The heavy metal door, set in a thick wooden wall, swung shut behind him, latching with a loud clang. He hunched his shoulders against the sound and continued walking, knowing the gazes of the guards followed his every step. Out in front of the gates his two friends waited for him, one holding the reins of his horse. He took those reins and swung up into his saddle without saying a single word.
He twisted the horse's head roughly around and spurred the gelding into a hard gallop, the two brothers who had been waiting for him following behind.
When he finally pulled back on the bay's reins, slowing the gelding to a walk, one of the brothers asked, "Well, did y' see her, Caleb?"
"Yeah, I saw her," he replied, staring straight ahead at the trail.
"She all right?" the other sibling asked.
He flashed the young man an angry look. "Hell, no, she ain't 'all right.' She's in prison; probably gonna die in that hell hole. Probably soon, too. She's got a cough that sounds real bad."
The two brothers dipped their heads and studied the dusty trail, not wanting to rouse the young man's ire any further.
"What, uh what did she want t' see y' for?" the youngest of the two brothers finally ventured several minutes later.
Yanking back on the reins, Caleb halted his bay and sighed heavily. "She wanted me t' make her a promise, Glen."
"A promise? What kind of a promise?"
"That I'd go after the fellas who killed my brother and put her in that prison," he said, looking pointedly from one brother to the other. "She made me promise to kill Vin Tanner and Chris Larabee."
"Y' gonna do it?" the eldest of the Ellerby boys asked.
"Hell, Sam, y' know I can't say no to Mama," Caleb Quince replied. "But I'm goin' t' need your help."
"How y' gonna do it?" inquired the younger of the two brothers. "They're dangerous men. You saw what they did to your brother an'"
"Shut your face, Glen," Sam snapped. "Don't be bringin' that"
"Mama told me what to do," Caleb assured them. "Told me exactly what to do. Yessiree, we're goin' t' be smart and make 'em pay. All of 'em Larabee, Tanner and his whole damned gang, too. They ain't goin' t' get away with killin' my only brother and puttin' my ma in prison." He looked pointedly at the Ellerbys. "An' you two are goin' t' help me. Follow my orders and it'll be all right, you'll see. Ma's smart. Smarter 'n those men."
The brothers shifted uncomfortably in their saddles, but they nodded their agreement.
"Won't be hard, if we do what Mama told me," Caleb told them, then gigged his gelding back into a lope.
Five days later, in Four Corners, a Thursday
JD sat in a chair on the boardwalk, in front of the sheriff's office, playing checkers with Casey. She had already beaten him three out of four games and he was looking for any excuse he could find to escape another trouncing. And two strangers, both of them close to his own age, was just what he needed.
"Who are they?" the young woman asked, watching JD study the two strangers intently as they rode past. "You recognize 'em from some wanted posters?"
"No, but I don't know who they are, either," JD told her. "Guess I better go find out who they are and what they want."
Casey frowned. "You think they're lookin' for trouble? You think maybe they're two of them cowboys who've been roustin' the settlers?"
"Won't know 'til I talk to 'em, now will I?" JD snapped. The words came out a little harsher than he had intended and he saw the hurt expression cross her face. "Sorry," he mumbled, unable to meet her eyes.
She shot him a feisty look, snapping back, "You just don't like gettin' beat by a girl, JD Dunne."
JD rolled his eyes. "It ain't that, Casey," he lied. "Beside, I was just lettin' you win"
"Lettin' me win?" Casey demanded, her eyes rounding with anger. "You are such a a man," she concluded disgustedly, then stood and stomped off in a huff, muttering to herself the entire way.
JD watched her go, sighing loudly. He was never going to understand that girl. Never. He shook his head, and glanced back to see where the two strangers were going, but they were still headed down the dusty thoroughfare.
He stepped out into the street, following the pair, who finally pulled up outside the saloon. Hurrying across the street, he caught the pair before they stepped into the Standish Tavern. "Howdy, boys," he greeted them, smiling a little.
The pair turned to JD, both smiling back. "Do we know you?" the older of the two young men asked him.
"JD Dunne," he replied. "I'm the sheriff here."
"The sheriff?" the younger boy echoed. "Ain't old enough t' be no sheriff."
JD frowned. The comment would have made him mad under normal circumstances, but the boy had sounded more earnest than condescending. He flipped up his lapel to show them his star. "I'm older than I look," he explained.
"What can we do for you, Sheriff?" the older boy asked him then.
"I just like to, uh, meet strangers who come into town," JD said. "Been havin' some trouble with a bunch of cowboys botherin' the farmers around here."
"We ain't cowboys," the younger of the two men said. "We don't know nothing 'bout that, Sheriff."
"My brother's right," the older one agreed. "We're just passin' through; plannin' on headin' up north to Wickenburg. Heard there's some jobs to be had up 'round there fightin' Injuns."
JD nodded, lifting his hand so he could touch the brim of his bowler. "Well, enjoy your stay in town. And good luck."
"Hey, Sheriff, you heard of any safer work 'round here?" the younger man asked hopefully. "Our stake could use some buildin' up 'fore we head up north."
JD thought for a moment, but shook his head and said, "Don't know of anything myself, but you can check with Mrs. Travis over at the Clarion office. She might know about something. She puts out the paper. Might be an ad in there you could check on."
With that JD turned to leave, but the younger man stopped him, asking, "Sheriff, uh, y' mind if I ask where you're goin'?"
JD turned back, looking a little wary. "Got to walk my rounds, why?"
The young man smiled, his expression eager and open. "Mind if I come along with ya? I ain't never seen how a sheriff does his job. I might want to try it some time. Maybe get me a job as a deputy up there in Wickenburg. Be safer 'n fightin' Injuns."
JD puffed up some. "Well, guess it couldn't do any harm," he said. "Sure, come along if you want to. But I have to tell you, it's not very exciting most of the time, anyway."
"Sam, you go on without me, I'm goin' t' go with the Sheriff," the younger boy told his brother.
"All right," he replied with a shrug. "I'll be in the saloon when y' get back." Sam turned and stepped through the batwing doors.
"I'm Glen Ellerby," the younger man said, sticking out his hand.
"Nice to meet you," JD replied, shaking the boy's proffered hand.
"So, how long have you been a sheriff?"
"Well, that's kind of a complicated answer," JD said as they started off together.
"I got plenty of time," Glen replied attentively.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin walked into the saloon and headed straight to the bar where Inez stood, drying a stack of glasses. She smiled at him as she poured him a shot, sliding it onto the bartop before he reached her.
"Thank y', Inez," he said, his voice low and raspy. He picked up the drink and carried it over to the table where Chris relaxed with Buck, Ezra and Josiah.
Sitting down with them, the tracker took a sip of his drink and said, "Them cowboys hit the Prachet place. Burned down the barn 'n' killed three sows in the hog pen."
"Damn," Buck sighed, leaning back in his chair and folding his arms over his chest. "Four days, four barns burned," he grumbled.
Larabee shook his head and said, "Guess we should've expected this. Can't expect James and Royal and the other ranchers around here to just roll over and give up without fighting back from time to time."
"Question is," Josiah rumbled, "what're we going to do about it?"
"We simply cannot watch over every house, hovel and hog pen scattered around the Territory," Ezra said, shaking his head as he began to shuffle the cards he'd been fingering.
"Nope," Vin agreed, "but they've been hittin' the folks out northwest 'a town, mostly 'long Apache Creek. Figger they might try the Spencer or Nobel places next. We c'n watch them two, see if these boys show up."
Chris nodded. "Buck, take JD and Nathan and head out to the Nobels'." He glanced across the table. "Josiah, you and me can watch the Spencer place."
The former preacher nodded.
"I c'n go," Vin said, looking a little annoyed about being left out.
Chris shook his head. "You were out all last night, and most of yesterday. You get some sleep. We'll make sure the cowboys don't bother those families."
Vin looked like he wanted to argue, but then he shrugged one shoulder and nodded. "This last time they hit jus' after dawn."
"Late at night, before first light, just after dark, and now after sun-up. Well, hell, why can't they make it a little easy?" Buck groaned.
"Hey, Larabee!" someone called from the doorway.
Chris looked up and saw Mr. Riley gesturing for him. He immediately stood and started for the man, the others right behind him.
As the gunslinger reached the batwing doors, Patrick Riley pointed and said, "Looks like another fire, Mr. Larabee. Maybe the Corman place?"
"Damn it," Larabee hissed, then snapped at the others over his shoulder, "Get the others. Let's ride!"
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The seven peacekeepers rode into the well-tended yard of Darcy Corman's farm, drawing up their horses. Corman and his family stood on the porch, watching as their barn continued to burn.
"Did you see them?" Chris asked the farmer.
Darcy shook his head. "Heard the horses and came out to see what was going on " He trailed off, shaking his head. "We got the stock out, and the wagon, but that was all."
