STORM IN THE SOUL by The Neon Gang

Chris and Ezra were pinned down, a sniper, well-positioned and waiting for them to line up so he could take them both out with one shot…

He could see Standish was bleeding… Buck was trying to move the SUV in, taking fire from some of the men, and he kept trying to find a shot, a way to stop the sniper before it was too late, but there was no opening…

And he wasn't going to find one in time either.

But then he was someplace else… someplace familiar… someplace frightening… Gunfire echoed around him, shattered occasionally by a scream from the wounded. It was ugly, terrifying.

His hands shaking, he peered through his scope, trying to find the hidden sniper who had them pinned down, but he couldn't see him. Johnson, his spotter, crouching next to him, screamed.

He couldn't help it, he looked. The man's chest had been blown wide open, dark eyes still open, staring at him, begging him to change what had happened, but he couldn't change it. He couldn't change anything.

"Damn it," he hissed, eyes stinging as he tried desperately to find the sniper as another member of his unit went down.

But as he looked around at the men he had called his brothers, it wasn't his Ranger unit, it was Chris and Buck… Josiah and Nathan… Ezra and JD.

"No!" he cried, his blood singing for revenge. But the enemy sniper remained invisible, and the ghosts of the dead men lying near him were starting to close in, determined to take him with them…

Vin yelped and bolted upright in his bed. Gasping for breath, he sat, shaking, sweat running into his eyes and making them sting, or maybe it was the tears that threatened.

Using the sheet, he wiped his face, silently cursing himself. It had been weeks since the shooting out at the technology park, still under construction. He was fine. The others were all fine. So why the hell was the damn dream still haunting him?

He sighed heavily. How the hell had he let Larabee talk him into this? Why had he agreed to join another team? At least in the Federal Marshal's office he had worked alone, but now… Hell, now he was right back in the same situation he'd been in during his Army hitch – a team member, a sharpshooter for another group of men who depended on him to watch their backs.

And he had damn near failed them, just like he had his Ranger unit.

No. He couldn't go down that road again. He'd done the best he could, then and more recently.

An explosive sigh burst past his lips. He knew it didn't help that Christmas was getting closer. Everyone seemed so damned happy about it, and they were all trying so hard to make it fun for him too. But this just wasn't a fun time of the year for him, and watching them try just left him feeling more and more guilty.

And they were starting to notice.

He had to get his shit together, and in a hurry. He had seen the way Larabee was starting to watch him, and he dreaded the meeting he had with the man later today. What was Chris going to say? Or, worse still, what questions was he going to ask?

Vin knew he couldn't explain his recent mood, not without breaking out some memories he had promised himself he would never revisit. But they had been coming back to him in his dreams, forcing him to remember, and to feel that old, familiar guilt one more time.

Because he had almost let it happen all over again.

And while he had been close to his Ranger unit, he had never felt like they were his family – his brothers, yes, his friends, yes, but not his family. Team Seven was his family. If he failed them, his family ended up dead, and that was something he knew he could never survive. He couldn't imagine how Larabee had done it. He knew he couldn't; he had lost enough in his life, any more and–

He flopped back on the bed with a huff and shook his head. He had to stop thinking about it. Had to.

Fear held sleep at bay, and the time passed slowly, his thoughts refusing to quiet or to obey.

Three days later

Vin Tanner rode along a ridge above Eldorado canyon. The former bounty hunter looked out over the rolling pine-covered mountains, broken occasionally by rock, stands of naked aspen and poplars, and an occasional patch of snow, and nodded. It was a rugged land, but startlingly beautiful, and it felt good to be back in the mountains again, to be alone again.

With only a week to go before Christmas, the air was crisp and cold, the pervasive scent of pine mixing with the smell of leather and horse.

He smiled. Maybe Larabee had come up with a good idea after all.

Glancing down at the experimental digital compass/homing beacon hanging around his neck, he grinned. Even though no one had said anything about it, his friends were all still worried about the injuries he had sustained just before Thanksgiving. The device was their way of keeping an eye on him while being able to call it a "field test" of something they might one day use at work.

Well, he couldn't really hold their concern against them, now could he? But it was taking some getting used to. He hadn't had anyone care about him like that since his grandfather had been alive, and now he had six of them. It was a little mind-boggling at times.

But none of the men had any idea that Vin felt like he had let them down. But he did.

Checking his watch, Vin estimated that he would reach the small cabin outside of Nederland in less than an hour. He patted the neck of the gray mixed-breed gelding he rode, pleased with the animal's performance. Not for the first time he wished he was riding Peso, but the big black gelding was still recovering from a knee strain and the rough terrain would have been too much for him. The smaller, trail-smart buckskin was willing, quick, and sure-footed so they had made good time. But then he wasn't fighting bootleggers, gun-runners, or fugitives along the way either. In fact, there was nothing at all to distract him except the simple beauty of the landscape, and that was more than enough for the weary man.

He wasn't actually that far from Denver – something he had insisted upon when Larabee demanded that he take a short vacation. No matter what, he wanted to get back in time to help finish the Christmas preparations, not to mention finish his own shopping.

Thoughts about the upcoming holiday made his skin tingle. Christmas… He was going to have a real Christmas for the first time in years and years, and he wasn't quite sure how to feel about it, or how to act. All of his friends, even Chris, who had every reason to ignore the holiday, had thrown themselves into the preparations.

He knew at least one reason for their enthusiasm – he had let slip that he hadn't had a real Christmas since he was ten. God, if felt so long ago… more than a lifetime, really.

Vin thought about the six men and urged his mount down the trail and over another section of rough shale. Behind him, he could hear the angry calls of a mockingbird, his activity disturbed by horse and rider passing.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Tanner muttered to the bird. "We're goin' as fast as we can."

Sunlight filtering through the pines caught his attention and he pulled the gelding to a stop, staring at the slight, reveling in the sheer beauty of it. Then the guilt began to nag at him.

Why, if he enjoyed working with and being with his friends, did he also long for moments like this? Why did he still need to get away from them and spend time alone? It just didn't seem right. If he cared, then he shouldn't mind being around them, shouldn't need to escape. Should he?

Damned if he knew.

The members of Team Seven had become so much a part of his life over the past eighteen months that it was hard for him to believe he had been alone less than two years ago. They had all seeped into his soul somehow. It had been slow at first, his defenses still securely in place, but the eventual outcome had been inevitable. Inch by inch, day by day, they had found their places within his heart until he had realized it was too late – he had allowed himself to become involved again.

They were his friends now, his family. And no one had gotten under his skin deeper than Chris Larabee, his boss and his best friend.

Ever since he had met the blond, it had felt like he'd discovered some missing part of himself. His friendship with Larabee completed him in ways he had never experienced before, and never expected to again.

Some missing part of his soul had been returned to him the first time he'd met and held Chris Larabee's eyes. He didn't understand it, and had stopped trying to reason it out, just accepting it as fact. It was the most important fact in his life, the one that framed everything else he did, thought, and said.

