opened a slit.

Chris rested a hand on his friend's good shoulder. "Take it easy, Vin. It's over."

"Chris…" The word was a whisper in a voice hoarse and trembling with pain.

"Don't try to talk. Nathan's here, he's gonna fix you up."

"Knew you were comin'. Tried ta hold on."

"You did, Vin. You held on."

"Ella…" Vin's eyes opened wider and he began to struggle to get up.

"Hold him, Chris," Nathan instructed sharply. "He shouldn't be movin' until we know how bad he's hurt."

Chris was already gently restraining the struggling man. "Calm down, pard. Everything's fine now."

Vin's right hand came up to grab Chris's arm. "Chris, Ella's… she's gonna kill everyone. You gotta stop her…"

Chris took hold of the tracker's hand lightly, mindful of the crudely bandaged fingers, and leaned in close. "Listen to me, pard. Ella can't hurt anyone any more. We've got her."

Vin frowned, obviously finding it difficult to take in what Chris was saying. "You've got her?"

"Look over there." Chris inclined his head to the left where Buck and Josiah were busy tying up the prisoners. Vin followed his gaze.

"Don't let her trick you into lettin' her go, Chris, she's gonna kill everyone – she thinks it's the only way to get you back."

"I won't let her fool me again, Vin. Now will you shut up and lie back?"

Amazingly, Vin obeyed, allowing his head to fall back and closing his eyes.

Chris started at a bitten off curse from Nathan.


"Shoulder wound – it ain't bleeding much now, but the bullet's still in there." He paused.

"What?" Chris asked again, alarmed at Nathan's hesitation.

"Chris, it looks like they stopped the bleedin' by cauterizing the wound, but under what conditions…"

Nathan's voice faded out and Chris needed little imagination to envisage the conditions under which the wound had been sealed.

"I'm gonna kill her," he stated flatly.


Chris's attention was immediately drawn back to Vin, whose eyes were open again.

"Josh is here with us."

"He… he found you?"

"Yeah, he found us."

Vin closed his eyes again. "She duped him real good."

"Yeah." Chris wasn't ready to give Josh any excuses.

Nathan continued his examination and Vin flinched and whimpered as gentle hands brushed over broken ribs.

"Don't ... hurts."

"Yeah, I know it hurts," Nathan replied softly. "But I need to know how badly you're hurt before I try to move you, all right?"

"Yeah." Vin closed his eyes again.

As Nathan continued his examination, Chris kept a hand on Vin's shoulder and tried desperately to fight back the fear he was feeling. Vin just lay there, stoically enduring the healer's probing hands on his battered body. Usually when he was hurt, Vin tried to cover it up with a light comment, or struggle to his feet and convince his friends he was fine, really. But this time his face was creased with pain and he made no further effort to try and get up, or even to move. This in itself showed Chris just how much pain his friend was in.

When Nathan ran a hand over the sharpshooter's right knee, Vin cried out. Nathan frowned and Chris looked at him anxiously. Pulling out his knife, the healer carefully cut Vin's pants halfway up the leg. Pulling the fabric open, he grimaced at the sight of the already badly swollen knee. Vin moaned and gritted his teeth as Nathan gently ran a hand along the swelling.

Finally, Nathan sat back on his heels and contemplated the injured man for a long moment.


"He's taken a hell of a beating, Chris. Dislocated shoulder and a few broken ribs. His hand is badly bruised, and may be broken. The knee's too swollen to tell how bad the damage is. There's a lump the size of an egg on the back of his head and there don't seem to be an inch of him that ain't bruised, some of it real bad. Might be some internal bleeding – I just can't tell. Then there's the bullet wound – bullet's been in there too long, reckon infection'll set in fer sure if I don't get it out quick."

Chris wanted to rage and shout and beat the crap out of those responsible for this, but he choked back the anger welling up inside him. Losing his temper wasn't what Vin needed right now, but so help him, he was going to be sure that Ella and her gang paid for what they'd done.

He took a deep breath. "Nathan, what do we need to do? Can you fix him up here?"

Nathan hesitated. "I'll do the best I can, but I want to get him back to town as soon as possible. It's a long trip, though. Might be best to stay the night here."

"Vin said the weather's gonna turn – storm coming in over the mountains, maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow."

Nathan nodded. "All right, that decides it. I can't risk him being out in the open if there's a storm coming. I'll dig the bullet out and clean him up, then we need to back to town fast."

Chris looked up as Buck and Josiah appeared beside them.

"How is he?" Josiah asked.

Chris swallowed. "Not good, Josiah. What've you done with the prisoners?"

"Trussed 'em up good," Buck replied. "JD and Ezra are watching them; they ain't going anywhere. What can we do to help Vin?"

"Someone needs to ride back to town, pick up a wagon. Nathan wants to get Vin back to the clinic today."

"Leave that to me," Josiah said. "The Wilsons have a covered wagon. Brad's a good man, he'll let me borrow it. Be a bit quicker than getting one from town. Reckon I can be there and back by late afternoon."

Josiah crouched down beside the injured man, reaching out a hand to grip his good shoulder. Vin's eyes opened a slit.


"You hold on there, Brother Vin. Just you hold on, you hear me?"

Vin attempted a smile. "Reckon I ain't goin' nowhere, 'siah."

Josiah squeezed his shoulder then stood up and nodded to Chris. "I'll be back as soon as I can."

"Bring the wagon as far as you can up the trail. We'll meet you."

As Josiah strode off, Nathan looked up. "Chris, can you keep an eye on Vin while I fetch some supplies from my saddlebags? Buck, that a canteen you got there? Try and get some water down him."

Chris nodded absently, his whole attention on the injured man. Buck handed him the canteen.

"Vin, I've got some water for you. Think you can you lift your head a little?" Chris asked.

Vin nodded faintly and Buck helped him lift his head, supporting him as Chris held the canteen to his mouth. Vin swallowed a mouthful and groaned.