"There were at least five of 'em," Mrs. Croman said, wiping her tears away with the hem of her apron. "They was laughin' and carryin' on as they rode out "
"I got their tracks!" Vin called to the others, and they were off again, the tracker in the lead.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Almost an hour later Vin raised his hand, calling for the others to stop. He slid off his black gelding, walked over, and squatted down, carefully studying the tracks he saw on the ground.
Chris dismounted as well, joining the tracker. "What do you see?" he asked Tanner.
"They split up here," Vin replied, pointing to the signs as he said, "Three goin' east. Two south back toward town. An' one's goin' north."
Chris scowled. "That's six. Mrs. Corman said there were five."
"There was one waitin' here fer 'em, the one headed north." Frowning, Tanner raised his head and gazed out at the desert landscape. "Might 'a split up fer 'nother reason," he said, adding, "Might be plannin' an ambush."
"An ambush?" Ezra asked from where he still sat on his horse. "Out here?"
"There's plenty places t' hide," Vin told the gambler. "Washes, rises, few hills."
"And the ranchers have reason enough t' bushwhack us," Buck tossed in, then grinned and added, "We've been a burr under their saddles for a while now."
"But what set 'em off?" Nathan asked the others. "Why start burnin' barns now?"
"Maybe if we can find one of these cowboys, we can ask 'im," Chris said.
"The one heading north," Josiah said, "isn't that toward James' spread?"
"And Guy Royal's place is what, southeast of here?" Buck added. "Both of them groups goin' east and south could veer off and head back to his place with no trouble at all."
Vin stood as he said, "Yep. Could be they're headed back t' the ranches, or could be someplace else. Won't know fer sure if we don't follow 'em 'n' find out."
Chris thought for a moment and then said, "Let's see if we can't catch up with the pair headed back toward town."
Larabee mounted, Vin doing the same a moment later. They set out again, Tanner leading the way for several more minutes before the tracker called for another halt.
"What is it?" Chris asked him, his gaze sweeping over the landscape, looking for that possible ambush.
The tracker shook his head. "Don't like the feel of it. Give me a bit t' scout 'round some, see if there's any surprises waitin' fer us."
Larabee looked like he might argue, but then he nodded. "Don't take too long or we'll come lookin' for you."
"Just as long as it takes," the tracker replied with a small smile, heading out alone.
"Watch your back," Chris called after him.
"Maybe one of us should go with him," Buck said a few minutes later.
"Vin can go faster and quieter without one of us along," Chris replied, but his worried expression didn't match the confidence in his voice.
"How long we goin' to wait?" JD asked a couple of minutes later.
The six waiting men heard gunfire.
"Damn it," Larabee hissed, kicking his gelding into a hard gallop and heading off in the direction of the shots, the others following.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Reaching the ongoing gun battle, the six regulators slid out of their saddles, scrambling for cover, their horses squealing. Not far in front of them, Vin lay on the ground, sheltered by an outcrop of rocks that looked far too small to protect the tracker. Tanner was holding back several shooters who were raining lead down on him and the others.
"Vin!" Chris called. "Y' hit?"
"'m fine!" the tracker yelled back. "Looks like them three headed east changed their minds! I've seen five so far."
Frantic seconds passed, cowboys and peacekeepers all struggling to find a shot. A yelp from JD brought Nathan out from behind the rock where he'd taken shelter. Buck and Josiah gave the healer covering fire as he made his way to JD's side.
Nathan dropped down beside their youngest member, asking, "Where?"
JD fired again, then turned to look at the black man, blood running freely down one cheek. "Bullet caught the top of the rock piece of that hit me."
Nathan nodded, knowing the cut could wait. He caught sight of a man darting from one rocky outcrop to another and fired, JD's gun echoing his by no more than a second. The man grunted and pitched forward into the dust.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris watched Vin, who was crawling on his belly, making his way up the side of a short embankment, and wondered what in the world the tracker was doing. Then he looked from the point where the tracker was headed to the others, still fighting, and spotted Buck. He looked back to the top of the rise and saw Tanner taking down a man who had been trying to get a bead on Buck and Josiah.
But when he looked back to Buck and the preacher, he saw another, more immediate threat to the men's safety.
"Buck, get down!" Larabee yelled, coming up into a half-crouch to fire at the cowboy edging up undetected behind the ladies' man. But even as his finger began to squeeze, Chris was caught around the shoulders and carried to the ground, his Colt going off on the way down, the sound unnaturally loud to the gunslinger's ears.
As motion slowed, Chris saw a flash of tan hide coat and started blue eyes an instant before he hit the ground and rolled, trying to get away from his attacker, but the man stuck with him, pinning him and raising his gun to finish Larabee off.
A moment later Chris heard another too-loud shot and the man who was about to blow his head off pitched off his chest.
Chris jerked his head around to find Ezra standing there. "Nice shot," he said by way of a thank you.
"A fortunate accident, I assure you," the gambler replied, but his gold tooth flashed.
Three more shots rang out before silence settled over the landscape. Slowly, the regulators emerged from their cover. Nathan checked the three men lying scattered in the rocks, then glanced around, asking, "Where's the other two?"
"Over there," Chris said, nodding to the dead man beside him and up to where he'd see Vin a few moment earlier. He frowned and quickly glanced around Nathan, climbing the hill; Buck and Josiah, already gathering the bodies; Ezra, brushing the dust from his red-velvet coat; and JD, bleeding, but still on his feet. "Vin?" he called.
There was no reply.
"Vin!" Chris tried again, the image of the wide blue eyes flashing into the gunslinger's mind.
"Up here!" Nathan called from the top of the rise. "Vin's been hit!"
Larabee felt the world around him tilt slightly and he stumbled forward a step. And then Buck was beside him, his expression worried. "Y' hit, stud?" the ladies' man asked. Chris shook his head, unable to force any words past the fear that threatened to close up his throat and choke him. He was grateful when Buck stayed with him on the climb up to the top of the rise.
And there, at the top, lying on the ground, blood pooling under and alongside his head, was Vin Tanner.
"Is he?" JD started to ask, but he couldn't finish the question.
Nathan lifted his head from the tracker's chest, saying, "He's still breathin', but his heart's beatin' fast and weak." Then, with careful, gentle hands, he turned Vin's head to the side and parted the blood-soaked hair with his fingers to uncover the wound. He frowned, parting back more hair. The healer probed the wound with one finger, his eyes closed.
"Nathan?" Josiah asked softly.
The healer's eyes opened and he grinned shakily as he looked up at the older man. "Just a graze. Don't feel like the bone's fractured neither." Looking back down at Vin, he reached out and tapped the man's cheek, saying, "Vin? Vin, can y' hear me?" When there was no response, Nathan carefully slipped his hands behind the tracker's neck, checking for any broken bones. "Neck feels all right, too," he muttered to himself more than the others, then moved his hands up under Vin's head. "Ah, damn," he sighed.
"What is it, Mr. Jackson?" Ezra asked him, kneeling beside the healer.
"He's got a good-sized knot starting here on the back of his head. Bleedin' up a storm, too."
Vin moaned, his feet starting to move.
"Help me here," Nathan snapped. "Keep him still."
Ezra, Josiah and Buck were immediately beside him, holding Vin down as the tracker regained consciousness and immediately started to fight.
"Easy, Vin," Buck soothed. "Easy, pard. It's over. You just lay still and let Nathan have a look at ya now."
"Buck?" Vin rasped, his brow furrowing. "Wha? What happened?"
"Those damned cowboys set a better trap than we expected," was the ladies' man's reply.
"Cowboys?" Vin moaned, flinching as Nathan pulled him up into a seated position and set to work cleaning the two wounds.
"Easy, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said. "I would be more than happy to regale you with descriptions of the entire incident, including my timely arrival to Mr. Larabee's aid, but I'm afraid that will have to wait until we are back in what passes for civilization in these parts."
Vin made a face and muttered, "What'd he say?"
"He'll tell you all about it later," Josiah translated. "For now, you just rest easy, brother. Let Nathan do his work."
Vin nodded slightly, a flash of pain crossing his face before his eyes rolled up and he lost consciousness.
Nathan glanced up and, seeing Larabee's pale face, said, "Probably better if he's not awake for the ride back to town. His head's got to be poundin' something fierce."
But Chris knew unconsciousness and head injuries were a bad combination.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The ride back to Four Corners was made in silence, and it passed as quickly as Nathan would allow. Larabee rode with Vin on the tracker's big gelding, holding the man tightly to his chest to keep him in the saddle. Josiah and Buck offered to spell him, but he refused both offers.
Once they reached Four Corners, Josiah took the tracker from Larabee, carrying him up the stairs to the clinic, JD and Nathan trailing behind him.
