Side by Side

by JIN

OW with Vin, JD, Chris, Buck, and Ezra

Disclaimer: Mag7 and all things related are owned by others.

Warnings: Quite a bit of cursing in this one . . . violence, too, because it is the Old West and that shoot 'em up stuff is just too much fun.

Comments: This is for Nancy, the keeper of Blackraptor . . . the wonderful woman who makes all of our stories easy to read and nice to look at. She once told me she likes to see Vin and JD in trouble, with Buck and Chris to the rescue. Of course, it's a real stretch for me to write Vin in trouble J . Oh, and Ezra is the narrator (he insisted on being included). This one's for you, Nancy. Thanks.

P.S. Thanks to Angela, too, for being an absolutely terrific beta!

It really wasn't my fault. In actuality, I had very little to do with it. The outcome would have been the same, I assure you. Well, nearly the same. Mr. Tanner would be slightly better off, of course, while it's possible (alright, probable) that I would not be . . . better off, that is. But Mr. Dunne would be in identical straits, I'm sure. After all, our youngest partner is a virtual magnet for trouble, regardless of who rides at his side.

Although, the fact that Mr. Tanner is wanted (another factor I had no part in) may have played a role in the events that took place. Still, I cannot be held responsible for that. I am not clairvoyant after all; I may have an uncanny ability to predict certain outcomes in a hand of cards, but even I cannot foretell the future.

Besides, I would have gone, which I stated emphatically and repeatedly that afternoon to annoyingly deaf ears. I certainly cannot be held accountable for Mr. Dunne's impatience or Mr. Tanner's propensity for assuming problems which are not his own. Vin could have merely refused to escort JD that day and events might have conspired differently.

But he didn't, and so the story begins. Picture if you will, Mr. Tanner and Mr. Dunne on the trail to Watsonville . . .

"So anyway, did you ever think you'd end up here? I mean, ridin' with the six of us and watchin' over the town like we do? I mean, hell, Vin - after all the places you've been and all the things you've done, would you ever have thought this is where you'd be right now?"


"Me neither. I had all kinds of plans and dreams and none of them were anything like this. But you know what? This is better than anything I could've imagined. It's better than anything I could've dreamed of. Don't you think so Vin?"


"Chris Larabee. I'm ridin' with Chris Larabee. Sometimes I have t' pinch myself to believe it." JD finally took a breath and apparently realized it might be good to add, "Well, and you too, Vin. I mean, ridin' with you is just as good. It's just, you know, everybody's heard of Chris. He sure is something, ain't he?"

"Sure is."

Vin shifted in his saddle and stifled a sigh. Damn Larabee anyway for going off without him. JD was alright, but he pretty much never shut up. And soon he was afraid he would snap at the kid and hurt his feelings.

The lean tracker peered up into the gradually darkening sky. Storm clouds were gathering and although he knew rain was still several hours off, he and JD would have to seek shelter soon, prolonging the completion of their journey until morning.

It couldn't be helped, just as JD couldn't help the fact that he could be as annoying as he was endearing. The others often remarked on Vin's considerable patience, but at this point, his young companion was severely testing his limits. Maybe JD would go to sleep early or maybe he'd develop a sudden sore throat. Vin felt a deep pang of guilt at the direction his thoughts were taking. The kid sure didn't deserve to get sick and he really wouldn't wish that on him.

But damn Larabee anyway for taking Buck with him to Eagle Bend. Vin and Chris generally rode together, their personalities meshing compatibly in a way that neither could explain. Vin hadn't given it all that much thought, having learned long ago to take the good things life handed you without question. There wasn't much rhyme or reason to the way most things happened anyway - better to just take the good with the bad and move along.

Unfortunately, the way things had happened this time left Chris and Buck riding in one direction, and he and JD in another. Normally he didn't mind; riding with JD wasn't so bad, but Vin had a headache and hadn't had a chance to rest after his last journey. The kid's natural exuberance and never-ending chatter just didn't sit so well at this particular moment.

Chris could have waited for him to come back. The trip to Eagle Bend was important, according to Travis, but Vin was due to return later that day. Larabee should have waited so that he could accompany the gunman, then Buck would have been free to go on this unanticipated adventure with JD.

"Of course, the Rangers do a lot of exciting stuff, but it couldn't be more exciting than what we do," JD continued, oblivious to his partner's glazed eyes and lack of participation in the conversation. "And I could never make better friends than y'all. Hell, even Ezra's come around. We're pretty damn lucky, when you think about it. Don't you think so, Vin?"

Vin nodded his head and smiled. "Yep," he answered. The kid was right . . . but damn Larabee for taking off without him.

+ + + + + + +

Meanwhile, as Vin berated Chris for making his journey without him, similar thoughts were crossing Mr. Larabee's mind . . .

"So anyway, there I was, surrounded by the biggest, meanest, orneriest gang of outlaws you ever laid eyes on, and the pretty little filly was hidin' behind me and I . . ."

Chris groaned as his old friend's voice droned behind him. Buck had pretty much talked from the minute they'd left Four Corners. And he wasn't used to it anymore. Lately, he'd taken to riding with Vin, more often than not, and the tracker only spoke when he had something that needed to be said.

He would have brought Vin along this time but Tanner had been out tracking a horse thief for most of the past week. He knew from the telegram Vin had sent that he was on his way back, but he figured his friend could use a break. No sense in dragging Vin to Eagle Bend with him when Buck had spent the past few days engaging in purely frivolous activities.

It was odd; he'd traveled with Buck for years and he never minded the man's incessant storytelling before. Chris figured that he must have gotten spoiled by the unassuming tracker.

"Chris? Chris? You listenin'? That was the best part of the whole story. Ain't y' even gonna tell me how stupid I was t' get myself in that situation?"

With a shake of his head, Chris kneed his horse to trot on ahead. Buck called out as he watched the attempted escape of his oldest friend, "Y' know, traveling with you ain't much fun anymore." He added under his breath, "Not that it was ever just rip-roarin' to begin with."

With another low groan, Chris mumbled, "Should've waited for Vin."

+ + + + + + +

So you see, had Chris waited for Vin, Buck could have traveled with JD and things might have turned out differently. But Chris took Buck, and Vin volunteered (yes, volunteered) to go with JD and the rest, as they say, is history.

It was at about this time that it occurred to me that my remaining teammates and I might have made a slight error in judgment, however . . .

"I am telling you, gentlemen, that we have made a most grievous error. Mr. Larabee will be quite perturbed that we sent Mr. Tanner out with young Dunne after he has endured such a difficult week."

"Well first of all, Ezra, we didn't send Vin out - you did. Josiah here is starting to get sick and he don't need t' be goin' anywhere. I've got to stick around because there's been way too many things goin' on here . . . women having babies and kids needing stitches and most of the town coming down with this flu. The only other one that could've gone with JD is you," Nathan stated rather emphatically.

With an offended huff, I sat up from the table and voiced my objection, "That is a complete misrepresentation of the situation. I would happily have provided my services had our young partner seen reason."

Josiah stifled a sneeze and grinned. "And your definition of reason would be?"

"Waiting until a respectable hour to leave, of course. It was simply unnecessary to leave so expediently. The miscreant has sat in Watsonville's jail for several days. He could have waited a few more hours."

"It was the middle of the afternoon, Ezra," Josiah said with an annoying smirk.

