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Chris sat next to the sharpshooter and felt a small tremor run through the lean body. The hotel was crowded with people who wanted to see and hear what the witnesses had to say. The gunslinger knew the his friend was nervous about the growing crowd, yet Vin Tanner would do what needed to be done to see James Clark paid for his crimes. They'd been informed that Columber and Clark requested a bench trial and therefore it would not be necessary to pick a jury from the townspeople.

All eyes turned to the back of the room as Thompson entered with the accused man. He led him to the front of the courtroom and shackled the man's foot to the defense table.

Larabee held his emotions in check as Columber entered and strode confidently towards his client. Chris felt the man's eyes on him and turned to meet the gaze. His own blue eyes filled with green fire as he glared at the newcomer. Something about Columber tore deeply at him, yet he couldn't place what it was or why it was happening.

"Chris, you alright?"

The gunslinger turned towards the ladies man and nodded as the lawyer passed them.

"I'm fine, Buck," he answered and knew Vin Tanner was also aware of Columber's presence. Their attention shifted to the front of the court as they were ordered to stand and the judge entered the room.

Spencer took his seat and picked up his gavel before ordering the spectators to take their seats. He took control immediately and spoke in a strong, confident voice that brooked no arguments.

"Most of you know me and understand that I run a strict courtroom. I will not allow anyone to grandstand or make a fiasco of these proceedings. I can and will have this courtroom cleared if I feel it's necessary. Now that I have made myself clear we shall proceed with the case against James Clark. The defendant is charged with the murder of Francine Lawrence and Thomas Cooke. How does your client plead, Mr. Columber?"

The lawyer stood up and faced the bench before speaking loud and clear.

"My client enters a plea of not guilty, Your Honor."

"So entered." Spencer agreed and turned to the crowd squeezed into the room.

"We will now hear opening statements form Mr. Mallory and Mr. Columber. Mr. Mallory, the floor is yours."

Joseph Mallory stood up and addressed the people of the court.

"Your Honor, I am prepared to present evidence that will prove James Clark is guilty of the gruesome murder of Francine Lawrence and Thomas Cooke. That he did knowingly and with forethought, take their lives in a vicious manner. The testimony will prove that the defendant deserves to be found guilty of this malicious crime against humanity." Mallory completed his opening statement and took his seat as Columber stood up.

"Your Honor. I will prove beyond a doubt that my client is innocent of these heinous charges and that the true guilty party is that man there!" Columber said, turning and pointing at Vin Tanner. The reaction was instantaneous as Larabee stood up to defend his friend. The crowd in the courtroom shuffled their feet and more voices joined the gunslingers.

"That's a damn lie!" Larabee snarled.

Spencer banged his gavel on the desk in front of him in an order to regain control.

"Mr. Columber, you are to keep your statement to the pertinent facts of this case and you are not to make accusations like those again! Do I make myself clear?"

"Perfectly, Your Honor," Columber said as he sat down next to his client. He'd gotten the reaction he wanted and would wait for the next phase of the trial to begin before dropping other bombshells on them. He turned his head towards his intended victim and felt the man's anger, and knew he'd chosen well.

Spencer turned his attention from the lawyer to the man seated next to the prime witness. He knew Chris Larabee was defending his friend, but he could not allow any more outbursts in his court.

"Mr. Larabee, you will refrain from such displays in my courtroom or I will have you banned from these proceedings. Do you understand?"

Larabee stood up and faced the judge. He could feel everyone's eyes on him as he answered.

"Understood, Your Honor," he said before sitting down.

"Thanks, Chris," Tanner whispered as the gunslinger re-took his seat.

"Mr. Mallory, are you prepared to call your first witness?"

"I am, Your Honor. I call Vincent Tanner."

Vin stood up and moved towards the witness chair. He felt Columber's eyes on him and winced as a sharp pain spread through his back. He fought against the nausea and pain as he stood in front of the sheriff and waited to be sworn in.

"Raise your right hand," Thompson ordered and waited for the younger man to comply.

"Do you swear to tell the truth, so help you God?"

"I do," Tanner answered.

"Please be seated, Mr. Tanner," Spencer ordered and waited for the injured man to sit down.

Vin could feel everyone looking at him, but was confident about what he had to say.

Mallory walked away from his desk and stood in front of the witness as he spoke to his star witness.

"Mr. Tanner, could you tell the court what you witnessed on the morning of June 18th?"

Vin tried to get comfortable in the seat as he told his tale.

"Me and Chris were on our way ta Jasper. We stopped at the stage depot to water our horses and grab somethin' ta eat."

"Was there anyone else at the depot?"

"Yes, Sir. Man named Grady who runs the place."

"Anyone else?"

"The stagecoach driver, two passengers, and Clark," the last word was said with vehemence and loathing as he looked at the man seated beside Columber.

"How did you come to follow the stage?"

"Me and Chris thought something..."

"Objection, Yer Honor. The witness cannot say what his friend thought."

"Objection sustained. Mr. Tanner you will not state what others may think."

"Yes, Yer Honor," the young man said. "We...I thought there was something strange about the way Clark was acting."

"Strange? How so?" Mallory asked curiously.

"He jest seemed nervous about somethin'. Like he was plannin..."

"Objection! Your Honor, Mr. Tanner cannot say what my client was planning."

"Objection Sustained. Mr. Tanner please confine your answers to fact," the judge ordered.

"Yes, Sir," the tracker said exasperatedly. He looked at the gunslinger and saw the confidence in the green eyes.

'Stay calm, Vin,' Larabee sent, and smiled thinly at the affirmative nod.

"Please continue, Mr. Tanner," Mallory said when the silence seemed to stretch on for too long.

"The stagecoach left and me and Chris ate with ol' man Grady. We finished and started after the stage. I don't know how long it took us ta catch up, but Chris' horse came up lame and he said he'd catch up with me."

"So you went on alone?" the prosecutor asked.

"Yes, Sir. I rode until I saw the coach. It was stopped and the driver was already dead. Clark killed him..."

"Objection. Your Honor" Columber hissed indignantly.

"Mr. Tanner did not witness my client kill the stage driver, did you, Mr. Tanner?"

"No, I didn't, but..."

"Then he has no right to say my client killed the driver," Columber interrupted. He could feel the tension in the courtroom, yet Larabee and Tanner did not seem perturbed by what was happening.

"Objection Sustained, Mr. Tanner, please keep your answers to what you witnessed.

"Yes, Yer Honor," the sharpshooter said softy.

"Please tell the court what you witnessed after you caught up with the stage," Mallory ordered.

"I got to the stage and saw the driver lyin' on top. I looked inside and saw the little girl. She was cryin' and said someone took her Aunt. There was a scream and I ran towards the brush. That's when I saw Clark kill the woman. He had a knife in his hand and stabbed her with it. I couldn't save her, but I had ta get him away from her and make sure he didn't hurt anyone else," Tanner said, wincing as he tried to move in the seat.

"Thank you, Mr. Tanner. No further questions at this time, Your Honor," Mallory said.

"Mr. Columber, do you wish to cross examine this witness?" Spencer asked as the lawyer stood up.