Still, at this moment, riding through the mountains, alone, it felt as if he were a hundred years and a thousand miles away from the crazy turns his life had taken since he had met Chris Larabee. From bounty hunter t' federal agent… loner t' family man. He shook his head. Who would've thought?

The responsibilities he felt for his friends and coworkers were staggering at times, and had only grown more powerful as Christmas time drew near, the holiday bringing with it dreams and memories Vin would have rather kept buried where he'd left them. But they refused to stay hidden, sneaking out in his dreams to mock his resolve.

As Team Seven's sniper, he was supposed to protect the six men who regularly put their lives on the line to protect the public – people who, for the most part, didn't know who they were, or what they did, and cared even less. Just like when he was back in the Army…

He turned the thoughts off, calling up the simple phonic chant of centering his grandfather had taught him when he had lived with the old man on a Kiowa reservation, forcing the pain and memories back into the cluttered corners of his mind. He concentrated on his objective – the summit of the jagged ridge he was riding along. At close to eight thousand feet, the land he rode through had once been trod by Utes, Cheyenne and other tribes. But, like so much Indian land, it had fallen into white hands in the 1800s. In a recent, ironic turn of events, a small group of environmentally-conscious local citizens were lobbying for state park status for the once sacred mountain and the surrounding area, something the tribes had been asking for all along. Maybe now they would finally get it.

When he reached the top of the ridge, Vin decided he would sit and spend some time not thinking. He would clear his mind and lay some old ghosts to rest once and for all, at least, if he had anything to say about it. Perhaps he would even make an offering to the old, sacred ground.

He remembered his grandfather standing on the summit of a different mountain far away from this one, a six-year-old Vin Tanner beside him.

"Mountains are wise teachers," the old man had told the boy. "If we're wise enough t' listen an' t' learn. Y' listen, boy, 'n' y' learn. Only way y'll survive in this world."

Vin wondered if this mountain had a lesson it might share with him, and hoped it was one of forgiveness and acceptance, of family and friends… and finally finding his place among them.

He inhaled a deep breath, savoring the clean air, the peace. Then another pang of guilt crept into his thoughts. He really should be back in Denver. He still had Christmas shopping to finish, and there were all the activities the others had planned: decorating at Larabee's ranch, and Nettie's house, picking out a tree for the ranch and dressing it up, wrapping the gifts for the women and kids up at the Longmont shelter where Rain worked… And here he was, enjoying himself, alone, out in the middle of nowhere, getting nothing done.

Not that he minded any of the holiday activity, or working as an ATF agent on Team Seven. In fact, he respected and admired all of his teammates, especially Chris, but he was used to having time alone and the extended periods of time he'd been forced to spend in the city occasionally unsettled him. And that interfered with his ability to do his job, which was why he had allowed Larabee to talk him into this two-day trip.

Well, one of the reasons, anyway. Needing to put this thoughts and feelings in order played an equally important part. He didn't want to spoil the holiday for the others, not in any way.

Home… It all came down to the idea, the ideal, of home. Vin hadn't felt like he had a home after his grandfather's death, but now he was being offered one. He was just afraid to accept that deal, afraid that if he did, he might lose it… or worse, might be the cause of his own loss.

All his life, Vin Tanner had been a loner. In Texas and in Oklahoma he had refused to play into the destruction promised by the alcohol and drugs prevalent in the poor white and Indian communities he had grown up in and around. And Indian Country was too often a reflection of the reservation experience with abundant poverty, alcoholism, hopelessness to steal a man's soul.

But instead of giving in, he had spent his time running through the broken hills, or trailing his grandfather, listening to the elders. And he studied hard, forcing himself to answer every question his teachers assigned him, even when it meant he had to put in long hours pouring over his books, the letters on the pages seeming to have a life of their own inside his brain.

Then his grandfather had died when Vin was almost eleven, just like his mother had when he was only five – unexpectedly. Vin was handed over to the foster care system and his life had quickly become nothing less than a living nightmare of epic proportions.

School was his only escape, and he did his best, but without the support his grandfather had given him, his grades suffered and he fell further and further behind his classmates. Desperate, he finally ran away when he was fifteen, but life on the streets was almost as bad as life in his foster home. Almost.

But then he met Tom Redbear, a Comanche bounty hunter, and Vin found he had family once again. Tom forced him back into school and rode his ass, making sure the teen did his homework and stayed out of trouble until graduation. He also taught the young man a trade – bounty hunting.

An unfortunate run-in with the law while on a hunt landed Vin in front of a juvenile court judge. He was just a few weeks shy of his eighteenth birthday and the no-nonsense, ex-Marine, Judge Harold Oxford, offered the teen a choice – County Jail or the military. Tom had been an Army Ranger during Vietnam so Vin had jumped at the chance to make his mentor proud and picked the military.

In basic training, Vin endured the hazing and pain dished out by his drill instructors without complaint or visible anger. The harder they tried to break him, the stronger his resolve grew to not be touched by their words or their actions. He rebuilt his walls, relearning the texture of each and every brick he had first put in place while living with his abusive foster father.

The DIs watched it all playing out, but didn't interfere, quickly gaining a respect for the young man's resolve, control, and strength – both mental and physical. When Tanner finished bootcamp, they recommended him for additional training, and when it was all over, he was an Airborne Ranger, and budding sniper.

Vin smiled to himself. The Army had been the greatest positive challenge he had ever faced, and he had survived it, thrived even. He completed the Army Airborne and Ranger programs, then moved on to more-specialized weapons training. And, along the way, he had learned more about himself than he'd ever really wanted to face, a knowledge that had served him well in battle.

Vin had never expected to be popular with the other men in his unit; he just wanted to keep them alive and accomplish the missions they were given. But it wasn't long before the majority of his squad had seen through his icy exterior to the man beneath. And they learned a trick the members of Team Seven had mastered as well – no matter how neutral Tanner's expression might be, he couldn't hide the truth in his eyes when it really counted.

In the Army, for the first time in his life, Vin felt like he was a part of something bigger than himself, something worth dying for. But Army life, with its endless rules and regulations, didn't suit him, and he left the service after his four year hitch was up, returning to bounty hunting.

With Redbear and other mentors, Tanner honed his skills and quickly gained the respect of other hunters he crossed paths with. Just before he died, Tom introduced Vin to an old friend of the Comanche's, Jack Terrier, a U.S. Marshal.

Vin let himself be talked into joining the service, mostly because he knew Tom was dying, and that was what the man wanted for him. The older bounty hunter wanted him safe. Wanted Vin to have the safety net the government provided and bounty hunting didn't, but Tanner had quickly become restless, as if sensing that something else was waiting for him.

It was that feeling which had prompted Tanner to take the small steps that had eventually brought him closer to the men he would one day call his family. He completed more sniper training and started looking for openings in other agencies. And that had landed him in Larabee's office as Chris was still pulling together what would become Team Seven.

The first time Vin had met the blond's eyes, he knew he belonged at Larabee's side. He wasn't sure why, wasn't even sure it was really a good idea, but he knew he couldn't say no if Larabee offered him the job, which he did.