He thought I was merely trying to shirk my responsibility, which was simply untrue. I just did not see the necessity of rushing off before I'd even had my mid-day repast.

"And the wire said they were afraid the prisoner's gang was on their way. With the sheriff laid up, they needed help as soon as possible," Nathan reminded me.

"I am merely stating that I would have gone had JD waited for a more opportune time. Now we shall have to face Mr. Larabee's wrath upon his return."

"Ain't no 'we' about it, Ezra," Nathan said with a broad grin, while Josiah snickered.

I could see nothing humorous about the situation. Obviously they were both uniformed regarding Mr. Larabee's unusual attachment to Mr. Tanner. And if that wasn't bad enough, Buck's domineering, overprotective attitude towards JD would merely add fuel to the fire.

With an exaggerated sigh, I poured myself another drink and prayed that both of my young partners returned unscathed or else there would be hell to pay. And I didn't have to ponder long to know exactly who would be held responsible.

+ + + + + + +

Later that night, rain began to fall with startling intensity. This seemed to be a rather blatant sign to me that I was not meant to be on the trail with young Dunne. Mr. Tanner is much more suited to withstand such climate upheavals and he is far more knowledgeable than I about finding adequate shelter under duress.

It's possible those were not Vin's exact thoughts at the time, however . . .

"We must be makin' quite a name for ourselves, Vin. I mean, those folks from Watsonville wired us for help and there are lots of places closer. Did you see it? They actually asked for me. Well, sort of. They asked for that young sheriff and some of his friends. That's something, ain't it?"

"Yep," Vin mumbled, even that small effort too much for his aching head.

He'd found a decent overhang for them to camp under for the night, just minutes before the rain arrived in full force. With the strong gusts, they were still getting damp, but it could have been worse. Leaning back against a smooth rock, Vin pulled his hat over his eyes and hoped his companion took the hint.

JD continued, however. "Of course, you know better than anybody how far our reputation has spread. You spent all of last week helping out those folks in Ridge City. Hell, pretty soon we'll be known all over the territory."

Pound, pound, pound. Damn if his eyes weren't on fire even with his lids closed tight. Vin tried to shut out JD's words, but there was an uncomfortable ring of truth to them that obviously the younger man had not thought of. The more widespread their reputation became, the more danger he was in. For now, he'd been able to get away with being "one of Chris Larabee's men". But it wouldn't be long before folks discovered that the man they asked to track everything from a killer to a little girl's missing kitten was wanted himself.

"Bet you're tired, huh Vin? You never have said how it went last week. I mean, I know you found the guy and all, but was it tough? Did he give you any trouble?"

"Yeah. Nope. Some."

"So you don't wanna talk about it?" JD asked with obvious disappointment.

With a weary sigh, Vin pulled himself upright and answered the kid. "Took me two days t' track him. He holed himself up in the pass. Took another day t' get him out. We scuffled some. I took him back t' town and I came on home. Sorry, Kid. Ain't no big story here. But I am tired, so if y' don't mind . . ."

JD looked at Vin blankly before suddenly nodding and stammering, "Oh. Oh sure, Vin. I'll keep quiet now. I'll take first watch, too. You just go on and get some rest."

With a grateful nod, Vin leaned back and resumed his previous position.

+ + + + + + +

Now Vin's young companion, on the other hand, was hoping for a bit more drama . . .

JD moved back against the stone wall they were crouched under and watched the rain cascade in sheets off the overhang above him. Vin was a great tracker and the best damn sharpshooter he'd ever seen, but he wasn't much fun to travel with.

If Buck were there, it would be so different. He and Wilmington would be swapping stories, each of them trying to top the other. Most of his were made up, considering he hadn't even reached twenty yet, but that didn't matter. Hell, Buck's weren't exactly gospel either; no man could have done half the things he'd claimed to have done. The fun was in the telling . . . something Vin had apparently never learned.

It was no wonder at all that Vin and Chris got on so well. Neither one used two words when one would do, and more was the pity. After all, they probably had the best stories of all to tell - things that had actually happened, even.

With a wistful sigh, the young man leaned his head back against the hard surface. They'd reach town in the morning and take the outlaw on down to the prison. It'd be three or four more days of riding, at least. He found himself hoping the prisoner was a better conversationalist than Vin or he'd end up talking to himself. Then again, maybe the prisoner's gang would come after them . . . now that would liven things up.

Buck would have his head for thinking like that, but he couldn't help it. He was so bored that the thought of a good shootout was irresistible. He wished he'd waited for Buck or even Ezra. Standish had done everything he could to get out of going, though, and before JD had a chance to get him to change his mind, Vin was saddled up and heading out.

Vin was like that, dedicated to a fault. If somebody needed help, he didn't even think about the fact that he was tired . . . and cranky. Of course, Ezra got cranky, too, and a whole lot more often than Vin did. But he was pretty funny when he got that way; JD and Buck had a great time riling Ezra up just to see him act out.

Not Vin, though. Nope. When Vin was cranky, he was just . . . cranky. And no fun at all.

He really wished he'd waited for Buck.

Note: Ezra Standish does not get "cranky". Out of sorts on occasion, perhaps, but that is understandable, considering the company he keeps.

+ + + + + + +

It seems that Chris . . . and Vin . . . and JD . . . were not the only ones feeling less than satisfied with the traveling arrangements . . .

The trip to Eagle Bend was uneventful. Chris took care of whatever business the judge had asked him to and that was pretty much it. Buck saddled his horse, taking a brief look at the gray clouds that hovered in the morning sky. They'd ended up spending the night in the small town, but even that was a disappointment. There wasn't a single woman who captured his attention and that was damn near impossible. Buck couldn't remember the last time he'd hoped for some feminine companionship and found absolutely nothing, or rather no one, appealing.

It didn't help that Chris was being his usual charming self. Buck couldn't figure out why it bothered him so much, unless he'd just gotten used to riding with JD. Talk about a world of difference . . . there probably weren't two more opposite people on the face of the earth than JD and Chris: optimistic and pessimistic, exuberant and laid back, white and black, hot and cold, fun and . . . not.

He should have told Chris to wait for Vin. They both would have been much happier. No matter how tired Tanner was, he'd gladly have ridden with the temperamental gunfighter. It was funny how it had worked out. Chris and Vin rode side by side like it was the most natural thing on earth, while he and JD had latched onto each other with equal ease, to the point where he preferred the kid's company over anyone else's . . . well, as far as friends went, anyway.

In fact, all seven of them had learned to ride together with very little antagonism, considering their different personalities. But the reality was, some combinations worked better than others. And it would have been a whole lot more fun if he was riding with JD.

+ + + + + + +

I, of course, can travel amicably with any of my fellow peacekeepers. In fact, I continually strive to maintain a friendly and respectful relationship with all six men . . . and no one more so than Mr. Larabee. He is, after all, our undisputed leader. The fact that he scares the hell out of me might also play a role in our somewhat tenuous relationship.

Which may help to clarify my position that afternoon when Chris and Buck finally returned to town . . .

"Where's Vin?"

I moved behind the bar and hastily poured our leader a drink as I muttered, "He's . . .uh, not here . . . at the moment."

Chris frowned as he took the offered glass.

Buck nodded gratefully as I handed him a drink as well. "And where'd JD take off to?" he asked.