"I know your throat's sore, but you need to drink, Vin." Chris coaxed the sharpshooter into several more mouthfuls before he clamped his mouth shut firmly.

"Guess you've had enough for now."

Buck was taking his jacket off. "Hold him a minute, Chris, let's try and get him more comfortable." He slipped the makeshift pillow into place and Vin sank back on it.

"That better?"

"Yeah. Thanks."

Nathan returned with his saddlebag.

"How's he doin'?"

Chris frowned. "Couldn't get much water down him, his throat's hurting him real bad."

"Well, we need to keep tryin', he needs to drink. We'd best move him into the shade, too. It'll be too hot out here when the sun is full up. Chris, put out a few bedrolls to lay him on. Buck, can you carry him? Be real careful not to jog his shoulder."

Chris trotted over to the camp, not trusting himself to even look in the direction of the captives, and picked up several bedrolls. He laid them out one on top of the other in a shady spot, making as comfortable a bed as he could. When he returned, Nathan was explaining to Vin what was about to happen.

"Buck's just gonna lift you up, Vin, so we can move ya somewhere more comfortable. It's gonna hurt, but you'll feel better soon, I promise."

The injured man uttered one moan of pain as he was lifted and then remained quiet as Buck carried him across to the bedrolls and laid him down carefully.

"I want to get the bullet out first," Nathan said. "We'll try to get some laudanum down him, but it ain't gonna be enough to completely dull the pain, so I'm gonna need both of you to hold him down for me. First off, I need a fire and a lot of water."

"I can see to that," a voice said in a subdued tone.

Chris looked up sharply and saw an anxious looking Josh hovering a few yards away. He had been so focused on Vin that he'd completely forgotten about the boy. Anger flared at the very sight of Vin's betrayer. "Vin don't need any more of your help."

Josh flinched.

"Let the boy help, Chris," Buck said quietly. "He knows he's done wrong and Vin needs all the help he can get right now."

Chris glowered at his old friend for a moment, then nodded reluctantly. If he had a choice, he wouldn't want the traitorous boy anywhere around, but Buck was right. It was Vin's needs they had to think of now.

Without another word, Josh disappeared to do the healer's bidding. Chris watched, a feeling of helplessness flooding through him, as Nathan patiently spooned laudanum down Vin's throat, until he was afraid to give the injured man any more.

"Chris, best cut his shirt off; there's not much left of it anyway."

Vin 's eyes snapped open as Chris began to cut away the tattered remains of his shirt.

"What'cha think yer doin?"

"What's it look like I'm doing?" Chris answered, glad to hear a hint of spirit in Vin's voice.

"Looks like yer strippin' off m'clothes!"

"Damn right. Now stop complaining and lay quiet. You're supposed to be injured."

Vin looked like he wanted to argue, but instead his eyes began to close as the laudanum started to take effect.

"That's it, Vin," Chris said softly. "You just go to sleep."

He caught his breath as he pulled away the ruined shirt and revealed the extent of the bruising. He could identify very little flesh that wasn't coloring up black and blue, and he looked across at Nathan worriedly.

"I'd be lying if I said he weren't hurt real bad, Chris. But Vin's a fighter – if anyone can come through this, he can."

Chris looked down at Vin's battered body, feeling a lump rise in his throat. "Not sure he's got much fight left in him, Nathan."

"Don't you believe it," Nathan said firmly. "Vin Tanner has more fight in him than anyone I know – he ain't gonna give up, and neither are we."

Chris studied Nathan's face for a moment, then he nodded. "Let's get to it, then."

When Josh returned with a pot hot water, Nathan began to clean the bullet wound. Chris saw clearly for the first time the way in which the wound had been crudely cauterized, and shuddered as he imagined the unbearable pain that had caused. Vin moaned aloud a few times and tossed restlessly during the healer's ministrations, but the laudanum kicking in and he was only half conscious. It wasn't enough to prevent a scream of agony as Nathan dug in his shoulder for the bullet, while Chris and Buck grimly tried to hold him down without causing him any more pain. Thankfully, he passed out quickly and Nathan was able to dig the bullet out without any difficulty.

With Vin unconscious, Chris relaxed his hold on his friend and watched as the healer worked. His admiration for Nathan grew as he watched. Nathan worked quickly, his hands gentle but firm. He packed the wound with herbs, covered it with a bandage and snapped the dislocated shoulder into place. He then immobilized the arm in a sling and bound the broken ribs. Next, he splinted and re-bandaged the damaged fingers. When he had cleaned the numerous small cuts, he rubbed salve onto the worst of the bruises.

Nathan worked in silence, breaking off now and again to ask Chris or Buck to assist him in some way. Finally, he said, "We need to turn him on his side, so I can get a look at his back."

Chris supported Vin's weight as Buck carefully rolled him onto his right side, hoping and praying that the movement wouldn't wake the injured man. Fortunately, Vin didn't stir. Nathan hissed between his teeth as Vin's back was uncovered and Chris leaned forward, cringing as he saw the ugly array of bruises. He watched as Nathan prodded the area around Vin's lower back.

"There's a lot of bruising here," the healer announced finally, "but I don't think there's enough to have damaged his kidneys."

He rubbed on more of the salve and then allowed Buck to move Vin onto his back once more. His final act was to put a hot poultice on the injured knee to try to take down some of the swelling.

Finally, pulling several blankets up around his patient, Nathan stood back. He looked totally drained.

"You did good, Nathan," Chris said. "Real good."

Nathan sighed wearily. "Let's hope it's good enough. There's nothing more I can do for him here; best thing for him now is rest."

Chris nodded, unable to take his eyes away from the injured man, irrationally afraid that Vin might stop breathing if he stopped watching the gentle rise and fall of his chest.

"He's gonna make it, isn't he Nathan?" He was almost afraid to ask the question.

"Chris, I wish I could promise you that, but you know I can't. That wound could still get infected, and though none of the other injuries would kill him on their own – all of them together; Chris, I just don't know. His body's taken such a beating."