Vin got to know the other men on the team in short order. Buck, an old friend of Larabee's, had taken to him almost immediately. For the longest time there was something in Buck's eyes that had disconcerted Vin, but then the sniper had realized it was gratitude. The ladies' man was grateful that Vin had, somehow, put the spark back in Chris's eyes; had given Chris back something Larabee had lost when his wife and son had been killed. Vin still wasn't sure how or why that had happened, but he was glad it had, and so was Buck.

Josiah reminded Vin of Tom, and their friendship had become deep, with paternal overtones. Nathan had been easy going and open, making it easy to build a rapport with the man. Good thing, too, since as the team's medic, Vin had had to rely on the man's talents more than once already.

JD was everybody's little brother, and Vin realized quickly that he liked playing the older brother for once.

Ezra had been an enigma at first, but as soon as Vin had realized that they were both hiding things from their pasts it had been easier to take the man's dictionary speech and fancy clothes. It was all a cover, and the few times Vin had met the man's gaze, letting Standish know he saw right through it, had been enough to cement their friendship.

Six men, strangers at first, then friends, had quickly grown into the brothers they now were.

Vin smiled. A band of brothers… that was what they truly were to one another.

Given their bond, it really shouldn't have come as a surprise when Chris had noticed his recent growing discomfort, bluntly asking if he was getting bored with their job, or their company.

"No, course not!" he'd replied.

"Then what is it?"

Vin turned away, pacing across Larabee's office. He didn't want to talk about it, but the more he tried to avoid it, the more Chris was going to push him until he surrendered and gave him what he wanted.

"Vin," Chris chided, "what is it?"

Damn, damn, damn, Tanner had thought. It was no use. He might just as well get it over with. "It's just… Aw hell, Chris, I could use some time t' clear m' head is all. What with the holidays gettin' close, it feels so damned… crowded."

"That's it?" Larabee had asked suspiciously.

"Ain't that enough?"

"You mean to tell me you've been acting like a damn wolf in a cage because you need some time alone?"

Vin stiffened. "Don't need it," he snapped. "I–"

"Why don't you just take a few days off? You've got the time."

Tanner's blue eyes narrowed. "We're workin' a case, Larabee, an' I'm responsible for coverin' yer sorry ass. If ya think–"

"Come on, Vin, I'm not suggesting a trip down the Colorado, just a day or two someplace close by. We can keep an eye on Gomes for a couple of days without you. Besides, there hasn't been any activity in over a week, and it's almost Christmas. He's probably closed up shop until after the first."

Vin had argued the same points in his own mind, but his responsibilities were far too great for him to just pack up and take off for a few days. Not when they might end up going after a gun-runner with at least two former Marine snipers on his payroll. If something were to happen to one of the team because he wasn't there… "No."

"I have a friend who has a cabin up near Nederland–"

"Chris, I know y' mean well, but–"

"Look, I'll make it an order if you want me to. I am your boss, right? So, I'm ordering you to take a couple of days off. It'll improve your disposition, clear your head."

"What the hell's wrong with m' disposition?" Vin demanded, his voice rising.

Chris fought back a grin when Buck asked, "You want a list, or just the highlights?"

Tanner turned to glare at Wilmington as the ladies' man strolled in to join the pair in the office.

Chris flashed Buck a covert thumbs up.

"There's nothin' wrong–"

"Vin, you've been acting like a damned bear with his paw caught in a trap the last few days. You thought about takin' a few days off?" Buck asked the sniper.

Vin's hand rose and fell with a wave of frustration as he glowered at the two men. "It's a damned conspiracy, that's what it is."

"Think of it this way," came Josiah's voice from the doorway, "we're not doing it for you, we're doing it to give ourselves a vacation from all that Tanner energy and brouhaha."

"Brew-what?" Vin snapped.

"That right, Junior," Buck said.

Tanner sighed and rolled his eyes. Why couldn't they speak English?

Later that same day, when Ezra, JD, and Nathan had all told him more or less the same thing, Vin knew it was a conspiracy. He also knew he was going to lose the battle. They had decided he needed a vacation, and they were determined to see that he got one – whether or not he agreed. And he did agree with them, he just didn't want to admit it. But if he refused to play along, they would just make his life a living hell.

Vin saved them the energy and the trouble, agreeing to go, provided he could get their cooperation on a few things.

"A few things? Like what?" Larabee asked suspiciously, folding his arms over his chest in a manner that never failed to grate on Tanner's nerves. Chris knew it did, too.

"I decide where I'm goin', which'll be someplace close enough for y'all t' pick me up if Gomes decides t' spread any illegal holiday cheer."

"What else?" the blond asked him.

"'M only goin' for forty-eight hours."

"Sounds like you've got a place in mind," Nathan said. "What's it going to be?"

"Short trip up Eldorado canyon," Vin said succinctly. Then he looked pointedly at Larabee and added, "An' you're comin' with me."

"Me?" Chris yelped, looking surprised.

"You," Tanner replied. "You're bad as I am, maybe worse. And it's your friend who owns the cabin, r'member?"

"I can't be as bad as you," Larabee muttered.

"Are, too. So the same arguments that worked for me should work for you."

Chris sighed heavily, and then grinned. "All right," he agreed – too easily, Vin knew. "A couple of days in the mountains sounds good to me, but you're going to have to do half my paperwork when we get back so it's all done by the end of the year."

"Half?" Vin yelped, his face paling.


Vin glowered at the man. "All right, fine, y' c'n stay here," he growled.

The next day

"Here you go, Vin," JD said, holding up a small black box about the size of a small cell phone, dangling from a nylon cord. "This is experimental, so be careful with it. It's a tracking device so we can keep an eye on your progress. You just wear it around your neck. It has a built in digital and lensatic compass so you won't get lost."

"I won't get lost," Vin said confidently.

"Humor us, Junior," Buck said, patting Tanner's shoulder.

"Besides, it's all part of that bunch of stuff we're supposed to play with and then send back with completed surveys," Chris told the sharpshooter.

JD continued, ignoring the interruption. "This…" He held up a small instrument that looked like a slightly larger than usual cell phone. "…is a high-powered radio you can use to reach us, in case there's trouble."

Vin nodded. "Trouble" was a two-way proposition as far as he was concerned. With the new-fangled radio he could reach the team and, more importantly to him, they could call him if things took a turn with Gomes.

Taking the two devices, Vin slipped the tracking beacon around his neck with a sigh, then tucked the radio into his backpack.

"Be careful," Nathan said. Heading into the mountains in late December sounded like anything but a vacation to him. Still, the weather reports were calling for clear skies over the next few days. Vin would be fine, and the rest of them would finally have the time they needed to get his presents wrapped up and put under the tree out at Chris's ranch without any worries about getting caught.

"You'll be back by Christmas, right?" Buck double-checked. It would be their first as a team and he was determined that they were all going to spend it together, although mostly for Chris's sake. This was the first year since Sarah and Adam had died that Larabee had been willing to celebrate and he was going to take full advantage of it.