Buck, Ezra and Chris headed for the saloon. A few minutes later Josiah joined them at the table. Inez, seeing the concerned expressions, and the conspicuous absence of Nathan, Vin and JD, pulled down a bottle of higher quality whiskey and carried it over to the table, returning with seven glasses on a tray.
She set the tray down and transferred the glasses to the table. Then, looking at Buck she asked softly, "And the others?"
Buck offered her a half-sad smile and replied, "Nathan's looking after Vin and JD. The kid's got a cut on his cheek that's goin' t' need a few stitches."
She waited for a moment, and then inquired, "And Señor Vin?"
Ezra replied this time, telling her, "He was grazed."
"Where?" she pressed, the despondent look in Chris's green eyes chilling her so much she shivered despite the heat of the day.
"Head," Josiah said softly. "But he woke up again when we got into the clinic. Nathan thinks he'll be all right."
She let out the breath she'd been holding and silently thanked God for the good news. "I'll bring you something to eat," she said, then returned to the bar for a moment before disappearing into the back to fix their food.
Larabee reached for the bottle first, filling four of the glasses. He paused, staring at the last three, his hand shaking slightly, then set the bottle back down.
The men reached for their drinks, gulping them down in single gulps. Chris filled his glass again, and tossed that one down as well.
"Easy there, stud," Buck cautioned, watching Larabee with a worried frown as the gunslinger filled his glass for the third time. The man hadn't said a single word since Nathan had said Vin had been shot.
Chris's head came up, an angry green gaze pinning Wilmington's. "Ain't your business, Buck," he said softly.
Wilmington's frown deepened, but he shrugged.
Chris tipped his glass back, emptying that one as well.
Buck glanced at Josiah and Ezra. The former preacher shrugged slightly, and Ezra's eyebrow jumped up just slightly in a shrug of their own.
Silence descended on the table.
Several minutes later JD arrived, his face clean, a bandage over the cut. Buck grinned at the sight, knowing the young sheriff would milk all the sympathy he could out of Casey while he was still wearing the bandage.
JD slipped into one of the three remaining chairs, then took an empty glass and poured himself a shot. He took a swallow and winced as the liquor burned a path down to his belly.
"And how is our valiant tracker faring?" Ezra asked the boy.
"Nathan was working on him again when I left. But he said he thought Vin would be all right. He was hoping he'd wake up again before now, though."
Chris reached for the bottle again, but this time Buck reached out and stopped him, a hand on the gunman's forearm.
The two old friends locked gazes.
"I'd think you'd want t' stay sober, pard," Buck said softly, intently. "Might be a long night if Vin builds a fever."
Chris's eyes flashed. "Stay out of it," he growled, reaching again for the bottle.
"What the hell's got into you?" Buck demanded. "I can see stayin' out of the way for a while give Nathan some time to get him cleaned up and bandaged, but"
"Buck, I said stay out it," Larabee hissed, his tone deadly.
"Like hell I will," the ladies' man replied and the others exchanged concerned, wary glances, but they wisely stayed out of the escalating argument. "He's your friend, Chris. He deserves better from ya."
Larabee looked up, his eyes flashing. "You're right, Buck. He does. He deserves a helluva lot better 'n me."
That took Wilmington aback and he bit back the retort that was on the tip of his tongue. His eyes narrowed and he saw the heavy shroud of guilt weighing on his oldest friend's shoulders for the first time. "Chris? What the hell's goin' on, stud?"
The muscle in Larabee's jaw twitched. "I'm the one who shot him," he managed to say thickly, looking like the words themselves might make him sick to his stomach.
"What?" JD gasped.
"I was aimin' for the guy on you," Chris said, speaking to Buck. "But that other cowboy caught me around the shoulders "
"That villain I shot?" Ezra asked him.
Chris nodded. "I couldn't pull the shot," he said, sounding like he was trying to convince himself more than the others. "I was already firing. I saw Vin go down "
"Ah, hell, Chris, that wasn't your fault," Buck said, his tone full of understanding and sympathy.
"Tell that t' Vin," the gunslinger snapped, reaching for the bottle.
"No," Josiah said, stopping the blond. "He'll need you, Chris, and you need him," he said softly. "Why don't you go over to the clinic, see how he's doing?"
Chris's green eyes flashed dangerously as he held the preacher's gaze, but then the anger fizzled and died, replaced by the most profound guilt Josiah could ever remember seeing in a man's eyes.
"Go on," the preacher urged again.
Larabee hesitated, his eyes turning decidedly bright. But he nodded and stood.
Buck stood with him, saying, "Come on, pard, I'll walk along with you."
Chris thought briefly about saying no, but he could see the worry and friendship in the ladies' man's eyes and he nodded instead. "Thanks," he rasped.
The two men left together, the others leaning back in their chairs.
"Damn," JD sighed softly. "That's got to be the worst thing in the whole world "
"A man who hurts his brother, that's bad, that's real bad," Josiah replied in a soft rumble. "But a man who hurts his soul, well, now, that's even worse."
"Amen," Ezra replied softly, reaching into his pocket and pulling out his cards.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Buck stayed right beside Chris all the way to the door of the clinic. Once there, he reached out, intending to open the door for the blond, but Larabee caught his wrist, stopping him.
"What if I've killed him?" the gunslinger whispered softly, the pain his voice making Buck ache inside.
"Ain't goin' t' happen, Chris," the ladies' man replied as confidently as he could. "That kid's too damned stubborn to let an ol' cuss like you take him down."
Chris snorted softly, but couldn't find the hope to rally a small smile for his friend. "I hope you're right," he said, then reached out and opened the door, stepping quickly inside, as if he might change his mind if he hesitated, even for a moment.
Buck watched the door close and sighed heavily. He glanced heavenward and said quietly, "I know we're not on real good terms, Lord, but I've got t' believe You've got a special place in Your heart for that woolly tracker. So, if You'd just keep an eye on the two of 'em, I'd truly appreciate it."
"Amen, brother," Josiah said softly from behind him.
Buck turned, offering the preacher a sad smile. "Think He'll listen to an ol' sinner like me?"
Josiah grinned and nodded. "He'll listen to anyone who cares to talk to Him."
"You goin' t' wait?" the ladies' man asked.
Josiah nodded and took a seat on one of the chairs there on the landing. Buck took the other one.
A few minutes later, JD arrived, taking a seat on the top step as he said, "Ezra said to come fetch him if Vin needed him."
Buck nodded, and they began their vigil in silence.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Nathan looked up from where he sat next to the narrow bed. Vin lay there, quiet and still, his eyes closed, his head wrapped in bandages.
Chris swallowed hard and shuffled forward. He pulled his hat off and asked, "How's he doing?"
"Good, I hope," the healer replied. "He woke up a couple 'a times, but he wasn't makin' much sense."
"Is he going to be all right?"
Nathan took a moment, then said, "Head wounds can be a mite tricky. Can't say fo' sure, but I think he's just sleepin' now."
"I'll sit with him if you want to go get something to eat," Chris said, his tone half-lost, half-frightened.
Nathan almost said no, but the look in Larabee's eyes changed his mind. "All right. I'll be at the saloon if y' need me. Just send someone to fetch me back."
Chris nodded and when Nathan stood, he took the healer's place in the chair. "Anything I can do for him?"
"If he wakes up, see if he'll drink some of what's in that cup," he said, nodding to a cup on the bedstand. "And make sure he stays in that bed. I don't want him movin' 'round anymo' than necessary."
Chris nodded again.
When Nathan was gone, Larabee scooted the chair close to the bed, then reached out and took Vin's hand into his own, clasping it lightly. "Damn, Vin, I'm sorry. I never meant to hurt you," he said softly. "You have to know that "
When there was no response, no squeeze from the limp fingers, Chris carefully eased the sleeping man's hand back down and leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest and waiting, willing the tracker to heal.
The next morning, Friday
Vin moaned, his feet moving slightly under the covers. In the chair beside the bed, Chris jerked awake. "Vin?" he called thickly.
Tanner groaned, continuing to move restlessly.
"Easy, pard," Chris soothed, his voice quiet as he reached out to gently squeeze the tracker's shoulder.
Vin's blue eyes cracked open and he glanced around, his expression pained and confused.
"Easy," Chris repeated. "You were shot," he added. "So just stay right there; be still."
"Damn," Vin breathed. "Did y' git 'im?"
Chris opened his mouth to reply, but didn't know what to say. "Vin," he finally managed, "there wasn't any 'him.'"
Vin frowned, his gaze still moving restlessly. "What're y' talkin' 'bout, Cowboy? A woman shot me? Who?"
Chris took a deep breath, letting it out in a long sigh. "There's no easy way to say this, so I'm just goin' t' come right out with it I'm the one who shot you, Vin."
"Like hell y' did," Tanner growled, scowling. "I saw 'im, or her, in the rocks behind ya."