"Vin's strong, Nathan. You said yourself he's a fighter."

Nathan rested a hand on Chris's shoulder. "Yeah, he is, Chris. And we're gonna do everything we can to give him that fighting chance."

Chris was still totally focused on Vin when he heard Buck speak. The words didn't register, until Buck raised his voice.


"What?" he replied stupidly.

Buck squatted down beside him and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Chris, Vin needs to sleep now. Best thing you can do for him is help us work out how to get him down from here."

"Right." Chris made a determined effort to focus on what Buck was saying. "We need to work out a way to get Vin down the mountain."

"You got it."

"He ain't gonna be going on his horse," Nathan stated firmly.

Chris looked around him. There were plenty of trees about, some with long straight branches. "Travois wouldn't work – terrain is too rocky. How about we cut down some of those branches, make a stretcher using the bedrolls?"

Nathan nodded. "That'd work. Want to make a start?"

"What do you want us to do with the prisoners?" Buck asked.

For the first time Chris looked across the meadow to where JD and Ezra were standing guard over the four prisoners. "Take Ezra and JD and get them back to town. Lock 'em up until the judge gets here."

He steeled himself and walked over to the stand of tress where the prisoners were being held. The two men were sitting back to back, securely trussed hand and foot. Ella was seated a few feet away, similarly tied. As he approached, Ella looked up and her face lit up.


Even the way she said his name made his insides curl in disgust. He turned away.

"How is Mr. Tanner?" Ezra asked.

"He's alive. Nathan's done all he can for him. Josiah's gone to get a wagon so we can get him back to town."

JD gestured towards the prisoners. "What do you want us to do with them?"

"Take them back to town and lock them up."

"Really, Chris, I don't see what all the fuss is about. We haven't done anything wrong," Ella protested.

Chris felt his jaw tighten. She went on, "After all, you know as well as I do that Mr. Tanner is a wanted man. We were simply doing our civic duty in capturing him."

"Was it your civic duty to beat him half to death too?" Buck asked angrily.

"Well, the poster does say, 'dead or alive'," Ella said, and smiled.

Chris's control snapped and his hand was reaching automatically for his gun when Ezra grabbed his arm.

"I believe Mrs. Gaines is simply trying to get a rise out of us. She has been attempting a similar feat for the past hour and I, for one, am getting a little tired of her pathetic posturing. Do not let her rile you – she is not worthy of your attention."

Chris understood the truth of Ezra's words. His heart was telling him to finish this now, but he knew that wasn't the right thing to do. He shook off Ezra's arm. "Fine. Let's not waste any more time on her. Just get them out of here – I don't want to have to look at her any more."

He turned his back on the prisoners, ignoring the sound of Ella's voice screaming his name.

"What about him?" Buck asked, gesturing towards Josh who was sitting a little way off.

"Take him with you and lock him up with the rest. He's as much a part of this as they are."

Buck eyed him silently for a moment. "Chris, I know what he did was wrong, but if he hadn't gone for help…"

"I don't care," Chris cut across Buck's voice sharply. "This is his fault and I want him to pay for it."

After a moment, Buck nodded. "We'll take care of 'em, Chris. You just get Vin back in one piece."

Chris glanced over to the spot where Vin lay, pale and unmoving under a pile of blankets. Buck was right. He and the others could take care of the prisoners. Vin was all that mattered now and Chris swore to himself that he would get his friend back to Four Corners safely.

Chapter 26

A sudden drop in temperature caused Nathan Jackson to look up anxiously at the sky. Clouds had been gathering for some time, and now the sun was totally obscured by a bank of gray. Darker clouds were forming ominously to the north and the air held the eerie stillness that often preceded a storm.

Buck, JD and Ezra had ridden out with the prisoners several hours ago, leaving Nathan and Chris to care for the injured sharpshooter. Recognizing the gunfighter's need to do something constructive to help his friend, Nathan had encouraged him do the bulk of the work on constructing the makeshift stretcher. He had kept a watch over Vin and cleared away the camp left by Ella and her men.

He was more worried about Vin's condition than he was prepared to admit to Chris. Had he been given a choice, he would not have opted to undertake the journey back to Four Corners until Vin was in better shape. The impending storm made the decision for him – the journey back was the lesser of two evils.

He had cleaned the bullet wound as thoroughly as he could, but he knew that it had been left only crudely attended for many hours and it was likely that infection had already started to take hold. Within the last hour, a fever had developed and the injured man was increasingly restless as the heat built up in his body. On a more positive note, Nathan was managing to get him to take water at regular intervals and so far he was keeping it down.

Chris carried the completed stretcher over to Nathan. "Will it do?"

Nathan eyed the finished effort and nodded his satisfaction. It wouldn't win any competitions, but it would be adequate for the task. He glanced at Chris. The man looked exhausted. Maybe it hadn't been such a good idea to let him wear himself out constructing the stretcher – they still had to carry it down the mountain and that was a daunting prospect for all three of them.

"It'll do fine. You made a good job of it - in good time too."

Chris glanced at the gathering clouds. "Reckon we'd best get going before this storm hits?"

Nathan nodded. "I've given Vin some more laudanum. If we leave now, we'll have a few hours at the bottom to wait for Josiah. It'll give Vin a chance to rest before we have to move him again."

Chris squatted down beside Vin, eyes anxiously scanning the flushed face. He reached out a hand and touched the sharpshooter's cheek, then looked up anxiously at Nathan.

"He's burning up, Nate."

Nathan nodded. "I know. Fever's takin' hold. We're gonna have to take as much water with us as we can, try to keep him cool on the trip."

Vin had stirred at Chris's touch and now his eyes opened a slit.

"Chris?" His voice was a hoarse whisper.

"Hey, pard. You back with us?"

"I…I guess."

"How you feelin', Vin?" Nathan asked.