I kept my eyes anywhere but on the two men who stood in front of me as I quickly poured myself a shot, downed it in seconds, and then replied, "Well, you see, there was a bit of trouble in a nearby community, and it seems our younger partners were of a mind to . . . assist . . . them."

I knew immediately by the disturbing glare piercing my skin that Chris was not going to take that for an answer. Seeing that there was no use in prolonging the inevitable, I quickly explained, "Vin and JD have gone to transport a prisoner from Watsonville to the territorial prison."

There, that wasn't so difficult.

"What?" The tone was unmistakable. Chris Larabee was not happy.

This was not a new experience for me, of course. I rarely please Mr. Larabee. My goal is simply to avoid his wrath, and I measure my success by the fact that he has yet to actually shoot me. In this particular situation, I decided ignorance might be the best defense . . .

"I . . .uh, which part are you having difficulty understanding?"

Buck chuckled, apparently highly entertained as I dug myself in deeper.

"When did they leave?" Chris snarled, not the least bit sympathetic to my plight.

"Shortly after you gentlemen left for Eagle Bend," I answered with a cringe.

"What?" Chris growled. "Vin must have just gotten back, and he took off again? Whose idea was that?"

"His." It was surprising how easy it was to be concise when the need arose.

Chris muttered something that sounded like, "I'll bet," but he mercifully let the subject drop.

Buck finished his drink before lifting his head and turning towards me once more. "Where did you say they were heading?"

"Watsonville." Yes, I was definitely getting the hang of keeping it short and simple . . . perhaps I'd learned more from Mr. Tanner than I realized.

"They happen to say who they were gonna be transportin'?"

"I believe it was someone with the name of Gentry."

Without warning, Chris slammed his drink on the table and spouted, "What? You let them take on the Gentry gang by themselves? Was someone from Watsonville planning to go with them?"

Astonished at his outburst, I sputtered, "I . . . well, I assume . . . but there was really very little information available. Apparently the sheriff was laid up and he requested our services."

"Shit." Buck and Chris said in unison.

Apparently the situation was more dire than I'd thought. But how was I to know? I'd never heard of the Gentry brothers . . . or if I had, their name had just blurred with all the other bands of mad brothers running willy-nilly around the countryside shooting trains and banks and stagecoaches. Honestly, how was a man to keep them all straight?

"Where are Nathan and Josiah?" Chris asked as he downed the remainder of his drink.

"It seems that a flu bug has hit our humble village, and Josiah has succumbed to it. Nathan has, of course, been administering to those in need in his usual tireless fashion," I answered honestly, unselfishly absolving my partners of any possible wrongdoing in the situation.

Buck turned to Chris then and said, "I'll be ready in ten minutes."

As both men turned to leave, I called out, "Uh, what would you like me to do?"

Without turning back, Chris answered, "Keep an eye on things here . . . and pray."

+ + + + + + +

While I fell to my knees and assumed the prayer position in Four Corners, JD and Vin were busy in Watsonville . . .

There wasn't much to it. Vin and JD entered Watsonville, downed a quick drink at the saloon, and headed for the jail. With the sheriff laid up, another man who looked to be not much older than Dunne was keeping watch. The guy blushed and fidgeted and damn near dropped the keys when he opened the cell to hand the prisoner over. JD gave Vin a knowing smirk, but Vin didn't respond. He could hardly blame the young guard for being nervous. The outlaw's gang was well known and not to be taken lightly.

"Who's ridin' with us?" Tanner asked, as he secured the criminal's wrists behind his back.

The young man turned an even deeper shade of red and stammered, "Uh well . . . we thought you would take him. I mean, we got this flu in town, and the sheriff's still laid up . . . and uh . . ."

Vin kept his hand tight on the prisoner's bound wrists as he replied, "So you're it?"

Eyes wide, the substitute sheriff gasped, "Me? No! I can't leave. My wife just had a baby and I'm just sittin' here until you take him. So no . . . Sir."

With a bewildered shake of his head, JD looked at Vin and said in a low voice, "Hell, Vin, what's the problem? We can handle this. We don't need no help."

Earl Gentry, their prisoner, squawked at that, the high-pitched sound immediately reigniting Vin's headache from the previous evening. It was going to be a long two days.

He'd done it before, of course; brought in dangerous men all by himself when he was bounty hunting. And he wouldn't even think twice if he had Chris with him. But he didn't have Chris . . . he had JD. Sure the kid had made progress in the six months he'd been riding with them, but he was still green, and lack of experience could get a man killed in a situation like this.

Well, it couldn't be helped. Vin sighed as he prodded Gentry out the door, his weapon firmly pressed into the middle of the man's back. "I got no problem killing you," he reminded the outlaw in no uncertain terms.

Earl's response was another annoying squeal that set Vin's ears to ringing.

It was going to be a long trip alright.

+ + + + + + +

Perhaps you've heard of men who could 'shoot the wings off a fly'? Unimaginative and overused as that particular phrase may be, I assure you it is entirely accurate where Mr. Tanner is concerned. Our esteemed tracker is more than capable of taking care of himself. Therefore, Mr. Larabee rushing off to 'rescue' his friend would seem to make very little sense.

But the two men have an unusual relationship, characterized by a unique bond that defies explanation. And Chris had a feeling . . .

Chris tried to tell himself that he was overreacting. After all, Vin had proven he was more than capable of handling any situation. And his friend had likely tackled gangs every bit as dangerous as the Gentry brothers before.

But he didn't have JD with him then.

Chris felt a momentary pang of guilt that he'd considered JD a liability, but true was true. Dunne had learned much since he'd taken up with them, but he had a long way to go. And one split second of uncertainty could get him - and Vin - killed.

As he saddled up his horse again, he caught Buck's eye. Gone was the good humor from earlier in the day; Buck was worried, too. They'd only known Vin and JD for six months, but it felt like a lifetime, and losing their young friends would rip the heart out of both men.

"We ain't gonna lose 'em, Chris," Buck muttered, reading his thoughts.

He and Buck approached most things in life from opposite ends of the spectrum, but when they were in tune, they didn't need words to communicate. Kind of like he and Vin were all the time.

It was damn foolish to get attached to a man like Vin; he knew better. Hell, if he didn't get himself hung, Tanner would likely take a bullet - probably one that was meant for somebody else. Oh, Vin was no saint, but he had a good bit of trouble staying out of other people's messes. Just like with this particular situation. Why the hell hadn't he just let Ezra go with JD? More than likely the conman had weaseled his way out of it, and Vin would rather go himself than argue.

Chris pulled the cinch tight on his saddle and mounted up. Would he be in such a hurry to rush off and help if it were JD and Ezra out there, rather than Vin? He told himself he would be; it was JD being in the equation that had him so nerved up.

"JD ain't stupid, Chris. He'll measure up," Buck said, reading his mind again, as he pulled up alongside him.

He wanted to tell Buck that he was foolish if he believed JD was up to taking on a gang like the Gentry brothers, but he let it slide. It would be a long enough journey as it was without riling up his riding partner.

Besides, he knew JD wasn't stupid. He was just impulsive and inexperienced. And loud . . . and exuberant . . . and likely to talk Vin to distraction. Add to that the fact that JD thought they were invincible, and that he always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time . . . and shit, JD just might get Vin killed. They all had a soft spot for the kid; Tanner would likely throw himself in front of a speeding train if he had to to save him. And Chris just might have to shoot JD himself if that happened.