Tanner nodded, understanding the ladies' man's feelings. He was looking forward to the holiday, even if it scared him half to death and dredged up far too many memories. "I'll only be gone for two days."

"Where, exactly, are you planning to go, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra asked him. "It is winter out there, you realize."

Vin smiled at the well-dressed man. "Chris is gonna drop me off in Rollinsville where I have a horse waitin' for me." He walked over to Larabee's picture window and pointed out at one of the mountains that they could see in the near distance. "Gonna take a ride up the ridge of Eldorado Canyon and head over t' Nederland. I'll spend the night there, an' ride back t' Rollinsville where y'all c'n pick me up. I'm thinkin' it'll be 'bout thirty-four hours round trip, so I'll be back by dinnertime t'morrow."

"I see," Standish said, satisfied. Leave it to Tanner to make it back in time to eat. The man was a veritable bottomless pit.

"Hey, Vin?"

"Yeah, JD?"

"Think you could bring back some pine cones for us to tie on the Christmas tree?" he asked almost shyly. "My mom and I used to do that and it makes the tree look really nice."

Tanner smiled. "Sure, just go grab me one of them plastic bags they use to line the trash cans so I have someplace t' put 'em."

Chris watched as Vin attached the sheath for the knife he carried on these kinds of outings to his belt, then the holster for his Glock. That done, Tanner checked and readied the weapons as well. He shook his head. Well, Tanner was a federal agent, and a former bounty hunter. It was probably better if he was armed, just in case. After Christmas, after they finally ran Gomes to ground, he would see to it they all got some much-needed vacation time.

Later that day

Vin shifted his weight to aid the sturdy gray gelding as he maneuvered sure-footed down a section of loose shale. It felt good to feel the horse moving under him. Of all the ways he had escaped during his youth, late afternoon rides on a neighbor's horse were among his most vivid memories. Racing the little buckskin mare along the hills, stopping to watch the sun slip over the horizon, and then racing back home again had transported him back to a simpler time in his imagination.

As a boy he had often wished that he'd been born a hundred or more years earlier. Living in the Old West would have been really something, especially if he'd had friends and brothers to watch his back like he did now.

The thought gave him an idea for a gift he needed to buy and he grinned.

A sudden, sharp pain exploded in Tanner's skull just before he heard the crack from a rifle. Knocked from the gray's back, Vin found himself sliding down the shale embankment.

Trying desperately to stop his fall, he locked his knees and dug the heels of his cowboy boots into the loose rocks. One heel caught, but it wasn't enough, and he continued forward, wrenching his ankle painfully in the process. He picked up speed, rolling farther down the slope.

A few moments later Vin was lying on his back, waiting for the world to stop tumbling as he forced air back into his burning lungs. A second rifle shot rang out, the bullet sending shards of rock flying. Covering his face to protect his eyes from possible splinters, he rolled awkwardly away. A sharp stab of pain in his calf followed the third crack of the rifle.

Vin ground his jaws together and scrambled as fast as his already-swelling ankle and numbed leg would permit, aiming for the cover of some evergreens growing nearby. The drop-off, obscured in the shadows of the tall trees, caught him by complete surprise and he tumbled out into space, arms flailing.

Back at the ranch

"Chris!" JD yelled, bolting up out of his chair and racing to the doorway of Larabee's living room.

The blond looked up from where he had been trying to untangle a strand of Christmas tree lights with Buck's help.

"What's wrong?" Wilmington asked, grinning at the sight of Larabee, draped with coils of colored lights.

"It's Vin's tracking light," Dunne stated.

"What about it?" Chris snapped, a cold knot forming in the pit of his stomach. He had been worrying about Tanner for almost an hour, but had dismissed the feeling as foolish.

"His signal just died."

Larabee felt his stomach clench into a tight fist. He shrugged the lights off and rose, he and Buck following JD back to the laptop computer, which was set up on the dining room table. The others had all headed out after Chris and Vin had left for Rollinsville that morning. They were picking up food and presents, which had left Dunne in charge of monitoring Vin's progress while Buck carted down the decorations from the attic.

When Chris had returned, he had a full, eight-foot spruce for them to decorate.

Watching the blinking cursor as it slowly progressed along the topographical curves outlined on the screen had helped JD pass the time while he supervised Chris and Buck as they started in on the tree. After hearing some of the conversation passing between the two men, he had headed into the dining room and, bringing up a second screen, entered his gaming group and picked up where he'd left off while he kept an eye on Vin's progress. That had been about an hour ago.

Larabee checked the glowing computer screen. The flashing blip was definitely absent.

"What now?" Buck asked, the serious tone of his voice telling the two other men how worried he was.

"Hey, what's up?" Nathan asked, walking in with Josiah and Ezra. "Vin leaping mountain peaks with a single bound?"

"We've lost his signal," JD said worriedly.

The medic frowned. "What?" The three men joined their friends as JD typed out a series of commands.

A few minutes later Dunne looked up, concern shining in his hazel eyes. "Nothing. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the computer, or the program. The transmitter's failed for some reason."

"He has the radio," Josiah commented to no one in particular.

"So why doesn't he use it?" Buck asked him.

"Maybe he doesn't know he's not transmitting," Nathan offered. "Could there be something wrong with the device?" he asked JD.

"I suppose elephants might've trampled it, but I doubt it. I checked all that stuff over real close before he left, and they were supposed to have checked it before they gave it to us to test."

"But it is an experimental device, correct?" Ezra said. "This could easily be another fine example of the lowest bid at work, or not, as the case may be."

"If there was trouble, he'd call," Josiah said.

"Unless the radio isn't working either," Buck added.

Chris paced as he asked, "Can you call up the topographical map and show me exactly where his last transmission came from?"

JD nodded and hunched over the keyboard. Less than a minute later, the screen shifted, showing a section of a three-minute map with a stationary blinking cursor marking Vin's last known position.

"He made good time," Buck commented when he saw how far Tanner had gotten already.

"That's pretty rugged terrain. Lot of things could happen out there. He's what, about an hour from Nederland?" Nathan asked the others.

Buck nodded. "What're you thinking, Chris?"

Larabee paused, but couldn't bring himself to voice his worst fears. He shrugged and huffed out a sigh.

"Do you think Mr. Tanner has met with an accident?" Ezra asked the man.

Chris nodded. "Maybe."

"I really don't think equipment failure," JD said, his gaze meeting and holding Chris's, "unless it got damaged somehow."

A couple of hours later

It was almost dark when Vin awoke. His head and leg throbbed in painful harmony, his chest burned, and a general ache everywhere else made his return to consciousness about as unpleasant as it could be. Checking the position of the sun, he estimated that he'd been unconscious for nearly an hour. Too long.

Somewhere in the back of his mind the eight steps of survival began to drone just like when he had heard Sergeant Sampson drilling them into him during his Ranger training.

One: size up the situation. Pretty piss poor, Vin concluded, but far from bad, at least for now.