Nathan expected the inevitable, "I'm fine," Vin's usual response to such a question, but after a pause, the sharpshooter said simply, "Hurts."

Nathan exchanged a worried look with Chris. For Vin to be admitting he was hurting, the pain must be really bad.

"Can you give him any more laudanum?" Chris asked.

Nathan shook his head. "Can't risk it, he's probably had too much already."

"Chris?" Vin was shifting restlessly.

"I'm here, pard."


"She's gone, Vin. She can't hurt anyone."

"Gonna kill the boys…"

Chris leaned in closer, cupping Vin's jaw in his hand, turning his face so he could see his eyes. "Ella's gone, Vin," he repeated. "Everyone's safe."

"Safe?" Vin sounded confused. "No, Ella…"

Chris frowned a question at Nathan.

"It's the fever, Chris. He can't get his thoughts straight."

Vin's eyes closed momentarily, then opened again as he tried to push back the blankets covering him. "Hot."

Nathan ran a wet cloth gently over Vin's face and the sharpshooter groaned, turning his face into the coolness.

"Vin," Nathan said, "We're going to have to move you soon – I want to get you back to town before nightfall."

Vin mumbled something unintelligible, then his eyes closed and, this time, stayed closed.

Nathan sighed. "We need to get going Chris, we can't be out in the open when the storm starts."

+ + + + + + +

Josiah had made the best time he could, but even so the sun was low in the sky by the time he arrived at the rendezvous point.

As he'd predicted, the Wilsons had been horrified to hear what had happened and anxious to help. Martha even insisted that he take the comfortable mattress from their bed, a couple of pillows and some spare blankets to ensure that the injured man was made as comfortable as possible for the journey back to town. Josiah's half-hearted protests about the Wilsons' own needs had fallen on deaf ears.

Now, as he spotted the three horses tethered near a small stand of trees, he sighed in relief and offered up a prayer of thanks that his friends had made it safely down the mountain.

He turned the horses until the wagon faced in the direction of home, drawing to a halt as close as possible to the waiting men. He jumped down and walked up to them. Vin lay on the stretcher, wrapped in blankets. Chris and Nathan were stretched out either side of him; heads propped against their saddles. Both men looked exhausted.

"You made good time, Josiah," Chris said as the ex-preacher squatted down beside him.

"The Wilsons are mighty good folk. Sent me off with a couple of fresh horses and some supplies." He looked at Vin, noting with concern the sharpshooter's sweat-dampened face. "How's he doing?"

"Coming down was hard on him," Chris replied shortly and Josiah was sure that his economy of words summarized a few hours of pure hell.

"Looks to me like it was hard on you all," he said softly. "I've brought some food – just bread, cheese and ham. Reckon you should get something inside you before we move out."

Chris shook his head, getting to his feet. "We can eat on the trail."

Nathan stood up too. "Chris is right. Sooner we get back to town, happier I'll be. I'll ride in the wagon with Vin."

Chris looked like he was about to argue, then nodded shortly, obviously seeing the sense in that choice but not liking it.

"Martha gave me a mattress, should make the journey back a mite easier for Vin," Josiah said, and Nathan flashed him a grateful look.

"That's real good, Josiah. It's gonna be hard enough on him as it is, though I think he's too out of it to know much of what's going on. We'd best carry him into the wagon; it'll be easiest than using the stretcher."

"I'll take him," Chris said immediately.

"Let me, Chris," Josiah offered. "You get up in the wagon with Nathan, help get him comfortable once he's in."

Again Chris hesitated, then nodded. Josiah carefully lifted Vin in his arms and carried him to the wagon, handing him in to Nathan and Chris. After what sounded like a brief and heated argument, Chris jumped out and mounted his horse while Josiah clambered back onto the wagon seat. He shook the reins, and they began the long journey home.

+ + + + + + +

It was dark by the time Josiah drove the wagon wearily down the main street of Four Corners. As he neared the clinic, the remaining peacekeepers appeared, along with Mary and Inez, to form a small welcoming committee.

Reining the horse to a halt, Josiah climbed stiffly down from the wagon seat. He was bone-weary. The journey had been difficult as he tried to maintain a balance between the urgent need to get Vin back to town and the equally important task of preventing the wagon bumping around too much on the trail. Chris, riding alongside, had reacted every time the wagon had hit a dip or rut on the trail, as if he could physically feel the injured man's pain.

Josiah leaned back against the wagon for a moment, watching as Buck hurried forward to speak quietly to Chris. Chris nodded and climbed into the back of the wagon. A few moments later two pairs of hands carefully passed their precious burden into Buck's waiting arms. As Chris jumped out, turning to follow Buck and Nathan up the steps to the clinic, Mary stepped forward with Inez at her heels and placed a restraining hand on his arm. Chris paused and began to talk, too quietly for Josiah to overhear the words. Mary's face held a mixture of relief and concern, while Inez's was a picture of anguish – confirming once and for all Josiah's suspicions about the saloon manager's feelings for the injured sharpshooter.

Josiah watched as Chris entered the clinic and the door banged shut. Mary took Inez by the arm and led her away. Josiah knew he should see to wagon and the horses, but at that moment he wasn't sure his legs would hold him up much longer. He felt a hand on his shoulder.

"Go and get some rest, Josiah," Ezra said. "JD and I will see to the wagon."

"Right obliged to you, Ezra, JD," Josiah said thankfully. He began the short walk to the church, feet dragging. It seemed like ten miles. He needed to rest, but most of all he needed to get down on his knees to pray – for Vin and for all the lives Ella Gaines had once again tainted with her poison.

Chapter 27

For two days, Vin remained caught in the grip of fever, restless and delirious. Nathan enlisted all the help he could find to take turns sitting with him around the clock, struggling to keep him cool, soothing his fever-induced nightmares, trying to prevent him from tossing and turning and exacerbating his injuries. Even Ezra, who usually avoided the clinic like the plague, had taken his turn and had proved to be one of the most successful at calming the restless patient.