As Chris slapped the reins and galloped on ahead, he couldn't help thinking that it all would have been different if he'd just taken Vin with him to Eagle Bend.

+ + + + + + +

Buck, meanwhile, had distinctly different thoughts about who posed the greatest threat to the safety of our compatriots. . .

Vin was going to get JD killed. Buck knew that Chris thought it was the other way around, but he was wrong. Tanner had a price on his head and sure, the Gentry brothers were stupid, but they weren't that stupid. Once they caught up to Vin and JD, it would all be over. He could see it in his mind, and he wished for once that he wasn't so good at making up stories in his head.

The brothers would corner Vin and JD in some steep canyon with no way out, and instead of just taking their brother and leaving them be, they'd recognize Vin - Vin's face being plastered all over the territory and everybody knows Vin don't have a face a person could soon forget - and they'd say, "Well, hey now . . . we got us another five hundred dollars sittin' here." And they'd shoot JD, because hell, why leave him alive to come after them? And they'd ride off with Vin, find them some willing idiot to turn him in for them, and the rest, as they say, would be history. JD would be lying in the dust, Chris would be riding hell-bent for Tascosa . . . and Buck, well he just might have to shoot Vin himself if anything happened to JD. Chris would shoot him in return, of course, but he couldn't see himself reacting any other way. Damn kid had gotten under his skin but good.

And the worst of it was that it all could have been avoided if Chris had just taken Vin with him to Eagle Bend to begin with.

+ + + + + + +

So you see, we were all in agreement that the fault did not lay with me, but rather with Mr. Larabee, who erroneously coerced Buck into accompanying him to Eagle Bend rather than wait for Mr. Tanner's return.

Still, I must admit that I was a tad concerned about the situation . . .

"Feelin' guilty, ain't ya?"

"No. I most certainly am not."

Nathan scoffed as he bit off another chunk of his steak. Obviously his appetite hadn't suffered as mine had out of concern for our fellow teammates.

"They'll be fine. Chris and Buck will catch up to 'em, head off any trouble," Nathan added with a reassuring nod.

There was something very wrong with this picture: I was worried and Nathan wasn't?

"Have you heard of these Gentry brothers?" I asked.

He shrugged. "Not really. Josiah says they've raised some hell down near the Texas border."

"Texas!" I gasped, choking on my gin. Good Lord! Vin was from Texas! If they spotted him . . . knew he was wanted . . .

I suddenly had a vision of the previously unknown but now infamous Gentry brothers putting a bullet through young Dunne's head and riding off to Tascosa with Tanner. They'd find some stupid fool to turn Vin in and collect the money, leaving Buck and Chris to bury our friend and seek revenge. I felt the color drain from my face at the very notion . . .

"Ezra? Y'alright? You look kind of green. Think y' might be comin' down with that flu?"

"No . . . I'm . . . fine," I stammered.

Although, it occurred to me that a particularly nasty strain of the affliction just might get me off the hook.

+ + + + + + +

Vin Tanner is a man of infinite patience. Buck claims he once observed Vin remain absolutely motionless for two hours while keeping watch from a roof top. What Buck was doing at this time remains a mystery, but the point is that our Mr. Tanner can withstand even the most tedious of tasks with nary a sign of restlessness or anxiety. He is the picture of calm; steady and unflappable under any circumstances.

But apparently even his considerable reserve was put to the test as he and JD escorted their prisoner to the territorial prison . . .

"Yeah? Well, I bet you and your brothers never went up against a hundred men! And they were soldiers, too, trained fighters with a canon!" JD exclaimed.

Earl Gentry laughed as he spouted, "Hell, that ain't nothin'. We stopped a train comin' from Dallas . . . fifteen cars and twenty armed guards . . . and some damn fine lookin' ladies, too."

"Ladies? I'll tell you 'bout ladies. We rescued thirty of 'em from Wilkes' camp. Working girls in every size and shape you can imagine. Pretty, too, every single one . . ."

"I swear, I'm gonna shoot the both of y' if y' don't shut up," Vin muttered under his breath as JD continued with his story. But he was close, so close to shouting it at the top of his lungs. Even worse, he was tempted to actually do it.

Vin couldn't take it. Not one more word. For most of the day now, all he'd heard was constant bickering and snickering as JD and Earl tried to outdo each other. He couldn't figure out why the outlaw joined in, until he took a moment to study his face. Hell, the kid wasn't much older than JD; he had to be the youngest of the five Gentry brothers. Looked just like the rest of them, too . . . bright red hair and green eyes with a face full of freckles.

"And my brother, Ray, he's the fasted draw you ever laid eyes on," Gentry informed Dunne.

"He ain't faster than Chris Larabee. No one's faster than Chris Larabee," JD argued.

"Bet Larabee can't shoot a gun out of a man's hands from two hundred yards up like my brother Clay," Earl shot back.

"No, but Vin Tanner can! Can't you, Vin?"

Shit. Now JD had gone and given the outlaw his full name. Probably wouldn't make a difference, but he'd rather the kid had kept his name out of the boasting and tall tales. Maybe he could gag them both . . . Vin briefly wondered if he'd brought along enough bandanas to spare.

Might be better if he just rode on up ahead. They'd be coming to the pass soon and he'd have to make a decision: go low and be wide open for a short spell, or take the high trail and be boxed in. Higher was quicker, and he about always opted for the most cover he could find, but if the Gentry's were waiting, there wouldn't be much room to maneuver.

The voices rose behind him as the two younger men pressed their horses to catch up to him. Damn. Boxed-in in more ways than one, and his head was pounding again. He was going to give Larabee a piece of his mind when he got back and maybe Standish, too. Might not be their fault, but if he lived through this, he was sure as hell taking his frustration out on somebody. Larabee should have waited for him . . .

"Which way, Vin?" JD asked as he pulled up beside him.

"Don't matter, either way," Gentry responded snidely. "My brothers will come fer me and you'll find out quick that I weren't lyin' about 'em."

"Let 'em come. We ain't scared, are we, Vin?" JD snapped back.

Lower was safer, but added another half day to their journey. Vin was pretty sure he'd shoot both men by the time they actually made it to the prison if this journey dragged on much longer. Gentry would be no loss, but Buck wouldn't be too thrilled about JD. The others might be a bit upset, too, so he should probably avoid actually harming the kid.

"We're goin' up," Vin replied.

+ + + + + + +

Normally I trust Mr. Tanner's judgment implicitly - with the exception of his choice of attire, of course. But in this particular situation, Vin was tired and frustrated and, as young Dunne correctly noted, cranky.

And he wasn't the only one. . .

"Damn it, Chris, we've got to head in t' town while it's still light."


"Don't ya think we should at least check and be sure they got left alright?"

"That's not why you want t' go to town and you know it, Buck."

"You think I'm thinkin' about women and drink when JD's out there in trouble?" Buck asked, his voice rising.

JD wasn't the only one in trouble, but that was beside the point. "It'll take us extra time to stop in Watsonville. We can shave off three hours at least if we just keep on riding." Chris answered back, ignoring Buck's question.

"But we don't even know . . ."

"I know."

He did know, though he couldn't explain how or why. Vin and JD had picked up their prisoner and were heading straight to the prison - and headlong into trouble. He knew it in his gut.