Chris shook his head sharply. "I did it. One of those cowboys grabbed me as I fired "
Vin rolled his head from side to side, but the blackness was already returning, pulling him away again. "No ain't right "
"I'm sorry, Vin," Chris said as he saw the tracker's eyes drop closed again. "Damn, I'm sorry."
Later that same day
It was dinnertime and most of the peacekeepers were in the saloon, enjoying another of Inez's wonderful meals when JD burst in and hurried over to join them.
"What's set your drawers on fire, kid?" Buck asked the young sheriff.
"Another barn burned this afternoon," JD said, ignoring Buck's teasing. He took a deep breath and added, "Molly Lewis was killed."
"Oh, damn," Buck breathed, dropping back against his chair, the food forgotten.
The other men looked equally stunned. The child was only four, and "cute as a button," as the ladies' man reminded them constantly.
Buck was about to saying something when the batwing doors were pushed open and Stewart James stalked into the saloon.
"Speak of the devil," JD muttered, shooting the man a dark glare.
James spotted the peacekeepers and walked over to join them at the table. He stood, looking down at the angry expressions on the men's faces. "Guess y' already heard about the Lewis barn gettin' burned," he said.
"We did," JD replied, his hands coming up to rest on the butts of his guns.
"Pull your horns in, son. I came all the way in here myself to tell you boys I didn't have nothin' to do with that little girl's death. Haven't had nothing to do with any of the barns that's been burned around here recently."
"And you actually expect us to believe that?" Buck asked the rancher, his tone soft and dangerous.
James shrugged impassively. "No skin off my back if you do or don't. I'm just tellin' you the way it is. I figure the less time you spend watching me and my boys, the more you'll have to find the bastards who're doing this."
"And when did you become concerned about the health and welfare of the local farmers?" Ezra asked the rancher.
"Don't care 'bout 'em," James replied matter-of-factly. "But an innocent little child like that ?" He trailed off, shaking his head. "I haven't got a thing to gain burning barns. You'd do well to set your sights someplace else." And with that, James turned and left.
Josiah sighed and said, "The man has a point," after James had left.
Buck puffed out a breath. "I hate to say it, but I agree with you, Josiah. I don't think James is our man."
"Then who?" JD asked the ladies' man. "Royal? One of the other ranchers?"
"Wish I knew, kid," Wilmington said.
"Whoever it is, they must believe they have something to gain by their actions," Ezra said. "But I cannot imagine what that might be, unless it is one of the ranchers, trying to run these poor people off their land."
"Something else is goin' on," Buck said. "I don't know what it is, but there's something else "
The next morning, Saturday
Josiah hung in a rope chair he'd fashioned for himself, carefully white washing one side of the short bell tower on the old church. Below him the townsfolk went about their daily activities, a few stopping to call up a greeting or to exchange words with the former preacher while he worked.
It was just after Mary Travis had stopped to ask about how Vin was doing that Josiah heard it, a high-pitched creaking sound just before he felt the rope give way and he fell.
Mary, who was only a short ways down the boardwalk, turned and called, "Josiah!" before she hurried back to him, helping him to stand. "Are you all right?"
"I think so," he replied, then shifted his weight from one foot to the other and sucked in a sharp breath. He shook his head, smiling sheepishly and saying, "Ah, I see I spoke too soon."
"Your leg?" she asked, seeing how he was keeping the weight off one foot.
"Knee, I think."
"Here, let me help you over to Nathan's clinic."
"Josiah! Josiah, are you all right?" JD asked breathlessly, running up to join them. "I saw you fall from Are you all right?"
Josiah nodded. "Just twisted my knee," he assured the younger man, his gaze sliding to the boy who had followed along behind JD.
JD saw where the preacher's gaze had gone and said, "Josiah, this is Glen Ellerby. He and his brother are in town looking for some work. I've been, uh, showing him around some."
"That was quite a fall!" Glen said breathlessly. "You're lucky you're alive!"
"Good Lord had other plans," Josiah replied, then looked back to JD. "Help me out of this, will you?"
"Nathan needs to take a look at Josiah," Mary said as JD untied the rope, letting it fall into the dust. She was determined not to let the preacher escape without being checked for other injuries.
"Come on, Josiah," JD said. "Glen and I can help you over to the clinic."
Josiah looked to Mary, saying, "I appreciate your help, Mary."
She nodded, watching them go.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Y' just need to stay off that leg fo' a day or two, should be right as rain after that," Nathan said after he finished examining Josiah's knee. "I'm goin' to wrap it in some cool towels, see if we can't bring the swelling down some. How'd it happen?"
"Fell off the roof," the big man admitted sheepishly.
JD slid into the clinic, closing the door behind him. "You didn't fall," he said, glancing around. Chris was sitting next to Vin's bed, reading while he waited for the tracker to wake. Larabee looked up, meeting the young man's gaze for a moment. "Sorry to interrupt, Chris, but I needed to show Josiah this." JD handed the preacher the length of rope he was carrying and said, "That rope didn't break, it was cut. You can see it, plain as day."
Josiah took the coil and checked the two ends. One had obviously been cut. He shook his head. "I didn't see anyone, but then I wasn't paying that much attention to anything but the bell tower and the people who stopped to talk to me."
Chris rose and walked over, checking the rope himself. "Got someone mad at you lately?" he asked the preacher.
"Oh, probably," Josiah replied with a grin. "You know me, sometimes I rush in where I should fear to tread."
Chris held the man's eyes for a moment. "Time we stepped up the patrols. Those cowboys might've decided to make this personal. I'll go tell the others." He glanced back at the sleeping tracker. "You keep an eye on him for me?"
Larabee left, JD following behind him.
A couple of hours later
Nathan was rubbing liniment into Josiah's leg when the tracker finally moaned softly and opened his eyes.
"Vin?" the healer called softly, watching as the blue eyes shifted as if Tanner were seeking out the source of his voice. "Vin, you awake?"
"'m awake," the man mumbled.
Nathan reached for a cup of water, then held Tanner's head so he could take a drink. The tracker's nose immediately wrinkled. "What's that smell?" he asked.
"Got some liniment on my hands," Nathan said. "I'm rubbing some on Josiah's knee. He twisted it up pretty bad in a fall."
"Long as y' don't want me t' drink somethin' that smells like that," Vin replied. His brow furrowed. "Why y' workin' in the dark?"
Nathan and Josiah exchanged worried looks before the healer asked, "Dark?"
"Hell, Nate, it's dark as pitch in here," Vin replied. "Why don't y' light a lamp so y' c'n see?"
Nathan sighed softly, his head dipping.
"What?" Vin asked the healer. "Nate, what's goin' on?"
Sitting down on the chair Larabee had been using, Nathan examined Vin's eyes and head. "What do you see, Vin? Exactly."
"Bunch 'a nothin'," Vin replied. "Must be the middle 'a the night" He stopped. "Moon's almost full shouldn't be this dark. Nathan?"
"Y' took a crease to the head, Vin, then you hit your head again when you fell "
Tanner swallowed nervously. "You sayin' 'm blind?"
Nathan reached out and gently gripped the tracker's shoulder. "Seems so."
"Fer good?" Vin asked, his voice coming out as a choked whisper.
Nathan glanced again at Josiah, who shrugged one shoulder and nodded. There was no use lying to the man, he wouldn't thank them. The healer looked back to Tanner saying, "Can't be sure, Vin. Head injuries are tricky. Might be it'll clear up in no time Might not, too. Your head hurt?"
"Like Peso kicked me," he replied honestly, afraid if he held anything back, he might not get the truth from the healer.
"Feelin' sick in the belly?"
"No," Vin replied. "When will y' know?"
Nathan thought for a moment, then sighed and said, "I can't say, Vin. We're just goin' t' have to wait and see how this goes, day by day."
"It'll work itself out," Josiah called softly from his chair, then added, "Ah, damn, Chris isn't going to take this well."
"Chris?" Vin asked the preacher. "What's he got t' do with it? What's wrong?"
"He's" Nathan started. "He's the one who grazed you," he finished. "He got hit just as he fired and couldn't pull the shot."
Vin shook his head and immediately regretted it. He moaned, then took a deep breath and said, "He didn't graze m' head. There was someone else, in the rocks behind Larabee. I told 'im that. Chris's shot caught m' coat, at the top 'a the shoulder. Take a look fer yerself."
Nathan stood and walked over to where the tracker's hide coat hung from a peg and checked it. Sure enough, there was a rent at the shoulder. He showed it to Josiah.
"Seems more than a passing coincidence, don't you think?" the preacher asked Nathan, who nodded.
"What?" Vin demanded.
"You see someone in the rocks, someone who tries to kill you, then someone cuts the rope I was using to hold me while I whitewashed the bell tower."