He wanted to survey the area for whoever had shot him, but the second step of survival interrupted: undue haste is unhealthy. The immediacy of his injuries made a search impossible, so he inventoried.

Ankle: wrenched, but not broken. The cowboy boots he was wearing had held the swelling in check so he left it alone.

The wound in his upper calf had dumped what looked like a lot of blood onto the ground, and he moved slowly, away from the pooled liquid, which he covered with a few handfuls of loose dirt and some pine needles, spreading the debris out evenly to – hopefully – keep his attackers from finding him too quickly. The cold weather was aggravating the problem, thinning his blood and making it harder for the wound to clot.

At least he was still wearing his backpack, which held a first aid kit and the radio. He smiled thinly. It was too late for a chopper to fly in and get him tonight. One way or another, he was stuck until morning, but if he didn't get the bleeding stopped he wouldn't last that long.

Leaning up against the side of the cliff, with a rocky shelf above him to hide him from sight if anyone looked down from where he had fallen, he shrugged the pack off with a grimace and removed the first aid kit. Then, using his knife, he cut his jeans from ankle to the knee along the seam, peeling the denim back off the entry wound. There was no exit wound.

"Great," he breathed.

His hands trembling slightly, Vin opened the plastic box and removed the bottle of povidone-iodine. Pouring it over the seeping opening caused him to suck in a sharp breath. When the wave of pain subsided, he removed several of the individual dressing pads, opened them and pressed them against the injury, hoping the force would be enough to stop the flow of blood.

He was down to the last of the dressings before the bleeding finally stopped, and he tied the compress bandage down tight over the wound, hoping he wouldn't have to make any long hikes.

His inventory continued. Hips were fine.

He probed his abdomen, finding it bruised, but there were no internal injuries as far as he could tell. That was good.

Ribs? He touched them gently. "Ahhhh," he hissed and tried a deep breath. Bruised good, maybe cracked… Damn. And they had just healed up from the pre-Thanksgiving shooting!

Opening his jacket, he unbuttoned his thick flannel shirt and carefully pulled the blue thermal T-shirt up to find a large, purple bruise spreading along his right side. Well, at least it's not in the same place as before.

Rest of his upper body was fine, and his back seemed okay.

Eyes: fuzzy.

Ears: ringing.

Neck: feels like somebody tried t' twist it off.

He gingerly probed the side of his head, just above his left ear, with his fingertips and they came away sticky with blood; only a graze this time.

Maybe this fall had just aggravated his injuries from the earlier one. Could he have a concussion? What were the symptoms? He'd definitely lost consciousness, and there was a headache slamming against his temples… Tanner's teeth chattered, scattering his thoughts. He forced himself to get back to the business at hand.

Third step of survival: remember where you are. He glanced around. He had been about an hour away from Nederland and the cabin, now he was about a hundred and fifty feet below that last position – at least. More importantly, he was in the open, although the overhang above him would probably hide him if someone was looking down from above. Still, he couldn't stay out in the open.

Past time t' get movin'.

Reaching for the compass/homing beacon hanging around his neck, he managed to grab it before a wave of nausea forced him to lean back. Holding the device up, Vin scowled at the smashed face.

"Aw hell."

Closing his eyes for a moment, he concentrated on slowing his breathing and then tried to gently push the queasiness away, but it refused to go and he bent over, his stomach emptying. When he could rise again, he sagged back against the cliff face and closed his eyes, wishing he had the strength to dig his canteen out of his pack so he could rinse his mouth. He shivered again and forced his eyes open.

Survival, step four: vanquish fear and panic. Easier said than done, but what other choice did he have? He had to find shelter. Not only might the person, or persons, who had taken a shot at him show up to see what they had hit, but the temperature was dropping rapidly.

Sun's just set, he concluded, noting the scattering of stars twinkling above him in a pale, violet sky. And clouds were building in the west. He thought about the borrowed gelding, and the tent and warm sleeping bag tied to the back of the animal's saddle. But there was no use wanting what you didn't have.

Sitting up as carefully as he could, Vin repacked the first aid kit in his backpack and then pulled out the canteen. He rinsed his mouth, then put it back.

Reaching into his rear pocket, Vin tugged his handkerchief free and tied the bloody gauze pads up in it. The ground was too hard to dig a hole to bury the materials, but he hobbled over to a nearby pine tree and tied the handkerchief to the underside of one of the boughs so it would be hidden from view in case the shooters arrived, and away from many of the curious noses of the local inhabitants.

The others have got t' be worried, he knew, glancing around. Aw hell, I've got a damned radio!

He dug into the backpack, finding and removing the second black box. He opened it. Inside was the small two-way radio and it appeared undamaged. He turned it on and listened to the static. Glancing around, he wasn't sure if it was the ravine he was in that was blocking the transmission, or if the radio itself had been damaged internally somehow.

"Figures," he muttered, shoving it back into his pack. The others had to know something was wrong if his beacon had cut out, so they would be ready to come looking for him as soon as they could in the morning. The certainty with which he knew that was both frightening and far more comforting than he ever imagined it could be.

"Just don't be late," he told them, then shipped the pack over his shoulder and started off.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"I don't think the radio's working," JD grumbled. "What good is this stuff if you can't use it?" No one bothered to answer – two hours of waiting had left them all on edge.

Chris turned and stared at Dunne.

"What?" the youngest member of the team asked, afraid he might have inadvertently angered the man.

"Why wouldn't the radio work?"

JD's brow furrowed. "Well, I guess the most obvious answer would be it's broken, like the tracking device."

"What else?"

The young man's brow wrinkled deeper, then smoothed when he finally realized what Larabee was fishing for. "I suppose there might be some sort of interference, too."

"That's it!" Buck said, moving swiftly to the computer. He tapped the screen emphatically. "See? Look. Vin was here, right?"

JD slid back into his chair and looked. "Yeah," he agreed, not sure what had the ladies' man so excited.

"JD, look at this," Wilmington insisted.

Dunne leaned in closer to the screen and Larabee joined him, peering over his shoulder.

"A ravine," Chris said a moment later, nodding.

"If he ended up down there, it could explain the radio silence," Buck said. "I don't think a signal could get out; it's too steep."

Larabee nodded. "He's down there… Don't ask me how, but I can feel it. And he's in trouble."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin limped into the cover of the trees, the fifth step of survival whispering in his ears: improvise. He actually knew what he was looking for, and it wasn't too long before he smiled weakly and hobbled over to a large pine tree that fit the bill. In years when the summers were dry and the winters particularly hard, the local deer population resorted to eating the evergreens to stave off starvation. The trees, stripped of their lowest boughs, still sported long, thick limbs just out of reach of the animals, some of which had grown back to their full length as the deer were hunted out or supplemented with hay air-dropped by concerned State Park officials.

Pulling up one of those long boughs and ducking beneath the lowest branches, Vin found himself in a perfect, if short, ring of space, protected by the thick pine boughs. Lowering himself to the ground, he was relieved to find it almost dry. Interweaving the prickly smaller branches above him created a snug temporary shelter.