"Damn it, Chris," Buck growled, "you make my head hurt."

Chris didn't respond, he just kneed his horse and kept on riding. Another hour and they'd have to stop for the night, but at least they'd be within a day's ride of Vin and JD.

But a lot could happen in a day.

+ + + + + + +

Mr. Larabee was, unfortunately, correct in his assumption that a lot could happen in a day. In fact, later that same evening . . .

"He ever talk?" Earl Gentry asked JD, tipping his head towards Vin.

Dunne shrugged. "Only when he needs to."

"Gotta brother like that . . . Will. Hardly ever opens his mouth, but when he does, you best listen."

"Yeah. That's Vin."

"One time me and Will were goin' t' Mexico, and I swear he didn't say two whole sentences the entire way. Thought I'd go out of my mind with boredom. Took t' talkin' t' myself," Earl confided.

JD responded, "I know the feeling." He immediately felt guilty. It wasn't right talking about Vin behind his back, even if he probably heard every word he and Earl had said.

Vin continued to ignore them both, however, until about a half hour later when he pulled back on the reins and announced, "We'll make camp -"

He never finished the sentence. Gunshots suddenly rang out, and before JD had a chance to think what to do, Vin pulled him off his horse and shoved him behind a rock. Firing off a few shots from his mare's leg, he instructed JD, "Cover me while I get Gentry." And just like that he was off again.

JD began firing wildly in the general direction the shots came from, not daring to watch as Vin ran to the horses and untied Gentry. Earl was hooting and hollering, "Howdy boys!" while Vin grabbed hold of him and pushed him behind JD with enough force to knock the young outlaw to the ground.

"I'm gonna put a bullet right between your eyes if you don't shut the hell up!" Vin yelled at Gentry. He turned to JD then and ordered, "Keep your eye on him."

Once he saw that JD was doing what he'd said, Vin took up his position and fired off a few rounds as he muttered, "Shit. Should've known better . . . whole damn trip's been one headache after another . . . damn Larabee, anyway . . . now I gotta figure out how the hell t' snake 'em out . . . can't go back . . . can't go forward . . . can't go down . . . shit . . . wasn't even my damn turn . . . Ezra never does nothin' he don't have to . . ."

"Thought you said he never talks?" Earl remarked with a wide grin.

"Don't . . . usually," JD responded with a frown. He'd never seen Vin quite so worked up.

More shots were fired, one bullet chipping off a good chunk of rock too close to JD's head.

"You alright, JD?" Vin asked frantically with a quick glance in his direction.

"Yeah. I'm good," JD returned.

He was kind of touched that Vin was so concerned, until Vin yelled back at him, "Well, keep your damn head down!"

"Woo-hoo! Gonna be a long night, boys!" Earl said with a positively gleeful laugh.

JD cast a glance at Vin's grim features - and decided Earl was right.

+ + + + + + +

It was indeed a long night - for all of us . . .

"Oh . . . damn," Nathan groaned, "I can't remember the last time I felt so bad."

"I believe I told you that second piece of pie was not a good idea," I informed our healer.

"I didn't know at the time that I was sick," Nathan snapped back, rather testily.

As if it was my fault that he was ill. Honestly, the last place I wanted to be at that moment was at his clinic, waiting hand and foot on my two remaining partners. Mother would be appalled. I was appalled. However, with much of the town suffering from the same ailment, there was simply no one available to tend to them.

I was quite certain this was retribution for my lack of enthusiasm in accompanying JD. Obviously there was a God somewhere who either kept score and found me lacking, or had a questionable sense of humor. There could be no other explanation for the situation I found myself in.

"Ezra? Can I have another drink of water?" Josiah croaked pitifully.

After assisting him with the requested fluids, I emptied the basin of the remnants of Nathan's dinner, covered both men with blankets, lowered the wick in the lamp, and cautiously edged my way to the door.

"You're not leaving us here like this, are you, Ezra?" Nathan moaned.

"No. Of course not. I am merely . . . going to get fresh water," I lied. Actually, I was going to get fresh water . . . after I ingested a stiff drink to fortify myself for the long night ahead.

As I stepped into the cool night air, I took a deep breath and considered my options. Perhaps I could hire someone to take my place. Mary Travis? No, Mr. Larabee might have romantic intentions towards her - even if he'd yet to realize it - and asking her to care for two sick men would not go over well. And I was in enough trouble with our leader as it was. Mrs. Potter? Last I heard, she was ill herself, but maybe one of her children . . ?

That was ridiculous, of course. As part of a team - although I'm still not certain how that came about - it was my responsibility, my duty to care for my teammates. I just wasn't used to it. I hadn't had to assume that role before because I was not one of the pairs, you see. Chris and Vin, Buck and JD, Nathan and Josiah . . . I was conveniently, and not unwillingly, the odd man out.

"Ezra?" I heard Josiah call my name on the heels of a cough. "Nathan's sick again."

I had no choice but to go back in the room and do my part. But I couldn't help wishing I'd just bitten the proverbial bullet and accompanied JD.

+ + + + + + +

Little did I know at the time that Vin and JD were literally battling bullets. And I was not the only one running out of options . . .

They weren't going to make it. They would be out of ammunition long before help could arrive. They would have to make a run for it or give themselves up. Vin didn't care for either of those options. Well hell, he'd gotten them into this, the least he could do was find a way out for JD.

"JD? Think you could sneak back down the way we came and go for help?"

No way could JD find the boys and get them back here in time, but if Vin could keep the brothers busy for a few hours, the kid might have a chance to slip away in the darkness.

"Sure I could. But that would take a while - day at least for me to get back to Watsonville or two days to Four Corners - and you can't hold on that long." He added quietly, "Can you?"

Vin skipped on past his question. "Chris and Buck are on their way. You'll catch up to 'em in less than a day."

Even in the low light of the half moon, he could read JD's puzzled expression. "How do you know that? I mean, why would Buck and Chris come after us? They know we can handle this."

Yeah . . . like they'd handled it so far. Vin didn't know how or why he knew that the two men were coming to their aid, but he did. "Trust me, Kid, they're on their way. But they won't know if we took the high trail or the low, so you just go on back and tell 'em. Think you can do that?"

JD nodded a bit uncertainly while beside him, Earl Gentry started spouting something off. Vin couldn't understand a word he said since he'd gagged him earlier in the night, but it was still enough to annoy him. He took the butt of his gun and rapped the outlaw over the back of his head, sending him sprawling to the ground.

"Damn, Vin," JD muttered quietly, apparently awed - and not necessarily impressed - by his partner's brutality.

"Don't need him tippin' off his brothers that you're leavin'," Vin explained. It sounded good, anyway. "Now get goin'. And be careful," he added.

"I will. I'll do it, Vin. Don't worry. I'll ride like the wind and I'll find Buck and Chris and we'll be back in no time." But in spite of the confidence in his words, the kid swallowed and hesitated before he actually got up to leave.

It took a few minutes for it to sink in that JD didn't want to leave him; that the kid was genuinely worried about him. He felt bad then for being so irritated with the young man. Hell, JD had a good heart and the only thing he was really guilty of was trying too hard.

"Go on now, JD, before it gets light. I'll be alright," he reassured his young friend. Might not be true, but he'd been in worse spots before. "Just stay low . . . take your horse but don't ride him 'till you're a good ways out . . . and watch your back."