"Indeed I do, Your Honor," Columber said as he moved towards the young man. He knew this witness had sealed Clark's fate, but there were things he wanted brought out in the open. Things that would anger Tanner and his friends, especially the gunslinger.

"Mr. Tanner, can you state for certain that Mr. Clark murdered the woman?"

Blue eyes turned glacial as the tracker turned to look at the lawyer.

"I saw him kill Miss Lawrence," Tanner said, using the woman's name in a show of respect.

"So you said, but, is that the truth, Mr. Tanner? Or are you hiding something"

"Ain't got nothin' ta hide," the tracker said.

"I think you do," Columber said, standing in front of the young man and pointing his finger at the young tracker's shoulder..

Vin could see something beyond the dark irises, something that shouldn't be there. He felt a burning sensation race through his right shoulder as the man lifted his hand and pointed at him. He strained upwards on the seat, trying to hide how uncomfortable he felt. He knew if he dropped his gaze this man would consider it a victory and he couldn't allow that. He continued to meet the man's gaze wincing as a dull pain began behind his eyes.

"Is it not true that you once lived with the Indians?" the lawyer asked, catching and holding the tracker's eyes.

"Objection. What does Mr. Tanner's background have to do with whether the defendant killed Francine Lawrence?" Mallory asked.

"Objection sustained," Spencer ordered. "Mr. Columber, keep your questions to the necessary facts."

"Yes, Your Honor," Columber said, turning away from the tracker momentarily. He could feel the anger emanating from Chris Larabee and knew the blond would not stand by and see his friend badgered indifferently. He turned back to the witness and smiled charmingly at him.

Vin swallowed painfully as the dull headache began to grow behind his eyes, and reached up to rub at them.

"Mr. Tanner," Columber began again.

Chris watched the proceedings carefully, his eyes boring daggers into the lawyer's back. The man seemed to be doing something to Vin Tanner, yet he could not place what it was. The set of the tracker's shoulders and the pain evident in the blue eyes were signs that everything was not as it seemed. He fought to control his rising temper as the man continued to badger his friend.

"Easy, Chris, don't set the judge off again," Wilmington warned as placed a hand on Larabee's arm.

Larabee nodded and turned his attention back to the front of the room where his friend continued to look uncomfortable.

"Mr. Tanner, are you sure of what you seen that day?" Columber asked softly. "I mean it was hot and you had been riding for some time."

"I... weren't ridin' that long," Tanner objected, squirming as the oppressive heat invaded the courtroom. He felt tiny beads of sweat on his forehead, yet no one else seemed to be feeling the heat.

"Ah, but you'd been traveling for several days before this. You and Mr. Larabee were helping out some local peacekeepers."

"Yeah, we delivered two prisoners ta Yuma and helped catch another one," the tracker answered, shifting as the man's eyes seemed to change before him. Shifting from black to crimson to black again, causing his head to spin as he tried to meet the older man's gaze.

"So you spent a week or so resting before you headed to Jasper?"

"No, me and Chris left the next day..."

"Ah, so you spent weeks out hunting criminals, return home to Four Corners, and then leave immediately for Jasper. Weren't you tired? Didn't you need sleep?"

"Wasn't ti..."

"Isn't it true that once you caught up with the stage you were so tired you could've..."

" I wasn't tired..." he growled hostily.

"...fallen asleep on the spot and furthermore didn't you fall asleep as soon as Mr. Larabee made you get into the wagon?"

Vin found it hard to draw breath as the man stood before him, the dead eyes seeming to reach through to his core.

"Got hurt when..."

"When you attacked my client after he tried to save Miss Lawrence!" Columber took his hypnotic gaze off the tracker as he heard Larabee's shout from behind him.

"Objection, Your Honor!" Mallory shouted, but his voice was drowned out by Larabee's enraged cry.

"That's not how it happened..."

"Mr. Larabee sit down!" Spencer ordered.

The irate blond was not to be stopped as he glared at the lawyer, his words strong as his temper escalated. "Vin was hurt when he tried to save her..."

"Mr. Larabee, sit down! One more outburst and I'll find you in contempt of court. Do I make myself clear?" the judge banged his gavel until the irate blond was looking at him.

"Chris, sit down. You're not helping Vin's case," Standish said as he pulled Larabee back down in his seat. The gambler felt like he was sitting next to a coiled snake, ready to strike its enemy.

"Mr. Columber, you will refrain from badgering the witness," Spencer said as the courtroom grew quiet once more.

"I do apologize, Your Honor," the lawyer said, turning back to the tracker. He hid a smile at how pale the young man had grown and began questioning him again.

"Mr. Tanner, is it true that you were once a bounty hunter?"

"I...yes...I was," the peacekeeper stammered, his throat closing behind a dry mouth.

"Did you always bring your victims..."

"Bounties," Tanner corrected.

"Ah, yes, I do apologize. Did you always bring your vic...bounties in alive?"

"...when I could?" Tanner answered.

"Ah, but how often was that? Is it not true that there are a few questionable," he turned his gaze to court as he spoke. "Bounties."

"Objection, Your Honor!" Mallory snapped as he stood up and faced the judge.

"Mr. Columber, where is this line of questioning leading?" Spencer asked.

"It will show Mr. Tanner's character and his credibility as a witness in this case, Your Honor."

"Objection overruled, but, Mr. Columber, don't overstep your bounds!" Spencer added

"Thank you, Your Honor," the attorney said as he turned his attention back to the witness.

"Now, Mr. Tanner, is it not true that there are a few questionable bounties?"

"Like how?" Tanner's eyes narrowed suspiciously at the line of questioning.

"Do you remember a man named Brady Caldwell?" He smiled as the young man's face paled even further at the mention of the name. He watched as Tanner tried to look past him and knew he was seeking out his friend. There was something about the two men he couldn't quite grasp, and he kept his body between them.

"I asked you a question, Mr. Tanner. Do you remember a man named Brady Caldwell?"

Vin continued to stare at the man, unaware of the time passing as he tried to regain his composure.

"Your Honor!" Columber said, hands in the air as a sign of frustration.

"Mr. Tanner, answer the question!" Spencer ordered.

"I..." he tried to look around the attorney, but it seemed as if the man's bulk changed with his movements, blocking out the people at the back of the courtroom.

Chris' anger grew as he listened to the lawyer badgering his friend about old bounties. He knew nothing about Brady Caldwell, but the younger man's reaction told him all he needed to know. He trusted Vin Tanner, and knew in his heart the tracker had not done anything wrong, in spite of his reactions. He turned to the man next to him as a hand tapped at his forearm.

"Who?" Wilmington whispered and was surprised when the gunslinger shook hid head, showing his own confusion.

Larabee's gaze quickly returned to the front of the room and the pained look on the tracker's face.

"Should I repeat the question again, Mr. Tanner?" Columber asked.

"He was a b...bounty I brung in a few years ago," Tanner answered, feeling his throat constrict at the thought of the outlaw.

"What happened to him?"

"...h...he died..."

"Would you mind telling the court how Mr. Caldwell met his demise?"

"I shot 'im," the tracker whispered.

"Excuse me? I didn't hear that, Mr. Tanner would you mind repeating your answer?" Columber suggested innocently.