When he finished, Vin slumped back against the trunk of the tree and panted, trying to catch his breath while not drawing in much air at a time. Along the peripheral rim of his vision, blackness began to draw a tighter net around his consciousness.

He shook his head. No. I can't pass out now.

Reaching up, he pushed the hair off his forehead. He was sweating, but his skin felt cool and clammy. Aw hell, ain't that a sigh of shock?

The sixth rule of survival stated itself with authority: value living. Vin did, and he quickly set his mind to recalling everything the Armed Forces Survival Guide had to say about shock.

He closed his eyes. It was getting harder to concentrate, but he forced himself to focus and remember. And then the DI's voice suddenly became clear in his mind. Early symptoms of shock included restlessness… Yeah, got that one, he thought.

Rapid pulse?


Pale skin? Tanner almost giggled. He had always thought of himself as a pale-skinned Indian, being a quarter Kiowa on his mother's side.

"That does it," he mumbled aloud, "if 'm ready t' laugh at that, I have t' be in shock." An' 'm definitely cold an' clammy an' short 'a breath, he acknowledged silently while he waited for a chill to subside.

He contemplated building a small fire in the shelter for warmth. He needed to make sure he didn't add to his problems with a case of hypothermia. The temperatures would drop into the upper 20s or low 30s, and the wind had begun to pick up, whiffling through the small space, first from one direction, then from another.

That was a bad sign, he knew. The weather was changing. And, given the clouds he had seen earlier, he guessed it meant some snow had snuck past the models the network weathermen used to forecast the next couple of days.

Having convinced himself it was necessary to build the fire, Vin reached for his backpack, but paused when he caught the sounds of two men moving through the trees.

"Damn," he breathed, listening to them draw closer. He could clearly hear two voices, but their words were lost to distance and the wind.

So much for a fire.

Vin reached to ease his Glock out of its holster, but found the weapon was gone, probably lost in his mad tumble down the shale slope. He settled on the knife.

A giggle made a second attempt at bubbling over Tanner's lips as his favorite rule of survival, number seven, flashed through his mind: act like a native. Remembering how his grandfather had told him about the Plains Indians willing themselves to blend into the tall grasses while they waited for the grazing herds of mustangs to wander close enough to lasso one, Vin willed himself to merge with the old pine and disappear.

He listened. The voices drew progressively louder until they passed by him, and finally faded into the gathering darkness. Only then did Vin allow himself to relax again. If he could just stay where he was, Chris and the others would find him in the morning. They would start at his last known location after first light and, if they could find where he had taken his fall, should have no trouble following the signs he'd left for them.

He shivered. It was getting progressively colder, but movement and a fire were too dangerous. He would just have to tough it out and hang on until daylight.

Reaching up, he quietly unzipped his jacket, opened his shirt collar, and loosened his belt. He didn't want to sweat if he could help it; the moisture would steal away his body heat.

Now, what else was he supposed to do to treat shock? His head was elevated, and he tucked his hands under his arm, hoping it wouldn't get so cold that he would need to worry about frostbite. The mild nausea was still with him, but he hadn't eaten since before he'd left Rollinsville so there was nothing left for him to get rid of.

Glancing at his backpack, Vin considered trying some water, but if it made him sick, he might give his location away. Pass, he concluded. Last thing I need is a case of the heaves givin' m' location away.

Needing to concentrate on something to keep himself awake, Vin settled on a list of Chris Larabee's most annoying habits.

He's a damned squid…

He's the only man I know who c'n read m' mind…

So why don't y' ever listen t' me?

Told y' this was a bad idea, didn't I? But no, y'all knew what was best…

Aw hell, probably was for the best…

Just hope y'all 're gonna come get me t'morrow…

This was gonna be m' first real Christmas since I was a little kid, y'know… Took me weeks t' figger out what t' get all 'a ya… Wish I was back at the ranch helpin' y' with the tree an' such… Shit, guess 'm not gonna get those pinecones for JD… Sorry, kid.

Hey, Chris, if y' c'n hear me… thanks for giving me back somethin' I guess I thought I wasn't s'posed t' have – family. Means more t' me 'n I'll ever be able t' say. But I guess y' already know that…

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Standing at the window, looking out at the night, Chris tugged at his itching earlobe and sighed, deciding it was time to check with JD. He turned and started past the sofa in the living room, smiling encouragingly at Buck. "You okay?"

The ladies' man nodded. "Just hope he's all right out there. Damned storm came up out of nowhere…"

Chris's head dipped. "Yeah, I know what you mean," he said softly. But he knew Vin was alive – in trouble, but alive.

Larabee cast a worried look at the other sleeping men scattered throughout the room. Knowing that they were in for a long night of waiting, Nathan, Josiah, and Ezra had quietly stolen off and, taking the two sofas and a chair, had gotten comfortable and finally fell asleep.

When Buck had found them there later, the ladies' man didn't have the heart to wake them. Instead, he'd taken extra blankets from the hall closet and covered the three, leaving them to sleep. And, after adding a log to the flames in the fireplace, began his own vigil from the unoccupied end of the larger sofa. Chris had come in to join him about a half hour ago.

JD had stayed with the computer and the radio, just in case Vin tried to contact them. When he had grown tired, he leaned over and rested his head on his folded arms, resting on the tabletop, and fell asleep.

Chris had been busy with arranging for them to fly out to Vin's last known location in the morning, but once he finished with that, he had split his time roaming back and forth between the living and dining rooms. Never good at waiting, Larabee knew he was probably driving his friends crazy, but he just couldn't sit still and do nothing, not with Vin out there in trouble.

Larabee smiled apologetically at Buck, and headed off to wake JD.

Wilmington watched him go, worried about how Chris would take the news of Vin's death, should things go badly for the man.

Tanner could sometimes be a pain in the butt, but he was their pain and, damn it, Wilmington didn't want to lose him. For whatever reason, Tanner had touched something deep inside of Chris, bringing Larabee back to life. And even if the stubborn blond wouldn't want to admit it, Chris relied on Vin's quiet strength and steady determination to keep his world grounded.

Buck suspected that what Chris had found in Vin was the family he'd denied himself since his wife's and son's deaths. He heard Larabee stop by the front door, pausing without exiting. Perhaps Vin was more than a friend, more than family, he decided. He and Vin were close, and the ladies' man considered himself one of the sniper's best friends, but Chris's relationship with Vin was something more, something deeper. There were times he wished he understood it better – like when they appeared seconds away from killing each other, only to shift gears and move on, joking and congenial again – but then, he usually wished he understood one of the two men almost all the time. Still, whatever bond the two men shared, it was obvious that it was precious to both of them. He just hoped they could find Vin and bring him home for Christmas. Chris had already suffered enough loss in his life, and the last thing he needed was some more. Buck seriously doubted Chris would survive it this time.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Anything?" Chris asked Dunne softly.