JD nodded and took off without saying more.

The shooting had become sporadic in the last few hours, but Vin still thought he had a handle on where the brothers were situated. He waited until he heard JD grab his horse by the reins and move off through the nearby boulders before he opened fire. The distraction should be enough to give JD a good start. With a little luck, the outlaws wouldn't even know that he was gone. Of course, he never did believe in luck anyway. A man made his own luck and at that moment, all he could do was give JD a fighting chance.

Vin's head was pounding again and his eyes stung from the dirt and gravel that kicked up around him in the hail of bullets that answered his volley. He was tired, too; bone weary. But with no one at his back, no one at his side, rest was a long way off.

It was funny how quickly he'd gotten used to it - having men at his side. He'd ridden alone for a good bit of his life, but lately, it had been him and Larabee or one of the others, and he'd gotten spoiled real quick.

Earl Gentry came back to life with a groan about the time the sun started rising over the eastern ridge. The bullets were still coming often enough to keep Vin busy, and he winced when one came close enough to burn a hole through his jacket and graze his upper arm. Might be a good idea to remind the outlaws that he still had the ace up his sleeve.

"Got your brother here . . . might wanna watch where you're aimin'," he shouted.

An irritatingly familiar laugh echoed through the rocky cliffs. "Yeah? Well, you might wanna do the same, seein's how we got your friend here with us!"

Aw hell.

+ + + + + + +

While Vin determined his next course of action, an equally volatile, though presumably less dangerous, situation was developing several miles away . . .

"You've had somethin' stuck in your craw this whole trip, Chris, so just spit it out," Buck demanded.

He was tired and cross and sick of Larabee's bad attitude. They'd hardly slept a wink before resuming their trek towards the territorial prison, and Chris hadn't even let him have a cup of coffee.

"Don't start with me, Buck," Chris warned.

"Start with you? How the hell could I start somethin' with you when you ain't said two words this entire trip with the exception of 'let's go'?"

"What do you want me t' say, Buck?"

"I want you to just say it . . . just say that you're afraid JD's gonna do somethin' stupid and get Vin killed."

Larabee sighed. "We don't have time for this."

Buck shifted in his saddle and pulled up closer to Chris's mount. "What else we got t' do while we're ridin'? I realize talkin' ain't one of your favorite pastimes, but we got things t' talk out and now's as good a time as any."

Frowning as he spoke, Chris offered, "So talk."

"I'm sick of it, Chris. You never give JD any credit." He added rather courageously, "While Vin, on the other hand, is damn near perfect."

With a smirk, Chris replied, "You jealous, Buck?"

Buck wanted to knock the damn fool's head off. "Jealous? Jealous? Of a scrawny buffalo hunter? Sure, Vin might provide some competition if he cleaned himself up a little and gave a damn, but he doesn't and he don't, so what the hell would I be jealous of?"

"Of Vin and me . . . the way we are," Chris clarified - or sort of clarified - and damn, he was actually serious.

"Look Chris, I'm thrilled if Vin's got a way t' keep you in line. God knows I couldn't do it."

"Keep me in line?" Chris repeated incredulously.

"Poor choice of words," Buck quickly backpedaled. "What I meant is that if you like ridin' with him, that's fine by me. But he ain't no goddamn saint. He screws up, too. And let's not forget the fact that he's a wanted man."

"I suggest you do forget it, Buck," Larabee threatened.

The conversation was not going at all how Buck had hoped it would. But dammit, Chris needed to wise up and quick. "Okay, fine. I can forget it. You can forget it. Hell, the whole damn town can forget it. But it doesn't change the fact that he's worth five hundred dollars and he's the biggest risk of us all. If anybody's likely to get anybody killed, it'll be JD gettin' hurt 'cause of Vin."

Chris pulled up on the reins at that and looked him square in the eye. "You honestly believe Vin would let that happen? Have you been so busy watching over JD and making him believe you're his goddamn savior that you haven't even noticed what kind of man Vin is?"

Buck softened some at the look in his friend's eyes. Hell, he couldn't say much about Vin having his hooks in Chris when JD had caught him the same way. "I know he's a good man, Chris. I'm not sayin' he ain't. I like Vin, and I trust him to do what he can for JD. I'm just sayin' that not everything is JD's fault."

Shaking his head, Larabee replied, "Never said it and never thought it, Buck. I just want to get both of them home safe."

"Well then, I guess we got nothin' left t' discuss."

"You're the one wanted t' talk," Chris reminded him as he pushed his steed on ahead.

Yeah he was, but he didn't feel like they'd resolved anything. Maybe it didn't matter, though. Maybe Vin and JD were fine. And in a day or two, they'd both be back at their sides, right where they belonged.

+ + + + + + +

Of course, as you have undoubtedly surmised by now, Vin and JD were not fine. In fact, their future at anyone's side was in question . . .

"We can do this easy, or we can do this hard. We want our brother and you want your friend. Make the trade, and everybody rides off happy and in one piece," one of the Gentry brothers yelled across the boulders that separated them from Vin and Earl.

Vin didn't buy that for a second. The minute they had their hands on Earl, he and JD would be dead. Damn. He'd gotten them into one hell of a mess. He rubbed his aching head and tried to pull together a plan. Maybe if he knocked Earl out again, and snuck up behind them, got the drop on a few of them at least . . .

"Or . . . we could just take Earl right now and kill you," a deadly voice threatened just feet away from where Vin had been positioned all night. Vin turned swiftly and found himself face to face with a rifle and another freckled face topped by a shock of bright red hair.

Bad to worse . . . he'd let them get the drop on him. Too tired and too distracted to think clearly and now for sure, JD would get killed.

"I got him!" the brother called out over the distance, though his gaze and his aim never left Vin's face.

Minutes later, Earl was untied and happily greeting his brother, "Sure am glad t' see you, Will! I knew you'd come!"

Will grunted, but didn't say anything more as he hastily confiscated Tanner's weapons. Soon they were joined by the remaining brothers and one beat-up JD. Vin winced when he saw that the kid sported a black eye and a split lip. He'd put up a good fight, no doubt.

"I'm sorry, Kid," Vin offered with a shake of his head.

JD looked puzzled as he replied, "You're sorry? I'm the one who messed up."

Earl, meanwhile, was practically dancing in the dust as he excitedly proclaimed, "Hey, JD! These are my brothers! This one here is Ray, he's the oldest and the fast draw I told you about. And Will here, he's the one snuck up on us 'cause he's like that . . . quiet and sneaky as hell . . .can't tell y' how many times he's scared the shit out of me. And that one there is Clay, he's the one that can shoot the wings off a fly. Oh, and this one here is Levi . . . he's the one that gets all the women 'cause he's the best lookin'."

Vin was thinking they all looked the same, with the exception of a few inches and a few pounds, but he figured that wasn't exactly relevant at the moment.

Ray removed his hat then and whapped Earl over the head with it. "Damn it, Earl! This ain't a church social! Now let's just kill 'em and get a move on."

Earl sheepishly moved in front of the elder brother. "Do we have to?"

Ray shook his head. "You done it again, haven't ya? How many times have I told you not to make friends with the hostages?"

With a defiant glare, the younger man replied, "JD wasn't a hostage, I was. And he's alright." Earl added with an angry nod in Vin's direction, "But Tanner . . . he's a pain in the ass. Knocked me out fer no good reason. Do whatever y' want t' him."