Vin's unseeing eyes rounded. "Y' all right, J'siah?"
"Just twisted my knee," the man replied, touched by the concern in the man's voice when he was facing the terror of blindness.
"Swelled up like a melon," Nathan added. "But he'll be fine. We best tell the others someone's gunning for us soon as they get back."
Josiah nodded, looking back at Vin, but the tracker was sleeping or unconscious once again. "We're goin' to have to tell Chris about Vin, too."
"I'll do it," Nathan said, shaking his head sadly.
"Chris can take on more than his share of guilt and this is going sit heavy on his shoulders," Josiah added sadly.
"Yes, it will. Just hope it won't be too heavy fo' him t' bear."
"Amen to that, brother."
It was just after sundown when Vin woke the next time. Nathan was at the saloon, grabbing a bite to eat and telling Larabee about Vin's blindness, and what the tracker had said about the shooter, leaving Josiah in the clinic to watch the tracker while he kept his leg elevated.
"Vin?" he asked when he heard the man groan and begin to stir. "You need some water, brother?"
Tanner nodded and Josiah hobbled over and helped him finish off what was left in the cup by the bedside before he sat down and rested his foot on the bed. "How are you feeling?" the preacher asked.
"Head feels like there's 'n ol' prospector in there, diggin' fer gold."
Josiah chuckled softly. "Sounds painful."
The two men sat in silence for a time, then Vin asked softly, "You ever think much 'bout dyin', J'siah?"
"Now and again," he admitted, adding with a small grin, "usually when I get t' seein' the crows which usually happens after too many nights in the company of the wrong kinds of spirits."
Vin smiled thinly and nodded his understanding.
"Why do you ask?" Josiah ventured, worried he already knew the answer.
The tracker turned his head away, but didn't say anything.
Josiah's eyes narrowed slightly and he watched the younger man glancing sightlessly around the room. "It'll come back, Vin. You just have to give it time."
Vin didn't reply immediately, and when he did, it was with an underlying anger that took Josiah by surprise. "Ain't much call fer a tracker who cain't see tracks, or a blind sharpshooter. I'll be 'n easy target fer any bounty hunter who wants five hundred dollars t' line his pockets."
"Vin, you have to know we won't let that happen," Josiah said, a little hurt at the man's apparent lack of faith.
"Ain't goin' t' be a burden t' the rest 'a ya, J'siah."
"The Lord tells us to be our brother's keeper, Vin. It wouldn't be a burden."
Tanner thought for a moment, then looked in the former priest's direction and asked, "What would y' do, J'siah, if'n it was you?"
The older man leaned back, sighing heavily. He had to give the man an honest answer. "Probably the same thing you're thinking."
"If Nathan says this ain't goin' t' get no better" Vin started, but the preacher cut him off.
"He doesn't know, Vin. You heard what he said head injuries are unpredictable."
"He'll know," Tanner insisted.
Josiah sighed again. "Yes, I suppose he probably will, eventually."
"When that day comes"
"J'siah, I need y' t' promise me y'll help me do what I got t' do. I cain't ask Chris, it'd hurt 'im too much. JD's too young to Hell, y' know what 'm tryin' t' say. An' Buck 'n' Nathan, y' know they couldn't do it."
Vin thought for a moment, then said, "Hell, he'd keep comin' up with some damned excuse or 'nother 'n' I'd never git m' business taken care of."
The older man's head dipped. "I don't know if I can make that promise, Vin."
"Please, J'siah," Tanner begged him. "All y' got 't do is help me git out 'a
The preacher closed his eyes, praying he would never be held to this promise and said, "When that time comes, if that time comes, you know I'll help you."
"Thank y', J'siah," the tracker breathed and the relief in his voice was heartfelt. All the same, it made the preacher's heart ache.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Larabee shook his head. "There wasn't anybody in those rocks," he argued after Nathan repeated Vin's recollection of the fight.
The healer set his fork down and looked pointedly at the gunslinger.
"Which is why he remembers your bullet catchin' his coat, and the rent's there, Chris, right where he said it'd be."
That caught the gunslinger a little off guard. "What?"
Nathan nodded. "He saw you shoot. Your bullet caught him at the top of the shoulder. The shooter's bullet grazed his head. Probably would've killed him if yo'r bullet hadn't caught him like it did."
"Vin, then Josiah," Chris said. "Wonder who'll be next."
"Could be any of us, I suppose," Nathan replied.
The healer dipped his head, took a deep breath and said, "Got some news on Vin "
Larabee's brow wrinkled with worry and he waited for Jackson to go on, but he didn't. "Damn it, Nathan, what is it?"
The healer glanced up, wishing he didn't have to do this, but said, "Them head wounds they"
"Nathan," Chris growled.
"It's left him blind."
The color drained from Larabee's face. "Blind?"
Nathan nodded. "Don't know if it'll last, might, might not, too. Just goin' to have to wait and see how it goes."
"Does he know?" Chris asked, his voice choked.
Fear crossed the gunslinger's face. "You left him alone?"
"Josiah's with 'im."
Larabee sighed. "Damn Goddamn "
The next morning, Sunday
Buck bid a good day to his latest conquest and headed for the saloon where he knew coffee and breakfast waited. As he turned down the alley that ran between the saloon and the hotel he heard a noise and started to turn, but was struck from behind. He pitched into the dirt, white and yellow flashes of light erupting in front of his eyes before they faded to cold blackness.
A few minutes later he groaned and started spitting dirt from his mouth. Struggling to his feet, he headed for the clinic, his gait unsteady.
Climbing the stairs almost forced him to pass out again, but he managed to reach the door and stumbled inside.
Nathan looked up from here he was grinding herbs for Vin and yelped, "Buck?"
"Howdy, Nate," the ladies' man greeted him cordially and then he collapsed to the floor.
"Bucklin?" Vin called. "Nathan, what's wrong with 'im?"
"Don't know," the healer said, moving quickly to the fallen man's side and beginning to examine him for injuries.
"Nathan?" Vin called a few moments later.
"Looks like somebody hit him from behind pretty hard, too, he's got an egg-sized lump here."
"Ow," Buck moaned, and then yelped as Nathan continued to clean the tear in his scalp.
"Hold still," the healer said.
"Hold still? That hurts, damn it," Buck complained.
"Goin' t' hurt more if it gets infected," Nathan countered, helping the man to stand and guiding him over to a chair where he could sit. He finished cleaning and dressing the wound.
"Bucklin?" Vin called, clearly worried.
"I'm fine, kid," the ladies' man replied.
"What happened?" the tracker asked him.
"Somebody tried to stove my head in while I was on m' way to the saloon."
"A jealous husband?" Nathan asked the ladies' man with a grin.
Buck grinned back. "Doubt it. I'm usually too quick for 'em."
"Think we better find the others 'n' have us a parley," Vin said.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
In the clinic, the seven regulators argued about what was happening, and why.
"I'm telling y', pard, someone's tryin' to take us down one by one," Buck insisted, still looking a little pale and in pain.
Chris's jaw muscles worked furiously. He had been shown the hole in the shoulder of Vin's hide coat, and the tracker was still insisting he hadn't been the one who'd shot him in the head, but it was hard for the gunslinger to believe him. Still, the attacks on Josiah and Buck certainly make it look like they were being targeted by someone.
"What I fail to understand is how these cowboys know where we will be in order to waylay us," Ezra said.
"Well, Josiah wasn't hidin' up there on the bell tower," Nathan said.
The preacher nodded and looked over at Buck, who was sitting in a chair, his feet up on the foot of Vin's bed. "And Buck's, uh, conquest last night was about as public as it could get."
Wilmington grinned. "Y' do have a point about that."
"Carting a lady off on your shoulder is pretty obvious," JD agreed, nodding.
"But what about Vin?" Nathan asked the others.
"Well, whoever set that barn on fire probably knew we were looking for them," JD said.
"Any strangers in town?" Vin asked from his bed. His gaze wandered around the clinic, but he still couldn't make out anything and, as a result, his expression had an inward focus that was more than a little disconcerting to the other peacekeepers.
"No more than usual," Ezra replied, then frowned and glanced over at JD, adding, "Of course, there is Mr. Dunne's new friend and his brother."
"Glen?" JD asked, and then shook his head. "Naw, he and his brother are just passin' though. Said they were going up to Wickenberg. He's just curious about what being sheriff's like, that's all. Thinks he might want t' be a deputy. He's been tagging along on my rounds and " He trailed off, frowning.
"What're you thinking, JD?" Chris asked him.
"Glen was with me on my rounds when we saw Josiah whitewashing the bell tower And he was playing cards with me and Ezra and his brother when Buck hauled Miss Nancy off last night. Sam left right after Buck did, said he wanted to check on his horse. It's been off its feed, he said."
"When did these two get into town?" Josiah asked JD.