"Said...I shot 'im." Vin could feel the heat rising to his cheeks as the man again blocked his view of the courtroom.

"What were the circumstances behind his death?" Columber asked as he watched the pale face blanch further.

"He drew a gun and I shot him," Tanner hissed, his voice deceptively soft. The truth was the death of Brady Caldwell had filled him with guilt. He closed his eyes for a moment as nausea once more churned with the advent of the vivid memory. Brady Caldwell had been on the run for several months and Vin was close on his heels. He finally caught up with him after several weeks of trekking through the mountainous terrain in Mexico. Caldwell was holed up in an old tracker's cabin. He'd been drawing water from the well and when he saw Vin approaching he cried out his innocence. The sharpshooter had heard this from almost every bounty he'd gone after and knew it was a last ditch attempt to save their own skins.

The man had finally drawn his gun and Vin ordered him to drop his weapon. Brady's reply was a hail of bullets and he'd been forced to shoot to save his own life. The problem was Brady Caldwell was innocent, the bounty having been put out on the wrong man. He remembered his own reaction when the sheriff informed him of the mistake, and tried to assure Tanner that it was not his fault. He'd walked around the side of the jailhouse and quickly vomited everything that was in his stomach, until all that was left was dry heaves. He sank down on the ground as the guilt gnawed at his gut and left him cold inside. The attorney's voice brought him back to the present, but the cold had returned to eat at his soul. The bounty on his own head a reminder of just how easy mistakes were made and innocent lives lost.

"That's not the whole truth is it, Mr. Tanner?"

" is," the Texan stammered.

"Isn't it true that..."

"Objection, Your honor. Defense is trying to put words in the witness's mouth."

"Objection sustained. Mr. Columber, you will desist in this line of questioning," Spencer ordered.

"I do apologize, Your Honor. I was just trying to show that Mr. Tanner could and would murder someone..."

"You lousy sonofabitch!" Larabee hissed. "Vin didn't murder anyone!"

Spencer banged his gavel and tried again to regain control as Columber continued to speak.

"That he took that knife and stabbed Francine Lawrence before she could..."

"...lying sac of shit..." Larabee interrupted.

"...reveal to my client, who was trying to save her, that Mister Tanner was the one who assaulted her and was trying to silence her."

The gunslinger's reaction was instantaneous as he heard the accusation made against the younger man. He leaped across the few feet between himself and the lawyer, a raging bull, seeing red before its eyes.

Columber gasped at the unexpected attack and fell to the floor as a dark figure roared over his head. He knew Larabee was a force to be reckoned with, but even in his own black soul he had not seen this.

Wilmington and Standish shook off their shock and hurried to pull their friend off the attorney. Larabee's body was like a tightly drawn bowstring as the grabbed onto his arms and finally forced the blond away from the object of his hatred.

Vin sat in the chair, his body taut as he tried to stand. He heard the judge calling for order and saw the gambler and the ladies' man pulling the blond off the lawyer. His back was on fire as he levered himself upwards, yet he knew he had to help his friends.

Columber felt a ripple of fear race through his body as he watched the tracker try to stand. The sensation was something he'd never felt before and he briefly wondered if he should continue with his plans for Chris Larabee. He turned his attention back to the witness as he dropped back into the chair. Something needed to be done to lessen the force between the two friends.

"Let me go!" Larabee snarled as his two friends held tightly to his arms. He heard the judge banging the gavel once more as the noise level in the courtroom died down.

"Mr. Larabee, I warned you what would happen if you disrupted these proceeding again! Sheriff, take Mr. Larabee into custody! Perhaps a night as a guest in your jail will give him a new respect for the law!"

"You gonna let him away with this, Judge?" Larabee asked angrily, his hands fisted at his sides as Standish and Wilmington tried to contain the unleashed tiger. He could see the sharpshooter wilting in his seat and knew the Texan was suffering intense pain. He also sensed something else in Tanner's demeanor and knew he had to get him away from Columber's intense questioning.

"Mr. Larabee, this is my courtroom..."

"Then prove it. Columber is making a circus out of this...he's twisting all the facts up..."

"C...Chris," Tanner moaned as he tried to look away from Columber's burning eyes. The fire in his back erupted to encompass his body as the lawyer refused to release his hold. He felt the last of his strength leaving him as the pain doubled and tripled in his back and head. Nausea rolled through him as he finally forced his eyes away from the deadly gaze of the defense attorney.

Columber knew he had to do something as again he felt the strength of the bond of friendship between the two men. Tanner had dropped his eyes, but it wasn't from fear, the man was injured, but still held a strength that mystified the lawyer. His almost silent call to the gunslinger sent chills down his spine and he knew he had to end things before the two men discovered his own secret. He ignored everyone, but the tracker and waited until the young man's head came up again. The fact that he could still meet his gaze caused another ripple of fear, and he unleashed an invisible force that slowly engulfed the Texan.

The air around him swirled in a kaleidoscope of colors as Columber seemed to grow in size before his eyes. A foul odor permeated the air and he struggled to breath as the agony in his back was diminished by an explosion of pain behind his eyes. His tortured scream split the heated air in the room as consciousness left him and he slid from the chair.

"Vin!" Larabee rushed forward and knelt beside the tracker, worry evident in the set of his shoulders and the slight tremble in the hand that reached out to touch the younger man's throat. A soft sigh of relief escaped his closed lips as he felt the ripple of a pulse beneath his fingertips. His hand moved to lie against the tracker's chest just over the strongly beating heart.

"Doc, he needs help!"

"Just hold him still, Chris," the physician ordered as he checked the unresponsive tracker.

Larabee turned a deadly glare on the man he knew caused all of this. Somehow, C.F. Columber was hurting his friend and he would do anything in his power to stop that. He placed his hand on the Texan's heart and sent a promise through his eyes.

Columber's eyes widened as he once more sensed the ripple of light through his own dark soul. Fear mixed with curiosity as he watched the two men. Although the tracker was unconscious, he still oozed strength while Larabee's hands rested against the lean chest. He knew he'd chosen his victim well, but wondered if the unseen force the two men exuded could be his downfall. He felt the draw of the Inn and knew it was time to complete Larabee's journey to the dark world where his soul could be blackened beyond redemption. He forced his gaze away and felt the fear leave him, but resolved to move things along in spite of his new revelations.

"Order! Take your seats or this courtroom will be cleared!" Spencer shouted as the uproar in his court continued to grow. He banged the gavel again and again until some semblance of control returned and the people sat down once more. He turned his attention to the scene taking place beside his bench, and could see the pain radiating from the sweat-ridden pale features. He knew Larabee was concerned for his friend, but he would not allow him to disrupt the trial again. He watched as O'Malley examined the unconscious young man before speaking to the gunslinger.

"Mr. Larabee, I find you in contempt of court and Sheriff Thompson will escort you to the jail where you will spend the next twenty four hours!"

Wilmington couldn't believe what was happening and he turned a dark glare at the judge.

"No..." the gambler hissed softly. He knew the volatile ladies' man was as angry as he was with the turn of events, yet nothing would be served by them joining Larabee in the jail. The judge's next words proved he was right.