Levi - the good-looking one - was all over Vin then. "You hurt my brother? You're gonna pay for that!" And he hauled off and socked Vin in the jaw before he had a chance to defend himself.

He was just picking himself up off the ground when he heard Ray make the connection. "Tanner?" Ray came closer and squinted at his face. "Vin Tanner? Well, I'll be. It's our lucky day, boys! He's wanted, ain't he, Will?"

The sneaky bastard who'd gotten the drop on Vin drawled, "Yep. Five hundred dollars."

"Five hundred dollars!" Earl exclaimed. "Hell, he's worth more than us . . . put together!"

"God, Vin, I am so sorry," JD said under his breath with a sad shake of his head.

"Not your fault," Vin mumbled back.

"Tell you what, Earl," Ray went on. "Since you done so good - gettin' caught by a wanted man and all - I'm gonna let the little guy live. He'll have t' walk back t' where he came from, though. And I'm also gonna let you put the bullet in Tanner."

"No!" JD roared, jumping in front of Vin.

Damn. JD was going to throw away his chance to get out of this yet, Vin just knew it. He had to give him credit, though; the kid was thinking on his feet, because he quickly spoke up and said, "Y'all can't go traipsing into Tascosa and turn him in, bein' wanted yourselves. You're kind of . . . noticeable, after all. So you're gonna need someone to do that for you."

"Yeah. So?" Ray queried.

"So . . . I'll do it."

"And why would you do that? Thought he was your friend?" Ray asked.

"I need the money," JD lied. "Just a few bucks is all. I'll turn in Tanner, collect the reward, and . . ."

"And you think we're gonna trust you?"

"Hell, Tascosa ain't that big from what I heard. There's five of you and one of me, seems like smart fellas like you ought to be able to keep track of me," JD explained.

Vin would have gained a new respect for JD - all that storytelling was coming in handy - if he wasn't so damn mad at him he could spit nails. He knew exactly what the kid was up to - stalling, buying time. But as friendly as the Gentrys were acting at that moment, Vin knew they had no problem putting bullets in people for no good reason. JD was playing a dangerous game.

"Could work, Ray," Earl said, grinning at JD. "And he's right, either we get him to turn Tanner in or find someone else."

Ray nodded. "Yeah. Okay. We'll take him with us, but if he's any problem . . . I don't care how much you like him. Now go ahead and shoot Tanner so we can get goin'."

"Be awful smelly," JD piped up suddenly. He sounded casual enough, but Vin heard the underlying panic in his voice. The kid was working hard to save his life. "It's cool up here, but once we hit the flat lands, it'll be hotter than hell, and carrying a body along for three, four days . . ."

"Shit. He's right, Ray," Earl agreed.

"I hate that," Levi added.

"Me, too," Clay joined in.

"Yep," Will said.

"Aw hell!" Ray spat. "You're all a bunch of pansies! Fine then. We take him alive." He came nose to nose with Vin as he added, "But just t' make sure you behave . . ."

Vin saw it coming, but didn't have time to react before the world went black.

+ + + + + + +

While Vin and JD were becoming acquainted with their captors, Chris and Buck were discussing which trail to take in their quest to assist our colleagues . . .

"They went up."

"I'm telling y', Chris, Vin wouldn't take that chance."

Yeah, he would. Going on three days of listening to JD's chatter, Vin would be damn near desperate to make it to that prison. "They went up," he repeated.

"Damn it, Chris. I understand that you and Vin have some strange way of talkin' without speakin', but there ain't no way you could know that."

"I know it. You can come with me or not," Chris said as he spurred his horse up towards the steep cliffs.

"Damn know-it-all gunfighter . . . thinks he can read minds . . . it's one thing when Vin's in front of him, but hell, he hasn't even seen Tanner for over a week now . . . but no, he knows they went up," Buck muttered crossly.

"Well, I ain't goin' up!" Buck yelled up at Chris a few moments later as he turned and started down towards the lower path.

Chris didn't say anything. He figured another hour or two and Buck would turn around and catch back up to him. But it didn't take nearly that long. In fact, after fifteen minutes, Buck was back at his side.

"I ain't sayin' you're right," Buck grumbled as he pulled up next to him on the narrow trail through the boulders, "But just in case, I figured y' might need me."

Chris grinned as he replied, "Yep. Reckon I might."

"Y' know, you're even startin' t' talk like Vin."

Shaking his head, Chris resisted the urge to ask Wilmington what the hell his problem with Tanner was. Last thing he wanted to do was get into all of that again. In spite of what he'd said earlier, he didn't really believe Buck was jealous of his relationship with Vin. But something wasn't quite right.

Maybe it had to do with Buck thinking that he believed Vin was - how had he put it? Damn near perfect? He pondered that for a spell. Vin was a fine sharpshooter alright, and the best damn tracker he'd ever seen. Good man to have in fight, too: dependable, calm, smart . . . easy to talk to . . . comfortable with not talking.

So maybe Vin was damn near perfect; Buck would just have to live with that. After all, true was true.

+ + + + + + +

Unfortunately, at that moment, Vin was far from perfect . . . and young Dunne found himself in the uncomfortable predicament of caring for his friend, while at the same time convincing the outlaws that he fully intended to go through with turning Mr. Tanner in for the bounty. Ah, the tangled web we weave . . .

Earl's head must have been harder than Vin's because he didn't seem to have suffered any after-effects from meeting the blunt end of Tanner's gun. But Vin, on the other hand, was a mess after getting hit by Ray's. And JD was getting worried.

Vin had woken up twice - or sort of woken up - in six hours; both times to throw up, mumble that his head hurt, and go right back out again. JD tried not to act too concerned; after all, he'd convinced the brothers that he had every intention of turning Vin in for "a few bucks". Shit. He couldn't believe he'd said that, and even more unbelievable was that they'd bought it. He just hoped Vin hadn't.

Of course, the Gentry brothers must not have trusted him completely because they had him trussed up like a turkey. His wrists were bound and his hands tied to the saddle horn. Vin was tied the same way, his body slumped over his horse's neck, except for the few moments when he'd come around. The oddest thing, though, was that the outlaws had tied their captives together. One rope connected the two men's waists, with a length of several feet between them. JD had to concentrate to keep his horse close enough to Vin's so he wouldn't accidentally pull the unconscious man off his mount.

It didn't make much sense to him. If he had wanted to get away, he could have taken the first opportunity they gave him. But then he realized it wasn't him they were worried about, it was Vin. No way could Tanner take off, hooked together like they were. What a mess he'd gotten Vin into, just because he wasn't smart enough or fast enough to make it down the mountain without getting caught. But at least they were both still alive, and if it was true what Vin said - that Buck and Chris were on their way - he'd just have to keep them that way for a little while longer.

With a wistful sigh, he turned his attention to his captors. Earl was again telling Levi about his adventures, the details growing grander with each telling. Levi responded by talking about his latest female conquest, and JD's gut cramped up a little. He missed Buck.

But a soft moan reminded him that Vin was currently the man at his side . . . and he needed him. As best as he could manage with his bound hands, he maneuvered his mare closer to Vin's. "You okay, Vin?" he asked softly, hoping the brothers wouldn't notice his concern.

Vin groaned as he pulled himself up straighter and mumbled, "Shit."