The younger man thought for a moment, then said, "I think it was a couple of days ago, maybe three." He glanced around at the others. "He's just a kid!"
"Hell, JD, he's probably as old as you are," Buck said.
"He's nice," JD argued.
"Maybe he is, but we can't be sure he's not involved with this," Chris replied.
"Perhaps we could initiate a test of sorts," Ezra suggested.
"What do you have in mind?" Josiah questioned.
"Why, giving them exactly what they want, of course us."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
When the others left the clinic, Josiah lagged behind, wanting to talk to Vin alone. The tracker had been a little too quiet and withdrawn during their discussion, and it had him worried.
"How're you feeling, brother?" he asked when the door shut behind the last of the others.
"Head's some better," Vin replied, but there was a decided lack of hope in his tone of voice.
"Give it time, Vin," Josiah urged. "It's only been a few days."
Vin nodded, but didn't offer any more.
Josiah sighed softly and left. He stopped on the landing, trying to decide what to do. Then he sighed heavily and went in search of Chris, catching him before he entered the saloon. "Walk over to the church with me," he said softly.
Larabee glanced up, meeting the preacher's eyes. "We have to"
"It's about Vin."
Chris turned away from the batwing doors, following Josiah down the boardwalk and into the church. He sat down on one of the front pews, waiting for the big man to speak.
Josiah took off his hat, tossing it onto the pew next to Chris, and then ran a hand over his hair before he sighed heavily and sat down not too far from Larabee, his hands hanging limply between his knees, his head also down.
"Josiah, what is it?" Chris asked him, his heart beginning to pound in his chest.
The big man leaned back and said bluntly, "I think he's getting' ready to die and I can't give him a reason to live."
Chris sat up straighter, a worried expression on his face. "Nathan hasn't said"
"He doesn't believe there's a place here for a blind tracker," Josiah interrupted. "Chris, if his vision doesn't improve, and soon, he's going to ride out into that desert and die."
Josiah leaned forward, his smoky grey gaze holding Larabee's green as he said, "Think about it. If that was you lying there, facing life as a blind man, what would you do?"
Chris thought for a moment, and then cursed softly. "I'll go talk to him."
"Go easy," Josiah warned. "You push him too hard you might just force him out there quicker."
Larabee nodded, determined that wasn't going to happen. He couldn't allow that to happen. If Tanner died, it would kill something in the gunslinger he didn't think he could survive without. Not any more.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin's head turned and he squinted as Chris stepped into the clinic. "Nate?" he rasped.
"No, it's me," Chris replied, wincing as he watched the man trying to make him out, and so obviously failing.
The tracker struggled to sit up a little more in the bed. "What's goin' on out there?"
"Not sure yet," Chris told him. "I, uh " He trailed off, sighed, and then said bluntly, "I need you to promise me something."
"What?" Tanner asked suspiciously.
"That you'll wait 'til this is over before you make any decisions about what to do next."
Vin hissed softly, realizing that Josiah must have talked to Chris and told him about the promise he'd extracted from the preacher. He thought for a moment, then shook his head and said, "Not sure I c'n do that, Cowboy."
"Damn it, Vin," Chris said thickly, "you don't have to"
"I don't have a life without m' eyes, Chris," the tracker interrupted.
"You're wrong, Vin."
"What? Y' goin' t' take me out t' yer shack 'n' take care 'a me like 'm some kind 'a baby?"
"It wouldn't be like that."
"Hell, it wouldn't. I ain't goin' t' live like that, Chris. I cain't."
Larabee's fingers curled into fists. He didn't know how to reach the tracker any better than Josiah had. "Just give me your word you'll wait 'til this is over. Then, whatever you decide, I'll Just give me your word."
Tanner was silent for a moment, but then he nodded, saying, "All right, but y' better figger out what's goin' on b'fore someone gets killed. 'Cause somebody's tryin' t' kill us."
"If they are, they're not doing a very good job," Chris replied dryly.
Vin snorted. "Damn near got me. An' J'siah could've got killed in that fall. An' Buck"
"I know. They might be trying to kill us, but you have to admit, they're not very good at it."
Chris nodded as he snorted softly. "Maybe it is these new friends of JD's. If it is, Ezra's plan might force their hand. We'll find them, whoever it is. I promise you that."
Chris walked back to the door and hesitated, saying, "I just want you to think about this, Vin if it was me lying there, would you let me ride out into the desert, alone, to die?" And, before the tracker could reply he left.
A few minutes later Josiah hobbled into the clinic, praying silently he hadn't lost a friend.
"Y' here t' keep watch on me?" Vin asked the preacher, his tone hard. "Make sure I keep m' promise t' Larabee?"
"Yes, I'm here to keep an eye on you," the older man admitted. "And you're going to have to look out for me. Chris thinks we ought to stay in pairs, and it's not like I can move very well on this bum leg."
Vin smiled thinly at that. "Guess y' c'n give me a gun and point me in the right direction if it comes t' that."
"Let's hope it doesn't," Josiah replied, chuckling softly. "I'd hate to think of the windows that might be lost."
Silence fell between the two men, several minutes passing before Josiah finally said, "I'm sorry, Vin, but I had to tell him."
"I'll still keep my promise, if you ask me to," Josiah added softly. "But I'm hoping you won't. That, no matter what may happen, you can find a way to"
Before he could finish could reply, the door opened and Buck stomped in, muttering hotly under his breath.
"Brother Buck," Josiah greeted, wishing he and Vin hadn't been interrupted, "what brings you here?"
"Nathan won't let me go with 'em!" the ladies' man stormed. "Says this damned lump on my head might mean my brains are shook up." He dropped heavily into a chair. "Hell, it don't hurt any more than the mornin' after one of our big nights. I can ride."
"That's reason enough to stay here, if you ask me," the preacher replied.
"'Sides," Vin added, a touch of humor back in his voice. "Y' scramble them brains 'a yers any more, y' might end up chasin' them cowboys instead 'a the ladies."
Buck snorted and glanced over at the tracker. "Day that happens, y' just take me out and shoot me, y' hear?"
Vin jerked like he'd been slapped.
"What?" Buck asked him, immediately worried about the tracker. "Vin, you all right, stud?"
The tracker nodded, his expression turning inward once again as he retreated into his own thoughts.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
JD walked slowly back to the jail, his gaze sweeping the street and the people passing by as he did. He greeted nearly everyone by name, and tipped his hat to all the ladies.
When he reached the jail, he wasn't surprised to find Glen there, waiting for him.
"Hi!" the young man greeted him.
"Hey," JD replied, really hoping he was wrong about the boy. He'd like having a friend close to his own age again.
"What's wrong?" Glen asked him. "Y' look a little down in the mouth."
"I'm worried," JD replied, nodding. "Got some news on those barn burners. Teddy Lorrey spotted some tracks over by his farm when he was out. Looks like they might be next. We're riding out there to check it out."
"Yep," JD said. "Just wanted to come tell you I won't be making my rounds."
"Oh." Glen sounded disappointed. "Well, all right. Guess I'll go on over to the saloon an' find Sam. See y' later, JD. And good luck."
JD watched the boy leave, and then headed for the livery. He had a bad feeling he was going to be very disappointed before the end of the day.
It happened on their way back from the Lorrey farm. A single shot rang out and Ezra fell from his saddle. The other three peacekeepers dove for cover.
"Just play dead," Chris called softly to the fallen gambler.
"I assure you, it will not take much effort on my part," Ezra hissed back, but he remained motionless.
"Damn!" JD hissed softly. "Glen is the only one who knew we'd be out here. Why? Why is he doing this?"
"We'll ask him, soon as we get back to town," Chris growled, waiting for another shot to be fired at them. When it didn't come, he eased out from where he found cover and scrambled over to Ezra, checking his wound.
When there were still no more shots, Nathan joined the two men, helping Chris get Ezra to cover, then quickly checked the gambler before he bound the wounds.
"Got t' be the luckiest man alive," the healer marveled. "Bullet went right between your arm and side, just grazed off some skin from both."
"It feels considerably more than 'some,' I assure you."
Nathan grinned. "I'm sure it does. Soon as we get you back to the clinic, I'll clean this up and bind it good. Shouldn't even leave much of a scar."
"I can't tell you how happy I am to hear that," Ezra muttered.
Chris looked over at JD, saying, "Come on, let's go see if anyone is still out there."
The young sheriff nodded, following Larabee.
The check turned up tracks from two horses, but that was all.
"I'm going to" JD started.
"Nothing. You're going to do nothing," Chris warned him. "We have an advantage now. We know who's trying to kill us."
"What're we going to do?" the young sheriff asked him.
"Get the drop on them and ask them why," Chris replied.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Back in town, Nathan took Ezra to the clinic, Chris and JD taking their horses to the livery.