JD jerked and sat up, rubbing his eyes as he replied, "What? Oh. Uh, not a peep… I hate this," he added in a whisper.

"I'm not thrilled about this myself. I never should've pressed him into–"

"We all talked him into it, Chris. We all decided Vin needed a couple of days away from the city, so don't blame yourself, okay?"

Larabee smiled his thanks to the younger man. "I've got the chopper lined up for the morning. If we leave at dawn just after sunrise, we'll be at Vin's last known location by the time the sun's really up."

"Can we all go?"

Chris hesitated for a moment, then nodded, adding, "If there's room; otherwise you'll wear a path in my carpet, pacing between here and the living room. To tell you the truth, I'm surprised Buck hasn't tied me down yet."

"The idea's crossed our minds, more than once," JD said with a thin smile. "But right now I think it'd be pretty hard to pin any of us down."

"Yeah," Chris agreed. "Look, why don't you go crash in the guest room. I'll sit with the computer for a while."

"You sure?"

Chris nodded.

JD stood and stretched. "Come get me if you hear anything."

"I will."

Dunne reached out, giving Larabee's arm a light pat as he passed, heading for the guest room and some much-needed sleep.

Chris dropped down onto the chair and sighed heavily. Damn it, Vin, you better hang in there. You hear me?

I've got something special for you for Christmas and I damn well better get a chance to give it to you.

Trust me, it's something you want. But you've got to be here to get it. So find someplace to hole up and hang on until we can find you, please.

He reached out, running his finger over the touch pad to bring the map back up on the screen. Willing the homing beacon to reappear accomplished nothing, so he leaned back and stared at the screen until it went blank again.

Very early the next morning

Vin's head jerked up, a vise of unsettling agony tightening around his skull and causing him to moan softly. He had been sleeping. Stupid move, Tanner, he chided himself.

The wound in his leg burned with an unending fire, and it was getting harder to breathe. Checking his watch, he found the face distorted and unreadable. He closed his eyes and then tried to refocus, but the only thing he found on the glass face were images from his past, reflected back to him in the dim light falling through the pine boughs.

The moon was falling!

He gasped, squinting through the higher branches, watching as the white descended lower and lower… He blinked.

Snow, it was just snowing.

Holding his wrist with his other hand, he forced himself to stare at the watch face until a time emerged… 0415. Chris and the others would be leaving at first light.

Come on, concentrate, he chided himself. Dawn, when is it?

'Bout 7:30… three hours, then time for 'em t' find me, so… four, maybe five hours t' go… Piece 'a cake.

The snow, heavy with moisture, collected on the branches of the pines, weighing them down and Vin watched as the boughs he sat under drooped lower, closing in around him. He fought back an urge to bolt from the cover, shaking his head. This was not Amarillo. This wasn't a closet, or a storm cellar; his foster father was nowhere around…

He forcefully remade the image – a sweat lodge, warm and safe. He closed his eyes and felt the call of sleep. No, damn it, stay awake, he commanded himself.

Piece 'a cake.

7:20 a.m., Larabee's ranch

The members of Team Seven sat or stood in Larabee's living room, trying to force down yet another cup of coffee.

"Chris, Search and Rescue should be here soon. Why don't you sit down?" Buck suggested pointedly.

Larabee shot his friend an indulgent look. "Because I've got enough caffeine and adrenaline in my system to give Vin a run for his money," he explained.

Josiah smiled. "I just wish they'd hurry. I'm getting too old for this kind of waiting."

Nathan grinned. "We all are."

"I looked it up online," JD said distractedly as he peered out the window, staring out at the mountain where Vin was waiting for them.

"What's that?" Buck asked him.

"Sunrise today's at 7:42."

"Oh," Wilmington said, looking at the dark circles under Dunne's eyes. "Well, that's only twenty minutes." A knock at the front door ended the conversation.

Larabee stalked over and opened it. He smiled when he recognized the man standing outside – Jake Carmell, a Search and Rescue pilot.

"You and your men ready to go?" Carmell asked the blond.

Larabee nodded. "More than."

"Let's roll, then. I've got a chopper waiting for us, a big one since I thought we might have to winch your man out, and that's the only way you're all going to get in."

Ezra turned slightly pale as he and the others reached them in time to hear Carmell's comment. Nathan patted the dapper man's shoulder reassuringly, knowing Standish wasn't thrilled with heights. "You can stay on-board. It's not likely–"

"I'm going, Mr. Jackson, I assure you," Ezra stated, and no one argued with him.

8 a.m., in the air

The ATF agents sat along the sides of the old Bell UH-1 Iroquois chopper. Larabee scanned the faces of his men. Buck was checking a printout of the topographical map JD had had up on his computer screen. Josiah sat quietly, his gaze fixed on the floor of the helicopter, probably praying. Ezra and JD talked quietly, and Nathan rummaged through the first aid kit he was holding, reassuring himself that everything was in order. It would be a forty-five minute flight, slower than they anticipated due to the heavy moisture in the air, but at least the snow had stopped.

Chris cleared his throat and five heads turned to stare at him. "I know we're going to find him," he said over the noise of the engine.

"Damn straight we are," Buck agreed emphatically.

"But with the snow last night…" He studied his hands for a moment before continuing. "It's going to be harder to track him."

"We'll find him," Nathan said.

Buck smiled thinly. "I've never told you, but you don't have to worry, I'm part bloodhound."

Chris returned the man's grim smile. "Glad to hear it."

At the same time

The two men moved silently through the pines, stopping occasionally to survey the landscape now covered by several inches of heavy, wet snow.

"You sure he's here?" the taller of the two men asked, his face red from the exertion and the cold.

"I'm sure," his companion replied. Removing his camouflage-colored baseball cap, he pushed his sweaty blond hair off his forehead. "I know I hit 'im – twice. Damn half-breed bounty-hunter probably crawled off and found himself a cave or something, but we'll find him."

"Then what, Hank?"

"Then we can have us a little fun, Daryl, just like we did down in Gallup. You remember that ol' Indian we found that night?"

Daryl grinned and nodded. "Yeah… sure was funny, watchin' him runnin' along the freeway buck naked. That trucker sure as hell didn't expect to hit a naked Indian that night."

"Old fool should've run the other way," Hank said. "He was like a damned rabbit, headin' for the headlights like that."

The pair snickered softly.

"Come on, let's go find that damn squaw," Hank directed. "Fucker hunted me once, put me in prison down in Arizona… He's gonna pay for that."

"What're you goin' to do?"

"I'll come up something, don't you worry."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin sat, his back pressed against the tree trunk, arms wrapped tightly around his legs, forehead resting on his knees. Shivering, he concentrated solely on remaining awake. It was slowly growing light. Chris and the others would be there in an hour or so and he had to stay awake until they got there.

How'd I let this happen? he questioned himself.

How'd I let Larabee talk me int' leavin' when I knew better? Then I rode right int' an ambush, couldn't stop m'self from slidin' down that damn embankment, an', t' top it all off, I stepped off the side of a fuckin' cliff!