Chris had taken his turns with the rest; Nathan had refused to allow him to spend too much time in the clinic, perhaps feeling that this would have increased his feeling of helplessness. He did feel helpless and it frustrated him. There was nothing he could do for Vin, nothing except follow Nathan's instructions and help make him as comfortable as possible.

Nathan was now confident that Vin wasn't bleeding internally, and the shoulder wound, while showing no improvement, was certainly no worse. The main concern was the still escalating fever. Nathan kept saying that it should break soon, but it was showing no sign of abating and Chris wouldn't think about the outcome if it continued to rage. Nathan was doing all he could, changing the dressing on the bullet wound twice a day and rubbing a soothing salve into the worst of the bruises. It hurt Chris almost physically to see Vin in this constant pain. There was no position he could lie in that seemed to give much relief to the agony, and the only thing that gave Chris any comfort was the fact that his friend wasn't really aware of what was happening. Yet in some ways witnessing the nightmares was the hardest part to bear. Frequently Vin would cry out in his sleep and through his delirious ramblings, Chris had put together a pretty good picture of what had happened up in the foothills.

It was now mid-morning on the third day since their return to Four Corners. Chris had relieved Nathan a few hours before to allow the exhausted healer to get some rest. Vin was tossing restlessly, muttering something about Ella and having to warn Chris. Chris ran the cool cloth over his burning skin once more and after a time Vin seemed to settle a little. Chris stood up and stretched to get the kinks out of his back. He'd been sitting hunched up for too long.

The clinic door opened and Nathan and Josiah entered, with Josh Kelly at their heels, Josiah encouraging Josh into the room.

Chris frowned when he saw Kelly. He hadn't given the boy much thought since they'd arrived back in town. Josh had been locked up with the rest of the gang and Chris hadn't been near him – he was afraid of what he might do if he had to look on the face of the man he held responsible for Vin's torture.

"Why've you brought him here?" he growled at Josiah.

It was Josh who spoke. "I… I wanted to see how Vin was doing, and to say I'm sorry..."

Something inside Chris snapped. He grabbed the boy's arm, dragging him into the room. "You're sorry? It's a bit late for sorry, boy."

"Chris…" Nathan began, but a glare from the gunfighter cut him off.

"I… I didn't know..."

"You didn't know? What didn't you know, Josh? Maybe you didn't know how a man would look when he's been beaten half to death?" Chris dragged the boy up to the bed. "Take a good look, Josh. This is real; and you were the cause of it."

Josh shook his head mutely, eyes wide with horror as he took in the extent of the damage inflicted on the tracker.

"Chris, that's enough," Josiah said firmly, moving forward to intervene. "This ain't helpin'."

Chris pushed the boy away from him. "Just get him out of my sight. Why isn't he locked up?"

"Chris, I'm not sure he should be locked away – he did help save Vin's life in the end."

"He deserves everything he gets and even then he'll have a better chance than he gave Vin!"


"Hell, do what you like with him. Just get him out of here!" Chris shouted.

A sound from the bed broke through his rage. Vin was awake and tossing restlessly again. Immediately Chris berated himself for not keeping his temper in check.

Josiah ushered Josh out of the room while Nathan stepped forward firmly.

"You too, Chris. This is a clinic! Ain't no room for shouting in here. I want you out of here until you've calmed down."

"I'm fine, Nathan…"

"I mean it Chris, go and work some off some of that anger, because it sure as hell ain't what Vin needs right now."

Chris glanced once more at the bed. Nathan had turned his back on him, settling down beside the injured man, trying to calm him. Nathan was right. He was too full of pent-up fury to be any use here. Without another word, he turned and strode out of the clinic.

Chapter 28

Josiah led Josh down the boardwalk until they were out of sight of the clinic.

Josh turned to face the ex-preacher, his face anguished. "What have I done, Josiah? This is all my fault and there's no way I can make it right."

Josiah studied the troubled young man for a moment. At first, he had been as angry as the others at Josh's deception and ultimate betrayal of Vin. Since then, though, he had talked a few times with Josh who had seemed genuinely contrite. He decided that the boy deserved the chance to tell the full story.

"Don't mind Chris, Josh, he ain't thinking straight, he's so worried over Vin. Those two are real close."

"I know." Josh nodded. "I just – I don't understand any of this. Why did Belle want to hurt Vin?"

Josiah realized that Josh knew nothing of the real story and over the past few days they had all been too busy caring for Vin to pay him any mind.

"Josh, you come with me over to the church. You'll be out of Chris's way there until he calms down."

"You're not gonna lock me up again?"

Josiah had argued for Josh's release from his jail cell to keep him safe from Ella's men. With only two cells in the jail, the peacekeepers had been forced to lock all four men in the same cell and then found themselves keeping an eye on them constantly, to protect Josh from retribution. Now that Kale, Pedro and Joe had been transferred to stand trial for crimes committed in Montana, there was no real reason why Josh should not be locked up again. However…

"Do you think I should?"

Josh didn't hesitate. "I reckon so. It is all my fault – I'm as responsible as the others for what happened, so you should lock me up with them."

"That's true – but you also did the right thing in the end. If it wasn't for you, we wouldn't have got to Vin in time. Keeping you locked up won't serve any purpose that I can see, so unless you're going to run…?"

Josh shook his head. "I ain't gonna run, Josiah."

"I believe you, son. Let's go and talk this thing out."

As he walked with Josh towards the church, Josiah spotted JD hurrying out of the sheriff's office. When he saw them, the young man strode across the street, face dark with anger.

"Why isn't he locked up?" he demanded angrily.

Josiah sighed. JD hadn't spoken a word to Josh since their return to town and Josiah could tell that the boy's betrayal was eating JD up inside. Maybe this was the time to kill two birds with the same stone.

"I thought it was time we gave him the chance to tell his side of the story, and the jail ain't the place to do it."