Spencer turned to see Larabee's friends moving towards the bench.

"Sit down! Or you will be joining Mr. Larabee in his cell!"

"Buck, Ezra, do as he says. Vin's gonna need your help. How is he, Doc?" the blond asked worriedly.

" I can't conduct a proper examination here. It could be relapse...I want him out of this court and in bed."

"Sheriff, you will escort Mr. Larabee to jail," Spencer ordered.

Thompson nodded and moved towards the gunslinger. He felt bad for what he was about to do, but there was no choice. Judge Spencer was a fair man and Larabee had disrupted his courtroom, not once, but twice, and now the gunslinger would have to pay.

"Sorry, Chris," he said as he tugged on the blond's arm.

Larabee nodded as he was pulled away from the tracker. Vin's face seemed to have relaxed somewhat and the gunslinger knew there was nothing he could do to help him. He trusted O'Malley and was confident Wilmington and Standish would protect the tracker. He turned to his two friends as he walked towards the door.

"Take care of Vin," he said to the two who followed him.

Standish said as the sheriff took Larabee out of the room.

William Spencer waited until the courtroom quieted and took a deep breath before speaking.

"In light of the circumstances we will adjourn for today. Court will reconvene at nine tomorrow morning. Court dismissed" he said as he banged his gavel on the desk. He saw Columber speak to his client before leaving the hotel.

Buck and Ezra knelt beside the injured tracker, concern evident on both faces as the doctor finished his examination. They were only slightly relieved when the doctor tried to reassure them that his patient would be fine with bed rest and quiet.

O'Malley frowned as the two men laughed at his statement, briefly wondering what he'd missed. He shook his head and once more turned his attention to his patient and moving him back to Molly Richmond's home.

+ + + + + + +

Thompson opened the door to the second cell and waited for Larabee to enter. He admired the man for his loyalty to his friends and wished he didn't have to confine him.

Chris walked into the cell and made his way to the cot set against the back wall. The heat was oppressive as he sank down onto the rough blanket. He laid on his back, placed one arm across his eyes, and pulled one black clad leg up until it was bent at the knee. He heard the cell door close and shuddered at the thought of being confined to the jail. His worry for Vin Tanner continued to grow as the sheriff's footsteps crossed the small confines and left him alone with his thoughts. There was something about Columber he didn't trust. The man seemed to leech the warmth from the air and in spite of the heat he felt chilled to the bone. He heard a soft sound at the window and sat up on the cot.

A large black crow appeared at the window. Its feather ruffled by a non-existent breeze, red eyes burning into his very soul. He knew what he was seeing was evil in the truest sense and cried out as pain engulfed his mind and he lost consciousness.

The crow seemed to smile as it stared at the gunslinger, enjoying the pain and torment it could cause with just a look. It heard a sound at the door and spread its wings. It flew off before anyone else saw it, content in the knowledge that Chris Larabee would soon be where he belonged.

+ + + + + + +

Thompson returned to the courtroom in time to see Vin Tanner being carried out. The young man was still unconscious, but he was being escorted by Wilmington and Standish. He nodded to the two men before moving towards his prisoner. He unshackled Clark's legs and placed the handcuffs back on the man's wrists before leading him past the throng of onlookers. He held the prisoner's right arm as they strode across the street and into the jail. He frowned as Larabee didn't move when he opened the door, but marked it down to the gunslinger's exhaustion. He knew the man was worried about his friend and hadn't been sleeping very well since their arrival.

"Get in!" the sheriff ordered as he opened the door to Clark's cell. He released the handcuffs before closing and locking the door.

Clark walked disjointedly towards his cot and sank onto the uncomfortable mattress. He didn't hear the door shut, didn't see the sheriff leave, didn't notice the man on the bed in the other cell. His mind was reeling with the words Columber had whispered in his ear before leaving the court.

'The time has come for you to join my legion of demons. You will know when the time is at hand!'

Those words terrified him in their simplicity. Something big was going to happen tonight, something that would make him strong, yet he feared what it would be. His eyes drifted to the man in the next cell and he realized that nothing Columber done to him would compare to the plans he had for Chris Larabee. He lay back on the cot, knowing he wouldn't sleep, yet craving the comfort of his dreams. The remainder of the day loomed ahead of him like a dark abyss and he knew it would only get worse as he waited for Columber to make his move.

+ + + + + + +

Vin moved on the bed, trying to remember what had happened to cause the pain in his back to return. He was laying on his back, his head slightly elevated by pillows. His instincts told him to remain where he was, yet he needed answers to his questions. He felt a hand touch his arm and forced his eyelids open.

"Doc says you need to lie still, Vin."

"B...Buck..." he stammered and accepted the cool water the ladies man held in front of his mouth. He drank his fill and tried to find his voice once more. When he did he was surprised at how weak it sounded.

"What hap...happened?"

"You passed out in the courtroom," the ladies man explained.

"Passed out?" the tracker asked, fighting to grasp his elusive memories.

"Yeah, I swear that son-of-a-bitch Columber has horns...bastard had his hooks in you good..."

"Columber...Shit...Chris... Buck, where's Chris?" the young man gasped as he tried to sit forward.

"Easy, Vin, don't try to move around yet. Doc says you need bed rest and..."

"Where's Chris?" the tracker asked, trying to bring the memories into focus.

"The judge charged him with contempt and he's spending the night in jail..."

"What? Shit! Ain't Chris' fault."

"That's not how the judge sees it, Vin. Look ol' Chris can handle himself and Ezra's gone over to check on him. You need to take it easy before you do permanent damage to your back!"

"Back's...o...okay," the tracker hissed.

"No! It's not. I told Chris I'd watch out for you..."

"Don't need..."

"I know you don't need me too, but I ain't breaking my word to Chris!" the ladies man said, knowing the tracker's stubbornness was due to his need to hide the pain he was in.

Tanner knew the older man was worried and settled back against the bed, his eyes drifting to the darkness beyond the curtains.

"How long have I been out?"

"'Bout eight hours. It's nearly seven o'clock," Wilmington explained and watched as the blue eyes slowly closed. He knew the Texan wasn't sleeping and spoke softly.

"Molly saved dinner for you. Feel up to eating?"

The injured man nodded his head slowly without opening his eyes. The thought of eating made his stomach nauseous yet, something told him he'd need his strength for whatever lay ahead of them. He continued to try and force the memories to clear, but all he could see was a black crow with glowing crimson eyes.

"I'll be right back," the ladies' man told him.

Vin heard Wilmington leave the room and opened his eyes. He'd tried again to remember the details of the trial, and was frustrated by his continued lack of success. The only thing he was sure of was that Columber was behind the things that were happening to him and Chris Larabee.

+ + + + + + +

Darkness spread across the little town as evil untold began to take things a step further. The crow rested atop the highest tree on the outskirts of Farmington. It waited for the hour to be right and the town to be deeply entrenched in the world of dreams. Patience was something it learned during its life. Cold evil things could be drawn out, spinning a world of fear and terror around a victim. The crimson eyes radiated evil as the last of the light was extinguished from the homes. Its eyes remained on the jail, knowing that was where its attention was needed this night. Two men would soon know what nightmares were, one in the real world and one as an observer, who'd wake with only vague memories of the horror he witnessed.