This is gonna make for a helluva Christmas. How could I screw up a two-day vacation?

Above the sound of his own breathing Tanner heard the crunch of snow that warned him something or someone was nearby. Looking up, he focused on the sound, willing other distractions away.

It was a deer, a young doe who had gotten caught before she could get down out of the mountains before the snow hit.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The two hunters stood next to a large pine, silently watching a young doe as she moved through the trees.

"Come on, Hank," Daryl said, "it's just a doe. What d' ya care about her?"

"Look at her, Daryl," Hank hissed, his attention riveted on the animal.

They watched as the deer cautiously approached one of the larger pines, her neck stretched out, nostrils flared, testing the air. She shook her head from side to side, tail flicking up to reveal two pure white flanks.

"What's she doin'?"

"She smells something she don't like," Hank whispered. "You think maybe she's found our bounty hunter?"

The deer stopped, her large brown eyes watching one evergreen with suspicion. She cocked her head, snorted, then dipped her head and walked off.

"Look, see?" Hank asked his companion, his voice dropping to a whisper as he pointed to a small puff of steam that curled up from the snow-covered boughs.

Daryl shrugged.

"He's in there, and he's still breathin'," Hank said, his face twisting into a sadistic mask of pleasure. Lifting his rifle to his shoulder, he aimed at a spot several feet above the lowest branches and squeezed.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin stilled, willing the deer to move on with his mind. He didn't know if it would work, but he didn't want the animal giving away his location if the shooters were still looking for him.

He knew that in the mythology of some Native people, Deer symbolized gentleness, the power to touch those who had been wounded in heart or mind. When Deer came, she carried a gentleness of spirit that healed all wounds. Vin wondered briefly if she wasn't asking him to accept the new home he had found; to accept the others as the family they were.

She could be warning him that he wasn't willing to love himself enough to let his old fears go?

Or was he protecting his fears from the others? No, it was the others he feared… It was too confusing in his present condition, and Vin tried to turn off the meandering thoughts.

Love was the medicine of Deer, love and compassion, he concluded. Fear can't live where love an' gentleness are… unconditional love, like what he felt for Chris, and Larabee for him. It was a weird feeling, to connect with someone like that, and he probably wouldn't have thought it possible if it hadn't happened to him. But it had happened. One look and he knew he had found a friend, a brother he knew would always be there to watch his back.

The animal moved off and Vin let out the breath he'd been holding in a long sigh.

An explosion in the boughs above him sent huge clumps of snow raining down on him and Vin lunged painfully, pressing himself flat against the cold ground.

So much for gentleness.

"Hey, Tanner!" a masculine voice called. "Come on outta there, boy!"

"Aw hell," he breathed, then ground his teeth together, his eyes narrowing to thin slits. They knew his name. Old bounties? Some of Gomes' men?

"Now, squaw, or we start shootin' up that pine 'til it's kindling."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

From across the chopper, Nathan gave Ezra a thumbs-up, then stepped clear of the open door. Each of the ATF agents descended on ropes connected to a winch inside the Huey.

When they reached the ground, they quickly detached their lines and the chopper swung off to the south, heading for a small clearing three minutes away where Carmell could wait until they located Vin.

Since they had no idea what was going on, Larabee had insisted that he and his men conduct the search for Vin. There was no reason to risk the lives of the Search and Rescue crew if this was Gomes, or one of their other cases, come back to haunt them.

The others followed Larabee as he led the way to the location of Vin's last transmission. Standing there on the ridge, they surveyed the beautiful, rugged terrain around them. There were millions of places for someone to hide, or disappear. Chris shook off the negative thoughts and glanced back at Buck, who, it appeared, was thinking the very same thing.

Movement in the trees upslope had the agents dropping automatically into defensive postures, their weapons coming up in their hands as they prepared for a fight.

With a snort, Vin's gray gelding stepped out of the evergreens, his ears pricked forward as he nickered at the humans. The animal took a tentative step closer, then stopped, unsure if the men were friends or not.

JD straightened and walked slowly toward the animal, talking softly. The horse watched him, snorting and nodding its head as he approached.

When he reached the animal, Dunne gathered up the trailing reins. A quick inspection revealed a perfectly healthy, if somewhat nervous, horse. Vin's tent, sleeping bag and saddlebags – full of food and equipment – were all undisturbed. Then the younger man scowled.

"Steep embankment," Josiah said, looking down at the disturbed rocks on the downslope side of the trail.

"I'll go take a look," Buck said, and started down, slipping and sliding.

"Oh shit," JD hissed.

"What is it?" Chris asked, stepping up to join Dunne and gently patting the gelding's neck.

JD had stepped around the animal and found a small drop of blood on the gelding's neck. He held up a blood-smeared fingertip, saying. "Trouble, I think."

"Hey, I've got something!" Buck called up from below, causing JD to jump.

"Easy," Chris said, patting Dunne's shoulder.

"That's all right. Next time I'll just put a bell around his neck so I know when he's coming."

"I'll remember that," Larabee replied with a tight smile.

"Come on," Wilmington called again, waving for them to hurry. "I found something."

They each made their way down to the bottom of the shale embankment, joining Buck and following him into the trees where the ladies' man crouched down in an area that was still basically snow-free, the tightly-growing tall pines sheltering the ground.

"What is it?" Nathan asked, glancing around.

"Looks like Vin might've taken a tumble down that hill and then went over the side here." He pointed out the prints he'd found, and the marks where it looked like someone had tried to stop, but hadn't been able to do so in time.

Nathan and Josiah both leaned over the edge of the overhang, looking for Vin, but there was no sign of him.

Chris squatted down, touched the ground and then rubbed at the blood on his fingers so Buck could see it. "Maybe he didn't fall."

Ezra stepped up to join the pair, but still kept a fair distance from the edge. "What's going on?"

Chris showed him his bloody fingertips.

"I found some more blood on Vin's horse, too," JD informed the ladies' man softly.

"I'm going down to see if I can find anything," Buck said, standing.

Chris nodded. "Be careful." He looked over at Nathan and Josiah, adding, "You two cover him, just in case."

Chris, Ezra and JD anchored the ladies' man as Buck used a coil of knotted line to make an orderly descent over the side. At the bottom, he found Vin's Glock and held it up for the rest of them to see.

"We're going down," Larabee stated, then knotted a second coil of line to the first and anchored it around a trunk of a pine. It was twenty or twenty-five feet down but only took them a few minutes to descend with the aid of the knotted length of nylon rope. Due to the steepness of the overhang, and the trees that grew out of the cliff edge at a sharp angle, some of the ground below was still almost snow-free. Buck scouted ahead to see which direction Vin had taken.

Nathan turned a frightened gaze on Larabee when he found the pool of blood, uncovered by several sweeps of his gloved hand when he'd spotted the disturbed ground. Chris nodded and set out, a look of grim determination on his face.

A loud crack from a rifle shattered the silence and the agents dropped to the ground. They lay for a moment, setting the direction and distance, then rose and headed out at a fast trot.