JD scowled. "There's isn't much to tell, is there? He betrayed Vin and Vin almost died. End of story."

Josiah could see this was going to be hard work, but he was also convinced that, for his own sake, JD needed to hear Josh's story. "Just humor me, JD. Come along to the church and hear what Josh has to say. If you still feel the same afterwards, then you don't have to have anything to do with him."

JD held his gaze stubbornly for a moment, then he shrugged.

"All right, if it'll make you happy. But it won't change how I feel."

Ten minutes later they were seated in the church. JD sat poker-faced, arms folded, refusing to look at Josh.

"So, Josh, why don't you start at the beginning and tell us how you met Ella?" Josiah said gently, nodding encouragingly at the obviously nervous young man.

Josh sat stiffly on the edge of the pew and cleared his throat, casting a quick glance in JD's direction. "Well, most of what I told you about myself was true. I was brought up on the farm with my uncle, like I said, and left to see a bit of the world. Then I met Belle in Silver City."

He went on to relate the story of meeting Belle, of the way be had been swept away by her beauty and how he could hardly believe his luck when she showed interest in him.

JD snorted derisively at that point. "Didn't it occur to you that it was a bit strange, a beautiful woman like her being interested in the likes of you?"

Josh flushed and Josiah threw JD a warning glance. "Let him tell the story, JD."

Josh continued, explaining how he had found out about Belle's past and had agreed to help her in her quest to bring her rapist to justice.

"And then she just happened to find out that Vin was in Four Corners?" JD asked sarcastically.

Josh glanced at him and frowned. "Well, yes, a few weeks later. But I didn't suspect anything, there was no reason to. She said she'd found out from someone who'd spent some time in Four Corners. He'd told her about the seven of you and she came up with the plan to separate Vin from the rest so we could capture him without anyone knowing he was missing."

"So your part of the plan was to come here, ingratiate yourself with us, and find a way to get Vin out of town on his own?" Josiah asked.

Josh nodded miserably. "I had no idea how I was going to do it, but in the end it wasn't hard. I just had to pretend I was interested in learning to track, and the rest was easy."

"You were in town for three weeks, Josh. Didn't it occur to you when you'd got to know Vin that she might have got it wrong?"

Josh hesitated. "I… I did have some doubts, but you have to understand – I was so in love with Belle, I guess I just closed my mind to the possibility that she might be lying. I trusted her."

"And Vin paid the price," JD said bitterly.

Josh looked him squarely in the eye. "Yeah, Vin paid the price. I ain't asking for forgiveness, JD, and I'm not trying to excuse my part in what happened. I just wanted you all to know that I really thought I was doing the right thing, helping Belle bring an evil man to justice. I hated deceiving you all. For what it's worth, you've been a good friend, JD. That part was real, at least."

JD was silent for a long moment, then he shook his head. "I can't… I need to think about all this. You lied to me – to us, Josh. I really thought… I gotta think about this." Without another word, and without looking at Josh, he got up and marched out.

Josh looked despairingly at Josiah.

"He'll come around, son. He's upset and angry; he thinks your friendship was a sham and that's a mighty hurtful thing."

"I know, but he's wrong. The friendship was real. How can I convince him of that?"

"You can't. Just leave him to think on it a bit."

"Josiah, what do you think the judge will do with me?"

Josiah shrugged. "I can't say, but I think he'll go easy on you, especially when he hears your story. Doing the right thing when it counted should go mightily in your favor."

Josh nodded. He was silent for a moment, studying his hands clasped tightly in his lap, then looked up again.

"Can you tell me what this has all been about?"

Josiah hesitated, not sure that he should be sharing Chris's business with Josh; on the other hand, the boy had a right to know the truth about the woman to whom he'd pledged his love.

"Belle's real name is Ella Gaines," he began, "but I guess you already know that. Long time ago Chris and Ella were together. They went their separate ways and Chris settled down; got married, had a son. Five years ago, while Chris was away, his wife and son were killed when their ranch house was set on fire. Chris eventually found the man who did it, but never found out who had hired him.

"Well, a few months ago Ella came back into Chris's life. She'd gone up in the world, married a wealthy rancher and was now widowed and owner of a fair-sized spread. She and Chris took up again. Then Vin found out that she'd been lying to Chris and Chris found evidence that Ella was responsible for the death of his family. She escaped, and we hadn't seen her since – until a few days ago. What you have to understand is, Ella was obsessed with Chris, always had been. She killed Sarah and Adam and she blamed Vin for turning Chris against her. She wanted revenge."

Josiah had watched Josh pale as he listened and when he spoke the boy's voice was shaking. "Belle – Ella – was responsible for the death of Chris's wife and son?"

Josiah nodded.

"How could she do that? What she did to them, to Vin. How could I not have seen that she's a… a monster?"

"It wasn't your fault," Josiah said earnestly, his heart going out to the boy for the first time. He'd forgotten that Josh had been in love with Ella; probably still was, despite everything he'd heard over the past few days. He was confused and hurting badly. "You're not the only man to have been taken in by a woman like her, and you won't be the last. She's a real charmer, a great actress. Maybe you were naïve and too trusting, but you can't blame yourself for that."

"Yes, I can, Josiah. And there's nothing I'm ever going to be able to do to make it right."

Chapter 29

The following morning Nathan woke to the sound of voices. He lay quietly for a moment, still only half-awake, trying to identify the speakers. They were talking quietly, and he couldn't quite make out the words. After a while, he confirmed the main speaker as Chris Larabee. The other voice contributed only occasionally to the conversation in a Texas-drawl. Vin!

Nathan sat up quickly, now fully awake. At the sound of movement Larabee turned his head and smiled. Nathan did a double-take. Chris Larabee smiling?

"Fever broke," Chris announced.

"When?" Nathan was out of his bed and at Vin's side in a moment.

Chris shrugged. "'Bout an hour ago."