The crow waited another hour before spreading its wings wide. With a feral cry it spread a grotesque shadow against the midnight black sky. It swooped low before coming to rest on the barred window of the cell housing Chris Larabee. Its eyes bored into the darkly clad figure stretched out on the small cot, sending icy tendrils that interrupted the man's deep sleep.

Whisper-soft moans escaped from deep inside the gunslinger as his dreams took on a morbid quality. His lean body turn onto his right side as he drew his left leg up and crossed it over the other. His leg slid back and forth as his eyelids flickered and opened.

Chris sat up on the bed and rested his head in his hands. Through a fog-like haze, his features wrinkling, he frowned at the deep darkness surrounding him. He looked around the cell, unable to discern the walls or the bars or the tiny window covered in iron bars. He looked down and was surprised that his even his hands seemed to be completely invisible to him. A sound from the other cell caught his attention and he raised his head.

+ + + + + + +

James Clark had lain awake through the darkening twilight, tossing and turning as the words continued to repeat in his terrified mind. Each time sleep seemed eminent; his eyes snapped open and a soft sob left the murderer's throat. The whites of his eyes were streaked with red lines as he gazed through the open windows of his cell. His hands fisted in the old blanket as he pulled it tight around, vainly trying to keep the imaginary chill from his body. He lost track of time as he lay in the darkness, waiting for whatever was to come. A sound at the window made him tighten his grip on the blanket, but the sound was repeated and he forced himself to look up.

+ + + + + + +

The scene in the next cell was almost surreal to the blond prisoner. His eyes seemed to be frozen, as he was unable to shut out what he was seeing. The cell was bathed in a sickening cloud of crimson colored light, the nauseating strobes undulating against the stone walls. He watched as a large black crow landed on the floor of the next cell, its loud screeching cry harsh on his ears.

Chris watched, entranced as James Clark, a large man by most standards began to shrivel up before his eyes. He swallowed a cry of fear as the human form began to wither. The sounds of bones shrinking in on themselves, of skin being shrunk and discolored. He couldn't turn his eyes from the bed as hands and feet became grotesque appendages, no longer human in form. Skin became translucent, graying in color as a light fur began to cover the changing body. The eyes turned towards Chris pleading for help, but the gunslinger could not move. He could not take his eyes from the twisted form that was once James Clark, a murderer, but a man just the same. Chris watched as the smaller form turned onto its stomach and legs and arms shortened to stubs. The head changed and the nose became slightly elongated as the mouth protruded slightly. Ears appeared atop the head and a tail began to form. The gunslinger briefly wondered where the man's clothes were, but a shocking scream erupted from the newly formed body on the cot.


Larabee heard Clark's scream of pain and terror, as his own heart beat rapidly against his chest. His hands reached up to cover his ears as the screeching cry became unbearable. Pain erupted in his skull but still he could not take his eyes away from the scene being played out in the next cell. His body felt strange and he looked down at himself, fear dissipating as he realized he was still himself. That he had not changed like Clark, and was still a human being. He stood on shaky legs as inch by agonizing inch the black beast dwarfed the mouse. He knew Clark was a murderer, but something like this was not real to him as the crow pounced onto the bed and sunk its talons into the quivering mass.

Clark heard the man in the next cell, but couldn't understand why he was so terrified. The crow with the crimson eyes was now on his chest, and its eyes seemed to be boring straight through his skull into his mind.

'Not long now, James. You will be where you belong!' Columber eased his talons into the man's chest, gouging deep into the flesh, shattering bone as it worked past the ribs and into the rapidly beating heart.

The murderer's eyes opened wide as his upper body seemed to be ripped open. His heart filled with an icy fluid, replacing the blood it normally pumped and turning his body cold. His arms stayed at his side as he accepted his death, knowing Columber would take care of him now. That he belonged to this creature, this demon, his new master, and that he would reap the rewards that went with it.

Chris continued to watch as the crow ripped out the mouse's throat. Tearing the flesh with its beak before turning towards him. The red eyes glowed malevolently as blood dripped from it's cawing mouth, promising a similar fate in the near future. He blond couldn't take his eyes from the scene as the talon ripped open the chest of its victim and held a tiny beating heart in its claw. It suckled at the small organ, blood oozing from its mouth as it hopped off the cot and advanced on the gunslinger. It's body seemed impossibly long as it stood in front of the bars, the heart still held in its beak. Chris moved back, his knees connecting with the cot as he dropped down. He couldn't tear his gaze from the hypnotic red eyes set in the crow head.

'Lie down,' the bird ordered, the words seeming to come from inside Larabee's mind. He tried to turn his head, but pain exploded through his body as the impossible happened and the murdering crow stepped between the bars and entered his cell.

"No!" his mind screamed as his body surrendered to the nauseating spell the bird seemed to have over him. He lay back against the pillow, his eyes wide as the creature hopped onto his chest. Impossible as it seemed he felt as if the crow was crushing his chest, it's weight pressing down on his ribs. Again he heard it speaking inside his head and trembled as his body automatically obeyed.

'Open your mouth!'


'You cannot stop what is to come. I will own your body...your mind...your soul...I will own you.'

"No!" Chris repeated, but no sound left his mouth as the crow stood over his tightly clenched lips.

'You are to be marked,' the crow hissed in his mind as it glared red fire at its intended victim. Its head turned from side to side as it heard approaching footsteps. Seeing it's chance slipping away it hopped onto the bed, but didn't release its hypnotic stare. It used its talons to rip the small bandage from the wound on Larabee's arm and knew this second marking would work.

Chris watched as the creature before him squeezed the still beating heart and blood dripped onto the wound on his arm. He cried out as if he'd been scalded, but no sound left his throat as the red spiraled to black and his eyes closed.

The crow swallowed the last of the heart, relishing the feel of the pounding organ and the thrill of the blood it held. Engorged on Clark's sacrifice it looked longingly at the unconscious man before spreading its wings and flying through the metal bars on the window.

+ + + + + + +

Thompson opened the door to the jail, lit the lamp on the table, and checked both prisoners. Satisfied that the two men were sleeping, he turned down the flame and walked outside. Normally he stayed in the jail when he had prisoners, but tonight something prevented that. He'd been shocked when he opened his eyes and realized how late it was. He looked into the brightly lit sky as a shadow crossed the pregnant moon, partially obliterating the orb with darkness. He turned back to the jail and stepped inside; glad to see the gunslinger seemed to be sleeping comfortably. The heat was sweltering as he sank into the chair and picked up the dime store novel he'd been reading.

+ + + + + + +

At the edge of town the crow landed on the open window. Its head rocked from side to side as it listened to the soft cries of the man sleeping inside. That Vin Tanner was a threat to his plans was easy to see, but to kill him now would ensure the loss of his true victim.