Answer enough, but JD still felt better when this time Vin raised his head a little and turned towards him. Tanner's eyes were unfocused, but apparently he was aware enough of the situation to ask, "You . . . alright?"

JD swallowed. Actually, his face hurt and his ribs ached and he was so damn thirsty he could hardly stand it, but at least Vin was back with him and he didn't feel quite so alone anymore. He kept it simple and answered, "Yeah."

Vin looked at him like he'd already forgotten what he'd asked, then closed his eyes against the sunlight and started mumbling something. JD made out the words "damn" and "Larabee" but that was about it. It was clear by the lines of pain on Vin's face that his head was still killing him and JD wasn't feeling too hot himself, so he decided to appeal to his new friend, Earl.

"Earl!" he called out. "Can I talk to you?"

The young outlaw shifted in his saddle and turned back to face JD. "What?"

"Uh . . . think we could stop a minute?"

"Can't, JD," Earl answered shortly with a shake of his head. "Not with Larabee on our tail."

"Larabee?" Ray suddenly pulled back on the reins and twisted his head around to look back at his youngest brother. "Chris Larabee?"

"Yeah," Earl answered. He pointed a finger at the two captives riding behind him and added, "Them two are part of his gang. JD here is his second in command."

JD winced at that and stole a glance at Vin. Fortunately for him - though not for Vin - the decidedly green sharpshooter was leaning over the side of his horse again, apparently doing his best not to throw up. JD wasn't quite sure which tall tale he'd told that gave Earl the impression he was Larabee's back-up, but he was glad that Vin either didn't hear or didn't care.

"Ah shit, Earl! Why didn't you tell us that sooner?" Ray exploded.

Shifting uncomfortably, Earl stammered, "Well . . . I didn't think about it. I mean . . . it don't matter anyway . . . does it? We can take 'im."

JD wanted to laugh at the young outlaw's cocky attitude. Hell, no one could take Chris Larabee. But the bottom dropped out of his stomach when Ray replied more confidently, "Be dark in a few hours. We'll go ahead and camp here; there's good cover and we can pick 'im off as he comes up the trail. Clay, you go on up that cliff there - keep an eye out. And Will . . ."

He didn't finish it; Ray just looked at his brother and nodded. Will nodded back and rode off, and it was the damnedest thing JD had ever seen. There were only two people he'd ever known who could talk without speaking - Chris and Vin. And it seemed wrong somehow, that this gang of outlaws could in any way resemble his group of friends.

But they did. The familiarity was even more evident when Levi called out to Earl, "Come on, Kid, let's take care of your friends."

Goddamn, he missed Buck. But there was no time for that as Earl untied his wrists from the saddle horn and prodded him off his mount. Levi did the same for Vin, only a lot rougher, and the injured man couldn't find his feet as he staggered to the ground with a groan. JD nearly toppled over with Vin, prompting him to plead, "Can't you untie us from each other?"

"Don't think so. No tellin' what y' might be plannin'," Levi replied, letting JD know that they hadn't entirely bought his story.

It wouldn't matter much longer because Chris and Buck would be arriving soon. Except they had an eagle-eyed sharpshooter aiming for them, and heaven only knew what that sneaky sonuvabitch Will was up to.

"Can we at least have some water?" JD asked as they were led behind more boulders and shoved to the ground. "Gonna have two dead, smelly bodies t' tote if y' don't give us something soon," he added.

"We ain't totin' you," Levi said, reminding JD that he wasn't exactly necessary. He sure wasn't worth any money like Vin was . . . which meant they could get rid of him any time they felt like it - his dubious friendship with Earl not withstanding.

He couldn't let that happen. Vin was in no shape to defend himself, let alone get away. And Buck and Chris were riding headlong into an ambush. About all he could do was keep his mouth shut and stay out of trouble until he could figure out some way to get him and Vin out of this, hopefully long before Buck and Chris showed up.

Dropping beside him on the rocky ground, Earl quietly answered his question, "Can't untie ya, JD, but you can have this." The youngest brother looked over his shoulder, carefully blocking his actions from his brothers, as he handed JD the canteen.

JD nodded gratefully and took a long swallow, before peering worriedly at Vin. His friend was propped up against the boulder with his eyes closed, and his face had gone from a sickly green to a pale gray color.

"Better try and give him some, too," Earl coaxed with a nod in Tanner's direction. "He ain't lookin' too good."

JD frowned at him, perplexed that Earl seemed to care, but he took the opportunity to shift closer to Tanner. "Vin? You thirsty?" he asked, gently placing his bound hands on the tracker's arm to rouse him.

With a grunt, Vin finally opened his eyes, only to pull his brows together in obvious confusion.

"Here Vin," Dunne offered as he awkwardly manipulated the canteen to his injured friend's lips, "drink some."

Vin docilely did as he was told, and JD shook his head. "He ain't right."

"Don't matter much," Earl shrugged. "He's gonna hang soon anyway."

Biting his tongue, JD merely sat back with a frustrated huff.

"I know you ain't really turnin' him in," Earl said then, lowering his voice once again.

"Yeah? Well then why did you talk Ray into takin' me with you?"

"Clay would've picked you off a hundred yards out. They think I don't know what they do . . . but I know. I just figured . . . just figured you deserved a chance is all."

Earl stood and walked away before JD could respond. A chance . . . he'd been given a chance, though not much of one. What could he do with Vin like he was?

As if to prove his point, Vin moaned and heaved up all the water he'd just drunk before passing out again. His body limply slid towards the ground, though his head ended up in JD's lap.

"Hell," JD mumbled. What was he going to do now?

+ + + + + + +

Hell. My sentiments exactly . . .

Why me? It made absolutely no sense. Every single living soul in Four Corners was debilitated with the most vicious virus - except for me. Now ordinarily, that would be a reason to celebrate my good fortune, but I found it difficult to feel gratitude when I was literally running from one end of town to the other. Nathan directed my efforts from his sick bed, instructing me to deliver this medication here and that herbal tea there . . . in between waiting on him and Josiah, of course.

I was quite certain that nothing JD and Vin were experiencing could be worse. I began to imagine myself in Vin's place where, admittedly, I should have been. Yes, I'd finally accepted that it was indeed my turn and I should have taken it. Dear Lord, how I wished I had taken it.

I would have been subjected to long parables by young Dunne, of course . . . as opposed to long, illogical ramblings by a feverish Sanchez. I would have been forced to eat stale jerky and dry biscuits . . . but at least I would have had time to eat. There would be long hours on horseback . . . but I would gladly trade in my aching feet for a sore derriere. And of course, there was the distinct possibility that I might be in grave danger, seriously threatened by a gang of violent outlaws. And even that scenario seemed a vast improvement over my circumstances at that moment.

"Ezra? I'm gettin' sick again . . . and Josiah needs that tea t' loosen up his chest. You give it to him yet?" Nathan demanded as he interrupted my musings, and I couldn't help but wonder if our healer wasn't taking a small measure of satisfaction in watching me suffer.

"No, I don't believe he did, Nathan," Josiah stated hoarsely, though I could swear he was grinning beneath that pathetic countenance he wore. "Bet you're wishing you'd gone with JD."

I knew then that my sick friends were indeed finding some entertainment at my expense. But I had no one but myself to blame, and as my mother always said, paybacks were hell.