"An hour! Why didn't you wake me?" Nathan demanded, reaching out a hand to feel Vin's brow. Slightly warm, but no sign of the raging heat of a few hours ago.

He looked down to see clear blue eyes studying him, amusement in their depths.

"You was sleepin' so peaceful like, we didn't want ta wake ya."

"Well, hell, Vin, it's good to have you back with us," Nathan said, pleased that his patient was obviously lucid and aware. How you feelin'?"


"What the stubborn mule means," Chris interpreted, shooting a stern glance at the Texan, "is that he's in a lot of pain but refusing to take any more laudanum."

"Be honest with me now, Vin," Nathan said, "How bad is it?"

"Better'n before," Vin answered after a slight hesitation.

"That don't mean much. I'm gonna give you just a little anyway, take the edge off. Don't you argue," he added as Vin opened his mouth. "I can see you're hurting a lot more than you're ever gonna admit."

Chris stood up. "Reckon I'll go find the boys, let them know we have this ornery cuss back in our midst."

As the clinic door closed behind the gunfighter, Vin looked after him, a thoughtful expression on his face.

"How's he doin', Nathan?"

"Now, you don't want to be wearing yourself out worryin' over Chris."

"That bad, huh?"

"He's strung a mite tight," Nathan admitted. "Reckon it'll help a lot though, knowing you're on the mend."

"Nathan, you gotta look out for him, you and the boys," Vin said urgently, gripping the healer's arm. "When he's like this, he's an explosion waitin' ta happen. Sooner or later, he's gonna blow, and you need to be there to make sure he don't do somethin' stupid."

Nathan nodded. Vin understood Chris Larabee better than anyone and had seen in a few moments what Nathan had known for the past three days. "We'll look out for him, Vin, don't you worry. Now lay back and get some rest – you still got a lot of healin' to do."

+ + + + + + +

"So, she's been locked up ever since, waiting for you to arrive."

Judge Orrin Travis sat back and listened as Chris Larabee finished his story. They were seated in a quiet corner of the hotel, enjoying a cigar. Travis had finally arrived on the noon stage, apologizing for the delay. A trial in Rushing Springs had dragged on longer than expected and he had been unable to get away. He had immediately asked Larabee to join him at the hotel and during lunch Larabee had filled him in on the events of the past few days.

He regarded Larabee thoughtfully. The man looked tired and worried, as had the other peacekeepers when he had seen them earlier. Larabee, though, was also edgier than a rattler caught in a stick – and could prove as deadly, should he choose to strike. It was only to be expected, given his history with Ella Gaines and his friendship with the injured Tanner.

"So, you think that Mr. Tanner will make a full recovery from his ordeal?" Travis asked now.

Chris nodded. "Nathan thinks he's gonna be just fine, now that the fever's broken."

"Well, that's the only good piece of news in this whole unfortunate affair. Perhaps, then, this would be a good time for me to make Mrs. Gaines' acquaintance."

"Yeah." Chris didn't move out of his chair. "There's just one thing."

Travis raised an eyebrow.

"Ella's gonna claim that she and her gang are bounty hunters," Larabee said simply, his eyes locked with Travis'.

Travis pursed his lips, resting his elbows on the table and lacing his hands. The Judge was fully aware of the bounty on Vin Tanner's head; could hardly have failed to find out, after the run in with the impostor, Yates. The issue had never been spoken of formally; all concerned knew the knowledge could put the Judge in a difficult position should it ever come out that he was aware of the facts. He did, however, have a great deal of respect for Tanner and when Larabee had assured him, in a round about way, that the man was innocent of the charges against him, Travis had believed him. Since then, he had made a few judicious inquiries about the incident in Tascosa, but it was difficult for a judge out of his own jurisdiction to poke around in such matters without arousing suspicion.

He held Larabee's gaze. "Yes, I had anticipated something of the sort. Don't worry. I have a plan." He winked, and stood. "Shall we?"

Smiling inwardly at Chris's puzzled expression, he allowed the gunfighter to lead the way out of the hotel and down the street to the jail. JD, who was seated at the desk, stood as the judge entered and Travis nodded to him as he passed through to the cells.

As soon as she saw him, Ella Gaines came to the bars. Even in a somewhat disheveled state, she really was a very beautiful woman, the judge mused. Evil, but beautiful. It was little wonder that she was able to spin her web and entrap even the most cautious of men.

He removed his hat politely. He was quite looking forward to this conversation.

"Mrs. Gaines, I assume. I am Judge Orrin Travis."

Ella gave him a welcoming smile, on hand unconsciously patting her hair into place. "Judge Travis, thank goodness you're here."

Even from behind bars she was trying to weave a spell.

"I've been trying to tell these… these… imbeciles, that they have no right to hold me here, but no one will listen!"

Orrin raised an eyebrow and folded his arms. "Really, Mrs. Gaines? I find it hard to believe that you are being held unlawfully."

"Judge Travis, my men and I are bounty hunters. In case Chris has failed to inform you of all the pertinent facts, Vin Tanner has a bounty on his head. We had arrested him, legally I might add, when Mr. Larabee and his men attacked us, killing one of my men. They are the ones who should be behind bars."

"Well, Mrs. Gaines, I don't know anything about a bounty, but in any case, it isn't related to the reason you're being detained."

"What are you talking about?"

"You have been detained for your known association, which you have readily admitted, with the gang led by Jake Cullen – wanted in the State of Montana for robbery and murder."

"What? That's ridiculous! I've only known them a few months…"

"That may or may not be true, but I believe there are a few eyewitnesses who saw a woman matching your description fleeing the scene of a robbery in Bozeman."

Ella's eyes narrowed and he could almost see her agile mind trying to work out where he was going with this. Pleased with the response, the Judge went on, "Regardless, it was simply fortuitous that you were detained for that matter. I am here today, ma'am, to formally charge you with the murders of Sarah and Adam Larabee."

"What!" Her head shot up and her eyes blazed. "You… that's preposterous! You have no proof!"