Chris Larabee would join him and become a guardian at the Inn of Lost Souls. A place where he reigned supreme, where his power reached beyond the limits of time and distance. Where the souls once trapped provided an energy that would be his. All he needed was a source, a slave, and a soul, so strong, that it could harness that power for him. The lost souls were ensconced at the Inn and would be kept there by his demons. Columber knew what was needed and was sure things were falling into place. Chris Larabee needed to make the ultimate sacrifice in order for him to reap the rewards of owning the gunslinger. An idea began to form in the evil brain housed in the head of the crow and a soft caw left it as it again spread its wings and flew towards the circle it craved.

+ + + + + + +

Vin's dreams were horrifyingly filled by man-sized crows with blood colored eyes and black feathered heads. He moaned as he shifted on the bed, but not because of the injury to his back. Every nightmare he ever had replayed behind closed lids. His choked cries stuck in his throat as no air entered his lungs. His mother's loving face appeared, then melted away. The rotting corpse with missing flesh leered at him from dark empty sockets. Her body showing the ravages of long years of hardship.

'You did this to me, Vin. You call yourself a Tanner, but you don't deserve the name!'

"!" the moan became a cry of pain as he shifted on the bed. Blue eyes opened and glanced towards the window in time to see a large black bird spread its wings and fly away. His eyes closed once more as a soft whispered promise escaped his open mouth before he fell into a deep sleep once more. A nameless fear chilled him, icing him to the core. Something tried to break his soul. He pushed back with all his might. As he fell back into the blackness, he made his vow known to the evil unseen.

"...keep the fuck away...ya can't"

+ + + + + + +

Thompson looked up as Jamie Turner shoved open the door. The young man's excited gaze went from the sheriff to the two sleeping men in the cells.

"What's going on, Jamie?" Thompson asked.

"The stage is just pulling in..."

"This early?"

"Yeah, that's what I thought. You said you wanted to meet it when it came in so I figured ya might want me to stay with the prisoners."

"Alright, Kid, they're both sleeping. Just leave them to it until I come back. Either of 'em wakes up before then just come get me."

"Sure, Sheriff," Jamie agreed and sat behind the desk.

Thompson hurried out of the jail and across the street as the stage pulled to a stop in front of the hotel. A man stepped down and reached inside to help someone down and he knew instinctively who they were. The woman's hair held a hint of gray, but the brown curls and soft eyes reminded him of the child staying with Molly Richmond. He covered the last few feet and stood beside them as the driver lowered their bags.

"Howdy, Folks."

"Hello, Sheriff," the man said, noting the star pinned to the man's shirt. "My name is Rupert Lawrence and this is my wife Jeannie. Can you point us to a man named Chris Larabee, I believe he has been looking after our grandchild for us."

"Oh, Sheriff, how is Mindy? Is she okay?" the woman asked, her eyes filled with worry as she asked her questions.

"Well, Ma'am, Mindy is doing very well. She's staying at the boarding house. Why don't we get Max," he said pointing to the driver. "To bring your bags inside and we'll go see her?"

"Yes, please," the woman said. She'd loved her family dearly and would miss them, but the child took priority right now. There would be time enough to face their own grief later, when they knew Mindy was safe. Her husband linked his arm through hers and they made their way down the street towards a house at the edge of town.

+ + + + + + +

Jamie watched the two men sleeping as he picked up a deck of cards. So far neither man had moved or made a sound and he briefly wondered if he should check on them. Instead he shuffled the cards and fanned them out in his hands.

+ + + + + + +

The crow chased the mouse, once more slamming it to the ground, before gouging at the small rodent's eyes with its talons. He watched hopelessly as the bird seemed to grow in size to become a man, only the face was evil, the eyes glowing red, the decayed black teeth protruding from hideous misshapen lips as its head swivelled towards him.

'Open your mouth!' it ordered, blood seeping from the corners of it's mouth as the elongated fingers dug into the open raw wound in it's victim's chest. This time the beating heart was human and held tightly in the mouth of the creature staring backwards at him.

'No!' Chris hissed through tightly clenched teeth and backed away from the horrifying nightmare figure before him. He fought hard, pushing his slumbering body to the limit, forcing it to wake. But the harder he fought the more his mind became mired in the unreal world he was in. He turned and ran, yet his feet remained frozen in place and fetid breath reached his nostrils as the creature in human form closed the distance.

+ + + + + + +

Jamie heard a sound from the cell where Chris Larabee lay on his side facing the wall. He frowned and listened for it to come again, but it didn't repeat and he returned his attention to the cards splayed out on the desk before him.

+ + + + + + +

Molly wiped her hands on her apron and smiled at the child who busily mixed the cake batter at the table. She knew Vin Tanner was in good hands with Wilmington and Standish as she looked after the girl. Mindy had woken to find Chris missing and cried when she found out where he was. Molly held her through her sobs and asked if she'd like to make a cake for her friend. A knock at the door made the small head come up and a look of fear crossed the brown eyes. The older woman smiled in an effort to put the child at ease once more.

"You keep stirring that while I see who's at the door."

"Okay," Mindy sniffed as she concentrated on making the ingredients stick together again.

Molly walked out of the kitchen and opened the door to admit the sheriff.

"Hello, Hank," she greeted, her eyes swiftly taking in the couple with him. She'd always been able to read people and something about these tow told her they were good people.

"Morning, Molly. This is Rupert and Jeannie Lawrence..."

"Mindy's grandparents?" she asked softly.

"That's right. Is Mindy around?"

Richmond stepped outside the door and closed it part way behind her. Once more wiping her hands in her apron.

"She's upset about Chris and I've..."

"Chris...Chris Larabee?" Rupert Lawrence asked.

"Yes," Molly answered.

"What's wrong with him?" Jeannie asked worriedly.

"Nothing, Ma'am," Thompson answered. "The judge found him in contempt yesterday and ordered that he spend the night in jail."

"Has the judge talked with our grandchild?" the concerned woman inquired.

"No, he didn't want her in the courtroom until you arrived. He'll probably speak to you both this afternoon before he lets her testify to what she saw," the lawman answered.

"We don't want her in the courtroom," Rupert told him.

Thompson nodded as he saw the deep worry on both faces. It was easy to see these two would be good for Mindy and he hoped Larabee would see that as well.

"I'll talk to Judge Spencer and see what he says."

"Thank you, Sheriff. Can we see our grandchild now," Jeannie asked.

"She's in the kitchen," Molly said and opened the door. She knew Mindy needed to see these people as much as they needed to see her. She led them towards the kitchen and stood watching he little girl concentrating on what she was doing.

"Mindy..." she started, but the need to see their grandchild was too much and the older couple pushed past her.

"Honey," Jeannie said, tears glistening in her eyes.

"Mindy," Rupert said as the child's head came up and looked at them, fear and uncertainty written no her face.

She looked up from the bowl and her first reaction was to cry as familiar eyes looked out at her from a man's face. Recognition finally dawned on her as the two rushed forward.

"...Grandpa...Nana...I's scared..." her voice became childish in her relief at seeing her grandparents. Tears glistened on her cheeks as she was picked up by her male relative and wrapped securely in his arms.

"It's okay, Honey. Grandpa and Nana are here now. We're not gonna let anyone hurt you," he said as he relinquished her into her grandmother's waiting arms.

"We're gonna take you back to St. Louis with us, Mindy..."