Vin woke to the sound of Ezra's voice, the gambler complaining vociferously as Nathan treated and redressed his wounds. He turned his head in their direction and opened his eyes. But instead of the darkness he'd begun to grow accustomed to, he could see the two men, although it looked like he was trying to watch them though a piece of dark cloth. He sucked in a sharp breath and saw Nathan turn to look at him.
"Vin?" the healer called. "What's wrong?"
"Nothin'," the tracker said, sitting up and rubbing at his eyes, trying to clear his vision more.
"You stay put, I'll be right back," Nathan told Ezra and the gambler nodded, too busy watching the tracker to worry about what the healer might have in store for him.
Nathan walked over and sat down on the edge of Vin's bed, asking, "Yo'r head hurtin' ya?"
"Not much," Vin said, looking up at the black man. He grinned. "I c'n see y', Nate. Not real good, but I c'n see ya."
Nathan expression shifted from worried to exuberant. "Damn, that's good news, Vin!" he said, snaking an arm around the tracker's shoulders to give him a quick but heartfelt hug. "You just stay quiet and rest and maybe it'll be back to normal in a day or so."
Vin nodded carefully, almost afraid to move for fear of the blindness returning. But he was smiling, really smiling, for the first time in several days. "Go get the others," he told Nathan, "but don't tell 'em 'bout m' eyes."
"Why?" Nathan asked him.
"Don't want t' ruin m' surprise."
Nathan patted the man's back and stood. "I'll just finish up with Ezra here, then go fetch 'em."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Ezra never left, content to sit and bask in the good news until the others arrived. Josiah and Buck arrived first, both moving slower than usual. Chris, JD and Nathan were only a few minutes behind their injured friends.
"You wanted to see us, Vin?" JD asked the tracker, who was sitting up in bed, leaning back against his pillows.
He nodded, his gaze sweeping across the men. His vision was still dark and blurry, but it was slowly clearing. "Wanted t' see all yer ugly faces again," he said softly, "but didn't think I ever would." He flashed them a brilliant smile. "Guess I was wrong."
There was a deep silence, and then Buck whooped loud enough to raise the roof. "Y' can see again?" he asked the tracker.
Vin nodded, meeting and holding the ladies' man's eyes. "Still a mite off, but it's gettin' better."
Chris and Josiah let out shaky sighs, Larabee moving to the tracker's bedside and looking down at him, smiling. "Best news I've heard in a long, long, time, pard."
Vin nodded, holding the man's green gaze. "But what I wanted t' talk t' y' 'bout was catchin' the ones who's huntin' us. I got an idea." Tanner laid out his plan, the others listening until he was through. Chris was the first to react.
"Damn it, Larabee, it'll work," Tanner snapped back.
"It might, but I'm not going to risk"
"M' life's mine t' risk however I see fit," Tanner interrupted. "These boys've been huntin' us 'n' 'm tired of it. Time fer us t' do some huntin' of our own."
"We'll make sure nothin' happens to him, Chris," Buck said softly.
Chris shot his friend an annoyed glare. "You can't be sure."
"It's a good bet," Vin argued.
"Indeed," Ezra agreed. "Gentlemen, we have the proverbial ace in the hole. But it has no value if we don't play it."
"Ace in the hole?" Chris asked the gambler and the others. "I'd say 'bait' is a better description."
"Don't matter what y' call it," Vin said. "It's got t' be done."
Larabee sighed heavily, knowing Vin would do whatever he wanted to, whatever he thought would protect them the best, no matter what the gunslinger had to say about it. And the Ellerbys were just boys.
"All right," Chris relented, gazing at the others, "but I want someone watching his back the whole time."
The others all nodded their agreement.
Nathan escorted Ezra back to the saloon. The two brothers were seated at a table, playing poker with a couple of the townsfolk.
The peacekeepers took a table nearby. Inez hurried over, fussing over Ezra for a moment, and then heading off to bring him a whiskey "For the pain."
"So, the truth, Mr. Jackson, how is Mr. Tanner faring?" Ezra asked once they were seated. From the corner of his eye he could see Sam sit up a little straighter as he listened.
Nathan shook his head sadly. "I was hopin' his sight would come back, but it's not lookin' good."
Ezra shook his head. "A shame. A real shame. I can't imagine what he must be feeling."
"I'm thinkin' he might just try t' slip out 'a town on us."
"Whatever for? And where in the world would he go?"
"Into the desert " Nathan said, letting his words trail off.
"To end it all," Ezra added. "Probably with a bullet to his head."
Nathan nodded and at the next table, Sam and Glen exchanged looks.
"Y' know that horse 'a his," Nathan continued. "Point him in a direction and he'll find his own path."
"That would be a tragedy," Ezra said, his tone sincere.
"Yep," Nathan agreed, nodding.
The next morning
"He's a good as dead, Caleb," Sam argued with the older boy in the brothers' hotel room. "Y' blinded him. They're sayin' he's ready t' ride off and shoot himself."
"Too easy," Caleb replied, a predatory gleam in his eyes. "I want t' kill him myself."
"Y' had yer chance, but y' missed," Glen mumbled.
Caleb spun and slapped the younger man across the side of his head and face. "You didn't do any better when you clubbed that randy cowboy, did you?" he hissed hotly.
Glen flinched and skittered back several steps. "I hit him hard as I could! Ain't my fault it weren't 'nough t' kill him."
"Then whose was it?" Caleb demanded, then whirled on Sam, growling, "And I told y' to shoot that preacher when he was hangin' up there."
"Hell, Caleb, I didn't want t' bring the whole town down on me," the older of the two brothers argued. "Figured the fall would kill him."
"But it didn't, did it?"
"Well, you didn't kill that gambler neither," Glen snapped at Quince. "So don't be chewin' our hides when y' ain't done none better."
"That's going to change right now," Caleb hissed. "You're both goin' to go wait in the livery and take Tanner down when he comes for his horse. I'm going after Larabee. They're the ones I want. They're the ones who killed my brother and put Ma in prison."
"Then we can leave?" Glen asked him hopefully.
"After you take care of that gambler and the preacher," Caleb said. "Just shoot 'em while they're playin' poker and get the hell out of town."
Sam's eyes rounded. "Caleb, you gone loco? You want Glen t' shoot them men in the saloon? In front of everybody?"
"He'll do it!" Caleb snapped as he turned and pinned Glen with a deadly glare. "Or I'll shoot him. And you get the cowboy and the sheriff."
"What?" Sam demanded.
"I figure the folks here need that darkie," Calbe continued as if he hadn't heard a word Sam had said. "He's the only doc they got in this town, so I'm goin' t' let him live."
"You want Sam to shoot JD?" Glen asked, his eyes round with surprise.
"You heard me! And you'll both do what yer told, or I'll kill the both of you myself, y' hear me?"
The brothers nodded, but they looked far from convinced. Caleb turned and left, slamming the door shut behind him.
"We gonna do what he says, Sam?"
The older Ellerby shook his head. "We'll take care of Tanner fer 'im." Sam flashed his brother a grin. "Hell, how hard can it be t' kill a blind man? But then we're gettin' out of here. If Caleb wants the rest of them dead, he can do it himself."
"But you heard what he said," Glen worried. "He'll kill us if we don't do it."
"Naw, he was just talkin'," Sam said as confidently as he could.
"Y' sure?" Glen asked him.
"Sure we'll end up dead ourselves if we try an' shoot them regulators in broad daylight."
"We could tell JD."
"You gone loco too?" Sam snapped at his brother. "We done tried to kill two of them men! We'll go t' prison we tell that kid sheriff."
"Better 'n ending up dead when Caleb finds out we didn't do what he told us."
"I'll take care of Caleb," Sam said. "Now come on, we better get over t' the livery and find us a place to hide. We'll take care of Tanner and then we'll leave. Hell, maybe we'll just head right on up t' Wickenberg and disappear. Caleb ain't goin' t' come looking fer us. He'll stay right here and get himself killed trying to take down the rest 'a these men."
Later that same day
It was nearing dusk when Nathan led Vin down to the livery and over to the stall where Peso waited. The big black gelding nickered softly and tossed his head when he saw Tanner.
"Y' sure you want me to leave you alone with that horse?" Nathan asked. "He's apt t' bite yo'r hand off, just for spite."
"I'll be all right," Vin said, his hands out in front of him, groping, until he touched the gelding's neck. "Jus' need some time alone."
Nathan sighed, but said, "All right. You have Tiny give me a holler when you're ready to come back up."
"Thanks, Nate," Vin said.
The healer stood for a moment, watching the tracker, then turned and left, shaking his head.
Vin felt his way along the stall until he reached the door. He was about to open it when he heard the voice.
Vin turned slowly. He didn't recognize the man he was facing, and tried to focus his gaze on a point between them so it wouldn't be obvious he could see again. "What c'n I do fer ya?" he asked the stranger.