The Judge glanced at Larabee, who was looking equally shocked. "Actually, I believe I do. I'm sure you'll tell me you've never come across a man called Handsome Jack Averal, but strangely several of his men are willing to testify to overhearing you discussing the crime with Mr. Averal. Then there are the items found in your house, items which belonged to Sarah Larabee. Personally, I find the evidence compelling and so, I'm sure, will the jury in Eagle Bend. You will be transferred there on Saturday and will stand trial for your crimes in due course."

Ella's beautiful countenance contorted in a mask of spite. "If you put me on trial I'll tell everyone in the courtroom about the bounty on Tanner."

Travis shrugged. "Be my guest. No one will believe you, I'll see to that."

Ella switched tactics then, turning to Chris with a piteous look of anguish, her hand reaching for him through the bars. "Chris! Don't let him do this. I meant everything to you once, and I can again – doesn't that count for something?"

Travis saw the anger and hatred burning in Larabee's eyes as the blond backed away from her touch. Chris held Ella's eyes for a long moment, before turning away. "I'll see you in hell, Ella," he snarled.

Travis replaced his hat, tipped it politely to Ella, and followed Larabee from the jail, shutting the door to black out Ella's screams of rage. He sank into a chair outside, feeling quite pleased with the way he'd handled the interview. Chris, though, remained standing and seemed agitated.

"Something wrong?"

"I'm glad to finally get justice for Sarah and Adam, but it just doesn't seem right for her to get away with what she did to Vin. He… Judge, you saw what she did to him."

"I understand your feelings, Chris. But justice will be done, I can assure you – for Sarah and Adam, and for Vin, whether she's actually charged for her crimes against him or not."

"What about the bounty? What if she does tell the judge about it?" Chris asked.

"The bounty on a man unrelated to the case is irrelevant – she'll be shouted down if she tries it. I'll make sure I have a word with the judge who'll be trying the case, help him to understand that her word cannot be believed."

"And Josh Kelly?"

Ah, yes, Young Mr. Kelly. When Travis arrived he had been surprised to find that Kelly, rather than being locked up in the jail, was actually walking free and residing at the church. Once Josiah had explained the whole story, the judge tended to agree with the decision, especially as he would be unable to bring charges against the boy.

"If I can't charge Mrs. Gaines with a crime against Tanner, I can't charge Mr. Kelly either. To be honest with you, Chris, in the light of his story and the way everything turned out, I'd be inclined towards leniency in any case."

Chris frowned. "Am I the only one around here who wants to see him punished for what he did?"

The Judge faced him squarely. "Just don't take the law into your own hands, Chris; that won't help anyone. Have you asked Vin how he feels about Josh?"

Chris shook his head.

"Maybe you should. You might be surprised."

When Chris didn't reply, the Judge stood up. Well, I should go and spend some time with my daughter and young Billy. I'll see you again before I leave tomorrow."

Chris nodded. "Mary's been looking forward to seeing you. And judge – thanks."

Travis nodded. "Just doing my job, Chris. Just doing my job."

Chapter 30

Mid-afternoon found Casey Wells absent-mindedly picking up a few supplies in Potter's store.

Casey was feeling confused, upset and a little angry. No one would explain to her exactly what was going on. Her Aunt Nettie had been too distracted worrying for Vin to talk to her much and it disturbed Casey to see her usually practical and down-to-earth aunt so upset. Not that she was surprised - she'd been upset herself the one time they'd let her see Vin. It had broken her heart to see the usually fit and active man weak and in so much pain.

Then there was JD. On the one occasion he'd escorted her back to the ranch to take care of the livestock, he had been quiet and withdrawn; sullen, even, and that wasn't like JD. She was hurt and angry that he refused to talk to her. She was beginning to think that if he was the kind of man who would shut her out whenever he was upset about something, then maybe he wasn't the right man for her after all.

As for Josh Kelly – he'd kept a low profile since they had let him out of jail, but she'd seen him around town a few times with Josiah. She wheedled Buck into telling her what had happened, and although she was shocked at the way Josh had deceived them all, she could not help but feel some sympathy for him. He was so obviously sorry for what he had done, and he had, after all, been completely taken in by that vile woman.

Casey finished her business in the store and stepped outside. JD was sitting on the boardwalk outside the sheriff's office, looking so miserable that despite herself she found herself walking up to him.

"Hey, JD."

He didn't look up. "Casey."

She sat down beside him.

"Aunt Nettie says Vin seemed a whole lot better this morning. He must be; she's thinking of going back home tonight."

"Yeah, Nathan thinks he's going to be fine."

"And they're taking Ella Gaines away on Saturday."

"I know."

"So, it'll all be over soon."

JD didn't answer.

"What's going to happen to Josh?"

"Why do you care?" JD shot back.

"He did a really bad thing, JD, but the way I hear it, he didn't know what he was doing; thought he was doing the right thing."

"Doesn't matter - he still tricked us all, lied to us – how can that ever be right?"

Casey regarded him thoughtfully and suddenly it came to her why JD was so angry.

"This isn't about Vin, is it?"

JD's head shot up. "Of course it's about Vin!"

Casey shook her head, confident that she was right. "No, it isn't. It's all about you. What's really upsetting you is that Josh lied to you – he pretended to be your friend just to get close to Vin."

"You don't know what you're talking about!"

"Don't I?" She felt herself getting angry at his pig-headedness. "How selfish can you be, JD, moping around because your feelings are hurt while Vin's the one who almost died, Vin's the one who's really in pain. Maybe you should be worrying about him, not yourself."

"I…" JD began but Casey cut him off, jumping to her feet.

"Forget it, JD. Why don't you look me up when you've gotten over yourself!"

She stormed off, heart beating furiously. Sometimes JD made her so mad she could shout and scream at him. Well, this time she wasn't going to apologize for shouting at him – it was time he grew up and started thinking about someone other than himself.