"B...but what about Chris, Nana? Can he come too?"

"Oh, sweetheart, I think Mr. Larabee has people who need him..." Jeannie began, but was interrupted by the child's sobbing voice.

"I...I n...need him..."

"Mindy." The girl lifted her head and looked up to see Molly standing next to her.

"You know Vin's hurt, right?" Richmond asked softly.

"H...hurt h...his back...."

"That's right and he needs Chris to help him. You wouldn't want Chris to leave Vin alone here would you?" the woman asked.

" Chris needs Vin..." she whispered, her eyes misting over as she looked at the woman standing beside her grandmother. "They need to stay"

Molly frowned, wondering where the child got that idea and knew it was truer than even she'd realized. These two men may not be related by blood, but there was something unique about their relationship. She shuddered at the thought that it might not be true much longer if things went according to her feelings.

"That's right, sweetie, and Vin needs his to take care of him just like you need your Grandpa and Nana to look after you," Richmond explained.

"Can I see Chris before we leave?"

"Sure you can, Mindy," Jeannie assured her as she hugged her close.

"Molly, I'm gonna go see about getting Chris out of that cell."

"Okay, Hank. Would you like some coffee?" she asked her guests, and quickly moved to the stove as the child's excited voice explained why she was making the cake.

+ + + + + + +

Jamie looked up from the desk as the sheriff entered the jail. He looked at his pocket watch and saw it was a little after ten am.

"Still not awake?" the lawman asked, a hint of concern in his voice.

"I thought Larabee was waking up, but he settled back down and went back to sleep. Clark never made a sound."

"That's strange," the sheriff whispered. Taking the keys from the peg behind the desk he hurried to Larabee's cell and unlocked the door. His eyes narrowed as the sleeping man remained where he was, facing the wall, eyes closed. he moved deeper into the cell and stood over the blond before speaking softly.

"Chris, it's time to get up," he tried, but still the gunman didn't move.

"Is he okay, Sheriff?" Jamie asked from the desk.

"Think so, just seems to be sleeping deeply. Chris," he called again, this time touched the man's shoulder.

A new voice invaded the darkness, strange, yet familiar at the same time. He reached for the voice, trying to force the nightmare about crows and mice away, but the red eyes refused to release him from their hypnotic gaze.

"Damn, he ain't waking up. Jamie, go get the doc..."

"Sure, Sheriff," the young man said and raced out of the jail as the sheriff moved to check on the second man.

+ + + + + + +

Vin looked at the untouched meal before him, long grown cold in spite of Buck and Ezra's cajoling him about eating. He closed his eyes and tried to drown out their words as he sought out the answers to what was real and what wasn't. He knew the trial had happened, and that Columber was doing his best to get Clark off, but what about the other things. The way the man knew about Brady Caldwell. The way his dark, cold eyes seemed to bore through him, seeking out his essence and wrapping his fingers around him. A small whimpering cry escaped before he could stop it. His eyes shot open and he realized the two men hadn't heard, or chose to ignore it.

Since awakening at dawn he'd been plagued with vague memories, but couldn't quite grasp them. He knew he'd slept, but it wasn't a restful sleep as nightmares encroached on the edge of his dreams. Some managed to get through and those were the ones he was trying to remember. Somehow he knew Columber was responsible for not only those dreams, but for what was happening to Chris Larabee as well.

"Vin, you need to eat," Wilmington said as he looked at the barely touched food. He could see something was troubling the sharpshooter and knew it had something to do with what was happening in this town.

"...ain't hungry..." the tracker told him.

The ladies man knew there was no point in arguing and lifted the tray from the younger man's lap.

"I'll take that, Buck," Standish said, accepting the tray and moving towards the door.

"Thanks, Ez," the ladies man said and turned back to the injured man. "How's the back feeling, Vin?"

"...little sore...Chris outta jail yet?" he winced as he shifted his legs over the edge of the bed. As his body unwound, a tight coil inside heated up. His heart began to hammer and he felt dizzy. One face formed in his mind and his eyes darted. Something was wrong, but he wasn't sure what it was. Somehow he knew it had to do with the blond and he needed to get to him before it was too late.

"Not sure. Figured I'd go check on him as soon as Ezra comes back."

"Goin with ya..."


"Somethin's wrong, Buck. Need ta see him..." the tracker hissed as he used his hands to push his body upwards. Gripping the bedpost in a deathgrip, panting heavily from the effort and feeling needles of pain in his back, he glared at the rogue. "Ya best...move aside...Bucklin...don't wanna hurt ya..."

Wilmington couldn't help but smile at what he was seeing, the blue fire shone in the eyes, evidence that he wouldn't quit. Tanner's determination was something to behold as the younger man fought to stay on his feet. That he was able to do so, despite the trembling legs revealed just how strong he felt about his friendship with the gunslinger. He reached out and eased the tracker back down on the bed, wincing in sympathy at Tanner's stiff movements. Yet he understood the need to go to their mutual friend before it was too late.

"Yeah... all right, Vin. We go, but we do it my way. Wait for Ezra to come back..."

"I'm right here," the conman said from the door. His own worries were surfacing after a sleepless night.

"Good, Vin's bustin' out...headin' to the jail. You best watch out, he's hell bent on fury to get there."

"Is that wise?" The gambler's green eyes narrowed at the hunched Texan who could barely stand.

"Probably not, but I'm not willin' to take my life in my hands. Right, Vin." The ladies man smirked.

Ezra's keen gaze went from one man to the other and he smiled knowingly as he moved to help the scoundrel.

"Point taken," he said as they eased the tracker to his feet.

+ + + + + + +

Thompson left his gun on the desk and moved to the second cell. He unlocked the door and moved to the second bed. A sickly cloying smell struck him as soon as he got within a few feet of the cot.

"Jesus," he hissed as he saw the eyes open and staring at the back wall. He looked towards the second man and frowned when he realized Larabee was still unmoving. He knew something was wrong as he moved closer to the dead man and saw the look of horror on the face.

"What's wrong, Hank?" O'Malley asked as he hurried into the jail.

"I think Clark's dead," the lawman explained as Jamie stood just inside the door, his face paling considerably as he looked into the cell. He knew the young man was going to lose it and was glad when he turned and hurried outside.

+ + + + + + +

Vin held his breath as each step sent a shiver of pain through his back, but he wouldn't let it stop him. One of the nightmares he remembered had to do with Chris being held entranced by a crow. Somehow he knew that crow had visited him sometime during the night as well. They made slow but steady progress down the street towards the jail.

"Something's wrong," Standish observed when a young man exited the structure and moved to the side. The sound of vomiting was clear in the morning sunshine and without realizing they picked up the pace.

+ + + + + + +

O'Malley held his breath as he moved into the cell. One look at the bulging eyes and discolored face was all he needed to confirm that James Clark was dead. The look on the murderer's face was one of terror and he looked up as three men entered the jail.

"Stay outside!" the doctor ordered, yet wasn't surprised when the three men ignored him.

"C...Chris..." Tanner hissed, fearing the worst. Moving too quickly, his lower back exploded in pain and his knees buckled.