"We come t' kill ya," the young man replied, then gestured and another boy stepped out from the shadows
"Mind tellin' me why?" Vin asked them, knowing they must be the two brothers JD had told them about.
"Y' killed the brother of a friend 'a ours."
"Killed a lot of men," Vin said matter-of-factly. "Which one in particular brung y' here?"
"Sheriff Joshua Quince, from Jericho," the younger of the two boys supplied.
Vin nodded. "Remember him. Workin' with that crooked warden, blackmailin' innocent men int' payin' a ransom t' get out 'a prison."
"Y' killed Joshua an' y' sent his ma t' prison," the older boy said. "She's dyin' in there."
Vin offered a shrug, saying, "I'd say they both got what they deserved. Y' ever see the inside 'a that prison?"
"Come on, Glen," Sam said. "Let's just kill him and get it over with."
Glen glanced from Vin to his brother and back, saying, "I don't know. Don't seem right, shootin' a blind man."
"Give me a gun if it'll make y' feel better," Vin suggested.
Sam glanced over at Glen, who nodded. The older boy huffed out a breath and rolled his eyes, but he stepped forward, intending to hand the tracker one of his two revolvers. But as soon as he was within reach, Vin's arms shot out, grabbing the boy and turning him around, one of Tanner's arms slipping around Sam's neck to hold him tight.
"Drop the gun, kid," Vin hissed, looking straight in Glen's eyes.
The boy gasped. "You can see!" He hesitated for a moment, but then dropped his gun.
"Now you," Vin rasped, giving the older boy's neck a squeeze. "Nice 'n' slow or you'll be seein' Joshua Quince sooner 'n y' thought."
Sam reached down and pulled his guns from his holster, letting both fall to the ground.
Josiah, Chris and JD stepped out from where they had been watching and waiting. JD scowled hotly at Glen as he said, "Good thing you listened to Vin otherwise I would've shot ya myself."
"JD," Glen whined, "I didn't want t' do this, but Caleb said he'd kill us both if we didn't help him get the men responsible fer killin' his brother and puttin' his ma in prison. That's the truth."
"Where's this Caleb now?" Chris growled, stepping right up to Glen, his drawn Colt pressing up under the boy's throat. He glared down into the young man's eyes and watched him start to shake.
"He's lookin' for you," the boy choked out, his throat tight with fear. "He wants t' kill you himself. We was supposed t' take care of Tanner and his gang."
"His gang?" JD asked the boy.
"All the men ridin' with Tanner when he come lookin' for Larabee," Glen said. "The preacher, you, the gambler, and that horny cowboy. All of y' except the darkie. Caleb's goin' t' let him live."
"How generous of him," Josiah muttered, stepping forward to take Sam from Vin, who swayed slightly and leaned back against the stall for support.
"What do we do now?" JD asked Chris.
"We find Caleb and put an end to this right now," was the matter-of-fact reply. He glanced at Vin, saying, "I'll wait here with Vin until you can send Nathan."
"Then what?" Vin asked the gunslinger.
"Then I'm goin' to give Caleb what he wants a shot at me."
"Watch yer back, Cowboy," the tracker said softly.
Josiah and JD took the two brothers and started for the jail, but as soon as they stepped outside, two shots rang out and both boys fell.
The two peacekeepers dove back into the livery, Josiah yelling at Vin and Chris to get down.
The tracker and the gunslinger dropped into crouches and made their way to join their friends just inside the door.
"Must be Caleb," JD said, his gun drawn, his gaze sweeping the rooftops.
"Or some 'a his friends," Vin agreed.
"Like the ones burning down the barns?" Josiah asked the tracker.
Vin shot him a grin. "Came t' the same idea m'self."
"What?" JD asked them.
"The ranchers haven't been burning down those barns," Chris explained. "It was Caleb, or men Caleb hired."
"He needed a way to get us out in the open," JD said, seeing what the other two meant.
"He wanted us all dead," Vin said, adding, "but it's me and Chris he wants the most."
"Then we better give him what he wants," Larabee replied.
But before they could act another shot rang out, this one punching though the wall of the livery.
JD jerked and yelped, his hands immediately grabbing at his bleeding leg.
"Damn it," Chris hissed. He looked up, meeting Josiah's eyes. "Take him out the back and get him to Nathan's." Then he looked to Vin, asking, "Think you can ride?"
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Two horses burst out of the livery, the men on their backs bent low over the animals' necks. Across the street a man stood on the roof and fired, but a shot from the clinic brought him down.
More shots rang out, from rooftops and from the street.
Chris and Vin rode hard, drawing fire and exposing the would-be assassins, the other peacekeepers picking them off one by one.
When it was over, Nathan checked all the bodies. Only Glen Ellerby was still alive and he was dying from the bullet deep in his chest.
The healer held him in a seated position as Glen's gaze swept over the dead men. He shook his head. Caleb Quince was not among the dead, all of whom were really no more than boys themselves.
"He won't give up," Glen wheezed, looking at Chris and Vin. "He'll see his ma she'll have 'nother plan he'll be back." The boy's head dropped back and his last breath rattled from his chest.
Nathan laid the boy back down and stood. "Got t' go finish with JD," he said.
Larabee nodded. "We'll take care of the bodies." He glanced up and down the street, a faint tickle on the back of his neck telling him the kid had spoken the truth. Caleb Quince would be back, and until he was dead both he and Vin and the others were in still in danger.
The next morning
Nathan and Chris looked up as the others entered the saloon and slowly made their way over to the table to sit down. Josiah stretched his leg out and sighed. Buck rubbed at his temples, grunting softly. Ezra and JD eased themselves down, careful not to jar their wounds too much. And Vin slipped into his chair, glancing around the nearly empty room like he was seeing it for the first time, and it looked a whole lot better than it really did.
"How y'all feelin'?" Nathan asked them, waiting to hear from each of the men in turn, but the result was the same they were alive and healing, and that was all that really mattered.
Inez brought them several platters of food and a pot of coffee, then left them to enjoy their meal in peace.
Once they were done, Ezra shifted to another table, waiting for his first victim of the day. JD headed off to the sheriff's office, Buck tagging along behind him, demanding a checker rematch. Josiah and Nathan left for the church, the healer having agreed to finish whitewashing the bell tower while Josiah worked on the last of the new windowsills he'd put in earlier.
Chris and Vin remained at the table for a few more minutes, then headed outside to take seats in a pair of chairs waiting for them on the boardwalk. Inez made sure the two chairs went out first thing in the morning when she opened the doors, and the two men had been making regular use of them ever since.
They passed several minutes in companionable silence before Vin finally said, "Been ponderin' that question y' asked a couple days back."
Chris glanced over at the tracker, noting the serious expression on Tanner's face. He looked back out at the street and asked, "Come up with an answer?"
Vin sighed softly and dipped his head, hiding his face under the brim of his hat. "If things had worked out different, 'n' you'd been the one who was blind Ah hell, I couldn't've let y' ride out 'n' die alone neither. Would've wanted t' do what I could t' help y' find a way t' make livin' mean something."
Chris nodded. "I did some thinking about it, too."
"And?" Vin asked him, grinning slightly at the parallel.
"If things had been different, think I would've wanted to do exactly what you did."
Vin lifted his head, a small smile on his lips. He met and held Larabee's eyes, a silent and still perfect understanding passing between the two men.
"The time ever comes," Vin said softly, "'s good t' know there's friends y' c'n count on t' do what's right 'n' t' honor yer choices, if y' have t' make 'em."
Chris nodded. "Yep, it is a comfort."
Silence settled comfortably on the two men, stretching for several minutes.
"Think he'll be back?"
"Quince?" Larabee asked.
Vin nodded once.
"I'd bet on it."
Vin nodded again.
They settled back in silence again, watching as Four Corners slowly woke to begin another day.
Author's Note: This story first appeared in the multi-media zine, Compadres! #22, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of the multi-media zines that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Patricia Grace is the primary author of this story, she had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Erica Michaels, and Lorin and Fallon Zane. Story last edited 9-26-2005. Art by Shiloh (firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vin's injury in this story is based on an event that happened to my cousin when he was grazed by a bullet (left side of the head, just above his ear) while serving in Vietnam. The force of the shot knocked him down and he struck the back of his head. He experienced a profound blindness for a little less than 18 hours before his vision began to clear, returning to normal within 36 hours. (I've taken a few liberties with the timing in this story. Call it dramatic license.) A doctor called my cousin's injury "cortical blindness," which a medical dictionary tells me is an acute loss of vision following a head trauma - usually resolved within 24 hours. It's caused by a minor, transient alteration in brain function. I hope I haven't taken *too* much liberty here, but it was just too good to pass up inflicting on poor Vin!