"Dammit Vin!" Buck grabbed him as his legs gave way and ignored the feeble protest.

"Doc, 'spect ya should take a look at Larabee," the sheriff said as Tanner was lowered into the chair by his desk.

"What's wrong with 'im!" Vin demanded, trying to push against Wilmington's restraining hands.

"Vin if you don't calm down, I'm gonna nail that hide of yours to the chair!" Buck thundered, his eyes flashing. Then he trained them on the cell where his oldest friend lie unmoving.

O'Malley moved from one cell to the other and knelt beside the blond. He eased him onto his back and frowned as he saw the bloody wound on the man's arm. The bandage was on the floor beside the cot. He felt for a pulse and again frowned at how weak it was.

"Chris, can you hear me?"

"What kinda doctor are ya! " Vin protested, still fighting. "Get him t'wake up...the hell's wrong?"

"I'm not sure. His arm must've bled during the night and he seems to be in a deep sleep," he turned back to his patient and called the gunslinger's name once more.

"Move!" the tracker ordered, ignoring the odor that seemed to permeate the air around him.


"Ya know I'm right..."

Buck took one look at the intense blue gaze peering up at him and sighed. He turned as Ezra made himself known.

"Let him up, Buck," Standish supported as he watched the physician trying to rouse the blond.

"Okay," he agreed, letting Ezra flank Vin's other side. Between the two of them, they got him on his feet and helped him walk.

The shooting discomfort in his back wasn't nearly as bad in light of his friend's plight. Vin shuffled across the floor, biting his lip to warn off the cry of pain that was ready to spill. They moved sideways into the cell and moved to the bed.

Thompson grabbed the chair from his desk and brought it into Larabee's cell. He sat it beside the bed and held it while the young man was carefully lowered onto it.

"Vin..." Wilmington pleaded softly, seeing the gray pallor of Larabee's skin.

"Lar'bee!" Vin hollered, tapping the slack pale face.

The new voice sounded weak, yet it held a strength that he couldn't deny. He struggled against the crimson eyes and tried to turn his head.

"Come on, Chris, wake up!" the tracker drawled, the words heavily accented with worry. He gripped the jaw hard and shook the slack head.

The trapped gunslinger tried to breathe as he fought the hypnotic eyes glaring at him from out of the darkness. The voice continued to speak and he knew as long as he heard it he could break the trance.

"" he whispered, yet it sounded loud to the three men beside his bed.

"Chris!" Wilmington bent over, tapping the black pant leg. "Rise and shine, Pard!"

"Mr. Larabee, you are not to run out on us!" hissed from between Standish' clenched teeth as the eyes began to move behind closed lids.

"That's it..." Vin sighed, moving his hand on the side of the blond's neck. The words were barely past his lips as Larabee's chest rose as his lungs expanded with the deep breath of air he inhaled.

Chris felt the weakness ebbing away with the touch of the hand on his skin. The feel of the warm fingers against his cold flesh caused his body to react instinctively. He sighed deeply as his eyes opened, knowing Tanner would be there. He smiled weakly at the strength he saw in he wondrous blue orbs above him.

"'ey, Cowboy," Vin managed, controlling his anxiety and moving his hand away.

Chris didn't want to release the hold and reached up to snag the retreating hand. He clamped weakly onto the appendage, clasping it in their own forearm grip. He didn't know how, but he knew Vin Tanner had pulled him from the shadowy depths of hell. His eyes remained locked with the tracker's for several seconds, before they closed once more.

"Good," O'Malley said as he felt the pulse grow stronger beneath his fingertips.

+ + + + + + +

Miles away the crow neared the circle of corruption, its feather ruffled as a spark of evil lit up its eyes. He'd nearly had Larabee in his clutches, but the strength of his bond with the Texan was stronger than he'd originally believed. It had grown since the two men had joined them and that angered him. Turning back to the circle below, he watched the sands shift and undulate as if waiting for his return. He knew he'd failed for now, but when the Inn reformed, Chris Larabee would be brought to him. The mark was on his body and he would soon make the journey to hell. The small heart in his mouth held the newest soul and he felt the sands moving faster in expectation of what he'd brought them. The monstrous black bird opened its beak and the beating organ dropped towards the center of death. He felt its original owner scream in fear as it neared its destination and knew James Clark joined his legion of demons.

+ + + + + + +

"Doc?" Tanner's single word was filled with the pain and worry that sent tremors through his body.

"He's okay, Vin, but I want him outta here. Hank..."

"Go ahead, Doc. I was comin' to release him anyway," Thompson explained.

"Alright," O'Malley said, turning to Wilmington and Standish. "I'm gonna need you two to carry him to Molly's place. Hank, think you can help us out here?"

"What do ya need?" the lawman asked as he watched Larabee move on the cot.

"Well, it's plain to see these two can't walk to Molly's on their own. Buck and Ezra can handle Chris, guess that leaves you and me to take care of Vin..."

The tracker's gaze lifted from the blond and looked at the physician seated on the edge.


"Don't say it, Vin. You need help getting back there," Wilmington interrupted.

"Wasn't gonna say that. Was jest gonna..."

"Never mind, Mr. Tanner," Standish whispered next to his ear. "You're lacking the poker face to pull it off."

The sharpshooter knew the other man was right as Wilmington and Standish eased the semi conscious gunslinger off the bed. He watched as they struggled with his weight until they were sure they wouldn't lose the grip they had on him.

"All right, Vin, let's get you out of here," Thompson suggested as O'Malley grabbed he right side and he took the left. He ignored the low moan that escaped the younger man's throat as he was gently pulled to his feet.

Vin clenched his eyes tightly as they walked out of the cell and across the short distance to the door. Once outside he breathed in the fresh air, sighing as it pushed away the sickly odor of death that seemed to prevail in the tiny jail. Step by step they made their way down the street towards the boarding house. The sharp blue eyes were locked on the man being helped along in front of him.

Larabee's head seemed to rest forward on his chest and Vin realized he was either unconscious or exhausted. He continued to watch until they made it to the house, not surprised to see Molly holding the door for them.

Through a lot of tricky twists and maneuvers the four men soon had Larabee and Tanner resting in their beds. The blond still hadn't roused completely, but his eyes flickered for a second, coming to rest on the man in the other bed.

"Vin," he muttered before giving in to his body's need for sleep. A need to forget what he'd seen during the night spent in jail.

"He's gonna be fine, Vin. You need something to help with the pain?" O'Malley asked.

" Just need to," the tracker said and closed his eyes.

Buck and Ezra exchanged glances before looking at the doctor for answers.

"Doc, how are they?" the scoundrel asked.

"They'll both be fine. Vin needs to relax and let the injury to his back heal. Aside form that puncture wound on Chris' arm I don't see anything wrong. I think he's just plain exhausted and needs to sleep. He's been worried about Vin and not really letting himself rest."

"That certainly sounds like Mr. Larabee," Standish said softly, not wanting to wake either man.

"Well, they both seem to be sleeping right now, so why don't we leave them to it?" O'Malley suggested and stood away from the bed. He held the door until the others were outside and eased it shut behind him, missing the soft trembling plea that issued from Larabee's slack lips.

"Help Us!"